'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Beached Whale

This post will begin with a sad episode and move on, thru more sadness, to what must be one of the funniest entries in Wikipedia. On the way, one discovers when a whale can actually *drown*.

Last week I got a unique assignment – to prepare and conduct a quiz on Computers at a State level meet of Senior UG and Graduate students from leading colleges. "The professors and industry experts guiding the proceedings will also be in attendance. So, do a thorough job!" That was in brief, my brief. I sat up late on 4 straight nights and put together a package of 40 or so questions(*).

However on the D-day, hardly any Graduates turned up and the competition got delayed so even from those who were around, many quit and we were down to just 4 teams, all Undergraduates and a thin audience - even the visiting experts had left. It was too late to chop and change anything so we went thru with the quiz... To those who were put thru it, let me say a sincere "Sorry Guys!"

Today, I was talking to Vishnu on what happened. I heard myself saying: "... for all the heavy preparation, the quiz was from the very beginning, like you know, a beached whale – caught out of its depth, it simply collapsed and gave up the ghost!" A short while later, I realized I had never used such a metaphor before; nor had I thought of anything on such lines in recent years; what I had said was only on the basis of some stuff read aeons ago in some children's magazine on how whales sometimes stray into shallow coastal waters and get mysteriously – and fatally - trapped there.

I went ahead and googled. Here was the first station in the journey - a 'The Hindu' report from 2006 on how a whale that got stranded near Vishakhapatnam Beach was forcibly hauled into safer depths by some large-hearted humans.

Then one sees the Wiki article on the phenomenon of ‘cetacean stranding’. Let me quote:

Cetacean stranding is a phenomenon when whales (and some other other members of that order) strand themselves on land, usually on a beach. Beached whales often die … the body collapsing under its own weight(**), or drowning(!) when high tide covers the blowhole(***). … Many theories, some of them controversial, have been proposed to explain beaching, but the question remains unresolved….

If a whale is beached near an inhabited locality, the rotting carcass can pose a nuisance due to its unpleasant smell, as well as a health risk. Such very large corpses are difficult to move. The whales are often towed back out to sea away from shipping lanes, letting them to decompose naturally, or they are towed out and blown up with explosives….

....“On at least one occasion, humans have blown up a whale carcass on land, with unsatisfactory and dangerous side effects. “.

And here is that story, the 'exploding whale', also from Wiki:

The term 'exploding whale' most often refers to an event at Florence, Oregon in November 1970, when a dead sperm whale was blown up by the Oregon Highway division in attempt to dispose of its rotting carcass. The explosion threw whale flesh over 800 feet (240 m) away. … In Taiwan in 2004, the buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale caused it to explode on its own in a crowded urban area, whilst being transported for a post-mortem. The explosion spattered blood and whale entrails over shops, cars and bystanders but no one was injured.

The Oregon whale story (excerpts):

A 45 foot sperm whale washed up on the Oregon coast…. (the authorities) decided that it would be best to remove the whale the same way as they would to remove a boulder. They thought burying the whale would be ineffective as it would soon be uncovered, and believed dynamite would disintegrate the whale into pieces small enough for scavengers…..half a ton of dynamite was applied to the carcass. The engineer in charge of the operation, George Thornton, stated—on camera, in an interview with Portland newsman Paul Linnman—that he wasn't exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed.

Coincidentally, a military veteran from Springfield with explosives training, Walter Umenhofer, was at the scene scoping a potential manufacturing site for his employer. Umenhofer later told The Springfield News reporter Ben Raymond Lode that he had warned Thornton that the amount of dynamite he was using was very wrong—when he first heard that 20 cases were being used, he was in disbelief. He had known that 20 cases of dynamite was far too much; instead of 20 cases, they needed 20 sticks of dynamite. Umenhofer said Thornton was not interested in the advice. In an odd coincidence, Umenhofer's brand-new Oldsmobile was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber after the blast. He told Lode he had just bought the Ninety-Eight Regency at Dunham Oldsmobile in Eugene, during the "Get a Whale of a Deal" promotion.

The resulting explosion was caught on film by cameraman Doug Brazil for a story reported by news reporter Paul Linmann. In his voice-over, Linnman alliteratively joked that "land-lubber newsmen" became "land-blubber newsmen ... for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds." The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land near buildings and in parking lots some distance away from the beach, one of which caused severe damage to Umenhoefer's parked car(****). Only some of the whale was disintegrated; most of it remained on the beach for the Oregon Highway Division workers to clear away. In his report, Linnman also noted that scavenger birds, who it had been hoped would eat the remains of the carcass after the explosion, were all scared away by the noise.

Ending his story, Linnman noted that "It might be concluded that, should a whale ever be washed ashore in these parts, those in charge will certainly remember what not to do."

Thornton was promoted to the Medford office several months after the incident, and served in that post until his retirement. When Linnman contacted him in the mid-1990s, the newsman said Thornton felt the operation had been an overall success and had been converted into a public-relations disaster by hostile media reports…

Note: Gulliver must have looked like a beached whale in Lilliput. Something figuratively similar is in 'The Death of a Tall Man' by Ruchir Joshi, a smart and tongue-in-cheek obituary to Satyajit Ray: "(Ray’s) was a long body, six feet and four inches to be exact, and it looked tied down by all the flowers and wreaths. I could not help thinking of Gulliver washed up on the beach with swarms of Lilliputians twittering malevolently around him."


(*) I had initially thought of adding a few of the questions in THIS footnote but now I think it is better to spare my readers.

(**) Perhaps the whale's skeleton, deprived of support from buoyancy, crumbles under its huge mass, just as... well, our quiz went caput under the heavy-handed questions.

(***)A similarly terrible fate befell Dostoevski’s father – according to one account, “serfs caught him and kept pouring vodka down his throat until he *drowned*”.

(****)A whole neighbourhood getting a coat of stinking blubber is reminscent of an episode from ‘Three Men in a Boat’, quoted by Perelman in ‘Physics for Entertainment’, the offending chemical there being paraffin oil: from a can stored at the stern of a boat, the oil (due to capillarity) seeps into and thru anything and everything and after a while, the boat, the air, the shore, the whole city and the universe begins to reek of it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ravi, Frida and Pilar

As he locked the door and turned away, Ravi shut his eyes tight. He said softly: "Father of Eventide Journeys, Grant me leave as I depart from this little nest of sewn up Mandaram leaves!"

- Khasak

Malayalam filmmaker Ranjit's most critically acclaimed films so far have been 'Paleri Manikyam' and 'Pranchiyettan' (both were big money-spinners as well). However, to me, neither was a masterpiece. Admittedly, 'Paleri' had an absolutely authentic-looking central character played by Mammootty and interesting observations on the Communist movement of north Kerala and but its core story felt like a dumbed-down parody of Karamasov - brothers troubled and haunted by the shared karma of a dead father and his bank of sins - a burden they can only add to. 'Pranchiyettan' too had its moments but was marred by several clumsy episodes ( the advent of 'Padmasree' and the silly yoga-master to name a couple), not to speak of its tasteless swipe at Oscar-winner Rasool Pookkutty.

Now Ranjit has come up with 'Njaan'. It does not seem to have won the same acclaim as either film mentioned above. It certainly did not make much money either. But I found 'Njaan' distinctly more interesting than any of its maker's earlier work.

I confess my judgement is colored by personal experience: the frame story of 'Njaan' is driven by a seemingly successful IT professional who writes a widely-red blog and has decided to write a play, an event eagerly anticipated by some hard-core (and hugely appreciative) theatre buffs. The parallels: I was in IT for long, I certainly blog and I have written a play. The divergences: I never had it very good in IT, my blog has had but a handful of readers and the play I wrote and published several years ago was a non-event.

Now for the real stuff:

Watching 'Njaan', one senses 'Paleri' persisting as a hangover in many of the details - an investigator so omniscient he does not need to investigate anything, a son haunted by his late father's moral transgressions... (and the over-appreciative theatre group, eagerly lapping up everything ladled out by the all-knowing young hero, is a throwback to yet another Ranjit film, 'Thirakkatha'). But, slowly examining the protagonist Narayanan's bond with an illegitimate half-brother born to a free-spirited 'Kurathi' fortune-teller (the latter was also hired from beyond the pale of caste-restrictions as wet-nurse to the legitimate son), the film matures to connect with Khasakian dilemmas of lust and guilt and their oppressive karmic baggage. Also striking were the film's snatches of fantasy (or is it magical realism?) - the increasingly disturbed Narayanan puts up dozens of little mirrors on the walls of his room and they all begin to show the specter of his recently deceased aunt; in another episode, his blind bride 'sees' long-gone ancestors peering beatifically at the couple from a balcony. Towards the close, setting out on his final fateful journey, Narayanan confronts his father's spirit and speaks lines which are almost identical to Ravi's final farewell to his absent father (that the young investigator probing Narayanan's dark secrets is also named Ravi was almost certainly a consious decision).

In a curious coincidence, the day after I saw the film, I heard Artist-Scholar Dr. C S Jayaram speak on 'Ekphrasis'. During the course of his hugely informative and provocative presentation, Prof. Jayaram presented an extended meditation on the painting My Nurse and I by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I was struck by the uncanny parallels between the Native American wet-nurse's shower of milk and the outcaste Kurathi's unfettered generosity.

And just as I was keying in the above lines, thoughts wandered off again towards Latin America and fetched from some dark corner, vague memories of some character from Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Soliutde'. Searching online, I saw this page. Excerpts.

"(In the scheme of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'), Unlike the "proper" women of Macondo's founding generation, Pilar Ternara is a free-wheeling agent, answerable to no one—the complete opposite of proper and sexually repressed characters such as Úrsula and Fernanda del Carpio. She arrives in the Buendía household to help with the domestic tasks and progresses from managing the kitchen chores to sexually initiating the Buendía sons into manhood and fatherhood. ... But sexual attraction is not the only reason this raunchy woman acts like a magnet for the Buendía men. It's her spontaneity, emotional understanding and unconditional devotion that draw them to her. Along with her raucous peals of laughter Pilar dispenses tenderness, compassion, and a joie de vivre that's missing in the Buendía women. ...

Pilar represents a different dimension of female power. In some ways she's traditional, completely loyal and devoted to caring for her men. But Pilar cannot escape her low social status, nor she does not have the seal of approval that comes with marriage. She is not a wife, but a prostitute. Pilar gives birth to the first offspring of the Buendía sons, making it possible for the Buendía lineage to carry on. Despite being a pariah she occupies a privileged space in the novel, right alongside "decent" women. The only Buendía to decipher the gypsy manuscripts goes to Pilar for the advice he needed to continue on. Her powers go beyond the arts of domesticity—she heals the psyche and reads the future in the Tarot....Buendía women like Úrsula, Rebeca, and Meme seek out Pilar and her cards, as do the men, during times of doubt or crisis. Clearly, Pilar, as possessor of the secrets of fertility, memory, eroticism and clairvoyance, occupies a primary and critical space in the novel..."

For long many critics have been trying to discover parallels between Macondo and Khasak (and Vijayan often had to take and parry questions on the alleged debt he owed Marquez). Be that as it may, 'Njaan' has become a very real and interesting bridge between *my personal impressions* of the two masterworks.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Paniyeli Poru - a Prelude

Periyar is Kerala's largest river by far; it is perennial and in a fair monsoon year, a mighty torrent. Near the village of Paniyeli, around 40 km from the heart of Cochin, is Paniyeli Poru, a rock-strewn and turbulent stretch of Periyar. In this context, the Malayalam word 'poru' can only mean 'rapids'. In most other(?) contexts, the word means 'struggle'.

Today afternoon. A pleasant hour and half drive from home takes me to the gateway to Paniyeli Poru. The surroundings are lush green, the weather inviting. A uniformed woman (the place is maintained by the Forest Dept) tells me to cough up thirty rupees for entry; then follows half a kilometer of atrocious mudpaths to a clearing amidst tall trees - the parking area. The monsoon-swollen river could be seen rushing past. I hear from someone the 'poru' proper are a kilometer upstream and a cobbled pathway leads off along the bank. I follow it...

... for two minutes. Two men appeared and told me to halt. One was youngish and in smart khaki, the other, older man was in shabby khaki. Shabby says: "We are closing. So you can't go further."

Self: So soon? But it is only 4.35 pm. 2 hours of daylight left!

Shabby: The place has to cleared by 6 so now Sir (he motions towards Smart) will go in and fetch those holidayers who are in the main Poru area. And that will take time.

Smart: Yes, people just come and wallow in the water and I have to herd them out!

Self: I came from far. And it is not too late. What if I come with you as you go in and walk next to you both ways. I won't cause any delay and won't hinder your work.

Smart: But then, other people will come and ask me to take them in too...

Self: But there isn't anybody else!

Smart: Wait five minutes and more tourists will come!

Self: But we could start straightaway and he (indicating Shabby) is here. So, if you could..

Shabby (to Self): I can't remain on guard here. I need to go home; been here since morning!

Smart: That is right. I have to now go in ... and they keep coming in!

Self: If you could let me in for just 10-15 minutes,....

Smart: No. Rule is rule and it applies to everyone. I can't make an exception for you.

Self: But the rule says 6 pm you said. It is not yet 4.45!

Smart: But if we let you in and something happens to you, we will be in trouble. And ... we need to go home, right?

Shabby: Yes Sir. That is what I said to him upfront (pokes his jaw in my direction).....

I turn and walk back a hundred meters and look back briefly; the two are still there and appear to be chatting. Presently, a bunch of tourists pass me. I don't pause to see what is being done to them.

Near the exit, I see a woman employee.

I ask: What time does this place really close?

She: 6 pm. We stop giving tickets at 5.

Self: I took the ticket at 4.35 and was denied entry to the main Poru area by two men out there. They said I was late. Strange ....

She: You mean... they were Forest staff?

Self: Seems so, two men in khaki. One was a certain ..... (I had read Smart's nameplate)

She: Oh, he is our Sir!

Self: Really?! I thought He was the one who created this river... or at the very least, that he is sole heir to this property! And he is a mere Sir, tsk tsk! Anyways, thanks Chechi! looks like this is a nice place; I shall be back!

Monday, September 22, 2014

To a Little Blue Bird

Let me first own up to a bit of license taken in the title above. The bird we talk about is certainly blue but not particularly 'little'.

1. A lovely Malayalam film song penned by P. Bhaskaran (in my prosaic prose):

"Once, on a balmy summer evening, Lord Krishna of Guruvayur was roaming the country in the guise of a mischievous little urchin(*). He came upon a spreading peepal tree beside a gently flowing river and resting in its cool shade, began to play his flute. Divine happiness spread all around. Goddess Lakshmi herself came down, radiant as Moonlight, and sat beside her beloved. The music charmed the surrounding woods and gradually the entire Earth itself into profound silence; even the twinkling stars above were lulled into blissful sleep...

And in that heavenly dreamtime, the young lord and his lady turned into little blue birds(**) and flew away and were lost in the deep blue sky. And never since have they been seen by anyone - the Earth, its denizens or the distant stars."


2. The essentials of a folktale as retold by Ruskin Bond:

In the wooded hills of western India lives "the idle school boy", a bird who cannot learn a simple tune though he is gifted with one of the most beautiful voices of the forest. He whistles away in various flats and sharps and sometimes, when you think is is really going to produce a melody, he breaks off..."

... the young God Krishna was wandering along the banks of a mountain stream when he came to a small waterfall, shot through with sunbeams. It was a lovely spot, cool and inviting...

Krishna was enchanted. He threw himself down on a bed of moss and ferns and began playing on his flute... a fat yellow lizard nodded its head in time to the music; the birds here hushed; the shy mouse-deer approached silently on their tiny hooves to see who it was who played so beautifully.

Presently, the flute slipped from Krishna's fingers and the beautiful young god fell asleep. But it was not a restful sleep, for his dreams were punctuated by an annoying whistling, as though someone who didn't know music was tinkering with his flute.

Awake now, Krishna was shocked to see a ragged urchin standing ankle-deep in the pool, the sacred flute held to his lips. ...

It was too late, for it is everlastingly decreed that anyone who touches the sacred property of the gods, whether deliberately or in innocence, must be made to suffer throughout his next ten thousand births(***).

Krishna, in his compassion for the little boy, pondered... surely the punishment could be less severe?

Krishna said: "forever, try to copy the song of the gods without success!... and May your rags disappear and only the dark blue colors of Krishna remain!" And lo, the boy was turned into a bird we know as the Malabar Whistling Thrush, with its dark blue body and brilliant blue patches. He continues to live among beautiful, forested valleys... trying unsuccessfully to remember the tune that brought about his strange transformation.

Note: As an earlier post here noted, Italian renaissance man Cardano once said: "The story of Narcissus is an allegory - of a writer who gets so obsessed with his own work that he keeps editing and polishing it to the exclusion of every other study". Maybe the whistling thrush is an allegory of the writer who can only produce scattered blog posts.


3. Excerpts from the travel notes of contemporary Malayalam writer Santhosh Echikanam (my translation):

"Who have we come to meet in this jungle?" I asked with growing impatience.

"The Malabar Whistling thrush!" said Jaison with a lound laugh.... "Yes, a singer, the very Yesudas among birds! The White Saheb called him the 'whistling schoolboy'. But man, he is no idle whistler but a composer of genius; he never gets you bored with the same melody like the cuckoo. .. A life totally dedicated to music - each time he sings, he tries a different raga, sometimes even alters his voice.... and he is a great looker too"

Jaison showed me a snap. I was impressed: "no coincidence, he looks like Ilayaraja" I said.

The whistling thrush is the most disciplined of birds. He wakes with the rising sun, bathes and begins his sadhakam/riyaz. His 'bhoopalam' and 'mohanam' soon calm the woods into meditative stillness; even the wind stays calm lest his sruti be disturbed... As the sun rises above the trees, this Yesudas falls silent. And when dense monsoon clouds gather above, he makes an exception and produces an extra performance on an altogether different key.


4. A bit from Khasak (there is chance the reference is to a different bird altogether):

As Ravi approaches Khasak for the first time:

"the whistling call of a bird rang high from up above. The old porter listened with intent: "Its bound to rain in the evening or maybe tomorrow!" he said, for the whistle of the maanian is the harbinger of rains.


5. Wiki: "The male thrush sings its varied and melodious whistling song from trees during summer. They may sing for a long time around dawn but at other times of the day they often utter sharp single or two note whistles. They were once popular as cage birds, with the ability to learn entire tunes"


6. Over to the Guru of Kerala birdwatchers, the late Professor Induchoodan:

The whistle of the thrush lasts but 8-10 seconds; and it is repeated over and over, aloud. Whatever, its call has a certain electrifying quality.... its high decibel level can be attributed to an effort to be heard over the roar of monsoon-fed jungle streams. And when in form, the thrush gives the impression of a Gandharva, lost in his musical offering to Nature. ...

It has been reported that this bird is easily tamed and it settles comfortably in human households. However, one feels its call, which can overpower even the persistent din of waterfalls, could be sheer torture in a quiet human dwelling. But in the sun-dappled depths of a forest, while singing full-throatedly beside a gurgling stream, this little bird adds a whole dimension of sweetness to the joy of Nature. It is pure music that can turn any birder crazy enough to seek it out into a full-fledged poet. Once a like-minded friend of mine asked: "Can one not liken the roar of the waterfall to the rumble of thunder and the song of the thrush to a bolt of lightning?". Sure, my Friend! And those out there who may harbor doubts could consult Keats's ode to the nightingale or Shelley's to the skylark.

And now for a thimbleful of disappointment: The great Salim Ali has said:

"Personally, I would choose as our most accomplished songster, the Greywinged Blackbird of the Himalayas. A number of its close relations, members of the thrush family including the Malabar Whistling Thrush and the Shama follow close on its heels"


7. A confession: I have never seen this bird. And I can't quite remember ever hearing its call. Those who have seen Ray's 'Pratidwandi' (aside: it should ideally be spelt 'pratidwandwi' in English) would recall its recurring recall of an unseen bird's whistling call. Was it our hero (google with 'pratidwandi bird')? As of now, I have no sure answer. The film too does not tell us if Siddhartha's query to an unseen bystander: "what is that bird called?" elicited any reply.


(*) 'urchin' is a translation of the original 'karumadikkuttan' (the latter is the byname of an ancient black stone Buddha idol, now installed in a small shrine in the backwater villlage of Karumadi in Kerala).

(**) Malayalam poets casually use the words "kuruvi"(sparrow) and "kili" (parrot) to mean any "little bird" - Bhaskaran's choice is 'neelakkuruvi' (blue kuruvi). Blue sparrows do not seem to really exist anywhere on Earth. The exact Malayalam word for 'thrush' appears to be 'pullu' but curiously enough, the Mal name of the hero of this post goes "choolakkaakka"( literally, 'whistling crow'). 'Maanian' appears at best a very local name.

(***) Another episode from our mythology: While celestial sage Narada was on a flight somewhere, a garland of divine flowers slips off his 'veena', drifts down and, blown here and there by a breeze, gently comes to rest on queen Indumati - the unsuspecting lady is killed instantly! And moving abroad, one recalls the fate of Phaethon the Greek, who dared to drive Apollo's chariot.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Chuffed With Kabaddi

I have a complicated equation with cricket. A longstanding reader of cricket writing, I am also quite a hardboiled cynic about most things concerning this game, including the recent Bharat Ratna award to Tendulkar. And after year after year of IPL excesses (and the recent charade of a 5 match test series in England), the kick-start of the Kabaddi league has ... bowled me over.

Almost everything about the new show called pro-Kabaddi is an improvement over IPL. And this improvemt is nowhere more apparent than in the names of teams. 'Jaipur Pink Panthers', 'Puneri Paltan' etc. are absolutely refreshing compared to the IPL banalities. Even 'Youuuu Mumbaaa!' shares some of the real primal appeal of the game of kabaddi itself, a fairly uncomplicated contest of athleticism and teamwork.

An eminent Kerala intellectual had once remarked: "We are still stuck with a feudal mindset. Just look at the names of IPL teams - Royals, Kings Eleven, Super Kings,.... silly anachronisms!"

Sir, you missed the daftest of the lot: 'Kolkata Knight Riders'. What the hell can that phrase possibly mean? An allusion to a long-forgotten American TV serial? Give us a break! To most moderately sensible knowers of English, 'knight riders' makes sense only when applied to damsels, not to male sportsmen - just like 'lady killer' or 'lady-killer' does not really refer to a lady ('Night Rider' too makes a similar kind of effed-up sense, In Racist American slang)!

And just in case someone would counter the above objection by drawing parallels between 'knight rider' and 'knight-errant' or 'knight templar', well, to anyone who knows his basic history, representatives of Kolkata referring or deferring to *anything* to do with knights must be pure anathema - for this is the city of the greatest knighthood-spurner of them all, a certain Rabindranath.

And I am equally chuffed to see ace-spiker Tom Joseph finally land the Arjuna Award. Considering the nonsense done to him last year by Ravi Shastri et al, it is a bit of an atonement for desi cricket that the Committee that decided on the award was headed by Kapil Dev.

Thanks Vishnu - and thanks Bacardi!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Deja vu - Scolari

Throughout this World Cup, as I followed the fortunes of Brazil with hope, then shock and then abject despair, their boss Luis Filipe Scolari kept giving me a strong sense of deja vu - there was this undismissable feeling of having seen his face somewhere long ago. No, not at the 2002 World cup when he coached Brazil to glory - 2002 is simply not long enough ago for someone my age!

I decided to investigate. Wiki, where I started, said "the media has been fond of pointing out Scolari's facial resemblance to actor Gene Hackman". Many other online pages mention this resemblance. But I knew this was not what I was looking for - today was the first time I heard about Gene Hackman! I did check the Wiki page on the actor and felt: "okay, there is a resemblance but Hackman's face has distinctly more pronounced angles than Scolari's".

There was plenty of time for just this kind of thing; so I fetched my old books and pored over them, especially those associated with strong visual memories of childhood. Among them was Readers' Digest 'Library of Modern Knowledge' - a tome of 1979 vintage that I had not opened in a good quarter of a century. And in one of its articles on visual arts, I saw exactly what I wanted, this picture of a marble bust of Roman Emperor Vespasian (1st Century AD)

Further online searches yielded this page which says Vespasian bears "more than a passing resemblance to Gene Hackman". But the same page says Vespasian also looks like a whole host of other characters ranging from Lyndon Johnson to some other XYZ.

But there are folks who have done much better! Here is yet another page that is titled: "emperor vespasian looks totally like gene hackman". And, a little below, is the confident comment by a certain Rogerio Esteves: "replace hackman with scolari and you are right!". . Absolutely, Senhor Esteves! 'Big Phil' just has to get rid of his moustache to actually become old Vesp (not to merely look like someone)!

Note: And at least one website says Vespasian and Scolari share the same birthday - November 9th - albeit nearly two millennia apart! Dampener: this is not corroborated by Wiki which says the emperor was born on 17th November in the year 9 AD. But we can argue further: mabye Vesp's birthday was 17th November as per the Gregorian calender; what if according to the Julian calender which was THE calender then, he was indeed born on the 9th? There are doubts - indeed, the date of the Russian revolution are 13 days apart in the two calenders (whereas 17th and 9th are only 8 apart). Wonder whether this mismatch of 5 days (=13-8) could be due to the difference between the ways the two calenders treat century years. Whatever, even if the dates of birth are not the same, they are quite close.

And, I just noted, this is the first post in a very long time here that has no connection at all with Kerala, oops!

Here is another bit of face-matching:

Question: Is there any resemblance between Roger Federer and super Physicist Edward Witten? The answer must be a very dismissive NO, isn't it?

But there is a certain actor by name Michael Stuhlbarg (I know him a lot better than Hackman!). His youthful pictures bear 'more than a passing resemblance' to Fed; and in 'A Serious Man' (thanks to Vimal, I recently saw this very interesting film), he plays a Jewish Theoretical Physicist who is (to me) at least visually, very consciously modelled on Witten. And as they say in Physics textbooks, I leave it as an exercise to the Reader to verify this proposition.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

'Thumbi' and 'Thendan'

"Whose delicate touch has made your bashful innocence blossom - was it the gentle breeze? or the mischievous 'thumbi', drunk on nectar? or was it the love-lorn song of the youthful Gandharva peeping out at you from among the peepal leaves?"

(a Malayalam love-song in free translation; the author: ONV Kurup. Note: In the original, the peepal peeper is a 'Kinnara'. I use 'Gandharva' instead. For justification, let me refer to an earlier post here titled: 'On the Kinnara Trail')

This post has two parts - both refer to earlier posts here. And both parts have something to do with the works of Kerala's favorite auteur, the late P. Padmarajan.

'Thumbi' Part 2:

The monsoon has been stingy so far and I have not been getting to do much rain-swimming in our little 'kulam'. Today luck appeared to turn with a heavy midmorning downpour - and I plunged in. The rain quickly thinned into a gentle drizzle. I was thinking of quitting when I spotted two blue and very slim dragonflies; they were hovering a few inches above the water and occaionally gliding here and there but doing nothing much otherwise. Lazily floating a few feet away, I watched them. The 'thumbies' did not appear troubled by the raindrops. Were they searching for smaller insects to devour? Were they courting? Well, it did not look like either was the case - indeed each one seemed to be on an own-trip to nowhere in particular. The drizzle then ceased altogether and the insects drifted away and were not to be seen. Within a minute or so, the rain revived and the thumbies were back, up to the same intriguing game!

Soon, the weather cleared up decisively and the blue thumbies were soon gone; and there suddenly appeared two big, black and sinister looking ones. They seemed to be chasing one another over the water with intent and vigor. For brief moments they even caught and latched on to one another and kept flying furiously in one tangled piece. And this show lasted but a few minutes and they too were gone.

Inference: At least some thumbies enjoy a 'thoovanam' (a gentle shower of rain). And perhaps Padmarajan, who made 'thoovanathumbikal', knew this.

Aside: For all of the Mallus' love and fascination for the thumbi, nothing in our films can quite match what Kamal Hasan does in the Tamil film 'Satya'. Courting Amala on a grassy hillside, our hero spots a little poompatta (butterfly) fluttering about, chases it, dives into the grass, takes a dramatic tumble and comes up with a thumbi caught between his fingers. As to what happens next to the thumbi ("with the thumbi" would be more appropriate!), I refer my readers to videos of the song 'Valai Osai'.


Note: This piece continues the old post: 'On the Kinnara Trail'.

My present home-town of Tripunithura is a famously haunted place. Many of its scores of built-in-19th-century residential buildings ( most are still in use) have ghostly residents who have been camping there for generations. Some of the ancient trees here are known to harbor Yakshis. There have been several sightings of the spirit of Kannagi (yes, heroine of Tamil classic Chilappathikaram!). A nasty 'Brahmarakshass' stalks the quiet lanes at night - some folks fear this demon enough to build seven foot plus walls around their compounds...

But the most 'spectacular' of Tripunithura's supernatural denizens is, unquestionably, 'Thendan'. Here is a quote from memory from K.T.Ramavarma's 'Kairaleevidheyan': "Thendan resides on the peepal tree at the eastern entrance to the Poornathrayeesa (Vishnu) temple, the very heart of Tripunithura. In the third quarter of the night, he awakens and placing one foot on this peepal tree and the other on the 'paála' tree beyond the western gopuram of the temple, raises himself to his full fearsome height with the temple beneath him. Occasionally he stoops like a crane to lap up water from the temple tank. Any mortal who ventures out and sees him in this act is sure to die within the week!"

The big and sprawling peepal tree serving as Thendan's abode/pedastal was cut down recently and replaced with a slender sapling. But Thendan is still very much around - a stone slab stands right next to the sapling as a marker of his presence. A notice has been put up warning devotees NOT to offer flowers to Thendan.

Note: I recall being reminded of Thendan when I first saw the painting 'Colossus' by Goya.

I recently chanced upon a volume on Kerala's Vedic Traditions by Varanakkod Govindan Nambuthiri. Some interesting excerpts: "The ritual of 'Othoottu' is a stylized ceremonial chanting of the Yajurveda performed in temples built expressly for this purpose. These temples are called 'Gandharva Kshetras'. Normal Pujas etc happen in these temples only on a few designated days.... The Rigveda says three deities act as guardians and protectors to a girl from birth until her marriage - Soma, Varuna and Vishwawasu, king of Gandharvas, in that order... During the wedding, the groom chants a 'sukta' which respectfully asks the Gandharva to leave, since his work is done - the maiden has found a human protector."

Maybe the phenomenon of young women getting possessed for life by Gandharvas, very widely attested to by Keralan tradition (and mentioned in my own earlier post on Gandharvas), comes about when the protector gets possessive. But, what has all this got to do with Thendan? Plenty! I call Govindan Nambuthiri's book to witness:

"There are only two extant Gandharva Kshetras - at Ambalakkunu in North Kerala and at Irinjalakuda. Neat Talipparanmba temple stands a peepal tree that is revered as the abode of a Gandharva. And the 'sankalpa' (= 'esoteric visualization'?) of the Irinjalakuda Gandharva portrays him standing with one foot on the 'paala' tree next to the Trimurti temple at Triprayar and the other foot on the peepal tree next to the Koodalmanikyam temple in Irinjalakuda ( the distance is of the order of a dozen kilometers!) with hands folded in obeisance to Bharata, the presiding deity of Koodalmanikyam."

Thus, Thendan, who has terrorized Tripunithura for centuries, has quite a bit in common with a Gandharva. Maybe he IS a Gandharva gone rogue. Indian tradition holds getting straddled as very demeaning and even Lord Vishnu, whose temple is subjected to this indignity by Thendan every night, seems unable to do much about him - or maybe He is indifferent, which is worse! One can only hope that the presence of a kindly guardian spirit of vastly superior stature looming 'kilometers and kilometers' above Irinjalakuda-Triprayar (the distance from there to Tripunithura would be only 2-3 strides - for the latter!) is enough to keep terrible Thendan in check.

The Gandharva myths have strong shades of the boozy Greek God Dionysus - Gandharvas are brewers and heavy drinkers of Somarasa, the liquor of Gods. But the Gandharvas are also supremely handsome and great musicians to boot so the Apollonian element is even stronger in them (for evidence to these claims, let me point to the Padmarajan's 'Njan Gandharvan'). The 'Colossus of Rhodes' was an immense statue of Apollo that was said by some to have straddled the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes. So, do the legends of 'Desi straddlers' like Thendan owe something to Greek myths?

World-cup update: Sometime ago, an article here mentioned the 'chakkara kuduma', a kind of coiffure sported by some castes in traditional Kerala and that now is to be seen only in period films. Description: shave the head except for a ~6 inch circular patch right at the top. And now, this style appears to have become quite fashionable among soccer players from Latin America!