The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The Indian attitude is that of an oral, not a written, culture

Indians are much more at ease with the spoken than with the written word. They speak eloquently and with evident pleasure, but their writing is often hasty and careless. It is of course true that vast numbers of Indians lack the capacity to use the written word altogether. But there are many others who do have that capacity, and my purpose here is to draw attention to the ways in which they use and misuse it. The most common way of misusing it is to write at excessive and unnecessary length.

I am aware that there are first-rate poets, playwrights and novelists in several Indian languages who write clearly and elegantly, and even economically. But I am not concerned here with individual talent. My concern is with attitudes to writing common among those who have to use the written word in the course of their ordinary work, such as scholars, journalists, civil servants and even judges. Here there is remarkable laxity not only in the way things get written but also in allowing them to get into print. Reading and writing were known in India well before they were known in the West, yet our basic attitudes are those of an oral rather than a written culture.

Indians excel with the spoken word. Anyone who belongs to that large and ill-defined category known as public intellectuals in India can speak at any length and on almost any subject. Not only that: he can speak without reference to any notes and often without much application of the mind. Western academics are often struck by the fact that their Indian counterparts can speak fluently and effortlessly, if not always faultlessly, without consulting notes.

I may illustrate the contrast from my experience of two lectures that I gave at two premier universities, each of which was chaired by the vice-chancellor of the university concerned. The first lecture was at the University of Cambridge, where the vice-chancellor was a distinguished medical scientist. He introduced me briefly and, after I had concluded, also thanked me briefly. As we were walking out, he told me that he had greatly enjoyed my lecture. When I remonstrated that he was merely being polite, he quietly took out the notes he had made during the lecture which ran into three pages: he had come to the lecture to listen rather than to speak.

At the other lecture in the Indian university, the vice-chancellor arrived 35 minutes late while the speaker and the audience waited. Having arrived late, he embarked on a lengthy and eloquent speech on the challenges facing the country and the need for teachers and students to rise up to them. By the time he sat down and I began my lecture, on whose preparation I had spent more than a month, it became evident that he and most of the audience had lost interest in it. As to taking notes, here no self-respecting vice-chancellor takes notes at a lecture given by a mere professor.

Indian academics like to say that the defects of academic prose in India are due to the use of a foreign language. This is only a small part of the story. The more important part is the lack of patience and care in the writing. If Indians find it a struggle to write in English, why do they write at such immoderate length' The problem is not lack of facility with the language but lack of measure and discipline which escapes notice more easily in speech than in writing. The same lack of measure and discipline, and the same excessive length may be found in our judicial as in our academic prose. Commenting on the inordinate length of our Supreme Court judgments, Nani Palkhivala had once observed that they give clear evidence of the Indian preoccupation with eternity and infinity.

Indians of standing do not like being interrupted while they are talking, but they do not seem to mind when what they have written is revised or even rewritten. Sham Lal, under whose tutelage I began writing for the newspapers, would tell me about his tribulations with academic writers. He took pains to offer the columns of the editorial pages of The Times of India to distinguished academics. But what they sent him was often carelessly and badly written. When he revised and sometimes rewrote their pieces, they rarely objected; perhaps they did not notice.

A senior colleague once sent me an advance copy of a book review. Since the author of the book had been his teacher as well as mine, he wanted to make sure that the review would not cause offence. What struck me about the review was not that it was critical but that it was 27 pages in length. When I pointed out that it was far too long to fit into the Sunday newspaper for which it was written, he agreed and added genially that the editors would reduce it to the required length. It is not simply that I knew that the review was far too long; he also knew it.

A great English historian wrote that reading and writing are solitary pursuits while talking is a way of being gregarious. The Indian is gregarious by nature. He finds it hard to be solitary unless he is a sanyasi or a poet. From childhood he grows up in the company of others: relatives of many different kinds, friends and neighbours. He is discouraged from being by himself, and made to believe that being by oneself is a way of being selfish and arrogant. In adult life, if he achieves any standing at all, he is continuously surrounded by others. As he grows in stature, his visitors grow in number and variety.

During my long period of service in the University of Delhi, I often wondered how vice-chancellors, deans and principals ever found time to think, since they were constantly surrounded by people. Though my experience of professional life in the West is limited, it is difficult not to notice the contrast. It is not that professionals there do not have to spend time in meetings or do not enjoy committee work, but they are also mindful of the time they need to be by themselves. Successful Indian academics complain endlessly of the time they have to spend on meetings and committees, but their complaints need not be taken seriously. They relish nothing more than being surrounded by people before whom they can hold forth; what they cannot bear is being by themselves.

Being able to write clearly and well is not just a matter of intelligence or even facility with language. Above all, it requires patience and care, and emotional investment of a certain kind. Where so much is invested in being gregarious, the concentration of effort required for serious writing naturally suffers. Obviously, there are individuals who are masters of both the spoken and the written word. Such individuals are outstanding, and are therefore not confined by their circumstances but are able to rise above them. That apart, there appear to be marked differences of general orientation between cultures. Some cultures tolerate careless, disjointed and vacuous writing while others discourage it.

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