Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Theistic Atheist

The patently political Viswaroopam ruckus has pitch-forked Kamalhassan again into the national limelight. For a country used to seeing Tamilnadu as Rajnikant country, this was a rude reminder that there are other superstars in the Southern sky with the mystic power to dodge bullets, defy bans and part the sea of tranquillity in our humdrum lives.

The controversy took Kamalhassan totally by surprise as he’s always presented himself as a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist with a high level of tolerance for religious plurality. The last thing he was expecting was the ungainly taint of ‘anti-islam’ on his radiant secular persona.

Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris would have proudly worn this badge. But in politically correct India, it never pays to tread on other people’s toes. And for a box-office dependent icon like Kamal with 100-crores at stake, image is everything.

Forget ‘anti-islam’, but is the ‘Ulaga Nayagan’ really a non-believer as he’d like us to believe? Evidence from his enviable body of work is to the contrary.

Ever since he’s donned the hats of producer, writer and director, Kamal has dropped cryptic clues on where his faith lies. The Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva keep recurring in the character names - he so carefully crafts - in all his recent productions.

Take ‘Virumandi’. Kamal could have easily given it a rustic irreligious name like ‘Veeramani’ and it would have still worked. But he chose ‘Virumandi’. Is it because of his penchant to opt for god names? For the uninitiated, Virumandi is worshipped in Theni district as ‘Viruman’ or ‘Brahman’.

If one peels the many subtle layers in his films, one can spot a Saivite streak. Sample the names ‘Viswanath’ in Viswaroopam, ‘Nallasivam’ in Anbe Sivam, ‘Avinash’ in Mumbai Express and ‘Ramalingam’ in Kaadhala Kaadhala. Innocuous as they may seem, all are synonyms for Lord Shiva. You’ll be surprised to know that Kamal has used the ‘Shaktivel’ name in 3 movies: Nayakan, Sathi Leelavathi and Thevar Magan!

Add Adinarayan (Kurudhipunaal), Saket Ram (Hey Ram), Krishnaswamy (Mahanadhi), Raghavan (Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu) and the Dasavatharam imagery, to discover his Vaishnavite streak. So, is the atheist role, another stellar performance from the actor we all love?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Degree of Levity.

Universities are like the stereotype white-coats who appear in toothpaste advertisements. They need to appear credible. They need to sound academic. And above all, they need to be visibly boring.

Being ‘effortlessly uninteresting’ is the true hallmark of a good university. Jog your rusty memory and you’ll solve the puzzle of ‘why your college life sucked’. Because Profs are meant to look constipated. Courses are preordained to be colourless. Classrooms have to recreate that assembly line feel. Journals are deliberately engineered to be slumberous. Mottos have to be profoundly unintelligible. And every little trapping associated with the university needs to conform to the carefully cultivated image of gravitas.

The ardour to maintain a weighty veil of solemnity is probably why universities have dreadfully ho-hum names. And to give them their due, that’s probably why the world takes varsities seriously.

In this milieu of soberness, it is rare to spot a dash of frivolity. But the oddballs do exist. Turn your gaze to Lovely Professional University in Punjab. Yes, the beauty parlouresque name happens to be ‘India’s largest private university in one campus housing 25,000 students’ offering degrees in Arts to Aviation!

Lovely makes Arindam Chaudari’s IIPM seem like Harvard. I am sure that the embarrassed alumni will be typing out their resumes with the abbreviated LPU instead of the bizarre moniker chosen by the Punju promoters (Lovely Group of Companies).

If Lovely raised a chuckle, teleport yourself to Transylvania University (TU). Lest you assume it to be the campus featured in the vampire romance ‘Twilight’, TU is very much a 48-acre brick and mortar campus in Kentucky that has educated many thousands including two US vice presidents and fifty US senators. Nestled in the heavily-forested regions of West Virginia, the founding fathers chose Transylvania as it meant ‘across the woods’ in Latin. Considering Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula hadn’t been invented then, you could pardon the name.

But how do you condone the outlandish UFO University in Tirana, Albania? The deceptively paranormal name apparently is a contraction for ‘Universitas Fabrefacta Optime’ which means ‘university to forge the good’. If you found that too surreal, you should perhaps queue up for admissions in ‘Beijing Normal University’ in China!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Operation Hush Hush

A military operation is not a military operation till you dignify it with a code name. The German Army was the first to hit upon this brainwave when they cryptically labelled their World War I invasion of the Baltic Islands as ‘Operation Albion’. If they had called it Operation Bloodyhell or Operation Takethatyoulosers, then history may have judged the act of taking 20,000 Russian prisoners, rather offensively.

The German innovation of dressing up of crimson war wounds with high sounding monikers inspired Winston Churchill to issue the now famous guideline, that nomenclature to designate war ops, ‘ought not to be of a frivolous character’ as no mom or widow would like to say ‘that her son was killed in an operation called Bunnyhug or Ballyhoo’.

That’s probably why America opted for ‘Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan, ‘Restore Hope’ in Somalia and ‘Uphold Democracy’ in Haiti. If you ask me, all these names sound like words you’ll associate with peaceniks like Yoko Ono or Bob Geldof!

Sometimes even Pentagon is not so politically correct. Operation Geronimo, the covert raid to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden was roundly criticised by Native Americans for running down not just their chieftain but also their race.

Indian cryptonyms - in my humble view - have shown a lot more intelligence. The Hyderabad Police Action in 1948 was billed as ‘Operation Polo’ as Hyderabad had the highest number of polo grounds in India during that era.

India’s first nuclear test in Pokhran was evocatively designated as ‘Operation Smiling Buddha’ cueing the peaceful nature of the program. . The Indian Army’s desire to be a thorn in the flesh of the coup plotters in Maldives resulted in ‘Cactus’. While the IPKF endgame against LTTE in 1998 was dubbed as ‘Checkmate’.

One name that must have given great angst to the brand manager of Blue Star air conditioners is: Operation Bluestar. I’ve always wondered why they called it so. Could it be that Bluestar refers to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the star of the Khalistan movement who was always seen in a blue turban? Or did Indira Gandhi have a frivolous reason that fails the Churchill test? We’ll never know as this is a national secret.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Learning languages over lunch.

Cholesterol and Diabetes can turn even diehard foodies into food voyeurs. After years of bingeing on the crispiest, crunchiest and sinfully sweet eats, one gets reduced to being a serial ogler of the forbidden fruits on the menu card.

One way to channelize the food lust is by developing an insatiable appetite for learning new languages by studying the smorgasbord of dish names. So while your friends are debating on what to order at Little Italy, you could just tap a few screens on your smart phone and discover that Antipasto cues ‘before the meal’ Vermicelli means ‘little worms’, Fettuccine is ‘little ribbons’, Penne is Italian for ‘pens’, Farfalle is ‘butterflies’, Salsa is ‘sauce’, Piccante is ‘spicy’, Salato is ‘salty’, Dolce is ‘sweet’ and Tiramisu can literally be deciphered as ‘pick me up’. By the time your pals let out their symphony of burps, you would have added ten new words to your vocabulary!

It need not always be menu cards. You could pick a smattering of Chinese, Spanish or Greek by just getting curious about restaurant names. The other day, I was walking past Zaitoon, the fast food joint. I hurried home and googled. I figured out that Zaitoon is Arabic for ‘olive’.

Being curious has its benefits. You could always appear smarter than you are. I may have never been to ITC Grand Chola’s ‘Modo Mio’. But I know it’s the Italian way of proclaiming ‘My way’. All I have to do is to shove this nugget into a conversation to score my corporate brownie.

Since French is the ultimate way to appropriate blue-bloodedness, these days I am learning the Parisian lingo by leering at signboards. During the first course of my misadventures, I’ve learned that Brasserie is not a lingerie store but an ‘informal restaurant’. La Boulangerie is not as sophisticated as it seems. It’s French for ‘the bakery’. The ‘Parfait’ in Parfait 3 stands for ‘perfect’. Haute Saute translates to ‘High Toss’. And Chez Vous is ‘your place’.

Thanks to my new found linguistic mojo, I can now aspire to be a pseudo polyglot who’s at ease mouthing the Arabic ‘Yalla Yalla’ and the Korean ‘Deok Su Gung’.