Showing posts with label Social Commentary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Social Commentary. Show all posts

“Talk English, Walk English”: Will We Ever Stop Considering the Language a Benchmark of Success?

My mother and father both studied in Gujarati-medium schools, but made it their life’s mission to enroll me in a private English-medium school. The end product of that is a Gujarati who can neither read nor write in his mother tongue, and is labelled “angrez ki aulaad” every time he has to read a signboard in the language of his forefathers.
I can never forget the image of my father beaming with pride after my application to the prestigious Holy Cross Convent School in Mira Road was accepted, in the mid ’90s. Even in that era, when an English education would seem routine to most of my peers, I was the first in our family to go to an English-medium school and everyone was excited. They couldn’t wait to hear all the fancy English words, phrases, and sentences I would be speaking at home soon – my parents might have been more excited when I said “A for Apple” than they were when I said my first words.
My English education was the equivalent of a showpiece held up for display for guests. Each time a relative visited from Gujarat, I was asked to say something, anything in English. Over time, bored with this routine, I wouldn’t even bother narrating a poem; I’d merely mutter a few random words and they’d all applaud, like some sasta Shakespeare of the Rajgor parivaar.
Not much has changed since. I am showered with more attention than many of my cousins at family dos, not because I’m more successful or intelligent but only because I am fluent in English. A couple of years ago, I asked my mom what the fuss was about, and why they insisted that I go to an English-medium school. “Jo taqleef hume hui, wo tumhe nahi honi chahiye,” was her reply. To my ears, it sounded straight out of an old Bollywood film.
But my parents’ obsession with English started in the ’80s. A chartered accountant and a B Com graduate, my dad and mum faced obstacles in their careers – promotions were delayed, job opportunities missed – only because they couldn’t communicate in the language of the workplace. They’d made their decision about sending me to an English-medium school long before I came around.  
Two years ago, Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar starred as a beleaguered couple that goes to great lengths to admit their daughter in a good school, in the sleeper hit dramedy Hindi Medium. One dialogue from the film has stayed with me: “Angrezi sirf zubaan nahi, class hai class.” English is not merely a language – it is a separate class.
My parents understood that 20 years ago. They knew it was a necessity. Even today, when my father talks to the house help or driver about his children, he asks, “Bachchon ko ‘English-medium’ mein padha rahe ho na?” They’re all aware that the language is a rung on the ladder of upward social mobility.
My mother struggles with English but when a salesperson at the mall, a waiter at a fine-dine restaurant, or an insurance agent on call initiates a conversation, she feels compelled to reply in English, fearing that she will be judged if she didn’t. My father is embarrassed to ask about the plot of an English movie even when he can’t follow the dialogue. After all, how can an educated person admit that he can’t understand the language?
I know of highly qualified friends who travelled from the interiors of Gujarat and Rajasthan but have failed to crack interviews at MNCs, not because they lack the technical skillset but because they don’t have command over a language. I have worked in companies where the client is comfortable in regional language, the employees are locals, yet we put on a farce and speak in English.  
As a society, we have come to define English as a measure of intelligence than merely a language of communication. We make fun of people who mispronounce an English word but find it extremely cute when foreigners screw up when attempting to speak Hindi. Indian and Pakistani cricketers are constantly mocked for goofing up English in the post-match presentation, even though it has nothing to do with on-field performance. Even Prime Minister Modi’s Gujju-English accented “May be phorce be with you” is a topic of constant ridicule.  
English is a globally accepted language and the knowledge of an additional language will always be an added bonus. However, it can’t be at the cost of everything else. A Quartz report on how “India’s obsession with English is depriving many children of a real education” points to a research collated by the UNESCO. “Children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language,” the research says.
“The obsession with English determinedly ignores what is impossible to ignore: A majority of Indian children leave school without the basics of old-fashioned reading, writing and arithmetic, in any language. This cannot be fixed by teaching them English or in English with, among other things, teachers who themselves are unskilled in the language,” the report says.
Yet we continue to obsess over English, so much so that it has now become a tool to discriminate against our own selves. In a country as vibrant and diverse as ours, why should people lose job prospects or be looked down upon, if they can’t speak one particular language? We are now in a race to join the “English class of people”. But we probably need to stop and take a breath: It’s not all about English Vinglish.

How Smartphones Killed the Art of Sitting at the Window Seat and Doing Nothing

Itravel by public transport in Mumbai every day. If it’s a decent day, I manage to enter the bus without breaking a bone. If it’s a good day, there’s place to stand in the train without me being forced to smell the breath of another man and guess what he’s had for breakfast. If it’s a lucky day, I get to rest my skinny arse on a seat, and when all the stars align and I hit the jackpot, I get a window seat.
Today was one such day, and the joint winner of the jackpot was a father-son duo who had landed the window seat opposite mine. The dad and I hurriedly scrambled for the seat like our lives depended on it, but once we settled in, we did what everyone does these days – lowered our heads and stared at our phone screens. Our ride lasted an hour and neither of us cared to peek outside, even once. I was hooked on to The Umbrella Academy on Netflix; the father was simply scrolling through his phone, and the kid was playing Ludo Star on his dad’s second phone. I looked around and realised everyone was doing the exact same thing – everyone was lost to their cellphones.
Technology has been a giant slayer of many things wonderful and one of them is the joy of sitting by the window seat.
As a child, I remember that most of the thrill of travelling by public transport, whether it was the train or a bus, long-distance trip or a short ride across town, revolved around the drama of the window seat. The moment my cousins and I boarded a bus or a train, we scanned it for an empty window seat, and made a dash for it – if the four of us found four different windows, it was like Christmas come early.
It wasn’t just a kiddie thing; I’ve seen adults break into a brawl over the coveted seat. These were simpler times, when a handkerchief would be used to call dibs, and arguments would break over whether what was ethical when it came to claiming the seat. Does hurling your purse on to the seat count? What if you smuggled a kid through the window? There were no rules to this game. Passengers that didn’t get the window would keep waiting for the occupiers to get up, so they could slide in and feel the wind in their hair. And children like me used their cuteness to their advantage. An innocent, “Uncle, uncle mujhe window seat do naa, please” mostly did the trick.
As a kid, I played my cards well. I’d often move through the crowd in a packed train – mostly the Churchgate-bound local, when dad took me to the movies at Eros – and stood right in front of the window. And if I got lucky, a kind passenger would either vacate his seat for me or pick me up and make me sit on his lap. It might not have been the most comfortable journey, but the window seat was worth it. I can close my eyes and still feel the breeze on my face. And the view and the smells are unmatched. We did not cross green fields and high mountains, but the aroma from the Parle biscuit factory as you crossed Vile Parle, a tiny glimpse of Bandra’s faraway marvels, and the hustle bustle of the chawls as the train sped past Lower Parel, were more engrossing than any Netflix show. The pièce de résistance of this joy ride was of course the view of the sea as your train approached Marine Lines. Every head turned to get a little glimpse of the blue. But today the only blue that we seem to be drawn to is the light from our smartphones.
Back then, the window seat was the envy of all travellers, more sought after by passengers than a seat in Parliament by our greedy politicians. And then came the mobile phone. The lure of the window seat waned along with any interactions that we had with our fellow commuters.
Much like every public place in cities the world over, our buses and trains are now filled with people with their necks craned at a screen. The college student is binging on web shows, the middle-aged man is watching HDRips of Bollywood films, the old woman is reading the Hanuman Chalisa on her phone and the rest are too occupied with Candy Crush to care.
I’m not different from the crowd; looking out for a whole minute without reaching for the next new notification is a challenge. Each time the phone wins because the need to feel “connected” all the time is infinite.
Who cares about that little patch of blue at Marine Lines when you scroll through the pictures of your friend’s Maldivian honeymoon on Instagram? What can be so engrossing on a Mumbai road that it diverts your attention from the Twitter fight over Pakistani artists?
When we watch movies where humans turn into machines, it almost always begins with the protagonist’s hands turning metallic and their speech robotic. But in the real world, change begins with tiny and unnoticeable compromises, like a slow erosion of our faculties of fascination, curiosity, imagination, and wonder.
The phone makes us feel guilty for “doing nothing”. It does not even spare us a moment to stop and stare out of the window. And for that we must be worried.

Makar Sankranti: Gujarati Mardi Gras Minus the Swag

My father is a self-proclaimed “active person” who loves playing “games” and “sport”, which, for him, include (illegally) plucking cherries from the neighbour’s farm, jumping over gutters, playing with bottle caps, throwing kids into the river so they figure out how to swim, and playing with marbles in the dusty veranda. In his own words, it was a very “different time” back then. Of course, this was the ’60s and the only fitness apps they believed in back then, were glasses of milk and plates of fruits.
In his lifetime, my father has witnessed the erosion and eventual extinction of things that were #lit during his childhood. And like many people of his generation, it has made him a wee bit bitter. This is evident when he occasionally bursts into rants about the “mindless” video game and mobile phone culture that has shaped my childhood.  
But there’s one day in the year that makes my father forget all the ranting, and gets his eyes lit up like Harry Potter’s after he spots the Golden Snitch.  
Yes, it’s the day of Makar Sankranti, the Gujju equivalent of Mardi Gras minus the swag. Makar Sankranti aka Uttarayan is as important for us Gujjus as undhiyu, dandiya, stock markets, and Narendra Modi. We simply can’t stop fangirling over these things (sorry, Rahul baba). This is also the day my otherwise mellow father brings out his competitive best — and his arch nemesis is Bunty ke papa, Apollo Creed to my father’s Rocky Balboa.
But before the competition is family bonding. There’s an age-old Gujarat adage that goes, “A family that flies kites together, stays together.” So we all get together and scream, “Kai po che” like our life depends on it while we pass around til chikki as if they were weed cookies and down Rooh Afza like tequila shots.
My dad is nervously excited ahead of Sankranti. He is the only guy I know who looks forward to January, the most depressing month of the year. It’s like my father has two personalities, one reserved for the rest of the year and one for January, when he goes from Bruce Wayne to full-on Batman, patang and phirki in tow.  
Dad, who avoids shopping like Rahul Gandhi avoids election season, the man who won’t go to the market to buy bread, gets his hands on the finest-quality manja, sourced from the markets of Surat. The manja is made by men with razor-sharp wit and it is so fine that it could cut your soul. It will certainly shred Bunty ke papa’s kite.
Once the kites and manja are in possession, dad decides to delegate. While he’s planning his moves for the D-day, my cousin and I tie the kannies (knots) to the kites, the job of sidekicks, not the superhero. He doesn’t want to waste precious time doing manual labour while the opponents are ripping out one kite after another during the practice games. But dad’s a pro, net practice is for noobs.
On the day of Sankranti, he’s up early, dressed to the nines in his superhero suit of starched white kurta-pyjama. He’s pacing around the house, restless, waiting for us lazy folks to get out of bed. “You young people should go up on the terrace and have fun, these are your days to enjoy,” he tells us. What he doesn’t tell us though, is that he is jonesing for a round with Bunty ke papa, who is also probably pacing around his living room.
As he makes his way to the arena, the building terrace, expert commentary is first delivered on the wind conditions and what it’ll be like throughout the day. (The met department better take note, this is where the real weather expert’s at.) After an in-depth analysis, it’s time to get down to business: One kid holds the phirki, the other one helps with the kite getting elevation.
It is in these moments, when I see my father at his childlike best. Screaming “Kai po che” with such fervour that it would put Sunny Deol in Border to shame. He sends up his kite and fights for it as aggressively as an investment banker trying to close a deal. The competition is serious AF, but I am most amused: I find my non-confrontational father’s change in personality hilarious, especially if he is losing a kite fight. And nothing angers him more than losing to Bunty ke papa.
Last year, Dad didn’t have a great run. This year, he’s all geared up for the clash as the challenger. But no matter what happens today, my scoreboard will always read the same: Dad 1, Bunty ke Papa: 0

TikTok: One Person’s Cringe Is Another One’s Cool

Everyone has seen a TikTok video, even if you have never heard about the video-sharing and Karaoke app and don’t know what it is. In that sense, it’s a bit like GST – it doesn’t matter whether you understand it, and there is no way to escape it. And it has hit the online world like a tsunami.
Remember that friend from college who posts Instagram videos, lip-syncing to famous Bollywood dialogues and songs? The ones where you watch and go “Why?” That is probably a TikTok video. If you’re wondering “Hang on, isn’t that”, congratulations, you’re catching up. was acquired by the Chinese company ByteDance in November 2017 and they merged it with their app TikTok in August 2018. TikTok has exploded worldwide and has more users than Reddit, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. I don’t know what’s more surprising, that TikTok has gotten so popular so quickly, or that a Chinese product has lasted more than ten days.
For the vanilla user, TikTok might just be an extension to Snapchat and Instagram. However, while “stories” disappear with time, on TikTok one can ensure that the embarrassment is etched into online history forever. People who dance showcase their dancing skills. People who are into fitness and health put up workout tips and videos. Fashion enthusiasts display new outfits everyday, and those who have nothing, upload pictures of food and their pets.
But to classify TikTok as vanilla would not only be an understatement, it would also be wrong. For TikTok hosts everything from the simple, to the bizarre, to the extremely fucking weird.
I’ve watched these videos with growing fascination and amusement every day, on FB pages with borderline offensive names like Reptiles of Kurla. Teenagers apply glycerine to their eyes and cry to emotional Bollywood songs from the ’90s, showcasing more emotions in 15 seconds than John Abraham has in his entire acting career. The trend even has a special Facebook page dedicated to it, called “Boys who cry passionately on Musically IndiaFor added effect, jam and juice are sometimes applied on the body to show blood and heartbreak.
If you’re not into drama, don’t worry, there’s a place for everyone on TikTok. Comedy skits are the rage. On downloading the app, the third video I saw was a man in a village jumping from the roof of his house to another roof with music from Krrish playing in the background. There were no safety precautions in place, nor was this some kind of prank – it was just 15 seconds of masti content. In another video, a bunch of guys were lip-syncing to a popular scene from Phir Hera Pheri that ends with Babu bhaiya being pushed into a swimming pool. In the TikTok video, the guy is pushed into an actual well in a farm by his friends as they try to recreate the scene. I laughed for a good two minutes.
Then, there are challenges. Remember the ice bucket challenge? TikTok has its own array of challenges that regularly feature in their trending hashtags. In the #SoapChallenge, one had to put as many bubbles as you could in your hand and then blow them out to the app’s slow motion effect. I know you believe you can visualise it, but believe me, it’s like the Trump presidency – you cannot until you’ve seen it. The #FaceChallenge was about mimicking 10 animal faces in 15 seconds. Watch out CGI, we’re coming for those animated roles in Disney movies. In the #RotationChallenge, you had to turn on the selfie camera on your phone and then try rotating the phone 360 degrees in your hand. I tried it five times, and all I had to show for my efforts were a hurt ego and a sprained wrist. Clearly, I’m far away from being a popular TikTok star.
TikTok is not merely an app, it’s an experience. It’s an avenue to a different world, a different India. It’s not populated only by your friends, people like you, or those belonging to the same economic, social and cultural environment as you. It has made inroads into rural and small town India, and they’re creating and sharing content in a massive way. It is what the meeting point of a Jio sim card and a Netflix account would look like.
The medium doesn’t have a limitation of text, grammar, or language that many other social media networks suffer from. No one’s trying to show you how great their life is or how someone spelt their name on a cup at Starbucks, like on Instagram. You don’t need to know an American show reference or what a particular contextual meme means. To a large extent, it has eroded the rural-urban divide and made it a level playing field for everyone with a camera phone and data connection. You have a camera, basic editing features and 15 seconds to earn likes and comments, the medium’s currency. “Make every second count” is TikTok’s tagline (and also the working title for the movie to every guy’s sex life).
There is a tendency to dismiss the content as bordering on the extremes of cringe: Easy for us Netflix-watching, organic-cafe-frequenting, nihilist types who couldn’t see earnestness if it hit them between the eyes. Sure, the videos on TikTok don’t match up to the quality of content we’re used to consuming. But what it has, is the spirit of rebellion against a generation defined by snark, the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of what is “cool” and what is “cringe” on the Interwebz. “This is how Dhinchak Poojas and Taher Shahs are born,” the cool kids at Reddit are already up in arms. One must never forget though, that one man’s earnest creative attempt is another man’s cringe. On TikTok, there’s place for everyone, and that is its beauty.