Sunday, April 18, 2004

Money is not God, but...
Manohar Malgonkar


A system full of sound & fury
November 9, 2003

Vedic fantasy to come true?
October 5, 2003

Eating the connoisseur’s way
September 28, 2003

Fast-forward to future shock
August 31, 2003

From Adam to Saddam — capsule history
June 22, 2003

Building bridges across cultures
April 20, 2003

Throwing light on the ‘light of the world’
April 13, 2003

Smelling sahibs learnt to bathe in India
April 6, 2003

Heroic endings
March 16, 2003

They died for Vande Mataram
March 9, 2003

Marghanita Laski died, oh, more than 15 years ago. She and her husband, John Howard, were our family friends, in that they have been our houseguests as I have been theirs several times.

Marghanita did not write many books. Her main preoccupation was the language itself that we use in everyday life. And she was a watchdog for its proper usage. She contributed handsomely to the enrichment of the language by looking for new words and phrases which had been trying to find a place in contemporary usage, and she admitted, or disallowed, such words and phrases by recommending their inclusion or otherwise in dictionaries. Her influence on mainstream English was acknowledged by her contemporaries, and, for several years towards the end of her life, she was the President of the Royal Society.

But, even though she was reputed to be somewhat headmasterly over the usage of English, she had a charming and engaging social presence. In the few days she spent in our house, she and my wife made friends, they wrote chatty letters to one another and exchanged recipes.

As I said, Ms Laski died several years ago, but, if she had been alive, I would have been addressing a letter to her, saying something like this:

"Dear Marghanita,

I think I have found a real gem of a quotation, deserving a place in the Oxford Book... as its very first Indian entry!

But, before I go on, I should explain why I should have wanted to write that letter at all. It is that the standard dictionaries of English quotations don’t have a single Indian entry. My grievance was that such memorable utterances as Ranjit Singh’s ‘All will be red’ ( Sab lal ho jayega!) and Nehru’s Freedom at midnight speech about a "Tryst with destiny" were every bit as worthy as, say, Horatio Nelson’s battle signal to his fleet, "England expects every man to do his duty" and Winston Churchill’s wartime oratorial flourishes in the British Parliament about "blood, tears, toil and sweat" and "We shall not flag or fail"? All these can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Surely Delhi dur ast is as good as "All roads lead to Rome"?

And mind you, it is not as though these quotations dictionaries are restricted to only the English language. All European languages plus Greek and Latin, are represented; in their original forms as well as in their English translations. So, why not Delhi dur ast or Sub lal ho jayega?

Writers have always used quotations to pep up their writings, because they evoke scenes of the occasions when they made their first appearance. The three words ‘let them eat cake’ have the power of setting up a mental image of a voluptuous, perfumed and painted woman, lolling in bed and saying those three words when she was told that the people had no bread; Marie Antoinette, towards the end of the 18th century.

Then, just utter three unfamiliar words, ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ and, as by magic, we’re in the days before Christ was born, and in the presence of Julius Caesar, thumping his chest and boasting: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Such is the power of a quotation. As it happens, the scenes evoked are not necessarily true. For instance that callous remark attributed to poor Marie Antoinette is said to have been wrong. She never said ‘Let them eat cake’. All the same, she will never shake off their grip.

Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and the image that springs up is of midnight of 14th-15th August, 1947, and to a moment of national rejoicing.

But why such an uncivilised hour — midnight? One wonders. Was it due to some thought of adding extra drama to an historic moment?

Nothing of the kind. The simple, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth answer, is that it is something to do with astrological influences. August 15, the day chosen for the transfer of power, was so inauspicious, that they decided to start the proceedings on the night of the 14th, for that day was unambiguously auspicious. So there!

And what mental images do those three words, ‘Sub lal ho jayega!’ conjure? A little man with a long beard, and half-blind, who drank copiously from a golden goblet, Ranjeet Singh, ‘The Lion of the Punjab’ no less, impish, lordly, but above all shrewd, peering with his one working eye at a crude map of the Indian subcontinent held up by his minions, and making that pronouncement: All will be red!

Almost prophetic words, and here there is absolutely no doubt as to their authenticity as with most other quoted pronouncements I remember that even Pandit Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ had another claimant — his pushful secretary. All will be red, surely should have been grabbed by quotation seekers.

But no. The walls remain unbreached, the door firmly locked. When will an Indian say something that the editors of dictionaries of quotations will let in?

Which brings me back to that letter I might have sent to Ms Laski, if she had been still around, and in a position to weigh the merits of a quotation I was about to offer for her verdict.

Paisa Khuda to nahin hai; magar Khuda ki kasam, Khuda se kam bhi nahin hai! Money is not God; but by God, it is not second to God either! These words were said by an influential political personality in a room in one of Delhi’s five-star hotels after he had been handed what resembled a thick wad of currency notes, and for saying them Dilip Singh Judeo deserved a triumphant entry in any mainstream book of quotations.

In pressing my claim, I would have pointed out that the English rendering lacked the high-voltage charge of the original Hindi words and the rhythmic bracing provided by two of the sound-bites which possess a twin-like similarity, Khuda ki kasam and Khuda se kam.

Here I must make it clear that the other aspects of this incident which was publicly shown on several TV channels, have nothing to do with my submission to Ms Laski, and above all, I impute no motives either to Mr Judeo, or to those who had ostensibly handed him that wad. My recommendation is confined purely to the merits of the words which were heard to be said by Shri Judeo.

But, of course, all this is in the nature of airing a thought — something that I might have done if it had happened when Ms Laski was still there to give thought to my submission, for the fact is that I now don’t know any one to whom I could make recommendations about including quotations in dictionaries Alas!

This feature was published on January 4, 2004