Saturday, January 3, 2004

The colourful story of dull dictionary
Khushwant SinghKhushwant Singh

Not many of us are aware that when Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets there were no dictionaries. There were some compilations of difficult words with their meanings but no one dictionary giving origins, meanings and usages of all words of English language. The plan to compile one was conceived by a few gentlemanly scholars meeting in London Library on November 5, 1857. Hundreds of men pitched in with contributions which were first assembled in a small room of a school and arranged in the alphabetical order under the guidance of a Scotsman James Murray. The operation was later shifted to Oxford where the Oxford University Press was located. It took over 70 years of combined effort to put together over half-a-million words into 21 volumes to become the world’s most authentic lexicon. The story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) may not appear very exciting. But with Simon Winchester focusing it on two principal contributors who did not meet face to face till after 17 years of corresponding with each other it makes as riveting a reading as any book on crime or detective fiction as I have read. The Professor & The Mad Man is a must for anyone who wants to learn how to put life into a subject as dead as a dictionary.

In the true story, the Professor is the Scotsman Murray; the madman, an American Dr Chester Minor. Both men had a strictly religious background. Minor was the son of a missionary working in Sri Lanka and South India. As a boy, he picked up languages he came across: Singhalese, Tamil, Hindi, Malay. He was also highly sexed and chased coloured girls wherever he saw them. His parents packed him off home to keep him out of mischief. He qualified as a doctor and joined the US Army Medical Corps. He grew up to be a tall, lanky youngman with a long flowing beard and piercing eyes. The American Civil War was on. Dr Minor saw a lot of fighting, including the execution of two deserters. To compensate for the violence he witnessed during the day, he sought solace in the company of prostitutes every night; a different one every time. He picked up a variety of venereal diseases. He also developed an acute sense of guilt and paranoid fear of people wanting to kill him; he always carried a gun in his pocket. By the time he left the U.S. Army and migrated to England, he was a thoroughly mixed-up character. He found lodgings in Lambeth, then the seamiest part of the city. He continued consorting with prostitutes — and spent the rest of his time reading. On the early morning of February 17, 1872 he shot dead a poor, innocent labourer who had a family of seven children. At his trial for murder, the defence lawyer pleaded insanity. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He found himself in the Broadmore Lunatic Asylum some 40 miles from Oxford.

Dr Minor was given special treatment. He was given two cells, one of which he converted into a library and studio. He was allowed to receive books and visitors. One of them was the widow of the man he had killed. He was supporting her and her family. There is an oblique allusion that he might have also had sex with her because she often came somewhat tipsy and was plied with hard liquor by her host.

Dr Minor saw the advertisement inviting people to contribute words for inclusion in the O.E.D. He flooded Dr Murray with his contributions. It was 17 years after they started correspondence that Murray called on Minor to thank him for his valuable contribution. It was only when he arrived at Broadmar that he discovered that Minor was not the asylum doctor but an inmate.

Dr Minor’s persecution mania and guilt complex went from bad to worse. One fine morning, he decided to get rid of the source of most of his troubles. With a pen-knife he had been allowed to keep to cut joined up pages of books, he cut off his penis. Ultimately his brother was allowed to take him back to the United States: his discharge papers were signed by young Winston Churchill, holding his first job in the British Government. He died on March 26, 1920.

Can anyone put down a book which gives one so much information in so delectable a manner?

Religion for public consumption

Though not religious myself, I respect people who are. What riles me is not religion, but the display of religiosity —dikhaavey kay liye— to show to the world. Amongst the earliest statements he made, Jesus Christ condemned worldly display: "And when thou prayest, thou shult not be as the hypocrites are; for they love to pray standing in the temples and in corners of streets that they be seen of men". And again, "When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly".

There is something extremely cheap about displaying one’s religiosity: it is the ultimate in paakhand (hypocrisy). I know of one former Minister who every time he visits a Gurdwara, informs TV channels so that they can give his visit full coverage, Uma Bharti on the eve of the election was shown feeding a cow. I am all for feeding animals, birds and insects. I know a lot of kindly men and women who feed stray cats and dogs every day and people who feed pigeons, sparrows, crows and drop palmfuls of flour near ant holes without making a display of it. One may well ask why don’t politicians have themselves filmed feeding goats or buffaloes? The answer is simple: feeding other animals (birds or insects) yields no political dividends; feeding cows does.

As cheap as making a public display of religiosity is publicising piety. A person who makes anonymous donations to a good cause is far more pious than one who wants the world to know what a good man he is. When giving in charity, it is nobler to follow the Biblical injunction: "Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth". Every night on my TV screen I watch a man in well-starched coat and dhoti doing the rounds of a clinic, making kind enquiries about the health of inmates before he spreads out his arms and breaks into a besura (out of tune) song exhorting everyone to love everyone, including the Almighty Bhagwan. It makes me sick. I watch such antics to refresh my knowledge of the kind of people we are.

Sniffer police

Nihangs are a community of Sikh Samurai ever ready for battle. They wear huge turbans, blue or saffron, with miniature weapons stuck on them. They also wear layers of clothes which they don’t bother to change for months: they do not like to bathe too often. When not out or riding their mares or waging mock battles, they indulge in drinking bhang which they call Sukha Parshad the peace-giver. Making or consuming bhang is forbidden by the law. So when a Nihang Singh was taken in custody by the police on suspicion he was hiding hashish in his clothes, they took off one shirt after another till they came to the last garment, a sweater. "Wah! Wah!" exploded the Nihang "your noses are sharper than those of sniffer dogs."

"Why do you say that ?" asked the constable. "Do you have hashish beneath it?"

"No Santri ji," replied the Nihang, "For the last year I have been looking for this sweater and you have found it for me."

(Contributed by Harjeet Kaur, New Delhi)