MURALI N. KRISHNASWAMY
An all-out war against bad English offering antidotes to archaic 'Indlish'
Martin Cutts is a familiar name here ... now Research Director, Plain English Commission, U.K., he had been in India four times in the 1990s to give lectures and conduct workshops for the British Council and make a passionate appeal about the need for clarity in business and official writing. Allahabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Coimbatore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Madurai have been some of his destinations, but, as he puts it, where he has conquered not. The reason, he says, is that there has been no vigorous "flowering of plain language in Indian education, journalism or business." Cutts' mission has been to exhort that "English should be clear, concise and fluent", and "also paint a picture" if possible.This is where the next point takes off. To Cutts, Indian English suffers from "flatulent orotundity." Partly a legacy of the Raj and the East India Company, it is a form of high-flown language that tries to impress, but instead obscures, and which contaminates the most visible forms of writing in India.It is this, the foundation of Cutts' candid foreword, which lays the groundwork of the book under review. Sanyal, described as "hot-headed, choleric and impatient", is another man with a similar mission ... devoting himself to "clear English", which encourages people to use good contemporary English instead of Raj-day commercialese.What (as Cutts says) makes Sanyal "suitable to write this book" is his vast experience: thirty years with The Statesman, Dean at the Asian College of Journalism, Bangalore (in 1997) and author of The Statesman Style Book (apparently the only style book among India's 415 English-language news dailies and weeklies).
The Raj legacy
The result is that Indlish is a book that is engaging, constructive and angry (caustic and stinging) as it laments the evils that might devour English as a really expressive medium for journalistic and business writing in India.The Raj is Sanyal's main target. In part I, chapter I, the author highlights the write-as-you speak/speak-as you-write debate. The mantra-culture and India's East India Company legacy together fetter the English we write, he says. Thus we remain tied to Victorian English, a handicap in today's world that wants writers to be "direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid." In a short paragraph, he sums it up as: "Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance [the Latin-derived languages Italian, French and Spanish]." Sanyal then moves on to substance, "the familiar abuses" committed by (senior) journalists. Here we have an analysis of "foggy writing, the string of parenthetic clauses, and Johnsonese (adjective-laden Latinate nouns and independent clauses separated by semi-colons and commas), especially found in the drivel that pass for profundity and as editorials." Sanyal is unforgiving, accusing editorials in India's English-language papers of being the breeding ground for abstractitis, circumlocution, and their writers of following obsolete models of "fusty Victorian English." And to back each charge are elaborate excerpts and examples from the country's leading dailies.
The chapters that follow then delve deeper into the subcutaneous of writing - discussing the many common errors, tautology and grammatical pitfalls that trap the reporting and the editorial desks. Also enriching are the chapters on usage and "Indlish" style, or the characteristics of Indian English and its regional peculiarities ("Mother tongue and the Other tongue") as in Punjlish, Tamlish, Benglish, Kannadlish and Hindlish. The book is not a dull account of what constitutes bad writing. What makes the author's elaborate analysis, in the 63 short chapters, interesting are the numerous examples (news reports, editorials and features) he quotes from the Indian media - in English and the local languages. Many chapters also give exhaustive examples of what is wrong, an analysis and then how they could have been, or should have been written. Chapter 62, in particular, highlights how the regional language publications have begun bold experiments in the way prose is written. A factor that lifts the content even more is the cartoons by Sarbajit Sen.Jyoti Sanyal ends with some basic advice. The (newspaper) reader and the television viewer have suffered enough. They deserve a better dialogue.