Singing roads

Recently our esteemed blogger Raji posted a note on the musical happenings abounding in Chennai. Wistfully thinking of partaking in all those and desirous of seeing the spring event 'Thyagarajostava' some day, I recalled a newspaper report some months ago about singing roads. Yes, you did not read wrong, singing roads.

Now imagine you living by the roadside and a car speeds through and you hear refrains of say ‘enthoru mahaanu bhavulu’…how would that sound? Well that is roughly what this is all about. Specially constructed roads that emit musical tones as cars speed through.

The first of the musical roads in California was installed by Honda in Lancaster. When Honda cars went over it, it would hum the ‘William Tell’ or Lone Ranger Overture. The idea was to have it as a marketing campaign. I do not know if it was done for a limited time or if the locals have gone crazy with the tune after some months of hearing it. Japan who started the concept has a few melody roads and South Korea has one that plays ‘Mary had a little lamb’.

Basically what they do is put rumble strips with special spacing (narrower the strip – higher the pitch) so that you get different pitches. The interesting part is that it is designed for specific cars. In the case of the Lancaster road, it was designed for a Honda Civic’s tires and based on an average speed of 55mph. If you questioned what happened when other cars drove through it, the answer is you got other noises, which may or may not resemble a tune. Thus it became a nice Honda campaign targeted at users of the Civic, the young crowd.

The idea caught on, it is now filmed and popular on youtube, some people even tried other ideas like driving backward to see what happens (answer = vague noises like the devil singing). Lots of visitors drove by to experience the tunes and some residents have started going bonkers. Tourism to Lancaster increased. Now the city mayor is considering having various jingles on the road and charging companies for the advertising ‘roads’. Good idea actually - now that taxes have come down due to reduced house prices. Here is the Lancaster road experience..

How did it come about? Well, it started in Japan really - According to the Guardian: “the system was the brainchild of Shizuo Shinoda, who accidentally scraped some markings into a road with a bulldozer before driving over them and realizing that they helped to produce a variety of tones.” Spluch adds - With 68 percent of highway accidents in Korea caused by inattentive, sleeping or speeding drivers, the Korean Highway Corp., as well as the Hokkaido Industrial Research Institute in Japan, came up with the idea of musical road surfaces to keep motorists entertained but also to reduce their speed and help them stay alert.

Here is a link to the details of the Melody road in Japan – and another. Those interested in the Youtube video check this out.

If you want to hear it all in the words of the Honda Engineers, check out ‘The Civic project’ on Youtube. There are many more of related videos on the youtube, so check around and enjoy.
Of course the only problem would be hearing ‘enthopru mahaanu bhavulu’ the whole year around and at all times. I am sure that even if it sounded like Maharajapuram Santhanam or Dr Balamurali Krishna, it would be a little too much on your nerves…But I think a good idea would be to have Gayathri manthara or Suprabhatam instead.The gayathri manthra tune has come out as ring tones anyway.

Other articles
LA Times and another detailed one.
Pic from LA times article - thanks


The legend of Vavar

One of the first things that strike you as you start to understand religion, especially in Kerala, and when you start out as a Kanni Ayappan on that glorious trek to Sabarimala (now that is an experience by itself, do the whole thing including the trek from Pampa via Erumayur) is the strange anomaly, you first visit a mosque to seek good wishes from a departed Muslim soul called Vavar. You are told by the senior swami in the troupe (the guy who has planted one or more coconut trees at Sabarimala) that Vavar Swami, a great friend of Ayappan is entombed at that location. Later on as you grow older, you marvel at the occasion where there is no religious enmity and where all religions are allowed to participate in this pilgrimage, and they continue to do so, in the millions every year, men, children and older women alike. The myth like the Cheraman Perumal myth lingers on.

As it is done, you start the Peta Thullal session near the mosque and move on to the other activities…but that is not the topic for today. The question is who is Vavar? A very difficult question to answer, that is if you do not know a bit about the Lord himself in this case, Ayappan, Hariharan or Manikantan. Even if you knew the background, the answer would not be clear. And for that reason it will forever remain a myth or a legend, and as many agree, a well accepted and satisfying legend.

Lord Ayappan in this context has two facets, the historic one related to the Kingdom of Pandalam and the mythical one. In the mythical one, he is born to Shiva and Mohini (Mohini is the form of a seductress assumed by Vishnu) and departs to Earth to destroy the Mahishaura. He is found near the river Pampa by the Pandalam king Rajashekara Pandya with a bell around his neck and hence called Manikantan. The king adopts him.

In the historical sense, the story is simplified - AYYAPPAN know as AYYAN who belonged to the Vellalar Kulam, was the army chief of the Pandalam royal family. He lived with his uncle Perisseri Pillai of Erumeli, Kottayam dist, Kerala. This was about ten generations ago. The Royal family of a Pandya king had migrated from Tamilnadu about 800 years back. The King reconstructed the destroyed Sastha temple at Sabarimala with the help of Ayyan a local lad, Vavar, a Muslim youth from Kanjirappally, Kadutha, a Nair youth from Muzhukeer (Chenganoor, Alapuzha dist). Ayyan was instrumental in the defeat of Udayanan, who attacked Sabarimala and tried to demolish the ancient Sastha temple in the thick forest. During this clash, Ayyappan got killed. His uncle, Perissery Pillai, constructed the ‘Kochampalam’ - an old Sastha temple - at Erumeli, opposite the Vavar Mosque, constructed by Muslims in memory of Vavar. In the age old "Elavarsevampattu" it was clearly mentioned that Ayyan belonged to "Vellalar kulam, Near Erumeli, Kottayam (There still exists a vellala house called Puthenveedu in Erumely). In the same compound there is a 300 year old, thatched, depleted, mud house, the house of Perissery Pillai, Ayyappan's uncle and the Vellal Chieftain of Erumeli.

During his adulthood, Ayyan destroys the asura, and comes across a sea pirate who was creating a lot of trouble in the neighborhood. They have a huge fight and soon realize that both are equally endowed. They stop the fight and become fast friends (some stories say Vavar defeated the Lord) with Vavar thereby assuming an advisory role. In other myths, Vavar came to Ayappa’s rescue during the fight with the demon. The friendship between Ayyappa and Vavar was extremely strong and reminiscent of the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna. At one point in the telling of the legend, Ayyappa tells his father: “Consider Vavar as myself.”

Looking at Vavar there is one thing that is definite, that he was a Muslim. Then there is the fact that there still exists his clan, 15th descendants in line (some of the Vettiplackal Kudumbayogam families living in Alapuzha district claim to be the 14th or 15th line of descendants of Vavarswami), now at Erumeli. They are the ones who do the rites at the mosque and the Vavar temple. This could mean that he was a converted person, or an Arab trader or an Arab Saint who came to spread the teachings of Mohammed. Let us look at some of the oft stated stories

He was a Muslim saint who migrated from Arabia to India to spread Islam, His name is the corruption of the name Hazrath Vawar Baba. Others suggest that he was an Arab warrior who reached the shore of Kerala as a pirate in a ship to loot and plunder. During his encounter with Lord Ayyappan, he was defeated and subdued. Another legend is that Muslim invader Vavar and his army attacked the king of Pandalam, Ayyappan’s foster parent, and Ayappan was sent to defend Pandalam. After a fierce battle, Ayyappan overcame Vavar and later both became great friends. That this tale has connections to trade between Arabia and Malabar is clear from the fact that the offering to Vavar is always Green pepper and rose water. If you recall, the Malabar pepper era existed between historic times and as late as 1800AD. The descendants of Vavar are believed to be Vaidyas practicing the Unani (Greek) system of medicine. They were believed to be Brahmins who had later converted to Islam.

However, there is another interesting story relating to Vavar. According to this reference, Vavar originally belonged to Pandya Desam near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The myth says that the Vavar family migrated to Travancore during an attack from Thirumalainaicken, a minister of the Pandya kingdom. According to the Pandalam palace website the scattered Pandya royals re-united in the year 1174 AD. Considering that the earthly sojourn of Manikanta was 12 years, Manikanta should have lived with the Pandalam royal family between 1162 and 1174 AD. Did he do all this before the age of 12??

Some say that the name Vavar evolved from the Barami name babar. As you may recall bahrami traders were active in the ocean trade. This name came to be pronounced in the Venad region as Vavar. Yet another claim is that this Vavar is said to have been a Buddhist saint called Dwapara, which became Dawapr – Babar.

Another legend puts it as follows - Vavar was born in Takrittan Tottam, perhaps ancient Syria or Southern Turkey. His father was one Ali Kutty who married Pattumma (Fatima). During Vavar’s childhood, a terrible famine ravaged his country. Paddy crops failed though Millet and wheat were available in abundance. As an intelligent boy, he became an authority in all branches of studies including the art of archery, fencing and even ship-building. He received lessons in black magic too, which helped him very much in his later life which was full of adventures. He was known as Vavar, the lame-footed, as his legs were slightly bent even at the time of his birth. When he grew up he expressed his desire to go abroad a ship which he managed to build himself, and the parents, though reluctant gave him their permission.Vavar's adventurous career commences with his voyage in the Arabian Sea.

Gathering a few faithful friends who were equally well versed in the art of fencing and archery, he manned his boat towards the land of pepper and other precious condiments. It is said that he landed first at Kayamkulam, a coastal country in Kerala, then an independent principality ruled by a petty king. Vavar and his men, when they landed at Kayamkulam, were looked upon by the natives as sea pirates, and they got scared. In fact, Vavar's intention was only to make some adventurous expeditions, exploring new countries, exploiting the rich to help the poor and the needy. The king of Kayamkulam sought the help of the King of Pandalam who deputed the prince Manikantan to face the sea pirate. An encounter took place between Vavar and the prince. They fought for three days continuously. None were victorious. Mutually realizing the greatness of each other, the two opponents stopped their fight and were united in a friendly embrace. Thenceforth both Ayyappan and Vavar behaved like brothers. Even today the pilgrims to Sabarimala shrine make their offerings first to Vavar, the Muslim saint and then to Ayyappa.

Even today, a Muslim priest performs the rituals at the shrine dedicated Vavar. There is no distinguishable idol, but just a carved stone slab symbolizing the deity of Vavar. A green silk cloth is hung across walls, and an old sword is kept near the wall, perhaps to symbolize Vavar was a great warrior. The main offering at this shrine is green pepper; a befitting tribute to a heritage of pepper trade. Other offering include rose water, sandalwood paste, coconut and ghee. Pilgrims donate money in the donation box and some of the pilgrims bring goats as sacrifice. This is I understand due to a belief that the pilgrims accompanied by goats could reach the Sannidhanam safely..

Lockwoods trip to Sabarimala

Abraham, Ashu and the Genizah

What a strange name for a story, would be the first thought in a reader’s mind. A Malayali seeing this would balk, because he can imagine the complex undertaking straightway. I thought for a long time if I should make this a dry & factual article and decided against it, after all, others have done that already to this story, so I decided to focus more on the individuals in the story. Well, this story, my friends, will take you back to the Malabar between 1130 and 1150 and into the lives of an unlikely couple, Abraham Yiju and Ashu Nair.

Most people would not like to dwell too much on the environment and conditions around life in those days, but prosperous life and honest trade did exist at that time. It was a time before the Portuguese onslaught, a time of the powerful Zamorins, a time when many traders and expatriates from Europe lived on the shores of the Malabar. Syrian Jews lived in Cochin, Arabic Jews were all around, like our man Yiju, and the Bombay ports had Iraqi Jews and wealthy Parsees. The Malabar trade otherwise termed as the Karimi trade was in full swing.

This story deals with a Tunisian Jewish trader Abraham Ben Yiju, while he was based in Mangalore. The girl was a Nair called Ashu, though history books call her Ashu. I can, as a Malayali, be reasonably sure that Ashu was more an endearment and that Asha (means ‘wish’) was her real name. The story is set in Tulunad, near Mangalore.

It was an excellent book by Stewart Gordon called ‘When Asia Was the world’ that tipped me to this particular story. As you read about Yiju’s travails in the book you can see that this story had a deep impact on that author. However the strict historian Gordon did not in my mind do justice to a possible story within the story, which would have been about the relationship. He covered the historic trade angles and connections and so I decided to check out the background. It then turned out to be a story that had once fascinated the writer Amitav Ghosh to obsessively study Arabic & Hebrew and research the various characters at Oxford. Amitav Ghosh then penned his findings in an essay titled the ‘The Slave of MS.H.6’ (later featured in his book ‘The Imam and the Indian’) many years ago followed by a semi fictional historic work titled ‘In an Antique land” which I finished reading some months ago. This fascinating book deals with his own research and life in Egypt and touching on the story of Yiju, written in a style that is unique…Do read it if you can…

But first, a few words on how the story came out into the open after some 800 years. As we all know, Indians, especially South Indians, even with some knowledge of a better known (in those times, at least among the literary Brahmin classes) language Sanskrit, never bothered to properly document and record what happened around them, at least between the 8th to 18th centuries. Even the Granthavari’s written for local kings, related mainly to accounts and temple matters, not and observation of life around them. That work was left to the few mystified Western travelers, officials and traders who unfortunately exaggerated or twisted facts most of the time.

The main protagonist of this story, Abraham (Ibrahim) Peraya Ben Yiju wrote and received a number of (some 40-80 letters) letters to his trading partners in Egypt and Aden and these were stuffed by his daughter, after Yiju’s death, into what were known as Geniza’s located at a particular Synagogue (Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat)at Cairo for eventual disposal (A Geniza or Genizah is an enclosed area within a synagogue where all papers containing the name of God are deposited for eventual burial). Fortunately they were not destroyed and the fascinating collection of 250,000 paper fragments have been collected and are still being sorted and studied by eminent historians since the turn of the 20th century. In the many thousands of documents it was relatively easy to track Yiju’s story by his fine & unique calligraphic handwriting.

So we go to the times (1130-1132) of the roaring spice trade, to the port (referred to by the Arabic word – Bandar, to Manjarur) of Mangalore where Jewish Abraham bin Perahya Ben Yiju started up the local office of master trader Madmun’s business after fleeing Cairo following (apparently) a blood feud. Yiju was a merchant from the Tunisian town of Al Mahdiyya, and was well known for his wealth and calligraphy skills. Working as a scribe with legal issues, he wrote and collected poetry, in addition to conducting trade of Iron, brass items, silk, pottery, betel nuts and various spices. Mangalore in Tulunad, at that time was prosperous and full or Arab traders, both Islamic and Jewish. The Tulu regions were populated with a number of Banias, Chetiars, Bunts and of course Nair’s, as the local people and suppliers of spices and other items for trade. Yiju himself was assisted by a Sesu chetty, a Nambiar and a Nair (Ashu’s brother, perhaps), in business dealings as was typical in Malabar. Walking around in fine clothes, he was a dapper businessman, charming the local populace, who by the way, and in Yiju’s own opinion, were mostly naked but for a ‘bandage’ round their loins (the Malabari dhothi), men & women alike.

During his 17 plus years in Mangalore (It was as explained previously, known as Manjrur), he continued his prosperous relationship with the Aden based chief trader Madmun Ibn Bandar, the most powerful of them all. (Aden was the principal trading post for Malabar and it is in Aden that Cain and Abel are supposedly buried!). Trade then was based very much on trust as communication was slow and in the form of letters carried in ships, some lost. These were the letters that eventually landed up in the Geniza. As they were letters of business communications, the personal life was only obliquely evident. It also transpires that Yiju started a brass works in addition to trade offices, where they repaired old brass lamps, locks and fixtures.

It was around Oct 17th 1132, that Yiju met Ashu and his next actions were perplexing and annoying to the other Jewish traders, to say the least. He promptly freed her (Goitein’s impressions) for she was some kind of a ‘wasifa’ servant or slave (instead of making her his consort, he drew a deed of manumission with Ashu) and lived with her the entire two decades he was in Mangalore, begetting children, one named Surur and a daughter Sitt Al Dar (another son died early). His personal demands to his trading partners at Aden included Kohl, silk carpets, jewelry and other expensive items for Ashu. Yiju’s life moved on smoothly till 1149.

Ashu, was a Nair woman from Cannanore or some other part of North Kerala like Balipatanam, and considered to be a beauty (SD Goitein). Here again there is confusion. While some historian’s say that Ashu was renamed Berakhah, Stewart & Ghosh believed Barakah was the name of Yiju’s sister in Tunisia. There are hints in the letters that a monetary debt to Ashu’s brother may have forced the marriage, but the union nevertheless proved to be a happy one. Ghosh also believes that Yiju was at times irritated by the special Nair family ties and the strong relations Ashu had with her matrilineal family

Herein lay more confusion. Yiju had a choice of a number of Jewish women in Cochin and other trading ports, why did he choose Hindu Ashu and remain with her? Was it because Cochin Jewish women were of Syrian origin? More likely, he fell in love with Ashu. It is unlikely that a person lived with a woman for 11 years and had three children by her if they did not love each other. Ghosh himself concludes thus – If I hesitate to call it love, it is only because the documents offer no certain proof.

Abraham Yiju left Mangalore with his children in 1149 when the Norman Conquest resulted in chaos around Tunisia and his siblings in Tunisia were in mortal danger. He was also determined to find a proper suitor for his daughter, planning to marry her off to any eligible son of his brothers. Ashu, sadly, remained in Mangalore (Stewart however believes she went to Egypt).

Yiju’s son Surur died a few years later, aged 20, but his daughter Sitt al dar survived and Yiju himself moved to Yemen. Later Yiju went back to Egypt to marry her off in style. His attempts to find a proper Jewish suitor from his own family turned out to be an arduous task as her mother (as we know now) was not a pure Jew. Kenneth Seeskin in his book ‘The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides’ confirms that Yiju did have legal problems (probably because the children were termed ‘black’ Jews – Judeus Pretos)with his marriage to Ashu and that the learned Moses Mamonide’s helped solve many of them after they got back to Egypt. Finally, after a lot of turmoil and search, Yiju decided to get her married to his elder brother’s son Perahya though he was not too happy with the boy’s stature and tried to delay the marriage further. The marriage finally took place after his death (this somehow conflicts Ghosh’s view that the marriage took place when Yiju was alive), on Aug 11th, 1156.

Curiously the boy Parahya did make a good name for himself in the Egyptian Jewish community and became a judge. Here again the story takes an interesting turn. Perahya wanted to return to Sicily but Yiju’s daughter (you can divine Ashu’s strong Nair character here!!) refused to accompany him and so Perahya settled down in Alexandria. To settle this dispute a case was lodged and the wife won the suit (Shulamit Reif – Cambridge Genizah collections).

Thus finally, Ashu’s daughter’s final action of thrusting all her father’s letters into the Geniza, instead of destroying it, made us all the richer, providing us with a detailed view of life in Aden, Egypt and Malabar of the 12th century….

And what happened to Ben Yiju after Sitt Al Daar’s marriage? Nobody knows for sure. Ghosh (as well as Stewart) believes that he could have returned to Ashu in Mangalore for the one reason that there exists no death certificate in the Egyptian Jewish records of that period.

Well, the story does not end there. A group researching how the gene mtDNA-haplogroup D landed up in European Jews, opine that such a group could have come to Europe via Ashu or her daughter who came with Yiju!! But that is yet another topic.

Footnotes –You can (I believe) see the deed of manumission (Deed of freeing from authority or slavery) between Ben Yiju and Ashu at the Institute of the Peoples of Asia at Leningrad. No other ‘marriage’ certificate has remained intact for so long a time, in history.

My belief was that this deed was made by Yiju for the only purpose of making the Yiju offspring legal in their Jewish community back home and ensuring legal succession (Yiju was a wealthy man). I am not sure about Nair slaves (consider also that Ashu was not thrown out of home or lost caste- as she had a fruitful relationship with her family all the time) at that time or that Ashu would have wanted such a manumission document. Ghosh in his book the ‘Imam and the Indian’ Page 220 concurs with this since the event was celebrated with fanfare, the document (like today’s wedding card!)was more a public announcement of the betrothal and legality than an act of manumission.

The deed starts with the usual proclamations supporting the lord (Quoted from SD Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society – Vol 2, Community) (The translation is by Goitein though I believe that the words Mangalore and Tunisia did not exist in 1132)

In the city of Mangalore, the royal city which is situated on the great sea and which is under the jurisdiction of our Lord Daniel, the great prince, the head of the great Diaspora, of all Israel, the son of our Lord Hisday, the great prince……

Some of my notes are fertile speculation as Yiju did not quite explain his personal relationship with Ashu and novelist Amitav Ghosh was the first to really tie them up (after historian SD Goitein’s discovery), but nevertheless, it is based on a small amount of documented fact. Ghosh’s research was actually to identify a slave called Bomma, a Hindu associate of Yiju, otherwise known in history to scholars as the mystic slave MS H.6, referred to in the Geniza fragments.

Point to ponder

In Hebrew, Nair means candle. So how would Yiju have written Nair to signify Ashu’s caste? Yiju btw may have meant Yago which in North Africa & Spain signified Jacob.

Seeskin states on page 53 of ‘The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides’ that Ashu was renamed ‘Berakah’ daughter of Abraham. Now did he mean Sitt Al Daar the daughter or Ashu?

Most documents I referred to mention Yiju’s brass workshop located at Manjarur. History buff’s like CKR feel the factory could have been at Naduvarambu (near Muziris). It could very well have been so though the Genizah documents have still not shed much light on this aspect.

How Padma Sri Award winner Amitav Ghosh researched the story
SD Goitein – The man who started it all with the transcripts
A window into Jewish Medieval life
relevant books

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection
The Jews in Sicily book 1, 383-1300, by Shlomo Simonsohn

Picture – Actual fragment of Ben Yiju’s writing from the Penn Arts and Sciences website, thanks

Cross Posted in Historic Alleys

Edit - Asha has been replaced with Ashu - Asha is a relatively new term, so I will stick to what the records show

The magical tongue

The human tongue is fascinating to say the least. Without it you cannot taste, you cannot talk or sing, you cannot feel the temperature of what you are ingesting and you cannot do inane things like touching your nose, picking teeth or checking if they are there, affixing stamps and closing envelopes, whistling for fun or calling attention….Ever wondered why people lick a wound? All animals do so, humans also do it. Some years back, I read something about it, but promptly forgot, even though I would automatically lick a finger that got cut or burnt. It could very well be an evolutionary aspect and have a scientific base…but that is my hypothesis of course

Peter Aldhous of New Scientist explains in his article - Our mouths are full of potentially dangerous fungi and bacteria. Yet even when we bite our tongues, the wounds rarely become infected. Now American researchers have explained why our mouths are so resistant to infection. Whenever a mammal's tongue is damaged, they say, the wounded tissues respond by making large quantities of a natural antiseptic….Several of the substances had antimicrobial effects, but Schonwetter's team decided to concentrate on the most abundant, a chemical they called lingual antimicrobial peptide (LAP). Another detailed NY Times article where Lawrence Altman adds - Because human tongues and cow tongues are similar, the human tongue may have an antibiotic defense mechanism similar to the cow tongue antibiotic, a short protein known as a peptide, said Dr. Michael A. Zasloff, the head of the team from the Magainin Research Institute. The most abundant peptide the team found was one they called L.A.P, for lingual antimicrobial peptide. L.A.P.'s structure resembles other beta defensins that other scientists have found in the respiratory passageway of cows, the white blood cells that fight infection, and in the Paneth cells in the lining of the human small intestine. A technical paper on the subject for those interested.

LAP codes are covered by US patent 5656738 issued to Schonwetter & Zasloff – It explains - Despite is constant exposure to microbials, invasive infections of the tongue rarely ensue even when abrasions occur on the tongue's surface. In investigating the infection resistance property of the mammalian tongue, a novel antibacterial and antifungal peptide was isolated from the extracts of bovine tongue epithelial tissue. LAP has broad spectrum antimicrobial activity against Gram-negative bacteria, Gram-positive bacterial and fungal pathogens. The peptide may also have antiviral activity.

Why did Indian and Chinese doctors check your tongue (at least they did in my younger days)? It's amazing that your tongue can actually mirror your health. The condition of your tongue can help a doctor determine your overall state of health and often give them valuable diagnostic clues without resorting to expensive tests or invasive procedures. A detailed explanation on the diagnoses can be found on MSN here. Dr Chitambaram’s explanation basis can be read in this article.

Tongue cleaning was always practiced in India, but is not so popular in Western countries. Now it is catching on and the old ‘Irkili’ has given way to metallic tongue cleaners ( I had a tough time explaining it to airport security once) then the plastic cleaner strips and now the ring type…Newer brushes have a rough coating on one side to scrape tongues!! What does that do? By removing the soft plaque from the tongue dorsum (especially the anaerobic, posterior areas), you are removing most of the bacteria and other debris that are the primary source of gaseous volatile-sulfur compounds (halitosis), hard plaque (tartar) and mineral leaching acids (tooth decay). If you wanted to know the relationship between oral bacteria and heart disease, take a look at an earlier blog of mine.

And all this brought a question to my mind – why did Albert Einstein stick out his tongue in this ever popular photograph? The Einstein website explains

It was taken on Einstein’s 72nd birthday in Princeton on March 14, 1951 by a press photographer. The original picture shows Einstein sitting on the backseat of a car between Dr Frank Aydelotte, the former head of the Institute for Advanced Study, and his wife. Albert Einstein and the Aydelottes were just returning from an event which had taken place in honour of Einstein. Einstein was, though already sitting in the car, still bullied by reporters and photographers. They didn’t let him be and he is said to have shouted: "That’s enough, that’s enough!" However, these words didn’t hinder the photographers from taking some more pictures of Einstein and his companions. And when he still was asked to pose for a birthday picture he really grew tired of the journalists and the photographers and as encouraging words didn’t help any more, he stuck out his tongue to his "prosecutors". One of the photographers pressed the button of his camera in just this moment. Einstein liked the picture very much. He cut it into shape so only he can still be seen. Then he had made several copies of it and sent the thus "manipulated" picture as a greeting card to friends later on.

Here is a great snippet on the tongue by David Wright – The tongue has a bone connected to it!! This is the hyoid or lingual bone, a "horse-shoe shaped" bone in the tongue responsible for its movement. It is connected to the tips of what is known as the styloid processes of the temporal bones via styloid ligaments and despite this is the only bone in the human body that is not articulated by another bone. It is interesting to note that this bone is not found in our closest relatives (i.e. chimps and apes); however is seen in Neanderthal man and so, since this bone is of great use in speech suggests that Neanderthal man employed at least some form of speech. This is often the bone that when fractured can indicate that a victim has been strangled and so is of great importance in murder inquiries

Tongue picture from

George Orwell & India

For Orwell book fans, this small blog is not about his great writings, but about the person himself and his relationship with India.

How many of you know that Eric Arthur Blair a.k.a. George Orwell - that brilliant writer who wrote moody books like Animal farm and 1984 was born in India and always had a fond corner in his mind for India? He was born in 1903 at Motihari (a place now in Bihar and famous for the giant Buddha statue – and the place where Gandhi first practiced Satyagraha!) in Bengal. But alas, today, Motihari has a dubious distinction; it is the kidnapping capital of Bihar where people are abducted even for 20 flashlight batteries!!

Well as the story goes, Orwell’s father who was heading the Opium department (the buyer for the Brit government) insisted on farmers planting Opium in the fields during certain seasons. The farmers hated it as it spoilt the soil and invited MK Gandhi, fresh from South Africa to champion their cause…and that was the origin of Satyagraha and the Orwellian connection to British rule and ‘quit India’!!

Orwell’s house in Motihari still exists. It has recently been given a makeover and a museum is planned. You cannot buy Orwell's books in Motihari" but then, you cannot buy many books in Motihari. A very nice article from the telegraph details the story..

Motihari is way off the tourist trail at the moment. Only the most diehard Orwell fans ever make it to the town. It is 19 hours by train from Delhi, or a five-hour drive from Patna, the nearest city of any size. The most expensive hotel in town costs pounds 4 a night "and there is no air conditioning.

After schooling at Eaton and working in Burma for the Imperial police force (The Indian Imperial police force rejected his application due to his socialist leanings and advice from Churchill in UK), Orwell became a propaganda talk host (for want of a job as it seems) at the BBC’s Eastern service working to garner support from the Asian community for the Allies. Noting that very few Indians listened to him and feeling that working on his novels as well as for The Tribune is probably better, he left. The rest is history…but I will jot in here some trivia that many would not have read of.

In 1935 Sir Harcourt Butler, the Lt. Governor of Oudh brought the capital back to Lucknow and with it came the newspaper ‘The Pioneer’ which is more than 120 years old. The Pioneer has the distinction of having two Nobel Prize winners writing for it, Sir Winston Churchill then corporal and Rudyard Kipling. Orwell, Michael Sheldon in his biography tells us was going to be appointed the editor of the Pioneer but Sir Winston, then Prime Minister, put a stop to it. He did not want Her Majesty's Indian subject’s heads filled with socialistic claptrap. And so Pioneer lost the best editor it never had.

How & why Orwell joined the BBC is a very interesting story. It was due to Goebbels and Subash Chandra Bose!!!

Goebbals had learned the lessons of the First World War, which was commonly believed to have been won not by greater military strength, but by superior propaganda. In particular, he lost no time in beaming powerful anti-British propaganda towards India from a radio station in Berlin called Azad Hind (Free India). In this he was assisted by the presence of Subhas Chandra Bose, an imprisoned Congress politician who had escaped and arrived in Germany in January 1941.
Individuals in India demanded that the BBC do something in reply to German radio propaganda, but the authorities were slow to react. When they finally did decide to set up a specific Indian section of the Eastern Service, in the spring of 1941, it was run by Sir Malcolm Darling and Zulfaquar Ali Bokhari, who introduced an uninspiring program of weekly news bulletins, with music and comedy shows borrowed from the Home Service and the odd cultural program thrown in. This insipid diet drew the wrath of Kingsley Martin whose editorial in the New Statesman of July 5, 1941 denounced the bumbling inefficiency of the Ministry of Information generally and the poor show of the Indian program on the BBC in particular. His protest was rewarded by immediate effect: at the MoI Duff Cooper was replaced by Brendan Bracken, and George Orwell was recruited to breathe new life into the Indian Service of the BBC.

At the BBC, Orwell was friendly with Mulk Raj Anand. Orwell originally thought that Gandhi was a British puppet but later changed his ideas.

Jay Dubhasi had written a very interesting article on Orwell. Orwell replies Jay on visiting India - I asked him whether he was still keen to visit India. “Oh, yes” he said, “Don’t forget that I am an Indian and was born there.” Well he never did!!

When Nehru first visited Krishna Menon at the India League, he wanted to meet Orwell, Krishna Menon searched without success for Orwell, unfortunately he had moved. Actually Orwell was unwell and hospitalized with lung ailments. Some years later he succumbed to TB.

I have been trying hard to find an essay Orwell wrote on Krishna Menon, It is simply untraceable. Anybody who has it may kindly mail me a copy.

Mumbai - The aftermath

Too much written, too little said, too much chatter, too little matter. Two faces from the crowd, two faces from the many saviors of the day.

The man in the line of fire, Look at the him and his smile, the humility writ on his face, he is the one who gets little recognition, the one who is under all the pressure, the one whose life is on the line..

And the Policeman in Khaki, One of the underequipped, underpaid, and one of the ridiculed lot - See his expression – a parent's understanding, with an undercurrent of grim anger and sadness .

In the aftermath - With the people they live for..

No other photographs can say it better…Mumbai, we cry with you...

Thanks to the unknown photographers who posted these photos….


Somali pirates and the Indian Navy

Many years ago, the architect of India naval strategy, eminent historian and reluctant diplomat KM Panikkar said: "A navy is not meant for the defense of the coast. The coast has to be defended from the land. The objective of the navy is to secure the control of an area of the sea, thus preventing enemy ships from approaching the coast or interfering with trade and commerce and conversely after securing the control to blockade the enemy’s coast and destroy his shipping. The Indian navy, whether it be large or small, must learn this lesson. Its purpose is to protect the seas and not the land and if it cannot protect the seas vital to India’s defense, then it is better not to have navy at all”. He further argued that “while to other countries the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is a vital sea. Her lifelines are concentrated in that area, her freedom is dependent on the freedom of that water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth; no stable political structure is possible for her unless her shores are protected.” Jawaharlal Nehru agreed with Panikkar in this case: “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” Note here that the Indian Ocean region in this context means the seas and oceans around India.
But let us get back to the oceans, in this case the Gulf of Aden. When I read about the Ukrainian ship with many T72 Russian Tanks being held by these pirates, and that it still is, I was flabbergasted. Russia had no compunctions in chasing the Chechnyan’s with the hot pursuit logic that USA once followed, but have done nothing to the Somali pirates holding their ship. It was also a bizarre fact that terrorizing of this shipping lane had been going on now for 15 years. The surge in attacks came fourteen years after the fall of Somalia's last effective government. Now entire villages on the coastline collaborate in these activities and the rich takings have resulted in an even better equipped pirate force with mother boats, fast speedboats, satellite phones, RPG’s and automatic weapons. Can you believe it; they took just 16 minutes to subdue the Saudi Tanker (BTW it had only about twenty five crewmen)!!
From a $135,000 ransom for the ‘Semlow’ in 2005, it has now reached a $25 Million demand for the Saudi Oil tanker ‘Sirius Star’ (While the pirates have so far earned a total 150M$ in 2008). Currently some 15-17 ships (95 plus attacks this year) are held captive by the Somalis. The average going rate is a ransom of 1M$ per ship.
Why did this happen? Why are ships being terrorized? While an answer points to greed, it was primarily due to antiquated maritime laws which do not make it easy for a merchant ship to carry arms. To this day they have only water cannons and possibly acoustic bangers even though some have recently started to employ security guards. One other reason is that tanker environments are too explosive for arms to be carried or used. So what can these ships do? Either travel in convoys with an armed escort, or reroute away from the Gulf and employ faster, bigger ships. But that adds to the cost (fuel bills alone increase by 20-25%) and delays the shipment. Peter Hinchcliffe, marine director with the International Chamber of Shipping, explains to ABC News Australia
“First of all we think that to put arms on board, even with trained armed guards, is not a good thing to do, because that is going to increase the potential heat and damage out of a firefight.” So we're not in favour for that reason, but there are more fundamental reasons. “Firstly that some flag states do not allow ships flying their flag to carry small arms on board.” And even more serious from a commercial point of view, some port states will not allow the ships into their ports if there are small arms on board.
Further complicating are other issues like if a ‘pirate’ is killed, the ship would have to enter port and her master and crew would be detained and questioned. You can imagine their plight in a lawless country like Somalia. The legal advice typically goes as follows - Since privately owned merchant ships are not armed in peacetime, it is not usually prudent to risk crew and cargo if the harassing vessel has demonstrated the intent to use force to prevent free passage (e.g. firing a warning shot across your bow)
What had India got to do with this situation and Somalian Piracy? A large number of Indians work in the mercantile marine and serve the many ships operating in that region. Recently the Japanese ship that was hijacked by Somalis had 18 Indian crew members (do you remember the number of news reports featuring Seema Goel, the wife of the ship’s captain PK Goel?). They were released after the Japanese paid a large ransom. Then comes the commercial facts (so nicely explained in this article by CSM) 85% of India’s sea trade is carried on these routes by foreign ships. Over 300 Indian ships are at risk on this route and finally as an ex Army man says, India also had a present need and opportunity to project its forces beyond its borders as a show of might and to bolster its claim for a seat in the Security Council.
Here is a real pointer - Senior shipping sources said the move of Indian armed security follows a recent refusal by a Western naval patrol to protect an Indian merchant ship that felt “vulnerable” to attacks on what is perhaps the world’s most dangerous stretch of water. “When the Indian captain asked for protection, he was asked, firstly, about which flag he was flying, then about the nationality of his crew, and finally about which cargo he was carrying,” said Shipping Corporation of India Chairman S. Hajara. When informed that it was an Indian ship with Indian seafarers, the captain was told that he could not be provided immediate protection, Hajara, who is part of the Indian delegation to the IMO Council meetings, told IANS.
The nation of 1.1 billion people provides one-sixth of the world's maritime workers and every month it sends 30 Indian-owned vessels carrying oil and other goods valued at $100 billion through the Gulf of Aden. Indian shipping firms say they are losing $450,000 a month on cost overruns and delays due to piracy. "India cannot wait to take action until the Somali pirates hit the coast of Bombay ," says Mr. Bhaskar. "They must be quarantined in their own waters before they cause more damage."
India finally entered the fray on Nov 2nd with the deputation of F44 INS Tabar (battle axe). INS Tabar, a Talwar-class Russian made stealth frigate, the Indian navy's latest, is on an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and recently shot into limelight with the destruction of a Somali mother ship (later clarified as a Thai fishing ship Ekawat Nava 5 hijacked by pirates) on Nov 19th and successfully escorting approximately 35 ships, including a number of foreign flagged vessels, safely during their transit through pirate infested waters of the Gulf of Aden plus preventing two hijacking attempts. The bigger INS Mysore will either join or replace it soon. The official version of the pirate boat sinking by INS Thabar is dull and drab. If you want a proper Indian masala version, look at the one put up by Chairboy in Digg.
And now, who are the pirates and what is their cause? CSM explains
Today's pirates are mainly fighters for Somalia's many warlord factions, who graduated from operating roadblocks to terrorizing ships, who have fought each other for control of the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991. Their motives are a mixture of entrepreneurialism and survival, says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. Using a mother ship – often an Old Russian trawler – to prowl deeper waters for their target, they can offload smaller boats to move in close and overtake the ship, and climb up with hooks and ladders, and submachine guns.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme told Deutsche Presse that there were fewer than 100 gunmen operating in 15 groups in 2005. Now there are some 160 groups with a total of up to 1,200 pirates operating in Somalia's coastal waters. The pirates, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, launch speedboats from 'motherships' to pursue their targets. The mother ships are old captured Russian trawlers (Guardian confirms this - It turned out to be a previously captured ship being used by pirates as a base to launch their speedboats far out to sea.) 'The big question is where does the money go?' Mwangura said. 'We think they are collecting money going to fund other projects onshore ... we can say they are doing this on behalf of organized crime and for terrorist activities.' However some other reports mention a fishing class that had their daily means disrupted by the busy ocean waters and the ships taking up arms. Others mention that a good portion of the ransom is diverted to the insurgent groups.
Finally I read reports that India has to seek UN approval for each operation and that recently Somali had acceded to India’s request to enter their waters. With the going average ransom rate at 1M$ and possible local competition, the Somali pirates have not been troubled by sailing brazenly as far as 400 nautical miles from their shores as they did in capturing the Saudi tanker. Or is it that they realize that time could run out soon for them?
I agree that it is time to take the fight to the pirates and if the Indian Navy has to set an example, let it be so. Kudos to the navy!! KM Panikkar would finally be smiling from up above!!
Update - 26th Nov 2008: It has now been clarified that the destroyed trawler was the Thai fishing vessel Ekawat Nava 5 which was comandeered by Somali pirates before the event. A survivor recounts that the ship was hijacked by 10 Somali pirates on Nov 18th.
Recommended reads
India & the Indian Ocean – KM Panikkar
India in the Indian Ocean – Donald Berlin
Dimensions of National Security: The Maritime Aspect
Pirate speedboat - from Herald Sun
Location map - WSJ
INS Thabar - from
Barum mother ship - NPR

Talpade's flight over Chowpathy

One of the conquests many attempted since Da-Vinci’s time or even earlier, is flight by man, powered or un-powered. There were people who attached wings to their backs, some even attaching feathers to their arms, but in the end injuries, hurt egos and even death were the results.

Historic documents such as the Vedas and some Indian epics do mention flight and structures termed Vimana’s but nobody seems to have taken them seriously (inspite of claims & rumors that NASA's ion engine is based on the vedic texts). The contents of the book Vimanika Sastra and all the innuendo put together by H Childress and Berlitz, were dismissed as hogwash by many learned scientists. Having read the “the anti-gravity handbook” and the Vaimanika Shastra translation myself, I should agree that both leave a number of new doubts and questions in the reader’s mind rather than answering them. It could be so since the original Sasthra text itself is considered incomplete.

1800-1900 was a period of inventions- People were innovating left and right, at a pace never attained since then. Eventually, two attempts got recorded into the annals of aviation history. One was Santos Dumont of Brazil and the other the Wright brothers of USA. The latter are accorded all the credit today for being pioneers of manned, controlled flight. Dumont’s supporters argued that his 14bis flew for 722 feet in 1906-1907 after his 1901 dirigibles; The Wright brothers did their first 852’ flight in 1903, but more in secret. Brazilians argued that Dumont flew without use of catapults and slopes to aid take off, the Wright brothers did just that. Clement Ader did a self powered flight in 1890; or so it appears, but just 8 inches above the ground. Then there was John Stringfellow’s plane in 1848. The Wright brothers did some more sparsely witnessed flight demonstrations 1903-1906. But was there somebody else before the Wright’s, perhaps? Somebody who did not get his due recognition?

Well, one other person 'purportedly' flew a self powered unmanned plane in 1895. That man was Shivkar Bapuji Talpade. His plane was called ‘MarutSakha’. Reports concluded that he obtained the designs from his Guru Subbaraya Shastri (who compiled Maharishi Bhardwaja’s Vaimanika Shastra – a collection of some parts of the original Vedic period text), that he had his wife supporting him in these design & production endeavors, that the plane flew only a short distance before crashing, that it had a mercury ion engine, that he stopped his efforts after the crash due to paucity of funds, imperial animosity & lack of sponsorship.

The problem with this story is that there is very little to corroborate it except for the two articles, one by Times of India and one by Deccan Herald. There is a third write up linked here.

The Times article states- In 1895 an Indian pioneer flew what is said to be the first Indian plane in the air. The centenary year of the first successful flight, by the Wright brothers, was celebrated from December 17, 2003. But our own pioneer from Mumbai, Shivkar Bapuji Talpade, made an aircraft and had flown it eight years earlier. One of Talpade's students, P Satwelkar, has chronicled that his craft called 'Marutsakha'(Friend of the Winds) flew unmanned for a few minutes and came down.

KRN Swamy of Deccan Herald states - One day in June 1895 (unfortunately the actual date is not mentioned in the Kesari newspaper of Pune which covered the event) before an curious scholarly audience headed by the famous Indian judge/ nationalist/ Mahadeva Govinda Ranade and H H Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, Talpade had the good fortune to see his unmanned aircraft named as ‘Marutsakthi’ take off, fly to a height of 1500 feet and then fall down to earth.

Doubts remain, since the Guru named Shastry later turned out to be a disciple. Talpade passed away in 1916, the manuscript of Vaimanika Shastra was completed by Shastry only in 1923 (he died in 1941) to make do a promise Shastry had made to the well known scientist JC Bose. The drawings of the craft and engines were made by a TK Elappa, a draftsman from what he thought the text meant. Then there is the fact that Talpade was a Sanskrit scholar, not really an inventor (nor was his wife one) who could build an ion engine from incomplete Vedic text. Those interested may checkout a critical study of Vaimanika Shastra by a few IIS students.

Kesari was a newspaper edited by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Marathi. Some argue that the very fact that Kesari Bal Gangadhar himself was editor when this article was printed, gives it complete credibility. Some add that Shivkar Bapuji's craft only flew only to a twenty meter height and crashed within seventeen minutes, hence was counted largely as a failure but had he been loaned more R&D money he might have gone into the annals of history. Anyway Talpade supposedly lost interest in things after his wife`s death which happened some time after the test flight, and after his own death in 1917 at the age of 53 his relatives sold the machine (in which children of the house used to play) to Rally Brothers, a leading British exporting firm then operating in Mumbai.

The story of the first Indian to fly a plane thus remains a myth, for lack of further evidence. If somebody has some more concrete data to prove this event, please feel free to provide it. Another question remains unanswered. Since Subbaraya Sastry completed the book after Talpade’s experiment, why did he not allude to it or add information of this very important practical experiment?

Disclaimer – This article does not imply that the ancient wisdom was non existent. On the contrary the question asked is if there is some kind of proof out there on Talpade’s flight and details of the kind of craft he built, in scientific terms.

Added references
Another translation of Vaimanika Shastra
Vimanika Shastra – Wikipedia entry
Vimana Aircraft of Ancient India and Atlantis - David Childress, Ivan T Sanderson

pics - from the web, thanks to the uploaders


I read a lot and yes, as always, I simply enjoy the feel of the paperback in my hand. Hardbound editions are difficult to hold for a long time and even though the typeset is big, your wrists ache after a while. There are very many nice ebooks available (for which I am grateful to Googlebooks) and I find the compact Acer Aspire One Netbook competent enough to handle these. So now, many historical ebooks from Google books can now be read on it in peace. It is still tough on the eyes, even with the LED backlight and towards night you wonder how all that sand got into your eyes. But still nothing can beat a real book, even if yellowed with age, or smelling musty and allergic – sufficient reason to encourage a swig of Benadryl or some such antihistamine before the attempt. Sometimes I wonder why some cruel guys mark, underline and write cryptic comments on these book margins ( 2nd hand books) and then finally decide to sell it ‘as is’.

It is funny – Does development kill the need to read or the desire to read? I guess so – Apple has been working on a ebook reader and Steve Jobs had this to say in Feb 08- "Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading. "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore," he said. "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."…

Ah! Well.. I am drifting in the wrong direction; let’s see what entertained me the last few days - My latest pick – Chowringhee – Shankar

I met Bhaskar my old friend after many years, in Bangalore a couple of months ago. He is now managing a prosperous supermarket chain, and I recalled one of our earlier conversations about a Jeffrey Archer book ‘As the crow flies’. Bhaskar had at that time talked about doing something like the protagonist and well, he ‘the man’, as they say in USA chased his dream, to start supermarkets & department stores in Bangalore.

When we met, Bhaskar recommended that I read Chowringhee, a book about Calcutta, for he had been fascinated by it. Well, I finally found a lone copy after a tedious search in Gangaram’s on MG road and have since then finished reading that glorious book. What fascinating writing and more than that, what a fabulous translation work from the original Bengali. It was simply impossible to put down the book. You enjoy the story telling, meeting and getting to know each character in the book, be it Sankar himself, or Bose or Sutherland or Connie or Rosie….

A little bit about Chowringhee. This is a locality or neighborhood in Central Calcutta, also termed the Regent’s park of Calcutta. It is a business district, a shoppers place and home to many hotels today. In the British days they had magnificent houses in that area. In those days leading to independence, there used to be a Spencer hotel located in Chowringhee. It was considered by many, including Jules Verne (Jules Verne mentions the Spencers hotel in his book the Demon of Crawnpore (The steamboat – Nana Sahib) as the best in Calcutta.

David Martin states in his ‘Changing face of Calcutta’ - Fame and fortune have attended Chowringhee Road for nearly three centuries. One of Kolkata’s principal arteries, throughout the length of its history it has carried an aura of prestige and importance. Fashionableness and colour have always been its handmaidens. To countless Indians, and for most people familiar with India, the singularly unique name Chowringhee immediately identifies with Kolkata. It represents the nearest equation in India to what Piccadilly is to London, Fifth Avenue to New York and the Champs Elysees to Paris. Nostalgic Londoners like to regard their Circus as the centre of the universe. Kolkatans are more reserved in their acclaim, although the fervour they display for their city is perhaps unmatched. Although dowdier these days than its more illustrious worldlier partners, Chowringhee no less exudes similar allure and magnetism in its eastern setting. Yet another book that explains Chowringhee of the early part of the century is ‘The Underworld of the East - By James S. Lee’ where the steamy underbelly of old Calcutta comes to light. In that real life account of his visit to the city, Lee lives on the rooftop rooms of the Spencer Hotel and talks of ‘Punkha’s’ in these (Hotels had no electric fans during those years) rooms which were pulled through a hole in the wall by the Punkah wallah. Humorus accounts of the ‘punkah wallah’ nodding off to sleep prepare the reader to the hotel stay at Spencers during the early part of the 20th century.

The author of ‘Chowringhee’ is Mani Shankar Mukherjee a.k.a. Shankar. As the book blurb puts it - The book set in the Kolkata of 1950s is a saga of the intimate lives of managers, employees and guests in one of its largest hotels, called Shajahan in the novel. Shankar, the newest and the youngest recruit, recounts the stories of several people whose lives come together in the suites, backrooms and restaurants of the hotels. This book predates Arthur Hailey's "Hotel" by three years and has been translated into Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi, Russian and now English. It’s larger than life characters - the enigmatic hotel manager Marco Polo, debonair receptionist Sata Bose, the tragic hostess Karabi Guha - attained almost cult status. And the novel became a classic.

A fascinating study of human character, Shankar takes you into the workings of newly liberated Calcutta, the babu’s, the gora’s and what not. The camaraderie between the staff of the hotel, the dark secrets, all of them are retold in a style with a singular purpose of entertaining you. It makes you feel that you have just stepped out of the hotel, as you finish the book and it is then you feel the warm glow and contentment of having read a masterpiece and the sun on your back as you step onto Chowringhee road.

From Telegraph India article - It took Vikram Seth’s recommendation, who read the novel in Hindi, to spur Penguin into translating Chowringhee. Arunava Sinha’s translation in 1992 was fished out. “There is nothing dated about Chowringhee. It is so much about people that the story carries well ahead of its background and period,” says the translator, who is now on the verge of finishing Sankar’s other celebrated work, Jana Aranya.

Excerpts from a Samachar article

Shankar revealed the inside stories of the book only recently (Jul/Aug 08). He goes on

"I will reveal some inside stories about 'Chowringhee' that I could not tell for fear of a British barrister. I began my career as a clerk after my father passed away when I was barely in my teens. I had to drop out of studies in search of a job. The book was loosely based on him - more as a tribute because he introduced me to the world of good writing. Now that he is no more, I can share the inside stories," the writer said with his trademark wit.

According to Shankar, the idea for the book took off when he was still in the service of Noel Barwell, the last British barrister in the Kolkata High Court. "Barwell stayed for a long time at the Spencer's Hotel in Kolkata and I was a frequent visitor to the hotel. It was through common friends at Spencer's that I came to know what was happening at the Great Eastern Hotel, one of the biggest hotels in the metropolis then.

"So, there was this notion that the book was inspired by Great Eastern Hotel. Actually, the muse was the Spencer's Hotel. It was from there that my love affair with hotels began," Shankar disclosed.

The author, who was unusually expansive, also gave away the real identity of the charismatic receptionist of the Shahjahan hotel in the novel. "I got the idea to create the debonair Sata Bose, the receptionist, from a railway employee I chanced across. His name was Satya Sadhan Bose and since he had many sahib friends, he refused to be identified by anything but Sata Bose," he divulged.

Shankar, whose books stormed into Bengali homes with the marketing slogan "A bagful of Shankar (Ek Bag Shankar)", is a household name in West Bengal. Collections of his books were sold in blue packets that readers were proud to possess. Shankar wears many hats. A street food expert with two books to his credit, the writer is an also an adept marketing man associated with a leading industrial house.

The book also became a popular movie in the 60’s acted by Utpal Dutt, Uttam Kumar, Subhendu Chatterjee, Biswajeet etc..I have not seen it, but have recently acquired a VCD. Now I need to find time to enjoy the movie even though I do not have the faintest inkling of the Bengali language. But I will manage, surely.

For those who can find the book - read it, You will see a different India, set around the times of the movie Parineeta and yes, without doubt you will enjoy it ...

Further reading
A Hindu Article
Pics - Sankar - Telegraph, Book cover from the net

Shanta P Nair Kerala’s Nightingale

Thumbi Thumbi va va…Picture a scene - a song from 1956, K Raghavan master’s music and Vayalar’s lyrics. The nervous Vayalar Rama Varma would have been sitting and listening to his very first lyrics for the movie ‘Koodapirappu’ being sung by Shanta Nair. After the opening lines, he would have finally relaxed, and allowed the magic of the experienced singers voice to take over. Or switch to another scene – The great MB Sreenivasan is tuning a song for Kalpaadukal. He asks ‘Shanta, do you think you can do a duet with a young newcomer’? Shanta says (a time when stalwarts usually refused to sing with newcomers) – ‘of course, why not’ – thus introducing Yesudas into the singing scene, singing the chirpy song ‘Attention penne’. Or the great Baburaj doing his very first movie ‘Minnaminungu’ with Shanta singing ‘Vallittu Kannezhuthanam’…or some years later, enthralling Salilda with her own composition for a ‘Salilda movie’.

Sadly, yet another great singer of yesteryears passed away recently (July 28th 2008), after prolonged illness. I had been collecting information on Shanta P Nair even before her demise and it was a blog entry by Cris and Jo’s gentle prod for a music related blog that finally got me to finish this. The collection of information that I have on this great singer, other than having listened to her songs comes from the archives of our fine ‘Hindu’ newspaper, namely the articles by K Pradeep, Jayakumar and Ambika Varma and various comments from music enthusiasts of Entelokam, a fine Malayalam music site.

Calicut, a city of the arts & trade, yet again figures in this fine singer’s story. I remember the hallowed recording rooms of the AIR station across the Arabian Sea waters, right on the beach. The air conditioned interiors smelled different where as a child I had gone there many times to participate in some programs. This was also the place where my wife used to sing some years ago. Abdul Khader worked there, so did Shanta P Nair as an announcer, initially. Then the two became popular with their ‘lalitha ganam’ programs. It was here that Shanta Nair met drama writer & program director Padmanabhan Nair, married him and settled down into the routines of family life and away from the recording rooms. (However Saraswathy Amma in a recent article stated that Shanta Nair also worked at the Trivandrum AIR later).

Born 1930, she spent 79 years in this world and her 200 odd songs (I could list only about 50) for some 100 films are now a testament to fine music, if only in posterity. They were songs from an era when melody was queen and when Malayalam music and films were only just taking shape and form. In a group of singers with a heavy Tamil and classical base, she stood out with her lovely clear voice. It was in 1952 that she started in the film world singing for the movie Tiramala. She had studied Carnatic music from the age of eight under Chertala Gopalan nair and Ramanattu Krishnan and went on to complete her intermediate at Women’s college Trivandrum, later finishing her BA at Queen Mary’s Madras. Subsequently she joined AIR Calicut as an announcer and after a stint of 3 years there and a courtship with Padmanabhaan Nair culminating in wedlock, left the job to continue in the film music world. Under Cherthala Gopalan Nair she gained confidence in performing on stage. In a Hindu interview, Shanta Nair remembered how at the age of 10 she sang a Swati Tirunal Adathala varnam before the famous Muthiah Bhagavathar. "When I finished, he said `belle belle nalla padara."'

Quoting Hindu from an Interview - Gentle, gracious and reticent. A singer who never knew how to market herself, a sense of nervousness was palpable when you talked to her. Her sister and her daughter, Latha Raju, who were there with her in the room that evening, intervened. They revealed that Shanta had always been like that; she needed to be persuaded to sing, or even to talk. There was something in Shanta’s voice that endeared her to a generation of listeners. It was a voice that was as smooth as the serene backwaters, lively as the monsoon showers. It was a voice that gelled with the Malayali psyche Shanta had the unique honour of having sung for stalwarts like K. Raghavan, Vayalar Rama Varma, G. Devarajan, O.N.V. Kurup and Baburaj in their first film and with many singers who recorded for a film for the first time. Among those singers was K. J. Yesudas

And once in the absence of Salilda, she composed a tune for Ramu Kariat. Salilda after hearing it insisted that it be retained without changes in the final release. Shantha remembers how she was persuaded by Ramu Kariat to compose music for that song in his film `Ezhu Rathrikal.' The music director Salil Choudhury was away in Mumbai. The song was `Makkathu poi varum maanathe.' "When Salilda heard it, he complimented me profusely. It is such a simple and nice tune and sung by her daughter Latha Raju. She also did the chorus for Salilda later in the Chemmen songs.

Her last song was in 1961/5 for V Chidambaranath’s Murapennu `Kadavathu thoni aduthapol' in the film `Murapennu' along with S. Janaki. The song remains a hit to this day, and it was Shanta's last screen song (You can get a flavour of her “kadavathu thoni’ when you hear the Ousepachan song ‘Ormakal odi’ from Mukundetta sumitra vilikkunnu). She recalls with pride how thrilled she was when she got an opportunity to sing `Vande Mataram' before Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. ‘Unarunaroo Unnikanna...’ a solo by Shanta P. Nair, based on Bilahari raga, is still one of the best devotionals in the language.

Shanta P. Nair immortalized many film songs with her mellifluous voice in a career spanning from 1951 to 1967. She was equally proficient in Carnatic music and held many concerts, which she used to end with light music. She is no more, but her music and sweet voice will remain in our hearts.

Singing Highlights of her career
Yesudas first duet (Attention penne, Kaalpadukal)
Vayalar ‘s first movie (Thumbi thumbi vaa vaa, Koodapirappu)
Vayalar & Devarajan combination first movie (Janani, Chaturangam)
Baburaj’s first compositon (Vaalittu Kannezhuthanam, Minnaminungu)
Raghavan Master’s first (released) movie song(Unarunaroo, Neelakuyil)
Her first song (Amma than thankakudame, Thiramala)

She sang for the following movies
Thiramala, Balyakalasakhi, Neelakuyil, Aniyathi, Koodapirappu, Manthravadi, Rarichan Enna Pouran, Newspaper boy, Kaalam Marannu, Achanum Makanum, Jailpulli, Minnaminungu, Padatha Painkili, Lilly, Mariakutty, Chaturangam, Krishnakuchela, Mudiyanaya puthran, Sabarimala Ayappan, Baghyajathakam, Kalpadukal, Laila majnu, Palattu koman, Swarga rajyam, Veluthambi Dalawa, Vidhi thanna vilakku, Moodupadam, kalanju kittiya thankam, Tacholi othenan, Murapennu, Chemeen, Ramanan, Dantha gopuram, Ezhu rathrikal.

More Bio
Wife of late Padmanabhan Nair, daughter of R Vasudeva Poduval and Lakshmikutty Amma, hailing from the Ambady Family Trichur. Survived by Latha Raju also a singer (AIR Chennai Deputy Director) and son in law JM Raju a music director and singer himself. Shanta Nair won the Sangeet Natak Accademy award in1987.

My FavoritesThumpi Thumpi Va Va
Valittu Kannezhuthanam
Tengidalle Tengidalle
Kadavathu Thoni
Unaru Unnikanna
Poove Nalla Poove (with P Leela)
Poomuttathoru mulla virinju
Makkathu Poivarum (Music by Shanta - sung by Latha Raju)

References & Photographs – Thanks to Hindu
A voice from yesteryear – G Jayakumar
Yesterday Once more – Ambika Varma
Unforgettable Voice – K Pradeep
Neelakuyil – The movie
Entelokam – The confluence of Malayalam music enthusiasts

My Blogs on other Malayalam singer’s & MD’sMehaboob
Kozhikode Abdul Khader
MB Sreenivasan