For the love of the written word…

Ever read a book that transports you into another world? Ever read one that makes you wish you inhabited that world instead of the one you actually do? One that makes the pages of history come alive in front of your eyes?
If you’ve never known what it feels like to get so involved in a book that you even forget to breathe, then you haven’t really lived. The written word holds a magical charm that’s hard to resist. It’s a world of its own, with no barriers or expectations. A well-written book is equal to a thousand movies rolled into one. It’s magical because it gives wings to imagination. 

My first tryst with historical novels was Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan. Ah! Who can forget the handsome Arulmozhi, or the stunning Kundavai. I don’t know if these people actually looked the way I imagined them to be. But, for me, it’s the image that will remain forever etched in memory. Since then, tens of historical novels have fascinated me. The Ibis Trilogy and The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, White Mughals by William Dalrymple, even Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. Each of these books have made me fall a little deeper in love with history. 
Don’t believe me? Just pick up a book and read. Let go of inhibitions. Let the story carry you forward. You’ll never regret it. 

Some totally unconnected thoughts…

I have been meaning to put something down in words for a week now. But, every time I put my fingers to keyboard, I realize I don’t have enough material for a blogpost. You know? It’s one of those times when you have too much to say to fit into a tweet of 140 characters, but not enough to make a blogpost of! So, I decided to put all my random thoughts down into one single blogpost, instead of waiting forever to elaborate on them and basically kill the expression!

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The census guy was at aunt’s place last week. With apparent boredom he quizzes aunt about the names, ages, dates of birth of the members of the family. Getting to language, he asks what the mother-tongue was. My aunt says Kannada. He noted it down and asked, “Vera baashai?” Aunt said, Hindi, English, Tamil, and Sanskrit. The lady accompanying the man tells him, “Just write Tamil and English. Others are irrelevant.” Aunt insists for a moment, then gives up because the milk boiling on the gas is more important and the man taking the information down is refusing to relent. Then comes religion. He asks, “Hindu, Christian or Muslim?” And my aunt says Hindu. And that’s that! After a few more questions, he thanks us and leaves. This incident left a bitter taste in my mouth. First things first, you cannot and must not restrict the number of languages recorded in the census. For me, there would be at least 4 apart from my mother tongue, in which, incidentally, I am not fluent. Secondly, the issue of religion. Religion is a personal affair. People must not be forced to select their religion from a drop-down list, figuratively speaking. As an adult, I must ideally be allowed to declare myself as atheist, agnostic or Bah’ai if I please! Also, the religion of my parents must not automatically become mine! What about inter-faith marriages? The children should be allowed to remain sans religion until they are old enough to decide what they want to be. I don’t know if the census take into account such special cases, but I do know that the officials coming to collect information are very often quite rigid in their approach.

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On a different note, I finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Gut-wrenching, yet hopeful. Some scenes describing the Taliban era are scary, intense and hit you like a ton of bricks. What it must take for a man to write so sensitively about two female characters! For a minute, I was transported into a world where being a woman is the biggest curse of them all. I was so emotionally affected at times that I had to put the book down and do something else. But, the book is so gripping that you can never stay away for too long. I would like to read it again, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to stomach that again.

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Finally, now that the euphoria of President Mobarak’s exit has died down, can we please get a bit more practical? Egypt has a long way to go before it becomes a fully-functional democracy. Gloating over successes even before the success is total is not only premature, but also carries with it the risk of people losing focus on the task at hand. Let’s not forget that it is still the military that is ruling. And a military in power is never a good thing. For now, the only thing we can do is wait and watch. And hope that for their own sake, the Egyptian people manage to set up a functional democracy.

South vs. North – a reprise

I got a comment the other day, on my earlier post titled, “Bihari is not a bad word, but Madrasi?” I wondered briefly if I should delete it because it is so… meaningless. Example: “The central govt in Delhi has plans to wantonly ignore other languages and pave the way for their decline by sole use of Hindi and by the portrial of India to the outside world as Hindia.” Eh? Does this guy (girl?) really believe what he/she says? I mean, who actually thinks and believes such total crap? It does not add to the credibility of the person that he/she was too cowardly to leave a name, any name. Maybe I should enforce moderation. But somehow, the idea of moderation does not really appeal to me. I will probably include a comment policy instead. But, to make my point clear. I do not share or endorse such points of view expressed in comments.”

Speaking of languages and cultures, the kind of keywords used to search Google for my blog always throw up some surprises. This post on Biharis seems to be among the most popular ones. One oft-searched term is “Hate Hindi” and surfaces on the first page of Google Search. But why? I never claimed to hate Hindi. Ever. In fact, I speak the language rather well. In addition to some 5 others.

Ok, on to the topic of the day. I stumbled across this wonderful blog yesterday. And my, I was hooked almost instantly. Of all the interesting post on it, one caught my attention because of the sheer number of comments on it. It’s amazing to see so many people wanting to express an opinion on something. But then, it is sometimes disheartening to see many of them rooting for the imposition of one language as a “National Language.” I mean, why do we need a national language. We are managing perfectly well with about 22 official ones. Each person has the right to speak in a language they are most fluent in. Why should we complicate things by wanting to name one language as “national.” One comment to the post claimed that Hindi is spoken by the maximum number and so must be national. Let me extend that logic a bit. Christianity is the world’s most widely practised religion. So, let’s all convert to Christianity. And oh yes, Mandarin is the language with the most speakers. Let’s all go learn Chinese then. Some day, it will be the “global” language. In India itself, almost 85% of the population is Hindu. So Hinduism can be the “national” religion? Ok? Can’t accept it, can you? So why do you expect people to accept Hindi because its speakers are numerically superior? Why should language be any different?

As I said in my post on Biharis, the anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu happened at a certain time and place. It was inevitable then. That doesn’t mean the violence associated with it was justified. There is no stopping mob violence once it starts. The best thing to do is to find a middle path and avoid making language such a divisive issue. Let’s get one thing straight. It is to have a national language because of the sheer number of languages that exist in India. India has never been, and will never be, a monolingual state. There is no point in rooting for one language as opposed to another. The current system works wonderfully because no Indian language is more important than the other. And please don’t tell me that English is unnecessary. But for English, I wouldn’t understand any official correspondence. My knowledge of most Indian languages is pathetic, despite the fact that I speak at least three of them fluently. And yes, people like me have a right to exist and live in India. English is as much my mother tongue, or perhaps even more, than Kannada can ever be. I am not ashamed of that because I don’t find a reason to be apologetic about my preference for English.

Disappearing languages

The November 19 edition of Outlook Magazine carries this article on disappearing languages, which I found extremely interesting. The opening statement that a language dies somewhere in the world every 14 days, is indeed incredible. That is why the endangered language list of the world comprises languages spoken in practically every country in the world. A good example would be Siletz Dee-ni spoken somewhere in the United States, that had just one speaker in 2007. There are many other such languages that are spoken by not more than a handful of people.

Statistics apart, this piece of information set me thinking. Why exactly do languages die? How can someone, whose mother tongue is language X, totally forget the language and neglect to teach it to the next generation? What motivates a person to abandon his/her mother tongue completely in favour of another, alien tongue? Of course, the mother tongue is not compatible with the economic activity of the individual. My mother tongue, Kannada, is certainly not compatible with either security studies or French language teaching. But, that does not mean I forget the language, or not bother to teach my kids the language. My cousins speak both Tamil, the language of their father, and Kannada, the language of their mother. I do acknowledge the problem of expatriates and others, far away from their families. But, why do families as a whole decide to adopt another language, as is the case with Siletz Dee-ni or any other language?

It’s a pity that, along with languages, whole cultures are disappearing. A language brings along with it a host of practices, values and a whole new outlook to life, that is irretrievably lost when the language becomes extinct. What is even more shocking is that even India, which is lauded for its astounding linguistic diversity is home to several endangered languages, of them, Greater Andamanese, which has a mere 7 fluent speakers. I can only hope that the initiative of the the Central Institute for Indian Languages to revive them is successful.

The importance of making sense…

I try my best to be as concise as possible when I post. Even then, I sometimes worry about whether I am making my point clearly to my readers. But, here is a blog that worries about nothing: not good writing, not logic, not sensible opinions, nothing. I came across this site when I was reading old posts on Boiling Blood. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I came across the link to the author’s profile.

Before I began this post, I wondered if it was worth commenting upon, and prompting my readers to read total crap like this. But then, I decided that I had a lot to say on it and I could not hold back for fear of popularising the blog. When I read the first post ranting about lazy women and echal and pathu, I thought this guy was being sarcastic. But no, I had over-estimated his intelligence. A brief reading of other posts proved to me that he was, indeed, the chauvinist I thought he was. What else do you call a man who says America’s low savings rate is because women don’t go dhooram during their periods and dare to eat before the esteemed men of the family have had their fill? Anyway, there it is, male chauvinism at its worst. Or best as you may call it. Do the world’s feminists have advice to render about handling such men? Honestly, if I knew the guy, I would probably advise all my female friends to stay the hell away from him. Whoever would want to marry him and be treated like an unpaid maid?

That said, I have a serious grudge against people who write in SMS-talk on their blogs. Why the hell can’t people take the time to dot their i’s and cross their t’s? And yes, capitalise their I’s?? Ok ok…I am ranting…but please…follow the basics of English grammar…for the sake of your poor readers.

Language, culture and politics

During one of my philosophical musings earlier in the day, I wondered how important language was to our lives. From language, my thoughts drifted to the anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s in Tamil Nadu. And from there, it turned inevitably to the massive north-south divide that still exists in India. I had blogged once earlier on how difficult it was to find a south-Indian recipe on the web. I had raved and ranted about how India was automatically equated with the North and with Paneer Butter Masala and Tandoori Roti. Today’s post is, in a certain way, a continuation of the previous. People’s association of India with Delhi and its surroundings makes me uncomfortable. It makes me wonder why exactly the South is so conspicuously absent in popular memory. While I have nothing against the North or Delhi, it makes me upset, sometimes angry that people wonder if I speak Hindi the minute they meet me. I do, but that’s not the point. The point is that I don’t have to speak Hindi because I was born and raised in Chennai. There is no fair reason for me to learn the language as I get by perfectly well in Chennai with Tamil and English. This said, I would like to issue a disclaimer. I know Hindi, I can speak it fairly well, and simply use English words in place of Hindi ones if I am stuck. Therefore, any possible accusations of Hindi-phobia are entirely unfounded.

A friend of mine told me about a friend of hers, who is coming to France from Greece. This friend had a tough time figuring out the meanings of road signs in Athens because all of them were in Greek. Random thought: Maybe this is what people mean when they say “this is all greek to me!” Anyway, that made me think about the situation back home. As far as I have seen, sign boards are largely bilingual in Chennai. I cannot say the same about Bangalore or Bombay. I remember trying to recollect my Hindi numerals, rather desperately might I add, in Bombay because someone told me to take bus number 63 and I could not figure out how the hell the numerals 6 and 3 are written!

Anyway, this is fast becoming a pointless rant because I have been on this post for so long that I forgot what exactly I wanted to say. Not to mention that I am being extremely random today. Maybe it is a product of the euphoria produced because I am going back home!!

Get it right! Indian is a nationality…

A couple of days ago, I came across a facebook group telling people to get an atlas if they can’t recognise country names. And, I remembered my first experiences in France. The first time I told someone outside of Sciences Po that I was from India was at the residence where I live. This guy insisted on starting a conversation with me when I was doing my laundry. Wanting to be polite, I replied to his question on my nationality by saying I was Indian. And voila! He says, “Ah! Tu es indienne? Donc, tu parles indien?” To translate, asked me if I spoke Indian. It made me want to turn around and tell him to be a little more precise. Which one of the 21 official languages and more than 500 (I may be wrong here) unofficial ones is Indian? I refrained from unleashing my sarcasm on the unsuspecting character and decided to be polite. I explained that there were more languages in India than in the whole of Europe put together. Which one did he mean? To that he replies, with a tone of great sincerety, “But, all of them must be comprehensible to everyone right?”

Uh oh…problem here. Tell me, is French comprehensible to someone who speaks only Romanian? Or English to someone who speaks Norwegian exclusively? Then how the hell does he expect a native Bengali to understand Tamil? I dismissed the incident as a freak accident of fate. But no, I had overestimated the intelligence of some people in this place. Since then, I have met people who have asked me the same dumb questions. “Is there internet in India? Do you speak English? Do you have electricity?” Haven’t they heard of India ever? Haven’t they followed the furore that outsourcing created? Have they not ever heard of Amartya Sen? Do you have any idea how many Indians work at Microsoft? Do they even know that when they call Dell to troubleshoot your computer, they are probably talking to an Indian named Maragathavalli with the nickame Maggie, or one named Sambasivam a.k.a Sam?

For the last time guys, I am not from the tip of the world. I come from a country that is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is many times bigger than France or Germany and is home to one-sixth of humanity. And also for the last time, a language called Indian does not exist. It is Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Gujarati or even Tulu, but not Indian. Get it right! Indian is a nationality, not a language!

Words, comforting in their familiarity

As I sit in my chair before the computer, sipping a cup of hot tea, many thoughts and ideas attack me from all sides. Half of them concern my virtually non-existent talents in Spanish, and the other half concern the comfort a familiar voice can offer. The language barrier is something that has always concerned and baffled me. I never had to face it when I arrived in Paris, seeing as I spoke French perfectly well. But, it hit me on the face when my Senegalese neighbour started speaking in rapid-fire Senegalese. This was quickly followed by an overheard conversation between two of my Chinese neighbours. And suddenly, I felt surrounded. I almost wished that I could speak in Tamil or Hindi with someone who would understand. I understand that feeling claustrophobic about incomprehensible languages is slightly crazy, but it made me realise the importance of the spoken word. I almost took my language skills for granted. I automatically assumed that I could manage because I spoke 5 languages and understood two others rather well. Apparently, that is not enough. Probably because 3 of the 5 languages are Indian languages. Words that I can understand are almost comforting in their familiarity. A simple ‘thank you’ can communicate so much to one who understands the meaning.

But then, I am in a rather crazy, philosophical mood, pondering the meaning of love and life, of words and meanings, of music and melody. They are all indications that there is still sense in living this life we so desperately seek to control. But, I suppose the very same words, that held so much meaning, can become meaningless and irrelevant if overused. I learnt this the hard way. But this said, I will always love words. After all, there is a reason for doing a masters in literature…

The Sound of Music and the Power of Language

I was listening to A R Rahman’s song “New York Nagaram Urangum Neram” from Sillunu Oru Kaadal this afternoon. Seeing as I was slightly free and wanted to relax, this seemed a good choice. Now, this is not the first time I am hearing this song, nor is it the first time I actually paid attention to the lyrics. But, today was different. Feeling slightly depressed as I was, thanks to the rain in Paris, the lyrics got an entirely new feel. I had never before noticed the astounding complexity of sounds in the song. Rahman is known for using many layers of sound to create his truly unique music, but this one takes the cake. The song, about a young husband spending time away from his wife in faraway New York, touched a chord. The sheer pain of separation and the desire to get back as soon as possible came through every word of the song. How did I miss this one? Given that it is the ringtone of my phone, I get to hear it quite often. But it never touched my heart the way it did today.

That set me thinking. How many songs have I heard that makes me want to cry, laugh, feel nostalgic or express some emotion in some way? Well, the answer is clear. Not too many. The ones that do are few and far between. One song that never fails to elicit some kind of reaction from me is the song Mettuppodu from the movie Duet. It really is beautiful. I reacted with confusion when I first heard it. I was quite young, still a teen. I had no idea language could mean so much to someone. And I frankly could not understand why someone would want to sing about the Tamil language of all things. Today, I have come a long way. And I do agree that the language has a beauty that none other can really match. I am not an expert in Tamil. Indeed, my first attempt at reading anything more than road signs in the language came when I was 17. But, as I discovered the world of Tamil literature, I realised that it is a language that was more beautiful than Milton’s English or Racine’s French. However, my primary languages remain English and French. I would not want to torture my poor readers by writing anything in Tamil. Today, I hear the same song, and I feel a sense of nostalgia. I wish I could abandon clumsy attempts at explaining Indian cuisine in French and English and just revert to Tamil. With the nostalgia comes a sense of shame. Shame that I know English, French or even Tamil better than my own mother tongue, Kannada. Hell, I can even speak, read and write Hindi. But I cannot distinguish between Kannada and Telugu. Some Kannadiga I am!

Anyway, with that observation, I go back to listening to music. And yes, much as many find it difficult to believe, I prefer Indian music any day to anything western. Maybe it is just me, but I need to feel the words, understand them with my heart and not my brain, and above all, relate to it. Indian music lets me do that. Pop, rock or jazz do not. It is as simple as that. I prefer the beautiful and melodious voice of Nithyashree Mahadevan supported by only a tambura, or the Instrumental theme music of the film Bombay to Britney Spears singing in an accent that is as alien to me as Swedish is to the average Indian. Music, poetry, literature and language can all heal the soul and make one happy.

On a totally unrelated note, I just wish people would stop associating Tamil with the LTTE. I speak Tamil, live in Tamil Nadu, and love the sound of the language. It doesn’t make me a terrorist!! Argh! I just wish they would stop.

Confessions of an obsessed anglophile

These are, as the title suggests, the confessions of an obsessed freak. I am totally and completely fed up of people using the words then and than interchangeably. I am also fed up of people forgetting that good is an adjective, and well is an adverb. One cannot do good in studies. He/she can only do well. Is it really that difficult to remember some basic rules of English grammar? I am a stickler for good grammar. So, shoot me! The French would not take kindly to someone speaking their language badly. They will and do correct glaring mistakes in language. While I acknowledge that writing in e-mail lingo is both quicker and easier, there must be some ground rules on writing in serious columns and blogs. I agree that your blog is your own personal way of saying what you feel like. But, that doesn’t mean you render yourself totally incomprehensible to the unsuspecting reader who stumbles on your home page.

I was looking for some maps on the Indian Ocean region a few days ago and I stumbled on a blog that supplied great maps, but was written in atrociously ungrammatical English. I was curious enough to look up the name and location of the owner of the site on www.dnsstuff.com. And voila! I find that the site is owned by someone in California, United States. My reasoning that it must be a work of a person who was not a native speaker went flying out of the window. This business makes me think that George Bernard Shaw was right when he lamented the state of the English language in the play Pygmalion. Why can’t people just take the effort to learn the language they use every day?