Saturday, November 15, 2003

Languages need infusion of foreign blood
Khushwant Singh

There was a time when besides our own regional languages, many Indians spoke three European languages fluently: English, French and Portuguese. We threw out the English but sensibly made their language one of our own. We also threw out the French and the Portugese from their colonial possessions, but foolishly let their languages die out as well. Few Indians in Chandernagore or Pondicherry speak French. The generation of Goans who once spoke or wrote Portuguese (they had two newspapers as well) is fast dying out. A great pity! It was like throwing the baby out with its bath water. What I wish to emphasise is that the more you steal from other languages, the more you enrich your own. The more you try to keep your language pure, the more you impoverish it. Languages need constant infusion of foreign blood to linguistic anemia.

The visit of the Portugese Ambassador to my humble abode in Kasauli made this point very clearly. I confessed I knew nothing about Portuguese literature past or present. He sent me English translations of two of Portugalís leading living poets, Andrade and Gonsalve. I found Andrade too modern and obscure for my taste, but was charmed by Egito Gonsalveís short collection of lyrical prose and poems entitled News From the Blockade. First, two pieces of prose:"I rest my hand on your legs and the scent of fragment jasmine comes to me, calming the insomnia of solitary days. I retreat within myself like an egg to feel the place from where the heat comes, the echo of a gaze that passes over me, which I interpret as a seed of joy. And thus I separate myself from the sounds of afternoon and breathe the interior sun your skin communicates to me, a sun of celebration that slips with cunning into the cracks and crevices of what I had already thought a desert.

"I place your face in this landscape, I watch it glide by in its variety to the rhythm of the locomotive and ponder the reason for this constant presence that imprints itself upon the greenness and laughs among poplars, pines, rustic houses....Like this landscape, the years flee before me: with nostalgia I ponder what this flight might mean, in the fissure widening between what the eyes sense and what the body already begins to fear. I owe that face this consciousness, I owe to it this pain. And yet, how can I not love that window, that body taking shape, and in a flash of light, dissolving the twilit shirt already bleeding on the horizon?"

And now a few lines from his poem "In the Supermarket":

"I decided that the stomach also can be found in poetry

as I proceeded with my shopping cart

through the midst of the crowd,

glancing sidelong at womenís legs

and straight ahead at an entire salmon

that seemed to have just left the water.

I bought it to roast in the oven,

thereby distracting myself from a more

intellectual labour ó by then

the hour of my own poem had passed

and my thoughts insisted now on stumbling

after womenís legs,

quite satisfied with their own inconsistency.

Poet and dreamer

There are quite a few people, men and women, who keep up lively correspondence with me but who I have never met face to face, nor are likely to in the future. From their letters I try to create their likeness in my mind. I am pretty certain my images on them bear little resemblance to what they really look like; how old they are, the kind of dress they wear, the way they talk or deport themselves. One of them is Dev Datt from Himachal.

His letters often run into six pages of Urdu poetry with a little box in which he writes a few sentences in English. His printed letterhead is intriguing. On one side, it reads: "Dev Datt ó Supreme Mission of Life: To win Nobel Prize in Urdu Poetry." On the other, it reads: "Mir ó the Poet. Vill & PO Chakmoh. Teh. Barsar Distt Hamirpur (HP) 176039." Iíve worked out that since Dev Datt writes Urdu Poetry, he must have been brought up in the language in school and college before the Partition. Thereafter, hardly any non-Muslim liked to study Urdu. So he must be around 70 years of age. Since his English is also good, he might have been a teacher or a civil servant and is now living in retirement in the village of his community.

I can understand his adoration of Mir Taqi Mir as the greatest of Urdu poets; many Urdudaans are of the same opinion. I am not sure whether he will achieve his supreme mission of life and be the first person to win the Nobel Prize in Urdu poetry. It eluded poets like Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Hafeez Jalandhari, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Josh Malihabadi and many of the living Urdu poets of India and Pakistan. And so far Dev Datt has nor had his kalaam published in book form, not have his poems been translated into English for members of the Nobel Prize jury to judge the merit of his work. He is evidently a dreamer as all poets are. What I can make out from what he sends me is that he can turn his pen to a vast variety of subjects and his verses come cascading down like a Himachali mountain torrent during the summer monsoons. He wants me to help him achieve his ambition. The best I can do is to wish him luck.

The biggest problem

Wife: Darling, why do you keep my photo in your wallet?

Husband: That is because whenever I am in trouble, I look at it and feel better.

Wife: You mean to say that my photo has such a soothing effect on you?

Husband: Yes, you are right. When I look at your photo, I console myself that my other problems are not as big as this one!


A Haryanvi was staggering home from a daaru-ka-theka (liquor shop) with a quarter of "whisky" bottle in his hip pocket when he slipped and fell heavily. Struggling to his feet, he felt something wet running down his leg.

As he proceeded towards his home, he prayed "Hey Bhagwan bus itni daya karna ki mhaari pant khoon sey gili hui ho, daru ki botal tootne se nahin! (I pray my pant has become wet due to drops of blood and not due to breaking of my whisky bottle!)

(Contributed by Shashank Shekhar, Mumbai)