Thursday, November 21, 2013

On a historical track.

The good citizens of Bangalore were zapped out of their wits when they made the rude discovery that their city railway station had been rechristened into ‘Krantiveera Sangoli Rayanna’ railway station. The historically challenged went: ‘Krantiveera, who?’ The socially hyperactive ranted that the name was way too uncool. They would have perhaps preferred Deepika Padukone Junction or Rahul Dravid Pavilion!

The fact is, Sangolli Rayana, has done far more for posterity than Deepika or Jammie. An 18th century warlord, he was one of the first southerners to take on the might of the British even before the First War of Independence.

That’s why, in my book, the renaming gesture is highly laudable. The trend of celebrating people who created history started in the 1950s when Nasser labelled the Cairo Railway Station as Ramases Station (after King Ramases II, the greatest pharaoh of Egypt). In our country, Kolkata took the lead by naming several metro stations after Bengali heroes like actor Uttam Kumar, painter Jatin Das, poet Nazrul Islam, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the revolutionary Khudiram Bose.

In times when public memory is really short, the idea of immortalizing national icons seems irresistible. Had Maharashtra not named the Kurla station as Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, I am not sure how many people would care to remember him. At least this way there’s a remote chance of someone googling the old man’s name while surfing possibly on a Shatabdi Express.

To Maharashtra also goes the credit of keeping the hallowed names of Chhatrapati Shivaji (Victoria Terminus in Mumbai) and Chattrapati Shaju Maharaj (Kolhapur station) alive. Bihar is another state that remembers its illustrious sons through railway stations. Passengers to Aurangabad will recollect Anugrah Narayan Sinha, Bihar’s first deputy chief minister and visitors to Patna cannot forget that the city’s main terminal is dedicated to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first president of the Republic of India.

Goa holds the credit of naming a station after traveler Vasco da Gama. While Delhi has the only one named after a Sufi saint – Hazrat Nizamuddin. Thankfully, the Gandhi family hasn’t yet woken up to the possibilities offered by central stations. Else they would have hitched their dynasty wagon to that branding possibility long, long ago.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Sixty Fifth Square

There are not too many people who respect chess players. Consider this: after the fourth move on a chess board, more than 288 billion positions are possible. That’s as many as the total number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy! For a mind to see through these many permutations and combinations, you either need to be Vishy Anand or Magnus Carlsen. So they deserve at least 22 yards of more adoration than your over hyped master blasters.

Now that we’ve drawn your attention to the duo battling for the FIDE world chess championship, it’s perhaps the right moment to reflect on what it takes to be the king of kings. It’s certainly not skill. Vishy and Magnus have oodles of it. It can’t be knowledge as both players have access to more information than Deep Blue or Deep Thought. Experience, obviously cannot be the telling difference, as Anand is learning it the hard way.

So what is the X-factor that decides who will wear the crown? I have a theory. I call it the 65th square. And it’s got a lot to do with the names of the players.

Allow me to amplify my thoughts. The chess world has always been dominated by people with names that have a direct link to the game. The champion from 1921 to 1927 was Jose Raul Capablanca. His Spanish name translates to ‘Powerful god with the white cape’. The key words of note are ‘white’ and ‘power’. Bobby Fischer (considered by many to be the greatest chess player) literally works out to ‘the fisherman who will shine’. His legendary track record of fame corroborates the name meaning.

Garry Kasparov decodes to ‘speared wiseman’. Veselin Topalov aka ‘cheerful rook’ has an even closer connection. Likewise Vladimir Kramnik is ‘the shopkeeper ruler’, Ruslan Ponomariov is ‘Lion of the Sea’, Rustam Kasimdhzanov is ‘generous warrior’, Alexander Khalifman is ‘the defender who leads’, Boris Gelfand is ‘fighter elephant’ and Vasily Ivanchuk, ‘the king who believes’!

Going by this, Viswanathan Anand (‘blissful lord of the universe’) holds a significant advantage over Magnus Carlsen (‘the great independent man’). Only time will tell if that's good enough to checkmate the Norwegian Harry Potter.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Politically Incorrect Indian

In kala namak country, where even money is segregated into black and white, it is but natural for armchair analysts to brand India as a racist state.

There is some superficial truth to the accusation. As a country we do seem to have a congenital fascination for the ‘Fair and Lovely’. The dark and not-so-handsome have to somehow justify their existence with the Mehmoodian ‘Hum kalein hain to kya dilwalein hain’ (I may be sooty, but my heart is a beauty) kind of warped logic.

To be fair, we as a culture, are equally nasty to anyone with a deviant physical trait. Aren’t you guilty of calling your generously endowed neighbourhood aunty, ‘moti’? In Tamil films, till recently, it was the norm to have lyrics that poked fun at corpulent heroines using euphemisms such as ‘bamblimas’ (derived from pamplemousse, the big fat grapefruit) and ‘gundu pooshnika’ (plump pumpkin).

Even at school, no one finds it inappropriate to label ‘that dark kid’ as ‘blackie’. Grownups at office think that it’s funny to lampoon a bald colleague as ‘taklu’. The list of insensitive and downright pejorative nicknames in circulation include langda (for the lame), soda buddi (for the spectacled), damaaram (for the hard of hearing), tube light (for the dim-witted), chotu (for the shortish types) and otra kutchi (for the thin and tall).

My surmise is that Indians were not always this offensive. Yes, they did name names that bordered on racism but it was never with an intent to run down the person. On the contrary, the idea was to identify a person using his or her most visible trait.

For example, ‘Krishna’ is a Sanskrit synonym for ‘black’. He was called so because of his melanin-rich skin tone. Goddess Kali had a similar shade, hence her name. Ditto with Shyama. Likewise Shweta and Shukla are names that cue ‘whiteness’ and Neelkant stands for ‘blue throat’. So, what began as an attribute descriptor degenerated over centuries into pseudo-expressions of scorn!

It’s time we put an end to the debased tradition of name-calling. Else we’ll all end up looking like the Ku Klux Klanners who couldn’t think beyond their white supremacist noses.