Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why Autobiographies Don't Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Pluto's Big Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fundoo & Funded

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Sounds like a winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 7, 2016

That’s a new one!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Names of 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Forget Me Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Getting Away With Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2015

No Laughing Matter

“Good enough is not enough,” used to be the motto of Jay Chiat, the founder of the celebrated ad agency Chiat/Day. Actress Preity Zinta may not take that kindly as she’s supposedly seeing a financial analyst from Los Angeles who goes by the name Gene Goodenough.

Before our filmi press has a field day punning on his surname, let it be known that the right way to pronounce ‘Goodenough’ is ‘Good-en-oh’ and not what sounds like the fella with low standards!

There are many more English names that reek of oddness, on first impression. But a little knowledge of etymology may help us folks to appreciate things a wee better. For instance, some people believe that Goodenough is derived from Godin Haugh (meaning: Godin’s Hill), indicative, may be, of the place of origin.

Ryan Sidebottom is a cricketer whose surname often evokes a snicker. An analysis of the name history, however, puts things in perspective. Bottom is Old English for ‘valley’. So the Sidebottoms may have originally been from a place near a valley!

Similarly, Large implies ‘a generous man’. But when you baptize someone as Johnny Large, you run the risk of making him the butt of all jokes. Former tennis ace Guy Forget faced the same problem. Most people assumed that he was a forgetful chap. What they didn’t know was he was French. And his name is to be pronounced as ‘Gi Forjay’. Wherein, ‘Forget’ draws its roots from the English word ‘forge’ and cues a blacksmith ancestry.

Sometimes, surnames mean exactly what they say. Gotobed is one example. A 13th century coinage, it was a dig at someone who retires early to bed, to do things other than sleeping! One wonders how Hollywood actress Hattie Gotobed is bravely carrying the legacy. She must be meeting many jerks who might playfully tease her with the “Shall we, Gotobed?” quip.

There are many Indian surnames with the potential to cause embarrassment to the bearer. Chutiya (‘fool’ in Hindi) is the most illustrious case in point. Many take it literally and laugh. The fact of the matter is that Chutiya is one of the oldest ethnic tribes in Assam. Originally they were the ruling Sutiya clan. Sutiya actually stands for ‘glory’. Therefore to taunt the Chutiyas is just not done. Gandoo, Tevadia, Lund and Tatti are some other surnames with their own mystic logic. They are seriously not funny. Kindly laugh not, even in jest.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Spilling the beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Punch Tantra

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mark My Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Red Hot in Chennai

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

China in your hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mulling Over Malabar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Losing My Religion

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pride of Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Man With Many Faces

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Name Above The Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Epic Discoveries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Murder She Wrote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pettais, Purams & Pakkams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 20, 2015

When Pichai Became Sundar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Billionaire as President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 6, 2015

What's the Code Word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dial M For Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Emperor's Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 9, 2015

All Greek To Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Gender Benders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hello, my name is Forgetful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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