(Published in the Business Standard, October 2012)

The annual birthday party for English is held on October 25, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s birth anniversary, and celebrating it might become a new Dalit tradition.

Over a century ago, Savitrabai Phule, the first woman to teach in the first women’s school in India, wrote a classic ode to Mother English.

Brahman’s rule is now in ashes
Under the English whips and lashes.
It is all for the good of the poor,
Manu’s dead at English Mother’s door.

In another, equally well-remembered poem, Phule urges “Shudras and ati-Shudras” to “learn and break the chains of caste/ Throw away the Brahmin’s scriptures fast”.

It is only fitting that Zareer Masani’s biography of Macaulay, to be published by Random House, opens with a description of a birthday party to English, held at the home of the writer Chandra Bhan Prasad. A poet sings, “O Devi Ma let us learn English/ Even the dogs know English!” And Prasad endorses Phule’s prescription, adding, “Hereafter, the first sounds all newborn Dalit babies will hear from their parents is—abcd.”

Macaulay’s Minute is famous and infamous in India, where the spread of English cannot be denied, but where the influence and importance of the language is often resented. Many in India still bristle at Macaulay’s ignorant dismissal of Indian literature (“a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”), and his intent: “The languages of Western Europe civilised Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.”

Until Masani’s biography, though, Macaulay had been reduced to a museum portrait–like so many other figures in contemporary Indian history—British and Indian, in the absence of a tradition of biographical writing. In Masani’s well-researched and engaging telling, Macaulay emerges from the dust of the past. He had little physical charm—Thomas Carlyle called him “a short squat thickset man of vulgar but resolute energetic appearance”—but he had a lively, ferocious mind, and a debater’s zest for argument.

By 1832, he was Secretary to the Board of Control, with an office overlooking the Thames: “I am already deep in Zemindars, Ryots, Polygars, Courts of Phoujdary and Courts of Nizamut Adawlut. …Am I not in fair training to be as great a bore as if I had myself been in India?”

Macaulay’s interest in India was broad, but not necessarily deep; he advocated “an enlightened and paternal despotism” for the new Raj. He met Rammohan Roy before he and his sister Hannah came out to India on The Asia. On board ship he read his Greek, Latin and Spanish, neglecting his Hindi and Urdu grammars, and his Hindi was of the ‘coop tunda’ (“khoob thunda”-very cold) variety.

He wrote lyrical passages about the colour and sounds of India, even though he complained that the fish and the fruit were inferior to England’s cherries and cod. Macaulay’s standards were set by England, and when he met the Mysore Raja, he lamented what the king might have been: “If he had been put under tuition, if he had been made an accomplished English gentleman…” His Calcutta was a racially segregated city, with the natives in Black Town, the Angrezis in power.

Masani doesn’t attempt to excuse Macaulay’s prejudices—he was very much a man of his times—but the biographer also draws attention to his brand of enlightened liberal imperialism. “Almost two centuries later,” Masani says of Macaulay’s Minute, “its underlying principles remain the Bible of Anglo-American nation-building in the world’s trouble spots.”

Macaulay’s aim was to produce “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”, and for a while, English was indeed the preserve of the babus and the bhadralok in India. As the latest Census figures demonstrate, it is now the fastest growing language in India behind Hindi, and it has become part of the Indian mainstream.

Macaulay couldn’t have predicted that a century after Savitrabai Phule and other Dalit intellectuals saw the potential of English as a way out of the caste labyrinth, there would be a temple to Angrezi Devi. When work started on the temple in 2010, Chandra Bhan Prasad was quoted saying: “She stands on top of a computer which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free for ever.” It was not an easy undertaking; the construction of the temple was halted on one ground or another, most of them remarkably flimsy. Some newspapers reported tension in the area, after members of the upper castes objected to a temple built for and by Dalits.

Perhaps Macaulay would have approved; his aim was not to replace local languages, but to add the library of English into the “native tongues”. As Phule wrote in her poems: “In English rule we’ve found our joy/ Bad days gone, Mother English abhoy!/ English is the inheritance of none/ Persian, Brahman, Yemeni or Hun.” There it stands, 175 years after Macaulay’s Minute, ready to be claimed by Angrezi Devi’s devotees.