From kaleidoscope to balderdash and back : My journey with my oldest book…
I was nine years old when I encountered the word ‘kaleidoscope’. My father had suggested that I start reading the newspaper and in the interval between finishing my breakfast and grabbing the bicycle for my ride to school I would skim the broadsheet. The captions engaged me but what really hooked me were the words squiggled on the margins: I craned my neck and scrunched my eyes to decipher the letters buried in my father’s scrawl. Learn at least one new word daily, another of my father’s advice. Words were his abiding passion – he enjoyed learning new ones, experimenting with their possible pronunciations, stringing them into sentences, winking at me like he were indulging himself as he checked his turban, patted down his coat and readied for the Courts. Maybe it had something to do with his profession of law, but his obvious relish went beyond mere career enhancement.
So there I was one morning peering at Papa’s scribble when the word ‘kaleidoscope’ revealed itself. Ka-lei-do-scope. I sampled it a few times and liked its sound. Next I looked it up in the dictionary. An instrument containing loose bits of coloured material between two flat plates and two plane mirrors so placed that changes of position of bits of material are reflected in an endless variety of patterns. An inexplicable feeling seized me, akin to what Newton would have experienced when the apple fell, the joy of discovery coupled with the knowledge that there was a precise descriptor, a nomenclature, that could sum up the wondrous variegated world of psychedelic shapes, a Ka-lei-do-scope. It was an exultant moment and if I had already made the acquaintance of Colonel Slade, from Scent of a Woman, I’d have said, Hoo ha!
I fell for the dictionary. It acquired an oracular dimension as it became the dispenser of hidden knowledge, its revelatory powers increasing with each day. A trusted companion I could turn to when hounded by homonyms, stumbled by spellings, unsettled by an unknown word. It’s not my oldest but it is one of the set of hoary ones with bandaged spines and dogeared pages and slack leaves. It wears a bright red cover and is titled Chambers 20th century Dictionary and the travails of its travels – as it journeyed with me from school to college to MBA school to first job to overseas – are displayed as epaulettes on any war-worthy General’s jacket.
During this time my love for words has remained steadfast but our relationship has seen changes. What started off as the pursuit of the precise word to convey a specific phenomenon – be it object, event, emotion – developed into a fine vocabulary, which was a useful weapon to be leveraged in powerpoint presentations and client meetings by a spry first jobber. Soon it morphed into workplace jargon and without my being entirely aware of it I was mouthing phrases with little meaning that masqueraded as English: Blue sky thinking, Customer centric, Memorialize, Cutting edge, Core competencies. It was business spiel, the purpose of which was to obfuscate, and I was merrily swimming in it with the other corporate warriors.
Only when I quit my corporate career and took up writing did my struggle begin anew. I had to strip off years of annealing by business balderdash and set off again in search of the exact word, the precise expression that would capture what I wanted to say in my prose. Out came the dictionary, hauled form its permanent perch on the bookshelf to sit on my desk, within easy reach. As I teach myself the art of writing I am learning afresh the value and wisdom of each word, its weight and heft, and how its precise placement has the potential to lift my prose or sink it. In the online era I frequently consult online dictionaries – Merriam-webster.com is bookmarked in my Viao – yet there are days when I will sit with my old friend, open it randomly and start browsing the words. One of them will snag me and I will venture down that road again, where things are deliciously unfamiliar and the promise of epiphany is around the corner.
I am a prose writer and there is still a long walk home. The day I become a poet I would have achieved that envied calibration of words. Until then, it’s me at the feet of my red Oracle, the Chambers 20th century Dictionary.
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