Sunday, July 31, 2005

Interpretation of Good English, or, Love in Tokyo in Kerala

Some time back I had written an article on the online literary forum Caferati, “Your thoughts aren’t written words.” I don’t know if anyone noticed that article or cared to read it. Never mind. If you know my blog address, please be kind enough to visit it and read (as we say in Indian officialese), and leave a comment.

This is a continuation of that debate. I am putting on my thinking cap and examining why Indians can’t decide what is good writing. There is a big controversy raging on Caferati, right this moment on this subject.

When I was a humble sub-editor I would get copy written by journalists who couldn’t spell or write but the content was excellent. They got the story right. We had to re-write the entire stuff for our readers.There were journalists who wrote immaculate English and instructed that only major mistakes should be corrected and they should be informed of the changes.Both these tribes had their own interpretation of writing and we sub-editors knew this. So we worked hard around their ideas and polished it as best as we could. We made it presentable to our readers.

It was fun working on the copy desk. We made jokes about each writer and his/her way of writing. Sometimes we were hauled up by the editor, the big boss himself. He had his own idea of what good writing was. We sub-editors had to paddle carefully around all those icebergs of what was “Good Writing.” I must admit, we did a decent job, given the situation, and had fun playing with language. But we didn’t let anything slip as we had a very, very, good chief sub-editor who taught us what little we know about English language.

In another job, I was fired by an editor just because I misplaced a “the” in a sentence. Not fired, actually, but the relationship worsened and I had to leave. It happened like this. I had written “Indian Patent Act” and the editor, a literary purist, insisted it was “The Indian Patent Act.” I stuck to what I had written. I didn’t know that sitting right next to him was the world’s most powerful research tool, or, the most misguiding tool. Again, interpret it the way you want. He searched “The Indian Patent Act” and found what he wanted to nail me with. But I said if he searched “Indian Patent Act” he would find several references to words strung exactly like that. That led to an argument, which ended in my resignation.

So coming to what I am waffling about, let me explode this myth about good writing. Nobody knows what good writing is. Or, to put it simply, good writing is too subjective a topic, a matter of interpretation. We all have our own concepts, colored by our own education, background, and upbringing. “Arree where going, men?” is okay to some and not palatable to others. One person’s good writing is another’s literary hara-kiri.Even spelling and grammar. Americans spell with an “z” as in “specialized” while British spell with an “s” as in “specialised.” Indians have their own ways of expression like “time-to-time” and “preponed.”

My chief sub-editor said there was something called Punjabi English, Marathi English, Malayalam English, Telugu English, Bengali English, and so on. And I agree. English is written differently by Malayalis like me than by Marathis like many of my friends.So are we agreed on one thing? That English is subjective to various influences and if you approach it with your puritanical rose-tinted glasses it will look downright macabre and unintelligible. Hope we are. So for some suggested solutions.

The solution

The solution? India has to evolve its own brand of English, which is tolerant and not dictatorial and puritanical in interpretation. If we take the colonial or Jesuit-convent-school type of English as pure English, Indians will lag behind in defining their own idiom and will not help Indian English evolve.Even Rushdie used words like “kill-ofy” in his writing. I think that is a good beginning from a Booker winner. We should follow his example and improvise.

Arundhati Roy, another beautiful (I mean this literally) improviser of the language uses words and idioms from Malayalam. She refers to “stick insect” and “Fountain in a Love in Tokyo.” Now “stick insect” is something we use in Malayalam English. Also nobody outside Kerala knows what a Love in Tokyo is.

Just to test Arundhati’s language I went to a general store in Kerala and asked for a “Love in Tokyo.” Yes, believe me, I actually did this.

“Give this man a Love in Tokyo,” the owner of the shop shouted to his salesperson.

Please don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t buying love. Again, people, how misconceived can your interpretation get? I actually wrote “Again, people, how misconceived your interpretation can get?” That is another Indianism, putting the verb at the end of the sentence.

Instead of love, which I wouldn’t have objected to then, the salesperson fished inside several boxes in a dingy corner and came out with my “Love in Tokyo,” which is a hair clip that girls use to hold their hair in place. Ask a Malayali girl if you know one, she will concur.

Shobhaa De, another good improviser of language, is adept at Indianisms. If she finds somebody a “maha bore” I know exactly what she means, more power to her words.

So when a group of Indians from diverse backgrounds get together and discuss what “Good English is,” I tend to choke. With laughter, I mean, because I have been through it enough times to make me puke with choking.

Be tolerant and tolerate interpretations is what I would like to say. If you follow British English stick to your “s” and “coloUr.” If you follow American English stick to your “z” and “color.” If you wish to sprinkle your work with a few qualified regional words, please do. But, not too much, please.Did I make my point? Again, it is subjective and subject to your interpretation.

Monday, July 04, 2005

(Something I posted on Caferati)

City scapes


The rain came to Bombay as a bit of a shock. I was reeling. Everything was soaking and wet. From rickshaws that hadn’t yet put up the flimsy plastic doors to the waterproofing that was required on my house in Artist Village. I was unprepared. Getting up in the morning was a heavy task. I had to drag myself up to say a prayer. With the prayer I usually brace myself and throw a lot of guilty stuff behind me and begin my day.

But these days it is different.A waterfall in Artist Village becomes active. The dam beneath it is full of water. A canal that runs from the dam is full of gurgling water. I like the murmuring streams as they wend their way down to the sea. It soothes me like a lullaby. I think the shock will go away.

Nowadays I feel like sleeping a little longer, pulling the sheets over me a wee bit more, and snuggling into the warmth for a fraction of a nanosecond. But the nanosecond turns into a second and a second into several minutes and so on....The roads have sprung a thousand craters. Splatter, spash, whooooom, goes the rickshaws wheels. I curse at the dirty drain water that wets my formal trousers. God, when will they learn manners? I have to sit in the office with my feet and trousers all wet. Dreadful, isn’t it?

I buy an umbrella, a three-folding one it is called. I am still in shock. I open my three-folding umbrella and the wind immediately up-turns it and snaps two valuable rods that hold it up. One hundred and fifty rupees gone. I have to buy another umbrella and resort to using my imported rain-and-winter jacket bought when I was in Saudi Arabia.

A week later, I am still in shock. Everything has turned grayish. Even the colorful umbrellas look gray. Women, women become more attractive and haunting. Guess they adapt to change better than men do. Look at that thing there. She looks unconcerned as she adjusts her raincoat, balances her saree, touches her hair in place, and holds aloft her umbrella daintily, and there is a jaunt in her walk. But the men. They all look depressed, uncombed, and unwashed, and god alone knows what. Why do men have to take change so badly?

From the office window I can see a road splashed with the colors of the sky. A uniform gray. The glass is a dark bluish gray and therefore the scene looks divine with the manicured lawns and decorative plants and trees. I thank almighty I don’t have to be out there. The tall glass-fronted towers of the BPO units shine depressingly gray. Guess they won’t have to clean the glass-front every week as they do.


I used to love the rain. I used to wait for it to float my paper boats of innocence. I used to splash in every puddle, catch fish, and put it in bottles; stomp in a pool and with the other leg hit the splash with an explosive “splotch.”

We, Deb, Kavi, Ghanshyam, and my friends from college would play rain football. The field would resemble a battlefield with all the mud and slush. We would tumble, roll, and splatter gleefully in the mud. We would give each other walloping shots on our bodies with the football that had become as hard as stone. It was fun. Then we would wash in the college washroom to make ourselves presentable to the world. We would laugh our mysterious laughs as we sing obscene ditties in the changing room.

“Hey, your sweetheart, I saw her with her new crush.” “Hey, *#$%^&, she was never mine, man.” “That one in your building, she’s a real looker, friend. Why don’t you?” “Yeah, she is giving me line, yaar. You won’t imagine; I spoke to her one day. We stood like this, sala, so near.”

Like birds and bees we were looking for the perfect mate, love. Exams were like the clouds that were hovering over us angrily. But all we cared about were puppy love movies, romantic novels, latest hits, and football in the mud behind college.Perfect life, perfect love, perfect everything seemed a long way off then.

That might explain my shock now. That I haven’t made anything perfect as I had imagined. The house needs waterproofing. The great epochal annual event of my life has come suddenly and given me a rude shock. I hadn’t expected it and made little, little arrangements to welcome the rain into my life. But I must relent.

“Welcome rain,” I say to myself. And the shock lifts a little.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

(Something I posted on Caferati about the need for poets and writers to edit their work)

I don't know how qualified I am to make a comment, as I started writing poetry recently after having given up long ago to write fiction, content (which feeds me), and my soulful outpourings of anguish.

Some artistically inclined people have the wrong notion that poetry is easy and they can write anything so long as they feel like writing and it is naturally good because they wrote it. I would like to recall JJ's comment here "Just because you are lovesick like a puppy doesn't mean you have to write good poetry" or something to that effect, I don't remember, blame it on advancing age.Poets who tend to think whatever they put down on paper is great poetry are "lazy" poets. They do not let their fires rage and then pick up the few embers that could light fires in others. This debate has been raging in all our readmeets.

Should poetry be edited? Some poets say, "I wrote in the spur of the moment to express my feelings. I won't change a word." Well, then, you write your poetry and read it to yourself and keep it in some corner of your mind and then, may be, look at it a few years later to go all misty eyed.Point is, as poets or wannabe poets we are all seeking an audience. If not why would we post here or read it at a readmeet?

As you said "We are artistic performers, who perform our oeuvres with passion so as to inspire others." Great poetry inspires as does great music.Editing of poetry is as important, if not more important than editing prose. Because there are only a few words, the need is greater. As performers and actors of words we don't want to present our bedraggled, unrehearsed, unwashed, un-madeup, thoughts before the public. Presenting such a "lazy" profile would depreciate his/her work considerably in the eyes of the audience. Can such "lazy" artists make progress in their craft remains to be seen. It's like a hotelier who says, "Eat if you want to. This is how I cook my food and I do it to satisy myself. By the way, I eat any rubbish." He would be out of business in no time.

Just my two-paise worth! I don't mean any offense but I am posting this to help those like me who are teachable and learnable and wish to improve their craft.