Pardon My French

Most of us have forgotten how difficult it can be to learn a new language! It is just as well that we pick our first words while our eyes and ears are yearning to explore the world around us, and our little grey cells are not yet saturated with unnecessary facts. Placed in a situation of swim-or-sink, the young child is forced to expand her vocabulary in order to communicate meaningfully with the world around her.

Thoughts of this nature swept through my mind as I began navigating the intricacies of French-- a language I have wanted to learn for pleasure as far back as I can remember. Having finally enrolled in a beginner's course at an evening school, and struggling desperately with vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, I am prepared to drop the words "for pleasure" from this weekly activity! When I explained to my Haitian instructor that I wanted to learn French so I could speak the language when I eventually visit Paris, she looked me squarely in the eye and observed that the French usually revert to English to prevent a foreigner from massacring their beloved language.

It is said that only the Frenchman can make the recital of a grocery list sound romantic! Indeed, when spoken correctly, every French word in a sentence meshes with the next one resulting in a seemingly long musical word. There was an article in the Harper's magazine in the 1930s about an American philologian's attempt to count the number of syllables needed to translate the Gospel of Mark into different Indo-European languages. Despite its reputation for terseness, it took 36,000 French syllables to say what English does in 29,000 (the Indo-Iranian group, by contrast, required 43,100 syllables on average). If different languages sound faster or slower, it is simply because this speed is an indicator of the information content, and ultimately the compression efficiency, of the language. In other words, assuming that every race of people thinks at the same rate, a faster-sounding language has more inherent redundancy as it needs more words or syllables to get the same idea across (one only needs to think about the famous scene with the Japanese director in Lost in Translation to appreciate this!).

However, language is not an exact science. And as any artist will testify, perfection can only be achieved by painful practice. Unfortunately, in our awe of the final result (and our impatience to reach there), we often overlook the dedication and diligence that goes into mastering a skill-- be it an artist's magnum opus, or an infant's first sentence.

Why can't the English
Teach their children how to speak?
Norwegians learn Norwegian,
The Greeks are taught their Greek.
In France, every Frenchman
Knows his language from A to Zed
(The French don't care what they do actually,
As long as they pronounce it properly!).
Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady

Harry Potter and the Order of the Court

After remaining invincible through his seven years of scholarship (the seven ages of manhood?) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter finally found his nemesis in Goddess Durga. A 394-page case of copyright violation brought in by creator J K Rowling and filmmaker Warner Brothers against a Durga Puja organiser was summarily dismissed by the Delhi High Court. The point of contention was a pandal being built to celebrate the four-day event in Calcutta was modelled after Hogwarts Castle.

For the uninitiated, Durga Puja is the biggest annual festival for Bengalis, when Devi Durga is believed to return to earth for four days accompanied by her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik. Their arrival and departure are marked by festivities which have long transcended religious boundaries and entered the realm of popular culture. The most common manifestation of this carnival-like celebration is the construction of themed pandals, or temporary tents of bamboo, wood and canvas, in every neighbourhood. Idols of Durga, in the pose of vanquishing a demon, are housed there for the duration of the Puja and are visited by local residents, as well as visitors from different parts of the country.

Despite the winds of commercialism blowing fast and furious, some aspects of this traditional festival have remained faithful to the style popularised by the earliest sarbojonin (meaning "involving all") or barowari (literally, "twelve friends") pujas-- there is no entrance fee, funds are raised by door-to-door subscriptions and corporate donations, and people from all backgrounds are welcomed into the pandals, provided they have the patience to brave the queues! It is estimated that over ten thousand such pandals are erected in Calcutta alone, and normal traffic is brought to a standstill because of road closures (most pandal-hoppers use the underground Metro railway for transportation). Since the mid-1980s, prizes have been announced for different facets of the puja celebrations, including the most innovative pandal design. Once the exclusive prerogative of the Asian Paints Company, today there are as many awards as there are companies that wish to derive PR and profits by association with the gods.

It is in this competitive vein that a Durga Puja organisation committee concluded they would have a sure-shot chance of winning a prize by moulding their pandal along the lines of Harry Potter's school. As the wood and papier mache replica started coming up, it generated enormous local interest, vindicating the organiser's original hypothesis. However, in today's global village, a butterfly flapping its wings in India can trigger off a tornado of sorts in another hemisphere-- in this case, the news of Hogwarts spread quickly from one excited child to another until it reached the ears of a secretive species always on the lookout to make a fast buck, also known as lawyers. Immersed in their own ideas of immortality, the concept of creating a transient structure for a four-day free-for-all celebration eluded them, and they slapped a twenty lakh rupee lawsuit against the organisers for building a theme park without permission. The Court was right in rejecting the lawyers' arguments, given that there is no commercial interest involved in a public purpose such as a puja, and Devi Durga emerged victorious in yet another epic battle against evil.

Colourful ants are running around,
Most moving slowly with friends they have found,
Pause for a breather
Then follow the leader
The whole air is filled with wet sound.

All around you is a riot of paints,
The ant before you suddenly faints,
That stops the motion,
Starts the commotion,
Don’t know for whom the abuse is meant.

You’re trying to swim in an ocean of ants,
Swaying to the tune of the performing bands,
The beautiful breeze
Rocks the protruding trees,
You start to move again towards the land.

Reach the new world after three days,
The Goddess’s face is hidden in haze,
Pray for two seconds,
Another ant beckons,
Now find your way out of the maze.
Ritabrata Roy (17), Of Ants and Paints

Crystal Cookie

Do you believe in fortune cookies? Do you seek out the thin strip of paper that is hidden inside the cookie served with your bill in a Chinese restaurant? And do you then try to interpret your life around the prophecy? I, for one, stopped opening the oyster shell of fortune cookies when I discovered, time and again, that the contents were pearls of fairly-obvious wisdom. However, I made an exception when I visited the birthplace of the fortune cookie.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the modern fortune cookie was invented in California and is almost unknown in China. This is not surprising since dessert is not a part of traditional Chinese cuisine. However, legend has it that fourteenth century Chinese soldiers used to smuggle messages into mooncakes to coordinate the overthrow of Mongolian invaders, which eventually led to the establishment of the Ming dynasty.

The true origin of the confectionery has been called a mystery shrouded in an enigma wrapped in a cookie! The most commonly accepted version (and the one promoted by the mock Court of Historical Review) is that it was invented by the gardener who built the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. He used to insert tasteful thank-you messages in tasteless flour cookies (modelled after the traditional Japanese senbei rice-wafer) and gift them to his loyal patrons for their role in rallying for his reappointment after being fired by the city's anti-Japanese mayor.

Churning out ten-word maxims can be a thankless job. New Yorker magazine once profiled such a writer in the Long Island plant which is the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies. An engineering and business graduate from Columbia University, he had been racking his brains everyday for over twenty years, using inspirations from sources as diverse as the I-Ching and subway graffiti. Some of his aphorisms have made it into the Unix programme fortune, which displays random messages from a database of quotations. One of the "fortunes" in the software collection states cynically, "The fortune cookie programme defuses project tensions."

To return to my open-air experience at the Japanese Tea Garden last month, I was persuaded by my friend to read my fortune. It said, "What you are searching for is right in front of you." I looked up to find a plucky pigeon strutting on the table right in front of me and finishing off the remains of my fortune cookie!

You know that what you eat you are,
But what is sweet now, turns so sour.
George Harrison, Savoy Truffle