Editorial / Whose honour is it any way?
King’s English runs amok
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Among the many rituals that have been created around January 26, Republic Day, in India is the announcement of the Indian equivalent of the honours list. The Indian state decides, through the office of the head of state, to bestow honours on selected distinguished individuals. The list has various categories but overall it can be read as a statement of the kind of image the Indian state wants to project of itself to Indians and to the world. Which individuals and what kind of achievements are considered deserving, and at what level, become crucial if the awards are to be seen as something more than instruments to extend the patronage network of the government in power. Any honours list will inevitably contain elements of patronage and appropriation but those should be exceptions and should, at best, be kept at the lower levels of the awards. The higher rungs, especially the highest rung, the Bharat Ratna, should definitely be free of controversies and question marks. This has not always been the case and on this Republic Day the government’s selection shows an absence of thought and of the sobriety that should mark the occasion. The list reflects, perhaps, the many pulls and pressures operative within the National Democratic Alliance and more generally the decline of standards and values that plagues contemporary Indian society.

Most Indians would agree that there is something demeaning about honouring a surgeon whose sole claim to fame is that he used his scalpel and his skills on the prime minister’s knee. Similarly, the award of a Bharat Ratna to Lata Mangeshkar valorizes Indian popular culture and does so at the cost of classical Indian culture: Yamini Krishnamurthi, the renowned exponent of bharatnatyam, one of the oldest forms of dance in India, has been relegated to the Padma Bhushan list. The sarod maestro, Ali Akbar Khan, is not considered worthy enough to be a jewel of India but the shehnai player, Bismillah Khan, is. Bismillah is a talented musician who has done wonders to extend the range of an instrument that is intrinsically limited and which was originally played in the nahabat, on weddings and other festive occasions. If the gesture towards Bismillah was made to placate Muslim opinion, the choice of Ali Akbar would probably have displayed better taste and more discrimination. There are other puzzles too. Why Vishwanathan Anand, the world chess champion, deserves only a Padma Bhushan is inexplicable. He cannot do better than be the world champion so it must be assumed that chess is considered a minor or inconsequential game by those who drew up the honours list. Again, Mr John Kenneth Galbraith must be surprised to see his name on the Padma Vibhushan list, especially as his own country, the United States, has no civilian honours.

This year’s list of honours has some of the characteristics of a hold-all. There is no discernible principle that seems to have guided the selection. Thus, genuinely deserving people are made to rub shoulders with people who merit no honour whatsoever. This is no way to go about bestowing honours since it only serves to make the honours devoid of significance. The state thus only vacates itself of dignity and honour. It is time, perhaps, to ponder over priorities and the values that the Indian nation is desirous of projecting. Is India proud of the culture that Hindi films and game shows purvey? Or does it think that the classical tradition of dance and music which for centuries flourished because of individual talents nurtured by state patronage is more worthy of recognition as the supreme embodiment of Indian culture? Should excellence in any given field be the sole criterion for honours or should quota, lobbying, patronage, pressure from coalition partners and tokenism be allowed to prevail as determinants of honour? These are questions that have to be faced if Republic Day honours have to retain some kind of relevance and dignity. A continuation of current trends will result in more and more self-respecting individuals refusing to accept honours from a state which bestows them in a fit of absent-mindedness or through self-interested design.


We need a new Indian dictionary of the English language on the model of Webster’s New World Dictionary. We need a dictionary that formally records Indian vocabulary, usage and pronunciation and illustrates these with quotations from Indian writing. This wouldn’t be an update of Hobson-Jobson, though Anglo-Indian usage would be a part of such a dictionary, to the extent that it survives into the present. Hobson-Jobson isn’t a dictionary: it is a manual of colonial terms that usefully supplements a dictionary. The new Indian dictionary of the English language (NIDEL) would take English unabridged as its province just as Webster’s New World Dictionary remains a perfectly serviceable guide to English generally at the same time as it specifies American use, nuance and meaning. If you look up the word “fall” in Webster’s you learn that it means 1. to come down by the force of gravity and that it also means 13. the season when leaves fall; autumn.

Similarly, if you were to look up the meaning of “pant” in NIDEL, apart from the conventional 1. any of a series of rapid, heavy breaths, as from exertion, you would learn that in India it also means 2. an outer garment extending from the waist to the ankles and divided into separate coverings for the legs: more formally called trousers. In the Oxford English Dictionary this second meaning would only be available to you if you looked it up under “pants”, plural. It is important that the Indian modification be formally recorded, so that when, in an Indian novel, an adulterer, galvanized by a knock on the door hisses at his lover “Where’s my pant?”, a foreign reader unfamiliar with this sense of the word doesn’t go away with the idea that he’s looking for one mislaid heavy breath.

The Oxford University Press, the parent of the OED, would probably argue that such a dictionary would be redundant given that the OED continuously incorporates variant usage in different parts of the English-speaking world as well as new words that have found a home in English. Thus, in its latest edition, the OED finds room for paratha, samosa, and several other Indian words. So why incur the expense of a new dictionary when the OED is already doing the job? There are several good reasons why.

To start with, the OED sees itself as the custodian of the English language. Part of its function, therefore, is to pass judgment, to distinguish orthodox, legitimate, durable usage from slang, colloquialism and ephemera. The editors of the new Indian dictionary of the English language would shoulder no such responsibility. Their task would be simply to record the sense in which a word is used at the time of going to press. Their only criterion would be that the word be used in that sense by a sufficient number of people to qualify for inclusion in a dictionary. Thus, following Stardust, “bindaas”, meaning laid-back, would qualify. Unlike the OED which would monitor the career of “bindaas” over ten years or more to test it for durability, the editors of the NIDEL would include it the moment it entered mainstream writing or speech because (a) they wouldn’t see themselves as guardians of the English lexicon and (b) the NIDEL’s editors would be techno-literate. Much of the OED’s conservatism is simply habit, a habit born of primitive printing technologies which dictated that every edition of the OED had to stand for a generation before it was laboriously overhauled and reset for printing. In a computerized environment where Microsoft Office 2000 yields to Office 2001, there’s no reason why dictionaries can’t be continuously updated, adding new words and deleting others which have fallen out of use.

The other problem with relying on foreign dictionary-makers to record Indian usage is that they generally incorporate Indian words when these words become current in their societies. Thus paratha and samosa find their way into the OED because Indian and Pakistani corner-shops sell them in England, not because English-speaking subcontinentals use them routinely in speech and writing. NIDEL’s editors would be properly republican: their dictionary would resonate to Indian usage instead of waiting for Indianisms to become part of the King’s English.

The chief editor of the OED, John Simpson, during his recent visit to India said authoritatively that the Indian contribution to the English language (in terms of the number of words that figured in the OED) ranked behind that of South Africa and Australia. The only reason he could say this is that his dictionary makes no room for Indian words (or the special Indian uses of English words) that haven’t become part of global parlance. There is no other part of the English-speaking world where “funda” is a word. But it would make the NIDEL effortlessly, because undergraduate speech (especially that of engineering undergraduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology) is unimaginable with- out it. “His fundas are gol, yaar” as a way of describing someone’s shaky grasp of basic principles is pithy and unmistakably Indian. It’s also a dialect of English: NIDEL will tell you what it means.

Also, foreign dictionaries tend to incorporate Indian nouns and leave out Indian verbs. Why, for example, doesn’t the OED list “pre-poned”? There’s no use saying it is incorrect: Indians simply don’t use “brought forward”. If dictionaries can list “self-destruct” which is a grotesque neologism, there’s no reason why “pre-poned” shouldn’t make the cut. The NIDEL would also attend to the Indian preference for the present continuous. It would indicate that we use “thanking” where others would content themselves with “thank”, and it would do this neutrally, without passing judgment. Similarly, our dictionary would use the international phonetic alphabet to indicate, wherever necessary, the Indian pronunciation of English words. Thus, the NIDEL would record that when Indians say “plastic” they generally use the broad “a”.

In short, the new Indian dictionary of the English language would matter-of-factly set down the ways in which Indians write and speak. We could then legitimately be ourselves instead of pretending that the norm for our English lives elsewhere. And foreigners, unfamiliar with the dialect they encounter in Indian English novels, baffled by lafda, mausi, co-brother, cousin sister, knicker, bundy and rundi, could look them up and find them home in the NIDEL.

[email protected]    


The image-breakers

Sonia Gandhi is in an extremely good mood after the Mahakumbh dip. She seems to have got away with making a statement about her faith — practising Hindu — without having to say it in so many words. It’s a case of action speaking more powerfully than words. The words are for the Sonia managers, who are claiming that the lady kept a daylong fast on the day of the purifying plunge. But Sonia Gandhi is not the only one trying to make a point about her image. Modern day Sardar Patel is earnestly trying to project himself as “secular” and moderate. After his Ajmer Sharief visit, Advani has become a great champion of minority community oriented films. Special shows for family, friends, home ministry officials and journalists on the beat with his own comments after the viewing are very much the in thing. It began with Mahesh Bhatt’s Zakhm, then came Fiza, Mission Kashmir, and last week, it was Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa. A sad tale. Advani was impressed, it appears.

And the image-makers

The chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Ajit Jogi, is yet to get over his hangover as previous AICC mouthpiece. He yearns to be in the company of Delhi journalists. With his election for the Chhattisgarh assembly scheduled for February 9, journalists are his main constituency. This week he invited Delhi journalists to cover Sonia Gandhi’s first ever public meeting in Mungeli tehsil adjoining Marwahi, his assembly constituency. Jogi personally came to receive the journalists at the airport and they were taken full care of by the Chhattisgarh administration as the chief minister’s guests. They were put up in Bhillai, miles away from the madding crowd of Raipur. Officials ensured that journalists had no political interaction and were kept busy sightseeing till it was time for madam’s public meeting the next day.

At the rally Jogi was at his best. Playing the son of the soil card he spoke in perfect Chhattisgarh dialect.But in his 15 minutes speech he did nothing but shower Sonia Gandhi with praises and adorn her with names: the mother of Chhattisgarh (hamar mahtari), the leader because of whom Chhattisgarh was formed and so on. In the evening Jogi hosted a dinner for Delhi journalists at his residence in Raipur. Over dinner, journalists did well what they always do well: lay it on thick. Some said Jogi was being missed in Delhi as his successors in Delhi were nincompoops. Some journalists wanted a transfer to Chhattisgarh. Naturally, Jogi got magnificent coverage the next day. Well done, Jogi, Sonia said.

Price for those beaded bubbles

The UP government has come up with a novel plan to break the hegemony of the alcohol lobby. The state’s excise department plans to stop the selling of desi liquor that often results in spurious stuff. But depriving the poor of som ras would be unfair. So it will sell “janta rum”, a cheaper version of standard rum. A pavva (quarter) of rum with higher alcohol content would cost Rs 20 while a diluted pavva Rs 12. Social justice?

Can’t do without a bit of spice

Ever since the Delhi police raided a hotel near Vasant Vihar in south Delhi a few days ago on a tip-off about a Lashkar-e -Toiba terrorist hiding there, tongues in the capital haven’t stopped wagging. Instead of nabbing a hardcore extremist, the police found a local Congress MLA in flagrante delicto with a lady on either side. The gentleman and his companions were let off, very red in the face, after some hard questioning. Intervention by senior political dadas helped hush up the matter, although the identity of the MLA and his amorous preoccupation in the hotel have become common knowledge. Spicy grist to the mill of factional bickering in the Delhi Congress.

Young blood in the old stream

It seems the Marxists are now seriously thinking of giving the party a fresh face by infusing young blood. After saying goodbye to the Bengal patriarch, Jyoti Basu, and replacing him with the younger Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the party has turned its attention to the Kerala leadership too. EK Nayanar, the current chief minister of Kerala is unlikely to be given another chance if the Marxists return to power in the state.

The CPI(M), the rumour mills go, is likely to replace him with the articulate former Rajya Sabha MP and the central committee member, MA Baby. Baby’s image building exercise has begun. Recently he executed a padayatra. The only hurdle in his way is the senior Achutanandan.

Footnote / Ghostly encounters of the Trinamool kind

Ghosts, instead of the communists, are haunting the railway minister and Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, these days. The other day Mamata enthralled newspersons by recounting how she had to change her bed at a city nursing home where she was woken up “by a ghost at dead of night”. “I was admitted to the nursing home for treatment but woke up suddenly at midnight when I realized that somebody was standing in front of my bed and moving my cot,” Mamata recounted. “But when I opened my eyes, I saw no one. I was so scared that I had to wake up my assistant, Sonali (Guha) to arrange another bed for me. I had to remain sleepless the whole night.” Then mayor Subrata Mukherjee and MP Sudip Bandopadhyay joined Didi to tell newspersons how they, too, were once haunted by ghosts. Mukherjee said he had to leave a government circuit house in Murshidabad at dead of night because of “a constant mysterious sound from outside the room”. Sudip Bandopadhyay added that he once became scared while boarding a plane which was carrying the bodies of some plane crash victims to Calcutta.    


Treading with caution

Sir — When the chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, Subhas Ghising, leaves for the capital early next month, he will be a very happy man (“Tribal status tops Ghising agenda”, Jan 24). With both the Centre and the state government deciding to consider Ghising’s demand for the inclusion of the Darjeeling hills area in the sixth schedule of the Constitution, things seem to have gone his way. However, given that most mass movements in India are usually taken over by politicians, so that local leaders lose their voice, Ghising should think twice before striking any deal with the Centre. The fate of Jharkhand should be remembered.
Yours faithfully,
Joseph Tapia, Darjeeling

Carry on reforms

Sir — The article, “Private joys and public woe” (Jan 9), has correctly pointed out that by encouraging the privatization of nationalized banks, the government is creating a situation reminiscent of the pre-nationalization era. Moreover, it is possible to defend the low profitability and poor financial condition of public sector banks. While it is true that the efficiency of public sector banks has slowly deteriorated because of the callous and lackadaisical attitude of the employees, there are also other reasons for their poor performance.

The advancement of credit to sectors like agriculture, smallscale industries and the opening up of rural banks are some of the projects that had increased since the nationalization of banks. The Narshimham committee blames the government of India and the finance ministry for this pathetic state of affairs. The public sector banks have been exploited by government officials, the bank employees and the trade unions. Though some of the recommendations of this committee were implemented in 1991-92 and 1994-95, the government’s failure to implement the rest complicated matters further. The government should first try to revive the public sector banks by implementing the other Narshimham committee recommendations, before encouraging private banks.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjit Kumar Guha Roy, Durgapur

Sir — The government should not succumb to the pressure tactics used by the public sector banks but should go ahead with the banking sector reforms. Most bank employees have welcomed the voluntary retirement scheme which is an indication of how things really are. Further, most of the banks have no work ethics. Losses arising from fraud, inefficiency, and non-performing assets are covered by higher service charges and by lowering interest-rates. Outdated technology makes these banks a burden in the electronic era. The government should go ahead with the reforms in the interests of the customers.

Yours faithfully,
M.R Pai and S. Divakara, Mumbai

Jewel from the crown

Sir — The government’s decision to campaign for the return of the “Kohinoor” will undoubtedly be welcomed by all (“Heritage-hunters raise return-Kohinoor cry”, Dec 11). That Greece has been campaigning for the return of the Elgin Marbles should boost India’s claim. The diamond was handed over to the British by the maharaja, Duleep Singh. Unfortunately, the article mentions two different dates for this event.
Yours faithfully,
Bijaya Chaudhuri, Calcutta

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