Posts Tagged ‘History’

North Tour: Varanasi & Bodhgaya: A picture or 1,000 words?

April 24, 2011

Wednesday, 16 March

BODHGAYA: I’ve had no shortage of things to write about on this tour.

We’ve been continuously on the move. Always having something interesting to see and finding something fun to do, writing has been easy. The eventful never ceases to occur. Today, however, I find myself stuck. For once, it seems there’s really nothing to say.

But I’m still compelled to write.

Even when it seems like there’s nothing to say, there always is.

This morning we went to a place in Varanasi where Buddha gave his first sermon. I don’t want to be – as Holden Caulfield would say – a “phony,” so I’m not going to feign knowledge of the history behind our location or exaggerate my on-site emotions. All I can say is how I felt later when I thought about all we’ve seen on tour.

We’ve been to locations straight out of history books on almost every day of these tours. India has a wide, diverse array of cultures, each with a long, distinct history of their own. But though we’ve been to temples, forts, monasteries and museums across North and South India, most of us have no knowledge of their significance. That’s why we’ve hired tour guides, whose broken, heavily-accented English makes paying them adequate attention a trying task.

Around these guides, we’re normally more interested in snapping pictures than sitting still. It’s as if it’s more important to show others “I was there” than explain why being there is so significant. Most people interested in our exchanges would probably agree. It’s easier to convey poignancy through pictures than through prose.

But poignancy escalates when it’s understood. It’s the difference between staring at the Ganges River in awe, and getting chills that have nothing to do with the cool temperature. There’s something to be said for understanding what you’re looking at. With history, what you’re looking at doesn’t stay still like a picture. You can rewind it like a VHS and replay the events in your mind. Pictures are illusions. Life never stands as still as they would have you believe.

That’s why it’s so important to keep a record of what happens in words, too. Why I don’t want to forget being accidentally locked on the porch of a hotel room with Nikolas this evening for ten minutes. (We were saved when Jordan unscrewed the archaic lock.) Why I don’t want to forget ordering the wrong meal for dinner – twice – and ending up with a satisfied stomach anyway. Why I don’t want to forget the white paper streamers coming from our room’s ceiling fan last night, and how four of us just laid down and laughed, unable to stop hilarity from mounting.

There’s no point in pretending our actions are as memorable as the Buddha’s teachings.

But damn, life is good. I want to remember that.



Kindly read with regards: On English in India

August 11, 2010

Scene one: After I woke up Monday morning, my host brother told me we’d be going for a “picture”. Having already had an ID photo taken my first week here, I was confused. Should I put on nice clothes? Who would be in the picture with me?

As it turns out, “picture” means “movie” here, and I watched Predators in Hindi that afternoon with Mayank and two of his friends.

Scene two: I’d just finished lunch, and my host grandmother sent a water bottle with me as I was about to go upstairs. I asked if I should bring down the empty bottle from my room.

The problem was, she didn’t quite understand what I meant. Instead, she and my host grandfather explained I was not to drink the tap water, something I already understood. Only when I brought the empty bottle down did we clear up the misunderstanding, and it was all smiles from that point on.

Scene three: As I read a headline of the local print English newspaper, The Hitavada, I did a double take. I wondered how the “largest circulated English daily in Central India” could let such a headline slip by. “Surely it must be a misprint,” I thought.

The headline? Exactly as it reads here, except there were no apostrophes. See the power of punctuation?!

To be fair, the article was about cricketer Salman Butt, and a “dead ball” in cricket is when play stops, but my point stands:

Indian English is very different than American English.

In Maharashtra, Marathi is the language in which most children speak their first words. Conversations within the house, among friends, and with locals are usually in Marathi. It’s the language my host family and many of the people in Nagpur are most comfortable speaking.

Hindi is the language that usually comes to mind when people think of the “Indian” language. On the street in North and Central India, Hindi can be very useful. Since 29 languages in India are spoken by over 1 million people, Hindi is a language Indians use from Gujarat to Odisha to Uttar Pradesh.

So English is a second or third language for most Indians. But it has a unique role in the Indian lexicon. Whereas Hindi has failed to unite the country linguistically, English is now a language of hundreds of millions throughout India. As it becomes the language of instruction in more and more schools across India, people are becoming more and more comfortable using it. Many video games, movies, songs, books and websites are English-only, making English not just a language of education, but entertainment as well.

The ethos of English has changed over time, too. Because English is a remnant of India’s colonial days, it was initially an unpopular language with the majority of Indians. But as more and more Indians have come into contact with the outside world, the taboo against English has lessened, to the point that India by some estimates will soon have more English speakers than any country in the world.

That said, there’s something to be said about the power of the mother tongue. I could certainly survive the year without learning a word of Marathi or Hindi, but that’s not my intent. I know and use only a few short words, such as bas (enough) or nai (no), but each time I do, smiles show up on my family members’ faces. Just as food, religion, and holidays define a culture, so does its language.

India is about the best country I could have chosen for this blog. Only here or in Australia could I have traveled to a country where writing in English wouldn’t hinder my growth into the culture. But were I to have chosen Australia, I wouldn’t have learned a separate local language. By the end of the year, I want to be able to speak Hinglish and Minglish – perhaps not fluently, but at least conversationally.

As for this blog… I think I’m going to stick with American English.


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