Writing and Speaking

For five years, I gave the shortlisted candidates for our M.Tech (IT) entrance a short second test. In one of the questions, I would ask them to write something in English about their family, then rewrite the same thing in their mother-tongue or in any other Indian language they knew. Invariably, people who wrote bad English also wrote bad Hindi, bad Marathi, bad Telugu, etc. My belief, therefore, is that poor writing is a result of lack of mental discipline to write properly. Also, it is language-independent. If you’re good in one language, it means you’ve disciplined your mind to write well and carefully. Then you usually imbibe that discipline when writing in another language. Inadequate preparation on the topic may be one aspect, but invariably, lack of discipline and training in writing is the problem.

Prof. Deepak Pathak
CSE, IIT Bombay
Raintree, Jan-Feb 2011

 

‘How bad am I with writing!’, it first occurred to me when I was writing my under-graduate thesis. The work was clearly embed in my mind but I found it very difficult to put it on paper. This bad-writing I am concerned here is not about spelling and grammar mistakes  – this blog has an unhealthy number of them – but rather how I wove my thoughts together. Same situation popped itself up once again when I sat down to write my master’s thesis. After spending 3 years (and counting) as teaching assistant and reading many reports and writing few, I can say with some confidence that I am not alone who lacks the ability of writing well structured and elegant prose.

Indians seem to be at much more ease with spoken rather than written word. They speak eloquently and to a great length with evident pleasure but their writing is often hasty and careless. There are vast number of Indians who lack the ability to put written words altogether. But there are many others who have the capacity; and my purpose is to comment on how they use and misuse it. There are of course first-rate poets, writers, columnists but my intention is not to comment on individual talent.

Indians excel at the spoken words. After all we hold the record of longest speech in UN assembly. Anyone who belongs to that large and very ill-defined category called ‘public intellectual’ can speak at any length and on any subject. One only has to switch the television on and tune into some panel-discussion. The curious fact about them is that the speakers hardly refer to any note or reference and often talk without much application of mind. Also they do not like being interrupted or corrected while they are talking. I am not sure whether they feel the same way should anyone correct their writing.

Here, I wish to share an experience of Andre Beteille when he gave lectures at two premier universities each of which was chaired by vice-chancellor of university concerned. The first lecture was at University of Cambridge where the VC was a distinguished medical scientist. He introduced him briefly and, after he finished his lecture, also thanked him briefly. As they were walking out, he told Beteille that he had greatly enjoyed his lecture. When Beteille remonstrated that he was merely being polite, he quietly took out the notes which he took during lectures which ran into three pages: he had come to the lecture to listen rather than to speak.  At other lecture in the Indian university, the vice-chancellor arrived thirty-five minutes late while the speaker and audience waited. Having arrived late, he embarked on a lengthy and eloquent speech on the challenges facing the country and the need for teachers and students to rise up to them. By the time he sat down and Beteille began his lectures on whose preparation he had spent more than a month, it became evident that audience had lost interest in it. As to taking notes, no self-respecting vice-chancellor [professor] in India takes notes at a lecture given by a mere professor [student].

Back in my village where literacy level is well below national average, educated people are called ‘padhe likhe log’ (people who can read and write). For them, the ability of speaking is not impressive since all of them can speak at any length. For villagers, and perhaps to many others as well, speaking counts for little unless it is in English. Indeed, there is a peculiar attitude towards English language, especially among urban middle class. The command over English language, which is very unevenly distributed among them, is not only a very important intellectual asset but also a yardstick to measure ones social status. An Indian takes perverse pleasure in correcting and improving others English by which she establishes not only intellectual but also social superiority over others.

Perhaps lack of reading also hinder growth of writing skills. It is also interesting to note that libraries in India are not only hard to find; they are also least used on per capita basis. Unlike many Western countries, buying and reading books for entertainment and pleasure is not in our culture. Indians prefer to buy a book only if it serves some specific purpose and has a long shelf life. I am of the view that one can not go very far in developing ideas without reading good books or conversing with thoughtful people. It is much easier to access former than the later.

Many believes that this lack of writing ‘good’ prose is due to use of foreign language. If there is problem with language than why they use it; or chose to write at such immoderate length when the language is forced onto them? It is only a part of the picture as the experience of Prof. Pathak shows. Perhaps the most important reason is the lack of care and patience which is hard to notice while one is speaking.  This same lack of measure and discipline shows itself vividly in written discourse which can easily be found in our judicial and in academic prose. I have read in many news stories that our Supreme Court judgements run into thousand of pages. Mr. Nani Palkhiwala had once observed that this clearly shows the Indian preoccupation with eternity and infinity.

By their very nature, writing and reading are solitary activities. Speaking, on the other hand, is a way of being gregarious. The Indian is gregarious by nature. He finds is very hard to be alone unless he a sanyasi or a poet. From childhood he grows in the company of others: relatives of uncountable denominations. He is never allowed to be himself and made to believe that being himself is a way of being selfish and arrogant. And as he grows in status in society, so does his visitors in number and variety.

I always find myself perplexed noticing the time Indian academician are able to spent in others company. One often wonders from where they get the time to think and work on them? What quality their research would be, if any? I do not have any experience of academic life in West but it is hard not to notice the difference – by looking at the amount of time they put in writing. It rarely happens that an Indian professor prepares notes to make them available on his home page or to circulate in the classroom. In West, it seems to be a primary activity of a Professor’s academic life. Their home pages are filled with notes, informations, and tutorials even though similar material is available outside. That much of writing is not possible without spending a significant time is solitude. It is not to say that academicians in the West do not spent time in committees and meetings but they must be aware of the time they need to be by themselves. Successful Indian academics like to complain endlessly of the time they have to spend on committee and meetings, but their complains need not taken seriously. They cherish nothing more than being surrounded by people before whom they can hold forth; what they cannot bear is being themselves.

The ability of writing good prose does not emanate entirely from intelligence or from facility with the language. Writing is a solitary art which requires patience and care and a certain kind of emotional investment. If a person spent so much in being gregarious, she can not be put a concentrated effort in writing. Of course, there are masters of both spoken and written words. These individuals are outstanding and therefore are not confined by the circumstances but able to rise above them.

In engineering colleges, of which I have first hand experience, this lack of patience and care is evident in code or design students submit for their assignments. These erroneous designs and buggy codes, and their carelessly written reports which says little on how the design is build or code is written are of little worth. But they are accepted and graded. What is troubling that even the most technically sound student writes hastily and with little care for reader. Often her writing does not match her technical abilities. Contrasting this with my experience on many on-line discussion forum located in west; I was amazed to read carefully written and extremely lucid answers provided by academicians to questions posed. On these on-line communities, they are very strict about style of writings and community standards, and they protect them jealously. It would not strain one’s credulity to believe that there is some difference in general orientation between cultures towards this very important academic activity as Prof. Andre Beteille puts it, ‘some culture tolerate careless, vacuous and disjointed writing while other discourage it.’

Related Article :

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/speak.html


Dilawar

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Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

2 thoughts on “Writing and Speaking”

  1. Very nice post :-) I must say your own writing style, as can be seen in this blog, has changed substantively over the course of time. I like your latest posts much more than the previous ones.

  2. Hey Dilawar ! I am completely in agreement with your thoughts. I find many of my friends in IIT who have the gift of the gab. But, Hardly anyone writes ! I'm a second year UG student in IIT-B and I maintain a blog, just like you. Surprisingly, I find hardly few takers for blogs or even other medium of writing.

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