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

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Galileo's Salute - and Other Fragments


An entry in the Guinness book of perhaps the late 1970's (as quoted by a Desi Year Book that I encountered in the early 1980s):

The greatest serial killer - To propitiate the goddess Kali, Behram, an Indian murderer, sacrificed 931 people. He carried out his murders in the state of Oudh in the early 19th century.

I recall, the shock of the number was amplified by the acute embarassment of Behram being Indian. One could easily visualize the fellow as a scarlet-robed, corpulent priest wielding a broad-bladed scimitar, about to chop off yet another victim's head under the malignant glare of a colossal Kali idol (the Amar Chitra Katha volume 'Kapala Kundala' has an evil Kapalik). But therein was just a bit of serious fishiness - his name. For I knew, thanks again to another Amar volume that Muslim 'slave' empress Razia was overthrown by a half-brother of hers called Behram (*). So, Behram was a Muslim name. How could a Muslim be such a fanatical Kali-worshipper? Then one reasoned: "The Brits would have misspelt the Hindu name 'Bhairav'/'Bhairaon' as Behram; after all, they coined Indian names like 'Mahomet Singh' - one of the villains in the 'Sign of Four'"

Just last week, I happened to read a bit on the phenomenon of thuggee - the terrible secret society of Indian killers called 'thugs' and about the man most responsible to stamping them out - William Sleeman (the source: 'Thug' by Mike Dash).

Thugs killed by strangling (with a team of 3 or more operators attacking each victim). They also robbed their victims but only *after* the kill; they would take no hostages and wouldn't spare anyone. Thugs hunted in packs and communicated among themselves in a secret sign language; they were a near-countrywide secret society, with thousands of initiates. Membership in this fraternity was often hereditary and in many families, a proud tradition. And a very healthy fraction of the thug community had Muslim names.

In Dash's book, I re-encountered Behram and was surprised to know he was a thug from Oudh. And then, I saw that even Wiki has an article on Behram - he certainly was no 'Bhairav-Shairav' but plain Behram. After capture, he claimed to have been present at 931 murders (a claim downgraded to 125 in some versions of his story; anyways, if he were a proper thug, all his murders must have been 'achieved' by teamwork and of course, he would not have decapitated anyone). An alleged portrait of his available online shows a smart young man dressed in the secular fashion of those days (nothing whatever like a tantrik) - although when the Company caught and hanged him, he was said to be 75 years old. And he is also said to have had a son named Ali.

Now, where is Kali in all this? Kali was the tutelery diety of the 'profession' of Thuggee (just as Vishwakarma still is for many artisans); ergo, Behram and co's murders were to appease Kali (only) to the extent that a Desi goldsmith's day-to-day work is a puja to Vishwakarma.

Rather than quote Behram as an example to show Hinduism as intrinsically evil (the old Guinness entry certainly is in perfect sync with such a 'Temple of Doom' picture) or vehemently assert: "no, no, he was a Muslim!", one had better recall Amartya Sen's professorial remark: "Indians of any background should have reason enough to celebrate their historical and cultural association with [for example] Nagarjuna's penetrating philosophical arguments, Harsa's philanthropic leadership, Maitreyi's or Gargi's searching questions, Carvaka's reasoned scepticism, Aryabhata's astronomical and mathematical departures, Kalidasa's dazzling poetry, Sudraka's subversive drama, Abul Fazl's astounding scholarship, Shah Jahan's aesthetic vision, Ramanujan's mathematics, or Ravi Shankar's and Ali Akbar Khan's music, without first having to check the religious background of each." and then, with reference to the other end of the spectrum, add: "Indians of any background should have reason enough to hang their heads in utter shame over [for example] Manu's bigotry, Aurangzeb's fanaticism, .... (some more usual suspects), Behram and the Thugs' murderous frenzy,..., without having to check the religious background of each." Note: IMO, Amartya Sen's selection reveals some interesting biases, but this is not the place to get into that.

Note: Mike Dash's book is quite remarkable for descriptive passages that recreate the harsh, pathless land that was the Indian 'mofussil' during most of the Nation's history.



When I was a primary schooler, there was panic that the Mullaperiyar dam might break any day and that a quarter of Kerala would be washed away; the hubbub lasted a few weeks and then petered out. A generation later, things flared up again in 2011. Politicians in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu (helped by very hyper visual media on both sides) fanned it into a major inter-people crisis. The tension persisted for a few months. Then, as if everyone concerned had gotten bored, things went into remission again.

And then, the other day, I saw an essay: 'An Ode to an Engineer' by Anand Pandian in the anthology 'Waterlines' edited by Amita Baviskar. I quote a bit (with some heavy editing):

"In December 2001, a few young men from the bustling town of Cumbum (it lies in the formerly barren rainshadow of the Western Ghats in the far west of Tamil Nadu) circulated invitations to an opening gala for the new internet cafe they had just established. ... The invitations proudly stated that their 'Green Valley Internet Browsing Center' was dedicated to the memory of 'Respected Benny Quick, the Founder of Cumbum Green Valley'.. ... The browsing cente was in the name of Colonel John Pennycuick, the colonial hydraulic engineer, almost universally credited with having brought a prerennial stream of river water into the Cumbum valley and the arid plains of Madurai.

In recent times, statues of Pennycuick have proliferated throughout the region. ... He is celebrated today for leading the construction of the Mullaperiyar dam which channelled the voluminous monsoon flow of Malabar's great Periyar river into the watershed of Vaigai.... (in a) magnificent engineering feat....The figure of Pennycuick dominates contemporary popular memories of the dam..."

The article quotes in translation an Tamil ode to the firangi engineer by a certain early 20th century poet named Anthony Muthu Pillai - Pennycuick "drove off burning hunger and crippling drought... he gave food, he gave Life, and spread a green silk brocade in this Cumbum valley" and the ode asserts: "his glorious memory shall live forever in our grateful hearts!"

Pandian sums up: "the dam channelled not just Water but Compassion!"

Must say, the eulogies remind me of how the legendary hydraulics expert Yu is remembered in China (he tamed the Yellow river). But I have known Yu for decades and had never even heard of Pennycuick till a few days back! Indeed, it is shocking that few in Kerala know about Penny, the object of such profound veneration just beyond the hills, and of the real impact his work has had on generations of denizens of that part of our country. Whatever, before the controversy erupts again (its present sleep may last decades but it will rear its head again for sure), I appeal to at least my Mal readers to read at least Pandian's essay; at the very least, it reveals how high the stakes are on 'the other side'.



Saw the French film classic 'Le Grande Illusion' by Renoir. Wonder if the look of the sad, stiff, monocled snob, Capt. von Rauffenstein inspired Herge's Colonel Sponsz!



After what happened in the sea off Kollam recently, there are many Mallus who think (with some reason) Italians are devious folk - shooting down unarmed strangers like turkeys, then resorting to cultural and religious sentimentalism, International holier-than-thou homilies and plain bribery to save from merited punishment the backsides of the perpetrators of such a mindless act.

But whatever be the truth behind the sad maritime drama, I remain an admirer of Italy for its crazy creativity. Italians' heyday as a people smarter than anybody else might be long gone but they still have not given up *trying to be smarter than they themselves are* - and that is the one Human quality that appeals to me most. For instance, where else would one see such a thing as this:

From the Wiki article on the 'Museo Galileo' in Florence:

"Among the more famous of its collections is the middle finger from Galileo Galilei's right hand, which was removed when Galileo's remains were transported to a new burial spot on April 12, 1737."

Elsewhere online, one sees photos of the hallowed digit as it sits in splendid isolation in a glass bubble, saluting the visitor and the World its one time possessor had helped decipher.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

'Naskyathiram' to 'Zirconium'

The term "Orientalism" refers to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies and to a tendency to essentialize these societies as static and undeveloped. In (Edward) Said's analysis, (essential to Orientalism) is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior. - from Wikipedia.

European orientalist fashion had a scholarly aspect - cultures being characterized as undeveloped were also subjected to serious study and exploration, sometimes with conquest on the agenda, sometimes as part of a paternalistic, 'civilizing' mission. Orientalism took some other forms as well; the subject cultures were sometimes summarily ignored as insignificant or misdirected; sometimes even their existence as cultures was denied with self-bestowed authority.


"Children, you would think of the sky as this big blue thing hanging up above us. But know what, it is not a very neat and proper thing; there are tiny, tiny holes all over - the angels poked them. You could see those little holes only at night, shining away - each of them is a naskyathiram (a corruption of 'nakshatram' = star)!"

Thus began a geography lesson by Madrasa instructor Moidu Musaliyar, an unforgettable character from the now seldom-remembered Malayalam Children's classic of the 1970s : "Kunhayante kusrithikal" by V.P. Muhammed.

And here is a newspaper headline that appeared just the other day(free-translated from Malayalam) "Naslim -a brilliant new neela nakshatram (blue star)!". An online story on the discovery of the amazing 'zirconium star' is here: . Naslim, one of the star's discoverers, is a promising lady graduate student of astrophysics, doing research at Armagh Observatory in Ireland. She hails from the same geographical and ethnic milieu as Moidu Musaliyar - the Mappila Muslim heartland of North and North-Central Kerala.

The above two bits of celestial information - one fictional of course - bookend my own slow discovery of the 'creative presence' of the Mappila Muslim community - a community that constitutes almost a fifth of Kerala's population.

I resume what is goint to be a fairly lengthy and episodic narrative with another early example: Back in Primary school, we studied a biography of explorer-humanitarian David Livingstone. The story develops as narrated by an unnamed 'Uncle' to a group of curious children. A short extract:

Uncle: "Livingstone was deeply pained by the pathetic living conditions of Africa's indegenous people. He raised a strong protest against the rampant trade in 'adimas'(slaves)"

At this point Hassankutti (the only Muslim among the children) has a doubt, which he articulates in the Mappila dialect: "What is this 'adima - trade'? My Kochchatha (father's younger brother) is called Adima. And he runs a shop. Why would that White Saheb object to that?"

A wee bit of explanation is needed here: the word 'Adima', meaning slave in Malayalam, is also a proper Muslim name in Kerala - a literal desi translation of 'Ghulam'.

Everyone laughs aloud and Uncle proceeds with the Livingstone saga without explaining 'adima'. I remember thinking "That was not fair!".

In children's magazine stories of my younger days, Muslim characters always spoke the an extravagant Mappila dialect (although Mallu Muslims one met in real life seldom did, at least to non-Mappilas). They were all Hassankutti-clones - usually religious, usually kind-hearted but most importantly, naive, utterly so. Strangely, some of those stories were written by Muslims themselves. I recall a serial 'Kochu Panikkar' on the adventures of a bright but impoverished young Hindu hero, Panikkar - the author of the series was a certain Abdul Kader. In one episode, Panikkar catches a servant who steals from a wealthy Muslim landlord. The landlord is everything that Akbar is in all those Birbal stories popularized by Amar Chitra Katha - kind-hearted, trusting and a little light upstairs - and speaks a very Mappila dialect; in stark contrast, Panikkar speaks polished, literary Malayalam.

(Note: The Hindu nationalists of the North had a solid reason to fabricate a Birbal as the only smart guy among a horde of martial Muslims - it was an obvious way to make up for their ancestors' inabiility to beat off Muslim invaders and rulers. But Kerala has had no history of sustained Muslim rule and dominance so such subaltern narratives are irrelevant here. And why would a Mallu Muslim writer himself pander to such attitudes?).

Punnoose Pullolikkal is a teacher who has written at least a few really good Popular Mathematics books for school-children. Some of his works (1970s) are structured as dialogs between a certain 'Gopi Sir' and groups of smart students. Punnoose always lists the students' names. I remember checking and confirming that the names were always evenly split between Hindu and Christian (btw, Punnoose himself is Christian and Gopi is a very Hindu name); not a single Mathemacially curious Muslim schooler inhabits Punnoose's world.

Prof. S. Sivadas is an equally successful and far more prolific science popularizer. In all his books (most are again, dialogic) dating from the 1970s and 80s, the characters had mostly Hindu names with a sprinkling of Christian ones. Again, no Muslims.

(In defence of both Punnoose and Sivadas, it may be argued that both hail from a part of Kerala where the population is mostly Hindu-Christian)(*).

In such a setting, V. P. Muhammad's 'Kunhayan' was a revolution. On the face of it, Kunhayan is a Mappila Birbal from medieval Kerala(from the BBC perspective, which often shows 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' as antonyms, he would be 'anti-Birbal'!) - a bright young lad who wins his way into the courts and hearts of the Hindu rulers of Malabar with his ready wit and street-smart cleverness. But unlike ACK's Akbar, the Mallu Hindus in the story are not dull; they are normal folk. Kunhayan is only an epsilon smarter than them. Indeed, this very well-written novel makes a noble pitch for communal harmony. 'Kunhayan' also goes far beyond Birbal in that it also incorporates serious social commentary - the story is also a critique of the superstitions, lack of education and other evils plaguing Keralan society in general and the hero's Mappila society in particular. Moidu Musaliyar is a searing caricature of the devious, reactionary (and ill-educated) religious guru. A hard-hitting episode in the novel points out how the Ossans (barbers) were looked down upon by 'high-caste' Mappilas. Elsewhere Kunhayan tellingly calls the bluff of a Hindu 'Velichappad' (oracle).

There is one little aspect of the novel that I did not quite approve of. Both Kunhayan and and his learned Ustad (Guru), Maqdoom of Ponnani, always speak an ethnicity-neutral, bookish Malayalam - as if abandonment of the Mappila dialect is the hallmark of learning and culture. (**)

For nearly 15 years at school and college, Malayalam language was one my subjects. The Muslim-themed stories, chapters, poems, etc. that I met with in our syllabus during this entire time-span, could be collectively counted with the fingers of one hand. We had to work thru dozens of specimens of long-gone genres of Malayalam poetry (champus, mani-pravalas, sandeshas etc.) including many written in archaic dialects with strong Tamil and Sanskrit admixture - every single one of them was Hindu in theme - but we saw not one line from the very substantial corpus of Mappila Malayalam literature. I first heard the name 'Moinkutty Vaidyar' long after I graduated! And now, in middle-age, I have just made an acquaintance with this most eminent of Mappila poets thru a few fragments from his 'Husnul Jamal' and 'Badr pattu'. (First impression: Vaidyar's diction is hard to follow - apart from the expected Arabic loan-words, there is the stunning surprise of a substantial Tamil vocabulary - surprising because in the Mappila country, Tamil has virtually zilch presence as a spoken language. Well, after a bit of reflection, I recall that the lyrics of a wistful loved-and-lost song from Uroob's famous novel 'Ummachu' were also laced with Tamil ... let me leave all talk about Tamil influence on Mappila culture for a future discussion!)

Things do seem to be changing and so are drafters of Malayalam language lessons. Hopefully, future students of Malayalam would know Moinkutty Vaidyar at least as well as they know, say, Ramapurathu Warrier. Of course, a lot of these syallabus changes have been driven by the increasingly assertive Muslim League politicians and their vote-bank politics. The confident assertiveness of the Leaguers has also led to allegations of overkill - for example, that they have challenged even the traditional practice of giving the name 'Rama' to the typical Everyman. IMO, such demands for a share of name-space and theme-space are perfectly legitimate but they had better not get tied *exclusively* to demographic presence and sheer numbers. Rabindranath Tagore wrote his acclaimed 'Sahaj Path' language lessons for Bengali, a language with Muslim majority speakers. Tagore's set of stories and poems hardly have Muslim characters but that does not make them any less marvelously effective - and it is an effectiveness I can vouch for ( I dunno how 'Sahaj Path' is viewed in the mostly Muslim Bangladesh; I want to believe it is a treasured classic there too).

Whatever, in recent years, Sivadas has (consciously?) broadened the religious spread of his child characters by introducing a Kochumuhammed and a Jameelabeevi among his usual set of children, Deepu, Appu, Mini... I have not checked Punnoose's recent works. But these are really not significant details; far more significant is the fact that substantial numbers of gifted Mappila youth have begun to rise to eminence in domains of creativity not associated with ethnicity and religion. Naslim is but one example.


(*) I am quite wary of focussing too much on the relative representation of various religious communities in any given character set. Let me recall the late Vaikom Mohammed Basheer's comments when the Soviets took the first Indian to Space: "Hey guys, it is not fair! The two Indians in the final selection, Ravish Malhotra and Rakesh Sharma are both Hindus. For God's sake, where are the minoriies?! Now I can only hope and pray that Malishev and Strekalov, the two Russians on the same space mission are a Muslim and Christian respectively; only that can correct the communal balance!"

(**) Wiki has revealed that the character of Kunhayan is partly based on eminent 18th century Mappila writer Kunhayin Musaliyar. At the conclusion of the novel, Kunhayan faces an enigmatic question from Ustad Maqdoom: "Are you making a ship of a man?". Pondering it intensely, he experiences a sudden epiphany and composes a mystic poem on the perilous voyage of a ship sailing uncharted seas as an allegory for human existence. His 18th century namesake is credited with the poem 'Kappappattu', which has the same theme.