Talking in the train

September 30, 2012

It has become almost inevitable that I meet somebody interesting on the train….and almost always, they avail of the senior citizen concession. Not that they never existed before; but I probably never looked or I was travelling in AC coaches.

Two weeks ago, on the way to Madurai, it was an affable old lady, going alone to see her ailing sister. Frequently distracted by a voluble, returning-from-Abudhabi woman, boldly travelling alone to Tirunelveli with a toddler and tonnes of luggage, she told me, her mom-in-law had a principle of not marrying off her sons to anybody from Tirunelveli or Salem (they were roguish – ராங்கிகள் ). Teachers were also ineligible. They never live with their in-laws. She was neither. She said she wasn’t biased and gets along well with her daughter-in-law working in a software firm. Except that she retires to her lonely room at 4pm and stays there chanting and sleeping. For being being a stoic listener, she shared with me a few of the famed Manapparai murukkus and gave me a ride in her hired auto to my destination.

Yesterday, it was an elderly gentleman, sitting opposite to us, next to the window, which had the fire exit. The conversation started in Tamil when he said all windows should be made fire-exits. Then, I heard him speak in a very familiar-but-unfamiliar tongue to his wife. I asked him, which language it was. Sanskrit. He is on a mission to make everybody speak Sanskrit. His 50 odd students can all speak fluently in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, hardly 5% are vedas and other religious material; 95% is knowledge. It has everything from metallurgy to nuclear physics. With dedicated effort, you can master Sanskrit in 1.5 years since it runs in our blood.

He said, the village that just passed by, has a rare Sanskrit name(Virinchipuram…Google threw this up for Virinchi and Tamil lexicon has this from Kamban’s Ramayana : வேதங்கண்ணிய பொருளெல்லாம் விரிஞ்சனே யீந்தான்). The villagers wouldn’t know the significance, ofcourse. Even nowadays, all baby names are in Sanskrit. He had chosen a beautiful Sanskrit name for his daughter, from Lalitha Sahasranamam.

I couldn’t suppress my reply, with my hand caressing our daughter’s head: We have kept a pure Tamil name for her. Mahirl Malar.

There was a nice breeze blowing through the window. The vast stretches of greenery, outside the window, were lovely. He decided to notice their loveliness and started watching them give way to a long range of mountains.

He turned inside when Mahirl offered him a cake. Then, when we talked, it was about the bus route to Perur, where he had to go to.

YM Joghee – A Master

December 29, 2011

2002. My sister’s wedding date got finalized. I went with her to invite teachers from our school (Mani Higher Secondary School). It was a moment of pride to know that our teachers – those who had still not retired, could remember both of us. We already knew that the one teacher, who I desperately wanted to invite,  had retired 13 years before.  I had not met him for over 5 years. I was hoping that someone would be able to tell us about his whereabouts. We did find out.

He was dead, a few months before.

How could he? He had always told us that he would live till 90. He would’ve been only 71 then.

YM Joghee. What a man he was, for those of us who cared to know him. The celebrations around Srinivasa Ramanujan’s 125th birth anniversary have brought back memories of him. I am reminded of the small poster of Ramanujan that Joghee master had gifted to me and which is still stuck onto the inner drawers of our steel bureau at my parent’s place.

I can’t think of Math and gifts, without thinking of Joghee master. He had a unique approach to teaching Maths. Something akin to Ramanujan’s. He never bothered about the text-book steps to arrive at a solution. He always encouraged us to find shorter ways of finding a solution. He exposed us to Vedic Mathematics, when it was not yet a fad. We were all made into mini-Shakuntalas, doing complex square-roots and multiplications within our minds in a few seconds.

But he didn’t stop at Maths, though he was only our Maths teacher. He taught English to those of us, who were interested. He sharpened our grammar. Any errors that you may notice in my writing now, would be those I have learnt later on. He introduced us to English literature. While, it was my father who ignited the passion for Tamil literature, it was with Joghee master that I took baby steps into the classics of English literature.

I couldn’t get enough of Joghee master at school. I started visiting him at his single room in a small lodge on a busy market road. He was 56 when he first starting teaching me Maths for my 6th Standard class. He was never married. He didn’t want marriage to interfere with his passion for teaching. That also explained why he was always having lunch at Hotel Vani Vilas, near our school.

For the three years that he taught me (till he retired – in any case, he was officially eligible to teach only till 8th Standard), almost all Sunday mornings were spent with him at his hotel room.  He used to talk to me about books that he read and give me math puzzles to solve. It was always a friendly chat. I felt that he treated me like his equal. He rarely taught me during those Sunday meetings.  I always returned home with a gift, usually, a book  with a distinct YM Joghee signature and seal on the first page. The gifts accumulated and grew into a library. Charles Dickens, Walter Scott, RL Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Conan Doyle are all authors introduced to me by him.  Those were three glorious years, when Pip and Ivan Hoe were my heroes; when I was traveling around the world in a day, travelled to the center of the earth and under the seas.  I even had the Complete Works of Shakespeare, which I finished reading in my early teens over a single summer vacation. (Now, I think, I did it too early and missed the nuances, and must revisit all those wonderful works of Shakespeare).

After a while, I had company for visiting Joghee master – my sister.  Along with books, we now started getting ice-creams too.  Arun ice-creams! What a luxury, they were at that time, for us.

Our school had an excellent library. Most of the English classics  there too, had the YM Joghee seal and signature.

After I moved to 9th Standard, I had a tough time adapting to the style of the new Maths teacher. Competent though, he was the exact opposite of Joghee master. He was a stickler to the text book and expected us to list down all the steps. No more shouting out the answer in a jiffy.  My appetite for Maths went on a slow decline, after that. I am still reasonably good with numbers, thanks to the strong foundation, but am not, relatively, as sharp as I was, for my age then.

I still continued to meet Joghee master. He moved to a distant place (10kms!) , close to a railway track.  The number of trips started dwindling –  partly due to the distance, partly due to other weekend commitments (I had become a busy inter-school debater!) and partly because I started feeling that I was outgrowing my favourite teacher. I was now grown up enough to develop my own literary tastes, and discover authors on my own. But I always knew, I was standing on his shoulders.

For college, I moved to Chennai. The visits to Joghee master gradually came to a stop. Then I lost track of him. And then, I realized we had lost him.

I did a Google search, before writing this blog. I couldn’t find any entry on YM Joghee. If this is the first entry about him on the internet, I am happy that I am doing it. But he deserves better.

A trip to Coimbatore

October 25, 2010

Cross-Posting some updates from my Facebook, done during my weekend trip to Coimbatore:


There is an old world charm in getting off a train at Coimbatore, saying a sweet no to the drivers’ polite ‘saar auto?’, waiting alone for a bus, next to an open drain, gazing at the colorful sky-at-dawn and boarding a bus playing an old Raja song. The Blackberry, at the tip of my thumb, seems so anachronistic.


Took Mahirl out, yesterday, on her first bus ride around my old city, hoping to see it brand new through her curious eyes. Shortly, after watching a lovely peacock stroll by and a few white storks fly along, she dozed off. Then the city too wore a sleepy look. Only the broad, elevated, pedestrian path, laced with brown… and yellow slabs, looked new. A car vroomed past the bus, on the pedestrian walkway.


The art of eliciting quality comments

September 26, 2008

There are blogs and blogs everywhere but hardly any commendable comments on blogs. I am amazed at how people give vent to their animal instincts while commenting, mostly anonymously ( is a classic case in point – for condemnable comments). This is the same instinct that makes people skip signals, when they know they will not be caught.

However, those sites that do have the uncanny knack of, not only attracting serious readers, but, eliciting insightful comments, are a pleasure to read. Freakonomics blog is one such rare example. Most often, the original postings are quite ordinary, and would have gone unnoticed elsewhere, but the comments make the posting interactive and extremely interesting.

Here is an example:

My Intro to Psych prof used a good example of correlation vs. causation.

He said that a study indeed found a strong positive correlation between a person’s alcohol consumption and their donations to their local church/place of worship.

“How do you explain this?”, he asked. “Does it mean that religious people drink more? Does it mean that alcoholics try to alleviate their guilt through giving?” No. This would be assuming that one thing causes the other.

In fact, he said, both actions could be caused by a third thing. Perhaps people with higher household incomes have more money to buy alcohol and to donate as well.

— Posted by Greg

The Hindi factor

April 9, 2008

There used to be a perception in the eighties and early nineties as to how the anti-Hindi movement in Tamilnadu had spoiled the prospective growth of young Tamils. This was largely based on the assumption that ‘growth’ meant getting a government job; success meant becoming an IAS officer, all of which demanded knowledge of Hindi. Those were the monopoly days of Akashavani and Doordarshan, when even decent entertainment(if you could call it so) was denied if you don’t know Hindi. Little did we realise then that Hindi will lose its relevance so abruptly and so completely.

Today, the much maligned and ridiculed Madarasis (South Indians in general and Tamils in particular) have made real significant progress in many fields with Software industry leading the way. Though parts of North India, have kept pace, South has largely steamed ahead. The reasons are clear:

  1. We did not waste time learning one more language (Hindi). Instead we could focus on Maths and Science.
  2. We became fairly proficient in English, which has helped us in our global aspirations and business dealings. What if we could not sell our Tiruppur made hosieries in North India; we could sell them overseas. Our IT programers could speak and code in English.
  3. Because of lack of opportunities in India, many Tamils migrated abroad and some indirect benefits have been ploughed back to India
  4. A strong network of colleges cropped up to cater to a large population who did not want to move to other parts of India; this has helped build a strong pipeline of engineers and other graduates, feeding the IT and BPO industries now.
  5. Strong entertainment, media and literature came up in Tamil, to counter the dependence on the dominant Hindi counterparts. We learnt to make movies with superior technology; music blending the international and local flavours; writers like Sujatha wrote in popular media about computers, much before any other region in India even heard about those. Scientists like Abdul Kalam were revered. A generation grew up knowing possibilites of science, computers, graphics, satellites et al.

Thanks to all of these and more, Hindi has quietly slipped out of the collective conscience and memory of Tamils. Sun network has wiped off Doordarshan and AIR, and Hindi along with it. Now Tamils learn Hindi, purely on a need-basis, whenever required, like any other language, and not out of compulsion.

Anti-Hindi movement, which was termed as anti-India at that time, has on the contrary, in spite of its political exploitation, helped preserve the Indian identity, by ensuring that the Tamil identity is not challenged. Being a Tamil or Kannadiga or Maratha is the core identity; being an Indian is a derived identity. As long as the core identity is retained, the derived identity is safe. While, a Bangalore and Mumbai call for expulsion of Tamils or Biharis from their soil, Chennai is now not confronted with regional hatred unless seriously provoked. Bangalore has failed to preserve its Kannada identity and therefore feels threatened. Mumbai has lost its Maratha identity and therefore feels threatened. Chennai has a thriving Tamil identity and therefore its Indianness remains intact.

In search of satisfaction

January 21, 2008

Satisfaction has become the most elusive commodity for most people employed in high-paid white collar jobs. Companies have been spending millions of dollars on initiatives focused on retaining its employees or improving employee satisfaction scores, all to no avail.

What is the core of the issue? Is it because employees are underpaid? No, technology, sales and finance jobs were never more rewarding than now. Is it because employees are not given responsibilities? No, people take on massive responsibilities very early in their careers. Is it because there are overworked? Absolutely no, people are addicted to work and are willing to work non-stop when the need arises. On the contrary, most dissatisfaction stems up when they are underworked. Are bad bosses driving people crazy? No, many people are dissatisfied in spite of excellent rapport with their bosses.

Why then, these endless waves of exasperation? Why then, all this blogging and online community networking, while at work? Why then, the continuous monitoring of the clock, which seems to be ever so slow?

What is it that the modern day educated smart workers want? Did not our parents do the same monotonous jobs for ages without complaining (even if they did complain, without ever thinking of quiting at all)? My mother has been a cashier for 35 years and if she had earned a percent of what she has counted in all her life, I would never have had to work. Can’t we still see so many other people, not privileged to be so educated, toiling in their jobs without ever bothering to complain – like the traffic policeman, lift operator, cab driver, bus conductor and all others involved in hard physical labour? What makes our young educated generation so special that we are perpetualy dissatisfied?

If you were looking for well researched answers at the end of all my questions, I dont have any. If I believe in fate, I would have simply concluded that this generation of educated youth is doomed to be dissatisfied. I dont believe and I can only speculate about the answers.

One glaring aspect in modern corporate culture, is the complete lack of emotional attachment with the company. Companies which have managed to instill a sense of purpose, pride and emotional bonding have succeeded in creating a conducive environment for people to enjoy their work. Once I visited Taj Lake Palace at Udaipur and everyone there, from the receptionist to the sweeper, was wishing me and greeting me, with a broad natural smile, even when no supervisor was in sight.

Very few have managed to do this and most companies do not even attempt to create an emotionally charged workplace. They try to appease their employees by offering more money, better infrastructure, overseas trips and friendly policies without ever touching that emotional chord. I believe that this emotional vacuum is what sucks employees into the endless cycle of discontent. They quit and move to another place which offers them even more money, still better infrastructure or posts them abroad. The result is the same. The same vicious waves of dissatisfaction.

The next challenge to the capitalist society is not going to come from the proleteriat-bourgeoisie class divide (it is difficult to tell the difference between the two now) but from the inherent, seemingly purposeless discontent simmering among the educated youth.

Thank you,Mr. Tata, but where do I park my car

January 11, 2008

Mr.Pachori and Ms.Sunita Narain can scream on top of their voices about environmental pollution and global warming. I, the common man of India, don’t give a fig. I need a respectable means of transport and I am glad you thought about it, Mr.Tata. I thank you profusely for it.

I am tired of driving my scooter behind a stinking garbage truck blowing black CO2 on my face. I am tired and scared of driving with my kids and wife on a single bike in this unbelievable traffic. As you have rightly pointed out, it might rain anytime and I may not find a place to take shelter.

I am tired of hanging on the footboards of overcrowded buses and gasping for my breath in the hostile crowds of the local trains. And worse, I never know, when my pocket will be picked.

I am tired of haggling with the auto drivers over every extra penny that they demand or fleece through faulty meters.  

I will listen to the likes of Pachori when I see merit in what they say. I will gladly purchase a CFL lamp instead of a bulb, not just because it is environment friendly, but because it is a better product. It is brighter and cheaper in the long run. It makes sound economic sense. 

I am not going to listen to Mr.Pachori on this issue. When the whole world has been driving a car for years, I have rarely even got into a taxi. A car has been the collective dream of our family right from the time of my grandparents. When I am offered an opportunity to buy a car, I dont want to be denied the chance to realise my dream, with talks on global warming and environmental pollution. Where were all these arguments when Henry Ford made those gas guzzling black cars available to the then common man in America? 

I am all for your car Mr. Tata.  By my standards, it is still an expensive indulgence, but not entirely out of my reach. I will somehow manage to pool in my savings and take a loan and buy your car. I will somehow manage the extra outflow for fuel. Maybe I will use public transport more often and take out my car only when I really need it or go out with my family, to compensate for the additional expense (this must be music to Mr.Pachori’s ears). 

But Mr.Tata, I have only one apprehension. I stay deep down in a narrow gully – my bike just about squeezes through. Where do I park my car? 

The end of religion and of God

December 27, 2007

We have enough religions and we have had enough of religions. Doomsayers, since Nostradamus times, have been predicting the end of man. Let me, for a change, predict the end of God.

After all, what will God do without men to pray, without men to sin, without men to punish, without men to create religions and perform rituals. Without man, God cannot exist. She (let me balance my male-chauvenist repeated-usage of the word ‘man’ by attributing femininity to ‘God’ – no, it is not meant as an insult to femininity or to God; it is quite common in most non-Judaic traditions) will be bored to death fixing the fate of monkeys and mangroves.

It is disgusting to see religion cause disruption to every form of decent civilised life. Global  anti-Islam campaign masquerading as anti-terror campaign, Gujarat bloodshed given complete legitimacy by repeated electoral victories, anti-Sikh riots still remaining unresolved, Taslima Nasreen and MF Hussain on the run for offending left-wing and right-wing politicians – oh, the list is endless. Why all this tragi-comic tussle over something that doesnt exist. If God was there and if She was as sensible as religions make us believe, would She have scripted such horrendous bloodbaths in her name. Creating a Hitler and Modi and Osama and Bush would not have been my idea of fun. A sensible God could not have presided over such foolishness for centuries.  Existence of an insensible God is difficult to rationalise, even for the hardcore irrational believers.

For the rational mind, the solution for this conundrum is simple – there can be no God, sensible or insensible. The truth is simple but hard to believe and impossible to prove. The castle of lies built over millenia is so impregnable and has been unconquered. The very lie that the rational mind wants to annihilate, consumes and obsesses the mind so much that there is no escape from it for believers and non-believers both. The rational mind is also fickle – in times of adversity or death, when the fear of unknown overcomes it, it takes the escapist route and surrenders in the castle of lies. The known lie is easier to digest than the unknown truth.

Education has no correlation to with rationality. There are doctors and scientists who not only believe in God, but also submit themselves to religion, rituals and riots. Increased levels of literacy and education, as we know it, do not guarantee the end of superstition and religion. But still, I hope, with a certain sense of irrational strength of belief, that there will be a day when man will run out of patience for religion, religion will run out of its utility for mankind and Gods will cease to exist. That day, a new humanity will bloom and man will advance to the next stage of evolution.

Confessions of an atheist

November 6, 2007

An atheist confessed to me, whenever he was in a depressing situation, he wished he was not an atheist. How easy is life for the spiritually inclined…all you need to do is to leave everything to God and trust he will take care of them. But having admitted the truth to oneself – that there cant be any God, it is difficult to disbelieve that truth and leave it all to God. The atheist has to arduosly harbour the burden of his own difficulties. He knows he has to sort it out himself. There will be no divine intervention.

Oh – if only God exists! You can always believe that you will get what you deserve. You just have to be good. As if being good at heart is the end-state (why not). And trust me, it is not difficult to be good. It is much easier than what an atheist believes he needs to be to succeed (in material terms) – hard working, smart, intelligent,…,there is an endless list.

In good times, the atheist doesnt know how long it will last and he knows he has to be constantly striving hard to make it last longer. In bad times, the atheist doesnt know where to turn to. He has to continue to trust himself and his abilities to wriggle out of the bad times. The joy of good times is lost in the effort to sustain it and prolong it. The agony of bad times is compounded by the inability to turn away from it. Paradise lost can be regained. But belief lost is lost forever.

There is a certain serenity in believing in serendipidity and the atheist is forever deprived of it. No wonder man made Gods. And religions to keep the myth alive.