Saturday, December 18, 2010

Some girl!

Bidyunmala Mukherjee, popularly referred to as Rubu by most people, has turned out to be pretty eventful over the last fortnight. Here's why:

***

She needs to hold on to a blanket during those last few moments before she dozes off. I've seen many children use props of various kinds, but she's the only one I know who has actually named them. There is an assortment of blankets used in an unequally distributed rotation policy, the duration depending on their relationship with the washing machine. All of them are called Rahul and are generally distinguished by racist adjectives (Peach Rahul, Yellow Rahul and so on).

The biggest and oldest of them, though, has not been christened Pink Rahul. It's affectionately referred to as King Rahul, and is the most favourite. It's also the default Rahul (when the word Rahul is mentioned, we always know that it's King Rahul, not the subjects).

After seven years of dedicated service, a hole has popped up in the withered surface of one of Rahul's corners. The blanket is now referred to as RaHole.

***

Cautious father: Pandu had two wives, Kunti and Madri. Kunti had three sons, Madri had two. Their names were Yudhishthir, Bheem, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev. Kunti... well... had another son before her marriage. He was called Karna (the Bengali father, of course, pronounced Korno).
Ever-vigilant daughter: Corn? He was called Corn?
Father: No. Korno.
Daughter: Hmm. (Pause) WHAT DID YOU SAY, BEFORE MARRIAGE?
Father: (Letting the question go outside the offstump) And Dhritarashtra and Gandhari had hundred.
Daughter: No, you said she had a son before marriage.
Hapless Father: (in a small voice) Yes.
Daughter: (in a seriously demanding tone) HOW?
Helpless Father: They knew magic in those days. Lots of magic. (Voice raised by about 50 decibels) Now, about Dhritarashtra and Gandhari...

Phew!

***

Her second cousin (the one with whom she shares a pair of maternal great-grandparents), aged three, slept over pretty recently. He wasn't doing well, and I stayed awake till early morning. Exhausted, I told my daughter to tell her cousin a story and put him to sleep (well, I have done it to her for about a thousand and one nights, surely she could conjure one of those stories?).

"Rubudidi will tell you a story."

I went to the bathroom and came out about three minutes later. Absolute silence. The boy had almost fallen asleep. I was stunned. It took me at least fifteen minutes to do the same to my daughter (I had crossed the two-hour mark once) being a storyteller.

I got curious. As soon as he fell into deep sleep, I interrogated her: HOW?

"Oh, I didn't tell him a story. I just told him that I've heard today that all babies to fall asleep quickly tonight shall be given a Ben-10 watch."

That one put me to sleep as well.

***

She loves anagrams. Today I gave her a list of words with animal anagrams. One of them was HIRNO or some other anagram of RHINO.

She usually gets them very fast, especially the small ones. For some reason this was an exception. If she doesn't get them she usually comes up and asks for a hint - something like the starting alphabet or some information about the animal. Today was different.

She tiptoed up to me and hesitated for a while: "Baba, can it be the Bengali name of an animal?"

Huh? "Like what?"

"HORIN." (Bengali for deer)

I shudder at what might happen if I give her the full thing (CHOIR SNORE or something) and she comes up with another one. Talk of your confidence being crushed.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Poor bird

‎" 'Swallow, swallow, little swallow', said the prince." is possibly the first documented instance of a request for an inter-species fellatio.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

55 in series

Just now I realised that 55 is basically 10 x 11 / 2, which is, again,
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10.

How about a story, then?
The decreasing saga
"Oh Sir, please push harder, deeper, faster, further inside now!"
"Oh Sir, please push harder, deeper, faster, further inside!"
"Oh Sir, please push harder, deeper, faster, further!"
"Oh Sir, please push harder, deeper, faster!"
"Oh Sir, please push harder, deeper!"
"Oh Sir, please push harder!"
"Oh Sir, please push!"
"Oh Sir, please!"
"Oh Sir!"
"Oh!"
...
...


But then, 
55 is also
7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7, isn't it?
So let's create
The bimodal saga
"Oh Sir, please push further inside now!"
"Oh Sir, please push further inside!"
"Oh Sir, please push further!"
"Oh Sir, please push!"
"Oh Sir, please!"
"Oh Sir!"
"Oh!"
"Oh Sir!"
"Oh Sir, please!"
"Oh Sir, please, outside!"
"Oh Sir, please, outside, now!"
"Oh Sir, please, outside, now, otherwise..."
 "Oh Sir, please, outside, now, otherwise... God!"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The 55-mania starts

These days the internet is infested with 55-word stories. The concept is simple: write a story within 55 words. I'm not really a Gaul, but these are occasions when I turn out to be indomitable.

Life
"Write something realistic on LIFE" were the instructions.

He knew he was good at this. Realism, well, was his forte. His pen raced as fast as his mind. He smirked at the confused faces around him as he raced to the penultimate line.

He took out his penknife. He had to make the end realistic.

The Universe
He was the most powerful man on Earth. All other nations had bowed to his army. All Earth was tied under one supreme force now, and this was a new high in terms of economy, culture and technology.

"New Hi-Score" said the supercomputer. The alien yelled in ecstasy. He couldn't wait till they launched Earth-2.


Everything
She knelt on the beach. He didn't even bother to look at her mouth. Just another whore, he thought.

There was not a soul around when the vampire sucked everything, even the last drop of blood, ending the shriek.

She wiped her mouth and walked back. She loved the ocean breeze with her stomach full.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The ant

The ant paused for a while.

Was it really what he thought?

It wasn't just any random grain. It was The Grain. The one that they, ants, had all grown up to respect as The Precious (they say the name The Precious was nicked from a book, but then, they say a lot of things).

Not any ant came across it. In fact, The Elders used to say that only one in a billion ants was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of The Precious. And that too didn't happen naturally - it had to happen when there was an eclipse, a drought and a war in the same year (or something equally improbable - so improbable that no one really cared to remember).

All that possibly meant that the ant was possibly the first, and also the last in the history of antkind to come across The Precious.

He looked around himself. No, there really wasn't anyone watching him. Could this possibly mean that he could take away, and hence own The Precious forever?

He tiptoed towards The Precious. Was he doing anything wrong? Was he actually not supposed to take it? He tried to browse through the various courses he had undertaken as a student of the Inf Ant Inf Ant Ry. No, he couldn't remember a single word against it. Whatever was preached, it was towards how priceless the thing was - not the taboo on it.

He actually turned back.

In vain.

He was drawn, hypnotically, as if tied by an invisible mysterious thread. He walked towards it, helpless in front of the magical aura of the sheer presence of The Precious. He placed one of his front legs on it, and completed the grip with another.

It was his.

Er, it was really his.

The Precious held securely between its front limbs, it scurried back to its anthill.

No, not the anthill.

Too many eyes there. Too many eyes per ant, in fact. And too many eyes per ant times too many ants meant the product of two very high numbers, which invariably meant a reasonably high number. It was difficult enough hiding it from a single eye, let alone that many.

Then, there were the grasshoppers as well.

No, this was not the story of The Perseverant Ant and The Lazy Yet Sporting Grasshopper, as narrated by Mr Aesop. The grasshopper there accepted its winter starvation.

This was also not the story of The Innumerable Ants and The Few Grasshoppers, as narrated by Messrs. Pixar. The grasshoppers there were outnumbered, and made to flee.

This was the story of The Solitary Ant and the Innumerable Grasshoppers. Whenever our ant was in possession of something better than the husk of half a grain, this band of grasshoppers always seemed to appear out of nowhere, and made a dash for it. The ant was always left robbed. Funnily, despite the overhyped bonding that one usually associates with ant, not a single arthropod ever came out of the anthill to its rescue.

So basically, it had to protect itself, and more importantly, hide The Precious, from his own species as well as the mighty 'hoppers. He knew that if anyone ever caught a glimpse of The Precious, it shall be taken away for good: he didn't stand a chance in front of the others. More importantly, even if The Precious did have special powers of its own, why would it actually want to stay with someone so incompetent, so commonplace?

It needed a hiding place for The Precious. It was his. HIS. HIS. He simply would not share it with, let alone lose it to a single other entity. He knew that his entire philosophy towards life was a simple, happy-go-lucky one: generally unmotivated, seldom driven by desire or any equivalent emotion.

The Precious had changed everything. He was now a protective, a supremely possessive ant, unlike his previous self. He didn't miss that previous self, though: he now knew that his aimless life now had a meaning, a goal to look forward to.

He tried to hide it everywhere: beds of drying rivers; hollows of barren trees; skeletons of withering carcasses; holes behind rejected cupboards. But everything seemed to be a giveaway. Everything. Where could he reach, that was unreachable to his fellow ants, or for that matter, those tyrannical green demons?

There must be a place to hide The Precious, but WHERE?

***

And then he knew.

It had to be within himself. As deep as he could. There had to be somewhere happier than his happiest memories, brighter than his brightest dreams, clearer than his clearest thoughts. He tried to ransack his insides, tried to lay them out by strata, but couldn't: it was, after all, an ant's brain, and offered only so much.

There was only one way left, then.

Mustering all the effort he could, he stood up on his hind limbs: using the other four pincers, he ripped his thorax apart, and with a weak grip, clasped The Precious and stuffed it inside himself. Then he salivated on the wound with as much vigour as as he could, and as his dying moments approached, he could feel himself curling around The Precious in a grip that could never be separated.

***

The sweeper noticed the oversize, swollen, grotesque ant next morning, but didn't care. He simply threw it away, took out his packed lunch and carried on in a drone to the person who sat next to him.

The Precious was lost to the world. Forever this time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Vishnu's X-files

Vishnu is definitely too cool for comfort. Just think of it: The Ultimate Caretaker of The Universe simply abiding his time lying sideways on an infinite-headed serpent (who is named Ananta as well), resting his torso on an elbow. From his navel emerges a lotus, on which The Four-Headed Creator of The Universe remains seated. And then, there's The Owl-Riding Finance Goddess for company.

However, the most dramatic bit was possibly his ten avatars. The concept was simple:
Problem: Earth (or thereabouts) in peril. By peril I mean serious stuff, not a cat up a tree or losing a pen-knife. Hi-end things like global catastrophes or planet thefts.
Customer Care: Get Vish on the 1-800 hotline.
Vish's solution: He appears as an avatar to save the Earth or whatever is in trouble. This avatar  is vastly different from James Cameron's. I agree that there are a couple of blue ones, four of them do have a tail and they were all there for a good reason, but the thing is - all of them centred around The Earth.

Let us go through the list first:
Matsya (the fish), Koorma (the tortoise), Varaha (the boar), Nrisingha (the lion-man), Vaaman (the dwarf), Parashuram (the Ram with an axe), Ram (the unprefixed Ram), Krishna (The Dark Lord), Buddha (of Buddhism fame) and Kalki (the guy from the future).

Note the first six: a fish, a reptile, a mammal, a half-human, a dwarf (possibly a Neanderthal) and The Battle-Axe Man. The next two are normal humans, followed by a historical character and a name from the future.

Well, it seems that those writing the Vishnu Puran definitely knew their evolution!

Anyway, let's get back to the avatars, one by one now: what they did, why they appeared and what actually happened.

Matsya:
Ages back, there used to be this guy called Manu. Apparently he was The First Man (the word maanav literally means Manu's son). This puts him at par with Adam (who, admittedly, had Eve, The Garden of Eden, a serpent and an apple for company). But then, Manu also went on to collaborate with The Fish to make an Ark, which puts him at par with Noah as well.

With no person to talk to, no girl to fantasise, no Tendulkar to watch and no SMS joke to forward he didn't have much activity other than roaming aimlessly along water bodies.

It goes like this. Manu was taking his usual afternoon walk along a pond or whatever it was. He found a curious-looking fish. A minnow, rather. Out of some typically mushy piscine affection he took the fish and put it in a bronze gamla at home.

In vain.

Just like Hashim Amla, the fish proved bigger than it seemed at first, and soon outgrew the gamla. Manu went on transferring it to vessels of ascending size: a basin, then a tank, then a pond, then a lake (is a lake larger than a pond in general?), then a river, and finally, an ocean.

The fish came back, more humongous than ever, some time back. It told Manu (mostly because he formed the entire contemporary audience) to take samples of all animals (in pairs) and plants, build a boat single-handedly and do a Noah. Our hero obliged.

The fish came back, this time even bigger, this time adorning a massive horn. The vessel was tied to the horn, and the deluge started. It went on for days, drowning everything in vicinity, and then, with time, things subsided. The animals were let loose, and life continued.

The first woman came along somewhere. Manu learnt a thing or two from observing animals or from instinct and did a JL (3) H (2), and humanity sprung into existence, and continues to grow (and consume tonnes of fish every day). I really thought that Fardeen Khan's birth might end the process, but it didn't. Strange.

Vishnu's role as a fish was over. He put on some body spray, transformed himself back to a blue God and went back to his favourite leaning posture on a lotus, absolutely alone, being bored to death, er, immortality.

Koorma:
Way before they started defeating hares in sprints and started appearing as mosquito-repellent coil brands, tortoises existed on Earth. Hindus have always looked upon tortoises as gargantuan animals (remember Supratik and Vibhavasu?).

This, however, was the more famous tortoise.

The Gods, at one point of time, had developed an irresistible fetish towards immortality. Vishnu suggested that the ocean be churned to obtain amrita (ambrosia). They needed a fulcrum of sorts, and they decided none less than a mountain - Mandar. They needed a rope large enough to tie around it, so that they could pull it from both sides. Vasuki, the king of serpents, volunteered (I've never understood why: some folks are going to get ambrosia by pulling at your both ends, and all you'd get in return is possibly months of headache and tailsore).

The Gods also realised that their combined strength wasn't good enough to churn the ocean. So they invited the asurs (and offered them a 50% share of amrita once the ocean was churned).

There remained a problem, though. Obviously the Gods and asurs weren't very proficient in physics, so they didn't realise that if they pulled Vasuki from both sides, the mountain shall rapidly drill a hole into the bed of the ocean.

So they needed a base. Vishnu had to step in. He emerged as a tortoise and slid beneath the mountain. Given that he was Vishnu, he had an impregnable super-hard shell which countered all possible centrifugal (or was it centripetal?) force the Gods and asurs could muster.

The ocean was churned for ages, and a lot of non-trivial stuff was extracted. The following list is as exhaustive as I could make it (please ignore the sequence - I wasn't there to note these down):
Varuni: Not to be confused with Varun. Varuni, the Goddess and creator of sura (alcohol) popped out. This led to wine, Scotch, Irish pubs and the Mukherjee duo - Debdas and Keshto.
Apsaras: These were dancers who usually performed for the Gods, and in their free time, seduced sages and random people for fun. They sometimes got pregnant themselves (Menaka by Vishwamitra, giving birth to Shakuntala) or got men to ejaculate in random places, yielding the same results (Ghritachi, Bharadwaj, random pot, Drona, mentioned in detail here). The Gods usurped them unfairly.

Just a thought - do you realise how boring life was for everyone before the churning?

Uchchaishrava: A dazzlingly white, seven-headed horse. Claimed by Indra. For whatever reason, the claim was granted as well.
Airavat: A grotesque white elephant with four tusks. Once again, claimed by Indra (who for sure had some fauna fetish), and strangely enough, it was granted.
Kamdhenu: A cow who fulfilled every need. She has turned up in various places throughout Hindu mythology. Note the name: possibly in those days fulfilling every need and kam were synonymous.
Parijat: Cute-looking tree that with perpetually fresh flowers, also known to fulfill wishes the same way kamdhenu did. The advantage was that unlike cows, the flowers couldn't wander away, so had a better asset value. This one was also dispatched to heaven.
Vishnu's stuff: Vishnu finally got paid for his efforts. In quick succession, there emerged from the ocean shankha (Vishnu's conch), sharnga (Vishnu's bow), Kaustubh (Vishnu's famous jewel) and finally, Lakshmi (who appropriately shares a first name with Mittal), to make Vishnu's incredibly eventless slumber on a lotus somewhat eventful. All these were given away to Vishnu unquestioningly.
Halahal: This was apparently the most potent poison known. Shiv emerged out of nowhere, and swallowed the stuff in one gulp: it turned his throat blue (hence the name Nilkantha). Years later I watched a movie based on the ocean and the colour blue, and the impact was as lethal as halahal itself.
Dhanwantari: This was a curious character. He looked exactly like Vishnu, was a human (one of the first surgeons ever), got a Kolkata-based chemists' chain named after him and walked out of the ocean. To add to the picture, he had amrita in his hand.
Chandra: The Moon. Visualise this - the churning was on, and suddenly, slosh! twang! whoosh! A decent-sized orb sprang up and fled into oblivion.

The asurs, who had not put a claim to a single thing till now, obviously went for the grab. Vishnu knew it was time to come out of the shell. He emerged as Mohini (I'm not sure whether it was a girl called Mohini, or whether it was a mohini, which roughly translates to seductress). Whatever it was, he (she?) could coax the asurs to gift her the amrita.

Now, back to his normal self, Vishnu sat down with the other Gods to have a taste of ambrosia. Rahu, an asur disguised as a God, joined the queue (why does this remind me of this picture?). Surya (The Sun) and Chandra recognised him (of course, they were the ones with the light), and Vishnu did his third bit in the chapter - used his Sudarshan Chakra (a remarkably sharp small disc) to behead Rahu. However, Rahu had already taken a mouthful of amrita, so his head remained immortal.

Obviously, he wanted to have his revenge, but for whatever reason, he targetted Surya and Chandra, not the beheader himself. Every now and then he tries to gobble them up, resulting in eclipses, only being compelled to release them through the open throat. A popular television soap was produced, inspired by Rahu's fruitless exasperation.

Varaha:
The next one was a great boar. Given how bored Vishnu was by now, it was time he took up some boardom as well.

There was this cool asur called Hiranyaksha (The Golden-Eyed, if you're interested). He was superior to Archimedes in the sense that he didn't even need a place to stand - he somehow managed to grab hold of Earth, and hid it inside an ocean (where?).

This time it was Brahma who called Vishnu for help. Vishnu, just like Pumbaa, had a gala entry, rescuing a crucial character as he made his appearance. He ran into the ocean, dug his tusks into the bed, boar bore a hole into the mud and scooped out Earth from earth (huh?). Of course, Hiranyaksha didn't take all this too sportingly (I don't blame him: after going through the really thankless job of planting an entire populated planet in an ocean bed it's really difficult to sit back and accept gleefully the spectacle of a boar undoing your efforts) and it took our hero the small matter of a thousand-year-long-duel to fell the asur and go about Earth-digging in peace.

Mind you, this was no minor event. The entire ball-play with our planet marked the end of the Satyayug, and Hiranyaksha's Earth-drowning was, well, what you call a pralay. His job fulfilled, Vishnu returned to his comfort zone that now included Lakshmi, a side-posture, a snake, a lotus and other random stuff.

Narasimha:
We Bengalis call him Nrisingha, which I believe is also the Sanskrit word. Why, then, am I using the Hindi version? Because it had a Sunny Deol movie named after it, and as we all know, anything involving Sunny Deol always gets priority.

Hiranyaksha had an elder brother called Hiranyakashipu (The Golden-Haired, or in other words, blonde). Like most blondes he considered himself uber-smart. For example, when Brahma refused to grant him immortality, he wished that he could be killed by something neither human nor animal; neither inside or outside his house; neither on earth nor in air; by a weapon neither animate or inanimate; and during neither day nor night. He didn't consider the loopholes.

He also had a strangely oriented son called Prahlad who was curiously obsessed with Vishnu. It's one thing being a Meera and spending days singing bhajans: Blondie couldn't stand his son being obsessed with another male God (who was also Prahlad's uncle's murderer), and tried to disprove Vishnu's superiority and absolute existence. He even tried to get Prahlad killed, but the latter was somehow saved every time, thanks to some kind of divine interference or the other.

Blondie, enraged, asked his presumably non-trivially oriented son whether Vish was omnipresent. At the obvious yes, he showed a pillar and asked asked the same (well, he was a blonde, and the concept of subsets were probably alien to him). Prahlad stated the obvious. Hiranyakashipu, determined to thrash his son's inclination towards another man, kicked the pillar hard.

Out stepped Narasimha. The asur was no match for him. The semi-animal took him to the courtyard at twilight, placed him on his own thighs and attacked him with its nails, thereby violating none of Blondie's five conditions. The asur was ripped apart, Prahlad was made king, and blonde jokes took birth.

Vaaman:
Prahlad (oh, how I wish Vishnu left that family alone!) had a grandson called Bali (not to be confused with King Baali of Kishkindhya). Through years of warfare he conquered the whole of underworld, Earth and heaven, which led to Indra requesting Vish for another intervention.

Remember Bradman telling Gavaskar "These big blokes have the power, but we little ones have the footwork, huh!" in 1971? Vishnu, being Almighty personified, had hatched a master-plan. the plan involved footwork, and he knew that a shorter stature would help him. So he emerged as a dwarf with (for whatever reason) a wooden umbrella.

Bali was executing a massive yagna of some kind (presumably involving some human and/or animal sacrifice, given his name, though I do not have any concrete proof to support this). The completion of this would have given him absolute authority over the three worlds.

Amidst all this, in walked Vaaman, a diminutive Brahmin boy; out of courtesy, Bali offered him all he wanted. Vaaman asked for the land he could cover in his three steps. Bali thought this was a perfectly normal request to make (he was, after all, the great-grandson of a blonde, and genes do speak a lot).

Vaaman grew. And grew. And grew (He grew a lot, but I shall type only two "and grew"s; if you really want to know how big he grew read the next line). He grew so big that his first step covered the whole of heaven, the next one took care of Earth. Bali knew that he had been taken for a ride: he let out a wry smile (I made that up) and asked Vaaman to place the third foot on his own head.

Thus conquered, Bali was banished to the underworld. Unlike the Mumbai dons who went on to face the same feat in subsequent years, Bali was given full authority of the underworld. He was also granted immortality by Vishnu himself, so life wasn't really as uncool as it seemed to be.

His work done, Vishnu reclaimed his normal height, well within the three-sigma limits this time, and went on to rest in favourite pose.

Parashuram:
Parashuram was actually named Ram. He went on to be named Parashuram because he carried (and used to glory) a parashu (axe). I shudder at times, getting an icy chill down my spine as I imagine people calling me Laptopabhishek.

Parashuram was born of Jamadagni (a Brahmin) and Renuka (a Kshatriya descendant). They had a bagful of sons, and were living quite happily.

One of the chores of Renuka was to fetch water from a nearby place. One day she saw a gandharva near the water body, and ogled at him with such intensity that bringing water completely slipped her mind (must have been one heck of a gandharva!).

Jamadagni, being quite an accomplished legilimens, saw through her. He asked his eldest son to decapitate Renuka. The son refused. He logged this request to the rest of his sons and ran it in a loop, which came to a halt at Parashuram.

Parashuram beheaded his mother. No, this is not a typo. He really did it. The weapon? Yes, you've guessed it right. He didn't stop at that - he did the same to the errant brothers.

Jamadagni was exalted (you aren't reading this, right, Ma or Baba or Bhai?). He asked his ideal son to register a boon of his choice. Pars asked him to bring the family back to them and erase their recent memories. It was granted.

Have you ever heard of a chain of actions this spectacular to be rendered to a zero-result sequence?

Anyway, let's move on. Jamadagni had owned Kamdhenu at some point of time (could she be leased?). The Haihay king Kartaviryarjun (who apparently had a thousand hands) happened to pass by his ashram, and obviously wanted to snatch The Coveted Cow. Jamadagni tried to stop, and was beheaded (using 0.1% of the available hands, I presume).

The Human Millipede, it should be mentioned, was no mean warrior. He had defeated Raavan's army single-handedly (now, is that an oxymoron?), and had kept Raavan a prisoner in his cellar, only to free him at Pulastya's request.

He also had a thousand wives, and, well, "entertained" them simultaneously (equality of rights, you see). This would probably mean about three to four hundred women dangling helplessly in mid-air, but I'm sure he rotated his wives based on hand number. When the 1,001-strong Haihay Royal Family bathed in the Narmada, His Highness stopped the mighty river, converting it into a cute pool.

The word Kartavirya means son of Kritavirya, which means "The One with the Successful Semen". With such a son, whoever had named Daddy was miraculously accurate.

Parashuram didn't flinch, though, however formidable his opponent might have been. He found Kats, cut off all his hands (reminds me of a haircut, for some reason), there was a swish and a thud, and that was that. However, he didn't stop at that. He killed all his kin. He didn't stop at that either. He killed all the Haihays. Next step: he eliminated all Kshatriyas (!) alone. And then (no, I do not know how the Kshatriyas kept on reproducing), he eradicated all Kshatriyas from the Earth TWENTY-ONE times.

Yes, I know what you're thinking. When the eradication program was executed the first time, whatever Kshatriya progeny survived was very few in number, and the number possibly got fewer with every execution. So the process got easier every time, possibly at an exponential rate.

Once his bloodbath was quenched Parashuram did an ashwamedh yajna. It was easy, since there wasn't really anyone to stop the horse.

The catch, however, lies elsewhere: Vishnu didn't go back after all this: he stayed back. He was an immortal, you see, one of only seven: the others being Vyas, Hanuman, Vibhishan, Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, and our hero from the previous story, Bali.

So Vishnu remained on Earth, or at least a fragment of his did. The rest went back and continued to exist in that familiar posture.

Ram:
Everyone knows a lot about Ram, so I shall not get started on that. Ram was born to kill the mighty Raavan. Exactly why Parashuram couldn't do it himself is not clear (after all, he had killed Kartaviryarjun - the man who had defeated Raavan easily). Perhaps he was too proud to seek simian help.

Ram, despite being a rather uncool character, had his strong aspects: he was a fantastic warrior, and killed both Raavan and Kumbhakarna himself. In fact, he faced Raavan thrice and defeated him on every occasion. True, he was felled by Indrajit twice and was captured by Mahiravan once, but then, both of them were successful against virtually anybody they had faced.

He was also smart (he was called RAM, come on!). When Makaraksha came to fight him in a chariot covered with ox-skin, had it pulled by oxen, carried calves on and cows beside his chariot, Ram used Vayuvan (The Wind God's Arrow). It resulted in a twister, and blew everything away, giving Ram a clear view of Makaraksha.

Another example was the fact that when he had his first conversation with Sugriv, he didn't go and join hands with the incredible Baali (not to be confused with Vaaman's victim). Baali had humiliated Raavan once, and he would have seemed an obvious choice over Sugriv. But Ram knew that Baali was too strong a personality to handle and mould, and stuck to the weaker of the two - one that went on to become his puppet.

The most curious aspect, though, was Ram's encounter with Parashuram. Ram did break the Haradhanu and got to marry Sita (this has always seemed weird to me: suppose you're asked to write a code, and you break the computer, would the client consider the work as completed to satisfaction?). On their way back to Ayodhya, Ram ran into Parashuram.

A double role! Not a Ram aur Shyam, but a Ram aur Ram!!

P: So you think you rule?
R: I do, dude.
P: I know what you did with Haradhanu. Now do the same with my bow.

Ram obliged, and broke this one as well. Parashuram lost all his power and moved out of sight. He performed some yajnas, and it took ages for him to regain everything. Vishnu got his fragment back (just one, not both) and continued to rest in the same pose.

Krishna:
There's some confusion regarding the identity of the eighth avatar. When I was a kid I read in one of those general-knowledge books that do not meet the 40-micron mark that it was Balaram. I have seen sources that agree to this.

However, sources suggest that it's actually Krishna. These sources outdo the previous ones in both quality and quantity. Even then, I was prepared to remain confused between the two for a lifetime, till I realised that I should give preference to the one that shares its name with a Suniel Shetty movie.

Like Ram, there has been too much literature already on Krishna, so wasting cyberspace might not be the best of ideas. There are a few factoids, though, that might be worth a mention:

Krishna was the only avatar who retained the weapons of Vishnu. The Sudarshan Chakra and the Koumudaki Mace are examples.

Krishna had an epic clash with Jambavan (of Ramayan fame); the duel went on for days, and ended in a stalemate. They became friends, and Jambavan gave his daughter's hand to Krishna. With time The Blue Man (not to be confused with a member of Men in Blue) and the bear's daughter broke open new avenues in the field of genetics, and gave birth to a stunningly handsome boy (whose father couldn't compete with him in this aspect) called Shamba. Shamba, when he grew up, went to the swyamvar of a princess and abducted her from a full court (like Bhishma had done with Amba, Ambika and Ambalika ages back). Shamba married her. This was none other than Lakshmana, whose father was - hold your breath - DURYODHAN.

Krishna had promised that he would not get involved in The War directly. He broke this promise as many as thrice in a span of five days:
On day nine he got furious at Arjun's inability to harm Bhishma, and he himself rushed at Bhishma with Sudarshan on his fingertips. Bhishma laid down his weapons, prepared to accept death quite gleefully. It took Arjun some effort to bring Krishna back and attack Bhishma with renewed ferocity.
On day thirteen Bhagadatta, the king of Pragjyotish, rode his gargantuan elephant and attacked Arjun. He possessed the Vaishnavastra, given away by Vishnu himself at some point of time. The weapon was unstoppable, unless Vishnu himself intervened. So Krishna stood up and intercepted it, and it turned into a startling garland called Vaijayantimala, who went to act in classics like Madhumati, Naya Daur, Sangam, Prince and Jewel Thief. Okay, not the last bit.
On day fourteen, when the bookies were raising their stakes on Jayadrath surviving Arjun's wrath before sundown, Krishna hid The Sun. The Kauravs started celebrating, and Jayadrath tried to have a proper peek: Arjun did the rest. The Sun returned.
Of course he helped them in other ways as well: reciting The Gita, driving the chariot with unparalleled skill, saving Arjun brilliantly on the seventeenth day when Karna's arrow aimed for his head (when he realised that Arjun had no defence against the arrow Krishna pressed the chariot down hard and the arrow took Arjun's crown), and of course, was the supreme motivator and strategist that turned the tide for the Pandavs.

Amidst all this, let us not forget Parashuram, of course. He taught and fought Bhishma, taught and cursed Karna, and was seen appearing here and there, proving his omnipresence. Krishna did die an inglorious death, but Parashuram continued to battle on. The Axe-Effect, you see.

Buddha:
I've always found it really amusing that the ninth avatar was actually a real character - one who was actually the founder of an entirely different religion - a religion whose followers were mercilessly slaughtered by Hindus at one point of time.

Why would someone do that? I mean, you hail someone as a reincarnation of your top-ranked God, and then you massacre his followers? What kind of a logic is that?

The only explanation is possibly the fact that Buddha was declared as an avatar much later: when Buddhism took off, it was largely looked as heinous by Hindus. They tried to compensate somewhat for that in the years to come. What they didn't realise that the best way to pay a proper tribute was to follow the life he had led and preached: to remain non-violent and to serve the world, to be happy in others' happiness, and to learn to be simple and to forgive.

The Hindus didn't do that. They simply insisted on making him an avatar and make movies like this. What they didn't realise was that in doing so they actually achieved this.

Kalki:
Hinduism has a past so rich that it has seldom required to the future. The tenth avatar, however, lies hidden somewhere in the depths of the years to come:

When Earth shall be overloaded with sins and crimes, Kalki shall be there to save and end it permanently. This shall mark the end of Kali Yug, and hence, everything. That day might not be too far away, given that Fardeen Khan still acts, Himesh Reshammiya still sings and Tata Sky has been blasphemous enough to use the term jhingalala in small-scale commercials.

There are rumours that since he shall be the tenth avatar, and since he shall believe in making things even, he might be heard uttering the phrase do, char, chhe, aat, dus, ... bas!, the last word denoting the termination of the Earth.

There's one catch, though. Given that the classical Hindu military strategies, formations and weapons would not exist any more, who is supposed to train Kalki?

Come on, isn't it obvious? He was declared an immortal for this very reason. I can almost hear him say - "decapitate your mother unquestioningly whenever asked..."

Ruthlessness hasn't really come to that, right? Or maybe it has.

Dark days ahead.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A whole new world

A few months back I was chatting to a friend online, when she made a typo: instead of typing
:-)
she typed
::-)

I pointed out that it looked as if she was smiling with her glasses on her forehead. Little did I know that this would go on to make me think a lot and open up new avenues for me in my idle time.

I had always wanted to make a list of these: now that my brain is too clogged up with stuff and is hence too tired to do anything really fruitful I suppose I should churn these out. No, wait a moment, I've been suffering from a blogger's block (doesn't that sound a whole lot cooler?)!

This list is dedicated to all those who would love to combine the simplicities of Google Talk to this whole new world:
Real characters:
\:-|       Bhagat Singh
:-|        Suniel Shetty
B-|        Chris Gayle 
99.94      Don Bradman
:-(|       Ashutosh Mukherjee 
3j (* +    Sachin Tendulkar
<:-|       C V Raman 
@8-<)      Manmohan Singh 
:-<<       Merv Hughes 
8-P        Daniel Vettori
:-P        Brad Hogg
c|:-(|     Charlie Chaplin 
c|B-|      Darryl Harper 
S:-D       Shashi Kapoor
||:-O      S Sreesanth
3:--|      Julius Caesar 
c|:-A      Geoffrey Boycott

Mythology:
c)-:-)S    Shiva
:~         Ganesh
@S:-)X     Medusa
-o-[E]     Cyclops
]C:-<      Mahishasur
<->-)      Durga at Maddox Square/Baghbazar
(-:-)      Durga elsewhere
?-:-P      Kali
3| -<|     Dhritarashtra
||-)       Gandhari
::: .      Shakuni and Yudhishthir
-O O-      Bhim and Duryodhan
<}-> <-{>  Arjun and Karna
*. *. *. .. ..
           Draupadi's five sons with their fathers
>c|b-<     Odin 
: O (      Shurpanakha


Other fiction:
~:-o       Tintin
$:-))      Uncle Scrooge
#:-D       Archie Andrews
3:-D       Jughead Jones
`8-)       Harry Potter
:  |       Lord Voldemort
}B-)       Batman
B-         Spiderman
~8-D       Aladdin's Genie
<B-<>=     Albus Dumbledore 
C|>)       Shikari Sambhu
3|:-<]     King Lear 
c|:-)      Cornelius Fudge 
c|:-|u     Sherlock Holmes
c|:-}|     Hercule Poirot

Movies:
7:-)       Amrish Puri in Damini
:O>        Hamm in Toy Story

Objects:
+{|        Chess King
3|         Chess Queen

Concepts:
? -|| *    Communist Party of India (Marxist)
||:-|      Iyer
=:-|       Iyengar
~[:-D      graduate student 
b-D        pirate 
<:-9       kid at a birthday party

Commercials:
23         Complan
C  (  |  ) VLCC
~  ===     Viagra
o>-<  zzz  Valium
||  DD     Silicone implant
|}  <}->   Hamdard ka tonic Cinkara

Notices:
:=X        Danger, 440 Volts

Fauna: 
:-8        tiger
}: >       moose
): >       sambar
]: >       elk
>: >       antelope
]: >====== giraffe
:[E]       hippopotamus
>: 0       cow
:o<        walrus
W  o       crocodile
<O         pigeon
cO         duck
=O         platypus
--O        heron
----O"     hoopoe
>O         crow
-O"        rooster


... and I shall keep appending, as and when I think of new ones.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The infamous five

The five Pandavs, as we all know, were split quite well into groups of three and two:
Group 1: Gambler, Obelix and Casanova.
Group 2: Hello Kaun? Pehchan Kaun?

However disparity might be there in the acquired fame of the brethren, one thing remains for sure: as a group they were quite famous, and is possibly the most famous quintet in the history of fiction (way ahead than all of Enid Blyton's creations put together).

The five of them, as we all know, landed up marrying the same woman (their mother had herself landed up with four men, er, Gods, but that's another story, mentioned in details here).

As all virile men land up doing, they managed to churn one son each out of The Woman.

Obvious question: How did they know who belonged to whom? Was there a DNA test?
Not-so-obvious answer: No. The brethren had struck a deal: they took turns with Her Highness, getting to spend time for a year with Her. Since this is meant to be an innocent, informative article, I won't emphasise much on this "getting to spend time" bit here.

But what if the pact was broken?
Simple. If anyone intruded while one of the brothers was getting to spend time with Draupadi, he would be sent to exile. This was possibly imposed all through their married lives, but was really brought into limelight during their thirteen years spent in exile: twelve in the forests and one in anonymity.

I found it really interesting that none of their other wives accompanied them to the forest. Possibly they preferred their own cosy comfort zones to getting to spend time. Even Hidimba, who resided in a forest anyway. Possibly the Pandavs had found out that getting to spend time with the other wives was not as interesting.

The list might be worth mentioning here:
Yudhishthir was married to Devika, princess of Kekay. This was from where Kaikeyi of Ramayan fame hailed.
Bhim was married to Hidimba (possibly the first instance of a generally accepted inter-caste marriage) and Balandhara, princess of Kashi. I wouldn't be surprised if Maganlal Meghraj was born in the lineage. Some sources suggest that he was also married to Kali, princess of Madra, Shalya's daughter.
Nakul was married to Karenumati, princess of Chedi (of Shishupal fame) and Jarasandha's daughter (obviously after Bhim had done a disintegration by parts on him), whose name I do not know.
Sahadev was the most intriguing of the lot: he was married to Vijaya, princess of Madra and Jarasandha's granddaughter, whose name I do not know either. Why are these intriguing? Because:
1. The probable king of Madra at that point of time was Shalya, Madri's brother. This would mean that Sahadev married his cousin.
2. Sahadev also married his twin brother's wife's niece.
3. Sahadev's father-in-law was also called Sahadev. Makes me shudder.

The intriguing bit was that Arjun was, well, quite committed to Her Highness when 12+1 took off. On reaching the forest, three unfortunate aspects dawned upon him:
1. Assuming the sequence of getting to spend time was chronological, and that they were married for 5n years at the point of the twin trip, Yudhishthir would get to spend the first year.
2. After Yudhishthir it would take another year. This year would be no normal year, since it would be Bhim's turn.
3. There wasn't a second option available. His Casanova skills would be wasted on fauna and fasting rishikanyas.

Frustrated at this triple prospect, Arjun got desperate and took the first opportunity to step in while Yudhishthir was getting to spend time with The Wife. His wish was granted. He set out on a conquest. He got married thrice in the process:

First came (no pun intended there) Chitrangada of Manipur (why did Arjun walk that long to have his first shot?), who changed her looks to win over our hero. She duly got her share of getting to spend time. As a result she gave birth to Babhruvahan, who later felled his father in a duel.

Next came (see above) Ulupi of Nagbhumi, which was presumably Nagaland (it seems Arjun could wait for the first time, but once he got the taste he forgot what patience used to be like). The getting to spend time saga continued. The valiant Iravan was born a few months later, and fought bravely at Kurukshetra to die a hero's death.

Next came was Subhadra. Arjun was possibly feeling content and a tad guilty by now, but he couldn't refuse Krishna. He abducted, married, got to spend time with and recited the Cracking-The-Chakravyuha-for-Beginners-Part-I to Subhadra.

Do note that Vasudev was Kunti's brother. Getting married to maternal uncles' daughters was apparently in vogue in their generation, and Arjun kept true to the fashion.

By now, Arjun was bored of getting to spend time, and he came back to Draupadi some time during Bhim's year.

***

This article, however, is not about all this. This is about a relatively lesser known quintet: Draupadi's sons. They were called Prativindhya, Sutasom, Shrutakirti, Shatanik and Srutasen, and, in assuming normal pregnancies (which were a rarity in the epic), took five years to be born (remember the annual getting to spend time bit?).

Fact 1: Abhimanyu was conceived in the first year of the Pandav's exile. Even if we delay this as much as possible, he was born, say, nine months into the second year. So, when the exile ended for the Pandav's, Abhimanyu was at least eleven years and three months old (which was when he got married to Uttara).
Fact 2: Abhimanyu was killed at the age of 16. Even if this meant sixteen years eleven months, The War happened at most (16 yr 11 mon - 11 yr 3 mon) five years eight months after the exile was over.
Fact 3: Draupadi's sons took part in The War and were killed by Ashwatthama in that fateful night when the head count came down to eleven (from eighteen akshauhinis to start with).
Fact 4: There is no reference to Draupadi's pregnancies or childbirths during the thirteen-year-long exile.

All these facts point to one thing: the sons were, in fact, elder to all of Arjun's sons, and were conceived and born before they went into exile.

Assuming that, and the fact that Abhimanyu's son Parikshit succeeded Yudhishthir to the throne, it can be assumed that none of the half-brothers had a son. Even if we assume that Abhimanyu would get priority over Madri's twins, it can be safely assumed that Prativindhya and Sutasom didn't have sons. Exactly why Babhruvahan was not considered still eludes me, but there must be some reason or the other. Probably they wanted to please Krishna.

So, we basically see, that though Draupadi was the main queen (everyone preferred leaving their own existing wives to spend their allotted quota of 20% to get to spend time with her), her sons never got the glamour they deserved.

Abhimanyu died a hero's death in the Chakravyuha.
Ghatotkach did his bit, and played out Karna's quota of overs.
Babhruvahan felled Arjun.
Even Iravan turned out to be a thorn in the Kaurava flesh, and it required the rakshas Alambush to slay him.

But the five remain almost unmentioned (though they survived the war before they were slayed in Ashwatthama in their sleep). They are as anonymous in their births as in their deaths. When Uttara's hand was available, Arjun recommended Abhimanyu, not Ghatokatch (the eldest, possibly because of his genes), Prativindhya (the eldest of the fully humans) or Shrutakirti (his eldest son). After all, Krishna had to be pleased.

It was apparently a very common practice in those polygammous days to be rejected by the father and to be brought up by the mother. Most Pandava offsprings faced this fate. These kids were deprived of both parents, despite them being alive and having quite illustrious careers (yes, I know we need to add Nakul and Sahadev's glamour quotient and multiply the sum by forty-two to come close to the others, but still). Poor kids.

***

Happy Children's Day, people.

***

PS: I tried to insert a family tree involving Madri and her sons and their partners. I think it would require a four-dimensional Visio. Can anyone help?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Going nuts

He's coming, guys.

He's a busy man. So he had to scrap Amritsar from his fixture. The opposition has cited different reasons, but we're ignoring that.

We'd expected him to visit Barrackpore for obvious reasons. He isn't going to do that either.

The security in Mumbai has been increased millionfolds. They aren't even allowing fire-crackers on Diwali. Well, acceptable when the President of the country hit by 9/11 visits the city of 26/11.

Now, this.

Coconuts. Up above the world so high. They gave us coconut oil. Which gave us a brand called Shalimar. Which was named after a movie. Which had this song. Which went to become an object of national pride.

Being Indians we have been taught to accept a lot of things and still go on with life. Incompetent politicians. Religious riots. Racist murders in the West. Fardeen Khan. Terrorists. Tsunamis.

But coconuts? This is a direct assault on our national prestige and ego. Jhingalala means pride for us - ask Ratan Tata, Aamir Khan and Gul Panag if you don't believe me.

I've seen real blasphemy in life (comparing test cricket and ODIs). I've also seen unreal ones (comparing test cricket and T20Is). Even surreal ones (comparing test cricket and American football). But this is something on an entirely different plane: a naariyal insult. Should we take this sitting down?

I wish I could launch a protest article like this one, but it has already been done.

All that's left for me to do is to go Hurr! Hurr! Hurrrrrrrrrrrr!!!

Do join in.

***

PJ: I have always liked to put my hard-earned degrees after my name - Abhishek Mukherjee, BSc MStat. It took me over three decades to find another one who does - Barack O, BA MA.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The XI: books that have affected me the most

This is something that I have always wanted to write about. Let me just mention here that this is not a list of the best I've ever read: these are the books that have affected me the most over the years.

I had a tough time leaving out several books that I've read and re-read dozens of times, but did not match the impact of this XI. So, no Shakespeare, no Jane Austen, no Agatha Christie, no Grimm Brothers, no Mother Goose, no O Henry, no Maupassant, no Oscar Wilde, no Chekov, no Gogol, no Hemmingway - not even Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne or Asimov. I briefly considered including Enid Blyton, but decided otherwise in the end. Also excluded are Bangla books, which shall appear as a separate entry.

I considered putting them alphabetically, then according to their impact on me, but finally I settled upon the chronological order of them coming to my life.

Also, this is not going to be a book review article. This is supposed to be personal: my take on these books, and an account of how these books helped change my life.

1. When Daddy was a Little Boy, Alexander Raskin
I have no recollection about getting this book. It was probably my parents from a book fair, but it could've been anyone else as well. This was the first book I remember to be obsessed with. I read it from cover to cover in seemingly infinite loops.

The book was a very simple one: it was basically stories of a father, as told to his son (that's my gender bias for you). The unusual bit was that they were narrated in the third person, and every chapter started with "When Daddy was a little boy...". One might argue that it was possibly told by someone else about the father, but the narrations were so vivid that I won't accept the theory.

The stories reached out to this six-year old in a surprisingly uncomplicated way, and yet me think about life. Somehow Moscow of a bygone era metamorphosed into Kolkata of the 1980s, and "daddy" somehow started living next door.

It's out of print (for whatever unfathomable reason) these days, and whatever second-handed versions are available online cost $200-odd. Can anyone send me even a photocopied version? Please? There's a chunk of my childhood captured in that book that I'm desperate to get back.

There was only one story that actually mentioned Daddy's name. I have been dying to ask this question to everyone, but unfortunately no one I know has read the book. The name is Sasha.

2. Mathematics Can be Fun, Yakov Isidorovich Perelman
One of the salient features of the 1980s was the stream of Russian books infiltrating the Kolkata book market. Right from that mouth-watering magazine called Misha to the outrageously discounted computer programming books, you couldn't find a single book-stall that sold English books but didn't sell translated Russian books.

My affinity towards numbers can be broadly classified into two eras: before and after Perelman. Years of formal education and thick volumes of books could not achieve what this single hard-bound off-white book could: it actually got me to think in numbers.

The book turned out to be immensely popular among my classmates as well, and led me to buy Physics Can be Fun as well, which wasn't really half as interesting.

This book taught me about logarithms when I was nine or so. I couldn't understand a single thing and skipped the chapter. A few years later, when I actually read the chapter for the first time, I was amazed how easy and elegant it was compared to Messrs. Das-Mukherjee, Bhanja-Ganguly and S N De.

3. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry
This should possibly have come lower down the order: though I had read this book at a very young age, I never really appreciated its worth till I was, well, 20+.

It's a common occurrence that there are incidents that make people change their mindset for the rest of their lives. Though not an occurrence that common, there are books that make some people do the same. The Little Prince did the same to me.

It taught me which aspects of life are really important and which overhyped ones are not. It told me of life. It told me to love deserts. It also told me why I should take it seriously if my daughter ever draws a hat. It was this book that made me laugh and cry simultaneously at possibly the thirtieth back-to-back reading in a self-inflicted confinement in a hostel room in Delhi. Wipe tears. Laugh out loud. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat...

All these years I was under the impression that I shall never come across another Exupéry book. I did, finally, and very recently. During a recent nocturnal DVD viewing of Shukno Lonka at a friend's I saw Sabyasachi Chakraborty at a book-stall, ogling a Ritwik Ghatak book. The book that lay next to it was indeed an Exupéry book (possibly Flight to Arras, though I'm not sure). Obviously I made them rewind to the scene and pause. Yes, I am insane.

4. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles John Huffam Dickens
I clearly remember that this was our, well, rapid-reader in Class VII. The abridged version had a yellow spine. I immediately went to Apex in Lake Market and borrowed the original version, and read it some 30-40 times in quick succession. If asked to list books that formed my adolescence, this one would definitely top the charts.

What made the book incredible is the unbelievable assortment of character and their multiple dimensions. All that, amidst the vivid description of The French Revolution and the two cities that have captured my imagination the most, took the book to the top of my favourites' list. Even at that age (when books I liked and books I was supposed to like were two mutually exclusive segments) Dickens simply catapulted me to Bastille. I mean, it took a special effort to make the sequence of events circa 1789 interesting to a 12-year old in 1989.

My (and everyone else's in my classroom) favourite character from the book was, of course, Sydney Carton. Oh, how we quoted his lines in class! I vividly remember that his most famous quote in the abridged version was "I'm ready to give my life for a life you love". I remember quoting "O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father's face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!" from the original version and becoming an instant hero in my class!

5. The Asterix series, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
I know this is cheating, since a series hardly qualifies as a book. But then, this is my list, and I shall do whatever I feel like.

My first bite at Asterix was possibly at an age of 11 or so. I was bored. I mean, the pictures looked clumsier than Tintin, the contents weren't as mushy as Archie, and the jokes were too obscure for me to comprehend. I shall never forgive the person (come on, coward, speak up if you're reading this - consider yourself lucky that I have no recollection of you) who had asked me to read Asterix at that age; the incident developed an Asterixphobia in me for a period of seven or so years.

I was stuck in a library amidst one of those torrid Nor'westers. There was an elderly copy of Asterix and the Soothsayer (later to be one of my least favourites of the series). I read it. Once. Thought about it for a while. Asked the librarian about the first book of the series. Cancelled the book I was supposed to take back. Returned home with an equally battered copy of Asterix the Gaul. My life changed from that point of time.

It took me three libraries (two of them in two hostels in two different cities) and a few borrows to finish them off. Once I had a job, it took me a few years to spend serious hard cash on the entire series. It was entirely worth it.

What does Asterix mean to me? Let me put it this way: if I'm ever down, seriously (and when I say seriously I usually mean it) down, I simply pick up my copy of Asterix in Britain or Asterix the Legionary (those two are my personal favourites, along with Cleopatra, The Goths and Switzerland). True, it does take a few minutes, but Goscinny has always been the perfect healer. Always.

There's another aspect of being an Asterix fan: on the nth re-read (where n is often a very large natural number) you come across a gem that you had missed out on the previous (n-1) occasions. When the thing actually hits you, it's quite possible for you to exceed all known bounds of ecstasy, and would make you call, email, scrap, message or whatever earthly way there is to all Asterix fans around you. If there isn't any, it might make you do the same to anyone around you, even someone who might ask "you mean asterisk, correct?"


This is a perfect example: it took me about 34 reads to get this.

6. Kiss Kiss, Roald Dahl
This was during my graduation years. I went to a friend's, and she was not at home (remember, this was the pre-cellphone era). She had asked me to wait. I looked around and found a battered copy of Kiss Kiss. The first story was called The Visitor.

As the story reached its climax I had (possibly) stood up in anticipation. Oh, how desperately I wanted my friend to return late! The story ended. And left me gaping for more. I got mad: Why, oh why did he not explain everything? Why did he have to leave me with my tongue out, gasping for more, desperate to know exactly what happened, dying from a kind of suffocation that the story ended at that point of time?

And that wasn't all, either. I couldn't sleep that night. Visions of the story kept coming back. I had borrowed the book, of course. And as I kept on reading Georgy Porgy, Pig or the others I woke up in cold sweats at the middle of the night. I needed a word to describe these stories, but my limited vocabulary didn't permit me. It took me a purchase of Collected Short Stories of the author. The word was mentioned on the back cover: MACABRE.

A few years back Sanjay Gupta directed Matrimony, the first story of Dus Kahaniyaan. This was lifted straight from Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat, and Dahl was not acknowledged anywhere. This made me so mad that I couldn't bring myself to like the other nine stories as well.

7. Father Brown cases, Gilbert Keith Chesterton
When I was in Class VII or VIII we had to do a small project on detectives. Nothing much, just filling up a scrapbook (for the uninitiated, this was a rather large book with thick pages of multiple colours where you were supposed to glue stuff) with texts and pictures. I remember Anandamela timing it brilliantly by launching an issue with world detective stories as the cover story, and all of us surprised the teacher by submitting scrapbooks with more or less identical images.

Anyway, this was when I was introduced to some people I had never heard of before: Sherlock Holmes was fine, but who exactly were August Dupont, Dr J E Thorndyke, Perry Mason and Father Brown? I did meticulously copy the names to my scrapbook, but my bibliophile curiosity remained unsatisfied.

Then, in a library in the Delhi hostel, I spotted a Father Brown Stories Collection. I did grab it, skipped evening coffee at Tanku's with friends and got started on it.

The first story was called The Blue Cross. The climax, well, HITS you on your face. That obvious? And yet, that inconspicuous? I mean, what kind of a story is this? This was unlike anything that I used to know as a detective story! This was too absurdly good to be true!!

That was the only time that I had ever carried a book to dinner in a hostel. And stayed up till four or five, ignoring the newly found goldmine called Yahoo! Chat.

He has remained a constant re-read of mine over the years. Till date whenever I hear the word detective I do not think of a man with a pipe or a violin or a Belgian with a non-trivial moustache. It's always the priest with a round face.

Barring trivial exceptions, there are two factors that make Chesterton the greatest writer of thrillers ever:
1. Father Brown was by far an unremarkable, unnoticeable character. He was a priest, to start with; but a priest who was rational enough to think on the lines of "You attacked reason. It's bad theology." He was never a standout the way Holmes or Poirot was. He could easily be the person whom you have laughed at today morning because a storm inverted his umbrella. Just an ordinary person with rational, intuitive skills.
2. The simplicity of the solutions despite the bizarreness of the stories. There was never a Moriarty. There was hardly an assault on the man himself. The storylines were almost always singular (well, at least for the best stories), and yet, when the man explained things himself, it didn't seem as far-fetched as most of Miss Marple's or Holmes' solutions.

Still haven't read Father Brown? Read his first story here or here (just in case you think I'm asking you to do something illegal, Chesterton's copyright has expired fourteen years back). I'd be surprised if you aren't hooked.

8. The Harry Potter series, Joanne K Rowling
The Graffiti, in those days, used to publish the list of the ten most sold English books every week. There used to be all four Harry Potter books on the list, week after week (and one of them was had a word that looked vaguely like Azerbaijan).

Who was Harry Potter? I tried checking the books at Emami Landmark. They were too expensive for comfort, and too thick to be finished undisturbed while standing in the bookstore. Bloody overhyped foreign books, I thought.

When I visited this country in 2001, the nine-year old daughter of a colleague of mine coaxed me into reading Book One. She insisted that it was fun, despite being about magic, witches and wizardry.

Let me give it a try. What the hell, I was doing nothing worth a mention, given that I didn't have a laptop those days. So I started on it after dinner. And went to bed at about three. After finishing it. And didn't return it the next day, since I had a read it again. I saved $80 on that trip, and spent a quarter of that next day on the first four books. The jetlag helped, and it took me less than a week to finish them.

Now that I own all seven (the last three pre-ordered from Fabmall/Indiaplaza), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages and Tales of Beedle the Bard, I think I should also mention here here that I used to be a daily visitor to Mugglenet, The Harry Potter Lexicon and JKRowling.com from 2002 through 2009 - in quest of rumours or news about the upcoming book - or to research the character name etymologies (why Remus? why Lupin? why Sirius? who was Hermione? what does Dumbledore mean? who was Fawkes? what is Erised?) or some equally important stuff (what does all that Latin mean? what was the text on the Mirror of Erised stand for?). I got sorted online into houses (mostly Ravenclaw) and read gigabytes worth of fanfiction text.

I also came out with flying colours in all the online quizzes. You see, it's not for nothing that I have read all books of the series at least five times each. Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, well, possibly ten times each. Thanks for everything, JKR. Thanks for giving me back the vigour of my college days.

There are numerous curious observations from the series. The best two, though, come from my least favourite of them: Order of the Phoenix (I found both on the internet). "They climbed a flight of stairs and entered the "Creature-Induced Injuries" corridor, where the second door on the right bore the words 'DANGEROUS' DAI LLEWELLYN WARD: SERIOUS BITES."


Try to visualise the signboard, now. It possibly looked something like this:
Now take the first towrd of each line: if you think it's Creature Dangerous Dai Serious, read again; and again; and again. If you get the giveaway hint, don't yell.

And then, when they started the battle at the ministry, the prophecies were smashed. From one emerged two figures, and this is what happened:
'… at the solstice will come a new …' said the figure of an old, bearded man.
'… and none will come after…' said the figure of a young woman.



The fans got curious as soon as JKR announced the release date of Deathly Hallows. Yes, she admitted later on that she had indeed predicted the release of Book Seven on Summer Solstice.

9. The Ultimate Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Noel Adams
It was navy blue in colour. The cover page said FIVE NOVELS IN ONE OUTRAGEOUS VOLUME. There was a picture of a creature with a green blob for its head; its tongue sticking out; a briefcase dangling from one hand; the other balancing a hat on its head.

WTF, I thought, and started. The About the Author took off with "He was tall. Very tall."

WTF, I thought again. The story started with a one-page introduction that ended in narrating vividly about what a girl in Rickmansworth thought one day. And the page ended with a line that said "This is not her story.

Huh?

I decided to leave for work after five (smallish) chapters. I couldn't. The first sentence of the sixth chapter caught my eye. It said "Howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl gargle gargle howl gargle gargle gargle howl slurrp uuuurgh should have a good time."

Three hours later I realised that I was late for work for the first time. And I wasn't even a permanent employee then. And I reached after lunch, and made up a story which no one possibly believed.

It was English like I've never read before. It defied all the norms of literature, countered classical writing in all possible ways and took into permanent custody life, the universe and everything that I had. When quizzed about who my favourite author is (yes, I know what I'm saying) I don't wait for a single moment.

My life changed from that day. Yes, there are two distinct categories of people, and you know how to classify them. I thought in terms of 42. I read all Dirk Gently stories - all 2.5 of them. And The Deeper Meaning of Liff. And The Salmon of Doubt. And even Last Chance to See, a book no one I know has read.


In case you're still not aware, Last Chance to See has the following line:
"We were walking through the only known anagram of my name - which is Sago Mud Salad."


Find me another author who can come up with this in a non-fiction book.

10. 10 for 66 and All That, Arthur Alfred Mailey
There had to be one cricket book in the list, correct? I thought very hard over this. Would it be the Sunny Days, memoirs of the man I considered God a quarter of a century back? Would it be A Farewell to Cricket? It would take someone more above my intellect to fall in love with Beyond a Boundary, and (I know this might be considered blasphemy) I don't rate Cardus as highly as some people do.

I remember reading a Bangla translation of this online at a very young age. Little did I know that this was an excerpt from an autobiography. Then I came across the original text. Yes, it was a re-read. And yes, I still had a lump in my throat as I read it, especially the dove bit. At that point of time I knew I had to own it, or at least, read it.

I went out on a wild search. This was one of the rare occasions when College Street had failed me. Why, no one had even heard of the book! I searched online, and could find second-handed versions on British and Australian websites.

What good was that supposed to be?

I have seldom craved for any single thing so strongly. The fact that Guha listed the book among his fifty top books in The Picador Book of Cricket simply added to my agony.

What the hell, there MUST BE a way to get that freaking book!

Then I got to know that the only person I knew from UK was supposed to come home. My heart did a JLH (3) H (2), and I promptly asked him for a favour. Or rather, the favour.

One of the limited aspects life has somehow managed to teach me successfully is the fact that when you finally get something after a lot of craving and anticipation, it often turns out to be an anticlimax. Well, this turned out to be an exception.

A great sportsperson doesn't necessarily make a great author. You can't really blame them - I mean, they're already excellent at something, mastering another profession might be asking too much of them!

Mailey was special. Not only was he one of the all-time greats, he was also incredibly lucid on his desk. And by that I do not simply mean the text - let's not forget he used to be a champion cartoonist as well. The entire book is one to be treasured, and there is no doubt whatsoever that it's the crown jewel in my cricket library of over a hundred books.

His first encounter with Trumper. The evening when he had BOTH Trumper and The Don at his place for dinner (see, I'm getting goosebumps as I write this). His twelve or so professions. Not many people can laugh at himself while recounting a spell of 64-0-362-4. Mailey did.

There was once a pub argument between Cardus and Mailey (just think of the names!). The former claimed that he could read Mailey's googly. A tennis ball was conjured, and the group moved to Picadilly Circus. Mailey bowled with his dinner jacket on; it was tossed up, the ball looped, Cardus moved to his right, the ball pitched and went towards Leicester Square.

I was at London last year. When I came out of the Tube Station at Picadilly Circus everything else eluded my eye, even that Sanyo billboard. I simply asked a passer-by which way Leicester Square was.

Yet another of those moments, guys. Life suddenly became worth living once again.

11. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
This isn't even Rand's best book in my opinion. The Fountainhead is, and even We The Living is at least at par (I haven't read Anthem yet). But Atlas Shrugged was the first Ayn Rand I ever read, and remains the most special of them all.

Like most people I had borne thoughts and ideals from a very young age. The catch was, they were what would generally be drubbed as parts of a selfish, or at least a self-centered philosophy. At times I felt so isolated that I had a seriously low self-esteem as far as priorities were concerned.

Then came Ms Rand.

I learnt that whatever I had been thinking of all those years actually had a name. It was termed objectivism. Quoting from the book, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Why did the world keep you from me all these years, woman? Where were you hiding? And even you did, why did you let Dagny Taggart remain a stranger to me? Did I ever fall more in love with a character from a book? Shall I? Ever? I doubt.

With this book Rand put the much-needed self-belief back into me. I know now that I wasn't wrong. The others were, or maybe they were right as well. But with Ms Rand and her objectivist clan behind me, who cares a damn? Or rather, who is John Galt?


I was so enthralled by the book that I put up "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" as my Facebook (or was it Orkut?) status. One of my friends pointed out that it was possibly because I was heterosexual, and I wouldn't really replace man by woman in the same sentence. I was dumbstruck at this new angle.

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PS: The following would remain in the squad, but would not get a chance. All of them remain fabulous books, some possibly better than a few on the list, but then, they haven't altered my life to that extent:
To Kill a Mocking-Bird, Nelle Harper Lee
The Jungle Book, Joseph Rudyard Kipling
Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Gabriel Verne
The Tintin Series, Georges Prosper Remi a k a Hergé
The Foundation Series, Isaac Asimov

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PS 2: Coming up soon - a similar list of Bangla books, as promised above.

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