Monday, 29 October 2012

Should Australians Learn Hindi?

The Gillard government's recently released white paper on "Australia in the Asian Century" is making lots of news. Weighing in at 320 pages, it can be quite a cure for insomnia (like all good white papers). But some of its policy implications have jolted people awake.

Let's look at just the impact on education policy. Some experts have estimated the cost of these policy changes to run into billions of dollars. Let me focus on one particular aspect of the education policy, under which "every schoolchild will be able to learn one of four "priority" languages: Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Japanese and Indonesian".

Knowing a second language is always useful in a myriad of ways, especially learning a language that is very different in nature to English. The benefits include staving off Alzheimer's, and so no one can argue with the proposal in concept. Engaging with emerging Asian countries where the locals speak no other language but their own obviously requires proficiency in those languages. China, Japan, Korea, Thailand - one cannot survive in these countries without knowing the local language. But India?

It's symptomatic of superficial thinking that Hindi has been clubbed together with Mandarin, Japanese and Indonesian. I call it superficial because of India's unique linguistic make-up. The penetration and role of Hindi in India are very different from those of these three other languages in their respective countries.

First, who is the target population in India with whom the next generation of Australians is meant to engage? If, as is most likely, these are going to be educated Indians from urban areas, for purposes of commerce or scientific collaboration, then English is already more than adequate. The lingua franca of the professionally-educated middle and upper classes in India is English. These people usually speak in English even to each other, and an Australian is unlikely to gain any special advantage through a knowledge of Hindi when dealing with these people.

Second, if the objective is to build rapport with common people rather than to communicate with just the elite, then wouldn't it be much more effective to communicate with people in their mothertongue? Only 40% of Indians have Hindi as their mothertongue, although about 70% can speak it. Quite apart from major cities like Chennai and Bangalore where Hindi is not widely spoken, one would be better served speaking Bengali in Kolkata, Marathi in Pune and Gujarati in Ahmedabad, even though Hindi is well-understood in all of these cities. But it would be asking too much to teach Indian regional languages in Australian schools. The benefits would be even more narrow and unjustified.

The most economically vibrant and growing regions of India are the West and the South, not the Hindi heartland, so the relative importance of Hindi may not even be as high as the demographics suggest

Third, from a purely practical standpoint, the kind of Hindi that is most likely to be useful in India is the mongrel variant popularly spoken in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and not the chaste, literary form that the Delhi elite tend to favour. For non-native speakers, it's far more important to be able to get the meaning across, grammar be damned. But it seems depressingly certain which version will be taught in Australian schools, especially since any Australian Hindi language curriculum will be determined in collaboration with New Delhi's officialdom. [It would indeed be ironic if Australians turned out to be incomprehensible to Indians because their Hindi sounded like the news on the government-owned TV channel!]

Rangebank Primary School in Melbourne is the only school in Australia that teaches Hindi to all its students. But will Hindi be useful or just nice to know?

For all these reasons, I believe Australia's Hindi policy is probably utopian and will not serve its intended purpose. Indeed, I don't believe Australian policymakers have thought deeply about the intended purpose of teaching Australian schoolchildren Hindi in the first place. Australia's approach to India should be arrived at by a body of people who have a sufficiently high number of flying hours under their belt (i.e., people who have travelled and lived extensively in India), not by armchair strategists who just see colour-coded countries on a world map.

It's important to engage and to understand another nationality, but language is not always part of this (It's even less true of India than of monolingual countries that have very little English). It's cultural understanding that is required, and I'm not sure if that is being addressed by the policy. For a start, Australians could learn to pronounce Asian names, including Indian ones (Rajeev is not pronounced Razheev, any more than John is pronounced Zhohn.)

On a personal note, I remember my stint at IIT Kanpur in India's Hindi heartland, where a fellow South Indian and I overheard a conversation on the hostel lawns. A card-carrying member of the RSS (the Hindu right-wing organisation that also believes Hindi is the unifying language for the country) was trying to convince a couple of South Indians of the benefits of learning Hindi.

"If you know Hindi, you can speak to 70% of all Indians", he argued, "you can speak to Punjabi[s], you can speak to Gujarati[s], you can speak to Bengali[s]..."

As we left the place, my fellow-South Indian friend said in contemptuous disgust, "If you know English, you can speak to 100% of the Indians who matter".

A snobbish opinion to be sure, but painfully true.

As the white paper makes clear, Australia definitely needs to understand Asia better.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Chameleon Voice - Child Wonder Pragathi Guruprasad

Today was when I first came across the name Pragathi Guruprasad.

C Mohan, 8 years my senior from IIT Madras, an IBM Fellow and a prolific chronicler of events (for want of a better term), wrote about Pragathi on Facebook, with a link to an article that his wife Kalpana Mohan had written about the child prodigy. I was intrigued.

Some searching on YouTube turned up an amazing repertoire. And she's only 15. This girl can sing virtually any genre of music, it appears. Let me count the ways.

Being a Tambram, Pragathi would obviously have to know Carnatic (South Indian classical) music, so let's start with a Tillana in Raga Purvi Kalyani, recorded in Fremont, California.

I'm also amazed that all those US-bred Indian kids in the audience are au fait with Carnatic music to the extent that they can keep the beat (taalam) with their hands. Wonderful.

Now, most non-Indians may not know the difference between the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) classical styles. But trust me, they're very different. It's not easy to learn to sing in these two styles at the same time, but Pragathi pulls this off effortlessly. (Did I mention she's 15?)

I'm South Indian myself, but I'm partial to the North Indian (Hindustani) classical style, and I found it such a pleasure to hear this piece in Raag Kedar. Pragathi was just 12 then!

At just 12 years of age, she has the voice control of a seasoned maestro. The slow beginning (the Alaap) where the raag unfolds is powerful and very smoothly introduces the mood of Kedar. Don't miss the vocal acrobatics towards the end (the Taans and the Tarana, for those in the know). This is technical perfection at any age!

(You may have noticed that I use the spelling "raga" for Carnatic music and "raag" for Hindustani, although it's the same word. That's another bit of the South-North cultural chasm.)

Once a singer masters classical music, all other genres are child's play.

A semi-classical devotional song (a Meera Bhajan), in Raag Shuddha Saarang

A Tamil film song

All that is fine, but it's still Indian music. How about something completely different, like Western pop?

Pragathi does an Adele with "Rolling in the Deep"

Have you noticed how she changes her dress and appearance to suit the style of music?

It isn't all class, to be fair. Here are some excerpts from her performance in a singing contest. Call me a classical music snob, but I wouldn't be caught dead listening to some of these numbers ("cheapo" songs, as my wife fondly calls them). Still, I guess it goes to show that nothing is beyond her abilities...

She can scale the heights and plumb the depths with the best and the worst of 'em...

This has been quite an education for me, thanks to the journalism of Mohan and his wife. I hope this talented girl lives up to her immense potential, rises to greater heights of glory and doesn't fall by the wayside.  The last video clip was, frankly speaking, a bit disturbing to me. Showbiz is a glittering but tawdry place to be, and it's not easy to hold onto dignity and class when the cheap seats are egging you on.

This is a schoolgirl from the US whose mother took her off her studies for a year to compete in a music contest back in India (a contest where she eventually placed second). That's a pretty big decision for a parent to make, and I'm not sure if I would do something similar even if my child showed such prodigious musical talent. And I certainly wouldn't do it if I felt my child was too young to avoid being dazzled by the bright lights and lose her way.

This is the new India, - full of opportunity to rise or to fall. She's got the talent. I wish her wisdom and common sense. If Pragathi can keep her head, like that sensible singer Taylor Swift, more power to her.
(Coincidentally, Taylor Swift's song Fifteen offers similar advice.)

Update: This is Pragathi in 2015, returning to Hindustani music after a long gap.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sense and Scientific Culpability

It appears a major tremor has gone through the scientific community, especially in Italy, after a group of scientists were sentenced to six years in jail and a hefty fine after failing to warn of the risk of an earthquake.

Several scientists and officials have resigned in protest, saying it is now impossible for them to do their jobs if they are likely to be punished for being wrong in a highly inexact science like seismology.

While I have some sympathy for that view, it isn't that cut-and-dried. My view is that while the sentence is too harsh, the scientists were indeed to blame in this case.

The seven convicted were all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The members of a body with such an unambiguous name surely understand that the public is relying on their expert opinion to make decisions that impact their lives.

The panel was explicitly convened at the request of the Civil Protection Agency in response to warnings of an impending earthquake. It should have been clear to the scientists that an opinion was being sought from them, and that this opinion would influence the decisions of many people.

The actual sequence of events seems very clear and damning:

  1. According to the minutes of the meeting, the scientists never said there was no danger of a big quake. Volcanologist Franco Barberi said, accurately: "There is no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock." So far, the scientists are in the clear.
  2. However, after the meeting, Bernardo De Bernardinis from the Civil Protection Agency walked out and addressed the press: "The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable." Now this was not a true representation of what was actually said at the meeting by the scientists.
  3. At the trial and after, the scientists have said that the responsibility for the tragedy lies with De Bernardinis, who made the  "no danger" statement.
  4. But according to the prosecutor (and I agree with him), regardless of who made the statement, the scientists on the committee are culpable for failing to correct it promptly. They allowed an incorrect summary of their discussion to be passed to the public as their expert opinion and did not correct it with alacrity. This was highly negligent of them and they failed in their fiduciary duty to the public.
That's why I believe the ruling against the scientists is justified, although the sentence could perhaps be watered down a bit.

What now? Will this ruling have a chilling effect on science in general? 

Just imagine the world with scientists saying, 'no thank you, we're not available, we will not being doing anymore of our job'.

The Corriere della Sera daily said in a front page editorial:
The most worrying thing is that from now on, there will not be a single expert willing to join the commission because they know they could face very heavy criminal convictions for not having been able to predict a disastrous quake.

But this is not a conviction for failing to get the science right! It's a conviction for failing to get the message right. Those who have their knickers in a knot over this case probably haven't understood what exactly the scientists are being accused of.

And really now, how is this any different from a medical malpractice suit? Every time someone sues a doctor or a hospital for negligence, the medical community closes ranks. But they don't say that doctors will stop practising. They usually raise the bogey of higher medical care costs because of the rise in insurance premiums to cover public liability and professional indemnity. [Well, ooga-booga! We're not scared.]

It seems society is always held to ransom by powerful guilds. The moral of the story is that with every position of authority comes responsibility, and no one should be allowed to duck that.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Cute Hedgehogs

You've seen my collection of baby sloths. Now take a look at my collection of hedgehogs.

 Er, hello there!

What-dyoo staring at?



Snug as a bug in a rug

Another thing - hedgehogs know they're cute

Look ma, no hands! 

 Quite a handful

A mischievous handful

Are these rambutans or durians?

Hedgehogs must be regularly bathed...

...and towel-dried

Hedgehogs get along well with your other pets...

...although extreme cuteness may sometimes lead to jealousy

What's cuter than a hedgehog? Lots of baby hedgehogs!

Mummy and baby

Mummy and baby - handle with care
Strictly speaking, this is a stuffed toy, but it does pass the cuteness test...

Friday, 19 October 2012

Those Magnificent Brits And Their Flying Machines

Every now and then, you come across a story that makes you go, "WOW!"

World War II has always had a romantic appeal (now that we have collectively (and selectively) forgotten its horror), and this story rates highly on the goose-bump scale.

So many of my generation have grown up reading about the Spitfires and Hurricanes that saved Britain in 1940.

One of the few to whom so much was owed by so many...

It says something when Spitfires are romanticised in German

For Indians, World War II had a much closer front line - Burma. A distant relative of mine was reported to have walked back to India from Burma when the Japanese succeeded in invading that country.

Like the inexorable plot of a romantic novel that finally brings its protagonists together, the media this week carried news of the rediscovery of a buried squadron of Spitfires in the Burmese jungles.

The Mark XIV Spitfires were manufactured at Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands and transported to Burma, where they remained unused by the time of the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

They were deemed too expensive to bring home, but rather than leave them intact in an unstable country, the decision was made to bury them in their transportation crates - carefully greased and tarred and wrapped in greaseproof paper to preserve them (italics mine).

I have that "Awww" feeling that I get when I see children putting away their toys without being told. Oh, those super, smashing Brits! What they did there was ripping, absolutely topping, I say!

Now twenty-plus of those aircraft, in near-perfect condition after almost 70 years under the ground, will be shipped back to England, re-rivetted and will fly again as part of air shows.

From time to time, we catch a glimpse of the character that enabled the Brits to rule half the world...

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Malala Yousafzai, And Why A "Good" Fatwa Is Not Good Enough

Looking at some of the videos of Malala Yousafzai on the web, one is seized with an impotent rage. 

Why should some dreams be so hard to achieve?

This girl wants to be a doctor. You can tell she will make an excellent one. Her spirit shines forth from her eyes. But today, she is herself a patient in the intensive care unit of a hospital, a victim of a twisted philosophy that views her ambitions as somehow immoral.

There has been a lot of popular support for Malala (see photos below), but no one seems willing to condemn the Taliban by name even though they have been brazen enough to claim responsibility for her shooting. "Let this be a lesson", their spokesman said chillingly. If this isn't a moment of truth, I wonder what is.

Candlelight vigil in Karachi...

...and in Lahore. But we can't fight fire with candles.

It's shocking that while many people around the world pray for her recovery, there are others who promise that they will return to finish the job they failed to do this time. To think that people could even think such thoughts or be able to say such things! If my thoughts could kill, the Taliban would be dropping like flies all across their strongholds.

But I would not want the power to kill, whether with my thoughts or otherwise. And that philosophy makes all the difference. I remember the saying that the higher forms of life exist at the mercy of the lower. That's because you have to give up the destructive impulse in order to be a higher form of life in the first place. And that leaves the lower forms of life (the "low-lifes" like the Taliban) with all the destructive power.

The Good Fatwa

50 Pakistani clerics have condemned Malala's shooting as un-Islamic, which I must say is rather courageous of them, under the circumstances. However, as an agnostic, that encouraging statement to me is still a glass half-empty. The shooting was wrong, period, and it doesn't need a religious ruling to stand condemned. The fatwa, however welcome, gives religion altogether too much legitimacy in the realm of ethics. 

[How I long for a rationalistic world! But baby steps...]

And for all his erudition and liberalism, Malala's father made a statement which still disappointed me somewhat: 

"I am a lucky person to whom Allah has blessed Malala as a daughter because not only our Muslim Ummah has prayed for her life but even Christians, Hindus, Sikhs; everyone who came to know about Malala's incident has prayed for her life," Yousafzai said.

Well, Mr. Yousafzai, I would prefer that you begin to see all of us as humanity first and last, rather than classify us by religion. You seem to be amazed that "even" people like us of other faiths (and non-faith) are standing with you and your daughter. I would say you're implicitly joining the Taliban in their opposition to a secular worldview by unnecessarily bringing a religious angle into this. We need the secular worldview. Without it, we're back to being the Ummah and the Kaffir, and you know where that takes us...

To re-quote the Taliban spokesman, let this (the support of the world) be a lesson. We are human beings, and all of us have equal rights - male or female, Muslim or non-Muslim.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

An Outrage Worthy Of Muslim Protest

We are dead against co-education and a secular education system.

With these words, the Taliban defended their shooting of a 14 year old Pakistani girl for the crime of demanding the right of education for girls.

Malala Yousafzai - A little thirst for knowledge is dangerous

Upon hearing the news, throngs of Muslims throughout the world took to the streets in protest

You heard that right. Millions and millions of them! The echoes of their outrage rocked the whole world.

Er, OK. After the violent protests against the perceived insult to the prophet failed to win friends and influence people, perhaps they recognised the value of peaceful and silent condemnation...

We wish. There have been condemnations by Pakistani intellectuals and some officials to be sure, but no popular outrage. One has to marvel at the priorities and value systems of an entire community. And ponder the effect of a single book upon the spread of knowledge.

I think it would have been possible for the US to capture bin Laden far more easily with a well-worded threat:

Third degree, Mr. Cheney? The threat of a tertiary degree might work better.

Malala has thankfully survived (this time). But the prognosis for the Muslim world isn't that positive.