Social Scientist. v 21, no. 240-41 (May-June 1993) p. 36.


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MODHUMITA ROY"

The Englishing of India: Class Formation and Social Privilege

All school children in Bengal know the story of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, the nineteenth-century educator and social reformer, who leamt his English numerals at the age of eight. The story is told to us as a morality tale about perseverance and industry and about the role of education in self-improvement. Vidyasagar, accompanied by his father, was walking to Calcutta in November 1828, to be enrolled in a school. Legend has it that as he passed each milestone he memorized the numeral so that by the time he reached Calcutta he had learnt them. Two facts need to be emphasized about this story. Firstly, that the milestones were marked in English and, relatedly, Vidyasagar's eagerness to learn the English numerals. 'In a way perhaps,' comments Asok Sen, 'the milestones on Iswar Chandra's road to Calcutta had the significance of foretelling the end in the beginning. A boy of uncommon talents could use them for his first lesson in 'English numerals.' However, the milestones were so engraved in 'English' to suit the convenience and sanctions of a new empire under foreign domination.'1

Vidyasagar was not a native of Calcutta. Born in Birsingha (then part of the Hughly district of West Bengal) to a rural Brahmin family of traditional pandits, he was a member of the lower middle class. Poverty had forced his father, Thakurdas, to give up his pandiiva, to move to Calcutta to seek employment as a clerk in a business house. Now, accompanied by him, Iswar Chandra was travelling to the city to try and enroll in a school where he would receive a good education (which included learning English) and escape grinding poverty. Although it was his father's ambition to see his son eventually ensconsed in his own iol or chatuspathi (traditional indigenous schools), Vidyasagar, between 1841 and 1858, served in several government institutions, including the Fort William College.2 The story is emblematic of the socio-political circumstances of Bengal at that time in particular, but of British India in general. Foreign rule had made it

* Department of English, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155

Social Scientist, Vol. 21, Nos. 5-6, May-June, 1993



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