Babel

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People started using a language to communicate at some point in history…They say about a 100000 years ago… could be more… some say 200,000 years ago… Intellectuals and scientists are still trying to figure out that one.

Linguists continue to cogitate and have agitated arguments over the issue of the evolution of the first language. But the point is, they can argue because language and words evolved and they exist. And it is a fact that language is what has separated humans from the birds, bees, lions, tigers, apes, fishes, crabs, whales, dolphins, elephants and Neanderthals. These creatures communicate too (or communicated too, in case of Neanderthals) with grunts, tunes, trills, gestures, dances and notes; but none of them can (or could) talk or communicate in ways as complex as humans.

Neanderthals evidently had the tools in them to talk, but were too primitive to develop speech, which ultimately fell into the forte of our ancestors, the homo sapiens, who evolved somewhere in Central Africa.

Sometimes, I wonder if the famed Ethiopian Lucy of the Australopithecus family called out to her beloved in words or grunts or notes? She has been much celebrated with words by not only intellectuals but also by songsters like Beatles and Elton John. And yet, perhaps 3.2 million years ago, did she speak? Would she be able to understand the serenades for her?

Would she be able to comprehend any of the modern languages we use today? Can you believe that currently there are more than 5,000 languages in the world?! It might seem an astounding figure, especially compared to Lucy’s times, but from a handful of people, the human family has to grown 7,500,000,000 large… quite a leap from Lucy’s lifetime, I believe!

At some point the first language must have started with grunts coming out of descendants of Lucy, the first men and women that lived in Africa and, eventually, in their progeny who walked out of Africa to create homes all over the world. We, the progeny of these walkers, now speak in complex sentences, using varied words in varied languages that probably our early ancestors would have found impossible to comprehend.

Languages, like their users, tend to run into each other. They share some words or some word roots in common. They could all exist in harmony and learn from each other if they did not join their users in a rat race to prove themselves superior or the most spoken. With a cutthroat cultural race among different nations and states, languages have become a commodity. Politicians use it to prove their prowess and power. Some languages have been wiped completely off from the surface of the Earth by invaders and rulers or sneers from people who considered them inferior. Some of the power brokers ironed out the differences among people who lived under their protection by ironing out their language and uniting them under the banner of one language that they called the national language.

Today, when a person speaks, he is immediately classified into a nationality, a class, a creed, a culture and a region. Henry Higgins of Pygmalion (play by G.B. Shaw, 1913) and My Fair Lady (Hollywood adaptation of Pygmalion) fame created more than a century ago made a pertinent observation on this issue. He says,

an Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him: the moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him...

We can apply this well in the context of  the spoken word, not just for English speakers or ‘an Englishman’ as he says, but for speakers of all languages. The minute we open our mouth, we are labeled.

There are people who frown on users of languages they consider spoken or used by hostile groups. But one just wonders, is it the fault of the language or the users? We associate the power of words with the negative impact the users have made on society…much like we associate the power of the atom with the devastation caused by the nuclear bomb.

Then, there is the case of mother tongue… when you do not speak, read or write it, people among your family and friends often frown… I have always wondered why? Perhaps, because of the theory that says language evolved from mother tongue, that is the sounds used by the mother to communicate with the baby… then it must have been in an arboreal environment… now, we do it in more than 5000 different ways! And yet, in this long linguistic list missing is the original mother tongue of all mother tongues that evolved in Africa 100,000 or 200,000 years ago! We do not even know what the language is…

Our research of speech starts with the written words. The oldest known written language is Egyptian or is it Sumerian…? I am confused! Logically, there must have been something they spoke before they built palaces and homes… and that would be the mother tongue of all the human race. That is what we all would be speaking if we went by tradition and culture…that is what our ancient ancestors spoke when they walked out to populate the beautiful green Earth. And that is what we have lost to the dusts of time…

Now the babel of more than 5000 languages have become sources of unhappy divisions instead of a means to communicate to make our own lives easier and happier. I wonder, how our great (to the power a hundred and twenty thousand generations or more) grandmother, the celebrated Lucy, would react to this medley of words …

 

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Leaving China

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Chapter 10

My utopia is a world where Khayyam and Tagore would walk together, crossing the barriers of time, space and age…

It would be an island in the bright blue ocean with lush green vegetation where birds and plants would proliferate. Arthur C Clarke and Asimov would be discussing the future of mankind with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Perhaps, someday Marco Polo would dock on it in a ship with Kublai’s crew… And I would sit there with my I pad and invisibly watch and record all the action! It would be a bit like Asimov’s Gaia, except the collective mind would draw borders at telepathic communication. The weather would be eternal spring and it would be sunshine forever. We would all be in touch with the most positive in our mindset.

A dash of Nikolai Tessla playing with his lightening rods and Shakespeare directing his plays in a natural theatrette, made with a circular chain of low lying hills…the sky would be bright blue with white clouds…and maybe, sometimes, Mozart and Beethoven would create music by the seaside with instruments that never got wet or spoilt. Indian maestros like Mallikarjun Mansur would match the sound of the waves in open air concerts and Bhimsen Joshi would sing Meghmallar to bring on a sprinkle of rain. Occasionally, the Beatles would go crazy with their guitaring. And Jean Pierre Rampal would create and play a Jazz piece called Utopia!

I know it all sounds insane but I had the opportunity in China to get more in touch with all these things. What was fantastic was I had friends who could relate to these things and not get peeved by talk of my Utopia. I was amazed that people did not find my ideas or tastes boring and traditional. Some of my expat friends spoke of greats from their culture and I learnt more. There was a feeling of give and take. Local Chinese appreciated the fact that I wrote. A local friend told me that it was good I wrote my book on China. They wanted to translate it. But, I had a flight to catch…back to Singapore.

We had a two week wait in a hotel before we boarded our flight out of China. The new ruling had it that we needed to be within the country when they checked on the things we were taking back home with us. The rulings in China can change anytime and you need to comply to them and move on. My utopian ideal was one thing but it was really tough living out of suitcases for two weeks, even though it was in a five star hotel. But, there were people who seemed to like it. One day we met an American who lived in the hotel permanently. He and his visiting teenage son were returning to their room when he paused to remark on Surya’s antics as my younger son was singing something crazy and doing weird walks along the corridor in a bid to dispense his extra energy. It was hazy outside and we could not do our usual walk for the high PSI levels.

At home, Surya would have read, played a game or watched a movie. In the hotel, Aditya had a different room. We didnot allow the kids to rent movies. And he had to create his own entertainment. So, he did…except we had an amused audience of the American and his son… To me it was really strange that a person, even if he were living alone, would choose to stay in a hotel on a daily basis. It would be so restrictive. You could never cook yourself a gastronomic delight from your heart! You could never do up your room with your choice of colours and paintings. You could never argue in loud voices with your family. You could never invite your friends over for a meal cooked by you. You could never try out a new musical instrument in the later hours of the evening. But your laundry would be done without an effort and you would never need to shop for groceries!

Trying out a musical instrument in an apartment is difficult too…coming to think of it. I remember, in China, a friend’s husband practiced his guitaring in their pent house apartment every night. The neighbours downstairs found it unacceptable and complained regularly. We were luckier in China. When Aditya practiced his french horn, our Finnish neighbour upstairs was really delighted. He wanted to know if Aditya could play the Finnish National Anthem on the french horn. We have never had issues with boys practising the piano, guitar, recorder or clarinet at home but we had issues with Surya jumping in his bedroom at 10 pm in Singapore to get the pool water out of his ear. I had an irritated teenage neighbour who lived downstairs standing outside my door and shouting. I had to call in the security to calm her and her parents and escort them downstairs. Quite an experience for us!

In China, locals could inconvenience us by abstaining from presenting themselves in time or completing the assigned work in time but we had always found them very courteous in their behaviour towards foreigners. So, the shouting really came as a shock to us in Singapore. The feeling I get here often is that people are disatisfied and unhappy. In China, the feeling was of an upsurge of happiness and hope which is why it was easier for me to visualise my utopia while I was there.

While we waited at the hotel to leave China, we caught up on some more sightseeing within Suzhou. There was this ancient temple called Ling Yan temple in the water town of Mudu. I and my sons had been to it once during a summer we spent in Suzhou in 2009, I think. My husband was working. The view from the hilltop was fantastic. I still remember a monk who helped us find our way to the temple on top of a steep hill and disappeared mysteriously. He was very excited when he saw us and insisted on calling us mother and the little buddha from India. I do not know which one of my sons he was alluding to but I am guessing, it was Surya as he was obviously the little one!

imageWhen we went back the second time with my husband, we discovered the temple had a lovely garden at the foothill with peacocks strutting, and occassionally dancing, around. There were  some ancient Indian artefacts too in the temple. It was evidently founded by an abbot called ‘the light of India’. We were not clear about the Indian connection but there was something there. After savouring the views and exploring the temple as we walked back to the car, we came across various vendors, including a palmist, who insisted on telling my future. He wanted his palm crossed by a red note…100 rmb… We were forced to give in. A crowd collected as he foretold a glorious future for me. He said I would be very happy when I turn sixty! Now, at the threshold of fifty, I am desperately waiting to reach sixty so that I can see what are the fantastic things life holds out for me…will I become a princess with silver blonde locks, will I become a popular author, will my husband and I win a lottery and go on a world tour or, most excitingly, will I become a grandmother and have the opportunity at last of spoiling babies rotten…

With such happy thoughts, I bid adieu to China. As the flight took off from Shanghai, I had my last glimpse of the city of fabulous night lights and futuristic buildings and looked forward to a new adventure in Singapore, the city of the Merlion.