Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hindi hai Hum -- Pardon me?!

A couple of days back I came across this post about ... yes, 'Language Terrorism' as the name of the post says. That post refreshed some of my thoughts and feelings that coursed through the mind a week or so back watching the absolutely abhorrent scenes that played out in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. But before I dive into sharing my thoughts, let me first clarify a few things.

  • This post is not to disagree with what Bharat says in his post. I agree to quite a few things he says, and at the same time I have different views on a couple of things. When I say '... not to disagree with Bharat' it holds for the views expressed by him, which I am sure are shared by quite a few.
  • This post is not about Hindi (or any language) chauvinism. So please hold off your spears and bows-and-arrows.
  • Obviously, a lot of readers may not agree to the views expressed. They are entitled to their own views, as much as I am to mine. While I'll not be surprised at any passionate comments, I expect you to be civil while putting words to thoughts. I expect. I will understand, though, if that is not the case.
First, on the issue of the events in the Maharashtra assembly. They were totally abhorrent. Period. Even if (mind you, if) the MNS was right about the point it was making, it was wrong to express it in the way they did. In his post, Bharat ( presents the view of ad-man Bharat Dabholkar on the issue of Abu-Azmi taking oath, which I reproduce here.

Dabolkar went on to say, what big thunder would have stuck had Mr Azmi uttered those couple of sentences in Marathi, since he knew what was coming. I am sure he could have easily managed to speak that. But he did not and will not – sheer reason being - he believes that Hindi is our national language. Legally he is allowed to take the oath in Hindi, but the legislator was quoted as saying that Hindi is our National language (Which itself is completely lame) and no one can insult it. In what way is asking him to take the oath in the state’s official language an insult to Hindi? When Mr Azmi is a member of the legislative assembly of Maharashtra, he can definitely make an effort to speak out two sentences in the state’s official language. MNS is not against outsiders. Mr Yadav rallying in Sivaji Park talking about “Tamaam Muddhey” and the rights of outsiders in Mumbai is what triggers anger in the MNS. Then they choose the wrong path to settle it out.

I remember feeling slightly ashamed at being a Marathi Manoos reading about those events and seeing the images on television. They are doing more harm than good to the Marathi Manoos - especially for those living outside Maharashtra.

The next part of Bharat's post is about the existence (or not) of a national language for the Indian Republic. He argues that officially India does not have a national language; instead there are twenty two official languages (that is, business of the State can be conducted in these official languages). In my opinion the question of whether India does (or does not) have an official national language is a moot point. The question that begs to be asked is, 'Should it have a national language?' Now, before you train your guns or bows-and-arrows or spears at me for being a 'nationalist', let me assure you that it is not my intention to be any such thing. I am simply asking this in the context of whether a national language can be a factor in national integration. Again, let me emphasize that it's not a single-point agenda for integration. It may again, be debated whether language (any language) can be a tool in uniting a country. But let me put forth a couple of views.

I have spent almost all my life in Bombay (yes, I like to call the city by it's good 'ol name). And the city is in some ways a mini-India. Growing up, I had all sorts of classmates in school - Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Tamilians, Keralites, Christians, Muslims, Kannadigas, Marwaris, folks who traced their roots to the Hindi heartland, and yes, even a couple of folks from the North-East. The same was true for many of my friends in the locality. I grew up playing cricket with my friends, and many of them were Tams, Mallus, Gujjus as they're called in city slang. And never, once did I feel that they were from another part of the country or that they were ... well, different. As kids, I guess, we don't worry about all these things that adults bother themselves with. But one thing was for certain. We all talked - and fought, and argued, and shared jokes - in Hindi. Mind you, the point is not that it was Hindi, as much as the existence of a common language understood by everyone.
Now, to be fair, language need not be a barrier in getting to know someone. These past three years I've been in Bangalore, and I've made countless friends, Kannadigas, Tamilians, Keralites. Some of my best Tamilian friends do not know Hindi, while I often speak in English with many Kannadigas. Language is not - cannot be - a barrier in building relationships. I am just trying to make the point that while it's not a barrier, it is definitely a great boost in reaching out to the other person. I remember watching a show by stand-up comedian Russell Peters. When two Americans meet, they chat up with each other, and go out for a beer. When two Indians meet ... the first feeling is often of distrust. Well, he was exaggerating, may be. But not having a common language to start a conversation with can be a major deal-breaker! I am talking about strangers, mind you.
Here's a quick question for all those living outside their, well ... native state: so Tamilians outside TN, Gujuratis outside Gujarat, and so on. How many times have you come across a stranger in your local super-market or in the train compartment opposite your seat and overheard someone talking in your native tongue? And on how many of those occasions have you not reached out to them and said Hello and gone on to make, at least a passing acquaintance? A common language is a huge ice-breaker. I guess those of you reading this who have stayed outside India may relate more to this. In India, we are Mallus, Gujjus, Tams, Ghatis (slang for Maharashtrians, like yours truly). Outside, we are Indians. And I've heard from a lot of friends staying outside, that Hindi is often the language used to communicate with other Indians. Again, let me reiterate the point is not about Hindi, but about a common language.

So coming back to the root of it all, did we err in not having a national language? Bharat says in his post,

India is culturally so diverse, there are so many languages spoken that there cannot be any one such language that defines the culture and history.

I don't quite agree. Yes, India is diverse in terms of languages, customs, traditions. But it is not diverse culturally, or in terms of traditions. Diwali is celebrated everywhere across the country. Harvest festivals are celebrated across the country - they may, of course, be known by different names, and of course celebrated at slightly different times, according to the harvest seasons in the particular geographical area. The traditions are common throughout the country. Now, before you cry, "Nationalist!" or "Hindu Fundamentalist!" (that term is in itself a contradiction, but I won't get into that), let me say that I am not being any of those (supposed or real) things. I am only opining that we are not as diverse as we might seem, at first glance (or may be to a foreigner on the first visit to India). I also don't agree that there cannot (mind you, cannot as opposed to should not) be a national language, simply because there are so many regional languages. Just as people say, 'I am Indian first and Mallu/Gujju/Marathi or Hindu/Muslim/Christian later', so also why can't we have a national language first, and our own native tongue later? Does the existence of a national language dilute the 'importance' (for lack of a better word) of your native tongue so much?!

Bharat also quotes the Constitution:
Article 343 of the constitution specifies that the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.
But it was decided that
till 1965, the proceedings of the courts, the services, and the all-India bureaucracy would be conducted in English.
In 1965, attempts were made to introduce Hindi by force, sparking widespread protests in Tamil Nadu. Then the Union Government extended the use of English in inter-State communication.

Of course, a language should not be forced upon a people. But then, 'attempts were made to ... sparking protests' ... Think about it for a moment: the annexation of the princely states in the Indian Union was also done by force (overt or covert) by then Home Minister Patel. If the amalgamation into the union wasn't forced upon them, then what would have been the state today? And why did Tamil Nadu object to any language (one suspects that it would've been any language other than Tamil: no disrespect meant to Tamilians; I credit this opposition to Tamil politicians and their misplaced chauvinism). Why can't you have Tamil (or the regional State language in other states) as the first/second language and teach a common language?

Which brings me to the third point: What is wrong with having English as the common language. On the face of it, nothing at all. With the passage of time, English has in a way ceased to be a 'foreign' language. Hence, all objections (of nationalists - real or supposed) are invalid. But has it? As much as the goal of teaching English in all government (or private, of course) schools is noble, is it actually happening? If it's not happening with English, then the purpose of having a common language is not being served. The second aspect - and here, I may be called a 'nationalist', and I shall gladly accept that - is that we ought to have an identity as a nation. A national language is part of that identity. It is not the complete identity, but a part of it, for certain. And that identity should be homegrown. A Frenchman has the French language as - again, a part of - his national identity. An Irishman has Irish as part of his identity. Why not have an Indian language as part of our identity - as a people, as a nation? The choice of which language is secondary, in principle, at least. Remember, not everyone is comfortable with English. It is one thing to use it for official purposes - correspondence at work, etc. - and another to use it informally. Some of my friends are not very fluent in English (nothing against them, it's no big deal, honestly!) and yet are fluent in their native tongues and Hindi (and they are not from the 'Hindi belt').

This is not to undermine the importance of the local, regional language. It is very important to know that and I'll be honest enough to admit I'm not very good when it comes to Kannada. I understand and can speak rudimentary Kannada, but not very fluent (fluent would be an over-statement, really). But coming from Bombay, I can say one thing: you can get away with not knowing Marathi in Bombay. Can you say the same thing about Madras (Chennai) or Bangalore? And what do you do if your friends are from different states (as mine). Believe me, when we're all together at the lunch table, we all talk in Hindi - whether we are Marwaris, Gujjus, Marathis, or Kannadigas. Even though all of us are very comfortable with English. And we all enjoy Hindi movies. Oh well, may be that's just me/us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Going Geeky ... and Going Google!

This post is a little different from all others. I just made a few slides showcasing some of the work that I’ve done in the past, and felt it would be a nice idea to share with all the readers. The deck was created in Google docs; this was the first time I tried out Google Docs for creating a presentation, and was absolutely wowed by the simplicity of it. Adding content, changing the slide design, and best of all, adding images – just drag images from another URL into your slide and you’re good to go! Try out Google Docs if you haven’t done it yet!

As for the slide deck, I’m very much looking forward to comments, suggestions, and feedback. I’d also be glad to answer any questions you might have about the content on the slides! Just a note: I won’t be able to be *too* specific about the algorithms used. But I’ll try and answer any questions as best as possible.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Update: Here's a post that shares some similar thoughts.
I'm sure almost all of you must have, sometime or the other, had to step into the confines of a public-sector enterprise office, and I'm equally sure that most of you guys have tales of torrid times to tell! So, what I'm going to post is nothing new. However, I'd like to touch upon something that such a recent experience left me thinking about. First, something about the events that transpired. I'd gone to a nearby branch of a public-sector bank to inquire about opening an account for my brother who's just been transferred to this city. Now, the gentleman sitting at the counter, first threw a volley of questions at us - ranging from where I stay, to if I have all the documents for the house, where I work. That is perfectly fine. But when I told him, that I had to open an account for my brother, who'd just been transferred, and hence, obviously did not have any documents in his name, he shook his head vigorously and informed us that he cannot have an account. I asked him about opening a joint account with me as the primary account holder. No sir! You may not! We then went to talk to the Branch Manager, expecting that he would be more helpful. Of course, this was being very, very optimistic. The Manager listened to us, and asked us to go to the counter where forms are available. I patiently told him that I'd already been there, and that I hoped that he'd be able to help with the situation that we have. The Bank, spake He, is not a place to provide documents, and you must acquire them yourselves! 'We cannot help you!', said the Manager. Now, I was patiently trying to explain to him, that perhaps he can help us figure out a way through this. How does a person who's been just transferred open an account, I asked. After a lot of rambling, I finally asked him if a letter from his (my brother's) organization stating the address as per their records would do. 'Aah,' spake the Supreme Lord, 'but, of course! That would do!' I further told him, that we can furnish the Ration Card that has our names (to establish the relation), as an additional supporting document. Now the manager was positively happy! Said He, 'Yes, yes... Please go ahead. You'll find the form with Mr. XYZ over there.' I'll be honest about one thing. At the start of this post, I did talk about a PSU office, but I've had similar experiences even in private sector enterprises. Heck, even in my previous job, we had to battle through a lot (and I mean a LOT) of crap, red-tape to get things done. So in a sense, it's not only about PSU offices. But what really left me wondering was why don't these people want to help their customers (or prospective customers) get things done? The first thing that they think is how things cannot be done, rather than how they can be! In the incident at the bank, all the gentleman at the counter (or the manager) could have asked was if my brother could submit a letter from his employer stating his address as per their records! As simple as that! Instead of that, they launched into a tirade, haranguing us for asking too many questions! I simply fail to see how this attitude is going to win them any customers. But then again, they needn't worry about that. If they lose this one, they can get may be ten others. No problem. The problem with that is that this one customer can probably wean away ten others who would have approached them. Sadly, this attitude (towards customers/prospective customers) persists even in a competitive arena. India, with it's huge (and growing) population presents an almost endless sea of people who'd approach them. How does it matter if we lose a few?! But there's another thing that goes beyond just business practices. Why don't these people (the gentleman at the counter, the Branch Manager) feel like helping out people that approach them? Just as people, just as human beings - not even as customers! Why can't they think about such treatment being meted out to them (or their immediate relatives/loved ones)? Would they like to be treated in the same way? Why can't they just help out the people who approach them, and bask in the smile that radiates from the person upon being helped out? Are we, as a people, becoming so narrow-minded? As my friend Dev would wonder, 'Why is there lack of goodness in this world?' Why can't we help people, in small ways, in whatever way we can? Even if we help someone is a tiny, wee-bit way, I think this world will be a much better place to live in... What do you all say?