Friday, January 06, 2017



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


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


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

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The 360-Degree Turn and White Lies


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma


Nobody knew how Swamy came to live with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Experiment with the Customs


In 2004, we spent a fortnight in Singapore at the invitation of my brother-in-law who works and lives there. We were on a shoestring budget and traveled by economy class of Tiger Airways, the budget airline of Singapore. I had, however, earmarked a few dollars so that I could buy the allowed quota of moderately priced liquor when returning to India.

The first words Ranjith uttered after opening the door to his apartment were, 'If I do not do this now, I might forget!' So saying, he opened his bar and pulled out a bottle each of Yamazaki, Glenmorangie and MacAllan Whiskeys and a bottle of Grey Goose Vodka. Putting the exotic stuff in a sturdy bag, he said, 'This will not be allowed as hand baggage. So pack them well in your suitcase so that they do not break in transit.'

The holiday in Singapore was very enjoyable, but all good things must come to an end. Towards the end of our stay, we were informed by the airline that our flight had been cancelled and we had been re-routed via Colombo. There would be a layover of five hours there and we would travel from Colombo to Trivandrum by Mihin Lanka, the budget airline with whom Tiger had tied up.

That was fine with us. The touchdown at Colombo was at 9 am. The scheduled time of departure of the Trivandrum-bound flight was 2 pm but it was delayed. Initially, they said an hour, which went on to two, three, four and so on. As neither carrier had made arrangements for refreshments or meals and we had a lot of time on our hands, we went round the airport, reading all the signboards and tourism literature and nibbling at doughnuts and sandwiches. During the course of our aimless meandering, we reached the duty-free shop.

We purchased some Toblerone chocolates, Bhawani's favourite. A poster announcing an offer that was placed near the exit caught my eyes as we came out. Three bottles of Chivas Regal (12 years' vintage) for the price of two. And a nifty carry-bag to boot. We came out and pooled together the money that we had. Between Bhawani and me, we had enough to buy that.

Deal done, we had some grub at the KFC Counter and waited for the announcement.

Finally, when the boarding happened, it was 1130 pm. It was past midnight when we landed, bleary-eyed, in Trivandrum. Before landing, the air-hostess had distributed the forms we had to sign, declaring the dutiable 'goods' we were 'importing' into India. Bhawani and I spoke in hushed tones and not eager to be caught lying, we decided to declare that between the two of us, we had seven litres of alcohol with us - which is three litres more than what we were entitled to carry.

After the immigration formalities, we walked gingerly, lugging our suitcases. There were just two of us headed towards the red gate. Our co-passengers looked at us wistfully as they breezed past the green channel, perhaps wondering what contraband the suitcases of this ageing couple would be holding.

There was no official manning the red channel. On seeing us, a woman in white uniform came to us, told us, 'This is not the route,' and asked us to go through the green channel.

I protested, 'But, madam, we have some dutiable goods with us,' trying to hand over the declaration.

Not giving the paper as much as a glance, she proceeded to ask me, 'What is it? Gold? Or, electronic goods?'

When I told her that I was carrying the golden liquid, she did not seem impressed. She pointed towards a gentleman in white uniform and asked us to meet him.

I found him sleepy and drunk. Sozzled, with alcohol sloshing in his belly. The small black plastic name board on the flap of his left pocket proclaimed his name: P RAMAKRISHNAN.

'Good morning, Mr Ramakrishnan,' I greeted him and extended my declaration to him.

Blame it on the poison he had, he was puzzled: how does this guy know my name? Do I know him? Have I met this guy earlier? If so, where? I could see these questions on his face.

'Good morning, Sir. What can I do for you?'

'We have seven litres of alcohol with us and we know that only four are allowed. We would like to pay the duty and take the additional three bottles along,' I replied matter-of-factly.

There was a look on disbelief on his face. Here's a man volunteering to pay the duty on three bottles of whiskey!

'Seven litres? Three bottles of which brand?' he asked me, lapsing into Malayalam.

He pronounced 'Ezhu', the word for seven, as 'yaazhu', the way only those in Palakkad district can.

'Chivas Regal.'

Ramakrishnan jotted something on a piece of paper, punched a few keys on his desk calculator, and informed me, 'The duty will be hefty, Sir.'

While he was at work, I ventured some small talk. I asked him, 'Mr Ramakrishnan, which part of Palakkad district do you hail from?' and then, opening my wallet, I queried, 'How much would it work out to?'

'I am from Aalatthur,' he informed me, adding, 'Rs 1,200,' with an air of finality.

As I was counting twelve Rs 100 notes, he asked me, 'Sir, I suppose there is a wedding in the family and this is for the reception.'

As my sons were both eligible bachelors then, my response, a feeble 'Yes' was not entirely untrue. The fact that a timeframe had not been specified either by the interrogator or the respondent helped.

That was when he saw my wife who was behind me. Looking at her and me alternately, Ramakrishnan said, 'A marriage in the family and madam before me - how can I be so heartless as to impose a duty?' He tore up the declaration and put it into the waste paper basket. Needless to say, he was looking for an excuse to let us off the hook. And he knew one when he saw one.

As we walked towards the exit, Ramakrishnan called out to us, 'Do not forget to invite me for the reception, Sir!'

School Daze


I seem to hold a record of sorts, having studied in six schools before finishing Class 10. And this was not because the schools did not want me! My father was on a transferable job and took the family along wherever he was posted to.

The first school that I went to was a two-room affair about which I have the vaguest of memories. I guess I had attended that school only for a few months. It was located in my mother's village near Koodali in Kannur. In the matrilineal scheme of things then prevalent, the ties that married women retained with their mother and her house were strong. She would be in her maternal house for a longer period than her husband's. It was thus that I was admitted to this school.

'Admitted' is too formal a word to use when things were so simple and uncomplicated. The process of my admission, for instance, consisted of a conversation between my maternal grandfather and the headmaster while travelling in a bus. Some time during the journey, it was agreed that I would and could start attending classes from the following week. Admissions and transfer certificates were strictly for the birds!

For some reason I cannot fathom now, I was soon shifted to another school, a bigger one because it had five classes. It was housed in a long thatched shed, open on three sides. At the far end was an enclosure created by putting up bamboo mats about four feet high, which doubled as the headmaster's office and the teachers' room. This was where the box of chalks was kept.

The school had just five classes and four teachers, one of whom was the headmaster. The available four teachers had to handle the five classes which meant that one teacher had to handle two classes at a time. The headmaster presided over Class 5. Class 1 was under Leela Teacher and Class 2 under Sankunni Maash while Classes 3 and 4 were under Baalan Maash who also doubled as the local postmaster. He would open the post office at 8 am for an hour and a half; and again from 4:30 pm to 6.

There was no partition between the classrooms. It was easy to distinguish the classes, though. The class where the students sat on the floor was Class 1. Classes 2 and 3 sat back to back on benches - there were no desks. Classes 4 and 5 had benches and desks and the students of these classes too sat back to back.

This arrangement worked well for Baalan Maash who had to handle two classes at a time. As the blackboards of classes 3 and 4 were placed back to back, his small dark frame could flit back and forth between the two classes - teaching arithmetic to Class 3 and Malayalam poetry to Class 4.

Things were very different on days when the headmaster had to go to the Treasury to collect the salary or to the office of the assistant Educational Officer in the city for some administrative work. The school had to make do with the services of three teachers on such days. That was indeed difficult. The teachers would get 'promoted': Leela Teacher to Class 2, Sankunni Maash to Class 3 and 4; and Baalan Maash to Class 5. What about Class 1? A holiday would be declared for Class 1!

Speaking of holidays, not all the students (There were hardly twenty in each class) came to the class every day. The festival in the temple, mother's indisposition, being requisitioned to do odd jobs, Kannan uncle, a sepoy in the army, coming on annual leave, anything could be an excuse for absence.

The third school I attended was in Vellur, my father's village near Payyannur.

Women used to give birth in their maternal homes and only when it was safe for the mother and the child to travel would they go to the house of the father. Thus, when my second sister, the fourth child of my parents, was ninety days old, it was decided that my mother would spend a few months in my father's house.

I must have made a noise about accompanying my mother, or maybe I may not have bothered, but I too was taken to Vellur. It could mean that I missed my classes, right? Wrong. At a time when school admission could be negotiated during a bus journey, shifting from one school to another was a cinch. So, one Friday evening, I stopped going to the school in my mother's village and on the third day, which was the next Monday, I started going to the school in my father's village. Seamless transition.

This kind of smooth and effortless movement, which was replicated by the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan decades later, was possible because my paternal grandfather was married to the headmaster's cousin. He had a word with the headmaster and I started going to the new school from the next day: no transfer certificate, no character certificate, no progress report, no nothing.

This was an Upper Primary School and therefore a big one. The roof was tiled; the walls were made of laterite stones and plastered. Each class was a separate room - way different from the one I was used to. The bottom one-third of the wall was painted black so that the brats would not soil it. And, most importantly, all classes had benches and desks. For me, used to sitting on the floor in Class 1, this was a great elevation in status!

This school was just walking distance and one could come home for lunch. Did I say the school was 'just walking distance'? That was stupid of me, for which school was not 'just walking distance' those days? All were: it was only a question of whether one could come home for lunch. If 'yes', the school was close by; if not, it was far off, but still 'walking distance'.

The fourth school I went to was Koodali High School owned by our family. As result, it was a place where several of my uncles whose qualification was FA (First Year Arts) were parked. (For some reason, in their case, the level of incompetence propounded in Peter's Principle was reached at FA!) Because more than half the teachers were my uncles, it was a formidable place. Forget about pranks and mischiefs, you could not turn this way or that without one uncle or another's eyes falling on you.

The fifth was the stately and reputed Malabar Christian College High School in Calicut. It was just one of those run-of-the-mill schools where everything was 'prim and propah' and about which I have nothing special to write.

And the sixth went by the more-than-mouthful name Hajee Essa Hajee Moosa Memorial HIgh School in Mattancherry, Cochin. It was indeed a great place to be in and deserves to be written about separately. I will just mention that it was a great place to be in, what with me, a 12-year old, in the same class as the 21-year old Habibulla. If I add that only eight of the 52 candidates presented for SSLC in 1961 passed the examination and only one of them was placed in the first class, that would only be part of the story. They excelled in all extra-curricular activities and were champions in several sports events.



From the day I can remember (which is when I was seven years), Paaru Amma was part of our family. She looked ancient, really wizened. Given her slender frame with a more than slight stoop, her toothless grin, her wrinkled skin and her shock of silver hair, she could not have been less than seventy then.

In today's parlance, we could refer to her as the 'dowry' that Aunt Rema brought with her. When my maternal uncle Kesavan married his maternal uncle's daughter Rema (To those who might raise their eyebrows at this , let me add: that was the done thing among the Nambiar community in North Malabar, the counterpart of Nairs in the rest of Kerala) and brought her home, she was accompanied by Paaru Amma.

It must have been a tough decision for Janaki Amma, Aunt Rema's mother, to 'give her away in dowry': she had been part of her family for several decades. Incidentally, everyone in the family addressed the old retainer with an honorific Paaru 'Amma', but, Janaki Amma and Paaru Amma were on first name terms. The Lady of the House was plain and simple Jaanu for her hand-maiden Paaru.

One of those evenings when I was pottering about in the coconut grove with her after I had returned from school, I asked her how the matronly and awe-inspiring Janaki Amma was a mere Jaanu to her. Prompt was her reply: Jaanu and I sat on the same bench from class 1 to 5. How else do you address a classmate?

Though everyone in the family called her Paaru Amma, she never returned the favour. She would refer to everyone, young or old, by their name, or even pet name. Thus my uncle's brother was just Govi, my mother's uncle, then a Major in the British Army, was a mere Narayanan and his brother, a school teacher was just Kannan. The only concession she made was in the case of my uncle: the man who was a mere Kesavan, got promoted as Eshmaan (the corrupt form of Yajamaanan  - for Master) upon his marriage.

She was the first one in our home to get up and the last to go to bed; between the two events, you would never see her resting. I do not know for sure, but I guess she sought no compensation for her services: she was happy to be part of the family. All her needs were taken care of and she had no use for money.

Paaru Amma was a great help to the family - particularly to the children, young brides and female folk. The toys she could make using local resources - palm fronds, plumeria blooms, banana stems, etc - was countless. She would teach us how to swim. She would undertake the delicate task of telling the under-teen girls about the birds and the bees - telling them enough for their age and no more. Those preparing to enter the wedlock were made apprentice to her. They would receive good training in cuisine, housekeeping and administration from her.  She would provide wise counsel to young brides. Mothers would go to her for advice on how to tackle their errant children.

Not much was known about her personal life - whether she was married at all or had a child. In any case, she never mentioned once about them. I believe that Paaru Amma had no relatives - at least none that we knew of. She was at home 24x365 and had nowhere to go. That perhaps explains how she came to integrate herself with the family so very closely.

I recall that once a postman came home with a money order for Rs 10 - a princely sum those days - addressed to one Purakkal Parvathi Amma. There was nobody at home who answered to that name. It was Paaru Amma's formal name, but she refused the remittance. 'Return it to the sender', she told the postman. That was the only time I found her bitter about something in life. The sender must have been her long-lost husband on son; we will never know.

As age advanced, Paaru Amma bent double, lost weight (if that were indeed possible) and her health deteriorated. Aunt Rema took good care of her and she would bounce back to life in no time.

Towards the end of her life, she would get blackouts: while busy doing something or talking to someone, she would just 'drop dead'. What started as infrequently as once a month gradually happened oftener. Aunt Rema would put some smelling salt at her nostrils or give her some Ayurvedic concoction. Though one does not know of the efficacy of this medication, she would come to in  about ten minutes or twenty, open her eyes and smile, saying, 'It's not yet time for Him to call me.'

When one such episode happened, Murali, another uncle of mine who was visiting us, suggested that a bit of brandy be administered to her. (Brandy in limited quantities was administered as a medicine to young mothers in the unconfirmed belief that it hastens the healing process and therefore households of even teetotaler families would have stock of a little of the potion.) As my uncle used to have a drink once in a way, the stuff was readily available at home.

It worked! That done, in no time, Paaru Amma sat up and smiled beatifically: God is in heaven and all is well with the world!

The next time she decided to lose consciousness, as Aunt Rema rushed to fetch the smelling salts, Paaru Amma called out, 'I do not want that, Rema; get me Eshmaan's medicine!'

Sad to say, she did not live long to have many doses of Eshmaan's medicine.