Wednesday, August 22, 2007
My thoughts go back to my schooldays.
* * *
I wrote ‘THEYYAM’ in bold letters at the head of the page and underlined it. It was our English Composition period in Class VII. Easow Master had given us thirty minutes to write an essay on ‘When I Grow Up, I Want to Be A …..’.
I pondered: why do I want to be a Theyyam? They were indeed powerful: they heard the complaints and prayers of the hoi polloi and conveyed them to the Gods ‘recommending favourable consideration’. Gods spoke to ordinary men and women through the Theyyams. One shared one’s anxieties with him. You thanked God for His mercies by dropping offerings into the open palms of the Theyyam. The only persons the Kaaranavar, presiding head of the family, bowed to in respect were Kunhappa and Ramunni when they donned the garb of the Theyyam. The Kaaranavar who only knew how to order people about listened to them. Was any more evidence needed for the Theyyam being all-powerful?
* * *
That was a lad on the threshold of his early teens. I look back in retrospect to ferret out a convincing explanation for my longing.
* * *
‘There, I can see the light,’ shrieks my son as he turns right along the curving road. Enthusiastic and eager to reach there a minute earlier if he can could, he is trotting a few steps ahead of me, impatient that I am not keeping pace. When I catch up, I too can see the halo of lights in the otherwise dark sky in the general direction of the location of my Tarawad. Theyyam would be performed in the courtyard of the complex.
The headquarters of the Tarawad comprises three blocks of buildings constructed in different periods of time: one is the traditional single-storeyed ettukettu, the two-storeyed main building seems to have been influenced by Dutch architecture and the third, called the Banglaav (Bungalow) is more like a club-house.
* * *
Why did I want to be a Theyyam when I grew up? Perhaps I was enamoured by the mumbo-jumbo that he uttered, eyes heavenwards and hands outstretched. Perhaps because his prophecies, unintelligible though they were because of the quaint expressions used and the quiver in his high-pitched voice, were awaited eagerly by the devout dowagers. Perhaps I was fascinated by the fact that he ‘communicated’ to and on behalf of the Almighty. He seemed to be closer to God than my grandmother who fasted on Mondays, Ekadasi days, new moon days, full moon days and several other days of the month. He could bring solace to women worried about the waywardness of their husbands or illness of their offspring.
* * *
We are presently in the courtyard in front of the Banglaav where traditionally the Kaaranavar would entertain visitors and spend his evenings with his friends, often imbibing the tipple. Going ahead, you can see the performers in different stages of preparation in the raised ground near the Kalari. Some have had their make-up done and all their gear on, nearly ready to make their appearance. Those whose turn is scheduled for the latter part of the night are yet to don the accoutrements.
* * *
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Theyyam is not the colourful show that unfolds before you or the sounds that accompany it, but the smell of Theyyam. The smell of the coconut oil as it is consumed by the flares, the mildly acrid smell of turmeric, the smell of arrack and beedis, the smell of the plantain leaf getting ‘cooked’ as piping hot rice is dropped on it, the smell of the wooden logs as they turn into embers and then to ashes as the fire into which Ucchitta Bhagavati plunged herself dies down.
* * *
There is a nip in the air, for it is the month of Makaram (End-January). Small groups of people are huddled together and watching the goings-on. Members of the family walk about with an affected demeanour: it-is-in-my-Tarawad-that-this-event-is-taking-place kind of air of authority.
* * *
What is the origin of the pantheon of pagan gods that streak in and out according to a rigidly drawn up schedule? Old-timers believe that they all reside in the Kalari. Unhappy with the misdoings of the earthlings in the past year, they walk out of the Kalari. If they are allowed to do their bidding, they might wreak havoc, epidemics and natural calamities. To avert the disaster, the human beings placate the gods by giving offerings in the ensuing during the next two days. After Wworshipping and appeasing the deities, they coax them back into their residence for one more year.
* * *
Theyyam used to be the only time womenfolk in the village who never ventured out could get their stock of adornments and cosmetics – bangles, trinkets, kaajal, chaanthupottu, cheap perfume and talcum, safety pins, hair clips, false hair, and a host of other things. Kids would cadge money out of uncles and fathers and exchange them for balloons, whistles, balls or wooden toys. They come in all colours, shapes and sizes, and any amount of money that you have is too little.
I stop before a vendor and look at his ware. I spot the tiny tin boat which comes alive if you keep a small lighted wick inside it. My eyes widen in imagination as they conjure up the vision of the boat chugging along in a trough of water. I fulfil a boyhood dream as I exchange a fiver for the boat.
* * *
Theyyam is not just cacophony and smells. It is also a mélange of spectacles and sights. The headgears of Kantaakarnan and Thai Paradevatha are tall and heavy: the performers have to strain themselves to maintain their balance. Gulikan reclines on a tree and Kuttichaatthan’s pranks entertain. The colourfully bedecked Bhairavan, Vayanattu Kulavan and Muchilott Bhagavathi are a treat to the eyes. Only natural resources like tender fronds of palms, leaves of mango trees, a blend of turmeric and lime, etc that are used in the decoration and make-up.
* * *
Logs of dried wood neatly stacked in a pile in the courtyard in front of the Kalari are being set fire to for the grand spectacle of the night – Thee Chamundi’s fire dance. The Kaaranavar is seated on a low wooden stool watching the proceedings, detachment writ in his manner. Till he signals to the performer, Thee Chamundi would keep walking in and out of the burning embers.
* * *
Most of the Theyyams are grossly exaggerated legends or stories that reflect the fear of the man, defenceless when confronted by nature’s fury, epidemics or wild beasts. Take Vasoorimala or Pulikkarinkaali or Acchiyum Kuttiyum (Mother and child), for instance. In the days when man had not reined in diseases and nature, all that he could do was to pray that they do not assail him!
* * *
At the end of the half an hour, when Easow Master announced ‘Time is up’, I turned in a sheet of paper, blank except for the word ‘THEYYAM’ written atop.
Grandpa would splice and cut the spine into specified shapes to fashion two sets of pieces for playing Chaturangam. The thick end would become the king, the slender pieces would make the pawns. The minister, the chariot, the horse and elephant (not queen, rook, knight or bishop as in the modern version) were made from the remaining portion.
That was part of the preparation for the weekly visit of M, the headmaster of the local school who would play Chaturangam with him. M was not just a sparring partner of grandpa: he was also grandma’s cousin.
Even since their common passions – astrology, poetry, literature and Chaturangam brought them together, grandpa and M would spend the weekends in each other’s company pursuing these interests. This was a routine practised for decades.
The two would exchange pleasantries sipping the hot tea which grandma would make as soon as M came in trudging the stone-paved path flanked by crotons and hibiscus. After the cuppa, a mandatory walk in the sylvan paddy-fields discussing a poem that had appeared in the recent issue of the Mathrubhoomi weekly or a story in Mangalodayam. This would be followed by a wash in the pond in the compound.
The two would then walk back to their favourite spot, the wooden platform in the sit-out, and place themselves a few feet apart, each leaning against a pillar. Grandpa would use charcoal to reinforce the fading lines of the 8x8 square drawn on the wooden platform.
They would soon move on to more serious business. They could be seen discussing the post-partition trauma. It could as well be a debate about the influence of an aspect of asterism in astrology. At times, they would try their hand at a paperless translation of a verse from Kalidasa’s Shakuntala into Malayalam.
After dinner, they would shift gears and move over to a series of games of Chaturangam. Not many words would be spoken after that. You could only hear grunts and ‘hum’s which had specific meanings – a doubt, a question, an exclamation, a challenge, a compliment – anything, depending on the variations in the pitch, length and intonation of the ‘hum’.
And the game, aided by a hurricane lamp, would go well past midnight. The spells of silence between two moves would be interrupted only when they decided to break for a session of pan-chewing.
Me, a six-year old lad, was like Snowy in the Tintin comics, their constant companion (but without his entertainment value) but nor much of a nuisance either. I would look forward to Friday evenings and the rendezvous between the two.
That Friday evening looked no different. The usual routine ensued: pleasantries, tea, a long walk, some nuances of poetry and astrology, a wash and dinner, followed by chathurangam. When the discussions died down and the two settled down to a game, they entered the zone of silence broken by grunts and ‘hum’s. I felt sleepy. Head on grandpa’s lap, I lay on the mat and dozed off.
It must have been a little – or a long – later. Lifting my head off his lap as gently as he could, grandpa said, “Let me fetch some water.” The words that broke the silence and the movement disturbed my slumber. Grandpa walked towards the kitchen.
From the corner of my eye, I watched uncle’s left hand moving towards the square. In a swift, but stealthy movement, he snatched a piece of his opponent and flung it into the darkness of the courtyard.
When grandpa returned, it was uncle’s turn to take a break. Using the opportunity, I sneaked to grandpa about uncle’s unethical action. Unmoved by the revelation, he admonished me in soft tones, “Shh… later.” Grandpa lost that game.
Later, I asked grandpa about uncle’s impropriety and his (lack of) response to it. He said, “The game was in a stage where unless he did that, he would lose.”
I could not digest that one. “But why should you let him win?” I queried.
“You have to let others win too,” he explained, “if you want to continue playing.” As that sank into my young mind, he added, “At such critical stages, I always go to fetch water or get a replenishment of betel leaf and accompaniments.”
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Damu and Kelu, about the same age, were cousins from Koodali. They got married within the space of six months of each other. The similarity did not end there: their wives too were related to each other. They were: second cousins hailing from Kallyad.
Damu was a school teacher by profession. Contrary to custom, even after his marriage, Damu continued to stay in his own home, as Koodali was closer than Kallyad to Damu’s school. He would spend the weekends in his wife’s house. Kelu was in business. He would buy cash crops like coconut, arecanut, pepper and cashew and sell then in the nearest town. He would offer an advance, and make a token payment, to have a lien on a year’s crop in a coconut grove or on all the areca in a plot. Or he would acquire the right to a season’s cashew by making an advance payment.
It was the practice of every such businessman not to pay the contracted amount in full. Payment would be made in bits and pieces and at the end of the year, some excuse would be offered for not making the full payment. Typical excuses were: the quality of the crop was poor, the quantity was less than expected, the season was short because the rains came too soon, the summer was severe and tender coconuts dropped, causing great financial loss. He would normally get away by paying no more than eighty percent of the amount originally agreed to.
Damu, the school master, had inherited some land and the savings from his salary helped him acquire more. In a particular year, Kelu offered an advance to Damu in exchange of the right for the crop of coconut in the ensuing year. A firm believer in the dictum that doing business with a friend will terminate the friendship, Damu promptly refused. He said, “If the full amount is not paid, I can quarrel with Mammu Haji. Can I do that with you?”
Kelu was insistent. When some senior relatives intervened, Damu had to relent. Finally, they arrived at a satisfactory solution acceptable to both. The full amount would be paid in advance. Soon, word spread in the village that Kelu had contracted for Damu’s crops for Rs 500 (which was a lot of money in the 1920’s).
But then when the day of reckoning came, Kelu was short of funds: He had only Rs 450 with him. Kelu assured Damu that the shortfall of Rs 50 would be made good before Onam when the sale proceeds of the first plucking of the year would flow in. That sounded reasonable and Damu agreed.
It was a Friday evening. Damu was on his way to his wife’s village. There was a lurking fear in his mind: the thugs. Still he mustered courage and quickened his pace, determined to cross the den of the thugs before they took charge. A couple miles on, he saw a figure ahead of him. If he could catch up with him, he thought, the two would be more formidable than his lone self. So he walked faster. Soon he realised that his pace-setter was none other than Kelu. He called out. Kelu was also on his way to Kallyad to his wife’s house. He was returning from the market after selling some goods.
They walked together, exchanging news and comparing notes, each secretly hoping that they would not encounter the thugs. They did not give vent to that hope because they were afraid the fear might be contagious.
As luck would have it, three hefty men, moustachioed and menacing, loomed large before them. Now there was no escape, the two friends realised.
“Remove your rings!” one of the thugs ordered, while the other two grabbed the victims to ensure that they would not run away.
Damu and Kelu rid their fingers of their wedding rings.
“Out with the money!” was the next command.
While the poor school teacher fished in his bag for the small notes and loose change, Kelu took a couple of notes from the folds of his dhoti around his waist and thrust it into Damu’s hand: “Here is the 50 I owe you!”
Friday, August 10, 2007
I too was transported to my college days in Alleppey when we had our share of meticulous professors. Professor Baliga who taught us English was one such. Despite his area of specialisation being the language of the Empire where the sun never sets, he was not enamoured of the western attire. Out and out a nationalist and a Gandhian, the venerable Professor always wore starched khadi – a Gandhi cap, an ochre kurta, white pyjamas and a long shawl neatly folded and draped around his neck, much like a dupatta. Complete with that flowing salt-and-pepper beard and the grey umbrella which he carried wherever he went, the unshod teacher looked every inch a caricature. In short, he was an antithesis to the archetypal English professor. Every morning and evening he would walk the two miles that separated his austere home from the college.
For him, English was a passion and he had a phenomenal memory from which he could quote extensively from Verity’s commentary on the Bard. And the way synonymous words would flow from his tongue had to be seen to be believed. Much to the delight of those who shared his passion, he would kneel on the platform and taking on the mantle of Iago, he would say, ‘I request thee, Desdemona,’ and add, ‘I entreat thee, I beseech thee, I implore thee, I beg thee, I supplicate to thee, I appeal to thee, I plead to thee’. He would go on and on.
Expatiating on the theme that the course of true love never runs smooth, he would cite the case of the Montagues and the Capulets who did not allow the romance of young Romeo and Juliet to come to fruition because of ‘the feud, the enmity, the acrimony, the hatred, the ill-will, the vendetta, the hostility, the antagonism, the hate, the bad blood, the quarrel, the row, the rancour, the bad feeling, ….’ which the two families had harboured for each other.
Professor Baliga would get highly involved with the theme being dealt with. According to the college folklore which is replete with interesting episodes featuring him, when teaching ‘Alice in Wonderland’, he would ‘become’ the Queen and shriek, ‘Off with his head!’ accompanied by an action which saw his umbrella flying out of the window. Classrooms would be packed on the days the assassination scene in Julius Caesar was being taken up, for, legend has it that countless are the fountain pen nibs had met with untimely demise when he played the role of Brutus and stabbed the blackboard (Caesar to the learned Professor).
He loved his students so much that he would ignore the tittering in the backbenches which would have triggered off any other self-respecting teacher into throwing them out of the classroom. Not so Professor Baliga. The only lapse that he, deeply in love with the language, just could not tolerate was bad English. One incorrect usage by any student in the classroom and he HAD it!
Our mathematics lecturer, not too strong on his grammar, was teaching the students how to find out the locus of the centroid of a triangle formed by the intersection of a plane at a constant distance from the origin with the three axes. He began, ‘If suppose let ‘d’ is equal to the distance of the plane from the origin…..’ Story goes that Professor Baliga who was passing through the corridor and had heard him, barged into the classroom and corrected him ‘Let ‘d’ be the distance’ and left as fast as he had come in, allowing the mathematics teacher to proceed with the lesson.
One inclement morning, on his way to the college, he offered shelter to an undergraduate who was waiting for the drizzle to subside. They got talking and things progressed well till the lad apparently said something like ‘The members of the football team of our college does not have the stamina …’ The Professor could not stomach this solescism on the part of his student, and shouted, ‘Get out of my umbrella!’
Many of us see the new year as the time to make course-corrections in case there have been deviations from the straight and the narrow. Small wonder, then, that resolutions, more often than not, have something do with giving up a bad habit, though some do resolve to pick up some new skill.
Anil Koshy who used to finish two packs of 20’s a day vowed to himself six years back to give up smoking and has stuck to the decision. The divorce from Lady Nicotine, once decided, was final. Never again could she seduce him. Many are not lion-hearted like Anil. Though used to just a cigarette after a meal and not more than five a day, Hariharan found that he could not stick to his new year resolution beyond the 4th January. Quoting a humorist, he says: my prayer is “Oh Lord, lead me not into temptations, for I have a low threshold.” He appears to be a little more strong-willed than Oscar Wilde who confessed his absolute helplessness when he admitted, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
There is an interesting story behind the new year resolution that a few colleagues in a government office made in 1991. This group got together one evening for ‘the last drink of their lives’, because they had decided to kick the habit. So, there they were, at the usual joint on the usual day at the usual time to raise the glass in toast for the last time ‘for old times’ sake’. Bharathan never drank but he was an integral part of the gathering because he would treat them to the soulful Kundal Lal Saigal numbers complete with the feeling and the nasal accent.
As they uncorked the bottle, they exchanged the latest filmi gossip and shared what they had heard on the office grapevine. Over the bubbly, they dissected Salvador Dali and deconstruction, Rashomon and Derrida as any self-respecting Malayalee is wont to. As the animated discussion on post-modernism heated up, Bharathan, who had never had a drink in the past, poured a drink for himself ‘for company’s sake’.
And he has not looked back. He has to have his two drinks every evening!
Opinions are divided on whether it was the case of a non-resolution or a resolution in the reverse gear.
Eight-year old Ashwin says his new year resolultion is to ‘put away the third chocolate for tomorrow’. Little does he know that his mother has upped the ante on him by resolving not to give in to the tantrums he may throw in support of his demand ‘for the second chocolate’!
Paraphrasing Descartes who said, ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) Arun, who is eagerly a waiting the results of the CAT for gaining entry into the portals of the hallowed B-school, is given to saying, ‘I think, therefore IIM.’ He is not one to waste the six months between the test and the admission. Till then, he says, “I’ve decided to learn a foreign language. And French it will be.”
His sister is, however, not very optimistic. Malini predicts that if the spelling and the pronunciation do not get him, the gender will. Well, she knows how her brother struggled with his Hindi where it is ‘meri kitaab’ but ‘uska pustak’. For the life of him, Arun could not understand why. Malini knows that though, to the eyes of the unsuspecting learner, soup has no masculine or feminine features, in French, it is masculine if called potage and feminine if called soupe.
The other day students of a local college were seen playing a game in the India Coffee House. They were running a contest on the best new year resolution for 2003. A rugged-looking bearded chap in a shaggy T-shirt and cargo trousers, obviously a backbencher, said, “I will sit in the front bench and embarrass the Malayalam lecturer who will send me out of the class.” He’ll have the best of both worlds: not lose out on the attendance, but get the freedom he yearns for. A baby-faced boy said, “I am not going to play hookey with the hostel fee and spend it in movie halls.” We do not yet know if he was making a pledge he would not be able to keep.
The game evolved, as time slipped by. You could pretend to be someone else and come up with novel ideas. One with a crew cut imitated the mannerism of a well-known political leader and said, “Wait for a fortnight: I’ll announce my new year resolution on the 12th January. Till then I will not speak a word about it.” One of the two girls in the group assumed the demeanour of a social activist and announced, “I’ll include authors among the endangered species and give them protection.” In an obvious reference to the Indianisation brigade, the other girl said, “New year resolutuions, like Valentine cards and MTV, are a western concept. I will have a Nav Varsh ka Dridh Sankalp”. With a twinkle in her eye, she adds, “But I’ll wager ten to one that you’ll have to wait for three more months - for the advent of Chaitra maas - for the Nav Varsh of the Saka era.’
If we are not true to ourselves, these resolutions can become farcical, points out octogenarian Appunni Kurup. Today’s youngsters, he says, may not have heard of the practice among those aging pursuing their path to salvation of giving up something after a pilgrimage as a token renunciation. After trudging all the way to Kashi, his uncle Ravunni Kurup resolved never again to touch bitter gourd. It is not known to many that he would prefer hemlock to this vegetable. On days bitter gourd found its way to the dining table, Ammalu Ammayi was fated to be the victim of a bitter tongue-lashing.
There are novel resolutions that people come up with. Sarada Menon believes that finally, wisdom has dawned on her husband Sadananda Menon. He turned sixty this year and his new year resolution is not to have any new year resolution at all. A resolution not to make any resolutions might remind the historically inclined amongst us of the clichéd expression ‘the war to end all wars’. Coming as it does from someone who has made at least forty new year resolutions only to break them as soon as they were made, she says it is indeed a wise decision. One only hopes that Menon does not break this resolution!
So, what is your new year resolution?
These days, several of the old sayings have got modified (Or, should we say morphed, in keeping with the technology-enabled times?), some a wee bit, some a lot, to convey contemporarily relevant messages. There was a time when the proverb ‘Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’ was a cautionary advice to the vulnerable lot. Today, the last two words get excised to yield a modern day proverb ‘Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t.’ Period. A sad commentary on the times when even the unwary and the innocent are exposed to dangers. Witness the passengers who travel on a bandh, sorry, hartal day and get pelted with stones.
‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’ Of course. The untrammelled growth of population made someone shorten it to a straightforward ‘Familiarity breeds.’
It is not as if deletion is the only way in which proverbs are retold. Extolling the virtues of being ‘Early to bed, early to rise…’ we were told ‘The early bird catches the worm’ but the insolent has a repartee, ‘Serves the wretched worm right; why did he get up early?’ Talking of birds, ‘Eagles soar’, our masters told us. They cited the example of the big bird to urge us to strive, perform and reach greater heights. Do they have an answer to ‘Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines’?
‘He who laughs, lasts’ is what we have heard all along. The currently popular version, taking a dig at those who are not too quick on the uptake is ‘He who laughs last, thinks slowest.’ Many of those who believe ‘Love is blind’ also agree that the addition ‘but marriage is a real eye-opener’ is perfectly acceptable.
If some proverbs get shortened and others get extensions, there are some which get transmogrified too. Like ‘Absence makes the heart wander’ to reflect the state of the philanderers. Giving a thorough twist to the expression ‘friend in need’, the popular saying gets changed to ‘A friend in need is no friend of mine.’
The wise men had told us ‘If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.’ We are so self-conscious that we do not want others to know about our having attempted and failed. Or loved and lost. Therefore we have the modern-day counterparts modify the advice to ‘If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.’ There is a variation which says, ‘If at first you don't succeed, then skydiving isn't for you.’ Macabre, of course, but reflecting the sense of humour we seem to enjoy.
If that is a reminder of the modern-day sports, here is one to tell you that today’s weapons are not the primitive ones our forefathers used: ‘Those who live by the sword get shot by those who don't.’
Even scientific laws have been re-invented. Sir Isaac Newton would nod in agreement with his third law look-alike ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite criticism.’ We all know that ‘Light travels faster than sound.’ How do you like the appendage ‘This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak’?
Here is a gem ‘Change is inevitable, except from an ATM’, something all of have experienced at one time or another. The first part of the proverb perhaps explains why proverbs too don new garb in different times!
Located bang in the middle of the bustling market in Mattancherry, Hajee Essa Hajee Moosa Memorial High School, named after the benevolent founder, was far from being one of the top-of-the-shelf schools. One does not know the exact contributory factors, but even during my student days it was a poor cousin of the neighbouring schools - The Gujarati Vidyalaya and the Tirumala Devaswom High School, run by rich committees. Not so the HEHMMHS (To most, the expanded version was more than a mouthful) which was run by a trust to which not many contributed.
The upkeep of the imposing two-storeyed building was neither prompt nor frequent. The heirs of the founder either had different priorities or had fallen into bad times. It was perennially starved of resources. The students were left to fend for themselves during the periods earmarked for drawing, craft, sports and games, drill etc, because there was no men or material for these classes.
Teachers had to go great lengths in their efforts to teach the students without the help of teaching aids. Predictably, the school did not have a laboratory. Mr Subramanian who taught us Chemistry would hold up a piece of chalk and say, ‘Suppose this is a test tube’, point to the chalk powder and say, ‘Suppose this is potassium chlorate.’ Holding it above his mailed fist which would double as a spirit lamp, he would go on, ‘Heat the test tube and oxygen will escape.’
But the teachers there were a dedicated lot. Like Mrs Thressiamma whose love for Physics made her announce extra classes on Sundays, undeterred by the fact that the attendance even on regular days was poor. Though one could pass SSLC those days even without securing pass marks in Hindi, our teacher Mr Namboodiri would pour his lungs out. Pranksters, bored with classes and looking for diversion would request him to explain the meaning of Hindi film lyrics like ‘Dil-e-naadaan, tujhe hua kya hai…’ or ‘Zindagi pyaar ki do-chaar ghadi hoti hai…’ and he would oblige, ever so patiently.
The khadi-clad Mr Venceslaus who was a municipal councillor too and taught us English, the Mathematics teacher Mr Govindankutty who also ran the school’s bookstore, the stern Mr Joseph whose cane taught us more than his History classes, Mr Sadanandan, a rationalist and a brilliant speaker, who taught us Malayalam but he could handle any subject for any class, the ageless Arabic Munshi Mr Syed with his neatly trimmed grey beard (He looked upwards of 60, but claimed to be in his late forties), the reticent Headmaster Mr Mohamed Ali – it was a great team.
Though handicapped due to lack of funds, the school did very well in extra-curricular activities like the youth festivals, inter-school sports, etc. In fact, it posed an effective threat to all the ‘good’ schools in the district in the competitive events.
The physical demise of the school, I am told, was caused by lack of maintenance, but on a higher plane, it was because it failed to attract ‘business’ – students and parents shunned the school because it did not ‘produce results’: in the 70’s it had the dubious distinction of drawing a blank at the SSLC examination.
The alumni of well-known public schools might, in later life, become renowned in different walks of life and prove resounding successes in their calling. If anyone who has I have been moderately successful in life discloses the fact that I passed out of HEHMMHS to someone, you can be one to ten that he would be asked, in disbelief, ‘How did you reach this position, then? Don’t tell me you studied there!’
The spiffy commercial complex rising from the debris at the junction of New Road and Palace Road is verily a sign of the times – commerce taking precedence over education. Yet, to the likes of me, it would revive the nostalgia-tinted memories of our balmy days in HEHMMHS, despite its failings.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
The first time she corrected me, I must have blushed, if that were possible for a brown-skinned Indian. That was over thirty years back. I do not blush any more, because my children, schooled in English-medium institutions, too pick holes in the way I say ‘laugh’ or ‘easy’ or ‘is’. Instead of making me blush, it sets me thinking.
Blushed I must have because in my younger days I used to have the severe inferiority complex a small-town guy is apt to suffer from. My colleagues were all refined metro-citizens (This was much before the expression 'metrosexual' was coined by Mark Simpson) who knew how to eat, how to speak, how to dress. I must confess that their inputs as well as those of my wife have contributed to what I am today. How far they have succeeded, I do not know. And I shall never know, because not everybody is as well-meaning as my wife.
It is not at all difficult for me to visualise a situation where people I rub shoulders with may people comment: “Did you see how he was using his fingers to eat? How messy, na?” Or, worse still: “Didn’t he look as if he is just out of the zoo?” Or maybe this: “I was trying so hard to control my laughter every time he said ‘economist’. Weird!” They might not mention a thing to me about my flawed accent, but laugh they would within their sleeves and suppress a chuckle or exchange knowing smiles.
Ok, so I was saying how my wife’s comment set me thinking. The point is, we are all Indians, and irrespective of the state we belong to, we have certain things in common. We all use our hands to eat. And, traditionally, we are also used to eating sitting on the floor. We usually speak our mother tongue at home, which is not English. We all have our traditional outfits – the kurta-dhoti and the saree being common to most cultures.
The two-century old British rule, however, created a class of people that was socially British but culturally Indian. Their table manners, for example, were that of the Sahibs (the British); but the attire of their womenfolk was thoroughly Indian: could you imagine a respectable Indian woman wearing a frock? These people were called the Brown Sahibs. Example? The ICS-wallahs from India, who go for morning walks wearing white shorts and canvas shoes, a swagger-stick in hand, called the ‘Haw-haw-Sahebs’ by a cynical friend because their loud resounding laugh goes ‘Haw! Haw!!’
After the British left our shores, they became the rulers; and soon after a class was formed that aspired to be the Brown Sahib. That’s the class most of us belong to — the Dark Brown Sahib.
While the Brown Sahib was the prisoner of circumstance, the Dark Brown Sahib is the prisoner of attitude. While the Brown Sahib was loyal to the British, the Dark Brown Sahib has gone a step forward: he worships the white skin of any nationality. So when a Frenchman speaks English with a French accent, they find it cute. But when a Malayali or a Bihari speaks English with an accent, he is considered a bumpkin and becomes the butt of jokes.
If a British expat wears a Fab India kurta and a dhoti to work, you are likely to find him cool, but an Indian won’t wear a dhoti even when he is out shopping. When a German diplomat refers to the Father of the Nation as ‘Gaa-n-di’, you consider it a given. When a French girl misprounces the name of Amitabh Bachchan, we are willing to make allowances, we even find it cute; but if an Indian woman says ‘Albert Kam-us’ instead of ‘Albe’r Kamyoo’ or ‘Ver-sace’ instead of ‘Ver-satchi’, she forfeits her right to be admitted to high society!
And can you imagine an Italian girl admonishing her boyfriend for not having heard of the samosa and imli-ka-chutney or avalose-unda and kuzhalappam or dhokla or luchi-maangsho? But you can imagine the plight of an Indian man who loudly wonders what spaghetti is when he is taken to an Italian restaurant (in India) by his collaborator. Should the winds of globalisation blow only from the West?
At times I really think of joining English-speaking classes, apart from going to the Alliance Francais du Trivandrum to learn a bit of French or signing up for German classes. And maybe enroll in an etiquette class too. But… wait a minute: won’t I be killing many birds with one stone by going to a skin-grafting clinic instead, a la Michael Jackson?
Sunday, May 27, 2007
The boss and his wife came in at the appointed time. We exchanged pleasantries. Hari, who was playing in the children's park, came in a little later and was going in for a wash when I suggested, 'Hari, won't you greet uncle Agarwal and auntie?'
Hari did so, in a sing-song way that was his style those days. Mrs Agrawal, as is customary, exclaimed, 'How chweet!' and asked him about his school, teacher, friends etc. One thing led to another and she asked him to sing a song. He declined. Instead, he said he would play 'Knock, knock' with her.
She did not know the rules of the game. Hari explained the rules.
"I'll say Knock, knock," Hari said.
"Who's there? you are supposed to ask.
"If I reply Amos, you will ask, Amos, who?
And I will reply A mosquito, come to bite you."
"That would be the punchline," I added knowledgeably.
The game started.
'Knock, knock,' Hari said.
'Who's there?' she was a sport if there was one.
'Andy,' replied Hari
'Andy, who?' she enquired.
'Andy bit me again!'
Hari had got Mrs Agarwal’s attention.
'Knock, knock,' Hari said.
'Who's there?' she asked spiritedly.
'Loose elastic drops your socks down.'
One more, it was Mrs Agarwal’s voice.
'Knock, knock,' Hari said agaim.
'Who's there?' she knew the way it goes.
'Agar,' replied Hari
'Agar, who?' she enquired.
'Agarwall na hota to ceiling gir jata.'
I will be failing in my duty if I do not record that the benevolent Mr agarwal did not hold the incident against me when the next round of promotions was due.
Friday, March 16, 2007
- `Our Deportment', 1881.
The cards of unmarried and married men should be small [about 1.25" by 3"]. For married persons a medium size is in better taste than a large card. The engraving in simple writing is preferred, and without flourishes. Printed letters, large or small, are very commonplace, no matter what the type may be. The `Mr' before the name should be dispensed with by young men.
- `Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture', 1882
They come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them are variations of 9 cm x 3.5 cm or thereabouts. Some are twice or even thrice as large, but they too fold neatly into these dimensions.
At business meetings and formal parties, after breaking the ice if not to break the ice, executives swap their visiting cards. Would you believe that the 32 sq cm visiting card nestling in your wallet is capable of making a fashion statement, of spreading a corporate image?
Look at the variety: some are bilingual, some have mug-shots printed on them, some are in the form of CDs, some are made on palmyra leaf, some have both sides printed, and some have just the name of the owner.
People carry cards that suit their deportment. Take, for instance, Sudipto Bose, a Calcutta businessman who runs two small-scale units, a financial services company and a communications centre, and is the secretary of the Automobile Association of India. When you hand over your visiting card to him, Bose fishes into his wallet and gives you the card that he thinks describes him best and in a mutually useful manner.
At the other end of the spectrum is the former chief of an airline company. This man, with infinite self-importance, wants people to take the arduous path of seeking him out. That brings us to the office etiquette - it is the person in the subordinate position (read `seeker of favour') who offers his card. The `superior' never offers his card - "You may collect it from my secretary" - that is, if he has not taken umbrage at your request!
Irrespective of their position in the company, employees of most of the modern corporates such as Pepsi, AT&T, Boeing and Novartis have visiting cards that are identical in style, font and colour - only the employee-specific details vary. (A far cry from that of many public sector banks where the cards of no two colleagues match!) In fact, it is a requirement in most modern corporates that the stated technical specifications are met. For instance, the visiting card flaunted by George Jacob, owner of Purackal Motors, the Kottayam Dealer of Hero Honda, is identical to that of Brij Mohan Munjal, chairman of the company that makes those `magnificent machines'.
The visiting cards of the executives of a well-known software company has rather unconventional designations printed below the names - like `chief evangelist' who is in charge of scouting for new business. Well, in a way, he is trying to preach and convert people!
In these days of economic downturn, cash-strapped corporates find it impossible to offer monetary or other tangible compensations. They have found a way out - a process the U.K. corporates call `uptitling' - giving their employees fancy designations that they can show off on their visiting cards. A receptionist is re-branded as the `head, verbal telecommunications', and the window-cleaner is given the impressive designation of `optical illumination enhancer'. The new `stock replenishment executive' in the supermarket is your shelf-stacker and the `technical sanitation assistant' is the one who cleans the toilets.
In a classic case of `down-titling', if one could coin such a word, the calling card of Thomas Bata, the Czechoslovakian patriarch of the eponymous footwear titan, describes him in a matter-of-fact manner as `chief shoe salesman'. Could one say more?
The calling card of film star Ajit is reputed to have just for letters on them - A J I T. Some other celebrities who believe that the name says it all too have followed suit.
Swinging to the other extreme, the visiting cards of most of those working for the public sector are cluttered with information - and they are bilingual to boot - official language rules, you see! An innovative public sector bank executive based in Delhi has found an easy way out - her cards have Hindi on one side and English on the other. When she has to interact with the politicos who are rabidly fanatical about the Raashtra bhaasha, she proffers the card with the Hindi side up! At other times, it is the English version that is exposed.
It is not just paper that cards are printed on. Thick cards are making way for the thin, if environment-unfriendly, plastic cards that sit lightly on your wallet. An exporter of handicrafts has his cards printed on dried leaves of the banyan tree - very delicate and fragile. He has a sturdier variety in laminated donne-ka-patta - the dried leaves they serve food in.
It is small surprise that in this age of technology, visiting cards have taken on the role of presentation tools. The card of G. D. Agarwal of Koch-Rajes CD Industries of Mumbai, is a compact disc giving all information on his company in the form of a power point presentation. The flamboyant liquor baron, Vijay Mallya, too has a CD for his visiting card.
Coming to odd shapes, the owner of a hotel boasting of ethnic Kerala food, has had his card custom-made; it has yellow letters on a leaf-green card shaped like a plantain-leaf! The representatives of the `Round Table', a Hyderabad-based event management team, carry cards that are - you guessed it right - circular!
What do you do when someone gives you his card? Wallow in the comfortable feeling that it contains all that you wanted to know about him, put it in your pocket and give one of yours? Wait a moment. The Japanese consider it an insult if one were to do that. Courtesy demands that you receive the meishi with both hands, `treat it with respect', that is, study the contents carefully, and then put it into a special wallet, the only purpose of which is the storage of visiting cards. When handing over your own, it should be done with both hands in a way that he or she will be able to read the card without turning it around.
So, the next time you place orders for your visiting card or accept the card from a person you are introduced to, remember that it is not as simple as it appears...
The range of answers they came up with was amazing; from the country's first citizen to business tycoons such as Anil Ambani, the survey covered practically every activity of human endeavour - politics, literature, arts, you name it. Entertainment industry claimed a fair share, so did sports.
The clear winner was Sachin Tendulkar. The self-appointed leader of the survey was prepared to bet 10 to one: the majority in any group of city youth, when asked this question, will come up with the name of the `little master'.
Fast forward to September 2003. The same bunch of collegians decides to repeat the exercise, with a shift in focus. What do they think of the letter Tendulkar wrote to Pramod Mahajan and Jaswant Singh? Is it as clean as the straight drives he is famous for?
First, the facts. Formula One speedster Michael Schumacher presents a Ferrari car to Tendulkar. The cricketer writes to the Ministers seeking waiver of the import duty, varyingly estimated from Rs. 1.5 to Rs. 2.5 crores. Mahajan writes back to him saying that on the eve of his 100th test, as a `small gesture', the Government was waiving the duty. All that this waiver gets is a little print-space in the dailies.
But a veteran cartoonist lampoons the largesse. This sparks off a petition before the Delhi High Court, and the order is repealed. In a quick series of events, Fiat, the makers of Ferrari, decides to bear the duty. The story does not end there, but we have to get back to our young friends who conducted the survey. "By allowing the tax waiver, the nation is gratefully acknowledging the glory that the player brought," says Zareena, an ardent fan of Tendulkar. "After all, he is not the first to benefit from such generosity. Remember the `Champion of Champions' Audi that Ravi Shastri was awarded in 1985?"
"But you're forgetting that the Audi was a cricketing award and the Ferrari a gift from a business partner," reacts Ranjit, alluding to the fact that both the celebrities are brand ambassadors of the automobile giant. A pertinent question: "Was it really a gift from Schumi or was it merely presented by him on behalf of Fiat?"
Think hard, and you'll discover the pattern: this is perhaps another form of the fee paid to the batsman for endorsing the Palio. By having it presented by the world racer who endorses the dream car, Ferrari (also from the Fiat stable), a strong message is being signalled: Fiat India is part of the large group.
"A plausible argument," agrees automobile buff Murugan. Competition from new generation cars has nearly got the better of the Indian car manufacturer, badly in need of an image makeover. And this association would indeed help.
"An important issue we have to consider is whether Sachin needs the waiver," says another teenager. He is arguably the richest sportsperson in India today with a personal net estimated at Rs. 20 crores. He makes millions of dollars endorsing everything from soft drinks to credit cards. Compared with the humungous sum he earns through a landmark endorsement contract with WorldTel, what he rakes in from his classy eponymous restaurant in Mumbai is just pocket money!
"This is the limit," shrugs a disgusted Venky Aruna. "Is there no end to what a rich and famous cricketer could ask for and get from a poor country?" she asks, and with good reason. Look at how it treats other disciplines that desperately need support.
Aruna recalls a press report that said a consignment of toys sent to a Kolkata orphanage by an American donor was returned because the duty was not waived.
One who can have a Ferrari in his garage can well pay the import duty, which in turn would go to improve the roads he drives it on. The Government, keen on dishing out such largesse to Tendulkar, turns a blind eye towards other sports such as hockey, weightlifting or shooting; `Khel Ratna' awardees have to share the pittance due. The Government is tight-fisted when it comes to bringing succour to doyens in art, music or literature and does not grant duty exemption even on lifesaving drugs.
The wish in the hearts of the millions of cricket buffs on his 100th test bears testimony to Tendulkar's popularity. The prayers on the lips of his innumerable fans on hearing that he had torn a ligament on his finger were fervent. Many, however, feel that this practitioner of the gentleman's game has not exactly been gentlemanly in seeking exemption from the duty. "By writing that letter, the hero of the nation's youth has fallen," feels Anita.
There are people who still have a soft corner for Tendulkar. Why single him out for asking a favour, they ask. Have not special concessions such as income tax waiver and out-of-turn allotment of houses, land and other scarce economic goods been part of the patronage to heroes? If it was not merited, it should have been rejected. Be angry with the Government, not at Sachin, they say.
"We send out a flood of get-well messages when he is hurt and shout hoorays when he equals Donald Bradman because we adore Sachin. When such a darling seeks an undue favour, he falls in our esteem. Let's face it, being the object of a billion people's adoration is a tough job," a fan of Sachin says.
Tailpiece: When Zia ul-Haq was President, a member of the Pakistani cricket team who had won a car abroad, requested him to waive the duty. Zia's answer was: 'I won't waive the duty for you, but I'll pay it on your behalf.' -- A story whose authenticity is doubtful.
B is for bonji (the authentic pronunciation is bwaanchi), the mildly salted and sweetened lemon drink -- the official beverage of the native. Also, for the beef that is sold as mutton.
C is for the cleanliness drives, which start from (and in most cases end in) Kaudiar. Also for the cutting that is done to the newly-repaired roads for laying, repairing, replacing of cables, pipes or whatever.
D is for the doctors who refuse to make house calls though the patient is critical and has been under his care for ages. It also stands for the drains that clog at the slightest hint of the cirrus cloud appearing on the azure blue sky.
E is for the extra care we take. Children in other cities do not have to be picked up and dropped by parents working in Mantralaya and Writers' Building, but we'll hear none of these. It is also for the electricity cut, which, a friend says, brings the family together.
F is for the footwear you are apt to lose if you leave them in a place where people throng - temples, weddings and funerals. F also stands for the front-office staff who bury their heads in the files or ledgers, ostrich-like, when a customer's shadow darkens the doorway.
G is for the garbage, which is meant to be thrown over the boundary wall (when nobody is looking) into the neighbour's compound or out into the public road depending on the cross-border cordiality. It also stands for the gardens, which refuse to be beautified despite humungous sums of money being spent by the Corporation.
H is for the high decibel generated in the Legislative Complex, which should, paradoxically, be a scene of quiet efficiency. It is also for the high-handedness that comes naturally to our public servants.
I is for indoors where, judging by the deserted roads, the entire city seems to spend its Sundays and holidays. It is also for introversion; witness the grim faces at the bus stops and film festivals.
J is for jams - not of the breakfast variety. Traffic jams, to be more precise, and the jaathaas that create them, never mind that the people marching along carrying placards and flags and would have just 14 rows if they were to march in Indian file.
K is for the kerchief you drop through the window of the bus to reserve the seat you intend to occupy. It is also for kameez, which our girls (and women - and boys and men) stupidly refer to as churidar with supremely hilarious results - imagine a sleeveless churidar!
L is for the lame excuses offered for coming late to the office - the road is under repair, the bus broke down, my sister's father-in-law twisted his ankle. L also stands for the lakhs of people who are hired by political parties to shout slogans for them.
M is for the milk we ask for and the gooey mass of curdled bio-product we get, though the vendors might claim that they have six sigma ratings. It is also for the marketing technique we have to learn from our counterparts elsewhere, so that we do not ask a prospective buyer to specify the brand, size, colour, textile, pattern number and price of the ready-made shirt he has in mind.
N is for newspaper vendors who refuse to deliver the English newspapers on days when there is no issue of the Malayalam dailies.
O is for the occupied seat in the bus, which, you, being a regular, know, will be vacated by the present occupant at the third stop from here. Also for the optimism that he has not changed his plans and decided to call on his mother-in-law!
P is for the plural, which we just cannot flush out of our system - (Witness the Housing Board Buildings, yes, Buildings), a baggage we carry from the vernacular. It also stands for the plastic bags of all hues and colours, which, though banned, are used as festoons and buntings by political parties of all hues and colours.
Q is for the queues, which we are loath to form and which we deftly jump when the moment of reckoning comes. Q is also for the quality we swear by, but would be pardoned for swearing at.
R is for the recognition that you rarely find on the face of the parent of your five-year old's classmate though every day both of you spend 15 minutes together at the bus stop waiting for the school bus. R is also for the reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic skills our children are supposed to acquire, but do not, going by the poor share we get in competitive examinations.
S is for the speed breakers that sprout overnight in the cantonment at Pangode with predictable regularity. Also, for the scholars who delve into matters beyond the mundane - such as post-colonialism and feudalist construct.
T is for the two-wheelers, which apparently have been fitted with a mechanism that prevents overtaking from the right. Also, for the topping that is done to the road surfaces just before the monsoons (to gauge its intensity) or the elections.
U is for the Uroos festival, which gives an afternoon off to the office-goers in the same way as ... (Please go back to A.) It is also for the umbrella you forget in buses.
V is for the VSSC vehicles (not to forget the sarkaari vehicles, the ministers' sedans and police jeeps, which every user of the road owes his life to.) And for the variety of vegetable we sadly lack in, compared with other cities.
W is for the weddings, which have become a benchmark in ostentation and extravagance. It also stands for the weekends, which, if prefixed/suffixed by holidays, are suffixed/prefixed by leave (most of the French variety) so that you can make a quick dash to your mother.
X is for the X-ray clinics, owned by wives of doctors, to which you are referred when you have indigestion because you over-indulged yourself with paayasam made at home for your granddaughter's birthday.
Y is for you and your sense of balance - you have not lost your cool; lesser mortals would have succumbed to just a few of these factors.
Z is for the character the cartoonists employ to indicate that the subject of his lampoon is being transported to slumberland - which, many are under the mistaken notion, is another name for a Government office.
(Epilogue: No offence meant, this is just frolic and banter. As they say in the North during Holi, `Buraa Mat Maano, Holi hai!')
Like, a word for a song, a thought, a word or a phrase. Is there a word for that? No. How about `Cerebroredundogram'? Recall the words cerebral, redundancy and gram and the meaning can be inferred. What do you call the incessant and actual chanting of a `cerebroredundogram'? The word you are looking for is `humnausea' from hum and ad nauseam. Taking off in a different direction, the annoyance you feel when you're certain you set your alarm clock but it didn't go off is `indichronation' from indignation and chronometer. The word also applies to watch alarms and digital reminders on the computer.
If you want a list of such words, all you have to do is to refer to the `nonsensicon', an on-line dictionary/encyclopaedia (a `dictopedia'?) of words that don't exist (or the existence of which is in doubt). There are some words that have acceptability within certain limited geographical boundaries. Some are words that have been resurrected. Almost all other words are fabricated. Let us look at a few such examples.
The word `bloviate' is used for describing the way people talk verbosely and windily, like politicians. Believe it or not, the word was used in the 1600's. Take the verb `banjax'. To be `banjaxed' is to be unexpectedly prevented from achieving an objective. It is a word familiar, if not well-known, in Ireland, meaning `irretrievably broken', as in the usage - `this computer is banjaxed'. Some are brilliant examples of portmanteau words. Like `yurp', which is to let a burp slip out in the middle of a big yawn. Or `wobter', an airborne craft that causes severe motion sickness, from `wobble' and `copter'.
The fury that you experience when you open your e-mail box, only to find it full of useless forwarded e-mail, is called `spamger' from spam and anger. The telephone rings, as it inevitably does, when you are occupied in the bathroom. Your wife says, "Joe's on the line" and you reply, "Tell him I can't talk to him it right now. I'm `occupated'." The word comes from occupied and constipated.
Some are absolutely useless words, in the sense you may never get a chance to use them. The action of blowing over a pencil after having removed it from the sharpener is called `penciventilation'. And a `septopus' is an octopus with a birth defect.
There are fabricated words such as `xoox', the name for the centre box in a game of tic-tac-toe.
`Unobtainium' is the perfect material for the job, but does not exist, or cannot be had. You are writing an examination and you are just in the middle of a sentence. The professor says, "Time's up!" The sentence you were on and have to leave unfinished is called the `sente'.
One could trace the etymology of most of the words. There are some that defy any such rationale. `Thudgle' is one such. It is any quantity of a food which somehow gets on your body, as in the usage - "I have a thudgle of ketchup on my sleeve." Or `thwithy', which means sick to one's stomach, due to travel, as in -- "After riding on the rickety bus for three hours, I was bound to feel thwithy."
The condition when one giggles uncontrollably for no apparent reason especially during inconvenient times, is called `simples' as in, "about an hour into the meeting, she got the simples so bad she had to leave the room."
The need for these words is certainly felt, as demonstrated by the fact that some of these words have gained entry into the recent editions of some of the dictionaries.
IT IS front page news when there is a power outage in the Big Apple or in London. The suffering the commuters undergo when the power failure catches them by surprise is narrated in reams of paper. But we belong to a different stock and take a stoic view of things.
We see a silver lining in every cloud: the fact that one can predict when power will fail on a particular day, thanks to the existence of a schedule according to which power cuts are imposed in different localities, is a blessing, concede many. As a result, while at home, we do not have to scurry around in search of candles, for we keep our emergency lights ready, says a housewife. We can also plan our evenings accordingly, avoiding visits to localities when they are on the power off mode.
Some overcome the adversity by purchasing a genset or an inverter, an option not open to many. What do the vast majority who have no choice but to grin and bear it do?
Power cut does have a positive side too, as young Dr Pillai whose wife too is in the medical profession would vouchsafe. Their six-year old Rina had attention deficit hyperactive disorder. The reason: the parents, busy in their own professions, had not been spending quality time with their only child. Power cuts have done the trick: thanks to the power cut, the doctor couple are compelled to take a forced break from the consultation rooms. They spend a few light moments with Rina who is now back to her old self.
To the ilk that believes that power cuts can make you philosophical belongs small-time poet Vijayan. You utilise the time to ponder over existentialist problems, consider the riddles of nature and generally mull over issues that defy solution.
Joseph, a senior executive working in the administrative office of an insurance company used to late hours in the office takes a well-deserved break during the dark hours. He walks down the stairs and ambles along the sidewalk. `It gives me an opportunity to take stock of the situation, review the day's work and plan the next day's forays. 'People use the time for activities which do not need electrical energy. Uma uses the half hour fruitfully to practise on the veena. Power cuts have interfered, though only slightly, with the routine of John. A middle-aged executive, he usually spends most of the evening with his library books. Nowadays he has his `power nap for exactly 29 minutes', he says.
Power cuts have brought the family together, says Aliyar. As soon as he returned from office, he would turn a couch potato, with his wife joining him soon, after making the preparations for cooking the dinner. The children would be in their room with the homework. The only time the family was together was at the dining table. Power cuts have changed all that. The TV is off, the children cannot read and now a pattern has emerged: the kids would huddle around the father who would talk to them about everything under the sun.
Essential lighting is provided by the inverter in the district sales office of the large corporate citizen, but the boss-man chooses not to work in such light, says Sheela, his secretary. He has instructed her to schedule all his telephone calls to his dealers and sales force for that half an hour.
A variation of this pattern is seen in the regional office of a private bank in the city. There is a genset, but its rating supports just the service lighting and a couple of ceiling fans. About five minutes before the area plunges into darkness, preparations begin to shut down the computers. As soon as the genset takes over the power supply, the key functionaries assemble in the conference hall adjoining the Regional Manager's room. For the next half an hour, they discuss development of business, intensifying the recovery process and enhancing profitability. `We are so used to power cuts that on the stray weekday when there is no power cut, we are pleasantly surprised,' says a city resident. `This is so, particularly when it happens on days which are not well-known festive days like Vishu, Bakrid, Onam, etc.' chimes his wife. She sees the puzzled look and elaborates, `Like last Saturday when there was no power cut because the next day was the Pulse Polio Sunday.' `And the week before the SSLC examinations,' adds their teenage daughter.
When electricity cuts are rare in several other states, why is it that it has come to stay in our state? What exactly is wrong with our power supply? A keen observer of the situation can see that the problem is not in generation but in the distribution. Does one foresee an end to the crisis? Not in the near future. Will corporatisation of the Electricity Board prove to be the magic wand? One tends to be pessimistic: `Hardly, for it is the same old people who will be doing the work in the same old way they are used to.'
So folks, brace up for continued darkness on the horizon....
The ultimate ambition of the average Punjabi is to migrate to `Ken-da' (Canada, for us) or settle in Southall, London. It is this dream that several wheeler-dealers cash upon. Even in small towns in Punjab such as Moga, Khanna and Doraha, you find holes-in-the-wall outfits offering courses in spoken English - an evidence of the dream being capitalised on. The USP of some teaching centres is that their English teachers belong to Kerala. `South Indian (sic) English taught here', proclaim the signs displayed in some others.
They believe that Keralites are good at English. And with good reason: sometime ago, Malayalis comprised the majority of typists and stenographers working in north India. Proficiency in the language was the key factor in the success of several senior executives who started out as `writers' and clerks. Not for nothing that the north Indians look up to Keralites for success in scaling the ladder of hierarchy.
This is why, at the beginning of every academic year, the Joginder Singhs and the Anita Bhallas of Punjab come in droves to convents and schools run by nuns and missionaries from Kerala. The Punjabi would give his right arm to get the young sardar admitted to any of these hallowed institutions. The parents believe that it would make the child speak the white man's language with enviable fluency and proper diction.
All this awe for the Keralite and his ability is totally misplaced, discovered the UP-born honcho of a prominent firm in Technopark during a group discussion that formed part of the process of recruitment of young engineers. When the topic was announced, most of the participants hemmed and hawed and none spoke up.
He observes, "Fresh graduates from the most prestigious engineering colleges find it difficult to make a cogent presentation even on technical topics they are familiar with."
They are technically sound, can explain it all in Malayalam to their colleagues, but are tongue-tied when it comes to English.
In another group discussion, the subject, `The rights of the tribals', had topical relevance, coming as it did close on the heels of the Muthanga episode. A participant, not stuck for words, broke the ice and began, "The gonemend should be serious about imblemending the promises and providing the fundamendal needs of the tribal people." If some cannot speak, some speak atrocious English.
The written expression is worse. "I give them a simple test. I ask them to spell the word `vacuum', which they would have studied in high school physics. Nine out of ten come up with `vaccum'," says the head of the Technopark firm. Ditto for `certainty' (spelt as `certainity') and `enmity' (`enemity' or, worse still, `enimity').
There is an eternal battle between `extend' and `extent', `send' and `sent', `remainder' and `reminder'. The list is endless, points out Colonel Pillai who had spotted a `loadge' that offers accommodation. Veteran journalist Pani says, "We are very creative when it comes to words such as `recordical', `feminity' and `palacious', which convey the intended sense but do not find a place in the dictionary."
At an interview with the Railways, a candidate was asked what she knew about pyramid. She responded confidently, "A huge triangular cube found in Egypt." Though she was a little short on exactitude, the scholars on the panel thought she had to be awarded full marks for creativity!
If the receptionist-cum-telephone operator at a hotel in the city finds that the guest you want to speak to is not in, she might want to know who called so that a message can be passed on to him. Her query, "May I know your good name, please", in a bid to be polite, would appear to be particularly north Indian. An extension of this is the extra polite request for one's "good number".
Talking of telephone calls, a well-known journalist wanted to speak to a Minister. The Minister's personal assistant identified the voice of the scribe and informed him, "The Minister is on the sofa with a foreigner." And he tentatively queried, "Should I disturb him?"
"Any lesser pressman would have come up with the scoop splashed on the next day's paper, but I had greater confidence in the Minister's moral fibre than in the proficiency of the assistant in English!" chuckles the journalist.
Even newspapers, which, the earlier generations of teachers would recommend to their students as a means of improving their command over the language, contain glaring errors. Referring to the controversy over the non-inclusion of a film in the competition section of the forthcoming International Film Festival of Kerala, a newspaper had said that the film, made on a shoestring, had failed when released theatrically. "Theatrically indeed!" scoffs Professor Vijayalakshmi. She refers to another hilarious statement she came across in her long career, "Shakespeare lived in Windsor with his merry wives, writing tragedies, comedies and errors."
English, as everyone knows, is a little illogical in spelling, pronunciation and usage. It is these nuances that make the language charming, says a logophile.
Karavadia, a Gujarati businessman, says a similar situation was faced by his State. Though Gujarat is advanced in several industries such as textiles, cement, petroleum, chemicals and fertilisers, the sunrise industry, Information Technology, has eluded it. Puzzled, the Government commissioned a study a few years ago. It traced the contradiction to the lack of working knowledge of, leave alone proficiency in, English, among job-seekers. This immediately set off an alarm and English was introduced as a subject from Class III. It is too early to assess the impact, but everyone is optimistic.
Recall the recent reports that West Bengal proposes to introduce English in Class I. `Capitalist' Gujarat and `socialist' West Bengal have learnt the lesson the hard way - that English can be ignored only at one's own peril. We, in Kerala, still believe that xenophobia is another word for patriotism.
Alumni had converged from all parts of the country, nay, the world. Thomaskutty, a thriving businessman in the town where the college was located, thought it fit to host a dinner for his classmates. It was a reunion of sorts of the class of '67. Some had not changed at all, but, for a receding hairline or a streak of grey or a balding pate. Given the changes that time had wrought on the faces and the figures of some of those present, failure to recognise them was pardonable. A few such had to be introduced to the group.
The distance of three decades and half that separated them and their college days soon melted away. Tentative smiles transformed into firm handshakes and soon into embraces. Pleasantries over, like-minded people gravitated towards each other. There was this Indo-Anglican author of moderate success in with his fan following. A miniature of the Chamber of Commerce meeting was progressing in another corner, presided over by the seafood exporter. Prakash Menon, a surgeon in Middlesex, formed the nucleus of a small group.
Menon was holding forth on life in the United Kingdom. After a while, the topic veered round to the linguistic nuances. "Englishmen are proud of their language, but, they are not that obsessed with the grammar," he said. "On the contrary, it is the Indians, who have a fetish about English. They say India is the only place where the average man can write reasonably correct English," he added. "Native speakers of English are not as bothered about the correctness of the words, expressions or grammar as we are," he said. But, they are sticklers in matters of social grace and good manners. "True," agreed Akbar, an executive with a Calcutta (it had not become Kolkata) company. In amplification, he pulled out an episode of the `A Hundred Years Ago' column in `The Statesman.' Somebody who answered to the name `Chunder Coomari Dassgoopta' (the way they spelt names those days might look a little odd today), had asked the editor why he had to conclude letters with `I remain your most obedient servant, etc.' when, he averred, `I am neither your servant nor obedient.'
The honoured member of the great pantheon of those who wielded the blue pencil for `The Statesman,' an Englishman, stiff upper lip and all, had a terse and cryptic reply.
`My Dear Miss Dassgoopta, For the same reason as I address you like this though you are neither mine nor dear to me.'
The entire group broke into a collective and whole-hearted guffaw.
It was getting late, time to call it a day.
Newspaper sales soared and over the years, many of his pot shots and jabs at the establishment appeared in local newspapers. These were later collected into the `Devil's Dictionary', one of the 19th century's greatest satirical works. It belongs to a tradition much closer to the realm of the literary, journalistic and satirical than to the lexicographic and academic. `Bitter Bierce' was quite famous back then, but today only academicians know about him. His name figures often in the list of `Quotable Quotes'. Some of his definitions are popular even to this day, but most of them are attributed to the ubiquitous `anon'. The sad fact is that arguably the biggest misanthrope and the greatest realist of all times is not in the spotlight where he belongs. Bierce is certainly one of the most under-appreciated authors and journalists of all time.
This acerbic satirist believed that the dictionary was a `device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic'. He defined wit as `the salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.' In Genesis, `Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field', but Bierce's `Devil' redefined them. To him, the mule was an after thought of God, `an animal that Adam did not name'. The origin of the word `adder', he, in his mock-scholarly style, says, is `from its habit of adding funeral outlays to the other expenses of living'. An abstainer, according to him, is `a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure'. A total abstainer is `one who abstains from everything but abstention'.
While absurdity is `a statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion', the brain is `an apparatus with which we think that we think'. An acquaintance is `a person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to'.
It is a truism we all know (and practise), but it takes Bierce to define the degree of friendship -- slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous. Admiration is `our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves'. He lived in different times and in a different country, but his definition of legislator as `a person who goes to the capital of his country to increase his own', is perhaps as valid now as then. Though Dr Samuel Johnson gave the `punster' the short shrift, dismissing him as a `low wit, who endeavours at reputation by double meaning', Bierce revelled in it. According to the second part of his definition, tongue in cheek, he says the elected representative is `one who makes laws and money.'
There is, of course, an insinuation behind the uncharitable definitions, but then that is the modus operandi of the `devil'. Bureaucracy, religion and women -- three of Bierce's favourite targets, were predictably mauled by his vitriolic pen. This is evident even while defining `male' as a `member of the unconsidered or negligible sex', or `mammon' as `the God of the world's leading religion', or `mouse' as `an animal which strews its path with fainting women'. His explanatory statements were often even more hilarious, such as the `male' of the human race is commonly known (to the female) as `mere man'. Describing the politician as `an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared', he adds, `when he wriggles, he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive'.
Displaying his wry sense of humour, he describes `alliance' as `the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third'. An `ambidextrous' person is `able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left', Bierce defines. Some of the definitions are terse, but delightful all the same, like `alone' (adj)- in bad company; or actually (adv)- perhaps, possibly; or really (adv)- apparently; once (adv)- enough. Readers of `Finnegans Wake' would enjoy finding `shebrew' as a `female Hebrew'.
He never spared a chance to poke fun at himself, as he did when he described a lexicographer as `a pestilent fellow who, under the pretence of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.' Going by his definitions, Bierce could be called a `cynic' whom he defined thus -- a blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.
The `Devil's Dictionary' was begun in a weekly paper in 1881, and was continued in a desultory way for long. It was not until 1906 that a large part of it was published under the title of ` The Cynic's Word Book'. The power to reject or happiness to approve the name was not to the lot of Bierce. This more reverent title had previously been forced by the religious scruples of the last newspaper (which did not want to use the word devil) in which a part of the work had appeared. The copyright on the book has expired and one of the recent editions cautions the reader thus: `Since the material here represents the view of one individual and was written in the early years of this century, there will no doubt be material here that you will find sexist, nationalist, racist, or just generally offensive. Proceed at your own risk.' Don't say you were not warned.
Telemarketers are very aggressive; it is difficult to shake them off. They are on the prowl all the time and seem to know when the prospective victim is at his most vulnerable. For, that is the time they choose to strike. It is thus that the unsuspecting victim engages the caller in a dialogue and ... well, one thing leads to another. Often, before you can say `telemarketing', you have agreed to part with a `green Gandhi' (this, we are told, is how the underworld refers to the Rs. 500 currency note) in exchange for an electric feeding bottle warmer.
As you open the parcel, your wife informs you that the principal of the upmarket school has consented to admit your only son to Class I in the next academic year. This is when you wake up to realising that in your most optimistic estimate, the first opportunity to put your newly acquired gadget to use would not arrive a day sooner than 2023!
A few people this writer knows have, over the years, developed their own devices to tackle the unsolicited and abhorred call. On realising that it is a telemarketer at the other end, you have other options than screaming `Oh! My God' and hanging up. The techniques referred to have been employed with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, a caveat: none of them is a sure-fire remedy, because telemarketers are, as a class, a tenacious lot!
When Jose discovers that a telemarketer is at the other end of the line, he tells the caller he is busy at the moment and asks if the telemarketer would give him his home phone number. "I'll call you back late in the evening," Jose promises helpfully. When the caller explains that telemarketers cannot do this, he asks, "I guess you don't want anyone bothering you at home, right?" The telemarketer will agree and then Jose would say, "Me too!" and proceed to restore the receiver to its rightful place.
It is difficult to believe that the mild-mannered Bharathan used the trick he claims to have used. But, for record's sake, here it is. After the telemarketer had exhausted her spiel, he asked her if she would marry him. When the caller got all flustered, he told her that that the strict instructions of the credit card company were that you should not give your credit card number to a complete stranger. One way to get over the difficulty is for her to cease to be a stranger by marrying him!
Opinions might be sharply divided on the extent of sadism involved in the method adopted by R. S. Pillai. Depending on the time of the call, Pillai would say it is breakfast/brunch/lunch/high tea/dinner time, but would the caller hold. Pillai would then put the caller on his speakerphone, while he would continue to eat at his leisure. "Smack your food loudly, chew the drumstick, chomp on the meat, suck the marrow off the bones, and continue with your dinner conversation," he suggests. For added effect, clanging of cutlery and dishes is recommended. Though it is not polite to belch in public, Pillai says you could be pardoned if a telemarketer is within earshot, though in absentia.
Mohamed Yasin uses another sadistic tactic. He just says `No' over and over again. Be sure to vary the sound of each negation, and keep a rhythmic tempo, even as the other party is trying to speak. "This is great fun," assures Mohamed, "if you can do it until the caller hangs up." If it is a telemarketer of credit cards, it would be a brilliant idea to enquire whether a card would be issued to a person whose prayer for bankruptcy was being heard by the court next week, says a satisfied experimenter. This method is as effective as a cane for a child throwing tantrums.
If the caller says she is Jyoti P. Nair from XYZ Company, Kurien suggests, ask her to spell her name. Jyoti or Jyothi? Does she spell her surname as Nair or Nayar? Then ask her to spell the name of the company and describe its logo. Then ask her where it is located, how long it has been in business, how many people work there, how they got into this line of work. Continue asking them questions about their company for as long as necessary (Read, till Jyoti or Jyothi Nair or Nayar runs off to Siberia.) Ask them to repeat everything they say, several times, suggests Suresh. Tell them you are hard of hearing and that they need to speak up... louder... Louder!... LOUDER! L... O...U...D... E...R! You could also tell them to talk very slowly, because you want to write every word down. His brother Ramesh asks the unsolicited caller to fax the information, and gives the number of his former employer who gave him the unceremonious sack.
Like Alexander Fleming's invention of penicillin, it was serendipity that Saraswati Amma has to thank for developing her ruse. She got a call one morning and was greeted, "Is that you Amma? How are you today?" The voice sounded very much like her newly-married grandchild, now in Shimoga with her husband. The granny responded, "Ammu, it is your ammoomma. How dare you call me by name? But I'm so glad you called. No one these days seems to care, and I have all these problems. My arthritis is acting up, my eyelashes are sore, my cow Nandini just died.... " When the telemarketer could put in a word edgewise, she identified herself, but by then, a strategy was born!
A variant of this is to cry out in surprise, "Mohan? Is that you? Oh my God! Mohan, how have you been?" This may give Mohan a few brief moments of terror as he tries to figure out how you know him. Another avatar of this gambit is to insist that the caller is really your long-lost pal Arundhati from Kolkata, playing a joke. "Come on, Aru, cut it out! Seriously, Aru, how is aunty? And how's Doel doing in XLRI? And uncle?"
An eerie response to the caller from a company that cleans carpets would be "Can you remove bloodstains? Can you get out rabbit blood? How about human blood?" The efficacy is guaranteed, unless the caller watches X-files on the TV and reads Roald Dahl alone at midnight.
Lakshmanan has a bait that at least one telemarketer bit. He said he too worked for the same company in its Saharanpur office and was on leave for his sister's wedding. Lakshmanan can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, but the telemarketer obviously did not want to carry coal to Newcastle.
So, the next time the telephone bell rings, and it rings for thee, what will be your ploy?
Thursday, March 15, 2007
At lunch break, Suresh asked Paulose about going for the Sivaji Ganesan starrer. "I'm not coming," Paulose reacted sharply. They had been colleagues for over a decade and had become close friends. Paulose was a great fan of Sivaji Ganesan and would often wax eloquent on the thespian's histrionics. But the way Paulose was behaving indicated that there was something wrong somewhere. Suresh decided to probe. It was clear that the very mention of the name of the movie irritated him.
Suresh discovered that Paulose hated the movie because of its unpleasant association with his SSLC examination. The generally reticent and modest Paulose opened up.
His father belonged to a poor family and the financial problems facing the family had compelled him to discontinue his college studies and take up a job. His father was a strict disciplinarian, ever so demanding. He had high hopes of his son, and expected nothing less than the best from him. He had nurtured dreams of a prosperous life with the son occupying a high position in the government.
The world of Paulose consisted of school and home on weekdays and church on Sundays. The Martinet of his father allowed him no games or entertainment. "Study hard now. You have all the time in the world for entertainment and fun," he would say. Nobody at home dared challenge his fiat. The punishment for mischief was a good spanking followed by crouching under the cot "till I let you out".
On the day the examination got over, his friends in school had decided, they would go for the matinee show of the movie, `Veera Pandya Katta Bomman' in the nearby Royal Theatre. (Paulose recalled that `The Bible' was the only movie he had seen till then.) Young Paulose had obtained the consent of his father through the proper channel, his mother.
"My father was to work on the morning shift that week, but he exchanged it with a colleague so that when I returned after the examination, he would be there to check how I had performed. So anxious was he about me," said Paulose.
The subject of the examination was Mathematics. The two-hour paper consisted of three parts -- arithmetic, algebra and geometry. The choice was limited. Arithmetic contained questions worth 48 marks, but the maximum one could score was 40. In the other two parts, one could score not more than 30 marks each out of questions worth 36 marks. One could, theoretically, score 120 marks out of 100! Though choice was available, Paulose had done all the sums and he was confident about his answers. As directed by his father, he had noted down the answers against each question on the question paper. Paulose's father snatched the paper and worked out all the sums while the boy was tucking in his lunch.
He was happy with his son's performance: he had attempted all the questions, though choice was offered, and all of them were right. As he was about to return the question paper to Paulose, his father's eyes fell on the answer 242 sq ft scribbled against a question on the volume of a cylinder. It was numerically correct, but the unit of volume being cubic feet, the correct answer, obviously, had to be 242 cft. He asked Paulose, "Did you write cft or sq ft?"
"I think I wrote cft in the answer paper, father, but while copying it on to the question paper, maybe I made a mistake," Paulose answered. His father was not satisfied. "So careless of you! How can you be so reckless?" he asked. Apart from administering corporal punishment for the lapse, he ordered Paulose to forego the movie and crouch under the cot "till I ask you to come out".
When his friends came to take Paulose, he was still awaiting deliverance from under the cot. He never got to see the movie that day. It is a different matter that he came out with flying colours, but the scar the incident had left on the young mind was so deep that the very mention of the movie brought back unpleasant memories; he had sworn never to see the movie.