Speaking of Which by Vidya Heble | The Laughter Edition

22 Mar,2013

By Vidya Heble


Sundays are that much better since Ashish Shakya came into my life via the pages of the Hindustan Times. It is rare that a column by him does not leave me shaking with laughter, and that can only be a good thing.


But Mr Shakya has competition, it seems. And it comes not from a fellow columnist but from an unlikely source – the very serious news pages of HT. These are the pages which, day after day, bring us reports of violence, assault, rape and murder. Amidst the unrelenting grimness, readers are hard pressed to find something to chuckle about. But the HT has unwittingly provided us with just that.


A recent report on – but of course – severe punishment for rapists in uniform told us, at the tail end of its five paragraphs, that the death penalty “can be now invoked … in cases where any person who has once been coveted for sexual assault, is found guilty of repeating the act.” Did anyone hear “Freudian”? When I had finished laughing I wondered how on earth they managed that. Maybe someone should have submitted it to DYAC (Damn You Auto Correct, a repository of thumbs-generated howlers)?


At least that one was at the bottom of the page, literally in a corner. But as if to make up for that, just two days later readers were treated to the story, leading on a facing Metro page, of a suspended woman police constable who consumed poison at Vidhan Bhavan. She was taken to hospital and readers were helpfully told about the procedure carried out to pump out the poison: “A gastric lavage includes inserting a pipe through the nose down the throat and to the stomach after which the contents of the stomach are auctioned out.”


I… don’t think I want to make a bid in that one.


These are embarrassing for the newspaper, but that’s about it. Not the end of the world, one would think. They’re not grammatical mistakes that can lead to gains or losses in the millions – unlike the 2006 case of Canadian company Rogers Inc which paid dearly for the presence of a comma in a contract.


The contract said that the agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.” Rogers’ intent in 2002 was to lock into a long-term deal of at least five years. But the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) reached another conclusion.


The validity of the contract and the millions of dollars at stake all came down to one point – the second comma in the sentence. Had it not been there, the right to cancel wouldn’t have applied to the first five years of the contract and Rogers would be protected from the higher rates it faced.


“Based on the rules of punctuation,” the comma in question “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year’s written notice,” the regulator said.




Closer to home, and more recent in memory, is the story of Air Asia, or the comma that let it in.


“The government of India has reviewed the position in this regard and decided to permit foreign airlines also to invest, in the capital of Indian companies, operating scheduled and non-scheduled air transport services, up to the limit of 49% of their paid-up capital,” the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion said in its press note. Had there been no comma after “companies”, things would have been clear. It would have meant foreign airlines could only invest in existing carriers. The ambiguous comma allowed finance ministry officials to argue in favour of the Rs 800 million ($15 million) joint venture.


So a little (more) attention to grammar can not only keep you from becoming an object of ridicule, it could also save you a lot of cash and save you from being sued.


For which publishers should be properly grateful, as in the fictitious case of Paul Gallico’s Hiram Holliday, that gallant, Walter Mitty-like character who, with a firm pencil, had added a comma to a news report which saved the publisher a small fortune in a trial. The grateful publisher sent Mr Holliday on a world tour. Hint, hint.


PS: I have long been a fan of Oh! Calcutta for its food, but a small ad it has been running in the dailies has left me disappointed. Describing a vegetarian food festival, the ad says the ingredients “intermingle with freshly grounded spices”. Yes, a firm foundation, especially when the ad is repeated a few days later. Oh, Oh! Calcutta, I am so disappointed. What next, misspelled menus?


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