Today I did a writing workshop for a small group of the Foundation’s staff. They were eager and engaged students and the session flew by. We discussed grammar, spelling and punctuation; the importance of clarity and brevity and the urgent necessity of the active voice.
The active voice! It’s counter-cultural here! Most Indians, consciously or unconsciously, think in Hindi even if speaking in English. And in Hindi, things happen to us. We are not, as Americans like me believe, in charge. We don’t make decisions; we aren’t the Masters of our Fate. It’s all written. It’s destiny.
So in English, we say: I’m hungry. Pretty simple. It’s been awhile since I’ve eaten. My stomach is empty. I need to find some food.
In Hindi? Mujhe bhukh lagte hai. Hunger has attached itself to me.
I don’t know what happened! There I was, just walking along, minding my own business, when suddenly hunger leaped out from the shadows and wouldn’t let me go!
Discussions like this in a writing workshop are fun and revealing. My students started to talk about the honorific form of address in Hindi and how the passive voice felt more polite, especially if what you had to say was going to be hard for the other person to hear. What an American would call “beating around the bush” was, to these young people, an essential – and very Asian – “face-saving” device. “Why put someone on the spot?” they asked.
Certainly, I learned as much as they did in our session.
As we wound down to a close, Sakshi, our Finance Officer, newly joined and still finding her way in the Foundation, said she had a question.
“I’ve been getting emails from the different project heads,” she said. “They all use a lot of exclamation points. I’m just wondering. Is that a thing here?”
“Could you give me an example?” I asked.
“Well, I just prepared the budget for the proposal you and Shubha are submitting for that research grant. Within an hour, I had an email from Shubha di saying: ‘Thanks, Sakshi!!!’ Three exclamation points. Is that normal in the Foundation? I’ve never seen it anywhere else.”
Everyone else started giggling, realizing, perhaps, how they themselves had been changed.
“Yes.” Megha, Nishant and Saatvika said all at the same time. “It’s normal.”
“We love our work,” Sumita explained. “We can’t help it.”