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.”