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Indira, illiteracy and IT, that's 'I'ndia

NEW DELHI, Aug 30: It's glossary time again! 'I' is for 'India', and for....
ILLITERACY: Remains rife, with just under half our population unable to read or write in any of our several dozens of scripts. This may well be, as Indira Gandhi once suggested, because half our population is either too young or too old to read or write, but the real reason is that our society is not so constructed as to make illiteracy the kind of handicap it would be in the developed world.

We are a particularly verbal people, reading aloud to each other in village tea-shops, communicating fact, rumour and interpretation without the intermediaries of pen, paper and ink.

But we can no longer afford the attitude that literacy is an extravagance (requiring implements to write with, material to write on and light to read the results by, none of which is easily available in our rural areas).

In today's Information Age, no country can succeed economically without a population that is wholly literate, and that can use every keyboard it can gain access to: allowing illiteracy to prevail is to handicap our people in a 21st century race they have no choice but to run.

It is true that illiteracy is not a sign of lack of intelligence: most Indian illiterates have a native shrewdness and a sense of personal conviction that would put a city lawyer to shame. But it does reflect a lack of opportunity that remains a serious blot on our society.

INDIANENGLISH: Is a popular native dialect, spoken with varying accents and intonations across the country. It has not been greatly codified, its practitioners preferring to believe that they speak the language of a distant Queen, even if she couldn't tell a dak bungalow from a burning ghat or a zamindar from a boxwallah. The point about this truly national language is that it has its roots in India and incorporates terms not found among the 900 'words of Indian origin' listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED's Indianisms are pretty tame stuff, like jungle, shampoo and thug, whereas the true speaker - and reader - of Indianenglish doesn't blink at a lathi-charge on a sarvodaya leader emerging from a pandal after a bhajan on his way to consume some ghee-fried double-roti at a paan-shop near the thana (none of which would make any sense under the, er, Queen's very rules).

Indians are at home with Vedic rituals and goondaism, can distinguish between a ryot and a riot and wear banians under their kurtas, and still function in the language of Macaulay and Churchill.

Our criminal classes, alone in the Commonwealth, are populated by dacoits, miscreants and anti-socials who are usually absconding; if these 420s are then nabbed by the cops, they become undertrials or detenus. Indianenglish has its own rules of syntax ("why you didn't come? it was good, no?"), number ("i give my blessings to the youths of the country"), usage ("i am seeing this comedy drama thrice already"), convention (we eat toasts off quarter-plates instead of pieces of toast off side-plates) and logic ("have some Indian-made foreign liquor").

After our chhota-pegs we sign chit-books; the next day we don our dhotis and Gandhi-topis and do pranam when felicitating the PM at his daily darshan.

These are not merely the mantras of babus: each term has a specific meaning within the Indian context which would be impossible (and unnatural) to convey in an 'English' translation. Which is why the ultra-chauvinists who upbraid us for speaking a 'foreign' language don't have a leg to stand on. As far as I'm concerned, Indianenglish Zindabad!

INDIRA: In a land of a million Indiras, there was still only one 'Indira'. Indira Gandhi's domination, not just of India but of India's consciousness of itself and of the perception of India abroad, has finally begun to fade from the public memory, two decades after the tragic circumstances of her departure from the national scene. (Even in death, she was larger than life.)

She did much to transform Indian politics, and to promote Indian culture and the arts, but she will sadly be remembered for the excesses of the emergency and for fostering a culture of sycophancy epitomised by D K Borooah's fatuous pronouncement, "Indira is India and India is Indira." As the voters responded in 1977: Not.

INFORMATION AGE: The era India entered when a super abundance of fibre-optic cabling and the imminence of the Y2K scare suddenly made India's hard-working computer geeks indispensable to the rest of the world. Today, India's young software programmers have gone well beyond the menial labour of ensuring that American computers didn't crash at the end of the previous millennium: they write original code and devise creative approaches that make the world's info-tech networks buzz.

Today, an IIT degree is held in the same reverence in the West as one from MIT. And the stereotypes are catching up: a friend recounts being accosted at a European airport by a frantic traveller saying, "hey, you're Indian - I have a problem with my laptop, I'm sure you can help me!" The stereotyped Indian used to be the sadhu or the snake-charmer; now it's the software guru. -Dawn/The Times of India News Service
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