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

Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Techie's Vision

A certain Indian Techie, who is based abroad with a reputed firm and is, to all accounts, having a blast out there with his lady-love, sums up his context and articulates the distant prospect of retirement thus:

"Basically I save 1.2 lakhs a month...Very briefly, the plan is to save
36 lakhs, which gives you Rs. 30,000 per month at 10% interest, and then just ****ing quit. Not brilliant or complete, but heck, it's at least a plan! :)

Actually, the post-retirement is MUCH MORE clear!! Briefly, it involves waking up on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi after some good quality ganja with a friendly dog licking my face..."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

'nja', 'nha', 'gna' And 'nya' - Stories Of A Transliteration

This longish post is on the different transliterations into the English Alphabets of a certain Indian consonant and the possible histories of these transliterations.

First some notation: In what follows, 'NA' will denote the last consonant of the 'ca'-set in Indian alphabets - 'ca' as in 'locana'; we recall, the consonants of the 'ca'-set are 'ca', 'cha', 'ja', 'jha' and 'NA'. It is a matter of some concern that most folks in the northern part of this country have largely lost the original pronunciation of 'NA' - it is often pronounced somewhat like 'gya' which is certainly a deviation from the original sound. In the south, the original pronunciation of 'NA' is still known and used frequently in Tamil and even more so in Malayalam.

If one were to transliterate this 'NA' sound into English (in terms of the phonetics of English), the closest fit is 'nya' but one almost never sees 'nya' used. Indeed there are several other DIFFERENT transliterations in current use; and each seems to have a story of its own.

In Kerala, the 'standard' transliteration of the 'NA' sound in English lettes is 'nja' (for example 'njan' is how 'NAn' (meaning 'I') is usually written in English letters). However, especially in northern Kerala, one also sees 'NA' is spelt 'nha'. Names such as 'Kunhiraman', Kunhananthan',... are examples for this variant. I used to find this northern variant a bit odd (the standard 'nja' is actually even less intuitive in terms of English phonetics and was more acceptable only due to greater familiarity). In Tamil Nadu, 'NA' is transliterated as 'gna' which is still odder (examples are names like 'Gnanam').

These variations appear to have sprung from transliterations of 'NA' done into DIFFERENT European languages - a process carried out over a long time by visitors and missionaries who spoke those different languages; and these diverse transliterations were all apparently adopted unchanged by English - even those that are incompatible with English phonetics(?!). First let us look at the 'standard Mallu' transliteration of 'nja': the Dutch were influential in central and southern Kerala for quite some time. 'ja' is pronounced like 'ya' in Dutch. So writing 'NA' as 'nja' would give it the pronunciation of 'nya' in the Dutch convention - and that sound is about as close an approximation to 'NA' as one can get with Dutch phonetics.

The Portuguese had a strong presence in Mangalore (apart from Goa) - their presence in Mangalore (from where they had some influence over northern Kerala) lasted much longer than their earlier association with Cochin. And in Portuguese, the cluster 'nha' is indeed, pronounced 'nya' - examples are names like 'Saldanha' (actually pronounced somewhat like 'Saldan-ya'). So the Portuguese too have given a fairly accurate transliteration.

As for the transliteration 'gna' prevalent in Tamil-land, it seems to be of Italian origin - and it is the most accurate for, in Italian, the pronunciation of the 'gna' combination is practically identical to the Desi 'NA' sound. And although Italians never were dominant anywhere in India, Jesuit missionaries from there (like the famous de Nobili) spent long years in Tamil country and this 'gna' transliteration must have been their contribution.

And 'gna' could also be of Latin origin - the Latin pronunciation of the cluster 'gna' is the same as in Italian. It appears that the use of 'gna' to stand for 'NA' is found in Bengal as well which did not have much of an Italian jesuit connection so here Latin might have provided the phonetic reference.

So one could concludes that the persistence of these seemingly odd alternative transliterations of 'NA' into English (to the exclusion of the obvious 'nya') contain pointers to some less than well-known nooks of Indian history.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


An immediate source of inspiration for this post is Sunil Laxman's post: 'Indian Accents and Flawless Speech' - to be precise, his musings on using the word 'erudite'.

While finishing my previous post, I noticed that I had just used the word 'eponymous' for the first time ever. I remembered first seeing the word in Theodore Baskaran's delightful book on nature, "The Dance of the Sarus" quite sometime back. Baskaran describes a quiet and thoughtful boatman named Govinda who ferried him across a river in a south Indian nature reserve and remarks: "he reminded me of the eponymous boatman from Hesse's Siddhartha". I had guessed then, the new word meant "having the same name as".

The children's magazine 'Kummatti' was indeed named after the movie of the same name. So, my use of "eponymous" appeared to be quite appropriate. Morever, very satisfyingly, Theodore Baskaran himself had already featured in the same post :).

I was feeling pretty smug about the matter, but a little bit of web-searching today has changed the picture totally. First, I looked up 'eponymous'at Here is what they say: "eponym = one for whom or which something is or is believed to be named". That was a bit nebulous to self. This page from Wikipedia is much clearer and here are further details.

'Eponymos' in Greek means 'giving name', NOT 'named after' or 'having the same name as'. Thus having the same name is not quite sufficient. If A is the eponym of B, it is B that is named after A and NOT the other way around. In our example, it is the movie that is eponymous with (or to?) the magazine - I had clearly got things wrong!

Theodore Baskaran too is on a sticky wicket (although his causal understanding is sound) for the following different reasons: (1) It is very unlikely that whoever named the humble boatman in his narrative would have named him specifically after a Hesse-an character - and as we noted above, merely having the same name won't do! Further, (2) The name of the wise boatman in 'Siddhartha' is not Govinda but Vasudeva!

Note: Now I remember Baskaran's book had taught me yet another interesting word: here is the which and how of it: "The story that the Great Indian Bustard was not selected as our National Bird only because of the dangerous possibilities inherent in misspelling its name may be APOCRYPHAL!"

Friday, June 17, 2005

'The Best Indian Movies Ever'?

Rediff, these days, is asking some big names in Indian cinema to pick the best 10 Indian films ever.

To self, an out and out non-expert, this poll has brought out a simple fact often vehemently denied: the commercial and the 'arty' streams of Indian cinema are just that, separate streams - though there are odd channels which link them, And there are fundamentally different MINDSETS expressed by the two streams. The choices of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Theodore Baskaran and Amol Palekar stand clearly apart from that of the likes of Subhash Ghai and Pradeep Sarkar (although everyone includes the mandatory Ray or Ghatak).

I have an issue though with all the choosers so far:
- not a single children's film has been chosen by anybody as far as I can make out (no, 'Masoom' is not a children's film). The commercialists could have picked something like 'Chhota Chetan', which, warts-and-all, was a pioneering effort. And at least Adoor should have chosen Aravindan's near-forgotten masterpiece 'Kummaatti' (this movie even inspired the startup of an eponymous children's magazine in Malayalam, which unfortunately, was short-lived; and I am told 'Kummatti' was a hit in Japan(!)).

And I must say although it was modest of Adoor to leave his own works out, his 'blacking out' films by other Malayalam directors, especially Aravindan and John Abraham, seems less than innocent. One could also feel some sympathy for Mohanlal's way of admitting his non-expertise by choosing only films that mean something to himself; still, I felt bad he did not pick even one movie by Padmarajan who gave Lal some of his best roles.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Pebble Story

At school we had to study as a lesson titled 'The pebble has a story to tell' - an extract from 'Letters to my Daughter' by Jawaharlal Nehru. At the end of the lesson one had to answer questions like: "How did Nehru contribute to Indira's education, even when he was imprisoned by the British?". The answer that ought to be given was like "by writing detailed letters on various interesting and important topics from jail to his daughter".

Even for a primary school-er, our first PM's 'pebble letter' had little to offer by way of solid new info - as far as I can remember, it just talked about how a stone broke from a mountain, rolled downhill and then down a river and how it got polished by all the collisions it went thru over a very very long time and became round, smooth and shiny. The narrative can probably be better viewed as a fine parable on how life experiences can turn a person into a (rounded) personality; maybe that was Nehru's intent as well(*).

Anyways, after all these years, I just got to read the following in Hilbert's "Geometry and the Imagination" (written with S.Cohn-Vossen). After describing an 'Ellipsoid', the Master says: "The ellipsoidal shape can often be recognizsed in stones exposed to ocean waves. A stone of any shape becomes increasingly similar to an ellipsoid as the water wears away at it. The mathematical study of this phenomenon involves problems of the theory of probability(!)" and THAT is one hell of a twist to the story! One also wonders about the TYPES of rock which can give those shining white pebbles (granite probably can't; At least I dont know).
(*)Note: As to Nehru's 'real' intent behind writing those letters, I have read somewhere the following (jealously?) cynical story: the letters were never actually sent to Indira but carefully stashed away by the author himself to be published in neat volumes at the end of each jail term he went through. They were thus - allegedly - part of an elaborate image building activity undertaken by a scholar-polititian who saw himself as the 'philosopher prince' of India.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Wish YOU were here!

We talked about a genuine difficulty faced by speakers of Malayalam while learning the phonetically alien language of English, here. This post is on yet another genuine difficulty with Malayalam, the reasons for which are entirely within the language.

While conversing in Malayalam, almost anyone will repeatedly face peculiar and severe problems with second person pronouns - there is no minimal and complete set of words which could be used in the sense of the single English word 'you' or for the complete triple of {tu, tum, aap} of Hindi (by completeness, one means that the set of words given can cover all situations where one addresses another person; One can address anybody from a kid to a venerable old man as 'you' in English). Malayalam has the words: "nee", "ningal", "thaangal", "angu", "thaan", "nammal", "iddeham", "saar", "madam" (and many more) which all CAN mean 'you' in various conversational contexts. And (this is the weird part!) even this gargantuan set is woefully incomplete. It has no words for addressing in second person, for instance, one's own parents!

To break free from this peculiar trap created by themselves, Mallus often use (1)the the relationship one has with the second person (2)or the proper name of the second person itself or (3) in some special cases, the profession of the socond person (doctor or teacher especially) as substitute for the straightforward 'you'. For instance, I ask my pop: "Did father like my blog?" where 'father' is a substitute for 'you'. Old friend and fellow-Mallu Anand can tell ME (directly) something like(hopefully!): "I liked Nandakumar's post on the second person" where what he means is "I liked YOUR post...". This runs into difficulties when the 'you' in question is say, self's father, an elder who cannot be addressed by HIS name. Then 'you' becomes 'Nandakumar's father'. Needless to say, this does not solve the problem fully since the 'you' is defined with reference to something else - such a trick can often fail. So some folks bring in words like 'uncle', 'brother' and so substitutes for 'you' - the problem keeps getting shifted, never solved.

Having watched the evolution of this language as a practitioner for so many years, one could recommend Governmental action to sort this out. Perhaps it could begin at primary schools where kids could be taught to address their teacher as 'thaangal' (the 'polite' you) and not ask questions like "What is teacher's name?". But it won't be easy at all; most Mallus find the word "thaangal" very awkward indeed! The wish for a single 'you' in Malayalam is unlikely to be ever fulfilled.

Historically, Kerala society was a very stratified one and in such a setting, a blanket 'you' for anybody could not have evolved. Indeed there used to be very deferential words 'you', as there were for 'I' as well: "adiyan", "eeyullavan",... (and the pompous practice of referring to self in plural). Modernization has largely eliminated many of these oddities but the second person difficulties persist.

One can see a clear link between prevalence of equality and the usage of a single second person pronoun, in Kerala. For instance, it is not surprising, given their substantial contribution to social equality, that the communists have a single word 'comrade' for any 'you' as long as the second person is also a commie. To give another example, at the Sabarimala temple (a rather odd place for the genuine equality prevalent there) one can address anybody as 'swami'. These are of courese sectarian solutions for a larger problem; and they can't help you address your parents!

Probably, one could again wonder: The rest of Indian society was equally stratified in olden times. How did only the Mallu fall into this weird 'second person trap'. There could be more complex reasons.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

A Question on Questions

This is a bit of speculation on classification of language families.

Let me start with an observation: In most (if not all) Indo-European languages, questions which expect an affirmative "yes" answer are framed negatively - for example, "Did he NOT come?" EXPECTS "yes" for an answer. This feature is shown even by the Dravidian languages. And to my mind, this phenomenon has no obvious reason. This feature, for which there is no readily obvious logical reason, is shown even by the Dravidian languages.

Similarly, non-negative questions generally expect a negative answer; for instance, teh question: "Did he come?" expects a "No". But things are a bit subtler here. A non-negative question "Will you marry me?" in English (or in any language) does not expect - indeed, cannot often take - "No" for an answer. So, one could state the general rule for framing questions as follows: A negatively phrased question *certainly* expects an affirmative answer; an affirmative question tends to expect a negative answer but NEED NOT be in expectation of a negative answer.

I don't know if this feature is universal or not. If one assumes that East Asian, Polynesian, African, Native American, etc... languages do not have this feature, it could give a non-trivial property shared across the Indo-European and Dravidian language families and that perhaps can enable enables us to talk in terms of merging these two families. On the other hand, if in every language in the world asks a negative question if a "yes" is expected in return, that really begs a fundamental question: why is this trait so universal??.

Note 1: Modifying nouns or adding suffixes to indicate plurality (apple- apples and goose-geese for example is yet another feature of most if not all Dravidian and Indo-European languages; this is absent in at least some East Asian languages. Wonder if this could be yet another indication for the merger of Dravidian with Indo-European at the root-level.

Note 2: Some languages have quirky constructions like "What if something DOES NOT go wrong??" where what is being articulated is the fear of something actually going wrong. Hindi shows this peculiarity which used to mystify me in school days (and still does)!

Friday, June 03, 2005

On Being Book-Tagged

Anand has book-tagged me from 'Locana'.

Let me try to provide the info required:

The number of books I own:
A few dozens at my apartment in Pune, several hundred at my home in Kerala.

The laast book I bought:
'Millennium' by Filipe Fernandez Armesto.

The last book I read:
Same as previous; unfinished.

Five books that mean a lot to me:
Most entries here will be in collective terms - individual books are pick. And they are mostly books read long back, in more impressionable times!

1. 'Sanchara Sahityam' (Malayalam) by S.K.Pottekkat - a massive 3 volume collection of his travel writing.

2. The travel writings of Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux (especially the train journeys) and Peter Matthiessen ('The Snow Leopard').

3. The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

4. The Essays by Stephen Jay Gould (I am familiar with only a small subset of these; I intensely admire their polymathic sweep).

5. 'The Library of Modern Knowledge' a mini-encyclopedia that Reader's Digest brought out in the late seventies and which I got to read (with plenty of disinterested passion) while at school. Now, it is an antique piece!

Honorable Mention:
- 'Aitihyamala' (Malayalam) by Kottarathil Sankunni; A hugely-varied collection of folk-tales, legends, (fanciful) life-histories,... from Kerala, written down almost a century ago in a narrative style rarely equalled since for its economy and gripping pace.
- 'The Idiot' by Dostoyevky; because a good friend remarked that I remind of him of Mishkin!
- Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales; I used to love their sweet sentimentality and pathos.

Books I could not finish:
At the top of this long and sad list, I would put Feynman's Lectures. Let me renew a very old pledge to cover-to-cover them, sometime!

PS: I am not in touch with enough bloggers to book-tag more folks. Thanks to Anand for hooking me up.