Big Gora Learns Hindi

Big Gora Learns Hindi

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.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A New Direction and a New Favorite TV Show

I'm happy to announce that I'm taking this blog in a different, more inclusive direction. Up to now, I've focused quite specifically on language-learning issues. But the more time I spend learning Hindi and enjoying Indian culture, the more I realize how deeply intertwined they are. For example, my wife and I are now watching the late-80s TV serial production of the Mahabharat; as each episode progresses, I gain a little more mental fluency with Hindi, a little more skill recognizing individual words, phrases, and grammatical word order. I refresh my memory of all the different, often formal/Sanskritic ways to say the same thing: किंतु (kintu) and परंतु (parantu), rather than the more modern पर (par) or लेकिन (lekin), all meaning essentially "but." So it makes sense to me to include my responses to Indian culture in this space. Frankly, I'm hoping this change will also noodge me to post more often and reach more readers.
For this first "cultural" post, I want to tell you about my new favorite Indian TV show. As I discussed in an earlier post, I followed Pavitra Rishta for some time, but now it's gone off the air. I enjoy Neeli Chatri Waale even more!

Here is how Zee TV describes the show on its official web page:

"1.2 billion People pray to 330 million Gods every day, reason being people generally thank or blame God for whatever happens in their lives. There is a perennial search for God. We have all wondered at one point or another, what will happen if we come face to face with God one day? What will we ask of him? And one day, you actually meet God on earth. What if there are no miracles? What if God does not look the way you always imagined him to be? Rather than giving you answers, what if he has more questions for you? Questions that make you introspect and listen to your own inner voice. How will your life change? These are just some of the questions faced by Bhagwan Das, the protagonist of Zee TV's weekend fiction show 'Neeli Chhatri Waale powered by Vinod Appliances who has the privilege of meeting and befriending God. The show explores a unique relationship between man and God as his friend. Based on the philosophy of 'God is within us', 'Neeli Chhatri Waale powered by Vinod Appliances is a light-hearted drama highlighting Bhagwan Das and his relationship with Lord Shivaye who emerges in front of him - not as the hallowed, much revered avatar but as a young, smart, contemporary youth wielding a blue umbrella. Catch Bhagwan Das on a journey of listening to his inner voice through conversations with God."

This is a wonderfully profound and unexpected question to focus a soap opera upon! But pardon me, please, while I disagree a bit with Zee TV's description. To describe the show as being "based on the philosophy of 'God is within us'" is to suggest that the fundamental premise of the show is different from what it is. This sounds like our humble hero Bhagwan Das is thinking deeply, meditating off by himself, "listening to his inner voice" only, not anyone else's. His first name, meaning "God," supports that interpretation. But the whole point of the show is that Shiva truly does exist, truly is Bhagwan-sahib's friend, and truly does talk with Bhagwan about his ordinary human problems. Shiva even tells Bhagwan regularly, in kindness, "You are my most beautiful creation."
This point is all-important: Bhagwan Das hears, sees, and talks with Shiva; that is the given circumstance upon which the whole show rests. Other people don't see or hear Shiva, but Bhagwan emphatically does. He's not an extraordinarily pious/religious man, and he's not delusional. Nor does the show ever explore these possibilities. God is not only within Mr. Das, who (actually) sees Shiva as a "young, smart, contemporary youth" wearing modern clothing, like so.

(Note how this quotation, too, is misleading in the same way described above. So is the hashtag phrase "#DilKiAwaaz": "voice of the heart" or "inner voice.")
Once in a while we see Shiva in his classical form, as on the left below. But most often, he appears as on the right.

Now, ponder this for a moment: imagine Shiva is your friend, and you see him all the time. You can ask him anything. Would you not listen? This is the source of most of the show's humor: Bhagwan Das rarely listens before (comic, minor, temporary) damage is done. Then he'll sadly nod his head and take Shiva's advice, sure, but not until.
Bhagwan is thoroughly an आम आदमी (aam admi), "ordinary man." He invites light-hearted derision, with roughly an equal amount of sympathy. Look at him more closely with his family (and Shiva). He's chubby and not particularly handsome. His son--no pageant winner himself--openly displays disrespect. His father is exasperated with him. His wife looks aggravated enough to bounce the rolling pin in her left hand off his skull.

The atmosphere in his office, not pictured here, is no calmer: he has the moderately embarrassing job (for a proper middle-class urban Indian) of marketing and selling...underwear. His boss yells at him and/or threatens to fire him constantly. No wonder Bhagwan himself quite understandably looks heavenward for assistance with all this. Surely most viewers can relate to some of these circumstances.
So, Bhagwan Das, an ordinary man, miraculously has Shiva as a close friend. Who can say why? (It's not explained, just given.) He has an ordinary hectic life and an ordinary bickering family. He experiences ordinary troubles. In one short story arc, Bhagwan and his wife Bobby become irritated with each other. The husband is convinced that the wife must lounge around the house all day and waste money on luxury items; the wife is convinced that office life is nothing but chatting and coffee-drinking, followed by coming home to criticize her. Piqued, they vow to trade places for a month; the expected amusing blunders then follow--he can't manage the housework or make the money stretch far enough, while she can't stand the pressure at the office. In another story arc, Dad has a heart attack and lingers near death for several days in the hospital, while Bhagwan begs Shiva to spare him a few years more. These very common troubles keep the show relevant and relatable for its target middle-class audience.
Bhagwan has Shiva's ear and assistance, yet he continually disregards Shiva's wisdom. Bhagwan must ignore Shiva's advice if this show is to work as an entertaining comedy. This is true for two reasons. First, if Bhagwan faithfully and humbly followed his divine friend's advice, the show would be essentially religious instruction. The clear message would be, in every moment of the show: "Like this most sensible man, follow Shiva's advice. This is how you do it. You may not be so fortunate as to have Mahadev in your presence, but you have the next best thing--this show. So listen and obey." Indian television already abounds in straightforward religious instruction. There are many "God-man" shows on the air, in addition to the numerous classical/mythological representations of the gods. For example, at Christmas 2012 I took this short film of a TV show (called just Ganesh, I think?) that mostly showed religiously themed conversations between Shiva and his son Ganesh.


Neeli Chatri Waale airs among soap operas and other light entertainment. It markets itself to ordinary middle-class viewers. It's entertainment, not religion. It's purely entertaining (as opposed to instructive) only so long as Bhagwan ignores Shiva's necessarily wise advice.
Second, the show's funniness depends upon Bhagwan's foolishness. You really have to see the show to believe how it milks every little moment for its humor. (You can find Hindi-language episodes, unsubtitled, on YouTube and here at the show's official website under "Episodes.") Every line receives a double-take or funny look; every second line is accompanied by a "humorous" sound effect (exaggerated laughter, the "wah-wah" trombone sound that means "oops," etc.). Bhagwan invites mild, humorous derision nearly every moment by not listening to Shiva. Again, any of us would surely listen to Him if He were right there in front of us; so, when Bhagwan doesn't have enough common sense to do so, we can't help but join Shiva in laughing at him, shaking our head in amused disbelief: "Can you believe this silly human?"
If you've clicked the link to the official Neeli Chatri Waale website already, you may have noticed the "Ask Shivaye" tab. Zee TV offers you the chance to have your own questions/problems addressed by Shiva! I tried it.

I selected "I hate my job" for my example, though that's not true. It didn't seem realistic for me, at age 50, to choose the last possibility--"My parents are forcing me to pick a career of their choice"!

Shiva finally offered a solution--well, a nonspecific, impressionistic solution.

"Apne dil ki awaaz suno, dheere dheere sab kuch samajh aa jayenga," computer-generated Shiva tells me: "Listen to your inner voice, [and] slowly you will understand everything."

Monday, March 2, 2015

Chal do...krpya

चल दो.
[chal do/go away]
I said it, and I'm not proud of doing so.
Back when I first started falling in love with India, I started imagining going there; and when I imagined going there, I pictured one big fat greasy fly in the ointment. Namely, though I'm not at all wealthy by American standards, I would be by India's standards--so I'd be swarmed by people (I mostly imagined children, but why not adults also?) who are positively crushed by poverty. How could I say no, but then, how could I help everyone? There was no helping the problem: I would stand out, as a very white 6'4" American tourist, and I would seem wealthy, and actually be so relatively speaking, so I'd be in a pickle every time I went out in public. (I apologize for the selfishness built into this train of thought.)
But when my wife and I went to Delhi, Agra, and Mumbai in 2012-13, this hardly happened at all. Mostly we encountered beggars at red lights in Delhi, one at a time and through the glass of the car window. We spent our time in monuments, restaurants, and middle-class establishments of various kinds, so we were never overwhelmed by crowds of the tragically poor as I imagined. Our driver and our travels insulated us.
During my recent trip (December 2014-January 2015), Oklahoma Study Abroad and my travel group ventured farther afield. We spent a couple of days in Pushkar in particular, and encountered a wider variety of people. This is where I learned to say "चल दो."
We took a fantastic camel safari--a one-hour camel ride, beginning about sunset, during which we rode out into the desert. There a local group entertained us with some local music and dancing by firelight, accompanied by platters of delicious Rajasthani food. Anyway, the camel handlers included several children. One little guy in particular, about seven years old, I'm guessing, stuck to us with unbelievable tenacity. He mimed an eating motion, putting invisible food from his fingers into his open mouth, then holding out the open hand in our direction. He wore ragged, dirty clothes and no shoes. His face was dusty. He would not give up; he begged for a solid hour while the safari got set up. He stood looking at me, begging, for many minutes. I grew more and more uncomfortable. I had only 500-rupee bills on me (about $8.20 American each), and that seemed too much for the circumstances. I finally said the thing I'd heard our Indian guides say to the aggressive hawkers crowded around Amber Fort and Delhi's India Gate: "Chal do." Go away; get lost; scram.
"चल दो." But I felt so bad saying it that I added, a couple of beats later: "क्रप्या" [krpya/please].
"Get lost...please."
भगवन मुझे माफ़ करें. [bhagwan maaf karein/may God forgive me.]