Thursday, June 30, 2005

Back ...

Back in Bombay after a refreshing vacation at Calicut. A high point of the visit was that I read Kalidasa's Raghuvamsa in original (with Malayalam translation of course!). Kalidasa doesn't need my endorsing it, still, ... brilliant work, and I'm happy that I read it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Father's memoirs: Excerpts - III

After the tenth class, many of my class mates joined the college. In that atmosphere where we even had to worry about our daily bread, I decided not to think big and nipped my college dreams in the bud.

Payyaratta Raman, a local communist leader, said: "We'll find a way out. Temporarily you could work in the farmers collective."

Mom was relieved. My job was to write affidavits for the poor farmers who move the land tribunal. My handwriting was pretty good and the plaintiffs as well as the collective's leadership were generally happy with me. I used to get thirty rupees per month, most of which I could give to mother.

I worked there for almost six months. These local courts were abolished by then. The same leadership arranged for me the job of a clerk in a nearby co-operative society with forty rupees a month.

Around this time, I became closer to a relative of mine who had an interest in everything from carpentry and textiles to photography and poetry. Evenings were spent together, discussing matters literary; specifically we went through Ullur Parameswara Iyer's Keralasahityacharitram (A History of Kerala Literature), Sanjayan's Sahityanikasham, which is a treatise on literary criticism, and Kuttikrishna Marar's Bharathaparyatanam (A Tour of Mahabharatha). This period was indeed exciting and our literary experimentations included communicating to each other in verses, that too in Sanskrit meters! My interest in higher education got a strong boost which I could not forcefully suppress unlike last time.

It soon struck me that it's easier to study further as a 'private' student -- i.e., pay the fee and write the exams without attending college -- if I could be a school teacher first. So I wanted to do the Teachers Training Course. My brother was working at a restaurant in Kannur then. He told me:

"Come to Kannur. I get 25 rupees per month and I can give you almost all of it. That'll be enough if one's careful."

Thus, in 1963, I joined the Kannur Basic Training School as a Teacher Trainee. The two years that I spent there is one of the most important periods of my literary life. The atmosphere there was such that one couldn't have distinguished curricular and extra curricular activities apart. It's in those two years that I read critics like Keralavarma, Rajarajavarma, Mundasseri, Marar, and MP Paul. I read Kunhikkuttan Thampuran's Bhashabharatham and Vallathol's translaton of Valmikiramayanam. Also Adhyatmaramayanam, Mahabharatham, Bhagavatham, and Krishnagatha, and almost all the works of Vallathol, Kumaranasan, Ullur, Sankara Kurup, Vailoppilli, Etassery, Kunhiraman Nair, and other well-known poets.

Around this time I started writing poetry, and many of my poems got published in weeklies and other magazines. I started attending meetings of the Kerala Sahitya Samiti. In 1964, there was a meet of prominent literary figures in Telechery, organised by the Samiti. It's there that I got acquainted with most of the major Malayalam literary figures.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Banana chips

"Purchased a kg of banana chips here yesterday. Gave a five hundred rupee note mistaking that it's a hundred." Said the thirty something thinly moustached man, looking a bit worried, trying to smile ingratiatingly. "Did anyone here notice that? Could you give the remaining back?"

It's Calicut's most famous place for banana chips. A tiny makeshift room, asbestos covered, five or six healthy sweaty half clad men slicing yellowish raw bananas at lightning speed. Thin gummy slices continue to stick together for an extra second in the air. The second they fall into those large drums, turmeric water makes them float, now each one on its own, and the yellow is yellower. The slices remain in the water for some time, till the stickiness goes fully, before being fried in the pan. Thick green skins of the used bananas laid piled up on the pavement almost protruding to the road.

A middle aged man in a white shirt and dhoti was the proprietor. He said that when they notice an irregularity like this, they do make a note of it and return the remaining amount if some one comes up later. But he doesn't remember any anomalous transaction taking place yesterday. The young man simply repeated whatever he said, his voice feebler.

I was curious how this would end. If the owner had asserted that he wouldn't be able to do anything about a past transaction, that would settle the issue, though that would disappoint one party altogether. But he didn't do that. The young man could have left on his own as the shop people say that they do not remember any such transaction. He didn't do that either.

"Why don't you come tomorrow evening, and we'll sort this out", said the proprietor suddenly. He showed his ring with a picture of his guru, and continued: "I'll toss a coin tonight when I do the puja. Let the guru decide, and I'll go by that." Surprisingly, perhaps not so surprisingly, the young man looked happy. Everyone was happy.

I got my packs by that time. Packs of fresh hot banana chips straight from the pan. It costed two hundred rupees. I had two one hundred and two five hundred bills with me. I would have typically changed a five hundred bill there as it's good to have enough change when you go to other shops. I couldn't resist smiling while I was exhausting the hundred bills instead.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Father's memoirs: Excerpts - II

The difficulties in the household did not affect my school life much. I was very involved in the curricular and extra curricular activities of the school. Our school faced all the disadvantages that an average government school in the Malabar area faced in those days. Very few native teachers. A majority of the teachers were from Travancore, a few from Telechery too. A lot of posts remained unfilled at any given point. Those who were already there got frequent transfers. In most of the classes, most of the subjects were taught by a combination of teachers. In my tenth class, three or four teachers shared the English syllabus. A natural corollary was that no one seemed to feel responsible to the class. Obviously, we, the students, suffered. For instance, no teacher told us about the model of the final exam paper. The Math paper had three parts: (a) arithmetic, (b) algebra, and (c) geometry. First part had questions for 50 marks, and the second and the third parts had questions worth 40 each. I found all the questions easy, and started answering from the first question itself. Time was up by the time I finished for 110 marks, and I got 90/100. One was supposed to try for 40+30+30=100. This wouldn't have happened if there was some idea about the model beforehand.

I passed with first class and first rank, but I felt bad as I lost 10 marks in the Math paper. Though I liked all the subjects, Maths was my most favourite subject.

I was sort of a mischievous student; used to take initiative in nicknaming teachers and in mimicking them. There was also a visible tinge of arrogance that I was the smartest in the school. A couple of times I had been advised about this. Once the advice was indirect and bordered on the cruel.

I was in the ninth or the tenth then. K. Balarama Panikkar's Raghurajacharitam was one of our texts. Rama is going to abandon Sita. He orders Lakshmana to throw Sita off in the forest. Sita, pregnant, misunderstands that she is being taken to the forest to get her wishes carried out. The poet says that Sita does not recognise that her husband has discarded the kalpadrubhava and has taken the asipatravrikshabhava. Here the teacher translated asipatravriksha as strychnine.

I got up and said: "asipatra is the name of a hell. Kalpadru is a tree in the heaven, and asipatravriksha refers to a tree in a hell."

He immediately understood that I was right. But he started trying to make fun of me whenever he got a chance, cooking up a chance otherwise. The next chapter contained the word pitakkal (literally "fathers").

"What does that mean? Tell me you all-knowing" -- he asked me.

Though I noticed the scorn, I answered correctly: "parents".

"What's pita then?"


"Shouldn't pitakkal mean 'fathers' in that case? How many fathers do you have?"

He knew very well that my father had died. I burst into tears. Even after this incident he used to address me 'all-knowing' contemptuously for quite some time. I too realised that correcting the teacher openly in a packed class wasn't exactly the right thing to do.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Father's memoirs: Excerpts - I

Seventh form exams got over. No one had any doubt that I would pass and I would be the first in my class. What next? To join the eighth standard one should go to to the Madayi high school. My brother was in that school, in the tenth class. Mother could not even think of sending both of us to the school as she couldn't afford the fee. We decided to stop my studies.

"Not at all happy about this, but do we have another option?" -- mom cried aloud, hugging me tight. Even earlier mother had this hunch that I wouldn't be able to continue my studies. Whenever a bit depressed, she used to get a palmist to examine my hands or call Appu gurukkal, a local astrologer, to check my horoscope in detail. Once gurukkal remarked: "not to speak of his higher studies", and laughed away as was his wont. This remark must have struck my mom deeply.

In any case, when it was pretty clear that I wouldn't be continuing my studies, I went to the small textile factory near my school, looking for a job. But I wasn't tall enough and my feet wouldn't touch the pedal of the loom. I was asked to do some knitting instead. I used to earn just enough for a day's food. As far as we were concerned, that itself was a great thing.

A month went by. One of those days, a highlighted item in the news paper caught my eye. "Eighth standard fee abolished".

The Government of Kerala has decided to do away with the tuition fee in the eighth standard as part of fulfilling the constitutional promise of free, universal, and compulsory school education. The fee in the ninth and tenth standards will be taken away in the next two years. A new touch of green on those charred dreams of studying further? I took permission from the company manager, ran home, and told everything to my brother.

Brother was immensely happy. We went to Narayanettan, a relative on my father's side, and told him the news. "May you be able to study further and further. May all be well with you", he blessed me with both hands on my head. He wasn't doing well at all, and was sad that he couldn't help us in any way.

That day my mother was in her husband's house. We went there. Mom and everybody else there were happy to hear about this development. On their suggestions, I went and met Kunhiramanmaster, principal of my previous school. Indescribable is the happiness that I saw on his face then. He was genuinely sad that the best student of his school wouldn't be able to study further, and was relieved to see the new rule. He advised me to join the Madayi high school and gave me the admission fee of ten rupees. We did as he said, and I joined the eighth. If the Namboodiripad - Joseph Mundassery ministry did not come up with that bill, thousands of students like me would not have got high school education.

A quick post

I haven't had a post for more than a week. I'm in Calicut -- partly vacationing, partly proof reading my father's forthcoming memoirs -- and internet connectivity isn't very good at home. Blogging will be back to normal levels once I'm back in Bombay some time next week. I'll try to post a few excerpts from the memoirs meanwhile.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Is age the problem?

Amit's post at the India Uncut links to Devangshu Datta's Business Standard column. Datta's contention is that

    it’s an absurdity of the political system that there is no mandatory retirement age.
Amit doesn't agree, and I think rightly so. Amit says:
    [T]he problem isn't that our leading politicians are too old. The problem is that we pick the wrong guys.
I had a post on this issue here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Daily Kos and Pie fight ads

Via Sean Carroll's Preposterous Universe, I noticed this controversy over the Pie fight ads that appeared on a few influential blogs. Here's what Kos had to say. Sean Carroll's remarks here.

Trent Lott

A good comment at the Daily Kos.

      Bingaman (D-NM)
      Conrad (D-ND)
      Reed (D-RI)
      Alexander (R-TN)
      Bennett (R-UT)
      Cochran (R-MS)
      Cornyn (R-TX)
      Crapo (R-ID)
      Enzi (R-WY)
      Grassley (R-IA)
      Hatch (R-UT)
      Hutchison (R-TX)
      Kyl (R-AZ)
      Lott (R-MS)
      Murkowski (R-AK)
      Shelby (R-AL)
      Smith (R-OR)
      Sununu (R-NH)
      Thomas (R-WY)
      Voinovich (R-OH)
(These are the US senators who did not co-sponsor the resolution to apologise for repeatedly blocking anti-lynching legislations in the past.)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

You are an OBC, na?

While having dinner, a lot of teenagers who are just out of school were discussing college options at the next table. One of them was openly doubtful about his chances of making it into a decent engineering college. Pat came the comment from a friend of his: "shouldn't be a problem yaar, you are an OBC, na?"

No one looked offended though.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Are they men too? Fine!

First a quote from an extremely popular non-fiction work:

    "I am a liberal, and above these caste distinctions", said my host, turning to me, "but I cannot tolerate the sight of a lower caste girl sitting beside a Brahmin boy. I saw it with my own eyes on a bus in Delhi the other day. Mind you, the boy was the son of a Supreme Court judge."

    "What is wrong with them sitting on the bus together?" I asked artlessly.

    "What's wrong -- she is unclean!" said my Rajput host, rising imperiously from the charpai and assuming the dignity of a retired transport commsissioner."They used to carry muck on their heads."

    "That was probably two generations ago", I said, impatience showing in my voice.

Now read this moving piece by Sunil Laxman. Sunil also has quotes, but from books which may have more to do with reality.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

On the morality of a world ...

... that denies people jobs in their home areas and denies them homes in the areas where they have gone to get jobs.


Ghosh at Open Source

Chris Lydon is interviewing Amitav Ghosh at the Open Source tomorrow early morning 4.30 AM (IST). Check here for details. Amardeep Singh and Dilip D'Souza are confirmed to participate in the show.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Being a Hindu and an atheist

As a post script to a post on Advani and the Babri Masjid demolition, Amit Varma had this to say about himself:

    By "Hindu", I mean Hindu by birth. I am an atheist by practice. Actually, um, how does one practise atheism?
It's natural to ask a related question: how does one practise Hinduism? One easily sees that there are no rules at all. There's no holy book. Different Hindus may believe in different gods, some Hindus may not believe in any god. There are no uniform rituals. If you go by the Hindu tradition, atheism is as much a part of Hinduism as theism is. Prominent Hindu philosophical systems cover a wide spectrum, from Vedanta with a mystic and ritualistic base to Lokayata (or Carvakism) which is rationalistic and somewhat hedonistic in nature. Live merrily as long as you can(*), the Carvakas say. Carvakas were anti-ritualistic to the extreme. One quote says:

    If a beast slain in the Jyothishtoma rite will itself go to heaven,
    Why then does not the sacrificer (yajamana) forthwith offer his own father?
See this post on Kamat's Potpourri, and this Wiki entry for more details on Indian materialism.

Hinduism is very loosely defined, or perhaps it's something that cannot be defined. I guess one is a Hindu as long as one says that one is not! I can be a Hindu today, a non-Hindu tomorrow, and a Hindu again the day after, eating beef today, being a vegetarian tomorrow, and indulging in blasphemy the day after.

Update (June 6): Vishnu has an excellent post on similar issues: Am I a Hindu?

(*) Here's the actual shloka:

    Live merrily as long as you can. Drink ghee and even a debtor be! When this body is reduced to ashes, where is rebirth?.

Friday, June 03, 2005


I'm book-tagged by Uma Mahadevan and by Sunil Laxman.

Total Number of Books I Own: Depends on how I count. Right now, with me, I have around 150. Around the same number in Hyderabad and Calicut. Thus, about 400 or so. Do I own my father's collection as well? I can add another zero then.

Last Book I Bought: Classical Telugu Poetry by V. Narayana Rao, A Black Englishman by Carolyn Slaughter.

Last Book I Read: Amitav Ghosh's Shadow Lines. Liked it a lot. Perhaps my favourite among the Ghosh novels that I've read.

Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me: Let's see:

Pathummayute Aadu by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. I've read it many times. I like it for its simplicity, and its wonderful language. I like this book also for Basheer's semi-autobiographical introduction, which is very touching.

Samskara by U.R. Ananthamurthy. I've read it in both Malayalam and English. Very powerful characters. I could rate this as the best Indian novel that I've read.

All of Garcia Marquez. I'm a big fan of Marquez. If I have to pick one, I guess it's going to be Love in the time of Cholera.

Romila Thapar's A History of India. Unfortunately I haven't read any other book of hers. We do have most of Thapar's books though. I should be reading her book on the Shakuntala narrative soon. Her lectures on that topic were very fascinating.

Sarpa Satra by Arun Kolatkar. I usually do not read much poetry outside Malayalam. Heard about Kolatkar very late, just before his death. Read Jejuri, Kala Ghoda Poems, and this one, all in one sitting. Liked all those. But Sarpa Satra is my favourite, I guess because of its politics.

Tag five people and have them do this on their blogs: Well, many whom I would have liked to tag are tagged already. Anyway here are my five:

It's fun to answer Uma Mahadevan's additional question:

One book you couldn't finish reading: Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone. Finished it, but could have left it unfinished easily! N.S. Madhavan's famous Malayalam novel, Lanthan Batheriyile Luthiniyakal, which got a lot of great reviews. I thought it was pretentious and crappy. Didn't finish it finally.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

PJ: Sore throat

I just skimmed through my bloglines. Now I've a sore throat!

Most harmful books

Human Events, a conservative magazine, has compiled a list of the most harmful books. The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf top the list. The long list includes Das Kapital, The Feminine Mystique, Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, de Beauvoir's Second Sex, Foucault's Madness and Civilization, Gramschi's Prison Notebooks, Freud's Introduction to Psychoanalysis, and The Origin of Species!

Sean Carroll of Preposterous Universe writes:

    It's Darwin's appearance that is most telling. If this really does represent mainstream conservatism, its intellectual bankruptcy is showing.