The return of Macaulay

“What am I doing?” I sometimes wonder after a particularly trying day at work. My Significant Other wonders, too, for he thinks we government wallahs are lazy good-for-nothings. “It’s a rhetorical question,” I almost retort and then think the better of it. Rhetorical questions are usually preludes to major marital spats. 

So let me cut a vein open here, instead.

January – March is the official seminar season at my workplace (a university). And last week there were several seminars, jostling for attention and attendance.

A seminar, you must understand, is performative academics. Where participants perform: coffee/tea-drinking (the virgule because one really doesn’t know whether it’s coffee or tea one is drinking, unless told), bag-distributing, file-clutching, paper-rustling, mutual back-scratching, name and/or theory dropping(s)   . . . 

As for gyaan. . . I don’t know. It eludes me at any rate.

I tossed a coin to decide which one to attend and ended up with a multi-lingual poetry seminar. The kind that is a multi-lingual feast of eloquence on the big questions. Life. Love. Emotion. Perspectives. Nuances. Linguistic jugglery.  

A perfect recipe for a headache, which, sure enough, soon began to make itself felt. I slunk out, throwing an apologetic look at the academic-masquerading-as-poet on the dais.

Back home, I quietly contemplated the pleasures of south Indian filter coffee, specially its curative effects on headaches triggered by poetry. But the pleasure was short-lived. Some days, I tell you, it’s just one big conspiracy working against you. And the culprit that day was the woman who disposes of domestic garbage. She simply didn’t turn up. Instead, she sent her two little boys – not more than 6 or 7 years, knee-high, grime-covered. They should have been in school like my son, my stricken inner voice screamed.

I thought about the multi-lingual poetry seminar again. So many people flown in. So much power consumed. So many trees felled. And so many paraphrases of the same things aired. Repeatedly. While a stone’s throw away, children collected trash instead of learning about the rich linguistic and literary traditions of their country.

And what do I do about it? Oh I go ecstatic teaching Saussure and Chomsky to an indifferent postgraduate class. Irrelevance raised to the power of infinity. I’m guilty as hell, too.

But every now and then I ask myself: what am I doing? And wonder about the futility of teaching Saussure and Chomsky to young people who probably just want to learn the kind of English that will land them a plum “6-figure job at an MNC”.

The gulf yawning between need and supply in English language skills is so vast it seems scurrilous and obscene even to be writing about it.

I wondered idly – what would help improve the lives of the garbage disposer and her two little boys? A knowledge of English? Or a knowledge of children’s rights and of the hazards of handling garbage with unprotected hands and faces?

Macaulay would have been justly proud to see the business of English in India today. In his infamous minute on education more than a century ago, he extolled the virtues of teaching English to a class of Indians who would then assist the British in running the country. In the process, of course, the natives would become civilized brown sahibs.

It appears that his lesson has been well learned. The wheel has come full circle. Today money is pumped into training our young men and women to write and speak in English the way Western businesses and customers want. They will, then, become Westernized enough to want, and salaried enough to be able to afford, the products of these Western businesses, which flood our markets today.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, you must be sitting bolt upright in your grave and grinning from ear to ear.

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