An attempt to rekindle a love affair – for Words

I used to vainly brag to anybody who would listen, about how much I love books and ‘the written word’. But, now, in my mid-20s, I am faced with the dilemma of not being able to read. Not because I do not have the time in my hands, but because I simply am unable to focus on pages and paragraphs and lines and plots. Books were my only friends, once upon a time, and now they are increasingly becoming strangers. I often end up wondering, what am I missing? Patience? Peace of mind? Happiness? Weren’t all this there in my life because of books? So, going back to the yellowed pages, dusty volumes and cheap paperbacks is probably the only way of getting back the calm I once believed that I had mastered.

Along with being in love with books, I have always wanted to write, although I do not consider myself to be a good writer. It is something that I wish to do and is working towards. Thoughts tumble around in my head without a care, but I end up judging myself as a poor writer after reading what I had written, I wonder if it happens to every writer. I remember reading how Vaikom Muhammed Basheer wanted one of his seminal works, ‘Anuragathinte Dinangal’ to be thrown out believing it to be too autobiographical and personal. His wife saved it up and arranged for it be published, and it did become one of his most praised and widely read stories. Maybe judging oneself isn’t fair. Maybe it is up to others to judge us, but that hurts too when it there are critical comments that more often than not seems like baseless criticism- wouldn’t it be better to judge ourselves and not write anything at all, than make a fool of ourselves?

I know that I have a very fragile ego and despite the ‘charades’ and appearances that I put up- that of a brave and confident woman with self-esteem- I am none of those. Yet, I am willing to give this a try. Initially, I wanted to write to make a record of interesting thoughts that come up in my head, and a record of the interesting scientific developments that are happening in the world. Maybe, it is high time that I put a flame to my long standing love affair with words before it dies out completely?

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The Universal Language (in Translation)

Math with Bad Drawings

a dispatch from the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum

A combinatorist working in India, Manjil Saikia is soft-spoken and super-knowledgeable: we chatted about Isaac Asimov and the history of the Fields Medal before getting into his passion project, which (like mine!) is a blog.

It’s called Gonit Sora.

That’s Assamese for “Gateway to Math.”

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As a monolingual American, it’s easy to forget just how easy I have it. My native tongue happens to be the global language. Case in point: I blundered into Germany yesterday not speaking a word of German. No problem! For me, provincialism carries no penalty.

But for Manjil, growing up in northeast India, he had to fight for access to knowledge in a world that catered far better to folks like me. When the internet arrived in his home at age 18, it was a revelation—but even online, he had to leap linguistic…

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We Are Like That Only

Well said!!

Epiphany in the Cacophony

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‘That asshole, he whistled at me’ I said to my roommate as I stormed into my apartment in Singapore. I was livid. My blood boiling as I pictured the smug look on his face, over and over again. I didn’t notice him until he whistled. The loud, sharp sound, forcing me out of my absentminded walk back home. Shocked, I turned around and looked at him in disbelief. He licked his lips slowly and laughed. I stood there, bewildered, unsure how to react, until I turned around and walked away as fast as I could. I took a few minutes to recover, realizing how small and helpless I felt. I couldn’t remember the last time someone made me feel that way.

At that point, it dawned on me that this was not the first time it had happened. This was not the first time someone had whistled, remarked or stared…

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When words fail….

                      Sometimes, words seem to be so inadequate to describe the feelings that one is going through. Or is it because I still have not found the words that adequately describe the emotional turmoil that I seem to be going through? 

What is one supposed to say when they feeling both extremely happy and totally depressed at the same time? Yes, at the same time! Funny? Weird? Judge whatever you want, but shouldn’t there be a word for that kind of a feeling? Shouldn’t there be single words to express the extreme emotions and feelings that we as humans are capable of?

Recently, my vocabulary was a little more improved with the addition of some lesser known yet beautiful words that English language had borrowed from other languages. Like the word ‘cafune’, meaning to ‘the feelings of running one’s fingers through the lover’s hair’. The word itself puts one into the mood of love. And then in his memoirs about Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk, explains the feeling of ‘huzun’, that longing for one’s childhood…. Those are when small words speak volumes.

I’ve been forever a lover of language, and being an art lover who is artistically handicapped, I have always considered writing as my one and only mode of expression. Only, that its only when one starts writing for real that the realisation dawns that while writing a 1000 word essay for clearing exams during all those English classes in High School was a breeze, writing for real is much more difficult. Especially, for a person who after school has lost their emotional integrity. I have always been on the sensitive side of emotional quotients, the kind of person who will have tear stained cheeks at the drop of a hat. But that seems to have deteriorated even further once I have started experiencing life on my own. Is it a byproduct of loneliness?

But then the question arises, am I alone? No, of course not! Not in the literal sense! I do have my doting family and loving friends around me, talking to me and absorbing my sorrows away and giving me snippets of their lives to cheer me up. In the world of global connectivity and instant messaging, my phone screen constantly brightens up with a new message, a new photograph, another smiley, every minute. Seeing them does give the heart immense joy, but it equally gives me despair, that I am unable to hold their hands while they are talking or look into their eyes, or pull a funny face at them. An intense urge to pinch that one person for being a menace and adorable at the same time- at least those who speak a certain language in the Philippines have a word for that, ‘Gigil’. And right now, am missing my brother and ‘vybafnout’ (thank the Czech for coming up with a word for irritating elder brothers).  Or to chide myself and then rejoice and laugh at myself for being an impossible dreamer, or as they would say in Yiddish- being a luftmensch. 

The few times I’ve ever read history, I have managed to understand the fact that regional boundaries may have first come into place as a result of language barriers. Yes, countries, and even states within countries seem to have been created based on common language preferences of the masses. And then there were high school language teachers, who insisted that we learn and speak only the ‘pure’ form of the language and not use slangs or mix it with our own tongue. Making up words to convey our feelings was considered a crime that was to punished by cutting down grades and ‘public shaming’- reading out our the language innovater’s new word out loud in front of all the students in class and collectively laughing at them.

I too am guilty of being a snob early on in my adoption of English as my preferred language as I used to relentlessly make it a point to correct people who spoke to me in a different manner than was considered ‘grammatically correct’. Now, having read more and having become a little more mature, I have finally understood, that language, like life, is constantly evolving. And making up new words can be a joy, as long as everyone around you too understand the context without breaking one’s head. Grammar is not language. Language comes alive when it is spoken and distorted and made fun of and mixed with other languages. Language should not be enforced, language should be adopted. Learning a language should be akin to falling in love, not forced marriage. For every language is beautiful in its own right, and no language is better or worse off than the other. 

N.B.: 1) For some new friend just opened up my eyes to the beauty of words irrespective of language, and how they can be used to convey emotions. It was the most enlightening fact.

          2) My beloved country, which seems to have as many languages as there are people, recently tried to enforce a single language upon everyone- a move that is still not entirely scrapped. Its a diverse country, so rather than fighting over which language is the most apt, why not bring some real social reform, dear newly elected government? 

 

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When the spring comes Visiting

When the spring comes visiting,

I shall put on my most colorful clothes

And go on a serenade greeting the youngest of the seasons.

I shall plant a new seed,

and adopt the baby plant

And nurture it as one of my own womb.

When the spring comes visiting,

I shall put two small bowls outside my windowsill,

One with water and one with grains, 

So that my winged friends may rest and dine

after their long flights.

I shall keep my home sparkly clean,

Make an apple pie and pour some golden juice of the fruit

And lay my tables and set up a feast,

for the youngest of the seasons.

When Spring comes visiting,

I shall finally stop being grumpy and moody

And just be cheery all the time

Like the bright colorful butterflies.

I sit on my chair on this lovely morning,

Thinking all these lovely thoughts.

And as I gaze out my window,

Lo and behold! The Spring is here!

Dressed in Pink with an Emerald crown,

An entourage of ladybugs,

In a chariot made of buttercups,

The fair little maiden of Spring comes!

Spreading color and spreading joy,

Melting away the gloom of snow,

Letting in the warmth of Sun,

She made my day, a happy day. Image 

 

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Journeying through Dreamscapes

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Why do we dream? I really don’t know. Some say that dreams are the manifestations of repressed memories. Freud would probably try and relate every dream including the happy, mundane, bizarre and horrific to some kind of sexual fulfillment. I think dreams are just the brain’s way to try and make sense of this world. Why else should it conjure up convoluted images, smells and feels when the eyes are shut and the thoughts are at rest? Why else should dreams be so elusive that the moment you open your eyes, the only thing that you remember is the fact that you have been dreaming, yet you do not always remember the dream?

For many years, I have had nightmares. I don’t usually remember dreams, but since my nightmare has always been the same night after night, I can almost conjure it up even during my waking hours. My little nightmare always begins with me stranded in a lonely desert strewn with dead soldiers of countries without names, and ends in me being chased and captured by some unknown beings, whom somehow in my wakeful silliness, I interpret as cannibals, and just as I’m being throttled to death, I wake up, gasping for breath. Now, I’ve never been stranded in any desert, nor have I ever been caught in the middle of any kind of war or violence of any sort, except the kind that even children are exposed to on prime time television! Rather I believe that it is my brain’s effort to try and put myself into a certain scenario that I had read in a book a long time ago. A book that I never got around to reading till the last page because a paragraph about cannibalism that is still lurking somewhere in the middle of its pages made me faint and still gives me the chills whenever I think about it. Somewhere deep inside me a fear runs that I may one day end up on somebody’s plate! An absurd fear when you consider it at first, but then there is a remote possibility to it. The reality that cannibals exist and the thought that somewhere at this moment, a human being is being cooked by another because it gives satisfaction to his/her taste buds is a very disturbing thought indeed…..

I digress. Coming back to dreams, I find dreams fascinating. I think a person’s dreams, whatever they may be, reflects on the kind of life the person leads. It may be a manifestation of one’s memories, aspirations, likes, dislikes, everything that makes one an individual. Dreams can also be a doorway to creativity. Artists are generally said to be dreamy. One too many scientists had seen the solution to their questions form in their dreams. Like August Kekulé, who dreamt of an ouroboros and interpreted that as the structure of benzene being a ring.

Recently I had some most bizarre dreams. One after the other, on the same night, a series of dreams attacked me, all unrelated to each other. I say attacked, as I kept waking up after every one of these short dreams and as a result ended up being sleep deprived in the morning, which isn’t good for someone trying to be a researcher into the complexities of the human brain. In one of these dreams, I ended up being a passive witness to the humiliation and bullying of a little boy by his teacher in a classroom. The most intriguing aspect of the dream was that I remembered it vividly even after I woke up, and also even though I was there in that classroom, I was not a person in that classroom. Now, as I try to recall it, all I can remember is that I remember being on the wall. I might as well have been a fly on the wall or the wall itself which in my dream collapsed into the classroom and onto the teacher just as she whipped her cane out in order to hit the hapless boy for being crude enough to raise his doubts in class.

In short, I like dreaming. Whether its beautiful dreams like being on a valley full of tulips covered in dew drops, or nightmares in which garish creatures come to visit me, or sweet and fancy dreams of being in love, I like dreaming. Because I sometimes believe that life itself is a big dream or may be even a journey through dreamscapes. As we flit from moment to moment, from conversation to conversation, from wakefulness to sleep, we might as well be flitting from one dream portal to next, until at the hour of shuteye you finally reach the door that has to be opened or not opened on that night. Like when I dreamt of being a vengeful wall just because I am perpetually angry at teachers who shut down a child’s curiosity. Like when some little child somewhere dreams of being loved by a parent and gets adopted the next day. Like when a dream becomes an idea and then reality.

As Edgar Allen Poe once said, may be “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Hence I sit here, dreaming of dreams on a sleepless night…..

 

 

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