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  • Unbelievable words

    Posted On June 24, 2004

    By Karan Thapar

    Are you the sort of person who attaches significance to the number 13? I do. In fact, I consider it my lucky number. Whenever significant developments are due to happen on that date I feel confident, even reassured, about them. But I'm not unusual and I'm certainly not unique. The number 13 plays a significant role in other people's lives as well. Although, of course, for many, if not for most, it's ominous, even unlucky.

    Take Atal Behari Vajpayee, for instance. Thirteen runs like an astrological leitmotiv through the last decade of his life. In 1996 his first government lasted just 13 days. 13 months after it was formed his second was defeated by one vote in Parliament. His best years as Prime Minister were during the 13th Lok Sabha. They began on the 13th of October 1999. They ended on the 13th of May 2004.

    In my case the number has usually been fortunate. Or so I believe. But, that apart, it runs through my life like an invisible thread of significance. My first school number at Doon was 238 which adds up to 13. At Stowe it was 490 which is also 13. Yet if that was simply coincidence just look at this. Over the next twenty years I joined the Gymkhana Club, the India International Centre and the India Habitat Centre and in each case the number I was given added up to 13. But even that is not the end of the story. I got my first job on a 13th, met my wife on a 13th and proposed to her on a 13th. In fact I could go on and on. My point is simple : even though I may not always remember the month I'm unfailingly sure of the date!

    Historically, the significance of 13 stretches back into the mists of time. Most people believe it has biblical connotations. There were thirteen at Jesus's Last Supper and Christ was crucified on a 13th. Incidentally, the day also happened to be a friday. But the superstition – if that's what it is – could be older. Some historians claim Alexander the Great's downfall was foreordained by his ambition to be recognised as the 13th god of Macedonia. Others claim it carries echoes from the Norse legends. The Viking Baldur was slain on a night when there were 13 to dinner in Valhalla. If you ask me, it would seem the influence of 13 has been with us since man first learnt to count!

    13 is perhaps also the most universally acknowledged superstition. I can hardly think of a society that is unaware of it. For example, you would be hard pushed to find a house in Paris with the number 13 whilst the Italian lottery skips this digit altogether. The British don't like inviting 13 to dinner whereas the Turks have almost eliminated the word from their vocabulary. And walk into any hotel in India and chances are it won't have a thirteenth floor. In fact when they re-built the Hilton in Colombo, after an LTTE bomb blew it apart in 1997, they omitted the 13th floor. That's where I was staying the morning the explosion occurred!

    Actually, so deeply ingrained in the Anglo-Saxon psyche is the fear of 13 that the English language even has a word for it. It's pretty unpronounceable and I wouldn't use it if I were you. But it exists. It's triskaidekaphobia. It derives from the Greek word for 13, which is treiskaideka, and phobia, which is the Latin form of the original Greek phobos for fear. In my case, since I consider 13 to be lucky – the odd bomb notwithstanding! – I imagine the noun for the love of 13 would be triskaidekaphilia. Philia comes from philos which is Greek for love. For Mr. Vajpayee, who, I presume, finds the number to be a bit of both, the word ought to be triskaidekaconfusion!

    And just in case you think all of this is a suggestive mountain made out of a coincidental molehill pause and see if you can remember the date on which Mr. Vajpayee made his famous comments about Narendra Modi. It was the 13th. But does that really surprise you? Not me. I'm convinced the date had something to do with it. On the 12th or the 14th he might have been more circumspect. On the 13th, however, a spell he could not resist had him in its thrall.

    That's why I spent the 13th in bed!


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