Thursday, January 29, 2009

No More Beating Around the Bush

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 24th January 2009)

Among the several memories that tarnish my recollection of my childhood is my mother’s three-word reply to any grammatical doubt I had: “Check the dictionary”. Over the past eight years, it has become quite obvious Barbara Bush didn’t have this annoying maternal drive. As American loyalists strove to expand their dictionary of ‘accepted’ words and the austere guardians of Queen’s English rushed to coin new words for the acrobatics the tongue underwent as it played out through the now-outgone American President’s vocal chords, most of us didn’t factor in to what extent we had misunderestimated him. It is only now that it had begun to hit us that the era of subject-verb disagreement, comma spices, hanging participles and uber-spoonerism is over.

No more will we hear that all those who refuse to stop thinking of new ways to destroy America have counterparts in the American government who do exactly the same thing. No more will we be thanked for taking time out of our days to witness the hanging of the most powerful man in the world. Nothing will ever be preponed, and no President will claim to have been in the Bible everyday he was President. Never again will we read about a President who says, without flinching, "Yesterday, you made note of my -- the lack of my talent when it came to dancing. But nevertheless, I want you to know I danced with joy. And no question Liberia has gone through very difficult times."

Barack Obama is not likely to complain about the Afghan militants’ lack of disregard for human life, or hold up his fist to Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy after calling himself “the world’s biggest polluter”, or recall the mother of a child who was kidnapped by North Koreans right there in the Oval Office. He might not claim there is plenty of money in Washington, and say what they needed was priority. He certainly would not be surprised at the prediction of gas at four dollars a gallon, and may not estimate that immigrants had caused the population of the thirteen colonies to grow till it numbered three hundred people. Chances are he won’t think people dying of malaria in Ghana is in the national interest of Americans.

And what does all this mean for us? Uncomfortable silences following grammatical faux pas cannot be broken with, “oh, don’t worry. Just the other day, the President of the United States said…” unless you wanted to finish with, “…something that was grammatically correct.”

Romances that have begun with the discovery of love for the English language might end for the lack of common topics of interest. We will have to learn to make conversation about the weather again. Stand-up comedians will have to think of new material; the era of googling Bushisms will now come to an end.

Faced with a crisis of this magnitude, the world must keep its calm before the storm as Bush would want it to, and decision-makers around the world must decide to make decisions as he would want them to make. Nations that remain enemies must come together as partners to invite Bush on a Global Speaking Tour. Pressing when there has to be pressed and holding hands when there needs to be hold hands, he might just confuse the lawmakers and lawbreakers of the world enough to end all wars between terrorists and freedom-fighters. That way, when history was written, the final page might well say victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Auto-biography: In Which a Linguistically-Challenged Woman Falls Prey to Avaricious Autos and Chivalrous Cops, and Readers Forgive Bad Puns etc

My misadventures in Delhi, as I persist in my stubborn resistance to a language I consider distinctly illogical, non-musical and devoid of literary figures of the quality that would inspire me to forgive its fatal failings, have elevated my opinion of my ability to fit in the mould of those storybook characters to whom 'things just happen'. (No, Honda's cheap pavement counterparts did not pay me for that.)

The latest of these took place yesterday. I had just watched a play with some great acting, beautiful music and lovely comic timing. As an aside, it's called Sangathi Arinhya! (Have You Heard!) and one should watch it if one gets the chance. It ended with M S Subbulakshmi's Kaatriniley Varum Geetham, and the music was still in my head as I got off at Indraprastha Station, having successfully completed my first journey on the Delhi Metro, under the able guidance of a friend who taught me how to use the ticket.

That's where the trouble began. I was besieged by autodrivers, who panted out exorbitant prices to take me to Noida. Two lobbied fiercely for my attention, which went to the one who quoted the lower price. I thought the day was done with, save for a peaceful journey home, where I planned to spend the rest of my evening singing Kaatriniley. (My landlords don't mind my voice piercing the night because I pretend to adore the one occupant of the height I am allergic to.)

Just as my autodriver was about to rev up, his rival pushed him aside, nearly tossing him out of the auto. He recovered with a jolt and a thrust of the hip that would have put the heroines of the sixties to shame, and which quite easily unseated his attacker. Undaunted, the attacker reached for what appeared to me, from the backseat, to be the nether regions of my autodriver's anatomy, and I modestly averted my eyes to observe the traffic outside. My autodriver managed to resist his advances the first time round, but the two of them were grappling fiercely. I was dimly aware the auto had started, and then realised the object that had caught the fancy of the two autodrivers was, in fact, the key. (And for those who know Farsi, I mean the English 'key' - absolutely no pun intended.)

The auto did a pirouette across the road, and it was my turn to play the sixties heroine and scream, "stop! stop! Stop the auto!" I'm quite sure I did the sixties straightening of the back, squaring of the shoulders and toss of the head as I announced I would find another auto. In the midst of my consternation, the translation tool in my brain went through an unfortunate malfunction and I snapped, "aap paagal hai, kya?"

Possibly jarred by the incorrectness of my grammar, the two stopped fighting. I noticed the number of men around me had doubled, and the mystery was solved when I realised two of them were policemen. The two cops turned to me, having banned the autodrivers from saying anything that would influence their judgment. To cut a long story short, they were convinced (and I must admit the confusion of pronouns, verbs and number, enhanced by disregard for gender, that frequently afflicts my Hindi, must have been a contributing factor) I was the intended victim of molestation. They constantly assured me I had nothing to fear, and urged me to write an FIR. I went on to insist I had nothing to complain of, save the late hour and my near death experience. I believe Khuda was a character in the explanation I offered them for my grievances. (Apparently, my Urdu is marginally better than my Hindi.) Finally, I was forced to admit I was not from their part of the world, and did not speak either of the two languages with the fluency that would warm Ghalib's heart. At that point, one of the policemen stepped forward, hammered his chest with his fist, stuck out his chin and said, with the air of a man about to step into war without armour, "madam, you tell angrezi!" I took his cue, and five minutes later, the two looked even more pained than they had after my Hindi explanation. It took a further ten minutes for the epiphany that these two were automen grappling for a savari to dawn on them.

The policemen finally promised me another auto, and after unsuccessfully haggling with two, were at the end of their tether. They found their zinda morgha in an autodriver of pitiably small dimensions. His face was barely larger than one of my hands, and his body corresponded to the diffidence of his skull. He slowed down when he saw two glowering policemen, and was soon hauled out of his auto, making a vignette that would have made Alan Moore's fingers itch.

One of them ordered him to take me to Noida for a price I named. I offered him a hundred rupees, as some kind of compensation for what he had undergone, at which point the cop who was trying to make small talk with me in angrezi, snapped at him, yelling about the bechaari woman who was being made to pay a hundred rupees. The Shrunken Autodriver appealed to my alleged molesters for help, and in a rare display of automen's unity, the three convinced the cops a hundred rupees' fare amounted to grabbing the food out of the mouths of their unborn children.

The policeman who was still holding Shrunken Autodriver by his collar, barked, liberally spraying his victim's tiny face with the remnants of his last meal, in Hindi, "this madam has gone through a lot today; I don't want anything to happen to upset her now! Do you understand?! Give me your auto number!" The Shrunken Autodriver did not raise any objections. "Mobile phone!" his interlocutor barked. He tried to whimper, at which point the policemen pulled at his trousers, eliciting a squeal and a mobile phone. "Licence!"

"Madamji, in go please," my angrezi-speaking comrade said, solicitously, "please my number you noting. Going home after, phone doing."

The half-hour that followed was populated by companionable silence arrived at by silent mutual consent between me and the Shrunken Autodriver. It was only broken when we arrived at Rajnigandha Chowk, at which point he was forced to enquire, in the politest manner I have been addressed since I set foot at the IGI Airport on October 13, 2008, which road he was to go down. Emboldened by my use of the polite plural in giving him directions, he ventured to ask what had happened. Two sentences later, he was forced to concede defeat as everyone I have spoken to in Hindi has been, and he nodded with a furtive glance at his mobile phone and the mirror.

Having dropped me outside my house, Shrunken Autodriver begged me to call the policeman and clear his name, reminding me they had his licence number and auto number. I promised him I would, and he thanked me profusely.

With the mix of satisfaction and disappointment that the day's adventures were at the end, I dialled the policeman's number, to hear:

Om Bhur Bhuva Suvah
Tat Savithur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yonah ... "Hanhji?"

"Prachodayat," I said, simultaneously.

"Ji?" The nonplussed tone indicated he had not been called upon to illumine beings too often.

I identified myself as the woman he had seen into an auto at Indraprastha, and after I had successfully communicated (in Hindi) that I was home, he said, "madamji, excellent thing you calling. Be careful, ji!"

The ominous note ended a conversation which had begun with the Gayathri Manthram.

A Colony Where Every Band is Banned

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated January 10, 2009)

A friend of mine who lives in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi – also known as the one place which sells rasagollas, sandesh, mishti doi and ilish that are almost like Kolkata's, and Bengali newspapers that are almost a day old – is also as directionally challenged as I am. Given that this 'different-ability' applies only in its literal, and not philosophical, semantic interpretation, the two of us have made some quite wonderful discoveries in our wanderings, inclusive of a chocolatier's house we could never find again. But the cornerstone of our voyages has been the one which led us to a gate with the most intriguing sign on it we had ever seen: "No Band Allowed."

"Do you realise what this means?" my friend asked, as I clicked a picture of the sign, much to the stupefaction of the monkey-cap-clad, sweater-and-shawl-protected watchman inside. "The Backstreet Boys would never be able to go in there."

In our heads, five men with variably coloured-and-styled hair and an incredible talent for variable pitches of "aaanhh….aaaan-aaaaannh….aanh…anh-aaaaanh" and "oh, yeah", materialised in the gateway to the residential colony, and Mr. Monkey-Cap-Sweater-Shawl grew in stature until he could have taken on any of Alan Moore's Watchmen.

"Quit playin' games with…," the chorus would begin.

"No. No band allowed. No! No!"

"We don't care where you're from…," they would try again.

"No. No entry for band!" Mr. Money-Cap's sinewy fingers would ram into the sign a few times.

"But what about those guys there? They've got these turbans, oh yeah, and moustaches, oh yeah, and they make guttural noises, and…oh, yeah…"

"No. Not band. They go. You no. No band allowed."

"But they've got guns…aaanh-aaaaanh-aaaaaanh!"

"Not band."

"But they're terrorists, oh yeah!"

"Terrorist, not band."

"But terrorists are banned…aaanhhh….aaaanh-aaaaaaaaanh-anhh!"

"No. No. Out!"

At this stage, he would be assisted by his accomplice, also clad in exactly the same attire, of a vaguely different colour. This accomplice had materialised at some point of our hysterical enactment, and has discreetly enquired from my friend, in Bengali, whether the woman with him had had a little more to drink than she could handle. My friend replied that I was a singer, and rather upset by the sign.

As we moved on, I realised this signboard had replaced another one I had seen outside a hospital as the most bizarre in my experience. The sign was outside the Northwick Park and St. Mark's Hospital, which sat back in the hallowed shadow of Harrow School, where most of England's royals had learnt their grammar. The sign read "WARNING: It is dangerous to walk this way". It must have come as a rude shock to patients being wheeled into the trauma centre to be greeted with this ominous sign. The scenario could find a sort of evangelical equivalent in St. Peter winking at someone he turned away from the Pearly Gates, to show them a store of wine and offer them a selection of harems and gay bars. To say nothing of its austere location – that could find a politically incorrect equivalent possibly in a chhat puja being held right outside Raj Thackeray's house.

Our earlier view that the sign was redundant was corrected soon after, though. The crucial role it played in the life of the colony was revealed on the second leg of our journey. On some lost road, trying to find our ways to the market, we stumbled across a profusion of children of exactly the height I am allergic to. The dancing children were soon followed by dancing aunties, escorted by uncles with bellies and skinny girls who slapped around a bunch of skinnier men. An embarrassed groom with flowers flowing down his countenance sat gloomily on a horse. The first time he smiled was when the red-and-gold liveried band was turned away by the Watchmen. The sign had served its purpose.

(With many thanks to Anirban Banerjee for supplying half the scenario and accompanying yours truly on wild goose non-chases)
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