Aug 26, 2011

Meaning of names in Harry Potter

The recent release of Harry Potter movie was a major event for fans worldwide, since it is the last movie in the series. The enormity of the farewell event could be felt in many different ways. When I went to watch the movie, lots of people were sitting outside the movie hall waiting to watch it. Ever since I came to US, I have never seen even a single person wait so faithfully to watch a movie, let alone a corridor full of them. Some were carrying Harry Potter books, some were dressed up as the characters, and most of them just excitedly discussing the plot. The excitement was palpable, and carried over to virtual world too. That night, five of the ten words on Twitter world trends were related to Harry Potter. In fact, as I watched, Voldemort was kicked out from the list only to be replaced “Mischief Managed”, a phrase used in Potterworld to turn off the Marauder’s Map (a paper version of Google Earth with live feed). This is perhaps the last time that Harry Potter is going to grab the world’s attention on this scale, I noted ruefully, because there are no more Harry Potter books or movies on the way. Consequently, this is also the perfect moment to put a spotlight on the amazing craft of JK Rowling who mesmerized the world.

Rowling has invented many names for magical objects in Harry Potter, and it might interest the fans to know that most of the names are not random. In fact, most of the inventive names are true to their meaning, like veritaserum. In Potter-world, when a person drinks veritaserum, they are compelled to tell the truth. This serum played an important role in the fourth book when Dumbledore poured it down the throat of a stupefied Barty Crouch, and out came the story of a death eater believed to be dead. The word veritaserum is made up of two words, verita and serum. “Verita” has its roots in verus, a Latin word meaning truth. It can be found in other truth related English words like verify (ascertain the truth of), veritable (true) and verisimilitude (likeness to truth). Even the frequently used word “very” originally used to mean true and genuine. The serum in Veritaserum is a generic word meaning fluid, many shampoos and conditioners are called “serum” these days, probably to make a plain old shampoo sound sophisticated.

There are many other interestingly named serums in Harry Potter. Amortentia, the so called love-potion, is one of them. The meaning of “amour” is love, and is found in many love related words like amorous (lovey-dovey) and paramour (lover). Amortentia plays a very important role in the story of Harry Potter. The arch villain Voldemort’s mother is in love with a wealthy and handsome muggle. But Merope is an unattractive woman who is described as possessing squint eyes, ragged clothing, and “a look of utter defeat”. She is only able to seduce her lover by using Amortentia. However, Voldemort’s father leaves her before the child is born, because as all Harry Potter fans know, Amortentia does not create love, it only induces a strong infatuation that wears out with the potion. The potion falsely named, because it is impossible to create love. It is, however, possible to create luck by bending circumstances in your favor, with the help of a shining golden potion called Felix Felicis. This is the lucky potion that Harry gets as a reward from Professor Slughorn, and which he later uses to gain information from Slughorn himself. Both the words Felix and Felicis are variations of a single word, felicity, which means happiness. While Felix is a first name, Felicis is not a word in regular English. However, felicitations may be wished for people on happy occasions. I have no doubt that a drought of Felix Felicis would make me very happy indeed.

Other things that make me happy can be found in the mirror of Erised. This mirror plays an important part in the first book. The first time that Harry sees it, he sees himself surrounded by his loving family, reflecting his heart’s desire. No wonder, because the name of the mirror “Erised” is just desire spelled backwards. Rowling takes many such little liberties with language. For example, spellotape, which is a tape used in the wizarding world, is a play on the word sellotape, the tape we normally use in real word. By adding a p in it, the tape sounds like it is made of spells. Omnicular is also a word coined in a similar fashion. In a real world, binoculars have just bi, or two functions, to increase or decrease the size of objects. In Harry Potter’s world, Omniculars allow you to zoom, pause, replay and do many other things, as Harry learned in the Quidditch world cup tournament (Though not too pleasantly, as Ron kept watching a random bloke pick his nose again and again). In other words, they have many (omni) functions.

The names of the four Hogwarts founders are equally interesting and fraught with meaning. Each of them is related to their house emblem. Godric Gryffindor’s last name is derived from Griffin, which is a legendary creature, part lion and part eagle. Remember that the symbol of Gryffindor house is a lion. Similarly, Rowena Ravenclaw’s last name can be dissected into two parts, raven, which means black, and claw, which are the nails of a bird. The eagle, which is the symbol of Ravenclaw house, has exactly such black claws. The emblem of the Hufflepuff house is the badger, which is a fluffy and furry animal. Of all the founder’s names, Hufflepuff’s matches least with its house emblem, the resemblance of Huffleppuff to a badger is vague. Salazar Slytherin’s last name, on the other hand, is a very precise reference to slithering snakes, which are its house emblems.
A griffin

And now we have come to an end of the discussion of meanings in seemingly random Harry Potter names. If you had not guessed, this was a desperate attempt to hold on the Harry Potter saga, and avoid saying goodbye to the beloved franchise (sob sob!) I bet millions of fans are inventing strategies like this even now, as we have spent exactly half of our lives mesmerized by Harry Potter. But now we can hold off the goodbye no longer. So here’s saying a farewell to Harry Potter! It was fun!

This post was published in the Kathmandu Post:

Aug 20, 2011

Marriage Customs in Mahabharata

In our society, we normally believe that the rules of marriage that we follow today are traditional. But Mahabharata introduced me to many strange rules regarding marriage and birth of children that would be considered definitely non-traditional today. The most illuminating incident was the birth of Pandavas, when Pandu and Kunti have a long conversation regarding marriage and child birth. This conversation turned out to be very revealing. We have all heard the story of how Kunti gets a magical mantra from Durvasa that enables her to get children from Gods. However, contrary to what the popular TV serial would have us believe, these children did not appear in Kunti’s lap magically as gifts from various gods. The text of Mahabharata gives ample evidence that these children were all conceived in the normal way. In fact, Pandu had to try very hard to convince Kunti to take the necessary steps and bear those children. He begins the conversation this way:

Pandu: Kunti, you know I am banned from having children, so please beget children for me from other men.

Kunti: No, I will not embrace any man but you, it is against dharma.

Pandu: No, it is not. Actually, in olden days, women used to roam about freely as men and they were not bound to one husband. In the matter of marriage and sexual partners, they did as they liked. The rule of single partner is quite new, so it is not against dharma at all for you to get children from other men.

Having given birth to Karna earlier, Kunti knew what was entailed...

This vital piece of information about the freedom of women in past is left out from most versions of Mahabharata that we know today. The TV serial Mahabharata, which is the source of mythological knowledge for many people today, surreptitiously avoids making any mention of the sexual freedom of women in ancient days. As a result, most of the audience never knew that it existed. The omission is not surprising, imagine the furor in rural Hindudom if people heard such heresies from a serial that they worshipped! Anyways, after Pandu fails to convince Kunti through this method, he tries the following.

Pandu: Kunti, you know that wives must obey husbands, hence, do as I say and get sons for me.

From this I drew the conclusion that by the time Mahabharat was written, the olden days of freedom of women were long gone, and it was already customary for women to obey their husbands. This argument still does not convince Kunti, and Pandu tries another gambit.

Pandu: There are different types of sons. They are: the son of you and your married wife, the son of wife and superior person who fathers a child out of kindness, the son of wife and another person paid to father a child, the son of conceived by wife after husband’s death, the maiden born son, the son born of unchaste wife, the son given, the son bought, the son self-given, the son received with pregnant bride, the brother’s son, and finally, the son of wife of lower caste.

Poor Kunti probably wished she had known about different types of sons when she needed it ...

From this speech, two important conclusions can be drawn. First of all, Pandu lists the sons of wives who were pregnant at marriage. In those days, it was ok for men to marry women who were already pregnant and raise those children as their own. Such liberality is not seen very often these days.

Secondly, in the list of sons, many are absolute strangers. For example, sons given, bought or adopted. But Pandu puts the son born of a lower caste wife last. In the hierarchy of sons, he can even accept strangers over a son of lower caste. That just shows the hypocritical importance of caste in Hinduism. But Kunti does not think so, and finally Pandu clinches the deal with this statement:

Pandu: Do you know, all of the above sons are the sons of the husband according to dharma? Everything that a wife owns or produces belongs to her husband. So hesitate no more, for all sons you beget shall bear my name and they shall extend the Kuru race.

And the rest, as we know, is history. Kunti agreed to the deal and gave birth to three sons fathered by three different males (Mahabharata insists that they were gods and not men, but even so, these were male gods). However, the rule that Pandu spouts here is again hypocritical. These Pandavas do not have a drop of Pandu’s blood in them, Kunti is not Pandava and neither are the gods who she got children from. But according to Pandu, these children extend the Kuru race. According to this logic, once a woman is married, she belongs not to her parent’s race but her husband’s race, and hence her children extend her husband’s race, no matter who the biological father is. Methinks Pandu needs a course in modern DNA technology, which takes no heed of a woman’s marital status but focuses on pure biology.

The Pandavas bore their "father" Pandu's name despite being his biological strangers

After reading this conversation between Pandu and Kunti, we are left with a very surprising view of how our ancients regarded marriage, and this view is at once more suffocating and more liberal than today. The importance of male child is entirely sickening, marriage was even then very important to the status of women, and husband’s word was still the law within the marriage. But yet, this was a time when pre marital and even extra marital partners were not as frowned upon as they are now. Now I think I know why the society did not want women to be educated. Before the advent of modern age, education mostly meant being able to write letters, do calculation, and read religious texts. And if women were reading these texts, they might question the narrow confines of their own roles and marriages. Even now, though so many women are educated, Pandu’s ideas would be considered heretical. In conclusion, this glimpse into the ancient rule proved to be very complex and unexpected.

Aug 12, 2011

Political Misnomers


Justin: Black American guy

Sewa: Nepali Brahmin girl

Scene: Living room with news on, playing Obama’s speech

Sewa: Are you proud of having an African American president?

Justin: I hate the term African American.

Sewa: Why?

Justin: Come on, why should I be called African American just because I am black? I was born and brought up in America, who cares if my ancestors came from Africa, that was hundreds of years ago. I am not from Africa, if you are calling ME African American, then what will you call the people who are coming from Africa now and settling here?

Sewa: What’s the difference anyways, the new African immigrants are black and you are black. Like look at Obama, his father came from Africa but no one can tell that!

Justin: There's a lot of difference. Not all real Africans are black. There are a lot of white people in Africa, descendants of colonizers. Haven't you seen white cricket players, or football players, from South Africa?

Sewa: Hmm. True. I wonder what those whites feel about Obama, as he is supposed to be the pride of African Americans and everything?

Justin: Which African Americans do you mean? Me, or the new immigrants from Africa?

Sewa: Haha, funny. What do you want to be called then, instead of African American?

Justin: I just want to be called black American. By the way, are there any black people like me in your third world nations?

Sewa: I hate the term third world nations.

Justin: But why? It’s a simple numbering system to identify countries.

Sewa: For starters, where is the second world?

Justin: Oh, those are the countries behind the iron curtain.

Sews: Never heard of a curtain big enough to hide an entire country.

Justin: it’s just a metaphor, silly. It means communist nations. The First World was the United States and its allies, the Second World was the Soviet Union and its allies, and the Third World was the neutral and nonaligned countries. You see it is not a ranking system, those numbers have no meaning.

Sewa: Oh yeah, if the numbers don’t have rankings, then why are we third anyways? In Nepal third class automatically means stupid or of low quality. The worst grades in school are called third division, and the worst taste in anything is called third class. IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT WE ARE NAMED THIRD WORLD? WHY IS IT ONLY USED FOR COUNTRIES WITH POOR ECONOMIC STATUS, NO MATTER WHO THEY ARE ALLIED TO? (slightly hysterical by now) IF THE NUMBERING IS RANDOM, THEN WE WANT TO BE THE FIRST WORLD!!! WE CAME FIRST ANYWAYS, ALL HUMANKIND ORIGINATED FROM AFRICA, AND THE OLDEST CIVILIZATIONS WERE FOUND IN ASIA!!!

Justin: Calm down. The politically correct term “developing nations” was invented for people like you who started yelling about such stuff. To be used for people of diverse nations like Nepal, Ethiopia, few countries in the middle east...

Sewa: What is the middle East in the middle of? Where is the rest of it?

Justin: Well, there's near and far east...

Sewa: Near to where? Far from where?

Justin: From Europe of course...Look at the map, everything that lies east of Europe is called East. The nations like Turkey and others are near to Europe and are called near East, and others like China are far from Europe so they are called Far East.

Sewa: That doesn't make sense. I don't live in Europe, why should I use directions meant for Europeans? China is next door to me, why should I call it far? The middle East should be in the middle of something neutral like east east and west east. Or maybe top east and bottom east...

Justin: Phew!!! Never mind, forget middle east. Many of those countries are rich anyways. Some other South Asian people are also from developing nations, like Bhutanese, Sri Lankans, Indians...

Sewa: Which Indians do you mean? The Indians from the country next to Nepal, or the Red Indians of America?

Justin: Haha, it is all Columbus's fault. The bungler landed in America and thought he was in India. After that, everybody calls Native Americans “Indians”.

Sewa: Sure, blame it on poor Columbus. Why are you guys intent on giving foreign names to your natives anyways?

Justin: Yea right, blame it on us, do you have any better terms for your natives?

Sewa: We call them backward castes.

Justin: Why? Do they walk backwards?

Sewa: No, because they are left behind in the race to progress. It’s supposed to be an improvement over terms like scheduled castes….

Justin: What do you mean scheduled? Do they have strict daily schedules?

Sewa: Phew! No, the British listed a few Indian tribes in a schedule, that's why they came to be called so! In Nepal we call them dalit which means downtrodden. But many people dislike the term and prefer to use "indigenous people".

Justin: But you still call them downtrodden? That means you continue to tread over them.

Sewa: Of course not! I never trod on anybody, it’s not a literal term.

Justin: Yeah, right! Who are you kidding, Brahman lady?

Sewa: Shut up African!

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