Sunday, October 4, 2009


A euphemism is a metaphor - metaphor of a special kind: it avoids unpleasantness, and to that extent, provides comfort. It has thus a social purpose. Since “piss” is an unpleasant word in a certain cultural context, it is insensitive to use it in public, so one uses “pass water” instead. Sixty years ago when I was growing up in a village in the coastal district of Cuttack in Orissa, my mother would not use the words saapa (“snake”) and baagha (“tiger”) at night. That was when many still believed in the power of uttered expressions. You uttered a word, and something related to it was bound to happen. You uttered saapa, and you were most likely to see one that night. So saapa at night was lamba jantu (“long animal”), and baagha, maamu (“uncle”). The thing did not matter, the word did. Now, if euphemism is about being pleasant, then what sense does “dangerous euphemism” make?
From another point of view, euphemism involves the art of concealment; a euphemism relates to a piece of reality through concealment - it conceals in order to reveal. A person is not “blind”; he is “visually challenged”. The expression does not hide reality; it only puts a cover on the stark nakedness of it. But there’s a problem when the cover is too thick, and the link between reality and the word is completely snapped as a consequence. Then the point of the euphemism is lost. Modern political discourse provides numerous examples of such expressions.

In his “Reflections on the Guillotine”, written about fifty years ago and possibly the best essay on capital punishment ever written, Camus gives a telling example of this. When a murderer is executed, what the newspapers report is an instance of euphemism: “(the condemned man) has paid his debt to the society” or “at five a.m. justice was done”. Camus exposes the reality of the event in the following lines. He contextualizes his depiction of it in terms of how the State would warn a person about his fate if he kills:

“If you kill, you will be imprisoned for months or years, torn between an impossible despair and a constantly renewed terror, until one morning we slip into your cell after removing our shoes the better to take you by surprise while you are sound asleep after the night’s anguish. We shall fall on you, tie your hands behind your back, cut with scissors your shirt collar and your hair if need be. Perfectionists that we are, we shall bind your arms with a strap so that you are forced to stoop and your neck will be more accessible. Then we shall carry you, an assistant on each side supporting you by the arm, with your feet dragging behind through the corridors. Then, under a night sky, one of the executioners will finally seize by the seat of your pants and throw you horizontally on a board while another will steady your head in a lunette and a third will let fall from a height of seven feet a hundred-and-twenty-pound blade that will slice off your head like a razor.”

If this is the reality, then the expression “at five a.m. justice was done” completely obscures it. He would prefer crudity to such euphemism, which does disservice to the society, says Camus. It gives the comforting feeling that a wrong has been righted. It completely conceals the indignity, humiliation, and cruelty – nothing short of savagery - that were inflicted on a human being, and it quite effectively blocks the possibility of public protest against capital punishment.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


The other day AC Milan coach, Leonardo, said of the twenty nine year old Ronaldinho that today he is no more the player he was. Two days after, the great footballer said that was not thinking of retirement at the end of this season. All this is sad, very sad indeed; just about three or four years back he was the darling of the connoisseurs of "the beautiful game” all over the world.

I took note of this Brazilian genius in Brazil’s quarterfinal match against England in 2002 World Cup. What a creative pass he gave Rivaldo to score the equalizer for Brazil! And what a spectacular goal he himself scored soon after from a free kick from about forty yards! The winning goal! Let football experts debate whether Ronaldinho’s hit his target or the ball just happened to land in the net. For us, the goal remains imprinted in our memory. That World Cup did not see a better free kick.

He was red-carded soon after, perhaps a bit too harshly. In any case, he had already won the match for Brazil. The English football scribes still haven’t gotten over the fact that England could not beat the ten men Brazilian squad in that quarter final match.

The two times World Footballer of the Year played such artistic, masterly football for Barcelona. He was the happy face of football then; there was always a cheerful grin on his face as he played. His energy seemed to be endless. When he played, the whole field was his territory. On the eve of a crucial Barcelona-Chelsea Champions League match, the redoubtable Chelsea coach, Jose Mourinho, not known for complimenting the opposition, said of a not-fully fit Ronaldinho that he could be dangerous even if he was only seventy percent fit!

Brazil, for ever the favourite to win the World Cup, was expected to walk away with the Cup in 2006, with such attacking players as Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano, Ronaldo, Robinho, and Roberto Carlos in the team. But it was going to be Ronaldinho’s World Cup. That under-prepared and overconfident team under an overconfident coach played unattractive football and were out of the World Cup in the quarterfinals. For the first time in twelve years Brazil was not playing a World Cup final match. The one who disappointed most was Ronaldinho. His passes were abortive and awful, and his free kicks sailed well over the bar. He did not score a goal, but more importantly, he played unimaginative and unappealing football.

World Cup finals create and destroy reputations. In the more recent years, his two headers in the 1998 World Cup final made Zinadane Zidane. World Cup 2006 harmed Ronaldinho’s reputation, and probably undermined his self-confidence. He of course had a successful 2006-2007 season with Barcelona, but Dunga, the new coach of Brazil, was not impressed. Ronaldinho has played for Brazil under him only a few times, and when he did, he hardly figured in the starting eleven. He was not picked for the Confederations Cup. It looks like 2006 was his last World Cup.

One heard of his injury, his late night parties, his petulance, absence during training, indiscipline, differences with the Barcelona coach Rijkaard, and his colleague Eto’o. Some held him responsible to an extent for Barcelona’s poor performance in 2008. There wasn’t much sympathy for him when he was virtually shown the door.

It is always sad when not merely a great footballer, but a supreme artist like Ronaldinho fades into the background too suddenly, and so quickly. I for one would like to think that his unexpected and inexplicable decline is due, to a considerable extent, to his feeling responsible for Brazil’s poor show in the World Cup 2006. It looks like I will miss – sorely miss - his endearing grin in the football stadiums of South Africa next year.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


New situations, sometimes engineered, may bring about new divides among people, marginalizing many who cannot benefit from them. It is difficult to anticipate what might cause a serious social divide: people’s body weight or height or complexion, the body language they use, or the cultural practices they follow. Or the language they speak!

One often tends to ignore that like religion, race, caste, etc., language too could give rise to exclusion. It is generally viewed as a harmless, innocent thing, just a medium of communication. So, despite evidence from time to time in the form of language-based violence, etc., one is not always alert about its negative potential.

Alongside so many divides in our country, there has been, for sometime, the “English divide”. It has intensified now, with computer having entered the society as the main instrument with which to gain best access to the resources of what has been called the “knowledge society”. Literacy stands redefined, and has now come to mean computer literacy. And computer literacy is not just about knowing how to operate the computer; it is about knowing English as well. The computer has bolstered the English divide considerably.

There is yet another social phenomenon that has contributed to strengthening the said divide. In the recent years there has emerged in our country a parallel educational system for a host of reasons. The so-called tutorial colleges constitute one of its most visible institutions. These non-degree awarding institutions aim to offer quality training so that their students qualify for admission to the best institutions in the country or get attractive jobs. These being expensive institutions, many cannot join these, and stay excluded from these opportunities. The dominant language of instruction here is English.

The way English is taught at school complicates the problem. The traditional method of teaching the language by the so-called “grammar-translation” method was discredited some years ago as being unscientific. Its success was ignored. The method that was recommended in its place emphasizes the idea that a language must not be taught with the help of some other language, except perhaps very minimally; so English must be taught almost exclusively through English. The expensive English medium schools are better equipped to adopt this method than the government schools. The latter cannot also go back to the earlier grammar-translation method, thanks to the prevalent negative attitude to it which is reflected in the present policy of English language teaching. The result is that in the non-English medium schools learners hardly have the opportunity to learn English reasonably well.

Our response to the English divide has been emotional and inadequate. Many tend to hold English responsible too for the neglect the Indian languages have suffered. Some still think that the solution lies in doing away with English, and developing the Indian languages, the scheduled ones, to start with, so that they successfully substitute English. Apart from the fact that it is easily said than done, this leads to exclusion – speakers of the non-scheduled languages get excluded. Besides, substituting English by the Indian languages does not eliminate the need for a link language for interstate interaction, and a global language for international communication. Our refusal to learn English would lead to our exclusion from the rest of the world, and making English available to only those who would need it for international communication would amount to promoting a small section of our population.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The rich linguistic diversity in India has been generally viewed as a national treasure. However it has never been free from threat; ironically but not unexpectedly, helpful environment for it hardly exists in multilingual societies. Especially when such a society is hierarchical.

Some education in the mother tongue, as recommended in the “three language formula”, can ensure that the language remains functional, and thus the linguistic diversity protected. But in India the languages are many, and the speakers of some are too few. Demands are made from time to time to recognize one dialect or the other as language. Some languages are still oral. In such a scenario, mother tongue education in practice has become education in some scheduled language. What has happened is that every individual, who has studied in an institution where the three-language formula has been implemented, has become multilingual. However, more and more Indians becoming multilingual for reasons of education or compulsions of day-to-day life is one thing, and the preservation of the linguistic landscape of the country is quite another.

Preserving our rich linguistic diversity basically amounts to ensuring that there is no language death. According to a recent UNESCO Report many Indian languages are under threat. The central government has recognized the need for affirmative action in this regard, and has initiated a programme of action. But what can be realistically achieved, under existing circumstances, for a language more likely to become extinct than survive, is the documentation of its lexicon and the grammar, its proverbs, folk songs and folktales, etc., and the knowledge of its speakers in terms of which they lived their daily life. This would ensure that an extinct language (and the related knowledge system) remains in the archives and is not lost to the world. A language (or dialect) need not die when all its speakers die, or when all its speakers shift to another language (or dialect). But such an archival approach to the preservation of language derives from the acceptance that language death cannot always be successfully fought.

But doesn’t it amount to compromising with the goal of preserving the multilingual reality of our country? In the present circumstances this goal does appear to be rather idealistic. We live in the age of “information”, and in a world made small by technology. For everyone to have access to the opportunities the world offers, the role of language cannot be underestimated; after all, it is through language that knowledge is created, disseminated and acquired. Now languages under threat are those that do not (or have ceased to) function in the domains of education, governance, and economic activities. The knowledge available in these languages, in terms of which the speakers of the same had once negotiated with the world, has become unhelpful for them to deal successfully with a different world. This creates a compelling situation for speakers of such a “disadvantaged” language to shift to the language of education, opportunity and privilege in their own context. It comes as no surprise, then, that so many languages are endangered.

A social or cultural practice is safe as long as its practitioners attach some value to it; even symbolic, but the same does not hold for language. Language must have a much more significant role in day-to-day life. Therefore it might be easier for a community to preserve its cultural practices under unfavourable conditions than its language. An aggressive cultural localism may not be the best solution to the problem of language (or cultural) endangerment. Exclusivist in nature, and it would create more problems than it might solve.

A language is safe if it has a function in day-to-day life. An organism would not survive if its habitat were destroyed. Mother tongue education would give a language its habitat, but it is no simple task. It appears that India can protect its linguistic landscape only if its commitment to it becomes as strong as it is to equality, democracy, secularism, and similar other socio-political values. Is this a likely scenario?

Friday, February 20, 2009


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently announced a number of major projects in science and technology education and research: to be set up are five Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research, twenty IIITs, and ten NITs. Six new IITs have started functioning and two more are to be set up. Institute for Space Technology has already been set up. The second campus of TIEFR is coming up in Hyderabad. He also talked about his government’s plans to set up thirty new Central Universities as part of institution building programme during the 11th plan period. All these might sound good to many.

He had earlier proposed the setting up of world-class universities in India. Going by newspaper reports, he didn’t give many details about the proposed universities; for example, are non-Indians going to be on the faculty? Would a member of the faculty get a permanent position after a year’s probation at the university?, etc. In any case, this proposal reportedly didn’t get support from UGC, Central Higher Education Review Committee, and Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission, among others. As reported in Deccan Herald (November 26, 2008), UGC is unsympathetic to it because it would set up a hierarchy among universities. This appears surprising – by assigning grade to universities and colleges, isn’t National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) already doing it? As for the views of the university academics, if at all they had deliberated on this proposal of the Prime Minister, there is no mention of these - in the national media at least.

In recent years no generally held credible ranking system has shown that there are world-class universities in India. However, quite a few university teachers in our country express skepticism about the objectivity of these rankings, but these critics haven’t developed a more reasonable and more acceptable ranking system that would show that our universities really rank much higher than what the existing ranking systems assign to them. The Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Ahluwalia is right that it would take about 15 or 20 years for a newly set-up university to acquire the world-class status, assuming of course the usual things: high quality students and faculty, healthy academic environment, commitment to excellence in research and teaching, etc.

Surely no major central university in India was set up with the aim of being among the best in the country alone. But the best of them can be said to have achieved not more than that. Dr. Singh’s proposal amounts to his saying that none of them inspires general confidence that it can grow into a world-class university if provided with additional resources. So if India must have a world-class university, then such a one must be set up; no “upgrading” of an existing university would serve the purpose.

Setting up of special institutions almost always means diverting of resources to these, as a result of which the existing institutions, divested of resources would suffer. Circumspection is needed even if the allocation to the existing institutions remains unaffected. Helping them to modernize and improve standards would require additional financial support for them. It may not be in the best interests of higher education in our country if there are one or two great universities, but dozens and dozens of them failing to offer quality education.

Some years ago at least a couple of our universities were among the top hundred universities in the world. One wonders whether ours have declined or whether others have progressed. Success stories of the relevant universities in our neighbourhood at least - Japan, China, and South Korea – and stories of our own failure together can help us understand what steps we need to take to raise the standard of teaching and research in our universities. Mere setting up of new universities with global aspirations may not take us very far.