Managing Hindi

How we live multilingually and what this says about our language and literature

One of the Department of Official Language’s directives made headlines in October 2011 when a circular was sent out by the secretary of the DOL to make Hindi more user-friendly. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN FOR THE CARAVAN
01 April, 2012

THE DEPARTMENT OF OFFICIAL LANGUAGE (DOL) is located in Lok Nayak Bhavan, a large office building in New Delhi’s Khan Market. The market, which is one of the costliest commercial properties in the world, specialises in high-end goods in well-lit shops with glossy window displays. It is the kind of place where you can overhear hipsters in a café say things like “Caesar salad share karein?”

The DOL, by contrast, is comforting in its dimly lit, bureaucratic tones of grey. There are guards at the entrance, and you need a pass to go upstairs, but once there, on the second floor, you may roam as you like. You can duck into offices, as I have on occasion, and hear small groups of office workers chatting, in Hindi of course. They will point and direct you but will not tell you what they are doing. You can study the “Word of the Day” on a chalkboard hanging in one of the tube-lit hallways; it is an English word followed by its Hindi equivalent in Devanagari script.

On one of my visits, it read “obviate = dur karna”, on another, “desecration = upvitra karna”. The last time I had seen a chalkboard like this was at the Mettupalayam railway station in Tamil Nadu (“elithaana = asaan”). In the South, the chalkboard is meant to encourage (some might say enforce) Hindi as a second language. Here, in the heart of Delhi, the board is meant to remind us that there are ways to say in Hindi what we would like to say in English.

The DOL is part of the Ministry of Home Affairs; and although India has two official state languages—Hindi and its subsidiary, English—the DOL works solely for the promotion of Hindi. Why would English need promoting when every class and caste of Indian now seeks an English-medium education for their sons and daughters?

One of the DOL’s directives made headlines in both the Hindi and English press in October 2011 when a circular was sent out by the then secretary of the DOL, Veena Upadhyaya. The directive itself—to make Hindi more user-friendly, “saral” and “sahaj”, by substituting certain Sanskrit words with English ones—was nothing new, and dates from a 1976 brief based on Article 351 of the Constitution calling for a more effective spread of Hindi.

In a telephone conversation from her home in Noida where she now lives in retirement, Upadhyaya explained that she felt that those working in the government and its field offices needed a reminder about this directive. It was hard to “reorient the thinking of people”; it requires a “close follow up” not just in government offices but also at the “grassroots level of government, in field offices, training centres, translation activities”.

She explained how in the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Haryana, the state governments used Hindi “about 100 percent of the time”, and the version they spoke was a “chaste” Hindi, a Hindi laden with Sanskrit vocabulary. But in Delhi, she explained, this vocabulary became “burdensome”. “When it comes to the capital, Hindi has a very subordinate role to play. The language in the offices and ministries is English.” No one speaks of “difficult” English, but people speak of “difficult” Hindi. “While there is an impetus to learn English, a craze in semi-urban and rural areas, there is a sense that you don’t need Hindi to do well in life. Most people only have Hindi instruction till Class 8.” She went on to explain how she studied Hindi in college, but “my colleagues, my children, they don’t have this exposure”.

Soon after news of the circular broke, the highbrow Hindi newspaper, Jansatta, carried an opinion piece titled ‘The Mask of Easiness’ that referred to the substitution of “difficult” Hindi words with “easier” English ones. Its author, Anil Chumriya, relates a story from the time when he was working for an unnamed TV news channel and had used the Hindi word “upbhoktha” for the English word “consumer”. He was called in by his editor who asked him to replace the Hindi word with an easier English one. First, Chumriya explains, he defended his position, but then he came to see that whenever he used “difficult” Hindi vocabulary, the TV channel replaced it with English as a matter of policy. Only English words were deemed to be capable of completing a sentence, he reflects. The mask is not just in the script but is meant to conceal a broader social reality—of being from the world of Hindi, something that becomes, he writes, akin to committing a crime.

When I asked Upadhyaya what the circular might portend for the Hindi language in general, she matter-of-factly made a distinction between bureaucratic language and “literature”, which in her reckoning was in a “totally different domain” from the language of office memos and circulars. Literature contained “a more obscure language, the purest form of language”; it was the place where that language was perfected and perpetuated. Of course, it depended on the author’s “thematic”, and to depict “contemporary society” you would need “a colloquial form of the language”, she admitted. “But the pure form was the one appreciated and applauded,” she said.

The current secretary of the DOL, ANP Sinha, had a slightly different perspective. As was the case for Upadhyaya, Sinha’s appointment at the DOL came as his last in a 38-year career as an IAS officer; he will retire in some months. He admitted that the DOL is not among the coveted appointments for an IAS officer. It is not a posting where things actually get done or where initiatives are seen through. Nonetheless, the tension between the languages was palpable in what Sinha had to say; he at once reduced the English language and made it appear supreme and inevitable.

“English,” he explained, is “the language of aspirations and base urges.” But it is also, according to him, “not an Indian language”. Hindi meanwhile is the “sole official language” and that has largely been due to the spread of the language via Bollywood films and the “interstate movements” between people. As for the promotion of Hindi, it has to start in schools, to remove the complex that “you’re better if you speak English”.

When I asked him what he read, he chuckled and spoke of Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, James Joyce’s Ulysses, the poetry of John Keats and William Blake, and of his own “split personality”. What of Hindi? “Hindi literature is not even 100 years old; of course, there is Premchand, Verma, Prasad. The best Indian literature is yet to come, but it will be in Hindi, it has to be”; and then, as if speaking about much-loved, ageing relatives, he went on to say, “Bengali unfortunately is not doing well—Tamil and Bengali would have been good candidates, but they have lost steam.” On a more practical note, he spoke of developing IT tools in Hindi, a dictation package in Hindi and more generally of “Hindi learning and translation”.

And yet, Sinha also averred that there was “no future for Hindi in Central government” since “only English has a future”. But ultimately, even the battle between Hindi and English was finite, since these [language debates] were “intermediate processes” that, in his opinion, would result in the dominance of a “computer language”. By 2050, he envisioned a world of only textbooks and websites, where Google would dominate even more fully. Sinha took some pleasure in describing what for him were absolute certainties. They seemed to make him more relaxed as he sat in his high-backed black office chair. His desk had a raised plastic barrier in front, creating a moat between himself and whoever might be sitting opposite. The distancing effect enabled me to imagine him as a kind of language czar. As for Hindi, he said, the DOL could offer little more than “emotional slogans”.

THE RELATIONSHIP between English and Hindi has always been one of the conundrums of language politics in India—and one reflected, in a geographic sense, in the relationship between Delhi and the Hindi belt. Hindi has the numbers, overwhelmingly so, and it is the language of popular culture and of the home and the street. Even in offices and university campuses, where English is most entrenched, it is Hindi you hear in hallways and canteens. And yet, Hindi is the underdog when it comes to its ‘official’ spread, as part of institutions and in institution building.

As Alok Rai describes in his book Hindi Nationalism (2001), it is Hindi that contains the democratic “energies” of the people, and yet the language has been hijacked by those who want to preserve a Sanskritised Hindi, or as he calls it “Manak” or Standard Hindi.

Yet, 10 years on, with the greater prevalence of Hinglish in everyday speech, advertising and cinema, it appears that the linguistic grounds may have shifted in a slightly different direction. Now the preservation of Hindi may have more to do with the influx of an English vocabulary rather than a laboured Sanskrit one, and some might argue that the language of ‘the people’ is in fact this English-laced ‘aspirational’ Hinglish that is spreading from cities to rural areas and back again. Or is it? Should we view the influx of English vocabulary into Hindi as evidence of the capaciousness of Hindi, its growth and continued vitality (which is something routinely said about English and its dominance in the world) or, as Hindi words are being substituted with English ones, a dangerous fashion that may lead to Hindi’s further intellectual marginalisation?

The Hindi poet Agyeya (1911-1987) defended the place of English in Hindi early on when he wrote, “Whatever the purists may say, to replace English words current in everyday speech by Hindi words can only be regarded as artificial and such Hindi words cannot carry any sentiments.” He then linked this English-laced Hindi to a new, more authentic social reality when he said, “Poetry that is rooted in reality needs the language of reality as its means of expression and not one of dictionaries.”

The Hindi poet Agyeya (1911-1987) defended the place of English in Hindi by linking English-laced Hindi to a new, more authentic social reality. COURTESY RAMESH MEHTA

Even so, selective English vocabulary entering Hindi is different from the phenomenon of Hinglish. Some would say that Hinglish represents a situation where neither language is being enriched or spoken properly. This begs the question of whether language reflects reality (and whose) or whether language creates the reality we live in. It surely does both, which ultimately makes notions of authenticity very slippery indeed. It is clear that the ability of Hindi to absorb and, I would argue, maintain vocabularies, whether from English, Persian, Urdu, Arabic or other languages, is to its great benefit.

What can’t be ignored, however, is that the influx of English vocabulary in particular is a result of the social and other forms of capital that ride along with each English word spoken. It relays prestige, distinction and membership in a globalised world. Moreover, Hinglish rewards speakers for whom Hindi has become a ‘kitchen’ language—one that stops developing once their English-medium schooling kicks in. It allows them to speak Hindi without knowing its more advanced vocabulary, and in the process, creates a way of speaking that favourably marks their class status even as it might alienate them from others.

The Malayalam poet and former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, K Satchidanandan, once described the situation to me as follows: “Here [in Delhi] if you belong to the elite you can manage in English, and if you have a smattering of Hindi you can manage the ordinary things of life also. So they [the elite] don’t feel the acute need of learning their mother tongues, unless they feel culturally thirsty for their mother tongue, or if they feel it as a real loss, a real mutilation, as if their tongue has been cut off.”

This relationship to language, in the way Satchidanandan described it, seemed to have to do with the care one took towards language learning: “The English-medium students acquire a kind of fluency in the language early, but often they don’t care for the subtlety and nuances of the language.”

What was this English being learnt? Was it merely part and parcel of the high-stress, exam-driven education that rewarded results rather than the quality of thought? Was English so disaggregated from social experience that it could only ever hold this utilitarian place in the linguistic education of most Indians? And most crucially, would English only ever be a counter, an opposite, the yang to the mother tongue yin, and so always deficient even if expedient?

At some level—in Satchidanandan’s phrasing of it—there seems to be a moral quality to the need or lack of need for one’s mother tongue. What did it mean not to feel a “cultural thirst” for one’s mother tongue? Did it mean one was satisfied with the cultural enticements of English? Would not everyone be affected by such a cultural deficiency?

But then Satchidanandan offered a practical assessment of what it would mean to preserve one’s mother tongue. Even if “they” (those who have lost their mother tongue) felt an intense need to learn their original language, he said, there was little opportunity to do so. In university departments where literatures in languages other than English are taught, “there are very few students,” and furthermore, “there is little prestige, and what will they do with their degree in the languages?”

Geeta Rai, who for the past 20 years has taught Hindi to diplomats, academics and others in Delhi—people who, she told me, want to speak Hindi in everyday as well as professional and intellectual contexts—has little patience for measures aimed at simplifying Hindi, even if she understands the motive behind them. She often writes letters to Hindi newspapers such as Navbharat Times or government entities like the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, questioning their use of English words in Hindi advertisements or their Hindi syntax and grammar. She herself knows a seemingly endless number of Sanskrit and Persian synonyms for nearly every word in Hindi and takes great pleasure in savouring the nuances of their meanings. She told me of idioms used by her grandmothers, women who were officially ‘uneducated’ yet who spoke a Hindi you don’t hear today. Rai is also very aware of the second-in-command status of Hindi, the language she grew up with in Mussoorie. She described how when she enrolled to do an MA in Hindi Literature, an English professor at the university said of her future prospects, “You will have to lick dust.” She replied by asking, “What language does your mother speak?” And when he said “Hindi”, she replied, “Then I’ll spend my time talking to her.”

This gendered dynamic and division between the languages is explored to great literary effect in Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel, Mai (1993). The novel is precisely about the encounter with the mother tongue as the mother’s language. The novel also concerns the struggle of ‘getting ahead’ versus ‘going back’. It is a coming-of-age story of a girl who lives not only between Hindi and English but also between the gendered, generational and emotional worlds that those languages enact in her life. Mai demonstrates how different languages—the actual speaking of them and the subject positions created by doing so—are implicated in the social and emotional dramas of a family.

The bilingual Shree told me (and has written in essays) that she was not fully comfortable in Hindi or English, and that her fiction is a working out of that unease. Mai can also be read, I believe, as a kind of manifesto for why she writes in Hindi. When Shree first began to consider shifting from her academic writing in English to literary writing in Hindi, her publisher, Ashok Maheshwari, had to coax her a bit by saying, “Hindi is your mother tongue.”

What is literature and writing if not a working out of the relationship between the languages we know to varying degrees and in differing contexts? In Shree’s novel, language is not something neutral passed from one generation to the next. There is an unease not only in speaking different languages, particularly for the novel’s young narrator, but also in living in different languages and what it means to commit to the life that each language promises. For the narrator, the difference between living a Hindi life or an English one becomes nothing less than a modern existential crisis. The world of English will take her to England, and to greater social and physical mobility, yet the conflict in the novel will precisely be about her need to return to and confront the Hindi household of her mother. It is not merely that she wants to reform her mother, it is that she wants her mother to understand and value the pleasures that she herself experiences as a student, traveller, painter and someone’s lover. The narrator cannot be whole in the world until she garners this last affirmation from her mother who, perhaps not wanting to negate her own life, never gives it.

ONE DAY WHILE SITTING IN A TAXI at a stoplight in South Delhi, I was negotiating the purchase of a bootleg copy of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower; I had got the price down to R300, but then the light turned green, I hesitated, and my taxi driver took off. Then the driver said, “Are you sure you want a bootleg copy? It’s not the real thing (“asli nahin hoga”), they’ve probably put a different ending.” I found his perspective on and understanding of ‘bootlegged’ literature both baffling and amusing—the idea that someone would write another ending (whose prose was of lesser quality, perhaps, or whose ending not as plausible?) and then sell it at a lower price. Doesn’t a bootleg copy differ in the quality of the cover, binding, print and paper rather than its contents? But the taxi driver—someone I’ve known for some time and who can always be found reading Punjabi newspapers—had another idea, a more profound one to be sure, about the nature of books and literature. What the debate over Hindi and English also brings to the fore is the question of what literature is in the first place. What does literature do? Does it showcase a language, as Veena Upadhyaya seems to suggest from her bureaucratic perch, or innovate in it, as most writers might hope? Or, as my taxi driver would have it, is literature just a changeable commodity like any other?

In the recent brouhaha over Salman Rushdie’s contested appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival, we were reminded that ‘literature’ is not necessarily a book or a person, but rather a complex of ideas, emotions and debates that involve readers, writers and, dare I say, non-readers. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan lamented the event in The Asian Age for the divide it furthered “between an English-speaking elite and the regional culture”. He felt that the authors who read from The Satanic Verses at the festival in support of Rushdie and free speech were reinforcing stereotypes rather than breaking them, since they did not carry out their protest in full by staying at the festival or even getting arrested. Visvanathan associates English, in this instance, with a kind of privilege and attitude towards one’s place in the literary realm. More and more, it is this divide that is relevant, the one where language maps onto geography, realms of experience and worldviews.

Mrinal Pande writes in the introduction to her recently published collection of newspaper columns, The Other Country: Dispatches from the Mofussil, that “India’s popular vernaculars” have “always stood as an opaque glass wall between India and the West”, suggesting that Indian languages and the experiences contained by them are mostly unknowable to Westerners. She then more interestingly suggests how these walls are erected in everyday contexts as Indians themselves move between different social and geographic worlds: “As the family rises in the social scale, it tries to distance itself from its small-town roots and begins to reserve use of the vernacular to order servants around.”

Language can signal a way of being, a set of morals and a relationship to a particular place, as well as how these variables might change over time and circumstance. I have met several Hindi writers living in Delhi who felt their sense of place and language came from elsewhere, often from Uttar Pradesh—places where life was lived more fully in Hindi. In Delhi they were transplants, much as writers in many societies who flock from villages or small towns to big cities might be. The Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi once told me, “Delhi has no literary culture of its own, but the largest concentration of Hindi writers and publishers is in Delhi.”

The ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University that Vajpeyi set up in Wardha in 1997. COURTESY MAHATMA GANDHI INTERNATIONAL HINDI UNIVERSITY

As a literary administrator, culture activist and poet, Vajpeyi has often been at the centre of the institutionalisation of Hindi, working to bolster the language in intellectual and educational realms. Vajpeyi’s biggest venture yet, meant to bring together his passion for the Hindi language and for the development of Hindi culture more broadly, turned out to be his biggest disappointment. From 1997 to 2002 he served as the first vice-chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya (MGAHV), or Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, in Wardha, Maharashtra. Wardha was chosen because it was the site of Gandhi’s Sevagram ashram from where he largely directed the freedom movement. Gandhi, we should also remember, strongly favoured Hindustani over English as the national language. The university aims to connect Gandhian ideals and history to the contemporary study and promotion of Hindi, though Wardha is geographically remote from any other universities that have strong Hindi departments. The university is funded by the Government of India and, according to Vajpeyi, was meant to be a “British Council of Hindi”, meaning that it would promote Hindi internationally. It was also meant to be “just a university”, focusing on literature, language, culture and translation. Most of all, it was intended to elevate Hindi to its legitimate place as an international language.

As vice-chancellor, Vajpeyi was on a mission to confront what he saw as a number of “obstacles” within Hindi. Hindi scholarship, to take one example, had declined in the previous decades. He wanted to address this issue by creating a dialogue with foreign universities at which Hindi language and literature was being taught. To this end he started an English-language Hindi journal, called Hindi, to serve as “an international forum for Hindi scholars”. Vajpeyi also started two Hindi-language journals: Bahuvachan, which he described as “a series of conversations among scholars and creative persons”; and Pustakvarta, a wide-ranging review of books. He began to publish anthologies of major Hindi writers and poets for use in university courses. He wanted to have a partnership with publishers such as Rajkamal Prakashan as a way to supplement the lists of publishing houses while also serving the needs of students. “The Hindi domain is not adequately addressed by Hindi publishers. They are very conventional,” he said. “A ‘daring’ is required.” By this he meant that publishers should be involved in commissioning books and starting series. He criticised Hindi publishers in general for being “too comfortable with library purchases”.

Vajpeyi’s plans for the university extended to the classroom and the cultivation of students. He was trying to subvert areas of Hindi scholarship that had been mired in controversy—the Sanskritisation of Hindi, for instance—and had led, in his view, to “mediocrity” in all things Hindi. He advocated an “alternative syllabus” that placed Hindi within the realm of world literature by including Hindi texts alongside those from the world’s major languages. Students would benefit from reading both English and Hindi materials, while classroom and written assignments would value Hindi expression. Masters degrees would be offered on Ahimsa, Women’s Studies and Hindi-Urdu. “If Hindi and Urdu are so closely related,” he said, “why not study them together?” But the course initially drew only three students, he went on to say, and there was a problem with the availability of texts. “According to the Urdu scholars,” he explained, “while much Urdu literature had been translated or transliterated into the Devanagari script, Hindi had not been put into the Urdu script.”

As a literary administrator, culture activist and poet, Ashok Vajpeyi has often been at the centre of the institutionalisation of Hindi. RAAJESH KASHYAP / HINDUSTAN TIMES

Within the classroom itself, Vajpeyi wanted to revive the tika tradition from Sanskrit, consisting of close line-by-line readings of texts. He also sought a focus on Hindi grammar and lexicography, and he started a special unit to create a new grammar for Hindi with young linguists. The idea was to bring in the many ways of speaking Hindi across the Hindi belt, “to take into account all the Hindis”; the unit would carry out a proper linguistic survey of the country, beginning with the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, areas far from mainstream Hindi cultural centres. “After Grierson,” he said, referring to the early 20th-century Linguistic Survey of India (1898–1928), conducted by the colonial-era civil servant George Abraham Grierson, “there has been no linguistic survey”.

Vajpeyi spoke proudly of his ideas and initiatives, but then his voice dropped as he explained how his efforts had been stalled by the university administration. The university was established in 1997 while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power at the Centre, and Vajpeyi said that he did not want to be influenced by their politics. Perhaps because he was all too aware of how institutions worked, he set a few rules for himself: the university had to be a pluralistic space, one that reflected the pluralism within Hindi itself; he would be bound by the Constitution of India; and politics would not interfere in the running of the university, to which end he said he never invited politicians to the campus.

Instead, Vajpeyi drew on his contacts in the Hindi world—professors, novelists, essayists and poets. These occasional visitors added value to the atmosphere of the university and to students’ morale, but longer-term academic life was derailed. It became impossible to hire anyone. “You can read the report by the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government,” he told me. I consulted the report, brought out by the coalition government that had been voted into power at the Centre in 2004, defeating the incumbent BJP. The report had been “convened” by historian Bipan Chandra, and its pages contained a detailed recounting of academic politics gone wrong. It is a tedious story of blocked appointments, including key positions such as the registrar, the financial officer and members of the Academic Council. In a never-ending interim, the university was run by the Executive Council “without the aid of any academic person from the university”. The report unequivocally states at the outset, “The University failed to develop fully or adequately primarily because the Ministry of Human Resources Development acted as a road-block virtually from the very beginning.” Further on, the report specifies, “From certain oral evidence, it seems that the University has been implicated in local institutional Hindi politics.”

Part of the problem, Vajpeyi admitted, was one of location. “I was here in Delhi,” he said, as were his resources and contacts; Wardha was an outpost. It was hard to oversee what was going on. Students were unhappy. The university administration had plans to build better hostels, for instance. Those plans were discussed and drawn up by an architect, but then construction never began. Ultimately, the government was against his vision of the university, he explained—but, he found, so was the academic world. “They were comfortable with the way things were.”

We might wonder why the Indian state has departments for the promotion of Hindi alongside bureaucratic strictures to block the institutional development of the language, which is necessary for its growth and relevance. The answer to this question is complicated by the fact that there is no unified state ‘actor’ but rather a host, plethora really, of competing visions, personal jealousies, and petty decision-making, all requiring copious documentation.

Vajpeyi reflected that he should have started a research institute, “something like a World Hindi Institute”, rather than a university. Something smaller and more manageable but also something, it seemed, that he could have run without the interference of forces greater than himself. And then he returned to the realm of big ideas, of how “there should be a movement to protect and preserve languages and mother tongues, just as there is an environmental movement”. India should take the initiative, he said. “India is plural and things ‘Indian’ should be taught in plural terms.” With this, Vajpeyi was on firmer footing. He was smiling again; his cheerful demeanor had returned. He seemed happy in his new post (which at the time I spoke to him was chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi); he liked to be asked to head big ventures and to be given the leeway to implement his ideas.

Vajpeyi’s story seemed to embody a quest not only for the promotion of Hindi but for another kind of Hindi cosmopolitanism, one that would lead to the expansion of the still parochial study of Hindi literature. If Hindi were to enter the international discourse on literature, it would need a new pedagogical framework and a new style of university administration. The point was not only to spread the language but also the ideas and concepts that had been fostered in the language through time. The relationship between language and religious identity inherent in the Hindi-Urdu debates, for instance, was one site of contestation that Vajpeyi sought to bring into the university curriculum. There were also the ideas associated with ‘Hindi culture’ that were admired all over the world: Gandhi’s nonviolence movement, which rested on such Hindi and Gujarati concepts as ahimsa and satyagraha. It seemed like a viable way to make Hindi part of a world discourse not only through its literature but also through its contribution to society. What were the capacities inherent in Hindi, and how could they be “unblocked”?

WHILE TEACHING at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 2009-2010, I noticed that the majority of my students were Telugu speakers, with Tamil and Malayalam coming in second and third. Yet when I asked them what the most common language spoken in the hostels was (with its mix of students from mostly the South but also the North, East and West), they routinely said, “Hindi”. This went against some of my assumptions about “the South”. While it was true that many students spoke English well if they weren’t speaking their mother tongue with their peers, it was still more natural for them to speak in Hindi rather than English. This cultural comfort with Hindi didn’t mean that their English wasn’t good enough, but it did reveal that English had a particular place in their lives. I also knew from having read their exam essays that their English-language comprehension and ability for written expression ranged wildly. They had come from different kinds of English-medium backgrounds and that, in combination with their family circumstances and their singular focus on scoring high on the math-oriented IIT entrance exam, led to very different abilities and levels of confidence in the English language. In informal discussions, some of my students said that part of the problem was that English was taught as a “subject” to them, but never as a “language”. This distinction supports the claim many education scholars make that while English-language instruction across India has increased, its quality has deteriorated. This bore out in different ways for different students, depending on where in the country they had grown up, what kind of school they had gone to, and which languages were spoken at home. As one student explained, English was associated with “all important things” and “all important people”. Another said, English is “a presence in your life from the beginning” in the form of “birth certificates and medical reports”.

Yet, English becomes a language of intimacy for very few, even among the pool of English-educated students who make it into the IIT system. One student whose mother tongue was Malayalam wrote poignantly in an assignment about his own linguistic background: “It was pretentious to be going on talking with my grandparents or parents in English. Besides, for a family like mine, English creates a kind of invisible barrier between relations. The love that rings in one word cannot be replaced by a whole paragraph in English.” Another wrote how English was “a common enemy for all of us”—with reference to his and his friends’ struggle with the language and the attendant pressure to perform in it. He concluded, “I learned that I have absolutely no command over English.” This desire for facility and joy in the language was common to many, and it was also sometimes painfully clear that some students had gained this facility, while others “had” English but had to struggle with their partial knowledge of it on a daily basis.

Hindi is the mother tongue of the vast majority of students at IIT Delhi but is expressly avoided in the classroom. It is the language heard in hallways, canteens and hostels, and in lecture halls, just before the start of class. MONEY SHARMA / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETY IMAGES

Teaching at IIT Delhi the following year, I discovered that the relationship of Hindi to English was a bit different. Hindi was much more prevalent but also to be expressly avoided in the classroom; it was not the language of performance. It was the mother tongue of the vast majority of students, and the language heard in hallways, canteens and hostels, and in lecture halls, just before the start of class. It was also the language that some students spoke to me in after class, if they had missed many lectures or turned in assignments late. Their heads would drop a little and their faces turn soft; they looked to me for sympathy and out came Hindi, often in a low, muffled voice. It was used to explain the real story, the backstory of their problems. When I told students who I knew were more comfortable in Hindi that they were welcome to make comments or ask questions in class in the language, they nodded but never did so. I soon realised that in the competitive atmosphere of the IITs, to do so would be to mark oneself in the classroom, even if everyone broke into Hindi the minute class was over. What I tried to impress upon my students was that they needed both English and Hindi to get ahead, and that to do so meant being truly bilingual, being able to speak, read and write well in both languages. Unlike people from monolingual societies, I told them, they were at a great advantage. But this—real bilingualism, let alone multilingualism—was something they were not given the time to practice or excel at in the space of their education, either before or during IIT. My own words seemed empty in the face of all they had to “mug up” to pass their exams.

What I saw at the IITs was the now age-old distinction between ‘vernacs’ and the English-educated elite, but also much more than that. And what was remarkable—whether in Chennai or Delhi—was to see the gradations of English knowledge. There are not simply two groups or kinds of students but, in my estimation, at least five or six. The ladder to success has many rungs.

As for Hinglish—the ‘natural’ or enforced peppering of Hindi with English—it can be read in at least two ways: Yes, as a way for the English-educated urbanite to bridge her worlds and create various forms of linguistic distinction with every Caesar salad ordered. But also, perhaps, as a kind of protest by the aspiring, for whom with every mobile recharge and Metro ride, English vocabulary is their right and provenance even as they are told they can’t speak it. Haan, they can.