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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Losing the way with words

In the futile English versus mother tongue divide, India seems to be producing students who are comfortable in neither

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: September 21, 2017 12:00:10 am
india, languages in india, india language debate, india english language, india regional debate, indian express news, india news In the futile English versus mother tongue divide, India seems to be producing students who are comfortable in neither

“Dutt and Panchamukhi” sounds like a bibliographical entry in an academic paper or book. But the reference is only meant to pique your curiosity. The two gentlemen have nothing to do with each other. The Dutt in question is Manmath Nath Dutt (1855-1912), sometimes also spelt Datta. Unless you are interested in English-language translations of Sanskrit texts, you may not have heard of him. Other than being well-versed in literature on the Buddha, Hindu metaphysics and ayurveda, he was a prolific translator.

He is the only one to have translated both the Mahabharata (including Hari Vamsha) and the Valmiki Ramayana into English. I mean unabridged translations, not the abridged ones. In addition, there were translations of several dharmashastra and tantra texts, the Rig Veda and at least five puranas (Agni, Garuda, Markandeya, Vishnu, Bhagavata). In the English language, he was India’s greatest translator, by a long shot. That was a different day and age. People weren’t prone to bombard you with requests such as “watch my interview” or “read my article/book”. Perhaps immersion in such texts also helped curb proclivity towards “I” and “mine”.

In any event, precious little is known about Dutt and his biographic details. He has been described as the Rector of the Keshab Academy as well as the Rector of the Serampore College (founded in 1818). Both are cold trails, with no additional information. As a translator of the Mahabharata, Kisari (also spelt Kishori) Mohan Ganguli (1848-1908) is remembered much more. As far as I know, there is nothing else Ganguli ever translated, not even Hari Vamsha. The contrast in styles of these two contemporary translators is palpable. Ganguli seemed to mimic what he imagined to be good Victorian English. Dutt wrote what he had assimilated as natural English. Because of his scholarship in Sanskrit (and Pali), Dutt was conferred the title of “Shastri” and he was equally comfortable in both worlds.

In 1946, the Joseph Bhore Committee on Health submitted its report. In 1949, there was an export promotion committee chaired by A.D. Gorawala. In 1979, there was the V. Dagli Committee on controls and subsidies. The P.C. Alexander Committee on import-export policies was set up in 1977. These are a few random instances. There are those who mistakenly think India’s reforms have a World Bank or IMF seed. These four instances, and there are several more, underline the indigenous roots of reform as well, though the jargon used then was somewhat different.

V. R. Panchamukhi was a member of the Alexander Committee but his contribution, as an economist, was much greater than that. He applied game theory to international trade policy (that was his 1963 PhD thesis at the Delhi School of Economics), worked on effective rates of protection (ERPs) when such expressions were still not fashionable, wrote an influential book in 1978 on India’s trade policy, worked as economic adviser in the Finance Ministry, was founder director-general of the RIS, chairman of the ICSSR and a host of other things.

Born in 1936, he has effectively retired from public life as an economist and I have also lost touch with him. But there are few economists who will not recognise the name. However, not every economist will know that Panchamukhi is not just “professor” or “Dr”, but also “vachaspati”. Lal Bahadur Shastri Sanskrit University conferred that degree on him in 2008 because he is also a Sanskrit scholar and Indologist. He has written essays and poetry in Sanskrit and also translated and published the first chapter of the Economic Survey in Sanskrit. He was equally comfortable in both worlds, English and Sanskrit, Economics and Indology.

Neither Dutt nor Panchamukhi perceived these categories as either/or. Swami Vivekananda wrote powerful Bengali prose and also composed in Sanskrit but most of his writing was in English. For that matter, how about Sri Aurobindo? I think chips exist on the shoulders of those who are not comfortable with either world. One then gets fixated on symbols or tokens. Consider lakh and crore.

With several things standardised and globalised, should India stick with lakh/crore or switch to million/billion? Let’s not budge from lakh/crore. Doesn’t the US adhere to fahrenheit, gallon and mile, bucking all global trends? I suspect it doesn’t matter either way. But assuming we don’t budge, I presume we write million as 10 lakh and billion as 100 crore. There do exist Sanskrit words for both. Million is prayuta and billion is maha-padma or maha-arbuda, arbuda being one hundred million, just as koti (crore) is 10 million. However, to be able to use these, one needs to know difference between arbuda and budbuda (bubble).

I have used Sanskrit to make the point but I think the malaise extends to vernacular languages. From 2021, India will again participate in OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey. The last time the country participated, on a pilot basis, was in 2009. Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh took part and reading scores are indications of language ability (English, Hindi, Tamil). While PISA 2009 and its methodology has been debated, the limited point is that in both English and vernacular, the performance of Indian students was sub-par. Other countries performed far better. This is partly because of the generic frailties in education delivery. That being said, in the futile English versus vernacular debate, we seem to be producing students who are comfortable in neither English, nor the vernacular. Most students can’t write a single coherent sentence in either.

The writer is member Niti Aayog. Views expressed are personal

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