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.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Panty And Friends

Panty is a very coy word. At least in India. It’s not to be bandied about in public. But if you’ve ever been to any of the IITs, chances are you’d have heard the boys talking about Panty excitedly as if it’s their chaddi-buddy. That’s because anyone with the surname ‘Pant’ is often addressed with this nickname!

Scandalous, smart and striking nicks are a common feature, particularly in IIT Madras, where everyone is rumoured to have one. If you’re skinny, you’ll probably be called ‘Paper’. If you look undernourished but have a prominent rump, you’ll be christened as ‘Paperweight’. A little obesity may earn you an ‘Appu’ (remember, the Asiad elephant?). A lanky fellow may become ‘Ganna’ (Hindi for sugarcane). A rather well-endowed girl gets ‘Oops’ (Out of proportions). A typical thayir-saadam case may be branded as ‘Fruit’. And the one who gets the most moist-eyed is ‘Senti’ (short for sentimental).

Apart from these usual suspects, sometimes your name decides your nickname. If you happen to be Badrinarayanan, expect to be hailed as ‘Battery’. The Prabhakarans of the world can’t escape the ‘LTTE’ tag. G Ram Prasad may get zipped into GRamP or just ‘Grumpy’. Ram Bhaskaran will be reduced to the geeky ‘Rhombus’. A Bhoopalan may be surgically altered into ‘Boobs’. An Aravind Kuttan may get a firang makeover with ‘Orkut’. But the Balakrishnans have, for centuries been, blessed with the same old ‘Balls’!

Mannerisms and behavioural traits also have a say in the choice of nicknames. Gadget freaks attract the label ‘Q’ (the man behind the crazy weaponry in James Bond flicks). Flatulent blokes are given missile names such as ‘Scud’. Those who butter up get ‘Soap’. The one with the access to colourful reading material is ‘Pondy’. The sleepy ones get ‘Charasi’. And the rote champions are always ‘Maggus’.

Campus sobriquets with stories are the most liked. There was once a lad from Goa. During ragging he was mocked as ‘Son of a beach’. Someone saw the potential in it and hit upon the name ‘Marina’! Another chap had a hairdo that resembled a porcupine which incidentally sounds like ‘Porukki Payan’ (or rascal in Tamil). From that day, his hostel mates termed him as ‘Porki’. Although that may sound like name calling the fact remains that nicks are always meant to be taken in jest the right spirit!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Not OK Kanmani

Article 15 of the Constitution of India specifically prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Wonder why our founding fathers didn’t add language to that list. If they had, the patently discriminatory policy of discouraging English titles by providing tax incentives for Tamil names wouldn’t have stood legal scrutiny.

Before you jump at me for defending a foreign language, allow me to point out that English is one of the two official languages of the Indian Union. And usage of English in our movie titles has been prevalent since 1936 when Miss Kamala hit the screens.

From that era till now, filmmakers have always taken care to choose only those words that would resonate with the masses. The most preferred tactic was to prefix a name with a degree, profession, or designation. ICS Mappillai (1940), Server Sundaram (1964), Major Chandrakanth (1966), CID Shankar (1970), General Chakravarthy (1977), Justice Gopinath (1978), Lawyer Suhasini (1987), Sethupathi IPS (1994) and Suyetchai MLA (2006) are a few celebrated examples in this sub-genre.

If you really analyse, how does one think of Tamil equivalents for IPS, CID, Major, and MLA? You have to accept these words as part of your language, no?

The logic is the same with usage of Christian names in titles. Does the Rajnikant movie ‘Johnny’ not qualify for being ‘Tamil’? Why must the Vijayakant starrer, ‘Alexander’, be perceived as any less local than the Karthi flick ‘Alex Pandian’? Didn’t Tamilnadu queue up to watch the Satyaraj film ‘Walter Vetrivel’? Why should the Tamil movie ‘Romeo Juliet’ be paying 15% more entertainment tax just because it chose to be true to the original play?

Another question that must be posed is: Haven’t words like ‘Hero’, ‘Pass Mark’, ‘News’, ‘Youth’, ‘Five Star’, ‘Pizza’, ‘Star’, ‘Jeans’, ‘Time’, ‘Duet’, ‘Whistle’, ‘Junior Senior’, ‘Boys’ and ‘Autograph’ become a part of the everyday lexicon in Karunanidhi land? So why shouldn’t they be treated as part of the Dravida culture?

Somehow, for reasons I’ve never fathomed, our artists keep accepting these diktats so meekly. Perhaps the time has come to reopen the debate on what constitutes our culture. Else, even a Mani Ratnam will be forced to settle for the watered down ‘O Kadhal Kanmani’ for a few dollars more.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bang In The Middle

Kiefer Sutherland, the actor best known for playing Jack Bauer in the popular TV series ‘24’, is worth remembering for one more reason. He’s the guy with five middle names!

No. I am not kidding. Kiefer Sutherland is actually ‘Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland’. But that didn’t get him into the record books as Adolph Wolfe+585 (the man with 585 more characters in his surname) beat him hollow with 25 eye-popping middle names.

That raises the question as to what is a middle name. Technically, it’s the thing that appears between a given name and a surname. For instance, Damodardas is the middle name of Narendra Modi. You would have known that had you paid more attention to his 4.31 crore pin striped suit!

Anyways, the point to bear in mind is, middle names were largely a Western tradition (even in India, it’s a Western Indian phenomenon). It came into vogue around the nineteenth century when there was a sudden rush to take an alternative first name as the centrepiece. A few folks who were not particularly happy with their given name chose to flaunt it, instead. W. Somerset Maugham, J. Edgar Hoover, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph Rudyard Kipling are some famous examples.

In Russia, the middle names are patronymic (derived from father’s name). They usually occur with an –ovich suffix for males and –vna for females. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Anna Sergeyvna Kournikova are cases in point. The Chinese don’t have any concept of middle names just like us South Indians.

A few weeks ago, twitter went crazy coining befitting middle names for celebrities. The creations varied from the downright insulting to the terribly funny. Virat *beep* Kohli was a nod to his sledging. Robert DLF Vadra was a tribute to his notorious land deals. Rajdeep Buy My Book Sardesai was a dig at his shameless plug of his tome.

Beyond trolling, many indulged in some delicious wordplay. Here are some pearls: ‘Hashim Dabur Amla’, ‘Naomi Kilo Watts’, ‘Stevie Seven Day Wonder’, ‘Stanley Rubik Kubrick’, ‘Cat On-A-Hot-Tin-Roof Stevens’, ‘David Take A Bowie’, ‘Wayne Loonie Rooney’, ‘Tiger Lost-In-The Woods’, ‘Charlie Sexma Sheen’, ‘Jim Cash N Carrey’, ‘Rock Paper Scissors Hudson’, ‘Lady GooGoo Gaga’, ‘Paul I Feel Like A Newman’ and ‘Whitney I Think We Have A Problem Houston’. The most ingenious one was reserved for the American Rapper ‘Jay ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXY Z’. Ain’t that cool?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Say it with flowers

All of us are guilty of reducing flowers to the level of the Facebook ‘like’. It’s become the default placeholder reaction when you have pretty much nothing to say.

No wonder, it’s raining bouquets on birthdays, death days, victories, defeats, induction ceremonies, farewell bashes, wedding receptions, and after-divorce parties. The ugly truth is that but for a handful of florists no one knows a thing about any flower – be it daisies or daffodils. All we can talk about is the superficials.

Let me attempt to change things around by serving you some dew fresh trivia that will hopefully make your conversations more flowery.

For every sunflower you’ve chanced upon, there’s a moonflower (a species of morning glory that resembles the full moon) blossoming at night. And somewhere in the North American woodlands, during May and June, one can sight the starflower belonging to the Primrose family.

Talking of the rose, several stars have had variants named after them. Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Lady Gaga and Dolly Parton, are among the beauties who got lucky. Among male celebs: Cary Grant, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Givenchy, and Yves Saint Laurent, have been chosen for the rare honour. Aishwarya Rai is the only Indian to enjoy this privilege. She has a Dutch tulip against her name.

Quite a few famous flowers have been christened after its discoverers: 'Dahlia' is not a nod to Roald Dahl but Swedish botanist Anders Dahl; 'Plumeria' (aka Frangipani) is an ode to seventeenth century French naturalist Charles Plumier; the world’s largest flower ‘Raflessia Arnoldi’ is a twin tribute to the founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Raffles, and his friend Dr. Joseph Arnold; while 'Gardenia' owes its existence to Scottish zoologist Dr. Alexander Garden.

Sometimes shapes influence the moniker. 'Dandelion' is derived from the French phrase dent de lion which is a reference to the ‘lion tooth’ like leaf. The orchid’s tuber resembles the testicles, hence orchi (Greek word for the male gonads) was deployed as the root word for the flower name. Since science is gender neutral, you also have the ‘Clitoria Ternatea’, an efflorescence that bears a striking similarity to the female genitals!

Some flora are the offspring of colours. Lilac (from Sanskrit word ‘nilak’ meaning bluish), Chrysanthemum (Latin for ‘golden flower’) and Iris (Greek for ‘rainbow’) are the most fragrant examples. My mind is budding with many more tales. Will weave that garland, some other day!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Nicked And Taken

If there were a world cup for creating nicknames, the Aussies would walk away with all the honours. Unlike the run-of-the-mill fare served by others, the Baggy Green coinages are invariably cutesy, clever and capricious.

David Boon, the batsman who scored 7,422 runs from 107 tests, was immortalized as ‘Kegs on Legs’ for his incredible feat of glugging 52 cans of beer during a famous flight to England. The New South Wales pacer Aaron Bird was whimsically referred to as ‘Flu’ during the times of the avian flu. Merv Hughes, the sledgehammer par excellence, who once taunted a struggling Robin Smith with the classic troll, “If you turn the bat over, you’ll get the instructions,” was christened ‘Fruitfly’ by his mates. The allusion was obviously to his pesky nature.

Classy jibes at fellow players has always been the norm, down under. When Mark Waugh scored four consecutive ducks, he was anointed ‘Audi’ (as a nod to their logo). Forecasting a fifth duck, his well-wishers were eager to label him as ‘Olympic’ but Mark got out of jail with a fighting 39 against West Indies.

Perhaps the most inspired choice was the smiling assassin Brett Lee’s. He became ‘Oswald’ as he batted after Lee (Shane Lee) and Harvey (Ian Harvey)!

England has its fair share of pearls. Tweaker Ashley Giles was often mocked by his colleagues with the nick ‘King of Spain’. The reference was to a club incident when commemorative mugs praising him as ‘King of Spin’ was wrongly printed as ‘King of Spain’.

Among the South Africans, the most lovable moniker belongs to fast bowler Mfunko Ngam. He was called ‘Chewey’ because his name felt like Chewey Ngam. Mean, no?

Even the Pakistanis have a better sense of humour than our stuck-up willow wielders. Umar Gul was designated as ‘Guldozer’ for his various demolition jobs. In contrast, Misbah-ul-Haq was blessed with ‘Mr. Tuk Tuk’ for his ability to grind the opposition to death with his stodgy defence. ‘The Wall’ just pales in comparison to the earthy charms of Mr. Tuk Tuk.

Let me round off with the sobriquet I liked the most. It was for the 6-foot-6 Kiwi batter Peter Fulton. He was called ‘Two-Metre Peter’. You can’t beat that, can you?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Numbers Game

Forecasting is risky business. You often end up looking like an embarrassed ass. But if and when you get it right, you can strut around smugly pretending to be an avatar of Nostradamus.

Although nearly all exit pollsters got the broad contours of the Delhi Polls right, nobody even came close to predicting an AAP tsunami and the BJP decimation. As an amateur numerologist, may be I should have given it a shot and used the mystic power of numbers to prognosticate about the polls. Anyways, it’s never too late to use the magic of hindsight to see if numerology could have got it right.

Before we start, it’s important to understand that the three most important numbers in numerology are birth number, destiny number and name number. For AAP (born on 26/11/2012), the triad of key numbers is 8, 6, and 1, as per the Chaldean system. For Arvind Kejriwal (born on 16/8/1968), his numerical coordinates are 7, 3 and 4.

The 2013 Assembly Elections were held on 4th of December 2013. Now if you notice 4th is in synchrony with Kejriwal’s name number. You’d be zapped to know that four is also the name number of Harsh Vardhan. So naturally, the last election was a stalemate between Kejriwal and Harsh Vardhan.

This year, the elections were held on 7th of February. As luck would have it, 7th is in resonance with Kejriwal’s birth number. Neither Kiran Bedi (born on 9/6/1949) nor Ajay Maken (born on 12/1/1964) had this advantage. Also, the counting was done on 10th, which again is in sync with AAP’s name number. Given these double edges, the race was totally loaded in favour of the Mufflerman.

So, is there any way Amit Shah could have staved off defeat? He could have, had he chosen Satish Upadhyay (born on 6/3/1962). Satish’s name number 8 matches with the destiny number of the election date. AAP smartly rendered him ineffective by cleverly doing an expose on his nexus with the power discom BSES.

In summary, it’s quite apparent that AAP was destined to storm to power in Delhi. Last time around, they had bagged 28 seats (2+8 = 10 = 1), which is identical with the name number of AAP. This time, they ended up with 67 (6+7 = 13 = 4), which mirrors Kejriwal’s name number. Either way, numerology was the winner!

POST SCRIPT: The swearing in ceremony is on 14/2/2015. Do the math. 1+4+2+2+0+1+5 = 15 = 1+5 = 6. Whose destiny number is 6? AAP's! Don't you see a pattern now?

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Almirah of Etymologies


Okay, quiz time.

Which European empire lasted the longest in India?

I expect quite a few of you to get this wrong. No, it’s not the Brits. Even accounting for the East India Company, they ruled us from 1612 to 1947. That’s like 335 years.

In contrast, the French sphere of influence lasted for 288 years. While the Dutch presence was for 220 years. The guys who beat them, fair and square, were the Portuguese. They lorded over Goa for nearly 450 years!

With such a long footprint, the Portuguese naturally influenced our culture in ways we can’t even fathom. For starters, they gave us the potato, tomato, pineapple, guava, papaya, cashew, capsicum, chilli, tapioca and the cheeku fruit. May be I should add peanuts, corn, okra, litchi, vindaloo, kalkals and tobacco too.

A bouquet of words in our native lexicon owe their origins to Vasco da Gama land. The Tamil word for key is nearly the same as the Portuguese ‘Chave’. Dravidian purists would be aghast to know that ‘jannal’ (window), ‘rosa’ (rose), ‘koppai’ (cup), ‘mesai’ (table), ‘pena’ (pen), ‘pippa’ (barrel), mestri (mason) and ‘verandah’ (porch), have a mystic Lisbon connect.

Hindi has been a liberal borrower as well. ‘Balti’ (bucket), ‘santra’ (orange), ‘ayah’ (nanny), ‘kamra’ (room), ‘pav’ (bread), ‘chai’ (tea), ‘biskut’ (biscuit), ‘sabun’ (soap), ‘padri’ (priest), ‘almari’ (almirah), ‘kameez’ (clothing), ‘kaju’ (cashew), ‘batata’ (potato), and ‘madira’ (wine) derive their roots from words minted in Portugal. Even colloquialisms such as ‘istri’, ‘toliya’ and ‘iskuul’ come from Portuguese words ‘esterar’ (to press), ‘toalha’ (towel) and ‘escola’ (school).

Some very familiar angrezi shabd have a similar linguistic connection. Labrador, for example, is named so because it was first bred in the Labrador Peninsula in Canada. Incidentally, the area was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Joao Fernandes Lavrador.

Emu, the largest bird native to Australia and a synonym for Ponzi schemes in Tamil Nadu, is etymologically a Portuguese word that means ‘ostrich’.

So many more Indianisms like palanquin, mosquito, indigo, commando, coconut, caste, buffalo, banyan, breeze, cobra, jackfruit, pomfret, tank and teak, wouldn’t be around, had a 15th century bearded sailor not uttered, ‘Eastward Ho!’.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The 2-in-1 nation

If Bombay can become Mumbai, Calcutta can mutate into Kolkata, and Madras to Chennai, how long will it take before someone moots the idea of dropping the name ‘India’ altogether in favour of something more native?

Blasphemous as it may sound, the fact remains that many oddballs in our country have already started voicing such suggestions. During the 2004 elections, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party had promised to rename India as Bharat. Just recently, Subramanian Swamy, the maverick of mavericks, went on record demanding a name change to Hindustan.

To settle the matter once and for all, it might help to revisit the Constituent Assembly Debates in 1949. The very same issues were discussed threadbare by our founding fathers. Bharat, Hindustan, Hind, Bharatbhumi, Bharatvarsha and Aryavrat were all tabled for consideration and shot down one by one.

Hindustan was vetoed for several obvious reasons. The most hilarious logic spouted against it was voiced by Kallur Subba Rao. He argued that Hindustan is the Persian way of saying Sindustan (the land of Sindu or Indus). Since the river is in Pakistan, the only nation that is truly entitled to call itself as Hindustan is Pakistan! Can someone convey that to Swamy, please?

Kallur Subba Rao and many others were boisterous in their backing for Bharata. The inspirational freedom movement slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ was the biggest driver of support. It also helped that for centuries the subcontinent had been referred to as Bharatvarsha by ancient Indian texts. Even the venerable Vedas called us all the progeny of Puru dynasty King Bharata.

But Ambedkar wasn’t a man easily swayed by scriptures or mythology. He saw immense utility in the name ‘India’, especially in international fora, and hence pushed it through with all the authority he could muster. But when it became clear that he’d face resistance, he struck a compromise of sorts by coining the famous line, ‘India that is Bharat’. Thanks to his half-measure, we ended up with a split personality. Just like Ireland that is Eire and Japan that is Nippon. When one looks back, one wonders, if he was being too clever by half.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am Charlie

Till that bloody day in Paris when 12 brave hearts were butchered for standing up for free speech, the name ‘Charlie’ meant so many things to so many people. In the shadowy streets of London, it was the code word for ‘Cocaine’. Among giggly Victorian women ‘Charlie’s dead’ was the euphemism for ‘your slip is showing’. For men high on testosterone, ‘Charlies’ meant a pair of hooters. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to ‘Charlie’ as the Brit slang for a ‘fool or simpleton’. But January 7th changed everything.

Out of the blue, the rallying cry “Je Suis Charlie” (French for ‘I am Charlie’) emerged as the collective middle finger equivalent for everyone opposed to intimidation of freedom of expression.

The ‘Charlie Hebdo Attack’ made us all pause for a minute. And ponder about weighty issues like: ‘What the hell does Hebdo mean?’ If you thought along those trivial lines, you’re not alone, my friend!

To clarify matters, Hebdo, is derived from hebdomadaire, the French word for ‘weekly’. So Charlie Hebdo essentially means ‘Charlie Weekly’. Originally known as ‘Hara-kiri Hebdo’, the satirical newspaper took its name from another comic magazine titled ‘Charlie Mensuel’ which in turn borrowed its Charlie from ‘Charlie Brown’, the Peanuts character. The urban legend is that ‘Charlie’ was picked because it was an inside joke on Charles de Gaulle, the then French President.

Let’s dissect the pedigree of ‘Charlie’ further. The diminutive of ‘Charles’, it literally implies ‘Free Man’. Given what transpired in Paris, very unsurprising, no?

Charlie has been the famous first name for scores of distinguished men. Charlie Chaplin, the comedian extraordinaire, was actually christened after his dad. Charlie Sheen was different though. He was born Carlos Irwin Estevez. ‘Charley’ was also the screenname of Tamil actor Manohar Velmurugan Thangasamy. Incidentally, like Rajnikanth, he owes it to the late K. Balachander.

Contrary to common belief, the comic character ‘Charlie Brown’ is not a nod to its creator Charles Schulz. By his own admission, it was a tribute to his friend from art school days.

Then there’s the saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker who owed his middle name to his childhood habit of being a ‘Yardbird’ or someone who hung out in the yard outside clubs listening to the bands playing jazz inside.

There are many more Charlies worth talking about. But for now, let’s raise a toast to the one who redefined them all with their pungent wit.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why Sarkari Names Suck.

There’s this person I know who spouts MBA style jargon every day. He seriously thinks it’s cool to speak in acronyms. He reduces everything to an alphanumeric mantra. If it’s 5Ts (Talent, Tradition, Tourism, Trade, Technology) one day, the very next day, he would get rapturous about the 3Ds (Democracy, Demography, Demand) and the 3Ss (Skill, Scale, Speed). By the way, NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) is his latest obsession.

By now, you would have realised that the person I am alluding to is NaMo. Despite being an outstanding communicator with a visible penchant for wordsmithery, he’s been less than impressive with the nomenclature of his pet government schemes.

The man who gave us the very catchy RSVP (Rahul, Sonia, Vadra, Priyanka) has somehow picked unexciting lemons like ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana’, ‘Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana’, and ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’ for programs with the remarkable potential to transform the face of India.

Perhaps Modi picked the bad habit from previous governments that have been guilty of burying life altering concepts with mind numbing names. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) is a telling example. Here’s a scheme that ensures 100 days of paid work to every villager, and they go and give it a pedestrian label that feels as long as Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas! Even soaps, detergents and mediocre shampoos that do far lesser have far more impactful names.

The problem really lies in using words that have no connection with the masses. When was the last time you heard anyone using ‘Shram’ for ‘labour’, ‘Krishi' for ‘agriculture’, ‘Protsahan’ for ‘stimulus’ and ‘Pravasi’ for ‘NRI’? You need to either be a black belt from Hindi Prachar Sabha or a newscaster from Doordarshan to dabble in such gobbledegook.

So, why, oh why, should the very savvy Narendra Modi choose an ‘Apprentice Protsahan Yojana’ or a ‘Swavlamban Abhiyaan’? Why not take a cue from his pal Jayalalithaa who preferred ‘Amma Canteen’ over something as banal as ‘Mukhya Mantri Antyodaya Anna Surakasha Bhojanalay’! Yes, she overdid it with Amma Cement and what not, but at least she applied the pithy principles of branding and kept it simple and smart. Time to think KISS, Modi!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Eye Catchers of 2014

2014 was not an easy year to vie for your attention. Aamir Khan had to literally drop his pants and cover his family jewels with a retro transistor. Kim Kardashian had to bare her galaxy-sized rear to break the internet. Smriti Irani had to pull out her 6-day Yale degree to acquire a smidgen of respectability. And Mangalyaan had to cover a distance of 650 million kilometres to get the earthling’s approval.

Given this need for ultra-showmanship, is it possible to make heads turn by merely using a name? A few brave souls have proved that it’s very much in the realm of possibility.

‘6-5=2’ is a stand out case. The perplexing algebraic equation is the title of a Kannada horror flick, made on a shoestring budget. When the director didn’t have an extra dime for publicity, he decided to tease his audience with a cryptic name with viral value. The trick paid off. The 30-lakh film went on to collect 1.5 crores at the box office!

The niche English movie ‘Finding Fanny’ was an equally bold attempt. Fanny is ostensibly the nickname of Stephanie Fernandes in the road trip comedy. But Homi Adajania’s audience got the naughty double entendre and showed up to cheer for his cunning stunt.

‘Sulemani Keeda’ (Meaning: Pain in the butt) and ‘Fugly’ (Slang for Effin Ugly) tried the same formula and got tongues wagging. Likewise, the punk girl band ‘Childbirth’ took the Indie music world by storm with their iconic number on one-night stands that goes ‘I Only F*ked You As A Joke’. Fortunately for them, the joke turned out to be a chartbuster.

Being irreverent is not the only mantra for grabbing eyeballs. Sometimes length should suffice. Disney opted for the longest movie title of the year with ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ much against the wishes of some marketing executives. But the gamble worked. Director Shankar’s one letter ‘I’ is the polar opposite which will reap its dividends, come January.

Among the other newsmakers, Megan Fox caused a splash by naming her child ‘Bodhi Ransom’. Recording artist Azaelia Banks courted fame with her classily named debut album ‘Broke with Expensive Taste’. Irish author Eimear McBride earned hosannas for her first novel with the very evocative ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’. South London band ‘Fat White Family’ continues to tickle curiosity with their unusual moniker.

But personally, my pick of the year, is the New York pork joint ‘Arrogant Swine’. You’ve got to give it to them for going the whole hog.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Raju Ban Gaya Name Guru

Would you have watched ‘PK’ had the film been called Hey Bhagwaan or let’s say Badey Kaanwaala? The fanboy in you would have still headed to the multiplex but I am willing to bet my last paisa that your level of intrigue would have been a lot lesser.

Clearly, Rajkumar Hirani knows a thing or two about names than you can possibly imagine. His titles are always character centric but like any income tax return, it hides more than it reveals. ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ gives no inkling of ‘Jaadu ki jhappi’. ‘Lage Raho’ gives no clue of ‘Gandhigiri’ and ‘3 Idiots’ doesn’t feel like a satire on the education system.

That said, the choice of PK was partly fortuitous as Raju Hirani had originally planned to name it as ‘Talli’ or more specifically ‘Ek Tha Talli’. The release of ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ forced a rethink and he chose PK over ‘Talli’. May be because ‘Talli’ creates a misimpression that the film is about an alcoholic while PK can pass off as a nickname or the initials of a person.

Even with character names, no one has come up with quirkier ones than Raju. The lead character of Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’ was Ryan Oberoi. Any lesser director adapting the story would have faithfully stuck to Ryan. But Mr. Hirani is not your average auteur.

He picked Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad instead. The other alias for Aamir in the movie was Phunsukh Wangdu. In another era, Ranchoddas would have been the hero’s dad and Phunsukh possibly a Nepalese sidekick. To select un-heroic monikers for heroes requires chutzpah. And Raju saab has plenty of it.

His desire to stay away from the same old Vijay, Rahul and Raj has led the genial director to the doorsteps of the unusual. Anushka plays the role of ‘Jagat Janani’ urf ‘Jaggu’ in PK. I can’t recollect a single Hindi movie heroine bestowed with such loopiness.

The minor characters in the Hirani ensemble are always a delight. If Circuit and Short Circuit had the audience in splits in ‘Munnabhai’, Centimeter and Millimeter took the cake in ‘3 Idiots’. Thankfully, he’s not repeated the trick in ‘PK’. And that only means ‘All Izz Well’.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How Tamil got its Dum.

The Bhai in Rajinikanth country has a different connotation from the Bhai in Salman Khan’s universe. Out here, he’s the god who feeds our greed for biriyani. He’s the walking-talking google for any movie you want. He’s the grocer who discovered home delivery long before BigBasket did.

Lungis or leather jackets, perfumes or pop-up toasters, mobiles or microwaves, high street or low street, he’s the go-to guy for everything. Among other things, the affable neighbourhood Muslim also managed to spice up Madras Tamil by generously sprinkling some Urdu into the equation. Let’s explore his delectable contributions.

Let’s start with Jalsa. The city slang for ‘having pure pleasure’ is derived from the Urdu word for social gatherings famous for their convivial atmosphere. Majaa is no different. It’s a derivation from ‘mazaa’ (meaning: fun).

One more expression of enjoyment Tamaashu is an offspring of ‘Tamasha’, the Persian description for entertainment spectacles. Yet another term for ‘ostentation’ is Jabardastu which came from ‘Zabardast’ (grand). It’s no coincidence that a considerable part of the Chennai vocabulary devoted to celebration, has Urdu roots. One can attribute it to the domineering influence of the Nawabs of Arcot, who lived near the precincts of the city.

Street Urdu of Triplicane left a more profound imprint on the local lingo. The expletive ‘Bazaari aurat’ (slut) gave rise to Bajaari (cheap woman). The swear word ‘Beimani’ (cheat) morphed with time into Bemani (oaf). And ‘Bevkoof’ (fool) was sauteed and roasted into Baeku (idiot).

Every smoker’s nirvana, the Dum, is from the Hindustani word for ‘breath’. Sarakku, the bootlegged liquor, owes its origins to ‘sarak’ which means ‘to steal’. Another popular campus parlance ‘maal’ (matter) refers to ‘goods’ in Urdu.

Quite a few of today’s jaam bajaar jargon has an etymological history worth sharing. Mamool (the dreaded bribe) is from Mamun (money). Bejaar (being distressed about a problem) is a direct descendant of ‘Bezaar’ (displeased).

Balti (somersault of the turncoat) comes from ‘Palti’ (flip). Ushaar Party (Smart Alec) is an obvious derivation from ‘Hoshiyaar’ (clever). The Tamil word for breakfast (Nashta) is also a loan word. Even ‘Ghatham Ghatham’, the superstar’s trademark quip in the film ‘Baba’, is from Khatam (finito). Having gifted so much to our lives, the Bhai surely deserve a lot more gethu (respect), don’t you think?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Starry Eyed Babies

When actress Genelia D’Souza delivered a baby boy last week, I could see the name coming from a thousand miles. Mrs. Riteish Deshmukh named her child ‘Riaan’ (the Persian word for ‘Little King’).

Riaan was quite predictable as it happens to a portmanteau of sorts of the parents’ first names. I am quite sure, if it had been a daughter, they’d have called her ‘Riaah’. More because Riaah and Riaan have the same name number as their numerology-loving dad!

To put things in perspective, slicing and dicing sound components of mom and pop names is the most common baby naming trick among Indian celebrities.

Forty years ago, when Ravi Tandon (the director of ‘Khel Khel Mein’) and his wife Veena were fishing for a sweet name for their girl, they christened her as ‘Raveena Tandon’. In 2001, Saurav Ganguly and Dona Roy applied the same template when they picked ‘Sana’ for their little one. The ‘Riaan’ nomenclature is but the latest instance of deployment of this time-tested formula.

Incidentally, Amrita Arora’s son is Rayan and Madhur Dixit’s boy is Ryan. The inadvertent choice of a commonplace name is again a commonplace problem in India. Which is why celebs walk that extra mile to look different.

Fathers and mothers in search of uniqueness would do well to worship Arshad Warsi and Maria Goretti. They selected the rather bizarre ‘Zeke Zidaan’ and ‘Zene Zoe’ for their kids! Another Zed freak is Shikhar Dhawan. Although he chose the more conventional Zorawar (Arabic for ‘brave’).

Opting for foreign sounding names is the easiest way to stand out from the unwashed masses. When Farah Khan and Sirish Kunder had triplets, they turned to Russian for ‘Anya’ and ‘Czar’. The third one was given the very Latin ‘Diva’. Farhan Akhtar, true to his twitter moniker of being @FarOutAkhtar, handpicked the Japanese ‘Akira’ and the Buddhist ‘Shakya’ for his children. Sushmita Sena favoured the French ‘Renee (meaning ‘reborn’) for her daughter.

Konkana Sen Sharma and Ranvir Shorey have to be handed the most literate couple award for naming their son as ‘Haroon’ after Salman Rushdie’s ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’. But the most well-read Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid, wasn’t very adventurous when he chose Samit and Anvay for his sons. Like always, perhaps, he was playing by the book!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Getting Breathless Over Wireless

In the days when I used to trip over geeky pickup lines, I came across one that really cracked me up. It goes something like this: “Is your name Wi-Fi ‘coz I am feeling a connection?” In my head I wondered what if the repartee had been: “No, I am Bluetooth. And I don’t think your device is up for pairing!”

Cheesy lines apart, that was the first time, I gave Wi-Fi some deep thought. I figured the word was invented in 1999 by Interbrand when a bunch of nerds wanted a catchier equivalent for ‘IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence’. Wi-Fi was a play on Hi-Fi and it’s a fine example of how some deft naming has made our world, a hipper place.

Talking of hip nomenclature, it might help to cast a lazy eye on your neighbourhood wireless networks. I can assure you that it can be a neat source of levity. Imagine the sheer pleasure of discovering a ‘Mi-fi, Not Your-Fi’ instead of a bland network-operator name. Imagine if the Ambi Mama next door labels his network as ‘Wi Believe I Can Fi’, won’t you see him very differently?

Being inventive is a pre-requisite for nerds. Which is why on the internet, you’ll discover many genres of wicked Wi-Fi names. Here are a few samplers to get you initiated:

An IT administrator once chose ‘Hack If You Can’ as the network name. He was stumped, the very next day, when he discovered someone had changed it to ‘Challenge Accepted’.

Another online story is pretty legendary. A mother, not exactly known to be facile with her mobile phone, kept bugging her son by constantly asking him ‘which network is ours?’ The son solved the problem once for all by christening it as ‘Use This One Mom’.

The ones I like more are programmed to piss-off pesky neighbours who wish to leech off your bandwidth. ‘No Free Wi-Fi For You’, ‘Screw You’, ‘Get Your Own Damned Internet’, ‘YourNotWelcome’, ‘FBI Surveillance’ and ‘I Read Your Emails’ are telling examples of this sub-genre.

The best name award should perhaps be shared by ‘Pretty Fly For A Wi-Fi’, ‘TellYourWifiLoveHer’ and ‘The Promised LAN’. But my personal favourite is a coffee shop’s moniker. It says: ‘Buy Another Cup You Cheapskate’. How cool is that!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Makeover Mockery

Imagine if a new government were to pass a law that makes it mandatory for people to wear the dhoti and sari in public places. Wouldn’t there be a national outcry? Even the more-sanskari-than-thou Alok Nath may think twice about endorsing the move as it’s an open transgression of personal freedom.

A city name change enacted via government diktat is akin to the enforced costume makeover. The only difference being, there won’t be a pipsqueak of protest as nobody really loses sleep over place names in India.

Yes, there might be the odd hot headed tweet about how uncool Bengaluru is or how Chikkamagaluru is a worthy candidate for a spelling bee contest but the fact remains that no editorials will be written, no celebrity will speak out, no ‘kiss of love’ protests will be staged, as the issue is largely perceived to be a non-issue.

My gripe with the rechristening is not on whether Mysore should be called Mysuru. It’s about the singular lack of discussion and public involvement before the decision was made.

In these times when cities are seen as brands, a name change should only be effected after considerable debate among all stake holders. I mean, what’s the idea of renaming Madras as ‘Chennai’ when Madras High Court, University of Madras and Madras Stock Exchange decide to retain their original names?

The same process is going to play out in Bengaluru. Bangalore University, is in all likelihood, going to retain its name. Wikipedia, Lonely Planet and zillions of outsiders are still going to refer to it as Bangalore. So why waste billions of rupees in repainting road signs, rewriting maps and reprinting stationery all for the sake of puffing up cultural pride, 67 years after independence?

A place name change is kosher, only if backed by a groundswell of popular support. Here we can learn from processes put in place by several American states and municipalities.

A name change form is available for download at the government website. Those in favour have to mobilise 51% support in their area. Then the motion is presented to a government body which in turn forwards this to a committee that holds a public hearing listening to all the pros and cons before sticking its neck out for the proposal. Sadly none of this was followed in Bengaluru and Mysuru. All that was achieved was, we’ve been short changed in the guise of a name change.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Manohar Parrikar Mystery

On November 9th, a political coup was staged quietly in India. The Chief Minister of a small state was handed the No.2 status in the union government overlooking the claims of seasoned veterans like Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Venkaiah Naidu and Nitin Gadkari. Oh, and by the way, the country got a new defence minister in Manohar Parrikar.

While the mainstream press attributed the sudden promotion to his dynamism, track record and rapport with NaMo, I am of the view that there are higher forces at work here. One look at the numerology numbers of the man, and you’ll appreciate my points better.

Having born on December 13, 1955, three numbers dominate Parrikar’s life. His Birth Number 4 (add the digits of 13), Fadic Number 9 (add the digits of date of birth) and Name Number 8 (add the number equivalents of the letters in his name using the Chaldean system).

Those with birth number 4 are governed by planet Uranus which is known for bringing about radical and unexpected change. Number 4 people are the ones with energy, force, resourcefulness, courage and conviction. They are usually folks blessed with higher mental faculties. Mathematician Ramanujan, Michael Faraday, Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Conan Doyle, belong to this league. The IIT Bombay aspect of Parrikar and the sudden changes in his fortunes could be attributed to the number.

The name number 8 is the one that’s playing a larger role in his destiny, though. When he contested the assembly elections in Goa, Parrikar chose to stand from Panaji. If you do the math, Panaji’s name number is 8. Coincidentally, the letters of RSS (the organisation backing him to the hilt) add up to 8. Do you know the birth number of Narendra Modi who happens to be backer-in-chief for Parrikar? Well it’s 8. The eight story doesn’t stop there. The word ‘Defence’ (his current portfolio) also summates to that number!

‘What about the fadic number 9?’ you may ask. Well, the swearing in ceremony was done on November 9, despite being a Sunday! So you get the drift, right? All I am alluding to is, given the numerical coincidences, I may not be wrong in assuming that the universe is conspiring to dish out power to Manohar Parrikar on a platter. It’s to be seen if he can live up to the faith invested.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Horsing Around

One night while I was tossing and turning, I had a delightful dream. I saw Ravi Shastri all decked up. Wearing riding boots, sporting an equestrian hat, wielding a whip stick, getting ready to inspect his stable.

He had quirky names for his ponies. I can distinctly recollect: ‘Runs on the Board’, ‘Cool Customer’, ‘Tracer Bullet’, and ‘Playing a Blinder’. ‘Slashed’ and ‘Slashed Hard’ were a pair of twins. ‘Mixes It Up Nicely’ was his idea of a cross breed. ‘Up In The Air’ was his show jumper. I woke up in a sweat when I discovered that he had bet all his money on ‘Cricket Is The Winner’!

Jokes apart, race horse naming is serious business. The accent is always on a positive spin. If you run your eye over the derby results, you’re likely to find a ‘Chariot of Fire’, ‘Wings of Glory’, ‘Velvet Blackjack’, ‘Kings Ransom’, ‘Thunder Bolt’, ‘Faster Than Light’ or ‘Cowboys Delight’ somewhere.

Things are a little warped sometimes. The owner tries his hand at having a wee bit of fun by opting for the unusual. A loser steed is self-deprecatingly labelled as ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Another Chance’, ‘Will Run For Food’ or ‘All Over Da Place’ as the case may be.

Nods to movies happen every once in a while. ‘A Horse Called Man’ is a twisted take on the 70’s flick ‘A Man Called Horse’. ‘Beam me up, Scottie’ is a hat tip to the legendary catchphrase that was never uttered in ‘Star Trek’. ‘Blonde in a Motel’ (who incidentally was sired by ‘Bates Motel’) is a reference to ‘Psycho’.

Brands get a liberal plug too from doting admirers. Bacardi, Starbucks, Campari, Victoria’s Secret and Jack Daniels are regulars at many circuits. Note the marked preference for spirits. May be that’s why a tippler named his horse ‘Sotally Tober’!

A few thoroughbreds get their kicks by flirting with profanity. ‘Hoof Hearted’ is everyone’s favourite. Say it aloud and you’ll discover it sounds ingeniously like ‘Who Farted’. Repeat the same with ‘Sofa Can Fast’ and you’ll know why the prancer was nearly blacklisted.

The one I tripped on the most was the almost Groucho Marxy ‘Dewey Cheatum & Howe’. When the announcer utters it, it feels as if he’s bragging on the microphone saying: “Do we cheat them and how!” Now that’s what I call a racy name.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Simply Slurreal

In 2012, a cop was fired in America for shouting out a racial slur at baseball star Carl Crawford. Believe it or not: he was sacked for using the word Monday. Innocuous as it may sound, apparently ‘Monday’ is a cryptic put-down used for blacks by white supremacists. Their warped logic being: Nobody likes Mondays!

In an ultra-touchy universe where the politically incorrect are hastily labelled as ‘racist’ and ‘bigoted’, it’s better to know what not to say to whom. That’s why, I’ve put together a quick primer to get you clued into the secret world of ethnic insults.

When in an Asian joint, never utter the word ‘Oreo’. The famously cream cookie can get you crunched, licked and creamed as it’s a snide way of saying ‘Oriental’. Never ask for ‘Pepsi’ aloud, while in Quebec, as the fizzy drink is supposedly a vile taunt at French Canadians who are ‘empty from the neck up’. Also, if I were you, I wouldn’t walk into a multiracial store and order for ‘Heinz’ as the company’s ’57 varieties’ slogan is manifestly a disdainful surrogate for people of the mixed race.

Coded abbreviations are a favourite with racists. Any normal Tamilian would think SPIC is a fertilizer company from Chennai. But in the USA, it’s a scornful acronym for Hispanics derived from Spanish, Indian and Coloured. UFO is far worse. It’s likely to alienate you from fellow Asians as it means ‘Ugly Frigging Oriental’. Likewise, MD is not the doctor you think. It’s a dig at the white man for being ‘Melanin Deficient’!

Even regular fruit names sometimes take the avatar of invectives. ‘Coconut’ implies an Indian who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. ‘Apple’ is a dig at those Native Americans who seem red but have a white core. ‘Banana’ applies the same analogy to the yellow skinned.

‘Cookie’ (an allusion to the Chinese fortune cookie), ‘Burger’ (the collective noun for Jewish names that end with ‘burg’), and ‘Bacardi’ (the rum that gets made in Puerto Rico) act as ethnic pejoratives as well.

‘Double A’ (African Americans), ‘Eight Ball’ (the colour of the 8-ball in pool), and ‘November’ (the N-word in the phonetic alphabet) are Monday-like words best avoided in a ghetto.

With Jews, steer clear of rhyming words and the number 539 as it corresponds to J-E-W on a phone. And lastly, if you encounter someone from Musharraf-land in Britain, never say ‘Pac Man’ unless you wish to cool your heels in a prison!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The City of Seven

Maths writer Alex Bellos carried out an interesting online poll recently to determine the world’s favourite number. His survey threw up a surprise. The most popular number was neither one nor three. It wasn’t even pi. Seven won the sweepstakes by a mile!

To use an immortal Ravi Shastri expression, the number ‘7’ has always occupied the “upper storey” of human consciousness. The days in a week, the biblical sins, the musical notes, the colours of the rainbow, the wonders of the world, the chakras in the body, and even the number of heavens in the Abrahamic religions work out to seven.

So why is everyone so obsessed with it? Mr. Bellos attributes it to the relative uniqueness of the number vis-à-vis others from 1 to 10. As in, it can’t be divided, and when multiplied, it will always yield a figure higher than ten.

Numerology has its own version of the truth. Seven, apparently, is very intellectual, spiritual, philosophical and hence mystical.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. The numerological name number of Chennai is seven. What that means is the city is more likely to be teeming with nerdy homebodies who enjoy their culture and relish inventing, researching, writing or creating.

If one goes purely by the name number: wisdom, knowledge, analysis, specialisation and logic will be the core competencies of Chennai; and argumentativeness, narrow-mindedness, rigidity, stagnancy and aloofness will be its shortcomings.

If that felt like a near-accurate picture, wait till you hear the other seven connections of Chennai. The first organised water supply in Chennai began with the Seven Wells Scheme in 1772. Mylapore, one of the oldest residential parts of the city is best known for seven great Shiva temples. Incidentally Kapaleeswarar Temple is seventh in the pecking order and it was built during the 7th century. The great renaming of Madras happened in 1996. If you add the digits of 1996, it adds up to 7.

Even words that you normally associate with the city such as Academy, Actress, Alcohol, America, Bargain, Buffalo, Capital, Central, Coconut, Chicken, Doctors, Digital, English, Fanclub, Jewelry, Mercury, Modesty, Obesity, Scandal, Seafood…all have 7-letters. Including your very own Indulge!

(Penned on the 7th anniversary of Indulge Chennai, the Friday Supplement of New Indian Express)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Scars of Mars

Everyone has their reasons to get to Mars. For MOM, it was the sheer audacity of carrying a billion dreams to a destination far beyond the celestial realms of human imagination. For Alia Bhatt, it could be the attendant bliss of landing on a planet full of chocolate bars. For someone like me, it’s the joy of seeing a topography teeming with interesting names.

Talking of topography, the red planet is one massive scarface with a staggering 635,000 impact craters caused by crashing meteorites, asteroids and comets. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has taken the pains to label around 1000 of these craters. A quick glance at their nomenclature will make your day.

At least 8 craters have been named after Indian cities. They include Amet, Bhor, Broach, Kakori, Poona, Rayadurg, Sandila and Wer. If you’re scratching your head as to why they chose low profile cities, well here’s the logic: all the small craters on Mars are a nod to places on earth with a population of 100,000 or less. Poona, with 5 million residents, lucked out though. Just like Madrid, Johannesburg, Canberra, Bristol and Amsterdam. But I am not complaining.

The Bigger Craters list reads like an all-star line-up of scientists and explorers. Apart from the usual suspects such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe, Isaac Newton, Ptolemy, Kepler, Columbus, and Balboa, the beauty of the entire thing is, one can find an assortment of littler giants who pique your curiosity. There is: Wilhelm Beer, the man credited with creation of the first globe of Mars; Hipparchus, the founder of trigonometry; Nathaniel Green, an astronomer whose pencil drawings of Mars was world famous; and Carl Sagan, the brain behind the Mariner9 and Viking missions.

The only Hollywood star to be immortalised is Orson Welles, the man who caused a scare by broadcasting the Mars Attack saga ‘The War of the Worlds’. Star Trek fans would be pleased to know that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the TV series we all adore, has a crater in his name along with fellow writers Isaac Asimov, HG Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (aka the Tarzan guy). Although Arthur. C. Clarke is a strange omission considering his first novel was titled ‘Sands of Mars’. Who knows they might name a desert after him, someday!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Numbers by the dozen

With one stroke of mathematical ingenuity, an unsung Doordarshan newscaster took revenge on the Chinese President Xi Jinping for all the unwarranted incursions at the border by referring to him as ‘Eleven Jinping’. And for her serendipitous act of bravery, the anchor was packed off to the doghouse instead of being awarded a Shaurya Chakra. Poor thing!

Perhaps the mandarins at Doordarshan are not aware of the great Indian tradition of embedding numbers in names. Had they known about it, at least we could have trotted out a face saving explanation that the blooper was not an insult but an honorific.

Because it’s quite common in our country for names to be woven around numerals. Eknath Solkar, India’s best ever fielder, bore the Shaivite appellation Eknath (meaning: one lord). BJP’s proto economist Jay Dubashi’s surname alludes to a person who is an exponent of two languages. Renowned percussionist Trilok Gurtu used to proudly tell people that his first name meant ‘king of three worlds’.

Just to complete the count-up: Chaturvedi is one who knows the four vedas; Panchapakesan is the god who has five rivers trapped in his hair; Arumugam is the six-faced deity; Ezhumalai is the master who resides in the seven hills; Ashtalakshmi is the lady with the gunas of eight goddesses; Navarajan is the ruler of nine planets; and Dasaratha is the man whose chariot can move in ten directions!

If Mr. Jinping needs international examples to be assuaged, there’s plenty. The Quentin in Quentin Tarantino actually means ‘fifth born’. Similarly, Octavio in Octavio Paz is the Spanish way of saying ‘eighth’.

Since the entire controversy started with Roman numerals, the curious case study of Beyonce’s baby girl ‘Blue Ivy Carter’ should keep the Chinese happy. Ivy on the face of it is a beautiful vine. But there’s more to it. Phonetically it’s the letters I and V. When put together, that’s IV. To those who think like the Doordarshan woman it’s the roman number ‘four’. And what’s with the four fetish? Apparently Beyonce and her hubby Jay-Z were both born on the 4th. What’s more, they got hitched on April 4th. To commemorate the date, they chose the quaint middle name.

So Eleven Jinping is in ‘bootylicious’ company. Next time he says ‘Ni hao’, pull that number on him.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Murphy's Children

The most famous adage in the known history of mankind is attributed to an air force captain named Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. He’s said to have stumbled upon the “If anything can go wrong, it will” maxim while experiencing a near botch up moment engineered by a dolt of a colleague during an all-important safety test for measuring rocket acceleration, way back in 1949.

The ready availability of a convenient scapegoat to explain away human error made Murphy’s Law enormously popular. Extensions popped up overnight. The world joined the party to conjure up eponymous laws aimed at offering witty insights.

The first gush of laws seemed like dark clones of Murphy. If Stock’s Observation postulated that “just when you get your head above water, someone will pull your flippers off”, Sprinkle’s Law gloomily posited that ‘things will always fall at right angles’.

But then, Murphy’s charm began to wear out when everyone and their dog started creating their own versions. The resulting ennui gave birth to a new set of laws on a new set of topics. To save you some trouble, I’ve applied Sturgeon’s Revelation (“Ninety percent of everything is crap”) as the filter and have culled out the most remarkably pithy ones.

Let’s start with the wonderfully prescient Rothbard’s Law (“People tend to specialise in what they are worst at”). Doesn’t it reveal why all of us end up chasing degrees and careers that have no vague connection to our real talents?

Shirky’s Principle is even better. It states that ‘institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution’. The wisdom of the observation will sink in once you start ruminating on questions like, ‘Has policing brought down crime?’ and ‘Has bureaucracy increased the efficiency of government?’

If that set you thinking Hutber’s Law (“Improvement means deterioration”) will make the penny drop especially when you reflect on how social media has made us all unsocial.

Cunningham’s Law is my personal favourite. It says, ‘the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not by asking a question, but by posting the wrong answer!’

And perhaps the dictum for our times is Poe’s Law which declares that it’s impossible to create a parody of religious fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing…without using a winking smiley. Doesn’t that make you go, ‘oh my god’?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Brand Baja Baaraat

Light music bands in India are as common as the common cold. Whether you’re at your girl friend’s wedding, ill gotten child’s birthday party, a third rate cultural fest or a first rate puja pandal, they’re likely to be there within sneezing distance, belting out an off-key Rafi number or an offbeat Kishore Kumar gaana.

The one bizarre fact about nearly all these ‘troupes’ is their namelessness. Contrast this with the many Indian rock bands you know. The first thing you remember about them is the band name, right? So why don’t light music bands invest time, money and effort, in giving themselves an imaginative moniker? Surely it must be an easier task than yodeling like RD Burman and screeching like S. Janaki.

I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that this lethargy towards naming is a result of lack of inspiring examples. If we have a Molotov Cocktail today, it’s because there was a Thermal and a Quarter to start with. Unfortunately, the desi bands have no such role models.

As the self-proclaimed custodian of good naming, I think we must correct this anomaly. I feel the best way to do it is by providing a no-brainer band name generator that can take the labour out of naming. It just involves identifying a famous western band, translating their name into Hindi and making that your band name. Before you dismiss my invention with disdain, let me amplify its potential with a few examples.

If you’re on a sixties trip, you can call yourself Kaun (translation of The Who). If your lead singer is a highway star, you can try Gehra Jamuni (means Deep Purple). If your members are willing to paint their faces like Gene Simmons, Chumma (KISS) might do the trick.

Darwazein (Doors) might open new vistas if your band has the ability to keep the audience’s mojo risin. Bands that love live performances with long musical improvisations can consider Krutagya Mrutak (Grateful Dead). And the ones into heavy metal can look at Loha Kanya (Iron Maiden). If you try this trick, who knows, you might just become the next Ghoomtey Pattar (Rolling Stones)!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Anatomy of Gibberish

Most people are born with a visceral hatred of mathematics. I was clearly off kilter. I abhorred the sight and sound of biology. The thought of endlessly dissecting frogs and capturing their inner beauty with gruesome pencil sketches in coloured cellophane sheet wrapped record books didn’t particularly appeal to me.

What ticked me off further was the hospital smell inducing scientific nomenclature that felt stupefyingly unintelligible. I swore to myself that someday when I grow up I would learn enough Greek and Latin to figure things out.

That day, my dear reader, has arrived. Please anaesthetize yourself before you subject yourself to the contents below.

Let’s begin with the much reviled anus. It doesn’t have any malodorous basis. It gets its honourable name from the Latin word for ‘ring’ due to the ringed musculature surrounding the terminal orifice of the bowels.

If that didn’t feel sufficiently biological, let’s plunge into the heart of the matter. Remember inferior and superior vena cava? Translated they just mean ‘hollow veins’ labelled according to their order of appearance. By the way, the heart chambers ventricle and auricle were named for their shapes. Ventricle means ‘little belly’ and auricle decodes to ‘little ear’.

Duodenum, the first part of the small intestine, has an interesting origin. It’s around 25 cm in length. But that wasn’t the measurement used in those days. So the Greek physician Herophilus counted it as 12-finger-widths or duodenum!

The shape of the organ or bone often played a part in the naming. The pelvis is literally ‘the basin’. The shinbone Tibia is Latin for ‘flute’. Cornea, the reason for two-thirds of the eye’s optical power, is a horn-shaped tissue. Those who know cornucopia (the horn of plenty) will be able to work out the corneal derivation. Likewise, Thyroid or the Adam’s apple as we know it, owes its roots to the Greek word for ‘shield-shaped’.

The meaning of some other vital organs will crack you up. The male pecker also known as the penis is ‘the tail’ in an ancient language, a diminutive form of which gave rise to the word ‘pencil’. Incidentally, the female sex organ vagina is from the Latin word for ‘scabbard’ – the sheath that holds the sword! Now wasn’t that one hell of an eye-opener?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Whiff of a tribute

He’s the walking, talking, writing, acting, singing, dancing, eating, breathing, wikipedia of world cinema. He is equally at ease dissecting the craft of Brando, Bergman or Balachander. With a gobsmacking career spanning 54 glorious years spent with four generations of actors, directors and technicians, it can be safely said that no one knows the Tamil filmdom better than Kamal Hassan.

Once in a while, he lets us fan boys take a sneak peek into the kind of giants who shaped him by dropping clues through his lovingly made films. ‘Avvai Shanmughi’ (based on Mrs. Doubtfire) was a tribute to two people – the talented Mr. Robin Williams and the unsung Mr. TK Shanmugham.

Most people wouldn’t know TKS. The doyen of Tamil theatre and a thespian of the classic mould, Shanmugam was Kamal Hassan’s first mentor when he joined his drama troupe as a child artiste. TKS is still remembered for his outstanding portrayal of the lady poet saint ‘Avvaiyar’. The cross-gender performance earned him the sobriquet ‘Avvai Shanmugam’. So when Kamal Hassan tried his hand at playing an old lady, he thoughtfully remembered to doff his hat to the master.

‘Pammal K Sambandam’ was the second instance when the ulaga nayagan overtly paid homage to an inspirational figure like Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar, the founding father of modern Tamil theatre. Although the role essayed in the 2002 comedy had no connection with the reverential Mudaliar, Kamal perhaps chose the referential title to immortalise a man whom he adored.

That brings us to ‘Papanasam’ – the ‘Drishyam’ Tamil remake starring Kamal Hassan. At a locale-level, Papanasam might make for as good a setting as Thodupuzha in the original movie. At a literal level, ‘Papanasam’ means ‘destruction of sin’ and ‘despoiling of a child’ which is in sync with the theme of Drishyam. But I have one more theory. The movie title could be a semi-ode to Papansam Sivan, one of the foremost music composers of Tamil cinema. Why I am saying this is DK Pattammal, a Papanasam Sivam protégé, was once coaxed by Kamal Hassan to sing ‘Vaishnav Janato’ for ‘Hey Ram’!

Another legend held in high esteem by our man was SS Vasan. I am tempted to arrive at this conclusion as Kamal Hassan has nicked three of Vasan’s titles till date: ‘Sathi Leelavathi’ ‘Apoorva Sagodarargal’ and ‘Raj Tilak’. Talk of coincidences!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sweet taste of software

How do you whip up a massive appetite for boring lines of code among the developer community and make the content-starved media go into raptures over an incrementally new version of your product? Well, if you are Google, you’d accomplish the task deftly, by simply codenaming the gazillionth version of your mobile operating software, after desserts that leave a scrumptious after-taste.

The nomenclature strategy of covertly labelling the key releases of Android as ‘Cupcake’, ‘Donut’, ‘Eclair’, ‘Froyo’, ‘Gingerbread’, ‘Honeycomb’, ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’, ‘Jelly Bean’ and ‘KitKat’ was indeed a masterstroke. Honestly, no one would have given a squat about Android 4.3 or Android 4.4. But when you call one ‘Jelly Bean’ and the other one ‘KitKat’, it does tease the senses and multiplies the buzz manifold.

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of choosing confectionery-themed cryptonyms wasn’t exactly invented by Google. South Korean multinational LG beat them to it, at least by 3 years, when they launched the cell phone codenamed as ‘Chocolate’. They followed it up with another series called ‘Cookie’. Unfortunately, even before LG could explore the full beauty of what they had hit upon, Google unveiled its seemingly ingenious naming architecture.

Google’s alphabetical line up of desserts has lent itself to fascinating guessing games about future names. The next release of Android tentatively titled ‘L’ has already started fuelling frenetic speculation. Some think ‘Lollipop’ would make a befitting pick. ‘Licorice’ has an equal amount of backers. IIT Kharagpur grads have apparently been rooting for ‘Lassi’. Business competitors mockingly feel ‘LOL’ would be perfect though.

Despite being a clever marketer, I think somewhere Google missed a trick in milking the full potential of what they’ve created. I say this, because none of the smartphones actually carry the fancy codenames in the device settings. Instead, they still use bland numbers like Android 4.4.1. The tactic is as retarded as inviting guests over for ice cream and serving them capacious empty scoops!

Cribs apart, I was wondering which Indian sweets would fit into the Android scheme of things. In my view, there’s still hope for Laddu, Mysorepak, Modak, Payasam, Rasagulla, Rasmalai, Shrikhand, Sandesh, and Tilkut. But the big question is: will Google bite?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

That Madras Place

There was a time when Chennai foodscape was all about three ladies and three gentlemen – Sangeetha, Vasantha, Ratna, Saravana, Ponnusamy, and Velu Military! Then things changed a wee bit.

The Northies got their odd Dhaba. Mallus were blessed with Kalpaka, Andhraities thanked heavens for their Amaravati. Gujjus struck gold with Gujarati Mandal. And the rest had to make do with the Data Udupi type hotels, the Kaiyendi Bhavans, the neighbourhood cafes and the overpriced food joints in overhyped locales.

Jump cut to 2014. Things look a lot different. The depth of culinary delights on offer now can be judged by the breadth of variety in restaurant naming. Leading the pack is the self-deprecating ‘I Fake’. Located in Egattur village on OMR, the restaurant’s speciality is mock meats. If you’re a vegetarian who wants to vicariously gorge on non-veg without going ‘shiva shiva’, this could be your Mount Kailash.

Perchance, if you’re in the mood for bacon, sausages and ratatouille for breakfast, hop over to RA Puram and walk into the French bistro ‘L’Amandier’ (meaning: Almond Tree). Chances are you’ll end up saying, ‘c'est delicieux’.

Off RK Salai, there’s even a prison-themed restaurant called ‘Kaidi Kitchen’ where jailbirds will be served yummy Indian and Chinese food in a cell-like ambience with handcuffs and all, by prison wardens who promise you a treat with an arresting taste.

Talking of multi-cuisine joints, there are plenty to choose from in the city. Among the new kids on the block is ‘DiMoRa’ whose signature dish is wood fire pizzas. DiMoRa is a portmanteau of three seasoned foodies: Dinesh, Murugaananthan and Ram. Dimora, by the way, means ‘abode’ in Italian.

‘Avenue 195’, near Khader Nawaz Khan Road, also offers continental fare that straddles Indian, Italian, Chinese and everything in between. Apparently the 195 is a nod to the 195 countries that make up the United Nations!

For those want a whiff of the Irish, there’s the Somerset Maughamesque ‘Moon And The Sixpence’ at Hablis; Mediterranean buffs can look forward to ‘Lavash’ (Armenian flat bread) in Nungambakkam; world street food lovers can flock to ‘Spoonbill’ (the bird with the spoon shaped beak) on TTK Road; brownie and cupcake worshippers have the cleverly named ‘Mind over Batter’ in Besant Nagar; Punjabis have ‘Pind’ (village) in Velachery, and Bongs have ‘Petuk’ (foodie) in Thoraipakkam. All in all, everyone has a nice excuse to go ‘sappda vaanga’ (come, let’s eat)!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Is 'Vistara' a good name?

India's newest airline was unveiled today. Christened 'Vistara', the airways from TSIA (Tata Singapore International Airlines) will officially take off sometime in October 2014.

Derived from the Sanskrit word 'Vistaar' which means 'to expand, to widen or to multiply', Vistara is the sixth Tata brand to start with the letter 'V'. Vivanta, Voltas, Vitax, Indica Vista, and Tata Venture being the other five.

Named by Bangalore based Ray & Keshavan, Vistara is said to be 'the perfect cue for an airline that will push back the boundaries of air travel and create seamless experiences. It also conjures up the image most associated with a smooth flight– an endless, blue horizon' according to the official spiel.

Let's analyse and see the level of perfection of the name. The best way to go about it is to pose a few simple questions:

IS THE NAME UNIQUE?
Hell no. It's a fairly common name. Vistara.com is the internet home of Illinois based Vistara Construction Services, which apparently does some aviation projects among other things. Founded by Ramesh Nair, the company's been around since 1994. Vistara.in has been blocked by Vistara Voyages, a Bangalore based travel company that's been in operation since 2010. Luckily for the Tata Group, Vistara didn't file for trademark. Else, they would have been in deep trouble. Then there is the cloud computing start up Vistarait.com. Vistara is also a primary school in New South Wales, in Australia. If that was not enough, Vistara Therapy is a speech therapy organisation working out of Chennai. Tata SIA and Ray & Keshavan were obviously aware of these issues. Which is why they booked the URLs - AirVistara.com and AirVistara.in knowing fully well that anything else is out of question. Incidentally a Hyderabad company beat the Tatas in booking VistaraAirlines.com. Now they've put it on sale. My advice: Better to buy it out to avoid any future embarrassment.

IS THE NAME EVOCATIVE?
Actually the name has many layers of meanings. Apart from the obvious positive cues, the dominant part of Vistara is 'Vista' which is synonymous with a pleasant view. The 'Tara' bit in Vistara is the Sanskrit word for 'star' which implies stellar performance. @AirVistara is the twitter handle...if you shrink it, it reads as A.Vis or Avis (the latin word for 'bird')! Another clever move is, vISTAra embeds the letters TSIA (the name of the company). All these add to the endearment.

IS THE NAME BEFITTING?
Vistara is essentially an Asian airline. With a deep focus on India. From that angle, choosing an Asian name made eminent sense. Singapore owes its origins to Sanskrit. That could have played a role in the choice of a Sanskrit name. Compared to SpiceJet, Jet Airways, IndiGo, Air India and Go Air, Vistara really stands out as it feels more Indian. The 'expansive' meaning of the name kind of captures the ambition of the airline. Net net, Vistara feels much better than 'Air Tata' as Tata has an ominous 'goodbye' feel. Given the atmosphere of crashes and missing aircrafts, Vistara feels sufficiently uncontroversial.

DOES THE NAME HAVE NEGATIVE CONNOTATIONS
Not, really. But the politically inclined in India will point out that MISSION VISTAR is the codename for the overhauling plan of the Aam Aadmi Party. Those NaMo bhakts who hate AAP might get reminded of their favourite hatefigure when they fly Vistara. On a lighter vein, as a few Tamilians are pointing out, the Vistara seems a poor cousin of actress Nayantara (a starlet in Kollywood).

WILL THE NAME FLY?
Yes, it will. Although not easy on the tongue, the 3-syllable name will hopefully find traction over a period of time. Another upside is that the feminine nature of the name, might strike a chord with women passengers more than the masculine sounding 'Jet', 'Kingfisher' or 'SpiceJet'.

Taking a helicopter view, Vistara has more positives than negatives. So I'd give it a 3 on 5.