Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Epistolary style of the Brahmans

The “Description of the character, manners and the customs of the people of India” (pages 269-271) published in 1817 ( translated from a French manuscript of 1806) provides these examples of how a Brahman addressed a person who was his inferior;, one who was his equal; and a person who was his superior.

Letter to an Inferior.

“They, the Brahman Soubaya, to him Lakshmana, who has all good qualities, who is true to his word, who by the services he renders to his relations and friends, resembles the Chintamani; Asirvadam.

Year of Kilaka, the fourth day of the month Phalguna, I am at Banavara, in good health. Send me news of thine. As soon as this letter shall have reached thee, thou shalt go to the most excellent Brahman Anantaya, and prostrating thyself at all thy length at his feet, thou wilt offer him my most humble respect, and then, without delay, thou shalt present thyself before the Shetty Rangapa, and declare to him that if he shall now put into thy hands the three thousand rupees which he owes me, with interest at twenty-five per centum, I will forget all that is passed, and the matter shall then be at an end. But if, on the contrary he makes shifts and continues to defer the payment of the money, tell him that I am acquainted with a method of teaching him that no person shall safely break his word with a Brahman, such as I am. This is all I have to say to thee. Asirvadam."

Letter to an Equal.

To them the Lord, to the Lord Ramaya, who possesses all the good qualities which can render a man esteemed; who is worthy to obtain all the favours which the Gods can bestow; who is the beloved of beautiful women, who is the particular favourite of Lakshmi; who is great as the Mount Meru, and who has a perfect knowledge of the Yajur veda: the Brahman Subaya; Namaskaram"

The year Dnrmati, the fifteenth of the month Phalguna, I am at Bailore, where I and all the members of my family enjoy good health. I shall learn, with great gladness, that it is the same with you; and I trust you will inform me particularly of all the subjects of satisfaction and contentment which you experience.

On the twenty-second of the month above mentioned, being a day in which all good omens unite, we have chosen that the marriage of my daughter Vijaya Lakshmi shall be celebrated. I beg you will honour the ceremony with your presence, and be here before that day with all the persons of your household, without excepting any. I expect you will put yourself at the head of the solemnity, and that you will be pleased to conduct it. And if there is any thing in which I can be of service to you, have the goodness to let me know it. This is all I have to apprise you of. Namaskaram"

Letter to a Superior.

To them the Lord, to the Lord Brahman, to the great Brahman Anantaya, who are endowed with every virtue and all good qualities ; who are great as Mount Meru; who possess a perfect knowledge of the four Vedas; who, by the splendour of their good works, shine like the Sun; whose renown pervades the fourteen worlds: I, Kishenaya, their humble servant and slave, keeping my distance, with both hands joined, my mouth closed, mine eyes cast down ; wait, in this humble posture, until they shall vouchsafe to cast their eyes on him who is nothing in their presence. After obtaining their leave approaching them with fear and trembling, and prostrating myself at my whole length before the flowers of Nenuphar on the ground where they stand; and, thus submissive, with respectful kisses, will I address their feet with this humble supplication:

The year Vikari, the twentieth of the month Paushya, I, your humble servant and slave, whom your Excellence has deigned to regard as something, having received with both hands the letter which you humbled yourself by writing me; after kissing it and putting it on my head, I afterwards read with the profoundest attention, and I will execute the orders it contains, without departing from them the breadth of a grain of Sesamum. The affair on which your Excellence has vouchsafed to command me is in good progress, and I hope that, by the efficacy of your benediction, it will soon terminate to your entire satisfaction. As soon as that happens, I, your humble servant and slave, shall not fail to present myself (agreeably to the orders of your Excellence) at the flowers of Niluphar of your holy feet. I now entreat your Excellence to impart to me the commands and instructions necessary to enable me so to demean myself as to be agreeable to their will, and that you will clearly point out to me in what manner I may render myself most acceptable to your blessed feet. For this, it will suffice, if I receive from your bounty a leaf of betel indented with your nail, in care of some confidential person, who can verbally explain the orders of your Excellency. Such is my humble prayer."

At the playground

Let’s say that you are in the park with your 5-year old son. Suddenly, another kid who is playing there comes over and slaps your son on the face, not once but thrice. You pull your son away and then prepare to deliver a sermon to the violent kid. As he tries to walk away, you hold his arm so that you can complete the sermon. Then the mother of that kid materializes from somewhere and accuses you of trying to beat her son….

Jason Kottke had this experience that left him with mixed feelings. The ‘parent’ in him told him that his reaction was perfectly normal, yet he had this ‘guilt’ that perhaps he had over-stepped the limit. He blogged about it and asked his readers to comment. “Am I being naïve in thinking that the playground is a collective parenting situation when it comes to this sort of thing? Or is touching or parenting another person's child, no matter how slightly or what the intent, strictly off limits in this overprotective and litigious society?” he asked his readers.

As I write this, he has received 177 responses; some telling him that he was wrong in touching the other child, some approving of his action, some suggesting that he should have socked the mom, etc.

I don’t know how I would have reacted had I been in Jason’s position, but incidents such as these only strengthen my admiration for the kindergarten teacher, who not only has to manage an assortment of badly-behaved kids, but also has to deal with the wrath of the ‘mother hens’ who would come charging in and take them to task, if some other kid had so much as laid a finger on theirs.

Friday, May 29, 2009

No TV, no iPod, no Facebook, no.....

At the California Academy for Liberal Studies Early College High School at Los Angeles, Shannon Meyer threw a challenge to her students. They had to survive an entire week without any electronic devices. That means, no TV, no Ipod, no Blackberrys, no Facebook, and no cellphones. (via)

“Kids these days are wired to everything but connected to nothing meaningful” says Meyer. If she sees a student in class take a little too long searching for a pencil in a backpack, she knows what's really going on.

"These kids are really bright, but they're quickly bored," Meyer says. She believes the constant electronic stimulation and sensory overload make kids ill-equipped to follow the slower rhythms of classroom dialogue or to interact with one another in meaningful ways.

So, how did they cope with the ordeal that was worse than the torture at Guantanamo Bay?

Cesar Rodriguez knew he was addicted to electronic devices. But the Los Angeles 10th-grader had no idea just how sick he was."I can't stand it," he wrote in his journal on the second day of a one-week attempt to survive without television, iPods, cellphones, BlackBerrys and computers. "I woke up last night but I was still kind of asleep and I was having a dream about my phone and I started to bang my head against the pillow. I AM GOING CRAZY!!!"

Mario Canaba was turned so upside down, he actually played with some of his mother's day-care kids, but described the experience in a single word: "Painful."

Angie Gaytan lost track of the days and had a strange episode of disorientation in which she found herself staring at a piece of chicken

"I felt weird and out of order," Valerie Lira wrote in describing the experience of waking up and not turning on the television.

Daniel Romero read a book for the first time this year.

Lopez actually communicated with an uncle during a rare conversation about swine flu, politics and history.

Jenny Corona connected with her autistic brother, and, to her utter amazement, read an entire Harry Potter book in four days.

Without her headphones blocking out the real world, Flor Salvador heard strange chirping sounds. "I didn't know we had birds!" she wrote in her journal.

Note to self: Must try this experiment at home with teenaged daughters……..

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The ruins of Ayodhya

If you had been a British historian of the eighteenth century, with some exposure to the methods and rigour of scientific research gaining ground in Europe, you would have found it exasperating to deal with the natives in India, who made no distinction between mythology and history. In the absence of written records, and with the locals clinging to a bewildering array of beliefs and interpretations, the British historian had to do some painstaking work to clear the cobwebs and create ‘Indian history’ so to say..

In 1835, a Montgomery Martin was asked to carry out a survey on the “History, antiquities, topography and statistics of Eastern India”.

One of the areas he surveyed happened to be Ayodhya ( pages 331-336). Even in the early eighteenth century, there were claims that a temple had been desecrated by Aurangazeb, and a mosque built in its place. Confronted by a web of beliefs, superstitions and legends, he decided to start ground-up, by engaging some Pandits, to dip into mythology and help him trace the geneology of the princely family starting from the time of Rama. He would then use a thumb rule (3 generations per century or something like that) and attempt a ‘dating” of events.

Based on this elaborate exercise and various surmises, his conclusions seem to have been:

1) Ayodhya was founded in 2732 B.C

2) Rama flourished in the year 1550 BC

3) Sometime around 1024 BC, after the reign of Vrihadbala, the 27th descendent of Rama, Ayodhya was deserted.

4) There was a widespread belief that one Vikrama of Ujjain came down centuries later and built 360 temples after clearing the ruins of the city. This, reasons Martin, was highly unlikely considering the time interval, and must be discounted as imagination.

5) “Unfortunately, if these temples ever existed”, writes Martin in 1838, “not the smallest trace of them remains to enable us to judge of the period when they were built; and the destruction is very generally attributed by the Hindus to the furious zeal of Aurungzebe, to whom also is imputed the overthrow of the temples in Benares and Mathura.”

“What may have been the case in the two latter, I shall not now take upon myself to say, but with respect
to Ayodhya the tradition seems very ill founded. The bigot by whom the temples were destroyed, is said to have erected mosques on the situations of the most remarkable temples; but the mosque at Ayodhya, which is by far the most entire, and which has every appearance of being the most modern, is ascertained by an inscription on its walls (of which a copy is given) to have been built by Babur, five generations before Aurungzebe. This renders the whole story of Vikrama exceedingly doubtful, especially as what are said to be the ruins of his fort, do not in any essential degree differ from those said to have belonged to the ancient city, that is, consist entirely of irregular heaps of broken bricks, covered with soil, and remarkably productive of tobacco; and, from its name, Ramgar, I am inclined to suppose that it was a part of the building actually erected by Rama.”

6) Martin concludes that the site of the mosque probably belonged to the palace of the erstw
hile kings of Ayodhya. As evidence, he provides this sketch of a pillar used in the mosque. “That they have been taken from a Hindu building, is evident, from the traces of images being observable on some of their bases; although the images have been cut off to satisfy the conscience of the bigot. It is possible that these pillars have belonged to a temple built by Vikrama; but I think the existence of such temples doubtful; and, if they did not exist, it is probable that the pillars were taken from the ruins of the palace.

I don’t know if this would enable the VHP to view the episode more charitably. After all, building a mosque on the site of a palace that had fallen to ruins a thousand years back is not such a newsworthy thing to do as building it over a destroyed temple.

Reading these accounts, one can get overawed by the intensity of the cross-currents of history and the paths of evolution that led to the present. One realizes that it is utterly foolish and futile to split hairs or cross swords to avenge past misdeeds, imagined or real.

We really ought to move on.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The native education

In the eighteenth century, education in India was all about learning the languages from different tutors and acquiring knowledge of the sacred texts and verses. Education was certainly a long and elaborate process.

The Asiatic Annual Register or A view of the history of Hindoostan and of the Politics, commerce and Literature of Asia for the year 1801 (pages 13-15) contains this "Account of the Life of Teruvercadu Mutiah, a learned Hindu, a native of the Carnatic.” written by himself in the English language.

Copying the text from the digitized version of Google Books proved to be quite difficult, in view of the writer’s tendency to use the letter ‘f’ instead of ‘s’ , a practice that was prevalent then. So, here is the account, edited to bring some clarity.

In the Christian year 1766, in the 5th year of my age, I was put under tuition of a Brahmin tutor by name Latchmana Eyer who taught me to read and write the Sanskrit, Malabar and Persian writings, especially the first two.

In the year 1772 1 was initiated in the Persian language,under a Mussalman named Abdul Hakim Saheb.

In 1774, I was educated under a Mahratta Brahmana in the name of Sankara Raur, in the rudiments of the Mahratta language. In the 13th year of my life, I finished all the scholastic readings in the aforementioned languages.

In 1775, I received my education in Cauvya Nataka, Alankara, etc of the Sanskrit language from two eminent poets of the Brahmanical tribe by name Emba Ayangar and Rangava Acharya so that in a short time I became able to compose verses in that language.

In 1776, I was instructed by one Vadugunada Pandaram a most learned man of the same caste to which I belong, in the acromatic part of Tamil learning, that is to say in the most excellent and copious grammar of Tamil language, entitled Tulcapiem, and in all other books dependent on it, namely Carky, Nannul, and also in books of poems such as Teruvalluvar, Chintamaney, Peria Puranam, Neeandu, Thevaram,etc

In 1777, I acquired skill in copying proofs and verses on the high and poetic Tamil. Same year I began learning Veyakarana and Tarkasastra under two learned Brahmanas named Rama Sastre and Cuppurama Sastre.

In 1779, I received my education in Siddantaceagamas from one Vataranya Sastre, a distinguished theologist.

In 1780, I was sent to the English school of one Surya Pelly, a native of repute who instructed me on the scholastic readings of that language.

In 1781, I was recommended to the Vessery Missionary, the Reverend Philip Febrecius, with whom I read an English book named the Preceptor, treating of morals, geography, chronology, etc. I began then to learn the elements of the Latin language under Mr Walter, but in a short time thereafter, he departed this life.

So, my worthy father, Teruvercadu Ramalinga Mudelliar has, at the expense of a vast deal of money, caused me to be educated in the aforestated manner. And also furnished me with an abundance of Sanskrit and Malabar manuscripts and also with a number of English authors of whom I have a library.

From 1782 to 1789, I continued to amuse myself with the reading of the Sanskrit and Malabar authors such as the Etehasa, Puranas, etc and also the English authors such as the Old and New Testaments, Ward’s Grammar, Johnson’s and Chambers dictionaries,etc.

In the interim, a proud monk of my tribe wrote a treatise in the most sublime style of the poetical Tamil, upon a sacred author of that religion, to which I and other natives of my class and also all the worshipping Brahmas of Sevas temple throughout the peninsula belong. This treatise he having sent me on October 28, 1784, I was obliged to write my answer in refutation of the same treatise, in the same poetic style of Tamil in which it was written. The said monk, out of malice drew out something in reply to my answer, which was brought to me on Sep 13, 1791, which again I refuted by stating my reasons in such an extensive manner, that it filled about one hundred Palmeira leaves, because I thereby showed absurdities in every sentence written by that monk.

In 1793, in order to gain the good opinion of Dr James Anderson ( a gentleman possessed of philanthropy and public spirit), I made an accurate and literal translation into the Malabar language of three pamphlets which were published by him, consisting of letters on the progress and establishment of the culture of silk and tending to the public welfare.

In 1794, I translated the modern history of Madura (written in a vulgar style of Malabar language) into English in order to satisfy the curiosity of Andrew Ross, Esq, a gentleman of abilities and wisdom. Same year, near the end, I translated verbatim, into English the Sanskrit Almanac of the Indians, for the present year Ynanda, by the desire of Andrew Berry, a gentleman of great worth and learning. And this translation of the Almanac, Mr Goldingham, an eminent astronomer having perused, was pleased to declare his approbation of the same.

I am now aged thirty-three years, four months and twenty-two days and have hitherto been married to three wives ( of whom two are dead). Yet I am still amusing myself with books of my library, as God Almighty has not recommended me to such a service as is suited to me.

(dated Saturday, 24th Jan, 1795)

In the world of ZooZoo

In the cartoon world, the effort has primarily been to anthropomorphise the characters drawn by artists and imbue them with human skills of talking, laughing,walking on two legs, etc. Walt Disney films exemplified this approach and transported the viewers into a fantasy world.

In the second phase, these popular cartoon characters stepped out into the open. In theme parks and birthday parties, human beings were dressed like or were made to don masks or hoods to look like the cartoon creatures. I don’t know what children made out of this reversal of roles. Were these creatures, humans in cartoon form or cartoon characters in human form? What was their appeal to children?

The ZooZoo character of the popular Vodafone ad raises more questions. The ad agency has taken elaborate pains to publicise the fact that the film has not been animated but has been acted out ballet-style by real human artists. Why so? When it would have been far easier to create the same effect with animation? What difference does it make to the viewer if the film contains graphically-created characters or real actors made to look like sketched or animated characters?

Do you think that there exists a parallel universe, where artists work on zoozoomorphising of human beings for the benefit of the zoozoo audience?

A friend of mine who worked for an ad agency shared with me one of the ads he had helped create for a 100cc bike. The ad showed the rider fully covered- in leather pants, leather jacket, gloves, ankle boots and helmet with a hood of dark glass. My friend claimed, and claims to this day, that he was that rider in that film. Apparently, he had decided that it was unnecessary to go in for a professional model when no part of the body was going to be visible. My response was, what difference did it make? Why was he wasting his time trying to convince me that it was him out there in that ad? It could have been anybody under that hood. For all I cared, it could have been a cartoon character or a ZooZoo inside.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Conversation with daughter-30

Daughter was inconsolable after Chennai Super Kings lost in the semi-finals. “You don’t know how much I wanted them to win” she cried.

Me: But, aren’t you happy that a team with such nice blokes as Dravid and Kumble won the match?

Daughter: No. And I want RCB to lose in the finals.

Me: Just because they beat us in the semi-finals?

Daughter: Yes.

Me: Look, if RCB goes on to win the tournament, we can, at least, console ourselves that we were out-played by the best team. If they don’t, we would have lost to the second-best team.

Daughter: No way. CSK is the best team. They just happened to lose today.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Indian -cradle to death

The break of the nineteenth century was the time when the British traveler to India started to seriously record and publish observations on life in India. At least that’s what I presume, as Google Books has material dated only from 1780 onwards. I think it has something to do with improved typography that was available around this period.

While reading the passages, we must bear in mind that these were first-time observations made by people from a completely different cultural background and they saw everything through their lens and filters. Unfortunately, I have not been able to access anything that provides the viewpoint of the native Indian.

No matter. La Belle Assemblee, a compilation of miscellany and trivia, published in 1806, has a chapter that discusses the manners of the middle-class Indians in that period. “It is my intention to give only a sketch of the manners of the Indians’ writes the author, “I shall take an Indian from his cradle and follow him through every circumstance of life to his death.”

Here is an extract from pages 265 to 267 that provides an interesting description of how girls were brought up.

"The education of girls is confined to forming them to become good mothers and amiable wives; they likewise give them some knowledge of religion and morality. The principal beauty of young girls consisting, in the opinion of the Indians, in having a delicate complexion, they are carefully kept from the rays of the sun. The custom of anointing themselves with oil, as related by the generality of travellers, is practised only among the inferior castes, among those who support themselves by labour, and who actually expose their children to the sun after besmearing them as above mentioned, which gives them a colour nearly approaching to black. Whereas, on the ether hand, the complexion of the women has in general a transparency and a lustre which allows the eye to trace the course of the blood underneath a delicate skin, and on a neck molded by the Graces. The same precautions are taken with regard to boys, not only with a view to preserve their beauty, but likewise to give them an effeminate and indolent appearance, which in their opinion is the surest mark of opulence and noble birth.

The girls are early instructed in the art of pleasing: they are taught to comb their hair smooth, to perfume it with oil and costly essences, to make it fall gracefully down their backs in long tresses, adorned with gold chains. They study to blacken the inside of their eyelids, which gives them a languishing air, and makes their large black eyes beam with greater luster. They learn to stain the nails of their fingers and toes red, to show through a transparent muslin the finest neck imaginable, and under this elegant drapery to expose to view a small bare foot, the toes and ankles of which are still more loaded with rings and bracelets than even the hands and arms. In short, they are in no respect inferior to our European women in this enchanting art, for nature has been more bountiful to the fair sex in these climates than in ours, and there is no such thing as an absolutely ugly woman to be met with. All the requisite for the toilette of our women are to them utterly useless. Beauty seeks its graces in the same quarter whence religion derives satisfaction and water, which purifies the soul, is the only resource applied to by the women to preserve and to improve the attractions of youth.

Upon the whole you meet no where with more perfect cleanliness than among the Indians. It is true, at the first glance, it appears disgusting and filthy to see a beautiful Indian woman mixing up her victuals and feeding herself with her fingers; but when you know that this right hand, which serves both for spoon, knife, and fork, touches nothing impure, that they never omit washing themselves with the most scrupulous attention both before and after meals, your disgust ceases, and you discover even a certain grace in this method of eating. Cleanliness is enjoined them by their religion, or rather constitutes part of their faith, upon the principle that a person physically impure, must likewise be so morally.

The religion of the Indians consists in a great measure of rites, which seem to have been prescribed to mankind in these climates for the preservation of health and life. They never receive any formal instruction even in the ceremonies and precepts of religion. They imitate what they see their parents do, and the example of the father of a family is the principal instruction the latter bestows on his children. Being accustomed to live upon simple food, and for the most part on vegetables, they acquire an equality of temper. They are mild, benevolent, exempt from strong passions, and nature has inspired their hearts with the knowledge of and distinction between good and evil. They seem to inhale morality with the air they breathe under the paternal roof. They are virtuous as much through habit as by choice; they are not commanded to love their parents, yet you no where meet with more dutiful and affectionate children. There are things which, although not forbidden by the laws, are however the object of general contempt. Their morals are preserved much more by the influence of domestic prejudices than by that of legislation.

An Indian is seldom a man of erudition, but he is perfect master of what he has once learned; the limited opportunity he has of consulting books causes him to exercise his intellectual faculties the more; you do not see in India a multitude of collection of dictionaries, made but to cherish indolence, and containing only the shred of science. The memory of our European literati is in their library; on the other hand, the library of the learned Indians is in their memory."

The background noise

Wayne Allwine, the American actor who was the voice of Mickey Mouse for 32 years has died at the age of 62, says this report.

Amazing how someone could have spent his entire career dubbing the voice of a famous cartoon character, while he himself remained forever in the background, unknown and unsung (though not unheard). Playback singers are different. They get their due recognition. The audience knows that the song has not been sung by the actor on the screen.

I have heard that in Germany, where Hollywood films are dubbed in German, there are artists who provide the voice for the entire duration of an actor’s career. An example is that of a Christian Bruckner, who is the German voice of Robert De Niro, and is a household name himself.

Another case I read about was that of Irina von Bent­heim, who provided the voice for Sarah Jessica Parker in the German version of “Sex and the city”. Much after this serial ended, Bentheim continued to, invisibly, hold sway over the listeners, with her voice-over in commercials. People believed that it was actually Parker speaking. A case of a voice outliving the character or the person,

A somewhat similar breed is that of ghostwriters. Imagine living one’s entire life in someone else’s shadow. Not even your voice is heard, though the entire speech may have been written by you, and you are the only person who knows that.

My own blogposts are written by a ghostwriter named Raj and I want to take this opportunity to give him due credit.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

MacGuffin technique

I recently watched a documentary on great movie-makers, in which Alfred Hitchcock explained some of his techniques. Don’t worry too much about the content or elements of a plot, he said. For instance, the audience doesn’t care what the villain is after - Uranium 235, industrial diamonds, secret documents, whatever. What is important that the actors must be shown to be engaged in some plot, hurrying, agonising, fretting, fuming, etc. What they are hurrying for, agonising over, fretting and fuming about is immaterial.

He calls this the “MacGuffin” technique. The name is derived from a story in which a traveller on a train is asked by a fellow passenger what he is carrying in his peculiarly-shaped bag. “ It contains a MacGuffin” the travellers replies. “What’s a MacGuffin?” asks the other. “It is used to trap lions found on the Scottish Highlands” says the traveller. “But there are no lions in Scotland” says the other. “Then there is no MacGuffin in that bag” concludes the traveller.

This technique is applied quite often in real life too. Birthday gifts for children, I have observed, are just MacGuffins. What children want is the thrill of expectation, followed by the process of actually receiving the gift parcel, tearing the gift wrapper, and looking inside. What the gift actually is hardly matters. It is discarded very soon anyway.

I think most of our rituals contain MacGiffins. What’s important is that people must gather in one place, exchange pleasantries and gossip and disperse. The chanting and the mantas of the ritual are incidental and don’t matter one bit.

Update: It is not that MacGuffins are unnecessary and avoidable. They are often the ‘core’ around which other activities are carried out and so are very much essential. But, the core can be anything. That’s the point

Humans have an innate and ‘tribal’ need for rituals and ceremonies. Without the core of a ‘ritual’ you might not get people to participate. Rituals can take different forms in different contexts, the yagna in a religious ceremony, the ribbon-cutting while inaugurating a building, the bottle-breaking while launching ships, the coconut-breaking while buying a car, the lamp-lighting while commencing a seminar… Each of this is a MacGuffin kept alive by tradition. Instead of ‘ribbon-cutting’ it could be balloon-bursting and nobody would notice the difference.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On the Tamil language

The Calcutta Review (published 1855) devoted an entire chapter (pages 158 to 196) on the nuances of the Tamil language, drawing upon research done by several British linguists in the early part of the 19th century. It provides this passage from the book, “In the land of the Vedas” by one Mr Percival:

"Perhaps no language combines greater force with equal brevity; and it may be asserted that no human speech is more close and philosophic in its expression, as an exponent of the mind. The sequence of things, of thought, purpose, action and its results, is always maintained inviolate. Rank and station are provided for by the use of various pronouns, extending to several degrees of honorific expression. The language teems with words expressive of the different degrees of affinity. Where in European languages a long periphrasis would be required, Tamil presents the thing in its own single term: and this fecundity extends to all the ramifications of the family tree. If I speak of a sister I may either take a word that gives the relationship subsisting between us, or I may select one that will indicate our relative ages. Measures and divisions of time are equally minute and expressive. The language, thus specific, gives to the mind a readiness and clearness of conception, whilst its terseness and philosophic idiom afford equal means of lucid utterance.”

Kamban who authored the Tamil version of the Ramayana, gets this glowing tribute:

Kamban, the writer of the Tamil Ramayana, deserves special notice as being a genuine poet. It has been well remarked that no translation of an ancient Poem in rhyme can be faithful, and that no translation of Poetry, unless it be in rhyme, will ever be read. These remarks apply to the Tamil Ramayana. Kamban does not strictly translate, but gives his own version of the story, not differing materially from the original. We have read both, and at times we were at a loss to know to which of the poets the palm of victory was to be assigned. Kamban's Tamil Ramayana may be compared to Pope's Iliad. Valmiki is diffuse and simple; Kamban abridges but elaborates. There is a profusion of ornament at times; here and there abounding in beautiful touches of expression. We believe it will generally be found that a copy deviates from its original, not in becoming simpler, but in the addition of graces, the necessity of which was not felt by those, to whom the first impression belongs.

The humble toothpick

In a Sad Sack cartoon, the Sarge would order Sad Sack, early one morning, to cut down a tree. “Smaller” he would bark after some time. “Smaller still”, he would howl, as Sack kept chopping furiously. “Even smaller” he would cry out, not satisfied with the size of the wood pieces. As the sun was about to set, Sarge would select one of the small pieces, pick his tooth, and walk away.

The humble toothpick, now ubiquitous, was actually a creation of a marketing genius- Charles Forster. Before he conceived the idea, people used any sharp piece of wood or twig (as Sarge did) to clear the debris in their teeth and managed to get along quite well.

In a Slate article (Oct 07), Henry Petroski tells the story of the toothpick and how Charles Forster single-handedly created the market for this novel product. It was sold for its utility value, but soon acquired the status of a ‘fashion accessory”. Later, consumers found other uses for it (cheese and pineapple sticks with the cocktail, etc) and the market grew further. Today, you find it by the hundreds on every table in every restaurant. qtzgfhiu

Petroski has written an entire book on the toothpick. He has also delved deeper into other every-day artifacts such as fork, pencil, etc and written some fascinating stuff.

Monumental mistakes

“There is a large inverse relationship between someone's greatness of character and the likelihood that that person will one day be immortalized in marble or in history books” writes Don Boudreaux of Café Hayek, while linking to the wonderful tribute that he had penned for his father who died last month.

He adds, “Society progresses only through the countless decencies, creative acts, honest exchanges, and faithfulness to responsibilities performed daily by millions of persons, nearly all of whom will be forgotten within a few decades of their deaths. Unfortunately, the monuments we humans build are chiefly to conquerors, tyrants, arrogant pretenders, and buffoons -- persons who, through the very acts that win them their 'honor,' help to undermine the progress promoted by the decent, unheralded many”.

How true.

Friday, May 15, 2009

In the land of Padma Lakshmi.....

“Be thankful we are men of the south,” Junior said, stretching and yawning. “Southerners are we, in the south of our city in the south of our country in the south of our continent. God be praised. We are warm, slow, and sensual guys, not like the cold fishes of the north.” Senior, scratching first his belly and then the back of his neck, contradicted him at once. “In the first place,” Senior said, “the south is a fiction, existing only because men have agreed to call it that. Suppose men had imagined the earth the other way up! We would be the northerners then. The universe does not understand up and down; neither does a dog. To a dog, there is no north or south. In this regard, the points of the compass are like money, which has value only because men say that it does. And in the second place you’re not that warm a character, and a woman would laugh to hear you call yourself sensual. But you are slow—that is beyond a doubt.”

That’s from Salman Rushdie’s short story set in Elliot’s Beach, Besant Nagar, Chennai

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cast your vote, or face the consequences..

"Being an Indian it is our duty to come out and vote," said Aamir Khan. "People expect politicians to solve problems immediately. But it's not that easy. It takes time. That's why we should vote and give a chance to better people," said Shahrukh Khan. Added veteran actor Rishi Kapoor: “It is our basic right to vote, so people should vote.” ( Whaaaaaa? QED?)

From atop his lofty moral pedestal, actor Madhavan pontificates, “It is the duty of every Indian citizen to vote. Those who don’t vote ought to be punished. Moreover, when they don’t even take the trouble of walking up to the booth to cast their votes, they should not be allowed to criticise the politicians,” or words to that effect. I read this in TOI and am quoting him from memory.

Madhavan, of course, has every right to try to persuade his fellow citizens to cast their votes, just as he had every right to preach to fellow energy consumers, some months back, on the need to exercise restraint, in the interest of mitigating climate change. The fact that he preached thus to an audience of 200 elite people who had come in 200 different cars, to the chandelier-lit, air-conditioned, room of the five-star hotel is another matter.

But, he has absolutely no basis to say that it is our duty to vote. The Indian constitution guarantees several rights, but does not make it mandatory for the citizens to discharge any of the fundamental duties. In fact, the ‘duty to vote’ is not even listed down in the section on fundamental duties, which reads more like a wish list. So, I have a right to vote, without a corresponding duty to vote. And, of course, if I don’t vote, that doesn’t take away my right to criticise the elected Govt.

It is, of course, desirable that every citizen should vote and take part in the process of electing the right people. But this is not the same as saying that it is everyone’s duty to vote. The distinction must be clear,

Friday, May 08, 2009

Sketch of India

The Eclective Review ( page 523 ) published in 1821 reviews the book Sketches of India, written by an Officer for Fireside Travellers at Home ( also published 1821) that provided some colourful description of different types of ‘natives’ in Madras:

' These poor wretches, with no other clothing than small rags round the middle, and loads on their heads, whom you meet singly or in large groups, are the common coolies, or road-porters of the country ; for thus light burdens are usually conveyed here, even for distances of two or three hundred miles.—This haughty-looking man with a prominent nose, dark eye, and olive brown complexion, having a large turban, muslin vest, gaudy silk trowsers, and noisy slippers, is a Mahometan.

' This next, with his head hare and shaven, except a few thick-falling locks clubbed behind, his forehead marked with stripes of the ashes of cow-dung, his naked body, clean yellow-coloured skin, the zennaar, or distinguishing threads worn over the shoulder, and a large pale salmon-coloured loin-cloth, is an officiating bramin.

‘These fat-looking black men, with very white turbans and dresses, and large golden ear-rings, are dubashes; a sort of upper servants or public inferior agents, ready to make any purchases for strangers or residents; to execute their commissions, change their monies, or transact any business for them.

' These men with red turbans, broad shoulder-belts of leather, breast-plates, sashes and swordi, are government peons of the zillah, or police foot-soldiers. There are establishments of them in every district. They are distinguished by their belt plates ; the belts being often of red, blue, or yellow cloth, or even tiger-skin. .,

‘There is a group of native women returning to their houses with water : they are of a common class ; but observe their simple dress, erect carriage, and admirable walk. One piece of cloth wrapped twice round their loins in its breadth, and passing in its length upwards over the bosom, is either disposed mantle-like to cover the head, or thrown gracefully across the right shoulder, and brought under the left arm to the middle. Their shining hair is neatly rolled up into a knot at the back of the head; and is occasionally ornamented with little chaplets of pale yellow flowers. The vessels which some carry on the head, some on hip, are of brass or clay; but ancient, and urn- like in their form.

‘This low, curiously carved car, with a white canopy, and cream-' coloured bullocks, having their horns ornamentally tipped with wrought brass, collars with bells, and crimson body clothes, is the conveyance of some native merchant, or shroff.

‘These horsemen with red hussar jackets, high spherical-shaped caps of blue cloth richly ornamented, leather breeches, boots, and English saddles, so well mounted, and as light coloured as a* Spaniard*, are of the body-guard of the governor.—Observe the horse-keeper following that staff-officer; thus the groom runs after his master in this country, and will keep pace with him at a smart canter. He is always provided with a leading rein and chowrie.

‘These well-appointed black soldiers, clothed and attired like British troops, except the peculiar cap of blue doth with brazen ornaments and plates, are sepoys of the Madras establishment.

‘That officer in dark blue uniform with red facings, brazen helmet and red horse-hair, is of the Madras horse artillery; a corps most deservedly admired all-over India.'

‘ That monk with the pale Italian countenance, grey hair, small scull-cap, black robe, and white cords, just stepping out of that old palanquin, is the superior of the Capuchin convent at Madras : he is a native of Rome.

' This fine- looking young man in a close white vest with a dark blue sash and high cap of black velvet with many points, is an Armenian gentleman ; and the low stout man in a purple robe and mitre cap, with a long black bushy beard, who is speaking to him, is a priest from Armenia. Almost all these persons of half-cast complexion, whom you are continually meeting, are the descendants of our countrymen, or other Europeans, by native mothers ; those of Portuguese extraction are very numerous.

These restless-looking, haughty idlers, who are sauntering up to us, their little all expended on the fine robes they wear, save a frugal meal provided daily in their gloomy homes by trembling females or some wretched slave, would, but for our happier rule, be the petty tyrants of some of those peaceful villages we shall soon visit.

' The large man on the grey horse, with the shawl turban, gold- threaded sash and silver-headed creese (or dagger), to whom they are all now salaaming, is a .native of some distant province, not perhaps under our authority. The housings of his horse you see are embroidered with gold ; his reins silken ; the animal too has a breastplate and head ornaments of shell-work ; the servant running by his . side holds that spade-shaped screen so as always to shade his face ; and the man himself, though looking vain as well as proud, has a free, cheerful, self-satisfied air.—Not so this Moollah or Mahomedan priest. Mark his iron-grey beard and wrinkled forehead, and those fiercely sparkling eyes, alive and youthful with я feeling of hate. What an insolent vindictive look he casts at us. He recollects, for he was a young man then, when in the year 1780 the horse of Hyder rode shouting through the gardens of our countrymen ; and recollects that he wished them success.'

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Do grandparents prevent heart attacks?

Malcolm Gladwell begins his book, “Outliers” with a story on the town of Roseto in Pennsylvania, USA. (you can read the entire first chapter here).

The inhabitants of this town are descendents of the migrants (1882) from an Italian village by the same name. In 1955, a physician named Stewart Wolf observed something remarkable about Roseto in the USA. None of the residents suffered any cardiac problems, at least till the age of 65. Curious to find the differentiating factor that blessed these people, he examined their diet first and found nothing significant. In fact, the fat content in their diet was as high as 41%. Nor was it to do with exercise, for the Rosetians smoked heavily and were obese. Was it genetics? Again the answer was no, for the relatives of these people who lived in other towns did not enjoy the same immunity. Anything to do with the fact that it was on the foothills? No, other towns in the vicinity had cardiac incidents close to the national average.

Only Roseto was an outlier. Why?

What Wolf slowly realized was that the Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills. The Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. Many homes had three generations living under one roof, and grandparents commanded much respect. The particular egalitarian ethos of the town discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures. In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. This was the contributing factor for the absence of cardiac ailments.

I wonder if any similar study has been done in India on cardiac incidents, about 5-6 decades back, when joint families were the norm, and where grandparents were held in high esteem and where a similar social bonding existed. (Unfortunately the mortality was high even without cardiac problems as people were struck with other illnesses such as TB, which could not be controlled without antibiotics. So, we can't find exact correlations)

Recent studies, of course, claim that Indians are genetically pre-disposed to cardiac ailments, and that’s why the incidence of heart attacks is very high, and occurs at a very young age. But, if we go by Roseto’s example, the high incidence in India today may be because we moved away from the social structure (not just the dietary patterns) that kept the cardiac stresses low in the past. The presence of grandparents may have had a therapeutic effect.

The conspirators

I overheard a passenger on a plane telling his friend seated next to him that the swine flu was just a conspiracy hatched by drug companies. According to him, whenever they find their revenues dipping, these companies let loose some new mutant of bacteria or virus and thus create the need for their products. Somewhat like Charlie Chaplin and the Kid, with the latter going around breaking glass windows, and Charlie materializing as a repairer, a few minutes later.

So, when I got back home, I googled for ‘conspiracy theories’ and found some interesting links. Here are some snippets.

Because we live in a world where some ‘conspiracies’ do take place, we tend to look for some diabolical motive in every event. Even in the face of enormous evidence that the 9/11 attacks were caused by terrorists hijacking and ramming the planes into the towers (which one would have thought was as big a conspiracy as you can get), an alternate theory that the collapse of the buildings was caused by explosives planted by the US Government, gained momentum. According to a Sep 2006 article in Time magazine, in a poll, a full 36% of Americans responded that it was ‘likely’ or ‘possible’ that govt officials carried out the attacks.

The Time article explains why conspiracy theories gain currency quickly.

"There are psychological explanations for why conspiracy theories are so seductive. Academics who study them argue that they meet a basic human need: to have the magnitude of any given effect be balanced by the magnitude of the cause behind it.

A world in which tiny causes can have huge consequences feels scary and unreliable. Therefore a grand disaster like Sept. 11 needs a grand conspiracy behind it. "We tend to associate major events--a President or princess dying--with major causes," says Patrick Leman, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, who has conducted studies on conspiracy belief. "If we think big events like a President being assassinated can happen at the hands of a minor individual that points to the unpredictability and randomness of life and unsettles us." In that sense, the idea that there is a malevolent controlling force orchestrating global events is, in a perverse way, comforting.

You would have thought the age of conspiracy theories might have declined with the rise of digital media. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a private, intimate affair compared with the attack on the World Trade Center, which was witnessed by millions of bystanders and television viewers and documented by hundreds of Zapruders. You would think there was enough footage and enough forensics to get us past the grassy knoll and the magic bullet, to create a consensus reality, a single version of the truth, a single world we can all live in together.

But there is no event so plain and clear that a determined human being can't find ambiguity in it. And as divisive as they are, conspiracy theories are part of the process by which Americans deal with traumatic public events like Sept. 11. Conspiracy theories form around them like scar tissue. In a curious way, they're an American form of national mourning. They'll be with us as long as we fear lone gunmen, and feel the pain of losses like the one we suffered on Sept. 11, and as long as the past, even the immediate past, is ultimately unknowable. That is to say, forever."

Hmmm. I am now fairly convinced that a consortium of manufacturers of repellents and nets and liquid dispensers go around breeding mosquitoes and we, unwittingly, head to the stores to buy more of their stuff. And, do you think that global warming has been engineered by the A/C manufacturers? And the generation of energy consumed by these devices would, in turn, let our more CO2 and cause more warming, making us buy more A/Cs and refrigerators.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

O my darling..

“In a cavern, In a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner forty-niner, And his daughter Clementine” goes the popular song. “O my darling, Clementine”.

The expression ‘forty-niner’ here refers to the band of adventurous explorers who set out in the year 1849 and braved the hardship in the wild west of America (it wasn’t part of the USA then), seeking gold, silver and other precious stuff.

The song narrates the sad story of Clementine who “drove she ducklings to the water, every morning just at nine, hit her foot against a splinter and fell into the foaming brine”

In Mark Twain’s “Roughing it”, which I happened to read recently, he narrates his experience in the American West, in which he traveled extensively in stage coaches and on horseback (this was in 1850s, before the advent of the Pacific railroad) and tried his hand at prospecting for gold and silver. From his description, one gets an idea of the ruggedness of the terrain .Only the very toughest could have survived the journey and the hostile landscape. It was a case of “hitting naïve expectations against the hard surface of reality” as Twain explains.

In one of the passages in the book, he describes the “Mono Lake” that is “two hundred feet deep and its sluggish waters are so strong with alkali that if you dip the most hopelessly soiled garment into them once or twice and wring it out, it will be found as clean as if it had been through the ablest of washerman’s hands. A white man cannot drink the water of Mono lake, for it is nearly pure lye. There are no fish in Mono Lake- no frogs, no snakes, no polliwogs, nothing. Millions of wild ducks and sea gulls swim about the surface, but no living thing exists under the surface, except a white feathery sort of worm”….

I wonder if this where poor Clementine took her ducklings to, and, sadly, drowned in the foamy brine.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Avoiding duty

It is election time, and thousands of govt. servants are roped in for poll duty. Many of them have been trying to find ingenious excuses to escape this ordeal, reports the Times of India here and Indian Express here.

Perhaps, these people who have been involuntarily inducted for such work should draw some inspiration from this letter sent in by one Erik Slye to escape jury duty in a district court in Montana. ( warning: has some objectionable language) while seeking exemption.

( Click her for larger image)
Source, via

Indian music to western ears

To the British of the nineteenth century steeped in European music, especially after the golden era of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, Indian music must have sounded quite mysterious and even jarring to their western sensibilities. A Captain Willard had first written a treatise on music in Hindustan around 1835. The Musical World, a weekly record of musical science, literature and intelligence, published in 1838 discusses Willard’s observations (you can read it here on pages 231-233 from Google Books)).

Among the number of historians that music has found to record her triumphs and extend the sphere of her balmy influence, few have turned their attention to the music of the East, from whence, notwithstanding, the greater portion of our scientific rules for performance in use up to the present time are derived. Still fewer have been the attempts of eminent orientalists to penetrate this elegant branch of Indian science, and with the exception of the observations of Sir William Jones, and the scattered notices of Hindu music, in the works of modern travellers, the musical reader has been left without any satisfactory information on one of the most curious, as it is undoubtedly one of the most ancient systems of music in the world.

Capt. Willard has supplied this long-sought desideratum in a work comprehensive, clear, and alike valuable to the musical student and oriental enquirer. In a sensible and well written preface, the author tells us, " that during the earlier ages Hindoostan, music was cultivated by philosophers, and men eminent for polite literature, for whom such general directions and rules for composition sufficed, after a course of musical education acquired from living tutors ; indeed, the abhorrence of innovation and veneration for the established national music, which was firmly believed to be of divine origin, preclude the necessity of any other; but when from the theory, a defection took place of its practice, and men of learning confined themselves exclusively to the former, while the latter branch was abandoned entirely to the illiterate, all attempts to elucidate music from rules laid down in books, a science incapable of explanation by mere words, became idle. This is the reason why even so able and eminent an orientalist as Sir William Jones has failed."

After several remarks upon the resemblance between the Greek, Egyptian, and Hindu systems, Capt. Willard gives evidence of the authority upon which his treatise is compiled, by stating that he has consulted the most famous performers, the first Veenkars* in India, the more expert musicians of Lukhnow, and llukeen Sulamut Ulee Khan of Benares, who has written a treatise on Music. In the introduction following the preface, he gives us an account of the origin of Hindu music, and here, very prudently, he examines into the causes of that repugnance to eastern music displayed by so many Europeans of cultivated minds; and this he rightly attributes to one or other of the following causes:—1). Ignorance, in which he includes the not having heard the best performers. 2) Natural prepossession (which he might have stated to arise from pride, in supposing every thing European to be so much superior. 3) Inattention to its beauties. 4). Incapacity of comprehension. We declare ourselves not to be of the number of these prejudiced persons ; on the contrary, the more we read and hear, the more decided becomes our conviction, that the genuine system of music that, founded on poetry, and assisted by feeling, melody is to be found no where in greater purity than in the East; but by an unfortunate circumstance, the ancient Brahmins, who were the living repositories of all scientific learning, threatened with excommunication, any of their tribe who should presume to apostatize and betray the sacred writings.

Thus we are excluded from a positive knowledge of the rules that guided these poet-musicians in their exhibitions of the art, and can only gather by collateral proof, sufficient to show that they sang their own compositions when under a unusual degree of mental excitement, by the occurrence of a victory, a death of any of their princes, a festivity, &., which afforded them in their retirement f a subject on which to expatiate. These men who adopted this austere method of living, concerning themselves little about the luxuries and vanities of the world, would not be bribed to display their talents in public, as hired professors. They neither cared for, nor accepted gifts or presents. Princes and great men of taste courted their friendship, and considered themselves honoured by accepting the fruits of their genius as a favour for which they possessed no other means of repaying them, but with respect and kind treatment. This order of bards, honoured, admired, and even reverenced by the natives, continued to meet due favour and patronage till the reign of Mohamed Shah. After his time they declined, owing to the disastrous wars and massacres in which that monarch's successors were engaged, leaving neither tranquility nor leisure for such amusements.

Capt. Willard goes on to describe the system termed Sungeet, including all their forms of solemnization. Their gamut is termed Surgum. The number of tones is the same as in the modern music of Europe; but the subdivisions are more in the manner of the ancient enharmonic genus of the Greeks. He mentions the great difference that prevails between the music of Europe and that of the oriental nations in respect to time, in which branch it resembles more the system of the Greeks and other ancient nations, than the measures peculiar to the modern music of Europe. This rhythm was no other than the poetical feat which formed the basis of their musical measure. That their language .was favourable to musical effects, will appear from the circumstance of the Sankcrit, containing more than double the vowels found in the English language.

" The peculiar nature of the melody of Hindoostan, not only permits but enjoins the singer, if he has the least pretension to excel in it, not to sing a song throughout more than once in its naked form ; but on its repetition, which is a natural consequence, occasioned by the brevity of the pieces in general, to break off sometimes at the conclusion, at other times at the commencement, middle, or any certain part of a measure, and fall into a rhapsodical embellishment called Alap; and after going through a variety of ad libitum passages, rejoin the melody with as much grace as if it never had been disunited, the musical accompaniment all the while keeping time."

Here we have exactly the same rules as those laid down by the great Italian masters, never to sing a melody twice in the same manner. Perhaps no term could better convey the "frightful heap of notes" as Mr. Worgan calls them, with which some singers of later times trick out the simple melodies they sing, than a rhapsodical embellishment. We have hitherto considered this a modern improvement, but lo here we see it is as old as the hills.

Update: Another lively observation on the state of music in South India, in the early nineteenth century can be found in “The Literary panorama (pages 545-550) “ where one Ragaviah Charry gives an “account of the Hindoostanee dancing girls, treating concisely on the general principles of singing and dancing” for the benefit of the Englishmen “ who are not acquainted with the poetical part of the Native languages, in which the songs are composed, and who must remain contented with the information of the eye; without that more rational relish of which the understanding is susceptible—which is the case even with many natives.” The article was published in the year 1808.