In May 1991, just as Aditya Narayan was about to be delivered, India’s foreign reserves were empty. The country had just loaded onto aircrafts sixty-seven tons of gold as collateral for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Right about the time the newborn was blessed with a name that invoked the sun god, a ray of light emerged for the country’s economic future.
Barely eight weeks after Aditya arrived, in July, Dr Manmohan Singh, India’s then finance minister, cobbled together a budget that lifted the country out of the doldrums and put India on the path to economic liberalisation. India opened its gates to international investment. America charged in. Lay’s potato chips, Kellogg’s cereal and Pampers diapers invaded India’s new Western-style supermarkets. American English flooded into Indian living rooms. Oprah became a soul sister to many Indians.
Like children in most middle- and upper-class families, Aditya and his younger brother, Hemanth, grew up on daily doses of Tom and Jerry, The Road Runner Show, Looney Tunes, Swat Kats, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Tintin and Heidi. Aditya soaked up That ’70s Show, a sitcom set in Wisconsin in the late seventies. He was also hooked on Jackie Chan Adventures that he still sometimes watched, even as a grown man. Aditya claims they were all instrumental in honing his tastes in entertainment as well as his sense of humour. The Internet too began to mould his mind after the millennium.
“But I would credit a British woman for most of my formative English years,” the young man told me. “Two, actually. Enid Blyton and JK Rowling. I think Rowling has incurred some wonderful karma for many aeons – by getting an entire generation of kids reading again – after Enid Blyton.”
Aditya believed that the standards set by his mother in his early years shaped his vocabulary. Aditya wrote his first poem, “An Angel in Disguise”, when he was ten years old. It was a sappy, maudlin piece on his mother, Viji, whose cheeks glistened like the sides of an Alphonso mango in May.
But something had fallen into the youngling’s mind behind
“How much my mother does love me?”
Was she the star was she the glimmer?
Was she hiding it in the mind?
An academic star who graduated with a master’s degree in Mathematics, Viji was an English aficionado born into a family of Anglophiles in which debates raged over Shakespeare and Milton. At Kala Vidya Mandir, a school in Chennai with Indian and global sensibilities, Aditya found that his teachers always talked about how all good children got “centum”. That was hardly abnormal for him.
Indian parents believed that academic nirvana was getting full marks – or a “cent percent”, as they called it – in all quantitative subjects: math, physics, chemistry, specifically, because it was possible to earn full grades in them as long as the computations were correct. Aditya grew up knowing what he needed to bring home after every exam and he did well in school in both the sciences and in the humanities.
“My dad always used to say ‘centum vaanganom’ and my teachers also used the phrase often.” Still, his parents were not like many Indian parents who were paranoid about grades.
He spoke excellent English, with cadences of Tamil although his choice of words and expressions made it very clear to anyone that he read a lot, wrote a lot and thought one heck of a lot, maybe much too much for his own good. Some of his early poetry was clunky, clearly the work of a young teen mind trying to understand the relationship between the elements of the universe and figure out his place in a world that had grown more intransigent by the minute. At that fragile time, the poem “Ode to The Monsoons” expressed the chaos in his mind.
To all this commotion, nature only smiled and only said: “You all
know that you must give and take that is
you gave your tears that
was accepted as an apology for troubling me,
and I resolved to that
and brought you Joy by my tears”
The earth was always a source of wonder to him, his interest in astronomy evident both in his writing and in his choice of physics as his major in college. In a poem he titled “Fulcrum”, he wrote about how
On earth with clanking machinery
and a hundred jobs to be followed
lies its fulcrum.
But on one October morning when he stood, clad in a red cotton kurta, a white cotton dhoti, and flip-flops on his feet, on the sands of the Thiruvanmiyur Beach scanning the skies over the Bay of Bengal for the onset of monsoons, he wrote another sort of poetry that he had taken to more recently.
“When you’re in front of the infinite ocean, with the monsoon wind caressing you gently, your mind just empties into pure nothingness.” Aditya had flagged it for his social media readers: #igers #Chennai #meditative #traditionalwear
On a rainy Republic Day morning in the end of January, Vaishali Raghuvanshi, a doctoral student at South Asian University, introduced me to Prateek Joshi and three other “batchmates”, (Kavya Chandra, Syed Murtaza Mushtaq and Johnny Arokiaraj). All five of them were pursuing degrees in international relations. Each spoke with a different accent, depending on the region he or she hailed from and the school they had attended.
The upscale Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj was a perfect choice given the pelting rain, but the din inside the mall was hardly ideal for conversation. Our voices rose above the cacophony of patriotic Bollywood beats – “Jai Ho” thumped in the background – to talk about life in India, language, the significance of one’s English, elitism and the politics of language. Below us, swathes of fabric – in the shades of the tricolour of India’s flag – spanned the height and breadth of the mall. Butterflies in the same colours dangled from the ceiling. The spirit of patriotism hung in the air.
I was interested in knowing how the English language had skewed their lives. As they began telling me the stories of their lives, I was drawn to Prateek’s particular experience. In his story, I saw the characteristic Indian pluck of making the most of an opportunity. Hair stuffed into a beanie, Prateek sported a scraggly beard and had the air of a struggling poet, although his calling was quite different. His research interests at the university included Indian foreign policy, Pakistan’s domestic politics, and historical and contemporary issues of Gilgit-Baltistan.
One particular line had determined his destiny in elementary school: “Kya aap mujhse fraandship karoge?” Prateek said he’d used that “cheap” one-liner with people – Hey, will you make friends with me? – when he entered Delhi Public School (DPS) as a student in third grade.
In contrast to Aditya’s more privileged background, Prateek was born at the end of 1991 into a poor Kumaoni family from Uttarakhand in the foothills of the Himalayas. Like most people from the region, his family too had sought to make a livelihood in Delhi. Mid-level government jobs were never well paid. For most of his school years, his family lived in a small house allotted by the government. In third grade, his parents enrolled him in the prestigious English-medium school where the price for a dramatic improvement in his English was daily humiliation.
In eighth grade, Prateek had been in a class with a gang of bullies who used to beat up their classmates. His nimble wit saved him many a time. “I used to joke like anything to escape the beating.” At DPS, he often shared tables with millionaires’ children with whom he desperately wanted a “fraandship” – the stress was on the syllable as in the word “frank”. Prateek clarified that it was how many of his ilk pronounced the word “friendship” before they learned how to navigate the “cool” scene.
In his early years, he was always shocked that his classmates at DPS interacted with their parents in English; Prateek said he spoke to his parents only in Hindi. In time, thanks to his buddies, Prateek adopted Indian English expressions and slang that others used in order to belong. Words like “mugging”, “fundas”, “black money”, “hep”, “mugpot”, “cool”, “scene”, “dude” and “cheap” and many other words began to fire up his vocabulary.
While his English was still heavily inflected by his bhasha, he spoke good English, often lapsing into Hindi or Urdu, spouting lyrical phrases in the bhasha while his batchmates at South Asian University listened intently, laughing uncontrollably every few minutes. Prateek’s sentences sparkled with his gift for irony and self-deprecation. He was a born storyteller. I admired his candour.
As a teenager Prateek learned how to say “gross” in the way Americans used it, whereas in the past he would say “gross” with an “awe” sound. His classmates would correct him: “Dude, are you talking about a grocery list?” This led to another round of cackling as Prateek talked although I realised that the first syllable of “grocery” and “gross” were supposed to be enunciated the same way – at least in the British and American dictionaries.
I gathered that Prateek finally attained the markers of acceptance, ascending into the smart clique, he said, from his “cheap” Indian manner, after about five to seven years “of trolling”. For a while, he was in the “catching up” phase before he got comfortable with the accent. He shed his “cheap” accent, learning not to say “cassette” with the stress on first syllable as in “pattern” but as in “assess” with an ‘eh’ sound.
Prateek’s mother tongues (both Kumauni and Garhwali) were as good as extinct even though there were over two million speakers. The languages were preserved mostly through signs on the mountain roads of Uttarakhand, Prateek said, half-facetiously. But even high up on those mountain passes where few people went, English had been airdropped in.
In 2009, a popular number “Babli Tero mobile” written in Garhwali – with infusions of English words like mobile, smile, and data – topped the charts. The song’s greatest selling power was the English language, of course, because it spelt romance and sex appeal for the young.
Excerpted with permission from An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local, Kalpana Mohan, Aleph Book Company.