Inside The Chambal School of Languages

Neha Dixit
Grist Media

Even a chilled Pepsi bottle could not stop Shashank from sulking that day. And nothing could stop Shashank’s father.

Aside: Before March 2012, the adjective ‘chilled’ was rarely used in Etawah, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s hometown. Within ten days of Akhilesh Yadav taking over the chief ministership, Etawah was granted ‘VIP’ status. This meant 24/7 power supply to the city, making it possible for people to realize the true ‘maha thandi’ wonders of their double-door refrigerators, among other things. 

Back to the story: Shashank’s father, frustrated and outraged by a brand new helplessness, got into his Mahindra Bolero. As the red sun dipped into the rugged landscape of the Chambal ravines, three other jeeps followed his SUV, covering a few kilometers from Mahewa village and reached the triple-barrelled Royal Oxford International School in Etawah district.

Shashank’s father’s gun-toting mob of 23 roared, ‘Vir Bhoomi Chambal ki Jai’ and barged into the school. The guard was roughed up for not knowing ‘who they were’.  Shobha Francis, the principal of the school who lives on the top floor of the same building, was asked to come down. Francis, a Tamilian who had grown up in different parts of the country, was stoic and authoritative. She refused to descend. As the sloganeering continued, more and more heads popped up on the neighbourhood terraces.  After a couple of rounds of bullets were fired in the air, Francis came down. 

“Within a fraction of a second, I saw two adjoining long metal rods with a wooden handle pointing at me. I took a moment to realize it was a rifle,” recalls Francis in her strong Tamil-accented English. The father screamed, ‘humaar bitvaa ka fail karan ki majaal kaisen hui tuhaar (how dare you fail my son in English)?’ Francis says, “I strategically kept talking back at him in English and he sobered down in 10 minutes.”  

Francis has encountered six such incidents in the last academic year. On Francis’ staff were six new south Indian teachers who were brought from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to Etawah to improve the standard of education, because it was understood that the local Etawah teachers could not. After Shashank’s father’s visit, all six left the school citing the ‘unsafe environment’.  

Francis encountered many such incidents in her previous stint at a school in Badaun, 172 km from Etawah, a town similar in temperament but not so close to the political fountainhead of the state. Etawah, on the other hand, is the bastion of the Samajwadi Party, the biggest political force in the largest state of India. 

Three hundred km away from Delhi in the east and from Lucknow in the west, and most importantly, 100 km from Agra, the biggest tourist hub in the country, Etawah is India’s new project in modernity, where languages are assigned roles – ones that need to be played daily. 

A distinguished town during the British era, it was also one of the checkpoints in the Great Indian Hedge put in place by the British to prevent smuggling of salt to avoid taxes. This juxtaposition of the foreign and the local was more than apparent when we exit the railway station. It’s a confused cocktail of architecture that is packed with British embellishments and the spirit of the beehad (ravines) of the Chambal. 

As we watched, a handcuffed man tethered by a long rope to a police constable holding the other end at a distance of 50 metres bought gutkha from the shop next to the exit gate of the station, and walked back to share it with him. They broke into a riot of laughter, blurring any boundary between lawkeeper and lawbreaker.  

Our ‘foreignness’ could not be hidden under carefully wrapped dupattas over salwar-kameez and elicited impromptu questions in English. Cycle rickshaw wallahs said, “Maydem, Come! Hotel! Pleeees!” To the local girls they say, “Bitiya, baith jao. Bahot dhoop hai.” (Daughter, come. Sit. It is too sunny.) A daughter in Hindi becomes Madam in English.

Shaped like a euglena that is due to multiply, Etawah is neatly divided by the NH92 into the old city and the new city. Innumerable alleys that branch out from this road are littered with posters of coaching centers. 

It is in this starry-eyed settlement that Akhilesh Yadav is selling young people fairytales of MNC jobs and foreign tourism. This year, in his maiden budget, the total budget for education was Rs 32,886 crore, of which Rs 2,858 crore – almost 9 percent - was allotted just for distribution of laptops. 

This has not been the most obvious trajectory for Akhilesh or his party. In 2003, his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party supremo, launched an ‘Angrezi Hatao’ campaign. He had spearheaded a similar agitation during his first and second tenures in Uttar Pradesh as chief minister (1989 and 1993) when his party's youth brigade led an onslaught against English-medium schools.

In 2009, Mulayam made a populist statement. He said he was going to oppose the use of English and make sure all his MPs spoke in their regional languages, including Tamil and Hindi. He was also opposed to the use of computers, since he thought ‘they created unemployment problem’. The SP manifesto for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections also stated that if a new government were to be formed with its support, it would work to abolish schools providing expensive education in English. 

However Mulayam’s sons, Akhilesh and his younger brother Prateek (who was recently featured on a bodybuilding website as ‘the international transformation of the month’), both attended private schools. Akhilesh studied environmental engineering in Mysore and then in Australia.

By 2012, the Samajwadi Party manifesto was the first in Uttar Pradesh to promise laptops and tablets for students who complete school education. He tactfully promised that they would be able to use the laptops in Hindi and Urdu (and English, if necessary). Some old-timers were heard scoffing then, ‘Ab kya party computer se chalegi (Will the party be run by computers now)?” But in March 2012, 38-year-old Akhilesh became India’s youngest-ever chief minister.

This March, Akhilesh visited Etawah to inaugurate a branch of Delhi Public School. His colossal portrait adjacent to a photograph of the future DPS building appeared on large hoardings across the city. It was startling. How could the chief minister of a state, from a so-called socialist party, cozily endorse a private school with monthly fees of Rs 3,000 and an admission fee of Rs 10,000, instead of upping the standards of the government schools? 

His father Mulayam has always attributed his socialist ideals to Ram Manohar Lohia, a renowned socialist leader and a freedom fighter. Lohia had famously said that the British ruled India with bullet and English. (‘bandook ki goli aur angrezi boli’) He favoured Hindi as the official language. 

In June 2013, Mulayam once again attacked the former Home Minister P. Chidambaram by saying, “The former home minister used to speak English, a foreign language, which the people of the country did not understand. And with this language, the government wanted to check Naxalism.” 

Two weeks after this statement, Akhilesh distributed close to 5,500 laptops in Etawah. Meanwhile, Etawah has embraced English and all its promises. The new nomenclature in Etawah is first sonorous, then incomprehensible. Attune Matrimonial services for ‘High Class’, Active Beauty Parlour, Augustine Maths classes – all signposts in the labyrinth of language the city is caught in. 

SRJ Study Circle is a new addition to the growing number of English factories in Etawah. Two large halls, one on the third floor and one on the fourth floor of the new (and only) mall next to the Etawah railway station, it claims to be a leveler.  It is focused on getting students to pass the English test in traditional competitive exams all the way from railway clerk selections to MBA entrance exams. 

“Fifty percent of the students do not clear competitive exams because they fail in English which leads to higher unemployment and frustration. We teach tricks to clear the English grammar tests,” says Amit Bhadauria, the founder of the institute. Seventy-five percent of Amit’s students are from the backward castes and rural areas, where there is a growing  paranoia that when it comes to economic progress, not knowing English will mean missing the bus. 

* * *

In the Mahabharata, Etawah is part of Shakuni’s territory. It is here that the famous game of dice between the Pandavs and Kauravs was played. It was here that Draupadi was recklessly, fecklessly gambled away by Yudhishtir. He lost her here to Duryodhan. That’s when Draupadi was disrobed and swore to wash her hair in Dushasan’s blood, in revenge. We remembered this when my photojournalist companion and I, both women, tried to go to the ambitious Lion Safari project in the Fisher Forest Area. Two strangers on a motorbike came up to us to tell us, ‘do not go to the loin safari area. If at all, go with two constables.’ 

On this lonely, abandoned highway, with not a single person to ask for directions, we hit the ravines that border the rest of the road. After 3 km we encountered a board with the painting of a disfigured tiger that indicated the beginning of the physical boundaries of the Lion Safari project. 

It was conceptualized by the Mulayam government in 2005, on the lines of the Gir National Park in Gujarat. Nearly 150 hectares of the ravines of Yamuna was acquired on the Gwalior-Etawah highway, and lions from Africa will be brought in for breeding. The Fisher Forest in Etawah, where the safari and the breeding center have been proposed, is a reserve forest area. The Forest Conservation Act does not allow the use of forestland for a non-forestry activity such as safari, which requires a bigger enclosure and an extended zoo. The project is still awaiting clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. 

A major component of Akhilesh’s dream to convert Etawah into a ‘global city’, this lion-breeding centre will be the third in the country after Junagadh and Rajkot. It is co-incidentally next to the ‘Tixy’ temple that is a symbol of the victory of Etawah over the Marathas, who made several sorties in the 17th century. Close to it is the National Chambal Sanctuary, which in conjunction with the Lion Safari is intended to put Etawah on the national tourist map by attracting foreign tourists from Agra.

Most locals dismiss the lion safari area as a den of dacoits. And the National Chambal Sanctuary which has existed since 1978 for the keystone species of critically endangered alligators, the red-crowned roof turtle and the endangered Ganges river dolphin. Even the officials in the forest office responsible for the upkeep of the sanctuary tell us, ‘There is nothing there. Just sand and water. Why do you want to go there?’  

When we did manage to reach this pristine, clean sanctuary near the Chambal river (Madhya Pradesh is on the other side of the river) we had to fight off our territorial feelings, just imagining the future with tourists, picnics, snacks, plastic bottles and loud music. 

Money is being pumped in to support the Lion Safari Project, the National Chambal Sanctuary and the multinational food-processing unit in the Karampura area of Etawah. Both the lion safari and the National Chambal Sanctuary are potential employment generators for the locals in the future. Both will require its staff to be able to speak English: to serve as local guides and for lower level administration. English is changing Etawah. It also has the power to change the physical landscape of Etawah: from the wild and intimidating ravines to the prim red boundary-walled global tourist spot. The forests that provided livelihood and free fuel to the nearby villagers are likely to shrink to accommodate the growing clone farm of apartments which advertise ‘forest view’. 

The problem in creating economic identities (like the Silicon City identity for Bangalore) for regions and nations – based just on the level of investment, a particular kind of globalization project and GDP growth – is that these identities sometimes lead to violence and create a skewed vision for cultures. This loss of land can also be connected to the loss of language, loss of livelihood and loss of identity. In this context, the connotations that are linked to learning English are disturbing.  The subaltern communities who have been oppressed for centuries have been trapped in the argument that the English language will create a level playing field and it will ensure their leap to freedom. Instead of it being just a language to be learnt for convenience it becomes an intimidating, confidence-sapping border that needs to be transcended. 

* * *

‘Ma’saab, hum Inglees seekh jaai ki naahi (Master Saheb, will I be able to learn English)?’ is what they ask me in a rural earthy dialect when they come join the center,” says Bharat Sharma. Bharat is the Amitabh Bachchan of Etawah’s English pedagogy. Well-groomed, thick bushy moustache, half-sleeve collared T-shirt that fits the well-defined biceps snugly. A pile of hair with a faint silver streak. A confident grin.

Bharat is the co-owner of the American School of Languages in Etawah, where English is being sold as an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or cannonball you out of a village. It is one of the two English language institutes in Etawah with 300 students. The other one is British School of Languages which has 100 students. Both of them are next to Prakash Talkies. Bharat’s primary challenge, he says, is to get the students from rural backgrounds to first switch from their dialect to conventional Hindi. Only then does he start teaching them a utilitarian vocabulary of English words. “There were times I had to stop students from taking off their chappals before entering my office,” says Bharat animatedly. By the time many of Bharat’s students reach him, they have a lifelong expectation of obstacles. “Sometimes they turn up with two or three people to help them get admission in the center.” He says that it’s the rural students who work harder than the urban ones, who assume that they already know some English and don’t need to work that hard. 


Bharat believes that more than learning English, the students come to get an assurance that they can speak in English. Bharat is less language teacher than a testimony to the promise of self-transformation and a one-stop solution to all ‘modern problems’.  An engineer by qualification, he grew up in a rural household in Khurja (in Bulandshahr district) with few resources. He is a first-generation literate in his family. His father was a medium scale farmer who had hardly visited a city. Bharat says he had no access to books and claims to have learnt Hindi by unsealing discarded paper bags, upcycled from old newspapers. Seeing this, his father sent him to a school in the village till Class 8. He went on to study engineering. It was at that time that he pursued his desire to learn English.


The lecture room at the American School of Languages is a display of the kind of reverence Bharat enjoys. Greeting cards, painting, posters all addressed to him with gratitude are pasted all across the walls. “People in each and every alley know me here. They respect me and trust me,” says Bharat. There is a hint of a question mark, as if Bharat himself wonders about the trust. 

“One problem is that speaking in English in front of elders is considered offensive in Etawah. I’d teach them, but they wouldn’t converse with me because they thought it will be disrespectful.”  The cost of a three-month course in this school is Rs 2,600, almost 80 percent of a school teacher’s monthly salary. 

Bharat’s assets are his simple formulas for spoken English and his candid invocations. He delivers it in an accent of his own creation that veers between American and British, stretched by sizeable vowels and insists that the students roll their tongues too for a ‘foreign touch’. 

“I am actioning” is what any student who has ever attended his class will say as a reflex.  The next rule is, “Jahan chukka-chuke aayega wahin ‘have’ aayega (Wherever there is a sense of completion, ‘have’ will be used).” In this process, Bharat’s own English is sometimes compromised: he tells his students, “I want you to speak at a loudish level”.  Bharat’s class is an epitome of how Indians are always in a mode of translation: When a boy is caught yawning he says, “I am jamaahing.” Jamaahi is a Hindi word for yawn. 


The profile of Bharat’s students is varied. There are some who come with bodyguards and a car with a blue light on the top. Then there are the young women who are about to get married or trying to improve their marriage prospects. And the doctors who have little confidence in speaking the language they have spent years studying in. And lawyers who are struggling with rulings and orders in English. But most of them do not want their identity to be revealed. “They don’t want the world to know that they are weak in English. Their status gets compromised,” says Bharat with a smirk. 


“Orderso ka bahot mahatva hai (Court orders have a great importance)”, says Gaurav Dubey, 30, a practicing lawyer at the Etawah court, “Be it the Aarushi Talwar case or the Rekha Sehgal case, all of them were issued in English.” Gaurav claims that his reasons for learning English are 70 percent professional and 30 percent personal. Professionally, it will help him understand court orders and take the PCS-Judiciary exams. Personally, “women like those men who can talk in English.” 

Etawah’s judicial complex was constructed during British times and since it was an important trade centre for rice, sugar, metal, ghee and goods, the legacy of the language and the British continued long after independence. It also in this compound that Etawah showed its support for the 1857 mutiny against the British. Says Atul Sharma, a practicing lawyer since 1976, “There was a time when there was not even a single typewriter in Hindi when I started working, everything was in English. Now we don’t get English typists at all. In fact, the Nayab judge gets offended if the lawyer argues in English.” The border wars of English rage within the judicial complex too. The border keeps shifting and on both sides there is confusion. 

Etawah is not responding to some trappings of globalization as rapidly as was expected. A mall that was opened last year shut down. Café Coffee Day also shut shop in three months. A couple of branded clothing stores are on the verge of closing down. In fact, Etawah does not even have an English newspaper. The only one, the Kanpur edition of Hindustan Times, reaches them in the afternoon. Etawah has been home to some famous literary figures including Babu Gulabrai, who wrote in the first half of the twentieth century. He was conferred with several awards, a number of schools have been named after him and a stamp was launched in 2002. He began writing in English but switched to Hindi to strengthen the ‘national language’.  Today, books on learning English are available in plenty on every gully, but there is no public library or bookstore that sells literature of any sort, in any language. 

A large number of Bharat’s students have now joined BPOs in Kanpur and Agra, a couple of them have been employed as medical representatives of pharma companies and some have taken up sales jobs in private banks, “all because of spoken English,” he says. Bharat is unconscious of the fact that it is limiting their aspirations to low-level BPO and sales jobs, where the maximum focus is on English communications skills. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) Bangalore in 2006, “several HR managers made an association between language and social background and identified those from small towns as being the ones with ‘communication problems’ because of their heavy mother tongue influence.” 

Akhilesh, while being a fluent English speaker, himself often slips into Hindi while giving interviews to English news channels. His intellect may be complex and sophisticated, but this alone would make him seem less ‘posh’ (than politicians his age such as Sachin Pilot and Rahul Gandhi) to an English-loving world. 

HR managers, the NIAS study points out, tend to scrutinize candidates from rural backgrounds more, enquiring into such details as when they made the transition from their mother tongue to English. Rural candidates who have studied in English medium throughout their education and are not fluent are assumed to have a poor ability to learn. The study suggests that most HR people look for ‘cultural capital’ – not just the ability to speak English but also the right accent, confidence and easy social skills. This privileges employees from middle class, upper caste and urban backgrounds.

Etawah has a 24 percent Scheduled Caste population and a large Other Backward Classes one. The UP Board education, which is widespread in Etawah, was last revised in 2004 while the Central Board of Secondary Education constantly revises its course with contemporary methods. Those who are already enrolled in UP Board schools are struggling to keep up with the changing times. “Lots of housewives are learning English […]teaching them translates into automatically teaching 4-5 more people in the family,” says Bharat. 

“I am hungry for English,” says Meenu Shukla, a woman in her late thirties. Hair neatly tied into a ponytail with a hint of sindoor in the side parting. She wears minimal jewellery with a watch on one wrist and a few matching bangles on the other. Her bindi is tiny. She wears her short kurta with a contrast dupatta and tight leggings. 

Meenu’s sister-in-law Shikha has well-oiled hair in long plaits with a middle parting full of orange vermillion. She has big gold jhumkis on both ears. She has a dozen glittery bangles on each hand and anklets as wide as a steel bowl. She wears 3 pair of toe rings, an elaborate bindi and an old-fashioned seedha palla saree, where the palla is slung over the right shoulder with the edges all the way up to the stomach. 

Meenu is an ad-hoc Hindi teacher in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Etawah. She grew up in Agra and was married in 1999 to Vijay Shukla from a family of dairy business owners. Vijay’s grandfather, Durga Prasad Shukla, from Ekdil village moved to the city during the British Raj. He set up a dairy near Ramganj Chauraha that became a popular landmark in the area. His house is 300 meters away from the dairy and is known as ‘Shukla ji ki haveli’ and a part of folklore. Durga Prasad started minting such vast amounts of money from making resin that he was the most sought after pakad of the dacoit gangs. As a precaution, Durga Prasad, a Brahmin, constructed a house bang in the middle of a Muslim ghetto. The dacoits of those times were staunch Hindus and rarely entered Muslim areas. Says Vijay, “Since most of the neighbours were daily wage labourers with frugal resources, he thought that threats during Hindu-Muslim riots are also minimised.” 

Post-independence, Nehruvian socialism or welfare capitalism led to industrialization in the areas close to Kanpur. Shukla ji dairy wale could not compete with large industrial set ups making resin, and that’s when business started dipping in. In 2004, the family fortunes hit a nadir when Vijay was diagnosed with a tumour in his spinal cord. After spending Rs 25 lakh, a year in Apollo hospital in Delhi and two bed-ridden years at home, Vijay and Meenu started sensing the discomfiture of the family in bearing further expenses. At the same time around 2005, the Mulayam-led Samjwadi Party government was in power, which helped a considerable number of the Yadav population make the shift from rural areas in the vicinity to Etawah town. Yadavs, by being loyal SP voters, were actively rewarded with help in setting up small businesses and enterprises by the government. Real estate grew exponentially to meet the demands of the escalating urban households. 

Vijay, by now, with the help of physiotherapy and crutches had managed to get back on his feet. Around this time, Meenu took up teaching full time and that helped Vijay switch from the doomed dairy business to real estate.  

“She was turning jittery about what was happening with her life. Fed up with the illness and financial crunch, she just wanted to get up and do something and she did. And made me do too,” says Vijay with a half-smile. Meenu does not react to this. She looks at me and comes straight to the point, “During job interviews people asked me questions in English. I wanted to be able to reply to them. I asked my son, who speaks fluent English to help me but that wasn’t enough.” Meenu’s work helped her take the plunge by enrolling at Bharat’s English Centre. 

“Had she not been working, my mother would have objected. Because she was already working and outside the domestic space, nobody said a thing,’ says Vijay. Meenu jumps in, “As Bharat sir says, with my mother-in-law, do as Romans do in Rome.”  

Meenu’s son Yashasva is 11 years old. No sign of the ubiquitous hair gel but he’s dressed in a Nike T-shirt, a big sporty watch and ready to leave with his elaborate cricket kit for the stadium. “He hits the ball at a speed of 120-130, Ma’am!” exclaims Vijay. Meenu seamlessly continues, “There are no stadiums here for proper training. We will send him to Rahul Dravid’s cricket academy in Bangalore.” 


Yashasva goes to St. Mary’s, the only convent school in Etawah. It is an English speaking factory that has existed for the last four decades. Yashasva is a bit less excitable than his parents. He speaks in impeccable English. Is his restraint because of his convent school tutelage? Or because he is embarrassed by his parents going commando with their feelings and ambitions in front of a stranger?  

“He speaks correct English, na?” Meenu asks me with curiosity and anticipation of approval? “My favourite one is Yuvraj Singh,” Yashasva creating a desperate diversion. Meenu is undeterred, “Look at the way Yuvi loves his mother. She looks so young and supports him so much,” she says with a visible twinkle in her eye, “I want to speak English like those in TV,” she declares with an air of finality. When I ask Vijay if he will learn English, Meenu looks into his eyes and answers me, “Not learn, I will make him learn.” Vijay laughs out, “that makes it two-and-a-half English speakers in this house.” 

Meenu is piggybacking on English to break the cocoons of patriarchy. So are other women. What will Akhilesh Yadav think of this? The Samajwadi Party, particularly Mulayam, has been known to be less than thrilled with the demand for 33 percent women’s reservation in the Parliament. 

Akhilesh is trying to build an empire out of his hometown’s deepening devotion to a language and culture it once derided as the tongue of barbarians and capitalists. If English language is being touted as a tool of class struggle, the truth is also that Akhilesh Yadav urgently needs proper English for diplomatic negotiations to resist the ‘anti-English’ image of his party and change it to one of being ‘progressive, pro-development’.  However, this aggressive push to English, both the language and the social upscaling attributed to it is not just weakening the ‘bebaak’ (unhindered) attitude, something attributed to the population in the vicinity of Chambal ravines and part of folklore, but also brewing unreasonable an inferiority complex. 

P. Guru Prasad, the district Magistrate of Etawah, lauds the efforts of the chief minister in turning it into a ‘five-star’ city as he calls it. “Etawah has been granted VIP status. There is electricity 24/7, the roads are being repaired, new resorts are coming in, new schools are opening. Learning English has helped the youth get employment opportunities and reduce the crime rate. Etawah will soon be at par with the Noida and Gurgaon.” 

The dream and its potential has been well marketed. When Akhilesh was asked why the party did not boost English education in its last term, if it was not opposed to English, he said, “People want to brand us as anti-English, anti-computers, anti-development and pro-criminals. It is not true. Congress has been in the power for so many years, why didn’t they teach people English? I am trying to get computers in Hindi and Urdu also popular.” 

* * *

The view from the new and the only mall in Etawah, yet to be inaugurated properly, fuels anticipation.  Inside the mall a new bride struggles to eat masala dosa with a fork and a knife. She could have just eaten it with her hands, but the fork and knife came with the meal. My companion, the photojournalist, said bemused, “Why would you make someone suffer with that when they don’t need it?” 

A good question for Akhilesh Yadav.

Neha Dixit is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She blogs at http://neha-dixit.blogspot.in/