Thursday, August 18, 2016

How Big is Small

Google has its massive headquarters in Silicon Valley and it’s famously called Googleplex. The seemingly unremarkable name has something very mathemagical about it.

If you google, the word ‘googleplex’ you’ll discover that it’s 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 100. To normal folks, it might look like just another geeky number. But to scientists, it is the largest number with a name. To give you a perspective of how huge it is, try jotting down the number of zeroes on a piece of paper. Apparently, the whole observable universe will not be enough to fit in the googleplex. It’s that humungous!

Contrast this with the world of small numbers. When we say microscopic, we are probably referring to micro numbers or numbers that are one millionth in size. Bacteria are usually 5 micrometers long. Red Blood Cells are 10 micrometers in diameter. A strand of hair is 50 micrometers in thickness.

As we made more progress in precision measurement, the scientific world switched over to the nano scale or numbers that are one billionth in size. Much of the inner secrets of biology can be gleaned using the nano scale. For example, haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein, is about 5.5 nanometers in diameter. And the basic building block of life – the DNA molecule – is around 2 nanometers in diameter.

The world of small then got tinier and tinier with more breakthroughs. Atoms are now measured in picometers (one trillionth). Protons are described with femtometers (one quadrillionth). The smallest known fundamental particles (the Quarks) are quantified in attometers (one quintillionth). And with the discovery of the god particle, many are wondering if using zepto (one sextillionth) or yoctometers (one septillionth) makes more sense. Yocto is one trillionth trillionth. It’s unimaginably inconsequential.

Still, is that the smallest length we can measure? To sidestep this query, Physicists proposed the theoretical concept of Planck Length. It’s technically the number 16 preceded by 34 zeroes and a decimal point. It’s at least one nano times smaller than yocto. Planck Length is the smallest observable length in the universe. If you want to probe teensier sizes, you’d need so much energy that you’d have to create a black hole for it! Hopefully that should put an end to all the small talk.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lighter Side of Olympics

Jason Statham, the action hero of Transporter, and the Brit star with more Facebook fans than Narendra Modi (54 million fans, at the last count) is a man known for multiple talents. He’s studied Kung Fu, Karate & Kickboxing. He can play football well. And chess, even better. As a teenager, he chose diving as his first love. Not many know, Jason competed in the Olympic trials thrice (Seoul, Barcelona & Atlanta). Thankfully his sporting career nosedived. Else, we’d never have seen him biffing the bad guys to pulp.

Some other celebrities did fare better at the Olympics, though. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the big daddy of child rearing best known for his book ‘Baby and Child Care’, won a gold medal for Team Rowing for the United States at the 1924 Paris games. Philips Noel Baker, British politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1959, won a silver at the 1920 summer games. Incidentally, he’s the only guy to win an Olympic medal and a Nobel.

Trivia aside, the one other thing that’s fascinating about the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ is the parade of odd names on display. Kim Yoo Suk is a perfect example. He’s a South Korean pole-vaulter with no medals to his credit. One vicious meme about him reads, ‘He looked like a winner, till the crowd started to chant his name’. Poor, Kim!

Equestrian William Speed Lane Fox-Pitt is another sportsman worth tracking at Rio. With his name, he could have chosen any form of racing. But our man opted to saddle up. Remains to be seen if he outfoxes his opponents.

Chinese gymnast Dong Dong is apparently eyeing a gold again in the trampoline event. If that happens, don’t be surprised if you’re swamped with headlines like ‘Dong Dong on a Song Song’.

Lee Bum-young is a titter worthy footballer. He made a name for himself as a goalkeeper in the 2012 London games by saving a crucial penalty in the quarter finals. If he hadn’t, everyone would have panned him as a bummer.

I’ll shed light on many more athlete names in the days to come, but for now I’ll wind up with a terrific fact: The first person to use the word ‘Olympian’ in writing was not an ancient Greek. It was Shakespeare.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Living Dead

Ludwig van Beethoven had a nasty surprise in his childhood. He was told that he was the second Ludwig van Beethoven of the family. He didn’t grasp a word of what was being said, till his parents clarified to him that just a year before his birth, they had another baby boy who was christened Ludwig. Sadly, his elder brother didn’t even last for six days. So basically, Beethoven was named after his dead brother.

When Beethoven gave his first public performance at the age of 7, he was billed as a child prodigy. But those who vaguely knew the family, confused him with his brother and raised doubts about his age. That was only one tiny problem. The spectre of the dead elder brother cast a long shadow on his life.

Artist Salvador Dali faced an even bigger predicament. He too was named after a dead sibling. The trouble was, he was born nine months and six days after his elder brother. That made everyone around think that may be Salvador had reincarnated.

Dali spent a good part of his life traumatised. He added many layers of eccentricities to his persona just to be different from what his parents had imagined for him. As he later philosophised, “Every day, I kill the image of my poor brother…I assassinate him regularly, for the ‘Divine Dali’ cannot have anything in common with this former terrestrial being.”

What Beethoven and Dali were bestowed is called ‘Necronyms’ (names of dead ones). And it’s a subject of great debate in the world of nomenclature. It was a prevalent practice in the era when child mortality rates were high. Anxious fathers who wanted their lineage and family name to survive, often resorted to this seemingly morbid practice.

I suspect necronyms might have been common in societies that followed the tradition of naming the first child after the grandfather. If the first child had a premature death, the name was foisted upon the second one. Even Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was a victim of the tradition. One wonders if the resulting identity crisis caused Van Gogh to paint over 30 self-portraits. To conclude, all I can say is, some names are better off dead. There’s no need to exhume the remains.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Journeying Through Petropolis

Winston Churchill spoke about very many things in his life spanning nine decades. To me, the most insightful statement was this: “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” He should know better than anybody else as he had cats, dogs, pigs, butterflies, swans, horses, parrots and even a lion named ‘Rota’ for company!

One man who’d surely agree with Churchill is George Clooney. He had a potbellied pig, ‘Max the Star’, as his pet for 18 long years before he turned his roving eye to his wife Amal Amaluddin.

Choosing to spend many hours with unusual pets is considered therapeutic by stars. That probably explains why Nicholas Cage had a shark, an octopus, and two albino king cobras as buddies. Or why Leonardo DiCaprio chose to cosy up to an exotic African tortoise.

Elvis Presley was another oddball with a penchant for the quirky. Rumour has it that the rock star bought a wardrobe full of suits and ties for his chimpanzee ‘Scatter’ who was later sadly poisoned by one of his maids. A piece of delicious trivia that would delight Karunanidhi & MK Stalin is: Elvis also had a horse by the name ‘Rising Sun’. They should be glad he didn’t call it ‘Two Leaves’.

When the Swiss Open organisers gifted Roger Federer ‘Desiree’, a cow, they assumed that the tennis great would shower love and affection on it. Instead he sent it to a dairy farm and had it slaughtered when the cow didn’t produce enough milk! Clearly, he was no pet champion.

In contrast, history has been rife with examples of immense love. Josephine Napoleon (spouse of Napoleon Bonaparte) used to accord royalty status to ‘Rose’, her orangutan. Salvador Dali, often took his dwarf leopard, ‘Babou’ wherever he went. Once, when Dali entered a restaurant, he was declined entry because of his carnivorous companion. Dali instantly cooked a surreal explanation and said, his friend happened to look wild because he had painted his cat. That pawsome quip saved the day.

Mike Tyson, the boxer famed for biting his opponent’s ears, is also renowned for spending close to $ 4000 a month for the upkeep of three Royal Bengal Tigers (names: Kenya, Storm & Boris). No wonder, he went bankrupt. Reese Witherspoon, however, takes the cake for unusual pets. She has two little donkeys, adorably named ‘Honky’ and ‘Tonky’. Apparently, she’s one lady who can tell her ass from her elbow!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Character Arc

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had four sons: Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. One of them turned out to be a rebellious drunk and was disowned by the Mahatma. Which one?

If Devdas was your answer, in all probability, you were heavily influenced by the Dilip Kumar/SRK classic about a drunken loser who gets sloshed to forget his true love. That’s what well-etched characters do to you. They grab precious real estate in your mind by becoming indelible makers for a definitive set of traits.

Which is why screenwriters and directors spend countless hours debating every little detail about the character, right from the name (Phunsukh Wangdu in ‘3 Idiots’) to how he laughs (remember The Joker’s hysterical cackle?) to what she reads (Sharmila Tagore in ‘Aradhana’ is spotted with the book ‘When Eight Bells Toll’) to what she wears (the Catwoman suit).

Since we are name-ophiles, let’s just stick to the theme of movie character naming. When George Lucas was once asked about how he goes about it, he quipped that a name should telegraph what a character is about. For example: Han Solo, the captain of Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, is a lone-wolf by nature. His surname is indicative of his one-man-army thinking.

Key character names are not randomly plucked from thin air. A lot of research goes into it. When Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were hunting for a suitable name for the villain in ‘Sholay’, they opted for ‘Gabbar Singh’ aka Gabru, a real life dacoit from the fifties who had a gruesome reputation of lining up 22 children and shooting them.

Even while christening the baddie in ‘Mr India’, Javed Akhtar was seeking an African-ish sounding name that felt exotically evil. He rummaged through very many Hollywood titles before settling for a 1952 Clark Gable movie called ‘Mogambo’.

Quentin Tarantino, the master of the craft, invests as much ingenuity on his minor characters. One of the diamond thieves in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is ‘Mr. Pink’, ostensibly a nod to Pink Panther, the fictional diamond with a distinctive flaw that resembles a leaping panther.

More often than not, the name choice is whimsical. Like in ‘Forrest Gump’, the protagonist Forrest is named after a racist general just to serve as a reminder that ‘sometimes we all do things…that make no sense’. Whatever the source of inspiration, the big trick in naming characters is that the name should have some character.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Out of Africa

If large pockets of the world still think we are a land of snake charmers, we are equally guilty of nursing some bizarre notions about Africa. We blithely assume it to be a Tarzan comic tourist zoo with well demarcated areas for giraffes, lions, elephants, pygmies, pirates, ebola, AIDS and cricket.

Admit it: your knowledge of the second largest continent sucks! You probably think Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language there (Fact: it’s Arabic). You have no idea how big it is (Fact: it houses 54 countries). You must be under the impression that Sub Saharan Africa is poorer than the word ‘poor’ (Fact: there are as many people below poverty, in 8 states in India).

See, there’s a lot you need to learn about Modi’s latest excuse for earning frequent flier points. Africa ain’t all masai mara and mumbo jumbo. It’s a macrocosm full of surprises.

Coffee, the drink, us South Indians, cannot do without, comes from the Kaffa region in Ethiopia. The story goes that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered it when he noticed his goats jumping with joy after feasting on some berries from a mystery plant.

Even Cola has an African origin. The Kola nut is the fruit of the Kola tree, which was supposedly first planted in Nigeria. Without Kola, we’ll neither have Coca Cola or Pepsi.

Sticking with nature, we couldn’t have enjoyed the Ladies’ Finger or Yam without the generosity of West Africa. The famed Peri Peri sauce of Nando’s, also has the same roots. Piri Piri in Swahili apparently means ‘pepper pepper’.

Remember the legendary Impala car from Chevrolet? It derives its name from the graceful antelope of Africa, best known for leaping over 9-feet high obstacles. By the way, Reebok too, is a nod to the South African antelope called ‘rhebok’.

Likewise, the ultra-fashionable tote bags that a woman can’t do without, has an African connection. They say, ‘tote’ is derived from ‘tuta’ in Kimbundo, which means ‘to carry’.

Jazz, juke, jive, samba, banjo, conga and several other musical and dance forms originate here. And shocker of shockers, in big backward Congo, solar-powered aluminium robots direct traffic equipped with surveillance cameras! So, the next time you reduce Africa to a cliché, you better go on a discovery trek (another African invention) or better still, a safari!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Despoiling a Steel Maker

Steel making has got nothing to with Child Sexual Abuse, right? Wrong. In India, after much public pressure, the government passed a law in 2012 to address the issue of exploitation of vulnerable children. The law was called the 'Prevention of Children from Child Sexual Offences'. So far, so good.

The trouble began when the government circulated an acronym to popularise the act. The POSCO Act seemed easy on the mouth. But the bureaucrats who came up with moniker clearly didn't know about the existence of POSCO, the world's fourth largest steel maker by measure. POSCO is a South Korean giant with a significant Indian footprint. In 2005, the company had grabbed the headlines by announcing a $12 billion steel plant in Odisha. Given Modi's pet theme of Make in India, it's important not to piss off brands like POSCO.

By equating POSCO with Child Sexual Abuse, the government has unwittingly caused enormous embarrassment to the brand equity of the South Korean conglomerate. Fortunately, POSCO isn't a B2C brand. Being more of a B2B brand, this unhappy coincidence will not hurt the company as much. But imagine the damage had the 60 billion dollar company been an FMCG company! Perhaps next time, the government selects a name, it might help to do a name-check before unleashing it to the world.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zed Letter Day

For 300 weeks, I’ve been serving you a curious potion laced with a hint of trivia, a slice of etymology and a dash of name history. You’ve been a willing partaker of my experiments with truth, no matter how tasteless the servings. Here’s my parting shot dedicated to all you lovely people who’ve been part of my journey.

Befittingly, it’s about the last, lonely letter that probably gets as much respect as the twelfth man in a club cricket team. To clear the air, ‘Zed’ wasn’t always the vestigial tail of the English alphabet. Till the nineteenth century, the ampersand (&) took that slot. But after the dawn of the modern age, the crown of thorns has been worn by Z.

Z owes its origins and its zigzag form to the Greek zeta. Dropped from the alphabet in 300 BC for being ‘archaic’, the letter is staging a comeback of sorts with the advent of start-ups like ‘Zovi’, ‘Zo Rooms’, ‘Zopper’, and ‘Zivame’.

The cool thing with Z is it’s often associated with energy. If you don’t believe me, recall all the z-words you know: Zippy means ‘full of vigour’; Zing is about liveliness; Zest is enthusiasm; Zeal is ‘driven by energy’; Zany is ‘over the top’; and ‘Zindagi’ is life itself.

Another factor that works to its advantage is Z sticks out in serpentine lists. There may be 196 countries, but Zambia and Zimbabwe are likely to figure in everyone’s Top 30 in terms of recall. If you ask a kid to rattle out animal names, chances are ‘Zebra’ might make the cut, pretty fast. Provoke a movie lover into naming European actresses, Hungarian ‘Zsa Zsa Gabor’ might pop up from nowhere. For similar reasons, Zakir Hussain, Zubin Mehta, Zico Coimbra, Zeenat Aman and Zig Ziglar, can never be forgotten while drawing up A-to-Z compilations.

Numerology has always treated Z with respect. Health, stamina, willpower, achievement, diligence, courage, faith and charisma are traits associated with the letter. But do take it with a pinch of salt as the Double Z cues sleep in popular culture. And the mathematical symbol of nothingness is Zero. Still, even if you’re a zombie, with all the Zaras and the Zappos, and the Zippos and the Zomatos, you can’t help but admit, that Z has the last laugh today!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

King of Good Crimes

There’s a new villain in the grand narrative of India. It’s the diamond-watch wearing asura who lives the rich life in a castle in a faraway land, even while his impoverished company owes 9000 crores to a nation, where poor farmers commit suicide due to their inability to lay piffling sums.

Let’s analyse Vijay Mallya’s crime before we crucify him. His award-winning airline that created 4000 jobs bled from day one. It accumulated a pile of debt in full public view right under the nose of the RBI. Air India did what Kingfisher Airlines did at an even larger scale – yes, the Maharaja owes the government 30,000 crores! Strangely no one screamed, shouted or shed a tear. Not even Arnab.

So clearly, what is bothering most people is not that VJ defaulted loans, but ‘how he continues to live it up remorselessly’. The public would have probably loved it had Mallya lived a life of penury and penitence walking street to street with a begging bowl. But Mallya being Mallya, he will always do what comes naturally to him.

Because the life number and name number of Vijay Mallya is 5. Ruled by the planet Mercury, he will continue to punt all his life, take risks and enjoy large slices of luck.

And by the way, Mallya is more pluck than luck. He’s the guy who started his career as an intern at Hoechst and ended up as its Chairman. Having inherited his dad’s brewery business, he took it even greater heights. Capturing 9% of the world whisky market doesn’t happen that often in our country, no?

Where he probably went wrong was: instead of being a Richard Branson, he chose to be a Donald Trump, who incidentally declared bankruptcy not once but four times! In the first instance Trump owed 3 billion dollars. That’s nearly 2.5 times more than Mallya’s bad debt! To think that Trump is in the race for presidency today just goes to show that Mallya still has hope. Lots of it.

The surname Mallya means ‘caretaker of palaces’. He’s been true to his name by amassing property after property. But can he retain them given the current crisis? Or will he capitulate? For answers, we’ll have to look at the names of the horses he owned at Kunigal Stud Farm. There’s one named ‘Capitulate’. It went on to be a winner, against all odds.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rapper Wrap Up

T Rajendar can legitimately claim to be our first ever rap star. He could effortlessly rhyme thangachi with kottanguchi long before Baba Sehgal could pack chakraya and ghabraya into ‘Thanda Thanda Pani’. But unfortunately for TR, he was suppressed, oppressed, and repressed because of his pedestrian name. Had he repackaged himself as ‘Ra Gender’, ‘T Bear’, ‘Kara D’, or ‘Gangsta R’ he could have won a Grammy or two by now, for the Best Rap Performance!

Such is life. You’ve gotta have a ghettoesque name if you wanna do ghetto-style rap. Which is probably why a Curtis Jackson opted for the stage name 50 Cent.

For the unaware, Curtis chose this as a tribute to an American criminal Kelvin Martin who became infamous as ‘50 Cent’ for robbing just about anyone irrespective of how much they were carrying.

Most rapper names are monikers meant to grab attention - mostly the wrong sort of attention. You need to be smoking a warped kind of weed to call yourself ‘Shorty Shitstain’, ‘Yak Ballz’, ‘Boobe’, ‘Hot Rod’, ‘Young Thugga’ or ‘Pudgee Tha Fat Bastard’, right?

But there are also artists who don’t try to be too wannabe. Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arupragasam, the British Tamil artist, opted for ‘MIA’ after her cousin brother Jaana who went missing in action in Sri Lanka. Cordozar Calvin Broadus was nicknamed Snoopy by his mom as he used to watch a lot of Charlie Brown on TV. So he picked ‘Snoop Dogg’ as his identity.

Shawn Carter opted for ‘Jay Z’ inspired by the ‘Jazzy’ label that was associated with him when he was young. The white rapper Marshall Matthers flirted briefly with ‘Slim Shady’ before settling on Eminem, drawn from his initials M&M. Nayvadius Wilburn selected the offbeat ‘Future’ as he heard many of his buddies say, ‘he’s the future’.

Indian artists have learnt their lessons fast from their blingy brothers in the west. Otherwise why would the ‘Lungi Dance’ man rename himself from Hirdesh Singh to ‘Yo Yo Honey Singh’? The aim to layer the business card with a coat of coolness also prompted Taran Kaur Dhillon to experiment with ‘Hard Kaur’. Bangalore’s up and coming ‘Brodha V’ wouldn’t have made it had he stuck with his given name ‘Vighnesh Shivanand’. The Zambian Tam Bram ‘Lakshmi Narasimha Vijaya Rajagopala Sheshadri Sharma Rajesh Raman’ would have spent all his life saying ‘abhivadye’ had he not shortened it to ‘Blaaze’ (derived from ‘Blasé’, meaning nonchalant)! Ergo, the crux of the matter is: don’t use the name given by your mother; to rock in rap, choose some other!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Big Brand Theory

Real story. A famed venture capital fund once beseeched us to come up with a meaningless name for an apparel start-up. We tried reasoning with them and presented them some crispy, creative names with a whiff of an idea. In their infinite wisdom, they declined them all and went on to buy a 4-letter domain name that rhymes with Bowie. Years later, when someone asked them to explain their name, they put out a story that it’s the Russian word for ‘call me’!

Come to think of it, I have no beef with nonsensical sounding names. There are plenty of them around. The more successful ones have an iota of logic embedded somewhere. When George Eastman devised ‘Kodak’ in 1888, he was clear that he wanted a name that starts and ends with K, with no scope for mispronunciation or misspelling. After experimenting with many combinations, he and his mom hit upon the name that sold a million cameras.

The triumph of Kodak gave rise to a deluge of coinages. Businessmen started exploring newer possibilities in the genre of minted names. In 1903, Caleb Bradham developed a drink for upset stomachs. He named it ‘Pepsi-Cola’ as it was a remedy for dyspepsia. The London Rubber Company fused ‘Durable, Reliable & Excellence’ to birth ‘Durex’ condoms in 1929. The Van Melle brothers hit upon ‘Mentos’ in 1933 probably inspired by the peppermint flavour of their candy. Chester Carlson created ‘Xerox’ in 1949 from the process of ‘dry writing’ or ‘Xerography’. Sam Walton took a piece of his surname and launched ‘Wal-Mart’ in 1962. Around 1968, Intel was carved out of ‘Integrated Electronics’ as it sounded a lot cooler than NM Electronics.

The mad rush for coined names actually began in the late nineties with the explosion of dot coms. The pressure to create something unique led to the ‘altered spellings’ movement and that’s how we got Google, Flickr, Tumblr, Reddit, Digg, Segway, Ffffound, Myntra, Zomato and Qwikr. For those who love their history, La-Z-Boy recliners began this fad way back in 1927!

Another trick used by start-ups is the ‘odd words’ jugalbandi. Pepperfry, PepperTap, Urban Clap, Urban Ladder, Freshdesk and LimeRoad are popular examples. But I am a sucker for puns. So the one coined name that caught my eye in recent times is Nearbuy. When it’s as catchy as that, you don’t need to settle for gibberish like Grofers!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seoul Curry

We’re so ignorant about South Korea that some of us may even assume Charles Correa to be a Korean architect. No, I kid you not! Beyond the usual stereotypes of dog meat and Gangnam Style we know next to nothing about them.

Did you know that they are the world’s most innovative economy? More innovative than Germany, Japan or the United States! Do you know that everyone has a broadband connection there with internet speeds faster than the fastest?

I bet you’re not even aware that the South Korean language has at least 500 words in common with Tamil. Which includes shockingly same nouns, pronouns, verbs and interjections like appa (father), amma (mother), na (me), ni (you), naal (day), va (come), anbu (love) and acho (ouch). They even have a 60-year calendar like us and celebrate their Sashtiapdapoorthi (60th birthday)!

Cultural similarities aside, there’s a lot that’s unique about the South Koreans. New born babies turn one, the day they are born, unlike other societies where the age clock starts ticking only after 12 months.

Even their names are very different from the Chinese and the Japanese. They usually follow a 3-syllable nomenclature with the first being the surname and the other two being the given name.

Kim is the most popular surname. A recent study concluded that there are close to 10 million Kims in Korea alone. Park and Lee took the second and third spots in the surname sweepstakes. That could be because Kim and Park were names of royalty that still command respect in the land of the morning calm. The current president Park Geun-Hye’s name literally means ‘gentle like a hibiscus’. An odd rule that the country still follows is, people with same surnames cannot marry each other. Some say it’s necessary to retain the purity of the gene pool.

The most famous South Korean names we know are obviously brand names. Samsung literally translates to ‘three stars’. Hyundai works out to ‘modernity’. Daewoo meaning ‘Great Woo’ is an ode to the chairman Kim Woo-Jung. Kia in Kia Motors is a portmanteau standing for ‘rising out of Asia’. Lotte has an interesting etymology. Its founder Shin Kyuk-Ho was into Goethe. He liked the character ‘Charlotte’ in his novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and as a tribute, he called his company ‘Lotte’. There’s a lot more to learn about Korea. We’ll reserve it for some other day. Till then let me take leave with an anneyong (goodbye)!

1. Clippinger's pioneering research paper on "Korean and Dravidian: Lexical Evidence for an Old Theory".
2. Wikipedia: 'Dravido-Korean Languages' page.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Say It Again

In 1998, a very knowledgeable bloke posted a simple query in the ever-interesting Tamil Film Music Page ( He asked, “Why does ARR always begin songs with a word repeated twice?” That got everyone thinking. Frenetic lists were made. Before someone could rattle off ‘Chaiya Chaiya’, ‘Mustafa Mustafa’, ‘Ennavale Ennavale’, ‘Humma Humma’, ‘Rukumani Rukumani’, ‘Urvasi Urvasi’ and ‘Columbus Columbus’, another geek discovered that Ilayaraja was equally guilty of replicative words. ‘Janani Janani’, ‘Mayilae Mayilae’, ‘Manidha Manidha’, and ‘Sendhoorapoovae Sendhoorapoovae’ were stacked up as a riposte by a Rehman fan.

As a wise observer noted, neither could be blamed as the tradition of using Irattai Kilavi (twin words) has been around since the time of the Tolkappiyam (the first known work in Tamil literature). And if you care to look around, you’ll notice it everywhere, even today. Tamilians use ‘pala pala’ to indicate ‘glow’, ‘moru moru’ to emphasize crispness, ‘modhu modhu’ to cue roly-poly-ness, ‘palaar palaar’ to imply getting whacked, ‘vala vala’ for yakking, and ‘kisu kisu’ for gossiping.

Forget Tamil, ‘Twin Words’ is a phenomenon right across India. One can find hundreds of examples in Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Hindi. It’s so prevalent that two IIT Kanpur scholars RMK Sinha and Anil Thakur have actually put out a research paper on the topic.

The gist of their findings is: If the pair is a noun form like ‘ghar ghar’ or ‘bachcha bachcha’, the intention is to quantify things – although in case of ‘chor chor’ or ‘bachao bachao’, the idea is to get more attention; Numeral replications like ‘ek ek’, ‘aadmi aadmi’ is done to create a group feel; Adverb and adjective replications such as ‘dheere dheere’, ‘choti choti’, ’bade bade’ and ’naya naya,’ are meant for intensifying the meaning; Onomatopoeic repetitions like ‘ghanan ghanan’ (downpour), ‘kaanv kaanv’ (cawing), ‘sar sar’ (blowing), ‘jhar jhar’ (flowing) and ‘dhak dhak’ (heartbeat), are used for capturing natural sounds; while pronoun repetitions like ‘jahan jahan’, ‘jab jab’ and ‘jis jis’ are used for amplification of the focus.

Bollywood has been a fast learner of these tricks. Which is why, many blockbuster hits featured twin words in their titles. One can recall ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Ha’, ‘Kabhie Kabhie’, ‘Khel Khel Mein’, ‘Andaaz Apna Apna’, ‘Bol Radha Bol’ and ‘Bhaag Milka Bhaag’. My gut feel is Twenty20 sounds a lot sexier than test cricket because of the tautology. Brands like Tata, Pass Pass, Toto, M&Ms and 50/50 are beneficiaries of the same principle. So are the many catchy cab numbers (3000 3000 and 6000 6000) deployed in Chennai. In conclusion, all one say is that if one wishes to capture mindshare, it helps to say things over and over!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why Autobiographies Don't Sell

True lies. That’s what most autobiographies are about. They are nothing but verbose vehicles for revealing the reality about others and presenting your airbrushed, manicured self to an imagined world. Which is probably why no one cares to read them.

Fact: The last memoir to create a stir was Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. And it flew off the shelves as everybody wanted a sneak peek into his devilish mind. When Churchill wrote his ‘My Early Life’ it didn’t have as many takers.

This apparent paradox has led many to spice up their stories. Why else do you think celebs throw in a hush-hush affair, or reveal their sexual orientation or narrate an untold incident of child abuse? It’s not because they wish to record a confession. The unvarnished reason is money, honey! Everyone wants to be a bestseller.

But what many forget is that the journey to delivering a successful book, starts with a pithy title. A title that can sum up your life in less than 6 words. If you’re going to be an LK Advani, then you’ll end up with a bland one like ‘My Country, My Life’. Surely one can do better. I’d have gone for a bolder title like ‘Grapes of Rath’ or ‘My Chariots of Fire’.

History is replete with some lovely memoir titles. Roger Moore, the super suave actor who played 007, called his tome ‘My Word is My Bond’. Spike Lee, the auteur renowned for exploring racism, chose ‘Tall, Dark & Gruesome’. Arnold Schwarzenegger picked ‘Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story’. Star Trek stud Leonard Nimoy first said ‘I am Not Spock’ to underline his versatility. But later in life when everyone forgot about him, he came back with another volume: ‘I am Spock’.

Singer, actress, comedian Bette Midler dabbled in word play with ‘View from A Broad’. If you didn’t get her ingenuity, just say it loud, and you’ll figure that it sounds like ‘View from Abroad’. Another comic Vic Reeves (born Jim Moir) came up with the splendid ‘Me Moir’. Hard rocker Gene Simmons managed to cleverly embed his band name in the title. He opted for ‘KISS & Makeup’. Among the business heads, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson remained his true blue controversial self by labelling his work ‘Losing My Virginity’. Back home, the only half-decent name in recent times is ‘A Shot at History’ from Olympian Abhinav Bindra. I wonder when our stars will breathe some life into their life story!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Pluto's Big Brother

Till January 20th, Mike Brown was a massive hate figure. He was the badass astronomer with the twitter handle @plutokiller who got universally booed for reducing our beloved Pluto into an impotent snowball by questioning its very right to be called a planet. Having caused a cosmic uproar, he decided to make amends by discovering Planet Nine with 29-year-old astrophysicist Konstanin Batygin. And what a giant discovery it has turned out to be!

Planet Nine has 10 times the mass of Earth and despite being so huge, the big fella’s got very little gravitational influence on Earth because it’s located far, far away from the sun – at least 250 times the distance between Earth and Sun!

The thing that’s got everyone excited is the obvious question that’s posed when a new-born arrives with a big bang: “So what are we gonna call it?” Mike Brown’s 10-year-old daughter Lilah is already calling it Planet Lilah. Given the godzilla-esque proportions, Mike and Konstanin are informally referring to it as ‘Fatty’. Most researchers are using the placeholder name ‘George’. But the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is in no hurry as the planet might take at least 5 years to get sighted by a half-decent telescope.

But that hasn’t deterred anyone from voicing their suggestions. Some want to call it ‘Mickey’ after Mickey Mouse as Pluto is Mickey’s pet dog in the Disney series. David Bowie fans want it named ‘Bowie’ but that’s a really long shot as the convention is to name space oddities after Roman or Greek mythology characters.

Given this constraint, the list has narrowed down to: ‘Terminus’, the Roman god of borders; ‘Vulcan’, the Roman god of fire; ‘Bacchus’, the Roman god of agriculture and wine; ‘Nyx’, the Greek goddess of the night; ‘Ulysses’, the Greek hero of Homer’s Illiad; ‘Apollo’, the Greek god of light; and ‘Minerva’, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

There have been a few wild card entries. One smart aleck wants the name to change every year to raise megabucks from corporations. One year it could be, ‘Planet Swoosh’, the next, ‘Steve Jobs Was Here’, and then ‘Windows 9’, and so on. Pluto sympathisers feel it’s a sequel after all. Therefore, ‘Plutwo’ should suffice. If you ask me, I’d say, why not a Hindu mythology moniker? Why not ‘Bheem’? That way, future Star Trekkers could go, “Bheem me up, Scotty!”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fundoo & Funded

Start-ups must be the most envied corporate beasts. They get tax holidays. Ten thousand crores of funds from the government. Wall-to-wall coverage from the pink papers. Get celebrated for not making a rupee. And enjoy astronomical valuations for manufacturing nothing.

Sour grapes aside, for every unworthy billion dollar unicorn, there’s a start-up somewhere, working quietly to be a game changer fuelled by just sweat, spunk and spirit. It’s time we focused on them rather than the much ballyhooed Snapdeals and the Flipkarts. I’ve put together a nifty A to Z list in case you decide to punt a million bucks on these dark horses:

‘Airwoot’ specialises in listening to social media conversations and presenting the hot button issues to brands before they spiral out of control. The deliciously-named ‘Better Butter’ is a social discovery platform for ghar ka recipes from across India. ‘Culture Alley’ teaches English, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese using news articles, games and daily quizzes. ‘Delhivery’ is the last-mile logistics delivery firm for many e-commerce ventures and small merchants. ‘Embibe’ is the online test preparation coach that students will love as the site quantifies the weaknesses and deficiencies, and aims to improve scores using analytics and technology. ‘Faircent’ is the bridge that connects lenders and borrowers and promotes peer-to-peer lending.

‘Greenlight’ is into spreading the light of rural energy in off-grid villages by evangelising the use of solar lamps. ‘HereNow’ is the equivalent of a neighborhood bulletin board where you can exchange news and views relevant to your locality. ‘Inshorts’ serves news in 60 words for the generation with woefully short attention spans. ‘Joe Hukum’ is your valet to get things done - from ordering pasta to cleaning dishes to fixing leaks. ‘Kratos’ is the mobile ad network aiming to deliver better bang for the buck through better targeting. ‘Lybrate’ lets you take second opinions from doctors through online chats, telephone calls and in some cases, they even arrange a home visit. ‘MapMyGenome’ is a new-gen diagnostics company that uses genetic tests for proactively guiding you on your health. ‘NextDrop’ can amazingly track and solve water problems by connecting users with the municipality technicians.

‘Qyk’ is the mobile google for professional help. With a track record of developing over 1400 apps, that too in Udupi, ‘Robosoft’ is clearly the app-maker to watch. ‘SilverPush’ is in the realm of making ad measurement in idiot boxes, smarter. ‘Truly Madly’ is a dating app that turns singles into un-singles. ‘Unobitcoin’ is into helping you buy and trade in the currency of the future. ‘Wishberry’ breathes life into creative projects by leveraging the power of crowd funding. And finally, ‘Zoomcar’ is the self-drive car rentals venture that propagates the freedom of four-wheels. With such an impressive line-up, Start-up India doesn’t look like one more big bubble.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Sounds like a winner

I love reading movie subtitles. While everyone else surrenders to the overpowering imagery and the sensory delights of the unfolding plot, my eyes prefer to soak in the poetry of the written word. I particularly relish the sound descriptions that set the tone for things to come.

When the lift bell dings, when the wind howls, when the leaves rustle, when the footsteps go clickety-clack, when the shotgun is cocked with a schklikt, and bullets fly all around rat-a-tat-tat, an opera of onomatopoeias play out on the screen!

In case ‘onomatopoeia’ felt like an immensely forgettable entry from the Barron’s GRE Word List, it’s Greek for ‘name-making’ and in plain English it cues ‘a word that mimics a sound associated with the action designated’. Comic books are full of it. Who can forget the ‘Badaboom’ explosion, the ‘Thith-thith-thith’ helicopter whirr, and the perfect punch ‘Kapow’?

Onomatopoeias have been around since eternity. The Sanskrit ‘Om’ is considered one. The Tamil crow (‘Kaka’) is simply an echo of the bird sound. Our own Bollywood ‘Dishoom’ is of recent vintage. Even our daily lingo is replete with written sounds: ‘Tuk Tuk’ for auto, ‘khat-khat’ for knocking, ‘tick-tock’ for the flow of time, ‘padapadppu’ for palpitation, ‘chomp chomp’ for munching, and ‘pitter-patter’ for rain.

Children love repetition. That’s probably why onomatopoeias are used as a memory device in making them remember rhymes. If you recollect ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’, the moo-moos, the quack-quacks and the oink-oinks will be embedded in your mind as if you learnt it yesterday.

The obvious attraction of catchiness has made onomatopoeias the go-to literary device for most name smiths. When ‘Refreshing Mints’ wanted some zing in their name, they rechristened the brand as ‘Tic Tac’ after the distinctive clicking sound that the pack makes when it’s opened and closed.

When Noah Glass was looking to name his killer creation, he considered Friendstalker and Twitch before zeroing in on Twitter, derived from how birds go ‘tweet-tweet’. Microsoft’s search engine ‘Bing’ was launched by pitching the name as the ‘sound of found’. The humble hawai chappals are internationally known as ‘flip-flops’ after the noise that the rubber soles make when they slap against your feet!

So if you want your cash registers to go ‘ka-ching’, maybe it’s time to opt for a ‘Boing Boing’!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

That’s a new one!

When billions of people have millions of things to convey, even six hundred thousand words in the Oxford English Dictionary may seem woefully inadequate. Which is why, neologisms are minted every year to keep pace with our thoughts.

2015 saw many new words take the world by storm. The practice of using drones to deliver packages was brought to light by Amazon. But DHL went a step further and actually deployed it by labelling the service as ‘Parcelcopter’. The name has fast emerged as the category descriptor.

Another word with immense utility is the Mx honorific. Although coined in the 1970s, the gender-neutral title gained currency as Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms wasn’t doing the job for transsexuals, cross dressers, gays and lesbians. By extension, one can state that the gender-neutral pronouns would be Xe (instead of he/she), Xyr (for her/their), and Xym (for him/them).

An acronym that’s gotten popular is FOGO (Fear of Going Out). It’s the uneasy feeling anti-socials experience when their friends call them out for a lunch, dinner or hang out session. I can confess, I get FOGO, all the time.

The noun ‘manspreading’ is something most males will relate with. It’s the habit of sitting in public transport with legs wide apart. Another masculine word is ‘lumbersexual’. It’s a reference to young urban men who cultivate the appearance of a rugged outdoor person by sporting a beard and looking neatly unkempt.

Tiger Moms of the eighties have given way to Helicopter and Lawn Mower Parents. Helicopter parenting involves hovering over children and constantly worrying about them while the Lawn Mower types actually smoothen the path by eliminating all the hurdles thereby creating spoilt brats!

The digital overload of mindless whatsapping, facebooking, tweeting and youtubing has created a new kind of beast called the ‘Disconnectionist’. Basically it cues a person who believes in shutting down all devices and focuses on opening up to oneself. Another appropriate coinage is ‘Dumbwalking’. It’s the zombie-like walk of someone who has lost his attention to a smartphone.

Booze lovers will relish ‘Wine O’Clock’. It’s the time of the day when you start wetting your lips. Foodies will concur with the thinking behind ‘Hangry’. It’s the state of being so hungry that you become angry. Urban Dictionary has a lot more of these creations. Till you visit the site and find out for yourself, I won’t breathe a word!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Names of 2015

It’s been a rather odd year. No one’s been able to nail it in one word. Merriam-Webster thinks ‘Ism’ is a pithy summation of 2015, because the world was obsessed with terrorism, racism, feminism, and Trumpisms! kind of concurs but has chosen ‘Identity’ as its Word of the Year. In the land we belong, I’d say ‘Beep’ is more like it, as we’ve been grappling with multiple forms of intolerance regarding what we say, what we wear, what we eat, what we view, and what we sing.

Now that we’ve provoked you from your New Year slumber, let’s turn your attention to the most original names developed in the last 12 months. Let’s start with the Best Tamil movie title: ‘Vellaiya Irukiravan Poi Solla Maatan’ (Fair Skinned Never Lie). Inspired from a racist quip in a Vadivelu comedy track, the name brings an immediate smile and is a great way to draw people into a comedy. Among the mallu flicks, ‘Oru Vadakkan Selfie’ (A Northerner’s Selfie) was the clutter buster. It’s catchy, and contemporary nature felt just right for the thriller. ‘A Shyam Gopal Varma Film’ was my pick for the smartest Telugu film title as it feels every inch like a spoof on Ram Gopal Varma!

‘141’ was my number one choice for the Best Kannada title. If you get the cryptic ‘one for one’ touch, you’ll appreciate this Lesbian romance better. Balki’s ingenious portmanteau ‘Shamitabh’ towered above other Bollywood drivel like ‘Kaagaz ke Fools’ and ‘Yaara Silly Silly’. In case you’re wondering why I haven’t yet covered English movies, well, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E’ made it to my list due to the intrigue it’s suffused with. The fascinatingly dreary ‘Microbe and Gasoline topped my Foreign Films compilation.

The arrestingly in-your-face ‘Galileo’s Middle Finger’ was my non-fiction book title of the year. In sharp contrast, the more evocative ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was the numero uno among novels. The twitter handle that rocked for me was Twinkle Khanna’s ‘Mrs Funnybones’. Incidentally, it’s also the title of the best seller penned by her.

Cut to music. ‘Club Meds’ a trippy pun on the resort, outscored all other albums in terms of stickiness and recall. The immensely unusual ‘Car Seat Headrest’ was easily the best new band name – for its sheer audacity of being consciously uncool.

‘Jibo’ (Japanese for ‘compassionate mother’) the first ever family robot was my selection for the new product moniker of the year. And ‘Vistara’ (Sanskrit meaning: to expand) emerged clearly as the most endearing new Indian brand name. Hope the harvest will be as good in the coming season

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Forget Me Not

The human brain is a network of 100 billion neurons with the mind-boggling capacity to store 20 million songs. With such a huge hard drive, some of us still manage to be dim bulbs!

The fault could lie in our RAM (Random Access Memory) or the working memory. If the RAM is in the league of 8 GB, chances are we’d be able to recall nearly everything. If, on the other hand, our RAM is in the realm of 512 MB, we’re likely to have the memory of a gold fish.

At school, I think, all of us had a rather distracted frame of mind. Which probably explains the profusion of mnemonics (memory aids) to make us remember things. I still recollect my physics teacher’s naughty little mantra: Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me. Apparently, it’s the nifty way to recollect O, B, A, F, G, K and M – the seven types of stars in a galaxy arranged in decreasing order of temperature.

Google tells me that ‘My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos’ is how kids in America remember the nine planets. In our geography class, ‘HOMES’ was the code word to memorize the Great Lakes of North America. For those who’ve forgotten, it’s Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.

‘Dumb Kids Prefer Candy Over Fancy Green Salad’ is a very contemporary way to refresh your memory on Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus & Species (the taxonomy of life as taught in Biology).

The beauty of mnemonics is, anyone can create their own formula for calling to mind just about anything - not just lists. For instance, the number pi can be worked out to the 15th place by just counting the letters in the following sentence: “How I like a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics”. That would be 3.14159265358979.

In a nation of mug pots, it helps to have desi mnemonics. So I wasn’t surprised when I stumbled upon ‘Sona Chandi Tole Pandit Badri Prasad Har Har Bhole’. It’s the cheat sheet for arriving at trigonometric formulae for Sine, Cosine and Tangent.

Basically Sona (sine) is Pandit Badri (Perpendicular/Base), Chandi (cosine) is Prasad Har (Perpendicular/Hypotenuse), and Tole (tangent) is Har Bhole (Hypotenuse/Base). Any crammer would tell you, that’s simply ingenious. But then, mnemonics were meant to make the dreary job of mugging smile-worthy, right? Before I take leave, I’ll sign off with ‘Lovely Cadbury Dairy Milk’. It’s the delicious way to chew on LCDM, the major Roman numerals!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Getting Away With Murder

The driverless car did it. The drunken roads did it. Everyone else, except Sallu, did it. That’s the only conclusion one can draw from the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict pronounced on the 13-year-old case concerning a Bollywood star best known for 100-crore hits-and-runs.

The judgement has provoked maximum outraging in the maximum city. But as seasoned observers will tell you, getting off the hook is par for the course for celebrities across the world. Let me name a few names to put you to ease.

Sometime in 1969, Ted Kennedy (the youngest brother of JFK, and a United States senator), in a famous episode of drunken driving caused the death of a young lady named Mary Jo. Instead of being charged with homicide, his surname helped him snag a mere two-year sentence. There was no public apology to the family. Some monetary compensation exchanged hands, that’s all.

OJ Simpson’s case was even more brazen. The rugby star was tried for the 1994 murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Despite being caught after a chase by the LAPD and tell-tale evidence of his bloody footprints at the scene of the crime, OJ was let go. After release, he had the cheek to write a book titled ‘If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer’. Thankfully, he’s now cooling his heels serving a 33-year prison sentence related to a robbery case.

Singer R. Kelly, the man who behind ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, was once arrested for having sex with a minor and for indulging in child pornography. The charges were serious and just when the world was expected him to be severely punished, all charges were dropped and he walked a freeman!

Rappers Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Jay-Z have all been acquitted for grave crimes. That’s because celebs jumping the bail and beating the system has been the norm for centuries.

Fatty Arbuckle, a silent movie era legend, was tried thrice over the mystery death of a lady who spent some quality time with him. But the jury glossed over the man slaughter. Al Capone, the Chicago gangster and the brain behind many street murders, always managed to escape the electric chair. But karma caught up with him when he was pinned down for tax evasion. So all ye who despair, let’s wait for Lady Karma to do her job.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

No Laughing Matter

“Good enough is not enough,” used to be the motto of Jay Chiat, the founder of the celebrated ad agency Chiat/Day. Actress Preity Zinta may not take that kindly as she’s supposedly seeing a financial analyst from Los Angeles who goes by the name Gene Goodenough.

Before our filmi press has a field day punning on his surname, let it be known that the right way to pronounce ‘Goodenough’ is ‘Good-en-oh’ and not what sounds like the fella with low standards!

There are many more English names that reek of oddness, on first impression. But a little knowledge of etymology may help us folks to appreciate things a wee better. For instance, some people believe that Goodenough is derived from Godin Haugh (meaning: Godin’s Hill), indicative, may be, of the place of origin.

Ryan Sidebottom is a cricketer whose surname often evokes a snicker. An analysis of the name history, however, puts things in perspective. Bottom is Old English for ‘valley’. So the Sidebottoms may have originally been from a place near a valley!

Similarly, Large implies ‘a generous man’. But when you baptize someone as Johnny Large, you run the risk of making him the butt of all jokes. Former tennis ace Guy Forget faced the same problem. Most people assumed that he was a forgetful chap. What they didn’t know was he was French. And his name is to be pronounced as ‘Gi Forjay’. Wherein, ‘Forget’ draws its roots from the English word ‘forge’ and cues a blacksmith ancestry.

Sometimes, surnames mean exactly what they say. Gotobed is one example. A 13th century coinage, it was a dig at someone who retires early to bed, to do things other than sleeping! One wonders how Hollywood actress Hattie Gotobed is bravely carrying the legacy. She must be meeting many jerks who might playfully tease her with the “Shall we, Gotobed?” quip.

There are many Indian surnames with the potential to cause embarrassment to the bearer. Chutiya (‘fool’ in Hindi) is the most illustrious case in point. Many take it literally and laugh. The fact of the matter is that Chutiya is one of the oldest ethnic tribes in Assam. Originally they were the ruling Sutiya clan. Sutiya actually stands for ‘glory’. Therefore to taunt the Chutiyas is just not done. Gandoo, Tevadia, Lund and Tatti are some other surnames with their own mystic logic. They are seriously not funny. Kindly laugh not, even in jest.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Spilling the beans

Even vegetables have some self-respect. They hate it when perfectly normal people question their very identity and confuse them for fruits. It’s like mixing up baseball with cricket or for that matter, committing the abacharam of confusing an Iyer for an Iyengar!

The tomato was caught in one such terrible mix-up in 1893, when an American gentleman named Edward L. Hedden, threw the dictionary at it and declared that any ‘seed-bearing’ plant-part should automatically be labelled as a ‘fruit’. But the Supreme Court of the United States restored its dignity by asserting that common parlance counts a lot more than botany and if the world referred to the tomato as a vegetable, it shall be regarded so. Tomatoes have never looked back ever since.

Talking of vegetable identities, do you know that different varieties of farm produce have different names in India? For example, the cauliflower grown in Varanasi is called Kashi Kunwari (aka Varanasi Virgin)! ‘Deepali’ and ‘Snowball’ are the other cultivars.

Usually the hue of the veggie decides the name. ‘Detroit Dark Red’ and ‘Crimson Globe’ are the most common types of Beetroot in our part of the world. Similarly ‘Purple Long’, ‘Shyamala’ (the dark one), ‘Neelakant’ (blue throat), ‘Jamuni’ (blackish), and ‘Krishna’ (dark blue) are Brinjal variants. Fenugreek seeds are yellow, so the Indian type is called ‘Sonali’ (golden). Likewise the saffron shades of carrots are called ‘Kesar’. Green Chilli is ‘Harita’ (greenish) and Red Chilli is ‘Lohit’ (copper red).

The shape, texture and taste play a role too. Which is probably why, hot chillies have been billed as ‘Jwala’ (flame); the cool cucumber breed is called ‘Himangini’ (made of snow); the long necked bottle gourd is ‘Nutan’ (remember the actress?), the shapely and sweet one is ‘Madhuri’ while the watery type is ‘Ganga’; ‘Chandramukhi’ is the oblong yellow potato and ‘Swarna’, the gold-skinned spud.

Sometimes even the season has a say. The okra grown during the monsoon season is touted as ‘Sawani’, the tomato from autumn is ‘Sharad’, the spring cabbage is ‘Basant, the summer potato is ‘Surya’, and the all-season chilli is ‘Sadabahaar’.

To my knowledge, only one vegetable variety has been named after a politician - that too by accident. It’s the Indira Kundru (after Indira Gandhi). The moniker was picked as the strain of ivy gourd was developed by the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University. In my considered view, our agriculturists should be having a lot more fun in naming their creations as they are not really dealing with hot potatoes. Whaddya say?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Punch Tantra

In any other part of India, he’d be dismissed as just another dark skinned South Indian. In Tamil Nadu, there’s not a home that doesn’t mouth his punch lines. Meet Vadivelu, the Rajinikant of comedy, who sadly never got his due nationally.

Born in Madurai with an uncannily similar tale to that of the Southern superstar, Vadivelu earned his living, doing odd jobs in a photo frame shop. One fine day, he serendipitously dropped into a studio to watch a shoot as he had precious little to do. Director T Rajendhar was looking for a striking looking thin guy to play a filler role in his film ‘En Thangai Kalyani’. Our man fit the bill. The inconsequential role bolstered his confidence enough to try his luck as a funny man in Raj Kiran starrer ‘En Rasavin Manasile’. Then destiny took over and he went on to act in over 275 movies earning many awards and legions of fans in the bargain.

Central to Vadivelu’s popularity is the tried and tested slapstick trope of a rustic braggart being thulped black and blue till his dhoti drops. The charm of ‘Vaigai Puyal’ (his nickname) lay in how he injected zing into the same old role by coming up with new stock phrases such as ‘Vandhutaangaiya Vandhutaanga’, ‘Ahaan!’, ‘Haiyaiyo’, ‘Naa apdiye shock aiytane’, ‘Mudiyala’, ‘Sollavae illa’. ‘Enna da nadakkudhu inga’ and ‘Vada pochey’.

His amusing body language, loud-mouthed bravado coupled with witticisms like ‘Taking a risk is akin to eating a rusk for me’ made him meme-worthy. Another special reason for our love is his punchlines. They have been the fountainhead for many a quirky movie title. The recent hit ‘Naanum Rowdy Thaan’ is borrowed from a quip he made in ‘Thalainagaram’. Another famous retort from the same movie ‘Trisha kidaikalana Divya’ served as the inspiration for the recent release ‘Trisha Illana Nayantara’. The Siva Karthikeyan flick ‘Varuthapadaada Valibar Sangham’ is the name of Vadivel’s club in ‘Winner’. Even Siddharth’s soon-to-be-released ‘Jil Jung Juck’ owes its title to Vadivel’s epic classification of women in ‘Kaadhalan’.

Youtube comic channel ‘Put Chutney’ and Pepper TV’s chucklesome show ‘Building Strong, Basement Weak’ are also a nod to Vadivelisms. Ironically, the man hasn’t been paid a rupee of royalty for his naming contributions. But Vadivelu knows the joke’s on him considering he was the bloke who once asked, “Enna vechu comedy keemedy pannalaiye?’

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mark My Words

It was another dry day at the Chemistry class. When I was busy waging a losing battle against the sleep gods, the term ‘Dry Ice’ was splashed upon me like a bucket of freezing cold water. I can still recollect the newness of the coinage jolting me out of my reverie.

Before I could muster the courage to ask how ice can be dry, my teacher informed me that Solid Carbon Dioxide when heated turns into gas instead of melting. That’s why it’s never wet. Recently, I came to know that Dry Ice was trademarked in America in 1925. So it was a brand name all along and not a term that sprouted from a text book!

Actually, if one cares to dig deeper one can discover many such trademarks that are part of our everyday lexicon. Heroin, the illegal substance that figures in many B-grade crime movies, is technically Morphine Diacetate but it was given the H-moniker and was trademarked by Bayer & Co in 1898.

Kerosene, the fuel that gives the ration shop its distinct odour, was christened by Abraham Gesner from keroselaion (Greek for ‘wax-oil) and was registered in 1854 as a wordmark.

Even ‘Escalator’ was trademarked in 1900 by Charles Seeberger who later worked for the Otis Elevator Company. But in precisely 50 years, it lost its legal protection when a court declared that an escalator is a generic moving stairway and cannot be called a brand name as it had become ubiquitous.

Many category-creator brands face such a risk. Marketers call this phenomenon ‘genericide’. That’s the reason why Xerox is very particular that you call the act of document duplication as ‘photocopying’ and not ‘Xeroxing’. And Adobe is insisting that you should never use ‘photoshop’, ‘photoshopping’ or ‘photoshopper’ in any written form of communication – including this article!

But in many cases, the damage has already been done. No one knows that Bubble Wrap is a trade name from Sealed Air Corporation. No one cares whether Wham-O Incorporated has the rights to ‘Frisbee’ because to the Average Joe, a flying disc is a Frisbee. By the way, Wham-O also owns Hula-Hoop!

Likewise Laundromat (a property of Westinghouse Electric), Videotape (originally belonged to Ampex), Trampoline (Griswold-Nissen’s), Dictaphone (Nuance Communication’s), and Fiberglass (Owens Corning’s) have all suffered the same fate. But as our legend Ravi Shastri would famously say, “In the end, English was the winner.”

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Red Hot in Chennai

In the start-up race among Indian cities, Bengaluru looks like the Usain Bolt and every other metro seems like a languid laggard. Chennai, in particular, appears to be the also-ran who won the wooden spoon.

The picture might be very different when you stop viewing start-ups as venture capital funded e-commerce black holes that will never see the light of profit. A little birdie tells me that such money-guzzling outfits reside primarily in Koramangala. Fortunately, the new vanguards of hope in Chennai have a lot more meat in their curry. Let me showcase eight scalding hot ventures of tomorrow to give you an inkling of their sizzle.

‘34 Cross’ is my first exhibit. Located at 34th Cross Street in Besant Nagar, the company is self-confessedly into ‘product development for next-gen web & mobile applications’. Founded by some young guns who studied at IIT Madras, 34 Cross has many aces up its short sleeve. Their cleverly-named Hasura (Haskell Asura) is a piping hot app-development platform built using the advanced Haskell programming language. Also from their stable is SearchMyDB (customized search engine) and FindaKadai (app to discover best food joints in the city).

‘Mad Street Den’ is one of a handful of crazy companies operating in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) domain in the world. They’re into developing smarter apps that leverage gaze tracking, emotion-expression detection, facial gestures and object recognition. ‘Invention Labs’ is another ‘road less taken’ company operating in the realm of building tools for communication among children with disabilities. Their Avaz App uses picture cards digitally to let autistic kids express themselves.

The thing with these pioneers is they’ve consciously chosen fields that require path breaking work. ‘Inthree’ (Inner India Initiative) is one such enterprise. When everyone is talking e-commerce, they’re focusing on r-commerce (rural commerce) by using an ingenious mix of home-grown networks and the mobile phone.

Then there’s: ‘Nimble Wireless’, an Internet of Things (IOT) vanguard helping businesses to monitor the location and temperature of their assets distributed in remote places; ‘Pi Beam’ (meaning: infinite energy), an automobile trailblazer that has designed a super-affordable solar electric 3-wheeler for rural areas that can even power a home, when idle; ‘Twenty19’, India’s largest portal for student internship that’s managed to sew up a vast network of 8000 odd colleges; and ‘EdSix’, an educational gaming company that’s launched a suite of 500 games to enhance employable skills. Still think Chennai is the proverbial slow coach?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

China in your hand

When AT&T employee Pamela Savage coined the term ‘Smart Phone’ in 1995, little did she know that in less than 20 years, nearly 1.2 billion smartphones would be shipped annually!

The ensuing iPhone and Android revolutions have catapulted Apple and Samsung into pole positions and understandably, they’ve raced away with all the honours, thanks to a combined market share of approximately 45%. But some smarter, sleeker, and seriously cooler Chinese brands are turning the heat on, and are scorching the tarmac with sensational growth.

Being copycats par excellence, they are able to beat the Americans and Koreans with supersonic speed and super human economies of scale. Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer, was the first to spot the opportunity. Founded by a former engineer from the Chinese Army, Huawei (meaning: Chinese Achievement) is legendary for launching the copy, weeks before the original can hit the racks!

Xiaomi (pronounced shee-ow-me) is the other brand that’s making waves. The Beijing-based electronics company got into the business of smartphones in August 2011 and by 2014, the company had sold a mindboggling 60 million smartphones. To put that number in perspective, Xiaomi sold 12 times more phones than Micromax!

Xiaomi, interestingly, is the Chinese word for ‘millets’ (the English equivalent of Bajra). Apparently the inspiration for it was the Buddhist philosophy of doing big things, grain by grain. The odd name, gave another Chinese brand Meizu a golden marketing opportunity. They distributed free millets with their phones and claimed, “Xiaomi now free with every Meizu phone!” Cheeky, no?

The success of Xiaomi has spawned many more Chinese brands and they are all pouring into India. Gionee was among the first to set up shop with their Elife series. For the curious-minded, Gionee, supposedly, is an anglicised form of Chinese ‘Jin Li’ and it means ‘Golden & Beautiful’. Zopo (acronym for Zealous Open Perfect Outstanding) has thrown in its hat too - perhaps following the footsteps of Oppo (short for ‘opportunity), a mobile brand that’s been quite visible in the national media.

OnePlusTwo, the phone that sounds like a student who’s flunked his 12th board exam, is the hot cake Chinese mobile that’s getting heaps of fan-following in our metros, largely due to their innovative strategy of phones-by-invitation-only. OnePlusTwo is from a company named OnePlus (speculated to be a secret subsidiary of Oppo). Another big player is Vivo (Latin for ‘alive). You’ll get to hear a lot about them as they’ve snagged the IPL title rights for two years. With so many brands jostling for space, it’ll be interesting to see who wins the Chinese checkers!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mulling Over Malabar

Before 1989, the ‘God’s Own Country’ just didn’t exist. The famed slogan that’s come to typify Kerala, was channelized first by an adman named Walter Mendez - then Creative Director of Mudra - and that’s how the land that we all love, successfully appropriated the evocative phrase, imagined way back in 1807, by the English writer Edward Dubois.

That brings us to the next question: What does Malabar mean? No, it’s not a toddy joint. It’s derived from the Tamil words ‘Malai Vaaram’ or ‘Hilly Region’. Before you bristle at the mention of Tamil and not Malayalam, please bear in mind that Kerala or Keralam owes its origins to Cheralam, the land of the Cheras, who happen to be a Dravidian dynasty.

Let’s explore the Tamil-Malayalam angle further. For ease of remembrance, let’s refer to this twin-root as the ‘Chera touch’. Many town names in Kerala display the ‘Chera touch’.

Ernakulam flows from ‘Iraiyankulam’ (Tamil for ‘Lord Shiva’s tank’). Kumarakom, now renowned for its resorts, is actually Kumaran Agam. That’s again Tamil for ‘Home of Lord Muruga’ – a reference to an ancient temple there. Idukki, the second largest district of the state, comes from the Tamil ‘Idukku’, which in turn cues a narrow gorge. There’s also this theory that Palakkad is ‘Paalai Kaadu’ (senthamizh for barren forest). And Kozhikode is supposed to have sprung from Kalli Kottai (Cactus Fort). Meenachil river (an ode to Madurai Meenakshi), Munnar (Moonu aaru or confluence of three rivers), Wayanad (from Vayal Nadu) and Cannanore (Kannan Ur) are more examples of the Tamilian nexus.

Lest you suspect me to be a Tamil supremacist, let’s allay your fears by sharing many pure play Malayalam town names. Cochin or Kochi is widely believed to have evolved from ‘Kochu Azhi’ (meaning: small lagoon). Alapuzha can be broken down into Ala (deep/broad) and Puzha (river). Likewise Thodupuzha (the setting of Drishyam movie) means ‘a town touching a river’.

Kollam can be traced to the Sanskrit side of Malayalam. Apparently in the olden days, it was a hilly terrain laden with Kaulam trees (Indian Long Pepper). Trivandrum and Trissur have a divine connect though. Trivandrum is the anglicised form of Thiru Anantha Puram or Lord Anantha’s abode – an allusion to the gold-rich Padmanabha temple. Trissur’s source word is Tirusivaperur (Home of Lord Shiva).

Continuing on the divine trail, I think someday, we’ll have towns named after movie gods – Mammooty, and Mohan Lal. In anticipation, I propose Mamootiur and Lalettanpuram. That will truly make it a god’s own country, don’t you think?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Losing My Religion

Friedrich Nietzsche, the poster boy of atheists, once trenchantly quipped, “After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.” Such was the high regard, the German philosopher had for the concept of the almighty. Coming from someone who was nicknamed ’the little pastor’ in his schooldays for his prowess in effortless recital of Biblical verses, it’s indeed ironical.

But irony has been a recurring theme with non-believers. Take Periyar, the respected Tamil rationalist. He was born as EV Ramasamy Naicker and all his life he railed against Rama the Swami and Ramayan the epic. Kamal Hassan, the outspoken thespian and atheist, did his schooling – of all the secular places - in Hindu Higher Secondary School! Even his name in Sanskrit means ‘Beholder of the Lotus’ which in turn is a sobriquet for Lord Vishnu. One must add here though that the official story is that he was named after his dad’s friend Yakoob Hassan as a tribute to the protection he offered his father during his prison days.

Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated British author, who felt ‘antitheist’ describes him better than the limp ‘atheist’, did nothing to change his first name which literally means ‘bearing Christ’. Sam Harris, the other famed irreligionist, also carries the cross of a religious first name. For the uninformed, Sam is the diminutive for Samuel, the Hebrew word that signifies ‘name of god’.

To eliminate this apparent irony, atheists have started adopting names with zero religious connotations. Numbers are sometimes favoured – especially the Greek ones like Primus (one) and Quintus (five). God names are being dumped in favour of first names of famous iconoclasts – Charles (Darwin), Karl (Marx), Richard (Dawkins) and Bertrand (Russell) are in vogue now. If it’s a baby girl, parents prefer neutral floral or colour names. Something like - Rose, Daisy, Violet, Camelia, Iris, or Turquoise.

Month names come in handy too. March, April, May, June, July and August are quite popular. Verbs are very much in circulation. Stuff such as Hope, Rock, Sparkle, Mark, Hunt and Glow. Sometimes science provides the fodder: Tesla, Quark, Lumen, Gene, Lycra, Curie, Symmetry, Benzene, Hawking, and Newton. Some dive into comic books to fish out pearls (Flash, Kal El, Tarzan, Jughead, Charlie Brown). And the wacko types who don’t mind spoofing religions choose Saint Stupid, Pastafarian, Alwarpettai Aandava, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Beefbiter, Invisible Pink Unicorn, Ceiling Cat, Sub Genuis and things that will make you go, ‘Oh my god!’

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pride of Lions

There are less than 22,000 lions in this world and yet, they evoke more awe than Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama. I learnt why when I discovered that the wild cats sleep up to 20 hours a day. And sometimes when they have a big meal, the resting might stretch to 24 slumberous hours. How royal is that!

Another fact to put things in perspective: It seems the lion’s roar is audible from a distance of 8 kilometres. With such a booming voice, it’s understandable why nearly 13 countries have opted for this majestic being as their National Animal.

Surprisingly though, there are only 523 lions in India. Despite this, the Panthera leo persica has had a disproportionate influence on our culture.

For centuries, Rajputs proclaimed their manliness with the ‘Singh’ surname – which, as you know, is derived from the Sanskrit word for Lion. From 1699, many generations of adorable sardarjis have made it their last name. So we would have had no Khushwant Singh, Sushant Singh Rajput, Shatrughan Sinha, or Ashok Singhal, if not for the lord of the jungle. Even Bollywood action flick ‘Singham’ flows from the Tamil word for ‘lion’.

The entire Sinhalese race, trace their lineage to Prince Vijaya, who’s supposed to have landed on the island with a lion flag in his hand. Likewise, Singapore or Simhapura (Lion city) owes its origins to the sighting of a sea monster (half fish-half lion) by the King of Malays, when he dropped anchor there.

The Turkic-Arabs were also in total thrall to the beast. The names Abbas, Asad, Babar, Haider and Osama are all one-word odes to the lion. The Europeans were as fascinated. The Leonardo in Leanardo da Vinci means ‘strong as a lion’. The French Napoleon was inspired by Italian Saint Napoleone, which in turn, literally means ‘Lion of Naples’. By the way, Sunny Leone has ‘Lion’ written all over. Now you know why she’s a man eater!

Leander, Ariel, Xerxes and Lionel are some other names that remind you of the mane. Marketing mavens who know a thing or two about milking powerful symbols have often appropriated the lion by making it their logo.

Movie studio MGM, Swedish car Saab, advertising award show Cannes Lions, the soccer extravaganza Premier League, French automobile giant Peugeot and our local Lion Dates Syrup have all rode on the lion’s back and have raked in the big bucks. Still wondering if it’s worth entering the den?