I just finished reading an article in the March 3 New Yorker, “Numbers Guy – Are our Brains Wired for Math,” about the work of Stanislas Dehaene. I was particularly interested in this paragraph:
Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language. And, as Dehaene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial. English is cumbersome. There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90. This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as “twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.” … Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numberals, with a minimum of terms. Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen….

I have a hard time with Hindi numbers (partly, of course, because I don’t use them often) – anything over 50 is confusing for me. From 10 onward, the numbers are irregular – for example 10+1, which logically would be das-ek or ek-das, you have gyarah, and every decade has its own oddities. 21 is ikis instead of ikbis (ek+bis – 1+20). And what about the 50s? Pachaas, 50, is followed by ikaavan, rather than ikpachaas (1+50), and then baavan (52), and then trepan – not trevan – so even within the decade it’s weird. Sheesh.

Tamil, on the other hand, is very logical. Except for 90 and 900, once you know the system you can count anything. Eleven is 10+1, not a special word like 'eleven.' After 20 (iruvathu, i.e. 2 tens), you have 20+1 , 20+2, etc. Simple. (Aha -- I just noticed that there is some variation between p and v, just as there is in my Hindi example above -- e.g., 20 is iru-vathu, while 30 is mu-p-pathu -- so the Santhi rules for joining letters together are coming into play in both cases.)

Is this understandable? I’m putting it in a cumbersome way. And I'm sure my spelling of the words for Hindi and Tamil numbers is atrocious.

The article made me wonder if Tamil children pick up counting faster than Hindi-speaking children – the system is more logical, so there’s less rote memorization required of small children. At the same time, Tamil is more polysyllabic than Chinese, so Chinese children might have an advantage over Tamil children, but not as much of one as they have over English-speaking children…

What do you say?


I was wondering what to make for lunch today, and I had a sudden craving for one of my father's favorite foods: bread and gravy. He grew up poor, born in West Virginia, and moved around the midwest as a child by his father, looking, apparently not very successfully, for work. My father sometimes described himself as a hillbilly, or 'mountain William,' though he had been away from the hills for many decades by the time I knew him. He loved what now looks like poor people's food: bread and gravy; fried cornmeal mush (perhaps that's polenta to you); scrapple. Stodgy comfort foods, which eke out small amounts of meat.

We generally don't have meat in the house -- our kitchen is no-egg vegetarian -- but I lapse on occasion. I had had a roast chicken delivered a couple of days ago. So I stripped the meat off the bones and boiled up the carcass, made a roux of flour and butter, poured in the hot stock, added salt and pepper, and made a thick gravy. I poured it over the white Wonder-type bread that my staff takes with morning coffee and afternoon tea.

While I cooked I thought about my father, and remembered our family's only trip, when I was quite small, to Fairmont, West Virginia, where he was born. We met his very elderly Aunt Veedie, who invited me to choose one of her crocheted doilies as a gift. I horrified my parents by selecting the only one that was not plain white -- the yarn was heavily splotched with purple and yellow. But Aunt Veedie was pleased, saying that she called it her Aurora Borealis doily.

Two slices of white bread smothered in chicken gravy, and it was so good.

Coconut Stem Cluster

One of the stems cut down by the coconut tree man. Destined to replace this one, which broke away from its sheath.

Coconut Medicine 2

Today the ingredients of the poultice were assembled: turmeric, moth balls, rock salt, Sam's Fortified Neem Powder. The tree man supervised their mixing, put the medicine in a bag which he attached to his holster-basket, and began to climb. First he slung the longer rope -- partly covered with black rubber for extra traction, perhaps an old bicycle inner tube -- around the trunk above his head, tied the ends together to make a ring, and kept a smaller ring of the same material around one ankle. he jumped up onto the trunk, pulling himself up with the large ring, and rested both feet on the smaller one.

In this way -- throwing the larger ring upward and bringing up his feet -- he continued up the trunk like an inchworm. The palms' crowns must be about 30 feet high.

He climbed up to the base of each crown, cut down the lowest ring of leaves with his machete, along with whatever coconuts were ripe, dried-up leaves, and stem clusters from which coconuts had already been harvested. Finally he applied the medicine around the coconut stems and came back down. Each tree took about half an hour, and he charged Rs. 50 -- a little more than a US dollar -- per tree. He also carries away the cut leaves, which are made into rough brooms or coarse woven mats for thatched huts.

What strength he requires, to climb those tall, branchless trees and to do so much tending, without any more support than two rings of rope!


Delhi police 'encounter' specialist shot dead by friend – that’s one of the headlines over a story that will surely turn up soon in one of the gangster movies made by Mahesh Bhatt, Ram Gopal Varma, et al.

The job title ‘encounter specialist’, first of all: an ‘encounter’, in India, is an armed engagement between police/army and criminals/terrorists. In the police context, it has often come to mean a legalized killing of criminals, bypassing the overburdened and inefficient courts. In movies you see a policeman telling a crimnal 'Run!', and then shooting him while he tries to escape. Encounter specialists have been presented as heroes, albeit controversial ones, in the press. There was a 2004 Hindi movie about an encounter specialist called 'Ab Tak Chhappan'-- 'So Far, Fifty-six' (killings). The poster for this movie reads 'Doctors Cure / Engineers Build / I Kill.'

It's clear that this kind of power can clearly lead easily to a sense of being above the law.

photo from

The dead encounter specialist looks a little like a younger Shatrughan Sinha (an actor) to me. The property dealer who killed him called a TV news channel to tell his side of the story. It's all so media-ready. Here's the story, from The Hindustan Times:

Encounter specialist Rajbir Singh outgunned, finally

People who live by the gun, die by the gun. Police officer Rajbir Singh, in fact, died of his own gun, not very far from the site of the first of his 45 encounters that made him such a legend, a controversial one no doubt.

Police said a Gurgaon property dealer, Vijay Bhardwaj, has confessed to killing Rajbir using a gun loaned to him by the officer a few days ago. Rajbir took two shots in the head and died on the spot. Gurgaon Police Commissioner Mohinder Lal said at a news conference on Tuesday that Bhardwaj and his office boy have been arrested. He added Rajbir was killed on Monday evening at Bhardwaj’s office. ...

Bhardwaj owed him Rs 60 lakh for a land deal -- the nature of which has not been specified yet. Rajbir had given him 72 hours to pay, ending Monday evening.

"He had threatened to eliminate me and my family and had given me an ultimatum," Bhardwaj told Hindustan Times, adding, "I was already under heavy debt and was unable to meet the deadline."

The troubled property dealer had even tried to commit suicide. "But my family found the suicide note before I could kill myself." And they prevented him from taking that extreme step.

Rajbir drove to Bhardwaj's office on MG Road in Gurgaon sometime between 7.30 pm and 7.45 pm with his security detail in a Qualis -- the police officer had been given Z category security.

They began talking. Gurgaon police said after some time, Rajbir asked the security people to fetch some snacks from a nearby petrol station. And now the two were by themselves in the office.

Rajbir and Bhardwaj had known each other for 20 years. But that evening, they could have been enemies. The property dealer got up from his seat, went behind Rajbir and opened fire from a .32 revolver. Gurgaon Police Commissioner Lal said, "Rajbir gave this revolver to Bhardwaj for his safety as he was expecting the payment of a huge amount of money -- his money."

The first shot went right through the middle of the head, the second grazed the side and the third completely missed. The first bullet had been sufficient to kill Rajbir.

Mumbai police's encounter specialist Pradeep Sharma, who knew Rajbir well, found it hard to believe how an amateur like Bhardwaj could keep a steady hold of the gun.

Bhardwaj also kept a hold on his nerves. He walked out of the office, got into his Hyundai Verna and took off. While driving around he called a friend for the telephone number of a TV news channel. He then called the local police station, asking if his office came under its jurisdiction. Bhardwaj then called the channel and said he wanted to speak to a reporter about the murder of a senior police officer. ...

Coconut Medicine

Our cook, Mary, is the in-charge for our three coconut trees. She tells the gardener when to cut the ripe coconuts down, and monitors their quality. A couple of days ago she told me that the coconuts have become dry -- she brought a pot full of halved fruit, to show me the white flesh.

I suggested that she call the coconut tree man. He had come at about this time in 2006, when the coconuts were falling before ripening, and did the trees a lot of good by climbing up to the crown and applying a poultice made from rock salt, mothballs, sambrani (a kind of incense), turmeric and edible camphor, bound with oil.

The coconut tree man in 2006. He has a heavy black rope slung over his shoulder, and wears a cone-shaped basket for his machete. The gardener is mixing up the poultice.

The prescription for dry coconuts is different. In addition to camphor, turmeric and salt, he wants something called vepampunakku, which he says is available from nurseries. Sadly, the nursery which I used to go to, the enormous and serene Saundarya, has long gone to development, and most nurseries are in the suburbs. (For that matter, the coconut man himself lives in the Srinivasapuram slum, which is about to be emptied and its inhabitants transported to a distant project – what will we do then?)

Mary discovered from him, and told me, that vepampunakku is a paste made from the seeds of the vepam tree, and that we have one in our garden –a smallish slender tree. She said that the fruits are also medicinal, but that the crows eat them all.

If anyone knows more about the vepam tree, or vepampunakku (and where to get it!), I’d be interested to hear about it. update: Now I feel silly: vepam is neem, it turns out. So that's why it's in our garden. Though I don't know why it's so scrawny -- neem is a big, spreading tree. Even its shade is supposed to be healthy. My gardener rode his bicycle to a nursery in Adyar and bought bags of "Sam's Nutri Neem-Plus 100% Pure Neem Powder, Fortified with Turmeric, Castor, Pungam and Illupai." Rs. 25 per kg. I still don't know what pungam and illupai are...

Welcome to Khaufpur

The very clever website of the city of Khaufpur -- a city which does not exist.

Khaufpur is the setting for a novel which was reviewed in the NYT today: Animal's People, by Indra Sinha. The book was a finalist for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Khaufpur represents Bhopal, the site of the disastrous 1984 gas leak from the Union Carbide chemical plant (Khauf = fear).

I checked out my horoscope in Khaufpur's Astrology section, maintained by Shri Shri Shadangi Maharaj:
Capricorn: Your sense of humour is needed right now but remember that all things are sent to try us and that the universe is a joke of the Upstairs One so don't life too seriously. Err on the bright side and remember chicken pox only last three weeks.

I was also intrigued by Khaufpur's heritage liqueur, Kesar Kasturi, "a liqueur imbued with saffron and musk". That could inspire some khauf all by itself.