Friday, August 19, 2011

Where should the line be drawn?

The newspapers are suddenly full of it. People are full of it. The very air is full of it! Corruption, that is a way of life, is under verbal assault. Will words give way to action? I am by nature a pessimist. That way, if good results, I can be pleasantly surprised!

One newspaper announced, “If you have never paid a bribe, influenced a decision, paid black money towards purchase of a flat … write to us about your experience.” I thought back to my one experience of holding out in order to obtain a ‘bribe free’ ration card – my right as a domiciled national. That one incident cured me of expectation. That is how bad it is.

My father, a stern individual who tolerated no grey between right and wrong, also learnt this lesson the hard way. A pensioner of the Indian Army, he would walk the half hour distance to the Pay& Accounts office only be told by the peon that the necessary forms were not available. Father would diligently walk to and fro each day, only to be given the same reply. When he found out that others had obtained the forms by the simple expedient of greasing the peon’s palm, he was furious. He rebuked the organization but to no avail. Lethargy and corruption are two sides of the same coin. Father needed his pension to survive. Reluctantly he succumbed. But not without a sarcastic comment about chai pani to the peon, who smirked in response. Considering the number of government pensioners at any given time, that peon must have raked in the moolah. This was thirty-five years ago.

Yes, I have paid a bribe for an out of turn gas cylinder (six months of cooking on a kerosene stove cured me of holding out), I have paid a bribe for an out of turn telephone connection (that was in the time before mobile phones and considering that all my neighbours treated my home as a public call booth, I more than paid for that ‘crime’) and yes, I paid a cash component towards the purchase of a flat – I needed a roof over my head and no builder, then, ever sold a flat on ‘cheque only’ payments. The tax component made the final price prohibitive. And that tax component was actually ‘fixed’ by the dealing officer who deliberately set a higher penalty in order to receive something under the table for a considerable reduction. You learnt to subvert the law in order to avoid a bribe! When I spoke to an officer of the Income Tax about it, he replied. “Madam, even I have paid cash for my flat. I cannot say so openly but everyone knows.”

Even when all is in order, the powers that be hold out and harass till they get what they want. So deep-rooted is corruption that one is suspicious of anything that comes without a price.

And as long as there is need, as long as there is greed, as long as there are those who can sniff opportunity and exploit it, there will always be those who take from givers willing and reluctant, able and unable.

Only those who have nothing or want nothing could ever be free from corruption. Given our vulnerability to need, would that ever be possible?

Wir bitten um das Gebet für unseren vestorbenen Mitbruder…

This is the concluding line of the necrology marking the passing of Herr Pfarrer Bertrand Georg Puchwein at the age of 87, and as I peruse the accompanying letter from friends who have conveyed the news, I endorse the prayer and the sentiment.

I met Father Puchwein, for the first time, when he was the 75-year young parish priest of St. Severin’s in Sievering, Vienna. He belonged to the Augustinian order of Canons or Choir-monks (for want of a better translation – the correct form is Augustiner Chorherr des Stiftes Klosterneuburg) of the monastery at Klosterneuburg – more about that later. And he was selected on the basis of his golden tenor. Only those who could sing could make the grade. And how he loved to sing!

We (my husband, one of my sisters-in-law and I) had barely stepped off the plane and into the parish house, when we were greeted, in a strong German accent, by this burly, red-cheeked, white haired priest: ‘Welcome, welcome!” His next words were, “Do you sing?” My husband and sis-in-law politely declined, while I responded with, “A little.” “Can you sing the Missa de Angelis?” “Yes, Father!” He had touched a chord – the sung Latin Masses are a much treasured relic from my childhood and the Mass he referred to was one that I can sing in my sleep. I was promptly trotted off, in my travelling clothes, to meet the group that was practicing for the Feast Day of a sister church. All Austrians who spoke only German and sang Latin, they welcomed me with beaming smiles and once the singing got under way, the smiles grew wider. I might have been wearing a sari and sporting a complexion of a darker hue, but I sang the same music!! There were several more practices, all of which concluded with white wine, crackers and cheese. The ‘treat’ was well earned – Fr. Puchwein was a perfectionist. And, yes, I sang with the choir at the Feast Mass at St. Vitus. The gift of music and the gift of inclusion are my lasting souvenirs of that visit.

During our stay, I got to know him and his larger than life personality, very well. After all, we were guests in his home and his hospitality was lavish. And he filled his home with music thanks to a powerful sound system - an offering from his parishioners who had known him for forty years. His knowledge of church music was wide as it was deep and he was eager to share this knowledge at every opportunity. I was an amateur and a novice, with just a smattering of German, but this did not deter him in the least! And when shadows fell, he would bring out his guitar and we would sing around the supper table the old favourites and folk songs from the region.

One of the high points of our visit (and there were many) was the visit to his monastery, the imposing Klosterneuburg with its even more magnificent wine cellars which descended three (or more?) levels underground. The vineyards and the wine were the monastery’s source of income. We were treated to a wine-tasting and attended Vespers. Both unforgettable. There is nothing so solemn or as wonderful as plainchant – invocation and response – sung by male voices (all powered by their own lungs – no microphones) under the vaulted roof of what was literally a vast castle. I was spellbound, experiencing in reality what I had only imagined of monastic life in the cloisters.

It seems more than coincidence that my present reading is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Set in a fictitious monastery, the descriptive passages returned memories to life. Once again I walked within cloistered walls and felt the shadowy presence of robed monks, hooded, hands tucked in sleeves, silent except in their songs of worship.

And now, when the relevance of monastic life is being questioned and vocations are few, old stones have seen once more the passing of one who graced their existence with God’s praises. Old stones whose rafters will continue to be raised in song, but for how long?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

English, you snob!

The BBC is currently broadcasting a fascinating TV programme entitled ‘Worlds of English’. It deals with English as it is used in different parts of the world and, since there is considerable dialogue with local inhabitants, we are treated to unique insights concerning the evolution and use of hybrid English – Hinglish, Chinglish, Singlish, and so on. (Yes, I’ve watched just three episodes, so far!)

English was carried to the colonies and taught to the ‘natives’ who promptly adapted it to their own requirements. If they could understand each other, where lay the problem? English language teachers were horrified and sought to instill the use of propah English by drilling hapless students in grammar and vocabulary. The knowledge and ability to use correct English was the standard by which one’s erudition was judged! No more. As one savvy Singaporean put it, ‘We use Singlish to communicate with our friends and within our peer group. It’s a fun language – unstructured and accommodating. And we know when and how to use Standard English as well.’ He was affronted that Singlish was treated as pidgin. Singlish is used to communicate, therefore it is a language. How right?!

This brings me to the reason for my topic today:

I belong to a generation that was rigorously schooled in the King’s (Queen’s?) English. As part of this education, it was considered de rigueur for us to flavour our writing with the bon mot, phrases and expressions culled from Latin, French, and German. Such usage was indicative of a higher standard of language, such as exhibited by the best British Universities! So we mugged up the words and phrases: carpe diem, Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, bête noire, la dolce vita, savoir faire, doppelganger (go figure!) and made sure that we used them within the texts we produced. We wanted to appear au fait with the language, and how! (And what is wrong with saying ‘conversant’ anyway? The Lord knows that the English language has enough synonyms to fit any bill).

My current reading brought this home. A series of essays on the work of other authors, the text is peppered with mutatis mutandis, contemptus mundi, propria persona, Zeitgeist – you get the drift. What makes it deliciously ironical is that these phrases are culled from the ‘classic’ languages, the languages of nations that were inimical to the British – at one time or the other in history, Britain was at war with France, Germany and Rome.

Yet, when it comes to the language of the colonies, the injection of local words and phrases is considered a corruption.

Why does it cause so much jhanjat (such a furore) if we choose to ghoosao (try and infiltrate) a few choice phrases of our own? Particularly those phrases which, thanks to juicy idiom, defy translation?!

And, to use such an idiom, even though out of context, why must the English be kebab me haddi? (‘play spoilsports’ would be an accurate translation, but it conveys none of the spicy flavour!)

PS: A note of caution. In the words of my favourite grammarian, David Crystal, one must first know the rules in order to know how to bend them. A strong grounding in Standard English is required for representation at the global level. One cannot carry over Hinglish and expect to be appreciated!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Drenched but not quenched – II

I have just found out that there is more than one way to get ‘drenched’ in the monsoon.

When the lights went out, I thought it was the usual temporary monsoon glitch. When the lights did not come back on, I ventured out to check. It turned out that, thanks to our lackadaisical landlord, the meter room was taking in water through the roof, posing the very real threat of an electrical fire. The power supply company had pulled the fuse and would replace it only if the room was waterproofed and dry. With the rain showing no sign of stopping, I was staring at the prospect of at least eight days without electricity! No lights, no fans, no fridge, no mixer, no geyser, no washing machine, no iron, no computer or internet, no television, no battery recharge, and worst of all, no music. Thanks to the ongoing deluge, my world had changed in a matter of moments.

The landlord was not traceable, the power company adamant and I was caught in a time warp – the time before Thomas Alva Edison.

After the initial impotent fuming and wondering what to do, I gathered myself together , sat by a window where there was still sufficient light and picked up my crochet (something one can do without electricity). As I worked, the memories of other times and other places came flooding in.

Hubby and I used to retreat to a nearby village to recharge our batteries. Ironically, it was a place without electricity! We rose with the sun, ate our supper by the light of the moon, and used kerosene lamps as needed. Baths were at the well (with sufficient arrangements for feminine modesty) – refreshing douches of cold, crystal clear water from an underground spring. As I shivered and gasped through today’s ablutions, I marveled at the hardier, more adventurous person that I once was. Yep, been there, done that and how!

After a night spent in the company of a guttering candle, I awoke at war with the world. I decided to attend morning Mass even though I was all of a-grumble at my Maker, and found myself being admonished in the sermon - a grateful heart never complains! Well, I do complain to the Lord and don’t plan to stop, but I am also grateful for the gift of gleeful memories that even a power failure cannot quench.