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!