Monday, December 31, 2012

Language and Evolution

Somerset Maugham in his preface to his work ‘Liza of Lambeth’, asks the reader to take the book not as a picture of life in Lambeth today but as that of life of Lambeth long ago, and says the following...

‘...they had not the varied vocabulary that their children have (today); and with a more limited command of language at their disposal, felt and thought more simply...’

What a profound truth!

We are all only as rich or as impoverished as our language, as our vocabulary.
Our experience of reality is only as rich or as impoverished as our language.

Consider the people living in villages. They lead such simple lives; they barely subsist, going from one day to the next, doing mostly the needful.
And not coincidentally, their language is also simple. Their diction is limited too.

We think in terms of words and phrases into which we try our best to fit our perceptions, insights and experiences.
When our words and phrases are limited in number, those of our experiences and perceptions that lie outside those words remain shadowy to us, remain only faint sensations, for we may not have the right word or the right phrase to fit the experience into.

It’s not simply fitting an experience into some word or phrase or expression known to us that we do, but (very importantly) we ‘classify’ that experience in the right category. And everything depends on classification – our response, our learning from an experience...

We do not know how to ‘classify’ a certain experience if we do not have the right place holder for it in our mind in the first place and many a time, we may, in our unconscious attempt to somehow fit a certain experience to one of the words or phrases we know, classify the experience incorrectly.
And if we make the wrong classification, we may respond to the experience wrongly.
Or if we are unable to classify at all, we may never respond to it. (An example given at the end of the article)

The uses of words such as ‘somehow’, ‘somewhat’ that are so commonplace in our conversations are also an indication of the fact that the thing we are trying to describe is only a vague, faint sensation to us and not a crystalline, sure thing (except at times when we use those vague words for not wanting to be specific, for various reasons).

Contrary to our belief that words are only an expression of what we experience, feel and think, words are in reality, a means to experience, an instrument of thought and feeling, the adequacy of which determines the quality, correctness and depth of our experiences.
Contrary to our belief that experience happens first and then words are formed in the mind, we know the words first and then experience reality through those words.

And when I say words, or when I say ‘rich vocabulary’, I don’t mean the number of words but also the ‘level of being’ that the words belong to.
Someone who has committed to memory a medical dictionary or a dictionary of physics would surely know more number of words than most of us. But that’s not what I mean. Here I am talking about words that correspond to our perceptions, nuances, our insights into the world and people around us.

Digressing a bit,
E F Schumacher, in his work, “A Guide for the Perplexed” defines four different levels of being in the ascending order of evolution...

The inanimate, the level of minerals,
Life, the level of plants, not possessed by minerals
Consciousness, the level of animals, not possessed by plants
Self awareness, the level of human beings, not possessed by animals

Each higher level encompasses the level of the lower level plus possesses a new level.

Self awareness implying -> consciousness recoiling upon itself, thought recoiling upon itself – your ability to think about your thoughts, ability to feel how you feel.
And consequently, analyse your thoughts and yourself.

The more extensive our vocabulary (at the level of consciousness and self awareness), the more our perceptions and insights and the more nuanced and fine our experience of reality becomes.

The more perceptions, more insights we have, the richer our experience of reality. Isn’t it?

Many many of my preconceptions have been verified with the finding of the right word, phrase or expression for it.
Many perceptions, sensations and insights that were vague have not only become crystalline with the finding of the right expression but also lead to the development of a definite theory or philosophy, that was previously, only a weak insubstantial argument.

This article itself is an example. I have always loved words and given importance to language, mine and others’. I have been censured for harping about language which is ‘merely a means of communication’.
I have tried to explain in several ways that it is so much more than ‘just a means of communication’.
We are what we speak - correct use of words indicates clarity of thought; accurateness of expression (with exaggerations pardoned) indicates credibility; using words with the right weight, depth or gravity indicates discrimination; spontaneity indicates speed of the mind; economy of expression requires intelligence... and so on.

But all throughout, I knew there was more, something else to language, so much more than all the above that made it really important, that justified my assessing or evaluating people on the basis of their language.
It was when I read those 2 lines of Maugham mentioned in the beginning of this article, that I found what ‘it’ was.
The expressions crystallized the thought that was somewhat vague in my mind.
And within no time I was able to register correctly in my mind, what I have always ‘felt’ and able to classify it, to put the whole subject in ‘perspective’ and put forth the above theory.

I was able to admit to my mind what was hovering about it for want of a proper place inside to belong.

To summarize,
The more perceptions, insights we have into the world around us, the richer our experience of reality and the higher our evolution.
The better developed our language, the richer our experiences.
Therefore we are only as evolved as our language.

My belief became ‘complete’.

Here is another example.
I have come into renewed contact with a relative who has remained more or less the same person he used to be earlier. Yet, I find that I now feel offended by his behaviour like never before.
This person has ‘no sense of territory’, ‘does not respect our space and time’, ‘steps on my toes’, is ‘pushy’ and ‘insensitive’.
He was always the same, but what was different then was that I was not aware of these words and phrases that are in quotes above and therefore I was not aware of those notions, those concepts either.

I see now that I did not like his behaviour then but what I felt was a rather vague sense of annoyance and irritation, much lesser in intensity and I was also unable to evoke a definite response.
Now that I am aware of these words and phrases, I am able to register his behaviour accurately and also classify it in the category of ‘offensive’ behaviour instead of the category of mere ‘noisy and irritating’, behaviour and hence the irritation I feel is no longer vague like before but I know exactly the proportion of the ‘offence’ and am able to evoke the right response.
I tell him ‘don‘t step on my toes’, ‘please cultivate a sense of territory’, stop being ‘pushy and insensitive’ and ‘respect my space’.
I know now I ought to be more offended than I used to feel previously and regret putting up with him these years and regret not being offended enough earlier!

I will conclude with this beautiful coincidence!
I happened to be reading this book ‘Browser’s Book of Beginnings’ when I was writing this article; the book attempts to trace the beginnings of all sorts of things in this world.
When I came to the chapter on ‘Language’, look what I found.

“Language originated so that early man could think more effectively. For without the acquisition of words and the structure of language to string them together in logical and meaningful order, there can be no such thing as complex human thought...
...animals only repeat the same limited utterances over and over again as their progenitors have done for millions of years, humans say new things that have never been said...’s accomplishment has bestowed on him the capacity to create something new every time he speaks...”

My conviction about language has ‘arrived’.

Although I finished the article weeks ago, I kept it for this evening – the New Year’s Eve!

May the coming year bring you lots of words, honourable, rich, fine and deep, and finer, richer, deeper experiences of our reality and Steadfast Speedy Evolution.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Everest Calling - Kala Patthar to Periche

The walk back from Gorakshep to Lobuche through a landscape, arid, rocky, dry and colourless, made me thank God for the snow that had been there like a vast white carpet two days ago when the needle pricks had turned to knife cuts.
What a difference snow had made!

We were lucky. Everything had been turned so perfectly to give us the best of all possible experiences.
It had snowed at the right time.
The snow had melted at the right time.
The sky that had been cloudy for a week had cleared right on the day we climbed Kala Patthar to view Everest.
All nature was obeying the writ.

The evening walk to Periche was a new experience.

We were walking on level land strewn with small rocks. It was already evening. Mist was hanging low all around us. It was a straight walk to a village that we could see but took forever to reach.
There were mountains on both sides far away from us, visible only partly through the haze that surrounded us.
There were little streams we had to cross by stepping carefully on the stones that lay across them.

Nandu’s admonishing made it difficult to take pictures or even savour the experience. We were running. Almost.
And we reached.

I mention this since it was noted in my diary; must have been very important then. This was the only place where they relit a cooling Tandoor upon my request.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Careful, Thats the Edge. Of the Mountain & of Politeness

The whole world is yours. That’s how you feel in the mountains. For, it’s just you and them.
The skies, the mountains all around, the stretches and stretches of land around you, the rivers, the snow, the pastures.
All, except the trail on which you walk.
There is just one trail. Narrow. And they belong to many contenders.
Yaks, porters, local villagers and the tourists. Walking back and forth.

You own all the spaces around you except the two square feet that you need. A sort of law of the universe.

Now, making way for yaks is in your own safety/interest.

Making way for porters is being considerate, although I suggest to Nepal Tourism Department that all porters be made to wear bells just like yaks. We’d like to be considerate but for that, we need the porters to announce their arrival.
We don’t want to be startled in the last minute and jerked to take sudden sidesteps.

And then, there is the matter of making way for faster trekkers behind you.
In most cases, these happen to be westerners or generally, people with white skin.

It’s a tendency among our people as I have observed, to go out of the way, literally and figuratively, to allow the faster white trekkers to get past us.
True, you should not hold up someone who wants to go ahead.
It’s only courteous to make way. Also, its easy when the trail is wide.
You stop walking in the centre and move to the left or right (whichever is the side of the mountain) so the ones behind can pass.
But when the trail is narrow, as it is most of the time, should we go so far as climbing up the mountain on the side or jumping down the cliff on the other side, in our hurry accompanied by confusion?

I mean, when we drive on the roads, if someone behind wants to get ahead and there is no space, would we swerve into the rice fields by the side of the road to make way for him?

But that’s probably what we were expected to do by some people on the trail who were hurriedly urging us to move to the side, almost panicking, whenever they spotted a white man/woman 100 feet behind us.

Actually, one shouldn’t be surprised; for, Indians, most of them, always regard the white people with fear or awe. One of the two things. They are never assertive and they go out of their way to be obliging and accommodative; they are even appeasing and submissive, although, they can be and usually are, fierce, rude and belligerent when they contend with their own countrymen for anything, small or big.

Sorry, but I will have to tell you, I don’t like to be driven like cattle. If I can make way, I mean, if there is a way, I will move to a side, at my usual pace. I won’t hurry. I don’t see why I should.
But if the trail is narrow, I am not going to scramble, run in all directions to make way for the trekker behind me. He/she, brown or white, will have to be patient until the trail gets a little wider and I am able to make way.
Or optionally, they may get past me by clambering up the mountain side. But I won’t be the one to do that.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Kadalekai Parishe, Basavanagudi

‘Bengaluru Nagarada Basavana Parisheya Badavara Baadaami Kadalekaayi’, a folk song describing the age old annual groundnut fair of Basavanagudi, Banaglore, that I heard from my father.

Badavara Baadaami Kadalekaayi - the groundnut is considered a poor man’s almond, among the Kannada people.

I always wanted to attend this fair and last week, I did, for the first time. And what a fair it was. The Bull Temple road was like an anthill swarming with a million people.
So many people, so many delights, colourful sights, snacks to eat, knick knacks to buy, vendors and their queer contraptions, plenty for the camera.
And of course, there were the groundnuts.

The age old fair is one of those few links that connects today’s Bangalore to our charming Bangalore of yesterday. And what more, the vicinity hasn’t changed much either – there is the Ramakrishnashrama, there are the trees of a garden city, there is the bugle rock garden and the Bull temple and other temples close by.

Amazing Tapioca chips to the right.
I will have to retract my request for these chips from Malayali friends – disappointed with the hurtful tapioca chips sold at Hot Chips – they were so hard they actually hurt my teeth, jaws, tongue and the inside of my mouth, I had asked my Mallu friends to get me some from Kerala.

This guy with his flourishing little push cart business amused me.

Check out his contraption. I did not check where the power supply was coming from. I should have.

And I should have asked him what this neat brush was made of.

A mixture of roasted baby corn, chopped raw mango, pineapple and cucumber with salt and green chutney. It turned out to be a big portion and he took fifty rupees for it!

I gave him a business tip – give out smaller portions and charge half – more people will want to go for it. No maam, he said, I already have so many customers buying this he said with a smile and showed me his business cards – he caters to parties, weddings, birthdays!!
8 years in IT and I never bothered to have a business card!

Boiled peanuts – and shelled. At last, I no longer have to shell them myself – a real value add and meaningful customer care.

Gooseberry with ginger, tamarind and another root that’s my favourite – don’t know the name.
All you need for making pickle.

Dry fruit – figs these, threaded together. And at last, they have become clever – the cart is covered in a metal mesh so window shoppers will not pop raisins and dates into their mouths.

A pretty sight like a bouquet – these salted tapioca chips.

Not sure if these are sweet potatoes or tapioca.

Rangoli stencils. And they have lots of new designs apart from the traditional ones – much innovation here.

Irresistible. Aren’t they? 20 rupees a piece, I bought some 11 pieces at 15 each.

A paper worm tied to a string that wriggles when you pull. Chumma – just to do time pass – go for a walk with this and scare unsuspecting passersby on the street.

Astrologer. Put on the headphones and listen to your future.

Turn the key and have cute babies crawling all over.

My grandmother used to take some Rangoli in her hands and wave her hand across the floor in a sweeping motion, like a magic wand, skilfully pushing the white powder into the slits between her four fingers. I never learnt the art from her.
Thank God they now have a plastic equipment to help you do it.

These pipes are also for ‘just time pass’ – they are filled with liquid and bubbles – you turn them up and down and see the bubbles moving rushing upward, dancing, wiggling.

This doll was the most amusing of all. It dispenses a gummy multicoloured candy. The candy inside a plastic bag is twisted around a thin pole tied to a cycle. The vendor squeezes out the candy as needed and makes small shapes out of them and then gives them away. He has customers from a little boy to a grandma.

We will have to wait an year for the fair, and make sure you don’t miss the it.