The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 1, 2008


The culture of words

Editor’s note: This essay by Nutan Chandra reflects her Indian heritage and reveals some of the verbal challenges of coming to America.

Growing up, I encountered words like “avatar,” “guru” and “nirvana” only in the context of religion. These words were introduced to me through the comic-book-style collections called Amara chitra katha. The comics had pictorial depiction of short stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great epic literatures of the ancient Hindus. The stories were written in English and were my gateway to Hindu philosophy. The tales always had a moral ending and preached sound values that could be used in everyday life.

Coming to America it was an adjustment to hear and use words in everyday language that were of religious significance to me. In my first job as a software engineer I participated in a case-scenario-creation workshop; here I heard for the first time a casual reference to the word “avatar.” My team leader said, “Let’s take the avatar of the sales person. What would he like to do in this instance?” Imagine my reaction! I had only heard this word used in relation to Lord Vishnu who had taken multiple avatars -- Lord Krishna and Buddha being two of them. Hearing the word used in the context of simulating an ordinary mortal character was more than uncomfortable.

Then there was the word “guru.” It had a powerful, sacred meaning to me – a person who has sacrificed his own life to gain wisdom which he shares with his followers or students without expecting anything in return. To call a business analyst a “Visio Guru” was like stretching the truth. Is he really going to share his knowledge of Microsoft Visio with all interested to learn, and sacrifice his life doing it?

A colleague of mine came back from her vacation to a beach resort with her boyfriend. When I inquired about her vacation, I was perplexed by her response: “It was awesome; I feel like I attained true nirvana.” “Did she really say nirvana?” I asked myself in disbelief. Having equated “nirvana” to enlightenment, I was curious to know if she, like Buddha, would preach her newly discovered path to divinity.

Needless to say, after repeatedly hearing these familiar words used in different contexts, I am past my own inhibitions on using them. But when I communicate with my relatives back home in India, I try to watch my choice of words. Recently I was explaining something to my sister on the phone, and I said, “Imagine Jane Doe wanted to do this...” Before I could complete my sentence, she asked, “Who is Jane Doe?” Should I have explained to her that this is a placeholder name originally used to identify an unknown person in legal documents but now has become part of American culture? ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito