Thursday, October 28, 2010

A dictionary that doesn't discourage

"Yet another dictionary!" I said to myself when, recently, I received a complimentary copy of WordMaster, a learner's dictionary brought out by Orient Longman.

When I opened the dictionary, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was an all-Indian venture.  Even more pleasant was the fact that some of the members of the editorial team were very well known to me: Bikram K Das, Usha Aroor, Vani Vasudevan, and R Vadivelu.  Traditionally, lexicography has been the special preserve of men.  WordMaster is refreshingly different: as many as 16 of the 26-member editorial team are women, and the chief editor of the team is Usha Aroor.  But the dictionary doesn't have only such trivia to recommend it.  It has some special features – features which contribute to its learner-friendliness.

Since the advent of the advanced learner's dictionaries (ALDs), the role of the dictionary has greatly changed: far from being a mere reference volume, the dictionary is now an effective teaching-learning aid.  Teachers of English expect their students to bring to class a dictionary – not a pocket-size dictionary but an ALD.  If students don't carry one, it is because an ALD is extremely large in size.  A typical ALD is a 1500 – 1700-page volume.  But WordMaster is a handy dictionary: it is half the size (724 pages) of a typical ALD with 35,000 references.  It is as easy to carry as the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary, a 767-page volume whose graphic features, however, are much more attractive than those of WordMaster.

I have repeatedly heard college students complain that dictionaries are a complete yawn because of their information overload.  I wouldn't agree it is overkill because students at the college level need different meanings of a word as well as some guidance on how to use the word appropriately to serve different purposes.  But the fact remains, at the same time, that students don't feel encouraged to read a dictionary page that is cluttered with a lot of information under one entry.  Dictionaries like the Macmillan English Dictionary have tried to compensate for this laboriousness by using attractive design features.  WordMaster takes the easy – but sensible – way out: it doesn't go beyond the most common meanings of words and the most basic information on grammatical usage.  The pursuit, I guess, of the possible!

WordMaster is different from other dictionaries in another respect.  In any dictionary, the meaning of a word is followed by an example sentence to show how the word is used in context.  In WordMaster, the illustrative sentence comes first, followed by the meaning.  The idea behind it is a language learning strategy: guess the meaning of a new word from the context in which it is found.  The guess is later confirmed when the user reads the meaning that follows.

Considering that WordMaster is basically meant for use in South Asia, it is sensitive to the 'regional' senses of some words.  Here is a sample: "blouse – a garment that covers the upper part of a woman's body, generally reaching above the waist, worn with a sari"; "bless – to express a wish that God may protect or bring happiness to someone (done by older relatives, etc. on the occasion of a wedding, birthday, etc.)"

WordMaster is a welcome addition to the already valuable stock of ALDs.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book piracy: a flourishing trade

Some more thoughts about books.

An interesting thing happened in the world of letters six years ago,  in October 2004, to be precise.  The Latin American literary giant Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, was launched on October 20, 2004.  Even before the launch, pirated versions of the book had come onto the market.  However, when the book officially came out, the pirates realized that the wily Marquez had outwitted them all: he had changed the ending of the story in the official edition!  Now, the Colombian police swung into action: they seized thousands of copies of the bootleg versions on sale on the streets of Colombia.

But it has always been the pirates' world; Garcia's pre-emptive strategy was an isolated case of an author stealing a march on pirates.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives an interesting account of book piracy in North America in the nineteenth century.  Publishers waiting at the dockside for new British books could produce an American edition almost within hours, as they did in 1823 with Sir Walter Scott's Peveril of the Peak.  And England paid America back in the same coin: in 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin came out in the US, 1,500,000 pirated copies rapidly appeared in England, some editions selling for six pence.

Book piracy has now assumed alarming proportions.  According to an estimate by the Inter-American Publishers' Group, 50 billion book pages are illegally reprinted every year.  In the forefront of book piracy are the Asian and Latin American countries.  In India, the Rs 7000-crore publishing industry incurs a loss of Rs 400 crore on account of book piracy.  You can imagine how notorious China is for print piracy from the fact that, in just three months (August-October 2002), 10.24 million pirated books were sized in the country.

In China, there is at least a government crackdown against book piracy.  But in Bangladesh, where there is no such action, book piracy is a flourishing trade.  A few years ago, Dr U Satyanarayana, a friend of mine who was a professor of biochemistry at Siddhartha Medical College, Vijayawada, wrote a book on biochemistry which was quite popular in India and abroad.  The book with illustrations in four colours was originally priced Rs 440, but pirated black-and-white editions of the book began to sell for Rs 250 in Bangladesh.  Then the publisher did something very sensible: he reduced the price of the original to Rs 250.  If you can't beat the pirates, join them!

Publishers of textbooks must learn a lesson from this.  One reason why students buy cheaper pirated editions of books on specialized subjects such as medicine and engineering is because the original editions are prohibitively expensive.  But it would be simplistic to think that by reducing prices alone, book piracy could be eliminated.

How is the situation in my own town, Vijayawada?  On a Sunday, I visited about fifteen second-hand books shops, and was unimpressed by the small-scale bootlegging that was going on there.  On offer were awful-looking Sidney Sheldons (Rs 50 a copy) and Jeffrey Archers (Rs 75) and plenty of stolen volumes from college/public libraries.

Why is book piracy not a roaring business in places like Vijayawada?  The answer is quite simple: piracy can flourish only where the reading habit flourishes.

Readers, pseudo-readers and non-readers

That October is International School Library Month became part of my knowledge only this morning when I came across an article on the subject in The Hindu (Metroplus).  Having gained this piece of knowledge, I called a librarian friend of mine and asked him, "Do you know when International School Library Month is observed?"  "Who observes it?"  he asked in reply.

On reflection, that seemed the right answer to the question.  In a world where reading is fast disappearing, how does it matter when International School Library Month comes?  "My only books", said Thomas Moore in the nineteenth century, "were women's looks, and folly's all they've taught me."  A modern Moore may mourn: "My only books are the box's looks, and folly's all they've taught me."

To be fair, however, there are readers and readers.  For some, reading is a pleasure.  I know a number of die-hard book-lovers who have grown up on grandmother's tales, on adventure stories, and on such all-time favourites as Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and P G Wodehouse -- and, of course, on the unavoidable (and inevitable!) Shakespeare and Shaw.  They can read Macaulay and Gibbon with as much interest and excitement as they can R L Stevenson and P G Wodehouse.  They wouldn't wax eloquent on their reading like Francis Bacon ("Reading maketh a full man"); they read for the simple reason that it gives them pleasure.

For some, reading is a kind of penance.  It is because they read books either in the hope of gaining some knowledge or for practical purposes, such as writing an examination.  I know a person who looks at every new book with suspicion and wonders if it is good value for money and time.

There is a third group that consists of people who love books, who want to be able to say that they have read all the books worth reading, but who never manage to read any books.  Typical of the "reading" style of this group is what a fellow teacher living in Chennai does: she goes to the British Council Library and borrows five attractive-looking books which have just entered the library, keeps them for a fortnight and then returns them unread. 

Readers, pseudo-readers, and non-readers – well, it takes all sorts to make a world. 

The little-used repositories of learning

Let me share with you a couple of thoughts I have in this International School Library Month.

In Chennai, where I was born and bred, there is a 115-year-old public library.  Housed in an architecturally noteworthy building with an ornate Indo-Saracenic interior and a stained glass roof, it has thousands of rare books on different subjects.  You can find in its archives, the oldest in Asia, the despatches of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, sent out from England in 1670, and the very first issue of Madras Courier, an English newspaper published in 1795.  The library is relatively cool even in summer and it is equipped with very comfortable furniture.  In summer, people go there – to sleep.  And in rainy season – when it rains in the season, I mean – the library is found useful again: people enter the building to seek protection from the rain.

What is true of that great library in Chennai is more or less true of any other library.  Libraries are quiet, silent and secluded places for the simple reason that they are unvisited.  Not only libraries; even bookshops – any other place, for that matter, where there are books.  People keep their distance from the place.

Not that I am saying that reading has disappeared.  People do read; in fact, they do a lot of reading.  But the old excitement has gone out of the business.  That's because reading has become business: people have become by and large utilitarian in their reading as they have become commercial in their approach to anything else.  They read not for pleasure but for information.

"Reading" is probably a wrong word in this World of Non-Readers or in this Age of Information Technology; browsing is the mot juste.  You browse through brochures and tables, you browse around bookshops, and you browse the Internet.

Every cloud has a silver lining.  A couple of months ago, a friend of mine, whose name is Gopala Krishna, called to share with me the ecstasies Bipin Pal's autobiography had sent him into.  It reminded me of the ecstasy Keats had experienced when he had first "looked into" Chapman's Homer.  For a good half hour the old man rhapsodized almost like Ruper Hughes:

       Dear little child,
       This little book
       Is less a primer
       Than a key
       To sunder gates
       Where wonder waits
       Your "Open Sesame"!

Libraries exist for a small and vanishing tribe of book-lovers represented by Gopala Krishna.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Homely girls can be good-looking indeed

During the course of a guest-lecture I gave at Eluru, a neighbouring town, I was led to talk about the different varieties of the English language, including the non-native varieties, and also about how users of English as a foreign language attempt to nativize the language in their own non-English cultures.  The more culture-bound, I said, a non-native user's style is, the more deviant it becomes from the native varieties of English: it acquires a distinctive stylistic characteristic.  One of the examples I gave was "You, spoiler of my salt" (namak haram) from Mulk Raj Anand's novel, Untouchable.

Though I gave examples from non-literary sources also, I was not very satisfied with them.  On a Sunday morning, while glancing through the matrimonial column in an English newspaper, I realized that I had failed to use in my lecture two important resources which our newspapers offer – matrimonial advertisements and obituaries in which the advertisers' non-English identity is so wonderfully captured in the English language.  Incidentally, my interest in matrimonial columns is purely linguistic: I am curious to know how fellow-Indians express their choice of a bride or bridegroom in English.

Look at this gem which I picked up from the paper:

Iyer, Vadama, Srivatsa, 34/154, Bharani, no dosham, BA, DCA, homely, good-looking, medium-complexioned, father holding a senior position in a reputed Chennai company, seeks suitable groom.  Subsect no bar.  Widowers with clean habits and no issues may also send their horoscopes.

This advertisement is so highly contextualized that a person who does not share the native culture cannot understand it.

And a native English speaker who reads it will be confused.  If the entire discourse is a mystery to him, he will be perplexed by a contradiction in the advertisement, namely, that the advertiser is a "homely, good-looking" woman.  What the advertiser actually means is that she is domestically well-trained ("homely") and pretty ("good-looking").  But "homely" actually means "plain" (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary), or "not very attractive to look at" (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary), or "ugly" (Macmillan English Dictionary)!

If the native English speaker is perplexed by the "homely" woman's "good" looks, he will be either amused by her father working for a "reputed" company or struck by her honesty in admitting it.  "Reputed" actually means: "generally supposed but with some doubt" (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English), or "said or believed by many people, but not definitely known to be true" (Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2002).  The two dictionaries give the following examples: "(He is) the reputed father of her baby"; and "(He is) a reputed Mafia boss".  I'm sure what the "homely, good-looking" lady means is that the company her father works for is a reputable (= having a good name) one.

But I wonder if an Indian can take a hard line over "reputed".  After all, the word doesn't seem to exist at all in Indian English; it is not even part of the vocabulary of several good Indian professors of English who swear by Queen's English.  Furthermore, a new English dictionary that has just come onto the market has enhanced the reputation of the word "reputed": it doesn't list "reputable" at all; it has only "reputed". This dictionary, which is an Indian attempt at lexicography, gives the following example: "Sanath Jayasuriya is a reputed batsman."  If Sanath Jayasuriya is a reputed batsman, the company the "homely, good-looking" woman's father works for must be reputed indeed!

What ought to prevail: law or justice?

For all practical purposes, Ibrahim is an Indian.  This 55-year-old Keralite had lived in India until he was 22, when he went to Pakistan and worked there for nine years.  Then he came back to India and married an Indian woman in Kerala where he has been living for the past 26 years.  His name is on the voters' list and he even holds a ration card.

But there is a thorn in Ibrahim's flesh: his passport, issued by the Government of Pakistan.  This has led to the Government of India questioning his Indian citizenship time and again and ordering now deportation to Pakistan.

There is another dimension to this deportation case: Ibrahim cannot be proved to be a citizen of Pakistan.  His passport expired long ago.  Besides, he has lost it.  In any case, he doesn't want to live in Pakistan.  "Permit me to stay in my own land or hang me", he says.

Ibrahim's case reminds me of Albert Tong's.  In 1979, Tong left his native Hong Kong, a British colony at the time, to visit his younger brother in Britain.  He should have left Britain before his visitor's pass expired, but he overstayed by about two decades, married a British-born young woman, settled in Camborne, a tin-mining town in Britain, and led a happy life.  But the arm of the law is long.  When Tong was 43, he was found to be an illegal immigrant and a deportation order was served on him.

But Hong Kong was no longer Chris Patten's democratic Hong Kong: it had already come under the control of China, which was eager to remove all its vestigial traces of democracy.  And Tong, like his Indian counterpart, Ibrahim, didn't want to leave the country in which he had lived for about two decades and where his wife and children lived.

This is where Tong's story differs from Ibrahim's.  Unlike Ibrahim's fellow-citizens, the citizens of Camborne rallied round Tong and petitioned the government for mercy; they even urged Tong to move the European Court of Human Rights.  So far so good.  But the British government didn't relent.  Unlike the British government, the Indian government could be sympathetic towards Ibrahim and allow him to stay back with his family.

The law demands that Ibrahim be deported.  But justice demands that his case be treated differently and that he be recognized as an Indian citizen.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Our towns need a victim helpline

One night, when I was deeply asleep, my telephone rang like hell.  I woke with a start and groped for the phone, still half-asleep.  The caller had a very young voice, shrill and piercing.  "I'm a grammar victim", I heard the young woman say.  "And I need professional help."

Grammar victim!  The dictionary of victimhood, if there was one, must be an ever-expanding one, I thought.  I had heard of murder victims, rape victims, flood victims, earthquake victims, tsunami victims, and several other kinds of victims, but never of grammar victims.  "What do you mean, grammar victim?"  I asked her, giving a big yawn.  "Gra…oh, no!"  the girl screamed, her voice thick with anger.  "I said trauma, not grammar. I am a trauma victim.  I am emotionally disturbed.  I need some advice."

I was now wide awake.  And I understood what the girl wanted.  What I didn't understand was why a trauma victim should call me up at midnight and scream blue murder.  "Are you sure I am the person you wanted to talk with?"  I asked her.  "Isn't that the Social Service Centre?" she screamed with impatience.  "No", I said.  "But I know that in the Yellow Pages my number is wrongly listed as that of the Social Service Centre."

I gave her the telephone number of the Social Service Centre, but she preferred to talk to me about her problem.  She was an engineering graduate, and she lived in Orissa.  When she was at Hyderabad for two months, she met a young man who fell head over heels in love with her.  "He wants to marry me.  He says that if I don't agree, he will commit suicide.  I've just had a call from him.  I don't know what to do.  I need some professional help.  Is there a helpline here?"  To the best of my knowledge, there was only a child helpline in Vijayawada, and I told her so.  Then she asked me whether I could help her.  "No", I said,  "I can only help you with your grammar.  But I have a friend who can handle your trauma."  I gave her the telephone number of the friend and hung up.  Within minutes, the phone rang again.  It was the friend now.  When the phone stopped ringing at last, it was four o'clock in the morning, and the young woman had got over her trauma.  As it turned out, she was a depressed nightbird who had to be handled just the way my friend did.

Incidentally, I bore the SSC (Social Service Centre) cross for four years, answering thousands of queries which the SSC people should have answered.  I wish the SSC, or the BSNL, or the Yellow Pages people, or all of them together, would rescue me by removing my number from the Yellow Pages

But that's beside the point.  It's time that a helpline was set up in each important town and given wide publicity.  About 20 years ago, while collecting information for an article on suicide, I came across a helpline in Chennai.  Sneha, as it was called, was actually a suicide prevention clinic with 50 volunteers and a trained psychiatrist.  Chennai must have several Snehas now.  Every other Indian city must have at least one – a voice at the other end of the line to pull a wretched soul back from the brink.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Writing at KG level: a novel approach

Sometime ago, I watched a televised discussion on the vexed question of whether children should be made to write (in English, of course) at the kindergarten level.  It was a dull and lifeless discussion as the participants, who, I presumed, were either senior school teachers or headmistresses, spoke with one voice.  The burden of their message was that, at the kindergarten level, writing should not be carried beyond alphabet letters. 

It was a facile conclusion – a conclusion arrived at in terms of popular theories rather than in terms of the realities of curriculum requirements and classroom practice.  I doubt whether what they advocated was in keeping with their own practice.

I had to contend with this problem myself when I produced a school level programme in English for Zee TV thirteen years ago.  I had never taught at the kindergarten level (in fact, I hadn't taught below the college level at all), but my approach was firmly grounded in reality.  My project team carried out a survey of the kindergarten teaching situation which revealed that the classroom practice vastly diverged from the theory that writing work should be minimized at this level.  In almost all the schools we surveyed, the children were taught to write the letters of the alphabet in LKG itself; and they were expected to write words and phrases in UKG.  When we interviewed the teachers of those schools, we found that pragmatism rather than ignorance was the reason for this practice.  They said that, in Standard I, the writing tasks children were expected to perform were formidable: they must read the coursebooks for different subjects and write their answers to the questions in sentences.  "If not in UKG, when else could the children be trained to meet the entry-level demands of Standard I?" they asked.

My approach was, therefore, a fair compromise.  Accordingly, in our programme, the writing of the letters of the alphabet takes place only towards the end of LKG.  But, before that, there are pre-writing activities like tracing lines, curves, shapes and patterns for the child to gain oculomotor ("eye-hand") control as well as to get used to the lines and shapes of alphabet letters.  This is followed by drawing (not writing) over large, thickly-lined dotted letters of the alphabet.  There are arrows to show the direction in which the pencil should be moved, and the child draws each letter following the arrows and connecting the dots.  Letters are arranged not according to their sequence in the alphabet but according to their shapes as sticks, rounds, talls, humps, tails and slants.  Letters containing the simplest strokes are presented first, and the child is gradually led to the more complicated forms.  Considering that small letters are the ones most commonly used, they are introduced first.

At the UKG level (which is called Levels 3 and 4 in our programme), the child traces (not writes) words.  He draws over large thickly lined three-letter words in different colours.  The two colours are for indicating the sound units (not syllables) in each word: one colour for the initial consonant and the following short vowel, which form one sound unit, and another colour for the final consonant which forms another sound unit.  This serves two purposes: one, the child learns to write, and, two, he gains some knowledge of the phoneme-grapheme relationships necessary for blending sounds.

Ostrich-like attitudes won't help.  Writing cannot be ignored at the kindergarten level, but there are ways of ensuring that children are not pushed into independent writing at this stage.

A nation of third-rate researchers

Professor Helen Christiansen, who is on the Faculty of Education, at the University of Regina, Canada, is an authority on second language acquisition.  I spent a couple of days with her when she came to India as a visiting professor.  A feminist, atheist and an uncompromising scholar, Helen doesn't accept anything at face value and subjects it to a critical examination. She had for a long time been a foreign examiner for research programmes in some Indian universities, and I felt it worthwhile to ask her about her perception of the state of research in India.  Helen didn't hesitate.  She described the dissertations she had received from India so far as third-rate ones and took pains to justify her accusation.

Helen was blunt.  And what she said hurt my national pride.  But the fact remains that we are a nation of third-rate researchers.  Much of what goes on in the name of research in our universities cannot stand up to close scrutiny.

The recently reported case of the deputy registrar of an Indian university is typical: a part of his PhD dissertation is a word-for-word reproduction of his research guide's.  About a year ago, I received a dissertation for evaluation from a reputable university in South India.  What the researcher had done could not be called research by any stretch of the imagination.  She had not even stated her hypothesis (I don't think she had ever had one!), had a whimsical research design, and rushed to facile, unsubstantiated conclusions.  I refused to evaluate the dissertation and asked the university to spare me the agony in future.

The fact of the matter is that our academia consists predominantly of lowbrows.  How appallingly lowbrow it is can be evident from this vignette.  Once I attended a scholarly lecture on research methodology.  The audience consisted of college teachers most of whom were engaged in either MPhil or PhD research.  Behind me was a row of women teachers who launched into an hour-long natter minutes after the lecture began.  In front of me were several rows of male professors, some chatting, some snoozing, and some with a bored expression on their faces.  My own row was kept awake by the loud snores that came from a young lecturer seated beside me.

Language lab: can it really help?

I wonder if the language laboratory is a current fad in the teaching of English in our country.  At a weekend workshop I ran for teachers of English, a school teacher proudly announced that her school had set up a language lab.  “Things are looking up now”, she added.  She was looked up to by her fellow-participants from other schools who seemed so down-hearted at not having a language lab in their own schools.

On several occasions in the recent past I have heard both school and college teachers complain that they have not been able to make much headway in the teaching of English because they have not been equipped with a language lab.  Interestingly, most of them don’t know what a language lab is and what it can be used for.  If they get one, I’m sure they will be disillusioned.

In Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (or in its film version, My Fair Lady), Professor Higgins taught a Cockney flower girl the finer graces of English speech.  If you have a similar aim, you can think of a language lab as a means of achieving it.  But there is one problem.  Professor Higgins’s student, Eliza Doolittle, had her English already; the professor’s job, therefore, was not to teach her the language but to rub off the rough edges of her Cockney tongue.  You can’t say the same thing about your own learners.  Most of them don’t have the language to support the niceties of pronunciation you want to teach in your language lab.  This apart, learners who benefit from the teaching of pronunciation are those who already have a reasonably good accent.  Those who need remediation seldom show an appreciable degree of improvement.

Producers of language lab materials are sure to protest.  They will claim that they have interactive packages for developing different language skills.  I have examined the packages produced by some of them.  They can at best be used for developing proficiency in interactional communication rather than transactional communication.  For the latter, the classroom is the best place.

A machine can seldom sustain people’s initial enthusiasm for it; the novelty soon wears off.  A few years ago, when my wife asked me to buy her a static cycle, I was reluctant.  It was because the static cycle had a history of not being touched after a couple of months’ use.  But, as it always happens, my better half’s wish eventually got the better of my better judgement.  The object of her wish, the static cycle, which cost me Rs 4000, lies almost untouched now in a corner of our bedroom.  I hope it doesn’t happen to a language lab.  Even a very small one will cost twenty-five times as much as the static cycle cost me.  If it is left to gather dust, it will certainly pain you, even if you have money to burn.

Plagiarism in educational journals

Sometime ago, an Indian professor alleged that one of his works had been shamelessly plagiarized by an American professor; the allegation was published in two parts in a leading English newspaper.  A few months later, a similar charge was  brought against some Indian academics.  Just a few days later, newspapers reported plagiarism of an outrageous kind on the part of the vice-chancellor of an Indian university and his associates.  In four of their papers published in three years, the VC and his associates had plagiarized the works of some foreign physicists.  These plagiarisms were uncovered by one of the professors of the same university.  The original author of one of the works, who was a professor of physics at Stanford University, alleged that the VC and his collaborators had "practically copied" a paper published by him six years ago.  Predictably, the VC denied knowledge of the inclusion of his name in the papers in question.  Not surprisingly, the professor who uncovered these plagiarisms was suspended. 

There is an endless stream of plagiarisms in Indian universities, and even the tabloid press is not interested in reporting them unless they are outrageously shocking. Our universities are no longer proud preserves of intellectuality.  A typical modern professor is no longer a person of cerebral superiority who has retreated into the wilderness of the mind: you can't expect to find him hunched over dusty volumes in a musty library or puzzled over a chemical reaction in a laboratory.  The modern counterpart of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is a nouveau intellectual who has mastered the techniques of achieving "success" with hare-brained intellectuality.  Plagiarism is one of the means; he has got it down to a fine art.

It is not very difficult to get a plagiarized or a substandard article published in an Indian journal.  In the year 2000, I edited two issues of a supposedly scholarly journal to which a professor submitted an article with recommendations from the president of the association which publishes the journal.  Both times I rejected the article as being unworthy of publication.  But it got published in the very next issue.  I was not surprised.  In this day and age of philistinism, it is natural for one person of "Maggi-noodle" intellectuality to empathize with another.

Given this situation, it is, indeed, surprising that the VC and his friends who had plagiarized the works of the Stanford University professor could not get off scot-free.  Perhaps, they had gone too far in pushing their luck.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The twin traditions in emceeing

A master of ceremonies cannot afford to be cynical; he has to have a handsome and ingratiating presence, a charming and cunningly modulated voice, and, more importantly, a seemingly optimistic outlook.  If you are intelligent, you can affect all the three.  But, intelligence of which, I believe, sensitivity is a part and hypocrisy don't go together.  Given that, at most gatherings, the emcee is expected to lavish praise on people who are unworthy of any praise, and to describe fatuous speeches as illuminating, a sensitive emcee -- an unusual collocation because sensitivity and emceeing can hardly go together -- is apt to get depressed and cynical and ends up putting on a lacklustre performance.

What set me reflecting on emceeing was a function I had attended recently.  The emcee not only lavished high-flown compliments on the chief guest, who proved equal to the situation by extravagantly affecting modesty of the exemplary kind, but adopted a declamatory style, liberally interlarded with quotations from classical Telugu poetry and outrageous hyperboles which sounded hilariously old-fashioned. 

This baloney is, however, flattery so thick that it doesn't do much harm.  In straightforward flattery of this kind, the emcee compares the rich man's generosity to, say, Karna's, his aesthetic talent to Viswanatha Satyanarayana's, and his patronage to Sri Krishnadevaraya's, and everyone concerned knows that the man being praised is far from being all those things, and that the emfy (master of flattery) is only following a tradition.  The virtue of this tradition is its apparent artificiality.

Blarney, however, is flattery so thin that it deceives people.  G K Chesterton describes it as the "most poisonous kind of eulogy" and explains how it operates.  The flatterer takes a rich man's superficial life, clothes, hobbies or love of dogs and then enormously exaggerates the value and importance of these natural qualities, so much so the rich man emerges as a prophet and a saviour.  While the eloquent emcee takes for granted that the guest of honour is an ordinary man and sets out to make him out extraordinary, the devious emcee takes for granted that the guest of honour is extraordinary and that, therefore, even the ordinary things about him are great!

Emceeing of these two kinds will thrive as long as people love the lies that save their pride.  The plain-spoken emcee has to wait until people start tolerating unflattering truths.

In praise of blunders – and blunderers

It was a hot and sultry morning.  For the captive audience of about 1000 men and women inside the over-crowded auditorium, it was stifling.  And the emcee, a perfect match for the weather, was making it much more oppressive for the audience who were groaning at his sloppy, long-winded introduction to each and every guest of honour.  Then he did something enlivening: he forgot to invite the chief guest on to the dais and announced the prayer.  There was a ripple of laughter among the audience, and the heat seemed beaten out of the auditorium for a few brief moments.

A half hour passed, and it was foul weather again inside the auditorium.  When the audience were twisting about in agony, there was a break in the "weather" again, as the blundering emcee announced, "The chief guest will now have the privilege of lighting the lamp…"

The world would be an extremely miserable place if people did not make mistakes.  If there were no mistakes, there would be nothing for us to laugh at.  If laughter is a blessing, then error, which never fails to raise a laugh, ought to be welcomed.  And the blunderer who helps you laugh your head off should sufficiently be rewarded.  The most incorrigible blunderer should even go into the Guinness Book.

Errors don't just entertain us; as Robert Lynd points out in his essay, 'In Praise of Mistakes', the discovery of an error in a serious work gives us a temporary feeling of superiority over the great person who has produced the work.  A dry-as-dust reader who comes across a blunder in chronology in Shakespeare feels an inch taller than the immortal Bard of Avon.  So does a pedantically accurate reader on discovering that Sir Walter Scott has made the sun rise on the wrong side of the world.  A lady felt excited when she noticed a mistake in Dr Johnson's dictionary: the word pastern (the part of a horse's foot between the fetlock and the hoof) had been wrongly defined as "the knee of a horse".  It was a heady experience, and she couldn't contain her excitement.  She went up to the great Johnson and asked him how he could commit such an error.  When Dr Johnson replied, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance", she must have been in seventh heaven.

If you don't consider me a ghoul, I'll share with you the feeling of amusement a misprint in the Vijayawada edition of an English language newspaper gave me a few years ago.  "Siddhartha Academy found dead", read the headline of a news item.  What the headline writer had intended was this: "Siddhartha Academy founder dead".

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some noise on the subject of silence

One evening, I was led to think seriously about silence when I had to put up with some dreadful music that was blaring out the entire evening in my neighbourhood.

Not that I hate music: I can't, of course, sing, but I can tolerate other people's singing.  Neither am I intolerant of noise.  I work in an environment which is rather noisy, and my own contribution to it is quite substantial.  It's just that the music in the neighbourhood was deafening and unbearable.  I guess most people are like me in this respect.

Paradoxically, though most of us are annoyed when the noise levels are high, we are not comfortable with the total absence of sound either.  If noise can be deafening, so indeed can silence: silence becomes "loud" when it is total.  If noise can be annoying, absolute silence can be frightening.  Not many people are votaries of graveyard silence; even those who observe mouna vratam may not be its adherents.

Silence reminds me of the three legendary Cartesian monks who climbed to the top of a hill to live in splendid isolation, observing rigorous silence.  After a year, one of them broke his silence and said, "It's nice, isn't it?" and relapsed into silence.  Two years later, another monk replied, "Yes", and became silent again.  Three years later, the third monk scribbled on the sand in front of him: "You both are talking endlessly, and the hill echoes with your garrulous chatter.  I am going away from this place."

We, in India, have our own Cartesian monk in the late P V Narasimha Rao, who, in his heyday as the prime minister of India, was the cartoonist's delight.  A typical cartoon representing PV's taciturnity had both his lips tightly held together by a fastener zip. It is said – it used to be said, rather – that PV opened his mouth (1) to brush, (2) to eat and drink, (3) to yawn, and (4) to cough, and for nothing else!  PV was not only silent but the cause of silence in others: his scowling face with its celebrated pout rarely failed to intimidate one into silence.

There is something more to PV's silence.  PV was not just a practitioner of silence; he was an aficionado.  I'll tell you how.  PV was a polyglot: he knew 17 languages.  So indeed do several others.  But PV was unique: he knew how to be silent in 17 languages!  Avvaiyar, a second century Tamil poet, said that silence is a mark of gnana.  If it is so, PV was a gnani, indeed!

But, for us, agnanis, silent moments are awkward moments, especially during a conversation.  If your listener maintains long silences, confining his responses to monosyllables, you become uncomfortable.  You begin to wonder whether he finds you uninteresting, boring, stupid… There is another side to it, too: if you want a conversation to end, you have an effective tool in silence – sullen, studied silence.

To end this piece on a serious note, some people know the art of graceful silence.  Shout at them or speak to them rudely, but they won't react impulsively.  They do say what they want to say, but they let silence play a vital part in their reaction.  That earns them the respect even of their adversaries.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Where linguistic apostasy has led us

Sometime ago, I gave a pep talk to a group of students from an English medium school.  In the course of the talk, I mentioned the names of some well-known writers in Telugu and English and asked the students if they had read their books or at least heard about them.  The question only drew blank looks all around.  There was, however, one student who said that he had heard the names of some of the writers but not read anything written by them.  "Why is it", I asked them, "that you don't read any fiction in Telugu, your own mother tongue?"  A large number of students said – with considerable pride, I thought – they were not literate in Telugu, their mother tongue, because their second language was Hindi.  And they made no bones about the fact that their competence in Hindi was next to nothing.  I gathered that, in English, the medium through which they study, they don't have a reading habit as such, as the only books they read are their coursebooks.  As far as their oral communication is concerned, the fluency in English they have acquired can only help them communicate in a few limited contexts.

When I began my career as a teacher of English, I had to contend with something slightly different: linguistic apostasy on the part of my English literature students most of whom were from affluent families.  They had read nothing in their own literature which, in fact, they looked down upon, and read quite a lot in English which they considered a superior language.  What mattered to them, however, was English, not literature, and so they read plenty of light, frothy concoctions such as Mills and Boon, Barbara Cartland, and Harold Robins.  If, instead, they had read some literary works in their own mother tongue, it would have given an added dimension to their approach to literature.  By losing their own mother tongue on account of their linguistic snobbery, they had lost a dimension of their sensitivity.

If the linguistic apostasy of those years were bad, the linguistic impoverishment of the present in which an average student knows no language well enough is worse.  It is a problem that ought to engage the attention of parents, teachers and educational authorities.  Children should be encouraged to develop a healthy interest in their own mother tongue and read the literature in their own language.  It will urge them to take interest in other languages, including English; interest in one language, it has been proved, has a transfer effect.

Where phoniness is never questioned

Once I consulted a dental surgeon about bone graft and tooth implantation.  The doctor, a new entrant to the profession, gave me a lot of information about both, and when I asked him whether there should be a long interval of time between the two, he said, "I don't quite know.  I'll find out and tell you."

If I had earlier been impressed by the doctor's wealth of knowledge, I was now struck by his honesty and sincerity.  How many professionals can bring themselves to say, "I don't know", when they don't know something?  They may be careful not to misinform people, but they may still use jargon and sound knowledgeable, or say something vague to avoid admitting ignorance.  It is really great on the part of a professional to say, "I don't know" when that is actually the case.

Great people have often spoken these three words.  "I don't know", said the celebrated Duval, librarian of Francis I, when someone asked him a question.  "Why, Sir, you ought to know", the man snapped.  "The Emperor pays you for your knowledge."  Duval replied, "The Emperor pays me for what I know.  If he were to pay me for what I don't, all the treasures of his empire wouldn't be sufficient."  Someone asked Edison, "How did you learn so much?"  Edison replied, "By telling that I didn't know and that I wanted to know." 

Eugene Kennedy in his book, The Pain of Being Human, points out that there is something refreshing about the person who can say, 'I don't know'.  In friendship, psychotherapy or marriage, not to mention the courtroom, the truth is much better than the urge to con the other person into thinking we know something when we do not."

I would add the classroom to Kennedy's list.  It is because this simple truth ("I don't know") hardly ever gets spoken in my profession where phoniness seems to be the rule rather than the exception.  But there is no need to speak this truth, considering that the entire instructional system rests upon the hoary lie that teachers know and pupils don't.  The person who doesn't know how to perform a surgical operation cannot operate on a patient.  But people who cannot write two decent sentences can teach how to write – and enjoy being glorified on Teacher's Day!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lies, damned lies and statistics

A story I read in the "Lifestyle" magazine fascinated me.  A woman was told that she would be granted three wishes but that her husband would get ten times more or better than whatever she wished for.  For the first two wishes, she wanted to become the richest and the most beautiful woman in the world, and both were granted.  Her third wish was malicious: "I'd like a mild heart attack."

Of course, the woman had a mild heart attack, but what would the husband have got for the third wish?  He would certainly have had a heart attack.  But would it have been ten times severer or ten times milder than the wife's? 

That depends on how we interpret the condition in relation to the wish.  And if we are required to generalize the "sample" (one woman) to the "population" (all women), what conclusion can we come to about women in general?  That also depends on our interpretation.  If our interpretation is that the husband's heart attack was ten times severer, then women are clever indeed.  If, on the contrary, our interpretation is that it was ten times milder, women are dumb, though they think they are smart.  Most women might argue that the first interpretation is the correct one, and most men, the second.  Truth, it is said, "will out".  But it looks as though there are no truths; there are only interpretations.

If you think I am splitting hairs, you are right.  And I am splitting hairs because I have just finished reading two books about statistics in which there is plenty of hair-splitting: How to Lie with Statistics, written more than forty years ago, and Damned Lies and Statistics, published in 2001.

Joel Best, the author of the second book, talks about the following statistic he once came across in an article in a prestigious journal: "Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled."  What does it mean?  Well, let's assume that the number of American children gunned down in 1950 was one.  If the number doubled each year, there must have been two children gunned down in 1951, four in 1952, eight in 1953, and so on.  By 1980, the number would have been one billion (more than four times the total US population that year).  By 1995, when the article was published in the journal, the annual number of children gunned down in America would have been over 35 trillion.  Absurd!  Actually, the author of the journal article had borrowed the statistic from a 1994 yearbook in which the information had been given as follows: "The number of American children killed each year by guns has doubled since 1950."  In other words, the deaths in 1994 were twice as many as in 1950.  But the statistic had got garbled in the journal article. And considering the reputation of the journal, the statistic must have been uncritically accepted and quoted by several researchers.

Let me go back to the point I made with reference to that funny story with a clever punchline: you can prove anything with statistics if only you know the "art" of interpretation.  Benjamin Disraeli was not wide of the mark when he said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

Marilyn Monroe out, Jennifer Lopez in?

I for one wouldn’t say beauty is only skin deep and slight either beauty for which I unabashedly keep my eyes peeled, or the skin which contributes so much to physical beauty.  In any case, denigrating beauty as being only skin-deep will be passe in an age in which beauty has become a cult.  Thanks to the beauty industry and improved health, people retain their youthful appearance to a much greater age than in the past.  One doesn’t get to see white hair at all – I’m an exception – in this day and age when even “holy” people like priests, nuns and acharyas dye their hair.  As for wrinkles, bent backs, and hollow cheeks, they have become things of the past.

And there are no old women!  Modern women seem to be as ageless as Miss Marlene Dietrich.  Even women in their fifties are black-haired, cherry-lipped, neat-ankled and porcelain-jar-shaped.  If Whistler were to come alive, he would repaint his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother in such a way that it is indistinguishable from the Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter.

But what constitutes a woman’s attractiveness still remains an enigma.  If you think that women with an hour-glass figure are the most attractive, you don’t belong to the majority which, according to a research study, considers women with the right weight (not beefy women, mind you) as attractive.  In other words, women like Pamela Anderson and Jennifer Lopez with Ramya Krishna bringing up the rear.

These research findings are in tune with the opinions of the CEOs of some top advertising firms, reported in the “Lifestyle” supplement to the Deccan Chronicle sometime ago.  None of these connoisseurs of female figure considers Aishwarya Roy’s hour-glass figure attractive.  Her face also comes in for criticism: “Aishwarya’s face is cold”, says one; it is “too plasticy”, says another.  These beauty specialists have eyes only for the likes of Kareena Kapoor, Salma Hayek, Kajol and Zeenat Aman.  Thank God Marilyn Monroe died when wasp-waistedness was still attractive!

A friend of mine who is a product of two IITs tells me that, according to a study done at the University of Newcastle, the attractiveness of a woman depends not so much on her shape and curves as on a perfect match between her height and weight.  This is how the calculation goes.  Take a woman’s weight in kilograms and divide it by the square of her height in metres.  If the body mass index is between 19 and 25, the woman can be said to have an attractive figure.  Stuff and nonsense!

“Sabina has a thousand charms / to captivate my heart”, goes an old poem of unknown authorship.  “Her lovely eyes are Cupid’s arms / and every look a dart. / But when the beauteous idiot speaks, / she cures me of my pain. / Her tongue the servile fetters breaks, / and frees her slave again.”  I don’t think this is true of our own times: the Sabinas of our age are far too sensible.

Thoughts an unhairy upper lip provoked

A few days ago, a fair, skinny young man with a clean-shaven face came to meet me.  I took him for a north Indian.  But when he mentioned his name as Veeraiah, I was taken aback.  If a south Indian without a moustache seemed odd, an unmoustachioed Veeraiah seemed odder.  Valour without whiskers!  A Veeraiah with a bare upper lip!  They just wouldn’t match up.

You may say that the young man was skinny and that the name Veeraiah cannot go with a slender figure either.  It can.  Why, it does, I mean, it did in the case of Veerappan, the forest brigand, who is no more now.  The lofty luxuriance on his thin upper lip more than made up for his scraggy, unbrigand-like frame.  What was more, the black profusion on his face stood comparison with the wild, unrestrained growth of foliage around him in the Sathyamangalam forests.  I reminded the young man of the significance of his name and advised him to grow on that unbecoming marble surface a modest pencil line at least, if not an intimidating handlebar.

“Consider the man without a watch. / He is like a soda without Scotch”, said the American poet, Ogden Nash.  One can say the same thing about a man without a moustache.  But the president of Nash’s own nation doesn’t seem to think so.  His upper lip is as smooth and shiny as marble. To be true to his name (Bush) at least, he ought to be sporting a bushy moustache – the kind that Stalin sported, though he didn’t have any such compulsion.   Tony Blair is under no such obligation either.  Shakespeare, one of the most famous writers of his nation, made one of his woman characters say, “I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face.”  Two centuries later, another poet, Richard Garnett, expressed a similar idea:  “Let the man that woos to win / Woo with an unhairy chin.”  But the Spaniards hold a healthy attitude towards the moustache.  “A kiss without a moustache”, goes one of their sayings, “is like an egg without salt.”

Can you think of a policeman without a moustache?  A research study conducted by the Madhya Pradesh police force has revealed that the moustache signifies authority and that a policeman with a moustache is taken seriously.  The government of Madhya Pradesh has, therefore, introduced something very sensible: the payment of a moustache allowance of Rs 30 a month to every policeman in the state to encourage him to grow and groom a menacing moustache.

Without any such incentive, a 52-year-old farmer of Chirala, known as Meesala Naidu, has done something unbelievable with his mighty moustache.  He has pulled two Maruthi cars (1.5 tonnes) with his moustache to a distance of 100 feet.  But that’s only strength.  The moustache of a Karnataka policeman has both strength and skill.  Rudrappa Savanur, the constable, can lift weights upto 15 kilos with his 76-cm-long moustache, grown, again, without any moustache allowance!