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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Seems Times Have Changed

Long back, when I was in school, Reader's Digest brought out a volume titled 'Discovery'. It was on the historic feats of exploration and adventure - an alternative title of the book was 'Adventures that changed our World'.

All adventurers were white men (about the only exception was Mrs. Florence Baker who accompanied her husband Samuel White Baker in his search for the source of the Nile. And there was also something on the ancient Phoenician voyager Hanno but Phoenicians are not exactly non-white!). There was NOTHING on the great medieval Chinese navigator Zheng He or on the namelesss Polynesian navigators who populated practically every island in the Pacific well before the Europeans 'discovered' them - and zilch or thereabouts on Arab or Chinese travelers like ibn Batuta and Al Beruni or Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang - not to speak of Tamil seafarers who reached Malaysia and beyond.

Moreover, it was obvious that 'Discovery' was not the right title for a volume in which genuinely scientific explorers like Captain Cook, Lewis and Clarke or Vitus Bering had for company brave but disgusting characters like Vasco Da Gama (he certainly was disgusting from an Indian viewpoint) and Balboa. And some of the stories were, from any viewpoint, gruesome chronicles of invasion, loot and murder - 'Pizarro *destroys* the Incas', for instance.

But a chapter that caused special irritation was titled 'Hillary climbs Mount Everest'. No Tenzing! Even in the text, the Sherpa appears as little more than a trusty sidekick to the intrepid New Zealander. There was the photograph of a triumphant Tenzing on the summit (taken by Hillary) with the wistful caption 'Tenzing had never handled a camera before so Hillary could not get himself photographed atop the Everest'!


Cut to the present. Britannica has published a solid tome: 'Learning Library' for children. It contains among other things, short life-sketches of 30 or so prominent people, chosen from all over history (a very balanced collection; Gandhi is there and is neatly balanced by Jinnah - or was the balancing done the other way round?). I was surprised to see Tenzing in the list; Hillary does appear but not to play Crusoe to Tenzing's Friday; and there is a photo of the two mountaineers together, preparing for the climb of their lives.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Same Side Of Two Coins

5 am. I walk down to the local motor rickshaw ('auto') stand and ask for a ride to the Railway station. "Fine. Half return" says the 'autowallah'. "Fine" I agree (Note: generally between 10 pm and 6 am, autos charge 50 percent above what the meter shows. This is not considered a tip. To my knowledge, there is no real tradition of tipping auto-drivers anywhere in India).

At the station, while getting down, I look at the meter. It shows 43.50 rupees. "Fine. That makes 66 rupees." I say, mentally adding the 'half-return', and hand over 70 bucks.

The autowallah takes the dough, touches his meter reverentially and says a silent prayer. Then he too gets off, mutters "no change" and walks off to a newspaper vendor. I wait; the autowallah returns in 20 seconds with a paper. Seeing me near the auto he says: "Told you, right? No change!". He starts up the auto.

I am not amused. "Of course, you had change otherwise how did you buy the paper? Give me the balance four bucks".

He says "I am usually around at the stand near your home. Collect your 4 bucks sometime!" and he is gone.


Return. Night 1 am. I get down at the station and flag an auto to take me back home. "Night charge will be there!" says the autowallah - a new guy. "Fine; half return, right?" I ask. He agrees silently and we start off.

As I get down in front of our 'society', I check the meter. It shows the usual 44 rupees. I count out 70 rupees and offer it. He does not take the dough but stares blankly at me and asks gruffly: "What is this?" I explain: "I added half return and a tip; the meter shows 44 bucks".

He says: "That won't do. This is an odd time."

I am not amused. "Look boss, we had settled on a half return. I paid it. Keep the change. That is it"

I walk off leaving the money on his dashboard. "Hey you! who do you think you are?" he calls after me "Do you think you are doing me a favor. Here take back your cash" and steps out of the auto, notes in hand. I quicken my pace of walking. He follows me into our 'society' (A security guard, who has seen the entire action simply watches). "Hey, take your money! I don't need it!" He yells. I keep walking, fast, in determined silence. He seems to be switching to expletives and I break into a run so that I don't have to hear (and bear) them ...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Devout Locals And Ambitious Outsiders"

In the July 2000 issue of National Geographic, the editor, writes "eloquently" thus (the stuff in braces inline is mine):

"Like ants scaling a loaf of bread, tourists (accompanying snap shows over a score of them) troop to the top of Australia's Ayers Rock--despite polite reminders from park workers and tour bus drivers that the rock, known to the Aborigines as Uluru, is a sacred place. Such conflicts between the devout locals and ambitious ('ambitious'?!) outsiders are not unique to down under. Here in the United States, the Park Service imposed a "voluntary ban" (come again!) during the month of June on scaling Devils Tower National Monument--Mateo Tepee to Native Americans of the northern plains, who hold spiritual rites there at that time and sought to limit the throngs of visitors. Rock climbers sued to overturn the ban, but a federal appeals court ruled against them (did the court go against guys who went against tradition or did the court simply affirm tradition?). As each of us becomes more at home in the farthest reaches of the globe, conflicts like these can only increase. We should develop policies to resolve them now, or we may someday awaken to find a team of tourists rappelling from the Statue of Liberty's nose.(perhaps a 'voluntary ban' would help? Or have some volunteers to politely remind the 'ambitious outsiders' that her nose is ... sacred?)"

Friday, January 12, 2007

Where To Break It??

Long back. When I first came to Chennai (Madras) for studies. There was a certain P.V.C Rao (Gult of course) in our hostel; folks used to call him simply 'PVC' - and even 'Vinyl' (short for, of course, 'Poly Vinyl Chloride'; and very appropriately, he was doing Chemical Engineering). One day, I asked someone what his full name was. The answer was "P.V.Chalapati Rao".

It struck me as somewhat weird. "The V in his name must be Venkata" I thought, since I already knew Venkata to be a very common middle name in AP. "The chap's name must be 'P. Venkatachalapati Rao' But 'Venkatachalapati' (a compound name) should be analytically broken as 'Venkata + Achalapati' and not 'Venkata + Chalapati'. He should have been P.V.A Rao, not P.V.C. Someone has really goofed up!"

The full name Venkatachalapati is formed from 'Venkatam' (the proper name of the holy hill at Tirupati), 'Achalam' (means mountain) and 'Pati' (means husband or lord). So the full name means 'the Lord of the (holy) mountain of Venkatam'. This is a rather straightforward compound name to break. And yes, replacing 'Achalam' with 'Chalam' would yield nonsense, even in Sanskrit. Moreover, at least in Malayalam, my language, 'Chalam' means 'pus'. So, 'Chalapati' would imply (horror!) 'Lord of... 'well, you know!

Sometime later, I came to know another gent who was called simply 'Chalam' - again short for 'Venkatachalam', his official name. One day, during a break, I made a remark to a Tamil friend: "I am somewhat uncomfortable with this 'Chalam', the name that is! I would prefer calling him 'Venky' or even 'Venkatachalam', all the way." And I gave the Mallu problem with the word 'chalam'. The response was as follows: "Hey, you are right! Even in Tam, 'chalam' means just that, and I have been calling him,... yuck! Real nasty, one could as well have called him Malam (shit)!"

A Kanndiga who was also party to this conversation had a different take. "Well, that is a matter of interpretation, really! He is comfortable being called 'Chalam'. And I am okay with calling him 'Chalam'. Then what is *your* problem?!"

Another similar goof is the Bangaloreans calling the suburb of Vishveshwarapuram as "V V Puram". Vishveshwara is Vishwa + Eeshwara so it should be V E Puram).

Remark: In general, Mallus have better Sanskrit awareness than other South Indians. Part of the reason is the Kerala schoool syllabus which stresses the study of Malayalam language and grammar (and both are heavily inherited from Sanskrit).

'Mali' - A Tribute

Well before I turned ten (and long before I could read English with any comfort), I was quite intimately familiar with the following:

- Norse sagas of Odin, Thor etc. and legends of Beowulf and Grendel, Siegfried and so on.
- Celtic legends of Finn, Cu Chulainn, the Druids etc...
- Egyptian myths surrounding Osiris, Seth ...
- The Olympian Gods and their (mis)adventures
- The labours of Hercules, the wrath of Achilles ...
- The 'Matter of France' - Charlemaigne and his knights, Roland, Oliver, Roger and Angelica,...
- King Arthur and his Round Table - and the quest for the Holy Grail
- Aztec legends surrounding the ceremonial ball game of Tlachtli
- The Peruvian Deluge Myth - in which a llama saves the world.

Incredible though it may seem, all the above (and a hell of a lot more) were gathered from the very same source - 'Balakathamalika' ('A Garland of Children's Tales'), a single volume condensation of world mythology in (very simple) Malayalam. The compiler was late Madhavan Nair, better known by his pen-name, 'Mali'. '-Malika' was first published in the late 1970's and reissued nearly a generation later under a new title 'Aitihyalokam' ('The World of Legends').

While talking about '-Malika', I am also reminded of Kottarathil Sankunni's 'Aitihyamala', a great compendium of Keralan myths and legends. This much earlier work (1920's) continues to enjoy immense popularity in Kerala and every year a new edition comes out. Of course, it must be mentioned here that Sankunni was not writing for children (and I would say some portions of 'Aitihyamala' had better not be read by primary schoolers). On the other hand, Mali was almost exclusively a (very prolific) children's writer. He neatly retold the Ramayana and Mahabharata (and much else) and also wrote several original stories and novellas for children (including adventures of a desi superhero 'Sarvajit'); for a few years in the late 1970's, he also ran a children's magazine, 'Malika'.

Mali's Indian Mythology retellings continue to be (deservedly) popular and his original stories for children, albeit not of the highest quality, still have their readers. However, 'Balakathamalika', by far his most unique achievement (and arguably his single greatest contribution), has languished in near obscurity. Indeed, the change of its name to 'Aitihyalokam' appears to have been a rather sad attempt to attract attention, perhaps 'reflecting' the popularity of Sankunni's masterpiece.

To give a telling instance of the impact Mali had: I remember remarking, when I first read the story of Rip Van Winkle in English (sometime in high school): "Hey, this story is rather like that of Visu (which I had read in a retelling by Mali)!". I must be among a real handful of Indians who heard of the Japanese Visu before the American Rip!

Note: For non-Mallu children, Mali wrote the script (in English) of the Amar Chitra Katha Volume on Valmiki. He also wrote 'adult' works on Classical Music and also a Kathakali script (Aattakkatha) 'Karnashapatham'.