Posts Tagged teaching English in India

“Whoring after English Gods”

Lovely title, isn’t it? Perfectly describes the English-speaking minority in India. Not my genius – alas! – but that of the poet R. Parthasarathy.  The relevance will become crystal further down.

This is a first … blogging in the space of two days. The reason for this (rather pointless) productivity is that I’m disturbed. I could of course ventilate with the spouse and the kid. But both of them deserve a break from me weekends.  So let me cut a vein open here instead.

Government schools are everyone’s favourite punching bag when it comes to criticizing education in India. Here in Hyderabad there will now be further cause to vilify them. Because government school teachers are all set to create some very serious havoc as they struggle to implement the government’s new dictum  – to adopt the CBSE syllabus (virtually overnight) and to teach it in English. Now, most of these teachers rarely speak English and are understandably nervous about teaching in it. 

I suppose it’s quite useless to ask “Why this obsession with English?”  Because English is today economically important, given our reputation as the world’s best outsourcing outpost!   

Writing and speaking in English seems the most natural (nay, the most sought after) thing to do – look at the scores of talented Indians writing in English whether offline or online. The question “Why am I writing/speaking in English?” is no longer relevant. 

But the irony is that for every Booker-prize-winning author or promising young thing paid obscene amouts for a book not even begun, there are hundreds  struggling to learn enough English to pass a board exam or face an interview.  Like they say, for everything that you can say about India, the opposite is also true.

There was a time when our writers, especially our poets, agonized over this incongruity of using English in India.  Here, for instance, is an extract from R. Parthasarathy’s Rough Passage, describing English as a necessary exile and thereby a route back to one’s roots 

……
He had spent his youth
Whoring after English Gods.
There is something to be said for exile:

You learn roots are deep,
That language is a tree, loses colour
Under another sky.

The bark disappears with the snow,
And branches become hoarse.
…..

The allegory of English as a whore with whom Indians are infatuated is best developed in Keki Daruwalla’s The Mistress. A long poem, so I’ll just quote some bits here: 

No one believes me when I say
my mistress is half-caste. Perched
on the genealogical tree somewhere
is a Muslim mid-wife and a Goan cook.

But she is more mixed than that.
Down the genetic lane, babus
and professors of English
have also made their one-night contributions.

You can make her out the way she speaks;
her consonants bludgeon you;
her argot is rococo, her latest ‘slang’
is available in classical dictionaries.

….

 My love for her survives from night to night,
even though each time
I have to wrestle with her in bed.
….

In the streets she is known.
They hiss when she passes.

Despite this she is vain,
flashes her bangles and her tinsel;
wears heels even though her feet
are smeared up to the ankles with henna.

 ….

No she is not Anglo-Indian. The Demellos would
bugger me if they got scent of this…

She is not Goan, not Syrian Christian.
She is Indian English, the language that I use.

(Of course, the inherent sexism in the poem, of viewing English as female and sexual object,  is unmistakable. Nevertheless, the point remains I should think.)

And then there was the inimitable Kamala Das, defending her use of English even while declaring otherwise! 

I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone…

(Source for all three poems: Indian Poetry in English. Ed. M. Paranjape. Macmillan)

These concerns are no longer relevant today, I know.  And maybe rightly so. A whole host of writers from Raja Rao to Rushdie to Arundhati Roy have been telling us that English is now our language, and that we are fashioning it to suit our purpose.

And yes, I am a sucker for their argument too, marvelling as I do at the elegant minimalism of verse like this: 

First thing in the morning
He trips on the one chair in his room.
He opens the window
And a teacup falls like a head axed.
The toothbrush slips from his fingers
And then the newspaper.
Too much gravity in here, he tells his cat,
And lies down on the floor.

(Conformist by C.P. Surendran, from his collection Posthumous Poems; Viking Penguin)

But, and this is the catch, how and when will the rest of English India catch up?

OK, I’m done ventilating. And yes, I feel slightly better. The angst will return when I go to work on Monday. But till then . . .

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In which Buddhahood is narrowly averted

This post is about four great sights that had mind-blowing effects on me. But unlike the Buddha’s epochal sights, two of mine were seen online and one in a newspaper. Ah! The times they are a-changing. You don’t need to go on insomnia-induced midnight walks for pardigm-shifting sights.They’re everywhere.

Sight # 1

Stanley Fish’s blog. (He of the Is there a text in this class? fame. The one-liners we coined for him in literary criticism class! Is there a Fish in this class? And so on!)

Specifically, the post where he writes provocatively about the uses (or the lack thereof) of the Humanities today. A debate that we in the Humanites never tire of, and which never fails to rouse our dormant, just-under-the-surface existential fears.

Fish is senior prof in one of the world’s top universities. And he’s acheived fame, fortune, respectability and all that academia can give. Those of us still climbing, however, can’t afford to cut the branch we’re sitting on. (OK, OK, mixed metaphor. And, unflattering comparison to Kalidasa. Unflattering to him, that is.)

But there’s a point he makes in the post that I quite agree with:

What is in need of defense is not the existence of Shakespeare, but the existence of the Shakespeare industry (and of the Herbert industry and of the Hemingway industry), with its seminars, journals, symposia, dissertations, libraries. The challenge of utility is not put (except by avowed Philistines ) to literary artists, but to the scholarly machinery that seems to take those operating it further and further away from the primary texts into the reaches of incomprehensible and often corrosive theory.

Yes indeed. Shakespeare  et al. are in no danger. They will continue to be read. Despite us! The danger lies elsewhere, as the next sight told me.

Sight # 2

A report in The Hindu about the launch of a BPO training centre by a local, state-run university (no, not the one I work for) which will allegedly (and this is appropriate use of ‘allegedly’ Mr Sanyal!) provide communication skills and soft skills to students aspiring to BPO and call centre jobs. With course curriculum and methodolgies provided by a BPO.

Is this the emerging face of our universities? Mass production of clones for  BPOs and call centres? 

All together then. Let’s kowtow.

The writing is beginning to get on the wall, is what I thought as I turned away from the morning newspaper and to Google Reader for some cheer from my favourite blogs. And then the next sight happened, driving the point home. 

Sight # 3

A piece of graffiti. If you’re too lazy to click, this is the text : You hav been deleted.

Given the delicate state of my mind then, this read like an omenous sign. Would you blame me? 
 
The mind was blown. I was ready to give up the world and go in search of the meaning of existence. English teachers’ existence.

But not yet, there was life to be lived – the kid had to be walked to the campus gate and seen safely off into his school bus. Enlightenment would have to wait, but it weighed heavily on my mind as I walked, bracing myself against the morning chill. And the chill of my impending renunciation.

Then the fourth sight happened. The reverse paradigm-shifting one that effectively nullified the earlier three. And this is where my story differs from the Buddha’s. Herstory challenges history and all that.
 
Sight # 4

As we waited for the bus, I saw someone cycle down to the gate. Prof —–, former Dean of the School of —-, one of the most influential profs on campus and widely respected, nationwide, as teacher and researcher in his discipline. He parked his cycle, nodded acknowledgment of my presence,  walked briskly across to the public bus-shelter and boarded a local bus. Not for him the call taxis and chauffeur-driven cars.

I was dumbstruck. This is it, I told myself. This is what academics stand for. Perhaps the urge to live simply, and in the way the common man and woman in India does – that urge is still alive in academicians. Some of them at least. Perhaps they aren’t yet carried away by the “MNC culture”.

We will never compete with swanky private institutes because we serve the teeming masses. Maybe our service isn’t very good, which is why BPOs dare tell us how to teach. But we won’t stop trying.

“Vive La Academia” I felt like shouting as I walked back home.

Maybe I am clutching at straws. Sentimentalizing. Glorifying my professional ilk. But hey, it’s the perfect antidote to renunciation.

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