The centenary of a Madras airplane

That e-mail out of the blue from Jefferis Donald Evans D'Angelis in Chile about a seven-year-old story of mine (Miscellany, August 9) has led to a long and enjoyable correspondence and a treasure trove of pictures, two of which I publish today. I had last Monday made reference to one of them, the biplane, but letting my Olivetti once again race away from my thinking, I got left behind with this thought I should have included last week, namely, that this year is the centenary of the first aeroplane manufactured and flown in India.

My aircraft picture today is from that famed Royal Aero Club magazine Flight's March 26, 1910 issue which published a letter from E. and A Levetus, and Co which stated: “We are posting you what we believe is the first aeroplane in India, which has been constructed by one of our customers, Mr. G. D'Angelis of Madras. The machine has been built by our friend entirely from his own design, and we understand that although upto the present he has been experimenting with a small horse-power engine, the results given by this are so satisfactory that with a higher horse-power he anticipates being able to make long and consecutive flights.” Reading between the lines it would appear that Levetus supplied the engine.

The India Weekly of the same period mentioned that the biplane had been built by Simpson's. Samuel John Green, who came out as a “motor engineer” to Simpson's in 1902 — he was later to become a partner — would have had much to do with this manufacture and assembly. An outstanding engineer, he was responsible for the first built-in-India car, a steam car he unveiled in Madras, and which the Press prophetically greeted with the headline “New Industry for Madras”.

D'Angelis, it would appear, had been inspired by Bleriot, a Frenchman who was the first to fly across the English Channel a few months earlier. D'Angelis first tested his aeroplane in Pallavaram (the probable site of today's picture) and then arranged a public viewing at the Island Grounds in March 1910, charging entrance fees to the demonstration. The local newspapers reported the exhibition widely, but did not predict aircraft manufacture as another industry for Madras.

The teaching of English

At the recent conference of the English Language Teachers’ Association of India, now 36 chapters strong, a couple of the keynote speakers are unlikely to have won brownie points from the majority of those present, critical as they were of the way English is being taught in schools and colleges in the country today.

Grammar and Literature — much of the latter going back to the Elizabethn era — appear to be the focus of English Language teaching, they pointed out. Getting students to pass exams was the only aim, they stressed. Communication, they felt, was being given the go-by. The English language syllabuses — even for English Literature students — were badly in need of change, they felt, recommending that the focus should now be on improving the communications skills of students. Fluency in the spoken word and basic writing skills were the need of the hour, not a knowledge of English and Commonwealth Literature or the more complex intricacies of English grammar. Employers were finding it increasingly hard to recruit graduates with such abilities. If India before long loses out to the Philippines in the till-now successful back-office industry, this will be one of the major reasons. More significantly, pan-Indian industry will begin to suffer if they have to employ persons uncomfortable with communicating in English, they cautioned.

In this context, a sombre warning note was sounded when one of the speakers quoted a David Graddol who produced a document titled English Next, India that was published by the British Council. In it, he states — after saying that “India’s development road map needs more people to move into jobs in the organised sector which require English” — “the rate of improvement in the English language skills of the Indian population is at present too slow to prevent India from falling behind other countries which have implemented the teaching of English in primary schools sooner, and more successfully. China may already have more people who speak English than India.” And, he adds, “Indian universities fall far short of rival countries in the quality of their teaching, research and graduates. Poor English skills is one of the causes.”

All this rather reminds me of a student I once had in a Journalism course who kept answering all my questions in Tamil. Since the course called for graduates, I asked him what his degree was in. Pat came the reply, “English Literature padichchane.” But, didn’t your lecturers teach your class and hold discussions in English? “Illay, Saar, ellam Thamizhlay thaan chonnnaarkal!” So much for communicating in English — and English Lit!

Another story the occasion made me recall was about a visiting lecturer’s stint I did for a few years at a leading city college. With an intake of the brightest notwithstanding, I found in the first year that lecturing and interacting only in English I was getting through to only a third of that class. The next year, interspersing English with colloquial Tamil I found I was getting through to about 75 per cent of the class. When it came to the third year, by which time all of them had two years of compulsory English, I found still no responses from that remaining 25 per cent of the class. They did well enough with problems, but I couldn’t get a word out of them nor could I discover whether anything of the broader, non-formula principles, based on shop-flour experience, I had talked about had got through to them. Where, I had wondered at the time, would they get employment.

As these thoughts ran through my mind, I kept wondering what the English Language teachers present — almost all of them talking to each other in Tamil or other local languages —were making of what the speakers were advocating. Did they consider them Anglophiles or just windbags, knowing nothing about teaching and, instead, scare–mongering?

Two Tests too few

Kashmir might be in flames, millions may be homeless, and preparations for the biggest sports event India has hosted, the Commonwealth Games, may be producing a scandal a day, but to the die-hard Indian cricket fan what matters most is getting the detail right.

And, so, this paper and my lines of communication have been deluged with messages telling me how wrong I was last week about V.V. Kumar not being selected to play a Test. He did play two Tests. Mea culpa; both my memory and the index of an Indian cricketing Bible — which did not list him as a Test player — let me down.

To set the record straight, it must be stated that Kumar's first Test appearance was against Pakistan in New Delhi in 1960-61 when he took five wickets in the first innings and two in the second, a fine beginning. He next turned out again Ted Dexter-led England in Bombay in 1961-62 when England piled up 500 for 8. That, rather unfairly, spelt the end of a Test career for one of the highest wicket-takers in first class cricket in India — 417 — and who was considered by many a critic as a worthy successor to Subhash Gupte.

That said, I must also record that I was rather surprised that a couple of readers who set me straight also felt that in saying “many feel he was unlucky to miss a Test cap” I was being unkind towards him.

This column has made mistakes in the past — and has been only too glad to correct itself whenever the postman knocked. But, it has never been unkind about anyone; it just maybe that those couple of readers and your columnist don't speak the same language or understand that quote the same way. In fact, given Kumar's first class cricket record, his being selected for just two Tests was two Tests too few, but none of those pointing out the error of my ways expressed that view. Be that as it may, I must apologise for getting Kumar's record wrong.