Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Facebook escapades

Facebook related posts here and here inspired me too. To start using it. I have a facebook account that collects dust. I'm not averse to new technologies, and certainly not to social networking. My Orkut profile boasts a large number of completely useless scraps and I have glowing testimonials. I have fans, ac’s heaters and all else required of a ‘lakshnamana’ profile. But when it comes to using facebook I’m a duffer. My argument is if Orkut is good enough for Google, it’s good enough for me. Besides those pliss make fraandships scraps that my female friends get are hilarious and make my day. Always.

So I struggled with facebook left it and intermittently visited it to add random people. As the days passed by, my profile sat there and I feigned indifference and really dint care too much. One fine morning I got a mail. My mother had added me on facebook. Damn you ma! I said. And promptly got shocked as I visited her profile. All my periammas and chittis were there, poking each other, uploading embarrassing photos of us cousins. Now my family is intelligent, most can give Einstein a decent complex and can stand unfazed in front of pedantic young men and women discussing sub-routines and cache architectures. Most can also argue on the relative merits of town planning in urban India and give ten reasons on why Chettiar Chidambaram is an ass, all this beside reciting obscure couplets. But intelligence, when directed at catching up with progeny can be harmful. And such intelligence by the entire family mafia can effectively put a full stop, to even the most hep of social lives, as my cousin found out to her disadvantage.

“You don’t use facebook kanna? Chee…even that makku ponnu ___ is on it.” Amma pings me thus. So now I must master the nuances of facebook. I must poke, superpoke and do whatever it is that Americans and the ‘hepper ’ Indians do. I must also smile at jabs that aunts throw at me and not be embarrassed by my naked baby photos doing the rounds of the family circuit. As I ponder my life, I get a mail informing me that Appa has added me on Orkut.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Ennekum Tamil Teriyum

I haven't been to this sphere for ages, but have been keeping an eye on my buddy over here.
The call of the mother tongue pulled me out of this early retirement!

Well as buddy might protest that I'm a disgrace to the race of tamilians but in my defense "enneku tamil purunjadu ana peshartaka kashtama ikrikum"...

But the funniest language related incident I remember is when..
My uncle, aged 5 in the erstwhile Calcutta, asked my grandfather a question of usual childlike wonderment about nature,in a cocktail of bengali, hindi and tamil..

"Litchi-uda bichi jammen-la potuta gaach uug aagama??"

which roughly translates to "A litchi seed if sown, will a tree grow?"

Pat came my grandfather's reply-"Mali-la poi puch panni paara!!"

Yenakkum Tamil teriyum!

The blogosphere (or at least parts I visit) are rife with topics about language, I am guilty too. So keeping in with the theme I ramble thus:
My abilities in spoken Tamil. I apologize for a Tamil-centric post. Translation will take away all the fun. Will be back soon with a post in propah English.

“Adhu sekkalai” –referring to an alive thing previously thought to be dead, 1995

“Isko kaise odayenga” –pointing to a Coke can, 1996

“Neenga dhaan Mr. Vandivel aa?” –thus addressing a Mr. Vadivel in Chennai, 1997

“Naan yen china veetukku poren” –while going home, 1998

“Amma Appa tharaia pudungara” –referring to home renovations, 2000

“Amma nethi vaangara” Amma buying bindis off the pavement, date unknown

“Naan thalai vettindu varen” –every time I get a haircut

“Naan 33 madi erinen” –climbing a narrow staircase, 2007

“It costs tholairam rubai” –at something that clearly says $90 , 2008

What can I say, it is not for everyone to speak :)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

भ ஆ శ ಆ

“Привет” I said. That set the mood for the rest of the conversation between my house landlady and me today morning, as we negotiated rent and repairs. Talk to people in their own language and things seem to move along faster. Something I learnt long ago, while dealing with babu’s at Mumbai. Marathi moves paper faster than Hindi or money there. The same applies, from Hyderabad to Helsinki. But apart from revealing the lazy habits of bureaucrats, this also throws light on a small aspect of human nature.

In all this tongue switching and code mixing, I have begun to feel like I don’t belong anywhere at all. I firmly believe that one cannot learn a language unless one is willing to absorb its cultural context. Nor can one profess to know a language just be conjugating all its irregular verbs. Eskimo has over ten words for snow, powdery snow, fresh snow and so on, but curiously no word for just snow. Proto Indo-European supposedly had no word equivalent for ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’. Languages are dictated by narrow walls, of geography and culture and globalization exposes many such interesting quirks contained therein.

Languages are structured and have rules, but they must be dynamic if they are to survive. English freely slept around with any language that was spoken in the British Isles and today shamelessly flaunts its bastard status, but is the Lingua franca of the world (excluding, of course the Chinese sphere of influence).

Supporters of Indian regional languages go to ludicrous lengths to ensure linguistic survival amidst English’s sweeping influence. Pro-Dravidians argue against ‘Sanskritization’ of Tamil abhorring any word of Indo-European origin. Perhaps they would do well to remember that several words for long considered pure Sanskrit have recently been discovered to have Dravidian parentage. Indo-Aryan languages have several unique traits that differentiate them from other indo-European languages, mainly the presence of several Dravidian traits. Sanskrit was barely an infant when Tamil already had two epics in its repertoire. In a peninsula of overwhelming Aryan tongues, Dravidian languages are the neglected children, but Indo-Aryan purportedly was built on a Dravidian sub-stratum. Borrowing terms and code-mixing may give language a unique flavor, but evolutionally they provide a rock solid foothold for survival. The Dravidian language family is unusual in that it shows no relation to any other language family. Proto-Dravidian evolved into Tamil. Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu and Kodava-Takk all seceded from it in the previous millennium.

Indian languages draw from a large pool of languages. Influences range from Persian and Latin to the rarer Elamite*. One often neglects the linguistic diversity that the India holds. Bound together for millennia in the sub-continent, people freely borrowed, snatched and stole, from each other in the pursuit of making the perfect mellifluous language. The future of Indian languages is secure, in that they are not monogamous, but promiscuous. Modern media only accelerates this tumultuous mixing from which eventually order and structure will emerge to form yet another language.

*The Elamite language was spoken in what is now south-western Iran sometime between the sixth to fourth centuries BC. Dravidian languages show a direct relation to Elamite. Some scholars also like to bring in the mysterious Indus valley civilization language under the umbrella of the Elamo-Dravidian family.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tales of our times

Rosa works at the food court with me. The first day I was introduced to her, she was jokingly called ‘the dishwasher’. Throughout the semester, as I adjusted to changing variables in the new world, Rosa became my friend washing, rinsing, sanitizing dishes, sneaking out food and covering each other’s backs. As a pair of friends, this was as odd as it gets. She spoke in a pidgin English, remnant of some African tongue, I spoke in a just-learning-american-accent English. I reverted to Indian English in her company and found that we understood each other better. Rosa was Sudanese. She told me of her life in south Sudan, daughter of a local chieftain. Testimony to the turbulent times we live in, and to Africa’s forever changing clumsy dynamics, strife broke out in Sudan and their possessions were reduced to nothing. She recalled how she and her husband decided to flee one night. Pregnant and penniless they boarded a barge on the Nile, northwards to Egypt. As Rosa rested in Alexandria, her husband scoured the Sudanese diaspora to bail them out. Another barge ride southwards to Cairo and heavy bribes later (Gold. “I am bereft of all my trinkets now” she sighed) husband and wife found themselves like millions of others before them, at the gates of liberty. New York City on a cold winter morning welcomed them as she delivered her son.

Today, seven years later, they have added 2 daughters to their family. Rosa managed to sponsor her brother and sister’s children all of whom she supports. While her children speak in clipped accents, she longs for the desert and the mountains.

Another semester later, I am employed in an office. As I write code in ungrammatical languages B Beng calls me to join her for lunch. B has got food from Taco Bell. I am very happy. B is another page of the same book, different chapter. A different time, Southeast Asia in the late 70’s. Surviving Pol Pot’s holocaust in rural Cambodia, B’s father was a member of the army, unable to resist the government, unable to participate in the massacre. Mrs Beng, managed to sneak her children out in the dead of the night to nearby Thailand. B grew up in Bangkok unmindful of the horrors just miles away. Aged four, B and family came to USA, abandoned Buddhism and found elusive peace. B’s mother still has nightmares of terrible times, her husband finally succumbed more out of mental anguish than anything else. My name means ‘flower’, B says. Today she drives a Civic, funds her family and is a proud American. “I am frustrated with the way things are in Cambodia. We are reduced to peddling artifacts of Angkor Wat” she says and proudly shows off her name, tattooed across her ankle, in Khmer.

Two different places. Two women. It would be childish to call them brave. Foolish to praise them. Fortitude and Hope, they define. My salaam to Rosa and Mrs. Beng.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Of Mona Lisa Devi, Abhishek Bachchan and DVD players

Living in a big city, people adopt their lifestyles to suit the times. The 'bai'* became a regular feature of the Mumbai cityscape sometime in the 60's. My grandmother refused to employ a bai until she broke a few of her bones. My mother, progressive and liberal had a bai pinned down even before she had a house. And as the years rolled on, the bai found herself an integral part of our family mosaic. Sometimes aloof, sometimes interfering. Sometimes working too much, sometimes slacking. However for good or bad, our bai she remains. Apart from this unusual bonding we share with our bai, another unique thing is our bai herself. A mass of contradictions, intelligent and crazy to the point of hilarity. I have come to accept her sayings as gospel and listen to all her gossip with the air of a cynic and she never fails to crack me up.

I shall call myself Mona Lisa Devi, bai announced to a shocked home one day. I later realized that it was due to the Da Vinci craze. My intrepid bai, ever questing for knowledge and going where no bai had gone before had come across the Da Vinci fever and had decided to call herself that. An act of self promotion? Advertisement mania hits bai-land? Bai's explanation was simple: Sounds phunky. I must reinvent myself with time no? Mona Lisa shaves 20 years of my age and then these über cool households might want to hire me.

That wretched girl. Bawlat mulgi. Kayko shaadi karneka…she wailed. Bai was upset. Understandably so. Aishwarya Rai was marrying Abhishek Bachchan, and bai's heart was broken in a million pieces. Such a nice boy and so handsome no? The she-devil must have ensnared him. Sly vixen. What will Amitabh do? Parents can't control their kids nowadays. I am afraid. I don't like the way that Sunil carpenter fellow looks at my Varsha, but I have to go to work no? I cannot sit around all day long looking at my kids. I know exactly how Amitabh must be feeling. Ah… the perils of parenthood.

"O Tai…DVD ghetla me" bai's sing song Marathi rang through the house. Bai does it again. She purchased a DVD player so she can watch movies on her 'kemputar'. Truly her resourcefulness and alacrity never fail to amaze me. I gaped open mouthed while she carefully studied our DVD collection, deciding what she will borrow for the weekend.

I, as usual was left speechless.
*bai = maidservant