Wonderful Wordsmith–Recent Reader’s Digest Article on Arvind Kumar

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The more difficult his goal became, the more determined Arvind Kumar got

By Mohan Sivanand

Original Article is at: http://www.readersdigest.co.in/wonderful-wordsmith

Wonderful Wordsmith

The more difficult his goal became, the more determined Arvind Kumar got

By Mohan Sivanand


Arvind Kumar sitting pretty with his magnum opus. Photo: Akshay Lall

Arvind and Kusum worked all day, debating, classifying and writing notes about the words he'd add.

It was another busy day for Arvind Kumar. The young journalist at magazine publisher Delhi Press was at his wits’ end. While translating a short story into English, he couldn’t find the right words for a Hindi expression. That day in 1952, a freelance writer who’d come by took Arvind to a nearby shop in New Delhi’s Connaught Place and showed him a book, first published exactly a hundred years earlier by the doctor and polymath Peter Mark Roget. It had a long name: Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. Fascinated, Arvind bought a copy.

Although just 22 at the time, Arvind Kumar had worked seven years at Delhi Press to supplement his father’s small income. Starting out after Class 10 as the boy who replaced lead typefaces in the compositor’s trays, Arvind—by now also doing his MA in English at an evening college—had moved up: typesetter, cashier, proofreader and sub-editor. Now with Caravan, their English monthly, he couldn’t put his new book—known today as Roget’s Thesaurus—down. He wished there was something like this in Hindi too. Indeed, nobody had as yet compiled a Hindi thesaurus, although ancient India had a fledgling tradition of lexicography, the writing or compilation of dictionaries and thesauruses. There was Nighantu, Kashyap’s thesaurus of 1800 Vedic words, and Amar Kosh, Amar Singh’s celebrated 8000-word Sanskrit thesaurus compiled before the 10th century AD.

By the time Arvind quit his job in 1963, he was executive assistant editor for all magazines at Delhi Press. He moved to Bombay after the Times of India group offered him the title of Editor—a big break for the simple, unassuming journalist. He had to launch Madhuri, a Hindi film magazine. “I didn’t know much about films or actors,” Arvind recalls. “So it was a challenge.” Indeed, in a few years, Madhuri became the foremost film magazine in Hindi.

It was in December 1973 that Arvind told his wife, Kusum, about an idea he’d nurtured for two decades. “There still isn’t a Hindi thesaurus,” he said, “and I’m going to write one. I’m doing this for our nation. So I’ll have to leave my job. All I want is your support.” With their son, Sumeet, and daughter, Meeta, still in school, giving up a steady job and their company flat at a prime South Bombay location to do something nobody had attempted before looked like a risky, if not foolhardy, proposition. “Moreover, I don’t think I was born to write only about Dharmendra or Hema Malini,” Arvind told his wife. “There are other things in life.”

“If so,” Kusum replied, “let’s plan this carefully.” They decided the right time to leave Madhuri would be five years hence. They’d by then have paid the instalments on their car and the kids’ schooling would not be affected if they moved back to Delhi.

“All I’ll need is two years,” Arvind told Kusum. “I’ll then find another job.” He’d thought compiling a Hindi thesaurus would just mean following Roget’s method of listing synonyms and antonyms. But, as he found out the hard way, he was downright wrong.

Unsure of their financial future, the Kumars’ simple meals became simpler. They also avoided buying anything expensive, like a new sofa set they’d wanted. They bought discounted clothes and stored them away, anticipating leaner times. But Arvind collected dictionaries—reference material for his project.

In April 1976, Arvind decided to write down words on small ruled cards that could be numbered according to Roget’s system. Although he is not religious, Arvind went with his family to Nashik, his favourite temple town. There, he bathed in the Godavari, got the date inscribed on a brass urn, and symbolically wrote his first card there. Back in Bombay, he’d spend his spare time tinkering with his pet project.

When Arvind resigned from Madhuri in May 1978, Sumeet was about to join medical college while Meeta had just finished 8th standard. Arvind’s father’s home in Model Town, Delhi, which they moved in to with over a hundred dictionaries, had a 14 x 14-foot loft, a sort of mezzanine floor just six feet high. Although Arvind could just manage to stand there, it became the study.

Following Roget, Arvind had already assigned numbers to different topics or “concepts” (like matter, sensation, or space—a scientific classification, as lexicographers describe it) and jotted them onto cards. With Kusum’s help, he placed the numbered cards in sequence. “I’d thought that all we had left to do was write appropriate Hindi equivalents for them,” says Arvind. “Alas, it was not that simple. Checking with a Hindi dictionary, I found too many Indian concepts missing in Roget. There was no way I could add hundreds of concepts in between the already numbered cards.”

In Roget’s scientific classification, each concept has its own discrete, logical place. “But as I picked up more and more Indian concepts and words for them, I discovered that the way words are coined is anything but scientific—it’s mostly associative, at times whimsical, and varying from culture to culture. While a ‘rainy day’ in England is no great day, and they’d save money ‘for a rainy day,’ in Hindi a rainy day would mean a cool, pleasant day, the subject of song and poetry.” Much of Hindi, with its own cultural nuances, he found, had no equivalents in English. Moreover, Indian languages, right from Sanskrit, have a large number of synonyms. Arvind found 125 Hindi words for turmeric and 32 for helmet.

Many Indian phrases too are unique. An evening in Paris would be just that—an evening in Paris. But an evening in Lucknow is sham-e-Awadh; a morning in Varanasi is subah-e-Banaras; the night in Malwa is shab-e-Malwa, all suggesting specific cultural significance. One day, Arvind was in Muradnagar, 20 kms outside of Delhi, when he heard a mechanic say “battera.” It was, he learnt, the masculine form for battery, describing larger tractor batteries. “Hindi has innumerable such quirky coinages as well,” Arvind points out. “This meant that writing a Hindi thesaurus was ten times harder than I thought, although it seemed ten times more interesting too.”

Thus Arvind had to locate and jot down lakhs of words, all the while delving into the very roots of Indian culture in a way no one had done before. As he strayed into more intuitive concept-connections and word-associations, the cards kept growing by the thousands. Arvind and Kusum worked all day, from 5am until late in the evenings, debating, classifying and writing notes about the words he’d add.

In September 1978, the swollen Yamuna inundated the Kumars’ home. Almost everything in that single-storied house was destroyed, except for what was on the mezzanine level—the dictionaries, notes and cards! “This was a sign,” says Arvind. “I had to continue.” After the flood, Arvind’s father sold the house, and work on the thesaurus had to be shifted to a new settlement in Ghaziabad, UP, where Arvind and Kusum still reside.

The two years passed quietly, but Arvind’s work seemed to have only just begun. And not earning a single rupee, the family was living frugally off the interest on his old employee provident fund. Now badly needing money, Arvind took up a job, in 1980, as Editor of another new magazine: Sarvottam, the Hindi edition of Reader’s Digest. “Working at the Digest helped immensely,” Arvind recalls. “No magazine is such a stickler for the veracity of every word published. There was the re-drafting and polishing of all Digest articles for style, and the translation to Hindi, which had to mirror the original, with just the right words. It was educative.”

Arvind Kumar headed our Delhi office when I joined the Digest in 1983. I’d hear colleagues speak of him as the scholar-editor among us, and when he left in 1985 to resume work on the thesaurus, there was a big void in our Indian company.*

After Roget’s method failed, Arvind had looked at Amar Singh’s, but it was too outdated for modern India. Besides, much of it was caste-based: There lion and horse, for instance, would be associated with kshatriya and cow with vaishya. Music would be heavenly, but musician a lowly shudra.

By 1990, there were some 60,000 cards with about 250,000 handwritten words on them, filling 70 trays that often reminded Arvind of the compositor’s trays he’d worked with as a boy.

Kusum dealt with things, all nouns, while Arvind took care of abstract concepts, verbs, idioms and adjectives. Adjacent trays had related concepts: The Universe, Stellar Bodies, Solar System… / Bread, Vegetarian Dish, Egg & Meat Dishes, Pickles, Spices... / Death, Poison... Killing, Violence, Non-violence… / Optical Instruments, Looking… Light… Darkness… And branches would form sideways from all of these concepts. Looking, for instance, would lead to a list of words for Noticing, Manner of Looking, Oblique Glance, or Cursory Glance — Hindi has whole lists of words and phrases for each of these. It seemed endless! And it was Arvind’s own method that fell into place after years of trial and error—very different from Dr Roget’s.

Delhi CM awarding the Shalaka Samman to Arvind Kumar. Photo: Akshay Lall

By now, Arvind’s son Sumeet had become a surgeon. One day, while visiting him at the Delhi hospital where he worked, Arvind felt a pain in his chest—it was a heart attack, and Sumeet got him admitted at once. “I’ll survive,” Arvind said, “because my work must to be completed.” After he recovered, his work became more important than ever before. “The time for a Hindi thesaurus had finally arrived,” he told friends. “Since I’d been chosen for that, the thesaurus would not let me off, and had to save me to save itself.”

In 1991, Arvind found a prospective publisher for his yet unfinished thesaurus, which he named Samantar Kosh [dictionary of parallel expressions] but that’s when the old press hand started worrying. “I’d imagine typists mixing up the sequence of my cards or misplacing them. They’d make spelling errors. The press could mix up the type sheets and add more errors.” The project seemed grounded.

Sumeet stepped in. “We need to computerize all this data,” he said. But a new personal computer and software cost over Rs100,000, a huge amount then. With no one to offer Arvind that kind of money, Sumeet took up a job at a hospital in Iran. When he returned, he bought his father a PC. In time, Sumeet would teach himself computer programming to help Arvind with the project. The computer changed everything after he got the work entered into a database Sumeet had developed. Arvind could now add more concepts and words anywhere. Any duplication would show up, everything got indexed, sorted and ready for press.

In December 1996, the first edition of the first-ever Hindi thesaurus was published. It had taken not two, but 20 years of hard labour! At a Rashtrapati Bhavan ceremony in December 1996, Kusum presented a first copy of Samantar Kosh to President Shankar Dayal Sharma. Since Nighantu and Amar Kosh of ancient times, it had been a very long journey for Indian lexicography as well. Samantar Kosh became an instant hit, and was described as “a golden dot on Hindi’s forehead.” One critic even praised it as our “book of the century.”

Arvind was not one to rest on his laurels. He set himself on a new journey to add English expressions to his data on over 350,000 Hindi words and phrases he’d collected. His daughter Meeta, a nutritionist, helped by poring through Samantar Kosh and writing out the possible English words for all the concepts. “That was a big help,” says Arvind.

It took another ten years for the Kumars to come out with their new tome: The Penguin English-Hindi/Hindi-English Thesaurus & Dictionary (2007, in three volumes). Among Arvind’s other works is Shabdeshvari, a thesaurus of Indian mythological names, which, among others, lists 2411 names for Shiva.

The online Arvind Lexicon, a bilingual Hindi-English-Hindi thesaurus, with a choice of using Hindi in Roman script (for those who can’t read or type Hindi) is available at arvindlexicon.com. Now in the works is its Android version for tablet PCs and smartphones, and as an app for other cellphones. “It’s a family effort,” says Arvind and they have a company, Arvind Linguistics Pvt Ltd, of which Meeta is the CEO. But what satisfies Arvind the most is that Samantar Kosh has seen five reprints and sold over 20,000 copies.

Writers, journalists, advertising copywriters, teachers, students, all use it. “I refer to Arvind Kumar’s thesaurus regularly,” says senior Mumbai advertising copywriter and creative translator Laxminarayan Baijal, who created the familiar ‘Thums Up... Toofani Thanda’ soft-drink jingle. “Actually anyone in our online Hindi translators’ group will tell you how useful it is.”

“Arvind Kumar’s contribution is invaluable,” adds Professor Sudhish Pachauri, Dean of Colleges and a former head of the Hindi Department at Delhi University, who is also a noted writer, “Even though I’m proficient in Hindi, the thesaurus comes handy especially when a more academic word is on my mind and I need a simpler synonym that everybody can understand.” Indeed, the word arvind itself has become a synonym in some Hindi circles for lexicographer. Arvind has also been honoured with several literary awards.

Yet, when I met my one-time Digest colleague at his Ghaziabad home after all these years, Arvindji, now 82, told me that his job is far from finished. He’s up at 5am daily to update his magnum opus, still dreaming—of one day adding all the major Indian languages, starting with Tamil, to his vast data. He hopes to include foreign languages too. A new computer application that Sumeet has written is capable of thus expanding the work to create a giant “world bank of words,” even creating multi-language thesauruses.

“These are great possibilities,” says our wonderful wordsmith. “As long as languages keep on expanding and enriching themselves, my work cannot end.”