Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bread, Aristotle and local savouries

What I like most about Bombay is its ability to charm you when you're least expecting it. After a brief and predictably annoying Sunday-morning visit to Croma, the electronics chain run by the Tatas (company motto: "We will be rude AND charge higher prices, if you don't like it you can just get lost") I wandered over to my favourite bakery, Yazdani, nestled in a lane off Flora Fountain. I had always assumed it was closed on Sundays but this was the first time I thought to check -- and it was very much open. While buying my favourite seven-grain bread I overheard this fascinating conversation between three Parsis standing outside the shop. They were wearing traditional hats suggestive of a recent visit to the fire temple next door.

P1: Now tell me, when winter comes, why does it come all of a sudden on one particular day?
P2: Because that's when the sun, moon and earth are all in a straight line.
P3: No it's something else, I don't remember. But it was Aristotle who figured this out. Him, and all the ancient Greeks.
P2: Yes and he travelled all over the world to find out these things.
P1: I can bet you it wasn't Aristotle who travelled. He must have paid some poor mathematician to do the work for him.

Smiling to myself I wandered home with my precious beret-shaped seven-grain loaf. On reaching home I had the additional pleasing thought that I could (if I wished) buy a sextant, or astrolabe, or ancient wind-up gramophone, on the very road where I live. I don't expect to ever buy these things, but could I possibly adjust to living in a town (or area) where they aren't sold on every other street? I wonder.

My nephew Karun told me another story about a Parsi this morning. This one, let's call him P4, went to a movie theatre and demanded tickets for a recent Bollywood film called "Love, Sex aur Dhokha". Except that the confused Mr P4 thought the title was "Love, Sex aur Dhokla"! The staff at the ticket counter tried to explain his error but soon gave up and collapsed in splits.

I love this city.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Welcome to the MBA

The recent headline "MNS to start Marathi Academy" will have drawn a few gasps of surprise. This political party, more widely known for its antipathy to non-Maharashtrians than for any great fondness for Marathi culture, has in the words of this press report "decided to set up a Marathi Bhasha Academy in Pune to promote the use of Marathi language and culture. Among other things, the academy will translate English literature into Marathi and Marathi writings into English." You should read the full report , but I'll quote a noteworthy comment from a party member who "wants Marathi to be a language of information like English. The party wants books on engineering, medical, architecture to be published in Marathi and encourage students to use them."

There will be cynics who will read bad intentions into this, but my take is positive. After all, the stated goals are entirely laudable. I think I'm not the only one who cringes when the software I'm installing offers me a choice of languages like Catalan, Hebrew or Norwegian (whose speakers taken together would barely fill Mumbai) but no Indian languages. So if Marathi actually becomes a language of information and is used routinely in computers, mobiles etc by Marathi speakers, it will set a welcome trend not just for the state but for all of India.

Admittedly, achieving such a status is a tall order. As an example, I assume a lot of Andhra-ites (prominent in the international software community) have been trying to make Telugu an information language but the impact of this has not yet been too visible. Still someone has to try, and we should hope they succeed.

The above development is also welcome for a political reason. What the various Senas have been doing since their inception is to cleverly tap into veins of negativity within segments of the Maharashtrian community. Talking to their sympathisers over the years I've detected a combination of frustration together with a sense of inferiority that easily converts into blind and typically self-defeating anger. But at the rate at which India is changing, I expect the inferiority is fading away and more confident generations are starting to emerge -- how could it be otherwise when our youth hear that we will be a leading economy in a mere twenty years?

I wonder whether the Maharashtrian echo of this growing national confidence is a growing distaste for the tokenism and petty violence that's made the Senas famous, and a desire to see some meaningful action on the ground. If there is such a trend then the Senas will be obliged to react and, having sacked their hired goons, recruit a new breed of young and motivated academics to set up organisations like the MBA and otherwise propagate the local language and culture (and, I very much hope, music).

Yes I realise the above is a utopian view. It's hard to believe the tigers will stop roaring and sit in front of their keyboards and terminals from now on. But even if there's a tiny trend, and the above news article suggests there is, it's very welcome indeed.

Tailpiece: Another political party, the NCP, which used to spend its time getting "objectionable" books banned and asking Interpol to arrest authors (see this article) has recently organised a cycle race to spread awareness about climate change (see this article).