Thursday, April 18, 2013

When All That's Left of a Pressure Cooker are Fragments and Hurt

As an intern at a communications consulting company many years ago, I had to get familiar with the firm's documents and their various formats and templates. The resident tech guru pointed to the computer screen and said, "Click on that icon." Try as I might, I couldn't see an image of Jesus, Mary or any other religious figure. I turned to him and shook my head. "The icon. Here." He pointed to a very specific spot on the screen. I clicked on what looked like a folder and we were on our way.

That was the first time I had heard the word 'icon' used in that context. I had taught myself basic word processing at my grad school's library a few months earlier and was a neophyte when it came to tech jargon. It was not long before the list of words whose original meanings slowly merged with the meanings they acquired in the tech industry grew longer and longer. Mouse. Drive. Memory. Bug. Virus. Chip. File. Folder. Save. Recycle Bin. It was discombobulating at the beginning but not by the time Link, Tag, Navigate, Cloud and Friend came along.

It is only natural that this sort of co-opting of existing words and giving them new meanings must occur every time a new industry tries to find its footing. My favorite example is of the use of the word 'broadcasting' in the radio and TV industries. It originally referred to the way seeds were sown on farms - they were either 'broadcast', i.e., cast over a large area, or 'narrowcast'. These days, however, one hardly ever thinks of agriculture when that word is used.

Over the last few years, a newer enterprise - the terror industry - has been busy usurping words and their meanings. And it is accomplishing this feat not by using the words differently, but by commandeering mundane objects for its lethal purposes and wresting control of how we view those objects and the words we use to denote them.

Ordinary, everyday implements have always come in handy in committing crimes on a small scale - kitchen knives, arsenic, baseball (or cricket) bats, hockey sticks, pillows, etc. For acts of terror the tools of choice have expanded to cover fertilizers, nails, batteries, ball bearings, bleach, nail polish removers and cold packs. The original meanings of these words have not changed much, but a new, somewhat discomfiting connotation has layered itself on top of the original meaning. Belts, shoes, loose change in pant pockets, jackets, watches, lotions, gels, nail clippers - memories of security lines at airports attach themselves to thoughts of dressing up to go out. I can never think of box cutters (a term I'd not heard before) without also thinking of 9/11.

While our awareness has expanded to accommodate the understanding that some of these objects may be deployed to cause large-scale destruction, they hardly evoke the sort of memories that the latest entrant to this rather ignominious list - the pressure cooker - does.

To most people who've ever used it, the pressure cooker comes packaged with good, warm memories of the sights and sounds of home, of family, and of home-cooked food. Home cooks hold on to their pressure cookers for as long as they can because once they have mastered the nuances unique to each unit, it's hard to want to let go and start all over with a new one. The whistles of the cooker blend into a family's early morning rhythms. The aroma of steamed vegetables, rice and pulses is a harbinger of meals to follow.

Until a few years ago, a shiny new pressure cooker (along with detailed recipes) occupied a large portion of suitcases when kids in South Asia left home to go away to college abroad. It was too expensive an item to purchase on a student's (non-existent) budget. These days it is more widely available here in the US, and with people willing to try their hand at a variety of cuisines, it's not a rare item on wedding registries either. And it is not the sort of thing that would trigger a thorough sweep of your luggage at airports.

That was then.

Kitchen disasters with pressure cookers are not uncommon, usually due to faulty gaskets or weights. But there is an unbridgeable gulf between accidents and wanton acts designed to kill and maim other human beings. Many more words in our vocabulary have now mutated to acquire a slightly different shape and have settled somewhat uneasily in our collective memories. Marathon. Boston. Finish Line. Pressure Cooker. They trigger sad thoughts for lives lost and pain suffered; they bring thoughts of good human beings, of a situation that could have been worse but for many kind-hearted people; they call up anger at the senseless attacks on innocent lives. But no matter what, they trigger thoughts that never were before.

This is now.


Update - April 29, 2013

This essay was published at The Aerogram.

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