Monday, December 12, 2011

Cleaning up

In the movie 'Pursuit of happyness' Will Smith's character has these cute lines where he describes the different stages of his life. There is one where he says, for example, "This part of my life... this part right here? This part is called "being stupid." " I was just wondering what lines would I come up with. This part is called "having potential"... This part is called "wasting it"... 

The part right now, maybe 'Cleaning up'. The figurative meaning apart, the literal cleaning up I find takes a lot of time and is oddly therapeutic. There is something about bringing order from chaos, polishing something up, removing the dirt off of that old Chinese vase and seeing that delicate flower emerge in all its subtle beauty. 

I dust and sweep and mop and wash and I have this rerun in my head of life some twenty years ago when someone I know would do all this with a song on her lips. I know she doesn't clean up so much anymore, but I wonder if she sings as much.

I don't mind these physical activities since it oddly brings a forgotten tune back onto my lips. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Baby boy

P, the young woman who works in my house as a maid, delivered a baby boy last week. When I visited the hospital, it was quite crowded outside and I wasn't sure of the visiting hours that after a few minutes hesitation, I called her. Thanks to the ubiquitous mobile phones that even moms who have just delivered keep at an arms length I was able to reach her right away. "I will send someone," she said and added, as way of identification, that the girl coming out to fetch me was of really dark complexion. I wondered how she would describe me to that girl - bespectacled? has a deer caught in headlight look? benign with a 'pavam' look? 

The ward was  quite noisy with quite a few young kids running around. Out of the three beds in the large room, two were occupied by women who had already delivered but the third seemed to have just come in with labor pains. Their families milled about. P was delighted to show me the baby. She asked why I was not holding him, 'I am afraid,' I said sheepishly. P laughed quite amused by this. Her husband had just left to buy a cradle she said proudly. The matron came and asked some random questions.

After some time I took leave - P was still disappointed I didn't hold the baby. This little hospital with people walking in and out like a carnival, with its noise was definitely so much in contrast to the hushed environs of the upscale maternity wing of the hospital not a kilometer away. Those young mothers I felt would certainly not ask me to hold their three days old babies I felt. Which mothers are likely to get postpartum depression I wondered.

I came out to a bright, bustling, bangalore morning. The little boy with no name yet [only three months later, she told me], born at this time and at this place has all the potential for a bright future I thought. And if he had her pretty smile that brought the dimples out, then there is no doubt about it. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Must remember safety pins

Typically whenever I blog about a Chennai trip it involves a road trip. This time though I took the plane to go to Chennai. I have a history of arriving at the airport well ahead of time and then somehow managing to be the last passenger in. Last time, thoroughly lost in some random book, I was startled by the 'last call for passenger radhika'. Then the time in Florida when I arrived so ahead of time, I spent about an hour sitting on a nice recliner reading a book. I was still the last passenger in because that time I managed to mix up the arrival time of another airplane and departure of my plane to/from the same place. And then that flight from San Jose when I realized just before boarding that I had lost my phone. I ran the length of the airport and managed to come back with the phone just before they closed the gate, completely out of breath I should add.

So this time I parked myself near the gate, set alarms on my phone and was totally alert. The old man next to me suddenly stood up and sort of gestured a  request asking me to watch his luggage and vanished in the direction of the loo. I vaguely thought about luggage from strangers etc., but wasn't really perturbed. Five minutes later I wondered if I should be worried. Ten minutes passed. Either the man had a really upset stomach or something sinister was going on. The queue rapidly dwindled and everyone but me seemed to go enthusiastically down the stairs to catch the bus [to the plane]. I stood up, fidgeted, looked pointedly at the airline staff but no luck. And then at last just before the airline staff member plucked the mic to call for my name, the old man arrived. I ran to the podium.

On the way back, for the first time I was late. Thanks to a wedding in a politician's family and rain, I arrived about five minutes before they closed check in. Apparently they don't do tele-checkin, despite my pleading. I ran to the podium and my sandals broke. If it were a bus, or even a train, I would have chucked my sandals in the nearest bin and ran barefoot. I did run to the podium holding my sandals but after checkin, tried to hold the broken strap with my big toe as I hobbled to security. My churidhar was knee deep in dirt thanks to the rain, hair was streaming all over my face and with the broken sandals that I was dragging my foot on, I must have looked quite a site.

It was so mortifying and embarrassing that I kept low even when the man next to me said some provoking stuff about the 'woman' pilot in his last plane. 

Monday, October 03, 2011

Gandhi Jayanti

Dry day has come and gone, the movie Gandhi has been telecast dutifully in one channel or the other, a few statues have been garlanded in another year of remembering Gandhi.

There is a wide range of criticisms against Gandhi - from those with potentially devious intentions, to the ridiculous, to the high intellectual. We are probably the only nation with such wide spread disrespect for the so called Father of the Nation.

I have in the past quite vociferously commented about some of his practices yet I am much stuck by the importance of some of his writings in today's world. A very interesting documentary on "How Cuba survived peak oil"  brought it home further. In the documentary they talk about the hardships Cuba underwent after the fall of the Soviet Union, but most importantly the shift in Cuba's thinking from highly industrialized, import/oil dependence to small community based self reliance. And I kept thinking about Gandhi's vision for the village republic. Granted, his was too idealistic a view, but the Cuba situation seems to show the validity of his arguments.

In this petrol guzzling, big company driven, consumerist age, as we collectively realize [er.., some of us at least] the colossal harm we are causing the environment and to our health, Gandhi's views seem more relevant. He was not backward  insisting every ancient tradition is great, nor was he opposed to modern tools that can be used as long as the fundamental characteristic of non exploitation is maintained. Non exploitation need not be limited to human beings, it can be extended to every living breathing thing, the resources, the very earth. He simply believed in the power and sustainability of small community based production, his famous quote saying it all - "not mass production, but production by the masses".

How relevant when you think of that Washington Apple that seems to have found its way to the neighborhood store and the cost that went into its production - not just the economics, but the cost to the earth.

It is worth taking a few minutes to read a few letters or essays he has written on the subject. 

Friday, September 23, 2011


[Valmiki Sarga 24-30, Kamban Tatakai padalam, Velvi padalam 1-5]


The adventure begins - it is part field trip, part trek, part on the job training as Vishwamitra take the young princes into the forest describing the origins of Sarayu. The geography and science deserves a separate post. Verse 15 of 24 for example lists a number of trees - other than Bilva I didn't know any - shame! Vishwamitra as part of explaining the origins of the forest starts with Vritra - Indra seems to be unjustly stained after the killing of the demon Vritra just because he was a brahman.

puraa vR^itra vadhe raama malena samabhiplutam || 1-24-18
kSudhaa caiva sahasraakSam brahma hatyaa sam aavishat |

Indra was never a favorite character so I didn't feel particularly bad, but I did to read what happened to Tataka.

Tataka is described as an epitome of beauty - ruupa yauvana shaliniim [1.25.18] that was before she tried to take revenge for the death of her husband. One could even argue that she was acting in self defence to protect her son Mareecha. I felt it was thoroughly unfair and chauvinistic of Agastya to not only curse her son to become a demon, but also make her look ugly. Why should she be deformed I could not understand - he seems to be responsible for creating a demon when there really was none.

bhakshaartham jaata sa.mrambhaa garjantI saa abhyadhaavata |
aapatantIm tu taam dR^iSTwaa agastyo bhagavaan R^iSiH || 
raakSasatvam bhajasva iti maariicam vyaajahaara saH | [1.25.11]

Rama's puzzled question of why they were all so terrified of a Yakshi remains, though Vishwamitra goes to some length in justifying to Rama that it was alright to kill a woman under the certain circumstances.

It is not revealed whether Rama thought it was justified. The young boy responds quite politely that he will do whatever it takes to fulfill his father's words. A promise is a promise and if I have to do this deed of killing a female I will do so, he seems to say. With hindsight, I thought this was a significant episode. Rama is definitely conscious of his duty and in a case of conflict he seems to fall back to his duty rather than pursuing his dilemma.

so.aham piturvacaH shrutvaa shaasanaad brahma vaadinaH |
kariSyaami na sa.ndehaH taaTakaa vadham uttamam || [1.26.4]

And then in a wonderful gesture that signifies his fair mindedness, he makes a thunderous noise from his bowstring warning Tataka.

evam uktvaa dhanurmadhye badhvaa muSTim arindamaH |
jyaa ghoSam akarot tiivram dishaH shabdena naadayan || [1.26.6]

Tataka puts up a fight, Rama still reluctant hurts her, mutilates her but does not seem to bring himself to kill her. And with a final push in the form of Vishwamitra's advise he kills her. The episode seemed like a great test of character - Rama thinks for himself, he questions, he even at the heat of the battle is brave and tries still not to do what he perceives as wrong. Yet, when he sees her might, when he realizes her capacity to destroy the sages, he does not shun away from killing her. Ability to question and an ability to change.

Lakshmana I know from my knowledge of Ramayana is going to make a habit of cutting off women's noses and ears. Though to be fair Rama seems to have put the idea in his head. 
saumitriH akarot krodhaat hR^ita karNaagra naasikaam || [1.26.18]

Now that Rama has done his job, he is rewarded with weaponry  - a long list of missiles litter the verses. Sanjay said - 'poor chap, Lakshmana, he didn't get any'. We scoured the text but couldn't find anything that implies Lakshmana too gained some weapons.

Again Rama shows intelligence and asks for knowledge on the destruction of the missiles. This was quite interesting. Was Rama just asking knowledge of defense ? That is, is he trying to improve his chances by knowing how to protect himself against an enemy who might employ similar astras? Or, even better, is he asking for knowledge to destroy an astra after deploying. If that is so, it is an uncommonly insightful question coming from a twelve year old boy.

gR^ihiita astro asmi bhagavan duraadharSaH suraiH api |
astraaNaam tu aham icChaami sa.mhaaram munipu.mgava || [1.28.2]

Sanjay was particularly impressed with the hymns Rama is taught. Not for the hymns themselves, but for tapasaa sa.mbhR^ite ca ete bahu ruupe bhaviSyataH | [1.28.19] -if you practice, if you nurture then no one can equal you.

The Sarga on Vamana   brought forth the same question I have always had about Mahabali, what evil deeds did he really do? I learnt to my surprise that he was the grandson of Prahalada. Same family bringing about two avatars!


With a brief description of the grove they spend the night in, Kamban moves the scene to a desert landscape.   Talk of atmosphere! I felt the heat as I read the verses.  [1.7.5 - 1.7.10]

Venile allthor ruthu verinmai - no season other than summer,
karuthin vem ullamum kaanin vem nayanamum - to think of this desert your heart aches, to see your eyes burn,
manamamani ilanthu anjinar nenju pol and many more gems. The poet even describes a mirage.

One point I was curious about was the lack of mention of sand. Palai does not necessarily translate to desert and it possibly in this context means the dry harsh landscape that one can see even today during the summer months in south Tamilnadu.  Tatakai in this version is as beautiful as Mahalakshmi - poomida mayilinai poruvum porpodum [1.7.25]- tragic really that here too Agastya curses Tatakai and her children to become demons.  Tatakai does seem to have become a complete demoness in further descriptions a few more notches compared to the earlier version. Perhaps Kamban too felt there wasn't a strong justification in the original version?

1.7.45 is very visual. Rama asked shaking his head, 'so where does she live?' I wonder if the shaking head is equivalent to modern shrugging.

Tatakai is more confrontational, she arrives in fiery form and taunts them. She asks if they came to provide her with sweet meat. She initiates the battle so to speak. Despite her actions, despite Vishwamitra's views, Rama hesitates because she is a woman. Vishwamitra is more convincing. Ikkodiyalai mathendrennuvatho?  He goes to say who is as masculine as her. Lists all her evil deeds.  eeril nallaram parthisaithen [1.7.65] 'I have weighed the pros and cons and am not saying this lightly'

Rama's response is intriguing and to some extent indicative of the kind of man Rama is or will be.

Aiyanangathu kettranallaavum
eithinaalathu seigavendrevinal
meiya ninnurai vethamenakkondu
seigai yandro varancheu marendran. [1.7.66]

'Even if it weren't fair, whatever you command I would execute' Rama is supremely conscious of his duty, of why his father had sent him with Vishwamitra. He has his views, he does not state he agrees with Vishwamitra, the poet doesn't explain if he was convinced. But to me the response clearly indicates he isn't. It is a ' a man's got to do what a man's got to do' response.

Kamban repeats the word "thee" in . Theeyanai, theembunal, theeyathan, theeyodu.. [1.7.67]somehow reinforcing the evil with the usage.

Kamban sparkles in the description of the battle between Rama and Tatakai. He knows the drama of the scene - Rama's first battle and his first victory against the demons.

Valiyai thottathum kuniththaum kandilar, 
soola matrana thundangal kandanar. [1.7.69]

They didn't see him touch or set the arrow all they saw was Tatakai's weapon broken. How spectacularly fast and efficient Rama is.

Sollokkum kadivegachuducharan kariya chemmal
Allokku niruthinanmel viduthalum vayirakundra
kallorkku nenjil thanga thapparng kazhandru kallap
pullarkku nallor sonna porulena poyitrandre. [1.7.71]

How arrow was faster than a word - essentially faster than the speed of sound- Mach 1. I especially liked the 'Kariya chemmal' The dark lord.  Dark is the color of the hero, the supreme lord. The weapon pierced her and went past her like the way a good advise goes past a fool.

Tatakai dies staining the ground with her blood, like an incongruous evening sky in land and everyone rejoices.

Rama gets his weapons. The weapons rejoice that they are now Rama's. 1.8.2 has a line describing the underlying philosophy of karma that Kamban subscribes to.

Theriya manaththan seitha nalvinai payangalellam 
mariya pirapir thedi varuva pol vantha vandre 

Like the way the fruits of good deeds from one birth automatically come to you the next, the weapons reached Rama.  Weapons are anthropomorphic.

The young princes move on to more adventures.

Groundhog Day

I have always wanted a groundhog day - I should actually be horrified at the idea of repeating the same day over and over, but somehow the idea seems inviting to me. It is sort of like the world pauses while you get to do whatever you want. In the movie, Phil masters the piano, probably gets to watch all the movies he had wanted to, reads hundreds of book all while he was still getting paid.

Coleridge may have lamented  "And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing, Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing" But I personally would have welcomed the idea.

I have finally woken up to the fact there is no groundhog day coming my way and no one is going to pay me for doing whatever I want. So I have bitten the bullet, so to speak. I am officially on a break whatever that means.

I am now in the mode of watching sundry TV programs and walking about rather aimlessly and eating salty snacks but once I get this out of my system I might actually enjoy doing nothing or enjoy not getting paid for what I want to do.

Monday, August 29, 2011

National Prozac

Last week while I was walking, a neighbor asked if I was joining the march to show our solidarity for Anna Hazare and team. I cringed as soon as the words, 'I have some reservations,' were out of my mouth. I realized more than the bill and the means to it, the way we as a nation have reacted to it is more interesting.

This is certainly a feel good, anti-depressant protest.

Television coverage, marching with candles, politician bashing etc. obviously makes one feel good, heck elevated even. It was not like someone is shooting the marchers down or even their livelihood was at stake. It gave us a sense of purpose, was time bound and had an escalated sense of urgency thanks to the fast. No wonder we gobbled it up.

And then thinking calmly, one starts wondering about the details - about the existing vigilance commissions and their effectiveness or lack thereof and one wonders if we can't find a single person of integrity in the parliament, with so many controversies surrounding some of the activists how are we going to find people to appoint as Lokpal and Lok Ayukta. As a nation did we have honest, intellectual debates? No.., no.., no.. We either reduced most of it to sound bytes, bent our knees to fasts, or better still made ad hominem attacks. [An occasional print media article was a rare exception]

Anyway - now that the Arab spring has come and gone, Lokpal bill part 1 has come and gone, we will have to deal with the withdrawal symptoms.

I get reminded of Tom Friedman's words - more steroid and less muscle building, that's what this is all about.

Unfortunately it is a complicated world, solutions wont be simple.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Birth and youth

[Valmiki Sarga 18 -23, Kamban 5 (contd.) and 6 ]


Not many surprises in the birth of Rama and his brothers - except that twelve months pass between the ritual and the birth. Naturally he is of sarva lakshana,  lohita aksham [1.18.20],- the lotus eyed and long limbed.

Events unfold in quick succession and before we know it the princes are growing up. Rama is not as nerdy as I imagined and is portrayed to be quite athletic, riding chariots and elephants, champion in archery etc.

gaja skandhe ashwa pR^iSTe cha ratha charyaasu sammataH || 
dhanur.hvede cha nirataH pituH shushR^ISaNe rataH | [1.18.27]

We also see a bond developing between Rama/Lakshmana and Barata/Shatrugna.

Vishwamitra arrives [almost a Kamban like poem] like rain on a drought affected land , like regaining a lost treasure. I was quite intrigued about this verse since Vishwamitra seems to have arrived with unreasonable demands. Sanjay felt that it is appropriate since this arrival gives way to the momentous actions later on.

athaa amR^itasya sa.mpraaptiH yathaa varSam anuudake || [1.18.50]
yathaa sadR^isha daareSu putra janma aprajasya vai |
praNaSTasya yathaa laabho yathaa harSo mahodaye || [1.18.51]
tathaa eva aagamanam manye svaagatam te mahaamune 

Vishwamitra quite boldly suggests Dasharatha send his darling sons to battle. Poor Dasharatha promptly swoons.

sa tan nishamya rAjendro vishvAmitra vacaH shubham || [1.19.20]
shokena mahataa aaviSTaH cacaala ca mumoha ca |

labdha sa.nj~naH tato utathaaya vyaSiidata bhayaanvitaH || [1.19.21]

Despite the gravity of the situation and being a thoroughly distraught parent being asked to send his twelve year old boy to battle,  Dasharatha is not comfortable rejecting Vishwamitra's demand for fear.  I found that the emperor of a powerful state, who has incidentally done a ashwamedha few years ago is still afraid of Vishwamitra. The part where he negotiates offering his army, himself, asking questions about the demons, explaining how young Rama and his brothers are are nice details that plays like a modern novel.  'He is just a boy, what does he know - he has to assess the enemy, he has no expertise in warfare,' reasons the distraught parent. Sanjay was particularly impressed how despite knowing the circumstances of Rama's birth, Dasharatha still lets his parental concerns overwhelm him.

baalo hi akR^ita vidyaH ca na ca vetti balaabalam |
na ca astra bala sa.myuk{}to na ca yuddha vishaaradaH || 
na ca asau rakSasaa yogyaH kuuTa yuddhaa hi raakshasaa | [1.20.7]

'Its not like the demons would play fair,' he bemoans. Here is where I felt Dasharatha is true to his character as a loving parent. 

prati shrutya kariSye iti uk{}tam vaakyam akurvataH |
iSTaapuurta vadho bhuuyaat tasmaat raamam visarjaya || [1.21.8]

is a precursor to what is going to happen later. If you promise something you must keep it at all costs - this message is going to haunt Dasharatha again.  Dasharatha is duly consoled and reassured and he sends Rama and Lakshamana with him. Vishwamitra does teach them some clever skills on the first day itself. I liked the final poem of sarga 22, though they slept on grass beds  tR^iNa shayane, they were quite happy - sukham iva vibabhau. 

They get ready the next morning -samhR^iSTau- with a great deal of enthusiasm which I felt was so true to the character of two barely teen-age boys out for an adventure. 


Except for a mention of possible anemia - mathiyamodoppa [1.5.100] during the pregnancy, the detail oriented Kamban too glosses over the pregnancy and childbirth.  The poets were male and this was clearly a female domain.  Odinar Arasan maattu [1.5.108] the nursemaids rushed to the emperor to tell the news and the emperor after a ritual bath, went with Vashishta to see his sons Komagarthirumugam kurugi nokkinan  [1.5.111]. Pregnancy and childbirth are reduced to a message through the maids and then the subsequent show of joy. The story is told, at least so far in a very male point of view. I wonder if it will change after Sita or remain the same.

Kamban attributes praise-worthy deeds to Dasharatha - upon hearing the good news of the birth, he decrees many measures - no tax for seven years, release of political prisoners, renovations of temples etc.

Alayam pudukkuga vanthanaalartham
salaiyum chathukkamunchamaikka santhiyum
kalaiyum malaiyun kadavularkani
malaiyum theepamum vazhangugaendranan [1.5.114]

I felt Kamban's more inclusive and socialist leanings are quite apparent in this series of poems. It reflects a more complex governance.

The citizens of the country are in equal celebratory mood. Already Dasharatha's great affection - body and soul - for Rama is articulated -
Kaviyamolirtharu kamalamumenave
Oviya eliludai oruvanaialathu or 
avaiyum udalum ilathena varulin
mevinanulagudai venthartham venthan [1.5.124]

This verse also briefly touches upon the dark beauty of Rama. After presumably their studies with the sages, Rama and his brothers spent the evenings with the citizens. Adding this to their rigorous athletic activities, they are the ideal princes. Kamban spares a couple of lines of details - 'What do you do? Are you well? And your family?" asks Rama to the citizens he meets and they praise his stewardship. It is an interesting line in Kamban when they say  Ninai ematharasanena udaiyem [1.5.135] - he  is not really their king yet, but they say how could we not be well when you are our king.

The episode with Vishwamitra is a separate padalam in Kamban titled 'Kaiyadai padalam' - the hand-over chapter. This chapter is one of the closest between the two versions.  The title itself portends things to come. When Vishwamitra arrives, the mighty king - kadithezhunthu adi thozhuthan [1.6.2] - stood up immediately, clearly telling who is important. There is a small side story about Sambasuran that was new to me. Killing asuras and helping Indra is something not new to Dasharatha. Vishwamitra recounts this perhaps with ulterior motives. Vishwamitra asks for Rama and here comes  most  poignant words describing Dasharatha's feelings. Kannilan petrilandhan [1.6.11] Like his life was in balance, like fire in a battle wound and then the most drastic - like a  man blind from birth gaining vision and then losing it. Vishwamitra's anger is very dramatic in Kamban. Vashista calms both of them down and persuades the king to send his son.

1.6.17 is a poem with beautiful sounds -
Vantha nambiyai thambi thannodummunthai
nanmarai munikku kaatti nalthanthai nee, 
thanithayunee ivarkkuenthai 
thanthananiyaintha seigendran

'I am handing them over to you, you are their mother, father, do what you can,' says Dasharatha. Did he say this with complete faith thanks to Vashishta's counsel or with a lot of worry. Kamban doesn't say.Off they go past picturesque scenes to a grove. The padalam finishes with Rama asking whose grove it was.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fast track - move on

I watch the ad series for fast track with mixed emotions. The first thought is - it is cute. But when I think about it more deeply though [I know, why would anyone want to think about ads!] I find the whole philosophy of speeding things up disturbing. Are we as a generation not interested to spend time and energy going deep into anything? Are we so tuned to instant information that we don't feel like striving for anything? Are we even trained to think long term? Even nations seem to think in terms of mere decades [that too nations like Maldives that are likely to go under the sea in the next few decades].

Is the reminder of our own mortality - natural disasters, terrorism, accidents everday - making us all want to rush through life like there is no tomorrow?

What if I did live for a couple of more decades instead? What am I going to be able to show for myself?

Friday, August 05, 2011

Ashwamedha - The horse ritual

[Valmiki Sarga 11-17, Kamban Padalam 5 ]

Sanjay smiled as soon as we began and said that this was going to be an interesting discussion.


Narration continues with Dasharatha seeking Rishyasringa to invite him to his kingdom. He readily agrees, and is brought forth with much pomp and glory. The verse

tataH pramuditaaH sarve dR^iSTvaa tam naagaraa dvijam || 
praveshyamaanam satkR^itya narendreNa indra karmaNaa |
yathaa divi surendreNa sahasraaksheNa kaashyapam [1.11.27]
compares Dasharatha to Indra but more than that Rishyasringa to Vamana. That was a surprise to me.

It is interesting to note that the preparation didn't happen overnight and it took about a year and then another year when the horse wanders off. The description of the ritual, starting with the building of the hall gives me a clue as to why the ministers were all so enthusiastic. Clearly hundreds of jobs were created -  halls for the Brahmins,  arrangements for the city-dwellers, accommodation for visiting Kings, stalls for elephants and horses etc. needed to be built, soldiers following the horse had to be recruited and so much business with regards to the supplies. No wonder this is a ritual that only Kings performed and our epics have only a few mentions.

Sarga 14 is a shocker to modern sensibilities and is certainly not for the faint hearted.  In short, after a detailed description of the fire altar we learn

pashuunaam trishatam tatra yuupeSu niyatam tadaa |
ashva ratnaH uttamam tasya raaj~no dasharathasya ha [1.14.32]

Three hundred animals along with the horse that has come back after wandering about for a year are sacrificied. And, here is the total kicker, it is Queen Kaushalya, with great delight, paramayaa mudaa [1.14.33], who stabs the horse and then weirdly spends the night next to the dead horse as per the ritual. There is also the 'donation' of the wives to the Brahmans [they are returned back of course upon other compensation].

Sarga 14 is problematic in the sense the interpretations are needlessly explosive. Either we bow to the modern jingoist/revival environment and look desperately for allegory and symbolism, where there really isn't any. Or we take the position that everything in the Hindu mythology is trash and barbaric. In both cases forgetting that we are possibly talking of something two to three millenia in the past. To me the fascinating part is the connection of cause and effect - these rituals and sacrifices are so elaborate but are not remotely connected to the problem at hand. How is the ashwamedha justified for fertility?

In Sarga 15 much to my surprise I find the mention of Ravana. Ravana is established to be a thorough rakshasha torturing sages, full of conceit even striyaH api apakarSati cha [1.16.6] abducting woman [ a hint to events to be unfolded]. It is as though the whole premise for Ramayana is the killing of Ravana.  If one were to reflect on the two birds at the beginning,  the fundamental basis for Ramayana is supposed to be the sorrow of parting. But in Sarga 15-17, it is clearly not the case. This avatar is meant for killing Ravana. And Ravana is an already established demon King. That was a big surprise to me for I had always been under the impression unlike the other avatars, Rama avatar's purpose was not just the slaying of Ravana.

I had to smile at antardhaanam gato devaiH puujya maano maharShibhiH [1.16.10]. Vishnu is certainly an impatient God. While his virtues are being extolled, he vanishes.

The putrakameshti yaga follows suit and the payasam is divided amidst the queens. [1.16.27,28,29] I can see the debate as to whether only one of the children [we know already there are going to be 4 - second queen drinks it twice] is the avatar or are all four part of the avatar would seem interesting from religious scholarship.

Another surprise is the birth of the vanaras and how they are all sundry devas. Well, maybe not sundry - a few biggies there too - Jambavan for example.

Next is the birth of the lord.


Kamban rearranges the narrative slightly and covers all of the action in a single padalam.  Dasharath is more humble here. [1.5.1]Munivaratroludhu - he asks with humility, [1.5.3] pirithoru kurayillai vaiyagam marukumenbathor marukkamundaro - 'I am not asking for selfish reasons, I am asking because I am worried about the future of my people' - there is none of the high-handedness that I felt in the earlier version.

The narrative switches as a stream of consciousness - Vashista connects the promise of Lord Vishnu to protect the world from the demons to his king's dilemma. Then he suggests Dashratha perform a yagna. I thought this was a clever attempt to get some semblance of story sequencing.

Apart from Ravana, the triumph of Megnath over Indra is mentioned making this more personal to the Devas. The biggest surprise was the portrayal of Shiva. Clearly Kamban is a deep vaishnavaite - Shiva is portrayed almost like a minor god - he goes along with the other Devas to beseech  Brahma [1.5.8] Nanmugak kadavulai adi tholuthu, then later [1.5.10] Seyalindrengalal deciding in consultation with Brahma that Thirumal needs to be approached.

Thirumal [Mahavishnu] declares that he will be born as the son of Dasharatha and here with no confusion also declares that his Shanka, Chakra and Adishesha will be born as his brothers. [1.5.25] Kamban clearly subscribed to the school of thought that Rama is a purnavatar. The vanaras birth is also duly explained.

Vashishta, keeping in mind all this suggests Dashrath brings Rishyashringa to preside over the yaga. Kamban's Rishyashringa  gets angry when he finds out that he has been duped into coming to the country first and [1.5.51] King Romapada has to beg for forgiveness. I liked this minor variation better - it gave more flesh to the character of Rishyashringa.

The whole of Ashwamedha is reduced to a single verse in Kamban - [1.5.84]
Mulangalan mummaiyumudugi yaguthi
Valangiye iraru thingal vaithapin
thalangina thunthumi thavil vanagam
vilunginar vinnavar veliyindrannave.

There is no mention of animal sacrifice, no horse running around and getting stabbed by the queen. It is simply a year long prayer at the end of which the three queens get their dessert. Dasharath does donate a lot to the utmost satisfaction and happiness of everyone, but this version is completely lacking of the elements of ritual.

The millennia passage and possibly a dominance of the Dravidian outlook towards the rituals clearly has an effect on the narrative. In the hundred or so verses in this padalam, Kamban spares just a verse for the ritual itself. Already by the eleventh century we are seeing a more 'modern' form of the ancient religion.

Friday, July 29, 2011


I picked up the book "Makers of modern India" more because of the fact it was compiled by Ramachandra Guha. My interests were mainly to see who he picked, out of my respect for his works, than to learn anything new. In all arrogance, I thought I would know all of them, at the least by name.

What a shocker that I had not heard of Tarabai Shinde. And what a shame I have read Mary Wallstonecraft but not Tarabai. The writings are fiery, even in translation. The words mocking, flowing, intelligent..

I can't help but admire her comments on Guru's which more than a century later still holds good.

"He sits there as the women come to take darshan and prays on very different beads. He picks out some specially who are young and freshly nubile, and there he sits, meditating and repeating to himself, this one's nice, that one's pretty! Not a word about your Shiva or Hari, they're all forgotten! The only name on his lips is the girl's who looks like the milkmaid Radha."

Here is another gem..

"When Krishna got Arjuna to disguise himself as a big holy man and steal Subhadra away, the Yadavas sons said to each other 'A holy man's carried Aunty off!' But do you ever hear of the aunty carrying off the holy man?"

She has some scathing comments for Rama too..

How could I have possibly not heard of her book "A comparison of Men and Women."

Here is to another monsoon evening read!

Monday, July 25, 2011


[Valmiki Sarga 4-10, Kamban Padalam 1-4 ]


They knew people like me would hear or read this, I thought as soon as I read the words "anasuuyataa shrotavyam. [1.5.4]" 'Listen, park your trivial objections and read it without finding unnecessary faults,' Valmiki seems to be telling me personally.  Nevertheless,  skeptic is my middle name so that demand is unlikely to daunt me. 

The description of the city of Ayodhya amazes me, it reads almost like a modern metropolis - skyscrapers [7 stories tall, how did they build it?], teeming with people, no space wasted,  hundreds of square miles in area [possibly larger than Bangalore going by the 10 yojana by 3 yojana measurement].  I say almost because unlike the modern metropolis Ayodhya also has abundant water. The streets were sprinkled with water and flowers. I wonder why, was it to keep the dust down and as a warm welcome?

The city has moats and soldiers guarding it with modern weapons, so clearly they were sharp on their defense. The virtues of the horses and the elephants [not much mention of cows!] in the city is extolled. The horses are bred from countries like Kaambhoja [which Sanjay tells me is Kabul], Baahlika etc.

The description of the people made me feel that it was an extremely boring country to live in. Everyone is contented, virtuous, scholarly,  they all seem to enjoy good health and are all uniformly happy. It is like Ramarajya ahead of time. I was a little put out by the use of the word Mahatma for Dasharatha somehow feeling he didn't deserve it.

One part that struck both Sanjay and me was the notes on grooming - people of Ayodhya did not go without earrings, turbans and - get this - did not go unscented or unadorned with sandal paste.
na akuNDalii na amukuTii na asragvii na alpabhogavaan |
na amR^iSTo na aliptaa~Ngo na asugandhaH cha vidyate [1.6.10]

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife would be lost on the citizens of Ayodhya for there was no one para daara ratoH naraH. [1.7.15]

Sanjay was quite impressed with the fact that Dasharatha could charm the urban dwellers as well as the rural population 'paura janapada priyaH'. But, he was not impressed with the 'naastiko na'. As part of listing all the sins that the good citizens of Ayodhya didn't commit, the sage says there weren't any atheists. Sanjay felt that was surprising since he didn't think atheism was necessarily a sin according to Hindu traditions.

With such citizens, needless to say the ministers are equally impressive - there seems to be two types of ministers some holding the posts due to heredity, others not. We see the same pattern in the descriptions of the ministers - they are not just smart, they are also polite and clean [suchiinaam ].  Of course the clincher was that the Ministers efficiency and relationships were subject to some sort of a vigilance. kushalaa vyvahaareshhu sauhR^ideshhu pariikshitaaH [1.7.10]

There is a line with regards to taxation that we both debated about. brahma kShatram ahi.msantaH te kosham samapuurayan [1.7.13] Does that mean that the Brahmins and Kshatriyas were exempt from taxes or that they had a better tax bracket? I am inclined to think the former whereas Sanjay thinks its the latter.

As we move forward, we get a glimpse of Dasharatha's state of mind. mama laalasya maanasya [1.8.8]. He is perturbed about not having a son, all is not clearly well as we had been led to believe in the earlier chapter. It is odd he declares one fine morning, that the ashwamedha yaga is the solution for his predicament. Ashwameda yaga requires considerable resources from the government and I suppose it is after all for the future king so is legitimate. Yet, Dasharatha comes up with the idea seemingly out of thin air and asks for the courtier's advise and not vice-versa. Naturally with great adoration they agree it is the right thing to do. I wonder if it is somehow connected to the whole enthusiastic description of the horses earlier.  He even mentions it to his wives much later, and just tells them to follow. Sanjay thought this was a righteous thing to do, putting kingdom before family, but I was inclined to think the whole episode was high handed.

The story of Rishyashringa that I have heard seemed more adult rated compared to what I read in the Ramayana. The courtesans didn't entice him by dancing away to an item number, nor did Rishyashringa seem to get thoroughly intoxicated. Its like a bare outline story of Rishyashringa is given and the rest is either assumed to be known to the listener or is left to the listener's imagination.

Can't wait for the birth of our hero.

Kamaban :

Kamaban is a poet - yes this is a retelling of a great epic and he does so with the humility of a very devout man but what comes through most strikingly is that he is first and foremost a brilliant poet. It shines through as  I begin to read the first few verses.

Kamban's epic rendering starts with the river, it makes sense after all civilization originated on the great river banks. The wandering clouds, the rains, the origin of the river in the himalayas, its course towards Ayodhya are sung in glorious details full of such delightful and unexpected similes.  Clouds white like the color of the holy ash smeared lord became dark like the color of the lord who has Lakshmi in his heart - Neeranintha kadavunirathavan, thirumangaithan veeraninthavan meni [1.1.2] -, River is filled with various objects - flowers, wood and minerals colorful like a rainbow he says. He compares the river chanelling to tributaries to family lineages and many more such beautiful similes abound.

The comparison of the river to a mother's breast was poetic but I had to sit up at the comparison of the river to a whore. Verse [1.1.6] - 'With her fleeting touch of the body from forehead to toe she carries off all the riches,' he compares thus the river flood falling off the mountain top.

Kamban outlines his secular views with a beautiful verse - like the same water sometime manifesting as a river, as a lake, as a pond religions worship the same Almighty in different forms.

Kallidaippiranthu ponthu kadalidaikalantha  neetham
ellaiyin marakalalumiyamparum poruleethenna
thollaiyilondreyagi thuraithorum parantha shoolchi
palperunchamayam sollum porulum porparanthathandre. [1.1.19]

Kamban seems to be so interested in describing the beauty of the country and then the city that he spends more than a hundred verses. Here too the country seems to be a great place to live and Kamban paints pictures of prosperity [Flowers and bees and cane filled fields, buffaloes lounging by the ponds]. Kamban's descriptions deals with aesthetics and the picturesque. What caught my attention was the presence of women through out his poems. He describes their beauty and their talents  tirelessly. This Ayodhya and possibly the chola kingdom it was modelled after is quite modern.

The citizens spend their time in debates, music, social gaming [whole verse on cock-fights!] and their love life also seems to occupy a lot of their time. Women definitely are learned - yay! - Selvamum Kalviyum poothalal.

The city description is equally elaborate with the fort walls, the moat and even the woods beyond the moat described in lyrical terms.

Other eye-catchers in the trove of verses include
Geographical consciousness - Kamban describes the effects of the river on the five types of land in great details [Forest, Mountainous, Farm, Desert, Seashore] , and the agriculture and the crops and the types of crops [grains, fruit trees, lentils, tubers, greens]
Describing the noises/smoke of the country and the city  [1.2.41, 1.3.41, 1.2.57]

Kamban almost tongue in cheek says things were so great that people didn't realize how great things were.

Vanmaillai or Varumaiinamaiyal
Thinmaiyillai Nerserunarinmaiyal
Unmaillai Poiyurailamaiyal
Onmayillai palkelviyongalal [1.2.53]

The fourth padalam praises Dasharath in the similar levels though not in similar lengths as that of Valmiki. The approach here is to elaborately set the description of the country and the city and conclude by the ability and valor of the king.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Poetry in motion

Monsoon clouds hung low. Cars, buses and motorcycles clogged the narrow road, din of impatient honking filled the air and I sat by the window of my car staring out unseeingly. The car moved a little, a beam of sunlight broke through the clouds and I saw it - perched on a stone bench, about a foot high, unpolished, granite sculpture of an elephant, its trunk slightly twisted in mid motion, its ears wide open, staring straight at me. Droplets of water glistened in the evening sun's rays.

Traffic light changed, we moved on, the moment captured in my mind in an indelible black and white picture.

Some years ago I might have jumped out of the car, ran back the way and bought the elephant. Yesterday I simply savored the moment.

I have no doubt the sculpture will remain longer with me this way.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Days like this..

Sat through a long boring meeting all bleary eyed, yawning. The yawning was because I spent a sleepless night. So that's nothing new for a certified insomniac like me. Right from childhood my brain has exhibited an amazing capability to context switch - I am losing some of it now - but typically I could switch seamlessly from one thread to another faster than most people. But when it comes to shutdown for sleep it is a different thing altogether.

Thoughts thrash about, skitter and scatter. Dogs howl, the clock ticks and before I know it the early morning light creeps on the sky outside my east facing window. I have spent another night sleepless, my brain still trying to figure it all out.

Human brain is the ultimate frontier.

I often joke that there is so much of me sitting in bits and pieces in systems all over the world, a future technology might be able to reconstruct me. What I am is not just the thoughts that plague me well into the night, but also how I am perceived based on my expressions.

I am just a sum of all my chemical induced behavior.

Guess that gives me the freedom to say 'It depends' to the questions on deadlines I get asked routinely.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Seeking Spirituality

Made a brief trip to Thiruvannamalai for an occasion. The back breaking journey of five hours brought me to the town, late in the evening. Dead tired, I crashed in a small hotel and walked up to a roadside place to eat the lukewarm masala dosa. I couldn't help but notice the young white woman sitting nearby flipping through a book that had some pictures of gods and clearly was something about religion.

Why would this woman want to come to Thiruvannamalai to seek spirituality I wondered. The filthy road, the leering men by the sidewalk, the cheating cashiers and wild stray dogs did not particularly make it seem conducive for a spiritual quest.

I know about the ashram and perhaps there are spots in the town that are peaceful.

I was still left with the question of why one needs to go someplace - is it really external? A guru, a location, an experience - is the journey to spirituality outside the self?

Thursday, June 02, 2011


By some quirky neuron connections, when I hear the word Vertigo, an image of Gregory Peck clenching his jaws and staring intently at something pops into my mind. I know Gregory Peck didn't act in Vertigo and the image is from Spellbound but who cares - Greg is the handsomest..

All that went out the door yesterday after a nasty spell of Vertigo. I was sprawled on the bed panic stricken unable to even raise my head. My head was spinning, spinning.. I tried to bring myself to get up and get to a hospital but it was so intense I just couldn't move. The onslaught was sudden and random [unless you count a complicated episode of Lost that I was watching] and it scared the heck out of me.

A day later the feeling still persists and I am now at least walking around albeit gingerly like an eighty year old. Vertigo is an interesting topic to research. None of the websites helped me narrow down what my problem could be.

The whole episode got me pondering about relationships and information. Rewind twenty years ago, we'd have had a lot of people in the house and the doctor who knew me well would have paid a visit home and I wouldn't have a clue of what he was really diagnosing. Now I have all the information in the world, but no one to reassure. Have I really lost anything and have I really gained anything?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Tere Bin Laden

I have wasted many idle evenings in surfing HBO, Star movies and the likes. Thankfully, I have finally discovered news channels are a lot more entertaining than the movie channels and reruns of Friends.

As the news hit the airwaves, at prime time almost all the English media channels in this country had an anchor who was yelling at the top of his voice at some unfortunate Pakistani journalist or researcher who had agreed to be on their show. The jingoist rhetorics without even a pretense of a question was fun to watch. For example, 'should Pakistan be declared as a terror state?' - was one question. The anchor had no interest in really hearing the answer unless it was a yes. His guests didn't oblige him and he didn't bother giving them airtime more than a minute. The cheers in NY or the 'We will hunt you down' posturing from American establishment wasn't particularly intellectual either. But then who really is expecting anything intellectual?

I missed the days when I had discovered the power of internet - my morning dose of newspaper in those days included the headlines from 'Dawn'. Interestingly today when I tried connecting to 'Dawn' it gave me a funny error and made me wait for some security check whatever that is.

The Gotcha blog restored my faith that there are still some people left who can look at a problem with balance and intelligence despite the overwhelming screams of the rest of the country in a different direction.

Another couple of hours spent in reading print media - likes of Guardian, Mother Jones etc. would be a good preemptive strike against any possible invasion to the mind.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chennai trip

Drove to chennai for the long weekend. Froze two bottles of water imagining it would be a hot drive; it turned out to be a cloudy, rainy drive, almost monsoon like conditions. I ate a lot, walked some - more like wandered aimlessly in mylapore streets and spent the time in election news and family gossip.

Briefly stopped to see the swanky Anna centenary library. Stunning complex, shining rows of books, computer terminals, sofas to sit... I had to ask myself if I was dreaming. Predictably the children's section was the most bustling with activity followed by the magazine section. The philosophy, sociology, culture sections hardly had anyone. I wondered if I should optimistically be thrilled about the fact that many parents were bringing their children to the library. The cynical part of me wondered if it is truly a love of books and knowledge and if so why weren't the parents themselves flocking the other floors. Thankfully there were lots of books to grab my attention and I didn't spend too much time dwelling on such dilemmas.

When I walked out the sky was dark and I stood out sometime staring at the modern structure. Would it have been money better spent to revamp the Connemara library and all the district central libraries?

Ah, well..What do I know!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Doctor appointment

Yesterday was a binge night - spent until 3:00 AM watching old star trek TOS episodes. Woke up bleary eyed late for the doctor appointment. I hate going to hospitals but this morning wasn't too bad. OPD seemed full of bright young healthy people. There was an Arabic family that I spent some time observing. It was obviously the patriarch who was there to get some treatment - there were no women with them but atleast three or four men - from their faces likely his sons or son in laws. I was impressed that they had all made the trip abroad for the elder. They must be rolling in money, probably that makes things easier. The white robes up close seemed more satin like than cotton like as I had imagined. Either way the long white robe is the best attire for a hot place, so sensible with the protection to the head too. Why would the women dress in black that absorbed so much heat, I wondered.

Doctors prognosis was not good. I walked out and saw the pamphlet about Good Friday prayer meeting inviting people for miraculous healing. Brilliant piece of marketing to put it in OPD.

Sujatha's words bubbled up -

People come, people go
Selling prayers, Selling soap,
Human albumin and hope.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Since I blogged last, Anna Hazare got explosive coverage in the north Indian media and has further gotten into controversy. Fast track world!

Rushing to a meeting early morning last week I found to my dismay my blazer was not pressed and was full of creases. I frantically looked for a laundromat and I came across one open. I handed the blazer and was impressed with the dedication he showed in pressing it. Though I was in a hurry, he took his time making sure every crease vanished and I thought here was a lesson for me. It is about doing a job well, not rushing into something..

And then he charged me five times what was the going rate. Goes to show!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An afternoon in Dubai

Spent a nice afternoon looking around Dubai. The airport was high tech and the first time when I got ID-ed by an iris scan. I wondered idly how much about me lives in machines. Can someone completely 'reconstruct' me based on the online information?

Decided to get a cab considering the short duration and the hotel staff obliged by hiring one. After a minute hesitation, the driver/guide told me he was from Pakistan. A very knowledgeable and courteous young man, he took us around to wherever I wanted to go.

I told him I had no intentions of visiting the malls. We started with the burdubai region, generally driving past the predominantly Indian crowd and the Indian shops, marveled at the air conditioned bus stops, sandy buildings and the amount of greenery.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lok Pal Bill

In the aftermath of Egypt, Ivory Coast and Libya, the protest around Lok Pal Bill should capture the media and blogosphere - sadly not as much as I expected. Tendulkar and team India gets more time than Anna Hazare. I am sure this will change in the upcoming days - IPL will get more time than Anna Hazare.

This protest and the bill deserves to be debated at a large scale and not just because of the men and women behind it.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


With everyone and her grandmother having celebrated the victory there is hardly anything left to say. I was however amazed at the energy levels of the fans - through the day I saw many processions with drum beats and marches, could hear the loud groans and applauses from nearby streets and then firecrackers and horns well past midnight. What is it that makes the fans give so much for this game or for any game? I fail to understand.

How I wish I could!

Friday, April 01, 2011


The new McDonald's ad is clever, charming and mildly irritating. Mildly irritating because of the stereo-types it reinforces. The boy buys, the girl is demanding etc. etc. It makes bespectacled non demanding creatures like me indignant.

I got reminded of a dialog in Disclosure when Sanders asks Hunter who she supports and she responds - "You's funny how you always assumed you'd get the job. But nobody ever thought for a second it might be me. Hunter! not someone you'd follow into battle. A team player. No killer instinct. Doesn't have those tools. What is that all a code for? I studied engineering for eight years. I was the only woman in the department. You know what I did? I worked."

And I also got reminded of another McDonald's ad - even more charming than this one. The son opens his piggy bank to get a happy meal for his mom who looks upset.

The Prologue

[Valmiki Sarga 1-4, Kamban Tharchirappu Payiram]

We sit by the restaurant with the unholy plate of bhajjis, I look uneasily at the volume of work and I wonder what possessed me to make the off the cuff remark about reading Valmiki and Kamban. I know I wanted something that was a long term project and something not trivial but this is very serious - numerous sargas/padalams with hundreds of verses spread over 6 Kandas - are we ever going to finish? Sanjay casually says its a four year project and I make some vague remark about a plan. We start nevertheless, I fervently hope we finish.

Valmiki :

The first thing that strikes me as we start reading Valmiki Ramayana is the format of the opening. Valmiki asks Narada, who is cleverly established upfront as a discerning thinker and articulator,  to tell the story of the most principled, courageous, able, good looking man. Narada responds by further extolling the virtues of the hero -

buddhimaan niitimaan vaa~Ngmii shriimaan shatru nibarhaNaH |
vipulaa.mso mahaabaahuH ka.mbu griivo mahaahanuH
mahorasko maheSvaaso guuDha jatruH arindamaH |
aajaanu baahuH sushiraaH sulalaaTaH suvikramaH   [1.1.9]

This is the story of the man - that it is not a plot driven story but a character driven one. The hero is the supreme motivation for the story, it is crystal clear, leaving no doubt in the reader's mind - all I am curious about now is what did this man do to deserve these accolades.

The next surprise was how the following verses literally tell the synopsis of the whole story. As a modern reader I find it intriguing whether in the retelling in the ancient times, did they really start with this opening? Did they really gave away the ending so to speak? If yes, what a gutsy way to tell the story.

There are indications Rama is God incarnate - prajaapati samaH shriimaan [1.1.13],  but it is not explicitly repeated. The accolades oscillates  from character based  - just, righteous,  learned... to looks based - high cheek bones, long arms, broad-shouldered... to abilities based - destroyer of enemies, intelligent, possessor of long bow - as though the writer doesn't want to leave any room for debate. Whichever way you cut it, to paraphrase Shakespeare he is THE MAN.

The synopsis tells the whole story in rapid succession of events giving glimpses of characters and actions. Sita predictably is described as ever amiable and in the context of Rama - Rama's praaNa samaa [1.1.26]. Lakshmana  surprisingly does not get much air time, Shatrughna does not even merit a mention whereas Sabhari and Tara do. We see surprisingly more glimpses of Sundara Kanda than of Yuddha Kanda. A pattern of minor and major characters and events begin to emerge.

Rama is often described as Ajanu Bahu, Maha Bahu - almost repetitively centering on the abilities of his arms, making one wonder about the symbolism.

The much debated agni pariksha is no doubt mentioned, two sets of words there surprised me - first is the 'humiliation' Rama felt at having to reclaim his wife from Ravana - vriiidam upagaamat [1.1.81].  Why  shame and humiliation after the victory, what was he expecting really that he spoke harshly to Sita in front of the assemblage? The second word that surprised was vigata kalmasaam [1.1.83].  In the context of Sita coming out of the fire the word used is getting rid of her sins not proving that she is sinless. Both are interesting hooks for me to watch for later.

The part I liked the most is how when Sugreeva doubts Rama's capability to fight Vali, Rama with a self assured smile, flicks the remains of Dhundubi with his big toe. It is a classic case of someone knowing their power full well, demonstrating it with a casual assurance. utsmayitvaa ca [1.1.65]  he  not only flicked the thing, but did it with a smile. My kind of hero.

Second sarga turns direction and goes into the present as it tracks Valmiki by the banks of the Tamasa river and the story of the krouncha birds. With Valmiki staying so close to the Tamasa river, why is it that he never heard of this great man before I wondered. The story of the Krauncha birds, mostly agreed upon as the Sarus cranes, raises more questions than answers - why is there a reference to the hunter as paapa nishchayaH [1.2.10], is hunting for food evil, or perhaps this is a special case because of the fact the birds were mating. I think it is the latter if not the curse for ages seems disproportional and unlike the hindu scriptures of that time.

The interesting but believable part is how as soon as he utters the verse in the height of his sorrow, the focus shifts from the bird's plight to his own creativity. Valmiki almost obsesses about his ability to speak in poetic terms that Brahma seems to ask him to move on with writing with the Ramayana. The birds are a sacrifice at the altar of poetry. I also find it intriguing why Shoka or grief and sorrow is the root emotion for the epic. Is the central theme of Ramayana the sorrow of parting a loved one?

In sarga three,  I found it interesting that the narrative is said to be revealed to Valmiki through his yogic insight - is that euphemism for imagination?

As Valmiki seeks further details, we see some passing references to ritualistic and social details of the times that I found fascinating - facing eastward, the use of darbhe, touching water, amalakam in the hand etc.

More idolatory words describing rama as though the author can't have enough of it.
sumahad viiryam sarvaanukuulataam |
lokasya priyataam kshaantim saumyataam satya shiilataam [1.3.10]

The course of sarga three goes into further details almost sketching the episodes that are going to come up. More minor characters that didn't make it in sarga two get referenced here.

 I found the aapaana bhuumi gamana [1.3.29], visit to a bar(?) by Hanuman in the course of searching in Lanka  an interesting highlight in the synopsis. Does that an indicator that bars were not indicative of a just kingdom?

Finally there is a reference to this being Sita's story  siitaayaaH charitam mahat . The verse describing the ramayana as embodying nava rasha is a good bait, will have to see if it really does.

The fourth sarga is a puzzle to me. I subscribe to the school of thought that uttarakanda is not part of the original ramayana and thus I found the sarga four somewhat of a misfit. Lava and Kusha make an appearance more so to sing the ballads composed by Valmiki as his disciples. In which case, if they were indeed Rama's sons why could Sita have not told her story, why does it say it happened long ago and the verses also say that they sang it to Rama himself. The time element didn't compute for me.

At the end of the prologue I have a good idea of what type of story this is going to be, a sampling of events and some idea of the author himself.

Kamban :

Kamban's prologue, many centuries latter is much smaller and does not give any synopsis. The beginning prayer is striking in its simple profoundness. Kamban bows to the One who creates, protects and destroys this world in an eternal game in the first verse.

He then gets on with the difficulties of embarking on such a project. The verses depict his humility, the scope of the project and the anxiety that it brings.

'How am I going to talk about something even great minds can't explain,' - 'Sirgunaththar therivaru nannilai ergunatharithu, [TP.2] ' he asks with anxiety. 'I'm like a cat in front of the great ocean of milk where Vishnu resides' [ksheera sagara/parkadal] he bemoans.  And then in an elegant shift he says, 'my desire has made me shed the fear of shame and here I have embarked on retelling this great story.'

Valmiki Ramayana must have already been considered as an important scripture and as he started the retelling, he must have been aware of the critics waiting in the wings. Kamban  sort of negates all of it by the disclaimers. He declares himself to be a child, a madman. What else can anyone say worse?

There is due respect to Valmiki and a two line mention of the episode with the birds but clearly Kamban is not out to do a translation. He is out to retell, adapt or even be just inspired by.

Kamban's intro is succint and doesn't give a lot of details about the story itself, he mentions almost in passing - nadayindruyar nayagan [TP:11] - the story of a hero of character.

With a short blessing he finishes the prologue and starts the Ramayana with the first padalam.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I wrote a short story recently. During my college days my friends and I would finish each others story or write from a different view point with a twist etc. I did something similar by writing a different view point to my friends popular story. There were responses appreciating the work.

Unfortunately, it was all for the wrong reasons. The irony and subtlety, that I was appreciating myself for, that I was particularly proud of was completely lost on my readers. Here I was thinking I have made a profound statement by highlighting a hidden dimension of the protagonist and not a single reader caught it.

Of course the fault could simply be the way I wrote it - however my friend who did catch the twist that I gave to his character told me kindly that this sort of highbrow style wont work. I felt extremely depressed - and I call myself an aspiring writer.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Monday blues

Last monday was a big news day - Oscars, Budget presentation, Cricket world cup tied match - I was thinking how easy it was when I was in school. All I had to do was fake a stomach ache and I could have stayed home. With the ability to connect from anywhere to do the work, with your colleagues having the ability to reach you multiple ways and that darn thing called responsibility Monday mornings have only become worse.

Colin Firth won - was reminded of the early facebook less, twitter less age when he still managed to capture a lot of attention as Mr.Darcy.

I don't encounter stutterers these days - same as people with bad teeth, unlike during my school days. I wonder if middle class is highly aware of the intervention mechanisms and are fixing such problems much ahead of time. Would that make children these days more likely to mock or less likely?

I don't see many young children or young adults with dimples these days either.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Was awe struck watching the redbulls at the Aero show. As the two planes crossed each other within hair's breath there was a collective gasp from the audience and then a round of applause. It must have taken years of practice but I also wonder if some of us are better suited to do such things than others. With my unsteady hands and nausea prone body, hypothetically even if I had spent twenty years of my early life practicing would I have made it? I doubt. Heart surgeons and test pilots are my ideal.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Marketable skills

So I am sitting on a chair by the window staring out - they advise you find a job you really love to do - the problem is I don't think anyone would pay for the things I like to do. Let us see - I like to mindlessly watch youtube videos (political satire, cute ads), argue a point to death in a loud voice, read the same books again and again, surf the internet on obscure topics (myth of Aryan invasion, Shakespeare authorship), the aforementioned staring out the window... No, I don't think anyone would pay me for these.

In the meantime I have to carry on the way I do now - a mental equivalent of bulimia. I restrain myself for a few days and then have episodes where I do all or some of the above in a binge until 2 AM in the morning. Unfortunately there is no cerebral equivalent to sticking your fingers down your throat.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

New year new blog

In the movie Bridget Jones's Diary, Mark Darcy scathingly describes Bridget as verbally incontinent. I get reminded of it often these days - the whole planet seems to have become electronically incontinent.

Last year, the commonwealth games was not enough of a temptation for me, I had successfully resisted the spectrum scam, heck I had even remained silent at the face of Ayodhya verdict. So I suppose as one of the early bloggers I am on the downward curve now, a sort of blogging fatigue.

Anyway, here is my new year wish - Let me always be interested in something and have the ability to exercise that interest.