Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Enigma of English

[Some things I've been reading from The Middle Stage by Chandrahas
Some things I've been reading recently:
"Do [Indian] anglophones paddle in the shadows" by Mukul Kesavan, who is in my opinion among the sharpest thinkers and almost certainly the best prose stylist among columnists in the English-language press in India, and whose piece closes with a line worthy of a great short story. My friend the writer Amitava Kumar, who has on occasion left comments of great erudition on The Middle Stage (such as here), and whose book A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb will be out shortly, has a response to Kesavan here. A reverse angle on Kesavan's argument is provided by Aakar Patel's recent essay "Try and say this in Hindi -- bet you can't".]

[Back in the 1980s, one of Indian cinema's finest playback singers, the Keralite K J Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics in that language written in the Malayalam script for him, but to see the same practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism. I have often argued that we are all minorities in India. But language is one of the most interesting affirmations of our diversity. Though i am no great linguist myself, i was able to joke to an American friend once that i was a typically Indian child: I spoke Malayalam to my mother, English to my father, Hindi to our driver, Bengali to our domestic help and Sanskrit to God. One look at our rupee notes, with their denominations spelled out in 18 languages (and nearly as many scripts) is enough to make the point. Celebrating India's linguistic diversity-SHASHI ON SUNDAY 10 Aug 2008, 0130 hrs IST, Shashi Tharoor]

[Of iffy gurus and mystic sufis Khushwant Singh HT December 05, 2008 India also produced intellects like Rammohun Roy, Sri Aurobindo and M.N. Roy. It has also some highly educated and perceptive thinkers today. But their impact on Indian society has been, and is, marginal. Why ? I can assign two reasons for the failure of our intellectuals to change society. One is that all of them wrote in English that barely 10 per cent of educated Indians can read and comprehend. The masses never get to know about them.]

[MEN & IDEAS Leap into a bilingual world
TOI, 24 Feb 2008, 0130 hrs IST, Gurcharan Das
Stephen Jay Gould, the biologist, argues that human evolution is not smooth and continuous but a series of jump steps, with long periods of stasis
punctuated by quick flurries of adaptation. Language also seems to evolve in this way. The linguist, Peggy Mohan, likens the evolution of the English language in India to the mobile phone. Just as our masses are leapfrogging to cell phones without going through a landline stage, she thinks that English might evolve in the same way from an elite to a mass, second language of the fast growing Indian middle class. If functioning with pre-literate dialects is not to have a phone; and
learning a standard regional language, say shudh Hindi, is to acquire a landline; then aspirant wannabe Indians might actually leapfrog from their pre-literate mother tongues to literacy in functional English. This English is primarily a skill, linked to getting a job, and is associated not with the culture of Shakespeare but with the popular culture of Hinglish - Bollywood, FM radio, SMS, and advertising. Of course, mixing English words with our mother tongue has been going on for generations. Earlier, it was the aspirational idiom of the lower classes. Now, it is also the fashionable idiom in upper class drawing rooms in south Delhi and south Mumbai. Hence, this English is shared and democratic.]

[SWAMINOMICS Why Hinglish will beat Chinglish
TOI, 31 Aug 2008, 0127 hrs IST, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar
Thanks to its English language advantage, India has become world leader in call centres and back office outsourcing. China cannot compete because
very few Chinese speak English. To rectify this, China has made English compulsory in
schools. Will it soon give India tough competition in outsourcing? ... It’s much easier for Indians to learn English. Sanskrit (the root of Indian languages) and Latin (the root of European languages) belong to the same group of ancient Indo-European languages. When a Swaminomics column of 800 words is translated into Hindi, the translation is also around 800 words. Only a tiny fraction of Indians speak high quality English. Most speak halting or pidgin English that can sound comic.

[Purists may snigger but social scientist Shiv Viswanathan believes such films play an important part in any changing society. The genre, he says, is an overt enactment of a crude fantasy. "The so-called C-grade narratives have a folksy coarseness. Unlike the subliminal mainstream Bollywood movies, these films are blatant in whatever they do. For those in an act of transition in urban spaces, they help perform the task in an easier, smoother way. They are not bad movies. They just project an alternate layer of reality," he says. Perhaps, ultimately, it's a combination of new market forces and a decentralization of cinema. Adman and social observer Santosh Desai feels that Bollywood-based C-grade films have been replaced by pulp regional cinema. "Celluloid pulp is now far more locally aligned," he says. Apart from Bhojpuri, feature films in Garhwali, Haryanvi and other dialects are readily available on VCDs and DVDs. "They enable you to fantasise in local dialects," he says. In the past four years, plenty of low-cost feature films have been made in the khadi boli dialect spoken in Western UP. These films represent an alternate business model. They are not released in cinema halls; only sold through VCDs and are usually priced at Rs 25-40. These small cinemas are kings in their own small ponds, proudly rejecting Bollywood-driven C-graders. Veteran Joginder has been smart though. One of his forthcoming films is a patriot saga: Khoon Do, Azaadi Lo. But in the 'if you can't beat them, join them' spirit, he is also making a Bhojpuri film: Hamre Desh Ki Sherni. He is still defiant though. "The trend will come back," he says. But it's not a wish, only a prayer. C for crisis: Seedy cinema runs out of steam
TOI, 10 Feb 2008, 0058 hrs IST, Avijit Ghosh, TNN]

By the time one acquired enough proficiency to follow the Urdu words strewn lavishly in the Hindi film songs, wrote Santosh Desai once, Punjabi invaded, and then English. The question of language in India will ever remain knotty unless intervenes some calamity. [TNM]

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