Thursday, November 19, 2015

Spilling the beans

Even vegetables have some self-respect. They hate it when perfectly normal people question their very identity and confuse them for fruits. It’s like mixing up baseball with cricket or for that matter, committing the abacharam of confusing an Iyer for an Iyengar!

The tomato was caught in one such terrible mix-up in 1893, when an American gentleman named Edward L. Hedden, threw the dictionary at it and declared that any ‘seed-bearing’ plant-part should automatically be labelled as a ‘fruit’. But the Supreme Court of the United States restored its dignity by asserting that common parlance counts a lot more than botany and if the world referred to the tomato as a vegetable, it shall be regarded so. Tomatoes have never looked back ever since.

Talking of vegetable identities, do you know that different varieties of farm produce have different names in India? For example, the cauliflower grown in Varanasi is called Kashi Kunwari (aka Varanasi Virgin)! ‘Deepali’ and ‘Snowball’ are the other cultivars.

Usually the hue of the veggie decides the name. ‘Detroit Dark Red’ and ‘Crimson Globe’ are the most common types of Beetroot in our part of the world. Similarly ‘Purple Long’, ‘Shyamala’ (the dark one), ‘Neelakant’ (blue throat), ‘Jamuni’ (blackish), and ‘Krishna’ (dark blue) are Brinjal variants. Fenugreek seeds are yellow, so the Indian type is called ‘Sonali’ (golden). Likewise the saffron shades of carrots are called ‘Kesar’. Green Chilli is ‘Harita’ (greenish) and Red Chilli is ‘Lohit’ (copper red).

The shape, texture and taste play a role too. Which is probably why, hot chillies have been billed as ‘Jwala’ (flame); the cool cucumber breed is called ‘Himangini’ (made of snow); the long necked bottle gourd is ‘Nutan’ (remember the actress?), the shapely and sweet one is ‘Madhuri’ while the watery type is ‘Ganga’; ‘Chandramukhi’ is the oblong yellow potato and ‘Swarna’, the gold-skinned spud.

Sometimes even the season has a say. The okra grown during the monsoon season is touted as ‘Sawani’, the tomato from autumn is ‘Sharad’, the spring cabbage is ‘Basant, the summer potato is ‘Surya’, and the all-season chilli is ‘Sadabahaar’.

To my knowledge, only one vegetable variety has been named after a politician - that too by accident. It’s the Indira Kundru (after Indira Gandhi). The moniker was picked as the strain of ivy gourd was developed by the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University. In my considered view, our agriculturists should be having a lot more fun in naming their creations as they are not really dealing with hot potatoes. Whaddya say?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Punch Tantra

In any other part of India, he’d be dismissed as just another dark skinned South Indian. In Tamil Nadu, there’s not a home that doesn’t mouth his punch lines. Meet Vadivelu, the Rajinikant of comedy, who sadly never got his due nationally.

Born in Madurai with an uncannily similar tale to that of the Southern superstar, Vadivelu earned his living, doing odd jobs in a photo frame shop. One fine day, he serendipitously dropped into a studio to watch a shoot as he had precious little to do. Director T Rajendhar was looking for a striking looking thin guy to play a filler role in his film ‘En Thangai Kalyani’. Our man fit the bill. The inconsequential role bolstered his confidence enough to try his luck as a funny man in Raj Kiran starrer ‘En Rasavin Manasile’. Then destiny took over and he went on to act in over 275 movies earning many awards and legions of fans in the bargain.

Central to Vadivelu’s popularity is the tried and tested slapstick trope of a rustic braggart being thulped black and blue till his dhoti drops. The charm of ‘Vaigai Puyal’ (his nickname) lay in how he injected zing into the same old role by coming up with new stock phrases such as ‘Vandhutaangaiya Vandhutaanga’, ‘Ahaan!’, ‘Haiyaiyo’, ‘Naa apdiye shock aiytane’, ‘Mudiyala’, ‘Sollavae illa’. ‘Enna da nadakkudhu inga’ and ‘Vada pochey’.

His amusing body language, loud-mouthed bravado coupled with witticisms like ‘Taking a risk is akin to eating a rusk for me’ made him meme-worthy. Another special reason for our love is his punchlines. They have been the fountainhead for many a quirky movie title. The recent hit ‘Naanum Rowdy Thaan’ is borrowed from a quip he made in ‘Thalainagaram’. Another famous retort from the same movie ‘Trisha kidaikalana Divya’ served as the inspiration for the recent release ‘Trisha Illana Nayantara’. The Siva Karthikeyan flick ‘Varuthapadaada Valibar Sangham’ is the name of Vadivel’s club in ‘Winner’. Even Siddharth’s soon-to-be-released ‘Jil Jung Juck’ owes its title to Vadivel’s epic classification of women in ‘Kaadhalan’.

Youtube comic channel ‘Put Chutney’ and Pepper TV’s chucklesome show ‘Building Strong, Basement Weak’ are also a nod to Vadivelisms. Ironically, the man hasn’t been paid a rupee of royalty for his naming contributions. But Vadivelu knows the joke’s on him considering he was the bloke who once asked, “Enna vechu comedy keemedy pannalaiye?’

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mark My Words

It was another dry day at the Chemistry class. When I was busy waging a losing battle against the sleep gods, the term ‘Dry Ice’ was splashed upon me like a bucket of freezing cold water. I can still recollect the newness of the coinage jolting me out of my reverie.

Before I could muster the courage to ask how ice can be dry, my teacher informed me that Solid Carbon Dioxide when heated turns into gas instead of melting. That’s why it’s never wet. Recently, I came to know that Dry Ice was trademarked in America in 1925. So it was a brand name all along and not a term that sprouted from a text book!

Actually, if one cares to dig deeper one can discover many such trademarks that are part of our everyday lexicon. Heroin, the illegal substance that figures in many B-grade crime movies, is technically Morphine Diacetate but it was given the H-moniker and was trademarked by Bayer & Co in 1898.

Kerosene, the fuel that gives the ration shop its distinct odour, was christened by Abraham Gesner from keroselaion (Greek for ‘wax-oil) and was registered in 1854 as a wordmark.

Even ‘Escalator’ was trademarked in 1900 by Charles Seeberger who later worked for the Otis Elevator Company. But in precisely 50 years, it lost its legal protection when a court declared that an escalator is a generic moving stairway and cannot be called a brand name as it had become ubiquitous.

Many category-creator brands face such a risk. Marketers call this phenomenon ‘genericide’. That’s the reason why Xerox is very particular that you call the act of document duplication as ‘photocopying’ and not ‘Xeroxing’. And Adobe is insisting that you should never use ‘photoshop’, ‘photoshopping’ or ‘photoshopper’ in any written form of communication – including this article!

But in many cases, the damage has already been done. No one knows that Bubble Wrap is a trade name from Sealed Air Corporation. No one cares whether Wham-O Incorporated has the rights to ‘Frisbee’ because to the Average Joe, a flying disc is a Frisbee. By the way, Wham-O also owns Hula-Hoop!

Likewise Laundromat (a property of Westinghouse Electric), Videotape (originally belonged to Ampex), Trampoline (Griswold-Nissen’s), Dictaphone (Nuance Communication’s), and Fiberglass (Owens Corning’s) have all suffered the same fate. But as our legend Ravi Shastri would famously say, “In the end, English was the winner.”

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Red Hot in Chennai

In the start-up race among Indian cities, Bengaluru looks like the Usain Bolt and every other metro seems like a languid laggard. Chennai, in particular, appears to be the also-ran who won the wooden spoon.

The picture might be very different when you stop viewing start-ups as venture capital funded e-commerce black holes that will never see the light of profit. A little birdie tells me that such money-guzzling outfits reside primarily in Koramangala. Fortunately, the new vanguards of hope in Chennai have a lot more meat in their curry. Let me showcase eight scalding hot ventures of tomorrow to give you an inkling of their sizzle.

‘34 Cross’ is my first exhibit. Located at 34th Cross Street in Besant Nagar, the company is self-confessedly into ‘product development for next-gen web & mobile applications’. Founded by some young guns who studied at IIT Madras, 34 Cross has many aces up its short sleeve. Their cleverly-named Hasura (Haskell Asura) is a piping hot app-development platform built using the advanced Haskell programming language. Also from their stable is SearchMyDB (customized search engine) and FindaKadai (app to discover best food joints in the city).

‘Mad Street Den’ is one of a handful of crazy companies operating in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) domain in the world. They’re into developing smarter apps that leverage gaze tracking, emotion-expression detection, facial gestures and object recognition. ‘Invention Labs’ is another ‘road less taken’ company operating in the realm of building tools for communication among children with disabilities. Their Avaz App uses picture cards digitally to let autistic kids express themselves.

The thing with these pioneers is they’ve consciously chosen fields that require path breaking work. ‘Inthree’ (Inner India Initiative) is one such enterprise. When everyone is talking e-commerce, they’re focusing on r-commerce (rural commerce) by using an ingenious mix of home-grown networks and the mobile phone.

Then there’s: ‘Nimble Wireless’, an Internet of Things (IOT) vanguard helping businesses to monitor the location and temperature of their assets distributed in remote places; ‘Pi Beam’ (meaning: infinite energy), an automobile trailblazer that has designed a super-affordable solar electric 3-wheeler for rural areas that can even power a home, when idle; ‘Twenty19’, India’s largest portal for student internship that’s managed to sew up a vast network of 8000 odd colleges; and ‘EdSix’, an educational gaming company that’s launched a suite of 500 games to enhance employable skills. Still think Chennai is the proverbial slow coach?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

China in your hand

When AT&T employee Pamela Savage coined the term ‘Smart Phone’ in 1995, little did she know that in less than 20 years, nearly 1.2 billion smartphones would be shipped annually!

The ensuing iPhone and Android revolutions have catapulted Apple and Samsung into pole positions and understandably, they’ve raced away with all the honours, thanks to a combined market share of approximately 45%. But some smarter, sleeker, and seriously cooler Chinese brands are turning the heat on, and are scorching the tarmac with sensational growth.

Being copycats par excellence, they are able to beat the Americans and Koreans with supersonic speed and super human economies of scale. Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer, was the first to spot the opportunity. Founded by a former engineer from the Chinese Army, Huawei (meaning: Chinese Achievement) is legendary for launching the copy, weeks before the original can hit the racks!

Xiaomi (pronounced shee-ow-me) is the other brand that’s making waves. The Beijing-based electronics company got into the business of smartphones in August 2011 and by 2014, the company had sold a mindboggling 60 million smartphones. To put that number in perspective, Xiaomi sold 12 times more phones than Micromax!

Xiaomi, interestingly, is the Chinese word for ‘millets’ (the English equivalent of Bajra). Apparently the inspiration for it was the Buddhist philosophy of doing big things, grain by grain. The odd name, gave another Chinese brand Meizu a golden marketing opportunity. They distributed free millets with their phones and claimed, “Xiaomi now free with every Meizu phone!” Cheeky, no?

The success of Xiaomi has spawned many more Chinese brands and they are all pouring into India. Gionee was among the first to set up shop with their Elife series. For the curious-minded, Gionee, supposedly, is an anglicised form of Chinese ‘Jin Li’ and it means ‘Golden & Beautiful’. Zopo (acronym for Zealous Open Perfect Outstanding) has thrown in its hat too - perhaps following the footsteps of Oppo (short for ‘opportunity), a mobile brand that’s been quite visible in the national media.

OnePlusTwo, the phone that sounds like a student who’s flunked his 12th board exam, is the hot cake Chinese mobile that’s getting heaps of fan-following in our metros, largely due to their innovative strategy of phones-by-invitation-only. OnePlusTwo is from a company named OnePlus (speculated to be a secret subsidiary of Oppo). Another big player is Vivo (Latin for ‘alive). You’ll get to hear a lot about them as they’ve snagged the IPL title rights for two years. With so many brands jostling for space, it’ll be interesting to see who wins the Chinese checkers!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mulling Over Malabar

Before 1989, the ‘God’s Own Country’ just didn’t exist. The famed slogan that’s come to typify Kerala, was channelized first by an adman named Walter Mendez - then Creative Director of Mudra - and that’s how the land that we all love, successfully appropriated the evocative phrase, imagined way back in 1807, by the English writer Edward Dubois.

That brings us to the next question: What does Malabar mean? No, it’s not a toddy joint. It’s derived from the Tamil words ‘Malai Vaaram’ or ‘Hilly Region’. Before you bristle at the mention of Tamil and not Malayalam, please bear in mind that Kerala or Keralam owes its origins to Cheralam, the land of the Cheras, who happen to be a Dravidian dynasty.

Let’s explore the Tamil-Malayalam angle further. For ease of remembrance, let’s refer to this twin-root as the ‘Chera touch’. Many town names in Kerala display the ‘Chera touch’.

Ernakulam flows from ‘Iraiyankulam’ (Tamil for ‘Lord Shiva’s tank’). Kumarakom, now renowned for its resorts, is actually Kumaran Agam. That’s again Tamil for ‘Home of Lord Muruga’ – a reference to an ancient temple there. Idukki, the second largest district of the state, comes from the Tamil ‘Idukku’, which in turn cues a narrow gorge. There’s also this theory that Palakkad is ‘Paalai Kaadu’ (senthamizh for barren forest). And Kozhikode is supposed to have sprung from Kalli Kottai (Cactus Fort). Meenachil river (an ode to Madurai Meenakshi), Munnar (Moonu aaru or confluence of three rivers), Wayanad (from Vayal Nadu) and Cannanore (Kannan Ur) are more examples of the Tamilian nexus.

Lest you suspect me to be a Tamil supremacist, let’s allay your fears by sharing many pure play Malayalam town names. Cochin or Kochi is widely believed to have evolved from ‘Kochu Azhi’ (meaning: small lagoon). Alapuzha can be broken down into Ala (deep/broad) and Puzha (river). Likewise Thodupuzha (the setting of Drishyam movie) means ‘a town touching a river’.

Kollam can be traced to the Sanskrit side of Malayalam. Apparently in the olden days, it was a hilly terrain laden with Kaulam trees (Indian Long Pepper). Trivandrum and Trissur have a divine connect though. Trivandrum is the anglicised form of Thiru Anantha Puram or Lord Anantha’s abode – an allusion to the gold-rich Padmanabha temple. Trissur’s source word is Tirusivaperur (Home of Lord Shiva).

Continuing on the divine trail, I think someday, we’ll have towns named after movie gods – Mammooty, and Mohan Lal. In anticipation, I propose Mamootiur and Lalettanpuram. That will truly make it a god’s own country, don’t you think?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Losing My Religion

Friedrich Nietzsche, the poster boy of atheists, once trenchantly quipped, “After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.” Such was the high regard, the German philosopher had for the concept of the almighty. Coming from someone who was nicknamed ’the little pastor’ in his schooldays for his prowess in effortless recital of Biblical verses, it’s indeed ironical.

But irony has been a recurring theme with non-believers. Take Periyar, the respected Tamil rationalist. He was born as EV Ramasamy Naicker and all his life he railed against Rama the Swami and Ramayan the epic. Kamal Hassan, the outspoken thespian and atheist, did his schooling – of all the secular places - in Hindu Higher Secondary School! Even his name in Sanskrit means ‘Beholder of the Lotus’ which in turn is a sobriquet for Lord Vishnu. One must add here though that the official story is that he was named after his dad’s friend Yakoob Hassan as a tribute to the protection he offered his father during his prison days.

Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated British author, who felt ‘antitheist’ describes him better than the limp ‘atheist’, did nothing to change his first name which literally means ‘bearing Christ’. Sam Harris, the other famed irreligionist, also carries the cross of a religious first name. For the uninformed, Sam is the diminutive for Samuel, the Hebrew word that signifies ‘name of god’.

To eliminate this apparent irony, atheists have started adopting names with zero religious connotations. Numbers are sometimes favoured – especially the Greek ones like Primus (one) and Quintus (five). God names are being dumped in favour of first names of famous iconoclasts – Charles (Darwin), Karl (Marx), Richard (Dawkins) and Bertrand (Russell) are in vogue now. If it’s a baby girl, parents prefer neutral floral or colour names. Something like - Rose, Daisy, Violet, Camelia, Iris, or Turquoise.

Month names come in handy too. March, April, May, June, July and August are quite popular. Verbs are very much in circulation. Stuff such as Hope, Rock, Sparkle, Mark, Hunt and Glow. Sometimes science provides the fodder: Tesla, Quark, Lumen, Gene, Lycra, Curie, Symmetry, Benzene, Hawking, and Newton. Some dive into comic books to fish out pearls (Flash, Kal El, Tarzan, Jughead, Charlie Brown). And the wacko types who don’t mind spoofing religions choose Saint Stupid, Pastafarian, Alwarpettai Aandava, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Beefbiter, Invisible Pink Unicorn, Ceiling Cat, Sub Genuis and things that will make you go, ‘Oh my god!’

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pride of Lions

There are less than 22,000 lions in this world and yet, they evoke more awe than Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama. I learnt why when I discovered that the wild cats sleep up to 20 hours a day. And sometimes when they have a big meal, the resting might stretch to 24 slumberous hours. How royal is that!

Another fact to put things in perspective: It seems the lion’s roar is audible from a distance of 8 kilometres. With such a booming voice, it’s understandable why nearly 13 countries have opted for this majestic being as their National Animal.

Surprisingly though, there are only 523 lions in India. Despite this, the Panthera leo persica has had a disproportionate influence on our culture.

For centuries, Rajputs proclaimed their manliness with the ‘Singh’ surname – which, as you know, is derived from the Sanskrit word for Lion. From 1699, many generations of adorable sardarjis have made it their last name. So we would have had no Khushwant Singh, Sushant Singh Rajput, Shatrughan Sinha, or Ashok Singhal, if not for the lord of the jungle. Even Bollywood action flick ‘Singham’ flows from the Tamil word for ‘lion’.

The entire Sinhalese race, trace their lineage to Prince Vijaya, who’s supposed to have landed on the island with a lion flag in his hand. Likewise, Singapore or Simhapura (Lion city) owes its origins to the sighting of a sea monster (half fish-half lion) by the King of Malays, when he dropped anchor there.

The Turkic-Arabs were also in total thrall to the beast. The names Abbas, Asad, Babar, Haider and Osama are all one-word odes to the lion. The Europeans were as fascinated. The Leonardo in Leanardo da Vinci means ‘strong as a lion’. The French Napoleon was inspired by Italian Saint Napoleone, which in turn, literally means ‘Lion of Naples’. By the way, Sunny Leone has ‘Lion’ written all over. Now you know why she’s a man eater!

Leander, Ariel, Xerxes and Lionel are some other names that remind you of the mane. Marketing mavens who know a thing or two about milking powerful symbols have often appropriated the lion by making it their logo.

Movie studio MGM, Swedish car Saab, advertising award show Cannes Lions, the soccer extravaganza Premier League, French automobile giant Peugeot and our local Lion Dates Syrup have all rode on the lion’s back and have raked in the big bucks. Still wondering if it’s worth entering the den?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Man With Many Faces

It’s not easy being the ninth one in a family of fourteen children. You have to resort to every trick in the book to catch the eye of your parents. You have to be a maverick to stand out from your platoon of siblings. Fortunately, Subhas Chandra Bose never had to try too hard. You see, it came naturally to him.

In academics, he was a prodigy of sorts – stood second in Calcutta in the matriculation exams. At college, he was a confirmed rebel – slapped his prof for his anti-India quips. As a 24-year-old youth, he was a radical – chucked his cushy Indian Civil Services job for a stab at revolution. By 38, he had been an editor twice and had even written a book – that was provocative enough to be banned by the British. At 42, he won a prestige election as the Congress President – defeating the mighty Mahatma Gandhi’s nominee. And at our ever-youth icon Rahul Gandhi’s age, he took on the military prowess of the British Empire by having the temerity to launch a war in alliance with Japan!

His official historical narrative ends with an air crash when he was supposedly 48. But as the recent series of disclosures have indicated, Mr. Bose may have flummoxed us all by faking his death. Like many Netaji enthusiasts, I tend to believe in this theory.

After all, look at his track record. Around 1941, when the Brits were hatching a plan to shut him in jail for a long, long time, our man grew a beard, wore a black sherwani and disappeared into the cold night all the way up to Afghanistan assuming the identity of a deaf and dumb pathan named ‘Mohammad Ziauddin’. From there, he slipped into Moscow pretending to be an Italian called ‘Count Orlando Mazzotta’. Having failed to convince Stalin, he jumped ship to Germany and shook hands with Hitler and when he let him down, he took a submarine detour to Japan and assumed the avatar of the head of Azad Hind Government. If he could outfox the alert Englishmen and the canny Russians, how long do you think would it take our Houdini to befool the Nehru Government by donning the saffron garb of ‘Gumnami Baba’?

But the sceptics in our country ask: If the Baba were indeed Netaji, why did he choose to be gumnami (anonymous)? Well, for that, we’ll have to throwback a remixed version of an old Netaji quote at the Modi government: “Tum mujhe files do, main tumhe is controversy se azaadi doonga!”

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Name Above The Title

Tyler Durden and Kinofist. A very intriguing name leapt out of the credits and landed a smacking punch when I was watching a lovingly made advert, recently. It was the production house of award-winning director Thiagrajan Kumararaja.

A play on his initials, Tyler & Kinofist, was a nod to two people who had perhaps influenced his craft: the cult figure of ‘Fight Club’ and Sergei Eisenstein - the Russian film maker who coined the term ‘Kino Fist’ to capture his pugnacious style of making movies with impact.

That said, cleverly conjured up names are still a rarity in the world of film production companies largely populated by the many self-obsessed types like Aamir Khan Productions, Yash Raj Films, Pritish Nandy Communications and Anurag Kashyap Films.

But there are plenty of fish in the sea who’ve been swimming against the tide. Brad Pitt’s ‘Plan B’ is a classic self-deprecatory statement offering him an escape route in case he fails to rake in the moolah from his sure-fire blockbusters. Then there’s Lara Dutta’s quirky ‘Bheegi Basanti Films’ which is a celebration of Sholayesque kitsch. Another ingenious one that comes to mind is ‘Scott Free Productions’ a play on the founders - Ridley Scott and Tony Scott.

By and large, the trend is to choose something that goes with the sensibilities of the founder. Quentin Tarantino’s ‘A Band Apart’ is inspired by Jean Luc-Godard’s 1964 French flick ‘Bande à part’. Martin Scorcese who toyed with the Sicilian-American identity in many of his creations, picked ‘Sikelia’ (Classic Greek version of Sicily) for his outfit. Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spiderman, Iron Man and X-Men, opted for the very comic-stripy ‘POW!’ which in turn was an acronym for ‘Purveyors of Wonder’. Old-schooler Mani Ratnam settled for ‘Madras Talkies’. While movie maverick Roberto Rodriguez plumped for ‘Troublemaker Studios’.

Of late, celebs and stars have started floating their own studios. Former Beatle George Harrison was one of the earliest to play this game. He set up Handmade Films in 1978. George Clooney (Smoke House), Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Studios), Mel Gibson (Icon) Wesley Snipes (Amen Ra), Leonardo DiCaprio (Apian Way), Will Smith (Overbrook), and Kevin Spacey (Trigger Steet) have since followed suit.

Back home in Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan led the way with Red Chillies Entertainment. Pooja Bhat (Fish Eye), Dia Mirza (Born Free), Akshay Kumar (Grazing Goat) and Saif Ali Khan (Illuminati) have now joined the bandwagon. I am wondering if ever Salman Khan will launch a blockbuster factory called ‘Hit and Run’!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Epic Discoveries

I suspect every one of us thinks that we have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of our epics. Having been weaned on a healthy junk-food diet of Amar Chitra Katha, Ramanand Sagar, and BR Chopra, it’s quite normal to exude the cocky demeanour of a Kapil Sibal, every time one is posed a question on Indian mythology.

But let me assure you, we know precious little. I came face to face with my level of ignorance, when a little one stumped me with an innocuous poser: Why is Rama called ‘Rama’? After blathering my way out of the situation, I consulted a musty old Sanskrit dictionary. And I unearthed very many things that no one told me before.

Rama, as it turns out, has many meanings. ‘Harbinger of happiness’ is the one, many latch on to. But it also cues ‘dark complexioned’ – which is probably why he was depicted blue in the comic strips. Incidentally, Krishna is also synonymous with ‘dusky’ skin. So all you ‘fair and lovely’ folks, it’s time you gave us sooty beauties more respect!

Sita is the ‘trench made in the land while ploughing’ and it seems she emerged from a furrow when her dad Janaka was tilling his farm. Some of you might have already known that. But I am not sure if you know how Surpanaka got her name. It seems her nails resembled the winnowing fan at birth. That’s how!

Turning to Mahabharata, do you know Karna is literally the ‘ear’? The story goes that Kunti gave birth to her first son through her ear to avoid losing her virginity. May be that’s how we got the expression ‘playing it by the ear’! To just complete the dots in your head, Kumbhakarna, by the same logic, means ‘pot-eared’.

The ever-scheming Shakuni is curiously named after the hen-sparrow. Now you can get your head around the bizarre band name ‘Shakuni & the Birds of Prey’. Continuing on skin tones, Arjuna is supposed to be ‘white and clear’ or as some say ‘silver’. And Pandu, ‘pale yellow’.

Talking of Pandavas, Yudishtra is ‘firm in battle’, Bheem is predictably ‘formidable’, Sahadeva is ‘like the gods’ and Nakula means ‘mongoose’ apart from the politically correct explanation: ‘handsome in the lineage’.

And by the way, the real zingers are Kamsa (‘cup’), Vyasa (‘diameter of a circle’), Ashvathama (‘horse power’), and Kubera (‘deformed one’). The most surprising interpretation I came across involved Kashyapa. It seems the word meant ‘black-teeth’. That scrap of trivia made me want to brush up my folklore all over again!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Murder She Wrote

Around half a million murders happen every year on our little planet. 1 in 10 is carried out by women. And roughly 1 in 100 of these is a filicide (parent killing offspring). So that’s less than 500 cold blooded female murderers in a population of 7 billion. At any point in time, there may not be more than one jet-setting, multi-millionaire media baroness in this Elite Murderess Club. That kind of explains why the Indrani Mukerjea saga has hogged all the headlines.

While the media has generously fed us every morsel of minutiae about Indrani that may paint her as being a stereotypical gold digger, there’s still one well-camouflaged trait that the talking heads haven’t yet commented on. It’s to do with her naming.

The prime accused in the Sheena Bora case was originally christened as Pori Bora. At some stage in her life, when she decided to cast away her old persona, the lady picked a new identity for herself. She chose ‘Indrani’, a nod to the wife of Lord Indra, the ruler of heavens. That was her first public statement of intent on the type of lifestyle she wanted to lead.

Even when she gave birth to a baby girl, she didn’t settle for the usual Seetha or Geeta. She picked Sheena, a rather diva-like choice for a girl-next-door from Assam. Sheena (meaning: god’s gift) was perhaps inspired by Sheena Easton (a pop star of the eighties) or ‘Sheena: Queen of the Jungle’ (again, a movie from the eighties). For her second child, she chose Mikhail (meaning: god like). Vir Sanghvi revealed in an interview recently that Mikhail was derived from Mikhail Gorbachev, the then overlord of USSR. Mikhail Bora was another clue of the benchmarks she set for herself. Vidhie, her third child, is named after the ‘goddess of destiny’. A relatively conventional name – perhaps, influenced by her second husband Sanjeev Khanna. Still, the name was not-your-average goddess.

So the running theme of her nomenclature was powerful figures who dominate their domain. Even her executive search firm INX (Indrani Executive = IN-EX) was fairly eponymous. Not many founders name their companies after themselves, these days. That’s one more instance of her megalomania.

Also, Indrani Mukerjea’s name number is 9, which indicates the bloody influence of Mars, the god of war. Usually, the life journey of 9 numbered people is riddled with danger and Indrani was no exception. The amazing aspect however is that all the four protagonists in the episode (namely: Sanjeev Khanna, Indrani Mukerjea, Shyam Rai and Sheena Bora), had the same name number 9! Which brings us to the question: who scripted the murder? Was it Indrani or her destiny?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pettais, Purams & Pakkams

If you’ve followed County Cricket, the team names on the scorecard will give you an inkling of how place names were conceived in England. The distinctive suffix in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire and Hampshire might just make you wonder: Hey, what’s with this overload of shire?

Actually ‘shire’, ‘borough’, ‘ford’, ‘ham’, ‘minster’, and ‘ton’ are all generic zone markers used in the United Kingdom. Each has a distinctive meaning. ‘Shire’ is a larger administrative unit. It’s the rough equivalent of a district in India. ‘Borough’ or ‘Bury’ is literally a fortified enclosure and today it stands for a sub-district in a city. London, for instance, has 32 boroughs. ‘Ford’ (as in Oxford) implies a river crossing. ‘Ham’ (Nottingham, Birmingham) cues hamlet. ‘Minster’ (Westminster) is an area with a large monastery. And ‘Ton’ (Kensington) reflects a township.

Chennai is one of the very few cities in the world with its own fascinating set of place names. The suffixes vary markedly from area to area as the city is primarily a cluster of villages that fused into one organic whole, only a few decades ago.

Alandur, Mylapore, Vandalur, Porur, Ambattur and Thiruvanmaiyur use the ‘-oor’ suffix implying that they were self-contained townships of yore. Velachery, Nemilichery and Guduvanchery, deploy ‘-chery’ which is a sure-shot evidence for these being tiny hamlets, once upon a time. ‘Puram’ is an agricultural township. Gopalapuram, Royapuram, and Kotturpuram carry very few traces of their past.

‘Kuppam’ reveals a community organised around fishing. Nochikuppam and Ayodhya Kuppam are bearers of this occupational stamp. ‘Pettai’ or ‘-pet’ is a settlement of people with similar characteristics. Sowcarpet (Merchants), Chintadiripet (Weavers), Vannarapettai (Washermen), Kosapet (Potters), and Chetpet (Chettys) are in alignment with the definition.

Pakkam, Bakkam or Vakkam is the tricky one, though. In ancient Tamil, ‘pakkam’ meant a coastal township. With passage of time, it got corrupted to ‘bakkam’. Meenambakkam, Kelambakkam, Karapakkam, and Madipakkam point to some kind of maritime connection. But there’s another angle to ‘bakkam’. It’s also the Tamil version of the Urdu word ‘bagh’ (meaning: garden). Nungambakkam, Virugambakkam, Kodambakkam and Chepauk belong to this sub-genre.

My suspicion is Nagar (Sanskrit for ‘town’) came into use, post-Independence. Which is why we have Besant Nagar, Ashok Nagar, Anna Nagar, and KK Nagar. The ‘aaru’ in Adyar, ‘karai’ in Neelankarai, ‘eri’ in ‘Otteri, denote ‘river’, ‘coast’ and ‘lake’ respectively. There are plenty of other places to talk about. Will unleash it all at the right place and at the right time.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

When Pichai Became Sundar.

The elevation of Sundar Pichai as Google’s new CEO may have been one small step for India but it was a giant leap for the Pichais of the world.

Having endured innumerable jibes all through their lives, those bearing the name ‘Pichai’ can now strut around with a 150 million dollar (Sundar’s estimated net worth) smile, now that it’s become a global badge of honour.

But things never looked this gung-ho, because Pichai in Tamil has been an uncool word for the last few generations. For those without a cultural perspective, it evokes the negative imagery of a ‘Pichaikaran’ (Tamil for ‘beggar’). Which probably explains why, Sundar Pichai chose to be just P. Sundararajan while pursuing his studies in Chennai.

In case you’re wondering why anyone would choose ‘Pichai’ (literally ‘alms’), as a moniker for their baby, well, let’s give you the backstory then. In the olden days, the mortality rate of new-borns was high. To insure the child’s health, devout parents would vow to name their young ones as ‘Andavan Pichai’ (God’s benefaction) or ‘Pichai’ for short.

This custom was prevalent across castes in Tamilnadu. That’s why you had a Pichai Thevar, Pichai Muthu Chettiar, Pichai Nadar and a Pichai Pillai. Insensitive blokes who have no clue about the origins of the nomenclature would cook up lame jokes like shrinking Ramanathan Pichai as Ra.Pichai (Tam for ‘night beggar’). Let’s just hope that the Google Guy has saved the name from mindless ridicule, once for all.

Talking of baby mortality, some enterprising Tam Brams devised another formula to keep the grim reaper at bay. They named their children ‘Vembu’ (Tamil for ‘Neem’) as the Neem tree supposedly had the powers to ward off evil spirits!

There are many other so called embarrassing names in Tamil households. Paapa (‘baby’) tops the list. Everyone I know has had a Paapa Athai, Paapa Chithi or Paapa Perimma. Kunju (‘young one’, also a pejorative) is another shudder-worthy name that keeps popping up with varying suffixes. Kunjamma, Kunjappa and Kunju Paati have done the rounds in so many families that I’ve lost count. Can you imagine MS Subbulakshmi’s pet name was Kunjamma? Thank god, she kept it a well hidden secret!

Another name that causes constant mirth is ‘Ambi’. Not many know that Ambi is another way of saying ‘thambi’. It’s like using ‘bro’ instead of ‘brother’. That said, aren’t we all glad that we’ve outgrown the old world?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Billionaire as President

Donald Trump is not a familiar name in India. Born with a golden plate, silver spoon and a mercurial temperament, the 69-year-old real estate tycoon is famed for his big bucks (net worth: $8.7 billion) and even bigger mouth.

He owns a 100 million dollar private jet, 150 million dollar yacht, a 213-acre property in New York and is on the verge of racing away with the Republican Party’s nomination for the US Presidential Elections in 2016.

What’s dragging him down, however, is his reputation. A thrice-married man his misogynist aura is now catching up with him. His bilious outbursts against celebrity women are legendary. He publicly ticked off television personality Rosie O’Donnell by labelling her ‘a fat, ugly, slob’. He called actress Anne Hathaway, ‘a gold digger’. Ariana Huffington, the high priestess of ‘Huffington Post’ didn’t escape his attention either. She was castigated as ‘being unattractive both inside and out’. In his trademark patronizing tone, he’s supposed to have declared once: “Angeline Jolie is OK. She’s not a beauty by any stretch of imagination.” He outdid himself recently when he ran down Fox News host Megyn Kelly, for asking him tough questions, by alluding it to her menstrual cycles.

Obnoxious politicians are normally chided and taken out of the equation by mainstream parties. But the Republican Party has been unable to jettison Donald Trump as his bravado, boorishness and ‘political incorrectness’ seems to be resonating with the Cow Boy Belt of America.

To get a perspective of Trump, he’s what you’ll get when you mix the flamboyance of Vijay Mallya, wealth of Mukesh Ambani, ostentation of a Maharaja, the patriarchal streak of a Mulayam Singh Yadav and the atavistic worldview of a Khap Panchayat.

Politicos are hoping for a self-goal from Trump. The man himself thinks he’ll sweep the polls, like Ronald Reagan. Only time will tell how this will play out. But interestingly, numerology is loaded against him.

Sample this: 2016 is the year of 9. Trump’s birth number is 5, destiny number is 3 and name number is 3. Clearly his numbers are not in sync. Also, if one studies the elections of 1944 and 1980 (the other years of 9), the winner’s number coordinates are not matching with Trump’s. On the contrary, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are better placed to clinch the nomination. But going by his luck (he survived four bankruptcies), Donald should come up trumps!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

What's the Code Word?

MBAs hide behind their pretentious jargon. Likewise, spies get by with their khufia code words. The CIA, being the big daddy of them all, has a rich history of generating cryptonyms for everything under the sun, moon and stars. Of late, they’ve been quite liberal about sharing their stash of covert euphemisms. No one’s paused to wonder why. Conspiracy theories aside, here’s what we’ve culled out from our Deep Throats in Langley:

Everybody knows that POTUS is the President of the United States and his aircraft is the Air Force One. But do you know what the CIA calls Air Force One? It’s ‘Angel’. His limousine, by the way, is code named ‘Stagecoach’. The popular term for it though is ‘the beast’. And the presidential motorcade carries the curious tag ‘Bamboo’.

But the real fun names are dished out to presidents. John F. Kennedy was called ‘Lancer’, which is an allusion to his reputation of being a lothario of sorts. Richard Nixon’s snoopy tendencies were beautifully captured with ‘Searchlight’. Ronald Reagan’s cowboy image was reflected in ‘Rawhide’. George Bush used to run a timber business at some point. So his was ‘Timberwolf’. Since George Dubya Bush used to binge on drinks in his younger days, he was aptly labelled ‘Tumbler’. His deputy Dick Cheney was into fishing and later heavily into spinning the media, ergo ‘Angler’.

Bill Clinton was labelled ‘Eagle’. Not sure if it was inspired by his love for golf. Barack Obama was handed out ‘Renegade’ which might have been a dig at his supposed conversion from Christianity to Islam. Obama embraced it sportingly although his supporters claim that he chose ‘Renegade’ in the first place.

There’s undeniable evidence that CIA had a mildly racist streak. Apparently in the Eighties, Jesse Jackson, one of the leading Democrat presidential candidates, was code named ‘PONTIAC’. For those who are wondering how that’s discriminatory, well, PONTIAC the acronym stands for that famous slur: ‘Poor Old Nigger Thinks It’s A Cadillac’. Talking of Afro-Americans, Martin Luther King Jr, had a secret name too. It was ‘Zorro’, the black-masked comic character.

Even first ladies were assigned names. Dependable-as-a-rock Hillary Clinton was ‘Evergreen’. The current incumbent Michelle Obama happens to be ‘Renaissance’. There’s a tasteless joke about a possible CIA code name for Monica Lewinsky. They say it’s ‘The Hoover’. In case you didn’t get it, The Hoover is a vacuum cleaner that sucks muck! Ain’t that complicated?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dial M For Music

Of all the 26 letters of the English alphabet, only one is richly associated with music. That’s M. We chanced upon this discovery when the news of MS Viswanathan’s earthly demise trickled in, last week.

The 13th letter throws up many links to musicians. Leading the Grand M Orchestra is Mozart. Mahler and Mendelssohn can ably assist the maestro with his compositions. MS Subbulakshmi, Maharajapuram Santhanam and Madural Mani Iyer are at hand to lend their blessed voices for Carnatic melodies. Mallikarjun Mansoor and Shubha Mudgal can form a great Hindustani jugalbandi. Michael Jackson, Muddy Waters, Madonna, and McCartney will pitch in with anything remotely pop or blues. Meanwhile Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mehmood, Mehdi Hassan, Lata Mangeshkar, Mika Singh, Shankar Mahadevan and Manna Dey are on stand-by to provide back-up vocals for light melodies. And bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Motley Crue, and Motorhead can amp it up if the need arises.

Before you doubters can point out that such a line-up can be put together for any letter, let me stack up more evidence to back my case.

Have you ever wondered as to why so many music terms begin with M? The rhythm of the composition is ‘Meter’. In the Tamil film industry, the lyric is referred to as the ‘Matter’. The tune is universally recognised as the ‘Melody’. Then, the two primary types of scale in tonal music are ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’. Changeover from one key to the other is called ‘Modulation’. Pieces of symphonies are defined as ‘Movements’. ‘Medley’ is a creation made by overlapping a series of pieces. Meanwhile the recurring element in compositions is the ‘Motif’.

One can feel the power of M even in Carnatic music. The parent ragas are labelled as ‘Melakarta ragas’. There are 72 Melakarta ragas in all. From these are derived thousands of other ‘children’ ragas. The 15th Melakarta raga ‘Mayamalawagowla’ is invariably the first raga taught in all Carnatic classes. And ‘Mangalam’ happens to be last song belted out in all concerts. Another interesting concept is ‘Mudra’. It’s the composer’s moniker embedded in a song. To illustrate the point, Carnatic great Muthuswamy Dikshithar is said to have used the mudra ‘Guruguha’.

Lots of music instruments have the initial M. To name a few: Mandolin, Mridangam, Morsing, Mouth Organ, Murali, Marimba, Mohana Veena and the MIDI Keyboard. Curiously the most popular music channel is MTV and the most famous file type for storing music is MP3. Now, doesn’t that ring a bell?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Emperor's Tale

History text books rarely chronicle history. They are as selectively factual as government press releases. To develop an objective view of the past, one has to first unlearn all the ‘facts’ that were handed out at school.

The Mughals, for example, were not Islamic conquerors. ‘Mughals’ is the Persian way of saying ‘Mongols’ which is an allusion to how the dynasty perceived itself as descendants of Tamerlane, the warlord from Central Asia.

Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, was in fact an Uzbeki who fancied Kabul a lot more than Delhi. He made his way to Punjab on an invitation from Daulat Khan Lodi and on realising the weakness of the Ibrahim Lodi Empire, demolished them in less than half a day in the much touted First Battle of Panipat. BTW, Babar was born as Zahiruddin Mohammad and his name literally means ‘Tiger’.

Babar’s son Humayun (meaning: ‘the fortunate one’) was not a patch on his dad when it came to military tactics. Driven out of India by Shershah Suri, he wormed his way back after Shershah’s demise and is best remembered as the bloke who died in a library accident after tripping over his skirt.

Akbar (‘The Great’), born as Abu’l Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, was rightly renowned for his tolerance and empire building. But he had a more colourful streak. Apart from the syncretic way of living he put together, he was also a prolific inventor. Among his creations included a method to fire seventeen guns simultaneously and a machine to clean sixteen barrels at once!

Jehangir (‘World Conqueror’) was a total dopey and a sucker for booze in addition to being a pious Muslim. He stole Nur Jehan from one of his subordinates, got his first son blinded for rebelling against him and was gullible enough to let the Brits into our country.

Shahjahan (‘King of the world’), the eternal romantic who built the Taj Mahal was a ruthless brother killer famous for staging a coup to oust his dad. But his karma had a funny way of boomeranging on him when his much loved son Dara Shukoh was beheaded by his other son Aurangzeb (‘honour to the throne’).

Aurangzeb, the much reviled humourless bigot, is often portrayed as a hater of music. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was an accomplished player of the rudra veena and he never forbade artists from performing for his wives and daughters. One more interesting truth that is rarely publicised is the birthplace of Aurangzeb. Like our Prime Minister, he was born in Gujarat. Wonder what the saffronwalas have to say about this.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

All Greek To Me

For a country with a population as much as Bangalore, Greece has indeed piled up a mountain of debt. As per experts, the Greeks owe their creditors nearly 353 billion dollars. To put things in perspective, that’s twice the size of the IT industry in India!

While the Greek tragedy unravels yet again, it might be a good idea to explore what the business world owes the nation that gave us democracy, philosophy, Olympics and more.

Nike, the 25 billion dollar conglomerate, began its journey as Blue Ribbon Sports. A chance decision to rename the company after the Greek Goddess of Victory, made all the difference to its fortunes.

ASUS, the world’s largest PC vendor after Lenovo and HP, is a 13 billion dollar corporation. As per the company’s own admission ASUS is derived from Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology. Only the last four letters were picked from Pegasus as it would help in directory listings.

Olympus, the 7 billion dollar Japanese camera giant, is named after Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. Even Canon Eos, the bestselling autofocus SLR has a mythical connect: Eos happens to be the Greek goddess of dawn.

Two big companies in India – Apollo Tyres (Turnover: $2 billion) and Apollo Hospitals ($750 million), derive their names from the very handsome and strong, god of light, who is also known to be the chief patron of medicine.

Even demigods have been milked to create business propositions. Atlas (the titan who supports the heavens on his shoulders) and Hercules (the son of Zeus synonymous with superhuman strength) are two of our leading cycle brands clocking revenues in hundreds of crores.

Trojan, America’s No.1 condom, is an ode to the virility of Priam, the last king of Troy. Priam is said to have fathered 50 sons and innumerable daughters!

Another colourful character from the past who’s been converted into a money spinner is Milo. The ancient wrestler who was the grand slam champion of the sport in his times was immortalised by Nestle as a chocolate malt beverage.

One can go on recounting. From Eidos (meaning: ‘species’) to Omega (the last letter), there are so many brands that have leeched off the Greek cornucopia. If only the good people of Athens had found some way to demand royalty, they wouldn’t be in such a soup. Or should we say Fasolada?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Gender Benders

Bruce Jenner was the ultimate male icon. At least during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He bested the Soviets in Decathlon and was celebrated as an American Hero and even billed as ‘the world’s greatest athlete’. Cut to 1 June 2015. Jenner smashed another record. This time as a woman. She became the fastest to clock one million followers on twitter (FYI: 4 hours and 3 minutes)!

In less than 40 years, Bruce Jenner morphed into Caitlyn Jenner by becoming a transgender via the hormone replacement therapy. Along the way, he dropped enough hints that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’.

Lana Wachoswki, the director of Matrix trilogy, didn’t have it as easy. After contemplating suicide and being lampooned as a freak, Larry decided to come out of the closet and proclaim himself as Lana.

Like Lana, Georgina Beyer had her moments of self-doubt. But a prescient decision to change her name from George Bertrand, made all the difference to her destiny. She became the world’s first transsexual mayor and then went on to be the world’s first transsexual parliamentarian.

Ramesh Venkatesan would have been yet another web designer had he overlooked his urge to start dressing as a woman. The courage to openly embrace his feminity led him to assume the identity of Rose Venkatesan. Today Rose is a celebrity TV anchor with a thriving movie career.

The journey from Ramesh to Rose is not a particularly simple ride. One has to face a lot of red tape to assume the new identity. The first step is to get a gender change affidavit backed by a psychological assessment. Next you’ll have to place two newspaper ads citing your name change. Then you’ll have to repeat this procedure in a government gazette. Using these notifications, you can eventually apply for change of gender and name in your passport and other things official.

There’s been a lot of speculation about how transgenders choose their new name. Some like a legacy name (Alexander to Alexandra). Some prefer a polar opposite (Raja to Rani). Some opt for dedications (Bruce Jenner considered Brigitte as a nod to Brigitte Bardot). Some others revel in the whimsical (Mr. Hillard to Mrs. Doubtfire). Whatever you choose, you’ve got to realise that it’s no longer odd to be queer.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hello, my name is Forgetful

Crotchety old uncles and aunts in Tamil households have a strange obsession. They pop up at all the wrong functions and ask all kinds of right questions to the wrong persons. One legendary query that has given many young generations the jitters is, “Yenna yaarunu theriyuda?” Translated that means “Dude, I know you don’t give a fig about me. But let me embarrass the daylights out of you by asking you to name me - although theoretically speaking, you don’t stand a chance as the last time you saw me, you were in your nappies!”

I don’t know about you, but every time someone asks me their name, I go blank. No amount of panic hitting of the ‘recall memory’ button seems to help. The farthest I’ve gotten so far is in remembering the first letter. I used to think that I’ve got Alzheimer’s and the hypochondriac in me was secretly relishing the prospect of chewing some bitter new tablets. But apparently, forgetting names is a not that rare a disease. It’s as commonplace as the common cold. And the technical term for it is ‘Nominal Aphasia’.

Aphasia is ‘speechlessness’ and Nominal Aphasia is an apt way of describing how tongue tied you feel while recollecting a name. It’s a very solvable problem if we take the effort to understand how the brain works.

Essentially, the brain stores three types of memories: instant, short term and long term. Names are short term memories and they are filed in the long term folder only if they are associated with some other memory. Let me explain.

Suppose you meet someone named Rahul, chances are you’re likely to forget it as it’s not ‘memorable’ enough. Because three other namesakes (Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Dravid and Rahul Bose) have already occupied some precious real estate in the inner labyrinths of the long term memory folder. To make space for another Rahul, you need a prefix or suffix that generates a visual in your head.

In the olden days, the prefix used to be ‘thin’, ‘fat’, ‘short’, ‘tall’, ‘dark’, ‘fair’ or any other appropriately inappropriate trait. It really worked as it’s impossible to forget someone called ‘Fat Rahul’ or ‘Rude Rahul’.

All we need to do is to learn from our forefathers and apply the right name marker. That way, the next time some pesky relative poses that infamous question, you can jog your memory instantly and run away with the honours.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Origin of Languages

A 1965 movie ‘Panchavarna Kili’ is still etched in the minds of millions of Doordarshan viewers. Who can forget the epic sequence of KR Vijaya’s quivering lips over-emoting the ‘Tamizhukkum amudhendru per' number penned by poet Bharathidasan. Along with a liberal glimpse of the actress’s rubbery jaw and her pearly-pearlies, the song also gave us a hint of the meaning of ‘Tamil’.

Tamil, as you must have guessed by now, simply means ‘that which is sweet’. Derived from Tam (self) and -izh (the root word for honey), the 19th most spoken tongue predates the existence of all mother tongues in India, except say Sanskrit which incidentally, was never called ‘Sanskrit’ by Panini the grammarian. He referred to the Vedic language as ‘Chandasa’. Sanskrit (meaning: refined) was perhaps a later day coinage built upon a distillation of the best of Prakrit, the original vernacular of our nation.

Malayalam took root as a distinct entity from Tamil when the Pandyan Dynasty lost its control over large tracts of Kerala. Malai (‘hilly’ in Tamil) and Aalum (‘ruled by’ in Tamil) somehow got fused together and the region gave rise to Malayalam.

Telugu is another story. The dominant school of thought seems to believe that Telugu came from Trilinga Desa, the terrain with three Shiva temples – Srisailam, Drakasharamam and Kaleshwaram. I somehow subscribe to Ganti Jogi Somyaji’s hypothesis that Telugu is a derivation from Ten-ungu. ‘Ten’ in Proto-Dravidian means ‘South’. And therefore, Tenungu means ‘Southerners’. The explanation feels as logical as Hindi being that which is spoken by the people of Hind.

Kannada’s history too owes a lot to its geography. Etymologically built from Karu-nadu (land of the black cotton soil), Kannada is an exotic cocktail brewed over centuries from Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil.

Kannada’s amiable cousin Tulu owes its ancestry to the Dravidian root word Tuli (drop of water) which is probably an attribution to its coastal provenance. The Kon in Konkani makes a similar allusion to the ‘mountain range’.

Urdu, on the other hand, is from the Turkic word ‘ordu’ and it decodes to the language of the army camp. Probably the reference is to Mahmud Ghazni and his hordes who camped around the Delhi Sultanate and developed its lexicon.

There are at least 770 more dialects to cover. If you lend me your ears, will be glad to leave you speechless over a cuppa.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Being Poles Apart

Every time someone tells you they know nothing about Poland, point them to the word ‘Schmuck’. The pejorative for a douchebag cum moron is derived from Yiddish word for the male genital organ which in turn comes from the Old Polish word ‘smok’ (meaning: grass snake).

To be fair to the Poles, there’s a lot more to them than Schmucks and the stale old Polish Joke Books. The Wachowskis are a great advertisement for the country. The creators of The Matrix trilogy, are of Polish descent. Their forefathers were from the Wachow village in south-western Poland.

If that didn’t impress you much, well, let me tell you that the country has produced 16 Nobel Prize Winners – twice as many as India. Among the winners is Marie Curie, the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences (Physics and Chemistry)! Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Skowdowska. She was so proud of her nation that she named Element 84 as Polonium as her tribute

That wonderful writer Charles Bukowski, he too, has some Polish genes. His bookish sounding surname literally means ‘one who comes from the buk tree area’. For the botanically flummoxed, ‘buk’ is the beech tree.

If you’re the religious types, you might be glad to know that Pope John Paul II was born as Karol Jozef Wojtyla and his Polish surname indicates he’s a descendant of an officer running a rural district.

Even music maestro Fredric Chopin and the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (born Mikolaj Kopernik) were of Polish origin. The adorable thing about Poland is they are one of the few places in the world to celebrate name days. How it works is, catholics named after a saint, would celebrate that saint’s feast day as Name Day. For instance, May 30 is Joan of Arc’s day. So anyone named Joana would celebrate it as their day!

The Polish language is widely considered to be the hardest to master. With seven genders (three masculine, three feminine and one neuter) and seven noun cases, it is said that even a localite gets fluent only after 16 years of effort.

To give a glimpse of the difficulty level, try and pronounce Grzegorz Brzeczyszczykiewicz. If you were nowhere near Gye-ghosh B-zhench-sh-chy-kee-veech, you must hand it to the Poles for keeping their tongues from being tied, tangled and twisted.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rotten Apple Syndrome

What comes to your mind when you think of Veerappan? That sandalwood smuggler with the handlebar mousch, right? And what visuals fill your head when you imagine ‘Lewinsky’? Most hot-blooded men are likely to see a ‘buxom intern’ and ‘Bill Clinton’s cigar’. Let’s take one more question. If you travelled with a bloke named ‘Godse’, which historic incident is likely to cloud your worldview? The assassination of a much loved old man, no?

Don’t you get what I am alluding to? It takes just one rotten apple to spoil the reputation of a name forever. Ask actress Mugdha Godse or parliamentarian Hemant Tukaram Godse about the kind of grief they get from strangers on account of their surname. Perhaps that’s why they fought so hard to remove ‘Godse’ from the list of unparliamentary words in the Lok Sabha. It took the community nearly seven decades to undo the damage caused by one Nathuram.

I am reminded of the Bollywood number 'Munni badnam hui darling tere liye’ every time I come across such instances. To quote a telling example: Nithyananda is a revered 15th century Vaishnava saint in the Gaudiya faith, often seen as an incarnation of Lord Balarama. But mention ‘Swami Nithyananda’ to Chennaiites, and all you will elicit is sniggers and snide references to a naughty sex tape. In one stroke, the Video Clipananda ruined the reputation of a genuine godman and the aura of respectability of thousands of Nithyanandams across the world.

Put yourself in the shoes of your neighbourhood Dr. Prakash (namesake of a local smut king) to know what stigma is. It’s never too easy being a Ravana in Ramaland or a Judas in Jesuspuram. You always carry the baggage that comes with the name. There’s no escaping that.

Fortunately, companies have a choice. They can drop their ill-reputed moniker at will and choose something with more positive associations. When ISIS, the radical Islamic group, reared its ugly head, the Belgian Chocolate maker ‘Isis’ carried a makeover and labelled themselves as ‘Libeert’. Ditto with the mobile wallet app ‘ISIS’. They opted for ‘Softcard’.

Individuals have no such luck because you can’t chuck away your identity in a flash. You’ve got to live with it like a good fruit in a stinky basket.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hu's Who of China

When Modi was busy taking his famous selfie with the terracotta warriors, a respected newspaper quizzed a few Chinese about what they thought of India. The responses were quite revelatory. Uniformly, nearly everyone viewed us as a disorderly, Buddhist nation with an ancient past and an unattractive present akin to what was showcased in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

Before we laugh off the unflattering references citing crass ignorance, let’s imagine a reverse vox pop. If a cross section of our society were interviewed about China, we’re likely to portray our neighbour as a country of look-alikes hiding behind the Great Wall manufacturing cheap goods in labour camps all while suppressing democracy, and plotting world domination.

Oh yes, we’re as pathetic, blinkered and clueless about their culture as they are about us. For example, we don’t even know that the conventional ‘last name’ is the first name for most Chinese. So Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping would have been Zedong Mao and Jinping Xi in any other part of the world!

Another eyebrow raising fact is that close to 40% of the population have the same ten surnames. Wang (meaning: King) is the most popular surname. Nearly 92 million people in China are Wangs. May be that’s why Wang’s Kitchen was picked when some foodie was thinking of a befitting name for a Chinese eatery.

Asides aside, we don’t even know what Chinese names mean. The ‘Chang’ in Michael Chang stands for ‘prosperity’. The ‘Lee’ in Bruce Lee alludes to the ‘plum fruit.’ The ‘Chan’ in Jackie Chan cues ‘grace’. And Mao in Mao Zedong curiously implies ‘hair’. For a man with a receding hairline, that’s quite an ironic surname!

Like most other nations, Chinese surnames broadly draw inspiration from dynasties (sample: Zhou), directions (Dong is west, Xi is east), official positions (Taishi is an allusion to the astronomy in-charge), craft (Gin is a potter, Wu is a wizard), and birth (Bo is the youngest, Ji is the eldest).

Sadly, the eminently punnable nature of the surnames, has given rise to a cottage industry of funny Chinese names. If you haven’t heard them yet: No Tsmo King is off ciggies, Chu Ying is into chicklets, Dum Gai is a doofus, Kum Hia is very approachable, Wei Ting is always put on hold and Sum Ting Wong symbolises the current state of equation between our two civilizations.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Two of a kind.

Try visualising twins. Most people of my vintage are likely to imagine a bowler hatted, walking stick wielding, black suit wearing, moustachioed imagery of two comic detectives who go by the names Thomson and Thompson. Now here’s the kicker: although they appear identical and have near-similar names, the fictional fact is, they aren’t at all twins!

Can you see the games the mind plays? Similar dressed people with similar names somehow create an illusion of sameness. That’s why child psychologists have implored parents time and again to stay away from the ‘Ramesh/Suresh’, ‘Seeta/Geeta’ and ‘Ram/Shyam’ templates. The theory is it impedes the development of a distinctive persona.

Despite the protestations of experts, moms and dads everywhere prefer a semblance of similarity while naming their twins. Part of the blame should be apportioned to our screenwriters who are downright lazy when it comes to devising nomenclature.

A cursory look at Bollywood and Kollywood will reveal the extent of predictability. In ‘Chaalbaaz’, Sridevi played Anju and Manju. The twin villains in ‘Ghajini’ were Ram and Lakshman. Back in the sixties, Neetu Singh acted as ‘Ganga’ and ‘Jamuna’ in ‘Do Kaliyaan’. Dharmendra doubled up as Ajay and Vijay in ‘Ghazab’ (a remake of Kalyanaraman).

Tamil actor Ajith takes the cake. In ‘Vaali’, he was Deva and Shiva. With 'Villain', he became Shiva and Vishnu. Finally in ‘Varalaaru’ he chose to be Vishnu and Jeeva. In Khiladi 420, Akshay Kumar appears as Dev and Anand. Although I must add, that things got a lot wilder with ‘Khiladi 786’. Akshay donned the avatars of Bahattar Singh and Tehattar Singh. For those of you who are clueless about Hindi, Bahattar is 72 while Tehattar is 73!

The most memorable twin names that I can remember in Tamil films, was in ‘Jeans’. Prashant essayed the roles of Vishwanathan and Ramamurthi, a nod to the music composer duo who dominated the industry before the Ilaiyaraja era.

Things have improved in Bollywood too. Aamir Khan slipped effortlessly into the skins of Sahir Khan and Samar Khan in ‘Dhoom 3’. Sahir and Samar are both Urdu words that have a connection with night/after dark. In contrast, Hollywood is a lot more creative. The Japanese twins in ‘Austin Powers in Goldmember’ were called ‘Fook Mi’ and ‘Fook Yu’. Surely, we can learn a trick or two from them!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Need for Swede

There’s a lot we don’t know about Sweden. Bet you didn’t know that moms and dads over there enjoy a baby break of 16 months which includes 2 months for the dad, all while taking home 77.6% of the salary.

Here’s another one. It’s mandatory for companies to offer at least one massage a month as perk. If you couldn’t believe your eyes, sample this: Income tax rates are rather high but people pay up gladly as college education is free and healthcare is virtually free!

The Swedes are indeed full of surprises. Apart from gifting us the greatest pop band (ABBA) and the finest tennis player (Bjorn Borg), the Scandinavians were also the earliest in framing naming laws. The Names Adoption Act of 1901 banished the established practice of affixing the father’s first name to new-borns and replaced it with the concept of family names, thereby bringing relief to thousands of babies of unknown parentage.

From a nation of Ericssons and Anderssons, people were empowered to choose surnames that were more descriptive of the family, ranging from topographic names like Soderberg (meaning: ‘from the south mountain’), Edberg (‘from the isthmus mountain’), and Lindberg (from the ‘lime tree mountain’) to pedigreed noble names like Hammarksjold (from the folks with the ‘hammershield’ insignia).

But with time, a nosy bureaucracy took over and used an updated version of the law to act as name inspectors who decide how children are named in Sweden. Consequently, a couple were denied the right to name their son as ‘Q’ citing failure to satisfy ‘basic linguistic requirements’.

Diana Ring had a similar experience when she baptized her child as ‘Token’. The Tax Authority (believe it or not, they decide names!) summarily rejected it on account of being ‘offensive’. Kasim Mats’ case is weirder. When his parents applied for a name change to Kasim Von, it was declared ‘inappropriate’ because ‘Von’ was seen as an aristocratic name not meant for commoners!

But parents are not giving up. They are going to court to get the matter sorted. When Michael and Karolina Tomaro were prevented from calling their infant ‘Metallica’, they took to legal recourse to challenge the move and were successful in rocking the veto. ‘Lego’ has been taken off the banned list too, thanks to a colourful court intervention.

These gaffes apart, the Swedes have been liberal enough to clear ‘Google’ for a search engineer father. So, it might still be worth it to make babies in Stockholm.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Being bird brained.

Kingfisher is the beer that made the Mallyas rich. Eagle is the handy thermos flask you carry to hospitals. Dove is the soap that claims it isn’t a soap. Penguin is the publisher of books you never cared to read. Crane is that paaku thool (betel nut) with that irritating jingle. A top-of-mind-awareness test of bird names is likely to throw up such learned responses from the smartest of city dwellers. That’s how much we know about the winged creatures.

For a generation obsessed with ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Avian Flu’, it’s quite ironical that we can’t tell a crane from a stork, or a falcon from a kite. To cure ourselves of our collective ignorance, let’s go on a wild goose chase to up our bird IQ by a few notches.

What’s common to the cuckoo, the owl, the kookaburra, and the cock? If you blinked like a dying tube light, let’s put you out of your agony by pointing out that these birds are named after the distinctive sound they make. Owl, for instance, is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Ulluka’ which in turn flows from the ululating call it makes. I’d add the Indian crow and the New Zealand Kiwi to the list.

Appearances and plumage also play a role in the nomenclature. The flame-like orangish red colour of the feathers, give the flamingo (from Spanish ‘flamengo’) its flamboyant label. Eagle comes from the Latin ‘Aquila’ and it means ‘water-coloured’ or dark hued bird. Along the same lines, Penguin draws its roots from ‘Pen Gwyn’ which implies ‘white head’ in Welsh.

Sometimes misnomers have resulted in ludicrous choices. America’s favourite thanksgiving bird, the ‘Turkey’, is actually not from Turkey. It’s a native species often confused with the Guinea fowl, which incidentally was introduced to Europe from the Mediterranean country. The resulting confusion gave rise to ‘Turkey’ which incidentally is referred to in Turkey as ‘Hindi’ because it’s thought to have been imported from India! The albatross has a similar tale. In the early days, it was mixed up with the pelican and was hence christened from the Spanish word ‘alcatruz’ (meaning: water carrier).

Other common birds have rather pedestrian origins. The German word for ‘singer’ gave rise to Swan. Rooster was whipped up when ‘cock’ was found to be unparliamentary. Pigeon is literally ‘young chirping bird’. And many think ‘dove’ is related to the past tense of ‘dive’ in reference to its flight. Hope that left you happy as a lark!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How Apt Was That!

TM Soundararajan is a household name in Tamil Nadu. A playback singer beyond compare, he was the trademark voice of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR in countless hits. A friend of a friend often poked fun at his ‘ganeer kural’ (Tamil euphemism for being ‘high on decibels’) by labelling him as SOUNDararajan. That set me thinking. Does the name forebode your profession?

Is it an uncanny coincidence that William Wordsworth turned out to be a poet, Margaret Court became a tennis player, and Usain Bolt chose to be a sprinter? Actually, many wise people have applied their mind to this hypothesis.

Celebrated psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung saw a meaningful pattern in it. Chicago columnist Franklin Pierce Adams went a step further and coined the word ‘Aptronym’ to chronicle names that match the occupation or character of a person.

From the evidence in hand, one can safely say that aptronyms are not as commonplace as hair on Anil Kapoor’s chest or cuss words on Virat Kohli’s lips. But they are not a rare commodity either.

The New Scientist magazine was once famously flummoxed when they received an article on the Polar Regions from a Daniel Snowman and a piece on Subterranean London from one Richard Trench.

There are many more chucklesome examples on the internet. Let’s start with Sara Louise Blizzard. A weather presenter on BBC, she’s apparently weathered many a storm with her surname. Then there’s Dr. Kevin De Cock of the World Health Organisation. The genital man (oops…gentleman), predictably heads the AIDS project. Journalist William Headline was often described by reputed anchor Wolf Blitzer as having the ‘best name in news’ as everything about him was headline material.

The eeriest one I’ve heard is Dr. Russell Brain. He grew up to be an authoritative neurologist. Another name that’s likely to make you go ‘good heavens’ is Alan Heavens. He’s a renowned professor at the Imperial College London teaching astrophysics!

Everyone’s favourite is Sue Yoo. She’s currently the legal director at Verizon. From what one hears the serial digs at her name made her consider turning a lawyer. At the other end of the crime spectrum is Christopher Coke. He’s a Jamaican drug lord with cocaine literally in his veins. They say his dad Lester Coke was an even bigger snorter. I’ll sign off with Thomas Crapper. True to his name, he founded a company that made the flushing toilet ubiquitous. If that shit didn’t unnerve you, nothing else will.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Gem of a Story

Sharon Stone is not the only precious stone known to mankind. Apparently there are other pretenders to the throne. My first exposure to uncut gems was through movies.

There was this old-world multiplex in Chennai with theatre halls that went by the names: ‘Safire’, ‘Blue Diamond’ and ‘Emerald’. As a callow kid, I used to wonder what Safire really meant as it sounded rather distinguished.

Thankfully, Etymology Online solved the puzzle for me by pointing out that Sapphire is derived from the Greek word for ‘blue stone’. The label was chosen because the Greeks wrongly assumed that they were describing Lapis Lazuli. As it turns out, Sapphire is an Aluminium Oxide mineral while Lapis Lazuli happens to be a silicate.

That brings us to the next question. How on earth did they hit upon the exotic name ‘Lapis Lazuli’? Well, Lapis means ‘stone’ in Latin and ‘Lazuli’ is from the Persian word for ‘Azure’. What better way to allude to the bluish hue, no?

Aquamarine and Turquoise are two more blue stones that get a lot of press. For the curious minded, Aquamarine literally means ‘sea water colour’ and Turquoise is the French way of saying ‘Turkish stone’.

Amethyst has a beautiful yarn. Named after ‘Amethystos’ (meaning: ‘not drunk’), a nymph who was supposedly being stalked by the Greek god of wine Dionysus. Amethystos spurned his advances and wished to remain chaste. So she prayed to the deity Artemis who turned her into a pure white stone. A remorseful Dionysus shed copious tears of wine over the stone thereby turning it purple!

Another myth involves Persephone (daughter of Zeus) and Hades (god of underworld). As the story goes, Hades abducted Persephone and when he was forced to part with her, he handed out some magical pomegranate seeds that had the power to draw her back to the underworld whenever she consumed the fruit. Granatium is the Greek word for pomegranate seeds. And that’s the origin of the red Garnet.

Incidentally, Ruby is Latin for ‘red’. Zircon is Persian for ‘gold-coloured’. Onyx is Greek for ‘finger nail’. And Emerald is derived from the Sanskrit/Tamil word ‘maragata’.

Opal and Topaz have an Indian origin too. Opal is from the Sanskrit word ‘Uppal’ or ‘precious stone’. While Topaz is inspired from ‘Tapas’ or ‘heat’. Hope you’ve enjoyed these pearls.