Words become language

December 29, 2013

Words become language

Nostalgia works wonders; it leads one’s memory into fantastic channels. Nostalgia creates its own euphoria. Thus it is that, nostalgically, in the eyes of the many people in our country, I am a song and dance man. A verse or two that I used to speak to the accompaniment of percussion at the end of my television show, four decades ago, is still remembered as ‘songs’ of various types.

I have, as a result, become acutely conscious of the fact that every time I appear on the stage I am expected either to launch into a soft shoe number or, at the very least, to produce a rabbit out of my handkerchief. I have never, alas, been able to do either.

The managements who arrange my sporadic appearance on the stage to read prose and poetry advertise the event as Zia Mohyeddin Show, which does not soothe my melancholy disposition. The result is that some members of the audience express their disappointment to the organisers because I have not given them a ‘song’. My son who was present in one such appearance in Doha last year told me afterwards that he heard an irate lady say, "lo, main tu Dubai se inka theka sunnay aiee thee. Yeh to bolay hee ja rahay hain. (I came all the way from Dubai to hear him sing to the accompaniment of tabla, but he just goes on speaking).

No, I am neither a mimic nor a magician; I have no talent for imitating a warble or a thrush, not even James Cagney and James Stewart, two of the most mimicked movie stars. I am, however, a perfect audience for conjurers and prestidigitators. I sit, transfixed, as doves are produced from a handkerchief waved in the air, and an egg in the palm is turned into a diamond. Even a second rate conjuror with an obvious sleight of hand performance, holds my attention. I am agog for the simple three card trick. I love prestidigitators.

What a lovely word, prestidigitator. It rolls off the tongue so crisply. It is a bit of a tongue-twister. As a child I loved tongue twisters: Betty Bumpkin bought a bit of bitter butter, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper. I don’t any more. I now like words that leave a dark brown taste in my mouth: apodictic (clearly established), paralipomena (some things omitted in a work), or the odd onomatopoeic word.

It is always difficult to pick five or even three of your most cherished movies or songs or books. Whichever you think of first seems, in retrospect, to have been chosen hastily.

A few years ago, during an interview with a newspaper reporter in Dubai, I was asked to name my five favourite books -- literary books -- the interviewer emphasised. This is a glib question which always gets a glib answer. I rattled of a few titles. If I was asked the same question today I might present a different list. Each year brings out at least one book which captivates you so much that it becomes your favourite book.

It is always difficult to pick five or even three of your most cherished movies or songs or books. Whichever you think of first seems, in retrospect, to have been chosen hastily. One of the books I mentioned in my list was Bob Smith’s Hamlet’s Dresser, a superbly written memoir of a man who survives a terribly troubled childhood by developing a passion for Shakespeare’s verse. Without any formal education, the narrator goes on to gain an uncanny insight into the Bard’s melancholy poetry.

The book moved me a lot but I think I would omit it today and list Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway instead. Sometimes you re-read a book and discover layers of depth in it which eluded you the first time. Mrs Dalloway is a novel about not being able to connect, and the yearning expectations people carry to their graves.

In fiction, the books I cherish are not necessarily those that the critics consider to be great (or those that get into the ‘Top Ten Books’ chart) but the ones that explore the growing chasm that prevents people from coming close to each other. As Virginia Woolf says, "There is a door between that cannot be opened."

In case you are wondering which five books I had chosen, they were, apart from Bob Smith’s book, Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. Love in the Times of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and Profiles by Kenneth Tynan. Profiles was the odd one out because it was non-fiction. Today I might offer a different set of books, but Tynan’s Profiles would remain in my list.

Ken Tynan was the drama critic of the ‘Observer’ who ruled the waves of English theatre for fifteen years. He wrote with a depth of knowledge and a facility for language that made theatre-goers at once discerning and passionate. You can marvel at his art in nearly every review he ever wrote. It was not just his immaculate style matched by his incisive wit and his verbal brilliance, but also his tremendous enthusiasm for the subject.

Mr Eliot says, "Words strain, crack and sometimes/break under the burden, under/the tension, slip, slide perish/ Decay with imprecision … shrieking /voices scolding or merely chattering/always assail them. But when they don’t strain and crack, they excite your imagination and give a coherence to your unspoken feelings and emotions."

Stringing words together is the first step towards articulation; words become language, and language is nothing but culture. When you use language accurately, and when you are able to appreciate language decorously; once you feel that you have acquired not just the rudiments of a language but the expression of that language, then its misuse strikes you as a travesty.

Language is the only reality I have.

I have always put a great deal of emphasis on the way a language is spoken. Is it because of my training as an actor? Is it because elocution is something which now comes naturally to me? I don’t know. It has been a passion with me. I think clear and good speech is a must because it also means clarity of thought in some way.

Language is important to me, any language, especially a language about which I know a little bit. If and when it is distorted or spoken with an atrocious lack of concern for the language, then, apart from the fact that it jars my entire being, it also means that I am unable to receive the meaning of what is being spoken. I believe strongly that langue enables people to become ‘humanised’: I am quite sure that one way of softening a society is to make it aware of its own language and the nuances of that language.

Words become language