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

Sunday, February 22, 2009

'The Loop' - Sixty Days On

On 18th of December 2008, I went public with my work of fiction 'The Loop' . Having put the entire work online, I decided to rely entirely on word-of-mouth to reach out to readers/publishers/critics. Now, I am in the mood for some stock-taking...

Here are some opinions generated by the work. Thanks to everybody who wrote in. Those who want to know about the readership stats could jump to the end of the italicized portion:


1. Very interesting ... and I would say, very refreshing! I really could identify with Lucky, and guess many, many others would as well.

2. Full of life and creativity; ... dazzling ideas and allusions. Well worth a re-read!

3. There are no serious flaws... (but) not gripping or extraordinary. The work lacks a strong plot and "Wow!" moments.

4. I am impressed! Very tight and very apt. The satirical take over the corporate processes and academic pretensions develops subtly yet strongly. And I loved some of the character names: Kali Gulesh, Afflatus, Shlomo Sen.... Well done!

5. Excellent job! I read it in one sitting.... engrossing.

6. Deeply disturbing, while being positively hilarious. Having experienced both academia and industry myself, I can really relate to it.

7. Read about a dozen pages and gave up - I could not really figure out what was going on.

8. Just one word: fantastic!

9. Very engaging and very REAL. Three characters standout for me : spooky Gadfly, murky Afflatus and above all, Shlomo Sen, the 'sage'.

10. Tried really hard to read it - guess it is some kind of satire about software or maybe about life in general - but gave up when I saw 'productization' for the third time. (The author) would be better served by reading fiction rather than trying to write it.

11.At a quick glance, I could sense a flow in the events. Thought I will give a proper opinion after a proper read, which did not happen.

12. I am not reading your story, and I am sorry!


The readership: After some sharp and massive fluctuations over the first fortnight or so, the traffic thru the site has stabilized to a very steady 0.75 visits per day.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The 'Barber Problem'

"Agni, the fire god, invades forests and shaves the Earth, as the barber would a beard!" - from the Rig Veda

This post is on the sad and thankless story of being a barber.

A movie 'Billu', featuring a hairdresser protagonist, has just been released. The original name of the film was 'Billu Barber'; widespread protests caused the name-crop.

Wikipedia has an article on 'Barber' and it says:

A barber (from the Latin barba, "beard") is someone whose occupation is to cut any type of hair, give shaves, and trim beards. In previous times, barbers also performed surgery and dentistry. In more recent times, with the development of safety razors and the decreasing prevalence of beards, most barbers primarily cut hair. Some hairdressers consider the term derogatory.
The place where a barber works is generally called a barbershop, or simply the "barber's".

'Billu' is the remake of a Malayalam movie which has no 'barber' in its name, but freely uses the word itself in dialogs and especially in an 'introduction song' which went somewhat like "Meet Balan, the Barber with a difference!"

I don't think too many in Kerala protested the song (which, though quite silly, also had a few interesting phrases describing the barber's trade and how the hero is refreshingly different from other run-of-the-mill practitioners thereof). But, just as happened elsewhere in India, the word 'barber' has became unfashionable and slangy in Kerala. Barbershops came to be named 'saloons' long ago; now, one also sees 'hairdressers', 'hairstylists', 'men's beauty parlour' and so forth.

But Keralan conversation (and movie dialogs) continues to abound in very derogatory (often scandalous) remarks about what the barber does. It is standard to rebuke someone loafing around with "If you are good for nothing else, you could at least go and shave someone!". "If you win, I will be your barber!" is a standard rhetorical challenge between contestants. Even Mallu IT professionals, when describing what is 'shit shovelling work' to others, uses 'cherappu', a slang word which literally means 'knife work' (shaving, that is) (*).

Here is a bit of over-the-top dialog from the latest Mallu megahit movie 'Twenty-twenty': "You will pay for this! You have no idea about my uncle... he has been in politics for twenty years and mind you active power politics; he was not exactly shaving someone!"

In the former Hindu social hierarchy of Kerala, there probably was no single barber caste; indeed, everyone needed a shave of course, but due to the stringent untouchability constraints, members of one particular caste could not have shaved everyone - and one guesses there were several distinct barber communities. So, most probably, the denigration of 'cherappu' is of the trade itself rather than a particular caste.

Even the more egalitarian Muslim community of Kerala used to look down upon 'Ossans' - barbers, who were themselves Muslim. Indeed, these Ossans were the perhaps the only Indian barber community that used to do a bit of surgery - they used to perform circumcision operations (the source for this bit is 'Kunhayante Kusrithikal' by V.P Muhammad, a very interesting Malayalam story, which deserves a future post).

Leaving Kerala behind, I would like to quote two 'legendary' episodes, which illustrate, quite tellingly, the barber's plight, in an all-India context:

1. In the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas were in exile, king Jayadratha happened to pass by their jungle dwelling. He saw Draupadi at home and seeing that her husbands had gone out, tried to get fresh with her. Unfortunately for him, the Pandavas suddenly appeared on the scene and beat the hell out of him. After some debate, the brothers spare Jayadratha's life but decide to humiliate him in the nastiest possible way.

"Bhima took a crescent-headed arrow and randomly tonsured Jayadratha's head, leaving a few tufts here and there. The once-proud king looked downright ridiculous. Then having given him a couple more of painful smacks on the head with the back of his palm, Bhima told him: "Get lost! And if you meet someone, introduce yourself: 'I am the Pandavas' barber'". Jayadratha, trembling, agreed!"

(source: 'Mahabharata for Children' Mallu translation from Upendra Kishore Raychoudhari's (incidentally, Grandmaster Satyajit Ray's grandfather) early 20th century Bengali retelling 'Chheleder Mahabharat'. I am not sure whether that bit of dialog is from Vyasa's Mahabharata or was Upendra's invention - or for that matter, the Mallu translators')

Ridiculing the barber apart, giving an ugly tonsure has for long been a common abusive punishment. Elsewhere in mythology, Krishna gives his bro-in-law Rukmi a taste of this treatment.

2. Sometime in the 18th century, the Maratha Empire Peshwa, Baji Rao and his rival, the Nizam Ul Mulk had an encounter. The latter, having failed to outsmart Baji Rao, semi-mockingly praises him: "Ek Baji, aur sab Paji!" (There is only one Baji, the others are rogues!") to which the Peshwa replies: "Ek Nizam aur sab Hazaam!" (There is only one Nizam, the rest, mere barbers!)

(source: the Amar Chitra Katha volume on Baji Rao).

(*) The Mallu slang word 'cherappu' is a corruption of 'churappu' which in turn is derived from the sanskrit word 'kshuram', meaning knife/razor. The sanskrit word for barber is 'kshuraka', the knife-man. And even in Tamil the word 'serappu' has the same nasty connotations as the Mallu 'cherappu'.

An old Mallu (and even Tamil) word for barber is 'ambattan' which is now, while quite politically incorrect, freely used, including in (Mallu) movies. Interestingly, 'Ambashtha', which probably is the Sanskrit root of this word, is the name of a Kayastha (traditionally an upper caste) subgroup in the North. The same word is also said to be listed in Manusmriti as 'one of the upper subcastes resulting from inter-caste marriages', whatever that means!

Updates (June 2011): Bhima's barber remark from the 'Mahabharata' is probably an invention of Parukkutti Amma and Sarojini Nair, translators into Malayalam of Upendra Kishore's Bengali 'Chheleder Mahabharat' - I just checked in the original and therein, Bhima tells Jayadratha to "introduce yourself as Pandavas' *slave*" (that was a 21st century edition of the book so a bit of censoring might have happened!)

Irfan Habib's 'People's History of India' (volume 5) reports, quoting a pre-Christian Greek source, that the allegedly tyrannical Nanda kings of Magadha (4th century BC) were said to hail from a family of barbers. And according to the same book, one of the tribes encountered by Alexander in west Punjab were called the 'Ambashthas'!

Update (Jan 2012): I just discovered, the 'adhwaryu' the chief priest ('rtwik') conducting the 'Sagnikam Atiratram', a highly complex classical Vedic sacrifice, has to shave the 'yajamana', the principal sponsor of the sacrifice, as part of the cycle of rituals. The adhwaryu has to be a kushavan (potter) too - he has to personally mold and bake an earthen pot which is used in the ceremony. The kushavan's trade has been just as ridiculed in Keralan Hindu society as the barber's.

And I just heard the Panchatantra say: "Just as the jackal is the most crooked among beasts, so is the barber the most corrupt among men!"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

MP - Bits And Pieces

Wrapping up the series of posts on Madhya Pradesh...

Indore: I had heard this is a boom town of sorts, Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar apart, the only place in India with *both* an IIT and an IIM. Some swanky malls and stuff have indeed sprung up indicating metropolis-ness. But the fact of the matter, infrastructurally speaking, is that much of this bustling city is a major pain - terrible, conjested roads (many of which seem perpetually under construction), poor public transport dominated by awful auto-rickshaws, severe air pollution ...

In the 'Rajwada' palace, we saw a museum with modern (and undistinguished) copies of classic Chola bronzes, including one of the famous 'Vrishabhavahana'. Indeed, for a fairly long while (18th-19th centuries), Marathas were in power here as well as in Tanjavur and there even seems to have been considerable cultural give-and-take. Cricketer Rahul Dravid's family is said to have migrated from down south and settled down in Indore (several generations ago) and even adopted Marathi as their 'home language'- although the surname still references their Southern roots.

Bhopal: There is much in Bhopal that reminds me of Hyderabad - a crowded old city and a considerably more spacious new city, large Muslim population, undulating, rocky terrain, a huge lake,... Some of the areas (MP Nagar for example) have very wide roads and a neat new railway station has come up at Habibgunj; but these planned features notwithstanding, the city is quite a haphazard affair - and some parts are godawful (for instance, the 4 kilometer stretch from the Station onto the highway to Sanchi, where one needs to negotiate two level railway crossings in succession). The urban area has expanded very irregularly, thinning out into empty country in less than half a dozen kilometers from the main Station towards the North and straggling well over 20 kilometers up to and beyond the industrial areas of Mandidip to the South. The city bus service is pathetic and the main bus stand (from where buses run as far away as Nagpur and Kanpur) is one of the worst I have seen. And to top it all, at least some of Bhopal's autowallahs can give even their notorious Chennai counterparts a run for their money.

Overall, Indore and Bhopal are now at a stage where Bangalore and Hyderabad found themselves a generation ago - and growing just as explosively. One hopes (although present indications are not too propitious) that these new up-and-coming cities handle growth better than the southern metropolises.

Landscapes: I did not 'feel' much difference between the vast plateau that makes up most of Madhya Pradesh and Deccan proper - the Narmada valley cutting right between apart, the two could perhaps be seen as parts of the same geological formation, although most basic textbooks treat them as separate entities... Throughout the rural MP that I got to see, agriculture is dominant although (apart from the vicinity of Narmada) not very intensive - maybe due to poor irragation. I don't remember seeing a single coconut tree anywhere in the state - in Maharashtra they are at least sporadically visible.

One big surprise of this journey has been the 'ghat section' on the railway between between Hoshangabad and Bhopal. The train crosses the Narmada and works its way up the edge of the Vindhyas, past some sheer cliffs, impressive sandstone formations and lush vegetation - I would love to walk the stretch sometime, preferably during the monsoon. Similar, though less rugged, is the shorter stretch on the Jabalpur-Itarsi section between Sontalai and Gagra Tawa, cutting across the Satpuras - somewhere near there, I saw from the train a blackbuck fawn, blithely bouncing over a patch of cultivation.

Developmentally speaking: MP seems to be an improvement over UP but is several steps behind Maharashtra/Gujarat. Indeed, this trip threw up a most poignant rural image - a State-sponsored sign written prominently all over: "Show your love and respect for your wife, daughter and daughter-in-law; build a toilet at home"

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


An hour or so by (rickety) bus from Bhopal is the bustling town of Obaidullagunj. The 'book' told me there are frequent buses from here to Hoshangabad and that Bhimbetka is about 8 kilometers down that way. Over half an hour of waiting, I did see a couple of buses bound for Hoshangabad; when I asked the crew if they went via Bhimbetka, the answer was a loud "No!" followed by a louder signal to the driver to move on.

Puzzled, I asked a shopkeeper how one should proceed.

Shopkeeper: No buses! Flag down a truck going that way (points). After some time, you will see a path branching off to Bhimbetka, marked. Get down there and tramp an hour uphill and that is it.

Self: But I was told, buses to Hoshangabad ...

Shopkeeper: They simply won't take you on if you are going only up to Bhimbetka. You will waste a seat for them.

Self: ... Er...Guess one could buy a ticket all the way to Hoshangabad and get down...

Shopkeeper: But why would you want to waste twenty rupees! Why don't you just catch a truck ... and where are you from?

Self: Just came from Bhopal.

Shopkeeper: Well, you certainly are not Bhopali!

Self: I am visiting Bhopal.

Shopkeeper: From?

Self: Amdavad, Gujarat.

Shopkeeper: Ah, that explains it!

(I thank him and leave, without asking what it is that has just got explained)

I took the advice and soon enough, got onto a truck and a quarter of an hour ride (five bucks) thru flat cropland took me to the 'Bhimbetka junction'. The path to Bhimbetka crosses the main railway line from Bhopal to South and soon starts going uphill - a stiff 2 km climb and one enters a rugged sandstone landscape (a very far cry from the ironed out flats that have just been left behind). To the south stretches rolling hill country, scrubby, with clumps of boulders... Geography tells me this is the beginning of the 'Vindhya Horst', which a few dozen kilometers farther south plunges into the 'Narmada Graben'.

The world heritage site of Bhimbetka, another kilometer ahead, consists primarily of a tight group of huge sandstone formations (clustered within a hundred or so acres). There are no caves as such but the immense rock masses have gotten eroded at their base into vast natural shelters, refreshingly cool even in hot midday. Stone age cave paintings have been found on the walls of many of these shelters. Apart from 'stick figures' engaged in hunts, there are paintings of hordes of animals (especially in one particular shelter named the 'zoo').

There are some battle scenes - for instance, two horsemen battling it out with clubs. There are also a few dance scenes - including one in which several stick-humans form a chain, with each dancer holding the arms of the next dancer but one (just the kind of dance they used to show often on the telly in late 1980's featuring Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi among Central Indian Tribals). I don't remember seeing any bowmen.

The rock formations impressed me more than the art. The largest of the lot looked like a gigantic prehistoric reptile, petrified - its 'head' rises well over 50 feet and its long, winding 'body' is supported by 4-5 'legs'; and one walks along a passage under its 'belly'. At twilight, the color effects of sandstone (I had first witnessed these in far away Badami, a full 3 years ago) were on display all around.

Wikipedia says: "As (archeologist)V. S. Wakankar was traveling by train to Bhopal he saw some rock formations similar to those he had seen in Spain and France. He visited the area along with a team of archaeologists and discovered several prehistoric rock shelters in 1957."

I doubt the comparison there. The famous 'cave artists' of Europe lived in limestone caves which are fundamentally different from the Bhimbetka sandstone shelters. Clearly the better parallel is to the Tassili Plateau in the heart of Sahara desert - immense and spectacularly eroded sandstone pillars and rock shelters brimming with paleolithic art (some of which much more sophisticated than the specimens here in Bhimbetka); and I guess *that* must indeed have been the parallel that guided Wakankar.

Note: Quite recently, well-known Malayalam writer Anand has included a very atmospheric meditation on Bhimbetka (without naming the place) in a short-story titled 'Out of Schedule'.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

An Encounter

Not far from where we live in Ahmedabad is a vast mall. At least every other evening, I go there and park on one of the benches in the cavernous atrium. An 'Australian Cookies' shop serves up a package of a cup of pretty good 'machine coffee' + a couple of cookies, at a price that I can still afford ...

Yesterday seemed no different from any other day. I had had my cup and was watching the crowd and thinking some vague thoughts when someone came and sat on the same bench. I did not pay any attention for a while; then I heard the question: "Are you a local guy?" in English. I looked up and saw a thin speckie, somewhere in his early twenties.

Self: Well, I live here ...

Speckie: But ... are you Gujju?

Self: No, I have been here just a few months...

Speckie: Okay, I came here just the other day. So you must know this place better... So, tell me, is there some nice place to visit out here?...

Self: Hmm, there are some interesting spots around the city. Depends on your taste...

Speckie: Oh, you can be sure, I have pretty good tastes; I am from Bombay, you know!

Self: Well, one nice place not too far is a bird sanctuary. But you may need to...

Speckie: Birds? Oh, no. Not my kind of thing. You mean, they have a whole lot of cages and birds are kept...

Self: No, it is an open area, a lake...

Speckie: You mean, a National Park sort of thing?

Self: Yeah.

Speckie: And what kind of birds do you see there?

Self: Those migratory birds; like even in Bombay, you have flamingoes coming for a visit...

Speckie: Oh yeah, all those creeks and stuff, yucky-mucky places, so much filth, man, nobody goes there!

Self: Well... this place is not that type....

Speckie: Oh, but, that sounds too dull anyways! Anything closer?

Self: Within the city,... well, it depends; there are some old monuments, bazars and stuff... Then..

Speckie (interrupting): But you know what, this whole place is real boring. Not like Bombay, well, ever been there?

Self: Yeah, rather often.

Speckie: Cool, been to Lokhandwala? Some of those malls there...

Self: No.

Speckie: Well, Bandra Bandstand...

Self: Not really.

Speckie: Hey, you simply don't know Bombay then!... you know, my problem is ... this crowd. These girls (sweeps his hand around) are no good. They dunno what it is like. Ever seen Bombay girls?

Self: Yes. they are smart, more trendy.

Speckie: That is an understatement, man! You go to Lokhandwala and just see those malls. Yeah, and phenomenal maals. Well, you get what I mean right?

Self: Guess so!

Speckie: Any place in this city where you get a better crowd than this? You know, I am bloody stuck here for another couple of days. And I just want some cool place to hang out for something like a day! Any really nice mall?

Self: There are some malls in the Satellite area. That is a bit more hifi place, you know, richer people...

Speckie: But I bet it wont be like Bombay.

Self: It may not be. You might just find the crowd there more to your liking. But, well, I am not sure. Whenever I went there, things looked just like this!

Speckie: Boring place, this Ahmedabad! and on top of it, no booze! (pauses a while) Well, you are South Indian?

Self: Basically, yes.

Speckie: Where, Bangalore, Mangalore...

Self: Kerala.

Speckie: Kerala, people there are called Mallus, Malabaris, right?

Self: Yeah.

Speckie: Kerala, yes, the place that is number one in suicides, number one in literacy and .. yes, number one in rapes!

(short pause)

Speckie: And man, I hear, Mallus drink like hell too, right?

Self: They do.

Speckie: But you know, you guys can never beat the Goans. No way! Ever been to Goa, Folks just drink all the time. Papa, Mama, Brother, Sister, ... all sit and booze and booze ... well, they have a ...

(pauses in some thought)

Speckie: Now, how do I go to Usmanpura?

Self: It is about 10 km from here. You could take a bus to Ashram Road and go from there perhaps. Otherwise, take a rick.

Speckie: How much will the rick guy charge?

Self: About 50 bucks.

Speckie: Cool, man! Just 50 bucks for 10 kilometers?

Self: Yes. they are much cheaper here than in Bombay.

Speckie: So, here you at least have better ricks; but make no mistake, we have much better chicks. And no points for guessing which of the two I would prefer to...well, haha!

(short pause)

Speckie: Anyways, got to move now. Okay, have a good time here, well manage with what you have! It was nice talking to you, man!

(raises a clenched fist; I raise an open palm anticipating a high-five)

Speckie: Hey, not that way, close your fist!... Ah that is better, that is the way we do it in Bombay...

(he punches my fist with surprising gentleness and walks out).