England’s Reflexive Pronoun Epidemic


There is a reflexive pronoun epidemic in England that, while it may not be high on the list of the world’s problems, is suggestive of some serious social weirdness. It’s a straining for exaggerated politeness or elevated speech that reflects a society still riven by class.

“Does that work for yourself?” “Could we perhaps have a quote from yourself?” “Is the water temperature right for yourself?” “We will have that fixed for yourself as soon as possible…CONTINUE READING


Those infractions on two wheels




In a short story written by B.S. Ramaiah, the editor of the avant garde Tamil literary journalManikkodi — in which pioneers such as Puthumaippithan, Mowni and K.P. Rajagopalan appeared regularly — a young man offers to take a woman on the luggage-carrier of his bicycle so she would not be late for college. But before they go a couple of yards, a policeman catches hold of the bicycle. The story must have been written when two people could not travel on a bicycle. But after MGR became the Chief Minister of…CONTINUE READING

Gandhiji’s Request To My Grandmother, MS Subbulakshmi

NDTV | Swati Thiyagarajan | JANUARY 1 2016

Pictures from authors collection / Picture from NDTV

My best memory of her is of her practicing her singing during long summer afternoons at home. Not a day went by when she did not practice. She would gently tune the tanpura, her graceful fingers running over the strings. She had the most beautiful hands, and the way she would move them or bring them together while singing was a wonderful sight in itself. She would close her eyes and almost seem to resonate with the vibrating strings of thetanpura. Only after that would she hand it over to the person behind her, and begin.

That voice.

It would fill the heavy afternoon air and wrap itself around you and in you. In that moment, she was MS Subbulakshmi, a legend, an icon. When she would finish, it would be like she had woken up from another plane of existence and returned to the reality that included us. She would flash her wonderful smile, and she would be my grandmother once again.

My father was by blood the grand-nephew of Sadashivam, my thatha or grandfather and Subbulakshmi or patti. While he moved into their household when he was a baby, he was formally adopted when he turned 13. There was a huge-inter generational gap between her and me, which forbade a more informal relationship. But she was very affectionate and always a wonderful presence to be around. There was something about her that seemed so pure and so childlike…continue reading

Kipling’s ghost in the land of Mowgli

On a visit to Kipling Court in Madhya Pradesh, on the eve of his sesquicentennial

Rudyard Kipling / Picture from THE HINDU


On December 30, 2015, Rudyard Kipling would have turned 150 years. He has been dead for over 80 years but here, in Kipling Court, Pench, Madhya Pradesh, I can almost see his ghost, glaring through myopic eyes. I hear his whisper in the wind that rustles through the trees of the jungle. Today during a morning safari I sighted a tiger and thought of Sher Khan. I saw the monkeys sitting near the chital deer, and was reminded of the bandar log swinging above the jungle and living in the ruined city of Cold Lairs. They speak of splendid things they will achieve but it is empty chatter. It seems as if Kipling is…continue reading

A History of Punctuation for the Internet Age

“The big thing about language is that it always changes,” David Crystal, the author of “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” said.
“The big thing about language is that it always changes,” David Crystal, the author of “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” said. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE BRADLEY/GETTY / Picture from THE NEW YORKER


“People don’t know why they get so upset about language,” David Crystal told me recently, over Skype from his home in Wales. “ ‘Potato’s,’ with an apostrophe ‘S,’ ” he offered, as an example of the kind of thing that drives some people batty, “but you ask them, ‘Why are you so upset?’, and they can’t answer you.” Crystal is an independent linguist and the author, co-author, or editor of more than a hundred books about language. His newest book, “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” takes for granted that we all have anxiety—and, therefore, curiosity—about punctuation. His response to this anxiety is to explain calmly but firmly how punctuation rules came to be.

“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” he writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second view is that punctuation is essential, not only to avoid ambiguity but also because it “shows our identity as educated people.” Crystal walks the reader through the history of punctuation, from scriptura continua—that is, words written without spaces…continue reading

Tom Kundig’s Buildings Are Half Machine, Half Architecture


Gallery Image

BACK IN 2002, TOM Kundig was facing a unique design problem. The architect, of Seattle firm Olson Kundig, was working on a lakefront cabin in northern Idaho for a young family that intended to use the home as a summer retreat—and the family had an unusual request. “Wouldn’t it be great,” Kundig recalls the client asking, “if you could take off the front end of this house and just open it to the lake?”

Some facts and figures put that request in perspective: The facade in question was a steel lattice, twenty feet wide and…continue reading

From The Voice to noise


A file picture of Richie Benaud at Lord's cricket ground in London.
A file picture of Richie Benaud at Lord’s cricket ground in London. / Picture from THE HINDU

But that’s Arlott, under-statement personified, his pauses as memorable as his words, not a single excited rant, no screaming at the top of the voice, few clichés, if any, nothing over-the-top, but no less involved and passionate for all that. He always steered clear of hyperbole, bringing fresh perspectives, and always tried to tell us something we don’t know or could not see.

Arlott’s was the first name that came to mind when an old friend, a cricket connoisseur for over 70 years, recently bemoaned the lack of quality and nuance in cricket commentary in India by the so-called Indian experts.

The shrillness and nationalistic frenzy, the inability or unwillingness to embrace a balanced point of view, celebrating hollow victories on made-to-order dust bowls as if India has just won the World Cup, the easy excitability and the seeming lack of credibility…yes, my friend was right even if he is something…continue reading

The World’s Most Musical Languages



Mandarin Chinese, with its four tones, is a typical example. Take the word ma. If you say it the way an English-speaker would say it, just reading it sitting by itself on a page, then it means “scold.” Say ma as if you were looking for your mother—ma?—and it means “rough.” If you were just whining at her—“ma-a-a?!?”—with your voice swooping down a bit and then back up even higher, that would mean, believe it or not, “horse.” And if you say ma on a high pitch, as if you were singing the first syllable of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as mainstead of “oh” for some reason, that would actually mean mother. That’s the way almost every syllable works in Chinese.

As tone languages go, Mandarin is by no means the most complicated. The Hmong language, spoken in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, can have seven or even eight tones. It’s dazzling, really. If you say paw like a statement, it means “female.” Say it like a question and it means “to throw.” Say it up high in an…continue reading

The Invisible Library

Left: Multispectral imaging reveals erased ancient writing. Right: A cross-section of a carbonized scroll from Herculaneum.
Left: Multispectral imaging reveals erased ancient writing. Right: A cross-section of a carbonized scroll from Herculaneum. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHAD HAGEN; SOURCE: COURTESY OWNER OF THE ARCHIMEDES PALIMPSEST (LEFT); UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY VIS CENTER (RIGHT) / Picture from THE NEW YORKER


Delattre, who is sixty-eight years old and has a dreamy, lost-in-the-vale-of-academe manner, was contemplating a small wooden box on the table in front of him which was labelled “Objet Un.” There are thousands of rare objects in the institute’s library; the fact that whatever was inside the box was Object One suggested that it was of some importance. An ornately hand-lettered card was taped to the outside. It said, in French, “Box containing the remains of papyrus from Herculaneum”—the Roman town…continue reading

Pope Francis, the Prince of the Personal


One of Pope Francis’ favorite novels is “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni. It is about two lovers whose longing to marry is thwarted by a cowardly and morally mediocre priest and a grasping nobleman. A good simple friar shelters the suffering couple. Then a plague hits the country, reminding everyone of their mortality and vulnerability, and also bringing about a moral reckoning.

As the doctors serve in hospitals for the body, the good people in the church serve in hospitals for the soul. One cardinal remonstrates the cowardly priest. “You should have loved, my son; loved and prayed. Then you would have seen that the forces of iniquity have power to threaten and...continue reading