What does that bring to mind?

“Sorry for being late, I headed over as soon as I finished my ice cream. Sooo. What’s up?”

“Oh you know, same ol’ same ol’. Except for the lying on a hospital bed part.”

“Right, right. Sooo, what are you calling it?”

“It?”

“Sorry, him. The baby.”

“Her. I haven’t thought that far yet.”

“What else were you doing the past few months?”

“Coby! It’s not like I expected her to pop out 20 weeks early.”

“Sure. Anyway, you’re in luck. I thought up a few options on my way over.”

“Are they boy names? Because a moment ago you thought she was a…”

“Listen. She popped out of you prematurely. Unexpectedly. What does that bring to mind?”

“Nothin–”

“A volcano. Exactly. Now what does that bring to mind?”

“Your mind? Or a normal one?”

“Magma. What a name!”

“Magma.”

“Little Magma! Bless her heart. You likey?”

“Bring out the birth certificate!”

“I knew it!”

“You want me to name my baby after a thing that incinerates whatever gets in its way?”

“I –”

“You know what that brings to my mind? Child protective services! To whom I’ll have to explain why I let a narcissistic, piece of scum brother, who wouldn’t deign to get to my bedside until he was done slurping his ice cream, name my little girl!”

Pause. “So, more of a boy’s name you think?”

Ajith vs Vijay, and other Data Stories

“Ah, the internet. A fantastic creation, wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s fine.”

“What?”

“Ya. Not bad.”

“No, think about this: all of the world’s information, finally cross-indexed and gathered together at your service! All you need to do is ask the right questions. This is no Alexandria, no fire can bring this library down. Ours is the first generation the future will never have unanswered questions about!”

“Dei –”

“Even Harry Potter’s life would have been easier had the internet been around. Remember all the times those wizards’ heads appeared in a fireplace instead of Skype! Do you understand what that means?”

“Dei –“

“The internet is better than magic! I’ll let that sink in for a moment.”

“Yes, yes. That and all OK.”

“It’s not magnificent? It doesn’t blow your mind away the more you think about it?”

“Dei. Don’t put too much hype. Tell one thing, can your internet answer my question?”

“Ha! Ask me anything.”

“Who is better: Thala or Vijay?”

And so we come to the big divide of our era, a watered down incarnation of Shiva vs Vishnu, of MGR’ah Sivaji’ah, of ‘Saar, Bisleri or Kinley?’ (yes, more ‘watered’ down than even that last one). But unlike the neutral observers of the past, we can take a stab at a moderately adequate answer.

Thanks to the internet.

Google Trends is the tool of my choice. It’s a service that compares Google’s search volumes to derive all kinds of meaningful insights about society (and a handful of meaningless ones as well. Like this one).

The Fine Print: Google Trends results are subject to sizing risks. Please read the offer document carefully before investing. Search volume indicates interest in a subject; it doesn’t tell if you if the interest is good or bad. For a textbook example of how search volume and sentiment can diverge, see how Vijay Mallya fares in 2016. Results below are for the state of Tamil Nadu, and are trailing 4 weeks (to smoothen out the noise).

So place your bets on the table, take a deep breath, and behold the collective wisdom of the internet.

Pasted Graphic(Source)

Ahem. This would be a good moment to insert a meme featuring one of those actors showing his teeth at the other, but as someone who tries to avoid both of them, I can’t think of one. Oh wait, that’s what the internet’s for.

Moving along. We don’t have to feel beholden to the comparisons thrust upon us by rabid fanboys. Let’s add the Father of all stars to the list, and watch in glee as Ajith and Vijay disappear into the ether.

Pasted Graphic 2

Wait, what? That can’t be right. Let’s look at that again.

Pasted Graphic 1

I don’t believe it. Turns out the twerps that use the internet are <redacted because this is a family blog>. The only times Superstar’s beaten these two pretenders are around the times Sivaji and Enthiran came out. Since 2011, even film releases haven’t helped sustain a rise over Ajith. Sob.

And now, in case you weren’t depressed enough, let’s add one last Actor to round it out.

Pasted Graphic 4Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Is this what the world has come to? Has the new order decimated the old, the glorious stars of the past now but a shadowy memory?

No.

Pasted Graphic 6(Source)

Look at Raja go! Except for the time ARR took the Oscars, Ilayaraja’s never fallen far behind. Talk about a heavyweight legacy that’s standing the test of time!

Also, did you notice Anirudh’s remarkable rise from mid-2014? The man appears all set to enter the pantheon of Tamil music’s enduring stars; all he’s missing right now is a title. I tried adding other recent finds in the Tamil music scene, including Santhosh Narayanan, Ghibran, Imman, and Sean Roldan to the chart, but they were barely visible on this scale. Talent is one thing; star material is another.

So we’ve looked at actors and music directors. What else can Google Trends reveal?

Pasted Graphic 8

(Source)

Ah yes, the beast that was I can’t be beaten when it comes to buzz. Baahubali came awfully close. Even more impressive is its staying power: people’s interest in SS Rajamouli’s historical epic didn’t jump off a cliff after release. Half a year later, it’s the most looked up film from this list; apparently, a film for the ages. On the flip side, take a look at Papanasam, by most accounts Kamal’s best film in a while. In a world where box office returns are as closely guarded as the Coca Cola secret formula, I wonder if Google Trends data can help insert some democracy.

Speaking of democracy:

Pasted Graphic 10

(Source)

Now there’s a chart you need a magnifying glass for! Just as chaotic as TN politics itself. Let’s take it piece by piece.

The spikes in search volume every 5 years are election times. Clearly, the internet was a bigger deal in 2011 than in 2006.

The other big takeaway: despite internal fracas and corruption scandals seared into public memory, Karunanidhi’s DMK is far from having lost its allure. Even in the 2011 elections, where it was decimated (and dealt one of its worst losses since becoming a political force, even failing to become the principal opposition party in the Assembly), it outperformed Vijayakanth’s DMDK on Google.

Of course, this data can only go so far: in a first-past-the-post electoral system with a fractured electorate, elections are won and lost on the vagaries of coalition politics and not the popular vote; for the record, the DMK’s alliance received almost 40% of votes cast in 2011. And while you could reasonably argue the recent buzz is driven by negative public sentiment, it at least means people are thinking about the DMK. In the world of politics, anything’s better than deafening silence. And it looks like all the wall posters in the world aren’t getting people to look for the PMK or MDMK online.

But maybe that’s because they’re all busy looking up Vijay and Ajith.

The Astrologer’s Assistant – 1

I’m not going to begin with the usual “OMG I haven’t blogged in forever I’m going to start blogging everyday from now mother promise!” preface. Every month would do.

Phew. And with that out of the way – here’s the beginning of a short story I’m currently working on for my fiction writing class.

“That’s my seat.”

I looked up from my copy of Stardust (mostly embarrassed that someone had caught me with a copy of Stardust, but that was the least cringeworthy publication the newspaper stand nearby carried). A wizened old man with a bristly, unapologetic beard shaped much like the Indian peninsula was staring down at me. Air conditioning had done nothing to stop his perspiration.

“Could you remove your bag from my seat please?”

At least he was polite. I looked around at the rest of the compartment; a perfectly normal collection of pilgrims aboard the best coach the Indian Railways was willing to offer for the Chennai-Tirupati Express. Nothing extraordinary here – except for the sheer number of unoccupied seats separating these individuals.

“The compartment is pretty empty,” I ventured, hoping the man would take a hint.

“But this is my seat.”

I accepted defeat and dutifully transferred the burden of my backpack from his seat to the overhead rack the Indian Railways commendably provided for this purpose.

The man sat down next to me, and promptly expanded his sphere of influence to the solitary elbow rest that separated our seats (shame on you, Indian Railways!). I distracted myself with the Stardust cover story, a piece of particularly fine journalism: a popular new actress recognized emerging from an abortion clinic claimed she was only visiting her childhood friend, a nurse; however, the enterprising journalist had an inside source who claimed that she’d been a little too friendly with an actor whose name rhymed with…

“She’s lying, you know,” interrupted the old man.

Submerged Tales

I went rafting recently, and did something remarkably stupid valiant: lulled by the innocently serene water between two rapids and encouraged by those around me, I jumped in and let go of the raft. As I slowly floated away – vesting my life in a bloated jacket slung around my neck – I started to gently propel my legs to control my orientation. Nothing happened. I propelled harder. Nothing happened. I used my hands to thrust the water in different directions. Na-huh, nothing. And then I did something a little more useful than all of these things put together: I laughed. For what good does panicking do to anyone?

Nope, I still can’t swim.

I realized (or, as the seven-year-old-kid-in-Saturday-morning-swimming-class version of me would put it, remembered) that I am as hopeless in water as a fish is outside it. It took about 5 minutes for my fellow rafters to come to the same conclusion, discerning that trying to teach me to swim from the raft was about as appropriate as reading out HTML code in a wedding toast. I’d strayed about a mile away from them (distances might appear a little warped when you’re in the water); and their rescue mission, while not mounted on a History Channel scale, probably made sure I wasn’t history.

That was the last time I was in water. The time before that was about two years ago, on a memorable trip down to MGM amusement park near Chennai.

Standing atop a delightfully lofty water slide, I observed my friend make a clumsy descent ahead of me, his arms bouncing off the side walls of the narrow chute. In a flash of inspiration, I asked the lifeguard beside me what the correct posture was. “Keep your hands behind your neck and your elbows jutted out in front of you,” said the cunning man, “like this.”

Unfortunately, keeping my hands ‘like this’ meant that I had to have the stability to balance a stationary unicycle perched atop a beach ball. During a hurricane. Needless to say, I bumbled my way down the slide, hit the water at a precarious angle, and fulfilled my 6 cups of water a day stipulation before the lifeguard stopped laughing for long enough to pull me out. Trying to salvage my pride, I thanked the man in a dignified tone, turned around and looked up at the sky, from where a couple of amateurs had begun their smooth descent into the calm waters, their hands positioned nothing ‘like this.’

Assured that all was well with the world despite the presence of lifeguards with a disturbingly morbid sense of humor, I took a step backwards. My foot missed the step, my hands lurched desperately for support, and together my friend and I descended into the waters. That was the last time I was in a swimming pool. 

Write Like West Wing 1

My newest hobby: writing down West Wing-style dialogues during a boring class. My notebook page was overflowing with these scrawls beside some actual note-taking, so I decided to preserve them for posterity. You don’t need to know the show’s actual characters, but if you do, imagine them traversing the corridors with more important things on their mind while engaging in these ditties.

I started off with a simple:
“It’s gonna be tedious, Josh.”
“Yes it is. But if tedium were a problem, you wouldn’t work for the government, would you Donna?”
“I don’t work for the government, I work for you.”
“Good, I’ll expect it on my desk by 5 then.”

…and moved on to a slightly more complex:
Donna: “I’m going to a Yanni concert.”
“What are you, 50?!”
“Josh! That man is legendary -”
“For being bad, yes. Anyway, have fun with your grandmother.”
“I’m not going with my grandmother.”
“You have friends over 50?”
“You know why I can’t go with my grandmother? She died 10 years ago.”
Pause. “This is the part where I buy flowers to make it up to you, right?”
“Carnations.”

…and then the big one:
(Josh is walking to the vending machine, with Donna following)
“Josh, you wanna hear a moving story?”
“You know me, I’m always in the mood for a good tearjerker, Donna.”
“That’s what wakes me up in the mornings, the thought of narrating a touching tale to you.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what wakes me up in the middle of the night.”
“What?”
“Go on.”
“There was this homeless man who camped outside my apartment.”
“This isn’t a tale of love, is it?”
“And one day, I went up and offered him a dollar. And he said, ‘Missy, I will gladly exchange the dollar for a hug from you.’” (she’s choking up)
“So you hugged him?”
“Yes.”
“Was this today?”
“Yes.”
“Please tell me you took a shower.”
“Joshua, you have a cold heart.”
“I’m sure yours is nice and warm under all those layers of dirt. Listen, did you get your dollar back?”

I tried moving away from Josh-Donna the next day, but it was a lot harder that time around. But that’s for another post.

Hamsadhwani

I wrote this during Finals week, but post-production delays (i.e, lack of time to edit) have pushed it back to a pre-Christmas release

My family has often been regaled with my comically poor raga-identification skills. This came about as a result of my unfortunate tendency to pronounce the name of Hamsadhwani on any unknown raga confronting me. Habitually. I wouldn’t be surprised if my internal raga-meter had once assigned the name of Hamsadhwani to a heavy-weight like Bhairavi. In the early days when I first honed this identification scheme, figuring out ragas meant spending quality time paying close attention to music – time that I would have much rather consumed watching Sharjah highlights on TENSports or playing Fifa 05.

Times change; my attitude towards music certainly has. Now I feel that identifying ragas is a very impressive thing, not too dissimilar from swallowing fire or driving in Chennai. That sort of thing. Unfortunately, the people who are good at it don’t seem to realize just how complex and tricky this skill is.

Just like a simple amalgamation of limbs and internal organs doesn’t result in a complete human, a raga isn’t just a straightforward extrapolation of a musical scale. You hone the ability to recognize it by listening to lots of music. The expert is intimately familiar with a raga; it’s like they are married to it, understand its movements, know its every trait and characteristic. The raga connoisseur doesn’t break a song down into individual notes and then match these with a bound copy of the “Table of Ragas” inside their head. The more elegant, natural, Music Academy-approved way of identifying a raga is by connecting it with a song that sounds similar, perhaps one made uncomfortably familiar by the reach of pop music. The next time you’re listening to L Subramaniam’s Keeravani, for instance, see if you can tell that a large chunk of Manmatha Raasa is in the same raga.

My difficult relationship with ragas seems to stem from a fear of intimacy. I am on a first-name basis with only a few and even then, I can only see their bare outlines. They’re like shy figures in the distance, shrouded by a misty fog. Until today.

Soon after the sun had started its downward plunge, my iPod was shuffling Carnatic music while I was slogging away at Geology. I’d never shuffled Carnatic before, and that in itself was a pretty interesting experience. After some time, my iPod decided it would present to me a Lalgudi Jayaraman piece. As is customary, the legendary violinist played a short exploration of a raga before beginning the song. My concentration was tied up with Cricinfo (I have a very short attention-span when it comes to Geology), but I remember briefly reflecting on what sprightly raga it could be. As the alapana concluded and the virtuoso’s bow dawdled over the final, extended shadjam, I started humming Vinayaka. Following which the veteran started playing Raghunayaka! (For those who are worse than me at this sort of thing, both songs are in Hamsadhwani.)

Identifying a raga correctly always puts a smile on my face. Even when it is as simple as Hamsadhwani. Of course, my raga identification skills are a lot better now than in my Fifa 05 days (let it be known that I don’t mix up Hamsadhwani and Bhairavi). Perhaps I have finally graduated to a stage where I can listen to something and just understand, just feel what raga it is. Or maybe it’s because I’ve moved onto Fifa 11.

I can’t help but wonder – would I have come up with as elegant an identification if I’d actually paid close attention to what was being played? My sub-conscious might just be much better at this.

Kanchivaram

Today, I saw Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram.

I’m not usually very good at expressing my thoughts and feelings about a great movie. They are often too deep and yet too fleeting to write down and seat in permanence. But I have to say this.

I will not forget this one.

One of the most moving, beautiful, elegant films I have seen. The pure, beautiful spoken Tamil of the independence era (surukkuppai for wallet), the meticulous attention to every little detail, the innocent but complex emotions of the characters, the tale of a man so close and yet so far from what constitutes his ambitions and his very life (silk) … ah! Priyadarshan, the Malayalam film director who made his name with dud Hindi films, I am your fan. This was also Prakash Raj’s finest performance since Iruvar.

This was something worth remembering.

PS. You can officially watch it here. This is a serious movie.

The Musical Sheikh

The royal family was delighted when the Queen gave birth to her fifteenth son. The Persian royalty were not averse to girl children, but they had to preserve the family name. Now there was no chance of it passing into oblivion.

 

The old Sheikh (who will remain unnamed for political reasons) looked proudly at his baby, which didn’t care to return his gaze. “Fifteen should do it,” he thought to himself happily. “He’ll never be King, but it’s always good to have standbys. Just in case.” He was so sure that this son would never be called upon to serve his country that he decided to be innovative with the child’s name. “I shall call him Vell,” he decided.

 

The young sheikh had a happy childhood, growing up being bullied and kicked around by his fourteen elder brothers and one younger sister. By the time he was twenty, only seven of them had died in inter-family disputes and civil wars. Clearly, his father had been overcautious.

 

The kingdom was not destined to be his. He would not be allowed to strike fear into the hearts of his subjects, imprison his uncles and cousins or sleep with a knife under the pillow to deal with potential assassinators. But the young sheikh craved such things. With politics being a closed door, he knew that the shortest routes to an exciting career lay in acting or music.

 

He figured that he had a natural affinity for acting, judging by the excellent reception his portrayal of an old tree had received back in the third grade (in truth, the audience was too scared of the royal family to boo). Moving to Lahore, he tried to get the film world to accept him as a new star. But his royal name did not go too far in this country – the producers at Lollywood Lol’ed at the sight of him. But Vell would not accept failure.

 

With the world of cinema failing to perceive his obvious talent, he took to music. After playing around with some Arabic pop, classic rock and club music, he decided that his talents lay in pure gangsta rap. Once his creative juices ran amok and revealed enough songs to put together an album, he placed all of his energy into landing a concert performance contract. The (by now not-so-young) Sheikh was not a crazy idealist – as a relative unknown, he knew that his only chance lay in opening for another relatively unknown band.

 

His relatively unknown agent tried hard to find the least relatively unknown band that would agree. Finally, a rock band called United State of Electronica, or USE, heard his music and were convinced enough that they were better than him to sign him on as an opener.

 

The Sheikh thought about his father, mother, and siblings and laughed quietly. Soon, he would be a famous man, eclipsing everything they had ever expected of him. Back home, royalty-obsessed local newspapers ran large headlines about the upcoming concert:

 

“Sheikh Vell Before USE”

 

Yes, I wrote this whole story just so that I could throw that last sentence in there. Sorry.

An Indian Music Player

I manage my music on an Apple product called iTunes. I’m not particularly fond of the application, but it makes it easy to sync to my iPod. In the world of music software, iTunes is the best compromise. And by definition, a compromise lacks the inner quality that would make it a truly definitive, all encompassing, ZOMG-this-is-what-I-dreamed-of music manager.

To borrow from the IT man’s jargon, iTunes is definitely not feature-rich (who am I kidding, that’s not IT jargon). Some of the features it does include are about as useful as trying to paint a sinking boat; it just might come in useful, but it’s not worth the hassle. Think about the green + sign on the left corner of the app – it doesn’t maximize the screen but launches the ridiculous ‘mini’ player, which manages to take away even more functionality. Or the iTunes store which, at the click of an accidental mouse press, eats up my bandwidth and turns the Pause button into a Stop.

It seems that Apple wants to make a music player that is as anodyne as possible in order maximize its market appeal. When was the last time such an approach resulted in a Great Product? Compromise is the last thing a truly Great Product has in mind. Look at Bugatti, for instance. They didn’t give two square inches of carbon fiber about what Joe the Plumber was driving when they designed the Veyron. And they made the greatest car in the world. Tata didn’t have time for people who care about superficial and unnecessary modern luxuries like leg room, air conditioning and a ride that minimizes permanent damage to the spinal cord – hence was born the Nano. The best small car in the world.

Similarly, what I want is a music player with some character and gusto, something unabashedly calling out to me, damn everyone else’s musical interests. Unfortunately, it seems that only someone like Sonia Gandhi will have access to such sycophantic tools.

Those who have considerable collections of Indian music – film or classical – will agree with me on this, I’m sure. So, Apple, here are some things you can and should do for us folks me:

  • If I have an album of Indian classical music, I don’t want the track name containing everything from the song title to the raga and thalam. Give me tags for both. Right now, I make do with entering the raga under the mysteriously named Grouping tag.
  • Lyrics. I don’t usually pay attention to them but, when I do, I like to know who the poet is.
  • Auto-correct A.R.Rehman to AR Rahman. And Illaiiyaraajaa to Ilayaraja.
  • Auto-recognize these important genres of music: ‘Rajni Intro Song,’ ‘Deva Copy’ and ‘Vaseegara wannabe’
  • Delimit the artist tag. “AR Rahman, Shreya Ghoshal” is not one artist, but two. This would also help keep my last.fm account from going crazy
  • Crash if someone attempts to add a Himesh Reshamaiyya song
  • Insufferable fanboys We Tamil folk love giving our celebrities special titles. We therefore demand a special ‘title’ tag for the singers/composer. This way, we get to idolize and pay respect to demigods like UlagaNayagan Kamal, Isai Puyal Rahman, Maestro Ilayaraja, or even a Little Super Star Simbu (for those unfortunate enough to have an mp3 of Loosu Penne sitting in their hard drive).

As you are well aware, Apple is a company that listens to consumers and accedes to their requests at lightning speed – think about the commendable rapidity with which they brought copy/paste to the iPhone. Don’t be surprised if the next iTunes meets my demands. Just remember where the ideas came from.