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Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Matter of Perspective- Duke's Nose/ Nag Phani

I wrote about names of directions yesterday. Other names have fascinated me since childhood.

Phantom, the ghost who walks, was a popular comic-book hero in my childhood. He lived in a skull shaped cave, which added quite another dimension to the story. There was also an account in my textbook that dealt with rocks. It was a letter from the well-known Socialist, N. G. Gore to his daughter. 

In this letter N G Gore told his daughter about a rock formation between Mumbai and Pune near Khandala mountains. My mother had pointed it out to me many times as we traveled every vacation in a State Transport bus from Mumbai to Kolhapur via Pune. As Mr. Gore wrote, the rock was known by its English name Duke's nose, but the locals know it as "Nag Phani" नाग फणी or  Cobra's head. I recall looking at the rock many times and wondering why it was called by either name. From the road, it definitely did not look like the Duke's or anyone's nose unless you were looking up his nostrils. Imagining the cobra was a bit difficult too. But, what the heck. People call rocks by any name they choose, I thought. Recently I surfed for pictures of Duke's nose. See for yourself how trekkers and holiday-makers see the Duke's nose or Nag Phani. Feel free to search more if you would like. 

Duke's Nose or Nag Phani from close - Mumbai-Pune Road.
 In 1991 or so, I was walking in Khandala near the Kune Church in the evening and there it was! The Duke's nose! The royal features of the Duke are unmistakable. I am almost sure that no one else has published this perspective of the Duke's nose until now. If that is true, it is absurdly strange!! 

Duke's un-mistakable Nose from near Kune Church- 2007 Madhav Chavan
I took this picture in 2007 but over the years I have taken dozens of my friends and relations to see it for themselves. Why is it that no-one else has uploaded this perspective of the rock? Perhaps they are always so close to the rock that they miss this perspective completely.

If you compare the pictures, the ones available on the net until now are taken from very close to the main rock. These pictures are probably appropriate for the Cobra's Head, the local name. I do not have any evidence, but it seems to me that some Englishman may have taken a look at the whole formation from where I stood and called it Duke's Nose. There is no reason why any sane person standing close to the rock would call it the Duke's Nose and there seems to be no other place from where it would look so much like the Duke's Nose.

If I must make a familiar serious point - when you are close to something, things have one look. If you step away, they take quite another shape. It helps to change perspectives.

I have a similar story about another rock formation in South India- Kudremukh- the horse-head. Now that you have seen the Duke's Nose- don't you think the Kudremukh must look different and more like a horse's head from another perspective?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lagging behind - about 46 years!

Why is this blog called The Self Motivated Pinball?

When I started looking back at my life some years ago, I realized that it was shaped as much by own motivations as by some very strong momentum I borrowed from some events, individuals, and associations much like a pinball does when it gets hit by the triggers (what are those things called?) in the pinball machine. This is probably true for the life of any person to a lesser or greater extent.  I hope to justify the name of the blog as I go along. 

Today, I write about an example of this motivated pinball motion. In a real "Eureka!!" moment I discovered what had stuck in my memory in Std 5, but had never understood. Thank you, Internet.

The story starts a few weeks ago when my colleagues Jayashree, Neel, and I were talking about why science does not make sense without the context of the knowledge. For example, children are taught in schools that the Sun rises in the East. Hmmmm. Or is it that the direction from where the Sun rises is called the East?  The phenomenon of the Sun rising clearly has primacy over the name of the direction. If you stand in an unknown place without a compass in the afternoon, and if you were asked to point towards the North, how would you do it? Try asking a passer-by where the North is (do try it). It is tough to answer that without knowing where East is, which in turn is impossible unless you know where the Sun rises. But the words East or Poorva (or variations of that in India) do not give you a clue about why they have those names. Some internet search did throw up long stories and mythology.

In Marathi, which is the mother-tongue of all three of us, the East also has a simpler name that clearly associates the phenomenon of rising (Sun?) with the direction, The more Sanskrit Poorva has a simpler local alternative - "ugavati" (rising,  or is it 'beginning'?). The opposite in Sanskrit is Paschim but in the local language it is simply "mavalati" (setting, or is it 'ending'?). In regular Marathi usage, "the Sun rose" is simply "Soorya ugavala" and "the Sun set" is simply "Soorya mavalala". The directions take their names from the verbs or the acts of rising and setting. But, because we are teaching 'science', we do not teach 'ugavati' and 'mavalati', which are more scientific names if you ask me.

Having started rolling along, the next thought was that since Maharashtrians are not really unique (although we definitely would like to think so!), most Indian dialects must have similar verb-based names for the two directions. A phone call to Renu Seth in Ahmadabad brought up the local words in Gujarat- "ugamnu" and "athamnu". A call to Gaurav Sharma in Chhattisgarh and he called up some Pratham people in the tribal areas. There too we got verb-based names for directions.(Gaurav, please send those to me)

I am sure someone has gone through an exercise to find out local names of directions in every Indian dialect. I would urge my colleagues to catalog the names of directions in every dialect. The hypothesis is that most dialects will have names connected with rising and setting or beginning and ending. 

Even more important is that while I can tell about "ugavati" and "mavalati", I have no clue if there are similar names for the North or Uttar, and South or Dakshin. Perhaps there are. But it seems unlikely unless they are important to the local life of hundreds or thousands of years. 

So, I was looking for names of directions in other languages. You can try it too. But be careful. You may get sucked into this search, and lose all sense of direction. It seems, the Hebrew for the equivalent of East is quedem - a word for "front". or 'in front. With 'front' as context as you face the East, Hebrew names for directions are front (East), right -(South), left- (North), and back or behind (West). The article I have linked here also gives the Egyptian directions. To them the Nile was of great consequence. So, their reference point was not the East or the rising Sun at all! They started with the source of the Nile as the reference point. They started by facing South, where the Nile originated. Hence their directions relative to the South known as "face" (or look at?) are : face (South), left (East), right (West), and back  (North). 

Wow! The Pinball, gathers momentum and keeps rolling. As I was writing the above, it occurred to me that my geography book of Std 5 had two words that I had to learn by heart and could never tell what they were. These were names of winds- kharay (खारे salty) waray (वारे winds) and matlai (मतलई) waray. I distinctly remember being told by a friend to just remember that salty winds must come from the sea (when the sea is warmer and the land is cooler.. yeah!!) and hence the matlai winds must flow in the opposite direction. For the coastal people, the Arabian Sea is to the West so the matlai winds must come from the land to the East. But matlai did not make sense at all!!!!

I have to find Mrs. Redkar, who made a great effort to teach us and she was such a wonderful teacher. She even gave me the part of Alexander the Great in a school play with classroom desks put together to create a makeshift stage. 

But, Mrs. Redkar did not have the Internet.

What did I find out?  

Matlai means East" or "sunrise".
I could tell you in which language... but how will you then have your own Eureka moment? Search "matlai meaning" and see what comes up or go here

So, historically the sea faring people on the West Coast of Maharashtra must have picked up the name for the Eastern winds from the visiting East Africans and called them the matlai winds. The word got absorbed in the language of the local people but by the time it entered the textbooks, we had lost the context, and hence the cramming.

I am proud that I seem to have found out something that I did not know 46 years ago.  And it is so simple and beautiful.

The Pinball hit a target in what seems like random motion.. but it was very self-motivated.

Friday, February 24, 2012

It's official. I am Babaji

A little girl compared me with her 'babaji' yesterday. It took me back a quarter of a century.

In 1987, I was crossing the railway bridge at Dadar in Mumbai, and I heard a young female voice. "Uncle? Which platform do I go to for the Borivali train?". I was hardly 'uncle' material in my jeans and sneakers, although I was a faculty at the University Department of Chemical Technology.  And this twenty-something actually called me "uncle"!! Most educated 'young' Indian men suffer this shock at one time or another. Samsung has tried to use the 'uncle' problem to their advantage in a commercial recently.

Strangely, it felt much better to be called 'babaji', as in grandpa, at 57 than being called "uncle" at 33. 

In my last blog I had written about the class in Seelampur and how Beena and KumKum had startled us all by reading out a passage. The story the class was reading was about two friends Chunnu and Guddu. One liked mangoes, and the other did not. There was a donkey in the story too, and apparently he did not like mangoes either.I asked the girls to do a role play. So, one girl said she would be Chunnu and the other Guddu. Who will be the Donkey? No one! So, I told them that the story would not be complete without the donkey. They all giggled but finally, Rani, who was clearly more confident than the rest said. "I am Donkey!". They all laughed and Rani laughed with them. So, they did the role play. There were only three lines to say but Chunnu and Guddu could not get them right so the 'donkey' got up and whispered their lines in their ears. When they did not walk like they were supposed to in the park, the 'donkey' got up in exasperation and showed them how to.

They had a ball and I had a great time. Much better than sitting behind a desk writing proposals and reports.

When it was time to go, I asked them if they were afraid of me when I walked into their class. "Nooo!" they all said in a chorus. Rani, our lovable little donkey, did not join the chorus. Once everybody had quieted down she said. "You are like my babaji". So, I asked who babaji was and she told me it was her grandfather who visits them every now and then and tells stories.

I liked that. Being babaji feels good.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

And she smiled...

I have seen that smile many times but it is magical every time I see it.

Was in a Pratham class in Seelampur, Delhi. A young lady, Rashmi,  was teaching several girls, who were in Std 4-5. She had read out a story to the girls and they were discussing it. But half the class was quiet, and the other half participating. Rashmi said that the quiet girls did not know reading. They could read words with difficulty. The quiet girls were looking at me. So, I asked, "Did you hear the story?". They nodded slowly. They said they knew the names of the people in the story and they also knew there was a donkey in it. They knew there was talk about mangoes and chaat. So they knew many words on the story.

I told the girls, who apparently did not know how to read, to step outside the class with their story sheets and try to read the first paragraph carefully. They were to look at each word and then try to read the sentence to themselves till it made sense. I also told another teacher, Asha, to step out with the group. She was to help them in reading words only if the girls asked her, but not otherwise. The girls were told that when any one of them felt that she could read the first paragraph well, she could come in to the class and read it out.

As I chatted with the remaining girls in the class I could see the group outside concentrating on the text with fingers under the words. Occasionally they asked for help. After about fifteen minutes, I heard commotion outside and a bright smiling face. "Beena wants to read to you!", said the excited Asha. The 'insiders' were very curious. Will Beena be able to read????

Beena walked in and sat down with her book. She looked at everyone and... started reading!! When she was done, the remaining class froze for a fraction of second and broke out into a huge applause. Rashmi could not believe this. "But Sir, I swear she could not read more than just words. And this was just a little before you came!". Beena was taking in the compliments. She was quiet, and had that far away look as she smiled to herself.

There was more commotion and in came KumKum. I had asked her to read earlier and had seen that she struggle with every word. She read very softly so as to hide her mistakes. KumKum too had that smile that Beena had come in with. Everyone waited as she cleared her throat. And then, in a loud and strong voice, with her fingers stressing each word, KumKum read the passage. Applause! Applause!!

Now KumKum and Beena shared a smile as they looked at each other.

I have seen these smile many times. They say, "We too can!". It is such a lovely smile. Wish I had taken a picture.

Next time.