I wasn’t expecting my p. 99 – right in the middle of my methodology – to be particularly revealing. But as luck (or indeed Ford Madox Ford) would have it, on p. 99 we land midway through a description of my participants that speaks to the crux of my thesis:
Most of the students came from the same sub-caste, one that represents the vast majority of the population of the area around the branch. I have chosen not to disclose the name of the caste, as they are heavily concentrated in one particular area of Delhi – where my branch was located – and revealing this would make the branch potentially identifiable to those familiar with Delhi. I understand that this has scholarly implications, as my writing on this caste cannot be cross-referenced if it is kept anonymous, but this is a sacrifice that I am willing to make in the interest of protecting my participants’ anonymity. With regard to the positioning of the caste, there is great disagreement over which varna (the four main caste subdivisions) they belong to, with some claims that they descend from the Kshatriyas (second ‘highest’ caste) and other arguments that they are from the Vaishyas (the ‘third’). While their ancestral descent may be disputed, in Delhi this caste group have been labelled as OBC (Other Backward Classes) by the government as the caste is deemed socially, economically and educationally ‘backward’. Interestingly, this classification is not ubiquitous across India. In some states, this caste has been allocated ‘Scheduled Caste’ (SC) status by the government, a status reserved for the most oppressed peoples, usually those from the Dalit communities. Parallel to this, in 2008, there was civil unrest in another state of Northern India as this caste group rallied to be re-classified from OBC to SC, which would grant them further quotas for government jobs. While they may not be the most socially oppressed caste, there are widespread negative stereotypes in circulation of them as thuggish, uneducated and uncouth. There was a rumour circulating in the branch while I was there that Dominos no longer delivered pizza to that area as the delivery boys were too afraid. Although a facilitator informed me that this was not the case (Dominos were allegedly refusing to deliver as the road names were not marked clearly and they struggled to find addresses and deliver in the 30-minute timeframe that was promised by the pizza chain), the rumour was a clear indication of the types of assumptions made about this caste group (both by members and non-members). A Google search of the caste brings up links to a question posted in a forum asking why this caste is so feared in Delhi. Most of the responses chastised the caste members for being ‘unintelligent’ and only capable of responding to issues with violence, but one member of this caste took this as an opportunity to attempt to quell such stereotypes…
The aforementioned branch was one of several hundred branches of a non-profit English and employability training programme in North India and was the primary site for my ethnographic exploration of social mobility and English. Specifically, I was interested in the material, discursive and affective consequences of English speakerhood as a deeply embodied phenomenon enmeshed with wider historical processes and structures of inequality. As p. 99 suggests, caste – and its intersection with class, gender, race, colonialism – became the bedrock of my analysis.
Listening to the experiences of the students such as those described on p. 99 unearthed ambivalent feelings about their investments in English. On the one hand, they were deeply committed to pursuing a language that they had come to understand as their key to not only jobs but prestige, pride, (upward) marriage, and modernity (see also Highet 2022); on the other, there were recurrent moments of despair as they wondered whether this language framed as a resource could really live up to its promises; whether their transformation into an English speaker – a figure built upon colonial, class and caste stratification – could really help them counter their marginalisation and stigmatisation.
This is evident in the Domino’s rumour that I chose to illustrate the constant, dynamic presence of caste in these students’ lives, and which shows how the discursive ‘castelessness’, in Deshpande’s (2013) terms, of the middle classes obscures what is in practice a deeply consequential element of social organisation. In later chapters, I return to this to argue that this ideological ‘castelessness’ is a key part of what propels the discourse of social-mobility-through-English, as it reframes social mobility as an individualised pursuit, open to anyone, if only they try hard enough.
The problem, I argue later, is that these remain politically very difficult conversations to have, particularly in the current climate of rising suspicion of anything ostensibly ‘anti-national’; it is partly for this reason that I took the steps mentioned on p. 99 to protect my participants’ identities. This raises difficult questions – questions that I continue to grapple with – about the ethical and political challenges at stake in critical research and in our engagement with projects of social transformation.
Satish Deshpande. 2013. “Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category.'” Economic and Political Weekly. 48: 32–39.
Katy Highet. 2021. Becoming English speakers: a critical sociolinguistic ethnography of English, inequality and social mobility in Delhi, UCL Institute of Education. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10122328/
—–2022. “She will control my son”: Navigating womanhood, English and social mobility in India, Journal of Sociolinguistics (early view online version available open access)