Saturday, June 01, 2013

Life is not about the grammar issues

Before you get any incorrect ideas and leap to conclusions, let me make it clear: spellings matter; watch out for the comma, which can kill a person; and, yes, make the writing look sophisticated by using semicolons!

However, let us not get carried away.  There is more to life than grammar. A lot more.  Way more.

When I was a kid, one relative who never failed to impress me was my father's uncle.  In conversations we always referred to him as RM.  Like all of us, he was also a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  RM was sharp. Quick witted. And well read.  He didn't keep up with the modern science and literature, yes.  But, he knew what he had studied during his younger days.

A rather argumentative and cantankerous man he was.  (Now you know there might be a biological reason, too, for my fascination for The Argumentative Indian!)  Mostly irreligious, and definitely irreverent too.  The religious rarely dared to pick an argument with him not merely because he was good at arguing but, and more importantly, because he would recite from memory verses from any number of religious texts and proceed on to interpreting them.

One that made an early impression on me was the way he presented to the young me how Bhjaja Govindam came about.  Now, thanks to the information technology, I am able to simply link to that Wikipedia entry.  The Wikipedia note says the same that RM told me a long time ago.  That devotional, philosophical, and poetic work, the story goes, was Sankara's reaction when he came across a Sanskrit professor teaching the finer points of grammar to his students.  Sankara observed:
Bhajagovindam bhajagovindam
Govindam bhaja muudhamate
Sampraapte sannihite kaale
Nahi nahi rakshati dukrijnkarane. 
Worship Govinda, Worship Govinda,
Worship Govinda. Oh fool!
Rules of Grammar will not save you
At the time of your death.
RM was often annoyed that those reciting this didn't even pause to understand what it meant and, thus, I have often heard him talk about dukrijnkarane. The audience would get nervous, while I sat there enjoying the show.

We draw our own lessons from what we experience in life.  In my case, I fell in love with the idea that there is a lot more to life than the small stuff that we are so fascinated with.  That there are much larger issues that we needed to understand.  I didn't care for the religious "Govindam" bottom line that Sankara preached, but I appreciated that dukrijnkarane as a metaphor for the ultimately trivial stuff that don't matter at all.

Graduate school and the research activities that professors and students engaged in often reminded me of this dukrijnkarane approach.  Instead of grammar, it was about some minutiae.  I didn't refer to such research as dukrijnkarane; after all, I was an in alien culture.  So, I made fun of research in the field of economic development as nothing but a fixation on "the productivity of left-handed female labor in the cotton textile mills of who-cares-where."

I felt convinced that modern day academic research was nothing but a variation of that Sanskrit professor being monomaniacal about dukrijnkarane.

Whether in intellectual pursuits, or in life, I understand that there is a lot more to it than the fine details we worry about.  Yes, those details matter, like how the comma does.  But, it is not about the comma, right?  And that we forget.

It was always easy to get RM going on such issues.  He loved them.  He seemed to draw energy from making life miserable for others by bringing up such topics.

He was also the first one I really knew who grew a beard.  Well, sometimes he grew one, and at other times he was clean-shaven.  Once, in his bearded phase, while assisting somebody else at a food charity event of sorts, he was asked to be in-charge when the other person left.  RM being RM, he decided to play a practical joke; he sat there like a holy man--he had the beard, the looks, and the erudition after all.  When people came, he made the appropriate comments and soon had collected donations from the passers by by offering his profound words of wisdom!

Now, I am at an age that probably RM was when I began to interact with him as a kid.  My beard, unlike his, is always well-trimmed.  I suspect that my beard is why people pay attention to me even the little bit they do.  Ask yourself: if you were a student in my classes, or a newspaper reader scanning through my op-ed, would you think I had any gravitas if I looked like this?:

yes, me, in summer 2012.
With all the pontification that I do, I can easily imagine that I, too, can sit at a place, make appropriate comments and, in the process, earn more money than I currently do now.  I am not that far away from the place where something like that actually happened, after all.

There is a demand for a false prophet like RM, even if only for those few minutes, or a lot more such RMs because innately we humans are always driven to understanding the mystery that life is.  We intuitively feel that there is a lot more to life than whatever dukrijnkarane we pursue.  We want to make sense of that larger issues.  We then seek people who, we think and believe, might have the answer.  Or, at least, show us the path towards that.

But, the search for that master is futile.  Nobody knows.  It is up to us individually to understand that life is not about the fine points of grammar.  In a way, that is what I tell students, without going into all this philosophy talk.  When I tell them that a course they take with me is not really about the course alone, and that education is not merely about the letter-grade and diploma alone, I know that I am implicitly hoping that they would engage in a self-driven inquiry into what they understand the big picture to be.

Perhaps it was six years ago that I went to Sengottai to say hi to RM.  It was our last interaction.  He was anything but that person he was when younger when he made a serious impression on me. RM spoke so softly that I had to strain to catch his words.  In my Americanized way, I tried telling RM how much I appreciated him.  I held his bony arms with the skin that was dry and wrinkled.  I am not sure whether my expressions crossed across the cultures.

I like to imagine that as RM neared his last few breaths, he knew really, really well that life is not about dukrijnkarane.

A few months ago, when my mother saw a recent photo of mine, she couldn't stop commenting on how much I look like RM.  Am not sure whether it is a case of we see what we want to see, or whether there is more of a resemblance.  The beard helps, for sure :)


Ramesh said...

Yeah, it certainly runs in the family. Both the beard and the ........ :)

I had never though Bhaja Govindam would feature in your blog, but you continue to surprise me.

Life without grammar, would not be beautiful. Life of only grammar makes you a Ramamritham :)

Sriram Khé said...

I tell ya, following in the great-uncle's footsteps ... and he had a couple of even more cantankerous people ahead of him who paved the path ... a long line of pontificators ;)

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