Tuesday, August 3, 1999

Evolving language

Bangkok and unsavoury images associated with it have been much in the news lately. It all reminds me of the time I was newly married and fondly imagined Singapore and Taiwan to be suburbs of Pune, where we live, because my husband travelled there so often.
One day a woman I know, slightly hard of hearing or perhaps with an attention deficit, asked me with concern why my husband went so often to Thailand, and I was speechless with embarrassment.
It struck me then that Thailand is a word that badly needs a euphemism. Scandalous associations have evolved it into an improper expression, to be employed with caution. This is a request to the politically correct brigade to coin and replace it with a more appropriate version forthwith.
Tempering words with unpleasant connotations really needs to be done on a more regular basis. We’ve all got quite used to kindly calling the blind, the deaf and the psychotic as visually, aurally, and mentally challenged. We need no longer say, “idiot!” but can choose between cerebrally constrained, wisdom challenged, logically under-enhanced, and knowledge impaired. A crook is only morally out of the mainstream; a poor person economically disadvantaged, and a jailbird merely a client of the correctional system.
Meanwhile, other concepts have been sullied by repeated usage and mis-usage. Why, for instance, can’t we have a kinder incarnation for the word ‘kitty party’ which unfairly gives rise to the image of vapid, uncultured women on an intense mission to outdo each other?
Another outdated expression is ‘antibiotics’. Nobody wants to be associated with antibiotics any more, and people recommend doctors to each other with the words, “He/she is excellent! He/she never prescribes antibiotics.” And yet, how can an acute bacterial infection be treated? Provide another word, please.
If you have many friends and business associates, you become guilty of having ‘contacts’ and of ‘networking’. It’s not about being friendly and enjoying relationships, but rather about being conniving, exploitative and slimy. Isn’t that sad?
‘Servant’ these days is a pretentious-sounding word; the user is almost certainly upper middle class, and therefore insincere. ‘Middle class’ – there’s another rude expression, topped only by ‘nouveau riche’. What’s wrong with working hard and making a lot of money, I’d like to know?
‘Maid’, meanwhile, is not a happy alternative for ‘servant’, with old maid and milkmaid hovering humbly close behind. Slave, although by no means an alternative, in an interesting turnaround, is no longer a bad word. It has other connotations, such as slavish, which only means flattering, and sex slave, which is fascinating, not scandalous like Bangkok.
When I became a Reiki master, I cringed at the sexist title – but retained it, because I didn’t fancy calling myself a mistress. Similarly, words like mother-in-law and divorcee, with their strident vibrations, definitely need upgrading. And the day someone coins a softer version for that harsh, shrewish, fairytale stereotype, that mythical beast of yore, the stepmother – they are more than welcome to use it on me.
first appeared as ‘War of words’ in a Times of India Middle on 2 Aug 1999

Wednesday, June 16, 1999

The dream that came true

She was describing a scene from more than fifty years ago. She spoke of familiar alleyways; a huge carved wooden jhoola on which a mother could lie and rock herself and her baby to sleep; a row of wooden box toilets which had to be cleaned out by the sweepers every morning; an entire room of bedding for different seasons – forty-pound rajais for deepest winter, twenty-pound for mere cold weather, thick spun khes and thin cotton sheets for when the burning heat would drive them out to sleep in the courtyard.
I listened, rapt, feeling closer to six years old than thirty-six. “When I close my eyes, I can see those places as clearly as if it was yesterday,” said my mother.
Here was a bedtime story I had never had. Was it the trauma of roots shattered at Partition that had kept her silent all these years? Or maybe she had already learnt that the present is always more important than the past.
I dreamt, one night, that I was seeing my parents off at the airport. Preoccupied and disorganized, I dumped them with an unconcerned goodbye, careless of their comfort. I suddenly came to my senses, too late. They were in the aircraft, strapped into their seats, inaccessible. Washed over with great waves of regret, I longed desperately for a few last moments of happy time together – and knew it could never be.
What a cliché of a dream! That ‘too-late’ feeling overcame me once again with those fragments from the old days in Sindh.
A year later, recently, I came closer to my mother’s childhood home than I had ever been before. It was the temple of Karnimata, in Bikaner, the fascinating choohon ka mandir – a beautiful and intricate white structure, exquisitely maintained, and completely overrun by hordes of temple rats. They laze and explore at will, gorge themselves languidly from sacks of grain and vats of milk at their disposal, nuzzle passersby with indolent affection and constitute a startling wall-to-wall carpet of fuzzy grey.
A loud voice droned on and on in French to a group of tourists. From the listeners’ expressions it was clear that the commentary was absorbing. The squeamish had stayed home. What could the guide find to say so much about this place? Perhaps he was telling the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
A more familiar language blared out at us, as we stopped for a drink at one of the little teashops that line the temple complex, demanding attention. Like a petulant child, the Marathi song went off, and then on again, until we moved across, like puppets, and helplessly purchased a cassette of Rajasthani folk music. How had the canny vendor identified our state of origin? Was it our jeans? Our loud-mouthed brats? My haircut? Our variously-accented Hindi?
The sales strategy impressed me. How multicultural, how international-minded we have become.
Across the border, too, those alleyways, the box toilets and perhaps even the forty-pound rajais are gone forever. Travelling to the past is not possible. Why wait until our parents are strapped into their aircraft seats, lost to us forever? Mother was right. The present is always more important than the past.
First appeared as ‘Present perfect’ in a Times of India Middle on 16 Jun 1999

Friday, May 28, 1999

Second marriage

We completely forgot
that there had been a life
before Us.

Many years of unhappiness
and happiness
had completely disappeared
and we never remembered 
that they had ever been
or harked back 
to those earlier times.

After all,
we were still young.
It was possible
to start afresh.
The past was all a mistake.
It had taught us many lessons.
We cherished the lessons, and forgot the instructor.

But now
people dead,
and divorced, (drunk),
have crept stealthily back into our lives.

Our adolescent children 
show features
and characteristics
they never acquired from us.

Friday, January 15, 1999

Stepmother's dilemma

What time were you born?
I don’t know ... I wasn’t there ...
Happy Birthday, son.

First appeared in Femina magazine 15 Jan 1999

Class Divide

I sit in my car.
A woman with a head load
Trips. She spits at us.

first appeared in Femina magazine 15 Jan 1999