Why Rural Students Find It Hard to Get a White-Collar Job

I was travelling to work last Monday with a friend. Both my friend and I have migrated to the city from our respective villages, first for higher education, and now jobs. I work in the city for five days, spend two days of the weekend in the village and then travel back to the city on Monday. But I am one of the luckiest among my peers to have a stable, fair-paying job where I have to work only for five, and not six, days. And this, the job situation and how our peers are faring in it, was the topic of discussion on our two-hours’ bus journey that day.

Many students migrate to the cities from Wada, Vikramgad and Palghar talukas every year for professional courses, especially engineering and medicine. But they find it hard to get a well-paying job after graduation. The reasons are multiple. To begin with, they cannot compete with city students for seats in eminent colleges, so they are forced to take admission in sub-standard institutions, which lack laboratories, good teachers and any extracurricular activity on campus. Therefore, even though they manage to scrape through the course and graduate, the actual learning is little. And it is too late when they realise that a degree certificate is not a passport for a job.

The lack of fluency in English, as well as communication skills in general, acts as another major hurdle towards that coveted white-collar job. But it will be quite ignorant and insensitive to blame the students here. It is not their fault, really. Corporate sector is the fiefdom (and I don’t use this term pejoratively here) of upper class/upper caste urbanites. If a village boy/girl aspires to get entry here, they have to play by the rules that are set by these upper class/upper caste urbanites. The knowledge that these corporations are run on is theirs, the language is theirs, the workplace culture is theirs; even the food is theirs!

Students cannot stay back in their villages either. There are no well-paying jobs. Agriculture is not profitable (it never was). And the contact with cities and the incessant consumption of ads through television has made them “aspirational”. So village is no more good enough for them, and cities are not very welcoming either. No wonder most of them feel frustrated and depressed in general.

The Smithy of Words

In school, whenever I read the Times of India I would come across many words that were unintelligible to me. So I would inevitably turn to my coveted bilingual (English to Marathi) dictionary that I had forced my parents to buy for me. But looking up the meaning of every difficult word slowed down my reading pace so much that I eventually gave up using the dictionary. And since then I have always found it cumbersome to search for a word in the big fat tome that a dictionary is. (Pocket dictionaries are generally useless because, to fit your pocket, they contain only the most common words.)

A friend of mine, a part-time teacher, narrated an incident that happened in her tuition class. She was teaching her students how to use a dictionary when a bright young girl asked, “Why search so much through the book? I just go on to the dictionary app on my phone and I get not only the meaning but the audio pronunciation as well.” Well, I can’t agree more with that girl’s pragmatic approach. For lazy bums like me, the dictionary app has been a real boon.

The most renowned and authoritative dictionaries in the world, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are also available as smartphone apps. Since the first monolingual English dictionary was published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey (containing around 2,500 entries), we have come a long way. But lexicographers have toiled for centuries for dictionaries to reach their current stage. Samuel Johnson—probably one of the two most famous lexicographers in the world (the other being Noah Webster)—took nine years to complete his dictionary, while the work on the OED’s first edition went on for 70 years. (Coincidentally, 15 April 2015 marked the 260th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755 in London.)

Dictionary-making is a dead serious business. New words are added after rigorous vetting, and sources spanning centuries are constantly checked to fix the correct etymology of words old and new. Samuel Johnson had famously defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

But when we unshackle the dictionary from its printed pages and put it on the World Wide Web, it has the potential to transform itself magically. Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced initiative which started as a fun project in 1999, is the best example. Urban Dictionary is a place where you will often find the quirkiest, funniest and sometimes very offensive definitions of words. That’s because it does not have any lexicographers, editors or any kind of gatekeepers on its staff. Word entries are submitted by the users and vetted by the users. So a neologism which may take years to appear in OED—or may never appear—can find place of pride in Urban Dictionary almost overnight. Consider these few word entries to sample the ingenuity of Urban Dictionary’s users-cum-amateur lexicographers:

  • College: an expensive daycare centre
  • Stupid: someone who has to look up “stupid” in the dictionary because they don’t know what it means
  • Tequila: a Spanish word meaning, “I don’t remember doing that…”

Aaron Peckham, the company’s founder and chief executive, told the Guardian, “Most dictionaries are objective. Urban Dictionary is completely subjective. It’s not presented as fact, (but) as opinions. I think that can be a lot more valuable.” The robustness and the tongue-in-cheek nature of a project like Urban Dictionary is possible only in the internet era.

Though the immediacy, cheekiness and exuberance of Urban Dictionary are exciting traits, they are not desirable in a standard dictionary. But that doesn’t mean standard dictionaries have not been able to “win the internet.” They are present as stand-alone websites, on social media, and in smartphones. The great thing about the Web is that dictionaries do not face space constraints, and updating old entries or adding new ones is very easy. It is possible that OED’s third edition—on which a team of 70 philologists, including lexicographers, etymologists and pronunciation experts, has been working for the past 20 years—may not be printed at all. Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of Oxford University Press, told the Telegraph as much. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said. Asked if he thought the third edition would be printed, he said: “I don’t think so.”

New technology has significantly reduced the time gap between encountering a difficult word and finding its meaning. Many internet-based products and services dealing with words come with pre-installed dictionaries. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has a functionality which allows you to tap on a word for a few milliseconds before its dictionary definition appears. Features like this, which have their genesis in the internet age, are making reading a better experience for not just non-native English speakers but native speakers as well.

(Note: This article was first published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly in the issue dated May 16, 2015.)

The Remains

Sitting on the steps of the backdoor
I look at the sun gliding into the horizon
The waning blob of the reddish tinge
The tinge which I remember
Also adorned your lips so often
The memory of which
I immediately regret
It doesn’t hurt anymore, frankly
The thought of you, I mean
But I can’t help rue
The possibilities
The would-have-beens and could-have-beens
The childish sorrow of the biscuit
Melted in a hot cup of tea
Or the grief of the flower
Plucked before it had the chance
To grow fully
All that remains now is the memory
Of moments we inhaled and exhaled together
Locking our secrets to the wind
Secrets of passion, and dreamy merryland
Which get recycled now
Sitting here on the steps of the backdoor
As each wave of Southwest breeze hits my body
And also that peculiar word
Called Nostalgia!
The sun has gone into oblivion now
But not quite
In the form of moonlight
It’s presence is to be felt again

You

The evening breeze tries to flip the pages of the daily
As I sit near the window
Crossword puzzle on my lap
I still have that pen you had given me
As a return gift
For the poem I had written for you
And which you had liked a lot
“Damn! What’s the word for this?”
I suddenly feel the urge to shout your name
I am sure you’d have had the answer to this damn clue
As you had
To every question of mine
Answers
Not perfect, but always reassuring!

I still feel you in this empty house
In the pillows you’d hit me with to show your appreciation
For my lame jokes
In the nail-paint I had gifted you
To go with your tunic
Or in the dazzling aroma of your perfume wafting
Through my imagination as I enter the bedroom every time

I try to find traces of you
In the books we’d read together
The Calvin and Hobbes coffee mugs we occasionally sat with
The corner seats of our favourite movie theatre
Old, decrepit bookshops; the dingy bars and quaint coffee-shops
But never the graveyard!

English, Mother Tongue and Effective Communication

I love words. I love the way they delight people, make them laugh, blush, enthrall. Words have power — power to transform a dull moment into a cheerful one, anger into laughter, jealousy into love and dislike into companionship. I do not like people who misuse words, abuse them, treat them carelessly: I wish they could understand the beauty words possess, a language as a whole possesses.

Effective communication is important in every sphere of life — from relationships to jobs. India is a multilingual country. Most of us are bilingual and some even trilingual. But the tragedy is, very few of us are proficient in even one language.

A growing number of students are learning in English medium schools. All professional courses are exclusively taught in English. English is the language of the courts and government institutions (at least at the higher levels). It is also the language of mobile phones, computers and internet. It is the language of aspiration. It opens the doors to white collar jobs, and makes the road towards upward mobility easier. If you know English, you have “arrived”. So it is not difficult to understand people’s fascination with English-medium schools or the coaching classes boasting to churn out fluent English speakers in a month or two.

But the starry-eyed obsession with English has at least one major casualty — effective communication. Our pathetic education system ensures that students remain grammatically challenged and have pitiable vocabulary. (Sample this sentence from my textual conversation with a friend: I didn’t knew that. The sentence made me cringe; I felt like throwing my phone away.) Mother tongues remain confined in the four walls of our homes as they do not have “snob” value, nor do they give us fancy jobs in multinational corporations. So no one takes the pains to master them.

Though the importance of English cannot be denied, it doesn’t need to come at the cost of our mother tongues. Indian languages have a history of centuries with a treasure trove of literature and rich vocabulary. You can ignore them at your own peril. Also, there is research which says that students learn English more quickly and effectively if they maintain and develop their proficiency in the mother tongue.

Philosopher and linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” And therefore, bilingualism (or multilingualism — depending on which part of India you live in) is a gift that we Indians are naturally bestowed with and which we rightfully need to acknowledge as such.