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  • Published 17.11.06
Legacy of the Raj

The English language book market has an upside and downside in India. The upside is that of all the English-speaking countries in Asia and Africa (with the possible exception of South Africa), India is the only one where English language books sell in some numbers. There is a market out there, with no restrictions on imports, and ample foreign exchange to play around with. The downside is that despite the growing middle class, eager to learn English, the number of copies sold does not match the potential demand. What are the reasons for the upside and downside? What are the outer limits for the numbers that can be sold? Above all, what are the prospects for the future, as the middle class grows, with more disposable income?

There are two reasons for the growing demand for English language books, especially the tertiary-level textbooks in science, technology, medicine, accountancy and more advanced areas of study.

First, the pathetic state of the regional languages, in which virtually nothing is available after Class XII. Some revamping is underway, but the fact remains that with all the revisions and re-revisions, these texts will have to be reinforced with supplementary reading if candidates have to get through the highly competitive examinations to get into engineering and medical schools. These can only be done through American texts, or by joining coaching classes, which draw heavily for their question banks from foreign books: our own books do not exist and the few that do have simply lifted questions from Feynmann’s Physics and old Russian mathematics texts.

Second, there is a growing awareness that without a working knowledge of English, there is little chance of doing well in higher studies and later to qualify for a decent job. While this awareness was always there in the non-Hindi speaking states, it has now spread to the Hindi heartland. Bill boards like “Learn English in two months”, the mushrooming of English-medium schools, coaching classes in conversational English and so on are pointers to the importance given to learning English, if only to get somewhere.

But the flip side is that the English we learn, outside a minuscule percentage, is not the English of England. It is an indigenized version that we have made our own. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his Oxford lecture in July 2005 summed it all up when he said, “Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system...Our choice of prepositions may not be the Queen’s English; we might occasionally split the infinitive; and we might drop an article here and add an extra one there...but it is English. Today English in India is seen as just another Indian language.”

But it remains all the same an imperfect language: in the spoken English of daily life, we begin a sentence in one language, switch to a second in the middle and could end up with a third. There is, as Salman Rushdie said, a “chutnification” of English. All the same, the market is there, not as big as one imagines, but it will grow as more and more Indian writers and academics hit the international scene.