Thursday, September 29, 2016

Train to Pakistan

If irony had a capital, it would be in Islamabad. Because when Pakistan was born it was touted as the ‘land of the pure’ based on the premise that it had always been a race different from the ‘land of the Hindus’.

The first crack on the purity hypothesis appears when you dissect the name Pakistan. The Persian suffix ‘-istan’ is a derivative of Sanskrit word ‘sthan’ meaning ‘place’. I wonder why the puritans didn’t think of this glaring contradiction when they opted for Pakistan.

A simple train journey to Pakistan will reveal more ironies. Lahore, the second largest metropolis, literally means ‘Fort of Loh’. And surprise of surprises, Loh turns out to be none other than Lava, the son of Rama! What’s interesting is the city of Kasur was supposed to have been founded by Kusha, the brother of Lava.

The Ramayana connection doesn’t end there. Pushkal, the son of Bharata, laid the foundation for an ancient settlement called ‘Pushkalavati’ which later became Pushpapura (the city of flowers) and finally morphed into Peshawar, when Emperor Akbar named it so.

Even Multan, the fifth populous city, has a Sanskrit origin. Historians say it was derived from ‘Moolasthan’, the name of a sun temple of yore. Sialkot, the home of cricketers Imran Tahir and Mohammad Asif, has Indic roots too. The city was founded by Raja Salivahana. And is called the ‘Fort of Sial’. Sial, happens to be the gotra of the Jat clan that lorded over the city.

The ultimate demolisher of the purity myth of Pakistan are its rivers. Fortunately, nearly all of them retain the pristine nature of their original names. The 774 kilometers long Jhelum is derived from ‘jal’ and ‘haima’ (Sanskrit for water & snow) and not ja-e-alam (place of flag) as some would like us to believe. Chenab, one of the ‘Western Rivers’ over which Pakistan has control, owes it etymology to ‘Chand’ and ‘ab’ or the Sanskrit ‘Chanda’ and ‘ap’ which means ‘moon river’. The Swat River that gives its name to the Swat Valley, now famed as Malala Yousufzai’s hometown, is a contraction of the Sanskrit ‘Suvastu’ (crystal clear).

Clearly, what’s coming through is like all civilisations, Pakistan is another melting pot of shared histories. The only difference though is that the country is in a state of complete denial. Perhaps, waging a proxy war on ignorance should be Priority No.1 for Nawaz Sharif.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Men in Skirts

There’s something very likable about Scotland. It’s the only country in the world to have the Unicorn as the national animal. That’s today’s equivalent of having Hobbes of ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ as the patriotic mascot. How cool is that!

Another fascinating aspect is that it’s got the highest proportion of red heads – 1 in 7 people! To use an Economist turn of phrase, Scotland is indeed a nation of ‘well-red’ people. The most charming aspect, however, is the kilts or the pleated skirts that Scottish men wear with total nonchalance. It was first tailored in the 1720s by a businessman named Thomas Rawlinson to ensure ease of work during logging, charcoal manufacture and iron smelting. To cut a short story, shorter, the kilt was an ergonomic innovation created to skirt cumbersome issues.

Scottish surnames is one more domain that’s intriguing. Since Scotland happens to be a patronymic society, people there have a marked tendency to christen their child after the dad. Which is why, David’s boy is Davidson, Arthur’s descendant is MacArthur, and an offspring of Ralph is Rowling. Likewise, Alexander’s daughter is called Alexdaughter, and the Mac prefix for women is Nic. So if McDonald is the son of Donald, the daughter would be named as NcDonald.

Analysis of some famous surnames, would give you a better picture of Scottish nomenclature. In many cases, occupation of the forefather cast a long shadow on name selection. For example: Webster would mean a weaver; Baxter would allude to a baker; Dempster would be a judge; Gillespie, the servant of a bishop; Fletcher, someone who makes and sells arrows; Ruskin, a tanner; Jardine, a gardener; Miller, Hunter, and Smith were fairly self-explanatory.

Racial origin mattered sometimes. Fleming means someone with roots in the Flemish region of Belgium. Galbraith is indicative of people who lived in Scotland before the arrival of the Gaels. Scott would mean true blue Scots, and French cued folks from France. Places of ancestral settlement often gave rise to surnames. To illustrate the point, those who were near the mouth of River Crombie were the Abercrombies. And those near the River Roe were the Monroes. Once in a while, nicknames masqueraded as the cognomen. Reid (red hair), Bain (white hair), Bowie (yellow hair), Campbell (crooked mouth), and Milligan (bald) are eloquent cases in point.

Before we go Scot-free, let’s end our excursion to the highlands by understanding the etymology of Scotland. It seems Scotia was the Roman name of Ireland. And when a bunch of ‘Scoti’ or Irish renegades dropped anchor, the land echoed with the drone of a hundred pipers!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Cut It Out

It takes a lot to flummox Superman. But in 1967, a smallish, mischievous looking bloke from the fifth dimension got the better of Superman just by introducing himself. His name was Mxyzptlk. Bereft of vowels, our superhero found the task of pronunciation, a head-scratcher. He went: “Mr. Mixie, what?” He just couldn’t figure out that it was Mister MixyZipitlik.

Many rock fans experienced a similar moment of weirdness in the early seventies when they first encountered an album from ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’, the first band to use no vowels in their name. The presence of the quasi-vowel ‘y’ made it a little easier. Still the name evoked a lot of curiosity. The band had to issue a clarification that Lynyrd Skynyrd was a mock tribute to their teacher Leonard Skinner, who with his strict policy against long hair, drove their lead guitarist to drop out of school.

The boy band NSYNC took the ‘no vowel movement’ one step further and capitalised their letters in 1995, thereby triggering off an avalanche of ugliness. Musicians with little talent decided that the best way to stand out was to create a disemvoweled name.

The result is, now we’re stuck with hundreds of band names that look straight out of the rack of a scrabble player burdened with consonants. Some samplers would give you an idea of how lousy things have got. There’s this Virginia-based Hip Hop band called ‘RDGLDGRN’. If you could spot the three colours, wait till you try and decode ‘LVTHN’, a black metal band paying an ode to ‘leviathan’, the sea monster referenced in the Old Testament. Then there’s NRCSSST, the Lithuanian metal band with a self-obsession so huge, they’ve made it their name.

The one that’s more puzzling than an abstract cubist painting is ‘SHXCXCHCXSH’. Nobody knows how to address this Swedish band that specialises in putting out techno tracks with titles like ‘RRRRGRRGRRR’, ‘STRGTHS’, ‘WHTLGHT’, ‘RSRRCTN’ and believe it or not, ‘SsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSsSs’.

Even brands have tried to ride the wave. In 2001, Reebok announced that it was starting a new line called ‘Rbk’. British cycling champion Mark Cavendish launched ‘CVNDSH’ in 2013 with the cheeky punch line ‘Fst as Fck’! In my humble view, flushing out the ‘A, E, I, O, U’ from a name is as crappy as vowel movements.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

There's A Word For That

Consider this: You’re flying an international airline, full of foreigners. There are only two Tamilians on the plane. You and one more guy seated in the business class. As you try and catch a wink, you hear a kerfuffle. The other Tamilian is trying to take lurid pictures of the airhostess and she’s creating a ruckus about it.

Although you’re no way related to him, being a Tam, it’s but natural to feel utterly embarrassed by his actions, right? There’s a German word for this vicarious sense of shame. It’s called ‘Fremdschamen’.

There are many lovely words like this that have somehow remained cloaked by our collective ignorance. It’s time we sought them out like a heat seeking missile.

‘Sillage’ is one such beauty. It’s the trail of fragrance that lingers in the air after someone has passed you by. Haven’t you felt the sillage or at least spotted it in ads? Another potent term is the ‘Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon’. It’s the uncanny ability of something new that you’ve learnt, to pop up everywhere, all of a sudden.

I’ve personally experienced this when I first learnt about the ’27 Club’. If you’re not familiar with it, ’27 Club’ is the belief that some of the most talented musicians die at 27. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison & Kurt Cobain fuelled the urban legend. The year I learnt about the club, singer Amy Winehouse eerily died of alcohol poisoning at the unripe age of 27! Talk about nasty coincidences.

‘Pareidolia’ is one more phenomenon you’ll fall in love with. It’s the tendency to see faces in the unlikeliest of places and objects. People who see Ganesha in a tree, Jesus on a toast, Buddha in a cloud, and Chandamama on the moon are the type who’ll relate with it.

Then there is ‘Nominative Determinism’ which is a complicated way of stating the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards professions that fit their surnames. Usain Bolt, William Wordsworth and Tiger Woods are famous examples.

My personal favourite though is ‘Mondegreen’. It’s the propensity to misinterpret lyrics due to mishearing. Mondegreen is simply put singing ‘Aap jaisa koi mere zidagi me aaye toh baat ban jaye’ as ‘baap ban jaye’. Curiously, author Sylvia Wright coined it when she misheard a line in a Scottish ballad. ‘Laid him on the green’ felt like ‘Lady Mondegreen’ to her ears!

I’ll sign off with one something you may not know. What do you call the infinity symbol? ‘Lemniscate’. That’s the good word!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Muchas Gracias

Geographically speaking, Spain is about 7900 kilometres away from India. But culturally speaking, they’re much, much closer as we owe nearly everything we do to the Spanish. Trust me, I am not exaggerating.

The guitar we strum; the cigarette we smoke; the hot chocolate we drink; the radio we tune into; the wheelchair your granddad uses; the glass mirror you peer into; the foosball you play; the calculator you punch into; the lollipop your kid craves for; the eye glasses you so depend upon; the humble mop your maid uses; the stapler your office cannot do without; the pocket knife you need during travels; even the first telescope, the first space suit and the first planetarium were all invented by Spaniards.

And I am just getting started. Kid you not. If we paid a dollar for everything we owe Spain, they’d probably be the richest country in the world. Allow me to elaborate.

Tungsten, the metal used in mobile phones, circuit boards, rock drills, planes, cars and trains, was discovered by the Elhuyar brothers in 1783. Platinum, the precious metal behind jewellery, catalytic converters, pacemakers and magnets, is yet again a contribution of Spanish ingenuity.

Linguistically speaking, the Hispanic species has made the English language richer by at least 150 words. Alligator (‘the lizard’), Mosquito (‘little fly’), Breeze (‘cold northeast wind’), Tornado (‘thunderstorm’), Vigilante (‘watchman’), Bonanza (‘prosperity’), Cafeteria (‘coffee store’), Peon (‘labourer’), Savvy (‘wise’), Vanilla (‘little pod’) and Zorro (‘fox’) are a few surprising loanwords you’ll never attribute to Spain.

Three of the foodie universe favourites – Tacos, Nachos, and Burritos – have their roots to people or things from the land of the Tomatino festival. ‘Nachos’ is named after Ignacio Anaya, a Mexican restaurateur who cut tortillas into triangles, fried and served them with shredded cheese and jalapeno peppers when he couldn’t locate his cook to serve some American military officers. ‘Tacos’ is derived from an old custom of miners to wrap paper around gunpowder to use as explosive charges. If you really think the Mexican dish involves the same process of rolling a tortilla around a filling. ‘Burrito’ literally means ‘little donkey’ in Spanish. The cylindrical shape of the dish probably reminded people of the packs that donkeys carried in the olden days.

Tequila, Sherry and Mojito are some more spirited Spanish gifts to die for. Given this armada of delights, it would be safe to conclude with a pithy aphorism: No Spain, No Gain.