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Tharoor is a victim of Hinglish?

By E D Mathew
March 09, 2010 14:27 IST
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Shashi Tharoor is a new entrant to politics, made a minister despite being a first time MP, well-travelled, armed with a formidable curriculum vitae, techno-savvy and witty. Need any more reasons for good old envy? asks E D Matthew

Mix Hinglish with India's frenzied tabloid media and Shashi Tharoor, and what do we get?

'Breaking news', run incessantly on India's tabloid TV, and hysterical headlines in the controversy-seeking newspapers. Without batting an eyelid politicians of all hues promptly jump into the fray, and we have a perfect storm in a tea cup.

So what exactly is behind this strange phenomenon that triggers half-baked, flash-in-the pan hullabaloo with every pronouncement in English by India's suave minister of state for external affairs?

The answer could well be regarded as profanity. Let the truth be told -- much of India's English language media, be they the print, online or the idiot-box variety, still struggle with the Queen's language. Only a small fraction of India's English language users, including self-styled writers and TV journalists, can claim to imbibe the nuances and the infinite variety of the Bard's tongue.

Much of the blame could be apportioned to the generally abysmal quality of English language teaching in India. "English is taught in the vernacular, in cities where shops teaching English speaking courses are located above popular Vaishno dhabas," says a commentator.

It is no secret that proficiency in an alien tongue can be hard to attain without broad interaction with native speakers, or living in a country or location where that language is spoken. Everything about a society -- its past, its culture and lore -- is embedded in its language. And that is why a tie-and-jacket clad Bihari ticket examiner in the Indian Railways, even if he is a graduate from an Indian university, may not necessarily understand what 'cattle class' means despite traversing in it for a living for years.

Transplant the ticket-examiner-equivalent to the uppity media, and what do we get? A half-baked pundit who cannot distinguish an interlocutor from an intermediary! Quantitative swelling, at the expense of quality, of TV channels during the past decade and a half has helped spawn many such interlopers. India's eminent linguists like the late Sarveppalli Radhakrishnan and Jawaharlal Nehru must be turning in their graves.

But why is Tharoor so much an attraction for the uppish media and the conceited politicians?

Here is someone, a new entrant to politics, made a minister despite being a first time MP, well-travelled, armed with a formidable curriculum vitae, techno-savvy and witty. Need any more reasons for good old envy?

Suave, articulate and erudite, Tharoor made a name for himself in part by being a commentator in the Indian media through his newspaper columns and sound bytes. And his sudden leap to the corridors of power is cause for some heartburn among the media fraternity. As for politicians, including the khadi variety, Tharoor is an outsider who, despite no political lineage, managed to sprint past them with ease.

With an intellectual heft beyond the pale of most Indian politicians, Tharoor has often demonstrated that he is not afraid to speak his mind. His strident calls for M F Husain's return to India and his staunch stand against the Talibanisation of Hinduism speak for his courage of conviction. He also has an impeccable international career behind him. But above all, he won the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency with a thumping majority of one lakh votes, proving beyond doubt that the voters of Kerala's capital were proud to elect him to the seat once held by the legendary V K Krishna Menon.

At a time when India's global image as an emerging powerhouse is rapidly improving, talents like Tharoor can be a valuable asset to the country. As India braces itself to meet the unprecedented geo-political challenges of the 21st century, it would be wise to nurture the country's talents and not drown them in a bowl of Hinglish alphabetic soup, hai na?

The writer is a social commentator.

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E D Mathew