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Angrezi
by Priya Subramanyan Bookmark and Share
 
The former Nawab of Pataudi (Sr.), when he returned from England, seems to have remarked, "Wahan baccha baccha angrezi janta hai!" I read about this remark a few years ago when I was still in India, and it seemed like such a dumb thing to say -- of course, every kid in England will know English!

A few years in Sydney now, and I feel like making a similar remark. I have no idea in what context the Nawab made the statement. But, now, I am ready to give him the benefit of doubt. While once I dismissed the remark outright as the demented utterance of a possibly debauched feudal lord, I now wonder' Why did he say that? What might he have meant?.. Wait! Before you dismiss this piece as similarly addled, please go on till the end. You might then still dismiss it as similarly addled, but you at least, unlike me, will not be guilty of dismissing it outright.

Perhaps as a Nawab of a small state owing allegiance to a foreign power, he felt an inability to negotiate effectively in a foreign language and envied the ease of the natives in that language. Maybe hence, the now famous, "wahan baccha baccha'"

I am struck time and again by the participation of ordinary people in the working of the various institutions here. Be it the local library, the local school...Every month at the Parents and Citizens meeting at the local school, you can be sure there will be interested people asking questions, looking for explanations, discussing and getting answers. Similarly at the local library and the local council. Budgets and accounts, assumptions and reasoning, are discussed threadbare. Any decision that might affect the community, you can be sure there will be meetings at the local Town Hall and flyers in boxes, to garner opinions and offer reasons. To the cynical, there at least seems to be a semblance of listening to the people. There is a sense of a working democracy -- Governing for the people. People participating in these meetings are not professional or aspiring politicians, let me remind you. They are the ordinary, 'unwashed masses'. Hoi polloi. The 'aam janata'.

Apathy to the political process and governing doesn't seem to be so high. Politicians aren't so distrusted, so ridiculed. People don't expect that they will not be heard, or cared for. The contrast from India, where people might elect a government, but don't expect it to work for them, was very stark.

I pondered about it, and one of the things that struck me was, the facility with the language that everyone seems to have. Complicated figures and statistics are reduced to everyday language, and often a lot of jargon is everyday language. The 'aam aadmi' doesn't think that understanding is beyond him; That it is reserved for a learned few, or an elite few.

A few days ago, I met a mother in the local inner-city school, who had just received a medical/psychological assessment of her son. She and her friends in a few minutes were able to thrash out the said report. None of them have finished high school. But understanding a medical report doesn't faze them. And then I thought-- had the same thing happened in India, the woman would have had to first look for someone who could read and understand the Angrezi in the report!

Carrying this thought further, maybe it is this forced functioning in an alien language, or in many cases, an inability to function in this alien language, that has caused a disengagement with the judiciary, political process and government in our country.

On the one hand we have the Tehelka expose, and on the other, the Panchayat elections in Bihar, which haven't been held for the last twenty-three years. Hello? Democracy? - One of the most populous states, not having had an elected local government, and we wonder why we keep having these corruption-eruptions? Do we ever question? Ever demand transparency? Or freedom of information? Where is our engagement with the government, the empowerment of the people? Where is the pyramid structure of the government by the people?

A lack of the above has to be a combination of low functional literacy in the native tongue and policy decisions in a foreign tongue. I used to wonder why it was said," Angrez chale gaye, aulad chod gaye!" After all, I thought and dreamt in Angrezi, without feeling any less Indian. Again I used to dismiss it as an emotive statement by a power hungry politician. Again, I am not so sure now!

The former BBC correspondent to India, Mark Tully, in his "No full stops in India", tells us of an incident, while interviewing our former PM, Rajiv Gandhi. Observing Tully's ease with Hindi, Rajiv seems to have wished he too could be as fluent as him! The PM could communicate with the elite media and bureaucracy and NRIs, but felt himself shackled when he wished to communicate to the 'aam aadmi' in any corner of the country, his vision and his policies. In multilingual India, it is impossible for any one person to be able to communicate effectively, in ordinary parlance in every corner of the country. But is it too much to expect that a PM should be able to communicate at a colloquial level, at least in one part of the country?

For engagement with society to be meaningful and relevant, we would need all the systems to function in the local language. But as a member of a class that has benefited immensely from this same facility to even dream in Angrezi, in that it has been able to trade its skills globally, does such a call not amount to hypocrisy? 

Also, has this blip in our history not enabled a top revenue earner for the country? We have entered international babu-dom. How can we shut the gates to personal prosperity? Are we then doomed to a constant paralysis in governance, accompanied by a booming IT sector? What about the illiterate, who have to live with the double whammy of indifferent governance, with an inability to participate in the economic boom in certain sectors? I am ashamed to admit that I am selfish enough to shrug and say nothing can be done about it. It is their karma, and ours too! Theirs, for having to live with an in-name democracy; and ours, for our guilt in our inability to give up our entrenched privilege.

So, I am not sure what the Nawab actually meant when he said, "wahan baccha baccha angrezi janta hai!" But it is possible that he was struck by the pervasion of one language through all levels of society; A refusal to be intimidated by institutions and people - facilitating a participative government, the basis of a democracy.
19-Apr-2001
More by :  Priya Subramanyan
 
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