Posts Tagged stereotypes

Oh, North is North, and South is South, and never the twain shall meet*.

There’s been a bit of comment warring over the tiresome north India-south India divide over at Krish Ashok’s blog. (A blog that I frequent because the author is witty, has a way with words and revels in delightfully irreverent humour that spares nothing and no one, not even himself.) 

The original hair-raising comment that set off the war is ridiculously juvenile and I’m not going to bother quoting it here. Suffice it to say it spawned off a debate on stereotypes about north Indians and south Indians — a debate that clearly refuses to die down, and not just on blogs.  

Yes, there are considerable cultural differences between the peoples of the north and the south in India. One of the most poignant expressions of this difference that I recall is from Amitav Ghosh’s Countdown (a journalistic piece written in response to the Indian and Pakistani parallel nuclear tests in 1998):

“Most of us here are from north India,” a bluntly spoken major [in the Indian army] said to me. “We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with south Indians or Bengalis.”

Absolutely true; and one of the many ironies that make this a fascinating country. However, underlying the terms “north Indian” and “south Indian” are falsely homogenizing stereotypes.

Stereotypes do contain at least a grain of truth. They cannot arise swayambhu. Trouble begins when stereotypes become the norm, the default lens through which people are viewed and understood. Any differences from the stereotypes then become ‘deviations’ and marginalization sets in.

In somewhat of a coincidence I read another blog last week about the recent Air Tel ads featuring the Tamil actor Madhavan and the Bollywood actress Vidya Balan. The blogger very rightly points out that while the Hindi version of the ad shows the woman using the familiar form of address (tum) for the man, in the Telugu and Tamil versions she uses the “respectful” form (equivalent to aap in Hindi) suggesting stereotypes about the way women in the north and in the south address their husbands. 

It’s a valid observation, but I am concerned about a more insidious subtext that runs through the ads — that of the woman massaging the shoulders of the man back home from work; of the man as the one who pays all the bills; and of the man watching television while the woman cajoles him into doing housework. These are damning stereotypes that are unfair to women all over India — north, south, east or west. The north-south stereotypes about forms of address, though not unimportant, perhaps deflect attention from the ones common to women on both sides of the divide.

I’m not being merely clichéd when I say that while one cannot but be aware of difference, it’s rewarding and enriching to look for similarities. We sometimes risk missing the wood for the tree when we focus only on the differences. 

A relatively recent addition to this north-south divide is the parodying of stereotypes about how English is spoken in different states on either side of the divide. And I go ballistic when the claim of ‘satire’ is made for such humour.  So let me take this claim apart.

First, some fundas.

Humour, especially satire, is an oft-used weapon in dealing with stereotypes. Cathartic of course, but satire only works for us when we recognize, and disapprove of, the stereotypes it lampoons.  Although a clear line of demarcation is difficult to draw, satire differs from normal comedy in that while the latter attempts to elicit laughter by portraying our common human foibles, in satire there is an overt intent to correct some perceived “wrong” in people or institutions.

Satire invites us to scorn its target because it is believed to be unacceptable in some form.  Therefore it can only be funny if the audience also shares this scorn. Satire relies on commonly held notions of what is unacceptable.  I’m referring, of course, to the English tradition of satire as practised by its acknowledged masters—Dryden, Pope, Swift, Defoe, Johnson, and then later Dickens, Twain, Orwell, and Huxley.  Contemporary satire relies heavily on developing a belief or statement completely, to its logical conclusion, thus making obvious its ridiculousness. This form of satire sometimes invites negative reactions because developing the belief/statement completely might suggest support of it though quite the reverse is true. (The recent New Yorker cover featuring the Obamas is a case in point.) 

Given that satire is a weapon of scorn and thereby correction, I’d say that so-called satirical representations of Punjabi English, or Tamlish or Hinglish are highly questionable. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but let me give you the grounds for my questioning.

First: Who in India speaks English without an accent of some form or the other? Show of hands, please?  For that matter, who in the world speaks English without an accent? There is nothing linguistically superior about one or the other accent. Certain accents are preferred over others for social (spoken by certain privileged classes) and political (spoken by a politically powerful group or country) reasons.

Second: There are political and historical reasons we speak English the way we do. When Thomas Babington Macaulay declared in 1835 that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” he laid the foundation stone (erm … I work at a university and this is one of our stock phrases) for the process of teaching English in India—one that still flourishes in Indian schools, colleges, and universities—i.e., teaching it through the preserved, written word. Consequently, what we learn is literary, written English, not the spoken variety. And given the notoriously poor sound-symbol concord of English, we are not attuned to English as it is spoken — the sounds of English words. Only a privileged few have access to such attuning and it is largely they, I suspect, who pillory Indian English. 

Third: When we speak in English in India, we do so for communicative purposes in situations where other linguistic means of expression are unavailable. And so long as it serves that function, what is there to laugh about, pray? As for the argument that people also speak the language out of a false notion of ‘prestige’, well, those responsible for sustaining and nourishing this ‘privileged’ status of English are squarely to be blamed. 

Fourth: Common opinion holds that it is the pernicious influence of the mother-tongue that shapes the sound of Indian English. But this opinion is often laced with contempt. And I don’t see why. When one speaks a language for a considerable length of time, the human vocal apparatus—the tongue, the teeth, and the lips—gets accustomed to moving and coordinating in a certain manner. And this obviously has an involuntary bearing upon the articulation of the sounds of another language learned subsequently. Just basic physiology of the human mouth, hardly justifying any contempt for the intelligence of such speakers.

So now, all ye satirists of Indian English, what, really, are you attacking? Some soul-searching is warranted I should think. And no, I’m not angling toward muzzling of free speech or any such bunkum. What I do advocate is that the onus be placed on speakers, so that they are aware of and sensitive to the import of speech. 

But to return to what I started out with—the north-south divide—are there occasions, situations, anything at all, when neither north nor south,  Border, nor Breed, nor Birth* matter? Is there anything in our shared cultural life that could make such differences seem immaterial? Cricket? Corruption? Traffic jams? Films? Inflation? Ad infinitum?  

(*All postcolonial critics, save your breath and those e-mails. Despite Kipling’s current standing—jingoistic imperialist and the Empire’s most vocal mouthpiece—I enjoy the lyrical charm of his ballads and story-telling.)



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How do you say “Please” in ‘Indian’?

One of my pet theories (and there are many, though this one is teacher’s pet!) is that there is really nothing truly pan-Indian. Paradoxically, when speaking of India or Indians you often need to make pan-Indian generalizations, take recourse to stereotypes. Because it’s easier to speak of stereotypes than of vast, individual differences, isn’t it?  Allow me to elaborate.

One of my favourite urban legends,  among the many in circulation at the Department where I teach,  is this one:  A colleague teaching a text by an Indian English writer was trying to explain to her class that one of the characters in the text was based on the mythological figure Sita. One of her students, a young woman from one of India’s North-Eastern states, stood up and asked, “Excuse me Ma’am, but who is Sita?”

Point made? No? Then stop reading!

Stereotype – this word can be a terrible stone to cast if your target is someone’s view, or idea, or a character or an image in a book or a film.  The etymology of the word, interestingly, is in  printing technology – a duplicate impression of an original typographical  element, used for printing instead of the original. (Courtesy – OED.) No wonder stereotypes have negative connotations as something unreal – an impression or imitation.

All right, there’s  a point to this rant and I shall make it forthwith.

Idly googling the other day,  I came across an interesting observation on a blog by the CEO of a travel  website and forum. Speaking of prevailing stereotypes about the Indian tourist, he says:

 Many foreigners have pointed out to me that Indians never say ‘please’ and are therefore impolite. Now, here is my question to you. What is the word for ‘please’ in an Indian language? Yup, that is right By and large, there is no word for ‘please’ in most Indian languages. But as we all know, that hasn’t stopped (sic) from being polite. We use intonation, body language and a hundred other markers to ensure that others know that we are being polite. The problem is, most foreigners cannot get all of those markers. They look out for the marker they are familiar with, which is the word ‘please’ and its equivalents. And when that is absent, wrongly assume we are rude. I suspect there are many other instances of this, leading to our stereotype.

(The original context here.)

He seems to be saying two things:

  • Indians do not know/use the word “please”.
  • Indian languages do not have the word “please”.

With the implication that the first is because of the second. 

Let me dispense with the second contention first. Perhaps the blogger has never paid attention to the mechanical, recorded voice one hears in lifts, railway stations, and traffic signals, which belts out instructions/information in the local language.  The instruction usually begins with the request “please pay attention.” And that word “please” is Kripaya in Hindi,  dayachesi in my own tongue, Telugu, dayawayi in Malayalam, doya kore in Bengali … Here’s a site that tells you how to say “please” in a hundred different languages of the world, including many Indian languages.

Of course the word exists in all our Indian languages. And of course we use it whenever we want to! “Please”, when used to make a request, is an interjection in English whereas in Indian languages, and indeed in many languages of the world,  it is usually a verb in inflected form or a phrase consisting of a noun and an inflected verb. But this is knowledge only a linguist or a grammar nerd would have, or be interested in! For speakers, it is a word that means “please.”

So how valid is the assertion that “please” does not exist in Indian languages? Just because it is a verb or a phrase in these languages, but an interjection in English? The French say “S’il vous plait”. Does it then follow that the French do not have a word for “please”? C’est absurde!!

And now to the other assertion.  I seriously doubt that the reason for Indian tourists’ perceived rudeness is the lack of the word “please” in their  collective lexicon.

Politeness is a cultural marker. It is perceived and expressed differently in different cultures. And linguistic expression is just one of the means by which politeness is conveyed. (The blogger also rightly points out that there are many other markers of politeness that Indians use.)

The point is that these other markers could denote rudeness even if you sprinkled your speech liberally with “please”. For instance, a Japanese speaker might use “please” appropriately, but American listeners could still perceive them as rude because of the pitch of the voice. In Japan, it is considered rude and unfriendly to speak in a low pitch. Quite the reverse is true in the Anglo-American world. (I owe this insight to the Language Log folks.) In English itself, “Please come here!” when said with gritted teeth  and in a low, menacing tone (specially by a teacher!) could very well be a threat rather than a request.

Therefore the connection between the use of “please” and the perception of rudeness is tenuous at best and laughable at worst. But there’s a bigger problem with this claim. It’s just the kind of pan-Indian, stereotypical generalization referred to earlier in this post.  Who is this tourist the blogger is speaking about? Is there one, homogeneous class of English-speaking Indians you can describe as not using “please”?  

Although we count as an English-speaking nation, English is spoken very differently across the country, across classes and across linguistic communities. The English-educated (and Westernized) classes speak it quite differently from those educated in the vernacular medium (for whom English is just a “subject” in school or college).  Or from those who never formally learn English, but pick it up, at least essential words and phrases, out of sheer necessity. And to add to this medley, the teaching of English in India is a very formal, bookish process, steeped in literary, written language, largely British, rather than current, spoken usage. 

How would someone untutored formally in English, or tutored only in the formal, written variety, know enough of the nuances  of spoken English to be able to say “May I please look at your menu /price-list?”  Learning a language in the constricted environment of the classroom is no guarantee that you can use it appropriately in speech.

 In fact,  in school Wren and Martin taught us that “please” is used with requests, in very formal situations – formal, official letters, formal written prose, formal public speech, or when speaking to higher-ups. Tourists would definitely view themselves as being in an informal, ‘fun’ setting. 

The point is, (not) using “please” is a consequence of the kind of exposure to English one has had, and the way English is used and taught in India. Not politeness, or translation breakdowns between English and Indian languages, or the lack of that word in Indian languages. (Thanks to Prasanth, of the daily pheesh, for the brief chat on this.) 

The quintessential Indian tourist who doesn’t use “please” is a cultural and linguistic stereotype that may be convenient but has no basis in fact. 

And to hammer it in, here’s Dilbert making my point more effectively and succinctly. (HT: Language Log)

(This is an unusually long post, I know. Well, it was written on the longest day of the year, 21 June!)

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