This month a diplomat in Delhi reluctantly let his cook go. He
knew the woman's husband worked little. He had even attended their
daughter's wedding and gave a nice gift. The cook's salary, $120 a
month, allowed a good living in Delhi.
The problem: The cook didn't speak English - and the diplomat
needed someone to answer the phone when the new housekeeper was out.
The incident illustrates the growing power of English here,
despite the fact that only 5 to 7 percent of India's 1 billion
people speak it.
After a decade-long "Indianization" to teach regional languages
in the schools - and remove British-era names of streets and places
(Bombay is now Mumbai, Calcutta is Kolkata) - a middle-class
consensus to spread the learning of English is emerging. For 50
years, English has been a language of privilege, but today it must
become a more common vernacular, say intellectuals, business
executives, and parents alike.
Already, as India continues to liberalize its economy, English is
the language of commerce - of the stock exchange, Bombay deals, and
job rsums. It is not only a symbol of cultural authority for the
urban elite who pick up the patois of Indian English TV or gossip
knowingly about Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, but also for an
aspiring middle class who want to participate in politics and
"If we wish to be a global cyberpower, if we want a larger share
of the world markets, if we want greater political relevance ... we
could start out with a crash program to promote English, not Hindi,"
argues Shekar Gupta, editor of India's largest newspaper, The Indian
Express. He points out that among the more prosperous populations of
East Asia, English is becoming a compulsory second language.
Such calls ring louder in light of Indian President K.R.
Narayanan's unusual warning to the nation last month in a Republic
Day speech, in English, of "the fury of the patient and long-
suffering people." President Narayanan - the first Dalit, or
untouchable, to hold the ceremonial high office of president -
cautioned about neglect of the poor at a time when the upper classes
are getting wealthier. "We have one of the largest reservoirs of
technical personnel, but also the world's largest numbers of
illiterates," he said.
Acknowledging these realities, in December the government of
Maharashtra, whose capital is Bombay, announced compulsory English
lessons for all students from grade 6 onward. The move, like a
similar one in West Bengal two years ago, reverses a policy of the
early 1990s to teach only the local Marathi and Bengali languages in
schools. Parents in Bombay were a major part of the lobbying effort
to change the system.
Ajay, a father of three and a clerk in a Delhi firm, says he went
to a Hindi-language school as a boy, but his children are learning