Author: Raj

My Journey With The English Language

My Journey With The English Language

All Indians are multilingual. It’s a skill you need to survive in India. First, there is your mother tongue. You pick the second language either from surroundings (parents having different languages, for instance) or in school. And the third language is English, which is also taught in school. My mother tongue is Marathi. Our neighbours were Muslims and I used to play Cricket with their children. That is how I picked up Hindi/Urdu. As a result, when I visited North India for the first time, people were surprised to know that I am from the western region because they could not detect any accent in my Hindi that is typical of the region. So I learned the first two languages without any conscious effort on my part.

My first encounter with A, B, C, D was in class V when I was 11. There are some schools where the medium of learning is English so these children start learning the language from class I. I went to a school where the medium of language was my mother tongue. Now, based on this information, you would expect that at this point, my strongest languages would be Marathi and Hindi and English would be the weakest. And you would be wrong. Here is my report card from Class X. My strongest subject was actually English!!


How and why did this happen? I can think of only one reason. My English teacher in class X was way better than the teachers of other two languages. By the way, I was also not very good in science. How I ended up in science is another loooong story that may or may not start with “It was a dark and stormy night…”. And how in the name of photon did I get an ‘A’ in ‘social service’? That’s a mystery that will remain unsolved. 😀

So when I passed Class X, I had a choice. If I went for humanities, I could choose either Marathi or English as the medium of study. But if I went for science, which I did, the medium had to be English. This is because majority of the technical terms have no substitute words in regional Indian languages. Or if they do, they are very complicated and unnatural. I chose science so my journey with English continued.

Now, you might think that this would help one in honing their language skills further. The answer is yes and no. When you study science in English, you do get better at using the language but it happens in a very limited sense. For instance, here is the Wiki entry for the definition of force :

In physics, a force is any interaction that, when unopposed, will change the motion of an object.[1] A force can cause an object with mass to change its velocity (which includes to begin moving from a state of rest), i.e., to accelerate.

If you study this kind of material for a few years, you will get better at writing reports, official documents etc. But this kind of language is very dry.

💡 I have often thought about why the language in scientific papers has to be so impersonal. I mean, I understand that science is impartial but why can’t we have a little bit of humour? Can I start a scientific paper with, “So, a physicist walks into a bar..”?

Every language is a mirror of the culture it comes from. This is reflected in the quirks and the idiosyncrasies of the language – the phrases, the idioms, the colloquial usages. When you are learning a language, these are some of the most difficult obstacles that one faces. Let us say that a student who has newly acquired the skills of English language comes across this sentence, “He crossed the street and looked around. Nothing looked familiar, he was completely at sea.”

If the student does not know what being “at sea” means, he is going to wonder how the hero has managed to reach the seashore. Wasn’t he in the middle of Africa? So, in an ironical “Inceptional” twist, the student reading the sentence that has “at sea” in it, is, in fact, at sea himself.  These kind of idioms can be very difficult to comprehend for a non-native speaker.

By the time I passed my Masters in science, I was good at official English but not at all comfortable with reading/writing non-technical documents. You rarely encounter idioms in scientific literature. However, when I finished my PhD, I found myself quite comfortable with all forms of English writing. So what happened?

I enrolled in private tuitions. I had some of the best teachers who were available 24/7 and who knew the language inside out. In fact, they are so famous that I am sure you know them. Here are a few.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Agatha Christie, Vikram Seth, Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens.

During my PhD, when things were not going according to plans (which happened more often than I would like to admit), I procrastinated and discovered the wonderful world of English literature. While I was doing this, my brain absorbed the idioms and phrases of the English language in the background.

There is a gap here, however. I certainly don’t remember reaching for the dictionary every two minutes but then how did I get to know the idioms and phrases? Did I just guess their meaning? I am afraid I have not found an answer to that.

Grammar dilemmas

This method has a serious drawback. I learned most of the English grammar without realizing it. Whatever rules I had learned through rote memorization in school were long forgotten. So if you give me a sentence with incorrect grammar, I would know it’s wrong because it does not “sound right”. For the most part, I would also be able to correct it. But if you ask me to define what exactly is wrong with that sentence or which tense is it in (future imperfect or past conditional), I am completely at sea. I have no clue as to how to define the grammar of the sentence. So it is very difficult for me to correct grammar mistakes that “sound” the same – for instance, “It’s vs its“. I have tried to learn the English grammar but I forget it just as quickly. It’s as if there are certain pathways in my brain that are permanently blocked. When it comes to grammar, I have only one strategy : wing it.

If I took an English test based purely on grammar definitions, I am positive I would flunk it.
“What is a gerund?”
“Umm.. an exotic flower found only in Madagascar?” 😕

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar : A Bollywood Film Appreciation Course

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar : A Bollywood Film Appreciation Course

We live in a world where most TV programs have to produce something shocking just to survive. And yet, there is a quiet program where one man just talks for 40-45 minutes. Some movie clips are shown in between and that’s it. No manufactured drama or last minute reveals. So what makes Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar so engaging and popular?

Javed Saab is a master storyteller. We get a glimpse what the story sessions of Salim-Javed must have been for all the 70’s blockbusters. First, there is his language. Javed Saab and Gulzar Saab are two people to whom I can listen to anytime, anywhere, even if they speak on crop rotations or GST. Why? First, I am sure they will come up with something interesting on even such dry subjects. And second, very rarely do you hear such pure and beautiful Hindi/Urdu in today’s times. Apart from the routinely used words like hero or heroine, you will not find Javed Saab using much English. And he is not doing this consciously. The language just flows. Such beautiful words he uses! Roshan-Khayal for progressive.

💡 Roshan (रोशन) means illuminated and Khayal (ख़याल) means imagination. Together, Roshan Khayal means one whose imaginations or thoughts are illuminated – by new ideas, new concepts, new paradigms. In other words, a person with an open and progressive mind. How beautiful is that!

In each episode of Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar, Javed Saab discusses one legend who may be an actor, a director, a lyricist or a music director. What are the qualities that made this legend so successful and memorable? What were the times like when this legend was working? How hard did he struggle to get to where he is? Most of the legends that are discussed in the series have gone through some very rough patches.

True success is rarely an accident.

You will find Javed Saab saying some phrases quite often. Phrases like “I have been thinking”, “I have thought a lot about this”, “I have often thought about how life behaves in a mysterious way”. This is what makes this show so interesting. The observations that Javed Saab relates are the result of years of deep thinking and observations, made during all his years in the film industry. Added to this Javed Saab is a very well read and erudite personality. The connections he makes between different areas of film making and indeed life itself, are remarkable.

Javed Saab went through some very rough times before he reached the dizzying heights of success that few could dream about. I remember one of his interviews where he said,

There was nothing to write. But I was reading a lot. Like a chain smoker, I was a chain reader. There was a book with me all the time and I would manage to read it in local trains and the office where I worked as a clapper boy or third assistant. Reading takes your mind away from the fact that you have not eaten.

I think this may be one of the reasons why he does not criticise anyone on the show. He knows the struggles of making it big in showbiz and he has empathizes with them. I have the greatest respect for presenters and interviewers who consciously stay away from the personal lives of their subjects. This is indeed a rarity in today’s television. In Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar, Javed Saab never, ever ventures into gossip while talking about the legends. And on the rare occasion that he mentions an incident that may be a little awkward, he prefers not to mention the names. There is a beautiful word in Urdu called Tehzeeb, which roughly translates to good manners and etiquette. This show is an embodiment of this word.

The insights Javed Saab brings to the show are fascinating. For instance, take any duet song of Kishore Kumar. No matter who the other singer is, Kishore always manages to come out on top. Do you know which movies started the trend of the slang routinely used in today’s movies – the Bambaiyya Hindi? Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar and Mr. And Mrs 55. The first anti-hero of Bollywood was in fact Dev Anand who played a smuggler in Jaal in 1952. Javed Saab compares the songs of Shailendra to Kabir’s Dohas – same simplicity yet such depth.

Bollywood movies are often criticised for their excessive number of songs. This is a pity because many of the old songs are amazing works of art created by exceptionally talented musicians and singers. Think about it, why are old songs getting remixed again and again? The popularity of the song Awaara Hoon from Raj Kapoor’s classic movie Aawara continues to rise even today. There are many stories of Indians stranded in some place in Europe or Asia, receiving unexpected help when they sang this song. Even the president of Uzbekistan sang it during a ceremony.

The best signature of good art is that it survives. Mozart’s music is in the list of best selling albums even today. The fact that a song lives on in a foreign country 50 years later speaks for itself. The tragedy here is symptomatic of a larger problem. We do not know how to preserve our history. Who remembers Shailendra or Shankar-Jaikishan today, lyricist and music directors respectively for Aawara Hoon?

In the episode on lyricist Anand Bakshi, whom he calls a Lok Kavi (poet of the people), Javed Saab relates an incident. When he visited the British Museum, Javed Saab went to a room where all the handwritten manuscripts of great authors and poets are kept, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Shelley and Keats. In the midst of all this, there is the hand-written version of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. This is important for two reasons, Javed Saab says. First, the British are not afraid to say that we like Shakespeare and we also like McCartney. And second, they recognize and appreciate the exceptional quality of the song.

Old movies do not have the super polished feel of today’s movies but this does not mean that they do not have art. Javed Saab teaches us how to appreciate the old movies, what qualities did the famous singers of yesterday had, what made a lyricist special and what made a director stand out.

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar is, in fact, an excellent Bollywood film appreciation course.

The Mystery of the Writing Process

The Mystery of the Writing Process

Few years back, I wanted to write fiction. Many fiction writers get up early in the morning and churn out 1000 or 2000 words. Some writers who do this are in the Who’s Who. It is one of the most common and popular advice for writers so naturally I tried doing that.

Total. Utter. Complete. Disaster.

First, I am not a morning person. I can barely manage to brush my teeth in the morning so expecting my brain to be super creative at that moment is an exercise in futility. And second, I can never write anything by staring at the blank screen. Forget all the theories of letting go of your subconscious by typing up whatever comes to mind. It’s just not going to work for me. I realized this after punishing myself few mornings and ending up being utterly miserable for the rest of the day.

What finally worked for me was very simple. Just eliminate what does not work.

Don’t get up early in the morning. Don’t stare at the blank screen.

Easy-peasy. Or Not.

Eliminating what does not work only solves half of the problem. You still have to find what DOES work for you. I found my routine by accident.

Now I write all my articles in a galaxy far, far away from the screen. I write them in my head when I am doing other things – taking a shower, going somewhere or even watching a movie. Most of the time, you will not be able to tell if I am just goofing around or I am writing my articles. Many times, I am doing both. I am watching Youtube videos and suddenly I find one obscure video that I can embed in the article that I am writing. For this reason, social media is not as distracting for me because I am always getting new ideas or connections. When I actually sit down in front of the blank screen, most of the article is already written.

This does not mean that I have removed all the obstacles. This was just the first part that I managed to fix. Tip of the proverbial iceberg.

On to the topics. There are topics which are mostly informative. For instance, I find my article on black holes utterly boring and yet it is one of the popular articles. The reason I find this article boring is there is nothing new in this article. If you google ‘black holes’, you will get much better information from NASA and other sites. But I had no choice. There is no way I could say anything new about black holes. I had to repeat what has been established by science. The best I can do is to explain what I have understood in my own words.

Some of my best articles – best in the sense I like them, I enjoyed writing them, but I know it’s subjective – were written when I was so inspired that I could hardly stop myself from sitting down and writing. One example is the article Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I was so awestruck by this documentary and I loved it so much that there was no way I could have NOT written the article. There are few reasons for this. Japan is one of my favourite countries. I absolutely enjoyed my four month stay in Okazaki after my PhD. And I just love the Japanese language and culture. The beginning of the documentary – beautiful calligraphy accompanied by music of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto 1 Movement 1 got me hooked within the first three minutes. On top of all this, Jiro-Saan is such an inspiration!

Unfortunately, this does not happen as often as I wish it would. For the fifty-odd articles that I have written, there are many unfinished drafts and even more unfinished ideas. For instance, I had this idea of doing a series on my favourite actors called The Shapeshifter Series – featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Fassbender, Gary Oldman etc. I still have not accumulated enough material though part of it was done on the tribute article for Daniel Day-Lewis. I hope I find something to write about Gary Oldman who continues to amaze me in every movie. What a remarkable actor and so underrated!

In school and college, I barely managed to pass in essays and other creative writing tests. Now I know why. The topics were already decided for me. It is very difficult for me to write on a pre-determined topic. And equally difficult to do it in a short amount of time. I need much more time to absorb the material, to play with it, to make connections. Usually I write an article a month or so later, letting the subject matter percolate. And even then, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a good article. Very rarely do I write a review of a movie immediately after I have seen it, exception being Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

This does not mean that inspiration alone does the trick. For instance, I just love Spielberg’s movie Lincoln. I have seen it so many times for acting, direction and cinematography. I would love to write an article on it but so far I have managed zilch. The movie Invictus and the life of Nelson Mandela are also very inspiring but it has not led to something concrete. There are many such examples.

I would have been very happy if the churning-out-1000-words-every-day approach worked for me because my approach has several deficiencies. First, you are at the mercy of your inspiration. And second, it makes it impossible to write all of your articles on a niche topic. One of the most accepted opinions is that niche-blogging is much better than blogging on several topics. My interests are jumping all over the place and so are my articles. Third, even if the subject is inspiring, I cannot be sure that it will lead to a good article.

All this results in low productivity and/or long gaps in between articles. So I will be trying out some new things. If something clicks and is worth mentioning, I will write about it.

How to Take Memorable Photos During a Solar Eclipse

How to Take Memorable Photos During a Solar Eclipse

I have mixed feelings about the eclipse. It’s a spectacular phenomenon to witness, more so because it happens so infrequently. From a physics point of view however, it’s not much different then when you are watching a movie in a theater and an incredible Hulk comes in and sits in the seat right in front of you blocking your view. In contrast, when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet collided with Jupiter, it was spectacular not just in the visual sense but also very rich in its scientific content.

Don’t get me wrong. Total solar eclipse is a spectacular event and had I not been geographically disadvantaged, I would not have missed it for anything. However, there is one thing I would not have done. I would not have taken pictures of the eclipse.

Let me rephrase that. Maybe I would have taken a few pictures just for the memory of the experience. But I would be well aware that these images are just like millions of others. They lack originality.

Every day NASA is presenting us with such exquisite images that we have lost the ability to really get surprised or enthralled. Few years back, one image of the surface of Mars would make us swoon. Today, it’s just routine. Ditto for the Monkey Head Nebula, M83 and NGC 4258 galaxies, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s satellites, the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Tarantula Nebula, the supernova explosion SN 2014J in the galaxy M82 – you know what, I could just go on listing the spectacular images for the rest of the article and there would still be tons left. And all these have just become routine.

This is a solid proof of the groundbreaking work in science communication that NASA has done over the decades. And it’s what Elon Musk is doing for the space flight. The regular launches of the SpaceX and returning of the Falcon 9 rockets is slowly becoming a normal thing, so much so that one often forgets the tremendous amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. I go and watch Apollo 13 from time to time just to remind myself of the incredible complexity of a space flight.

Coming back to the solar eclipse, what chance does your image of a solar eclipse have against this spectacular onslaught? Moreover, there is not much difference between images of eclipse taken from different parts of the world. Sure, there will be some change in colour depending on the conditions but essentially, it will just be a bright blob getting eaten by a dark one. Spectacular, but not original.

So, can you take an image during an eclipse, one that is different from all the other images? The answer is yes.

You see, if you want to take a memorable image during the eclipse, don’t focus on the Sun. That’s where everyone else is looking.

Focus on the surroundings.

I had a chance to witness a total solar eclipse once. I saw it through the protected shades but my brain did not store the image of the blocked Sun for this memory. Or maybe it did and later on it was overwritten by the 8790998657 images that I saw on the Internets. No, the memory of the eclipse that has stayed with me is far more unique and much more beautiful.

It was very bright in the beginning – imagine the scorching Indian Sun with no clouds. And gradually, the quality of the light began to change. It grew dim, as if it’s evening or dusk and then the darkness fell, all just in matter of seconds or maybe a minute. This transition from absolute bright to absolute dark has stayed with me all along.

Maybe it’s because I am naturally drawn towards images that show interplay of light. For instance, one of my favourite moments in a Spielberg movie is when he shoots the setting sun in a long shot, with dark shadows of men against the background of the bright star. You see it when the men are digging – in Raiders of the Lost Ark for treasure or in Saving Private Ryan to bury their fellow soldier. Unfortunately, these type of scenes have become rarer in today’s CGI world. Isn’t it ironic that Spielberg, one of the forefathers of CGI along with James Cameron, never really went back to it in a big way after Jurassic Park? He made Lincoln instead, which again has fantastic interplay of light and shadows.

You will see that the images of eclipse that stand out are those taken against some background. A mountain range or a plane crossing the Sun. That’s what I want to see. How does the light change in different landscapes – mountains, rivers, monuments? How do the animals behave? What do birds do when it suddenly becomes dark?

There is so much to record if you are not focused on the Sun.

One of my favourite videos of the solar eclipse 2017 was taken at the Nashville zoo. The flamingos were going about their business as usual when the darkness fell. They huddled together, thinking it was night. As it grew bright again, they slowly came out of the huddle to start the day anew.

We need many more videos like this.