A Letter to my Indian students on the linguistic effects of shots fired from the deck of an oil-tanker : Alberto Prunetti

This is a guest post by ALBERTO PRUNETTI

[Translated into English by Francesco Giannatiempo, Eva Salzman and Tommaso Sbriccoli]

Dear Boys and Girls,

For many months I was your teacher in Mumbai and Bangalore. Most of you came from Kerala. Some among your parents were fishermen. I remember the sacrifices of your relatives who had hopes for your future, who worked hard to help you achieve degrees in nursing or Italian. I remember that Italy and Europe represented for you a potential turning point in your lives and careers. I also remember that Italian propositions cause many problems for you, as does for many students. To introduce yourself, you would say “Sono nato a Kerala” [I was born at Kerala]. But, as I explained to you, the grammar rule foresees the use of the preposition “in [in Italian] + name of State” and “a [in Italian] + name of city”. So, one would say, “Sono nato a Roma” [I was born in Rome]. Given that Kerala is a State (to be clear, India is a confederation of States, like the US) one has to say “Sono nato in Kerala, a Trivandrum” [I was born in Trivandrum, Kerala,], as one would say “Sono nato in Colorado, a Boulder”  [I was born in Boulder, Colorado].

You will understand my astonishment and sadness after the murder of the two fishermen Valentine Jalestine and Ajeesh Binki, the shots that killed them coming from the Enrica Lexie oil tanker. (In fact, although this is little talked about in our country, Italian institutions have already paid a compensation to the victims’ families in an extra-judicial settlement.). This tragic event prompted Italians to discover the existence of your sea and they have started saying: “Our Ambassador”, or “our Government’s emissary”….” has gone at Kerala [a Kerala]”. Everyone made this grammatical mistake, from the then Prime Minister to the most distinguished newscasters.

This mistake showed their ignorance of at least one of the following: 1) India, or 2) Italian grammar, or, I would suggest, more likely both.

Listening to these important commentators, you may have thought that I was wrong, that I was not a good teacher. Important people were contradicting what I had taught you. Therefore, you may have thought that, after all, I am only an Italian teacher – or, rather, a former teacher – who in your eyes is less reliable than a newscaster, and certainly less so than a Prime Minister.

But unfortunately, my dear students, truth is too often in the hands of those who hold a gun or use words as if they were guns. Many fashion Truth in accordance to what best fits their aims. Just as what is at best a tragic mistake can become a heroic tale, so prepositions can be used randomly and inexactly.

In any case, I want to give you some linguistic advice.

Firstly: be wary of those who overuse possessive adjectives and pronouns, such as “our language”, “our religion”, “our marò” (marines), “our homeland”. Used indiscriminately they can foster a collective imagination that simplifies identity precisely in order to hide more important divisions. This rhetoric that assumes “sharing” is increasingly widespread in the Italian language, as it is also in India. Pay attention to this. Observe what lies behind it. The word seamen is used widely as an umbrella term with many possible connotations. There are not just seamen on the sea. Within a stone’s throw on your sea which is filled with fish and Chinese fishing nets, unarmed fishermen have had to face soldiers acting as armed contractors who are invested with the right to shoot in order to defend western oil and goods: that damned oil which is paid for in dollars and human lives. Only the trajectory of the bullets that killed the two fishermen at that instant connected them to the other two seamen who are otherwise so different. However, one cannot place under the same term, seamen, those who protect western goods on colonial routes and earn in a day what your parents earn in a year, and those who died while working to put food on their children’s table. Do not be fooled by the rhetoric of the word seamen. You know Jack London’s books and you know that a cabin boy is not a captain.

Another controversial word we never used in our classes, terrorist. You understand its meaning, but that meaning does not necessarily convey the breadth of its semantic field. I am as confused as you are. Quite rightly, Italian authorities are pressing for the two marò not to be charged with terrorism. I understand your astonishment that in Val di Susa (Italy) four young men belonging to the No-Tav movement have been charged by an Italian court with terrorism. They too are considered terrorists, accused of damaging a compressor instead of killing any fishermen. I believe it is important to better specify the semantic field of some words belonging to the Italian lexicon in order not to give the impression that a compressor is worth more than two Indian fishermen’s lives.

Many other things should be said to my compatriots who let themselves be bombarded by newscasters’ words which are so careless with their meaning: the kind of words that make you stick your chest out, but empty your head. Information or propaganda? Communication or hammering noise appealing to Italians’ most visceral emotions? There are grammatically correct sentences which nonetheless refer to nonsense in the empirical world. For instance, the expression “pirates in Kerala”, grammatically well-compounded, has the same value as the phrase “colourless green ideas sleeping furiously”, used by Noam Chomsky, a professor much more important than I am. In Kerala pirates appear only on your wonderful cinema screens. But now we are crossing logic’s border and your teacher prefers not to adventure too far away in the sea of clear and distinct ideas, lest he be mistaken for a pirate.

Above, I wrote about the linguistic effects of those gun-shots, but nobody wants to speak about the pragmatic ones. Jalestine and Binki died after those shots. How many Italians can remember their names?If I ever return to teach you, I would propose a didactic unit consisting of two songs dedicated to fishermen: the first one by Fabrizio De André and the other by Pierangelo Bertoli (I know Italian music is terribly boring for you, but what can I do?). They deserve to be didactic subjects because, firstly, they are ideal for explaining the imperative mode and future tense and because, secondly, every time I listen to them, a trivial issue comes to mind: a soldier is easily made into a hero, but when a fisherman does not return home he just falls into oblivion.

Another point: the conviction, or the judgment, which, after all, is language too. Both the charge and the verdict are speech acts with pragmatic consequences. Here in Italy, there is much talk about convictions and sentences, but I think that prison, no longer the teacher’s stick of the old days, is useless. I also believe that human lives cannot be taken, neither with the rope nor with a rifle. Somewhere among those thousand pages of epic poetry and legends, in the movies and in the Kerala fishermen’s songs that you’ve tried in vain to teach me – what a terrible student of Malayalam I have been – there must be a solution for this marò case that goes beyond the brouhaha created by the media and the kind of nationalistic rhetoric that makes everything much more discouraging and unintelligible.

If I were in the shoes of those who fired from the Enrica Lexie tanker, I would ask to be condemned to build nursery schools for orphans in Kerala.

Instead of buying expensive F35 fighter bombers, the Italian Ministry of Defense should use this money to build schools in Kerala (and not “at Kerala”, dear ministers). Instead of sending over there military and diplomats, Italy should hire nurses from Kerala for its hospitals and pay them fairly. The two countries should start up student exchange programs and scholarships, these financed by the Italian Ministry of Defense since even in Marco Polo’s country important commentators believe that India is a fakirs’ country. (Am I right that you of Kerala have never seen a fakir?). The riflemen who shot the fishermen would work as bricklayers in the morning and as Italian teachers in a Kerala school in the afternoon. And maybe the Ministry will also be so kind as to recognize monetarily the professionalism of teachers of Italian as LS/L2 (Second Language/Foreign Language), in this way paying proper homage to “our teachers”.

The court sentence I propose would include evening activities. After a thali rice is served on banana leaves for dinner – there is nothing healthier and tastier – those new teachers themselves would become students, learning Malayalam. Free to move within Kerala and to receive visitors, they would live as fishermen and learn how to use the Chinese fishing nets that rise proudly out of the water at Kochi. If you consider working as a bricklayer or teacher a light sentence, then you should know that an Italian soldier serving as a contractor in your seas for a private ship-owner earns 467 euros per day; an Italian teacher abroad working for a non-ministerial project, at the same latitude, is paid around 40 euros per day, whereas an Indian fisherman or bricklayer lives under the poverty line, sweating for a handful of rupees from sunrise to sunset.

Furthermore, there should be a linguistic side to the court’s sentence, i.e. it should be conditional on the writing of a song in Malayalam about mango fruits and Allepey girls’ smiles: a song like those to which you forced me to dance, which I performed clumsily. And one day, when they have learnt Malayalam well enough to write a song using the words of Jalestine and Binki’s language, their debt owed to the land of water and rice will have been paid off, and those who shot the fishermen in the Malabar waters will be free to return to their birthplace. Or perhaps, happy with their new lives, they might prefer to stay where they are.

On condition that they never sing that song at Sanremo Music Festival.

These words of mine may sound naive to you and unpatriotic to Italians. Neither a rifleman nor a diplomat, I love neither weapons nor prisons, and I read too many books. I can only say that as a teacher this is how, a long time ago, I would have solved the case of Jalestine and Binki – known in Italy as “il caso marò”, which sentence contains another linguistic mistake.

Maybe things will go differently from what I propose.

Anyway, hugs from your Italian teacher who in his Indian days was so often your student too, and who, by writing these few lines, has removed a toad from his throat (please don’t take it literally, it means “get something off one’s chest”), and who now reminds you for the umpteenth time that you don’t have to stand up when your teacher enters the classroom.


Alberto Prunetti is a writer, teacher, and activist.

3 thoughts on “A Letter to my Indian students on the linguistic effects of shots fired from the deck of an oil-tanker : Alberto Prunetti”

  1. Though the writer stops short of asking for jail terms for the accused this is a thoughtful piece


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s