No place for language chauvinism in India

To cut the long story short, English's place in India, after 70 years of Independence, continues to make for riveting discussion.

Published: 06th November 2016 05:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th November 2016 05:47 AM   |  A+A-

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(From left) Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy, Radha Chakravarty, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and Rakshanda Jalil during the session “Is English really an Indian language?” at Odisha Literary Festival 2016 on

By Express News Service

BHUBANESWAR: ''Is English really an Indian language?'' Does this need a debate? 

Many believe it does not, for English has been part of life in India. Some still dub it as the language of the elite while many find English as a language of opportunity. To cut the long story short, English's place in India, after 70 years of Independence, continues to make for riveting discussion. That's exactly what happened when an elite panel at Odisha Literary Festival (OLF) 2016 took up the topic and dissected it on the first evening of the two-day festival.

Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, with his rich experience as a teacher of comparative literature and years with Sahitya Akademi as well as National Book Trust, put things in perspective by saying the official position of English in India is confusing. Constitution does not recognise it as an Indian language though Sahitya Akademi gives away an award every year in English language. On the other hand, two of India's top literary awards Jnanapitha as well as Saraswati Samman keep English out of their ambit, he said.

Bhattacharjee also dealt with Indian society's duality in its approach to English. ''In 1970, Leftists carried out a disastrous experiment by deserting English from the curriculum till a certain level. Now historians say one generation of Bengal lagged behind because of that,'' he said. ''We cannot do without English given its commanding role as a language of opportunity,'' he added.

Literary historian, translator, writer and critic Dr Rakshanda Jalil said not just West Bengal, Maharashtra too has adopted what she called ''language chauvinism'' which is on par with racism and xenophobia. ''It is inward looking. Why cannot there be a fine balance among languages? Scientific study says infant mind can take more than one language,'' she added.

Writer, critic and translator Radha Chakravarty observed that English has been Indianised, appropriated and it is booming in India. Quoting Salman Rushdie's words of ''Chutneyfication of English,'' she said, ''We have Indianised English. It has also made the world aware of the treasure of Indian literature.''
Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy, author and columnist, said she feels isolated when someone raises the issue of English's status as an Indian language. ''English is my first, last and only language. I am a product of India and when someone questions English, it is like questioning me as an Indian because this is the only language I know,'' she said.

She also reminisced how she was questioned for writing a series retelling of The Mahabharata since she has not read the epic in any Indian language.

Jalil, whose first translation was Premchand's 'Mandir Masjid' said English translation has given Indian literature a new identity. ''In mid-1980s, we had Panchatantra, Gita and shoddy little things from Wheelers and Co with no mainstream publisher publishing translation. With mainstream publishers giving space, a new kind of writing has emerged,'' she added. 

She said translation is now self-assured and as a translator, she wants to retain large parts of the work that she translates. ''I want to retain those flavours, feelings and images. I don't want to make them facile or flat,'' she added.

Chakravarty felt that translation plays a key role in Indian literature. ''If translation was not so underrated within our culture and centrality of translation was valued, greater channels of communication between languages would open up and fluidity would happen,'' she said.
When Bhattacharjee spoke about the role of India's education system in according space to languages, Chakravarty said hierarchisation of language prevails in higher education in the country.

''Though honours is available in English, Hindi and Sanskrit, students with the highest cut-off go for English. It may be because English is a language of opportunity, perceived as social privilege and status. This needs to be re-thought. We are trying to question this hierarchy. Students should value the fact that they come from multi-lingual society,'' she added.

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