If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Old sadness, new sadness

Shakti Chattopadhyaya

The sadness that’s been around me for some time,
I ask him to sit down, close to me.
I’m here, beside me is shadow, and if my old sadness too joins us,
It would be great. And maybe, to my new sadness, I’ll say,
‘Go away, please, for some time
Storm through another sunny garden,
Crush some flowers, burn green leaves, upset everything.
And after some time, if all that effort wears you down, do come back,
Sit by my side.

But for now, let my old sadness sit with me on this meadow,
Poor fellow, after rushing through orchards, burning and ravaging homes,
He wants to be with me; let him be, for a while.
Let my old sadness have peace, let him feel the warmth of togetherness.

And then you come back, my New Sadness,
Please do come back then.

পুরোনো নতুন দু:খ
শক্তি চট্টোপাধ্যায়
যে - দু:খ পুরোনো তাকে কাছে এসে বসতে বলি আজ 
আমি বসে আছি , আছে ছায়া , তার পাশে যদি দু:খ এসে বসে 
বেশ লাগে , মনে হয় , নতুন দু:খকে বলি যাও
কিছুদিন ঘুরে এসো অন্য কোনো সুখের বাগানে
নষ্ট কর কিছু ফুল , জ্বালাও সবুজ পাতা , তছনছ কর
কিছুদিন ঘুরে দু:খ ক্লান্ত হও , এসো তারপর 
পাশে বসো 
এখন পুরনো এই দু:খকে বসার জায়গা দাও 
অনেক বাগান ঘুরে , মানুষের বাড়ি ঘুরে , উড়িয়ে - পুড়িয়ে 
ও আমার কাছে এসে বসতে চায় . কিছু দিন থাক 
শান্তি পাক , সঙ্গ পাক,এসো তারপর...
ও নতুন দু:খ তুমি এসো তারপর .....

Translated at Bengaluru / 15 March 2017

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

How can I improve my English?

[This is an expanded version of Section 2.4 of my book Learn English, A fun book of functional language, grammar and vocabulary © 2013 by McGraw Hill Education India Private Limited, India

You will also find it on Linked In.]

English has become the language that connects the world, and every educated non-native speaker of English asks this question at some time or other: “How can I improve my English?”. As you are reading this article, I presume you too have.  

Let me begin by telling you – without a shred of doubt – that everyone can become an effective speaker and writer in English. In this brief article, I would try to offer you some simple strategies you could adopt to improve your English language skills.

Most adult learners have a simple aim: to speak and write clearly, accurately, and fluently. Unfortunately, after 12 years of school in the vernacular medium, where pupils attend say, 1,800 hours of classroom teaching in English, most of them cannot speak or write English with confidence. Why?

The reason is simple: A second language cannot be taught. It must be learned. Language is a skill, and it’s true for any other skill – cooking, singing, or driving. For example, in India, you get a driving licence typically after thirty hours and 300 kilometres of training. But the day you get the licence, can you say you have become a driver?

The answer is a resounding NO. You become a driver only after you have driven a car alone in a busy city road. The journey between getting a licence and driving in a market place is a long and difficult one, and you must travel this distance all alone.

The process of learning a foreign language is similar. And you’ve got to do it alone, mostly. It isn’t easy. You must work smartly and consistently, over a long time. From my experience of teaching English for 16 years, I would say if you have the basic communication skills, you will need at least two years to become fluent and reasonably accurate in English.

Why can’t I speak in English?

Let’s move on to analysing the problems. Look at the two sentences:
·         Smoking is injurious to health.
·         She got off the bus.

I can bet my silk pyjamas that you won’t have a problem with the first sentence. If there is an occasion to tell someone that he/she shouldn’t smoke, you will use the first sentence easily, without hunting for words. However, when it comes to the second sentence, most South Asians would say:
·         She got down from the bus. û

It may look like a fine sentence, but it isn’t. A native speaker of English will perhaps never use it. They say: She got off the bus.

So, where’s the hitch? Why don’t we have a problem with the first sentence, although injurious is not a common word, but we’re unsure about the second? Please think about the answer and write it down before you move to the next section.

Three simple rules

You have possibly got it: we don’t have a problem with the first expression because we’ve heard and read it thousands of times. That brings us to our first mantra.

Mantra No.1: We learn English by reading and listening to good, accurate English repeatedly.

If you read, it will help you to improve your written language. When you listen to good speakers, it will help you speak better. Therefore,

·         Read books, particularly books that have been around for ten years or more.

·     Read newspapers that use correct English (e.g. The Hindu) or the Internet editions of the finest newspapers of the world. I am fond of The Guardian (London) and The New York Times. The first one is available on the Net for free. (They’ll ask you to contribute from time to time, which I think is fair.) For reading the NY Times regularly, you have to subscribe to it.

·   Read magazines like The Frontline, Outlook, the Scientific American, The New Yorker, the Economist, and so on. Most good magazines are available online. And you can read some articles gratis. But it would be better if you subscribe to at least one of them.

·      Watch news programmes and debates on TV. But be selective. Please do not watch TV channels where the anchor and the participators fight like hungry street dogs at a garbage dump. English is a polite language. It is not to be spoken aggressively. So, I would recommend you stick to NDTV 24X7, BBC, Al Jazeera, and CNN IBN.

·   Follow speeches and debates on the YouTube, which is a vast reservoir. Another wonderful resource of our time are the TED talks. Visit www.ted.com/ if you haven’t been visiting the site already.

·         Watch English films as often as you can.

The best way to learn a foreign language is to follow good speakers and writers. The operative word here is “follow”. If you read or listen passively, if you do not make mental notes of the new language you come across, you won’t improve. You must focus on new expressions, remember them, and use them when you get an opportunity.

A word of caution: Lots of people believe – may God forgive them – that good English means using long sentences with impossible-to-pronounce words like sesquipedalianism or subdermatoglyphic. It is not true, trust me! You can live happily and produce healthy children without ever using these words.

In fact, language is a tool to communicate and the simpler you are, the better it is. However, you need to write complex sentences with uncommon words (with precise meanings) if you are an academic, diplomat, or lawyer. You will need long complex sentences only for two reasons: (a) to make your language more compact and incisive, or (b) to hide what you wish to say.

So instead of focussing on just difficult words, look for words and expressions you are likely to use in your life. Like she got off the bus. Let me give you another example. You know what the word “look” means. But the meaning alone doesn’t help. You must learn how to use the word. For example: Look at me.

Here are a few more examples of how the verb look can be used:

ü  Sir, can you please look into the problem of frequent power outages?
ü  Our company is looking for fresh graduates with strong communication skills.
ü  Radhika and Ravi have a nanny to look after their children during the day.

You don’t have to learn all of them at one go. The point is: whenever you read or hear the word look, note what other words go with it. And try to remember the combination.

Also, look for brilliant turns of phrase while watching TV or reading. For example, when Iran was first given the go-ahead to build a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes during the Barack Obama regime, I watched this interview with a diplomat:

Interviewer:        How will you ensure that Iran doesn’t produce weapon-grade material in the plant?
Diplomat:           Well, we have an agreement.
Interviewer:        But is it set in concrete?

The interviewer could have asked the question in hundreds of ways, but he chose to put it in a phrase that not only captured the idea, but also captured the listener’s attention. From now on, as you listen / read, note brilliant expressions that you think might be useful in the context of your life.
But how will you remember those phrases? Language experts tell us that unless you go back to new words and expressions five or six times, you may not remember them. And that brings us to our second mantra.

Mantra No. 2: I will record new expressions in a personal wordbook and review them from time to time.

Here is what you can do.
1.       Write down new words, their meanings, and a few illustrative sentences in a personal word book. If necessary, refer to a dictionary that gives lots of illustrative sentences. For example: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/. Listen to the pronunciation of the word. Write down the pronunciation in your own language.

2.       Go back to every new word after a day, after a week, after a fortnight, after a month, and whenever you can.

Most importantly, practise writing and speaking and try to use the word. First, you should use the new expressions in your mind. Think about them, think of a situation when you can use the new language you’ve just learned. And use the expressions whenever you get an opportunity. So, our next mantra is:

Mantra No.3: I will imagine situations where I can use the new language I’ve just learned and frame sentences in my head. I’ll wait for an opportunity and use the new expression the moment I find one.

Besides, keep a good dictionary and a reliable grammar book that you can refer to whenever a question arises in your mind. My favourite dictionary is The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Oxford University Press). But please remember, a grammar book can only be a supporting tool. It can never become the main prop!

To sum up:
1.       Read and listen to good, accurate English regularly.
2.       Record the new language you come across and review them.
3.       Use the new language you have learned.

Mastering a second language is not a hundred-metre dash, it is a fascinating journey that never ends. But the good news is: you can teach yourself to become a fine speaker and writer. Cheers!

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri
Bengaluru / 14 March 2017

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Why Gurmehar Kaur cannot be tolerated

I bow to the brave teachers of the English Faculty of Lady Sriram College, New Delhi for standing up against vicious trolls, and stepping out for Gurmehar Kaur, one of their students who has presented a strong case against the combination of ultra-nationalism and vandalism we’re witnessing in India today.

So where do we stand? On one side are the ordinary people who don't believe that the present prime minister is the best thing that has happened to India since the glory days prehistoric aeronautical engineering / plastic surgery, those who believe the government is doing lots of terrible things, the primary among which are dividing the country on religious lines, increasing the gulf between the rich and the poor, and damaging our educational infrastructure.

On the other side, we have the thugs and vandals of the students' wing of the ruling party, semi-literate wrestlers and cricketers, and leaders, including ministers and MPs, who are just incapable of understanding the nuanced position Gurmehar has taken, whose boringly repetitive response to any criticism against them is: "YOU CANNOT SPEAK AGAINST THE NATION."

Oh dear! when did the ruling party and its goons become "the nation"? Then who are we? Who am I?

The physical attacks and filthy verbal abuses on the students and teachers of Delhi University don't seem to be a sporadic event. It seems part of a bigger agenda to limit the space for free thoughts. The strategy seems to be something like this: beat up protesters on the street (Ramjas College), harass / jail their leaders on fake charges (Kanhaiah Kumar), push inconvenient students to a corner from where they can never escape (Rohith Vemula), suspend, if possible, sack teacher who support free debates (Rajshree Ranawat of JNV University, Jodhpur), have an army of trolls who are led by some of the leading lights of the ruling party. Stop all forms of expression of dissent, hopefully, dissent itself will vanish from the minds of the people!

Why has the ruling party become so desperate?

For every autocratic political dispensation, the biggest threat is not the opposing political parties, it is not agitations on the streets, it is not the fear of losing elections, it is not even the possibility of a revolution.

It is the people’s ability to T H I N K!!!

Gurmehar Kaur, a girl all of 20 years, has the ability to put his father’s death in a war with Pakistan in a different perspective, she can say, “Pakistan didn’t kill my father, war did.”

Now, if a war hero’s daughter says that, it is difficult to sell the narrative of ultra-nationalism, the core of which is Pakistan bashing, which goes well with the agenda of whipping up passions against Indian Muslims.

So the ruling party has started a war to conquer the mind-space of the people. Whether they succeed or not depends on you, Dear Reader.

Bangalore / 1 March 2017

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

It’s an epic tragedy, please do not gloat!

Online newspapers and the social media, that is, everybody whose opinions matter, is exulting today – with unparalleled smugness and malignant pleasure – about the conviction of a could-have-been chief minister of Tamilnadu, a state with a glorious tradition in graft. I hope this sweeping statement wouldn’t hurt readers from other states of the Indian Republic, and let me quickly add that this is not to belittle anyone, we are all experts in milking cash cows, and our politicians are the finest in the art. But what sets them apart from ordinary thieves is that they are equally good at slipping out of jails. Good that Harry Houdini is no more; had the poor bloke been alive, he would have died of shame.

Take the case of late lamented Dr JJ, in whose case, an honourable judge of the Karnataka High Court goofed up his maths and acquitted the mother of Tamilnadu in a DA case (DA stands for Disproportionate Assets, which is essentially similar to the DA or Dearness Allowance paid to babus to tide over cash crunch). I’m sure you’ll agree we shouldn’t question such minimal errors. After all, the laws of the land don’t stipulate that judges should be good in maths! Arithmetic is not even a part of law curriculums anywhere, please correct me if I am wrong. But coming to think of it, the political future of a state of nine crore took a different turn because of an error in addition committed by some otherwise brilliant IT officials, which went undetected by an even more brilliant judge.

Sorry about the digression. Being senile, I tend to veer off the main topic. Let me return to the theme of this incoherent babble. That is, please think of Sasikala, the tragic heroine of this sad tale.

For long, she unflinchingly served a leading light of the Great Indian Cash-and-carry Democracy and helped her make a little money on the side. And if she (Ms Kala) picked up a few crumbs, that is, a few hundred or thousand crores (please forgive me, beyond five or six zeroes, all figures look the same to me – and that makes me even more sympathetic to judges who botch up maths!) for her hubby or sonny, no one should grudge. But bloody crabby Indians – they just cannot accept if a poor person, particularly a woman, manages to climb close to the rim of the filthy bucket of poverty.

Dear Reader, please forget everything else, just put yourself in Sasikala’s humble shoes for a moment. God opened a door for this poor woman – after a life of slavery under a reportedly ruthless and vindictive master, after decades of humiliations that no one would ever know – to lay her hands on a huge safe, the finest Kanjipuram silks, and shoes (700 as per the last census) plus a chair that the Almighty had added almost as an afterthought. So sweet of Him!

When good fortune smiles at you ear to ear, you can overlook minor doubts about a court case that has gone into a coma, and look forward to entering the ornate door. And dream of the power … the glory … Cayman Island bank accounts … foreign trips with ambassadors fawning on you … earning even more by voting for this bill or that in the parliament … roads paved with flower petals and beds made of solid teakwood processed out of freshly minted post-demonetisation high-value currency notes … and ah! the almost erotic thought of Triple-X-L men in dyed black mustache and starched white dhotis falling at your feet!

But alas! Such a rude awakening ... the road suddenly leads to a walled home with rough floors and pre-used blankets with petty thieves and prostitutes to keep you company!

The dreams shattered so rudely by two mere mortals who dare to close the door opened by God. They will surely pay for it, if not here, in the other world!

And the bigger shame is people gloating over it. If it were two thousand years ago, new epics would be written on this tragedy, and people would read it for another two thousand years.

Bengaluru / Tuesday, 14 February 2017