Sunday, April 22, 2012

Exaggeration by numbers

Crazy Mohan is one of the pioneers of modern Tamil comedy theater. A superb master of pun, his punch lines are remembered and oft quoted even after several years. Obviously puns and situtatioinal jokes do not appeal when translated, but here is a classic take on a hero vs villain encounter:

Villain: I will count till 10, if you dont do what I say...
Hero:    What will you do ?
Villain: I will count till 20 !

One of his best scripts however, is "Tenant commandments", also titled as "An own house becomes a rental house".

A middle-aged guy who is looking for a rental house asks the landlord's son for his name. The young son replies "Patthu". [Patthu has two meanings in tamil - a colloquial short form of the name Padmanabhan and the number 10]. The guy understands it to be "number 10" and says "Why name somebody as just '10'? Your parents could have named you as 110, 1010 or 1,00,010..."

Comedy happens by simply exaggerating a situation. In the train the other day, I overheard a mom and her daughter talking. Mom was mentioning some toy that costs about $20 and the lil girl exclaimed "$20 bucks, wow thats like a million dollars". Quite surely, every one must have heard this dialog or one might even remember saying that in childhood. The trend nowadays seems to be to say "a googol dollars", as my son realized that googol is 10 followed by 63 zeroes and 'infinity' is an overused word used by his friends for everything. Again, exaggeration comes as an element of surprise.

The vast difference between the take off of Greek/Roman and Indian science can be clearly perceived with the invention of zero. While the former could count all the way upto M, the Indians were simply adding zeroes to numbers at will. Once the art of power of zero was figured out by the Mathematicians, it was only an inevitable consequence that the Sanskrit kavi-s realized very early on, if one could get some puNya in one 'namaskara' to bhagavaan, they could easily get a factor of that puNya-namaskara by simply adding a sahasra, laksha or koti to it. So when they realized that was effective, another poet wondered why restrict to "koti" and does a "koti koti" namaskaram. Yet another poet totally unsatisfied with koti of a koti, lifts off the numerical upper limit and simply says "aneka koti" namaskaram.

Very interesting word, "aneka" that is. na + eka = aneka (not one -> implying many). Technically "not one". Contextually "several".

Exaggeration of numbers seems to have been built in Indian culture. It has been used to great effect for several different emotions - laughter, consolation, intimidation, surprise, frustration and so on.

In Ramayana, Hanuman seeks to console Sita by mentioning that there are crores of vAnara-s, the sheer number is enough to defeat Ravana. But you dont have to take Hanuman's word for it. There is a very interesting scene in Ramayana's yuddha kANDa. Ravana, a little perturbed at the arrival of Rama's army in Lanka, sends two of his spies - Sarana and Shuka to Rama's camp to find out the real number of monkeys. But Vibhishana captures them and takes them to Rama for punishment. But Rama, being an ideal king, cautions them and let them go. With that, Rama deals a psychological blow to Ravana. Killing them or capturing them would not only be adharma, but would have also enraged Ravana even more. Sarana and Shuka reach Ravana and start describing the sheer number and power of the vAnara-s.

After describing the powers of the major vAnara-s, Shuka concludes with this:

शतं शतसहस्राणाम् कोटिमाहु: मनीषिण: । शतं कोटिसहस्राणाम् शङ्कु: इति अभिधीयते ॥
शतं शङ्कुसहस्राणाम् महाशङ्कु: इति स्मृत: । महाशङ्कुसहस्राणाम् शतं वृन्दम् इह उच्यते ॥
शतं वृन्दसहस्राणाम् महावृन्दम् इति स्मृतम् । महावृन्दसहस्राणाम् शतम् पद्मम् इह उच्यते ॥
शतं पद्मसहस्राणाम् महापद्मम् इति स्मृतम् । महापद्मसहस्राणाम् शतं खर्वम् इह उच्यते ॥
शतं खर्वसहस्राणाम् महाखर्वम् इति स्मृतम् । महाखर्वसहस्राणाम् समुद्रम् अभिधीयते ॥
शतं समुद्रसहस्रम् ओघ इति अभिधीयते । शतं ओघसहस्राणाम् मह-ओघ इति विश्रुतः ॥
एवम् कोटिसहस्रेण शङ्कूनाम् च शतेन च । महशङ्कुसहस्रेण तथा वृन्दशतेन च ॥
महावृन्दसहस्रेण तथा पद्मशतेन च । महापद्मसहस्रेण तथा खर्वशतेन च ॥
समुद्रेन च तेनैव महौघेन तथैव च । एष कोटिमहौघेन समुद्रसदृशेन च ॥

"100 x 100,000 = 1 crore; 100 x 1000 crore = 1 shanku; 100 x 1000 shanku = 1 mahashanku; 100 x 1000 mahashanku =  1 vrunda; 100 x 1000 vrunda = mahavrunda; 100 x 1000 mahavrunda = 1 padmam; 100 x 1000 padmam = 1 mahapadmam; 100 x 1000 mahapadmam = 1 kharvam; 100 x 1000 kharvam = 1 mahakharvam; 100 x 1000 mahakharvam = 1 samudram; 100 x 1000 samudram = 1 ogha; 100 x 1000 ogha = maha-ogha. Thus surrounded by a thousand crore and a hundred shanku and a thousand mahashanku and a hundred vRunda and a thousand mahavRunda and a hundred padmam and a thousand mahapadmam and a hundred kharva and hundred samudra and a hundred mahaugha of monkey warriors, Sugriva is ready to wage the war with you. Knowing your enemy thus, may your effort be accordingly, O Ravana!"

So you see the power of numbers. Thats why when two people meet often they just say "namaskaram", but when they don't meet often, they simply add a factor to fill the gap and say "aneka koti namaskaram" (several crores of namaskaram). Although, you can get away with this usage in Indian vernaculars, attempting to greet somebody in English "One million hellos to you...", rather sounds embarassing.

Thats yet another point to drive, how translations only translate words and not the cultural quotient.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Yamunotrii 2012

One of the fascinating systems of Indian philosophy, too literally, is the cArvAka nyayya (cAru -> beautiful, fascinating). The followers of the system do not believe in no God, no rituals, no temples, but have a simple subhAShitam as their beacon of light:

ऋणम् कृत्वा घृतम् पिबेत् यावत् जीवेत् सुखम् जीवेत् ।
भस्मी भूतस्य देहस्य पुनरागमनम् कुतः ॥
RuNam kRutvA ghRutam pibet yaavat jeevet sukham jeevet |
bhasmI bhUtasya dehasya punaraagamanam kutaH ||

"Borrow money, drink ghee. Live happily as long as you live. The body once gone does not return back."

Despite strong vaidika and reincarnation foundations, the system thrived in India. For now lets forget about drinking ghee (or perhaps alcohol, in modern context) or rebirth. There is still this question of RuNam. RuNam is debt, "the payback that has to be made, no matter what".

Sri vishvarUpa-varya, in his concluding speech in Samskrita Bharati Yamunotrii 2012 residential family camp talked about the three RuNam-s we are all born with - pitRu RuNam, guru-RuNam and deva-RuNam. pitRu-RuNam is one's debt to his/her ancestors paid back via progeny. Guru-RuNam is the payback to teacher. This is not in form of money or Valentine day gifts but is made by teaching others what is learnt from one's guru. We somehow escape from these two debts citing various reasons. But you know, this deva RuNam - that is something that will come and haunt till "mokSha". pitru and guru are guides in aatman-s journey, but deva is a dependence.

The Yamunotrii 2012 camp preparations started early January. For the first time an half-a-page ad was published in the Austin South Asian monthly, Sulekha and Eknazar, but it didn't get the expected impact. The registration graph was pretty simple - there was a spate of registrations on the day when early-bird discount ends. And a spike of calls to cancel on the last day of penalty-free-cancellation. In other words, most people only respond to deadlines.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous over the weekend, with the highs around 80s and the lows around 67. The bluebonnets and Indian paint-brushes thickly annotated the landscape leading up to the stream, giving a glimpse of the serene and wild hill-country. Students started tricking in and quickly settled down to their rooms and gathered around the halls later, mostly talking in English. Little did they know, they will be mostly talking in Samskritam the next day! The bookstore was setup, there were a lot more books this time. The dinner was done, followed by a short orientation about the event.

As expected, the first day was crazy, students running from one corner to another in search of their rooms. "Aryabhatta kutra asti?" asked one. It was funny, because I wanted to say Aryabhatta lived 1500 years ago. The class names were chosen in the chronological order of Indian mathematicians: Aryabhatta for the beginner levels, Bhaskara for the Intermediate Level 1 (those who are already attending regular classes or those who attended last year), Madhava for Intermediate Level 2 and Nilakantha for the Advanced class. Madhava was a Kerala-born philosopher who had conceived what's known as Taylor-series now. Nilakantha has described foundations of Calculus, much of which were later known to the world via Newton and Leibnitz. In the Nilakantha class, students studied parts of bhoja-rAjA's campu-rAmayaNa and nAgAnanda by harShavardhana.

One of the things I realized in my college days is that the knowledge gained from lecture halls is little compared to the knowledge that is gained by hanging around with the professors after-the-classes, or with smart students in the streets, or studying non-class materials in the library that gives an immense edge later on. I sneaked out around 1 am in the morning and heard Govinda and Avinash-varyau sitting on a bench and discussing Samskrita-kAvya. I joined them and Avinash was talking something about "Kalidasa-overload". It looks that the emphasis on Kalidasa has been a lot while there have been equally great poets in Samskrita kAvya-vaangmaya. Funny enough, I had similar opinions too, the only difference is while Avinash has read all of Kalidasa, I haven't read any. I learnt an important thing that time - two people can have exactly same opinions and one of them could base it without having a clue.

This is what happened: In the early 1700's, some Britishers and learned Sanskrit pundits were sitting in a udupi-style hotel. One English gentleman asked with puff and pomp "Do you have anyone like William Shakespeare in India?". The pundits looked at each other, one said maagha, another said bhaaravi, some said daNDin, some other said varakavi. A mini-quarrel broke out between the pundits. But one Bengali paNdita was busy ordering food and due to the simmering quarrel, the waiter was hard of hearing. So the paNdita shouted "I want kAli-dosa". All the pundits gasped, stopped for a moment and murmured "Yeah, yeah, kAlidasa" and the matter was settled. Kalidasa become Shakespeare of India. (For those who didnt get it, kAli-dosa is also called set-dosa with a bit of butter on top of it, that is served in Darshani-styled restaurants).

Again, Avinash-varya's point was not to take away anything from the wonder that is kAlidAsa. Its just that there are other equally great poets too and we are just wasting our time over superlatives, instead of actually reading them.

The highlight of the camp was Sri Padmakumar's speech of which I wont write about much. Feel free to watch it here and I challenge you to tell me if you did not understand what he said.

Another highlight of the camp, was something a little beyond Samskritam, for everyone to remember about. Given the dark skies it was inevitable we wanted to do something about it. We brought out our 8-inch Orion telescope and set it up though the skies were not very forgiving. Still we caught a glimpse of crescent Venus (Yes! Crescent Venus!), the rising moon and Mars. A faint realization of how vast and deep are both Sky and Samskritam.

Yet another highlight was how quickly we adapted to the needs of the students. It was observed that the teen age kids are not having much of a great time - as they were in either adults or younger kids classes. We quickly arranged for a special youth class and that was a runaway hit.

A final rush for group photo and sponsored lunch ended the camp. Almost. But back to the RuNam, what Sri vishvarUpa talked about. I could not attend any of the classes as I was taking care of an younger one. I tell "nAsikA..." and she touches her nose; "shiras" - she touches her head; "lalATam - she touches her forehead"; "jihvA" - she puts her tongue out and touches it; "dantAH" - she opens her mouth with a broad smile and touches her teeth. As I was watching her, I was also paying back my guru-RuNam.