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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

TEN - 2

Having just wrapped up a Decade of this blog, I look ahead with hope and trepidation. One would love to keep this going but there is also a slowly growing fear within of a certain ‘Perdition of Memory’ (facts, details, plans keep slipping away, very frustratingly. This could be either part of the standard package of Ageing or something more damaging; it is too early to tell. Whatever, the process of putting together a post is becoming increasingly laborious). To keep worries of this decline at bay, there is no bettwe way than to plunge headlong into another post. Here goes….

Mathai and his Manifestations

"It was just past 5 am. The gentle caress of the dawn breeze had a silky feel. Our ‘ekka’ passed clusters of sad-looking huts and then rocked along still sleepy roads lined with strange-shaped and whitewashed mansions. The thought that one was entering the ancient city of Ayodhya made my mind fly off to a long gone era when Dasharatha ruled over it….."

S K Pottekkat’s travel notes titled ‘Ayodhya’ written way back in 1944 (it is a part of his collection ‘Yatrasmaranakal’) begin on such a note. The notes frequently mention a very literary-minded fellow traveller who had brought along a volume of Vallathol’s ‘Sahityamanjari’ and would from time to time recite passages from a famous poem therein on Sita as a little girl.

Later, as the day grew warmer, the party felt like a swim and having searched and found a secluded spot on the Sarayu river, took off their things and dived in….

SK mentions several temples and shrines and ghats along the Sarayu but is totally silent about Ramajanmabhoomi. The controversy surrounding Babri Masjid began five years AFTER his visit with the ‘miraculous’ appearance of the Rama idol inside the mosque.

As the party returns from Ayodhya in another ekka, the Friend recites Vallathol’s lines where little Sita complains to her doting mother (put in the mouth of a child, these lines are prophetically poignant):

“Why does this silly poet want to get me married to that Rama fellow!”

I first read ‘Yatrasmaranakal’ as a primary schooler and must have reread it at least half a dozen times since then. But I never cared to know more about the unnamed Friend.

To the present. I just finished SK’s ‘Ente Vazhiyambalangal’. Among its several disconnected pieces is a reworked version of the same Ayodhya notes. SK reveals that the dip in the river the party had was a proper ‘skinny-dip’; more interestingly, he tells us the Friend was the long-gone firebrand politician Mathai Manjooran (1912-1970).

“The river bed has thick deposits of a grey-coloured clay-like sediment said to have special medicinal qualities. We gathered fistfuls of it and applied it all over our bodies. Mathai looked like a proper Naga Sadhu – in nothing but ash smeared all over.“

I just saw that Wiki has plenty to say about Mathai’s tumultous career. Excerpts:

As a fearless freedom fighter, he led many daring exploits against the British, both in Kerala and in the north of India. His involvement in the Quit India Movement of 1942 saw him and his cronies actively involved in an attempt to sabotage several strategic railway bridges…. The tumultuous Kizhaariyoor bomb case is the result of one of such attempts….

Mathai ... once snatched the pointed gun away from the hand of the dreaded police officer, Mariya Arpudam, who came to arrest him. On another occasion he slapped the prince of Cambay for indecently advancing upon a dancing girl (SK too mentions the vice-like power of Mathai’s handshake and how a rowdy Brit soldier who tried to scoot from a Lucknow restaurant without paying his bill gave up on the idea when given a taste of Mathai’s iron fist).

In 1944, at the height of the Second World War, Mathai led the famous 'Famine March' towards the palace of the Maharaja of Cochin.., the Cochin government agreed to and implemented Mathai’s proposal of introducing the rationing system in Cochin. It was in effect the first instance of rationing in the history of India.

After Independence, Mathai became a staunch activist for the formation of Kerala State and rose to be a member of the first elected government of Kerala. Wiki also mentions his affinity towards literature and some sporadic but serious efforts at scholarly literary criticism.

The reason for ‘Yatrasmaranakal’ not naming Mathai is now clear. As ‘Vazhiyambalangal’ tells us, Mathai was then (1944) on the run from Brit police; when the Ayodhya trip happened, he was actually working as a hotel manager in Lucknow with the false name of ‘Mr. Mathews’.

Everything quoted above about Mathai is new to me. Indeed, I don’t recall ever having read anything about him. But I had known about the man for a very long time! Indeed, for an entire generation of Mallus, the word ‘Mathai’ had a very unique connotation thanks to one of his ‘exploits’, immortalized in a half-century plus old urban legend (I heard it while at college from an Elder):

The staunchly atheistic Mathai Manjooran once had a bit too much to drink. His usually confident mood dipped and repentance set in. He stepped into a wayside church and prayed his heart out before the crucified Jesus: “Lord, I have sinned ….forgive my soul (he proceeded to list several transgressions)!”

Jesus did not respond but Mathai's impromptu confession progressed… Inevitably, the influence of alcohol ebbed away … finally Mathai gathered his wits, pulled himself to his full height and defiantly told the silent Saviour: “If the Lord cannot forgive Mathai, it matters a ….. to Mathai!”.

The blank marks the most basic of Malayalam’s (not particularly rich but quite functional) battery of expletives. The episode somehow acquired such rowdy popularity that for a very long time, folks would say things like: “your threats mean a Mathai to me!” or more directly, "Nee poda Mathayee!"

TEN – 1

Today is Vishu, sort of the New Year in Kerala. And it is a birthday too - this blog began on a Vishu day, a round 10 years ago.

Let me first quote a bit of sagely advice that came in y'day from Gyani: “For Decade Two, you could consider adding the odd picture, unless you want to stick to the Paul Dirac style”.

This two-part post shall comprise fragments touching upon several subjects one wrote about during the last decade.


In the very first post here, I had said: “For several weeks, finding a suitable name for this blog was a bother. Then ‘Anamika’ sort of hurled into view….” In a later post I confessed: “’Anamika’ (= the nameless) marks my failure to find a good name for this blog”.

Now is the time to let my readers in on a secret - I had actually thought of a name, albeit a couple of years before this blog began; the idea then was to start up a website as a repository of my random notes – since mid-1990s, I have been a ‘writer of sorts’, writing mostly travel notes, initially in Malayalam and switching to English around Y2K. The name found for the website (which never got started) was ‘Narayam’ (prounounced ‘nah-rah-yum’). As per Wiki, a narayam is a traditional Keralan and South Asian writing instrument; it is a metallic nail used to scratch letters on to palm leaves (it is also called an ezhuthaani = ezhuthu + aani, literally, the writing nail).

Aside: Wiki says the narayam was a very versatile tool - a Desi equivalent to the Swiss Army knife. For example, it was the weapon used in the murder of Annavayyan, a key episode in the classic romance 'Dharmaraja'.

Though very similar sounding to 'Narayana' (one of Vishnu’s many names), the Malayalam word ‘Narayam’ looks like a derivative of the Sanskrit ‘naracha’ which I have seen used as a synonym for arrow, dart or nail. In Malayalam, the tap root of a plant (the main root, growing vertically down) is called the ‘narayaveru’ or ‘aaniveru’ – here maybe because like a dart, this root goes straight down. Likewise, the ‘aanikkallu’ (kallu means stone) appears to point to the most basic unit(s) of an old style stone foundation.

I could not recall 'narayam' when starting up this blog in what could only be called a lousy memory slip. Anamika is not a bad name but Narayam would have been apter. Of course, it can be argued, the rambling and desultory nature of this blog has been nothing like the tap root or the nail that goes straight to the core of things. But it is also true that in its role of a writing instrument, the nail merely scratches all over the surface! And some of my readers have observed that despite all its wanderings, the blog has always had a tap-root like anchor - Kerala(*).

Irinjalakuda, Changampuzha and SK

“Irinjalakuda, Koodalmanikyam, Thachudayakaimal – wow, such beautiful words, so musical”. Long ago, while a student at Christ College in the small town of Irinjalakuda, I heard this ecstatic remark; Our Malayalam teacher had attributed it to the brilliant late poet Changampuzha. Several years ago, I started a post here on Memories of Irinjalakuda with this quote.

Another claimant to the quote has just swum into view; S K Pottekkat writes in his ‘Ente Vazhiyambalangal’ (my free translation):

Being both first-time visitors to Irinjalakuda, Changampuzha and I took an exploratory walk around the town …. We were now at the gateway to the Koodalmanikyam temple.

“The legends surrounding this temple are of a fantastic nature; but we certainly are on hallowed ground - where music and fine arts are eternally locked in a divine embrace!” Chengampuzha said.

“Truly, just hear those names, Irinjalakuda, Koodalmanikyam, Thachudayakaimal… Don’t they sound so lyrical?” I remarked.

“Hmm, not just the names, the glorious pulchritude of the place finds its highest expression in the looks and gait of its damsels!” said Changampuzha.

Chakka - and a Gentleman from Aluva:

Last summer I had written here about chakka or jackfruit and mentioned the two common strains of jackfruit, the varikka and the koozha, signing off a remark: “I happen to know a gentlemen hailing from Aluva (near Cochin) who eschews the varikka and feasts on the koozha”.

Yesterday, I happened to hear about a certain Mr. James Joseph. A former Mallu-American, he was a successful manager with Microsoft. During a holiday spent at Aluva, his little daughter took a strong liking to chakka and said to him: “Dad, it would be nice if we could get such gorgeous fruits to eat everyday!” and, long story short, Mr. James now runs a burgeoning fruit processing company with strong focus on chakka products.


(*)Note: Vimal suggests the variant: 'Nararum', a cocktail of 'Na', 'Ra' and 'Rum', the first two being the opening syllables of the two halves of my name and the last, my favorite tipple.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Women and Semantics


As is obviously known, the primary intent of India’s massive Public Distribution System is to support the large fraction of our population languishing below the Poverty Line. Let us note some findings of a survey conducted in central Kerala on the recent Governmental move to shift ownership of Ration cards to Women in the family – widely touted as an attempt to Empower Women.

Among male respondents from families Above Poverty Line (APL), 85% support the ownership shift to their womenfolk and only 15% think it is a bad idea. Among men from BPL families, the fraction supporting the move dips to 64% and those who oppose amount to 36%.

An overwhelming 90% of APL women say the ownership shift is a great thing and only 2 out of 100 oppose it (a much more substantial 8% of said things will stay where they are). And here comes the punch: from among Below Poverty Line women (the primary target group of the reform) an emphatic 83% oppose the move and a mere 12% support it!

Let me leave my readers to infer what they will from these curious numbers.

Note: The survey was conducted by Mrs. Ambili and Mrs. Supriya, both teachers of Mathematics.


Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, like words phrases, signs and symbols and what they stand for. Linguistic semantics is the study of meaning that is used for understanding human expression through language… (Wiki)

The following exchange took place the other day between two high school students (let me call them Tik and Tak) and yours truly. The situation: their school was planning to take them on a tour to some hilly areas of Kerala.

Self: So you guys are not going?

Tik: No way! The weather is horrible, jungles will look burnt out, rivers will be bone-dry …

Tak: … and they will take us on visits to some tribal colonies.

Self: What of tribal colonies?

Tak: Why would I want to go all the way there and see tribals? … And I see this specimen (points at Tik) on a daily basis!

(Tik pounces on Tak in mock anger; I too am somewhat taken aback by the apparent political incorrectness of Tak’s utterances)

Self (addressing Tak, in a somewhat solemn tone): Look here, ‘tribal’ is not a bad word!

Tik (to self, almost screaming): You too, Brutus!

Question: If I had addressed Tik instead of Tak and said exactly what I had said (in exactly the same tone and manner), the meaning and significance of the sentence spoken would have been very fundamentally different, isn't it?

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.