Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why Can't We All Just Say Hi?

Ever since I came to the US, I have noticed (and appreciated) how polite the people here are. Store clerks and shoppers greet each other while shopping. Passengers thank bus drivers while getting off the bus. Strangers smile at each other while passing each other on the street. People always, always tell you that you're welcome when you thank them. I realise it may sound weird to any US/Western readers that I am citing these as examples of extraordinary politeness, but in India these things do not happen. At all. There are complex sociological reasons for this difference for sure, but that is fodder for another post. We will not get into them here.

One thing that strikes me about American politeness though, is how so many of the greetings these polite people call out at each other are interrogative. You might hear "What's up?" or "How's it going?" or "How are you?", depending on the formality of the situation. The expected, and completely rote answer to such a question generally aims to reassure the questioner that you are fine, and inquires about their general well-being in turn. Again, American readers might think it weird that I spell this out, but it really is not obvious to foreigners. Many US universities inform their international students about this convention in orientation. Unless specifically told how to respond, many of us actually do start telling people making polite inquiries how we're actually doing. In great detail. You can see, of course, how that might get ugly.

All this is fine, of course. International students can, and do get used to quaint local customs. What is exasperating about this very American way of greeting your fellow men is that many of them take a hit-and-run approach to it. "How's it going?", one of my colleagues once asked as she walked by me in the hallway, with nary a pause to hear any rejoinder. "How are you?", asked a friend from my department as he stepped into an elevator I had just stepped out of. "Hey Kunal, whats up?" shouted an acquaintance as we passed each other on escalators going opposite ways (yes, this actually happened). Now my regular readers know I have trouble responding in time to unfamiliar greetings, so it will not surprise them that I reacted to these situations by gaping open-mouthed at the greeters. But I seriously doubt that even someone born in this country, with quick, socially conditioned reflexes could have gotten out an "I'm great, how are you?" in time. Well, maybe auctioneers. But not normal people, that's what I am saying.

I'm sure this kind of thing happens all over the country. Well meaning people, conditioned by long years of such behavior, unthinkingly call out such greetings in situations where they cannot possibly be answered. When the equally conditioned response is not forthcoming, however, at least some of these people must feel nonplussed, irritated even. Surely this causes some ill-feeling, and ill-feeling is something this country can do without right now. I therefore propose that the US, as a nation, should collectively stop using interrogative greetings at all times. Instead of asking "What's up?", say "Hi!". Instead greeting your boss with a cheery "How are you?", say "Good morning!" instead. If the entire nation takes urgent action, surely the amount of bad feeling will decrease. Who knows, that might even decrease the spate of incivility, racism, heckling, mic-snatching and wanton frog-boiling that has been troubling the country for the past couple of months. And that can only be a good thing for America.

(This post has been slightly edited for length and style since it first appeared)

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Amit Varma for English Czar

For the past week, the English language media in India has been all over the utterly bizarre controversy following External Affairs minister Shashi Tharoor's offhand remark referring to economy class air travel as cattle class (in response, mind you, to a question about whether he would be flying cattle class). Amongst the incredible amount of mind numbingly stupid things said about this incident was a remark by BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad that really stood out. Responding to remarks by Amit Varma during a TV debate, he said, "Our English may be weak, we need to take lessons from Mr. Amit about that, but that is a separate chapter altogether."

(Video of Amit Varma and Ravi Shankar Prasad debating l'affaire Tharoor on CNN-IBN)

Thinking about this, it struck me that perhaps that should not be a separate chapter at all. Perhaps what we really need is a rigorous introduction to spoken English for India's supposedly Anglophone ruling classes. Too long have we suffered our betters ignorantly (or perhaps willfully and mendaciously) misinterpreting perfectly innocuous usages in the English language and taking offense at them. There was this little tempest in a teapot at the phrases "cattle class" (which is apparently offensive to economy class travelers) and "holy cows" (which, in an incredible case of cognitive dissonance, is held to be offensive to Hindus by the same people who took offense at the previous phrase). There was the ridiculous assertion that the title of the film Slumdog Millionaire was offensive to either slum dwellers, dogs or millionaires (I forget which). Then there was the insanely idiotic brouhaha about the title of the movie Billu Barber (apparently the word "Barber" is offensive to barbers. Or something).

In any case, there is a pressing need to educate supposedly English-speaking people about the existence of metaphors in English, and that not all English words are a direct condemnation of them personally. And I can think of no man better suited to lead this effort than Amit Varma. Yes Amit Varma - he of the novel My Friend Sancho, of the blog India Uncut, creator of writer for the immortal Timex Timepass, journalist, Bastiat Prize winner and sideburn-wielder extraordinaire. (Aside: I would probably support raising Amit Varma to any executive position - God-Emperor of the Entire Known Universe even - just so that we could create an entire Kurvi-Taschist cult of personality around his magnificent sideburns. But I digress.) Aside from these impressive qualifications, Amit is also a graduate of Fergusson College, home to the finest English Department east of the Western Ghats.

To carry out his important mandate, Amit will surely need wide-ranging executive powers removed from legislative checks and interference. Happily, precedent for such positions exists among the Obamite Czars of the US. I propose that the Government of India create for Amit just such a position - that of English Czar Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary. The holder of this office would have wide ranging powers to force public figures to read the classics (and India Uncut), to summarily quash litigation based on an utter lack of understanding of English metaphors and ultimately plenary authority to punish English-language media for excessive cliche and overenthusiastic punning.

I hope, dear readers, that you will see the urgent need and the utter good sense of this proposal. It is imperative that we not let this issue rest - we must take action, and take action NOW. Write to your MP, talk to your politician uncle, organise candlelight vigils, compile petitions, sit on hunger strike, burn buses, whatever. We must do whatever it takes to get this done. Because together we can, and we will.

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