Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Charming wife: an enigmatic cliché

One of the books I occasionally dip into is a Reader's Digest selection entitled, Sixty Golden Years.  It carries a brilliant piece of writing by Mark Twain.  What has urged me to read the piece ('The Fraudulent Ant') many times over is Twain's inimitable description of the movements of an ant.

Here is a sample:

…he (the ant) fetches up against a pebble and, instead of going around it, he climbs over it backward dragging his booty after him, tumbles down on the other side, jumps up in a passion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moistens his hand, grabs his property viciously, yanks it this way, then that, shoves it ahead of him a moment, lugs it after him another moment…

Each time I read the piece, I am struck by Twain's use of dynamic expressions.  In ruthlessly avoiding stereotyped descriptive phrases, Twain is a refreshing contrast to the cliché expert to whom every mountain is a "majestic mountain", every city is a "bustling metropolis", and every good school or college is a "reputed (not even reputable) institution".

If there is one cliché in the English language which can be most indiscriminately used to describe any woman, it is the word "charming".  I was driven to this conclusion after listening to the overuse – and misuse – of this word by speaker after speaker at the annual convention of an international association that I have recently attended.  The object to which this descriptive expression ("charming") was applied was the wife of a dignitary from abroad, seated with him on the dais.  It was when the first speaker at the convention described the woman as "the most charming wife" of the dignitary that I looked at her for the first time – and wondered what he meant.  When the second speaker used the same epithet, I sat up and stared at her.  The mystery only deepened.  When the third speaker used the phrase twice with reference to the woman, I became fidgety.  I took off my glasses, polished them, and put them on and goggled at her.  The charms of the woman still remained a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  Unable to stand the "charms" any longer, I left the hall.  Before I did so, I cast a brief glance in the direction of the "most charming wife" who sat serenely with the all-knowing expression of a Sphinx on her face.

Have you seen the Sphinx?  In pictures, I mean.  If you think the Sphinx looks charming, the  woman certainly did.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Unkind review: A writer's nightmare

Sometime ago, I had the good fortune of listening to a talk by Shashi Deshpande, the well-known Indian writer in English.  The talk was out of the ordinary, as Deshpande chose to hit out at reviews and reviewers.

Deshpande had good reason for being so aggressive.  Some of her reviewers, she complained, had not read any of her books beyond what had come their way for review.  One of the reviewers of her Small Remedies had written about the book as though it were an autobiography!  Amusingly enough, a reviewer in the Washington Post had complained that there were too many Indian names in Deshpande's books.  Besides, there were the smart alecs who wrote condescendingly and passed destructive judgements.  Deshpande spoke about her "sense of angry impotence" and asked, "What do we do when ridicule and supercilious pieces of judgement are all that reviewers seem to be capable of?"  She looked relieved when she concluded.  "Tonight I can sleep in peace", she said.

Reviews can make or mar a writer's career.  It is said that Keats "died of the Quarterly Review", having taken deeply to heart the savage onslaught of the reviewers of his poem, Endymion.  Hardy stopped writing novels after his Jude the Obscure, a rather frank novel, got damning reviews.  Virginia Woolf felt depressed whenever she got a bad review. 

Critics rarely rise above prejudice.  Keats's association with Leigh Hunt, who was known for his political radicalism, had made him odious to the great Tory Reviews.  Boyer, who was unsuccessful as a playwright for fifty years, was another victim of prejudice.  When his new play, Agamemnon, was staged, he gave it to be understood that it was written by a young man who had just arrived in Paris.  The play was unanimously acclaimed.  Among those who praised the play was Racine, the arch-critic of Boyer.  On the second day of the staging of the play, the real author's name was announced.  The play was hissed.

"Never pay attention to what critics say", advised Sibelius, the famous Finnish composer.  "Don't forget that there has never been set up a statue in honour of a critic."   Among the writers who followed this advice were Doris Lessing, who never read any reviews of her books, and P G Wodehouse, who challenged his critics to get a sob out of him.  To this small group belonged our R K Narayan: he had only contempt for reviews, though his books often received favourable reviews.

But Lessing, Wodehouse and Narayan were exceptions.  Most writers have only looked forward to the reviews of their books and agonized over the unfair ones.  Shashi Deshpande belongs to this vast majority.  By appealing to reviewers "not to ruin the morale of writers", she only repeated the appeal Carlyle had made to Voltaire about a century and a half ago.  Voltaire's criticism was devastating: he delighted in tearing down in words all the cherished institutions of humanity.  Once Carlyle asked him, "Have you only a torch for destruction?  Have you no hammer for building?"

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What three books say about Nehru

Having broken my ankle in a minor accident, I couldn't go to work for a few days.  Staying at home, I read three books which I had wanted to read long ago but couldn't for want of time.  One of them was Raja Rao's The Meaning of India, published in 1996.  The second book was Dom Moraes's travelogue, Gone Away: An Indian Journal, originally published in 1968 and now included in the collected memoirs of the author entitled, A Variety of Absences (2003).  The third book was Jawaharlal Nehru: A Communicator and Democratic Leader (1997) by A K Damodaran.  One of the interesting things about all these three books is that each of them has something perceptive to say about Jawaharlal Nehru.  

Raja Rao glorifies Nehru whom he always refers to as "Panditji".  He met Nehru for the first time in 1935 when he was 26 and Nehru 44.  Nehru wanted Rao, who was in France at the time, to act as an interpreter during his meeting with Malrux.  As Rao looked at Nehru at the entrance to Gare de l'Est, "his grey coat in hand, fair and fresh as ever, round in face and firm in stature, firm but supple", he seemed a Gandharva.  "One always felt with Panditji", Rao adds, "that he was listening to a music which arose indivisibly within him, and engrossed his mind and all of his heart."  Translating Malrux's French proved difficult as he spoke with "concentrated rapidity", and it turned out that Rao's translation was corrected several times by Nehru.

In Gone Away, Moraes offers, in just three pages, a thumb-nail sketch of Nehru, who, at 70, was still "beautiful" and "sensitive".  Nehru wished, says Moraes, that he had had  more time to read poetry.

Damodaran's tone is far from adulatory.  He describes Nehru as a "late starter" who, however, proved to be a "quick learner".  Nehru entered politics when he was thirty, but within ten years, he became the president of the Congress party.  In the very next decade, he was one of the six key figures in national life, sharing the limelight with Gandhi, Patel, Bose, Rajaji and Jinnah.  But Damodaran's insinuation that Nehru was a Hamlet in national life is not quite fair. As Sharada Prasad, a former information adviser to the prime minister, pointed out, Nehru never shirked decisions.  In an age in which political debate consisted of dogmatic assertion, Nehru was democratic enough to discuss problems in public before making decisions.  This perhaps lent credence to the Hamlet theory.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

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".

The tall-short debate

There are quite a number of contexts in which the word "small" carries a pleasant sense in the English language.  We are happy about smallness when we say, "Small is beautiful."  I don't think anyone wants to hear a long talk or read a lengthy piece of writing; shortness is a virtue here also.  We don't require the authority of a Shakespeare to realize that "brevity is the soul of wit"; it is common knowledge.  Again, when we say, "It's a small world", we express a pleasant feeling -- a feeling of wonder or surprise.  Even when we say, "A little bird told me", the feeling we express is an agreeable one.  In fairy stories, the fairies and elves, which endear themselves to children, are described as "the little people".  Even a person's conscience is not big: it is only described as "the still small voice"! 

But, smallness is not agreeable when it comes to a person's body size.  Here, small or short is not beautiful; tallness is invariably the preferred size.  No one says to a short girl, "What a nice shortie you are!"  A girl who is tall enough is eligible -- for marriage, more than anything else.  Recently, in a neighbour's family, a short girl had been rejected by a young man who had come to see her, and the girl's parents had difficulty telling their daughter the reason for the rejection.  "He feels he is too tall for you", was what they finally managed to say. 

If you think that the preference for tallness came with civilization, you are wrong. Even in primitive societies, tallness is the preferred stature. A study by Thomas Gregor, an anthropologist, has revealed that tallness is considered attractive by the Nehinaku tribals of Central Brazil and the Tobriand Islanders of the Pacific.

Do many people think that tall people are healthier and better-looking?  Are they considered more capable, too?  Yes.  The subjects of a survey conducted in some American universities have said that, in their estimate, short people were less capable, less positive, and timid.  But I know quite a few people who are only as short as Napoleon and as capable.  We must also remember the fact that the study I have referred to was only an opinion survey.

What's the long and the short of this debate?  Well, people who are neither tall nor short strike a balance: they represent the golden mean.