Sunday, December 23, 2007

By the side of a queen

Source: The Hindu

Years of interaction with Rajmata Gayatri Devi, and the release of her biography recently, have not dimmed the starry aura for author Dharmendar Kanwar, finds ANJANA RAJAN.

Maharani Gayatri Devi in her youth_Published in Roli Books' Family Pride series.

ONCE THERE was a schoolgirl. She adored a queen. As she grew up, the distant yet kindly and stunningly beautiful queen remained her idol. One day, they met. The little girl, now a young lady, found in the stately queen a compassionate friend, a companion in laughter, a partner in work. And they continue thus. Yet to this day, that little girl, who has grown into a prolific writer, cannot believe her amazing luck in being able to walk by the side of the queen. It's only fitting then, that she decided to record her reverence by penning Her Highness' biography.

So how do you write the story of a queen? With lots of sugar, some spice that's nice, and plenty of adulation? This formula could well apply to many of the pictorial biographies in Roli Books' Family Pride series, which features family members or close associates chronicling the lives of great people. But it is particularly the case with the latest in this series, "Rajmata Gayatri Devi... Enduring Grace" by Dharmendar Kanwar.

For Dharmendar, who has authored eight books on tourism and travel - all on her home State of Rajasthan - besides numerous articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines, this is the first biography. Associated with the erstwhile Maharani, Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, for several years, she says, "I had already planned a book. Each meeting I had with her I had recorded. I knew enough about her life. I have also travelled with her. When the Roli Books proposal came, she felt I was the best person, and she wouldn't have to do the interviews all over again."

Writing about a strong-willed individual like the Rajmata, still active in her 80s, can be a challenge. Such a work does have to have the subject's approval, agrees Dharmendar, but, "In her case it was all right. There was nothing extraordinary that I was trying to reveal."

Dharmendar, who attended the Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls' Public School - founded by Gayatri Devi within a few years of her marriage to Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur - recalls the Maharani's visits to the school. "She used to wear beautiful chiffon saris and pearl necklaces. It was like a fairytale for us."

It was Dharmendar's writing that brought her into direct contact with the Maharani. Still new in her career, she was sent to interview Gayatri Devi. "I remember I was very nervous and tongue-tied. I spent a sleepless night. But she spoke very nicely and put me at ease."

The awe in which even a seasoned professional like Dharmendar Kanwar holds the Rajmata is nothing unusual in the State, she points out. Even today, a glance from the Rajmata is considered a moment to prize. That she made a great contribution to women's education in Rajasthan, setting an example of emancipation and bringing women out of purdah, only adds to her exalted status as an incomparably dynamic and beautiful woman, whose pictures from her youth have the dreamlike quality of the Hollywood heroines of the 1920s and `30s.

Dharmendar Kanwar in New Delhi. Photo: Anu Pushkarna.

Dharmendar, who also works for heritage conservation, edited, designed and published a cookbook, "Gourmet's Gateway", written by the Rajmata to raise funds for charity. Not commenting much on her writing skills, she does admit to overhauling the book to make it more interesting. Not that cooking is one of the Rajmata's fortes. Points out Dharmendar, "It's written by a non-cook and published by a non-cook."

As soon as the biography was released in New Delhi, the Rajmata set off for England. But had she had been here, says her biographer, she wouldn't want to talk to the press. "Even if you talk to her, she'll tell me to write something, show it to her and send it," says Dharmendar. "I am handling all her press."

Purdah and the Rajmata don't go together, but then, royalty will have its enigmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

We write like that only

The engaging story of India’s embrace of English is glazed with wit and tongue-in-cheek humour, but lacks a nuanced quality.

Entry From Backside Only: Hazaar Fundaas of Indian-English, Binoo K. John, Penguin India, p.224, Rs.95.

Apart from a few ill-fated attempts by Binoo John to “explain” humour that’s self-evident (rather like explaining a punch line), and pat himself on the back when there’s no reason to feel insecure, this entertaining swim through the story of Indian-English is a nice way to spend an afternoon with some chai-wai for company.

It is replete with gems mined from the colonial period, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublimely funny. Advertisements of quacks and legitimate sellers, letters to the editor and dialogues from cinema, all allow John to traverse a ‘literary’ landscape strewn with blunders in grammar, spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, malapropisms and inappropriate idioms. A smaller serving with crisper editing would have been just right. One is educated and frequently amused by this use, or rather, misuse of the language. However, the tone is never condescending. John’s sensibility comes from knowing that it isn’t easy to fathom the illogic of English. But today, colours, flavours, textures and sounds that imbue Indian languages with an onomatopoeic quality make Indian-English inimitable, robust and quirky — just the way we are! Advertising bears this out. From gullies to highways, roadside shops to mega malls, it flaunts itself. This mongrel child or hybrid language has been adopted by Booker Prize winners and celebrated in everyday communication too.

Sociology of language

How did it all happen? The author tells us what we know; that we were saddled with English, thanks to Macaulay’s insidious plans to create “…interpreters …and Indians in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinion, in words and in intellect”. But insightfully notes that Indians “yearned” to take to all things British, including English, for reasons of credibility and upward mobility. He looks at the phenomenal growth of English teaching institutes and the rapidly selling Rapidex, to explore how and why English continues to be a vehicle to fulfil aspirations.

Since we speak more than 30-odd languages, it’s surprising that John hasn’t ploughed a bit deeper into the reasons behind why we speak and write the way we do or how we grapple with the habit of thinking in our mother tongue while expressing ourselves in English. Something he could do in a reprint! What he needs to get rid of then would be the typos. The editors have let Seshagiri go as Seshagir and classics as classis (pp. 140, 156).

Absorbing section

In an absorbing last quarter, the book looks at how the tables turned, how all things Indian fascinated the British! Glossaries such as Hanklyn-Janklyn and Hobson-Jobson compiled Indian-English words and expressions. Then came ingenious wordsmiths such as Desani, Rushdie and Arundhati Roy at a time when English was becoming inadequate to capture the Indian experience. They began to reshape and free English by taking all kinds of liberties and readers were in thrall — of their uninhibited use of language.

Fruitful John’s fundas are convincing enough to prove that this sub-genre, having imbibed socio-cultural trends, is now a confident linguistic entity, a stand-alone. As I was typing this piece, a rhythmic rendition in English, of “Welcome to the heart of incredible India”, a television ad-campaign, was playing. I had heard the Hindi version on a few occasions (“Hindustan ka dil dekho”). Brilliantly translated, it was pure Indian-English of the heartland kind, capturing the lilt and rhythm without losing any of the charm and impact of the original. We are playing with Macaulay’s bhasha and loving it!

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