Tuesday, August 16, 2011


It may be worthwhile to consider the significance of some of our proverbs and words which have proverbial status. The reason is that proverbs often express significant social attitudes. There is a proverb in Odia (earlier spelling, “Oriya”) which indirectly relates to corruption: caakiri kariba pulisi, maacha khaaiba ilisi a rather literal and rough translation of which is the following: join the police service; eat ilisi (also called hilsa) fish. It means the best service to join is the police service and the best fish to eat is the hilsa fish. ‘Service” here is government service; at the time of the “origin” of this proverb a government job was the best. The proverb is not really about the hilsa fish; it is about what makes a job attractive – an attractive job is the one in which one always has the opportunity to make a little extra money. If there is no upuri (extra money), it is not an attractive job. From the point of view of this proverb, a job that involves frequent tours is better than the one which has no provision for tours because one could always make a little money from one’s travelling allowances – there is nothing terribly wrong if one travels in the sleeper class and charges first class fare. One must not get caught: nei aani thoi jaanile cori bidyaa bhala – if one can manage things, a bit of stealing is good. One is considered a bit dull if one can’t manage a little extra money. More than forty five years ago, when I got my first job, perfectly well meaning and affectionate elderly people in my village asked me whether my job had upuri. When I said I had a teaching job at a college, they almost consoled me saying I could offer tuition and earn something. There are equivalents of upuri in Odia: di paisaa (two-pice) and antaa gunjaa (money tied at the waist in the dhoti one is wearing), to name two. These occur in informal speech and writing and are not negative terms; these are neutral, even slightly positive in certain contexts of use. Of course no proverb or wise saying openly advocates bribery, but proverbs are not part of niti shastras; they only mirror social realities. Now upuri which legitimizes bribery is not about amassing millions but about just a little to make the day-to-day life of oneself and one’s family a little comfortable. The word can be qualified by bhala (good) - bhala upuri - but it is still not about millions and crores; it is about a few hundreds. Collecting big money is theft, a crime. The term upuri is self-oriented, in the sense that there is nothing like upuri for one’s institution or political party or business.

The “pulis” proverb is less than two hundred years old, but the “cori vidya” one is much older. In fact, there are some folktales that embody this latter idea. Now it is common knowledge that proverbs express the accumulated experience of a linguistic community and that they are about day-to-day life, telling us about how to live a trouble free life, not how to live a virtuous life. In fact one who tries to help others at the cost of self is looked down upon in the world of proverbs as a simpleton. For example, consider this one: aapanaa kapadaa paraku dei, siba paleile langalaa hoi (giving away his own clothes to the other, Lord Shiva went away naked). Here Lord Shiva’s generosity is not celebrated, his naivety is frowned upon. One who lives a virtuous life and suffers privations or discomfort in the process is not taken seriously and is generally called a bicaraa (poor fellow). Cleverness is admired. The linguist Aditi Ghosh assures me that Odia is not the only Indian language which has such words, proverbs or wise sayings that in a way endorse a pragmatic attitude towards life and a bit of dishonesty as a consequence.

This attitude of ignoring, in fact condoning, a bit of bribery may be the primary reason for the rampant corruption at the grass root level that we notice in our society. A decent and well-intentioned friend of mine once described bribing as service charge for getting work done and with that euphemism legitimized bribing. Some years ago, the bearer of the income tax refunds document sometimes demanded a tip for doing his job and got paid too. One cursed the fellow but parted with a little money, consoling oneself that one had the evidence, delivered at the door step, that the tax had been paid. The telephone workers often ask for and are given a tip at the time of the installation of the landline phone at one’s residence. All these are in the spirit of the expressions mentioned above. It is this kind of societal corruption that is difficult to fight. Therefore there seems to be a point in legitimizing bribing, at least of a certain sort, namely, upuri.

The only problem is that a bribery-oriented society is very unfair to its poor. They do not have anything to offer as bribe, and as a result get excluded from everything: medical facilities, educational opportunities, access to basic amenities for a dignified living, etc. It is for their sake that the fight against corruption must be directed not just against money stored in some foreign banks, but also against this upuri-culture.

Monday, August 15, 2011


The story of English in India is interesting. It is the only foreign language against the continuance of which there have been agitations from time to time in post-independence India, till at least the nineteen nineties. Yet its continuance has never really been threatened in the least. In fact, ways have been found to explain and justify, although only indirectly, its place in India. In Nehru’s words, it is a language “of importance to India”. It is the Associate Official language of the Indian State. Because it was not an Indian language, it was not included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution but was not excluded from the Sahitya Akademi list of languages. In 1958, Central Institute of English (CIE) was set up – interestingly, Central Institute of Hindi and Central Institute of Indian Languages were set up in 1961 and 1969 respectively - to improve the quality of the teaching of English in India. Pandit Nehru is said to have specified even the model to be promoted at CIE, and by implication, in the country: British English. In the early sixties, English was accorded the status of a “library language” in India. Probably because linking English with education directly was to be avoided in public discourse on the subject, this rather curious phrase was coined and thereby a terminological contribution to educational linguistics made by the UGC, although this sub-discipline of linguistics does not seem to have been thankful for it. Among the academicians, whereas some called English the language of opportunity in India, some others called it the language of the elite in the country. In fact, most of them were indeed of the elite class, a fact they preferred to forget in their public utterances. By the nineties, such discourses on the status of English in India had become more or less a thing of the past. In the meantime, the so-called English medium schools had come up like mushrooms, to use a really stale, but apt metaphor, in the by-lanes of the cities, and in small towns, where more often than not, bad English was taught.

There are some interesting contradictions concerning English. The most popular one is that most of those who opposed English sent their children to the English medium schools. Then many of our scholars who talk most loudly and write with much conviction and a good deal of jargon about the decolonization of our attitudes and modes of thinking use English, not an Indian language, to articulate this idea. For the modernization of the Indian languages, resources of Sanskrit and of the Indian languages themselves are to be used, according to a directive of the Constitution of India. The implicit message here is to avoid English for the purpose. But in reality, both the lexical repertoire and the forms and the styles of discourse of our languages have been enriched through interaction with English, which brings out the hollowness of the argument that English has adversely affected the growth of our languages. The Constitutional directive has been generally followed in the preparation of the glossaries of technical terms, but these glossaries have largely remained confined to the libraries. Despite a rather apologetic attitude towards English by the government, the language education policy of the Union Government has made Indians multilingual, one of the languages of their multilingualism being English. Today the English-knowing population in India is said to be quite large, their number exceeded by only the Hindi-knowing population. Thus English has emerged as one of the two link languages in urban India. One of the familiar arguments against English has been that it is the language of exploitation; now the deprived and the marginalized population of our country are demanding that they be taught English, the language that has been effectively denied to them by the hypocrisy of the privileged population, who, they say, have earned their privilege because of their knowledge of this language.

Now with this has effectively ended the rhetoric about English being the colonizer’s language. The generation of the nineties, who read from their text books about India being under the British rule for about two hundred years seems to have noted that this so-called foreign language had become probably the most important language of opportunity for the Indians. Globalization might have contributed to this understanding but is certainly is not its main cause.

In India English has been Indianized as the Indian languages have been Englishized. Our pronunciation of English is pretty Indianized. A bit of the syntax is Indianized too. We use expressions like “where are you coming from”, “I am having three houses in this very city”, unaware that these are Indianisms. We don’t care, even when told that these are Indianisms. Many say, if these are un-English or are errors, they are so only in our English teacher’s English. Four O’clock is not evening for us, it is “afternoon”. Two A.M. is not wee hours in the morning for us, it is “night”. The school name is the “good name” for us. But the ultimate Indianization of English is its transformation into an icon, a goddess, for whom a temple has been built in Uttar Pradesh.