Pavan Varma: Language is central to identity

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Apr 28 13:31:26 UTC 2007

Language is central to identity

Excerpts from an interview with Pavan Varma, Director General of the
Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and author of several books
including The Great Indian Middle Class, Ghalib: The Man, The Times and
Krishna: The Playful Divine. He spoke to Puneeta Roy and Amit Kaushik

Can you look at education in isolation from what happens in the larger

No you cant. I have a very strong view on language and education. I feel
we are producing a nation of linguistic half-castes, who can never speak
English with the degree of adequacy or fluency that any language demands,
but who are nevertheless adrift from both their mother tongue and the
national language. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and
really implement, up to Grade 6, education in the mother tongue and the
national language, and then introduce English. We are natural
multi-linguists, well pick up English as well. Grounding in your mother
tongue and your national language is very important for a sense of

The Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai from Kenya said something
very significant the other day in a public lecture. She said, It is only
your rulers who understand the importance of language. That is the first
thing they take away from you and impose their own. The victims are
usually the last to know. The whole of urban India is disfigured with a
linguistic shoddiness that takes your breath away.

You have brought up three children within this milieu. How would you rate
the education they have received, the kind of human beings they are today?

They have received a competent education but they are greatly adrift from
their cultural roots. Let me tell you another example my mother went to a
convent and spoke the Queens English, but there was a Pandit who taught
her Sankrit at home, and a Maulvi who taught her Urdu and Farsi. She spoke
Bhojpuri her mother tongue fluently, she knew the Ramayana by heart, and
she knew every proverb in her own language. Now I know less and my
children know even lesser. Interestingly, however, my mother actually
withdrew me from Modern School and put me in Saint Columbias school
because she felt that the standard of Hindi was too high in Modern school!
She was very well intentioned. She was rooted in her culture in a way that
perhaps my generation is not. And yet she internalised it would be better
for me to master English rather than Hindi. And I cant blame her.

My children went to Delhi Public School, but they know very little. Its
not they alone; its the metropolis culture. It is the upper class that
talks the most about staying connected to our language and our culture,
yet it is their kids who study in the elite public schools. The poor, even
if they have Masters degrees in their local language, would not get the
opportunities that someone from an English language background would. I am
saying the same thing. So long as the system remains what it is, the
privileged will always be the beneficiaries. The need here is to question
the system, so that two mothers waiting outside the school do not tell
each other proudly, You know, my child is very weak in Hindi. Its a kind
of status symbol! The well-known poet Ashok Vajpeyi told me that his
grandson speaks very good Hindi and the people in his colony are quite
surprised. I live in India, my grandchild speaks Hindi well, yet that is a
cause for comment!  he exclaims.

So long as the system is OK about it, or there is no sense of something
being lost in the process, my children will go to the best English medium
schools, and because of that continue to be able to get the better jobs.
And also be part of a social elite where the speaking of English is one of
the most invidious forms of exclusion. If you cant speak it, youre not in.
It may not be visible to us, but its visible to foreigners more than
anyone else.

Do you have any suggestions?

One solution I gave you the language policy has to be implemented in a
different way. If you spend the first six years of your schooling in your
own mother tongue, and your national language, and you learn English after
that, the foundations are much stronger. If youve seen the film Rangeela,
Aamir Khans sidekick caught the pulse exactly. He tells Aamir, Im going to
catch my girlfriends hand tomorrow and tell her were going to get married.
Well set up our kholi, and when we have children well send them to an
English medium school!

May 05, 2007


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