Monday, July 29, 2013

Phrases and Meanings - II

Everyone who knows me knows that Asimov's words, "Let me make one thing clear. When I ask for criticism, I mean only praise. If you find something wrong in what I have written, you can keep it. I don't want it" resonate with me. So, it is but natural that they will expect this series on Phrases to focus on "I like criticism" sooner or later. Let us relieve them of their tension by making it sooner.

It must be obvious by now that I do NOT like negative criticism. I am of the firm conviction that this is one of those phrases that is almost invariably said when it is not meant. If liking something means the same thing to all people, then it should mean that there is someone in the world who actually feels happy about receiving negative criticism and, bar masochists, I do not think there is any such person. Which means that this is a phrase that actually does not mean what the dictionary says it means when it is used.

Oh! You actually like criticism? Hmm! Let us try you out on an example. Let us assume you are a cook (done too much on literary criticism so let us all have a break from that). Assume further that you serve someone biryani and upon tasting it, he says, "It is yucky!" You are the one who likes negative criticism so you must be going singing around the house and calling up your friends and exclaiming, "You know what! I fed biryani to so-and-so and do you know what he said? He said it was yucky. He REALLY did! I feel like I am floating on air"

No? Ah! This is not what you meant by criticism? Why so? Because, when he said it was yucky, you do not know whether it was because he thinks all biryani is yucky or he does not like this style of making biryani or the biryani has not been made properly? Hmm! So, you do not like this type of criticism but you do like criticism.

Great, then! Let us have our next critic in then. Here he comes dancing in, tastes the biryani and says, "So, you tried a Hyderabadi Dum biryani? Never tasted it made as badly as this" Happy, now? Joyous revels all day and a party to celebrate the occasion? No? Why not? You do not know why he thinks it is yucky? I think you are getting a little too nit-picking here. What? There is no use to criticism that does not tell you what is going wrong and how to improve it? Ah! I see.

Let us have our discerning critic in here. Back comes the same old biryani and our DC has a go. "Mmm! I think the rice is under-cooked and you need a bit more salt here. You probably also need a lighter hand with the masala". Why is your face not lit up with joy? Ah! You wish he had not been so loud with his criticism in the hearing of your family and friends? (It will be an eternal mystery to me as to why compliments are always given in a bashful whisper and complaints aired like an alpine shepherd calling out to his sheep scattered all over the landscape) But then if you have got what you liked you should be only too happy to have your near and dear ones (Ah! how much I have wanted to use that typical Indian phrase - I probably should have omitted the 'ones') learn of it asap. No?

Are you sure you really like criticism? I have tried and tried to make you happy by giving you criticism but you just do not seem to appreciate it. Seems to me that when you say, "You like criticism" what you mean is that you like the fact that it may help you improve yourself BUT the actual receipt of it is not exactly your most memorable moment of joy. It looks like if it is not given politely enough then, though you may end up liking the effects of the criticism, the chap who gave it is unlikely to leave very warm memories in your mind.

That was the exception we have been talking to all this while. The rule is that most people certainly do NOT like criticism but are forced to say so since it has become taboo to say you do not - much like a mother cannot say, "When the baby started crying at 3 AM just as I had sunk into a deep sleep, I felt for a moment like strangling  the little monster"

So, if you guys are brimming with those nice little words of criticism and eagerly rushing out to please all those who say, "I like criticism", know that you are not loved. Really!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Phrases and Meanings - I

I shall make no promises this time - except please do not be intimidated by that '- I' business. This is a self-contained post and no prior knowledge is required (and do not listen to those evil beings that say 'no brains required either') nor would you be left hanging unless you read the subsequent parts like one of those fantasy trilogies. Believe me, I had intended to finish off with "How are you?" also in the last post but - what can I say? - the words ran away with me.

This question - 'How are you?' - is really not an invitation to start with that pain in your big toe that you get from an impacted toe nail and work your way up to the sharp twinges in your knees, that dyspeptic feeling in your stomach which feels so much like a heart attack and that dull ache above your eyebrows which presages a migraine (the morning after without the night before). Not even if you finish off saying, "Other than all that I am fine". Unless of course you are an in-patient in a hospital - in which case the chap who asks you "How are you?" considers that as a mere preliminary to launching into a series of tales about his aunts, uncles, cousins and other such fauna who have all come to miserable ends after suffering exactly what you are suffering and ends with "Don't worry! You will be all right!" Not that the last statement reassures you.

Apparently the proper answer to that "How are you?" is a "How are you?' again. Seems like a game of oneupmanship. As though you thought, "You are not the only one who can show concern for me. I can show concern for you as well. Now stuff that in your pipe and smoke it." But that is the appropriate polite behavior apparently. What I have found is you ask this only when you mean, "I could not care less if you dropped dead of a heart attack right now". With people whom you actually cared about, you would be asking about specific ailments or just launch into a conversation without this preliminary. Maybe they started using this in more violent times merely to say "I did not come here of a purpose to kill you this time, so let us both relax".

As if that phrase were not enough, I had to deal with an answer to that question that I started hearing only after I shifted to Delhi. "Bus aapke chatra chaye mein" which literally translates to "In the shadow of your umbrella" and figuratively means "Safe under your aegis". Now when I first heard this I must admit to a feeling of fear - it seemed to me like the chap was saddling me with the responsibility of taking care of him and his family. Thankfully I refrained from voicing a hasty demurrer about how ill-equipped I was to take care of even myself. Later, of course, it seeped into me that this was yet another of those phrases that people say without any regard to what it literally or figuratively meant.

Huh! This has run into one whole post as well. About time I released you into the world to spray your How-are-yous indiscriminately.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Phrases and Meanings

You get along decently making a fool of yourself and then start feeling the sudden urge to write something meaningful (which is probably a way of making a greater fool of yourself than you were doing while you were trying). The problem is that you rack your brains and plumb the (extremely shallow) depths of your mind and find that you have never acquired any meaningful knowledge all your life. With the stubbornness of someone, who rarely gets an idea but holds on to the one he does get no matter how absurd it is, you are unwilling to let go of the dream to write something meaningful. Well! The next best thing to writing something meaningful is to write about the meaning of something. (I have a nagging suspicion that the first dictionary was written by a guy like me - finding that he could write nothing meaningful he went ahead and started tabulating the meanings of words)

Having done a bit of 'Words and Meanings', I thought I could perhaps turn my attention to some phrases that are used to mean something else than what the dictionary would say they mean. I do not mean to address a phrase like "Good Morning", which does not necessarily mean that the person saying it has seriously assessed the characteristics of the morning and found it to be good or that he is praying with all his heart that the morning be good for you. It is merely a way of saying, "I see you and you have reason to believe I can recognize you and would expect me to acknowledge that I have seen you", as all of us know. Indeed most of us would be surprised to learn that the literal meaning is at all different - and that it is probably a shortened form of "Wish you a good morning".

Now, then, the more important among us utter a curt "Morning". It is not that they merely want to state the fact that it was morning without any unsubstantiated allegations about its nature. It is the same "I see you etc. etc." but with the additional meaning of "I do not need to be polite to you." Most of them, however, do not necessarily think that you were nervously hanging around wondering whether it was really morning after all till they came around and officially declared it to be so. Of course there are some who are actually surprised that you could have any doubts about the fact that the Sun would have retired abashed - like a guest who came too early to a party - unless they declared it to be morning but such wonder-beings are in a minority, believe me.

Uhoh! It looks like I have behaved like the guy who gets the microphone and says, "I will not keep you guys waiting for dinner too long" at the start of his speech and then pauses for breath only after an hour or so. Having said that I would not take up your time with descriptions about the meaning of "Good Morning" as a phrase, I have waxed eloquent about it. We shall get to the next phrase later then. Adios, till then (and, NO, it is not a threat!)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Weighty matters

I can only blame the British for this. I mean, we were going along rather nicely with a sufficient surplus of languages and they had to come in and add one more to the mix. What is worse, the damned language that  they saddled us with has converted what were seen as positives into negatives. So, instead of feeling proud of how I look, I need to skulk around and look shame-faced when I am espied.

When someone says, "Ah! Suresh is here" a few seconds before I actually enter a room, I used to take it as clairvoyance. It is only a shade later that it struck me that my belly makes an entrance much before I do. Now that used to be a matter of pride - after all, in Hindi they say, "Sehad ban gayi aapki" ("You have become healthier") when you manage to bolster your waist. Of course, they also used to say, "Kamzor ho gaye ho" ("You have become weak") when you lost weight which adds to the impression that it is good to gain weight. Of course I rarely had to hear the latter insult. Life would have been happy and I would have been proudly strutting around but for this idiotic English which contributed words like 'Obese' and invested them with so much contempt that I make apoplectic efforts to suck in my stomach and merely manage to look dyspeptic in addition to obese.

Not that the absence of English alone would have been sufficient to avoid this sort of inversion of viewpoints. Human beings are an irrational species and very seldom maintain consistency. There I am eating just about as much as the next guy, doing just about as much physical exertion (which is next to nothing for both of us) and very seldom miss on adding a couple of inches around the waist every year. There is that next guy who proudly claims to be able to eat as much if not more than me and still remains painfully thin. People end up giving him admiring and envious looks while they reserve their pitying looks for me. Can you think of that happening in motorbikes, say? I mean if both of us were bikes and if you filled the tanks in both and rode us for the same distance and if one bike's tank is empty and the other still had something left do you not consider the latter bike as more efficient than the former? Why is fuel efficiency more laudable in bikes and held in contempt in humans - merely because the presence of the saved fuel is registered by a comfortable roundness around the waist? Absolute proof of irrationality let me assure you.

Nowadays I can hardly enter any social atmosphere without people thrusting diet options on me. If at least one of them sounded savory it would have been nice. Unfortunately, all of them sound so dismal and so like starvation that I end up gorging on everything that I can lay my hands on merely to drive away the nightmare visions of utter deprivation that those diet plans evoke in me. The net result is I add an inch around the waist in jig time thanks to diet plans. I would not be so concerned about that matter but for the impact it has on my wallet. Changing wardrobes once every six months does not come cheap - and the result is that most of my T-shirts look like the blouses that women have stopped wearing. Thank God I am not married or I would have been accused of wearing my wife's discarded blouses to parties.

The sheer injustice of this matter weighs heavily on my mind - almost as heavily as all the stored energy weighs on my lower back - and I am sure to revisit the matter again. Meanwhile, will you guys please  strive to understand that when you look on an obese person what you are probably seeing is a more efficient engine than you. Unless, of course, you already know and all your cheesy comments arise out of mere envy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I, the literary critic

When I came into blogging I thought of it as an arena where people could self-publish without having anyone filter out content based on perceived literary merit. Just made for me, considering that I could well have stayed on the dirty end of any such filter. Much later I realized that you could also criticize published books and there would be no-one filtering out your criticism as being ignorant or plain idiotic. There are a lot of people around even in blogosphere whose criticism is respected but past experience has made me feel that it was unlikely that I be counted among them.

Mind you, my criticism is always valid and deeply insightful. What I was worrying about was the petty-minded people who would end up criticizing the criticism. I mean how stupid can they get? When I criticized Rowling's and Tolkien's output saying, "Full of magic and other such unbelievable stuff" they were crazy enough to claim that it was fantasy and was expected to be full of magic and other such crap. Some people will say anything to defend themselves against valid criticism. I mean, there was even a guy who said that a critic ought to be commenting about whether or not the author narrated effectively the story that he wanted to tell rather than telling the author what sort of story the critic would have preferred to read. That fool did not even know that criticism should not be criticized!

If that were all there was I could have merrily continued in my critical ways. Unfortunately, people do not even have an idea about character consistency. When I made comments about characters acting unnaturally, they claim that everyone in the world cannot behave in the same way. Why, they even went so far as to say that had I been criticizing the Mahabharat I would have said, "Ved Vyas did not pay attention to his characters. He portrays Yudhishtir as a righteous person and then writes an incident where Yudhishtir stakes his wife in a dice game. Inconsistent characterization mars the story". Of course I would have. So what if it is an epic? Had I been the editor, I would never have published that book without asking Mr. Vyas for extensive re-edits and would have turned a deaf ear to all his pleas that characters act abnormally in stress situations.

But what really takes the cake is that people do not even accept the obvious problem inherent in ending a story properly. When a couple have marital problems and end up trying to resolve them by themselves where is the drama in that? After all, it is expected that the couple have to resort to resolve it eventually by themselves so where is the fun in reading about that? Now if you had a carload of people with a barrel-load of vodka sloshing in their veins and a truck-load of problems in their heads teetering over the edge of a construction pit and if God talked to them and solved their problems, that is drama ! I know there is always some idiot somewhere who will claim that I am confusing drama and melodrama but then I do not care for the opinions of people who do not even know that criticism cannot be criticized.

Those were all in the bad old days when my criticism was only vocal and people felt free to give me the horse's laugh. Now that I have my blog, a license to criticize books and there is no-one around to question my credentials, I am free to give the world of literature the benefit of my insight. As, indeed, you would have noticed my doing over the recent past.

If an author thinks that he can get away by writing exactly the expected sort of story with characters behaving on expected lines and dramatic endings, he is sorely mistaken. I would only have to say, "The tale seems written to suit the market and lacks soul. The characters are monochrome and the striving to create a dramatic twist has rendered the ending unbelievable". After all, I am not one of those critics who shies away from voicing negative criticism.

With such an insightful person around, it is a wonder that authors do not take my advice while writing their books. Just goes to show how little they know about the art of writing.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Jacob Hills by Ismita Tandon Dhanker - A Book review

Jacob Hills by Ismita Tandon Dhanker promises to be a story that draws you into the darkness lying behind the bright veneer of an army station. I have normally found that such stories work best when the story opens with a brightness and love for a couple of newbies in the area and, slowly, the story get darker and darker as the newcomers discover layer after layer of grime. Needless to say, such stories are normally told from the point-of-view of the newcomers. I need also to give the disclaimer that I am not partial to dark tales.

Jacob Hills is a tale of dark happenings in an army station of the 80s. Though the incidents of the tale are dark, I need mention that the narrative is not. Whether it works or not for a connoisseur of this genre I would not know but I found the book readable because it was written this way. The book is quite interesting and the English excellent - something that I am finding to be relatively rare in Indian publishing. The author has managed to keep interest in a relatively large cast of characters and managed to keep the clarity of the intertwined story lines.

The author has managed to maintain this clarity despite using a multiplicity of point-of-view characters. Each chapter is told from a different person's point of view. No matter how laudable I may find her command over her narrative, I must say that the story would probably have come out far better if she had adopted the newcomer's point of view and opened out the story. Starting the story with a scene of darkness sets the mood for expecting more of the same and, thus, the novel does not work as a journey from seeming brightness to muddy depths. Also, some of the murk is described in almost an offhand manner thus converting it into something like party gossip rather than dark secrets.

The book is a very good read as it is written. It could have been written far better and been made memorable but in that, alas, the author has not succeeded.