It was the spring of 2006 and I was headed to China on my first work assignment outside Indian shores.
The excitement of travelling to a foreign country for the first time, the prospect of meeting and living among a different race of people and the eager anticipation of what lay ahead kept my spirits higher than ever before. But soon enough all my enthusiasm came crashing down, faster than the Boeing 767 jet in which I landed in the country. As I sat down at a restaurant in the Shanghai airport, the waitress (for the record - stunningly beautiful) brought me a menu card consisting of nothing but indecipherable little boxes and lines stroked all over, vaguely reminiscent of the outer cover of the "Dragon Noodles" packet I used to lovingly buy when I was back home. But this menu card didn’t evoke any of that fond nostalgia. Rather, it brought forth a gut wrenching feeling of isolation and vulnerability.
The waitress promptly returned to take my order and it is at that point that I realized for the first time how helpless I would be for the next few months. Try as I might, I was unable to communicate my need for a warm meal to her. Neither was she able to make me understand her lack of incentive in comprehending what was not an official language of the most populous nation in the world. Well, she had a point and I had to sheepishly settle for a glass of diet coke by pointing out to the logo of one of the most popular products of western commercialization that had permeated even through the Iron curtain. In the days that followed, I slowly recovered from the trauma of my high voltage cultural shock as I began rediscovering my abilities in miming and marveling at the technological wonder that Google translator had turned out to be.
When I look back at those days, I take comfort in noting that I am not the only one to have faced the trauma of a language radically different to what one is used to. I also reflect that one can be faced with this problem much closer to home than I had initially imagined. My work required me to frequent Bengaluru (I prefer Bangalore) which is in a neighboring state and just a few hours’ drive from my home. What I realized was that, a task as simple as taking the public transport to work became impossible simply because all signboards of the KSRTC public buses were written in the Kannada script. Merely looking at the squiggles and twirls of the bus-stop names was enough to send me dizzying into the trap of auto-rickshaw drivers ripping off what was easily more than half my daily allowance. It is not that the public transport system was in anyway inadequate or incapable of meeting basic needs, but my perception was tainted by the problem of not being user-friendly to ones not able to read the language. It is needless to say what horrors a foreign tourist would experience even in a modern and cosmopolitan city of India. Incredible India! Indeed.
Not restricted to public transport, other government offices and some private establishments also stick to their native script alone in all their communication and documentation and it becomes extremely difficult for non-natives to engage in basic transactions even if they do have the ability to speak the language haltingly. Think about the diversity and complexity of the country and one can figure how chaotic it would be for Indians to carry out unrestricted trade and social activities across the length and breadth of their own country. There are over 20 official languages spoken across states and union territories and among these, the written forms of these languages are vastly different from each other except for a few commonalities. Imagine the gargantuan task faced by a traveler trying to freely transact with people even from a neighboring state, or to simply move around the country without being flummoxed by sign boards.
The idea of multi-lingual communities living together under a common nationality is not unheard of but the sheer scale of such differences is rather unique to India and is unprecedented in any other society. A tri-lingual country such as Switzerland has managed the problem of multiple languages very well by having all signboards and public information displayed in all three languages with the dominant font designated to the chief language of the particular region. It is however much simpler, given all three languages share a common script. Compare this to the Indian scenario where you would end up having meter long sign boards to simply point out in 20 different languages and scripts where one can (or more importantly in case of India where one should not) relieve themselves. The cost that the government can incur to install digital LED signboards in railway stations that are capable of displaying multiple scripts will stop the project before initiation.
The solution of course does not lie in forcing a common language on the people, because language has its origin from the culture of a community and the two are closely interrelated. There are certain aspects of a culture that would be lost if translated into another language, thereby undermining India's pride of being tolerant and standing united in the face of diversity, allowing all cultures to flourish simultaneously. Profanity, among other more important features, can be best expressed only in one's own native language in order to have the best results. Thus the problem should be looked at more from a practical angle. Of being able to overcome the challenges posed by the differences in scripts, while still allowing languages to retain their individuality. Such a solution would primarily rely on identifying the common script connecting all these languages so that their vocabulary can be maintained unaltered.
According to K.Kasturi, an octogenarian and retired station director of the All India Radio, such a solution does exist.
In his long tenure with the All India Radio, he had worked in different locations across India. In his interactions with people from different states he has identified this problem of having so many different scripts to deal with even for simple inter-office communication and the difficulties that this poses. He suggests that when a student learns a language, the first step is usually to learn and memorize the written script. A large portion of the student's effort is directed towards this, often acting as a deterrent to people wanting to learn other languages for basic communication such as finding one's way around or buying groceries in the market. Not many have the time or patience to invest in learning an entirely new language from scratch just to satisfy a short term goal of visiting the region for carrying out business or leisure activity.
The answer, according to Kasturi, lies in the fact that among all the Indian languages there are some basic phonetics that are common and only a few that are unique to a particular language. He has scientifically studied these language sounds and has identified 58 basic phonetics, which when put together as a script, can seamlessly form the unifying platform that can be the basis for easily learning and communicating in any Indian language with only a little effort. He has based this scripting system on the widely used Latin alphabet with a very few additions for some phonetics that are unique to certain Indian languages. This ensures that even a foreigner can easily, with the help of a Latin-script based dictionary, be able to read signs and find his or her way around in this culturally diverse country that has so much to offer to the curious traveler or the enterprising businessman.
With the advent of the internet, the world has become more closely connected and information on practically anything is available at the click of a button. The idea of a common Latin script based alphabet for Indian languages opens up a wide array of possibilities. We can think of having much of traditional Indian knowledge freely available on the Internet, with minimum effort in customizing hardware or software for Indian scripts. This would be a boon to efforts of unrestricted commercial, cultural and social exchanges across the people of India and the rest of the world.
In his website Kasturi describes the work he has done in deriving this common script in detail and even provides a model lesson for using the script with one of the Indian languages as example. Readers can also download the font face for free which is fully compatible with Unicode character sets and the standard US keyboard. This means that if the common script is universally adopted, it is already computer friendly and that no additional effort or cost is required for customizing existing infrastructure.
He has also published a handy-guide typically meant for an English savvy tourist to use this unified script to easily read and make basic conversations in any of the major Indian languages.
This handy ebook guide can be purchased at the following online book store - http://www.abook2read.com/authors/k-kasturi/roman-lipi-guide-book-and-conversation-in-indian-languages.html.
He hopes to popularize the adoption of the common written script and believes that when his idea gets widely adopted and gains acceptance among Indians as well as those abroad, it will bring about much benefit to the country in several ways. He can be contacted at his email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
I definitely look forward to a day when one can travel to any part of the country and find his or her way around with ease not worrying about having trouble interacting with people of different states; when reading the menu at a restaurant would be as simple as keying into a palm-sized English keyboard based translator that will tell you exactly what is in store for you. Kasturi’s methodology for unifying Indian languages under a common script definitely seems to make these highly plausible and signals a new chapter in emerging India. One that is more united than ever before in spite of its diversities.
Chiranthan is a talented photographer who has contributed his work to Scroll in earlier issues. He supposedly lives in Zurich, but if one looks away for a moment, he can be lost in any part of the Schengen zone.