How Our Sense Of Hierarchy Extends Even To Languages

How Our Sense Of Hierarchy Extends Even To Languages

by Book Excerpts - Tuesday, June 6, 2017 07:45 PM IST
How Our Sense Of Hierarchy Extends Even To LanguagesBook cover of The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities
  • Namit Arora’s The Lottery of BirthOn Inherited Social Inequalities looks at how the Indian civilisation can be characterised as anything but egalitarian, and explores various inequalities that thrive to this day despite a history of resistance.

Differences need not always lead to discrimination, but sadly that is what history will stand testimony to. That inequities have often been carefully crafted and curated to ensure imbalances and nurture a sense of inequality.

This is what author Namit Arora decodes in his book, The Lottery of Birth─On Inherited Social Inequalities. He dissects the clearly non-egalitarian society and explores the origins, the continued existence and the nature of inequalities that are inherent in the lottery of birth in India like caste, religion, region, gender, class and the like.

Here is an excerpt where the author talks of decolonising his mind and the possibility of freeing the society from the grips of the coloniser’s linguistic hegemony.


By the time I went to school, English had already acquired enormous practical benefits. Like a goddess, it offered new visions to converts like me, opened new doors, gave me access to a more dominant culture and a global economy where English proficiency is an undeniable asset. The caste elites have understood this for generations and have used English as a tool to further entrench their power and dominance. The subaltern classes are only now using the same playbook to catch up, and understandably so! But my point here is neither about the many practical benefits of English, nor to lament the course of history—who knows what an alternate history might have been?

Rather it is to recall the politics surrounding the arrival and the spread of English in the colonies, to reflect on the reach and the world of the Indian writer in English, and—for the sake of a more complete accounting—to also consider the costs that our attitude to English, its parent culture and its speakers, continues to extract from us. Moreover, following Ngugi on African writing in English, should we not also wonder whether Indian writing in English qualifies as Indian literature or as Indo-European literature (i.e., literature written by Indians in a European language), with Indian literature referring only to works in languages with long and pervasive roots in Indian cultures?

Some will shake their heads in disagreement and argue that English is already an Indian language. They will wonder why people keep casting doubts about its status again and again. They will cite its common use in the media, universities, billboards, signage, product labels, various application forms, social media, and so on. In a way they would be right, but this is not the ‘language of literature’ that Ngugi alludes to.

Let’s explore whether English qualifies as an Indian language by looking at it in two distinct ways:

(a) As a language of opportunities and lingua franca: English has spread in India for many of the same reasons it has spread in Malaysia, Denmark, and Argentina—it is the language of globalization, the Internet, and new economic opportunities. In India, it also serves as the lingua franca, albeit only for a small social class. But is this sufficient to make English an Indian language?

Perhaps it is. English, however, is also the lingua franca in Continental Europe. Most Dutch and Danes are quite proficient in English—on average more proficient than most educated, urban Indians. Yet do people call English a Dutch, Danish, or a Continental European language (it is considered a European language because the UK and Ireland are in Europe)?

But just because the Dutch and the Danes do not call it that does not mean they would be wrong to do so. So, as a language of opportunity and as lingua franca, we could also call English an Indian language as long as we grant that English is no less qualified to be a Dutch, Danish, Continental European, Malaysian or Argentinian language (all regions where English language proficiency is actually higher than in India).

(b) As a language of a people’s literature: Does English qualify as an Indian language in this capacity (this is also what Ngugi alludes to)? One answer is ‘yes’, since many Indians write in English with considerable flourish and creativity. However, this seems to me necessary but insufficient. Unlike other Indian languages, English is not rooted in any whole community, serving as a vehicle for the entire community’s artistic and literary expression across all social groups, as well as its mundane and shared daily realm of myths, anxieties, humor, prejudices, greetings, folklore, songs, swear words, and so much else.

A member of such a language community acquires all this through pervasive immersion in that language from birth, and even partakes of a linguistic heritage going back many generations. English in India simply cannot reach down to touch the more intimate, emotional reality and mythos of historical experience, which are incomparably expressed in mother tongues. Doesn’t a people’s literature need that? More fundamentally, can a people’s literature be written in a language other than the people’s mother tongue? Could Tagore have written in English, and through his translated works, become the poet of the people of Bengal?

In translation, he seems not to have made much of an impact on non-Bengali Indians. In fact, those fluent in English today constitute only an elite social class spread thinly across India. According to a 2005 survey, they number no more than 3-5% of all Indians.

Another 15-20% have functional literacy in English, barely able to express a few ideas in it. Even the perfectly fluent learned it as a second language in school, not through pervasive childhood use at home (this is now changing in a tiny upper class), and do not converse in it with their entire local community, i.e., with their maids, plumbers, and subziwallahs. Are there other national or people’s languages elsewhere in the world that are similarly demarcated by social class, yet claim to produce national or people’s literature in it?

In this sense, then, can we say that English is an Indian language, given there is no Indian community to which English is fundamentally and pervasively constitutive? I think the answer is ‘no’. In other words, English has not made sufficient inroads into Indian communities to qualify as a language of a people’s literature. But this does not mean that such a thing can never happen. It can. It happened for the Indians in Trinidad, who were brought there as indentured laborers and gradually lost their Indian tongues over 100-150 years.

English is the language of VS Naipaul’s island community in ways that English is not the language of any community in India today. So we can also argue that while many Indians today speak an increasingly global language that’s useful and practical, serves as a lingua franca, opens new intellectual horizons, etc., it is not a language in which the great Indian novel can be written today. Instead, and for now, we should think of it as a language in which Indians are producing Indo-European literature. Until English, in a sizable Indian community, becomes the language in which folks across all social classes read, write, talk, think, and dream, can it be the literary language of anything more than a small and historically new and elite sub-culture, one that is ‘linguistically alienated’ from the larger communities it inhabits?

Hierarchy and Language

Such reflection also illuminates many contemporary trends in the Subcontinent. For instance, the deeply ingrained hierarchies of language and literary culture that Indian elites subscribe to even sixty years after independence. Oh, how we crave Anglo-American recognition for our writing on India and let it drive our sense of literary merit! If target markets and economics explained all, the Danes and the Dutch, quite proficient in English, would have similar attitudes.

There is something else going on with the Indian literati—given how hierarchy bound we Indians are, it is as if we accord a higher caste to the British and subconsciously elevate and mimic their literary culture. It is one thing to admire and be inspired by other literary cultures—an entirely laudable thing—but our attitude is one of deference, lacking the self-confidence of equals. I cited the Dutch and the Danes because they speak English yet were not colonized, and consequently do not suffer from ‘colonial alienation’. They do not exhibit, as Indians do, the deference, insecurity, inferiority complex, and look-to-Britain-and-the-US-for-validation-and-yardsticks (that said, there are signs that indigenous yardsticks may be emerging). Unlike the former, the Indians accord a privileged status to English, turning it into a pivotal marker of a class hierarchy.

It’s true—we have arranged even languages into a hierarchy, with English sitting atop like the Brahmin and our attitude to indigenous languages Brahminical (with accents and dialects providing more ways of filling out the hierarchy). Writers and speakers of English are commonly seen as more sophisticated and are granted more respect and attention. If this is not mental colonization, what is? We are far from achieving intellectual independence.

Nothing like a Booker prize, reviews, endorsements, and fat book deals in the Anglophone West to turn our heads. Indian novels that ‘make it’ abroad are then taken seriously in India—not vice-versa. Do we grant the same cachet to books that win Sahitya Akademi or Jnanpith awards? Or crave translations of our best non-English books? And we have not even considered the mental colonization in the terrain of popular culture, such as in our dominant ideals of beauty.

But wait, says a part of me. How can it be otherwise? The culture that brought us English and came to dominate us had greater power tied to its claim to greater knowledge. So long as this relationship holds in our minds, and we look up to that culture for our self-definition and direction, much else will remain too, including our writers’ insecurities and our elites’ colonial mindsets. I too am caught in its vortex. As an individual, perhaps the best approach to decolonizing my own mind is to be acutely aware of my predicament, interrogate my own linguistic and cultural hierarchies, and invite others to do the same.

This is certainly not to say that our literary artists ought to jettison English and return to native languages, as Ngugi did for his creative works (which he then translated from Gikuyu to English). For many, that ship has already sailed and there is no going back. Even if one could go back, it’s not an unqualified ‘better path’ for all. Quite often, those who advocate this path are linguistic and cultural chauvinists best avoided like the plague. On the contrary, this is to say that a key attribute of being modern is to try and understand how we came to be who we are, and to cultivate a truly modern, humanistic self—one that sees all humans as equal in status, participates in a creative, self-confident literary culture, and doesn’t feverishly seek external validation or erect new hierarchies around language.

No language in itself is a problem, our Brahminical approach to it is. To decolonize is to also begin to see the politics of received categories we so unselfconsciously use to understand and judge ourselves (this of course parallels the subalterns’ relationship to their ‘internal colonization’ by Brahminical knowledge), and to explore ways of moving beyond and seeing things afresh. Where else should this start if not with our literary and cultural elites who have the fewest excuses and the longest exposure to modernity?


*Ngugi refers to Ngugi wa Thiong’o—Kenyan novelist, professor, and author of Decolonizing the Mind—whose African experience the author compares his own Indian experience with.

Excerpted from The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities by Namit Arora, Three Essays Collective, 2017 with the permission of the publisher.

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