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. 

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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.

What’s in a name?

Scene 1:
For the longest time in school, I went by Girish SJ. Obviously, my teachers in Singapore could never pronounce the full forms of my initials: the S (Sreenivas) and the J (Jayaraman) were way too hard for their untrained tongues. That’s not to say they didn’t try (their attempts can be a post in itself), but I tried to keep things simple. Girish SJ was simple.

Scene 2:
Zoom to Chennai, India. Here, students were attuned to placing their initials before, not after their name. I, however, continued with trusty old Girish SJ, despite disapproval from several quarters (and octants). I even had a close friend tell me once that I was disrespecting my father by placing his initial (J) after my name. I could go by J Girish S, but this wasn’t keeping things simple.

Scene 3:
A few years later, when SJ Suryaah hit the height of his fame (or should I say notoriety), it wasn’t too long before some genius discovered that my initials matched those of that thespian. Soon, everyone was calling me SJ Girish and followed it by giggling like blithering idiots. Which they were. Now, Girish SJ had survived a lot in its time, but comparisons with SJ Suryaah (“Are you his brother? Hehehe”) were too much even for its stoic character. I therefore felt obliged to switch to something else – and I turned to Girish Sreenivas J. My pens ran out of ink faster and it took me longer to finish my exams, but I wasn’t complaining.

Scene 4:
After arriving in the US for college, it was made clear that one’s last name could not be an initial. I was no longer Girish Sreenivas – I became Girish Jayaraman. More officially, I became Girish S Jayaraman. Even more officially, I became Girish Sreenivas Jayaraman. All 24 letters of it. After a while, even a new version of your name can grow on you. I now write “Girish Jayaraman” in my notebooks without batting an eyelid; in the past, I wouldn’t have considered such a travesty unless a country’s existence counted on it.

Scene 5:
In the online world, however, why worry about such formalities? When I started a Twitter account, I decided to go for a simple User ID – and what better than the astoundingly creative GirishSJ? Even when I started this blog and wanted a simple url, GirishSJ was the trusty friend I turned to.

Well, things were working out fine until, out of the blue, Twitter decided that it too must have some fun at my expense. A few days ago, for no reason at all, GirishSJ became girishsj on Twitter. Just like that. No request. No warning. No phone calls asking for my approval.

I am sure you appreciate the world of difference between GirishSJ and girishsj. The capital letters add a touch of class and elegance. More importantly, they make it clear that my name isn’t supposed to be pronounced ‘gireeshesju’ (a lot of people in this country have trouble pronouncing it as it is). Trying to control the damage, I went to my Twitter settings and tried to change things to what they used to be. But no – Twitter, known for its tremendous mood swings, didn’t feel like cooperating. The best I could do was Girish_SJ, but underscores are so 1998.

I guess Girish SJ just has to deal with all that life throws at it. If only the world liked simple things.

PS. I’m assuming that you type in GirishSJ.wordpress.com to get to this blog. NOT girishsj.wordpress.com. No.

Ah, School

School supports a level of hypocrisy that cannot go without notice elsewhere in life.

Often, when we deigned to attend the morning assembly, we would listen to our Principal exhorting us to use the language the colonialists had brought to our soil. “Speak in English!” Our teachers, even the ones who pronounced ‘wizard’ as ‘why-zaard’, often took up the same cause.

It was up to us students to stand up and protect our mother tongue, something our politicians had been saying for decades. I’m not sure if it was this linguistic patriotism that brought us all together. But only one thing mattered – we were rebels, and successful ones at that. If a teacher sneaked up to a bunch of students, she’d find us obstinately chattering away in Tamil. Some students went to the extent of failing their English exams (though that might have had something to do with writing “I went to Abroad. It is a very nice place. Weather is very good” on an English essay).

However, we found support from unexpected quarters. If an enterprising student sidled up to a group of teachers having an animated conversation, said enterprising student would find them conversing in the language that Bharathiar claimed to be his favorite.

Why, if an even more enterprising (and courageous) student sneaked into the Principal’s office, he/she would hear her talking in… you don’t need three tries to guess right. No, the answer isn’t the West Germanic language of England.

The people working in my School’s office used Tamil (thank god for that); some of our younger (or more popular) teachers spoke to us students in Tamil outside of class. For obvious reasons, we never took anyone seriously if they asked us to suddenly start speaking to each other in English.

But apparently the Principal was serious; one day, she decided she had had enough. She ordered the incarnates of Shakespeare in the school office to make posters that would inspire us to verbally communicate in English. We walked into School and found signs on all the corridors. Large, ugly, Times New Roman font printed on cheap A4 paper, cello-taped to the walls.

SPEAK ENGLISH
ONLY IN THE CAMPUS

I was impressed by the surprisingly reasonable request – the School seemed to realise that we were never going to abandon our language of choice, and now it was willing to settle for less: ‘only in the campus’. I’m sure some of the younger, chamathu kids took its message quite seriously, and spoke in pure Tamil up until the moment their polished Bata shoes stepped into the School grounds.

Imagine their consternation when the signs were all replaced within a day:

SPEAK ENGLISH ONLY
IN THE CAMPUS

Turns out the patrons of English in the school office had misunderstood the Principal. Ah, I love my high school.

P.S.:
There’s a certain pleasure to be found in others’ foolishness. The human race thrives on it – some make a living out of providing the fodder, while others enjoy the meal. FailBlog is a website that helps deliver the fodder to the recipient. The memories chronicled in the post above were triggered by this.