Aatish Taseer in the NYT (image Damien Poulain):
India has had languages of the elite in the past — Sanskrit was one, Persian another. They were needed to unite an entity more linguistically diverse than Europe. But there was perhaps never one that bore such an uneasy relationship to the languages operating beneath it, a relationship the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has described as “a scorched-earth policy,” as English.
India, if it is to speak to itself, will always need a lingua franca. But English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.
Two students I met in Varanasi encapsulated India’s tortured relationship with English. Both attended Benares Hindu University, which was founded in the early 20th century to unite traditional Indian learning with modern education from the West. Both students were symbols of the failure of this enterprise.
One of them, Vishal Singh, was a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes. He was two-thirds of the way through a degree in social sciences — some mixture of psychology, sociology and history. All of his classes were in English, but, over the course of a six-week friendship, I discovered to my horror that he couldn’t string together a sentence in the language. He was the first to admit that his education was a sham, but English was power. And if, in three years, he learned no more than a handful of basic sentences in English, he was still in a better position than the other student I came to know.
That student, Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless. Despite his grand education, he would be lucky to end up as a teacher or a clerk in a government office.