Feeds:
Posts
Comments

We all know that the same word when taken out of context or even juxtaposed within a slightly different context takes on a different connotation. But recent developments in America have made me appreciate something even more subtle when it comes to words and their usage. flying-letters1

A word is considered offensive when a person belonging to one race uses it, but the same word can be seen as harmless when used by a person of a different race. And what’s more, it’s used in the same context in both the cases.

What am I referring to? Yes, the word thug. This word has made serious headlines in recent weeks.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thug as:

Thug

noun \ˈthəg\ : a violent criminal

 Full Definition of THUG

:  a brutal ruffian or assassin :  GANGSTER, TOUGH

Seems like a straightforward definition, on the face of it.

However, the word “thug” used by Caucasians (like Maryland’s governor and others) and perhaps by people in power like President Obama  and Baltimore’s mayor—who are both African American, incidentally—to describe the rioters in Baltimore incited anger and hurt in the black community. So much so that the word had to be retracted in some cases with apology. However, when the same word is used by someone within the black community, it isn’t considered objectionable. In fact, it might even take on a slightly positive and affectionate patina.

Here’s an interview on NPR if you would like to dig some more into the history of how the word got to be this racially charged. The Racially Charged Meaning Behind the Word ‘Thug’.

(An interesting aside: this word originated in India. In Hindi, the word thag means swindler or deceiver. It snuck into the English language as thug during the British-Raj time in India.)

Isn’t it fascinating, how the use or misuse of a single word—which might be harmless when it stands by itself—can muddy our perceived intentions?

Now, go to your bookshelf and pick up your favorite book. An average 300-page novel contains 75,000 to 80,000 words. Consider the care and caution that the writer has put into each one of those words so as to string them all together to get her point across to you, the reader. Don’t you love the book that much more now? I thought you would. :)

Has there been a time when you were feeling out of sorts and then you happen upon a phrase or hear a snatch of a song, and violá, your mood improves?

Wherever I am, whatever time of the day, all I have to have is Louis Armstrong crooning to me, “What a wonderful world!” and I begin to see colors brushed into the air around me.

When I hear Simon & Garfunkel asking, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” the concrete walls around me fall away, and I step into fields of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

The Indie Rock band American Authors tells me: “This is gonna be the best day of my life.” Suddenly even the most mundane day turns into something memorable.

Isn’t the power of words amazing?

Which words pick you up and make your feet tap out a rhythm? Please share!

Originally posted on January 10, 2011

To the untrained eye or the uninitiated, it looks like utter chaos and spells certain, imminent death: the road is choked with vehicles and bodies of every kind. Pedestrians (and more times than not, loitering animals enjoying the tumult they’re causing) and puny bikes weave across lanes of traffic with nonchalance, where buses and trucks are barreling down.

Photo Courtesy: dreamstime.com

This was the first scene that greeted me when we stepped out of the airport in India.

It’s not like I’m exactly new to this, though it’s also true that there has been an explosion of motorized vehicles on the roads in India — especially in Hyderabad, the capital city of the state I come from – in the last decade or so.

For the first two days, conditioned as I have been for the divided lanes and orderly passage of traffic in the U.S, I constantly said my prayers and kept preparing myself for a maimed body. At best. Morbid? Yes, but you had to be there to understand.

Picture this: you’re sitting in a city cab — about the size of a Honda civic — and a fully-loaded (as in people dribbling down to the first step) passenger bus comes and brakes right next to you. You look up and realize that there is just the glass window of your cab and three inches of air that separate you and the monstrous front bumper of the fifteen-ton hunk of metal. Gulp!

Ever so slowly, though, generations of survival instincts and the Eastern stoicism kicked back in, and I began to settle in. Every time I thought I was going to be roadkill, my mantra* became: Jo hona so hoga. Phikar karne se kyaa phaayda?**

Once I decided to sit back and relax, cocooned in the hope that my cab driver knew exactly what he was doing, my eyes began to see and my mind started to absorb. It was then that I had an epiphanic moment: There actually is an age-old order beneath the apparent madness of criss-crossing vehicles!

It was like an unacknowledged food chain, only this was a vehicle-chain. The man on foot knew where to look for guidance: at the vehicle just above him in the order, which is the bicycle. The girl on the bicycle paid heed only to the auto-rickshaws zooming past her. The auto-rickshaw driver had enough regard for the cars and taxis that ruled the road for him. And the taxiwallah*** had a grudging respect for buses and trucks that could crush his box of metal if they so wished.

No wonder in all my traveling on the road during the trip, I hadn’t come across a single traffic accident. Like my friend Jai Joshi said, when you’re on the road in India, your senses are honed to razor sharpness.

You hear a certain kind of horn behind you and deduce, without even looking, what kind of a vehicle it is that is pursuing you. Depending on who you are, a bicyclewallah*** or a bus driver, your brain does certain calculations and you either make way reluctantly or make a subtle adjustment to your speed and position so you effectively block the other vehicle’s exit.

The absolute truth dawned on me only a few days before I left for America: Indian traffic is an elite club to which not everyone is allowed access. You have to have a certain state of mind and stoutness of heart to even apply for membership. Once you’re in, though, it’s a lifetime’s citizenship; one that prepares you to face anything with élan.

–*–

* Mantra – A chant or a short prayer.

* * — One of the basic philosophies of life in India (and probably in most parts of the East). It roughly translates to: Whatever is meant to happen will happen. What’s the use of worrying?

*** Taxiwallah/Bicyclewallah: Two of the many Hinglish (Hindi + English) words in common, everyday use in India. Literally, they mean: ‘The guy with the taxi/bicycle’, but in this case it’s used to refer to ‘taxi driver or the one riding the bicycle’, whichever the case may be.

New Beginnings

Ugadi, one of India’s New Year festivals, falls on Saturday, March 21st, this year.

Here’s to novel experiences, shared moments, countless possibilities!

Originally posted on March 22, 2012

“Aren’t all beginnings new?” asks one character of another in a book I read recently.

I guess they are and they aren’t, depending on how you look at it.

What better season than spring to contemplate beginnings, old and new? Tuesday the 20th of March marked the Spring or Vernal Equinox in the northern hemisphere of the Earth: essentially, the first day of spring season.

All around me I see signs of new life: pale green leaves unfurling, bulbs pushing shoots out of rain-soaked earth, birds shedding downy winter coats, the skies newly scrubbed and polished.

Most cultures around the world celebrate the arrival of spring in different ways. Where I come from—the southeastern part of India, where people follow a lunar calendar for observing religious days—spring means a fresh start. We usher in the season with a New Year’s festival called Ugadi (the word translates to “Beginning of a new age/era”).

Hinduism believes that a human life is full only if it experiences the gamut of emotions in the right proportions. On Ugadi, everyone—child and adult alike—begins his/her day by eating a mixture or chutney made of six ingredients:

  • Jaggery, (similar to brown sugar, made from sugar cane) which is sweet, signifies happiness
  • Bitter neem flower petals stand in for sorrow
  • Thinly sliced hot, green peppers remind us of anger
  • Savory salt takes the place of fear
  • Tamarind paste (which is sour) marks revulsion or hatred
  • Tangy pieces of unripe mango emphasize surprises

This chutney—a delicious explosion of bold flavors and textures—essentially is a reminder that life is a fusion of experiences. This tradition encourages everyone to accept what is doled out to him/her in life with equanimity.

Tomorrow, which is whenUgadi is celebrated this year, I intend to begin my day with a few spoonfuls of this chutney.

Do you celebrate the beginning of spring or the end of winter? If yes, please share the details with us!

Point of View II

I recently watched two movies The King and I and Anna and the King back to back and then, for a lark, re-read the nonfiction book Anna and the King of Siam written by Margaret Landon.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I. *** Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother? Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes. Louis: What do you do? Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.                 *** Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I.
***
Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother?
Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes.
Louis: What do you do?
Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.
***
Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

The two movies and the book are based on the real life events of Anna Leonowens (a British woman) who spent five years as a governess/teacher in the court of King Mongkut in the Thailand (Siam) of the 1860s. It was a turbulent time in Thailand’s history, with the British, French and Burmese sniffing at it from all sides.

King Mongkut hired Anna to lead his considerably large royal brood—including his heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, who incidentally went on to become Thailand’s most popular and progressive ruler and accredited many of his principles to the foundation that Anna had laid through her teaching—into the modern world.

I like to compare books/movies based on the same subject matter but written/directed by different people. This fun activity always results in fresh revelations about objectivity and point of view. (Read my observations from another similar exercise here: Point of View.)

Margaret Landon, author of the book Anna and the King of Siam, writes of Anna’s first impression of the king: “How revolting to be dependent for one’s innocent desires upon the caprice of this withered grasshopper of a King!” However, as she works closely with the king in translating and writing his English and French correspondence, Anna begins to respect his extraordinary intelligence and keenness of mind.

Coming to the two movies, The King and I was released in 1956. As the name suggests, this movie solely focuses on the relationship between Anna and the king and relegates the rest of the rich tapestry of incidents to the backdrop. Perhaps as suited for the times, this movie shies away from depicting any ugliness, including the fickleness of the king’s character and the inhumane concubinage and slavery that was rampant in Siam.

Yul Brynner, actor and noted Broadway star, plays the king in the movie as if he’s still on stage. He’s loud and gimmicky to the point that he makes the king look like a caricature and sound like a fool. (Also, his king is no withered grasshopper; rather he is buffed up and athletic, and his costume makes sure we notice.) All the actors in the movie speak in loud overtones as if to make up for their lack of knowledge of the customs of Siam. Perhaps it has somewhat to do with the fact that it’s a musical. Still, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (who plays Anna) make it work, and you come away from the movie with a light spirit, if not especially instructed in the culture of Siam.

The second movie Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, was released in 1999. This movie is on the opposite end of the spectrum in its sensibilities from The King and I. Far from being averse to harshness and brutality, this version seems to anchor the story in them. The movie begins with a gruesome scene with several dead bodies hanging from a tree—the director’s way of depicting the political unrest between Siam and a British-backed Burma.

Jodie Foster, with her stiff body language, makes Anna remote and aloof to me, while Chow Yun-Fat takes King Mongkut to the other extreme. With his characteristic genteel demeanor, Yun-Fat turns King Mongkut into a gentle giant of a man as opposed to the mercurial autocrat that he was. This movie, however, makes a better effort at explaining the Eastern philosophy and putting some of the spotlight on Anna’s relationship with the various royal children and concubines.

A single point the two movies share (and hence stray as far as possible from the real life events they’re based on) is: they are both love stories at their core. Say what? Nowhere in the book does Anna say that she has developed any feelings for the king but frustration, irritation and many times a grudging respect. So, why, oh, why should both the movies twist the plot into an unfulfilled love story? Because that’s what Hollywood does best. Sigh!

As the last frame rolled away, I was yet again reminded that how a movie shapes up is subject to the past and present life experiences of the director and the actors assaying the roles. When we watch a movie, we’re stepping for the duration of it into the director’s private chamber upon his/her invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends on our own point of view as a viewer.

I grew up in India immersing myself in the English language almost as much as I did my mother tongue. Although English was termed my second language in school, and later when I came to the US I was told I was a non-native speaker of English, the language never felt secondary or alien to me.

I’ve been told several times in the past two decades here in the US that I have a lilting cadence to my English speech that makes it exotic. I never heard my accent nor noticed the variations in the way I modulated certain sounds and syllables. I was too busy learning the American idioms and adding new vocabulary to my repertoire.

Until recently, that is. A few months ago, I observed a certain shift to my listening. It suddenly dawned on me why I say some words differently than a native English speaker in the US. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I learned speaking English in India, which although retains few traces of the British English after all these years, still favors the British turn of phrase and pronunciation.

It has everything to do with the fact that my mother tongue, Telugu, is a non-phonetic language. That means, unlike in English, what you see written on the page is exactly how you pronounce the words. There are no two ways of saying the same word. Telugu has over 50+ letters in its alphabet, so there’s no chance for confusion. The same is true with most Indian languages.

In an Indian language, not all words have emphatic syllables in them. If you need a particular syllable in a word to be stressed harder, then you write it a certain way that leaves no doubt of the pronunciation. Not so in English.

Each and every word in English has at least one syllable that is emphasized in speech, even if it’s a one-syllable word like “a.” The syllable you choose to emphasize, the way you articulate it, the inflection you place on the sound… all these figure into your accent.

I realized that, as a native speaker of Indian languages, I sometimes neglect to enunciate a certain syllable in an English word because I don’t see the stress highlighted in the written word. For instance, take the word banana. The middle syllable na is stressed harder and stretched longer than the rest but it looks in writing as do the rest of the syllables. The word is not spelled bannaana to focus the stress. No book or teacher can teach this; it’s a matter of listening and emulating.

After this epiphany, I’m listening to spoken English with keener ears. Words and sounds that were mundane before reveal new personalities and interesting facets to me at every turn.  My ears perk up at once-familiar words that now tease me with a host of possibilities.

Does this mean I’m going to work at losing my “accent?” No, because that modulation is part of who I am. Will I stop confusing the heck out of my children by pronouncing “year” as “ear” because I forget to accentuate the beginning “ya” sound? Probably not.

I am, however, very much looking forward to this phase of my relationship with the English language. A phase where I get to acquaint myself with it all over again.

Originally posted on May 31, 2010.

The one constant companion at every stage of our lives is: Change.

Very few things in our lives can resist change.

Of course, there are a few facts that come to mind, almost instantaneously, that are seemingly exempt from change. One such is:

The sun rises every morning in the east.

However, it is said that our beloved sun is a dying star. It will not die in our lifetime or in the next however many lifetimes of humans, but it is predicted that in 5 billion years from now the sun will run out of hydrogen and fall into itself.

So, in a way, even the sunrises are constantly undergoing transformation, though we cannot discern it.

My point?

Nothing, whether living or inanimate, escapes change.

(Yes, in honor of this topic, I have changed the picture in my blog’s header :).)

Here are some quotes about life and what role change plays in it:

  • God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

                                                 – Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.

                                               – Unknown

  • There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.

                                                 – Winston Churchill

  • You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

                                                  – Mahatma Gandhi

  • Life can either be accepted or changed. If it is not accepted, it must be changed. If it cannot be changed, then it must be accepted.

                                                – Unknown

  • Things do not change; we change.

                                                  – Henry David Thoreau

  • When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.

                                                 – Benjamin Franklin

  • Consider how hard it is to change yourself and you’ll understand what little chance you have in trying to change others.

                                                 – Unknown

  • All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.

                                                – Anatole France

And now, to end on a somewhat lighter note:

  • The world is changing so fast I’ve got societal vertigo. 

                                               – Terri Guillemets

Lastly, if Hazel Soares can earn a degree at 94, then isn’t making a sincere effort at embracing change (especially if it’s in the right direction) the least we can do?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 632 other followers

%d bloggers like this: