Nov 26, 2011

Gender bias in Mythological Names

The name of Ram’s stepmother who sent him the forest is pretty well known. But not many people know that Kaikeyi is not this woman’s name at all. The word Kaikeyi is a generic adjective meaning that she came from the kingdom of Kekaya (speculated to be Caucasus Mountains). In fact, this name is so generic that several women in Hindu mythology are called Kaikeyi. In the Mahabharata, Queen Sudeshna of Viratnagar (where the Pandavas spent their Guptavas), is often referred to as Kaikeyi. Ram’s stepmother just happens to be the most famous of all the Kaikeyis. Throughout the Ramayan, she is called with this reverse eponym and not once are we told her real name.

Why did this happen? Why was the name of a major character forgotten and not recorded in the story? A closer look at names of other mythical characters informed me that this was not a coincidence, but was part of an overarching trend of gender bias in myths. Gender bias in our myths is a foregone conclusion, but the etymology of names gives a fascinating view into the vast reaches of gender bias.

Our myths contain hordes and hordes of such forgotten women like Kaikeyi who are named simply after the kingdom they come from. Ram’s mother Kaushalya, for example, is so called because she is from the kingdom of Koshal. In Mahabharata, the mothers of Dhritarashtra and Pandu are often addressed as Koshalya because they are from Kashi. They are lucky, because their given names Ambika and Ambalika, are also mentioned in the epic. In contrast, Gandhari, who comes from Gandhar (a West Asian kingdom in modern day Afghanistan), is not fortunate enough to have her name recorded. Similar is the fate of Madri, coming from Madrades (modern day Madras, as is not difficult to decipher.) We do not know Madri’s real name. Kunti is the luckier wife here, because her given name Pritha is mentioned quite a few times. The name Kunti comes from the name of her adoptive father, Kuntibhoj, and so is not her own name. The same fate also encounters the next generation, where Draupadi is called after her father Drupad. She is also often called Panchali after the kingdom of Panchal (not after her five husbands). She was named Krishnaa for her dark complexion, but this name is used far less frequently.

Why should all of this be a problem? For starters, it is simply not fair to recognize a woman just by her origin; imagine if every female student in America were to be known only by the name “Nepali.” That would be a gross injustice to the individuality of each woman. Besides, most of the men who have parallel roles in the myths are given individual names. Ram’s father is not called an Ayodhyan, he is called Dasharath, and the husbands of Madri and Gandhari are not called Hastinapure, they are called with their proper names of Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Gandhari is not given a proper name even though she is as prominent as her brother Shakuni. Even when Madri’s brother had a much smaller role than Madri, he has a proper name, Shalya. These men are never called Madre or Gandhare. Sure, Draupadi’s brother is sometimes called Drupad after his father, but he is more often called Dhristadhyumna, which refers to his daring nature.

Besides the galling discrimination to begin with, it also appears that men can accumulate new names that give them more praise. The original text often refers to the Pandavas by names that reflect their achievements. Yudhishthir is called Dharmaraj, referring to his just ways. Bhim is called Vrikodara, which means wolf-stomached, referring to his voracious appetite. Arjun is called Dhananjaya, meaning he is the winner of wealth. In fact, these newly minted names of men often overtake their original given names. Karna was named Vasusena by his adoptive parents, but soon became famous for giving away the kundals that adorned his Karnas (ears). Ved Vyas is called so because he divided the Vedas into four different parts, and in time it overtook his first name Dwaipayan, which means “born on an island”. Parashuram’s name was changed from Ram because he did great deeds with his Parashu (axe). Krishna was so named because for his dark complexion, but soon his other names like Madhusudan (killer of Madhu), Keshav (killer of Kisi), Hari (one who takes away sins), Govinda (one who takes care of cows) etc became just as famous as his original name.

In contrast, women with multiple names never manage to outstrip the fame of their origins. Sita is known by the various names of Janaki, Vaidehi, Mithila, and many more, most of them referring to her father’s kingdom. Even her given name Sita refers to the furrows created by the plough from which she was born, it does not refer to her virtuous qualities or her deeds.

To be fair, there are many mythological women whose proper names are mentioned. Tara, Mandodari, Damayanti, Savitri, are some of them. There are also a small number of women named for their achievements. But what tips the scale is the overwhelming number of women who are known simply by their lineage, and the few men that fall into this category. The overarching theme is that women are only known for the identity of their country, or at best, their father. Nothing they do after that in life matters: neither their individuality at birth, nor their achievements thereafter, are worth recording. Men, on the other hand, are given names that reflect their individual characteristics, and have the opportunity to cement their reputation through new names commemorating their success. (This trend applies only to human females and not goddesses who have their proper names.) I find this trend to be a reflection of the norms of Hindu society where traditionally, women were not allowed to have careers, their only career of home management was not deemed noteworthy, and only male achievements were counted.

Published in the Kathmandu Post:

Nov 18, 2011

Names of weekdays

In the Nepali calendar, all the days of the week are named after planets. I guess that is obvious enough. But did you also know that all the weekdays in Western calendars were also originally named after the planets? And that the planets for each day are exactly the same? For example, let us start with the most obvious similarity: Sunday. Obviously, Sunday in English is named after the sun. Sunday in Nepali is generally called Aitabaar, but is also called Ravibar, where Ravi means the sun. Monday is named after the moon, and our own Sombar is named after Som. Som is an old name for the moon, the lord of Somras (intoxicating drink of Gods).

Sunday and Monday are named after Greek Gods. Gradually some of the weekday names in the traditional Western calendar were infiltrated and replaced by names of Norse Gods. But even the new names bear a striking resemblance to the old ones. For example, Tuesday is derived from the God Tiw of Norse mythology who corresponds to the planet Mars. In Nepali Mangalbar stands for the planet Mangal or Mars. Originally, Tuesday was called die Maritus in Latin: the day of the Mars, which was later replaced to Tuesday in the Gregorian calendar. Strangely, though Mars, Mangal and Tiw are from three different mythologies, all the three gods share similar characteristics. Mangal in Hindu mythology is renowned as a malevolent presence that we want to well avoid in our horoscopes. In Greek mythology, Mars is the symbol for Ares, god of war. Tiw is also a god of war.

Wednesday is called Budhabar in Nepal, the day of the Budha or mercury. Originally, it was called dies Mercurii (day of Mercury) in Latin. The current Wednesday is named after Wodin (more commonly known as Odin), head of Norse gods. Wednesday is quite tricky, because very few connections can be made between the Hindu Budha, the Greek Mercury or Hermes and the Norse Odin. There is a very thin thread running through all of them: all are known for their wisdom and presence of mind. But there are marked differences, because Budha is a minor god in the Hindu pantheon, while Odin is one of the major Norse gods. Hermes is a tricky god, a patron of thieves, tricksters and travelers. The dignified Odin once gave up his eye to benefit mankind (did anyone notice his eye-patch in the movie Thor?), and is far from any trickery.

Thursday in contrast is very easy to reconcile. Normally called Bhihibar, Thursday's correct name is Brihaspatibar, referring to the planet Brihaspati or Jupiter. Originally, as you can guess, it was called Jupiter's day in Latin. Modern Thursday takes its name from the Norse God Thor (yes, Chris Hemsworth). Thor and Jupiter are very similar to each other, they are both kings of gods and their weapon is thunder. Brihaspati, though not the king of gods, nonetheless occupies a position above the gods as their teacher. Thursday is also called Guruvar for that reason.

Friday used to be called Venus day once upon a time, like our Shukrabar named after the planet Shukra or Venus. However, the gods associated with them could not be more different from each other. While Shukracharya was a renowned scholar and teacher not too well known for his beauty, Venus was the goddess of love and beauty not too well known for her intelligence. The modern form of the name Friday takes its name from the Norse Goddess Frige or Frigga, often pronounced as Freya. In Norse mythology, Venus was known as "Frigg's star".

With Saturday, we turn a full circle and come to the end of the week. Saturday is named after Saturn, a tyrannical villain in Greek mythology more commonly known as Cronus. Shani or Shanishchar, after whom Shanibar is named, is a malevolent character in Hindu mythology.

It is strange that so many different cultures should name their weekdays after the same planets. And even stranger considering that the Hindu list of planets is haphazard. The sun and moon are counted as planets, the earth is not, and neither are the farthest three planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Why should Greek and Norse cultures also have the same haphazard list? These names have been decided ages ago after lots of astronomic calculations. It is believed that these planets rule over their respective days. However, what exactly are these calculations and why do planets rule certain days? I need to do further research to find that out.

Nov 16, 2011

Body Politics

With so much political activity going on in our country and every little group demanding their fair share of the mainstream, I wonder what would happen if our individual body parts started rebelling. What would each of them have to say about their marginalised place in society?

Feet: Since the dawn of time, we have been the most downtrodden and neglected part of the body. We have been discriminated against ever since Lord Brahma decreed that people of the lowest level are born from his feet! And the discrimination continues to this day. Once upon a time, it was considered a sign of respect to touch someone’s feet, but now no one touches any feet any more. This is no good. We must get the society to touch our feet once more, literally and figuratively. Let us go on a strike, and close down all movement of humans!

This is how lord Brahma decreed it!

Waist: Waists come in all shapes and sizes. The baby’s soft belly, the mother’s layered belly with a tier for each child, the boyfriend’s beer belly, the ascetic’s concave belly, and many others. And yet, it is only the smooth and sculpted six pack abs of models that are praised in society. The rest of us feel maligned and humiliated. We must campaign to bring all of us into the mainstream. The cute and lovable Lord Ganesh will be our mascot.

What a cute belly!

Eyes: I am tired of being the vapid symbol of the human face. Eyes are the most valued sense, and one of the most complicated organs in the body. So complicated, that once a baby is born, his eyes never grow in size, in case growth messes up the configuration. Because we are so sensitive, we are the only part of the body that comes with their own retractable covers (eyelids). And all people can think of is how pretty we are, and how our most valued protective covers are like pretty curtains. Poets insist on giving us meaningless names like stars and what not. We are much more than beauty queens, we must fight to ensure our place as the most intelligent organs of the human body.

Yes, that's how complex we are

Lips: Let me ask you a question: When you see a face for the first time, what part do you notice? I’m sure you are going to say eyes. That is so unfair! Any old eye can look beautiful—have you ever seen a pair of ugly eyes? I thought not. But beautiful lips are a work of art. For proof, look at George Bush; who is so ugly because he has no lips. Even poets and painters are forever infatuated with eyes. Why must we always play second fiddle to those hoity-toity organs? We must rebel to establish ourselves as the most beautiful organs.

no lips, no looks!

Nose: Once upon a time, a nose used to be the most respected organ on the face. In my golden days, nak rakhnu meant to make the person proud, and losing the nose was so important that nak katnu was equal to losing all prestige. Alas, those days are long gone, and today people only laugh about my size and shape. Let us bring our nak, and our honour, back!

Liver: Once upon a time, a liver was thought to be an important organ of the human body, as important as the heart. The liver was also supposed to be the centre of a person’s emotions and the storehouse of their love, just like the heart. In the famous fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, when Snow White’s stepmother asked her hunter to kill Snow White, she demanded that he bring back her heart and liver, which she would eat with relish.

The liver can be found featured in many such older stories, both European and Nepali, where it is given equal importance along with the heart. You must have heard the beautiful Nepali song “Rato rani fulejhai saanjhama, timi fulyau kaleji maajhama,“ which makes a reference to the liver’s importance. But alas, long gone are those days. Somewhere along the way, the heart crept in and stole all the limelight for itself. With its cute shape and pretty red colour, it has managed to hypnotise the world. Now, all the songs and stories are just about the heart. Every chat server worth its bytes has a charming icon for heart, but where is the icon for liver? Nobody even knows what a liver looks like (for the record, we are the same charming red colour as the heart and have an oblong shape). We must get our place back in the human imagination, and we must start by demanding an icon for the liver in every chat and email server in the world.

We are in the process of finalizing the design

Nov 11, 2011

Linguistic confusions

Recently I walked into a grocery store in the US, and picked up a box of readymade macaroni. I could not find any spoon or fork to eat it with, so I asked the cashier where I could find one. “Just go over to the bakery counter and ask for silverware” he told me. Now, I did not want any fancy silver cutlery, as I wanted to take the macaroni to college with me. All I wanted was a disposable plastic spoon, so that’s what I asked for. Later, when I researched the term silverware, I found that “silverware” means any permutation of knife, fork, and spoon, and it doesn’t matter what they are made of, whether plastic, silver or gold! To me that was one more addition to the list of confusing American words. Many other such words have previously confused me right from the day I landed in the US.


For example, the first time we went grocery shopping, our familiar vegetables bhindi and bhyanta surprised us, and not just because they cost Rs 100 Nepali per pau. Bhyanta or Baigun, which we are used to calling brinjal, was labeled eggplant, and bhindi or lady’s finger was labeled okra.

Where is the egg?

In fact, if we told anyone that we call okra by the name of lady’s finger, most people were very amused. Curd was called yoghurt and little white bodi that we call with the simple name of beans were labeled black eyed peas (I don’t know how they are related to the famous band).

Will the real Black Eyed Peas please stand up?

Just as we were getting used to the strange names for food, we found out that there were strange names for water too. In Nepal, a fountain usually means water shooting upwards from a lake or some pedestal. In the US, we got to know another type of fountain: a little metal tap that shoots water upwards for people to drink. This sort of fountain is usually found in public places.


In Nepal, these ingenious fountains might have gone with the simple name of the tap, but in the US, I found that even simple taps have strange names. Once I called my building manager to repair my leaking tap. When the repairman arrived, I refused to let him in because he said he wanted to look at my “faucet.” “I have no problem with any faw-set, thank you” I told him, wondering if I was pronouncing this strange object correctly. “I thought you had water leaking in your bathroom sink?” he said with his eyebrows raised.

Stylish faucet

I finally realised what he was talking about, and let the repairman in. Then I listened to him as he said he could repair anything from leaking “faucets” to stuck elevators. Now, it is common knowledge that lifts are called elevators in many parts of the world. However, I did not know that petrol is called gas in many parts of the world. When I first saw my friends stop at “gas stations” and fill up their cars with “gas,” I wondered if this was a new breed of cars that ran on butane. But no, apparently it was the short form of gasoline, and was equivalent to petrol (our short form of petroleum).


Meanwhile, cars kept producing more such confusing words. When I was loaded with groceries and looking for someplace to put it in the car, I could never get anyone to open the dickey, simply because they did not understand what I meant. Only later, when I was seated inside with a huge load of groceries on my lap, someone would take pity on me and ask “why didn’t you put them in the trunk?” But the most confusing car word of all was muffler. My American friends argued that muffler is an object used to muffle the sound of a car engine! And as for my woolen muffler, they insisted that it was just a normal scarf.

No, you can't wrap this around your neck

That argument was easily settled with a quick look at the dictionary, which gave both meanings of the word muffler. Both parties were right. But later I came across another type of neckwear where I was wrong. A friend of mine once told me that her boss had liked her pendant. “You mean this locket?” my friend asked her boss: “Is it a locket? Does it open up?” her boss asked. And that is how we knew that if it opens up, it’s a locket (to store photos in a filmy style, presumably) and if it doesn't, it’s a pendant (which is what most normal necklaces are).

Which is which? You decide

Much of my confusion with these words can be explained by the predominance of British English in Nepal. No wonder, considering that the British occupied much of the subcontinent and hobnobbed with Nepali royalty. Most people they associated with learnt British English, and the legacy remains to this day. Tap, for example, is a British word, and so is lift. A muffler (the car part and not the scarf) is called silencer in British English. In Nepal, most newspapers, TV channels, and other mass media still continue to use British English, and even the textbooks that we learn from in school prefer British English over American. As a result, words like okra and gas just don’t enter our vocabulary.

Published in Kathmandu post

Nov 4, 2011

Omnipresent Advertisements

The field of advertising has become very ingenious and today advertisements can be found in the most unexpected locations. In today’s world of marketing explosion, it is often difficult to distinguish between advertisement and information. While many of these advertisements are commendable for their efforts, many of them simply fail because they are displayed in places that no clients would be interested in. I encountered one of those failed advertisements at a recent journey. For example, as I was taking off my shoes and belts for the plane security, I noticed that the bottom of the security trays were full of advertisements. There were pictures of a girl with a generic so called “athletic build” who was lifting dumbbells. In between shoving my laptop into the security tray and taking off my girly sandals with 4 buckles each, I could never find out what the girl was actually advertising, and I doubt if anyone else did either.
Who cares?

The next example of completely worthless advertising came in the plane itself. When I first saw the plane, I thought we had walked into an “airhostess Barbie” advertisement. But then I realized we were actually supposed to sit inside that itsy bitsy thing. The size of the plane had a big role to play in the failure of its advertisements. After we settled down, I got my laptop out to type, and then realized that I could only open it 30 degrees, because the person in front had relaxed his seat and encroached my space. As I was trying to peer at the tiny aperture of my laptop, my elbows stuck out at odd angles because the seat itself was so small and I didn’t dare risk touching anyone beside me. In this undignified position, I had neither the time nor the inclination to notice the cheery advertisement pasted on the back of the plane seats. Though one of these brightly colored advertisements was right in front my eyes (behind the laptop screen) I cannot remember which cartoon character it featured and what it was saying.
Who can read these ads?

Sometimes, however, strategically placed advertisements can work wonders. We had gone to Field museum where we had to wait in a long line to buy tickets. As we waited, we couldn’t help but watch the TV that was right in front of our eyes. We had prepared to buy just the normal tickets, but while we waited, the TV continuously advertised the museum’s special tickets for special one-time exhibits(at an additional price of course)! By the time we got to the counter, we were sold (literally) and bought the high priced tickets. This was an example of advertisement that went undetected as a piece of information.

Later, another successful strategically placed advertisements was seen in the city of Las Vegas. The city, also called Sin city, is renowned for its casinos. The entire city seemed to promote this image with vigor, as there were slot machines right at the airport when we got off the plane. Of course these machines were not officially called advertisements either, but they definitely served the purpose of attracting customers. When we reached our hotel, the front desk was not near the door as we would expect. Rather, we had to wade through miles and miles of the hotel’s slot machines just to get to the front desk and get our room keys. It seemed as if the hotel management was determined to entice us to play, and did not care if we were embarrassed to stroll in a glittering casino in travel soiled clothes (embarrassment compounded upon seeing other people in really fancy party clothes). The entire lobby was designed to entice guests to gamble, and I am assuming this strategy works, because another nickname of Las Vegas is “Lost Wages!”
Slot machines near Baggage claim at Las Vegas

This particular hotel that we stayed in had a tower which provided a beautiful view of the Vegas city. It was also not devoid of advertisements, though I don’t know if they work. The writings on the walls of the tower encouraged visitors to take proper advantage of the venue and be romantic, as “more than 2000 people get engaged here every year!” I sincerely doubt if anyone was inspired enough by this quotation to propose on the spot! However, if they did, then that would serve the purpose of making the tower special and attracting more visitors!

The M&M chocolate factory that we visited was also not far behind in advertising love. “Fall in love with a local” the walls screamed, and though I scanned the room for handsome cowboys to have a crush on, if not fall in love, I did not find any. Later I realized that the advertisement was regarding local chocolate! So much for my romantic dreams! But I am sure many people (like me) were attracted to the chocolate just because of its dreamy wordings!

Encountering advertisements in such odd places was an interesting reminder that there are no limits to the reaches of advertisement these days, advertisers will leave no inch of space unclaimed for their products! We live in a world where most of our information comes from advertisement, whether successful or not, and as time passes, it will get harder and harder to find any information that is not an advertisement. A hotel lobby, a waiting queue, 4 square inches of space, anything can be used for advertisement, and in future, everything will be! It is up to us to separate information from advertisement, but the task will just get harder as everyday passes by.

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