Feb 26, 2012

Confessions of an amateur palmist

I never planned to be a fortune teller. When my friend Ruchi gave me her book of palmistry, it looked so silly that I never expected to read it, let alone read anyone's palm. But as I discovered more and more about myself in the book, I was hooked! With every page I would read my own hands and then my sister’s. Very soon we were having palmistry parties for friends. We did it in the day with peanuts and oranges, we did it in the afternoon with tea, and we did it at night, snuggled inside warm quilts. Discussing each other was so addictive that before long, palmistry became a full scale passion!
Soon I began seeing a darker side of palmistry. Predicting someone’s future is like walking into a minefield, you never know which step will blow up! I remember telling a friend who was applying for a visa that he would only travel in old age. I told another person that fame would hurt him, and found out later that he wanted a career in music. I told someone that she would have only one man in her life, not knowing that she was going through a difficult breakup. The disappointment in their faces still haunts me. Hence, I think it is a good idea to explore the flaws of palmistry and establish exactly what palmistry can tell you and what it cannot.
First of all, palmistry is not without its virtues. It builds instant rapport. With new people, it is an easy way to talk about their personal life. With old friends, secrets come tumbling out. Many of the insights of palmistry have been dermatologically proven. Our hands say so much about our health. Unfortunately, people do not want to hear about the relation between nail color and liver damage; I myself skipped these boring parts. When it comes to the sensational details of money, love, and longevity, palmistry stands on shaky grounds. Even the textbooks do not speak of them with much conviction. They circumvent prediction by saying that lines change with time. For example, there may be several potential lovers on your hand, but if you settle down with one of them, the rest are supposed to fade.
The science of palmistry (if it can be called a science) comes with many in-built flaws that add to the confusion. Let us start with the flaw of subjectivity. Fortunately or unfortunately, the small group of family and friends who were my first “clients” all had very dramatic lines. Once I emerged from this cocoon of megalomaniacs, all other hands seemed pale and event-less. For example, a friend of mine is blessed with a very long head line, but since I didn’t know it was exceptional, I assumed it was normal. To anyone with a slightly shorter head line, I said “you will never go beyond bachelors.” Many of those terrified individuals nevertheless completed their masters. Another friend had the lines for a dozen love affairs. This seemed standard to me, and if anyone had just five affairs, I would tell them they had normal healthy relationships. Which was far from the truth. A palmist may have learned the theory, but in practice, her reading is a function of her subjective point of view and her level of experience. 
            Secondly, like every traditional source of knowledge, palmistry is biased. Traditionally only typical Aryan hands were considered auspicious. In America I found many Africans students with dark palms and deep lines, which the textbooks classify as sinister. At a recent Nepali gathering I learnt that Gurungs tend to have light markings, which would be called fickle. You don't have to be a genius to know that not every African is sinister and not every Gurung is fickle. The sheer arrogance of these prejudiced textbooks is remarkable.
And then there is the gender bias, always found in traditional knowledge. According to the textbooks, the left hand is the destiny that you are born with (bhagya), and the right hand shows what you make of it (karma). (And many books are simply garbled about how to read a left-handed person’s palms.)When I read hands, I read both hands for all genders. But women often present their left hands, and when I ask men for their left hand, they ask “isn’t that my wife’s?” Apparently women can make nothing of their lives, and their fortunes should be read in their husband’s hands!
An obscure bit of gender bias is the ratio of index finger to ring finger. Today, it is medically proven that men normally have a longer ring finger than index finger, and the opposite is true for women. But according to palmists, anyone with a longer index finger is likely to be mentally unstable. Yes, you read that right, in the world of palmistry, all women are schizophrenic.
Finally, some of the things that you can read are simply not true. When my friend’s husband obtained an American visa, he had no travel lines. Three years in the US, and he still has no travel lines. Another friend went through a life threatening disease, but there are no indications of such trouble in her hands.
Often, the most memorable revelations do not come from the palmist. Palmistry creates an ambience of intimacy that inspires people to open up. It is not unusual for palmistry sessions to lead to heart to heart chatathons. Professional palmists know these tricks very well, and they can tell you exactly what you want to hear, not from what they read but from how you respond to their readings. Hence, at the end of the day, palmistry is great fun, but don’t believe it, and definitely don’t pay for it.

Feb 19, 2012

The trials with angrezi

When I was little, there was a TV program that I forgot the name of, that taught people to speak English. British people enunciated words slowly as they went around their daily business, going to work, going to school and eating and talking together. Once a woman addressed a man as “Mr. Brown.”
“Isn’t brown a color?” I asked my mom. I was six, and proud of my knowledge of color names in English.
“Yes, but foreigners have names that are color names. Mr. Black, Mr. Grey.” Said my mother absent mindedly. She never realized that for a long time, I thought all foreigners have last names like that. My imagination populated the western world with Miss Oranges, Mrs. Purples and Mr. Pinks.

Once, we were watching a fashion show, which happened to be displaying “evening” gowns.
“Evening gowns?” I asked, shocked. “Do they change clothes every evening?”
“Oh yes”, said my wiser cousin, a teenager when I was just seven. “These foreigners are so advanced, they wear a different dress every morning, day, evening and night.” It was long before I realized nobody except maybe the queen of England changed into evening gowns every day.

* * *

Usually, when you learn something, you get better with it as time passes. Not so with English. The more you learn, the more difficulties you encounter. When I came to America, I realized that nobody understood what zed is. An international friend put it best when he said “there is already a j and a g, what is a need for another zee”. Nobody even has a vague inkling of what parliament is (Congress, congress. And no, it is not the name of a party.) In Nepal you bath in the bathroom, but in America you don’t rest in the restroom. And finally, nobody knows what full stop is. Period.

Feb 13, 2012

Love beyond age

Recently I read a book called “Almost Single”, where the protagonist is a single woman in her 30s. One of its quotes made me pause and think. “The older a man gets, the wider is his dating pool. Women, on the other hand, come with an expiry date label: ‘best before...’“Do women really come with a limited warranty? I tried to relate the quote to real life. Every year, as senior boys left college, girls’ options dwindled, while the guys continued to check out every fresh(wo)man. Similarly, older men often marry younger women, but the reverse is rarely seen. Is romance really off limits for older women? In real life I could find few examples, so I decided to try literature. Here are some December-May romances I unearthed.


The Greek goddess of love had many lovers, but Adonis is probably the most memorable. Aphrodite found him as a baby, and fell in love with him as a grown man. Though Adonis and Aphrodite were happy in love, this story did not end happy. Adonis was killed young by a boar.

Unlike Aphrodite, Jocasta could not find happiness with a younger man. When Oedipus was born, it was forecasted that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this fate, his parents ordered his execution. But the killer took pity on him and let him live. Oedipus later heard the prophecy and decided to leave his parents, not knowing they were adoptive. As fate would have it, he wound his way home and did exactly what the prophecy predicted. When people found out that Oedipus’s wife Jocasta was also his mother, he was blinded and exiled from the kingdom.


We all know that Shivaji once reduced Kamadev to ashes. What happened after that? Kamadev’s wife Rati pleaded with Shivaji and he was reborn as the son of Krishna and Rukmini. Pradhyumna was reared by his nurse Mayavati. Some obscure sources tell the story of how Mayavati fell in love with an adult Pradhyumna. Pradhyumna rejected her, claiming she was like his mother. But this mother had a happier ending than the ill fated Jocasta. Lord Krishna vouched for Mayavati, stating that she was actually his wife Rati, disguised as an old woman to deflect attention from her celestial beauty. Mayavati regained her original form and Pradhyumna happily accepted her.


Ganga was the stuff of legends in Ikshvaku dynasty. Shantanu’s ancestors proudly told of how their forefather Bhagirath had literally moved heaven and earth to bring this maiden to the planet. And when this very Ganga of legends sashayed into Shantanu’s life, he fell head over heels, not knowing that she was eons older than him. So much so that he could not object even when she serially drowned seven of their sons. But he would not let her drown the eighth child, after which Ganga left him!


In H. Rider Haggard’s novel “She” lives a mysterious sorceress called She. A motley crew of Englishmen accidentally land up at her door and are dazzled by her beauty and power. But for two millennia, She has been waiting for her past lover to reincarnate. She recognizes her past lover in Leo Vincey, a handsome traveler. She takes him to an underground volcano that gave her immortality. Unfortunately, the volcano backfires and takes her age away, leaving her like a shrunken old monkey. She dies and the volcano collapses around the travelers, who escape with difficulty.


At twenty, Aragorn fell in love with 2,700 years old Arwen. The most beautiful woman of middle earth gave little thought to this ordinary human. Until one day when a mature Aragorn walked to her under fragrant Elanor flowers and she was mesmerized. But Arwen’s father was adamant that he would give his daughter only to “the Lord of both North and South lands.” Turns out Aragorn is that prophesied lord, he only has to prove it through his awesome leadership! Arwen and Aragorn marry (after a little skirmish with the evil lord), and Arwen gave up her immortal life for a chance to die with Aragorn. (Lord of the Rings)


The lady with the most lyrical name on the list can be found in “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” by Alfred Dunsany. This ageless princess fell in love with mortal prince Alveric who managed to breach her magical world. She went with him to the human world, but failed to learn its ways. She soon returned to her sorrowing father. But there she missed her husband and son. Finally her father integrated Alveric’s lands into the magical world, and Lirazel got everything she loved.

Sleeping beauty

Aurora fell asleep at the age of fifteen, but the world moved on. When she was awoken by her prince, she was a full century older than him. The prince even wondered at her old fashioned dress. However, he was very polite, and “took care not to tell her that she was dressed like his great-grandmother”. Despite their generation gap, Sleeping Beauty and her prince lived happily ever after!

Juta Kamainen
The underappreciated trilogy called “His Dark Materials” is populated with long lived witches. Witches often fell in love with mortal men, but since men die very soon, it causes the witches great grief. Among many such love stories, the story of John and Juta stands out. John spurned Juta because he loved his estranged wife. He changed his identity, but Juta found him nonetheless. Seconds after John found his estranged son, Juta killed John.

It was refreshing to read these beautiful love stories. However, one disconcerting trend in these stories is that the women are always beautiful. It is almost as if their relationship depends on their retaining or reviving their beauty. If that is the case, then older women may still have a long way to go before the dating pool opens up to them. 

P.S. Chandramukhi of Devdas deserves a honorable mention, but I ran out of space. Published in the Kathmandu Post

Feb 11, 2012

Time table during exams

Wake up, freshen up, have tea
2.     Study
3.     Have lunch
4.     Study
5.     Study study until you fall asleep

1.     Wake up, freshen up, have tea
2.     Papers due, sit down to write paper.
3.     Look up random words in google
4.     Go to wiki and spend  3 hrs
5.     Suddenly remember paper, bang head with it, and look up “grad school jokes” online
6.     Start reading phdcomics
refresh facebook
7.     At the 997th page, suddenly realize that there’s  a paper, come back and write 3 words
8.     Decide to make lunch
9.     Been months since you’ve had a decent meal, why not make a 3 course thing :D
10.  Come back and research: read 3 more lines
refresh facebook
11.  Dessert missing from meal: go and cut water melons
12.  Too much water melon, look for water melon recipes online
refresh facebook
13.  Find that there are none, look for apple recipes, and strawberry recipes, and grape recipes, and mango recipes (there r no mangoes in the winter, but who cares?
refresh facebook
14.  Call up an old friend you haven’t talked since school, and discuss latest politics
15.  Suddenly have a heart to heart with cousin about why things didn’t work out with said friend
16.  Do the same with cousin’s list of girlfriends
17.  Oh, btw, your cheating ex bf boy friend has a new gf, look at all her 99 albums
18.  Similarly facebook stalk his ex gf and her 137 albums
19.  Similarly facebook stalk your first crush, and all crushes in between
refresh facebook
21.  Sooooooo hungry, have midnight snack
22.  Stare into space while doing that
23.  Register for new class for the next 3 semesters, discuss merits and demerits with all classmates
refresh facebook
24.  See that its 2 am, hair stands on end, go and poke sleeping roommate with it
25.  Too bored of worldly troubles, get up and dance to the latest bollywood number
26.  Why not watch all the songs from this movie?
27.  Why not watch all the songs of this actor?
Refresh facebook
28.  See that cousin has become fan of Amir Khan
29.  Decide that it is the best time to become  fan of Shahrukh Khan and view all his 999999999 fan pics
      Fall asleep dreaming of Shahrukh Khan
Write random articles that could be written a month later, or any time
Make irritating corrections to it

Correction 1:
Go to bathroom and look at yourself for 15 minutes
Do your eyebrows
Again go to bathroom and do your eyebrows until it is in a straight line
5 minutes later, go to bathroom and do eyebrows until it is only one millimeter in width
Stand back and admire your handiwork for 15 minutes

Correction 2:
refresh facebook
realize that roommate has commented on her school friends album
watch whole album
refresh facebook
repeat process with different name until you have watched albums of all the people in Nepal,
refresh facebook
repeat process until you have done half of Europe and America

In the end:
34.  Repeat steps 1 to 33, until its 1 hr before paper due
35.  Hurriedly write whatever is on mind, don’t notice that date is from last year
36.  Get catastrophic results...

Feb 5, 2012

Framing issues in Mahabharata

Most myths are written from the third person omniscient perspective, which is the most common way of storytelling. But Mahabharata has a complicated story behind its vantage point. It was first of all composed by Ved Vyas. A priest Vaisampayan narrates this composition to king Janamejaya at a yagya. Lomash hears this story at the yagya and his friends back home ask him to recite the story. Lomash asks his disciple to do so, and this narration forms the outermost frame of the story. However, most of the times Vaisampayan is mentioned as the narrator instead of the unidentified disciple. This makes for a very convoluted frame indeed, where we read a person (unidentified writer) write about another person(Lomash) describe a story that he has heard from another person(Vaisampayan) who may or may not have read the original work (by Vyas.) This already presents a challenge to the authenticity of the writer, because if Vyas wrote the Mahabharata, then who wrote the frame story of Mahabharata being recited?
Furthermore, if Mahabharata were taken to be a report of actual happenings, then there is a lot of space for distortions. The fact that this story is told four generations after it happened is the first and most noticeable hindrance to truth. And it doesn’t help that Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjun, is a direct descendant of the victors. For him this is family history and for that reason Vaisampayan noticeably sugar coats the story. Janamejaya always addresses his ancestors in the most deferential terms, eg . illustrious, leonine, etc.. Vaisampayan follows these cues and takes care to describe Pandavas as respectful and learned. In contrast, he always addresses Duryodhan by the worst adjectives like vile and block headed.
A few times, Vaisampayan does slip and depart from his stereotypical characterization.  He describes how Bhim bullied all hundred of Kaurava brothers in childhood, striking their heads together and sometimes breaking their limbs. The anger that Duryodhan felt for such acts is maligned as stubbornness.  This raises the question of what else was missed in the characterization of “heroic” Pandavas. Meanwhile the heroism of Kauravas is left to a few backhanded compliments. We hear only one paragraph, for example, of how Karna fought an entire kingdom alone to gain a wife for Duryodhan. This paragraph occurs almost as an afterthought when Karna is dead, and is elaborated nowhere.  The full story is now buried in antiquity, but these scattered pieces tell us that there might be more to the story than we know today.
If the original convoluted framing isn’t enough, more and more frames are created as the story gains steam. Janamajeya often interrupts Vaisampayan and asks him to go in detail about something. Each character tells stories and these stories contain more stories, the reader often loses count of the frames.  Sometimes the famous ones like the story of Sivi are repeated several times. Repetition is frequent in Mahabharata: before the main characters are even introduced, the summary of Mahabharata is told many times. Besides, the story of each character is told from several dimensions. For just an example, when Drona is introduced, his entire history is recited. When he fights Drupad, the history is repeated. When Pandavas wed Drupad’s daughter, the same history is repeated, and so on. Foreshadowing is a specific type of repetition found overwhelmingly in Mahabharata. Many times learned persons (Vyas or Vidur or Narad) predict the future, and tell the story in excruciating detail. E.g. “Fear not Pandavas, there will soon be a war, when Bhimsen will kill Duryodhan, Arjun will kill Karna, ………….. (insert long list of all warriors) and you will be victorious!” No, Vyas is not a master of suspense.
Digressions do not stop here. There are also pages and pages of genealogy, where every person in the Kuru ancestry is named. At times the reader may be put off by overwhelming praise for each person, as each warrior is called the bravest, the most excellent, and many other epithets.  During vanavas, entire chapters pass by with nothing but names of places visited by Pandavas. Very interesting to geographers or historians for comparing ancient and modern geography, but tedious for a general reader. Not to forget the pages of bhajans that pop up without any context.
Why so many digressions and redundancies? Many scholars argue that Mahabharata was not written by a single person. (Such explanation is not unusual in the world of myths, scholars argue that Homer, who wrote the Greek epic Illiad, is the name of a school and not a person.)Mahabharata Scholars believe that the original composer (believed to be Vyas) wrote only a tenth of the story. This part is called Jaya. In an instance of Meta storytelling, Mahabharata itself admits that a group of verses called Jaya contains the original story.  Later, Vyas’ disciples added to Jaya, and this part is called Bharat. Throughout the ages, individual pieces were added by random writers, and this collection ended up as Mahabharata. As a result, it is not unusual to find discrepancies. The birth of Kumar, for example, is narrated five different times, and each time he has different parents. There are also mutually inconsistent creation stories where the creation is attributed to Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or even Agni!
Sometimes, it is easy to tell which part is which. The core story is well crafted and eloquent with poignant dialogues. Every character is complex:  haughty Duryodhan shows his humble side, legendary Pandava unity threatens to splinter with domestic squabbles, and mature Kunti has an emotional outburst, blaming the entire Mahabharata war on her father Sura who neglected her in childhood!!! When the story lapses into bland bhajan-kirtan, the difference in writing is apparent. However, there are also pages of in-between material that are not at all easy to classify for a layperson, and are better left to experts.
In the end, Mahabharata is a moving story that I would recommend to anyone, but I would recommend that they read an abridged version which gets rid of the redundancies.

Published in the Kathmandu Post
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