Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Monday


The sun filters into the room through the heavily draped windows. A harsh beam of light strikes her closed eyelids and Maya pulls the covers over her head and turns over. Nature, not one to be deterred so easily, perseveres. A strong, sudden draft of wind swings the windows open and Maya sits up straight on her bed, face to face with that bane of human existence…. Monday.

The sound of human progress outside taints her bedroom with its presence. Suddenly she is irritated at this rude intrusion into her only sanctuary. With a swift movement, the covers lie on the floor and Maya slams the windows shut. The mundane ordeal of everyday existence begins.
Minutes later, seated at the breakfast table, she looks in disgust at her breakfast lying motionless on the table. The vulgar half-cooked watery mass of eggs stares up at her defiantly. Maya couldn’t bear to look at it. The radio blares in the corner, as though from another world altogether.

“I like this song, turn it up.”

Her father had looked up momentarily from his paper to utter that remark to no one in particular. Her mother, ever the dutiful wife, emerges from the kitchen and turns up the volume. Catching her husband’s eye on the way back, she smiles and adjusts her hair. Has there ever been a truer snapshot of contemporary Indian life?

Maya looks at her parents. Here is Mr.Suresh Viswanathan, the man who fathered our protagonist; he is seated at the head of the table, an inconsequential man having his inconsequential morning coffee. Slightly overweight and slightly balding, at 45 he is not yet over the hill but rapidly approaching senility with none of the verve and vitality of our 40-ish Hollywood male stars gallantry going to the devil kicking and shouting.

Mrs. Kalyani Viswanathan is interesting for her blatantly uninteresting self. A typical south Indian wife, she is not the meek, submissive type that plagues all Tamil serials, nor is she the lipstick-wielding, kitten-heeled scheming mastermind depicted by the Dollys and Ritas of the black and white 1940s Tamil movies. She is just another missus in the swamps of suburbia. She heads back into the kitchen.

Maya looks at the man sitting in front of her. He is no longer in the room; no doubt the song has transported him back many years. Maya pities him for relying upon a grainy, low-quality song blaring out of this broken-down radio to instill in him a nostalgic longing for a time and a place that he only knows from the pictures in the magazines.

“Aren’t you going to have your breakfast?” Her mother’s voice rings out from the kitchen.

“Not hungry, ma.”

“Be good”

Her father belts out his customary advice with the stoic conviction that all the murders, rapes and other evils plaguing our society would miraculously be cured if only parents would take the effort to educate their kids with such morsels of good advice as he dropped to his daughter. Why people don’t take the time to be a good role model for their children he would never understand.
Shutting the door to her dreary home, Maya steps out into the light.
“Monday…” She sighs as she swings her bag on her shoulders and waits for the bus to arrive.

“A discrete time Markov chain is a discrete-time stochastic process with the Markov property. In such a process, the distant past is irrelevant given knowledge of the recent past… You! Stop dreaming and pay attention!”

The scene that unfolds before us is in Maya’s classroom. Let us pause now and take a closer look at this professor, a Mr.Ranganathan. Who is he? How old is he? Is he happily married? Is he having an affair? Is he a good fuck? Does he have any hobbies? Maya ponders on these and other mysteries of life as our oblivious friend, flushed with the indignant rage only a professor can command, rambles on to a class of disinterested students about the decaying moral fiber of the general public.

Red in the face, Mr.Ranganathan is positively shaking with fury. He looks at this very instant like a giant beetroot about to explode, spewing its insides in every direction. In her infinite wisdom, Maya realizes that somewhere in the city, there is a wife who is sick and tired of putting up with his bullshit. She will decide to leave him, and she will take out her suitcase and write a letter, only to tear it up again and break down in tears. And today, Maya prophesies, Mr.Ranganathan will go home oblivious and he will sit down with his wife and they will enjoy a quiet meal, in the bleak solitude of their one-bedroom apartment. And the sun will still rise tomorrow.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the large commotion. The class is over. Maya looks around at the dismal room. It looms large and overbearing with the weight of a thousand generations of bored students. It hangs about the air like a disease. She has to get out. Anywhere but here.
Maya runs. The city stops. There are people inside cars, and people riding bikes and old men pushing fish carts. They all stand still, suspended in motion as the world stops spinning on its axis and waits for this girl on her epic journey.

The door of a café swings open and our young heroine walks in. There is a man waiting for her. The walls are painted a seductive red and standing out in harsh contrast are large, life-size photographs in black and white. Marilyn Monroe tilts her head back and laughs, showing her perfectly arranged teeth in one.

Nobody pays a hundred bucks for a cup of coffee. People walk through that door to be flanked by Elizabeth Taylor with her smoking, smoldering looks and Marilyn with her naughty wink. People walk through that door to be greeted by plush carpeting and lavish, ornate furniture. The little people of all the big corporations walk through that door, their ties loosened and their shirts unbuttoned so they can listen to Pink Floyd and talk their big talk and fantasize about overthrowing the government or freeing Tibet till the check arrives. And then they will pay and walk out, briefcase in hand and nametag around their necks. This is not just coffee.

But today, Maya doesn’t notice all that. Today, she walks slowly and steadily towards the darkest corner and sits down at a table of no particular importance and looks up. She leans forward; her expression softens.

“What are you reading?”
“The Trial”
“Franz Kafka”
“Yeah”
“Like it?”
“It was just lying here”
“I don’t understand him”
“Neither do I”

There is a pregnant pause. They are both nervous, searching desperately for something to fill the gaps in the conversation. He avoids eye contact. She makes the first move.

“I love you”
“I love you too”

The ice is broken; he is relaxed. He looks up and smiles. We do not eavesdrop on these two young lovers. They talk of love and of virtue. They talk of marriage and of life. They make plans for the future. They hold hands and they whisper. He promises her the moon when she would be content with a smile. The hours pass.

“It’s getting late. I should get going” Maya reluctantly tears away from this tiny alcove which has heard much of their secrets and much of the secrets of many others before them. They walk to the door, his arm gingerly finding its way around her waist, her head trying desperately to rest nonchalantly on his shoulders. A hundred-rupee note flutters to the ground. Maya picks it up.

“Excuse me, sir, you dropped thi-“, Maya stops mid-sentence. And if one was attentive, one might have noticed the color draining out of her face. The man she is staring at has not heard and is walking casually out the door. On his arm is a young woman. He is dressed with the meticulous nonchalance that only the truly rich can afford to wear. The young woman is slim and well dressed. Her face is not seen, but Maya has noticed enough to know that this Prada and Louis-Vuitton totting woman is more than just a casual acquaintance.

“Maya, what happened?”
“I… I have to go… I can’t talk now”
“Ok, Can I see you tomorrow?”
“I don’t think… I can see you again”
“Maya, what’s wrong? What are you saying?”
“Please don’t ask me these questions… Oh God, I don’t know…. I need… time. We cannot... I have to go”

A confused and broken-hearted young man stands in the doorway as she runs out into the street. Marilyn noiselessly laughs in the background.

Maya steps into her house. Her mother is busy in the kitchen, but she finds the time to stick her head out and smile at her daughter. Maya is upset, angry and shocked. She turns on the television. In the kitchen, her mother hums a tune from some old movie as she prepares the dinner for the three of them. Suddenly, Maya is angry with her mother with her infernal singing and her stupid dinner.

“Ma!”, Maya yells. It pierces the stillness of the air. The singing has stopped. After what seems like an eternity, the ever dutiful wife and mother walks out, smiling and wiping her hands on her sari.

“Yes Maya, you want something?”

Maya looks at this woman. Her jet-black hair pulled back into a little bun at the nape of her neck, embraced by a circle of jasmine flowers. With her presence, the room is filled with the faint sickly sweet smell of jasmine. Her soft eyes look at Maya from under the harsh red dot on her forehead. Her bangles jingle as she wipes her hands and asks her question again.

“Maya, is there anything you want?”
“Sit down, ma”

Mrs.Kalyani sits down on the sofa next to her daughter.

“Ma, I saw… something today” Maya’s voice breaks. She looks down. “I saw dad…. He was… I saw… He… she….” She cannot go on.

A large wet tear falls on the sofa. It stains the clean white cloth and spreads quickly.
Mrs.Kalyani is no longer smiling. The television blares; someone has just scored a sixer.

“Maya…”

Mrs.Kalyani’s hand finds its way to her daughter’s and she holds it in her palm. Mother and daughter look at each other. The smile reappears on Mrs.Kalyani’s face but this time Maya notices the eyes no longer laugh. No words are said. She looks at her mother’s serene and calm face. There is a strength in this soft-spoken and mild-mannered woman that Maya has not noticed before.

“I have to go now or dinner will be spoiled”, Mrs.Kalyani rises and goes to the kitchen.

Outside, a man is wiping his shoes clean on the doormat. He enters and looks at his daughter.
“Had a nice day?” He smiles at her. She does not answer.

“Kalyani, is dinner ready?”
“I am just putting it out on the table”

Maya gets up and goes into the kitchen. At last, the three of them sit down to enjoy a quiet meal in the bleak solitude of their one-bedroom apartment.

“Kalyani, turn the volume up”

The missus does as she is told.

Outside, in this great city of ours, a mournful young man is suffering a broken heart. He has in his shirt pocket, a much-kissed and tenderly folded photograph of a young girl. Something tells him Maya will never return. It was all just an illusion.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sabbatical


I am taking a month off from blogging (not that I was ever that wonderfully prompt before but...) to burn the midnight oil. With GMAT a month away and me reeling under a severe case of the jitters, I have decided if I am to suffer, then by God I'm going to do it right. Complete abstinence from books, movies, blogging, any sort of enjoyment whatsoever. I'm hoping total boredom at least will compel me to hit the books.

Incidentally, I have been watching quite a few good movies of late. Lets see, last week there was Munich, Syriana, Mrs Henderson Presents, Closer, Last Tango in Paris, 40 year old V and this Brit film my friend dragged me to at the crack of dawn on a bloody Sunday (oh alright, it was at 9am but thats close enough! Sacrificing my ritualistic Sunday morning sleep-in is blasphemous). A word on Last Tango.. very disturbing and compelling. If you're the la-di-da type, stay away from this one, but if you're not easily offended do catch it, Brando is magnificent.

And reading. Just got thru George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and even managed to squeeze in a bit of Terry Pratchett. I say, he's wonderful for steadyin the nerves a bit, especially when you're all wound up.

On a final note- for now at least- V, let me plaguarise a bit from your blog, well just the link anyway to that party floated by IITians. Do take a look.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Of hymns and morning assemblies

One of my friends had his status message in yahoo set to the first two lines of this hymn. It's called 'Make me a channel of your peace' and I remembered when I was in school and used to sing that hymn for the morning assembly.

All children from the fifth grade and above could attend the morning assembly. The Morning Assembly is this gathering for the whole school, all the 'older' kids and the teachers, in the school auditorium. At 7 45 every morning, we assemble outside the hall, in single-file and at the head (well, actually, standing in the corridars outside the hall and facing the line of students) is the class teacher. There's a grand piano in one corner of the massive hall and someone or the other to play on it - I remember I once did, and hit quite a few wrong notes much to my chagrin. When the first strains of music waft thru, we all file in and seat ourselves on the floor. Then the assembly commences.

It's usually prepared by some class on certain days of the week. The other days it's the headmistress who leads us in prayer. And on Fridays, all the non-catholics usually have a prayer ceremony, which means we file in and instead of being seated in our usual positions sit around the traditional kuttuvellaku. Then all the lights are switched off except for the orange glow on stage, and the light of the kuttuvellaku. Then it's a series of small readings and prayers and usually followed by a hymn.

Now the hymn, a staple of any morning assembly, is sung by everybody. I never realised how profound an impact this ritual had had on me till I left school. There's something soothing and reassuring of meeting every morning some thousand odd schoolmates plus teachers and staff and other odds and ends, and praying. We always picked 'secular' themes - tolerance, love, fratenity, compassion - followed by a reading from the Bible, and then one from the Koran and the Gita. This worked well for everyone because most Fridays anyway we had Mass for the catholics and while they disappeared into the school cathedral, the rest of us would have a beautiful, intimate prayer ceremony which was almost always preceded by the symbolic lighting of the lamp.

If the morning assembly were staged by a class, they usually enacted a skit. And it always always ended with a hymn or two. I wish I had kept my school diary, it had some lovely prayers and hymns in it. I remember this particularly beautiful one:

I have come to thee to take thy touch before I begin my day.
Let thy eye rest upon my eyes for a while.
Let me take to my work the assurance of thy comradeship, my friend.
Fill my mind with thy music to last through the desert of noise.

and then there was Rabindranath Tagore's "Where the mind is without fear". I don't know if this was in the hymn book but I do recall singing it quite often. Such a lovely melody.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by Thee to ever-widening thought and action – Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

I remember ear-marking this particular prayer as 'lucky', always seemed to perform better in an exam if I had said it that morning in the assembly.

Ah, the cathedral. I think one of the reasons why I stay away from temples is because since I was 4 years old, I had associated God and prayer with quiet and solitude. The hindu rituals and prayer ceremonies seem the absolute negation of every idea I had ever formed in my head. Our school was founded by the Presentation Sisters way back in 1841. So there is the nunnery and the cathedral and the graveyard and the fish pond and the grotto, all within this beautiful, large, thickly-foliaged park. The schools - the English-medium catholic convent where I studied (and we had a whole lot of Irish nuns who taught us when we were much younger), the Tamil medium for the disadvantaged children, Saint Ursula's Anglo-Indian convent, the teachers training school and the Women's self-empowerment wing (I forget the actual name, but I remember peeping in once and seeing rows and rows of sewing machines and these young ladies in sarees, diligently at it). Read up on the school and its founder here if you like.

But I digress. I hope to write a post - or a series of posts - on the school sometime later. But then, I've hoped to write a lot of things that I've never really gotten around to doing. I miss walking into school at a quarter past seven, earlier than most other students, so that I could slowly make my way across the sprawling campus to class, stopping on the way to watch the sunlight filter thru the trees or look at some ladybug make its way across a leaf. I vividly recall the sunlight bit, we have this enormous mud court where we play kho-kho and other team games, it's at a far end of the school and almost forgotten. Except for the clearing in the centre, it's thickly covered with trees and at a quarter past seven, I always made it a point to walk that way so I could watch the beams of lights fall on the ground. I had a belief when I was younger that if I were standing on a spot when the skies clear and a ray of light fell on me, then I would be blessed and my day would go well. I stopped walking by that side when I reached the 9th grade. I was older and I knew better then.

I miss the morning assemblies. I miss the little skits that the children used to put up. I miss the bursts of laughter that would ripple thru the audience from time to time. Those are the moments that you remember, the times that you connected intimately with some thousand-odd people, when you knew everyone by their first names and you all laughed at the same things and you all shared the same secrets. I miss singing horribly out of tune to the morning hymns. Somehow when there are so many children singing together, despite being out of tune and sometimes because of it, the end result is always harmonious.

I miss running to the cathedral everytime I was scared or just before a test or when I was sad or I really, really wanted to ask for something. I remember the long walk across the park to the cathedral, I knew every pathway, every tree, every bench. And then I'd walk into the cathedral - this massive structure with stained glass windows - and kneel in front of the altar and pray oh so passionately. It was such a simpler time, I'd merely put all my fears and sadness and inner turmoils (whatever turmoil a six-year old could have) into a little box and place it at the foot of the small statue of Mary in the cathedral. On the way back, I'd loiter around the graveyard a bit because it was always so quiet and so beautiful and stop by the fish pond and the little grotto of Mother Mary. I miss the nun who used to always sit by the fish pond with little bits of bread that she'd hand out to us so we could feed the fishes too. She, who we used to run up to just before exams and ask her to bless us and pray for us so we'd do well. It was more than a school, it was such a protective bubble where you could take refuge from any storm.

Ah well...

Friday, March 17, 2006

I've been tagged.

I was tagged by Geetika. I am assuming that means that I'm supposed to mention eight things about 'The One'. (Why eight? Why not seven? Or nine and a quarter? Ah, such are the mysteries of the universe..)

Without further ado, here we are. Eight things.
  1. A man of words! Witty yet unpretentious. Frivolous yet intense. Profound yet light-hearted. A well-read, articulate man. He must love his Thomas Hardy or Scott Fitzerald or EM Forster as much as his Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.
  2. Unbearably hilarious. He must have a sharp, acerbic wit and yet.. yet.. a light, gay humour. Quick, sharp and always on target. I crave for constant entertainment.
  3. Cultured. Now there’s a funny word, bit snobbish, the ‘cultured’ man. I must have sophistication and class but never never ostentation. His clothes should sit on him with an easy, almost casual elegance. His mannerisms, always smooth but never dull. The walk of quiet confidence, the whiff of success, the quiet demenour of accomplishment, the touch of class.
  4. Must love movies and theater and cinema as much as I do! Fantastically wide-ranging interests. Must be moved to tears by a Merchant-Ivory Production and then come home and be in stitches over Monty Python or Woody Allen. Musicals, Drama, Film Noirs, Slapstick, Anything goes! But he must LOVE movies.
  5. If music be the food of love, play on. I don’t expect someone who’s majored in Art and Music History but he must, he must, he simply must worship the Beatles. And Led Zepp. And Pink Floyd. And The Who. And Simon and Garfunkel. And Mozart. And Jefferson Airplane. And Genesis. And Jethro Tull. And and and…
  6. He must be game for anything! I don’t know what I’m planning to do next, but it’d be frightfully boring all by myself. Whether it’s tasting snails and oysters (bit salty, but neither as awful tasting as they looked; I rather liked snails) or traveling to Czechoslovakia or trekking across Eastern Europe or just liking to be around people and being one’s brilliant best in the company of others, he’s got to be game! I really am NOT one of those people who like curling up indoors. (Well, its not bad or anything, I particularly like rainy afternoons by the window but I can’t live without fun and food and lights and people)
    (6.a) I cheat. HA! If he is to be open about trying new things, it stands to reason that he must be open-minded by disposition. Tolerant to a fault! He must not just put up with, but actually revel in my little idiocies that pepper the days. I detest narrow-mindedness and rigidity in a man. It makes him small and self-important.
  7. And now, my base emotions make an appearance. He must be 6 foot at least, with broad shoulders. Hard but not hulky, lean but not thin. And he must play sport! I prefer Tennis or Cricket. They don’t have the crude brutality of rugby or the namby-pambiness of golf. There’s something about a nice, strapping lad in white on the cricket green that drives me wild. Charm and wit and sophistication are all very fine, but I want a bit of the devil in his eyes. Brings out the worst in me, you know. A dash of recklessness and danger is this girl’s dream at least. Wouldn’t mind him owning a mean mo-bike.
  8. The voice. A fluid, dulcet toned voice. I don’t mean to wed Art Garfunkel but I must have a man whose voice is quite literally music to my ears. He must be able to brush against my ear and whisper into it sweet nothings or innuendo-laden remarks with the effect of sending little electric shocks thru my being. A mellow tone with just the hint of an accent, rather prefer the clipped tones of the brits to the brash drawl of the yanks. Perfectly neutral is perfectly fine too! As long as he enunciates.
Who do I tag next. Hell, I don't know... All that day-dreaming's make me rather hungry. Suddenly I crave for a nice, large, medium-rare steak.

Monday, March 13, 2006

*Too drunk with excitement to think of a title*


Australia Vs South Africa ODI, Johannesburg, March 12th 2006.


Australia win the toss, choose to bat and chalk up 434/4 - Ponting 164 off 105.


Smith's 90 off 55 and Gibbs' 175 off 111 see SA put up a fiery defense.


48th Over. SA are 405/7 requiring 30 runs from 18 balls. Lewis bowls.


47.1 FOUR! Boucher belts it.


47.3 FOUR! Boucher again.


47.6 FOUR! Telemachus starts to party.


17 runs off the over. Lewis is officially the most expensive bowler in the history of ODI cricket - 113 runs conceded for his 10 overs. SA are 422/7, 13 runs needed from 12 balls.


49th over. Bracken bowls.


48.2 OUT! Telemachus falls for 12.


6 runs off the over. SA are 428/8, need 7 runs off 6 balls. Brett Lee comes on to bowl the final over.


49.1 Hard knock from Boucher. Lee gets it with his foot before it bounds away to the boundary. Limps a bit. One run.


49.2 FOUR! Hall belts it.


49.3 OUT! SA need 2 runs from 3 balls, one wicket remaining.


49.4 Lee to Ntini. One run. Scores levelled. Boucher at crease.


49.5 FOUR! SA WIN!


SA win the game and the series. Brilliant brilliant brilliant. I need say no more. Nearly 900 runs in a One Day Intl, bowlers massacred, records shattered... One of the most memorable, most nerve-wrecking matches I've watched in a long, long time.


Good Night and God Bless.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The road not taken.


A friend of mine sent me this link. A brief synopsis - it’s about what the author calls the ‘Keeping-One’s-Options-Open’ mentality, a common syndrome in which people sacrifice themselves for the next phase in life, which itself consists of nothing but sacrificing themselves for the following phase. In his opinion, the KOOO mentality is what drives us to follow the crowd and do the safe thing rather than find out what exactly it is that we want to do with our lives and getting it.


Do read the article, it is thought provoking. The reason I decided to blog about it is that while I agreed to the most part with it, there were some strong reactions I had against what was being said in the article, well-intentioned as it was, and that set me thinking (not a good thing, every time that happens I tend to ramble on on my posts. So be warned and brace yourselves, it’s a long road ahead).


If you are from India, especially South India, you will know it’s not just the DAVs and PSBBs that are churning out top-rankers (and consequently doctors and engineers) by the dozen. Even the school I went to, despite having its strength in Literature and the Arts went on to produce engineers and doctors in bulk.


I love Literature, I have always loved it and the professors who have made the greatest impression when I was young were all English professors. English, really, is more than just a language, just a medium. It really is a channel to higher thoughts and concepts and discussions. Every lesson, every poem has had a profound influence on me, especially in the last four years of schooling.


I remember the first time I thought about death and immortality, reading Joseph Blanco White’s ‘To night’. This was a poem that we read in the 9th grade, a bunch of thirteen year olds. The poem is about how God created Adam (hey, it was a catholic convent, what did you expect, Nietzsche?!) and so Adam is having the time of his life, rejoicing in God’s creation, sun-bathing and all that when God pops by and says ‘oh by the way, there’s this thing called night when the world will be plunged into darkness and everything you’re seeing right now? Well it won’t be there then.’ So Adam worries himself silly and is so scared and so frightened at the very prospect of daylight ending that when night finally rolls around “Creation widened in man's view”. He realizes that he need not have been worried or feared the unknown for night though starkly different from day, was just as glorious and beautiful.


It was the last line of the poem that was the moment of epiphany for me - “If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?” In essence, saying that if the glory of daylight could have deceived Adam into fearing night, could it not be true that the glory of life is deceiving us into dreading death? And thus began my spiritual quest, the start of my soul-searching, the beginning of my love for literature, sparked off by one line in my 9th grade English textbook.


To Night
- Joseph Blanco White
Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?


There was a handful of such writing that had a profound influence on me while I was growing up. There was Milton’s ‘On his Blindness’, Shakespeare’s ‘The quality of mercy’, Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting', Robert Frost's 'The Road not Taken', Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be’ – this however wasn’t part of the school’s curriculum, I hungered for Shakespeare after reading the quality of mercy – and these works did not so much influence me as they fashioned my thoughts and beliefs. In much the same way as a young boy grows up idol-worshiping his father and strives to be like that exalted vision on a pedestal, I grew up tempered by the accumulated wisdom of writers past.


So then, despite my love for words, for writing, for debating, despite all my teachers urging me to pursue a career in Writing/Journalism, despite the fact that that step would be the absolute convergence of my aptitude and my inclination why did I choose Math-Physics-Chemistry like everyone else?


I remember the day my tenth board results came out, and my friends and I ran to school to boast vainly and rub salt on raw wounds whenever possible (I remember holding this scrap of paper with my scores written on it and waving it under Preethi’s nose because she got 196 as opposed to my 197 in Mathematics. *Sigh* Good times.). The results incidentally were released AFTER we had decided which streams to choose in the final two years of schooling. So when did I decide to get into Math-Physics-Chem instead of the Advanced-Literature course that I had my heart set on? Smack in the middle of the 10th grade, when I was all of 14 years old.
There were the usual reasons of course


Evidence 1. All my friends were taking the Science Stream, and I wanted to be with them


Evidence 2. For all my teachers advocating I pursue Literature, an equal number of teachers, family relatives and ‘elders’ advised ‘You’re a bright child! What are you doing thinking about Commerce and Advanced English? Those are for the duds! Put your brains to some good use and take up Science’


Evidence 3. Dad sat me down and reasoned ‘At any time in your life, if you want to switch streams and you want to get into writing you can always do that, if its an innate ability you’re never gonna lose it. But it’s infinitely more difficult to pursue an Engineering Degree when you’re older with other responsibilities to juggle.’


In short, choosing the P/M/C stream would be, well, keeping your options open!
So I finish those two years (awful time, more about that later!), follow it up with 4 more years chasing an engg degree, graduate with fine grades from a fine institution and here’s the clincher, if I could go back and tell myself at 14 what to choose, I’d do it all again exactly how I have done.
I guess the point is keeping your options open basically means just keeping them open till you are clear about what direction you want your life to take. And at all of fourteen, it is too early by any stretch of optimism to think that you would be able to objectively judge your capabilities, your aptitude, your desires and find a career path that you think would tie it all up beautifully in a big, pink bow. When you’re thirteen-fourteen, every career just has a bit of stardust. You don’t really think about the nitty-gritty of it and tend to gloss it over so your idea of a glamorized, purposeful future remains intact.


If you want to be a doctor, its probably because you’ve just watched this brilliant one-hour special on doctors without borders or Angelina Jolie flying to Africa, helping out emancipated kids and overcome by bonhomie and an overwhelming sense of altruism and not because you’ve actually shadowed a doctor/spoken to them and tried to figure out if you have it in you to juggle a day job of saving lives, a spouse and two kids, a social life and sleep.


Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to patronize fourteen-year olds. There are some very, very mature children at that age, who after due deliberations probably figure out what they think they want, and decide that whatever it is, thru their darkest moments, they will stick to it and give it their all and not flit about from career to career because they lose interest or because it didn’t turn out to be as fun as they thought it would be.


Having said that, those individuals are exceptions and the ‘normal’ fourteen-year old really is influenced to an alarming degree by her peers and (unless she has serious difficulties with technical subjects) probably would sail into the M/P/C stream without much thought figuring, ‘hey, if I don’t like it. I can always drop it later on’ and this is probably a good thing because one reaches that maturity to decide what to do with one’s life at… well, there’s isn’t a definite age, but there comes a time when your thinking is not a mere reflection of your peers and you have faith in yourself to stand up for what you believe in even if everyone else thinks you’re wrong AND you’ve understood the important of research, and you’ve utilized all resources at your disposal before deciding on something that important in your life. Whenever that age is, you can be sure, there’s a pretty good chance it’s not at fourteen.


The other day I was speaking to this chap who’s in his first year of engineering and he positively hated it. He hated math, physics, chemistry… he thought they were dull, useless and there was nothing he gained from that and nothing he could gain from the engineering course.
Here’s where I disagree.


I think that the only reason that anyone could say that they hate any subject, be it Math, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography, English whatever, is because they were taught by dull, incompetent, probably sexually-repressed teachers in school. I have some gripe about the education system but I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, that this compartmentalizing of subjects is ridiculous in the sense that it creates an impression in children’s mind that the world is modeled in they way that it is introduced to them in school, in other words, fragmented into distinct segments.


It is a rude shock when you finally realize that events in real life are not conveniently categorized and colour-coded for your digestion. You cannot hope to know all about say, the situation in Haiti, from a history or geography textbook. Real world issues are multi-dimensional, they spill into overlapping categories and it is in this sense that one would hope to understand them: holistically.


Contrast this with school when entire events and significant chunks of information are fed to students thru one subject alone, as if to indicate that every possible parameter of any significant event/phenomena/process falls within the limitations of the subject and coloured solely by its connotations. How can you understand physics or chemistry or math in isolation? Our ghastly math teacher was an endangered species from another planet and since the Trans-Galatic Equal Opportunity Labor Law, Section B2 states that all sub-intelligent species also be given equal opportunities, she is, at the ripe old age of 102, still teaching in Church Park and has every intention of inflicting pain on new students year after year, till someone in possession of a large enough mallet puts her and subsequently the students out of misery. Her method is to walk in and with her back to the class and her hand to the board, silently work out every sum and then slither away unnoticed at the end of the hour. Its worse when the wailing banshee attempts to read the few mandatory sentences printed in the text.


And then there was my physics teacher, whose idea of teaching is to drone on for 2 hours everyday, sometimes three if she’s in a particularly sadistic state of mind, leaving no comma or semi-colon unnoticed. What she does is take the book in hand and read. No explanations, no doubts, no illustrations, nothing... just words from the text as if it were the gospel. If she feels at any time that this is too much hard work for a paltry 7k a year, she asks one of the students to read. This was my tryst with Math and Physics.


The point is if this is the way children are first exposed to important concepts it is no mystery that the same children grow up with an abhorrent hatred of everything that falls under the purview of science. It took me nearly three years into my Engg degree to finally get over my loathing for Math.


Contrast this with the atmosphere in college, at least in my university (I choose to ignore the bottom-feeding scum who somehow seem to infiltrate any institute of learning, and I opt instead to highlight some of the better teaching methods employed). Now, I won’t give the credit solely to the education system because there was a lot I picked up from my peers. Working closely with some highly-intelligent, driven individuals has influenced my own approach to a large extent. The realization that I need not be confined to the prescribed text first hit me in college. That was when I started to actually break away from the mentality of digesting information in ‘2-mark question’ or ‘8-mark question’ chunks and begin to read up on it from other material. What happens here is that in doing so, you gain a holistic understanding of a process or phenomena rather than just being exposed to what is relevant or necessary in the context of examinations. The purpose of our education is to impart knowledge and to foster an inquisitive nature, NOT to examine whether what is fed in is spat out in exactly the same way.


Some of our profs in college refused to touch the text. It was implied that we were mature enough to read the material on our own and utilize class hours to interact with peers and the prof and discuss the material. The shift from frantically pushing in info (as it was in school) to using the class environment to showcase your understanding of the material and appending it with the observations of others was instrumental in getting me finally interested in the stream that I had decided to dedicate a considerable chunk of my life to.


I especially learnt a lot sometimes more than what I had actually assimilated during class hours, by doing those mandatory semester projects. It is when you try to apply the abstract concepts in your text to a real-world problem that you gain a complete understanding of a theory. All the milestones, all the hurdles that you eventually overcome, all the additional material (Out of syllabus! If you only knew how many times those three dangerous words had ensured I wallow in my pool of ignorance for a while longer) you had to incorporate in order to make this simple concept ‘work’, ultimately these are the very things that we try to gain by an education.


Of course, since one is more mature by the time she pursues an undergraduate, the onus is on the individual to seek information rather than it being the duty of the teachers to spoon-feed facts. I am not sure how much a 11th or 12th grader will benefit if the onus is on her to make the most of her schooling experience. Still, there are places where we can supplement text book learning with more ‘hands-on’ learning methods. Einstein once remarked, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”. It was true then and it is sadly still true now.
Having said that, for those who think that science is a bore or dull or ‘too technical’, I think it is no less beautiful than art or literature. The symmetry, the aesthetics, the complexity and the insight that one finds in literature are no less present in Physics or Mathematics than they are in the arts. I rate Aho and Ullman’s “Principles of Compiler Design” as highly as any of Betrand Russell’s essays. The brilliance of the argument, the logic of the reasoning, the clear, succinct language, the beauty and elegance of the design – these are the traits of a literary classic, a book that will in turn influence your own thinking and reasoning. Reading the book was as though someone has shone a light on the murky muddled concepts I was grappling with in my mind, and laid them out so beautifully for me to see and remark on the perfection of it all. Sometimes contradictory demands /constraints of the school education system may make it unfeasible to impart a synergetic learning experience, however one can, if so inclined, choose to understand physics or mathematics for what it really is, rather than to limit it to the confines of a ten-mark answer.


Be warned, there is a reason that certain subjects are perceived as more tedious than others; it is because they are. Having said that, Einstein’s theory of relativity is no less dense than Shakespeare. It is just easier to understand Shakespeare when you are guided by a passionate, highly motivated literature professor. With science though, if there is no such mentor you can consult to refine your understanding of abstract or complex concept, take heart in the fact that the Internet is a fantastic resource at your disposal. If something interests you, do not hesitate to read up on it. Try the library. Consult your teachers for leads on where to get additional material; even the most jaded 12th standard teacher will take a couple of minutes to suggest a few books or at least clarify any doubts.


Once again, I will borrow words from someone who we all, literature students and physicists alike, think highly of, not just for his momentous advances in his field but for the lucidity and simplicity of his arguments and the principles that he upheld and lived by. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” – Einstein.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Brokeback, Capote and more...

Four movies in three days. No, I'm not an Oscar buff (I do watch the post-Oscars 'Who was wearing what' gossip tho.. I have my weaknesses) but I've been really wanting to watch these recent movies. I will try my best to not let this post turn into a review.

First, Brokeback Mountain. You could say it's a gay cowboy movie but I'd urge you not to pigeonhole it. In essence, it really is beautiful and poignant and I found it easy to forget that I was watching anything other than a traditional love story. (Resists the urge to add 'Love story with a (jack) twist'.. argh, that one just got away from me!)

Then, Capote. Again, a brilliant, absorbing movie. I had actually thought this would be a rather broad examination of Truman Capote's life; and I am such a sucker for biographies/movies. It was infact more intense and specific that I had expected. It's not a particularly 'nice' movie, but it's compelling especially the transformation of the protagonist in the course of two hours. You practically watch him change, degenerate somehow, in front of your eyes. Brilliant stuff.

Finally, Good night and good luck. Again, please feel free to throw about superlatives. Gripping, compelling, captivating, intense, and all that jazz. It's not completely fiction and that only adds to its pull. Excellent piece. George Clooney, were you hiding under a rock all these years?

The other that I had watch was the remake of Pride and Prejudice. I go weak at the knees at the thought of a Jane Austen adaptation so I really liked this brit movie. Personally, I find Kiera Knightley a bit irritating, illogical as it sounds, she's got a very annoying face, the sort that invites a right uppercut to the jaw. But she is a good actress and I was quite pleasantly surprised that the movie itself was this good. Just got a good 'feel' to it, very british and much more lively than a Merchant-Ivory production.

Others that I am eagerly anticipating - Syriana and Munich. Particularly Munich, the fact that it's Spielberg is just the cherry on the plum. I do hope it hits the theatres soon and not at some godforsaken time at a cineplex with all of 7 seats at its disposal.

I am publicly airing my grievance over Sathyam, the only real theatre in Madras, running 6 shows a day, all hindi, a couple of Tamil crowd-pullers at the larger theatres and the sole English offering being Narnia which airs at 10pm at that place with 4 seats and a mousetrap. Shape up or I will personally start distributing thiruttu VCDs outside your ticket counters!

P.S - Heath Ledger is rather dishy!

Friday, March 3, 2006

Learnt my lesson now there's nothing left to say...


Finally. The great bureaucracy that is Anna University saw to it that a year after I wrote my last examination I receive my degree.


So I stand before you (Oh alright, I sit piddling about in front of this monitor that is connected by wires and signals and other technological tomfoolery I don’t really question, all the way back to you, the unfortunate soul who’s actually reading this against your better judgment) Lavanya R N, Bachelor of Engineering, Computer Science.


Actually, in retrospect, I’m rather glad that I had to wait a year for the ceremony. Well, it had its disadvantages of course, one being that most of us are bloody out of the country and pursuing a post-graduate degree in some air-conditioned, wi-fied sprawling campus with rabbits and squirrels and other bambi-esque creatures scampering about – having a bit of a laugh no doubt at the thought of the rest of us poor SOBs sweating it out under the 45 degrees Madras sun. But it was wonderful in that it took a year of being ‘of the workforce’ to fully appreciate what we had enjoyed and probably taken for granted in college.


The dress rehearsal for starts. So it says on this wonderfully cryptic messages circulated to an elite crowd, that we are to appear for a dress rehearsal at 10am on ‘graudation’ day. So we arrive, some of us flying in from Bangalore and Hyd to be at the ceremony, others braving the traffic at Nandanam signal and wiping away tears of nostalgia as we watch the light change red for the 4th time, and in true AU spirit, we turn up at a half past ten. I must take a moment here to remark on the long walk to the auditorium.


Those of you who stay in Madras probably know that AU recently went ‘all-green’ - Well, not quite… semi-green anyway, a mild vague-ish turquoise at the very least – so that means no vehicles allowed inside the campus, at least for students. If you’re the staff, more power to you! Waltz right in with your diesel-guzzling SUV, the more students who die of asphyxiation on your pleasure drive into campus, the higher up the academic hierarchy you are perceived to be. Our Vice Chancellor has his own tank, driven by six foot men clad from head to toe in vomit-inducing dirty purple, in keeping with the stringent dress code.


We lesser mortals need to content ourselves with being allowed parking space at least, quite benevolent of them to let us park on the right side of the wall for once, this after we go thru the harrowingly bureaucratic process of obtaining a measly sticker to paste on the windshield thereby allowing us to park a few feet inside the wall as opposed to outside. Thus begins the walk. It’s about a kilometer from the gate to the Computer department, two kilometers if you’re running late. It’s a long straight road, flanked on the one side by a vast sports field where it is rumored, several men in white gather to play cricket once in a while, and on the other side by small bylanes leading to the hostels. Rows of old trees on either side shield you from the harsh sun and I’ve spent many days and had many intimate conversations with good friends on the long walk back. It takes about twelve minutes but if you’re walking with a friend, halfway down the road you’d realize you wouldn’t be able to finish your conversation by the time you reach and opt to sit down on the pavement instead. Or, if you’re walking alone, you’d probably use the long walk and quiet solitude to have your shining moments of brilliance.


At the end of the walk, there are the departments. The Computer department is thankfully just around the corner. The auditorium is not far off either and this is where we decided to meet up. It’s wonderful when you meet your college mates after a span of a year and you can just pick up exactly where you left off. We slip into our old routine of mindless gags before finally realizing that the robes are being rented jus outside the audi and rehearsal’s at eleven.


Filing into the auditorium and looking for our seats, upsetting a few chairs, passing on wrong information to all and sundry and generally spending a good fifteen minutes running about like chickens without heads while some pompous old fart bellowed into the mike that we please maintain discipline: priceless. Slipping into that familiar plastic chair I could forget that I had ever left and that a year had passed. A few students trying to slip away unnoticed in the middle of the proceedings and then promptly caught and reprimanded by some beetroot red professor about to have a heart attack, Constant pleads to maintain decorum, Laughter rippling thru the crowd at some genuinely funny moments due to mishaps/mix ups on stage… It was like the world hadn’t changed at all, like my mind was just playing out a string of nostalgic memories of my days at college and I was going to wake up at any moment and realize I need to get to work.
The comfort of it, I suppose that’s the marvelous thing really, that it all felt so comfortable, so familiar, it belonged. We belonged. After spending the last year, looking for bearings, struggling to belong and yearning to be labeled again so that I may enjoy a place when I belong, friends whom I spend time with and share a purpose, even if it is rather meaningless at times, after all that, it was marvelous to walk right into the old Alma Mater and simply know that for one last time at least, this is your University, these are the roads and trees and classrooms where countless memories have been formed, this is the Boathimaram – the tree in front of the department where you spent countless hours just whiling away the time with friends, this is your place and this is your set, you are of it as much as it is of you.


It takes a year away I suppose for you to fully appreciate the comfort of belonging to some grand scheme, you and the hundred-odd other people whom you have come to know intimately in the course of those four formative years. Family will always be special but there are those subtle moments that can be filled only by friends. The people who’ve gone thru your trials and tribulations, your triumphs, your successes and your failures and your moments of pure madness, standing by your side thru that life-changing roller coaster ride that is college. It really does change a lot after that doesn’t it? Work’s more independent and the friends you make have their own lives that don’t centre around something grand and fabulous and life-altering that you share in common. School friends and college friends are the ones who you can always fall back on and pick up right where you left off I suppose. It’s probably because you’ve changed and they’ve changed thru childhood and youth and all those transitional phases in between when you’re figuring out things for yourself and defining your principles and then breaking them down again and setting up new beliefs, new priorities and all along they’ve been there, murking about in the background or right in the thick of things, going thru the same gut-wrenching motions. There was so much bonhomie and nostalgia doing the rounds, old friends hugging each other, an occasional tear or two being wiped away. It was fantastic seeing a lot of familiar faces at the graduation ceremony.


About the ceremony itself, well what can I say? It was a ridiculously ostentatious ceremony, an awful awful band, the deans and heads of departments marching in to what could only be described at a hideously mangled version of Henry Mancini’s ‘Baby Elephant Walk’, the running commentary (courtesy of the few generous souls seated nearby) that had us in splits during the long-winded speech, and us laboriously trying to maintain some air of solemnity. To think that after a year, we could come right back and slip into this role with ease and be herded by officious looking men in safari suits, it really is reassuring to know that some things never change.


The actual ceremony itself wasn’t really as bad as I expected it to be. To speed things up, it was decided that only the gold-medalists of every department would receive his degree on stage and the rest of us, as one professor so eloquently put it “will be awarded degrees standing on the seat”. What he meant to say is that the rest of us nameless, faceless pheasants on hearing ‘Kartikeyan and the other 378 graduates of B.E Computer Science and Engineering are awarded degrees’ will stand at our seats like some grand, fantastic cattle auction and beam upon the mothers and fathers and second cousin twice-removed who’ve been cheated into appearing for the graduation ceremony of their beloved family member. Incidentally, this Kartikeyan chap has been singled out for his moment in the sun because he heads the roster, by virtue of him having the good sense to flunk a year and be bumped to the top of the next-passing-out students’ roll call.


And so that was the manner in which yours truly, replete in an eye-searing yellow graduation gown, became Lavanya R N, B.E. (Don’t ask me about the yellow, I am still smarting about having to look like a uniformed Mad cow disease inspector instead of being tastefully clad in dignified black. And no hats even, just to rub a little salt into already raw wounds.)
Pictures will be up shortly. I promise.


Note: The picture of the college incidentally was taken from this site. Its a really really beautiful collection of snaps of the college so if you have the time, do take a look.