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?