An endless road of words

Inspired by Roget’s Thesaurus, Arvind Kumar decided to embark on a similar project for the Hindi lexicon. He talks about how Samantar Kosh took shape.

September 08, 2012 07:19 pm | Updated 07:19 pm IST - Chennai

Arvind Kumar: A mammoth task. Photo: Special Arrangement

Arvind Kumar: A mammoth task. Photo: Special Arrangement

Surrounded by his life’s work, Arvind Kumar reminisces about the first spark that started the mammoth project. “In 1952, I came across a thin book titled Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition .” This book, known today quite simply as Roget’s Thesaurus , was still in its fledgling state and fascinated Kumar. “I wanted something like that in Hindi. The handcrafted layout and the systematic format; It was so beautiful.” But with Kumar still young and trying to find his foothold as a journalist, the idea was folded up and tucked away.

Twenty one years later, in 1973, Kumar was working in Mumbai as Editor of Madhuri , a film magazine launched. “In 1963, I was sent there to launch the magazine; I had a specific idea on how to go about it. I didn’t want Madhuri to be a star magazine, like other film magazines. Instead, I focussed on the art of cinema making, doing pictorial features about film extras and articles about how movies are shot. I experimented and put Lata Mangeshkar and Mahmood on the cover.” Ten years into the job, though, Kumar started feeling disillusioned. “With parties, premiers and launches to attend, I came home late every day. After one late-night party, I suddenly realised I had been working endless hours every day with nothing to show for myself.” That night, the 21-year-old idea that Kumar had tucked away at the back of his mind revisited him. “The wish to have that thesaurus became the desire to make it.”

Next day, during their morning walk, Kumar discussed the idea with his wife Kusum. The couple decided to wait till May 1978 before starting the project, coordinating the time with their son’s school graduation. “I had some loans to pay too, and the project could only take off once we had more financial stability.” Taking the first steps towards the project, Kumar wrote to his company requesting that his contribution to his Provident Fund be doubled. The family started saving money, buying discounted clothes and eating simpler meals. While not very religious, Kumar visited his favourite temple in Nasik with his family and bathed in the Godavari, getting the date inscribed on a brass urn. “It was in Nasik that I wrote the first card.”

Kumar resigned from Madhuri in 1978, and shifted with his family and the few hundred dictionaries he had collected to his father’s house in New Delhi. What followed were many sleepless nights of concentrated hard work. “I’d foolishly thought that the work would be complete in two years. It took me 20 years.” Assigning numbers to different topics or concepts by hand was a tedious process and it was almost impossible to keep track of all the words he had already noted down.

It was Kusum’s job to arrange all nouns, while Arvind handled abstract concepts, idioms, verbs and adjectives. They arranged related concepts in adjacent trays. Initially, Arvind tried to stick to Roget’s concept but slowly, after many hits and misses, came up with his own method. “I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that previous Hindi lexicographers had made. I didn’t want my thesaurus to be Sanskritised or translate words literally.”

By 1990, 60,000 cards with about 250,000 handwritten words filled 70 trays. By the next year, they had listed 350,000 Hindi words. “We knew it was time to shift to a more organised form of filing, and start using a computer.” Since he had no money, his son Sumeet stepped in. A resident doctor in Delhi, he took up a job at a hospital in Iran and saved enough money to return home with a computer. “He also taught himself computer programming. He lives in Puducherry now, but has dedicated his life to the project.” Sumeet also worked to making Kumar’s work available online and through mobile applications.

“The idea was to dig deep. Take a western invention like the ‘Spinning Jenny’. A literal translation into Hindi would be ridiculous because the name was coined by the inventor and is specific to the language. But, if you go to the Bombay mills and ask the workers, they have their own name for the machine: Putli.” Similarly, Kumar found 125 words for turmeric, and 32 for helmet.

In December 1996, Samantar Kosh was published, and went on to become an instant hit. User friendly and vastly inclusive, it was described as ‘a golden dot on Hindi’s forehead’. Since then, the book has seen six reprints and sold over 20000 copies. “He still works seven to eight hours a day,” says Meeta Lall, Kumar’s daughter and CEO of Arvind Linguistics Pvt. Ltd. The company, formed after release of Samantar Kosh , is a family effort. “It’s a cottage industry, and all of us are constantly contributing to it in our own ways,” she adds. “Unfortunately, the entire onus is on us. There has been no help from anyone; no funds, no commissions, and no grants. It’s always been the four of us working at the project; expect for a short duration, when a young man volunteered to help us transfer the handwritten data onto the computer. We’ve got many awards and recognition for this work, but the financial end of things we’ve had to lift ourselves.” Today, Arvind Linguistics produces, prints and supplies Kumar’s books.

After Samantar Kosh ’s success, Kumar decided to take on an even more ambitious project, and expand the thesaurus to include English expressions, resulting in the mammoth The Penguin English-Hindi/Hindi-English Thesaurus and Dictionary . “The idea was to include all the terms and for a word like beautiful, we dug so deep that we found over 200 words in Hindi and English. We included the obvious references from Greek, English and Roman cultures; words like Helen of Troy and Cleopatra that symbolise beauty. But we also looked within our own culture; including Chitralekha and Menaka and so many more.” Including Indian concepts made Kumar’s work more relevant to Indian usage and needs. “The cross cultural references are endless, and while a lot of English thesauruses and dictionaries lack Indian references, and many Hindi dictionaries have a lot of relevant English concepts missing, my idea was to combine the two and create the perfect amalgam.”

The road has been a tough one. Kumar, now 82, laughingly wishes that he had never taken it up. But the truth is: “I feel like there is no end to what I’ve started, and I’m constantly looking to better it.”

Samantar Kosh; Published by National Book Trust, New Delhi and Sahaj Samantar Kosh: An Alphabetical Arrangement of the Samantar Kosh for Easy Reference; Published by Rajkamal Prakashan and Penguin India (available through Arvind Linguistics Pvt Ltd.)

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