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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Chuffed With Kabaddi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Vishnu - and thanks Bacardi!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Deja vu - Scolari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is another bit of face-matching:

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

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

'Thumbi' and 'Thendan'

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

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

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

'Thumbi' Part 2:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Goals

Something happened very early today during the Honduras-France match at the World Cup. I quote from Hindustan Times:

"...a volley from Karim Benzema, who ended the night with two goals, came back off the post. It bounced back into the area, hit Honduras goalkeeper Noel Valladares and then the ball bounced back towards the goal. The keeper tried to scoop the ball to safety, but Brazilian referee Sandro Ricci awarded the goal -- classed as an own-goal -- after consulting the instant technology. ..."

The media have been repeating all day how the hapless Valladares has become the first ever goalie to score an own-goal.

But methinks they have jumped the gun: something very similar happened seven world cups ago - an event I was actually witness to, like millions of other soccer lovers. It was Mexico, the very first world cup they showed across India on the telly. I quote from Wiki article on French footballer Bruno Bellone:

"It was the quarter-final match against Brazil in 1986 for which Bellone will most be remembered ... In the shoot-out (after the match ended locked 1-1), Bellone took France's third penalty. It hit the post and rebounded onto Brazilian Goalie Carlos and then back into the goal. ... In the following year, the laws of football were clarified in favour of the referee's decision."

Elsewhere online one reads:

"The law covering penalty shoot-outs was clarified after a controversial incident involving Bruno Bellone in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final between France and Brazil. Bellone's spot kick rebounded off a post, hit the Brazil keeper's back and bounced into the goal. Referee Ioan Igna gave the goal despite Brazilian protests, and France went through 4-3 on penalties. In the following year Law 14 was clarified to support Igna's decision. Basically, a goal is given if the ball rebounds off the post, crossbar or keeper in any combination and "through the momentum imparted by the original penalty kick travels between the posts under the crossbar and completely over the goal line".

Indian expert P K Banerjee had then opined on lines somewhat like these: "The key word is 'process'. From the moment the kick is actually taken to the ball having ended its journey decisively - that is the complete process. When Carlos made his ill-judged dive, the process was still ongoing; he interfered with it and redirected its trajectory into his own goal. So when the process was complete, the ball was in the net. So, it is indeed a goal. It happened not because of Bellone's skill but Carlos's error so it can't be credited to the Frenchman; but a goal, it is!".

So, coming back to the present, Frenchman Benzema not being given credit for today's goal would be okay since it was the 'contribution' from Valladares that got the ball across the line. But then, does one also go back and change records to say (taking just one further and legitimate step from where PK left off): "Bellone was not the scorer; it was an own-goal by Carlos!"? In that case, Valladares has a clear forerunner and today's media have got it wrong.

But hold on! Goals scored during shootouts are, for some mysterious reason (mysterious to self!), not treated at par with goals scored during the actual match - not even with pentalties awarded during the match. Even if someone scores in a shootout, he wont be credited with having scored a goal - if he nets a penalty during the match he would be. Ergo, Carlos did not score an own-goal; indeed, even if Bellone had hit the net straight, he would have scored but what he scored wouldn't have been a proper goal(*)!

I might have stopped making much sense but can't help adding a bit more: it is actually an error to call the final shootout a 'penalty shootout'. Why? Easy! Because, a shootout happens not because somone hacked down anyone near the goal or made some such serious rule violation. So, it can only be called a 'spot-kick shootout' or just a 'shootout', nothing with 'penalty'. And this might actually explain why shootout goals are not treated as equals to penalties slotted during the match proper.

Again someone might counter-argue, "okay, the shootout penalizes no individual but both teams are actually being penalized for failing to produce a result in the 120 minutes by making them go thru the stress of the shootout!" But that is a very unfair argument. Indeed, two teams may actually go hard and fast at each other and still remain deadlocked in regulation time. For example, as I can myself vouch for, the 1994 final between Brazil and Italy - a draw (and a goalless one at that) decided via a shootout - was quite an intriguing tactical battle between the Brazilian attack and the Italian defence, which kept most viewers engaged right thru; it was certainly one of the better matches among the 7 World Cup finals I have seen.

And finally: Although Benzema is officially not the scorer of that goal against Honduras, Wiki says he has been credited with an 'assist', the scorer being of course, poor Vallederas! Question: Was it an assist or a 'force'??


(*) That could mean the title on top is in error. What we have been analyzing are not "two goals" but "a goal and a shootout scoring shot". We could also say, this post is a tale of 'two goalies'.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

May Rambles


- "a jackfruit falls into a rocky cleft, and the tender honeycomb lies crushed."

- "wispy clouds play upon the cliffs jutting out from the mountain; jackfruits hang from crooked trunks..."

'Cakka', as the jackfruit is known in Malayalam was a hugely loved fruit in these parts even millennia ago. As evidence, see the above samples from the classical Sangam poetry in ancient Tamil. Indeed, even at the most cursory look at Sangam love-songs (arguably the best translations into Malayalam are by N V Krishna Variyar), one can't but be struck by how much loving attention the cakka alone among all our summer fruits receives.

Here is an article on the Jackfruit - just the kind of piece I would be very proud to have written and most probably, couldn't have. Samples:

"Often this tree recalls for me gifted, understated individuals in large families, who barely receive their due, but shoulder on regardless and carve out their own trajectory..."

"... the jackfruit also finds mention around 400 BC in Buddhist and Jain literature. 'Indian Food: A Historical Companion, OUP, 1998, points out that poetry in the Sangam period records the serving of jackfruit to wandering minstrels and a lover compares his beloved to the dainty stalk of the jackfruit."

I myself am not much of cakka-lover and in my childhood, this had marked me out as something of an oddity - those were times when everyone else used to hog 'cakkaculas'. But in recent years, the clear majority of Mallus seem to have developed a 'cold tongue' for this fruit - every summer Kerala gets a bounty of cakkas and the bulk of them are never even plucked. It is not at all uncommon to find jacktrees with scores of untouched fruit on their main trunk barely a few feet above the ground - a sight very reminiscent of the Ephesian Artemis. Come monsoon and the scent of rotting jackfruit fills our countryside compounds; and this happens when everyone is screaming unto the heavens how every fruit and vegetable is obsecenely overpriced!

Whatever our Sangam forebears sang, modern Kerala poets seldom mention the cakka. Despite the absence of the generic 'cakka', sporadic references to 'varikka' (also called 'thenvarikka' = honey-sweet varikka), a strain of jackfruit, still occur in film-songs; 'koozha', another other major variant of the fruit is summarily ignored. Such poetic choices seem primarily to spring from considerations of euphonic/lyrical-sounding qualities of words(*).

My own unenthusiasm for the cakka leaves out none of its strains but I do know a gentleman who eschews the thenvarikka but feasts on koozha-cakka. Here is another link were one can read more about the 'cakka'in general and the varikka-koozha schism in particular.

Update - May 25th 2014: A fruit-vegetable mela has just begun in Cochin. Focusing on the jackfruit, it tries to correct Kerala's 'criminal wastage of cakka'. The show has been named (predictably enough!) the 'then-varikka fest' - not the direct and honest 'cakka fest', not to speak of the 'koozha fest'.


Several years ago, I wrote here on a brief visit to Udayagiri in MP. The post mentioned the giant Varaha carving in one of the caves. While the mention itself was honorable (it had to be since the carving is a famous classic), it was also brief to the point of being pretty much contentless(**). For instance, I failed to note the many hooded serpent being trampled underfoot by the hulking boar-man as he strains to lift Bhudevi - the 'standard' Dashavatara narrative features Varaha slaying the Asura Hiranyaksha but does not feature snakes anywhere.

Some time later, a note here on Thugs devoted gave a lot more lines to the most infamous of them all, a certain Bahram. Among the issues raised there was his religion with a remark that Bahram was a Muslim name.

Yesterday, during a desultory browse, I chanced upon the Wiki article on 'Veretraghna'. Let me quote.

Verethragna descends from an Indo-Iranian god known as *vrtra-g'han- (virtually PIE *wltro-gwhen-) "slayer of the blocker". In Zoroastrian Middle Persian, Verethragna became Warahran, from which Vahram, Vehram, Bahram, Behram and other variants derive.

Verethraghna is sometimes identified as a boar. Boar figures are widespread in Sassanid (Persian, early centuries after Christ) art, appearing in everything from textiles to stucco and in silver ornaments, coins, and seals. Other animal motifs have been found that recall the aspects of Bahram.... The bird motif on Sassanid-era fire altars are also believed to represent Bahram.

... the figure of Verethragna is highly complex (and) parallels have also been drawn between it and (variously) Vedic Indra, Puranic Vishnu,...., Heracles.... Verethragna cognates with Sanskrit word Vritraghna(वृत्राघ्न),which means the slayer of Vritra, in Vedas Indra is frequently praised as slayer of Vritra(the enveloper).Indra is a worshiped in many Hindu sects.

The Wiki article on 'Vritra' says:

In the early Vedic religion, Vritra ... is also a serpent or dragon, the personification of drought and adversary of Indra. Vritra was also known in the Vedas as Ahi ("snake"). He appears as a dragon blocking the course of the rivers and is heroically slain by Indra.

The Wiki article on Verethraghna never mentions the Varaha. But one clearly sees 'Varaha' as cognate to the allgedly Muslim Bahram (a Persian name only brought to India by Muslims). And the many-hooded serpent being subdued by the Udayagiri Varaha could only be Vritra.

Udayagiri caves were excavated around 5th century by which time Vishnu's avatara myths might not have fully crystallized - so there is no Hiranyaksha on view. And the Varaha might well have been as much Indra as Vishnu - the former actually has much stronger claims to being 'Verethraghna' who could, in turn, assume the boar-form; furthermore, religious imagery has traditionally mapped the body of the charging boar to a raincloud, its terrifying tusks to lightning and the pounding of its mighty hooves to thunder - and Indra has been, from the beginning, the god of rain and thunderstorms. In a broader sense, these carvings might mark a stage in the process of the gradual supplanting of Indra by Vishnu as a principal deity. Theirs seems to have been a close-run contest that went on for centuries (the Govardhana episode in the Bhagavatam again shows how Krishna-Vishnu desicively shows Indra who is the boss).

Following a suggestion from Vimal, one could sum up: In 'Animal Farm', two boars fight to the finish to decide who gets to act like God. In Udayagiri, two Gods are caught in a struggle to decide who is the 'true Boar'.

And finally the religious affiliation of thug Bahram remains an unsolved mystery - albeit one that is not much worth probing.


A year or so ago, I wrote here at some length on a very unique name, proudly borne by an artist I had just gotten to know - a certain Mr. Kora Koulik (the latter half pronounced 'Cowlick'). That post had focussed on the sad tragedy of the biblical rebel Korah. The conclusion arrived at was "like Korah, like cowlick - plucky, pesky, diehard rebels both!"

The other day, I saw the story of a certain 'kaulika/koulika' in the Panchatantra. 'Kau' of 'Kaulika' is pronounced 'cow' and the Hindi equivalent of 'Kaulika' is 'Kaulik/ Koulik'.

An online search for 'kaulika' led to the following:

1. Kaula describes a type of Hindu tantrism that probably derives from Kapalika or "cremation ground" asceticism and Kaulika is a practitioner of kaula. (based on Wiki)

2. Monier Williams gives several meanings for 'kaulika': (1) a weaver (2) an adjective derived from 'kula' meaning family/tribe to mean 'pertaining to/ belonging to a (noble) family' and (3) a follower of the 'left-hand' sakta ritual; hence the word can also have the broader meaning: 'heretic'.

Leaving out the 'weaver', one observes: The artist's byname/surname 'Koulik' could mean the Malayalam phrase: 'kutumbathil pirannavan'( = 'hailing from a noble family'). Rather more interestingly, we could quote the Wiki definition: "A Heretic is someone who propounds a heresy; A Heresy is any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs" and make the connection: "Hey, the Korah of Bible was a solid heretic!"

Indeed, Wiki says: "Heresy is distinct from both apostasy, which is the explicit renunciation of one's religion and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion". The Bible never says Korah renounced the faith of the Jews; he only revolted against Moses and Aaron so he was no apostate. Korah certainly was massively irreverent but only towards the custodians of the faith and not towards the faith itself so he was no blasphemer either. Moreover, Martin Luther, who treated the then Pope just the way Korah treated high priest Aaron was in fact branded a heretic and excommunicated. So, Korah certainly was a Kaulik. QED!


Many things about this film are admirable - none more admirable than that it was made by two nearly 25 year olds. While it is no 'Citizen Kane' (made by another 25 year old), 'Good Will..' makes a damn good fist of telling a hard-hitting story: A freakish Mathematical genius, convinced he and he alone decides what to do with his gifts, chooses to (largely) let them go waste. The scene wherein an eminent mathematician, almost in tears and cringing in abject frustration, pleads with the 'Hero' to try and make contributions that measure up to his limitless talent, hit me the hardest.

But I did not like it at all when the film cooked up a back-story of abuse and stuff to explain (and sort of justify) the genius behaving like a screwed up bastard. Indeed, I have seen enough of life (and of geniuses) to know that a genius needs no more reason to behave like a screwed up bastard than the most mediocre of mediocrities (and the latter, most of the time, needs no reason whatever).

5. Gulmohur and the 'Standard'

The other day, I casually picked up a cluster of gulmohur blooms from the footpath and saw something very curious. The Wiki description: Gulmohur flowers are large with four spreading scarlet or orange-red petals up to 8 cm long, and a fifth upright petal called the standard, which is slightly larger and spotted with yellow and white.

This odd fifth petal and its very unique coloration is a feature that had eluded me all these years. And I don't yet know if any other flower has this characteristic.


(*) this connects with the 'thumbi effect' mentioned in the last post - how a none-too-apppealing object acquires a much loved presence in poetry by virtue of a sweet and pithy name. More precisely, what we have with cakka is the opposite effect - a less than sweet name relegating an object to the fringes. One could call this phenomenon the 'cakka effect'; alternatively, with reference to the last post, it could be termed the 'poompatta effect', literally the 'butterfly effect' (the latter phrase of course has a rather different technical meaning in English)!

(**)To quote myself: "The caves and the sculptural decorations are said to date back to the Gupta period (4th-5th century AD) and almost exclusively deal with Hindu themes. The well-known highlight is a colossal relief of Vishnu as Varaha, lifting up the Earth (personified as Bhudevi)".

Thursday, April 10, 2014


"Ravi walked over the ridge; overhead, a million dragonflies sallied forth in the bland sun. Memories of the dead, the dead pining for miraculous reprieves. He walked beneath the canopy of little wings..." - from the Legends of Khasak.

Let's get acquainted with a curious linguistic phenomenon: In Malayalam, the word 'thumbi' means dragonfly(*); 'poompatta' is butterfly. While the latter is a nice enough compound name literally meaning 'flower insect', 'thumbi' is by far the pithier and cuter word. This has led to generations of Keralan children getting them mixed up (**). Subconscious vestiges of this confusion persist for life - generations of poets have written with great fondness for the thumbi "flitting among blossoms" or "swinging from blades of grass" or craved its honey-sweet evanscent life (a very recent instance is a filmy ditty addressed to a solitary thumbi ('ottathumbee...' ).

Needless to say, all this imagery is pure bunkum. The wiki article on dragonflies does not even have the word 'flower'. Instead, it says:

Dragonflies are important predators that eat mosquitoes, and other small insects like flies, bees, ants, wasps, and very rarely butterflies...

The Hindi word for butterfly is the short and sweet 'titli' and there are any number of songs on them (the best known being a quite sweet one from that otherwise insufferable Shah Rukh starrer 'Chennai Express'). And dragonfly appears to have no proper Hindi name except the fabrication: 'vyadh-patang' (= the butcher insect(?)) - and no one writes odes to them.

Wiki has more gritty facts on dragonflies:

Female dragonflies lay eggs in or near water, often on floating or emergent plants. When laying eggs, some species will submerge themselves completely in order to lay their eggs on a good surface. The eggs then hatch into naiads. Most of a dragonfly's life is spent in the naiad form, beneath the water's surface, using extendable jaws to catch other invertebrates (often mosquito larvae) or even vertebrates such as tadpoles and fish. They breathe through gills in their rectum, and can rapidly propel themselves by suddenly expelling water through the anus. Some naiads even hunt on land...

Wiki has a fair bit to say on the cultural associations of dragonflies:

In Europe, dragonflies have often been seen as sinister. Some English vernacular names, such as "devil's darning needle" and "ear cutter", link them with evil or injury. A Romanian folk tale says that the dragonfly was once a horse possessed by the devil. Swedish folklore holds that the devil uses dragonflies to weigh people's souls. The Southern United States term "snake doctor" refers to a folk belief that dragonflies follow snakes around and stitch them back together if they are injured.

As a seasonal symbol in Japan, the dragonfly is associated with summer and early autumn. More generally, dragonflies are symbols of courage, strength, and happiness, and they often appear in art and literature, especially haiku. The love for dragonflies is reflected by traditional (layman's) names for almost all of the 200 species of dragonflies found in and around Japan. Japanese children catch large dragonflies as a game, using a hair with a small pebble tied to each end, which they throw into the air. The dragonfly mistakes the pebbles for prey, gets tangled in the hair, and is dragged to the ground by the weight.

Note: Maybe Appukili, the sole - and relentless - thumbi-catcher of Khasak(***) employs a similar trick to 'lasso' his quarry.

And here is a bit from the Wiki story on the *butterfly*

According to Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn, a butterfly was seen in Japan as the personification of a person's soul; whether they be living, dying, or already dead. One Japanese superstition says that if a butterfly enters your guestroom and perches behind the bamboo screen, the person whom you most love is coming to see you. However, large numbers of butterflies are viewed as bad omens...

Note: I had always thought Khasak's oft-repeated and haunting image of the 'emerald-eyed thumbi' as the memory of a dead person was Vijayan's inspired invention and not the adaptation of Keralan folk-myth. But now, there is the possibility he might borrowed Hearn's version of Japanese tradition. As to whether Vijayan also followed the Keralan poetic habit of bringing in the 'thumbi' to replace the butterfly or made a 'barometer soup(****)' kind of concoction, I am not sure.

Wiki has some more intriguing material on butterflies:

In Chinese culture, two butterflies flying together symbolize love. The Taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, once had a dream about being a butterfly that flew without care about humanity; however; when he awoke and realized that it was just a dream, he thought to himself, "Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?"

...Some people say that when a butterfly lands on you it means good luck. However, in Devonshire, people would traditionally rush around to kill the first butterfly of the year that they see, or else face a year of bad luck. Also, in the Philippines, a lingering black butterfly or moth in the house is taken to mean that someone in the family has died or will soon die.


A hugely popular Malayalam film from the 1980's was 'thoovanathumbikal', literally 'thumbies in the gentle shower of rain'. Bluntly put, it is the story a guy whose path crosses and gets tangled with those of two beautiful and strong girls. Rains - especially night showers - are a brilliantly employed motif in the narrative. But one could well ask: what is the connection between the thumbi and rains?

At 'Wiki Answers', someone has asked: "When dragonflies come out, does it mean it will rain?" The answer given is a curt (and not very illuminating) "Yes". And then, somewhere else, one sees: "The globe skimmer is one of several dragonfly species known to develop in temporary freshwater pools. Forced to follow the rains that replenish their breeding sites, the globe skimmer set a new insect world record when a biologist documented its 11,000 mile trip between India and Africa." So, rains do have something to do with the love-life of at least some thumbies.

Note: Ratheesh told me there is another class of insects similar to the dragonfly called damselflies in English and 'pachathumbi'( green thumbi) in Malayalam. As I just checked, 'Khasak' does mention the 'pachathumbi' but makes no serious distinction between it and the dragon; which is just as well, for despite being considerably more photogenic (that should explain their English name), green thumbies too are violent carnivores (Wiki).

Tailpiece: Further research on the etymology of 'dragonfly' or 'thumbi' could unearth more interesting facts. But this post is already quite long!


(*)I choose 'thumbi' over 'thumpi' although many would say the latter is the more accurate transliteration. The truth is the precise Malayalam consonant is 'simbly' too nuanced to be captured by either 'p' or 'b'.

(**)I recall an event from when I was about five. A smart and gifted student in our class (he was probably called Kishore; or maybe his name Balasubramaian; or maybe both were his names ... I am not sure!) drew a brightly colored picture of a butterfly in his notebook. I remarked: "Nice thumbi!" and he smilingly corrected me (thanks, old chap, wherever you now are!): "No, no, it is not a thumbi, it is a poompatta!"

(***)"Each thumbi is the memory of a dead village elder so no children of Khasak would catch them. An exception was Appukili; but then, he was a cretin and knew previous lives - and lives to come..."

(****)Perelman's 'Physics for entertainment' analyzes a travel note by Mark Twain. While on a trek in the mountains, the writer boils a barometer with some soup to estimate the altitude. Perelman points out a scientific error: he should have dipped a *thermometer* into the boiling soup instead!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Fragments, again


The Container Terminal, such a great looker especially when lit up with sodium lamps at dusk, has remained just that - a looker. Barely a ship berths, hardly a few containers change hands; and I am told the installation saw only 15 working days over the last two months due to labor unrest. Global players with stakes in competitor ports in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in India will continue to pay off the union leaders and their handlers and the workers at Vallarpadam will continue to get their salaries from the State for doing precious little. The Cochin Port Trust has been running up huge losses but the State Govt will keep it afloat with subsidies. There has been and of course will be plenty of wistful talk of how great it would be for Kochi if everyone plays fair and the terminal takes off - "Singapore became so rich just due to its port; same with Hong Kong. if only...". But no one will overly bother about distant prospects of great general prosperity as long as personal cash needs and greeds of the present - and the foreseeable future - are adequately met. And if the Government money goes down the drains,... it is our money but only in a very remote and round-about way so who really cares?

Am reminded of a bit of dialog from an Amar Chitra Katha. In the late 1920's. Some of our brave revolutionaries are planning armed attacks on the Brit imperialists (I quote from memory):

Azad: "Comrades, we need funds for our activities. What do we do?"

Roshan Singh: "There is only one way. Let's rob the rich!"

Bismil: "No, dacoity against the rich will make us unpopular with the masses. Instead, let's loot the government. No individual Indian will then feel a loss and.... So, on (date) we shall board the Lucknow mail at Kakori...."


Saw the somewhat controversial Kurosawa film 'Rhapsody in August' on an elderly 'Hibakusha' (a word that deserves a serious lookup at least at Wiki), constantly haunted by the memory of the Nuke attack on Nagasaki. I quote from Wiki:

Some critics made much of the fact that the film centered on the depiction of the atomic bombing as a war crime while omitting details of Japanese war crimes in the Pacific War. ... At the Tokyo Film Festival, critics of Japanese militarism said Kurosawa had ignored the historical facts leading up to the bomb. Japanese cultural critic Inuhiko Yomota commented:

"Many critics, myself included, thought Kurosawa chauvinistic in his portrayal of the Japanese as victims of the war, while ignoring the brutal actions of the Japanese and whitewashing them with cheap humanist sentiment. "

I think this criticism of the film has some serious substance. The near-perpetual sheeplishly apologetic look on the face of Richard Gere, playing an American visitor, might have really rankled many (not only Americans) who saw the film especially those who know that Japan's conduct during the Second World War often trumped even the Nazis' in unprovoked brutality.

But there is another matter that viewing 'Rhapsody' has brought up. I have felt for long that Nagasaki - decoupled from its usual hyphenation with Hiroshima - was not an act of war but a colossal war crime perpetrated by the American leadership. Long ago, I even wrote here a post titled the 'Fat Man' indicating how Nagasaki matters in a way fundamentally different from how Hiroshima matters for precisely this reason. Some lines from tht old post

Nagasaki is very much a 'poorer cousin', remembered only in conjunction with Hiroshima. Every year, one sees photos of the nuked-out Townhall of Hiroshima in the papers; and most public acts remembering the tragedy happen on August 6th... Even if one were to admit that the nuclear attack indeed ... quickly ended the war (even this is not all clear since Japan had already been beaten hollow!), questions remain: Was the second nuke attack really essential? Was not the launch of the 'Fat Man', the bomb that killed a hundred thousand people in Nagasaki, an act independent of the Hiroshima bombing, one of (immensely large-scale) military terrorism, rather than merely a PART of a morally justified (however perversely so) attempt to bring peace??

Post-Rhapsody, I searched again and found an article by Greg Mitchell. He has provided just the kind of thorough and convincing (and very pugnacious) take on this issue that one wished for: See this page:

Over to Mitchell:

Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, even though it is one of only two cities in the world to "meet the atomic bomb," as some of the survivors of that experience, 68 years ago this week, put it. It remains the Second City, and "Fat Man" the forgotten bomb. No one in America ever wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour. "We are an asterisk," Shinji Takahashi, a sociologist in Nagasaki, once told me, with a bitter smile. "The inferior A-Bomb city."

Yet, in many ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-Bomb city, the city with perhaps the most meaning for us today. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.

And then there's this. "The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable," Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, once observed, "but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki" -- which he labeled a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who experienced the firebombing of Dresden at close hand, said much the same thing. "The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki," he once said. "Not of Hiroshima, which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely blowing away yellow men, women, and children. I'm glad I'm not a scientist because I'd feel so guilty now."

About the cinematic merits of 'Rhapsody': it is nowhere near 'Throne of Blood' or other Kurosawa masterpieces, but some passages are poignant reminders of the terrible fate that befell the thriving city of Nagasaki. And, let me note, the film never mentions the word 'Hiroshima'.

Note: In my 'Fat Man' post, I had vaguely recalled "a strangely haunting French movie on how the destinies of Neverre (a town in France) and Hiroshima get entwined". Thanks to Mitchell, one knows this film was 'Hiroshima mon amour' by Alain Resnais who also made the great documentary 'Night and Fog'. Sad coincidence: Resnais passed away only a few days ago.

Remembering the Bard at Kaviyur:

Last weekend I made a long bus journey to far away Kaviyur temple intending to look again at the wood carvings there.

But what I want to record from that visit is a multi-tiered lamp pillar ('deepastambham') that stands in front of the temple. Made of bronze and about a dozen feet tall, the pillar did not look to be of more than acceptable workmanship; but it had the most striking coat of gloriously green patina I can remember seeing anywhere. And its base features an inscription on its getting set up by a donor around 2 centuries ago. The lettering and spelling therein are in spectacularly bad Malayalam - eg: the word 'pratishtha' has been written 'pradishta'.

But the 'quality' of the language need not surprise us too much - Mal circa 1800 might well have been at the same stage of development as English was in queen Elizabeth's (the first, not the present) times. Let me quote a bit from Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare.

"(In those days) Spelling was luxuriantly variable, too. You could write “St Paul’s” or “St Powles” and no one seemed to notice or care. Gracechurch Street was sometimes “Gracious Steet,” sometimes “Grass Street”; Stratford-upon-Avon became at times “Stratford upon Haven.” People could be extraordinarily casual even with their own names. Christopher Marlowe signed himself “Cristofer Marley” in his one surviving autograph and was registered at Cambridge as “Christopher Marlen.” Elsewhere he is recorded as “Morley” and “Merlin,” among others. In like manner the impresario Philip Henslowe indifferently wrote “Henslowe” or “Hensley” when signing his name, and others made it Hinshley, Hinchlow, Hensclow, Hynchlowes, Inclow, Hinchloe, and a half dozen more. More than eighty spellings of Shakespeare’s name have been recorded, from “Shappere” to “Shaxberd.” (It is perhaps worth noting that the spelling we all use is not the one endorsed by the Oxford English Dictionary, which prefers “Shakspere.”) Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page."

Bryson also tells us, the Bard's 'marriage bond' (that has miraculously survived to the present) spells 'Anne Hathaway' correctly (whatever correct means!) but her husband's name has been given as 'Shagspere'.

Note: At the gates of the Jewish cemetery in Forth Cochin is another Malayalam inscription from around 1890. Its lettering is an improvement over the Kaviyur stambham but the text has quaint colloquialisms. For example, the phrase "his late father" has been written 'angerude marichupoya appan' instead of the modern standard 'addehathinte yasasshareenaya pithavu'.