Posts Tagged English in India

In which English and India are yoked together…

First, this utterly tiresome piece in The New York Times by Manu Joseph, on English in India. Which gushingly equates English used in Bollywood and English used by Dalits.  Jaw-droppingly cavalier journalism and writing.

Second, this brilliant response to that drivel. 

And finally, this biting review of Anand Giridhardhas’ India Calling, indeed of all books in that genre, as the opening line says: 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Indian-American in possession of some years’ experience of India must be in want of a book contract.

Seriously though, folks, who really is to blame if our English is all the world sees?


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Mother tongue, other tongue

Barring a few, most Indian English writers acquire the language they write in and seldom lick it off their mothers’ teats. …. This whole question of multilingualism should be looked at less jingoistically if it is to have any meaning, as I think it does.

(Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” Chandrabhaga, #7, 1982.)

You ask me what I mean

by saying I have lost my tongue.

I ask you, what would you do

if you had two tongues in your mouth,

and lost the first one, the mother tongue,

and could not really know the other,

the foreign tongue.

You could not use them both together

even if you thought that way.

And if you lived in a place you had to

speak a foreign tongue,

your mother tongue would rot,

rot and die in your mouth

until you had to spit it out.

I thought I spit it out

but overnight while I dream,

munay hutoo kay aakhee jeebh aakhee bhasha

may thoonky nakhi chay

parantoo rattray svupnama mari bhasha pachi aavay chay

foolnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh

modhama kheelay chay

fulllnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh

modhama pakay chay

it grows back, a stump of a shoot

grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,

it ties the other tongue in knots,

the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,

it pushes the other tongue aside.

every time I think I’ve forgotten,

I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,

it blossoms out of my mouth.   

                          (Sujata Bhatt, from “Search for My Tongue,”  1991)

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More on English in India

Thanks to a ruptured ear-drum (the left one) I’m convalescing, and reading to keep the  pressure of fretting over the classes I’m losing from rupturing  the other ear-drum as well. So here’s something from the reading—an extract from an essay by Probal Dasgupta* on the “war between the forces favouring the unchecked spread of English, and the forces that strive to maintain cultural plurality”  examined primarily through an analysis of Braj Kachru’s book The Indianization of English: The English Language in India (OUP, N. Delhi: 1983)

I’m posting here just a small bit (for obvious copyright reasons) in response to one of Kachru’s comments, because it links in some way to  my previous post.


In the preceding I have attempted to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. I have argued that a pragmatic or functional view is essential in understanding the uses of English in unEnglish contexts. It is especially true now, since English has already attained the status of a universal language whose functions vary from situation to situation, from one continent to another. (Kachru:237-38)

One would have thought that the descriptive imperative would have led to a comparison with French or Russian, which too are used as major link languages in non-native social contexts. At least French has obviously developed interference varieties; I am less sure about Russian; one would have expected to learn something about these matters from a general chapter such as this.  That one does not is perhaps an indication that the pragmatic attitude K advocates functions as an alibi — an indication that the point is to accept the spread of English as ‘a universal language whose functions vary from situation to situation, from one continent to another’ just as it was once okay to speak in positive terms of ‘the Empire where the sun never sets.’  In those days, liberal thought was in favour of domestication of the imperial system on a country-by-country basis; the system had to operate in a manner suited to the local needs of each area, as befits the grandeur of a benign despotism. Today, the concept of appropriate technology has taken the place of such earlier thinking. ‘Appropriate English’ is one variant of this concept; the metropolitan groups in power get to decide what technology, what religion, or variety of atheism, what economic system, and what language should be imposed on the peripheral regions, and the specifics of this imposition will vary from one place to another so that the domination is locally effective.

I am not proposing a conspiracy theory. Surely only the consent of the governed, and in this case an active and enthusiastic sort of consent on their part, can permit a system of domination to continue. Anyone who suggests that it is the fault of the native speakers of English that English is spreading the way it is must take into account the evident popularity of English as an international medium in many non-English-speaking societies today. However, it is clear that the situation that is emerging is extremely beneficial to the native speakers of English, and gives them a lot of cultural power. Since many native speakers of English also have global power of other sorts, again with the consent of collaborators in a host of satellite nations, and again with much sophisticated defence of the exercise of such power in terms of notions like ‘pragmatism’ and ‘appropriate technology’ it seems natural to link the linguistic dimension of the present imperial power system with other dimensions which have received more attention in Third World intellectual circles. If such a link is deliberately not made, one begins to ask what the function of concepts like ‘pragmatic’ and ‘descriptive’ is.

* Dasgupta, Probal. “On the Sociolinguistics of English in India.” Explorations in Indian Sociolinguistics. Eds. Rajendra Singh, Probal Dasgupta and Jayant K. Lele. Sage Publications. New Delhi: 1995

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The (English) language weapon

Last semester I taught report-writing to a group of M.Tech. students in one of the Science Centres of the university where I teach. A task that proved to be challenging not merely because any additional teaching in Jan–April, the shorter semester of the year, is always difficult. When I volunteered, along with a couple of colleagues, as I always do for work of this kind, I should have asked why they approached the English department (which is primarily a Literature department, where Language teaching is infra dig) and not the cell that does this kind of remedial work across the university. I found out in the first class, when the Director of the Centre announced that he wanted the students to learn from me how to write like Jawaharlal Nehru.

Okay. If you’re done guffawing, let me explain. As part of their course-work, these students are expected to explore a small geographical region in or around Hyderabad, describe its topography, and then tabulate the nature and quantities of naturally occurring mineral ores in the region. Now, while I wasn’t expected to bother with the technical descriptions of the mineral deposits, I was expected to help them with the first part of the report — an evocative depiction of the terrain, poetically describing its natural bounties, and thereby inspiring people who read the reports (presumably bored examiners, for whom marking such reports is a loathsome chore) to leap out of their chairs and take the first means of transport to said region and soak up Nature’s goodness. (Instead of going to the spa they’d probably booked for their end-of-year detox regime.)

Quite apart from the fact that I cannot teach something I’m incapable of (writing like Nehru) or even that Nehru’s writing (nay, the man himself) does not appeal to me as a model, I was surprised that a professor in the Sciences was eschewing the reigning style of scientific discourse — factual, concise, clear and focused — for a literary, ornate, intensely personal style. And then add to this the particular difficulty the students themselves presented — all of them, without exception, needed (and I’m being compassionate here, not condescending) to go back to school. To get them to write simple, grammatically correct sentences in three weeks (which was all the time I had) was going to be Sisyphus-ean enough. To get them to develop a ponderous, literary style — hell, we can’t make postgraduate students in English do that!

The Director’s opinion about what kind of English is desirable just confirms for me the disconnect between the views of the supply and demand sections for English in India. I’ll return to this point, but let me digress for a bit.

The scientific and the literary — these are often spoken of as essentially different, even antithetic, styles. Scientific writing, it is often held, requires a standardized language with every word having just one referent, i.e., unambiguous language, shorn of metaphors. Whatever one may think of such a style, what fascinates me is the manner in which English has been made capable of such a style, so that today it is the undisputed language of science.

In a study+ of scientific language from Newton’s Opticks to the present day, Michael Halliday, a British linguist, describes the evolution of scientific discourse as one in which events are described using nouns rather than verbs. Over the centuries, he says, descriptions of physical phenomena changed from the format

“a happens, so x happens”

to the form

“happening a is the cause of happening x”

Thus events and processes are represented in language as states or things (nouns).  Halliday calls this the “grammatical metaphor.”

This is not merely a stylistic change. Whether an idea or phenomenon is represented as a process (verb) or a thing (noun) reflects different ways of viewing the world. Writers are interested in stories and so they represent the world as consisting of activities, actions.  Scientists, on the other hand, think of the world as consisting of objects of study. Speaking of the world as ‘things’ allows them to objectify the natural world, to present it as consisting of objects ‘out there’, to be studied independent of scientists and their investigations. Hence the frowning upon the use of ‘I’ and the promotion of abstract, logical argument.

Both the Royal Society (established in 1660) and the first English scientific journal Philosophical Transactions (inaugurated in 1665) played key roles in promoting and consolidating this style of writing in English for science, so that English eventually upstaged first Latin and then German as the dominant language of scientific discourse.

Fascinating book. But to get back to what I started out with . . .

I have often felt that one of the best examples of logical thinking and clear writing by an Indian is B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste++.  In fact, I believe the text should be compulsory reading at school to teach our children how to write logically and clearly. But of course our children will only read extracts from Gandhi and Nehru, for ideological reasons, not because stylistic or linguistic skills are anywhere on the agenda for our curriculum designers. (Ambedkar’s writing is rarely, if ever, taught even in postgraduate courses on Indian Writing in English or in supposedly critical courses on Hindu thinkers. So this is a lost cause, I know.)

The disconnect: what we need and what we get. I was reminded of this yet again last week when I was co-opted (how I love the murky sound of this word!) into one of those tiresome industry-academia interface charades that achieve little other than squandering public money. So there I was on the dais,  furtively jotting down ideas that kept cropping up,  (I’d been given just a day’s notice for my presentation) when my ears pricked up at what was being said by the Centre Head of one of the world’s biggest MNCs in Hyderabad. I listened, astounded, as he told the large gathering of college principals and teachers that appending Bonjour/ Guten Morgen/ Danke/ Merci before and after your English sentences is enough to procure business deals. It was certainly news to me that the French and the Germans are such dolts! I’d have thought that a powerful, influential business head would know better than to make such irresponsible statements to a bunch of academics desperate to make their institutions more market-geared.

But this is it. This is the academia-industry divide at its best. Or worst. The academic world is oblivious to, even disdainful of, market needs, strangely unperturbed by the storming of its ivory towers by short-sighted, profit-oriented “training” institutes.

Industry, branding “unemployable” the huge majority of young men and women academia churns out, has its own notions of the “professional needs of business” mass-producing PowePoint-based training programmes, supremely unmindful that language learning is an organic process, and that cross-cultural communication does not mean knowing how to say “Good morning” in a dozen languages.  But since academia simply cannot get its act together, the market seduces.

Every week I make up my mind to quit. But I always wake up the next morning bravely determined to change everything.

+Halliday M.A.K. & Martin J.R. (eds) Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power.  University of Pittsburgh Press. Basingstone, Falmer: 1993.

++ The text of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is available online here and here. If you haven’t already, do read Gandhi’s criticism and Ambedkar’s response. The contrast in thinking is startling.

+++ Some  interesting posts on English in India at kufr: 1, 2, and 3

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The ape-man cometh


(Image courtesyClicked by this blogger’s little brat in Hyderabad’s MMTS . Forgive the slightly blurred text — he wouldn’t wait for the train to stop moving.)

So some  fly-by-night outfit that offers to transform apes into ‘cool dudes’. Gah.  I can’t shake off the feeling that it’s an appalling insult to the good apes. I mean, did they ask the apes if they wanted to become men? (And, was  becoming woman even an option?)

So you’re thinking what a ridiculously trite flyer (which it is), but I urge you to look deeper. Last I heard, the evolution of apes into man is OVER, communication skills or no communication skills, so they’re now two distinct  species (debatable, I grant).  Surely they must know that? Which must mean that this is actually some sinister scheme to morph apes into men. Only, it seems, thankfully. Or wait. Since there’s no clue to the sex of the ape, is there some sex change involved,  too?

The mind boggles.

Do cast your eye on the last two lines. No, not on that orphan comma (although it nearly caused this blogger apoplexy) but that word Erragadda. As Hyderabad locaals know very well, saying that someone/something is at/from Erragadda always elicits a knowing smile. For outsiders — well, acute PC-itis prevents my telling you what that means, unfortunately.

On a serious note: There ought to be a law against absurd claims that ‘communication skills’  are some kind of miraculous mantra, meaning merely ‘Spoken English.’  The number of people who buy that is seriously unfunny.


Postscript:  Post dedicated to The Quirky One, who would have done greater justice. Verily.

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The oppressive boot [and] the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it*

Every now and then I get a distress call from this Echh Aar Lady — “Edit this for me,  will you?” / “Does this mail read OK?” And I oblige, for she’s a friend from an earlier work life. So last week she called and, as usual, she had a crisis. She had to rustle up some training material on telephone etiquette and could I help?

I protested. Not my cup of filtered coffee! Not with my backwoodsy telephone skills —monosyllabic, brusque. She should know! But she persisted. Just a small capsule for a group of fresh-out-of-college,  wet-behind-the-ears graduates given the unpleasant job of handling customer complaints over telephone. Said customers being irate, racially abusive and Anglo-American. 

I was incensed: “These kids need therapy to handle racist abuse, N. And you think popping a smart capsule of inane pleasantries and pseudo-Americanisms will do the trick?” 

“Just give me something I can use,” she pleaded. “I’ll build the material around it.”  

So I gave her this:


(Wole Soyinka)

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey — I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
“HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?” Button B, Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis —
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean — like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”— and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding
“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused —
Foolishly, madam — by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black — One moment, madam!”— sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears -“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”


(Source: Modern Poetry from Africa, Penguin 1963.)

Of course she had no use for it, and lost no time in telling me so. I imagine she’d have binned it after a cursory, mystified glance. I made a half-hearted attempt to make her see the exquisite irony in the poem — the refinement of the so-called savage and the coarseness of the so-called civilized. I could have saved my breath.

I do understand that a great many people dislike, and have no use for, poetry because they imagine it is always worrying about the eternal verities.  I, too, have tin ears for a lot of “poetry.” It is futile to speak of its “uses” to up the ante on poetry. As Auden and Garrett put it:

Those who try to put poetry on a pedestal only succeed in putting it on the shelf. . . . Poetry is no better or worse than human nature. It is profound and shallow, sophisticated and naïve, dull and witty, bawdy and chaste in turn.

(W.H. Auden and J. Garrett. The Poet’s Tongue, Bell.)


And when you read poems like Soyinka’s, all those positive adjectives seem justified, don’t they?


( * the dominant theme of  Soyinka’s work; his words)


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Learning our languages: Inability or disability?

One afternoon last week I decided to walk from my Department to the campus school to pick up the little brat. It’s a pleasant 15-minute walk, especially at this time of the year when the campus wears its best, riotously verdant look, thanks to the rains.  The magnificent beginnings of a sublime Nature poem (cough cough) were, however, snuffed out when I heard someone run up behind me.  A young man whom I had taught last semester. After the customary greetings he blurted out, “Everyone says I should improve my English.” “So you should!” I responded, smiling to take the sting out of my words.

This kid really drove me up the wall with assignments that had, among other things, articles and prepositions all over the place – everywhere except where they belonged! And when chastised and explained the errors, he would turn in the next one pristinely devoid of both.   

As I’d expected, he talked me into more of the remedial work I did with him last semester. And then, looking at me sheepishly, he said, “Ma’am I’ve enrolled for Creative Writing this semester.” Laughing to acknowledge the irony and my raised eye-brows, he continued: ” And what I realize is that I know neither my mother tongue nor English well enough to be able to write creatively in either.” For me, this disarming confession is a reminder of one of the biggest shortcomings, tragedies if you will, of our education: the abject neglect and deteriorating importance of language study. 

Take the case of my home state – Andhra Pradesh. It is reputed to have the largest number of engineering colleges in the country. Students from Andhra grab a sizeable chunk of seats in the IITs and BITS every year.  All of this is the result of the “coaching regime” that has the entire high-school system in its stranglehold.  Right from class 10, children and their parents start preparing, mentally, financially, physically, every which way, for the entrance examinations that constitute the gateway to an education in the coveted streams of engineering, medicine and the IITs. 

When I was in high school there were “institutes” that coached students for these entrance exams. Now, we have  “corporate schools” that charge  astounding fee to prepare students for these entrance exams, alongside the regular high-school curriculum. Coaching is now institutionalized!

What baffles me is this. These entrance exams are supposed to test students on what they learned at high school. Why would a normal, reasonably intelligent student need extra “coaching” to clear these entrance exams, over and above what is taught in school?  Doesn’t such “coaching,” tailor-made for these exams, defeat the very purpose of the exams?

But supporters (and benefactors!) of this regime would probably argue that the intense competition for berths in these professional courses demands the extra edge that coaching provides. Even if we grant this (and I don’t!) there are other things falling by the wayside, thanks to this regime. Language skills for instance.

Colleagues teaching at the IITs, BITS and other national institutes of technology tell me that students from Andhra are very often the pits when it comes  to language, communication and other “soft” skills. I’d say that is to be expected. A system that rewards the ability to answer multiple-choice questions in the shortest possible time leaves little scope for expression and communication.

Languages do not even count in the overall percentage scheme – it’s just the ‘Groups’ (Math-Physics-Chemistry/Biology-Physics-Chemistry) that matter! English is important only because it is the medium of instruction. As for the other languages, the less said the better.

Perhaps the situation for English is improving. The realization that English is as important as an engineering degree in the job market is catching on. (Which is why the Andhra Pradesh government has decided to make English the medium of instruction in all government schools.) But what kind of English?  

 As part of a project on English for Science teachers, a colleague and I interviewed a cross section of teachers of Science and engineering in the city last year.  They were unequivocal about improving their English, but most of them felt “correctness”, especially pronunciation, was what they needed most. While that is not untrue, my assessment is that these teachers actually lack fluency – the ability to paraphrase, to explain a concept in at least two different ways, using different expressions and illustrations. Very often, they repeat definitions and explanations from standard text books. (Aside: I can imagine a bewildered student saying, “Ma’am/Sir I didn’t get that. Could you explain it again, please?” “Right,” the teacher would say and start all over again – saying the same thing, albeit more slowly!  No wonder our students don’t ask too many questions! Who wants to listen to the same crap twice over?!)

While the demand for English of a questionable variety is perhaps increasing, what of our Indian languages? They are mere “subjects” in school, second or third languages (telling nomenclature!) to be forgotten as soon as we ‘pass’ them and leave school. Which leaves a sizeable section of the population tongue-tied: inadequate English, barely adequate mother tongue.

But why is this important enough for me to blog about? Why am I harping on the study of languages, Indian languages ? Well, I could give cultural reasons, about how they’re endangered species, these vehicles of our culture, but I will desist.  This post is about languages in the context of technological education and I’ll stick to that.

 Although English is the language of choice of only a miniscule section of our society, it is the language of science, technology, medicine, nay all that is modern and progressive.  But all of this ‘knowledge’ can only be made available to the masses through their own languages. How do we effect the translations, then? Especially if knowledge of these languages is reduced to the level of second/third languages left behind in school? 

While globalization brings more and more ‘knowledge’ to our doorstep through English, such knowledge will remain the property of a few if the means of their dispersal – our indigenous languages – are not strengthened. 

Successive National Policies on Education (which you can read here) have unfailingly stressed the importance of language study. The Policy document of 1968 says:

The energetic development of Indian languages and literature is a sine qua non for educational and cultural development. Unless this is done, the creative energies of the people will not be released, standards of education will not improve, knowledge will not spread to the people and the gulf between the intelligentsia and the masses will remain if not widen further. The regional languages are already in use as media of education at the primary and secondary levels. Urgent steps should now be taken to adopt them as media of education at the university level.

Interestingly, English is mentioned in this Policy as part of other international languages which should be strengthened for the purposes of the study of Science and Technology.

The Policy of 1986 adds very little: 

8.7 The Education Policy of 1968 had examined the question of’ the development of languages in great detail; its essential provisions can hardly be improved upon and are as relevant today as before. The implementation of this part of the 1968 Policy has, however, been uneven. The Policy will be implemented more energetically and purposefully.

And the revised policy of 1992 retains this bit as is.

These documents are studies in vagueness, I must say. But then one must remember that they are Policy documents; they specify what  should be done, not the nature of implementation.

Take, for instance, the policy on free and compulsory education for every child up to 14 years.  What has this achieved?  Today, quality of education is directly proportional to cost and access. The same holds for our policy on languages. Laudable policies that have achieved zilch. Nada. Nil. A reflection of the complete abdication of responsibility by the state. And the result – crass and appalling commercialization of education.

Have we accepted this as inevitable?  I often hear people decry the undercutting of “merit” due to reservation policies in educational institutes. How many of us will decry the “commercialization of merit” in institutes that provide education for those who can afford it, irrespective of merit?

Again, while we debate the merits of primary/secondary education in the vernacular medium and higher education in English, do we realize that this division serves only to deepen inequalities? Children with such a fractured education are at an unfair disadvantage when compared with those who have seamless access to English education.

Are we breeding a privileged, isolated class – with access to the best education either because they have the money or because they were born with silver spoons? A class without a twinge of conscience for their culpability in perpetuating the status quo.


























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