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At the Feet of The Mother

A Dialogue with Prof. M. V. Nadkarni

An interview with Prof. Mangesh Nadkarni, taken by Prof. P.N. Paranjpe, Head of the Department of Journalism, Pune University. Originally published in the book “Explorations in Applied Linguistics: Prof. M.V. Nadkarni Felicitation Volume”, Pune, India, 1995.

PNP: To begin with, would you please tell us something about your childhood? Where and how did you spend it? Can you recollect any significant experiences which proved crucial in your later development?

MVN: I spent my childhood in a little village in coastal Karnataka — in a most picturesque part of the west coast where the Sahyadri mountains hug the Arabian sea. I had a very happy childhood. My village was just about waking up from the long slumber of feudalism and I grew up in that milieu of a society in transition. The reawakening of the national spirit to find a new impulse of self-expression, or what is sometimes called the Indian renaissance, had just begun to stir the village community in that remote corner of India. Literature, folk art, spiritual lore, music, and sports — these kept me enthralled during my school days. I was fortunate in having as my teachers at the secondary school some very distinguished men of letters and the influence of some of them proved decisive in my later life. Some of them gave a powerful impetus to my imaginative life, some others taught me the sheer excitement of ideas, and one of them put me firmly on the path to an inner quest.

PNP: Did your career shape up as a result of your college education? Who were some of the teachers who influenced you the most?

MVN:       The obsessive interest I always took in games and sports very nearly ruined my educational career at college. However, it did not turn out to be a complete disaster partly because of the sound educational foundation which I had acquired in my secondary school, and partly because I was plain lucky. Most of the teachers who influenced me deeply belong to my school days. During my college career I had an outstanding man of letters, an educationist and a great teacher of literature for my hero — Professor V. K. Gokak. But his influence was indirect; I was his student in the formal sense hardly for a year.

PNP: How did you turn to Linguistics? I am sure Linguistics was not a part of the M. A. Course in English in those days.

MVN:       You are right; I didn’t have to study modern Linguistics for my M. A. in English. I turned to Linguistics after I joined CIEFL in 1963 as Lecturer in Phonetics and Spoken English. What used to be called Transformational-Generative Linguistics had just then taken the Linguistic world by storm. Because of the regimen of parsing, analysis and synthesis of sentences I was put through by my English teachers at school, I had developed a natural bent for grammar. And although I then understood very little of the technical aspects of Chomsky’s Linguistics, the rhetoric of his polemics was intellectually so compelling that one almost felt as though Nirvana in Linguistics was round the corner. Phonetics in its own right is a fascinating discipline, but it was clear to me that it would not suit either my intellectual temper or interests. So when I got an opportunity to do a Ph.D. at a University in the U.S. I chose to do it in Linguistics. As I was making plans for my studies in the U.S. we had Professor Peter Ladefoged of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) visiting CIEFL for a few weeks, and I learnt about UCLA from him. And it turned out that at that time UCLA was a very strong centre of Transformational — Generative Grammar, next only to MIT.

PNP: Tell us about your years at UCLA. Were you married when you went to the U.S.? What was your research subject and who was your guide?

MVN: I spent 4 years in UCLA. (1966-70). UCLA and Berkeley campuses, like quite a few other university campuses in the U.S., saw during those years virulent student protests against the American involvement in the Vietnamese imbroglio. The Hippie movement too was quite strong; to be young and to be at a university like UCLA was quite exciting. But I was not young enough to be swept off my feet by the ideological turmoil that was raging in the US in those days. I was 33 when I joined UCLA and I had already found my ideological bearings and had cast my anchor. So I remained for the most part an interested spectator of this scene.

I was married when I joined UCLA; Meera too was a student at the same University, and she took her M.A. degree in History from that University.

The topic of investigation for my doctoral dissertation was the syntax of Indie languages (Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages). I found the subject most fascinating and I regard the period I spent researching for my dissertation academically the most satisfying. Finally, for my doctoral dissertation, I had to restrict the scope of my investigation to the syntax of adjectives, complement clauses, and relative clauses in Kannada and Konkani. The dissertation also contains some interesting material on bilingualism and syntactic change.

I subsequently published some of this material as a paper in Language, and tins paper has since been widely anthologised.

The practice at UCLA in those days was to appoint a committee of three members of the faculty to supervise the research of a doctoral candidate, and I had a committee consisting of Professors William Bright, Barbara Partee and George Bedell.

PNP: Did you enjoy teaching Linguistics? Which branch of Linguistics were you particularly interested in?

MVN: Yes, I enjoyed teaching Linguistics very much; but I also enjoyed teaching English Literature which was what I was required to do during the first 5 years of my teaching career.

I found several areas in Linguistics interesting: Syntax, Phonology, Psycholinguistics, Morphology, Linguistic theory — anything that involved argumentation. My own training though was primarily in Syntax and Phonology.

PNP: What do you think of the state of art in Linguistics in India? Has it improved/deteriorated over the past 25 years? Would you say something about the research in Linguistics that is being conducted in India?

MVN: My contact with the Indian scene in Linguistics over the last 10 years has not been close enough for me to be able to answer these questions adequately. Therefore I shall make here only a couple of very broad observations.

I think we have some centres in the country where the teaching of Linguistics is quite good. But I don’t think we have seriously thought about what the content of an Hons, or аn M.A. programme in Linguistics in an Indian university should be. We are content to repeat more or less what some of the U.S universities are doing. Furthermore, in most universities there is hardly any interaction between the Linguistics Department and the Language Departments.

Most Indian researchers in Linguistics who are doing good work today come from the discipline of English language and literature. The acquaintance of most of these linguists with Indian languages and the Sanskrit linguistics tradition tends to be rather perfunctory. So, much of their research is unrelated to anything in the native tradition. Furthermore, much of this research is in one sense ‘derivative’ research; it consists of duplicating the research already done on English or some other European language. Besides, the theoretical scene in American Linguistics has been in a constant flux during the last four decades, and Indian linguists feel obliged to spend most of their time trying to make what sense they can of this constantly shifting theoretical base. We in India have not been able to build strong centres of research within the country although we have had some very good linguists among us. We have yet to develop Linguistics with an Indian face.

PNP: How effective have the CIEFL and other similar institutions proved to be? How can they be made more relevant and effective?

MVN: An adequate answer to each of these two briefly-worded questions would require a lengthy article, but this is not the place nor the time for such an exercise. Very briefly, I would say this:

Government institutions in India tend to behave as if they are not supposed to be accountable to anybody, and as for Indian universities, they despise the very concept of accountability. The CIEFL is a government institution which has the status of a deemed university, and you can therefore see why it does not make much sense to talk of the effectiveness or the usefulness of CIEFL. As an academic centre the CIEFL has been among the better ones in the country, and in some disciplines probably among the best. I don’t think any body is in the least bothered about its ‘usefulness’. I don’t think even people who are directly concerned with it have thought through this problem seriously. Not that this question of ‘usefulness’ has never been raised: people associated with the Institute do raise this question from time to time, especially when they are cross with the Institute for some reason.

I don’t know enough about other similar institutions in the country to be able to say in what ways they are any different from the CIEFL.

PNP: It is said that unilingual nations become more united and stronger because all the members of the community share the same language. Would you recommend the adoption of the common language throughout India as a medium of instruction and government?

MVN: In my view uniformity of any kind is unsuited to the Indian spirit. In any case, having one language for the whole country, however advantageous it may be economically, has other tremendous disadvantages. Any attempt to impose one language over the whole of India will have disastrous consequences. India has many rich subcultures within what may be called the Indian culture, and linguistic diversity is a part of this cultural diversity. India can survive and thrive only as a multilingual country.

No, I am not in favour of a common language as the medium of instruction and as the language of administration for the whole country. To my mind, the 3-language formula too is not entirely satisfactory as a solution to our language situation. While it sounds attractive as a logical solution, it is too mechanical and not sufficiently imaginative. Besides, nowhere is it implemented in its true spirit. It is too mechanical a framework to be able to accommodate the complexity of the communication network that operates in India. Our basic problem is that even in independent India, we have striven to be no more than imitators of the West in shaping our social, political and cultural institutions. In matters of language, our situation is so unique in its complexity that we have to evolve our own solutions. This we have yet to do. A good beginning would have been made when we will stop thinking of our linguistic situation as only a problem; it has its strengths too.

PNP: Should parents send their children to an English medium school or to a mother-tongue medium school?

MVN: So long as the better jobs continue to go to those who have a good command over English, there is no point in wishing away the importance of English. But at the same time, I do not believe that one can acquire a good command over English only through an English-medium education. I believe that the mother-tongue should be the medium of education until the end of the secondary level. I do not believe that mother-tongue medium education necessarily affects a learner’s competence in English adversely. The standards of teaching English may be appalling in most schools in the country; that does not worry me too much. What is a matter of grave concern is that the standards of teaching mother tongues are also equally appalling, and so also are the standards of teaching the basic cognitive skills.

PNP: Would you like to tell us something about your research students? Which subjects did they work on? What was your approach in guiding them?

MVN: I had some very good research students when I was at the CIEFL, and I am very happy to see that some of them are doing excellent work today, as teachers as well as researchers.

Most of my students chose for their M. Litt. dissertation topics in Contrastive Linguistics or Applied Linguistics. For their doctoral theses, they worked on the syntax or the phonology of some Indian language within the framework of Generative Grammar.

My approach varied with the student. But I tried mainly to enthuse the student about the topic of his dissertation, about what he was doing, so that his imagination as well as his intellect become creatively involved with his research. Good research should be more than reading a few books and papers and fabricating a new book out of the notes one has made. It should be a work of scholarship as well as a testimony of the researcher’s creativity. I also insisted on my students learning to write well.

PNP: Tell us something about your Singapore experience.

MVN: Singapore is a very nice place, very prosperous, modern and probably one of the most convenient cities in the world today to live in. It is a young country, and in many ways it is the antithesis of what India is — in size, and also in spirit. For Singaporeans their economy comes first and then politics; Indians have been behaving as if all they care for is electioneering and politics and as though the economy is some one else’s business. Indian laws are as good as those they have in Singapore, but in Singapore the laws which they have are by and large strictly implemented; in India they are either not implemented at all, or are implemented subject to various kinds of pressures and considerations. We in India have made poverty an argument to justify inefficiency and wastefulness. Furthermore, in India we followed the capitalist model in politics and the totalitarian model in economics, while in Singapore they did exactly the reverse of this.

PNP: In what ways has the educational system in Singapore contributed to its spectacular development? Are there any aspects which the Indian educational system should accept?

MVN: In the field of education, Singapore concentrated on getting the basics right. The strength of their educational system comes from their schools; they pay a great deal of attention to their primary and secondary schools; university education comes last; it is only in recent years that they have been trying to promote postgraduate education in Singapore. In India we have neglected primary and secondary education and we have been very keen on promoting tertiary education. This trend has to be reversed.

PNP: Why and when did you turn to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy? Would you trace for us your progress on that path?

MVN: This turning was gradual and it began in my mid-twenties. I turned to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy because I found it intellectually the most liberating and satisfying. Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is neither for the world-weary nor for those whose minds are so befuddled that they can’t see the turban of doubt on the head of every purely rational, mental theory about man, nature and reality.

If by my ‘progress on the path’, you mean the progress I have made on the path of Yoga, let me say this. I find it interesting that this is a question that gets thrown at me quite a bit; it is a well-mannered way used by some of my cynical friends of being sarcastic about my interest in spiritual philosophy and in spiritual matters in general. The factual answer to this question is very difficult to give; at least I can’t give it about myself and then again, it cannot be of much use to other people, so it is not a very profitable question either to ask or to answer. But having said this, I should also point out that there is nothing exceptional or unique in that I am on the path of yoga. According to Sri Aurobindo, there is nobody here who is not a yogi; who is not on the path of Yoga. After all what is Yoga if not Nature in the process of the evolution of consciousness? This progressive evolution of consciousness began with the state of seemingly inconscient Matter, and moved on to semi-conscient Life in trees and plants, and then to conscient life in animals and then to self-conscient mental consciousness in man. Which one of us has his existence outside of evolutionary Nature? Whether we know it or not, we are all participants in this process of the evolution of consciousness. And thus we are all yogis. This evolution in which all of us are participants is an adventure of consciousness. If the animal is the living laboratory in which Nature has worked out man, man himself may be a thinking and living laboratory in whom and with whose conscious со-operation Nature intends to work out the perfect manifestation of this evolving consciousness.

PNP: Is spirituality an escape from day-to-day problems? Does it have anything to contribute to nation building?

MVN: Spirituality can be an escape from life, or from what you call ‘day-to-day’ problems. But in this it is no different from, say, a preoccupation with literature, social service, or with Linguistics or even women’s lib. It is the nature of your engagement that determines whether it is a creative engagement with life or a form of escape. In the case of spirituality, it all depends upon why one turns to spirituality, and what one understands by spirituality. If you turn to spirituality because this world has not been kind to you, or if you seek in spirituality a private world into which you can retreat when you find it hard to face the realities of life around you, then it is a form of escape. If, on the other hand, you turn to spirituality, because you are not happy with the way of your being and want to discover your real self, the inner being, and live from that consciousness, then it is not an escape from what is called day-to-day problems. For this you need to explore all the dimensions of your consciousness and establish the real ‘you’ in the place of the present surface ‘you’ who is confined so much within the shell of the ego. Most of us do not realise that in our present mode of being we cannot see the world or understand it except through this coloured glass of the ego; only some people feel suffocated in the prison-house of the ego. They wish to step out of the fantasy land of the ego and step into the world of reality. That is genuine spirituality. You can really understand the world and its problems only when you transcend your ego. Once you have really understood the problems of this world, then you can work on them with the resources of your new consciousness.

For me the aim of spirituality is the terrestrial perfection of human life, but such perfection cannot be achieved through the resources of human reason or mental consciousness operating through the grid of the ego. It requires the resources of a spiritual consciousness. We have today too many people vending answers to problems which they have not really understood. That is why in human history most of the revolutions have failed to realise their promise. This was true of Karl Marx as much as it is of your local politician or moral reformer or religious zealot. Even to know what really afflicts man, one needs the light of the spirit.

As I see it, there are two kinds of spirituality, the world-negating spirituality, and the world-affirming spirituality. Spirituality can be a resource in nation-building only if it is genuinely world-affirming, such as the spirituality of Vyasa in ancient India and of Sri Aurobindo in modern India. Well, for anything like an adequate answer, this question too, like some of your other questions, would need more space than we have here. But for our present purposes this should suffice.

PNP: Thank you.

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