Every human mind, wrote Nehru, is ‘a private universe of thought and feeling’, and no other human can look into it, except in rare (and usually faulty) glimpses. This is all the more true of intelligent, learned, reflective and complex minds. Yet we desperately need to communicate, not only for getting along in the workaday world, but because we are all at heart, at least sometimes, terribly lonely and scared and confused and in need of the warmth which only the loving, understanding and caring of other human minds can give us, short of direct contact with God. And that can be done only, or at least primarily, through language, through the written and spoken word.
Also, language misused or abused can do immeasurable, often irreparable harm. It can break hearts, confuse and misguide minds, create the worst possible (and often entirely avoidable-) misunderstandings, ruin lives, trigger off riots and wars. And it can have enduring effects on all history. Which is why Hammurabi and Asoka got their edicts carved on stone, which is why Aesop and Vishnu Sharma told stories, Socrates and Aurelius and the editors of the King James Bible chose their words with great care, which is why diplomats and lawyers take so much time and pay so much attention to ironing out drafts of official documents, which is why my textbooks in French were titled Le français et la vie... French and life. That’s right: language is the very foundation of thought and culture, and you cannot separate it from life itself. For God’s sake, even mathematics and computer codes are types of language, and you cannot explain a fundamental concept in physics or economics without language, no matter how good you are with graphs and equations. I know. I have been teaching language all my life, among other things.
I have a very special reason for loving and worshipping language, of course. It has fed me richly, both my body and mind. It has ‘kept me from evil’, remembering that the worst evils are hurting the innocent and wasting your time. It has given me something to be proud of, as no mere material possessions and titles and family connections can make one proud. It has allowed me to be a lot of help to a lot of people in need. It has helped me to understand the world, and to know people – both in their richness and their banality. Indeed, nothing tells you more about people’s characters than the kind of language they use: that is why psychoanalysts depend so much on what their clients on the couch say while engaging in free association of thoughts, and even a teacher of mathematics, if he is worth his salt, will insist that his pupils get the successive statements of a proof just right; no shoddiness will be tolerated. So it shouldn’t be too hard to understand why I have always tried to speak rationally, succinctly, lucidly, illustratively... and even more so when I am writing, because writing is more permanent than the spoken word, and you have fewer excuses for shooting your mouth, even if you are writing on google chat. I have talked and written all my life, and said a lot of hard and harsh things to so many people too, yet rarely have I had to take back something I said, while I know people who have to do that twenty times a day. Not an accident. It needs hard work. And one puts in that kind of hard work day in, day out, only when one is convinced about how important it is, how much better a human being one becomes if one makes a lifelong habit of it. If one wants to become a better human being, of course, at least a little more than wanting to buy a better cellphone or pair of shoes.
So nothing makes me wince or want to throw up more than seeing people mangling language, and saying things they don’t mean (or, “really mean”) simply because they won’t take the trouble. And then lamenting ‘Folks don’t understand me... X, Y or Z misunderstands me so much’! I don’t merely mean the way journalists routinely abuse language through the bad habit of thoughtless overuse and the knowledge that nobody really cares what they write. I don’t merely mean the Bangalore-based IT hack who writes on his Facebook wall, under a photograph of himself in front of the Taj Mahal, ‘1st time wid soooo wonderful creature n d world!’ He is not, after all, quite a human being. I don’t mean the teenage girl who, whenever she gets annoyed, exclaims ‘Oh, shit!’ imagining that makes her ‘cool’, though she cannot write a decent 400-word essay on any sensible subject under the sun to save her life: she’s got company, and there’s a faint possibility that given the right kind of teachers, she might still grow up, maybe by the time she’s seventy, and she can think beyond getting married and having babies and dolling up for parties. I am certainly not sneering at someone who can use her mother tongue with fluency and élan, though her grasp of the English language might be poor: indeed, I have met far too many people who can write/speak only pidgin English, or Hinglish/Banglish at best, and far too few who can handle chaste Bangla or Hindi, so I actually respect the latter kind. I am no martinet, as my best students can tell you: I too like the occasional bit of fun playing with caricatured language, including its textese format, or writing Bangla in the Roman script, or employing currently fashionable buzzwords. But there is somewhere everybody with education, good taste and self-respect must draw the line, and I do too.
It’s when people who know better – or should know better – do it, and keep doing it, despite knowing well enough it is bad, wrong, hurtful or at best vulgar: do it despite being told. People who are adults, people who like to think of themselves as educated, people who have read more than a few good books, who have themselves grimaced at or even suffered from others’ abuse of language, most of all people who have known me for sometime as a teacher, formally or otherwise. With such people, I feel like puking when I still see that anything can be hot as well as cool, it’s okay to say to anybody ‘I love you’ because they’ve learnt it from stage performers who are paid to blow kisses at audiences and scream ‘I love all you amayyzing people!’, anyone can be called great or awesome, from Alexander to the boyfriend, anyone can be called foolish or worse, from an ex-classmate to Tagore or Russell because that helps the cause of democracy, I suppose; when such people are too quick to take offence at a reprimand, forgetting that I have never demanded less than and never renounced my dues as a teacher, forgetting hundreds of things they have reason to be grateful for merely because they feel this momentary compulsion to talk back in a hurry; people who have opinions on everything but are repeatedly struck dumb when I ask for their well-considered opinions on certain things because ‘they don’t know what to say’; people who do not have the strength of character to admit and correct the fact that they contradict themselves too often (like asking for edification one day and telling me they don’t want sermonizing the next), people who hate to be compared with their betters instead of wanting to learn from them, people who insist, in denial of all their education, that others have an obligation to understand their intended meaning instead of listening to what they actually say, people who can dish it out to Sir but can’t take it from him and still imagine they have a right to his kind of attention...
For those who have lost me already, I suggest you re-read the first two paragraphs. You can wipe more than one thing with your handkerchief. How much truer and more significant that is with something infinitely precious and powerful like a language! Especially when it comes to dealing with a language worshipper like me, who has never liked to waste time on trifles or trivial people? I know how I talk when I am dealing with my family doctor, I know how much more reverential attention I shall give to someone of real and ineffable worth, like if I was talking to Vivekananda. Whoever has been reading this blog consistently for a couple of years, even if s/he has not met me in the flesh, cannot help knowing, even if s/he never has the courage and honesty to acknowledge it and celebrate it, that I am not quite another Tom, Dick or Harry. Surely people ought to admit – especially when I have given them time enough, and I am not an impatient man, as my parents, sisters and the likes of Bijit Mukherjee know – that I have a right, beyond a point, to cut them out of my life? Professional interest apart, why should I keep talking to people who will not listen to me, who will keep irritating me either because they don’t understand they are doing it or can’t help it, and who will never share my love, respect and awe for language and all that it entails: given that that love, respect and awe has paid off vastly more handsomely than knowing such people has or ever will? After all, fifty years is a long time to have been around, and I can still count on two fingers the people to whom I owe anything of value at all! And if I limit my attention to those who are both able and willing to give me anything of value still, should I look beyond my wife, my daughter and my investment counsellor? Is anybody else likely to do better? – get my book published, or give me love (as I define love, not they, it goes without saying), or build a memorial when I am gone? Should I lower my expectations to the level of being invited to weddings instead?
Can anybody claim after reading this post through that I have written a single sentence outside my rights? This link is about how people react to cinema these days, but it fits in perfectly with what I have been saying here. This one, which Mayuri sent me, shows that others too are ruing how the facility of the internet is encouraging us to bring the worst of ourselves out on the surface for full public view. Also, it won’t hurt to look up the posts I have put under the label of ‘netiquette’. Because I know for a fact that I get much less lip and irrelevant chatter when people come over to talk with me face to face. Whether they are 15 or 50.
All my life I have believed a) there is nothing more worth having than an education, b) that education means knowing above all else what is crap and why it is necessary to cut out the crap, c) that I want to find a man about whom it can be said he is ‘one whose very company is a complete education’, completely sure that I will do anything for him, and I don’t use words loosely, d) I have tried consciously and single-mindedly to become someone like that myself, e) I have got more than a little acknowledgment that at least I tried, and so, f) I do not want to know people who think less than that of me. For those who can’t or won’t, the rest of the world is waiting. Try the gutter. Try the slums. Try the pubs. Try Facebook. I know that Tagore and Russell and Asimov and Galbraith would have agreed; I know that Abhirup and Pupu agree, I do not have to waste time considering the ‘opinions’ of lesser creatures masquerading as human beings, no matter what their numbers are. You are above 21 and still use FB, after trying it out for a year? Don’t talk to me. And that you didn’t delete your account immediately after reading this post tells me all I want to know about you and what you really feel about me: how much I 'matter' to you when the chips are down.
I like to tell this zen story: the master was deep in meditation, and the would-be pupil came and kept waiting to draw his attention. It was snowing, and he was out in the open, and eventually he began to freeze, but he hung on. At last the master opened his eyes, and snarled, ‘What do you want, you rascal?’ ‘To be your disciple’, said the man. ‘And what are you willing to give up for me?’ The man drew out his sword, cut off his left arm with his right, and said, ‘Do you want more?’ Then he was accepted. Yes, yes, I know, by closing down your FB account and minding your language you will lose so many ‘friends’, and after all, it’s only numbers that matter, and ‘what will people say?’... alamativistaarena, they say in Sanskrit, don’t talk too much. They don’t listen anyway.