lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tell that to the bards

Poets have always loved birds and their songs. There is something so evocative about birds singing in the gardens and woods. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, they all wrote of birds and birdsong as lifting the spirits, heartening and enchanting us.

The flowers appear on the earth; The time of singing birds is come, And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land; says the Song of Solomon.

"Blithe spirit, bird thou never wert" said Shelley of the sky lark.

Keats wrote an ode to the nightingale.

Both these odes are full of wonder and awe at the artistry of these avian songsters. I wonder if poets would still feel such pleasure in birdsong if they knew what it was all about.

Bird calls and songs have a definite purpose, after all. They are announcements to other birds. Defining and defending territory, advertising for a mate, deterring predators and signals of alarm.

Mynahs have a call when they are startled and take wing. To me it sounds exactly like "I am outta here!", a very quick musical trill. It is not a song, though. It's a warning, there is a human here, clear out.

Bulbuls have a call that is very insistent and comes in two or sometimes three parts. 'Pick pick, pick pick', they say, and repeat it with more urgency, 'Pick pick pick, pick pick pick pick'; and then comes the explosive denouement of 'Pickacho'.

Though almost never seen, the koel's 'cou, cou', repeated higher and more frantic, is the most familiar to us all.

The magpie robin, my favourite singer in birds, is almost operatic in its songs in the breeding season. It has to be, because the larger the repertoire of its songs, the better the chances of finding a mate.

When they are warning each other to keep off, demonstrating their suitability to mates, when they are establishing their territories or giving alarm, birds don't know or care that we thrill to their song. But like Terry Pratchett says in one of his trademark footnotes:

It's hard to be an ornithologist and walk through a wood when all around you the world is shouting: 'Bugger off, this is my bush! Aargh, the nest thief! Have sex with me, I can make my chest big and red!'

It is a good thing nobody told this to Keats and Shelley. :D


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Speaking in tongues

There was a craze for it in the early nineteenth century America. All over the country people fell into rapture and spoke in tongues and handled snakes in revival meetings. Evangelists toured thundering fire and brimstone sermons to the congregations. There were camps that lasted well into weeks, there were temperance crusades, abolitionist rallies and much more to take common man's mind off the economic troubles that beset the nation.

Speaking gibberish in a religious fervour or trance. There is a term for it: glossolalia. But let's talk about talking sense, though.

We say something speaks for itself. We talk of speaking with a forked tongue when talking of deviousness. We speak our mind when we are being frank. We speak the same language when we are in accord with someone. We say it spoke volumes when a facial expression conveys something without words. We talk turkey when we get down to the brass tacks to deal with things.

Saying 'not to speak of' makes something more imperative than what is being addressed. 'Bite your tongue', we say; 'speak for yourself' we say.

There are so many idioms to do with speech because it is the cornerstone of communication. The tower of Babel is a powerful illustration as to what happens when you can't make yourself understood.

Children learn languages easily. Children of parents speaking two different tongues pick up both with the same ease. If different languages are spoken at home and out in the world, children learn both with no trouble and can switch back and forth easily. This facile learning of languages tends to wane as we grow older.

I spoke Telugu at home and Tamil in the outside world. Spoken English came later, in high school when it was a badge of sophistication and superiority. At our mother's insistence, we all learnt Hindi with private tuition at home. But I was a teenager by then and had lost the ability to speak in tongues, so to say. My spoken Hindi was halting and bookish.

Then I moved to Delhi. Needs must, as the adage goes, and my spoken Hindi improved dramatically if it still remained grammatically poor. I was not comfortable with a language where nouns had genders. Did you know a river or breeze has a gender? I didn't, until I learnt Hindi.

Becoming an honorary Bengali by marriage, I picked up enough Bengali to follow conversations. Most words in Hindi and Bengali have common descent from Sanskrit; since Telugu borrows heavily from Sanskrit as well, it was easy enough to get the gist and puzzle out the grammar.

But I had trouble speaking Bengali, what with the practice of writing Lalita and pronouncing it as Lolita. A language where he, she and it are all the same gender felt strange. Also, words that meant one thing in Telugu meant something entirely different in Hindi or Bengali.

Take 'daroon' for example: In Telugu it is pronounced as 'daaruN(am)', and means terrible, atrocious, dire, awful and other negative things (the only positive thing was that it meant extreme, if you stretch your vocabulary), just like it does in Sanskrit.

In Bengali though, it means wonderful, superb and fantastic. How this mutation of meaning occurred is beyond me to figure out, but it had me perplexed the first time I heard it.

A casual remark by a friend about some film being daroon; which I thought meant it was utter tripe and it turned out to mean fantastic helped me realise the language divide is wider within tongues that boast of same descent from Sanskrit.

Or take 'charitra': In Telugu it means history; it means character in Hindi and Bengali. 'Upanyaas' is oration in Telugu, and it is a literary work in Hindi.

'Katha', pronounced kotha is speech or words in Bengali, it means a tale or a short story in Telugu.

How is a puritan to cope? The aggravations are enough to drive one round the bend!

But English was the medium of communication at home mostly and Telugu and Tamil receded from my language circuits.

Then we moved to Calcutta and I had to speak the lingo. It wasn't a big deal. Everyone spoke a bit of Hindi and while it sounded strange to my ears, it was understandable and I could communicate. I could talk Bengali with a bad accent and fall back on Hindi when my vocabulary failed me.

Until one day I realised that my Hindi had become so bastardised by Bengali that it was atrocious. DaaruN, not daroon. :D Not that my Bengali improved by living close to the language. My accent is still awful and I still can't pronounce ah as oh. Something in me rebels at pronouncing a vowel that I know ought to be one thing as something else.

They may have great poets and wonderful literature, but Bengali won't ever get appreciated fully until the rest of the world decides to pronounce ah as oh, I am afraid.

Here is my clue for the day:
Out of order: Clock. As hinted, use the mouse. (5,2,3,3)

I am waiting for solutions, you lazy lot.

Here is not a recommendation: H W Brands, The Age of Gold. I just happen to be reading the book. :D It is about the California gold rush.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

News, views and a quiz

People, you must have noticed that there are ads now, and not public service ads either.

It is not going to make me rich anytime soon, but it is amusing to see what ads are matched up to my posts. I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it with my own eyes. Arthritis remedies and voodoo cursing, or hair-removal tips and Chennai telephones! Check the older posts, if you don't believe me or want a laugh.

Now I am in my stern schoolmarm mode and want you all to enroll into the programme of humoring Lalita. Two months into blogging I am conducting a mini quiz to see if you have been paying attention to my crossword solving lessons.

Here is a clue. I am starting simply, with a basic anagram, and I will work up to funny, obscure and/or well nigh impossible twists. But the solution is always the same. Okay? That is more help than Bunthorne gave me today for his Saturday prize puzzle or Paul ever does. Araucaria, sweet man of cloth that he is, always has an easy-to-solve clue that will help make inroads with his puzzles. I am being more than fair. I am being transparent. :D

Solve this simple clue and act on it.

A clod thickens, sadly. A mouse might help. (5,2,3,3)

The first person to write in and tell me the solution gets a prize. ( Don't ask me what the prize is, I haven't made up my mind and it depends on how many of you are going to write in with the solution.)

Seriously though, what is it with men and gadgets? Why are men so enamoured of gizmos, doodads and cars? Why are they crazy for specifications, features and comparison shopping?

I bought a cell-phone some three years ago, after a lot of consideration about whether I needed it. I just looked at the phones, asked about prices and bought it. No fuss. My sole criterion was that I should be able to read the screen with having to put on my reading glasses. But when I mentioned it to a friend in a mail, I found a transformation (he is a congenial bloke normally, but 'Dash it woman, don't leave me hanging!' he fumed in his reply).

He didn't want my number. Well, he wanted that too, but what he wanted was chapter and verse on the make, model, series number, features and whether I got a good deal. Good grief. It was just a cell-phone, I thought. As I listened to him pontificate it turned out not to be the case. He made me write models and numbers before he pronounced himself satisfied and reverted to the sweet pussycat he used to be.

I wonder, is there a gene that wires you to get excited about these things? Did the Neanderthal men get worked up about a better lode of flint or a better rock, or perhaps a new technique of flint-knapping? I rather suspect they must have.

I use tools all the time. Whether I am chopping an onion or beating an egg ( don't let me get started about terms of abuse in cookery), whether I am slitting a letter open or pointing my mouse and clicking. I just don't get worked up about it. After all, a tool is a tool. Right? Wrong. My friend thought it was more than just buying a cell-phone. Apparently it was buying into a whole culture.

I change a blown out bulb or tighten the handles of my pots and pans, and I don't make a production of it. But men! They make such a issue of the latest gadget. Researching and comparing, buying it and then showing it off.

Perhaps I shouldn't be casting stones, as I research, compare, buy, use and show off too. But my passion is reference books for crosswords!


Friday, March 24, 2006

Act naturally

If there was ever an oxymoron, this is it. Act naturally? Puhleeze.

There are others which vie for the top spot. Neo-classic is one. Simply grand is another.

But juxtaposing opposites to convey meaning does help.

I mean, seriously funny is an oxymoron but it is informative; as is found missing.

But when somebody says 'Almost exactly' I bite my tongue and refrain from pointing out the absurdity of it.

I've been thinking about oxymorons: original copy, government organisation, sanitary landfill, only choice... They are all oxymorons. My husband, who is a Linux person, offered Windows Works as an illustration. :D

Government organisation is what I get vexed about most. The media, recklessly, heedlessly and without sub-editorial intervention of sense or propriety, have been using the word rule to mean governance or administration. So we read about the Left rule or the Congress rule. Hello, communism and rule in the same breath? A democratic party with a slave culture? It is only possible in here, in Indian political milieu.

I was playing Scrabble with my son and added the tiles o, x and y to his cleverly added m, o and r to 'on' on the board. We were chatting too, as we both think it may prove a distraction and ruin the other's concentration. :D

I tallied the score, and remarked to my husband about something else altogether, prefacing my remark with "I think".

"Hmm, oxymoron," said my son. "Mom thinks. There is an oxymoron for you".


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Open wide, Missus Em

There are things you depend upon. And then there are things you don't even consider; things that always work, so you depend upon them with realising you do so.

I thought I could depend on my teeth until recently. I thought they were something I needn't worry about. Here is news, folks. You bite into a teeny tiny piece of grit and a part of your tooth is history, the chip ready and available to be sold as a relic.

You follow rules, you observe oral hygiene, you brush your teeth first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and after each meal and you still end up doing an imitation of Edvard Munch's The Scream for the benefit of your dentist? I mean, where is the justice?

Don't mind me. I just came out from the tender care of my dentist. :D

It is not like I am a stranger to dentist's chambers. I wore braces most of my teenage life, and I still wear them in my nightmares. My mother subjected all of her daughters to the care of a dentist. But it was the era when extracting a tooth was only for dire reasons, not in correction of an over-bite, so I endured several years of wearing braces and regular visits to the dentist.

I thought I was shut of dentists in my twenties, until I had to add myself as a statistic to the myth that a woman loses a tooth to each child she bears. I absolutely don't subscribe to that half-baked theory, but I did have to get an impacted wisdom tooth taken out.

The surreal moment of that extraction was when I went for the follow-up examination and the chap said, what seems to be the problem? I spluttered and pointed out that if he could cast his mind back a bit, he might recall extracting a wisdom tooth from my set of pearly whites. He smiled and said, oh, you are my brother's patient.

Good grief! They were identical twins working in a family firm.

Coming back to the present, when I bit into something and it turned out to include a broken-off chip of a molar, I took refuge in a routine I follow when things go wrong. I called and made an appointment. To talk to a person, who for the sake of his anonymity, I will only admit as being our dentist. :D

I suppose I could have lived with a bit of a tooth chipped off, but I somewhat like the idea of being able to eat and drink without wincing. So I went to my dentist.

He doesn't really do this kind of dentistry anymore, but long association and being friends helps. I only wanted advice and a recommendation, anyway. But he took time off from correcting hare-lips and re-molding accident victims' faces and took a look at my chipped tooth. He made a temporary filling and told me to come back the next week for getting it capped properly.

'Don't tell anyone I am doing this, I farm out regular procedures nowadays.' he said. 'No, I won't,' I assured him. 'I'll only publish it online.' :D

I lay on the torture device that is a dentist's chair, and as he worked on the filling I wondered if they worry about the picks and drills and saws they use slipping and making an accidental gash in the mouths they are working on. I wondered if dentists worry about patients biting down on their fingers by accident, too.

Twenty minutes of 'Open wide, please' later, my dentist said, 'Bite, please'. I had to bite a marking paper. 'Don't worry, you won't bite my fingers', he assured me. Once he was satisfied about the bite, he pronounced his job done.

As I recovered control of my mouth, I told him what I had been musing about. He smiled. 'Worse things can happen than a drill slipping', he assured me. Too late, I remembered that he had the horrifying experience of breaking a patient's jaw while trying to extract supernumerary teeth!

That patient was my husband and it was decades ago, but that bonded them and they remained firm friends since then.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The butter -side- down rule

A toast always lands the butter side down.

Scientifically inclined people have a different name for the butter-side- down rule. They call it Murphy's law. I am not going to go into the history of it, but it's been around long before Murphy articulated it. Sod's Law, it was called.

If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. That is Murphy's Law. (Oh. Wow, have they got something right at last.)

There are corollaries, which all make perfect sense:

Whatever can't go wrong will go wrong.
Trying to make things better only makes things worse.
Any attempt to do nothing, so nothing can go wrong, will go wrong.

I have found my own corollaries to the Law:

If you bunked classes to spend quality time with your boyfriend, your mom's best friend is sure to spot you.

The queue you join always moves the slowest.

When you need them, objects become invisible.

The day after you dispose the old newspapers you will need to find an article in last Sunday's supplement.

The telephone always rings when you are in the shower.

When you think it can't get any worse, it does.

Facts of life. :D

The world is basically a jigsaw puzzle that we solve unconsciously, all the time. That is how we deal with all the information that pours in all the time, updating our mental pictures several times a second.

A jigsaw and the brain gets millions of updates, too many times a second. So how does it cope? By being sensible, and using a version of 'my recent documents' type of retrieving the most relevant information. Correlating, offering the best matches for any given stimulus and what sets it off. Experience and expectation play a large part in interpreting the world.

But if you expect something because your experience predicts it, you are in for a surprise. Sometimes. I hear a crash in the next room and I know that my son has dropped the remote, again. But sometimes I find that no, it is my husband who did. :D

Talking of my son, he probably has a Murphy's Law corollary about mothers: Anything you do can be criticised by your mother, even doing nothing. (To which I might add: Never criticise your mother's cooking if you expect to get any more of it.)

My son and I once did a probability test, tossing a coin a hundred times and recording the results. (It came down heads up 54 times, by the way.)

But when BBC did a testing of the buttered toast myth, it found that the toast obeyed the laws of probability more than Murphy's Law. There is a reason and an explanation for it, of course.

If you fling a piece of toast about, it will do exactly what a coin will do when you toss it. Land one way or the other. Actually, when a toast takes leave of the plate and kisses the floor, it is not following Murphy's Law, but Newton's.

So a falling piece of toast does what Newton's first Law states. A body in motion will stay that way until something stops it moving. The floor does that very well. But the distance from a table or a carried plate of toast is not as high as when you have people standing up and chucking toast all over the place. It starts travelling down dictated by gravity and it starts its revolution, but alas, the floor comes too soon, at about half a revolution.

That is why toast always lands butter side down! Perhaps we should eat our breakfast on stilts, to give it a chance to land the other way. :D

If you have your personal corollaries of Murphy's Law, let me know. We can pool them.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

X, meet Y. Y, meet X

Folks, this is dedicated to you all who make my day: make me laugh, moan at me, use me as a sounding board, mail to me and generally interact with me everyday.

At the peril of sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech, thank you, thank you, thank you. :D

When I first discovered chatting, I was gob-smacked. My flabber was definitely ghasted. People just log in and talk, rant, air their views, opine, editorialise... All without any ado or fuss of submitting?


I learnt the unwritten rules( it took me three months to stop myself from pressing the shift key), learnt the abbreviations, the lingo, in fact; I discovered that people who seemed severely challenged when it comes to using vowels are still people who can make me think, amuse me and more.

Of course, I learnt about cyber-stalking, harassment; I learnt about prudence even if I am only talking about an author and his works. I learnt a lot, really. :D

I learnt that people can be whatever they choose to be, mostly. My Icelandic Utter Nutter has more job descriptions and careers that he says are absolutely true (and he makes it convincing), than one man can manage in a life-time. But I find his fibs entertaining. :D

I frequented rooms devoted to books and authors, only to discover that room regulars hardly ever discussed books or authors, preferring to talk about other things; still and all, I made friends.

Whether it is the Utter Nutter from Iceland, or the suicidal self-destructive idiot in India, somewhere; whether it is the Aussie ex-lawyer who keeps promising to shower me in opals or the manic-depressive in Michigan trying to lead a regular life and making a bad job of it; whether it a hopeful author in Canada or an embattled Iraqi student; whether it is a dear and treasured friendship I was surprised to find developing but glad to nurture or an acrimonious and bitter squabbling about semantics or etymology that goes on and on; whether it is trading crossword clues and obscure words or sharing immediate problems...

You have enriched my days, and I thank you.

Thank you, jesus. Thank you paro. Thank you sappho. Thank you arnie. Thank you loco. Thank you landscaper. Thank you lawguy. Thank you ash. Thank you Srini. Thank you Ashok. Thank you Sanjeev.

It never ceases to amaze me that you all actually think it is a nice way to spend time talking to me, or mailing me. It makes me feel special and loved. Thank you.

Thank you for leaving comments on the blog, too, I think not. Hah! You lazy lot, you. Come on people. Gimme feedback on the blog. I love your mails, but can I have them in writing in, as comments, too? :D


Saturday, March 18, 2006

Alice in the real world

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him;
She gave me a good character,

But said I could not swim.
Okay folks, let's do a bit of compare and contrast, like we were back in school. Read this:
'Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
"You have wak'd me too soon, I must slumber again"

As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

I passed by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow
broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are
turning to rags;
and his money still wastes till he
starves or begs.
Those were two stanzas from the poem The Sluggard, by Isaac Watts. Now read this:
'Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
'You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.'

As a duck with its eyelids so he with his nose

Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.

When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark.

But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,

His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.

I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy and meat,
While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat.

When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl
And concluded the banquet by...

That was Lewis Carroll spoofing.

I've been reading Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass again. For the umpteenth time. Blame it on my friend; he ought not to have mentioned it.

I met Alice in a strange place, in the Presidency College Library. [This was the Presidency College Madras, back when I was a student, I don't know if they have renamed it.] It felt like a hallowed and special place; which it was, of course, and it had books I just needed to flash my card to check out and read at leisure. I read a lot of books from that library, the prize going to Homer, an annotated (and but of course translated) Odyssey and the Iliad; and Joyce, who wrote a different kind of Odyssey.

I met Alice in a severely critical milieu, though; everybody and his aunt theorizing about everything Carroll wrote, and not much of it even half-way friendly. Reading Carroll though, I couldn't see what the problem was.

A man who is obsessed about prepubescent girls writes something to amuse them, it becomes famous. Ho hum, what's the big deal? The chap was funny, amusing, and made you stop and think. What more do you want? He was a painfully shy and introverted man who was terrified of women, and it was not as though he was doing anything nastier than playing with words.

If you stop to consider anything Carroll says seriously, though, there is always a mathematical joke behind it, usually. Take Alice trying to remember multiplication tables, for instance:
"Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is- oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!"
Of course she won't get to twenty, if we remember that multiplication tables used to stop with twelves, and so if you continue the progression ---4 times 5 is 12, 4 times 6 is 13, 4 times 7 is 14, and so on- you end with 4 times 12 (which is the highest she can go), is 19. Just one short of 20.

Carroll punned, and spoofed and parodied all the literary lions of his time, and it's a telling point that his jokes live on and the originals are forgotten. I suppose that is no comfort for the ones who were treated to his wit and parodies, but they are gone, and Alice remains.
"Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
"Why is a raven like a writing -desk?"
"The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours."
Carroll is only fun if you are ready to indulge in silliness and look at the world with a squinty eye. 'The Sluggard' as recited by Alice, especially the second verse, is a far better poem than the prim original it parodied. Beautiful Soup is remembered better than the Star of the Evening it made fun of.

Personally, I prefer The Hunting of the Snark, and The Gardener's Song in Sylvie and Bruno.
He thought he saw a rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:

He looked again, and found it was

The middle of Next Week.

"The one thing I regret, " he said,

"Is that it cannot speak!"
There was a time I could recite the entire Walrus and the Carpenter, or the White Knight's ballad. It is trivia, I know, but it comes in handy when I solve themed crosswords. I can still recite chunks of Carroll, and I have equally trivia-minded pals with whom I share the joy of laughing at his cleverness. I really have to thank my friend for getting me to read Carroll again.

All the same, the most important thing Carroll ever wrote, or what I took inspiration from is in the second book, Through the Looking Glass.
"Consider what a great girl you are. Consider what a long way you've come to-day. Consider what o'clock it is. Consider anything, only don't cry."
That, I made my motto, and it works.


Update: I was surprised to note that Google directs people searching for Carroll and Alice to my blog, so I thought I should edit this post.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Quirky things

Once upon a time, there was a god. Like all gods he had a portfolio and a job description. He was doing his job or trying to, and got another god seriously miffed and got burnt to a crisp.

We commemorate this every year by celebrating Holi.

Actually, the burning of Kama is only one myth about Holi. Other stories are told about the demoness Holika, about Krishna surviving a poisoning attempt.

It is just a spring festival; most of the customs associated with Holi evolved over time. (Now we do it because it's always been done this way. :D)

I ought to make it clear I don't hold with Holi. I grew up without ever hearing about it and the first time I came across the phenomenon of smearing colours and slinging water and worse at people, I was horrified. Granted, if you grew up with the custom it might seem fun, but I didn't and it is not my idea of fun to have to scrub various goo off and still look pink for the next week or so.

Let those who want to, celebrate Holi; I take the chance to relax and have an excuse not to stir out of the house. Besides, this year Holi falls on the 14th, and I'd rather talk about the World Pi Day.

This is as quirky as the reason why we celebrate Holi. In the American format today's date is 3/14. That reminds some minds of that mathematical constant pi. So 14th March is an unofficial celebration for Pi Day, derived from the common three-digit approximation for the pi: 3.14. It is usually celebrated at 1:59 PM (in recognition of the six-digit approximation: 3.14159).

Weird, but true. These celebrations are bizarre as Holi celebrations. Enthusiasts eat, drink, play and watch pi. Pie eating contests (where the pie is square shaped- an insider joke about pi r squared), pina colada and pink gin parties, pinata (which is eeriely like the Andhra celebration of Krishnashtami), and pictures. They also make a big deal of the fact that it is Einstein's birthday.

I suppose they celebrate 22nd July and 9th November, too. Well, they are welcome to. To each his or her own pet obsession.

Martel wrote a fantastic novel about a boy who shortened his name to Pi, and found himself adrift on a lifeboat for 227 days after a shipwreck. And he had a tiger to keep him company, and perhaps to keep him on his toes, too. Talk about weird. :D


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bend it like Beckham

World Cup cometh, said my pal. Blog about it, said my pal. That's a whole year away, I said. Football, you silly woman, said my pal. Huh? What do I care about football? A bunch of men running around chasing a ball,I said. Write about it, I dare you, said my pal.

I don't know a thing about football. So how do I write about it?

Wait, that's not true. I do know a bit about it. After all, my son used to buy FIFA Football games, the new version every year; he plays the Total Manager nowadays, though( the new version every year).

I know Pele is a big name, so is Zico, and Maradona, a k a. Hand of God for some reason.

I know Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea are big teams.

I know Brazil, France and Germany are big teams, too.

I know Cameroon or Kenya or some country did pretty well last time (that young man doing a triple back flip celebrating a goal was so sweet).

I know David Beckham is married to Posh Spice, who used to be in a girl band. Oh, and I know Beckham had an affair and his paramour went public. :D

That's about it, though. I don't understand football, and watching grown men chasing a ball with the crowd baying chants seems pathetic. I'll say this, though. They don't seem to have as many commercial breaks as cricket in football. I wonder why? :D

I do know a bit more than Justice Dipak Sen's granny, definitely: she watched a match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, and was so moved by the plight of so many boys fighting over a single ball that she demanded that her nephew, the then Law Minister, arrange and ensure there will be more balls for the lads so they can play without squabbling.

Is football the same as soccer? What about Australian Rules Football? Is sledging a point of tactics there too? Do they call you names while chasing a ball and is it allowed? Is American football the same as European football? Why do they wear helmets and padding? Are they sissies? Are they scared, or is the rest of the world so poor that it can't afford the armor?

Goodness knows. I certainly don't understand. I googled to find out about it. I got more and more mystified rather than enlightened.

But I do know a lot about football, really. I know about players and positions.

Back, goalie, keeper, winger, forward, striker, fullback, left back, left half, midfield, wing back, right back, right half, centre back, centre half, goal keeper, midfielder, inside left, inside right, outside left outside right. So there! :D All acquired from solving crossword puzzles.

I know about Newcastle United Magpies, Everton Blues and Liverpool Reds.

Because I do crosswords, and some compliers do football-teams- oriented puzzles, football oriented themes once in a while. Inexplicable, but there you are. If it is a fair clue, I get it, and I learn this trivia about football and soccer and clubs and leagues.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Interpreting signals

There is a lot of non-verbal language out there.

When I stick my arm out to hail a cab; when a girl smiles an invitation to explore possibilities at her young man: we are employing body language.

In my case, it is such a universal signal that it doesn't have to be studied or explained (you stick your arm out, and a cruising cab halts. QED). :D In the girl's case though, if she isn't careful or aware of what her body-language is communicating while her mind is in a dilemma about it, she will at worst end up as a victim of date-rape, or be branded a tease and thank her lucky stars to get off that easy.

Most of our communication is non-verbal; a study puts it at a staggering 93%, claiming that even tones, inflections, and levels of voice add to non-verbal communication. I can see the point. I only have to see a person to form an opinion; his or her body language sends me subliminal signals about what he or she is actually feeling, meaning and indicating with unconscious but give-away signals.

This explains why you can sense a friend needing intervention, even when the friend has been resolutely mute about whatever is bothering him or her. It also explains why we make snap judgments or form instant opinions about people.

In crosswords, though, it is all leading you up the garden path, more or less; where the compiler says what he means, but manages to make it so that you don't know if he means what he says. It is communication taken to the dizzying heights of inference, allusions, free association and um... er... GK. It is playing word-games at a different level altogether.

It is communication, oh, yes! 'I mean what I say'. That's acceptable. 'I say what I mean'. Acceptable too. 'I mean what I say, but what I say mightn't mean what I am contriving to tell you' ... Hmm.

Clues that use anagrams are so eclectic in their indicators, they are more confusing to figure out than being young and in love. Anagram indicators in cryptic crosswords are as varied as the compilers' minds. When 'out', 'shot', 'confused', 'off', 'cooked', 'possibly', 'popping', 'wild' or 'concoction' appear in the clues, they are all anagram indicators.

Altruistic work for poor, poor nob (3,4).
Here the first 'poor' is a signal of an anagram. It tells you that 'poor nob' is an anagram of the solution. The answer is 'pro bono', which is altruistic work. :D

Not all anagrams are as straight forward, though. Most cryptic clues have a mixture of anagrams and other tricks to confuse the solver.

Bunthorne's 'No hope, alas, for one born with a fear of the new (9)' is one such clue.

Alas is an unusual anagram indicator, but it tells us that 'no hope' is an anagram for part of the solution; 'one' is 1, or in crossword shorthand I. 'born' is usually 'B' (as used in family trees); 'with a' tells us to add an 'a' to the mixture. Ergo, NEOPHOBIA. :D

In crosswords, then, communication takes on the bizarre approach of being obscure, instead of being direct. The compiler is saying what he means, but perversely doesn't mean what he says. A good crossword compiler is always fair even while being obscure and leading you up all different paths of reasoning which will make the solution blindingly obvious, once you have solved it.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about solving Paul's crossword and feeling benevolent towards the world; the clues were a theme: birds.

And the indicator was an annoying 'something up' which featured in most of the clues.

Great man heads north, which is up; pass notice which is up; it's said to go the other way, which is up; get down what may be up... You see? :D

Make out vessel which is up (6) was what perplexed me for a while.

'Make' here was an anagram indicator, not 'out' which usually is.

So, an anagram of 'out', with vessel... tou+ can, toucan, which is a bird and which is up, thank you so very much, Paul. :D

It's simpler dealing with body language, I guess.

I was going to sign off, but...Before I get flamed by friendly fire about not telling you the solutions, here we go:

Great man heads north which is up - heron

Pass notice which is up - crossbill

It's said to go the other way, which is up - tern

Get down what may be up -swallow...

Birds all the way, and bloody maddening till you figure it out. :D

Okay. Folks, I will post again on body language, I haven't finished my say there. :)

And yes, you will hear more about 'You can call me madam, young man'. I haven't finished there, either.

My eyes are back to normal, but due for more testing situations, I suppose, and thanks for all the mails of commiseration.

But folks; please, please, pretty please with whatever sugar-substitute enticements you choose on top, post your comments on the blog. Please? Come on, I am asking nicely. :D


Monday, March 06, 2006

Men's my one failure...

How many numbers does it take to get Lali into the screaming heebie-jeebies mode? Answer: any above one.

Okay. At the onset, let me tell you I am a numerophobe. But civilisation forces me to use numbers at every other turn. We have civilisations because of our ability to think in numbers, good grief!

I am talking about telephone numbers, and by extension, cell-phone numbers, though.

If you have ever had a friend drone out the number of a mobile phone at you; if you ever had to memorize an extension number; if you ever had to hunt for the code for a given area; if you hate numbers and are forced to use them... You will know what I am talking about.


Why can't people figure out how to remember or recite numbers? I am a certified air-head and I have no trouble remembering how to break them up, so why should the rest of the population be so dimwitted about it?

In the bad old days, telephone numbers had only five digits (This is absolutely true, I so swear, :D). As I went through my course of learning typing as it was taught and shorthand ditto, I also got some lessons on how to recite telephone numbers :- it was part of the secretarial course.

With five digit numbers, you recite it 'blah blah pause blah blah blah.' Or in other words, you state the exchange code, and then the subscriber number. The breaking up of a five digit number into an easily memorable thing was by way of separating the exchange code.

Of course, things got complicated. Telephone lines multiplied, and exchanges got saturated. Subscriber Trunk Dialling was a great thing, in it's day. As a fledgling telephone operator, I needed to learn to memorise STD codes, too. Most of the boondocks had barely four digit numbers for subscribers, but you had to memorise most of the STD codes, all the same.

I learnt nifty tricks about prioritising calls, adding a zero to any number dialed (don't try this unless you know what you are about :D), STD codes for most of India; I made friends with the operators who managed overseas calls, and learned how to eat lunch while managing a switchboard in the absence of substitutes. Hey, I was the substitute.

Enter Sam Pitroda and the telecom revolution: area codes and exchange codes kept getting longer. Now there are eight digits for even local exchanges. Now add satellite telephony to the picture; it started as something for a few select people who need to be in touch all the time and could afford the clunky early models. But now I call my plumber on his cell-phone if I need his services.

As a rogue operator who made a few personal calls when she was manning the board, I find the revolution nothing short of miraculous. STD locking was a big thing less than a decade ago. Nobody could have predicted the proliferation of cell-phones, or the pricing wars that are going on. The world is gearing up to make Arthur C Clarke's prediction of a phone-call costing the same all over the world a reality. ( But these days, the opportunities for sneaking in a personal call are close to nil, if you don't want to be caught. :D)

But, and here begins the rant. Folks, you may stop reading if you choose.

Give a ten digit number to people and they will mangle it, make it difficult to remember when they recite it to you. I gnash my teeth and stop myself from launching into how to break up phone numbers for easy recital or recall.

Just go 'blah blah pause blah blah blah, longer pause and then blah blah pause blah blah blah.' Simple enough. Right? :D People seem to not possess enough braincells to do this simple thing.

Go on, the next time someone gives you their number, try to remember it the way they recite it, and then try it my way. 2+3, 2+3. Tell me which is easier. Ah, well, you are going to tell me it is stored on your phone, so you won't need to actually memorise it. :D

By the way, Crispa, who retired from compiling crosswords a while ago, had a wonderful clue.

"Men's my one failure": Mother of nine (9)

Answer: Mnemosyne. Anagram.

She was the mother of the nine muses in Greek mythology. She is evoked every time we use mnemonics to remember something. :D


Saturday, March 04, 2006


What do you do if you wake up and find you can't open your eyes because they are gummed up and gritty?

I washed them out and took a critical look at them. Definitely red. Blood red, in fact. After imagining burst blood vessels and running all possible causes through my mind, I checked my household medical encyclopedia. (Don't laugh, I have all sorts of reference books, it is one them) No help there.

So I went to the doctor. He is a nice man, and never over-prescribes. He even makes house-calls, so he is a treasure, much like the virtuous woman whose worth is more than rubies. :D He diagnosed, prescribed and dispensed advice.

Diagnosis: probable allergy to the painting activity that is going on at my building. Dust, paint fumes and so on. Prescription: eye drops, and an ointment. Advice: keep your windows closed, avoid the paint fumes; and rest the eyes, don't strain them.

Ha. Ha bloody ha! How do you rest a faculty that is needed for most things? Do I chop vegetables with my eyes fully closed, as against half-closed as they are now? Do I cross the street with my eyes closed? What do I do in the afternoons, fill my crosswords with my eyes closed? Read my weekly ration of books with my eyes closed?

After fuming and ranting mentally for a satisfying minute, because I am a model patient and follow doctor's orders, I thought about how to reduce strain on my eyes.

I don't watch television, but do read the papers. Perhaps I could do without reading papers for a week? I could save myself the daily dose of outrage and aggravation at misprints, poor language and worse. No news is good news, anyhow.

Perhaps I could increase font sizes and that would lessen the strain of staring at the screen five hours or more a day, surely? (Since there is no way I am going to stop my regular activities and spend the week with my eyes shut and safely resting. :D)

Crosswords are sacred so I will go on doing them regardless, but with books I ought to heed the doctor. No books with small print and densely packed text, I decided. I have a large-ish library at home, so may be I ought to re-read some of the old favourites, those with large print.

With the noble intent of being a good patient, I searched my shelves for books with large easily readable print. That's why I am now reading through my collection of children' s books. :D

The illustrated fairy tales and nursery rhymes didn't last me a day. I am now reading Ukrainian Folk Tales, which might last me through this evening. I have omnibus volumes of Lear and Carroll and annotated Sherlock Holmes to look forward to next.

After that though, I am afraid I'll have to flout doctor's orders and read from the pile of books I was hoping to finish this week!


Friday, March 03, 2006

First cuckoo of spring

The Times of London published three volumes of letters to the editor sometime ago. A newspaper with a 200 year history can do that. What is interesting is that it had a section devoted to letters about readers reporting hearing the first cuckoo of the spring, sometimes when it is still wintry.

It is a great pastime for some to write letters to the editors of various newspapers. It could be to point out an error, rant about a pet peeve or to ride a hobby horse. It could be to protest about the policies of the government.

I write letters to the editors: to rave about the wanton chopping off of the pitiful tree-cover we have in the city, or the futility of repairing roads just before the Pujas when all the organisers of various pandals will only dig them up again and block the streets and make traffic a nightmare. I rant about the poor standard of English in reporting. I froth at the mouth at people's inability to distinguish between 'loose' and 'lose'. I see red when I read the word 'rule' when administration is the correct usage.

I write vitriolic letters. Venomous letters, even. When I read that blue beatles were a menace to some crop, I shot off a letter that the poor disbanded group of musicians were hardly a peril to agriculture, half of the group being dead, and inquired if the paper misplaced all its sub-editors.

But this is just to vent and get it off my chest. I don't mail the letters I write to editors about whatever has got me riled. Writing the letters is just therapy. :D

But today, when I heard the first magpie robin of the season, I wished we had a tradition of First Cuckoo letters here in India.

In Calcutta, the cuckoos start some time in December, and precede spring. It is the magpie robin that heralds the coming hot season. Small and black and white, it is a dainty bird and a wonderful singer. Its songs get complicated as summer settles down to business, and it sings its heart out throughout the hot months.

All any given day, when I catch sight of it in the branches of the mango tree at the backyard warbling away for all it is worth, my heart always lifts. I hear it muse about a tune, try it out, add grace notes, change its mind and go back to the earlier version. The magpie robin makes summers bearable and beautiful.

Each year, I look forward to the first call of the magpie robin, and while it may mean it is summer soon, it also means a feast of birdsong too. I wish I could write a letter to the editor about the first call of the magpie robin, once.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Open mouth, insert foot.

No, this is not about the Dubya Man and his most recent gaffe.

(How he thought he could get away with referring to citizens of Pakistan as Paks does not require as much thought as I need to employ to solve a cryptic clue; it is a no-brainer. He did not think.

While on the subject of Dubya Man, may I register that my Rupee worth. I don't want him visiting us. He is a habitual and serial killer; that he does it by proxy doesn't make him any less guilty. He is a torturer even if he doesn't menace poor sad innocent bystanders himself or threaten them with dogs. He condones it and tacitly supports it. He spies on his own country, for gods' sake!

What does he know about cricket anyway, huh? Can he recite statistics? )

Okay, finished ranting. :D

Have you ever found your mouth running away with you, without bothering to inform your brain? We don't always think before saying something, and we end up trying to retract or justify statements that jumped out of our mouths before our brains threw up a warning.

I was a gullible young girl. I had a mistaken idea about speaking truth always being a virtue, and it got me into a lot of trouble as a teenager. I had to learn that stating a truth isn't always welcome, and that speaking truth needs timing.

Saying a saree looks awful after a person has gone and bought it and wore it might be true, but is not very tactful. The right time to say it is when the person is contemplating the purchase.

Facts and truth don't have much beyond a nodding acquaintance with social graces and it is good manners to ignore them and be non-committal.

Saying a dish cooked lovingly by your mother (not that my mother ever cooked) tastes like cellulose might be close to truth, but is also rank rudeness. A small digression: if you can't cook, you have no business criticising the food, unless you are in a restaurant and paying for the meal. Personally, I think the only remark on food that can be offered safely is about salt.

More tricky are truths that have to be stated very carefully: 'Do I look fat?' is a question I dread most. The person asking that question is almost never expecting an affirmative while knowing full well the true answer would be a resounding "Yes." The person is asking for re-assurance he or she is looking okay, not a critical rating of their BMI.

As a teenager, when my mother asked if she was as large as some passing woman, I used to give an honest assessment. It was only when I asked my son the same question, "Am I as big as her?" and got a candid "Um, a bit bigger, I think", from him that I realised that my answer should have been "No way, you aren't." Isn't it marvellous what age and adipose tissue do to you? :D

Truth and good manners don't go together, obviously. It took a while to figure this out, and learn to be silent or answer in a creative fashion when asked awkward questions, but I think I manage it. This is called tact. Etiquette requires us to admire the human race. :D

Basic honesty has to be put aside when answering questions like "Do I look okay", especially if the person asking the question doesn't in truth look okay. But honesty doesn't have to be brutal, right, so tact enters the picture... And then, you better pray you have a large vocabulary and a convincing manner of telling social or the so called white lies.

Unthinking statements of utter truth have a way of wounding. Better to be politely non-committal. Good manners is avoiding giving the sort of offence you would be hurt to be on the receiving end of, after all. GK Chesterton said that truth is sacred, and if you tell the truth too often nobody will believe it. And trust me, he knew what he was talking about. :)

And congratulations, Praveen. One hundred thousand hits and climbing, you rock, dude.

Please, folks. Help me out here, and gimme responses, reactions and post comments. I love it that you send me mails, but post the comments on my blog please, pretty please with sugar on top, if you need such bribes. :D


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