Sunday, December 15, 2013


On July 17, 13 The Hindu published a news report saying that a professor of a certain branch of engineering who works in IIT Madras had devised a script, called “Bharati”, which all languages in the country can use and in fact, should use, and if that happened, it would remove barriers to effective communication in India, which are due to its multilingualism – 22 official languages, 58 different languages taught at school, 87 languages in which newspapers are published, as the report notes. These, we might note, are “privileged” languages. There are many more languages in the country, quite a few of which are endangered, and many of which have no script. For most effective communication, one language in the country would be the best solution, in the view of the author of Bharati, but he realizes that it is an impossible proposition, so the next best thing is one common script for all the Indian languages.
In this context we may note that it is possible today, in the case of many, I do not know if all, major languages, to read material written in one such language in the script of another; one can read a text written in Telugu, for instance, in Devnagari script, for a Hindi speaker to be able to read the text. The transliteration technology is already available. One could also read the material written in any of our major languages in Roman script. There are extremely useful language technologies. But these can hardly contribute to solving significantly the problem of language barrier in communication in our richly multilingual country. Does a Kashmiri speaker understand material in Odia or Marathi if the same are written in the script of his language or in some common script? Does an Odia understand the tenth century Odia when it is made available to him in the script used today? Does a Tamil speaker today understand the Tamil of the classical phase, if he sees it written in today’s Tamil script? The answer is of course a clear no!

In the case of the so-called cognate languages – languages, mutually intelligible to a considerable extent - it is different. If an Odia speaker cannot read a Bengali text, although he has no problem comprehending it when it is read out to him, it is because the script is a barrier. All he needs is to learn the script, if the text is unavailable to him in either the “Odia” script or a common script such as the Roman script or say, Bharati. But the technology is available as already mentioned to make the Bengali text available to him in the Odia script. Now for obvious reasons he would like to read the text in Odia script, as of now – why should he choose the rather difficult option of learning a different script?

In what situation can the common script help? A Hindi speaker would feel miserable if he comes to a city of a non-Hindi speaking state, where the signboards, street names, bus destinations and the like are written in the local language script. A Tamil or Kannada speaker will have the same experience in a Hindi-speaking state if the same situation prevails there (it mostly does, if it is not a state capital). If in addition, the same are written in a common script, it would certainly help, but how many people would this really help? Would this be cost effective? Let us concede for the sake of argument that it would be. Then the question is which common script should be chosen? Let us imagine there are two candidates for this at the moment: Roman script and Bharati. We cannot fail to note that there is a growing demand in our country for English. So people are going to learn the Roman script anyway. Then why not choose this script for the purpose mentioned above? Why learn another and increase the learning load? True, the Roman script has to include diacritic and other markers to represent the sounds of our languages, and that would make it cumbersome. But for the limited functional purpose – as mentioned above - that the Roman script has to serve, there is no need for all this. For the intended purpose, if the Odia place name alasuni is spelt this way rather than the phonetically correct way (“l” is a retroflex and the second vowel is long, etc.), there is just no problem.

Suppose a common script is imposed today on the languages in our country and their speakers. In one generation or two the language users would find that they have no access to the literary and the knowledge texts produced in their respective languages; in other words, they would lose their cultural roots in a big way. Unless of course all the texts are produced in their transliterated form. Is this a cost effective proposition? This apart, would a Sikh accept that Guru Granth Saheb be written in a common script, say, Roman script or Bharati? I am skeptical that he would. The relationship between a language and a script is often emotional, a point that the linguist Shreesh Chaudhury of IIT Madras,  has made in his own interesting style, as he gave his observations on Bharati to The Hindu

What we need in order to improve communication at the level of day-to-day life in our country is not a common script, but a link language, that is accepted and used all over the country, and also translation of material from one Indian language to another.

A new script like Bharati is highly welcome for a different reason. There are a number of languages in our country without a script. These are the languages that tend to be, in fact are, most endangered. When people speak a language that has no script, they are at a huge disadvantage in many ways. Their children have a serious problem in the school class room from the very beginning and are very often the drop-outs from school and they fail to take advantage of economic opportunities that their counterparts who speak a language with a script enjoy. Script can contribute to facilitating the cultural memory and sensitizing a speech community to its history. One can hardly contest that languages that have no script need a script urgently. Because there is no problem of emotional attachment to a particular script, there might not be any problem for speakers of many such languages under reference here, to accept Bharati or any other script, such as the Roman script, for their respective languages. If one hesitates to regard a new script as a significant intellectual achievement, one must not fail to celebrate it as a powerful means of empowerment of the linguistically disadvantaged.    

Friday, December 13, 2013


“It was like getting a note saying you’ll be executed at dawn.” Quotation of the Day, New York Times, July 12, 13.

Death was to visit king Parikshita, Abhimanyu’s son and the ruler of Hastinapura after Yudhisthira, in a rather strange manner. The virtuous king was cursed to die on the seventh day of the curse, by being bitten by the dreaded snake Takshaka. Fortunately he was informed about the curse. Let us ignore details about how all this came to pass. Now there are two accounts of what the condemned king did when he was informed about the form of his punishment. According to the Mahabharata, he did his best to protect himself from snake bite. He moved into a special mansion, and great care was taken in order to eliminate the possibility of a snake entering it.  For seven days he conducted the affairs of the state from there and for seven days he lived in great fear. On the fateful day Takshaka came to his presence disguised as an insect and immediately assumed his real form and bit him. 

Srimad Bhagavata tells a different story. As the suta, the narrator told the assembly of sages, the great king spent the remaining days of his life listening with complete devotion to the lila of Bhagavan Krishna, as described in this sacred text, from the incomparable Sage Suka. As a result, he underwent a spiritual transformation. In him was there no more any anxiety or fear for death. He had conquered death. On the fateful day, when Takshaka bit him, he bit and killed only the body from which consciousness had already departed. Parikshita had already obtained the ultimate release. 

Commenting on the king’s death, Swami Prabhupada says,” His death is...wonderful because he got previous notice of his death, which is wonderful for any mortal being, and thus he prepared himself for passing away by sitting down on the bank of the Ganges and hearing the transcendental activities of the Lord”. Now in an identical situation, to follow the path that the king did, one has to be a Parikshita, a man of dharma, and also there must the intervention of a Suka, call it karma phala, call it grace – the son of Abhimanyu was no ordinary mortal, Krishna himself had breathed life into him!

The narrator did not tell us the whole story. Thus we do not know whether Parikshita took time off from his yoga and advised his successor about the affairs of his state and other worldly matters. Did he, for instance, tell his son, his queen or kula guru, the preceptor of the royal family, that he was going to die on account of his own karma, and that nothing should be done against anyone by way of avenging his death? A king is not just an ordinary householder; he is a public person, and has a responsibility towards his kingdom. During his last days, did he perform his duty towards the kingdom that had suddenly plunged into a crisis by the thoughtless curse of a callow Brahmin youth? That the succession was smooth and the kingdom of Hastinapura remained trouble free does not necessarily mean that Parikshita had performed his raja dharma. Neither of course does it mean that he hadn’t! The narrator skipped this part of the noble king’s last days on earth, probably because he had decided to tell a transformative story. It appears he believed that when face-to-face with death, the wise must have one overwhelming commitment, one single responsibility, one single duty, namely, the spiritual transformation of self. 

In the Mahabharata there are others too who had received intimations of their death like Parikshita. Jayadratha was one such. He was not the one who had killed Abhimanyu but he was in a way responsible for his killing because it was he who cut off support of the Pandavas to the lone fourteen year old fighter who had been trapped inside Drona’s padma vyuha, a particular formation of the army. Everyone knows this story. Arjuna was away from the Kurukshetra battlefield on that day and none of the Pandava brothers could defeat Jayadratha and come to assist Abhimanyu. Of the many who participated in the killing of Abhimanyu, Arjuna singled out Jayadratha for revenge. He held him responsible for his son’s death, and took the oath that he would kill Jayadratha before sunset on the following day. Jayadratha was informed about it in no time. It was already night and the sunrise and with it the battle of the next day, was only about half a night away.

Jayadratha was no Parikshita and there was no Suka for him. Instead there were Duryodhana, Drona, Karna, Aswasthama, Kripacharya and the like surrounding him. That night Jayadratha did not turn to God or think of his moksha. Mortally scared of death, his thoughts were about his life in the mortal world. To save himself, he thought of leaving the battlefield. He knew Arjuna would then not kill him; he knew he would not kill an enemy who had fled from the battlefield. That act would bring him shame, disgrace and ignominy, but he preferred to live with them forever to getting killed the following day. The great Kaurava warriors assured him of their protection on the battlefield and told him that he should abandon the thought of death. There was no way he could leave the battlefield and fear of death did not leave him. Incidentally, Krishna was in no one’s mind: neither Arjuna’s when he took that oath, nor Jayadratha’s and the fellow Kaurava warriors’, who had assured him protection. 

Incidentally, the following day Arjuna killed him and everyone knows this story. We must not forget that Arjuna killed him when he was not fighting and was unarmed, and that he thereby violated the code, which was not merely his self-imposed code; in terms of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata at least, it was an agreed code for the Kurukshetra war. But for this act Arjuna was not adequately condemned by the warriors on the battlefield or censored by narrators of the Mahabharata story, who, without exception, have condemned or at least disapproved of Dhristadyumna’s beheading of Drona, who was similarly unarmed and was not fighting, when he was killed. In any case, our present concern is not with Arjuna and his deeds, so we leave him here.

The way Parikshita and Jayadratha responded to the intimations of their death gives us a perspective to view such a predicament – that of being informed about imminent death. This is by no means unknown in the real world context. People are awarded capital punishment and are informed about their execution in advance. People suffer from diseases which they know would kill them and a time comes when the doctor gives up hope and the patient knows it. I mention two such instance here, drawing my essential content from what I have heard from their relatives, who are my friends, in this regard.

After undergoing treatment for heart ailment, which included hospitalization for some time, Professor S was advised to undergo some surgery which was to cost him a considerable amount. He was in bad shape. The professor was 55 years old and there were five more years for him to retire. He had just been elevated to the middle rank in the faculty hierarchy and those days faculty salaries were not comfortable, especially in state universities like his, and he didn’t seem to have a comfortable bank balance.  As for his children, his daughter was unmarried and his son was still an undergraduate at the university. Now Professor S didn’t just teach ethics, he lived an ethical life. He was a scholarly man and I thought, a wonderful person.

And he was a very good astrologer. Studying his own horoscope he had come to the conclusion that he was living the last weeks of his life. The expensive surgery would not really help, he thought; instead, it would impose a financial burden on his family after he was gone. He decided against surgery and explained his decision to his family, hiding nothing. How he managed to convince his family one doesn’t know, but he stuck to his decision. He soon passed away. 

All this happened barely fifteen years ago. One might argue that by not opting for surgery he seriously hurt the interests of his family. The treatment in all likelihood would have given him a few more years to live. And to think that ultimately he, an eminently sensible and knowledgeable person, living on the very edges of the twenty first century, decided on his life and death the basis of astrology! It is so incomprehensible. So unacceptable to us who in times that are normal go by reason. At least we believe we do. One doesn’t know what to say: did he die or did he commit suicide? It is said that one’s sense of judgment is destroyed when his time comes. Is it this that happened to him? Let us not argue about all these. As we talk about his death, let us suspend our judgement and respect the beliefs he lived by. And died by.
He surely thought that clarity came to him when his time came. He must have died thinking that he had protected the interests of his family. His may be an act of love, it may or may not be an act of self-sacrifice, but it was surely his duty to his family, what he owed to his family. To listen to Krishna lila in the spirit of Parikshita is a spiritually transformative act; now doing one’s duty to those who happened to be bound to one as dependents in the mortal world - wouldn’t this count as a spiritual act as well? 

Shri Y was an employee of the Indian Railways. He probably held a middle-level rank when he retired. He too didn’t have a comfortable bank account. He was suffering from kidney failure. His eldest brother had suffered from the same ailment and had undergone successful kidney transplantation but he didn’t live long. His elder brother went for dialysis, but soon succumbed to the disease. Keeping these in mind, Y didn’t opt for dialysis or kidney transplantation. He died and died cheerfully, knowing that he had left some money, some support for his family. Again, one doesn’t know what to call it: death or suicide. But again one asks this question: wasn’t what he did a jajna, in the best sense of the term, a spiritual act?

Thursday, December 12, 2013


In Siva: the Siva purana retold, Ramesh Menon tells the story of Matsyagandhi (“Matsyagandha” in some texts), the daughter of a fisherman, whose body emitted the foul odour of fish. One morning sage Parashara arrived at their hut and asked the fisherman to ferry him across the Yamuna. He said he was in a hurry and as the fisherman was having his morning meal, he asked his daughter to ferry the venerable sage. As they walked from the hut to the riverbank, Parashara felt the foul smell coming out of the young girl’s body and was intoxicated by it. The one who had control over his senses lost his sense to that foul smell. Matsyagandhi was Parashara’s first and last love. He desired her with an intensity that left her astounded.

For our present purpose we are not really interested in the story beyond this. Perhaps just a few more words. The girl was frightened. The sage could not be refused, she knew. He might fly into a rage, as sages usually did, and curse her. On the other hand, she couldn’t give herself to him in day time. She knew that day time sex was forbidden, and then she was afraid that her father might see them from the riverbank. There was the possibility of her getting pregnant. Setting aside all these, wasn’t she stinking? Although the purana hasn’t said a word on it, we think it unlikely that the girl was not troubled by the sage’s age. By his yogic powers Parashara freed her from all anxieties that she had told him about: daytime, her father’s seeing them in the forbidden act, fear of pregnancy and foul body ordour. Now a heady fragrance emanated from her: jasmine fragrance mixed with a bit of the smell of fish. Her fragrance could be felt from a jojana (roughly, four miles) – she became jojanagandha. For the readers of The Mahabharata, she is Satyavati.
 All this happened before the sage took her. But we must not take it to mean that she had to smell sweet before the sage would unite with her. Not at all. By changing her body odour he only comforted her. We must not forget that it was her foul smell that had drawn her to him; may be, he still responded to that same lingering smell that was still faintly there, that could not be totally eliminated by the overwhelming fragrance of jasmine! Puranas mention many females, devis, apsaras, rajakanyas (princesses) and queens, who had body ordour. But it was always sweet and for that reason drew attention of the males to them. But the Matsyagandhi episode is the only one in our puranas in which foul smell overwhelmed a male, and that too none other than the sage Parashara! It is in a sense the celebration of the foul smell; in puranic literature, sages are given respect even by the gods.

In some broad sense sage Parashara can be said to be the ancestor of young Brad, the American from Illinois, who admits feeling sexually attracted by windy women, as the news story by Emma Kelly in the London newspaper, “Metro” (Monday, July 29, 2013) tells us. Brad incidentally is a pseudonym; he withholds his name presumably because of fear of societal ridicule. But he asserts that he is not alone, there are, he informs us, quite a few “eproctophiles” really. When the academician Mark Griffith wrote about the sex appeal of the smelly fart of women, a new topic entered the academic world and English became richer with the addition of a new word.  

But there is just one Parashara in the entire puranic literature and there are, and there might have been, perhaps only a few eproctophiles in the world. For that reason alone they could be seen as exceptions. It is different with ordinary people. The anthropologist and hygiene specialist Valerie Curtis, who calls herself a “disgustologist” and by this coinage has enriched the English lexicon, and who studies the response of the humans to foul smell, says that they are repulsed by faeces, pus, urine, vomit and the like, but they do not know that disgust is a feeling that helped our ancestors in their effort to survive, which would surely constitute an interesting assertion about our survival in our evolutionary history. It is because of their disgust instinct that our ancients had avoided disease and death, which are associated with putrid smell of flesh. One might think that it is perhaps this reaction to foul smell that has been the root cause of the cultural attitudes to body discharges. Societies have formulated moral codes that ensure that these substances are not shared with other humans, as Curtis puts it, except of course sexual fluids, which are shared only to a very limited extent. We might add that languages for this reason and similar others have developed a taboo lexicon, containing words for these and for the body parts directly connected with the same, to be excluded from polite use of language. Languages have developed a system, which is called euphemism, to articulate these notions when they become unavoidable in specific contexts of language use. 

Curtis is surely not acquainted with the Brad phenomenon. We do not know how she would deal with it when she gets to know about it. She might say it’s no big deal for her. After all, there is no evidence that the Brads are not repulsed by the smells of other body discharges. She could say that unless one knows more about the Brads of the world, she would simply keep the Brad problem on the shelf. As for us, we could wait for further illumination on the subject from Curtis and Griffiths.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

BALLON d' OR 2013

On November 15, 2013 Sweden lost to Portugal 2-3 and Portugal sealed their place for the FIFA World Cup 2014 finals to be held in Brazil. All of Portugal’s goals in that well-contested match were scored by Cristiano Ronaldo. That same day FIFA announced that the deadline for voting for the Ballon d’Or award for the year had been extended to November 29. The reason given was this: not many people had voted by then. Portugal’s victory and FIFA’s decision happening on the same day could be sheer coincidence, but many read a connection between the two. Some said that the highly influential UEFA President, Michel Platini, was behind it as he wanted Ribery of Bayern Munich to win the award this year. But the other day Platini joked that the reason for the extension was to garner support, not for Ribery, but for the “Real Madrid forward”. In Spain at least, some sports journalists thought it wasn’t a joke, it was a statement made in all seriousness. It appears that Ribery was leading in terms of support for the award till FIFA made its amazing announcement (hopefully this does not become a precedent), but conceded that advantage to Ronaldo on that night because his goals were seen as almost the sole reason for Portugal’s progress in the most famous football tournament in the world. In any case, when decisions, such as this one of FIFA, are taken and the reasons given for them are unusual and unconvincing (and somewhat amusing too!), conspiracy theorists have a field day. And as for conspiracy theories, one can never be sure which is most likely to be the closest to the truth; at the very best one can only say which is the most fascinating as a story and is most capable of generating more and more conspiracy tales.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s reported reaction to Platini’s observation was sharp: he said he was in a mood to boycott the ceremony this year. It seems to have been more spontaneous than carefully thought out because the gains of this statement are unclear. Suppose he beats Ribery and Messi and gets the award this year, what will he gain by not receiving the award in the formal ceremony? It would cause embarrassment to all concerned; any way he would be given the award later. Suppose he doesn’t get it, what will he gain by not attending the ceremony? Nothing! If he wants to make a statement, he should make it now - he should say that he would not accept the award in protest against suggestions that are unfair to him. But this is unlikely to please many or convince many that his grievance is justified. If one or two people, even when they happen to be very powerful and influential, make uncharitable remarks about one, it is not justifiable enough for someone of his stature to take such a stand. In fact, some would maintain that those remarks would actually help his case because the anti-establishment votes would go to him as he would be seen as the victim. 

Ronaldo’s reaction had been angrier and more bitter to FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s observation about him on October 29 at the Oxford University Union in England. Asked to opine on Ronaldo and Messi, he had said that the former spent more on hair dressing than the latter, and as for who is the best, he said he “liked both of them” but he “preferred Messi”. Set aside the unfortunate hair dressing remark, which Blatter maintained was made non-seriously, and for which he readily apologized to the Real Madrid President and to Ronaldo, and which were, incidentally, not accepted by the player, it was entirely inappropriate for Blatter to publicly say that he preferred Messi to Ronaldo. The reason is that the voting for the Ballon D’Or for 2013 was in progress at that time and one might suspect that his view would probably tilt the scales in favour of Messi, a possibility that Blatter himself did not rule out, although as mentioned earlier, there is reason to argue that this remark would more likely benefit Ronaldo for reasons of victim-hood.  

Part of what Ronaldo said by way of response – “much is explained now” - shows that he believed that Messi had won at least some of his Ballon d’Or awards because of Blatter’s support for him. He said he wished Blatter a long life so that “he will continue to witness...the success of his favourite teams and players.” Considering the nature of the Electoral College, he was wrong about Messi, but one would understand that he had reasons to react as cynically as he did, but let us not go into all that now.

Now, was FIFA’s extension of the voting period an act of correcting the indiscretion by Blatter? Was the FIFA President trying to please Real Madrid?

Arsene Wenger has disapproved of the obsession with Ballon d’Or. In a different way, the brilliant Paris Saint-Germain and Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic has said something similar: “It seems very important for other players, but for me it’s not important...I don’t need a trophy to tell myself that I’m the best”. But FIFA, media and the football community have made Ballon d’Or so important. 

The latest one hears about Ballon d’Or 2013 is that it may go to Messi again, notwithstanding the fact that since April he has been plagued by injury and has been more outside the field than in it. But if he gets it, one may not be entirely surprised. Till his injury he was playing superb football and had scored many goals, and had richly contributed to Barcelona’s winning the League title, and in La Liga this year he was playing very well too despite not being fully fit, till his injury forced him to withdraw. True, he did not score in some four matches or so, but in those matches he played very well and made a difference for his team. However, at the same time, if he gets the award, then it would underscore perhaps for the first time, the difference between the professional assessment (that of the Electoral College) and assessment by the football audience of leading footballers.

In any case, things are really messy this year. The extension of the voting date is only one of the problems. Now if Messi gets the award, as is rumoured, then there is a problem, if he doesn’t, then whosoever gets the award, for many it would be the case of the award going to X when Messi is out of action on account of injury. Finally, 2014 is the year of the World Cup. If the Ballon d’Or winner doesn’t perform in the World Cup, then his Ballon d’Or would not salvage his name.