January 11, 2020languagephilosophydebates with my daughterseducation

Sanskrit or French?

Given the choices available, this meant having to choose Sanskrit or French, along with English and Hindi.

Deccan Herald This is from my Debates with My Daughters column that appeared in the Deccan Herald in 2019-20

One of the first choices kids — at least those attending CBSE schools — have to make is one of language. Before Fairy entered Class V several years ago, the ten year old had 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, ever 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’ interpretation 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. Similarly, I can appreciate Raghunatha Suri’s 17th century text Bhojanakutuhalam”, or Curiosity about Food, only second hand.

Jayarasi Bhatta

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 point at the dish you want in the menu without having to pronounce the name of the dishes. 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 up the doors to appreciating important works of statecraft, philosophy and literature. Touché! As they say in French. 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.

There are many more Debates with my Daughters here

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.

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