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?