Posted by: cochinblogger | March 21, 2017

The Art of the Whistler

Reading this article on whistling (see linked article below) reminded me of my father, who was a skilled whistler. He used to whistle when he’d finished with the newspaper, and when he needed a break from reading a book or his research work. His repertoire consisted of film songs and national anthems. There is this to be said for whistling: with the exceptions of the lusty wolf whistle and the peremptory whistling of uniformed authority in the person of the policeman, security guard, and bus conductor, it is nearly always cheerful.  No wonder my father sounded happy when he whistled. I, alas, am no whistler, though I did make valiant attempts as a boy.  

I’d no idea that a “whistling community” and whistling clubs and international whistling competitions existed, but what do I know? Very little, I think. For example, it was only today that I learned from a television program that there is a species of monkey with blue testicles, a stand-out vivid blue. It makes me happy to know that people with this skill (just to be absolutely clear, the skill I refer to here is whistling, not the sprouting of blue testicles) band together and celebrate their art with get-togethers and competitions. May a wave of public interest catch these whistlers and lift them to recognition, fame, and fortune. One breakout performance on TV may be all that it takes.

An excerpt from the article and the article link follow:

Last July, the country’s whistling community had one of its proudest moments; many Indian whistlers—including seven from the IWA and four from Whistling World, another organisation—travelled to the World Whistlers Convention in Kawasaki, Japan. Three Indians won awards there: Tarkas in the contest for senior citizens; Nikhil Rane in the “Hikifuki” category, in which one must accompany one’s whistling by playing an instrument; and Shweta Suresh in two categories—including one for which she whistled while dancing Bharatanatyam.

Footnote: Why, oh, why did evolution deprive us humans of that potent style statement, a pair of blue testicles? They would’ve added much-needed color to a man’s life — besides attracting wolf whistles.

Posted by: cochinblogger | March 20, 2017

No Open Trails, Please


 Mysterious notices have always intrigued me. The imperative in the above notice, “do not trail open place,” threw me off for a couple of minutes. Then the light dawned. 

Can you figure it out? Treat it as a challenge in visual detection. To help you, I’ve left in some clues in the above photo. Familiarity with Indian English will help. 

Note the setting. The clothes strewn carelessly on the bench and the “SIZE 40” indicate that we are at a clothes sale. That’s an important clue to help decode the baffling word “trail” in the notice. Got it? The notice writer was aiming for “trial.” The space curtained off to the left is a makeshift trial room where prospective customers can try out clothes. Is the meaning of the notice clear now?!

It’s interesting sometimes to think about the event that led to a notice being put up. Drafting a notice, printing it out, and putting it up consumes time, energy, and money. A good reason must exist to justify this investment. Why would the proprietor bother to put up such a notice? You see, there would usually be a queue in front of the trial room, and some impatient types must have not bothered to wait to get in. I doubt if anyone would have dropped their pants, but not all bare hairy chests evoke the body beautiful. Perhaps a sensitive lady complained. This is the kind of thought experiment I embark on sometimes when confronted with notices on doors, walls, and notice boards. 

On the door of a college staff room I once saw a notice typed in big bold capital letters: “DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT KNOCKING.” I could not help but wonder what event triggered the notice. Did a student walk in without knocking and stumble upon an embarrassing scene? 

Maybe even a compromising scene??

Posted by: cochinblogger | February 25, 2017

The Pink Patrol


Kerala sets itself unapologetically apart from the rest of the country in more than a few ways. One, a long-standing cosmopolitan tradition, thanks to well-documented flourishing trade ties from time immemorial with Rome, Greece, China, Arabia, Africa, etc., has vaccinated the region against the kind of reflexive cultural insularity that is the norm elsewhere. A snapshot of Kerala society taken a few centuries CE would show a vigorous multiculturalism, with Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, besides the nameless ancient Dravidian religion that predated Hinduism, both living and letting live as well as competing — largely peacefully, if not creatively — for influence.

Two, it is a curious fact that Kerala alone among all the Indian states has more females than males in its population. This, I think, is atypical in any part of the world; the general norm is for males to outnumber females. When viewed against the backdrop of the grim situation in some other parts of the country, where the preference for the male child is so well entrenched that even abortion of the female fetus and infanticide are accepted, this achievement is even more remarkable. It is also a fact that women in Kerala have many laurels to boast of, from the first female judge in the country (Anna Chandy) to the first woman Surgeon General of India (Mary Lukose). There are also outstanding achievements in athletics. However, perhaps most noteworthy today is the banding together of women into the collective called Kudumbashree, which empowers women through self-help income generation activities. The project has proved to be a stupendous success, and government officials come from all over the world to study its functioning.

However, Indian society is conservative and patriarchal, and Kerala is no exception. Women are largely subservient to males in the social sphere. As in all conservative, patriarchal societies, female sexuality is strictly controlled, and so free mixing between the sexes is looked upon with suspicion. The result is a population that is sexually repressed, a repression at odds with the blatant display of sexuality today in cinema, advertisements, television, and the Internet. A spurt in cases of child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, molestation, stalking, rape, etc., is a country-wide trend. Crime against women is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon, but some horrific features of such crimes are seen only in India (or perhaps in other Southeast Asian countries too). One is violence by a jilted "lover" inflicted on a girl who has rejected his suit. The punishment is often death, but sometimes acid is thrown on the girl's face, disfiguring her for life. It is difficult to believe love was present at all when it can morph so quickly into this kind of bestiality. A root cause of this thirst for revenge on the part of the male when he is rejected is the sense of male privilege that is inherent in conservative, patriarchal societies. An excerpt from this article on stalking (Lurking in the Shadows) hits the nail on the head:

Jaishankar feels the patriarchal structures in the value system of certain countries allow stalkers to rationalise their actions. "Even if the west is patriarchal, it is not in the same sense. Here, there is a preconceived notion that women are inferior," he said. "That is fostered from childhood. If the boy in the house wants a sweet, his mother and grandmother make it right away. He is prioritised over his sister, because she will go off to another house, whereas he is the one who will transmit the genes to the next generation. So when he likes a girl, he thinks of her as the sweet-and when she rejects him, his ego cannot handle it. He wants to destroy her by taking her beauty with acid, or her life."

One response of the authorities to the vulnerability of women has been to pass laws that prescribe stringent penalties for crimes against women. In this category would come The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, the expansion of the definition of rape in 2013, the banning of fetal gender determination, etc. Another woman-friendly measure that was recently adopted in some Kerala cities is illustrated in the photo that heads this post: the Pink Patrol. These patrol cars are operated by specially trained women police officers, and their role is to respond to threats to women in public spaces. An example of how this works: Driver Charged for Passing Lewd Comments on Woman.

One thing is certain: nothing fundamental will change as long as the sense of male entitlement instilled in boys in childhood by their families remains intact. It is their upbringing that needs to change.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | January 24, 2017

Chinese Fishing Nets at Mulavukad


Mulavukad is the local name; the more well-known name is Bolghatty Island. This is a small island to the west of Cochin that is now booming thanks to the Goshree bridge that connects it to the mainland and the spanking new hospital near by, Aster Medcity. It also boasts of the heritage hotel Bolghatty Palace Hotel, which was originally a palace built by the Dutch in the 18th century. Further real estate development in the form of a massive convention center and a Hyatt hotel are under way in Mulavukad. The sleepy island of yore is but a distant memory.

I happened to be in Mulavukad for a couple of days last month. The photo above was taken during my stay. The mainland of Cochin to the east is seen in the background, and in the foreground is a Chinese fishing net (more on these curious fishing contraptions here: The Chinese Fishing Nets at Cochin). Beyond the net is a traditional fisherman on his country boat.

In this image at least, the sleepy island Mulavulad was, continues to live.

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Posted by: cochinblogger | December 20, 2016

Winter Migrant


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Posted by: cochinblogger | December 5, 2016

Ship on the Bay: View from Subhash Park


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It's biennale time again! Two years have flown by since the last edition in 2014 (which I missed; but I did visit the inaugural edition in 2012: see Graffiti at the Kochi Muziris Biennale), and the newspapers nowadays are full of biennale news. Most of the action is centered around Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, but the enthusiasm is contagious and infects the entire city. I was in a bus the other day when I spied some colorful goings-on near the wall of St. Teresa's College on the canal side. As is my wont when I see something interesting from a moving vehicle, I reached for my camera and hopped out when the bus slowed down.


It was a heart-warming scene. The walls of our city are, it must be said, drab for the better part of the year, springing to life only during election time, when they are defaced by electoral graffiti and posters of electoral candidates. And here they were, ablaze in a riot of color. The "culprits" were, as you might have guessed, the students of St. Teresa's doing their bit to popularize the biennale.



The one above, I was told, was done by the biennale artists; the rest were the work of the students. I returned that evening to admire the finished pieces.





The biennale has been one of the most positive developments in the city over the past few years. Artists from all over India and the world congregate here and put up exhibits, exhibitions, lectures, documentaries, music, and so on. The creativity in the air is palpable.

And the best part of such events is the catalyzing effect they have on the larger community the event is embedded in. The biennale, in a manner of speaking, does not end with the biennale. Those at the helm continue to bring events to town in the two years that elapse from one biennale to the next. For example, every week they host a musical show that entertains patients on the campus of the Ernakulam General Hospital, where the performers are well-known musicians:

Biennale Ends, the Healing Touch of Arts Lingers On

One musician at such a program, I read elsewhere, said the glow on the faces of the patients was ample reward for him.

The art on the walls of St. Teresa's college is another example of the heady creative ferment the Biennale helps brew in the city.(Or if you prefer, another example of the heady creative brew the Biennale helps ferment in the city.)

Bravo, girls! Keep rocking them ramparts!

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Posted by: cochinblogger | October 31, 2016

Grass Demon in My Yard

grass demon.jpg

This butterfly, a Skipper, is usually seen during the monsoons near forest streams. It's host plants are ginger and turmeric, the presence of which will sometimes lure it into cities. In all probability, there are ginger/turmeric plants growing either in or near my yard. This is a bold butterfly and will ignore human observers, making them easy to photograph. Once they take to the air, they are hard to track with the eye, as their flight is swift and erratic. They are nectar lovers, as their long probosces testify. Males and females look alike.

I wonder about butterfly names. Is there anything fiendish in this butterfly's appearance that justifies calling it a demon?!

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Posted by: cochinblogger | October 25, 2016

What Donald Trump Has in Common with Robert H. Frank


Donald Trump has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently. I do not want to go into the controversies swirling in his wake here; instead, I want to take a closer look at something he said recently at a reception organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey (see the Buzzfeed meme above). What did he mean when he said "I am a big fan of Hindu"? Perhaps he meant to say "I am a big fan of Hindus" or "I am a big fan of Hinduism." On Twitter, wags had a field day. Tim O'Brien tweeted "Trump just invented a new country," and journalist Sowmiya Ashok let fly with "Trump's a big fan of Hindu which is of course my former employer," a reference to the venerable newspaper The Hindu.

Trump's gaffe reminded me of a similar error I spotted many years ago in a popular book published in 2008, The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics Explains Almost Everything by Robert H. Frank, currently an economics professor at Cornell. In the book, Frank answers the following question from Chris Anderson:

"Why have Hindu-language movies attracted a large audience in recent years"?

I was taken aback, but thought it was a misprint: "Hindu" instead of "Hindi." The first is an adherent of Hinduism, and the second is the most widely spoken language in India. They are … well, different.

But then Robert Frank's answer makes it clear that he actually thinks (or in all probability, he has wised up by now) "Hindu" denotes a language. The following occur in Robert Frank's reply: "Hindu-language movie title," "Hindu film," and "Hindu comedy." Thrice!

Robert Frank apparently paraphrased Chris Anderson's question from a book the latter wrote in 2006 called The Long Tail. Chris Anderson was the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine from 2001 to 20012. As far as I can tell from poking around on the Net, Anderson used "Hindi-language film" in his book, so the error is entirely Frank's. Wikipedia tells me Anderson is British by birth; no Britisher would make such a mistake. I wonder who copyedited the book: this is a flagrant error that should have been caught and corrected before it went into print.

In sum, perhaps we should not be too harsh on Trump. When an American college professor can confuse "Hindu" with "Hindi," Trump may be excused. 🙂

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Posted by: cochinblogger | September 30, 2016

Unmarried Mangrove: Anatomy of a Typo

unmarried mangroves.jpg

I usually ignore typos. At the most, I might sigh ruefully. As one who works with language daily, I meet typos often enough that they've stopped evoking any kind of reaction in me. As with a doctor who works in the casualty department (ER in America), even gross mutilations are par for the course. However, when a typo, instead of cowering on the page, leaps from it and hits me between the eyes with something blunt, even jaded me reacts. And that's the effect this one had on me. It's blatantly out there in the middle by itself in bold capital letters. A typo that has the temerity to announce itself like this, I find hard to forgive. The ones that nestle amid the hustle and bustle of word traffic on a page I can understand — and forgive. But not one as crass as this.

Now, despite the high horse I clambered onto in the previous paragraph, I must confess the first thing I did after the abomination blasphemed me was to check the construction on the Net. I've seen many a strange technical term in science, and I wouldn't put it past those who coin scientific terms to come up with "unmarried mangrove." A quick Net check turned up no hits, thus presumably justifying my righteous indignation.

And yet — there's the question of ethics. Is it right to ridicule someone for a typo — even a monstrous type? No. But I haven't gotten personal here, and an obscene typo must be called out for what it is. A typo in a heading or title sticks out like a sore thumb, and in this case, it's the only text on the page. There's not even a fig leaf of cover.

Now for the most interesting part, the detective work. What could have led to this typo? What was going on in the writer's head? The most likely explanation is that he or she selected "unmarred" from a thesaurus or a Malayalam-English dictionary. Then at the next stage, perhaps at the printer's, someone unfamiliar with "unmarred" cleverly corrected the spelling to "unmarried." Not that "unmarred" was the best choice; I'd perhaps have gone with "unspoiled" or "pristine."

Some context: This is from a brochure produced by a small tourism company, not a big corporate house, so errors like this are perfectly understandable. This one glaring mistake apart, it's a great brochure with beautiful photos of the location, as you can see above. Actually, I'm sold. At the earliest opportunity, I'll be using their services. And I will then tactfully tell them about this blooper so that it won't be repeated in future print runs.

Some subtle typos can be well camouflaged, but once detected, they can leap off the page and hit one between the eyes as rudely as "unmarried mangrove." I will give one example from an article in one of India's best magazines. I'm a subscriber and admire the general quality of the writing in the magazine. But in one long piece I found this amusing beauty : "The woman said that Pachauri described to her, in detail, the fascination that Nath held for women's breasts ." (Pachauri is the author of a novel whose protagonist is Nath.) I wrote to the magazine thus:

Now, unless the novel that Pachauri wrote (of which Nath is the protagonist) is in the genre of magic realism and features animated breasts, I think the sentence should read: "The woman said that Pachauri described to her, in detail, the fascination that women's breasts held for Nath."

Whoever read my letter at the magazine's end was evidently not amused, because I did not get a reply.

Now, I found myself looking at the mangrove photos again, and was struck by the following thought: "The mangrove in the bottom pic does look unmarried — single — in its splendid isolation."

Is more going on here than I will ever fathom? 🙂

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