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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Naseer, Ramanujan and V-Day

Was it not Heraclitus who said: "You cannot step twice into the same stream"? But I just read the same book for the first time, twice.

Naseer and Chakki

A few months ago, I discovered the Malayalam best-seller 'Kadine Chennu Thodumbol' (approx. 'To Touch the Forest..') by N A Naseer, wildlife photographer, activist and writer. A lyrical, visually rich and deeply felt evocation of the flora and fauna of Western Ghats, the book swept me along on a sensual journey that lasted a few uninterrupted hours and I put it down with the distinct feeling that in our mediocre and money-minded times and in this Kerala, so lacking in heroes, Naseer is one; at least that with his sheer commitment and the voluminous body of quality work he has built up over a career now well into its fourth decade, he gets quite close to being one.

Last week, I saw the man give a lecture cum slide-show. It was quite pleasing to note that Naseer is at least as good a lecturer as he is a photographer - he spoke confidently, with a crisp command over facts, an understated touch of humour and an easy, friendly connect with the audience.

Among the dozens of superb pictures he showed us were a few of the Malamuzhakki or great hornbill, the same species as Ammu/Chakki, our National Games mascot (the last post here was about her name). I was struck by the bird’s impressive looks and superb colors(white, black and yellow); and it looks even more stunning when in full flight. It was then that I realized I had never read the Wiki article on hornbills. Right after the talk, I went there, saw more stunning pictures and learnt the word casque (as in ‘…. Of Amontillado’) could also stand for the mysterious helmet like structure on the hornbill’s head(*).

Aside: Naseer also showed the closeup of a hooded cobra, fangs bared, and remarked: “what a smile!” and that reminded me of a laughing snake I saw a few weeks ago – and wrote about.

I got back from the talk and picked up Naseer’s book again. Casually leafing thru it, I saw some hornbill pictures and noted with considerable surprise that I had just seen these very pictures at the talk and had felt I was seeing them for the first time. And things began to get really unsettling when I saw and reread an article on the Malamuzhakki in the book; everything felt frighteningly fresh – whatever read but a few months back when I cover-to-covered the book with great relish had simply vaporized from memory (so much so that while writing the last post here ‘Chakki’, I had never thought of dipping into Naseer’s book for details - that Naseer had at all written at some length about the hornbill had gotten lost)!

On Metaphors:

After that worrisome note on memory loss, let me make an attempt to get back to form:

The flowers of the murikku tree or erythrinia are a striking red. The other day, I heard an old Malayalam song by P.Bhaskaran: a child sees the murikku and the fallen flowers strewn around it and asks. "Murikke! Who is the one that chewed paan all night and has spat all around around you?!"

I found the metaphor therein quite irksome: Is it not too much of poetic license to liken paan spit with fallen flowers (or the other way round)? But then, my Old Man said: "You simply haven't observed the scattered petals of fallen murikku flowers. They look just like pan-spittle. And a metaphor needs only to be true to the attributes it is based on, conventions of ritual purity and stuff are immaterial!"

That made me recall an old story about Vedanta master Ramanujacharya. An online version goes:

Ramanuja studied under Yadavacarya, a renowned Sankarite scholar. One day the guru was explaining to Ramanuja a sutra "tasya yatha kapyasam pundarikamevamaksini" (Chandogya Upanishad1.6.7), saying that according to Advaita Master Sankara, the two eyes of Purusha (the supreme personal absolute) are like two lotuses which are red like the backside of a monkey (from ‘kapi’, meaning monkey). On hearing this interpretation with the unbecoming and low metaphor, Ramanuja's soft heart melted and tears rolled down. He explained to his guru that it is a sin to compare with the posterior of a monkey the eyes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead - who is endowed with all gracious qualities and who is the repository of all the beauty of the universe. Yadava challenged the boy to explain the verse if he could. Ramanuja analysed the word kapyasam to mean `blossomed by the sun' and the verse to mean "The eyes of that Golden Purusa are as lovely as lotuses blossomed by the rays of the sun." …

After a few more such incidents when Ramanuja corrected his guru, Yadavacarya thought him to be a threat to the Sankarite tradition and plotted to kill him. Later it came to pass that Yadavacarya was to become the disciple of Ramanuja.

As one can argue based on the murikku metaphor, Ramanujan's revulsion towards Sankara's analysis of 'kapyasam pundareekaksham' is misplaced (at any rate, for a true Vedantin, there is no distinction between the ethereal and the base). Nevertheless, one can still seriously question Sankara’s interpretation by appealing to poetics proper: The eye-lotus parallel (so common all over Indian literature) is based on shape as the key attribute - when the Upanishad likens the eyes of Purusha to a lotus, it implies his eye has the pleasing form of a lotus petal; the other attributes that the objects being likened may or may not possess do not matter. That the lotus does have a color very similar to the nates of many monkeys (**) is a valid fact but it refers to an attribute irrelevant to the metaphor likening the eye and lotus; ergo, Sankara's analysis is flawed.

Aside: Arundhati Roy quotes a somewhat dirty Mal song in 'Small Things' that puts forward a Just-so type of explanation for the color of the monkey's backside.

A V-day:

A Valentine's Day just went by. I received a curious message with this piece of advice: "Put on that old 'kaavi' shirt of yours and walk up and down the Marine Drive Walkway; who knows, you may land a rose!".

The said shirt used to be a bright orange when I bought it a decade ago as a step towards building a collection of plain unicolor shirts. Now, it has not only faded to a dull kaavi (the color associated with monasticism in India) but received damages from a botched 'istri' effort. Whatever, I acted as per the advice and once the walk got done, went across the street to my favorite watering hole.


(*) The artist who created Ammu has splashed her with inappropriately gaudy colors – an orange casque and violet beak.

(**)I learnt the word 'nates' while researching this piece; many devotees have put up pages on this story and quite a few were too squeamish to say ‘backside’ or even ‘posterior’ and chose 'nates'


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