The English Median

Dreams of jobs, social mobility and self-respect are all tied to knowing the language. For millions, not knowing it means being walled out. Ashok Malik on the line of control everyone wants to cross.
Ashok Malik

2013-02-16 , Issue 7 Volume 10

IN 2003, James Tooley, a professor at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, completed and published the results of a year-long survey of private schools for children of low-income families in Hyderabad. ‘Private Schools for the Poor: A Case Study from India’, as the report was titled, found an astounding 61 percent of all pupils in Hyderabad district — much higher than official figures — were enrolled in private, unaided schools. This included, of course, the wealthy and the poor.

Narrowing down to 15 private schools in low-income and slum areas — “an arbitrary selection… to ensure a balance of neighbourhoods and fee ranges” — Tooley and his researchers concluded teacher truancy and school responsiveness rates here compared favourably with government schools. For this, parents — “daily paid labourers, market traders or rickshaw drivers” — were willing to pay fees “in the range of five to 10 percent of the father’s annual income”. The average tuition fee in the selected schools was Rs 116 per month.

The quest for the English language was a key motivation. All 15 schools ran from nursery to Class X and all offered English-medium education. One school also had an Urdu-medium section and three schools had some Telugu-medium classes. The schools followed a standard curriculum from Class VI onwards, in preparation for state board examinations at the end of Class VII and Class X. Till Class VI, however, the schools were free to innovate. Tooley wrote, “We found schools at this level replacing much of the specified curriculum with extra English lessons — because this is often what parental demand wanted.” “School choice was taken seriously by parents,” recorded Tooley, “… One illiterate father — who was far from unusual — told us that if the standard of education did not improve in the school his child attended, then he would take him away to another school. He said that the teaching was not up to the mark, and he was aware that other children were speaking English more effectively than his own child — even though he himself could not speak any English.”

It astonished the research team that a parent who did not know English would not only make learning the language a priority for the child, but also take what he considered an informed decision on his child’s proficiency with the English language, and how well or poorly it was being taught in the school.

What Tooley found was not atypical. The quest for English is not a phenomenon in India; it is an obsession, an epidemic and often a paranoiac fear. This is a language that opens doors; for those outside the magic portals, it is an absence that builds impregnable walls. Pradeep Kumar, 35, a garbage collector at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, mirrors the anxiety, the nervousness and the sheer and searing ambition of some of the parents Tooley met in faraway Hyderabad.

Kumar never made it past Class V and doesn’t know a word of English. Three years ago, his first born, Abhishek, was enrolled in Class V of a government school in south Delhi’s Govindpuri area. Sensing the government school was inadequate, Kumar sought out an alternative: “I tried to move him to a private school for higher studies, but the teacher there assessed him and said his proficiency in English was that of a child in lower KG or upper KG, and that I should put him in Class I.”

This stunned Kumar. He came home, pushed some English language books towards his son and asked him to read. Consider the pathos of the moment; consider how it must have been: a father who knew no English asking his son to read so that he (the father) could assess his (the son’s) fluency in English. Abhishek tried to read, and faltered; he tried again, and faltered. In a few short wrenching minutes, the humble garbage collector’s little world came crashing down.

“I begged the teacher to take him into even Class I,” Kumar remembers, “and she said she’d try.” That’s when he decided to pull out his younger son and daughter from government schools and put them into private schools instead. “I want to make them successful,” he says, his voice almost a whisper in desperation. “In our time, you could get by. But today there are no jobs for illiterate people. They need to learn good English… I want them to have a better life than I did…”

Literacy, education, learning English: it is telling how easily Kumar conflates the three. To him, English is not just an important subject at school — it is the uber subject, the stairway to heaven, the elevator his children must take to a better life.

STUCK AT a traffic signal this past week, Mann Singh, 76, a taxi driver in Mumbai, turned and asked his passenger what the word “infinity” meant. It was no abstract curiosity; he wanted to know what his city’s most popular mall was named after. His passenger explained the definition. What followed was a remarkable attempt at internalising “infinity”, almost making it a part of one’s consciousness. Singh began using the word over and over again, correctly, incorrectly, appropriately and otherwise, till he was sure he had more or less got it.

It’s a game the man has been playing for 60 years. Singh moved to Mumbai in 1956, having left his village in Punjab with a Class VIII education and not a word of English. He learnt the language in the big city, one word at a time, while doing odd jobs for businessmen, running chores, delivering parcels and, finally, some 40 years after he’d arrived in Mumbai, while driving a taxi.

Sitting behind that wheel gave Singh a luxury his four previous decades in Mumbai hadn’t allowed him: time. He bought himself a transistor and listened to cricket commentary in English. Interacting with his passengers, he moved to conversations, initially in Hindi, then in broken English. Gradually the few, isolated words he knew began forming themselves into sentences. Today, Singh knows enough of the English way to respond with a “You’re most welcome, Madam” to a passenger who runs off with a hurried “Thank you”.

If Singh can look back at his experiential learning of English with some humour, it is also because he is secure in the knowledge that he is the last of his kind in his family. All four of his children — the first a supervisor in a mall, the second a management student, the third a chauffeur for a big business corporation and the fourth a factory worker in South Africa — went to private schools and are proficient in English. In one generation, with one language, they have made the leap from working class to middle class.

THE EQUATION isn’t always that simple. English has had a complex and troubled engagement with India since Thomas Macaulay introduced it as the medium of instruction with his Minute on Education in 1835. He intended it not just as a communicative tool, but as a social enabler and part of the civilising mission of the East India Company. The condescension that carried with it notwithstanding, English proved to be an empowering force of quite another kind. In one quick move, it reduced Indians from a multiplicity of identities to just two castes — Macaulay’s Children and Macaulay’s Orphans.

The first to use and master the English were, of course, the privileged Indian communities — upper-caste Bengalis, Bombay Parsis, Poona Brahmins and so on. Yet as the decades passed, it became apparent to many that English was not just instructive; it was downright incendiary. It held the key to social disruption and the upturning of hierarchies. There is a school of Dalit scholarship that holds that knowledge of English has allowed privileged Dalits to make a leap and gain authority — with government jobs, for instance — in a manner unknown for millennia.

Chandrabhan Prasad, well-known Dalit writer, has in his articles contrasted the access to English with the historical denial of Sanskrit to the Dalit. In this framework, English is a goddess to be venerated — two years ago, a temple to English began to be constructed in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district — and Macaulay her prophet on Earth.

Inevitably, English became part of the colonial construct. With independence, its effacement became an auxiliary of the nationalist enterprise for some. The Socialists led by Ram Manohar Lohia mocked English, a legacy that lives on in parts in the politics of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party. The Communists abolished English at the primary level in West Bengal only to acknowledge their error a quarter century later. The Sangh Parivar saw English as representing a westernisation project.

It is worth noting that many of those debates are now settled, and those emotions spent. The first-generation learner of today is no aspiring Anglophile and does not even remotely see himself as a member of the Anglosphere. Neither does he consider Britain or even America as a natural cultural reference point. He sees English for what it is: a pathway to a better job, a better life and that intangible — social status.