It was another busy day for Arvind Kumar. The young journalist at magazine publisher Delhi Press was at his wits’ end. While translating a short story into English, he couldn’t find the right words for a Hindi expression. That day in 1952, a freelance writer who’d come by took Arvind to a nearby shop in New Delhi’s Connaught Place and showed him a book, first published exactly a hundred years earlier by the doctor and polymath Peter Mark Roget. It had a long name: Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. Fascinated, Arvind bought a copy.
Although just 22 at the time, Arvind Kumar had worked seven years at Delhi Press to supplement his father’s small income. Starting out after Class 10 as the boy who replaced lead typefaces in the compositor’s trays, Arvind—by now also doing his MA in English at an evening college—had moved up: typesetter, cashier, proofreader and sub-editor. Now with Caravan, their English monthly, he couldn’t put his new book—known today as Roget’s Thesaurus—down. He wished there was something like this in Hindi too. Indeed, nobody had as yet compiled a Hindi thesaurus, although ancient India had a fledgling tradition of lexicography, the writing or compilation of dictionaries and thesauruses. There was Nighantu, Kashyap’s thesaurus of 1800 Vedic words, and Amar Kosh, Amar Singh’s celebrated 8000-word Sanskrit thesaurus compiled before the 10th century AD.
By the time Arvind quit his job in 1963, he was executive assistant editor for all magazines at Delhi Press. He moved to Bombay after the Times of India group offered him the title of Editor—a big break for the simple, unassuming journalist. He had to launch Madhuri, a Hindi film magazine. “I didn’t know much about films or actors,” Arvind recalls. “So it was a challenge.” Indeed, in a few years, Madhuri became the foremost film magazine in Hindi.
It was in December 1973 that Arvind told his wife, Kusum, about an idea he’d nurtured for two decades. “There still isn’t a Hindi thesaurus,” he said, “and I’m going to write one. I’m doing this for our nation. So I’ll have to leave my job. All I want is your support.” With their son, Sumeet, and daughter, Meeta, still in school, giving up a steady job and their company flat at a prime South Bombay location to do something nobody had attempted before looked like a risky, if not foolhardy, proposition. “Moreover, I don’t think I was born to write only about Dharmendra or Hema Malini,” Arvind told his wife. “There are other things in life.”
“If so,” Kusum replied, “let’s plan this carefully.” They decided the right time to leave Madhuri would be five years hence. They’d by then have paid the instalments on their car and the kids’ schooling would not be affected if they moved back to Delhi.
“All I’ll need is two years,” Arvind told Kusum. “I’ll then find another job.” He’d thought compiling a Hindi thesaurus would just mean following Roget’s method of listing synonyms and antonyms. But, as he found out the hard way, he was downright wrong.
Unsure of their financial future, the Kumars’ simple meals became simpler. They also avoided buying anything expensive, like a new sofa set they’d wanted. They bought discounted clothes and stored them away, anticipating leaner times. But Arvind collected dictionaries—reference material for his project.
In April 1976, Arvind decided to write down words on small ruled cards that could be numbered according to Roget’s system. Although he is not religious, Arvind went with his family to Nashik, his favourite temple town. There, he bathed in the Godavari, got the date inscribed on a brass urn, and symbolically wrote his first card there. Back in Bombay, he’d spend his spare time tinkering with his pet project.
When Arvind resigned from Madhuri in May 1978, Sumeet was about to join medical college while Meeta had just finished 8th standard. Arvind’s father’s home in Model Town, Delhi, which they moved in to with over a hundred dictionaries, had a 14 x 14-foot loft, a sort of mezzanine floor just six feet high. Although Arvind could just manage to stand there, it became the study.
Following Roget, Arvind had already assigned numbers to different topics or “concepts” (like matter, sensation, or space—a scientific classification, as lexicographers describe it) and jotted them onto cards. With Kusum’s help, he placed the numbered cards in sequence. “I’d thought that all we had left to do was write appropriate Hindi equivalents for them,” says Arvind. “Alas, it was not that simple. Checking with a Hindi dictionary, I found too many Indian concepts missing in Roget. There was no way I could add hundreds of concepts in between the already numbered cards.”
In Roget’s scientific classification, each concept has its own discrete, logical place. “But as I picked up more and more Indian concepts and words for them, I discovered that the way words are coined is anything but scientific—it’s mostly associative, at times whimsical, and varying from culture to culture. While a ‘rainy day’ in England
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