Savie Karnal: Historical Fiction

Savie Karnal: Historical Fiction.


Sudhir Borgonha: The Ball Went Over

Sudhir Borgonha: The Ball Went Over.

Word Origin: Palace

It once was a house on an ashen hill


The one building that ignites our desires is the palace. Perhaps, it is the first structural term we learn—and we can thank our bed-time stories for that—way before we hear about the college, the factory or the skyscraper. No other edifice can match the grandeur associated with a palace. It stands for boundless wealth and power, for it’s the house where the royals reside.


Palace did not always mean the house of kings. The term originates from the name for one of the seven hills on which Rome stands, the Palatine Hill. Most houses of the early imperial Roman elite were built on this hill. Even after the city expanded over the other hills, Palatine remained the most desired place of residence. The first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar, chose to live on this hill. His residence was a modest place, just like many others in the neighbourhood. The only things that distinguished his house were the two laurel trees flanking the main door.



In 64 AD, an urban fire, now known as The Great Fire of Rome, burned down all the houses on the hills. With residences of all aristocrats turning to ashes, the then emperor Nero enlarged his house and gardens to cover the entire hilltop. Now that his ‘Golden House’ dominated the hill, Palatine, which was earlier the name of the neighbourhood, came to denote the house.


After some centuries, the term palace started being used for government. This usage can be first seen in the writings of historian Paul the Deacon in 790 AD. If we were to use this meaning in referring to the Robert Vadra case, we would say, “The UPA palace is shielding the Gandhi son-in-law.”


In the 9th century, palace was also used for the seats of governments, where affairs of the state were conducted. By that reckoning, today’s Parliament House would have been called a palace. Later, the residences of the electors of the Roman empire too were called palaces. The electors were next only to the Roman emperor, because it was they who would elect him from among the many kings. After Rome fell into decline, and monarchies rose all over Europe, the word was used to denote the residence of the monarch.


Much later, when Europe started colonising the rest of the world, palace began to be used for houses of kings almost everywhere. The use of English words in regional languages has led to the term being commonly used in India.


Many palaces have now been converted to hotels and museums, but still continue to retain the word palace in their names because it reinforces their prestige and heritage status, on which there’s a premium. Others, even when they are newly built or smaller in scale, add it to their names in the hope that it confers some of that prestige to their own more modest establishments.


Of course, there are also the small budget hotels, lodges and even marriage halls that have no qualms in using the word palace in their names. Perhaps there’s nothing that better illustrates the not-so-secret longing of the commoner for the romance and the splendour of the bygone days of royalty.

Word Origin: Bicycle

The simple invention that revolutionised transport


It may seem hard to believe today, but when the bicycle was invented, it constituted a major leap in technology. People didn’t have to depend on horses or carts, and could speed by on their own power. Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels writes that the new machine was like a revelation, and everyone wondered how something so simple had not been invented earlier.


The new contraption got different names in different countries. As it evolved, the names kept changing. Coined around 1868, the term bicycle itself was a replacement for original term velocipede. Though other names were introduced later, bicycle was the one that stuck.


Perhaps it is the simplicity of the term that has not let it fade away. It is a composite of bi, which means ‘two’, and cycle, meaning ‘circle’ or ‘wheel’. The word bicycle clearly implies that it is a vehicle with two wheels.


Many believe the word was coined by the French, and the British also take credit for it. To quote Streuvels, “The French, as always when they have to name something new, took a piece of Greek and a piece of Latin and stuck them together, giving us the ‘velocipede.’ For everyday use, however, this name proved too long and too cumbersome for something so speedy, and they shortened it to ‘velo.’ The English went about the task in their customary rational manner and came up with ‘bicycle,’ ‘wheel,’ or simply ‘cycle,’ which became the real name, the true name.”


David Perry in his book Bike Cult writes that bicycle appeared on an 1869 British velocipede patent by J I Stassen, and quickly gained popularity. “Bicycle (a two wheeled velocipede) became a root-word for an activity, such as bicycled, bicycling, and bicyclism (the art of bicycling), for a person, such as a bicycler, bicyclian and bicyclist, and for anything pertaining to or connected with the nature of bicycles, such as bicyclic, bicyclical, bicycular, and bicycle kick (in soccer, a kick made with both feet off the ground and moving the legs as if pedalling a bicycle),” he writes.


The naming and renaming of bicycles hasn’t stopped yet. Some years ago, the phrase Human Powered Vehicles (HPV) was formed for vehicles that could be driven with human energy. Of course, cycles are on top of the list. Not many use the phrase.


At a New York bike conference in 1989, cycling activist Mary Frances Dunham suggested a new name for motorfree vehicles, ‘morfs.’ “She described terramorfs as land vehicles, mermorfs for the water, airmorfs for flight, and ideomorfs propelled by thoughts,” Perry writes.


In Kannada slang, saikal hodeyodu (cycling) means ‘to tire from effort’. In everyday English usage, we have long ago dropped the bi and use just cycle. If we say bicycle, people may give us surprised looks, suggesting that we are from the last century. The word cycle too may soon fade away, with the cooler-sounding bike replacing it. Though bike is commonly used for cycles in the West, in India it is used mainly for motorcycles. With cycles coming back into fashion, it may not be long before we find an even more fashionable name for them.


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Word origin: Dam

There was a time when the rivers freely flowed. They meandered with all their grace and at places gushed with all their might. Many civilizations grew on their banks, for the rivers not only met their water needs, but also brought fertile soil. Despite all their goodness, they sometimes turned destructive. They flooded lands and razed towns, and destroyed the very things that they helped build. It was as if the rivers had a will of their own.


Then, men thought of controlling the rivers. They built barriers on their paths, stopped their flow, stored the waters and diverted them. These were built at different parts of the world, in different ages, and called with varying names. The one name that became popular in all languages was the Dutch word Dam.

Kirshnaraja Sagar (KRS) Dam


The word entered the English language in the 14th century. The word was first used for the body of water that was confined by a barrier. For instance, the Cauvery water stored in KRS, would be called dam, and not KRS. Later, the word was stopped being used for the stored water and was applied to barrier. This changed meaning is still in use. For now, we call KRS a dam and not the water stored in it.


Coming back to the Dutch, the dams were vital for their survival, since Netherlands is a low lying country. Dams were built to regulate the water level and prevent the sea from entering marsh lands. These dams often marked the beginning of the city. The dams also gave their names to the city. This can be seen in the name of the Dutch capital Amsterdam. It gets its name from the dam through the Amstel River, built in the 12th century.  As the dam continued to be built and strengthened over the centuries, it grew wide enough to become the town square and was called the Dam square. It turned into the hub of commercial and government activity. Though the mouth of the Amstel River is filled, and the now the Dam Square is covered with land, the name stuck to it. Another Dutch city Rotterdam too got its name from the dam through the river Rotte.


The earliest known dam in the world is the Jawa Dam in Jordon built around 3000 BC. It held back waters of a stream and diverted it for irrigation. Evidence also exists of an earlier dam Sadd-el-Kafara built by the ancient Egyptians 2650 BC, for flood control. The dam is believed to be under construction for 10-12 years, before being destroyed by a flood.


The world’s oldest dam, still in use is across the Cauvery, in Trichi in Tamil Nadu. The Kallanai dam or the Grand Anicut was built around the 2ndcentury AD by the Chola king Karikalan.  It was constructed to store water and regulate it for irrigation through canals in the delta region. The dam splits the river Kaveri into four streams; Kollidam Aru, Kaviri, Vennaru and Puthu Aru. Built with unhewn stones, the dam runs a length of 1080 feet and is 60 feet wide. The British made later additions and improvements to it, which has helped to keep it functioning.

A rock, a maiden and a river: The story of Kaveri

Brahma gives Lopamudra as a daughter to sage Kavera, and she gets the name of Kaveri. She turns into a river so that the arid expanses are filled with happy people, and her father is relieved of his loneliness 


The legend goes thus: Ages ago, all this land was dry and rocky. Not a blade of grass grew on it. On top of one of the hills sat a rock looking over this barren stretch, and whose own heart was as parched as the land. The rock desperately wanted to turn into a river and bring the landscape to life. After several years of intense tapas, the rock transformed itself, not into a river, but a beautiful maiden.


Before she knew it, she was married off, but that didn’t break her resolve. She continued practising her austerities, until one day she broke free. Finally, her wish had come true; she had turned into a river that scampered over rocks, gushed through crevices, collpased into valleys, and meandered through the plains before finally merging with the sea. All along the course of the river-maiden Cauvery, the land turned green, thick forests rose, and the crops swayed in glee.


Cauvery is among the seven important rivers worshipped in Hinduism. Also called the Ganga of the South, there are s e v e r a l myths around her, of which the one above is one of the most picturesque. However, the most popular story of her origin—interestingly, also involving a rock that transformed into a woman and later into a river—is found in the Skanda Purana, also known as Kaveri Purana.

The statue of Kaveri at Cauvery Bhavan. Pic by Ramesh Hunsur


The story goes back to the beginning of creation, when the gods and demons churned the ocean to find amrita or the elixir of life. Lord Vishnu didn’t want the demons to get amrita. So, he takes the form of the beautiful enchantress Mohini, who deceives the demons and gives the elixir only to the gods. To assist Mohini, Vishnu’s consort Goddess Lakshmi sends another lady, Lopamudra.


When her task is completed, Lopamudra retires to the top of the Brahmagiri hills, where she turns into a rock. After many years, the sage Kavera comes to the hills and begins living there. Without a soul around for miles, he feels lonely. He yearns for a child and prays to Lord Brahma. Pleased with his prayers, Brahma gives him Lopamudra as a daughter. She abandons her rock form and becomes a girl. From then on, she is called Kaveri, after her father.


As she grows, she is pained to see her father living a secluded life in a dry region. She wishes him to be in a place where nature is abundant in the midst of happy people. She figures out that the terrain would change if a river flowed there. She decides to turn into a river and bring her father happiness.


The young maiden begins an intense tapas, praying to be transformed into a river. As she nears the end of her prayers, the sage Agastya happens to pass by. He sees her dedication and instantly falls in love with her. He asks the sage Kavera for her hand in marriage. Agastya being one of the Sapta Rishis, or the seven important sages revered by men and Gods, Kavera agrees. Unable to disobey her father, Kaveri submits, but she lays down one condition: Agastya should never leave her alone. If he goes anywhere without her, she would leave him and turn into a river.


Agastya remains true to his promise for many years. One day, engrossed in thought, he goes out, leaving Cauvery all by herself. Finding the promise is broken, she turns into a river and flows down the hill from Talacauvery. Agastya’s disciples try to stop her. She goes underground and escapes them, only to emerge again at Bhagamandala. From then on, she gushes down, transforming the landscape along her course.


There is also a related legend that the Ganga flows underground and comes to Cauvery every year to cleanse herself. Thousands dip into the Ganga to cleanse their sins. Ganga is believed to come to Cauvery to be free of those sins.

The temple at Talakaveri in Coorg, where Kaveri originates



Kaveri and the Kodavas


The Kodavas, the ethnic tribe of Kodagu or Coorg, attribute their very culture to the river Cauvery. “We do not worship her as a goddess. But we revere the river since our civilisation developed on its banks,” says Nachappa Codava, president of the Codava National Council (they prefer the Anglicised spelling of Codava to Kodava). “We owe our traditions to her. Our gratitude is such that we name our children after her: girls are called Kaveramma and boys Kaverappa,” he says.


He recalls that until a few decades ago, there was no image or form given to Cauvery. “There used to be a picture of a cow and a temple, which depicted Cauvery. But about 30 years ago, someone made a sculpture of Cauvery. These were installed in many places. People have begun worshipping a picture of Kaveri these days,” he says.


Nachappa disapproves of the worship of Cauvery as a goddess. “We are ancestor worshippers and do not worship any gods and goddesses. There is some Hindu influence coming in,” he says.


Nachappa also laments that the Kodavas have no access to the waters of Cauvery. “Though the river takes birth in Kodagu, we don’t have permission to use its water for irrigation or even drinking. Tamil Nadu takes the maximum advantage of Cauvery. The Karnataka government is supposed to distribute the waters to nine districts, but it focuses only on Bangalore and Kolar,” he says.


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Why I like the Resident Evil

Going by recent sci-fi and fantasy films, the world is more terrified of cash-rich business corporations than of maniacs and spirits


From the time I heard about the fifth part of the Resident Evil series, I had been waiting eagerly for it. The moment it was released, I went and watched it. I admit I am a huge fan, but the reason is not Mila Jovovich or the excellent technical work that characterises the series. What I like is the thought that forms the basis of the stories.


The story is about the Umbrella Corporation that creates a virus that infects people and turns them into zombies. As the infection spreads, cities are razed, and the corporation takes over one country after another as their defence fails. What’s so great about this story? Isn’t this what happens in most fantasy films? Well, what makes Resident Evil different is that its villain is a corporation, a business house, and not some maniac.


Many films like Resident Evil now reflect the new fear that rich corporations, not governments, will soon run the world. Will this happen in the distant future, or is it already happening now? The latest version of Resident Evil gives us some clues.

Mila Jovovich in Resident Evil


In reality, there may be no T-virus infecting the populace and spreading from the bites of those infected. But in its place, we have propaganda created by private companies. That spreads through word of mouth, the media and the Internet. The ideas created by these corporations shape our thoughts, choices, behaviour, and eventually, our societies.


Let us take something as simple as clothing. It’s the brands that dictate what is in fashion, and what is not. Irrespective of our comfort, we follow their veiled diktat, and ridicule those who don’t.


Throughout the movie, the corporation addresses Mila’s character Alice as ‘Project Alice’. This is exactly how most corporations think of us consumers. They regard us not as individuals, but as objects to be snared for sales, gradation, and brand loyalty. We are mirror images of each other. We not only dress the way the majority does, but we also prefer similar careers, hobbies, gadgets. We even eat the same food, read the same books, and have the same opinions.


The 2010 Oscar-winning film Inception plays with the idea of corporate espionage, where agents spy on people’s dreams. Its characters enter the sub-conscious mind and steal ideas. They also implant ideas and thoughts in dreams. We do not need any burglar to enter our dreams, for we lay our minds bare on social networking sites, survey forms and marketing research questionnaires.

Leonardo dicaprio in Inception

Some creative efforts keep the symbolism minimal, like the TV Series Supernatural. In one of its episodes, the devil runs a major fast food chain. He subjugates people through addiction to the unhealthy food his company promotes.


The attack on corporates through sci-fi and fantasy is not new, though. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, written in the 1950s, speaks of growing industrialisation and destruction of the environment by big industries. In the book, later made into a movie, the corrupt wizard Saruman destroys a forest to build his evil army. This army is shown busy at work with machinery and inventions.


Sci-fi and fantasy stories are often dismissed as silly works of the imagination. That is simply because we fail to see the representation behind the flying saucers and broomstick riding. For instance, C S Lewis’ collection The Chronicles of Narnia speaks of Christianity, where the lion Aslan represents Christ. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (The Golden Compass is the name of its film version), speaks of the repression of the child’s inner voice by the church and the education system. The most recent Suzanne Collins’ novel, The Hunger Games, made into a blockbuster movie of the same name, predicts a future where people will be controlled through reality TV shows.

Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of a scene in Ramayana

I would compare the intent of these stories to that of our myths, legends and Biblical stories, which feature magical elements, and at the same time show the sociological, economic and political conditions of their times. Buddha’s teachings gained popularity because of the Jataka tales, simple stories where animals speak and ghosts weep.


If we dissociate religion from the Ramayana and look at it objectively, we find that it is also a fantasy tale. It has a prince, a kidnapped princess, demons, birds that talk, and an army of monkeys and bears. Yet, the story teaches us a way of life and is the basis of our culture.

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