Teaching English in Nineteenth Century Assam and Now

‘The Goddess of English’ was two feet tall, wore a hat, and stood atop a computer. In her right hand she held a pen and in her left the Constitution of India. She was the brain-child of Chandra Bhan Prasad, the Dalit activist and writer. Interviewed in September 2010, he explained the symbolism of the Goddess (modelled on the Statue of Liberty) and why a temple was being built for her in Bankagaon in UP. Dalits, he said, would ‘use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.’ (The temple ran into opposition from an unexpected quarter.)

Chandra Bhan Prasad and the Goddess of English (Source: BBC)

Chandra Bhan Prasad and the Goddess of English (Source: BBC)

‘The Goddess of English’ starred in a talk I gave on ‘Language Proficiency and Communication (including Soft Skills)’ at a workshop organized by the Education Department of my university. The participants were teachers and officials in higher education in the northeastern states. In the first part of my talk (which I confined to the English language), I reiterated the basic facts: how English has been the medium of higher education in India since the English Education Act of 1835; Macaulay’s programme of creating a class of brown sahibs, including the infamous ‘filtration theory’; and the divisive and alienating effects of English and the opposition to its use by Gandhi and others. I then talked about the surprising direction English has taken: instead of fading away with the British Empire, globalization and modern communication systems have made it the global lingua franca, thereby giving it unprecedented power. I proposed that we abandon our lingering colonial misgivings about English and look at it pragmatically, like previous generations of Indians had done, as a language of education and opportunity.

In the interactive session that followed, one participant objected to my advocacy of English; rural children, he pointed out, were forced to learn a strange and alien language. But the others agreed that it was important to learn English and wanted to know how acquiring it could be made more effective. We spoke of creating an ‘ecosystem’ in our schools and colleges, so that students could learn in informal situations. Some thought that it was easier to learn English nowadays because of the availability of educational videos on YouTube and various apps and aids like online dictionaries (which not only give you the meanings of words but also their pronunciation). Our discussion took in Norman Lewis’s Word Power Made Easy, a book which sells by the thousands every year. It was an animated exchange, made possible by the fact that most of the participants were from disciplines and departments other than English.

For, when it comes to teaching the language it is English Departments which show the least enthusiasm. (To be fair, English teachers in colleges and universities often have a rather heavy teaching burden. Also, there is an understandable feeling that if a student didn’t learn the language in eleven years of school and three of college, there is little that can be done at the university level.) There are several reasons for this. The first one is ideological. Postcolonialism in particular and theory in general have made us all too aware of how the English language has been and is complicit with power and oppression.  English departments therefore are likely to want less English, rather than more. But this is a paternal approach, one in which the privileged decide what is good for those not so lucky. (Which is why I cited the Dalit argument.)  Our universities and colleges are changing. They are no longer places for the elite. Students now come from schools and colleges where English is not spoken or taught with any competence. If education is to be meaningful, English Departments have a responsibility to teach English to the excluded.

The second reason (not always acknowledged) is the decline in instructional skills, especially on the part of those now coming into the profession. Generally speaking, younger faculty would rather teach theory or literary texts; they seem uncomfortable taking English classes. (This is a personal impression and may be incorrect. I hope so.) ‘English is a very funny language’, Amitabh Bachchan declares in Namak Halal. It is a tricky language; its grammatical rules are unhelpful and, as is amusingly noted in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie Chupke Chupke, its pronunciation and spelling systems do not correspond. In addition, unlike our Indian languages, it is stress-based (suhm-er, not sum-mar). Collocations like ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ can only be learned through immersion.

A third reason is that our classrooms are not the best places to teach English (or, for that matter, any other language). When I began my career, it was in a college in a small town.  There were a hundred and fifty students in the class. I remember asking if they could hear me at the back. No, was the cheerful answer. (I have a loud voice but there was competition from the ceiling fans). Frequent bandhs, holidays and college functions meant that often there was a gap of a week or more between classes. In the university where I now teach, classes are regularly held. But here again the English classes for undergraduate science students tend to be very large. Colleagues in other departments, concerned by their students’ poor language skills, request us to take remedial classes. These classes usually have to be held at the end of the day (sometimes after work hours) because parent departments are reluctant to release their students earlier. After the first few classes (which are attended quite eagerly), students tend to drop out because they cannot cope with an additional course.

A few days after my talk, I was reading some missionary reports of the nineteenth century when I came across a letter by Rev. E.P. Scott, ‘What is to be the Language of Assam?’ Scott, who belonged to the American Baptist Missionary Union, arrived in 1863 and worked among the Karbis. The letter was written in February 1869 and is worth citing at length:

There is a question which begins to affect seriously the work of missions in Assam… By what language are these millions of Babel-like India to be reached with the gospel? I began my work, and prosecuted it confidently till [recently]… in accordance with the firm conviction that each tribe must be taught in its own tongue. This remains true in principle; but practically a new phase appears. The persistent and effective measures of the government in introducing English and Bengali into all its schools in Assam, shutting out Assamese from all its principal schools, importing Bengali and English teachers, requiring all legal business to be done only in Bengali or English, giving prizes to pupils who excel in those languages, etc., have at last produced marked changes. These languages, particularly English, are spreading rapidly. A large per cent of the boys and young men in all our principal towns of Assam can read, write, and speak English more or less, many of them quite correctly and fluently. There is a growing sentiment or presentiment, not only among educated Hindus, but among all classes, now extending up into the hills, that sooner or later, all these petty languages or dialects of barbarism must give way to one general language of enlightened civilization. With one consent all turn to the English language as that one. The book which the Mikirs [Karbis] were anxiously asking for in their own language three years ago, they turn away from. It is only by compulsion that the Mikir pupils in our schools read Mikir [Karbi] books – whether in native or English letters. The result is that I have been obliged to form a class in English, to prevent my best pupils from attending the government school here… The question is, Shall we give our chief efforts to this generation, or to those coming after? Every consideration answers, ‘Work for those now dying.’ Yet we cannot shut our eyes to the wants of the future. These Hill tribes’ dialects are gradually melting into Assamese. This in turn is melting into Bengali, which is fast becoming lost in English.

Christianity is destined to rule the world, no less truly than the language of Christian civilization is destined to be its prime minister. China has a language which is for generations to come will practically centre on itself; but Assam has entered within the outer gyrations of a movement which will find no rest till the languages of India shall be one. Shall we struggle to stem the tide? To do so would be an unwise and useless waste of time and strength. The question is, How can we best secure the salvation of these lost multitudes, while floating with them down the stream? How divide the work of today from that of tomorrow? I hope to print a few hymns and a few selections from the gospels in Mikir, for wants of today; nothing more….

Scott’s question about what language to use comes from his religious convictions.  He was committed to spreading the word of God in the mother tongue of the convert. This was the sola scriptura doctrine followed by the American Baptist missionaries. Hence their feverish study of Assamese, Karbi, and Garo and their project of printing the Bible in the local languages. The Baptists missionaries persisted with Assamese in their schools, even though this pitted them against the British (on whom they were otherwise dependent), whose official policy decreed using Bengali in schools in Assam.

The letter is evidence that English was becoming a language of aspiration in Assam in the 1860s, something that had happened in Bengal nearly half a century earlier. Scott’s ‘outer gyrations of a movement’ are his way of referring to the early winds of globalization. When Scott wrote his letter, the travelling time of the sea voyage from Boston (mission headquarters) to Calcutta had been reduced to four months; it had taken nearly twice that when the missionaries had first come to the field. From Calcutta missionary stations in Assam could be reached in a mere two weeks (it would have less but the steamer pilots would not risk plying the Brahmaputra at night). Then there was tea – Assam was being invested in and connected to the global economy. Of course, not all of Scott’s predictions came true. The Assamese language did not fade away. In a less than a decade, it would be recognized as the official language. The Karbi language has survived.  And the world has come to be ruled not by Christianity (as he had hoped) but by ‘the Goddess of English’.

I have come to terms with English but there have been several stages in my journey. There was a stage when I believed in the distancing effects of English, a view that is expressed in this passage from Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). (It is interesting that it occurs in a novel that is part of the Ibis trilogy which is admired for the linguistic and creative exuberance of its many Englishes.)

Neel’s schooling in English had been so thorough and so heavily weighted towards the study of texts that he found it easier, even now, to follow the spoken language by converting it into script, in his head. One of the effects of this operation was that it also robbed the language of its immediacy, rendering it into words comfortingly abstract, as distant from his own circumstances as were the waves of Windermere and the cobblestones of Canterbury.

A darker period, in which English became a source of much philosophical gloom, I now call my Jhumpa Lahiri phase. Her just-published memoir, In Other Words (2016), translated by Ann Goldstein, is written in Italian, even though, as she says, she does not have the command over it that she has over English. However, Italian apparently gives her a freedom that neither Bengali, which she learnt to please her parents, nor English, which she learnt because she wished to be American, ever did – she was suspended between languages. The melancholy note which pervades her fiction we can trace to her parents, who mourned their separation from Bengali all their lives in America.

Thanks to the example of the Dalits, and that of generations of Indians in the past who learnt the English language for career reasons (no more, no less), and thanks to my recent discovery of Scott’s letter, I have reached a more hopeful and pragmatic phase.