Indian English

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Be warned. The day India becomes a super power, the rest of the world will have to sit down and study Indian English. On the bright side for the rest of the world, India seems to be one of those countries that is perpetually on the verge of becoming a super power but never quite getting there. However if you are planning to visit India or work here, be prepared.  Otherwise when someone tries to make conversation by saying that the Indian education system encourages mugging, you are apt to be a little confused and murmur that the US education system is not so bad though there have been shoot outs which left a few dead. All the friendly Indian is trying to say is that the education system encourages swotting or cramming or learning by rote, and not that we offer courses on “How to hold up unsuspecting citizens”.

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A little course on Indian English is my advice. A sneak peek: “Myself Harish. And brother, what is your good name? I am understanding your surprise completely. You are wanting to meet Mr Singh but he has gone to native. For your kind information only, sudden death in the family. Life is like that only.” Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Goodbye party for Miss Pushpa’ is a good starting point for your Indian English course. Please note that “Miss” does not refer to her marital status. In India, we address sweet old grandmothers and nubile nymphets as ‘Miss’; we are quite feminist that way. Here’s an extract from the poem:

“What sweetness is in Miss Pushpa.
You are all knowing, friends, 
I don’t mean only external sweetness
but internal sweetness. 
Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling
even for no reason but simply because 
she is feeling.”

“Whenever I asked her to do anything,
she was saying, ‘Just now only
I will do it.’ That is showing
good spirit. I am always/ appreciating the good spirit.”

On a side note, we often say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’ because it is so rude to say ‘no’. But please don’t think we will do it just because we said ‘yes’. It may be rude to say ‘no’ but it is perfectly okay to say ‘yes’ and not do it. You may be wondering how we get things done in India. Let me assure you we do. Often. And we do it well; otherwise we won’t have contributed that nifty word to the English language – ‘Bangalored’. Another word we are proud of contributing is ‘preponed’. Come to think of it, we have gifted a number of words to the English language.

Time to bring out the Hobson-Jobson dictionary. Did you know that the expletive “damn” originated from the Indian “dam”, a small copper coin like the British ‘farthing’ or the British/American ‘penny’? As Hobson-Jobson points out “whatever profanity there may be in the animus, there is none in the etymology. So one blurts out ‘I don’t care a dam!’, in other words ‘I don’t care a brass farthing!'”

Language Lesson

Tip 34:  One reason why English language is so confusing is that the same word can mean different things. Think of the meanings of the word “tip” itself.

The tip of my nose is itchy, the tip of the mountain is covered with snow, my blog is full of tips, please tip the waiter, she tipped the rubbish bin accidently, please tip your hat when you see a lady…

An interesting story about the origin of “tip” as a small amount of money is that in  Lloyd’s Coffee House (1648)  a brass container was kept for the benefit of waiters inscribed with the words “To Insure Promptness”.  The “to insure promptness” on the container became “TIP”. Why is the story not true? Lloyds Coffee house was in London. If there had been such a container it would have read “To Ensure Promptness”. Hmmm… maybe the word originated as “Tep” and became “Tip” when it migrated to the US.

I will not be posting again till July. To those writing their exams “All the Best” and to those who have finished “Happy Holidays” and to the rest “God Bless”. Click the “Follow” button, and you will be notified by mail when I restart kibitzing!

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British English vs American English vs Scrabble English

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The one great thing about being in India is that you don’t have to worry too much about the differences between American and British language. ‘Did you see it?’ and ‘Have you seen it?’ are both perfectly fine.  Only water shortage prevents us from ‘taking a shower’ and ‘having a shower’. Having said that, I have to admit I am constantly cornered. “Ma’am, is organise spelt ‘ise’ or ‘ize’?”. “Go ahead and use whatever you feel like dear, just be consistent”, is my all-forgiving reply. I suspect the students think it is their teacher’s way out when she does not know the spelling. “Is it sceptic or skeptic, ma’am?” “It is spelt with a ‘c’” I say firmly. And then wonder what she is going to think of me when she joins a U.S firm. I console myself with the thought that if she shoots off a mail saying she is sceptical about the new policy, she is not going to win any popularity contest irrespective of how she spells “sceptical”.

“Is  ‘schedule’ pronounced “shedule” or “skedule”, ma’am?”  The questions never end.

I thought I knew English reasonably well, till I went to England. My first conversation over the phone put paid to such false beliefs. On my side the conversation consisted of “Pardon?”, “Sorry?”, “Could you repeat that please?”, till I put the phone down in quiet despair. The accent completely threw me off. Luckily, face to face, I did not have any difficulty but give me the phone and I was lost. No doubt there is a scientific explanation, but I really couldn’t care less. It was very demoralizing.

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I used to righteously uphold British English as the correct English, till I worked briefly for an American company and had to quickly shed my British English for its American equivalents. I must confess that I still tend to use British spellings because that’s how I learnt to spell the words as a child. My computer, however, is on American English and zealously underlines with red every time I write programme, judgement, colour; I ignore the machine and continue. A cousin visiting India from the US complained that when he asked for a soda, the air-hostess brought him carbonated water. I had to explain that the whole world did not speak American. Here, if you want a coke, you have to ask for coke, not soda! But the fact is that some of the expressions I use casually are Americanisms that would baffle an Englander.

There are so many dialects spoken in different parts of both countries that English language can be an absolute quagmire. For the sake of sanity, try to master only the standard British and American versions.  I am not going to give any word lists. There are plenty of sites available on the net which will tell you the British and American equivalents. You can try swotting them up or alternatively pin the list above your work table. The safest option is to say you do not know English and ask for a translator!

Then we have the third English that may be called Scrabble English. I have a friend who is a scrabble fanatic. Inevitably when we meet, the conversation goes like this:

research“Did you know there is a word ‘stylie’?” “What?”, I said.

“Did you know that ‘speechify’ is a perfectly good word?” “WHAT?”, I said.

Sometimes, for variety I say “I don’t believe this” or “you must be joking”. Earlier, whenever I saw a weird word/construction in an answer script, I blithely circled the offending word in red and merrily filled the margins with explanations and comments. Now I ask politely, “Are you a scrabble player?”

The travails of an Indian who dares to teach English!

Language Lesson

Tip 33: My remarks notwithstanding, Scrabble is a great way of expanding your vocabulary. Were you under the impression that the alphabet ‘u’ always followed ‘q”? Play scrabble with a computer and discover words like qi, qaid, and qadi, to name just three.

 Today innumerable word games, interactive apps on your phone, and language podcasts offer varied ways of building vocabulary and enhancing language skills. Have fun!

A Quiet Bubble

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India’s African/Black/Negro is the ‘Untouchable/Dalit/Shudra’. If To kill a Mocking Bird is about the attitude of the white man towards the ‘black man’, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is about the attitude of the upper castes (irrespective of whether the person is Hindu or Christian) towards the ‘Untouchable’. Here too, we have two children, twins, Estha and Rahel. If Jem and Scout are motherless, these two are fatherless; their mother has fled an abusive husband and returned to her childhood home. This is also a ‘coming of age’ novel but a much more brutal one, with little to soften its bleak vision. Maybe that is why I never wanted to reread the book. Or maybe, it was because the events cut too close to home; the milieu, the people, the prejudices, and the politics are all very familiar territory. The reflection in the mirror held up by the book of that familiar territory is quite ugly.

The book begins from the present and moves backwards, constantly criss-crossing between the past and present. Throughout the narration, there is an edgy tension, a sense of disaster ready to strike like a coiled cobra. Right in the beginning we are told that Estha had stopped talking: “It wasn’t an accusing, protesting silence as much as a sort of aestivation, a dormancy, the psychological equivalent of what lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season, except that in Estha’s case, the dry season looked as though it would last forever” and that he was “a quiet bubble floating on a sea of noise”. It is only towards the end, we realize the reason for his withdrawal from the world as we hear the last word that passed his lips. The word was a simple “Yes”, a falsehood that signed the death warrant of an innocent man. Actually, that was not the last; the last we hear is a cry, as the train takes him away from his mother and his twin.

16KERMIT1-master675Estha and Rahel live a circumscribed life, unaware and yet aware, that they and their mother Ammu were unwelcome at Ayemenem. For the mother, the twins were too trusting, “a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs”. But for all her fierce protectiveness, it is she who brings down calamity on them by transgressing a deep-seated unwritten code. She, an upper caste woman, mother of two, becomes the lover of a low caste handyman who works at her house. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson pays with his life for a white woman’s act, here it is Velutha who dies. The rest are condemned to a living death. Estha and Rahel who have never been parted are separated. The seven-year-old Estha never sees his mother again, is not allowed to attend his mother’s funeral. Only a stone faced tearless Rahel stands outside the incinerator, her thoughts a heart-rending epitaph.

This is the conversation just before Estha’s exile:

We’ll have our own house,’ Ammu said. ‘A little house,’ Rachel said. ‘And in our school we’ll have classrooms and blackboards,’ Estha said. 

‘And chalk.’ ‘And proper punishments,’ Rachel said.

This was the stuff their dreams were made of. On the day Estha was Returned. Chalk. Blackboards. Proper punishments. They didn’t ask to be let off lightly. They only asked for punishments that fitted their crimes.

Language Lesson

Tip 32:  Saturday mornings are quite quiet!

One of the many ‘confusables’ in the English language is ‘quite’ and ‘ quiet’. Look at how the words are used in the review above: “The reflection in the mirror held up by the book is quite ugly”, “A quiet bubble floating on a sea of noise”.  Since the meanings are completely different, this confusion should not occur but it does. It is just a question of being conscious of the spelling. Note the slight but significant difference in pronunciation as well.

quiet‘Quiet’ is usually used as an adjective meaning ‘silent’. Example: ‘He is a quiet boy’, ‘It was a quiet street’. When using it as an adverb, we would say “They moved quietly in the library”.

‘Quite’ means ‘completely’, or ‘almost entirely’.  Example: ‘Are you quite sure?’, ‘He is quite worried’.

 One intriguing point told by a friend is that in the United States, ‘quite’ is used as an intensifier, a stand-in for ‘very’. But in Britain, ‘quite’ is often used to express reservations, to qualify in a  negative sense. So if I say ‘The book was quite interesting’, the American would interpret the statement as ‘The book was very interesting’ while the Englishman would understand that ‘the book was not all that interesting’.

Hmmm… now, that is quite interesting!

 

 

One Kind of Folks

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A few days ago, Harper Lee celebrated her 89th birthday. Her formidable reputation as a fabulous story teller rests on one single book, one of the greatest books ever written,  To Kill a Mockingbird.  I have lost count of the number of times I have reread this book and every single time it has moved me to laughter and to tears.

It is a coming of age novel, where the innocence of childhood is in many ways lost forever; the unforgettable story of two motherless children growing up in a small town, whose lives are torn apart when their father agrees to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. If this book is about deep seated prejudices, about cruelty bred by ignorance and poverty, it’s also about deep moral courage, compassion and love.

mockingbird9Its strength lies in the vividness with which the characters spring to life. The story is narrated  by Scout Finch (Jean Louise Finch), a five-year-old tomboy who is constantly told to start behaving like a girl by her aunt and stop behaving like a girl by her brother. Life of every girl! One of her great pleasures is reading the newspaper with her father. When told to stop reading by her teacher, she utters the classic words Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” There is Walter Cunningham who never has money for lunch but belongs to a family that “never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have”, Little Chuck who may not know where his next meal is coming from but knew all there was to know about animals and “was a born gentleman”. There is Scout’s brother Jem, their friend Dill and it is the fascination of this trio for their unseen neighbour ‘Boo Radley’ that forms the initial part of the book. And it is Boo Radley in the end that takes centre stage again and completes the circle of the story.

Her father Atticus is the moral compass of the book. Here are a few of his observations:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—” …—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

 “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others- some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” 

The spell of the book is woven by myriad tiny moments as when Atticus is leaving the courtroom after losing the trial:

“Miss Jean Louise?”

I looked around. They were standing. All around us in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

In the middle of the trial when Scout says I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks”, Jem responds bitterly If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time. It’s because he wants to stay inside.”

I always wondered why Harper Lee never wrote another book and constantly wished she had. But the proposed publication of a hitherto “lost” manuscript, with the same immortal cast has not thrilled me. A part of me is afraid to read the new book, afraid it would be a let down, afraid to see the grown up version of the indomitable and inimitable five-year-old.

But, no matter how the new book turns out, To Kill a Mockingbird will remain forever a glorious tribute to man’s goodness even as it indicts man for his cruelty.

Language Lesson

Tip 31: Pay attention to the usage of ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ in these sentences from the post: “It’s also about deep moral courage, compassion and love”,  “Its strength lies in the vividness with which the characters spring to life”.newblogheader111

The difference is very simple. “It’s” is a contraction of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. When the singer croons  “It’s my life”, or when someone complains  “It’s so confusing”, they are clearly saying ‘it is my life’ or ‘it is confusing’. (One solution  is never to use ‘it’s’ and always write the complete “it is”!)

‘Its’ on the other hand is a possessive noun like ‘his’ or ‘her’.  When I say “Its strength”, I am referring to the strength of the book. If I was referring to a woman’s strength, I would say “her strength”.

Let Oscar Wilde have the last word:

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on; it’s never of use to oneself.

I can stand brute force but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.

 

Pleasing God

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I have a number of students with incredible talent, who use that talent only to praise God. Many years ago, one of my students, a beautiful girl with an incredible voice told me that she consciously chose only to sing hymns. My first reaction was to say God wants us to use our talent in all possible ways. But then the simple faith with which she stood there silenced me. The result was a gospel band which went on to win at many intercollegiate competitions. This year again I have three students, one of them exceptional at the piano, who told me they only sing gospel. We have revived the college gospel band which had disappeared in the intervening years, but I am still not comfortable with the idea that talent should not be used for ‘secular’ activities.

I think many of us would like some assurance that spirituality does not necessarily mean eschewing fun. Why else should the videos of singing nuns and tap dancing priests go viral? I discovered the work of Sister Mary Corita Kent only recently. The image at the beginning of this post is one of her many beautiful screen prints. Here was an artist, whose students and admirers included some of the greatest artists and inventors of her time.  It is this that made me think of my students who insist on using their talent only to praise God. I agree up to a point that talent and the resulting success may lead away from God. Success has pitfalls but if I use my talent to create beauty or to give joy, is not that pleasing in the eyes of God?

Sister Corita Kent and the Church parted ways due to her strong political beliefs. This begs the question whether a spiritual person should be apolitical. Christ himself never became involved in politics and it was this refusal to fight for political freedom that was partly responsible for his rejection by many Jews.  For the religious, at times of political and social upheaval, it is often a Catch  22. Damned if you become an activist, damned if you don’t.

But beyond being an artist or an activist, Sister Mary Corita Kent was an inspired and inspiring educator. Here are some great rules she framed for her students:

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

Language Lesson

Tip 30: A student asked me whether ‘agree with’ or ‘agree to’ was correct. It depends on the context. We agree ‘with’ someone’s opinion or statement. We agree ‘to’ do something. Example: ‘I agree with Mr Z that the internet is a source of information but not wisdom. I agree to stop surfing and start reading’. If I say “I couldn’t agree with you more”, it means I agree with you completely.

Yes, but what about “Mushrooms don’t agree with me” or maybe it is the weather that does not agree with me. In the case of mushrooms, the disagreement probably causes indigestion; in case of the weather, you have probably caught a cold. The point is if anything causes you discomfort, it may be accused of not agreeing with you.

In the second paragraph of today’s post, the phrase used is “agree up to a point”, which means “agree to a certain extent” but not completely. When we agree ‘on’ a point, then we are talking about one particular point. But on every other issue, you go your way and I will go mine.

 

What’s in a name

Juliet

What’s Montague? It is not hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d

I often hear students and colleagues introduce themselves “Myself Harish”, “Myself, Narayanan”. Well, try not to. Ever. It is grammatically accurate to say “My name is Harish.” like we were taught in the nursery class, or to say “I am Harish”, but in an actual conversation if someone asks your name, just say the name without any preamble .

Strangers shaking hands, often say their name (without waiting to be asked) and get that out of the way. In India, this may not be a good idea if you are saddled with names like “Lovely”, “Honey”, “Giggle”, or “Diamond”. Imagine shaking hands with a guy who is murmuring “Johnson” or “Harish” and you are smiling sweetly and murmuring “Honey” or “Lovely”. Misunderstandings guaranteed. If any of my readers think I am making these names up, I am not. Why we have a university called “Lovely University”.

Towards the end of a class, I reward my students for good behaviour by taking attendance. Faces brighten, as the roll call starts and it is not just because it signals the end of another boring grammar class. The actual reason is the inevitable longish pauses, a few names down the list. The reason for the pause…I am staring at a name. Thirugnanasambandam. Or maybe it is Kurinjivendan. I sometimes wonder if parents name their children specifically to make my life difficult. As I struggle to make the right sounds, the entire class is busy either laughing or making (un)helpful suggestions. Once in a while, the owner of the name comes to my rescue by magnanimously saying “Just call me Thiru ma’am”, “Call me KJ, ma’am”. I think “Aaah, what a sweetheart”, though the other students give him dirty looks and think “What a spoilsport”.
This is especially awkward because I believe it is important to say someone’s name correctly. Though I can proudly say I am getting better at it. ‘Karpumuthu’ is a piece of cake, and a lovely name meaning ‘black pearl”.

If you are good at remembering names, lucky you. I can’t, and have to spend the first week of starting class with a new batch, mugging up student names and matching names to those faces. Sometimes, the process takes a month! What’s in a name, Shakespeare may say, but most will say plenty. One’s name is an integral part of one’s identity; hence the quasi religious nature of naming ceremonies in almost every part of the world. I am waiting for the day when I can blame my forgetfulness on old age.

And to all those people who spell my name with an ‘h’, for the umpteenth time, there is no ‘h’. To all those named in the post, for having spelt your names wrongly, “a thousand apologies” as Ranjeet Singh would say.

Language Lesson

Tip 28: If you are wondering who Ranjeet Singh is, check out a television comedy called “Mind Your Language”. Good for laughs and language tips.

Tip 29:“What is your good name?” is an oft heard but wrong expression, a direct translation of the Hindi expression “shub nam”. In the English language, names are neither good nor bad. However, there is a first name and a last/surname.
Another usage difference is that in England, I would be addressed as Dr Manuel or Prof Manuel. Confession time: I prefer the Indian way of saying Dr Anita or Prof Anita. Reasons for the preference: First, in the latter my gender is clear. Second, Manuel is my husband’s name and hey, I would like to be addressed by mine. Third, it strikes a nice balance between the formal and the informal. But that’s my personal view! The correct usage is the coupling of Dr/Prof with the surname.

The Prince and the Pauper

When we think of Mark Twain, the books that come to mind are probably Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn but another book written in 1882 is my favourite. I first read it as a child and then many, many years later as an adult and still found myself enjoying the book. The Prince and The Pauper revolves around the young prince Edward VI, son of Henry VIII from his third wife, Jane Seymour.

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Will a twenty-first century reader enjoy this book written in 1882 and set in 1537? Definitely, because replace the prince with any scion of a Fortune 500 billionaire and the pauper with a boy from our urban slums and the reader will find that nothing has changed in the intervening two centuries. The streets are lined with slums “packed full of wretchedly poor families”. The prince making his way through these slums, friendless and abused, learns first hand about their  “bitterness, heartbreak, and tears”. He witnesses the harshness of a judicial system where people are convicted on flimsy evidence and burned at the stake, pilloried, and flogged. A distraught prince exclaims:

 “That which I have seen, in that little moment, will never go out from my memory, but will abide there; and I shall see it all the days, and dream of it all the nights, till I die. Would God I had been blind!

I am probably giving a wrong impression about the book. For all its grim portrayal of poverty and misery, the mood is not tragic. There is swashbuckling adventure which this poster with the so droolworthy Errol Flynn highlights

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Here is an episode from the book:

Early in the story, Miles Hendon after rescuing the prince, whom he knows only as a poor wretched stripling, is forced to stand because protocol dictates that no subject sit in the presence of the king. When permitted to ask for a boon, he quickly asks for the right to sit. The bedraggled boy whom Hendon thinks is mad grants the petition solemnly “Whilst England remains and the crown continues, the privilege shall not lapse”.

The time comes after the young boy regains his throne, an astounded Hendon unable to believe his eyes, pulls a chair and sits down to the outrage of the court.

 A buzz of indignation broke out, a rough hand was laid upon him and a voice exclaimed–

 “Up, thou mannerless clown! would’st sit in the presence of the King?”

 The disturbance attracted his Majesty’s attention, who stretched forth his hand and cried out–

 “Touch him not, it is his right!”

 The throng fell back, stupefied.  The King went on–

 “Learn ye all, ladies, lords, and gentlemen, that this is my trusty and well-beloved servant, Miles Hendon, who interposed his good sword and saved his prince from bodily harm and possible death–and for this he is a knight, by the King’s voice.  Also learn, that for a higher service, in that he saved his sovereign stripes and shame, taking these upon himself, he is a peer of England, Earl of Kent, and shall have gold and lands meet for the dignity.  More–the privilege which he hath just exercised is his by royal grant; for we have ordained that the chiefs of his line shall have and hold the right to sit in the presence of the Majesty of England henceforth, age after age, so long as the crown shall endure.  Molest him not.”

There are plenty of ha-ha moments too.  The royal antics of the young prince are a never ending source of merriment. Okay, maybe not the rolling in the aisle kind of laughter but the comic confusion of mistaken identity fills the book.  Twain could not make the boys twins because then there would be another claimant to the throne. This does not stop him from making the two boys so alike that not even their families notice the switch.

 At a time marked by great cruelty and harsh laws, the short reign of Edward VI, who ascended the throne at the young age of nine, was benevolent and peaceful. The cause could be this story which Twain tells us “may not have happened, but could have happened”.  As the young king tells a lord demanding harsh punishment “What dost thou know of suffering and oppression? I and my people know, but not thou.”

Mark Twain too knew something about hardship. He was forced to leave school at the age of twelve when his father died and educated himself in public libraries while working. It is this boy that went on to be lauded as the “Father of American Literature”.

Language Lesson

Tip 27: How to insult without using swear words or abusive language – A Free Course from Mark Twain:

Politicians and Diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.

Man is the only animal that blushes or needs to.

To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and less trouble.

A banker lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

The Little Prince

The second book I loved to gift was a slender volume, written by the French writer, poet and aviator Antoine de Saint- Exupery, during a period of personal and national pain.  When his country was  defeated by Germany in 1940, he and his wife  fled to the US, where in exile  restless and unhappy, he was asked to write a book for children. The result was The Little Prince, an elegiac tale of friendship, love and loss that held up a mirror for us to see ourselves and the world we had created.

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Can you look at a drawing that looks like a hat and understand that it is the picture of a boa constrictor after swallowing an elephant? Or look at the picture of a cardboard box and see that the sheep inside has gone to sleep? If you can’t, you must be a “grown-up” because as the narrator observes “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children always and forever explaining things to them”. The narrator is a pilot who while stranded in the desert meets a little prince from a tiny asteroid “who had need of a friend”.

The world of grown-ups are held up to gentle ridicule, even as the narrator says generously “Children should show great forbearance toward grown-up people, their obsession with money and what they call facts”. One grown-up is a gentleman, who has never smelled a flower or looked at a star, who has never loved anyone, who has never done anything but add up figures, saying all the while that he is “busy with matters of consequence.” What are these figures that he is counting so busily? The number of stars in the sky, which he claims he owns. When questioned as to what he could do with the stars, he replies “I can put them in a bank.”

Whatever does that mean?” asks the prince. “That means that I write the number of stars on a little paper. And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”  As the little prince observes “The grown-ups are certainly altogether extraordinary”.

During his travels in the galaxy some of the extraordinary grown ups he meets are a king without subjects, a tippler who drinks to forget his shame of being a tippler, a conceited man who demands that everyone admire him, a lamplighter who obeys his orders however exhausting it is, and a geographer who does not know about oceans or deserts.

There is a dig at the West too, as the narrator talks about a Turkish astronomer who presented his discovery of a new asteroid to the International Astronomical Congress. “But he was in Turkish costume and so nobody would believe what he said. Grown ups are like that.” Luckily, eleven years later, the astronomer makes the same presentation again dressed in European costume and this time everybody accepts his report.

But the book is not just about the false values we uphold; it is also a love story, the love of a little prince for a flower of radiant beauty. He spends his time tending to the flower, watering it, removing caterpillars, and  placing it under a glass globe, during the night, to protect it from the chill. Her small vanities and little lies make him abandon her but now he worries about his flower and says “I ought to have judged by deeds and not by words. She cast her fragrance and her radiance over me. But I was too young to know how to love her.”

It is a tale of friendship between a grown-up and his little prince whom he tries to protect and safeguard but who chooses to die. It is also the story of friendship between the prince and a fox who explains  that it is love that makes the beloved unique, the world beautiful, and gives meaning to existence. The most quoted line from the book is the “secret” that the fox imparts to the little prince “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

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If you haven’t read this book, put aside all “matters of consequence” and go find it. Curl up in a comfortable chair and begin to read, starting from the dedication.

Language Lesson

Tip 25: This weekend I would like to point out certain widespread Indianisms

If the asteroid of the little prince were India, the flower would reply when asked about the whereabouts of the prince “He has gone to foreign” or maybe “He has gone out of station.” 

On the other hand, a native English flower would say “He has gone abroad” or “He is out of town”.

An Indian fox after the prince disappeared would say “He has gone to native” but an English fox would say “He went to his hometown”.

Tip 26: “Go native” is a phrase that probably originated during the colonial period when “white” people adopted the customs of the “native” of that region. It had a derogatory nuance for the “sahib” was expected to hold on to his culture, but today is used, if at all, more neutrally.

A Cry for Love

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This is the story of the second boy. Unlike the first student who faced the world with a façade of indifference, this boy was as eager as a puppy, detaining you inevitably with a doubt as you were leaving the class. There was always a wide smile on his face but there was something about his enthusiasm that made me uneasy. I noticed he had no friends; the request to befriend him was met with met with contemptuous “he is a crybaby”, “he is such an ass”. He passed from my class and I did not think of him again.

Till the day, a faculty came to my cabin. “It’s about a student you have taught”, he began, and I knew immediately who it was. The faculty had been regularly counselling and motivating the student, but recently the boy seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. He said the boy always expressed great regard for me and he would appreciate my reading of the boy’s condition. When I met him, the student still smiled broadly but his confidences were so alarming that I took him immediately to the college counsellor and asked for a professional opinion as to whether the boy needed psychiatric care.

After talking at length to him, she said he was just lonely; she would counsel him regularly and he would be fine.  She  introduced him to a faculty who stayed in the hostel. I was still uneasy.  I called his classmates, taxed them with their mockery and their small acts of aggression. Was he gay, I wondered, but dared not say anything because I did not want to give them fresh ammunition, in case that was not their source of contempt.  Be nice to him, I begged. They were unsympathetic and dismissive, saying he was irritating and a mama’s boy. Why does weakness attract aggression? It is as if there is a primitive gene within us which centuries of civilization have failed to eradicate.  I was worried enough to apprise the Director of the student because he was staying in the hostel. Three days later, she called me at home.

“What was the name of that boy?” she asked. On hearing the name, she said, “He just jumped from the third floor. Multiple fractures of the spine. He is in bad shape.”

I think it was the boy’s cheerfulness and readiness to talk that threw the counsellor off track. Once depression has advanced, counselling alone is not sufficient, medication is crucial.  In India, there is still a stigma attached to seeking the help of a psychiatrist. Why? Like the various diseases that affect the body, there are diseases that affect the mind. We do not blame the patient when he or she gets a heart attack or cancer. Let’s accept others as they are.

The boy survived. The same classmates raised money to pay part of his medical bills. His mother came down and took rooms nearby to be with him and he was placed under medication and a psychologist’s care. He also went regularly for physiotherapy to straighten out his spine. He continued to visit the faculty who had first raised the alarm. Sometimes he came to see me. He completed his studies and I hope wherever he is, he is able to cope with what life throws at him.

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A classroom is usually a very democratic space. Students don’t care about a classmate’s religion or caste or creed. They don’t care if he is a topper or at the bottom of the class; they don’t care if a classmate is rich or poor. Friendship cuts across all such artificial barriers. Shared enthusiasms, shared grievances, shared boredom bind them together. Yet, at times the bonds fail to weave a safety net.  If you see someone that needs help, reach out. If you are the person who needs help, reach out.

Language Lesson

Tip 23: Enjoy life. Go teach a child in the nearby corporation school. Volunteer. There is nothing like a child’s wholehearted, uncritical admiration.Give the world a chance. 

Tip 24: Give grammar a chance. Grammar can be fun. Sometimes. Imagine a grammar teacher banging her head on the wall in frustration. The sight always cheers my students up!

A standard phrase Americans murmur when they are trying to console is “There, there, there” (don’t ask me why). A migrant from India, currently a very eminent scholar in the US, said that every time he heard someone say consolingly “There, there”, he wanted to stare wildly everywhere and say “Where? Where?”.

There is an old joke which says that the way to comfort an English language teacher is to murmur “There, their, they’re”.

Not funny? Oh well, I tried.

It is funny? Yes!!

 

Despair

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According to statistics released by the Health Ministry, there were over 16,000 student suicides in the last three years; every 15 minutes in India, a youth in the age group of 15 to 29 takes his or her life.  Ten years ago, one of my students hanged himself. Four years ago, another student attempted to kill himself. Why did they do it? I still do not have any answers. I am not even sure whether I should write about them but ignoring what happened will not undo the pain of those youngsters.

The first boy was a loner with few friends. His lack of friends was attributed to his “bad” habits like smoking and drinking but that made no sense because other boys in the campus who smoked and drank had plenty of friends. As a teacher, I found him rather lackadaisical, but since he sat quietly in class, and secured average marks in my subject, it was easy to let him coast along.

Then one day his landlord discovered his body. He had hanged himself. Cops were summoned. His family in Dubai was informed. The law took its course. None of his classmates had noticed anything different. None of the faculty had noticed anything.  What I had dismissed as indifference and attitude was depression.

After the funeral, his father and elder brother came to the campus. The Head of my Department informed me that they had asked specifically to meet me. I did not want to meet them. Just thinking of the boy made my eyes well with tears. What consolation could I offer a father who had lost his son in so bitter a way? They were waiting for me in my cabin. I sat down and could find no words. His father talked. He said he used to phone his son every night. He talked about his wife, his other children including the son who sat with him. Then came the dreaded question, had I noticed anything? I shook my head. They left. I never saw them again.

A Nimhans study found that 11% of college students and 7%-8% of high school students have attempted suicide. “What’s bothering the current adolescent generation is stress due to academics, relationship with parents, peer groups and romantic relationships,” says Dr M Manjula, of Nimhans.  In some, the stress leads to mild depression which if not diagnosed may develop into clinical depression.

Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Tendency to cry easily or irritability
  • Reduced interest in  most activities
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain, decrease or increase in appetite
  • Insomnia or the opposite, an increased desire to sleep
  • Loss of energy and tiredness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, or excessive guilt
  • Trouble making decisions, or concentrating
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

A sufferer described depression like being pulled into the vortex of a never ending black hole, where there is no light, no hope. The good news is that depression is treatable but we need to recognize when someone in our midst is suffering and intervene as early as possible.

Dear reader, may an angel be always by your side

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Language Lesson

Tip 21: Remember each of us, irrespective of talent or intelligence or looks, each of us is made in the image of God. Best of all, you can speak to God in any language. And He doesn’t care about grammar or pronunciation!

Tip 22: Students often write “ten years back” instead of the correct “ten years ago”. This is an Indianism arising because the user is counting back in time but the accepted usage is “ten years ago”.  On the other hand, the word “before” must be used if we are counting back from a point in the past.

Let me explain. In my opening sentences, “ago” is used to indicate the ‘when’ of an event in relation to the present moment i.e. the moment of writing. But if I was counting back from a moment in the past, the correct usage is “before”. Example: John wrote a note two weeks ago, John had written a note two weeks before the accident.