Interpreting the malady
Kolkata remains in Calcutta
Letters to the Editor

The Indian hallelujah mills are at it again. There are enough reasons for it: Ms Jhumpa Lahiri has won the Pulitzer prize for her first book, the collection of short stories called Interpreter of Maladies, and Mr Vijai Singh has won the Augusta Masters, one of the most prestigious golf tournaments. Indian names in letters of gold are thrilling to any Indian eye. At that level of achievement, where the name represents a token but inescap-able relationship with a particular part of the globe, being of Indian extraction is no different from being a true blue resident of the country of origin. Subtle arguments about who is truly “Indian” and who is not are rendered irrelevant on this plane, appropriately relegated to the refined joys of hairsplitting over the nationality question.

So no one can blame the hallelujah mills if they grind out paeans to the many splendoured achievements among the Indian diaspora. The writer and the sportsman have reconfirmed what Indians had begun to recognize for some time, that the achievements of Indians abroad mark, very often, the breaching of old boundaries, ventures into new realms of knowledge, creativity and performance. This is as true in the fields of science, technology, business and medicine as in the humanities disciplines and creative writing. In comparison — and here the hallelujah mills must give pause — achievements of equivalent status from within India seem few and far between, especially if one considers the ratio of population size to famous names. It is not easy to escape the feeling that there is something in the air of India that prevents the full flowering of intellects and imaginations. Creativity in the broadest sense, whether in scientific inquiry or the writing of an original philosophical treatise or the evolving of a theory of literature, is sporadic and somewhat bloodless. It is not a question of less exposure or fewer incentives alone. There is something intellectually enervating in the atmosphere of India.

What strikes an observer about the Indian education system is its rigidity. From their earliest years, children imbibe a sense of limits, which they cannot breach by asking questions. Certain questions do not even reach the stage of formulation, because everyone is permeated by a mysterious foreknowledge of what is forbidden. This is a peculiar throwback to the traditional mode of knowledge acquisition in ancient India. The strongly embedded system of passing learning downwards from guru to student privileged derived knowledge over originality. Some of the most pathbreaking treatises were produced in the guise of commentaries of earlier works. As a corollary, the codification of knowledge was important. Breaking codes in order to wander into unexplored intellectual territory had to be given the facade of respect to tradition.

Unfortunately, what is meaningful in one social and cultural milieu often turns out to be hopelessly self-defeating in another. The accrual of knowledge and the powers of thought through generations has been debased today to regimentation and rote learning. In a world which moves so fast, the sole focus on assimilating other people’s learning can prevent the independent play of the mind and erode creativity. The unconsciously hierarchical arrangement in the field of thought is replicated in — or is another facet of — the arrangement of social structures. The network of family and society tends to hold back rather than push forward. It projects a list of priorities which questions the validity of adventures into the lonely realms of thought and imagination vis a vis duty, family loyalty, institutional security. Conformism is a “virtue” that subtly permeates every sphere of life. The unpalatable conclusion is that there has to be an exposure, whether lifelong or partial, to another kind of world. Among the most remarkable writers in English, scientists, economists and social scientists who are based in India, a majority straddles both worlds. This is a commentary resident Indians cannot afford to ignore if they wish to compete with their diasporic brethren.    

Everybody has heard of the British Council man who read one of Calcutta’s English-language dailies every day and said that his Bengali was improving vastly as a consequence. Not as many may have heard of a speech in Bengali allegedly delivered by Rajani Palme Dutt, the British-born communist, that went something like this, “Cripps Commission’er constitutional reform proposals acceptance bhalo.”

I fear that such dissonances will be multiplied many times over once Bengali is installed as the official language. Let me add in all fairness that this hotch-potch has happened, is happening and will continue to happen in any case. But compulsion in one direction will give it that extra edge. Moreover, as with renaming the city, this decision, too, exposes a futile obsession with symptoms while ignoring the malaise. It also overlooks popular preference and closes the stable door long after the horse has fled.

Let me add, too, that I agree with Zhou Enlai’s lament, entered in his diary while studying in Japan, that language is a means of colonization. Against that, the scholarly Gopal Haldar wrote, when I asked him for an article on the crippling effects of language, that he had felt no conflict between Bengali and English, and that to complain of it was a modern fad. In an extreme case highlighting individual tragedy, Paul Coe, the Australian aboriginal activist (though he looked white), once told me in Sydney that he regarded not being taught any indigenous language as a deprivation.

Presumably, the Left Front’s intention is not just to play to the gallery. I would like to believe that Buddhadev Bhattacharya wants to correct history’s aberrations, level the playing field and foster a sense of community pride. But he is 160 years too late. The great divide between those “who knew their Dicey from their Dickens, and those who did not”, to quote Sunil Khilnani, will not disappear just because of an official decision that flies in the face of public taste and usage.

The difference will persist for exactly the same reason that it arose in the first place. For let it not be forgotten that it was the Indian ruling class, the ecumene as it was called, that decided what the predominant language should be. Popular history lays the blame — or praise — on Macaulay. He articulated in stirring language what others had already said. But the final directive with which the East India Company tried to wrap up the great orientalist-anglicist debate was far from definitive. The document proclaimed that it was “the great object of the British government to promote European science and literature” but refused to choose “the most efficient mode of communicating and disseminating European knowledge”.

That ambivalence left the field clear for India’s pursuit, with varying degrees of success and some ludicrous results, of an anglophile Holy Grail. Authority may have been lukewarm, an imitative public was not. Macaulay’s minute was part of a process that set a pattern of success that has grown stronger with every passing year. The Left Front’s own economic revolution, Bengali society’s upward thrust, an emerging all-India urban ethic and the cultural baggage of globalization, have brought south-of-Park-Street and Alipore addresses, cocktail parties, dancing and all the other paraphernalia of sahibdom within the ken of middle-middle class Bengal. The burgeoning popularity of English-medium schools tells its own story. Thanks to this social uplift, thousands more neo-literate Bengalis join the ranks every year of those who prefer “wife” and “cupdish” (one word) to the equivalent Bengali words. Those who suck dry these fruits of social arrival while mouthing pedantic Bengali in a dhoti and hoisting the standard of a barren terminological revolution (what has Kolkata gained anybody?) invite the contempt that all opportunists deserve.

Of course, the original adoption of English was equally opportunistic. While Indonesia has a national language today because, being too miserly to import teachers from the Netherlands, the colonial Dutch found it cheaper to rule their islands in Javanese Malay, the British calculated that they would recoup the cost of instruction in English because Indian clerks and copyists cost so much less than the writers (clerks) for whom Writers’ Buildings was built. It would also create a collaborator class.

The strategy succeeded so well because Indians lapped up English as the “passport to public employment,” as John Stuart Mill put it. H.H. Wilson, the Sanskritist, deplored that Indians wanted only as much English as would “enable them to earn a subsistence”. Both echoed the fear of the Muslim petitioners that authority was encouraging individuals “of the very lowest description whose only object is to learn sufficient for the transaction of a little English business”. Linking language with promotion will now foster another form of opportunism.

The real questions that lay at the heart of the colonial debate — Is education an instrument of governance or the path to enlightenment? Is it for the elite or the masses? — were ignored then, as now. Company Bahadur had no time for Radhakant Deb’s farsighted suggestion of agricultural and industrial schools. Nor for the view of Brian Hodgson, a company writer, that India could be rejuvenated only through a system of mass education which meant sound curricula, good books, responsible teachers and new teacher training schools. He anticipated 156 years ago the connection Amartya Sen draws between education and growth.

All institutions have deteriorated since independence but one-time centres of educational excellence have arguably fared worst, being reduced to production-line factories that turn out unemployable products. The brain drain has swollen to epic proportions. Mahatma Gandhi’s astounding warning that “a knowledge of letters” would make the peasant discontented with his lot and Jawaharlal Nehru’s three-language formula which left millions of Indians uneducated in all three have compounded mischief. Bengali’s artificial elevation will not dim the craze for Western fashion — witness Chaitra sales and the transformation of Poila Baisakh into a cross between Christmas and St Valentine’s Day — but it will make governance even slower, more opaque, more obscure and — if this is possible — more inefficient.

But there might yet be hope. Reading the finance secretary’s ingenious explanation that the order’s execution would be delayed because Poila Baisakh is a holiday and the weekend follows, I was reminded of the High Court Bar Association deciding in revolutionary fettle to dispense with archaic forms of address. Three young advocates who were deputed to break the news to the Chief Justice traipsed along the corridor, knocked at the great man’s door and asked “May we have your Lordship’s permission to enter?” Permission being given, they entered and recited, “If it please your Lordship, the Bar Association has decided that feudal English practices are not in keeping with this age. With your Lordship’s permission, therefore, we will in future address your Lordship as “Mr Chief Justice”. We trust, my Lord, that this will be acceptable. Have we your Lordship’s permission to retire?” And off they went, and his Lordship remained his Lordship.

The story may be apocryphal, but the chatter of English — maybe of the variety that distinguished that newspaper of hallowed memory — in buses, trams and the Metro leaves one in no doubt of the social drift. The government might wallow in the isolation of its linguistic patriotism. But ordinary folk, including the offspring of many government leaders and certainly the children of all our bureaucrats, will follow the peon in Indira Gandhi’s anecdote who, when asked by two pernickety English civil servants to adjudicate between rakabi and tashri, replied, “Huzoor, hum to isko palate kahte hain.”    


Price of caring

Sir — Just how much more will be put on Sourav Ganguly’s platter (“Sourav to monitor playgrounds”, April 12)? Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s decision to develop playgrounds at a time the existing ones are fast disappearing, is welcome. But given that the initial enthusiasm in case of several CMC projects has turned out to be shortlived, the inclusion of Ganguly in the appraisal panel seems all the more unwise. As the captain of the Indian team, Ganguly has his own share of responsibilities, to which may be added his umpteen commercial commitments. For Ganguly, however, there were few options. Had he turned down CMC’s offer, his image as a caring Calcuttan would have been tarnished forever.

Yours faithfully,
Haradhan Sanyal, Calcutta

Doubtful dream

Sir — The grand inauguration of the Rs 5170 crore Haldia Petrochemicals Limited would have been an occasion for rejoicing under normal circumstances (“Haldia crowns Basu 23-year reign”, April 3). However, one cannot help being sceptical about the future of such a mega-project, thanks to the rut into which similar projects have fallen. In fact, HPL has more than enough potential to strengthen the base of chemical industries in the eastern zone. It might entice small, medium scale and large scale entrepreneurs to invest in this area. This will not only create its own employment potential, but would also develop ancillary industries simultaneously, enhance business activities around the industrial townships, thereby boosting the morale of the industries in the eastern zone.

If there is any truth in the statement made by Ratan Tata regarding the professionalism and pragmatism of the West Bengal government, one can still be hopeful. However, if the dismal state of industries in West Bengal is anything to go by, then the state’s industrial future, embodied in Haldia, does not augur well. Only better awareness among entrepreneurs can create better investment. There is also no dearth of potential manpower in this area. It is merely better job opportunities elsewhere that causes the massive brain drain from this zone. Fixing priorities for industries that are increasingly facing an uphill task to survive should be immediately taken up by the government. Trade unions and corporate houses should also have a stake in this. They should cooperate with the state government in order to brighten the future of industries in West Bengal. Else the promise held out by the hope of industrial resuscitation in the state will go entirely to waste.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjit Kumar Guha Roy, Durgapur

Sir — The news report, “Haldia crowns Basu 23-year reign”, (April 3) on the inauguration of HPL appears entirely misleading and confusing. This is evidence of the paucity of industrial and technical knowledge of your reporters. Such inflated and confusing reports should be avoided.

Is the chief minister of West Bengal aware of the problems related to the sales, transportation of end products, and downstream products? The taxpayers will ultimately have to bear the brunt of such a “dream”. The real problems in all such endeavours are the weak and incompetent heads of the industrial development organizations, who should be highly qualified engineers and technocrats, rather than politicians and lawyers. Dreaming without foresight is undesirable, least of all a “day dreaming” project like that of HPL should not be encouraged at any cost. Technology and engineering growth should be far more “regular”. 23 years is a ridiculously long period to nurture a dream.

Yours faithfully,
Hiranmay Datta, Calcutta

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