Every once in a while, we ask ourselves, “Why the heck did I ever waste my time on that?” Two of the prime candidates for that question for our generation are Calculus and Sanskrit. Two years of Calculus and two years of Sanskrit seem to be too much of a waste to me.
Now, the first, even I understand. I know no one who uses Calculus. I’ve not used it once since I got out of Engineering and even in there, most of the work purported to be done by hand was deftly dealt with by my calculator. But the latter, well, is more of a mystery. There’s a peep every now and then about Sanskrit. It’s in the news either because the German government is doing too much for it or because the Indian government is doing too little. Either because someone discovers some long-lost formula in those dusty tomes that seems to prove that all math and science in the world was first developed by Bharat or because somewhere or another, I find reference of oddities and extremities that I didn’t know about our motherland (I enjoy wikisurfing far too much).
Regardless, one always asks that aforementioned question, often suffixing it with a near-truth statement – “it’s not like we’re going to use it anywhere.” I say near-truth, because as it happens, a colleague came up to me the other day, and asked a rather curious thing. Paraphrasing his words, he started off something like this –
“So, my friend in Germany has recently bought a large piece of forest land, several hectares, in fact, because she wanted a place for her dogs to play. She wants to name it ‘Dogs’ Forest’, but in Sanskrit. Can you help me with that?”
I look at him, stumped. My mind is racing towards my first thought about his query and soon, it comes to my lips –
“So, your friend has bought forest land?”
“Lots of it?”
“For her… dogs to play in?”
“Yes,” he chuckles. “She’s rather rich.”
At this point I’m thinking, “damn, rich people are weird! But in that case, she must have a bunch of translators sitting in some German University already working on this problem. Why the heck am I being pulled into this?” But I say the more polite thing, “sure, I’ll help you. What exactly does she want to name it?”
Now, those who know me well will probably know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking something along the lines of, “what the heck are the hindi words for ‘dog’ and ‘forest’?”
But here’s the catch. I’m fairly certain that even if the words do somehow come to me, I’ll have absolutely no idea how to string them together, since grammar is something I’m so bad at, that I never even bothered to learn English grammar properly, let alone Hindi or Sanskrit grammar. But, being the feisty Indians that we are, I take up the problem from the top.
“Ok, let’s take the problem from the top. First of all, let’s find a Sanskrit dictionary.”
As I start typing ‘Sanskrit dictionary’ into the search bar, my colleague politely informs me that he’s been trying to make head or tail of the foremost Sanskrit dictionary online since an hour or so and hasn’t made much progress. That is a nice way of saying, “I didn’t get it. Neither will you.”
“No worries, we can figure this out!” I blab, as I type the word ‘dog’ into spokensanskrit.de, expecting the website to deliver words straight out of the rig veda into my lap. But, my hopes are dashed when the results come back with a measly ‘कुक्कुर’ and a dozen other results that I’m fairly certain have nothing to do with dogs. I look at the page blankly, reminiscing that the Sanskrit word for dog is ‘कुक्कुर’, as opposed to the Hindi word for it, ‘कुत्ता’. Clearly, I have nowhere to go from here.
Just then, my other colleague walks past and his rich history of being an Indian flashes in front of my eyes. I stop him with nothing short of a ‘hurrah!’ and explain the circumstances to him. He’s confused about the situation, but rather clear about the translation. Taking to a nearby whiteboard, he quickly jots down the familiar table that I had lost to the ravages of not-caring-so-much-about-Sanskrit. It goes something like –
रामः रामौ रामाः
रामं रामौ रामान्
Within a minute, he furnishes prior knowledge of the word ‘कुक्कुर’ and the word ‘वनं’ (Oh, that’s what a forest is called in Sanskrit! Dang!) and attaching them together, gives the result as –
He passes off the translation to our curious colleague (the one with the seriously rich friend) and we all call it a day on that subject.
Except, maybe not. Something doesn’t sit right for me. I need to do this translation myself. I sleep on it and the next day, I look online for that table, which my Sanskrit teacher had tried so hard to burn into my brain (“रामः रामौ रामाः, it went, didn’t it?”)
Luckily, there’s a WordPress blog called sanskritinstitute.wordpress.com, which has not only the table, but also explanations for what those words actually mean. It explains that the possessive words are
“रामस्य रामयोः रामाणां”
This is the sixth line in the table. There is no power on this blue marble that we call Earth which could have made me remember all the way down to the sixth line of this table. Not then, not now.
But here’s the kicker, Ramasya means “Ram’s”. But, as my friends-with-rich-woman colleague explained, she doesn’t want to name it “Dog’s Forest”, but “Dogs’ Forest”.
Aha! You silly apostrophe, you! For those of you who didn’t study English as steadfastly as I did, when you’re talking about something belonging to a single entity, you say Dog’s, but when it’s owned by multiple entities, you use the plural of the entity and throw in the apostrophe at the end, so, Dogs’.
Funny thing, English. But Sanskrit is rather clear. There’s no way someone can mistake Ramasya for Ramanam. No one can claim that someone else told them that this forest belongs to multiple dogs and he didn’t understand.
So, I pull out a pen and some paper and write it out boldly,
I rush to my colleague and explain to him why our well-versed-in-Hindi colleague might have been wrong and how the actual translation comes out to the above. We have a hearty laugh about it all and he regales me with tales of how Chess Masters study Sanskrit so they can read Vedic Strategy and understand how to win at Chess and I tell him how ancient sutras have the oldest recorded version of the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras breathed first. We talk some more and I joke that as kids, we Indians often ask ourselves, “what was the point of rote-learning all this Sanskrit when we’re not even going to use it anywhere?” Well, now I have an answer, that “fifteen years from now, someone in America will ask you to translate some innocuous phrase from English to Sanskrit. That’s when you’ll use that learning.”
Before I walk away, I remind him to tell his friend the phrase, as I’m sure she’d appreciate giving her dogs’ forest an accurate name.
The thing is, I’m not sure I’ve done the translation right. Have I?