'Vernacular English' Is a Deep Dive into India's Language of Paradox

Akshya Saxena’s book explains how the language in India, with all its elite trappings, is also ubiquitous and helps make sense of a chaotic world.

Listen to this article:

Akshya Saxena’s Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India begins with a bang, and the shocking announcement in the opening sentence that over the course of the 2010s ‘two English speakers have transformed the political landscape of India. In turn, they have also transformed the meanings of the English language. These figures are Narendra Modi, India’s fourteenth and current prime minister, and Rohith Vemula, a Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) Ph.D. scholar who took his own life’ (page no: xiii).

This opening salvo is a promise that the book is going to have a very different take on the story of English in India: she will ferry us from an English that is a ‘language to wear…a symbol to invoke… a brand’ (xiv-xv), to one that is a ‘means of accessing a world beyond this one’ (xvii).

Saxena intends ‘vernacular English’ as a contradiction. English in India is generally seen as the very opposite of a vernacular, which is a term often used to mean local languages. But that is far from being the whole story, as English is also something ubiquitous, and a part of the lived experience even of Indians who barely speak or understand it.

Saxena struggles through the introduction to put across what, for her, is a strange and paradoxical view, of English being at the same time a distant holdover from colonial rulers and something that is not only accessible to the general public, in its own way, but even useful because of its strangeness for expressing the chaotic world of modern India.

But is this really a contradiction?

India has a strong tradition of its elite living life in a language that is off limits to those who I often call the ‘little people’– the ones who remain in worlds circumscribed by the boundaries of older local languages. In Mughal times and earlier, in the time of the Delhi Sultanate, the rulers and the elites spoke in Persian, from which words trickled down, noun by noun, to adorn the Indian vernaculars. And in Vedic times, the elite, who composed the Rig Veda, lived their lives in Sanskrit, while the little people must simply have gone on speaking their older languages, adding in new words from time to time.

In fact, this book fell into my hands exactly when I was looking at how Sanskrit quickly sprouted vernaculars, prakrits, that were close to Sanskrit in their grammar though they were spoken with strong local accents and had quirky features that set them apart from the language of the Vedic Brahmins.

Also read: Book Excerpt: Narendra Modi, Rohith Vemula and ‘Vernacular English’

And during European colonial expansion into Africa and Asia something very similar happened again: the first contacts between European explorers and locals yielded not pidgins or creoles but reasonable approximations of the explorers’ languages—prakrits— by a new emerging group, local interpreters and the hybrid children of explorers and local women.

Linguists call these first approximations varieties of the European languages. These were the ‘vernacular’ forms of English that Saxena is talking about here. From the outset, these local varieties of English belonged not to the English who came and settled, but to ‘us’, the colonials. What Vernacular English is exploring is the slow fusion between the socially remote world of the Brown sahabs and their prakrits and that of the little people who live on the other side of the great divide.

‘Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India’, Akshya Saxena, Princeton University Press, 2022.

Through the introduction and the first chapter, titled ‘Law’, I watched Saxena go back and forth, simultaneously laying claim to English as a part of ordinary Indians’ lived experience while acknowledging that English in India was elitist and exclusive. Where did she stand? I wondered. For a brief moment, I doubted her, as she spoke of Hindi and Urdu as ‘effectively invented – standardised as languages – at Fort William College under British colonialism in the early nineteenth century’ (33).

No. No new linguistic life form was created in a Frankenstein lab by aliens. The Hindi that came up from this effort was merely a dressed-up version of something that already existed. An overzealous colonial government wanted to remove traces of their predecessors, the Mughals, in the vocabulary of Hindi/Urdu, and set about replacing Persian vocabulary with tatsama words lifted straight out of Sanskrit. It took me a while, as Saxena went through the familiar timeline of how English came to be ‘entrenched as the language of the Indian elite and the Indian state’(41), and the ‘layered anxiety around English’(40) in Isaac Mathai’s 1960 book India Demands English, to grasp that she was trying to hold onto disparate threads of truth to describe a multi-headed postcolonial beast.

Vernacular English shines brightest when Saxena slows down to discuss books, like Srilal Sukla’s Raag Darbari, which focuses on ordinary people’s confusion confronted with the English-speaking Indian state, and Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August about an ‘upper-caste upper-class male protagonist’s confusion and irresponsibility’(55) when sent to the hinterland as a representative of the Indian state.

There are also the starkly disturbing novels of protest from Northeastern writers, full of ‘sound and soundlessness, of silence, gunshots, cries, and folk singing’ where many of the works ‘altogether lack verbal dialogues or reported speech, often because the characters no longer exist’(141). Yumlebam Ibomcha’s (1990) ‘Nightmare’, with its ‘overpowering crescendo of muteness’(141).

Temsula Ao’s The Last Song, of a girl Apenyo singing on and on until death, staring her soldier-rapist straight in the eyes. And Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi, about a Santhal woman whose husband is killed by the Indian Army, and herself raped and brutalised as part of the crackdown on what they assume to be Naxal activity, laughing at her captors, no longer shamed by her nudity.

These novels take us inside the minds of those confused, and even traumatised, by the Indian state. What is interesting is how Saxena always finds a link between each issue and English as a vernacular, finding new roles to express new local suffering. At times I feel she is too eager to view all developments positively, when in The White Tiger my own gut reaction was not that Balram knew English ‘too well’, but that he seemed to speak in the voice of a Delhi University student. I did not feel that the novel had grown by the way he was made to speak: Adiga had been careless in how he designed his character. I could hear not the character but Adiga himself speaking, and that killed it for me.

Vernacular English is a book that grows on you as you read, especially because of the way Saxena stretches out her net to bring in not just everyday Indians but all those assailed by a brutal state and needing a medium to express their pain. The Meira Paibis women in Manipur protesting the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by the Indian Army. Dalit writers choosing to write in English. Young men in a Mumbai slum, in Slumdog Millionnaire and Gully Boy, who want to taste success, but on their own terms. Tribals ‘encountered’ by the Indian army.

How the very strangeness of English works best to capture their complex reality. How English also connects their struggles with similar struggles in other parts of the world. In that sense, the book itself begins to feel like a work of protest, and a statement of solidarity with all those in India who have been wronged.

In the acknowledgments, Saxena says that this book began its life as a doctoral dissertation. It has grown from those early days to now appeal to a more general audience, talking about English that is familiar to all of us in India. While Saxena has tried to revise it and make it into a less scholarly book, even bringing in a surprise beginning, at times there is still too much of the arcane in it, which is a flaw in a book that should speak to a larger public. It is a book with so much good in it that I regretted the times when I had to push myself to keep going, when it should have flowed easily on the strength of the material in it, and the way she ties it all up ultimately to vernacular English.

One puts the book down, in the end, with a sense of curiosity piqued, and a wish to read more, and follow up the writers and stories one has met up with. Vernacular English feels to me, as a linguist, like a long walk on a road parallel to the one I usually take when I look at English in India, with new and bright scenery and different footpaths, and a sense of how it feels to be someone living with English in this way.

In summing up her journey, she says: “I propose the Anglophone as an experience of the promised commonality of English… These counterdiscursive meanings of English – what I am calling vernacular English in this book – become audible in the acknowledgment of the embodied, affective, and material sounds of the Anglophone… It is a commitment to the conviction that the story of English in India and the Anglophone world cannot simply be the story of oppression.”(180).

Peggy Mohan is a linguist and the author of four books, the most recent being Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through its Languages, Gurgaon: Penguin Random House, 2021. She teaches linguistics at Ashoka University.