Friday, October 16, 2015

Five hundred gallons of New England rum

A couple of weeks ago, a young college teacher of English came to me with a set of General English textbooks prescribed by his university for undergraduate students. The course, the cover pages of the books said, was part of the common-core curriculum (CCC) under the choice-based credit system. The CCC factor and the fact that the authors of the books belonged to different universities indicated that the books were in use in all the universities in the State.

I glanced through the books and felt sad. Underlying the instructional materials was a retrogressive literary-humanistic approach on the knowledge-transmission model of teaching with restricted opportunities for students to practise their English, let alone real-world English. Students have to process -- and answer content-based questions on -- turgid literary or semi-literary essays (e.g. Oliver Goldsmith's 'The man in black,' written 270 years ago), lengthy philosophical lectures urging one to remain unattached (e.g. Swami Vivekananda's lecture on 'The secret of work,' given over 120 years ago), modern prose of the kind written by people like Dr Kalam, and poetry of the kind written in days of yore which has been lectured on and exhausted so much so that there is no life left in it. Another book gave plenty of theoretical information on communication and on how speech sounds are produced for good measure, and yet another book preached sermons on soft skills. The books were one big yawn from start to finish. They reminded me of the sad reality that the undergraduate English classroom is still primitive.

Around the same time I watched on TV Prime Minister Modi being given a rock-star reception in Silicon Valley: Apple, Tesla, Google and Microsoft were rolling out the red-carpet for him. It was because they were able to see India leapfrogging into the latest technologies and becoming the fastest-growing market in the world in technology.

These are conflicting images -- the image of the country becoming technologically so advanced and that of the undergraduate English classroom remaining so primitive, obstinately clinging to the past, impervious to the technological advancement all around it. It reminded me of a hilarious poem by Richard Hovey I had come across about three-and-a-half decades ago when I quit a lucrative career as a sarkari babu in order to become an English teacher:

Oh, Eleazar Wheelcock was a very pious man;
He went into the wilderness to teach the Indians,
With a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a drum,
And five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Eleazar was the faculty, and the whole curriculum
Was five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Fill the Bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

The five-hundred gallons of New England rum that Eleazar brought is still flowing merrily in our English classrooms -- metaphorically speaking.

Isn't it time this flow was stopped? Our students deserve a better deal. If they are to function successfully in a job market that sets a high premium on communication skills, then, English teachers must get their act together.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The death penalty: a difficult issue

For an intellectual, Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, has an unusual and unhypocritical take on the death penalty. In his TOI column today (September 13, 2015), he says: ‘The UN resolution says that it (the death penalty) undermines human dignity. But I am not convinced. I would argue that retaining the death penalty, in fact, enhances human dignity.’

The proponents of the death penalty argue that it acts as a deterrent.  In other words, it deters crime by discouraging would-be offenders.   Does it really?  But the abolition of capital punishment seems to act as a deterrent.  In Canada, for instance, there has been a sharp fall in the rate of homicide since the death penalty was abolished.  Execution, as the Italian political theorist, Cesare Beccaria, rightly pointed out, is after all transient and so cannot be as powerful as long-term imprisonment.

But there is a difficulty with this line of reasoning.  Isn't life imprisonment with assured food, clothing and shelter more a reward than a punishment?  Isn't it actually a punishment for the taxpayers?  In a Tolstoy story ('Too Dear'), a criminal who gets life for a murder turns out to be drain on the exchequer.  After some time, the government tells him to go away, but he wouldn't. To get rid of him, the government finally offers him a pension of 600 francs, which was much cheaper!

Though the Tolstoy story exaggerates the situation, the fact remains that execution is much cheaper than life imprisonment. Two things, however, justify life imprisonment.  One, it is a more powerful deterrent.  Two, we have come a long way since we burnt criminals at the stake as a form of capital punishment; we consider it barbaric now.  By parity of reasoning, we must consider the death penalty itself barbaric.

Barbaric it may be, but retributive certainly – this is the argument of a large number of people.  What they mean is that, as a fundamental principle, the punishment should be equal to the offence.  But this is only a refined form of the old fiat, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  Laws about punishment, as James Fieser pointed out, should be based not on extreme feelings but tempered ones.

Much as the case for doing away with capital punishment is strong, it is not likely to be abolished in the foreseeable future in our country.  ‘To everything there is a season and a time,’ as the Bible so perceptively points out.  The time hasn't come yet: the belief in retributive punishment is still so deeply entrenched in this land of Mahatma Gandhi who, we must remember, was "executed" for advocating moderation.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fancy killing Julius Caesar on the Ides of May

A couple of months ago, on a quiet Sunday morning, I was absorbed in a magazine article about the Dingo, an Australian pure breed canine, and the Rajapalayam, its South Indian counterpart, when the landline phone rang off the hook and almost terrified me.

‘This is about Caesar,’ said the caller, an oldish man who called me often and bullied me with queries about Shakespeare. ‘If you are free on Sunday the 15th, shall we get back to Caesar?’

‘Getting back to that Rajapayalam? No!’ I almost screamed.

‘Rajapalayam?’ he asked quizzically.

‘Yes, of course, Rajapalayam.’ My mind went back to my college days at Guduvanchery in Tamil Nadu when a huge, tough, white-coated guard dog used to strike terror into my heart by merely fixing me with a ferocious look.  Its owner, Major Ramaswamy's wife, called it Caesar.  The Major's house was on our way to the railway station.  We would avoid that route to avoid Caesar; we took a roundabout route instead.  That dog was a terror to the Major himself.  But it was not such a great terror as its lookalike, the Major’s wife, who was as white as her pet but whose communication skills were much more ferocious than those of the beast. 

The old man was all ears. I concluded my reminiscences and asked, ‘But why are you scaring me now with a query about Caesar?’

‘I'm not scaring you,’ he replied in a surly tone.  ‘Neither am I interested in your Major's wife's Rajapalayam or Alsatian.  Your story about Caesar was interesting, no doubt, but it was Shakespeare's Caesar that I wanted discuss with you on Sunday.’

‘You mean, Julius Caesar?’  I said, breathing a sigh of relief. 

Though I felt relieved to know that it was not that old terror he was talking about, I stiffened at the very prospect of discussing Shakespeare with him.  The old man's company is one of those rare occasions on which you realize that the Bard of Avon could be a dull and dreary subject.

But there was a ray of hope: the date, March 15, suggested by him for the discussion.  ‘Let's not meet on the Ides of March,’ I said seizing the opportunity. 

‘Ides of March!  What's that?’  he asked with a note of confusion in his voice. 

‘March 15 is the Ides of March,’ I said, ‘the day on which Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.  It's a day of infamy.’

‘Beware the ides of March,’ says a soothsayer in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  Caesar asks the man to come closer and repeat the prophecy.  After studying the man's face, Caesar says, ‘He is a dreamer, let us leave him.’  Later, when Caesar meets the soothsayer again on the way to the Senate, he says to the latter with great confidence, ‘The ides of March have come.’  ‘Aye, Caesar, but not gone,’ the soothsayer reminds him.  Caesar ignores this warning and goes to meet his death.  His bloody assassination on March 15 marked the day as a day of infamy.

The Shakespeare enthusiast was listening with rapt attention.  ‘Beware, March 15 is a bad day!’  I cautioned him.  ‘Besides, you must make a careful study of all those scenes in Julius Caesar before you come to me for a discussion.  That will take about a month's time.  So, what if we meet on the Ides of, say, May?’

‘May has its ides, too?’

‘Every month, for that matter. According to the ancient Romans, every month has calendas at the beginning, ides around the middle, and nones eight days before the ides.’

I now realized that, in my enthusiasm, I had gone too far. I was doing the opposite of what I had intended to do: instead of discouraging the old man, I was whetting his appetite with a lecture on the ancient Roman system. An occupationally-induced disease! I muttered a curse at myself, and spelt calendas, ides and nones for the old man. Sure enough, before I hung up and went back to my Rajapalayam, he promised to meet me on the ides of May.

How time flies! The ides of May are approaching, and the old man may call me any time now.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The online wanderings of an agoraphobic

A picture I had posted on Facebook of my sitting with a vacant look evoked some over-the-top comments: good, confident, perfect, super, awesome, youthful. The euphoria was bizarre even by the standards of Facebook. And it was threatening to invite more excitement and mindless comments. I thought it was time I intervened and restrained the “fan club,” and I did so with my explanation drawing a couple of mindless likes.

At functions -- the photograph was taken at a special event -- I am far from being confident. Depending upon the crowd, the noise levels and the amount of socializing, among other things, my feelings, often in combination, range from a sense of stupidity to one of being lost. The photograph was indeed superb in the sense that it superbly pictured a feeling of being lost.

Not all FB users follow the Facebook “norm” of describing any stupid thing as awesome. A small minority does indeed think and say its piece. One of them said after reading my explanation that I was agoraphobic.


My immediate reaction was to try to get my tongue round the word. Though the word was unfamiliar, long years of training and practice as a teacher of English with a certain degree of sensitivity to the spoken word led me to pronounce it /ˌæɡ.ə.rəˈʊ.bi.ə/, and it sounded Greek. Not satisfied, I pronounced it with the primary stress on the fourth syllable and the secondary one on the second (/ə.ˌɡəʊ.rəˈʊ.bi.ə/), and it sounded Sanskrit.

After this exercise in pronunciation, I turned to the meaning. Though the second element in the word made sense to me, the first one didn’t. I looked up the word in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.  ‘Abnormal fear of being in open spaces,’ it said.  This didn’t make any sense because I knew I didn’t have that fear. Next I consulted the Macmillan English Dictionary which gave the following meaning: ‘a fear of going outside and being in public places.’  This didn't make much sense either, and so I looked up the word in the Collins Cobuild Dictionary.  ‘Agoraphobia,’ it said, ‘is the fear of open spaces or of going outside your home.’  This only deepened the mystery.

Fortunately, we live in a world where the dictionary is not the final arbiter of meaning. So, I turned to the Internet.

The Internet gave a treasure trove of information about agoraphobia.  One of the websites hit the nail on the head.  All dictionary definitions, it said, are ‘incomplete and misleading.  Agoraphobics are not necessarily afraid of open spaces.  Rather, they are afraid of having panicky feelings.  For many, they happen at home, in houses of worship, or in crowded supermarkets, places that are certainly not "open".  In fact, agoraphobia is a condition which develops when a person begins to avoid spaces or situations associated with anxiety.  Typical "phobic situations" might include driving, shopping, crowded places, travelling, standing in line, being alone, meetings and social gatherings.’

After visiting a dozen websites to find out about the patterns of this avoidant behaviour, going into several web rings to educate myself about the American and European descriptions of this fear, and browsing a couple of webzines reporting case studies, I was clear about the meaning of agoraphobia. What was even more clear was the feeling that I was a chronic agoraphobic: I seemed to have all the symptoms listed on the web pages.

I now remembered that I suffered from claustrophobia ("abnormal fear of being in an enclosed space"), and the thought that a claustrophobic could not be an agoraphobic as well cheered me up.  But my happiness was short-lived as the Oxford experts whom I consulted next ( explained that, in both agoraphobia and claustrophobia, the fear is about the loss of the self and not of the spaces.  In one, the loss is via dissipation into the vast and unfriendly world, and, in the other, via constriction.  Both phobias represent a narcissistic relationship to space.

For good measure, the AskOxford web page listed several other phobias, such as allurophobia (fear of cats), arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and amaxophobia (fear of riding in vehicles).  As I read the symptoms, I discovered that I had all of them and that I was born with some of them.  The only two phobias I seemed to be free of were the fear of speaking and the fear of writing!

When I logged off, I was as depressed as Jerome in Three Men in a Boat, when he discovered, after reading a pharmacopoeia in the British Museum, that he was suffering from one hundred and seven fatal diseases.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A conversation with a reluctant Indian

He was an interesting character.  He said he was born and brought up in Singapore, had his higher education in India, and lived in Australia now.  He was as dark as an Indian could possibly be and bore all the racial features of a South Indian.  He spoke as loudly and emotionally as only an Indian could, and with an accent that was distinctively Indian.  If these were not enough to establish his Indian origin, he had a surname that proclaimed a Malabar ancestry.

‘You look every inch an Indian,’ I said.  It was a compliment, but he took umbrage at it. 

‘Oh, no,’ he protested in a surly tone, ‘my family left India in nineteen-o-five itself.  I was born in Singapore, I grew up in Singapore, and I am an Australian now.’

The conversation veered away from ancestry and round to practical matters. 

‘What do you do?’  I asked him. 

‘I'm in Australia,’ he replied. 

‘I know, but what do you do for a living?’  I persisted. 

‘I'm in Australia,’ was the reply again. 

An interesting means of living, I thought, and decided not to pursue the matter any further.

‘How are the Indians in Australia?’  I asked, pursuing a different line of thought. 

‘Indians in Australia!’ he exclaimed and grimaced as though the very thought was painful.  Then he let out a volley of four-letter words about Indians in general before becoming specific:  ‘Wherever they go, these Indian b------s carry their castes and keep them intact.’  He repeated that elegant expression which came so naturally to him and asked me, ‘What do you say?’ 

‘Yes, of course,’ I replied, ‘Macaulay's b------s, linguistically speaking.’  He looked quizzically at me.

‘But you are an exception,’ I added, suppressing my amusement.  ‘And I'm sure there are quite a few Indians like you in Australia.’ 

‘Not many,’ he replied with a supercilious smile.  ‘My caste, as you might know, is high up in the caste hierarchy.  But I don't talk about it like those…’  He uttered several vigorous unprintable expletives with reference those "casteist Indians" polluting the cultural landscape of Australia. 

Soon enough, however, he returned to his favourite refrain:  ‘But you can't call me an Indian.  My family left for Singapore in nineteen-o-five itself.  I was born in Singapore, I grew up in Singapore…’

‘But why did you come to India for your higher education when quite a lot of Indians go to places like Singapore for their higher education?’  I asked him. 

‘Well, my parents sent me here because they wanted me to pick up a bit of Indian culture,’ he replied. 

‘You seem to have picked up a fair bit,’ I said.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Throwing stones from glass houses

Can an entire piece of writing running to over 150 pages be a series of quotations?  

It may not be possible in many types of writing, but in a research thesis, especially one written for an MPhil or a PhD degree in English literature in this country, it is certainly possible.

Sometime ago, I received for evaluation an MPhil dissertation which was nothing if not a book of quotations.  It was an impressive piece of work because the researcher, if she can be called that, had painstakingly put together whatever critics had said on the subject of her research, and even more painstakingly organized them into five chapters.  I thought she shouldn't be given a research degree on the basis of her compilation, so I returned the dissertation unevaluated with an 'apologia' (‘Sorry, I am unable to evaluate the dissertation.’).  Then I did something even more sensible: I requested the university, one of the oldest in this country, not to send me any more dissertations / theses for evaluation in future.  Since then I have been happy.

Do I hate quotations?  By no means.  My Bartlett's (1961 edition) is a well-thumbed copy.  But for it, my bifocals could have been postponed.  But if I don't hate quotations, I don't love them either.  Quotations have a role in speech or writing, but the role is not a leading one: you can't speak or write entirely through quotations.

‘I hate quotations,’ said Emerson. ‘Why should we borrow flamboyant expressions from antiquated writers instead of expressing our ideas in our own "penny plain" language?’  But even Emerson cannot deny that our everyday speech in English is crammed with quite a lot of phrases and sentences from writers like Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth as well as the Bible.  It is because those phrases and sentences have become part of the English language.  We commonly use expressions like 'green-eyed monster', 'bag and baggage', 'the primrose path', and 'more in sorrow than in anger' -- all these are from Shakespeare.  The expression 'wheels within wheels', which is so common in our speech and writing, is from the Authorised Version of the Bible.  So are 'holier than thou' and 'at the last grasp'.  An old English lady who saw Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time complained that it was full of quotations!

Imagine a conversation with a person who speaks only through quotations.  One of my professors at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (now called ‘EFL University’), the late Dr K Subrahmanian, imagined such a person and wrote a brilliant conversation.  It is worth quoting:

How are you?
Fit as a fiddle.

How is your work?
The less said the better.

I am at daggers drawn with my boss.

What's wrong?
I don't dance attendance on the blighter.

How is your father?
He had had one foot in the grave. He kicked the bucket with the other foot three months ago.

I'm sorry to hear it. How is your son?
Merry as a cricket.

Nice to hear that.  What does he do?
He makes my flesh creep tilting at windmills.

How is your wife?
She is down in the dumps, and wants to shuffle off her mortal coil.

Sorry to hear it.  I hope and pray things will improve.
She, why, the whole family, is past praying for.

After all these quotations, this honest reflection is inevitable: Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Blaze a trail and break new ground

'In computer education, the college has blazed a trail and broken new ground,' read a sentence in a recent newspaper article about the achievements of a college in computer education.  I tried to picture the situation: the students and the staff of the college burning a path and breaking a new ground at the same time.  It seemed a purposeless task – the blazing and the breaking, not the picturing.  Then I tried to place computers in the situation: what were they supposed to be doing in a place where a good deal of blazing and breaking was going on?  Whatever, they had to be there because the sentence talked about computers also.  But their presence only made the picture even more incongruous.

Incongruous it may be, but delightful – or, delightful because it is incongruous.  Both “blaze a trail” and “break new ground” are cliches.  By bringing them together in the same situation and creating a metaphorical confusion involving two images at war with each other, the newspaper hack has unwittingly infused life into them.  Here is another odd mix: 'He was rushing about like a bull in a china shop, until he found himself on the horns of a dilemma.'  Even more ridiculous – and, therefore, more pleasing – is the metaphorical confusion created by the scientist who announced the discovery of “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities”.  The most delightful of all mixed metaphors, however, is the one produced by that cautious statesman who claimed that he was “sitting on the fence with one ear to the ground”.  Picture that monstrous ear!

Poets are notorious – I mean, famous – for mixed metaphors.  Shakespeare, a densely figurative poet, often mixed metaphors.  Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy, 'To be or not to be,' talks about taking “arms against a sea of troubles”.

But that’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.  The plot thickens – it’s a plot within an iceberg after all! – the moment we enter the realm of multiple mixed metaphors.  One of the early masters of this art was Sir Boyle Roche, a British parliamentarian, who is reported to have said: 'Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.'   

If you gird up your loins and plough through the mountainous mass of mixed metaphors, you’ll find that the richest crop has been produced by politicians.  (By the way, how’s that multiple mixed metaphor?) The following example in which a politician mixes maritime and equestrian imagery, will vouch for the quality of that bumper crop: 'We shall sail forth, riding roughshod over the backwoodsmen, to establish a new Jerusalem…'

Mixed metaphors make possible what would normally be impossible.  Thanks to them, you can stir up a hornet’s nest and end up with egg on your face; you can open a Pandora’s box, and Trojan horses will jump out; and, of course, a college can blaze and break the ground at the same time.  Let’s not, therefore, bite the hand that lays golden eggs.

What led me to think about mixed metaphors this evening was a thought about the late Fr Gordon, who had a talent for detecting mixed metaphors. 'X college,' he once told me showing a report published in one of the issues of the college magazine in the 1980s, 'is blazing a trail and breaking new ground' and roared with laughter.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

'Korkai' beats a path through a rugged coast

I have just finished reading Korkai, a voluminous (1174 pages), Sahitya-Akademi-award-winning Tamil novel, written by Joe d’Cruz and published by Kalachuvadu in 2009/2010.

Set in Korkai, which, during the Pandya kings of the Sangam period was a famous port city and the capital of the Pandya kingdom but is now a small seaside village on the banks of the Tamraparani in Tuticorin (now ‘Thoothukudi’) district in Tamil Nadu, this novel of epic proportions unfolds a saga of the life of the Parathavar (seafarers) of Korkai over a period of seventy-five years in a language which is at once challenging and enchanting.

For a good three-and-a-half decades I have been away from Tamil Nadu with occasional visits to Chennai where my relatives live. Though I am a regular and serious reader in English, I cannot claim to be one in Tamil, my mother tongue. During my occasional sorties into Tamil, however, I have read the likes of Mouni, Thi Janakiraman, Sundara Ramasamy, Neela Padmanabhan and Ashokamitran – writers who inspired me to write stories in Tamil some of which were published by Kanaiyazhi in the 1980s and 1990s – but not with the kind of commitment that my reading in English has demanded. The worlds these writers presented were familiar, though the sensibilities they evoked did make a difference. But, reading them was certainly a graduation from the stage of reading fiction of the kind represented by Devan, Sandilyan and Kalki during my childhood and adolescence. There was further graduation with Salma who led me into the deep recesses of a refreshingly different world with her Irandam Jamangalin Kathai. It was not just a world of women and of Muslims; it was a world of women's language, too – a world in which women speak not in a borrowed voice but their own. Reading the novel was a fascinating experience.

From Salma a couple of years ago to Joe d'Cruz in 2015 has been a smooth and natural transition. Yet, reading Korkai was like sailing in uncharted waters. As the thoni (boat) moves down the sea, now calm but soon rough, time also moves relentlessly, with the lives of three generations of some thirty-five families criss-crossing into one another over a period of a century against a background of rapid social changes effected by a host of factors – British colonialism, Roman Catholicism, the freedom movement and its aftermath, the changing economic climate, the rise of Nadars to power and affluence, and a close relationship with Sri Lanka. Into this voyage are seamlessly textured – if I might mix my metaphors – history, society, religion, politics and the sea itself. In other words, the architectonics of the novel, as literary pundits would call it, is indeed grand and amazing. That it doesn't give the impression of being a contrived attempt adds to its value.

Something else also adds to its value. It is difficult to believe that the detailed descriptions of the intricacies of seafaring and of the nuances of the Parathava life that one finds in the novel would have been possible for an outsider; they must have come from the lived realities of a sensitive and observant insider. Yet, the authorial voice is almost silent in the novel: the narration is by and large that of a detached outsider rather than an anguished insider.

An interesting aspect of the plot construction should be specially mentioned. The novel narrates the history of the coastal community of Korkai in 133 chapters. The chapters are closely knit, yet they stand apart with each chapter presenting a cameo picture of a particular incident which is part of a larger story. As a result, many of the chapters have their own independent value as short stories.

In theme as well as treatment, Korkai is indeed a significant attempt and a valuable addition to Tamil literature. I look forward to more novels from Joe d’Cruz.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Some not-so-holy thoughts about the cow

The cow is in the news again. Both the Maharashtra and the Haryana governments want cow slaughter to be a punishable offence: if the punishment is imprisonment for five years in Maharashtra, it is likely to be ten years in Haryana. BJP leaders like Subramaniam Swamy want a Central law against cow slaughter, and newspapers say that the Prime Minister’s Office itself has asked for the Law Ministry's opinion on whether the Centre could circulate the laws on cow slaughter, as enacted by some states, including Gujarat, as a model bill among the other states for their consideration for similar legislations there.

I was at a Rama temple in my neighbourhood this morning.  The temple has recently acquired a cow. For ten long years, I have worshipped peacefully at this temple, but I find myself unable to do so any longer.  She – I mean, the cow – distracts me: she makes me think.  She makes me think of a former prime minister of this country who, even after crossing the biblical mark of three score and ten, persisted with his love for non-vegetarian food but felt outraged at the very suggestion that he ate beef.  She makes me think of the entire politics surrounding her, the move to ban cow slaughter, in particular.

One of my thoughts, as I stand with folded hands before the image of my favourite god at the temple is about the common misconception that Muslims slaughter cows that are sacred to Hindus.  Some of my Muslim friends tell me that they are not particularly fond of beef.  ‘Beef,’ says Akhthar Pasha, a former colleague at Andhra Loyola College, ‘is as good as any other non-vegetarian food item.’  An orthodox Muslim and an authority on the Koran, Pasha tells me that Muslims do not have any religious obligation to eat beef.  ‘There are no references to beef-eating at all in our scriptures,’ he asserts.

I wonder if we can say the same thing about Hindus.  Our Aryan ancestors, the people who gave us the four Vedas, were beef-eaters.  But, unlike the modern Hindus, they made no bones about their eating beef.  A Brahmin of those days, said Swami Vivekananda in one of his lectures, would not be able to remain a Brahmin without eating beef. The Rig Veda says that even the gods, especially Indra and Agni, are fond of beef: uksnó hí me páncadasha sakám pácanti vimshatím, utáhám admi píva íd ubhá kuksí prnanti me v’shvasmad índra úttarah (Rig Veda, 10.86.14). For more interesting information on the cow, one can read D N Jha’s book, The Myth of the Holy Cow, published by Verso in 2002. Even in modern India, the majority of the beef-eaters must be Hindus, considering that beef-eating is common among the Dalits and tribals who constitute a large section of the Hindu community.

As I walk round the sanctum, I have several thoughts which it would be imprudent on my part to share with you: the cow, as you know, is a touchy subject in India. I will, however, mention just one of those thoughts which concern our ambivalent attitude towards the poor animal.  We – I mean, Hindus – worship the cow.  But that doesn't prevent us from letting our cows stray in the streets where they pick up all kinds of rubbish and eat them.  We often read about cows being choked to death on account of their chewing and swallowing plastic bags. (Interestingly, there is a ban on plastic bags also at least in some states in this country.)  A few years ago, I read about the death of some stray cows, caused by their eating trash and left-over food that had turned poisonous.  This ambivalent attitude never troubles us.  After all, we have always had our feet in both camps and never felt uncomfortable.

I come out of the temple, still chewing the cud of the politics centring on the cow.  I stand in front of the gau mata in the shed and offer her a banana.  She nonchalantly pulls it into her mouth, along with a bunch of hay she has already picked up, and chews it up.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Some misconceptions about dictionaries

I had an interesting experience at a book exhibition some months ago. Two college teachers from Eluru, a neighbouring town, asked me to recommend them two good English dictionaries – one for their college, and another for their children studying in high schools. I took them to a stall which had a variety of dictionaries and showed them five learner's dictionaries: Oxford Advanced Learner's DictionaryLongman Dictionary of Contemporary EnglishCollins Cobuild English Language Dictionary,Cambridge Learner's Dictionary, and Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners. ‘Which is the best?’ they asked me. ‘It depends,’ I said, and explained to them the special features of each dictionary. A few more visitors to the stall joined in, and every one of them had a number of queries about dictionaries. The queries revealed two things: one, many people have several misconceptions about dictionaries, and, two, their choice of a dictionary is often an uninformed choice.
One of the misconceptions concerns the name 'Oxford'. People believe that theOxford English Dictionary (OED) is the best. Best in what sense? The OED, in its original 12-volume form, is a scholarly dictionary, not a learner's dictionary, and so it is not very useful as a general-purpose dictionary. In one of the stalls, the entire set, originally priced at Rs 1,60,000, was on offer for Rs 60,000. A few lecturers from a degree college wanted to know whether they could recommend it for their college library. ‘It's a historical dictionary,’ I said to them and explained what I meant. ‘Before buying it, decide whether it will serve your purposes.’
A related misconception is that the Oxford dictionaries are authoritative dictionaries. I think this misconception is due to the OED imbuing the name 'Oxford' with an aura of lexicographic authority. People blindly buy any dictionary which has 'Oxford' in its name: Concise OxfordShorter Oxford English Dictionary (2 volumes), or Pocket Oxford. All three are basically native-speaker dictionaries, and they cannot serve all the needs of foreign learners of English. The only dictionary of the Oxford family which can fulfil most of the needs of foreign learners of English is the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD). The 'Oxford Writing Tutor,' appended to the dictionary, adds to its value.
But OALD is only one of the several learner's dictionaries available, and it is by no means the best. For definitions, my choice is the Collins Cobuild because, unlike other dictionaries which only use a phrase to define each headword, Collins explains each entry word by means of a complete sentence. But it is not easy on the eye; OALD has an edge over it, as far as the typeface is concerned. But the typeface is much better in the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary. Besides, it uses two colours.
The most appealing dictionary in terms of design features is the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners. It has a well-designed reading path with attractive sign-posting: words with greater frequency are printed in red; for words with many meanings, there is a 'menu' on an orange screen; and, if a word has many collocations, they are shown in a box at the end of the entry. But any learner's dictionary is good enough; your choice can depend upon which one appeals to you most.
Let me conclude with a caveat. Dictionaries can be disappointing. Just one example. Is a 'dilemma' a situation in which one has to choose between two courses of action or more than two? Are all the choices undesirable, or are they equally good or bad? Lexicographers don't seem to know!