Saturday, August 13, 2005

The long, dark tea-time of the soul.

I know it sounds a little weird, but the last one and a half months have felt like years.

I have discovered talents that I scarcely knew I possessed- in the Financial Accounting mid-term exam last week, for instance. (Yes, I'm taking Accountancy- feel free to pity me). 50 figures grinned wickedly at me from the Infosys balance sheet. With a scornful laugh, I was off, slaying every single accounting principle known to mankind. Assets don't match the liabilities? So what, add an extra 15k as "other" expenses and reduce your profits. Accounting is so darn easy, with creativity on your side. And yeah, the results came sometime last week. Apparently our prof doesn't quite concur with the idea of creative accounting- perhaps shes not of the Andersen school of thought.

Also, I have discovered remarkable reserves of sleep. In the middle of an extremely intriguing class on statistics (intriguing, because we are always left wondering whether our dear quant prof's smirk is a result of God's sense of humour or an indicator of his dark plans to add another sordid twist to our mid-term paper), I wander off slowly into oblivion. While voices around me jostle for air time, to wax eloquently on the relative merits of representative sampling vis a vis the stochastic approach, my eyes gracefully droop and I find myself sliding off my seat. I seem to have almost elevated sleep to an art form.

I wonder sometimes, though. I used to get paid for doing the same thing at work. Ok, not exactly paid for sleeping, its more like I was paid while I slept at work. But that's irrelevant. So, why did I ever bother quitting, then?

I can still remember my cubicle, with its provocative Dilbert cartoons and its gentle lighting, an atmosphere absolutely conducive to the sheer bliss of inactivity. The exhilaratingly pointless meetings. The breakfast at 10. The lunch at 12. The Tea at 3.

Tea at 3 was a magical time at work. You have just returned from a two hour lunch break, at 2. The boss is lurking around the cubicle, so you open a unix window, and stare fixatedly at the smudge of dirt on your monitor, as if your very life depended on it. The boss walks by. Relax. Its 3, time for tea. Get up and look around, and you spot some like-minded souls, who are surveying the landscape for precisely the same reasons as you- to see if the coast is clear.

A raised eyebrow, a flicker of a smile, an imperceptible nod in the direction of the canteen- that's all it takes to answer the wordless question. You take a circuitous route, avoiding the director's cube (just in case). And there you are. At the mess, sunlight streaming in, a hot cuppa in hand, whiling away the glorious afternoon.

God. That seems ages ago now.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A new beginning

And so it came to pass that I moved from the comfy confines of home and a fat paycheck to the academic rigours of student life. The new campus is beautiful, only wish they had constructed their toilets with the assuidity reserved for their marketing brochures. But I complain too much.

It's great getting back to being a student. (Classes haven't started yet, as you may have gathered).

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Sound advice

On the eve of his 18th birthday, Ramaseshan's parents finally revealed to him the secret behind his inability to laugh.

"Amma, listen to this. A Sardarji has five sons. Their names are: Kanwaljeet, Manjeet, Harpreet, Manmeet and Jiang Zemin. Why?", rattled Ramaseshan, as he walked into his house in Triplicane.

His mother gave him a blank look of incomprehension.

"Because every fifth child born in this world is a Chinese.", he finished rather flatly, when he realized that an answer was not forthcoming.

His mother smiled politely, not to hurt his feelings. (But she needn't have bothered.)

"I really don't understand the joke. Nandhini told me this when she saw me chasing the cows away from our vegetable garden.", he moaned, in a rather agitated tone.

Nandhini, their beautiful (newly moved-in) neighbour, and daughter of advocate Rules-Ramanujam, fancied Ramaseshan, which probably explains her attempt at humour at their very first meeting, over the garden-fence seperating the two houses. But when she only encountered his laughless countenance, she mistook it for sarcasm, burst into tears and ran back home. Ramaseshan, consequently, was quite perplexed.

His father, looking up from his Hindu newspaper, merely raised an eyebrow.

Ramaseshan, had he read Wodehouse, would probably have remarked that his father looked like what Jeeves would have, had he (Jeeves) been an Iyengar. (You see, Ramaseshan's dad was already one). But more importantly, had he read Wodehouse, Ramaseshan would have discovered laughter much earlier.

Now, dear reader, I agree, the Sardarji joke was not particularly funny- the lack of any laughter from your end merely stands testimony to your rather sophisticated sense of humour. In Ramaseshan's case however, the reason was somewhat more sinister.

Therefore, when he posed the following question to his mother, she gave her husband a worried look, as if goading him wordlessly, to answer that immortal and long-unasked query.

"Why don't I ever laugh, Amma? It's not just this instance, you know. I have never found anything funny in my life. Ever!".

His father, as was his wont when he was disturbed from his ritual poring over the dignified pages of The Hindu, polished his glasses in a rather agitated fashion, before replying. "Son, this is a long story. We have been hiding this from you till you reached an age where you could understand what actually happened. 17 years ago, to this very day, you fell ill to a disease that was unknown then to the world of medicine. Probably still is. We knocked on all doors- allopathy, ayurveda, magicians from the local mosque, old ladies who had routinely visitations from the Malayala Bhagavathi, but all to no avail. The fever kept escalating. Finally, a kind old lady from this neighbourhood mentioned that there was a Maha Yogi in town who could banish our woes . He had a great track record for curing the sick, but she warned us, he usually extracted a terrible price from his patients. We were ready to pay any price, so we wrapped you in a bundle and went to the Yogi's ashram in Mylapore. He took one look at you and said, "We shall cure the little one. But you must promise us one thing. We will take from this child, all his laughter. Do you agree?" We were at our wits' end then, so we had no option but to accept. Lots of people didn't laugh. Why, your very own thatha, your mother's dear father, his face has never seen a smile light it once. So we thought that it wasn't such a bad deal after all. You were cured, but, but.. This my dear fellow, is the reason why you can never laugh!"

The room was quiet for a second. Not many people are ready to hear that their lives' were straight out of a Rumpelstiltskin story, but Ramaseshan was different. Blessed with a cool intellect, his only consideration then was, "Is this Yogi still alive? Where can I meet him? I will remonstrate with him and get my laughter back!".

His mother, who was silently cursing her husband while he was casting aspersions on her father's sense of humour, replied sharply, "Oh yes! The Yogi told us that you will come looking for him, so he left his address with us. I think it was in the old almirah. Hope those blasted termites haven't eaten that paper!". In the few minutes that his mother was gone, the room fell silent once again. His father, trying to avoid his eye, embarrassedly returned to The Hindu. Ramaseshan, as usual, stared ahead expressionlessly .

"Ahh, here it is. Number 8, Vivekananda Cave, Himalayan hamlet, The Himalayas."

Armed with such a detailed knowledge of the Yogi's location, Ramaseshan set off on his journey to rediscover his lost humour, with a renewed confidence. We'll skim over his adventures, to speed up the pace of this somewhat laggardly narrative. Suffice it to say, he soon found himself outside the cave of the Maha Yogi.

"Sir", he said reverentially, "I have come to get my laughter back. Please show me some mercy!"
To which the Yogi majestically replied "Ah little one! So you are here, finally. We trust that you were able to find our cave easily?", and without waiting for an answer, as was the practice of all great men, he continued, "What we have taken from you, we cannot return. If you are truly lucky, you may find out why. But never fear, for the moment, ask us something else."

At this point, my memory fails me, and I am not able to recollect what exactly transpired between Ramaseshan and the Yogi. But let me assure you, it was very interesting indeed.

Ramaseshan, with the new knowledge gained from his master, decided that he did not miss his laughter much after all, and began his long journey back home. On his way back, more adventures followed. He convinced an amateur mountaineer that her family honour wouldn't be tarnished if she dropped her foolhardy idea to scale Everest, thus saving one innocent life. He discovered that the seat of the Maha Yogi was also in fact the Lost Tomb of Christ, believed by many to be in Kashmir. He hit upon a solution to the long standing Kaveri water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. He devised the perfect plan to entrap Veerappan (the sting operation later was somewhat inspired by Ramaseshan's original masterpiece). However, all these achievements are a mere trifle compared to his greatest idea, which he quite accidently discovered during a particulary severe snow blizzard, while riding piggyback on a passing-by Yeti.

He discovered a truly remarkable solution to the Kashmir issue, which I'm afraid this margin is too narrow to contain.

Enough said.

Many, many donkey years later, as the millionaire Ramaseshan was lying in his deathbed in a swank, upmarket hospital in Chennai, his wife Nandhini was startled to hear a strange new sound emanating from the prostrate figure on the bed. Ramaseshan was laughing hysterically.

And with his rediscovery of laughter, I find that I have redisovered my memory to recollect what happened in that fateful meeting between Ramaseshan and the Maha Yogi:

Ramaseshan asked, "Swami, what is the sureshot way to success?", to which the Yogi, in his infinite wisdom replied,

"Little one, that is a very intelligent question. There are two, very simple ways to success. One, never reveal everything you know to anyone."

And thus, Ramaseshan, following his life credo till his death, died before he could tell Nandhini why he was laughing. But let me assure you, he died a happy man.

Friday, June 24, 2005


Just stumbled across a blog by Pavithra translating Amarar Kalki's Sivagamiyin Sabadham into English.

If you want to understand what being a Tamilian means, then Kalki is the beginning, the middle and the end of your quest.

Sensational is probably a word that comes close in describing the quality of the translation. I've read the original, and this comes very, very close to it in terms of capturing the flavour and essence of the masterpiece. Truly a magnificent effort. Hats off!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Filmmaking 101

A hilarious review of Anniyan in Raman's blog. Check it out here. Absolutely spot on, especially the analogy to Onion.

There was a time, when I used to like such movies. I wonder why I ever grew up hence. Life was so simple with poor taste.

It confirms my longheld belief that all Shankar knows is two genres of filmmaking- Love and the supposed "Socially-Relevant" cinema- which he happily alternates between. And hopes that we being the brainless twits that we are, don't notice that it is the same story again and again. And again.

I wouldn't blame him for thinking that though, given our track record with the kind of movies that we help become Super/Mega/Ultra Hits.

Coming to think of it, there is a specific formula that we all readily fall for.

1) ALL socially relevant Shankar films will have a flashback. No questions asked. The flashback will involve one relative of the protagonist dying due to some government servant/politician's neglect. Usually this will be followed by some scenes of extraordinary hamming.

2) There will also be a "makkal" scene- where various sections of society will voice support for the hero- for example, college gals will drool, "Hey paar ya! Indian thatha style! Kewl!!", or old ladies will scream, "Pugalendhi dhaanungo!"

3) There will definitely be a Matrix style stunt scene. People will scale buildings with the ease of a Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger. Motorcycles will jump 20 feet up and then decide to explode. Sometimes cars will jump over trains, and coconut trees will uproot automatically and soar into the heavens. Sometimes, when the hero breaks the villain's hand, there will be a zoom-in to an X-ray shot where we get visual confirmation of the fracture, in case we had feared that it was a mere sprain.
(Although, to be really fair, this technique has been borrowed from Sarath Kumar's follow-up to Lion King, Deewan.)

4) All songs will have graphics which will be stupid, kitschy, or both. Hero and heroine will jump into the air, the frame will freeze and the screen colour will suddenly become dull, the world will revolve around them, and then after a few seconds of suspended animation where we are supposed to hold our breath, the lovers will resume normal movement and fall gleefully into each others' arms. There will also be a man-to-animal transformation. Like Kamal Hassan will morph into an Iguana, lion, etc. or Manivannan and Vadivelu will reveal a snaky aspect to their character hitherto unknown to mankind.

5) Shankar's films will depict "cool" people by having them spout Thanglish in ludicrous westernized accents. Funnily enough, many people seem to share his opinon.

Thalaivar Rajnikanth has a few formulae as well. Will probably dedicate a post for that on one of those long, rainy afternoons.

And yes, in Sun TV Lion Dates Top 10 Movies fashion: Anniyan, Saniyan.

Irrelevant Film Fact of the Day: Did you know that there is a Telugu actor who actually goes by the sobriquet, "Challenging Star"? I wonder what they intended.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The fourth hand of Vishnu.

Tharangambadi, a few miles from Pondicherry.

We were childhood friends, Raghupathi and I. We first met in the fifth standard, when I moved from Madras to Pondi. Frankly, I hated the place - but he was the reason why I learned to live there, and probably, later love it.

He was the son of the priest of the temple by the seashore at Tharangambadi. For generations, his family had tended to Lord Janardhana, the presiding deity. Their lives, from their lowest desires to their greatest ambitions, were defined by that temple. Not many people knew its existence now, and those who did, did not bother to visit it anymore, but that was immaterial to them.

Raghupathi, however, was different.

We parted ways after high school. A childhood love for history gave him the courage to pay little heed to family tradition, and he joined an undergraduate course in it at the local college. I moved to Singapore to study Economics. Soon, I was working in a multi-national bank. I heard that he was continuing his torrid love affair with History, with the Archaeological Survey of India. Life was hectic. We hardly wrote to each other. We scarcely thought about each other even. At least, I know I didn't.

Then, nearly a decade later, about seven months back, I received an air-mail from him. He was inviting me to Lakshmi's wedding- his sister. It was in December, in Tharangambadi. I missed India, so even though I was a little hesitant, I called him up and told him I would come. I was diffident, because I really did not know what we could talk about any more.


He was still living in the same two-room house that he used to as a kid. Memories came flooding back.

"How is Appa?", I ventured.

"Don't ask. My refusal to carry on with priesthood broke him. He died soon after I joined college."


Not a good start.


The dawn before the wedding, Raghupathi and I were walking by the calm sea.

"I want to ask you something....", he began. I looked at him, half expecting what he was going to say.

"I need some...The groom's side is demanding some money. I didn't know who to ask...".

"And so, you thought of me...", I smiled. I stopped, realizing that it sounded a little cruel. I knew how difficult it was for him to bring this up. "I'm sorry. Sure, you can have it."

The smile on his face was something that I would remember for a long time. "Thanks! Its..Its just that I have a cash crunch now. I'll definitely transfer the money to you by..."

"Sure, sure. Don't worry about it!"

Damn! I shouldn't have embarassed him. I wanted to change the conversation quickly....

"Wow, the beach sure seems to have grown in the last ten years. I remember, we used to race from the steps of the temple to the water's edge. It always seemed such a small distance- so small, that you always won before I could catch up! Now look at it! The sea seems so distant now!"

He looked up from his troubled thoughts. "Yeah! You know what?! You are absolutely right. Strange..".

I smiled. "How about a race now? The last one to the water is a loser!!". And before he could say anything, I was off. Running into the wind. Into the sea.

A ray from the rising sun momentarily blinded me. My leg caught something and I fell headlong into the salty sand.

Age was not too kind to Raghu. He was lumbering some distance behind me. "Are you all right?!!", he managed to whisper, between great gasps of breath.


"Hello, what is this?". He was staring intently at a small, triangular piece of green rock jutting out of the sand. Scowling with pain, I got up and peered over his shoulder.

"Looks like a small, triangular piece of green rock!", I said irritatedly, stating the obvious.

"No, No! wait a minute..."...He was frantically digging, clawing at the sand. I looked at him transfixed. Had he suddenly gone bonkers?

After watching him amazedly for a couple of minutes, some strange realization dawned on me. "What IS that piece of rock?".

"This, my good friend", said he between excited gasps, "is no piece of rock. Possibly 14th century bronze."

That's all it took. I joined him, digging like a crazed bounty-hunter.

The bronze statue was 3 feet tall. Mahavishnu. Majestic. Classic features. A mysterious little smile. Four hands. The right hand held the chakra- the discus. The left held the shankh- the conch. Another held the mace. The final hand was the strangest- palm outstretched and brought near the mouth. Now that was something that one wouldn't normally see.

"As if sipping water from the palm of one's hand"... Those words from distant childhood echoed within me.

Carved with an eye for exquisite detail- even an untrained novice such as I could see that we had in front of us the work of a true master. A rare antique of inestimable value made deeply mysterious and infinitely unique by that strange hand gesture.

Raghu was breathing heavily. "I think this is the Utsava-Murthy, the processional deity of our temple, believed to have been lost for ages!

Sometime in the 14th century, the Delhi Sultanate advanced to South India, and they began unleashing a terrible campaign to destroy the Hindu faith by defacing our temples. Malik Kafur completely pillaged the Hoysala temple at the place that we know today as Halebidu. He almost reached Srirangam. The idols there were secretly transported to Tirupati for protection.

Seeing the imminent threat to our temple by the invaders, my forefathers decided that they had to take urgent steps to save these idols, at least for the sake of posterity. The plan was to bury the idols somewhere in the seashore here at Tharangambadi. In the middle of the night, the main idol was secreted away and hidden beneath the sands just outside the temple. The Utsava-Murthy was buried further down the beach. They placed flags to mark the spots where they had buried the statues. But for all their care, they made one crucial mistake. It was low tide and the dead of the night- the place where they buried the Utsava-Murthy was too far into the sea. When the day broke and the tide came in, the flag marking this spot was swept away by the rough sea.

The danger soon passed and the invaders retreated back to the North, and my family was easily able to find the main idol outside the temple, but the Utsava-Murthy was assumed to be lost forever, until..... until today. I think what you have discovered today could be that same, ancient statue.

But one thing still puzzles me- there's something not right with the fourth hand of Vishnu.

Why is Vishnu doing an Achamanam?

In the main idol reinstated back into the temple, the hand is not near the mouth....Even the paintings of Vishnu from that period don't show this mudra. So either this must be a different statue, which appears highly unlikely, or...or.. I dont know. There's surely some significance to it.

My father must have mentioned it, for I have a vague feeling that he did, but I was never too interested in mythology to pay attention...".

His eyes were glazed, lost in deep thought. "Ahh! I give up!", he grunted good-humoredly after a while.

" Raghu....How much will this be worth today?" I asked in a low tone, bringing him straight down to earth.

Sensing the sudden intensity in my tone, he looked scandalized. "Look, just what exactly are you suggesting?? This is a national treasure for heavens' sake!!! Stop thinking what you are thinking...." He was clearly faltering.

I decided to take my chance. "Raghu, how much do you earn?"

"That has nothing to do with this! My family has been worshipping Lord Janardhana for the last 700 years. How can you even suggest..."

"All right, if I refuse to lend you the money, how do you intend to pay Lakshmi's prospective in-laws, huh? And hello, even if I do pay, it doesn't stop at the wedding expenses...Oh No...You'll have to give them gifts at every bloody function, right?! How do you suppose you are going to afford all this?? And, and.." I drove home relentlessly. "What about you? How are you going to support your wife when you marry? Don't tell me the Archaeological Survey of India is going to declare you a national monument and protect you. Because that's what you are- A bleeding antique!!".

I could see that he was hurt. But he could see the bitter truth behind my cruel words. "All right. All right...We'll hide the statue at the house during the wedding. But please, I need your help to sell this statue abroad. If this is seen in India, I'll be destroyed."

And so it was agreed. I would go to his house and get my car. We'd hide it in his house. And I would find a buyer for it in Singapore. Our lives would change forever.

"Stay right here and guard the statue. Don't move!", I ordered and started jogging back to his house.

"Janardhana!" he called out. I turned around.

The beach was absolutely deserted. The morning sun was just rising over the solitary figure of Raghupathi, throwing his outline in sharp relief. I knew it was a trick of light- The statue's long shadow seemed to dwarf him.

"We are not doing something evil, right?", he asked tremulously. Clearly, I was not the only one disturbed.

I pretended not to to have heard him at first. A pause later,"Don't worry! Everything will turn out OK!".

The first wave of the killer tsunami hit Tharangambadi that morning. Janardhana was ready, sipping the waters of the great Pralayam.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The big game.

During one particularly long, rainy, drive in Wayanad, Kerala, my uncle narrated a story that happened once. A childhood incident.

Uncle, a city dweller for most of his life, lived in Madurai. During his summer holidays, he used to visit his ancestral home in a village somewhere in the Tanjore District of Tamil Nadu. To escape the drowsy monotony of the long afternoons, he attended a local village school, ostensibly to brush up on his arithmetic.

The teacher in the village school does not receive a regular salary like teachers in the big city schools do. For his efforts, he's paid in kind - Some pay him with rice, some with paruppu (pulses), some barter vegetables, some milk. And the parents who could afford to send their kids to school, were usually the rich landlords of the village.

Probably out of a sense of injustice of things around him, or an inferiority complex arising out of his poor station, (we don't know the exact reason, I only speculate), the teacher at my uncle's village was a very strict man, some may even say, a man, who was downright abusive to his pupils. And being the grandson of the richest family in the village, my uncle was the prime candidate for punishment at the teacher's hands.

Once, after a particularly severe beating (Either for not solving a tricky maths problem, or for solving it before the teacher could. I cannot remember which.), uncle came home crying. When his grandparents found out the actual reason, the angered family stopped the payment of rice that year.

Every summer evening, the village children played in the dried riverbank. A particular favorite was wrestling on the sandy bed. My uncle's arch enemy in these riverside games was Mahesh, the teacher's son. Whether as a result of a hereditary dislike for my uncle, or a village-dweller's (completely natural) hostile response to an outsider, Mahesh hated the sight of my uncle. I'm told the feeling was mutual. My uncle, a mute victim at the hands of the father, naturally tried to vent his frustrations on the son. Constantly at loggerheads, they vied for superiority in the gang.

But Mahesh had one major advantage over uncle in their battle for village supremacy. The deadly, the insurmountable. Kidikki-Pidi.

A wrestling move made with such breathtaking speed that it hits you when you least expect it. The pain involved is terrible. No not just terrible, the kind of pain where you wonder why you were ever born. The kind of pain where your life flashes before your eyes and you wonder whether you should have been kinder to your little sister more often. And there is no human way for you to escape the grip. The only way out of Kidikki-Pidi was if you begged your way out. Beg for forgiveness for your miserable existence and offer undying slavery to Mahesh. If you did not, you might end up dead. Enough said.

"Please daai Mahesh, leave me!!"

The grip got tighter, " 'Daai'? Did you say 'Daai' ?", said the cruel tyrant,

"Mahesh..anna...please. You are the greatest! Stop it!! I am sorry, I beg you!"

If he was in a particularly good mood, Mahesh would let you go after five minutes of such remonstrations. Armed with the Kidikki Pidi, he ruled supreme. Many was a time when uncle was reduced to a teary state of humiliation and pain.

As he looked out of the window in the bus taking him back to to Madurai, uncle prayed for deadly revenge. Through his angry tears, he resolved, "I will beat this Mahesh at his own game. I will learn how to escape from the Kidikki Pidi. I will practise new moves and teach this rascal a proper lesson. We'll see who is who's slave then".

And he lived up to his resolution. Evenings after school were spent wrestling with his friends. Though initially, none of them matched Mahesh for the ferocity of their fights, they quickly learned that if they did not scrap harder, they would get pummelled by uncle. And so the sessions increased in intensity and with each coming day he grew stronger. And ready for the day when he would meet Mahesh face to face. There was a way out of Kidikki Pidi, out of humiliation. Mahesh would be taught a lesson that he would not forget too quickly.

Summer holidays. One April afternoon, my uncle landed in the village. The day of the big game finally arrived. Puffing angrily, he stood in the quiet street outside the teacher's house.

"Mahesh!!", he shouted, "come out. I want to talk to you!!".

But no one answered. "Of course, it was afternoon. They must all be at the riverbed."

As he neared the river, he could hear the distant sounds of play. He could still hear someone yowl with pain "Im sorry Im are the greatest..forgive me..".

Just a few more minutes now. There they were, at it, as usual.

Smiling at the prospect of the long awaited match, he approached the brawling group.

But wait a minute.

"Where's Mahesh?", he ask the exhausted youth, who were lying down after their labours, gasping for breath in the river sands.

No one replied for a moment. And then someone said, "Oh, he died last year, after you left. Didn't your grandmother tell you?"

The rhythmic sounds of the windscreen-wiper in our Ambassador car broke our reverie.