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On February 1st, a report appeared in the Economic Times with the title "Tamil Nadu response to flood was slow, says central analysis". Among other things, this report claims,

reports suggesting that rains and the excess water released from the dam at Chembarambakkam resulted in the flooding of many parts in the city, are being looked at.

It appears now that this central analysis mysteriously doesn't exist, but this particular charge - that the main reason for the flooding was the release of waters from the Chembarambakkam into the Adyar. Further, according to this story, PWD (or other government officials - the details vary with the teller of the tale) had to wait for instructions from the CM's office to release water from Chembarambakkam, and that, had the water been released earlier, the city would have been saved. Apparently, the BBC weather service had predicted heavy rains, and if their warnings had been heeded in time, everything would have been fine, but the bureaucratic delay in opening the sluice gates at the tank is what caused so much of the city to inundate.

To anyone who knows the hydrology of the city and its history, this narrative should immediately sound suspicious. But to really make sense of it, we need to look into the structure of the Adyar River and the Chembarambakkam Tank.

Moving on from the floods

2016 February 04

Two months have passed since the floods, and people have started moving on, rebuilding their lives and homes. Other problems, other debates have taken centre-stage in public discourse, and even the roads are being relaid. But have we moved ahead? Have we learnt anything from the devastation of the 1st of December 2015? Do we need to make any changes to the way we live, or to our infrastructure? Can the city be made safer? Is a course-correction necessary now? Over the last two months - and indeed, for several years before that, we have been struggling with these questions. The two Master Plans were the official attempt to answer these among several others, all related to the development of the city. Now, given all that we went through in these monsoons, some updation of these plans is probably in order. I'm not a PWD engineer or an IAS officer in charge of these questions, but this is an exploration of these questions from an ordinary citizen's perspective.

The Gopuram's tale...

2015 August 30

"Welcome, Stapathi! Please be seated. I haven't seen you in a very long time? Were you on pilgrimage?

"Ayya! For the last six months, after completing the thousand-pillar hall in Madurai for the Dalavoy, I have been on a sthala-yatra to the temples of Tondaimandalam. I returned late yesterday, and after a visit to the temple of Lord Ranganatha, I came here."

In many countries, a very curious, odd phenomenon can be observed; on top of a republican, often even a democratic system, complete with elections, a parliament and rival political parties, sits a powerful family. In various places we have the Bhuttos in Pakistan, the Peron in Argentina, Mujibur Rehman's family in Bangladesh, the Lees of Singapore.

The one that stands out the most is our own home-grown Dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhis whom we all love to hate. The historian Ramachandra Guha has often been quoted saying that his dream is of a "Congress without the Gandhis and a BJP without the RSS". It's very easy to just hate them, but can we understand them? What keeps them in power generation after generation (counting Nehru, it's the fourth generation now). How do they come to power, and how do they retain it?

What makes them tick?

Hail, Prosperity! On the sixteenth day of the fourteenth year of King Parakesarivarman, who conquered Madurai, Whereas a royal letter of His Majesty, our lord, the glorious Viranarayana, the illustrious Parantakadeva, the prosperous Parakesarivarman, was received and was shown to us, We, the members of the assembly of Uttarameru-caturvedimangalam in its own sub-division in Kaliyurkottam, (with) Karanjai Kondaya-Kramavitta bhattan alias Somasiperuman of Srivanga-nagar in Purangarambai-nadu, a district of the Chola country, sitting with us and convening the committee in accordance with the royal command, Made a settlement as follows according to the terms of the royal letter for choosing once every year from this year forward, members for the "Annual Committee", "Garden Committee", and "Tank Committee"...

The story of a failed theory

A few days/weeks ago after work, a group of us colleagues gathered around a computer, and were generally browsing the web and chatting. I have no idea how, but topic turned to the “lost continent of Lemuria”, aka “Kumari Kandam”, the ancient home of the advanced Tamil civilization, destroyed cruelly by the sea with all its glories.

I remember a passage we had to read in Tamil (I'm not sure which class though) that the original Tamil homeland was lost, and its name was Kumari Kandam, or in English, Lemuria. When it's in your textbook, it's not something you question. So, the idea of a Lemuria is accepted as received fact in Tamil country.

My colleagues were slightly surprised to learn that it never actually existed.

What follows is my attempt to explain what the science behind this theory and its abandonment are, where it came from, and what replaced it. And of course, how it was suborned by two groups – the Western occultists and the Tamil zealots, with very little by way of anything like scientific justification.

Along with the sounds of Vedic and Bhakti hymns, the trance-like state that your neighbor gets into when the priest conducts the aarthi, the tasty prasadam given out for free, and the astrological details involved in an archana, an important part of a traditional temple visit is to hear the sthala puranam – literally the legend of the place – from somebody. This could be the priest himself, in temples that aren't very crowded, a friend or relative either during, before or after the visit itself, a book sold outside for ten or so rupees, or increasingly, on the internet, that repository of all trivia however small...

Snakes and Planets

2011 December 12

Every time there's an eclipse, as my neighbour very religiously bathes four times, chants his mantras and performs the various rituals associated with this, most inauspicious of occult events, I, equally religiously, am usually to be found on my terrace, with camera mounted on tripod, trying to catch the event on SD card. This time, rather than just put up a series of images, I thought I'd write a few words on the perception of eclipses and the hows and whys of them.

Earlier, I stopped with the creation of a true zero by Brahmagupta. Now, I have to close the circle and take us back into Europe (last seen dismissing the possibility of something being nothing), a journey that goes through Baghdad, and to an author most known for love poetry, not the poetry of numbers!

The Value of Nothing

2011 November 10

It's been a while since I wrote about anything here, so what I'm going to do now is to write about nothing. Not just any old nothing that might be lying around, but THE nothing that is at the bottom of everything! No, I haven't suddenly decided to switch to Zen Buddhism; this is a continuation of the whole numbers thing from last time. What I talked about last time was the evolution of numbers, and how we ended up with the place-value system with a zero representing the concept of “nothing” in a particular location. I had left out was the use of a zero by itself, to represent nothing, as a real value. Because it is the most celebrated of Indian contributions to mathematics in pop culture, I want to try and find out where it actually comes from.

Number Games

2011 July 01

Consider a bronze-age shepherd or herder; tending to his animals, sometimes a few animals get lost, a few get eaten by predators, and a few are stolen by others. A few are also legitimately subtracted from his flock, by being bartered away with other tribespeople, and by being slaughtered for food. At the end of the week, the flock looks thin, compared to what he started out with, and he needs to take stock of his stock. Keeping the count of animals in his head is getting more and more difficult as the number of animals in his care grows.

Circles in the sand

2011 June 11

I'd like to begin with something that's not particularly difficult, or unfamiliar - it's just an interesting factoid, and something that makes for a good story.

Understanding the history of a concept, sometimes even the very name of something can really push you to understanding the concept itself, where a dry explanation of it would just confuse you.