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…