Talking about Race, Migration, Colonialism and the English language in Delhi

Being part of student politics in Delhi has made me more aware of my identity, its implications with the social structure and has helped me articulate and understand the nature of structural violence that students from marginalized communities have to deal with, within university spaces and in academia. My engagement with discussions on issues faced by students coming from marginalized backgrounds often led me to numerous dilemmas that I, for a long time had no answers to. For example, some of my friends from north and south India spoke about the alienation and seclusion they felt when discussions in college surfaced on English novels or popular Hollywood soaps and movies and often implicated to attach these topics and areas of interests to a form of “privilege”.

This has caused me and many more like me, who come from the north-east of India to feel a sense of guilt for reading English books, watching Hollywood movies and soaps and not regional cinema, let alone popular Hindi movies and for hearing and singing English songs. I also found myself sometimes, defending the fact that cinema halls in Darjeeling and Sikkim did screen Hindi movies, which were widely watched and that south Indian movies were much awaited and enjoyed as well. But to much dismay, this still did not alter the attempts at fitting in well to engage in the cultural dialogue that existed among the lower classes in mainland India.

For a long time, I did contemplate on this issue, questioning what people were calling “privilege” but a deep sense of morality and personal experience of struggle knew that garnering these interests was hardly anything close to privilege and that there was a lack of historical understanding and generalization in analyzing these issues.

Often in Delhi University, students coming from the north-east, in general, are labelled as being elite and privileged (even among oppressed circles) for hearing/singing western music, wearing western clothes or speaking English, which is also used as a way to discredit their reservation. But these parameters need to be redefined according to where they are relevant and where they are not. There is a dire need to point out the cultural differences and racial exclusionary perspective in this thinking process (Name tags such as “Chinkis” did not emerge out of thin air after all). This perspective of thinking which has its roots deep in the how the nation-state of India is imagined – as this monolithic being, with its monolithic history and hence monolithic struggles, monolithic language and monolithic caste system.

There is a dire need for people who come from societies with a dominant language, literature and culture (within the Indian nation-state) to contemplate the power structure and hierarchy (in terms of culture) involved while calling others privileged and elite for reading/enjoying English literature, without any proper historical understanding.

I come from the Nepali society of India. My ancestors migrated in the 1800’s from Nepal to Darjeeling to work as labourers in the tea gardens set up by the British. They were sold for half anna per person by the sardars to the British tea plantation owners. This is where the Nepali community in India started from and till now thousands of Nepali men and women, old and young, continue to migrate from the once serf land (now home) to work as domestic help, watch guards, cooks etc in mainland India. Enduring simultaneously, the humiliation of being seen as an inferior race, not only among the “Indian” society but even in blockbuster Bollywood films, fitting well within the egos of its Indian audience.

The history of English language in Darjeeling and its surrounding areas runs deep with the coming of the British and with them the missionaries. The missionaries set up lavish English boarding schools, imparting English education to the children of British administrators and the oligarchs of neighbouring regions such as Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. They also set up many charity schools for the working classes, which my own grandfather attended till class two and my father till class nine. Darjeeling still boasts as having the best schools in India along with numerous numbers of smaller missionary and private schools, which has made basic education accessible to all.

Therefore, Darjeeling has over the years, emerged as an educational and cultural hub, imparting British education, etiquette, fashion, food and all other forms of cultural norms. In 1975, when Sikkim was annexed by India and a high court set up in Gangtok, lawyers had to be brought in from Darjeeling to get the court running due to the paucity of lawyers in Sikkim. The literacy rate in Sikkim in 1975 was 1 percent and those who could read and write had been educated in Darjeeling, including the members of the royal family. The reason why history is important here, as anywhere, is to outline and provide a basic understanding as to how and why English education and English culture was brought into Darjeeling and areas surrounding it and the impact it has had in the society over the years.

The legacy that the British left behind in Darjeeling can be seen in the infrastructure of the town areas and the lifestyles that the upper classes still try to live. Over the years, the lavish boarding schools that were once a dream, have now become a little more accessible to those from the lower classes. Many including my father who studied in the charity schools and admired the bigger more expensive schools, put every bit of their penny together and sent their children to these boarding schools, which did little apart from reproducing feudal class and race relations.

The British left in 1947, but they left behind the animosity and ideology with which they had built the entire town. In school, there was and still continues to be, an incumbent racial degradation among teachers and nuns towards Nepali as a language (and Nepali people as well), so much so that Nepali was seen as an easy, non-important language and we received no encouragement to take interest in it. In fact, taking Bengali as a third language was seen as brave, showcasing one’s interest in learning.

Moreover, as the first generation from my family to attend an English medium school, English was what my family wanted me to learn, it was what they hadn’t got an opportunity to learn; a language of the British, the slave owners who had bought my ancestors. This caused me and many others like myself, to fall back on what was laid out before us. In boarding school, away from home, reading and reading alone let many of us survive. So what did we read? English of course! For those from first-generation families, who did not have cupboards full of books at home and whose poor English would lead to many taunts and teases, reading alone was the way to survival. Reading the English language – be it the bible or classics or even comics. It was not just a way to fit into the status quo but to fall back upon reassurance of a life beyond the walls of school, as alienating and suffocating it was for those from lower classes. If there’s anything I remember from my younger days, it’s the Wednesday library period when we were allowed to exchange our old books for new ones – Enid Blyton, hardy boys, Nancy drew, books that even today when I go through hard times fall back upon for solace.

This, of course, is my personal opinion framed through my personal experience with English language, which may differ from many others from my community. But the idea behind putting this forth, is to create a space, inclusive of varied opinions and different stories of struggles and resistance. I would not have found the necessity to elaborate in such lengths if numerous hollow accusations had not come repeadly over the months. In the course of writing this piece, I discussed this issue with friends from Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. A friend from Assam rightly pointed out saying, “The whole knowing English is equal to privilege somehow undoes all other axes of oppression and gives such a flat and ahistoric analysis which needs to be challenged. This is particularly so in the case of north-east where because of decades of missionary work with regard to education, which is so often free, there has been great access to English language for oppressed communities, even if the nature of this education and pedagogy had been deeply problematic and has often entailed an internalization of shame with regard to one’s culture. What language is and what it enables is so complex, rooted in histories of violence, erasure also resistance.”

One does not deny the hegemony of English and the Brahmins in India, which is incumbent too within the nepali upper-class but the generalizations and parochial statements with absolute lack of intersectionality and historical understanding, can be very overbearing and needs to be spoken against. There needs to emergence a dialogue, to try and understand much more nuances among other oppressed communities, which will help build even better channels of communication and stronger solidarities. Homogenization for me is yet another form of oppression, no matter who is engaged in it. It deprives a community of its unique history, its unique culture, its varied natured struggles and above all, it restricts any space where they can tell their stories and be heard.

There have been times in Delhi when I’ve found myself hesitant to speak in my native tongue in fear of being judged and looked down upon. In my last paying guest, the maid happened to be a nepali women with whom I conversed with in nepali. We both got along well and talked a lot about the loneliness we felt during festive season and the terrible missing of home and nepali food. My pg owner who until then, had no clue that I was a nepali from Sikkim, and thought I was “sikkimese” did not like it and hence took out a shallow reason to throw me out of the paying guest at the end of the semester (Nepali women have loose character, his brother said). Imagine what it’s like not being able to talk in your native tongue? At times like these, I am reminded of the period in American history when the native Indians were not allowed to speak in their native language, which was punishable under the law.

There have been numerous other instances, including one when a north Indian friend whose father had business in Nepal was continuously teased by her friends as being “nepali” and she felt humiliated and insulted. The nature of this has been internalized within the Nepali community as well. I have often seen those from upper middle classes, Nepali families, clarifying to their upper middle-class north/south Indian friends/landlords, as to how they come from respectable families with feudal backgrounds, trying to maintain a safe distance from the working class Nepali migrants in Delhi. But it is the nature of the prevalent structural discrimination that makes these separations necessary in order to fit into and be accepted into the status quo.

But this is what the reality is today and needs to be spoken up against. This may be the first step against a series of generalizations that has been happening over the months. The lack of intersectionality and refusal to engage in dialogue, the name tagging and the emotional abuse and above all the trolling and social media defaming that is incumbent in Delhi student politics today, need to be spoken up against. These structures need to be questioned. The structures of critique itself need to be questioned and engaged with. It is our duty as women and men from oppressed communities to tear down layers and layers of the outer for the beauty that lays in the inner. The inner beauty is what we seek.

Last night, as the temperature in Delhi soared, I wondered what conversations my ancestors must have had when they crossed mountains in their naked feet to reach a land which promised them a better life. Last night, I walked with them, we shared beaten rice and chatted about our mountains and rivers and the harvest next season. Under the sweltering sun, I looked at them, the smell of mud and sweat basking through their bodies, our eyes spoke of hunger and loot of our land yet our tongues refused to deter towards sorrow, and we whisked our way with our beaten rice and hopes staring at the stillness of the land that lay ahead.

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Shradha T K Lama Written by:

a third year history student at lady sri ram college, delhi

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