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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sir and Madam, if you please

My wife was laughing the other day when our long-time insurance agent suddenly started addressing her as ‘Madam’. Both are Bengalis, mind you, and he had been calling us dada and boudi for years. Why the sudden shift to an alien style? Well, he shamefacedly admitted, a lot of women these days take offence if he uses ‘obsolete’ forms of address such as boudi

We have heard the same from others, too, greengrocers and sweetmeat sellers among them. One fishmonger was hugely relieved and pleased when my wife told him she much prefers to be called boudi, as of old. He even had an explanation for the new fashion: ‘They’ve picked it up at the shopping malls!’ And the wives of the yuppies are much more prickly, it seems, than their men-folk are.

I remember that when I sat in the St. Xavier’s library in the halcyon days, and parents of boys in class 9 and 10 with any kind of query relating to their wards were routinely sent up to me by the headmaster, many of them felt this compulsion to speak to me in English, under the impression that to talk to an English teacher in an English-medium school in anything other than English was simply not done. Invariably they would take in a deep breath, puff up their chests, throw their shoulders back, go goggle-eyed and let loose a torrent of pidgin, whether they were engineers or clerks. Only perhaps one in a hundred could really talk in English, but what passion they threw into their voices! I could hardly listen for a minute before I was struggling to smother a smile, and I had to tell them that I was as much a  Bengali as they, and I would much prefer to converse in the native language. They looked nonplussed for a moment, then switched over to Bengali with obvious relief. Not that they could speak good Bengali, either, but that is another story.

The same happens in the bank I go to. Those manning the counters insist on talking in English, even if I begin the conversation in Bengali, but the moment I am driven by exasperation to start talking in English, they register alarm and promptly switch back to Bengali or Hindi…

What a country we have made, indeed: the most cultured among us are ashamed of our native tongues and so proud of speaking in an alien language most of them have only the most tenuous grasp of!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pausing for a while...

Something that sometimes saddens and sometimes irks me is to see comments coming in saying things which make it obvious that the writer has either not read things I had written earlier, or not understood, or quite forgotten about them!

There is a search bar along the right-hand column of this blog, you know, just so that before dashing off a comment you can check out whether and what I had written on the subject already – just type in key words like education or religion or prices or Harry Potter or freedom or China or poems and see what is available. You might be pleasantly surprised to see that I have said a lot of things on all these subjects already: and you might find your queries answered, your doubts resolved. If you don’t like using the search bar, you may instead click on the various labels (‘personal’, ‘worldview’, ‘tributes’, ‘earliest posts’ etc). It will be a nice gesture to me, too, saving me the trouble of repeating things I have said (sometimes more than once-) before!

I have myself been going over some old posts lately, and there are now quite a lot of them, on a great variety of subjects. And since I don’t normally write about nine-day wonders, most of them are quite as relevant today as they were on the date of writing.

So I shall not write on anything ‘new’ for a while (what’s the big deal about newness anyway? An obsession with novelty is a sign of a weak mind that merely lives from sensation to sensation, retaining no memories and having no use for reflection … that’s not the kind of reader I wish to attract and keep). Instead, I shall wait expectantly for comments to come in on some really old posts. Like this one, for instance.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Adieu handwriting?

Some schools in the state of Indiana, USA, are bidding goodbye to handwriting as an essential and fundamental skill to be acquired by all children during their formative years in favour of texting and typing, says a report in The Times of London, quoted in The Telegraph, Kolkata, 13th July (middle of p.3. I couldn’t find the link on their website). Apparently in 41 of the US states already, it is not compulsory for children to learn to write by hand any more. This may be the beginning of a great new trend, resulting in a world, maybe fifty years or a hundred years from now, where nobody (except a few antiquarians and cranks here and there) will know how to write with a pen any more…

All is flux, said Heraclitus and the Buddha long ago, all things must pass. There were countless skills that took great patience and labour to acquire, but were nevertheless acquired and admired by millions down the ages, and now they are gone. Like how to churn butter or hitch a horse to a wagon, says the report itself. Or swordsmanship and handling sails on a ship or remembering the contents of thousands of books, I may suggest. Even things like painting pictures by hand are on their way to becoming lost arts, and so may be the ability to do arithmetic in one’s own head, if my reading of the situation around me is right. So why not handwriting, indeed? Truth is, I should be happy – being a teacher of language, compelled to read and mark large amounts of text daily, I have nearly worn my eyes out reading the ghastliest of scrawls for nearly thirty years, and computer printouts should be a great deliverance. My old boys tell me that professors in many colleges even in this country are already insisting that assignments be done on computer and sent over by email for correction and marking: it’s so much less of a bother that way. It mightn’t be long before schoolteachers follow suit, and bye bye to carrying huge piles of homework books home and back every day. What a blessed relief that will be. And who writes letters longhand these days anyway? Personally, it won’t be any trouble at all: I have been typing fast since teenage, and already in the mid-1990s I was warning pupils that typewriting would become an essential skill soon. So why should I be upset now?

Yet I must confess I can’t help sighing wistfully. One reason is that I am the type who believe that anything that has been cherished for countless ages is likely to have some intrinsic value, so it should not be lightly forgotten, especially when the replacement is no great shakes (think: contact lenses have not been able to replace the spectacles which have been around for centuries, and despite the electronic music board, millions are still learning how to play real musical instruments – why?). Another is that, as some scholars, researchers and thinkers have already pointed out (and this has been mentioned in the report itself), any skill like good handwriting (or doing sums quickly and accurately in the head) which takes years of patient labour to acquire has strong beneficial effects on the human brain, which may be lamented only when they are lost – as a lot of people are already lamenting the demise of systematic drilling in grammar during the school years! A third reason is (and I say this though I am not as sentimental as some much younger people are) there is something personal and sincere about handwritten communication that can simply not be duplicated if the same is done via computer and internet. But the most important reason of all is that I fear that – leaving aside communications of a strictly business nature, such as office files and legal documents – all communication via computer and mobile phone is likely to be of a far more trivial, superficial and ephemeral nature, of no lasting value, unlike things written by hand. It is not just an irrelevant coincidence that a lot of successful professional writers prefer to write longhand even in this day and age, and one cannot imagine people of today writing letters like Chesterfield or Keats or Tagore (Chhinnopotro) or Churchill via keyboard or keypad. If that is not a loss to civilization, tell me what is (provided you have any idea what I am talking about)? I may not be so bitter and melodramatic as the commentator in the Wall Street Journal who writes ‘…it presages a further hollowing out of the human personality, a further colonization of the human mind by the virtual at the expense of the real’, but I am both sad and worried nevertheless. I belong to a generation which is equally at home with handwriting and typewriting, but think of entire generations of children being educated without ever wielding a pencil!

Whether you think that the supersession of handwriting will or will not be a great leap forward, do let me hear your views.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Quirky lists

It’s July 8th today: Shilpi has just reminded me that my blog is now five years old (see the post titled ‘Four years old’ written a year ago). How fast time passes, really. I can hardly believe that I have been doing this without a break for five whole years! Many thanks to all the readers who have kept me going all this time by visiting regularly and commenting frequently. I hope they too want this blog to continue for many more years, as I do.

As some people might have noticed already, I have recently added a blog titled ‘Listverse’ on my blog-roll. The fellow’s strongly idiosyncratic, of course, but he is harmless, and clever, and wicked, and though I don’t always agree with him (as I commented on his recent post about why he thinks newspapers are on the way out), I generally enjoy the slightly weird lists that he keeps putting up. He’s been teaching me a thing or two, too (as my daughter has written in her own recent blogpost). His latest post is ‘10 Industries that thrive on holidays’, and I relished the hard-hitting cynical tone so much that I must draw my readers’ attention to it (do read some of the comments, too: so many people have nothing to say to him except ‘I hate you’!).

Among other things, it should make you think: the very fact that these ten industries are thriving as never before should give the lie to the oft-repeated claim that people these days are terribly busy all the time. With so many holidays, and with so many people having both the leisure and the money to throw at all those holidays, one can only sigh to think that there used to be a time when most people had to work most of the time just to make a bare living (I have been reading Dickens lately, and his world seems light years away). That’s progress for you.

While the party lasts.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A Telephone Conversation

(with a doff of the hat to Wole Soyinka)

An old girl rang me up from distant Bangalore last night, essentially because she wanted to hear my voice, and because she wanted a shoulder to weep over about a lot of unsettling things that have been happening lately – accidental death of loved ones, loneliness, inability to focus on essential work at hand, loss of self confidence and lack of direction, etc. etc. I said what I usually say on such occasions (which are not infrequent), and, to cut a long story short, she sounded much more cheerful towards the end of the nearly half-hour conversation, and acknowledged as much, adding, ‘Sir, you have no idea how much you have done for so many of us, and how much you still mean to us. Thank you!’ Goes without saying, it made my day.

And in turn it made me think of so many who gushed that way in class and then have dropped out of my life completely. Other boys and girls even tell me that some of them regret not having kept in touch, and wish they could renew the connection, but are ‘too scared’ to try, remembering that I had made scathing remarks in class about how many will gush and forget, and they fear they will be in for some tongue-lashing if they do call, or email, or turn up at my door now, after a long hiatus.

I shall never stop wondering about what really draws people to a person, and what repels, and what makes us forget some people completely after their immediate ‘utility’ is exhausted.

And, of course, I grow more cynical every year, more convinced than ever that it’s not just about me and my ex-pupils: human beings in general care little about one another, even so-called loved ones, much beyond their immediate utility. I have heard so many things, you see. I have heard a father pointing to his wife and daughter and saying ‘I am just their ATM!’ and I have seen grown children referring to their aged fathers as burdens and old fools, and I have heard about the man impatiently asking the insurance agent ‘Who cares what my family will get when I am dead? Just tell me how much I will get if I am still alive when this policy matures.’ I have seen 'friends' falling out merely because one scored a few more marks than the other in some silly examination. And I have seen so many young married couples breaking up before my eyes, apparently because they simply couldn't bear each other any more.

I was recently going through some essays on the subject of love written as homework by some high-school girls, and I couldn’t help smiling sadly as I read through the absurd teenage romantic fluff. If only they knew a little more about hormones, and making a living, and going through the daily grind day after day, year after year…how I wish our children could grow up, not cynical, certainly, but a little more clear-eyed! I believe, you see, that even three generations ago their ancestors at this age were not quite so dumb, and therefore not quite so vulnerable to reality when it bites.