Thursday, July 28, 2011

When I Feel Ashamed To Be An Indian

I am usually proud that I am an Indian, and that I live in India, a country of emotional, sentimental people; a country where people don't just live but also look for the meaning of life. A country where the spiritual and the material coexist in equal strength.

But there are moments when I feel deeply ashamed to be an Indian. Moments that make me wish I lived elsewhere, in a country where prime ministers and chief ministers were not always doddering septuagenarians or octogenarians, where ministers were not always keen on leaving sufficient wealth for their grandchildren's grandchildren to live in comfort, where politicians were sensitive enough to put an arm around the shoulder of a flood victim or embrace the son of a bomb-blast victim, where television channels showed adult films instead of 'breaking news' (you can never be bored by the sameness of watching a pair of breasts as long as they belonged to different women, or if the same woman made an appearance at different times; but to watch the same footage for hours on end and listen to hysterical anchors -- that's torture!).

However, what made me feel ashamed to be an Indian most recently had nothing to do with what's happening in India, but what happened in faraway Norway, where nearly 100 people died last week at the hands of a mass killer. Since I don't watch television except while having lunch on Sunday afternoons(I often finish eating while an interminable ad break is still on), I read about the tragedy in the next morning's papers. Most papers had front-paged the picture of a rather good-looking man moving about in a state of daze (one paper showed him embracing another man by way of consolation).

In fact, I happened to notice the picture first, and thought he was a Hollywood actor, the kind who did a lot of World Cinema. Only when I read the headline and the caption did I realise he was the Norwegian prime minister, who was fearlessly out in the open to console the victims of the mindless shooting. The image made my chest swell with pride, even though I have never set foot on Norway nor do I know any Norwegian. And then I sighed to myself as I lit up the first cigarette of the day: "Will we ever have a leader like this?"

Our leaders only pay visits to hospitals long after a tragedy has taken place, and there they solemnly stand by the bed of a victim or two, their hands joined in front of them (perhaps a way of saying that their hands are tied), and return to New Delhi to resume normal life. They don't know the important of body language -- no matter whether they are inaugurating a project or visiting a hospital to condole victims, they always wear the benign grandfatherly expression. Had the Mumbai kind of blasts taken place in the US, Obama would have been on the spot of the blasts, with his arms around the shoulders of the affected and with an expression in his eyes that the perpetrators of the blast would have read as, "Just wait, I am going to fuck you!"

But then, this is India. Here, people have enormous tolerance levels. And such tolerance levels only help in thickening the skins of politicians. There was a time -- oh, that was so long ago -- when railway ministers resigned after a rail accident. It was not as if the minister's negligence would have caused the accident, but there was something called moral responsibility (an extinct term today) and they owned it up.

But today we have politicians like B.S. Yeddyurappa, the chief minister of Karnataka, who continues to desperately cling to his chair in spite of being slapped with serious charges of corruption and in spite of being asked by his own party to step down. Any self-respecting politician would have stepped down by now and declared: I will not hold public office again until I come clean. But the desperation of Yeddyurappa to hold on to power is evident from the fact that at least during the last several months, he has done little other than visiting various temples in various states to seek divine intervention in his favour. How much more shameless one can get! So as an Indian, I routinely get treated to pictures such as the one produced below. What a shame!

(Since the pictures above were sourced from the internet, that too in the heat of the moment, I am truly unaware of the identity of the photographers or the agency distributing them. I only hope nobody minds the pictures being reproduced here).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Waiting For My Katrina

If you put Sideways, Hangover I, Rock On!! and Dil Chahta Hai in a mixer and blend them nicely, what you get is Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

But that's only one way, a hopeless way, of looking at it. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which I watched just an hour ago, comes like a splash of cold water on your face after you've walked a mile in the sun. Not an ounce of flab: each scene well thought-out and delectable.

My favourite scene was the one in which Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif are lying next to each under a star-lit sky, and while giving him some gyaan on life, she holds his hand and in a casual, rather absent-minded, manner places it on her stomach. It can't get more sensual and real-life. Another favourite scene was Naseeruddin Shah rolling up his cigarette and exhaling rich (and most likely aromatic) smoke. He looked every bit an artist, which he is anyway in real life. I felt like lighting up right away.

Though I wish the movie had ended with the frozen shot of the three men running while the bulls chased them: the final song during the rolling of the credits, even though feel-good, was superfluous. But if the audience was enjoying it, why not!

The movie has a message; it's the same message that the commercials of Mountain Dew, the soft drink, have been trying to drive home for a few years now: Dar ke aagey jeet hai -- Once you conquer fear, you are in the arms of victory.

Mountain Dew, in fact, is one of the sponsors of the film and Hrithik, in one scene, is shown holding a bottle of the drink while Farhan Akhtar, in another scene, mouths the same catchline -- Dar ke aagey jeet hai!

But you can't really trust a soft drink manufacturer when it eggs you on to conquer fear, can you? Their intention, after all, is to sell their product. But when the stars of a movie as grand as this set out to prove the same point, you are bound to sit up and think. I won't be surprised at all if the Spanish Embassy in New Delhi is already flooded with visa applications (the film was shot in Spain). And I can bet on my life that a number of people, who are otherwise busy making money and chasing targets, must have signed up for skydiving as well as deep-sea diving after seeing the film.

Fear, after all, is the biggest enemy of the human being. I can give you my own example. Even though I learned how to float in water (while holding the breath) some five years ago, I learned how to swim, in the real sense, only a couple of months ago. Today I can gracefully swim the breaststroke like any professional swimmer, thanks to the hours of daily practice and watching videos on You Tube for tips on improving one's strokes, but I am yet to muster the courage to go to the deep end of the pool. I have gone up to seven feet but not beyond that: 9.5 feet is far too scary! What if I drown?

"No problem sir, if you drown I am there to save you," the lifeguard assures me every evening, "but please go to the deep end." When I refuse, he sulks and refuses to make eye contact for the rest of the evening. He has every right to sulk: he can see that I am now capable of swimming in the deep end with ease, but how the fuck do I make him see the fear that grips me every time I set out towards the deep end? Each time I come up for air, a question gets sucked into my mouth:

What if I drown? What if the lifeguard does not notice me while I am sinking? Even if he dives into the pool, will he be able to save me? Won't I make a spectacle of myself? What will happen to my father if I die? Poor man, he just lost his wife! What will happen to the unwritten books I have in my head? Is it really worth going to the deep end when I can get my exercise even in the relatively shallow part of the pool?

If I were a 10-year-old child, I would not analyse so much: I would merely follow the orders of the coach and dive into the deep end with my nose shut. But as you grow older, you tend to become a slave of fear. Fears, irrespective of their nature, begin to guide your life.

But after watching Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, I have new-found hope. Hrithik, in the film, happens to be a non-swimmer who is naturally scared of deep-sea diving. But Katrina Kaif, the instructor, sucks the fear out of him and puts in tears of gratification into his eyes once they have done a round of the underwater world.

I am now waiting for a Katrina Kaif to help me proceed from seven feet to 9.5 feet. She doesn't have to be model-like as Katrina (I hate the model-types in any case) but someone intelligent and inspiring enough to make me overcome the fear of depth and cross over to victory.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Life In A Metro: Bus-Stop Blues

A FEW MINUTES at a bus stop can be a revelation about life in a metro

At least once a day, to give my eyes a break from staring at the computer screen, I step out of the office and stand outside its boundary wall, on the pavement, which also happens to be a bus stop. I lean against the wall and watch the world go past.

Right across the road stands the new Secretariat building, Karunanidhi's dream, its side view resembling a row of mammoth water tanks (oil tanks, if you like), which was abandoned by the new government even before it could be fully completed. My eyes have long become blind to the structure. Most of the time, they are focused on the people at the bus-stop. I watch them and try to imagine their lives – a pastime, rather a luxury, I couldn't have afforded had I myself been waiting for a bus.

Had I been waiting for a bus, I would be constantly watching the display board at the crown of every oncoming bus, and would have been part of the small and ever-replenishing crowd that you always find at a busy bus stop.

The people I see here are collectively known as the ‘common man' – who forms the vast majority of the population in any city and who is powerful enough to make and break governments. But individually, they are powerless and helpless, and their lives are governed by a number of factors, including the timely arrival of the bus. The bus stop is as important a theatre of their life as their home or workplace.

Last afternoon, I noticed a man lying face down on the pavement, lifeless, as if he had just been shot. There was no warm blood trickling out of his body, but there was something else trickling out of his clothes – it was obvious that his urinary bladder had given way soon after he passed out. But why did he pass out? Was he too drunk? Or could it be that he has had no money to eat and been surviving only on water for a couple of days? Or had he suffered a heart attack or stroke? No one knew or even bothered to find out – all I could see were people steering clear of the trickle which was soon collecting into a puddle.

I am ashamed to say that I was among the people who remained totally indifferent to the unconscious man. Such indifference, I think, stems from two reasons. One, it is quite common to see men, presumably drunk, passing out at bus stops; two, who has the time to play Good Samaritan? Each person is in a hurry to reach somewhere. That frightens the hypochondriac in me, though: what if I ever faint at a bus stop? Will I be left to lie on the pavement?

Unmindful of this man lying face-down, a bunch of uniformed children, talking to each other in sign language, played with marbles at the bus stop. Their teachers stood in a small circle and laughed and gossiped while waiting for the bus. The children looked extremely happy in each other's company – did they get to play with the ‘normal' children in their respective neighbourhoods? A little away from them sat an elderly man, wearing a sky-blue shirt and a dhoti. He looked forlorn, lost deep in thought. What was he thinking about: the loan that he had taken for his daughter's wedding? His wife's ailment, which was fast depleting his savings? About a dozen other people, of various ages and bearing varying degrees of frowns, waited too. Why do people in bus stops look unhappy? No, there was a young woman who was constantly smiling – the source of her smile was plugged to her ear. Boyfriend, perhaps?

A bus arrived. The uniformed children, minded by their teachers, got in. The elderly man got in too, as did some of the people who had run behind the bus as it approached the stop. An elderly woman, who couldn't run as fast, was still a few steps away from the door when the bus took off. She was carrying a toy in her hand – grandchild's birthday? She had missed the bus. She now joined the young woman who was still smiling. Meanwhile, the man who lay on the pavement remained lifeless.

Now multiply this scene at the bus stop with the number of stops the city has. What you will see is the real life in a metro.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus on July 23, 2011.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Simpler Times

July. August. Up north, where I emotionally belong to, these are the monsoon months. The month of Shraavana. In Hindi, saawan ka mahinaa.

This is the time of the year when the Ganga is usually swollen and its waters muddy. This is the time when the Ganga, which otherwise flows serenely and nourishes the millions settled on its plains, can assume a devastating form.

The evidence of the two different moods of the Ganga lies in the yoga-cum-puja room of my Chennai home. Two white translucent cans are sitting there, both containing water from the Ganga. One of them has water that I had collected during a boat ride in Banaras in November 2007, when I had gone there to collect material for Chai, Chai. The water in it is still crystal clear.

The other contains water I had collected, also during a boat ride in Banaras, in August 2009, when I was there to cremate my mother. A thick layer of sediment can be seen at the bottom of this can. How can I ever forget 29 August 2009: I stood there under an overcast sky, in the furnace-like heat generated by the over a dozen burning pyres, watching the Ganga -- swollen but sluggish.

Monsoon seems to have hit the Ganga Mail too. The more swollen the mind with thoughts, the muddier the thought process, and you can't see what exactly is there at the bottom of the mind that needs to be expressed.

The less the number of thoughts, the simpler and more effective the thought process. People living in the hills are simple people, and they lead a simple life. That's where the Ganga gurgles down with great force, and the water so cold and clear that you can often see what's at the bottom. It flows like a good piece of writing.

It's time to pay a visit to the hills; to return to simpler times.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Life In A Metro: Cool Writer

The business of writing has changed – everyone wants to become a published author

The other day, a childhood friend of mine, who is now a senior uniformed officer, called me up. He began by making polite enquiries and went on to ask my opinion about the future of the DMK. Since he called at 10 in the morning, when catching up with old friends would be the last thing on the mind of an office-goer, I knew he would soon come to the point. Sure enough he did.

“By the way, do you have Ruskin Bond’s phone number?”

“Whose?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

“Arre yaar, apna Ruskin Bond! The writer!”

“But I don’t have his number!”

“Why not? You are also a writer, na? Don’t writers have other writers’ numbers?”

(In late 2009 I wrote a travel book; therefore the ‘writer’ tag.)

“But why do you want his number?” I asked him.

It turned out that his boss’ teenaged daughter had written some short stories, and the boss was keen that Ruskin Bond should take a look at them. When the boss brought up the subject during a meeting, my friend volunteered to get Mr. Bond’s number from a friend – that’s me. He obviously wanted to please his boss – nothing wrong with that – but he had clearly overestimated my status as a ‘writer.’

It is one thing to have written a solitary book – as countless people have – quite another to have earned a reputation as a writer.

After he hung up – I promised him I would try my best – it suddenly struck me that this was perhaps the fifth or sixth call I had got in a span of two months on behalf of aspiring writers. And in all cases, the aspiring writer in question happened to be a teenaged girl, and the caller a highly concerned parent.

One worried mother, who had been turned down by established publishing houses, confessed to me that the number of stories written by her daughter was not adequate enough to add up to the size of a book. But she had a solution for the shortcoming. “I can put in some of the poems she has written. She has written some beautiful poems. If we still fall short, I can put in some of my paintings. I have done some beautiful paintings,” she told me. “But how do I find a publisher?”

Had I known the answer, I would have been a rich man today, sitting with my laptop in a villa in Goa or Kasauli, after having sold half-a-dozen ideas (most of which would’ve come to me while I was shaving) to a publisher for a huge advance. But the business of getting published remains mysterious – no one quite knows what works for the publisher and what doesn’t.

Jack Kerouac’s On The Road failed to find a publisher for six years before it changed the way people wrote. James Joyce's Dubliners got rejected 22 times before it got published. The first two novels written by Graham Greene got rejected by each publisher he sent them to, and it was his third novel that officially became his first book. And without Greene’s helping hand, what would have happened to our own R.K. Narayan, despite all the lucid prose and eye for detail?

But publishing is one field that has never concerned the lay Indian, who is usually too bogged down by other demands of life to spare money for books. Even today not many would have heard of R.K. Narayan, leave alone Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand – they formed the triumvirate that pioneered Indian Writing in English. Writers like them lived in a small island, hoping to be connected to the mainland.

Shobhaa De changed the game. She not only got people interested in her books but also in the business of writing books: “If she can, why can’t we?” Subsequently, Arundhati Roy enlightened India about the existence of the Booker Prize (and the prize money it entailed). But it was Chetan Bhagat who brought about a revolution – he brought down writing from the pedestal of exclusivity and took it to the masses, and in the process stoked a million literary ambitions.

Today, the writer is no longer a faceless entity. The successful ones now get the attention that once only movie stars and cricketers did. It is, therefore, not surprising that parents are suddenly spotting the ‘writer’ in their children and frantically knocking at the doors of publishers. Ruskin Bond, alas, did not have that luxury: he had to struggle to find a publisher. That reminds me, does anyone have his number?

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, July 16, 2011.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Time Flies, After All

I am a fairly new entrant to the locker room. I have never been used to the idea of changing in front of strange men -- or rather strange men changing in front of me. But now that's become a part of my life, considering that these days I'm pretty regular at the gym and the pool in the club.

Almost every evening I am subjected to about half a dozen instances of unintentional mooning, and to tell you the truth, when I come face-to-face (or should I say face-to-cheek) with reality, I often can't decide whether to instantly turn my gaze away or to look at the naked posterior of a man as if it was a bald head. Most often, I look away, but the eyes invariably manage to capture a few seconds of the images that the mind would rather not like to store.

And the other day, my eyes saw more than they had bargained for. I noticed a tall, well-built foreigner -- a white man -- standing right next to me as I fished for my swimming trunks in the bag. I had been noticing him in the pool during the recent weeks and even admiring his swimming skills, and now he was standing right next to me, changing into his swimming trunks. I don't wish to describe what the corner of my eye saw, but suffice to say that I was instantly reminded of two expressions -- "hanging loose" and "well-endowed".

All these men happen to be of varying ages and possessing varying degrees of fitness. In most cases, I don't ever want to be them, given their girth; and in some rare cases, I so want to be like them, especially the kinds who swim effortlessly. And then, there have been times when I looked at myself in the mirror, clothed waist-down of course, and thought: "Not too bad. Maybe a little more sculpting?"

One such evening, when I was looking at myself in the mirror, reality slapped me hard on my face. Mr S, a senior member of the club with who I had become friends in the swimming pool, had got himself entangled in his T-shirt.

Mr S, a widower, must be nearing 80 now, if not already 80-plus. He was born in Islamabad, from where he migrated to Ambala after Partition, and subsequently ran a business in Calcutta for a few years before relocating to Madras. "Dada, kamon achhen?" he would ask me routinely, in Bengali, as he took toddler-like steps in the pool, perhaps on the advice of his doctor. That evening, as he was taking his T-shirt off to get into the pool, the muscles of his hands suddenly gave away. He just couldn't pull the T-shirt off his head. By the time I could reach him, a young man had already helped him out of the T-shirt. That was the last time I saw Mr S in the pool (these days he just drags a chair and sits by the pool to watch other people swim).

Today, whenever I look into the mirror, I can see Mr S smiling back at me. I may be physically fit and having a well-sculpted body today, but the future belongs to the likes of Mr S. Tomorrow, in spite of the fitness levels I enjoy today, I might not be able to lift my arm to even wear a shirt. What's the point, then, in trying to remain fit? That too when old age is not too far away -- time flies, after all.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Sea

The moon peeped in through the coconuts leaves, as if trying to eavesdrop. The strong breeze from the sea blew her hair across her face. At some distance the waves were breaking, softly enough for me to hear her sighs. She leaned forward across the table and formed an extra curtain of palms around mine to help me light up a cigarette.

"Thanks," I said, as I sat back and took a sip of the beer.

"As I was saying," she continued, "I can't have sex with a man unless I am in love with him."


"Yes, if I love a man, I wouldn't mind sleeping with him."

"But why go through the whole process of falling in love?"

"Without love I can't have sex. And it doesn't take me long to fall in love; it can take just three or four days. I just know when there is an emotional connect."

"Of course there has to be an emotional connect," I said. "But I wouldn't call it love?"

"But you do believe in emotional connect, don't you?"

"I do."

"So there."

"Are you tipsy already?" I asked.

"Just one Bloody Mary, what bloody tipsy!" she laughed.

"So how is it going with Atul?"

"Hey come on! Just because I was talking about him does not mean I am in love with him or going to sleep with him. Come on, I know him since the time we were kids. We grew up together!"

"Oh really?"

"Yeah, I like him and all, but not in that sense."

"I see!"

"And you know, he drinks only beer. And I don't like men who drink only beer."

I looked at my glass and suddenly felt like a man who had been caught with his fly open. She read my thoughts instantly.

"I know you are drinking beer now, but I also know that you have other drinks too, don't you?"

"Yes, I usually drink whisky."

"See! I knew."

"But how?"

"I read you."

"Oh! But what is your problem with men drinking only beer?"

"When a man drinks only beer, it means he is playing it safe and is not open to adventure. Such men are not my kind."

"I like that!" I said. I flicked the ash of the cigarette, even though there was no ash to be flicked, and turned my gaze to the sea, which was now so black that it had merged with the blackness of the sky.

I found it safer to gaze at the nothingness than looking into her eyes.

Life In A Metro: Resting In Peace

Uninterrupted sleep is no longer a necessity - it’s a luxury

Let me make a small guess: two out of every five people reading this column are doing so half-heartedly. They have something else nagging them, apart from the weekly whining by yours truly. Their mind is seized by a thought, rather an unfulfilled desire: Wish I had slept a little more!

You may have an Audi parked in your garage, you may be travelling business class in planes, you may have the biggest flat-screen mounted on your wall, you may be sipping single malt or vintage wine every evening from the stock that keeps getting replenished by your regular stopovers at duty-free shops, you may even have an air-conditioner installed in your bathroom. But you cannot purchase what has turned out to be the biggest luxury of our times – a sound sleep. You may try stealing it though.

Ironically, the better your position to buy the regular luxuries of life, the more elusive this luxury tends to get. And considering that almost everybody these days wants to be in a position to buy a flat or bring home a plasma TV or send their children to the best of schools, irrespective of their incomes, people are working harder than ever before. Good life, after all, comes at a price, and these days, the price seems to be uninterrupted sleep. But is life any good if you haven’t even slept well?

We have, however, made peace with interrupted sleep. Anybody can wake us up at anytime: it could be the hysterical boss who is prone to waking up at five in the morning; it could be a panicky colleague urgently in need of your guidance at midnight; it could be a man from the bank reminding you about the minimum payment due on your credit card; it could be a woman from the same bank offering you a loan to clear the outstanding dues on the credit card; it could be the call-taxi driver reminding you that he is waiting outside your flat to take you to the airport (while you are still in bed); or it could just be the alarm programmed in your mobile phone reminding you that it’s time to wake up your child because the school bus will be coming soon.

When I was a child, which was not too long ago, a sound sleep was taken for granted. The three biggest enemies of sleep – satellite television, mobile phone and laptop – were yet to invade our bedrooms. There was Doordarshan, but it would end transmission by nine – or was it 10 pm? The announcers on All India Radio too took leave by 11 pm. After that, you had no choice but to sleep.

And it was very easy for one to fall asleep those days. Most people bicycled to work; and they thought nothing of walking a kilometre or two every evening to the nearest market to fetch vegetables and groceries. The road was their gym. Real gyms didn’t exist anyway.

Today we either order groceries over the phone or stock up for the entire week during a Sunday visit to the supermarket. We no longer know what it means to walk. There may be gyms now in every neighbourhood where you can walk on the treadmill, but does it mean you get to sleep like a log at the end of the day? No. You usually doze off either while surfing the net or answering a text message or watching ‘breaking news’ on TV – only to be woken up soon after by a phone call. Even before you realise, it is another day.

The Internet is replete with stories about the death of the immensely fit Ranjan Das who, at the young age of 40, was appointed by SAP, a multinational software provider, to head its operations in the Indian subcontinent. Within two years, in 2009, Das dropped dead after a workout in the gym, and the cause of his death has been pinned down to lack of sleep. He slept for less than five hours, as he had admitted during a television interview – even though doctors these days prescribe seven hours of good sleep, especially for those who have touched forty.

If you sleep less than five hours, the chances – so I learn from the Internet – of high blood pressure increases by 350-500% and heart attack by threefold. You can’t really dispute such claims when you are used to waking up in the mornings feeling unwell and craving more sleep.

This column, in fact, is inspired by a Facebook page called Ghum, which was started recently in Bangladesh, most likely by a sleep-starved soul. Ghum, or ghoom, in Bengali, means sleep; and as many as 134,327 people ‘like’ the page as of date. Compared to that, only 6,976 people ‘like’ Franz Kafka so far; while only 6,545 people have bothered to click on their mouses to ‘like’ George Clooney. Sleep, clearly, wins hands down. Really, when was the last time you slept like a log?

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, July 9, 2011.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Life In A Metro: The Might Of The Majority

Majority opinion is everything — it can even change your surname

When I started my career in journalism nearly two decades ago – “20 years” would have made me sound just as ancient – as a trainee sub-editor with The Pioneer in Kanpur, one of the errors I looked out for in a copy was the merging of “per cent.” Most reporters spelt it as one word, and I would dutifully draw a line between “per” and “cent” to indicate to the compositor that there should be a space between the two. Those were the days of the horse-shoe desk, when the news editor or the chief sub-editor sat at its centre and distributed typed or hand-written copies for editing to his juniors who sat in front of him, pens ready.

Within a year and a half, I moved to Delhi to join the Press Trust of India. There too, it was “per cent” and not “percent.” But in the impeccably edited copies spat out by the ticker machine of Reuters, with which PTI had a news-sharing arrangement, it was already “percent.” This was in the mid-1990s. Today, even spell-check does not underline the word in red.

But is it really correct to say “percent” instead of “per cent?” No. But the majority, be it in Parliament or in society, always has its say – and way – and the custodians of the language had to allow it as an acceptable word.

It is only a matter of time before “inspite” and “accomodate” become acceptable too: the number of people who are either ignorant or don't bother to insert the space and the extra “m” respectively in the two words is getting too large to ignore. Many American magazines today use "Prez" instead of "President" – something that might have been considered irreverent even a couple of decades ago. A classic case of the corruption of a word gaining public acceptance is “juggernaut.” The original word is Jagannath, another name for Lord Krishna in Puri, who is taken out in a chariot in a massive procession each year. Somewhere down the centuries, Jagannath happened to enter the English dictionary as “juggernaut,” defined as “any large, overpowering, destructive force or object” (the definition, obviously, is inspired by the chariot procession).

Talking of present times, the expressions that we use during online chats, such as LOL (laughing out loud) and OMG (oh my god) were incorporated by the Oxford English Dictionary in its updates this year. WTF – I don't wish to expand it here – was already included in 2009 (or so I am told). So go ahead, coin your own abbreviation. How about IABM – In A Bad Mood? If it gets picked up by the public, chances are that your creation will enter the OED.

Once a misspelled word gains currency, it no longer matters how it came to be misspelled in the first place – it could have been ignorance, indifference, laziness or a stupid clerical error.

As far as clerical errors go, who should know better than Mr Henry Sullivan Graeme and Mr Richard Yeldham.

These two gentlemen lived around the same time in East India Company-ruled Madras. Graeme, a civil servant, was a member of the Madras council for five years from 1823. He owned a bungalow in Nungambakkam, and the road connecting his bungalow to Mount Road was subsequently named Graeme's Road. Yeldham, on the other hand, was a merchant of the Company who went on to become the mayor of Madras. The road from his palatial house in Teynampet to Mount Road came to be called Yeldham's Road.

Today, Graeme's Road has been rechristened Greams Road, and Yeldham's Road is Eldams Road. Who is responsible for the changes in their names? No one knows. But today, even if Mr Graeme and Mr Yeldham were to come out of their graves and plead with Chennai Corporation to restore the correct spellings of their surnames, they are most likely to be turned away. Mr Graeme would return to his grave as Mr Gream and Mr Yeldham as Mr Eldam. Such is the power of popular usage.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, July 2, 2011.