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.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The 400 Crore Question

One question has dominated the consciousness of every Indian male for the last fortnight or so. No, it’s not: ‘Will we ever get to see acche din?’

Take a second guess. Did you say, “Will Rohit Sharma ever outgrow his Nohit Sharma nickname?” Wrong! Go on, give it more shot. Sorry it’s got nothing to do with Alia Bhatt’s IQ.

It’s the alimony, dammit! That Suzanne Khan Roshan is supposed to have asked our poor Hrithik for the favour of dissolving their marriage. The staggering 400 crore figure - which has been rubbished by the celeb couple - made all the males of our society wonder secretly about the exorbitant price they paid for tying the knot.

Being a name smith and a bachelor boy to boot, the larger question that weighed on my mind was: will Suzanne drop her surname in her new state of Splitsville? That might be a tad unfair for her kids Hridhaan and Hrehaan. Because they might want to tap into their dad’s equity when they grow up.

But then again, what happens to Suzanne if she decides to see someone else? Obviously the Roshan tag is a telegraphic way of saying, ‘Look I still haven’t gotten over my first husband’. So the obvious temptation would be to switch back to the maiden name which happens to be Suzanne Khan.

A real knotty issue will arise if and when she weds the second time. Would she swap Roshan for her new hubby’s surname? Or would she stick to Khan given her past experience? These are the kind of dilemmas faced by most Indian women. Strangely not much thought is given to these problems. Thankfully we have enough case studies to guide us.

Jennifer Aniston changed her legal name to Jennifer Pitt after marrying Brad Pitt but she was smart enough to continue using Jennifer Aniston as her professional name. So divorce or not, it didn’t affect her one bit.

Susan Sarandon (born Susan Tomalin) on the contrary decided to stick with Sarandon as she found it ‘a very good name’. Pop star Tina Turner’s excuse for retaining her husband’s name even after break up was far more practical – it was the name that made her famous.

In my view, actress Elizabeth Taylor has a lot of lessons to offer Suzanne. She married a record 8 times. But she was always the same old Liz Taylor!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Truth About False Friends

It all started with a Kollywood flick called ‘Anjaan’. I assumed it’s a bio pic about the Bollywood lyricist Lalji Pandey who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Anjaan’ (Hindi for ‘anonymous’). Turns out, it’s a typical dishoom dishoom Suriya movie featuring an ‘Anjaan’ or fearless protagonist. That got me thinking about False Friends or words that sound the same but have different meanings in different languages.

My first encounter with a false friend was as a geeky teenager in Varanasi when I discovered Kundi (Tam slang for ‘rear’) meant latch in Hindi. I laughed out loud then. So did many buddies from Andhra when they figured out that Randi (Telugu for ‘come’) meant a hooker, up north.

With 1635 recognised languages in our country, I am sure we have plenty of such interlingual oddities. ‘Patti’ is one that comes to mind instantly. It cues a hamlet or a room in Tamilnadu. In Kerala, it’s a dog. While in the cow belt, they use it as synonym for bandage. Now you know why Mallus snigger at us when we say we love watching patti mandrams (a Tamil style debate)!

Spaniards often recount how foreigners think embarazada is the Spanish way of saying ‘embarrassed’ when it actually means ‘pregnant’. Another word that causes titters is preservativos. If a foodie walks into a mall in Madrid and asks for ‘preservativos’ you certainly won’t get preservatives. Prepared to receive a packet of ‘condoms’!

If you travel back in time to Rome and enlist in an elementary maths academy, chances are you’ll find it too distasteful as the word ‘sex’ will rear its head way too often. But the moment you learn sex is six in Latin, you might just breathe easy.

Likewise, if a Tamilian flies to Tokyo and asks for a manga (mango), he might be handed a comic because that’s what it means in Japan.

One can dig up a lot more. Apparently ‘hell’ in German means ‘light hue’. And ‘handy’ is a mobile phone. ‘Left’ is ‘Turnip’ in Arabic. ‘Exit’ is ‘success’ in Catalan. ‘Gift’ is ‘to marry’ in Danish. And ‘Fart’ is ‘speed’ in Swedish. Clearly, with friends like these, you don’t need enemies!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lords of the Oval

The average cricket fan’s knowledge of cricket stadiums is way below average. When I asked a self-proclaimed addict to guess the size of the cricket field, he gave me a know-all look and answered: ‘22 yards’.

I bowed before his infinite wisdom and mustered the courage to pose one more question: is the Maracana (where the 2014 FIFA world cup finals was staged) bigger than the Eden Gardens? He replied: ‘Obviously’. He was wrong again as the Eden Gardens is about 3 times larger and can seat 12,000 more people!

The blame for the cricket buff’s ignorance should be laid at the door of the banal commentators who fill our heads with nothing more than ‘lush green outfield’ and ‘the stadium is packed like a can of sardines’. One has rarely heard any shimmering insights on any of the arenas from the Siddhus and the Shastris.

Eden Gardens has hosted 39 test matches in the last 70 years. But never once have we been told that it’s the only international cricketing venue to be named after a woman. To be specific, it’s a nod to Emily Eden, a Jane Austen style authoress and the sister of the then Governor General of India.

Actually, every other ground has a tale waiting to be discovered. Did you know that the Gaddafi Stadium at Lahore is a tribute to the Libyan leader Col. Gaddafi? It was Pakistan’s way of saying ‘thank you’ for a speech he gave in support of its right to possess nuclear weapons.

Even Lord’s has an interesting backstory. It’s named after Thomas Lord, a wine merchant and bowler who was commissioned by the earlier avatar of MCC to find a suitable ground for their matches.

The Gabba, to most outsiders, is a quirky choice for a White Aussie stadium. But everything falls in place when we find out that it’s a locational moniker like Mohali derived from the suburb ‘Woolloongabba’ (aborigine slang for ‘fighting place’).

The Iqbal ground at Faisalabad in Pakistan is the only one to have honoured a poet. The poet was of course Allama Muhammad Iqbal (the man who wrote ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’). Likewise Pallekele and Antigua are the exceptions to have stadiums named after cricketers - Muthiah Muralitharan & Viv Richards. Bet you didn’t see that beamer!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Germane to Germans

Ever since that scandalously, shockingly, appallingly, dreadfully, outrageously, hideously, horribly-gone-wrong 7-1 humiliation of Brazil, the world has warmed up to the awesomeness of Germany.

Ergo, some familiar stereotypes have been dusted up, varnished and put back on the conveyor belt of circulation. Talk of ‘German precision’ abounds. And a veritable blitzkrieg of clichés is raining down from the skies.

It’s perhaps the right moment to learn something new about Deutschland just to improve the quality of your conversations in social media. Let’s start with the football team that’s making waves. You’re now familiar with Lahm, Muller, Klose, Kroos and Schweinsteiger. Have you ever paused to wonder about their surnames?

Muller actually means ‘miller’. Klose is a variation of ‘Nicholas’. Kroos decodes to ‘wine bottle’ and Schweinsteiger works out to ‘pig climber’! If the pedestrian nature of the meanings surprised you, let me usher you into the world of German surnames where deceptively simple monikers offer cultural clues into the genealogy of the fatherland.

Habitational surnames give us an inkling of the place of origin of the forefathers. ‘Einstein’ is a classic example. Literally interpreted, it translates to ‘one stone’. What it alludes to is the fact that one of the great grandfathers of the bad-haired genius used to live near a rock. ‘Eisenstein’ has similar roots. It means ‘iron stone’ and when you put it in context, it refers to someone located near an iron ore mine. Likewise, a mountain dweller would be a ‘Bergman’, a riverside resident would either be a ‘Bach’ or a ‘Becker’, and ‘Buchwald’ would be from a beech forest.

Occupational surnames give us a hint of the kind of professions the Germanic tribes used to dabble in. ‘Mahler’ meant ‘grinder’. ‘Beckenbauer’ would cue ‘basin maker’. ‘Jaeger’ would be a ‘hunter’. ‘Faber’ and ‘Schmidt’ would refer to ‘one who works on metal’. ‘Schumacher’ would connote ‘shoemaker’. ‘Schneider’ would imply ‘tailor’. ‘Zimmerman’ would signify a carpenter. ‘Kaufman’, a merchant. And ‘Kohler’, a charcoal maker.

Nicknames also offered fodder for surnames. For instance, black haired ones were called ‘Schwarzkopf’, brown haired ones ‘Braun’, white-haired people ‘Weisz’, the curly haired ‘Kraus’ and the bald folks ‘Kahl’.

Before I go ‘Auf Weidersehen!’ let me conclude with ‘Lahm’. It denotes a ‘lame’ person! Certainly not a name you’d associate with a champion footballer, right?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

What Tamil owes Hindi

A silly debate has reared its unseemly head, once again. There’s talk of language war if Hindi is used as the official language of communication. The Touchy Tamilian has woken up from deep slumber and is now hyper active on social media advocating the need for eternal vigilance against imposition. This is perhaps the right moment to record the scintillating contribution of the North Indian lingo to the Tamil milieu.

Let’s start with Churidars - the default ethnic office wear for women in Tamil Nadu. If you didn’t know, ‘Churidar’ is a Hindi word that alludes to the ‘bangle like’ wrinkle formation one can spot around the ankle area when one wears the attire!

Several culinary delights served by your neighbourhood Saravana Bhavan owe their origins to the world’s fourth most spoken language: be it the Puri (meaning ‘filled’ or ‘puffed’), Pulao (from the root word for ‘ball of rice’), Paneer (‘cheese’), Paratha (‘cooked dough’), Chapati (‘flattened out’), Ras malai (‘juicy cream’), Kesari (‘saffron’) or Beeda Paan (‘feather leaf’). Even Saravana Bhavan is an etymological derivative of the Hindi words Shravan (‘the 22nd nakshatra’) and Bhavan (‘home’).

Kollywood stars Kamal Haasan (‘happy lotus’), Rajinikant (‘tuberose’ flower), Ajith (‘invincible’), Vijay (‘victory), Arya (‘noble’), Dhanush (‘bow’), Trisha (‘desire’) and Nayantara (‘starry eyed’) wouldn’t have got their names had it not been for the munificence of Hindi.

Now, before you jump at me for mixing up Sanskrit and Hindi, allow me to point out that a large chunk of the vocabulary of Hindi is borrowed from two sources - Sanskrit and Urdu. So whether it’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ or ‘Biryani’, the attribution should be to that much reviled boli from the cow belt.

Purists would be amazed to know that Tamil and Hindi share at least 1000 words in common. All thanks to Hindi’s big daddy Sanskrit. Some quick words that spring to mind are: Anyaayam (‘unfair’), Seemai (‘boundary’), Aarambham (‘beginning’), Amavasai (‘no moon day’), Kavidhai (‘poetry’), Kadhai (‘story’), Natakam (‘drama’), Nayakan (‘hero’), Udayam (‘rise’), and Sooryian (‘sun’).

Ironically, when you club the last two words, you get the election symbol of the virulently anti-Hindi DMK!

Thankfully, the silent majority in Tamil Nadu is fully aware of the immense contribution of Hindi to our culture. Which is probably why the Kuppans and Suppans are happy jiving to ‘Saroja, saamaan nikalo’!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tango with Mango

It takes a lot to be the national fruit of India. To be precise: 5000 years of expertise in enchanting people into having a pulp-squishing, elbow-licking and mouth-watering time.

Truth be told, the mango is no ordinary creation. From Alexander the Great to Akbar the Great, everyone has surrendered to the charm of the aam.

So Wikipedia must surely be wrong. The word ‘mango’ cannot have originated from the Portuguese word ‘manga’. It has to have sprouted from our wet earth, we call bhoomi. My own theory is ‘mango’ draws its roots from the Tamil word ‘maan kaai’ – the fruit the deer feasted upon – a coinage perhaps minted when South India was one massive canopy of trees.

Etymology aside, the thing to marvel at, is our obsession with mangoes. We consume bazillion tonnes and export a gazillion tonnes. Last I checked, 65% of the world mango production was from India.

But the sweetest news is: like Kamal Hassan, our mangoes come in 500 different avatars. From Amrapali to Zardalu, we mass produce it all, with a liberal dash of Mother Nature’s ‘maa ka pyaar’.

The Alphonso is the mega star of our line up. Named after Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese warlord who’s supposed to have imported this luscious variety into Goa, the Alphonso or the mispronounced Haphus, is the marquee product of just three districts in our country – Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg and Raigad.

The other cultivars are regional divas in their own right. From Andhra comes the voluptuous ‘Banganapalle’ (place of origin that literally means ‘golden village’), Varanasi has given us the delectable ‘Langda’ (a reference to the lame planter of the original tree in Malihabad), Gujarat has bestowed us with the saffron-hued ‘Kesar’ (this was long before NaMo arrived on the scene), while Tamil Nadu blessed our world with the tangy ‘Kili mooku’ (shaped like the parrot’s beak).

I was about to attribute the ‘Malgova’ to Goa, but something wasn’t adding up. I am now convinced that the milky taste of Malgova could have had a hand in the matter. In my view, Malgova probably owes ‘Malai Khoa’ (hilly milk treat) its name. Just like Palgoa came from Paal Khoa. If that sounds incredulous, may be I am barking up the wrong tree!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Boys From Brazil

When the entire world was losing sleep over whether Brazil will live up to the hype, I was busy wracking my brains about why footballers from that region have names longer than reticulated pythons. I mean, why on earth, would a mom give her child a 48-letter moniker like Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira.

I solved the puzzle when I discovered how Brazilians go about naming their offspring. Apparently, they follow the Portuguese tradition of handing out multiple surnames. So if your dad was a ‘de Caravaca’, your mom a ‘de Cruz’ and your husband a ‘de Vectores’ you might end up with a name like Julia de Caravaca de Cruz de Vectores. Got it?

Although saddled with a conveyor belt of letters, nearly all Brazilian players opt to flash only their first names or nicknames on their jersey. Understandable, no? Edson Arantes de Nascimento, for example, famously preferred to proclaim himself as ‘Pele’.

Analysing the nicknames of legends reveal the friendly nature of the largest Portuguese speaking country on the globe. In sharp contrast to India where demigods are given labels like ‘Master Blaster’ and ‘The Wall’, Brazil believes in light-hearted intimate names.

Midfielder Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri was referred to as ‘Dunga’ (the local equivalent of ‘Dopey’, a dwarf from the Snow White tale). His uncle had bestowed him the nick due to his short stature but the name was catchy and it stuck even as Carlos bloomed into a five foot nine incher!

The best dribbler in history - Manuel Francisco dos Santos – suffered a similar fate. He was the puniest looking child in his family. His sister used to make fun of him by calling him ‘Garrincha’ (the little wren). Pity, that’s how the football world remembers him, even today.

‘Careca’ (literally: bald head), the star of the 1986 World Cup, earned the name as he used to be a fan of the clown Carequinho.

Kaka’s real name was RiCArdo. His kid brother could never get it right. He kept muttering CA-CA. Hence the nickname. Marcos Evangelista de Moraes, the most capped Brazilian, was luckier. He was a livewire forcing his team mates to draw a parallel to another attacking player who went by the name Cafuringa. As a nod, they called him ‘Cafu’. He went on to be the game changer, we know.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Games People Play

Everyone has their own acid test to identify ‘nice’ people. For a lot of folks of my generation, it was Calvin & Hobbes. Declaration of fandom, invariably earned you brownies and a surprise 10-year visa to the united states of friendship.

Back in the eighties, Pac-Man did the job of Calvin & Hobbes. A simple proclamation of interest in the computer game earned you instant respect from fellow slackers. A quick discussion on high scores and levels of proficiency would ensue, followed by a mating call for a face-off.

The concept of gobbling dots in a maze while outrunning silly ghosts may look juvenile by today’s standards but in the era of the 386 (Pentium’s grandpa), it was as addictive as weed for millions of bored gamers.

For all the hoo-ha, not many know that Pac-Man was Japanese in origin. Designed by Toru Iwatani in 1980, he labelled it ‘Pakkuman’ after the onomatopoeic ‘pakku-pakku’ chomping sound made by the lead character. He tried to anglicise it as ‘Puckman’ for the overseas markets, but the possible confusion with a much censored four-letter word, veered the gaming company towards ‘Pac-Man’.

Tetris was another fixation for those who wished to swap precious office time for private pleasure. Steven Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, was rumoured to be a champ at it. Derived from Tetraminoes (the 4-square blocks) & Tennis (the founder Alexey Pajitnov’s favourite sport), the falling blocks puzzle is now the world’s most successful game having sold 150 million copies over 30 years!

Among the blood and gore games, Mortal Kombat was a universal favourite with those who got their kicks from violence. Originally planned as a gaming version of Jean Claude Van Damme movie ‘Blood Sport’, MK became a bigger brand within a few years of launch.

Single player shooter games Wolfenstein 3D (German for ‘Wolfstone’) and Doom (name borrowed from a Tom Cruise dialogue in ‘The Color of Money’) gave us wussies, the jollies of playing a rampaging hero in the virtual world.

The deprived goofballs who didn’t fit into any of the above slots usually sat in a lonesome corner plodding over ‘Solitaire’. But irrespective of whether one played ‘Prince of Persia’ or ‘PC Pool’, the fact remains that there’s nothing to beat the old charm of nostalgia!