The dictionary: an obituary

o·bit·u·ar·y (-bchr) n. A published notice of a death, sometimes with a brief biography of the deceased.

I must have been no more than thirteen when I last saw my paternal grandfather at our ancestral village, nestled in a corner of eastern India. Generations before me including my grandfather and father had grown up there in quieter times. As is the case with most thatched mud houses, the rooms had small windows and were dark inside, but each was fairly large and would have fetched a fair price as a studio-apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Back then the few possessions that middle-class Indian families had were carefully passed on from generation to generation and I imagined that my grandmother had kept the three rooms that were our share of the larger joint-family, much the way they must have been when my father and my aunts were growing up in them. On the walls were framed examples of my grandmother’s cross-stitch works – “Pati Param Guru (The Husband is the Ultimate Lord)” and “Nama Shivay” undoubtedly shown to my grandfather’s retinue when their marriage was arranged. My grandmother had been an exemplary student and had won many prizes in school. Many of her medals for standing first in academics and recitation were in an old purple velvet jewelry box on a dressing table. She was also the eldest daughter of a Brahmin scholar who had written a book on Sanskrit (which is still used as a reference in West Bengal). My great-grandmother had died at an early age so my grandmother took care of her younger siblings until she was married at the age of sixteen, something not uncommon back then.

During my visits, after lunch which usually consisted of a few vegetable items and fish caught from our ponds every day, I’d open up a straw mat and lie on the floor. The rooms were cool during the oppressive summer months, but there was little to do but to read old moth-eaten books and rummage through tin trunks for curiosities. Some of the books were quite old. One I distinctly remember reading during the visit was Hungry Stones and Other Stories a collection of translated stories originally written by Rabindranath Tagore which my father had won for doing well in English in school. But the one book I took with me as I went back to the sleepy mofussil town I grew up in was a bound edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary published in the Fifties which my grandfather had given to my father when he was in school.

Every Bengali home had a dictionary up on the shelf next to the study desk, usually adorned with a bookcover from a colorful Sunday newspaper. Mine was my faithful companion through high school and college. Back then, words changed infrequently, though every now and then letters to the editor of the Statesman of Calcutta lamented how Americanized English was polluting our proper British spellings. I had that dictionary near my desk until I moved to the United States for graduate school.

I have not owned a dictionary since, and the only one I currently own came preloaded with my Kindle. Like many of you, whenever I need to look up the spelling or the meaning of a particular word, I use Google. Often when there are multiple divergent spellings, I pick the one which has more search results than the others, the rationale being that since language is an evolving democratic form of communication, the crowd defines what is appropriate. But there are certain days such as this one which makes me wistful for easier solutions.

Dictionary, you served me long and well, and I hope there is a quiet place for you where language isn’t constantly shape-shifting through internet memes, infantile acronyms, and the impolite speeches of Grammy-award presenters.


6 thoughts on “The dictionary: an obituary

  1. 1. You changed your theme!

    2. I think it’s at once both a wonderful and a tragic thing that language evolves as we do. It’s wonderful because it makes language accessible to a larger audience. The (probably enforced) dynamism of English is what enables it to be spoken and (more or less) understood by majority of the world’s population. It’s sad because it means words go in and out of style like clothing. Words which meant something at some time, or had a particular intensity, no longer have that significance.

    1. 1. Yes.

      2. Also yes. I didn’t mean to sound completely downbeat. Many Indian languages are waning now because of political reasons. Other languages have been synthesized for other political compulsions. Two hundred years ago, my native language Bangla was heavily Sanskritized and Persianized with few loan-words from English. Few people know Sanskrit or Persian anymore, but English is the language of the court these days.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s