Thursday, August 24, 2006

What about my mother tongue? August 27, 2006

My column on ‘Inglish’ last month brought a lot of mail. Much of it was favourable, but a few criticised me for advocating the “bizarre” idea that we should think of English as an Indian language and exploit it unabashedly to “conquer the world”. Since my critics are serious academics I don’t want to dismiss their concerns lightly. The nation’s 59th birthday has also just passed—so it is a good time to dwell on our linguistic future.
Anthropologists tell us that language is a carrier of culture and one’s first language carries one’s culture. Gauri Vishwanathan writes in the Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India that the English language came to us as an "imperial mission" of educating and civilising colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England. English speaking Indians thus became “alienated from their roots, their character degraded, and their minds colonized and incapable of innovation”. English also became an instrument of social exclusion against the low caste. Hence, many critics want English banned from our primary schools.
True, it came here on an imperial mission and got left behind by accident, but English is now a part of our history, as much as Gandhi and Nehru. Millions of Indians have been speaking English for generations and they don’t show imminent signs of losing their Indian-ness. Besides, young middle class Indians today are more confident and relaxed, and their minds are finally decolonised. They think of English as an empowering skill, like Windows, and are comfortable mixing it with their mother tongue. They “live in their own skin" as the great French-Algerian writer, Frantz Fanon, would have put it.
Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, says that no one 'owns' English anymore. It is the global language and a quarter of the world's population uses it. Three-quarters of the world's people are naturally bilingual, he adds. This means that people are capable of maintaining a balance between their language of empowerment and their language of identity. Hence, major languages, like Marathi and Kannada, are in no danger of extinction (although our tribal languages are). Vernacular chauvinists, in Karnataka and elsewhere, are wrong to go against parents’ wishes who want their children to learn English in primary schools. Linguistic experts say that a person has a huge advantage if he learns a language before the age of ten. This is one of the reasons why 98 out of 100 candidates for call centre jobs get rejected. Over the next ten years 3.5 million jobs are expected to be outsourced globally, and they are likely to be lost by India because BPO experts say that India is losing its “English” advantage to other countries. China has realised that outsourcing is capable of wiping out the disease of “educated unemployment” and it has made teaching English from KG a national goal.

What is truly “bizarre” is that India, whose success in the global economy derives from its facility with English, should remain hostage to the deep insecurities of its vernacular chauvinists. They worry about borrowing English words. Imagine if Shakespeare had written his plays in pure Anglo Saxon and hadn’t borrowed wildly from Latin, Germanic and French roots! We can either be like the French or the Chinese. The French whine over globalization while the confident Chinese go out to play and win the game. I’d rather follow the Chinese. Let’s think of English as an Indian language and go and win the world.

Let our cities reflect the spirit of a new age, Outlook Magazine, August 13,2006

When I heard two weeks ago that one Sanjay Singal, chairman of Bhushan Power and Steel, had bought a one acre plot on 4 Amrita Shergill Marg in New Delhi for Rs 137 crores, I wanted to rush up to him and say to him, ‘Now that you have one of India’s most prized properties, do select a great architect to build your home. For god’s sake, let’s not have another cut-and-paste job. Your building ought to symbolise the rise of a new age in India after the reforms, and millions will remember you for having captured a great moment in our history.’ For good architecture has the amazing ability to represent the life of the times in our imagination.
This issue of Outlook is about the way “the world looks at India”, and one of the most potent ones is visual memory. A great nation or city is defined by its buildings. We remember Paris not only by the Eiffel Tower, but by the wonderful boulevard buildings of Baron Haussmann. We think of New York by the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings (although my favourite is Mies’ Seagrams building). Sydney has its exciting Opera House. Although Seattle’s signature is the Space Needle, etched in my memory is Rem Koolhaas’ public library. There is even a city which was ‘created’ by a building— Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum is rightly called the ‘miracle of Bilbao’, which put this unknown city in northeast Spain on the world map. These visuals symbols are not just symbols of man’s quest for beauty, they also reflect the spirit of an age.
It is fifteen years since the golden summer of 1991 when we lost our innocence and with it our fear of the global economy, and began our affair with the free market. It has been a remarkable period which has spawned world class companies and made us one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Time, the Economist, and Foreign Affairs recently did cover issues on this ‘rise of India’. Yet if you think about it, we don’t have a single visual image which celebrates this new age with its spirit of economic freedom and the unshackling of the energies of the Indian people, and in parenthesis, the slow decline of the old bureaucratic state.
Certainly, we do have some powerful visual reminders of our great cities. When you think of Mumbai, you think of the Gateway of India (although VT station is what I think of). Delhi has Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, India Gate, and a host of visual symbols. But these are images of our colonial and pre-colonial past. The first and last visual moment of post-Independence India was in the mid-1950s when Jawaharlal Nehru, with plenty of vision and courage, commissioned Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh. Swadeshi voices were raised even then—‘why can’t an Indian architect do it? But Nehru had little patience for petty minds with their petty complexes, and he stood firm. He may have been the victim of bad economic ideas like ‘import substitution’ but his mind was as open as Rabindranath Tagore’s when it came to the world.
The civilized merchant prince, Vikram Sarabhai, supported Nehru’s bold approach and he invited Corbusier to design a house for his family in Ahmedabad. During this fertile period in Ahmedabad, the great Louis Kahn built the campus of the Indian Institute of Management and Ray and Charles Eames were associated with the National School of Design. Thus, two geographies of contemporary India entered the history of world architecture, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. Corbusier went on to inspire a generation of great architects—B.V. Doshi, Charles Correa, and many others.
Chandigarh is by now the memory of an age gone by. The city captured our utopian, post-Independence dreams of socialism, secularism and democracy, and more importantly our faith in the state’s ability to do good. By the seventies, however, Indira Gandhi had perverted these ideals and socialism had turned into a statist Licence Raj and democracy was almost extinguished by the Emergency. Our mood of despair finally lifted with the announcement of sweeping liberalisation in July 1991. It was as though our second independence had arrived: we were going to be free from a rapacious and domineering state. A new stage in our history had begun with a decisive shift in country’s energy to the private sector.
So now, when Infosys, Wipro or TCS puts up a new building, it should ask itself, if what goes on inside is world class, shouldn’t the outside reflect this achievement? The same responsibility devolves upon our other globally competitive companies like Bharti, Bharat Forge, Jet Airways, ICICI Bank. Come to think of it, if Sir Norman Foster could design the Hong Kong airport and Renzo Piano the Kansia airport in Osaka, why don’t we have great architects design our new airports in Delhi and Mumbai? The responsibility for ‘dreaming Chandigarhs’ has now fallen on the business class, particularly on builders like DLF, Mittals and Rahejas.
Just before Sanjay Singal bought his acre in Lutyens Delhi, Navin Jindal had paid Rs 165 crores to buy 3.8 acres on Mansingh Road. At these prices one can now afford to bring in a Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier or even I.M. Pei. A good place to start looking for a great architect is among the 27 recipients of the annual Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, but there are many more to choose from.
It is time we took our cities seriously. They have unbelievable energy; they are crowded; but they can be beautiful. The word ‘city’ is related to ‘civic’ and ‘civilization’, and the city is a place of civilization. Some Indians have a prejudice against urban towers, which is understandable for a typical glass and steel tower is aggressive, arrogant and black, and it is trying to say, ‘I am more powerful than you’. But when someone like Renzo Piano thinks of urban towers, he thinks of San Gemignano, and a ‘desire to go up, to breathe fresh air, to disappear into the sky…it is not a bad idea to go up in dense cities.’
A hundred years from now the world will remember the first quarter of the 21st century not for 9/11 as many Americans believe, but for the rise of China and India. It is as important a moment in world history as the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Kenneth Clarke reminds us: ‘A great historical episode can exist in our imagination almost entirely in the form of architecture. Very few of us have read the texts of early Egyptian literature. Yet we feel we know those infinitely remote people almost as well as our immediate ancestors, chiefly because of their sculpture and architecture.’ So, let’s return the compliment to liberalization by putting up some great buildings and make something out of our cities that will live after us.------Gurcharan Das is the author of India Unbound and other books. He was formerly CEO of Procter and Gamble India.

Monday, August 21, 2006

How to score a self-goal!, August 13, 2006

Truly, we are a wondrous land! In a country where two thirds of the children are undernourished, where 70 percent of the people cannot access safe sanitation and 65 infants die out of a thousand born, we are seriously debating the pesticide levels in a product that is probably the safest in the world from a pesticide perspective. Sadly, the controversy has created a scare in a nation which has among the lowest pesticide residues in its food chain. Indian diets contain roughly 18 percent of acceptable daily intake levels of pesticide versus Western diets which have 40 to 50 percent, according to international experts. The reason is that our diets are extensively vegetarian; and meat inherently has higher pesticide levels via the grains ingested by animals in the food chain.

If we are seriously concerned with pesticides in Indian diets, we ought to begin with tea. According to European norms (EU), tea contains 187,300 times the pesticide than water used in colas. If hypothetically our colas had exceeded allowable levels by thirty times, I could still drink 6200 glasses of cola and I would have less pesticide in my body than a cup of tea. The same goes for other foods. EU norms allow apples to have 154,120 times the pesticide than water; bananas to have 95,220 times; milk 7140 times. So, soft drinks are among the safest products we consume from the pesticide perspective. This doesn’t mean that our other foods are not safe. Nor is our food chain polluted—an unfortunate impression created by the media. It means that we do not live in an ideal world free of pests and pesticides.

I am generally a critic of our government, but in this case I give it credit. It has fixed water standards which are equal to the highest norms in the world. Since water in soft drinks conforms to these norms, it is probably safer to drink a Pepsi in Kerala than in Kentucky. The government is also now working on sugar norms and testing a protocol for finished soft drinks. In the end, governments understand that multinational companies have to maintain high standards because they have too much to lose. News travels quickly and a disaster in one country can harm a company’s image and sales around the world. Hence, the Indian government wants to do its own tests. The last time around government data showed six times lower pesticide levels than CSE’s tests.

Our state politicians have fallen into a trap. They think that by banning colas they have won cheap votes. People, however, will soon realise that they have been taken for a ride. Already the people of Kerala are questioning, how can you ban colas and allow the sale of liquor and cigarettes? Eventually, everyone has lost in this silly business. Our nation has been unfairly smeared for high pesticide in our food chain. Our exports of food products will lose the trust of international customers. Tourists will say, “If I can’t drink a safe cola, how can I eat anything in India?” Foreign investors will be reluctant to invest in a country which does not observe the rule of law in closing factories. All NGOs have got a bad name by these smear tactics. The environmental movement has been hurt. This is sad because we need a strong civil society to take on the real problems of India. Finally, media has been tarnished by its lack of application. We have truly scored a self-goal!

Monday, August 07, 2006

The difficulty of being good July 30, 2006

There is a green playing field near my house where children can usually be found playing cricket. Over the past two months, however, they have quietly switched to football. Since I love football, I stop and linger and watch, hoping to see someone score a goal. But my neighbour says he misses the cricket, and blames this change on “insidious globalization”. He is referring, of course, to last month’s World Cup, which should have been a dazzling climax to Zinedine Zidane’s glorious career, but instead it left the memory of an angry moment and exposed the tragic flaw in a hero who carried the burden of a divided nation on his shoulders. Like a tragic hero, he went not to his coronation but to his disgrace.

Zidane symbolized peace and reconciliation in a troubled France where riots had erupted last year in dozens of cities. A shy, level-headed, family man, he was proof to millions of immigrant children in France that you could be brown and Muslim and African, and still be a success in the 21st century. Like Karna in the Mahabharata, Zidane had a “mystical talent”. He had the ability to accurately control the ball with any part of his boot, to make the ball hover between his ankles, which meant that it was impossible for his opponent to read where he was going to kick the ball.

The parallel with Karna doesn’t end there. It was Zidane’s last game as it was Karna’s last battle. The French assembled their team around Zidane; the Kauravas built their strategy around Karna. Zidane changed the tournament by defeating Brazil; Karna was capable of changing the course of the Kurukshetra war. The penalty shoot-out loomed before Zidane; the fight with Arjuna hung over Karna. Just as Materazzi tried to demoralize Zidane psychologically, so did Salya, Karna’s charioteer. (Yudhishthira had extracted a promise from Salya that instead of raising Karna’s morale, like a good charioteer, he would destroy it.) Zidane had a low flash point and the Italians knew it. So, they began to wind him up from the start of the match. And he threw it all away when he turned, walked back to Materazzi, and with all that unstoppable venom, hit him.

Most of us don’t swear at strangers on the street. So, why should sportsmen behave in this disgraceful way? Australian cricketers have turned sledging into an art form. The truth is that psychological warfare is an old ploy going back to the days of the Mahabharata. A professional must learn to deal with it. When Shane Warne tried this on Brian Lara, the latter scored 275. In reacting to Materazzi, Zidane broke a golden rule of a professional. He put his feelings ahead of his team. Terry Venables, the former English coach, used to tell his players, “If they spit on your face, turn around and walk away.” Gandhi taught the same to Satyagrahis during the Quit India Movement.

When you are so admired you begin to believe you are a god. It is as though the legend becomes too much for the man. Hubris takes over, and you are ready for a fall. It is one of one of life’s cruelties that the best must also fail. Yudhishthira too had to tell a lie. The Mahabharata teaches us how difficult it is to be good in this world, which I suppose, is an apt sub-title not only for the epic but also for our life on this earth.

Inglish, it’s cool! July 16, 2006

A few years ago TV viewers in Tamil Nadu were entertained by pictures of irate children and grandchildren of Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, scolding the police in chaste English while apologetic policemen grovelled in Tamil. The scene was not remarkable except that the amused viewers had been victims of incessant sermons by the mighty minister on the evils of English, and the irony did not escape them.

Last year I wrote a long essay about two trends that are likely to determine our linguistic future. One is the rapid spread of English across India; the second is the unprecedented popularity of Hindi. The collision of the two we call Hinglish, but should, in fact, be called Inglish because it is increasingly pan-India’s street language and borrows from all vernaculars. Mixing English with our mother tongues has been going on for generations, but what is different this time around is that Inglish is both the aspirational language of the lower classes and the fashionable idiom of upper class drawing rooms. Inglish is the stylish language of Bollywood, FM radio and national advertising. Advertisers, in particular, have been surprised by the terrific resonance to slogans such as, ‘Life ho to aise’, ‘Josh machine’ and ‘Dil mange more’.

What exactly is Inglish is not easy to define, and needs more research. Is its base English or vernacular bhasha? For the upwardly mobile, I think, it is bhasha, such as what my newsboy speaks: ‘Aaj main busy hoon, kal bill milega, definitely’. Or my bania’s helper: ‘voh, mujhe avoid karti hai!’ For the classes, on the other hand, the base is definitely English, as in: ‘Hungry, kya?’ or ‘Careful yaar, voh dangerous hai!’ Zee News’ evening bulletin is more even handed with an equal number of English and Hindi words: ‘Aaj Middle East mein peace ho gai!’

In Inglish, perhaps for the first time we may have found a unifying language of the masses and the classes, acceptable to the South and the North. Its rise has parallels with Urdu, which became a naturalised subcontinental language mainly after the decline of Muslim rule. Originally the camp argot of the country’s Muslim conquerors, Urdu was forged from a combination of the conqueror’s imported Farsi and local bhasha. Just as soldiers transported it to the Deccan, so is Inglish riding the coat-tails of Outsourcing and Bollywood. It is appropriate that this should be happening to English for it is a bastard and has borrowed promiscuously from all languages. It sprang up in late 14th century England among common people when the Norman aristocracy spoke French and the clergy Latin. The first efforts to translate the Bible into English led to burnings at the stake, but in a hundred years it had produced Shakespeare. Inglish too might do the same in the 21st century!

So, is Inglish our ‘conquest of English’ to paraphrase Salman Rushdie? Or is it our journey to ‘conquer the world’ in the words of Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, who predicts that Indian English will soon become the most widely spoken variant of English as a result of India’s economic rise and the sheer size of its population. ‘When 300 hundred million Indians pronounce an English word in a certain way’, he says, ‘it will be the only way to pronounce it.’ Raghuvir Sahay sums it up well: “The English taught us English to turn us into subjects/ Now we teach ourselves English to turn into masters”.