tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Oriya Literature in Translation

I was introduced to Oriya literature by chance and by suffering. In a Khan Market bookshop in Delhi, I decided to spend a whopping 800 rupees on the Orissa edition of The Beautiful India reference book series.

There is a different edition for each Indian state, approximately 350 pages, written in imperfect Indian English (albeit scholarly Indian English) in the style of a mid-twentieth century social science Ph.D. dissertation. In other words, it is the kind of book that would cure insomnia in a sloth; a very, very dry reading on the history, economy, language, culture, politics, demographics, industry, art and architecture of the state. But one of the few gems was the section on Oriya literature—specifically the names and themes and significance of prominent writers, novelists and poets—that set me off on the path of local literary adventure.

Within the otherwise drab pages of that textbook I discovered the name of Umesh Chandra Sarakar, whose 1888 story Padmamali is considered the first-ever novel written in Oriya. Fakir Mohan Senapti (1843-1918) is called the father of modern Oriya prose. In the late 19th century a literary movement called Satyabadi came along, known for its Oriyan nationalistic spirit. There were satirists and romantic poets and fiercely politicized short story writers. The famous brothers Mohanty, Gopinath and Kanhu Charan, wrote now-classic stories on themes of social consciousness and cultural battles with modernity during the post-partition era of early Indian nationhood.

I desperately wanted to read these works to understand the place where I’d be spending a year or more of my life.

By further chance, I stumbled upon a glorious website called Grassroots Books India, billed as the largest website of Oriya literature in translation (though it could equally call itself the only website of Oriya literature in translation). Here to my delight I found Padmamali and many of the works of Senapti and the Mohantys and other important Oriya writers, available in English translation, for download in PDF format—absolutely FREE!

Grassroots Books, a non-profit, aims to “open doors to India’s best writing — selected and translated by a distinguished group of writers and translators — by publishing and promoting these works on the web. We also serve as an advocacy organization for literature in translation, producing events that feature the work of Oriya writers and connecting these writers to the world at large.”

NB: Fellow Orissa-based VSO volunteer Sheila Ash has written a very informative introduction to and review of some Indian and Oriya lit on her blog, Ashramblings.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Indian Waggle

It is somewhere between startling and disconcerting. When, at the initial passing of a thought beyond your lips--as soon as your utterance becomes an utterance--your interlocutor begins to shake his head at you, smiling. You have just begun to speak, and already you feel wrong: wrong place, wrong person, wrong thought?

Maybe disorienting is the better word for it. It is probably the single most jarring accoutrement of Indian culture, coming as it does between interpersonal connection.

I'm talking about the waggle. The Indian Waggle: The ubiquitous cranial (or as much cervical) gesture of assent, comprehension (feigned or real), acquiescence, politeness, and (rarely) finality.

More commonly referred to as the Indian nod, bob, bobble, wobble, or wiggle, I nevertheless prefer the term waggle, and not just because of the generous dictionary definitions:

waggle verb 1 /wag uhl/ a to wobble or shake, especially while in motion. b to move up and down or from side to side in a short, rapid manner. c to wobble and shake the head and move it up and down and side to side all at the same time in order to confuse the hell out of your interlocutor. noun 1 /wag uhl/ a the aforementioned confusing-as-hell head motion.

Where I am accustomed to a forward head-nod, a "yeah," an "uh-huh," an "mmm-hmmm," even an "okee-dokee," here in India I get the Waggle. You understand my words?; You agree with me?; You like what I'm saying?; You want me to keep talking; You think I'm the greatest thing since paneer pakora?... Then, why don't you waggle your head while I'm talking?!

How about I lose my train of thought completely as I am mesmerized by your waggle?!

All kidding aside, the Waggle is not only surprisingly endearing--insofar as it is usually accompanied by a smile--but also dynamic and (I might as well admit) infectious.

The mechanics of the Waggle may seem daunting to the first-timer. Most of the effort is in the neck, while the head is the resulting focal point of the action. Try to imagine your head bobbing smoothly from side to side, and making a three-dimensional figure-eight motion (think hard) while your shoulders remain perfectly still. Keep your eyes fixed on their subject and slowly stretch a smile across your cheeks. There, you've just lassoed the theory of the Waggle.

And though I'm far from a seasoned practitioner of the art of the Waggle, I now find its waggliness creeping into my subconscious: If I see a waggle, I waggle. Sure, it starts as a comfortable nod (as a lifetime nodder, transitioning to the waggle is a bit like trying to defeat the proverbial chewing-gum/walking routine). Then gradually it morphs--sometimes awkwardly and with a bit of strain--into the common waggle. Lately I find I can waggle without a conscious cue. I am a waggler. But don't try this at home.

NB: Regarding the photograph, I asked the man if I could take a snapshot of his shop. He waggled. The boy asked if he could be in the photo. I waggled.

Monday, June 14, 2010

India Book Review: Between the Assassinations, by Aravind Adiga

Duly celebrated young Indian author Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize and shot the young man to stardom. I've still not read that book. It is sitting on my virtual bookshelf, which is to say that it is stored on my partner's Kindle that I haven't yet deigned to use, which means it stands a tiny chance of achieving the paradigmatic distinction of being the first electronic book I ever read.

However, my actual non-virtual bookshelf is blessedly still full of actual non-virtual books, one of which is Adiga's second book published (but first written), Between the Assassinations, a collection of short tales ("a novel of stories") set in a fictional town of Kittur on the southwest Indian coast during the seemingly arbitrary but nevertheless poetically named era in India's history between the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the assassination of her son Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Arbitrary, because the stories follow no discernible chronological order, nor are they pegged to any specific date during that seven-year span, nor do they at any point reference either of the two assassinations as events significant to the narrative. Should any of these facts put you off reading the book, you'll be the sorer for it.

What Adiga writes in these character-driven stories of daily life in all corners, sectors, classes, religions and ages of Indian society tucked just beneath the innocent surface of fictional Kittur, is a tale of a transcendant, modern India, where the barriers, both physical and culturally imagined, between all corners, sectors, classes, religions and ages of Indian society are being torn down by the thrust of modernity, which as a character itself takes the thematic forms of, for example, a globalized economy, linguistic convergence and domination, identity politics of sub-national groups, and the better-informed but ceaselessly futile revolt of the have-nots against the haves--all of which characterize India's coming of new age in the late 1980s.

And, as the prose comprises the earliest, rawest writings of a young, talented author, Adiga's style is wonderfully sardonic, purposeful, and not at all off-key when it hits the occasional epiphanous note.

You should read this book.

Between the Assassinations
By Aravind Adiga
Free Press, 2009
339 pages

Saturday, June 12, 2010

After the Catch

The seaside town of Gopalpur is--as regular followers of this blog will guess--becoming a regular weekend getaway for us. Morning walks on the beach have an innate, therapeutic value not easy to define but not difficult to imagine. On a recent excursion, our morning walk took us past a fisherfolk village, not long after the men had returned from the sea with the day's catch for the market, where boats dried on the sand, crows and dogs picked over scraps, and the men and women set about repairing vessels and nets and gear in the perpetual cycle of life by the sea.

{Click here to see the full gallery of 17 photos}

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Why India is terrible at Football

"Why is India such a non-entity in international football? Because, whether or not we acknowledge our inadequacies, the predominant mindset of this nation almost ensures that we are unlikely to be successful at [an] elite professional level in any sport that demands strenuous physical activity--this contention being corroborated by the fact that among the top five medal winners in the Beijing Olympics, there is not a single cricket-playing country."
--Columnist Siddhartha Mishra, writing in the June 6 edition of The New Sunday Express.

(Context: The 2010 FIFA World Cup is two days away. Mr. Mishra--who also argued that India is a non-factor in the soccer world due to underfunded local programs, overfed bureaucrats of the All India Football Federation, low wages for referees and players resulting in unspecified corruption, and lack of vision in creating a national program--is understandably downtrodden (as a patriot and a football fan in India) but hardly fair: If India is looking for youth with the physical stamina to endure a simple ninety-minute football match, come on down to hot, humid Orissa and check out the kids running around chasing balls in the dirt in my neighbourhood. Also, what kind of logic is the Beijing Olympic reference? Trinidad & Tobago were a no-show in Beijing. They play cricket with the formidable West Indies federation. And we saw wee T&T at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Barefoot Guide to Indian Football, aka Soccer

In 1950 the newly independent country of India was invited to take part in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The organizers of the tournament in Brazil wanted an Asian representative for the football (aka soccer) showcase, which was being held for the first time in twelve years due to some war.

The qualifying teams of Asia--Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines--all decided against attending, citing the expense of travelling halfway around the world and the uncertain security and venue arrangements in Brazil. So FIFA president Jules Rimet called upon India to represent its continent.

There was only one catch: You have to wear shoes. India declined.

Who needs shoes? India played football at the 1948 London Olympic Games and the 1952 Helsinki Olympics barefoot. (Okay, they didn't win a single game; there is also a popular story that in Helsinki several Indian players got frostbite during a 10-1 loss to Yugoslavia.)

However, India won the gold medal in football at the 1951 Asian Games barefoot. Mohammed Salim, the first Indian ever to play club football in Europe (for Celtic of the Scottish League, in a brief stint in 1936 before he got homesick and returned to India), played barefoot all his life. Many legends of Indian football, few as they are, got their starts in barefoot leagues.

(India finally put on shoes for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. It advanced to the bronze-medal match, falling to Bulgaria 3-0. Alright, perhaps shoes are a good thing.)

Nevertheless, since it embraced playing in shoes, the Indian national football team has never qualified for the World Cup.

In 2010 World Cup qualifying in Asia, India was ousted in the preliminary knockout round by Lebanon, a team so mighty that after beating India it proceeded to lose all six of its group-stage games against Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Singapore (also not appearing in the World Cup this year) by the combined score of 14-3.

In the pre-tournament FIFA World Rankings, you'll find India sliding in at No. 132 out of 207 countries, one spot behind Swaziland (but also 32 spots ahead of rival Pakistan).

So as the World Cup gets underway next weekend, we'll not be seeing any of India. I've yet to discern if India will even be watching. After all, there might be a cricket match on somewhere.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/roosfotos/91313109/

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Children of the Hills and the English Conversation Club

"We come from the hills, sir." This is how the children explain it to me; how they name their place, as though a simple tilt of my head up from the horizon will answer everything I need to know about them.

Perhaps it does. These children I visit everyday are adivasi--'tribals' in the local English vernacular--aboriginal inhabitants of India. And yes, they live in the hills, in the forests, in tiny village clusters and hamlets. Unassimilated, passed by, on the margins... these are the hills.

They are my children, or so it is said in the parlance of the office. ("Mister-richard, you go to see your children now?") Each afternoon at half past four, I sit with thirty-four adivasi teenagers and facilitate an English conversation class--or club, as I prefer to call it.

It is summer vacation, and the children of the hilly villages have just completed the tenth grade. They spend the school year here, in special hostels, in Mandiapalli village just outside of Berhampur in the Indian state of Orissa. In fact, they've spent most of their lives here. Their villages are less than 100km away but take at least a day to get to, by bus and then by foot, up into the hills. There are no schools there, certainly not English-medium schools. They spend ten months in school, go home for two weeks, and then come back for summer courses, such as Mister-richard's (impromptu) English Conversation Club, where we hang out and tell jokes, swap fable for local fable, and compare and contrast Canada with India on any number of topics.

About ten years ago, the organization I work with here, PREM, helped establish a model school to give adivasi children the opportunities that few of their community ever have. These fifteen-year-olds were among the inaugural class. Their illiterate parents back in the hills had the courage and foresight to sign them up when PREM visited to explain about the school. It probably wasn't easy; a lot of tribal children go to work at young ages in the family business--usually millet cultivation combined with forest-produce gathering and some handicrafts or trades--especially if their fathers are away in other parts of India as migrant labourers. Child marriage is still common, which precludes long-term education.

Today these children read, write and speak Hindi, English and Oriya, in addition to their tribal languages. They have algebra and chemistry and computer science and just what you'd expect a teenager to have in school. After classes they cook and eat with each other, maintain the hostel together, go hiking and play cricket and fly kites. They are thirty-four among three million adivasi children in Orissa alone, and they know this. They are carefree when they should be, but also driven; in class I can hear it and feel it in what we talk about. These children know what opportunity is, and what it isn't. They also speak the language of rights, of values, of justice, and of hope: university, autonomy, community, development, progress, future...

I can't have these conversations with just anyone here. Like all teachers, I am the lucky one.

Last Friday, the students were on pins and needles (an expression Mister-richard taught them). They awaited the results of the annual year-end school examinations, their final cumulative grade point for the year. In the second-floor common room of the hostel, home to the English Conversation Club, no one could concentrate on the activities or games or jokes (in fact, more than a few skipped out on the meeting altogether). To the relief of all, the hostel ward finally got the email in the late afternoon and posted the list on the tackboard outside the kitchen.

Two of my students scored over 90%, apparently a ludicrously high score around here. One of them, a girl called S., feted her success by offering sweets to her classmates, as is the tradition here. (When it's your special day, you provide the treats, not the other way around.)

The other, a short, brick-built lad called J., took the news in typical teenage stride: with a shrug of the shoulders and a cock of the head, which absolutely could not conceal his smile and beaming pride. Some of the other children queued up for the hostel phone to call their families. But J.'s family will have to wait a while to hear the news of his success. In his village in the hills, just over the horizon, there are no phone lines and no mobile phone services.

The hills may not seem so far, but J. and his classmates have come a very long way. I hope their future is as bright as their faces.

NB: The children in the photograph are not my English students but others I've visited. I haven't brought my camera to class yet. This photograph was taken with the children's expressed consent.