De Nobili-The Roman Brahmin

Madurai – The last time we passed Madurai was on 31st Oct 1984, the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Beant Singh and we were en-route Kodaicanal for our honeymoon, bussing through the trouble prone and riot hit streets of Calicut & Madurai. But that was a stray incident; in general, as you hear the name of tranquil city called Madurai, you picture correctly a vast temple city of Tamil Nadu, an ancient one with towering temples, and a center of many historic traditions. An important cultural and commercial center since 250AD, the capital of the Pandya kings, Madurai hosts the very famous Madura Meenakshi temple. The story I will now tell takes you to the 17th century, when Madurai was ruled by the popular Telugu speaking Nayak Emperors.

The Portuguese had arrived in India in 1498 and were busy since then in taking over the roaring spice trade by hook or crook, and force, fighting battles with the Zamorin and his troops. They were also busy in enforcing Christianity where they could, making them a very unpopular lot, except as in the case of the Paravas,
whom I wrote about earlier. The word Parangi (the person from Portugal) was a dreaded term and synonymous with forced Christianity.

It was into this turmoil in South India that his Lord’s calling led Robert De Nobili, and as he was soon to realize, specifically, to Madurai where he ended spending many years of his life. Madurai, the capital of Nayak kings at that time was also a center of Vedic learning, and Hindu philosophy and science were extensively studied. His story, like that of
Dom Joao Da Cruz who I wrote about recently, is fascinating.

Sometime you wonder at the sheer audacity and sagacity of certain people, how they risk life & legacy, in order to achieve their higher goals or godly calling. Such was the effort of Robert De Nobili that he managed to carry it on for close to 50 years. Can you imagine a chaste Italian Jesuit priest, dressed in ochre robes, with a ‘ponool’ (sacred thread) around his body and the sacred sandalwood marks on his forehead and arms, conducting extensive religious debates and promoting his religion to the Iyers & Iyengars of Madurai in all the three languages, Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, mastered in a couple of calendar years (In his life he is said to have mastered 32 languages) at Tuticorin, Goa & Cochin? Unbelievable, eh? Well, I was taken aback when I encountered him in history books, close on the heels of Joao De Cruz and St Xavier in timeline. So confident was this young upstart, all of 28 years of age that he promised the Roman clergy that he will start from the top of the Indian caste ladder and that he would have the South of India converted in no time.

Let us start with some basic information. Robert De Nobili, born at Montepulciano, Tuscany, September, 1577; died at Mylapore, India, in Jan 1656. Born in a family which claimed noble descent and distinguished relations. Ran away from home at the age of nineteen to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at Naples and after a brilliant course of studies sailed for the Indian mission in October, 1604, arriving at Goa on 20 May, 1605. After a short stay at Cochin (where he fell gravely ill and nearly died) and the Fishery Coast, he moved in November, 1606, to Madurai.

The policy until then by the Portuguese clergy was to try and achieve conversions of the downtrodden lower classes, sometimes forcefully, hardly making contacts with the upper castes. Parangi’s had strict rules after conversions, getting the new recruits to eat meat, change their entire ways of life etc which earned them no good will, and then again, the converts were still considered lower class. The revised priority in India, therefore for the Jesuits, was to free Hindus from the stranglehold of the Brahmanas as set by St Xavier. The resident Jesuit priest in Madurai was making no headway with conversions and not a single Brahmin had converted thus far.

De Nobili had other ideas (fashioned on his colleague Matteo Ricci’s methods of acting as a Confucian scholar in China). He would persuade the nobility to accept his way and start from the top of the caste ladder. First he had to understand the terrain and its constraints. As it goes, De Nobili learnt the first lessons about Hinduism from a teacher he met at Fr Fernandez’s school for the Parava fishermen in Tuticorin.
Having ripened his design by thorough meditation and by conferring with his superiors, the Archbishop of Cranganore and the Provincial of Malabar, who both approved and encouraged his resolution, Nobili planned his arduous career to visit Madurai in the dress of the Hindu ascetics, known as sanyasis. The permission came in 1607, and he exchanged his black cassock for Kavi (saffron) colored robes, shaved his head and put on a linen turban, a triple strand poonool across his shoulder, broad sandalwood paste ‘kuri’ on his forehead, and his leather shoes were exchanged for wooden sandals.He carefully avoided meeting with Father Gonsalvo Fernandes the resident Jesuit priest as he took his lodgings in a solitary abode in the Brahmins' quarter obtained with the benevolence of a high officer in Madurai. He then engaged a Brahmin cook and ate vegetarian food consisting of rice, vegetables, fruit and milk, eating just once a day. He later employed a Telugu Brahmin Sanskrit scholar Sivadharma to teach him the Vedas, hoping & preparing to meet the Brahmins on their own higher ground. He operated as a `saint' from an `ashram' and offered `pujas.' At the end of the `pujas,' De Nobili distributed `prasadam.' All this while, he studiously avoided any contact with lower caste people. By 1610 he had mastered the Hindu scriptures and the three languages. He wrote two books ‘Dialogue of Eternal life’ and ‘Inquiry into the meaning of life’ in Tamil and used them to draw the local Brahmins to debates. Soon he came to be known as the Tattuwa Bhodhacharia Swamikal or the Roman Brhamin.

J. N. Ogilvie in his work, Apostles of India says "It was told how a strange ascetic from some far land had arrived, drawn to the holy city by its great repute, and that he had taken up his abode in the Brahman quarter of the city. Soon visitors flocked to the house of the holy man to see what they should see, but only to find that the Brahman's servants would not permit their entrance. 'The master,' they said, 'is meditating upon God. He may not be disturbed.' This merely helped to whet the people's desire and increase the fame of the recluse. The privacy was relaxed, and daily audiences were granted to a privileged few."

It was this willingness to adapt to Indian customs coupled with asceticism that won him some converts. In that year, he could convert 63 people, starting with his first Tamil teacher (who was later named Albert, according to Stephen Neil’s Christianity in India), but they were not required to break their caste or change their dress, food or mode of life except in the matter of idolatry. They could also retain their sacred thread and tuft of hair on their head.

Nobili’s teachings did not go all plain sailing. When a large assembly of 800 Brahmins once demanded his expulsion from Madurai, Nobili defended himself, saying that he was not a Parangi, but a ‘Twice born’ sanyasi from Rome, and that the version of religion he taught did not abolish the caste system. To lend credibility, he produced a certificate from Rome that called him a ‘Romaca Brahmana”. A version of this was also nailed to the door of his house. He went on to say ( apparently) that he was a descendant of Brahma and that he was in possession of the lost 5th Veda, the Yesurveda or Veda of Yesu (Jesus) and that his teachings were based upon that scripture. Sivadharma, his Brahmin teacher then defended him strongly at the meeting and this proved the clincher. Nobili remained in Madurai and preached his Yesur Veda for the next few decades.

Ines Zupanov, a contemporary historian contends - Armed with theological theories developed in Europe by both Catholic and Protestant thinkers, Nobili devised an ingenious strategy - based on theologically framed resemblance and analogies – of how just about everything in Indian paganism can be converted into Christianity. The politics of acceptance of the Nobili method in Rome is explained in the book Heroic Leadership (Jesuits & JP Morgan) by Chris Lowney.

Francis Ellis, in his contribution to the 1822 Transactions of the Asiatic Society, explained that Nobili presented to the group an old, dirty parchment in which he had forged, in the ancient Indian characters, a deed, showing that the Brahmans of Rome were of much older date than those of India and that the Jesuits of Rome descended, in a direct line from the god Bhrama. However, Stephen O Neil provides a translation of the parchment he nailed to his door, which actually stated what he was, and what his aims truly were. Max Mueller said - "A man who could quote from Manu, from the Puranas, nay from the works such as the Apasthamba Sutras, which are known even at present only to those few scholars who can read Sanskrit manuscripts, must have been far advanced in the knowledge of the sacred language and the literature of the Brahmins." But many others contend that he learnt just enough to dazzle, not ever to exude in depth…Andrew Steinmetz in his book ‘History of the Jesuits Vol II’ says – So skillfully was the fifth Veda or Yesur Veda prepared, written in the same style as the first four that many Brahmins received it as authentic and Voltaire went on to translate it into L’Ezour Vedam.
Ronald E. Modras in his book Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the 21st Century, states – Nobili argued with his superiors in Rome that Brahmins should not be required to get rid of their tuft of hair or their sacred thread before converting. He tried to explain that the term Brahmin meant Doctor or scholar and not priest. Nobili was an excellent orator and an even better writer; it was his persuasive writing that won over the Jesuits of Rome & Lisbon when his superior Fr Trancoso of Goa complained about him. Pope Gregory XV undertook a special tribunal to examine the validity of his work. But after a long inquisition covering 14 years, the Pope decreed on behalf of De Nobili. This furious exchange of letters between Goa, Rome, Cochin and Madurai resulted in the Malabar rites declaration where Christians of India were allowed to follow their customs within their new religion.

His success as a missionary was that the Christian population swelled from around 30,000 in 1656 to over 100,000 in 1706. In Church lore, he is credited with having secured among the largest harvest of converts for Jesus. But it was not to be, the initial successes reversed their course and dwindling numbers of Nobili's converts eventually lead to the closure of his mission in Madurai.

During his final years, he was banished to Jaffna, where by then; he had lost much of his eyesight and eventually moved to Madras as he was not allowed back to Madurai by the Jesuits. Thus it was in Mylapore that the former count of Civitella died after his last eight painful years, in the year 1656, a broken, penniless and blind man.

1. This was a particularly difficult topic to research as the religious parts were of no particular interest to me. I persisted as I found De Nobili’s character interesting and audacious, to say the least. No disrespect is meant to any religion involved, with any part of the text of this article, all events are sourced from historical accounts.

2. Most of the authors who wrote about those times were against Nobili’s methods of mingling with the populace and for not taking a superior western stance. So their writings termed him a fraud, an imposter and a person who diluted the gospel and brought in Paganism to Christianity. I referred & read most of the author’s books mentioned, but only to the extent of Nobili’s involvement in their books and for the basic purpose of writing this article. Only two of the books provided, in my opinion a fair understanding of the times and the person. They were Stephen Neill and Chris Lowney. These accounts of Robert De Nobili’s life can be found at A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 By Stephen Neill and
Heroic Leadership (Jesuits & JP Morgan) by Chris Lowney. There could of course be other more complete & authoritative books…

3. It is difficult to determine if much what he did was fraud, especially the stories of the rewritten Vedas and his documentation on the lineage to Brahma. One must realize that there were many Jesuits out to discredit him and to this date many Christians agree with those Nay Sayers, so such stories still run their course. To read a critical Hindu version, refer to
Arun Shourie’s article.

4. One should also not imagine that De Nobili enjoyed living like a Sanyasi or accepted the principles of asceticism. He bore it painfully and frequently complained of his poor lifestyle in his letters to Rome.

5. At
least one article details that he actually lived and preached from Salem - Senda-mangalam (in Namakkal Taluk), and not Madurai. It also talks about the support he received from the heir apparent to the Salem Throne – one Tirumangala Nayaka who eventually converted.

Mysteries of a 'chellapetti'

The thoughts of this decadent object and the peculiar habit of betel leaf chewing in India entered my mind when I saw these two ‘ambis’ in conversation. They were Kamal Hassan and Delhi Ganesh (from the movie MMKR). Watch this clip if you want a quick introduction to the Palakkad ambi’s peculiar Malayali Tamil accent.

Both are Palghat Brahmins or ambis. You can see a chellapetti in Delhi Ganesh’s hands. Ganesh’s chella petti gets stolen repeatedly by an old woman, a kleptomaniac. Her granddaughter Urvashi who has a crush on Kamal returns it, only for it to get stolen again.

Some call it Murukan petti or vettila chellam - the box that contained a lot of stuff to ensure optimal production of the betel package. A few one or half rupee coins (not to be chewed though!), the small brass duppi of chunnambu, a few tender betel leaves or thalir vettila - the choice home grown Malabar variety (not Salem or Benaras), chopped squares of adakka or arecanut, sometimes a few cloves and a few pods of cardamom. While rich people had chella petti’s made of brass or silver, others even used the LG asafetida tin. (Checkout
my recent blog about Rama iyer and the asafoetida tin)By the way ‘betel’ was the anglicized version of Malayalam word Vettila.

Most of these chaps have few teeth in their old age and the way they go about preparing the ‘murukkan’ (package of leaf, nut & lime) is very interesting & traditional. First they take the baby ‘vettila’ leaf, smooth it in their left hand, clip off the stem (njetti) and the tip of the leaf. Then some smooth out using their nails the stem of the leaf (I am sure that most of you won’t know why – it was apparently due to the belief that the stem and tip make you sterile (?)). Then the right amounts of lime is applied to the leaves, roughly 3 or 4 bits of nut (In olden days the acrid nut was sliced with a nut chopper) are added and the package consigned to the corner of the mouth where the few remaining molars reside.

Then he looks at the distance and brings his jaws together for the first crunch, and you can see the delight in his face as he crushes the nut and starts to grind the concoction in his mouth, moving it from side to side (those who have seen the brilliant Kamal Sreedevi movie Meendum kokila will recall the song Chinnan cheru…and the granny chewing paan). Well, from the very early days my dad, his side of the family and I have loved this Malayali ‘paan’ after ceremonial dinners, preferring it over the north Indian variety that you get outside hotels today. How this Paan got me into trouble and linked me to Neil Armstrong is another interesting story – that story will be posted soon.

Abdul Razzak, a Persian traveler in the Kingdom of Vijayanagar in 1443, put it succinctly "The masticator lightens up in countenance. It relieves hunger, stimulates the organs of digestion and disinfects the breath." During 970 – 1039 AD Al Biruni visited Malabar and remarked ‘people spend all their money on pan (betel leaf chewing).

Thamboolam is sometimes the name attributed to the package of betel leaf, nut and lime (I think Thamboolam was the name for the betel leaf in Sanskrit though). First it was traditional sliced arecanut, and then came Asoka paak (flavored arecanuts). The chunna which was typical slaked lime or Calcium hydroxide (Now you know why women of those days never had osteoporosis), was substituted with the flavored Lakshmi chunnambu, pinkish and smelling like rose milk… The brass betelnut cracker was another item in my grand uncle’s chellapetti. And there was the hated Kolambi or spittoon into which, the chewer exhibited his expertise, by launching a steady stream of the red spit without splattering those around him or the nearby walls.

Vasco De Gama’s aides recall seeing a golden spittoon next to the Zamorin when they met in Calicut in 1498(
In his left hand the king held a very large golden cup (spittoon), having a capacity of half an almude (8 pints). At its mouth this cup was two palmas (16 inches) wide, and apparently it was massive. Into this cup the king threw the husks of a certain herb which is chewed by the people of this country because of its soothing effects, and which they call atambor (Arabic word Tambur for betel leaf comes from Thambool).).

Most old houses in North Malabar have a few betel vines snaking up the coconut or arecanut trees in their houses. Typically, Nair wives tenderly picked a few tender betel leaves for the husband’s not so tender chewing habit. Sometimes cardamom, cloves and bits of coconut were added.

According to Hindu mythology, Mohini distributed Amrut (ambrosia) amongst various gods. The urn with the remainder of the Amrut was kept near Indra’s elephant. Growing inside the urn was a strange creeping plant and seeing it, the gods became ecstatic. Vishnu ordered Dhanvantari to examine the plant, who in turn discovered its stimulating quality. From then on, Vishnu began to offer its leaves, as a gesture of love and affection. That, it is said, is how the betel tree was born. It began to be associated with the Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh Trinity. The areca nut was attributed to Brahma, the Tambool (betel) leaf to Vishnu and lime to Mahesh.

While the rest of India lauds the stiff Salem (Tamil) or Benares varieties for the popular North Indian or Mughlai Paan, Pakistan prefers the Malabar (Tirur) variety. “In Karachi, betel from Tirur is preferred to the others from January to April while those from Colombo and Bangkok are in demand during the latter part of the year. In Lahore, the Tirur variety is in demand all through the year,” Its taste is supposed to be very unique. Since it is plucked late it is spicy and thick and is also durable” Most of the 2,000-2,500 baskets of betel leaves dispatched daily from Tirur's Vettilangadi, also called Pan Bazaar, are meant for export to Pakistan

While the size and art work of the chella petti in North India signified the prosperity of the lady of the house, the chellam in Kerala was austere and just fit for purpose, usually made of brass.
EH Aitken states (read the full article if you can, it is brilliant) – The betel nut and the betel leaf always coexist - In life the betel vine climbs up the stem of the areca palm, and in death the areca nut is rolled in a shroud of the betel leaf and the two are munched together. Other things are often added to the morsel, such as a clove, a cardamom, or a pinch of tobacco, and a small quantity of fresh lime is indispensable. To a European the strong, astringent taste and penetrating odour of the betel nut are alike insufferable, and there is no instance on record, as far as I know, of an Englishman becoming a betel nut chewer. But wherever Hindu blood circulates, not in India only, but all through the islands of the Malay Archipelago, as far as the Philippines, the betel nut is an indispensable ingredient of any life that is worth living. Indeed it is the chief cement of social intercourse in a country where all ordinary conviviality between man and man is almost strangled by the quarantine enforced against ceremonial defilement. Friend offers friend the betel nut box just as Scotsmen offered the snuff-box in the hearty old days that are passing away.
My pen moves only when I have a betel nut in my mouth. Without one, I can neither think nor write," said Mr. RK Narayan, years back, in conversation with Satyan.

Tradition has it that - One should not munch betelnut before putting betel leaves in the mouth, Widows, Brahmachari’s and Sannyasi’s should not use betel leaves, during Ekadasi and other days of fasting, betel chewing should be scrupulously avoided and while chewing betel one should not sip water….

You may wonder how one harvests the arecanut or betel nut from this spindly tree (a normal tree is about half a foot or less in diameter and towers to about 30meters)

See this chap in action – needless to say that a thin & light person is required to climb such trees. What would he do when the tree swings violently when he reaches the top? Pray to all kinds of gods perhaps? Well, I have not seen the act myself, but my wife tells me that they are experts, they climb one, quickly pluck the bunch, as it swings, he clambers the next one at the top (like the above video) and so on…phew…I am absolutely sure that together with Kalari, this art also reached China and now we see it featured in ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ kind of movies!!

You won’t believe this - United States Patent 6312735 by Niazi, Sarfaraz & Niazi, Riaz cover the method for the removal of all types of human and animal skin warts using a technique of cauterization wherein slaked lime is applied to the wart and then the surface of wart is scratched by using the stem of betel leaf.

Man! The things that you don’t realize when you chew from the Vettila Thamboolam!!

Malayali Vethila Chellam - Malluboy

Arecanut trees - Darkfire
Others - from the net, thanks to the photographers

LinksTom Walters & Nalini Sofia’s paper on
Effects of Consumption of Thamboolam

In 1855 Samuel baker attempted to understand what this south Indian & Ceylon Betel Chewing was all about in his book ‘Eight years wandering in Ceylon’.
The Art of Chewing Betel –
Ni Wayan Murni

TS Satyan – Chewing Betel
Origins of the betel vine – Sri Lankan version

Hillary, Pandey, Sean and me…

Now this sort of rhymes like in the movie Me, Myself  and Irene, right? Well, there is something common in all the above names. The first three were mountaineers. Two, the first and the third climbed Everest. The second named taught me the rudiments of mountaineering and the fourth, i.e. me…met and talked to the second and the third. Having got all that mystery out of the way, let me tell you some more…

Hillary was the person who ignited the mountaineering fervor in me. When we were learning the story of Col Hunt and the mission to Mt Everest in school, I would picture the tall mountain and the still silhouettes of the formidable North face in my mind. I would think, the thin, gangly and short guy that I was then, how nice it would be, if I could climb that mountain…

Mr Pandey, our Hindi teacher was also an avid mountaineer. He used to take us all out trekking to nearby hills and sometimes for ‘chimney rock climbing’ on the hills neighboring Neyyar Dam near Trivandrum. Chimney rocks are clambered using mainly your back and feet, and you gradually lift yourself up the chimney that way. He ensured that the school sent a representation every year to the HMI – the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute’s annual camp at Darjeeling. It was an honor to be selected and that particular year, after rigorous trials, I managed to get selected. But sadly there were heavy avalanches in the Himalayas that year and the camp got cancelled. Soon we passed out of school and that was the end to my mountaineering aspirations.

Mount Everest is named for a 19-century British surveyor, Sir George Everest. Fifty five years ago, two men literally stood on top of the world. Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide, did the seemingly impossible by becoming the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. At its currently accepted height of 29,035 feet, the peak is the highest spot on Earth. Many died trying to conquer Everest's steep faces, high winds, frigid temperatures, and thin air before Hillary and Norgay succeeded on May 29, 1953.

Sometimes we saw a bit of the Everest in some newsreel or documentary on TV. Later I saw a movie ‘Vertical limit’ supposedly set in the Himalayas, but shot in Utah & New Zealand. Now & then I read about Hillary, Tensing and other climbers, I also saw trivia like the internet café and the highest bakery around Everest…

Then I met Sean in 2004, he was the motivational speaker in one of our conferences. Wow! Was he good! I met him later and had a brief chat about his climb up the summit…It was surely a great occasion. Normally I do not collect autographs, but I still treasure a post card Sean gave me with his message. 

Sean Swarner is actually the first (and only) cancer survivor to summit the world's highest mountain, Mt Everest. When he was only 13, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and given three months to live. At the age of 15 he was diagnosed with Askin's Sarcoma. The prognosis was much worse as the doctors gave him only two weeks to live. Again, he survived. On May 16th, 2002 at 9:32am, he became the first cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest. Sean then went on to reach the summits of three more of the world's seven highest peaks and has spoken internationally about his life and adventures to countless people and organizations. He generated finances for the climb with revenues from motivational speeches!!

The unassuming New Zealand beekeeper, Edmund Hillary, who conquered Mount Everest to win renown as one of the 20th century's greatest adventurers died on Jan 11th, 2008. He was humble to the point that he did not admit to being the first man atop Everest until long after the 1986 death of his climbing companion Tenzing Norgay. His philosophy of life was simple: "Adventuring can be for the ordinary person with ordinary qualities, such as I regard myself," he said. Unlike many climbers, Hillary said he had no desire to have his remains left on a mountain. He wanted his ashes scattered on Waitemata Harbour in the northern New Zealand city of Auckland, where he lived his life. The ‘Burra Sahib’ added, "To be washed gently ashore, maybe on the many pleasant beaches near the place I was born. Then the full circle of my life will be complete," he said.

We have another Hilary still around and believe it or not; she has a connection with Sir Edmund Hillary. It has been reported that Hilary Clinton got her name from the famous climber, whom her mother Dorothy Rodham had read about and admired. However Hilary’s name has only one L. The two Hilary’s met in 1995, at Kathmandu, when Hilary was the first lady. So much for what Hilary told the press, but did Dorothy really have Hillary in mind when she named Hilary? This article provides you some interesting answers, check it out.

As far as I know, only one Malayali has scaled Everest. He is Havildar Suresh Kumar of the Indo Tibetan Border Police, haling from Kayamkulam. He did it twice, in 1992 and 1996. His story is tragic; just compare his feat with the cricketer Ishant Sharma who gets a million dollars after playing 10 matches, this man is still running from pillar to post for his paltry reward of Rs 5 lakhs!!

The youngest who ever climbed its peak is Temba Tsheri a 15 year old Nepali girl while the oldest was Katsusuke Yanagisawa of Japan at 71 years of age. The fastest climber was Lakba Gelu Sherpa of Nepal who did the feat in 11 hours from base camp. Appa Sherpa reached the summit 11 times.

The Nepali Sherpa’s who accompany climbers are a quiet lot that get little recognition from all this. "Sherpas climb the mountain twice," says Ang Phurba. "They climb the slope first and fix the ropes, they break up the ice to make the trail, they find the camp and set up the tents, and then they go back and bring the climber up. There are some climbers who go up together with the Sherpas, but they are very rare. Only strong climbers do that."

The term Brotherhood of the Rope is popular in mountaineering and climbing circles; it refers to the interdependence inherent amongst members of a climbing team, their reliance upon one another for safety, security, and success.

pics - various web sites, thanks

Whistlers in Istanbul

When my friend, who now spends time designing microchips in the arid deserts of Arizona, told me this story, in his own peculiar way, I laughed so much that my stomach hurt for the rest of the day. You can easily make out from the account that he was a good story teller. Whether I will do justice to that story in text, I am not sure, but I will try. The persons mentioned and yours truly were all living in Istanbul – Turkey, during those years.

Istanbul had always been a mysterious and colorful place, from historic times to this day. I have so many fond & interesting memories, starting from meeting the president KR Narayanan to meeting varied personalities like Hon Najma Heptulla who complained of unseen mosquitoes which could bite her, when the windows of their new house were ceremoniously opened by the Consul General to get in the breeze from the famed Bosporus straits, into their living room. We had a small group of Indians living there in those times, all of 40 if I remember right, in a city teeming with 18 million people. When we met in each others houses, talk drifted to comparing the lifestyles of Indians and Turks, the similarities and differences, exchanging various anecdotes and of course yapping about colorful football heroes like Hakan Sukur and well endowed media stars such as Hulya Avsar and Sibel Can.

The Indian Consulate in Istanbul is strategically located next door to the only strip joint in town. There was just one Indian restaurant and a Pakistani Tandoor, the weather was great, the people were cheery, the history was fascinating & life was fun. We had to bring in coriander leaves, ginger and many other spices from India, during each vacation trip. Freezing them was the only way to stretch the stocks for a few months till somebody brought in some more stock & distributed the surplus.

Into this bustling city came three South Indians, to work for the telecom giant Alcatel. Two from Tamil Nadu and one from Kerala, the Mallu being the one who told me the story and who now lives in the deserts of Arizona. They were put up in a first floor apartment and quickly geared themselves up for hard bachelor life ahead (you will realize how hard only after you see them beauties of Turkey!). Life can indeed be very difficult in Turkey till you get used to the people and the language. Turks by & far do not speak English, at least the ones on the streets and shops, and so it is a matter of necessity to learn the language quickly. But the good thing was they are a friendly sort. They liked people from Hindistan, termed Hintli’s. After a few days the boys were in possession of a smattering of Turkish words, forget all that stuff about grammar though – they made themselves understood. Soon the house was set, the stove was up and running and the ‘sadam’ preparation was in full steam…Turkish yoghurt was a perfect accompaniment and curd rice came along famously. However our Mallu boy had his personal share of problems, without some eggs & chicken, he felt stifled, so he too took turns making the ‘asaivam’ varieties for himself, food that (thankfully) only he could eat & enjoy. I do not remember if the two Swami’s took dubba’s to the office, but that is not important in context. I heard that they had no choice but to eat the rice if served, some Turkish Ayran (buttermilk) and the sweets for lunch. They had a good home cooked dinner everyday, though. The prestige cooker stood in good stead, even though Turkish Pirinc (rice) is more like sticky Chinese or Thai jasmine rice.

Till one fine day they heard a loud rattle on the door just as they were about to get ready for dinner. Their neighbor from the lower flat was at the door and he was gesticulating wildly and sounding abusive. He hollered, but nobody understood anything, he gesticulated, but with no effect and so he went back. The three roommates looked at each other asking what this was all about. Next day around the same time, i.e. 8PM the man came and again did all the above. He mimicked better this day, he showed signs of a child, sleeping and he started whistling with his fingers in his mouth. Again, the three boys looked at each other, aghast, wondering if their neighbor was indeed off his rockers. He seemed so anyway, making strange signs and noises. After a while, the neighbor left again, in a huff.

The story repeated itself for one more day. The man came and repeated his tirade, the boys not understanding anything. The neighbor, let us call him Mustafa, was becoming redder each time and getting closer to a stroke.

Till the fourth day when Mustafa and another man from the building (of Persian extract, I believe) who knew a few English words came along. He explained that his friend could not stand the boys whistling every day and that their child was waking up from her sleep and crying. The boys asked each other, did you sing in the bathroom? Did you whistle or hum or go into a longish ‘alapanam’ perhaps? They swung their heads rapidly sideways signaling the negative, they were really mystified. One of the chaps who did think at times that he was a reincarnation of Shemmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was a bit unsure, he had tried out his vocal calisthenics at times, but well, no so loudly. He kept studiously quiet.

The fifth day Mustafa and his neighbor came a little earlier than usual and were even more emphatic. They said ‘See, can you hear your friend whistling? Can you not hear it? See how loud, sharp & irritating it is?’

Well, all three had finished their baths, they were taken aback, they looked at each other, till they also heard the sharp bleat and finally understood – it was our Desi pressure cooker at work. The Prestige was whistling every now and then, as the rice got cooked. Four whistles, one mother had said, but with Turkish rice it had to be many whistles before it became ready for the matrimony with curds….

Probably the self righteous Turk thought these boys were whistling (shuki-fying) at his wife or elder daughter. Anyway after seeing the cooker and its working, which was alien to the Turk, Mustafa let matters lie, left with a wry smile muttering ‘bu yabancilar’ (these foreigners). The thing was, Turks are used to the slow cooking method with a lot of butter added to the rice!

The ‘sadam with the prestige’ activity continued, but the rice was cooked by the person reaching home early, and after a few years, the boys moved along to other countries and separated, they are all married and fathers now and telling this story to their partners and offspring. Of that, I am sure..…

pics: Wikipedia

Da Vinci to the rescue - after 500 years

As we all agree, Leanardo Da Vinci was a rare genius and an enigma. Not only was he a great artist and painter, painting masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, the last Supper and the anatomical wonder ‘Virtuvian Man’, but also an inventor par excellence. Whenever I leaf through the copy of the book ‘Ancient inventions’ and one that I have checked out over many years, I still marvel at the various things Da Vinci invented…

Of his not so successful experiments, his attempts at flight have prominent mention, though he even took upon himself the task of designing the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn of Istanbul, in 1500, which would become the longest bridge in the world of that period if constructed. However, the ambitious design did not meet with the Sultan's approval. But one of his less talked about expertise was his understanding of the human anatomy. He wrote a book on the subject after extensive research, studies and dissection of many a human body at hospitals in Florence, Milan and Rome.
Leonardo, in his fervor for knowledge, held countless creepy vigils with the local corpses, and their annoying tendency to decay forced him to work as quickly as possible. He described it as "living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses fearful to behold," but as usual his curiosity pushed him ever onward.

His meticulous studies show in the accuracy of his painted subjects. Above all, he jotted his text in mirror image cursive writing, using his left hand (probably for purpose of secrecy or convenience)!! But well, hearing that his mother Caterina may have been a Turkish slave girl, I can imagine that the Arabic text (and writing from right to left) she used had an effect!!

Nevertheless, this is not about Da Vinci, but about Robotic surgery. Some 23 years back, I stood next to the famed Dr Cherian as he performed a complex, but traditional bypass surgery at the Railway hospital - Perambur. Some people would recall Dr Cherian as the pioneer in India’s Bypass surgery history, and my father was also operated on by him!! Watching him perform the painstaking operation over a period of 7 plus hours, was an experience and I even wrote a long article covering every step of the Cabbage (surgical term for bypass surgery – CABG). But today when I read about the Da Vinci robot, I wondered about a future, not many years away, when the child playing on the Xbox, furiously moving his nimble fingers on its controls would graduate, only to find surgical tools like the operating robot, ‘child’s play’…

Strangely the first
humanoid robot was also invented by Da Vinci in 1495!! And so, ‘fittingly’ as a Brit would say, Da Vinci’s name was given to the seven foot high robot designed by NASA and used to re-enable the body’s complex vascular system. Put in other words, the days of the ‘bypass surgery’ are back, but in a less invasive fashion. A report on their use in Cardiac surgery can be found linked here, in the USA today article. Among the successful pioneers of pinhole surgery using the Da Vinci are a brilliant team of Sudhir Srivastava and Valluvan Jeevanadam of the University of Chicago.

The DaVinci has been around for a while now, being used mainly used for prostrate removal & hysterectomy. Manufactured by a company called
Intuitive Surgicals , it provides (in cardiac surgery) HD pictures of the heart and neighboring vascular systems andabout 700 units are in use worldwide!

How did the Da Vinci take birth? When NASA needed designs for its first humanoid robot to man the International Space Station and begin the colonization of Mars, it used the best blueprints available. The wrist, one of the human body's most complicated joints, presented a big challenge to engineers, but Leonardo's principles enabled NASA to build an advanced model. The flexible wrist of the Da Vinci robot makes it superior to older laparoscopic surgery practices…
The NASA group teamed up with mechanical engineers working on robotics from Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Frederic H. Moll, MD, acquired the license to the telepresence robotic surgical system developed by the NASA-SRI teams, and started the company called Intuitive Surgical Inc which went on to develop a master-slave telepresence robotic surgical system they named daVinci®.

Development on this technology continues, surgeons at the Imperial
College are doing even better – A spokesman explained that robotic surgeons are currently completely under the control of the surgeon. The robot responds only to the surgeon's hand movements. "There's a large amount of information that is not being explored at all. That's the human part."Currently, to operate the daVinci machine, a surgeon sits in a console from which she peers into the patient through a fiber optic camera. The doctor manipulates the finely-tuned arms of the device with a set of fingertip controls. What the researchers are adding to the system is an attachment which can track the surgeon’s eye movements and present a three-dimensional map of the area of the patient at which the surgeon is looking. It does this by combining live imagery with a collection of scans of the patient taken prior to the surgery.

So is it not a brilliant use of fiber optics and robotics that makes life simpler? Yes and no. The risks are lower, to start with. While it takes the same time to complete a surgery and costs a bit more, the aftercare costs are much lower and the recuperation time is a mere 5 days compared to weeks after a traditional bypass surgery. The biggest and toughest demand however is on the surgeon who needs extreme skill operating by looking at the screen and twiddling his thumbs. But imagine this, in a foreseeable future, today’s child who is an expert with game controllers much akin to the controllers of the Da Vinci will find it easier to perform a surgery. So heed to it when kids ask for more Xbox & PS2 gaming time; they are hopefully training to be the next robotic surgeons or operators of other types of day to day robots!!

Da Vinci won’t and should not leave us, such is his brilliance.
Recently a prominent surgeon stated that his mitral valve operations are being fine tuned after studies of Da Vinci’s drawings of the heart and explanations of the valve movements, all documented 500 years ago by a person who never had any medical training!!

P.S - Imagine, the brilliant genius with his many failings, still coming to the help of mankind all these years later!! But well, like all others Da Vinci too made big mistakes, for example, he believed even with his superior knowledge of human anatomy that male semen came from the brain via the spinal cord (source – Vinci drawing Copulation and notes therein) during coitus!! Some feel however, that he deliberately distorted his view to fit popular Galenic perception at that time.

Other daVinci robotic surgeon references:
Science daily article
ABC news article
Video - Robotic bypass surgery, Da Vinci system at work

daVinci robot pic - website of manufacturer