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.