अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

April 4, 2010

Ptypho

I had then recently joined the center. As is quite fashionable (it wasn’t when I did my graduation at some other institution), the young members of the center decided to have T-shirts made with the center’s name. The student who took up the responsibility of preparing the design for the T-shirts was earlier associated with the center but had shifted to some other more respectable center.

The design was created, T-shirts were made and they were paid for and worn by almost all the members of the center. The text on them said ‘The Langauge Cookers’ or ‘The Lagnuage Cookers’ (more likely the latter), with the Language part in a very large size.

One day I was returning to the lab, along with a couple of other graduate students. An undergraduate student (most probably from a more respectable center) came from the opposite side and stopped. He stood in front of the one who was wearing that newly made T-shirt. He put his finger on the misspelled text on the T-shirt and said the following in a tone that is used to point out the incredible stupidity of someone:

– You know that this spelling is wrong?

He was from a center not dealing in mere language.

The T-shirt wearer couldn’t say anything because he hadn’t realized that there was a spelling error. I had noticed the error and had thought that the designer of the T-shirt had chosen a smart and humorous way to say something positive about the mission of the center and the discipline. I was too shocked to reply immediately, but I found the words in time:

– It’s deliberate.

Now it was his turn to be dumbstruck.

– It’s deliberate?

– Yeah, of course it’s deliberate.

I couldn’t resist being scornful. He was still dumbstruck.

– But why?

I didn’t have time to formulate a reply because he left soon after that.

I narrated the incident once or twice to others and they seemed to share my feelings.

Well, time passed (as they say), and I came to know that there were many others in the center who had not noticed the spelling error recreated in such a large size. Or they hadn’t thought about it.

Then I found out that the general consensus outside the center was that the designer of the T-shirt (along with others) had great fun at the expense of the whole center and that the typo was indeed deliberate (what else could it be?), but the designer had wanted to say something very different from what I had imagined.

He was a well liked member of the center and later moved to an Ivy League U.S. university. He remained a well liked (albeit former) member.

My head still hurts from thinking about it. But I can’t escape it because every day something reminds me of this, especially in academics.

Do I hear someone saying that there really are some typos in many posts on this blog?

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February 9, 2010

The Fundoo Funda

‘Funda’ is a Hindi word (or, more accurately, an Indian word, as it is also used in other Indian languages, including English), which is a short form of the English word fundamental. The same is the case with the word ‘fundoo’, except that is it an adjective derived from ‘funda’ according to Hindi derivational morphology. The adjective has two senses. One of these is the sense familiar to a select group of people, the kind who are educated in colleges like New Delhi’s St. Stephen’s and have a circle made up almost exclusively of people from a similar background. For this group of people, the word ‘fundoo’ means fundamentalist. And nothing else.

Thus, for them, ‘fundoo’ (the noun version) basically means a person from the Sangh Parivar. And since they (not the Sangh Parivaris) are mainly ‘secular’, it is a term of derision. Just like the other n-term they have for the Sangh Parivaris.

I first became familiar with this word when I entered an engineering college for my bachelor’s degree. In that college, the word was heavily used. It meant someone whose fundamentals (as in Thermodynamics or Theory of Machines) were very strong, i.e., who was very good at something. It could also be used with some metaphorical extension to mean high praise (with regard to anything) for someone or something. It might sound strange to many, but at that time I somehow thought that this word (and the word ‘funda’) were slang words only used in that particular college.

Later I found out that these two words are among the most heavily used words as far as the young (school or college) generation is concerned.

Being called fundoo can be a big complement, though the overuse of the term means that the complement could be highly diluted.

I didn’t become familiar (till much later) with the other sense — fundamentalist — of the word till I read a particular number of one of the most popular columns in the Indian press, written by Khushwant Singh. I had no idea that the word was also used in this sense. But what was more surprising, almost astonishing to me, was the fact that Khushwant Singh similarly seemed to have no idea that there was another sense in which this word was used.

By the way, I wrote ‘one of the most popular columns in the Indian press’ instead of ‘in the National’ or ‘in the English’ press because this particular column is syndicated by many Indian language newspapers and they publish a translation.

As I then read all kinds of magazines and newspapers etc., I found out that there were others like Khushwant Singh for whom too the word only meant one thing: fundamentalist. What was common among all these people was that they were from the select group that I mentioned in the beginning.

I have spent various periods of time in many educational institutions of India and have lived in many cities and towns and have kept my eyes and ears open, especially to language related things. Nowhere except in the writings of this group of people have I found anyone using the word ‘fundoo’ in the sense that they use. And as I said ealier, it is one of the most heavily used words and therefore I keep hearing it much too regularly.

I am aware that there might, in fact, be some other people outside this group who use the word in that rare sense. And I am not sure about the origin of the word either. It could very well be that the word was initially used in the first sense. But I have heard no one using it in that sense. Not a single person.

To repeat once more to make the point clear, the second sense of the word is used so heavily that I find it hard to believe that if you live in an Indian city or even a small town (and know either English or an Indian language), you could remain oblivious to the second sense of the word. But you could easily be unaware of the first sense because it is used so rarely. The only way this can happen is if that group of people has somehow cut itself off from the life around it and is not much in touch with it.

This cut off has to be fairly radical, because according to many yardsticks, I myself am quite cut off.

But I know the second sense. As well as the first. I knew them long before I started studying Linguistics or related fields.

Or perhaps they are words from two different languages, the first spoken by the top caste and the second by the lesser mortals.

February 6, 2010

The Elite Strikes Back, Fetishiously

From right after the transfer of power from the British to the local English Elite (the Babus in the broadest sense), one recurrent theme in the Indian ‘National’ press, which translates as the English press, has been to come down like a 16 ton weight on anyone who so much as mentioned the case of the Indian languages and the extraordinary privileges enjoyed by the English speaking Elite in the country. So, for example, if any politician of the Hindi belt suggested that students should be allowed to write some important exam in Indian languages or that English should not be compulsory at the primary level or even something much less radical-revolutionary and world shaking, there would be (without fail) editorials in the ‘National’ newspapers about how the language chauvinists are going to lay waste our great democracy.

With the changes that have happened in the last 15 years or so (some for better and more for worse), this trend became less common. But now the lumpen antics of the Thackerays have given the Elite a golden opportunity to come back with a 32 (or is it 64?) ton weight on the ‘language chauvinists’.

The way the Thackerays have been able to carry on their thuggery (in the Hindi as well as the English sense of the term) is so absurd that only a few things can compete with it. And one of those things is the fact that the English Elite of the country have been so amazingly successful in summarily suppressing all Indian languages including the legally National Language (Hindi), the language that has the most chauvinistic support from its speakers (Tamil) and the language of the most intellectual community of the sub-continent (Bengali). These and many others are not endangered languages (at least not yet). Most of them can be called mega languages in terms of the number of speakers. All of this is so well known and so often repeated that I feel weary of having to write this. Also equally well known is the fact that only a very small fraction of the Indian population is comfortable with English. However, as India is a society whose structure is mainly defined by the caste system, no one except the top caste wants to remain in their own caste. They all want to make the transition to the higher castes, even as they list the reasons for the greatness of their caste. And the highest caste now effectively is that of the English speakers, who have replaced the (literal) Brahmins from their perch at the top (I know, ‘replaced’ is not a good term because a large fraction of the Elite is Brahmin). Naturally then everyone wants ultimately to make the transition to the top caste. This has lead to an extremely comic and absurd fetish about any language anywhere in the world. It is the fetish for the English language. This fetish too is a well known, though rarely talked about in the English media. A recent issue of the Outlook magazine was an exception. (The issue was the exception, not the magazine). The ‘language media’, of course, used to talk about it. Innumerable books have been written about it. Movies have been made about it (a recent one being Tashan, one of whose stars is now living out his character’s fetish in the real world). And sometimes politicians have talked about it for electoral purposes. But most of them have learned that it doesn’t pay much as the Indians (especially the North Indians) are not very keen to be seen speaking their own languages when in respectable company. They don’t even want it to be known to anyone that they are not good at English. Parents who can’t speak the language will parade their English learning children in front of any visitor and have a little performance of nursery rhymes being chanted in English, even if the visitor as well as the child feel tortured. They will also mention with pride that their child is very poor in Hindi (or any other Indian language).

It’s not that no one in the English speaking community has noted this. Even Nayantara Sehgal had mentioned this in one of her novels long ago. More recently Arundhati Roy had written about the oustee villagers from the Narmada dam site being scolded by Maneka Gandhi for not writing their petition in English, after they had travelled all the way, enduring hardship and hoping to save their lives. There have been others like Namita Gokhale among the (English speaking) writers and artists who have at least hinted at the absurdity of the situation.

But, by and large, the Elite has managed to suppress all talk about any fairness with regard to Indian languages which account for the overwhelming majority of the population of India. They have used diversity as an argument for maintaining the hegemony of English. They have used chauvinism as an argument. They have pitted one big language (Tamil) against the other (Hindi). They have pitted small languages (the so called dialects of Hindi) against big languages. They have pitted Dalits against the upper castes: no matter that most of them belong to the upper castes themselves. They have used linguistically spurious claims about the superiority of English over the ‘less developed’ Indian languages. They have steadfastly refused to concede even a pinhead worth of territory to the Indian languages.

Talk of divisiveness.

Unfortunately for them, The Market (whose praise they are now singing, be they from any part of the political spectrum) may be a brutal place, but it has allowed the Indian languages to gain some territory. As had the linguistic reorganisation of the states, which also (like the demands for linguistic fairness, not like The Market) they have always kept riling against.

When Pepsi and the others came after The Reforms, they didn’t give a damn about what language can get them more customers. Before that, big companies in India preferred to make commercials in English, unless their product was some low brow thing that no one would want to talk about. It is understandable why: the top advertising agencies are mostly dominated by the elitest of the Elite. It must have been hard for them to get used to the presence of Indian languages in their midst. To give the devil his due, they have managed the transition quite well, at least on the public front. It has turned out that these underdeveloped languages can be used ‘creatively’ after all, whatever may be the purpose. I don’t know what to feel about this.

The people may be ashamed of their own languages and of being seen reading books in them (chauvinism indeed!), but they are hooked to the movies and T.V. serials in those same languages. The movie scene is not any less hilarious either. The people involved in these movies may be making their career, earning huge amounts of money and generally being the gods of urban life in India (along with the cricket stars) through Indian languages, but they too are equally ashamed of the languages they make movies in. The scripts of Bollywood movies are written using the Latin alphabet. More than one big Bollywood Hindi movie star has been on record saying he hates Hindi. One of them said he didn’t want anyone around him speaking in Hindi. Offscreen, all they want is for their lives to be copies of Hollywood stars. And they are prepared to pretend that their mediocre work in ‘foreign’ English movies (to the extent they get such work, the chances of which are increasing now as the real superpower focuses a little bit more of its attention eastward this side) is by far better than their best work in Hindi movies. They will tell you the reason for this too: English movies give them far more exposure than Hindi movies (if they do, what does quality matter?). As for the criticism which suggests otherwise, well, ‘it will die its own death’.

Another of the cards the Elite uses against any demand for linguistic fairplay is that of communalism. The fact that the Jan Sangh/BJP and the Sangh Parivar in general have been shouting the slogan of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ has been used time and again to put down (and discredit) any such demand. This time they are vehemently talking about how the ‘Hindi fetish’ of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has brought about the Thackerays’ Marathi version of the same. One of them has grudgingly noted, though, that there are differences between the two.

The only part of the slogan in which the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are interested in is the Hindu part, and they have made a travesty of even that. The preferred name for India for them is Bharat, not Hindustan. India is referred to as Hindustan (or Hindostan) more in the Urdu literature than in the Hindi literature or in the literature of these right wingers.

As a person whose mother tongue is Hindi (standard Hindi, Khari Boli) and who wants to write in Hindi, I refuse to surrender all the rights of this language or the terms Hindustan, Parivar, Sangh (or even Hindu) etc. to the Sangh Parivar conglomeration. The Elite has done its best to give exclusive rights for all these to the conglomeration. I keep the rights to these as an individual, not as a member of a group. I also keep the rights to contribute and participate as an individual, without being a member of any group.

The plain fact is that injustices are committed on a large scale every day in this huge country in the name of languages. However, there can be no doubt that the largest number of these injustices are in the name of English. Time and again I have seen (first hand) how careers of even brilliant students go the steep downward path because they are not so good at English. And careers are a just small part of the picture. If you are involved in a court case, you are unlikely to be heard if you use an Indian language.

I am not talking about a polish person’s case not being heard properly in France because he can’t talk in French. Even that, as a lot of the members of the Elite perhaps know, can be a valid grievance.

The plain fact is also, as a prominent Hindi writer said in an interview on Doordarshan, that ‘we’ (the people talking about the Indian languages) have accepted English as an Indian language and as our own: the question is whether ‘you’ (the English Elite) are prepared to accept the Indian languages as Indian and as your own.

She said this when the first great lit-fest was held a few years ago at a former royal palace near Jaipur where the guest of honour was V. S. Naipaul, who came with all his knightly glory. And where hardly any Indian language author was invited.

If you don’t listen to people like her, then some day you might have to listen to people like the Thackerays. And you might have to pretend that you like what they are saying.

Another plain fact is that most of the mainstream literary writers in Indian languages (whatever might be their other shortcomings) are neither chauvinists nor communalists. In fact, they are the most committed opponents of the right wing politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. And hardly any of them has ever been able to survive from literary writing alone, except perhaps those whose books become textbooks, which is itself a long story. Dismissing the whole idea of linguistic fairness by waving the communalism card is something that we usually expect from unscrupulous politicians, but the Elite (especially of the Left variety) has been doing exactly this ever since the transfer of power to them. Absurd as it may sound, one can understand this if one realizes that they have always felt threatened that some day the vernacular hordes will take the power away from them. There is a great deal they have at stake. I suspect part of their initial vehement opposition against the BJP was motivated by this. And the BJP saw this and made good use of this: they started talking about political untouchability being practiced against them and they gained a lot of sympathy votes on this point alone. The same Elite later became much more tolerant of the BJP once it came to power. Perhaps they accepted it as the fait accompli.

Fait accompli is another card that is heavily used by the Elite. English is the most powerful language that can give you any chance of a decent career and the possibility of some kind of justice so just shut up and try to improve your English. As one strategic think-tanker recently wrote about the Taliban, if you really want to get something done, then you have to go and talk to the people who have power.

As a not so irrelevant aside, consider the paid news affair, which is causing quite a stir these days. Newspapers have been always been used as weapons by both small and big power mongers. While the big newspapers are used more subtly, the smaller ones (with exceptions and to varying degrees) have either been directly owned by the powerful political and corporate people or have been available for hire. But after the Great Indian Reforms and Liberalisation, some big newspapers like the Times of India started the business of paid news quite openly. Till recently, however, there was only a little murmur of protest from the rest of the English Media. Then the ‘vernacular’ newspapers (for whom it is much harder to compete as they get less advertisements and at lower rates) started following the example of the TOI, but they did it more crudely. Suddenly it became a big issue, with even Dilip Padgaonkar telling us what a scourge paid news is.

Why would the editor of a National daily spend the time and effort to write an editorial about every non-committal language related statement from every two penny politician?

The Left part of the Elite is prepared to talk about all kinds of injustices except those related to language. Except when it is Indian language vs. Indian language. In that case it’s great fun for them.

What we actually have is a strange kind of fanatic language chauvinism practiced by the Elite against all Indian languages: more than just fetishist chauvinism. It’s so real that you only need to walk the roads of any Indian city and read the posters (among other things) of English teaching joints.

Not that there are no injustices in the name of Indian languages. The situation very much fits the big-fish-small-fish metaphor. There is also the infinitely indecent situation in Indian villages of there being separate upper caste and Dalit languages. The Dalits are not allowed to use the ‘upper caste language’. Language is used as a tool for domination, oppression and daily humiliation. In this language-eat-language world, the biggest fish by far in India (as in most parts of the world) is English. Even if it is spoken by a miniscule minority.

Trying to cover up this situation with slick diatribes about chauvinism and communalism might go on paying for a long time, but it might also lead to more dangerous situations than what we already have.

I really haven’t believed for one moment that the Thackerays have any love for Marathi. It’s their only possible ticket to power as of now. If they find some other better ticket, they will gladly drop the whole Marathi Manoos issue. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are a bit more serious about the Hindi part of their slogan, but as their conduct while in power has shown, they care about Hindi only as much as the Bajrang Dal cares about the Indian culture. And everyone knows how much and of what kind that is. I abhor all kinds of chauvinism, but I still think it is an insult to the real chauvinists (like the ones who took part in the anti-Hindi riots a few decades ago) to call the Thackerays (or even the Sangh Parivaris) language chauvinists.

(1) What people like the Thackerays say, goes something like this:

  • Give licenses to taxi drivers only if they are Marathi speakers.
  • If the above is not done, we will get us some North Indian migrants kicked.
  • We will not allow anyone to do whatever we might decide they shouldn’t do.
  • We will thrash anyone who doesn’t agree with us.

(2) Here is what a real chauvinist might say:

  • Marathi is the greatest (or one of the greatest) language(s) in the world.
  • No Marathi speaker should use any word borrowed from any other language.
  • Hindi is actually a corrupted version of Marathi.
  • There is some evidence that the languages of Central Asia are derived from Marathi.

(3) A Marathi fetishist (if there are such people) might say this:

  • I am afraid to read English (or Hindi) books because they bring bad luck to me.
  • I must have a temple in my house to worship Marathi.
  • If my son doesn’t speak Marathi, I think he will become a pervert.
  • The captions of the Playboy centerfolds should be pasted over with Marathi ones before one looks at them.

(4) Then there could also be demands like:

  • English should not be compulsory at the primary level. It should be left to the parents to decide.
  • Students should not be punished for speaking in Marathi.
  • Knowledge of English (or Hindi) should not be compulsory for certain jobs.
  • Marathi writers (and newspapers, magazines, books) should be treated in the same way as English (or Hindi) ones.

There can’t be any debate about (1), (2) and (3), but as far as I can see, the three still have to be treated differently (say, for moral, psychological or political discussion). But there can (and should) definitely be debate about (4). That is, if by democracy you mean something substantial, not just a protective shield to keep your hold on the power indefinitely. If you put all four in the same group and dismiss them all, then there is some chance that this might lead to some bad things, even if Indians are ashamed to use their own language for higher purposes.

To touch upon another taboo topic, a great great deal has been written about Bombay becoming Mumbai, but I don’t remember anyone pointing out that Bombay had already been Mumbai for the Marathi speakers (not to say that it was and is Bambai for Hindi speakers), just as Calcutta had been Kolkata for Bengali speakers and Delhi has been either Dilli or Dehli for Hindi speakers. Is that completely irrelevant?

If we were to take the English Elite’s rhetoric about chauvinism seriously, one would have to call even Orhan Pamuk a language chauvinist. And Satyajit Ray. And Tolstoy. And every French writer. And so on.

In many places in his books Tolstoy resentfully showed how French was treated as the superior language among the Russian Elite and how no one among them wanted to be seen speaking Russian. Except may be when talking to the inferior people: servants, peasants etc.

As one member of the Elite (in a moment of frankness) living in New Delhi narrated in a ‘middle’ in The Hindustan Times several years ago, she was embarrassed when a foreigner from the West came to visit them and tried to talk to them in Hindi. Because for her and for the people in her class, Hindi was a language to be used when talking to vegetable sellers.

Most members of the BJP would love to make a transition to the same class. Some have already done that.

There are schools in India where students are punished for using an Indian language. Not in the class room. Not just for any formal or academic purpose, but even in their private conversation, say while playing in the playground.

So much for chauvinism.

Not to mention the Fetish part.

As for the Thackerays, I wonder why they don’t write their surname as Thakre.

They are defiling the name of one my favourite writers.

February 23, 2009

Hundred (Fictitious) Dollar Oscars

This has been said by someone else, but I will repeat it anyway: if the new ‘Indian’ craze in the West, Slumdog Millionaire, wins one (or possibly more) Oscars, it will be due, to a large extent, to one particular scene in the movie. After the protagonist plays foul with an American (actually the US, lest we forget altogether) tourist couple and is being beaten brutally by an Indian, the American couple rescues him, only to get the retort that ‘you wanted to see a bit of real India’. And the lady’s answer is to get a hundred dollar note (we don’t call it a ‘bill’, nor a ‘bank note’) from her husband and hand it to the offending boy with what we call a dialogue in Hindi, ‘well, here is a bit of real America, son’. As the person who mentioned this scene earlier (although I had thought of the scene in more or less the same way) also pointed out, this American lady (that’s what we now call a woman in Hindi) is shown to be the only really good person in the whole movie.

But the movie is supposed to be all about Indians, so there are no real people other than Indians except this lady. The only Western (White and presumably Christian) person in the whole movie can hardly not be a representative of the average Westerner (let alone the US Americans) as opposed to the wretched, written-to-be-wretched, Indians, especially when she makes such a grand gesture accompanied by a solid dialogue.

Since there still are people out there who are going to (or already have) criticize this movie for some crappy reason like selling India’s poverty to the West etc., one has to give out the mandatory disclaimer that one is most certainly not against this movie for any such reason. In fact, one is not really against this movie at all.

I most probably wouldn’t have commented on this movie had it not become such a sensation and also given that a lot of insightful commentators have already written about it. But now it looks very much likely that the movie is going to get that most-prestigious-in-the-globe-but-actually-the-US-American movie award named Oscar, and probably more than one. This means that the movie will be taken seriously by a lot of non-Indians and perhaps even by some Indians. And, as I indicated earlier, it is not really such a bad movie. The problem is that it is not a great movie at all, which is what it is being made out to be outside India.

And like one other commentator (pardon me for not giving references, but I am tired right now: though I can provide them on need), I find it hard to believe that it is directed by the same person who directed that movie which is in my list of Very Good Movies (in the company of movies by Bergman, Fellini, De Sica, Kubrick and the like), namely Trainspotting. Whereas that movie was exactly what it wanted to be, this movie almost fails completely, although it is still entertaining.

There are so many things which are fundamentally and very clearly wrong with this movie. Accent is, of course, one of them. I wonder whether Danny Boyle knows that the knowledge of English (and even more so its use with a particular accent) is the single most reliable indicator of one’s socio-economic status in the Indian subcontinent. And the movie shows the ‘slumdog’ using the highest caste accent whereas the elite TV show host using a pretty low caste accent (yes, Anil Kapur’s accent is not very ‘good’ and he would usually be looked down upon among a circle of people speaking in almost British accent, as does the protagonist).

I would urge Danny and his crew to go and see Tashan, which has some similarities with this movie and also stars Anil Kapur.

The movie could have been so much better if it was made in Hindi and had better casting and had hired some accent tutors like they do in Hollywood even for the all-(US)-American movies.

The second big problem is that the novel on which it is based doesn’t talk Karma-Varma at all. And the movie resolves everything at the end by saying ‘because it is written’. And Danny Boyle himself in an interview (roughly) said that you simply can’t resolve the complexities of India: they are just there. Then he said ‘they even have a philosophy for this’, which says to me that he seems to know very little about India. Yes, there is a philosophy of that kind, but there are innumerable other philosophies too.

Come on, Danny, no one in India actually says ‘I don’t know, I have got a sort of Karmic feeling about this’ or something like that (as the TV show host does). This Karmic terminology is more used in the West, than in the ‘real India’. No one really talks about ‘Karma’ here. (Even when they do, they don’t do it in this way). Though they do talk of Bhaagya and Taqdeer and Maathe Ki Lakeer etc. Which is not the same thing. And which is the reason this movie can be accused of being indulgent in post-modern Orientalism (someone else said that too).

In many parts of India, if you spoke out the word ‘Karma’ in the way Danny Boyle (or any Westerner talking about India) does, people would think you were talking about a patriotic movie starring an old Dilip Kumar pairing with one of my favorite (favourite for the less dominant party to which Danny belongs) female actors, Nutan. This ‘Karma’ is, of course, not the same word. In fact, it’s not a word at all: it’s a name.

It’s an ambiguous Named Entity that I would classify as either a Person or as an Object-Title, depending on the context.

In the same interview, Danny Boyle says about Mumbai (which we still quite often call Bambai – बंबई in Hindi and Bombay in English) that ‘they call it the Maximum City’. Well, it’s actually Suketu Mehta who calls Mumbai that. A lot can be said about that book too, but I won’t say it now.

Now the music. Well, the simple and solid fact is that A. R. Rehman has given much better music before, right from his very first hit, Roja. If some Indians start respecting him now because he wins an Oscar or two, I can only pity them. And I pity the non-Indians too: for being completely unaware of such great music even in this .mp3 era. Music which has been heard and liked by hundreds of millions of people for more than one and a half decade now.

But let me reiterate. This is not such a bad movie. Your money won’t be wasted if you go and see it. But it is definitely not ‘a gritty and realistic’ movie about India, except in some ways which are of no use to an Indian and could be misleading for a non-Indian.

Let me reiterate something else. The Indian ‘reality’ is much worse than what is depicted in the movie, which is basically a lived-happily-ever-after fantasy.

And featuring the US American lady in the movie with her fictitious hundred dollars is a cheap (pun intended) trick to win over the Western (especially American) audiences whose senses will be offended by what is shown in the movie (for the dummies: this is a deliberate but slight exaggeration). Because if the truth were told, a big share (not all, of course) of the responsibility of this worse reality of India (as of other colonized or near-colonized countries) rests with the West.

Overall, Slumdog Millionaire is in the same league as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Both movies are inspired by the ‘Bollywood’ style of film making and both have directors who seem to know precious little about India but who wanted to pay some tribute to the country and its films, just as the earlier Orientalist artists paid their own tributes to the seductive, exotic East as imagined by them with their artistic temperament. But as an Indian I feel that the latter movie has a definite edge. That could be partly because it doesn’t pretend to know (and, therefore, tell) much about India.

Slumdog Millionaire’s only connection to Trainspotting, ironically, happens to be a scene that was hard to watch even for the hardened Indians: the jump in and out of the shitpot. And even this scene was done much better in Trainspotting.

There is also a serious matter that is concerned with both the style as well as the content. It’s a very tricky matter to mix realism with fantasy, which is what Slumdog Millionaire tries to do. And it does quite a bad job of it.

As it happens, Danny Boyle came and lived in India for some time for making this movie. One gets the impression that he was overwhelmed by what he saw and didn’t quite know what to make of it. And in such cases the easiest resort is to the Karmic poppycock that the movie ends at. Small mercy that it is done with the tongue at least lightly in the cheek.

P.S.: Also for the dummies, the word ‘caste’ above has been used metaphorically, not literally. Knowledge of English and the accent is a big (perhaps the biggest) determinant of the metaphorical caste in India. Even in the India of Call Centres. Or should it be ‘especially in that India’?

October 2, 2008

Fashionable Phrases – 1

Just like anything else, at any given time, there are certain phrases which become so fashionable that every third person is using them every third day for every third thing for every third …

These are times when many such phrases are in fashion. They are flying thick and fast.

One of the phrases I have noticed with increasing dread is ‘nip in the bud’. Every third etc. etc. is arguing for (even boasting of) nipping something or the other in the bud. Especially the experts talking about serious problems of the day in the mainstream media.

It’s time to listen to a certain song by Bob Marley.

April 2, 2008

At Around is Absolutely Alright

I sometimes read the ‘Corrections and clarifications’ column of The Hindu. I don’t know why. I don’t really believe in prescriptivism, nor do I want complete linguistic anarchy. Probably just to find out the current state of linguistic legality and linguistic morality, from the point of the view of the editors as well as the grammatically sensitive readers (this adjective I didn’t want to use, but I couldn’t find better).

A couple of days ago I again read this column. It is written by the Readers’ Editor (RE) of the paper. In this particular edition (is that the right word?) of the column, a list of different kinds of errors made by journalists is given.

At one point the, the RE says:

There are some favourite expressions of journalists that keep recurring despite their absurdity.

And one of the examples given is ‘at around 4 p.m.’, which the RE says is:

a contradiction — at is specific, around is approximate

As it happens, I use this expression quite often.

So, according to the LAPD (Linguistic Abuse Police Department), I am guilty of Using Favourite Expressions Despite their Absurdity.

But I don’t think it’s a contradiction. I don’t really know what the real Linguists have to say about this, but here is my case:

  1. When you want to mention a time (say, 4 p.m.) for some purpose (such as making an appointment), you can mean either 4 p.m. sharp or you can mean approximately 4 p.m., give or take 5 (or 10 or 15) minutes.
  2. In the first (sharp) case, you would say ‘at 4 p.m.’, with ‘sharp’ added optionally, depending on various things such as your and the other person’s habits and the equation between the two etc.
  3. The question is, what will you say in the second (approximate) case? Would you say ‘meet me around 4 p.m.’? To me, it sounds very awkward.
  4. Even when you do say ‘at 4 p.m.’, you cannot really mean exactly 4 p.m. because it is just not possible physically. This is actually mentioned in some Linguistics literature, though I don’t remember where.
  5. Quite often when you say ‘at 4 p.m.’, you actually mean approximately at 4 p.m. Then what is the need of using ‘at around 4 p.m.’ if ‘at 4 p.m.’ can mean approximately at 4 p.m.? To make the approximate nature explicit.
  6. In that case, why not use ‘approximately at 4 p.m.’ instead of ‘at around 4 p.m.’? Because the latter sounds better (and shorter and more informal) than the former.
  7. My question: Is ‘around’ used at all for specifying time, excluding the cases where it starts a sentence or a clause? Since I am not a ‘native speaker’ of English, however many tons of pages of good English I may have read and however many thousands of publishable and published pages of English I may have written, my linguistic intuition about the Global Language may be questionable.
  8. Therefore, I can only resort to empirical evidence. So I searched for the term ‘around 4 p.m.’ on the Web. What I find is that ‘around 4 p.m.’ is used quite often. However, almost all of this usage is in fragments, not in complete sentences (again excluding the cases where it starts a sentence or a clause).
  9. In almost all complete sentences, the usage is ‘at around 4 p.m.’.
  10. So, it seems that hardly anyone uses ‘around 4 p.m.’ to specify an approximate time. Most people use ‘at around 4 p.m.’.
  11. Which makes perfect sense to me, because it doesn’t sound awkward to me and everyone understands perfectly what I mean. In fact, it even sounds more musical to me than just saying ‘around 4 p.m.’. Excluding the cases mentioned earlier.
  12. In linguistic terms, it can be explained by saying that ‘at’ in this case is the preposition, whereas ‘around’ is not a preposition. They are serving different syntactic and semantic purposes. ‘Around’ is modifying ‘4 p.m.’ to convert it, so to say, from an instant to an interval. ‘At’, on the other hand is doing what prepositions do. Connecting constituents and specifying the relationships among them.
  13. It might be said that ‘at’ can only occur with an instant, not with an interval. In that case, it can also be argued that in reality there is no such thing as an instant (a point on the time scale with zero ‘width’). There are only intervals (points do have some non-zero ‘width’) and ‘around’ is just increasing the size of this interval.
  14. If you do insist that there are instants and ‘at’ can come only with instants, then it can be explained thus. ‘At’ is indeed coming with an instant but that instant is not exactly at ‘4 p.m.’ but somewhere near ‘4 p.m.’ (3:55 p.m. or 4:05 p.m.). ‘Around’ is being used to express this uncertainty.

Thus, as far as I can see, ‘at around 4 p.m.’ is absolutely alright. There is nothing absurd about it. Perhaps the law to which the LAPD is referring is absurd. That seems very likely. After all, every law book has more than enough absurd laws.

By the way, I also searched in the BNC corpus and the only sentence returned for ‘around 4 p.m.’ was this:

George Mayo was last seen at around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon.

I think it is not surprising at all, I mean the fact that there are so many absurd laws and rules. If you are the law maker or the law enforcer (or both) and you only make reasonable laws and/or enforce only reasonable laws, you are, in the South Park language, a pussy. Because if you are not, you would be able to make absurd laws and rules and get them enforced.

That’s what having power means. Doesn’t it?

Any, well, pussy, can make and enforce reasonable laws and rules.

March 31, 2008

The Hemingway (or Pilar) Argument for Diversity

Innumerable arguments can be given in favor (favour for the non-dominant party) of diversity. That is, diversity of all kinds: cultural, ecological, linguistic etc. But in this post I present a particularly good one. It’s from Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, which I am reading right now:

‘Then calm yourself. There is much time. What a day it is and how I am contented not to be in pine trees. You cannot imagine how one can tire of pine trees. Aren’t you tired of pines, guapa?’

‘I like them,’ the girl said.

‘What can you like about them?’

‘I like the odour and the feel of the needles under foot. I like the wind in the high trees and the creaking they make against each other.’

‘You like anything,’ Pilar said. ‘You are a gift to any man if you could cook a little better. But pine trees make a forest of boredom. Thou hadst never known a forest of beach, nor of oak, nor of chestnut. Those are forests. In such forests each tree differs and there is character and beauty. A forest of pine trees is boredom. What do you say, Inglés?’

‘I like them too.’

Pero, venga,’ Pilar said. ‘Two of you. So do I like pines, but we have been too long in these pines. Also, I am tired of the mountains. In mountains there are only two directions. Down and up and down leads only to the road and the towns of the Fascists.’

The forest analogy is good enough in itself, but I really liked the natural connection at the end between the lack of diversity and Fascism.

I don’t need to remind that diversity is fast eroding from every sphere of life. Even in India, the land of more diversity than perhaps any other. I also don’t need to remind that Fascism is rising in almost all regions of India, in various forms. Neither do I need to remind what is being used as a cover for rising Fascism. Yes, the T-word, which is sometimes equated to the M-word and sometimes to the N-word. With a lot of talk about the W-word.

There is no exaggeration here in the use of the F-word, although I do use the device of exaggeration sometimes.

And no, there are no mistakes in the language used in the quote due to my typing. This is just a mild example of how Hemingway represented Spanish speech in English.

February 29, 2008

English is Language Independent

It’s the Global Language, right? So how can it be language dependent? You propose a theory based on English. It has to apply to all languages. You propose a Natural Language Processing (NLP) or Computational Linguistics (CL) technique for a particular problem. For English. It applies to all languages. You build a software for some purpose. For English. It has to be useful for all languages. You build a dictionary…

Never mind.

But the vice versa is not true. You propose a theory based on Hindi. It is language specific. It doesn’t count for much. You propose an NLP technique for a particular problem. For Hindi. It is language specific. It doesn’t count for much. You build a software for some purpose. For Hindi. It is language specific. It doesn’t count for much.

That’s how it works in practice, if not theory. Or may be even in theory, with some help from the (very valid) idea of Universal Grammar (except that the UG may be the UG of English).

Even today I have got a review of a paper on a problem which is like one of the holy grails of NLP or CL. One of the comments is that the approach has been evaluated on Hindi so it can’t be compared to other techniques that already exist. True. But what is the number of papers published in the ‘first class’ NLP/CL conferences and journals in which the approach has been tried only on English? Doesn’t matter, because English is language independent. If you only evaluate your technique on English, that’s OK. But if you evaluate on only Hindi, that’s not acceptable. Because Hindi is language specific.

We know this very well in India. The Elite talks about (Indian) literature. And sometimes the Elite magnanimously (or dismissively) talks about (Indian) literature in languages. The first, of course, refers to literature in English. The second refers to literature in other languages. Indian languages.

The Elite talks of media. And the Elite (rarely and mostly negatively) talks of language media.

Hindi is a language. English is not a language.

Pardon me.

Hindi is a language. English is the language.

English is above being merely a language.

That’s why all the work done in English is language independent. Not just research. Not just in NLP/CL. Anything. Movies, literature, music.

I am guilty of the sin of indulging too much in mere languages. I should be working mostly on English. Not just writing blog posts in English. Sometimes, of course, I can bestow a bit of my attention on languages. Like Hindi.

But I won’t do that. I will do the opposite. I am incurable.

November 16, 2007

Bernard’s Bogus Fish

Filed under: Global Language,Linguistics et al.,Reviews,Work — anileklavya @ 9:10 am

About an year ago I had submitted a paper to a journal. The paper had mentioned Bernard Shaw’s famous ‘ghoti’ example, which he used to illustrate (according to him) the unpredictable and illogical nature of English spelling, and therefore of the Latin script as used for English. The paper was rejected, but that is not the interesting thing here. What is interesting is that one of the reviewers tersely commented that:

– Shaw’s “ghoti” example is bogus, as even Shaw must have known.

This is just the type of comment that makes me want to write a real red hot rant about reviewers. And you can understand that from the fact that I still feel strongly about it more than six months after I received the review. And the reviewer was most probably a senior scholar working on scripts.

Just in case you don’t know, Shaw argued that ‘ghoti’ is a plausible spelling for the word ‘fish’ because ‘gh’ can stand for ‘f’ (enough), ‘o’ can stand for ‘i’ (women) and ‘ti’ can stand for ‘sh’ (nation). Of course, I wasn’t the first to quote Shaw to argue that English has quite an idiosyncratic spelling.

The question that I want to ask is this: is the ‘ghoti’ example bogus, and if it is, did Shaw know this too?

I will tell you my answer: Shaw’s “ghoti” example is definitely not bogus. It is merely an exaggeration. And, yes, Shaw must have known that it is an exaggeration. And all the sensible people who have read this quote or used it, must have known very well that it is an exaggerated example. But it is not a bogus example. Shaw was a writer with considerable wit (which the above mentioned reviewer seems to lack). Writers use exaggerated examples all the time to make a point. There is a common understanding between the writer and the reader that something is being said with slight (or may be more than slight) exaggeration, but what is being exaggerated is not “bogus”: there is some valid point that needs to be made, but has to be made in way that will not sound like a boring repetition of some fact. Leave aside writers, even common people use this literary ‘device’ just to say something in an interesting way.

So, ‘ghoti’ definitely does not represent a typical English word. But it does illustrate the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling. It definitely is a valid example: a witty exaggeration which is supposed to be taken as a witty exaggeration. If your linguistic patriotism does not allow you to think bad of English in any way, too bad. That doesn’t change the fact that English words are spelled in a very irregular way. Yes, it is not as irregular as some people would like to claim (otherwise I would be making many more spelling mistakes), but it certainly is more irregular than many other languages. Is that a necessarily bad thing? I don’t think so. Many others have explained this point, so I wouldn’t go on about this, but this nature of English is a bad thing in some ways, and is perhaps even a good thing in some other ways. There is no need to feel bad about it.

By the way, Shaw tried to ‘reform’ the English script, but he failed. He even devised a phonetic alphabet for English and published a version of his play ‘Pygmalion’ in that alphabet. I am not at all enthusiastic about ‘reforms’ in languages or scripts, simply because I don’t think they are practical in most cases. But you won’t be baffled by this fact if you knew that he was heavily interested in phonetics and knew and admired Henry Sweet, one of the greatest phoneticians after the great ancient Indian phoneticians (that is a fact: I am not being patriotic). The protagonist of ‘Pygmalion’ (‘My Fair Lady’ on the silver screen) is loosely based on Sweet.

Years ago I had read a book called ‘More than Words can Say’. The writer of that book had called Shaw a crackpot. He didn’t give any particular reason. But my guess is that he said this because he too was one of the linguistic patriots, the kind who devised English language tests for aspiring immigrants to the USA in early 20th century and decreed that those who didn’t know English were inferior human beings. I wonder where the above reviewer is situated with respect to those linguistic patriots.

Just for the record, there is a claim that the ‘ghoti’ example actually came originally from some other spelling reformer, not from Shaw. I don’t think that affects what I have said above.

November 10, 2007

A Joycean Blasphemy

I wrote:

I am buried, right now. Under deadlines.

That was just a bit Joycean.

This one is more Joycean:

I am buried. Right. Now. And-er dead. Lines.

(Actually, there is also a touch of Arundhati Roy here.)

I can’t help imagining how a sub-ed would react to this: coming from a nobody. Not even a native speaker of the Global Language.

Blasphemy!

(The rant and the rave are yet to follow. They will come. I promise.)

(प्राण जाएं पर वचन न जाए)

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