‘The place is beautiful. I cannot believe it is in India.’ I have forgotten the number of times I’ve heard the following statement or its variations while travelling across places like Kashmir. The comparison is subtle and masked with the sheet of compliments. It reflects poorly on the strengths and abilities of our people and creates a space for imperialism to spread its roots deeper into society.
The Britishers ruled India for much longer than we have been an independent nation. To ensure a steady supply of revenue from India, they enforced several systems, laws and structures. Some of them continue to be a huge part of our lives — be it the Indian Railways or the English-first education system — tweaked to fit the sensibilities of modern India. Imperialism has continued to dominate our thoughts and actions dispersed widely across heritage, culture, language, food, caste and religion.
It creeps into our daily lives quietly when we judge a person’s intellect based on their attire or how fluent their English is. Complexions are supposed to be as ‘white’ as possible. Accents are expected to be free of geographical and cultural influences. The inequalities that have always been around, have now evolved into newer dimensions.
A Forbes opinion piece mentioned the importance of keeping elitism in the middle when one looks at the use of English in India. Taking a rather big swipe, the author states, “A person’s socioeconomic status in Indian society is approximately in line with his or her fluency in the language. In other words: a new caste system.”
In 2018, a clip of Hima Das’ interaction with the media was tweeted by the Athletics Federation of India with a comment, “Not so fluent in English but she gave her best there too.” It directed netizens’ fury towards AFI and rightly so. Being proficient in English is not their focus, excelling in sport is.
Instances like these are highlighted because of the person’s stature. Meanwhile, incidents where a common man, for example, times when children and teachers who face discrimination based on their accent and/or pronunciation go unnoticed. The mockery is real and so are the insecurities that stem from them.
The same sentiment also extends to when people are made to feel inferior for not knowing the names of the cutlery items or the correct use of forks and knives. A significant part of Tara’s story in the Amazon Prime Video web series Made in Heaven concentrates on her need to learn and follow certain sets of rules, majorly imperialist, to become a part of the elite.
Tara’s life, like many in real-time around us, is driven by the impact of imperialism and the complicated world Britishers left us with.