Tuesday, December 4, 2012


One day, way back in the mid-seventies, a self-styled linguist from abroad, whose hatred towards Noam Chomsky was incomprehensible to us to say the least, was giving us, graduate students of linguistics, what he called a critique of Chomsky’s linguistics. During the lecture, he spent some time telling us about how Chomsky was not paying income tax and how the clever man was gaining from this act in terms of bank balance and favourable public attention, both. No wonder, he said, that such a person was doing the kind of linguistics he was doing. We were unimpressed partly because we failed to see the connection, but far more because Chomsky’s income, income tax and bank account were of no interest to us in the first place.

The fact of the matter is this: discussing an issue on communication, Chomsky wrote in his Reflections on Language that there was a time he was not paying part of his income tax in protest against some policies of the US government (relating to the Vietnam War). And like some others too, he used to write a detailed and careful letter to the Bureau of internal Revenue every year justifying his non-payment of the same. He was aware that no one was going to read his note and that his income tax papers might simply be fed into a computer. Umberto Eco’s shopping list (the subject matter of an earlier post in this blog) and Chomsky’s letter to the Bureau are similar in that their respective authors believed that neither piece was going to be read by others, so neither had any intention to communicate while writing the same. However, differing from Eco and reflecting on his own experience, Chomsky observed that although sometimes an author may have no communicative intention while writing something, he would still writes with sincerity and care, and would not ignore clarity. It is a different matter that some people do indeed read such writing. In the context of the same discussion in his Reflections on Language, Chomsky said that he wrote The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory as a graduate student assuming that it would never be read by anyone or would ever be published. We know that it was published twenty years after it was written. As for its readers, the eminent linguist James D. McCawley told us in a lecture what was in circulation in the relevant quarters those days, namely that when it was first reviewed, even the reviewer of the book had not read it fully. We do not have to take him literally though. In any case, it is difficult to agree with Chomsky that when he was writing his lengthy manuscript he was very much aware that it would not be “read by anyone”; every graduate student writes his thesis for at least his examiners. We of course need not take his words too literally and interpret “anyone” as “anyone other than the thesis adviser and the examiners”, but then it makes the point he was making weak. 

An author may not have any particular individual or any group of persons in mind while writing, but to say that he writes knowing full well that no one would read his writing is difficult to swallow, when he does not make his writing completely inaccessible. There is of course a coherent answer to the question as to why at all, if one knows that no one is going to read his piece, one writes logically, clearly and in an intelligible manner. The answer is that it has to do with the personality of the author. If he is the sincere and responsible type, it would be reflected in his writing, if he is a bully or a confused person, it will also be reflected in his writing. It has thus nothing to do with his communicative intention or the absence of it.

One can never be sure that one’s writing will never be read by anyone, except when one destroys the same in time. The well known Indian author, Raja Rao, who wrote in English, left behind him much unpublished writing which during his life time he probably did not want to publish for some reason. Now it appears that those who have access are trying to have some of them published in some form. From the fact that Raja Rao did not publish them one cannot conclude that he did not want any one  to read them ever. If that were his resolve, then he should not have preserved his writing in the first place. The fact that he did would suggest that he had no problems if the same were read after his death. Similarly, from the very fact that Chomsky sent his letters to the Bureau of Internal Revenue one would think that he certainly would not have minded if someone there read them. One would never be persuaded to accept the claim that an author wrote for himself, for one’s own satisfaction or for the fulfilment of one’s creative urge, so long as he preserves his writing.

That is why the only stuff I believe  that are written without any communicative intention are the shy, self-conscious, conservative teen aged lover’s poems or billet doux, which readily end up, torn into tiny pieces, in the wastepaper basket.          

Monday, December 3, 2012


As far as I am concerned, there are two Jose Mourinhos; one is the self-styled Special One, as he is known in the football community and the other, who I call The Special One without any restrictive epithet. It seems somehow this second Mourinho has not received due attention.

Soon after his team Real Madrid won the Spanish League, 2011-12, Mourinho started announcing that the 2012 Ballon d’Or should be awarded to Cristiano Ronaldo of his team because he is the best player in the world. The first El Clasico of the 2012-13 edition of La Liga was played in Nou Camp and ended in a 2-2 draw. Ronaldo and Messi scored the goals for their respective clubs. The quality of football on display was very good. Messi’s free kick that beat the wall and the goalkeeper Casillas was a special treat for the football lovers. And as for Mourinho, he said that he enjoyed the match as did the thousands on the stand and millions on television across continents.

Mourinho said that talk as to who between Ronaldo and Messi is better should be banned because they belong to another planet, and that this year’s Ballon d’Or should be given to a Real Madrid player (since in this sentence he did not mention Ronaldo, could he have meant that anyone would do? May be we are being unfair to him.) because it is Real Madrid who won the toughest football league in the world. He said this despite the much talked of and widely published sadness of Ronaldo. One reason the player was sad was that he felt that his club had not supported him on such matters as the Ballon d’Or award for him. One does not know how he felt after his manager did not distinguish between Messi and him: “both belong to another planet.” Period. But soon Mourinho changed his mind and came up with a different statement. Incidentally, the provocation for this new one was an observation made by the Barca manager who said that Messi is the best on the planet. Mourinho could not keep quiet.

He said that if Messi was the best on the planet, Ronaldo was the best in the universe. He was from the Mars. We know that it is rhetorical language. Now rhetorical statements must not be checked for their truth value; the same must be taken neither literally nor seriously. They have to be enjoyed; so let none of us ask whether football is played in the Mars and elsewhere in the universe.

In days he came up with yet another observation, as reported in The Times of India on October 15, 2012: “if Cristiano doesn’t win the Ballon d’Or this year, it is only because he’s not nice.” – a really fascinating observation that would delight a student of pragmatics and of communication. It could be seen as a criticism of the voters who would not vote for Ronaldo; they are being charged with taking into consideration non-football factors. It could also be seen as a mildly affectionate criticism of Ronaldo; his manager wanted him to realize that because of his poor public manners, he might not be getting his due. It could also be a clear statement of a fact, meant to be viewed independent of Ballon d’Or or any other award – that whatever his football skills, Ronaldo is not nice. Depending on a host of factors including (perhaps crucially)one’s attitude to Mourinho, one would attribute one of these meanings to him. Anyway, as for us, we are not concerned with the semantics of his statement here. We only note one remarkable feature of this observation, namely that for once there is no explicit mention of Messi here.

Mourinho attempts to justify his choice: if Messi gets the award it would be for the fourth time, when Ronaldo would have got it only once (2008). Besides, Messi has been playing in the same team for years, whereas Ronaldo came from England and for two years was with Real Madrid, which was not winning trophies. Besides Messi’s goals did not lead to his team’s winning a trophy, Ronaldo’s did – Read Madrid became the La Liga winners. Barca might have won the Intercontinental Cup and the Super Cup, but those were small things and counted to nothing. Here we are not evaluating the merit of his assertions, although we have things to say about these. How many voters would be persuaded by these observations is a matter for speculation.

As for Mourinho’s remarks mentioned above, one would find some lack of consistency at the level of detail – on the one hand, he would like talk about between Messi or Ronaldo who is better to be banned, and on the other hand, he keeps saying Ronaldo is the best. His remarks are aggressive, provocative and they sound loud and are crudely partisan. He punctuates his observations with punch line- like remarks and indulges in rhetoric – it does not matter that the same lacks novelty.

But Mourinho is not a football journalist or an academic who writes authoritative books on football. Neither is he professionally or otherwise committed to create beautiful expressions that attract attention. He is the manager of a well known football team, one of the very best in the world, and one of his jobs is to advertise his team and sell its achievements. In a football interview, most in the audience do not often care to think beyond what is being said, so they do not see the inconsistencies which come to notice when the earlier remarks are also taken into consideration. Like the proverbial representative of a country who enjoys the freedom to tell half-truths for his country, the manager can package facts and distortions both to advance the interests of his team. Who, among the managers today, does it better than him? When Mourinho fails to sell his point of view to his target audience, it could mean that persuasive strategies have their limitation. He is a manager who likes to talk and talks forcefully – he, of all his counterparts in these times, remains in the news as much as the team he is in charge of or its stars. When a football team wins a trophy or even an important match, everyone in the football community knows today that a good part of the credit goes to the manager. There is none that drives this point home even as half forcefully as does Mourinho. And as a communicator speaking up for his team, he is special. In this he is “The Special One”, not “the self-styled Special One”.   

Friday, November 16, 2012


Humans use mostly language to communicate. There are of course other modes of communication that they use, but to only a limited extent. For this reason some tend to think that language (which is not really created by humans but is basically an “object” of nature, as Noam Chomsky has so persuasively argued) exists for communication; with a little reflection we can see that this idea is clearly unsatisfactory. We use flowers and leaves for many purposes but to say that these exist so that we humans can use them is being not just illogical but extremely arrogant as well. What is it if not sheer arrogance if one believes that nature exists for the use of humans? This is essentially what Bertrand Russell had observed more than half a century ago in a similar context. It is sometimes said that language is used, not for communication alone but for self-expression as well. When one uses it for self-expression, one has no intention to share with anyone what he expresses. But isn’t self-expression itself a kind of communication, an interaction with the other - a philosophically inclined person would ask - between the self and the soul? As for those who cannot accommodate soul in their view of things, there is the inner voice which most, more often than not, tend to ignore and sometimes only grudgingly listen to? But why think of all this, when we have an excellent example in the form of a shy young person who writes soulful poems but does not share them with anyone at all? While composing them he might (in fact, does!) have somebody in mind who inspires his poetic self and to whom his literary output is secretly dedicated. But there isn’t even communication intention in this case, let alone communication. But here too one can argue, using “communication between body-soul/ inner voice” as a kind of template, that the poetic outburst of the poet-lover is indeed an event of communication between him and his living inspiration, no matter that the latter is never going to read his poems since they would head into the wastepaper basket minutes after they come to exist.

Umberto Eco thinks that language use is for communication alone. One always writes for others, none of whom barring a few, one would ever get to know. The ancient Indian philosopher-poet, Bhartrihari, had a similar view, only that his reader could be distanced from him in terms of even place and time, quite a thing to say centuries ago. For Eco, the one who says that he writes for none but himself is not being honest. There is only one exception to it, he adds; when one writes his “shopping list”, one does not have anyone in his mind with whom to share it. It is a different matter that although they might never acknowledge it, some would be delighted to read shopping lists of others, for instance, the celebrities!

I am unable to agree with Eco on the shopping list. During my childhood (that was sixty years ago), in my village some members of the village “elite” (two or three families out of six hundred households) would not go to the miserable-looking grocery shop in the village to shop, but would ask a poor teen aged boy of their neighbourhood, or better, a pupil of the village “minor” school (from class IV to VII) from a poor family, to run to the grocer’s and get their stuff for them. The errand boy was never given a small mint for his effort; he wasn’t given money to pay the shopkeeper. The shopping arithmetic of errand boys, who could not afford private tuition which was very much there those days, was believed to be atrocious.  He could not be trusted to remember all the items needed for the household and the desired quantity of each. So the elite customer wrote lists and signed them at the bottom: neatly and unhurriedly - some are as fond of their signatures as a dictator is of the treasury of his state.  The shop keeper was supposed to pin all such lists, and at the end of a respectable period go to the elite customer’s house with these to receive payment. He would get his due on his first visit only if he was immensely lucky. Eco was surely unaware of such a mode of shopping. In any case, here is a shopping list that was written for a particular person. 

So the shopping list may not be a real counter-example to the eminent writer’ own general statement. Perhaps we must not take the “shopping list” so literally, although it was indeed this particular document that he had in mind. We could view it instead as a symbol of all those mundane and insignificant things one writes every day, which, in one’s reckoning, have no value for anyone. In any case, the fact remains that Eco immortalized the shopping list. As far as I know, before Eco, this little thing had never appeared in any discourse on communication.

Monday, November 12, 2012


In 2010, the Linguistics department of Aligarh Muslim University had organized a really off-beat seminar on the historical and socio-cultural aspects of culinary terms in Indian languages and I happened to be to be there at that time and happily joined that event there as a participant. The papers were informative and some were interesting as well, and the discussion of these was generally good. The few papers which dealt with the historical aspect of the terms did not really go beyond listing of the borrowed terms and their sources, but this was nothing unusual, considering that work on words in our languages borrowed from foreign sources has so far been nothing more than this. Some papers tended to discuss foods (and the discussion was almost always good), instead of food terms, neglecting that a linguistic term and the object it refers to are not the same thing. Obviously these are not directly related. For instance, there is no unicorn in the world of nature, but it is a meaningful term of English. There is no kokua or koko in nature but these words exist in Odia language, meaning a terrible, murderous creature. In the villages of Odisha grandmothers still try to frighten their grandchildren to sleep saying kokua would come if they don’t. The mind enjoys the phrase “roll a salepuri rasagulla (the cheese based sweet from the town called Salepur, widely known for this sweet) on the tongue”, whereas the tongue relishes rolling the rasagulla on it.   

When an object is borrowed from a different culture, it enters the target culture with its name, which is a linguistic object. A borrowed word embodies a fascinating cultural and linguistic story: from which language and under what conditions it was borrowed, how long it took to move from the periphery of acceptability to be fully accepted by the recipient culture and the language, and what form it took when it got nativized in both. Talking about the linguistic aspect alone, some fifty years ago, in Odia, potato was called bilaati aalu (potato from England) in coastal Odisha, but now, on account of the popularity of this vegetable it is called just aalu. Interestingly, tomato, which is as popular, is still called bilaati baaigana (brinjal from England) and never just baaigana. There is more to the contrast, but for the moment, let that story remain untold. As for some similarity, both vegetables are still excluded from the kitchen of the traditional temples, and from the discourse of naivedya (food to be offered to the deity) and prasaada (food after the offering) relating to these temples. Half a century ago a section of the population of Puri in Odisha used the word ceni, with a retroflex nasal, to refer to sugar, the word for which in the so-called “standard” Odia is cini, where the nasal was an alveolar, not a retroflex. In the Puri variety (called “Puri boli”) both the alveolar nasal (the consonant sound “n”) and its retroflex form occurred then, therefore it is interesting to note that the speakers used the non-standard form in this specific case. Similar observations apply to the difference between the initial vowels in these two words. Facts such as these in borrowing need an explanation, which would have a socio-cultural dimension as well. The ceni example is a case of borrowing from a variety of the same language - borrowing by Puri boli from standard Odia As of now, the facts mentioned above have not even been noted in scholarly discourse on borrowed words in Odia, which can be said to be due to the general neglect of language varieties other than the standard. There is very little discourse on culinary terms in our languages mainly because words are traditionally dealt with in terms of dictionary entries, which hardly do justice to the richness of their content. And then it may be noted that Samuel Johnsons do not write dictionaries these days.

It is possible that the neglect of scholarly interest by linguists (including lexicographers) in culinary terms reflects the non-serious attitude that people often have towards culinary discourse. Dining table talk is hardly about the dishes on the table, and even when the dishes do figure in the conversation, it is in a manner that is neither sincere nor serious. After enjoying a well cooked meal, one does praise the cooking and sometimes asks for the recipe, but all this is really politeness discourse, not culinary discourse, and as such requires no informative answer. If the guest insists on information about the recipe, etc., it is sometimes seen as condescending behavior on his part and is not liked.   

Well, it was really good the linguistics department of AMU thought of organizing a seminar on the much neglected topic of culinary terms.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


It looks odd that during the process of selection of the choice of the Ballon d’Or or the FIFA player of the year, views of the people who would participate in the selection process, regarding who is the best candidate for the same and why, and related matters are expressed in public. Thanks to Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid's manager, this year it has happened in a manner probably never before, and his views have appeared in many newspapers, rather prominently in some, and this is true, not just of the national newspapers of India. Ever since Real Madrid won the La Liga a few months ago, he has been pitching for Cristiano Ronaldo, and pretty loudly too. But this piece is not about his views.

Even a cursory glance at the list of players who have won this award (in its present or its earlier form) would show that the winners have been mostly attacking midfielders and strikers – the goal scorers. There are hardly any defenders in the list, Fabio Cannavaro being only the second winner of this award, which he received in the World Cup year 2006. As for goalkeepers, the German goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, won the Golden Ball award, given to the best player of the tournament in the 2002 World Cup, but the World Player of the year award eluded him. Rewarding goal scorers certainly reflects the popular perspective about the game: since goals decide matches, football is a goal scorers’ game. Seeing a beautiful goal scored (remember Maradona’s second goal against England in the 86 edition of the World Cup and Messi’s goal against Getafe FC in the Copa Del Rey semi final match in 2007?) is an aesthetic experience, as is seeing a defence-splitting pass that leads to a goal. A memorable one is  Maradona’s that knocked Brazil out of the 1990 World Cup and broke a million hearts (including mine!). In contrast, the defender’s game appears to be a spoil sport. He tries to break the rhythm of the attack and to dispossess an attacker of the ball, somehow, even by cynical fouls, and all this is not pleasing to the eye. There may be few exceptions. One was the Brazilian Cafu – it was a delight to see him racing along the flank from his own half deep into the opponent’s and crossing the ball to the strikers in the back area. But in one’s memory and in the collective memory, a great goal lingers as a delightful experience much longer than a daring Cafu run or a spectacular Shilton or Kahn save. Thus the goal scorer receives all the attention and the accolades from the public, being sometimes seen as the main cause of the victory of a team. Our case here is that whereas all this may be true to a considerable extent, there is indeed an exaggeration of the goal scorer’s contribution to a match. Football is a team game and when a match is won, the contribution of the defence is quite significant. Gone are the days when a team could undermine its defence and assert that it is their adversary in the match that should be concerned about defending. World Cup 1982 showed Brazil the inadequacy of this mindset of theirs.

For reasons of television coverage, we in India watch matches played in Europe, in particular, EPL and La Liga, but not in Latin America. So in a moment of luxury when an Indian football fan like me thinks in terms of who deserves the FIFA award in a particular year, he hardly thinks beyond Europe.  As for me, I think this year it should go to a goal keeper or a defender (including the defensive midfield defender). The performance of two players in these categories in  2011-12 season stands out most prominently: Andres Iniesta of Barcelona and Iker Casillas of Real Madrid. Andres Iniesta is a midfielder, but often plays rather defensively. In fact, he is one who can play as a defensive midfielder, central defender, and an attacking midfielder with equal ease and grace. He plays attractive football. Although not a prolific scorer, he has scored decisive goals in some very important matches. A brilliant play maker; he controls the midfield effectively and initiates many intelligent moves. His contribution to Spain’s retaining the European crown this summer was recognized when he was honoured as the best player of the tournament. Some weeks ago, he received the UEFA Best Player in Europe award. As goalkeeper, Iker Casillas’s contribution to Real Madrid’s winning La Liga 2011-12 and to Spain’s winning Euro 2012 is great. In fact, many consider him to be the best goalkeeper in the world today.

As I said, I feel it is high time FIFA gives the defenders and goalkeepers their due in terms of the World Player of the year award. This will be in proper recognition of the fact that football is a team game. As a spectator and a football lover, I will be happy if either Casillas or Iniesta get the award. I find it difficult to choose between them. May be for once FIFA should choose both!

Saturday, July 21, 2012


…has the ring of an effective and memorable slogan. Whatever be the merit of the proposal (“one country one test”) this slogan refers to, it is a bad slogan, an irresponsible slogan; what is worse, it is potentially a dangerous slogan. I do not know for certain where this slogan originated – hopefully not in the concerned ministry of the government of India! - but very soon it became part of the Common Entrance Test (CET) discourse. Now, effective slogans tend to have a long life, which is said of a bad idea too. After some time, the context of such a slogan is forgotten, and users of the language start playing with it (not at all unexpected; linguists have told us that language use is characteristically creative) and new phrases, new slogans come into being. Suppose someday the language users substitute “test” by “language” – “one country one language”. Would it not be an entirely unacceptable slogan, as unacceptable as the idea it embodies?  

Much has been written about the advantages of a common admission test for engineering and medical undergraduate students in our country; it seems to be a reasonably good proposal in principle. One only hopes that there will be a careful review of it after about, say, five years of its implementation for possible remedial action or even some thorough overhauling, should that be felt necessary. The government’s proposal (based on the recommendations of a committee of a few academic administrators and bureaucrats) of taking into consideration the marks at the relevant school examination in some form for this test, is again, by no means unjustifiable in principle. However, during the first few years of the implementation of this proposal, careful annual monitoring is a must.

The professed intention behind the latter is to ensure that students do not neglect their school test and the expensive private tutorial system is discouraged which puts those who can afford it in a position of undue advantage, which is certainly unacceptable. Therefore the government is justified to take corrective steps in this regard. But the question is, are the proposals mentioned above the right solution, is it likely to be effective? We are quite skeptical. Our apprehension is that if anything, it will strengthen the tutorial system, which will now extend the domain of its operation right down to class X and even class IX. This apprehension is not hypothetical; a tutorial institute has already made an announcement precisely to this effect. There is very good ground for apprehension that the proposal would have precisely the opposite effect; instead of solving the problem, it will aggravate it.

Addressing a problem of school education at the stage of admission to the technical institutions is really dealing with it at the surface-most level. Most optimistically speaking, this approach can lead to very little, if at all. Tutorial system is nothing new; private tuition has always been there at the school level; it is just that it has now been organized almost as an industry with big money coming into it. Private coaching has been extended to the college level and even the post-graduate level in some states and that it has reached a pandemic stage and for all practical purposes has become a system of parallel education, sustained in part by the better among the school teachers, who neglect work at the school where they are employed. This is one of the factors that has contributed to the near collapse of the school, especially the public school, system. This has resulted in the exclusion of the poor and the lower middle class from reasonably good school education.

Only an incorrigible optimist or a thoroughly insensitive and irresponsible person would assert that the process of privatization of education can be reversed or considerably weakened in our country now. Today just as “bazaar notes” cannot be wished away, private coaching cannot be wished away too. And just as bazaar notes can be fought best by better quality bazaar notes, private tutorial institutes can be fought by public tutorial institutes of comparable quality. This is not even a new idea. Even in the sixties, provision for special coaching was made available in one or two government colleges in Odisha to some of those interested in preparing for the central services examinations (IAS, etc.). The coaching was not very successful partly because the teaching in the colleges was very good and the best faculty did not want to teach in the coaching classes as it was considered improper for them those days. Things have changed.

In the mid-eighties, the central government arranged for free special coaching for nine months for some selected SC/ST candidates for admission to the IITs and some other centrally-funded engineering colleges. Called the “Preparatory Course”, it comprised Mathematics, Physics Chemistry and English, and was offered at some of the IITs and was taught by the faculty of those IITs. This facility still exists. This is an excellent central government initiative and an excellent model for public tutorial schools. If the government really wants to help those who want to go for technical education and cannot afford coaching in private tutorial institutes – the poor and the lower middle class – one of the things it should do is multiply the Preparatory course model.

And it should not be very difficult since it is a proposal for extending an already existing facility. To start with, all those institutions (IITs, NITs, IIITs, etc.) that are and will become part of CET, must create this facility, and run it with as much seriousness as with which it is being done now in the IITs. This will make a huge difference to many students who cannot afford private coaching, and let it be noted that they will get much better training in these public coaching centres than in many expensive private coaching centres. Symbolic initiatives may have a place in the public sphere, but there is no alternative to meaningful initiatives that make a difference to the lives of the people.

Friday, June 29, 2012


There are many Mahabharatas, and "Sarala Mahabharata", composed by Sarala Dasa in Odia in the fifteenth century, is one of them. Mahabharatas, composed in local languages, have received neglect from Mahabharata scholars in general. Just as the so-called “dialects”, whether regional or social, are often viewed negatively by the speakers of the so-called “standard dialect”, the local language retellings of the Mahabharata have been viewed similarly negatively. Many of these deviate from the canonical text and for that reason tend to be regarded as rather adulterated. But the same is not exactly true of at least some of the many Ramayanas. Tulsi Dasa’s "Ram Charit Manas", for instance, is held in great reverence.  Ram’s – the most exceptional human’s - story (charita) became a sacred text when Ram came to be viewed as an avatara of Vishnu; no version of Mahabharata in contrast ever became a sacred text in popular perception. It has not been viewed as Krishna’ story; when Vyasa decided to compose Krishna’s story, he composed "Srimad Bhagavata". “Krishna charita bhagabata” (Bhagavata is Krishna’s story), as the saying goes in Odia. Despite his emphatic presence in the narrative, Krishna remains a secondary character in the story of Mahabharata, which is primarily the story of the Kuru clan. In Odisha, as elsewhere in the country, it is believed that one must not keep a copy of the Mahabharata at home because it leads to quarrel in the family. There is no Mahabharata parayana (ritual recitation of Mahabharata) in at least Odisha. Jaha nahi bharate, taha nahi bharate (Whatever is not there in the Mahabharata is not there in Bharata) is a popular saying in Odia, yet, there are very few temples and bhagabata gharas (one-roomed houses in many villages in Odisha) where any version of Mahabharata is worshipped or regularly recited. Sarala Dasa retold the story of Mahabharata so as to make it Krishna’s story as much as possible, and even called his version “Vishnu Purana”, but there never were some mentionable number of takers of his purana claims for his retelling.

Sarala Dasa was a devotee of goddess Sarala, which is how he came to be known as Sarala, as the legend goes. He is celebrated as the adi kavi (the first poet) of Odia literature, although he was not really the first poet; many trace the origin of Odia literature to the carya poems of the tenth century. He is indisputably the first major Odia poet. With him started the rich tradition of Odia puranic literature. Of the three puranas that he composed, Mahabharata is unquestionably his most creative, most profound and most popular work, and is generally known as Sarala Mahabharata. He remains the greatest storyteller in the rich history of Odia literature.

Sarala Mahabharata is not a translation of the canonical text in Sanskrit, namely Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Sarala retold the story in Odia, as had done many others before him in other Indian languages, and many did after him. The root form of the verb for what he did is lekh (write); we say “he wrote Mahabharata in Odia”. One with a highly creative, myth-making imagination, he reconceptualised the story and composed a really wonderful narrative. His version contains some episodes which do not occur in the canonical version and we do not find in his retelling some episodes that do in the classical narrative. Some episodes are conceptualized differently in his version. Some parvas (cantos) are shorter than in the canonical version (Shanti Parva), and some longer (Mousala Parva - Musali in Sarala Mahabharata). These apart, in certain ways he has localized the narrative; the Pandavas came to Odisha on pilgrimage and went right up to what is now known as Bhubaneswar, and Yudhisthira married an Odia girl. The canonical version is said to contain about one lakh couplets, and Sarala’s, one lakh and forty thousand. To the best of my knowledge Sarala Mahabharata has not yet been translated into any language.

Although Sarala Dasa is revered as the adi kavi of Odia literature, not many today are familiar with his work. It is as though reverence for the poet has brought neglect for his work. An important reason could be that his work has not been properly disseminated. There is, for example, no short version of Sarala Mahabharata or a collection of stories from it or a modern rendering of it; if there is any of these, it is not available in the market.  No one in Odisha, unless it is part of his profession, knows his Mahabharata from Sarala.  Ask someone in Odisha about the disrobing of Draupadi, the chances are that he will describe it as it occurs in Vyasa Mahabharata. It is extremely unlikely that he will tell the story as it is occurs in Sarala Mahabharata. He will say how Krishna provided clothes to Draupadi, but this is not Sarala’s version, in which god Surya’s consorts draped Draupadi with those unending pieces of divine saris. Ask him about Sakuni. He is far more likely to say that because of his love for Duryodhana he had the Pandavas exiled for long twelve years, etc. than that he really wanted to take revenge on Duryodhana, who had used deception to eliminate his parents and relatives in a cruel manner. There is a popular saying in Odia: ganga boile thibi, gangi boile jibi (as long as you call me Ganga, I will stay (with you), when you call me Gangi (a term of disrespect for Ganga), I will go.). Everybody knows this saying, but not many people know that it had its origin in Sarala Mahabharata.

Monday, June 18, 2012


On reading my piece on missed penalties, my friend Professor Mrityunjoy Chakravaorti suggested that I write a similar piece on wrongly awarded penalties that significantly changed the course of the matches concerned. I lack the resources to do some meaningful research on the subject and have not been able to access the wealth of material on the subject that surely exists. So I thought of writing a general note on various football wrongs of significance alleged to have been committed by referees.

The problem is that one can never be sure whether a referee’s wrong decision was a genuine error or was deliberate, because to arrive at a conclusion, one has to figure out the intention of the referee; the stated intention (by the referee himself) or the attributed (by everyone else) intention will simply not do.  But it is well-known that one can at best have a hypothesis about another’s intention, and this is one major source of conspiracy theories. This conspiracy approach to things is important because, whether it leads to the truth or not, it certainly leads to interesting stories. Consider Bjorn Kuiper’s awarding a penalty (the second penalty) to Barcelona when they were playing their Champions League second leg group match against AC Milan last year at Camp Nou stadium for Nesta’s shirt-pulling of Barca’s Sergio in the penalty area – just “shirt-pulling” only on hind sight, and probably after watching those couple of seconds’ replay – at least for most spectators. But let us grant that it was just shirt-pulling. Now pulling the opponent’s shirt is not a legitimate act in a football match. And if the referee saw it as part of an act of stopping the player from a position of advantage in which Sergio was placed and pointed to the spot, was it because he felt pressured to do so? Now if one says no (he could say the referee absolutely right, a bit too harsh perhaps) there is no place for stories. But if one says, he was indeed acting under someone’s instruction, then one opens up the possibilities for stories and more stories: who was that someone, what were his intentions, how exactly the deal was settled, and it goes on. The story would grow as one would start from where the other had left. When Guardiola said two clear penalties were not awarded in their favour in the first leg of the match at San Siro, but he would not make an issue of such things, he was closing the possibilities for stories. On the other hand, there is Mourinho, the quintessential conspiracy theorist of contemporary football, who creates such fertile conditions for story making. From this point of view, Guardiola’s approach is not interesting, Mourinho’s is. “Truth”, if it can really be known, closes the possibilities for stories; conspiracy approach opens up the possibilities. Stories are fascinating to listen to, and since intentions can never be known and are always attributed, we can say that we live by stories and beliefs rather than the truth.

Thus, of the numerous bad decisions, many have no doubt that Maradona’s hand goal against England in World Cup 1984, Henry’s hand goal against Algeria in the qualifiers on World Cup 2006, and Lampard’s disallowed goal in England’s match against Germany in 2010 World Cup, for instance, were all due to referee’s errors and not manipulations. It is difficult to find an example of a wrong decision by a referee which is unquestionably mischievous and partisan at the highest level of football. And for most of the rest, one could keep arguing: Chelsea’s goals against Wigan in the 2011-12 Premier League, both scored from offside positions, Manchester United’s penalty against QPR in the same tournament when Young, already in an offside position was brought down, the sending off of van Persie in the 2010 semi-final match of Arsenal against Barcelona, Ronaldinho’s dismissal in Brazil’s match against England in the 2002 World Cup, among others; a list, which in fact is long. Many great teams have benefited from bad decisions by referees, but this is not the subject of much talk. Quite naturally, one would like to keep quiet about the undue benefits one has received, and scream about one’s victimhood.

As the beneficiary of wrong referee decisions, Mourinho has singled out Barcelona. We do not have comparative data, but for the sake of argument, we accept his assertion. We also do not have the resources to study whether the kinds of conspiracies that the detractors hint at have substance (which teams Platini wanted to play in a Champions League final, which he did not make public, which referee met which manager during the half-time break, and what transpired between them, etc.). So we choose to explore a different approach to answer this question.

The late Brazilian legend, Socrates, is said to have told some reporters after one of Brazil’s matches in the group stage during the 1986 World Cup that referee decisions would always favour Brazil because World Cup is about money and (power) and Brazil brings people to the stands. He earned FIFA’s displeasure, and was asked not to speak to the press during the Finals again. But he had spoken enough. More recently, when asked why Guardiola did not rest Messi, he said something similar: people pay money to see him play and he too was always enthusiastic to step on the field. One can be sure the same could be said about other great players as well. Football is no more a recreation, and has become the spectator event par excellence, and a huge commercial enterprise, as Eduardo Galeano has observed, so the interest of stands (and now the television viewers) can simply not be ignored.

People enjoy watching the beautiful game played the beautiful way: open, attacking, attractive play, dazzling dribbling, and successful and creative passes, swift change of positions of players in aesthetic moves, imaginative control of the midfield, variation in attacks, beautiful field goals scored from difficult positions, among others. Quite a few teams traditionally play the game beautifully: at the international level, Brazil, Portugal, Holland, Spain and even Argentina, and at the club level, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal, to name a few. Winning is important, very important, but winning in style is far more so. Coming after twenty four years of their third, Brazil’s fourth World Cup, which they won on penalties, is not memorable; their fifth is, because it was won with style and authority. May be in some football cultures winning at the cost of grace and elegance is acceptable, but fortunately in many it still is not. All said, beauty triumphs in the end: after that match was over, the talk was about Maradona’s mesmerizing second goal against England, not the disgraceful first one - the one with which he, for all practical purposes, had already won the match!      

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Albert Camus presented the most persuasive arguments against capital punishment in his remarkable easy “Reflections on Guillotine” decades ago: it fails as a deterrent for murder, it is cynical and cruel, and it dehumanizes not only those directly involved in the execution but also the society too. There have arisen some new situations which provide additional, new arguments against the same. This note draws attention to some of these. Incidentally, by now a number of countries have abolished capital punishment and in some of the countries, where it exists, care is taken so that it is awarded in the “rarest of rare” cases.

One might view it with disbelief, but it has begun to be noted that awarding capital punishment has become a costly affair for the State. Sometimes (in fact, it is fast becoming the norm in many democracies) it takes about two decades or more for the judiciary and the administrative processes to be completed for the execution to take place. Considering the nature of the punishment, the system cannot be pressured to take quick decisions at any stage. The total expenditure (legal, administrative, etc.) on the trial of the convicts charged with various crimes punishable by death is not negligible. This is wasteful expenditure and with capital punishment abolished, this money could be used for improving the living condition of the inmates of a prison.

Some careful research on capital punishment in America has shown that the poor and the deprived tend to be awarded this punishment more often than the rich and the privileged. Sometimes because of sloppy investigation, the wrong person gets executed, and sometimes the condemned person undergoes a painful death because of the unprofessional or careless administration of the lethal injections. At times the execution becomes a cruel affair on account of a complex of factors, not merely the lack of due sensitivity of the prison staff. For instance, the condemned man, Troy Davis, was made to wait, strapped to the gurney, for about three hours for his execution, as the judges were deliberating on his fate, and his family anxiously waiting outside the prison for their verdict.  Davis’s situation is more poignant in view of the fact that his execution had been halted twice already. It is difficult to believe that such painful situations are specific to the US; it is just that some academics and journalists there have done careful research on the subject and published their findings, and the press has given the same adequate coverage.

What now follows is something Camus probably had not even thought of: because of political considerations (external or internal pressure, for example, although the former does not often yield the desired results), sometimes it is difficult to implement capital punishment. Both the party in power and the opposition have opposed the execution of the killers of Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly many groups in Punjab including the ruling party are not in favour of the execution of Balwant Singh Rajona, who had killed a former Chief Minister of that state. Influential political parties in Kashmir have reportedly advised the Central Government against the execution of Afzal Guru connected with the 2001 Parliament attack.  Many of them have spent a number of years in prison; Rajiv Gandhi killers have been in jail close to two decades. Some might consider it unfair to both the convicted and the legal system if the ones condemned to death are executed after being in prison for longer than the effective duration of life imprisonment in India, which is normally about fourteen years; to them it would amount to giving them two punishments which are really alternatives to each other. Incidentally, the social groups or the political parties who have opposed the execution of the persons named above are not against capital punishment as such; they are believed to be concerned about the possible political fallout of the executions. In a democratic country it is quite understandable; social and political systems do not work in vacuum – anywhere, needless to add.

However, on account of the above, there is the apprehension that those who do not have the support of some influential pressure group: social, religious or political – the poor and the marginalized – become vulnerable. The Supreme Court of India is aware of it and seems to have expressed concern. But ultimately to execute or not to execute the condemned man has got to be, willy-nilly, an executive decision. Now, in view of all the above, the only reasonable decision one would arrive at is the following: abolish capital punishment.

I tend to believe that in the contemporary milieu, many in our country would not really be inflexible with regard to the abolition of capital punishment. There is a view that death penalty must be restricted to crimes such as terrorism. But “terrorism” would always be difficult to define, especially for the intended purpose, and then universalistic definitions would always be questioned, and rightly so. And political interventions will most likely be the norm rather than the exception in the case of a terrorist, except when he is a cross border terrorist. But would it be morally justifiable that a country would have the provision of capital punishment only for the foreigner?

The real question is of an adequate substitute for death penalty, a matter that is extremely complex and sensitive and that needs a separate discussion. Just a word or two here: not many consider a fourteen year prison term to be an adequate substitute. “Life imprisonment must be life imprisonment” is an alternative that some consider viable. Similarly, there seems to be a growing feeling that a term of imprisonment need not be restricted to twenty years; it is not, for example, in US. At the same time, prison terms for eighty years or fifty years are not understandable, especially when awarded to an old man. Recently Charles Taylor, former Liberian dictator, sixty four years old, was awarded a jail term of fifty years by an International court for war crimes. All said, doesn’t it seem cruel to have a lifer withering away to death within the prison walls?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Here I wish to draw attention to just seven of them. Messi missed a penalty in Barca’s semi-final match against Chelsea in the 2011-12 edition of the Champions League, Ronaldo and Kaka of Real Madrid missed their penalties against Bayern Munich during the penalty shootout in the other semi-final, and Robben of Bayern Munich missed a penalty in the first half of extra time in the final match of the same tournament against Chelsea. Barca, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all lost those crucial matches. These players who broke their supporters’ hearts are the regular penalty takers of their respective teams. They failed when it mattered most. And not to forget that Kaka (2007), Ronaldo (2008) and Messi (2009 – 11) have all been winners of the World Player of the Year award. In the 2007-8 edition of the same tournament, Lampard, again the regular penalty-taker of his team, Chelsea, lost his penalty in the shoot out in the final match, and Chelsea lost to Manchester United.
FIFA World Cup Finals is a far more popular and spectacular event. The quality of football may in general be a shade less exciting than in the Champions League, but here teams represent countries, and the dreams of their countrymen. People forget their daily grind and their miseries and celebrate their team’s success, and plunge into collective grief if it fails. Inspired by a sense of nationalism players in the field and the spectators in the stadium and television viewers and people at home forget their club loyalties for a while. Playing for Portugal, and one may think with his career, Cristiano Ronaldo, in the 2006 World Cup, had a role in the red-carding of his Manchester United club mate Rooney, who was playing for England. And it was a delight to see the people of Spain rising above their fierce club loyalties and celebrating their team’s winning the World Cup in 2010 for the first time. Hardly does any sporting event arouse such strong emotions as does World Cup finals.
Missing a penalty here can be heartbreaking. Brazilian Zico, who, it was said, had scored about 200 goals from penalties by then, failed to score from the spot in his team’s quarter final match against France in the second half. The match went into penalty shoot out. Zico scored, but it did not redeem him since he was seen as responsible for bringing the match to the shootout stage. On the other hand, Socrates failed to score in the shoot out but it did not matter to anyone, as people, it seems, generally to fail to see the penalty shoot out as a condensed version of a match, which it indeed is. Incidentally, what the French captain did when Zico missed the penalty was tender and graceful and brought repute to the game - Platini gave a comforting touch to Zico. One rarely sees such grace on the field.
Roberto Baggio made a huge contribution in Italy’s being in the final in the 1994 World Cup. The match was rather uninteresting, and Brazil was clearly the better team. The match ended goalless and went into penalty shoot out. Baggio’s took the last penalty and shot over the bar and Brazil won the World Cup after twenty four long years.
Baggio, Messi and Ronaldo had contributed greatly to their teams’ going that far in the relevant tournaments. And each had the mortification to see his effort go waste as he failed to score from the spot when it mattered most. After their loss to Bayern Munich, Casilas, the goal keeper-captain of Real Madrid, consoled his team, saying “Penalties are all a lottery.”
Scoring a penalty goal and stopping a penalty kick call for high level skills, practice, mind game tactics and imagination, at least at the highest level of football.   But often a penalty goal is less valued than a “pure goal”, a field goal. If a player scores a creditable number of goals in a tournament, both the connoisseur and the debunker ask the same question as to how many of those goals are from the spot - it is like asking, in the case of a cricketer who has scored, say, twelve thousand runs in Test cricket, how many of these have been scored against the minnows. One gets no credit for scoring from the penalty spot, and gets all the discredit for failure to score. Missing a penalty is news, hitting the net from the spot is not. As for the goal keeper, he is hardly ever blamed if the ball goes in, but his heroic effort in stopping the ball is almost always attributed to his being lucky, so he gets at most a faint word of praise. Does anyone remember Bats who stopped Zico’s shot?  Robben will be remembered for his failure but Cech will be forgotten although he was the cause of it. And to think as a boy Camus played football as the goalkeeper. Thanks to his grandmother!