English and its Indian makeover

Introducing Hobson-Jobson and Hanklyn Janklyn

Just yesterday I was having a heated discussion with my sons. We were talking about the new movie ‘Avatar’ which we had gone to see. Now when I tried explaining that the word Avatar is actually Sanskrit, they were vehement in the argument that it was a very English word. After a while I gave up but was reminded of this article I had started some months ago, but had drifted away to other matters. Anyway this discussion and G 42’s recent blog stirred me up to complete this.

Some years ago, while in the UK, the Sunday Times provided a BBC audio CD together with the paper. It was a delightful lesson on punctuation, titled ‘Eats shoots & leaves’. The title of course is based on the fable where a panda bear comes to a hotel, eats food then shoots into the air and leaves. Upon being asked why it did it, it points to a wrongly punctuated dictionary entry – panda– large black & white bear like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves. For a country that takes pride in its language and one that is spoken by much of the world today, it was a great reminder of how the language should be used. But this is not an article about punctuation, which is left for another day where we can recount many more such anecdotes; it is about ingress of Indian lingo into English.

Imagine the plight of the British with the stiff upper lip, upon their arrival in the India of the 19th century. As they introduced their language to the indigenous people and had them reluctantly accept it with local adaptations and additions, they also picked up and learnt many an Indian word themselves, considering such introductions more apt & explanatory in the vocabulary. Thus was born ‘Desi Pidgin’.But then, it was not to be for Yule & Burnell who took it all one step further & decided to make a dictionary to cover the peculiar Eurasian tongue of India or Pidgin English. Many of those words have since transgressed into mainstream, and you will definitely say that they are now well worn English words.

Some examples are - curry, toddy, veranda, cheroot, loot, nabob, teapoy, sepoy, cowry, batta, pucka, chowry, baboo, mahout, aaya, nautch, chintz, calico, gingham, also shawl, bamboo, pagoda, typhoon, monsoon, mandarin, palanquin, chank, junk, jogy, kincob, kedgeree, fanam, calay, bankshall, mudiliar, verandah, tindal, cranny..These have crept in over time, through the Portuguese & British times, though strangely not in Dutch times.

And so after all that, strange as it may seem, India today has the highest number of English speakers in the world and it is here that you will come across many a proper speaker of the original Victorian version of this Anglo tongue than the highly accented versions you will come across in Britain such as the slanted Cockney, Irish, Welsh or Scottish tongues…Well, to cut to the chase - I decided to peep without purpose into my musty yellowing copy of Hobson Jobson, the thick 1001 page book that smelt like it had been sitting a very long time in a attic and delightfully housing various varieties of fungi…My bottle of ‘benadryl’ was close at hand…And I read the story of Burnell and Yule.

Now it all started when Burnell, working with the Madras civil service got ‘sort of’ bored, as they put it here in America. An English man living in Tanjavur, you can imagine how dreadful the Carnatic music, temple related activities and strict Iyer, Iyengar culture of that place would have tired him. Anyway he started writing to Henry Yule who was living in salubrious Palermo eating pasta and cheese and they became unlikely collaborators in the task of compiling this massive, amusing and insightful work (Even more strangely they just met once!). What started in 1872 or so as a partnership continued on even after the death of Burnell in 1882 and eventually got published in 1896. Now you must realize that while the purpose was to document Pidgin, the result also became a study in history. Today I would consider it a valuable history source for it documents many a word and its antecedents, the meanings and the evolution as such. Any student of Indian history must lay his hands on this book and at a price of $1 plus shipping, it is well worth it. Not only is it amusing but also a treasure trove of all kinds of things Indian and British, and it covers the colonial vestiges left behind, such as by the Portuguese (though there is another book in Portuguese Indian words). Like how manga became mango.

To get a hang of how the matter is handled & presented, take a look at this page for the details it provide, historical and factual. Some words stretch many pages providing a master class in cross references and connections.

Yule is very careful in his preface – stating thus “The work has been so long the companion of my ‘herae subsicivae’, a thread running through the joys and sorrows of so many years, in the search for material first, and then in their handling and adjustment to the edifice — for their careful building up has been part of my duty from the beginning, and the whole of the matter has, I suppose, been written and re-written with my own hand at least four times — and the work has been one of so much interest to dear friends, of whom not a few are no longer here to welcome its appearance in print, that I can hardly speak of the work except as mine. Yule also explains why the book was titled thus instead of say ‘The Indian vocabulary’.
But how did the book get its name? Yule explains - A valued friend of the present writer many years ago published a book, of great acumen and considerable originality, which he called Three Essays, with no Author's name; and the resulting amount of circulation was such as might have been expected…. It seemed to me that A Glossary or A vocabulary would be equally unattractive, and that it ought to have an alternative title at least a little more characteristic. If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular; whilst it is the more fitted to our book, conveying, as it may, a veiled intimation of dual authorship. At any rate, there it is; and at this period my feeling has come to be that such is the book's name, nor could it well have been anything else.
And as time went by, the very act of altering a foreign expression to fit within the patterns of the borrowing language got termed as Hobson Jobsonism. But what has Hobson & Jobson got to do with Burnell and Yule? Are they two people? Not at all!! The term Hobson-Jobson itself is apparently an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Shia Muslim cry "Ya Husan! Ya Husain!", used to mourn the deaths of Prophet Muhammad's grandsons.

Ok – so what has that got to do with Hobson Jobson? Well, a study of the phrase in the book explains how the outlandish term got coined. It appears that a T. Herbert in 1618 heard it as 'Hussan Hussan'; Fryer in 1673 wrote it as 'Hosseen Gosseen' and 'Hossy Gossy'; in 1726 it was reported that the Dutch called it 'Jaksom Baksom', and the Portuguese as 'Saucem Saucem'. In 1902 a lady by name Miss Goodrich-Freer settled the matter by writing it as 'Hobson-Jobson.' And that is how ya hussain becam ehobson jobson to the English! Interesting indeed, a’int it? Salman Rushdie jovially states "I don't quite see how the colonial British managed to hear (Ya Hassan Ya Hussain) as Hobson-Jobson but this is clearly a failure of imagination on my part." So it was all like apalam chapalam was coined in Hindi, kalli valli in Arabic …

But even for a book that took so long to create, the entries stopped with Yule in 1886. Since then many more words have crept in thanks to long distance migration. Yule concludes his opening remarks thus - In a work intersecting so many fields, only a fool could imagine that he had not fallen into many mistakes; but these when pointed out, may be amended. If I have missed the other object of endeavour, I fear there is little to be hoped for from a second edition.
Now I will spend a while on my hypothesis with one popular word, the word being Verandah. Look at the word verandah – Verandah: Everybody seemingly knows what it is they all use it and knows not where it comes from. It is roughly explained by one early writer as follows - before the lowest (storey) there is generally a small hall supported by pillars of teka (Teak) wood. This hall is called varanda, and supplies the place of a parlour. Has Indian origins but no one quite knows from where.
Veranda has been confidently derived by some etymologists (among others by M. Defremery, a distinguished scholar) from the Pers. bardmada, 'a projection,' a balcony; an etymology which is indeed hardly a possible one, but has been treated by Mr. Beames (who was evidently unacquainted with the facts that do make it hardly possible) with inappropriate derision, he giving as the unquestionable original a Sanskrit word baranda, 'a portico.'

On this Burnell has observed that the word does not belong to the older Sanskrit, but is only found in comparatively modern works. Be that as it may, it need not be doubted that the word veranda, as used in England and France, was imported from India, i.e. from the usage of Europeans in India ; but it is still more certain that either in the same sense, or in one closely allied, the word existed, quite independent of either Sanskrit or Persian, in Portuguese and Spanish, and the manner in which it occurs in the very earliest narrative of the Portuguese adventure to India (Roteiro do Viagem de Vasco da Gama, written by one of the expedition of 1497), confirmed by the Hispano-Arabic vocabulary of Pedro de Alcala, printed in 1505, preclude the possibility of its having been adopted by the Portuguese from intercourse with India.

But I have another theory – in the days of the stringent caste system, when the English or Portuguese or some foreign man of non Hindu religion stepped to visit the Nair household and entered the portico (Poram thalam), the maid of the house or karyasthan (estate manager) would have screamed ‘veranda veranda’ in Malayalam– meaning ‘do not enter - don’t enter’ – for the house will be polluted by the entry of a non Hindu.

So he sat there on a wooden stool in the Thalam and thought – hmm. They call this place ‘veranda’ signifying the hall where I should sit. And thus a new word was born.

Not bad eh? But I was not around to advice Burnell & Yule.

By the way, even today, in a traditional Nair Nalu Kettu, for example in Palakkad or Ottapalam, a caste below the Nair is not allowed to enter the main house. In our house, I still remember, as time went by, specific lower caste servants were allowed though, but then again only when necessary.

That my friends is, venrandah for you…

Another example is Shampoo. But first, try & recall the movie and Johnnie Walker singing Sar jo…tel malish…in the Guru Dutt masterpiece Pyaasa. Champanya..he slurs.. that word champanya or massage became Champoo and this was the origin of the word Shampoo. Thus it turns out that the etymology of shampoo is from Hindi and meant to “press, pound and kneed,” like you do to bread dough. Originally a shampoo wasn’t a hair cleaning lotion, but a massage.

And then, how many of you knew this? Widow (n) An Indo-European word linked to the Sanskrit widh/vidh, meaning lacking, bereft, alone. In today's Hindi, a widow is widhwa.

Thus many thousand words entered the strict Victorian English world…to become the English that we know today. Words like Box, Bunglow, chicken, compound, competition, Charpoy, dandy, pug, sir, brinjal, batman, tank, tiffin, shampoo, verandah and so on are just a few examples. In April 2009, English acquired its millionth word. Some 1.4 billion people speak the language.

Now what is Hinglish compared to Hobson Jobsonism or HJ? Look at the definition of HJ – "Hobson-Jobson" refers to a law of linguistics by which speakers of one language adapt (i.e., garble ) a word or phrase from a different language to make it fit the patterns of their own. Hinglish on the other hand is - blending of the words "Hindi" and "English", means to combine both types of words in one sentence. This is more commonly seen in urban and semi-urban centers of the Hindi-speaking states of India, but is slowly spreading into rural and remote areas of these states via television, mobile phones and word of mouth, slowly achieving vernacular status. Many speakers do not realize that they are incorporating English words into Hindi sentences or Hindi words into English sentences. David Crystal, a British linguist at the University of Wales, projected in 2004 that at about 350 million, the world's Hinglish speakers may soon outnumber native English speakers. Columnist Devyani Chaubal was apparently the first author to use Hinglish in her work. Author Shobhaa De then began to use Hinglish elements in her books and columns in the Indian magazine Stardust. Other authors that have used Hinglish extensively in their novels are Salman Rushdie and Upamanyu Chatterjee. In 2005, Baljinder Kaur Mahal (pen name BK Mahal) wrote a book called, The Queen's Hinglish: How to Speak Pukka.

And then one man, a gorah who lived in new Delhi working in the British High commission, decided to spend the rest of his life making a new glossary called Hanklyn Janklyn. The Times Literary Supplement immediately pronounced that Nigel Hanklin's far more recent Hanklyn-Janklyn, A Stranger's Rumble-Tumble Guide to Some Words, Customs, and Quiddities Indian and Indo-British may have 'dealt a mortal blow' to Hobson-Jobson by being ‘more precise, more up-to-date…and more explicit'. His story is explained in these articles which provide a backdrop to the creation of the new version.

That might all be true. But I have never needed to look beyond the perennial favorite, the gem, the Hobson Jobson, even if I have to enrich the makers of Benadryl.

The On line Hobson Jobson - Anybody who wants to do an online search can go here and insert the word to get to the core.

A Pack of Cards

Ramnath was a contented man; he had retired after a long career with the IAS, and it had been a no mean achievement surviving the bureaucratic minefields. He was back at his village in Pallavur – Palakkad, spending the remaining part of his life ruminating the past, reading religious texts and building up a new social circle. Parvathi his wife, took good care of her soul mate. It had been difficult times for her too, running around with her ‘transferable job’ husband.

The kids were married off to good families and well settled; Leela their elder daughter had become a pediatrician and married Dr Krishna, a brain surgeon. Now they were well settled in New York, though it had been a time since they visited their parents. Their son Venkat had his own outfit in Bombay. The old parents saw Venkat, Shyama & Vijay the grand child once every two years, when they came down for their summer holidays. It was the best part of their lives, being with their grandson, The grandparents doted on the child, enjoying his merry antics. When Vijay went back to Bombay, it always left Ramnath & Parvathi in despair for many days…

And then, one monsoon day, tragedy befell the family. Parvathi was afflicted with pneumonia and a severe chest infection; she succumbed to it, before medicine & doctors could come to her rescue. That event unsettled Ramnath greatly. For many days, he was like a zombie, his old sister spent some days taking care of him, and then she too left to tend to her own. Ramnath talked little, he was completely lost to the world. Venkat & family were at home for a brief period to console dad, but they could not fill the void. Leela came from NY and spent a couple of days with dad during the final ceremonies, but dad seemed disinterested.

Venkat & Leela had a chat and decided that their dad should spend some time away from all this if he had to recover. Bombay was out of question, dad hated the place. Leela agreed to take her dad to NY during the next available opportunity. Ramnath was not really interested and when told that he had to go to Madras and stand in line for a couple of days to get into the US embassy he simply refused to think about it.

Leela called every weekend, and finally the sheer pressure made the veteran IAS officer accede to his daughter’s request. He decided to go to America, and he thought, ‘maybe I am destined to see the land of freedom before I die’. He agreed to go to Madras and submit his papers for a visa. Little did he know of the difficulties he had to face, the line was serpentine and when he joined its tail end, he had no idea that the wait would take a long three days. He was wondering about the irony, a 65 year wizened old man, once a proud IAS officer, now standing in line for a rubber stamp on his passport? The things he saw while in queue, he saw kids making a quick buck selling food and drinks, caps, youngsters offering to stand in line at night so that the oldies could come back the next day and claim their place. Most of the people in line were of two kinds, students (who of course had abundant energy) or families traveling to meet up with offspring well entrenched in USA. After one night, Ramnath had no choice but to purchase one of these ‘position in line’ services. He had no strength to stand for so many hours and had fainted twice the first day. He wanted to leave the line and go back home, but taking a step backward was not something he favored.

Finally he got into the embassy and obtained his 6 month visa without any problems. Leela had ensured that all the paperwork was complete and as a wealthy sponsor of the old man, presented no reasons for denial to the consular officer.

Soon Ramnath got his suitcase packed and left for New York. He survived the flight; got through immigration, and was met by his daughter. When he saw the ‘home’, he was amazed. What an apartment and what a posh area that was! Ultra modern, on the 20th floor of a building that reached up to the sky, with all kinds of modern gadgets, big screen TV, two cars, microwave, cooking range, bath tubs, a Jacuzzi…what not, really! Outside, the weather was hot and humid.

He asked for his son in law Krishna who was nowhere to be seen. Leela said, ‘Dad, life here is not like in India. Krishna is a very busy surgeon; I too get to see him only once in a while’. Ram was not pleased hearing it, he asked if Leela was happy. She replied that she was and that she too was busy with her consulting and found no time for other activities. They were on the quest up the social ladder. Many more objects had to be acquired, they had to make more money to move to Long Island where the affluent doctors lived…So it was still a long way and the policy was to work hard and make money when they were healthy and young. Ram did not quite accept all this. They changed subjects, had a quick lunch and talked about New York for a while.

Then Leela dropped the bombshell, ‘Dad, I need to go now, I have a few important consultations, I will come late tonight, but I have organized some food for you. It is in the freezer. When it is time, please heat it before eating’. Ram listened carefully. His thoughts were in disarray after the long flight and the new ambience. Leela then gave him instructions on two things that were to determine the course of his future life, the use of the TV remote control and the use of the Microwave oven keypad.

Ram slept after Leela left. He hoped to see Krishna when he woke up a few hours later, but he found the other bedroom door latched and a yellow ‘stick it’ note on the refrigerator door. Little was he to know that the refrigerator door would soon be his means of communication with his busy offspring (No mobile phones those days).

The note said ‘Dad, Krishna here, found you asleep, have an early morning surgery, need to get a quick wink. See you later’. Ram wondered if he should wake his son in law, but decided against it. After all, a surgeon had to be calm and rested before an important surgery.

He got back to the dining table and thought silently for a while. Then he did what most of us do, he ‘channel surfed’, but could not get anything of much interest or to his liking. He opened the fridge to check what was in there, found some rice and a curry, which he consumed after duly heating them as instructed….After a few boring hours, he slept.

When he awoke and went to the dining area, he saw three stickers on the fridge.

One from Leel to Kris…Kris, when did you get in? Did you meet dad? Saw you sleeping when I got in…I have to go as well, we have the Chicago conference the next two days…catch’ya later…

The other from Kris to Leel …Hey Leel, am off for an early surgery, too bad we did not meet last night. See ya later … luv…

He saw the third addressed to him from Leela…Dad, sorry, I have this important conference - forgot to tell you yesterday. I have your food done. It is in the fridge.

This went on for a few days. He did get a few minutes with Krishna one day, but then Krishna seemed caught up with some strange game called American football. Ram tried to follow the game, he did not get the hang of it, it was not like the soccer he knew and they hardly used a foot. Cricket was the only game he liked but he knew that it was not played in USA.

Like before, he finally walked over to the window and looked. The small cars snaked up the winding bridges and fly-overs, and then crawled through the concrete jungles. The only flyover he remembered was the Gemini flyover in Madras and when compared to these, Gemini was puny. The few people on the street looked like midgets. Everything seemed so slow from up there…and the number of planes that came by to land…he had never seen so many in India. Cochin airport had just three flights a day. Time passed by, he had lunch, followed by channel surfing, a short nap on the sofa and it was dusk.

Two days went by thus and Ram had still not had his constitutional walk or seen anybody, he was restless. He decided to go down and check the world out. Going down the high speed elevator was no problem; he got down and only then did he really appreciate the immense tower he was living in. It had at least 50 floors. But that was not it; life down here was so fast. Cars and buses zoomed by, people were pushing past each other, everybody had a purpose. Ram looked around and spotted a park a few yards away, and yes, it had trees and benches…

He went and sat on one of the benches and looked at the people who passed by. He saw colored people for the first time, he had read about them and the famous Martin Luther King during his younger days. He nodded at the other people who came to the park, they were not so friendly, or so it seemed. After a while he went back to his apartment, only to realize that he had forgotten to lock the doors. He chastised himself for the folly and promised himself that he would go out the next time only after locking the doors and pocketing the keys.

The next day was a little better. He met his daughter and son in law for breakfast. They were all apologies, but they explained to the old man that one had to keep running in NY or they fell. Ram did not question this vague theory; he just listened silently, as he had actually given up on his daughter. Soon they left to fulfill their busy schedules.

Ram then decided to go down to the park instead of channel surfing. He had found a pack of cards at home and he took this with him. After walking around the park for a few minutes, Ram sat down in a cool corner of the park and started to play a game of ‘patience (solitaire)’. He laid the 7 cards of the top row, then the next row of 6 and so on…one game followed the other. After a while he saw a pair of well booted feet in front of him. He looked up. A very dignified tall ‘white’ guy!! Ram was apprehensive. The man asked ‘Sir, Can I join you?’ Ram was not sure. In India strangers never accosted you like this, what should he do? He thought for a while and accepted.

It was thus that Ram found his first new friend in NY. The man turned out to be a retired police chief. In the days to come, more people sat down with him for cards. The group comprised some real famous persons of that period, a retired mayor, retired physicians, professors…They totaled eight including Ram. They got along very well as they improved their rummy playing proficiency. The oldies then took Ram around, showed him Manhattan, the twin towers; the Statue of liberty….They too found a new and enjoyable purpose, educating their guest from India on what the US life style was all about. Ram saw the NY buses, the NY subway, the Punjabi taxi drivers…They even took Ram to the ‘Woodlands’ restaurant in Manhattan one day. To put it in a nutshell, Ram was finally enjoying life ….

The old man never told about his friends to his daughter or son in law. It was not that he hid this from them; it was just that they were not interested or around to talk. They did mention on some occasions that they needed to find a week end to take the old man around New York, but when the weather was cooler. The old man was sad at home; he was disappointed at the way he had been treated. On most days the ‘sticky notes’ sessions continued. He sometimes wondered why NY had so many sick people to keep his doctor offspring on their toes. He now understood why they had no children. They did not want anything delaying their quest up the ladder.

The weather changed, and the meeting of our oldies circle had to be moved indoors. They took turns; they all met at the police chief’s house the first day, then the prof’s…and so on. It was Ram’s turn now, he was not very sure if he should invite them home. After some thought, he did.

They had a blast…Ram was a great host; he offered them all the frozen stuff he had. It was the first time most of them were visiting an Indian home. He told them about his gods, about the village way of life, he tried to tell them a little bit about the simple food they ate…and they enjoyed learning all of this.

Suddenly, the door bell rang. Ram was a bit surprised. Normally he never met Leela or Krishna in the mornings or afternoons. Why today? Opening the door, he saw both of them. They said “surprise, dad” in unison. ‘Today is your birthday and we decided to take you out. Shall we go?’

Ram replied truthfully, Thanks, but, I really can’t do that now, I have my friends over today and we are having a party. Leela was flabbergasted. They did not know dad had friends here, they had not expected dad to invite those friends even. Ram introduced his friends to them. Krishna was amazed; Ram had brought home some of the very distinguished people of the locality. How did he know them? Leela was still rubbing her eyes and wondering ‘How did dad know all these Americans on a first name basis? How did he get on back patting terms with the police chief and the mayor? ‘

They had been in US for 12 years and still knew few outside their offices. Their hope was that when they got rich, they would choose carefully and build a circle they wanted. They had dreamed of parties, a big buddy group and so on…how did dad manage all this? Imagine having an American police chief or a college dean eating some left over curd rice happily & chatting away!

After the party ran its course and all the guys left, Ram explained how he met those wonderful new friends of his. He explained how simple it all was, it had required nothing from him….He talked long about the loneliness of old age and he talked of his wanting to be part of his offspring’s lives in some small way. He talked of his dreams, he explained of his ideas of friendship. He told them why he would never lead a life that was not full. And he explained to them why he thought they would never achieve happiness in their busy quest.

I do not know exactly what happened after that. I know that the two took the sermon with a certain amount of sheepishness; I know that Leela felt bad for a number of days after that and I recall that they decided to find more meaning to their life and slow their mad run. I heard much later that they decided to have a kid and were parents of a lovely little girl…

And Ram…he returned to Palghat after his visa had run its course…full of memories of those fantastic people he had met in the park and the times they had. He wrote to all of them. The village post office had never seen as many air mail letters as those which started to come after Ram returned. Ram often regaled village acquaintances of the great sights and sounds of New York. Most people thought him an old fart bluffing away when he mentioned his connections with some well known names…till he showed them the envelopes and the sender’s names…

I heard that Ram died a few years ago. I met his sister the other day at the temple; it seems he died a peaceful death, a contended man. Leela & Venkat had come with their respective spouses. I am told that Vijay had a very jolly time pulling Sam’s legs…Who is Sam? Sam is Samyukta, Leela’s & Krishna’s daughter and an ABCD. I understood that Sam was initially not amused with Palghat and the mosquitoes. But she did like the abundant spaces to run around and quickly got on with her other relatives and new found friends. It seems that Leela was quite vexed when they were to leave since Sam had become very much like the ‘local type’ and all brown in complexion.

Ah! Well! Life continues…

Authors notes:

1. Many years ago I listened to a ‘Baghavad Geeta’ discourse by Swami Chinmayananda. One of the anecdotes he used to exemplify a point remained in my mind. I took some liberties with that ‘one minute’ story, added some characters, some reality and made it into what you just read.

2. It was only in 1996 that the US consulate in Madras eventually decreed that people over the age of 60 would be given a time and a date of appointment upon request and that they did not have to stand in line for days (after the press came out with front page reports). This story was set before that decree. What I wrote here about the visa experience actually happened to my parents. We were living in Istanbul those days.

3. This story is particularly dear to me and was written many years ago, though edited recently. That is why you see references to twin tower, the three flights to old cochin airport, Gemini flyover etc…

Manhattan pic from visitingdc.com

The Burlington House Cartoon

One among the uninitiated, that is, in the field of art & painting, like me, would but naturally, assume that I am talking about the stuff you see in magazines and newspapers. The cartoonists are very important in today’s society, they provide the irony laced with humor in a single frame, but then again there are the extended versions called stand up comedians who do it on the idiot box over a period of an hour or so. There are also some of these characters in certain big cities who even end up as politicians and become a general nuisance to society, but this is not about any of them.

So, this is not at all about any kind of cartoon, but a very famous person, who was after all, a regular genius, who possessed amongst other great talents the talent called artistry – thus one who also became a great painter. The man is Da Vinci. But then again, I will not write too much about his great talents in anatomy, dark medicine, Opus Dei, inventions, scientific activities and so on, but will try to stick to a single cartoon, an unfinished one at that. Some would also recall that Da Vinci rose to limelight again recently thanks to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, a fine book.

Why talk about an unfinished painting? Simply because it caught my eye when I first saw it and because I ended up purchasing a small print copy of it which I now see and look at many times daily. Though it does not beat the fascination I have for Ravi Varma’s milkmaid (which I would call an eternal painting or sketch), the everlasting face of the lady Sugunabai, it evokes different feelings, like how would it have looked had it been a completed glorious painting! Now, most people have this idea that a genius creates these in a single stroke of a brush, but an analysis of the Mona Lisa has shown that the final product evolved over a number of attempts which can be seen under the final one.This painting itself had only the basic sketch & outline done by Da Vinci and his students took care of the rest, or so it seems.

So this is about the painting titled the Burlington house cartoon, one that can be seen at the National gallery London. The last time I was there was when my late mother visited us in the UK in 2006 and we all went around sight seeing London. The picture caught my eye (so did a couple of others and I will spare you, the reader, for the time being, about those) and I purchased a copy.

This cartoon was done in the 1498-1510 time frame of his life, during the heydays of contractual work for the Italian Church, and here let me borrow the words an onlooker penned watching Leonardo at work, doing the ‘last supper’. “He would often come to the convent at early dawn; and this I have myself seen him do. Hastily mounting the scaffolding, he worked diligently until approaching darkness compelled him to stop, never thinking of food at all, so concentrated on his work was he. On other occasions he would stay there for three or four days without touching the painting, only coming in for a few hours to remain in front of it, with folded arms..."

There is a certain mystery in this painting, of that I am sure, and I hope that Dan Brown or somebody of his genre will come up with a story sometime, doing justice to the mystery in the story. As testimony, here is what Pope Leo X said of Da Vinci - "Alas, this man will do nothing; he starts by thinking of the end of the work before its beginning." Now if this were true, why is this unfinished? Why did it not have an end? Therein lay the enigma of Da Vinci, his troubled and drifting mind. You can see the pencil sketches of what the picture would have looked like. It would have taken a few more strokes of the brush to complete, but why did Da Vinci, a master of procrastination delay completion even though it would have meant completion of a contract? Did he lose the religious intent with which it was started? Did he know something that we did not? And of course, experts have come up with hidden images in the painting that a cursory look would not show. I must also say that readers with a lot of interest should look at the other painting at the Paris Louvre, which is titled ‘Virgin and child with St Anne’ which is somewhat similar to this cartoon.

To describe the painting using somebody else’s words, it is a combination of two themes popular in Florentine painting of the 15th century: the Virgin (Mary) and Child with St John the Baptist (son of Mary's relative Elizabeth) and the Virgin and Child with St Anne (Mary's mother). The drawing, in charcoal and black and white chalk, covers eight sheets of paper glued together. They say - Unusual for a cartoon, the outlines have never been pricked or incised, indicating that the stage of transferring the design to the panel that would then be painted was not reached. The work's alternative title, The Burlington House Cartoon, refers to its private home at the Royal Academy until 1962. So why is this painting called a cartoon in the first place? Well, in the old days, the word had a different meaning than what it is today. The word cartoon meant a preparatory drawing for a big piece of art, such as a wall painting or tapestry. It did evolve from the word Carton – meaning thick pasteboard where such draft drawings were made.

As for the painting itself some excerpts from Lairweb’s analysis

The oil painting of the Virgin And Child With St. Anne is thought to date from 1507-1513. An account of the cartoon for this painting indicates it may have been modified at some stage, perhaps as an afterthought. A description of the original sketch describes St. Anne as restraining her daughter from discouraging the Child in pulling the lamb's ears. This is not what can be seen today; our view is of a rather detached watching grandmother. Some are fascinated by the sight of St. Anne supporting her heavy daughter on her knee, and with no visible means of support. Others are convinced that hidden in the folds of the draping over the arms is the shape of a vulture, the head and neck can be found in the blue cloak encircling the Madonna and the bird's tail points towards the infant's mouth. There is more fascination about the infant’s left hand, which is meant to signify something quite personal to Da Vinci.The Virgin and Child With St. Anne has been retouched, and was left unfinished with the drapery covering the Virgin's legs being little more than an outline. Why, is unknown, though it may have been due to Leonardo's increasing interest in mathematics and subsequent engagement as engineer in the service of Cesare Borgia. At the same time this painting was in progress Leonardo was experimenting with preparations which he hoped would result in an improved varnish for his work; unfortunately these experiments were a failure. This mattered little; Leonardo still had 10 years to live, but by 1508 his career as a painter was drawing to a close and after maybe as much as ten years of intermittent work on this painting he gave up.

Some believed that the painting was commissioned by Louis XII after seeing ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘Virgin of the rocks’ around 1499, as a gift for his wife Anne de Bretagne. Others believe that it was done after his return to Florence in 1500 as guests of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata and were provided with a workshop where, according to Vasari, Leonardo created the cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, a work that won such admiration that "men and women, young and old" flocked to see it "as if they were attending a great festival. This cartoon was bequeathed by Da Vinci to his loyal companion Francesco Melzi. Actually the project was awarded by the monks to Filippino Lippi, but he suggested they approach Da Vinci whom he thought a superior painter. Da Vinci worked on it initially, but never completed it. Then Lippi was called on to finish it, but he died before finishing it. Peruguino finally completed it as we see it today. It is valued by experts at around $35 Million, these days.
But strangely, this object was vandalized in 1987. It was damaged in July 1987 by a man who entered the gallery with a shotgun concealed under his coat. The man, Robert Cambridge, told the police his intent had been to show his disgust with ''political, social and economic conditions in Britain.'' The pellets did not penetrate the Cartoon. But the blast pulverized a section of protective laminated glass, tearing a hole about six inches in diameter on the Virgin's robe. Since then this charcoal and white drawing has been restored, the story of the restoration is quite interesting, and can be read in detail in this NY Times report.
Studying the sketch itself is daunting for one not trained in Renaissance art and the religious period when Vasco Da GAMA was on his way to India - This illustration for The Burlington House Cartoon is interesting because of the marks around the edge of the figures and the almost undecipherable scratches for the lower parts of the bodies. Both of these were because of Leonardo trying to find a satisfactory manner in which to have them sit in space. But I will not delve any further. About the various possible secrets, I will refer you to the detailed studies and another blog.
Getting back to Da Vinci himself, later studies conjuncture that he may actually have been of Arab or Turkish heritage based on the study of his fingerprint found in one of his paintings. The revelation will lend weight to the increasingly popular academic theory that Da Vinci's mother, Caterina, was a slave who came to Tuscany from Istanbul. It is also stated that he probably had over 21 half siblings from his father Pieor’s (a Florentine notary) five relationships. Caterina herself was apparently married off to one of his workers - a laborer called Antonio di Piero del Vacca. According to the papers, the marriage took place only a few months after she gave birth to a boy called Leonardo. At the age of 60, after her husband died, Caterina moved to Milan where Leonardo was living. The pair developed a distant relationship and Leonardo stayed in touch with his mother through a series of letters.

As you can see, this basic introduction to the painting takes you so many facets of history, sometimes fascinating, sometimes violent covering the person, the painting, the Burlington house, and many other things, if one chose to take such avenues or alleys.

Or we could simply gaze at the picture and marvel at the expressions created by the genius, like I do, every day.

Leonardo's projects, c. 1500-1519 - Claire J. Farago
Leonardo da Vinci, the artist and the man - Osvald Sirén
Burlington house history

The International Indian

I must thank Shashi Tharoor for this. Not that I know him or anything. But like all of you, I know of him. Recently, thanks to the internet and the forward mail industry, I got a link from my wife to his speech at the TED forum. As I watched it, I must say I truly enjoyed it. Well, Tharoor is from Palakkad, my maternal hometown and though I disagree with what he said about R K Narayanan, I think he is a pretty neat guy, charming and all that, with a twinkle in his eyes, set to warm many a girl’s heart and a Hugh Grant style demeanor and a Brit accent to boot. But gals, unfortunately this is not about Tharoor or how to charm a woman. It is a little bit about the roaming Indian in the big wide bad world, something Tharoor reminded me of..

As I was writing this the spell check gave out its warnings – Narayanan was underlined red due to some enthusiastic chap at Microsoft (quite possibly an Indian whose code warnings red marked it as not being in the English dictionary) and suggested that I replace it with Maryann. Grr…RK Narayanan with Maryann, what gall. Why can’t these people add the whole bunch of Indian names & Hinglish words to the electronic dictionaries?

But well, this goes back a few months, and I was at my favorite haunt in Temecula, a place which is fast becoming a memory. It was the public library. After a bad week, I was trudging my way in, a little hunched as usual, not a cheer on my face and wondering if I would get the book I wanted. The Library was crowded on that Saturday and there were plenty of people in various poses, lounging in the cavernous hall. An assortment of South Californian pride, I suppose. One could see a number of excited and chattering youngsters with their mommas all dolled up, I mean the mommas were dolled up. There was the team of teenagers trying to access sites to which the hormones coursing through their blood stream were directing them, and giggling in the process. Then there were the somber academic types clacking away on their keyboards referring to voluminous books in front of them, there were the mousy bespectacled types studying for the upcoming exams, there were the decrepit types, the homeless who had surreptitiously come in to use the toilets and relax for a while. There were the busy ones, striding in, doing their thing & striding out, like me….A typical Saturday scene at the Public library.

I was pacing by, scowl on my face when a pretty girl beckoned to me. Now, that was kind of surprising. I would have taken it in my stride some years back, being one (i.e. myself) of the charming species and all that. But it happens less frequently these days and so I was a little flustered, sort of caught off guard. Suddenly I was reminded of the little paunch that was developing and my hairline that was fast receding like the water off the Arabian Sea shores. She sure was pretty; I tell you and must have been some 20-22, female Caucasian, not underage or anything, so certainly interesting, I thought, enough to warrant a proper response.

Taking a deep breath to pull the sagging ‘rectus abdominis muscles’ up (sarcastic New Yorker writers call it ‘gut’, but these are the ones that will hopefully when well defined give you the six pack look) I ambled up to her, John Wayne style (No, I did not – it was a lame metaphor) and putting on a deep baritone reminiscent of Gregory Peck, I asked ‘yes?’, with the ‘twinkle in the eye’ (hopefully it was the Tharoor type). Anyway the young one batted her eyelids (not really) and said, Sir, (the rectus abdominus muscles loosened and the air left my lungs when I heard that, but then I thought – at least not the term ‘uncle’ which is guaranteed to depress you for a week) can you help me?

There was still some hope left and I waited with bated breath to see what the request was going to be. She had a number of books open before her and a laptop open. I thought, maybe she thinks I am a volunteer helper at the library, maybe she wants a book or something, maybe she needs some coaching on a difficult subject. But she got me surprised with her next question - Sir, can you help me with my laptop? Well, I would have expected this kind of a question from an older mama, but this one seemed to be from the laptop mobile computing texting generation, so I was a little perturbed wondering if the challenge was going to make a fool of me.

She continues in a low husky voice (much later I realized that the low tone was due to the – SILENCE board), I cannot get my PC to connect up to the wireless network, can you help me with that?

Well, I sat down next to her with enormous confidence ( I am reasonably good with tinkering around stuff like this – you see) thankful that I had doffed myself with Davidoff before setting out, as that had proved a sure winner ( I mean conversation opener – not anything stronger) with the fairer sex in the past. But there was no comment about David or Davidoff anyway, this time. Sitting down next to her, I pulled the laptop towards me (I was thinking laptop laptop and realized that my mind was going astray to the nether regions), seeing with dismay that this black box ( for it was certainly not a laptop but a mini PC) belonged to a previous generation, a clunker as they call it in USA.

And then I suddenly realized that I had a real major serious problem. I had no reading glasses with me. While I can just about read without it and with teary eyes resulting from the effort, doing serious work was out of the question. Now the keyboard was certainly looking a little fuzzy and after much use the letters had started to fade out even. But then, there was no way I could wriggle out of this predicament easily. I had committed myself, Good Samaritan and all… And so, it was indeed going to be a headache.

It proved to be a very difficult challenge. For the lady had ‘for some strange reason’ this ancient computer with Windows 98 and a wireless card. Now that was certainly antique in PC terms and she later confessed that she, a pretty nursing student (ah – I can see the sudden spurt of interest in the mind of the male reader – To date I have not figured out why a nurse in white is so appealing, and the nursing dress has done wonders to ramp up sales in the sexy attire aisles of such shops) was in Temecula on study holidays and that this was her aunt’s ‘purdy ole’ laptop. We chatted awhile about all this as I struggled with the machine.

Some readers would be wondering if I was exaggerating, and the answer is of course, I am, but not too much, as yet. But you must realize that an average American is quite forthcoming about his or her background after a few minutes of friendly chit chat. Once they warm up, the life history comes tumbling out. So as I was peering at the keyboards and racking my memory cells about old experience with Windows 98, cursing ‘Bill the Microsoft Gates’ all the time, trying to get the connection right and the driver re-installed, I felt my eyes tearing rapidly. The peering was getting a little too much and I was not there yet.

So sheepishly I admitted to this young gal that I missed my lenses. She was very apologetic that she had put me to task and then came the stunner. She said, you see, when I saw you walking in, and saw that you were looking Indian, I was sure you will know how to fix my computer problem. I was aghast. She continued, rubbing it in, you guys are smart with this stuff, you all know a lot about these thingies. So it had nothing to do with the twinkle in the eyes, and the baritone and Davidoff and all that, it was finally Hamara Desh Bharat Mahan at work? Oh! Come on…

Anyway, by now I had found the solution and the computer was connected to the library network. I sighed with relief and my eyes thanked me for stopping right there. Then I patiently explained that I was not a computer guy or a call center tech, but an electrical engineer dealing with big power stations and things like that. The girl’s eyes grew even wider and said. Wow! An engineer dealing with power plants, would you believe it? You guys are even more smarter than I thought. I hastily bid goodbye, red faced by now, and wished her best with her exams and aunty and laptop and nursing and trotted off, a little miffed with the experience, moving towards the history aisles in search of a book on Teddy Roosevelt, a story I was researching involving Churchill, Roosevelt & Gandhi and smiled. The little encounter was certainly interesting, and turned out OK eventually, but well, in hindsight it did make me think a bit.

When an average American sees an Indian these days, you are either a PC techie or some call center guy. Now that is the present. A decade back you were a Patel working in the corner gas station or Seven eleven or running a motel. Before that you were always a Punjabi lumberjack. In between a few guys slipped in and quietly made their name, assimilated into the American mainstream and made themselves conspicuous by their absence from limelight and general invisibility. They became whiz kids, humble and behind the scenes operators, doing yeoman service and getting their colleges like the IIT and IIM into the limelight. They continue to be so. But today there is another lot; for here in Raleigh I saw a new set of people, the young IT crowd from India, supremely confident, no longer timid and flustered and clearly enjoying life. Raleigh seems to accept them joyfully. They are the ones who will now steer India’s name to the next level and I will be here seeing it all, I hope. But I do not want to write too much and complicate this piece.

And that brings me to Tharoor’s speech on what he called ‘soft power’. It was his mention of how a guy came running in an airport asking if the Indian could repair his laptop that triggered this specific memory. Tharoor humorously mentioned so many other things, a good orator that he is, like the influence of Bollywood. You know, he is so right. We had been watching ‘ so you think you could dance’ for a few seasons now and as you see the number of the Bollywood dance sequences attempted by the young American contestants, it becomes very clear that they have finally learnt that India is not just a land of snake charmers and slums and Patel’s, but also a fun place with a lot of cool stuff you could pick up. But what they still have to learn is the other bedrock that we have in subjects like history, science, mathematics, medicine, the learned people of the ancient times and their learning that we all imbibed. But that will take some more time, I suppose.

My own experience is testimony to much of this, for as I was In Saudi, I could see that the Saudi’s had little regard for the Indian “Hindi”. For him, the Indians were a bunch of slaves to be kicked around. It was even worse in Kuwait. I still shudder to think of that day in war torn Kuwait, when the whole country was in ruins, we were in a house where a once rich Kuwaiti family lived. In Kuwait to do a damage assessment we bumped into a friend from the TV channel who was conducting an interview & so he pulled us along. As we got into the house, the lady of the house was complaining about the atrocities heaped on them by the Iraqi’s, of how they had to learn to cook and wash their clothes (stated with extreme anguish- of course and I had to suppress my sniggers). A daughter came in to serve tea and believe it or not, she served everybody expect the lone non European or non Arab in the room, being me. She simply would not hand me a cup.

Finally my friend passed me his cup and asked for another one thus solving the problem. I was furious actually, I was risking my life in that hellhole, trying to help these people and see how I get treated. That rankled, but I soon forgot it in the struggle over the next few days in the lightless, foodless booby trapped Kuwait with bullets whizzing by and grenades exploding. That was how the Arab treated the Indian, even in dire situations. In Dubai, I know it was slightly better, though there was contempt in the undertone of Arab life, however I believe it was manageable.

But it was all so different in Istanbul, a vibrant place where they had by and far a poor opinion of India, where Hindus according to them ill treated Muslims and so on, but they were always open and willing to discuss and agree when they saw they were wrong and met a person to discuss it with. It was there that I came across and wrote about the Turkish Prime minister who loved the Gita, a general manager who had an Indian Kidney and so on (quite a few stories are yet to be published). They remembered Raj kapoor and Awara and even had those movies on TV, certain days. As you went to remote places, the older people always said – Hindistan – you make great movies. I heard the same refrain many times over, in many other countries like Romania, Czech Republic and so on, but the loudest connections to Indian Bollywood were in Egypt – for when they saw Indians they equated them to Bachan Saab or Sridevi.

England of course was different; there we had more understanding of the abilities, since by then much of the medical industry was run by Indians, the doctors and the nurses alike. So there was plenty of respect and it was much more than the Indian hotel owner thing. Like Tharoor said, the one Billion Pound Indian food industry of Britain today is more than collectively the coal, steel and many other industries. That was an astounding statistic. Recall the days when those very British industries were fuel to the industrial revolution? Well the Indian soft power now fuels the IT revolution, I presume.

But it was not my intention in any way to make get into heavier topics, so I will digress for now and get back to today. Sorry guys, this was just a bit of a self indulgent prattling on a Sunday morning. I thought, why not, for I had bored you with reams of historical stuff about musty old people dead and gone, so wrote a little bit about the world I had seen.

So I will sign off suggesting that you try seeing this video of the speech made by Tharoor, it is certainly interesting, replete with the twinkle in the eyes and the Brit accent and the floppy hair and so on…

Tail note – See ‘Paa’, the Hindi movie if you can, we saw it last night and thought it brilliant. Both Bachan’s and Vidya were superb and I had a soggy handkerchief at the end of the show much to my missus’s embarrassment. Ilayaraja’s music reminded us of many old Tamil & Malayalam masterpieces of his and Balki, well thanks to him for bringing us this good movie…


The King's Railway

The 50 something man who sat in the lavishly appointed waiting in the brand new train station, looked tired and haggard, but not beaten. He had been struggling to see his dream through for the last decade. Much of his time was spent in conceiving this project and bringing it to fruition, and the workload of handling the family and other responsibilities were bearing heavy on his shoulders. He had struggled, toiled and spent reams of paper corrrsponding with the new authorities of the land or what it was today. He had begged and cajoled with them and he had dug deep in augmenting the finances to complete the project. He thought wryly, sometimes, about how he, the king of the land, had to wait and beg permission from the new lords of the state - the British foriegner, to do something benifitting his own subjects.

The king was none other than the erstwhile maharajah of Cohin, Rama Varma XV. Soon the train arrived at the spanking new Cochin terminus, chugging along the shiny grey rails, all the way from Shornaur. The first railway in the Cochin kingdom had been completed, not by the powerful British rulers, but by the Cochin Raja himself. As the king waited in the royal waiting room, his heart swelled with pride, his eyes brimmed with tears. Sadly he spared a thought for the glorious ‘gold nettipattams of 14 royal elephants’ and the family land and jewels he had to sell and sacrifice for this project. But it was done, he had brought in the very first railway to his land, all by himself. It would hopefully benefit trade and help the many merchants who had been calmoring for connectivity to the trade systems. They wanted to get the materials across the ghats and from Malabar to the sea port that was being planned in Cochin. Today, looking back, they got not just one, but three passenger stations in the course of time Ernakulam North, South & Cochin Harbor.

Readers would have recalled my love for the Indian railways, I had written a couple of articles on it some years ago. This one is thanks to a tip with background info from my friend Venu. As I thrashed my way through the historic alleys and all the dust and bushes and twigs that prevented easy passage, the story that emerged was quite fascinating. While most of the historic aspects are known to very few enthusiasts, the story behind the story and the personna of the king came from the memories of Venu’s uncle.

However as I researched this story, I found it quite difficult to separate fact from fiction as I did not have a very important source, the autobiography of the King. This king, the Rajarshi Rama Varma of Cochin is mentioned in many places, but not many details could be gleaned even in the Cochin state manual by Achyutha Menon, inspite of the Rajah being a very modern thinking individual who should at least have been written about after the British left. In fact there is quite a bit written about the next project of the same king, namely the quaint Cochin state tramway, thanks to a railway enthusiast & historian Devan Varma.

First let us get an insight into the illustrious raja. HH Maharaja Sri Sir RAMAVARMA XV 1895/1914 (abdicated a.k.a Ozinja Vallia Thampuran) , Maharaja [cr.1921], G.C.I.E. [cr.1911], G.C.S.I. [cr.1903], K.C.S.I. [cr.1897], born 27th December 1852, died in 1932 at Trichur. It is said that he ruled Cochin during crucial times and was not only a legendary figure but also one of the greatest rulers of modern times. An erudite scholar in Sanskrit and English, and was considered to be ‘A scholar among princes and a prince among scholars’. Lord Curzon once remarked that among the native Indian States, nowhere had he seen a more progressive administration than in Cochin after meeting him. This Raja brought permanent reforms to the department of Revenue and Accounts. The Village Panchayath Bill was a valiant attempt to get the people at the grassroots involved in administration. The Tenancy Act was a personal triumph of Rajarshi. But after all these decorations and sucesses, he abdicated his throne in 1914. There are many versions for his abdication. One of the very talked about version is that he had differences with British Empire because of his proximity with Germans. There is also another version in his biography which says he resigned due to ill-health. Some mentions can be found about his disputes with the resident at madras and his high handed attitude and treatment of the monarch. He died in January 1932 (1107 Makaram 16th.)

He is also known as Ozinja Vallia Thampuran (Note that the king is typically mentioned in contemporary times as Kochi Valiya Thampuran, not as Kochi Rajavu as we know today).

This is the story as I first heard it - The British had already built the railway line from Madras to Malabar. Kochi was largely isolated from Malabar by the Western Ghats and it was very important to have a railway link to further its goals. The Kochi raja approached the British bureaucracy and requested them to connect Kochi too by rail but the British were not interested. He tried again by traveling to Madras and meeting the British officials there also but was told that they weren't interested. So he decided to build a meter gauge rail from Shoranur to Ernakulam, by himself. As he started construction, he ran out of money. So he sold most of his land and continued. Still the funds weren't sufficient, so he sold the "nettipattams" (caparisons of solid gold) of all the elephants except for a lone elephant maintained at their temple in Trippunittara and somehow managed to complete the construction. Of course the British didn't take lightly to the fact this small king managed to complete the railway line and managed to influence his brothers and relatives and declared that he was mentally unstable and forced him to abdicate. Since then, they ensured that there was no mention about him in historical references other than a fleeting reference to the ‘king who abdicated’. And the king walked out of the palace with just one trunk containing his and his wife's clothes and settled down near Wadakkanchery. He made sure that his house was close to the railway line and spent all his time watching out for trains. Later he was supposed to have moved to Cheruthuruthy and again found a house near the railway line so that he could watch trains go by!!

Was that how it was? Well it appears that the first railway ideas were conceived in 1861, after Malabar got linked to the British Southern railway system. Private businessmen mooted the idea of connecting Cochin, but none of them took off. The Madras government was not very forthcoming in support, until finally the king found able support from his Dewan P Rajagopalachari in 1892. Mr Frederic Nicholson was presented with a detailed plan which stated that the entire expenses would be met by the Cochin state. The state had at that point of time, a surplus reserve of 44 lakhs. The project was eventually sanctioned in 1899. After difficult period of project work involving bridges and tough terrain, the first goods train found its way on those tracks to Cochin on June 2nd 1902 and passenger traffic started in July 1902. Of the 65 miles, 18 ran through the territory of Travancore. The net investment rose to around Rs 70 lakhs by the time the project was completed. The railway was run by the Madras railway company until 1907 after which the lease was sold to the South India Railway Co.

British Library records stated thus - “The durbar promptly met the requirements on the revised and enhanced estimates of the Madras Railway Company who are constructing the line from Shoranur to Ernakulam and the line has been completed, so that a ballast train from Shoranur ran into Ernakulam on March 31st, 1902. But the delay on the part of the English manufactures in supplying locomotives and carriages prevents the opening of the line for passenger traffic.”

But what about the finacial difficulties the king had? British reports state that there was indeed a deficit in the Cochin state budget during the project and that loans from temples, sale of government paper at discounts etc were resorted to. At one point of time things got so bad that there was just 2 days worth of reserves in the Cochin treasury. The debt of over 13 lakhs crippled the king. “The boldness with which the Cochin durbar has not hesitated to borrow in order to complete the construction of the Shornur-Ernakulam Railway and has at the same time undertaken the construction of a forest tramway, startled the old fashioned officials of this coast, who were accustomed to seeing a surplus added to the hoard of the State. A British official wrote “It must have been difficult for His Highness the Raja thus to act against the solid mass of conservative opinion which surrounded him, and I think His Highness was enabled to do this only by the support given by Mr. P. Rajagopalachri, of the Madras Statutory Civil Service, who was Dewan from 1896 to 1901. Much of the blame lies with the British suppliers and contract execution. The construction of tramway supplied by a German firm was on time and within budget while that of the railways by English company was both over cost and behind schedule”.

But now let us see what the press has to say – Quoting Hindu - Records at the archives reveal that the Maharaja had a prolonged, detailed correspondence with the Resident of the British Empire since 1862 on the ways and means to establish the railway line. Finally, the State was asked to bear the entire expenditure involved in laying the lines. The State then was not rich enough to bear the substantial investment. But the Maharaja would not give up. He was bent on completing the dream project at any cost. He took the bold decision to sell a part of the valuables in his custody. Mr Raman Namboodiri, who retired from the Archaeological Department, says that the treasury records substantiate the fact that the Maharajah sold 14 gold elephant caparisons that belonged to the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple and other ornaments to fund the project. Once the fund was sanctioned the project ran into another hurdle. About 18 miles of the railway line, between Angamaly and Edappally, passed through the erstwhile Travancore state. In October 1899, the Travancore state was requested to hand over the land required for the laying of the railway line. Construction began in 1899 and was undertaken by the Madras railway authorities, on behalf of the Cochin state.

The final shortfall of some 3.5 lakhs in 1902-03 resulted in the Raja taking a loan from thr Chidambaram temple. Another question people used to pressure the king was perhaps - Was using the Chidambaram temple funds for constructing a railway sacrilegious?

And so here is where we see the palace politics coming to play. The British certainly had allies in the Cochin Royal family. Why where those relatives upset? The sub story in the story related to the many members of the royal household who did not work and were living off the state subsidy of some Rs. 3.5 lakhs. The King and the Dewan felt that the allowances to the male member should be reduced and that to Amma Raja be increased. In 1899/1900, the suggestion is that the system of providing allowances to all princes after upanayanam be abandoned and allowances be restricted to the senior-most few.13 princes of ranks between 3rd and 18th objected to the proposed cap of 3.5 lakhs and to the suggested changes in distribution of the Royal family finances. The Raja Rama Varma decided that, “the only way I can thing to get out of this difficulty is to try and make them earn their own comforts. I do not think they can be employed in this state. I have no objection whatever of them entering service.

So there you see some rumblings here, 13 princes revolting against the reigning king. The royal house was in disarray. The king was fighting with the British resident at Madras on one side and struggling to hold his ship on even keel and trying to do some good for his people. It was a painful situation, one that his mind could not accept. I guess these relentless pressures eventually made him abdicate in favor of a life amidst scriptures and scholarly pursuits.

But let us get back to the railway tracks…for now – TK Sadasivan, in his Hindu report, states - JULY 16, 1902. Exactly 100 years ago, on this very day, the first train whistled its way to Kochi. Hundreds of people crowded on the narrow platform to welcome the first ever passenger train. Also waiting with them were the members of the Cochin royal family. They lingered around the exclusive waiting room, aptly called the `Kottaram', built for them beside the platform at the Ernakulam Terminus Station. The State band kept playing the popular hits of the day. As the enthusiastic crowd watched with bated breath, the steam engine, belonging to the Cochin State Railway Service, chugged in majestically, pulling in a few passenger bogies on a pair of parallel rails that originated at Shoranur. It was the fulfilment of a long cherished dream for the people of Central Kerala. For this rail track ushered in development to Kochi.

"There were only three or four trains that plied on this route regularly. They used to stop at Chalakkudy where the steam engines were refilled with water," recalls Capt. Kerala Varma. "There were exclusive waiting rooms for the royal family at Chowara and Trichur also," Mr Varma added. Incidentally, the Maharaja used to spend the summer in the palace on the banks of the Periyar, near Chowara. The Shoranur-Kochi metre gauge railway line, that was about 62 miles long, ended at the Ernakulam Terminal Station. Initially, there was only one track. A circular track was put up nearby to enable the engine to turn. Buses and rickshaws used to come up to the station to pick up the passengers. There was an exclusive saloon for the Maharaja that used to be attached to the train only when the Maharaja travelled. Admission to the royal, lavishly furnished waiting room was restricted to members of the royal family and VIPs. “The train comprised of only six or seven coaches, mostly made out of wood with steel frames. There were three separate classes and had a total capacity of around two hundred passengers. The third class was always crowded since they were cheaper than the rest", says Mr. Muralidhara Marar, former member of the interim Legislative Assembly (1948-1951), who was a frequent traveller by this train. When the Cochin Port developed, it became imperative to extend the railway track right up to the harbour. By 1929 the present station, south of Ernakulam, came up. The track was later extended to the Harbour in 1943.

Thus the Ernakulam terminus finally lost its significance. "Till the early sixties, the old railway station catered to passenger trafficThe Ernakulam Terminus Station, later renamed Ernakulam Railway Goods Station or the remains thereof, are located behind Rammohan Palace, near the Kerala High Court. This location was originally selected because it ran close to the market. A boat jetty was also situated close by from where people could travel to Mattancherry and Vypeen. It was a station that once played host to Mahatma Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Sastry, Lord Irwin, Curzon and a host of other personalities. It remains mostly unknown to the public even today, possibly because it is hidden from public view, though located in the heart of the city behind the High Court. A wall separates it from Mangalavanam, home to hundreds of migratory birds. It appears that N Class 0-6-0 locomotive was used before its conversion to Broad gauge.

When it was a popular haunt for people, "There was a coffee shop run by Spencer's at this railway station. There was no electricity those days, so the shop and platform was lighted up by petromax lamps," recalls Mr Joseph to the Hindu reporter. Nothing is left today but for some rusted track and moldy walls, a run down structure open to elements. Now it is home to animals and various anti social elements as Jimmy’s pictures document.

What was the German connection mentioned in the abdication rumors? I belive it was related to the purchase of the locomotives from the German firm and the fact that the German executed tramway project was concluded in time and within budget. The British resident could not stand that, especially at a moment when the axis powers were building up. However I have still not found enough details on the abdication.

Of course, there was one other person who was strongly behind this plan and who helped execute the project ably. It was none other than the clever Dewan, P Rajagoplachari. The book Madras rulers mentions thus: When he boldly launched the Shoranur Cochin Railway, he was met with opposition not only from the Conservatives in the Cochin State, this we can understand, but from such well-known advocates ot political reforms and advancement as the Hindu. Mr. Rajagopalachari knew what he was about, and his greatest advantage was that he had a highly educated and polished people, who after their first suspicions were calmed, rendered them a source of strength to him. If today Cochin is the advanced state that it is, it is not only due to Mr. Rajagopalachari, but it is the remarkable result of one man's work, in the face of unrelenting, though uninformed, critcism. He had, of course, the support of his ruler, without which he could not have done anything. It was also a time when Cochin had a population of 21,195 people out of which 11,000 were Hindus, 8,600 were Christians, 950 were Muslims and 500 were Jews. Lord Curzon visited Cochin, alighting from a train that traveled this route.
Curiously Rajarshi Rama Varma XV was also the man in charge during the Kuriyedath thathri smarta vicharam. Though people mischievously say he stopped the vicharam to prevent his name being spelt out, he was he first king who meted equal justice by ensuring that the guilty men were also punished in a Smarta Vicharam. Did all that result in more pressure on his throne? Or was he in some other way connected to the sordid episode? Ironically, it was probably on this railway and this very train that Kuriyedath Thathri left Cochin state and Kerala….

The story might have a happy ending - The 107-year-old Ernakulam Railway goods station located behind the High Court building could well be converted into a museum, if the Railways respond positively to a recent proposal by the District Tourism Promotion Council. The station which fell into disuse in the 1960’s is now home to a decrepit station building and remnants of the broad-gauge railway line that linked it with Shornur. Though Devan Varma, a Railway historian, had made a presentation a couple of years ago on how the precincts can be converted into a rail museum, the Railway Board and National Rail Museum did not go ahead with the project.


Nostalgic photos of the Ernakulam terminus by Jimmy Jose
Cochin state Manual – Achyutha menon
Anglo-Indian studies - Siddha Mohana Mitra
Hindu report 1
Hindu report 2
Hindu report 3

During the annual Cochin Royal Family Historical Society symposium in Dec 2003 Prof. Ramachandran presented some data from his research which I have used, thanks.

The Abdication
The abdication was a result of ongoing acrimony between the independent thinking Raja and the British government – Murali Rama Varma writing about Dewan Banerji opines –

It is very interesting to go through the reasons that led to the Maharajah Rama Varma XV of Cochin abdicating the crown on the 7th of December 1914. He used to have independent views on the administration and about his duties which often adversely affected the relationship with the Madras government.

For example, the British Resident took exception to the Maharajah addressing the Viceroy as "My Esteemed Friend" in one of his letters sent in AD 1913.The Resident reminded the Maharajah that the Viceroy should be addressed as "My Lord". This led to much unpleasantness in the letters exchanged between the Madras Government and the Maharajah. This was only the spill over of a continued dislike of the Maharajah by the Madras Government.

Tail note: This is an ongoing project due to a personal connection and so I will continue to provide updates on this subject and the Raja now and then. Anybody who knows more on this story are welcome to provide detailed comments

The picture of the building by Jimmy shows the Royal waiting room or Kottaram. The other picture is the HQ complex of the CSR.

Thanks and acknowledgement for all the picture posters..The Pic of PR comes from Sharat,  reader, referring it to History of Travancore by Narayana Panikkar


Behind the Veil

Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend human nature. Like in this case that was recently reported from Iraq.It show how war brings out the worst in us, when people start to behave like animals and show their terrible sides.

A man was suspected of something (!!); however the local police were not able to get a hand on him. So they took away his sister named Dalal, all the way from Baghdad to distant Tikrit hoping that the brother would follow to get her out. There they jailed her incommunicado in a mainly men’s prison and soon enough, she was raped repeatedly.

The lady became pregnant and fearfully wrote to her brother, pleading for help. Dalal lived through the horrible days behind bars in Tikrit, hoping that her brother would at least now come to save her from her misery. She was also quite worried wondering how she would continue her life after release, and what her family would think.

Her brother requested police permission to meet her. Permission was granted. He came to the police station one Saturday, for Saturday was visiting day, got through the guard lines without being searched and shot her dead in the name of honor (the disgrace of being pregnant out of wedlock) to his home. It was, as they all said later, a honor killing, just one among the many hundred occurring every year in Iraq.

On the other hand, did Dalal desire to be killed and escape the agony of shame and pain? A question which will never have an answer.

The prison guards were relieved, and the story would have ended there, but for the fact that the body was later brought to the Baghdad morgue. The lab attendant working there found it all fishy; actually she knew right away and did an autopsy discovering the dead woman to be pregnant with a 5 month fetus. She was determined to exact justice and raised a hue & cry. Eventually a DNA sample was taken from the dead fetus. Prison guards were ordered to submit their samples which they provided thinking that this case may never go the distance, as was the usual norm.

The father was found to be the head of the guards. The case quickly died a ‘natural’ death, but nobody had bargained for the dogged determination of the lab worker.

The implicated person was arrested, but released for lack of evidence. The third defendant was retained in custody but it was later reported that both were sent to Baghdad. It appears that blood money or tribal ransom was paid to the family to drop charges according to some.

For all practical purposes, the case is closed in Iraq. The police officers were apparently freed. After all they need more police to keep order on the streets, than shamed pregnant women.

Sad, isn’t it? It happened to Dalal because she was a defenseless woman. That was her only fault. At least 2000 such honor killings have taken place after the Iraq war started.

Much like the story of the Mannanars of Chirakkal, there are safe house being created for such victims and other ill-treated women, but where are they?

This note was based on a story reported by Tina Susman in LA times. Here is the link for the full story.

Pic - Courtesy MSNBC

The Nomad

And so here I am, in yet another place, after yet another move. Most people balk at moving from one house to another, let alone one state to the next. But our journey has been across vast distances, taking us to cultures differing widely and forcing our entire thought process and life style to be different. Thinking back, adaptation was the least of the worries, actually. Some days when I sit in great formal meetings arranged by some manager who has it in his action plan, teaching us how to adapt to multi and cross cultural working environments, I just smile, for I can assure you that not even one of those speakers or presenters have ever moved far from their city of birth, let alone countries, to know what it is really like for oneself, for ones family, for ones friends.

Starting from childhood, my life had been nomadic. Born in a remote estate region of North Malabar, I lived away from my parents who were in the British tea estates of Wyanad, where dad was a Doc. Lack of good schooling in those exotic estates took me to my dad’s sister’s care at the city of Calicut- the ‘adivaram’ or low lands.

Moving was in our blood I guess, for we moved soon to Koduvayoor, a bustling market town near Palakkad where my dad took up private practice after a few heart ailments and decided to rebuild family life after the children were scattered in various boarding schools or like me in a relative’s care and meeting only at mom’s maternal home (tharavad) at Pallavur or the estates for vacations. It was a short stay for we were soon to move to Trivandrum. That was a longish stint. Dad found it much to his enjoyment, so did mom. We studied there, passed out of high school but I was soon back in Calicut for my engineering college sojourn.

After I became an engineer, the natural course of action was establishing a heading to Madras, where I soon learned the language, started working and enjoyed life. A short two year stay and my extreme dissatisfaction with the job resulted in my 6.5’ tall (I am exaggerating) and massively built man with a booming voice but avuncular boss (what a fascinating character he was, I will write about him someday) deputing me to Bombay, so that I could find better avenues, possibly even a ‘gelf’ opening even. Looking back I must say that the stay in Madras was extremely enjoyable for various reasons, though short. I have not written much about it, but I think I will one day. Anyway I boarded the train to Dadar TT…

Well, Bombay life was definitely testing, and I was soon even more frustrated. So after four years there, I moved to Bangalore. I had written a couple of blogs on those days, but it can be quite voluminous if I chose it to be, for such were the days. So much happened, I was restless, though, still seeking something, but knowing not what it was.

By then moving was becoming a mere formality, lugging my steel trunk and holdall and boarding a train (See my blog about this Bangalore experience) to the next destination was all there was in terms of activity ( sometimes I would pay heed to my mom’s advice – do not travel on Tuesdays & Fridays, check the rahukalam etc, sometimes not). The trunk and holdall was all I had.

Not for long though. I got married after moving to Bangalore. Hopefully we would settle down, maybe even buy a home there in the distant future, or so we thought, as we would zip back and forth on our Ind Suzuki through Sankey road and commercial and Brigade and Jayanagar and all those places. Soon I realized how difficult that could be, with the meager salary that was paid in those days and the nomadic gene started twitching again. The iron trunk which was my faithful companion had by now rusted away and not fashionable anyway, the holdall was moth eaten and the rubber was peeling off.
A lucky break took us to Saudi Arabia and that was home for the next seven plus years. My trunk and holdall were of course not suited for ‘forigin’ travel and I had a wife and son in tow. So a trip was made to brigade road and a second hand (believe me pals – it is no bluff) suitcase was purchased. I still remember it, a blue soft shell suitcase, a rarity in those days when all the local market had to offer was the VIP line of hard-shelled suitcases. The Riyadh period was indeed the most remunerative of times, but it was nevertheless, not a home as a ‘hindi’ expat. After the 91 gulf war raged forth and after we experienced a near hit by a scud missile, and the adrenaline rush finally settled, life stabilized. But it was already becoming the longest stay of our lives and I soon got thinking about our next destination. The children were growing up, but I was not sure which direction I should take in continuing my travails.

But that was clarified soon, and settling on a north westerly route, we soon found ourselves living in glorious Istanbul. It was soon to prove to be a fascinating five plus years, for we enjoyed living in that vast metropolis, knowing the people and learning a smattering of the totally different language. I wrote quite a bit about my days there, but many of those ramblings are still lying as bits and bytes in a folder for hopeful future consumption, read by only a couple of people I know. I cannot but think back often about our friends, about our days of joyful goofing around in that vast city with so many avenues to explore and stories around each corner.

But life is life, the children grew up and schooling in Istanbul was becoming a problem, so we decided to cross the oceans again, this time the Atlantic and found ourselves in sunny Florida. But by now, moving was a daunting task, for it meant packers, movers, hotel stays, apartment stops and closing and opening of accounts and many other obligations. But as all this was happening I realized one thing. The friends that we started with, the friends we collected over the way, the friends we made and the friends we knew from childhood were all drifting away. Communication was still over letters and phone calls and the internet was only starting to take root. As we became older, we realized that making new ‘real’ friends, especially in America was proving to be a very difficult task, and something that you really had to go about as a task, to reach a conclusion. But thanks to one bright lady, we met by chance; we ended up in a very nice circle in Florida.

As they say, you never know, but a twist of fate soon got us traveling again, eastwards this time, fortuitously across the Atlantic, to the ‘Blighty’, to England. It was a quick two years in England, but very illuminating. This was about the time that history took a hold of me. But well, the green pastures, the prim and proper people, the gloomy weather and other reasons got mey feet twitching again, though the cricket ball and bat tried its best to hold us back. This spurt of low voltage current across the left and right parts of the brain through the various neurons helped me decide that the next port of call was to be California. Soon enough, we were in warm, dry and fiery California.

As I started blogging, I finally found a way of making new friends, friends like you readers, and many others who chose to communicate directly with me, though taking me to a virtual world. It took a while to adjust, but well, we were in California and there it was, during the last three years that I continued writing, studying history in spare time and discussing various issues with many of you I have never met or even knowing if I ever will. As I said many of the friends over the years had drifted out of contact, some had their own new circles, but new ones were acquired over time. But it was all very important to me, for they keep you company, they keep you going, especially the steadfast ones.

The forest fires, the smoke, the heat, the tequilas, the tacos, the fast roads and numbing traffic jams, the maze of highways and the Spanish lifestyle of California could not hold me long though. The packers and movers were in business again, coz Maddy was again on the move. Last week, we moved again, right across the US to North Carolina… As the movers and packers arrived and saw the various stickers and boxes they had to repack, they asked where I was previously. As I told them of the various destinations, I could see fascination, disbelief and surprise in many of those faces. They must have been thinking, what a crazy ‘loco’ this chap is… Oh! As you can see I am getting mixed up. You never say chap in USA, it is too British a usage. Only in Indian military circles, private schools and Britain (and old British colonies) would you come across this usage

It is colder here in North Carolina, and everything is hidden behind glorious trees. The place is quite pretty, though we do not know if the people match up. Autumn has set in and the trees have taken beautiful shades of orange and red, dropping leaves to lay soft mats of vegetation on the ground. The days are sometimes sunny, but chilly and the people speak with a distinctive southern twang. I am back to regular office work after a horrible few months working from home (I simply hated it). The place is definitely less remote compared to California (in terms of people and their aloofness) and there are plenty of Desi’s and related activities. Here I guess, there is less likelihood that I will be taken for a Hispanic. This is the first time we are alone, with the children doing their stuff in different parts of America. Until now they were all patiently traversing the world with me, thankfully so. One might ask, what were the reasons for each move, why did you choose to spend periods living out of suitcases? It was ambition in part, it was the desire to see the unseen, the desire to explore, but at times, it was not my choice and once it was even heartwrenching and traumatic.

Maybe now we will buy a home, maybe we will end up liking life here and maybe we will settle down this time, finally.So many maybe's, but then who knows what life has in store? Hopefully we will make new friends and hopefully many of you will remain steadfast. Until then thank you all for keeping me company, and for being my world….

Reporting from Raleigh North Carolina, Nov 2009…….

Pics - Off the web - Thanks uploaders, especially L Henry for the Autumn in N Carolina...