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.

Courage — Short Story

I had just moved to a new suburb from the main city. My new job was in town. I used to leave office by 7-7.30 in the evening. It was fairly dark by the time I reached my suburban train station. From there, I used to walk to my apartment. There was a long bridge which I had to cross before I reached my locality and then home. At a distance from the bridge, there was a parallel footpath. Very few people used that footpath. It didn’t have lights, but moonlight and lights from the bridge shone on it. Halfway through that path there was a slight bend where a few women would stand every day. They stood there as if waiting for someone. But looking at their clothes and careless way of standing, I realised they were actually prostitutes. It took me at least a week to reach that conclusion though, as I had never ‘seen’ prostitutes, only heard about them.

I would observe those women every evening while crossing the bridge. They would stand there: sometimes chatting, sometimes quiet, but always swaying their bodies in a particular way; and always clad in sarees. If I were lucky I would get to see one of them walking with a customer, away from the footpath and bridge. I do not know if those prostitutes had rooms of their own or it was the customers’ responsibility to take care of a place. I have no idea how the whole thing worked. I had never visited a brothel or had sex with a sex worker (or anyone for that matter), or ever talked to anyone who had. It intrigued me to think about those sex workers and their customers. How did a customer approach them? What conversation transpired between them? For how long? I never got to see the exact encounter (not that I would have been able to hear anything but I would at least have gotten to see their gestures); whenever I saw the sex worker-customer pair, they were already walking away from the footpath.

I was in my 20s and a virgin, and so I used to think about sex a lot. There used to be oestrus-like periods when I used to think about it even more. While crossing the bridge, whenever I spotted the sex worker-customer pair walking together, it would mildly arouse me. Gradually, I had warmed up to the idea of fantasizing about the sex workers. I wondered what it would be like to have sex with one of them. Would I be able to do it at all? What would her hut be like? Would she patronize me? Would the flesh of a woman who was not only a stranger but a few years older than me, was overly decked up, seemed sort of unkempt even with that extra make-up — would it repulse me? I obviously didn’t have the answers, nor was I very keen to find them. It was just a sort of game I used to play while crossing the bridge. But one day I thought — what if I actually did it? What if I took that footpath, approached the prostitutes, and took one of them with me? I was new in the suburb; no one knew me, so there was no chance of someone identifying me from the bridge.

One day, I decided to take the plunge. I am generally very shy, and utterly at loss for words while talking to strangers. But that day I don’t know how but I was feeling very courageous. I was in a sort of daze. My mind was working in a mysterious way. I was feeling quite concupiscent too. My mind had started working on the fantasies in the office itself. All through the train journey back home, I was imagining stuff I would do to the prostitute once we had reached her hut. It was giving me mild sensations. I had gone in a reverie. I wasn’t aware of anyone around me. I was slightly wet too.

But as my stop came closer, I started to think about the preliminary stuff: how to approach the prostitutes and what to say, etc. I started to imagine scenarios in my mind. I couldn’t come up with a single workable one. I started to become a little worried. How to strike up a conversation? What to say? I decided not to panic, hoping that the plan would work somehow.

It was around 9.30 pm when I got down on the station platform. The station wasn’t crowded. I started walking towards the exit. I took the bridge which led me right outside the station towards the footpath. I had set off on my adventure after all.

I think my mental state was surprisingly normal: I was breathing normally, my steps were steady. I don’t remember what my thoughts were though. I don’t think I was thinking anything anymore. I guess I had given up on coming up with any workable scenario. I was hoping I would come up with something on the spot. But as I started to approach the spot where the prostitutes were standing, I started to shake a little and my heartbeats increased. As I became aware of my perturbation, the pace of my steps increased too. I decided that I couldn’t do it after all. I had taken a glance at the women when I left the station. There were four. I had not even decided which one to choose. But now that question was redundant. I had lost my confidence. I was feeling slightly frightened too. I had given up at the last moment.

But I kept walking on that footpath, a little faster now. When I came closer to the spot where the prostitutes were standing, my heartbeats increased. I started breathing heavily, and when I reached the spot, I almost skipped a few beats. I didn’t have the courage to even slightly tilt my gaze. The pace of my footsteps had now tripled; and as I just passed the prostitutes, one of them yelled in a slightly husky rhythmic voice, “Aye chikane.” God, I had a such terrible impulse to run; run as if I was chased by a tiger. And I did run, eventually, when I was out of their view… I reached my apartment panting heavily.

Obviously, I didn’t take that footpath ever again. And after a few months I left the suburb too.

Year-End Note: 2014

I am writing this note because I have to, not because I want to. I wrote my first year-end note in 2012 and then one last year, and I don’t want to break that tradition. There was a time when I used to write many personal notes. It was my need then. I was trying to make sense of lot of things and was also suffering from inferiority complex, and those notes somehow helped me deal with that. I no more have those compulsions. I also don’t have any worldly wisdom or special experiences to share. So there is a possibility that you may find this note either damn boring or an act in vanity and narcissism. (You have been warned.)

This year was kind of ordinary, but good ordinary. No great things happened, either good or bad. I like it that way actually. I like life to be simple, peaceful and predictable. Of course I like surprises too, like everybody else, but the ones which make you smile, not the ones that shock you.

The highest point of this year was probably the magazine-cum-annual report that I helped make for Junoon Foundation. We were working on it for one whole week, from writing content to selecting photos to deciding color combinations for the layout. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. It was really amazing working on Junoon’s other initiatives too, be it tree plantation drive, workshops or teaching sessions. Junoon has been an integral part of my life for past couple of years and though it is for others to judge our achievements or failures, it feels great to be a part of this organisation.

I gave my MA Sociology first year correspondence exam in May which I flunked in. This will be a news (and a shocking one) to many, including everybody at the workplace. But in my defence I have told my result to anybody who has cared to ask. Shocking because people think I am smart and all, and not the type who would fail in exam papers, which of course is not true. And this exam proves that anyway. :P

I wrote a piece for EPW in November (reproduced here), though exactly after a year’s gap. I consistently wrote for this blog as well but not as much as I wish I had. I actually wrote a lot less this year than I could have or should have. I feel kinda guilty about it. I want to remedy that in 2015. But on the other hand, I read a lot this year. I had set a target of reading 40 books on Goodreads. I managed to read 33, probably the highest number of books for me in one year, so not bad all in all. And this of course along with lot of other non-book reading (newspapers, magazines, web portals, etc).

I made a few new friends this year; hung out with at least four people with whom I was friends only through Facebook/Twitter/WhatsApp till then. A not so surprising fact — first five minutes are really awkward. :P

Oh yes, another major event I had almost forgotten to mention. I shifted to Kalyan after staying in Mahim for about five years. And no, don’t give me that look! I have received that look about a hundred times already. So that’s it I guess. Thank you everybody who has been a part of my life this year. A very happy new year to you all! Much love!! xoxo

To Read or Not to Read

“The only thing these kids do is watch TV and play cricket. The word ‘study’ doesn’t even exist in their dictionary. Goodness knows how they’re going to pass their exams!” – an exasperated piece of dialogue children of my age used to hear with nagging monotony during our school years. Now, in that handed-down diatribe, TV has been replaced by the internet, and cricket by video games, as the main culprits for students’ bad grades. Numerous studies churned out over the recent past, mainly by western scholars, have buttressed this widespread parental opinion.

According to neuroscience research, the myriad distractions on the web have altered the circuitry in our brain, thanks to its “neuroplasticity”. This has affected the way we read and how we comprehend what we read. Netizens have apparently lost the art of reading. They do not have the patience to read things in detail. They prefer skimming and scanning. Tweets and Facebook posts comprise their main – and often, only – reading diet. Deep reading is a practice on the verge of extinction. Or so these “pop science” studies seem to suggest.

In The Shallows Nicholas Carr, American writer on technology and culture, says

What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning. The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

Paper as a medium of reading is far from dead (yet) but it has already made authors like Carr nostalgic. But there is a major fallacy in comparing print books with the web. When there is a book in my hand, the only thing that I can do with it is, read (unless I want to hit someone on the head with it!). But when I open my web browser, there is so much that I can do – check my mails, pay bills, order food, watch videos… It is erroneous to pit the print medium against the whole of the internet while discussing reading. It is very tempting to treat “screen” as the equivalent of “paper”, but that is not a fair comparison. There are so many factors that go to decide what you see on a screen and how you interact with it.
The technology of paper/print is much simpler than that of internet-enabled devices. The real comparison should be between paperbacks and e-book readers, or probably between newspapers and news websites – in isolation.

Reading is not natural to us. We have to “learn” to read. We have to “develop” the habit of reading and actively pursue it to become efficient readers. Carr himself acknowledges how hard this task is.

To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T S Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call ‘the still point of the turning world’. They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another. They had to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter their instinctive distractedness, applying greater ‘top-down control’ over their attention.

If the task of reading a book is so hard, it is but inevitable that book readers in any society will be a minority. Not everybody is interested in the beauty of words, the emotions they evoke and the curiosity they satiate; moreover, everybody does not have the luxury of time that books demand. Most of us are only looking for quick information or instant gratification. As Union College psycho­logist Christopher Chabris explains, “The near continuous stream of new information pumped out by the web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to us right now’. We crave the new even when we know that ‘the new is more often trivial than essential’” (as quoted in The Shallows).

But shallow reading is not the after-effect of the internet. My neighbour, an old gentleman of 60 – a loyal, long-standing reader of the Marathi newspaper Sakal – only reads headlines and the first two paragraphs of major news stories, and never sets his eyes on the editorial pages. Deep reading or shallow reading is less a function of the medium and more of the aptitude of a person. The internet is not making people skim and scan. The majority in any population has always been the “skimmers”, and serious readers will always remain a minority. It’s only that the internet has made this contrast very visible and has given us the means to look at people’s reading habits more accurately.

Whenever a big-scale communication technology is introduced, it greatly fascinates a group of people and triggers panic attacks among others. It happened with printed books (Socrates’ lament against the written word is well known), it happened with TV and it is now happening with the internet as well. People take time to adjust to a new technology as its nuances and full-scale impacts are not readily clear in the beginning. Hence, a bit of sociological and historical perspective may offer us valuable guidance. And as far as reading is concerned, we should find reassurance in the fact that Goodreads.com, the online community of book users, had 25 million members in 2013 – and that number is growing at a pace faster than you can flick through the pages of a book.

(This article was originally published in the journal Economic and Political Weekly, issue dated November 15, 2014.)

I Am Not a Feminist But…

In my personal list of pet peeves, I guess the statement “I am not a feminist but…” will easily take the top spot. The curious thing about the people who make this statement is, they talk exactly like feminists. They hate crimes like rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, foeticide… They support women’s empowerment through economic independence. They dislike gender stereotypes. They hate slut-shaming/victim-blaming. So on and so forth. But when they talk about any of these issues, they find it extremely important to add the line, but I am not a feminist. Somehow this statement is very very essential to their argument.

As a feminist, this clearly irks me. Because there is an implicit assumption here that feminism is something bad. Something so bad, that I will not even spell out why. You know it already, right? Hell, no! If you have a problem with feminism, that’s alright. But do tell me why, please! As a feminist, I guess I have a right to know, right? You can go on like this: I came across this argument by Gloria Steinem or Judith Butler or Nivedita Menon and I do not agree with what she is saying. And these are the reasons why. I think the points made by Flavia Agnes or Roxane Gay in this particular article are illogical or against the interests of women or men. But I do not see any of the people who dissociate themselves from feminism so vehemently, talk like this. All I hear is, feminists are obnoxious. They are so loud and screechy. My god, they are ugly and sex-starved. They hate men (I guess I must be a very self-loathing person). And some are so vague, they will be like, “I don’t know but it doesn’t seem like a good thing.”

I am okay if someone wants to talk about women’s rights and not identify themselves as a feminist. The issue of women’s rights is not the fiefdom of feminists. It is not a cult either which wants to add more and more people to its fold. So it is okay if you fight for equality of sexes and do not call yourself a feminist. But you also don’t need to dissociate yourself from feminism so vehemently and so evasively. Here I am in no way saying that you cannot criticize feminism. You sure can and you sure should. But do that in a reasoned manner please.

There are numerous strands in feminism. And it is possible that you may find two feminists having opposing views. So whenever you do not agree with what some feminist says, please first state which feminist you are talking about, which of her points you disagree with and why. Do not form your opinions about feminism based on what some girl who identifies herself as feminist said somewhere on the internet.

I leave you with this beautiful speech by Emma Watson, British actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, at a special event for UN Women’s HeForShe campaign.