There are two thoughts about how English fits in India. One holds that it is a foreign language; the other claims that it is an Indian language. In her book Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India, Akshya Saxena takes English out of this Indian/foreign binary and argues that it should be seen on the spectrum of its usage in India. At one end of this spectrum is its use by the state (in official documents and even in election slogans). At the other end is the use of English in protests against the state.
Even though most Indians do not speak or understand English, they do encounter it in clothing, signboards, films, non-English literature, and in advertisements for everyday things as well as the ubiquitous English-speaking classes. Saxena points out that the presence of English in popular culture (advertising, cinema, and literature) alongside the political contexts (documents and protests) make English a vernacular language in India and not a global one (with “global” understood in the sense of a global lingua franca of the world or the global internet).
One example given by Saxena to explain the nature of this vernacularity is the way English has become a part of social hierarchy. Like wealth or status, it has become a currency that distinguishes between upper castes and classes. Saxena highlights this with the help of films. Non-English audiences are presumed by India’s Central Board of Film Certification as lacking proper education and therefore more likely to imbibe vulgarity from films such as Mira Nair’s film Kama Sutra which the board eventually censored for “titillating scenes” before releasing it.
Another example related to cinema argues for English as a visual experience. “Roti, kapda, makaan” (food, clothing, shelter), a vernacular election slogan from the 1960s, was recently modified as “roti, kapda, makaan + Internet” in a shot of graffiti in the 2019 film Gully Boy. Saxena interprets the addition of the English word without any translation evidence that English no longer needs to be spelled out for audiences in India. It can be just there in English letters without needing to be voiced. Similarly, the presence of English in the form of titles of Hindi movies transliterated into Roman script, the language, Saxena argues, becomes a part of everyday life. It also becomes embedded into the story of the film and does not stand out as an amusing oddity put on display by Westernized characters who are out of touch with their Indian sensibilities. The Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008) also has a lot of English words in the dialogues and exchanges among the slum characters. For Saxena, these instances together symbolise the nativeness of English in India. One might add to Saxena’s examples the countless Hindi films that have lovers resorting to English when confessing and declaring their love.
Literary fiction from regional Indian languages—Manipuri and Hindi are the examples Saxena discusses—use English words. English novels with characters from non-English backgrounds—such as Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), the Booker winning The White Tiger (2008) and the Indian English classic Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand (1935)—incorporate English without any sense of doubt about risking the believability of characters:
As a story about a low-caste subject’s desire for English, Untouchable emerges as an early sounding out of the resonance of English beyond the education of native elites. It provides a necessary context of recent discussions on caste and the English language by reminding us that characters who may not normally “speak” English may still perhaps hear and see the language. Vernacular English, as it figures in the texts, is not relegated to the expensively gained formal education of a few but circulates tantalizingly, within everyday experiences. Especially within global capitalism, the English language is available to variously nonelite characters as a graspable catalyst of social mobility and individual advancement. These informal brushes with, and experiences of, the English language provide complex negotiation of a language of power from positions of marginality.
In addition to being everyday, English is also divine. The most interesting example that Saxena puts forth to illustrate the ways in which English has become vernacular in India is the conception of English as a Goddess of the lower castes. The idol stands on a pedestal that is a computer and holds the Constitution of India in one hand and a pen in the other, the way the Statue of Liberty holds a torch. Here is a devotional song for English as the Dalit Goddess:
She hails from London, this Mother English
She reigns over computers, she’s everybody’s mother
English thus becomes a means of empowerment, a blessing. Chandrabhan Prasad, a Dalit activist author and a venture capitalist supporting lower-caste entrepreneurs, even built a temple to the English Goddess in the Lakhimpur-Keri village of Uttar Pradesh in India. It is the language of hope and power for the millions who have been deprived of voice and even the right to speak in Sanskritised languages and culture. Outside of caste, it is a language that has been intentionally used to register protest. In 2004, several women in the northeastern province of Manipur – an area marked by constant tension between the Indian state and the insurgent groups – stood naked on the streets to protest the rape of a woman by an Indian army official. The banner of their protest read “Indian Army Rape Us”. English binds diverse oppressed groups in India.
Traditionally, postcolonial scholars have focused on projecting English as a language that connects different communities brushing the socio-economic hierarchies aside.
Saxena’s study of different domains towards the co-optation of English as an instrument of empowerment makes the concept of “Vernacular English” a good alternative to the accepted mindset that English is a language of the elites in India.