Monday, May 30, 2011

Kavi-speak: Indian English is the Real Cheez!

Indian English is the real Cheez!

The word Chizzi held the same joy for me as a kid growing up in India that the word candy or chocolate probably held (or holds) for an American kid. Cheez is a common word in Hindi, (pronounced as chee-jz) and refers to a thing, sometimes to a special treat, (sometimes even to a hottie). Chizzi usually referred to candy or some Indian sweet/dessert like burfi, and still is a word used in my village in the Himalayas. It so happens (says Rushdie in a similar essay on etymology) that the word cheez is derived from the English word cheese. The eighteenth century Indians observed that Europeans (probably French) reserved a relish for cheese unmatched by other food items. Somehow we adopted the word and started referring to special things as cheez, mispronouncing it adequately, to make it sound desi (Indian).

English is full of words from Indian languages that appear in their new "avatar" with new pronunciations and connotations. While we Indians have worshipped the humanized avatars of God Vishnu for thousands of years, the internet has created impersonal avatars of us humans, and most of these new-age avatars are not worth worshipping. But one of the avatars of the Indian God, Jagannath (literal meaning: Lord of the World) is so powerful we have a word juggernaut coined after him. Up until seventeenth century, India contributed nearly a third of world's GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and China contributed a similar share. No wonder then that the word cash has its origins in Sanskrit karsh, a weight equal to 1/4000th of a gram of gold or silver. In Arabian Nights, or in the plays by Sophocles (who wrote three tragedies around the life of King Oedipus) as well as in many other ancient texts, India finds mention time and again for its gold and other riches. After coming to USA, I learned that food cooked with gravy is called an Indian curry: in North and South India, the word curry has specific meanings that are lost in translation.

Words travel across cultures more easily than humans do, and certainly if you speak any languages other than English, you will compile a similar long-list of borrowed words. To say Indian English is the real cheez though is to also recognize that English speaking/reading Indians exceed the combined strength of English speakers in the United Kingdom and the United States. By our sheer number, Indians may well begun to own the English language, and maybe some old Indian words (and associated cultural heritage) will then return to us. For example, pajama was a common garment in India (and I hear also in our sister nation of Persia or Iran), before the British trousers triumphed over it. Now pyjamas have returned and are sold in their expensive avatars in India! Bungalow used to be a house made in Bangla (Bengali) style; modern Indians make bungalows thinking they are building houses that are in some western, 'modern' style. To tie in Hindi is bandhna and in English, we end up with the fashionable bandana. As a child I would find khaat in villages, sometimes khatiya, but now everyone uses beds, though cot is now an established word in the English language.  

When Indian exported Panchtantra fables that inspired Aesop and later La Fontaine to compose their own versions, we helped to create the word jackal, a derivative of Sanskrit shringaal. The word mugger (who attacks stealthily) is derived from Sanskrit word for crocodile, makar and probably the fables caried this word across too. When you hear about mugging next time, think of a crocodile. Yes, even the jungle out there is from Hindi/Srinkrit word.  Lac and lacquer both come from Hindi laakh (Sanskrit laksh), and we Indians import lacquer paints these days. The rock band Nirvana used a common word from Indian philosophy/ religions that means "blowing out" (in sense of becoming absolutely free from cycle of life and death; for example, Buddha got Nirvana). Unfortunately, the Sanskrit words Arya and Swastika have become associated with Nazis (who used both words sacrilegiously: the explanation itself requires another article). One day, we Indians will reclaim these two words in English language, make them shed their worst Western connotations and restore their original meanings of "urbane" and "associated with good". My favorite anglicized word is Shampoo, which comes from the Hindi word champu (Sanskrit champna meaning kneading). We Indians make fun of friends who use excessive hair-oil by calling them champu teli, the phrase that could mean "shampoo-oily" or maybe "shampooed oil-maker". Many Indians who use shampoo believing it is a new age cheez would be bemused by this etymology, but will remember kneading while shampooing.  Let me end this short piece on another sweet note. While I enjoyed chizzi, which was not cheesy, my friends in US and UK ate candy, which comes from the word khand that means sugar in Sanskrit.

(Inspired by Borges & Ved Vyas)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Kavi-speak: On arranging a poet's work chronologically

A writer's inner world is often different from the outside world, and poems bring forth only clues from that inner world. The inner world is influenced by the events in the outside world, but the influence can be quite limited if the poet choses to fashion an inner world that is the most comforting for his self, maybe the most inspiring for his creativity. A  poem is a snapshot of a shadow, and to judge a person or his times or influences from that snapshot of a shadow is quite an imaginative task. A poet writes of separation though his beloved sleep next to him, and of embraces when there is no hope to meet the beloved, and sometimes it matters not if the neighborhood is rioting or if the outside world is falling apart.

As a poet ages, he understands the meaning of words better for the meaning now echoes a larger variety of sentiments, experiences and knowledge acquired through reading / living/ writing. But the poems themselves are a string of apt jewels or flowers, and the poems strung with proper jewels or flowers can be great even if they were strung together by a novice. A wiser, older poet might know the value of spending more energy or care in stringing more potent verses, but intention and ability of a poet are not enough to get the best work written. I suppose all poets live in this fear that they might never write a poem better than their favorite last one (or the favored last one); or they might not survive long enough to write the verses that have inevitability, originality, music and meaning to become immortalized in their language and even better, human history & literature.

(In response to a discussion about the value in arranging works of Mir Taqi Mir chronologically.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

De adhron ka poorn smarpan / दे अधरों का पूर्ण समर्पण

दे अधरों का पूर्ण समर्पण 
विवेक शर्मा |

संकोच की हर सांझ बीती, अतृप्त रही, एकाकी रही,
तृष्णा में घाट गयी और मटकी न भर पाई कभी,
पदचापों का संगीत सुना, केवल स्वर न सुलझा पाई,
कामनाएं अंतर्मन में उभरी, पर वहम हुआ, भय रहा,
कर आई हूँ निश्चय, आज जयघोष पायेगा मेरा अराधन,
आज न कोई अंकुश लगा, दे अधरों का पूर्ण समर्पण |

सीमाओं में रही आजीवन, सागर को खोजती फिरी,
रीतियों की सूची को रट कर, प्रीति दबाती रही,
गुपचुप श्रृंगार किया, अंग-अंग का सौंदर्य निहारा,
भ्रमर ही न मधुपान-पिपासु, पुष्प भी परम रसिक है,
मेरे पुष्पित अंग-अंग का कर चूम-चूम कर अभिनन्दन, 
आज न कोई अंकुश लगा, दे अधरों का पूर्ण समर्पण |

कटाक्ष की बाधा, कुटुंब के बंधन, प्रतिदिन के आकर्षण-क्रंदन, 
तपस्वी की राह चली, सब बंधन त्याग, मैं विमुक्त होकर,
जानती हूँ देव मिलेगा सर्वस्व तज, अहम् की आहुति देकर,
परित्याग आई भ्रान्ति, भ्रम, भय, संशय, संयम, संकोच, 
अराध्य की पूर्ण स्तुति हेतु कर रही हूँ आत्मसमर्पण ,  
आज न कोई अंकुश लगा, दे अधरों का पूर्ण समर्पण |

आत्मघाती पतंगे उड़-उड़ कर क्यूँ ज्योति का आहार बनें?
विद्रोह करुँगी मैं -- क्यूँ मेरी कामनाएं मंझधार में डूबें, मिटें? 
चिरकाल से भारत में प्रेम पिपासा ही नहीं, मधुपान भी है,
यहाँ संयमी की क्षुधा का ही नहीं, सम्भोग का सम्मान भी है,
प्रणय-प्रेम आधार बना ही तो हुआ श्रृष्टि का सृजन, 
आज न कोई अंकुश लगा, दे अधरों का पूर्ण समर्पण |

मार्च 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Introspective Desi

Sometimes I feel like the villagers, who after days
of physical exertion, after hours of underfed labor,
find a famine, filling their fields
with a harvest of hunger and death.

I find myself abandoning those fields of hope,
moving to a distant city, to a sidewalk life,
say a rickshaw job,
cycling for shelter and bread.

Sometimes I dream that I will buy the houses I build
working as a temporary hire, a daily-wage laborer,
carrying on my head cement and bricks,
sweating for walls and roof of others.

I see myself eating expensive entrees
not just serving them, wearing the clothes I tailor-make,
being chauffeured, and not struggling with traffic
of sleep, that jams my travel to riches.

Sometimes I hear sweet nothings whispered
by TV-show dolls, who look plain in nakedness.

Often times I feel like a four year old son of a slum
outside a shop window. I confide in a mannequin,
if I had clothes like it has
I won't sit still the whole day.

First published in Nilab