ANAMIKA

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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

'Thumbi'

"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.

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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!

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(*)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

Vallarpadam:

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...."

Nagasaki:

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 does have 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 that clear since Japan had 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: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-mitchell/after-hiroshima-truman-fa_b_3727286.html

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 of its 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". Just found that the film 'was 'Hiroshima mon amour' by Alain Resnais who also made the great documentary 'Night and Fog' and that 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'.

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Pageant of Divinities

I just discovered a quaint volume: 'South Indian Images of Gods and Goddesses' by H. Krishna Sastri. Despite the staid title, grainy pictures and old-style descriptive passages (year of publication: 1916), the book is a treasure trove of curious information on how ancient and medieval India visualized and moulded its divinities. I quote some short passages (with minimal editing and a few paranthetical remarks) - a tiny fraction of Sastry's package.

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Vaikuntha Narayana: Vishnu comfortably enthroned on the serpent couch is named Vaikuntha Narayana. His left leg is stretched down and the right is bent at the knee.; the left hand rests on his knee and the right rests carelessly thrown back upon the snake. ... (the hood of the snake forms a regal parasol for the God. This fits almost perfectly, the main idol of the Tripunithura temple. Sastry shows us an image from Namakkal, Tamil Nadu).

Yogeswara Vishnu: Vishnu, four-armed seated, in a meditative posture. (This form is echoed by the main idol at Badrinath - and I once reported seeing another specimen at Koothattukulam).

Sastry goes on to describe "another image of probably Yogeswara again - but seated on a snake couch (with the hood-parasol) and bathed by two goddesses with pots in their hands" (this latter image is a wall sculpture from Kumbakonam. Indeed, this image looks more like a variant on the Vaikuntha Narayana).

Bhringi was a fervent devotee of Siva. He was so exclusive in his devotion that he ignored goddess Shakti, who is part and parcel of Siva. Bhringi would do a pradakshina of only the Lord and leave the latter out. To test his faith, Siva assumed the half-female 'Ardhanari' form. But the fanatical Bhringi turned himself into a bee, bored into Ardhanari's body along its medial line and continued to go around the Siva half. Enraged, Shakti cursed him with loss of flesh and blood and Bhringi collapsed in a sad heap of skin and bones. Siva generously granted him a third leg so he could support himself (Note: As I just discovered online, Bhringi is often shown as an attendant figure in sculptures. For example, he appears as a tiny three-legged dancer in one corner of the magnificent Nataraja group on the wall of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple).

Viswakarma is, along with Surya and Dattatreya, a divinity that combines the attributes of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Viswakarma has 10 hands - since he has to hold the weapons etc. of all three. In keeping with his status as the divine architect, he also carries a measuring rod. Viswakarma rides an elephant and his body is besmeared with ashes.

Agni, the fire god, appears in icons as an old man - he is the oldest of the gods. Agni has a red body, two heads, six eyes, seven arms, seven tongues, four horns and three legs, .... braided hair, red garments and a big belly(*)... and rides a ram (for good measure, Sastry reproduces a sculptural image of Agni from Chidambaram!).

Jwaradeva of the Saiva myths is supposed to have destroyed Bhasmasura. He has three legs, three heads, six arms, nine eyes, and (!) a dejected appearance (Sastry shows us an image from Bhavani, Coimbatore which answers to this description and also puts this picture on the cover of the volume).

Ekapada Trimurti: Vishnu and Brahma, with worshipfully folded hands, emerge from the body of Siva at his waist. The three deities share three legs @ one leg per deity with Siva's leg acting as the sole support (Sastry shows an image from Tiruvanaikkaval and tells us this unique form might be a variant on 'Ajaikapada', another one-legged Saiva deity - I have recorded seeing a specimen at the Indian Museum, Calcutta).

Sastry has some very esoteric information on the planets (grahas) - for example, Surya may be represented with three heads or one. And planets have caste - Brihaspati(Jupiter) and Sukra(Venus) are Brahmin, Kuja(Mars) is Kshatriya (so is Earth, his mother), Chandra (Moon) and Budha (Mercury) are Vaisyas and Saturn(Shani), Rahu and Ketu are Sudra. As for Surya, texts are not unanimous - some say he is Brahmin, some say Kshatriya!

Even more remarkable than all those gods is the book's roster of Goddesses. Some goddesses are hideous and fearsome (for example, Twarita (wears a garment of sewn leaves and a garland of ganja seeds), Vajraprastarini (sits on a lotus in a boat of blood afloat in a sea of blood), Surapriya (accompanied by a paunchy fat man named Madhukara, she has a pot of wine and staff placed next to her), (!)Srividyadevi (has fierce fangs, sits on a serpent couch and wears necklaces of human bones).....). Some are benign and benevolent - Annapurna holds a jewelled vessel with food and a ladle to distribute the same, Bhuvaneswari has a simling face and bears a pot of gems and a red lotus, and Kurukulla (what a name!) rides a boat of gems and holds a gem-studded paddle - and is joyfully drunk on wine...(**)

The piece de resistance:

Varuni: accompanied by a troop of Saktis, this kindly goddess rides a gem-studded boat. Varuni is bright as the Sun .... decorates her tresses with parijata flowers and holds a pitcher of wine, a lotus and a piece of cooked meat(***). And.... she is also referred to as the "goddess of boats" and among her other names are 'Sudhamalini' and 'Amriteswari'!

Tailpiece: At least as great a surprise as any gathered from the book awaited me today at office. I triumphantly asked a colleague "heard of the mythological character Bhringi?", only to be kayoed by the counterquestion: "You mean that three legged fellow who drilled a hole thru Ardhanariswara's belly?"

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(*)MacDonnel's 'Vedic Reader'says: "(In RigVeda,) Agni's anthropomorphism is only rudimentary and mainly connected with the sacrificial aspect of fire. He is butter-backed, flame-haired and has a tawny beard, sharp jaws and golden teeth. With his tongue, the gods eat the oblation. With a burning head, he faces all directions..."

(**)Sastry makes a broad judgmental remark about these Sakti-Goddesses: "The characteristic feature of the worship of Saktis is the association with them of mystical charms, or geometrical figures called chakras, yantras or pithas with conventional and often mystic incantationsl and solemn ceremonials, which make no appeal to the gentler feelings of human nature."

(***)A traditional(?) Malayalam couplet laments the sunset: "Dallying with Varuni brought about the decline and fall of Surya!" - Varuni is no goddess in this context but can mean any of the direction West, Wine or Woman.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Crossing into 2014

Building Vocabulary:

I know a certain institution in Kerala that prominently displays a 'Word of the day'. Those in charge of picking suitable words had a recent windfall - three interesting words in a single sentence. Giving the sentence itself would be superfluous; the words were "lacerate (verb)", "rail (verb)" and above all, "recuse (verb)"

The following remark assumes a minimal familiarity with Greek alphabets - especially, the lower case ones; one also needs to switch to an Arabic way of seeing things - right-to-left - and back.

Tarun Tejpal has been the ultimate alpha male of Indian media-dom for quite a long while - the ponytail did not matter either way. Now, by a curious twist of fate, one hears, some medical folks in Goa were busy checking whether the gentleman is a rho male or a sigma male. Indications have been that the result of the investigation was "neither rho nor sigma but SIX!"

Aside: the six there is an Arabic numeral but it can be linked to something very Grecian - herms.

Giving it back to the Dutch:

Sometime back, I wrote lengthily about how contacts with the Dutch have enriched Kerala. And here is a way Kerala can repay a bit of that debt.

I have been trying to relearn the basics of Operating Systems. Semaphores, introduced by the Dutch Master Edsger Dikstra, is one concept I found particularly intriguing.

"Semaphores are devices to achieve signaling between concurrently executing client and server processes.... Each semaphore comes with two operations: to acquire a semaphore, one issues a 'P' operation on that semaphore and to release it, you issue a V...."

Now why 'V' and 'P'? This apparently strange notation has caused a lot of confusion among students. Here is what Wiki says:

The canonical names V and P come from the initials of Dutch words. V stands for verhogen ("increase"). Several explanations have been offered for P, including proberen for "to test" or "to try,"[3] passeren for "pass," and pakken for "grab." However, Dijkstra wrote that he intended P to stand for the portmanteau prolaag,[4] short for probeer te verlagen, literally "try to reduce," or to parallel the terms used in the other case, "try to decrease."[5][6][7] This confusion stems from the fact that the words for increase and decrease both begin with the letter V in Dutch, and the words spelled out in full would be impossibly confusing for those not familiar with the Dutch language.

Leaving the techinicalese aside, a quick invocation of God's Own Language can make things crystal-clear. P = "pidi" (grab!). and V = "vidu" (let go!)

What was more ridiculously over-the-top?

Was it Tendulkar's Bharat Ratna and his farewell pageant? Or is it the 2500 crore Patel statue?

A few days back, I saw the Kerala Mens' Volleyball team start off on a journey to Moradabad to participate in the Nationals. The team included several internationals. And they had to travel by Second Class Sleeper - a bunch of six-three to six-six athletes who have played for the country, nothing less, that too against World-level opposition (not just former British colonies) having to squeeze onto six foot berths for two successive near-freezing nights. And recently, when the name of Tom Joseph, who has been India's best volleyball player for a while, was proposed for the Arjuna Award, it was reported, a certain cricketing bigwig moneybag or two walked out of the meeting in protest.

The following statement at rediff sums up 2013 for Indian Cricket: "On the positive side, it was good that an ad hoc series against the West Indies was organised to give a farewell to Tendulkar. The Master Blaster deserved to sign off on a winning note. A (proper) trip to South Africa would have ensured otherwise."

Yesterday, I saw huge chunks of something pure white and glistening afloat on a canal near Vadodara. Lit by a glorious December sunset, they reminded me of photos of the Magellan strait and its icebergs. But the Vadodara chunks were not of ice but of some chemical foam released by the city's countless factories. The same city, as has every city in Gujarat, kilometer upon filthy, plastic-strewn kilometer of rail-track-side industrial slums. And the regime that prides itself on this kind of 'development' is now sold on reducing the Sardar to a mere effigy - albeit a 600 foot one; the very idea makes the Congi tradition of naming any piece of state property anywhere in the country after the dynasty or Behnji's marble elephant herds or the Shivsena-led renaming spree in Maharashtra seem like child's play.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Traveling with SK

This year marks the Birth Centennary of S K Pottekkatt, the doyen of Malayalam Travel Writing.

As a tribute, I present several portions of his 'Tiruvitankur Yatra' - the account of a trip to Southern Kerala. The year was 1938 and SK was then a confident and curious young man of 25. Life in Kerala in those long gone days was as narrow and provincial as it was impoverished - everyone and every institution (including shops and eateries) was branded primarily and ultimately by community. But those were also more easy-paced, fundamentally less cluttered times (whether they were in any way more innocent to boot is moot). Let us suspend the broad judgements; over to SK!

The log for June 5th 1938 begins:

The first day in Trichur - my first ever visit here. As I walk the unfamiliar streets, there is a distinct unease within, bordering on fear. This is why:

Five-six years back, a certain mill worker by name Kumaran, who I used to know well, left Calicut for Trichur looking for work. In just two days, he got back, pennyless, clothes torn and tattered, luggage and belongings gone. And he would not answer any queries and would merely stare back. His family sent someone to take him home. It was months before he could step out and talk properly and then he narrated what had happened: "Shortly after I got off the train at Trichur, I was walking up a street searching for lodgings; then, a certain 'ladies' - she was good looking and cultured - called me over to the roadside and invited me to a nearby house for tea. I went in and took tea with her and the next thing I remember is roaming aimlessly near the station without a penny in my pocket and feeling groggy and faint. I somehow got on the next northbound train!"

By late evening the same day, the fears had dissipated sufficiently for SK to make the following confident entry in his diary:

"Trichur is a good looking town that looks even better at night. The womenfolk are very attractive both in appearance and attire. However, morals are slack. Prostitution flourishes, catering to all classes of clients. Many of the rickshaw pullers are pimps.

Temples here are elegant and beautiful and very well maintained. An air of profound devotion permeates them.

The zoo-museum is worth a look. Snakes of all types are on display behind glass walls."


SK pauses to give a brief sketch of Dr. Kutty Moosa, who played host to him at Trichur:

Dr. Kutty Moosa is short, dark and sickly and his head is shaped like a little coconut. His teeth are sharp and widely spaced and when he speaks or grins, they appear likely to spill out and fall off.

Dr. Moosa had set up practice near the Panniyankara Hospital in Calicut. There were doubts as to whether he really held a medical degree of any kind but he had the unmistakeable gift of the gab and knew how to inveigle his way into the trusted circles of VIPs. Among those to whom he was personal physician by appointment was the Raja of Kadathanad.

One fine day he disappeared from Calicut. Then someone got a letter from him from some North Indian town - he was now court physician at some wealthy Nawab's palace.

Years later, in 1944, I unexpectedly ran into Dr. Kutty Moosa in Bombay. He was then a compounder with a small-time chemist near the Red Light area.


On June 6th 1938, SK took a bus to Ernakulam. The journey lasts 5 hours (more than thrice what it takes today). I leave out details of his stay in Cochin but mention must be made that a sumptuous meal for three from a 'Muslim Hotel' costs him 11 annas (66 paise).

In what follows the paranthetical remarks are mine.

June 8th: Our boat for Alleppey left Ernakulam at 3 pm. It was a pleasant trip thru the vast and placid expanse of the Vembanad lake. I became friends with a fellow traveler named Divakaran Pillai; he was going home on leave.

Around sunset, it rained for a while. At the border station of Arookkutty, we paused to convert our British Indian currency into Travancore state Chakrams and kaasus. The exchange involved some complex arithmetic and Divakaran helped me out - a chakram is 7 British Indian paise. A British Rupee is 28 chakrams and a half.

Moonlight spread over the backwaters. There was a half-hour halt at Vaikom. Yet another new acquaintance was made - an Ezhava (his caste) by name Krishnan. An impoverished laborer of about forty, he was going to Alleppey to look for work. Krishnan's pockets were empty except for the boat ticket.

Alleppey was reached at 10 in the evening (a whopping 7 hours for a sixty kilometer journey!). Krishnan and I walked to a Nair hotel (note the caste stamp) half a mile away with Krishnan carrying my suitcase. But they were about to close. Krishnan then checked a couple more of places and we walked back to the Boat jetty and finally found another Nair eatery which was mercifully open. Divakaran Pillai too landed up and the three of us ate. I paid for everyone.

We slept out the night on the bug-infested benches in the boat jetty. The incessant hum of Mosquitoes made things horrible. We got up at 4 am and walked to a nearby Nair hotel to eat breakfast. I paid for Krishnan. Divakaran bade us farewell and left for his home he said lay a mile away (wonder why he stayed overnight with SK in that waiting shed).

We went to take a look at Alleppey town, Krishnan again acting as porter. We were suddenly halted by some cops. They were big and tough and mustachioed and their uniforms prominently displayed the 'shankhu mudra' - the Conch insignia of the princely state of Travancore.

"Where are you headed?!" They barked at us.

I answered them politely. But they were in no mood to let us go.

"What have you got in your suitcase? How much dough have you stashed away there?"

"There is no money"

"Then what are you lugging around in it?"

They made us open the suitcase and checked it with rough thoroughness.

"Hmm!" They finally growled reluctantly. We could now proceed.

Krishnan left me at the boat jetty and set off on his job hunt.

The boat for Kollam left at 9 am. I soom struck a conversation with a fellow traveler. His name was Francis.

"I used to work in Africa. A year back, I lost the job and had to come back. Then I went to Bombay to find work but the search failed. I owed my lodge keeper there a lot of money so I left my suitcase and stuff with him as security, borrowed some money and left for home in Travancore. At home is wife and five children. They do not know yet I am coming back. I have but 5 annas left on me."

We stopped at Arattupuzha for lunch. Here something curious happened.

After the meal, I got up to wash my hands. The eatery manager ordered me gruffly to pick up and throw away the leaf-plate I had left on the table. I refused - have never had to do so before. Before an argument erupted, I dumped 3 chakrams - the bill - on the cash desk and hurriedly walked off and jumped on the boat but I could hear him swearing at me and threatening me with dire consequences on my return trip.

By sundown, we were at Kollam (9 hours for 60 kilometers)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Odd Curiosities

1. A bit from N.S. Madhavan's notes from Cuba, referring to Tomas Alia's film 'Chocolate and Strawberry'(1995).

"Diego, the protagonist, is an intellectual. He first appears before David, a young Communist, at an ice cream parlor. When Diego asks for strawberry flavor, David suspects him of being gay - since he knew 'real' men are supposed to choose chocolate! Homosexuality was a crime in Communist Cuba till only a few years back. However, David generously decides not to report Diego to the authorities."

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2. Remembering 'Viking'

Long ago, in the 1970s, when America's Viking spacecraft touched down on Mars, it was a big event even in the then backwater of Kerala. The picture of Viking sitting pretty on the very red and rocky Martian landscape was everywhere; it graced even the cover of the local Sarkari Physics textbooks for several years thereafter. Now, half a life later, when India is just taking her first unsure steps towards getting a bit of gadgetry to fly all the way to Mars, it has become as big a media event as Viking then was.

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3. Every highschooler in Kerala has heard about the 'Tarisapalli Copper plate', an ancient title deed ('pattayam')handed out by a 9th century Keralan chieftain to a Christian colony called Tarisapalli. Recently, a remarkable volume on this very remarkable document has been brought out by historians Raghava Warier and Kesavan Veluthatt. To give just an example of how little is known about how things were in these parts a millennium and some ago:

The word 'Manigramam', featured more than once on the copper plate, is widely believed to be a guild of merchants who had something to do with the Tarisapalli colony. But what type of merchants? The answers proposed by various experts over the last two centuries include: "dealers in precious stones"( from the Sanskrit 'mani' meaning gem), "Manichean immigrants from the middle east", "A sect of Christians 'corrupted' by the Saivite saint Manikkavachakar (the mani connection there) and lapsed into Hinduism", "A subsect of Sudras who became christian and so were looked down by other Hindus" and so forth...

Even the name 'Tarisapalli' appears to have had nothing to do with 'Teresa'. A derivation proposed recently traces 'tarisa' to the mid-eastern word 'tarsak', meaning 'fear'. 'Tarisa' could imply 'the fear of God' and so would refer to a group of devout Christians, living in fear of the true God - sort of an oriental precedent to members of the 'Religious Society of Friends' receiving the epithet (over generations, it became more of a 'moniker' than an epithet) 'quakers' when they exhorted others to "tremble at the word of the Lord"!

There ought to be many more such volumes on our ancient inscriptions.

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4. A member of a voluntary organization that went to clean up Sabarimala ahead of the forthcoming pilgrimage season said to me: "As we expected, the whole place was a rubbish tip. New, unnamed hills had come up around the temple, all piles of compacted garbage. But the pits was the valley. The Pampa river had about a foot of water and was clogged by ton upon slimy ton of rotting clothes. Some years back, some pilgrim came up with the bright idea that discarding one's clothing here is an act of profound religious merit - the more one strips down, the purer one gets. And the idea appears to have really gone viral. Now many chaps simply jump into the river and emerge, totally sanctified, like Naga Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela! And it is poor us who now have to fish out their stinking mess - everything from dhoties to you know what!"

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5. A recent newspaper story:

A 32-year-old man from Bangalore quit his job as he felt that his employers were paying him too much money. This guilt of being 'overpaid' led him to depression - a condition psychiatrists term schizoaffective psychosis or chaotic thought process. A psychiatrist commented: "Stress triggers this condition in certain individuals. It is because of a dispute between unlimited ambitions and limited capabilities. It could be also because of certain biochemical changes that occur in the brain. Their discipline puts them in such a state of mind that even if they make a small mistake, they think they have committed an unpardonable sin and have to punish themselves for the consequences. They tend to develop an inferiority complex..."

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6a. Kerala Communists have recently been seen appropriating religious symbols and religious imagery, things they used to anathematize not long back. During the 'chain of fire' agitation, a symbolic act of protest against fuel price hikes, communist cadres set up rustic owens on roadsides and cooked kanji - very much a throwback to Southern Kerala's 'pongala' ritual as many observers joked. Their more recent attempts to disrupt Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's much-hyped public outreach functions included slogan shouting cadres blocking the path of the CM's car and beating the vehicle with sticks - an act with echoes of how frenzied devotees ritually defile the temple at Kodungalloor during the Bharani festival. The latter ritual is called 'kaavu theendal' so the new mode of commie protest can be called 'kaaru theendal'.

Communist Leader Pinarayi Vijayan has been acquited in a corruption case; celebratory boards all over our city declare: "Comrade Pinarayi, you are now purified by Fire (agnishuddhi), now lead us in a victorious Ashwamedham (a Vedic horse sacrifice)!"

6b: At Kannur, someone threw a stone at Chandy's car. It allegedly broke thru one of the thick car windows, hit the CM smack on the chest and bounced off with enough momentum to break thru yet another window and shoot out. The only similar episode one can recall is from the Ramayana. I quote from Mali's retelling of the epic for children:

"With all his force, Sugriva hurled a huge boulder at the advancing Kumbhakarna. The giant parried the deadly projectile with his chest; then, with a single thrust of his huge lance, he knocked out Sugriva...."

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7. There is a strange fad afoot in Malayalam filmdom called New Age. The recent '24 kaatham North' is said by many active film-goers to be quite representative of this genre. Indeed, the film's first half is packed with all the usual New Age tropes - a geeky, maladjusted IT professional, occasional snatches of English dialog and open use of cusswords... But the film claims to be more than New Age and is being marketed as appealing across generations. Sure enough, its latter half exhumes and mercilessly overcooks one of the most rotten Mallu film cliches - the well-read, overtly secular, stoic, do-gooder Communist from north Malabar; suitably enough, the part has been played out with sickening repetitiveness by veteran actor Nedumudi Venu.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Onam - Looking Back at Kolkata

Onam came (and aye, it's also gone). Heavy rains have peristed and many of our rivers are still in unseasonal spate. A wall collapsed in our alley and these days, I wake up hearing loud talk in Bengali as migrant laborers work to rebuild it.

Having precious little to do, I wandered the streets of Cochin. In one of the few bookshops that had stayed open, I chanced upon the poem 'Hooghly' by Ayyappa Panicker (the poem was written in 1978; Panicker perhaps witnessed the 'Flood of 78' that hit Bengal).

A few random lines in loose translation ...

Hooghly, you are no river but the Ocean, the eon-ending Deluge.
You are the debris of shanties,
You are the silenced dogs and sated cats and bloated cattle
And the Refugees who slept on pavements and never woke,
You Hooghly, are the Promise of the final Truth, the embrace of Darkness
.....
Howrah groans, weighed down by rusting chains;
Hooghly struggles painfully under the squeezing straddle of iron bridges,...
Past the sad stink of gangrene
....
And then, from a far-off land blessed by both Monsoons, came a Wayfarer,
A forlorn wayfarer searching for a way lost - forever;
And of what he muttered to Time, barely a trace remains..."