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Monday, November 27

Language Digest - 1

Let us start with a news that is a little old and was well covered in media for its absolute shock value. This is Chandra Bhan Prasad celebrating Lord Macaulay's B'day in Delhi. Here is a follow up post from Kafila. If we are able to get over the sheer recklessness of the whole thing, there are a lot of questions that demand a better answer than those being provided by Prasad and Co. .

Recently, there have been two interesting stories from the legal system of the country. The first is the announcement by Karunanidhi to make Tamil the official language of Madras High Court. It is also covered here, here and here. This is a continuation of his other steps to promote Tamil in all spheres of life. Here is a op-ed in ToI.

The second is a decision by the Calcutta High Court that a dying declaration can be used as an evidence if it is recorded in victim's mother tongue. Also covered here .

Jharkhand announces introduction of tribal languages in schools.

From Pakistan, murder of Urdu.

Sunday, November 26

Language Digest - The idea

Human Languages play a role so basic in our lives that most of the time we fail to even notice it. The only other thing of comparable importance might be economy, not the stock market and big corporations, but our personal financial state and activities. Together these two cover a vast spectrum of issues.

On one hand stands linguistics, a scientific study of human languages, trying to under stand the current state of languages, how does human mind handle them, how do they develop and evolve and affect each other. Then we have the whole field of literature having authors, prose, poetry, translations, publishing. And then there are political issues, as Max WeinReich put it,
"A language is a dialect with an army and navy."

Languages play an important role in defining today's nation states. They both unite and divide people like few other things. The catch the fancy of people like little else, just lookout for number of people lamenting death of Hindi and other vernacular languages at the hands of English. The linguistic movements in the southern India have played the decisive role in defining the political face of the area.

And not to forget their social aspects. Specially in India where languages associate with social status. A lot of prosperity coming to the Indian middle class in last 10-15 years has been by virtue of their familiarity with English. Simultaneously, it has been a bottleneck for the dreams of millions of people who don't have facilities to learn the language.

And the big question of language preservation. Should it be done? Is it only natural that language fall out of use as has been happening through out human history or are we witnessing some extraordinary epidemic where almost 90% of the existing 6100 languages of the world face extinction by the end of next century? In the times of globalization, how do we achieve the balance between the needs of global communication and preservation of diverse cultural identities because languages form the most important component of cultural identities?

In the light of the above, it seems surprising how little coverage the linguistic issues get in the mainstream media. Not only that but the kind of ignorance and myths that abound about all aspects of languages in common discourse is astonishing. Specially in India a country full of so much linguistic diversity, we need to do better. We need to give more attention to our linguistic treasures than treating it as a mere curious fact ("You know we have 22 official and 600 overall languages !!"). A lot of that diversity is slipping away from our hands right as we showcase it to the world. And most of all, we have to understand how to handle and leverage our linguistic wealth for the welfare of the masses and building of a better country.

As a small step towards that, I will attempt to collect and post on this blog, language related news and views from Indian subcontinent, published in mainstream media. It will start as a digest of links at periodic intervals as of now and will only contain stories from news sources. Later on, I may include blogs and other sources also.
The hope is to make that news more visible. Contributions are welcome and can be left as comments at the moment.

With due acknowledgment to Language Log, Slashdot and Google News.

To a lovely morning !

Today was a lovely bright sunny morning ! The kind of morning that takes away a bit of the pain and makes you want to buy a bunch of flowers for no reasons at all (as if we should need any reason to get ourselves some flowers !). Yesterday night, I fell asleep reading the following:
"She descended the garbagey stairs, went out into the morning, a spanking-fresh June one, all spangly on the fire escapes. She paused for a moment on the stoop, taking it in. On a morning like this, you could believe the world was safe and promising. You could imagine that nothing harmful, nothing toxic, could flourish. Not when early light slanted down so purely from an ice-blue sky. Not when the window-box geraniums of the first-floor widow were incandescently red and a passing truck said PARTY PLANNERS in glittering gold letters."

-- Michael Cunningham, Specimen Days

Saturday, November 25

The Culture Shock II - Cycling

When coming back to academic life, I was pretty excited at the thought of going back to having a bicycle as my mode of transport. The romantic appeal I find in riding a bicycle is matched by no mechanized vehicle. All of them feel too fast, just the means of reaching someplace. A bicycle is adequately slow and uncomplicated, leaving you a lot of time and attention to give to your surroundings. Walking is the nest best thing but bicycle provides the right amount of speed of commuting without compromising on other aspects too much.

Now given the distance and unusual times of commuting, it was quite infeasible for me to use a bicycle in Bangalore but I was hopeful that in the less hectic academic life I would be able to afford the luxury. Alas ! it was not to be or at least not yet. The reason being the nicely managed traffic of Pittsburgh.

Now if you read any sarcasm in my last sentence, please don't. After Bangalore, traffic in Pittsburgh is like heaven. However it is the sheer micromanagment of the traffic here is the reason that I am finding it difficult to pick up a bicycle. So at some places there is a bike lane, at others you share it with cars. Some places, you can ride on sidewalks, some places you cannot. And this changes not from area to area but from street to street ! To add to the perils, there are very few other riders to be seen around to look for any clues about if you doing fine. There are just so many signboards everywhere, about parking, no parking, speed limit, left turn, right turn, diversions, street cleaning that my untrained eye finds it really difficult to spot the relevant signs.

Now I understand that there need to be traffic rules and that they make road safer for everybody but looking at the arrangements and the population (or lack) of riders on the road, I have a feeling that the rules are really not rider friendly. It might be that bicycles are seen more as a nuisance on roads that are primarily meant for fourwheelers. But here I must add that pedestrians are treated very well, at least here in Pittsburgh. I am beginnign to fear that I might get spoiled and will not be able to cross roads when I go back :-).

But that is not the end of the problems. Apparently, cycle thefts remain as big a problem here as they were in IITK. So most of the people actually carry their bikes to their offices rather than leave them outside and similarly in their apartments. The bikes are a whole new story themselves. So, there are no plain vanilla bicycles. Most of them feature gears upward of 10 and so many other things to choose from that it seems like you are not buying a bicycle but taking a major decision of your life ! Also forget about just jumping on your bike and racing away. You need a helmet. Not a lot of problem but then if you are riding in night, you better put flashers not only on bicycle but also on your cloths or shoes or backpack. In short, you can forget about the simplicity of biking. It reduces to just another mode of transport and is just as fussy.

After all, if you are on the road, you must be going somewhere. Right?

Thursday, November 23

India, mathematics and beauty !

"...if India didn't exist, no one would have the imagination to invent it."
An article by Mukul Kesavan in Telegraph about why India matters more and more in today's prejudiced world.

Again from Telegraph, For a True Flowering of The Mind by Partha Ghosh. I quote,
"Fourth, we must insist that they learn language and literature well. Without that, they will remain insensitive, incapable of understanding other people and other cultures, and nothing creative will ever emerge from them. Language creates the world we live in. The more sophisticated the language we use, the greater the freedom and power of our thoughts and the better the grasp of reality around us. This is why science had to invent the formal and abstract language of mathematics. Also, without the ability to read, hear, analyse and understand the constant bombardment of our ears and eyes by the media and politicians, and without the ability for clear and logical understanding and self-expression, there is no hope of any freedom of thought or democracy. Without these fundamental conditions there cannot be any scientific development."
And now time for some connection hopping ! While reading the quote above from Mukul Keshvan's article, it sounded errily familiar. A search on google reveled the famous words of G H Hardy about the theorems that Ramanujan's 1913 letter to him contained.
"Only a mathematician of the highest class could have written them. They had to be true, for if they were not, no one would have the imagination to invent them."
It so happened that I recently read the excellent essay A Mathematician's Apology by G H Hardy in which he argues passionately about mathematics as a creative art. According to him the only reason why Mathematics is worth pursuing is because it is beautiful just like the work of a painter or a poet. By an extension of this argument, though Hardy would hardly approve of this since he characterized most of the applied mathematics as dull and ugly, even science is not very far away from the creative arts. Inside the strict framework of scientific methods lies a world where individual imagination and creativity push the cutting edge of science to discover and explain various aspects of physical reality. A cold uninspired mind may be useful for doing second rate work but surely the great strides forward don't come from them. In India, we can blame our education system to a large extent where we manage to do just that, kill the curiosity, kill the sense of amazement and either scare away our young from science or produce second rate researchers. The few success stories of India can safely said to have happened in spite of our education system and not because of it. Even at the level of top technical institutes like IIT, our system is not flexible and liberal enough.

The second article above suggests some measures to cure the problems and incidentally, I came across this post by shunya some days ago. Visit the comments section for some half cooked but good discussion.

Friday, November 17

Judicial activism: Good or bad?

Sometime ago I posted my rather withheld reaction to the conviction of Santosh Singh in Mattoo case. A recent comment on that post led to this post.

We live in the times of Judicial Activism in India and I can either say that it could not have come at a better time or I can observe that perhaps this was in the natural order of things. Passing through the Nehruvian era, Emergency, unsuccessful Junta Party govts when the public trust in the legislature and executive has deteriorated increasingly, judiciary remains the last hope of the Indian middle class. Is it something to be celebrated or even relied upon is the question I want to explore.

Every activist is motivated by a ideology and it although it is easy to believe that the driving ideology behind the Judicial Activism is one of justice for one and all, we would be naive to do so. No doubt it remains the primary guiding force but the question is not about the intention to seek justice for all but about how one perceives the justice. In a big and diverse country like India, national interests do not always match with regional or local interests. And these matters are also not always state vs people. These are often much more thorny issues like big dams, mining, encroachment etc where the interests of a large chunk of people are posed against another large chunks. There are issues that have inherent in them emotional aspects. Now there is a catch. If courts argue and decide such issues without the considerations of such aspects, they are bound be seem unjust to one party or the other. One example would be if court settles the matter of Ram JanmBhoomi based on land records. On the other hand if courts do try to take into account the emotional aspects, they are prone to populism.

The problem of an active judiciary is that it has to encounter more and more such cases. Sometimes it has to over stretch its own mandate to deliver what it must and sometimes it just have to disappoint the people. And executive and legislature not only hide behind it but also take advantage of it. Instead of doing their own job and take unpopular decisions, they pass the buck more and more to the judiciary. People feel happy that courts have set the things right whereas they should actually feel angry that their appointed representatives are doing such a shody job ! So it takes a court to question the completely unscientific numbers on OBC population, the whole parliament attack case is reduced to a court case with politicians merely using at first the incident and later on the court verdicts to further their own agenda. And the court must do all this while still bound in the legal framework ! At the end of day, an active judiciary cannot fill in for a dysfunctional executive or legislature.

Seeing the conditions around us then it is no wonder that even the courts have fallen prey to increasing amounts of populism. Arun Shourie describes in his latest book "Bending over Backward" how step by step, one by one reservation decisions have moved in a particular direction. Reading those decisions along with his commentary is very eye opening as in how the individual ideologies are bound to creep in when issues are so complicated. This perhaps is a proper warning. An active and fair judiciary is must for a democracy, one of its corner stones but an activist judiciary may not be. Before we start putting too much hopes on Judiciary, we ought to remember that those sitting as judges come from our own society, born and brought up here. They are subject to same influences as we are and sooner or later that is bound to show up.

Thursday, November 16

Generalizations Galore !

Today I heard someone giving a talk say

That’s a mistake that creolists make all the time…to generalize what they have found to all creoles or some kind of language universal.

It’s ok. Impromptu speakers always make the same mistakes that they are faulting everyone else for making, especially when it comes to overattribution. What? I’m tired.

From here.

Should I add that linguists are all good at catching such mistakes ;-) !

Tuesday, November 14

Aise hi kabhi !

One of those days, one of those times when that sudden feeling of melancholy takes over ! So sad yet so hauntingly enjoyable ! What is it that the heart longs for? What fires this craving? What old dreams haunt the open eyes? How can one say and yet, how can one keep quiet but for lack of words ! goonga keri sharkara, baitha hi muskaaye ! And the reason can be as simple as a song that you have heard hundreds of times before. That ever so thin line between hearing and listening and it is so suddenly crossed ! Every word becomes pregnant with meaning and every movement of voice becomes a door to a whole new world. Blessed are those who gave voice to the human pain and longing !

Song: Tera mera pyaar amar, Phir kyon mujhko lagta hai darr.
Singer : Lata
Movie: Asli Naqli
Music : Shanker-Jaikishan

Enjoy it here.

Monday, November 6

The culture shock I - Banking

One of the standard question popping up during conversation with friends these days is about the culture shock. When somebody first asked me the question, I found it a bit strange and my response to it a little stranger. Probably culture shock is a word too strong because I really can't find things which I could describe as "getting over the cultural shock". No doubt this place is very different from India but most of that was known and expected what with so much of US reaching our drawing rooms and bedrooms these days. Having a sister and numerous friends over years living in US also make a difference I guess.

But even in these days of global village, there are surprises. Some of them are presented here for your perusal. Interesting point to note is that some of them can in fact be described as "reverse cultural shock" in the sense that I expected them to be something based on the image of this place I had formed in my mind and they turned out to be the other way.

My very first encounter with any institution in US was with the banking services and after a really bad experience in Bangalore when trying to open a bank account, it was a pleasant surprise. It hardly took 15 min and a very short form to open the account for a foreign national who had stepped in the country 1 day ago. Perhaps all the immigration checks and strict visa processing makes the while-in-US processes easier. In Bangalore, it is virtually impossible to open a first bank account in private banks like ICICI and CitiBank unless it is a salary account. They even refused to take cash to open the account and told me on record that "I need to have a account in another bank in order to open one in ICICI". If you want the details I can tell you the branch where this happened.

On the other hand the internet banking facilities in India were much more comprehensive and better. Counter intuitive, isn't it? But with the account I have, I cannot electronically transfer fund which was the single most used facility in my accounts in India. Another thing that really took me by surprise is the ready acceptance of checks here. You write checks for everything and they are readily accepted. Back home, checks are most suspicious form of payment with DDs being the norm in most of the places. This might have something to do with the credit rating thing here.

So the deal is that every financial transaction you perform contribute towards your credit rating. Well not every transaction but those related to paying bills, writing checks, paying loans etc. You are located by your SSN and so that is a very important detail of your identity here. Now your access to many services depends hugely on your credit rating. So for taking a simple mobile connection, you need good credit rating. For getting a credit card again you need a good credit rating. For getting loans, of course you need a good credit rating and even for getting a electricity connection, you need a good credit rating ! While this makes perfect business sense and may be makes people more financially disciplined, I didn't particularly like it.

First reason is that I am a little uncomfortable with any kind of credit (with due apologies to gsharma and Chandel but really :-) ) and with this system, you are forced to use credit even if you have money to spend in cash just to build up the credit rating.

The other reason is that it is kind of circular, a closed loop system where being inside gives you everything while being outside leaves you completely stranded. At least that is my understanding till now. I am sure there will be avenues for those who cannot afford to have a "good credit rating" but they don't seem to be a part of main system which is not a very good thing according to me. Infact most of those seem to be involve higher upfront costs to safeguard business but that is rather ironical.

For sake of completion, let me mention that the concept of credit rating exists in a rather fragmented form in India also. So you have a credit limit based on usage in your mobile phone and on your credit cards but it is yet not centralized enough and it is not yet the single point criteria which it seems to be here.

Coming UP:
Class rooms

in no particular order :-)

Thursday, November 2

The Joke !

Brian: 'Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, you don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for yourselves! You're ALL individuals!'
The Crowd (speaking in unison): 'Yes! We're all individuals!'
Brian: 'You're all different!'
The Crowd (in unison): 'Yes, we ARE all different!'
Man in crowd: 'I'm not...'

-- From Monty Python's Life of Brian
Are you or are you not?

I have a right to know ! - Links

Following up on my previous post about RTI, here are some links:

Parivartan : This is the NGO started by Arvind Kejriwal which is heading the RTI movement in India. The site has all kind of info.

The Indian RTI blog.

Taz writes about Arvind Kejriwal's visit at Sepia Mutiny.

And while I am at it, let me recount a vivid example of how the international institutions like WB impose their will on the administration. So all your doubts about the evilness of WB may not be far fetched after all. The story goes that Delhi Govt has a project about the privatization of water distribution in Delhi. The project was funded by WB. The project was being run secretly for 5-6 years ! And when Parivartan tried to get information under RTI, they initial response of the Govt was a complete denial of the existence of the project. However after a extended confrontation, they were able to get all the files related to the project and the details that came out were shocking. The project was finally scrapped after experts form leading technical institutions of India equivocally pleaded against it.

The information received also included all the correspondence exchanged between WB and Govt agencies and shows the extent of bullying that goes on. So WB wanted a particular firm to get the contract for the initial research. When the tenders were opened and each of company assessed, the said company failed to make the cut. The WB in a series of letters forced the Govt agency to scrap the process/ change the scores/ remove the person who gave lower marks to that company etc . There were letters from the WB that said things like "Change the last line of 3rd paragraph in the document to include a the. Delete the 4th line from the last paragraph.", virtually dictating everything. And this was a project that was going to change the water distribution network of Delhi completely. There was no participation from the major stake holder i.e. the citizens of Delhi. Probably a big disaster was averted by the timely intervention.

Everyone of these incidents points to only one thing, that each one of us has to start participating more actively in the things around us and that we have to go ahead and claim our stake in the things that affect us.