Tag Archives: English

On the Presidential Debate: “Candron Enkolo!”

Unrestricted international travel – the one thing that has been denied to millions across the world – has been mine, these past few months, through the act of reading for hours in an uninterrupted fashion. I read the political news of the day and then jump backward in time to read Tamil writings from the 5th-8th centuries. My mind reads modern English words, phrases, and paragraphs at lightning speed as I devour political news, and then slows down as I read and sound out unfamiliar words and verse in classical Tamil.

The psychic reading worlds that I move in could not be more different. And yet, the two worlds collided in a remarkable fashion in my head at the conclusion of the first Presidential debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. At the very end of the debate when asked about voting these were a snapshot of the responses. 

Trump ranted, “As far as the ballot is concerned it is a disaster…they are sending millions of ballots all across the country. There is fraud, they found them in creeks, they found some with the name Trump in a waste paper basket, they are being sent all over the place…this is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen..there are many states all run by Democrats….one percent of ballots cast in 2016 were invalidated. We don’t like ‘em we don’t like ‘em and they throw them out.” 

To this charge on mail-in voting, Joe Biden declared, “There is no fraud.”

I couldn’t believe that a sitting President would in such a cavalier manner dismiss the act of voting. Was he not responsible to ensure that there was indeed no fraud? The next day, the political pundits went after who won and who lost the debate. Trump was a bully, some said. Biden missed points when he could have made a stinging comeback others said. Ping-pong. You hit – I hit back. I was not interested in any of that. 

When I heard that exchange, my mind careened backward all the way to the words of the fictional character Kannagi in the Tamil epic Silappadikaaram.

Candron enkolo? Candron enkolo?”(Wise men, where are you?) she screams in agony on discovering her husband Kovalan is killed by the king’s men.

The Silppadikaram is considered one of the five great Tamil epics written by a Jain Prince Ilando Adigal.  In the story, Kannagi and Kovalan are married with the blessing of the elders in their families. Their young lives are upended rudely when Kovalan falls in love with Madhavi, a courtesan dancer and he soon leaves Kannagi. After spending years with Madhavi, Kovalan realizes the folly of his ways and returns to his dutiful wife Kannagi.

They soon leave the kingdom ruled by the Cholas and travel to the land ruled by the Pandyas and enter its largest city Madurai. Here, Kovalan decides to sell his wife’s silambu (anklet) to make a fresh start in life and takes it to a jeweler in the marketplace. The cunning jeweler who also happens to be the royal jeweler sees the similarities between the Queen’s anklet and that of Kannagi’s. The jeweler had stolen the queen’s anklet and when Kovalan entered his workshop, he saw the perfect opportunity to frame the unsuspecting Kovalan for the theft. The jeweler hurries to the king and accuses Kovalan of theft. Dragged by the king’s men into court, Kovalan’s head is severed with one stroke and when Kannagi finds her husband dead, she screams in anger – “Candron enkolo?” (Wise men, where are you?)

The morning following the debate I wish that there had been 535 messages on social media and in every publication across the country. The 435 members in the House and 100 senators should have signed one statement which had just one sentence. “From now till election day, I will personally work to make sure that your vote is counted, regardless of whether it is a mailed-in ballot or if it is a ballot cast in person.” 

Without the protection that my vote and every other vote will be counted, how can we even say that we live in a democracy? Forget the fact that we want a Republican or a Democrat based on our political beliefs. Where are the checks and balances in action that we read about in civics textbooks? Each one of the 535 representatives has been accorded the power they enjoy because of thousands of votes that have been cast in their favor. I should be able to take the fact that my vote will be counted for granted in a mature Western democracy. 

When a sitting President talks of his own administration and says that they are sending millions of ballots all across the country and that there is massive fraud, where is the massive counter-response from legislators? To a President who relishes in the spectacle of political theater, can I not expect every legislator to stand in dramatic fashion as one to say, “Your vote will be counted. I will work to ensure that basic right for all the people I represent in my district, in my state.”

Candron enkolo?” –  Wise men, where are you? Kannagi howled within the fictional plot. Of course, these words were spoken at a time when only men could be counted amongst the king’s advisors and as those who upheld justice. 

Today, I ask – Candron enkolo? – Wise men and women of both parties, where are you? 


Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a former editor of India Currents magazine. 

Elder Love: Translated From Gujarati to English

Bela Desai published seven translated short stories by a famous late Gujarati writer, Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai; this is the first time his stories have been translated into English. Here is an abridged excerpt from the book Selected Short Stories by Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai:

Elder Love

Prabhalakshmi regarded her family lovingly, as her son and daughter-in-law propped her up in bed with care. They were all there—her sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. The doctor had advised them not to gather in her room, but Indian families often ignore such advice. To her joy, the grandchildren came in constantly, asking how she felt and playing quietly until an adult made them leave. Her gaze landed on her husband Pramodrai, sitting quietly in his armchair. Prabhalakshmi sighed.

An observant person would have noticed Pramodrai’s frequent glances at his wife. If someone came or left the room, a son gave her medicine, or a daughter-in-law offered her fruit—he took the opportunity to steal a look at her. But everyone’s attention was on Prabhalakshmi and his looks went mostly unnoticed, except by the young daughter-in-law Veena, who tried to hide her smile at the surreptitious glances.

Hearing Prabhalakshmi sigh, Pramodrai looked up; she turned to Veena, who was trying to conceal her amusement, and requested,

“Please make him a paan, my dear.”

“Ji—right away,” replied Veena, making a mental note to relate the old couple’s display of affection to her sisters-in-law later.

  One of Prabhalakshmi’s two sons came over to make sure she was comfortable, and Pramodrai walked over too.

“Relax,” Prabhalakshmi told him. “The children are taking good care of me.”

Pramodrai nodded, returning to his armchair. Soon, someone came to visit Prabhalakshmi and he thought it was a good time to take a break.

“Maybe I’ll go take a short walk,” he stated.

“Yes—no need to sit here all day,” his wife replied.

“I will leave, then?” Pramodrai confirmed.

“Yes,” replied Prabhalakshmi.

She glanced at Veena, and they smiled at each other.

******

In Pramodrai’s absence, Prabhalakshmi asked the family to come to her.

“What is it, Ba?” they asked, concerned.

“I want to tell you something.”

“Yes. Anything,” a son responded.

“I will not be around for long…”

“Arré!” interrupted another son. “The doctor said you will be sitting up by yourself soon!”

“No—it doesn’t matter.”

They tried to protest; she interrupted them,

  “You are wise children who don’t need my advice but—please pay attention to his needs. He will not ask for anything…”

Prabhalakshmi was too exhausted to go on.

At that moment, Pramodrai entered the room; seeing everyone standing by the bed, he approached hurriedly.

“What happened?”

“Don’t worry, nothing happened,” replied Prabhalakshmi, closing her eyes.

Pramodrai stood quietly for some time. Suddenly, he reached for his wife’s wrist. Prabhalakshmi slowly opened her eyes—with effort. Her fingers touched Pramodrai’s—she smiled faintly. And the open eyes, the fingers touching his, her loving smile, became still.

“It has happened,” Pramodrai said, as he gently let go of her hand.

Immediately, the house erupted in the chaos that follows a sudden calamity. Children were taken out of the house by well-meaning neighbors. The doctor was hastily summoned. He checked Prabhalakshmi’s pulse.

“There is nothing left,” he solemnly proclaimed.

The women huddled, crying softly. Pramodrai, acutely aware of his responsibilities, tried consoling them. Family and friends started pouring in. Eventually, the beloved entity was taken on her final journey to be ceremoniously dissolved into ashes by her heartbroken family.

Pramodrai did not shed a tear—he continued offering support to his family, whose sense of loss was deep; no one could offer them solace except the elderly Pramodrai.

“Do not cry,” he told his daughter-in-law. “You did so much for her. She is surely at peace.”

And the wives would cover their eyes and weep harder.

To his daughters, he said, “See, the most important thing for us is knowing that our children are happy. What more can a parent want?”

But the daughters were not soothed.

He spoke privately with the son who was unable to eat, “She was very happy to see you doing so well. Don’t be sad—come, eat with me.”

Friends and extended family offered their condolences, “How terrible to lose a loved one! But it must be a big consolation that she lived a happy, full life!”

That was how Pramodrai himself consoled his family, but it irked him when others implied that, because of advanced age, her death was somehow justified.

One elderly relative offered, “Who can escape fate? Thankfully, you are amidst the warmth of your ample family.”

  Pramodarai nodded politely, however, he felt as if the essence of his life had vanished, leaving behind a dark, ubiquitous void.

******

Several days had passed since Prabhalakshmi’s death. From his armchair, Pramodrai looked at the empty space where her bed used to be, his mind wandering to a time when they were still poor. He closed his eyes and envisioned a young Prabhalakshmi. He saw himself, lying in bed—his head on a pillow—eyes closed.

“What is wrong?” she enquired.

“It’s nothing,” he replied.

“There’s something on your mind.”

“Nothing important.”

“Then swear on my life that nothing is wrong!” Prabhalakshmi persisted.

“You are so stubborn!” he expostulated but continued. “I need some money, urgently. Tried a couple of sources but no luck.”

“How much?”

“Two thousand rupees.”

“There’s a thousand left from my trousseau money. We can get another thousand selling some jewelry,” reasoned Prabhalakshmi.

Pramodrai was reluctant, but eventually accepted her solution, which proved to be prophetic as, in time, they dug out of their financial groove and began to live comfortably.

He wondered what would have happened had the young Prabhalakshmi been unwilling to part with her possessions.

“Veena!” Pramodrai exclaimed suddenly.

“Ji,” responded Veena, hurriedly entering the room.

Immediately, Pramodrai realized his mistake: he had wanted to remind Veena that it was time for Prabhalakshmi’s medicine. He tried to cover it up.

“I don’t see anyone—where is everyone?”

“Everyone is here, Bapuji. Shall I get them?”

“No, no—maybe I’ll step out.”

Ji,” Veena replied, concerned. “Should I ask someone to accompany you?”

Pramodrai shook his head—No.

Outside, the flowers were blooming, but Pramodrai did not notice them; instead, he found solace in the drooping branches of the banyan tree that cast an elaborate shadow on the ground, like the protective arms of a mother.

“Are trees closer to Prabhalakshmi than me now?” he wondered. He sat on the bench underneath the banyan.

“My family takes good care of me but the one whose constant love supported me is gone.”

The leaves of the tree swayed in the gentle wind; the branches creaked.

“She often fanned me with that old brown fan, offering a cool breeze,” he reminisced.

As the sky turned red and gold in the twilight, Pramodrai slowly rose from the bench.

“My sun has set too,” he reflected, like a desolate man pining for his love—without the swagger of youth. His beloved partner was gone but he knew that displaying his grief would be ungainly—at his age.

He went inside, settling into his armchair again. The oil lamps were lit, reminding him of the time when Prabhalakshmi would light them.

“Where are Malini and Veena?” Pramodrai asked after his daughters-in-law.

“They are feeding the children,” replied someone.

He heard crying, and asked, “Who is that?”

“Oh, that’s Usha,” replied someone else.

“Who is making her cry?”

“Who can make that stubborn girl cry?” a daughter responded.

“Give her what she wants. Who but a child will be stubborn?” he sided with his granddaughter.

The brothers and sisters exchanged looks. Several minutes passed, but the sound of crying from the kitchen did not stop.

“Why is she still crying?” Pramodrai asked. “Bring her here.”

“Don’t worry, Bapuji. she will go to sleep soon.”

“A child should not go to sleep crying. Please—bring her to me,” he insisted.

Reluctantly, one of the daughters went to the kitchen. She cajoled Usha to stop crying—to no avail. Soon, Pramodrai sent his other daughter and, finally, they managed to bring the child over.

Pramodrai sat her on his lap and asked gently, “What is the matter, Beta?”

“Nothing,” she managed to answer, still sobbing.

“Then why are you crying?”

Usha stopped crying long enough to respond, “I want Ma.”

Pramodrai was unsure of what to say to the child whose daily ritual had included her beloved grandmother.

“Beta, Ma has gone to the house of God.”

“Why did she go without me?” Usha cried harder.

Pramodrai felt a tug in his heart. Stroking her head gently, he asked, “Shall I feed you, Dikri?”

“No, I want Ma,” replied the child.

“Ma cannot come back, Dikri!” the grandfather stated.

“Then why did she leave without me?!” Usha objected, letting out an extended wail.

Pramodrai’s restrained grief finally defied the threshold of constraint.

Hugging the child, he said in a quivering voice, “Everyone could go on without her—you could not, Dikri!”

And the room was filled with tears.

Bela Desai, Ph.D., has been working in biotechnology in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. Besides science, she enjoys reading and traveling to different places around the globe. She loves to dabble in singing and writing as well.

The Link in the Linguistic Chain

Language is fluid, and anyone who has successfully made it to adulthood has experienced slang growing into accepted usage and accepted usage shifting as new verbal practices infiltrate conversation and the written word. Such is the conundrum India has encountered since the British East India Company carried out the will of its crown. In her engaging, entertaining, and educational book, An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local, Kalpana Mohan cleverly mixes pieces of India’s history with an examination into how England introduced its language as a weapon, how English morphed into a tool for advancement and became the link between languages, and how what once was meant to separate eventually resulted in a near-unifying, powerful “Indian English.”

As much a joyful travel narrative as an informal treatise into language, Mohan crisscrosses India, speaking with myriad fascinating individuals for whom language is important apart from casual conversation. Her sources include a now-retired BBC journalist born in India to English parents; an outspoken filmmaker; a young activist poet; a South Indian princess whose family has spoken English for two centuries; and school principals who see the advantages a command of the English language offers to students seeking careers. Those with whom she seeks audience are young and old, student and sage, knighted and common man, all hopeful and wary about the future of English language influence in India.

With leading voices in English literature, philosophy, science, and the arts available to her, Mohan discusses a variety of topics with enthusiasm and an open mind: education in English as an expected equalizer; oddities of English vs. Indian language syntax; and words absorbed into English while English invaded Indian languages. She notes that matrimonials have their own coded brand of English. Indian English utilizes co-opted, remade-to-fit words that amplify understanding. The debate involving English vs. American English goes hand in hand with “Hinglish” in advertising to speak to younger consumers. In all these corridors of investigation, Mohan’s desire to learn or confirm is omnipresent and rewarding.

Mohan, who fell in love with English as a means of expression when she was young, conducted her unscientific-but-broadminded research on several levels, covering as much ground as possible for her 218-page volume. Across the cultural strata, she studied linguistic scholars; reflected on her own personal lifetime of reading; and participated in the conversations mentioned above. Additionally, as support for her traditional research, Mohan includes 139 source notes.

While Mohan’s voice is pleasant to read as she condenses histories, backstories, and information, her writing shines most resplendently when she shares her epiphanies about English in India—for what is more exciting than discoveries made while exploring?—and when sharing stories containing the use of English encountered while spending time with people dear to her heart: her family’s chauffeur Vinayagam and housekeeper Ganga.

Linguist David Crystal believes that the give and take of English and Indian languages, Mohan writes, “was possible only because of the inherent flexibility of the English language to absorb the colour of every language and culture it encountered.” In Kalpana Mohan’s accomplished hands, what could have devolved into a dry and lifeless dissertation was instead a lively, colorful, and oft-amusing adventure into something so many merely take for granted.


An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local by Kalpana Mohan. Aleph Book Company. 218 Pages.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 

Look at Culture, Not Language

When I learned that the Oscar International committee had disqualified a movie from Nigeria because it was predominantly in English, I was appalled. I’m an Indian immigrant who came to America in 1985 but I’ve been speaking English since I was a child. Sometimes, I have thoughts in my mother tongue, Tamil. However, more often than not, my thoughts are in English. This may be because I write only in English, since English remains one of India’s 23 official languages.

Thanks to the British empire, the English language is now the language with commercial heft. It’s as local as it is international. There are many versions of English. The Nigerian poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, who explored African ideas and folklore in the English language, articulated this perfectly with respect to the English he acquired: “Why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?”

For years, I’ve been asked how I speak English well given that I immigrated to the United States as an adult. Americans often don’t know about India’s history of colonization, or that English is also an official Indian language, or that my medium of education was, in fact, English. If I were to narrate India’s story of colonization, I’d have to begin in 1608 when the first Englishman landed in Surat on India’s north-western coast. I’d have to talk about how Indian laborers were forced to grow indigo—in place of food crops—so that Britain could sell the precious blue dye that Europe coveted. And of course, the English wanted to drink rum so they enslaved poor Indians to plant sugar cane around tropical islands. Oppressed by the Raj, we were forced to buy thick cotton that rolled out from English mills even when we were making our own fine muslin for a fraction of the cost. In time, Indians learned, also, to enunciate English vowels and consonants. They were hammered into those reporting to the Crown. Soon, the Englishmen made us cringe at our own mother tongues, telling us, in the voice of essayist and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Around the world, over centuries, colonizers wiped out countless languages, erasing the names of ancestors.

Here are just a few stories of conquests from the last many centuries. In the 1500s, the Portuguese landed in Brazil—1200 men on a fleet of 12 ships. They decimated most of the natives and harvested Brazilian wood for its red dye, ramming Portuguese words down the throats of those who survived the pillage. 1619, the imperial nations began looting African villages, separating children from parents, so they could build their new colonies in the Americas. In Australia, they silenced aborigines. 1950s in Kenya, if a student uttered a word of Gikuyu near his English school, he was caned or fined; sometimes he was made to wear a metal plate around the head with the words “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey”. In the Philippines, 500 years of Spanish and American rule has killed any appetite for Tagalog literature.

This is a plunder, of not just nations but also of memories, cultures and tongues. In Nigeria, too, as in India, the British force-fed their tongue. So the English language is as local to the Nigerian as Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba or any of 500 native tongues. But alas, the arbiters of acclaim in Hollywood now object to Nigerians using English as a conduit for art, not appreciating that in Nigeria, English now unifies them and allows them to communicate with one another.

According to the Oscar committee, the Nigerian entry did not fit their rubric because it was not foreign enough: Lionheart had only eleven minutes of non-English dialogue. Look at the irony of the life of the once-colonized. We were taught how to speak. Now when we speak the language well, we are told to not speak too much of it. Shouldn’t the Oscar committee be driven, instead, by the origin of the submission? For while our medium of expression may be eclectic given our histories, our roots are often ours alone. They color our tongues and narratives.

Kalpana Mohan is the author of ‘An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local’ and of ‘Daddykins: A Memoir Of My Father And I’. She lives in Saratoga, California.

Community Colleges: A Well-Kept Secret

Community colleges are the often-overlooked institutions of learning, that are hidden gems in one’s backyard.

In India, the system of community colleges is seen as an alternative system of education that can be used to acquire trade skills, but not as a conduit to institutions of higher learning.  In the United States, on the other hand, community colleges are seen as junior colleges giving a leg up to those that need one, in climbing into the four-year college system. If the student so desires, he or she could earn college credits at the local community college and then transfer to a four-year educational institution in the United States. By completing two years worth of credits at a community college the student then needs to spend only two years at a University school like UCLA to earn a Bachelors degree. 

The aim of both the Indian and American systems, however, is to empower the disadvantaged and the underprivileged through appropriate skills-development, leading to gainful employment.  

The booming popularity of community colleges could also be attributed to President Obama, who was hailed as the “Community College President”, for funding and supporting these educational institutions.  During his campaign, Obama spoke regularly of the importance of community colleges in keeping America economically and educationally competitive in the 21st century.

The Evergreen Valley College (E.V.C.), located on a sprawling 175 acres in the eastern foothills of San Jose, California, is just such an institution that prepares students to transfer to four-year college systems, such as those of the Universities of California and California State Universities.  It has transfer agreements with all 23 California State Universities, 6 of the Universities of California, and some private universities. Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges – a national accrediting body – the E.V.C. is the largest feeder community college to the San Jose State University.

Community colleges are especially attractive as stepping-stones to international students who need to improve key academic skills, including language skills, before obtaining admission to a Bachelor’s level program.  The credits earned at the community college help complete university education in a time- and cost-effective manner.

The Evergreen Valley College has a large number of international students from India.  Elizabeth Tyrrell, Director of the International Student Program, travels to India and meets high school students in order to explain the American community college system:  

“We have the 2 + 2 system.  At the end, students receive their Bachelor’s Degree from the 4-year institution (from which they graduate).  Almost all of E.V.C.’s international students transfer to accredited 4-year institutions.  94% of E.V.C.’s transfer-ready students do, in fact, transfer.  Students can apply and transfer beyond California and go to any university or college in the U.S.”

Evergreen Valley College is S.E.V.I.S. certified and approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to issue the I-20 Form, which is required to apply for a visa to study in the U.S.

Students from India do not need to take the S.A.T. or the T.O.E.F.L. exam, as long as their high school transcript is in English, and they come from an English medium high school.

The application process is more relaxed as well.  Students may apply for admission till as late as June 30, 2018 for the Fall semester that begins on 4 September, 2018, or apply between October 15 2018 and December 1, 2018, for the Winter session that starts on 28 January, 2019.

There is no question that the savings are significant when it comes to tuition. While the annual tuition at a Universityof California would cost approximately $41,000, a student would only pay $6748 at the Evergreen Valley College – a savings of nearly $35,000.  However, taking into account the cost of living – housing, transport, fun-money, books and supplies – students would be well-advised to budget for $21,500 for the year, per E.V.C.

In addition to the compelling financial savings, students also step into a learning environment akin to that of a University.  While at the beginning of each semester, students are responsible for signing up for classes, maintaining attendance, completing course work and submitting assignments, they have the added advantage of having Counselors on hand, to guide them in the choice of courses and help them meet the necessary pre-requisites for their Major.  

The average class size in community colleges is typically smaller.  While the student-teacher ratio at E.V.C. is only 28 – 45 students to 1 teacher, the class size at a U.C. can sometimes run to over 300 students.  Additionally, students in community colleges have Professors teaching the course themselves, while in large universities, the course may be taught by a Teaching Assistant.

The 2015 enrollment statistics published by the American Association of Community Colleges, reveal that 46%, of all the U.S. undergraduates, are community college students.  Of the 12 million students who go to community college in the U.S. every year, 2.1 million choose California community colleges.

Community colleges cater to the needs of the local job market and have professors who work closely with the students to groom them not only for the needs of the local area, but also equip them with skills that are transferrable beyond.  With the voracious appetite for new talent and the ever-changing skills needed in the Silicon Valley, community colleges provide an alluring and viable solution.

Says Michael Riordan, a tax accountant and teacher at a local Bay Area community college, of the merits of community colleges “This is a win-win situation.  Save your money for (the students’) Masters.”

For queries please contact: Elizabeth Tyrrell, Evergreen Valley College, 3095 Yerba Buena Road, San Jose, CA 95135 E-mail: International@evc.edu Phone: +1 (408) 270-6453

 

Ritu Marwah is the Features Editor at India Currents and is an avid student of educational systems.

 

 

 

Engaging Men & Boys!

Maitri (www.maitri.org ) invites all MEN and BOYS to write their thoughts or experiences on gender based violence / intimate partner violence / family violence and abuse for our community blog: Engaging Men & Boys! Your blurb will be published with your name and photo on the Maitri Bay Area Website, Facebook page and newsletter.

Help in raising awareness! Domestic Violence is real and by working together we can prevent it! Share your voice to challenge the cultural norms and attitudes that support gender violence, domestic violence, victim blaming and prevent help seeking!

Guidelines for submission:

• All men and boys (over 16 years of age) can participate.
• Send your blurb with your name, a short (3-4 lines max) introduction and a profile photo.
• Word count: Max: 800 words. Language: English.
• Maitri will have final editing and publishing rights.
• Send your write up to outreach@maitri.org
• If you have questions, contact: outreach@maitri.org

The Parent Trap

The Parent Trap

HINDI MEDIUM: Director: Saket Chaudhary. Players: Irfan Khan, Saba Qamar, Amrita Singh, Deepak Dobriyal, Sanjay Suri, Neha Dhupia.  Music: Sachin-Jigar. Hindi and Eng. with Eng. sub-titles. Theatrical release (T Series)Irfan Khan and Saba Qamar

The right job. The right address. The right school. For some cognizanti, there are hallmarks of success. In the peculiar form of Indian affluenza, however, a couple of other idioms can also be tossed in. Borrowing from both Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee’s Bengali entry Ramdhanu (2014) and also Rajesh Nair’s Malayalam language comedy Salt Mango Tree (2015), Chaudhary and company spin the same theme to come up with a sharp satire of India’s education system and also the tools for equal opportunity embedded therein to level the field for more applicants.

For successful Delhi dress shop owner Raj Batra (Khan) and his wife Meeta (Qamar), the chase to enroll their four-year old daughter to the right school is in full gear. The daughter is academically gifted and, provided they land a coveted spot on the admission list, the couple can easily afford any of the top-rated schools. This should be a slam dunk. Not so fast. Why so, the Batras ask the admissions “coach” hired to chaperone them through the cut-throat jungle of competitive pre-school —yes, pre-school and not high school let alone college admissions. The teensy problem is that the Batras’ shop is located in Chandni Chowk, a famed, teeming old Delhi neighborhood which happens to fail the “criteria” the top-rated schools desire in Indian zip codes for where they recruit from.

The Batras find themselves in a social minefield trip-wired with landmines comprised of judgmental playground tart-mommies and show-off party attendees whose weapon of choice is accusatory, disapproving visual darts.  The Batras’ limited command of English is used against them as amounting to not only a necessity for communication in the modern world—which it truly is—but even more heavily as a moral flaw. For wannabe social ladder climbers, this is precisely the doctrine the British used against Indians when mandating English-first on sub-continent curriculums in the 19th century; that the Indians could not be considered “civilized” if they were to only use their indigenous languages. Thumbing its nose at that very notion, therefore, makes the brilliantly self-reliant title Hindi Medium, and not English Medium, sparkle even more.

The Batras’ greatest “shortcoming” is not where they live or how they dress but it is their limited command of English.  India has by far the largest number of half-English speakers in the world, thanks to its colonial legacy. Many Indians routinely weave in and out of English interspersed with a local language and knowing even a few words of English can rightfully be a source of pride for them. Maddening as that can sound, it is essentially a charm Indians use to open up their country to outsiders—indeed, no tourist with even a rudimentary grasp of English would ever get lost in India or be made to feel unwelcome in asking for directions.  That is the Indian spirit at its raw best—adapt or adopt, mingle and move on.

So how does a family cope? Can one move to a more desirable locale? That would have commuting pitfalls for sure.  Can one overcome the mean, iron-fisted headmistress (Singh) who controls admissions at one school?  The dimming chances of successfully assailing the awkward yet mandatory “interview” required of applicant parents could put chances of landing admission fair to middling at best and disastrous at worst. Can one find a way to apply through the interview-free quota system used to encourage economically disadvantaged students to apply? As funny as that could be, mind you, it could just spiral into an unintended yet perhaps telling experiment in downward social mobility.  For the Batras, the angry gods have laid out a meticulously perfect and cruel parent trap.

In superb lead, Khan is all fidgety with his English diction and provincial mannerism while Qamar, a Pakistani beauty making her Indian debut, nails the neurotic urbanite intent on outshining all her poser so-called girlfriends. Singh as the dowdy schoolmarm and especially Dobriyal as the factory worker that may impart for Raj a lesson in humility round out a fine cast.  With Sachin-Jigar’s decent score—check out Atif Aslam’s romantic “Noor” and Guru Randhawa and Arjun’s catchy “Suit Suit” —and tremendous plot pacing, Hindi Medium rekindles all the insightful, observant and fun reasons for going to the movies.

EQ: A
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.