Monday 1 October 2007

Eureka demystified

Thousands of years ago, someone’s back itched. His name was Yajñopavīta Sastrigal. Why his parents named him that will remain a mystery, but we aren’t going into the why. We are going, instead, into the what-happened-to-him-and-how-he-reacted. What happened to him, as has already been mentioned earlier, was that his back itched. This was a problem that had plagued the fellow all his life, so much so that he wondered day and night why a point hadn’t come when the itch would become so normal that he’d forget the state of non-itchiness entirely and not feel anything anymore. Wondering didn’t help at all. Neither did prickly heat powder, since he had had the misfortune of being born a few millennia too early.

What he did, in a moment of unbelievable clarity of thinking, was to say “Ayyo Rekha!!!” – Rekha being his wife’s name – so loudly that it was heard all the way to Syracuse, where one Mr. Archimedes was having a blissful bath.

Ayyo Rekha!!!” Yajñopavīta Sastrigal hollered, “Nool kanda konduvayen,” which, translated roughly into English, would read – “Bring me a spool of thread, pronto!”

Yajñopavīta Sastrigal then proceeded to tie three pieces of coarse thread – all thread was coarse back then – together, and put it over his left shoulder, in a manner that caused it to encircle his upper body diagonally. Grabbing hold of this with both hands placed sufficiently far apart on the thread, he moved it back and forth, along his spine. He had boldly scratched where no man had been double-jointed enough to scratch before.

Very soon, others – whose backs sometimes itched, too – started sporting the thread. Some men thought it was too sissy to give an itch so much importance and disdained the practice. The thread wearing bunch obviously didn’t appreciate being called sissy. They claimed that the thread, which by now had taken on the name Yajñopavītam, after its inventor, had other nifty features too.

They said, for instance, that anyone who wore the thing would be effectively twice-born. The three threads represented the goddesses of mind, word and deed, and the knot tying it all together was the formless Brahman, the all-pervading supreme spirit of the universe.

The non-thready bunch was unimpressed, but the thready bunch was so captivated by its own marketing that they evolved complex rituals that their sons, and their sons’ sons had to undergo before taking on the great responsibilities that come with being able to scratch one’s own back. Women amused themselves by inventing other, less metaphysical things like the dosa, and weren’t affected by this great ferment.

My ancestors happened to be from among the thready lot, which meant that I experienced the uncertain emotions of being born twice.

What it has also meant, however, is that I sometimes wear an insecure look on my face, and glance around furtively, before sticking my right hand into my shirt to tug at that piece of thread, and return it to its highly transient perch on top of my left shoulder. Whatever magical properties it may possess, the Yajñopavītam, or the Poonal, as it’s known in Tamil, simply cannot stay put on a shoulder. It is built to slide down the left arm, and incapacitate that limb until the wearer performs that inelegant and very disturbing manoeuvre described above. I did that, for about the seventeenth time, on Friday, and pop went the top button of my shirt. Why didn’t Mr. Yajñopavīta Sastrigal just grin and bear it?