Every time Narendra Modi travels South he becomes “Peter". That is what Tamilians in Chennai call any Indian who speaks in English.

Modi has been giving long political speeches in English at mass rallies in the South. The fact is someone of his provenance does not have to speak in English anymore every time he goes to the region. There is something ludicrous about an Indian Prime Minister and nationalistic mass leader speaking in English to the poorest Indians.

On a scale of absurdity, it is on par with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi inciting impoverished Indians in English to rise against the British.

Modi gives speeches in English in the South because he believes what he has been told—that South Indians hate Hindi so much they prefer being spoken to in English.

I was raised in Chennai and I used to speak and think in Tamil, though I did hope in English. Until my adolescence, the language I was most fluent in was Tamil. But then, as part of seeking a better life, I decided to improve my dismal spoken English. Eventually I became one of those Nehruvian Indians who are stranded in English, who do not speak any language well.

In the Chennai of the 1980s, it was fashionable for some people who were actually very articulate in Tamil to pretend that their Tamil was poor. They did not watch Tamil films in theatres unless it was made by Mani Ratnam or starred Kamal Haasan. The attitudes have changed. Today, Tamilians, like other Indians, are proud of everything that belongs them, everything that is home.

The new multifarious layers of the Indian middle class do not venerate English as much as the youth of previous generations. Indian languages are becoming cool. The mother tongue is becoming cool. The new affluent, the fashionable, the beautiful and the intelligent are not anglicized anymore. Provincial cricketers are expressing their intelligence in Hindi in a way a Sachin Tendulkar or a Virender Sehwag could not because they were forced by some unspoken decorum to speak in tortured English.

There can be no doubt that English is still the most useful language in India for material prospects, but that has only revealed it as a symbol of inequality. India rewards mediocrity as long as it knows how to speak in English. How can such a symbol be politically useful? It appears that even Scheduled Castes have given up on English.

Various movements of the historically oppressed, across India, saw in English a thug who could stand up to the formidable cultural thugs that emerged from Sanskrit. An activist even tried to build a temple for English, with a presiding English goddess, a bronze figure in robes, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and holding aloft a pen. One activist told me that the mantra that will be chanted would be: “A,B,C,D…" It was a melodramatic adoration of a language that promised to help the marginalized bypass Indian culture.

However, many Indians realized, after spending a lot of hard-earned money and pawning their gold, that it is not enough for English to be taught in schools. Children need to be born into an Anglicized environment. There was no point in learning a language poorly. English, they realized, was as villainous as Sanskrit.

Modi himself has risen because of his proficiency in two Indian languages. As a good orator he probably knows how bad he sounds in English. However, as a politician with very high stakes, he does not wish to challenge the theory that it will be suicidal for a politician to deliver a speech in Hindi anywhere in the South.

It is a theory that emerges from the time of Indira Gandhi when Dravidian politics had whipped up Tamil nationalism by casting Hindi as the new colonizing agent. Those days, every time Indira Gandhi visited Tamil Nadu, she would speak in English and a lean man would translate it into beautiful Tamil, an act that would elevate him politically and we would eventually know him as P. Chidambaram.

There were some tense days. Once, someone threw a crude bomb into Chennai’s Hindi Prachar Sabha, an organization that aims to spread Hindi in southern states. Around that time I used to go to that building to study Hindi and my mother had said that I must not tell the bus conductor I was going to the Sabha. She said I must tell him I am going to a cinema near the Sabha. All through the bus journey the conductor rebuked me for going to the movies instead of studying. Unable to bear it all, I thought I will risk death and I announced to the bus that I was actually going to the Hindi Prachar Sabha. No one tried to kill me. I don’t believe even in those days the hatred for Hindi was ever a real emotional issue on the streets.

Modi should really consider the simplicity and aesthetics of speaking in Hindi. Crack some self-deprecatory jokes about how bad his Tamil is, how bad his English is, and speak in Hindi. He will not need an interpreter as long as he does not use words like pracheen. Average Tamil voters understand simple Hindi better than they do English. There will certainly be some political drama-queens who will lament this, but they would be inconsequential.

If he wants to be very safe, maybe he should try speaking in Gujarati using an inconspicuous person with no political ambitions to interpret it in Tamil. It is a small price to pay to liberate himself from the inessential indignity of English.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.

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