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Making sense of 'verbals'

CAT passages are generally fun reads that jog the brain. One ought to be careful not to spend too much time relishing them

Business Standard 

At the CAT training institute where I work, I am required to take weekend classes at the Vashi centre. On Sundays, from 3:30 to 5:30 p m, I address a class of 25, preparing students for the Verbal section of the Common Admission Test (CAT). Located 10 minutes away from the Vashi station, the centre is run by another coaching institute. We pay them rent for using their space on weekends.

One reaches Vashi by taking the train from Kurla. After several stops, the harbour of this “Harbour Line” comes into view. This is the Thane Creek, a tiny expanse of water on the map but rather majestic in view. For someone used to the zigzag of the Mumbai suburban train network through densely congested area, the chugging of the train with water flanking either side is enough to excite a mini-frenzy.

The sight of the waters calms my nerves, especially since I am generally late for the class. Hopping the pond, as it were, takes you to another country. Vashi is very different from Mumbai. Not only is it less crowded, but the roads are broader and there is space to breathe. As a push-thump-whack Delhiwala, I am used to crowds but nothing prepares you for the rush hour at Dadar railway station, or Churchgate or Bandra or Andheri, for that matter. In contrast, the Vashi station is a sea of calm. People stroll and there are food counters where one can grab a bite before one saunters out.

No such luck for me. My mobile clock shows 3:42 and is ticking along at indecent speed. I rush out to hail an auto. The Apna Bazaar, where the centre is located, is a bustling marketplace. Today being Sunday, however, there is less commotion and I quickly make my way to the third floor of Oswal Classes. Students are already seated, their faces expectant. This is my first session with them.

The class today is on Reading Comprehension (RC). CAT generally has three RC passages with three to four questions each. It is, therefore, one of the test’s more scoring sections. Passages are factual, inferential or a mix of the two. Factual passages are easier since one has to simply locate the answers within the passage. They are data-heavy and one needs to be careful not to miss any important information.

Inferential passages are more interesting. The author in this case makes an argument about a Big Idea – communism, say – and the passage tests the examinee on his understanding. Questions typically read thus: “Which of the following best summarises the passage?”; “Which of the following is the author most likely to agree with?”; “Which of the following cannot be inferred from the passage?”’ and so on.

The first passage that we are doing today is on Language. The author argues that contrary to popular belief, language is not a cultural artifact; but something to which we are genetically predisposed. Children have an instinctive feel for it, the author says. It’s an interesting argument and the author bolsters it with science. CAT passages are generally fun reads that jog the brain. One ought to be careful not to spend too much time relishing them.

The students, clearly, enjoy RC classes. There is much discussion since student input is essential. RC classes are more conversational than those on vocabulary and grammar. There is a positive buzz as we discuss what the passage is about and how to attempt the questions. I jot down a few less known words on the blackboard. Readers of this paper may not find “insidious” uncommon but for my 22-year-old students, it is a new word.

The line in the passage it’s taken from reads: “It is no longer tempting to see language as an insidious shaper of thought and, as we shall see, it is not.” I ask my students what they think “insidious” means from their reading of the passage. One says “something that influences us”, another “something powerful”. “You both are correct,” I say, “but the meaning is more exact.” I tell them how the central idea of the passage, which they know, is about disrobing language of its glamour and presenting it as something we are hardwired to use. In that respect, then, language can no longer be seen as the influencer of our thoughts so much as a tool that merely helps us operate. And so, it is no longer insidious; in other words, it no longer has the power to sneakily influence us.

There is silence in the class, as students and instructor come together to crack open the kernel of something obvious but bathed in the light of the new. Words only take us to the exact moment of realisation – a point where what was hitherto complex becomes pellucid – but the place itself is silence. In that moment of crystalline clarity, when the class on the whole has reached a moment of perfect understanding, a shiver of wonder passes through us all.

The writer has switched too many jobs in the past and hopes he can hold down this one

First Published: Sat, July 28 2012. 00:34 IST