Archive for ‘calcutta’

April 5, 2010

YfLs6 & 7: Gopi Manjuri with donuts for afters.

I was lazy and failed to post the Yell for Language column last week. As a result, this week you get two whole columns on the subject of spelling.


[Edited versions of the pieces below appeared in the New Indian Express today and last monday.]


A la carte: according to a menu or list that prices items separately

Among the more fascinating sites upon which one can see the English language being used are restaurant menus and signs. Some of these are completely unrelated to the food itself – I recently visited a cafe in Pune where patrons were informed in no uncertain terms, “READING WRITING USE OF LAPTOP STRICTLY PROHIBITED”, conditions that might have led to difficulties where reading the menu and ordering food were concerned. Nissim Ezekiel famously wrote a poem based on the noticeboard at his favourite Irani cafe which had a long list of things that patrons were not supposed to do, including “No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/”. One wonders what patrons were allowed to do.

But signs and menus (or in one case, Meenu) that deal with food are far more exciting. It is amazing to note, for example, the new and wonderful forms that a basic dish like matar-paneer takes on asit travels across the country. One can sample mutter-panir, mater-panner, mottor-paneer, cheese-peas (to attract the foreign clientele, perhaps?), often within two hundred metres of each other. You could also order some toast, or “tost”, accompanied by omelette, omlet, omlit, or even crumbled eggs. Or Garlic Bread with Chesse, which is sadly less about the intellectual stimulation and more about the calories. A venue in Calcutta practically bludgeons you with the perplexing sign “CHICKEN HUNGER TASTE”. Chinese food options include chowmin, chomin, gobi manchurian, and gopi manjuree. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place which serves alcohol, you could even have a Child Bear on the side.

It’s far too easy to mock the dhabas and reasonably inexpensive restaurants though – especially since the food they serve is frequently delicious. It is far more satisfying to visit an expensive place, where the people writing the menu have attempted to make the food sound as wonderful as possible with prose that grows thicker and purpler by the moment. What you thought was a dosai is actually a golden rice pancake, crisped to perfection with coconut chutney offering a transcendent experience. On Valentine’s Day I visited a restaurant in Delhi that had hopefully marked at least half the items on its menu as having aphrodisiac properties (artichokes, who knew?). They had also written flowery and ungrammatical pieces of poetry to describe their cocktails, making me particularly keen to sample something called “First Kiss”:

Kiss is a lovely trick designed by creature to stop speech, two souls but with single thought, two heart but beats as one. Served with a slice of banana.”


Lexicography: The editing or making of a dictionary (Merriam-Webster)

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. (Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language)

In 1746 Samuel Johnson started his project of creating a definitive English language dictionary. There had been other works before, but none of them had been particularly satisfactory, and Johnson practically had to start out from scratch. When you think about it, it’s mindboggling: that it took Johnson less than a decade to write (it was published in 1755) is amazing.
Three years later, Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, was born.
Noah Webster is the “Webster” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (the “Merriam” part comes from the name of the publisher). Webster had very firm ideas about language and education – he believed that American students ought to learn from American, not British, books.
It was Webster who initiated a number of the differences between American and British spelling that we still see today – dropping the “u” from words like colour and flavour and changing “re” to “er” in centre. I do not know whether he was responsible for changing “doughnut” into “donut” (I will never accept this spelling. It is pointless and makes no sense), but he did apparently try to change “tongue” into “tung”. Fortunately it never caught on.
Webster genuinely believed – and lets face it, he had a point – that the rules of English language spelling were far too convoluted and could do with simplifying. He also seems to have wanted not only to definitely distinguish American English from British English, but to create a standardised language for Americans. In addition, he added new words that were unique to America. When Webster’s dictionary was published in 1928, it was big enough for two volumes and contained seventy thousand words – almost thirty thousand more than Dr. Johnson’s version.
What I find fascinating about Webster’s dictionary is that it was written as a means to an end – the author had these stated goals that he hoped his dictionary could achieve. Dr. Johnson occasionally stuck a few hilariously snarky opinions of his own into his dictionary definitions (see “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, or “Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman”) but there’s no sustained effort to make the reader subscribe to Dr. Johnson’s opinions – on language or anything else. Which is why, while Johnson’s dictionary is more fun to read (as far as you can call reading a dictionary fun), Webster’s is fascinating for showing clearly that even dictionaries are not ideologically innocent. And once you’ve figured that out, language becomes much more fun to play with.


January 12, 2009

It is 2009

…and I start the year with a picture of an inflatable giraffe in a hanging chair hammock thing.

June 4, 2008


One of the books I bought in Calcutta was Thomas Frederick Crane’s Italian Popular Tales, edited by Jack Zipes. I’ve been reading it in a very scrappy fashion. The first story in the book is a variation of sorts on the Cupid and Psychemyth. It’s from Sicily and is titled “The King of Love”. For those of you who don’t know the story, Psyche is married to a mysterious man who only comes to her at night; she’s curious about what he looks like (or made curious by her sisters, depending on what version of the story you read); she takes a lamp into the room at night, finds hot nekkid Cupid, manages to drop burning oil/wax onto him and thus wake him up; he disappears and she has to face much torture by Venus before she can achieve marital bliss.In the Sicilian story, the King of Love (he disappears when Rosella, the heroine of this story finds out his name) first appears in the form of a green bird. In my head, I picture him as one of the bright green parakeets (that everyone calls parrots – as far as I know there are no parrots in India. They also refer to that bright colour as “parrot green”.)

(from here)

The Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, is said to travel around on a parrot. I assume this too means a parakeet – certainly all the pictures of him I can find seem to have interpreted it that way:

I find this a strange coincidence, this intersection of love gods and green parrots-that-aren’t-parrots. I suspect I only blogged about it, though, so I could make the horrendous pun in the title.

April 24, 2008

Some words

I’ve been vegetating since I came home. I have a couple of posts lined up (one of them Sporadic Blogger keeps nagging me about) but am nowhere close to actually writing them.

So until I can return to SRS BLOGGER mode, here are some pictures from Calcutta. As is probably obvious, I like taking pictures of things with words on them. I miss Calcutta. It never failed to entertain.

March 8, 2008


Spoils of today’s trip to the Calcutta book fair, with her and her and her.

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales – Bruno Bettelheim
Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls – Roy Porter
Lights Out for the Territory – Iain Sinclair
At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien (I’d benevolently given away my copy last year so I was thrilled to find another. Vintage, in good condition too.)

Poetry (all Faber and Faber editions, if you’re interested in that sort of thing):
Electric Light – Seamus Heaney
New Selected Poems 1966-1987 – Seamus Heaney
Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis – Wendy Cope
Collected Poems 1937-1971 - John Berryman
Omeros – Derek Walcott

Carrying things back to Delhi is not going to be fun.

February 4, 2008

In which I am a bad influence on those around me

Moving to Calcutta has done nothing to improve the situation referred to here. Not only have my sleeping hours crept further into the morning (I went to bed at 10am yesterday), but I have proved a corruptive force, converting my unfortunate flatmate to similar antisocial nightowlery.

A conversation (on GTalk because she’s in the other room) from about 10 minutes ago, at 5:30 –

Sups: so i have decided not to sleep
i’ll pfaff until 6, make some really strong tea, and … not sleep

Aishwarya: I’m not sure either of us has a choice
yes, this is a good plan

Sups: what shall i do to stave off sleep for the rest of the day?

Aishwarya: filter coffee?

Sups: morning walk.
then. cooking.

Aishwarya: or. actually. tell you what.

Sups: then. bath.

Aishwarya: when we are sleepy
one of us can sleep

Sups: and filter coffee

Aishwarya: while the other stands guard

Sups: maybe an afternoon nap.

Aishwarya: and wakes them up after a couple of hours
this will work. I think.

Sups: lolgaurd
ya, i like this idea
the bottomline being
at 5pm we should be awake tomorrow

Aishwarya: yes
only 11.5 hours to go!

Sups: of which we can spend at least TWO APIECE asleep

Well at least there is filter coffee.

February 1, 2008


Steph from Crooked House recently tagged me for this meme in which I am expected to share six random things/habits/facts about myself. So here you are, six things you probably never wanted to know about me:

1. I was born here. So was Derek Walcott. I am oddly proud of this.

2. I am (perhaps excessively) concerned about the size of my nostrils. I’m not sure why this is, and there are plenty of more noticeable things about my body I could whine about, but really. My nostrils. They’re just wrong.

3. Like most frustrated writer types, I have a muse. He looks like a younger (and clean shaven – think Stage Beauty) Billy Crudup, with even more interesting angles to his face. Tragically, he only speaks welsh. I bought myself a Teach Yourself Welsh book back in September so that I could commune with him, but only got as far as learning how to pronounce the “Ll”. Someday. For now, I’m just happy to watch him prance around my room in a little loincloth when I require him to.

4. Up until I was nine, I learned three different dance forms. Including ballet, which is a source of much amusement to my friends. Then I stopped. At parties, I stand in a corner with a drink and make scintillating conversation instead.

5. The thing I miss most about home is the bookshelves. I feel this overwhelming urge to pick up a book and read a few lines that jump out at me, be reminded of something else in another book, and so pace the room for a few hours till about 20 books are open on the bed.There are only 25 books in this room in Calcutta, and I’m reading and remembering everything I should have brought with me. I miss my complete Blake most.

6. I own three pairs of pink shoes. I’m open to the possibility of acquiring more.

I am cruel, so I will tag Teleute, the Jabberjee, Bhavya, the Flatmate, Dan and Aadisht.

January 18, 2008

Anti – Climatic

Calcutta is far, far warmer than Delhi. Calcuttans think this is cold and travel around be-sweatered and monkeycapped (recent events in the world of sport have led to my flatmate calling them teri maa ki caps) and slightly shocked at my seeming indifference to the weather. To which I reply, in tones of superiority, that I am from Delhi.

Embarrassingly I have now caught a cold and am living on soup and tea. There is a lesson to be learned here.

Then again, if it hadn’t been for this cold (and its attendant sore throat) I would never have discovered the joy that is Dilmah’s wild cherry tea. So. Not so bad, really.

January 12, 2008

the consequences of room sharing

Living with Roswitha has certain…advantages. One of them is the joy of unashamedly listening to the sort of music that one generally has to pretend to be embarrassed about. I have been introduced, for example, to this:

January 1, 2008

How I became a Creature of the Night

It must be about four o’clock, thought Moist. Four o’clock! I hate it when there are two four o’clocks in the same day.*

I’m not sure if it’s just me (and PTerry, apparently), but 4 am has always been a sort of borderline time for me. I suspect my grandfather had something to do with it – when I was young he would wake up at 4 for his morning walk to the temple. And so it had entered my consciousness as a time when people (not myself, of course, but reasonably normal people nonetheless) could wake up. Plus it was close to 5, which wasn’t that unearthly an hour to rise, and 5 was close to 6, which was practically sensible. On the other hand, though, I was surrounded by people who usually slept late. They had been known to finally get to bed at 4, though none of them did it regularly.

As I grew up, I did sometimes go to bed at 4. If I was reading an interesting book, for example, or had been at a party. It was still rare. There was something rather sinful about staying up till 4, for some reason.

But during the exams early in 2007 my lifestyle changed drastically. I would, as a matter of routine, sleep or laze the day away, panic after midnight, and frantically flip through notes till about 3. I would then require something to soothe my brain before sleep was possible.

So I began to watch Postman Pat. On Pogo, dubbed into Hindi, at 3:30 am every weekday. It was, really, the only watchable thing on TV.

Which was all very well. Exams (and Postman Pat dubbed into Hindi) are extenuating circumstances, I suppose. Unfortunately, once they were done with I found it impossible to re-acquire civilized sleeping habits. I became officially nocturnal. Relieved of all responsibility, I entered a life of decadent disregard for my native timezone. I would sleep till noon and read till dawn. At the end of May, Supriya was a horrified observer of my sleeping habits. In November, the PL would shamelessly exploit them by asking me if I’d mind staying up till 5:30 and waking him up so he’d have time to go to the gym. It was a downward spiral. I still cannot break free. I’ve even considered moving to a country in a more conveniently situated timezone. It seemed the only solution. England, now, England would work. 5 ½ hours behind us, yes?

But I am not moving to England just yet. I am, however, moving to Calcutta this saturday afternoon. I suspect I will miss Delhi.

Anyway. A very happy new year to everyone who reads this, though I’m pretty sure the Gregorian calendar is Against Our Culture.

*From my shiny new autographed copy (thanks, Shreyas!) of Terry Pratchett’s Making Money