Monthly Archives: March 2015
Its snowing yet again this weekend, I can has spring?
In the parade of clueless opinion pieces that grace the pages of the New York Times, last week’s op-ed contribution by Aatish Taseer takes the not just the cake but the bakery. In his column, Taseer, laments how the language of India’s past colonial masters is killing Indian literature. The leaps of logic, the factual inaccuracies and over the top generalizations would give even the Mustache of Understanding a headache.
The essay follows a classic Friedmanesque pattern. Instead of the cab driver, we have a boatman on the Ganges, dispensing pearls of wisdom to the intrepid Mr. Taseer. How quaint, and shall I say, orientalist of Mr. Taseer.
A BOATMAN I met in Varanasi last year, while covering the general election that made Narendra Modi prime minister of India, said, “When Modi comes to power, we will send this government of the English packing.”
The London born, Amherst College graduate, decries that English has killed Indian literature. There is so much wrong in this piece that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, it takes a lot of chutzpah to decry the influence of English, while peddling books in the same language. I see a bright future in politics for Mr. Taseer. He can join the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, and rail articulately against the influence of English and grumble about colonialism, while he himself profits from his knowledge of the so-called language of oppression.
The boatman’s story is followed by anecdata of someone not getting an acting job because they could not speak English. Since that supposedly signified that the actor was not a member of the elite. How this is supposed to prove the death of Indian literature, I have no clue.
This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English.
Also, what is this Indian literature he speaks of? I wonder. Surely, Mr. Taseer is aware that there is no language called Indian? India is home to many languages with their own scripts, grammars and yes literature, dating back to a thousand years or more. There is more to India’s linguistic diversity than the dead classical language Sanskrit and the language of the Northern India, Hindi, the two languages Mr. Taseer mentions in his essay full of fail.
India has had languages of the elite in the past — Sanskrit was one, Persian another.
English is far more widespread and easily attainable than these two languages ever were. Persian was the language of the Mughal court but unlike the British, even at the height of their power, the Mughals never ruled all of India. The South and Northeast were never a part of the Moghul empire. As for Sanskrit, it has been an antiquated language of ritual for more than a thousand years . Until recently, it was the sole the preserve of Brahmin males and even for them, it was not the everyday language of marital spats or gossip. Also, no other language is symbolic of the caste divides in India, than Sanskrit.
Both these languages did not have the reach or draw of English, ever. In a country with a multitude of languages English is unique. It does not belong to a particular region of India , nor is it a preserve of a particular caste. For better or for worse, in India, English is the language that helps you rise above your circumstances and get out of the constricting straight jacket of tradition. Since it is both the language of official business and higher education, it expands your horizons of what is possible. English is not a language oppression for Indians but a language of opportunity. Indians have made English their own and added to India’s linguistic diversity. It is the very opposite of Mr. Taseer’s claim;
English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.
What total bullshit, how is the linguistic line unbreachable? You can’t easily change your skin color or gender, or your caste for that matter, but you can learn a new language. English is not some antiquated language with five living speakers, there are plenty of resources available if want to master it.
He then follows this brilliant insight with the stories of two students from Banaras Hindu University. Presumably, Mr. Taseer was dropped there by the boatman from the first paragraph. Banaras is another name for Varanasi, a city on the banks of the river Ganges, Hinduism’s Mecca if you will. Anyway, coming back to the aforementioned students, both give Mr. Op-Ed contributor a sad.
First there is Vishal Singh,
a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes.
Playing basketball is not a route to popularity in India. It would be more believable if Vishal Singh played cricket. Besides, Michael Jordan hasn’t played professional basket ball since Vishal Singh was in elementary school. Vishal Singh is probably as real as Mr. Ganges Boatman. Vishal Singh, apparently can’t string two sentences in English but he is still better off than a scholar of Sanskrit.
Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless.
What is so unique about Shukla, doesn’t everyone have to learn the rules of grammar when mastering any language? Why is Mr. Shukla powerless? If he can master the extra special rules of ancient Indian grammarians, surely he can use his linguistic skills to master English. According to Mr. Taseer, Sheshamuni has spent ten years in the Sanskrit department, so I am guessing that he must at least be a doctoral candidate in Sanskrit. I don’t see how knowledge of English is relevant to his career prospects as a scholar of Sanskrit. Also, Mr. Shukla was surely aware that spending years studying a classical language would not make him marketable like an engineering degree would. Would a scholar of Aramaic or Latin be flooded with job offers after graduation ? I don’t see what these anecdotes are supposed to establish.
As for political power, the halls of power in India are not the preserve of the English speaking elite as Mr. Taseer would have us believe. In fact not being fluent in Hindi is much more of an impediment to success in India’s national politics. In fact, eleven of India’s fifteen Prime Ministers originate from the Hindi belt and/or are native Hindi speakers. I remember that people would point and laugh at Rajiv Gandhi because he was not fluent in Hindi, when he was thrust into political limelight after his mother’s assassination.
Indian writers who write in English get no love from Mr. Taseer either, he either dismisses them as owing their success to the West;
India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes.
or they are beneath contempt;
India, when left to its own devices, throws up a very different kind of writer, a man such as Chetan Bhagat, who, though he writes in English about things that are urgent and important — like life on campuses and in call centers — writes books of such poor literary quality that no one outside India can be expected to read them. India produces a number of such writers,
Mr. Pompous Windbag does not stop here, he then proceeds to speak for all of India, deeming it voiceless.
But this is not the voice of a confident country. It sounds rather like a country whose painful relationship with language has left it voiceless.
And who better to give voiceless Indians a voice, than a Russian?
The Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky felt in the 19th century that the slavish imitation of European culture had created “a sort of duality in Russian life, consequently a lack of moral unity.” The Indian situation is worse; the Russians at least had Russian.
Next up, lamentations about the good old days,
In the past, there were many successful Indian writers who were bi- and trilingual. Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in English and Bengali; Premchand, the short story writer and novelist, wrote in Hindi and Urdu; and Allama Iqbal wrote English prose and Persian and Urdu poetry,
Hindi and Urdu are not two separate languages but the same language, Hindustani, written in different scripts.
But around the time of my parents’ generation, a break began to occur. Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone. The Indian languages never recovered. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, I spoke Hindi and Urdu, but had to self-consciously relearn them as an adult. Many of my background didn’t bother.
As I had suspected before, all this garment rending about voiceless India is about Mr. Taseer’s own angst and has precious little to do with the state of Indian literature. Just because he can’t be a serious writer in Hindi does not mean that the literature of the said language is dead or dying.
This meant that it was not really possible for writers like myself to pursue a serious career in an Indian language. We were forced instead to make a roundabout journey back to India. We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity. V. S. Naipaul called it “the riddle of the two civilizations.” He felt it stood in the way of “identity and strength and intellectual growth.”
Mr. Naipaul is of Indian origin but how many Indian languages does Mr. Naipaul speak? He is an observer of Indian mores, with a distant ancestral connection nothing more. Why does Taseer choose him as the supposed Indian voice of authenticity?
That day almost a year ago in Varanasi, the boatman felt that Mr. Modi’s coming to power would rid India of the legacy of English rule. Mr. Modi, who had risen to power out of poverty with little to no English, seemed to pose a direct challenge to the power of the English-speaking elite. The boatman was wrong. Though the election was in some ways a dramatization of India’s culture wars, English, and all that it signifies, will endure here for generations still.
This is ridiculous, as I mentioned before, being fluent in Hindi has always been more important than mastery over English to succeed in politics. Prominent Indian politicians whose English Mr. Taseer would approve of, are few and far between. On the other hand political stalwarts whose oratorical skills in Hindi far surpass their skills in English are too numerous to recount here. The same is true at the state level too, where knowledge of the state language can make or break your candidacy. Try to get elected in Tamil Nadu without speaking Tamil, for example. Linguistic politics are a minefield in India, English is as close to a neutral language as one can get. With as many as twenty two officially recognized languages, there is no clear cut successor to replace English. To India’s millions of non Hindi speakers (60% of the population according to the 2001 census), why would Hindi hegemony be necessarily better than English?
In reality, many Indians, especially the ones whose mother tongue is not Hindi can speak three and sometimes even four languages. Take the hypothetical example of a Bengali person who grew up in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra and went to a school whose medium of instruction was English. This person would know their mother tongue, Bengali and Marathi, the state language of Maharashtra besides Hindi and English.
In addition to formal Hindi education, the Hindi film industry is a potent pan Indian cultural force. Movies made in Hindi and other regional languages far exceed the revenues generated by Hollywood flicks. The relationship between Indian languages and English is far more complex than Mr. Taseer lets on.
If Mr. Taseer is not a competent Hindi speaker or writer, it is his own damn fault and he should quit projecting his neuroses on the entire country.
This is as deep an entrenchment of class and power as any the world has known; it will take more to change it than a change of government. It will take a dismantling of colonial education, a remaking of the relationship between language and power.The boatman spoke from anger, but I was not out of sympathy with his rage. It was the rage of belonging to a place that, 70 years after the British left, still felt in too many ways like an outpost.
Sure, lets go ahead and dismantle the teaching of English in India, and make the language a sole preserve of those Indians who can afford an undergraduate education at an elite liberal arts college. Then they can write columns and be dismissive of their fellow countrymen for their poor English.
The neocons are back at it again, baying for another war in the Middle East. John Bolton, the man with the ridiculous mustache and even more ridiculous ideas wants to start a war to end war. Hmmm, I wonder where I have heard that one before.
Since their last project turned out so well, they want to go even bigger this time. All this hysteria about Iran reminds of the buildup to the other neocon pet project, Iraq. We know how that turned out. I am rendered speechless by the temerity of the cheer leaders of the Iraq war calling the President naïve. These are the same people who made pie-in-the-sky predictions about Iraq a mere decade ago, and are responsible for the needless death and destruction.
I have a suggestion for John Bolton and the Iraq fail brigade in the media and think tanks, if you want to talk about war: enlist first, talk later.
The first day of spring and we have fresh snow on the ground, this winter is turning into a long and endless one. Happy first day of spring, happy new year aka Gudi Padwa and above all happy Caturday.
Not a chance that I am going to be climbing any mountains anytime soon. Do you have any special plans to celebrate the arrival of spring? As for me, I will celebrate spring, when all the the snow has gone, until such a time, I will be with this kitteh.
Education “reformers” in the MSM have set their sights higher. Their next target, higher education. There were two columns in the NYT in the last week, on this topic. One by a think tank guy, who I had never heard of before and the another one by the Times columnist, Joe Nocera, praising the aforementioned think tank dude, Kevin Carey.
The gist of the both the columns in one sentence; since college has grown too expensive, the solution is online degrees for the masses. I am sure NYT columnists and their think tank buddies will still go to college, preferably Harvard or Yale or the other Ivies.
Some of the grievances that Nocera brings up seem legitimate, but both Carey and Nocera are also complaining about the money universities spend on research? Really? Who should we leave the research too? Think tanks?
Over time, the mission that came to matter most within the university culture was research. Great research institutions derived the most status.
Its not that the universities have no problems, but I fail to see how online degrees are going to change anything. As far as I know, universities charge the same per credit hour whether it is online or in person. If Carey wants to do away with universities altogether. I wonder what exactly is going to replace a traditional university?
Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.
Yes that’s exactly what higher education needs, an Uber! Has Tom Friedman aka Mustache of Understanding weighed in on this? This is my solution.
Credits: Graphics by Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half
The brutal rape and the eventual death of Jyoti Singh Pandey is back in the news again because of the documentary, India’s daughter, made by Leslee Udwin. Jyoti was only 23 when she died in 2012 of the horrific injuries she sustained as a result of her encounter with five men on a moving bus. Because she had the temerity to fight back, the men raped her viciously with an iron rod and left her to die, by the side of the road, in a pool of her own blood and guts.
Udwin’s interview with one of the rapists and his defense team has raised hackles of many in India and ultimately led to the documentary being banned in India. Not only does the rapist, Mukesh Singh not show any remorse he also blames Jyoti for her rape and subsequent death.
In a country whose elected leaders routinely blame women for the violence they suffer and never the men who commit these crimes, where women are deemed inferior to men or even worse, likened to objects. Is it really shocking that men like Mukesh Singh exist?
Rape and murder are at the extreme end of the scale of the indignities that Indian women have to bear from their birth till the day they die just for being female. However, the skewed gender ratio, the malnourished girl children, the underweight mothers, the treatment of widows, attest to a broader culture where a virulent strain of misogyny thrives.
When this story is reported by the Indian news media, Jyoti is almost never mentioned by name. Why is that? She did nothing wrong, why does her name have to be hidden while those of her rapists grace headlines? Is it some twisted logic that being raped is worse than being a rapist? She deserves to be remembered by her real name. It is time for India to quit burying its collective head in the sand. So air the damn documentary and call Jyoti Singh Pandey by her name, enough with the cute euphemisms. Her father is right, her name deserves to be known.
Banning a documentary does nothing except show the world that India’s leaders think that Indians can’t handle the unvarnished truth about their own society. I think they are selling their citizenry short.