ANAMIKA

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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

'Thumbi'

"Ravi walked over the ridge; overhead, a million dragonflies sallied forth in the bland sun. Memories of the dead, the dead pining for miraculous reprieves. He walked beneath the canopy of little wings..." - from the Legends of Khasak.

Let's get acquainted with a curious linguistic phenomenon: In Malayalam, the word 'thumbi' means dragonfly(*); 'poompatta' is butterfly. While the latter is a nice enough compound name literally meaning 'flower insect', 'thumbi' is by far the pithier and cuter word. This has led to generations of Keralan children getting them mixed up (**). Subconscious vestiges of this confusion persist for life - generations of poets have written with great fondness for the thumbi "flitting among blossoms" or "swinging from blades of grass" or craved its honey-sweet evanscent life (a very recent instance is a filmy ditty addressed to a solitary thumbi ('ottathumbee...' ).

Needless to say, all this imagery is pure bunkum. The wiki article on dragonflies does not even have the word 'flower'. Instead, it says:

Dragonflies are important predators that eat mosquitoes, and other small insects like flies, bees, ants, wasps, and very rarely butterflies...

The Hindi word for butterfly is the short and sweet 'titli' and there are any number of songs on them (the best known being a quite sweet one from that otherwise insufferable Shah Rukh starrer 'Chennai Express'). And dragonfly appears to have no proper Hindi name except the fabrication: 'vyadh-patang' (= the butcher insect(?)) - and no one writes odes to them.

Wiki has more gritty facts on dragonflies:

Female dragonflies lay eggs in or near water, often on floating or emergent plants. When laying eggs, some species will submerge themselves completely in order to lay their eggs on a good surface. The eggs then hatch into naiads. Most of a dragonfly's life is spent in the naiad form, beneath the water's surface, using extendable jaws to catch other invertebrates (often mosquito larvae) or even vertebrates such as tadpoles and fish. They breathe through gills in their rectum, and can rapidly propel themselves by suddenly expelling water through the anus. Some naiads even hunt on land...

Wiki has a fair bit to say on the cultural associations of dragonflies:

In Europe, dragonflies have often been seen as sinister. Some English vernacular names, such as "devil's darning needle" and "ear cutter", link them with evil or injury. A Romanian folk tale says that the dragonfly was once a horse possessed by the devil. Swedish folklore holds that the devil uses dragonflies to weigh people's souls. The Southern United States term "snake doctor" refers to a folk belief that dragonflies follow snakes around and stitch them back together if they are injured.

As a seasonal symbol in Japan, the dragonfly is associated with summer and early autumn. More generally, dragonflies are symbols of courage, strength, and happiness, and they often appear in art and literature, especially haiku. The love for dragonflies is reflected by traditional (layman's) names for almost all of the 200 species of dragonflies found in and around Japan. Japanese children catch large dragonflies as a game, using a hair with a small pebble tied to each end, which they throw into the air. The dragonfly mistakes the pebbles for prey, gets tangled in the hair, and is dragged to the ground by the weight.

Note: Maybe Appukili, the sole - and relentless - thumbi-catcher of Khasak(***) employs a similar trick to 'lasso' his quarry.

And here is a bit from the Wiki story on the *butterfly*

According to Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn, a butterfly was seen in Japan as the personification of a person's soul; whether they be living, dying, or already dead. One Japanese superstition says that if a butterfly enters your guestroom and perches behind the bamboo screen, the person whom you most love is coming to see you. However, large numbers of butterflies are viewed as bad omens...

Note: I had always thought Khasak's oft-repeated and haunting image of the 'emerald-eyed thumbi' as the memory of a dead person was Vijayan's inspired invention and not the adaptation of Keralan folk-myth. But now, there is the possibility he might borrowed Hearn's version of Japanese tradition. As to whether Vijayan also followed the Keralan poetic habit of bringing in the 'thumbi' to replace the butterfly or made a 'barometer soup(****)' kind of concoction, I am not sure.

Wiki has some more intriguing material on butterflies:

In Chinese culture, two butterflies flying together symbolize love. The Taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, once had a dream about being a butterfly that flew without care about humanity; however; when he awoke and realized that it was just a dream, he thought to himself, "Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?"

...Some people say that when a butterfly lands on you it means good luck. However, in Devonshire, people would traditionally rush around to kill the first butterfly of the year that they see, or else face a year of bad luck. Also, in the Philippines, a lingering black butterfly or moth in the house is taken to mean that someone in the family has died or will soon die.

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A hugely popular Malayalam film from the 1980's was 'thoovanathumbikal', literally 'thumbies in the gentle shower of rain'. Bluntly put, it is the story a guy whose path crosses and gets tangled with those of two beautiful and strong girls. Rains - especially night showers - are a brilliantly employed motif in the narrative. But one could well ask: what is the connection between the thumbi and rains?

At 'Wiki Answers', someone has asked: "When dragonflies come out, does it mean it will rain?" The answer given is a curt (and not very illuminating) "Yes". And then, somewhere else, one sees: "The globe skimmer is one of several dragonfly species known to develop in temporary freshwater pools. Forced to follow the rains that replenish their breeding sites, the globe skimmer set a new insect world record when a biologist documented its 11,000 mile trip between India and Africa." So, rains do have something to do with the love-life of at least some thumbies.

Note: Ratheesh told me there is another class of insects similar to the dragonfly called damselflies in English and 'pachathumbi'( green thumbi) in Malayalam. As I just checked, 'Khasak' does mention the 'pachathumbi' but makes no serious distinction between it and the dragon; which is just as well, for despite being considerably more photogenic (that should explain their English name), green thumbies too are violent carnivores (Wiki).

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(*)I choose 'thumbi' over 'thumpi' although many would say the latter is the more accurate transliteration. The truth is the precise Malayalam consonant is 'simbly' too nuanced to be captured by either 'p' or 'b'.

(**)I recall an event from when I was about five. A smart and gifted student in our class (he was probably called Kishore; or maybe his name was Balasubramaian; or maybe both were his names ... I am not sure!) drew a brightly colored picture of a butterfly in his notebook. I remarked: "Nice thumbi!" and he smilingly corrected me (thanks, old chap, wherever you now are!): "No, no, it is not a thumbi, it is a poompatta!"

(***)"Each thumbi is the memory of a dead village elder so no children of Khasak would catch them. An exception was Appukili; but then, he was a cretin and knew previous lives - and lives to come..."

(****)Perelman's 'Physics for entertainment' analyzes a travel note by Mark Twain. While on a trek in the mountains, the writer boils a barometer with some soup to estimate the altitude. Perelman points out a scientific error: he should have dipped a *thermometer* into the boiling soup instead!

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