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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Us, After the Deluge

Early this year, a little Malayalam prose poem appeared in a magazine brought out by a local college. No one then, including the author, sensed anything uncanny:

Here it is:

Let me offer a free translation:

"A sinkful of dishwater flung out, a colony of ants swept away - even a thimbleful wouldve been a lake for their little limbs.. Did those tiny eyes look up in despair and mortal dread? - O, how can I possibly know!

Hey, You out there in Heaven! From your Cosmic perch, are the travails and miseries and horrors that bedevil us Humans just as puny, as off-scale?!"


And then....the Deluge arrived,swept through villages and towns and departed, making a slimy marsh of swathes of riverine Kerala....

And then came a spell of intense sunshine that baked the mud and debris into a hard, tangled mess...

Piled up along a highway was a huge jumble of rotting mattresses, pillows and plastic, all chewed up and spat out by the flood waters:

Nearby were piled up dozens of refrigerators, TV sets and what not, all caked with mud.

When things were at their bleakest, I was asked about the flood in a pan-India Whatsapp group. I texted: "Desperate. Kerala is reeling... We have been caught unawares. This has been a singularly lucky land, no real experience of Natural disasters. Of course, given the very uneven terrain, flooding is sporadic and local. But where it is bad, it is very very bad!"

A response came all the way from Delhi: "True, Kerala has had it too good; no experience of floods, of Invasions from the North-West, of war, of Partition, of any associated traumas of Nation building.... nothing. No offense, just an observation!"

The village of Manjaly, where the Periyar and Chalakudy rivers meet, had borne the brunt of the flood. Close to the Sangam, at a spot where a "dozen foot wall of water" had flattened pretty much every manmade wall, this lone palm was left standing...

Thanks to Ratheesh who spotted this unique story of survival.


After the disaster came the politicking... and a troll went viral in these parts. It said just this:

"Back in 1672, the Dutch killed and ate their Prime Minister!"

Wonder how someone in our neck of the woods could dig up the desperately unfortunate Johan De Witt (by most accounts, an enlightened statesman and gifted mathematician, who just happened to be among wrong people at the wrong time) - lynched, strung up and partially eaten along with his brother by a rabid mob. No one was brought to book for the crime.


Today is Vishweshwariah's birthday. So here is a question: How many in India choose to be Civil Engineers?

Answer: Practically Zilch. This country does churn out thousands of civil engineers every year but to my knowledge, not more than a dozen of them - if at all - would have actually put down civil engineering as their first study and career choice.

As everyone knows, civil, alongside mechanical and perhaps metallurgy, is one of the 'primordial' engineering disciplines; but in the last half century or so, the ridiculous 'academic caste system' that holds sway over every single one of our institutions - IITs and all - has pushed civil into the margins and beyond. Of course, the top engineering schools do teach civil engineering but practically every single candidate who enrolls for this branch does so only because he did not get Computers, Electronics, Electrical or Mechanical in that precise order. Moreover, most of those who do become civil engineers end up in the software industry or management - read this:

And given this abject state of affairs, it was no wonder at all that most of the three score or so dams in Kerala ended up being disastrously mismanaged.

Observation: Yu, the legendary Chinese king, was a civil engineer who controlled the flood-prone Yellow river by dredging the riverbed and digging canals (after an earlier attempt with dams and bunds had disastrously failed).


Racial Stereotyping - three sad examples:

1. "A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards." - Joseph Conrad

2. "2500 miles and 10 days from Bombay, as we approached Mombasa - the gateway to East Africa - what first caught my eye was the sight of a big-built and bare-bodied Kappiri gazing in wonder at our ship from the upper deck of a go-down on the wharf - the first Negro I saw in the land of Black people; I could imagine him as representing his entire race. Back in the 11th century, he would have stood agape just like this as a Viking ship, blown off course by wild sea winds, swam into view. In 1497, as Vasco Da Gama dropped anchor en route to India and her treasures, he would have stared at the palefaced visitors just as disbelievingly. The passage of centuries has not erased his bewilderment...." - S K Pottekkat

3. "A little shack in Pokhara, Nepal. Some local villagers had assembled; a few of them sang, with free facility, a perky mountain melody that went something like 'Simsima panima...'. A lovely girl of about ten danced to it with remarkable grace. I was struck by her face - it was totally devoid of expression, chillingly so. A horrifying thought crossed my mind - of her, a few years down the line, trapped in the fleshpots of Bombay!"


Question: Why is the now not very well-known king of medieval Kashmir, Harsha, a favorite of modern Keralan Marxist intellectuals?

Answer: Here is what Wiki says: "Harsha (ruled 1089-1111) destroyed both Hindu and Buddhist temples, and is credited with creating an office of "devotpaatana-nayaka", destroyer of gods".

A Hindu-named King looting and demolishing Hindu temples proves by example what the Marxist historians have always asserted: "Some invaders who happened to be Muslim, did attack Hindu temples. But religious zeal was not really the motive - it was money, the wealth hidden in the temple coffers. See, even Harsha of Kashmir used to regularly loot all kinds of temples; and he was a Hindu!"

Aside: Was it not Dinesh D'Souza who argued that American slavery was not fundamentally racist by saying: "Some of the slave owners where Black"? No, I don't view iconoclasm and slavery as even remotely comparable outrages!

I have heard at least three eminent Marxist intellectuals make - essentially - the same Harsha statement as above. I recall one of them adding - "Harsha would bathe the idols in the temples he looted with excrement!". And the most recent such scholar I heard also remarked: "Yes, in his grandiose proclamations, Ghazni might have made claims of having acquired religious merit by demolishing the Somnath temple and massacring infidels. But kings are always like that, they make all kinds of declarations; and they don't mean what they say - like Marthanda Varma of Travancore declared his kingdom to be Lord Padmanabha's property with himself a mere custodian; it was just a ploy to fool people! So, it does not take great brains to figure out that Ghazni only wanted the gold hoarded in the temple, else why did he come calling for seventeen straight years? "

Here is another gem attributed to the late Sukumar Azhikode: "Scan the whole of Indian history, there are but five great kings - Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka, Vikramaditya, Harsha (not the Kashmiri!) and Akbar. If you thought "wow, only one Muslim in there!", here is a surprise: Maurya was an outcaste who became a Jain, Asoka and Harsha were Buddhists. Only Vikramaditya can be called a Hindu. But even that is doubtful - there simply was no Hinduism then, as we know it now. Vikram might not even have heard the word Hindu!"


Here is a quaint Vishnu idol from Somnathpur temple, Mysore. His upper hands hold up the usual conch and discus - although, rather atypically, they are mounted on short staffs. He holds in a lower left hand the usual mace. But what is in his lower right hand? It certainly is no lotus. And to my non-expert eyes, it looks more Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel than anything else!

Note: The recent visit to Mysore has made me aware of the huge variety in the ways the usual weapons can be distributed among Vishnu's four arms. The most common allocation is: conch and discuss held up by the upper arms and the mace and lotus to be held by the lower hands. But at Srirangapattana temple is an idol where things are the other way around - the conch and discus are held in the lower hands. This idol is named 'Laxminarayana'. I dunno why.


A pipal tree used to stand in front of the Gandharva temple in Chambakkara. A couple of months back, Metro construction left it a bare stump. The next few weeks saw a glorious revival!

But the road-wideners were soon back with a vengeance. They brought a JCB...


A Kabaddi troll: After India lost to a strong Iranian side in Kabaddi at the Asian games (having had an exclusive hold on the title for over half a dozen games), someone remarked online: "This is a real victory. A game conceived in India has finally found such strong acceptance outside. India can be proud of having lost the title!". I concur. However, I am less than pleased that we lost to Pakistan in volleyball.


Here is another troll.

The translation of the text from Malayalam goes:

What the Math prof is saying: "lambda cos theta divided by mu cot theta equals...."

What I hear: "nimta basla chukchi njuk hartapuska nikchu droslaska..."

The latter is of course the chief of the famous - or infamous - Kalakeya tribe from 'Bahubali' spewing venom in his weird dialect.

The one remarkable thing about this troll is their choice of pic for the math prof; for it shows none other than Ramamurti Shankar (aka 'Yale Shankar'), world-class Mathematical Physicist and formidable lecturer (yes, formidable is the word, I have heard him).

Friday, July 13, 2018

This and That

Games Over?

The other day, while reading a childrens' book on the origins of our popular games - football, basketball, volleyball, handball... - I was struck by a simple fact: most if not all of these games were conceived and their essential form finalized by 1900. Thereafter (at least in the last 50 years), no fundamentally new global game seems to have emerged (some local games or recast versions of already existing games - kabaddi or rugby or volleyball in its saucy beach version or maybe even cricket in its T20 avatar - might be going global in a big way but that does not change the basic picture).

Perhaps, there aren't any more games left - there may only be so many possible physical games that Homo Sapiens can actually play. If indeed, the number of games is so limited, we could call those games already with us discoveries and not inventions.

The Median Might be the Message:

Statistical data analysis prefers the median over the arithmetic mean when the frequency distribution for the data is skewed. The mean is vulnerable to being dragged far from a typical value by skewed data and can lose the ability to provide the best central location for the data. The median resists such drag much better. Moreover, outliers which can severely affect the arithmetic mean, barely touch the median (eg: if Ambani builds his home in a slum, he can elevate the Arithmetic mean of the incomes in the neighborhood to a level beyond the richest countries but the median income would pretty much stay where it was - and continue to present the honest picture of the neighborhood).

I know very little economics. Every popular analysis of the Indian economy that I have seen bases itself upon arithmetic means - average income, average GDP and so on. One suspects, if the median is considered for, say, the per capita income (I tend to believe that India has one of the most skewed income distributions in the world with some spectacular outliers), many of our studies and plans might get fundamentally altered.

Chakka - here and there:

Long ago, I wrote a post lamenting how the chakka (jackfruit), despite its abundant nutritive value and culinary potential, has fallen out of favor among Keralites. Things have improved somewhat - chakka has been selected as our National Fruit and chakka-fests have greatly increased in frequency as well as visibility. However, despite all that, a huge fraction of our abundant chakka crop goes waste, unplucked. Yesterday, I saw this massive cluster rotting away in the monsoon showers, just a few feet above the ground.

But our neighbors have continued to show great sensitivity to the charms of this fruit. A wayside scene from Mysore:

Hasta and Hasti

The word Hasta means "hand" in Sanskrit. Hasti means "the one with a hand" and implies the elephant - the hand being of course, its trunk. But the hasta-hasti connection appears to go even farther...

Here is a hasta, painted onto a wallet:

Turn it upside down and it becomes a hasti:

Tribute to Tintoretto:

During one of his typically incandescent expositions, hefty, bearded and orange garbed Mathematician Mahan Maharaj strikes a dramatically 'manneristic' pose that brings to St Mark's miraculous stunts as envisioned by Venetian Master Tintoretto:

The Birth of a Nation:

"Mohammad Ali Jinnah rose to be the undisputed leader of the Indian Muslim League. He developed and gave a clear formulation to the original idea for a Nation as put forward by Dr. Iqbal with the name 'Pakistan' and at a meeting held in Lahore in 1940, declared its attainment as the goal of the League. The British Government accepted his proposal. As per the Indian Independence Act, India was partitioned. The sovereign state of Pakistan came into being as a member of the British Commonwealth on the 14th of August 1947 with Jinnah Sahib as its supreme leader. Those were troubled times as untoward incidents and massacres took place in India and Pakistan. Soon thereafter, the people of Punch in western Kashmir rose against against Pakistan. The latter responded by deploying its army and soon a dangerous situation developed. However, thanks to an intervention by the UN, war was averted. Jinnah Sahib died in September 1948...."

That was a succinct passage from a textbook of Islamic History published by the Government of Kerala via the 'Bhasha Institute' - my translation.

Pazhoor Now

At Pazhoor, the Muvattupuzha river is in spate The island has mostly gone under. The banks have received a generous dumping of plastics and more rafts of it drift by...:


A joke of sorts has been going around: "Don't lament the continued failure of African teams at the World Cup. France is still there and may even win it!"

But the Brits are a step ahead. BBC put up this graphic in its analysis of the England-Croatia match:

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mysore Surprises

A couple of school 'excursions' apart, I had never been to Mysore. Recently, I went there for a couple of days to catch up with Sheshadri...

A lengthy drive through the country around Mysore feels like a voyage on the high seas - an experience of vast clarity and unimpeded horizon-to-horizon visions. Indeed, to a visitor from Kerala - where luxuriant vegetation and dense stands of trees clutter even the brightest of days with tangled shadows - South Karnataka is a land of open radiance, an immensity of sunshine. And this is also a playground for Winds - unfettered Winds pulsing with the magical luminosity of space and sun and scudding clouds...

Although Mysore is next door to Kerala, there is hardly anything written in Malayalam about it. As an exception of sorts one recalls an old and quite fine piece in English by Zachariah, one of Malayalam's sharpest writers, on the years he had spent in Mysore as a college student. Zachariah later wrote, in Malayalam, a substantial and often impressive travelog on Africa - and to describe my own visual experience of Mysore, I certainly can do worse than adapt a few lines from that work - and that was the last paragraph.

And one can add, the human, agrarian component in the Mysore landscapes shows great variety (with rice, sugarcane, palms, banana and much else very well represented - with the occasional glory of a sunflower patch thrown in), a very welcome change from the environs of Bangalore where eucalyptus has of late come to crowd out pretty much everything else.

Mysore city, relatively untouched by 'development', is, compared to Cochin or even Trichur, green, spacious and unhurried. And it abounds in curious details.

A smart clock tower in the heart of the city. It has a very Euro body and a rather saracenic dome. And its dial has Kannada numerals.

Note: I now understand the tower is affectionately called 'dodda gadiyara' (big clock). There is also a 'chikka gadiyara' nearby which I didn't know about.

The grand facade of the royal-built public hospital...

... and a heraldic emblem above one of its doorways, winged mermaids and all:


Almost adjacent to the bus stand is the Wellington Lodge, a two century old Brit-built bungalow that now houses a surprisingly rich collection of folk art - its official name translates to "Indira Gandhi National Folklore Museum". Wiki is silent about it and my guide book too has nothing; my finding it was pure serendipity. Entry is free and one can take any number of pictures. Aside: I know of no older building in Mysore.

Here are two quaint oil lamps from central India:

A sheet metal family leaning on to a wall - and onto one another:

An ornate and life-size plus terracotta bovine:

Srirangapattana is still very Seringapatam - in twilight, its ruined fort, placid river and far-flung landscapes look just as they appear in two century old company landscapes. Here is a still-standing slice of Tipu's citadel:

The mausoleum where the sultan and his parents rest stands at the center of a big compound. Clustered here and there are graves of many of his officials and attendants (presumably). An ancient tree spreads benignly over picnicking families and a few of the graves - they seem to be huddling close to each other:

What does this pic show?

If you said "frog", here is the full picture:

Take a look at this marble Siva statue that sits in the Mysore hotel where I camped:

I make no claims of artistic merit on its behalf but have to note a unique feature: on the Lord's neck are coiled two identical hooded cobras. I can't recall seeing such twin cobras anywhere except some Kalighat paintings. Here is a typical example:

Note: This Kalighat Siva's matted locks have no Ganga but another cobra. As opposed to the athletic and vigorous Siva of 21st century popular imagination, this guy is potbellied and dopey-eyed - he is smoking ganja.

In a market street, I saw this strange painting on the body of a wooden cart:

From the crow's presence, one could make out that the blue-skinned figure is Shani, the troublesome planet personified. As for the man with hacked off limbs, here is what can be read online:

King Vikrama insulted Shani with some disdainful remarks, just as the planet was to begin its seven and a half year long transit through the king's astral chart. The vengeful Shani spirited Vikrama off to a far off place by trickery and in that alien land, got him tangled in a robbery case. As punishment, the king's hands and feet were chopped off, leaving him a sad lump of living flesh. An oil presser's wife took pity on him and pleaded with her husband on his behalf and soon a deal was struck - Vikrama would get food and shelter in exchange for sitting tight as a weight on top of an oil press as oxen worked it. And, as can be readily guessed, the king had to remorsefully weigh down the press for seven and a half years - during which period, he would often compose and sing paeans to Shani - before Shani relented and all ended well.

And here is a state-sponsored (?) street-side tribute to the legendary heroine Obavva - armed with a mere onake (pestle) she defended the Chitradurga fort from a sneaking attack by Hyder Ali's troops.

..... and a few of the thousand odd stone steps leading up to the Chamundi temple, marked by the 'tilakas' made by the devout:


Update(July 16th 2018)

My statement above: "hardly anything has been written in Malayalam about Mysore" needs serious qualification. One of our landmark films 'Namukku paarkkaan munthirithoppukal", by Padmarajan, is set entirely in the vicinity of Mysore and the landscape is integral to the story. And its very atmospheric song "Akashamake" takes us on an leisurely and lyrical tour of Mysore city and surroundings.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Rainy Day With Little To Do

The monsoon is here - in all its glory and fury; yesterday evening, as one sat watching its frenzied dance and drinking one’s favorite drink, memories went back to an old film song, heard perhaps a couple of times in distant radio times, loved nevertheless and then lost. Merciful Youtube recovered one or two recordings of it – although no video from the film. The song goes ‘kanjirottu kayalilo’. Written by Bhaskaran and composed by Devarajan, it has no match among Mal songs for the way it evokes rain and longing - the only comparison is 'Thengum Hridayam'.

Today, having little else to do, I made plans of recording videos of rain falling over a branch of the Kochi backwaters that winds its course not far from home – and to put in that song as voice over. At least thrice during the day, rain did fall but by the time I could grab the cellphone and umbrella and rush out, it would thin out or stop altogether….

Searching online for more details, I gathered that 'Kanjirottu kayal' is a picturesque limb of the octopus-like Ashtamudi lake near Kollam. And then, google also put out the legend of Chirutheyi aka ‘Kanjirottu Yakshi’.

Even by Kerala standards, Chirutheyi’s story is an outlier:

The highly-in-demand courtesan Chirutheyi and her brother Govindan both fall for a handsome (and much married) palanquin-bearer named Kunjuraman. Both get intimate with the latter (with Chirutheyi showing clear bdsm tendencies).

In her relentless quest to have exclusive rights over Kunjuraman, Chirutheyi secretly killed off his wife. But she had reckoned without her own brother. The passionate Govindan spills the beans to Kunjuraman and the latter avenges his wife by strangling Chirutheyi.

Post-death, Chirutheyi turns into a yakshi. Like any proper yakshi, she waylays and kills many young men but she also pines for Kunjuraman, her one true love. The latter of course, wants to have no truck with the supernatural seductress. After several adventures and interventions by a sorcerer (a devotee of Balarama - Krishna's brother - of all deities!), a very complex deal is struck: Chirutheyi gets to spend a year with Kunjuraman but has to make way for her brother thereafter; she should desist from preying upon other young men and submit to being worshiped (note the irony there!) at a shrine built expressly for that purpose and when the shrine collapses (it eventually would, as per the arrangement), her spirit would merge into the Narasimha incarnation of Vishnu (*)

Reader, if how the story ended - a long time ago - sounded rather mystifying, what has followed - in our own time - is beyond words. I quote from Wiki:

After taking refuge in Lord Narasimha of Thekkedom, the Yakshi is now believed to be residing in Cellar B of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Trivandrum. As Princess Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi observes, "Disturbing her peace (by opening the cellar that has lain untouched for centuries) would be a disaster especially if her current quiet temperament reverts to the menacing nature that was once hers"


I could recall reading about a film with story line somewhat similar to the Yakshi's. Searching online, I found that it was 'Dreamers' by Bertolucci - against the backdrop of the 1968 student unrest in Paris, a brother and sister get into a complex tangle with a visiting American student. Of course, IMHO, the 'Dreamers' story, for all its reputation and modernity, comes nowhere near the Chirutheyi-Govindan-Kunjuraman triangle!

Aside: I know well someone who claims to have discovered 'Dreamers' while at secondary school. He adds: "I think of myself as an old-timer. Among the so-called New-Gen, I am sure there will be a few who would have been weaned on that film!"


Let me add some more memories - not quite sepia tinted but old nevertheless - triggered by the discovery that Dreamers was made by Bertolucci.

Not long ago, there was no Youtube or even Internet and young folk in our hostels used to hire video players and cassettes for occasional screenings; such screenings often were controversial due to conflicting attitudes towards adult content being shown. For example, I recall hearing of a screening of Bertolucci's 'Last Tango in Paris' in the Common Room of the co-ed hostel of one of our top-flight research institutions. The explicit scenes in the film had apparently caused great outrage among some of the inmates. I don't know further details of how things panned out there but happen to know very well, another story from another research institution. My information is of the reliable second hand variety. Over to the narrator.


Our institute had hostels for guys and girls that (oddly enough) shared a common room. There was only a TV set and music system in there. Once, some of us guys put up a proposal to buy a video player. It was shot down vehemently by the guy who was in charge ('Secky' hereafter) - he asserted that some of the girls were of opinion that the whole idea behind buying the VCP was for some of us 'sick guys' to watch porn.

Shortly thereafter came some festival. Secky said he would hire a VCP and asked people to suggest films. Although most guys showed little interest, we soon gathered that the films and the player had been arranged. Secky duly announced at lunchtime: "Look, ----- (one of the girls) is learning karate so she asked for a martial arts film. And I could get Bruce Lee's 'Fist of Fury'. That will begin the screening tonight"

Most of us didn't care. "Let him and that female watch the dishum dishum!" was the general opinion. Then one chap (let us call him Joe) said. "Guys, relax! Let's sit through that film. Trust me!"

The screening began with Secky expressing satisfaction at a full house having assembled despite the fracas over the video player purchase. 'Fist of Fury' literally kicked off the proceedings. It was insufferable from the word go and some us were soon casting angry glances at Joe who sat calm and impassive. Of course, 'karate kid' seemed suitably impressed.

And then came the punch. About halfway thru, the film featured a striptease - and a very racy, oriental one at that. In hindsight, I am sure, it would have ruined millions of twentieth century video remotes in this very country. A couple of female voices were heard muttering "Hey what the hell!" or some such thing. But nobody - including Secky - moved; perhaps everyone was stunned.

And before anyone could act, the scene - just about a minute long - concluded; and Joe spoke: "Guys, painful film this! Let's be gone!" and within moments, our entire gang had marched out. Pity, I didn't look back at Secky.


(*)Evidently, the story's conclusion incorporates a very lame attempt to pass off Govindan's feelings for Kunjuraman as akin to Balarama's for his beloved younger brother Krishna. Curiously, there seems to be no serious modern reworkings of Chirutheyi's story; the decidedly less spectacular 'Venmani Yakshi' has had at least one theatrical interpretation in Narendra Prasad's acclaimed 'Sauparnika'.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Farrago, Murat and the Pride of India

As everybody knows, Shashi Tharoor has been making all kinds of waves for quite a while. His wide-ranging impact can be gauged from this simple fact:

A roofing material manufacturing company based in Kerala has put on the market a product named: 'Farrago Tiles'. I can trace the naming only to the Tharoor tweet that went "Exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and whatever....".

And inspired by this development, a friend of mine who is planning to get into the soft drinks business has given the name ------- to an all new concoction of his. Readers are invited to fill the blank; the answer to this puzzle - a fairly simple one if you have not taken great pains to keep away from Tharoor and his utterances - is at the bottom of this post.


The Wiki article on Tolstoy's novella 'Hadji Murat' has the following passage (slightly edited): "The narrator contemplates a crushed, but still living thistle he finds in a field. The thistle reminds him of the life of Hadji Murat, a successful and famed Tartar guerrilla who falls out with his own commander and eventually sides with the Russians in hope of saving his family...."

From the novella itself:

"The thistle had three branches. One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung down with a soiled flower at its tip. The other, though also soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender ...."

Here is how one was reminded of someone being reminded of someone on seeing something:

Last week, while traveling to workplace by bus, I spotted, on the median dividing the Kochi bypass, a burst of glorious flowers radiating from a tree that had been cut down or withered and collapsed to a barely one meter stump (with my rudimentary botany, I could identify the species as the 'Pride of India'). The tree stump had practically no leaves and the stalks of ebullient blooms brought up memories of a classical metaphor - the quiver of Kama, the god of Love.

I wanted to take pictures but the spot was about five kilometers from office - and still farther from home - and inconvenient to get down at; whatever, a few days passed by.

Today morning, the weather was overcast and windy and there was little to do at office so I borrowed somebody's bicycle and pedaled to the stump (*). The last week has been occasionally drizzly and lots of fresh leaves have sprouted all around the flowers. So, these are the pictures I could manage of what has been an amazing feat of defiant regeneration (with some effort, I resisted the temptation to tear off the fresh leaves just to get a picture akin to the much punchier vision I had last week).

And then....: A colleague told me that a "grand picture" of this phenomenon had appeared in the local edition of 'Matrubhumi'. With some help from Mom, I searched and found it. Here is the pic taken by V S Shine. Does it look a helluva lot grander than what I could capture!

The pic had a caption that went: "A generous and solemn floral tribute ('adaranjali' in Malayalam): A sprawling tree that stood proudly on the median collapsed the other day. To prevent traffic deadlocks, the authorities cut away and disposed of its branches. But from the yard-high stump that remained, Nature has brought forth a whole host of bouquets of blossoms"

While full of appreciation for the work done by Shine and Matrubhumi, I have reservations about saying 'solemn tribute', especially when faced with such a joyous affirmation of continuing Life.

Here is another - less glamorous but no less impressive - specimen. The Kochi Metro project recently cut a big tree in Chambakkara down to 'kabandha'-state (we can reuse, with very slight changes, the line from Murat and say: "the tree had three branches. Each one was chopped and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm") and now the same tree looks like a perky cheerleader (thanks, Viji Mam!):


A mundu(dhoti) company's ad that appears often on the telly shows actor Mohanlal working a charkha (desi spinning wheel) and declaring: "This is not an ad but a salute to all those craftsmen of yore who weaved India's dreams on the charkha!"

Comment: One knew the Charkha can spin; but never knew it can weave too! So, maybe the yeti can after all, play the bagpipe!

Comment on Comment: Hey, the ad didn't in anyway even indicate that the charkha weaves any kind of cloth - everyone knows it can't! But what prevents it ( or any other device) from weaving (or kneading or scrambling or whatever) dreams?


Answer to the puzzle: 'Rodomontade' after Lemonade and "I choose my words because they are the best ones for the idea i want to convey, not the most obscure or rodomontade ones!" . A sneaking doubt: Did Tharoor get something wrong here - rodomontade shows up in dictionaries as a noun, not an adjective, so....?


(*)Today's biking in challenging traffic - and up and down a lengthy flyover - brought back memories of a monsoon season spent in pre-Millennium Bangalore. There was no work and little money but there were employed folks whose bicycles could be borrowed when they were at work (for those were times when at least some employed people would bike to) and I would scour the city, occasionally having to work thru Bangalore's already messy traffic but enjoying its bracing winds too, occasionally getting drenched in refreshing rains and once reaching as far as the Bannerghatta park.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The JEE Season Is Here!

This is the season of IIT-JEE. For every smart student who will make the cut, there are going to be dozens of sincere students with dreams smashed and worse, morale crushed. Although it happened long ago, I vividly remember the trauma of flunking the JEE, how long the wounds took to heal... and I contemplate, above all, the sheer absurdity of a one-off competitive examination getting invested with life-changing importance and make-or-mar powers ("Come on. He got such and such a rank in the JEE. So, the guy has to be real good!" or "You failed so you cannot really be that good!"); my deepest sympathies are with every present day student going into the mincing machine (over the decades, it has only gotten more overpoweringly vicious).

Aside: A refrain among many sincere students who fail to clear the JEE is "I don't much like chemistry. I did the other papers well!". More than anything else, this is a manifestation of a peculiar caste-like prejudice very widely prevalent among Indians that considers chemistry distinctly inferior to Math and Physics.

Let me quote a bit (with slight edits) from 'The Man who Knew Infinity'; a part of the passage on Britain's Mathematical Tripos examination and how it used to be held in the late 19th century (Note: The Tripos was super difficult and ultra competitive. It had an elaborate ranking system with 'Wranglers', 'Optimes' and so forth. Those who topped became instant celebrities}.

"...And that was the problem: for there was indeed such a thing as Tripos Mathematics; and it bore little kinship to the *real* Mathematics of really serious Mathematicians. The Tripos was tricky and challenging and it certainly separated the Wranglers (the toppers) from the Wooden Spoon (the test was such that first ranker would score around 50 percent while the wooden spooner would struggle to get off the mark) and the Wrangler certainly was far more likely to become a fine mathematician than the straggler. (But, it was eminently clear to those who knew and cared that) the Tripos questions were about accuracy and speed in the manipulation of Mathematical formulas and some shallow cleverness but no real insight - and not even stubborn persistence; indeed, no question could be too long or deep so students trained themselves to look for the hidden 'Tripos Twist'.... "

Serious candidates took special coaching to crack Tripos. The coaches would not teach Mathematics for its own sake but train students in its smart skills and tricks; and some of the most successful coaches were former toppers, just like what would happen - and keep happening - with the JEE in our own country a century later(*)!

Bertrand Russel remarked: "Preparing for the Tripos led me to think of Mathematics as consisting of artful dodges and ingenious devices, rather like a crossword puzzle" The Tripos over, he swore never to look at Mathematics again and sold all his Mathematics books (he grew out of that phase later, happily)!


As is often the case with Indians, it would be tempting to lay the blame for much of the hype and nonsense surrounding the IIT JEE on Lord Macaulay and the lessons of nasty and obsessive exam competition we learned from our former British masters. But that would mark us out as particularly poor pupils; for the British understood the fundamental problems with Tripos and took serious corrective measures well before they let go of India; and 21st century India is still stuck vis-a-vis the JEE just the way Britain was obsessed with Tripos when Hardy and Russel were teenagers.

And it is not as if we ever needed any tutoring in asinine competitiveness. Indeed, let's pause and take a look at a passage from 'Once Upon a Time', a Popular History series brought out, apparently in consultation with serious historians, by the National Book Trust. Around the time of Emperor Harsha (7th century AD), two bright young fellows are discussing prospects of higher education at the then great University of Nalanda:

"I would love to join Nalanda!" Pundarika said. "The library there is so big it spreads over three buildings; and it has thousands of books!"

"Me too" said Vasubhuti. "And I would love to check out that grand sundial which sets the time for the whole subcontinent!"

"But, even just getting in is tough, my friend! To get admitted, one has to be a gifted and well-trained scholar. Even the Nalanda gatekeepers are learned and they do an initial screening of candidates; for every student they let in, at least four are sent away! And then, you have to pass other tests!"

"But then, how come the University has over five thousand students?!" queried Vasubhuti.

"That's because so many candidates come, from all over the land. And even from other countries like Lanka, Java, Sumatra,..." explained Pundarika. "And mind you, a mere selection to Nalanda is nowhere near enough. You got to work very hard through their program and clear a final examination too. Each scholar who passes it is garlanded and paraded thru city streets on the back of an elephant. And those who fail are driven off, tied to the backs of asses, their faces blackened!"

"God, then it's better for guys like us to avoid that place!" said Vasubhuti.

Remark: Although the above story does not say it in so many words, one gets the feeling that in the India of 1400 years ago, one could simply avoid a top-rated, competitive place and not be made to feel devoid of intellectual worth. And *that* is where we seem to have really changed.


'Infinity' also notes: "(Well over a century ago) the personal qualities encouraged by the Tripos, J J Thomson (who would later become discoverer of the electron and Nobelist) would make so bold as to suggest, made it excellent training - for the Bar!". Now, the qualities inculcated by the JEE appears to have become excellent training - for the IIMs and money-making, oops, wealth creation!

And, mercifully, the flunking-the-JEE picture definitely has another side: for instance, I know a guy who remarked "I failed JEE. but no, I didn't do it all that poorly. I did the English paper very well!" - and he has gone on to become a superb scientist and expositor; And I am NOT talking about Venki Ramakrishnan(**)!


(*)A certain all new institution dedicated to 'science education' has advertised itself in a big way on billboards all over the city with pictures of Einstein, Newton, Hawking,... and the punch line: "Experience a unique way of Learning designed by IITians for the Future IITian!". And Bollywood is coming up with a biopic on super teacher Anand Kumar, founder of 'Super 30' which, among other noble things, probably pioneered the 'IITians coaching for JEE' trend.

(**) Quite a few web pages console those who don't get thru JEE by listing some top people who too didn't. At least one among them begins the list with APJ Abdul Kalam. Kalam was no IITian but it looks very unlikely he ever gave the JEE - he was nearly 30 years old when the first JEE was held in 1960.

Friday, May 04, 2018

A Teenaged Gathering

1. Historian M G Sasibhooshan has written several popular and useful accounts of traditional Kerala visual arts. He has also written essays on some of the lesser known aspects of Kerala (and occasionally Indian) history from a firmly right-of-center viewpoint. Here is a curious quote:

"The decline of Indian Civilization began in the 10th and 11th centuries. Royal priests seriously took up Tantrism. They often took the five Makaras of Tantrism (meat, fish, parched grain, liquor and copulation) too literally. Incorporating them into religious practices could lead to the attainment of some special powers but they also led to the country losing its manly valor. This emasculation led to determined enemies easily taking over India.

Indeed Shaktism has a sinister aspect; and one sees an overdose of it at the Konark and Khajuraho temples. It is not enough to view the (erotic) carvings there as works of art alone. Indeed such a perspective can lead to dangerous oversimplifications; some of the carvings might be explained as depicting the Siva-Sakti union but there are others which show ritual practices. I am of the opinion that these temples mark the decline into decadence of a great civilization."

2. At a Tamil-owned restaurant on a highway near Cochin, a shelf of Malayalam books were put up for sale - a smart move directed at car travelers. Here is a glimpse - Mein Kampf and Anne Frank's diary sit on either side of a children's novel by 'Painkili Master' Muttathu Varkey:

The cover of the Mal Mein Kampf clearly says: "For each word in this book, 125 lives were lost. Every page herein killed 47000 people..."

3. The 'Makara' is a mythical beast - half terrestrial animal and the other half fish or bird. It has an all-Asia presence. Even the Greek Capricorn - half goat and half fish - is usually identified with the Makara.

Among the many adornments and attributes our Tradition endows Vishnu with, the strangest are the 'Makara Kundalas' - Makara earrings. I had not even a ghost of an idea as to how earrings could have anything to do with such fantastic beasts - until I saw the grand 'Anantasayana' mural on the inner wall of the Western Gopuram of the Ettumanur Siva temple. Here is a detail. Look at those earrings, Larry!

4. The paintings of Willam Adolphe Bouguerou may be formulaic; and they may fall way short of transcendental greatness; but they have charm (by way of analogy, a Bouguerou is more mellifluous and sweetly amorous film song than profound Pancharatna kriti). And I am a fan. So I was much pleased to see in a glass and picture frame shop, a freshly done painting of Krishna and Rukmini dreamily afloat among iridescent clouds. As shown in the diptych below, it is a very desi adaptation of the Frenchman's 'Psyche and Eros' (the changes made go well beyond the clothing) and represents to me, kitsch at its nicest...

5. As a teenager long ago, I read the following remarkable passage on Indian jewelry in Britannica (1980s edition) - the article 'Dress and Adornment':

"Extensive documentation on ancient jewels is provided by Buddhist statues and the cycles of wall paintings in the Ajanta caves (5th century AD). The great variety of types of jewelry indicates the high degree of development attained by the art of jewelry-making in one of the most magnificent of ancient civilizations, the Indus, and the wealth and variety of deposits of precious and semiprecious stones to be found in India. Indian women were thus the first to decorate themselves with huge quantities of jewels - so many that they were almost fully clothed without wearing any real garments. The clothing of these lovely Indian girls consisted of tiaras, necklaces, earrings, armlets, bracelets, belts, cache sexe (serving the same function as a loincloth) anklets and toe rings, worn on their bare skin and complemented by (practically nothing else)... a woman's belt found at Harappa (3rd millennium BC) used to be worn on the bare body of the woman extending down from the waist for but a few inches..."(*)

What made me recall and then search and find this passage after all these years was seeing this Dwarapala sculpture on the Vyttila temple Gopuram:

Note: Last year, I wrote here: "in his Nataraja form, Siva is almost always shown wearing cycling shorts-like breeches. The Dwarapalas (guardian figures who flank doorways in temples) too usually wear them".

One guesses that a recent repainting/overpainting activity took away the Vytila dwarapala's breeches. Let me also mention that the same treatment has been meted out to some (even more heavily ornamented) female figures on the same gopuram as well.

6. Among the hundreds of hefty DK volumes is the hulking 'Millennium: 20th Century Day by Day', 1500+ pages and 7+ kilos of 'the lazy pleasure of erudition' (to borrow a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges). The tome is also a source of serious wisdom: for instance, I discovered in this book that many more political leaders and other luminaries were assassinated in early 20th century than in the early 21st (for instance in Czarist Russia in Feb 1905, a certain Grand Duke Sergey had a bomb filled with nails dropped in his lap). Even the hoi polloi seem to have had it somewhat worse in those days than now - the long and painful path taken by the Suffragette movement in England is a case in point.

And consider this entry from 1910: "A Chinese army occupies and loots Lhasa forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India. He returned from exile in Peking only two months back, having fled there when British troops arrived in Lhasa in 1904". Note that we are not reading here about the present His Holiness. Isn't it actually reassuring to note that History is essentially cyclic - but for the World actually getting a wee bit better over a few turns of the Old Wheel?

7. There is something unique about Kochi's traffic jams. Everyday I see many city buses among the hundreds of vehicles stuck at each bottleneck; and practically every single such bus has empty seats. One is tempted to guess: if only Kochiites switch to their old way of commuting by bus from the present preference for cars or taxis or mobikes, the city's traffic woes would largely melt away (in other words, Kochi's traffic congestion seems more life-style disease than inevitable byproduct of economic growth).


(*) While the titillation it offers is very real, this Britannica passage fantastically mixes Harappa and Ajanta (which lie almost 3000 years apart!) and from that cocktail, conjures up a (somewhat virtual) India teeming with bejeweled and unclad maidens.