Small Aubergining

August 21, 2019

Many years ago, before the 🍆 emoji gave it a double meaning, the brinjal’s greatest nonculinary achievement was to be in the catchphrase of Meera Syal’s grandmother character in the BBC’s British Asian sketch comedy series, Goodness Gracious Me.

The sketches aren’t online, alas, so I’ll summarise quickly for anybody who hasn’t seen them. The grandma, in any situation where somebody is buying something – informs them smugly that she can make it at home for nothing. All she needs is an ingredient, another ingredient, and a small aubergine. The situations range from supermarket shopping to fine dining, to Masterchef, and eventually to a heart transplant.

I now propose that we honour this frugal grandma by using the term ‘small aubergining’ to describe a particular sort of shopping. That is, to spot some sort of clothes, jewellery, handicrafted accessories, or similar on an international website; to then roll your eyes at the first world prices, and finally, to take a screenshot or printout of the said product to your local tailor, jeweller, or carpenter and have them duplicate it at Indian prices – that is, practically nothing. Bonus points, or the term ‘advanced small aubergining,’ if you don’t even take it to a local craftsperson but do it yourself.

For example, a British lady is selling covers for A5 notebooks on etsy for $17.63 plus shipping. They are extremely nice covers, but my mind revolts at paying that much. So I small aubergined these covers by taking an old pair of jeans to a tailor in Hauz Khas market, who turned them into four covers for just 500 rupees. Like so:


Yes, the notebook sticks out a bit, and if the cover could have had a zip or button or other fastener it would have been even better, but I’m considering this an early prototype. The point is that I found a First World Solution on Etsy, and small aubergined my way into paying Third World Prices. It feels amazing.

Trying to Define Dignity

September 22, 2017

As I mentioned earlier, I have been reading Deirdre McCloskey, and her books are so maximalist that they have left me with lots to think about (in agreement or disagreement). One of those things that has been preoccupying me for the last month or so1 is from her book Bourgeois Dignity (which is a sequel to The Bourgeois Virtues but I read it a year before reading TBV).  The relevant bit is this, from early in the book:

Dignity and liberty are admittedly hard to disentangle. But dignity is a sociological factor, liberty an economic one. Dignity concerns the opinion that others have of the shopkeeper. Liberty concerns the laws that constrain him. The society and the economy interact. Yet contrary to a materialist reduction, they are not the same. Laws can change without a change in opinion. Consider prohibition of alcohol and then of drugs over the past ninety years. And opinion can change without a change in laws.


This sort of “Dignity is what other people think of you” definition ends up being in opposition to another definition of dignity, which stuck in my head from reading about the difference between honour and dignity societies. I don’t remember where I originally came across that, but this blogpost is a nice summary, and throws in bonus descriptions of experimental research2:

[Honor] culture is based on the idea that a person’s worth is based on his reputation. Reputation, in turn, is based on positive and negative reciprocity. This means that in order to be considered honourable you need to repay favors, but also revenge insults, even very small ones. If you fail in these obligations, especially in revenging insults, other people will shame you by laughing or expressing disgust, and your reputation/honor will be ruined. The motivating emotion that makes people do what they are supposed to do is shame.

The dignity culture is characterized by the conviction that all individuals have an inner, inalienable worth. The ideal person of dignity is one who stands by his principles and doesn’t listen to gossip. This attitude will of course not protect your life or property so it requires a state that enforces the rule of law. The person of dignity is less prone to corruption since he follows his internal standards and is less swayed by what other people say.

So, what McCloskey calls the “opinion others have of the shopkeeper” sounds more like honour than dignity, the way she has defined it. Of course, you could say that by this she means that other people recognise the inherent self-worth of the shopkeeper, and that practically, your inherent self-worth has no benefit if others don’t recognise it as well and refrain from humiliating you or beating you up.3  But it’s odd that what she has written doesn’t seem to acknowledge what seems to be a reasonably well accepted definition of dignity.

What is also interesting about dignity and honour is the role which shame plays in them. The post linked above defines shame as the anti-honour, and guilt as the anti-dignity. But I’m not sure they are directly comparable, and maybe there are really two different types of shame, both of which have the same word in English, and so we find it difficult to see the difference.

One type of shame, in honour cultures, is what other people inflict on you through their actions. And the other type of shame, in dignity cultures, is what you feel yourself, because your own actions have reduced your self-worth. I remember that some years ago, after khap panchayat members were convicted and sentenced for ‘honour killing’, I had been sarcastic about Jats thinking that their children marrying out of caste or in to the same gotra was more shameful than the shame of being a murderer. And that when they were so worried about what people would say or think about the first, did they not worry about people saying that they were criminals?

But this distinction between honour and dignity societies may explain why that is so. In one, shame comes from what other people do, and honour has to be regained. In another, shame comes from what you do – and even if you are shameless while doing it, the shame of being found out will weigh on you. At least, I hope so. I suppose that if you are a psychopath, then even being found out will not cause any shame.

To belabour the point a little bit with examples, these are the things you might be ashamed of if you are high on dignity and low on honour:

  • doing a bad job when you are capable of doing better
  • not keeping promises
  • not taking care of your family and loved ones

(I am mostly giving examples related to work and trade because of the Bourgeois Dignity hangover, but there would be examples in the personal sphere too.)

And if you are high on honour and not so high on dignity, you are more likely to be ashamed by:

  • your family members disobeying you (and of course it becomes all that worse if these are women)
  • people you consider to be your inferiors in the hierarchy insulting you
  • An outsider realising that your city or home is quite terrible (and so you put up Potemkin villages rather than be dishonoured). This was of course very evident in India in the context of the 2010 Commonwealth Games – not being dishonoured in front of foreigners was more important than the dignity of having nice sports facilities for ourselves.

Perhaps we should call the first one being ashamed and the second one being beshamed.

I may be getting unnecessarily hung up on the definition Professor McCloskey uses, but considering that Bourgeois Dignity is a comprehensive and polemical book about why and how it is dignity more than technology, political systems, or financial systems that has driven the industrial revolution, the end of poverty, and human wellbeing in the last three hundred years, I feel it is an important thing to get hung up about. Does McCloskey really mean that what other people think of us is crucial to prosperity, or does she mean that not having to worry about what other people think of us is crucial to prosperity? I wonder if she replies to fanmail.

I shall close this post with a rumination on societies transitioning from honour to dignity, and how it gets reflected in literature and the arts. Deirdre McCloskey has written about how Jane Austen’s novels are a mirror of this transition, and how they describe the transition at a very personal level instead of the macroeconomic one which Bourgeois Dignity describes. Persuasion, especially, shows this on two levels4: first, by showing the dignity and virtue of naval officers in contrast to the honour obsession of the landlords who keep slagging them off; and secondly, by showing Anne’s regret at having worried about what other people think. For me, the fact that Anne is an extraordinarily sensible person surrounded by idiots highlights her dignity – even if she and Captain Wentworth, contra McCloskey, are not held in high opinion by the other characters.

And what of India? I haven’t read early Indian novels, or for that matter, seen a lot of old Indian movies, so I could be way off here. But I propose that the pioneering work of art which celebrates dignity over honour and gives a giant raspberry to the fear of being beshamed and insulted is Amar Prem. Take it away, Kakaji:


The Loss of Lingo

June 1, 2017

As the years pass, I use campus lingo less and less, because I have fewer people to speak it with.

Given that there are MA theses talking about how campus lingo is merely a way for ingroup identification, maybe this is not such a grave loss in the larger scheme of things. There are some terms, though, which I wish would have spread beyond the IIM Bangalore campus.

Back during my MBA, the response to seeing somebody trying too hard to attract attention (whether of professors, the opposite sex, or message board frequenters) was to call them ‘footage hungry buggers’, perhaps kick them a bit, and then move on with life. Then we left campus, formed other friendships and relationships, and forgot all about this phrase.

What a tragedy. For if language influences thought, then the world we live in today desperately needs the phrase ‘footage hungry bugger’ so that, when confronted with unwarranted demands on our attention, we can respond appropriately by naming them and then dismissing them. Because there are so many footage hungry buggers in the world right now. Trolls on twitter. People who appear on news channel primetime ‘debates’. People who conduct news channel primetime debates. A Prime Minister who unerringly locates the camera. How much happier our life would be, if we merely named them, and in doing so, slayed them.

Definitely Not This Article

June 24, 2015

My beloved readers, I appeal to you as both a former editor, and a longtime reader of things: if you are married, please stop calling your wife ‘the wife’.1 Or your son ‘the son’. ‘My wife’ works fine.

At its best, this behaviour merely suggests a sort of delusion in which you imagine that nobody else has a wife and yours is the only one in the world. This is bad enough. But things get truly awful when two people start doing this on an email thread or message board. For example:

X: The wife likes bananas, so we shop at Sarojini Nagar.

Y: Everyone in my family likes peanuts, so we shop in Rajouri Garden.

Z: The wife likes catfish, so we shop at Alaknanda Complex.

Aadisht: I like Evergreen kesar rasmalai!

At the same time, thanks to their use of the definite article, I am imagining that it’s the same wife for X and Z. Like a timeshare. And when I know the wives in question and they are delightful ladies, this makes it all the more awkward.

So please, use ‘my’ instead of ‘the’.

1: Technically this applies to ‘the husband’ also, but empirically I’ve never seen anybody saying ‘the husband’. Perhaps this is because they say ‘the hubby’ instead, at which point my brain wipes away the memory of what they’ve just said to preserve me from the horror.

The Perfect Blend of Tradition and Modernity

May 30, 2015


My father, whom I respect, love, and admire, is admittedly not infallible. And one of the major mistakes he made where my own life is concerned was in 2013, when in a mood that was mixed parts of ‘Nothing else is working’, ‘Customised service is better than faceless matrimonial websites’, and ‘The upside could be great and how bad could the downside be?’, he enrolled me in the lists of Sycorian Matrimonials (back then, it had not yet become Sycoriaan).

As it turns out, there was one upside and four downsides. The upside was that the whole association with Sycorian left me with stories upon which I will be able to dine out for years and years. The downsides were:

  1. The hefty enrolment fee they charged. As Amba said, for that amount of money they ought to be manufacturing brides and grooms, Pygmalion style, to customer specifications.
  2. The customised service being far, far worse than faceless matrimonial websites because the Sycorian relationship managers refused to reply coherently to email, kept begging for phone calls or face to face meetings (in which nothing ever happened), and in general did nothing beyond sending profiles of prospective brides, which matrimonial website algorithms do anyway, at far less cost.
  3. The psychological pain which my father suffered when he was repeatedly spurned by prospective brides’ parents, either because they were yuppies and shuddered at the thought of their daughter marrying into a crass Punjabi business family, or because they were lalas and shuddered at the thought of their daughter marrying into a business family so manifestly unsuccessful that the father in law drove a Toyota Corolla and the groom himself rode a bicycle to work.
  4. The time I wasted and psychological despair I suffered while reading the profiles of said prospective brides.

This despair was largely because most (though to be fair, not all) bridal profiles were very much like each other, especially in the following respects:

  • Education at a British university
  • Worked in a family business or didn’t have a job
  • Claimed to be from a cultured family (though neither any profile nor a Sycorian relationship manager could ever give a satisfactory explanation of what a cultured family is, and if it involves petri dishes)
  • Claimed to be the perfect blend of tradition and modernity

What impressed me over give months of reading Sycorian profiles is that whenever it came up, everyone claimed to be only a perfect blend of tradition and modernity. There were no imperfect blends, near-perfect blends, ninety-fifth percentile blends, off-spec blends, or cheap-but-serviceable blends. The only parallel is to olive oil, where if you go to a supermarket you can find extra virgin olive oil, olive oil, and even that gross pomace olive oil, but never virgin olive oil without the extra virginity.

Just as with cultured families, no explanation was ever forthcoming on what exactly a perfect blend of tradition and modernity is, and what it implies for one’s daily life. Nor was it ever explained why being a perfect blend was a desirable trait in a bride, when in whiskey blends are looked down upon and single malts are preferred.

RoKo and I once speculated that the modernity consisted of meeting in a five star hotel coffee shop, and the tradition consisted of getting the prospective groom to pick up the bill, but that was just us being bitchy, and anyway, as the months went by, I ended up meeting ladies from Sycorian even in mall coffee shops. So I eventually decided that “perfect blend of tradition and modernity” was just something that people used to fill in matrimonial profiles when they could think of nothing else to write, the way we, as Class XI students who had to come up with farewell dedications for graduating Class XII seniors whom  we had no clue about, used to write “Amit Kumar’s smiling face and cheerful personality will never be forgotten!”

So after completely giving up on Sycorian around the beginning 2014, I paid the expression no more attention until the very end of 2014.

In the end of 2014, I was vacationing in Bavaria, and went to Neuschwanstein castle.

It is important to note that Neuschwanstein, which inspired the shape of Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle has no military value. It looks like a fairy tale castle because the mad king Ludwig II wanted to build a castle that looked like it was out of a fairy tale and which would be the perfect backdrop in which to perform Wagner operas. In fact, in pursuit of this goal, he actually wanted to build three more fairytale castles, all without military value, just so he would have the perfect simulacrum of an imagined age of chivalry and knights.

However, as the guide at Neuschwanstein pointed out, it wasn’t just opera backdrops and medieval high fantasy and impractical castles. Neuschwanstein also had a toilet that automatically flushed whenever you stepped off it, and one of the first telephone lines in Bavaria. All the modcons that the late nineteenth century had to offer, really.

A couple of days after going to Neuschwanstein, I was in Nuremberg, where I visited the transportation museum, which exhibits the personal train coaches of Chancellor Bismarck and King Ludwig II next to each other. Bismarck’s coach is straightforward, free of frippery, and has a stenographer’s desk and telegraph machine. Ludwig’s coach is a bright blue with gilt all over the place. Talk about contrasts.


Anyway, by 1886, the rest of the government of Bavaria was fed up with Ludwig spending the entire treasury on his impractical romantic castles, so they had him declared mentally unsound and unfit to be king, and replaced him with a prince-Regent. He mysteriously died by drowning shortly thereafter. Even more mysteriously, the psychologist who signed off on the medical report declaring him insane died the very next day.

It was after learning all of this that I had a flash of insight: with his obsession for creating the perfect medieval castles, but also making sure that said castles had flushing toilets, telephone connections and electricity, and were linked by a train that had a gorgeously medieval livery; it is actually Ludwig II of Bavaria who was the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. If you aspire to be the perfect blend, nothing but bankrupting a nation, being declared insane, being deposed from the execution of all your responsibilities, and then dying under mysterious circumstances will do. Anybody claiming to be a perfect blend without going through all this is either ignorant or a liar.

Nazar e Aatish

March 7, 2014

These days, I am trying to teach myself Urdu by listening to the BBC’s Urdu news bulletin every night. (For German, I’m listening to DW’s slowly spoken news bulletin.) Since I’ve only been doing this for about a week, it’s too early to tell how well this works as a method of learning. But it has had two immediate payoffs.

Firstly, I get to listen to Urdu being spoken in a (Pakistani) Punjabi accent, which is one of the great joys of life, more so when I am in Kanchipuram and can take all the Pnjaabi ksents I can get.

Secondly, it’s hugely refreshing to get proper international news after years of following only Indian newspapers and TV channels. On DW and BBC Urdu, the situation in the Crimea has been either the top or the second story every day. I don’t think Indian news channels are even bothered, and Indian newspapers probably devote an article a day to it, buried somewhere in the inside.

Moving on to the specifics, last night’s Urdu bulletin was probably the first where a particular new piece of vocabulary actually stuck in my head after the bulletin: nazar e aatish.

From the context of the bulletin, I gathered that nazar e aatish meant “destroyed” or “demolished” or “burnt down”. A subsequent Google search revealed that buses can be nazar e aatish too, which probably rules out demolished. “Burnt down” or more generally “destroyed”, then. And since I knew that “aatish” means fireworks, “burnt down” is the best bet. Stretching my limited Urdu as far as it can go, I think nazar-e-aatish literally means “looks like a firework”.

In both the BBC’s news bulletin and the headline of that YouTube video, “nazar e aatish” was used in the passive voice. The BBC claimed that during Army action in Balochistan, “imarat nazar e aatish ho gayi” while the YouTube video skips verbs entirely and just says “Bus nazar-e-aatish”. Cutely implying that things just sort of spontaneously combusted while the army happened to be hanging around.

I don’t know if “nazar e aatish” is always used in the passive voice, or if you can have a “Hukumat ne imaarat ko nazar-e-aatish kar diya” sort of sentence also. No doubt Urdu superstars like Sabbah can clarify. But I must say, even with this weaselly passive voice use, nazar-e-aatish is such an astoundingly awesome phrase for something as mundane as “burnt down”. If it does indeed mean what I think it means, it alone justifies my project of learning Urdu. It also makes me very angry at eight years of Hindi schoolteachers who forced us not to use Urdu words in our writing, and in the process, cut us off from what looks like a beautifully intricate and fun language.

Oh The Place Names You’ll Know!

February 3, 2014

Today, I drove from Kanchipuram to Coimbatore. The drive is excellent, and the highways from Vellore to Krishnagiri, and Krishnagiri to Salem are wide, and almost empty of traffic. (Which means that concessionaires who’re operating the toll roads are probably in grave financial distress, but that’s a separate issue.)

One of the unique pleasures of traveling medium distance by car is the sense of possibility it gives you. Rail travel has its own charms, but by and large, once you board the train, you’re stuck on the route it will travel (unless you make really special efforts like changing trains every now and then or maybe even hijacking the train). But with a car, the ability to change plans and to go forth and to completely different places is much higher. “I could detour just eighty kilometres and see Hogenakkal, and still be able to reach my hotel tonight,” I thought around eleven thirty this morning. “I could cancel my appointment and just drive on to Cochin!” later, around two thirty in the afternoon. “Gosh, what if I skipped the direct route and went via Namakkal instead, just for the opportunity to make terrible Chennai Super Kings jokes.”

The seed of this temptation is planted by highway signs, telling you that such and such place is a left turn away, or just 40 Km from where you are now. (In an extreme case, on the way from Pondicherry to Chennai, my passenger saw the sign for Calcutta and suggested going there instead for phuchkas. I did not oblige.)

The highway signs between Salem and Coimbatore made me realise that this  particular part of Tamil Nadu has places with names that are very different from the ones I’m familiar with from Chennai, Kanchi, and their surroundings, which tend to the “Long live divine classical Tamil!” mould; what with names like Thiruvallur, Sriperumbudur, Azhinjalpet, Thiruvannamalai, and Villupuram.

The Salem – Coimbatore stretch has those too, of course (Tiruppur, and Kovai itself), but there were four names I saw which had a much more immediate connect with me as a North Indian: Sankari, Bhavani, Sathy, and Avinashi.

All these four names are Sanskrit, all four are names or epithets of Parvati, and none of the four have suffixes. The town is called simply Bhavani, not Bhavanipuram, or Bhavanipet, or Bhavanipalya or Bhavanihalli. And they don’t have any honorifics either – neither Sri nor Thiru is appended to these names. They are quite simply, some of the most direct and personal names I have seen in Tamil Nadu.

(Place names with honorifics are not unique to Tamil Nadu. Punjab has Anandpur Sahib, and there is a very unfunny joke about the pious Punjab Roadways bus conductor who slaps passengers who ask him for tickets to Amritsar instead of Amritsar Sahib and Ludhiana Sahib instead of Ludhiana.)

I wonder if there are more such prefixless and suffixless Sanskrit names in this region, and for that matter, how these names came about. There must be a story here.

On a more frivolous note, I also saw a signboard for a place called Gobi. This being TN, the name might actually be Gopi or Kopi, but now I am filled with a burning desire to go there, find out if the local method of preparing cauliflower has something distinctive about it, and then release the recipe to the world as Gobi Gobi.

Editorial JAM

April 10, 2012

Earlier today, I was talking to Vikster on twitter about how, the next time we are in Mumbai, I should bring along RED Full Blooded Romances so that he could read them out loud at dinner. This may seem like a surprising thing to the uninitiated – but allow me to assure you that to hear him doing a dramatic reading of terrible South Indian romance novels is one of life’s greatest joys. I’m hoping to persuade Anand to come along to dinner with his mic so that the joy can be shared with the world at large. But I digress.

During the course of this conversation I realised that I could adapt JAM (Just-a-Minute, the thing you play at college cultural festivals) into a game for editors. Here’s what you’d need:

  • someone to read out loud – ideally Vikster, but then he is very busy and important, so anyone else with a clear, bell-like voice
  • a game master to arbitrate – so someone who has mad language and grammar skillz
  • contestants – the best sort would be editors, sub-editors, or people planning to become editors or sub-editors
  • one buzzer per contestant
  • and finally, a RED Full Blooded Romance, a Srishti novel, or a copy of the Times of India or The Hindu (or any Indian newspaper really – just that those are the two worst offenders, though in different ways)

How to Play

The game master comes up with a list of violations of language and style. Depending on what exactly is being read out, these could include:

  • errors of grammar (almost every sentence in Srishti)
  • errors of fact
  • logical fallacies
  • inappropriate use of business or technical jargon (alarmingly common in RED)
  • cliches
  • pompous language (pretty much every other sentence in The Hindu)
  • completely irrelevant puns (pretty much every other headline in The Times of India)

This is only a starting list – I’m sure more can be added.

Then, one contestant is picked to start. After that, the elocutionist starts reading the material out loud. The contestant who starts has to buzz every time she catches a violation on the list. If she manages to do this for a whole minute (or article, or chapter – this bit needs to be worked out), she scores 100 points.

To make things interesting and JAM-like, any of the other contestants can also buzz if they think the contestant in the hot-seat missed something. If their objection is sustained by the game master, the original contestant gets negative points and the interjector gets a shot at going for the 100 points. If the objection is overruled, the interjector gets negative points.

Now you could play this for points, or, to make things interesting, you could turn it into a drinking game. So, instead of getting negative points, you’d have to take a shot every time you either missed an error, falsely identified something as an error, or someone else got the 100 points. With every shot you’d take, your reflexes would slow down further, making it even more difficult for you to identify the language violations in the next round – so the worst editors would be the ones who got tanked first.

That actually makes this drinking game a Darwinian method of selecting good editors: the weak and unfit will be culled from the herd by alcohol poisoning, while the good ones will be the last people standing. That way, this could be an excellent training program for interns at newspapers – or even an entrance test for journalism schools. I mean, it would eliminate the chance that you’d have someone grammar challenged spending two years at J-school, then six months in editorial training, and finally turning out to be completely incompetent as a copy editor.

The only disadvantage I can see with this idea is that rather than selecting people with really good grammar awareness, it may just end up selecting people with really good alcohol tolerance. But then, being able to function despite being absolutely sloshed could also be  major advantage if you’re an editor, and you need to drink  to drive away the pain of  editing freelancers who forget to use the Oxford comma.

Saving for Marriages

April 8, 2012

I am at Kanchipuram today. This is due to dire circumstance and not by choice. My car is being serviced (this involves spare parts from Europe and so will take a month), and so I couldn’t drive back. The driver is on holiday for Easter (hey, Happy Easter, everyone!) and so he can’t drive me to Chennai and back in another car. And I could take the bus except I am not very enamoured of taking a bus to T-Nagar and then an auto to Velachery in the April heat.

All right, that last bit is laziness, not dire circumstance. Be that as it may – due to a combination of laziness and dire circumstance – I am spending this Sunday at the guesthouse in Kanchipuram instead of my flat in Chennai. This also meant that after a very long time, I read the Hindu Business Line, and specifically its Sunday personal finance agony aunt column.

The letter in today’s column featured a goal which features almost every Sunday:

For my daughter’s graduation, I would require Rs 10 lakh in 2021 and Rs 10 lakh for her post graduation. I wish to create a corpus of Rs 12 lakh for her marriage by 2030. For her marriage, we have 30 sovereigns of gold and 2 kg silver.

(The Hindu Business Line: Investment World)

Before I get to the financial matters, let me address the language. As an editor and grammar-bigot, there are two things about this which make my eye twitch:

  1. It uses ‘would’ instead of ‘will’. This appalling misuse is clearly notrestricted to North Indians.
  2. It uses ‘marriage’ instead of ‘wedding’.

Using ‘marriage’ instead of ‘wedding’ actually makes me twitch twice as much, because I have no way of realising which the letter writer actually meant. Did he want to have twelve lakh rupees to spend on her wedding? Or did he plan to give her twelve lakh rupees as a sort of nest egg to accompany her through married life?

If he did mean wedding, that makes me twitch for another, non-grammatical reason. I wish that just one Sunday, somebody would write in to the personal finance advice column and proudly announce that they were saving purely for retirement and that if their kids wanted a big fat wedding they had better pay for it themselves or elope.

This whole saving up so you can afford a big wedding thing must be one of the leading causes of misery in India. So much present consumption foregone, and all it accomplishes is to put the bride and groom through even more stress. Haakthoo.

Languages and Optionality

April 2, 2012

Last week, I completed the Goethe Institut’s A1 German course. (My new year’s resolution is to complete the B1 course this year. Registration for A2 is in a couple of weeks, and the course itself starts in May.)

I had enrolled in the A1 course last year for a number of reasons, including:

  • I enjoy languages
  • Our company has German partners and customers, and it’s useful to know their language
  • I had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder due to extreme social isolation (what else do you expect when you live in Kanchipuram?), and something that would give me social contact every weekend would help
  • and most importantly, everything sounds more badass in German. (Even Disney movies. Exhibit A.)

The A1 course was huge fun. I had stars in my eyes when, towards the end of the course we did the past participle of words. Quick explanation: it’s a shortcut that prevents you from having to learn the past tenses of verbs. Instead of saying “I made”, or “you made”, or “they made”, you say “I have made”, “You have made”, and so on. This doesn’t seem that impressive in English, because the past tense for I, you, he, and they are all “made”, but it’s a significant advantage in German where they’re different but the participle stays the same throughout.

It was also very easy for me. I think this was because of a combination of two things: first, the Goethe Institut has an incredibly structured teaching methodology where you learn both by swotting grammar and vocabulary, and by actual conversation and immersion. Since they’ve been teaching German as a foreign language for years now, they’ve presumably settled on the best schedule to expose a new learner to either grammar or actual conversation or text reading. It worked for me, anyway.

The other thing that made the course easy was that I had spent five years (Class 6 to Class 10) learning Sanskrit in a CBSE school.

Now, back in the 1990s, studying Sanskrit in a CBSE school was anything but an appropriate mix of immersion and grammar. (I don’t know if it’s changed since then.) From Class 6 to Class 8, you did only grammar. It wasn’t until you came to Class 9 that you started reading short stories – up until then, you would read a sentence at a time at best. (This was when you weren’t rote-learning verb conjugations and noun declensions.)

I won’t comment on how useful this was as a method of teaching Sanskrit – I hardly remember any Sanskrit now, but that could easily be because I never stayed in touch with it after the board exams, and not necessarily because it’s a mad pedagogical method. But it was incredibly useful as a way to make me familiar with the rules of language in general.

Remember how I said that in German the verb form changes with person? Let’s stick to the present tense of make for now, and compare English and German.

  • First Person Singular: I make / Ich mache
  • First Person Plural: We make / Wir machen
  • Second Person Singular: You make / Du machst (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Second Person Plural: You make / Ihr macht (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Third Person Singular: He Makes / Er macht
  • Third Person Plural: They make / sie machen
That’s two forms (make and makes) in English, and four forms (mache, machen, machst, macht) in German. If you’re coming from English, it can drive you mad. But if you’ve spent three years mugging up conjugations in Sanskrit (where, just to make things fun, there’s a dual along with the singular and plural – though there’s no difference between formal you and informal you) you already know what a conjugation is, and all you have to do is remember the conjugations. You’ve already climbed the first hurdle of knowing what  a conjugation is.

Incidentally, a month or so ago, a friend who knew I was studying German forwarded me Mark Twain’s epic rant about the language. Twain complains bitterly that German has four cases for declension. He would have gone mad with Sanskrit, which has seven; or with Finnish which apparently has fourteen. Incidentally, he reserves particular ire for the dative case – and he has my sympathies. The dative case is maddening – it seems to be the case where all the special exceptions to the other three cases end up.

But this illustrates my point – that if you’ve been through Sanskrit grammar and managed that, grammar in German is both familiar and trivial. I suspect this may be true for any language in the Indo-European family. So if your learning style is okay with three years of learning grammar by rote, doing Sanskrit the way we did it back in our day (and, for all I know, is the way kids these days are still doing it), you can then learn any other Indo-European language in the future very quickly. Maybe even any other language, though I will have no experience in this until my Tamil lessons kick off later this year. The value of Sanskrit, then, is not in the language itself, but that it opens up options to learn other languages.

Time now for a quick segue.

A week or so ago, this blogpost about how the Millennial generation is obsessed with picking options that open up other options was being tweeted all over my timeline (though I think I saw it via Suze and Ravi first):

…strange anxieties are getting in the way of these ambitions – none more prominently than something called FOMO. It is the “fear of missing out,” and it has been written about by others (including in an article about SXSW last year) as a phenomenon caused by social media.

More and more, particularly among those who have yet to make those big life decisions (whom to marry, what kind of job to commit to, where to live), FOMO and FOBO – the “fear of better options” – are causing these young leaders to stand still rather than act.

Those with the most options in this generation have a tendency to choose the option that keeps the most options open. Wrap your head around that for a second. It’s one of the reasons that management consulting has become so popular among today’s young elites.

(CNN: Global Public Square)

I empathise with that “fear of better options” a little, but I’m also wary about generalising to an entire generation (even if generations are by definition where generalisations apply). Not to mention that the Millennial generation of the USA is not going to match the similar generational cohort in other countries. Though I have to admit, globalisation means that (rich) American Millennials are probably more similar to (rich) people from the same generation in other countries than at any point before. Earlier in history, the similarity would have been in destitution…

But now that Priya Parker has come up with this very interesting concept of optionality, it ties in to the first part of my blogpost: Sanskrit, as I said, is brilliant at opening up other options. But (and of course there’s a but)…

If there is this hankering for optionality, at what point does it actually develop?

I ask this because when I did Sanskrit, there was no choice – from Class 6 to Class 8, you had to do Sanskrit as the third language at my school. Then I came to Class X or XI, and suddenly our school introduced an option for the middle school kids: they could do French or German instead of Sanskrit. Suddenly there were mass desertions – Sanskrit fell down to one or two sections (if that many.)

Now admittedly most people might not have made the connection between learning Sanskrit now and learning French or German much quicker later on. But even if someone had gone around madly pitching Sanskrit as the best language if you wanted to keep your options open to a bunch of middle school kids: would they really have listened?

The obsession with optionality requires a sense of the future. And perhaps I’m doing them a disservice, and the younger generation has that sense of the future – but honestly, I don’t see an eleven year old giving up French now to study Sanskrit so that he (or she) can study both French and German in the future.  I don’t think that’s about impatience, or inability to think ahead: if you’re eleven years old, thinking of a future three years away (or even further) is a quarter of a lifetime.

(UpdateAishwarya pointed out over chat that not only would they not have listened, but this would only have been true for the kids who learned like me and for whom grammar works in the same way. Yes, this would have only worked if you had some magic way of identifying such kids and pitching to them, and I thought my earlier caveat about German being easier if this method of pedagogy worked for you made that implicit, but I should have made it explicit instead. That was sloppy writing on my part.)

Proportionally, that’s like asking a twenty-something to make plans for when he’s thirty five – but then, twenty-somethings do do that – anyone entering a long-gestation career like law or medicine is doing that, and so is somebody who’s setting up a retirement fund.

So at some point between being kids and late-teenagers, we gain a sense of the future. Sometimes this future orientation is thrust upon us (as it would be for most Indian kids who’re pushed kicking and screaming into a predetermined engineering+MBA career). Sometimes, we’re born with it and start off early. And sometimes, we become obsessed with it and end up like the Millennials that Priya Parker describes.

And now seguing back to the paralysis brought about by the hunt for options…

To be honest – I’ve been there. The thing that’s helped the most is to keep reminding myself that some things are best done now when I have the youthfulness to do them well. Really, this is balancing out options with a bucket list or checklist where ticking off items gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. It still doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to – but it’s a start.