As I look through the windshield at forbidden fireworks creating silent fountains against the fast fading light, Peter Frankopan’s clipped British accent provides the soundtrack. A new era is about to begin as 2020 is a few hours away from passing on. In an interview for BBC’s ‘hard talk’ programme, he reveals that while two thirds of the population of the world lives east of Istanbul, in the whole of the UK there are less than a thousand scholars learning languages like Chinese, Persian, Japanese and Hindi. He also asks how many folks in this part of the world would be able to name a Chinese or Bollywood celebrity, and goes on to pose the question, how globalized are we really? Frankopan is a historian, and author of much talked about recent books – ‘The Silk Roads’ and ‘The New Silk Roads’.
That gets me thinking. Of my nephews’ thrill in embodying the football shirts that we took as gifts with the names of international celebrity players on them. Football is a marginal sport in India. Of receiving a message on what’s app expressing their sympathy for the Dutch team that just lost a game – in the wee hours of the morning in India. Of myself at a borrel as a robust Dutchman with beer in hand asks me in the (direct) way that an Amsterdammer can and does… ‘but tell me, how does cricket qualify as a sport, when so much of the time the players just stand there with bat in hand, and wait, and then sprint for a short distance’? I do my best to explain the rules of the cricket to him. And no, I didn’t ask him if he knows the name of a South Asian cricketer.
I think of a non-fiction book I read in which the author introduced me to a young ambitious lower caste man in the back of beyond in India, where hardly anyone speaks the English language, who uses ‘Dale Carnegie’s’ How to Win Friends and Influence People’ as his Bible. He ends up building a successful business totally unexpected from a man of his background. It also get’s me thinking of recent lessons I gave as a teacher of English for the International Baccalaureate curriculum at a Dutch school. The students had studied a literary classic and I was asked to plan some lessons around a film interpretation of this novel. Though it is in English, this feature film borrows heavily from the techniques of Bollywood so yes, there are songs and dances in it. Through the lessons that I delivered, my aim was to open the eyes of these students to the structure of Bollywood, which caters to a vast audience that includes the far East, Russia, Africa and the South Asian diaspora (greater than the audience for Hollywood). I also focussed on how the director and her team had adapted the original text of 19th century England to fit into what we understood about ‘gobalization’ and the then recent opening of the Indian economy in 2004. Through the first two lessons, it became highly evident that at least fifty percent of the students behaved like it was a waste of their time to watch this film and participate. So for the third and final lesson, I gave the class the choice to go to another room and write a text on an aspect of the classic , or to continue with the ‘Bollywoodized’ interpretation of it. Half the class opted for the former.
So is the glass empty or half full, because the class is half empty and half full?
Should I celebrate the fact that fifty percent of these 6 vwo students, on the verge of entering university, were interested in an Indian rendering of a British text, or lament that the others were not? Perhaps the memory to hold on to is that of those who spoke up in the course of these lessons – making connections between the texts, and to remember the two students, who walked up to me and thanked me for bringing them closer to a faraway culture.