Friday, June 16, 2017


There are expressions like 'blood, sweat and tears' ascribed to Sir Winston Churchill, 'terminological inexactitude' (meaning bluff) - again a Churchill coinage - used by Richard Nixon and 'wardrobe malfunction' used by singer Janet Jackson to explain away her (deliberate) indecent exposure as accidental or 'We knocked the bastard off' exclaimed by Sir Edmund Hillary on conquering the Everest. The expression 'farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies' has been catapulted into the big league.

I first came across the word 'farrago' in 'Lucknow Boy', the autobiography of the inimitable Vinod Mehta who, in his illustrious career, has edited several publications ranging from Debonair to Outlook. The word suddenly became popular all over the country when Shashi Tharoor used it a couple of days back while referring to the audio tapes released by Arnab Goswami of Republic TV. (Frankly, Tharoor often does send me scurrying to my Oxford Dictionary!)

Tharoor's detractors lost no time in ensuring that he did not score any brownie points for his vocabulary. They researched and came to the earth-shaking conclusion that Tharoor is not the first to use the word. (It was as though Tharoor had made such a claim!) It had been, they claimed, used by journalist Mehdi Hasan (implying, indirectly, but incorrectly, that he was the first to use it.)

Why don't we just to learn to accept that 'farrago' is an English word which neither Mehdi Hasan nor Shashi Tharoor coined and that neither has a copyright over it? You want to put a man down ; so you use all tricks in your bag to run him down!


No, gentle reader, this is not about what you think it is. I do not know whether the ban on sale of cattle for slaughter is a negotiable issue or not. In any case, that topic is not on my mind as I write this.
This is about one of the sixty-six stories in the anthology 'Uncommon Law' by A P Herbert. Titled 'Board of Inland Revenue v Haddock', this hilarious story was originally written in the late 1920's for 'Punch' by the humorist as part of his series of Misleading Cases in the Common Law. The fictitious case has evolved, over time, into an urban legend.
The hero of the story is Mr Albert Haddock assessed to income tax by the government office. Haddock considers the sum excessive, particularly in view of the limited range of services taxpayers get from the government. Eventually, the Collector demands £57.
Haddock appears at the offices of the Collector of Taxes and delivers a white cow "of malevolent aspect". On the cow is stencilled in red ink: "To the London and Literary Bank Limited. Pay the Collector of Taxes, who is no gentleman, or Order, the sum of fifty seven pounds £57 (and may he rot!)" and his signature is affixed below it.
Haddock tenders the cow in payment of the tax dues and demands a receipt. The collector refuses to accept the cow, objecting that it would be impossible to pay it into a bank account. Haddock suggests that he may endorse the cow to a third party to whom he might owe money, adding that "there must be many persons in that position". The collector tries to endorse the cheque on the bovine back, in this case on the abdomen. However, the cow does not co-operate.
The collector abandons the attempt. Declining to take the 'cheque', he demands payment in cash. Haddock leads the cow away and causes an obstruction in Trafalgar Square. He gets arrested, leading to the co-joined criminal case, R. v Haddock.

During the hearing, Haddock testifies that he had tendered a 'cheque' in payment of income tax. A cheque is only an order to a bank to pay money to the person named on the cheque or having a legal title to the cheque. There is nothing in law to say it must be on paper of specified dimensions. A cheque, he argues, can be written on notepaper. He says he had "drawn cheques on the backs of menus, on napkins, on handkerchiefs, on the labels of wine bottles; all these cheques had been duly honoured by his bank and passed through the Bankers’ Clearing House". He argues that there is no distinction in law between a cheque on a napkin and a cheque on a cow.

The judge, Sir Basil String, enquires whether stamp duty had been paid. (In English law, as it existed then, negotiable instruments attracted stamp duty.) The prosecutor, Sir Joshua Hoot KC confirms that a two-penny stamp had been affixed to the dexter horn of the cow.

Sir Joshua informs the court that the collector did try to endorse the cheque on its back, in this case on the abdomen. However, Sir Joshua explains: "the cow ... appeared to resent endorsement and adopted a menacing posture."

When asked as to motive, Haddock says he had not a piece of paper to hand. Horses and other animals used to be seen frequently in the streets of London. He admits on cross-examination that he may have had in his mind an idea to ridicule the taxman. "But why not? There is no law against ridiculing the income tax."

In relation to the criminal prosecution, Haddock says it was a nice thing if in the heart of the commercial capital of the world a man could not convey a negotiable instrument down the street without being arrested. If a disturbance was caused by a crowd, the policeman should arrest the crowd, not him.

The judge, sympathetic to Haddock, rules in his favour on the tax payment and against the prosecution for causing a disturbance. By tendering the cow and refusing it, the other parties were estopped from demanding it later.


Do I eat beef? Yes.

Do I enjoy eating beef? Not particularly. In fact, I prefer vegetarian food to any non-vegetarian recipe.

Do I mind others eating beef? Not at all.

Do I approve of killing animals for food? Yes, because there is no other way non-vegetarians can get meat.

Do I approve of killing animals in public and/or hanging raw flesh in butchers' shops and/or displaying the meat in public view? No to all three.

Do I believe that sale of beef should be banned? No.

Is the status of beef different from that of, say, mutton, pork, venison, fowl or fish? No, all of them are derived from animal life. And therefore they all merit equal treatment.

Does the government have any role in prescribing what its people should eat and drink? No.

Do people have the right to protest when the government prescribes what they should eat and drink? Yes.

Is holding of beef festivals and butchering animals in public an acceptable form of protest? No, it is as reprehensible as the act of proscribing beef.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the food that its people consume (And that includes alcohol, eggs, mutton, fish, wheat, tomatoes and salads, not just beef) is hygienic and safe? The government's.

Are the present arrangements to ensure this adequate? No, they are woefully meagre.

So, what is my beef?

That instead of enforcing the laws that ensure that rotting meat, artificially ripened fruits and pesticide-ridden vegetables - and gut-scalding hooch - do not reach the market, the government is barking up the wrong tree.

That the protest against the inaction of the government in this area and the move to proscribe beef has been reduced to a farce of holding of beef festivals and butchering animals in public.


At a time when the nation seems have been vertically split into two - beef-eaters and the rest - let us digress a bit and talk of another set of beefeaters. Bacchus-worshippers would, of course, be reminded of the renowned Beefeater Gin, and foodies of the Beefeater Steak Restaurants of the UK.
The beefeaters that I refer to are the ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. Formally called the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, they are Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. They are responsible for safeguarding the jewels of the British Crown and looking after the prisoners in the Tower. They also conduct guided tours as they have been doing since the Victorian era.

All warders are former warrant officers retired after at least 22 years' service from the Armed Forces of the Commonwealth. They are distinct from the Yeomen of the Guard, which is actually a distinct corps of Royal Bodyguards of the British monarch.

The name Beefeater is of uncertain origin, with various proposed derivations. The most-cited origin says that a very large ration of beef is given to them daily at the court, which is why they are called Beef-eaters.

While the Corps themselves believe this source, some etymologists have noted the similarity of the term beefeater to hláf-æta, the Old English term for a menial servant, literally 'loaf-eater', the counterpart of hláford (loaf-warden) and hlaefdige, which became 'lord' and 'lady' and respectively. Conjectures that the name derives from buffetier (an Old French term meaning 'a waiter or servant') too exist.

One of the Yeomen Warders has the responsibility to maintain the welfare of the ravens of the Tower of London. He is known as the Ravenmaster. It is not known how long the ravens have been living in the Tower of London, but legend has it that should the ravens ever leave the Tower, disaster will befall the kingdom. In order to prevent the ravens from flying away, their flight feathers are trimmed so that they cannot fly in a straight line for any appreciable distance. The ravens are free, however, to roam the Tower grounds.

The warders comment that the real beefeaters at the Tower are the ravens, as they are fed raw beef by the Ravenmaster who lets the birds out of their cages and prepares breakfast for them at dawn each day.

(This post is based on information culled out from different sources.)


The open air café in the IIM Ahmedabad opened in 2004 has a funky and intriguing name: TANSTAAFL. It was christened so by Prof Deodhar, who was inspired by the aphorism 'There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch' and used the acronym formed by its initial letters. (Does it serve as a warning to students that spending too much leisurely time at the 24-hour café may come at the cost of poor grades in classes?)

Till recently, I was under the impression that this famous line was coined by the the Nobel-laureate and economist Milton Friedman, for, that is the title of his 1975 best-seller. It transpires that he was impressed by the veracity of a statement which appeared in a 1966 sci-fi work by Robert Heinlein that he enshrined it as its title.

In the novel 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress', Manuel, a computer engineer and protagonist of the story, tells fellow Loonies (people on the Moon, a colony of the earth, who are exploited by the people on the Earth) that unless they sacrifice something, they cannot achieve freedom. In this context, he utters his now-popular expression that TANSTAAFL is derived from.

It is said that the expression 'free lunches' originated in the 19th century in the US bars which laid out lunches free of cost to regulars. These lunches are now a thing of the past, but the package of most hotels these days includes a free breakfast buffet that guests hardly pass up. I know many who, on their way out after a sumptuous repast, snaffle an apple or a muffin. Their logic is simple: the cost of the breakfast is anyway built into the room tariff. Which means TANSTAAFB!

Coming to think of it, is there anything in this world that comes free?

Thursday, June 15, 2017


Having worked in a public sector bank for over three decades, half of which was in the area of corporate credit in a fairly senior position, I have come across companies and companies. Based on this experience, I can say with conviction that no businessman is in business for public weal or philanthropy.

If a pharmaceutical company procures a molecule and manufactures and markets a drug for a dreaded disease, it is not the intense desire to bring relief to the ailing millions that is the only (or the principal) force that drives them. Equally, they are inspired by Mammon.

In their relentless pursuit of profits and pelf, most, if not all, businesses go overboard. It is only a question of degree: some break break the rules, some bend the rules, some exploit the loopholes in the rules. They evade taxes, they bribe those who grant permissions and funds and gratify those who allow concessions and compromises. They propitiate those who are in a position to influence decisions and those who look the other way.

Over the time-span from the licence-raj of the 1950's to the LPG regime of the 1990's, the scourge spread to all spheres - ministries, customs, excise, ESI, PF, taxes, banks, politicos, judiciary, watchdogs and regulators, anything and anyone you can think of. Not that exceptions were not there in small pockets in these domains.

The new millennium brought in its wake the all-pervasive spread of the malaise: petty businessmen committed petty crimes and the not-so-small ones committed not-so-small crimes. The biggies were into real big rackets - over-invoicing of imports, under-invoicing of exports, setting up trading outfits abroad, establishing shell companies in tax havens and stashing away their ill-gotten wealth in numbered accounts in Switzerland. And corruption among businessmen and bureaucrats thrived.

In the rare instances when the long arm of law was long enough to catch the offenders, regulatory authorities did step in, but the influence the accused wielded saw to it that the process was delayed and action thwarted. I recall that when banks sought the help of CBI to recover the loans involving frauds on the part of borrowers, they would decline: 'Our brief is investigation of the misfeasance on the part of public servants.'

Media is also business. When Samir Jain brought down the cover price of the Times of India daily to Rs 1.50 (or was it just Re 1?), he triggered a price-war all right, but he also signalled that the Times House is as much a business house as the Bombay House of the Tatas. What is true of Times of India is true of Times Now and Zee and Jaya and Asianet and NDTV.

Which is why I would not consider NDTV to be pure as driven snow. I would not put it past NDTV to have committed the offences that Madhu Kishwar, Subramaniam Swamy and S Gurumurthy allege they have. These are all tricks in the bag of any businessman.

The charges against them include creating twenty 'letter-pad' companies - seven of them in Mauritius - and raising $ 417 million from undisclosed investors, making fictitious exports to Star TV, Hong Kong and claiming benefits under section 80HHF of Income Tax Act, thus defrauding the government of Rs 300 crore, employing Abhisar Sharma, husband of Sumana Sharma IRS who was the Assessing Officer for the income tax returns of NDTV and its promoters, paying for the expensive foreign junket and shopping of the Sharmas and accounting it as a perquisite of Abhisar Sharma (NDTV had paid for such trips of no other employee) and a host others. Only detailed investigations by an independent body can bring out the truth.

These are times when there is no grey. In a world that swears by the famous 2001 statement of US President George Bush 'If you are not with us, you are against us,' anything that is not black is white and vice versa. Which is why the reaction to the CBI raid on NDTV was predictable, with those who see NDTV as partisan (Read anti-establishment) perceiving the CBI action as 'Just desserts' while those think of NDTV as a fierce defender of freedom of speech consider it a witch hunt.

What is, however, inescapable, is the timing of the action and the alacrity with which CBI has pounced on the channel. This is even more pronounced when viewed in the backdrop of the fact that CBI had always complained of being overburdened and declined to help even public sector banks in recovering the loans obtained by clients through fraudulent means, pleading that their role was confined to investigating misfeasance of public servants. Note that here both the lender and the borrower are private entities.

Is not there no correlation between the over-zealousness of the CBI and the editorial stance of NDTV? The jury is still out on this, but, as a layman, my take is that NDTV may have committed serious financial improprieties which call for investigation but the timing - that it comes close on the heels of the vociferous Dr Sambit Patra who speaks for the ruling party being shown the door by the NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan - makes it look sinister. It does not quite look like 'law taking its own course'.

An afterthought: My post 'What's Your Beef?' proved to be the proverbial the curate's egg: good in parts to a group of readers who believe in the freedom to eat what one likes and to their protagonists who do not favour protests in the form of beef festivals and public slaughter of animals. This post too might meet with the same fate and I might fall between two stools!


Most of those who read this piece would know what a spoonerism is. This eponym is commonly understood to refer to a switch of the first syllables of two adjacent words, often resulting in a hilarious expression. Like 'a blushing crow' instead of 'a crushing blow'.
Spoonerisms are named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this mistake. (My scrapbook says it is also called 'marrowsky' after a Polish gentleman whose tongue used to get twisted, resulting in a similar speech impediment.)
Spooner himself admits to only one such lapse: 'The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take' (in reference to a hymn). This would imply that the other scores of spoonerisms that we hear (our queer dean, hissed the mystery lectures, tasted the whole worm, leave town drain, etc) are all fabricated. That, however, seems very unlikely, for, just one slip of the tongue (or tip of the slung, if you will) cannot result in the christening of a genre of lapses.
One of the more popular spoonerisms believed to have genuinely been mouthed by the ordained minister is 'The Lord is a shoving leopard' instead of 'The Lord is a loving shepherd'. As a practitioner of religion and a preacher, this is most certainly his.
That said, just one substantiated spoonerism has been listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: 'The weight of rages (instead of 'rate of wages') will press hard upon the employer.'
Human ingenuity, however did one better than the Oxford don could, and soon enough, colleagues and students 'constructed' spoonerisms as a pastime. Thus contrived expressions were passed off as spoonerisms, apocryphal though they are. 'Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?' for instance.
Thus, today a spoonerism signifies an error in speech or a deliberate play on words in which corresponding consonants, vowels or morphemes of two words in a phrase are swapped.
But then ingenuity hath no boundaries. If spoonerisms strike roots, can forkerisms and kniferisms be far behind? It was Donald Hoefstadter, the patron-saint of 'perverted' thinkers, who introduced these complements to spoonerisms, to complete the cutlery, as it were. In kniferisms, the vowels or the final consonants of two syllables would be interchanged, giving them a new meaning as in 'the Duck and Doochess of Windsor'; or, more often, two meaningless words, as in 'hypodeemic nerdle'. I have read somewhere that Sir Stafford Cripps was once referred to by a BBC newscaster as Sir Stifford Crapps. Some other instances are 'Self-constricted ruddles', 'terrific striggles' and 'deloberately rib me'.
Usage of these new terms has been limited, perhaps because it is quite difficult even to 'construct' good forkerisms and kniferisms.

Post script: There is this friend of mine who wrote to me that he loves my posts. I hope he is not being spooneric when the smart alec that he is exlaimed what a shining wit I was in his opinion. Shining wit ot whining ....?


In what an amazing manner the way I read newspapers has changed!
At first, I used to read the news, the editorial, letters to the editor and articles, that order. In my scheme of things, sports pages were worth a mere glance, if at all. And I’d ignore the crossword. Nowadays I barely glance at the headlines before I fold the paper to the crossword page and charge at it! News can wait.
It is all due to a person called Madhusoodan Rao. He introduced me to the charming world of crosswords which I was always apprehensive of.
Rao and I were inmates of the YMCA Hostel on Chowringhee Road, Calcutta in the early 1970’s. He used to work in shifts for a multinational and I for a bank. The only time we’d meet each other was at when dining bell chimed on Sundays.
Sundays were meant for lazing around. One such forenoon, after a late breakfast, I ambled into Rao’s room and found him engrossed in an instalment of The Times crossword in The Statesman. I thought I’d let him be and explore other rooms. That was when he asked me: ‘You’d know: St Francis of … … what? Six letters.’
This is one question I had the answer to. The exercise books I used in my school used to be made at the Francis of Assisi Press. I supplied the answer. Mumbling a quick ‘Thanks’, Rao went back to his puzzle.
I looked at the corresponding clue: ‘St Francis confesses to stupidity (6)’ How do you link Assisi to ‘confession of stupidity’? I asked.
Eyeing me with a hint of disdain, but grateful that I had supplied him the answer, he condescended to explain, ‘Ass is I. Got it?’
It now clicked. And I was intrigued.
He showed me the next clue: ‘Vehicle races to pink flowers (10)’ and confidently, he put down: carnations.
How did you get that? I was curious.
‘A car is a vehicle; nations are races; and carnations are pink flowers.’
I was floored. Sensing that he had ignited my interest, Rao said, ‘Here is another clue with a flower in it: Ash met a flower (6)’ I was lost.
Help was at hand. ‘Look beyond the obvious,’ Rao advised. ‘It is not always a bloom that is a flower; it can be something that flows … like a river... like the Rhine or the Ganges… or like Thames which is an anagram of ‘ASH MET’.
Now I was hooked. Hooked for life.
Rao taught me the nuances – cryptic clues, anagrams, codes, run-ons, envelopes, kangaroo words, abbreviations, the works.
When I first tried to make sense of cryptic clues, it used to take me a whole forenoon of grappling with synonyms to solve about half the grid. Even that was an accomplishment worth a minor celebration: a bottle of chilled beer at Rallis.
In my infancy as a solver, anagram tries would be scrawled around the crossword grid and all over the white space in large advertisements. Armed with a pencil, an eraser and an enormous amount of determination, I’d sit there, dictionary and thesaurus at hand, wrestling with the compiler’s intellect, as it were.
After three decades of dedicated puzzling, anagrams jump out at you, and it becomes easier to figure out the definition, sort out the elements of the clue, and you learn the indicators: as in algebra, k is the constant, x and y are unknowns. The possibilities of some are endless. Fir instance, C can be carbon, Celsius, Centigrade, century, a musical note or 100! The capital of England is not London, but E which may also be 2.7182818284 …..!
When I started cutting out puzzles to keep me supplied while waiting for the bus or my turn at the ophthalmologist, I realised that I had become an addict. I needed my daily fix of crosswords. A healthy addiction.

Friday, January 06, 2017



Have you heard of Akinator, the Web Genie? I had not, till my friend Balachandran put up a post on it and it came to my notice. It is an online game which those familiar with the ‘Reverse quiz’ that Kairali TV had aired under the title Ashwamedham would easily relate to.
You think of a prominent person or celebrity – even fictional. Akinator will ask you up to twenty simple questions about your character which you have to answer ‘to the best of your knowledge’. It is not difficult because the questions are simple and there are five options – Yes, No, Don’t know, Probably and Probably Not – to choose from. Akinator will nearly always guess the exact person you have in mind. During the process, you can see the mood of the genie change – deep in thought, biting his nail, tearing his hair and smiling when he is zeroing in on your choice.
I played the game three times – Kanimozhi, Shashi Tharoor and Dulqar Rahman were my picks – and each time Akinator was on the dot. I could not beat Akinator. What's more, in the case of Tharoor, he did not take even a dozen questions, while in the others, the game was up after 16 questions.
Would you like to try? Simply go to and enter your age. You don’t have to download anything. It does not ask for personal details, your email ID, mobile number or internet banking password. You’ll be surprised at his near-accuracy.
It is, of course, possible to think of someone whom Akinator cannot guess in spite of twenty questions. In such rare instances, it asks you more questions. When, even after a lengthy series of further questions, Akinator does not know who you are thinking of, it asks you to upload your character's photo and name.
I did beat Akinator, though, by thinking of the transwoman Kalki Subramaniam, activist, author and actor whom I heard at the Soorya Talk Festival last year. She is the founder of the Sahodari Foundation and holds two Master’s degrees. After twenty questions, he answered ‘Sugathakumari’, which was wrong. Part of the blame goes to me: my answers to many of the questions were not a clear ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
I went on. When we reached the thirtieth question, he said ‘Arundhati Roy’. Wrong again! The genie wrung his hands in despair. He came up with ‘Shalu Menon’ on the fiftieth. Around the 70th question, Akinator gave up. I was asked to furnish the name of the person I had chosen. I typed in the name. Then it came up with a list and asked me if my character was listed there in another name. I scanned the list: Kalki, Kalki Krishnamurthy, Kalki Kochlin, L Subramaniam, Kalki (Third Gender), Kalki Bhagawan, Dr Padma Subramaaniam, … the list was long. I agreed that my person was the same as Kalki (Third Gender).
What caught my fancy was how this impressive online time-killer works. How is it possible that Akinator can guess seemingly any person accurately by simply asking up to 20 basic questions (and often far fewer)?
According to the site's FAQ section, 'Akinator uses the program Limule published by The algorithm we use is an original creation. How we created it is our little secret.' There doesn't appear to be much more information available about just how the program uses Limule to make the program work so effectively.
But there are some other clues about how Akinator works. In the rare instances when the program doesn't know who you're thinking of after a lengthy series of further questions, it asks you to upload your character's photo and name in order to add it to its what appears to be an extensive database. This provides more insight into the way Akinator works, suggesting that it has compiled an ever-evolving, massive log of characters that people have wanted it to guess, along with the answers they used for describing the characters before uploading them.
That way, the next time someone thinks of the obscure 1970's Tamil film actor you used for stumping Akinator, it will likely be able to get the answer right. In that sense, Akinator is a novel way of using Artificial Intelligence and a secret program combined with the wonders of crowd-sourcing to create a fun and shockingly accurate game.
The specific algorithm the Akinator uses to decide between questions could probably be one of a number of things, but in any case the goal is definitely to divide the set of possibilities as close to in half as possible (assuming only Yes/No answers - not Don't Know, Probably Yes and Probably Not) with each question.
My hypothesis about the program that drives the game is that Akinator (or any game of Yes/No answers to questions), is a binary search or similar to a decision tree. In the ideal case, you'd always be able to rule out half the remaining answers with every question, and in 20 questions, you'd be able to narrow it down to one from over a million possibilities. To be exact, 2^20 = 1,048,576 possibilities can be examined in 20 questions.
I will explain this by an oversimplified example. Suppose a club has 64 members and you are trying to guess the name of the member I have in my mind. You ask me: Man or woman? From my answer, you can theoretically rule our 32 members. You ask me: Above 50 years of age? The answer will filter 16 of them. The answer to the next question (Say, self-employed?) will reduce the choice to 8. And so on. Thus, six questions should theoretically be enough to spot the guy I am thinking of.
Before I transgress into higher realms of Mathematics, I withdraw.


I do not think many movies have been made on poets. 'Ivan Megharoopan', a 2012 Malayalam biopic with Prakash Bare in the lead role is based on the autobiography (Kaviyude Kaalpaadukal) of P Kunhiraman Nair (1905-78), the celebrated poet more popularly known as Mahakavi P.
I used to know him in the 1950's. In those days, his poems were carried regularly in Mathrubhoomi Weekly under the pen-name P. He taught Malayalam in Koodali High School where I had studied for some time and was known among the students and teachers as Kavi-mash. Those days he was not called Mahakavi; he was Bhaktakavi. He taught only seniors and I was in the first form.
Kavi-Maash was always seen in a loose free-flowing khadi kurta and white khadi dhoti. The stocky bespectacled frame would amble along the winding corridor of the school, munching something all the time. He would often put his hands into the pocket and fish out groundnuts, orange-and-lemon-flavoured boiled sweets or kalkandam (unrefined sugar-candy) and give it to the boys and girls passing by.
Though he did not teach my class, I had occasion, which I now realise is 'fortune', to be close to him because he was a good friend of my grandfather's. The two shared their passion for poetry.
Kavi-Maash used to live in a small room above the provision store next to the school bus-stop. It could just accommodate a single cot and a table and a chair. I recall my first visit to the place with my grandfather. It was on a Friday evening. The wooden staircase was steep and narrow. The steps were so far apart that I, hardly nine years old then, could not negotiate them. My grandfather carried me up, clutching at the thick rope hanging from the roof. It functioned as the banister, the knots it had at regular intervals providing grip to the users of the staircase.
The room was dingy and dusty. There was no cupboard or built-in storage space. An olive green steel trunk with rust-colored corners lay under the cot. A rope strung between a nail on one wall and another on the window-frame served as the wardrobe. Three soiled khadi kurtas - one grey, one brick-coloured and one white - and a couple of black-bordered white khadi dhotis had been tossed carelessly on them. There were a few books and some paper on the table.
The room had not been swept in ages. Beedi stubs, scraps of paper and groundnut shells were strewn all over the floor. There was no mattress on the cot but an old green-and-white sheet was spread on it. There was more paper, more books on the cot.
On entering the room, the poet welcomed my grandfather and offered him a seat - the only chair in the room. 'Find a place and sit, my son,' he told me.
The two discussed poetry and literary matters, neither of which interested me at that age and I soon went to sleep. It must have been past seven when I was woken up and carried down to the bus-stop. Kavi-Maash, standing in the verandah with no railings, bade goodbye and grandfather responded.
The last bus from Kannur towards our village via Koodali had left and the only option was to walk the distance. As it was a full moon day, the untarred road was well-lit.
Taking my school bag from me so that I could walk with him, my grandfather urged me to walk. We must have taken about ten steps when Kavi-Maash called out, 'Vaazhunnore!'
He came down hurriedly and walking to us double-quick, he said, 'Do not go alone. I will come with you - and stay in your house tonight.' Without waiting for an answer, he kept pace with us. More discussion on literature, recital of poems and critical appraisal followed.
Kavi-Maash stayed with us the whole weekend. He had his bath in the pond and his meals with us. He had come with no change of clothes and wore my grandfather's dhoti while his own, washed in the pond when having a bath, dried in the sun. (It was customary to leave the upper half of the body bare - perhaps dictated as much by the sultry weather as the frugal circumstances.) He went back on Monday morning.
That was so typical of Kavi-Maash. He belonged to the world and the world belonged to him. Home was where he was for the time being. He had at least two wives - one in Bellikoth near Kasaragod where he hailed from, one in Pattambi where he studied and worked for a while - and, I should think, more elsewhere.
Kavi-Maash was a drifter. He did not stay anywhere for long. Suddenly one day, he went missing. It is said that he quit in a huff after a tiff because of a difference of opinion with my grand-uncle who owned the school. He never came back. It was learnt later that he had surfaced in Kollengode (Palghat District).
All that I have is a book of his he gifted to me on my birthday. On the flyleaf, he had scribbled a quatrain.
For those who do not read Malayalam, it is a prayer or a blessing : May the Lord endow you, Rajan, with energy, long life, education, prosperity and enlightenment.


I do enjoy films, but am no great movie buff. I can certainly identify Amitabh Bacchan and Shabana Azmi, Ashok Kumar and Smita Patil, but that’s about it. When it comes to Govinda or Deepika Padukone, I draw a blank.
Fantastic credentials for a person to write about his tryst with a star, you might say, wondering at my gall. Hold your horses, gentle reader.
It was in the latter half of the 1990s, I think it was in 1998. After a late night, I had caught the early morning flight from Ahmedabad to Bombay from where I had a connecting flight at half past ten to Trivandrum.
As I was one of the first to check in, I could get a window seat in the front row. All I wanted to was to get into the aircraft, settle down in Seat No 8A of the Trivandrum-bound wide-bodied AB 300 (Yes, the one with eight – 2 + 4 + 2 – seats abreast) of Airbus Industrie and catch up with my sleep.
I did exactly that. As soon as the boarding was announced, I ran to the gate with my hand baggage, got into the bus and occupied a strategic position so that I could get down and get into the aircraft first. Flinging my bag into the overhead bin of the plane, I sat in my seat and promptly went to sleep.
I do not know how much time had passed, but when I woke up, the aircraft was still on the tarmac. The seat next to mine was empty. So were a few other seats in Row 8. A sidelong glance told me that the case was no different in the other rows.
I dozed off; again, I do not know for how long. This time when I woke, some more seats had got filled up. I looked out through the window: a horde of politicos clad in starched white khadi was trooping in, accompanied by a few babus walking deferentially a few steps behind them, but available in case their services were required. Obviously, a Parliamentary Committee was headed southwards, to enjoy Kanyakumari, Kovalam, Kumarakom and Munnar in December at the expense of whichever public sector units whose activity they were supposed to be overseeing.
Trailing them was a figure in a pair of ice-blue jeans and a white mandarin shirt with short sleeves. He had no carry-on baggage. His gait rang a bell. As he came closer to the plane, his features too could be discerned and he was so familiar. I knew I had seen him somewhere, but just could not place him, however hard I tried.
He walked in through the aisle of the business class now choc-a-bloc with the parliamentarians and sat next to me. I regarded him sideways and tried to guess who this man was. No luck.
After a while, I mustered enough courage and asked my neighbor, ‘Excuse me, Sir, I seem to have seen you somewhere. Have we met earlier?’
‘I don’t think so,’ he replied.
The gruff voice gave the person away: it was the same voice that boomed ‘Chakravyuh mein ghusne se pehle kaun tha main aur kaisa tha, yeh mujhe yaad hi na rahega’ in Ardh Satya.
Om Puri made the film world poorer this morning. One recalls the storehouse of talent that he was and his masterly performance in Aakrosh, Maachis and a host of other films.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The 360-Degree Turn and White Lies


If I were to tell you that I had floored Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring in a home match in Louisville in 1965, you'd know I was lying through my teeth. You would call it a white lie, right? But any English professor would tell you that a 'white lie' is one that is told in order to be polite or to stop someone from being upset by the truth. Like when your colleague asks you how the fatso that she is she looks in that horrendous sari and you compliment her by exclaiming, 'Fab!' As my claim about pugilistic skills does not serve any such purpose, it does not qualify to be called a white lie; it is a blatant lie. Call it a 'terminological Inexactitude' like the redoubtable Sir Winston Churchill, if you like euphemisms.

There are several other words and expressions which even educated persons use, rather, misuse. 'Prostrate cancer' is one such: how many of us know that it is 'prostate'? The word 'prostrate' which means 'lying face down' has nothing to do with the dreaded disease.

'Momento' is the abomination of a word - because it is not a word at all. You will not find it in a dictionary. If you are referring to a gift or an artifact to remember some event by, 'Memento' is the word you have in mind.

The other day, a sous chef was demonstrating how to make mutton cutlets. One of the ingredients was potatoes - to be exact, she said, 'smashed potatoes'. What the culinary expert meant was, of course, 'mashed potatoes'.

The word 'fulsome' does not mean 'copious'; it means 'insincerely complimentary'. Therefore you have no reason for cheer if you receive fulsome praise from someone!

'Hearty congratulations' are fine, but 'hearty condolences' are, well, somewhat off-colour.

One often sees the sentence 'I waited with baited breath' which sounds perfect. That is exactly what it is - it only sounds right; it is not spelt right. The Intended term is 'bated' , meaning suspended, which can be traced back to the verb 'abate', meaning 'to stop'. The verb 'bait', on the other hand, means 'to tempt'.

When we wreak vengeance on someone, what we do is to exact, not 'extract', revenge, though the latter expression seems 'more correct'.

It is not okay to say 'John emigrated to the US'. The prefix 'e' as in 'emit' (Compare remit, demit, etc) means 'from'. And therefore 'emigrate' does not go with 'to'. The correct version would be 'John emigrated from India.' If you would like to be more specific, you could say 'John emigrated from India to the US' or 'John immigrated to the US from India', depending on whether you want to lay greater stress on coming or going.

With the sky-rocketing number of automobiles and roads that seem to get narrower, traffic jams are the order of the day and we speak of 'the big bottleneck near the mall', little realising that the bigger the bottleneck, the easier it would be to pass through it!

At a time when virtual reality is a concept that has taken centre-stage, the distinction between 'virtually' and 'really' has blurred so much that we tend to use them interchangeably to mean 'literally' or 'actually'. While 'really' and 'actually' are indeed synonymous, the intensifiers 'virtually' and 'literally' are, well, just almost, but not quite, there.

What takes the cake, according to me, is the expression '360-degree turn'. Try making a 360 degrees turn; what has changed? It is a 180-degree turn (or change) that would mean that the new stand is the complete opposite of the earlier one which is what one is trying to say. 

A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma


Nobody knew how Swamy came to live with us.

He was discovered one morning by my grandfather when he woke up at five as usual and opened the main door of the house to step out. In the blur of the setting moon, he noticed the human figure lying on the floor at the far end of the open verandah. He went in, fetched a lantern and came back to find out who the uninvited guest was.

Deep asleep was a man in his mid-fifties. The lanky frame was clad in nothing except a thorth (thin white bath-towel used in Kerala). He had not shaved for a month and it looked as though he had not had a square meal for several days. Grandpa's first reaction was to wake him up and interrogate him. He overcame the instinct and decided to allow him to sleep for as long as he wanted to.

In thirty minutes, grandpa was back, after his bath and coffee. He sat in the easy chair in the verandah and bridged its arms with the writing plank. After lighting the kerosene table lamp on the table beside, he carefully placed the inkpot and the steel pen (or dip pen - how many of us remember this predecessor to the fountain pen?) somewhere in the right half of the plank. Soon he was engrossed in his work. The project on hand was the 'vrittaaanuvritta, padaanupada tarjima' - metre-to-metre, word-to-word translation - of Kalidasa's Abhijnaana Shaakuntalam into Malayalam. (This work would be published later with an introduction by the redoubtable Sardar K M Panicker and paid rich encomiums by none less than Vallathol Narayana Menon, the Titan of Malayalam literature.)

In a little over an hour, the rays of the rising sun woke up our guest. He opened his eyes, sat up and smiled at my grandfather, who smiled back. His answers to grandpa's queries about him were vague or philosophical, depending on how one looked at it. What is your name? 'People call me Swamy because I sport a beard and recite stotras and shlokas. They think I am a saint,' he replied. Where did he belong to? Sagely, he replied, 'One belongs to a place this moment and to another the next. Can anyone say with certainty that he belongs to a particular place?' Any relatives? Saying 'Everyone in this world is related to me,' Swamy walked towards the pond for a bath.

When he returned, he was in the same thorth, only, it was wet. Grandpa asked grandma to get a mundu (dhoti) for Swamy, but he declined. Get me another thorth, he said. I wear only a thorth. He demanded a cup of tea. He sipped it, visibly enjoying the beverage, humming some folk song.

Around half past seven, grandpa got up and went to the vegetable garden where he used to grow brinjals and okras, chillies and string beans, flat peas and tapioca, plantains and the like. Making the beds for the plants, removing the weeds, plucking the dead leaves and watering them was his idea of exercise. He would spend an hour each in the morning and the evening every day in the kitchen garden.

Swamy followed him and helped him fetch water from the pond to water the plants. Neither spoke a word, but they co-ordinated their moves very well. When both returned after the job was done, it was beyond half past eight.

We were served breakfast in the dining room (called 'antaraaalam' perhaps because it connected the main building and the unit consisting of the kitchen, store-room, the work area and the allied facilities) and the kitchen. It being a joint family, the brood was quite big, you see. Meanwhile, Swamy, sitting in the verandah, was given his breakfast on a plantain leaf.

Breakfast done, Swamy borrowed a knife from the Kalyani, our cook, and, unasked, proceeded to the 'estate' where he pruned the plantain trees, tied the pepper vines to the trees they clutched at for support, and did a lot of odd jobs till it was time for lunch.

Post lunch, when the older members of the family withdrew to their rooms for a siesta, he too lay on the floor of the verandah. After the evening tea, he watered the kitchen garden after which he had a dip in the pond. Then Swamy went for a stroll to the village market beyond the unending stretch of paddy fields, to return in time for dinner and sleep.

This routine continued for a few days. My grandfather found in him a helping hand. My grandmother would at times request him to fetch some provisions on his way back after the evening walk which he would gladly do. As he had no major use for money, he never demanded payment for his services - nor was he offered any remuneration. Swamy marked his attendance regularly for all meals. That was all he needed.

My uncle, a banker in the district headquarters, was quite upset on seeing Swamy when he came visiting his parents during the weekend. He had apparently taken an instant dislike for Swamy. No, it was not just the looks of the man who wore nothing but a thorth. The dishevelled salt and pepper hair, the unruly beard and the hairy chest did not help matters. He asked my grandfather, 'What do you know of this guy to offer him shelter here? He could be a criminal on the run. He may decamp one night after looting you. How can you trust a man who strays in?'

Grandfather, firm in his conviction that Swamy was not up to any mischief, pacified my uncle. He helps me, my grandfather said, in the kitchen garden in the morning and evening and does odd jobs during the day. He is a good fellow, my grandfather added, let him stay. My uncle did not press the point further. Thus Swamy became part of our household.

My grandmother would hand over a tenner to him at times and ask him to fetch a pound of sugar or green gram or salt from Moosa's shop which he would gladly do. He would appropriate the small change and return to my grandmother only the currency notes that Moosa gave back. In the initial days, grandmother would ask him, 'Swamy, how about the six and a quarter annas?' Avoiding eye contact, he would respond, 'Oh, that? I took it,' or 'Looks like I dropped it' or 'I put it in the offertory in the temple' depending on his mood. That was the pattern.

He was not too strict with the money, whoever it belonged to. One evening my uncle gave him a rupee and asked him to get a packet of Passing Show cigarettes. An hour went by, two hours went by, but there was no sign of Swamy. Finally, around nine in the night, all of us went to sleep. Next morning, When Swamy was questioned, he replied, 'Being Muharram, Moosa's shop was closed.' How about the money? Without batting an eyelid, he responded, 'But Kannan's arrack shop was open!'

Swamy was outspoken to a fault. In retrospect, I suspect that he used to take advantage of the impression that others had about his being an oddball and an eccentric. Our kitchen was strictly vegetarian, which Swamy was not too happy about. He would say, 'The reason why all of you have to wear spectacles from an early age is that all that you eat is grass and leaves. Eat fish and meat and see the difference!'

On that point, there was convergence of views between Swamy and my uncle. Though initially not well-disposed towards Swamy, he and Swamy had a pact: on Saturdays, Swamy would bring some fish from the market which he would cook in an ad hoc hearth set up in a far corner of the large compound. The two of them would polish off the entire stuff and both would look forward to the next weekend.

Swamy was not 'all there'. He refused to wear anything except his thorth. He had no use for mats or pillows or sheets: rain or shine, sick or well, he would sleep on the floor in the verandah exactly where my grandfather had first found him.

He was a man of moods. On certain days, he would be quiet, and would not speak even if spoken to. On others, he would go around singing aloud, unmindful of who was around. His repertoire was quite large - ballads, nonsense verses, prayers, astrology, keertans, kathakalipadams, ottan thullal verses, poems, slogans used during the freedom movement, - and his memory phenomenal. It was through the oral tradition that the illiterate that he was had learnt all these. When my sisters taught him 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star', 'Hickory, dickory dock' and 'Saare jahaan se acchha Hindustaan hamaara', his range went to the next level.

Swamy would spend the small change that he appropriated from the money given for purchase of provisions money on beedis or a fish curry meal in Ambu's hotel, the only eatery in the village, or an occasional drink. On days he planned to eat out or have a drink, he would announce to nobody in particular, 'I'll be late tonight.' That is supposed to mean that he did not need dinner that night. Nobody knew when he returned after the revelry and slept in the usual place, but the next morning he would act as if nothing had happened!

It was never given to us to know more about Swamy - his background, his family, his relatives. Enquiries by different people at different times during his twelve-year stay with us elicited no information except that his name was Swamy.

A true awadhoot Swamy was. One morning when my grandfather opened the main door of the house at five as usual, he noticed that there was nobody at the far end of the open verandah. And that was it.

Nobody knows why Swamy left us or where he went to.