Monday, February 28, 2011
Sunday, February 20, 2011
The Times of India, February 13th 2011
Familiar mnemonic sequences sometimes need updates. For instance, I can remember learning Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge when I was twelve. The initial letters of the words, E,G,B,D,F represent the names of notes on the five lines of the treble clef staff in western musical notation. Alas, however, I got it into my head that Every Good Boy Deserves APPLES, rather than Fudge. Worse yet, since I wasn't a boy, I tried to provide Every Girl (with) Big Delicious Apples. The resulting confusion effectively brought my musical career to a quick and screechy end.
But mnemonic devices have never ceased to fascinate me. Even as I grow more absent-minded with each birthday, my yearning to know the names of the nine Muses or the progression of taxonomic categories in biology becomes ever more intense. Particularly in the middle of the night. There is nothing so dismal as to lie awake at three a.m., with the planets from Mercury to Jupiter spinning around the sun in an orderly fashion, but Pluto, Uranus, Neptune and Saturn milling about in disarray at the outer fringes of the solar system. It doesn't help that their initial letters form the handy, but incorrect, acronym PUNS or that Pluto was de-classified as a planet in 2006. The familiar mnemonic, My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas has had to be altered and the new suggestions are all a bit disturbing. They range from My Very Eccentric Mother Just Served Us Nothing to My Very Evil Mailman Just Showed Up Nude. At three a.m., the last thing you want is to be fretting about pizza-free mothers and evil, naked mailmen.
I used to think VIBGYOR was the accepted mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow. Despite the fact that the colours are reversed and the word is an ungainly earful, I honestly believed this was how the English-speaking world remembered the sequence Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red. So it's a rude shock to discover, via Wikipedia, that it's been Roy G. Biv all along! Not only that but in the UK, the preferred formula is Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. This is hardly useful to those of us who might turn into dangerous colour-blind insomniacs, as we churn about in bed, reciting Richard Of Gere Battling Various Irksome Yokels instead.
Sometimes, the only solution is to find one's own mnemonic. For instance, I have secured the Muses in memory by placing their names in alphabetic sequence. This yields Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania – a very easy-to-recall sequence of CC-EE-MP-TT-U. Needless to say, it works particularly well for me because my initials are MP. Taxonomic categories? Not a problem: Dear Kilroy, Please Come Over For Gay Sex stands for Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. So I was doing okay with the late-night frets until I came across this one: Camels Often Sit Down Carefully. Perhaps Their Joints Creak? Possibly Early Oiling Might Prevent Permanent Rheumatism. It's for the Earth's geological periods: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous and so forth. But its imagery is much too complicated. I get to the Permian, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous without mishap. Then the Paleocene begins and I'm lost in a hopeless tangle of Oily Masseurs and Rheumatoid Perverts.
So when I found a small book called THE ORDER OF THINGS by Barbara Ann Kipfer, I thought I was saved. I kept it by my bedside and slept peacefully for several weeks. Until the night when I happened to glance elsewhere in the book and noticed something terrible: the graphic for silverware shows a cheese knife in place of the fish! My confidence in the book is shattered. Herds of arthritic camels hobble enthusiastically across my pillows once more and the Duke of York eats pizzas every hour. And no, that's not a mnemonic for anything.
OUTLOOK Magazine, February 21st, 2011
When OUTLOOK invited me to write an essay for their Cricket Special, I said, 'Sorry! Don't know a thing about the game. It's like I'm colour-blind, you know? But for cricket.'
'Whoa,' said the man from OUTLOOK. 'You must be a total social pariah, right? So tell us what that's like! Amazing. Seven-fifty words by next week?'
'Wait, but—' I spluttered. Too late. He'd put the phone down.
It's not just cricket: it's sports in general. I get no thrills watching teams of Neanderthals kicking an inflated bladder of polyurethane between goal-posts or muscle-bound viragos in short skirts slamming fluorescent green missiles across a red clay court. In the case of cricket it's one team whacking a shiny red sphere so that the other members of the team can … ummm … well! There we go. I can't even understand the objective of the game. Fellows in white run about. The crowd roars. The score changes. And then one of the fellows in white is once again rubbing the hard red sphere against the sides of his pants in that ominous way, like a bull pawing the ground just before charging.
My explanation for the excitement that surrounds these activities is the R-word: Religion. Yes, it's one of my themes of late. Public art installations, sports, romance – all, in my view, are expressions of religious fervour. Belief in a Higher Power provides an anchor in the Ocean of Doubt. However many children die in your arms, spouses divorce you, lovers betray you, dictators rise and fall, stock markets crash or recover, there is some corner of a playing field that is forever glorious. With victory. With defeat. With valour. With sweat. With passion.
Anything that mimics religion gains by association. You know how the concept of One True Love has been promoted relentlessly as the international gold standard of Romance? Well, I believe it's a cunning extension of monotheism's ever popular One True God concept. Celebrities who stray from monogamous ideals are burnt at the stake of public disapproval while those who remain faithful to one partner all their lives are showered with tributes and giant fan-followings.
Extend this idea to sports and you get a million fans chanting "Sa-CHIN! Sa-CHIN! Sa-CHIN!" and painting their faces with the tri-colour in a close approximation of devotees chanting the Divine Name in a temple and ascetics at the Kumbhamela painting their faces with saffron and white ash. At one time, an interest in sports was considered a distinctly masculine preoccupation, connected to physical prowess and the warrior's ethic. But that's changing, isn't it? Sports has become a subset of religion and religion merged with patriotism long ago. So women, traditionally responsible for maintaining the spiritual core of the home, are bound to make space for these new gods on the altars of their private prayers rooms.
Where does that leave unbelievers like me? Just as you might expect, in a grey and silent space. There are neither the dizzy heights of victory to soar up towards nor the bottomless depths of loss to be shattered by. It's not that I haven't felt the occasional tug of faith. I can remember a night-spend at a friend's house once, years ago, to watch a match on her superior television set. As a teenager I was dragged to a couple of games at Bombay's Brabourne Stadium. And as a child when my father was Ambassador to Thailand the Nawab of Pataudi stayed in our house. The other kids at the Embassy were incandescent with envy, but I'd grown up away from the Motherland. I'd never heard of the famous cricketer and therefore had no idea how lucky I was.
Initiation to any religious faith needs to occur early in a person's life and it's obvious to me now, at 57, that I missed out. I cannot possibly memorize all the crazy terms for instance. What's a mid-off and who says it's silly? Why are there legs before wickets, not whole bodies? Where are the maidens and what are they standing over? As for the ducks, don't they get hit by all those sizzling balls? And who removes the poor things when they die? Is it the night-watchman?
There's just too much to learn and never enough time! In the dibbly-bobbly corridors of uncertainty, with no friendly white-clad gardeners to worship and no bails to lose, unbelievers like me were clean-bowled by destiny a long time ago.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
February 13, 1911 -- February 13, 2011: as this is a special birth date for my father, K. V. Padmanabhan, I thought I'd post a few photographs. We're all sensitive these days about what part of the shared record is made available on-line, so I've confined myself to just these four. The first is of my Dad and me as a baby, most likely taken in Bangalore just before we left for Sweden in 1953-4 (not sure of dates! Will amend when I've checked); the next is of both my parents and me, in Thailand, circa 1965, when I was 12; the next is of Dad with the man he called with great affection and warm reverence, "Panditji" -- I'm guessing it was taken while we were in Karachi, circa 1959-60; the last is of Dad with (not sure what kinds of titles are appropriate so I'm not attempting the name) the King of Thailand, most likely in the first year we were there, 1964.
Friday, February 04, 2011
(2008, English, with subtitles)
Distributed by Magic Lantern Foundation.
If a scream could be recorded, then filmed, then edited so that only the shadow of the pain revealed by that terrible sound might be heard, the result might look a bit like Pankaj Butalia's MANIPUR SONG.
At the time that I began watching the film (at home, on DVD), the amount of practical information I had about the "small northeastern state" of Manipur wouldn't fill one of the dimples on the outer surface of a thimble. I use those quotation marks because it's the kind of description that is routinely used of a "small northeastern state" and it is, whether we want to think of it that way or not, just one of many ways that we discriminate against places that are physically small. And "marginal". After all, however small Manipur may be, if it were located somewhere close to Connaught Place in New Delhi, we would never refer to it in that way.
The movie is not intended to be an educational supplement for people like myself who have not managed, for whatever reasons, to be better informed about their own country. What it does is remind viewers like me that we live in a vacuum of awareness. A reminder that "news" is only the items that get past all the filters that exist between news-consumers and the continuous bleeding of reality from all the pores, gaping wounds and sores and orifices that make up the world we live in.
Through five or six shifts in perspective, scenes from another world appear. Initially, it is a fairly familiar world – it could be anywhere in those "marginal" places, far from the cities – there are ill-made roads, slender young men in uniforms, their faces smoother and more hairless than their counterparts on the plains, their eyes shaped differently into those elongated shapes that we, of the plains, find various derogatory ways of describing: slit eyes, chinky eyes, slanty eyes – and yet, as the film gradually unfolds, I realize it's not familiar at all. Not to me, anyway.
The scenes that stand out for me include:
*The interviews with the young woman dissident called Sharmila – Wikipedia tells me that her full name is Irom Chanu Sharmila – who is even now living in the limbo of detention, a feeding tube threaded through her nose to prevent her from dying of her hunger. She has been on hunger strike since 2000. She was 28 at the time she began and has not let up since then.
*The "naked protest" of Manipuri women, at the gates of the Assam Rifles headquarters.
*The groups of young men, apparently being urged by soldiers to cane one another – all of them looking so similar to one another (I mean, racially similar) except that the soldiers were taller and better-fed, and the actions carried out with so little apparent passion, that it would have been farcical if it were not so pitiful. Toy soldiers, toy dissidents, but the blood, the pain, and the deaths only too real.
*The women drug addicts injecting themselves with the clear liquid that rules their lives so thoroughly, yet so invisibly too. This footage was, I thought, extraordinary exactly because it was presented with no squalor, no drama, no special lighting, no salacious, invasive, prurient commentary. It was the extreme domesticity of these scenes that gave them depth. We might have been watching a wild-life film in which a syringe is readied for use on a wild animal, to subdue it. And as that thought appears in my head, I realize that it IS what's happening and that these young women, from their quiet lives in distant villages, ARE being anesthetized, subdued and put to sleep, by forces out of their control.
*The school girls at the end, the sweet simplicity of their nursery rhymes and their soft, defenseless faces contrasted against the implacably jagged background of the whole rest of the film.
I realize, seeing this film, that all unknowingly, I've been aware of Irom Chanu Sharmila – because over the course of several years, I've noticed the face of a woman, stenciled in blue, that has appeared here and there on walls around the city. It is a small stencil, but draws attention to itself easily – perhaps because the face, with its pouting mouth and its narrowed eyes, the brows slanted in a permanent frown appears not angry so much as fierce – perhaps because it is positioned on white walls and looks freshly painted. All the time.
There is so much more that might be said, but – just as in the film, with its curious restraint, its silences despite the song referred to in its name – to use violent language, to scream, to lash out, or in any way to lose composure would be besides the point. What we see has little to do with having reactions or registering emotions. The film is that smallest and saddest of things: a tiny but dignified, well-made and carefully crafted gravestone for a culture, a people, a protest, and a movement. A gravestone made even while the culture, the people, the protest and the movement are still alive and still breathing.