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Sunil Sethi: India’s Tower of Babel

The first school I ever attended was a provincial establishment in Punjab where, other than imposing order on his noisy inattentive class, the schoolmaster tried to initiate it into the mysteries of rudimentary English. To this end he composed a ditty that went: “Pigeon kabootar udan fly/Look dekho asmaan sky.”

Narendra Modi isn’t the only Indian testing his English in a speech to scientists at the rocket launch in Tamil Nadu this week. Millions of his compatriots long to do the same. English language skills may not turn them into rocket scientists, but carry the promise of better jobs and improved livelihoods. Of course, Mr Modi’s teleprompter-aided exercise was driven by political compulsions in south India, where anti-Hindi riots were a regular occurrence till the Official Languages Act was amended in 1967, and again in 1976, to ensure that English and Hindi had parity as official languages.

Mr Modi’s own Hindi has improved and mutated rapidly on his road to prime ministership. All traces of a Gujarati accent have vanished; and during his vigorous election campaign in the Hindi-speaking heartland – that earned his party the largest numbers of Lok Sabha seats – his speeches were coloured with apt colloquialisms, often peppered with English. In the battle between a “naamdaar shehzada” (high-born prince) and kaamdaar chaiwala (working-class tea vendor) he mocked Rahul Gandhi’s policies as “shehzada ka brainchild” and extolled his own influence as being “political pundit se lekar aam matdaata tak” (from the pundits to the electorate). He has since decreed that he will speak to foreign leaders in Hindi and that official presentations in New Delhi should be in Hindi. He dispensed with his mother tongue for Hindi during his emotional farewell speech in Ahmedabad.

And for the first time more members of Parliament took their oaths in Hindi (192) than in English (110) with ministers such as Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharti, Harsh Vardhan and 32 others preferring Sanskrit. Nearly a dozen tongues were in evidence during the oath-taking. Proportionately speaking, this isn’t many in India’s Tower of Babel: the census lists 30 languages spoken by more than a million Indians each and 122 by more than 10,000. In 2011, there were 1,635 recognised mother tongues.

Given their linguistic diversity, Indians have a natural aptitude for languages (unlike, say, the Japanese with their homogenous culture and long history of isolation as an island nation). Among India’s greatest living divas is Lata Mangeshkar who has sung in 20 languages. Few are able to fault her. Her spoken-word memoir with the film historian Nasreen Munni Kabir explains how her mastery of music came from precise pronunciation. As a struggling 19-year-old seeking work in Bombay’s studios she recorded a number that made her an overnight singing sensation in 1949 (though her name went unacknowledged at first). The song was Aayegaa Aaanewala for the movie Mahal. It was a difficult recording; but by chance the young actress Nargis was present, chaperoned by her mother Jaddan Bai, a formidable Muslim singer and producer. When the job was done, Jaddan Bai summoned the young singer and demanded her name. “You’re Maharastrian!” she exclaimed. “But how is your Urdu so flawless? Sing it again.” As a result Lata Mangeshkar sang for all films starring Nargis, embarking on a career that outshone all rivals.

Political leaders are like performing artists in their desire to capture votes. But they no longer require Lata Mangeshkar’s phenomenal vocal gifts of mind and memory. United States President Barack Obama is an acknowledged teleprompter-addict; he uses them not only for State of the Nation addresses, but even ad hoc events such as talking to students in classrooms. The Washington-based journalist Chidanand Rajghatta reports that there is a TV skit showing Mr Obama in bed with his wife – murmuring endearments from a teleprompter.

The new teleprompter technology for public speakers is compact, invisible and more sophisticated than the monitors used by TV anchors. It is composed of two thin, transparent screens, artfully placed on either side of the speaker. As the prepared text scrolls down, the speaker turns to the audience from side to side, giving the impression of active engagement. As with actors, the rest is carefully orchestrated artifice.

Mr Modi is a self-confessed gadget geek, deeply attached to his laptop, with professional speech writers on hand. All he now needs is to master this simple art. It will quash reviving the troublesome political legacy of the primacy of Hindi or English over the other. His young electors couldn’t care less and are unlikely to start riots. If he used English more often, it would enhance his reputation as a leader who doesn’t speak in forked tongues.


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