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Indian farmer and soldier as ‘he’— why 21st century editors are at war with their keyboards

Grammar is not a divine monolith. If we don’t include all people when we write, even a single pronoun can snip a little girl’s dreams.

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An Indian Army officer always makes sure his country comes first, then his family and his life.

Do you find anything wrong with this sentence? What about the next one.

Farmers are angry with the Narendra Modi government’s new farm laws. A farmer is essential to the economy, he shouldn’t have to brave water cannons to have his voice heard.

Your politics may go against this statement, but did you notice anything else out of place?

Words are as powerful a tool in a democracy and civilisation as any other. But sometimes, we miss crucial words, and at others, delete them altogether. Both the farmers’ protests and the Indian Army have women, but the repeated use of ‘he’ or ‘his’ in the statements above goes to show how language can invisibilise them. We are so used to certain usages of gender markers that we overlook them daily in articles, news, tweets, and books.

You may think this language culture has no impact, but a few years ago, while teaching young children in an East Delhi school about gender, equality, and consent, I was made starkly aware of how using or omitting some words can snip at the power of imagination, and thereby, possibilities.

When my fellow teachers and I asked young students, mostly aged 10-12, to draw a police worker, a football player, and a scientist, they all drew men. Even the girls. Now, what impact do you think language has on a young girl of that age?

We keep writing policeman, fireman, army men. Words create images, images create perceptions, and a strong perception can create a bias.

Visualise the famous slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, what did you see? Close your eyes and think of an Indian farmer. You probably imagined an old man. But 85 per cent of women in rural India are engaged in agriculture, according to a study. Think of a nurse. Chances are you thought of a woman with a short white cap. But the number of male nurses in India is steadily increasing. There were 7,371 male nurses in Maharashtra in 2016.

Times may change, but we’ll still write ‘he’ for the armed forces and farmers. And ‘she’ for jobs that ‘just don’t measure up’.

Also read: Kisan march pictures may not show you women farmers, but don’t forget to count their protest

The era of they

I must give credit to authors who use ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ when describing a general term, but most people still don’t. For them, the Indians are ‘he’, workers are ‘he’, the world is ‘he’.

Sample this line from Chetan Bhagat’s article in The Times of India: “The urban middle class wants their prices low. Meanwhile, if we are giving the farmers more choice, and the farmer chooses to sell produce to Europe than in Jaipur because he gets better prices – are Indians OK with it?”

Or this line from Lt. Gen. (retd) Satish Dua’s November article in The Sunday Guardian: “A child proudly tells his friends that his father could not come home for Diwali because he was on Army duty.” Not only is the Army personnel a ‘he’, so is the child.

But while we fight over ‘he vs she’, the world has moved onto ‘they’. Any language needs to constantly evolve — it needs to be inclusive and it needs to listen to the people who use it, write it, twist it, and mould it. So, if you are unsure about someone’s gender, use ‘they’.

Twitter users are now putting their preferred choice of pronouns on their bio or in their email signatures. It’s 2020, gender is a spectrum, and there is no more room for default assumptions. “Alok V. Menon’s poetry moves me every day. Check out their Instagram page”. Why? Because Alok doesn’t believe in Victorian gender binaries and wants to be called they/them.

We’ll call them by what they want to be called by. He/She/They. Yes, ‘they’ is now a singular pronoun too. In fact, in 2015, The Washington Post added ‘they’ as a singular pronoun to its style guide, and then, used the honorific ‘Mx’ as per a writer’s request.

Now, there is a lot of opposition to this line of thinking, and predictably so — whenever something we have known all our life is shaken and stirred, we get upset or worse, angry. So, those annoyed with ‘they’ and think this is all too much, read these lines:

“Hwät! we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum / þeód-cyninga þrym gefrunon, / hû þâ äðelingas ellen fremedon.”

It’s the first few lines of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Even Shakespeare would have had difficulties with it. It is an example of how much English has evolved over the centuries, and is miles apart from what we speak now. And it has changed because language is an atom of its surroundings — apply a bit of heat, wind, and cold, it will change.

Hindi, however, is a whole different universe — like French. It is far less malleable and comes embedded with gender, even for tables and chairs. I can’t even imagine the dilemma of the 21st-century Hindi editor who wants to make her language more inclusive and take it forward. A few weeks ago, during an argument about the gender of a particular emotion in the Hindi language, a famous Hindi lyricist and scriptwriter complained to me, “Wokeness has killed grammar.” This is precisely the problem — thinking of grammar as a monolith, as a divinely ordained set of rules, which must be adhered to.

Language is human. It has changed earlier, it will and should change again.

Also read: Humble headline? No, it’s a weapon for media, Facebook, Google, your WhatsApp group

Dilemma of the deskies

My big dilemma is how do we, people who edit or are known as ‘deskies’ in news media or book publishing, respond to such changes in language. Is there a correct way of writing? My keyboard and I are constantly at war with language, traditions, and letting authors’ voices shine through.

Each publication has a style sheet and, generally, all news articles adhere to that. But what about people’s opinions? What about my colleague editing this one? Will they mind or put a big strikethrough like this?

If we edited every single opinion the same way, it would read as one voice. The writer’s peculiarities would disappear. Maybe someone writes a lot of ‘therefore’, and someone puts way too many semicolons. Or someone writes a lot of ‘he’.

How much should I change? Take, for instance, this article by my colleague Rachel John. She writes about the evolution of Indian English, with its quirks and peculiarities. “That’s okay, no?” or “I meant that, only.” Should we edit it out and go back to the coloniser’s version of English?

To say this for sure is wrong, and this for sure is right, is wronging our own history and languages. Our English, and I am not going into the strict gender regimens in languages such as Hindi, must include the people — all people. Self-proclaimed ‘grammar Nazis’, or any kind of Nazis for that matter, please stay out. Stressing on purity is always bound to fail.

In English, we can start by lessening our ‘he’s. So that the little girl I met years ago doesn’t think the world is not meant for her. And as for grammar, Joan Didion once wrote, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”

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