Monday, 11 May 2015

Notes to my students: # 12 Writing about writing

Yesterday was the last day of yet another term at our English Language Centre. For seven weeks, I worked with a group of 20 students, from under-eighteens to over-fifties, but most of them in their early twenties. If you are around twenty, you are in that wonderful phase of life when you haven’t lost the innocence of childhood, yet you’re ready to explore the myriad possibilities that life offers. It is always a great experience to work with them, and in this particular group too, there were some chirpy exciting people I loved to work with.

They were all brought together – not by fate, but by their common desire to learn English. As the term drifted to its inevitable end, there was a tinge of sadness, and everyone would have asked in their head, ‘What next?’

As we all know, a second language – like cooking, driving, computers, or any other skill – is not taught, it has to be learned. And there are these four steps that people normally follow.

(A) Listen to and read good speakers / writers of that language, 
(B) Note new language,
(C) “Think” about the new language you’ve come across, and
(D) Use the new language when you speak or write.

Unfortunately, most Indians learning English do not get the opportunity to interact with good speakers. On the contrary, they get to listen to and read a lot of inaccurate language everywhere. So it may be a good idea to add one more step to the list above: have a grasp of the basic grammar. This will help you to check and analyse the English you hear or read. And it is essential that you speak and write English.

Yesterday, one of my students told me she had no problem speaking English; but when she got round to writing something, she didn’t know how to begin and what to write. Let me try to answer her.

First, what to write? My answer would be: anything. You can write about people, places, things, and of course, your thoughts and feelings. Think of a person, anyone, maybe, your mother. What kind of a person is she? What has been her life experience? What has she tried to achieve? How far has she been successful? What qualities in her do you admire? Would you like her to be different?

Think of the first school you were in. Think of the first day in your office. What thoughts went through your mind when you started working? What dreams did you have? What fears? And how has reality panned out? Are you happy about what life has had to offer you?

Or you can just look out of the window. If you sit back and think, you will see there are stories all around us. Look at that man in a funny yellow shirt carrying an umbrella, observe him minutely. What is he? What kind of house does he live in? Can you imagine the story of his life?

So you can write on anything, but HOW will you write? My answer to this is quite simple. Just begin. Pen and paper have their own dynamics. And so do key-board, computer screen, and your fingers. When I began typing this in, I knew what I wanted to write, but I had no idea how I would go about it. As it happened, first I wrote about an entirely different topic. I completed it and then came back to this. I don’t know what I have written; I don’t know whether it’s good or intolerable. But I know that as I was writing this, I was having a virtual dialogue with a chirpy young girl with bright eyes and curly hair.

In a few minutes, I will print this out and read it closely, maybe twice or even three times. If I think it’s rubbish, I would crumple the sheet of paper and throw it into the bin under my table.

If I think it’s tolerable, I would pester my wife to read it. I would also polish it and then upload it on my blog. If it’s readable, I would derive a kind of pleasure that nothing else in the world gives me.

So, Dear Student, WRITE. Writing is its own reward.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Chorki, aka Chakradhar Sinha

Those who do not know what having a pet is are the second most unfortunate group of people on earth. (The first of course are those who have never enjoyed a fine drink in the company of good friends.) Our fox-terrier Chorki, aka Chakradhar Sinha went to meet his maker on a pleasant spring morning five years ago, but he still seems to be around.

If the introduction has given you the impression that Chorki was a loving pet, a dog that was eager to please people around him, I am sorry. Nothing could be farther from truth. In fact, I have never seen a more self-centred and opinionated dog than Chorki. Like all authentic fox-terriers, he honestly believed that the main purpose behind the existence of the universe was to please him. He loved to be at the centre of everything and instinctively knew where he ought to be in order to make his presence felt. For example, if any one of us was packing a suitcase, he would calmly move into the suitcase and pretend to be sleeping. He loved good food and saw to it that he was given the biggest slice of cake and the largest scoop of ice cream. He was a strong believer of the hedonistic philosophy: Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. On a summer day he would always sleep directly under the fan or the ac vent. In a frosty winter night, it would be impossible to nudge him out of his blanket. What was worse, he had a huge chip on his shoulder and was always ready to take offence. Unlike most people with dogs, we couldn’t tell people: ‘Don’t worry, our dog doesn’t bite.’

Sorry, but our dog does bite. On a conservative estimate, Chorki bit seventeen people in his career, and many of his victims had to experience the pain multiple times. Some of them were nice people who would themselves pay for the prophylactic anti-rabies shots, making us feel even guiltier, but to many others, besides apologies, we would offer medical facilities. It came to such a stage that if we hadn’t bought the shots for a couple of months, our friendly street-corner pharmacist Sona would ask me, ‘Ki dada, Rabipur laagbena?’

And if there was one dog whose bark was worse than his formidable bite, it was Chorki. He would be easily disturbed by any legitimate noise that passers-by made and would respond by increasing the noise pollution manifold. So if you had a car screeching to a stop or a cyclist ringing his bell in front of our house, Chorki would start barking, continuing for at least ten minutes after the reason for his displeasure abated. Mornings were the worst time. We Bengalis being broadminded people, whenever we say ‘Good morning’, we don’t just wish just one person, but the rest of the humanity too. So every time a morning walker said ‘Good morning’ a little loudly, Chorki would take off. And sound was not the only stimulus for him to bark.

Chorki firmly believed that whatever area he could see from our windows was out-of bounds for other dogs. So even if he saw the tail of a stray dog curled up at a distance, he would try to enforce his no-fly zone. Things were so bad that we would give directions to our house as follows. ‘Come to Parnashree bus stand and if you do not hear a dog barking already, wait for a few minutes. You will hear a shrill bark coming from a fourth-floor flat. Just follow the sound, and hey, Bob is your uncle.’

You might think: what kind of people could fall in love with such a cantankerous dog and why should anyone write about him five years after what should surely have been good riddance? And there lies the nub, Gentle Reader. Despite all his failings, Chorki had such a magnetic pull … and he loved us madly. He could understand practically every word of Bengali (except modern poetry) and if ever anyone could express feelings, information, and ideas with just their eyes, it was Chakradhar.

Once we took him to Bangalore to my daughter’s place. The plan was to leave him there for six months as we would leave for the US, where my son and daughter-in-law had just set up their home. The day we were to leave for Kolkata, Chorki understood the situation clearly and behaved like a dog possessed. He stopped eating and drinking and would run alternately to my wife and me. He would bark as softly as he could – in fact it was the only time he whimpered in his life – and look into our eyes with as much pathos as he could muster. No language could have expressed more clearly what he wanted to say: “Don’t go away. Please don’t leave me here.”

We were heartbroken but we had to leave. After much cajoling, my daughter managed to take him for a walk in the afternoon and we slipped away during the time. When Chorki returned, he realised what had happened and shot off immediately. There was a taxi with a driver waiting in front of the house and to the utter horror of the driver, a dog suddenly jumped into the vehicle. Chorki had correctly reckoned that the only way to catch us would be to take a cab.

But as Paulo Coelho has said, if you really want something, the whole universe conspires to help you get it. The present chief minister of West Bengal was a firebrand opposition leader then. A few days before our departure, she had called the nth bandh in West Bengal, as a result of which the train services had been disrupted. When we reached Krishna Raja Puram Station, our train had been cancelled.


Saturday, 04 April 2015

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The journey of zero

Every educated Indian knows that ZERO was invented (or should we say discovered?) in India. And most educated Indians know that Pythagoras’s theorem (the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares of its two other sides) had been put forward by an Indian mathematician long before. But let’s keep it aside for the moment. What kind of a man was Pythagoras?

A student of Pythagoras, Hippasus challenged another theory of Pythagoras. In fact, he proved it wrong. How did Pythagoras solve the problem? Did he accept the truth? Did he try in vain to prove Hippasus wrong? No, he found an easier solution. He simply murdered his student.

The tradition intellectual dishonesty continues to this day. In fact, it is quite common, like the lack of common sense. You do come across ciphers that pretend to be knowledgeable.

And that brings us back to zero. Another word for zero is cipher, but cipher also means “secret code”. Now, do you know the answers to the following questions?

1. How did cipher or zero begin to be associated with secret codes?

2. Why did the city of Florence ban the use of zero in 1299?

3. Which Indian mathematician proved what is known as Pythagoras’s Theorem? When?

4. How did the Greek colony of Croton celebrate when Pythagoras proved his theorem?

5. What was the name of the Indian mathematician who not only introduced the concept of zero, but also invented the place value of digits in a number (units, tens, hundreds, and so on) and negative numbers? When did he do it?

6. How many centuries did it take for Mr Zero to travel to Europe from India? What was his route?

7. How did people do arithmetical operations (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division) before they learned to use the number system in which different digits have different place values?

8. Who introduced the concept of the irrational numbers? That is, a number that cannot be expressed as ratio of two natural numbers? When?

Since I began with intellectual honesty, I must reluctantly admit that if I had taken this quiz yesterday, I would have scored a big, you’ve got it right, zero. What is your score, Dear Reader?

To check your answers, please read this brilliant article by Brishti Guha, who teaches economics at JNU, Delhi.…/opi…/columns/the-story-of-shunya/

PS: If your score is close to mine, it would only indicate how ignorant we Indians are about our past. And how stupid are our present rulers, who instead of focusing on the great intellectual tradition of our country, try to prove that Ganesha’s story was a case of head transplant and a proof of plastic surgery!

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Peace in the middle of nowhere

The plains of Bengal crisscrossed by countless rivers are among the most fertile terrains in the world. Here, with little effort crops and vegetables grow abundantly. Many believe that the fecundity of the soil has made its inhabitants lazy and unambitious. On the other hand, for the same reason the Bengal countryside is lush green through the year and its beauty has captured the imagination of countless poets. One of the finest among them, Jeebanananda Das wrote, not without a touch of jingoism:        

I’ve seen the face of Bengal,
So I don’t wish to find out
How beautiful the rest of the world is.

And in this scenic state, Birbhum, which flanks the Chhoto Nagpur plateau of Jharkhand, is perhaps the most beautiful district. The land here is not green like the rest of the state or Bangladesh. It is red, and often undulating. The rivers Ajay, Kopai, and Mayurakshi meander through the district, its people are quiet and relaxed. It is also the land of bauls, the mesmerizing country singers. If you get an opportunity to visit Birbhum, please don’t miss it. I don’t, ever.

When we got off at Prantik, a quiet rail station near Santiniketan, the sun had set. Partho Ghosh, a friend’s friend, was waiting for us with his elderly Maruti in the dimly lit empty station compound. Soon we were driving through darkness along a red earthen track with a canal on our left and a jungle on the right. As the vehicle got into the thickly wooded tract, the track vanished. The car rolled, pitched, and groaned in pain, throwing up a cloud of dust. But sadly, the topsy-turvy journey ended soon and we got into a compound. At that moment we had no idea that we were entering a very special place.

Mousumi and Ranjan Datta visited Santiniketan years ago and fell in love with a tract of land in the middle of nowhere. So when Ranjan retired from the seventh floor of a landmark building in Kolkata, they decided to invest their life’s savings and energy to build a hotel with a difference. The result is Santisudha Garden Guest House, two acres of sheer beauty that has two stylish structures surrounded by a beautiful flower and vegetable garden. Fortunately, we were there when the winter flowers: asters, marigolds, cosmoses, daisies, phloxes, poppies, petunias – you name it – were in full bloom. 

And the vegetable garden was not far behind. From aubergines to cabbages to broccolis to our humble pumpkins, there was room for a wide range of them. The kitchen garden has been so successful that during the three days of our stay, all the vegetables on our plates had been from their own garden.

An open-air weekly market nearby; here local artisans offer their stuff at throwaway prices

From the airy light and spacious rooms, you get to see the meadows below reaching out to a wide open sky on the horizon. Next morning, as I opened a book sitting on the balcony attached to our room, I watched cattle grazing on faraway fields. They moved ever so slowly: the clock seemed to have slowed down. How I wish I had had a little more time to do nothing! But every few hours, there had to be a break: either for a long walk to the River Kopai or elsewhere, or an exciting journey to the kitchen.

On the way to the River Kopai

The chef and all-purpose handyman of the establishment, Jayanta is pleasing man in his early thirties. The way he took care of us – it seemed we were guests in his home. The garden fresh vegetables were distinctly tastier than their cousins grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We got simple but exquisite food – any grandma would be proud to produce such fine homely dishes.

But Jayanta had kept the final surprise up his sleeves. When the taxi arrived to take us back to Prantik station, he came and very humbly asked, ‘Sir, will you mind if I give you a bag of vegetables to carry home?’

Would you mind, Gentle Reader?

Kolkata / 9 Feb 2015