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.

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