"Language is more than a tool for expressing ourselves. It acts as a mirror to our world, reflecting back to us the way we live." So says John Humphrys in his book on the use and misuse of the English language, Beyond Words.
There is truth in these words and more so when we examine them in the context of the birth and evolution of English in India. It entered India through the East India Company and slowly found a place for itself among the social elite of the country. However, what the English ruler had never anticipated was the impact that English language would have on the struggle for independence and what use it would be put to. When the English used the language to command, order and arrest, the Indians used it to petition, argue, persuade and later to admonish and warn. Even now, though English is spoken and understood by only a fraction of the country's population, it has become an indispensable cog in the wheel of the social, political and economic structure of India. Even though English has permeated the very fabric of our nation it has not been able to alienate itself from the all-inclusive multilingual identity of India. One of the reasons for its acceptance into the Indian cultural and lingual context is its malleable and permissive nature that has resulted in a large number of additions to the language, the origins of which are attributable to India. Words like 'jungle', 'khaki', jodhpurs', 'guru', 'avatar', etc. along with hundreds others have been derived from their Indian counterparts and have enriched the Queen's language along with making it more accessible to the average Indian.
When it comes to expressing ourselves, I might be able to count myself among the few who can read, write and dream in English. It has never been a foreign language for me. In fact, being the medium of instruction throughout my school and college days it has become ingrained in my consciousness as something that I have grown up with, which is an intrinsic part of me and without which I would feel incapacitated when it comes to communicating. But communication is the barest of needs that knowledge of this language aims to satisfy. English is more than just a language; it is an accessory to flaunt. The way one uses it speaks volumes about her. A few sentences and one can claim to ascertain the speaker's birthplace, background, level of erudition, social status and profession; although the accuracy of all these details is a topic for another debate. Whether it is the breezy, sing-song intonation of the chick-lit reading social butterfly, the rich esoteric vocabulary of an Arts major or the rustic, heavily accented "official" English of a Government employee, English makes its presence felt in various forms and figures across social strata, ethnic backgrounds and professions.
Love it or hate it, you can't ignore it. Although a major part of our daily lives, English has not been free from its share of protests and threats of banishment from the country due to its integral connections with colonial times. Many political and social leaders have viewed English as a remnant of British imperialism left behind to bind Indians to their erstwhile colonial masters through a mentality that extols the virtues of the West while viewing anything of Indian origin with disdain and prejudice. But this resentment is also coupled with a sense of needing English to get ahead. The number of English language teaching institutions, particularly in smaller towns, bears testimony to the fact that English-speaking is regarded as a ticket to social and economic advancement. India's biggest global advantage has been its information technology competent, English-speaking populationa segment that our famous youth demographic clearly aspires to.
English, being an intrinsic part of our social and cultural life has seen and continues to see a growing body of literature being developed by Indians and people of Indian origin. With its evolution from the strictly Western political writing format during colonial times to its urban, middle-class, cosmopolitan "Indianness" of the 1980s and 90s to its pedestrian mass-appeal of today, Indian English fiction has undergone a sea-change, changing itself to reflect the changing India.
A Brief Overview of Evolution of Indian English Literature
Compared to Western literature in English or Indian literature in regional languages, Indian writing in English is still in its nascent stages, having been around for only a century and a half. It dates back to the 1830s, to Kashiprasad Ghosh, who many consider to be the first Indian poet writing in English with Sochee Chunder Dutt as the first writer of fiction. The period between1920-27 saw Indian English scaling astonishing heights. A very eloquent example is the epic of Sri Aurobindo which reflects the confluence of the East and the West as does the prose of Dr. Radhakrishnan and the plays of Kailasam. One of the clear indications that the English language was here to stay in India was through acts of translation. Translations from Indian languages into English are products of the special context eighteenth and nineteenth century British India (Mukherjee, 1997). Earlier most translations were done by the British themselves but later a complete body of literature evolved from translations done by Indians into English known as Indian Literature in English Translation (ILET). Translations in India continued to be few and far between till almost the middle of the 1960s. After India's political independence in 1947, the ambiguous and controversial position of English did not provide an atmosphere conducive for either original or translated works in English (Kothari, 2003). The first gesture of appreciation in this regard was made by the Indian government in 1965 when R.K. Narayan received the Sahitya Akademi Award for creative writing in English.
However, many attribute the actual boom of Indian English fiction to Salman Rushdie. Rushdie's Booker Prize winning novel in 1981, Midnight's Children, paved the way for a new style of writing that used a mixed language, generously sprinkled with Indian terms to convey his representation of India. Rushdie's style is usually categorized under the magical realism mode of writing comparable to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is supposedly after Rushdie, that Indian writers began to experiment with the use of language and styles, as compared to Narayan's more pure form and expression. Authors like Gita Hariharan, feel that Rushdie's impact on Indian writers was quite decisive as his use of language and Indian themes and settings paved the way for postcolonial writers around the world. What followed was a cascade of writers of Indian origin flooding the English fiction scene with Amitav Ghosh's Circle of Reason (1985), Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate (1986), Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines (1988), Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August (1988), Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey (1990), Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1992).
Later writings have included those of the Diaspora such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai, both Booker Prize awardees. Of late, a number of young writers have represented India through the eyes of the students studying in some of its elite institutions and dealt with urban, youth-related storylines centered on academics, relationships, careers, etc. Most prominent among these has been Chetan Bhagat whose Five Point Someone brought more fame to the IIT Delhi culture than its exalted academic status ever could.
The above is a bird's eye view of the birth and growth of Indian writing in English. It is essentially a background which suggests the kind of changes that this segment of writing has undergone ever since its introduction in colonial India. The popularity that Indian English literature has achieved in just more than a century is commendable when one compares it with the long history of English literature in the West and regional language writing in India.
The Publishing Scenario - A Historical Perspective
The Indian book industry owes a great deal to English as a trend-setter, a gap-filler, a guide to editorial and production standards and a medium for the international flow of knowledge and expansion of export markets. It is because of its publication in the English language that India today occupies a prominent place on the world map of book publishing and Indian books reach out to over 80 countries in the world. According to a recent estimate, 57,386 titles are published in India annually out of which about 12,528 are in English.
The first book printed in India was neither in English nor in any Indian language. it was Portuguese Catechism Doctrina Christa brought out by Christian missionaries in Goa in 1557. With its roots in Goa and religion, printing gradually spread to other centers and began to cover secular themes. Thus the earliest printing presses were established in Bombay in 1674, in Tranquebar (Madras) in 1712 and in Hoogly (West Bengal) in 1778. Literary and cultural books started appearing in other parts of the country as well, although book publishing remained mainly religious in content until the close of the 18th century. It was in the 19th century that serious book publishing emerged as a commercial activity. This was a result of a two-fold impetus. Firstly, the education system was standardized after the colonial government's acceptance of Macaulay's Minute on Education (1835) and English became the official language of the Government in 1844. English education brought to India political ideas of the West along with a knowledge of Western science and technology. With the establishment of the first three universities in the country in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, there was an unprecedented need for English books to meet the requirements of the new educational system. Secondly, Western ideas produced the great intellectual ferment of the 19th century giving rise to Indian renaissance which culminated with India's independence. This led to the birth of a sizeable middle class, which were both a contributor as well as a user of English books.
While at the turn of the century, educational publishing remained in the hands of British owned subsidiaries such as Blackies and Sons, Longman, Macmillan and Oxford University Press; its cultural aspects were shared by the indigenous publishers with a liberal view dedicated to the freedom movement. Some of these indigenous publishing entities were G.A. Natesan of Madras, Padma Publications and Hind Kitab of Bombay. These pioneers proved that serious local publishing in English was possible, which helped to stimulate later efforts.
Language is the medium and ground of almost all human interaction, the system of signs that we use for social coordination. (Grewal, 2009) More than that though, language presents an example of a system of pure coordination, and one that does not and perhaps could not, exist outside the social intercourse that it enables. The purely conventional nature of language means that linguistic coordination exhibits the economies of scale that we see in the use of standards: the greater the number of people who use certain words or speak a certain language, the more attractive those words or that language will be for others to learn. Likewise, if the boundaries of a community have changed in some relevant way to include others who speak a different language - which is applicable in case of regional, economic and political integration - then that community will benefit from learning and using that language. The need for communication among multiple parties is most easily solved if everyone agrees to speak a single language or to share a common second language.
The remarkable rise of English in the twentieth century offers a dramatic example of how the 'force of intercourse' can lead to the emergence of a universal standard. The current global position of English is the result of more than a few centuries of outright conquest. In the past few decades in particular, it has grown rapidly in importance as the language of international commerce, governance and technology, alongside the increasing power of the US in these and other areas. Yet, despite much discussion of English as a 'global language', it is important to recognize that its population of speakers is still rather limited in absolute numbers. While English has about 300-450 million native speakers, both Mandarin and Spanish claim more. English is undoubtedly the world's most common second language. Depending on the specified proficiency, English can claim anywhere between 100 million to 1 billion non-native speakers the world over. It is, at present, a universal standard only in particular domains, with the promise of greater population penetration in the future.