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

Sunday, November 05, 2017

From Here and There

A poetic coincidence

Two images, so uncannily reminiscent of one another:

-"Time, thou glorious beam of Light awakening from the depths of the Cosmic Ocean!"

- the song 'Pralayapayodhiyil' by Vayalar from the film 'Mazhakkaru'; my translation.

-"The Edge of Breath, a sliver of Light, polished and burnished by the flow of Time"

- from the poem 'Portrait', by Malini Murali

The Metro, again

Has the Kochi Metro eased traffic congestion? Most folks answer this question in the negative. Along its path, the metro has cluttered roads with pillars and stuff and made construction of flyovers well nigh impossible so some offer the gloomy prediction that traffic woes are actually going to get worse.

However, as I have just discovered, the above question is totally beside the point; the Metro's intent is not to decongest roads. It aims - first and last - to give an alternative and quick means of transport; period. Earlier, no one had a fast way to get across the city. Now, at least some have a choice. To give a similar example, the graded, paid Darshan system at Tirupati does not aim to make things easier for every pilgrim - indeed it might make the wait longer for those who can't pay - but those who pay will get served quick.

Two ponds

Here are two kulams (home ponds) from Monsoon Kerala - less than a hundred meters apart, they look very different due to the wildly different floating vegetation.

And it is not just the appearance. Shortly after the latter pic was taken, I had to plunge in and pull ashore the scummy raft of weeds - it became an experience reminiscent of what happened to Kuppu Achan on his nocturnal fishing expedition (Khasak).

Stoicism - A desi Parable ( as narrated by eminent poet Sugathakumari; I don't have any comment on it)

On a visit to an arid village in Rajasthan, I asked a laborer engaged in breaking stones:"How long have you been doing this work?"

"As long as I can remember!" He replied. "My father and his father were stone breakers too!"

- "What about your children? Do you not want them to go to school?"

- "I have a son. And he too will break stones for a living."

- "Don't you wish at least for him an easier life?"

- "An easy life? Even Lord Rama had to suffer so much. My son too shall face his karma!"

The unlettered laborer's words, to me, contain the quintessence of the Indian world-view - a world-view that enshrines such a beautifully detached and wholehearted acceptance of Life - the rock-solid foundation of our civilization!

In Dubious Parentage

"Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be a bastard. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary like the first born legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations." (from a biography of the great man I happened to look into today - and didn't buy owing to its steep price)

A French Physicist once told me: "Back in 18th century France, the word 'bastard' was an honorific. It was reserved for the king's sons by one of his (acknowledged) mistresses. If you are a bastard in 18th century France, you aren't quite a prince but a very important person nevertheless!"

And here is a bit from the B(ast)ard's 'Troilus and Cressida':

Margarelon: Turn, slave, and fight.

Thersites: What art thou?

Margarelon: A bastard son of Priam's.

Thersites: I am a bastard too; I love bastards..... One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard? Take heed, the quarrel's most ominous to us ....Farewell, bastard! (exit)

Margarelon: The devil take thee!

Metamorphosis - another parable ( I heard this last month and quote without comment)

A certain Jack was an alcoholic and binge eater. One evening, returning home from the tavern, he passed out at the doorway of his house. He suddenly had a stunning vision. The angel of death had come for his soul: "You Sinner, your present life has been such a waste! You are now dead! But God has granted you another life so you will soon reincarnate as a hen!" Soon, Jack saw he had become hen cooped up in a poultry farm. Remarkably, he could remember every moment of his just concluded human life and his excesses but couldn't tell anyone about his Fall. As he sadly contemplated his new station, Jack could sense something beginning to move in his belly. He heard a voice within say: "Time for you to lay an egg!" Soon, Jack the Hen could sense an egg roll out from within him - it was a pleasantly fulfilling feeling. Soon thereafter, another egg developed within and he/she prepared to let go of it....

Suddenly came a violent blow to the head and the feeling of a fog lifting painfully from the eyes. And the voice of his wife from his former human life rang out, yelling: "Good for nothing scum, you shat all over the doorway!"

A remarkable quote

"Even the villages in Kerala are more beautiful than the cities in Bihar" - Sushil Kumar Modi, BJP leader from Bihar, married to a lady from Kerala.

And this pic has been christened the 'Jyotirlinga' - a criminally bald English translation is 'pillar of light'.

Signing off: My writing efforts are feeling the burden of age. But I am very happy to note I used the word 'thou' for the first ever time today, just a few lines above this.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Maveli and Metro - an Onam Survey

As is well-known, the ancient (and ageless) king Mahabali (Maveli) was banished to the netherworld 'Pathalam' by the gods and visits (or is allowed to visit) his subjects in Kerala every Onam. And as is even better known, the Kochi Metro opened with great fanfare a few months ago.

The following pic came my way on Onam day. I circulated it among friends with a request for a caption.

Here are the responses (those in Mal have been provided with translations).


- "Ithinu Pathalathil stoppundo chetta?!" ("Does this stop at my Pathalam, Bro?!")

- "Kochi pazhaya Kochi allenkilum Maveli pazhaya Maveli thanne!" ("Kochi has come a long way but old Maveli is his old self!" - a parody of a very popular and very daft 'punch-dialog' from the Mammootty film 'Big B')

- "Ithuthanne njan pande swapnam kanda ente Keralam!" ("This is just what I always dreamed for my Kerala!")

- "Golly, this Metro thing wasn't there when I came last... real cool!"

- "Metro Mitram" ( 'sutra'-like in its alliterative pithiness, this caption is open to all sorts of interpretations: "A Friend for our Metro" or "Metro, your friend" and so forth ...)

- "Cool, maan! Should get this to run thru Pathalam too!" .

Note: two respondents have given the above caption. One of them adds: "Should somehow kidnap Sridharan!" (E Sridharan, engineer and bureaucrat has guided the Kochi Metro project almost since inception).

- "Metro comes to Pathalam!"

- "Maveleem kummanadichey!" ("Maveli does a Kummanam!". Explanation: Local politician Kummanam Rajesekharan boarded the inaugural run of the Metro with national leaders in apparent violation of protocol. Trollers coined the word 'kummanadi' for sneaking in anywhere without ticket)

- "And yet it moves (sorry old Gal!)!"

- "Hey, this actually runs,... forward!"

- "Looks like it can take you down to Pathalam in ten seconds flat!"

- "Dey Maveli Metroil!" ("Look, Maveli in our Metro!" - a parody of the title of an old comic audio cassette).

- "Bhagavane, Kummanom kootiyillallo!" ("Gaad, not even Kummanam to be seen!")

- "Thudangiyappozhekkum Poottaaraayo?!" ("Gosh, just started service and already about to shut down,eh?!")

Sunday, August 27, 2017

An August Miscellany

Alternative title: 'Miscellany in August' (What say, Kuro?)

How now, Blue Cow?

Looking out from the Delhi-bound Prayagraj express as it coasted between Aligarh and Ghaziabad one steamy monsoon dawn, I saw an unfamiliar animal - somewhat taller and leaner than a bull, dark coated and well-muscled and with small horns. It was grazing in a freshly planted field.

Here are some Wiki details on the beast, commonly called the nilgai.

For centuries Indian villagers have associated the nilgai with the cow, a sacred animal revered by Hindus, and the name ("gai" means "cow" in Hindi) indicates the similarity they saw with the cow. The nilgai is rarely consumed by Hindus due to its religious significance. Tribes such as the Bishnois traditionally take care of wild animals like the nilgai....

The governments of Bihar, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand have urged the Government of India to declare the nilgai as vermin... As the name "nilgai" appeals to the religious sentiments of Hindus, the Government of Madhya Pradesh has sought to officially rename it as rojad (Hindi for "forest antelope") and the Government of Haryana to rename it as roze in a bid to make their culling acceptable...

Wiki also says the nilgai used to be called the "blue horse" during the time of Aurangzeb. As per the official 21st century image of the emperor, he would rather have called it the "blue cow" and slaughtered it to extinction. And at least from a Malayali viewpoint (the reason for bringing in the Mal angle here will remain unspecified), to call a horned animal any kind of horse is utterly stupid.


New Delhi, which I walked over intensively on the same day, is a strange place. One sees many restaurants, the majority of them quite swanky (in particular, there are about half a dozen in a small shopping center off Pandara road) but none was open during 7 am- 11 am. I was told they start at midday and stay open almost till daybreak. Wonder what it could be about the daily routine - and nightlife - of the city that warrants such timings. Indeed, to my knowledge the only eating place functioning in the above time window in a two kilometer radius of Pandara road operates out of a shed behind a sarkari office with infrastructure limited to a single bench and table and without running water.

(Aside: Must also say it was quite pleasing to see roads named after Bhavabhuti (ancient playwright considered second only to Kalidasa by many) and Copernicus)

Wearily trudging back to the railway station past Connaught place, I saw this figure hovering over a still closed restaurant.

The irony of a dark, winged and hoofed purveyor of illumination struck me. Looking around Wiki, it was a shock to know that ancient Biblical tradition viewed the brilliant Venus or Morning Star not as joyous harbinger of a new day but as a symbol of the tyrannical king Nebuchednezzer and even the Devil himself. The later name Lucifer (="light bringer") rose from this concept.

On Identity

Another Bible, Grady ("the daddy") Booch's textbook on Object Oriented Analysis has this picture: "Every object has a state, behavior and identity"

One morning, at the elephant yard behind Tripunithura temple, I saw a freshly instantiated variant of the third portion of the above triptych:

Khasak and Translation Woes:

"Saar, aarum chaavaatha katha!" that was Kunhamina specifying the type of story she would want to hear from Ravi.

I recall struggling to translate the phrase: "Aarum chaavaatha katha". A literal translation would be "A story in which no one dies" but that's too clumsy. The problem comes from the unique way the genius of Malayalam (equally Tamil) creates an adjective like 'aarum chaavaatha'; English (or Hindi for that matter) has nothing like a counterpart. (*)

"A story without death" would be inappropriately heavy - the reason being that Kunhamina is an as-yet-unlettered ten year old girl. I could identify with her angst about mortality but injecting the abstraction of 'death' would ruin the direct simplicity of her demand.

I ended up with "a story where no one dies!" - strictly speaking, wrong because a story is no location in space. But the translation had brevity - and methought that is about as close as English can get.

After many years of dithering, I have actually bought the English version of Khasak written by Vijayan himself. And here is what the Master has made Kunhamina say: "a story without dying!"


(*) To give another example from the same ballpark (I owe this to old friend Anil), 'pusthakangalilillaatha vivarangal' is the type of phrase routinely said in Malayalam. vivarangal means 'matters' but the two-word phrase can be said in English only as "matters which cannot be found in books"!

Aside: Recently, I saw the Malayalam "akkarekkaavil" translated as "At the temple on the other bank of the river". The translation is bad, and inevitably so! Indeed, 'akkare' only means 'on the other bank' but does not specify the type of the water body involved - it could be a river or a 'kayal'. And to translate 'kaavu' as 'temple' is criminally inadequate. A kaavu is a very specialized Keralan sanctuary and all its character is lost in the bald 'temple'.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Allahabad - Impressions

"Behold the clear, wave-swept waters of the Ganga merge with the surging dark current of the Yamuna in an exuberant confluence that looks over here like a necklace of pearls studded with the odd sapphire, and there like a bouquet of water lilies and deep blue lotuses,... like a skein of swans with the odd raven, .... a moon-dappled meadow, slivers of azure sky glimpsed among shifting milky autumnal clouds and dark serpents slithering over swathes of white ash on Lord Siva's broad chest!"(*)

-Kalidasa in 'Raghuvamsham'

For quite a while, my world line was showing an increasingly worrisome tendency to crumple up and coil into the narrowness of Kerala with one northern outpost after another falling or withering away. Allahabad, mercifully, stayed stubbornly kind and welcoming; so I made a long overdue revisit there - hoping to rekindle old memories and draft fresh notes.

Note: This post cannot do justice to my first encounters with Drambuie, Kahlua, Cointreau, Jagermeister and Amaretto ('Amaratwa') - or for that matter with Limpy, Sleepy, Kuro and Rusty - so let this be their only - and honorable - mention.


Half a day's worth of landscape-gazing as the Duronto express cut thru Madhya Pradesh (Itarsi - Jabalpur - Katni - Satna...)was a reassuring return to the bracing openness of central India. The flanks of the Satpuras were green and tending to lushness with the monsoon having set it in but beyond the Narmada, arid barrenness seemed to persist indefinitely and life appeared harsh among the scattered hamlets. Somewhere, I saw a dozen or so vultures wheeling over an invisible carcass...

Towards Maihar, a tableland slid into view - and stayed; rising to a remarkably consistent height of about 500 feet above the plains we were traversing, its sheer edge kept at our side for a full half hour (let me leave an oxymoron here!). Like battlements of an immense fortress, occasional promontories projected towards us from the main wall-like landform...


On arrival at the huge Allahabad railway station, a strange mural welcoming pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela catches the eye:

Guess: the round-eyed, Jagannath-like figure represents Brihaspati (Jupiter) as he enters the constellation of Simha (Leo, note the lion there). Such a celestial transit, occurring once in 12 years is when the Kumbh is held. Jupiter being made to look like Jagannath (a form of Krishna) is not that big a surprise since traditional astrology often links Vishnu-Krishna to the planet Jupiter - of course, the why of it is not known to me.


Allahabad is a big city in a very advanced stage of urban rot. Terrible roads, non-existent bus service, uncollected garbage, uncontrolled crowds ... But it also appears to have started replacing the noisy, smoky 'fatfati' with electric rickshaws - a slowish but non-polluting public transport workhorse, something a congested metropolis like Cochin or even say, Bangalore or Pune, could very usefully adopt. And Allahabad has retained thousands of cycle rickshaws, some of which look a lifetime old. I would want these to make a comeback in other cities, especially those with level terrain and in old and close-built neighborhoods. IMHO, cycle rickshaws are an instance of 'appropriate technology' (a phrase I have heard being used by Professor-activist RVG Menon) and bringing them back makes far more sense than emptily preaching to citizens about the virtues of cycling.


To reach the Harish Chandra Institute, one has to branch off the Banaras-bound Grand Trunk road and endure 3 kilometers of absolutely godawful driving along Chhatnag road. The day after I landed at the place, a bit of rain fell and vast puddles formed over the worst of potholes. Three days later, there had been hardly any further rain but the puddles remained. I noted with horror, Chhatnag road (like many other roads in the core city) had no proper drains or even open gutters running alongside it.

Let me make a humble suggestion here hoping it would be read by someone wielding decision-making powers.

"HRI could consider adopting the Chhatnag road. Surfacing it would be a good outreach initiative from the elite institution and could set an example to the city as a whole. Perhaps a deal could be struck to the effect that the road be renamed after Harish Chandra.... And in case the above proposal involves too steep costs, the institute could fund digging gutters along this road and name them after the great man; that would send a stronger message than ceremonially renaming a road."

Note: Jhusi falls under the Phoolpur parliamentary constituency that returned Jawaharlal Nehru more than once.


The riverbank of Jhusi, where HRI sprawls over a big, green and well-laid out campus, is believed to have been the site of Pratishthana, capital of the Chandravamsa kings of deep antiquity. As Kalidasa relates in his play Vikramorvaseeyam, this is where King Pururavas pined for Urvasi sitting in a Ganga-facing pavilion of his stately palace. An elevated point on the institute's waterfront has indeed been named after Kalidasa. Viewed from here in summer, one sees a largely dried up riverbed with scattered remnants of funeral pyres. The institute has built a long iron-roofed pandal at 'Kalidasa point' - it looks somewhat like the sheds seen in cremation grounds.


As I walked around the Mughal tombs at Khusro Bagh, a tight group of kids ("urchins" as old-timers would call them) who had been generally fooling around, suddenly got together and barred my way. "Paise do!" - they demanded.

"I don't have much money on me" I protested.

The littlest of the lot said: "No problem. We need only ten rupees".

"Hello, that's a lot!" I said. "And so are we. Can't you see there are six of us?!" he says.

I knew the game was up. "Okay, I'll pay you ten bucks. But I want a pic!".


On M G Road, the artery of Civil Lines, the most developed sector of the city, a nearly ten year old girl put on a show of acrobatics - somersaults, handstands, tight-rope walking etc... - in a bid to entertain a sparse sunday crowd. Nearby, an itinerant barber, whose infrastructure amounted to little more than a chair and a filthy white table-cloth, plied his trade on the open sidewalk.


Google with "scalloped arch" and hundreds of pictures jump at you but I bet you wouldn't find anything quite like the scallops on the "false window frames" below. These are pictures from Khusro Bagh:

Pillar capitals from South Indian temples appear to have received some serious scholarly attention but Mughal pillars appear relatively untouched. Here are a pair.


A very worrisome 'development' in these parts is the proliferation of coaching institutes. Every major intersection in Allahabad has big bill-boards with pictures of some 'Tripathi Sir' or 'Sanjeev Sir' or 'Toufeeq Sir' or dozens of similar miracle-workers who can get your children into the IIT, IIM or AIIMS or thru the bank test or whatever. Among the more in-your-face specimens was a certain 'Master of Conceptual and Magical Chemistry' - no, not an alchemist but a purveyor of 'short cuts' to crack competitive exams. To observe that Harish Chandra was only the brightest star among a galaxy of eminent intellectuals nurtured and enriched by this once-upon-a-time educational hub, one feels immensely sad about a proud tradition getting crushed under the crassest kind of commercialization.


The brighter side: despite all its ills, Allahabad gives the impression of being essentially at peace with itself. There is no noticeable Hindu-Muslim tension in this very mixed city. Even its backwardness does not seem an unmixed curse - the bulk of Allahabad's citizenry seem strangely attuned to (not tiredly resigned to) life among unsurfaced roads, unplastered dwellings and uncollected garbage. They continue to revere (and continue to defile) the two rivers meeting at the sacred Sangam and refer to them with unaffected love as 'Gangaji' and 'Jamunaji'.


All over the city, on empty walls, pillars of flyovers, ... are written, fervent appeals to participate in the 'Clean Ganga' program. Most appeals were signed by a certain 'Dr. Deen'. It looked a great example of 'Muslim-Hindu Bhaichara' - 'Deen' (=faith) is indeed a very Muslim word. Later, one figured out this Deen is short for Dr. Deenanath Shukla, a very Hindu name.


Allahabad has a very good museum:

Have you ever seen a more contended looking pair of lions?

Just compare the pair above with this specimen crouching on the portals of the Napier gallery, Trivandrum:

Here is a Buddha(?) image from Kosambi, near Allahabad. Don't remember seeing the Master in a single 'Mundu' - admittedly tied in a rather non-standard fashion. Note: Roshan Alkazi's concise guide to 'Ancient Indian Costume' doesn't show anything like this garment; As Rekesh has just remarked, "This Buddha mundu doesn't look like a one-piece affair; it doesn't look feasible to wrap a single piece of cloth that way, and have two ends meet in an inverted V.... this is more like how Western teens wrap a jacked around the waist and tie it".

An intricate decorative piece from Bharhut:

And another:

Note: Dwarfs with fantastic flowers and creepers growing out of their mouths are visible among Sanchi carvings too (Sanchi and Bharhut are near-contemporaries - they were made around the time of Jesus with Bharhut marginally older). Although this motif appears to have soon fallen out of fashion in Desi art, it might have inspired the Padmanabha form of Vishnu - just as the snake-parasolled Nagaraja images led to Vishnu's 'Seshasayi' form.

In a piece written very long ago on the stirrup, I had wondered if sites like 'Sanchi, Bharhut ...etc...' might offer evidence for the full foot stirrup having been an Indian invention. Later, at Sanchi, I did see (on the profusely carved gateways to the Stupa) a couple of horsemen with foot stirrups. Allahabad musuem has at least one relief carving from Bharhut showing a horseman... It does not show any trace of stirrups but the rider's foot does not hang like a pure stirrup-less rider's either. A bit odd! (Sadly, despite multiple visits there, I could never see the reassembled Bharhut stupa in the Calcutta Musuem).

A very foreign-looking trumpeter from Bharhut:


And a strange bit of decoration - a hut, some outsized flowers...

Moving past Bharhut, here is a fantastic trio, presumably Bhoota attendants of Shiva from the ancient ruins at Bhumra in Madhya Pradesh (5th century AD):

Mahatma Gandhi in what appears to be half-trousers, pic taken while on a visit to Europe:


A pervert has been striking fear among residents of nearby villages. His 'style': to attack unsuspecting people with a needle and to escape on a motor bike. He has been given a quaint name 'suinochwa'. On closer scrutiny, this Korean-sounding word('sui-no-chwa') literally translates to 'the one who scratches with a needle'; it is a uniquely pithy, Avadhi compound derived from sui (=needle) and 'noch'(=to scratch). A similar example (very different in spirit of course!): medieval poet Tulsidas had the nickname 'Rambolwa' in his childhood - this word, a combination of 'Ram' and 'bol' (=say) means "the one who keeps chanting the name of Ram".


A splendid specimen from a private collection. He can keep Sukumar Babu's Hunkomukho very good company:


Towards the end of my stay, a spell of severe rain hit Allahabad. Here is how the Sangam looked as I set out to catch my train:


I boarded the Prayagraj Express for Delhi and stood for long at the doorway of my coach hoping to catch a glimpse, albeit at midnight, of Kanpur, a city I had never ever seen. As the train rammed thru cascades of persistent rain, for mile after mile, well over the din of the iron wheels - and not to speak of the patter of raindrops - rose, like a tidal wave that never broke, the full-throated calls of trillions of frogs which seemed to have descended from nowhere onto the Uttar Pradesh countryside.


(*)"..... and drifting a bit towards Varanasi, you see the ancient outline of HRI to your left, with its pantry making bad uttapams and near the 'torana', Jang Bahadur's shop, thankfully selling soda. It is related, four rabbits live in one of the houses nearby, and are fond of biscuits .."

Monday, July 10, 2017

"Tap .... Donnng!"

I write this from Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad. As to how I got here (albeit temporarily), mum shall be the word, as of now.

The main building has two wings of unequal size. In the ground floor lobby of the main wing a metallic portrait bust of great mathematician Harish Chandra sits on a wooden pedestal (aside: I am not quite happy with "sits". A bust certainly can't stand; but it can't really sit either - or perch for that matter. "rests" too does not quite cut it). In a corresponding position in the other wing is a somewhat more modest bust of Girdharilal Mehta, who had founded the basic version of the institute around half a century ago. Here is how the former looks.

One evening, I was hanging around the place as usual and happened to walk by the Mehta bust. Out of a sudden fancy, i knocked on it out came a 'dong!' sound. "Oh, I see, the object is hollow!".

I was soon possessed by an urge to check out Harish Chandra too. One part of the brain said "Harish Chandra ought to be solid!" but as a confirmed experimentalist, I had to verify. But to do so, one would need to step over those potato-like pebbles (qn: btw, why do potatoes and pebbles look so uncannily alike?). I waited..

Late at night, when no one was to be seen in the area, I crept up to Harish Chandra and gave a firm knock on the finely sculpted bust ... and it emitted a considerably louder "donnnng!".

Suddenly, I heard someone snap into action with great urgency and was stunned to see a gun-toting security guard emerge from behind the staircase. Caught in the act, I could only mumble a "sorry" and slink away. Note: In hindsight, the guard actually looked more sheepish than aggressive (maybe he had dozed off and woken with a start) and must have been relieved not to see a superior officer.

One recalls another (and somewhat similar in spirit... and well, rather different in outcome..., but let's not get into all that!) episode of 'bust-tapping' from a Pottekkatt story. A writer is invited to speak at a college cultural fest. He starts early enough but happens to stop by at a liquor bar and gets sloshed. Reaching the venue rather late, he approaches the stage from behind. On the way, he passes the green room and sees someone looking like a richly dressed woman emerge. Suitably impressed, the writer greets the 'chap': "Nice makeup. You look the real deal!"; then he goes closer and asks:"and by the way, what you got here, ... coconut shells?" and checks with a firm tap!

And the only comparable international 'literary' episode I could recall in a similar vein is Captain checking out on a big, long 'dharma trumpet' in 'Tintin in Tibet'.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tanks, Folklore and a Pun

1. Here is a picture taken in mid-May by Prof. C S Jayaram.

The glorious meadow is actually the bed of a kulam (tank) in central Kerala. An especially severe summer had dried it up - but for a tiny trickle of water that generated that deceptive patch of green.

Vimal has been working on a project which involves, among a host of other interesting matters, a documentation of kulams of Kerala. On a recent field trip with him, I visited the Pozhil Mana near Manisseeri, Palghat. The Mana has a capacious kulam with a couple of bathhouses (Kulappura) attached. Each bathhouse has a stone floor and granite steps leading into the water. Carved on the floor of one bathhouse in pretty realistic fashion is a crocodile. The other bathhouse features a tortoise. Here is the latter:

The Pozhil Mana folks (and their forebears) deserve appreciation for that bit of thoughtful detailing - the croc and the tort are the 'vahana's of goddesses Ganga and Yamuna respectively.

The same trip revealed yet another bit of curious detailing - in a restaurant named 'Lavish' in the northern outskirts of Trichur city. An artist has filled its walls with a vast water body studded with tiny islands with each island bearing a man-made wonder and nothing else. One island has the Pyramids, another the gopuram of the Vadakkunnathan temple; one bears the Petronas tower and yet another, a reconstruction of the Phraros light house. Here is a small fraction of the show:


2. "Enthathishayame Daivathin sneham etra manoharame!"

("How wonderful, the love of God, in all its glorious beauty!")

Thus begins a very popular and joyous Christian devotional song in Malayalam.

A recent meeting with Rekesh taught me a new word (I don't quite remember what prompted him to mention it): "Agape"; it means "the highest form of love, the love of God for mankind, the love that prompted Him to send his only son to this very planet".

That implies the above hymn can also be translated thus: "Beautiful Agape leaves me agape!"

Question: Does this second translation contain a pun, in the strictest sense? For a pun to occur, two words or phrases with different meanings should *sound* very close, right? Here, are two words with identical spellings and sounding very different from each other.

Answer: It is indeed a special kind of pun called the 'homographic pun' (see Wiki).


Note: Agape or Love feast was a religious meal among early Christians... who would, after a group prayer, meet to partake of a communal meal. Incidentally, the cake shop run by the protagonist of Mal super hit film 'Premam' was (quite thoughtfully) named 'Agape'. Thanks for Vimal for sharing this piece of gyan with us.

3. Yesterday, I visited the Folklore Museum at Thevara, Cochin. While the establishment is quite commercial and sells artifacts (some look ersatz copies of authentic folk productions) at steep prices, its collection has a certain richness (it has a particularly wide-ranging ensemble of masks and faces) and provides a very fare share of surprises.

An odd Savior:

Note: The above is the first ever 'bald Jesus' that I encountered - and within seconds, I saw another shaven-headed Jesus in the same room - this second statue shows Him facing Pilate.

A most girlish manifestation of Siva - a curious counterpoint to the six-packed, square-jawed and smouldering version of the same god propagated by the Meluha series:

Note 1: The folklore museum has a bronze 'oordhwathandava' (no pics here) - Siva, as a dancer, performs a single-handed handstand.

Note on the above note: There appears to be much greater variety of poses among stone carvings of Siva the Dancer than among bronzes. But all examples of this very acrobatic pose seem to be in bronze. And in his Nataraja form, Siva is almost always shown wearing cycling shorts-like breeches. The Dwarapalas too usually wear them.

Note 2: And there was a terracotta vessel decorated with relief carvings of an elephant riding couple. Stylistically, it looks very pre-Christian Buddhist, akin to the Surya group at Bhaja. Pity, I couldnt take a half-decent pic of it.


Here is a bit from a The Hindu article on Kappiri Muthappan, a much loved folk deity of old Cochin (

"The small shrine at Mangattumukku in Mattancherry bears no religious markings, idols, or symbols. It consists of a simple platform built onto an adjacent compound wall and a tiled roof covering it. Yet, people visit this shrine every day to light candles, offer flowers, cigars, tender coconuts, and even toddy to the ‘deity’ unique to Kochi – ‘Kappiri Muthappan....’

Brought to Kerala as slaves, kappiris (Africans) were kept in inhuman conditions in dungeons or small cellars.... Portuguese traders buried their riches under large trees and sacrificed their African slaves so their ghosts would be around to guard the treasure. Kochiites believe that these ghosts still linger to protect the lost treasures of the Portuguese. Today, the ‘kappiri’ is a benign spirit or deity who smokes cigars, drinks toddy, and helps lost travelers."

At Edamuttom, a place nearly 80 kilometers to the north of Cochin, is the 'Kappirikkavu', a small but flourishing shrine. The presiding deity, 'Pathala Kappiri', has roots in Kochi ('Pathala-Kappiri', means 'Kappiri of the Netherworld' and that must come from the legend of the slaves being buried alive) but at his new abode, he has assumed a very muscularly Hindu form and is heavily armed. But for the dark complexion, there is not much of Africa about him. But the snapped chains declare his having risen from slavery.

The temple brochure lists a total of 18 forms in which Kappiri could be worshiped; among them is 'Jinn Kappiri', who aids Muslim devotees (the area has a good Muslim population). As far as I could make out in one visit, the list of admissible votive offerings at Edamuttom contains neither cigars nor coconut palm liquor (toddy).

In old Kozhikode too, the spirit of Kappiri had (and maybe still has) a presence - I call to witness my old hero S K Pottekkatt and his 'Desathinte Katha'. Here, Kappiri is reputed to be the ghost of a Christian priest(!) and could be seen perched on the walls of cemeteries past midnight, puffing placidly at a cigar (shades of the caterpillar there?). When mortals got too close for comfort, the spirit would repel them by releasing an almighty stench ('The Ghost who ****s'?).

Was it not Wodehouse who coined the phrase 'cigar or coconut'?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Anna, Bhaja, Stalin,...

Anna, Diamond and Dirac

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.".

I first saw this opening sentence from Anna Karenina in an essay by critic M Krishnan Nair - who had held it up as an example of a simply worded statement of great profundity. And in the decades that followed that encounter, the sentence seemed to assume the aura of higher Truth, accessible only to sages.

Somewhere on the way, I heard this statement by Paul Dirac: "In science one tries to convey to people, in as simple a manner as possible, something complex. But in the case of poetry, it's the exact opposite!". Then it sounded little more than a wisecrack from a super-smart 'arasikan' (can't translate that Mal word)...

....until I happened to read about the 'Anna Karenina principle'. Derived from the novel's opening and popularized by Jared Diamond, the principle describes an endeavor (a family for instance) in which a deficiency in any one (or some, or all) of a number of essential factors dooms it to failure - success happens only if every possible deficiency has been avoided. As Diamond expatiates in his uniquely flabby style in 'Guns...', if an endeavor needs N factors to be favorable, there are 2^N -1 distinct ways (that is exponentially many ways) in which things can go wrong and exactly one way to succeed.

That the power set of a set has exponentially many elements and that this directly implies that there are hugely many ways for things to go wrong is an elementary mathematical truth - even viewed as such, it is no banality but a powerful and deeply satisfying truth. Therefore, Tolstoy's giving it the guise of a mystical epigram falls directly under Dirac's definition of poetry.

Note: I recently was witness to a quiz competition where the conductor read a question about 'Paul Dirac, the great Mathematical Psychic(sic)'. I was outraged by that bit of 'incompetence' but today I saw a statement from Einstein, arguably, the only greater physicist of the 20th century: "I have trouble with Dirac. His balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful!"

Bhaja, again

Thanks to Fate, I revisited Pune last week and revisited the Buddhist caves at Bhaja. This was my first time there with a smart phone. In the Vihara cave, I noticed for the first time, a 'donor group' like this:

Typcially, donors in Buddhist caves are couples of full and proper humans shown riding beasts which could range from bulls to sphinxes. Donor and mount fused as above is very atypical indeed. The bestial half of the figure does not look equine enough to mark it as a centaur.

Note: Many years ago, I wrote from Sanchi about the immense variety of fantastic beings carved on those 'toranas' (the post titled 'A Gallery of Fantasies'). I had just mentioned 'a centaur' therein. Here it is, dug up from my humble pic collection:

I have to add a note within a note here: Don't ever recall seeing, in any work of art from anywhere else, anyone riding a centaur!

Note added on July 23rd 2017:

Rekesh has shown me this online picture of a 'kinnara (centaur) with female'.

The caption also says it is from Sanchi. Well, I certainly missed it during my visit. The one I did see there has a female centaur and male rider and for this, the missed one, things are the other way round. Of course, no idea yet about Greek centaurs and their riders.

And here are some more pictures from Bhaja.

An antelope looking back at a pursuer(?). A corner of the cave has been smartly used so that even the head could be executed in relief. Am reminded of a highly evocative (albeit terrible sounding) verse from Sakuntalam that begins with "Greevaabhangaabhiramam..."

Here is what has become of what was once the Ravi Varma Press at Malavli:


In Pune, I got to meet, over a few drinks, a certain Mr.Baljeet. It is to him that I owe my introduction to the Pakistani singer-actress Musarrat Nazir. Youtube has her rendering of the Punjabi folk song 'Mera Laung Gavacha'. Particularly remarkable is how she makes the simple syllable 'cha' sound so exquisitely seductive...

And the word 'laung', meaning the nose-pin is very interesting - it is a derivative of the Sanskrit 'lavanga' literally meaning 'clove'; ie 'laung' captures metaphorically, the physical resemblance of the usual kind of nose-pin to a clove.

A record, lost

In recent years, I often boasted to friends: "I began reading Shakespeare's plays at age 12 when Pop brought home his complete works. No, I am not claiming I was the youngest to read him or anything. But I actually stopped reading Shakespeare within a few months of starting. So, I probably am the youngest ever to have given up reading Shakespeare!"

I still know of nobody who gave up on the Bard at a younger age. But the other day, I sat down and read the 'Merchant of Venice' in its entirety. So, bye, bye, record!

Stalin Lives...

In my home town, an exhibition was organized by a party called SUCI to mark the centenary of the October Revolution. There were posters showing Lenin and Stalin strive as (more or less) equal partners to usher in the proletarian era in Russia. Along the roads leading to the venue, there were more posters with quotes on the revolution and Stalin in particular (few were on Lenin or anybody else). A selection (Note: my translation from Malayalam to English):

"No one has had a greater impact on our times as Marshall Stalin. He was a truly great man who stood, whether in power or otherwise, for peace. And when forced to fight, he proved a truly great soldier" - Jawaharlal Nehru

"Stalin has won the love and admiration of people all over the world for a simple reason - he possesses great human virtues in abundance" - Vinoba Bhave

"True freedom exists in only one country in the world - it is in Stalin's Soviet Union" - George Bernard Shaw

"When Lenin was seriously ill and dying, the only colleague he was confident of meeting was Stalin. That the two comrades ever had a falling out is pure fabrication!" - Maria Ulyanova, Lenin's sister

"I am convinced, after having met the man, that in Russia, no one fears Stalin; and everyone trusts him" -H G Wells

"Cry, O my beloved India, as your sister Russia weeps as a widow on Stalin's passing!" - from a Malayalam poem by Vallathol

"If Jesus were alive today, he would have shed tears over Stalin's death" - Hewlett Johnson

And here is a bit from a very different source - Pedro Ferreira's 'Perfect Theory', a very readable history of general relativity:

Two months after (future Nobel Laureate) Lev Landau published his celebrated paper "origin of Stellar Energy" in Nature, he was arrested by the NKVD for editing a pamphlet to be distributed at the 1938 May Day parade; the pamphlet accused Stalin of being a Fascist "with his rabid hatred of genuine socialism" and trying to "be like Hitler or Mussolini". Landau spent a year at the Lubyanka prison...

Here is an image from a different trip: Parvati in the guise of 'kirati', the huntress; the goddess bears a crude staff and the carcass of a mongoose or iguana. A wood carving of unclear antiquity from the Siva temple at Tiruvalur, near Aluva.