Friday, June 24, 2011

A STAR CALLED JOE

Joe has passed on.

We had been friends since the early 1980’s when met for the first time. Though we lived in the same city for about three years and worked in the same organisation for just about decade, our paths crossed again and again, in New Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai as he went job-hopping and I got shunted from state to state.

I had had a taste of Joe's sense of humour even before I actually saw him! On confirmation, Joe was posted as Assistant Accountant in Bombay (Main) branch. So was his batchmate Damodar Menon. They had a letterhead printed jointly with 'Menon & Manimury, Assistant Accountants' emblazoned on it – a la Lovelock & Lewis, or Aiyar & Cherian, Chartered Accountants. I had happened to see this piece of stationery even before I set my eyes on either of the personalities involved.

I still remember a joke narrated by him. A Sardarji was visiting Europe and was intrigued to see people wearing masks and costumes and dancing celebrating Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as part of the Carnival between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. He asked a passer-by what the merriment was about and got the obvious and terse reply, ‘Mardi Gras.’ The turbaned foreigner thought to himself, ‘Ye kaun si gaali hai jo hum nahin jaante? (What is this abusive word I do not know?)’

Joe had a way with kids. As a bachelor, he used to be a regular at our rented house in PTP Nagar, Trivandrum. He got along famously with my son Hari and his playschool-mate Miriam (our colleague and neighbour Kora Ipe's daughter) – both four years old then. These two kids used to call him Joe (no 'uncle'). He used to be so much a part of their lives. A relative who called on us overheard them refer to Joe in their conversation asked them if Joe was a boy who went to the same playschool as they did!

On Sundays, he would join us at home for lunch preceded and succeeded by games of Scrabble. Which reminds of words like SITCOM and QUASAR which were rather new to the language in those days and rare words like SYZYGY that he introduced us to. No prizes for guessing who won the games.

On some of these days, the lunch would be preceded by a glass or two of chilled beer. As Joe popped the bottle and poured the frothy amber liquid into the schooners, Hari would sidle up to him. ‘Pour some for me, Joe,' he would ask, stretching a small glass. Joe would turn stern and say, ‘No. Not for you!’. As Hari continued to plead, explaining, ‘A small glass for the small boy!’ Joe would tell me, ‘We shouldn’t be drinking in the presence of kids.’ He would never smoke in front of children, for he was keen that he should not set a bad example.

During the days I was in regular touch with Joe, he used to smoke, rather heavily. The blood donor's forum which we were a part of approached Joe in their membership drive. Joe joined but cautioned, 'The suction pump would first go "Puff, puff!", drawing the smoke running through my veins before it starts drawing blood!'

During one of the occasions when I saw him for an hour or two in later days, he did not light a cigarette. When asked, he said he had quit smoking, though I suspect he had only reduced the daily quota.

Joe was an avid reader. It was he who introduced me to Sci-Fi and its patron-saints Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. And he tried to inculcate reading habit in kids. We still have what is referred to in our home as Joe’s Alphabet Books that he had gifted to Hari – a set of five volumes from My First Library series brought out by the Readers' Digest in association with Mothercare.

Given the range of books he read, Joe HAD to be a repository of knowledge. And he was a great quizzer. I recall participating in some quizzes either as a partner or as a rival. I used to marvel at the way he used to hazard ‘intelligent guesses’ and score points. I recall as vividly the way my similar attempts at second-guessing would fall flat.

I used to think that a cloud is a cloud is a cloud is a cloud. Till I met Joe, that is. Joe took me through the cirrus, cirrocumulus, cirrostratus, etc to the cumulonimbus and the cumulus. Thanks to Joe, I learnt that what I had all along thought was a red star was in fact a planet, Mars to be exact.

A little-known fact was that Joe was a star-gazer. He had spent many weekends with us. After sunset, he would go up to the terrace with Hari to watch the stars. In a matter of weeks, Hari could identify some constellations like Ursa Major and Sirius. On days Joe was not with us and we went up on the terrace, Hari would draw our attention, ‘Daja, that is Joe Uncle’s star, the..e..r..e..’

It was from Joe that I had my little education in astronomy, that stars are identified by their color, which indicates their temperature based on which they are divided into spectral classes O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, the hottest being O (blue in color) and the coolest stars being M (red). He also told me how to remember it by the mnemonic ‘Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.’

This evening, after the sun sets, I will get onto the terrace and look at the sky. I am sure there will be a new star shining in the blue sky: Joe.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Call of the Cuckoo





I am a happy man today.


A few months back, my cuckoo clock had stopped. Inexplicably. The interiors of our house had been done up and, for a change, I had shifted the cuckoo clock from its original place in the living room and hung it from a nail on the lintel above the French window. And it died. Well, not exactly dead: it had been comatose for over a year and a half. When you give a swing to the pendulum, the clock comes alive for a few minutes and then goes to sleep. I did not know why.


Today it came to life again. All I did was to shift it to its original spot and apply a few drops of oil on the chain to smoothen the movement. Now I know why my cherished asset had folded up. The wind flowing in through the window would meddle with the swing of the pendulum, and cause the movement to stop. In its original position against the feature wall, there is no such intruder.


The cuckoo clock is one of my prized possessions – a souvenir of my trip to Europe in 1997. I was attending a training programme in the Maastricht School of Management in Netherlands and took time off to hop over to Germany. A cruise of the Rhine was one of the highlights of that weekend.


To the north-east of the Rhine Valley in Baden-W├╝rttemberg is the wooded mountain range called Schwarzwald (Literally, the Black Forest). The village Schoenwald here is where cuckoo clocks were first designed in 1737 and are still manufactured and sold. I purchased my ‘original’ cuckoo clock from a shop that called itself ‘Die Uhrenmacher des Schwarzwaldes’ (The Clockmakers of the Black Forest).


The first cuckoo clock I saw was in the study of an uncle. It had Roman numerals and rich ornamentation featuring a chalet with carved leaves, flowers and deer heads with antlers. A boy of ten, I would accompany my grandfather to my uncle’s house, mostly on weekends. As we trudged along the untarred road, I would hope and pray that we would be there about five to ten minutes before a full hour – so that I could see the spectacle of the cuckoo peeping out of the cage and flap its wings.


When grandpa prepared to bid goodbye and it was time to leave, I would plead: ‘After the cuckoo comes out once more, please!’


Even since, it was my desire to own a cuckoo clock. Mine is a poor cousin of the one my uncle had. It has just a one-day movement while my uncle’s boasted of an eight-day movement. My clock has two weights – one for winding the clock and the other for the cuckoo. There were three weights in the version my uncle had, thought for the life of me, I cannot guess why.


As a child, I was fascinated by the contraption and asked my uncle (He was a school headmaster) how it worked. He had no answer. Now I know how. It is a pendulum-driven mechanical (though quartz models have now made the scene) time-piece that tells you the hour using an imitation of the call of the cuckoo. It has an automaton of the bird that appears through a small trap door while the clock is striking. The bird moves while the clock strikes, typically by means of an arm that lifts the back of the carving.


The weights are made of cast iron in a pine cone shape and the ‘cuc-koo’ sound is created by two tiny pipes in the clock, with bellows attached to their tops. The clock's movement activates the bellows to send a puff of air into each pipe alternately when the clock strikes.


Another question I asked my uncle was why the clock face had in place of 4, a IIII instead of IV. This may seem trivial, but have you noticed that in most clock faces with Roman numerals, IIII is often used in place of IV for the 4 o'clock. The answer he gave me was that in was in deference to the wish of Louis XIV that clockmakers opted for this variant.


He added that there was another theory doing the rounds: ‘IV’ is an abbreviation for ‘Jupiter’ since Roman times. (Recall that in INRI, the I’s stand for J and that some of the police stations (Bhowanipore and Lal Bazaar, for instance) in Calcutta still have the words Station Hovse emblazoned on their facades) So they decided to use "IIII" so that their clocks didn't have "1 2 3 GOD 5 6 ..." written on them.


But, recently, I heard a new explanation. Imagine a watch face with roman numerals with IV instead of III. Look at the numerals opposite each other – all of them are in perfect balance, except for the 'heavy' VIII and the 'light' IV. Optical balance can be attained by printing a 'heavy' IIII. This does gel with the theory of visual balance attained by using 10:08 in the advertisement for watches and seems quite plausible.


Someone told me the other day that of late, my blogs tend to be more educative than experiential. He did not add which of the two he preferred. Coming to think of it, he never said he even liked my blog. Is there a message in that?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

FENG SHUI, JUGAAD, 10:08 AND SOS

The other day, a friend forwarded to me a message, which among other things, said that according to Feng Shui, 2011 is a very auspicious year because October 2011 has 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays and 5 Mondays. This is very rare, the message claimed, as it occurs only once in 823 years. Therefore the Chinese consider it the Year of Moneybags. Those who forward the message to ten people would come by a lot of riches before October 2011, the message assured.


When I was a child, the world war had just ended and India was a nascent nation with little resources and many mouths to feed. Food, clothes, paper, everything was in short supply. In the 1950’s, even calendars were hard to come by. It would often be end- January if not early February by the time the calendar for the new year would reach home.


It was in the era of shortages. At that time, I did not know the Hindi word jugaad which literally means an improvisation necessitated by lack of resources. Had I known that word, those were the days which I would have termed jugaad-days!


My grandfather was great at jugaad. He discovered that the calendar for the month of January in any year is the same as that for the month of May in the preceding year. Naturally, February would be June (minus, of course, the last one/two days) of the previous year. So, till the new year’s calendar arrived, you could make do – jugaad – with the previous year’s!


Later, the bright spark that I was discovered that in leap years, the calendars for January and July are in sync; in non-leap years, it is October that is identical with January.


Now, what do Feng Shui and the Year of Moneybags have to do with jugaad? Be patient, gentle reader. It just occurred to me that as 2011 is not a leap year, the calendars for October and January are identical. If October 2011 has 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays and 5 Mondays, so must January 2011. And May 2010. Therefore this month of five long weekends is not an unusual feature, I surmised.


How right I was! The entire calendar for 2011 is identical to that of 2005. And 1994. And 1983. And going forward, 2022. And 2033 and six years after that. Each of these must be Years of Moneybags for the Feng Shui-gullible Chinese! Looks like there would be at least one such year every decade, not every 823 years!


So this is clearly a cyber-myth propagated and perpetuated by us who swallow whatever forwards we receive and in turn pass it on.


That reminds me of what quizmasters consider a chestnut. Mr Knowall asks, ‘Why is the time shown in most of the advertisements for watches and clocks 10:08 or near-about?’ The Smart Alec who answers, ‘It commemorates the time of U S President Abraham Lincoln’s death’ is awarded the points. And if your answer is 'Watchmakers in the US were given a tax benefit for displaying 10:08 as the time to commemorate the time of Abraham Lincoln's death', you get bonus points!


Nothing could be farther from the truth. The answer is probably quite simply that it looks better, as the clock has a 'smile' on its face (not just a marketing gimmick, it really does look better than a 'down turned mouth' at 8.20). For aesthetic reasons, one would not like the two hands neither nearly covering each other nor nearly in a straight line. By default, the 10:08 looks pretty good.


Aesthetics apart, it makes eminent practical sense: the hands stay clear of other subsidiary dials. Day/date window are most often are at 3, 6 or 9 and this position does not obstruct them. Most often, the logo of the manufacturer on the face is placed above the centre, and having the hands at 10:08 causes the viewer’s eye to naturally follow to the trough, thus bringing the view right to the trademark. Also, the brand name which is embossed often below the centre, is clearly visible in the 10:08 position.


Another popular quiz question: ‘What is the expansion of the distress call SOS? ‘Save Our Souls’, did you say? Imagine the wireless operation in a sinking ship sending out a distress sign – ‘Save Our Souls’. Very evocative, yes, but absolutely baseless! The fact is that in it is a backronym, not an acronym, in the sense that unlike in acronyms, SOS came first and then the expansion! There are other Imaginative (Imaginary?) expansions too, like ‘Save Our Ship’, ‘Send Out Sailors’ and ‘Survivors on Ship’!


The reality: in Morse code, S (did-did-did) is represented by three dots and O (dah-dah-dah) by three dashes. SOS (did-did-did dah-dah-dah did-did-did) was an easily recognizable signal because of the rhythm of the beat. )


Reverting to Feng Shui, I did not forward that message to ten people: I do not want that pot of gold!