Saturday, November 26, 2005

The News Isn't Good Enough

A fact of life: the English left our shores nearly 60 years ago but the urge to learn their language never left us. On the contrary, it is tightening its grip every passing year - today even the accent in which the English is spoken matters, thanks to call centre jobs.

Nothing wrong in that. In a country like India where the number of dialects spoken is about three times the numbers of days in a year, it doesn’t help at all to be proficient just in your mother tongue. Hindi might be the national language but learn Hindi alone and you could at best be a Hindi teacher in some government school.

You might have often observed in public places such as restaurants or train compartments: a mother speaking to or rebuking her child in English. The confused child keeps slipping into its mother tongue, but the mother would stick to the English she knows. There are two reasons for her doing so - one, to demonstrate to the people around that she isn't a village woman; two, she genuinely wants the child to learn the language.

There was a time when parents had another handy device to make their wards learn English -the newspaper. The Midnight's Children will tell you how their class teachers asked them to read Calcutta's Statesman, which had a British editor even after the British had left and which was then reputed for its impeccable use of the language.

Many Calcuttans still accord God-like status to Desmond Doig, the legendary editor of Junior Statesman, who once had a copy rewritten 27 times by the reporter before considering it fit for publication in JS. Many other Indian papers also had, at the time, larger than life editors who could teach an Englishman a thing or two about the use of the language. And they also had their Doigs - faceless, nameless news editors who spent evenings peering over type-written copies in their tiny, musty cubicles.

Several generations of journalists honed their skills under the tutelage of these Doigs, producing newspapers that could indeed be considered the last word as far as the usage of the English language went. The Express, in Chennai, had its Doig in C P Seshadri, more popularly known as Master - an old-world but apt nickname because he could make others in the newsroom feel like a schoolboy. That's how you were those days: a nervous kid who considered it safe to deposit his ego at the doormat before entering the newsroom.

Today you might trust a journalist to give you the news, and maybe the news behind the news. But you can no longer trust him, or her, to teach you English. That’s because these days, journalists aren’t made. They are manufactured, by the expensive journalism and creative-writing schools that have sprung up in every respectable city today.

These schools, instead of puncturing egos, only seem to be inflating them, so much so that there is no space for the real education that comes along with the job. So these days you have someone trying to write like Marquez, and someone else trying to ape Hemingway (and none of them are likely to have read the journalism of these giants, only literature). And those who don't read books write as if they are still writing for their college magazines, thinking that's their ‘style’.

Both varieties - they are usually people in their 20’s - are extremely touchy about their writing: they would often want to know why their stories were edited or cut. They don’t care to remember the advice Chekhov gave about story-writing: after you have written your story, always cut out the first and the last paragraphs, because often they are the most pompous.

But who is there today to puncture egos and show the way to the youngsters? You can only lead by example, and here is an example of bad English and the worst kind of journalistic writing - the introduction of the lead story in the recent issue of a leading national newspaper which takes itself very seriously. “Islamabad: Even as it became clear that the death toll in Saturday's earthquake in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) could be well over 30,000, Islamabad on Monday said it would receive relief goods from India.”

The introduction is so convoluted that it serves as a shining example of how not to write. It is the journalistic equivalent of illiteracy. But such writing is commonplace these days. Properly put, the sentence would read something like this: “Pakistan on Monday said it would receive relief goods from India to help victims of Saturday's earthquake that devastated parts of the country, killing more than 30,000 people.” Is it laziness that is allowing the murder of the language? Or is it merely incompetence?

Whatever the case, the news doesn’t seem to be good for either budding journalists or readers aspiring to enrich their language. It looks as if the guardians of the language are now sitting outside the newsrooms. I have three friends whom I turn to for advice or assurance whenever I am stuck with a piece of writing. They are all women in their twenties - one is a surgeon, another a teacher, and the third an architect.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

have been quiet didnt really have the mood to blog...but will soon. thanks.

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bishwanath

I stumbled into your blog, while I was searching for some bengali journalists based in chennai. Well, your blogs are interesting... kudos. I am Uma and I work for

Can you help me if possible tracking any bengali journalists for an upcoming bengali portal to work here in our chennai office?

Pls. contact me at

If you find the mesg interfering... kindly delete the same... sry, had no other idea to reach you...

9:42 AM  
Blogger Anubhuti said...

Why are you so anti english? Given you write in english, you went to a convent school and you owe your career to it?

10:07 AM  

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