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Colonial Hangover? Not Necessarily

Colonial Hangover? Not Necessarily

May 09, 2012

Is it time to stop blaming all our ills on the British and start assessing exactly what is changing our attitudes today?

Every time I hear the word ‘Colonial Hangover’, I feel as though the period of British colonialism was one colossal binge which left a massive hangover lasting generations. While it cannot be denied that some aspects of Indian behavior certainly owe their origins to what may be termed a colonial hangover, I think that too many things are getting attributed to it.

Take, for example, the Indian obsession with fairness of skin. Far too often have I heard it described as a manifestation of the colonial hangover. It cannot be denied that the powerless, at any point in time, give undue importance to the attributes of people in power and wish to emulate them. The preference for fair skin, however, probably started with the Aryan-Dravidian conflicts which the former won handily. The far later incursion of the British may only have reinforced the inclination. Thus, the preference for fair skin probably started far before England even had a recorded history and to attribute it to a colonial hangover is to give far more credit to the British influence than it deserves.

The fact that English is the lingua franca of any pan-Indian operation is another of those things that seems to be the influence of a colonial hangover. To an extent this is true. The colonial period is what truly welded a nation of multiple languages together as a modern nation. Given that such was the case, choosing any one of the native languages for a lingua franca would have unduly disadvantaged all people speaking other languages in their search for jobs and opportunities. Thus, it was more a question of economic egalitarianism rather than any lingering awe of the British that made English the main language of pan-Indian communication.

The other part of English usage that invites comment is the fact that people assess the other person’s literacy from his familiarity with English; that some Indians poke fun when other Indians mispronounce or misuse English and that some Indian spend their time correcting the usage of other people’s English. Since English is the only language learnt, almost exclusively, from school by any Indian using it, it is understandable that education is equated to usage of English, since that is possibly the easiest way to understand the extent of the other person’s education. As for the people who wax sarcastic about the way others use English, you can always find people who like putting down others on their inabilities in any field. Back-seat drivers and perfectionists are not a rare species and, thus, when they apply their individual talent to English – unsavory though it may be - rather than driving, why should that be taken for a colonial hangover? The only people who actually do suffer from a colonial hangover are the ones who poke fun at their compatriots - in a bid to segregate themselves from their fellow-Indians and, normally, to an audience of non-Indians, specifically whites.

While it is incontrovertible that there are some elements of colonialism that still linger in Indian Society, I feel that far too many things get attributed to it. When I hear Indian languages like Tamil spoken with an overlaid Yank accent and with phonemes, specific to them (like the three variants of ‘la’ in Tamil) disappearing from daily usage, it seems to me that far worse than the colonial hangover is the cultural colonialism that seems to be in progress. There also seems to be a decline in familial values which places personal convenience above maintaining family relationships (by which I mean the relationships that go beyond the direct lineal family). Definitions of hospitality are also getting westernized in the sense that the guest is now expected to accommodate himself within the existing routines of the family from where once the family routine changed to accommodate the guest. All these things have their pros and cons but the fact remains that these were cultural values different from those of the west and, in aping the west, we are lending ourselves to a cultural colonialism that far transcends any changes wrought in Indian Society by British colonialism.

Maybe it is time we stopped being hung over about colonial hangovers and started thinking about the value of the changes happening currently.

18 Comments

  • C. Suresh
    By
    C. Suresh
    15.02.13 02:35 AM
    I'd like to see a comment that actually gets written after reading the piece properly. Where in the entire piece have I mentioned that Aryans are invaders? So why do people keep commenting about Aryans not being invaders as though I had mentioned an erroneous fact in the piece? The only word I have used is Aryan-Dravidian conflicts - and conflicts happen between two sets of indigenous people as much as it happens between invaders and indigenous people. Lots of global history wasted on combating a point that does not exist in the piece at all. As for Hindi being the most widely spoken - it is debatable whether it actually means that the majority are Hindi-speaking. Tot up the population of those who speak other languages and it exceeds those who speak Hindi. So, the rural populace of all those places are automatically placed at a disadvantage compared to the Hindi-speaking rural populace. The well-to-do will always be educated in any language be it Hindi or English. English only creates a comparatively level playing field by making it equally difficult for all. I am yet to see the patriotism of a native Hindi speaker saying that it is better to use say Bengali or Telugu rather than English. This point will always be a subject for debate with points to say for both sides. The fact remains that today's reality is that we use English.
  • Prajod
    By
    Prajod
    15.02.13 01:06 AM
    Hi,
    The issue of language is certainly interesting. But isnt Hindi the most widely spoken language?? So by your argument more people would be at disadvantage when english is followed than other hindi. Also isnt it absurd that an Indian is denied any job because their english, a foreign language isnt good?? I am sure you would have heard such cases. This would mostly affect people from rural areas especially the backward castes. Having english medium schools isnt the asnwer too bcoz most of the people from backward regions will speak their mother tongue most of the time unlike the elites who tend to westernized and speak English even at home. Also the aryan thing is migration rather than invasion, just like various tribal migrations in europe. The "invader" thing was just a clever ruse of divide and rule policy. Anither example is the hutu-tutsi conflict in rwanda where colonialists came up with theory that hutus were "original", tutsi were "invaders". The result is seen in the 1994 conflict. Till now no one has come up with concrete evidence of "invasion theory". But just like rwanda it has served it's purpouse for the colonialists with dravidian parties saying we are "originals", tribals saying we are "original" and dalit groups with we are "original" nonsense. Regarding fair skin, majority of indians are brown skinned to black skinned cutting across caste and region. Climatic conditions too play a role.
  • The Fool
    By
    The Fool
    14.05.12 10:29 AM
    Interesting article, CS. In my opinion, all this is is part of the evolution towards one human culture with sub variants which has becoming possible in this world of advanced communications and transportation.
  • C. Suresh
    By
    C. Suresh
    11.05.12 06:26 PM
    @Sunil: I think this debate can be never-ending. However, limited to the point that I wrote about, we seem to be both agreed upon that fact that it is not 'colonial hangover' but something else that made English the lingua franca. I am not going to agree that it is spite and you seem intent on thinking that learning English in school and competing with other people also doing the same is the same as people learning (and speaking) Hindi only in school competing with people who speak Hindi from the cradle and everywhere.

    @Bhavana and Navin: The term is colloquially used to mean that Indians have become used to considering themselves and every facet of their Society as inferior to the West and, therefore, try to ape the west in a bid to 'improve' themselves because of having been colonised. I used it in the sense that the vestiges of British Imperialism had not succeeded in rubbing out the Joint family, ability to speak your own language etc whereas the current fascination with US culture is probably succeeding in it. The latter is what I meant by cultural colonialism.

    This post certainly does not aim to say that there is no 'colonial hangover' at all. All that I intended was to say that we are too quick to cite it as the reason when the actual reason may be something else.

    For example, I have a fetish about correcting English. I have the same fetish regarding Tamil as well. My problem is that wrong usage of language - any language - rubs me wrong. This does not mean that I have a colonial hangover.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    11.05.12 09:42 AM
    A new twist Hangovers?

    I thought even the bad ending of a happy marriage and the after effects of it can be named a hangover of a marriage gone gone wrong without a drop of alcohol being consumed.
  • bhavana
    By
    bhavana
    11.05.12 03:03 AM
    What is colonial hangover? And how is it different from cultural colonialism? Colonial societies have a deep psychological impact, the undercurrent of which are quite insidious. Colonialism was not a drunken episode for which we can have an hangover, it is soul-crushing, culture-numbing, tongue stamping effect so that the children born from that remain stunted. The french speak french with tremendous pride and have tremendous cultural pride. So do the Chinese (whose colonial experience very brief). For us to recover from psychological trauma is a space for us to heal and love ourselves--our language, our ways of being, our ways of thinking...that is hard. It is not a blame game but understanding how certain histories have influenced us and coming to terms with it.
  • Sunil Deepak
    By
    Sunil Deepak
    10.05.12 05:43 PM
    Suresh, you are saying exactly what I had said - our attitude is that if I can't gain advantage, I won't let you have it either!
    I agree that most non Kannada persons in Karnataka don't bother to learn Kannada, because .. partly also because you can speak English and get along. However, my point about non-english speaking persons feeling inferior was not about the kind of persons who work in Infosys.
    Last year, for a research in Mandya and Ramnagaram districts of Karnataka, I thought that not knowing English was a big barrier and source of feeling inferior for lot of young persons in villages. I was also surprized by the poor quality of English-speaking even among college graduates (and teachers) in the interiors.
  • KayEm
    By
    KayEm
    10.05.12 03:50 AM
    Three thoughts. When we grow up side by side with a variety of skin colours, we hopefully see beyond the colour of the skin to the human being inside. You are right - we should face ourselves and our own shortcomings honestly in the mirror, try and do something about those and then move on to happier thoughts - there's so much we have to be thankful for. And last but not least, enjoyed your post. Cannot fault your logic.
  • Navin Mathew
    By
    Navin Mathew
    10.05.12 03:13 AM
    I agree, Suresh!
    And I'm guilty of using the term too. :)
  • Mojo
    By
    Mojo
    09.05.12 11:21 PM
    Oh and and just about everybody has an accent including crocodile dundee and I personally find the English accent a bit annoying. I was once working with a chinese guy who spoke very "poor" English and we were @ a pre Trial.
    He got away without having to play a major credit card company a dime and he turned to me and said "I may speak with an accent but I don't think with one"
  • Mojo
    By
    Mojo
    09.05.12 11:16 PM
    @ suresh, you article send me over to Mr. Iyers' article and I was aghast.
    See my comment there.
    I agree with you. Since you speak very good english how well or badly you speak you mother tongue is irrelevant I suppose. Everybody must speak English, it is superior and please don't speak your regional language.(just kidding)
    What a wonderful world that will be, no?
    All other languages dead!!
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    09.05.12 06:52 PM
    @Suresh,

    Yes! Certainly and here it is. You have it. My sincere apologies for posting my apology in the wrong place.

    Today seems is not my day. I'm sleep walking and talking.
  • C. Suresh
    By
    C. Suresh
    09.05.12 06:29 PM
    @Rajpriya: Another apology owed:):) This comment probably does not belong here.
  • C. Suresh
    By
    C. Suresh
    09.05.12 05:59 PM
    @Sunil: My argument is that if you did make Hindi, say, the language of communication for the country, native Hindi speakers get a natural advantage in all government and Pan-Indian corporate jobs. This would, in effect, have rendered the others second-class citizens. English, in theory, places everyone at a equal disadvantage and, therefore, ensures that no one linguistic group gains undue advantage.

    You, yourself, argue that if people cannot speak the language of national communication - English - it makes them feel inferior. How then if it were Hindi and people who speak it from the cradle are pitted against people who have to learn it in school? Would they not feel inferior? Would that not be divisive in the long run?

    I live in Bangalore and have found enough votaries of speaking your language - when it comes to Hindi - shying off from learning Kannada even though they spend a lifetime working here. If Infosys, say, opted for Kannada instead of English for its internal communications, I am sure there would be a hue and cry and it will not help to argue that it is spiteful to not allow use of my language because you cannot use yours.
  • C. Suresh
    By
    C. Suresh
    09.05.12 05:42 PM
    @Pointblank: I have said nothing about Aryan invasion - only Aryan-Dravidian conflicts. I do not think that there is much debate about the existence of those conflicts. The only theory that is 'debunked' is whether the Aryans were invaders or not!

    @Harry: Quite true. But they do say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. While it is necessary to avoid blaming everything on a 'colonial hangover' it is also necessary to identify any negative influences that do remain.
  • Sunil Deepak
    By
    Sunil Deepak
    09.05.12 05:41 PM
    I am not sure about the arguemnt about use of English. If 50% of the country already knew a language, using that for the whole country would have meant that 50% would need to learn it. By having English, actually 100% had to learn a new language. So it was more a question of "if my language can't become common language, than I won't let your language become it." Kind of better to spite you, even if it means more problems for everyone.

    I am not saying English is not beneficial today. But my argument is more about your reasoning. :)

    In any case, English is not egalitarian in India, rather, it means that what ever knowledge Indians have in their own languages, is not worth anything unless they also know English and it excludes and makes feel inferior to all the people who can't speak it properly!
  • HARRY
    By
    HARRY
    09.05.12 01:24 PM
    @ C. Suresh

    You know what, you hit the nail on the head. I think it's time we stop blaming and start living, would you not agree?

    HARRY
  • Pointblank
    By
    Pointblank
    09.05.12 07:37 AM
    While I appreciate the author asking Indians to take responsibility for their actions than attributing it to a colonial hangover, I protest the use of the Aryan Dravidian connotation. The Aryan theory has been debunked over and over again and it seems that only we Indians are still stuck with it and unfortunately amongst us it is the Tamil people under the influence of the Dravidian parties still hang on to it. I am a South Indian as well but this whole theory of Aryans being the fair skinned invaders IS a Colonial hangover.

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