The Passport called English Medium!!!

Hindi Medium for the uninitiated is a Hindi film that hit the screens last week sans the trappings of the typical Bollywood fare but which holds a mirror to the society with a strong social message. Without any of the leading “Star Khans” but with just Irfan Khan as the lead star, I am not sure how far the film will reach eventually. After 3 Idiots if there was one Hindi film which leaves you thinking as you left the cinema hall about your kid’s education this must be it. In the film, the lead couple go to unimaginable lengths just to secure admission in one of the Top English medium schools in the city.  Because in the lines of the mother, “If the child goes to a Govt. school, she can’t learn anything. If anybody talks to her in English, she will not be able to fit in the society. Hence she will be lonely and will get depressed.”  The extremes the couple stretch themselves to secure that admission in a top English medium school like even trying to transform themselves to poor people to take advantage of BPL quota as per RTE act may sound preposterous.  But the message – that “English medium” is a mandatory passport for one’s flight to success in life is not lost on anyone.

Not just this one, but there were other films like Chetan Bhagat’s novel turned film – One Half Girlfriend and Sridevi’s super hit – English Vinglish dwelling on the theme of the need to master English to get recognized/get ahead in life. Ironically this is not some typical Bollywood fantasy but stark reality of India being mirrored in films.  At workplaces today, one’s command over spoken English is considered essential to rise up the corporate elevator whether you like it or not. There are very few careers I can think of today where one can still succeed without mastering the English language. Probably politics (where being oblivious to the English language can become your calling card) or some creative fields could be those. Otherwise even in medical field the reality is, you feel comfortable of a surgeon’s ability if he is able to explain the diagnosis and treatment course of your patient in eloquent English!!! Narayana Murthy of Infosys once controversially observed in the context of IITs that with Indian politicians “rooting against English”, the task of getting good English speaking students at IITs gets more difficult and that affected their quality .  He was being practical and honest. In urban India the caste system based on Manuvaad is gradually on the wane. But in its place there is a new caste system based on “Medium of Instruction” – English medium being forward caste and any other being backward!!!

However this is not the case in many other successful countries. In Germany you don’t need to master English to head an organization. In Japan, though knowledge of English is an asset particularly in an Export driven economy like theirs, lack of flair in English has never been a liability.  Same is the case with China.  It’s another matter that they probably now realise that if they had imbibed the English language they could have ruled the global commerce not just in Mfg. but even in services!

But then India is not a homogenous state with one culture, one lingo like Japan or Germany. We are “United States of India” where our culture, language, food habits,…,.. keep changing every 500 kms. We sort of got stuck in the middle where we couldn’t have Hindi or for that matter any other Indian language as a universal Pan Indian language due to our cultural diversity. At the same time English being a language imported due to the colonial rule couldn’t achieve the universal reach across the board. Result – we have a language divide. If we have to get out of this situation, it’s too late or virtually impossible to go back to a Japan or Germany universal Indian language model.  So it looks like adopting English language universally in India is only the practical option left with us to go forward from here.

“Universally” is the key. It was the very articulate Shashi Tharoor who once said, “Denial of opportunity to learn English to our children would be tantamount to destroying their future” and I agree. It’s unanimously accepted that India’s command over English has been one of the key attributes to our success in Software business worldwide. So why not we build on our strengths and leverage the same? That is certainly not by keeping English a privilege of few and sowing the seeds for another conflict. Instead a way forward could be to make ‘All” schools in India – English medium schools and phase in English as the universal medium of instruction from a particular year in the very near future. This is not to shortchange our own native languages which still needs to be taught in the same schools but need not be the “Medium of instruction”. We could expect politics to play and outrage factories running on full capacities over this move.  But then have we seen wards of politicians who get educated from Non English medium schools?  By the way in our neighbouring Pakistan in 2013, I heard that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took a call to switch over from Urdu to English medium gradually in a period of four to five years!!! This could be a significant reform in the field of education that would ensure English not just being a passport to economic, social and educational advancement universally but a ‘Visa on Arrival” for growth, the likes of Donald Trump notwithstanding!!

This reform may not be “the” only cure for all the ills in our education system but would be a good place to start.

Postscript: While on this, just after the ascent of Mr. Chandrasekharan as the Tata supremo, a picture of him and his 2 brothers has been doing the WhatsApp rounds. It talks of the fact that the 3 brothers are actually are from Tamil medium schools from a village in Tamil Nadu and that today they were head honchos. The message being, one doesn’t need to be necessarily from English medium schools to get to the top. Well, not sure even if Natarajan Chandrasekharan will accept that premise today and forward that to his WhatsApp groups!!!

Now Showing – “Board Exams”

For this time of the year, the temperature in the last few days in Mumbai has been few degrees higher than normal.  One tends to attribute the same to the usual suspect called “Global Warming”.  But I suspect that the higher temperature this time overall is due to the “Exam fever” every house hold is seemingly suffering from – these days!  In India this is the season for the SSC (10th) exam and the “life threatening” HSC (12th) exams now and my best wishes at the outset to all the students who are going through the rigmarole.  Absenteeism in companies is at a high as parents take leave in turns to be with their kids and provide moral support as they prepare for the ‘board’ exams.  Film makers who aspire to be in the 100 Crore club avoid release of their movies in this tense period.  In these highly competitive times, board exam times are becoming “testing” times for the parents, grandparents and the ilk.  

I’m not sure if this aura around ‘Board’ exam is only in India or it is a universal phenomenon. India made a 1st step towards easing the burden on students when Kapil Sibal, the then minister for HRD, made the board exam for 10th standard an optional affair from 2011. I’m not well-informed on how this optional thing works or doesn’t work.   However the tyranny of the board exam continues for 12th Std to this day.

I have vivid memories of my tryst with board exams which started with the 10th way back in 1983. In our predominantly Hindu – Brahmin school in Trichy (by name E.R.Higher Secondary School), the hall tickets were handed over after a puja at the temple. On the appointed day, all the students and respective teachers of the 10th class were taken to the temple for the Puja. My neighbour and friend who used to be in a Catholic school said that in their school, the hall tickets were handed over after a prayer at the church. So I concluded that all religions took board exams seriously and board exams by nature were secular!  By the time I came to 12th there was no need to take the walk to the temple for collecting the hall ticket. The school by then made strides and collected enough funds to build a small temple within the school premises itself.  To take care of the Saivite and Vaishnavite sensibilities or rather their academic aspirations, the temple was built with 2 presiding deities – Ganesh and Hanuman

In a neighbourhood Ganesh Temple the priest – an old pious man would give us specially worshipped ‘vibhudhi’ individually to each of us to be applied just before we open the question paper.  During exam time, he reminded us kids not to forget to collect the same before the exam begins and we did so religiously.  As quaint as it may seem, the lines to collect this ‘vibhudhi’ from him were quite long during board exam times with even non regulars to the temple queuing up.  That the old man was carrying out this practice without expecting any monetary consideration is in stark contrast to the materialistic world of today.

As soon as the 11th exams were over, the preparation for 12th started.  The idea was to start early and complete the portions by Dec. In preparation for the 12th board exam in April, the classes get over by Dec and the next 3 months one is at home to prepare for the final kill. I must admit here that though the board exam fever was running high, we were quite relaxed and taking it easy.  So much so that we didn’t resist watching the entire Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket” which took place in March 1985 in Australia.  Following the World Cup win in 1983, India continued its winning stretch in One Dayers beating Pakistan in the finals in this tournament.   Watching almost all the matches live on TV with mates that too at a friend’s place and rooting for India bring back unforgettable memories. Ravi Shastri became a (to borrow today’s vocab) “hash tag” overnight after being crowned as “Champion of Champions” in that tournament and ‘Audi’ got into the lexicon of the Indian youth.   Looking back I realize that this tournament provided for a much needed break in between our continuous study routine and acted as a stress buster.

While one starts getting into the trappings of the board exams – the refrain all around is “prepare well for this one last time, get good marks and you are set for life”!!!  But the truth is far from it. The competitive rat race of life continues post the board exams as well.  Only that you start getting used to it!!! The jury is still out on whether academic excellence matters at the end of the day and is the passport to success. As somebody said, academic excellence may well provide you the “Passport” but you still need the “Visa”!!!

It is nobody’s case that there is no need for an assessment in the form of an exam. It’s just that a complete focus on one final exam puts so much pressure and one bad day in office or rather the exam hall can put paid to an aspirant’s career hopes in today’s system. A movement to a continuous and regular assessment is the way forward.  Can our pragmatic and hardworking minister Shashi Tharoor ring in a change ???

On a Sunday as I am writing this post, my six year old daughter is quite engrossed in the movie “3 Idiots” for the “N+1”th time.  As the main protagonist Aamir Khan launches his diatribe on the present education system which gives so much weightage to marks and marks alone, I’m not sure if she realizes what’s in store for her. I hope by the time she is in her 10th, the so called ‘board’ exams have lived their lives and have been consigned to history.  The selfish thought being we as parents will be freed of the ‘board’ Exam fever!!!

Let me close this piece now as I have to rush my daughter to the dance class for well ………. an exam 🙂 🙂 🙂

Postscript: If people who are in Twitter are “Tweeples”, people who suffer from Exams are “Examples” 😦 😦 😦

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