Big Gora Learns Hindi

Big Gora Learns Hindi

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ramayan update: even more किस्मत!

In episode 22 of the 2010s Ramayan, I've encountered yet another layer of किस्मत [kismat/fate]! It turns out that literally ages ago, when the world was much younger, Vishnu committed a grave sin. There was a huge war between the gods and the demons; the gods, as I'd naturally expect, were routing the demons. A party of stragglers ran to the house of Sage Bhrigu, where Bhrigu's wife Khyati gave them shelter. As we all know, Indian people consider a guest a god, and in this case the fact that they were demons didn't deter her. (Such hospitality!) Khyati forbade the gods entrance, and they stayed outside. (At some point I must comment on this, to me, mindblowing aspect of Hinduism: even the gods can be compelled if humans perform the right penances or prayers. See Raavan, for example.) Vishnu arrived on the scene, and like the other gods, told Khyati to give up her demon guests. She refused, citing the cultural rule I mentioned. Vishnu destroyed them anyway--and Khyati too! The horror! Then Bhrigu returns home to find his beloved wife dead, and is carried away by grief and anger. "I loved her so dearly!"

Like many other figures in the Ramayan and Mahabharat, he expresses his overwhelming emotions in a powerful curse: "May you, Lord Vishnu, be forced one day to reincarnate as a mortal; and may you then suffer the horrible pain of being separated from your wife." The curse lands full force. Here's one more reason, then, that Ram, incarnation of Vishnu, was from ages ago fated to come to earth and live as he did. And Sita--well, we all know what's about to happen at this point in the story, and the recounting of this curse reminds us...

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ek nae Ramayan hai!

(I had written the first couple paragraphs of this post, and was working on it, when my sister called and told me my dad had just died. I just wanted to note this for some reason.
Dad, as I said to you when I visited shortly before that: I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to travel together to India. You would love it, and I would love showing it to you.)

एक नए रामायण है! जय जय राम! [Ek nae Ramayan hae! Jay jay Ram!/There's a new Ramayan! Praise Ram!]
A few years ago, when my wife's mom was still with us, the three us watched the whole 1980s Ramanand Sagar production of the Ramayan--all 152 half-hour episodes. Twice! Mom just loved Ram. At least once per episode, she'd repeat these phrases:
"I just love Ram. He's so good!"
"Ram has such a nice smile."
"Ram loves his brother [Lakshman] so much!"
There's actually a sweet story about how we got our hands on it. In Tulsa is a friendly, packed Indian grocery we visit every couple of months: Laxmi Spices. We love chatting with the family who own it. We went there the day before my birthday for ingredients for a special Desi birthday dinner. Atop the checkout counter was...the DVD box set with this ^ cover. Wow! I'd been trying to find this elusive collection via Amazon, without success. Where in the world should I even look now?--and then boom! there it was! But, you know, I'm a humanities professor, not any sort of wealthy man, and I wasn't financially prepared to shell out $75 on top of the money I had to assume my wife had already spent on my birthday, so...alas, we'll get it another time. Bridget then managed a beautiful surprise: later in the day, after we'd driven all the way home without the discs, she sneaked back up to Tulsa alone and bought them! Fantastic birthday surprise!
So again, we watched the whole serial over a few months, then again the next summer.
Now there's another one! It was made for television, like the old one--and that shows, but I'll address Indian serial conventions in another post sometime--and aired in 2012 and 2013. It's available streaming on Netflix! I wrote in an earlier post about Amazon's new "Heera" channel; Netflix, too, has seriously been stepping up its Desi entertainment game. Just last night I even spotted the not-especially-good show Fear Files there, along with lots and lots of recent Bollywood movies.
Having watched the 1980s actors playing Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Raavan, and Hanuman for a couple hundred hours, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing those parts.

But the new actors do a beautiful job, both in contemplative still shots and in action. The new Ram is taller and manlier-looking. The new Sita has gigantic, sad, liquid eyes. The new Laxman believably expresses admiration for Ram and the hotheadedness that's never far away with him.
I'll save other observations about the new Ramayan for later posts, and there are a whole lot of interesting things to say about it, but I wanted to note one here: the new production makes Ram's 14-year exile in the forest clearly/ineluctably fated several times over. In 1980s Ramayan, pretty much only Ram's devotion to धर्म [dharm/doing the right(eous) thing] drives him out: King Dasharath made a promise, two boons, years ago to his queen Kaikeyi, so when she asks Dasharath to enthrone her son Bharat and exile Ram, Ram believes he must go in order to fulfill his father's promise and save his family's honor. Well. In the new Ramayan, it's much more freighted:
1) The palace astrologer finds that the match is dreadfully inauspicious: Ram "मांगलिक हैं" [manglik hain/was born under Mars in a way that guarantees misery in Sita's marriage to him]. (For a modern example of this continuing dread of one partner's being "manglik," see the Bollywood movie Lage Raho, Munna Bhai.) HOWEVER,--
2) There's a one-hour window during which this combination will work out fine IF they're careful not to miss this rare opportunity. The wedding is thus planned for this precise time. HOWEVER,--
3) A consortium of gods, led by Indra, wants to prevent Ram and Sita from escaping fate so simply. They send one of the gods down disguised as a dancer, who mesmerizes the wedding party so deeply that the short auspicious hour slips away unnoticed. The loophole is closed. ADDITIONALLY:
4) Before the wedding ceremony even started, Sita made a rash vow to Parvati (Shiva's consort): she (Sita) would voluntarily go through great suffering if only Ram were given sufficient strength to lift and string Shiva's bow, in the testing ceremony designed to choose Sita's groom. Parvati is distressed, knowing that the vow was unnecessary--Ram would have been fine on his own--but at Shiva's urging, grants Sita's prayer at the cost Sita specified. We all know where her suffering will begin--with Ram's removal to the forest. And FINALLY:
5) Years ago, it turns out, Dasharath made a horrible, fateful mistake. (This mistake appears in the 1980s Ramayan as well, but less highlighted.) Back before Dasharath sired Ram, he was hunting, alone, with his bow one night, and he thought he heard a deer drinking at the nearby pool. He shot into the dark--and fatally struck a young man who was collecting water for his aged, blind parents. The mother curses Dasharath: May your firstborn son be taken away from you, and then may you die a terrible painful death yourself! So Ram's forced departure, followed soon by Dasharath's demise, clearly fulfill this powerful curse. (Side note: I must look into these Indian curses...)
With all this going on, the exile doesn't seem one bit like a choice. The gods, a curse, astrology, and Ram's own wife all contribute to guaranteeing that he goes away.

Anyway: I invite you all to join me and my wife in watching this fantastic new production of the Ramayan on Netflix!

Monday, May 8, 2017


It's been too long since I've hung out here. But that changes now. चलें ! (chalein/[let's] go!)
Truthfully, it's been a rough year. The end stages of the USA's national election brought out the worst in everyone...and then it had the nightmarish result we all know. Inauguration was a sick joke, and the atmosphere since then has grown steadily more dystopian and authoritarian. I had a fantastic seat at a Morrissey concert--which was then canceled (in November). My dad has been in the hospital a lot, and frankly it's not looking great for him. I'm leaving the day after tomorrow to visit him for a week. I didn't get the promotion to full Professor that I earned. (I can/will apply again in September.)
New green buds are swelling. My students this spring confirmed to me that I'm where I belong: teaching, helping people like myself to learn English. I've had doubts about that over the years, but right now I feel wonderfully sure and at peace. And ऐ भगवान, how very glad I am not to be an administrator of any kind. It would be constitutionally awful in the best circumstances, but with Oklahoma leading the country for the last six years in cuts to education, and no end of such in sight, ऐसा काम (aisa kaam/that kind of work) would kill me (perhaps literally).

I have plans for some massive learning of Hindi this summer, and for once they're specific and certain to produce results. I've loved watching Hindi movies for almost a decade now, and now I'm going to tap that power. It's not much trouble to keep a clipboard nearby, pause the movie, and write down words I want to look up and/or remember. Before, I'd just look up a word, make a mental note, and forget the word by day's end. I have about twenty good new vocabulary additions already, just beginning, and they're sticking! now has a channel called "Heera" (हीरा/diamond), which I've subscribed to: it offers Hindi and other regional Indian movies and shows for unlimited streaming at the insanely low price of $5 per month.

In case you're wondering: yes, Sultan lured me to the channel, and yes, it was the first movie I watched there. It was awesome! I mean, how great is this number?
So there will be more Big Gora, coming regularly, as soon as I return from seeing Dad in Utah. चलें!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Mujhe Dilli yaad aa raha hai

मुझे दिल्ली याद आ रहा है. [I'm remembering Delhi.]
Four years ago this week, my wife and I arrived in Delhi and began exploring. On this particular day of 2012, we visited Chandni Chowk, definitely a highlight of the trip.
We marveled at the sensory intensity of the place: tightly packed, fast-moving crowds, twisting narrow lanes, a new packed little shop every few feet, something amazing to see everywhere you looked, calls to prayer, Hindi film songs over tinny speakers, chatting, street foods of all kinds, mosques, shrines, holy portraits, and insane electrical wiring! Like tourists, as I suppose we inescapably are, we rented a bicycle rickshaw manned by a polite young man speaking pretty good English.
He took us through, and around, and (I later realized) by arrangement, took us to a particular spice shop in the heart of the district. The shop was as packed and, well, spicy as you can possibly imagine and then some. We couldn't help buying something or other there, to take back to friends at home. At the end of our jaunt, our guide photographed me in the driver's seat.
These are some of my favorite photos, and memories, of my whole life. Add this one to the list, from our first full day in Dilli, of Bridget at a stone window of the Qutub Minar.
On Chandni Chowk day, we also visited the Jamma Masjid--the Friday Mosque--which stands right at the district's edge. What an inexpressibly gorgeous place it is. Just look...
I feel sickened, pretty much daily, here in the States, at hearing ignorant bigots angrily spewing their misinformation about Muslims. Dilli has a considerable Muslim population, particularly in this part of the city. We talked (or clumsily pantomimed) to many Muslim people right on their own turf, the Masjid for example, and they were helpful, sweet, welcoming, adorable, generous in every case in every moment. One man who, I gather, could not speak led us around the place. Somehow, between our questions--he seemed to understand our English pretty well--and his signs and nonverbal utterances, he gave us a guided tour. I was a little surprised by the way he threw his arm around Bridget for this photo, but it seemed companionable and not the least bit improper.
He dropped us off at a quiet corner of the Masjid where religious relics were kept. The man inside this little alcove showed us the prophet Mohammed's (peace be upon him) sandals and prayer beads, and a Koran many centuries old. These kind people, in short, showed us their dearest treasures, with smiles and respect.
Just for fun, notice how relatively huge the Big Gora is in this setting. Our rickshaw-wallah and guide are Bridget's size, which is over a foot shorter than me, and I had to bend almost double to see the holy relics.
My chest hurts, remembering all this. I want to go back and stay.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Unnati karna sitar ke sath

[Making progress with the sitar]
It's good to be back! Sorry to have been away so long!
I'm working hard to learn the sitar. A friend from graduate school started teaching herself to play the saxophone, and began posting "Saxophone Friday" videos to record her progress. Inspired, I'm doing "Sitar Sundays." I have three so far, which I'm posting here newest to oldest. Together they total about three minutes.

Here's my problem. As far as I can make out, learning this instrument involves a series of great learning leaps. The first one is just figuring out how to hold it and yourself properly. This is a lot more complicated, and necessary, than you'd ever guess without trying. To make it sound right and even to keep from falling over, you have to put the big bottom gourd in the correct position on top of your bare foot, while you sit on the floor. The sitar must be at a 45-degree angle for you to see the music and/or to hold the frets. You must be sturdy and comfortable, or you will essentially be juggling the instrument rather than playing it. One of my musically talented friends told me that the great Sri Ravi Shankar himself warned George Harrison, "You will need three years to even learn how to hold it properly." Am I ahead of the game, then? Hah.

The next big leap is tuning. The sitar has twenty-three strings--count 'em, 23! I broke one, the not-unimportant second string, tightening it up. Then I broke two more trying to replace it. That third one just about broke my will to live. Finally, though, a few hours' worth of cursing and tinkering have showed me exactly how to do it--and it must be done according to a very exact series of steps. Now I'm afraid to ever tune that string again.
I'm getting reasonably fluent with one-string tunes and exercises, or "paltas" as they're called. When you play a wind instrument, it takes a significant amount of time and effort just to produce a clean tone, one in which there's no squawking or breathiness. The sitar works similarly. You learn how to properly work the frets, which are quite different from Western-style guitar frets: sitar frets are metal, and you have to press down on them hard, with your left index finger on the peg side of the fret rather than on top of or between. Luckily for me, I guess, I never tried playing guitar, so I haven't had to unlearn guitar-style fret placement. When you use the left hand properly, you soon wear a crease right into the left index fingertip. The masters who make YouTube instructional videos have deep, solid creases, plus colossal calluses on the right index finger, which bears the "mizrab" (pick). I see not so much as a small callus on my left index finger, so clearly I need to play a whole lot more!

So now I'm coming up against the next huge hurdle: how in the world do I play more strings? Early on, I gathered from brief passing references in my two teach-yourself books:
1) There are "drone strings," which as the name would indicate provide a kind of constant background harmonic. These are--I think?--the next two or three strings after the all-important first string.
2) There are "chikar strings," which are strummed. The key first string is at the "bottom" of the instrument as it's held, most readily available to the mizrab-playing finger. The chikar strings, which would be all the strings other than first and drone, count down from the opposite side, the top. I remember from tuning that they cover the full tonal range: one is super-low, one is super-high, and there are a couple in between.
Now that I have a tiny bit of fluency in simple one-string play, I'm wondering:
1) How advanced will I have to be to start adding in these other elements, drones and chikars?
2) Are these notated on the music? Or do people just improvise?
3) How in the world am I going to learn all this on my own?
About this third concern. Learning Hindi is in a sense much easier, because it's just not difficult at all to hear Hindi spoken. Put a Bollywood movie on Netflix, and voila. With the sitar, there seem to be innumerable lessons online, at YouTube, to get people started and playing at a beginner's level--then nothing. I barely feel qualified to say "I am playing the sitar": my instrument is gorgeous, complicated, and capable of producing amazing art; I am plinking out little one-string baby tunes on it. As David Foster Wallace said about most Americans' use of English: "It's like using a Stradivarius to hammer in nails." "You know nothing, Brian Cowlishaw."
I'm humbled, and I'm doubtful about how far I can or will get--but I'll keep plinking away!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Maine sitar bajata hoon!

मैंने सितार बजाता हूँ ! (I play the sitar!)
Well, sort of. I try. I took a few hundred dollars that would have gone towards a conference (which I just didn't have the heart to attend this year--long, boring story, so never mind why), and instead bought this beautiful sitar! Check it out...
It came in this huge box! I am, as you know, a Big Gora, and this box comes up to my chest! Heavy, too. So I unpacked it, screwed on the smaller upper resonating bowl, and started goofing around with it.
You can tell this is fresh out of the box in two ways. First, I'm sitting on a bench in nothing near the same ZIP code as proper sitar-playing position. One of the very first things I learned is how to sit, and it's not this: instead, sit on the floor or a fairly flat cushion, cross the legs with left foot underneath, and prop the sitar against the left foot and right, upper leg. Second, I'm holding it like a guitar--another big no-no. Any sitar player can tell you that you hold its strings/frets exactly 90 degrees from the floor; you should be looking at the strings that mark each fret from about a foot behind the instrument. Unlike with a guitar, you don't look at the strings--they're on the other side of the board from you.
But what the hell, eh? As with learning Hindi itself, this is all about having a good time as I enjoy participating in Indian culture. I'm an amateur, etymologically meaning that I do it just for the love of it. What does it matter if I'm any good?
I'm intrigued by the Indian music notation system. It's called "Sargam," an acronym for the first four notes. Just as Western music has "Do Re Mi Fa" and so on, Indian notes have names: "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa." There are three octaves, so the middle or base octave notes are just written as the (capital) letter without embellishment, whereas the upper octave places a dot over the letter and the lower, a dot below the letter. Thus, "S R G M" is all the notation you'd really need for those four middle-octave notes. Apparently--and I haven't gotten to this yet, in practice--sharps and flats, which is to say keys, are taken care of by tuning beforehand and/or by pulling a string to change the pitch. For now, I'm playing little scales and learning-the-notes and getting-used-to-the-notation-type exercises. I'll put up a short demonstration video as soon as I feel a little better about making that public.
It's a gorgeous instrument, and very satisfying to play. It's also one of the most engrossing things I've ever done; when I'm concentrating, I lose myself completely, more so than playing a video game or reading a good book. There is so much to learn! I need to learn the complicated art of tuning all those main and sympathetic strings, the "chikar" strokes (strumming the bottom few strings during play), how to keep a "drone" going (the signature sound of the sitar), and of course gain some dexterity/skill at basic play. Here I go!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dushman Ke Bare Mein

I've had this notice up on my office bulletin board for five years now.

It says दुशमन नहीं है [dushman naheen hai/(literally,) enemy not is].
I had just barely learned the alphabet at that point. Look at the last letter on the first line, and compare it to the first letter of the second. They're supposed to look the same. In print, in my Teach Yourself Hindi book, they look like the upper example; the lower is the more stylized way you see in handpainted signs. It would also probably be more elegant to take the straight vertical line out of "dushman" make it दुश्मन.
This is one of the first attempts I'd ever made at a complete sentence. I see now what I didn't then: it's not. Word for word, it says "enemy not is." At the time, some soul-searingly horrible political stuff was happening in my department. Never mind all that; it's a long, boring story. But it left me feeling alone and pursued for things I never said or felt. These words--"dushman naheen hai"--came out unbidden, a kind of covert protest. They let me whisper, "You think I'm the enemy, your enemy; I'm not, and please don't think of me as one."
What I thought I was saying here, and wanted to tell people but without buttonholing them and forcing the issue, was: "He [the officeholder, viz. I] am not the enemy." It amuses me now to see that it doesn't quite say that; there's no "He" or "I" in there, and how else could anyone tell I meant myself?
What it actually says is, "There is no enemy"; "The enemy does not exist."
I want to believe that. Now the sign gives me a daily reminder to choose to do so.
In any case, it's not me and never has been.