Decolonizing My Mind

By Namit Arora | Feb 2011 | Comments

On English in India and the linguistic hierarchies of colonized minds

DecolonizingMindThe modern era of European colonialism began in the Americas with bands of adventurers seeking El Dorado. Their early intrusions evolved into predatory monopolies like the East India Company and European states exerting direct control over the economic and political life of the colonies. The natives tended to not welcome and cooperate with the intruders, so alongside came great developments in the art of subjugating the natives, through military, political, and cultural means. In this essay, I’ll look at some cultural means of controlling the natives, particularly through language, and its effect on the psyche of the colonized, using examples from Africa and India.

When it comes to colonial quests, military might is what breaches the metaphorical Gates of Damascus. Regime change follows. Thereafter, the most efficient and durable means of colonial control happens via culture. Culture holds the keys to how a group sees itself and knows its place in the world. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o—Kenyan novelist, professor, and author of Decolonizing the Mind—has pointed out, ‘Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.’ [1]

When done right, the native comes to elevate and mimic his master’s ways, to see his own culture as inferior, and to look down on his past as ‘a wasteland of non-achievement’. He begins to defer to the colonizer’s ideas on fundamental things like beauty, art, and politics. In time, writes Ngugi, he begins to understand himself and his culture through the eyes of the colonizer—using the latter’s concepts, categories, and judgments. Before too long, he turns into a proxy for his master: colonialism with a native face.

How does the colonizer gain such control? The easiest method, explains Ngugi, is to actively spread his language among the natives, and to simultaneously denigrate the language of the natives as crude and unfit for proper education. It is amazing how much mileage this delivers. Simply make the colonizer’s language the lingua franca of imperial administration, accord prestige and upward mobility to those who learn it in colonial schools, and before too long, there is a feeding frenzy among a native minority. This has been the way of the great colonialists of history, such as the Arabs in the 7-8th centuries, the British and the French in the 19th, and the Russians with the Baltic States in the 20th. Ngugi writes,

For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature, and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer. The domination of a people’s language by the language of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized.

Colonialism1 Take colonial India. A great debate ensued in 1830s Britain on the choice of an official language of colonial administration and education. Making the winning case for English over Sanskrit, Persian, and all other local languages, Thomas B. Macaulay—a member of the Supreme Council of India—observed that Indian languages ‘contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.’ He admitted that he did not know any Indian languages but insisted that he had nevertheless reached ‘a correct estimate of their value.’ Referring to the Orientalists of his day, he said, ‘I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ Therefore, concluded Macaulay, ‘we have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother tongue. We must teach them some foreign language.’ [2]

Language is not a neutral vessel for conveying the ideas, beliefs, and values that constitute culture. Nor is it a mere tool for describing the world as it truly is—no language can be said to describe the world as it truly is. To use a language—any language—is to interpret the world in a particular way. Shared ways of seeing, or culture, emerge through the shared use of language. In other words, culture is organically intertwined with language, evolving together to create a unique collective sensibility. No wonder language is so central to our identity and why so many political divisions have linguistic borders. Indeed, language profoundly shapes the way its incoming speakers think (this may be partly why it even makes sense to speak of an ‘Anglophone culture’), an idea that now finds support among cognitive scientists. Bilingual folks think differently when they immerse themselves in different languages. [3]


Colonial Languages and African Literature

In the late 19th and 20th century Africa, colonial regimes began mandating the exclusive use of European languages in missionary and state supported schools. The language of an African child’s formal education soon became foreign, writes Ngugi. ‘The language of books he read was foreign. The language of his conceptualization was foreign. Thought, in him, took the visible form of a foreign language.’ In Kenya, Ngugi himself studied every subject in English at school but spoke Gikuyu at home—a language spoken by more people than speakers of Danish or Croatian. ‘There was often not the slightest relationship between [English], and the world of his immediate environment in the family and the community.’ Indeed, it was even worse:

One of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking [Gikuyu] in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment — three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks — or was made to carry a metal plate around his neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. The children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.

Ngugi, born into a large peasant family, was baptized James Ngugi and educated in English, a language that evolved outside Africa, shaped by and organically intertwined with a very different cultural milieu. It had evolved to convey different ideas of self, individual, community, nature, time, beauty, loyalty, respect, kinship terms, humor, idioms, gender roles, animals, and so much else from a particular ontology. Moreover, it was alien to the language-world of Ngugi’s daily life in Kenya—of the streets, boyhood fights, swear words, commerce, labor, family, love, food, festivals, geography, plants, and more. Not only that, his own language was ‘associated in his impressionable mind with low status, humiliation, corporal punishment, slow-footed intelligence’ and worse. Ngugi wrote that if the bullet was the means of physical subjugation, language was the means of spiritual subjugation of the African child, resulting ‘in the dissociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation.’ [7]

What then to make of literature written in European languages by Africans? What does it mean to write a realistic novel in which African peasants and factory workers speak English or French? Can a writer, his formal education entirely in English, capture in it the tenor and rhythms of ordinary African life? What tradition of the English language novel does the African writer look up to? Ngugi argues for classifying their work— including that of talented writers like Achebe, Soyinka, Armah, Ousmane, and others—not as African literature but as Afro-European literature, i.e., ‘literature written by Africans in European languages.’

Ngugi After all, says Ngugi, such writers are products of a hybrid culture of a small African minority, one marked by ‘colonial alienation’. Meanwhile, Europeans—unable to relate as easily to literature in native tongues (even in translation)—are instinctively drawn to European language works from Africa, which seem to them African flavors of their own language-worlds. Add the impact of modern economics, global media, publishing, and the scholarship industry in the West, and soon, a lot of people start equating European-language works with African literature (squeezing the life out of indigenous literary forms). Ngugi challenges this equation. African literature, he argues, can only be written in languages with long and organic roots in African culture. A colonial language largely external to it cannot adequately express the local ways of being—to believe that it can is to erroneously see language as a mere tool and vessel of culture, interchangeable with any other language.

So where did this viewpoint lead Ngugi? Though he wrote his early literary works in English, he now writes all his creative works only in Gikuyu and then translates them into English (he also continues to speak in English as before, not the least because he was forced into exile from Kenya). He made this switch in mid-career, soon after his great polemic, Decolonizing the Mind, came out in 1986. He recounts in it a story from his early career, when he attended the African Writers Conference in Kampala, which invited only authors writing in English. ‘What is African Literature?’ was a much-debated question at the conference, about which he wrote:

The fact is that all of us who opted for European languages—the conference participants and the generation that followed them—accepted that fatalistic logic [of the unassailable position of English in our literature] to a greater or lesser degree. We were guided by it and the only question which preoccupied us was how best to make the borrowed tongues carry the weight of our African experience by, for instance, making them ‘prey’ on African proverbs and other peculiarities of African speech and folklore.


English as a Language of Indian Literature

English also came to India through colonization. By the early 19th century, it had emerged as the new language of power and personal advancement. Among the first Indians to embrace it were the Bengali Brahmins of Calcutta. They, as well as other ‘high caste and/or upper class Hindu men’, as the scholar Alok K. Mukherjee has argued, took to English largely ‘because English was a tool of power and domination—individually for them and collectively for the groups to which they belonged. It provided them … the social, cultural, and economic capitals with which they maintained that domination.’[4] A British document from 1822, years before Macaulay’s statement, mentions ‘that many of the leading Hindoos [of Calcutta] were desirous of forming an establishment for the education of their children in a liberal manner, as practiced by Europeans of condition’.[5] Moreover, adds Mukherjee, ‘The idea that English language and European knowledge was needed to revive Hindu society—or, more precisely, aryadharma—was a central consideration for the Indian proponents of English education in the nineteenth century’. So it wasn’t as simple as the British imposing their language by diktat on India; their push was met by a reciprocal pull by a class of Indians. Some scholars have argued that the great prominence and prestige attained by this class of Indians not only helped spread Brahminism but also their new construct of ‘Hinduism’, an offshoot of which would later produce Hindutva. But that is a topic for another essay.

Convent-school-picture Ngugi’s experience in Kenya will resonate with many Indians. I myself grew up in the Hindi belt, in the central Indian city of Gwalior. Though I went to an English medium school run by Carmelite nuns (of St. Teresa of Avila), I only spoke Hindi at home and in my neighborhood until I left home for college. In the classroom—except in the Hindi class—I too was required to speak only English. Failure to comply meant public embarrassment. Though English then had little relevance to my everyday life, I recall how parents in our neighborhood—of middleclass professionals in a textile factory—took pride in their children’s English skills, but none ever for Hindi, which is what everyone spoke (‘Hindi’ is a catchall for a range of linguistic dialects, such as Hindustani, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Garhwali, Haryanvi, etc., as well as Modern Standard Hindi, a recent innovation by the elites of North India, with its own hegemonic tendencies). English had become a class marker; one used it to distinguish oneself from the ‘riff-raff’. Even today it is spoken by a small minority and floats atop a host of indigenous mother tongues. [6]

By the time I went to school, English had already acquired enormous practical benefits. Like a goddess, it offered new visions to converts like me, opened new doors, gave me access to a more dominant culture and a global economy where English proficiency is an undeniable asset. The caste elites have understood this for generations and have used English as a tool to further entrench their power and dominance. The subaltern classes are only now using the same playbook to catch up, and understandably so!

But my point here is neither about the many practical benefits of English, nor to lament the course of history—who knows what an alternate history might have been? Rather it is to recall the politics surrounding the arrival and the spread of English in the colonies, to reflect on the reach and the world of the Indian writer in English, and—for the sake of a more complete accounting—to also consider the costs that our attitude to English, its parent culture and its speakers, continues to extract from us.

Moreover, following Ngugi on African writing in English, should we not also wonder whether Indian writing in English qualifies as Indian literature or as Indo-European literature (i.e., literature written by Indians in a European language), with Indian literature referring only to works in languages with long and pervasive roots in Indian cultures?

Some will shake their heads in disagreement and argue that English is already an Indian language. They will wonder why people keep casting doubts about its status again and again. They will cite its common use in the media, universities, billboards, signage, product labels, various application forms, social media, and so on. In a way they would be right, but this is not the ‘language of literature’ that Ngugi alludes to. Let’s explore whether English qualifies as an Indian language by looking at it in two distinct ways:

(a) As a language of opportunities and lingua franca:

English has spread in India for many of the same reasons it has spread in Malaysia, Denmark, and Argentina—it is the language of globalization, the Internet, and new economic opportunities. In India, it also serves as the lingua franca, albeit only for a small social class. But is this sufficient to make English an Indian language? Perhaps it is. English, however, is also the lingua franca in Continental Europe. Most Dutch and Danes are quite proficient in English—on average more proficient than most educated, urban Indians. Yet do people call English a Dutch, Danish, or a Continental European language (it is considered a European language because the UK and Ireland are in Europe)? But just because the Dutch and the Danes do not call it that does not mean they would be wrong to do so. So, as a language of opportunity and as lingua franca, we could also call English an Indian language as long as we grant that English is no less qualified to be a Dutch, Danish, Continental European, Malaysian or Argentinian language (all regions where English language proficiency is actually higher than in India).[7]

(b) As a language of a people's literature:

Does English qualify as an Indian language in this capacity (this is also what Ngugi alludes to)? One answer is “yes”, since many Indians write in English with considerable flourish and creativity. However, this seems to me necessary but insufficient. Unlike other Indian languages, English is not rooted in any whole community, serving as a vehicle for the entire community's artistic and literary expression across all social groups, as well as its mundane and shared daily realm of myths, anxieties, humor, prejudices, greetings, folklore, songs, swear words, and so much else. A member of such a language community acquires all this through pervasive immersion in that language from birth, and even partakes of a linguistic heritage going back many generations. English in India simply cannot reach down to touch the more intimate, emotional reality and mythos of historical experience, which are incomparably expressed in mother tongues. Doesn’t a people's literature need that? More fundamentally, can a people's literature be written in a language other than the people’s mother tongue? Could Tagore have written in English, and through his translated works, become the poet of the people of Bengal? In translation, he seems not to have made much of an impact on non-Bengali Indians.

In fact, those fluent in English today constitute only an elite social class spread thinly across India. According to a 2005 survey, they number no more than 3-5% of all Indians.[8] Another 15-20% have functional literarcy in English, barely able to express a few ideas in it. Even the perfectly fluent learned it as a second language in school, not through pervasive childhood use at home (this is now changing in a tiny upper class), and do not converse in it with their entire local community, i.e., with their maids, plumbers, and subzi-wallahs. Are there other national or people's languages elsewhere in the world that are similarly demarcated by social class, yet claim to produce national or people's literature in it? In this sense, then, can we say that English is an Indian language, given there is no Indian community to which English is fundamentally and pervasively constitutive? I think the answer is “no”.

In other words, English has not made sufficient inroads into Indian communities to qualify as a language of a people's literature. But this does not mean that such a thing can never happen. It can. It happened for the Indians in Trinidad, who were brought there as indentured laborers and gradually lost their Indian tongues over 100-150 years. English is the language of VS Naipaul's island community in ways that English is not the language of any community in India today. So we can also argue that while many Indians today speak an increasingly global language that’s useful and practical, serves as a lingua franca, opens new intellectual horizons, etc., it is not a language in which the great Indian novel can be written today. Instead, and for now, we should think of it as a language in which Indians are producing Indo-European literature. Until English, in a sizable Indian community, becomes the language in which folks across all social classes read, write, talk, think, and dream, can it be the literary language of anything more than a small and historically new and elite sub-culture, one that is ‘linguistically alienated’ from the larger communities it inhabits?


Hierarchy and Language

Such reflection also illuminates many contemporary trends in the Subcontinent. For instance, the deeply ingrained hierarchies of language and literary culture that Indian elites subscribe to even sixty years after independence. Oh, how we crave Anglo-American recognition for our writing on India and let it drive our sense of literary merit! If target markets and economics explained all, the Danes and the Dutch, quite proficient in English, would have similar attitudes. There is something else going on with the Indian literati—given how hierarchy bound we Indians are, it is as if we accord a higher caste to the British and subconsciously elevate and mimic their literary culture. It is one thing to admire and be inspired by other literary cultures—an entirely laudable thing—but our attitude is one of deference, lacking the self-confidence of equals.

I cited the Dutch and the Danes because they speak English yet were not colonized, and consequently do not suffer from "colonial alienation". They do not exhibit, as Indians do, the deference, insecurity, inferiority complex, and look-to-Britain-and-the-U.S.-for-validation-and-yardsticks (that said, there are signs that indigenous yardsticks may be emerging). Unlike the former, the Indians accord a privileged status to English, turning it into a pivotal marker of a class hierarchy. It’s true—we have arranged even languages into a hierarchy, with English sitting atop like the Brahmin and our attitude to indigenous languages Brahminical (with accents and dialects providing more ways of filling out the hierarchy). Writers and speakers of English are commonly seen as more sophisticated and are granted more respect and attention. If this is not mental colonization, what is? We are far from achieving intellectual independence. Nothing like a Booker prize, reviews, endorsements, and fat book deals in the Anglophone West to turn our heads. Indian novels that ‘make it’ abroad are then taken seriously in India—not vice-versa. Do we grant the same cachet to books that win Sahitya Akademi or Jnanpith awards? Or crave translations of our best non-English books? And we have not even considered the mental colonization in the terrain of popular culture, such as in our dominant ideals of beauty. 

But wait, says a part of me. How can it be otherwise? The culture that brought us English and came to dominate us had greater power tied to its claim to greater knowledge. So long as this relationship holds in our minds, and we look up to that culture for our self-definition and direction, much else will remain too, including our writers’ insecurities and our elites’ colonial mindsets. I too am caught in its vortex. As an individual, perhaps the best approach to decolonizing my own mind is to be acutely aware of my predicament, interrogate my own linguistic and cultural hierarchies, and invite others to do the same.

This is certainly not to say that our literary artists ought to jettison English and return to native languages, as Ngugi did for his creative works (which he then translated from Gikuyu to English). For many, that ship has already sailed and there is no going back. Even if one could go back, it’s not an unqualified “better path” for all. Quite often, those who advocate this path are linguistic and cultural chauvinists best avoided like the plague. On the contrary, this is to say that a key attribute of being modern is to try and understand how we came to be who we are, and to cultivate a truly modern, humanistic self—one that sees all humans as equal in status, participates in a creative, self-confident literary culture, and doesn’t feverishly seek external validation or erect new hierarchies around language. No language in itself is a problem, our Brahminical approach to it is. To decolonize is to also begin to see the politics of received categories we so unselfconsciously use to understand and judge ourselves (this of course parallels the subalterns’ relationship to their ‘internal colonization’ by Brahminical knowledge), and to explore ways of moving beyond and seeing things afresh. Where else should this start if not with our literary and cultural elites who have the fewest excuses and the longest exposure to modernity?


  1. ‘Decolonizing the Mind’, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Heinemann, 1986. All other quotes in this article that are not otherwise attributed come from this book.

  2. On Empire and Education, Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1833.

  3. Here are three articles that relate experimental work in this area: Change languages, shift responses, Lost in Translation, and How does language shape the way we think?

  4. Alok K. Mukherjee, This Gift of English: English Education and the Formation of Alternative Hegemonies in India, Orient BlackSwan, 2009, pp. 22-24. This is an excellent survey of the many forces that brought about the spread of English in colonial times and the class dynamics behind its unfolding in the early decades of the Indian republic.

  5. The Christian Observer, Vol. 20, Hatchard and Company, 1822, p. 527.

  6. The image shows the author in 6-7th grade c. 1980, after a school performance inspired by Wordsworth in which the girls dressed as ‘daffodils’. Most boys didn’t participate and are in their regular school uniforms.

  7. English Proficiency Index, Third Edition, November 2013.

  8. Samanth Subramanian, “India After English?”, NY Review of Books Blog, June 2014.

This article has been updated since its first appearance on 3 Quarks Daily.

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