/ 6 November 2007

Making sense of India through a fog of acronyms

They challenge your newspaper literacy, interrupt otherwise intelligible conversations, and add to the difficulty of finding your way. The culprits: India’s endemic acronyms, abbreviations and initials.

Bureaucrats across the world pack official reports with them, but India distinguishes itself by relishing in their everyday use, from place names to first names and even swear words.

In the first year of an assignment in India, acronyms and abbreviations were one of the barriers to understanding the country, from identifying its myriad rebel groups to getting directions to a decent bar.

These short forms also show how India’s multilingual culture, with its 22 official languages, is adapting as English becomes increasingly important to an emerging Asian giant.

Like any foreign correspondent, I have to read the newspapers — and understand them. In my first few days in the country I knew I was in trouble.

Abbreviations like SC (Supreme Court) or Cong (Congress), 123 (the United States civilian nuclear deal) are commonly scattered in headlines, mentioned in such a matter-of-fact way that one can feel almost embarrassed for asking colleagues their meaning.

After a few days these simpler abbreviations can be mastered. But any slight confidence is quickly dispelled by the latest literary challenge to jump out of a page.

”EC clean chit to Jaya riles DMK, asks if panel an ADMK branch”, was a recent headline.

That was about a regional party scuffle.

Or this — about a satellite launch: ”INSAT-4CR in orbit, DTH to get a boost. GSLV-FO2 failure in ’06 weighed heavily on ISRO team.”

Initials abound in politics. It is essential to know the difference between CPI and CPI(M), both communist parties propping up the ruling coalition but with vastly different electoral importance.

While rebel groups around the world are often known by shorthand titles, India seems to stretch out their initials as long as possible. Nagaland state’s rival rebel factions are known as NSCN-IM and NSCN-K.

Changing with time

I have browsed through Indian history books that start with pages and pages of notes about short forms, as if delighting in preparing the reader for the confusion to come.

And initials are found off the printed page. Whole districts in cities are known by initials, like GK I and GK II in the capital.

It’s difficult to imagine Trafalgar Square being known as TS, or the Eiffel Tower as ET. But New Delhi’s heart, Connaught Place, is called CP.

I’ve been invited several times to DV8 and Q’BA in CP, two half decent bars in the area.

India’s love affair with short forms is related to its multilingual character, where English is an official language that in theory unites disparate cultures but in practice is only spoken fluently by an elite of its billion-plus population.

”India has adapted to a multilingual society by using acronyms,” Sagarika Ghose, a senior editor at CNN-IBN television and an English-language novelist, told me.

”Many Hindi speakers, for example, find it difficult to pronounce English names.

Abbreviations are much easier to pronounce. CP is much easier for a Hindi-speaking rickshaw driver to say than Connaught Place.”

But it’s not just an English affair. Take the common practice of Indians abbreviating their surnames or family titles to use them as initials.

Many southern Indian names are so long and tongue-twisting that people from other parts of the country find them impossible to pronounce.

RK Narayan, one of India’s most well known English authors, was born Rasipuram Krishnaswami Ayyar Narayanaswami and former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao was Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao. Hence the initials.

Others reflect India’s changes. Take one related to Desis, a colloquial, vernacular reference to the Indian diaspora.

A decade ago, the initials ABCD were understood to mean ”American Born Confused Desis” — Indians torn between two cultures in the United States. Years later, as India strides onto the global stage with increased assurance, ABCD has been given a new meaning.

”American Born Confident Desis. – AFP