An ode to the exclamation mark ‘!’

The poor old exclamation mark is probably the most misused and exploited of all the punctuation marks that the English language has bestowed upon us. Just the sheer form that it comes in lends itself to the ruthless exploitation it is subjected to.  How can one resist that temptation to end a sentence that will otherwise go unnoticed, by this little thingy which is the closest relative in the English language to a ‘jack in the box’ – a line jumping out a hole. It is bound to attract attention. It screams – look at me, love me or hate me but you can’t ignore me.

In spite if it being so ubiquitous in nature, what attracted my attention to our very own J.I.B (Jack In the Box – as i will choose to refer to our little friend, the exclamation mark, in this piece) was a word in a book i recently started reading. This book ‘About a boy‘ from Nick Hornby who is also the author of the quirky ‘High Fidelity‘, contains a word which epitomizes the effect of the exclamation mark. The word is  – ‘S.P.A.T !’ …. see the effect of our friend , the J.I.B. It instantaneously transforms the otherwise meaningless word to the equivalent of a 60 meter electronic flashing billboard screaming at you on a desert highway. All for a fraction of its cost, trouble and carbon footprint. This word in the book is an acronym for a Single parents association or some such banal meeting that the protagonist of the book is going to. Why was the ‘!’ meaninglessly appended to the end of the acronym is anyone’s guess. But it ensures tremendous recall value, while no-so-subtly accentuating the frivolity of the meeting’s purpose.

One other famous misuse that springs to mind immediately is –  ‘WHAM!’ the now defunct pop group from the 80’s whose success was completely down to the successful inclusion of ‘!’ in their name. Now that WHAM! is no more, look where the lack of an exclamation mark in George Michael’s name has led him to. He is now reduced to drawing audiences to his concerts with a misleading promise of  an orchestral performance and then proceeds to torture them with his yodeling. He doesn’t let go of them till they are sing out in unison – “Wake me up, before you go-go! … “

In literature, the addition of our friend the J.I.B, at the end of the one-line review blurbs usually found on the back covers of the books, has tremendous commercial value and is responsible for the sustaining of the lavish lifestyles of many authors. More the number of sentences that end with the !’, the more subliminal messages that are passed on to the casual reader – This is book is of profound importance and impact. Miss the chance to read this book at your own peril…etc…etc. How else can one explain the success of millions of self-help books that are sold the world over, whose back and front pages are splattered with the ‘!’.

Stephen Hawking (by no means a self help book author) was told by his publishers – any equation that he includes in his seminal work – ‘A brief history of time’ , will cut the sales by half. What his publishers did not tell him was that inclusion of a ‘!’ in the title or on the back page will more than cover up for the loss of sales because of that one damn equation. Maybe his publishers should have consulted ‘WHAM!’

In politics as well, it has served great value over the years. George Bush & Silvio Berloscuni are two prime examples of leaders whose election to office was lubricated by the generous use of ‘!’ in their campaigns, speeches and actions.

We bow to your power – the great J.I.B, the great uplifter of the mundane and the harbinger of promised excitement. We vow to continue to unabashedly abuse your power. Till such time that the Oxford dictionary bans your usage and Microsoft word’s spell check starts to draw squiggly red lines under you – your followers will continue to grow and prosper. Amen!

Do you speak English?

Q: “Do you speak English?”

Probable Answer : “Yes i do, but I rather not”

How often have you heard or asked this now ubiquitous question? So many times that you do not raise an eyebrow when you are asked this question, you just come out with a pre-programmed, polite ‘Yes, of course’ and shoot away. I have been living in Switzerland for more than 5 years, and during the first couple of years (thanks to my non-existent German knowledge) unabashedly used this question thousands of times. But after two years, the Swiss took out a referendum with the topic ‘Brijesh should learn German’. All the supermarket & railway employees working in my hometown (whom i had tormented with this question) approved it in a blink of an eyelid. Thus I was went down the path of taking a crash course in German, after which my propensity to ask this question has reduced by the same factor that the Indian cricket teams ability to play well in overseas matches has increased (which, given our respective past ineptness in both these situations is quite an achievement)

But today, I was asked this question (almost like a celestial plotted revenge) and it literally stopped me in my tracks. It came from such an unexpected source that irony of the situation was staggering. I had the pleasure of calling up the Indian embassy in Switzerland to clarify some details about a passport renewal question. Now, they have copious amounts of information on their sometimes quite helpful, sometimes infuriating website. So whether i really needed to call them to clarify is opens up a debate about the web designer’s ability to present all the information logically or my inability to comprehend that information. Anyway … so I call them, after navigating through a million options, i manage to convince the recorded voice on the telephone that she cannot answer my queries and I really need to talk to a human being. The phone rings (for what seems like an eternity to me), and a lady picks up the phone with a polite, slightly Indian accented “Good afternoon Indian Embassy”.

On hearing these words, a sudden wave of nationalism floods over me, and i break out in Hindi trying to explain what i want to know. As I finish my sentence, there is silence on the phone. Puzzled, I say “Hello” … the same voice answers back “Hello sir, Do you speak English?” I instinctively start to repeat my question in English, but something tells me to stop. Hang on a minute … I am calling the Indian Embassy here. They represent India in this country. The least that I can expect is to be able to talk in my national language … is that asking for too much? The critics among you will immediately retort back that there are close to 16 officially recognized languages in India. But for crying out loud, you expect to be able to converse in the official language of your country when dealing with your country’s embassy. A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to deal with the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. You will be damned to find any other language spoken or written there except Turkish.

But of course, as I noted in a post a few days back, we Indians are different and (i think) almost take pride in not communicating in Hindi. Ok, maybe I am being too hard here, that lady could have been from anywhere in Eastern or Southern India, where Hindi is not that prevalent. But for god’s sake, as the first contact point for anyone calling the embassy … is this acceptable?

Thanks to experiences like this, i can completely empathize with people in India, who bemoan the passing away of out national image & culture. Do we show our nationalism only by observing the national holidays as a day off, dressing up in an Indian dress for a phot opp on a festival or by getting worked up over the India-Pakistan issue? Isn’t the ability to communicate in a common official language the lowest common denominator of nationalism?

Maybe I am just plain wrong or brewing up a storm in a chai-cup. Though I hope I can make my case again on Saturday after India has won the Cricket world cup. At that time, when a wave of euphoria and nationalism is sweeping over the nation, the time might be right to take up this issue again. But chances are no-one will be listening then, as everyone will be busy celebrating . (…… by drinking Aussie beer???)