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Thursday, October 28, 2010

The XI: books that have affected me the most

This is something that I have always wanted to write about. Let me just mention here that this is not a list of the best I've ever read: these are the books that have affected me the most over the years.

I had a tough time leaving out several books that I've read and re-read dozens of times, but did not match the impact of this XI. So, no Shakespeare, no Jane Austen, no Agatha Christie, no Grimm Brothers, no Mother Goose, no O Henry, no Maupassant, no Oscar Wilde, no Chekov, no Gogol, no Hemmingway - not even Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne or Asimov. I briefly considered including Enid Blyton, but decided otherwise in the end. Also excluded are Bangla books, which shall appear as a separate entry.

I considered putting them alphabetically, then according to their impact on me, but finally I settled upon the chronological order of them coming to my life.

Also, this is not going to be a book review article. This is supposed to be personal: my take on these books, and an account of how these books helped change my life.

1. When Daddy was a Little Boy, Alexander Raskin
I have no recollection about getting this book. It was probably my parents from a book fair, but it could've been anyone else as well. This was the first book I remember to be obsessed with. I read it from cover to cover in seemingly infinite loops.

The book was a very simple one: it was basically stories of a father, as told to his son (that's my gender bias for you). The unusual bit was that they were narrated in the third person, and every chapter started with "When Daddy was a little boy...". One might argue that it was possibly told by someone else about the father, but the narrations were so vivid that I won't accept the theory.

The stories reached out to this six-year old in a surprisingly uncomplicated way, and yet me think about life. Somehow Moscow of a bygone era metamorphosed into Kolkata of the 1980s, and "daddy" somehow started living next door.

It's out of print (for whatever unfathomable reason) these days, and whatever second-handed versions are available online cost $200-odd. Can anyone send me even a photocopied version? Please? There's a chunk of my childhood captured in that book that I'm desperate to get back.

There was only one story that actually mentioned Daddy's name. I have been dying to ask this question to everyone, but unfortunately no one I know has read the book. The name is Sasha.

2. Mathematics Can be Fun, Yakov Isidorovich Perelman
One of the salient features of the 1980s was the stream of Russian books infiltrating the Kolkata book market. Right from that mouth-watering magazine called Misha to the outrageously discounted computer programming books, you couldn't find a single book-stall that sold English books but didn't sell translated Russian books.

My affinity towards numbers can be broadly classified into two eras: before and after Perelman. Years of formal education and thick volumes of books could not achieve what this single hard-bound off-white book could: it actually got me to think in numbers.

The book turned out to be immensely popular among my classmates as well, and led me to buy Physics Can be Fun as well, which wasn't really half as interesting.

This book taught me about logarithms when I was nine or so. I couldn't understand a single thing and skipped the chapter. A few years later, when I actually read the chapter for the first time, I was amazed how easy and elegant it was compared to Messrs. Das-Mukherjee, Bhanja-Ganguly and S N De.

3. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry
This should possibly have come lower down the order: though I had read this book at a very young age, I never really appreciated its worth till I was, well, 20+.

It's a common occurrence that there are incidents that make people change their mindset for the rest of their lives. Though not an occurrence that common, there are books that make some people do the same. The Little Prince did the same to me.

It taught me which aspects of life are really important and which overhyped ones are not. It told me of life. It told me to love deserts. It also told me why I should take it seriously if my daughter ever draws a hat. It was this book that made me laugh and cry simultaneously at possibly the thirtieth back-to-back reading in a self-inflicted confinement in a hostel room in Delhi. Wipe tears. Laugh out loud. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat...

All these years I was under the impression that I shall never come across another Exupéry book. I did, finally, and very recently. During a recent nocturnal DVD viewing of Shukno Lonka at a friend's I saw Sabyasachi Chakraborty at a book-stall, ogling a Ritwik Ghatak book. The book that lay next to it was indeed an Exupéry book (possibly Flight to Arras, though I'm not sure). Obviously I made them rewind to the scene and pause. Yes, I am insane.

4. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles John Huffam Dickens
I clearly remember that this was our, well, rapid-reader in Class VII. The abridged version had a yellow spine. I immediately went to Apex in Lake Market and borrowed the original version, and read it some 30-40 times in quick succession. If asked to list books that formed my adolescence, this one would definitely top the charts.

What made the book incredible is the unbelievable assortment of character and their multiple dimensions. All that, amidst the vivid description of The French Revolution and the two cities that have captured my imagination the most, took the book to the top of my favourites' list. Even at that age (when books I liked and books I was supposed to like were two mutually exclusive segments) Dickens simply catapulted me to Bastille. I mean, it took a special effort to make the sequence of events circa 1789 interesting to a 12-year old in 1989.

My (and everyone else's in my classroom) favourite character from the book was, of course, Sydney Carton. Oh, how we quoted his lines in class! I vividly remember that his most famous quote in the abridged version was "I'm ready to give my life for a life you love". I remember quoting "O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father's face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!" from the original version and becoming an instant hero in my class!

5. The Asterix series, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
I know this is cheating, since a series hardly qualifies as a book. But then, this is my list, and I shall do whatever I feel like.

My first bite at Asterix was possibly at an age of 11 or so. I was bored. I mean, the pictures looked clumsier than Tintin, the contents weren't as mushy as Archie, and the jokes were too obscure for me to comprehend. I shall never forgive the person (come on, coward, speak up if you're reading this - consider yourself lucky that I have no recollection of you) who had asked me to read Asterix at that age; the incident developed an Asterixphobia in me for a period of seven or so years.

I was stuck in a library amidst one of those torrid Nor'westers. There was an elderly copy of Asterix and the Soothsayer (later to be one of my least favourites of the series). I read it. Once. Thought about it for a while. Asked the librarian about the first book of the series. Cancelled the book I was supposed to take back. Returned home with an equally battered copy of Asterix the Gaul. My life changed from that point of time.

It took me three libraries (two of them in two hostels in two different cities) and a few borrows to finish them off. Once I had a job, it took me a few years to spend serious hard cash on the entire series. It was entirely worth it.

What does Asterix mean to me? Let me put it this way: if I'm ever down, seriously (and when I say seriously I usually mean it) down, I simply pick up my copy of Asterix in Britain or Asterix the Legionary (those two are my personal favourites, along with Cleopatra, The Goths and Switzerland). True, it does take a few minutes, but Goscinny has always been the perfect healer. Always.

There's another aspect of being an Asterix fan: on the nth re-read (where n is often a very large natural number) you come across a gem that you had missed out on the previous (n-1) occasions. When the thing actually hits you, it's quite possible for you to exceed all known bounds of ecstasy, and would make you call, email, scrap, message or whatever earthly way there is to all Asterix fans around you. If there isn't any, it might make you do the same to anyone around you, even someone who might ask "you mean asterisk, correct?"

This is a perfect example: it took me about 34 reads to get this.

6. Kiss Kiss, Roald Dahl
This was during my graduation years. I went to a friend's, and she was not at home (remember, this was the pre-cellphone era). She had asked me to wait. I looked around and found a battered copy of Kiss Kiss. The first story was called The Visitor.

As the story reached its climax I had (possibly) stood up in anticipation. Oh, how desperately I wanted my friend to return late! The story ended. And left me gaping for more. I got mad: Why, oh why did he not explain everything? Why did he have to leave me with my tongue out, gasping for more, desperate to know exactly what happened, dying from a kind of suffocation that the story ended at that point of time?

And that wasn't all, either. I couldn't sleep that night. Visions of the story kept coming back. I had borrowed the book, of course. And as I kept on reading Georgy Porgy, Pig or the others I woke up in cold sweats at the middle of the night. I needed a word to describe these stories, but my limited vocabulary didn't permit me. It took me a purchase of Collected Short Stories of the author. The word was mentioned on the back cover: MACABRE.

A few years back Sanjay Gupta directed Matrimony, the first story of Dus Kahaniyaan. This was lifted straight from Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat, and Dahl was not acknowledged anywhere. This made me so mad that I couldn't bring myself to like the other nine stories as well.

7. Father Brown cases, Gilbert Keith Chesterton
When I was in Class VII or VIII we had to do a small project on detectives. Nothing much, just filling up a scrapbook (for the uninitiated, this was a rather large book with thick pages of multiple colours where you were supposed to glue stuff) with texts and pictures. I remember Anandamela timing it brilliantly by launching an issue with world detective stories as the cover story, and all of us surprised the teacher by submitting scrapbooks with more or less identical images.

Anyway, this was when I was introduced to some people I had never heard of before: Sherlock Holmes was fine, but who exactly were August Dupont, Dr J E Thorndyke, Perry Mason and Father Brown? I did meticulously copy the names to my scrapbook, but my bibliophile curiosity remained unsatisfied.

Then, in a library in the Delhi hostel, I spotted a Father Brown Stories Collection. I did grab it, skipped evening coffee at Tanku's with friends and got started on it.

The first story was called The Blue Cross. The climax, well, HITS you on your face. That obvious? And yet, that inconspicuous? I mean, what kind of a story is this? This was unlike anything that I used to know as a detective story! This was too absurdly good to be true!!

That was the only time that I had ever carried a book to dinner in a hostel. And stayed up till four or five, ignoring the newly found goldmine called Yahoo! Chat.

He has remained a constant re-read of mine over the years. Till date whenever I hear the word detective I do not think of a man with a pipe or a violin or a Belgian with a non-trivial moustache. It's always the priest with a round face.

Barring trivial exceptions, there are two factors that make Chesterton the greatest writer of thrillers ever:
1. Father Brown was by far an unremarkable, unnoticeable character. He was a priest, to start with; but a priest who was rational enough to think on the lines of "You attacked reason. It's bad theology." He was never a standout the way Holmes or Poirot was. He could easily be the person whom you have laughed at today morning because a storm inverted his umbrella. Just an ordinary person with rational, intuitive skills.
2. The simplicity of the solutions despite the bizarreness of the stories. There was never a Moriarty. There was hardly an assault on the man himself. The storylines were almost always singular (well, at least for the best stories), and yet, when the man explained things himself, it didn't seem as far-fetched as most of Miss Marple's or Holmes' solutions.

Still haven't read Father Brown? Read his first story here or here (just in case you think I'm asking you to do something illegal, Chesterton's copyright has expired fourteen years back). I'd be surprised if you aren't hooked.

8. The Harry Potter series, Joanne K Rowling
The Graffiti, in those days, used to publish the list of the ten most sold English books every week. There used to be all four Harry Potter books on the list, week after week (and one of them was had a word that looked vaguely like Azerbaijan).

Who was Harry Potter? I tried checking the books at Emami Landmark. They were too expensive for comfort, and too thick to be finished undisturbed while standing in the bookstore. Bloody overhyped foreign books, I thought.

When I visited this country in 2001, the nine-year old daughter of a colleague of mine coaxed me into reading Book One. She insisted that it was fun, despite being about magic, witches and wizardry.

Let me give it a try. What the hell, I was doing nothing worth a mention, given that I didn't have a laptop those days. So I started on it after dinner. And went to bed at about three. After finishing it. And didn't return it the next day, since I had a read it again. I saved $80 on that trip, and spent a quarter of that next day on the first four books. The jetlag helped, and it took me less than a week to finish them.

Now that I own all seven (the last three pre-ordered from Fabmall/Indiaplaza), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages and Tales of Beedle the Bard, I think I should also mention here here that I used to be a daily visitor to Mugglenet, The Harry Potter Lexicon and from 2002 through 2009 - in quest of rumours or news about the upcoming book - or to research the character name etymologies (why Remus? why Lupin? why Sirius? who was Hermione? what does Dumbledore mean? who was Fawkes? what is Erised?) or some equally important stuff (what does all that Latin mean? what was the text on the Mirror of Erised stand for?). I got sorted online into houses (mostly Ravenclaw) and read gigabytes worth of fanfiction text.

I also came out with flying colours in all the online quizzes. You see, it's not for nothing that I have read all books of the series at least five times each. Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, well, possibly ten times each. Thanks for everything, JKR. Thanks for giving me back the vigour of my college days.

There are numerous curious observations from the series. The best two, though, come from my least favourite of them: Order of the Phoenix (I found both on the internet). "They climbed a flight of stairs and entered the "Creature-Induced Injuries" corridor, where the second door on the right bore the words 'DANGEROUS' DAI LLEWELLYN WARD: SERIOUS BITES."

Try to visualise the signboard, now. It possibly looked something like this:
Now take the first towrd of each line: if you think it's Creature Dangerous Dai Serious, read again; and again; and again. If you get the giveaway hint, don't yell.

And then, when they started the battle at the ministry, the prophecies were smashed. From one emerged two figures, and this is what happened:
'… at the solstice will come a new …' said the figure of an old, bearded man.
'… and none will come after…' said the figure of a young woman.

The fans got curious as soon as JKR announced the release date of Deathly Hallows. Yes, she admitted later on that she had indeed predicted the release of Book Seven on Summer Solstice.

9. The Ultimate Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Noel Adams
It was navy blue in colour. The cover page said FIVE NOVELS IN ONE OUTRAGEOUS VOLUME. There was a picture of a creature with a green blob for its head; its tongue sticking out; a briefcase dangling from one hand; the other balancing a hat on its head.

WTF, I thought, and started. The About the Author took off with "He was tall. Very tall."

WTF, I thought again. The story started with a one-page introduction that ended in narrating vividly about what a girl in Rickmansworth thought one day. And the page ended with a line that said "This is not her story.


I decided to leave for work after five (smallish) chapters. I couldn't. The first sentence of the sixth chapter caught my eye. It said "Howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl gargle gargle howl gargle gargle gargle howl slurrp uuuurgh should have a good time."

Three hours later I realised that I was late for work for the first time. And I wasn't even a permanent employee then. And I reached after lunch, and made up a story which no one possibly believed.

It was English like I've never read before. It defied all the norms of literature, countered classical writing in all possible ways and took into permanent custody life, the universe and everything that I had. When quizzed about who my favourite author is (yes, I know what I'm saying) I don't wait for a single moment.

My life changed from that day. Yes, there are two distinct categories of people, and you know how to classify them. I thought in terms of 42. I read all Dirk Gently stories - all 2.5 of them. And The Deeper Meaning of Liff. And The Salmon of Doubt. And even Last Chance to See, a book no one I know has read.

In case you're still not aware, Last Chance to See has the following line:
"We were walking through the only known anagram of my name - which is Sago Mud Salad."

Find me another author who can come up with this in a non-fiction book.

10. 10 for 66 and All That, Arthur Alfred Mailey
There had to be one cricket book in the list, correct? I thought very hard over this. Would it be the Sunny Days, memoirs of the man I considered God a quarter of a century back? Would it be A Farewell to Cricket? It would take someone more above my intellect to fall in love with Beyond a Boundary, and (I know this might be considered blasphemy) I don't rate Cardus as highly as some people do.

I remember reading a Bangla translation of this online at a very young age. Little did I know that this was an excerpt from an autobiography. Then I came across the original text. Yes, it was a re-read. And yes, I still had a lump in my throat as I read it, especially the dove bit. At that point of time I knew I had to own it, or at least, read it.

I went out on a wild search. This was one of the rare occasions when College Street had failed me. Why, no one had even heard of the book! I searched online, and could find second-handed versions on British and Australian websites.

What good was that supposed to be?

I have seldom craved for any single thing so strongly. The fact that Guha listed the book among his fifty top books in The Picador Book of Cricket simply added to my agony.

What the hell, there MUST BE a way to get that freaking book!

Then I got to know that the only person I knew from UK was supposed to come home. My heart did a JLH (3) H (2), and I promptly asked him for a favour. Or rather, the favour.

One of the limited aspects life has somehow managed to teach me successfully is the fact that when you finally get something after a lot of craving and anticipation, it often turns out to be an anticlimax. Well, this turned out to be an exception.

A great sportsperson doesn't necessarily make a great author. You can't really blame them - I mean, they're already excellent at something, mastering another profession might be asking too much of them!

Mailey was special. Not only was he one of the all-time greats, he was also incredibly lucid on his desk. And by that I do not simply mean the text - let's not forget he used to be a champion cartoonist as well. The entire book is one to be treasured, and there is no doubt whatsoever that it's the crown jewel in my cricket library of over a hundred books.

His first encounter with Trumper. The evening when he had BOTH Trumper and The Don at his place for dinner (see, I'm getting goosebumps as I write this). His twelve or so professions. Not many people can laugh at himself while recounting a spell of 64-0-362-4. Mailey did.

There was once a pub argument between Cardus and Mailey (just think of the names!). The former claimed that he could read Mailey's googly. A tennis ball was conjured, and the group moved to Picadilly Circus. Mailey bowled with his dinner jacket on; it was tossed up, the ball looped, Cardus moved to his right, the ball pitched and went towards Leicester Square.

I was at London last year. When I came out of the Tube Station at Picadilly Circus everything else eluded my eye, even that Sanyo billboard. I simply asked a passer-by which way Leicester Square was.

Yet another of those moments, guys. Life suddenly became worth living once again.

11. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
This isn't even Rand's best book in my opinion. The Fountainhead is, and even We The Living is at least at par (I haven't read Anthem yet). But Atlas Shrugged was the first Ayn Rand I ever read, and remains the most special of them all.

Like most people I had borne thoughts and ideals from a very young age. The catch was, they were what would generally be drubbed as parts of a selfish, or at least a self-centered philosophy. At times I felt so isolated that I had a seriously low self-esteem as far as priorities were concerned.

Then came Ms Rand.

I learnt that whatever I had been thinking of all those years actually had a name. It was termed objectivism. Quoting from the book, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Why did the world keep you from me all these years, woman? Where were you hiding? And even you did, why did you let Dagny Taggart remain a stranger to me? Did I ever fall more in love with a character from a book? Shall I? Ever? I doubt.

With this book Rand put the much-needed self-belief back into me. I know now that I wasn't wrong. The others were, or maybe they were right as well. But with Ms Rand and her objectivist clan behind me, who cares a damn? Or rather, who is John Galt?

I was so enthralled by the book that I put up "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" as my Facebook (or was it Orkut?) status. One of my friends pointed out that it was possibly because I was heterosexual, and I wouldn't really replace man by woman in the same sentence. I was dumbstruck at this new angle.


PS: The following would remain in the squad, but would not get a chance. All of them remain fabulous books, some possibly better than a few on the list, but then, they haven't altered my life to that extent:
To Kill a Mocking-Bird, Nelle Harper Lee
The Jungle Book, Joseph Rudyard Kipling
Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Gabriel Verne
The Tintin Series, Georges Prosper Remi a k a Hergé
The Foundation Series, Isaac Asimov


PS 2: Coming up soon - a similar list of Bangla books, as promised above.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oh, for a normal birth!

(Ramayan version here)

The Mahabharat. The greatest story ever told. Immortals. Beds of arrows. Brothers asking sisters to elope. Honest gamblers. Polygamy. Polyandry. Exiles. Bloodthirsty wars. Gluttonous superheroes. Eunuch reincarnations. Names like Dhrishtadyumna and Vichitravirya. Sledging charioteers. Quizzing storks. I mean, what else can one ask for?

However, the most intriguing bit of the Vyas-Ganesh magnum opus is possibly the incredible ways in which the characters were born. I mean, this is not just your everyday wham-bang-pregnancy-prenatal-gynaecologist-morning sickness-ultrasound-folic acid-calcium tablets-delivery date-OT-mubarak ho stuff. These are spectacular incidents, each surpassing the other.

Let us start with possibly the greatest of them all:

Shantanu's Gang-War:
The story goes like this: Vashishtha had cursed the eight Vasus (well, eight of the Gods, for the sake of simplicity), and they had to be born as humans. For whatever reason they preferred to have Ganga as their mother. Now, Ganga got married to the hapless Shantanu under well-defined terms and conditions: if he questioned any of her activities, however weird, she'd leave him.

Thus happy, Shantanu went on making merry and reproducing sons at will (making love to rivers, I presume, is fun). Ganga went on a infanticide spree as soon as her sons were born by drowning them in herself, thereby citing possibly the earliest example of a cyclic redundancy.

It took the loss of seven sons to make Shantanu realise that something was wrong somewhere, so he just felt like asking a question or two. Ganga realised that he didn't have a very good aqueous humour, and didn't think very highly of her drowing act. So off she went, merging into herself (argh!), leaving a son called Devavrata behind. After Padma, Bhagirathi, Hooghly and numerous ox-bow lakes, Devavrata (or Bhishma) remains Ganga's longest-living first-generation progeny.

Note: Bhishma did not have a son, and was still referred to as pitamah (grandfather) by many. This included The Pandavs, whose real grandparents are of somewhat mysterious identities.

Bharadwaj Taking Pot Luck:
Let us move elsewhere. A sage called Bharadwaj was having a bath in (yes, you've guessed it right) The Ganga. Now, all of a sudden there comes one of the lesser-known apsaras - Ghritachi (Google invariably asks did you mean Hitachi?).

What does our hero do? Well, to put it rather subtly, he emitted vital fluids. Since this was pre-newspaper era, and he didn't think of leaves or grass as capable wipes, he ejaculated inside a pot (in case you're not aware, drona is the Sanskrit for a pot).

These days garbage bins are hard to locate in big Indian cities. Ages back, they apparently had, well, fluid-pots lined up for geared-up rishis in popular apsara-sighting spots. Sigh.

Coming back to the story, Drona was born in the pot itself. Hence the name. When he grew up he was apparently very proud of the fact that he was born without a mother. Something on the lines of "did you know what my father did when he saw Ghritachi..."?

Note: Ghritachi, despite not as glamorous as Menaka, Urvashi or Rambha, was apparently a specialist in such incidents, and would come back to haunt Indraprastha. She was (yes, again) successful in getting someone else to perform a similar action, this time no less than Vyas himself. With no pot around, Vyas released "stuff" in the fire, and out came Shukdev, who recited Bhagwat Puran to Parikshit, a grandson of Arjun.

Creepy stuff:
The apsaras kept striking back with the contemporary practice of loitering in the nude and making celibates ejaculate. This time it was an even lesser one called Janapadi. She was sent on purpose by Indra to seduce the mighty Sharadwan, who looked menacing enough to usurp his throne. This apparently happened in a place with lesser facilities than the one mentioned before, so his "fluid" was released on weeds. This gave birth to twins called Kripa and Kripi. The former went on to become the kulguru of Hastinapur. The latter got married to Drona.

Note: The epic doesn't include this possible conversation between Drona and Kripa:
Kripa: What? You want to marry my sister? Do you know who my father was? He got us by doing weeds!
Drona: So? Mine got me by doing pots!

The author steps in:
Things had taken a dramatic turn back in Hastinapur. Shantanu had remarried, this time to a fisherwoman called Satyavati (the guy did love water after all!). This was more of a normal marriage with sons not being drowned and questions being asked.

They had two sons. The elder, Chitrangad (no, Chitrangada was not named after him) died childless pretty soon (apparently fighting a namesake yaksha on the grounds that they were namesakes - I'd probably been dead ages back if they still had this notion), and it was left to Vichitravirya to carry out the rather pleasurable responsibilities of keeping the flag along. Soon enough, Bhishma kidnapped a threesome of sisters (with cute incremental names like Amba, Ambika, Ambalika) for him to try out (I shall not become king; I shall not marry or have children myself; I shall kidnap random princesses for my step-brother to play with: I mean, this even beats Mohnish Behl in Hum Saath Saath Hain). It's another story that the eldest of the three, Amba, didn't oblige, was rejected by all and sundry and cursed Bhishma. We'd come to that.

It didn't work out, though. His Majesty was impotent, and hence died childless as well.

So what does Satyavati do? Wait and watch the legacy to come to an end? Never. She calls upon the author of the book himself and, well, asks him to get along with the sisters-cum-soutens. Ambika closed his eyes (before the act, not during it) and Ambalika turned pale at first sight. The results? Their sons were born a blind and an albino, respectively. Judging by the results, Michelle McNally's mother had possibly emulated the three monkeys simultaneously at first sight.

Note: Satyavati, for some reason, wanted to give Ambika a 2-1 lead over Ambalika (who apparently kept on saying her own name - I'm balika! - when approached with the offer). But Ambika wasn't apparently interested, so she had a maid impersonating her. She kept her eyes (and, well, forget it) wide open and didn't change colours at inappropriate times, so she gave birth to a pious, intelligent, decent son called Vidur.

But why did Satyavati invite Vyas, when there were definitely thousands of others? That would take us to another story...

Fishy stuff:
Apparently Satyavati didn't have a very clean track record herself. She had a few non-trivial moments with Rishi Parashar, and got pregnant. She gave birth to, and subsequently rejected, her son in a deserted island on The Yamuna (another river, finally!); this son got to be known as Dwaipayan (Sanskrit for Son of an Island), and was popularly known as Vyas (Sanskrit for diameter; I wonder why).

So basically, it was an oh-I-had-sinned-in-deserting-you-and-want-to-make-up-by-asking-you-to-have-a-go-at-your-step-sisters-in-law act. Pretty commonplace, I suppose, in those days. Had the Pandavas died early, Karna might have had a go.

Note: Satyavati's own birth was equally bizarre. She was born of the Chedi King Vasu (a human, this time), and another apsara, Adrika.
A pot? No.
Weeds? No.
A real session, then? Yes.
Absolutely normal stuff, then? No.
What's the catch? She was disguised as a fish.
It had to happen in water, then, I presume. Let's just hope its not Ganga. By the way, Satyavati was also known as Matsyagandha (someone who reeks of fish). Her surprising ability at seduction might have made a quality commercial for deodorants.

God knows what she did:
Kunti was possibly the first known person to be actually blessed by Durvasa. This was actually achieved by Draupadi and Duryodhan in later incidents, but just like Kolkata and Metro Rail, Gavaskar and 10,000, Kunti was the first.

Now, what blessing did Durvasa usher upon Kunti? She had the ability to call any (I repeat, any) God at any given point of time and get herself impregnated.

This was, of course, too good to be true for a girl in her adolescence, and she didn't accept it just like that. She needed proof. How does one verify such a thing? By trying it out once. But what if an unmarried girl got pregnant, just like that? Who cares?

Surya was summoned. I'm not sure how this worked. Did she call him at night? Did she call him at day and resulted in an eclipse? We shall never know. What we do know, however, is the fact that our God, as always, had managed to heat up stuff substantially, and it resulted in Kunti's pre-marital pregnancy. Karna was born and dumped rather unceremoniously (possibly in a basket, covered with a blanket) in a river. This was possibly Chambal, as per this excellent map. Adhirath, Dhritarashtra's charioteer, was apparently on vacation en route Palace on Chariot Wheels or whatever, found this infant and adopted him (he simply couldn't have survived all the way to Indraprastha on water).

So far, so good. Kunti gets married to Pandu, who was cursed from making any kind of advances to any woman. I've never understood exactly why he got married, that too twice (Madri was from Punjab, and was incredibly attractive): I mean, who wants to add to his own agony? He double-suffered for fifteen years and ultimately succumbed to Madri's charms; he died in the act, and Madri went on a sahamaran out of guilt.

Coming back to Kunti, when Pandu told her that he desperately wanted children, Kunti told him all about Durvasa. I strongly suspect, though, that she was quiet on her solar adventures: My Lord, may I...?

The permission was granted.

So Kunti scored a hat-trick in quick succession: Dharma (Yamraj) came first; he came with his crown and buffalo both having two horns apiece (which possibly emphasised his nature), and Yudhishthir happened; then came Pawan in his whirlwind style and gave her Bheem; and Indra's regal impregnation yielded Arjun. Being a Marwari, she was calculative, and had indeed chosen her partners carefully.

Years later, Kunti had tried hard to keep Karna alive through the wars, asking him to change sides, but the great man refused. She had to be happy with the fact that at most one of Karna and Arjun shall survive the war. This was so unlike Raakhee, who lost, and then regained, both of them simultaneously.

Note: To complicate matters, Dharma/Yamraj was the son of Surya (and to keep true to the human-river relationships, the brother of Yamuna - remember bhaiphnota?). What does that make Karna and Yudhishthir? Go figure. Also, Vidur was Dharma incarnated as a human being, so now shall someone pull up a family tree?

Pathan scores a hundred:
Way before Yusuf and Irfan, Pathans used to exist in the north-west nook of our nation. They also produced a couple of rather interesting siblings, among others, called Shakuni and Gandhari. The latter, on first sight of her blind husband, blindfolded herself for the rest of her life.

She got pregnant at the same time as Kunti (despite the former's visual handicap and the latter aided by Durvasha), but alas! The Marwari had outdone her! Furious, Gandhari asked a maid to hit her pregnant belly with a stick. She had no choice but to oblige, and Gandhari had the strangest of miscarriages, resulting in a gargantuan ball, which broke into a hundred pieces.

The family gynae was called for; he recommended putting them in a hundred pots (okay, dronas) full of ghee. Over the next 100 days (ah, Madhuri!) a hundred sons were born, one a day.

Some sources mention that there were 101 pieces, the last resulting a daughter called Dushshala. But I would like to give our visually impaired couple another fruitful session, thereby having the daughter separately.

Note: In case anyone is interested, the sons were called Duryodhan, Dushassan, Dussaha, Dussala, Jalagandha, Sama, Saha, Vinda, Anuvinda, Durdharsha, Subahu, Dushpradarshan, Durmmarshana, Durmug, Dushkarnna, Karna, Vikarna, Sala, Sathwa, Sulochan, Chitra, Upachitra, Chitraksha, Charuchitra, Sarasan, Durmad, Durvigaha, Vivilsu, Vikadinanda, Urnanabh, Sunabh, Nanda, Upananda, Chitraban, Chitravarma, Suvarma, Durvimoch, Ayobahu, Mahabahu, Chitramga, Chitrakundal, Bhimaveg, Bhimabal, Valaki, Balavardhan, Ugrayudh, Sushen, Kundadhar, Mahodar, Chitrayud, Nishamgi, Pashi, Vrindarak, Dridavarma, Dridakshatr, Somakirti, Anudar, Dridasandha, Jarasandha, Sathyasantha, Sadasuvaku, Ugrashravasu, Ugrasen, Senani, Dushparajay, Aparajit, Kundasayi, Vishalaksha, Duradara, Dridahasta, Suhasta, Vathavega, Suvarcha, Adityaketu, Bahwasi, Nagadata, Ugrasai, Kavachi, Kradana, Kundi, Bhimavikrama, Danurdhar, Virabahu, Alolup, Abhay, Dridakarmavu, Dridaradasraya, Anadrisya, Kundabhedi, Viravi, Chitrakundal, Pramad, Apramadi, Dirkarom, Suviryava, Dirkabahu, Sujata, Kanchanadhwaj, Kundashi and Virajassu.
The following might be noted:
1. Dussala (no. 4) is not the same as the sister.
2. There are some sequences:
    a. The duh-prefixed sequence no. 1: Sons 1 - 4 (Duryodhan, Dushassan, Dussaha, Dussala)
    b. The duh-prefixed sequence no. 2: Sons 12 - 15 (Dushpradarshan, Durmmarshana, Durmug, Dushkarnna)
    c. The chitra-sequence: Sons 21 - 24 (Chitra, Upachitra, Chitraksha, Charuchitra)
3. Yuyutsu isn't included in the list. He was the son of Dhritarashtra and a maid, conceived during Gandhari's pregnancy (you can't blame him for that - the pregnancy was way too long for any man to hold himself back). He was younger to Duryodhan but elder to Dushshashan. He did a Vibhishan just before the war, and was one of the eleven men who managed to survive it (along with the five Pandavs, Krishna, Satyaki, Ashwatthama, Kripa and Kritavarma).
4. Yuyutsu shouldn't be confused with jujutsu, yet another form of Japanese martial art. This is an error Bengali authors often make.

Madri's medical adventures:
This is possibly the most complicated incident of the lot. The kudi from Punjab apparently wanted to have her share of the fun, and Kunti apparently transferred Durvasa's boon to her. I'm not sure how this worked, but that's hardly important.

One would think Madri had grown up among makai di roti, sarson da saag, hockey, bhangra and Yash Raj Films. Apparently not. She had serious ambitions at heart. One, she had a thing for the medical people (mind you, she didn't think very highly of engineers, and hence Vishwakarma didn't get a chance); and two, she had some deep, dark, non-trivial fantasies.

So what does she do? She summons the rather low-profile Ashwinikumar twins. Who are these people? Even after the sea was churned and the ambrosia extracted, the Gods did have medical issues. This is where the twins filled in: they possibly gave vaccination to newborns in heaven, carried out abortions and deliveries, handled malaria and diarrhoea, and healed wounds of various nature.

Impressed by their CV, Madri summoned them. But that's not all - there's something more to it. She called them together. The first recorded threesome in the history of mankind followed, and two equally surprising incidents happened afterwards:

First, Madri, out of guilt or pride or ecstasy or whatever it was, was stupid enough to go on and confess everything to Kunti. Sure enough, Kunti took away the boon from her souten, and that was that.

More significantly, as an outcome of the passionate encounter, she had twins, one to each medical man. Hang on: how did she have twins to two fathers? What am I missing here?

But then, their fathers were doctors: so was this the first recorded case of IVF? I mean, I know this was ages back, but these are celestial doctors that we're discussing, not some random quack. They had possibly discovered the trick, and needed a guineapig for the act. Which is where Madri (did I mention that madre means mother in multiple Iberian languages?) fitted in, with her craving for the dark side and her fetish for healers.

Note: Kunti's sons inherited their fathers' attributes. Karna was blessed with his father's radiant energy as well as the impregnable kavach (armour) and kundal (earring), both supposedly impregnable to weapons. UD inherited the sense of justice, and was visited and blessed by Dharma as a stork in the forest during their exile. Dharma also met him after the final mahaprasthan. Bheem, just like Hanuman, inherited supernatural powers (as seems to be the case with sons of Pawan); Pawan didn't actually meet him, but then, if you consider that he was air, Bheem wasn't really without Pawan. Indra and Arjun met multiple times, with the former ushering random blessings; Indra also took away Karna's kavach and kundal, which turned out to be quite crucial.

But what about Nakul and Sahadev? They, as far as I know, were never visited by their medical fathers, not even when they were wounded during multiple wars or fell during mahaprasthan. They didn't even inherit any medical skills to my knowledge. I mean, they were so commonplace that they took up remarkably plebeian professions while on disguise at Virat's; they were overlooked throughout the book, and their combined sole moment of glory came when Sahadev killed Shakuni. In fact, we learn more about them during the mahaprasthan than in the entire book.

The Mathura cell division folly:
While all this was happening in Hastinapur, an uncalled-for voice announced in Mathura that Kangsa shall be slayed by his sister's eighth son.

What does Kangsa do?

Kill his sister? No, too cruel.
Kill her husband? And widow his sister? Nah, almost equally cruel; and doesn't rule out a plethora of sons being born to his sister.
What then? Imprison his sister? Yes!

So far, so good. And from there everything went downhill. For whatever reason he decided to imprison his brother-in-law as well. And to crown everything, he placed him in the same cell as Devaki. What an idea Sirjee. Wouldn't it have sufficed to place Devaki in solitary confinement? What did he think - she'd make out with the prison guards or something?

Bengali readers might disagree here. A person with a name Deboki can hardly be trusted in such matters.

So Kangsa went through six deliveries, and did a Ganga. He wasn't a river himself, but he definitely had his own ways. And when he went for the seventh, he found that it was a null delivery: Balaram had been teleported somehow to his step-mom Rohini's womb, who was born almost immediately.

Thus motivated, Vasudev and Devaki continued having fun in confinement, and number eight was about to arrive. I'm sure Kangsa was seriously confused at this stage: will the newborn be the seventh son of Devaki's, or the eighth?

Then, stuff happened. Devaki had her eighth. The entire city was darkened for the night. Vasudev took the infant to Gokul and gave him to Nanda and Yashoda. The son turned out to be quite prodigal - he sucked rakshasis dry, danced atop deadly serpents, stole the apparel of bathing women and showed his foster-mother a mouthful of the Universe.

Note: Vasudev and Devaki were released once Krishna slayed Kangsa. Ecstatic, Vasudev promptly got Rohini impregnated again, and Subhadra was born. Subhadra, of rathyatra fame, the future wife of Arjun, the mother of Abhimanyu, and the ancestor of the entire lineage that followed.

The Panchal punch:
Humiliated by Drona and his gang (you know the story, right?), Drupad sought revenge. He performed a yajna/yagga, desiring a militant son. The flame of the yajna rose high, and presto! Out popped Dhrishtadyumna (how I wish I had a son that I could name so!), an adult warrior, to be subsequently registered as Drupad's son at the Census Bureau. He was to be taught by, and years later, to kill Drona (with a token thanks to Yudhishthir), and get killed by Ashwatthama to complete one of the longest two-way tussles ever.

You thought that was it? There was a dark-tinged damsel alongside Dhrishtadyumna in the yajna fire. This was Draupadi, possibly the second-most written-about character from the epic (after Krishna), and the greatest counterexample to the weird concept that Indian men fall for fair complexion only. Not even Helen could cause a war of that degree. No one could. Or shall.

The third sibling, of course, was the reincarnated Amba (scroll up!). Rejected by Vichitravirya (who wasn't up to MFFFs), Shalwa (too egotist) and finally, by Bhishma himself (well, he was a man of words, you see). Shikhandi was born an eunuch (accompanied by the standard divine announcement), took masculinity on loan (????) from a yaksha to save his marriage (and a war, since the bride was a princess), played a part in getting Bhishma killed and got slayed by Ashwatthama. The poor yaksha was back to normal once Shikhandi died.

Note: Draupadi went on to have five sons herself. The brothers had a well-defined arrangement that they would take annual turns with her (anyone violating would be exiled for a year; Arjun got frustrated during Yudhishthir's tenure, interrupted their youknowwhat, got happily exiled and got married thrice within his annual quota; it's surprising that none of the other brothers followed suit). She had Prativindhya, Sutasom, Shrutakirti, Shatanik and Srutasen (I've heard variations of these, and all possible permutations of the last three).

The extras:
A few others deserve a mention here:

King Brihadrath of Magadh, sonless for some time, goes to a sage and gets a fruit in return. It was possibly the holy man's way of saying pooto phalo. Anyway, being a man of justice, he divided the fruit into two parts and gave one to each queen.

There is no documentation on the fact whether he went at them together or separately. However, months later, the queens produced half a son each. The son, or the parts, was (or were, I hate such grammar-shattering concepts) discarded. A rakshasi called Jara joined them, and our hero was named Jarasandha (the one joined by Jara).

Bheem undid this coalition several years hence, and there was no Jara to put him back. Rumours are that Fevicol might use the concept in their next campaign.

Note: Jarasandha's son was called Sahadev as well. He succeeded his father to the throne and took side with the Kauravs in The War. I wonder whether there was a Sahadev vs Sahadev, the predecessor to Sarabhai vs Sarabhai.

Oh, nothing sensational. Just four arms and three legs. Six limbs short of Durga, and an eye more than several insects (and several thousand eyes less than many others). Also brayed, as opposed to wailed when he was born. A quite cool package, especially if you consider the fact that he was accompanied by the routine divine voice.

Not really anything unusual about the birth, but Subhadra's pregnancy was somewhat different. Abhimanyu was prodigal enough to learn about entering Chakravyuha from her mother's womb, but couldn't get to know about the exit as Subby dozed off midway.


Most of this was written from memory. I seriously wish I had the book with me while writing this. Anyway, there was always the internet to fall back upon in case of the slightest doubt. A special thanks to The Epics section in Diptakirti's blog for making me fall in love with the epics all over again. And then, what would I do without Google and Wikipedia?

Furthermore, this was not written to play with the religious sentiments of people. Believe me, I love and respect Mahabharat as much as you do, and have read it as many times as almost anyone I know.

Monday, October 18, 2010

ওরে বাবা!

সত্যজিৎ রায়ের যা উচ্চতা, ব্যক্তিত্ব আর সাংঘাতিক ভারি গলা তাতে খুব বেশি লোক তাঁর সঙ্গে ইয়ার্কি করতে সাহস পেত বলে মনে হয় না। তাও, এমন কোনো ঘনিষ্ঠ বন্ধু নিশ্চয়ই ছিল, যে বিয়ের আগে (বা, আরও দুঃসাহসিকতার পরিচয় দেখিয়ে, ফুলশয্যার আগে) বলতে সাহস দেখিয়েছিল "শুভ বিজয়া"।

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Consider this résumé:
  • Was an all-powerful king (ruled over Lanka, possibly the most prosperous kingdom of his era; so prosperous that it often called Swarnalanka - The Golden Lanka),
  • Was practically invincible (won victories on heaven, Earth and hell, and even the underworld - patal,as opposed to narak for hell - his son Mahiraavan ruled over patal quite some time),
  • Had an even more invincible son (as the story goes, he was defeated by Indra, but his son won back the lost glory for him; hence the name),
  • Had the most colourful set of siblings that has ever existed (I mean, just give it a serious thought, and you'd know what I mean: a perpetually dormant ferocious giant, a traitor who called himself pious and an apparently gorgeous sister minus auditory and olfactory appendages),
  • Robbed a flying chariot and used it to glory (including a kidnap without anything positive to come out of it),
  • Planned a staircase to heaven (just think what would go through the mind of the mason who'd finish the final step),
  • Had a Govinda film named after him (okay, it also had a Miss World, a star son and a champion director, but all these are hardly important, given that the film had Govinda in it; the only known exception is Hum, where the more important aspect was that it had Rajnikanth in it),
  • Above everything, consider this: just before the war, Raam feels like worshipping Shiva. Fine, but who shall oversee it? Himself? His brother? Fat chance. Who then? The monkeys? The bears? Vibhishan? Nah. Raam (of Rishyashringa's kheer/payesh fame) decides to call upon his opponent (no, don't just read this, just consider, he asks his opponent to oversee the rituals that would ensure that he would go on to defeat and kill the great man) for the occasion. And, well, believe it or not, he obliged. 
Despite this incredible CV, this man is considered a villain in most parts of the country. Effigies of him shall be burnt today, and on this day every year, throughout the country. And his only fault was that he avenged his sister's humiliation, an action Dharmendra and Sunil Shetty have made careers and earned fan-following (from the same people) out of.


Anyway, this is not to discuss the image of Raavan, or for that matter, change it (ah, how I pity you non-Bengalis for not having read মেঘনাদবধ কাব্য - possibly the finest work of literature on Raavan - after which any attempt to glorify Raavan's character seems redundant). This is to address a question on the person that has haunted me for ages: THE HEADS.

Disclaimer: When I say THE HEADS of Raavan, I do not mean the nocturnal adventures of Mandodari and her soutens. This is, as one would bluntly put it, a curious man's queries on his ten heads.


Someone I knew had tried to convince me that the ten heads didn't co-exist. When one head was severed (which didn't happen too often for the comfort of the living world), another sprung up in its place. This sounded very much like a HIT ME doll they used to sell in the Deshapriya Park toy stores. There was a difference, though: the dolls were SRSWRs, whereas Raavan's heads were a simple SRSWOR stuff of population size 10 and sample size 1.


I didn't think much of this theory, though. The heads definitely existed simultaneously. I mean, it's Raavan we're discussing, not some arbitrary mythological nincompoop. Can you visualise a headless Raavan, even for a second, trying to enforce command over his subjects? Nah. Ten simultaneous heads are a lot cooler, and I'm sure that's the way they were.

There are a few issues, though:

How were the heads aligned?
You see, the basic assumption is that Raavan's heads were aligned horizontally, all ten in a single row (the way he looks in the Dusshera effigies and Bengali calendars). Something like this:
The Horizontal Layout
This looks quite cool, and would give Raavan the look of a giant T. The biggest problem of the Horizontal Layout (subsequently referred to as HL), though, lies in symmetry, though: since he had only one thorax, which head was The Main Head that was connected to it? The fifth, or the sixth? The solution might have lied in the connection being somewhere in the middle of the two heads, but half a neck per head would've looked royally uncouth. But on the other hand, I cannot come home to the fact that he was asymmetrically aligned.

What, then? Ten is, of course, a triangular number. So why not the Triangular Layout (this shall be referred to as TL)? Which might led me to think that his heads might be aligned in that manner. Consider this:
The Triangular Layout
You might ask, why 4-3-2-1 and not 1-2-3-4? Well, 1-2-3-4 won't solve the asymmetry issue of HL. TL is more compact than HL, with the only possible problem is that he would have suffered from severe neck pain every now and then (which holds for HL as well, or for that matter, any neck which would have had to support ten heads and ten heavy gold crowns).

The other aspect is, well, what if he dropped something? Say, there's a furious war on, and he drops his bow. He stoops. And then, because of this 4-3-2-1 alignment, it's not really easy to get back to position. His body might rise, but his collection of heads shall droop a while because of the unfavourable top-heavy alignment.

This leads us to the Brahma Layout (BL). Why do heads need to face the same way? Brahma created The Universe, sat comfortably on a lotus (or a swan, or whatever it was) for a lifetime, has four imposing beards and had a major beer brand named after him, so it couldn't have been that bad:
The Brahma Layout
This, however, has three major issues:
1. The neck: Where would the neck be? If connected to a single head the entire mass of heads would possibly droop exactly the opposite way from time to time. If it was, say, a superneck connected to the whole bunch he would undoubtedly have ten vocal cords, solving the problem. He would possibly look like an oversized mushroom, but I suppose you can allow that much.
2. The head sizes: Brahma had the advantage of having four heads, thereby providing every head with a 90° coverage, or 25% of the entire circumference. Raavan would have had 36°, or 10% of the total, with heads as narrow as a goat's. Not acceptable. I refuse to see my hero as a ten-headed goat.
3. The ears: Brahma's eight ears are quite feasible, along with four heads. Not only shall each of Raavan's heads be 40% of that of Brahma's, he also has 250% higher ear count. The entire thing shall look terribly cluttered.
I could have called named it the Circular Layout (CL), but I do want to please The Creator of This World.

Which leads us to possibly the most elegant solution ever: The Double-Deckered Layout (DDL). He might have looked like a hammer with a long handle, but this one would give the entire structure a solidity that possibly could not have been attained by any other formation:
The Double-Deckered Layout
This looks cool. Too cool. It solves the asymmetry issue of HL, the balance issue of TL and the narrowness aspect of BL. I cannot think of a layout that beats this one. There is, of course, the Vertical Layout (VL), but that would have prevented him from entering through most doors. No diagram for that as well. Just imagine an orthogonal version of HL.

There are, of course, several other head-related issues as well. Alignment is just one of them, for example...

Did he have ten brains as well?
This might have led to tremendous confusion. I mean, suppose one of them kept on thinking hey, I'm the king of LankaI need to invage Chedi or Panchal or Magadh right now; another kept on interrupting ooh, the fragrance on this chaamar-operating girl standing behind me is too seductive for comfort; another went on planning road and sewer layouts for the future Ranatungas, Jayasuriyas and Arthur C Clarkes; and yet another might be doing what he was considered best at - worship Shiva.

How does a confused man rule over a country, then? No, he could not have ten brains of that sort. But he could not have one brain either. What would have happened if that head had been cut off? A man with nine heads and no brain in a battlefield. Scary.

This leads to only one solution: there were ten heads with ten brains, all synchronised as if in a LAN, with one of them may or may not acting as a server.

How many ears did he have? How were the heads joined to each other?
This is another intriguing aspect of the great man. Assuming HL, how many ears did he have? Did he have twenty ears, eighteen of theem joined to form a network tunnel of some sort, devoid of cochleas and playing no role in hearing? If that was the case, it would form the answer to the other question as well. This would mean, though, that he had two types of ears - auditory and adhesive.

But what if, on the other hand, he had two ears at the extreme ends, and the other heads were joined at their skulls, his heads would have looked a lot compact, without gap in between, and would have taken a lot less pillow space.

The epic, however vivid, isn't informative enough to throw sufficient light on this. Sigh.

What about throats?
How that's something else as well. I'm assuming there was one central (server) head that was connected to the main body with a general throat. Where did the other heads end? Just like that, without tonsils, vocal cords or throats, being connected to the main body only through the server head (or through a chain of heads, ending somehow in the server head)? Poor soul - a sore throat would have been amplified by ten times: one throat, ten brains.

Did he sleep normally?
Unfortunately there were only two feasible postures: face up and face down. Raavan could never sleep facing sideways (unless, of course, he had BL, which would have meant he would've slept face up, down, sideways, diagonal, everything). Unless, well, his head joints (ears or otherwise) were flexible enough to accommodate a fold in his cranial channel. Remember the He-Man toys and Barbies? Remember how their limbs are movable? Something on those lines - a joint between every pair of heads, thereby enhancing foldability among any two adjacent heads.

As a side aspect, this would have enhanced or hampered his conjugal life depending on his ability to use those joints and manoeuvre his heads. I'm sure Mandodari's life was rather boring once he got married to Vibhishan after Raavan.

The other aspect, of course, was his pillows. I can visualise a massive one, with the pillows of the queen(s) tucked below (not under) them. Something like this (the number of pillows might increase or decrease depending on his tenacity):
Assuming DDL and a count of six per night; HL accommodates more queens
What about apparel?
Ages back, when the ancestors of Lacoste, Wranglers, Lee and Levi's tried to launch polo-neck T-shirts in Lanka, they failed. This was chiefly due to the fact that Raavan couldn't think of a way he could use them, and hence didn't want to be the only one not wearing hep stuff. There were galls in Galle, they stopped eating candies in Kandy and released dumb bulls at Dambulla as forms of protest, but Raavan remained adamant. It took several millennia for the Sangakkaras to adorn them.
Some might suggest that a halter-neck top might have served the purpose. It would. But I cannot really associate Raavan with cross-dressing. A broad-necked one might have worked with BL, but he would've been cold, especially on underworld trips (given that he was born before Dev Anand, he didn't own stylish mufflers/scarfs either).

And then, how broad were the gateways?
Of course the king had to enter straight. The Lankans thus had to ensure that every gateway or door in the kingdom was either sufficiently broad or T-shaped. Of course, an alternative would have been to enter sideways, or use the foldability property mentioned in the previous section. But, just think about it, would that not have been bizarre? Raakshason ke adhipati, badshahon ka badshah, Lanka-e-Azam Raavan padhaar rahe haiiiiiiiiiin, followed by the king turning sideways, and entering the courtroom sideways, almost in a moonwalk.
Another aspect that might be solved with BL. It has its merits after all, I suppose.


No one seems to bother, though. They've been trained to accept HL, ignore the asymmetry and burn the effigy. They don't care about the asymmetry, let along lesser aspects like the injustice of celebrating the burning of the ghyamest character of the epic.

Just a request: if you pass a burning effigy tonight (which shall invariably be HL), try to notice which head is the server one: the fifth or the sixth.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My life in numbers

Just thought I'd list numbers, serially, and try to recall the first word or phrase that comes to my mind at the mention of the number. The aim is to score a century. Let's see how far I can go:

0: Bradman. His last innings. Eric Hollies. 99.94. And all related stuff.

1: My rank in Patha Bhavan, Presidency College and JU MCA admission tests. Also my school rank in Madhyamik. Mwahahahahahahahaha.

2: My roll number. Patha Bhavan, V - XII. Alphabetic order, first names. 1 belonged to Abantika Ghosh. She took biology afterwards, and I got promoted to numero uno. Also, the first term and common difference of the most famous sequence ever created.

3: Paap se dharti phati, phati, phati; adharm se aasmaan, aasmaan, aasmaan; atyachaar se knaapi insaaniyat, aaniyat, aaniyat; raaj kar rahen haiwaan, haiwaan, haiwaan; jinki hogi taaqat apoorn, apoorn, apoorn; jinka hoga nishana abhed, abhed, abhed; jo karenge inka sarvanaash, vanaaash, vanaash; woh kehlayenge Tridev! Tridev! Tridev!!

4: My daughter's birth year. This pips a TV serial with Enid Blyton-type stories, called Ek Do Teen Char from the 1980s: one of my favourites. It had four kids called Ramu (Suraj Karani), Johnny (Ali Ashgar), Asif (Love Baronia) and Baba Shetty (a bespectacled boy whose name I've forgotten, but was my favourite of the lot). Remember? Ek do teen char, charon milkar saath chalen to karte hain chamatkar...

5: Anurag Kashyap, the greatest Indian film director since His demise in 1992. His first film, a Kay Kay-starrer called Paanch, never got released. Which is possibly why the inimitable tera emosional atyachaar in his Dev D starts with ek, do, teen, char, chhe..., omitting the paanch (on purpose?).

6: Shahid Afridi hitting the ball over long on, his right leg hoisted in mid-air. He has been doing that since he was 17, and he does it still now, even at this age of, what, 21?

7: James Bond, though I've (with an embarrassed look) never liked a single movie.

8: Mandrake's arch rival, just edging out spiders and octopi, despite the latter being quite delicious.

9: A box called 9 Diamonds someone had gifted me on one of those earlier birthdays. Among everything it had a game called Pick-Up-Sticks that involved carefully picking up very narrow sticks from a pile; given the thickness of my fingers, I was pathetic at this. Beats Gunmaster from Suraksha.

10: Raavan and his (in all probability) asymmetric heads. Had to be. Ahead of Jim Laker, Anil Kumble, shirt numbers of Tendulkar, Pele and Maradona, a house called Prateeksha and commandment counts.

11: The number of players in a cricket, T20 or football team.

12: Annas, along with five rupees. Kishore Kumar. Asha Bhosle. Madhubala. Teri gathri mein laaga chor. Dheere se jaana bagiyan mein. All that. A tough ask, though, selecting it over Chris Martin's highest test score, tasks of Hercules and Asterix, and a house number at Grimmauld Place.

13: Number of episodes of almost all 1980s TV serials, especially Jochhon Dostidar's Tero Parbon. No numerological names. No nonsense. Crisp. Honest. Brilliant. Chosen ahead of the 13th film of a certain career, where an angry young man overcame his equine dreams to outshine the equally attractive Sher Khan and Teja. Also worth a mention is 1313 Webfoot Walk, Duckburg, Calisota.

14: The Hindi version of the word, mostly used as a suffix to boka.

15: The two 15th Augusts - 1947 and 1975. Which one to choose, seriously?

16: Ages of heroines in most Bollywood movies till the 1980s. This often had spectacular effects, with people like Asha Parekh playing those roles. I chose this ahead of my house number.

17: Harry Potter's coming of age, his mother's magic wearing off, his permission to perform magic out of school, his getting a watch owned by Fabian Prewett, his invasion of the ministry, his living as a fugitive, his robbing a bank, his waging a war in his own school, his turning Voldy mouldy and his bowling a maiden over to Virender Sehwag. Okay, not the last one, but you get the story, correct?

18: The Mahabharata. Eighteen chapters. Eighteen days of war. Eighteen akshauhinis worth of soldiers. Enough said. An automatic choice over my voting age, and more redundantly, my driving age.

19: The two digits I had always written in addition to the mandatory six digits and three dots one had to write at the top right corner of every classwork and homework sheet.

20: My own birth date. Definitely a better choice than cute-looking hexagonal aluminium coins.

21: The length (in inches) of... a Samsung television set I've owned for eight years now. It has been used as much as ceiling fans now, and I've never faced a single problem. Also the points needed to win a table-tennis match in its glory days.

22: Length of a cricket pitch, in yards. A classmate of mine always walked across the pitch while drunk, and if it took him more than 22 steps, he knew he had already had too much alcohol for the night. Also something to do with gold and carats, though I'm not sure what it meets. Purity, I suppose.

23: Complan. Beats chromosome count in a human sex cell and vague recollections of terms like meiosis.

Don't miss the vinculum!
24: The number I was asked to write using three zeroes when I was ragged as a fresher at Presidency College. For the very curious-minded, this is the solution:

25: Towel Day. Tough choice, over 25th June 1983. Definitely ahead of the Baisakh date of that bearded guy fame.

26: The quick brown fox jumps over the old lazy dog. Also, my current pin code back home.

27: Number of cubes in a Rubik's cube. Also His age when Saat Hindustani released.

28: Perfect numbers (barring the trivial 6). The factors of 28 (1, 2, 4, 7, 14) add to the number itself, thereby banishing almost all other numbers to the ignominy of imperfection. Also the static age of Kapil Dev over a decade or so.

29: J 9 A 10 K Q 8 7. Followed by that man Bradman, yet again. 29 hundreds in 52 tests, no typo there. Lots of others mentioned here as well, even the atomic number of copper.

30: Jeetendra and his medications. Definitely over the only notable battle in history known by its duration, as opposed to the more commonly used venue.

31: That day of December on which Doordarshan always got Penaz Masani and her hair to sing independently and identically distributed numbers amidst copious amounts of multicoloured smoke.

32: My dental count before an attractive dentist called Vibha Jain who brought it down by two, thanks to a couple of her attempts. She's good in all senses of the word, and definitely wins over the American value for freezing point and Pheluda's Colt model number (with a decimal point, of course).

33: Number of Byomkesh stories. Includes Bishupal Bodh, the one Narayan Sanyal apparently dared to finish in a blind dash of blasphemy. Also my current age. Also the first two digits you need to dial after dialling the country code, whether I'm at Kolkata or Winston-Salem.

34: Gavaskar. Also the last two digits of the slowest bus invented by mankind, running one trip a decade between Golf Green and Belgharia.

35: Millimetres. Archaic movies. Random memories of the phrase Eastman Colours.

36: Malcolm Nash, Tilak Raj, Daan van Bunge and Stuart Broad. Also the first and third (last) numbers of a testosterone-inducing sequence.

37: Body temperature of an average human being in degrees Celsius. I used to own a Celsius thermometer once, by the way.

38: My waist size. Finally. A simple yay!! won't do it for me, I need to go jhingalala hoom, jhingalala hoom, jhingalala hoom, hurr! hurr!! at this.

39: Hitchcock and his steps. Nice ones, them.

40: -C=-F. Alibaba. Hanuman Chalisa. Noah's Ark. Somehow the Class VII physics question edges everything else out.

41: Oh, that bearded guy (see 25) died. Left behind a copyright to be expired and a Nobel Prize to be stolen subsequently.

42: God. Betelguese V. Towels. Goosnargh. Other similar stuff. Also the name of a Bengali movie based on freedom struggle, one that I was not allowed to see till a certain age because it apparently had sexually explicit scenes. I could never locate a single one when I was allowed, finally. Also the house number of P Sherman of Wallaby Way, Sydney, the only known person who wrote his name and address on his diver's mask.

43: Last two digits of His score when He had launched a desert storm to conquer another. Definitely more goosebump-generating than the facts that the Indian National Army was formed, and Andaman was renamed Swades and Nicobar Lagaan. Okay, Swaraj.

44: My shirt (shoulder) size. Beats the ISD code of Lord's Cricket Ground, Douglas Adams and J K Rowling, among others.

45: Winning margin in first test ever. An encore in the Centenary test as well. Speak of coincidences.

46: International cricket resumes after World War II. Definitely more important than the human chromosome count.

47: Sanjay Dutt. Akshay Kumar's initials. A stronger memory than Pomona College (do a Google on Pomona College 47). A country and its neighbour being born as well.

48: The Invincibles. All of them. Which brings us back to that man, mentioned in 0 and 29.

49: My father and Sunil Gavaskar (in chronological order) were born (to different people). Possibly the two most important men in my life in the 1980s.

50: Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendum. Beats the matchstick count per box, and India becoming a republic and promptly squandering their only chance at a world cup soccer.

51: Number of states in the USA, DC included. Put within quotes, separated by commas, used as a macro variable in my file.

52: A pack of cards minus Heath Ledger. Hence the denominator of answers to many probability problems. Edges narrowly past Chandrasekhar's 6/52 and 6/52 at MCG to win us a test in 1978.

53: Jim Laker. This one apparently took me less than a second to think of.

54: The woman who has apparently contributed to 50% of my gene pool was born. Yes, she does win over Frank Tyson and his efforts.

55: Hat gono bhat pnach, edging out Guru Dutt and Madhubala and the sum of the first ten natural numbers.

56: House number of my first crush. An obvious choice over a strange movie by Nana Patekar, the first term of this sequence and Hercule Poirot's house number.

57: Take a pick: Battle of Plassey or Sepoy Mutiny. I pick the second because it inspired Aamir Khan to act in possibly the raunchiest movie of his career.

58: Number of deliveries I faced when I scored three not out as I carried my bat through an innings on a minefield of an 18-yard pitch in ISI Delhi. Remains my best effort till date.

59: Wherever I am, whatever I may be doing, if I'm staring at a digital watch just before noon or midnight, I invariably wait till 11:59:59 rolls over to 12:00:00. Always. Yes, I know I'm weird.

60: The current age of retirement in Government offices. Once she's past it, my mother can return to her full-time devotion towards TV serials.

61: ISD code for MCG and Shane Warne, SCG and Glenn McGrath.

62: The Indo-China War. We fought hard, watched Haqeeqat, feasted on chowmein and chilli chicken, rejected their cellphones as illegal or whatever, and about half a century later, made Chandni Chowk to China, the only known movie where Mithun was killed by a hat.

63: Nokia E63, the best cellphone I've ever owned. Chosen ahead of Kennedy's assassination, crushing the urban legend that he was shot exactly a hundred years after Lincoln was, in 1865.

64: A group of black-and-white squares that taught me at a very young age that battles are more fun with queens than without.

65: Chicken 65 Roll, the best thing to have ever rested on a Mongini's shelf.

66: Arthur Mailey and All That. The best autobiography by a cricketer. Ever.

67: Crowbars. Why? Because of this.

68: Games won by John Isner against Nicolas Mahut in the match. A Wikipedia page got created during the match.

69: My geography marks in Madhyamik. Unlike some people, I do not associate this number with Listerine.

70: Brazil acquiring the Jules Rimet Trophy on a permanent note (and losing it subsequently).

71: The twin series. Wadekar. Gavaskar. Sardesai. Chandra. Magic.

72: House number of Ghonada's mess. As I grow in age, he's turning out to be a more and more fierce rival of Pheluda in my realm of da's.

73: The larger factor of 365, the number of days in a normal year. Less than half of the corresponding one for a leap year.

74: 0.5 less than one of the greatest Bengali movies ever made, starring Tulshi Chakraborty, Bhanu Bandopadhyay, Uttam Kumar, mashima and malpo.

75: Arguably the best year in the history of Bollywood. Think of the names: Jai Santoshi Maa, possibly the first religious movie to have a serious cult following; Warrant, with lots of Dev Anandisms; Dharmatma, Feroz Khan's uber-glamorous version of Godfather; Khel Khel Mein, Zinda Dil and Rafoo Chakkar, with the unmissable Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh magic; Julie, which had Sridevi along with everything else; Faraar, with Sharmila trying her level best to put up with two incredible actors at their supreme best; Chhoti si Baat, of Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh fame; Aandhi, Gulzar's best till date; Mausam, good enough to make it to a double-cassette with Aandhi; Chupke Chupke, if not for anything else then at least for His breaking down at 2:10:05 or the scene starting from 2:14:30 - vee, aye, ess...; Mili, where I didn't realise for over an hour that I was watching open-mouthed and accumulating drool; Zakhmee, a smart, sleek production; Prem Kahani, with a nice storyline and the stylish Rajesh Khanna; Uljhan, one of the best performances of Sanjeev Kumar; Khushboo, despite Jeetendra and Hema Malini; and then, Deewaar and Sholay.

76: Ami Miss Calcutta, the only song I know that has the word statistics. Definitely a winner over a basketball team in Philadelphia and a monwontor (famine somehow doesn't have the same charm).

77: Last two digits of my birth year. Marginally beats the birth year of test cricket, which is more or less the same thing, since it's synonymous to life.

78: A bunch of private buses that ply on BT Road (with A, B, C, D or nothing after the number). They go to places with murky names like Ghola.

79: Vesuvius. If you have read Sukumar Ray's magnificent article on the volcano as a child you're bound to get visions for several years. For some reason this outdoes the house number of my parental residence.

80: The number (or age) Bhanu Bandopadhyay told us not to reach. A brilliant yet underrated movie.

81: Add a 2 before it, and you'd possibly get the number that has affected me the most in the past decade. It still seems only yesterday that 281 had happened. I've never witnessed anything so unreal, so magical, so invigorating, so emotional. Nothing. One day of mystique changed my life. And a nation's. Thanks VVS, as always.

82: A collection of 25-paise coins, forming the standard Bengali unit of slaps. This came so spontaneously to my mind that I even ignored the one mentioned in 85.

83: A sibling being born. A world cup win (a double entry, because we scored 183 in 1983). My only stay at a hospital. What else do you need? The order speaks for itself. And I'm not even mentioning Kapil Dev's 9/83, Ganguly's 183 or Dhoni's 183* here.

84: Ondhokare chourashita noroker kundo, tahate dubaye dhore patokir mundo. Chosen ahead of a thousand less than the number mentioned in an incredibly boring and overhyped Mahasweta Devi novel title.

85: The Oval. 1882. This thing can be done. It was done in the end. Spofforth. The burnt bails. The ashes. The urn. The birth. This page. Oh, for a time-turner!

86: A tied test, ahead of the three M's: Maradona in Mexico, Miandad at Sharjah and Mithun in Hope '86.

87: Sukumar Ray; and a documentary made on him by his illustrious son, exactly a hundred years later.

88: The longitude of Kolkata, rounded off to the nearest degree (East). Also the longest Roman representation among two-digit numbers - LXXXVIII.

89: Multiplex chain in Swabhumi. Acquired subsequently by Forum.

90: Number of overs in a day's play. Outdoes the duration of a soccer match.

91: An ISD code I need to dial frequently whenever I leave country. Now that my parents both use MTS, I have to start with 9191. Also reminiscent of 911, which ironically uses the same digits as 9/11.

92: An Oscar and a death doesn't leave space for much else. Not even a brutal riot in December.

93: WG Grace, because of this match. He ended his team innings in an apparently meaningless declaration. Reason? He had his full set of scores from 0 through 100, barring 93. Beat that.

94: I-94, the familiar card you need to fill up during any USA-bound flight. This is the one where you invariably need to call the flight attendant to ask whether City Where You Boarded shall be your Indian airport or the transit airport in Europe or Singapore/Bangkok, depending on your coast.

95: The most commonly used confidence limits, of course. Example: 2+2=4.01 at 95% confidence limits. Selected ahead of age-old visions of Ctrl, Alt and Delete and the static price of Chetan Bhagat books.

96: Sunil Gavaskar. His last test innings. Goosebumps. Nostalgia. Lots more. Chosen over a page number of my Class V geography book, the location of which I had somehow managed to find while opening the book itself: it won me several hard-fought book-cricket matches.

97: Gundappa Viswanath. On a Chennai minefield. Against a rampant Andy Roberts. Unbeaten. Possibly The Indian Batting Performance till 281 came along.

98: First two digits of any Indian cellphone all over the country till 2002. Whenever someone asked me to save his number, I typically typed in 98 before he started speaking. Then Reliance came and spoiled everything. Also, the year in which I opened my first email account, on (I'm serious) Hotmail.

99: Maximum body temperature at which my mother used to say that it wasn't a sufficient reason to skip studies.

100: Removal of headgear, revealing of designer hair or bandana, raising of bat, beam at the crowd and Ravi Shastri shouting at 32,807 decibels that it's a hundred. Beats the Blindfolded Big-Bang, resulting in The Losing Brethren (see 18 if you're confused).