Can revisiting locations where you once lived the moments that are now memories be therapeutic?
How do you know which is better? Then or now? That or this? The two are different. You smile, you sob and even shudder. Then get back to what is.
Shailaja, like her immediate family, did not think a few days in Vengurla would turn her life around. Yet during those days, she lived what could have been her life.
She is aware of her dementia. And afraid of what it would erase next.
I am grateful to the team behind “Three of us” for this unforgettable movie. And special thanks to Shefali Shah (really brought Shailaja to life), Jaideep Ahlawat (masterfully conveyed the joy and pain of a tantalizing return to a love he had given up on) and Swanand Kirkire (the caring husband confused by the apparent preference of his beloved wife for the past) for sensitively portraying the three central characters.
Shailaja’s trip to the village she grew up in was a trip back in time to snuggle under memories for me too. The homes with semi-lit interiors, the well with the overgrowth, the vast open fields that I used to cut across to reach school and the almost-bare lanes where almost everyone knew everyone.
Watch this movie, if you too would like to go back and hug your memories for a while. It may bring you more tears than smiles. Simply make the most of an opportunity for who you are to be with who you were.
You may want to change the name of this movie from “Three of us” to “Two of us”— who you are, and who you could have been.
One of the telling sequences from the movie. Cajoled by her old dance teacher during a visit to the school, Shailaja joins a group of girls in their practice session. She starts well, then loses her moves. She leaves the group, backs away until she is almost hiding behind a pillar, as if seeking shelter from reality.
Having been without a job (in the strict 9-to-5, on-the-HR-rolls sense) for nearly 30 years, it does feel strange when I occasionally encounter the question, “So, when do you plan to retire?” You mean I can be more retired than I am? Come to think of it, why should I retire at all?
When The Economist recently echoed that question, I thought it would be fitting to put the retirement question to a few friends who are otherwise too busy working to answer my questions.
The Economist column says most people don’t want to retire simply because they can’t afford to. Blame it on insidious inflation! Of course, some of the rich and the famous don’t want to because they don’t want to leave centre-stage. Where else can they draw the adrenalin from and get attention unless they are sitting behind that table day after day after day?
Yes, money matters, tells my friend Lovaii Navlakhi, for the umpteenth time. He should know; that’s his job. If you started your job just last year, expect him to ask you next week if you have started saving for your retirement. You need to work for it, is what he says.
He does not prescribe what you ought to do after your retirement. But he will run a stern eye down your investments and tell you what you need to put away if you insist on rounding the world. If the numbers say that’s an out-of-the-world possibility, he will gently point to the resort round the corner and remind you how much you can save by changing your goal.
By the way, Lovaii has no plans to retire. Don’t ask me why.
In the true spirit
What I can tell you is why Geetha opted for early retirement from the bank where she used to work.
She was part of the team responsible for reaching old age pension to poor, illiterate villagers. That experience exposed her to, in her own words, how the “other half” lived. When the first opportunity came up for voluntary retirement, she quit. And the very next day volunteered to work for a trust that provides ayurveda treatment and also serves the community around in several ways.
Over the last 12 years she has been through it all—teaching the village women how to make chapatis to conducting odd-hour online meetings to raise funds to do more good for more people. “While I was in the bank, I was not seriously pursuing promotions. Now, given all the skills I have picked up here, I think I could have pushed to be the CEO of the bank,” Geetha joked.
Geetha does not think retirement is synonymous with not doing anything. She is sure that’s the right time to reach out and help. Start at home. “It could be just sponsoring the education of your servant’s child.”
Spiritually inclined as she is, Geetha is not too worried about the money part. A single mother, her daughters are settled and they had wholeheartedly supported her plan to leave the bank and take up community service. “What I have learnt is you should shed your ego. Keep yourself empty. Before you do anything, ask if it is for the larger good. Then go ahead and do it.”
A different work code
Unlike Geetha, Siva has a long way to go before he attains the conventional retirement age. Yet, he too feels there is something spiritual about the idea of hanging up the boots (if that’s what software engineers like him wear).
“Retirement,” he says, “is the time usually one could rest internally and, as the rush gradually slows down, one might begin to understand a lifetime of conditioning and its impact in terms of real inner peace and acceptance.” He accepts that it would be difficult to give up the skills that kept him fed all these years. But he is open to the idea of “doing the same thing differently” if only to derive satisfaction out of accomplishing some challenging work.
He is clear that when he retires, he would not be financially dependent on whatever “work” he does. He hopes to save enough and then maybe “teach or mentor students from the underserved sections of the community.”
This is his prescription for a happy retired life. Whatever your job or business was, “grooming ourselves to foresee and deal with the simple and common realities of life—health, contentment, forgiveness, acceptance and faith.”
Helming a social cause
Suprabha too is sure that she would lend her leadership skills for a social cause and not for a “corporate outfit” when she chooses to retire.
She is some distance from retirement, but candidly admits that “my motivation has always been money.” In case she does not enjoy the work that delivers the money, she has a number of hobbies (partial list: running, trekking, biking, boxing) that keep her “adequately engaged.”
Her motivation has always been to continuously upskill herself. So, what is her idea of retirement? “As time passes by, my ability to take breaks would increase. That's what I would call retirement.” And yes, she would love to be a nomad, not attached to a single place, and move where she would like to (preferably near the mountains).
Peace in the bustle
No mountains for Umaya, though. He was born and brought up in a city and he would prefer to be in the midst of all the hustle and bustle and “yet retain my peace.”
He is convinced that “or faculties remain sharper when we keep ourselves occupied.” That means you are unlikely to find him curled up in bed when the sun is at its zenith because he will be busy widening “the application of skills that I have gathered over the decades.”
Now that Umaya has had his say, I have a confession. I had started writing this piece, confident that my friends would give me enough masala for something humorous. Instead, this is shaping out to be just the kind of boringly seriously work guaranteed not to upset the boss or a client. Very work like, in other words.
More than a sip
Maybe I should ask Jairam, who has always been my favourite Wodehousian writer, and who has just birthed his first book, Masala Chai for the Soul.
His advice is not to retire if your job is your life and you have practically nothing else to do. Keep yourself involved in something for the sake of a timetable. It prevents you from drifting. “In the end,” he says, “runners easily overtake drifters.”
He recommends picking up a job that is a mix of the old mixed with something sufficiently new. “That gets you to think anew.”
“The mind is built such that it needs to dwell on something. An attractive dwelling place is your own aches and pains. A job gives your mind alternative pasture. Those aches and pains can wait. They may even reduce.” Not that I am an expert, Jairam, but that’s palatable philosophy without any masala.
Don’t believe me? Listen to his parting advice. “The inconvenient truth is that our sense of self-worth is dependent not on who we are but what we do. So keep doing, keep living.”
Maybe if I had caught him after he had just finished a cup of his favourite, he would have asked Jeeves to fetch his happy hat and then maybe, just maybe ….
Too serious to relax
Someone advised that I should speak to people from all age groups to gather a more representative view of what the world thinks of retirement. Well, the two youngsters I reached out to said they were too busy “working” to talk to me. One even went to the extent of suggesting that I was in the best position to write about retirement.
Such impudence, I say! Lasso these youngsters, Lovaii! Pull them in, deny them their iPhone 15 and make them suffer, I mean, save!
Now that I have caught my breath, I am beginning to wonder. Is retirement serious business? As you cope with the hiccups of life, do too much time and not so much money combine with the looming full stop to reduce life to a sentence to suffer?
What do you think? Whether you are on this side or that, pretty close or very far from the retirement fence, what are your thoughts on retirement?
You don’t want to run into or read about Richard Morgan. Not when you are just waking up after another online fitness session you dozed through. He can make you feel ashamedly unfit.
At 93, screams The Washington Post heading, he’s as fit as a 40-year-old. Typical media exaggeration, so thought my jealous self. Until I came to the research part of it.
Three researchers from Ireland assessed the “physiological, performance, nutritional intake, and training characteristics” of Richard Morgan, a “four-time master world champion indoor male rower”.
The good part was “the onetime baker and battery maker with creaky knees" didn’t take up regular exercise until he was in his 70s” and still trains mostly in his backyard shed.
Very like me! Just substitute the corner room with all the junk in my apartment for the backyard shed. I am sure the creaks must sound and feel the same.
He was around once when his grandson was practicing rowing and the coach persuaded Richard to have a go at the rowing machine. He did. And just took off.
Maybe next time one of the youngsters persuades me to accompany them to the gym, I should. You never know. (Ouch!)
They called Richard over to the physiology lab at the University of Limerick in Ireland. While he rowed a simulated 2,000-meter race, the scientists monitored his heart, lungs and muscles.
The 165-pound “powerhouse” had 80 percent muscle and barely 15 percent fat. His heart rate peaked pretty fast at 153 beats per minute, suggesting excellent cardiovascular health.
Like me, Richard has no qualms about sharing the secrets of his good health.
Thanks to people like Richard, scientists now know that “the human body maintains the ability to adapt to exercise at any age”, and that exercise can help build and maintain a strong, capable body, regardless of age.
You are amazing Richard Morgan! And you have inspired me.
You started at 72, right? I have some calendars to flip through yet. As soon as I finish my next nap, I will read that study in full.
Based on this report by The Washington Post.
Image: © www.row2k.com. Shows Richard Morgan at a 2018 event. Image published in The Washington Post.
The to and fro
But yet again
We spelt it wrong
Get the new, use it
And hear hearts
Close at hand
The new ear
To truly hear
Every chirp, rustle
And the loud hush
With this ear
Whether new or year
Let’s just be
Image created using Microsoft Designer.
Wife: “Does it hurt now?”
Husband: “How many times will you ask me? Now this pain will go with me. You take care of Guddi.”
Guddi, 10, their daughter, is not very comfortable when he holds her hand.
Wife: (Angry) And how do you expect me to do that?
The wife accuses him of bringing this calamity on all of them because of his drinking. Guddi looks at both without any expression.
Husband: “I wanted to help Sonu finish her college. Now I don’t know ….”
The wife bursts out. Grabs Guddi. “And what do you want me to do with this one? Forget me. You are always more worried about your sister. Where is she now? Oh! My fate!” She slaps her forehead.
Just then, the doctor walks in with Sonu, the sister. Seeing the sister, Guddi brightens up. Tries to run to her. Mother holds her back.
The doctor examines the husband. Then says he has some good news to give. The sister is willing to donate her liver. The husband begins to ask something, but Sonu stops him.
Sister: “Let the doctor finish what he is saying.”
Doctor: “There are many reasons for liver cirrhosis. Some problems by birth, some virus. But in your case, we all know what the reason is ….”
The husband holds his ears in apology and starts sobbing. “Never again.”
Doctor: “Like I told you, no treatment will work at this stage. Only a transplant. That too quickly. Fortunately, your sister is a match. And she has agreed, and. Of course, there is no danger—"
Sonu suddenly stops doctor. She addresses the patient, her brother.
Sister: “The doctor says there is no danger to my life. He says he will take only a small piece of my liver. What I know is I am giving you a piece of my life so that you get a second life. Not for me. But for Bhabhi and Guddi. You were always worried about my college, right? Now you better get well. Because I want you to make sure Guddi completes her college. Remember, you owe it to me.”
The wife gets up crying and does a namaste to her sister-in-law. She is unable to speak. Sonu enfolds her and Guddi in an embrace. In the background, the husband, weeping bitterly, does an apologetic namaste to the three.
The doctor walks away. Guddi suddenly runs to him and pulls at his coat to stop him.
Guddi: “Please don’t take too much of her liver. If you want more, take a little piece of my liver.”
The doctor laughs and pats her head.
Guddi runs back to the bed, sits, and holds her father’s hand. Her mother and aunt join them.
Images by MS Designer Image Creator.
Our last conversation had not gone down well. Here I was again, with a very reluctant and unhappy Jay, waiting for my senior doctor friend to join us.
“Listen,” Jay hardly bothered to conceal his anger. “I can understand if you can’t or you don’t want to pay for mausi’s treatment. But no way am I going to submit her to this palliative nonsense. I don’t want to kill her.”
I took a deep breath but was spared the need to reply because Dr PC chose that moment to walk in.
Jay greeted him politely enough, but I could see it took an effort.
For the next half hour, I remained silent while Jay talked about mausi’s condition. Mausi, an orphan, had joined the family decades ago as a house help. Now that everyone else was gone, Jay was effectively an orphan too. They just had each other.
I knew Dr PC would first listen before he spoke. Sure enough, by now, Jay had opened up and was telling the doctor about the interactions he had had with her right from his young days. It was obvious she meant the world to him.
“Some people,” Jay said, pointedly looking at me, “think that I am trying to make money using her as an excuse. Yes, I don’t have a job and I do not know if and when I will get one. But I am willing to sell every little thing I have. I will beg and borrow. I want her to get better. Just because it is cheap, I do not want to risk her life and give her some—”
“—palliative care?” Dr PC completed Jay’s sentence and smiled at him.
I thought it was time for me to say something, but Dr PC silenced me with a look. Dr PC asked Jay about the treatment options he had discovered as he had spent very many days hopping from hospital to hospital. As Jay narrated his formal and informal interactions with doctors, Dr PC flipped through her papers.
You are doing right
“Given her age and her diagnosis,” Dr PC gently placed the file on the table, “I think you are doing the right thing.”
Jay was shocked. “But I am not doing anything. At least not yet. Everyone is quoting some exorbitant fees. She has no insurance. Worse, everyone is sure about the charges but no one can give me a guarantee that she would be all right after the treatment.”
Dr PC closed his eyes and looked lost in thought. Silence reigned.
His eyes still closed, Dr PC described the surgery she would need and the risks involved. Then he spoke about mausi’s likely state if she survived the surgery—how much help she would need if and after she returned home.
“Chances are she would need multiple follow-up sessions in the hospital afterwards. Her life would be reduced to hospitals and medicines.” Dr PC opened his eyes and looked at Jay.
Jay was on the verge of tears. It was bad enough that no hospital had given him a guarantee. Clearly, no one had told him about what would happen if and when she left the hospital.
Dr PC did not wait for Jay to reply.
Are you selfish?
“I may want to do everything possible, try ayurveda, homeopathy, every system possible to ensure my close relative lives. That’s my need, that’s my responsibility. I am also worried about what others would say. That’s me being selfish,” that was a little shocking coming from Dr PC. But he wasn’t done yet.
“I do not think you are selfish, Jay. You would always put what is best for mausi first. Not based on what others may think, but what is best for her, being fully aware of her condition.
“You know, when I was a surgeon, I began by learning how to operate. Then I learnt when to operate. But the biggest lesson was what I learnt last—when not to operate. I am happy there are still a few surgeons who are able to see the larger picture from a more humanitarian perspective. Please listen to them.”
Dr PC continued. “You and your mausi are so lucky that you have no money. Otherwise, you would not be wasting time with people like us. You would have taken her to the best hospital and got her the best treatment your money could buy. Am I right?”
Jay attempted to smile.
“And that is something most of us would do. The younger they are, the closer they are to us, we will want to try everything. We tell them they are brave. We want them to fight. We do not think about in what state the fight would leave them.” Dr PC looked pensively at the glass he held.
“Medical science is fantastic. I am sitting here before you thanks to the power of medicine. But we need to be conscious of reality. Decide the goal of care depending on the patient and the condition, the diagnosis, the prognosis. Nothing like getting back to good health whether an experienced doctor makes it possible or an efficient robot. The thing is we are not robots. We are vulnerable human beings with fragile emotions. We get sick, we die. We must accept the limits of medicine.”
Dr PC told the story of a friend who had passed away recently. “He and his wife had spent more than six decades together, and you know what she regretted the most at the end? That she could not feed him at least one or two spoons of his favourite food before he died. He had managed to gulp down some water even as he struggled to breathe and was then rushed to the hospital. First thing they put on him was the oxygen mask and it never came off for all of the 20 days the tubes kept him alive. The food she had lovingly made stood no chance. Would it have been different if someone had bothered to review the goal of care after a few days, to let her have a say?”
The missing department
Silence again. Then Jay spoke up in a more mellowed tone.
“In all those hospitals I visited there were departments for everything. It was as if there was a department for every organ and every treatment. But I did not find any department for palliative care. Doesn’t that mean palliative care is not really medical science? Maybe something that is outside the limits of medicine like you just mentioned? Something only supposed to make you feel good. Something like a prayer, perhaps?”
I winced. How would Dr PC react to this?
Dr PC was actually smiling. “So, if at all there is a palliative care department, that is where you go, give up and just die. You think so?”
“Maybe,” Jay did not sound very sure.
Dr PC resettled himself in the chair. “You know, that is exactly what most people think of palliative care, including doctors. It is something cheap and often charitable. Not serious and professional, right? Not of great value.”
Dr PC did not wait for a reply but continued. “Let us talk about mausi for a minute. Is she most comfortable being at home with you?”
“Yes, of course.” Jay replied. ‘But she complains of pain. Can’t sleep.”
Care that matters
Dr PC reached out and held Jay’s hand. “Suppose you are there with her at home. You give her just enough medicines, what the doctor has prescribed, to keep her pain away. And to help her sleep. You ensure she eats when she can, whatever she can keep down comfortably. You know how she hates to just lie in a corner when there are a thousand things to do at home. So, you let her do a few things that will not harm her but make her feel she has some purpose. Let her know that she will need to cope and compromise and that is perfectly alright. Encourage her to talk. Whatever she wants to tell you. You listen. Sometimes she wants to pray, you told me. So, you make available whatever she needs for the ritual that is important to her, for her time with God.”
Dr PC let go of Jay’s hand and sat back.
“Remember,” Dr PC raised a warning finger, “do not make any false promise at any time. Reassure her that you are there for her.”
Dr PC paused and then asked. “You think you can do all of this?”
“When you do all this, you are essentially offering her the essence of palliative care. I know you are not a doctor or a trained in palliative care. But even when you seek help from either of those professionals, you will become their partner in offering the quality of life she deserves. Something that her disease or even some aggressive treatment may deny her. Like I keep saying always think of the goal of our care at this point in time. We must keep revisiting that because things change. She may feel she is fine for days, or she may suddenly deteriorate.”
Dr PC waited until Jay looked up.
Cheap but invaluable
“Now let us talk money. How much do you think this will cost you?”
“Not much,” Jay replied.
“That’s exactly why you are unlikely to see a big board welcoming you to the Palliative Care Department in what you might call a 5-star hospital.”
Dr PC laughed, forcing Jay to join him.
“Not many of us can offer affordable treatment in the conventional sense even if you have insurance. But many of us are already offering palliative care totally free or at a nominal cost.”
Jay looked more at ease. But he was not convinced yet.
“Aren’t we ruling out the possibility of a cure if we opt for palliative care,” he asked.
“Let me repeat," Dr PC sighed. "Examine and understand the patient. What are the possibilities? Then decide the immediate goal of care. The goal of care is something dynamic. Palliative care does not have to wait for curative treatment to be over or to fail. It can ease the painful physical and emotional effects of essential treatment. It could be about making a significant adjustment in the treatment plan that would not compromise the outcome but would enhance comfort. Or it could be about being there to hold a hand and offer support. Or it could be about simply adjusting the pillows. After all, it is about respecting one’s right to a good, peaceful quality of life at any stage of life, during or after treatment.”
Care, be compassionate
I had a sudden brainwave.
“I think we should rename palliative care as compassionate care.” I was waiting for applause from Dr PC, but Jay shot me down.
“If it is care, it must be compassionate. If it is not compassionate, it can’t be care,” Jay declared, very sure of himself.
Dr PC looked at me and laughed. I could only stare at Jay as Dr PC stood up and patted him on the shoulder.
“Time we left. Mausi has been alone at home for too long.” After a quick handshake with Dr PC, the new Jay led the way.
You wanted to walk with me, or rather, help me walk, didn’t you? You were even willing to push my wheelchair if I retuned in that state, weren’t you?
The voice was familiar. Instinctively, I looked around. There was no one. Just darkness. I had stepped out for my walk earlier than usual. The streetlights were out, the sun wasn’t yet.
Please don’t get spooked. I had also wanted to be with you. When they did not let me get away from the bed and all the tubes. And after. That’s why I decided to walk with you, just this once. Let’s just walk and talk. At least you do the walking, and we’ll think together.
Sorry you had to be in the hospital for so long. The family tried their best to get you back.
I am sure they did. But I had left me a few days before they took me out of the hospital. They just held on to the body.
Were you in pain?
After some time, it is no longer about me. It is about who is there, who thinks is responsible for me. What works for all. You may call it helping me fight. Or you may think it is torture by delegation.
Would you have preferred to come home sooner?
And do what? Trouble everyone at home? There everyone listened to what one doctor said. Here everyone would have been a doctor. You would run out of time and patience. Like it or not. And my journey would have just gone on, regardless.
I flinched when they placed you on the hard floor. Then moved you this way and that to adjust the sheets and to place the things for the prayer.
You were too much into the body that was no longer me. Suppose they took a call and took my stuff out of the body. Stuff someone else could use. Then moved what was left for the students to study. Would you have preferred that?
Maybe that’s best for all? At least that’s what I am asking for in my will.
Good for you. Take what you want and play with the rest. You know any time, now or then, what matters is if I am in you and you in me. In heart. In thoughts. Beyond rituals. Beyond expectations.
But rituals are important. For generations. Respecting the memory. You are divine when you are no longer human.
Strange! I could not place most of the people who paid obeisance to my body. Would they have come to feed me or even to just sit and talk with me before I had crossed over? And here they were, so solemn. Nice of them to come. Yet, somehow funny, thought.
The sun is rising. Time for me to go. By the way, a sweet I used to enjoy a long time ago. I have been wanting to give it to you. Now that I have crossed the threshold, I can’t. Let me see.
Then the blaring horn and blinding headlights of a wayward car broke the spell. The dawn was stretching and yawning.
I would have dismissed it as a waking, walking dream, if my wife had not asked me after she finished putting away the veggies I had bought as usual. “What is this? Did you buy this? Or does this belong to someone else? Looks like some sweet.”
Image by kordula vahle from Pixabay
The government reportedly plans to encourage teachers to teach children in the latter's local dialect to make them feel at home when they start school. One wonders if this has anything to do with findings from Australia or, more specifically, Murrinhpatha.
Murrinhpatha is an Australian aboriginal language spoken by some 2,500 residents of Wadeye, a town in the northwestern coast of Australia.
A picture shows a falling man whose leg is about to enter the gaping jaws of a crocodile. How would you describe the image?
If you spoke Murrinhpatha, your answer would have been any of these: Crocodile might bite person; Crocodile one person will bite; Man crocodile might bite; Young man bit crocodile; Crocodile bit. And each answer would have been right from the speaker’s perspective.
Writes Christine Kenneally in her story in Scientific American that this was one of the experiments conducted by a team led by Rachel Nordlinger, Director of the University of Melbourne's Research Unit for Indigenous Language.
The Murrinhpatha way
With minimum distracting instructions before the test, they asked 46 Murrinhpatha speakers to look at the image. An infrared tracker recorded their eye movements as they looked at the scene and spoke. The scientists found that the Murrinhpatha speakers were looking evenly and rapidly at both the characters on the image. In scientific terms, they were doing some tremendous amount of relational encoding in the first 600 milliseconds.
As Nordlinger put it, “what a speaker looked at first in a sustained way after the initial 400-millisecond window was the thing that they mentioned first.” Not that it was a rule; some focused on the second element.
The more important finding was that every individual Murrinhpatha speaker had more than five and half different ways of arranging the subject, verb and object in a sentence. In all, they produced 10 possible word orders.
What a language!
Murrinhpatha is what linguists call “polysynthetic”. A single word in this language may express action, participants, ownership and intention using a single word. The actors and the action are all entwined.
For example, how would you say in the language you are comfortable with that “he was going through our bags stealing from us”? In Murrinhpatha, you would have used a single word: mengankumayerlurlngimekardi.
As the language has a free word order, subjects, verbs and objects can occur in any position in a sentence. In practice, this means the two-year-olds of Wadeye are wielding massively complex words while most of their contemporaries elsewhere are grappling with the connection between A and Apple.
Murrinhpatha divides all nouns into 10 different classes. These are: familiar humans; all other animate beings; vegetables and other plant-based foods; language and knowledge; water; place and time; spears (used for hunting and ceremonies); weapons; inanimate things; and fire. (And to think that I had enough trouble with learning English parts of speech in school!)
Secret of survival
How did such a language survive? And how does one who speaks Murrinhpatha survive today?
Just 200 years ago, at least 300 languages were spoken by people in Australia, most of those having descended from a protolanguage spoken some 6,000 years ago. Now, only 13 are learnt by children as their first language.
After Wadeye was established as a mission, children were taken and “incarcerated” in a boarding school. Speaking the native tongue invited punishment, naturally leading to the gradual demise of several local languages.
How come children in Wadeye still speak Murrinhpatha? According to an elder who spoke to Nordlinger, “We just used to whisper”, thus keeping the language quietly alive.
Some of the locals learned Murrinhpatha from their elders and later went on to learn English in school. Now, English helps them talk to outsiders and get good jobs. However, they owe their culture and their worldview to Murrinhpatha, which they think is vital for their community. More and more indigenous people are learning this as their first language, even if they have different language histories.
What's in a language?
For Nordlinger, each language represents “a unique expression of the human experience and contains irreplaceable knowledge about the planet and people, holding within it the traces of thousands of speakers past. Each language also presents an opportunity to explore the dynamic interplay between a speaker's mind and the structures of language.”
In Wadeye, even before the children start school, elders take them out to the bush and sit with them around a fire to “teach them in language.” They describe the natural world and tell stories from the dreaming about the beings that created their world. They learn “songlines,” stories in ceremonial song that include sacred sites and the routes ancient beings took across the land. They consider these songlines a gift they got from their grandparents, a gift that they must now pass on to the next generation.
Unfortunately, languages are dying. The Language Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded by Indigenous educators and activists in the U.S., estimates that 61 percent of languages around the world that were spoken as a first language in 1795 “are doomed or extinct.”
Early in Nordlinger's career, when she worked with a community that spoke Wambaya, the elders had requested her to help younger generations to learn the language of their ancestors. Then there were about 10 fluent speakers of Wambaya. They are all now dead, taking the language with them.
Next time you apologize to a senior member of your family because your child cannot speak your mother tongue, the only tongue they know, would you feel secretly proud because you think the child’s intelligence and prospects lie elsewhere? Or would you remedy the situation by moving your child to a new school where the teachers use the local dialect? Or, in the tech-world equivalent of the bush, look for an instructional video to teach them the songlines?
Adapted from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/grammar-changes-how-we-see-an-australian-language-shows/
Image: Created by Bing Image Creator.
How to write right? I put that question to her. She is a wiser, older writer, who never misses an opportunity to tell me between the two of us she is always “righter”.
“In what you do, what is right writing is what your client says is right,” she banged her fist on her palm, as was her habit if there was no table within reach.
As Messrs. Wren, Martin and Roget had played a major role in shaping two of my three R’s, it was not easy to accept her assertion. Yet, she did have a point.
Long ago, when covid would have probably been highlighted as a spelling mistake, I was surprised by a call from Hong Kong. That was my first overseas client happy to have me WFH (another spelling glitch then).
We worked happily for about two years. One day, he abruptly told me the boss was not happy with my writing. “Too direct, almost impolite.”
Soon, they moved on and he (now a friend working elsewhere) revealed that the boss had changed—the American was replaced by someone from the UK. Was it just a matter of the difference in nationality? Could we have solved it simply by UK-ing US English? Apparently, there was a change in temperament too.
Conclusion: You may spend hours sharpening it, but a change in nationality and personality can snap the lead, just like that!
Now I am quite used to both extremes.
“Your writing is too simple. Can we have some strong words?”
“Your writing is too complex. Please simplify.”
I simply comply. When writing is your work, write what works.
A new book, Writing for Busy Readers, reviews The Economist, has very simple advice: cut unnecessary words, stick to “bedrock vocabulary” and follow simple syntax. The book goes on to give proof of the preaching.
Simply deleting half of the paragraphs in a fundraising email increased donations by 16%. Reducing the words from 127 to 49 in an emailed survey increased the response rate from 2.7% to 4.8%. Public companies that used long sentences and complicated words to state their ethics code were seen as less moral and trustworthy. Phew!
Short and sweet it has to be then? What happens when the first-level contact at the client’s throws your content on the scale to weigh the “content”? How many are fortunate enough to deal directly with the would-be author to understand them and their authentic tone well enough to make the draft a “good to go” at the very first instance? Of course, without interference from chatty intermediaries and GPT!
Short, easy words definitely have their place but not for all. This “sesquipedalian” Member of Parliament (MP) is known less for what he says than for the words he uses to say that, whether you understand or not be damned. That’s his brand, what has made him famous.
An old friend, an ageless writer and veteran communications professional, had the opportunity to compliment this MP after the latter had addressed a gathering. “Thank you for elevating this discussion to crepuscular altitude and suffusing it with intellect of refulgent luminosity.”
Incidentally, this friend’s first book will be published soon. When he told me about it, I suggested he should title it Condiment-laden Camellia sinensis decoction for the neshama. He refused.
Must be the influence of the new wave. He has given it a title all too simple and short: Masala chai for the soul.
In favour of simple writing (economist.com)
Bing image creator
In my early days as a writer for hire, the lack of a degree in literature used to push their eyebrows up and my chances down. As the decades passed, another missing qualification emerged to replace the academic shortcoming—haven’t written a book yet, have you?
I may have encouraged or helped many write a tome, but the fact remains there is no book out there in my name, neither the version that evokes bibliosmia nor the one that stays behind a screen until clicked to life.
Friends persuade. You have written so much, why not put it all together in a book or two? Flattering as it is, I share a secret: it’s all out there already in bits and pieces. Why go through the pain and pay a price for booking it all? That’s when they give up, accusing me of laziness, arrogance, and hypocrisy! Does he know anything about building a brand? Says he is a writer, but doesn’t want to write a book, bah!
Maybe I am being a hypocrite when I encourage and help those clients (and friendly ex-clients) to write the book that is bursting out of their heads and hearts. But at least once I actively discouraged someone.
The draft of his blog had ended up being a bit too long. Within hours he was planning the events and locations where he would display his first book. I doused his enthusiasm by ruthlessly editing the piece and converting it into three posts.
You guessed it, he is no longer a client. Though he does remind me on the rare occasions we connect that together the three posts had garnered some 5,000 likes. No doubt suggesting that the book would have sold an equal number of copies, if only ….
By the way, Mark Richards of Swift Press, says in The Economist, that 5,000 copies is the break-even point for a book. That is the number a writer should target to reach base camp from where one can hope to glimpse the best-seller peak.
Anyone can book now
Time was when you would be rejected by publisher after publisher. I used to imagine a whole lineup of serious-looking editors trying to inject English into the manuscript (after clearance by the marketing team). Can you write good, readable English? Can you sustain a plot? Are you relevant, famous, or both? Will they pay a price to read what you write? Every question needed a positive answer, before the book could see daylight. Or so I used to think.
Now, as Abhi Singh puts it, there are no gatekeepers. You are not screened and selected by a publishing house. A lot of us have always wanted to be an author even when it was not easy. Now that publishing a book is as simple as going to the right website and clicking on the best package, there is a rush to stuff your words between the covers and put it out there.
In the past, says Abhi Singh, “publishing one paper book would cost so much you would have no money left for sending out a new one. Now it’s just bits in the ether and cost nothing.” Talk of publishing e-ase!
Today, publishing a book is all about branding. If your head is chockfull of ideas and you just need a plumber (ahem!) to get the words flowing, you can hire one and also all other sorts of help (if your publisher does not offer those). You may not even need to step out of your room (where you have your computer) until it is time to launch your book and sign a few copies. And once that is done, never miss an opportunity to suggest that you are an author, which if you do it right often enough, would become synonymous with “I am an expert”.
A book matters, but ...
Before you rush to the conclusion that I am anti-book, let me correct you. As long as you are clear about the why and what of your book, I will be the first to cheer you.
Imagine you surprise me with a copy of your first book. Days pass after all the congratulatory backslapping. As promised, I get back to you after I read the book. The silence gets awkward when I ask a simple question, purely as your reader-friend: “Why did you write this book?” I have had to painfully put up with that silence more than once. What makes things worse are the justifications that follow and the accusations of my being disloyal and needlessly skeptical.
Then there is this friend who has occupied the top echelons of management in places that normally figure in the shadow regions of newspaper headlines. You may ignore his management wisdom but there is no ignoring the weight of the life he has experienced in difficult situations. He remains a consultant not to fill his coffers but to fund a foundation that supports budding entrepreneurs. “I want to write my autobiography. No grand book. Just to pen my experiences in some form, somewhere. I want my family and friends to gain from what I have learnt. I have nothing to preach, but a lot to share. Hopefully, that will help someone, sometimes. Just to discover their answers within themselves.”
In his case, the target is not fame or brand building. You will hardly spot him on social media. His book, whatever form it takes may not make it anywhere near the bestseller list. Yet, he has a good cause for writing the book. Which gives it a good chance to succeed, regardless of where it ends up on this list or that.
Your cause may be sharing your Wodehousian humor. Or telling a fantastic story that entertains. As long as you are clear, I think you should go ahead and take the plunge. If you are keen to share some management wisdom or 25 tips about a niche domain, please pause a moment to consult Mother Google just to know what is already out there. And to ensure you can be different, if not unique.
As to the process of publishing, a word of caution. Recently, I read a self-published book by someone who has founded an institution to support a humanitarian cause. There were so many proofing errors and layout glitches that what ought to have been a good, moving series of stories had been reduced to an annoying distraction. I did not have the heart to recommend the book to anyone, lest it discredit the author and hamper the cause. Apparently, the writer had used a “self-publishing package” suggested by the publisher.
Another writer (a national figure) was castigated by a much-published veteran for using a “cheap” publisher and made to republish the book under a more reputed name because the book deserved it.
So, not just the writer, the publisher matters too. Pick someone who aligns with your thinking and has something more substantial to offer than projections of revenue and reputation.
The randomness of it all
Publishing, the knowledgeable say, is a strange, unpredictable world. Not every bestseller might be recommended reading from the perspective of your English professor. William Thackeray dismissed popular novels as “jam tarts for the mind”. However, in publishing, the hits are what sustain the business.
You must have read Danielle Steel. Her 200-plus books have sold over a billion copies! As Catherine Nixey writes in her piece in The Economist, Steel’s novels are “a literary sediment, settling on the shelves of holiday cottages everywhere.” Many are the (would-be) authors who would attempt to Chandrayaan the moon, just to become such sediment!
What is the formula then to make your book a hit? The wise say there is no formula or magic.
Apparently, that is how the publisher Random House got its name. Again, as The Economist reports, in the words of Markus Dohle, the boss: “Success is random. Bestsellers are random. So that’s why we are the Random House.” Jonathan Karp, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, thinks taking credit for a best seller is “like taking credit for the weather”.
In 2018, Northeastern University researchers analysed almost eight years’ worth of New York Times bestsellers and came up with some tips for aspiring writers: fiction (thrillers and romance especially) sells better than non-fiction; if you must pen a non-fiction, stick to a biography; and, it really helps if your name is known.
Any lessons from the bestselling authors? They are prolific, says The Economist. Danielle Steel writes until her nails bleed. Fleming recommended writing 2,000 words a day and not to sully this with “too much introspection and self-criticism”. James Patterson has churned out more than 340 books (some in collaboration with other writers). The mantra then is, “Don’t get it right, get it writ”.
Bleeding nails? Just get it writ? Hmm, I am not sure.
What do you think, Mr. Shakespeare? If you were to do it now, would Midsummer Night have remained just that, a Dream? Or, without Much Ado, would you have simply unleashed a digital, self-published Tempest?
Graphic: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/40382902; https://www.vecteezy.com/png/9399398-old-vintage-book-clipart-design-illustration;