Friday, April 28, 2006

Losing our national soul

Bush on the national anthem in Spanish comedy:

"One of the things that's very important is, when we debate this issue, that we not lose our national soul,'' the president exclaimed. ''One of the great things about America is that we've been able to take people from all walks of life bound as one nation under God. And that's the challenge ahead of us."

Now I know why we Indians lost our national soul. Because our national anthem is in Bengali.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


The only time I saw someone walking on fire was when I was 10 years old. We were visiting my parents' village and there was some festival at the Kali temple. My father wasn't very happy with me going to the temple for the festivities but I wasn't going to give in that easily. This particular temple used to be my favorite Kali temple in the whole world for the simple reason that they used to serve the world's best aadu kaal rasam (goat's leg rasam). Those of you who have tasted this heavenly concoction will no doubt agree with me that animal sacrifice should be made legal. [In case you are wondering, no, this Kali temple is not a favorite anymore. Hasn't been for a long time. It has got nothing whatsoever to do with my irreligious temperament if that is what you are thinking. It is simply because they don't serve me aadu kaal rasam anymore. For the same reason that they won't let me into Sabarimala. I happen to be a woman. Needless to say, I wasn't going to live without addu kaal rasam, so my grandpa got the cook at the temple to come home and make me the same thing, but that is another story.]

So anyway, I am taken to the temple and made to stay away from where they slaughter the goats. Women all dressed up and dignified. Let me tell you that the neem-leaves carrying, yellow sari-wearing woman devotee that we are so familiar with is a creation of the Tamil film industry and in the days before such movies, you wouldn't have found any women in the villages of Tamland doing such nonsense. But men, now men are a different story. Lots of men and kids with their bodies pierced with vels (Yeah, Vetri Vel Veera Vel, Go Chola land!) and other such medieval weapons and carrying all sorts of contraptions on their shoulders. I believe it is called a kavadi and there are enough places in Tamland where they still have the kavadi festival. I am told that they don't usually do it for Kali but this time, they figured what the hell. You know might as well make Her happy too.

At this point, I notice that both my parents seem a little too distracted. I sense some undercurrent of nostalgia in the air. Then my mother starts telling me about the time when she was 15 and had come to my father's village for some temple festival and my father, yes, my super-agnostic father taking a kavadi, something which he vehemently tries to deny and then gives up and claims he did it all to impress her as he knew that she was coming to visit. As much as I was interested in the family romance, I was much more curious about the goat slaughter and walking on fire stuff, so I take this opportunity to leave my parents to their reminiscences and slip away.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, all the goats have already been slaughtered and I only get to see the rasam being cooked. I chat with the cook for sometime and then sneak off to the hot coals place. A lot of kids stand around and are hedging this other kid to walk on the coals. This poor thing, hardly 8 years old, his face pierced and painted looks at the coals and starts crying. His mother rushes in and explains to him that it wouldn't hurt and that he can go in after other kids. A man walks by me, obviously very drunk, with the kavadi on his shoulders. His family and friends come and stand around the coals and start singing religious songs. The man turns around and whispers to the guy beside him. The guy rushes off and gets a glass full of what I assume is country liquor. The man downs it and shouting some religious chant that I couldn't quite decipher steps on the hot coals. He then runs through the coals reaching the other end where another of his pals is waiting with another glass of you know what. The crowd seems to be in total rapture. And my father finds me and drags me away.

Why did I think of all this now, you ask? Because walking on fire is apparently back in fashion. [Link via Abi]. Now if only someone had told us this sometime ago, the blogosphere would not have had to have an ugly fight about the merits and demerits of reservations. All we need to do is to get aspiring students to walk on fire.

Monday, April 24, 2006

It ain't spring in the windy city...

Until the tulips take over Michigan Ave.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Google spin?

But as Lee and I talked about how the Internet was transforming China, he offered one opinion that seemed telling: the Chinese students he meets and employs, Lee said, do not hunger for democracy. "People are actually quite free to talk about the subject," he added, meaning democracy and human rights in China. "I don't think they care that much. I think people would say: 'Hey, U.S. democracy, that's a good form of government. Chinese government, good and stable, that's a good form of government. Whatever, as long as I get to go to my favorite Web site, see my friends, live happily.' " Certainly, he said, the idea of personal expression, of speaking out publicly, had become vastly more popular among young Chinese as the Internet had grown and as blogging and online chat had become widespread. "But I don't think of this as a political statement at all," Lee said. "I think it's more people finding that they can express themselves and be heard, and they love to keep doing that."

Huh? The guy is Kai-Fu Lee, head of Google operations in China in case you were wondering. From this really interesting piece in the Times.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The fragrance of a woman's koondhal

Remember the Kannagi post? Wrote this one immediately after and then promptly forgot to publish. So here goes.

The Kannagi post has gotten me thinking of Tamil role models. Hero worship is not exactly unknown in our part of the world and methinks that there is some potential for a series on people (real or fictional) that we choose to put on pedestals. [While I think that hero figures in other parts of the world are also worth looking into, we Tams do seem to have some kind of talent for finding some really interesting(okay, weird) characters.] We could call this series From Kannagi to Rajinikanth or something as inane as that. To kickstart, let me do a post on one of the Tamland's most revered Sangam age poets - Nakeerar.

Every Tamil kid worth her salt is taught early about Nakkerar and his quarrel with Siva. "Netrikkan thirappinum kutram kutrame" (A mistake is a mistake is a mistake. Not really. Its more like even if you open the third eye, a mistake is still a mistake.) has to be one of the most often quoted lines in any Tamil home. Well, at least it was the case in my home where this quote used to make its appearance in every one of my parents' tiffs. The six year old I was, I thought that Nakeerar was this thatha I hadn't met yet who would one day magically appear before me and open his third eye and scorch all my enemies. My parents were very embarrased when they discovered that not only was I reciting this very false story to all and sundry but I was also explaning in great detail how this thatha's third eye story applied to what my parents were fighting about. So they sat me down and proceeded to tell me what I thought for the longest time was the real story of poet Nakeerar.

Nakeerar is the head of the Sangam that judged poetry in Madurai, the capital of Pandya country. One day the Pandya king announces that he would reward any poet who composes a verse that expressed the king's secret thought. Tarumi, a poor brahmin (played to perfection by Nagesh(Ravages tells me) in the movie Thirvilayadal) wants to get married but he doesn't have the money. So he goes and prays to Lord Siva and asks him to compose a poem. Siva, feeling all sorry for the brahmin, composes a poem and gives it to him. Tarumi runs all the way to the Academy and recites the poem. The king hears the verse and is very happy as it beautifully expresses what he had in the inner reaches of his mind. He is about to give Tarumi the reward when Nakeerar stops him and claims that there is a flaw in the verse. Poor Tarumi runs to Siva and shouts at the Lord for giving him a flawed poem. Siva gets all angry, emerges out of the lingam in the form of a poet and puts in an appearance at the Academy. He wants to know about the flaw in his verse. Nakeerar tells him. Siva doesn't agree and gets even more angry. His third eye opens slightly and Nakeerar realizes that the poet is none other than Siva and that if the third eye is fully open, he (Nakeerar) will be scorched to the ground. But he remains firm and tells Siva that "Netrikkan thirappinum kutram kutrame"! By now, the third eye is fully open and Nakeerar has to run to the Theppakulam (The Golden Lotus tank outside the Meenakshi temple apparently) and hide there but what happens after he scorns Siva is all supposedly besides the point. The point is that this poet stood up to the Lord himself and told him that he was dead wrong. This, all Tam parents feel is very much worth emulating and thus we Tam kids get to hear a lot about Nakeerar. We are told that we should be like Nakeerar and should stand up for what we believe, for what is true and just no matter what the consequences. We are shown plays and movies of Nakeerar at every available opportunity. [Aside: Growing up, there was even a popular Tamil magazine called Nakeeran which my Dad used to read diligently. It did a lot of investigative reporting and exposed scandals all over the place. I remember the editor 'Nakeeran' Gopal was in prison for sometime under POTA - this man published in-person interviews with sandalwood smuggler Veerappan and LTTE supremo Prabhakaran among others if I remember correctly. Anyone know if the magazine is still around?]

So anyway, what's wrong with the Nakeerar story? Nothing really. Just that I had always thought that Nakeerar and Siva were fighting about some complicated poetry structure which I wouldn't be able to understand. And then I find out that that is not at the case at all. I find out that while what I have heard about Nakerrar is true, its not the entire story. The real story is actually extremely funny and much more interesting. I did not discover it until a couple of years ago when I happened to find the controversial verses in an after-essay in A Poem at the Right Moment - Remembered Verses from Premodern South India. So what had I missed before?

Remember the thought that the Pandya king had in mind? It apparently came to him while he was in the royal garden smelling flowers. He found the flowers extremely fragrant (really, what I wouldn't give to smell jasmine right now!) and what, he wondered, was more fragrant - the flowers in his garden or his queen's dark hair? Yes, dear readers, this was the thought that plagued the king's mind day and night.

Now, for the verse in question, the one addressed to a bee that Siva supposedly wrote (stolen from the book mentioned above):

You, who spend your life in flight,
seeking a hidden sweetness:
don't tell me what I want to hear,
tell me what you really see.
I love a woman, love everything
about her - the way she walks,
just like a peacock; her teeth,
her long dark hair
more fragrant, I think, than any flower-
but only you can say.

Now, what exactly was the flaw in this verse?

Nakeerar claimed that the flaw was not in the phonology or the morphology but rather, it was a mistake in meaning. And what is the mistake, you ask? No woman has naturally fragrant hair: a woman's hair becomes fragrant only when she adorns it with flowers!
Siva asks Nakeerar whether this is true of the dancing girls of Indra's world and then Goddess he worships. Nakkerar replies in the affirmative and that is when Siva gives up and opens his third eye.

The story doesn't end there, it goes on to talk about Nakeerar's transformation - he comes out of the Golden Lotus tank and relearns the Tamil alphabet from Lord Murugan and goes on to compose some great poetry. Thus the story is not really about Nakeerar standing up to the Lord as I was made to believe, it is about how old Nakeerar, so buried in the conventional structure and forms of poetry could not see the beauty of the verse that was presented to him, it is about how even the greatest of poets needs to be open and show a little more humility, it is about how a great jugde of poetry needs to go back to the alphabets once in a while. One could go on but you see my point. By making the 'netrikkan' one-liner the story, we seem to be missing the whole point and are going into some random tangent about how Nakeerar stood up for what he believed in.

I must say here that yes, I am aware that there's another common way of looking at this story. This has Nakeerar as a stubborn idiot who dared to argue against the Lord and the Lord taught him a lesson. The lesson for us: never go against the Lord's wishes. This is usually how the super religious Tams teach their kids to see the story while my Dad, whose agnosticism I inherited, taught me the exact opposite. Needless to say, this religious view is even worse off than the other - it elevates the God figure and trivializes everything else.

The way I look at it, it does not matter whether Siva wrote it or Tarumi wrote it, it is the verse that's important. It does not matter whether Nakeerar argued against Siva or Tarumi, it is just that he wasn't able to appreciate the beauty of it. It does not matter that the verse was about something as trivial as a woman's koondhal, it is in the trivial that beauty can often be found.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Reservations? Bring it on...

I sat down to write one long, rambling post on the whole reservation comedy. Ended up writing one too but towards the end, I lost all enthusiasm for fighting with people. I hate confrontations anyway :) So that post ain't going to see the light of the day. Instead, here's an idea that will win hearts and minds. The only people who will oppose this policy will be IIT alumni but since their arguments will be completely colored by a deep shade of green, we can completely disregard them.

IITB batch of 2001, Bill tells me, had 27 women. Not surprisingly, he is not sure exactly how many men were there and gives me an approximate figure of 400. That is about 1 in 20. (Hang on, 1 in 43 apparently if you count just his CS batch.) Women account for about 48% of the Indian population (2% killed off and all that jazz). There is no question about the discrimination meted out to women through the centuries; no question that this discrimination pervades every section of society today. There is also no question that these women need to be given the right opportunities that would enable them to join the mainstream. That after 60 years of independence, we have only 5% of women in our top institutions of learning is a crying shame. (WTH is a crying shame btw?)

So, ladies and gentlemen, here's our new women empowerment policy - 45% of seats in all IITs reserved for women. For those of you who don't like the idea of reservations, lets call this affirmative action and we will add an extra x points to the JEE score so that these talented women will make the cut.

I can't even begin to talk about the advantages of such a policy. Just think about the diversity that these women will bring to an IIT campus. They will actually have more women than leopards in their campus, just think about it! Can you think of a more enriching experience for the depraved men of the IITs? The cream of our country will finally learn that there are such things as social skills, and showers. Next time they see a woman on the street, they will know that it isn't some strange extraterrestrial being that you keep gawking at but something as normal as the girl next to you in Machines class.

In case you are wondering that the advantages are all on one side, here are some benefits to the women - think of the improvement in self-esteem when they see all this attention they get which they would never have gotten if they didn't go to an IIT. As for the women who would get in without reservations, now that the proportions are not so much in their favor, they will actually start doing their own homeworks instead of getting the men to do it for them. And that as you all know will only help them in the long run.

I could keep going on. There are no downsides to this policy. The brand value argument doesn't hold - the drop in value is being more than balanced. When the men graduate from IIT and start working, they will actually do some work instead of spending hours leching at the receptionist. What more value can one ask for?

If you are still unconvinced, lets put this through a ballot. All current students of the IITs are eligible to vote - they get to choose between no reservation and 45% reservation for women. There's no question what they will choose. The only debate will be about the weightage given to good looking women. What say?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Inheriting the World

The Booker Prize has been announced months ago, but as Falstaff reminds me here, the Mela continues.

Falstaff reviews James Meek's The People's Act of Love

India's Maoist Guerrillas in the Times


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Fresh Air

If you, like me, felt claustrophobic the past few days, here's some fresh air:

Falstaff, true to type, makes a well-reasoned argument against reservations. With solutions. How I wish he had done this before and spared us that incoherent rant.

Dilip, here and here makes a case for.

Abi has some interesting links here.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Amma in God's own country

No, no, not the hugging one. The one from Poes Garden. AIADMK is apparently contesting 54 assembly seats in Kerala in the upcoming elections. Amma has figured that she has "huge support" from the state and believes that this is the first step to making AIADMK a national party.

How did she garner this "huge support", you ask?

"A baby elephant that Jayalalitha gifted to the famous Guruvayoor temple after her party won the 2001 assembly elections has also helped sway the state's sentiment in AIADMK's favour, Rajapandian said."

Elephants are the way to go, yes. Next time you want to get people to vote for you, buy them an elephant. Hang on, that's two actually. The baby and the amma.

Now for the maifesto:

1. Make Munnar a world-class holiday resort. Of course these Keralites know nothing about world-class resorts. Look at us - we have managed to put so many amma cutouts in Mahabalipuram that the tourists cannot get enough of it. We will do the same in every tea estate in Munnar.

2. Upgrade Vizhijam port. Remember Sethusamudram, anyone?

3. Promote Kathakali and Kalaripayattu as national art forms. Yeah right. They will soon attain the same status as Karagattam.

4. Free bicycles to all kids to enable them to go to school. Huh? You have to bribe to get the parents to send their kids to school in Kerala? Since when?

5. Set up women's self-help groups everywhere. The women of Kerala will now be empowered. Like their counterparts across the border, they will soon have the power to fall at amma's feet 3007 times a day.

6. Bring development that will stop the exodus of Mallus to Gelf. Muahahaha.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Of lungis, books and everything in between

While the millions that make the world's economy throb with the pulse of consumerism are busy eating their potato chips sitting on their couches and flipping through their 12,500 channels on their 175-inch HD plasma flatscreen TV with direct satellite link and tivo, I sink into my recliner and flip the pages of some yellowing book printed in the pulp age. While the modern viewer gets ads and product placements flung at her at the rate of one every three seconds, I take two to three hours to plod through a whodunit to finally figure out, oh the butler did it.

The printed word is fast going the way of the dodo. Rumor has it that Governor Schwarzenegger is pushing for a bill in the People's Republic to protect all remaining books as historic artifacts. Export of all books will be prohibited with the possible exception of the Holy Bible, copies of which are eagerly awaited by villagers in Somalia and Niger. The grapevine also has it that the Discovery Channel is about to declare the bookworm an endangered species.

Like it? How about this one?

Back to the train. So the train would merrily wend its way through the wastelands of the Bombay suburbia and halt for its next mouthful of passengers at Kalyan. Typically some Mallu family, let's call them the Geevargheses (the Geevarghese?), would board the compartment and occupy the other three berths in the sleeper-class booth of six we were in. Heaving the luggage on board and lugging an offspring each, our mythical friends Baby and Blessy Geevarghese would battle their way to their seats and stow their luggage and offspring appropriately. Baby would be fastidiously padlocking the luggage to the chains under the seat when the train would start with a jerk, and Blessy would promptly interrupt him with, "Babychaya, veettil cupboardu poottiyo?" Did you lock the cupboard at home?

Being a man of the world, Baby would summon all confidence, flash his brightest back-from-the-Gelf smile that had won Blessy's heart five years ago, and say, "Of course Blessykutty. Nothing to worry." After which my father would catch his eye, and they would both exchange an understanding glance and a silent nod as if to say, "You too, my friend?" In that instant they would have formed a bond between them that would be much stronger than any bond their wives could form by gossipping about common acquaintances till the Geevargheses alighted at Alwaye 40 hours later. Needless to say, a strict code of silence was always followed among men regarding these assurances of security of cupboards and balconies given to women. In Mallu it was called omerta.

Not rolling on the floor yet? Check this one out:

Not many have read that obscure chapter from one of our great Hindu epics that describes how the lungi was born. In the days of yore, men of India dressed in the purity of white and the soberness of subdued colors, much like men of the Western world do today. Bright colors were for the womenfolk. The lungi was fortutiously designed by the third of five brothers, who was roaming the land in search of adventure thousands of years ago (so the epic goes). One evening he rested for a while on a river bank, when what should catch his eye but three sarees folded neatly and placed on a rock. "Aha, abandoned clothes," he thought. Little did it occur to him that they might belong to three hapless damsels who were bathing in the river. The onset of twilight had probably obscured any visual clues to that fact. Had he known that, his upright moral values would have kept him from changing the course of fashion history. But as it happens, he tucked the three sarees under his armpit and trudged home. All three were brightly colored. Perhaps they were purple, orange and green; or one of them might have been bright yellow or red, and a couple of them may have had a floral pattern. You get the idea.

The three bathing damsels came out of the water and were shocked to discover the loss of their garments. Reluctant to trust their modesty to the cover of darkness on their way home, they prayed in unison to Lord Krishna. Promptly coming to the rescue, he blessed them with the gift of the garb. (Astute readers are no doubt noting that this was not the only instance in Hindu mythology when Lord Krishna has imparted this gift to women in distress.)

Yeah, okay, click here, here and here to read all.

It is with great pleasure that I announce to you diligent reader, that Anoop Iyer, fellow traveler and bestest friend is back on the blogging scene. Here's to another blog that cannot be missed. Cheers.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Seen on that TV thingy in the elevator this morning

President Bush will be in Charlotte, NC later today to address the fight against terrorism.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Have you hugged your grad student today?

"M took Sandy to Miami last weekend. She didn't know anything about it. He just came home and told her to pack and get to the airport."

"Thats nice. Was it her b'day?"

"B'day? Of course not. So like you not to know anything about this."


"And A, you remember A? She threw this huge surprise party for Banker yesterday."

"You guys had fun?"

"Yes, until someone reminded me that I was the only one who doesn't get appreciated."

"You don't get what?"

"Appreciated. Actually I've got news for you. People do appreciate me. BM called and wished me and stuff. She said she was glad to have me as her friend."

"Good for you. Now tell me what this is all about."

"And you don't even pay for one lousy dinner. Monday night at Geja's I thought you would pay."

"You want me to pay for your dinner now?"

"That's the least you could do. Show some appreciation. If nothing else, I do your laundry when I am there, don't I?"

"Okay, I appreciate you. Will that do?"

"NO! No point talking to you. I gotta go now. I am going to meet Jorge. He will understand."

"Jorge who?"

"That phd comics dude. He is in CMU today for a book signing as part of this appreciation week."

"What week?"

"It took you like 5 days to ask me that? Grad student appreciation week. What did you think it was?"

"There's a grad student appreciation week?"

"Of course there is. We need appreciation."

"That you most definitely do. And I have no reason to believe you won't appreciate. As I keep telling you, you are a long term investment."

"Yeah, go make me one of your mutual funds now. Next you will have a morningstar rating for me. Anyway, that's all you care about. The only time you were nice to me last week was when you discovered that you were going to get more money back if we do married, filing jointly."

"No, I always knew it. It was the only thing on the benefit side of my cost benefit analysis for marriage."

"What about laundry? And all those darn dishes you make me wash everytime I am there?"

"Okay, that too. Is there a domestic help appreciation week?"

"Very funny."

"Okay don't be mad. I am sorry. I didn't know about this appreciation week. Now that I know, I will make sure you feel appreciated."


"Of course. I am not that mean also?"



"So what will you do?"

"Well..I will go and buy the pinkest, sappiest Hallmark card that says that you are the bestest grad student I have ever known and send it over."