India needs English education for all

July 1, 2009

Education is the way out of economic backwardness for India’s large number of poor. Needless to say access to capital at reasonable rates, subsidies, health and other services are as important.

In this post my focus is on education. A number of state governments are enforcing state vernacular languages as the medium of education with scant regard to the relevance of this education in the job market.

They forget that India would not have emerged as an outsourcing hub but for a quirk of history, the decision by the British to introduce English as the language of education in the country.

We should be equally concerned about protecting our local culture and language. The McHomogenization of Indian culture is not at all desirable. But the classroom may not be the place for the protection of culture at this stage of India’s economic development.

The Wall Street Journal in this article has argued that the denial of English education to the masses is in a sense a form of domination, to keep the people subjugated.

“In fact, much of the political class remains opposed to English medium education supposedly because they fear the loss of local culture and language,” WSJ writes. It’s more believable that it’s because an ill-equipped population of voters is a malleable population of voters,” it added.

In the state of Goa in western India, a majority of the people backed Konkani as the mother tongue of the state, because it was the language spoken by most people But when it came down to the implementation of the language as a medium of education, parents fought back in favor of English.

They had by then realized that the official language issue had helped Konkani protagonists to perpetutate their roles as culture czars and educationists.

These protagonists re-wrote the language in the name of standardization, and expected children to learn a language that was by now quite different from what they had been used to speak at home. The script was also different.

Clearly there is a need to separate the politics of language from the relevance of a particular language in the new economic scheme of things. The education system, whether we like it or not, is geared to producing people suitable for employment in our factories and offices.

A few of us may have some discomfort about this mechanistic and production oriented metaphor of education. But to India’s poor, this is right now probably the only education that is relevant.


Savitabhabhi and the right to smut

June 29, 2009

News reports from India’s ContentSutra have it that http://www.savitabhabhi.com a porn cartoons web site has been banned by the Indian government.

While we all stand for freedom of speech, I am not sure that we should extend it to the right to publish smut.

What is cute about an online celebration of a sister-in-law who has the hots ? That incidentally was the theme of http://www.savitabhabhi.com, and some of the morally neutered media, US and Indian, gushed over it.

On this point I differ with the ultra-liberals who would argue that it has to be freedom at all costs, even if the freedom is exercised at the expense of good taste, or could endanger our kids who are also online.

Extending the liberal point of view further, this would add up to freedom to be solicited by pedophiles and other maniacs.

The fact is that if civil society is befuddled with confused liberal notions, somebody has to stop the smut online. If civil society does not have the way and means and the will to do it, the government does it.

The government has decided to take up the issue, and ban http://www.savitabhabhi.com. Hopefully, they will extend it to other pornographic sites. Else they would quite justifiably be seen as arbitrary.

I am not comfortable with the government deciding what should be made available to readers online, because the mandarins may misuse it, and they are not sophisticated enough to take a nuanced view.

That the government intervened however reflects the people’s inability to take a call as a concerted group, which is once again a reflection of the breakdown of consensus in civil society and the body politic.

Instead of relying on the liberal reflex, people worldwide have to take a serious view of the proliferation of smut and other things dangerous on the Internet. Just as we practively try to avoid crime on the streets, we should proactively try to stop criminal activities on the Internet.

As on the streets, there is the danger of fascism on the Internet. Governments also tend to want to curtail all freedoms in the name of curbing pornography, as in the case of China’s controversial filtering software for PCs.

But we have to find a middle-path for the sake of decency, good manners our sanity and that of the younger generation. We have to agree, or else the government will have to step in to tell us what is right.

P.S: A web site Savesavita.com has sprouted on the Internet to save the porn site….yet another example of misplaced liberalism.


In India, lots of spending on poor quality

October 27, 2007

Over the weekend in Bangalore, I had promised my daughter I would take her to an up market store that sold a variety of breads with exotic names and ingredients ranging from olives to sunflower seeds.

On Saturday morning, we braved the maniacal traffic and went to this place, only to find that the breads were two or three days old. The cheese-and-garlic loaf, a favorite in our household, was three days old, according to the label. An employee graciously recommended the wheat bread that was only a day old.

Close by is a Chinese restaurant that serves Indo-Chinese food, a mix of Chinese flavors and a pungent Indian idiom. The “ drums of heaven” there are usually soggy, while their noodles can be very sticky.

But the bakery and the Chinese restaurant continue to attract customers by the droves. They stand in queues outside, something unthinkable say a decade ago when most of Bangalore eat home-cooked food. A number of restaurants, with claims to offer Thai, Spanish, Italian, Provencal, Egyptian and other varieties of cuisine have also sprouted across the city. The fare is in most cases indifferent, but that does not deter customers from queuing up and paying exorbitant prices.

That had me surprised until I recalled an old, but no less relevant it seems, concept in sociology. An eminent Indian sociologist, M.N. Srinivas, observed in his field studies among one some of the communities in India, that the castes positioned lower in the hierarchy tend to imitate and modify their culture to resemble that of the dominant caste in the locality. Srinivas called the phenomenon Sanskritization, as the values and culture that tend to get imitated by the new social upstarts were the Sanskrit, Brahmanical ones.

What does this have to do with the large number of crowded restaurants and malls in Bangalore ? A lot, I think. Unlike previous upstarts, who believed that assimilating Brahmin and Sanskrit culture, rituals, and customs was key to their social climbing, the new upstarts have in a strange twist decided on American culture as the dominant culture to be imitated and assimilated.

These days Indians have wine tasting parties, to refine their taste for something they never consumed earlier. You have chefs of five-start hotels and other, usually self styled gourmands, writing in the society pages of newspapers on the finer points of rare delicacies like caviar and truffles.

A lot of affluent Indians are turning their back to their own rich and ancient traditions in food, dressing, and other aspects of culture, to a new world of mainly American kitsch. They are getting there rudderless and without discernment, creating an opportunity for a new set of consultants and purveyors of culture, most of them parvenu. Add to them snooty restaurateurs and five-star chefs. If you find the pasta sticky, don’t complain to the chef. He is more likely to turn around and tell you, without batting an eyelid, that is how pasta is eaten by the Italians. Probably he is learning too.

Maybe this is a transitional phase, but these days in Bangalore, and most of urban India, good food is a rarity, particularly if the idiom is not Indian.


From the mouths of children

October 9, 2007

One of my daily routines is to tell a story at bedtime to my child. I decided to tell her about Che Guevara, the man in Latin America, who wanted to help the poor by throwing out the rich and cruel landlords, and the evil dictators. “You have got it all muddled up pop,” my child protested. “That is Robin Hood you were talking about, and he and his men no longer exist.”

I then picked up one of her books to begin to read. The story we were reading was about a young man, called Jeff, who when not at work, was sought after by kids and adults in the neighborhood for his infectious sense of humor, his innumerable anecdotes, and his uncanny ability to take a dig at himself.

Jeff, it turns out, was a favorite because he was always around to help kids fix up their broken toys. He also helped the elder in the neighborhood with their chores, when he could

My child, interrupted me midway to ask, “These days, where do we find a person like this ?”. “Read me something about people we know”, she demanded.

Vowing to be as close to reality as possible, I began:

There was a man called Kirk who was the head of a company. He wore swanky suits, and was driven to work every morning in a luxury car. He was a man of many words, usually about his company, and its products, and how well they sold. In fact, he never passed up an opportunity to talk about these things.

His duty was to make money for the people who owned the company – they call them shareholders – and he did that very well.

He must have been an important man, because he had lots of people working for him. Everybody laughed when he said something funny. There were a lot of newspaper reporters and TV camera men running behind him. He was a “thought leader” and what he said was considered very important. He was always dressed right, always with a smile for the cameras.

He had people – they call them a public relations firm – that reminded newspapers all the time about his company, his work, and yes, his thought leadership. He traveled a lot, worked a lot, his company organized functions where he gave speeches a lot, he was away from home a lot. His company rewarded him with vacations in exotic locations, lots of money……..

My child was snoring before I could finish the story. She never asked me again to read to her at bedtime.

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Bollywood and the “stupid Indian”

September 29, 2007

A picture is worth a thousands words, goes the old saw. By that reasoning, the corrosive images coming out from Bollywood, India’s prolific cinema production industry, and its TV soaps must have by now done great damage to the image abroad of Indians.

In a movie from Bollywood, the hero’s falling in love is usually incomplete without a song and a dance. The couple never ever jump into bed, because the official censors in India don’t allow screening that.

But there is enough in the dance sequences to titillate a repressed audience. A favorite of directors is a scene of a fully dressed woman standing under a waterfall or a shower, revealing a lot through the wetness of her clothes. The director also throws in well-choreographed dance sequences, with a large number of over-fed and skimpily clad starlets, known locally as “item girls”, dancing in tandem with the hero and heroine.

The story line is also quite simple and repetitive, exploiting ad nauseam the “ love conquers everything” theme. The hero or the heroine usually come from a poor family, and there is opposition to the marriage, and other obstacles thrown up by villains who suddenly surface in the plot, either in search of profit, or hired by a competing girl friend or boy friend. Pain is exaggerated and so is cruelty and sadness. A gunned down actor could take half an hour to die, while a nail-biting audience watches every gory detail.

It is only recently that producers have started experimenting with new themes, but most are quite improbable in the Indian context. One movie “Nishabd” (Silent) released this year had a top actor Amitabh Bachchan, who is in his 60s in real life and in the movie, falling in love with an 18 year-old girl. The film was not a hit at the box offices.

Realism is also given the go by in popular TV soaps. The heroes and heroines grow older, and have children and grand-children, as the soaps proceeds from one episode to another. But they still strut around with jet-black hair and youthful faces and figures. And they are still caught up in romantic entanglements of their glorious past. In one serial, the widowed matriarch is a great-great grandmother !

Most of the popular soaps center around wealthy business households with spacious homes, and expensive cars. Some aim at being westernized or modernized, by introducing, and subtly glorifying, to traditional Indians and the country’s rural masses, themes of infidelity, extra-marital affairs, and crimes of passion.

Other soaps like “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” (Because a Mother-in-law was once a Daughter-in-law too) attempt, in a contrived way, to convey that despite their wealth, the family is still traditional, adhering to the local “sanskar” or culture.

As for the poor, they don’t exist in the world-view of the soaps. The Indian soap is a celebration of the new upper-class hedonism that has emerged as a result of India’s economic boom.

All this adds up to a potential image problem for Indians. If earlier the country was known as a land of elephants and snake charmers, it will now get portrayed as land of social upstarts living in a world of their own imagination.

If Bollywood portrayed Indian men and women dancing around trees or breaking into song, with little by way of intellect or existential concerns, the soaps have gone a step further. They have brought into focus the new Indian upstart. Unlike the love-smitten, song and dance loving hero and heroine of Bollywood, the heroes and heroines of the soaps do unfortunately exist.

But they do not represent all Indians. They do not represent the large number of Indian engineers and researchers who have made a mark, occupying top positions both in India and abroad. They do not represent India’s scholars and Nobel prize winners.

They do no represent India’s large number of poor.

As Indian producers try to take their fare abroad, they will not be exporting real Indian culture, but a new ersatz culture and a new stereotype – the stereotype of the stupid Indian.