Thursday, June 30, 2005

On Senthilnathan and Geet Sethi

I have often heard north Indians wonder, "Why is it that south Indian names have an h after t but none after s?" They refer of course to the Karthik Ramamurthys and Sriram Sundaresans, as opposed to the Rohit Guptas and Shashi Sharmas. I have often mused about this myself, and here is a pseudo-scholarly (note: pseudo) attempt to figure out why.

The letter T in English generally has only the hard sound - potato is always पॊटॆटॊ, seldom पॊतॆतॊ. So whenever the soft T sound has to be represented, an H is suffixed to mellow it down, as in thanks. This should explain Seetharaman and Chandrakanth. The same logic is applicable for the D, which never has a soft sound in English - Distance, sudden, etc. Hence Dhandapani. So the moot question is not why southern names have th (or dh for that matter), but why northern names don't.

Let us consider the French word dame (as in la belle dame sans merci): it is read दाम्, or the word tous (as in a tous egards) which is pronounced तू. So do northern names owe their spelling to French influence? This is unlikely, for, with all their silent letters, French words are far less phonetic than northie names. And of course, French never boasted of much territory in the north during the colonial period.[1]

Probably the first people to render Indian words in English were the British who learnt our languages. Sanskrit was studied by a large number of Western scholars, such as William Jones (founder of the Asiatic Society) and Max Mueller. They must have evolved a standard to romanise Sanskrit words, which could have been adopted for Hindi as well. [2] If they had written त as th, they would have had to represent the aspirated t (थ) as thh, which is rather hard on the eye as well as hand. Hence th for थ and t for त. Probably a compromise for readability. Ditto for d and dh.

This however is not all. There are two other interesting th situations:

The Senthilnathan case (northerners beware): In some Tamil names, th is pronounced as it is in the English words there, the and thus. So, Senthilnathan is actually सॆन्दिल् नादन्.

The Geet Sethi case (southerners beware): Here th is neither as in thanks nor as in thus. It the aspirated hard t (ठ), as in boat-house, a sound for which there is no corresponding character in Tamil.

Phew! Now coming to sh. Why don't southern names have it? Well, in Tamil, the sounds s, sh as well as ch are all represented by the same letter ச. Its pronunciation varies depending on its position in a word, as per this rule: Except in the case when the letter occurs twice (in which case it would be ch), always read it as s. Hence Ganesan, Swetha and Viswanathan. However, the other southern languages do have a letter that is the equivalent of श. But it is still pronounced s, probably because of hereditary reasons -- these languages share the same ancestor with Tamil.

Having thus made a valiant attempt to answer the north Indians, I now have a question for them: Why r, and not d, in Baroda, Chandigarh and Chittore?

[1] I was watching a Spanish programme sometime back, and came to know that as in French, the Spanish T's are also soft. Maybe it is true for other European languages, such as Italian, Portuguese as well.

[2] There are standards for transliterating Brahmic scripts (under which classification fall most Indian language scripts) formulated early last century. One is the IAST, adopted at the Congress of Orientalists in 1912, which uses diacritical marks on roman characters. Such as

(Another is the Harvard-Kyoto convention, which uses roman letters in a case sensitive way. E.g., gIt seThi, sendil nAdan. However this is of much recent origin, so we can ignore it for the current discussion.)

But I feel there must have been something earlier than even the 1912 IAST.

Rollo meets Babykutty

'Well, what has become of Rollo? You seem to have mislaid him. Did you break off the engagement?' [asked Eve Halliday.]

'Well, it - sort of broke itself off. I mean, you see, I went and married Mike.... I'm awfully ashamed about that, Eve. I suppose I treated Rollo awfully badly.'

'Never mind. A man with a name like that was made for suffering.'
- P. G. Wodehouse (Leave it to Psmith)

[Link via India Uncut.]

Now try this.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The final call

I was fortunate to have studied in a wonderful school in Madras called PSBB. Though it liked to pride itself on the academic performances, our school also freely encouraged extra-curricular activities. We had one of the best music choirs in the country, a lot of good quizzers, chess players, a consistent cricket team. And, most importantly, great teachers.

I have fond memories of a lot of them - friendly, encouraging, and caring. One such being Mrs Rani Chandran, who taught me Shakespeare (Julius Caesar and Macbeth). And was she good! She kept us spell-bound and made us look forward to what we all had till then a uniform distate for. The idealistic Brutus (who would murder his closest friend for public good), the shrewd Cassius (if his suggestion, that Mark Antony be finished along with Caesar, had been heeded, the Conspirators would have never had to flee and later die), the mob whose passion could be easily swayed (now applauding Brutus -- the ironical "let him be Caesar" -- and now baying for his blood) and the clever Mark Antony ("Yea, they were all honourable men"), Mrs Chandran brought them all alive.

But competence in teaching was not all. She knew when to be stern, when sympathetic. As a senior member of the staff, she commanded the respect of all students, including those she had never taught. She was also a sharp wit, and would regale us with a quick-fire exchange of repartee with whoever dared. She would spot and encourage talent, especially in English, and draft them into the editorial board or the content team of the school's newsletter.

Some years later, I came to know that Mrs Chandran had left our school. Some said she had moved on to head another institution, some said she had moved to the US. None of my friends knew for sure.

A few months back, I did it -- I tracked her down to a school in Cupertino, CA, thanks to the Internet and Google. I got the email address from the site and sent a message trying to find out if it was indeed my old teacher. I had also given my phone number in case she was not comfortable typing on a keyboard. There was no reply for a month; I came to the conclusion that it was probably a namesake.

Then suddenly on the eve of my graduation she called. We had a long chat and I updated myself on her story. She had come down with a major illness and then needing a lot of rest, had quit my school. Bored being idle, she came to the US to spend some time with her son. While here, on her son's suggestion, she applied for a masters programme at Stanford. She gave the GRE and the TOEFL and was soon in. She described how she enjoyed her time, spending hours in the wonderful library working on things of her interest. After her masters, she joined the Cupertino school as a teacher.

I passed on her email address to all my classmates, and she must have been flooded with mails. Before I left for India, I was planning to visit my relatives in California, and now I looked forward to meeting her as well.

On the morning of Friday, 24th June, 2005, my friend studying in Detroit called me up. He called me up to deliver the shocking news that Mrs Chandran was no more - killed in a gruesome road accident, along with her mother as well as son.

Post-script: Mrs Chandran's son Vikram has created a blog for people who knew her to post their thoughts. Please do!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

India's junk yards?

Every state in the US has a nickname - e.g., Pennsylvania is called the Keystone State, California the Golden State. Likewise some states in India have such names too. Andhra is referred to as the Rice Bowl of India.

And Tamilnadu (my home-state) is called, appropriately, the Land of Temples. In fact, the official emblem of the state is a gopuram, the temple gateway tower. One can find temples of varying size, antiquity, denomination and popularity in every village, town and city. Like any other family in Tamilnadu, most of our family's travels were actually pilgrimages, most of the weddings took place close to an ancient temple, and every festival was marked by a visit to the neighbourhood shrines.

Temples are not merely places of "idol worship," but (especially the ancient ones) have deeper spiritual significance as well. They are also the sites of social gathering of the community - Marriages, musical performances, discourses, etc. And performing the customary 3 pradakshinas around the sprawling temples is as good an exercise as any treadmill workout.

However, as I wrote in one of the articles, my visits to most temple towns generally end up only distressing me. The squalour of the mada streets. The bazaars that mar the tranquility of the shrine. Stampedes during major festivities. The granite majesty lost under layers of garish paint that make me wince. The discrimination between pilgrims ("General darshan," "special darshan," "VIP darshan"). Indiscriminate modifications to the original structure. The walls of the sanctum sanctorum covered by bathroom tiles.

The result being totally ungodly.

However, there are thankfully some exceptions. I have noticed that most of the ASI-maintained temples are in a relatively better condition than the government-owned ones. And of the three temples I visited in Kerala, the Vadakkunnatha temple (Thrissur), the Guruvayur temple and the nearby Mammiyur temple, all were preserved close to their original grandeur, unlike the numerous ones in Tamilnadu.

But such heartening situations are few and far between. Shekhar Gupta is right - temples are indeed India's junk yards.

The Indian Express has a series of articles on India's heritage monuments, most of whom are in a sorry state: Hampi (the capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom), the Konark sun temple, the Qutub Minar, the Elephanta caves, and more. They all paint a distressing picture.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Upanishadic Commencement Speech

The MIT commencement ceremony, held on June 10, resonated with Sanskrit prayers. A swami then offered an invocation in Sanskrit.

This brought to my mind the Sīkshā chapter of the Taittirīya Upanishad, which contains an address by the teacher as the student departs from the gurukula. It begins thus:
satyam vada (Speak the truth.)
dharmam chara (Follow dharma.)
svādhyāyānmā pramadaḥ (Do not neglect studies.)
And contains the well-known
matr devo bhava (Treat your mother as a god.)
pitr devo bhava (father)
acharya devo bhava (teacher)
atithi devo bhava (guest)

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Hooked to the Bookah

"Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I."
Thus spake Somerset Maugham (in The Book Bag, short story) echoing my own thoughts.

My book reading began with, what else, Amar Chitra Katha, the treasure-house of Indian mythology. I have throughout lived with my grandparents, but they are not the story-telling kind; and these great comics compensated this loss to a considerable measure. My parents would get me a couple of them from the neighbourhood library on their daily walk, and that would account for my enjoyment for the evening.

The Number of Books I Own: Very few. I am a bibliophile all right, but I belong to that sub-class of the specie, called the librari-bibliophile. Most books I read were all borrowed from libraries. I can count on my fingers the books I personally bought. Which may not be surprising, given that I am yet to earn a single rupee. Things may change once I get a job of my own. Which may be soon, if things go well.

Fortunately, I have always had access to decent libraries. There was the Murugan Lending Library (a 10 minute walk from home), the source of my childhood readings. Our school had, not one, but three libraries! One each for Primary, Middle and Secondary Schools. (The latter had in its possession the complete set of the Collected Writings of Gandhi in 15 volumes or something - I am sure it must be the only school library in the whole country that does. Wonder if anybody even touched them.)

The US is verily a book-lover's paradise with its great public library system. The Mountain View Public Library (which I used to haunt) was well-stocked in all departments - fiction, nonfiction, comics, music and videos. Besides just the variety and excellent condition of the books, I loved the entire system - the self-checkout, the email reminders... It (if I may use the expression) rocked.

Needless to talk about the US university libraries. And the inter-library loan. The book which I could not track down in any Madras library, I found at last in the University of Pennsylvania - The Rajaji Story by Rajmohan Gandhi.

Last Book I Bought: Conceptual Blockbusting by James L Adams. (Got it for $1 from a second-hand book vendor at CMU.)

Last Book I Read: The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham (volumes 1 and 2). Maugham's stories are a wonderful study in human emotions. And great for restroom reading! Most stories are of just the right length for one session; and some, two.

Books That Mean a Lot to Me:

Classified by author.

  • Rabindranath Tagore: My first Tagore novel was Farewell, My Friend, a romantic novel peppered with wit, and with a beautiful ending. Gora, portrayal of a society in transition, and hence still very relevant in today's India. And who cannot be but touched on reading Cabuliwallah?
  • P G Wodehouse: I am, dash it, an avowed Plum fan. Jeeves is well known, but do read Psmith Journalist. Is there anything else? Very good, sir.
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is a rishi in his wisdom. A poignant story, seen through a child's eyes.
  • James Herriot: Delightful stories set in rural Yorkshire, on men and other animals. Get all of them!
  • Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel (non-fiction). An effort to find out why the human civilisation is as it is.
Books I didn't Complete: Mainly because they were intellectually too demanding to read on working days. Hope to pursue them at leisure.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
  • Godel, Escher and Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter.

A book tag has been doing the rounds on blogs. No-one has passed on the meme to me yet, but I have accepted Yazad Jal's open invitation ("All are welcome") and hence this post.

The custom is for me to tag some bloggers of my own. OK, let's see...

Girish, the ustad
Gocool, Microserf
Ramprasad (will he respond?)

[And, wait, should I mail them about the tag? Or should they come to know on their own? I am new to this game...]

I would like to invite all the readers of this post to do their own versions. Please do. And tell me when you are done!

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Desi Spell

The results of the National Scripps Spelling Bee that took place in Washington are out. The winner (after 19 rounds of competition) is Anurag Kashyap. Tied for the second place are Samir Patel and Aliya Deri.

A test of English spelling, held in a country of native English speakers, is won by students of Indian origin! However, this is hardly a surprise.