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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The Stepmother

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Shweta washed her hands repeatedly. Yet, she could not rinse off the stench of death. She had helped straighten the body, the body no one seemed to want to touch…the body of her great grandmother, Shamaboti…

Shamaboti had in her own way loved Shweta very much. She always encouraged Shweta to be an independent and free entity… ready to launch out on her own at any point. And that is exactly what Shweta had done. She had just started working as a journalist and did not want to marry or have a boy friend. She had big dreams, encouraged most of all by Shamaboti. Her dreams included walking on the Great Wall and writing a book on it! Perhaps, she would do a book on many ancient wonders of the world… go to Easter Island, check out the pyramids in Egypt, maybe also Macchu Pichhu… travel to the Arctic… And all the time she would write.

Shweta loved her great grandmother but not enough to weep broken-heartedly. Probably, out of all the great grandchildren, she loved Shamaboti the most. What most amazed her was Shamaboti’s life! Perhaps she could research and write about it eventually…

Shamaboti Devi was born just before the turn of the twentieth century into a Kulin Brahmin family, the creme-de-la- creme of the chosen ones, the most prized of all castes. Her father was a Kulin Brahmin. He had had more than a dozen wives and made a living by marrying as many women as were willing with a fees. Shamaboti saw her father once every two years, when he came to visit her mother, one of his umpteen wives. His job as a high caste Kulin Brahmin was to impregnate as many women as he could marry with seeds of high caste Brahminism to further propagate his clan and collect money from his in-laws for saving their daughters from the misfortune of spinsterhood. Her father never bought his wife or daughter a present but was always given presents by his in-laws, who maintained his wife and daughter for him.

There were many like him that progressives, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Tagore family and others, among them some belonging to Kulin clans too, were trying their best to oppose and reform. What had started as a mechanism to retain cultural integrity had been reduced to a corrupt ritual where a sixty-year-old man could be paid to marry a six-year-old girl!

Shamaboti’s mother was married a little late…when she was already past puberty and she had her daughter about four years later. Her father was of an undefined age, which was accepted, as he was a man.

Shamaboti was considered a pretty young girl. She was plump and fair. Youth had loaned her a supple grace.

Shamaboti didnot know her exact age or birthdate, which is why no one knew what her age was when she died. They estimated it was over ninety.

Shamaboti told her great (step) grandchildren stories of her childhood. Most of her stories were centered around how she had fun climbing trees but got scolded for ruining her sarees in the process. She also spoke of hiding raw mangoes in the folds of her saree and eating them on the sly.

When she related these stories, all her great grand children, with the exception of Shweta, reacted with giggles! They could not dream of climbing trees in sarees as such wear was old fashioned and cumbersome. It was the age of hot pants!

Shweta, always a dreamer, wondered what life was like then…a century ago…

Shamaboti played with her cousins till she reached the ripe old age of five or six. Then she was channeled to learn household chores and to work like a spare maid in her uncle’s home. She did wander off to climb trees and pluck a fruit or read a Bengali book hidden behind some furniture, when she had time. She used to read on the sly because it was given out by her aunts that if you read, you would lose your feminity and no man wanted a clever wife!

Shamaboti loved to hear or read a good story… She had learnt to read and write from her cousin and playmate, Dulal.

Life jogged on till one day she heard she was getting married. She thought it was a wonderful thing because at last she would leave her uncle’s home to go to that of her husband! She was so much luckier than her mother as her husband would be only hers and no other woman’s! She had never gone out of the village… now, she would live in Calcutta, the big city…

Oh what dreams the young girl had! She heard Anirvan was handsome and dashing.

At last, she would be a queen in her own home. How delighted was Shamaboti!

Anirvan married Shamaboti and brought her home. On the boat that took them away from her village, Anirvan told her that she had two step sons to care for and he expected her to be a good mother. Shamaboti merely inclined her head and accepted… She said nothing.

When they alighted at his home, he showed her a painting of a woman on a horse and said , “ That is your elder sister Ambalika. She had two sons. The boys lost their mother at a young age.”

Then he said, “Come I will show you the kitchen and your sons.”

He took her to an adjoining room where two young boys were playing with toy soldiers. “Come here boys,”said the father. “This is your new mother. And this is Rajkrishna and this is Shyamol. Look after them well.”Rajkrishna being the elder of the two came forward and paid his respects by touching her feet. Shyamol followed. But they did not smile at her once! She smiled but there was no response…

Anirvan turned to her and said, “I will stay in my room and pray. My prayers should not be disturbed. You can sleep with the children.”

Shamaboti was stunned. But she said nothing. She just accepted. It was a woman’s job to adapt to every situation, she had been taught well by her mother. She spent her wedding night with her two step sons. The boys were not too friendly. She spread a mat on the floor and slept.

What Shamaboti had not been told was Anirvan had a past and that is what he lived by…

His past was the delightful Ambalika, his first wife. Ambalika was a beautiful, talented woman who at the turn of the century rode horses and spoke, read and wrote in seven languages.

Anirvan was besotted by the clever Ambalika the first day he saw her riding with her father. Her father was a well-known intellectual who had leanings towards Brahmoism, a Hindu reformist movement started by Rammohan Roy in the eighteenth century. Ambalika played the piano and sang like a lark. She knew English ballads taught by her British governess.

Anirvan, an orphan but still a rich father’s son, had no difficulty in marrying the woman of his dreams. Ambalika’s father was liberal enough to overlook the fact that Anirvan was not a Brahmo. And Anirvan didnot care what the Hindu pundits said about marrying a Brahmo. Their married life was idyllic. The social ostracism they faced from the more conventional Brahmos and Hindus drew them closer to each other. They had more than enough to live like kings and have a wonderful life. Money rubbed away the edges of social criticism. After two idyllic years, Ambalika gave birth to a son, Rajkrishna.

Rajkrishna was Shweta’s grandfather. He had an affluent start in life but when he was four-years-old, not only was his mother expecting a new baby but his father’s fortunes collapsed. The two ships owned by him sank at sea with expensive cargo on board. He had to repay the traders. He lost a lot of money and had a tough time running his home. He had to sell off his horses and the expensive paintings from his walls. Lot of his staff who ran his home had to go. They were left with only an old man and the woman who looked after Rajkrishna. No one knows if it was the shock of becoming penurious or the travails of childbirth that took Ambalika to her heavenly abode two days after the birth of her younger son.

Anirvan was stunned with grief. He took to locking himself up in his room and praying all the time. He turned to religious rituals and the Almighty in his sorrow and forgot he had two little children to rear. For sometime, the two servants took care of the household and children but when money wore itself thin, they started finding it difficult to manage. The woman left. Anirvan hired a new man.

Anirvan’s distant cousin who saw his state of finances and inability to make ends meet or bring up children, recommended he rent out rooms to tenants to have enough to put food on the table and the children, through schooling. He also recommended a second marriage as a last resort. The wife could run the house, supervise the servants, cook and look after the children. Then, he could stay with his prayers all the time. For sometime, Anirvan refused to think of marriage. He just rented out some rooms to three families in his enormous family mansion. He found it trying to associate with these families, to collect rentals and to keep an eye on the children. Finally, irritated by having to interact with tenants, children and the needs of the new inefficient manservant, he realized the house needed managing. He agreed to marry.

He had not even seen Shamaboti once before the marriage. He was not interested in having a wife. He only needed someone to keep the house in order and to bring up his children.

Shamaboti’s husband hardly spoke to her. Eventually, after a few years, he faded to death. Shamaboti, in her twenties, wore the garb of a widow, managed the finances of the house, looked after the two boys and had a passion for books and cards. She played cards with the tenants’ wives every afternoon and bought a few books. She was there for the boys, though they resented the fact that she was their stepmother. Eventually, the boys completed their university, started working and got married.

Rajkrishna did well and had four children, two daughter and two sons. He sold his ancestral mansion and split the money with his brother and built a beautiful house in New Delhi, where he worked as a senior director in The Reserve Bank. His brother worked and built a house in Bombay.

Rajkrishna’s eldest son was Shweta’s father.

Rajkrishna took charge of looking after his stepmother though he did not like her much. Shyamol did not want to take charge as his wife hated the old woman. Everytime Shamaboti visited Bombay, her younger daughter-in-law would be rude and she returned early to Rajkrishna. Rajkrishna’s wife, Preeti, was loving and kind and felt sorry for the old woman, who for no fault of hers was criticised by others for being a stepmother… Preeti loved her husband very much and understood his obligations to his stepmother. But, for most others, Shamaboti remained quintessentially the stepmother, who was never loved by her husband or stepsons. She was criticised for being unloved!

That was the part Shweta could not figure out, had she been given a chance to be anything else other than an unwanted stepmother? Would anyone in the current day ever accept the role as placidly as Shamaboti had?

Shamaboti Devi grew old and started withering in front of Shweta’s eyes after her stepsons died of cancer and heart attack, respectively. She did not weep for her stepsons but just started shrinking… She lay on her bed, had to be fed and bathed. A nurse was maintained for her by Shweta’s father. Shamaboti did not want to die. She could still read. She was in the middle of an exciting new thriller and there were more to come… She hung on. She grew frailer and wheezed while breathing. She found it difficult to read. The nurse, Shweta and her mother took turns to read to her.

One day, she died while listening to a story.

Shweta helped straighten her corpse and could not forget the sensation. It was cold and rigid. The smell of death haunted her nostrils for days.

Her relatives had no time for the funeral.

Her father, grandmother, mother and Shweta conducted the rituals for the dead. It was all rather muted. No one had the time to mourn.

After a fortnight, Shweta was told by the family lawyer that Shamaboti had left behind a will of which she was the sole beneficiary. Everyone was amazed, except Preeti who had helped call in the lawyer and witnessed the will that was made. In it, Shamaboti had left behind all her jewellery and a diary that she maintained when she got married and while she was bringing up the boys for Shweta! Her heavy gold jewellery was worth more than twenty lakhs… Shweta had no use for it but she kept it in a locker in the bank for sentimental reasons…

The diary was a real gem for her. She sat and read the diary of the woman who was mourned by none… In it she found a woman of passions who, despite all her docile training, yearned to explore the world outside as much as her step great grand daughter…Here was a woman who had fallen in love , even if the love was never requited, a woman who did her best for her step sons and a woman who married her elder step son to an educated girl… one who had finished higher secondary in days when girls were married, having passed just grade eight. Preeti confirmed she finished school before she married and her mother-in-law had insisted on that!

Shweta, the inheritor of the diary, wrote a book and published it with the help of her editor. It became a prize winning best seller.

As Shweta stepped down from the dias after receiving the Sahitya Akademi award, she pondered over the strange life of her great grandmother…

She wondered if she would have got this award or would she herself  have existed if Shamaboti did not come into her great grandfather’s life…Was it a life wasted, thrown away or lived to the full? Did anyone ever love her? Did she ever feel the lack of love in her life?

A tear formed at the edge of Shweta’s eyes.

 

 

Book of the Week

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Title: The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan

Author: John Man

Published in 2009, The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan, combines history and leadership theory. I truly enjoy all of John Man’s books. He writes on history with a passion and makes it come to life for me.

I found this book very easy to read and could fully visualise the young Genghis Khan creating history riding through the grasslands of Mongolia to Bulgaria and Korea. Genghis Khan by Man’s description was not only a man of integrity but also charismatic. He is a leader with a vision and a mission, the vision being to have Mongols rule the world and his mission was to attain it at all costs. Man does point out that though his vision was a little  insane , we have to understand that in his times, there were no cartographers and Genghis Khan had no idea how big the world was. Given that context, he went as far as he could go.

Man has used translations of what has been passed down of Genghis Khan’s words to bring out what a great leader Genghis Khan was. This is what the grand Khan wrote with the wealth of China at his feet in a letter to inviting his Daoist spiritual guide to his court.

Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers…

Man shows us how Genghis Khan actually bears out the truth of what he expressed in this letter. A sable coat was gifted to his mother by his in-laws when he married at sixteen. He or his mother never wore it. Instead, he used it as an asset to negotiate with another tribal leader. He lived frugally in tents with his herdsmen and raged through the grasslands to create an empire which lasted for almost a century as opposed to the legendary Qin Shi Huang Di whose dynasty lasted only from 221 to 206 BC and who bequeathed the world a grand mausoleum for himself in the guise of Terracotta warriors.

Genghis Khan wanted to be buried in secret for the sake of his dreams. He was in the process of subjugating the Tanguts. His team moved on to build on his vision and create the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted from 1234 AD to 1368 AD. Genghis himself died in 1227AD. His vision was fulfilled by others in his clan who regarded him as someone who had divine rights to unite them and lead them. He was an influential leader who cared for his people and unified those under him.  Man sums it up by writing Genghis Khan had

Humility and tolerance together: two surprising traits in a world conquerer notorious for his power and brutality. 

Genghis was brutal, Man explains, not because he found pleasure in senseless violence but to create an empire. The Tangut culture,among others, and its script were wiped out only because they stood in the way of his dream of unified world empire under the Mongols. His vision was more important to him than lives of evanescent humankind.

Man also highlights how Genghis Khan always valued talent beyond race. He was a multi national in his outlook as was his grandson Kublai, in whose reign Marco Polo thrived. Many talented foreigners did join the Mongols as they slashed through the steppes, unstoppable, unbeatable. He tried to integrate the nomadic tribes around the Mongols and to create a unified script by borrowing from the Uighurs. Genghis Khan lent an ear not only to good advise from his companions but also from the women of his family, mother and wives. He is said to be a visionary leader who towers above his times, an extraordinary leader. But is he a good one?

Is a good leader allowed to kill to attain his vision? Then we would have to justify Mustafa Mond (Brave New World) and Big Brother( 1984).

Where does the quest for power lead us? Does the end ever justify the means? Isn’t how you do the thing more important than the end in itself? Should good leadership not have to do with that?