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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.


  1. As a kid I used to wonder why West Bengal is called West bengal inspite of being in the East...was it just to confuse the kids learning Geography.

  2. एक महिना झाला. हा ब्लॉग अपडेट झालेला नाही, जो नियमित व्हायचा होता. तुम्ही पहिल्या दोनही लेखात काळाचा, बदलांचा आणि माणसामाणसातल्या संबंधांचा छान गोफ विणला आहे. वर्तुळ जिथं पूर्ण होतं तो बिंदू कुठल्याही वाचकाला आवडतो. तो तुम्ही साधलंय.
    Lagging behind - about 46 years! हे स्फुट इंग्रजीच्या अकलेपलीकडले आहे. ज्या शब्दांना मराठी 'भावार्थ' आहे तो इंग्रजीत उपरा वाटतो. वाचतांना एक गोष्ट जाणवत राहते की हा लेख मराठीत लिहायला घेतला असतात, तर अनेक शब्दांशी तुम्ही खेळू शकला असतात.