Monday, June 29, 2009

Not about Lemuria

I'm reading a book by Su.Ki. Jayakaran on Lemuria aka the lost Kumari continent. (குமரி நில நீட்சி by kalachuvadu publications). He traces the history of the pseudo-scientific Lemurian myth, its growth into a holy-cow, colonial politicization of Indian archaeology, anthropological history of India, polemics of linguistic research etc. He dismantles the myth effortlessly by simply showing the quality of 'historical research' that has been done around this subject and placing the evidences that has come from more obviously pertinent oceanographic tools that have been applied very late. This post is not about Lemuria.

The book is written directly in Tamil and not translated into Tamil from English. Jayakaran is the brother of the more popular columnist Theodore Bhaskaran - who writes about environmental issues and ornithology and is also a national award winning film hisorian. He contributes to the Hindu as well notable middle-brow journals in Tamil. Jayakaran too contributes to English journals and made this his second book after making his debut with a highly accessible primer in Tamil on Anthropology and Evolution a few years back.

This book on Lemuria attracted a curious comment from a colleague in the office cab. He thought it was a poetry collection. When I answered in the negative and told him what it was, the response was "why are you reading it in Tamil ? "

Now let me consciously avoid trashing the kid and instead do some armchair sociology on where he was coming from.

A few things to admit, first:The book is not a regular in Tamil. The regulars are the novels, political essays, rhyme-free aphorisms and short story collections. Cookbooks, self-help, superficial biographies (of Asim Premji!) and astrology are other regulars. The essays written in science, literary criticism and such 'serious' fields fall in two categories
a) Insultingly superficial
b) Imports from English, where the writer acts as a kind of reader's digest.

I had a professor who used to have a deadly question at student's research seminars: "All this we know...what is your contribution ?". Wonder what would happen if he was unleashed on these writers.

On the basis of no information except my prejudice, I generalize this should be the case in all regional languages in India. It is in that context that the Jayakaran's book stands out as an exception. The quality of writing generally available would justify my colleague's opinion that regional languages are for the arts and translations for those unfamiliar with English, and not for original technical writing.

Among other reasons, it is so because in some way we resigned to it being so. And also because the usual linguistic-fervour types we generally see aren't exactly the ones we would like to imagine to be in the same side of the table with !

Granted that English is indeed facile but that's not the only reason our comfort-gap between English and vernacular is widening. Another argument for why English is the 'obvious' choice is the wider reach. Here Jeyakaran's book is unique as far as the target audience goes. The Lemurian myth was created to further notions about Tamil antiquity. It was willingly swallowed and not sufficiently strongly reexamined despite mounting evidence contradicting it. To be able to write a balanced book dismantling it in Tamil is far far more necessary and effective than writing the same in English.

While I rue about the decline of supply and thus demand for quality content in regional languages, I must say I don't have illusions of being a representative reader (thereby I subtly declare myself to be exceptional).

Overall, we are letting our ease with English - our much touted usp against China - eat into our capacities in vernacular, when it was not seen as competing even one generation earlier. Even those with the capacities are now plagued with self-doubt and hesitation.In 1998 P.A.Krishnan's 'The Tigerclaw Tree' was published by Penguin, which Asokamitran reviewed in Hindu as ' a Tamil novel written in English'. It took the book's success, goading of friends and help of literary stalwarts for PAK himself to translate it into Tamil with some enhancement as Pulinaga konRai a full five years later (as he himself says in its foreword). And it is one of the finest Tamil novels I have read.

While preserving the ancient poetry and all that is indeed all very good, we can't be rooted in the Lemurian lust for antiquity. But what really matters is keeping abreast with the times in our languages. And this reluctance is difficult to overcome, unless there is a conscious decision to understand the need to do so and invest in the effort to do so.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blogging in blue pajamas

“What the Journal posits is not the tragic question, the Madman's question: "Who am I?", but the comic question, the Bewildered Man's question: "Am I?" A comic --a comedian, that's what the Journal keeper is.” - Roland Barthes, Deliberation

To endow the writer publicly with a good fleshly body, to reveal that he likes dry white wine and underdone steak, is to make even more miraculous for me, and of a more divine essence, the products of his art. Far from the details of his daily life bringing nearer to me the nature of his inspiration and making it clearer, it is the whole mystical singularity of his condition which the writer emphasizes by such confidences. For I cannot but ascribe to some superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue pajamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as universal conscience.” - Roland Barthes, The writer on Holiday

Saturday, June 6, 2009

ஆத்தா நான் பிரசுரம் ஆயிட்டேன்

Publication is the auction of the mind of men - Emily Dickenson
Auction 1: அமுதசுரபி ஜூன் '09

Monday, June 1, 2009

When I grow up

Long autobiographical blurb ahead. Blame mutruppuLLi's nice post for spurring this confessional.

There is an RK Narayan story aboout a man who spends his fortieth birthday in a park (not going to work !) thinking of how nothing has actually changed in his life as he grew older. He had the same tendencies, weaknesses, joys and fears but just cloaked differently. Magician that he is, somehow RKN made it sound like a happy realization ! I am hunting for that story.

June '00
Q: Why economics after PCM ?
A: I hate physics. I refuse to submit to it.
Three years of being looked at with eyes of pity by uncles who were considering the calamity had befallen my parents

Jun '03
Q:What now ?
A: Masters in Economics I guess
Q: Why ? You like it so much ?
A: Hmm... actually I learnt squat these three years so I am trying to justify my past....
Q: ....!?!
A: You'll atleast have to grant me the freshness in that argument

Jun '05
Q: What now ?
A: I like this reading and writing stuff. Perhaps I can hang out for a year and learn something, use the library, guided reading. Write a paper... I think I want to be an academic
(Somehow supposed to be more respectable to say that at 22 when actually it had no stronger basis than the kindergarten astronaut fancy - to get paid for reading and writing, what could be better !)

Prof: On what ?
Me: Hmm...something in Language, epistemology.....or rationality theory..Something as tangentially related to econ it as possible. Familiarity, contempt etc. you know
Prof: Take a job now and apply for a PhD someplace next year.
Me: Job ??? As in the real world....You're talking to me ?

Jul '05
I am in the corporate grind. Or so you think you poor fellows. I am just parking myself for a year and then I am off to climes that better suit my intellectual inclinations

Nov '05
Hmm it is not that bad...with just as much 'challenge' I have appetite for. Now.... do I 'love' econ enough for a PhD ?

Jan '06
Money is a great argument-ender. One nice fellowship closes case. Tie hair pull mountain. Nothing to lose.

Aug '06
Find hairless man in a cold distant country's university, rewriting a thesis he started six years ago. He leaves the wife and kids home and spends the day differentiating matrices in a basement lab. He hopes to keep differentiating till he finds limiting conditions for the applicability of the Mundel-Fleming trade model.

Q:Of the.. what ?
A: Never mind...that's the point

Jan '07
Grad secratary: You can't take 'Introduction to Epistemology' as an allied paper
Me: They do some Bayes theorem there... so it can be taken as the required statistics credit
GS: No it can't be.
Me: (to myself)Well, it was worth a shot

Apr '07
Location: One of the distant nation's biggest libraries. Comparative Religions section. A cloaked Mulla-Omar lookalike is the only other person on the floor and he is far away thumbing through a distant stack. Secluded and ideal to talk on phone
Me: Ahem....I was wondering if I can have my job back ?

Jul '07
Q: Why are you back to this ? Should have gone for something like xyz which you like
A: yeah but if you do what you like, professional disfascination sets in. It's better to bake bread separately and think of xyz in my free time.
Q: Very well. But two questions..
A: yes
Q: What free time ?
A: Ah touché. Next question....
Q: Do you know what xyz is ?
A: Not exactly. I hope to figure it out when I grow up