Monday, August 18, 2014

Music. And kids. - Part 3

(Continued from Part 2. Part 1 here.)

The reason most kids enjoy taking classes for a skill or a sport more than they enjoy school is because the rewards are quicker. Education seems pointless to most kids because it involves a great deal of effort for 10-12 years but does not seem to produce anything more substantial than smiling parents during that time. Winning a match or giving a good performance in front of people (even if they are just your neighbours) gives a sense of achievement.The problem for Carnatic music, of course, is that it is as much of a long-term penance as school education. With 6 months of cricket coaching, one would start playing small matches. With 6 months on an instrument like the guitar, one can play "Nenjukulle" when family friends visit. In comparison, Carnatic music is an anti-climax. In 6 months, one learns multiple combinations of SaRiGaMaPaDaNiSa on different scales and some geethams, which sadly do not even qualify as thukkadas in concerts. Any Tambrahm kid can tell you there is no applause for singing "Sree gananaadha".. in fact, the visiting maami/maama is bound to interrupt you during the anupallavi and ask their eldest son to sing a good pancharatna keerthanai preluded by a solid alapanai.

Oh, that reminds me. Most maamis/maamas would not condescend to making corrections in a film song. (In fact, I know some who would not even listen to light devotional music- "Too populist, I say"). But no self-respecting musical Tambrahm would desist the from making the most minute corrections in the Carnatic song a kid is singing. This, even if their own voices are no longer functional or they have forgotten most of the song and/or they have lost touch. The younger the kid, the more emphatic the corrections. I remember protesting to someone once with a feeble "But this is how our paatu miss taught us" and was snapped back with a stern "Unga paatu missku onnume theriyaadu". Of course, I was smart enough not to repeat that statement anywhere around said paatu miss.

Anyway, the point is that rewards are slow with Carnatic music, however sure they may be. And more often than not, a kid is bound to meet more obstacles than encouragement on the way. It should be no surprise then that many kids switch over to learning guitar/keyboard after 6 months of Carnatic. And might I add, thoroughly enjoy it. Of course, there is a "coolness" factor associated with the guitar, and new age tambrahm parents don't necessarily frown upon playing "kanda kanda cinema paatu". But that doesn't discount the fact that Carnatic music is, by design, complicated and more of a marathon than a sprint. 

Interestingly, that is precisely what makes it both beautiful and enjoyable. The inherent complexity, the structured approach to music theory and the strong emphasis on basic training makes Carnatic a pretty formidable tool in the hands of a good teacher. (Cutting the fancy MBA style sentence out, I just meant to say that I believe even donkeys can be trained to sing well with this disciplined an approach!) While some part of that journey requires innate talent, a lot of it is just grit.

Which means that there is a lot to gain from redesigning the incentive system of Carnatic music. Like most dieters and marathon trainers would say, focus on small wins. Music teachers sometimes teach small bhajans in the first year of training, but often they are too small/light for the kid to feel a sense of achievement. The key is to strike the balance between overstraining the voice (a serious debate among opera trainers that I won't talk about today) and oversimplifying songs. 
The other aspect to the "wins" is that adults around should encourage the learning process instead of using the opportunity to prove their own virtuosity. It might also do some good for teachers to admit that Carnatic music learning is a structured long-term effort and to reiterate that the rewards are at the end of the tunnel somewhere.     

As for the fidgety 5 year old kid who thought it was a chore to learn music, her parents persisted and encouraged her long enough for her to continue learning. But more than that, strangely (and somewhat luckily), something deep within her appreciated the beauty of the intricately interwoven swaras and made her stick to it till the end :)

Unga paatu missku onnume theriyaadu- Your music teacher does not know anything!
kanda kanda cinema paatu- random(?) song from a movie. The "random" has a mild negative tone here. 

P.S: During the entire series, I have not talked about kids who actually did the fancy neravals :P Partly because their story was too obvious to discuss. But mostly because I believe that a few success stories do not imply that a system cannot be improved.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Music. And kids. - Part 2

(I know it's been a while since I put up part 1. As usual, couldn't find the time to edit Part 2.  By the way, this piece became too long and spilled over to a Part 3.. Knowing my great sense of punctuality, I hope to put that up before these musical kids become adults ;) :P )

When I was 5 (and probably for most of my school life), everyone around me hated math. Sadly, I loved it, or worse, was in love with it. By the way, notice I didn't talk about aptitude. I used to think I was good at math until I talked to a real mathematician in grad school and truly understood the phrase "it's greek to me"! Anyway, this star-crossed love for math often put me in a bad spot on friend-group-hierarchies, but more importantly, it surprised my kid-brain a great deal. Here was a subject that needed minimal studying/memorizing effort once you got the idea and I dared not tell reveal this to any soul in school because they seemed to share a singular hatred for it. Of course I hadn't heard of "Damnant quod non intellegunt" at that time.
Like that proverb effectively states, the reason people hated math (and the reason I didn't care too much about music classes) was fear.

In one of my first few music classes (I changed teachers quite a bit, partly because my family moves around every few years), the teacher just opened the contraption called shruti box and said "What shruthi should I keep? 5?" For all you know, I might have thought shruthi (scale) was another synonym for age. As any nice Indian kid was taught to, I politely agreed. Nobody actually told me what an octave was, what pitch meant and how it was different from loudness/volume until we studied high school physics. I know some of these sound too basic to be explained. And they are basic, but not to a 5-year old. And of course, a few years later, I was taking way more advanced lessons and it was too late to ask what pitch meant.

You might argue that Carnatic music, like most traditional Indian arts is taught by the ear- you hang around for sometime and you learn to identify when you are singing out of scale. Fair point. In fact, I even think that music teachers expecting kids to pick up stuff on their own is fine if they would also encourage questions just in case. Did I just say questions? I was in the heart of conservative India.. who am I kidding? Obviously, if you do not know something (even when you are 5) and dare to ask, the teacher would scornfully announce you are not only too stupid , but also too impolite. Lest you think I am exaggerating, one of my music teachers actually lamented to us about how "kids these days" come to music class without even knowing what "mela kartha" means. You can imagine a 5-year old mustering the courage and pointing out to her that it was part of her duties as a teacher to spread that light of knowledge...

Wait.. you say.. that's just a lot of regular Indian-education ranting. After all, if all you wanted to say was that there is no freedom to ask questions in India and people use your lack of knowledge (or your thirst for it) as their own power, why bring up Carnatic music?

And yes, you are right. All of that applies as much to math as to music. But there is more to this tale that might apply to math but is mostly particular to Carnatic music...

(To be completed..)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

7 years. and counting.

Before I say anything else, the part 2 of Music and Kids will be published later this week. Sorry for not publishing earlier, I fell sick sometime last month, plus got very busy.

Now that that's out of the way.

It's exactly 7 years since I started this blog. 7 years. Seems like a long time. It is, when you realize that the iPhone had only been released a week before, Instagram was non-existent, the US had never had a non-white President until then, and the last Harry Potter book had not yet been published.

To some extent, I don't even remember what I used to be like when I started this blog- I know I started on a whim because I liked the date (you  know, for a sense of symmetry- 7/7/7). I remember typing from a Pentium 4 (our first desktop) and I intended the blog mostly for poetry (and feminism, but I never got around to writing much feminism). Clearly, things didn't happen as planned :D

I was mostly using what was then called SMS-language, something that I now think is a way of butchering English. (Talk about growing old, huh!) I used to mostly write on paper first (and later MS word), partly because I felt my thoughts would flow better on paper, but mostly because the internet was both slow and expensive- every minute was to be taken seriously.  My topics and style tended to be serious as well- I wanted to treat the blog as a medium of social change (something that never happened, and of course, an idea usurped by Twitter, which was barely a year old then, by the way).

Anyway, while I am still not as regular with posting, I have enjoyed every bit of it. To be honest, when I started I did not have much of an idea of what I was getting into. The blog was mostly a way for me to write in an eco-friendly manner. Given that I wanted to write more serious and socially-relevant material, I did not expect to have many readers. I did not know what SEO was, and social media was an infant (I did not even have an orkut account at the time, and orkut will be gone in a month!), so I wasn't trying to publicize actively. But slowly, I got more readers, mostly friends, but some from outside as well.

I have since realized that writing is not an individual process. Yes, the idea is created in the writer's head (especially with fiction), but the very act of writing involves a reader, if only an imaginary one. With each comment I have received, I have felt more motivated to write. And I like to believe my writing has become better in the process.
So, thank YOU.

Actually, let me repeat that for emphasis. Thank YOU.
For commenting, for liking these posts on facebook, for making me a better writer and a better person in so many ways. 

But mainly, for reading. 
Thank you for keeping that magical connection between a writer and a reader alive...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Music. And kids.

If I have not mentioned it a million times by now, let me mention once more- I am into music a lot. Any kind (depends on my whim that day), but my close-to-default option is Carnatic. It's probably because I am always able to find one raga or other to suit my mood-of-the-day and Carnatic music has almost never failed me. However, as a kid (and sometimes as an adult) I really think I have failed Carnatic music.

In fact, for a long time, the only thing I wanted to ask fate (if it was a person and it appeared before me like Brahma in Sunday morning mythological dramas) was why I failed Carnatic music. One half of me thinks that I should have put in more effort at it as a kid (I know I tried my best not to). The other half thinks that the effort may not have helped anyway. While I can sing enough to keep an audience entertained (or enough to satisfy golu-keeping, you-must-sing-before-I-give-u-sundal type maamis), I cannot jazz it up- no fancy neravals or manodharmams. No sangathis that land back into the charanam with panache. Hell, I can barely sing a thyagaraja krithi without him turning in his grave, or should I say cursing me from the heavens, and I can identify a shankarabharanam or a sahana with little more than 50% accuracy. After all those years of training, it is disappointing I tell you...
Anyway, I continued to be bothered by the fact that I didn't pay enough attention to the kaishiki nishadas* and chatushruthi rishabas that my different music teachers were talking about. Why, I would ask myself- why?

Of course the omniscient deity of the digital age (Google) gave me the answer today. (Actually YouTube, but still.) There was a recommended video of a paatu class where a middle-aged looking maami was teaching kids some geetham. The kids were probably 5-6 years old and the teacher was going on "Kids. Today we will learn ... geetham. This is set in ... ragam and ... thalam. The arohanam is ... and the avarohanam is .. this is the 65th mela kartha .. blah de blah" I guess the kids were pretending to listen because they had been told they were videotaped. One girl sitting in the front (short hair with an immensely cute hairclip, but I digress) was very obediently repeating the swaram after the teacher, but her expression gave her away- she was looking around like the stereotypical deer trying to escape from a lion's cave. And then I remembered.

At 5 (or 6), when I first started taking music classes, it was a chore (also rhymes with 'bore', but about that later). It was time taken away from hide-and-seek and the feel of the wind while playing on the swing. Music classes would usually be around 5 or 6 pm- prime playing time. In fact, you could hear the laughing kids from downstairs while the few of us unfortunate ones would be going "D S S D P M P.." So whenever the teacher started saying things that I knew she would never ask us about again, I would start dreaming about whether my friends were playing lock-and-key or not, how soon my mom would come to pick me up and if the girl (from a story book) who lost her red ribbon would actually find it or not. This list of things included most of music theory, because while teachers mentioned the mela kartha classification often enough, they wouldn't care as long as what you sang sounded close enough to the song you were singing (which is good in a way).

Music classes also came with the one question I dreaded the most (and had I known then, would have thought was worse than asking a PhD student about his/her thesis)- "Did you practice the last lesson?" Almost every teacher would start the class with that, and I would choose between saying yes (to mean I had sung at least once at home that week because my father made me) or yes (to mean I had really wanted to, but I was busy playing, and I will definitely practice the next time). Of course, as I grew up, I also learned the power of a positive no - it saved me from lying and the teacher wouldn't mind if I made mistakes, though she would definitely get into lecture-mode on how "practice is important and you should take music seriously" (something I learned to nod at- a skill very useful in the corporate world. As I always say, Tambrahms train their kids early for these things.)

Anyway, that brings me to the real trouble... 

(To be contd.. Scheherazade style :P)

Sundal- type of South-Indian dish made with chickpeas/beans
Krithi- composition
Maami- Tambrahm lady
*I really like the word Kaishiki. Its not as old-sounding as Koushiki, and has just the hint of Kaikeyi to make it interesting. If I were a Tamil politician asked to name somebody's daughter, I would name her that :P

Friday, May 30, 2014

The journal entry (a short story)

"29th May 2014

I spent the last five minutes trying to start this entry with one of my epigrams. But all I can think of is - I am 86 now. Well, I presume I can be lax and not keep up my "witty and profound style" in my journal entries. I am not deluded into thinking nobody will read this- I am certain somebody will find this 5 years from now and put it up on Twitter for all those silly people to read. Yes, I said silly. I doubt that ten years from now writers would have the courage to call their readers that. I doubt they can do it now, but at least there are a few Shaw fans still around so there is hope. Anyway, I think I can be lax because I choose to be, whether anyone ever reads this or not.

Getting back to business. Today was like any other day in the last 4 years since I lost my hearing. I went through my regular morning ablutions and breakfast and then sat at my writing table for an hour with a book review that I hope to send out tomorrow. Somehow, my writing seems to have mellowed with me, so it takes me much longer to write words that count. Not that it matters in this day. When any buffoon (I am actually thinking baboon here) with a phone camera is able to make it to a few hours of fame like a firefly, it seems moot to even to attempt to write meaningfully.

No, I am not a sour, grumpy, old man in general. I know have had my good days- getting out alive after a World War was a biggie (notice how I keep my language updated. Mr.Dickinson at grammar school would have considered that a sacrilege, but I am the adapting kind. Yes, I am no grumpy old man!), then there was the Pulitzer and more recently the Peace Prize nomination. I am sure I would have got that last one if they had not decided to give it to a politician before he did anything at all. Lest you think I care- I don't. Knowing you shall be one with the mud in a few years leaves little room for desire. When I was younger, I used to want people to think great things about me "after I am gone". Maybe I imagined that I would be watching from the heavens or something. It seems preposterous because it's obvious to me now that if I am not around to notice, how can I give a damn what people think about me.

I have had my bad days too. Death of a spouse, paralysis of one leg and so forth. But I don't want to drag this entry down with the weight of useless immutable sorrow.

I only have one desire. Something that shall not come true, but a desire nevertheless. I wish I had died a century ago. There would have been a quiet ceremony with just a few people that mattered. Of course, there would still be that neighbor Mr.Jones jumping around my grave trying to look like he was my closest friend and like he actually understood me. But at least it would have been just one person like that. The rest of the congregation would know I desire quiet and would leave me alone.
You see, all I desire now is to go quietly. I don't care if nobody understands my work, as long as the ones that don't, remain silent. I don't even care if nobody notices - I could be that tree that fell in the forest for all I care.

But as I said, that is not going to be. Millions of people are going to tweet away their "RIP"s- the ones that had never known me the loudest to proclaim the sorrow at my loss. There will be the auctions next, where men with wads of cash and vain old ladies with inheritance but poor eyesight would want to spend millions on my first published work and my first typewriter. To be honest, I'd rather someone just burn up all of my personal belongings or donate it to someone poor. That auction money could definitely be used better. A fan who wants to own my pen probably never understood that I never thought it was about the person. If someone understood my ideas, what do I care if they did not even know my name. 
Oh well, I assume I will have to put a clause in my will against the auctions one of these days, if I find it worth the effort to make one at all.

But they won't stop with the auctions. There will be the stupid blogposts- what Tamajong's work meant for racial equality, why Tamajong's loss is too big for mankind, and so on. Then the life portraits- "Tamajong moved into the US at a time of great strife", "He shall remain a beacon of hope for millions to come" etc. If I had any life left in me at that point, the din of insincerity would finish me off.

Actually, I don't mind what people would say about me half as much as what they would do to my writing. I do not want those memes with my quotes (and quotes of people I completely disagreed with) on them. And I definitely do not want people sharing a piece of my novel with "This story will make you cry and change your soul forever" (Notice how I started this sentence with "And". Mr.Dickinson is turning in his grave now!). I do not want the commentaries and the throwing around of my name at dinner parties where hosts try hard to impress upon their guests the idea that they are elite and well-read. In fact, I wish I didn't even have a name.

And if someone owns my first published article and think it is to be treasured, what d
" (the handwriting trails off here)

Detailed above is the text of Peter Tamajong's last journal entry. This page shall be auctioned on Sunday the 21st of June at the African-American Writers' Museum; the auction is open for the public. The offered price is 2 million USD but the bids are expected to go up to 10 million.
Peter Tamajong, considered one of the most remarkable writers of the 21st century and certainly one of the most influential, passed away on the 29th of May while writing his last journal entry. This newspaper joins the millions of fans in praying his soul rests in peace.

(Also see Page 4: Interview of Toni Morrison on Tamajong's demise,
Page 5: Fans assemble at the Tamajong house in LA for last tribute
and Special Supplement on Peter Tamajong: One small word for a writer, one giant leap for mankind)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Going back to the routine of posts based on stuff I read- here is something I read today: Why some people might be bad at understanding irony.

If this were an SOP, I would have started with "I have always been fascinated by Irony (and sarcasm)", but since it is not... oh wait, I just did. Anyway, let's just say that unlike the hyperbole, irony is my device of choice. Except that sometimes people don't get it. I remember one time in high school when I had to write a goodbye note to someone I particularly despised (I believe the feeling was mutual, but given the way we were all smiles on the surface, it is hard to tell..). I filled the note with cloyingly sweet compliments in the hope that anyone who read it would know that I really meant the opposite. To me, it was obvious that I couldn't have meant it at all , especially because I use to be much more parsimonious with compliments then, and I was very proud of my handiwork. To my disappointment, only about 2 people who read the note really got it! (I don't regret that anymore. Sometimes it is safer not to have people understand the exact meaning of your words, but I digress. )

Of course, later in life I realized that the best way to combat sarcasm (which is closely related) is to pretend not to understand it.* Unfortunately that knowledge is of no use to me because I simply cannot not get sarcasm/irony - it is one of those things that is hard to 'un-see' once you see it.

Anyway, it turns out that a good number of people don't get irony because it is more complicated than regular speech. I feel this should have been obvious if I ever gave it a little thought- understanding irony requires the brain to perform the additional step of noticing that the literal meaning of the sentence uttered is in fact untrue (while regular speech requires you only to understand what is being uttered). Obviously, this means that people with sociopsychological problems would find it harder to understand it.

The amazing thing about the link I read is that it actually shows how some ironic statements are better understood than others. Basically, some ironic statements are used so often that the brain processes them just like it processes regular sentences i.e. at the same speed. I find that kind of optimization in a system amazing, really!

Anyway, that brings me to the sentence I really began this post for (I should warn you that it is not great, just something too tempting for me to let go without posting :P )- It's ironic that a statement meant to be ironic is still processed like a regular statement, even when you know it is ironic! It almost defeats the purpose of making the sentence ironic.

Thankfully, there are enough new ironic sentences you could make that the brain hasn't had a chance to learn yet.. So there is still hope, folks! :P
*By the way, I am sure there is a comic strip about not-understanding-sarcasm being the best way to handle it, but I am not quite able to find the strip :(

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Day ?

I just figured there is no point tracking the days anymore.. I wanted to do a post at least every other day, but that seems close to impossible now. It's funny how activities fill out time on their own, like a vacuum.

Two weeks ago, I had so much work and was still able to slip in an hour of reading and an episode of House everyday (yes, I am watching House NOW! That's how quick I am with watching series), not to mention the occasional 2 mile run. The first few days after my project deadlines dissolved I was close to restless because I suddenly has so much time in my hands. And then I did what I often did at Georgia Tech (and almost always regretted later!)- signed up for too many activities (courses, in the case of Gatech). Catching up with friends I haven't met in a while, finishing books movies and the like, app/game developing experiments, scripting experiments at work, blog challenge and then trying to get back to a regular running and cooking schedule. The bad part is that only about half of these actually happen, and now I find myself busier than I was 2 weeks ago- haven't touched my Kindle in 3 days, haven't logged on to Netflix in almost a week, and haven't run in more than a week. 

It is so ironical and yet, this has always happened to me. (Maybe this is one of my other fatal flaws). My worst semester in Georgia Tech was not one where I was trying to finish my degree requirements, but the one where I thought I had a lot of time left and signed up for more courses than ever. Admittedly, that is also the semester I enjoyed (and value) the most from my time at Tech- but if you had stopped me any time during those 5 months I would have said I was one inch away from giving up and running away from Atlanta.

Anyway, in light of the fact that I am trying to do too much with my time now, I am just going to go back to irregular posting... Sorry about that.. (But as I said on the description page, this usually means my life is getting more interesting, so maybe it's a good thing after all....)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Day 4- Kerala and women

(PW: This article is about women and abuse. Contains some adult material.)

It all started when many of my friends shared this post. It kept popping in my timeline and I kept avoiding it but then this morning it came up in a different conversation and I read it. It brought back so many memories. Mostly not good ones.

I lived in Kerala for 4 years. It is not a long time- I have lived in the US for 2 and a half already. But the difference is I lived in Kerala in those crucial years of adolescence, when one learns a lot of new things about themselves and the world, when a child has his/her first harsh clash with adulthood. For the most part, I have very positive memories of Kerala (if it were not cliched, I'd have called them green memories). Beautiful place, stunning after the rains, sweet sing-song language, etc. Our school was among the most conservative, but I didn't mind it all that much. So until this morning, when anyone asked me about Kerala, I had nothing but praise to say (it's my dream retirement place btw. It is so beautiful I'd love to go there when I want to relax and appreciate the beauty of nature, and would actually have the time to do it.) It is amazing that I had forgotten.

I had forgotten the extensive chauvinism that pervaded every inch of existence there. Now don't take me wrong, I am not saying that Chennai is by any standards less conservative or more feminist. But maybe it's because I talk about Chennai often, or maybe because the details blur in time, but it all came rushing back as I read the post. And the surprising part was not the reality I remembered, it was the fact that I had forgotten.

I find that amazing because I have not forgotten most of the details of my Kerala stay. From the streets to the junctions to the faces of the innumerable people I knew there to individual events and experiences- most of it is still fresh in my memory. However, it seems that when something is out of sight for a while, one tends to forget the nastier details in light of the overall good effect the place had. 

Now you might wonder- what could I have possibly forgotten or left unnoticed? Why did I mention chauvinism in relation to a place known for 100% literacy, high education rates among women, and especially known as traditionally "matriarchial"?*

Let's get to some details.. (all based on personal experiences, so the usual statistical issues of small sample set, etc. might apply)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Day 3- On Enid Blyton, the extended transferred epithet and religion

If I had to name just one person I spent most of my childhood with, that would be Enid Blyton. I remember spending whole summer months letting myself get sucked into her world- with flying cars and pixies and adventure lurking at every turn. In the early years I even wondered how it would be if all my toys came out at night and had little fights or skated on soap.

Anyway, there was one story (one of my favorites) about a boy who sees an enchanted book at a store. The book opens from both ends- each tells a different story. Both stories are about the boy's own life and what his future would be like. On one story, he makes his choices based on ambition- spends more time at his business, is often cruel etc. On the other- his choices are based on family and love, and though he doesn't make too much money, he is content.

As a kid reading the story, it was obvious which side to pick- the kind side. But you see, that's the problem with the stories kids are told. They have not one inch of the gray that fills real life, or to use the cliched phrase, they are too black and white. Anyway, that's not the point for today.

The thing I really want to highlight is how authors tend to bunch qualities together. In this story, for instance, the boy (when he grew up, that is) would not only spend too much time at business, but would also be mean to his customers and get angry all the time. Then the reader's mind would almost automatically associate the making money with the other "bad" qualities of being cruel, when in fact it is possible for a man to make money and still be a good person.
In contrast, if you pick a story like "Atlas Shrugged", there are the people who make money and sound cruel but are actually kinder through their actions. But there, Ayn Rand also has some fictional associations- like the fact that the smart people are all blunt, arrogant AND successful, while the villains are all not just evil and people-pandering but quite stupid; or the fact that all the "good" people speak the same kind of language and anyone who uses any amount of subtlety in their speech is some sort of conniving villain.

I see this as a very interesting literary device. It is very close to the transferred epithet in the sense that the effect (or our judgement) of one quality is actually transferred on to others. Which is why I want to call it the extended transferred epithet. But the reason it is interesting is because it is also very very powerful.

Take these verses, for instance..

"But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."

"Know that a king who heeds not the rules (of the law), who is an atheist, who is rapacious, who does not protect his subjects (but) devours (i.e. mistreats) them, will sink low (after death)"

The first is from the Bible (Revelation 21:8) and the second is from a translation of the Manusmrithi (Ch8, Topic17, Verse309).

In both cases, a set of negative characteristics are combined with the "faithless" and the "atheists". Of course, with most religions "faithless" is bad enough to warrant prosecution- it is often considered evil by definition. But the subtle propaganda that lets religions persist, especially in the age of technology and information, exists in these places- in stories where the villains are evil AND non-believers, where the books proclaim that the faithless are also always immoral (conveniently skipping over the faithless moral human being). Religions are not only full of these; they are so prevalent that most people tend to actually believe them (like believing all faithless people are also immoral). Which is why I said it is a very powerful device.

Anyway, let me finish off today by saying that I think the extended transferred epithet is a beautiful literary device. It is convenient and powerful. But that's precisely why one should be wary of it.

P.S: There may be a real name for this literary device. I tried looking for it but couldn't find it. So I came up with my own name for it instead! :P

Monday, April 28, 2014

Day 2- The flaw

You might wonder why I skipped the last five days. Well, that's what today's post is going to be about.

In Shakespearean tragedies, the main character often has one major flaw. In some ways the entire plot is about how that flaw affects the character at different points in his life, ultimately leading to his death (thus leading to the term 'fatal flaw'). When I used to read Shakespeare in school, I often wondered why the character was never able to overcome his fatal flaw- it was so obvious to me that all his problems were a result of this flaw, that I thought it should have been obvious to him (aka the character) too.*

As I grew up, I realized that flaws do not work that way. The flaw is a flaw often because it is so much part of the person's personality that he does not even notice it or because he is not able to overcome it even if he wants to. I do not want to get into the discussion of whether this means the flaws are innate or not; just that often they are close to insurmountable. Then, as an intelligent (or reasoning) individual, it becomes our duty to look for such flaws within ourselves. Of course, this is easier said than done. The true flaws are the ones that are bound to hide beneath layers of purported reason, and usually ones we would hate to admit.

So the reason I am writing all this today is because I realized that my fundamental flaw is "losing interest after starting". 

Let me explain. I am usually passionate about new ideas, new activities, and definitely new challenges. However, at a point where the challenge seems workable, or I can see a "path to success", it ceases to become interesting to me. That does not mean that I never finish anything I start, just that often it is out of necessity or a sense of habit or commitment than out of an interest equal in magnitude to what I had when I started. Now this stuff has been obvious to me for a while now, but somehow I did not see it as my "one big flaw". However, once I started thinking about the number of things I have started but lost interest in, it became pretty obvious to me that if I were in a Shakespearean tragedy, lit students would be discussing how "losing interest quickly" led to my demise, and then would silently wonder why I did not see it myself :D

Anyhow, now that I have realized it, I have decided to basically "eat the frog" for every thing I take up. This one month challenge included. And that means, I will try to actually finish this challenge successfully :)

*Reminds me of a recent "Flash boys" quote- "When something becomes obvious to you, you begin to think that somebody else must have already thought of this."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Day 1- Confessions of a born grammar snob

I am an almost-a-grammar-snob. I'm not half as annoyed by bad pronunciation or poor vocabulary as by bad grammar.  You see, I am in love with grammar (mostly English, but where my knowledge is sufficient, Tamil/Hindi as well). I love the fact that sentences should be written in a particular way to make sense and writing them differently would change the meaning. I love all the rules that go into that process and can spend hours (in reality just minutes, but that doesn't quite have the same effect as saying 'hours'!) debating a minor grammar point.  
However, I do not usually try to correct people's grammar unless I know them really well. Not to say that bad grammar doesn't irk me (it drives me up the wall really), but I don't want to come across as picky or rude. And sometimes, I think it is just pointless. It is part of my general "let them be" philosophy.

Anyway, one of these days when I was talking to someone, I ended up making this statement- "The most beautiful thing about language is how it evolves. We look at 'Sense and sensibility' and think one thing, when in fact Austen meant to say 'Sense and sensitivity', which sounds completely different to us." (Reminds me of my watching the old Fountainhead). 
Notice I said 'evolves'. That is one beautiful word. It is like a river that takes things in as it flows- forever accepting and rejecting, and yet growing with time. It is not just 'grows' or 'changes', but 'evolves'. Slowly. Beautifully. Almost imperceptibly. 

And then I caught myself. Am I not contradicting myself here? How could language evolve if everybody followed the existing rules? Where would the change come from?
For sometime, I thought I had just been a prude (or an elitist) with double standards. You know, the kind that thinks- "When Shakespeare does it, it's the language 'evolving', but when some regular Indian IT support guy does it, it's murdering the language and hacking its limbs." But then again, that's not true either. I often try to draw a line between colloquial language usage and grammatical errors. To me, "prepone" is ok. "Can able to" is not. "Lol" is ok, but the infamous "entry from backside only" is not. I justify it to myself as- 'as long as the meaning is retained, it's ok'. So maybe I am not that bad a snob after all. 

But wait, maybe I am. After all, this line I draw, like most lines people draw, is arbitrary. And subjective. Why should "lol" be ok when "can able to" is not? "Can able to" may be ungrammatical but most people can understand it if used in a sentence. So why should I frown? And what people in one region or country might understand is completely different from what the rest of the world would.  I am definitely being a bad snob there.
Maybe it is just one of those instinctive things. Something I am conditioned to for too long to give up even if I think I should.

Anyway, in sum, that discussion made me realize I should be less reproachful of people with  bad grammar. And the funny thing is that, apparently, I summed the sentiment up pretty well in a poem I wrote when I was in high school- "Is not every 'wrong' note the beginning of a new song?"  

P.S: I have been avoiding writing for a while- mostly because I was busy and writing seemed to be a luxury that I could not afford. (Aside, I did in fact waste a lot of time watching meaningless TV, but maybe writing takes more effort than that.) Anyway, now that I have some time upon my hands again, I am thinking of going back to the one post a day routine. It takes a lot of time, but maybe it's worth it.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The point of no return

That space beyond the shadows,
that pause between sentences,
that gasp of hastened breath,
that electric silence...

leading to that point beyond the horizon,

to that minute that screams passion,
to that gentle caress of breeze,
to that musical warmth...

inching inevitably towards a point of no return.

We struggle hard against this vortex,

yet the more we pull out, the more we are sucked in-
and we only hope we will return unscathed.

But deep inside, indeed we know-

tomorrow shall dawn, and the world will laugh at our carcasses-
we who thought we could defy the point of no return,
and had to watch as it slowly consumed us.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


(I keep mentioning the beauty of words on this blog- and I usually mean individual words, not grammatically correct or complete sentences- but somehow I never explained what I meant by that. So wanted to show what I mean with a small experiment- a slightly unusual but not particularly new form of poetry!)

Eyes closed. Turbulent music. Your face.
Evening walk. Slow drizzle. That unsaid word.
Driving to work. Cacophonous roads. Brushing accidentally against your skin.
Smell of sea. Cold wet feet in the sand. Husky voice.

You engrossed. Focused eyes. Breathtaking.
Innocently joking. Playful twinkle. Inflamed.
You lifting. That single muscle flexing. Weak.
Fleeting sideways look. A half-smile. Surrender.

First ray of sun. Your success. The intoxicated revelry.
Rushing to celebrate. Her. Losing myself in the shadows.
Wilted flower on the footpath. Your loss. The ruthless silence.
Reaching to comfort you. Holding back. Guilt.

Gray skies. My dreams. Minutes. Days. Years.
Consumed. Love. Addicted. You. Eternity.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The man of many words

When I started out this blog, I wanted it not to be personal at all. I meant to write more about "ideas" than "emotions"; thoughts more than feelings. Of course, as time went by, a few personal posts crept in surreptitiously, but that was more inadvertent than intentional. Today, however, I want to make an exception and write about someone who had an almost life-changing influence on me. I want to make the exception for 3 reasons- first, like Wynand says "All love is making exception." and I loved this person too much. But more importantly, I might argue he is one of the biggest reasons this blog exists. In fact, he is the single most important reason I write (and read as much as I do).
Knowing him to be the simple man that he was, for some time I wondered if it would be appropriate to write about him (initially it sounded a little exhibitionist to me). But I decided to go ahead and make the exception because I always remember him as a wizard with words, as the man who introduced me to the magic of language, and it seems fitting that I use words as a tribute to him now.

The person I refer to here is my thaatha (grandfather, in Tamil, and I speak of my maternal grandfather here.) He passed away yesterday at the age of 96 (in 3 months he would have been 97).
He was a writer and an editor, who participated in India's struggle for independence, and in general a great person who, I like to believe, lived a full life. I do not want to go into the details of his achievements, partly because this article gives a good summary, but more because I feel they do not convey the real "him". (As I mentioned to some of my friends, reading that article only made me feel the way Harry Potter felt at Dumbledore's funeral. I hear the great phrases people use to describe him, but I can only remember the simple jokes he cracked even when he was terribly sick and bedridden. And like Harry does, every time I look at a book or correct a typo, I will remember him.)
Arguably, the real "anyone" is a notion each of us has based on "our" interactions with the person,  and is ironically subjective! So, let me rephrase and say I just want to write about what "I" knew of him, with no concern of whether it is indeed the truest report of reality, whatever that might mean.

My first few memories of life definitely include my thaatha picking out books for me to read. Starting with cartoon books for children and then the Oz series (he owned the entire collection), to O.Henry and "The twenty seventh wife" (a book about the origins of Mormonism and the last one he gave me)- half the books I ever read were recommended by him. Saying he was a voracious reader is like saying Stephen Hawking is a Physics PhD! He continued to ask me about what I was reading every single time I met him (except the last, when he was very sick and unable to talk much), and if it was something he hadn't read yet- a very rare occurrence- he would ask me what it was about and how good it was. His thirst for knowledge and books, even at the age of 95, leaves me mind-blown.

I remember his meticulousness and sense of organization- from the way he would cover books and write "From R.A.P. thaatha to Suchithra" on them before gifting them, to the way he kept his table in complete order even in his 90's- something I clearly did not inherit! I also remember his perfectionism taking a different form- that of the perennial editor- even when he was sick, he would correct typos on the books he was reading. He had also been the first person to criticize my writing- teaching me how a few words could express the same thing as many, but much better. Not just concise, but precise. His choice of words would be exactly that- something that I find awe-inspiring given that he never went to college and was the epitome of the self-made man!
And when a four line poem I sent to a children's magazine got published, the smile on his face spoke pages about the joy he felt- not just concise, but precise. In fact, every time I showed him something I wrote that got published somewhere, however small, he would highlight it and bookmark it- making the little girl feel like the best writer in the world.

If others had not told me about his work, I would probably have thought of him as "a simple Bharathiar researcher" tap-tapping away at his typewriter (which I was completely fascinated by!). I can only guess he took pride in his work, because I have never seen him exhibit anything but the utmost humility. In one of his last interviews to a Tamil magazine (a year ago), when asked if he thought his work had received the recognition it deserved, he just said "We did not work for recognition then. The work I did was its own reward and what I did was nothing in the face of the sacrifices so many great men before us have made". While it might sound cliched to someone who did not know him, to me it only reiterates the self-effacing modesty that glowed in him. I know it was genuine, because amidst all that he told me when I was a kid, he never spoke of himself unless specifically asked. Once, during a time in high school when I was reading a lot of Advaita, I saw him reading something on Vishishtadvaita and asked him what he thought about that branch of philosophy. With his usual unassuming manner, he just said "These are works of geniuses and what I know is so little I cannot dare to comment on it yet!" (Though many of the Advaita texts are very abstruse, he actually had extensive knowledge in that area- just that he would always be extremely humble about it!)

He did tell me a lot of other things though- anecdotes, jokes about the US in the 40's, and many lovely stories which he would narrate with so much animation that a kid could not but listen. I wish I had recorded them then- they would make wonderful bedtime tales for generations to come.
These were not just the routine ones from mythology or fairy tale books- there were some peculiar stories which I never heard anywhere else! Then there were the times we saw Snow-white on the "view-master" a kind-of stereoscope from previous decades, and the time he gave me a set of star charts and instruments to identify constellations with (thus sowing seeds for the eternal star-gazer in me!). He also had a bunch of sing-along routines, and little games- things we shall fondly remember him by.

But more than any of this, the connection I felt with him was in letters. Words. Books. It was to some extent an unspoken connection- he would simply talk about how good a book was when he saw me reading it or give me one when I entered his room. It is hard to explain the depth of kinship two people can feel by reading a great piece of literature- but I can tell this bond went beyond blood or genes, forged by the melody of ink and the smell of paper. I shall remember him with every book I pick from a store, with every line of poetry I appreciate, because this was not the bond with a man who gave a fish, but with a man who taught me to fish instead.

In fact, even when I felt the utmost sorrow at his loss, I could hear him say I should learn from this as well- that every event is but an opportunity to learn and inch closer to perfection. And so, even though I am consumed by the love that only a starry-eyed granddaughter can harbor for her dearest grandparent, I bid him a goodbye trying not to regret all that I forgot to ask him, all that I forgot to say, but trying to remember all that I should learn from his life; for he was more than just a grandparent to me- he was one of my first best friends. And ever one of my best teachers.

I will sorely miss you thaatha; and though I have tried my best, I cannot find the words to express completely what I feel right now... So let me just promise you I will try to ensure that the values you lived and taught shall live on...

R.I.P. R.A.P.!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I did not find this interesting till I reached the question this girl asks at the end. It sends chills down your spine.

Remember the good old times when people used to post content on the net without telling you what to think about it? Me neither.
What, why are you still looking at me like I am 80 years old just because I asked that question? I admit I am a little old-fashioned sometimes. Not old really. Ah well, there WAS a part of my life with no internet, but let's pretend I didn't just say that, and move on.

You have seen this on buzzfeed. And cracked. And distractify. And upworthy. And of course, facebook- the mother of all social nonsense. There is usually a video with the link showing a very beautiful woman or an unbelievably scary (heart-wrenching. I said heart-wrenching) photo of someone dying. And the link reads something like this: "Listen till 0:40. I promise you that moment will change your life forever."  
I see it and usually go "Dude. Do you know what I have gone through in my life? Do you even know what life-'changing' means? I don't count Dawkins as life-changing, though in fact reading Dawkins has influenced me a great deal." 

And hearing a kid talk about donations or seeing photos of people who look vaguely similar (not even exactly the same) is life-changing?! (Minor technicality: I actually like that kid, though I disagree with him. What I don't like are the adjectives they use to describe him. Like in the picture above. With 4 consecutive sentences that finish in 'ever'! And I don't even want to start on the "danciest dance breakdown". Dancy is NOT an adjective. And is the last name of a very good looking actor. Seriously, who hires these writers? :-/ )

Or you see a link like this one:.  

As if it was a day-to-day occurrence for a man to hug a wild lion. Wait, did you say wild lion? As opposed to what? Your neighbour's pet lion?
Besides, I was one of those who believed in unicorns along with Agnes. How do YOU know I won't believe what happens next in your "wild" lion video? To tell you the truth, I think people have changed the rules of grammar by now. The "you won't believe what happens next" is an alternative for the period (aka full-stop) in modern day punctuation.
Anyway. You might wonder why this kinda thing even affects me. The internet has so much junk anyway. You see, the problem is that it is not just facebook that is filled with the I-have-a-lame-article/link-but-I-should-make-you-click-on-it-so-let-me-use-hyperbole-to-say-it's-awesome brigade. Every website you visit is filled with an army of lamer-than-Ravi-Shastri adjectives making it very hard to find decent content online.

First of all, I don't like being told what to think of something before being told the thing. What do humans have brains with frontal lobes for- to copy-paste your opinion?

Second is, of course, the army-of-adjectives. An article titled "20 touching dog gifs" tells the reader what to expect. But "40 best dog gifs of all time which will make you cry for your lost childhood?" That's just crap. Did someone say hyperbole? Good you mentioned.
See I don't hate hyperbole. It is not my device of choice, but it's good sometimes. (Like with Ogden Nash. Or Oatmeal. And no, I don't know why both my examples start with an 'O'.) However, when everyone insists on using the superlative form of adjectives for everything, you kinda go like this:

Oh, and before I am done. What's with all these lists? In the last month alone, people shared all the following links on my fb- '19 reasons why long distance relationships are better than you think', 'Why your long distance relationship is totally worth it', 'What a long distance relationship feels like' and '12 steps to surviving one'. For sometime, I thought it is like the long-distance month or something. Or maybe they ran out of topics. And what's worse? All of them from buzzfeed.


A list is a beautiful writing device. Organize your content, list them in points and hit the nail. I used to love lists in articles because it makes the content much easier to remember. But when a list of 40 is made by rephrasing the same sentence 40 times, and then that is copied into 4 different articles- well, it is killing the list. In fact, these days, I simply refuse to read lists.

Pre-deciding the opinion, hyperbole, lists... well, enough ranting for the day. And if you were wondering, The India Hangover -Part 2 is on its way.


What? The question? No, there is no question in the end. That was obviously a hook. You knew it. Of course, I could have been kind and made up a lame question. Or I could have called this article "41 reasons why the internet should stop making lists like this one", and then made 41 points out of 1 or 2 and numbered them from 1 to 41. But you see they are the most inane techniques ever. They are so air-headed you could fill a million Helium balloons with them. Wait, did I mention the hyperbole? The most-overused and worst device EVER?