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

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 with my knuckles and it produced a 'donnng!' 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 securing 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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Strike and a Bardism

The slave revolt shook Rome to its foundations. The brutal empire deployed the cream of its army under its most ruthless general Licinus Crassus.... and in a vicious battle fought at night against a regiment personally led by Crassus, Spartacus was killed. Without his leadership, the rebels scattered and were slaughtered to a man. Such was the tragic end to the noblest and purest revolution in the whole of Human history.... The struggle to achieve a just and happy world without haves and have-nots continues to this day. And in the hearts of those brave men and women engaged in that struggle, the spirit of Spartacus shall live on.

That was from a volume on 'Spartacus' brought out in Malayalam back in 1979 for the consumption of primary schoolers(*)

Here, we recover a more modest narrative - an eyewitness account of a student agitation from a long time ago. The narrator: a young techie who had taken a break from the IT industry to teach at a newly started 'Self-Financing' engineering college in Kerala. Note: dozens of such colleges opened across the state in 2002 when the Government relaxed some laws. The college in this narrative is now a 'leading' institution and shall not be named. The techie turned lecturer too will remain anonymous. Over to him.


I joined **** college on its very inaugural day in late 2002. From the outset, I knew I won't be able to stay very long. The lecturers were a rabidly exploited lot. Some of the rules weren't even Draconian. To give an example: there was no casual leave and if someone had to be absent for a day for any reason - ill-health, bereavement, whatever - he would be summarily fined 1/20th of his monthly salary. Overseeing the repression was a so-called Director-Academic, an 'eminent retired academician' in his sixties whose main job seemed to be to make sure the staff were kept under constant pressure. He had no teaching to do and generally floated around the place 'ensuring discipline and performance'. In hindsight, his primary focus was on getting rid of some of the younger teachers - that included me - so that he could bring in his old chums who were about to retire from state-run colleges. His pet strategy was to shout at and otherwise ill-treat the younger lecturers in front of students; at least twice he publicly read me the riot act for letting students go out of the class room to drink water (I bit my teeth hard and put up with the crap). Ah, yes, the students, there were just about 200 of them. Just out of school, they were a confused lot, somewhat overawed by being first year students at a professional college. And there were no seniors to put them through their paces...

It took but about a couple of months for matters to come to a head. One mid-morning two youngsters came up to me saying they had just been suspended by the director and told to bring their parents from home. One of them had been 'caught' talking to a girl in the college lobby and the other trying to borrow a pen from another girl.

I asked them "Did you explain your side of the story?".

One of them said: "No, he kept shouting at us. "I wont tolerate indiscipline!", "This no place for you to flirt around!" and so on"

"About time someone told the old one this college is not his father-in-law's property!" muttered the other student.

"Relax guys! Don't get angry. It doesn't help." I mumbled..." Talk to your parents..."

"Look here Sir!" they were on fire. "our parents are paying big money to educate us; and some of it goes as that old bugger's wages!" and they stormed off.

When I got back from lunch, every single student from the college was sitting silently on the steps of the main building. I approached them with some curiosity when a couple of them came forward running and said: "Sir, Its a strike! We are protesting the suspensions!"

I was dismayed: "Guys, don't strike and all. you might get into big trouble..."

- "Don't you worry about us. We need the old .... to be straightened out!"

- "Don't say such things. Just get back to your class rooms"

- "No way sir! And you teachers please stay out of this. We don't want you to be victimized!"

I shrugged and slunk away.

For the rest of the afternoon, we watched from our office window as some of the local trustees managing the place approached the students and argued vigorously with them. There was plenty of finger wagging. No classes were held. The director wasn't to be seen. Later, some of us lecturers got to meet up with some student 'leaders'.

"The chief (of the trust owning the college) will come visiting tomorrow" they said. "we need to make him understand the situation!"

A colleague of mine suggested:"You guys write up whatever issues you have - make it very polite, please - and submit it to the chief. And if there is any discussion, show respect!"

"Sure sir. We only want the suspensions to be revoked and for the director to behave better with us and with you people, the lecturers!"

I said: "Hello, don't worry about the lecturers. Please focus on *your* issues!"

"We will see Sir! But we don't like it when he screams at you people in public!"


Next morning, the students were seen standing in tense groups in front of the main building. We lecturers had just got together in our office when the Chief marched in. "You know what happened? The whole of yesterday night, the parents of these poor and silly students were calling me up and apologizing... "My son is just a teenager Sir. Please pardon him. He wont ever get into politics; he was persuaded, tricked into joining this stupid protest by some lecturers!...." So, you fellows just note. I know you, you and you (pointing at some of us in individually) are behind this. Some of the parents even named you and ... you and asked me to get rid of such vermin, ungrateful scum! Eating up our money and biting the hand that feeds you... Okay, quick march and ask the students to assemble. Let me meet them all. And you... and you... just run along and pull some chairs and tables. You ought to be treated like coolies!" and he stormed off.

The furniture was soon in place and the meeting began. The chief, director and some trustees sat, the students stood facing them, in silent expectation. We, the lecturer-coolies, stood to one side. The chief took out what appeared to be a petition from the students and scanned it for a while. And presently he spoke, addressing the students.

"Dear students! First of all, you are a smart bunch. This petition is very well-written and and we appreciate that very much. Yes, we want to compliment you, both me and this brilliant scholar, your director here (students look puzzled).. We are old enough to be your grandfathers and wish the best for you.... (a pause) But,... we are immensely saddened by what happened yesterday - your reaction to a well-intended disciplinary measure. But you are our children, the hope of tomorrow. And we know you were misled and made to misunderstand this great academician's concern for you as tyranny by some elements (a contemptuous wave of the hand in our direction). And let me tell you the director has only your well-being in mind when he corrects you or scolds you. And after hearing from your parents, we have decided not to pursue any disciplinary action against any student (he pauses; a murmur of pleasant surprise and relief spreads among the students; the director is silent and wears a benign smile).

But, please note this is only in generous acknowledgement of your youth and because your parents pleaded on your behalf. You should respect your parents. Your parents have put their faith in this institution and the institution respects and trusts this man... And yes, you have written in this petition about the director scolding some lecturers. He only corrects them when they commit mistakes. He is totally committed to discipline. Let me remind these people (another wave at us) in front of you that they ought to behave and... be grateful to the money they are getting paid from the fees paid by you, our students. At least they should not manipulate you to settle cheap scores with the director or the management. And if someone here thinks he has worked in the industry and knows a trick or two, he can go back to where he can play those stupid tricks....

And we shall resume classes immediately. Thank you my dear boys and girls. I am always happy to meet you and listen to you. So is our director (another smile from the great man). You will always get the best from us. And I assure you, this is only the beginning. We will soon recruit for you some real teachers, really good teachers who will mold you into proper engineers; study well, do well..."


And thus came to an end what was probably the first student strike ever to happen (early in 2003) at Kerala's *leading* self-financing colleges. Now, half a generation of 'service' later, following the tragic death of a student, there is huge public outcry about these institutions - unscrupulous managements, suffering students.... It is as if a major battle has been joined; but, to my knowledge, no voice representing the teachers has made itself heard above the sound and fury.


In front of the Azhakiyakavu' temple at Palluruthy near Cochin is a quadrangular pond. At its center stands a colossal sculpture of a fowl-like bird. Here is a three quarters view:

Here is how the bird looks from behind:

The fowl is supposed to be a guardian deity. I am told several children drowned in the pond and after the bird was put up, no accident has happened. Curiously, the sculpture also embodies a famous phrase from Othello: "the beast with two backs".


(*)In its apotheosis of Spartacus, we see Communist mythology at its punchiest.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Names Matter! - and a Desi Surprise

I have noted more than once on these pages that names matter and matter big time.

Here is an installation by N N Rimzon (surprise: he is a Malayali although his name has a Naga or Mizo flavor). Titled just 'The Tools', it is now on display in Kochi as part of the Biennale.

Critics have remarked: "The Tirthankara-like figure of austerity and spiritual purity placed in a cosmic circle of tools evokes the eternal duality of violence and materiality contra human aspirations." and " (Rimzon's works) reveal postmodernist nuances in their attitudes, but the social-radical statement continues as an important motif, particularly in a work as direct and unambiguous as The Tools."

Here is an icon of lord Viswakarma in majesty circled by a halo of floating tools:

Need I say more as to what I think would be a more pugnacious name for Rimzon's work than 'The Tools'?


I had always believed that India has no serious indigenous tradition of calligraphy. Among our dozens of scripts, only Bengali and Urdu (which anyway uses an imported Arab script) seemed capable of sustaining really beautiful writing; the rest of our scripts could at best be neat. Moreover, all these scripts are but medieval innovations. Indeed, precious little of what I had seen of ancient Indian writing had even passable looks(and whatever I had seen of Keralan inscriptions in Vattezhuthu etc was shoddy tending to ugly).

And then, around New Year, I came upon a volume on Pallava art put together by a certain Michael Lockwood with assistance from some Indian scholars including Gift Siromoney. Here are some samples therein of Pallava inscriptions in Grantha script dating back to 7th century AD. Most are carved onto rock faces at a place I have been to many times - Mamallapuram; despite their elegance and flashes of panache(*), I had totally failed to spot these inscriptions.


I recently got a doubt: Is there any need for musical instruments to look good to also sound good? Most western and Desi instruments do have great physical beauty. A veena is supposed to look so good that its principal resonating gourd is held as the standard against which the comeliness of .... well, that should do!

In a more contemporary context, see how this saxophone holds its own among some superb watercolors painted by Prof. C S Jayaram (picture taken from an ongoing solo exhibition):

Dirac and many others have held that Nature ought to be described by beautiful equations. So there may well be deeper truths behind the physical looks of musical instruments.

Checking online, one can see an instrument from Newfoundland called 'ugly stick'. Youtube has some videos. Ugly stick doesn't look too good. Neither does it sound very good.


And to conclude, let me quote myself. This is from a valediction read when Jayaram Sir's exhibition got under way - a fondly hopeful vision of what the future promises for a gifted artist/musician/scholar (and I believe these are some of the best lines I ever wrote).

"The hoary Bard reaches for the sculptor’s tools – to carve out of Time a throbbing ‘thudi’, once more to sing slumbering Gods into existence.

The Craftsman’s undimmed eye again meets the teasing gaze of the slim dancer; and the little muse dreamed up by a distant forebear awakens ever newer epiphanies"


(*) I was pretty pleased with the phrase 'flashes of panache'. And then came the idea of actually looking up 'panache' in the dictionary. And here is what Merriam Webster gives. Panache means: 1. an ornamental tuft (as of feathers) especially on a helmet 2. dash or flamboyance in style and action...(note: this was the only meaning known to me). goes on to add this remarkable bit:

Few can match the panache of French poet and soldier Cyrano de Bergerac. In his dying moments, he declared that the one thing left to him was his panache, and that assertion at once demonstrates the meaning of the word and draws upon its history. Panache derives via Middle French from Late Latin pinnaculum, meaning "small wing" or "gable," a root that also gave English the word pinnacle. In both French and English, panache originally referred to a showy, feathery plume on a hat or helmet; its "dashing" figurative sense developed from the verve and swagger of one bold enough to wear such an adornment in public. When the dying Cyrano turned his huge nose heavenward and spoke of his panache, his nose became the literal and figurative pinnacle of a multifaceted pun

The name Bergerac rang a bell. After a bit of intense memory-trawling, I found him in an all-time favorite, Perelman's 'Physics for Entertainment'. While explaining Inertia, Perelman makes a typically brilliant reference to Bergerac's pioneering science fiction work "A History of the Kingdoms and Empires of the Moon".

Note added on Feb 21st, 2017: A strange coincidence happened today. A colleague, having read this post and looked around online told me "Bergerac and his tall tales remind me of another character, Baron Munchhausen; he could make up some very big tales!". And guess what, I had actually read about Munch... and his stunts, from where else but this very same Perelman volume!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Gulbarga - Day 2

The concluding part of the log from Gulbarga, written a long time ago ...

Day 2:

9 am: We are at Gulbarga bus station, waiting for a bus to a place called Nilogi; to see the ruined city of Firozabad, we presumably need to get down at a stop called 'Darga' and walk a few kilometers...

Late afternoon (writing from the Khwaja Banda Nawaz Darga, Gulbarga): Our bus leaves Gulbarga and progresses smoothly down the highway to Bangalore. After an hour of toordal fields, we get off at 'Firozabad Darga'. A small teashop and a deserted shack with the board "Tire Panjar & Repare"; that is all the civilization at this place. It is severely hot; the Darga enclosure offers relief in the form of a dense stand of neem trees. We ask a passerby: "How does one get to the palaces here?" He laughs: "Palace?! What do you mean?"

The teashop guy sounds more knowledgeable: He points at a mudpath branching off from the main highway. "A mile or so" he adds. We can't be sure since there is no trace of any wall or ruin to be seen from here. But lets see,...

We have walked for almost an hour from Darga. Scrub, then more scrub, the odd villager with a flock of goats, a bullock cart, that is all we have encountered. Our mud path hits a slightly wider mud path. We ponder the next course (left, right or return) when an old man approaches. He speaks urdu: "A little down the right-going path is our village. Just beyond is the old fort and ruins"

Another kilometer in the burning sun and our path hits a cluster of dwellings, all built with heaped stone slabs. A single, narrow trail winds among them; it is mercifully cooler here. We sense people staring at us. A lad asks us something in Kannada. On our failing to reply, comes the question in basic Hindi: "You, which village?". "Hyderabad", we say. Puzzlement, then silence.

Just beyond the houses we spy a stone arch, old and decrepit. Approaching, we see some walls, a couple of Bahmani style domed tombs,... But we can't quite reach them - crude thorny fences balk us; and vacant spaces among the ruins are under toordal cultivation.

A youngster - about the same age as Zafar he seems - approaches us. In my severely challenged Kannada, I ask him the way to 'Jama Masjid'. He says something which we couldnt make out a word of. Then he walks off, gesturing to follow him.

Walls on all sides, not even a pillar within - we come upon a mosque in such a state. Neem trees have grown inside near the western wall. The rest of the interior is again a toordal field. "My name is Sivakumar. This is our own cultivation" says the young chap, in Kannada even I could follow. He leads us up a precarious stone stairway to the top of the mosque wall. From here, we see a wider surrounding area. A spread of ruins, a big river (Bhima, it is) meandering past them... Not too far, rising to nearly 40 feet, stands an edifice with a mostly collapsed dome - ("Hiroshima town hall!" - Satish remarks) - must be what remains of the medieval royal palace.

We get down and walk around a bit and inspect some ruined - and awfully smelly - tombs. Toordal fields, thorn fences, heaps of stones, not even foot trails. Quite a labyrinth this place. But for Sivakumar, we would have had to leave without seeing a thing.

We were talking about Fatehpur Sikri, another 'ghost town', then the 'Roman Forum'. But those two are well-visited and well mapped places (and yes, expensive - you part with a solid fee to even enter them). Firozabad has yet to get the 'Protected Monument' board, routinely put up by our Archeology people before even most insignificant of monuments.

We note with a shudder that there is very little water left. Hurriedly taking leave of Sivakumar (must say, despite the hopelessness of the language situation, he could communicate quite a bit with us, conveying information and more importantly, an earthy camaraderie; he even initially refused a small tip we tried to hand over), we walk briskly back towards Darga stop.

We are in luck and don't have to wait much there. In hour we are in the city. We grab a bite and head for the Banda Nawaz darga, located in the eastern quarter. It is quite clear from a hundred meters off that we are entering a major center of pilgrimage. Crowds, rows of shops selling religious bric-a-brac. Near the main darga complex stand a row of seven domed tombs - the Haft Gumbad. We skip them.

We tiptoe our way, barefoot, along the white-hot stone floor of the darga enclosure; to our relief, the place has only a modest number of worshipers. The complex is elaborate - the saint's tomb, then tombs of his line of followers and relatives and several other buildings. A big arch with carvings of lions attacking elephants, pillared halls with Vijayanagar-style corbels... We encounter an old woman sitting in a shady corner, singing some sufi devotional lyrics with great fervor. As we pass her, she pauses and wishes us Khwaja's infinite grace. I get an inexplicable feeling she really means what she has just said.

Khwaja's tomb is quite big, done in Bahmani style; its interior has a remarkable air-cooling system. The inner surface of the crowning dome has beautiful decorative work with pieces of colored glass and stones. A metal partition surrounds the grave and devotees touch their forehead on it and stand in silent prayer. The grave itself is covered with a rich brocade strewn with rose petals. The fragrance of 'attar' is in the air. We sit in a corner, not too far from the Master's resting place, resting our own tired bones; I reach for my notebook....

Gulbarga - Day 1

Long ago, I was a student in faraway Hyderabad. One October morning, I set out with a then friend by name Satish on a two day exploratory trip to nearby areas of Karnataka. Here I reproduce some notes – they were hastily scribbled in a tattered notebook (which is still with me) as the tour progressed, with very little reflection or rumination. They stand at the very beginning of my travel writing efforts. I wrote in Malayalam; what follows is an almost faithful translation.

Day 1

7 am: I begin writing this log at Lingampalli station, sitting in the Wadi bound slow passenger train. Across us sit a small family. Beyond is a bidi smoking old man casually reading an urdu daily and a curled up sleeper; hardly anybody else in this sleepy coach. A train pulls alongside. A whole host of shaven heads peep out of its windows; must be an express from Tirupati.

7.30: Our passenger has just halted at Shankarpalli. The woman sitting across whispers something to her husband in Marathi, presumably about us. We ponder whether to strike a conversation with them…

8: Chittigidda, a small hamlet. Eucalyptus trees and cornfields. Red earth. Shades of Bangalore.

8.30: Stuck for quite a while at Vikarabad Junction.

9: Dharur: The run from Vikarabad has been among scattered low hills. It has been a pleasantly bright morning. … A wild and largely uninhabited stretch – rocky hills, shrubs, dried up streambeds,…

9.15: Rukmapur: a big crowd of gypsy women squeeze into the train with heavy-looking loads. They raise quite a racket with their animated chatter. Then, lulled by the trains steady rhythm, they fall silent, but for a short while. At the next halt, Tandur, they troop out.

9.45: Manthatti: a flatter and drier tract of the country... fields of toordaal, monotonous stretches of thorny scrub… It is getting uncomfortably warm.

10: Kurugunta: We are in Karnataka now. Big, yawning quarries, a cement factory, … And I make a startling discovery. For a while the toddler who had been sitting with his parents across us has been exploring the coach and he has just shat in my shoes.

11: Quite hot now. Monotonous scrub, quarries, heaps of stone fragments, Flocks of scrawny goats,…

11.15: Sulhalli. Mirages flicker over plowed up fields of black soil.

11.40: Wadi junction. No connecting trains to Gulbarga for hours to come. We step out into a town that is remarkably chaotic for its modest size. Dirty streets, air thick with dust, … a cement factory looms over the urban mess. As outlying as its chaos is Wadi’s diversity – in a five minute walk here, you can hear loud talk in Kannada, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi, Marathi and Lambadi.. We manoeuvre ourselves into a ‘tempo’ about to leave for Shahabad. Suddenly there is a big commotion. A hijda, wearing the dress of Lambadi women is scolding/abusing someone very loudly. The combination of sheer force and total unintelligibility make his rants interesting to hear…

4.15 pm: Wadi-Gulbarga was a long haul thru dusty scrub marked here and there by heaps of pieces of chocolate and grey colored stone. At the end, it is a big relief to be in a place where decent food and rooms for rent (and cold beer) are available.

10 pm: I am writing this from our hotel room.

Gulbarga's massive medieval fort stands at the western edge of the city, its neighbourhood marked by extreme filth and poverty. Over the centuries, large chunks of the hefty walls have crumbled, turning the surrounding moat into a row of awfully smelly pits. Over the main gate, there must once have been a dome, of which nothing remains. We got off our auto in front of the Jama Masjid.

Modelled on the famous Cordoba mosque, the Jama Masjid has about 75 small domes and a single bigger dome at the west-center, all supported by an intricate interlocking grid of structural arches. Sadly, thick coats of white lime have been recently applied and it mars the overall effect of the edifice somewhat.

A young boy of about 12 accosted us as we explored the mosque. He gave his name as Muhammad Zafar. Within minutes, he was chatting away with us as if we had known each other for a long time. He bade us to follow him and led us thru several dark and gloomy gallies in the residential quarter of the citadel. We climbed a battlement and he showed us a big bronze cannon and launched into a live commentary of an assault on the fort and the invaders being cut down by the cannon’s thunderous fire. …

Looking around and beyond the walls, we spotted a solitary domed structure perched on an elevated tableland a couple of kilometres away and asked Zafar about it. “ Oh, it’s the Chor Gumbaz! Come, lets go there!” and we were off.

More gallies, more poverty. And presently there appears a dargah. “lets pay a quick visit. Khwaja Banda Nawaz, patron saint of Gulbarga, lived here for 20 years. It’s a very holy site. All prayers made here will come true!”.

We enter the gloomy interior. Near a solitary tomb sits a middle-aged and bearded caretaker. Based on what I had seen on the television, I kneel in prayer before the grave. Baba (as the caretaker was addressed) pats me on the head with a bunch of peacock feathers and asks me to lift a smallish pyramidal piece of marble in his custody using only two fingers of the right hand. I manage, albeit with some difficulty. Baba speaks: “Very good. Most people fail in the first attempt to lift it, not because the stone is too heavy – it isn’t- but because they misjudge its weight. You are fortunate. Khwaja’s blessings will be with you!”

We approach Chor Gumbaz at almost sundown. With some difficulty, we follow Zafar up a crumbling stone staircase to the shoulder of the domed building. Sunset on the Deccan – its always such an experience of clarity and immensity…

Zafar has more to say to me: “Brother, you are truly blessed. I know you may not be convinced, you would be wondering “Hey, what is the big deal about lifting a small chunk of stone?!”. But that is the whole idea about Khawaja’s grace. If I tell you to pick up a big rock, you would say “No way!” but if His Grace is with you, you will manage, just as that piece of stone. He can get even a puny lad like me to move a mountain!”

We walk back to the fort via a different route, passing hutments and ruins, neither really distinguishable from the other. A big walled enclosure looms.

Zafar launches into another story: “ This was a building a sultan wanted constructed overnight. The architect failed, he couldn’t even begin the dome; the sultan put him to death. In there, you can see his grave!”

Its quite dark inside. A feeble lamp has been lit and shows a modest burial site and a dozen fellows sitting nearby engaged in a game of cards. They don’t seem pleased to see us. Bats wheel overhead. We retreat in haste.

We bid farewell to Zafar and cut through the fort picking our way through gallies, now depressingly dark despite the odd electric light. Children throng the narrow pathways, playing, quarreling, shitting…. Hooded and veiled women stand around in clusters and talk ...