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 know...it'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.