Serials and movies

Yesterday I finished reading Gita Krishnankutty’s English translation of MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham. It’s the story of the Mahabharata told from Bhima’s perspective.

This wasn’t the first time that I was reading a translation of this magnificent book. A few years ago, journalist Prem Panicker had created a series on his blog where he would put up translations of bits of this book daily. I remember quite liking that, and a lot of people raving about it.

Prem’s version of the book was far longer than the version that I finished yesterday (Gita Krishnankutty’s version is 380 pages long, which comes to around 70000 words or less. Prem’s is 120,000 words long). It was also far more passionate. Rather than directly translating the novel, Prem took liberties in adding his own inputs.

It’s been over a decade since I read Prem’s version, but from what I remember, the parts of the story where Bhima mourns Ghatotkacha’s death, for example, are far more well sketched out in that version. It is similar with the parts which show Bhima’s frustration with Yudhishthira’s leadership.

Thinking about it, though, one reason why Prem was able to go into such detail was that he presented his book in a serialised format. Every day he would put out the translation of a few pages’ worth of a book, and the translation would come out to be the length of a long form article (the kind of articles that Prem became a specialist in writing during his time at Rediff).

When you’re reading it in book form, in which you read the whole thing together, reading in such detail may not work so well since that might make the book unnecessarily thick, and people might put NED midway. Give the inputs in small doses, however, and people will be happy to consume the greater detail. In that sense, Prem’s and Gita Krishnankutty’s translations are both excellent, and both very well suited for the formats they came out in.

It is a similar story with movies and serials. Movies have a 2-2.5 hour length because that’s how much typically people can consume at a time without putting NED. Serials, on the other hand, because they are consumed bit by bit at a time, can go much longer in aggregate (sometimes unnecessarily long).

Netflix releasing all episodes of a series at the same time, however, is changing this dynamic. Sacred Games apart, I’ve been unable to get through any Netflix fiction series because of their sheer length. Because binge-watching has become a thing (thanks to Netflix putting out an entire season at once), the entire season comes to resemble a movie. So a season with 8 one-hour episodes effectively becomes a 8-hour movie. And unless it’s extremely well made, or has sufficient stuff going on through the 8 hours, it becomes incredibly hard to sit through!

 

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata principles

An army of monkeys can’t win you a complex war like the Mahabharata. For that you need a clever charioteer.

A business development meeting didn’t go well. The potential client indicated his preference for a different kind of organisation to solve his problem. I was about to say “why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can.. ” but I couldn’t think of a clever end to the sentence. So I ended up not saying it.

Later on I was thinking of the line and good ways to end it. The mind went back to Hindu mythology. The Ramayana war was won with an army of monkeys, of course. The Mahabharata war was won with the support of a clever and skilled consultant (Krishna didn’t actually fight the war, did he?). “Why would you go for an army of monkeys to solve this problem when you can hire a studmax charioteer”, I phrased. Still doesn’t have that ring. But it’s a useful concept anyway.

Extending the analogy, the Ramayana was was different from the Mahabharata war. In the former, the enemy was a ten-headed demon who had abducted the hero’s wife. Despite what alternate retellings say, it was all mostly black and white. A simple war made complex with the special prowess of the enemy (ten heads, special weaponry, etc.). The army of monkeys proved decisive, and the war was won.

The Mahabharata war was, on the other hand, much more complex. Even mainstream retellings talk about the “shades of grey” in the war, and both sides had their share of pluses and minuses. The enemy here was a bunch of cousins, who had snatched away the protagonists’ kingdom. Special weaponry existed on both sides. Sheer brute force, however, wouldn’t do. The Mahabharata war couldn’t be won with an army of monkeys. Its complexity meant it needed was skilled strategic guidance, and a bit of cunning, which is what Krishna provided when he was hired by Arjuna ostensibly as a charioteer. Krishna’s entire army (highly trained and skilled, but footsoldiers mostly) fought on opposite side, but couldn’t influence the outcome.

So when the problem at hand is simple, and the only complexity is in size or volume or complexity of the enemy, you will do well to hire an army of monkeys. They’ll work best for you there. But when faced with a complex situation and complexity that goes well beyond the enemy’s prowess, you need a charioteer. So make the choice based on the kind of problem you are facing.

 

Upside and downside of bankruptcy

I sometimes think of my mobile phone going out of charge as being similar to filing bankruptcy – if the phone is at 1% battery, the loss is “linear” – all I need to do is to plug it back in and once it’s charged again it’ll function as it used to. There is no “non-linear” loss.

Phone going from 1% to 0% changes that, though. Now, even if you were to plug in the phone as soon as it has gone to 0%, you cannot switch it on till it gets back to some level of battery (that’s the case with my current and earlier androids. Not sure about other phones). Thus, you have a non-linear extra cost because you let the phone hit 0%.

It is similar to bankruptcy in that once you file for bankruptcy you are suddenly piled on with additional paperwork and costs and even if you were to “get charged up”, there will be additional costs that you will have to bear that you wouldn’t have to had you managed to find a plug (funding) when you were close to blackout (bankruptcy) but not yet there! This is the downside of bankruptcy – it imposes non linear costs.

But then there is an upside also – maybe this is a different kind of bankruptcy, but this is one that has upside. Maybe the bankruptcy that I’m going to talk about now is what is called as “Chapter 11” in the US while what I described earlier is like “Chapter 7” (do you know that US bankruptcy law is inspired by the Mahabharata? In the great Mahabharata war, the two sides had 7 and 11 regiments respectively. And since it was a disastrous war, the numbers 7 and 11 were picked up by the US bankruptcy lawmakers to name their different kinds of bankruptcy).

So there are times when I have a lot of things to do. I would have bitten off more than I could chew. And I find that I have so many things to do that just thinking about all the things I have to do in that limited time mess up my mind and not allow me to do any of them. It is at such points in time that I sometimes “declare bankruptcy” – declare that I’m not going to do any of the things that I’m supposed to do.

Now, the pressure is off. Since I’ve decided I don’t want to do anything, whatever I do after that is a bonus. Now I can take up these tasks one by one and do more than what I would have had I not decided to declare bankruptcy. There is some downside of course – some tasks might remain incomplete, but importantly more gets done than if I’d declared bankruptcy!

This is the good side of bankruptcy!

Bhakti Hinduism versus Sanatana Dharma

Around the turn of the last millennium, the Sanatana Dharma found itself under threat, and not for the first time. The previous threats had been dealt with cleverly and skilfully, with the most masterful stroke having been the co-option of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Jainism had been similarly dealt with and reduced to margins of the subcontinent.

The new threat, however, was of a different kind. Unlike the philosophy-heavy religions of the subcontinent, the Abrahamic religions were much simplified in their message. Having been stripped off concepts such as rebirth and multiple gods, they had a simple message, based on the concept of an Armageddon. They also came with a handy “with us or against us” message, with evangelists of these faiths not hesitating from putting to sword people who refused to obey them.

Not to be outdone by faiths that were significantly more simplistic, religious leaders of the day figured that the only response was to simplify their own religion, and thus was born what has now come to be known as the “Bhakti movement”. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the Bhakti movement as not one movement but a collection of a large number of independent movements all of which were in a similar direction.

So how did the Bhakti saints counter the monotheistic simple Abrahamic religions? They each chose a single God from among the pantheon, and professed worship towards this particular God. Tulasidas chose Rama, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose Krishna and so forth. More importantly, the divine aspect of Gods who were hitherto human avatars (such as Rama and Krishna) was amplified, and the more “human” grey areas of the epics and scriptures were played down. In retelling of the epics from this time onward, Ramayana became a story of the “ideal king” Rama. Mahabharata was cast as the story of Krishna, rather than that of a battle between cousins over property. The Bhagavad Gita part of the Mahabharata, which receives scant importance in the earlier texts (source: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta) got played up.

In the space of a few centuries, as the Bhakti movement (decentralized, still – remember) took shape across different parts of the country, the very nature of the religion underwent a massive change. Gone was the worship of the general pantheon, its place now taken up by worship towards a single God/Goddess. The latter would even be interpreted as a particular idol of a particular God/Goddess, as now the Venkataramana of Tirupati was now supposed to have a lot more “mahime” than the idol of the same deity at say Devagiri in Banashankari, Bangalore. Out went the philosophical underpinnings of a religious education. In came a list of dos and don’ts. Debate was replaced by obeisance towards the guru.

The Bhakti period had been immediately preceded by a period of immense development of Hindu philosophy, by the likes of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya. The importance of that was suddenly lost, as the devotion to a particular God took precedence over understanding of a philosophy. I’m supposed to be a Smartha, and am from a priestly family (my greatgrandfather was a priest). None of my religious education, however (mostly received from grandfather and uncles) consisted of anything of Shankara’s Advaitha philosophy – the foundation of the Smartha sect.

Behind my house in Jayanagar is this hall called Shankara Krupa (set up, incidentally, by my grand-uncle), which plays host to lectures of a religious nature every evening. During the day the hall is let out for other functions, typically of a religious nature, and I’ve hosted and attended several events there. There is a podium on stage, from where the speakers deliver their lectures every evening. And on the podium is a large sign, in bold letters in both English and Kannada. “Please do not disturb the lectures by asking questions or engaging in debate”.

This signboard at a place called “Shankara Krupa” sums up where the Bhakti movement has taken the great Sanatana Dharma.

Poetry

I’ve never really got what the big deal about poetry is. I have friends on facebook and google+ who share bits and pieces of poetry that they like, and shag about it. And most of the time I never get why it’s so hifunda. Yes, I do like some poetry. Like I think Vikram Seth’s The Frog and The Nightingale (which appeared in our 10th standard textbook) is an absolute classic. I can still recite the few stanzas of The Highwayman which I had mugged up for an elocution competition in school. I don’t however, get “modern poetry”, the kind without any rhyme or rhythm. And so, faced with a deluge of such literature, I have been trying to figure out what the big deal about poetry is.

Think about the ancient classics and texts. Think about the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey. All of them written in verse. Think about the hundreds of thousands of Vedic schools spread all across India, some of them functional even today, where students did nothing but just mug up to recite the Vedas. Think about the ancient Indian oral tradition, which has managed to preserve the Vedas and our epics in something close to their original forms even today. Can you imagine mugging up all the words of a modern classic, and remembering it well enough to deliver verbatim to your students? I guess you can’t, and you don’t need to, for we have the luxury of writing, and written records. But what in those days in ancient India, where there was no paper? How have such long and magnificent texts survived our oral tradition across centuries? The answer is poetry.

Poetry is a concept that dates back to the times when there was no writing. It was a means to make it easy for someone to memorize a piece of text. By introducing concepts such as rhyme and rhythm, of allegories and metaphors, the poets would make it easy for the transmitters to remember the poems. I’m told (for I haven’t read them firsthand) that the Vedas also have several built-in checksums, to enable easy rememberance, in case a part of a verse gets lost in memory. By this insight, poetry is basically a means to render text in a format that makes it easy for you to remember stuff. That, truly, is the sheer beauty of poetry. An ancient concept designed to transmit, across generations. A concept that was essentially rendered redundant with the coming of writing, because of which it had to reinvent itself. And I’m not sure how successful that reinvention of the form has been (though given the number of people who claim to love poetry, I must say the reinvention has been rather successful).

Now, think of your school textbooks, any subject. And think about how many lines from the prose you can remember verbatim. Exactly as it was in the text. I would guess the answer would be something close to zero, which is the answer in my case. And now think about the poetry you read back in school, and how much of that you can remember. I would assume the number is rather higher. I may not remember complete poems, but I remember at least stanzas from several of the poems I studied back then. For example, I can recite verbatim several of the dohas written by Kabir and Abdurrahim Khankhana, which were part of our school syllabus as far back as when I was in 7th standard. Now think about it – how is it that I can remember entire lines, written in a language I was hardly comfortable with back then, in a dialect I hardly understood, almost twenty years later? It is down to sheer poetry! The rhymes and rhythms and allegories and puns which all make it so easy to remember!

So what is poetry? It is essentially a form of writing which is easy for the reader to memorize, and remember ages later in order to transmit. So what is good poetry? It is a piece of writing, written in a form that sticks in the reader’s head, which possesses him, to the extent that he remembers the words in their entirety, and not just the essence. The thing with great prose is that it enables the reader to easily grasp the idea it is trying to convey. With poetry, it is not just the idea that is to be conveyed, it’s also the expression. And how good a poem is depends on how successful it is in making the expression stick in the reader’s head.

In general, I must admit, I still don’t get ‘free verse’. I think it’s just prose written with lines broken in random places that the “poet” fancies. While they might have some nice puns or allegories, in most cases it is impossible to remember the exact words, for there is little that ties sentences, that creates checksums, that enables readers to remember the expressions. I still like simple good old poetry, though, but few people write that any more. I’ll leave you with a stanza from one of my favourite poems which I still remember:

Once upon a time a frog
croaked away in bingle bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn

Branding and traditional retail

Last night, the wife sent me to the grocer with a rather long shopping list. The grocer in question is Bhuvaneshwari Traders, a rather efficient “traditional retail” store close to home. There are lots of shop-boys there to service your requests, billing happens in a jiffy (yes, you get a printed bill) and they usually tend to stock most items that you are likely to  need. Of course, being a small kirana, they’re not able to stock a particularly wide variety of SKUs (and I don’t think that makes business sense, as well), but they seem to do quite awesome business by serving most of the customers’ needs, and very quickly.

It is in this kind of a context, I realize, that branding plays a major impact. Twice in my “shopping process”, I had to decide on the brand of a good quickly, and both times, I went for a brand that was on top of my mind – a brand that had “pull marketed” well enough for me to remember them. So, the shopping process consisted of my reading out from my long prepared list, and the shop boys producing those items at a phenomenal speed. The speed at which those guys worked made me believe that it was an insult to myself, and to them, if the speed at which I ordered was to be much slower. This was like Vyaasa dicatating the Mahabharata to his scribe Ganesha. Since Ganesha was so fast in writing, Vyaasa was compelled to dictate at the same rate.

So, when I asked for “1 kg salt”, the shopkeeper responded with “which brand?”. Given that I had to respond quickly, I had about a split second to decide what brand of salt I wanted. Captain Cook came to mind, with its ads of the “free flowing” salt. But then, I remembered having been told that the brand stopped production some ten years ago. The next thing that came to mind was Tata Salt, and I immediately remembered that my mother used to use the same. I also remembered their recent ad on Kannada TV “deshada uppu” (the country’s salt). I didn’t need to think further.

A few items down the list, when I asked for Garam Masala, two shop boys popped up with two different brands. Now, I don’t recall having bought too much Garam Masala earlier in life, and  I didn’t recall any ads either. But then, one of the packets produced was “MTR Garam Masala” and the other had a name that I had never heard. Here, the general branding of the two manufacturers in question played its part, and I instinctively went for MTR.

The purchase process for “traditional retail” is significantly different from that of “modern retail” (the supermarkets and the likes), and I hope, and think, that Indian marketers understand this difference in order to market their goods appropriately. While it is true that in the traditional retail context, “sales” plays a large part – give higher margins to the shopkeeper, and he will “push” (since some customers take his recommendation) your product rather than a competitor’s – there is also the “pull” factor. It is very rarely in these contexts that a customer sees a number of competing products side by side and has time to make a rational decision – most shopkeepers don’t afford them that luxury. The key to this is efficient branding, which leads to the customer demanding a particular brand of products, so that the shopkeeper has no opportunity to push the one that gives him better margins (some shopkeepers do try this – offering a competing brand claiming it is superior, but I’m not sure customers buy this).

And I think a lot of Indian marketers understand this.

History and Mythology

Yesterday, on yet another reasonably routine visit to the Shankara MaTha in Shankarpuram (where else?), I happened to notice this series of illustrations which sought to tell the story of Adi Shankaracharya’s life. The story starts out with Hinduism being in trouble in the 8th and 9th century AD, which leads to a bunch of Gods and Angels to lead a delegation to Shiva asking him to “do something” about it.

Since I was in the rather calm precincts of the temple, I prevented myself from laughing loudly, but this whole idea of mixing mythology with history intrigued me. The story got even more interesting later, since there was a panel that depicted Shankaracharya getting lessons from Veda Vyasa (the author of the Mahabharata, for the uninitiated). “Was he still alive in the 9th century”, the wife thought aloud politely. I made some random comments about not remembering if he was one of the Chiranjeevis.

A long time back, maybe when I was in school, my grandmother had wanted to see this movie on Shirdi Sai Baba (*ing Shashikumar). There again, there was a mixture of history and mythology, with one of the Gods (Shiva, I think) planting himself in some mango lady’s womb (not sure of the accuracy of this, close to 20 years since I watched it). In that case, however, it being a part of a popular movie, I thought there was enough poetic license to do that. But as part of the panels inside a temple, which is supposed to give out the authentic story? I’m not sure providing entertainment is a stated objective of that temple.

Now I begin to wonder how devout some of the devout could be, if they could actually believe that in the 9th century AD, there was a delegation of Gods who appealed to Shiva to rescue the religion! There are also other implications of this. One, that the Gods closely watch over what was happening on earth (well, I guess the omniscient model of God does permit this). Two, the admission that there might be religions apart from the Sanatana Dharma – which is something that is not made in any of our ancient texts. The Vedas, Upanishads and other texts were all written in India so long ago that no other organized religion existed back then. If you look at the myths, you will observe that all characters are religious, and they all worship parts or the whole of the Hindu pantheon.

My guess is that the series of illustrations in the Shankara MaTha and the associated commentary are the results of the efforts of some particularly over-zealous “devotee”, and the rest of the managing committee hasn’t had the heart or mind to call out this absurdity and get rid of the ambiguous illustrations. Or maybe the entire maTha has lost it, and actually believes that there was a delegation of gods only 1100 years back.

Mahabharata at home

I was Parikshit. I was peacefully reclining on my bean bag and watching football when an ant that had been crawling on the floor decided to attack me. Like its cousin Takshak, it bit my foot so hard that that I was screaming in pain. Unlike Parikshit, though, I didn’t die. I instead turned into Janamejaya.

For this vile act of this one ant, I decided to put an end to the entire ant race. Unlike Janamejaya, I didn’t bother with trivialities such as conducting a yagna, feeding mongooses, reciting the Mahabharata and stuff. I immediately swung into action, with a Mortein Gold bottle in hand. I sprayed the liquid liberally on the line of ants that was walking across my living room, on the carpet, on the kitchen shelf even. I sprayed Mortein with a vengeance, in an attempt to put an end to the ant race. Massacre did happen.

That night I couldn’t sleep so well. I still can’t yet decide if it was because of the pain of the ant bite, or because of the sin I committed by murdering so many innocent ants. Maybe reading the Mahabharata once again will help me get rid of this sin.