The pride of India is written in English

As the nation marks 50 years of independence, Peter Popham considers how it defies the pressures of global culture, sustained by ideas instilled by its former Imperial rulers

It was buried at the back of the second section of The Indian Express last week: a little item to gladden the hearts of all regionalists, anti-globalists, lovers of the culturally distinctive, all enemies of the great god Homogeneity which seems bent on feeding the whole world through a mincer fashioned somewhere between Hollywood and Osaka.

"Bollywood over Hollywood" was the headline. One year ago, Indian film- goers seemed poised to dump their corny, schmaltzy, bump-and-grind Hindi epics, with their wet saris and endless romping song- and-dance routines, and switch en masse to American films - Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Batman. Delhi's first multiplex opened, offering American films in a broadly American ambience.

One year on, the ambience is still sort of American, but the films are Hindi. Except for the occasional blockbuster, the foreign films have failed to put bums on seats. "English cinema," the Express article concluded, "has still not outgrown infant status."

India, it appears, is not going to be a pushover. Writing in a special issue of The New Yorker on India in June, Jonathan Foreman remarked on "how well Indian popular culture has resisted American influence at a time when almost everywhere else in Asia Hollywood movies have won huge audiences".

But this Indian resistance to foreign takeover is not restricted to the popular (read plebian, unsophisticated) culture of Bollywood. Other cultural forms have put up equally stout defences: take music, dance, food, dress. India is a big, distinctive and, in all its variety, increasingly self- confident country, and it knows what it likes, which is principally things Indian.

Which brings one to the conundrum: that being the case, where and how does the influence of British culture fit in?

Part of the answer is obvious. As the language of the Empire which ruled India for more than 200 years, English found an important public role, made more important by the multitude of tongues in the subcontinent. The public function of English is everywhere. On Delhi's roads, the rear ends of the autorickshaws are inscribed "Horn please -keep distance". English is appropriate because anyone who can read anything can read that. The television set blaring out Hindi films in the airport arrivals hall is labelled "entertainment". That bit of road that is permanently dug up has a sign in English only, "Inconvenience regretted". Every shop with even the slightest claim to respectability has its sign in English. And so on.

There is no mystery here. Any army of occupation leaves behind a residue of its presence in official or pseudo-official signage, the semiotic by- products of power; and the longer the army stays, the bigger the pile of leavings will be, unless very single-mindedly destroyed.

New Delhi itself, and the earlier British developments in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and elsewhere, are similarly easy to grasp. They are imperial impositions, pure and simple. One might feel baffled as to why the British wanted to inscribe the incredible monument that is New Delhi, at the gateway to the Ganga Plains, and one might wonder what amazing hubristic delusion led them to plant here this magnificent construct, Albert Speer's Berlin meets Milton Keynes, thousands of miles from home. But that is a British conundrum, not an Indian one. It was an exclusively British project. "It would only be possible ... under a despotism," wrote Herbert Baker, one of New Delhi's architects. "Hurrah for despotism!" Independent India merely, and very sensibly, refrained from demolishing it, and put it to good use.

So far so superficial, so despotic. But the entwinement of Britain and British culture with India is far closer and more knotted and intestinal than this. You discover this as soon as you confront your first Indian news-stand, and buy your first clutch of Indian broadsheets.

English language newspapers are to be found all over Asia. Most are extremely bad. Some are hilariously so, many merely dreary and incompetent assemblages of out-of-date wire reports, lumpened with drivelling local contributions. The exceptional good ones - the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, for example, the Bangkok Post, The Straits Times in Singapore - are colonial papers par excellence, often still edited or partially staffed by expatriates.

India's newspapers are different. No non-Indians are involved in their production. Yet they are never worse than mediocre. Some, such as The Hindu, look old-fashioned next to ours, but, like our papers used to be, they are densely informative. One notices mistakes, one starts counting the cliches, but that misses the point. The point is that these papers are not intended, even incidentally, for foreigners, either resident or passing through. Rather it is through these newspapers, as intensely Indian as they are also intensely British, that India carries on its national conversation.

This is the intimate and unique way in which British culture is entwined with Indian. The English language and British people were in some extraordinary way present and instrumental at the genesis of India's modern consciousness of itself. The English language and British people were midwives at this event. When British old-timers get nostalgic about India and the Empire, we tend to think they must be terrible quasi-fascist types, revelling in memories of arbitrary power. But what they are probably homesick for is the emotion inherent in this intimacy between two such drastically different cultures.

In his book India: A Million Mutinies Now, VS Naipaul writes about one of these extraordinary midwife figures from the 18th century, the great oriental linguist Sir William Jones, who went out to India to become a judge in the Bengal Supreme Court in Calcutta. In the process he made his fortune, always in those days an important reason for heading out east. But for no money at all he also buried himself in ancient texts in Sanskrit and other Indian languages, translating them into English, removing them thereby from the grip of the Brahmins who had guarded them jealously, and helping to return them to the Indian people as a whole.

Jones, Naipaul writes, "brought many of the attitudes of the 18th century enlightenment to India. In the cultural ruins of much-conquered India he saw himself like a man of the Renaissance in the ruins of the classical world ... He, and people like him, gave to Indians the first ideas they had of the antiquity and value of their civilisation. Those ideas gave strength to the nationalist movement more than 100 years later ..."

And so some remarkable seeds were planted. But the soil, too, needed to be fertile: India needed to be receptive to the works, ideas and language of foreigners, as today it seems unreceptive to the far more flagrant offerings of Hollywood. And in the phenomenon known as the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, it showed that it did possess this receptiveness.

Foreign rule was resented and opposed, but not sullenly: rather in a spirit of earnest self-examination and self-improvement. Nirad Chawdhuri, last surviving son of the Bengal Renaissance, listed in his book, The Intellectual in India, the questions Indian intellectuals began to seek answers to.

"(1) What were the shortcomings of their own institutions and outlooks and how were they to be removed?

(2) How was national self-respect and confidence to be revived?

(3) In what manner were the incoming and irresistible elements of western culture to be absorbed and combined with their own traditions?

(4) What attitude was to be adopted towards British rule and since in the ultimate analysis the only aim could be political independence how was it to be secured?"

Thus from early in the history of Britain's entwinement with India, two key elements were present. There was the ardent desire to learn what useful and important lessons the foreigner had to teach; but there was also the clear and guiding imperative that the final object of the exercise was not to ape him, but to get him off one's back.

All cultures imitate their own pasts, with good or evil consequences that can seem entirely accidental. William Jones in India saw himself as playing the role of a renaissance man among the ruins of Athens or Rome, and with the same sort of mission, salvaging what was beautiful and fine from the wreckage. And the intellectuals of Bengal approached the learning of the West through the medium of English with the same mixture of curiosity and pride with which their ancestors had approached the learning and art of the Mughals and all the subcontinent's other invaders before them.

A century or so later, the result was Mahatma Gandhi, a "half-nude gent" as the English described him, proclaiming with every stitch of his khadi (homespun cloth) his essential Indian-ness, yet also declaring that Ruskin's book Unto This Last, which he had read in South Africa, had been impossible to put down and had worked an instantaneous transformation in his life. And Jawaharlal Nehru, fiercely Indian, thoroughly Harrovian, declaring, 50 years ago this Friday: "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny,and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge ... A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new ... and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."

So saying, the soul of India did find utterance - in English.

Tomorrow Peter Popham considers India's influence on Britain.

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