Wednesday, October 14, 2020

PASHUBALA by K. Shivarama Karanth (Chapter 2)

(before you read this here below, read Chapter 1 here)


— K. Shivarama Karanth  

Chapter 2


Today is a momentous day. The first of March. Everyone stands on the shores of Gateway Island with an air of anticipation and impatience. (Readers, the group considered their secret location a doorway that would lead them to Mercury and so had named it Gateway Island.) This was the date they had all previously agreed upon. Kline and Dennis will have to embark on this historic journey without the outside world having any knowledge of it. But the joy and enthusiasm they had earlier has waned. Even Kline looks downcast. The fact that Loben is not with them is preying on his mind. “Why has Loben not returned even after so many days have passed?” he thinks, worrying for his friend. But even in such circumstances he didn’t want to step back on a decision they’d take. He was stubborn in that way.

“Whatever happens, we need to start today itself” he thinks and in the moment, “But how can we leave before Loben returns?”. Sensing his conflict, Wilson suggests, “Can we not postpone the launch?”. Kline doesn’t agree. Neither does he explain his reasons for saying so. Their new space-plane stands ready. Everyone on the island base is waiting to see it soar away. Daylight fades. The stars slowly start twinkling in the sky. “Come my friend, let us go. What else can we do now but leave”, a crestfallen Kline says to Dennis as he makes his way to the space-plane. A lone tear escapes from his eye. Wiping it off before anyone can notice it, he boarded the space-plane. The designated time of launch is close.

The rest of the people in the group were still wondering among themselves, “Where is Loben? Couldn’t he be here by now at least?”, oblivious to the fact that Kline and Dennis were making their way to the space-place. Suddenly, less than half a mile from where they were standing on the shore, Loben’s submarine surfaced. Overjoyed, everyone started waving at him. Kline noticed this and in that instant the shadow passed from his face.

 “Where is Kline?” asked Loben the instant he set foot on land, running towards his friends. As one, they pointed to the space-plane. Loben immediately set off towards it at a brisk pace, with the others following closely behind. No one knew the reason behind Loben’s impatience. Reaching Kline, Loben took out a letter and placed it in the former’s hand. “Can’t someone else go in your place?” he asked. Silence. “We have to then postpone the launch by four days”, said Loben. Pat came the reply, “That is impossible”. Loben didn’t have the heart to argue with his closest friend. Finally Kline said, “Dear friend, that is a foregone conclusion. It is indeed heart breaking news. But isn’t that what we humans have to experience anyway always?”.

What followed was a conversation on other matters between the two friends. Checking all the instruments on the space-plane, Kline and Dennis prepared themselves for launch. Joy, excitement, fear, impatience were all reflected in their faces as these two brave adventurers hugged each other. Kline switched on the space-plane. What now? In a few moments, they would get on and lift-off towards Mercury. Suddenly, remembering that was one last thing he’d forgotten to give Kline, Loben reached out and stuffed a small object in Kline’s pocket.

Soon, the space-plane disappeared into the sky at an astounding speed. Prof. Du Bois and Loben quickly made their way to the observatory and started looking at the craft through the telescope. The rest of the group stayed back on the shore gazing at the craft and finally started walking back to the base. The space-plane that was just a speck had by now disappeared from sight. It would take Kline and Dennis three to four months to reach Mercury. There was nothing to do now except wait by their instruments until the two landed at their destination and transmitted any news.

Our readers would be curious to know what transpired in the conversation between Kline and Loben, as also about the construction of the space-plane and its functioning. We will attempt to describe this incredible interplanetary vessel to the best extent possible.

But first, the matter of the news that Loben had come carrying. To understand that, all we need to do is listen in on the conversation that followed between the people left behind.

Prof. Du Bois: Old friend, all of us were exhausted just waiting for you. Even allowing for delays and a slow, careful journey, we had expected you here by the twentieth of February. What is the reason behind this inordinate delay?

Loben: I would have been on my way here much before that. But some domestic matters made it impossible for me to leave as scheduled.

Edmund Wilson: Domestic matters? What domestic matters could a bachelor like you have?

Loben: If it was my own personal affair, I would not have bothered too much. But this was a matter with Kline’s family. Every time I went to meet her, his wife would insist on coming here with me. But with no way to bring her here without arousing suspicion, I kept making excuses. This time when I went to their house, I found her bed-ridden and sick.

 Prof. Du Bois: Sick? What illness was she suffering from?

 Loben: Typhoid.

 Wilson: Then she would have been cured by now.

 Loben: Oh yes, extremely cured!

 Wilson: What do you mean by that?

Loben: What can I say, friends? She passed away waiting to get one last glimpse of her husband. I made all the arrangements post her death, finished her funeral and only then could I leave.

Prof. Du Bois: What did you hope to achieve by giving us this news now? If you had informed us earlier, I would have volunteered to go to Mercury in Kline’s place. Poor fellow. It is a very unfair thing we have done, letting him embark on such a journey in a state of grief.

Loben: I spoke to him about this very same thing. I tried to impress upon him that he should not be the one to go. But he brushed aside my objections just as he refused to be swallowed by sadness. Leaving now as planned is the right thing to do he said. Despite his grief, I could see his enthusiasm and thus, I could not but wish him well and let him leave.

Wilson: Truly, such commitment to our project is commendable.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Loben went and opened it to let one of the workers in, who then proceeded to place a small package on the table at which they sat. “Oh what a careless fool I am!” exclaimed Loben as he collapsed into a chair. The blood has drained from his face. Shocked at his reaction, the others made haste to open the package. What did they see inside? The Light-o-Phone that Kline and Dennis were meant to take with them. It had been left behind!

Meanwhile aboard the space-plane, the Light-o-Phone was furthest on Kline’s mind and he would not think about it till he reached the end of their journey. The first thing he had done after lift-off was to inspect the pendant Loben had given him. It was a keepsake that his wife – on her deathbed, having given up all hope of ever seeing her husband again – had sent to Kline to remember her by. Was it an expensive, jewel-encrusted pendant made of a precious metal? Not at all! It was a simple pendant made out of ordinary copper. The only thing that could be considered valuable about it were the two words inscribed on them. This pithy statement was the distillation of his wife’s life experience, what she had learnt through her dealings with people throughout her life. Her final gift to him. 

Turning the pendant around, Kline finally saw the words, “Ignore gold”. Kline did not have an inkling of what she meant by that. But since his wife had sent this message to him it must be important he thought. Keeping the pendant safely back in his pocket, he looked out of the window. What did he see in the space he was travelling in? Trees? People? Dwellings? Nothing. All he saw, in every direction were just the silently twinkling stars. Letting out a sigh, he made his way next to the navigation instruments and sat down.

Now it's time for a few words about this new interplanetary space-plane: The craft was oval in shape. But its extremities were not as curved like an egg but sharper like the ends of a boat. It had four propellers at each end. Currently the four propellers in the front were working, accelerating the space-plane forward. If the propellers at the rear of the craft were switched on instead of the ones in the front, the space-plane would move in reverse. It was impossible to accurately measure the speeds that the space-plane was capable of. When it was in motion, you could only see the propellers. If you saw the space-plane while in flight, it would be impossible to sight by the time you blink again.

What about the two voyagers during their journey of 48 million miles; how would it go? As soon as they boarded the craft, they shut all the windows and concentrated on their journey wasting no time. Once they reached outer space there would be no air to breathe. For this reason, apart from supplies of food, they also carried with them canisters of life-sustaining gas. They would get their supply of oxygen from these to last them for the duration of their onward journey. It was their firm belief that Mercury had a breathable, Earth-like atmosphere.

On to the question of the space-plane’s energy source. This too was the result of Kline and Loben’s extraordinary prowess. If they used petrol as the source of energy for the craft, it would never attain the speeds required to reach Mercury and neither would it be possible for any vessel to carry the large amount of liquid fuel required onboard. This they had known from the outset. That is why the first device they invented and constructed was an engine that could generate electricity in outer space. I has been surmised by some that this device worked on the principles of a repeating rocket, but that would mean the craft would not be capable of a return journey. But such matters are beside the point. Let us return to the matter at hand, which is that this was a self-powered space-plane that could generate as much electricity as it needed through the entire duration of its journey. With no limit on the power it could generate to power itself, it could achieve impossibly fast speeds. Over the course of its journey, the space-plane would reach a region where the gravitational pull on it from Earth would be the same as that of Mercury’s. A little beyond this point in interplanetary space, there was no further need for the front propellers. The reason? Mercury’s gravity would start to pull the space-plane towards itself. But this does comes with its own risk. The closer the craft gets to Mercury, the faster it will accelerate. The higher its speed, the more are its chances of crashing into the planet and getting destroyed completely. This why the space-plane had been equipped with rear propellers which would, once switched on, pull the craft in the opposite direction. By controlling the rotary speed of the rear propellers it was possible to slowly land the craft without any danger to its occupants.

Given that the space-plane was almost completely opaque and that its occupants would need to see and know where they are, it was also equipped with a viewing instrument. Through this, its occupants could look at their surroundings and gauge their current location and thus steer the craft towards Mercury. Across the exterior of the space-plane ‘glass-eyes’ had been installed. These are not really eyes made of glass but newly invented instruments that can be said to like telescopes. Whatever was outside the space-plane, these ‘glass-eyes’ would not just reflect but magnify manifold, while at the same time, combining the views from all directions into a single picture so that they could see Mercury clearly.

What else did these voyagers need? A place to sit and sleep in comfort that would not be affected by the vagaries of the space-plane’s acceleration and changes in direction. This problem was solved with the use of delicate instruments and a mariners compass so that they would not be affected in the least by the law of inertia. All these and many such fantastic instruments were being used by the two intrepid voyagers in their first voyage.

Let us return now to the people left behind on Gateway Island. It has been three months since they have been separated from their two friends. They have not been able to spot or locate the space-plane using their telescope. The reason? At the distance it is at, that craft is smaller than a minuscule speck. They have also been unable to know about the progress their friends have made and their current situation. The reason? The two voyagers simply forgot to take the Light-o-Phone along with them. All that the group now awaits is that one signal that their friends have landed on Mercury safely. The signal in question being the light from an immensely powerful electric torch that was stored on the space-plane. Loben, Prof. Du Bois and Wilson had confidence in their friends that when they reach Mercury, the torch would be the first equipment they would use and so had trained their telescopes on spotting the light from the torch – instead of looking for the space-plane – in hopes of catching the signal. One they eagerly awaited. As per their calculations, they should have spotted the signal in the fourth month itself.

It has been five months now. And the people on Gateway Island have yet to see the signal or any signs of it.

As regards Kline and Dennis in the space-plane – in the second month itself, on schedule, they had reached the region where the gravitational pull from Earth was the same as that from Mercury. They had switched off the front propellers of the space-plane as planned. It was now being pulled towards Mercury through its gravity alone. In the third month, once their craft had started to accelerate extremely fast, they switched on the rear propellers to stabilise its speed.

At some point, Kline looked at the shimmering planet fast approaching, checked their speed and relative location as always and said, “Okay then, we shall reach in another two days”.

Dennis: Two more days you say? Why so?

Kline: Yes. Our rear propellers are counteracting the gravitational pull of Mercury but it seems our speed is still steadily increasing.

What he did not say was that he was now truly worried. To land on Mercury is one thing. But to land alive was another matter altogether; it seemed like a remote possibility now. He calmed himself and tried to think. He switched on the front propellers too but reversed the direction of their rotation. This helped reduce the speed of the space-plane.

They were now a few miles from the surface of Mercury. But where do they land? A little further away, Kline saw a region that was blue in colour. Assuming it to be an area of an ocean deep enough, Kline decided that it would be the ideal location to land, if not to float. His guess turned out to be right. It was indeed an ocean. But the clear black objects under its surface indicated rocks, which most likely meant it was not of great depth. If the ocean had been deep enough, the space-plane would’ve sunk to its depths and then slowly risen back up to float on its surface. But unfortunately our space-plane, having crashed into this water, disappeared beneath the surface never to be seen again!


Monday, October 05, 2020

PASHUBALA by K. Shivarama Karanth

Kota Shivarama Karanth. Writer, novelist, environmentalist, folklorist, performer, science communicator, essayist, activist, polymath, legend, renaissance man. The third Kannada writer to be awarded the Jnanpith Award (after Kuvempu and Bendre) for his novel, Mookajjiya Kanasugalu. He breathed new life into Yakshagana. To write about him would take many a page, but you get the idea. Do check out the wikipedia page on Karanth. One little-known fact about is that he also wrote science fiction stories. Two among these being ಮಂಗಳ ಗ್ರಹಕ್ಕೆ ಓಟ (Mangala Grahakke Ota; Race to Mars) and ಪಶುಬಲ (Pashubala; 'Brute Force', lit. Animal Strength), a story first published in 1928 in Vasantha magazine. For context, this is a whole decade, ten years before 1938, the year usually attributed to the beginning of the 'Golden age of science fiction'. As things stand, this is the first 'ವೈಜ್ಞಾನಿಕ ಕಥೆ' (Vaigyanika Kathe; the term used for 'science fiction' in Kannada) which makes it the first science fiction story in Kannada. Pashubala then represents not just a landmark in Kannada and Indian literature but also in world SF. A first-contact story, Pashubala tells the story of a group of scientists, inventors and explorers who come together to mount an interplanetary expedition to Mercury in search of aliens, and explores the reactions and ramifications when humans make contact with an alien society. Pashubala is not just an example of the versatility of Karanth as a writer (because this story is clearly by someone who understood the genre and what it was capable of) but also his always-curious mind, his philosophical bent and his scientific temperament. 

Pashubala is currently available in its original Kannada version in two books: In the anthology ನಾಳೆಯ ಕಥೆಗಳು (Naleya Kathegalu) edited by Savitha Srinivas & first published in 2008 by Sahitya Akademi, and in the collection, ರಂಗಪ್ಪನ ಗೊಂಬೆ ಹಾಗೂ ಇತರ ಕಥೆಗಳು (Rangappana Gombe Hagoo Ithara Kathegalu) published by Geethanjali Pustaka Prakashana. To the best of my knowledge, this story has never been translated into English, which is a terrible thing to happen to a landmark story such as this. So, for my own personal enjoyment and while at it, to do my bit so that non-Kannada readers and SF fans everywhere can read this story I started to translate it. Purely for non-commercial reasons and all copyright rests with the owners of it thereof. Now on with the story which i hope i have done justice to with my translation, this being the first non-advertising work I've translated, stumbling a bit upon the prose of that age and Karanth's vocabulary which includes neologisms he came up with to describe/explain things for which there was no Kannada word. I will be putting up the translation of Pashubala as and when i finish each chapter. I hope you stay with me through the story. Everything you love about it is all due to the late great Shivarama Karanth. Any mistakes and whatever you don't like is my doing. Anyways, here goes.


— K. Shivarama Karanth  

Chapter 1


Prof. Du Bois: Friends, our work for today is done. All arrangements needed for our newest invention to work are also finished. Isn’t it high time we set a date for our first expedition? There is no point in delaying it further. Remember, our base may not stay secret from the outside world for longer. All of you must have surely noticed the monoplane that flew above this new home of ours a few days ago. We may have avoided being detected thus far, but in this age of airplanes it may not be possible to keep our base secret for much longer. If its location is revealed and made public before our project reaches fruition, people will surely make their way here. If that does indeed happen, what then is the use of all these years of secrecy?

Dr. Kline: Prof. Du Bois, the location of this island is not known to anyone except those of us working on this project. If as you fear, some people do find out about this base, what can they do? Will they arrive by ship to this island? In anticipation of this very problem I have placed underwater explosives all around the island. Will any ship be able to make its way through them all?

Edmund Wilson: It is true that no one can approach this island through the sea. But what stops them from taking the aerial route?

Dr. Kline: Even if they come in airplanes, perhaps one or two may attempt to land. If that does actually come to be, we will be able to see them landing and to deter them. We have enough arms and ammunition on the island to discourage them don’t we?

Prof. Du Bois: Be that as may, we must not delay our launch any further. It has been six years since we came to live on this island to work on this great adventure of ours. It has taken us this long to get everything ready and make all the arrangements. Even if we launch now, we do not know how many years more it will be before we know the full results of our project. Kline, you are a young man. But my friend, Wilson and I are not. Our hair has already turned white. We are most curious as also impatient to know about the harvest we shall reap from our efforts.

Dr. Kline: If that is the matter, I have no further objections.

John Dennis: What is the date today?

Dr. Kline: January 21.

Dennis: Hmmm…then in the next few days let us run all the final checks on our solar space-plane and examine it thoroughly and set the 1st of February as the date on which we bring our project to fruition and launch our craft.

Dr. Kline: No! That is impossible. We cannot do anything of that sort until Loben returns. If you want, we can launch the very next day after he returns but not before that. Don’t forget that he is making arrangements for a second space-plane. He is also procuring all the parts as per our specifications for the dictation machine, speaker, recorder and other components which we need to wait for to create the Light-o-Phone (ತೇಜೋಭಾಷಕ). Without it, what is the use of going on a voyage? Apart from all this, what if he gets angry that we didn’t wait for him to return before going ahead with the launch? Let us not entertain any thoughts in this direction.

Wilson: So what do you think is a suitable time?

Dr. Kline: As soon as Loben returns. It has been a week since he left. He should have reached Germany by now. It will take him a fortnight to procure everything and make all the arrangements we need. So I think he will be able to return only in the middle of next month. Don’t forget that he cannot leave when he wishes. He needs to leave Germany in our submarine without arousing any suspicion and away from prying eyes. If you consider this delay, I can hazard a guess that he will reach here only by the twentieth of next month. Given this, I suggest the first of March as the launch date. I am sure my English and American friends will not approach the end of their old age by then.

Wilson: Kline, if you want to put it like that, let me tell you that I am confident I will not die before I’m a hundred years old! But let us not dwell on such matters. What is important is that the first voyage has been postponed to the first of March. Dennis, I hope you are in agreement.

Dennis: Wilson, we may be older and grey-haired, but when it comes to subjects in which Kline is an expert, with more experience in such matters, I think it is advisable to listen to him regardless of his age.

Prof. Du Bois: It is settled then. Now about the second matter. Who will be the fortunate travellers in the first voyage of our space-plane? I think it should be one among the four of us. Five if you include Loben. For a voyage as important as this, I don’t think we should consider the workers and complicate matters.

Dr. Kline: That is correct. They are not qualified enough. It is also futile to consider Loben for this task. He is the only one amongst us who can keep the base supplied with all essentials covertly. Wilson and Dennis are very old. That leaves Prof. Du Bois and myself. Furthermore, both of us are willing to take the life-threatening risk.

Prof. Du Bois: This is an excellent suggestion!

Wilson: No! This will surely not do. When people like me are around, who have lived their life, it is not right to put the life of a talented young man like you at risk.

Dennis: There is merit in what Wilson is saying. At the end of the day, only two people get to go. Instead of nominating people, selecting candidates from amongst us and debating them, why not leave it to each one’s luck?

Dr. Kline: Leave it to chance? What you mean by that?

Dennis: What if we draw lots?

Dr. Kline: Looks like our dear friend here hasn’t forgotten his horse-racing and gambling days. But fine, let us do as he suggests and draw lots.

(Once this was decided, each person’s name was written on a separate piece of paper and two such chits drawn).

Wilson: John Dennis and Dr. Kline!

The place broke into a happy uproar. Dr. Kline and Dennis were wholeheartedly cheered. The reason? Fate had chosen them to be the lucky ones to undertake a journey like no other. One was a youngster, the other an old man. Everyone on the island base came and congratulated them. But of the two, it was Dr. Kline who people had faith in and trusted more. He was an extraordinary person. “He will bring glory to the inhabitants of Earth”, they said.

But who is this person who will bring glory to the inhabitants of Earth? Such a question will naturally arise in the minds of the readers. What adventure is he embarking on? What new exploits await him? Surely they are curious to know the answer to these questions.

Dr. Kline and Loben are two young men from Germany. Being of the same age, they were in the same class since childhood and were thick as thieves, the best of friends. After finishing his education, Dr. Kline started a research centre in Berlin city. His friend, Loben also joined him there. From the beginning, they were both driven to make new discoveries and invent things. They did not have any one direction or a particular field in which they wanted to conduct research or a singular point from which to begin their research. All they knew was that they will dedicate their life to science and discovering new things. The bonds of their friendship were strong. Neither Dr. Kline’s extreme wealth not Loben’s lack of money got in the way. Dr. Kline never let his wealth go to his head. He is now nearing thirty years of age. After all these years, there is no fear that he will let his financial position change him. Whatever is mine is Loben’s too and whatever we get belongs to both of us. This was what he believed, making their friendship firmer.

One or two years after establishing the research centre, both Dr. Kline and Loben found themselves curious to know more about the planet Mercury. It was fortunate that Dr. Kline had spent the latter part of his higher education studying astronomy. At the same time, people were also getting interested in Mercury. Some had even decided that a similar earth-like society existed there. One day when they were together, Loben asked Dr. Kline, “What do you think of studying about and researching into Mercury?”

“What do we stand to gain by just doing research? What do we care what Mercury is like? If you are interested in going there, then let me know. Let us go to Mercury together!” replied Dr. Kline in jest.

The joke took root in Loben’s mind and soon became a personal mission. Loben started researching widely and deeply about Mercury; collecting any and all information and experiences about the planet from all the sources he could find. 

One fine day he went to Dr. Kline. “Look at all this. The result of my extensive research. My part of the job is done. The rest is up to you. To come up with a way of getting to Mercury is your responsibility. You know much more about electricity and other things than I do. Why not put it to good use?” said Loben. “I concur”, Dr. Kline replied with a nod. But who would assist him in this project, where would he find such people he wondered. The thought of a secret location far from any human habitation where they could start and finish this project as desired also crossed his mind.

A few months later, there was an international scientific conference held in Germany. Scientists, research students and inventors from across the world were expected to attend this prestigious event. I should make good use of this opportunity thought Kline. And so he did. Among the people who had come to attend the conference were the aforementioned Prof. Du Bois, an aviation expert from Paris city, and Edmund Wilson from the United States of America.

After the conference was over, Kline invited both of them to his research centre. He spoke to them about the project and asked them many questions and once he was convinced that they would be ideal members for the team he decided that he should join hands with them to complete the project. Of the two, Du Bois was not just an expert in aviation systems but also adept in avionics. But like Loben, he was a man of limited means. On the other hand, Wilson – while not a scientist – was the son of the richest man in America. This meeting ended with all of them forming a secret group.

The next matter at hand was about finding a suitable location for their base of operations. In a time of economic and political turmoil, it was not feasible for the base to be set up in any of their own countries, be it Germany, France or America. At this juncture, an Englishman called John Dennis came to their aid. 

Dennis was an explorer. He was also the brother of Wilson’s wife and it was natural that they would be on good terms with one another. As soon as the meeting was over, Wilson contacted Dennis at his residence in Glasgow city and asked him to come to Berlin city. Dennis arrived soon after and it can be stated that the place that they were looking for came about as a result of his explorations. Due to some reasons, Dennis had not disclosed its location to any person or any periodical. A big island in the middle of the ocean which had not yet caught the eye of any country or other explorers. Dennis laid down a condition that he should be made a part of the secret group if he was to disclose the island’s co-ordinates, and so he was accepted into their circle.

It was thus that this group of inventors and adventurers came to be. The conversation that we were privy to at the beginning of this story took place six years after the secret island base was established. Since then, everyone in the group had lived on the island itself, readying for a great new adventure. The story was circulated that they were all deceased – except for Loben – as the result of an airplane crash. Only Loben now lived in Germany, making sure he kept the island base supplied with everything that its inhabitants needed, and then too in secret using a submarine. The only person from the outside world who was aware of this group and the goings-on in the island was Loben.

A few words on what this group achieved in the past six years are in order.

Their greatest accomplishment since they embarked on their project was the construction of a vessel capable of travelling to Mercury, a modern space-plane. It was completely new in all aspects, a model unlike anything that existed. It was an inter-planetary craft that could generate its own electricity in the vacuum of outer space and use that to power itself. It could however only seat two occupants. There was just enough room to accommodate the occupants and a month’s supply of all the things they would need during their journey.

The other object that they created was the Light-o-Phone mentioned earlier. This little device had three main parts: a ‘composer’, a ‘writer’ and a ‘speaker’. The ‘speaker’ component had a powerful light source through which messages could be transmitted. The light from this lamp is capable of travelling up to a million miles across space. However, this light is on a spectrum invisible to the human eye. If you are within a few miles of this transmitted message with another Light-o-Phone in your possession, then the ‘writer’ of your device – which contains a strange new type of mirror – will reflect the message for you to read. No matter how distant, using the Light-o-Phone it is possible to carry out a conversation using light itself, almost instantaneously. Until Loben returns to the island, along with the components required to complete this device, journeying to Mercury is out of the question for a simple reason: If the space travellers do reach Mercury, should there not be a way for them to communicate with the group back on Earth?

What an impossible, astounding adventure this is! But hasn’t the desire for name, fame and glory made people embark on equally impossible voyages?


Thursday, July 14, 2016

From not-a-review of Brahman Naman to a very selectively subjective overview of Bangalore Quizzing

Brahman Naman. Also known as Netflix’s first Indian film.
And fast becoming a Rorschach test that tells you more about the viewer and reviewer than about the film itself.

Do note that some of the words I have used below are harsher than they should be and maybe unfairly extreme. That is intentionally intentional. You are free to take offense, if you think I’m referring to you. I don’t think I am.

The only people who can genuinely claim to truly ‘get’ Brahman Naman are the people who actually quizzed in Bangalore in the 80s. They have their own reasons for doing so. That said, here’s the kind of people who like the film, or will claim to even if they really didn’t:
• Quizzers, mostly Bangalore quizzers
• People who want to be considered quizzers or Bangalalorean because both are cool to be
• Quizmasters who will now mine the film for future questions or fundas, as they’re called
• People who attend quizzes (I won’t insult them by calling them quizzers), especially from other cities and have seen Bangalore’s (serious) quizzers for what they are and Bangalore quizzing for what it’s become
• People like me who are glad we left regular quizzing but still in Bangalore and can still wash it all down with some sense of nostalgia and misplaced loyalty to the sport I once loved (yes, quizzing is a sport!)

So is this film about quizzing? I think not. It’s just a way-in. A convenient Macguffin. Not least because the writer Naman Ramachandran used to be a Bangalore quizzer in the 80s. But there’s no way he could’ve cut to the triviality and futility of it all if he hadn’t quit quizzing (I am assuming that because else as they say, the (quiz) lovers cannot see, the petty follies that they themselves commit.

The film is basically about hormone-driven college boys trying to get laid. But in between doing that they have to do something right? With the starting point that they have to be nerds, not jocks, as all high school movies have shown us. In India, can’t make them a team of master debators. Or chess players. Quizzing fits the bill quite well thank you.

Now coming to the protagonists – the quizzing boys themselves. The closest comparison I can find to the quizzing boys in Brahman Naman are the geeks from Big Bang Theory. While it looks ostensibly like the show is celebrating geek culture, like BN does to trivial pursuits, the reality is that BBT is merely giving the world to laugh at those geeks and their social awkwardness where even a waitress who’s not been to college can get the better of physicists. Same with BN. The world isn’t laughing with these unlikeable quizzers. They are laughing at them. Laughing would be stretching the truth a tad bit too much. Because it isn’t that funny.

Yes, the world is laughing at you quizzers, and not in a good way. And saying you are not even worthy of their pity, leave alone a shred of sympathy. They’re saying you’re sex-starved fuckers, if by sex they also mean ‘no life to speak of’. Yes, Naman would still be a thoroughly unlikeable person even if he didn’t quiz, but it is his quizzing that gives him misplaced sense of superiority and makes him a bigger douche, and a more insufferable arsehole. The problem is not with quizzing, but with the fact that he has made quizzing the cornerstone of his identity. Because that’s the only thing he’s good at perhaps. Some of the nicest people I know who quiz and are good at it would still be nice if they stopped quizzing, because they don’t define themselves by the “quizzer/quizmaster” tag, and most importantly, don’t wave the size of their fundas in other people’s faces at every given opportunity.

Brahman Naman would not be that much enjoyable for anyone who doesn’t get the subtle real-world connections thrown in. That the Calcutta quizmaster is actually De Rack o’Brain's father. Or that a Celsus funda thrown about on a train journey is a tribute to a kind and gentle old military officer. That in the character of Henry, you can see shades of an equally good, if not-so-gentle man. I am sure there are so many more I am missing. But then, I wasn’t in Bangalore then, and definitely didn’t do quiz.

So, if this film is really not about quizzing then who spending so much time on the quizzing aspect of it? Well, you see, quizzers have a way of making everything about themselves. Especially in the closed, and uninviting sub-culture that is Bangalore quizzing. And they have to make everything about themselves because it is their raison d'être. Everything is a funda to them. If a thing cannot be used as a question in a quiz, then it is useless and not worthy of their attention. I used to be there. And professional – read serious – quizzers have a way of making it all about themselves and when not comparing each other’s funda to see whose is bigger, have made the whole quizzing scene unwelcoming.

And like any person who has done quiz, I have to make this about me. I used to do quiz very regularly till a few years ago. And like that virus which doesn’t quite leave your system even though you had chicken pox when you were a kid, the keeda of being a quizzer still hovers around in your system somewhere and you have to go back to get that fix, because the quiz is on a subject you like or you know for the quizmaster is not going to show off but instead ask decent questions and about arcane trivia. The whole scene is unwelcome, but a few good men who still remain make it bearable.

I used to do quiz in the pre-facebook era and before email quizzing groups became commonplace. Before it became “cool”. Before being a geek was ‘cool’. By which time then ‘quizzer’ had become a badge of honour and people were queuing up call themselves quizzers.

I am fortunate, nay blessed, to have quizzed in a time when a kind old man – one of the best, greatest people I have had the pleasure of knowing and spending time with – embodied the spirit of quizzing as a welcome social activity and as a sport played with true spirit of sportsmanship. Not superstars and quizmasters who use quizzes to overcompensate. A great great man, thinking about whom, still brings tears to my eyes. I have sat next to the man as a scorer during one of the last quizzes he quizmaster-ed and have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own eras, in the shaking voice of an old man he kept reading out well-phrased questions from a page he held with in his shaky hands. I am fortunate to have quizzed then, not with today when some questions are either copy-paste tracts of gibberish enough fill a full ppt slide slide (in 8 points, arial) or sometimes show an image with the question being eloquently articulated in two words, ‘Put Funda’.

I am fortunate to have quizzed with – and participated in quizzes by – a man who made quizzing fun, who used his vast store of knowledge to tell us more about the world around us and used questions – that were easily work-out-able to tell us about things worth knowing, and – not as sadistic instruments of torture and as mechanisms to show off intellectual superiority and vastly superior knowledge (read wikipedia surfer) to assuage his insecurities.

I am fortunate enough to have done quiz in a time when a quizmaster would measure the success of his quiz by the number of full points and generous part-points awarded not by the number of questions unanswered. In a time when a quizmaster would be happy to see his question answered and not revel in making a poor newbie feel like an ignoramus. Being a quizmaster was a responsibility to be taken seriously, not a privilege to be abused.

Fortunate enough to have quizzed in a time when the QMs quizmaster’s decision was final and not when they are being browbeaten into awarding points to a particular answers only because a participant thinks so, or even worse bludgeoned into taking back points already awarded because the answer was just not acceptable to a particularly senior participant. Because you see, you have to show off your bigger funda go one-up on the quizmaster himself with a ‘better answer’.

I am fortunate to have quizzed in a time when newbies were most welcome and made welcome by veterans who wore their seniority with grace. In a time when not every quizmaster was expected to have attended every quiz in India in the past two decades lest he commit the cardinal sin of repeating a question that was asked in say, a quiz in Indore in the second week of August 2003. If a QM does commit that sin now, he will be suitably punished with ample scorn and a disparaging remark from the veterans of today with that most loaded of insults, ‘repeat question’ or even worse ‘cheap funda’.

Are all quizzers that bad? Of course not. But most of them I think have left the scene or have just given up like me or maybe I don’t know for sure because I’m not a quizzer anymore or maybe, because it is just hard to spot them amidst all the ‘whose funda is bigger’ brouhaha going on and the one-upmanship so prevalent now, indulged in by people who I presume go home to their refrigerators with one hand holding their laptop as they cycle through their question slides. A good funda – that no one has spotted yet or one that you’ve created – is as orgasm-inducing as a brazzers siterip, you see.

Are there no good people left in quizzing?  Of course there are. There are gentle folk, gentle giants, Bangalore outsiders and people genuinely worth knowing outside of quizzing, trying to keep the spirit of quizzing alive, but all their voices in a quiz are lost in the clamour for that extra half point by the “serious” quizzers who I presume go home to their aquariums with the score sheet in hand.

It hurts. To see quizzing become what it has become now. Unwelcoming. Intimidating. It was always a sub-culture, but at least it was inviting. And I hope it will be sometime in the future. And again may Bangalore be genuinely worthy of the title ‘Quizzing Capital of India’ not because of the quantity of its quizzes, but because of their quality. Not because it has a few of India’s best quizzers, but because it so many of them. Once again, may the points flow generously and may the flow of new people to quizzes increase. May all the good quizmasters once again share their knowledge with us all through good questions, and make us better informed about the world about us.

— End of rant —

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Aamir Khan is NOT a pretentious prick

Aamir Khan has apologized for hurting people’s sentiments with PK. Is that something you would expect a pretentious prick to do? No. Only a cynical person would say that perhaps he finally watched his own film. Completely. Properly. An ever more cynical person would say that now that he’s done earning all the crores, he milking it for some more. Is there no room for non-cynical thought in today’s world? Pretentious prick it seems!

Aamir Khan is a publicity hound they say. But is it really his fault that the media report on what colour underwear he’s wearing today? Fault him for wearing underwear, if you will. But then so do you. Does that make you a pretentious prick? No sir.

Do you know Aamir Khan became vegan today? That means no meat, not even dairy products. He drinks his tea now with soy milk. Do you know what ultimateness level of sacrifice this is? On a level of 1-to-Sonia Gandhi, that’s like a 12. And you dare call Aamir Khan a pretentious prick? I dare you to drink tea with soy milk. I double dare you.

Despite what nature has done to him, Aamir Khan still loves nature. And you? You who call him a pretentious prick, insult a garden lizard. How do you know what the IQ of a garden lizard is? Who’s a pretentious prick now?

And you know what? Aamir Khan – who you call a pretentious prick – watches a documentary about the advantages of becoming vegan and the perils and ill-effects of meat eating etc and internalized it so much he became a vegan. Aamir Khan is much too humble to say this, but I can bet you that if Mr. Perfectionist watches a well-made documentary about polluting power plants and internalized the imperative for renewable energy, he would become an eco-friendly windmill. If he chose to that is.

On a side note, Chethan Bhagat is not the Rakhi Sawant of Indian literature. He is the Charles Dickens of India. You obviously haven’t heard of where the anointment happened. So please stop your hectoring and cloaking your ignorance in what passes for supposedly funny. If you want to be funny, call Rakhi Sawant the Chethan Bhagat of Indian filmdom.

Do you know who invented dyslexia in India? Aamir Khan! With Like Stars on Earth (IMDB rating 8.5).
Do you know what’s the only reason Narmada Bachao Andolan is brought up today? Aamir Khan! He bachao-d the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Do you know Aamir Khan has the same number of English Premier League medals as Steven Gerrard? Of course not! That’s because Aamir Khan is humble. He does not trumpet his achievements. That makes him – and I say this again – humble. Not a pretentious prick as you call him, or rather want him to be.
I could go on, but if you haven’t realized the unfairness and injustice in calling Aamir Khan a pretentious prick by now, you never will.

In fact, you know what? You should be thankful to Aamir Khan. For keeping his halo switched off at all times. Else you would be burnt, like Kamadeva burnt by Shiva’s third eye. Is such thoughtfulness a trait of someone who is supposedly a pretentious prick? Huh? Huh?

So stop it with all the name calling. And being judgmental. You are just jealous that you cannot be like Aamir Khan. You cannot be, no matter how hard you try. Especially if you are above 5’6” in height.

Remember this. Pretentiousness is a state. Of mind. Like poverty. Aamir Khan lives in Maharashtra.

EDIT: in case you've not read the original blog post that said that Aamir Khan is such a pretentious prick:

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kannada remakes can (usually) be deceiving: Not quite a review of Drishya

At first my father was apprehensive about coming to watch Drishya. So was I for that matter. The usual Kannada standards applied, so I’m not surprised. Even when it comes to remakes, Kannada filmmakers have a way of trying to go overboard in ‘Kannada-fying’ films, adding masala and unnecessary frills to suit what they think is ‘local taste’, not to mention cheapass songs and innuendo. And with Drishya having Ravichandran in it, an item number wouldn’t have been out of place, script and character be damned.

But he turned receptive to the idea when I told him that it’s a remake of the Malayalam film, Drishyam. And because he hold them in high regard and is a fan of, he gave in. So off we went, the full family, to watch Drishya, still not without a sprinkling of trepidation of what to expect. But we were most pleasantly surprised. Drishya turned out to be quite a faithful adaptation of Drishyam. In fact, some minor elements were even improved upon. Giving Sadhu Kokila’s character a slightly different spin & background worked as well. And in my opinion, Achyut Kumar’s depiction of the corrupt constable is a shade better than Kalabhavan Shajon’s. Definitely deserves a big pat on the back. Ilayaraja’s music and background score just added that extra touch. Equally nice was Shivaji Prabhu’s portrayal of the IG’s husband. The actress playing the IG by the way, is the same in Kannada as well.

And of course, Ravichandran. Apart from a passing catch-it-if-you-will mention of ‘anjadagandu’ and ‘premaloka’, he seems to have made peace with the reality that he isn’t the crazy star anymore, and instead should be an actor. Not close to Mohanlal of course, but an appreciable and effective effort nonetheless. All in all, a recommended watch. And if you like me, would like to watch Kannada movies with full family but usually don’t find any that that you could take your parents to, this would be it. Tell them it’s a Mohanlal movie, like I did. Usually seals the deal.