Saturday, November 19, 2011

Life In A Metro: Death Of The Dictionary

Who needs a doorstop of a book when a right click is right at hand?

The first dictionary that I ever owned was won by me in a drawing competition at school. It was the first prize, a miniature dictionary bound in red, which I still preserve. Below her signature the principal had inscribed the date, '17.11.79' – which means I was nine years old then, most likely in the fourth standard. For many years after that I did not need another dictionary: the 5,000 or so entries in that tiny gem were more than sufficient to define the world I lived in.

I vaguely remember buying a dictionary much later, perhaps in high school, though I have no particular memories of it, which is very strange. All I remember is that I bought it only to prevent my prized possession from being shredded to pieces. But once I became an adult and decided to make a living out of the written word, I began to invest in voluminous dictionaries – the heavier the better. It was as good as bringing home a teacher who would look over your shoulder while you read a book or wrote a report, and at other times would sit patiently on your desk.

There is something venerable about the dictionary. It's a sage, grandfather, headmaster, teacher, judge, cop – all rolled, rather bound, into one. It's an institution by itself and perhaps the only thing in the world that is capable of making anyone, no matter how educated and accomplished, feel small. After all, the dictionary always knows something that you don't.

Of all the dictionaries I possess today, my favourite remains the One Hour Wordpower Dictionary, co-published by The Sunday Times of London. Simply because it was the first purchase I made after arriving in Delhi to join PTI as a probationary journalist, way back in 1994. I had bought it from a bookshop on Janpath; its pages have since yellowed and I don't think it's still in print. I also like it because it does not follow the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for pronunciations. If you want to know how the word 'jugular' sounds, it simply tells you: jug-yoo-la. Subsequently, from a book fair in Pragati Maidan, I bought the BBC English Dictionary. And then many more. It is a different matter that most of them remained untouched, their pages accessed only by particles of dust.

Today, the dictionary-buying days are way behind me. I no longer need one. Why just me? When was the last time you actually reached out for one? Haven't you been right-clicking on words all this while? But remember, each time you right-click on a word, the sale of dictionaries drops by one percent – okay, I just made up that figure, but I can't be way off the mark. A distributor told me the other day that bookshops were indeed recording a decline in the sale of not just dictionaries but reference books as a whole. Reference books, he said, are fast migrating to the textbook category and it is just a matter of time before general bookshops stop stocking dictionaries and encyclopedias.

I am not shedding a tear. But one fear grips me every now and then: what if I am asked to write a test in written English, with nothing but a pen and a few A-4 sheets at my disposal? I will stand completely exposed! To begin with, I wouldn't know how to spell ‘manoeuvre' (I actually had to dig out a dusty dictionary to type out the word for your benefit because spellcheck gives only the American spelling). I wouldn't even know whether it is ‘focused' or ‘focussed.'

Since I've already crossed the age of 40, it is unlikely that I will ever be asked to write a test again, but you never know. Imagine a 40-year-old journalist not knowing how to spell ‘manoeuvre'. The horror it will evoke, according to me, will be just as bad as the one that will strike you when you arrive in a strange town to find your mobile phone missing. You can't even call your wife to inform her about your plight because you never felt the need to remember her number. You are as good as a lost child who remembers what his home looks like but doesn't know how to get there. So much for the dependence on gadgets.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 19, 2011.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life In A Metro — The Lingering Taste Of Birthday Cake

We are so focussed on the future that we often forget to relish the present. And before we realise, a year has gone past

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in this column and not without reason. I believe that nostalgia is your only true wealth, which makes you feel rich until the last breath, while everything else is transitory and temporary – here today, gone tomorrow! If your story is that of rags to riches, you can tell people: “You know, once upon a time I used to hawk vegetables on this very road.” If your story is that of riches to rags, you can tell those who are still around to listen, “You know, once upon a time, I used to own half the houses on this road.” In both cases, the memories warm your heart – irrespective of whether you are presently a prince or a pauper.

Nostalgia would not have been such a precious commodity had Father Time taken his sweet time in passing – so much so that you craved for the new day to break. But even as you blink, a day has passed. Now we all know that time flies and all – is there anything new in what I am saying?

Nothing really, It's just that the cruelty with which time flies past hits you hard as you approach certain personal milestones of your life, and makes you wonder whether it's worth leading a life when dates only stand for deadlines and delivery and when holidays are looked forward to so that you can catch up on sleep. Our minds are so focussed on specific dates that we often forget what month of the year it is – I mean, you may know what month it is but in a very clinical way without a feel for it. When realisation strikes, you are a year older.

Realisation struck me this morning when I was writing out a cheque for the newspaper vendor, who rang the bell early this morning. I put down the date as 10.10.11, when he reminded me, “Sir, it should be 10.11.11, but never mind, it is still valid.” It then hit me: ‘11' stands for November, which means next month is December, when I celebrate my birthday!

Now wasn't it just the other day – really just the other day – when I celebrated my birthday? I can never forget last year's birthday because I turned 40 and had celebrated the milestone by inviting each friend I have in the city. The taste of the cake still lingers in my mouth; the noise that is created when some 50 people gather in a hall is still ringing in my ears; many of the gifts I received are still to be opened; people are still commenting on the pictures of the party on Facebook; and I am still calling myself 40, happy in the knowledge that there are many more months to go before I turn 41.

But what is this: the time has already come! The prospect of turning 41 does not pain me so much as the fact that 12 months are about to pass without my even realising it. Father Time gave no notice, he just sent a last-minute alert in the form of the newspaper vendor. What was I doing when these months were passing by – why didn't I notice?

I guess I am yet another victim of the devil called deadline. My eyes are so perpetually fixed on a future date on the calendar that I miss out on today. What a pity that I listen to this song almost every day but am yet to get its import – it's an immortal song written by Gulzar, set to tune by R.D. Burman and sung by Kishore Kumar, from the film "Gol Maal":

Aane wala pal,
jaane waala hai
Ho sake to isme,
zindagi bita do
pal jo yeh jaane waala hai…

The moment that is arriving
is already about to leave
why not spend a lifetime in it
for it is about to leave.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 12, 2011.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Life In A Metro — Hong Kong Diary

Jottings from a trip where the best of the West met the best of the East

When you are visiting a foreign country as a tourist, it is one thing to check into a posh hotel and pore over the brochures handed out by the tourism department, and quite another to read the newspaper the next morning. The brochures invariably take you to fantasy land, where everything is perfect and where anything unpleasant safely belongs to the past – a place you would love to settle down if the laws permitted and if you had the cash. The newspaper, on the other hand, tells you the truth – though in some countries you may have to read between the lines.

In the case of India though – and I am not ashamed to say this – truth kisses you long before fantasy can take you in her embrace. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that the foreigners who adore India happen to be the ones in search of truth. But then, India is also a country where reality often fuses with fantasy: on one hand you can get fleeced or have your pocket picked, but on the other you will find total strangers inviting you to their houses for a meal.

Right now, though, I am going to talk about Hong Kong, where I spent five days recently at the invitation of its tourism board, which is eager to draw to tourists from south India. (A detailed account of the trip will be presented in the travel pages in the coming weeks). As you drive from the airport into the city, the first thing that will strike you is the flawlessness about Hong Kong – everything is in order. And once you get into the city, you will also find it an exciting place to be in. Hong Kong, after all, is a king-sized and far more vivacious version of London. Here, the best of West meets the best of East. But then.

On the very first morning that I woke up to in Hong Kong, I was greeted by a rather distressing piece of news. Axe hangs over private historic homes on Peak, screamed the lead headline of South China Morning Post, the largest English newspaper in Hong Kong and one of the most respected in the whole of southeast Asia. The Peak, once known as Victoria Peak, is a mountain that today overlooks the high-rises of Hong Kong. It used to be the summer capital of the colonial rulers and is still home to old bungalows, some of which have already been turned into high-rises while the remaining are awaiting such transformation, much to the concern of heritage enthusiasts.

“Heritage advisers said the government should make an effort to preserve those (houses) that were reminders of key public figures who contributed to Hong Kong’s development, or reflected the life of early residents,” the newspaper reported. It remains to be seen who wins eventually, the heritage advisers or the skyscrapers – though one knows the answer already.

The morning after, another piece of alarming news: Hong Kong is worried by the “growing youth drinking problem” and the government is urged to raise either the duty on alcohol or the legal age for drinking. There was a crime story too: that of a law student allegedly locking up and assaulting his girlfriend for three days to force her to reconcile with him. The reconciliation effort, however, landed him in jail, though he was released subsequently on bail.

And the morning I checked out of the hotel, I read, over breakfast, a piece of news which the newspaper thought should worry Hong Kong. According to the paper, the examiners for A-levels as well as Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination had blamed students for their “narrow-mindedness”, “immaturity” and “bad grammar.” One can understand the bit about poor grammar, but immaturity and narrow-mindedness? Welcome to Hong Kong.

Yet another headline on the same day, same page: Flasher strikes again in Sau Mau Ping. Oh well, even paradise must have its share of problems. Hong Kong is one such paradise.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 5, 2011.