Modern India is a linguistic Babel, an incorrigibly garrulous society in a constant, many-tongued conversation with itself. Language famously divides Indians--the country has no single "national" language--and the constitution adopted after India won its freedom 50 years ago opted to give equal recognition to more than a dozen "official" languages and willingly accommodate more whenever necessary. Yet this abundant linguistic variety has also united Indians in a common need to translate, to move between and across their linguistic parishes. Part of what it is to be a modern Indian is to exist in a condition of semantic limbo, a space where languages continually collide with and contort one another.
A Shiva-like linguistic multi-dexterity was indeed a defining trait of the Indian nationalism that put an end to the British Raj in 1947. Men like Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, rejected the idea of a single or homogenous Indian culture in favor of a determinedly multilingual and multicultural picture. They moved comfortably between their regional vernaculars (Gujarati and Hindustani, respectively) and languages, such as English or Hindi, that enabled communication with a larger audience.
English entered India's jostling linguistic world in the mid-19th century, imposed by the British as the language of rule and subjection but equally of education and law. In the hands of men like Gandhi and Nehru, it also became the language of subversion, the instrument whereby the empire was made to look tongue-tied. The history of English's introduction and adoption in India has ensured for it a perpetually uneasy place in the country's public life. Increasingly criticized as the language of an alien elite by those who speak for India's largest single language group, the 300 million Hindi-speakers (who nevertheless remain a minority in a country of almost 1 billion), English has become the focus of swirling cultural resentments. It has ceased to be the language of thought and feeling for all but a very small fragment of Indians (at most 3% of the population), and in the mainstream of Indian life, its uses have been reduced to more narrowly utilitarian functions. Yet it still flourishes: It is the language in which many of India's newly released commercial and industrial aspirations are finding expression, and it also has gained a new lease in India's public life as a common language for the governing elite, which is today drawn from a more regionally diverse background than perhaps at any time since the country's independence.