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

Friday, May 25, 2018

Farrago, Murat and the Pride of India

As everybody knows, Shashi Tharoor has been making all kinds of waves for quite a while. His wide-ranging impact can be gauged from this simple fact:

A roofing material manufacturing company based in Kerala has put on the market a product named: 'Farrago Tiles'. I can trace the naming only to the Tharoor tweet that went "Exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and whatever....".

And inspired by this development, a friend of mine who is planning to get into the soft drinks business has given the name ------- to an all new concoction of his. Readers are invited to fill the blank; the answer to this puzzle - a fairly simple one if you have not taken great pains to keep away from Tharoor and his utterances - is at the bottom of this post.


The Wiki article on Tolstoy's novella 'Hadji Murat' has the following passage (slightly edited): "The narrator contemplates a crushed, but still living thistle he finds in a field. The thistle reminds him of the life of Hadji Murat, a successful and famed Tartar guerrilla who falls out with his own commander and eventually sides with the Russians in hope of saving his family...."

From the novella itself:

"The thistle had three branches. One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung down with a soiled flower at its tip. The other, though also soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender ...."

Here is how one was reminded of someone being reminded of someone on seeing something:

Last week, while traveling to workplace by bus, I spotted, on the median dividing the Kochi bypass, a burst of glorious flowers radiating from a tree that had been cut down or withered and collapsed to a barely one meter stump (with my rudimentary botany, I could identify the species as the 'Pride of India'). The tree stump had practically no leaves and the stalks of ebullient blooms brought up memories of a classical metaphor - the quiver of Kama, the god of Love.

I wanted to take pictures but the spot was about five kilometers from office - and still farther from home - and inconvenient to get down at; whatever, a few days passed by.

Today morning, the weather was overcast and windy and there was little to do at office so I borrowed somebody's bicycle and pedaled to the stump (*). The last week has been occasionally drizzly and lots of fresh leaves have sprouted all around the flowers. So, these are the pictures I could manage of what has been an amazing feat of defiant regeneration (with some effort, I resisted the temptation to tear off the fresh leaves just to get a picture akin to the much punchier vision I had last week).

And then....: A colleague told me that a "grand picture" of this phenomenon had appeared in the local edition of 'Matrubhumi'. With some help from Mom, I searched and found it. Here is the pic taken by V S Shine. Does it look a helluva lot grander than what I could capture!

The pic had a caption that went: "A generous and solemn floral tribute ('adaranjali' in Malayalam): A sprawling tree that stood proudly on the median collapsed the other day. To prevent traffic deadlocks, the authorities cut away and disposed of its branches. But from the yard-high stump that remained, Nature has brought forth a whole host of bouquets of blossoms"

While full of appreciation for the work done by Shine and Matrubhumi, I have reservations about saying 'solemn tribute', especially when faced with such a joyous affirmation of continuing Life.

Here is another - less glamorous but no less impressive - specimen. The Kochi Metro project recently cut a big tree in Chambakkara down to 'kabandha'-state (we can reuse, with very slight changes, the line from Murat and say: "the tree had three branches. Each one was chopped and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm") and now the same tree looks like a perky cheerleader (thanks, Viji Mam!):


A mundu(dhoti) company's ad that appears often on the telly shows actor Mohanlal working a charkha (desi spinning wheel) and declaring: "This is not an ad but a salute to all those craftsmen of yore who weaved India's dreams on the charkha!"

Comment: One knew the Charkha can spin; but never knew it can weave too! So, maybe the yeti can after all, play the bagpipe!

Comment on Comment: Hey, the ad didn't in anyway even indicate that the charkha weaves any kind of cloth - everyone knows it can't! But what prevents it ( or any other device) from weaving (or kneading or scrambling or whatever) dreams?


Answer to the puzzle: 'Rodomontade' after Lemonade and "I choose my words because they are the best ones for the idea i want to convey, not the most obscure or rodomontade ones!" . A sneaking doubt: Did Tharoor get something wrong here - rodomontade shows up in dictionaries as a noun, not an adjective, so....?


(*)Today's biking in challenging traffic - and up and down a lengthy flyover - brought back memories of a monsoon season spent in pre-Millennium Bangalore. There was no work and little money but there were employed folks whose bicycles could be borrowed when they were at work (for those were times when at least some employed people would bike to) and I would scour the city, occasionally having to work thru Bangalore's already messy traffic but enjoying its bracing winds too, occasionally getting drenched in refreshing rains and once reaching as far as the Bannerghatta park.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The JEE Season Is Here!

This is the season of IIT-JEE. For every smart student who will make the cut, there are going to be dozens of sincere students with dreams smashed and worse, morale crushed. Although it happened long ago, I vividly remember the trauma of flunking the JEE, how long the wounds took to heal... and I contemplate, above all, the sheer absurdity of a one-off competitive examination getting invested with life-changing importance and make-or-mar powers ("Come on. He got such and such a rank in the JEE. So, the guy has to be real good!" or "You failed so you cannot really be that good!"); my deepest sympathies are with every present day student going into the mincing machine (over the decades, it has only gotten more overpoweringly vicious).

Aside: A refrain among many sincere students who fail to clear the JEE is "I don't much like chemistry. I did the other papers well!". More than anything else, this is a manifestation of a peculiar caste-like prejudice very widely prevalent among Indians that considers chemistry distinctly inferior to Math and Physics.

Let me quote a bit (with slight edits) from 'The Man who Knew Infinity'; a part of the passage on Britain's Mathematical Tripos examination and how it used to be held in the late 19th century (Note: The Tripos was super difficult and ultra competitive. It had an elaborate ranking system with 'Wranglers', 'Optimes' and so forth. Those who topped became instant celebrities}.

"...And that was the problem: for there was indeed such a thing as Tripos Mathematics; and it bore little kinship to the *real* Mathematics of really serious Mathematicians. The Tripos was tricky and challenging and it certainly separated the Wranglers (the toppers) from the Wooden Spoon (the test was such that first ranker would score around 50 percent while the wooden spooner would struggle to get off the mark) and the Wrangler certainly was far more likely to become a fine mathematician than the straggler. (But, it was eminently clear to those who knew and cared that) the Tripos questions were about accuracy and speed in the manipulation of Mathematical formulas and some shallow cleverness but no real insight - and not even stubborn persistence; indeed, no question could be too long or deep so students trained themselves to look for the hidden 'Tripos Twist'.... "

Serious candidates took special coaching to crack Tripos. The coaches would not teach Mathematics for its own sake but train students in its smart skills and tricks; and some of the most successful coaches were former toppers, just like what would happen - and keep happening - with the JEE in our own country a century later(*)!

Bertrand Russel remarked: "Preparing for the Tripos led me to think of Mathematics as consisting of artful dodges and ingenious devices, rather like a crossword puzzle" The Tripos over, he swore never to look at Mathematics again and sold all his Mathematics books (he grew out of that phase later, happily)!


As is often the case with Indians, it would be tempting to lay the blame for much of the hype and nonsense surrounding the IIT JEE on Lord Macaulay and the lessons of nasty and obsessive exam competition we learned from our former British masters. But that would mark us out as particularly poor pupils; for the British understood the fundamental problems with Tripos and took serious corrective measures well before they let go of India; and 21st century India is still stuck vis-a-vis the JEE just the way Britain was obsessed with Tripos when Hardy and Russel were teenagers.

And it is not as if we ever needed any tutoring in asinine competitiveness. Indeed, let's pause and take a look at a passage from 'Once Upon a Time', a Popular History series brought out, apparently in consultation with serious historians, by the National Book Trust. Around the time of Emperor Harsha (7th century AD), two bright young fellows are discussing prospects of higher education at the then great University of Nalanda:

"I would love to join Nalanda!" Pundarika said. "The library there is so big it spreads over three buildings; and it has thousands of books!"

"Me too" said Vasubhuti. "And I would love to check out that grand sundial which sets the time for the whole subcontinent!"

"But, even just getting in is tough, my friend! To get admitted, one has to be a gifted and well-trained scholar. Even the Nalanda gatekeepers are learned and they do an initial screening of candidates; for every student they let in, at least four are sent away! And then, you have to pass other tests!"

"But then, how come the University has over five thousand students?!" queried Vasubhuti.

"That's because so many candidates come, from all over the land. And even from other countries like Lanka, Java, Sumatra,..." explained Pundarika. "And mind you, a mere selection to Nalanda is nowhere near enough. You got to work very hard through their program and clear a final examination too. Each scholar who passes it is garlanded and paraded thru city streets on the back of an elephant. And those who fail are driven off, tied to the backs of asses, their faces blackened!"

"God, then it's better for guys like us to avoid that place!" said Vasubhuti.

Remark: Although the above story does not say it in so many words, one gets the feeling that in the India of 1400 years ago, one could simply avoid a top-rated, competitive place and not be made to feel devoid of intellectual worth. And *that* is where we seem to have really changed.


'Infinity' also notes: "(Well over a century ago) the personal qualities encouraged by the Tripos, J J Thomson (who would later become discoverer of the electron and Nobelist) would make so bold as to suggest, made it excellent training - for the Bar!". Now, the qualities inculcated by the JEE appears to have become excellent training - for the IIMs and money-making, oops, wealth creation!

And, mercifully, the flunking-the-JEE picture definitely has another side: for instance, I know a guy who remarked "I failed JEE. but no, I didn't do it all that poorly. I did the English paper very well!" - and he has gone on to become a superb scientist and expositor; And I am NOT talking about Venki Ramakrishnan(**)!


(*)A certain all new institution dedicated to 'science education' has advertised itself in a big way on billboards all over the city with pictures of Einstein, Newton, Hawking,... and the punch line: "Experience a unique way of Learning designed by IITians for the Future IITian!". And Bollywood is coming up with a biopic on super teacher Anand Kumar, founder of 'Super 30' which, among other noble things, probably pioneered the 'IITians coaching for JEE' trend.

(**) Quite a few web pages console those who don't get thru JEE by listing some top people who too didn't. At least one among them begins the list with APJ Abdul Kalam. Kalam was no IITian but it looks very unlikely he ever gave the JEE - he was nearly 30 years old when the first JEE was held in 1960.

Friday, May 04, 2018

A Teenaged Gathering

1. Historian M G Sasibhooshan has written several popular and useful accounts of traditional Kerala visual arts. He has also written essays on some of the lesser known aspects of Kerala (and occasionally Indian) history from a firmly right-of-center viewpoint. Here is a curious quote:

"The decline of Indian Civilization began in the 10th and 11th centuries. Royal priests seriously took up Tantrism. They often took the five Makaras of Tantrism (meat, fish, parched grain, liquor and copulation) too literally. Incorporating them into religious practices could lead to the attainment of some special powers but they also led to the country losing its manly valor. This emasculation led to determined enemies easily taking over India.

Indeed Shaktism has a sinister aspect; and one sees an overdose of it at the Konark and Khajuraho temples. It is not enough to view the (erotic) carvings there as works of art alone. Indeed such a perspective can lead to dangerous oversimplifications; some of the carvings might be explained as depicting the Siva-Sakti union but there are others which show ritual practices. I am of the opinion that these temples mark the decline into decadence of a great civilization."

2. At a Tamil-owned restaurant on a highway near Cochin, a shelf of Malayalam books were put up for sale - a smart move directed at car travelers. Here is a glimpse - Mein Kampf and Anne Frank's diary sit on either side of a children's novel by 'Painkili Master' Muttathu Varkey:

The cover of the Mal Mein Kampf clearly says: "For each word in this book, 125 lives were lost. Every page herein killed 47000 people..."

3. The 'Makara' is a mythical beast - half terrestrial animal and the other half fish or bird. It has an all-Asia presence. Even the Greek Capricorn - half goat and half fish - is usually identified with the Makara.

Among the many adornments and attributes our Tradition endows Vishnu with, the strangest are the 'Makara Kundalas' - Makara earrings. I had not even a ghost of an idea as to how earrings could have anything to do with such fantastic beasts - until I saw the grand 'Anantasayana' mural on the inner wall of the Western Gopuram of the Ettumanur Siva temple. Here is a detail. Look at those earrings, Larry!

4. The paintings of Willam Adolphe Bouguerou may be formulaic; and they may fall way short of transcendental greatness; but they have charm (by way of analogy, a Bouguerou is more mellifluous and sweetly amorous film song than profound Pancharatna kriti). And I am a fan. So I was much pleased to see in a glass and picture frame shop, a freshly done painting of Krishna and Rukmini dreamily afloat among iridescent clouds. As shown in the diptych below, it is a very desi adaptation of the Frenchman's 'Psyche and Eros' (the changes made go well beyond the clothing) and represents to me, kitsch at its nicest...

5. As a teenager long ago, I read the following remarkable passage on Indian jewelry in Britannica (1980s edition) - the article 'Dress and Adornment':

"Extensive documentation on ancient jewels is provided by Buddhist statues and the cycles of wall paintings in the Ajanta caves (5th century AD). The great variety of types of jewelry indicates the high degree of development attained by the art of jewelry-making in one of the most magnificent of ancient civilizations, the Indus, and the wealth and variety of deposits of precious and semiprecious stones to be found in India. Indian women were thus the first to decorate themselves with huge quantities of jewels - so many that they were almost fully clothed without wearing any real garments. The clothing of these lovely Indian girls consisted of tiaras, necklaces, earrings, armlets, bracelets, belts, cache sexe (serving the same function as a loincloth) anklets and toe rings, worn on their bare skin and complemented by (practically nothing else)... a woman's belt found at Harappa (3rd millennium BC) used to be worn on the bare body of the woman extending down from the waist for but a few inches..."(*)

What made me recall and then search and find this passage after all these years was seeing this Dwarapala sculpture on the Vyttila temple Gopuram:

Note: Last year, I wrote here: "in his Nataraja form, Siva is almost always shown wearing cycling shorts-like breeches. The Dwarapalas (guardian figures who flank doorways in temples) too usually wear them".

One guesses that a recent repainting/overpainting activity took away the Vytila dwarapala's breeches. Let me also mention that the same treatment has been meted out to some (even more heavily ornamented) female figures on the same gopuram as well.

6. Among the hundreds of hefty DK volumes is the hulking 'Millennium: 20th Century Day by Day', 1500+ pages and 7+ kilos of 'the lazy pleasure of erudition' (to borrow a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges). The tome is also a source of serious wisdom: for instance, I discovered in this book that many more political leaders and other luminaries were assassinated in early 20th century than in the early 21st (for instance in Czarist Russia in Feb 1905, a certain Grand Duke Sergey had a bomb filled with nails dropped in his lap). Even the hoi polloi seem to have had it somewhat worse in those days than now - the long and painful path taken by the Suffragette movement in England is a case in point.

And consider this entry from 1910: "A Chinese army occupies and loots Lhasa forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India. He returned from exile in Peking only two months back, having fled there when British troops arrived in Lhasa in 1904". Note that we are not reading here about the present His Holiness. Isn't it actually reassuring to note that History is essentially cyclic - but for the World actually getting a wee bit better over a few turns of the Old Wheel?

7. There is something unique about Kochi's traffic jams. Everyday I see many city buses among the hundreds of vehicles stuck at each bottleneck; and practically every single such bus has empty seats. One is tempted to guess: if only Kochiites switch to their old way of commuting by bus from the present preference for cars or taxis or mobikes, the city's traffic woes would largely melt away (in other words, Kochi's traffic congestion seems more life-style disease than inevitable byproduct of economic growth).


(*) While the titillation it offers is very real, this Britannica passage fantastically mixes Harappa and Ajanta (which lie almost 3000 years apart!) and from that cocktail, conjures up a (somewhat virtual) India teeming with bejeweled and unclad maidens.