Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mad Taste of Madras

I have a simple test for measuring the IQ of a city. Just put all its restaurants under the microscope and evaluate them for evidence of wit. Wackier the names, smarter the city. Given this premise, one must admit that Chennai is way superior to its peers in the sheer cleverness of its spread.

OCD is a starter with which, I’d like to make my case. It’s the name of a little bakery in Shenoy Nagar. In case, you didn’t get it, it’s meant for people with the ‘Oreo Compulsive Disorder’. Cut to ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ in RA Puram. It’s a cool-sounding lounge bar inspired by the children’s classic written by Margery Williams about a stuffed rabbit that yearns to get real.

Then there’s ‘Craveyard Café’ at Adyar showcasing its deadly dishes with a touch of dark humour. ‘Wrapsody’, the joint on ECR that specialises in wraps, is as good with its wordplay. ‘Fusilli Reasons’, the pasta place at Kilpauk, however tops the punster’s charts, by giving you a whimsy excuse for trying their food.

‘Jonah’s Bistro’, the brainchild of entrepreneur Sam Paul ostensibly named after his son Jonah, has rolled out a series of restaurants that feel like adventure movie titles. ‘Jonah’s goes to Japan’, ‘Jonah’s meets Chef Willi’, ‘Jonah’s goes to West Coast’, and 'Jonah’s goes Fishing’ are some of his finely christened culinary sequels.

Among the ones that project an authentic aura is ‘Batlivala & Khanaboy’, a Parsi restaurant floated by a Non-Parsi. The acoustics of B&K conjure up the vision of a collaborative venture between two mad bawas.

Even celebrity restaurants here have a touch of imagination. ‘God-ka by Simran’ on ECR is a telling example. Instead of riding solely on her brand equity, she chose a fusion name. Godka is what one gets by mixing Gin and Vodka. Also God-ka is a Hinglish way of implying a divine taste.

The self-deprecatory ‘I Fake’ for an ‘almost authentic’ restaurant; the very sixties ‘Love Peace Karma’ for a hookah lounge; the in-your-face ‘Eggsclusive’ for a roadside eatery; the exotic ‘Bolizza’ for a snackery peddling the South Indian Boli; the catchy ‘Biri Biri’ for a biriyani joint; and the spoonerism ‘Bake My Day’, just go to prove that when it comes to ingenuity, Madras takes the cake.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Looking Good on Paper

One of the prerequisites for being an academic is you have to look and sound very academic. Which is why you’ll rarely spot Elvis Presley sideburns or a Frank Zappa style soul patch among research scholars. Forget the nerdy dress sense, even the language has to be unapologetically abstruse. May be that’s why research papers are cold, clinical, and as unreadable as an engineering manual.

The idea behind penning papers like ‘Metagenomic insights into the pathogenome of cellulosimicrobium cellulans’ is the equivalent of sporting a t-shirt that reads, ‘If you didn’t get my PhD dissertation title, then you’re not PhD enough’.

Given the peer pressure to portray oneself as ‘lab-coatish’, it takes a brave heart to strike a discordant note and make science, very unscientific. Thankfully for every boring scholar, there’s a Feynman somewhere trying to break the mould and simplifying things.

Recently, I stumbled upon a stash of dissertations with titles that made me want to read them. On top of the list is ‘Ramanujan’s association with radicals in India’. It almost feels like a historical thriller about mathematicians and Naxalites. On the contrary, it’s an in depth study of Ramanujan’s work in the field of radicals or square root numbers!

Another one that fascinated me was the ‘Alpher-Bethe-Gamow’ paper on the origin of chemical elements. Doesn’t that sound like Alpha, Beta, and Gamma to you? Apparently, Alpher is the author of the thesis. George Gamow, the famed cosmologist was his guide. And they added Hans Bethe, the nuclear physicist’s name, almost whimsically, just to add some punch to the title.

Juan Bicarregui’s ‘Do Not Read This’ is equally compelling. It taps into the child in you and urges you to take a sneak peek without explicitly asking you to do so. Bailey and Borwein were even more brilliant. They put their key finding as the header: 'The 40 billionth binary digit of Pi is 1'. Anyone who reads it will gasp, ‘How could they know that without a computer?’ and will definitely want to explore their algorithm.

Ryter, Morse & Choi got it spot-on when they put out their findings on the similarities between Carbon Monoxide and Nitrous Oxide. They chose to play on Star Trek and worded their work as 'Carbon Monoxide: To boldly go where NO has gone before'. That level of wit can lift the clouds of dullness from any vapid verbiage masquerading as research.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Land of Legends

Dravid and Kumble are not the only legends associated with Karnataka. Every city in the state is a tale wrapped in a yarn inside an anecdote.

Take Udupi, to know how imaginative things can get. Udupi is said to have been derived from the Sanskrit words Udu and Pa, which mean ‘lord of the stars’. This is an allusion to a mythical story that involves the moon and his 27 wives. Apparently, Daksha, the father of the 27 nakshatras, was cut up with the moon for some reason and he cursed his son-in-law that his light would dim with time. When it did, the petrified moon and his cohort of wives prayed to Lord Shiva to prevent him from turning into a dimwit. Shiva predictably answered his prayers and restored his glorious shimmer. Hence, the name Udupi, as a nod to Lord Shiva.

Bidar, the hill-top city in North East Karnataka, has an equally mythical origin. They say Bidar is named after Vidura, the wise uncle of the Pandavas and Kauravas, probably because he was rumoured to have settled down here.

Mangalore is named after a Malabar princess Premaladevi who had renounced her kingdom after becoming a disciple of Swami Matsyendranath. Apparently, the saint rechristened her as Mangaladevi. She died of illness in an area that eventually became Managaldevi temple. The temple lent its name to Mangalore.

Chikkamagaloru has a little tale associated with its origin. They say the town was given as a dowry to the youngest daughter of Rukmangada, the chief of Sakharayapattana. To commemorate the gifting, ‘younger daughter town’ was translated into Kannada as ‘Chikkamaga uru’.

Mysuru has the most popular funnecdote. And it’s linked to the buffalo-monster Mahishasur. Mahishasur had all the boons from the gods and was virtually unchallengeable. Being conceited, he decided to take on the divine powers. Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva reincarnated themselves as Durga or Chamundeswari and slayed the demon. The Chamundi hills, East of Mysore, is a tribute to the goddess. While the city itself is called the abode of Mahisha.

Adding to the list of colourful etymologies is Kolar. It’s derived from Kolahalapura (Kannada for ‘violent city’). Kolahalapura was the battleground for some famous wars between the Chalukyas and the Cholas. To think that a war zone has transmogrified into a veritable gold mine is truly legendary stuff.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Train to Pakistan

If irony had a capital, it would be in Islamabad. Because when Pakistan was born it was touted as the ‘land of the pure’ based on the premise that it had always been a race different from the ‘land of the Hindus’.

The first crack on the purity hypothesis appears when you dissect the name Pakistan. The Persian suffix ‘-istan’ is a derivative of Sanskrit word ‘sthan’ meaning ‘place’. I wonder why the puritans didn’t think of this glaring contradiction when they opted for Pakistan.

A simple train journey to Pakistan will reveal more ironies. Lahore, the second largest metropolis, literally means ‘Fort of Loh’. And surprise of surprises, Loh turns out to be none other than Lava, the son of Rama! What’s interesting is the city of Kasur was supposed to have been founded by Kusha, the brother of Lava.

The Ramayana connection doesn’t end there. Pushkal, the son of Bharata, laid the foundation for an ancient settlement called ‘Pushkalavati’ which later became Pushpapura (the city of flowers) and finally morphed into Peshawar, when Emperor Akbar named it so.

Even Multan, the fifth populous city, has a Sanskrit origin. Historians say it was derived from ‘Moolasthan’, the name of a sun temple of yore. Sialkot, the home of cricketers Imran Tahir and Mohammad Asif, has Indic roots too. The city was founded by Raja Salivahana. And is called the ‘Fort of Sial’. Sial, happens to be the gotra of the Jat clan that lorded over the city.

The ultimate demolisher of the purity myth of Pakistan are its rivers. Fortunately, nearly all of them retain the pristine nature of their original names. The 774 kilometers long Jhelum is derived from ‘jal’ and ‘haima’ (Sanskrit for water & snow) and not ja-e-alam (place of flag) as some would like us to believe. Chenab, one of the ‘Western Rivers’ over which Pakistan has control, owes it etymology to ‘Chand’ and ‘ab’ or the Sanskrit ‘Chanda’ and ‘ap’ which means ‘moon river’. The Swat River that gives its name to the Swat Valley, now famed as Malala Yousufzai’s hometown, is a contraction of the Sanskrit ‘Suvastu’ (crystal clear).

Clearly, what’s coming through is like all civilisations, Pakistan is another melting pot of shared histories. The only difference though is that the country is in a state of complete denial. Perhaps, waging a proxy war on ignorance should be Priority No.1 for Nawaz Sharif.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Men in Skirts

There’s something very likable about Scotland. It’s the only country in the world to have the Unicorn as the national animal. That’s today’s equivalent of having Hobbes of ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ as the patriotic mascot. How cool is that!

Another fascinating aspect is that it’s got the highest proportion of red heads – 1 in 7 people! To use an Economist turn of phrase, Scotland is indeed a nation of ‘well-red’ people. The most charming aspect, however, is the kilts or the pleated skirts that Scottish men wear with total nonchalance. It was first tailored in the 1720s by a businessman named Thomas Rawlinson to ensure ease of work during logging, charcoal manufacture and iron smelting. To cut a short story, shorter, the kilt was an ergonomic innovation created to skirt cumbersome issues.

Scottish surnames is one more domain that’s intriguing. Since Scotland happens to be a patronymic society, people there have a marked tendency to christen their child after the dad. Which is why, David’s boy is Davidson, Arthur’s descendant is MacArthur, and an offspring of Ralph is Rowling. Likewise, Alexander’s daughter is called Alexdaughter, and the Mac prefix for women is Nic. So if McDonald is the son of Donald, the daughter would be named as NcDonald.

Analysis of some famous surnames, would give you a better picture of Scottish nomenclature. In many cases, occupation of the forefather cast a long shadow on name selection. For example: Webster would mean a weaver; Baxter would allude to a baker; Dempster would be a judge; Gillespie, the servant of a bishop; Fletcher, someone who makes and sells arrows; Ruskin, a tanner; Jardine, a gardener; Miller, Hunter, and Smith were fairly self-explanatory.

Racial origin mattered sometimes. Fleming means someone with roots in the Flemish region of Belgium. Galbraith is indicative of people who lived in Scotland before the arrival of the Gaels. Scott would mean true blue Scots, and French cued folks from France. Places of ancestral settlement often gave rise to surnames. To illustrate the point, those who were near the mouth of River Crombie were the Abercrombies. And those near the River Roe were the Monroes. Once in a while, nicknames masqueraded as the cognomen. Reid (red hair), Bain (white hair), Bowie (yellow hair), Campbell (crooked mouth), and Milligan (bald) are eloquent cases in point.

Before we go Scot-free, let’s end our excursion to the highlands by understanding the etymology of Scotland. It seems Scotia was the Roman name of Ireland. And when a bunch of ‘Scoti’ or Irish renegades dropped anchor, the land echoed with the drone of a hundred pipers!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Cut It Out

It takes a lot to flummox Superman. But in 1967, a smallish, mischievous looking bloke from the fifth dimension got the better of Superman just by introducing himself. His name was Mxyzptlk. Bereft of vowels, our superhero found the task of pronunciation, a head-scratcher. He went: “Mr. Mixie, what?” He just couldn’t figure out that it was Mister MixyZipitlik.

Many rock fans experienced a similar moment of weirdness in the early seventies when they first encountered an album from ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’, the first band to use no vowels in their name. The presence of the quasi-vowel ‘y’ made it a little easier. Still the name evoked a lot of curiosity. The band had to issue a clarification that Lynyrd Skynyrd was a mock tribute to their teacher Leonard Skinner, who with his strict policy against long hair, drove their lead guitarist to drop out of school.

The boy band NSYNC took the ‘no vowel movement’ one step further and capitalised their letters in 1995, thereby triggering off an avalanche of ugliness. Musicians with little talent decided that the best way to stand out was to create a disemvoweled name.

The result is, now we’re stuck with hundreds of band names that look straight out of the rack of a scrabble player burdened with consonants. Some samplers would give you an idea of how lousy things have got. There’s this Virginia-based Hip Hop band called ‘RDGLDGRN’. If you could spot the three colours, wait till you try and decode ‘LVTHN’, a black metal band paying an ode to ‘leviathan’, the sea monster referenced in the Old Testament. Then there’s NRCSSST, the Lithuanian metal band with a self-obsession so huge, they’ve made it their name.

The one that’s more puzzling than an abstract cubist painting is ‘SHXCXCHCXSH’. Nobody knows how to address this Swedish band that specialises in putting out techno tracks with titles like ‘RRRRGRRGRRR’, ‘STRGTHS’, ‘WHTLGHT’, ‘RSRRCTN’ and believe it or not, ‘SsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSs’.

Even brands have tried to ride the wave. In 2001, Reebok announced that it was starting a new line called ‘Rbk’. British cycling champion Mark Cavendish launched ‘CVNDSH’ in 2013 with the cheeky punch line ‘Fst as Fck’! In my humble view, flushing out the ‘A, E, I, O, U’ from a name is as crappy as vowel movements.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

There's A Word For That

Consider this: You’re flying an international airline, full of foreigners. There are only two Tamilians on the plane. You and one more guy seated in the business class. As you try and catch a wink, you hear a kerfuffle. The other Tamilian is trying to take lurid pictures of the airhostess and she’s creating a ruckus about it.

Although you’re no way related to him, being a Tam, it’s but natural to feel utterly embarrassed by his actions, right? There’s a German word for this vicarious sense of shame. It’s called ‘Fremdschamen’.

There are many lovely words like this that have somehow remained cloaked by our collective ignorance. It’s time we sought them out like a heat seeking missile.

‘Sillage’ is one such beauty. It’s the trail of fragrance that lingers in the air after someone has passed you by. Haven’t you felt the sillage or at least spotted it in ads? Another potent term is the ‘Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon’. It’s the uncanny ability of something new that you’ve learnt, to pop up everywhere, all of a sudden.

I’ve personally experienced this when I first learnt about the ’27 Club’. If you’re not familiar with it, ’27 Club’ is the belief that some of the most talented musicians die at 27. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison & Kurt Cobain fuelled the urban legend. The year I learnt about the club, singer Amy Winehouse eerily died of alcohol poisoning at the unripe age of 27! Talk about nasty coincidences.

‘Pareidolia’ is one more phenomenon you’ll fall in love with. It’s the tendency to see faces in the unlikeliest of places and objects. People who see Ganesha in a tree, Jesus on a toast, Buddha in a cloud, and Chandamama on the moon are the type who’ll relate with it.

Then there is ‘Nominative Determinism’ which is a complicated way of stating the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards professions that fit their surnames. Usain Bolt, William Wordsworth and Tiger Woods are famous examples.

My personal favourite though is ‘Mondegreen’. It’s the propensity to misinterpret lyrics due to mishearing. Mondegreen is simply put singing ‘Aap jaisa koi mere zidagi me aaye toh baat ban jaye’ as ‘baap ban jaye’. Curiously, author Sylvia Wright coined it when she misheard a line in a Scottish ballad. ‘Laid him on the green’ felt like ‘Lady Mondegreen’ to her ears!

I’ll sign off with one something you may not know. What do you call the infinity symbol? ‘Lemniscate’. That’s the good word!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Muchas Gracias

Geographically speaking, Spain is about 7900 kilometres away from India. But culturally speaking, they’re much, much closer as we owe nearly everything we do to the Spanish. Trust me, I am not exaggerating.

The guitar we strum; the cigarette we smoke; the hot chocolate we drink; the radio we tune into; the wheelchair your granddad uses; the glass mirror you peer into; the foosball you play; the calculator you punch into; the lollipop your kid craves for; the eye glasses you so depend upon; the humble mop your maid uses; the stapler your office cannot do without; the pocket knife you need during travels; even the first telescope, the first space suit and the first planetarium were all invented by Spaniards.

And I am just getting started. Kid you not. If we paid a dollar for everything we owe Spain, they’d probably be the richest country in the world. Allow me to elaborate.

Tungsten, the metal used in mobile phones, circuit boards, rock drills, planes, cars and trains, was discovered by the Elhuyar brothers in 1783. Platinum, the precious metal behind jewellery, catalytic converters, pacemakers and magnets, is yet again a contribution of Spanish ingenuity.

Linguistically speaking, the Hispanic species has made the English language richer by at least 150 words. Alligator (‘the lizard’), Mosquito (‘little fly’), Breeze (‘cold northeast wind’), Tornado (‘thunderstorm’), Vigilante (‘watchman’), Bonanza (‘prosperity’), Cafeteria (‘coffee store’), Peon (‘labourer’), Savvy (‘wise’), Vanilla (‘little pod’) and Zorro (‘fox’) are a few surprising loanwords you’ll never attribute to Spain.

Three of the foodie universe favourites – Tacos, Nachos, and Burritos – have their roots to people or things from the land of the Tomatino festival. ‘Nachos’ is named after Ignacio Anaya, a Mexican restaurateur who cut tortillas into triangles, fried and served them with shredded cheese and jalapeno peppers when he couldn’t locate his cook to serve some American military officers. ‘Tacos’ is derived from an old custom of miners to wrap paper around gunpowder to use as explosive charges. If you really think the Mexican dish involves the same process of rolling a tortilla around a filling. ‘Burrito’ literally means ‘little donkey’ in Spanish. The cylindrical shape of the dish probably reminded people of the packs that donkeys carried in the olden days.

Tequila, Sherry and Mojito are some more spirited Spanish gifts to die for. Given this armada of delights, it would be safe to conclude with a pithy aphorism: No Spain, No Gain.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Super Humans

If you meet a guy who has a five-egg omelette and three fried-egg sandwiches laden with cheese and mayonnaise for breakfast, you’d probably call him a glutton. And if you were told that he has a 12000-calorie diet when the average male has 3000 calories, you’d probably think he’s headed straight for a heart attack. But the difference is, we’re talking about Michael Phelps here.

Michael Phelps, as you know, is the Flying Fish. He’s the 6 feet 4 inches guy towering above all athletes produced by mankind. With an unimaginable 23 Olympic Golds to his tally, this swimming legend trains like a maniac. He swims for 6 hours a day and runs on land for 120 minutes. He burns so many calories that he constantly needs to fuel his inner submarine.

In the Rio Olympics, he hauled 5 Golds and 1 Silver at 31, an age when most of his peers would have been swimming with pigs in the Bahamas. You’d be surprised to know that Michael drew a blank in his first shot at Olympics. He finished fifth at Sydney in the Year 2000. But then he was barely 15.

Another giant who had a terrible first Olympics was Usain Bolt. He was selected by Jamaica to run the 200 m race at the Athens games in 2004. Hampered by an injury, Usain didn’t even make the cut. Many wrote him off. But the Lightning Bolt struck back to become the World’s Fastest Man with the unbelievable record of pulling off a triple-triple in 3 consecutive Olympics.

A juicy fact about him is that the name Usain was chosen by his mom on the suggestion of a 12-year-old boy who told her it means ‘beautiful’. Incidentally, till the age of 12, his mom always used to beat him in races that they never timed!

Curiously, Usain has an equally legendary appetite like Michael Phelps. During his 10-day stay at the Beijing Olympics, he’s supposed to have gobbled up 1000 chicken nuggets and loads of French Fries. His weakness for food, might have prompted him to open a sports themed restaurant called ‘Tracks & Records’ at Kingston.

But which of these two greats, is the greatest? If one goes by the glitter of gold, it’s got to be Phelps. The heart, however, doesn’t merely go by numbers. For being a charming trail blazer from a tiny island nation, the race has to be won by a mile by the thunderous Bolt.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How Big is Small

Google has its massive headquarters in Silicon Valley and it’s famously called Googleplex. The seemingly unremarkable name has something very mathemagical about it.

If you google, the word ‘googleplex’ you’ll discover that it’s 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 100. To normal folks, it might look like just another geeky number. But to scientists, it is the largest number with a name. To give you a perspective of how huge it is, try jotting down the number of zeroes on a piece of paper. Apparently, the whole observable universe will not be enough to fit in the googleplex. It’s that humungous!

Contrast this with the world of small numbers. When we say microscopic, we are probably referring to micro numbers or numbers that are one millionth in size. Bacteria are usually 5 micrometers long. Red Blood Cells are 10 micrometers in diameter. A strand of hair is 50 micrometers in thickness.

As we made more progress in precision measurement, the scientific world switched over to the nano scale or numbers that are one billionth in size. Much of the inner secrets of biology can be gleaned using the nano scale. For example, haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein, is about 5.5 nanometers in diameter. And the basic building block of life – the DNA molecule – is around 2 nanometers in diameter.

The world of small then got tinier and tinier with more breakthroughs. Atoms are now measured in picometers (one trillionth). Protons are described with femtometers (one quadrillionth). The smallest known fundamental particles (the Quarks) are quantified in attometers (one quintillionth). And with the discovery of the god particle, many are wondering if using zepto (one sextillionth) or yoctometers (one septillionth) makes more sense. Yocto is one trillionth trillionth. It’s unimaginably inconsequential.

Still, is that the smallest length we can measure? To sidestep this query, Physicists proposed the theoretical concept of Planck Length. It’s technically the number 16 preceded by 34 zeroes and a decimal point. It’s at least one nano times smaller than yocto. Planck Length is the smallest observable length in the universe. If you want to probe teensier sizes, you’d need so much energy that you’d have to create a black hole for it! Hopefully that should put an end to all the small talk.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lighter Side of Olympics

Jason Statham, the action hero of Transporter, and the Brit star with more Facebook fans than Narendra Modi (54 million fans, at the last count) is a man known for multiple talents. He’s studied Kung Fu, Karate & Kickboxing. He can play football well. And chess, even better. As a teenager, he chose diving as his first love. Not many know, Jason competed in the Olympic trials thrice (Seoul, Barcelona & Atlanta). Thankfully his sporting career nosedived. Else, we’d never have seen him biffing the bad guys to pulp.

Some other celebrities did fare better at the Olympics, though. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the big daddy of child rearing best known for his book ‘Baby and Child Care’, won a gold medal for Team Rowing for the United States at the 1924 Paris games. Philips Noel Baker, British politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1959, won a silver at the 1920 summer games. Incidentally, he’s the only guy to win an Olympic medal and a Nobel.

Trivia aside, the one other thing that’s fascinating about the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ is the parade of odd names on display. Kim Yoo Suk is a perfect example. He’s a South Korean pole-vaulter with no medals to his credit. One vicious meme about him reads, ‘He looked like a winner, till the crowd started to chant his name’. Poor, Kim!

Equestrian William Speed Lane Fox-Pitt is another sportsman worth tracking at Rio. With his name, he could have chosen any form of racing. But our man opted to saddle up. Remains to be seen if he outfoxes his opponents.

Chinese gymnast Dong Dong is apparently eyeing a gold again in the trampoline event. If that happens, don’t be surprised if you’re swamped with headlines like ‘Dong Dong on a Song Song’.

Lee Bum-young is a titter worthy footballer. He made a name for himself as a goalkeeper in the 2012 London games by saving a crucial penalty in the quarter finals. If he hadn’t, everyone would have panned him as a bummer.

I’ll shed light on many more athlete names in the days to come, but for now I’ll wind up with a terrific fact: The first person to use the word ‘Olympian’ in writing was not an ancient Greek. It was Shakespeare.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Living Dead

Ludwig van Beethoven had a nasty surprise in his childhood. He was told that he was the second Ludwig van Beethoven of the family. He didn’t grasp a word of what was being said, till his parents clarified to him that just a year before his birth, they had another baby boy who was christened Ludwig. Sadly, his elder brother didn’t even last for six days. So basically, Beethoven was named after his dead brother.

When Beethoven gave his first public performance at the age of 7, he was billed as a child prodigy. But those who vaguely knew the family, confused him with his brother and raised doubts about his age. That was only one tiny problem. The spectre of the dead elder brother cast a long shadow on his life.

Artist Salvador Dali faced an even bigger predicament. He too was named after a dead sibling. The trouble was, he was born nine months and six days after his elder brother. That made everyone around think that may be Salvador had reincarnated.

Dali spent a good part of his life traumatised. He added many layers of eccentricities to his persona just to be different from what his parents had imagined for him. As he later philosophised, “Every day, I kill the image of my poor brother…I assassinate him regularly, for the ‘Divine Dali’ cannot have anything in common with this former terrestrial being.”

What Beethoven and Dali were bestowed is called ‘Necronyms’ (names of dead ones). And it’s a subject of great debate in the world of nomenclature. It was a prevalent practice in the era when child mortality rates were high. Anxious fathers who wanted their lineage and family name to survive, often resorted to this seemingly morbid practice.

I suspect necronyms might have been common in societies that followed the tradition of naming the first child after the grandfather. If the first child had a premature death, the name was foisted upon the second one. Even Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was a victim of the tradition. One wonders if the resulting identity crisis caused Van Gogh to paint over 30 self-portraits. To conclude, all I can say is, some names are better off dead. There’s no need to exhume the remains.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Journeying Through Petropolis

Winston Churchill spoke about very many things in his life spanning nine decades. To me, the most insightful statement was this: “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” He should know better than anybody else as he had cats, dogs, pigs, butterflies, swans, horses, parrots and even a lion named ‘Rota’ for company!

One man who’d surely agree with Churchill is George Clooney. He had a potbellied pig, ‘Max the Star’, as his pet for 18 long years before he turned his roving eye to his wife Amal Amaluddin.

Choosing to spend many hours with unusual pets is considered therapeutic by stars. That probably explains why Nicholas Cage had a shark, an octopus, and two albino king cobras as buddies. Or why Leonardo DiCaprio chose to cosy up to an exotic African tortoise.

Elvis Presley was another oddball with a penchant for the quirky. Rumour has it that the rock star bought a wardrobe full of suits and ties for his chimpanzee ‘Scatter’ who was later sadly poisoned by one of his maids. A piece of delicious trivia that would delight Karunanidhi & MK Stalin is: Elvis also had a horse by the name ‘Rising Sun’. They should be glad he didn’t call it ‘Two Leaves’.

When the Swiss Open organisers gifted Roger Federer ‘Desiree’, a cow, they assumed that the tennis great would shower love and affection on it. Instead he sent it to a dairy farm and had it slaughtered when the cow didn’t produce enough milk! Clearly, he was no pet champion.

In contrast, history has been rife with examples of immense love. Josephine Napoleon (spouse of Napoleon Bonaparte) used to accord royalty status to ‘Rose’, her orangutan. Salvador Dali, often took his dwarf leopard, ‘Babou’ wherever he went. Once, when Dali entered a restaurant, he was declined entry because of his carnivorous companion. Dali instantly cooked a surreal explanation and said, his friend happened to look wild because he had painted his cat. That pawsome quip saved the day.

Mike Tyson, the boxer famed for biting his opponent’s ears, is also renowned for spending close to $ 4000 a month for the upkeep of three Royal Bengal Tigers (names: Kenya, Storm & Boris). No wonder, he went bankrupt. Reese Witherspoon, however, takes the cake for unusual pets. She has two little donkeys, adorably named ‘Honky’ and ‘Tonky’. Apparently, she’s one lady who can tell her ass from her elbow!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Character Arc

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had four sons: Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. One of them turned out to be a rebellious drunk and was disowned by the Mahatma. Which one?

If Devdas was your answer, in all probability, you were heavily influenced by the Dilip Kumar/SRK classic about a drunken loser who gets sloshed to forget his true love. That’s what well-etched characters do to you. They grab precious real estate in your mind by becoming indelible makers for a definitive set of traits.

Which is why screenwriters and directors spend countless hours debating every little detail about the character, right from the name (Phunsukh Wangdu in ‘3 Idiots’) to how he laughs (remember The Joker’s hysterical cackle?) to what she reads (Sharmila Tagore in ‘Aradhana’ is spotted with the book ‘When Eight Bells Toll’) to what she wears (the Catwoman suit).

Since we are name-ophiles, let’s just stick to the theme of movie character naming. When George Lucas was once asked about how he goes about it, he quipped that a name should telegraph what a character is about. For example: Han Solo, the captain of Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, is a lone-wolf by nature. His surname is indicative of his one-man-army thinking.

Key character names are not randomly plucked from thin air. A lot of research goes into it. When Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were hunting for a suitable name for the villain in ‘Sholay’, they opted for ‘Gabbar Singh’ aka Gabru, a real life dacoit from the fifties who had a gruesome reputation of lining up 22 children and shooting them.

Even while christening the baddie in ‘Mr India’, Javed Akhtar was seeking an African-ish sounding name that felt exotically evil. He rummaged through very many Hollywood titles before settling for a 1952 Clark Gable movie called ‘Mogambo’.

Quentin Tarantino, the master of the craft, invests as much ingenuity on his minor characters. One of the diamond thieves in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is ‘Mr. Pink’, ostensibly a nod to Pink Panther, the fictional diamond with a distinctive flaw that resembles a leaping panther.

More often than not, the name choice is whimsical. Like in ‘Forrest Gump’, the protagonist Forrest is named after a racist general just to serve as a reminder that ‘sometimes we all do things…that make no sense’. Whatever the source of inspiration, the big trick in naming characters is that the name should have some character.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Out of Africa

If large pockets of the world still think we are a land of snake charmers, we are equally guilty of nursing some bizarre notions about Africa. We blithely assume it to be a Tarzan comic tourist zoo with well demarcated areas for giraffes, lions, elephants, pygmies, pirates, ebola, AIDS and cricket.

Admit it: your knowledge of the second largest continent sucks! You probably think Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language there (Fact: it’s Arabic). You have no idea how big it is (Fact: it houses 54 countries). You must be under the impression that Sub Saharan Africa is poorer than the word ‘poor’ (Fact: there are as many people below poverty, in 8 states in India).

See, there’s a lot you need to learn about Modi’s latest excuse for earning frequent flier points. Africa ain’t all masai mara and mumbo jumbo. It’s a macrocosm full of surprises.

Coffee, the drink, us South Indians, cannot do without, comes from the Kaffa region in Ethiopia. The story goes that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered it when he noticed his goats jumping with joy after feasting on some berries from a mystery plant.

Even Cola has an African origin. The Kola nut is the fruit of the Kola tree, which was supposedly first planted in Nigeria. Without Kola, we’ll neither have Coca Cola or Pepsi.

Sticking with nature, we couldn’t have enjoyed the Ladies’ Finger or Yam without the generosity of West Africa. The famed Peri Peri sauce of Nando’s, also has the same roots. Piri Piri in Swahili apparently means ‘pepper pepper’.

Remember the legendary Impala car from Chevrolet? It derives its name from the graceful antelope of Africa, best known for leaping over 9-feet high obstacles. By the way, Reebok too, is a nod to the South African antelope called ‘rhebok’.

Likewise, the ultra-fashionable tote bags that a woman can’t do without, has an African connection. They say, ‘tote’ is derived from ‘tuta’ in Kimbundo, which means ‘to carry’.

Jazz, juke, jive, samba, banjo, conga and several other musical and dance forms originate here. And shocker of shockers, in big backward Congo, solar-powered aluminium robots direct traffic equipped with surveillance cameras! So, the next time you reduce Africa to a cliché, you better go on a discovery trek (another African invention) or better still, a safari!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Despoiling a Steel Maker

Steel making has got nothing to with Child Sexual Abuse, right? Wrong. In India, after much public pressure, the government passed a law in 2012 to address the issue of exploitation of vulnerable children. The law was called the 'Prevention of Children from Child Sexual Offences'. So far, so good.

The trouble began when the government circulated an acronym to popularise the act. The POSCO Act seemed easy on the mouth. But the bureaucrats who came up with moniker clearly didn't know about the existence of POSCO, the world's fourth largest steel maker by measure. POSCO is a South Korean giant with a significant Indian footprint. In 2005, the company had grabbed the headlines by announcing a $12 billion steel plant in Odisha. Given Modi's pet theme of Make in India, it's important not to piss off brands like POSCO.

By equating POSCO with Child Sexual Abuse, the government has unwittingly caused enormous embarrassment to the brand equity of the South Korean conglomerate. Fortunately, POSCO isn't a B2C brand. Being more of a B2B brand, this unhappy coincidence will not hurt the company as much. But imagine the damage had the 60 billion dollar company been an FMCG company! Perhaps next time, the government selects a name, it might help to do a name-check before unleashing it to the world.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zed Letter Day

For 300 weeks, I’ve been serving you a curious potion laced with a hint of trivia, a slice of etymology and a dash of name history. You’ve been a willing partaker of my experiments with truth, no matter how tasteless the servings. Here’s my parting shot dedicated to all you lovely people who’ve been part of my journey.

Befittingly, it’s about the last, lonely letter that probably gets as much respect as the twelfth man in a club cricket team. To clear the air, ‘Zed’ wasn’t always the vestigial tail of the English alphabet. Till the nineteenth century, the ampersand (&) took that slot. But after the dawn of the modern age, the crown of thorns has been worn by Z.

Z owes its origins and its zigzag form to the Greek zeta. Dropped from the alphabet in 300 BC for being ‘archaic’, the letter is staging a comeback of sorts with the advent of start-ups like ‘Zovi’, ‘Zo Rooms’, ‘Zopper’, and ‘Zivame’.

The cool thing with Z is it’s often associated with energy. If you don’t believe me, recall all the z-words you know: Zippy means ‘full of vigour’; Zing is about liveliness; Zest is enthusiasm; Zeal is ‘driven by energy’; Zany is ‘over the top’; and ‘Zindagi’ is life itself.

Another factor that works to its advantage is Z sticks out in serpentine lists. There may be 196 countries, but Zambia and Zimbabwe are likely to figure in everyone’s Top 30 in terms of recall. If you ask a kid to rattle out animal names, chances are ‘Zebra’ might make the cut, pretty fast. Provoke a movie lover into naming European actresses, Hungarian ‘Zsa Zsa Gabor’ might pop up from nowhere. For similar reasons, Zakir Hussain, Zubin Mehta, Zico Coimbra, Zeenat Aman and Zig Ziglar, can never be forgotten while drawing up A-to-Z compilations.

Numerology has always treated Z with respect. Health, stamina, willpower, achievement, diligence, courage, faith and charisma are traits associated with the letter. But do take it with a pinch of salt as the Double Z cues sleep in popular culture. And the mathematical symbol of nothingness is Zero. Still, even if you’re a zombie, with all the Zaras and the Zappos, and the Zippos and the Zomatos, you can’t help but admit, that Z has the last laugh today!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

King of Good Crimes

There’s a new villain in the grand narrative of India. It’s the diamond-watch wearing asura who lives the rich life in a castle in a faraway land, even while his impoverished company owes 9000 crores to a nation, where poor farmers commit suicide due to their inability to lay piffling sums.

Let’s analyse Vijay Mallya’s crime before we crucify him. His award-winning airline that created 4000 jobs bled from day one. It accumulated a pile of debt in full public view right under the nose of the RBI. Air India did what Kingfisher Airlines did at an even larger scale – yes, the Maharaja owes the government 30,000 crores! Strangely no one screamed, shouted or shed a tear. Not even Arnab.

So clearly, what is bothering most people is not that VJ defaulted loans, but ‘how he continues to live it up remorselessly’. The public would have probably loved it had Mallya lived a life of penury and penitence walking street to street with a begging bowl. But Mallya being Mallya, he will always do what comes naturally to him.

Because the life number and name number of Vijay Mallya is 5. Ruled by the planet Mercury, he will continue to punt all his life, take risks and enjoy large slices of luck.

And by the way, Mallya is more pluck than luck. He’s the guy who started his career as an intern at Hoechst and ended up as its Chairman. Having inherited his dad’s brewery business, he took it even greater heights. Capturing 9% of the world whisky market doesn’t happen that often in our country, no?

Where he probably went wrong was: instead of being a Richard Branson, he chose to be a Donald Trump, who incidentally declared bankruptcy not once but four times! In the first instance Trump owed 3 billion dollars. That’s nearly 2.5 times more than Mallya’s bad debt! To think that Trump is in the race for presidency today just goes to show that Mallya still has hope. Lots of it.

The surname Mallya means ‘caretaker of palaces’. He’s been true to his name by amassing property after property. But can he retain them given the current crisis? Or will he capitulate? For answers, we’ll have to look at the names of the horses he owned at Kunigal Stud Farm. There’s one named ‘Capitulate’. It went on to be a winner, against all odds.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rapper Wrap Up

T Rajendar can legitimately claim to be our first ever rap star. He could effortlessly rhyme thangachi with kottanguchi long before Baba Sehgal could pack chakraya and ghabraya into ‘Thanda Thanda Pani’. But unfortunately for TR, he was suppressed, oppressed, and repressed because of his pedestrian name. Had he repackaged himself as ‘Ra Gender’, ‘T Bear’, ‘Kara D’, or ‘Gangsta R’ he could have won a Grammy or two by now, for the Best Rap Performance!

Such is life. You’ve gotta have a ghettoesque name if you wanna do ghetto-style rap. Which is probably why a Curtis Jackson opted for the stage name 50 Cent.

For the unaware, Curtis chose this as a tribute to an American criminal Kelvin Martin who became infamous as ‘50 Cent’ for robbing just about anyone irrespective of how much they were carrying.

Most rapper names are monikers meant to grab attention - mostly the wrong sort of attention. You need to be smoking a warped kind of weed to call yourself ‘Shorty Shitstain’, ‘Yak Ballz’, ‘Boobe’, ‘Hot Rod’, ‘Young Thugga’ or ‘Pudgee Tha Fat Bastard’, right?

But there are also artists who don’t try to be too wannabe. Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arupragasam, the British Tamil artist, opted for ‘MIA’ after her cousin brother Jaana who went missing in action in Sri Lanka. Cordozar Calvin Broadus was nicknamed Snoopy by his mom as he used to watch a lot of Charlie Brown on TV. So he picked ‘Snoop Dogg’ as his identity.

Shawn Carter opted for ‘Jay Z’ inspired by the ‘Jazzy’ label that was associated with him when he was young. The white rapper Marshall Matthers flirted briefly with ‘Slim Shady’ before settling on Eminem, drawn from his initials M&M. Nayvadius Wilburn selected the offbeat ‘Future’ as he heard many of his buddies say, ‘he’s the future’.

Indian artists have learnt their lessons fast from their blingy brothers in the west. Otherwise why would the ‘Lungi Dance’ man rename himself from Hirdesh Singh to ‘Yo Yo Honey Singh’? The aim to layer the business card with a coat of coolness also prompted Taran Kaur Dhillon to experiment with ‘Hard Kaur’. Bangalore’s up and coming ‘Brodha V’ wouldn’t have made it had he stuck with his given name ‘Vighnesh Shivanand’. The Zambian Tam Bram ‘Lakshmi Narasimha Vijaya Rajagopala Sheshadri Sharma Rajesh Raman’ would have spent all his life saying ‘abhivadye’ had he not shortened it to ‘Blaaze’ (derived from ‘Blasé’, meaning nonchalant)! Ergo, the crux of the matter is: don’t use the name given by your mother; to rock in rap, choose some other!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Big Brand Theory

Real story. A famed venture capital fund once beseeched us to come up with a meaningless name for an apparel start-up. We tried reasoning with them and presented them some crispy, creative names with a whiff of an idea. In their infinite wisdom, they declined them all and went on to buy a 4-letter domain name that rhymes with Bowie. Years later, when someone asked them to explain their name, they put out a story that it’s the Russian word for ‘call me’!

Come to think of it, I have no beef with nonsensical sounding names. There are plenty of them around. The more successful ones have an iota of logic embedded somewhere. When George Eastman devised ‘Kodak’ in 1888, he was clear that he wanted a name that starts and ends with K, with no scope for mispronunciation or misspelling. After experimenting with many combinations, he and his mom hit upon the name that sold a million cameras.

The triumph of Kodak gave rise to a deluge of coinages. Businessmen started exploring newer possibilities in the genre of minted names. In 1903, Caleb Bradham developed a drink for upset stomachs. He named it ‘Pepsi-Cola’ as it was a remedy for dyspepsia. The London Rubber Company fused ‘Durable, Reliable & Excellence’ to birth ‘Durex’ condoms in 1929. The Van Melle brothers hit upon ‘Mentos’ in 1933 probably inspired by the peppermint flavour of their candy. Chester Carlson created ‘Xerox’ in 1949 from the process of ‘dry writing’ or ‘Xerography’. Sam Walton took a piece of his surname and launched ‘Wal-Mart’ in 1962. Around 1968, Intel was carved out of ‘Integrated Electronics’ as it sounded a lot cooler than NM Electronics.

The mad rush for coined names actually began in the late nineties with the explosion of dot coms. The pressure to create something unique led to the ‘altered spellings’ movement and that’s how we got Google, Flickr, Tumblr, Reddit, Digg, Segway, Ffffound, Myntra, Zomato and Qwikr. For those who love their history, La-Z-Boy recliners began this fad way back in 1927!

Another trick used by start-ups is the ‘odd words’ jugalbandi. Pepperfry, PepperTap, Urban Clap, Urban Ladder, Freshdesk and LimeRoad are popular examples. But I am a sucker for puns. So the one coined name that caught my eye in recent times is Nearbuy. When it’s as catchy as that, you don’t need to settle for gibberish like Grofers!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seoul Curry

We’re so ignorant about South Korea that some of us may even assume Charles Correa to be a Korean architect. No, I kid you not! Beyond the usual stereotypes of dog meat and Gangnam Style we know next to nothing about them.

Did you know that they are the world’s most innovative economy? More innovative than Germany, Japan or the United States! Do you know that everyone has a broadband connection there with internet speeds faster than the fastest?

I bet you’re not even aware that the South Korean language has at least 500 words in common with Tamil. Which includes shockingly same nouns, pronouns, verbs and interjections like appa (father), amma (mother), na (me), ni (you), naal (day), va (come), anbu (love) and acho (ouch). They even have a 60-year calendar like us and celebrate their Sashtiapdapoorthi (60th birthday)!

Cultural similarities aside, there’s a lot that’s unique about the South Koreans. New born babies turn one, the day they are born, unlike other societies where the age clock starts ticking only after 12 months.

Even their names are very different from the Chinese and the Japanese. They usually follow a 3-syllable nomenclature with the first being the surname and the other two being the given name.

Kim is the most popular surname. A recent study concluded that there are close to 10 million Kims in Korea alone. Park and Lee took the second and third spots in the surname sweepstakes. That could be because Kim and Park were names of royalty that still command respect in the land of the morning calm. The current president Park Geun-Hye’s name literally means ‘gentle like a hibiscus’. An odd rule that the country still follows is, people with same surnames cannot marry each other. Some say it’s necessary to retain the purity of the gene pool.

The most famous South Korean names we know are obviously brand names. Samsung literally translates to ‘three stars’. Hyundai works out to ‘modernity’. Daewoo meaning ‘Great Woo’ is an ode to the chairman Kim Woo-Jung. Kia in Kia Motors is a portmanteau standing for ‘rising out of Asia’. Lotte has an interesting etymology. Its founder Shin Kyuk-Ho was into Goethe. He liked the character ‘Charlotte’ in his novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and as a tribute, he called his company ‘Lotte’. There’s a lot more to learn about Korea. We’ll reserve it for some other day. Till then let me take leave with an anneyong (goodbye)!

1. Clippinger's pioneering research paper on "Korean and Dravidian: Lexical Evidence for an Old Theory".
2. Wikipedia: 'Dravido-Korean Languages' page.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Say It Again

In 1998, a very knowledgeable bloke posted a simple query in the ever-interesting Tamil Film Music Page ( He asked, “Why does ARR always begin songs with a word repeated twice?” That got everyone thinking. Frenetic lists were made. Before someone could rattle off ‘Chaiya Chaiya’, ‘Mustafa Mustafa’, ‘Ennavale Ennavale’, ‘Humma Humma’, ‘Rukumani Rukumani’, ‘Urvasi Urvasi’ and ‘Columbus Columbus’, another geek discovered that Ilayaraja was equally guilty of replicative words. ‘Janani Janani’, ‘Mayilae Mayilae’, ‘Manidha Manidha’, and ‘Sendhoorapoovae Sendhoorapoovae’ were stacked up as a riposte by a Rehman fan.

As a wise observer noted, neither could be blamed as the tradition of using Irattai Kilavi (twin words) has been around since the time of the Tolkappiyam (the first known work in Tamil literature). And if you care to look around, you’ll notice it everywhere, even today. Tamilians use ‘pala pala’ to indicate ‘glow’, ‘moru moru’ to emphasize crispness, ‘modhu modhu’ to cue roly-poly-ness, ‘palaar palaar’ to imply getting whacked, ‘vala vala’ for yakking, and ‘kisu kisu’ for gossiping.

Forget Tamil, ‘Twin Words’ is a phenomenon right across India. One can find hundreds of examples in Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Hindi. It’s so prevalent that two IIT Kanpur scholars RMK Sinha and Anil Thakur have actually put out a research paper on the topic.

The gist of their findings is: If the pair is a noun form like ‘ghar ghar’ or ‘bachcha bachcha’, the intention is to quantify things – although in case of ‘chor chor’ or ‘bachao bachao’, the idea is to get more attention; Numeral replications like ‘ek ek’, ‘aadmi aadmi’ is done to create a group feel; Adverb and adjective replications such as ‘dheere dheere’, ‘choti choti’, ’bade bade’ and ’naya naya,’ are meant for intensifying the meaning; Onomatopoeic repetitions like ‘ghanan ghanan’ (downpour), ‘kaanv kaanv’ (cawing), ‘sar sar’ (blowing), ‘jhar jhar’ (flowing) and ‘dhak dhak’ (heartbeat), are used for capturing natural sounds; while pronoun repetitions like ‘jahan jahan’, ‘jab jab’ and ‘jis jis’ are used for amplification of the focus.

Bollywood has been a fast learner of these tricks. Which is why, many blockbuster hits featured twin words in their titles. One can recall ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Ha’, ‘Kabhie Kabhie’, ‘Khel Khel Mein’, ‘Andaaz Apna Apna’, ‘Bol Radha Bol’ and ‘Bhaag Milka Bhaag’. My gut feel is Twenty20 sounds a lot sexier than test cricket because of the tautology. Brands like Tata, Pass Pass, Toto, M&Ms and 50/50 are beneficiaries of the same principle. So are the many catchy cab numbers (3000 3000 and 6000 6000) deployed in Chennai. In conclusion, all one say is that if one wishes to capture mindshare, it helps to say things over and over!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why Autobiographies Don't Sell

True lies. That’s what most autobiographies are about. They are nothing but verbose vehicles for revealing the reality about others and presenting your airbrushed, manicured self to an imagined world. Which is probably why no one cares to read them.

Fact: The last memoir to create a stir was Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. And it flew off the shelves as everybody wanted a sneak peek into his devilish mind. When Churchill wrote his ‘My Early Life’ it didn’t have as many takers.

This apparent paradox has led many to spice up their stories. Why else do you think celebs throw in a hush-hush affair, or reveal their sexual orientation or narrate an untold incident of child abuse? It’s not because they wish to record a confession. The unvarnished reason is money, honey! Everyone wants to be a bestseller.

But what many forget is that the journey to delivering a successful book, starts with a pithy title. A title that can sum up your life in less than 6 words. If you’re going to be an LK Advani, then you’ll end up with a bland one like ‘My Country, My Life’. Surely one can do better. I’d have gone for a bolder title like ‘Grapes of Rath’ or ‘My Chariots of Fire’.

History is replete with some lovely memoir titles. Roger Moore, the super suave actor who played 007, called his tome ‘My Word is My Bond’. Spike Lee, the auteur renowned for exploring racism, chose ‘Tall, Dark & Gruesome’. Arnold Schwarzenegger picked ‘Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story’. Star Trek stud Leonard Nimoy first said ‘I am Not Spock’ to underline his versatility. But later in life when everyone forgot about him, he came back with another volume: ‘I am Spock’.

Singer, actress, comedian Bette Midler dabbled in word play with ‘View from A Broad’. If you didn’t get her ingenuity, just say it loud, and you’ll figure that it sounds like ‘View from Abroad’. Another comic Vic Reeves (born Jim Moir) came up with the splendid ‘Me Moir’. Hard rocker Gene Simmons managed to cleverly embed his band name in the title. He opted for ‘KISS & Makeup’. Among the business heads, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson remained his true blue controversial self by labelling his work ‘Losing My Virginity’. Back home, the only half-decent name in recent times is ‘A Shot at History’ from Olympian Abhinav Bindra. I wonder when our stars will breathe some life into their life story!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Pluto's Big Brother

Till January 20th, Mike Brown was a massive hate figure. He was the badass astronomer with the twitter handle @plutokiller who got universally booed for reducing our beloved Pluto into an impotent snowball by questioning its very right to be called a planet. Having caused a cosmic uproar, he decided to make amends by discovering Planet Nine with 29-year-old astrophysicist Konstanin Batygin. And what a giant discovery it has turned out to be!

Planet Nine has 10 times the mass of Earth and despite being so huge, the big fella’s got very little gravitational influence on Earth because it’s located far, far away from the sun – at least 250 times the distance between Earth and Sun!

The thing that’s got everyone excited is the obvious question that’s posed when a new-born arrives with a big bang: “So what are we gonna call it?” Mike Brown’s 10-year-old daughter Lilah is already calling it Planet Lilah. Given the godzilla-esque proportions, Mike and Konstanin are informally referring to it as ‘Fatty’. Most researchers are using the placeholder name ‘George’. But the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is in no hurry as the planet might take at least 5 years to get sighted by a half-decent telescope.

But that hasn’t deterred anyone from voicing their suggestions. Some want to call it ‘Mickey’ after Mickey Mouse as Pluto is Mickey’s pet dog in the Disney series. David Bowie fans want it named ‘Bowie’ but that’s a really long shot as the convention is to name space oddities after Roman or Greek mythology characters.

Given this constraint, the list has narrowed down to: ‘Terminus’, the Roman god of borders; ‘Vulcan’, the Roman god of fire; ‘Bacchus’, the Roman god of agriculture and wine; ‘Nyx’, the Greek goddess of the night; ‘Ulysses’, the Greek hero of Homer’s Illiad; ‘Apollo’, the Greek god of light; and ‘Minerva’, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

There have been a few wild card entries. One smart aleck wants the name to change every year to raise megabucks from corporations. One year it could be, ‘Planet Swoosh’, the next, ‘Steve Jobs Was Here’, and then ‘Windows 9’, and so on. Pluto sympathisers feel it’s a sequel after all. Therefore, ‘Plutwo’ should suffice. If you ask me, I’d say, why not a Hindu mythology moniker? Why not ‘Bheem’? That way, future Star Trekkers could go, “Bheem me up, Scotty!”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fundoo & Funded

Start-ups must be the most envied corporate beasts. They get tax holidays. Ten thousand crores of funds from the government. Wall-to-wall coverage from the pink papers. Get celebrated for not making a rupee. And enjoy astronomical valuations for manufacturing nothing.

Sour grapes aside, for every unworthy billion dollar unicorn, there’s a start-up somewhere, working quietly to be a game changer fuelled by just sweat, spunk and spirit. It’s time we focused on them rather than the much ballyhooed Snapdeals and the Flipkarts. I’ve put together a nifty A to Z list in case you decide to punt a million bucks on these dark horses:

‘Airwoot’ specialises in listening to social media conversations and presenting the hot button issues to brands before they spiral out of control. The deliciously-named ‘Better Butter’ is a social discovery platform for ghar ka recipes from across India. ‘Culture Alley’ teaches English, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese using news articles, games and daily quizzes. ‘Delhivery’ is the last-mile logistics delivery firm for many e-commerce ventures and small merchants. ‘Embibe’ is the online test preparation coach that students will love as the site quantifies the weaknesses and deficiencies, and aims to improve scores using analytics and technology. ‘Faircent’ is the bridge that connects lenders and borrowers and promotes peer-to-peer lending.

‘Greenlight’ is into spreading the light of rural energy in off-grid villages by evangelising the use of solar lamps. ‘HereNow’ is the equivalent of a neighborhood bulletin board where you can exchange news and views relevant to your locality. ‘Inshorts’ serves news in 60 words for the generation with woefully short attention spans. ‘Joe Hukum’ is your valet to get things done - from ordering pasta to cleaning dishes to fixing leaks. ‘Kratos’ is the mobile ad network aiming to deliver better bang for the buck through better targeting. ‘Lybrate’ lets you take second opinions from doctors through online chats, telephone calls and in some cases, they even arrange a home visit. ‘MapMyGenome’ is a new-gen diagnostics company that uses genetic tests for proactively guiding you on your health. ‘NextDrop’ can amazingly track and solve water problems by connecting users with the municipality technicians.

‘Qyk’ is the mobile google for professional help. With a track record of developing over 1400 apps, that too in Udupi, ‘Robosoft’ is clearly the app-maker to watch. ‘SilverPush’ is in the realm of making ad measurement in idiot boxes, smarter. ‘Truly Madly’ is a dating app that turns singles into un-singles. ‘Unobitcoin’ is into helping you buy and trade in the currency of the future. ‘Wishberry’ breathes life into creative projects by leveraging the power of crowd funding. And finally, ‘Zoomcar’ is the self-drive car rentals venture that propagates the freedom of four-wheels. With such an impressive line-up, Start-up India doesn’t look like one more big bubble.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Sounds like a winner

I love reading movie subtitles. While everyone else surrenders to the overpowering imagery and the sensory delights of the unfolding plot, my eyes prefer to soak in the poetry of the written word. I particularly relish the sound descriptions that set the tone for things to come.

When the lift bell dings, when the wind howls, when the leaves rustle, when the footsteps go clickety-clack, when the shotgun is cocked with a schklikt, and bullets fly all around rat-a-tat-tat, an opera of onomatopoeias play out on the screen!

In case ‘onomatopoeia’ felt like an immensely forgettable entry from the Barron’s GRE Word List, it’s Greek for ‘name-making’ and in plain English it cues ‘a word that mimics a sound associated with the action designated’. Comic books are full of it. Who can forget the ‘Badaboom’ explosion, the ‘Thith-thith-thith’ helicopter whirr, and the perfect punch ‘Kapow’?

Onomatopoeias have been around since eternity. The Sanskrit ‘Om’ is considered one. The Tamil crow (‘Kaka’) is simply an echo of the bird sound. Our own Bollywood ‘Dishoom’ is of recent vintage. Even our daily lingo is replete with written sounds: ‘Tuk Tuk’ for auto, ‘khat-khat’ for knocking, ‘tick-tock’ for the flow of time, ‘padapadppu’ for palpitation, ‘chomp chomp’ for munching, and ‘pitter-patter’ for rain.

Children love repetition. That’s probably why onomatopoeias are used as a memory device in making them remember rhymes. If you recollect ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’, the moo-moos, the quack-quacks and the oink-oinks will be embedded in your mind as if you learnt it yesterday.

The obvious attraction of catchiness has made onomatopoeias the go-to literary device for most name smiths. When ‘Refreshing Mints’ wanted some zing in their name, they rechristened the brand as ‘Tic Tac’ after the distinctive clicking sound that the pack makes when it’s opened and closed.

When Noah Glass was looking to name his killer creation, he considered Friendstalker and Twitch before zeroing in on Twitter, derived from how birds go ‘tweet-tweet’. Microsoft’s search engine ‘Bing’ was launched by pitching the name as the ‘sound of found’. The humble hawai chappals are internationally known as ‘flip-flops’ after the noise that the rubber soles make when they slap against your feet!

So if you want your cash registers to go ‘ka-ching’, maybe it’s time to opt for a ‘Boing Boing’!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

That’s a new one!

When billions of people have millions of things to convey, even six hundred thousand words in the Oxford English Dictionary may seem woefully inadequate. Which is why, neologisms are minted every year to keep pace with our thoughts.

2015 saw many new words take the world by storm. The practice of using drones to deliver packages was brought to light by Amazon. But DHL went a step further and actually deployed it by labelling the service as ‘Parcelcopter’. The name has fast emerged as the category descriptor.

Another word with immense utility is the Mx honorific. Although coined in the 1970s, the gender-neutral title gained currency as Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms wasn’t doing the job for transsexuals, cross dressers, gays and lesbians. By extension, one can state that the gender-neutral pronouns would be Xe (instead of he/she), Xyr (for her/their), and Xym (for him/them).

An acronym that’s gotten popular is FOGO (Fear of Going Out). It’s the uneasy feeling anti-socials experience when their friends call them out for a lunch, dinner or hang out session. I can confess, I get FOGO, all the time.

The noun ‘manspreading’ is something most males will relate with. It’s the habit of sitting in public transport with legs wide apart. Another masculine word is ‘lumbersexual’. It’s a reference to young urban men who cultivate the appearance of a rugged outdoor person by sporting a beard and looking neatly unkempt.

Tiger Moms of the eighties have given way to Helicopter and Lawn Mower Parents. Helicopter parenting involves hovering over children and constantly worrying about them while the Lawn Mower types actually smoothen the path by eliminating all the hurdles thereby creating spoilt brats!

The digital overload of mindless whatsapping, facebooking, tweeting and youtubing has created a new kind of beast called the ‘Disconnectionist’. Basically it cues a person who believes in shutting down all devices and focuses on opening up to oneself. Another appropriate coinage is ‘Dumbwalking’. It’s the zombie-like walk of someone who has lost his attention to a smartphone.

Booze lovers will relish ‘Wine O’Clock’. It’s the time of the day when you start wetting your lips. Foodies will concur with the thinking behind ‘Hangry’. It’s the state of being so hungry that you become angry. Urban Dictionary has a lot more of these creations. Till you visit the site and find out for yourself, I won’t breathe a word!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Names of 2015

It’s been a rather odd year. No one’s been able to nail it in one word. Merriam-Webster thinks ‘Ism’ is a pithy summation of 2015, because the world was obsessed with terrorism, racism, feminism, and Trumpisms! kind of concurs but has chosen ‘Identity’ as its Word of the Year. In the land we belong, I’d say ‘Beep’ is more like it, as we’ve been grappling with multiple forms of intolerance regarding what we say, what we wear, what we eat, what we view, and what we sing.

Now that we’ve provoked you from your New Year slumber, let’s turn your attention to the most original names developed in the last 12 months. Let’s start with the Best Tamil movie title: ‘Vellaiya Irukiravan Poi Solla Maatan’ (Fair Skinned Never Lie). Inspired from a racist quip in a Vadivelu comedy track, the name brings an immediate smile and is a great way to draw people into a comedy. Among the mallu flicks, ‘Oru Vadakkan Selfie’ (A Northerner’s Selfie) was the clutter buster. It’s catchy, and contemporary nature felt just right for the thriller. ‘A Shyam Gopal Varma Film’ was my pick for the smartest Telugu film title as it feels every inch like a spoof on Ram Gopal Varma!

‘141’ was my number one choice for the Best Kannada title. If you get the cryptic ‘one for one’ touch, you’ll appreciate this Lesbian romance better. Balki’s ingenious portmanteau ‘Shamitabh’ towered above other Bollywood drivel like ‘Kaagaz ke Fools’ and ‘Yaara Silly Silly’. In case you’re wondering why I haven’t yet covered English movies, well, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E’ made it to my list due to the intrigue it’s suffused with. The fascinatingly dreary ‘Microbe and Gasoline topped my Foreign Films compilation.

The arrestingly in-your-face ‘Galileo’s Middle Finger’ was my non-fiction book title of the year. In sharp contrast, the more evocative ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was the numero uno among novels. The twitter handle that rocked for me was Twinkle Khanna’s ‘Mrs Funnybones’. Incidentally, it’s also the title of the best seller penned by her.

Cut to music. ‘Club Meds’ a trippy pun on the resort, outscored all other albums in terms of stickiness and recall. The immensely unusual ‘Car Seat Headrest’ was easily the best new band name – for its sheer audacity of being consciously uncool.

‘Jibo’ (Japanese for ‘compassionate mother’) the first ever family robot was my selection for the new product moniker of the year. And ‘Vistara’ (Sanskrit meaning: to expand) emerged clearly as the most endearing new Indian brand name. Hope the harvest will be as good in the coming season

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Forget Me Not

The human brain is a network of 100 billion neurons with the mind-boggling capacity to store 20 million songs. With such a huge hard drive, some of us still manage to be dim bulbs!

The fault could lie in our RAM (Random Access Memory) or the working memory. If the RAM is in the league of 8 GB, chances are we’d be able to recall nearly everything. If, on the other hand, our RAM is in the realm of 512 MB, we’re likely to have the memory of a gold fish.

At school, I think, all of us had a rather distracted frame of mind. Which probably explains the profusion of mnemonics (memory aids) to make us remember things. I still recollect my physics teacher’s naughty little mantra: Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me. Apparently, it’s the nifty way to recollect O, B, A, F, G, K and M – the seven types of stars in a galaxy arranged in decreasing order of temperature.

Google tells me that ‘My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos’ is how kids in America remember the nine planets. In our geography class, ‘HOMES’ was the code word to memorize the Great Lakes of North America. For those who’ve forgotten, it’s Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.

‘Dumb Kids Prefer Candy Over Fancy Green Salad’ is a very contemporary way to refresh your memory on Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus & Species (the taxonomy of life as taught in Biology).

The beauty of mnemonics is, anyone can create their own formula for calling to mind just about anything - not just lists. For instance, the number pi can be worked out to the 15th place by just counting the letters in the following sentence: “How I like a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics”. That would be 3.14159265358979.

In a nation of mug pots, it helps to have desi mnemonics. So I wasn’t surprised when I stumbled upon ‘Sona Chandi Tole Pandit Badri Prasad Har Har Bhole’. It’s the cheat sheet for arriving at trigonometric formulae for Sine, Cosine and Tangent.

Basically Sona (sine) is Pandit Badri (Perpendicular/Base), Chandi (cosine) is Prasad Har (Perpendicular/Hypotenuse), and Tole (tangent) is Har Bhole (Hypotenuse/Base). Any crammer would tell you, that’s simply ingenious. But then, mnemonics were meant to make the dreary job of mugging smile-worthy, right? Before I take leave, I’ll sign off with ‘Lovely Cadbury Dairy Milk’. It’s the delicious way to chew on LCDM, the major Roman numerals!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Getting Away With Murder

The driverless car did it. The drunken roads did it. Everyone else, except Sallu, did it. That’s the only conclusion one can draw from the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict pronounced on the 13-year-old case concerning a Bollywood star best known for 100-crore hits-and-runs.

The judgement has provoked maximum outraging in the maximum city. But as seasoned observers will tell you, getting off the hook is par for the course for celebrities across the world. Let me name a few names to put you to ease.

Sometime in 1969, Ted Kennedy (the youngest brother of JFK, and a United States senator), in a famous episode of drunken driving caused the death of a young lady named Mary Jo. Instead of being charged with homicide, his surname helped him snag a mere two-year sentence. There was no public apology to the family. Some monetary compensation exchanged hands, that’s all.

OJ Simpson’s case was even more brazen. The rugby star was tried for the 1994 murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Despite being caught after a chase by the LAPD and tell-tale evidence of his bloody footprints at the scene of the crime, OJ was let go. After release, he had the cheek to write a book titled ‘If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer’. Thankfully, he’s now cooling his heels serving a 33-year prison sentence related to a robbery case.

Singer R. Kelly, the man who behind ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, was once arrested for having sex with a minor and for indulging in child pornography. The charges were serious and just when the world was expected him to be severely punished, all charges were dropped and he walked a freeman!

Rappers Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Jay-Z have all been acquitted for grave crimes. That’s because celebs jumping the bail and beating the system has been the norm for centuries.

Fatty Arbuckle, a silent movie era legend, was tried thrice over the mystery death of a lady who spent some quality time with him. But the jury glossed over the man slaughter. Al Capone, the Chicago gangster and the brain behind many street murders, always managed to escape the electric chair. But karma caught up with him when he was pinned down for tax evasion. So all ye who despair, let’s wait for Lady Karma to do her job.