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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

'India's Son' - and Other Pieces


Thanks to Capt. Vishnu, I read a recent article in The Hindu ( on the efforts of some history and heritage conscious people of the small town of Mala in central Kerala to preserve remnants of a Jewish settlement that had flourished there for many centuries.

According to the contract signed before the Jews left for Israel in 1955, the responsibility for preserving (their) historic monuments, including the Jewish synagogue and the cemetery, belongs to Mala panchayat:

The article adds quoting several concerned locals:

… The panchayat should maintain the monuments using their own funds. The monuments should be protected within a compound wall and gate. Boards should be set up. The land should not be used for any other purpose. These were the main conditions of the contract…. (Over the years,) there have been frequent encroachments and attacks on the monuments….. The synagogue first became a school and then a community hall. A shopping complex came up on the northern side of the synagogue. The compound wall was demolished. Later, three-fourths of the cemetery became the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium…. Now they are planning to transform the stadium into the 'K. Karunakaran Sports Academy'. Of the 30-odd graves in the cemetery only three remain….

Dictionaries define a ‘philistine’ as someone guided by materialism and who is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values. History mentions Philistines (with an upper case P), an ancient middle-eastern people. They appear in Biblical stories as implacable enemies and tormentors of Jews. “Were the Philistines Greek (immigrants to the Levant)?” Martin Bernal of ‘Black Athena’ fame had speculated. Whatever be the answer to Bernal’s question, one can confidently say: “Philistines may or may not have been Greek, but many of us in Kerala ARE - in both ways! (ie, we are a philistine people who can even act like Philistines)”


The Maharaja’s College, situated in the heart of Cochin is a curious place. Set up by the former Royals of Cochin state in the late 19th century and known to have had rooms and facilities earmarked 'for Princes’ and stuff in more feudal times, the institution evolved over several decades into a State-run hotbed of student activism (ranging from left-oriented intellectualism to outright goondaism) and alma mater and workplace to several leading cultural figures and political rabblerousers. I never studied at Maharaja's but I have heard and read so much about the place that one is acutely aware of the sheer range of activities and opinions it has generated and nurtured. Even more tellingly, I got to see this bewildering range in the persona of a single member of its faculty many years ago: considered a very promising academic in his twenties, the fellow had, by the age of 30 or so, become BOTH of the following in equal measure: energetic rationalist - science popularizer and the most rabidly communal-minded scumbag I have ever seen.

The other day, I was walking past the Men’s hostel of this college - named ‘Ramavarma Hostel’(*). A youngster accosted me with a jingling tin and asked for money to help the inmates of the hostel celebrate their annual day.

I was not in a very generous mood: “Sorry, I am just a passer-by. I did not study here and I don’t have much money on me!”

But he was persistent: “Look at our building Chettaa! Weeds sprouting from the walls, trees growing in toilets, windows not only lack panes, but their very frames have been wrenched out, the ugly graffiti … no one cares about us. Please help us with any money you can spare!”


Here is a very recent story that got to me by word of mouth.

A certain guy from a traditionally high caste but very poor family joined the army. He was absorbed as a tradesman and was asked to train and work as a barber. Desperate for a means of livelihood, he took up the job without giving details to anyone at home. He actually liked the work and became quite skilled at it and popular among the men in his regiment. Years passed and he got married and had children but he never brought his family to his workplace and never ever told them the precise nature of his profession except “I am with the Indian army”. He knew there could be big trouble if people found out.

Finally, he retired and was given a fond farewell by his colleagues. Among the gifts he was given were several commendations and certificates. But alas, when he got back home, these certificates revealed to someone in the family that he had spent half a life shaving people of all kinds of castes. His outraged family – children and all - turned him out and his village ostracised him. Not having anywhere to go, the barber went back to his regiment and begged for some position but the rules would not allow him to be reabsorbed in any capacity….. Well, long story short, the hapless fellow took his life.

There were many who objected to BBC's ‘India’s Daughter’: “ if only Indian men want to keep women locked up at home and only Indian men rape women who venture out after sundown!”. While I am convinced the documentary brings a message that ought to be taken very seriously by each one of us and strongly feel that any attempt to bring in National pride into any discussion of the horrendous Nirbhaya episode ought to be summarily condemned, I also feel that the documentary’s India-specific focus is in keeping with BBC's perennial anti-India slant - it does show a truly global problem as something very Indian. But, just as Nirbhaya’s tragedy could have happened almost everywhere on this benighted planet, the barber’s story is a very Indian one – for hardly any other country has such a long and horrible record of marginalizing and oppressing its own people on the basis of their profession.

Bits of Desi History:

A couple of years back, I wrote a few posts here about the history of Dutch involvement in Kerala and how scanty traces of their presence have become (a remark therein touched upon the absence of Dutch surnames, as opposed to Portuguese or even Brit surnames, among Kerala’s Eurasians - "We have no Burghers!");

The other day, a Mal newspaper article mentioned the Isaacs-es, a Cochin family from which hail several gifted musicians. Apparently, ‘Isaacs’ is an originally Dutch Jewish surname; the article speculates that some Dutch Jewish migrants from that clan might have settled down in these parts for good and gotten absorbed into Christianity – but somehow retained their original surname.

Quite a long time ago, I had written here about how ancient and medieval Kerala’s interaction with Chinese has again not left enough in our folk memory. Y’day, I read a bit of speculation that the name ‘Thangasseri’, the present day coastal settlement that was once the site of Kollam port, could have derived from the ‘junk’, the name of a class of Chinese ships; ie, Thangasseri could have been ‘Chuan-cheri’, the cheri (neighbourhood) where ‘chuans’ (the Chinese name for junks) berthed. Conceivable, if viewed with the theory that Chinnakkada, the commercial heart of Kollam derived from ‘Cheena-kada’. The replacement of the initial consonant ‘ch’ with ‘th’ and the ‘n’with ‘ng’ do not look far-fetched.

However, I still tend to believe that the etymology of Thangasseri is Desi Christian rather than Chinese (am too tired now to give reasons!).


(*) Probably, many more Maharajas of Cochin have been named Ramavarma than French kings were named Louis or Popes were named John. I don’t know which Ramavarma was the eponym of the hostel.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Of Wheels, Grooves and Flanges

"A flange is an external or internal ridge, or rim.... flanged wheels are wheels with a flange on one side to keep the wheels from running off the rails" - Wiki

"A pulley may ... have a groove between two flanges around its circumference." - Wiki

A bit from the Stephen Jay Gould essay "Lucy on the Earth in Stasis":

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote in 'Locksley Hall, the most famous of all Victorian lines about the inevitability of change: " Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change!"... Tennyson himself later wrote that his striking, though peculiar metaphor for change (both visual and aural) rose from a misperception during his own first journey by rail: "When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830), I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line."

Let me add: Although it might not be much of a consolation to his spirit, Tennyson has never been - and never will be - short of company; admittedly, there may not be many who think train wheels run in a groove like he did but another misperception, one that merely turns his on its head, is very widely held. Indeed, billions of train travelers ( more precisely, the overwhelming majority of those who ever knew trains and cared to think of such matters) have thought and still think that a train's wheel is shaped like a pulley that grips the rail with its own groove (and that it is the rail that runs thru the grooves around the train's wheels). I myself, a keen train traveler for half a life, belonged in this group till just a few months back. Since I got disabused of this howler of a notion(*) (I won't get into how it happened), I seldom miss a chance to ask people to draw the vertical section thru both the wheel-centers of a train wheel-and-axle set as it sits on a pair of rails and to this day, only two among those I challenged did it okay without any prompting - Pop (he continues to stump me; and to really rub it in, he claims to have figured out this thing while at school!) and a lone college student from a batch of nearly 100.

On something else: Y'day (Feb 27th) night, I saw a big flash in the south-western sky and thought it was some routine fireworks display at some local fest. Today's papers have gone to town about a fireball that streaked across the sky around that very time and was seen pretty over a wide swathe of central Kerala. Many claimed to have heard a loud rumble and seen windows trembling. I just looked up the short note 'The false explosion of a Bolide' in my old copy of 'Physics for Entertainment'. Yakov Perelman's explanation of this strange supersonic phenomenon (written long before supersonic aircraft were made) perfectly fits the description of yesterday's celestial show as given by most eyewitnesses. Aside: I have reservations about the flash I saw; it might just have been an 'amittu' going onff.


(*) and now it looks nothing less than a howler to me - for it is so obvious that if each train wheel had two flanges that together gripped the rail, the train simply can't move from one track to the other at a join.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Naseer, Ramanujan and V-Day

Was it not Heraclitus who said: "You cannot step twice into the same stream"? But I just read the same book for the first time, twice.

Naseer and Chakki

A few months ago, I came upon the Malayalam best-seller 'Kadine Chennu Thodumbol' (approx. 'To Touch the Forest..') by N A Naseer, wildlife photographer, activist and writer. A lyrical, visually rich and deeply felt evocation of the flora and fauna or Western Ghats, the book swept me along on a sensual journey that lasted a few uninterrupted hours and I put it down with the distinct feeling that in our mediocre and money-minded times and in this Kerala, so lacking in heroes, Naseer is one; or at least that with his sheer commitment and the voluminous body of quality work built up over a career now well into its fourth decade, he gets quite close to being one.

Last week, I saw the man give a lecture cum slide-show. And it was quite pleasing to note that Naseer is at least as good a lecturer as he is a photographer - he spoke confidently, with crisp detailing of facts, an understated touch of humour and an easy, friendly connect with the audience.

Among the dozens of superb pictures he showed us were a few of the Malamuzhakki or great hornbill, the same species as Ammu/Chakki, our National Games mascot (the last post here was about her name). I was struck by the bird’s impressive looks and superb colors(white, black and yellow); and it looked even more stunning in a photo showing it in full flight. It was then that I realized I had never read the Wiki article on hornbills. Right after the talk, I went there, saw more stunning pictures and learnt the word casque (as in ‘…. Of Amontillado’) could also stand for the mysterious helmet like structure on the hornbill’s head(*).

Aside: Naseer also showed the closeup of a hooded cobra, fangs bared, and remarked: “what a smile this guy has!” and that reminded me of a laughing snake I saw a few weeks ago – and wrote about.

I got back from the talk and picked up Naseer’s book again. Casually leafing thru it, I saw some hornbill pictures and noted with considerable surprise that I had just seen these very pictures at the talk and had felt I was seeing them for the first time. And things began to get unsettling when I saw and reread an article on the Malamuzhakki in the book; everything felt frighteningly fresh – whatever read but a few months back when I cover-to-covered the book with great relish had simply vaporized from memory (so much so that while writing the last post here ‘Chakki’, I had never thought of dipping into Naseer’s book for details; that Naseer had at all written at some length about the hornbill had gotten lost)!

On Metaphors:

After that worrisome note on memory loss, let me make an attempt to get back to form:

The flowers of the murikku tree or erythrinia are a striking red. The other day, I heard an old Malayalam song: Lyricist P.Bhaskaran makes a child see the murikku and the fallen flowers strewn around it and ask. "Murikke! Who is the one who chewed paan all night and has spat all around around you?!"

I found the metaphor therein quite irksome: Is it not too much of poetic license to liken paan spit with fallen flowers (or the other way round)? But then, my Old Man said: "You simply haven't observed the scattered petals of fallen murikku flowers. They look just like pan-spittle. And a metaphor needs only to be true to the attributes it is based on, conventions of ritual purity and stuff are immaterial!"

That made me recall an old story about Vedanta master Ramanujacharya. An online version goes:

Ramanuja studied under Yadavacarya, a renowned Sankarite scholar. One day the guru was explaining to Ramanuja a sutra "tasya yatha kapyasam pundarikamevamaksini" (Chandogya Upanishad1.6.7), saying that according to Advaita Master Sankara, the two eyes of Purusha (the supreme personal absolute) are like two lotuses which are red like the backside of a monkey (from ‘kapi’, meaning monkey). On hearing this interpretation with the unbecoming and low metaphor, Ramanuja's soft heart melted and tears rolled down. He explained to his guru that it is a sin to compare with the posterior of a monkey the eyes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead - who is endowed with all gracious qualities and who is the repository of all the beauty of the universe. Yadava challenged the boy to explain the verse if he could. Ramanuja analysed the word kapyasam to mean `blossomed by the sun' and the verse to mean "The eyes of that Golden Purusa are as lovely as lotuses blossomed by the rays of the sun." …

After a few more such incidents when Ramanuja corrected his guru, Yadavacarya thought him to be a threat to the Sankarite tradition and plotted to kill him. Later it came to pass that Yadavacarya was to become the disciple of Ramanuja.

As one learns from the murikku metaphor, Ramanujan's idealistic revulsion is misplaced (at any rate, for a true Vedantin, distinctions of the ethereal and the base have no meaning). Nevertheless, one can still seriously question Sankara’s interpretation of 'kapyasam pundareekaksham' by appealing to poetics proper: The eye-lotus parallel (so common all over Indian literature) is drawn based on shape as the key attribute - when the Upanishad likens the eyes of Purusha to a lotus, it implies his eye has the pleasing form of a lotus petal (the other attributes the two objects may or may not share do not matter). That the lotus does have a color very similar to the nates of many monkeys (**) is a valid fact but it refers to an attribute irrelevant to the metaphor likening the eye and lotus; ergo, Sankara might just have erred in his analysis.

Aside: If I remember right, Arundhati Roy has quoted a somewhat dirty Mal song in 'Small Things' that puts forward a Just-so type of explanation for the color of the monkey's backside.

A V-day:

A Valentine's Day just went by. I received a curious message with this piece of advice: "Put on that old 'kaavi' shirt of yours and walk up and down the Marine Drive Walkway; who knows, you may land a rose!".

The said shirt used to be a bright orange when I bought it a decade ago as a step towards building a collection of plain unicolor shirts. Now, it has not only faded to a dull kaavi (the color associated with monasticism in India) but received damages from a botched 'istri' effort. Whatever, I acted as per the advice and once the walk got done, went across the street to my favorite watering hole.


(*) The artist who styled Ammu the mascot has splashed her with inappropriately gaudy colors – including an orange casque and violet beak.

(**)I learnt the word 'nates' while researching this piece; many devotees have put up pages on this story and quite a few were too squeamish to say ‘backside’ or even ‘posterior’ and have gone for 'nates'

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Remembering Padmarajan - and Chakki

Remembering Padmarajan:

“Make me mortal with a kiss!”

I had believed for a long time the above line is spoken by Marlowe’s Faustus. Today, I faced real disappointment on learning from Vimal that the Doctor actually says "immortal", a considerably weaker word. But moments later, it also struck me that a lot closer to home – and to our own times – there was another brilliant and short-lived writer, Padmarajan ( “Pappettan” to many of his fans, many of whom were not even born when he passed away on this very day in 1991), one of whose most loved characters, Gandharvan, could have said exactly that to his earthly beloved: “Make me mortal with a kiss!”.

Here is a proposal to those who remember Padmarajan as not only a fine writer but one of our best-loved filmmakers: Some good director should film his 'Itha ivide vare', a dark and gut-wrenching tale of lust and retribution. Of course, any production of it would be a huge improvement over I V Sasi's absolutely godawful film interpretation that came out in the 1970s; but what one wants is improving upon the abysmal but a work of art that captures at least some of the story's heady cocktail of lean muscularity and unbridled sensuality.

Looking Forward to Chakki:

The forthcoming National Games (India's Olympics) has a snappy mascot, a perky and colourful great hornbill. And the organizers were thoughtful and sensitive enough (neither virtue not exactly plentiful in today’s Kerala) to give a female name to the bird – a salute to Womankind and a proud reminder to one and all that Kerala is the one state in the Union with more women than men.

The name they chose for her, “Ammu” is another thoughtful tip of the hat, for it is an obvious feminine counterpart to ‘Appu’, the still much-loved young elephant who symbolized the 1982 Asian Games. However, I think ‘Chakki’ would have been an even better name. Let me lay out my reasons:

The name Chakki, an earthy version of the Sanskrit ‘Lakshmi’(*) is more emphatically Malayali than Ammu. Further, it rhymes better with ‘pakshi’(= bird) and still better with ‘Malamuzhakki’(**), the great hornbill's Malayalam name.

However, on second thoughts, I won’t press the point; things are fine as they are; for, as at least those Mallus of my generation would recall, there was a fairly popular film around 1990 named: “Ente Ammu, Ninte Tulasi, Avarude Chakki". An approx. translation of the relevant portion of this elaborate name is “(You are) Ammu to me and Chakki to them!”. Of course, with our mascot, things are the other way round. But that's okay!

While pleased with the mascot, one is decidedly not thrilled about the import of ex-cricketer Sachin Tendulkar as brand ambassador of the games. Cricket is not an Olympic sport and Kerala is not exactly lacking in top-class exponents of Olympic events. Some would say Tendulkar promotes football - but that he owns a professional soccer team does not make him any more qualififed to represent even that one game than Mrs. Ambani (or Srinivasan for that matter) is qualififed to represent cricket.

The other day, a massive public run was organized all over the state. I too jumped in and ran a kilometer and some in the heart of Cochin city. Except for the blazing midday heat, the act posed no major physical challenge but I was mildly excited that the last few dozen meters were on synthetic track at the Maharaja's College ground - the first ever time I got a feel of this object.

On a different note: The second Kochi Biennale is on in a big way and as is the case with many lovers of art, I am liking it. The local Member of Parliament appears to have a rather different take on the whole business. I am told he has written somewhere: "There is this Biennale thing going on - so many random things collected in incomprehensible piles called 'Inshallations'. In my village of Kumbalangi (quite near Cochin), folks have started a new practice. Sweep the couryard and make a neat pile of the trash, plant the broom vertically on top of the pile and call the 'installation' thus created, the 'Kumbalangi Biennale'".

My take on the venerable MP's take: Welcome to Kerala, the land where a half-decent performance in a mediocre comeback film lands for a yesteryear actress the 'Person of the Year Award' from the leading newspaper and where (yes, I am saying that again!) Tendulkar is seen as the best person to represent the Olympic spirit!


(*) or is it 'Yakshi'? Indeed, the Tamil equivalent of Chakki is probably 'Isakki' and the Tamil folk goddess 'Isakki' is said to be 'Yakshi' in disguise. And viewed from a higher level, the words 'Lakshmi' and 'Yakshi' are themselves cognate!

(**) literally, the one that makes hills reverberate. The great hornbill is a big forest-dwelling bird and in flight, its wings are said to emit a loud whirr like helicopter blades. I have never seen one although I have often seen the Malabar hornbill, a much commoner bird. There are curious legends about how the hornbills can only drink rainwater as it falls from the heavens – apparently, they are the descendants of a reincarnated farmhand who neglected to give water to the cattle he was responsible for and so was condemned to generations of thirst (source: Prof: Induchoodan, Guru of Kerala birders).

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Mumbai - a Visit full of Revisits

It is said, a place revisited after many years looks smaller, diminished. But when I saw Elephanta caves the other day, a full 20 years after I first saw them, the sculptures looked decidedly more imposing, even physically bigger, than I could recall them. The much-damaged Dwarapalas looked colossal. The pure wrath on the face of the still-more ravaged 'Andhaka-killer' was awesome(the lower half of this 15 foot sculpture is gone, perhaps shot out by Portuguese marksmen(*)). And everywhere, the Mahayana Buddhist-Ajanta connection was unmistakeable, especially in two attendant figures flanking the huge three-faced Maheswara (both looked like the Ajanta Padamapani). The patterns on the crown/coiffure of the central Maheswara figure have a complex Mandala-like look.

It puzzles me why some folks chose to carve out such grand cave temples on this rugged little island. Some have suggested purely spiritual reasons: that the solid island in the heaving sea symbolizes the realized soul staying calm in the turbulence of 'samsara'. I had read there is a pre-Hindu Buddhist stupa somewhere near the highest point on the island; could not find it. I did see a couple of big howitzers of possibly early 20th century make. From the top, one could also see most of the Nhava Sheva container terminal. Containers were piled up like big apartment blocks all over. And I counted 40 big cranes. The much-hyped Vallarpadam has had all of 4 cranes for the last so many years (on the other side, a reliable source tells me, Singapore has 200+).

In several of the absurdly expensive curio stalls on the island (there were hardly any in '94), I saw several copies of a curious Buddha image - the Master sits, resting his cheek on a knee and seems to be asleep/dozing; the very same pose has been used by Giotto in a famous drawing of St. Joachim. Online searches clearly show this dozing Buddha form is not canonical and is probably of modern Thai origin.

Later, I found my way to the Bhau Daji Lad museum in Byculla. Here stands, in much ravaged state, the near-life-size stone elephant which gave Elephanta its name. The museum has interesting collections of craftsmanship (textiles, porcelain, metalware,...).

Also on display at this Museum was a set of paintings by Atul Dodiya ( proposing seven thousand new museums on various subjects to be set up all over India. I did not understand much of what he was getting at but some of his visions were quite curious and funny. A Sri Ramakrishna-like figure dominates the proposed 'Museum at Dibrugarh'. A stick figure is shown shitting on the road in front of the ultra-modern 'Museum at Jhumri Talaiya'.

Revisiting the Prince of Wales Museum after many years (not 20 though!), I discovered Kangra paintings and the wonderfully rich, lush green and incredibly detailed landscapes forming the backdrop for their usual theme of Radha-Krishna. The absolute highlight - a painting titled 'Vasakasajja'(**). Other findings: Milarepa is not straining to listen to some far away/ subtle voice but actually singing like a 'Bhagavatar'. An enigmatic half-smile seemed frozen on the face of a near life-size Dwarapala from the Buddhist caves at Pitalkhora. The Ashtamurti form of Siva (said to have been found at Parel in Bombay) showed the lord assuming eight bodies, all sprouting out like the branches of a tree from the same central figure (one recalls the 'Ekapada Trimutri' form of Siva where three divinites share the same lower torso but the branching there is that of a simple trident, the Ashtamurti is a much more complex affair), There was a 3-faced Vaikunthamurti (***) representation of Vishnu, the faces reminiscent of the Siva-Maheswara at Elephanta. And a benign Narasimha with Laxmi on his lap sports a big, swirling moustache that one often sees among paintings of Rajput noblemen (better still, the Narasimha looks like the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph II).

There was a photo exhibition on Swiss artist Alice Boner - her life and work. I had seen some of her work in Kashi but it was only now that I found out that she was a major influence on Ravi Shankar in his younger days; and she was a major influence behind Kerala's own poet Vallathol's decision to set up the 'Kalamandalam' for preserving our traditional arts. A sculpture by her of a striding woman was strongly reminiscent of a Greek Kouros. Her searches for symmetry and deeper geometric patterns in the figure of Nataraja and some other Indian works of art were intriguing. And here is a statement from Boner that surprises and thrills: "Geometry is the most adequate expression of the metaphysical basis of reality"

The ongoing worship of Tendulkar and the systematic construction of a cult around him leaves me colder than most such fads ( this cult even lacks a minimum of originality: for instance, the phrase 'Master Blaster', used sickeningly often to refer to Tendulkar was borrowed/flicked from Viv Richards). And at the Gallery of Modern Art, I was pretty much put off to see some of our leading artists trying to outdo one another in exalting the achievements of this one sportsman in a series of grandly mounted and lit but inane paintings and installations. A series on his absurd and phoney 'Century of Centuries' record stood out. But taking the cake was a big painting wherein all sorts of divinities belonging to all sorts of denominations (the figures culled from all types of famous paintings, Desi and Western) beatifically gaze at the advent of the 'Sachin-child' (the famous photo of a 2 year old Tendulkar, barely out of his swaddling clothes, holding a tiny bat and perfectly reproducing the stance of a proper batsman is the focus). Vishnu and Siva hold cricket bats instead of their usual weapons and likewise for other gods and Biblical prophets ... But in the middle of all the stuff and nonsense, the artist has also scored one genuine hit: An angel copied from Leonardo's 'Annunciation' is shown about to gently toss a cricket ball to little Sachin. Indeed, the pose of Leonardo's angel (down on one knee, he holds three fingers up in a hand as he is about to talk to Mary) is precisely the pose an adult would assume when tossing a ball to a small child.

Walking the Queen's Necklace from Walkeswar, I reached Nariman point half hour before sunset and with a few dozen others, clambered on to the wall jutting out into the sea. The tide was out so there was hardly a ripple on the waters. The sky above the red sinking sun was the color of strong permanganate solution and there was a glorious trail of orange daubs on the waters which were a striking green (the colors of potassium dichromate). The jumbled up concrete chunks on the wall looked like methane molecules (4 arms striking out at what looked like 109 degrees and a bit from a central node). A gentle blue haze obscured the headlands of Malabar hill....

A little later, I retraced the same path, past thousands of walkers and runners ( a Madari was entertaining them with a scrawny little monkey that kept snarling at its admirers; many paid for this show - in multiples of 10 rupees), a long row of curious flowering trees (all were barringtonia asiatica, as I just found out), with the lights coming on in the high-rises (the ones on Malabar hill seemed to be shivering in the mist), the crescent moon leaving a pale silver trail over the waters and the tide slowly and almost silently beginning to flood in...

One vacant evening, I walked to Bandra and down the Bandstand to Land's End. The tide was out and the sea lay gently lapping at a vast field of black basalt which would go under at high tide and beyond was the usual neat sunset. Along the waterfront are the homes of some of top tinsel celebrities and other moneybags. Some bungalows literally reeked of wealth - a particularly opulent one looked like a reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - lush vegetation overflowing its ample terraces. Only in front of Galaxy Apts, home to Salman Khan (must say, one of the really plainer blocks in the area) stood a score or so youngsters, mostly from interior India, waiting for darshan - an indicator of his remarkable popularity. I have seen Salman from pretty close quarters when he came to flag off the Pune Marathon in 2008 (I even waved at him then) and am no youngster either so I did not join them.

And even in this city of crazy maxima and minima, I was shocked to see that an approx 3 km X 3 km expanse to the North and East of the Airport has developed into a consolidated pack of slums. On the other side, a rapid drive up the 30 odd kilometers of the Western Express Highway in rush hour must be the kind of experience few world cities would be able to equal. And near the Police Chowki at Walkeshwar was a board with photos of known chain snatchers, pickpockets and other petty criminals in the area. The religion-wise breakup of this lengthy roster (I won't go into the details here) can be taken as producing hard evidence reinforcing certain stereotypes; it can just as well be quoted to prove allegations of bias often made against the police.


(*)The Mahakali caves near Andheri have but a handful of Buddha images. All have been defaced/decapitated.

(**)A glance at some notes keyed in after a long ago visit to this same place tells me Kangra paintings are actually a *rediscovery* and they had not impressed me as much in the first encounter. Let me quote: "Kangra and Mughal art often show landscapes interestingly. But landscapes are only backdrops for the human drama; it may be a very active background (as for example in Radha-Krishna paintings, the mango trees would be blooming and cuckoos cooing) but never a theme in itself" - again a case of a revisit amplifying an experience.

(***) A guidebook tells me it is actually 4-faced.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Jinx

- "Karyakkar and his men were now at the crest of Pulichimala and could see the expanse of Tirunelveli. From such a great elevation, although regions of distinct shades were clearly discernible, it was not easy to make out the precise physical features of the land; wood and water, rock and valley – everything looked flattened out as if on a vast map unfurled."

"As they descended, the details of the vast country below gradually assumed clearer form. Presently, they caught sight of a sunlit stretch of gravelly terrain with a lone rocky hill standing guard over it. And suddenly, from among the cloud shadows scudding across the face of this hill, there emerged, at an equally vigorous gallop, two horsemen; they were fast approaching."

- "The fort of Mallankotta lies half a mile upstream from the Ponnani estuary on a large and elevated island in the Peraar river. The top of the island is a perfectly even tableland and gives an uncanny feeling that in long gone aeons, a colossal force had set to work with inexorable intent to flatten its former rugged features; the edges of this plateau drop down in sheer rocky cliffs into the river. Except for a dozen or so ominously tall palms which stood like silent sentinels, this desolate island was barren."

- "The Chenkali river, alternately cutting thru rocky gorges and tumbling down treacherous rapids in the dim depths of the tangled knot of mountains bearing the same name, finally breaks free and leaps off the rim of a cliff in a massive five hundred foot waterfall down into a darkly verdant valley."


These passages were written long before cinemascope was invented and film epics were made. And these are but translations from Malayalam – the source: 'Bhutarayar', a 1932 novel by Appan Thampuran. Though the work won praise for its often vigorous prose, it also copped a lot of flak from some influential critics and never gained popularity among general readers and now, it is largely forgotten. To explain why I took up the exercise of translating the above samples, I need to begin the story (it is going to be long, Reader!) in early 2013.


Last year something unusual happened in Malayalam cinema. A period film of sorts called 'Celluloid' directed by Kamal, achieved the double whammy of box office success and very considerable critical acclaim. This is what this very preachy film tries to convey:

In the first quarter of the 20th century, an idealistic young man named J C Daniel invested the bulk of his wealth in a brave and noble attempt to make the first ever motion picture in Malayalam language (the film reveals no motivation for this adventure). Against heavy odds, he completed the film titled 'Vigathakumaran' (story-wise it was an early example of the lost-and-found potboiler) but the caste prejudices prevalent in Travancore did not allow him to screen it. Daniel went broke. Later, in impoverished old-age, he was neglected by the ignorant people of Kerala and its insensitive Government - a prime troublemaker was the rabidly caste-minded IAS officer Malayattoor Ramakrishnan (a Brahmin) who made sure even the small Sarkari pension given to needy former artists was denied to Daniel (Ramakrishnan was very particular that a Christian should not be honored for making the first film in Malayalam). Despite the yeoman efforts of journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan, who labored tirelessly to bring the contributions of the hero to limelight, Daniel died pennyless and broken. God of course, saw the Truth, and as usual, waited ... and waited; a generation later, a repentent Kerala Government instituted an award in his honor and many eminent filmmakers got together at a meeting - also attended by a huge section of the public - to offer tributes and to collectively seek the pardon of Daniel's Spirit for how the pioneer had been treated.

'Celluloid' had decent production values and good music. But plenty about its basic premise struck me as quite shady as well as shaky. For while it is certainly quite conceivable that Daniel's efforts could have been cruelly stymied by some caste-mad people of the then Travancore, his later travails had very little to do with the Kerala Government and pretty much zilch with the average Malayali: indeed, as the film indicates (before hurriedly wiping under the carpet), Daniel squandered what remained of his wealth in a lengthy and seemingly dissolute sojourn in Madras in an attempt to make another film, this time perhaps in Tamil; for unspecified reasons, his own children turned their backs on him and at the end, only his steadfast wife was at his side.

Sad business, truly! But it is also amply clear (from the film's loud silence on the matter) that the Malayalam cinema community never bothered about Daniel when it counted. Satyan, who was, for long our number one star, was from the same region and community as Daniel but he did precious little for the old man ('Celluloid' - rather pathetically- makes Daniel say: "Satyan is from my own caste and he often asks people about me!"); Thikkurissi, another stalwart hailing from the same district seems to have done a clean zilch. The noble Prem Nazir, who became a bigger star than Satyan, did likewise (well, did precious little, that is)... Mind you, these were Daniel's younger contemporaries who ought to have felt some debt to the man later anointed the 'Father of Malayalam cinema'. And if they could not care less, why should the people of Kerala collectively do penance for a sin of the order of parricide, as this 'biopic' would have us believe?

I need to say a bit more on the film's attack on the late Ramakrishnan. A commie fellow traveler and gifted writer (and of course IAS), 'Malayattoor' was known to be progressive and secular in his outlook and social dealings. To accuse him of the basest form of caste prejudice is no sin but would demand the marshalling of some very hard evidence indeed. And this is what director Kamal said: "I had great regard for Ramakrishnan. But the film is based on a biography of Daniel written by investigative journalist Chelangat Gopalakrishnan; I needed to be true to what Gopalakrishnan wrote".

Well, what was it in Gopalakrishnan's work that made Kamal want to follow his judgements so faithfully? I checked and this was what I saw: Quite a loose cannon, Gopalakrishnan's books abound in intemperate verbal salvoes fired at most (but not all) prominent figures of Mal filmdom. Satyan, Tikkurissi, Nazir,... each one of them receive plenty of bile and vitriol for various acts of alleged omission and commission. I am sure, if Kamal were really particular about being *true to Gopalakrishanan*, 'Celluloid' would have had to say things about especially Satyan which would have got its maker into a very nasty pickle among his industry. Another example would show how committed Kamal really is to Truth as revealed by Gopalakrishnan. The latter, in his writings, praised the generosity of old-time film producer Subramanian Muthalali but Kamal chooses to show him in 'Celluloid' not as a benign overlord but as a peddler of cheap and crappy 'jungle girl' kind of films and a crass feudal reactionary to boot. And of course, showing Muthalali in an unflattering light is a safe enough bet - his descendendents do not have any serious clout in the industry.

Kamal could of course, merrily attack Malayattoor because Malayattoor is dead, because he was from the numerically insignificant Tamil Brahmin community; and because there is also the average Mallu's jealousy that he very naturally attracts by just being a TamBrahm-IAS. And quite an attack it is. 'Celluloid' has film lyricist and fellow-commie Vayalar say: "(Ramakrishnan) is a very capable guy, mostly good. But what sometimes comes out of his mouth is the the fart of the upper caste overlord!".

Well, Kamal knows which side of his bread is buttered. 'Celluloid' is no 'poem on celluloid' but a faux biopic with competent music and a rotten moral core. Any mediocre melodrama needs a villain. Cinema folk can be as mean and ungrateful as anybody else. And of course, nothing like a raking up a foul controversy to sell a product these days! But, even taken together, these facts hardly merit a post here! Indeed, I am only getting to the main point of this story. Here is another early filmmaking project I happened to read about a few months after 'Celluloid' made its money; and a comparison to Daniel's experience would be interesting:


Around 1938, a few years after Daniel made his ill-fated foray into film making, Appan Thampuran, eminent man of letters, decided to make a film (a talkie) on his own novel 'Bhutarayar'. 'Kairaleevidheyan', a detailed biography of Thampuran written by the late K T Ramavarma devotes a chapter to this project which occupied a couple of years of Thampuran's old age. Having actively worked in theatre as actor-director-playwright, Thampuran seems to have had some clear and original ideas on how to transfer, modify and adapt the lessons learned on stage to the new medium of film. He hired Notani, the director of the first Malayalam talkie 'Balan' to helm 'Bhutarayar' but retained near-total creative control over the proceedings. Artistically gifted, Thampuran anticipated the great Satyajit Ray by preparing sketches for the scenes in the film. A troop of actors - established theatre hands and promising newcomers (among the latter were Tikkurissi and S P Pillai) were handpicked and hired on a full-time basis and rigorous rehearsals were held...

But all efforts came to nothing. Industrialists who had offered to finance the film backed out (or had to back out), some relatives offered help and they too ditched and .... finally, having exhausted his own funds, the frustrated Thampuran called it quits. Just as happened to Daniel, Thampuran's already strained finances took a major hit but, owing to relative good fortune, he did not have to suffer poverty in his last days like Daniel probably had to. Of course, Daniel's very mediocre stab at film-making (even his die-hard champions Gopalakrishnan and Kamal don't seem to attribute any artistic value to 'Vigathakumaran') has, albeit belatedly, thrust upon him a kind of immortality but nobody remembers Thampuran's project which had promised hugely more by way of plain and simple Art(*).

Biographer Ramavarma wistfully signs off: "I often heard from (writer) M T Vasudevan Nair and others that Tikkurissi and S P Pillai used to reminsce about the months spent at the 'Bhutarayar' rehearsal camp and the experiences there. I wrote to both gentlemen several times seeking information. Sadly, despite all the effort from my side, neither replied". Guess I don't need to add any comment of my own on this particular experience with film people. But our story needs to continue...

Ínspired by 'Kairaleevidheyan', I sought out a copy of 'Bhutarayar' and read it. Though set in Kerala of around 1000 AD and packing quite a bit of intrigue and action, the novel is not the usual historical romance. Critics have even classified it as the "first and only impressionist novel in Malayalam", whatever that means. Stylistically, the book offers many pleasant surprises - taut and racy descriptive passages like the ones translated at the top, brilliant caricature-like character sketches (the pen portrait of 'Thurassan' is a marvel). And it has, in Omala, the only known (to me) instance in Malayalam literature of an Eva Braun kind of female lead, a sort of 'gangster's moll', determined to stick with her Evil Beloved to the edge of doom, and if need be, beyond. I did not find the novel uniformly likeable or thrilling but its sui generis quality was not lost on me at all.


And then, a few months back, came a surprise. an up-and-coming film-maker asked me if I had any ideas for a short film. I eagerly mentioned Appan Thampuran and his failed attempt.

"Thampuran's home in Trichur is now a museum" I said quoting from 'Kairaleevidheyan'. "It has preserved the preparatory sketches made for the film and other stuff. Thampuran also was a talented sculptor. Some of his carvings are preserved there. You could make a trip to the place and find out more. Just see how much attention that 'Celluloid' generated. At least from the point of view of art, the failure of Bhutarayar was a much more serious loss than the loss of 'Vigathakumaran'! You could perhaps make a film to highlight this point."

The chap seemed excited. "Please see if you can write your thoughts down. We will work it into a documentary script!" he said.

Shortly thereafter came a second saturday and in a sudden spurt of energy, I made a quick day-trip to Trichur, reaching the place around 11 am. The museum was locked up and there was nobody around. The day's newspaper lay at the entrance. I inspected the exterior of the building and found some granite carvings (done by Appan Thampuran himself as Ramavarma tells us) on the walls of its portico - 'Radha-Krishna', 'Mating cobras',... Sadly, dark brown (!) paint had been very thickly smeared over them and the details were impossible to make out.

The compound was deserted; not even a watchman was in sight. I stepped out and asked around to find out if the place would open at least by the evening. No one in the vicinity had anything to say. I gave up and left.

And the filmmaker, I never heard anything further from him - in hindsight, his asking me, of all people, for a script must have only been an act of desperation prompted by circumstances which must have changed for the better soon thereafter. I guess he is now on to something more fetching than the dissecting the failures of a certain Appan Thampuran ...

And the jinx surrounding 'Bhutarayar' persists....


(*) - A potentially unpopular thought: Consider the case of the Malayalam novel. In any discussion, 'Kundalata' is readily acknowledged as the first of its kind and right thereafter, it is promptly dismissed as a low-quality yarn and 'Indulekha' mentioned as the 'first proper Malayalam novel'; at any rate, there is no talk attributing any paternity (of a literary nature) to Appu Nedungadi, author of 'Kundalata' and no major award or anything commemmorates him. So one can legitimately wonder whether calling Daniel, whose actual position in the history of Malayalam cinema looks considerably less substantial than Nedungadi's vis-a-vis Mal literature (and to me, the argument that a silent film like 'Vigathakumaran' has no well-defined language has some merit as well), the 'father of Malayalam cinema' isn't going quite a bit overboard. One could even add, the truly unfortunate 'lost heroine' Rosy, who played the female lead in 'Vigatha...' has better credentials to be called the 'Mother of Malayalam Cinema'.

Update(December 16th 2014): Just saw a remark by noted film critic Vijayakrishnan quoted by someone else. The gist of the remark goes thus: "'Vigathakumaran'was a flop not only because of the opposition from caste-groups - as a film it simply wasn't much good. People in Trivandrum had already seen films made elsewhere (the city already had a theatre 'Capitol') and had some idea of what a film ought to look and feel like. Daniel's rather simpleminded approach to filmmaking mostly staging a play in that set and filming it from a fixed camera position; and this left most spectators unimpressed."

Friday, December 05, 2014

Random Pieces

"... You don't belong here, in this World,

Where the laugh of sunflowers serve only to bare their cruel fangs and trecherous claws,

Where dungeons as dark and haartless as the final Judgement await those who love their Land,

Where the bleached bones of the Just lie strewn over the wastes as rainless storms whirl and screech above..."

- a fragment from a Malayalam poem by K. Sachidanandan, in my translation.


"One night, as he prepared his favorite paan, our much-loved lyrical poet P complained: "This patch of moonlight on my plate confuses me; I mistake it for the lime!". Now a time has come when our people crib: "Moonlight, what a waste - can't even dry copra!"

- from a typically pithy and sincere speech I heard yesterday from media person Johny Lukose.


The other day, I saw a drawing of Siva. The lord had the now fashionable Meluha features (square jaw, high cheekbones) and physique (muscular in a very lithe way, six pack and everything). His expression was warlike and agitated, eyes glaring. However, a curious counterpoint was provided by the cobra coiled around his neck. Facing its master, the snake had its hood puffed up and fangs bared but looked to be having a hearty laugh.

Nowhere else have I seen a laughing snake(*) but the drawing suddenly reminded me of a laughing *fish* and a very creepy story read long ago in the children’s magazine ‘Balarama’. It was titled: “The Skull that would kill four people and the Laughing Fish”. I remember being far more frightenened by the fish that keeps appearing at critical points in the story - and it would rapidly slip away laughing a shrill, piercing laugh - than the Death’s head which spelt doom for four people.

I can't find a copy of this story online. But a brief mention is here . The story is apparently of mid-eastern origin and spookiness apart, its core theme is adultery; perfect for a children's magazine I suppose!

Another Fish and laughter come together come together to concoct a disturbing vision in Goya's dark masterpiece: 'Burial of the Sardine' (can be seen at Wiki). A considerably more benign laughing fish features in this allegedly Indian fable .


Watching ‘Interstellar’ and its intriguingly twisted time-tunnel, I was reminded of this story from ‘Yogavasishtha’, as was retold in an interview given to a Malayalam magainze a few years ago by eminent physicist ECG Sudarshan:

"A visitor presented king Lavana with a horse which he claimed was perfect for a hunt. The king promptly mounted the steed to check it out. The beast sped off and rapidly leaving the royal citadel and the surrounding country far behind, lost its way lost his way in a treacherous jungle. There the utterly exhausted and famished king chanced upon a girl cooking some meat. She refused to share her food with the king and said: "We are untouchables. You look rich and high born!".

"What if i marry you and stay here?" the desperate king asked. She said: "ask my dad".

Lavana obtained the old man's consent and stayed put, partaking of the rough jungle food and getting used to the new way of life. Over the years, he fathered two children by the girl. Then came a severe drought and famine; the entire jungle shrivelled up and there was nothing to eat and the children were crying in despair. Lavana lit a fire and told his wife: "When i am done, feed them!" and jumped in ..

The king woke up with a start. The whole experience had been a dream! But he thought further: "it cannot be. It was too real, too bloody detailed. needs some checking." Lavana promptly set out to look for the forest - he saw his memories had an uncanny clarity and accuracy and they guided his search straight to a burnt out looking forest-clearing; there sat a wailing woman and her children. She lamented: "my husband immolated himself two days back!"

Who really was whatever - Lavana, the king who dozed off briefly, the desperately suicidal father or both or neither? I am told Gaudapada (or someone thereabouts) had speculated on our life being a dream played out in somebody's sleep. And Pindar is said to have said: "Man is a shadow's dream!"


Once upon a time, all trains in Kerala were pulled by sooty steam locomotives and all coaches were the color of dirty rust. I distinctly recall the surprise I felt as a five year old on seeing a red and white liveried train headed by a gleaming blue diesel loco at Calicut station. Pop told me: "this is the new Jayanti Janata express; it goes all the way to Delhi. And it gets to Shoranur from here in one hour flat!"

Somehow, Pop's statement stuck and whenever I traveled by any train between these stations, I would check the time; the Holy Grail of one hour never happened; it was always 75-85 minutes for the nearly 90 kilometer distance (Aside: obviously, that was a 'stretcher' from Pop (as Huck Finn would put it; strictly speaking, it was a 'compressor!); not by much, around 20 percent; okay for Pop!)

...until last week when I took the Sampark Kranti express. Between Shoranur and Calicut, its WDM3D loco let it really rip in a sustained blast of diesel power. The train thundered past Tirur and Parappanangadi at full tilt and as it reluctantly slowed to a crawl at 'Kozhikode outer', only 58 minutes had elapsed from its stirring into action at Shoranur.

I reported the whole thing to Pop and he remarked. "Hey, the one hour thing was no fiction. I often took the Mangalore Mail to Shoranur when I was a student and it would reach in one hour!". "No way!", I protested. "You are talking about 1960 and lumbering steam locos; and it was a single track line in those days!" But Pop was adamant: "Hello, I know what I am talking about. One hour flat it used to be!".

Aside: I have had my present cellphone for several years but it was only last month that I figured out it incorporated a stopwatch! It was thrilling to see the Sampark maintain a smashing 105 kmph speed for long stretches, occasionally grazing 110. Flip side: the Kozhikode line is all set to switch to electric traction and the days of such diesel-fuelled thrils are numbered.


I saw a thirtyish woman and her 3/4 year old son step out of a shop on a quiet Ernakulam lane. Pointing at a lone tree standing across the lane, she tells the boy: "Look, a Paala tree with all those lovely flowers, so tiny-tiny and white, don't you see them?!".


(*) One does recall an episode of a snake *possibly* sporting a smug, mocking smile; indeed it is this very cobra. Snugly safe on Siva's neck, he asks his wrathful nemesis, the eagle Garuda: "Hey Garuda, Howd'yedo?" (the cobra spoke Tamil, the translation is mine).