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.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star