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English-Hindi-English: A love triangle story

This is a love story that started on the night of Dec 25-26, 1973 in Bombay and came to its climax last week in Jaipur at the two-day meet of translators, writers and publishers, writes Indrajit Hazra.

education Updated: Jan 27, 2008 00:51 IST
Indrajit Hazra

This is a love story that started on the night of December 25-26, 1973 in Bombay and came to its climax last week in Jaipur at the two-day ‘Siyahi Translating Bharat’ meet of translators, writers and publishers. The story has three protagonists, Arvind Kumar, Kusum Kumar and a three-volume English-Hindi-English thesaurus. “Since 1964, I had been editing a film magazine, Madhuri,” says Arvind.

“But by the early ‘70s, growth had stalled. My wife and I started talking on that December night. The next day, taking our usual walk at the Hanging Gardens, we planned how to plan out our lives so as to focus on what we had planned the night before.” The plan was to produce an exhaustive English-Hindi thesaurus.

The project started with gusto. Arvind left his job to focus on the anointed task, with Kusum still teaching. But the Kumars made sure that no economic strain would handicap their mission. Reference books, index cards and trays were bought and the task of tabulating Hindi words alongside English started. The first model was Roget’s Thesaurus. But the subject categories and alphabetical index were not going to work in this cross-language version. Another model, the 6th century A.D. Amarkosh, replicated since then, was sought out. “But it is so out of tune. The Amarkosh had things like a musician being a shudra, and many other completely anachronistic things like that.”

While a workable model was being sought out, disaster struck. The Kumars, who had by 1978 moved to Delhi, faced the fury of the floods in September that year. The waters entered their Model Town house and destroyed everything — except the index cards in the trays. Arvind and Kusum saw this as a ‘sign’ that they had to complete what they had started.

It was another member of the Kumar family, Arvind and Kusum’s son, Sumeet, who became instrumental in breaking the deadlock of which model to use for arranging the gathering data. Sumeet, whom Arvind calls “the hero of the book”, became interested in computers while in the early 90s while he was at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. It was he who suggested that a computer could be used for the process. He returned from Iran, where he had gone as a doctor for an oil company, with a computer.

But the required software was expensive.

Which is when two other characters in the story appeared on the stage — Mohan Tambe and his friend, students at IIT Kanpur who had developed a database software a year earlier that mapped words phonetically. “The C-DAC program was exactly what we needed, a data processing software that worked according to association,” says Arvind, unable to hide his excitement at retelling the ‘breakthrough’. “All Indian languages are based on the Brahmi script that is essentially phonetic. The sound of the letters were now given a numerical value.

It took 11 months to feed some 250,000 words that were on 60,000 index cards into the computer. In 1996, the data was ‘complete’: five lakh-plus expressions both in alphabetical order as well as in subjectwise categories. In 1997, as part of the 50th year of Independence celebrations, the National Book Trust published the Kumars’ 1800-plus page Hindi-English thesaurus. It was a runaway success. But for practical purposed, it was only an abridged version. Arvind and Kusum also wanted a wider reach — NRIs included — for their ‘baby’. Thus, in 2007, they were delighted when through writer Namita Gokhale, Penguin India was keen to publish the ‘life-work’ unabridged.

The publication of the three-volume, 3,154 pages book was delayed because of concerns about the book’s weight. But with specially ordered paper, the original idea of Arvind and Kusum Kumar finally took flesh in 2008. “The book decided to be made and chose us as an instrument,” says Arvind. A flood, a heart attack, many roadblocks and a 34-year labour of love later, it’s obvious now that the marriage of minds was very well arranged.