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

Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Mallus Are Rude!"

Disclaimer: The above is *not* my opinion - indeed, I try not to entertain opinions on such matters. I am only a 'humble chronicler' (to use a phrase due to Malayalam writer Basheer)

This story begins long ago, when I had been away from Kerala only for a year or so. I used to be quite conscious of my Malayali identity (and accent), nostalgic about my home town and everything about it and imbued with Mallu-Mallu feelings. Those days, I got to know a lady scientist (non Mallu), who was

friends with several other Mallus and had even picked up some basics of the language. Once I asked her whether she had been to God's Own Country. She said:

"Yeah, a few times. Lovely place."

I asked further: "And what do you think about our culture?"

The Lady: "Can't say, really. Yeah, I found Mallus as a rule to be extremely rude!"

Self: What you say is quite a shock. You are pally with so many Mallus and they must be nice to you! Moreover, is it logical or fair to make such a sweeping statement?

The Lady: See, the way you argue! I just make an observation and you question my very integrity. So very typical!

Over subsequent years, I heard similar views being aired quite a few times. Another person, a Mallu himself, spoke at some length:

"See, whether it is due to Communism or whatever, Mallus do not know how to show respect to strangers. In Tamil Nadu or any other state, if you are a customer in a shop or a client in an office, folks have no problem addressing you "Sir" (or "Saar") or "Madam" and referring to you in third person as "This Sir" or "This Madam". And this is the practice even in villages. In Kerala, there is a distinct reluctance to show such respect. If a bill collector or delivery-man comes knocking at your door, he will address you with a silent poke of his jaw towards your face. That poke is "you" in Mallu. Mallus seem to have this funny feeling that addressing a stranger as "Sir" is below one's dignity".

Note: Part of the problem described above is the lack of a proper second person pronoun 'YOU' in normal spoken Malayalam, something I have written about elsewhere in this blog.


Here is an example of an exchange which took place at a book store in a certain town in Kerala. The sales staff of shops in that area are famous for their curtness.

Customer: I am looking for books on Biochemistry...

Salesman: Which author?

Customer: Er... can you show me the titles you have?

Salesman: Why don't you tell me the author!

Customer: Heard of something like "Langer.." or...

Salesman: That's better! But, we don't have it.

Customer: Then what other authors do you have?

Salesman: That is what I have been saying. Tell me the author and I will tell you if it is available.

Customer: You store tech books upstairs, right. Can I just take a look?

Salesman: No. You tell me the author I say! And ... if you don't even know which book you want to buy, why look for it in the first place? (turns away)


I conclude this post recording a (quite recent and) very unique (or is it typical? I have been a 'non resident Mallu' for so many years now...) experience.

I am visiting a college in Kerala. It is a hot summer day. I walk into the college canteen. Very few people about. I ask the supplier for a cold drink (in Malayalam). He silently gives me a bottle and says: "five bucks".

I silently hand him a ten rupee note. He says: "No change" in a very matter of fact tone. There is nobody at the cash desk. The supplier turns in the direction of the kitchen and says very loudly: "Daa 'vane, iyaakku oranchu rupa koduthedaa!" (here is a very toned down translation: "Hey you, Give this feller five bucks!"). No response.

Vexed, he mutters something and walks in and says loudly to some invisible being: "Daa, ninnodu! oruthan avade nikkundu. ayaakku oranchu rupa kodutheyda!" ("Hey, I am telling *you*. a feller stands there. Give him 5 bucks and send him away")

Note: Unlike most of the stuff above, I do have an opinion (which I won't express here) on the following:
Someone had this take on the above canteen episode: "that guy might have thought you were a *student* of that college so he might have been being just informal!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

'Children's Club' And Feynman

Sometime in the mid 1990s. Chennai was then Madras and I was there. My research career in Physics was on its last legs - although nobody else quite knew that (then). One day my (then) supervisor summoned me: "I am supposed to deliver a lecture at a place called Children's Club in the city to High School kids; the subject is 'Matter Waves'. I am too busy. Why don't you go and give the talk? It is rather basic stuff which you can quickly revise." I agree, halfheartedly.

"It will be a good experience. These talks are organized at the Children's Club by an elderly gentleman called Narayana Swami, he is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. You will enjoy talking to him." I am told further.

On the D-day morning, I saw in the 'Engagements' section of The Hindu: "R. Nandakumar speaks on Matter Waves, at Children's Club, Mylapore...." and felt tense and strangely vulnerable. I had been reading the Feynman Lectures for a few days and begun to painfully realize that Research had severely eroded whatever foundations I had built in Physics during undergrad days.

Finding the Children's Club was not difficult. Mr. Narayana Swami looked in his seventies. He was polite to a fault - and treated someone a third of his age with a lot of respect. I was introduced to the around 30 very starry-eyed high schoolers who had come for the talk as a "promising young scientist, who will carry forward the legacy of ... (some names)".

The talk went off mostly uneventfully. I tried my best to sound encouraging and inspirational to the students (although it was quite an effort, then). Yes, it was the first ever time when I was addressed as 'Sir' by students. Many of them were quite sincere and eager with their questions and I found myself struggling to answer even the more basic ones. I hope I did not put any of them off Physics, which I have always believed is a great subject (*).

When I took leave of Mr. Swami after the talk, he was again very nice and told me he would greatly appreciate if I visited the club again and gave further talks.


A decade passes by. I am now a software hack and have just joined a Chennai firm. One day while glancing thru 'The Hindu' I see in the engagements: "Prof. Ram Murty talks on Ramanujan's Great Contributions, Children's Club..."

There was barely an hour left for the talk to begin; I cycle frantically to Mylapore; once I enter the premises, the club looks strikingly familiar and at the entrance, sits an old man; it is Mr. Narayana Swami again, not too different from what he used to be - lean, bespectacled, silver haired. I approach tentatively and say. "Sir, I came for Prof. Murty's talk". He smiles benignly and says. "Yes; the talk will start in a few minutes. The students are just coming in..." And he has a further question for me: "Which school, 'ppa?"

(*) Guess, I can quote Feynman himself (from memory) to express (memories of) my feelings after my talk. This is from his 'epilogue' to those marvelous lectures: "I don't think I did very well by the students. To those who felt left out/put off by the proceedings, I would request they find someone else who can explain this most wonderful subject better.". And yes, with all the inspiration I continue to derive from the Master, let me quote further: "If I get another opportunity, I will do it right!"

Back From Kerala

Am just back from a longish visit to Kerala. The weather there was consistently unpleasant and there was little local traveling. On the way back by train ('Purna express'), things got more interesting.

- the night sky over north-central Kerala, at least as seen from the train, revealed a lot more stars than I am used to seeing.

- Pallikere is a small station in far north Kerala, on either side of which the train runs for about 2 kilometers along a beach with an uninterrupted view of the sea - to my knowledge that is the only such stretch between the Cape and Bombay. At one end of the beach stands the Bekal fort. It was early morning and partly cloudy and a full semi-circle of a rainbow, with both ends touching the sea ("full semi-circle"? Perhaps from an airplane, a rainbow might appear close to a full circle, a 'rainring'?)) painted up the western sky.

- At Karwar, there was a large river flowing into the sea in the distance and nearly a dozen Brahmini kites gliding around (never seen so many of them together since a visit to Rameswaram a quarter of a century ago). A massive road bridge straddled the mouth of the river and sea waves were battering a rocky islet...

- The greenery of the ghat between Madgaon and Londa was immensely refreshing (especially after all those smoky tunnels) as was the daybreak today morning as we approached Pune.

Note: 'Purna Express' is the best name for a train that I know of - 'Purna' is apparently the Sanskrit(ized) name of the Periyar river in Kerala where it begins its run; better, the name combines the first and second syllables of the destination and origin respectively, 'Pune' and 'Ernakulam', in an interesting way.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Of Ballgames And Sacrifices

- "One day, the princes of Hastinapura were engaged in a ballgame; the ball fell into a deep well and they were wondering how to get it out when a stranger came by...."

- "Once King Rukmangada chanced upon a stunningly beautiful damsel in his personal garden; she was bouncing a ball playfully, her movements were so seductive that the (much married) king was hopelessly smitten..."

- "Princess Chandraprabha and her friends were at play in a garden when a youth by name Manaswi happened to pass by. He watched the princess throw a ball to her friend - her movements could have beaten a gazelle for grace"

These are a few of the references to ballgames in ancient Indian literature. Those were times when rubber was unknown everywhere except the Americas (when the Spaniards first encountered the Aztecs playing a ballgame, they thought the ball bounced so much due to some genii trapped within, says Wikipedia).

I have no idea what stuff those ancient Indian balls were made of. Leather would hardly give a good bounce. Perhaps they used some animal bladder (scandal!) like the Europeans did until proper rubber bladdered footballs came to be produced recently.

Perhaps, since Drona retrieved the ball for the Hastinapura princes by throwing blades of grass like darts, that particular ball might have been made of sterner stuff (like cork?).

The story of Rukmangada (as narrated in the Wikipedia article on him) has some parallels with that of Abraham - the hard to refuse (and impossible to justify) divine command to sacrifice a son, the willingness to go thru with it bringing Grace and so on. One gets a feeling: by the time the Puranas were being composed (from AD 1000 or so with the agnostic Buddhism in terminal decline), the majority among the Indian intelligentia had bought into the concept of devotion to an exclusive personal God who would make severe and illogical demands of his devotees and also reward - with an even more glaring lack of logic - those who complied. Indeed 'Periya Puranam', a work I referred to in the last post here, has an episode where a child is actually killed and (horror!) cooked by his pious parents, and then, Grace descends...

Note: Guess the Rukmangada story would be fine for Girish Karnad to mould into a modern play - the way he (re)created 'Nagamandala', 'Hayavadana', 'Fire and Rain' and so on... At least the ingredients are all there - irrationality, abuse of power, the supernatural element and yes, libido.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bully For The 'Interrogative Indian'

'The more the arguments, the more Truth is revealed' - an Upanishadic maxim quoted by Dr. NVP Unithiri in his autobiography (partially serialized at 'Locana' -link on the right panel).

"Not to argue and win but to know and make known - that is our intent." - Sri Narayana Guru.

Amartya Sen's famous work 'The Argumentative Indian' paints a celebratory portrait of the ancient Indian traditions of dispute, dialog and argument and calls for a fuller appreciation of these traditions in our troubled times.

I would personally have preferred Sen to have emphasized the 'Interrogative Indian' of ancient times as distinct from (and even as opposed to) the 'Argumentative' one. The two adjectives obviously mean different things - an argumentative person is looking for a verbal scrap and trying to prove his viewpoint as superior to a real or imagined adversary's, whereas an interrogative one is often a genuinely curious seeker looking for 'illumination'.

Indeed most of the best examples Sen gives in his work fall in the 'interrogative' category - The skepticism in the Rig Veda hymn on 'Ka', Arjuna's questions to Krishna, Gargi questioning Yajnavalkya and so on... One can add to this list Nachiketa's doubts to Yama, the quest of Satyakama for knowledge of the Absolute and so on... and most of these episodes evoke a deep admiration and appreciation for the questions and the questioner - often far in excess of what the answers provided deserve.

However, ancient India did have a very strong Argumentative Tradition as well, one that hardly deserves such unalloyed admiration. For example, Dr. Unithiri's autobiography mentioned above quotes from Adi Shankaracharya's critique of Buddhist philosophy (my adaptation):

"The Buddhist concept ... is full of internal contradictions and will hardly stand up to serious scrutiny - it will collapse like a well dug in sand. One even suspects whether Buddha's intent in producing such a jumble of confusing and contradictory arguments was to befuddle the reader and to misguide him; indeed a devious streak is very much evident in the teachings.... So, one can conclude that the Buddhist doctrine merits only total rejection by any serious student"

'Unithiri Master' narrates an incident: his referring to Shankara's ad hominem attacks on Buddha provoked anguished (but ill-informed) outrage among some monks at the Shankara Mutt in Kalady - on the lines of "please do not talk about these things (which show our guru in poor light) here. This is an Ashram!"

'Master' states unequivocally that Shankara's personal attacks on Buddha were clearly unwarranted. But then, was Buddha himself 'clean' in this regard? I remember reading that in his sermons, he (at least the early Buddhist works) often mocked Mahavira, his contemporary and competitor in the spiritual realm - and it is very unlikely that the barbs were not returned in kind, although 'Osho' has said somewhere that Mahavira, being a considerably older man, usually did not respond to those attacks (it is quite surprising that Jainism and Buddhism, which are so similar and originated from the same region at the same time, never seriously worked together; perhaps arguments and mutual personal recriminations might have prevented any collaboration).

At least according to tradition, Shankara composed the famous 'Bhaja Govindam' addressing a student learning grammar by rote thus: "Hey, you idiot, this grammar is no good. Seek refuge in the Lord!" (that the poem also mocks most of the trappings of saintliness as tricks to fill one's stomach does not absolve Shankara of being downright rude upfront).

Indeed, the more one looks at history, this is the picture that emerges: within a 'school', when a disciple and his Guru were in serious conversation, there often was a quest for Truth, inquiry and most importantly, doubting and questioning; but once different doctrines met, it was usually a turf war of a seriously argumentative nature, with no quarter given. At least according to tradition, those who lost these arguments between rival spiritual schools often got burnt alive or impaled or maimed... (examples abound in Periya Puranam, an ancient - and very graphic - Tamil classic of such clashes between the dominant Saivism and Buddhism/Jainism). That in other world cultures, such disputes were often even more ugly and violent is no real consolation.

And Shankaracharya, the 'aggressor' in many of the above examples, was (and continues to be) attacked by the Dwaita school of Madhva - an example is his name being pronounced deliberately as 'samkara' - (approximately, 'cross-bred') branding him (to put it very mildly) a product of miscegenation.

Of course, argumentative interactions of rival schools did have benefits - open-minded third parties who followed those debates gained exposure to different and even conflicting view points and thus to a fuller range of information and its interpretations. And Emperor Akbar, someone Sen so evidently admires for (among other things) encouraging and organizing inter-faith dialogs, comes through as such a third party - himself not particularly argumentative but inquisitive and interrogative. So the above Upanishad saying could be taken to imply "The more the argument between A and B, the more Truth is revealed to C".

To sum up, I beg to differ with Sen (although someone could say the differences are a matter of detail) and argue(!) for the *Interrogative Indian* - his/her Argumentative Aspect, although quite interesting in its own way and even sometimes useful, does not come through as half as worthy of cherishing.

Vivekananda is said to have remarked on Shankaracharya: "Intellectually, I admire him, but the way he used to force his thoughts on others in disputes, I certainly do not approve of" and this applies to much of our argumentative tradition.