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

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

'Vatukan' - An Exercise In Etymology

This post is on the mysterious etymology of the rather controversial (for some details, see below) Malayalam word 'vatukan' (note on pronunciation: 't' is retroflexed).

Long back, while at primary school in Kerala, we got to learn a word from the Malayalam language lessons: 'vatu' ('t' retroflexed again). This was said to mean 'a young Brahmin'. It sounded funny enough (well, in Mallu pronunciation) - and disparaging enough - for most of us to use it as a communal nickname for the few 'Palghat Iyer' students in our batch. Well, Kerala is a very sectarian place, from the ground up!

I heard the word 'vatukan' when I was somewhat older. In our part of Kerala (strictly the central part), it is an infrequently used word and generally meant 'a disagreeable fellow'. I remember trying to connect 'vatukan' with 'vatu', unsuccessfully - 'vatukan' was used against anyone, without caste connotations.

While at College, our Malayalam language professor told us, 'vatukan' actually is a 'traditional slang word' for a ... Malayali Christian! That was quite a big surprise (still later, I got to hear from some folks who hailed from southern Kerala that the word was still very much in use in their part of the province - to abuse Christians. As I said, Kerala is ... well, you know!).

In those days, there used to be an international correspondent for 'The Hindu' named Batuk Gathani. The surname sounded Sindhi (it still does to self) but the first name appeared to be the same as 'Vatuka', corrupted (the V-B thing is universal, the Bongs have no monopoly there). Somewhat later, I happened to read about Batukeshwar Dutt, the young Punjabi revolutionary who accompanied Bhagat Singh on his final, fateful mission.

Somewhere on the web one sees: 'Vatuka' refers to the god Siva - it is indeed derived from 'vatu' (which means Brahmin). The 'ka' at the end is a diminutive, so 'vatuka' means a 'little vatu'. Aside: 'vatu' too seems to refer to a brahmin student (a 'brahmachari') and not one in his prime. Not sure how Siva came to be referred to as a little Brahmin - although mythology says he did very briefly assume the form of a 'vatu' to test Parvati's devotion.

In a work on Kerala History by Raghava Variyar and Rajan Gurukkal, there is mention of a name that featured in one of the ancient inscriptions: 'Chattan Vatukan'. The said person was apparently the leader of a guild of Christian merchants. So, the 'Vatukan' - Christian connection seems very old indeed. In those dim days, the word does not seem to have been derogatory. Perhaps the story of 'nasrani', a classical word for 'Christian' (and which now is very much a politically incorrect word) is a close parallel to 'vatukan'.

Let me stop this search by admitting I still do not have the last word on this word - a word that mysteriously links Siva and Mallu Christians of a long-gone era.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

When 'Bandar' Became 'Monkey'

Saw 'Pather Panchali' after nearly 20 years - twice in 24 hours. I won't try to add to the review literature on the masterpiece.

The English subtitles on the DVD contained a few interesting nuggets. Here is one sample:

The street corner showman's loud invitation: "dekho dekho Dilli dekho, Bambai dekho, Dilli ka Kuttab, Agre ka Taj, Mathura ka Mandir, Bambai ka Bandar!"

was subtitled: "Come! See! Qutub of Delhi, Taj of Agra, Mandir of Bandra,... Monkey of Bombay!"'

'Mathura' had turned to 'Bandra' in translation. And yes, 'bandar' had become 'monkey'.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Tribute To A Great 'Nitpicker'

"Why would one want to nitpick with ...a wonderful idea?? - unless of course one gets one's highs from it???"
- a blog comment, posted sometime in 2005.

I was reminded of the above comment when I was at home in Kerala a few weeks back...

I was leafing thru my old copy of Yakov Perelman's 'Physics for Entertainment'. The glittering white of the paper had faded; but the characteristic 'progress publishers fragrance' still persisted and the articles read crisp and sharp. I reread after a long time, the article on Jules Verne's 'From The Earth to the Moon' (the 19th century science fiction novel describing a trip to space and moon). Perelman clinically analyses the main idea of the novel - a spacecraft being shot to the moon from a giant cannon - and shows thru simple equations of dynamics how this concept is fatally flawed;the acceleration required to be achieved within the barrel of the cannon is so huge that the weight of every single object in the spacecraft would grow several thousand-fold - the space travelers would get crushed by their own weight. "Even Barbicane's hat would begin to weigh something like 15 tons. That is much more than enough to smash him to pulp".

Perelman does not lay off at that. He says: "Jules Verne was indeed aware of the problems such extreme acceleration could cause - his spacecraft does have some springs and cushions to reduce its impact. But honestly, those schemes are nowhere near adequate. I doubt if reducing the weight of the hat to 14 tonnes from 15 would have any noticeable impact on Barbicane's fate!". And he triumphantly signs off: "Thus we conclude our simple analysis which has emphatically put paid to the grandly imaginative scheme of Jules Verne's characters!"

Elsewhere in the same work, there is a shorter piece on Verne's 'Journey to the center of the Earth'. After briefly summarizing Verne's plot, Perelman begins the Physics thus: "Well, you might be wondering whether Verne's scheme is feasible. To verify that it is totally invalid, there is no need for you to dig a pit into the bowels of the earth; all that is required is pen and paper; and basic physics!".

In yet another article Perelman, using a formula due to Euler (note: I have never encountered this formula since) shows up a 'feat' of yet another Jules Verne hero - he singlehandedly steadies a large ferry-boat, hauling it by a rope, having first wound the rope a few times on a stout peg - as something rather ...commonplace.

But the most devastating shot is reserved for H.G.Wells, arguably, an even greater writer of science fiction than Jules Verne. "The Invisible Man (as conceived by Wells) cannot but be BLIND!"

Yes, I do remember being somewhat (jealously) outraged by what THEN seemed to be Perelman's triumphant chest-thumping. Perhaps some other reader would even have told Perelman (I had no chance; he died in Leningrad - probably in the siege of Leningrad - in 1942): "Okay, okay, you may have got the Physics right. But at least have a heart for those superb writers and their wonderful ideas; it is perhaps okay to point out their flaws but no need to rub it in like that!"

And yeah, 'rub it in' Perelman really did, and how! "Physics..." also features: "The Chapter Jules Verne failed to write", an amazingly evocative (fictional but scientifically accurate) description of weightlessness in space which is right up there with the best science fiction ever written!