ANAMIKA

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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Cemetery throbs with Life

From the Wiki entry on the 17th century Dutch Master Jacob van Ruidsael :

Ruisdael's landscapes are a polychronic lament for a stable past coupled with an unease for a profoundly unstable future. His 'Jewish Cemetery' pits a rogue natural world against the built environment, which has been overrun by the trees and shrubs surrounding the cemetery.... a lament for past mistakes made that have produced a present-day derelict landscape.

Here is a glimpse of Ruisdael's cemetery (search online for better images):



Another landscape, a banal-looking photo taken a just few hours back by Yours Truly - a wildly overgrown plot of about an acre in the very heart of Ernakulam, just behind St. Teresa's Convent and School. A wall surrounds the plot and to take the picture, one had to scale it with some effort.



What made me take the trouble was the chance discovery of a board there (I have welked past this plot hundreds of times over the last few years but saw the board only today):



From my precarious perch on the wall, I tried hard to push the encroaching creepers off the board but they proved too tenacious. However, one could still read the Hindi text in its entirety: "Jewish Cemetery, Kadavumbhag and Thekkumbhag (actually, 'Kadavumbhagam' and 'Thekkumbhagam' respectively; such mindless Hindification of place names would require Ernakulam to become 'Ernakul'). Under the protection of the Archeology Dept". Of course, no tomb, no inscribed stone slab, nothing was visible; everything rested beneath the vegetation.

Searching online, I gathered that Thekkumbhagam and Kadavumbhagam were the names of two jewish settlements in Ernakulam and synagogues that catered to them; neither synagogue functions now. 'The Hindu' once published an article that says: "The State Department of Archaeology has ... protected the Jewish Cemetery near (the St. Teresas) Convent Junction".

Protected?! I would say yes, the plot certainly has been saved from the attentions of 'developers' (the likes of those who ate up the Jewish cemetery in Mala, for example). And whether one sees here the merciless assault of 'Rogue Nature' on Man's works or a manifestation of 'Mother' Nature's limitless fecundity and regenerative power is entirely up to the individual viewer. I, for one, saw in this cemetery as much Life as I had seen at the Manikarnika Ghat in Kashi - and left with the distinct feeling that those who sleep here must be quite okay with the present state of their resting place.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Our Masters and THE Masters

Presenting some works by Classical Masters and how they have been referenced by some Modern Desi Masters in uniquely innovative ways.

To begin with, here is Michelangelo's allegorical marble figure 'Dawn' (part of the Medici tombs) alonside our own Kanai Kunhuraman's colossal Sankhumukham Mermaid. Click on the picture for a larger image.



And here is Titian's voluptuous Venus as she emerges from the ocean wringing out water from her tresses and a rather more demure but no less alluring Desi variant.



The latter figure above is a photograph of Mrs. Bijoya Ray taken by her husband Satyajit. I sense a correspondence between this pair of paintings and the Majas by Goya.

Just in case anyone thought that Satyajit Ray needed photographic equipment to conjure up masterly visions, here is a sketch by him of the same lady!



And this post signs off with one more masterwork - 'Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer' by Rembrandt. A non-artits's humble hat doff to it is also visible elsewhere on this very page.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Maharaja's and the Saint

A very recent post here had begun: "Maharaja's College, Cochin is a curious place....". The hallowed institution has just come up with something more than merely curious.

What looks like a new film is being made: 'Ormayilennum Maharajas' (approx. "Maharajas - Evergreen Memories"); the makers are very likely, alumni of the college. Here is a poster:



Now, let's cut out the hefty, bearded chap to the right of center and place him alongside a very similar (admittedly, somewhat more heavily muscled) fellow, St. Barthalomew, as visualized by Michelangelo (a detail from 'Last Judgement'). Click on the picture for a larger image:



And thus, in its 11th year, this blog has acquired its first ever visuals - and what better to begin with than a tip of the hat to Old Mike the Angel?!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

TEN - 2



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

Mathai and his Manifestations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

TEN – 1



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

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

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

Narayam:

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

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

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

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

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

Irinjalakuda, Changampuzha and SK

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chakka - and a Gentleman from Aluva:

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Women and Semantics

EMPOWERING WOMEN:

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

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

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

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

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

A SEMANTICS PUZZLE:

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

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

Self: So you guys are not going?

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

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

Self: What of tribal colonies?

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

'India's Son' - and Other Pieces



PHILISTINES IN KERALA

Thanks to Capt. Vishnu, I read a recent article in The Hindu (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/on-a-mission-to-preserve-jewish-monuments-in-mala/article5467292.ece) on the efforts of some history and heritage conscious people of the small town of Mala in central Kerala to preserve remnants of a Jewish settlement that had flourished there for many centuries.

According to the contract signed before the Jews left for Israel in 1955, the responsibility for preserving (their) historic monuments, including the Jewish synagogue and the cemetery, belongs to Mala panchayat:

The article adds quoting several concerned locals:

… The panchayat should maintain the monuments using their own funds. The monuments should be protected within a compound wall and gate. Boards should be set up. The land should not be used for any other purpose. These were the main conditions of the contract…. (Over the years,) there have been frequent encroachments and attacks on the monuments….. The synagogue first became a school and then a community hall. A shopping complex came up on the northern side of the synagogue. The compound wall was demolished. Later, three-fourths of the cemetery became the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium…. Now they are planning to transform the stadium into the 'K. Karunakaran Sports Academy'. Of the 30-odd graves in the cemetery only three remain….

Dictionaries define a ‘philistine’ as someone guided by materialism and who is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values. History mentions Philistines (with an upper case P), an ancient middle-eastern people. They appear in Biblical stories as implacable enemies and tormentors of Jews. “Were the Philistines Greek (immigrants to the Levant)?” Martin Bernal of ‘Black Athena’ fame had speculated. Whatever be the answer to Bernal’s question, one can confidently say: “Philistines may or may not have been Greek, but many of us in Kerala ARE - in both ways! (ie, we are a philistine people who can even act like Philistines)”

MAHARAJA'S AND 'RAMAVARMA'

The Maharaja’s College, situated in the heart of Cochin is a curious place. Set up by the former Royals of Cochin state in the late 19th century and known to have had rooms and facilities earmarked 'for Princes’ and stuff in more feudal times, the institution evolved over several decades into a State-run hotbed of student activism (ranging from left-oriented intellectualism to outright goondaism) and alma mater and workplace to several leading cultural figures and political rabblerousers. I never studied at Maharaja's but I have heard and read so much about the place that one bas been acutely aware of the sheer range of activities and opinions it has generated and nurtured. Even more tellingly, I got to see this bewildering range in the persona of a single member of its faculty: considered a very promising academic in his twenties, the fellow had, by the age of 30 or so, become BOTH of the following in equal measure: 1. energetic rationalist - science popularizer and 2. the most rabidly communal-minded scumbag I have ever seen.

The other day, I was walking past the Men’s hostel of this college - named ‘Ramavarma Hostel’(*). A youngster accosted me with a jingling tin and asked for money to help the inmates of the hostel celebrate their annual day.

I was not in a very generous mood: “Sorry, I am just a passer-by. I did not study here and I don’t have much money on me!”

But he was persistent: “Look at our building Chettaa! Weeds sprouting from the walls, trees growing in toilets, windows not only lack panes, but their very frames have been wrenched out, the ugly graffiti … no one cares about us. Please help us with any money you can spare!”

'INDIA'S SON'?

Here is a very recent story that got to me by word of mouth.

A certain guy from a traditionally high caste but very poor family joined the army. He was absorbed as a tradesman and was asked to train and work as a barber. Desperate for a means of livelihood, he took up the job without giving details to anyone at home. He actually liked the work and became quite skilled at it and popular among the men in his regiment. Years passed and he got married and had children but he never brought his family to his workplace and never ever told them the precise nature of his profession except “I am with the Indian army”. He knew there could be big trouble if people found out.

Finally, he retired and was given a fond farewell by his colleagues. Among the gifts he was given were several commendations and certificates. But alas, when he got back home, these certificates revealed to someone in the family that he had spent half a life shaving people of all kinds of castes. His outraged family – children and all - turned him out and his village ostracised him. Not having anywhere to go, the barber went back to his regiment and begged for some position but the rules would not allow him to be reabsorbed in any capacity….. Well, long story short, the hapless fellow took his life.


There were many who objected to BBC's ‘India’s Daughter’: “...as if only Indian men want to keep women locked up at home and only Indian men rape women who venture out after sundown!”. While I am convinced the documentary brings a message that ought to be taken very seriously by each one of us and strongly feel that any attempt to bring in National pride into any discussion of the horrendous Nirbhaya episode ought to be summarily condemned, I also feel that the documentary’s India-specific focus is in keeping with BBC's perennial anti-India slant - it does show a truly global problem as something very Indian. But, just as Nirbhaya’s tragedy could have happened almost everywhere on this benighted planet, the barber’s story is a very Indian one – for hardly any other country has such a long and horrible record of marginalizing and oppressing its own people on the basis of their profession.

Bits of Desi History:

A couple of years back, I wrote a few posts here about the history of Dutch involvement in Kerala and how scanty traces of their presence have become (a remark therein touched upon the absence of Dutch surnames, as opposed to Portuguese or even Brit surnames, among Kerala’s Eurasians - "We have no Burghers!");

The other day, a Mal newspaper article mentioned the Isaacs-es, a Cochin family from which hail several gifted musicians. Apparently, ‘Isaacs’ is an originally Dutch Jewish surname; the article speculates that some Dutch Jewish migrants from that clan might have settled down in these parts for good and gotten absorbed into Christianity – but somehow retained their original surname.

Quite a long time ago, I had written here about how ancient and medieval Kerala’s interaction with Chinese has again not left enough in our folk memory. Y’day, I read a bit of speculation that the name ‘Thangasseri’, the present day coastal settlement that was once the site of Kollam port, could have derived from the ‘junk’, the name of a class of Chinese ships; ie, Thangasseri could have been ‘Chuan-cheri’, the cheri (neighbourhood) where ‘chuans’ (the Chinese name for junks) berthed. Conceivable, if viewed with the theory that Chinnakkada, the commercial heart of Kollam derived from ‘Cheena-kada’. The replacement of the initial consonant ‘ch’ with ‘th’ and the ‘n’with ‘ng’ do not look far-fetched.

However, I still tend to believe that the etymology of Thangasseri is Desi Christian rather than Chinese (am too tired now to give reasons!).

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(*) Probably, many more Maharajas of Cochin have been named Ramavarma than French kings were named Louis or Popes were named John. I don’t know which Ramavarma was the eponym of the hostel.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Of Wheels, Grooves and Flanges

"A flange is an external or internal ridge, or rim.... flanged wheels are wheels with a flange on one side to keep the wheels from running off the rails" - Wiki

"A pulley may ... have a groove between two flanges around its circumference." - Wiki

A bit from the Stephen Jay Gould essay "Lucy on the Earth in Stasis":

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote in 'Locksley Hall, the most famous of all Victorian lines about the inevitability of change: " Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change!"... Tennyson himself later wrote that his striking, though peculiar metaphor for change (both visual and aural) rose from a misperception during his own first journey by rail: "When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830), I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line."

Let me add: Although it might not be much of a consolation to his spirit, Tennyson has never been - and never will be - short of company; admittedly, there may not be many who think train wheels run in a groove like he did but another misperception, one that merely turns his on its head, is very widely held. Indeed, billions of train travelers ( more precisely, the overwhelming majority of those who ever knew trains and cared to think of such matters) have thought and still think that a train's wheel is shaped like a pulley that grips the rail with its own groove (and that it is the rail that runs thru the grooves around the train's wheels). I myself, a keen train traveler for half a life, belonged in this group till just a few months back. Since I got disabused of this howler of a notion(*) (I won't get into how it happened), I seldom miss a chance to ask people to draw the vertical section thru both the wheel-centers of a train wheel-and-axle set as it sits on a pair of rails and to this day, only two among those I challenged did it okay without any prompting - Pop (he continues to stump me; and to really rub it in, he claims to have figured out this thing while at school!) and a lone college student from a batch of nearly 100.

On something else: Y'day (Feb 27th) night, I saw a big flash in the south-western sky and thought it was some routine fireworks display at some local fest. Today's papers have gone to town about a fireball that streaked across the sky around that very time and was seen pretty over a wide swathe of central Kerala. Many claimed to have heard a loud rumble and seen windows trembling. I just looked up the short note 'The false explosion of a Bolide' in my old copy of 'Physics for Entertainment'. Yakov Perelman's explanation of this strange supersonic phenomenon (written long before supersonic aircraft were made) perfectly fits the description of yesterday's celestial show as given by most eyewitnesses. Aside: I have reservations about the flash I saw; it might just have been an 'amittu' going onff.

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(*) and now it looks nothing less than a howler to me - for it is so obvious that if each train wheel had two flanges that together gripped the rail, the train simply can't move from one track to the other at a join.