Second Class Language

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first Minister of Education in independent India, was responsible for establishing the Indian School Certificate Examination (ISCE) as an alternative to the then prevalent Senior Cambridge school-leaving tests. Through the years, the Council for the ISCE has risen in rank to the position of the premier board of school education in India, providing a balanced curriculum that has kept up with the advancement in scientific concepts and social studies.

Unfortunately, all this modernity and forward thinking has come to a grinding halt with the Council’s decision to abolish the need to be successfully examined in a second language in order to graduate. Unlike other regional and central boards, the ISCE system considers English as the first language and requires the examinee to prove proficiency in a second language, typically the regional vernacular. According to the new proposal that will be effective from 2012, a passing grade will not be required in this second language.

Nobody can deny the importance of English as the lingua franca not only of India but of the world, and the ISCE’s emphasis on English as first language has always provided its students a competitive advantage vis-à-vis higher studies abroad, compared to other examination systems. However, it is as important for students to study their mother tongue, both as a means to instil a sense of pride in one’s language and also to expose themselves to the beauty of its literature. While the Council’s argument that they are not advocating the removal of second language studies may hold water in an ideal world, it would be naïve to assume that a high school student would master a subject that has no bearing on their examination grades.

Moreover, with this regressive step the Council appears to support Lord Macaulay’s misguided notion that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. Macaulay’s education policies in the nineteenth century had the effect of churning out literate Indians who were versed in English and Latin but scornful of their own mother tongues. It took the efforts of John Drinkwater Bethune and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar to promote and popularise the study of Indian languages at the school level.

It is said that those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. It is a folly to imagine that an all-round education is complete without learning to appreciate one’s language, and it is to be hoped that wisdom will prevail on the ISCE Council so they may undo their blunder before it is too late.


Ela Saraswati Mahi Tisro Devirmayo Bhuvaha Barhihi Seedantva Stridhaha.
[One should regularly worship one’s motherland, culture and mother tongue because they are the givers of happiness.]

Rig Veda, First Mandala, 13/9

Directionally Challenged

The old yarn about women nagging a lost husband to stop driving round in circles and ask for directions is becoming increasingly irrelevant in a GPS-powered world. While a built-in navigation system may still be prohibitively expensive, the downward cost spiral of GPS radios has ensured that they are embedded in many mobile phones or are sold as portable navigation devices that adorn the windscreens of automobiles.

Although the global positioning system was developed by the United States Department of Defense for military applications, the technology can now be used freely by anyone-- for scientific (cartography), commercial (CDMA time-synchronisation) or civilian (navigation) purposes. While the use of GPS for navigation has made driving to an unknown location much less of a chore, it has taken away the thrill of pre-planning and the visceral connection with paper maps, besides pushing websites like MapQuest to obsolescence.

Others argue that the dependence on GPS units has led to drivers becoming less aware of their surroundings (missing the wood for the trees), and it is not uncommon to be unable to recall what route had been taken to reach a particular destination. Only time will tell if this has a long-term effect on a human being’s sense of direction, which is surprisingly underdeveloped compared to many animals, birds and insects.

This may not have always been the case. Spatial cognition is remarkably powerful among the Kuuk Thaayorre aboriginal tribe of northern Australia. Not only are they always conscious of the four cardinal directions, but they use absolute (rather than relative) terms in their everyday language. So a Kuuk Thaayorre at a dinner-table is quite likely to say, “Please pass me the dish that is at the north-north-west far end.”

Researchers at Stanford University have recently published an interesting study on how language shapes the way people think. Based on data collected from around the world, they conclude that elements of grammar (whether inanimate objects or verbs are gender-sensitive, as in Russian or some Indian languages) or the idea of time has a bearing on one’s cognitive performance. For instance, the English-speaking world uses horizontal spatial metaphors to represent time (“the best is ahead of us”) , while time is represented by vertical metaphors in Mandarin (tomorrow is a “down-day”, while yesterday is an “up-day”). Similarly, duration of time is referred to by length in English, but by amount in Greek (“long meeting” vis-à-vis “big meeting”).

Interestingly, the connection between time and distance was invoked using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Percival Wilde in his adaptation of Fritz Karinthy’s play “The Refund”. The plot revolves around a smart but jobless man returning to his old school and demanding a refund for not being taught anything that would equip him for the real world. He offers to subject himself to an examination to prove his ignorance, and the teachers unite against him to justify all his answers as intelligent and correct, however contrived or nonsensical they may be (“the Thirty Years’ War lasted seven metres long”). Of course, if the play had been set in America (instead of Hungary), the protagonist could have simply hired a lawyer to advise him-- their moral compass rarely deviates from the road to riches.


I keep travelling around the bend
There was no beginning, there is no end
It wasn't born and never dies
There are no edges, there is no size.
But if you don't know where you're going
Any road will take you there.

George Harrison, Any Road

Rosemary's Apartment

The Dakota came to the forefront of the world's collective consciousness when Roman Polanski featured this turn-of-the-century apartment in his first American foray, Rosemary's Baby. Although the building's interior scenes were shot in a Hollywood set, the dark and forbidding exterior lent an appropriate tone to the horror film that remains a nail-biter even forty years later.

Unfortunately, the film did a grave disservice to the popular image of this unique German Renaissance building-- as one of New York's earliest luxury apartments, the Dakota was built in 1884 with engineering principles that were pioneering for its time. These included the use of sound-proofing (the walls are as thick as 28 inches), fire-proofing (to avoid the need for ugly fire-escapes), steam-powered lifts (with separate passenger elevators, service elevators and dumb-waiters), a central boiler room for steam heating and dynamos for electric lighting. The presence of an inner courtyard and the strategic positioning of hallways ensured an efficient play of natural air and light in the fifteen-foot high rooms, a far cry from the sinister and claustrophobic scenes in Rosemary's Baby.

The most fashionable addresses of the time were on the east side of Central Park bordering Fifth Avenue, and therefore the construction of the Dakota on the Upper West Side (which was then as remote and sparsely inhabited as the state of Dakota) was viewed by native residents with amused curiousity, a precursor to the east-side--west-side divide that continues to this day! The Dakota was the brainchild of Edward Clark, who made his fortune as a partner of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and was commonly referred to as "Clark's Folly" since it was believed nobody would want to live in an apartment, especially one with an outrageous two-storeyed roof that had gables, turrets, pyramids, towers, wrought-iron fences, chimneys and flagpoles. Yet, as the building neared completion, all sixty-five flats (ranging in size from four rooms to twenty rooms) had been rented out, and people came from all over to gawk at a building that stood as stately and self-assured as a fort, dominating the western skyline.

In fact, the fame of the building had spread beyond the country's shores. One celebrated incident surrounded the visit of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky to the Dakota flat of his music publisher Gustav Schirmer-- after visiting the roof overlooking the majestic Central Park, Tchaikovsky was left with the impression that the entire building was Schirmer's house and the Park was his private garden. He subsequently noted in his diary, "No wonder we composers are so poor"!

Over the years, and especially after the Dakota became a cooperative in 1961, residents have made innumerable renovations and reconstructions inside, pulling down walls to combine flats as well as dividing the high ceilings horizontally to erect lofts. Many architects feel that this may lead to an eventual weakening of the foundation, and efforts by the New York Landmarks Commission to assign it a heritage status have only succeeded in prohibiting changes to the building's façade. The haphazard changes to the interior have also resulted in corridors (and especially the labyrinths in the eighth and ninth floors) becoming confusing mazes, and old residents talk about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ringing doorbells of wrong flats as a result of getting lost!

Of course, the Dakota lives on in infamy because of December 8, 1980. As John Lennon and Yoko Ono, arguably the building's most celebrated residents, returned home from a studio session late that night, a man emerged from the shadows of the main gate on West 72nd Street, and emptied bullet after bullet into Lennon's body. The Strawberry Field corner in Central Park, diagonally across from the couple's seventh floor flat, serves as a waking reminder of Lennon's legacy. But to hundreds of tourists who look up from this intimate alcove to the overbearing Dakota, the city's most elegant apartment house will forever be associated with the city's most dastardly and senseless crime.

Dakotans feel about the Dakota much the way, as it has been said, Bostonians feel about Boston: They believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of the Dakota.
Stephen Birmingham, Life at the Dakota

Labour of Love

I met my niece when she was less than a day old. Swaddled in a striped pink-and-blue blanket that is peculiar to American hospitals, she was the picture of sweet contentment-- a delicate flower that had just bloomed and waiting to enjoy the attention and wonders of the wider world.

Different cultures have different ways to express the axiom that there can be no pleasure without pain. This truth, universal and eternal, is probably prejudiced against women. The excruciating pain that a mother has to undergo before, during, and after childbirth, is only matched by the ecstatic delight in setting her eyes on the newborn. Evolution has ensured that mothers forget most of their agony when they see their healthy baby for the first time, a phenomenon that is referred to as labour amnesia.

In contrast, the closest that a man comes to "suffering" is in certain tribes where the male member practices couvade to sympathise with his wife, although cynics rightfully see this exercise as a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid the daily responsibilities of work. It is surprising that Nature should not have devised a more equitable way to democratise pain, especially for an age where women are increasingly joining the workforce and contributing to the homefront. Of course, given that the wheels of evolution (like the mills of the gods) grind exceedingly slow yet exceedingly fine, it may not be necessary for the male aborigines of Guiana to fake labour in a few thousand years.

What flits through a baby's mind is a subject that has been much disputed, without a definite conclusion being reached. The sense of wonderment in an infant's eyes (accentuated by their dominating pupils) is not surprising since they are experiencing new unfiltered sensations for the first time in their lives. What astonishes me (and helps retain faith in the mystery of life), however, is a newborn smiling in her sleep at some happy memories from her prenatal days. Our elders call it communicating with the gods, and indeed, when she wakes up to the present with a startle, her large eyes-- wise beyond their age-- appear to have been glimpsing ancient secrets of the unknown.

The smile that flickers on baby's lips when he sleeps-- does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dreams of a dew-washed morning-- the smile that flickers on baby's lips when he sleeps.
Rabindranath Tagore, The Crescent Moon

Tortured Truth

On 15th July 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary that she believed "in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart". Circumstances went on to prove that her faith in the goodness of mankind was misplaced-- less than nine months later, at the age of sixteen, she was allowed to succumb to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

While Anne's unwavering belief may be attributed to the innocence of youth, more seasoned individuals among us like to share a similar sentiment, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Whether it be early man's use of primitive tools to maintain supremacy among the clan (immortalised in Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Arthur Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey"), or more sophisticated tactics employed in mass genocide, there appears to be a strong predilection in man to turn to the dark side.

One does not need to be a psychologist (or even its armchair version) to understand that the power over another person's will is the ultimate driver of this misbehaviour. Whether it be a bullying teenager at school, a dominant partner in an unhappy marriage, or a rogue nation throwing its weight around, the positive feedback loop leads the wielder to justify hostile and brutal acts as means to a desired end.

In a famous controlled experiment at Stanford University in 1971, a group of twenty-four healthy undergraduate students were selected to role-play the relationship between prison guards and prisoners. The students quickly adapted to their roles, but the experiment had to be terminated when it was observed that the "guards" were developing genuine sadistic tendencies that crossed the boundaries of accepted (and expected) behaviour causing emotional trauma to their "prisoners". The study thus needed an authority figure (in this case, the Professor) to guard the guards and prevent them from engaging in acts of lawlessness.

Is our self-righteous humanness just a defensive masquerade meant to protect our own selfish well-being? Is humanity a pretentious value that can be discarded whenever it becomes politically prudent? The darker side of human history suggests that the propensity for oppression lies hidden just below the surface, and only societal norms like laws and regulations prevent people from descending into moral anarchy. In the absence of this communal control, even children are not immune to acting out their darkest animal instincts, masterfully portrayed in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies".

And when a state accepts the use of heinous and inhuman acts as official policy, be it Nazi Germany during World War II or America today, it makes a mockery of the values that bind people and nations together. The Nuremberg trials went a long way in condemning the perpetrators of the holocaust; a similar hearing is needed now to punish policy-makers who took liberties with the law and approved the use of torture on prisoners of war.

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984

Bungle in the Jungle Habitat

As you make your way under the gigantic log structure at the entrance, erected to support the "Jungle Habitat" sign thirty-five years ago, a sharp pungent smell assaults the senses momentarily if only as a reminder of what the park once stood for. Nestled among the Norvin Green State Forest and bordered by the Greenwood Lake Airport, this safari-themed park was started by Warner Bros. in 1972 and contained over 1,500 animals, ranging from Indian elephants to Siberian tigers, roaming freely within its 800 acre property. Its twenty-six miles of paved road allowed vehicles to drive through, so that a car's windscreen was all that separated animal from prey.

Although the park had an estimated half-a-million visitors in its opening summer, its success was short-lived, and it closed its gates by the end of 1976. Reasons for its demise are varied and exaggerated, ranging from negative publicity surrounding a few isolated attacks (usually because of visitors not obeying posted rules) to the township shooting down a proposal to expand the park (the fact that traffic to this previously sleepy hamlet had spiked dramatically did not endear the park to local inhabitants). A similar Wild Safari still operates about a hundred miles south, but it is a much tamer version of the original Jungle Habitat, since only giraffes, zebras, deer and ostriches have unlimited access within its grounds.

Today the locked gates have a narrow opening on one side that allows people to squeeze through, and one occasionally comes across people walking their dogs or kids bicycling in gay abandon on a bright sunny day. The approach road rises sharply, offering a majestic view of single-engine aircrafts taking off in the west, and winds down half-a-mile to a 3,000 car parking lot with faded yellow markings on the ground. It also offers an eerie hint of something gone awry-- for the stillness of the spring air and the barrenness of the macadam clearing is not interrupted by a single vehicle.

Jungle Habitat also had a walk-through section that included a petting zoo, an aviary, an otter slide and a toy-train ride. Traces of these are still visible, although the wooden directions at trail intersections have had their lettering erased by the elements of nature. As one walks through the tunnels that once witnessed shrieks of delightful laughter from children experiencing a first echo, the only sound that pierces the silence today is that of a gurgling stream running by a crumbling ticket-office. Beyond it lies the collapsed aviary, an animal graveyard, and train lines in a clearing half-buried by dry leaves. It is oddly unnerving to lose oneself along the perfectly preserved paths, enveloped by a serene silence that accentuates the sensation of trespassing into a civilisation that met an untimely death, before being brought back to the present by the rude sound of returning aeroplanes.

Towns often preserve vestiges of questionable historical significance to build a feeling of pride and unity. Jungle Habitat does not fall into this category as it is not old enough to create its own mythology, and moreover because it has been allowed to fall into ruin. Yet, walking through its empty grounds, I felt a keen sense of living history around me, almost as if the simple act of shutting my eyes would transport me back in time and help spot an animal in the wild. As I exited past the visitors' kiosk, still adorning the corporate logo of a lion travelling on top of a Jeep, I could not help thinking that this was a park that even Time had forgotten all about.

Now Chil the Kite brings home the night
That Mang the Bat sets free.
The herds are shut in byre and hut -
For loosed till dawn are we.
This is the hour of pride and power,
Talon and tush and claw.
O hear the call! Good Hunting, All
That keep the Jungle Law!
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

Rekindling Reading

Amazon's incarnation of the electronic book reader has made reading de rigueur again. Enthusiasts have long bemoaned the fact that reading would become the inevitable casualty of the turf wars waged by the movie and gaming industries, both of which were determined to conquer the limited leisure that society allows a full-time worker today. The decline in circulation of newspapers and magazines, budget cuts for public libraries and closures of mom-and-pop bookstores seemed to support the conclusion that readership in America is on a downward spiral.

Into such a bearish market had entered the electronic book reader, spearheaded by Amazon (with their global domination of titles) and Sony (with their unparalleled prowess in electronics design). And lo-and-behold, despite prohibitive prices and economic uncertainty, buyers have come streaming in to buy these plastic and metal wonders, attracted by their capability to store hundreds of titles and, increasingly, their natural ink-on-paper quality of display. In the process, the victim has been the familiarity of a printed page and the sensations it evokes-- the texture of paper against the skin, the evolving typefaces and illustrations that please the eye, and the delightful smell that overwhelms the olfactory senses.

There are good arguments in favour of going electronic-- saving trees, saving space, saving transportation-- and supporters have made all of them. Many point to the way Apple's music player revolutionised the music industry and conclude that electronic readers will similarly re-engage the reading public. However, this is a textbook case of comparing apples with oranges, and unless today's e-book readers evolve, it is unlikely that they will come close to replicating the success of the former.

  • Despite all its defects, Apple's music distribution system (through their iTunes store) introduced the concept of micropayments, allowing listeners to purchase a single song, instead of the entire album sold by traditional record stores. Even though the music industry would be loathe to admit it, this probably had a greater impact in reducing music piracy than the wanton lawsuits that record companies engaged in. No such parallel exists in the world of books-- it is not possible to legally download a favourite poem or a single copyrighted short story. Electronic book sellers have so far been aggressively undercutting the prices of electronic titles compared to their printed versions, but this phenomenon may very well be transient.

  • An enormous factor in the popularity of MP3 players was the ability to transfer one's personal music collection to the portable player with minimal cost (usually by expending time). With books, on the other hand, there is no simple way to digitise the contents, and existing owners would be forced to buy a digital copy of the same title should they desire to read it electronically. A similar problem had arisen with vinyl manufacturers in the wake of the MP3 player's popularity earlier this decade, and many record companies rose to the occasion by including a digital copy of the music with the vinyl album. Budget USB-based turntables were also introduced that allowed analogue music to be digitised. Unless the publishing industry adopts a similar creative approach (perhaps by tying up with Google who spent the last two years scanning and digitising books from twenty libraries worldwide), it would not address the hesitation of book-lovers to take the leap.

  • The ability to download music through a cellular or broadband connection meant that the music player was no longer tethered to the computer, and this had a huge effect in popularising portable players. In this respect, Amazon's devices hold a distinct advantage over Sony's in having an embedded wireless broadband card that allows books to be downloaded in seconds from anywhere in the United States (disclaimer: the author worked on this underlying wireless technology). However, in forcing the reader to buy exclusively from their website and imposing digital rights management (DRM), Amazon runs the risk of becoming a monopoly at a time when other industries are moving towards an open-source, system-agnostic environment. Ironically, Amazon had led the movement against Apple's practice of selling DRM-encoded music!

  • Finally, in the wake of the popularity of e-book readers, the publishing industry needs to re-evaluate their business model and borrow ideas from other prevailing media. Periodic distribution of free stories or book samples might generate enough interest in the reader to buy the entire book, either paper or digital (much like the effect of listening to a hit new song on the radio). Another practice could be to allow reading new books wirelessly on the reader without reserving the right to store it (similar to streaming music or video on the Internet). There is also an untapped market to "lend" a time-limited digital book at a fraction of the purchase price, along the lines of a video rental. This may also help tying devices to libraries other than Amazon's, who in turn could subsidise the cost of readers (like some newspaper conglomerates are reportedly planning).

Thus, unless the publishing industry and the device manufacturers come together and work on an open architecture of distribution and format, electronic book readers are likely to remain proud heirlooms of either the occasional traveller or the gadget geek. And having used a Sony Reader over several months, I can safely affirm with the rest of the reading public, that nothing is more satisfying than curling up in bed with the latest paperback, without worrying that the book may get destroyed if one accidentally dozes off!

Shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room, and scattered single volumes reveal mental processes in progress, books in the act of consumption, abandoned but readily resumable, tomorrow or next year. By bedside and easy chair, books promise a cozy, swift and silent release from this world into another, with no current involved but the free and scarcely detectable crackle of brain cells. For ease of access and speed of storage, books are tough to beat.
John Updike, Books Unbound, Life Unravelled