June 2017


Latest book: The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry, edited and translated by Ahmed Ali. I think I can reuse the illo of Babur and Humayun here, since Babur was probably reciting some verse.  In Persian, not Urdu, I know.

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Ali is a great guide– knowledgeable, enthusiastic, tolerant, a font of details.  What he isn’t (warning: my opinion) is a great translator. He’ll introduce a poem or a poet, rhapsodic over just how wonderful and beautiful they are, and it just kind of washes over me.  At random, here’s (most of) a ghazal by Mir Taki Mir, who is said to be the greatest of the 18C Urdu poets:

For days the thought of parting
Had haunted my afflicted breast
Now it was pain, and now a wound
At times a blow, at times a thrust.

At dawn the happy happy world
Was no less kind than on the night
Of sorrow, for the lamp was turned
To smoke, the moth reduced to dust.

Yet if annihilated was
The heart, it was but just as well,
For sometimes it was with the heat
Of love a burn, sometimes a hurt.

…If ever you chance to pass that way
O breeze, then tell her: Faithless one,
But sad and lonely Mir alone
Was in your garden a prickly thorn.

Part of it is because of the type of poetry I like, which is: very little.  I find classic English poetry excruciatingly dull, and I really kind of hate traditional meter, traditional poetic diction, and what seems like a thick overcoat of sentiment. And for the most part Ali seems to translate from Urdu into just that style of poetry.  Alert readers who like poetry: is this great stuff that I happen to be immune to?

(I like Chinese poetry much more.  It’s quick and visual, and not much given to repetition or sentimentality.  Also, I’m sure the Urdu poems are great in Urdu, which is why I’m blaming poor Mr. Ali.)

Still, it has its moments.  Some I am saving for the book, but I’ll give a few interesting bits that didn’t fit in.  There’s one long poem, by Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda, that’s highly entertaining; it’s the complaint of a man whose horse is an utter disaster.  Here’s the final stanza:

Thanks be at last my earnest prayer was heard,
And I could manage to reach the battlefield
Somehow, and with a warlike cry I made
To fight. But as a Maratha came to meet
Me, the lean beast, abject, dry as a bone,
Put me to utter shame and mean disgrace.
I egged it on with kicks and shouts in vain,
And charged on foot like a child without the mount.
Then in my helpless and apathetic state
I bolted from the scene of action, shoes
In hand, the steed in my arms, in shameful haste.

Another long poem by Mir Ghulam Hasan, retelling an epic, is interesting for having a description of the hero rather than just the heroine:

But when at last they came quite near
They saw a youth so comely, fair,
Of age about sixteen, in truth,
Nights of longing, days of youth.
Over his lip soft down showed new
Which shamed the heavens’ clear blue.
Nimble of body, strong of limb,
Fresh of face, both tall and slim,
His whole appearance like a mirror
Showing the garden of goodness, hair
So elegant, proud its every tress,
Glowing with health and youthfulness.
Wise of look and sharp of eye,
Forehead full of bravery.

Finally, on the emo side, here’s part of a poem by Momin Khan Momin on the death of his beloved.

Autumn has tarnishes the beauty of the rose,
Faded are the cheeks that once has glowed,
Who in the house had never thought it right
To go unveiled, is carried through the streets.
The head that was as cypress held erect
Now low is laid, gone all its wantonness.
The eyes of the beauty who was breath of my breath
Who dreamed with me my dreams, are closed in death.

 

 

 

If you’ve been following this blog, you may be thinking that I haven’t read much about India lately. On the contrary! I’ve been reading plenty, but a lot of it is pretty dry.

The exception is Tales of the Ten Princes (Daśa Kumāra Carita), by Daṇḍin, which I just finished. Your first question will undoubtedly be, why isn’t it Daśa Kumārāḥ, in the plural? Or even Daśānām Kumārāṇām, in the plural genitive? I’m pretty sure it’s because the title is a compound, i.e. Daśakumāracarita (दशकुमारचरित), and only the last root in a compound is declined.

Daṇḍin lived in Kāñcī, in the Tamil region, sometime around 700.  He’s also known for a work on literary stylistics, Kāvyādarśa. In that work he describes two ways of writing Sanskrit, the simpler style of the south, and the ornate style of the east. Ten princes is written mostly in the simpler style; perhaps to show his mastery of the ornate style, Daṇḍin also wrote a work (unfortunately lost) which, making use of the amazing number of synonyms in classical Sanskrit, is a simultaneous recounting of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.

So, on to the Princes. It’s basically a set of short stories linked by a framing device. In the frame, the king Rājahaṃsa loses his kingdom and escapes to a forest. However, his wife is pregnant, and there is a prophecy that the child will restore the kingdom. The boy grows up to be Rājavāhana, hero of the story. He grows up in the forest, and in a quick sequence, is joined by nine companions— sons of ministers as well as kings’ sons conveniently mislaid in the forest.

They grow up into strapping young lads, and finally go out seeking conquests.  Almost immediately Rājavāhana is invited into a quest in the netherworld. His companions separate and wander all over India seeking him. In each of the stories a prince comes to a city, falls in love, and by various manners becomes a king. Finally they all find each other and each narrates his story.  Then, of course, Rājavāhana regains his kingdom with their help, in effect becoming emperor, with his friends as kings under him.

The stories are short, unlikely, and a lot of fun.  They’re picaresque— indeed, many are cheerfully amoral. Though Rājavāhana himself is heroic, not a few of the princes resort to fraud, murder, or theft. It’s a good corrective if, like me, you’ve been reading rather a lot about Indian religions. There’s a whole lot of kāma (love) and plenty of artha (ambition), only a minimum of dharma (righteousness).

For example, the predicament of the prince Mantragupta is that his beloved, the princess Kanakalekhā, has been taken in a raid by the king of a neighboring land, Jayasiṃha. The princess pretends to be possessed by a yakṣa (a type of demon), but this will only put off the king temporarily.

Mantragupta finds a way, however. He goes to the king’s city and pretends to be a powerful ascetic, one who knows all the Vedas, can cure all illnesses, and has supernatural powers. Jayasiṃha is taken in; he comes to see the sage and asks for help with the yakṣaridden maiden. Mantragupta agrees to help: the king must merely bathe in a certain pool, and he will be transformed into a body which the girl will find irresistible. He must have his army secure the pool first, of course. The king agrees.  (However unlikely the strategies proposed in this book, the other characters invariably go along.)

But Mantragupta has previously made a secret recess in the pool which has an underwater exit. When the king comes and waits in the water, Mantragupta comes out, strangles him, and hides the body in the recess. He comes out, pretending to be the king in his new body.  He rescues his princess and enjoys his new kingdom.

In another chapter, there’s an amusing passage where a king’s friend give him advice that is exactly contrary to Kauṭilya or Manu. E.g., one of the traditional sins of kings was gambling. The friend gives this advice:

Gambling too has merits. The renunciation of quantities of wealth, as if it is no more than straw, gives an incomparable liberality of the temperament. The uncertainty of gain or loss makes the heart impervious to joy or sorrow. The capacity increases for wrath, the prime fount of valor. The observation of exceedingly subtle legerdemain with dice and sleights of hand provides an infinite sharpness to the intellect. Concentration on one subject assures an exceptional single-mindedness.  Delight increases in daring, the companion of enterprise. Competition with the strong-minded makes for self-confidence, indomitability and magnanimity.

Of course the king is being led to his doom, but the extended argument makes for a nice parody of moralistic authors.

Similarly playful: one chapter is told without any labial consonants, as the narrating prince has a sore lip, from too much lovemaking.  Take that, Georges Perec!  (The translator doesn’t even attempt this in English, though Wikipedia suggests that another recent translation does.)

Most of the princes fall in love at first sight with a woman, and this is always reciprocated. One, indeed, gets the woman to fall in love by sending her a portrait of himself. This gives Daṇḍin the chance to grow effusive over the women. As one prince says:

All the limbs of this maiden are pure in complexion and without any blemish. They are neither too gross nor too meagre, not too long or too short. The inner sides of her fingers are pink, and the palms of her hands bear many auspicious signs like the barley grain, the fish, the lotus, and the jar. Her ankles are even. Her feet are plump and unmarked by veins. Her well-rounded calves so merge into ample thighs that the knees are hardly noticeable. The bottom is smooth, perfectly divided, beautifully dimpled and round as a wheel. The navel is small, a little low and deep. A triple line adorns the abdomen. A large bosom with upturned nipples covers the breast. The shoulders slope smoothly into supple arms. The fingernails have the fine gloss of gems. The fingers are tapering, soft, and copper-hued. 

Her neck is slender and graceful like a conchshell. Her face is like a lotus flower, with lips red and rounded, nose like a flower bud, handsome chin and shapely temples. Her forehead shines like the crescent moon and her wavy hair like a line of sapphires. Her dark eyebrows are arched and well-separated, and her eye are bright and wide with a glance both merry and languorous. Her ears are ornamented only with loops of pale lotus sets. Her abundant hair is dark and fragrant and simply dressed.

It’s interesting to compare this description with temple statues, which depict the same kind of very curvy body.

One prince finds that his lover is already married, producing an ethical dilemma:

My purpose is almost accomplished, but sleeping with another’s wife will hurt dharma. However, the compilers of the scriptures permit this if both artha and kāma are attained at the same time. I am committing this transgression to free my parents from jail. That should neutralize any sin, and may also reward me with some fraction of dharma.

Fortunately for him, Ganeśa himself appears in a  dream and tells him to proceed.

About the only negative to these stories is that they’re almost weightless.  The characters are vivid and range from princes to ascetics to thieves to courtesans to Jain monks to Greek sailors to jungle warriors, the plots are amusing, but it’s hard to remember them an hour later.  And the cities, though they’re scattered all over India, the cities all melt together.  But these are tales built to entertain, and they still do, 1300 years later.

If you do pick this up, try to get the modern translation by Aditya N. D. Haksar.

 

 

Back when I was playing League of Legends, I thought it should have a Legends Lite. Several people suggested Heroes of the Storm, but I didn’t play it until I had to in order to get a cool D.Va skin.  Which I don’t use because an even cooler one came out.  But I kinda got a liking for Heroes.

Screenshot2017-06-15 01_44_02

They could’ve called it Horses of the Storm

Mind you, I’ve almost exclusively played against bots, and I’ve played, I think, eight heroes– two of them ones from Overwatch. Still, I’m a hundred games in, and I kind of know how to play Li-Ming now.

So, if you’ve played League or Dota 2, it’s definitely a Moba. You are on a team of five, you have minions and lanes, you take the enemy’s towers, and you end up destroying their Core.  You got your basic attacks and your Q/W/E/R superpowers, you got more heroes than you feel you’ll ever learn, you got your increasingly long respawn times if you die. You’ve got your tanks and your supports and your assassins.

But it really is a Moba Lite too, for several reasons:

  • The maps are smaller, and go faster.  A game is less of a commitment.
  • There is no item store.  Every few levels you get a choice of upgrades to your powers– there’s not much extra strategy there.
  • There’s no last-hitting and no denies.
  • For now, there’s about half as many heroes as Legends. And if you’ve played other Blizzard games, you know some of them already.
  • Roles are way less important. The laning phase is short anyway, and (so far as I’ve seen so far) people don’t get hung up on the meta.
  • There are neutral camps which you can take over, and then the dudes will fight for you. But there’s not really enough of them to make jungling a role.

There are a bunch of maps, each with a special activity.  E.g. on one you try to control two points, and if you do better at this you get a bunch of Zerg fighting for you. (These are a StarCraft villain.) On another you collect gems dropped by minions, and if you get more than the enemy you get a giant spider fighting for you.  On yet another a demon lord and an angel are fighting, and you are allied with one of them; if you defeat the other, your demigod will join you for awhile.  All this adds some variety to the gameplay.

Of course I tried D.Va, but she’s tricky.  Also strangely off-model. It’s weird that artists from the same company can’t quite seem to match the original art.

hots-diva

And that’s the closest one. Her other skins are weird

She can bounce around quickly, getting people out of position and causing some damage, and she can create a small shield, but when I try her I feel like she’s too weak, and yet doesn’t hurt the enemy enough.

Li-Ming is fun to play. She’s an assassin, so she has a lot of damage.  She’s fragile, but her attacks are all at range, so she’s very effective against melee heroes. Her Q/W abilities are skillshots, but not hard to make– what I have to remember is to position myself so the minions don’t get in the way. Her E is a tiny teleport– often just enough to get out of someone’s range.  HOTS gives you two possible R’s; the one I choose is a disintegrating laser. The best thing about Li-Ming is that her Q recharges really really quick, so you can spam it shamelessly.

About the only other hero I’ve enjoyed is Valla, who is another ranged assassin.  Her Q takes more time to charge, though, so I will have to practice more.

I have to say, Blizzard’s art direction improved a lot between HOTS and Overwatch. Every Overwatch hero is colorful, attractive, and immediately identifiable. HOTS heroes run to interchangeable-looking humanoids in chunky armor, or weird-looking aliens in chunky armor.

If you’ve played Mobas before, you’ll get the basic idea quickly.   And if you haven’t… well, I can’t tell you how easy it will be.  There’s more to learn than in Overwatch.  But so far I don’t have the sense of a cliff of unknowns as in Legends.  But I’ll report back once I’m playing against more humans.

Hat tip to @jwz here. The technical name for these is apparently Image-to-Image Translation with Conditional Adversarial Nets. Here’s a link to a (currently) working interactive toy. It takes a simple drawing and turns it into a rendered nightmare.

nitemare1

Well, that wasn’t too bad, if you don’t look hard at the eyes.  Can it handle blonde hair?

nitemare2

Nnnnnno, I wouldn’t say it can.  OK, got it, dark hair. Maybe a more cartoony image would look better.

nitemare3

Well, maybe we should play to this thing’s strengths.  If I draw a monster, it should produce a monster, right?

nitemare4

I dunno, it kind of turned into Orc Gary. I wonder if I could import him into Skyrim.

So, who’ll be first to produce a graphic novel with this thing?