08 October 2007

PLAIN plenary at Amsterdam

Published on October 07, 2007.

Chhanda reminded Deb: “We were talking about the plain language movement in the West. Any new developments?”

“Yes indeed,” said Deb. “All plain language groups around the globe will be zeroing in on Amsterdam 11 to 14 October. For the Sixth International Plain Language Conference. The biggest till now.”

“Wow!” said Chhanda. “Who’s arranging it?”

“Been convened by PLAIN---Plain Language Association International,” Deb said. “It’ll be hosted by Bureautaal, a communications consulting agency that specializes in plain Dutch.”

“In Holland, where Dutch is the language,” mused Chhanda. “An irony, considering ‘Double Dutch’ has always meant language you can’t understand.”

“Which activists will attend?’ Rajat wanted to know. Rajat has always been a plain language enthusiast.

“Activists from most countries, really,” said Deb. “Among the famous groups, PLAIN, Clarity International, and the Centre for Plain Language. That’ll make it the first plenary of the top three plain-language organizations.”

“Where exactly in Amsterdam?” Chhanda asked.

“At the Beurs van Berlage centre,” said Deb. “Was built for the Amsterdam Municipality. Has a surface area of almost 1600 sq. metres.”

“Good heavens!” said Chhanda. “What will they do with all that space?”

“They expect about 500 people. There’ll be 50 workshops, and about 100 papers read by activists from African countries, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the U K and the USA.”

“India too, eh? Who’ll represent India?” Anjum wanted to know.

Deb startled us all: “I will. On behalf of Clear English India.”

Deepak was the first to recover: “Fancy keeping that up your sleeve all these days. How did this come about?”

“The PLAIN executive committee had suggested this some time ago. I’d told them I hadn’t the money. Amsterdam’s about the most expensive place in Europe. They very kindly arranged a subsidy from the Plain English Foundation, Australia.”

“Will you read a paper?” Deepak asked.

“Yes,” said Deb. “They’ve accepted the summary I sent.”

“No wonder you’re so well informed,” said Chhanda. “I was rather impressed the way you were reeling off facts.”

“Any idea what papers will be read?” Anjum asked.

“The focus,” said Deb, “will be on the lack of communication, as also on effective communication methods. In all countries, even those with good educational systems, much of the population can’t understand what their governments write. Nor what private enterprises dish out. And so, there’ll be papers on the cost of ineffective communication---for readers; for governments; for business enterprises.”

“That’s great!” said Deepak. “What else?”

“And then papers on how plain language can be a solution for ineffective communication,” Deb said. “Some participants will explore the gap between the language level of texts and the reading levels of people. And how plain language can close that gap.”

“But that’ll depend on reading levels of plain language texts too, won’t it?” asked Anjum.

“You’re right,” Deb said. “That’s why there’ll be several papers on reading levels. You talk about gobbledygook in texts for schoolchildren. There’ll be a workshop on the literacy level of educational books. Another will discuss how we can measure the comprehensibility of texts. Wish you could attend those.”

“You be our ears and eyes,” said Anjum. “What other workshops?”

“One very important workshop will be on order and conflict,” said Deb. “Conflicts arise when people don’t understand each other well. In families---between parents and children; between spouses. In companies---between employers and employees. Among various communities. The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, said that the progress of democracy depends on how well we communicate.”

“An excellent topic indeed,” said Deepak. “Wish such discussion were held here. You know, considering communal flare-ups in India.”

“Yes,” said Deb. “Then there’ll be workshops on oral communication. Conversation between doctors and their patients. It’ll explore some rules of oral plain language.”

“That’s very wise,” said Chhanda. “Indian doctors only hone techniques how to evade patients.”

“Let’s be fair,” said Deepak. “Patients often blab irrelevant things.”

“There’ll be workshops on the advantages of plain language in law,” said Deb.

That excited Rajat the most: “Hey, will there be a workshop on legalese?”

“Oh yes’” Deb said. “Professor Joseph Kimble, an authority on plain language in law, will be there to explain that plain language is every bit as accurate as the jargon that passes for ‘legal writing’. Professor Kimble’ll talk about the techniques of writing law in plain language. There’ll even be an ambitious workshop on rewriting the constitution of a country in plain language.”

“Wow!” said Rajat. “That’s very ambitious. Be sure to grab papers on these.”

“Must try,” said Deb. “Maybe I’ll ask the Professor for a copy of his paper. There’ll also be workshops on plain language in the financial sector. The functioning of markets depends a lot on how well consumers can understand financial products and services. Dutchmen are hosting this conference. And Article 4.19 of the Dutch Law on Financial Services gives consumers the right to financial information in plain language.”

“Amazing!” Deepak exclaimed. “The amount of work and thought the west has invested in plain language!”

“Equally amazing that we haven’t even begun to think about such things,” rued Anjum.

“Nor will politics be left out,” Deb continued. “There’ll be a workshop on plain language in election campaigns. Parties that can communicate well with the people are always the most successful. Look how Mayawati uised simple but punchy slogans. Mrs. Thatcher beat Labour in 1979 with her simple 'Labour doesn't work' slogan.”

“We’ll see you off to Amsterdam,” said Rajat. “Just grab as many papers as you can. And let’s try to do something here.”

“I’ll try,” said Deb.

24 September 2007

Why bother about gobbledygook?

Published on September 23

Rajat showed us the booklet. Karmachari Bhavishya Nidhi, its title read. “I read and write Hindi all the while,” he told us. “But I’m damned if I can make sense of this. It’s partly Hindi, partly Sanskrit, and wholly gobbledygook.”

Rajat is a teacher in Chhattisgarh, and none of us doubt his knowledge of Hindi. “What’s it mean?” Anjum asked scornfully.

“Supposedly, an employees’ provident fund guide book,” said Rajat. “Only, I don’t know which employee will ever decipher it.”

“You’re assuming it’s meant to be deciphered,” Anjum said.

Deepak, who works for the Central Government, said: “Could give useful tips.”

“That’s an assumption too, you know,” Anjum said. “The idea may’ve been only to get thousands of copies printed. Profit for the printer; kickbacks for the bureaucrat that ordered the print job. And a cut for the Minister of State for Labour.”

“Why don’t you read out some of it,” said Deepak.

“Alright,” said Rajat, opening the book. “It’s published by the Shrama Mantralaya of Bharat Sarkar (the Ministry of Labour). Claims to cite the Prakirna upabandhan adhiniyam (some kind of by-laws, perhaps? I don’t get those terms.) And it extends the Karmachari Kutumba Yojana tatha nikshep shahabaddha Bima Yojana ke bibhinna upabandh ke anupalan ke liye amantran. Anyone digest that?”

“No,” Anjum snapped. “Nobody’s meant to. It’s the sarkari khichri of hideous Sanskrit coinage that gave Indians dyspepsia long ago.”

“For what I suppose is a ledger,” Rajat read on, “it uses prapatra, and warns defaulters that apki viruddh abhiyojan ki karyawahi ki jayegi and emphasises this with kripaya is baat ki note kiya jaye. I guess note/noted is so essential to Indian officialese that they didn’t want it Sanskritised.”

“Let’s go no further,” said Anjum. “It’s the Indian plague.”

Chhanda reacted to this: “Bet you’ll now burp something irreverent.”

Anjum chewed each word: “I mean the mantra plague.”

“What’s that mean?” Chhanda challenged him.

Anjum became impatient: “This: we Indians been muttering mantras for centuries. And long ago - dunno when - people lost track of their meaning. When a people mutter mantras without meaning for centuries, they no longer associate words with meaning - only with sound. That’s why such booklets can be written and circulated.”

“You’re impossibly cynical,” Chhanda said.

“I think he’s on the dot,” Deepak said emphatically. “Indians have this fixation with pompous language. Half the time, they talk nonsense.”

“And all of the time,” added Anjum, “they sound ludicrous. Gobbledygook’s all-pervasive. In textbooks dumped on our kids. In all official writing. In speeches our politicos rant. In the cant our godmen mumble. In lectures our academics blather. In the bullshit Ministers gab. In the mumbo-jumbo our administrators invent . . .”

“But if it’s all-pervasive, what’s the remedy?” Chhanda asked naively.

“The only remedy’s a people’s movement for plain language,” said Deb. “Nothing will change unless the people force a change. What Rajat read out is sarkari miscommunication. Generated by petty, feudal – minded officials deciding they’ll use exclusive language - NOT to communicate, but to deny information to most citizens.”

“Trouble is,” said Anjum impatiently, “Indians as a people wallow in gobbledygook. Or how does bullshit like that get circulated? How, for instance, do parents tolerate the rubbish that school textbooks dump on their children? Gobbledygook in school textbooks is the greatest crime of all. It cripples children’s minds.”

“But don’t you see,” Deb reasoned patiently, “That’s just what we’ve got to make people understand. That if they don’t insist on plain language for all, fraud will prosper all round, and only they’ll be its victims. Unless they stand up for clear language, they’ll be duped by every charlatan - by netas and bureaucrats after power and wealth; by godmen and crooked lawyers after money; by private-sector banks after citizens’ property - by every goddamned mountebank that uses language to deceive.”

That added fuel to Anjum’s fire: “Just how do you think you can get Indians to understand how they’re duped with language, when they themselves use language without meaning?”

“We’ll have to find a way,” Deb insisted. “How do you think the plain language movement succeeded in the West? The European Commission Council now has Directive 93/13. That requires unfair terms to be removed from business contracts. All written contracts must always be drafted in plain, intelligible language. The law says where there is doubt about the meaning of a term, the interpretation most favourable to the consumer shall prevail.”

“Wow!” said Deepak. “That’s a great achievement!”

“Also,” said Deb, “look at what the movement in Sweden’s achieved. No government bill, including acts of parliament, can go to the printers without the approval of the Swedish Justice Ministry’s ‘division for legal and linguistic draft revision’.”

“Gosh!” said Chhanda. “How’d they manage to push that through?”

“Through ceaseless campaigns,” said Deb. “When citizens understand that transparency in government’s dealings is their democratic right, they’ll force their government to ensure transparency.”

“That requires enlightened citizens,” said Anjum. “You can’t get citizens who mutter mantras and never bother about meaning, to understand the idea of transparency. Indians have foggy minds and blinkered eyes.”

“I grant the way’s uphill,” said Deb. “But there was a time when Indians didn’t understand why they should struggle for independence from British rule. Nothing comes without a fight, you know.”

“Yes,” said Anjum. “But this requires Indians to fight their own tradition.”

“Sure,” said Deb. “When Gandhiji began, foreign rule was India’s centuries-old tradition--since the Mughals. But the freedom movement fought that tradition, didn’t it?”

11 September 2007

In search of India’s lingua franca

Published on September 09, 2007

Deepak was pensive. That seemed to nettle Anjum. “Chewing the cud?” he teased Deepak.

“Was thinking about that workshop Deb ran,” Deepak drawled. “How those bank robots who write letters been told to write the way East India Company baboos did two centuries ago. As though time’s stood still.”

“Why pick on that bank?” said Chhanda. “Almost every sarkari officer writes nothing but baboo English. And, with rare exceptions, so does every schoolteacher; every college lecturer; every university professor; every corporate executive; every politician; every legislator, every Minister. Company baboo English is India’s lingua franca.”

“You make it sound like it’s our Rashtra Bhasa,” Anjum quipped. “How’d you define lingua franca?”

“Simple,” said Chhanda, “- a language used among people whose main languages are different. Baboo English fits the bill.”

“I’d like to believe things aren’t that bad,” Anjum said somewhat weakly.

“But,” said Chhanda, “that’s fact. D’you see anything but baboo English in any printed matter you get? From newspapers? From sarkari offices? From the corporation? From mobile service providers? From the LIC? From industry? From trade? The same old facilities, noted and duly noted and intimated, and same/the same instead of a pronoun, and kindly instead of please.”

“Ah,” said Deepak, “but corporate and NGO baboos now have new buzzwords: facilitate and implement, infrastructure and interface, maximize, optimize and overview. And then they’ve paradigm, parameter, potentialize, prioritize and quantify. It’s the same baboo motto of course: to inflate and sound important. Never to use what you’d commonly use in conversation. When the idea should be always to use the spontaneous language of everyday speech.”

Anjum changed tack: “But you’ve been a teacher all along, Chhanda. Didn’t you shoo your students away from baboo English?”

“God knows I tried,” said Chhanda. “But how much can one teacher do when students absorb nothing but baboo English from everywhere?”

“I bet their textbooks were worded in baboo English,” said Deepak.

“But of course,” Chhanda said. “Against one class in English where I told them to avoid it, they had five classes in subjects that dinned it into them. You can’t blame the students. The education authorities prescribed texts written in horrid baboo English - geography, history, civics, hygiene, what have you.”

“What about classes on writing?” Anjum asked. “Didn’t that give you the chance to get them to write clearly?”

“Sure,” said Chhanda. “And the students mostly did try---but only for the occasional piece of composition. With so many texts, baboo English just drenched their system. Haven’t you seen what the West Bengal school Boards prescribe as textbooks?”

“You mean the muck that the ‘teacher mafia’ churns out,” said Anjum, “and those Boards endorse?”

“Written by those in with the All Bengal Teachers’ Association,” added Deepak. “By rotation. So every teacher close to the mafia gets a chance to rake in money for his muck.”

“Yes, a multi-million-rupee fraud every year. How much must each give to the mafia?” wondered Anjum. “I bet each has to surrender at least 60% of the loot. The mafia wouldn’t allow a book unless the money lines their pockets well.”

“Or maybe more,” said Deepak. “The mafia would give a slice each year to the Education Minister and his cronies too. The Left Front’s been ruling the State for three decades. That means an entrenched racket, and no questions. And maybe the Minister gives a cut to some legislators. Or how come opposition parties never question the racket?”

“And I suppose,” said Anjum, “in the other States, where governments keep changing, the school board mafia milk the publishers to endorse their dross. And make more bucks appointing and transferring teachers.”

“You bet,” said Chhanda. “India’s education system’s fully mafia-controlled.”

“But aren’t we bypassing something?” said Deepak. “Chhanda taught at one of the better schools, before she went on to teach at college. What of the thousands and thousands of third-rate schools we have all over the country? What guidance in writing do their students get?”

“None at all,” said Chhanda. “The students mug muck ‘essays’---churned out again by teachers close to the mafia---to vomit on their exam paper. In English, or the vernaculars.”

“Gosh!” said Anjum. “That means millions of Indians get no training in writing - ever!”

“Well, maybe in some of the better schools they do,” Chhanda mumbled uncertainly.

“Hah! And what’s that mean for the country?” guffawed Anjum. “Maybe a hundred teachers among tens of thousands who teach several million.”

“And that means,” Deepak echoed him, “millions of Indians pass school without ever writing a single sentence on their own.”

“And that means,” said Anjum sadly, “that a whole nation of supposedly literate citizens have never ever written anything but perhaps the odd letter to a friend or relative.”

“And that’s why,” said Chhanda, “every Indian just falls back on the Company baboo’s model. Indians don’t have models for official correspondence. Only what those semi-literate British merchants brought with them in the 17th century.”

“And those models,” said Anjum, “are made to serve to this day - in the Internet age.”

“And it’s those models,” said Deepak, “that baboos in each State translate into our regional languages.”

“And yet,” Deb piped in, “the remedy’s so simple: they’ve only to refer to reformers like Sir Ernest Gowers, who changed the way British bureaucrats wrote. And to Rudolph Flesch. Which is what I did at the workshop.”

“But Indians will refuse all reform,”said Deepak. “Know why? Because Indians been independent 60 years, but John Company still rules their souls!”

27 August 2007

To be or not to be informal

Published on August 26

DEB HAD JUST RUN A WORKSHOP. “Was on official correspondence,” he told Anjum. “For those who write to customers of India’s largest private-sector bank. Was successful if you go by participants’ response. But was pointless.”

That naturally got us all interested.

“I mean the participants were eager to learn, and responded well,” Deb said. “My Powerpoint presentation showed them excerpts from Sir Ernest Gowers’s all-time classic, The Complete Plain Words. But they said their supervisors (they call them ‘auditors’ for some funny reason) had told them to do just the opposite.”

“What exactly?” Asked Anjum.

“Mostly to do with being informal in their letters,” said Deb. “Gowers says: ‘Avoid a formal framework if you can . . . ordinary letters to the public should be cast in as informal and friendly a way as possible’. That got them into a tizzy. Because their idiotic supervisors insist they use the formal baniya English of the East India Company days. You know, the ludicrous Baboo English, with scraps of commercialese such as same/the same; the said letter; aforesaid letter; duly noted, and Kindly instead of please, and so on.”

“You mean their ‘auditors’ are walking fossils?” asked Deepak.

“You hit the nail squarely on the head,” said Deb. “Yes. The bank’s typical of Indian PSUs. At the top you might have a few brilliant minds, among mostly dead wood. At the middle and lower middle, you have the dunces. And at the lower level, you have the willing workers. But the middle levels see to it that no feedback can reach the top. And nothing from the top can reach the lower levels. The dead wood at the top weren’t ever capable of seeing to anything in any case. The few functioning minds at the top are too busy to probe what’s happening down under. So the idiots at mid-level have a gala time doing bugger-all, or being slave-drivers. They know nothing, read nothing, have learnt nothing. They got in when the organization was expanding, recruiting in a hurry. Then with routine promotions, they became junior officers. And so the middle rungs got chock-a-block with over-promoted idiots.”

“Ah, the Kargil problem,” Deepak said.

“Meaning?” Chhanda asked.

“Infiltration,” said Deepak. “Because adequate checks weren’t in place, infiltrators got in where they didn’t belong. Happens to all Indian organizations. It’s how our public sector got ruined. Now it’s happening to our private-sector units. Soon, the dross at the middle and lower middle will get kicked upstairs to senior levels. More promotions’ll mean more dead wood at the top. And that’ll mean stagnation and rot upstairs. And only routine work at the bottom. Then, as more and more dead wood piles up at the top, the organization will sink.”

“But tell us,” said Chhanda, “just how do those mid-level fools misguide those who write letters?”

Deb explained: “I showed them this quote from Gowers: ‘Use no more words than are necessary to do the job. Superfluous words waste your time and official paper, tire your reader and obscure your meaning. There is no need, for instance, to begin each paragraph with phrases like ‘I am further to point out, I would also add, You will moreover observe . . . Go straight to what you have to say, without precautionary words . . .’ But their ‘auditors’ have told them to begin every para with stupidities like ‘We wish to inform you/We further wish to inform you’. I asked them what they’d do if they had three or more things to say. They told me they’d then have to say ‘We also wish to inform you/We further also wish to inform you’ and so on.”

“You mean,” said Chhanda, “they’ve each time to blow a trumpet announcing their INTENTION to inform the customer, rather than tell him directly what he needs to know.”

“That’s right,” Deb said. “Those mid-level idiots have told them to do precisely everything that goes against modern business communication. Gowers says: ‘If two words convey your meaning equally well, choose the common one rather than the less common. Do not prefer regarding, respecting or concerning to about, or say advert for refer, or state, inform, acquaint or advise when you might use the word say or tell.’ But can you believe it, those semi-literate mid-level cretins have invented the rule that say or tell are words too informal to be used in correspondence!”

“You mean some congenital idiots have taken to reinventing the English language,” said Deepak.

“Exactly,” said Deb. “Gowers says : ‘Do not say hereto, herein, hereof, herewith, hereunder, or similar compounds with there, unless, like therefore, they have become part of everyday language. Most of them put a flavour of legalism into any document in which they are used.’ But without exception, their letters are spattered with just those fossil words.”

This irritated Anjum: “What explains this Indian compulsion to ludicrous language?”

“I guess Rudolph Flesch gave the best explanation,” said Deb. “I showed them what Flesch said in 'The Art of Readable Writing: ‘. . . Typically, formal language is the language of minor clerks, secondary officials, cogs in some social machine. It is their . . . psychological substitute for personal importance. The farther toward the bottom, the thicker the coat of assumed dignity’.”

“That’s it,” said Anjum. “The East India Company moulded Indians into a nation of minor clerks.”
“Wasn’t it Deepak who told us about the Company clerks’ curse?” Deb asked. “That Indians would never rise above their lingo? Indian business writing sure proves you were right, Deepak.”

14 August 2007

Up corporate lawyers’ alleyway

Published on August 12, 2007

Deepak showed us the news item: law graduates aren’t interested in legal practice; they want jobs in corporate legal cells. Also, in legal process outsourcing companies.

“I suppose,” said Anjum, “that as education spreads, they realize they can’t fool clients as their forebears did.”

“A bit more to it,” said Deepak. “Banks hire goons to beat up borrowers. You read recently of bank goons killing a borrower; hounding several others to suicide. To browbeat borrowers, they also serve letters spattered with legal-sounding gibberish. So they employ law graduates.”

“If a letter I have is anything to go by,” Deb chipped in, “it’s the golden age of failed law graduates.”

“Gosh!” said Anjum after seeing the letter, “that’s from the biggest private-sector bank!”

“Yes,” said Deepak. “Forbes magazine last year placed it among the ‘tigers’.”

“A tiger surely,” said Deb. “Retains the biggest network of goons as ‘collection agents’.”

Deepak snatched the letter and read aloud:
‘Dear Mr. Sundeep,’
“I’ll omit the bank’s name”:
‘XYZ Bank Credit Cards (hereinafter referred to as “the Cards”) are issued by our Bank without taking any security in respect thereof. Upon the first usage of the Card the Card Holder (hereinafter referred to as “the Card Member”) becomes bound by the its terms and conditions as given in the booklet, which is supplied along with the Card at the time of its issue. This Card facilitates the Card Member to purchase goods & services without having to take the risk of carrying cash along. Subsequent to such purchase, the Card Member is liable to repay the credit amount on receipt of the Card Statement, wherein the due amount for such payment is specified. It is pertinent to note that only upon the Card Member failing & neglecting to pay the said overdue amount within due dates, he/she becomes liable to pay interest on the such amount.’

“How fuddy-duddy!” Chhanda said: “hereinafter, and in respect thereof, wherein and said, the staple of East India Company clerks. Says ‘usage’ where he means ‘use’ and inserts ‘the’ anywhere at all.”

“He lumps ‘failing and neglecting’ on the same footing,” said Deb. “Now, ‘failing’ presupposes trying---an attempt that fails. But ‘neglecting’ implies the absence of trying. An absurdity patterned on their ‘Siamese twins’---like ‘null and void’.”

“What’s it mean in plain English?” asked Chhanda.

“I’ve translated the entire letter into plain English,” Deb said. “But we haven’t the time for it all. I guess this is the meaning:

‘XYZ Bank issues its credit cards without security. Once a holder uses the card, he/she becomes bound by its terms laid down in the booklet issued with it. After buying against it, the holder must pay the credit specified in the Card Statement. Only when he/she does not pay this by the due date is interest charged on the amount due.’ ”

Chhanda was surprised: “That’s simple; how many words?”

“Mine’s 61 words,” Deb said. “The original was 131. Skip the 500 words after that, Deepak, and come to this para.”

“Another big chunk,” said Deepak:

We wish to inform you that as per monthly statement of your Card Account dated February 24, 2006, there was an outstanding of Rs.50,380.51 due and payable by you. However, despite sufficient time and opportunity given to you, you have failed and neglected to clear your outstanding dues, which was payable on demand. Therefore, as per the terms & conditions governing usage of the card facility, more particularly mentioned in Welcome Booklet, the Bank has duly exercised the its rights as per the terms and conditions, including the Banker’s Lien on your Saving Bank Account held with XYZ Bank. Exercising the said rights your Savings Bank Account was debited for a sum of Rs.7,796/- on March 8, 2006 as part payment of the total outstanding dues in respect of the Card Account. Intimation regarding the same was duly corresponded to you.’ ”

. “What ludicrous language!” Chhanda said. “Whatever does one make of ‘Intimation . . . corresponded to you’?”

“He’s semi-literate,” Deb explained, “After landing a job, he’s grown over-confident. Now skip the next few paras, and read here.”

Deepak read:

‘Regarding your request to us for tendering an apology for the said events, we regret to inform you that we cannot accede such request owing to the contractual rights available to us. However, as a service gesture and considering the settlement offer accepted by you for closing your credit card account by payment of Rs.10,381.90, we hereby request you to kindly pay the said amount on or before May 25, 2006 so as to facilitate closure of your Card Account.’

“That’s 81 words,” said Deb. “And 38 plain words will do better:
‘The terms of the card allow us to take money from your savings bank account, so no apology is due. We accept your offer to pay Rs.10,381.90 towards closure of your account, and ask you to pay before 25 May 2006.’ ”

“Good heavens! But that last sentence is the whole point of the letter,” said Chhanda.

“Precisely,” said Deb. “And that’s what the letter should have begun with. A settlement’s reached; nothing more was needed. He obviously doesn’t know his face from his backside.”

“Hah!” said Anjum. “During our fight for freedom, India looked to its lawyers. Do Indian companies recruit just such law graduates? A bunch of near-illiterate fools?”

“Let’s not pretend our lawyers were any different before independence,” said Deb. “They were the same lower-division clerk material. They used legal-sounding gibberish to browbeat poor farmers on behalf of rapacious zamindars. Now they do it for corporates.”

07 August 2007

Erecting baffle-walls of Sanskrit

Published on July 29

Mohan was furious with Chhanda: “The other day you said Brahmins were the first Taliban. It’s always been the stupid Leftist fashion to be anti-Brahmin. But that’s going just too far, you know.”

Even though Anjum habitually baits Chhanda, he now rushed to her defence: “Let’s see it in context. Hinduism’s the most catholic of all religious systems---yes. But Hinduism’s gone through several phases of fundamentalism . . . phases of bigotry. And what is Talibanism but die-hard fundamentalism and bigotry? You think of it as something Muslim only because Muslims fundamentalists adopted that name. But fundamentalism is the same mindset--- Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian.”

Mohan wasn’t satisfied. “But why do you say Brahmins didn’t allow non-Brahmins to learn Sanskrit? Valmiki wrote the Ramayana in Sanskrit. By today’s political parlance, he was a dalit.”

“Why go into legend, for which you have no evidence?” said Anjum. “Why don’t you go into records of the pathashalas Brahmins ran? They were open only to Brahmins, surely? Why don’t you look at the Sanskrit centres in Udipi and Mysore?”

“Talking of anti-Brahmin stance being the fashion,” said Deb, “isn’t the very story of Hindu reforms a series of attempts to wrest Hinduism from the grip of Brahmins? Legend has it Viswamitra led the first revolt against Brahmin supremacy. And if you want to ignore legend, early history says Vyasa led a revolt against the Brahmins---before he wrote the Mahabharata.”

“How do you see Jainism and Buddhism but as Kshatriya-led revolts against Brahminical Hinduism?” asked Chhanda. “And what was Vaishnavism but yet another revolt against Brahminical Hinduism?”

“Exactly,” said Deb. “You label anti-Brahmin stance a ‘fashion’. It’s been the trend since time immemorial, you know.”

Mr Haran changed tack: “What I don’t understand is this hatred for Sanskrit and the other Indian languages derived from it.”

“That your own linguistic theory?” asked Deb. “Whoever said Indian languages were derived from Sanskrit? All Indian languages absorbed Sanskrit---yes. Even the Dravidian group of languages did. But Sanskrit was an import. The Indo-Aryans brought it with them.”
“It became India’s elitist language,” said Anjum. “Swamped regional languages and dialects. Tamil was perhaps the least affected. Because it had a glorious literature of its own. Perhaps even more ancient than Sanskrit.”

Deb took us back to the topic: “Trouble is, the moment an Indian wants to discuss anything he considers important, he begins to grope for the tatsama word---the word that hasn’t deviated a bit from Sanskrit.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Mr Haran growled.

“But don’t you see,” Anjum said, “that at once shrinks the reach of our language? It raises a wall between those who know some Sanskrit, and those who know none. It creates a baffle-wall between India’s villagers and educated townsfolk. Much the same thing happens when you use sarkari English. If we believe in democracy, we need an inclusive language that everyone understands.”

“Towards the end of the British Raj here,” Deb said, “Churchill told British bureaucrats to cultivate a people-friendly language in their letters.”

“But,” said Anjum, “no one’s even thought about such reforms in India. When will there be a reform of the hideous sarkari language that’s loaded with Sanskritised mumbo-jumbo?”

“Nothing sarkari ever changes,” said Deb. “People force a change. Things will change only when people understand the need for plain language in a democracy. That understanding hasn’t dawned yet.”

“Truth is,” said Anjum, “we’ve never thought about the need to change the way we use our languages. Churchill spurred plain language in Britain. In the USA, reformers like Rudolph Flesch ridiculed Latinate language and spoke for colloquial language all round.”

“That reminds me,” said Deb. “Chhanda, why don’t you read those lines you were quoting yesterday?”

Chhanda picked up Flesch’s book. “It’s The Art of Readable Writing. Says here: ‘Like everyone else, you spend your life in a world filled with all kinds of bureaucratic, technical, or legal gobbledygook. The only way to fight it is active, daily, unceasing resistance. You must learn to replace every prior to by before; every subsequently by later, every we are endeavouring to ascertain by we are trying to find out. It takes years until this becomes an invariable habit and you automatically translate jargon into English’.”

“That’s it,” said Deb. “His call to reject the Latinate word and his pleading for the colloquial. We need to reject the Sanskrit word and embrace the colloquial.”

“But even our mass media keeps to Sanskritised words,” said Chhanda. “The TV keeps announcing the prayojak for every programme. How much better it sounds when they say ‘brought to you by . . .’ Why can’t they change prayojak into everyday language?”

“Every official designation,” said Anjum, “is still Sanskrit mumbo-jumbo. We have the adhikarta and the upa-adhikarta, the adhyakshya and upa-adhyakshya, and what have you.”

“That happened,” said Deb, “because when we decided to go Hindi, we deviated into communalism. Some fanatics were hell-bent on rejecting plain Hindustani because that contained Urdu words: ‘India’s State language must not sound similar to Pakistan’s’. And so, we ended up translating everything official into Sanskrit.”

“Only, when it comes to Hindi,” said Anjum, “what most people understand is Hindustani that blends dialects, everyday language, and Urdu---not Sanskritised Hindi.” “The plain truth,” Deb added, “is that those who have the power in India are a feudal lot. They never bother about the people. Had we been a democracy, we’d have worked towards a language for the people. It only proves we haven’t even begun to think about democracy.”

Who needs plain language?

Published on July 15

Anjum leafed impatiently through some school textbooks. “Look at these! No matter what the subject, it’ll be in language kids can’t understand. Sanskritised terms a mile long. Why can’t they coin plain, everyday words?”

“Because ours is the wonderland of gobbledygook,” said Deb. “Mantra-muttering Indians see no need for clarity. Look at our laws - in 18th century gibberish that people don’t understand. Or government notifications, or any communication in any sphere.”

“Exactly,” said Anjum. “Bank and financial contract documents are gibberish. Worded by goofy lawyers who worship a fossil language. Municipal corporations print notifications for the ordinary person. In language no ordinary person ordinarily uses. They scan dictionaries and come up with atikraman for shopkeepers dumping their goods on pavements. Just what in hell goes wrong the moment an Indian says anything formal?”

“May be it’s got something to do with feudalism,” Deb said. “The closer a people is to its feudal past, the more ludicrous its ‘formal’ language. And it’s got to do with democracy too. Democracy demands plain, transparent language.”

“Perhaps Christianity too,’ said Anjum. “The Christian world leads the plain language movement. Anything Sweden’s Parliament passes must first go through a plain-language cell before it reaches the people. Plain Dutch is the language of the Netherlands government. Ditto with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, the USA. Why do we loll in prehistoric gibberish?”

“Can’t say for sure,” Deb said. “A vast difference in attitude. Remember William Tyndale, the Protestant preacher in England? Was killed for it in 1536. He vowed to translate the Bible from Hebrew into the language of England’s peasants. And think of Akbar, 40 years later, trying to coax Hindu pundits to translate the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into regional languages. The pundits refused; said it’d be heresy to translate what was in Dev Bhasha into the language of mlechchas. Mean anything to you?”

“If you mean feudal ideas,” Anjum said, “Tyndale’s England was feudal too. What inspired Tyndale to strive for the Bible in plain language? A democratic urge in feudal times?”

“Was the evangelical spirit,” Chhanda suggested. “Brahmins were never evangelical. They sought only their stranglehold on scriptures, on knowledge - to keep it all away from the people.”

“That’s it!” said Deb. “Buddhists were India’s first evangelists. And they made India’s first bid for plain language. They rejected the Vedas and Sanskrit, and strove for plain Pali. Language that was closer to the grassroots. The drive for Pali was a rebellion against the use of Sanskrit -just as Buddhism was a rebellion against Brahminical Hinduism.”

“But why did Sanskrit have to mean obscurity?” asked Anjum.

“Don’t blame Sanskrit,” said Chhanda. “Blame the Brahmins. They wouldn’t let non-Brahmins learn Sanskrit. They spread ignorance and darkness. They were the first Taliban. Killed anything they touched. They killed Sanskrit too.”

“We call ourselves a democracy,” said Deb. “But we still don’t understand that all citizens have the right to clear communication. The Brahmins stamped out that Buddhist concept.”

“And,” Anjum said, “we’re just following the Brahminical tradition in neglecting plain language for the masses.”

“Maybe the truth is,” said Deb, “we’re plain confused. Indians never give serious thought to what should concern them the most.”

“That’s easy to understand,” said Anjum. “We think through language. And if our language is muddled, so will our thinking be.”

“You’re right there,” said Deb. “Maybe that’s why Indians tolerate gibberish. They can’t think clearly. And so they see nothing wrong in unclear communication.”

“And so school textbooks get written in gibberish;” said Anjum, “our laws are worded in gobbledygook, and our government blathers muck.”

Deb sought to probe deeper: “But why do you think that happens? Because Sanskrit polluted our regional languages. We’re schooled to learn the far-fetched Sanskrit term for everything around us, rather than the everyday word.”

“You mean,” Chhanda tried to help out, “the educated Indian’s a schizophrenic, with a ‘formal Sanskrit’ memory, and a separate colloquial-language mind.”

“You hit the nail on the head,” said Deb. “The average Indian’s brainwashed into believing he must rummage for the big Sanskritised word or phrase. As though the everyday expression can never do for anything important. Guess the entire world clung to such feudal notions once. That’s how formal language became cant.”

“And so,” added Chhanda, “if the Indian thinks colloquial, he’ll feel gagged expressing it. He’ll fumble for some ready-made Sanskritised expression bundled in his memory. Never spontaneous language.”

“Exactly. Though I must say,” Deb clarified, “creative writers in our regional languages are changing all that. We see this effort in modern Telugu writing, don’t we? Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada are so Sanskrit-ridden. But Telugu writers now consciously replace the formal Sanskrit with the colloquial Telugu.”

“But are schoolteachers encouraging their pupils to write everyday language?” asked Chhanda. “That’s what’s needed across all schools. A rejection of Sanskritised language. A switch to plain spontaneous language.”

“Exactly,” said Deb. “Ditto with the teaching of English. Indians mug up only the cant that 18th century British merchants used in their hideous business letters. The moment an Indian sets out to write English, he scrounges around in his store of idiotic Latin-laden mumbo-jumbo, just as he does with the Sanskrit-laden jumble in our regional languages.”

“So where d’you think hope lies?” Chhanda asked.

Deb shook his head. “Maybe there’s little hope for India,” he said sadly. “If you talk about the need for plain language, Indians will say we have more pressing needs than language. Only, because they lack clear language, they can’t think clearly about sorting those pressing needs either.”