A question of language

A question of language

Dialogues with my Daughters

Nitin Pai is an unapologetic proponent of dad jokes

One of the first choices children — at least those attending CBSE schools — have to make is one of language. Before Fairy entered Class V several years ago, the 10-year-old was confronted with the Three Language Formula. Given the choices at her school, this meant having to choose Sanskrit or French, along with English and Hindi.

Sanskrit or French? According to conventional wisdom, Sanskrit is a “scoring” subject and French is a “fashionable” one. Fairy’s choice would have been “none of the above” but since that was not an option, she had to choose one of the two. When she first asked me, I replied that it was really up to her and she could take whatever she wanted. However, even after she had given it some thought, she was still undecided.

So, I told her that I wish I had studied Sanskrit as it would allow me to directly connect with classical works in Indian philosophy and literature. I told her how, as a policy wonk, I had to rely on various translators’ interpretations of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, leaving me unable to grasp the nuances of what the author might have meant. I had to read my favourite Indian philosopher, the irrepressible 9th-century Charvaka Jayarasi Bhatta, through the dense translations of other scholars. His book Tattvopaplavasimha (The Lion that Destroys all Philosophies) is tantalising but accessible only through the mental digestive systems of other scholars. For that matter, I can appreciate Raghunatha Suri’s 17th-century text Bhojanakutuhalam, or Curiosity about Food, only second hand.

My counsel to her, therefore, was to take Sanskrit because it is the key to the immense wealth of Indian knowledge. French, in my view, is relatively useless, because you can do what I do and always point at what you want in the menu without having to pronounce the name of the dish. The poor child took my advice and suffered for years before being released from the clutches of the Three Language Formula.

When it was Airy’s turn to choose, she had the benefit of her elder sister’s experience. The decks were stacked against Sanskrit. My argument remained the same: Sanskrit was more valuable than French. Airy, the rebel star, was not convinced. She countered that what I found valuable might not be the same as what she did. That Sanskrit was only valuable to me because I was interested in statecraft, philosophy and curious foods. Since she might not have the same interests, the calculation would change. I conceded that she had a point.

But, I asked, since both my wife and I didn’t have any, who would help her with her French? I shouldn’t have, because the answer was a zinger. She said that it didn’t matter because neither parent knew Sanskrit either.

Was she choosing French merely because she wanted to be different from her sister and be the instinctive contrarian? French might be difficult to learn but it was exciting to learn a foreign language. Like Sanskrit, it too opened the doors to appreciating important works of statecraft, philosophy and literature. Touché! As they say in French. At that moment, more than Voltaire and Victor Hugo, I thought of the joy of reading Herge’s Tintin and Goscinny & Uderzo’s Asterix series in the original and changed my mind about French.

By the time it was Victor’s turn to choose, the die was cast. Airy, who is three years ahead of him, now helps him with his French.

(Nitin Pai  is an unapologetic proponent of dad jokes  @acorn)

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