Tuesday, 26 April 2011

English, but not as we know it

One of the great delights of India was they way it felt familiar, but in a very strange way; or sometimes, strange, but in a very familiar way.  In South America, I felt I was in a completely different world; India, somehow, didn't feel nearly as different as I'd expected it to.

Perhaps that was partly due to the widespread use of the English language. But it's not quite the same English as I hear every day in Norfolk or on the BBC. It's English put through a few chemical processes and with some spices added, rolled out, squeezed a few times, and pressed into a new shape.

I found that sometimes conversations would go like this:

- How do I get to the railway station?

- The what?

- Railway station.

- ???

- Railway.

- ???

- Going to Kochi. Train.

- Ah!!!!!!! REL-WEH!!!!!

Vowels are often flexible. I've seen a Brass Bend, I've eaten sendwiches. Spelling is as joyfully mutable as in the English of Shakespeare's day; often, a word will be spelled three different ways on the same sign.

And words have changed their uses, or sometimes, there is a different word - traffic circles instead of roundabouts. Hotels may or not have rooms - often they are 'food but not lodging hotels' - so it can be safer to ask for a 'lodge', which has nothing to do with Masonry.

My favourite usage has to be 'backside'. In English English, backside is arse, ass, fanny, bum, butt, bottom, fundament, posterior. In Indian English, backside is what it says on the tin; the back side - the other side, the road behind a station for instance, or the back garden entrance to a house. It is somewhat startling the first few times you hear it; even now, it makes me smile.

Then there is the (ever) present participle which is dominating the Indian-English language with its particular flavour; the continuous present is almost always used, in fact I'm not sure there is an alternative. I found within a few weeks I'd started using it myself; it gives the language a lilt and a sense of continuing time that the simple present tense of English-English doesn't possess. (Though it would be nice to know whether the tiger is actually eating people, or just does eat people from time to time, before I approach it...)

Journalistic Indian-English is particularly good fun - I was soon addicted to my daily paper, whether Times of India or (great paper) New Indian Express. First you have the extra words - gherao, dharna, neta, goonda, babu, the lakh and crore. (I did have a fleeting vision of Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan escaping to Hyderabad when I read the headline 'Goons hit local supermarket'...)

And then you have the superbly vivid way Indian journalists use the language. No one surrenders; they cave in, crumble, are whacked, smashed, crushed. It took me several weeks to get attuned enough to the language to read the op-ed columns, with their imaginative, slangy, dazzling way of throwing language at the wall to see if it will stick.

Indian English isn't quite the Queen's English. It isn't quite a different language either. But it's definitely alive and kicking.

(A good resource if you want to find out more about Indian English is the  excellent list of Indian English words which adequately translates all those I've used in this post.)

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Spirituality: how not to. And, maybe, how to.

I hate Strasbourg cathedral.

I love the outside. A spider-thin network of lacy stone mouldings covers the entire facade, glowing orange at sunset, or blood-red on a snowy, overcast day. The ambitious openwork of the one finished spire, with its turrets and open staircases.

The interior is disappointing compared to that; a large parish church, rather than a cathedral, it seems to stop short after the nave, with just a stump of a choir.True, there's some fine stained glass, and some marvellous late Gothic work - a good pulpit, a rather ordinary 'Mount of Olives', and a well carved font - and there's the strange pillar of angels, with figures of the Evangelists.

Oh, and the Astronomical Clock. A very disappointing clock, really; none of its little mechanisms are particularly spectacular, though I like the little cock that crows at the end of the chime.

But that's not why I hate Strasbourg cathedral. What I really hate is the way it's been presented.

  • Every ten minutes or so there's a bingy-bongy chime like you hear in railway stations, and a sanctimonious railway announcer voice tells you this is a PLACE OF WORSHIP and you must BE RESPECTFUL and BE SILENT and NOT SHOUT. Bing-bong. "The next mass will be leaving at eighteen-twenty, calling at hymns number thirty-two and one-oh-four."

  • There's a huge TV screen next to the pulpit. Does it tell us something useful about the art? Does it tell us anything about the pulpit and what it means? No. It just says LA CHAIRE and then flips to THE PULPIT, perpetually cycling the two words. And it gets in the way of your actually seeing the pulpit.

  • The TV screens telling us THE PULPIT or THE CHOIR or THE MOUNT OF OLIVES must have a massive carbon footprint, and they must have cost a bomb - they are massive flatscreens. But if you want to see any of the things in the cathedral lit up, you'll have to pay for it. The cathedral has after all spent its entire electricity budget on the televisions.

  • There's no information on the art historical, or historical, aspects of the cathedral at all. There's loads of 'spiritual' stuff though. I couldn't work out who it was addressed to at all - it told you things anyone brought up in a Christian environment would surely know ('Christians worship Jesus', and there's also a hypothesis that bears defecate in afforested areas; 'the pulpit is used for delivering sermons'), but equally its affirmation of faith would offend any visiting Hindu, Muslim or Jew, who might need to know what a font is for...

  • Except that the font, which I think most Christians would agree is one of the most important places in any church, has no label at all on it. Odd - since its spiritual importance as the site of baptism is equalled in this case by the artistic merits of the Gothic sculpture.

  • And this SPIRITUAL place we are meant to RESPECT, in capitals since that is how the loudspeaker delivers those words, has a bloody great shop set up opposite the astronomical clock - not neatly hidden in a cloister or side chapel, but right in the middle of the place.  I can't help thinking: Matthew 21: 12-13 -  "My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves", in this case with the addition of modern electronic devices.

Ugh. It all left a nasty taste in the mouth. As did the fact that the cathedral is closed every day at 1130, not for mass, but for paying audiences to see a film about the clock, followed by the clock striking twelves. Den of thieves indeed. Sorry, but if what you see is a money-making machine, administrators of the cathedral, then what I see is not deep spirituality, and I am not inclined to respect it.

(Chartres cathedral, my local one, makes a good contrast. Nearly every ancient stained glass window has a board explaining the narratives and images in detail. And it's not sectioned off with little barriers, either. And... sorry to say it, but it is ten times a better cathedral anyway.)

I was happy, later on, to visit Saint Pierre le Jeune (Protestante) - that's the official title; there's a Saint Pierre le Jeune (Catholique) as well for an organ recital. It was an interesting recital, on a Silbermann organ, taking as its theme the Lord's Prayer, and featuring arrangments of 'Vater unser in Himmelreich' by Praetorius, Buxtehude and Bach. In between there were readings that took the Lord's Prayer as a starting point - but what was fascinating was that they could have been written by (and admired by) agnostics or even atheists; they deconstructed the prayer, questioned it, questioned even the existence of God. So that in a prayerful setting, we ended up not worshipping, or being invited to 'respect' a place of worship, but being invited to think. And to enjoy the good music, too (there was a cracking piece of Bach neither of us knew - and when your partner is an organist, that's definitely not usual).

Oh yes; the collection that was taken went not to the church, but to a charity fighting against torture. And when we wanted to take a look at the architecture afterwards, we were warmly invited to wander around. We actually felt welcome - something we hadn't in the cathedral.


Saturday, 9 April 2011

Souvenirs of India - and the International Jewellery Market

My earlier post on the globalisation of the souvenir notwithstanding, I did come back from India with a few souvenirs.

  • One Orissa painting of the Lord Krishna, showing his life in tiny scenes around the border.

  • One Madhubani painting of a tree inhabited by birds.

  • A set of tiny painted wooden birds (I have a set from Poland, which they go with), and a little painted Durga and Kali. Durga on her tiger. (I was told, by the way, that an image of Durga should always show the tiger with its mouth open, for luck.)

  • Two bansuri, a G and EE - nice little flutes which I really ought to learn to play properly. (A trip to Varanasi beckons... the best tuition is there, apparently.) It took the best part of half a day to locate the best shop in Udaipur and test the stock. One high, trilling, piercing flute and one deep, dark sounding flute. A nice pair.

They all mean something to me. Durga and Kali for instance are deities I respect, like Death in the Tarot, as representing creative destruction. The Lord Krishna I now know through devotees I met on my journey, and through the works of Meera Bai. And the flutes are also part of Lord Krishna's domain - besides which they have been added to my large collection of wind instruments from around the world.

I also came back with two shawls from Delhi, one very thick one in felted wool, and another woollen one. But that was because it was absolutely freezing, and I needed them badly (they doubled as a sleeping bag on night trains).

It was difficult to find good flutes. Hundreds are made for children to play (and break), or for tourists to take home as wall decorations, and they're simply not good enough for playing real music. They have rough fingerholes, which is not only cheap and nasty in effect, but spoils the tone by setting up disturbance in the bore. They have thick walls, which may make them robust but ruins the tone - I was shown by the master flute player I bought from (and yes, he really could play - an eyeopener as he demonstrated some of the techniques of tonguing and note-bending you can use on bansuri which aren't in the classical western flute repertory) how to look for thin walls on the deeper flutes, which make the tone warm and full.

But India is full of souvenirs I really didn't want. Tie dye T-shirts that are pieces of superannuated 1960s hippy culture, not Indian life. Palm-leaf etchings of the kama sutra. Tibetan singing bowls (the clue is in the word 'Tibetan'. As in, not Indian. Though I should really cut these guys some slack - the fact is that a great deal of the Indian tourist industry, particularly in the south of the country, now seems to be run by Tibetans and Nepalis.)

There also seems to be a creeping standardisation of  'India'. As every Indian and many visitors know, it's not a single place. For a start, it's divided by the Idli-Line, somewhat as Germany is divided by the Weisswurst-Equator; in the north, parathas and chapattis - in the south, idlies and dosas. No such thing as 'Indian' food. Regional loyalties are strong - I even found one kind of sweet that is only ever made and sold in Chittaurgarh. And yet there's a standardised, non-regional 'India' that you find in the tourist shops, that mixes Tibetan and Ladakhi and Kashmiri stuff with Orissan or Madhubani work and Jaipuri jewellery, a sort of mixed-up-melting-pot-India that represents neither Idli nor Chapatti, but rather a sort of gooey porridge.

And I found that Kashmiri embroidered kaftans are twice the price in Kochi that they are in Istanbul, where I bought my black wool one. How sad.

Part II - International jewellery markets and the stonecutters of Jaipur