Monday, November 13, 2006

Me,Sanskrit and Mr. Smith.

It was a typical Mumbai day. Humid and strenuous. As I boarded my usual train, I was tired and hungry, the nastiest of physical conditions. I had almost nodded off to sleep, whilst sitting, an art which has been perfected by the millions who travel by train on a daily basis, when a foreigner with an Indian friend came and sat in the opposite berth. I cringed when I noticed that he was given more space than a first class traveler of Indian origin is ever allowed by his neighbours on the seat. Let’s just call it the “Uncle Sam Effect”. I realized he was an American, and so must have the whole compartment, as his hyperactive Indian friend used the word “Dollars” at least 25 times in a minute, while the poor foreigner just maintained a tired smile all along! To the relief of everyone in a 2 meter radius of the foreigner (and maybe, him included!), our noisy Indian got off soon. I bet that had the Yankee grinning from ear to ear, flashing his million dollar smile! Life was about to get back to normal, when I suddenly noticed that he was not your archetypal American. He wore a khaki shirt, and had a copy of “Sanskrit simplified” in his hand. This roused my curiosity, and he must have noticed it, as he responded to my inquisitive glances with a “Namaste”! The first thought that came across my mind was that he was a tourist trying to act cool and in sync with the Indian culture to allure Indian women! I replied to his courteous parlance and started making small talk. Five minutes had gone by, when I mockingly mentioned that Sanskrit was no longer spoken or used in India anymore. To which he replied, “I know my friend, and I hope to change that.” Observing the bewildered look on my face, he smiled and went on to explain that he was Dr. Raymond Smith, a Doctorate in Sanskrit. My jaw dropped, comically so, as Mr. Smith let out a chuckle. I could insinuate that he was used to such astonished reactions. While I took a minute to gather my thoughts, he sat there, calm and serene. What followed was a question- answer type of conversation my mother used to have with me on the day of my results. My first question to him was how he managed to get a doctorate in Sanskrit, to which he highlighted the fact that we were in the internet age and while surfing the web, he had come across the language and was enthralled by it. Thus began his tryst with the language, which developed into a never ending love affair! I nodded; unable to comprehend what he felt was so interesting about Sanskrit. Why, my knowledge, like most Indians, I concluded, was limited to the odd shloks we muttered without knowing their significance at festivals or while praying. He agreed, and deemed it sad as it was a beautiful language rich in knowledge and literature. He had taken it upon himself to attempt and change that. So, he made sure that Sanskrit seminars were held in many cities, where awareness was created and faculty set up to start lectures. He had personally visited cities like Jaipur, Ahemedabad and Chennai, and his Sanskrit classes were established there! While a part of my mind was amazed at his exploits, the other stupid part went into negative overdrive. It became all to clear to me that this was a money making exercise, with Indians to blame. They would send their children to any Institution if it had a foreign connection. Suspecting my notion, almost intuitively, Mr. Smith gave me the prospectus. Skimming through it skeptically, I nearly fell of my seat, a phenomenon which was unheard off, in first class at least! His Center’s fee structure could be described as nominal, at best! It was not everyday that my jaw dropped twice in 15 minutes in front of a foreigner, and so it was embarrassing! His face curled up to a reassuring smile. He told me that he was, by now, used to the skepticism and suspect. He was an American after all, and had no business teaching Indian children, and even adults the values of Sanskrit! This left him undeterred, he said, and he was able to convince people that he was in it for a good cause, and that was spreading Sanskrit through India. He had been aghast to notice that Sanskrit was a dying language, even in India. One could learn French, Russian and Latin quite easily and there were thousands of institutes offering such courses. Sanskrit teaching institutes were rare, rarer still was proper guidance in them, and the ones which were any good were steeply priced. Our government too, was not too keen on spreading the practice of Sanskrit, with only a few states including it in their curriculum. He remarked that this was because of the huge cultural diversity in our land. His job was to romanticize Sanskrit and create a fan following. At this point, my contributions to the dialogue were limited to grunts and nods! He went on and on, until it was time for me to get down at my station. After exchanging phone numbers quickly, I thanked him and told him I appreciated what he was trying to achieve, but there was a question burning in my heart. He smiled knowingly, and inquired as to what it was. My obvious question was why did he love the language so much? What made him such an ardent fan of this mystical language? He replied with a wink and a grin,” Come, find out!”
I had to admit that I was impressed by the actions of the tourist and ashamed at my behavior toward Sanskrit. I decided to at least give it a shot. Have you?