Learning your ABCs can be a tough proposition in India.
Not the alphabet; even Indians who can't speak English fluently know their letters. But pity the poor soul who strays unprepared into the world of newspapers, magazines, documents, signs, billboards -- in short, anywhere there's text -- only to find that minding your Ps and Qs, literally, can be a headache.
That's because this land sometimes seems to have as many initials, acronyms and abbreviations in usage as it does people. Staying abreast of current events and navigating society means wading into a thick pool of alphabet soup.
Take this typical headline from the daily Indian Express: "Go to HC, SC tells NICE." (or "Go to High Court, Supreme Court tells Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises.") Or another impressive example: "Around new IITs, IIMs, will come SDZs: SEZs with a (D)ifference." (Don't ask.)
The profusion of abbreviations can be mystifying, and scanning headlines is often like staring at an eye chart. Even some locals confess to being bewildered at times.
But their ubiquity is a testament to how this country has taken English and shaped it for its own ends, and how a once-alien tongue is a unifier of sorts in a diverse nation.
India boasts more than a dozen official languages, from Hindi and Bengali in the north and east to Tamil and Kannada in the south, each with millions of speakers. But only English, the language of former British colonizers, enjoys a truly national profile.
Consequently, it is the de facto language of the federal government, whose bureaucrats appear to relish nothing more than cooking up new acronyms and abbreviations.
That's why you have the RBI urging the IBA to follow KYC and AML standards (Reserve Bank of India, Indian Banks' Assn., Know Your Customer and Anti-Money Laundering). Or calls on the "CBI to question ICCR ex-DG" in a case involving the former director-general of a cultural agency.
An affirmative-action education program for Indians classified as "scheduled castes" -- former untouchables in the caste system -- was reported in a front-page headline as a "quota for SCs/STs in MBBS, BDS." And to run a public toilet-cleaning program, the "MMRDA trusts women's NGOs," according to a Mumbai paper named . . . DNA.
Alas for the uninitiated, there is no dictionary to help decipher these terms. And it is not uncommon for newspapers to neglect to spell them out in their copy, assuming that readers need no explanation.
That assumption appears true to a surprising extent. Even illiterates and those who speak no English recognize acronyms in conversation, which are easier to remember, says Madhumita Chakraborty, who teaches English at DU (Delhi University).
"They may not know what RTI stands for, but they can tell you what RTI does," she said, referring to the new Right to Information Act, which promotes transparency in government. "They may not be able to tell you that NREGS stands for National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme -- they may not speak any English at all -- but they can say that it's a scheme that guarantees me so many days of work a year."
English acronyms have thus proved to be effective tools for getting the word out on government programs.
"It's so difficult to find one common parlance that people can understand, north to south to east to west," Chakraborty said. "These acronyms become much easier to use."
The rough-and-tumble world of Indian politics also relies on acronyms. Most parties are known by their initials, with the main exception of the ruling Congress.
But don't confuse the CPI with the CPI(M): Both may be Communist Parties of India, but they split ideologically years ago. Dissenters within the DMK, a southern party formed their own AIADMK, which is much easier to rattle off than All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Perhaps the biggest boon to the Indian love of short forms has been the explosion in cellphones and text-messaging. This is not restricted to youth; businesspeople and officials all have practiced thumbs ready to fire off a missive in seconds.
With only 160 characters available per message, brevity and shorthand are rewarded.
"Mobile" is cut to "mbl," "you" to "u," and "we" is "v."
But a word of advice. Few here use the term "text message." If you're in India, you'd be better off doing as the Indians do, which -- natch -- is to call it an "SMS."