Friday, February 25, 2011

Sunday Guardian snippets: on euphemisms, R K Narayan and a wordless comic book

[From my weekly books column; some earlier snippets here, here and here]

The evolution and use of language is vital to any study of our species, and for an insight into the human tendency to tiptoe around delicate subjects, you can’t do much better than consider the history of euphemisms. It goes back a long way. Thousands of years ago, predators were alluded to rather than directly named; since people couldn't always distinguish between spoken words and the things they stood for, they feared that simply saying “tiger” aloud would result in the undesired appearance of the beast. (Candyman, anyone?) Today we are a wiser lot – in some ways, anyhow – but plain-speaking is still well beyond our skill set, especially when it comes to subjects such as sex, death and bodily excretions.

Ralph Keyes’ book Unmentionables (originally published as Euphemania and now subtitled “From Family Jewels to Friendly Fire – What We Say Instead of What We Mean”) is an entertaining look at the history of euphemistic language, ranging from ribald Shakespearean lines (Iago to Desdemona’s distraught father: “Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”) to Winston Churchill being told by an American lady at a dinner party to say “white meat” instead of “breast of chicken” (a probably apocryphal story goes that he sent her a corsage with the message “Pin this on your white meat”). Along the way, Keyes reminds us of the often-surreal consequences of indiscriminate bowdlerising, such as the Associated Press article that changed the name of the athlete Tyson Gay to Tyson Homosexual, or the email filter in the Internet’s early days that prevented residents of Scunthorpe from registering themselves online. (Why, you ask? Check the second to fifth letters of the town’s name.)

Unmentionables starts to wear a little thin after the first few chapters (the book is primarily a trivia-trove), but I liked its recurring motif that certain words come to be perceived as “good” or “bad” as their associations change over time. Steven Pinker and other experts on language have written about how (for instance) the word “nigger” was once used benevolently – including by progressive-minded people who campaigned for equal rights – but eventually became taboo because of its widespread pejorative use by bigots. Many of its "politically correct" replacements have become similarly corrupted through association with prejudiced attitudes. In a world entirely free of discrimination, censorship of this sort would be unnecessary – but then, reading and writing would be drabber processes too. As it is, it’s fun to speculate that many of the words we today regard as being innocuous will have sinister connotations in a few decades.


It’s been a good month for classic Indian fiction – Penguin’s new editions of R K Narayan books were followed by Random House India’s Classics Series, with Arunava Sinha translating Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini into English. The Narayans gave me a chance to catch up with a writer whom many Indian readers of my generation take for granted – if your memories of Malgudi are restricted to short stories in class 6 textbooks, rediscovering him is quite an experience.

One myth about Narayan should be quickly dispelled: that his writing is “simple” in the sense that you can just pick up one of his books and race through them. This notion has been perpetuated by some of today’s mass-market writers who seek to validate their own non-literariness through association. For example, Chetan Bhagat has admitted to being influenced by Narayan’s no-flourishes style, which might create the misleading impression that Narayan can be read in the same way that you can read a Bhagat novel (it took me barely an hour to finish Five Point Someone). Certainly there is a basic directness in Narayan’s prose – an emphasis on narrative rather than “style” – but sentence by sentence, his best work has the refinement, the carefulness, the knack for observation and description, that you expect in good literary fiction. There’s little that’s casual about it.

Consider this early passage from The Vendor of Sweets:
The bathroom was a shack, roofed with corrugated sheets; the wooden frame was warped and the door never shut flush, but always left a gap through which one obtained a partial glimpse of anyone bathing. But it had been a house practice, for generations, for its members not to look through [...] A very tall coconut tree loomed over the bath, shedding enormous withered fronds and other horticultural odds and ends on the corrugated roof with a resounding thud. Everything in this home had the sanctity of usage, which was the reason why no improvement was possible. Jagan’s father, as everyone knew, had lived at first in a thatched hut at the very back of this ground. Jagan remembered playing in a sand heap outside the hut; the floor of the hut was paved with cool clay and one could put one’s cheek to it on a warm day and feel heavenly.
The prose here is functional, but it’s also assured and humorous, and commands the reader’s full attention
(the passage is randomly selected, by the way; you can open the book almost anywhere and find another like it). One also senses a pioneering Indian writer in English trying to create a visual picture of his world for the foreign readership that he knows his books will reach - it’s ironical that many people take jingoistic pride in the idea that Narayan was a provincial man who never wrote for the West.


“We wanted to challenge certain notions about what a comic is, about what it can do and should do,” says the editor’s note for a slim new graphic novel titled Hush. The book’s title couldn’t be more appropriate – this story about an unhappy, angry schoolgirl with a gun in her hand is completely wordless, propelled not by written text but by vivid black-and-white drawings. The experience of “reading” it can be initially unsettling, but as I turned the pages for the second time I found the images speaking with the force of a good, visually inventive sequence in a silent movie – a film made in an era when directors could aspire towards pure cinema.

Hush – based on a story by Vivek Thomas, and drawn by Rajiv Eipe – is the first title by the independent publishing house Manta Ray Comics, set up by former engineering students Dileep Cherian and Pratheek Thomas. Cherian and Thomas are big fans of graphic novels, but as the former tells me on email, they feel the need for more mature material in the genre in India. “We think we can produce original material rather than rehashing mythology for a Western audience, and we want Manta Ray to become a platform for original creators, artists and writers.” If one of their goals, as Cherian says, is “to amplify the voices of interesting people”, they've made a good start.


  1. RK Narayan and Chetan Baghat in one sentence?!5:00 PM, February 25, 2011

    I am reminded of a line in Nam Le's first story in his collection where a character says she's not sure if the immigrant is using spare prose or doesn't have the vocab.

    And since when did influence start meaning parity even in an oblique sense?

  2. And since when did influence start meaning parity even in an oblique sense?

    It doesn't, of course, but the point is that many mass-market Indian writers hold Narayan up as an example of the sort of writer they try to be (as opposed to the "pretentious" writers who use big words and apparently write only to impress the West). Which is misleading as well as self-serving.

    And yes, that Nam Le quote is very appropriate.

  3. RK Narayan and Chetan Baghat in one sentence?!1:04 AM, February 26, 2011

    The person who reads(and then, maybe, writes later on) is given the luxury of understanding the spareness of prose and its layering. That Chetan Baghat or Sashi Tharoor misunderstand RK Narayan, possibly deliberately, is their prerogative.

  4. How does creating a visual picture of the world an author is describing translate into writing for the West? Even authors writing in Indian languages write vividly of the world their stories are set in. Choosing a voice is a creative choice, nothing jingoistic about it if an author is unapologetically rooted and the universality springs from that rootedness. As against faking an authentic voice, like that quote in MFS about background scores in Hindi movies being liberal with Shehnai. I am yet to see a Hindi movie where shehnai is the instrument of choice for grief as against violin or sarangi. But then Panchtantra had a linear narrative.

  5. Anon: how about if I modify the last line to read "...the idea that Narayan was a provincial man who wrote only for Indians"? Does that work better for you? No? Well, okay.

    nothing jingoistic about it if an author is unapologetically rooted and the universality springs from that rootedness

    Of course not. But the jingoism I'm talking about is that of a certain type of poorly informed reader who holds Narayan up as an exemplar of an Indian writer who wrote only for a local readership.