Sunday, December 17, 2006

It Always Works Out

A long one... please excuse :)

Tuesday, 7th February.
4 PM
School Playground

“3 balls, 8 runs to win. Arun go to the boundary and Omelette go close up”, Ram (short for Ramnath) ordered. Ashwin was batting and Arvind got ready to bowl. Arvind was a good bowler and was the opening bowler in the school team. However, that virtue didn’t help here as they were playing with a ball made of paper torn from their notebooks, held together by two thick rubber bands. The material for the ball had supposedly been obtained from left over material for Art class. In reality, the Art Teacher was justified in thinking that her assignment had been made from the ball’s leftovers. A fifteen cm. by fifteen cm. 192 pages ruled book acted as the bat. This was in fact, the standard bat. The need for a standard bat had arisen because Prakash, another player, had used his Physics Record book to score 16 runs in an over. This was clearly unfair as the Record book was three times the size of the normal notebook. The furore created by that incident was akin to that created by Denis Lillee’s Aluminium bat episode.

Ashwin played the next ball quite cleverly and placed it in between the two 7th std. fielders of the opposite teams. There was an easy three runs for the taking but Ashwin ran only two as he wanted to keep the strike instead of giving it to the 5th grader, Vinod at the other end. Unfortunately for Vinod, he had started for the third. He slipped and managed to get back just in time. Vinod being the youngest was often the guy saddled with the unglamorous work, like for now, being the batsman at the other end for almost two overs without getting to bat at all. However, truth be told, he would have got out in the first ball to Arvind. It may have been unfair but a man has got to do what a man has got to do, the sensitive Ashwin thought to himself. The school was almost empty save for these twelve boys, mostly in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades and one 5th grader, who were playing cricket to while away their time while waiting for the van to pick them up and drop them home.

“2 balls, 6 runs to win”, Ram shouted. Then he went close to Arvind and said, “Bowl one really fast, just get him out.” However, Arvind said,”I’ll flight this ball. He’ll surely misread it. In fact, I’ve been increasing my pace for the past three balls, this will surprise him. Just put a fielder at the boundary for the catch.”

“Okay, I’ll go to the boundary”, Ram said and ran off.

Ashwin was in fact, expecting a fast ball and eyed the gap between Omellette and Prakash for a quick two. That would leave them with four required off one. Damn! Perhaps he could use the speed of the ball to guide it for a four.

Thwack, the ball soared. Ashwin had lunged at the slower ball. He had caught the spin at the last moment, come down just slightly from the crease, actually misjudged the length and then finally managed to get his bat to it. However, such was the power that the ball sailed for a six and the match was over! Ashwin’s team exulted triumphantly. Arvind groaned more out of the prospect of now hearing the juniors idolize Ashwin on the trip back rather than the fact that they had lost.

There was a heated analysis of the game now especially between the junior students. “That makes it 2-0 at the end of Tuesday. You won’t be able to show your face by Thursday”, one 6th grader boasted, who had neither scored nor bowled.

Ram, Arvind and Ashwin, all from the X std. looked at the younger ones philosophically. They had weightier issues on their minds.
“To which professors will you be going for coaching for the engineering entrance examinations? I believe you have to get some sort of tentative registration based on your half-yearly exam marks”, Ram said.
Ram had a smile eternally plastered on his face. It was actually hard to say whether it was a physical feature or he was actually smiling all the time. However, that taken with the fact that he was the undoubted ace at extracurricular activities like Quiz, JAM, debate and their variants made him one of the most popular and well known faces in school.

“That depends. I have heard you need 90% in both Math and Science. I scored 3 in today’s chemistry revision test! I just HATE X Science. It is all just mugging. In comparison, the IX curriculum was so good.” Arvind sighed. He was extremely talented in Math, a prominent winner of many competitions. Actually he scored well in Science too, just that his usual fear of not doing well had returned after his bad performance in the day’s chemistry revision test.

“ I hear from Shyam, who is the topper in XII that he goes to Prof. X2 for Physics, Prof. Y2 for Math and Prof. Z1 for Chemistry blah blah…” Prakash rambled on sagely. He had a brother in the XII std. and hence was their Guru on mundane and practical matters.

Ashwin was not paying any attention to all this. He was relieved. The day had started off so ominously and ended so sweetly, the six being the icing on the cake. He had scored

9 ¼ out of 10 in the chemistry test, got 10 for his record and scored 90 in the English.
Quarterly Exam. Life was Beautiful.

Tuesday, 7th February
7:30 AM
Ashwin’s house

Ashwin was moodily sharpening his pencil. His mother was scolding him for his tardiness. “Bah!” he thought, “What do these adults understand about a 15 year old’s pressures? They assume they are the only ones who have the right to have problems.” he thought gloomily. There was an impending chemistry revision test for which he had prepared badly. He was a meticulous student and usually, his preparation could not be faulted. However, the root cause for his unhappiness had been the realization, that too just the previous evening that he had lost his Chemistry Record Note Book. As he sat down for breakfast, he looked at the IUPAC naming convention for organic molecules for the umpteenth time, but it still refused register in his mind.

As he stepped into the van, Prakash was holding fort on the various intricacies of the naming convention. Turned out his brother had taught him some ideas from the XII standard curriculum and had also given him some expected questions. The other boys listened to him like devotees listening to a prophet.

“Exchange your papers, time is up”, the Chemistry teacher said. Ashwin looked up, surprised. “Was the time up already?” he thought. The paper had been easy but long, filled with ¼ mark and ½ mark questions. But he had done well and had really wanted to solve three questions. Well if it had been easy for him, the others would have just aced the paper and there should be many 10/10s, he reasoned. As these things work out Ashwin was the second highest with 9 ¼ and the highest had been 9 ½. Prakash who had taught everyone scored 6 ¾, Arvind 3 and Ram 5. His own good performance and his friends’ mediocre performance lifted his spirits but the thought of the lab was corroding his head like a strong acid dripping one drop at a time on a metal. He had wanted to tell the teacher at the end of the class itself but she had made the toppers stand and the class had clapped for them. So he just didn’t feel like breaking the halo. In fact, he hoped that this would soften the blow to come on later.

During the short break, as he was still moping about, his brother came up behind him. “Hey, you left your lab record among my books!” he said. Ashwin turned, looked at him for sometime and his mouth opened and closed like that of a fish. Finally the word “What?” trickled out, followed by a “How?”

“What ‘how’? You tell me how? I have been unnecessarily carrying your record for a week. You owe me big time for that extra burden. You had asked mother to put a new cover for it. She had done it that day itself. I guess it was lying about and I may have taken it by mistake. That’s how. You could have just searched my books as well”, he said and ran off as just then the bell rang.

“Can anyone be more foolish? Anyway, no time for condemning myself”, Ashwin thought. This was manna from heaven. If indeed there was a guardian angel, she was working overtime for him today. But he still needed one more favour from Ms. GA. He was obviously going to skip lunch to finish the record but that still wouldn’t be enough. He would need a class cancelled.

The free period he was hoping for never materialized. After every bell he hoped that the concerned teacher had been absent or off to a meeting of some kind or something, but no, all of them came to class and taught with what seemed to him, extra enthusiasm. Every time he tried to write the record by placing it under the table, the teacher always caught his eye. Deciding he couldn’t take it anymore he just waited resignedly for the lunch period.

He wrote feverishly during lunch time. By the end of lunch he realized that he only had a small portion to complete and he could finish it off in the lab itself. He whistled happily and then the funny thing happened. He got his free period. The period after lunch was free, the English teacher having to leave for some meeting. This was SO clichéd. Anyway, laughing aloud he went back to his record and finished it in time and the lab went on peacefully.

As he stepped out of the lab, Ram called out to him, “Hey come for the cricket match. We’ll kick your ass today after yesterday’s loss.” Ashwin went happily to the field, ready to vent the day’s frustrations.

Monday, 6th February
6 PM
Ashwin’s House

It was 6:00 pm. He had had a bath, had Maggi for tiffin and was still reflecting on the events of the day. Twelve students shared a van to go to school. Usually the van arrived atleast an hour after the school closed. This left them with a lot of time to kill. That Monday morning, the twelve of them had decided to play a match, 6-a-side for all five days of that week. This would mean five matches. The team which won three won the series. The captains would be Ashwin and Ram.

The first match had been won by Ashwin’s team. While savouring the Maggi, he was congratulating himself on his strategy of letting Vinod bowl. Ram’s team had won the toss and chosen to chase. Ashwin’s team scored 81 from 10 overs. Ram’s team had a great start and made good progress, With 22 runs required from three overs and four wickets to spare, they looked set to win. At this juncture, Ashwin made Vinod bowl. By doing so he was risking the chance of losing the match in that very over. But little did the opposing team (or for that matter Vinod himself) realize that this was the ace move which would win Ashwin the match. A phenomenon commonly observed in gulli cricket is that all the young ones are underestimated the first (and only the first time) they bowl. Hence, people ended up doing very badly and getting out to bad balls. It was a simple trick and the bait was obvious but players fell for it every time. This time too it had happened. Arvind had come out of the crease, in an uncharacteristic show of machismo, but missed the ball completely and got bowled. Omellette was next. He misjudged the ball, and had only got the tip of his bat to the ball. This resulted in a simple catch to Rohit.

Smiling to himself, he took out his bag to finish his Chemistry record. He was very meticulous in his work and he was proud about it. As he searched his bag, he couldn’t find it. He was wondering if he had left it at a friend’s house when the phone rang. It was Ramya over a doubt. After an hour he got back and realized that he had started off searching for the Chemistry record. He rummaged through his cupboard, his desk, searched room to room, but couldn’t find it. It was 7.45 now and he felt increasingly uneasy. Had he left it at class? If so had anyone seen it? He called up all his friends. No one had seen his record. People were sure that he had not lent it to them. The possibility that the teacher had forgotten to return the book was ruled out as everyone else had theirs. He remembered collecting the corrected record and in fact, opening it the very evening to check something. In fact, Arvind had called to check up something and he had taken it out for that. After that he had gone to Ram’s house. He absentmindedly called Arvind and said,” Listen! I can’t find my record. Can you check up and tell me if it is with you?”

“I told you it is not with me! I understand that you are nervous but it is not there. For your satisfaction I’ll search again”. The thought of writing all that again led to butterflies in his stomach. The thought of losing something like the X std. record smacked of irresponsibility. The irony was that he had not lost anything of major value till then.

He desperately tried to recall the events of the past week. But after the Arvind phone call the previous Tuesday everything was blank. He spoke to Omellette about it.

Omellette was actually a nickname for Hamlet Purushottaman. His father was an amateur poet, an ardent devotee of Shakespeare and perhaps in his enthusiasm had mistaken ‘poetic license’ to extend to filial duties as well. He had exercised it to alarming consequences for poor Omellette. After getting past the initial trauma (kids can be very cruel), Hamlet came to accept his fate. In fact, he quite liked the attraction that he got as a result of his name and almost in imitation developed a theatrical and dramatic behaviour. In due time, he grew into a confident young and somewhat excited young man prone to asking inappropriate questions at inappropriate times.

Omellette said,” Are you sure you didn’t drop it anywhere?”
“No. I don’t think so. I positively remember bringing it home”
“That’s helpful. We can easily identify the suspects”, Omellette said excitedly.
“Suspects? You think someone may have done it?” Ashwin asked doubtfully.
“Obviously! Can’t you see it man! Someone wants to sabotage your reputation. Who could it be?”
“Who all did you say came to your house in the past week?” he continued.
“Anand, Shivkumar, Rahul and Ranga” Ashwin said, “But surely we must eliminate Anand as he has checked his house thoroughly. “
“But have you checked his house? In this case, my boy, no one is above suspicion. Even me!” Omellette added.
“Look you idiot, Anand and Rahul are definitely above suspicion. They just came yesterday. And I spoke to them at the gate”
“Okay… I’ll come over to inspect the scene of suspected crime.”

Omellette came and said,”I was thinking of our course of action on the way here. We will search your house first, for evidence. That is hair, footprints, fingerprints the like…then we see what could have been the criminal’s modus operandi. But I’m afraid we will have to go the villain’s house to retrieve your record.”

“You speak like an idiot. First realize that you are not Sherlock Holmes”, Ashwin replied irritated. It was clear Omellette was wasting time. But Ashwin thought it would be good fun watching him at ‘work’ and so joined in.
Omellette did a thorough inspection for “clues”. Nothing came out of it. He found two-three strands of hair, which were so long that it was clearly Ashwin’s mother’s hair.

“Mr. Detective, don’t tell me that the criminal has committed the perfect crime?” Ashwin asked sarcastically.
“Shut up, Oh cynical one! Answer my question. How do you receive your visitors?” Omellette asked.
“I bring them to my room”
“Oh! So they could have easily flicked it when you were not looking. Did you leave the room empty when the suspects were here?”
“Yes. Quite empty.”
“How empty?”
“How empty? So empty that when I leave the room, a vacuum is developed.” Ashwin replied with a guffaw. However he was feeling bored by now and wanted to study. He had resigned himself to the fate of the lost Lab Record.

They both plunked on to the floor tired and slaked their thirst with cold water.

“The main thing that I am concerned about is that just two weeks ago, my record had been cited as a model record. It will be really embarrassing to say I lost it”, he confessed.
“Yeah, how did you lose it? What are you going to do?” Omellette asked, his eyes round more out of a sense of what the exact fate of Ashwin was going to be rather than concern for his friend.
“I don’t know. Why should this happen at all?” Ashwin moaned.
“Zigackly… that’s my point. Clearly someone has done this and we should find him/her”, Omellette said with a relish.
“Don’t bother… I guess it is my fault. I should have written it last week itself, and then the matter could have been settled. Serves me right for being flippant”, he sighed.
“Hmm… but when you are writing that record you will rue the fact that you didn’t utilise my expertise completely.” Omellette added, ”Let me atleast interrogate your brother. That’s standard procedure.”
“Hey thanks for your time but no. I will risk not facing your world class expertise at dirt cheap prices”, he grinned and continued, “I will just have to face the music. I hope there is no imposition at least. I have to start studying man.” Ashwin said with an air of finality.
After some general discussions on the next day’s test and school matters, the boys bid goodbye.

As he slipped into an uneasy sleep, he wondered how troublesome the intellect was. If you were uncertain of trouble it made you miserable by contemplating the uncertain outcomes, even if you were sure of troubles it still made you miserable because you now knew exactly what to expect. He thought of its propensity to dwell on immediate unhappiness though experience and logic dictated otherwise, On top of that he would have to get up early tomorrow to study for his Chemistry revision test.

Bah! Life was so rotten!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Passing Thought…

I feel that Human Thought has currently reached a level of stagnation. Before all the PhDs holler at me, let me elaborate. I am really embarking on a thankless task. It is difficult to articulate and prove a statement like ‘Human Thought is stagnating’. First of all, this statement is highly subjective. What I may find as boring and stagnating may be stimulating to someone else. Also, an expert may always find something interesting which skips the layman’s interest. (w.r.t a certain field) That is why I ask you to read the article completely, before forming your opinions.

I strongly feel there is no genuinely exciting thought going around. This may seem contradictory/misinformed considering that we are the children of an ‘Age of Innovation’. However, this age of innovation strives to structure and commercialize creativity. Most of the attempts at ‘innovation’ are formulaic and end up only in incremental (or delta) improvements.

I agree that there is a lot of fairly interesting stuff going around. And I am not berating the importance of these incremental contributions. We have mobile phones which can pretty much do everything. At a deeper level, Wikipedia is a genuinely revolutionary concept. What I miss is more the ‘The velocity of light is same in all frames of reference’ kind of thinking. Anyone who hears that the first time, is struck with a feeling of incredulity and wonder which challenges even the most indifferent to read up on it.

Therefore, two things which I expect/ strongly wish that happen in the next twenty years are:

  1. An idea from somewhere which leads to another thirty years similar to the Thirty Years That Shook Physics.
  2. A radical re-look at the PhD program as it works today. I feel that the paper-publishing culture has now come to a stage where it is doing more harm than good.

Obviously, there are some counter arguments. I make it seem as if nothing brilliant ever happened after 1930. Not at all. The Second World War and the period after that was again an extremely fruitful era for Human Thought. However, I strongly feel that a tendency has come to systematize creativity and this leads people to label a lot of stuff they do as “innovative”. I feel that something (and I have no idea of that something), will come and shatter this attempt to systematize creativity. Something that disrupts attempts at contrived disruptive thinking.

Let us take an example. CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) is an interesting and useful field. No two arguments about that. While whatever may go on the theory level, at the practical level, CFD simulations involve writing down a few PDEs (Partial Differential Equations), making some approximations and using computation intensive algorithms to solve these. All CFD approaches involve some sort of differencing schemes. While these are interesting and there are tricky issues, the point is, it is still boring and ugly. If we could have some sort of a nifty transform which made PDEs so trivial that even say, XII std. kids could solve it, THAT would represent a really interesting and fundamental advance which would generate more exciting ideas.

(One way people do that is to convert a PDE into a system of ODEs and apply Laplace transforms on those ODEs but that is still tedious and boring)

An obvious shortcoming of my analysis is this: maybe some fields are experiencing truly great work which will come out / have come out, that I am not aware of. I admit that, but only grudgingly.

To conclude, the saturation is more in the sense that the tools currently employed are tried and tested and we should see a whole new set of tools which redefines our thinking abilities.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


My First Sketch... Sniff Sniff

Was just so excited had to put it up. May make up a story later.

This image has been with me for a LONG time and I wish you could picture it with the Kill Bill whistle when you see this!

And the small object near the bird is supposed to be a bullet!

(Apologies for the print... the scanning came out like that. It looks better on paper)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Riddle

Consider the tranquility prevailing outside the Central Library, a day just before the exams. Consider the orderly bustle just outside the library with people going in and out, quietly and efficiently. Picture the soft hue of the street lamps lighting up the area, bright enough to help the secluded couples in their combined studies, but not bright enough to reveal them.

Suddenly, disturbing the calm, one person goes charging into the library. He is lanky, just over six feet, wearing a blue T-shirt, a sagging Liviya bag and khaki pants. He looks like he has just awoken from a longer-than-intended nap. He rushes into the library. To save time, he picks out his entry card while running. The entry card was actually an RFID embedded “Smart Card” and to get into the library one had to swipe it at the turnstiles. He reached the entrance and swipes the card. It doesn’t open. He groans. The time is 8:45 PM. The library had the facility of issuing books only for a night but students interested in borrowing these had to do so between 8:30 and 9:00 PM. The smart card's failure, second time in a month, added to that tension. He motions to the guard. For some reason, there is some sort of smoke in the area around the guard. In fact, instead of a guard, there is someone dressed in long robes, having a flowing beard and a Thousand Watt halo. He looks more like St. Peter at the gate rather than a guard. However, in this story we shall call this character, The Guard. The student asks him to open the turnstile…)

“This is my Smart Card. It is not working.” the student says. “Can you let me in just for today?”
The Guard examines it. “Hmm… you need to get it activated.”
“I will definitely do it tomorrow, can I get in now?”
“Yes”, The Guard replies, but then just as he pulls up his robe and stretches for the button, an evil gleam occurs in his eyes.
“Look, this is out of procedure and…” he paused, adding fuel to the student’s fire of impatience, “but I could let you in… if you pass a test!”
“Huh”, the student pauses. His irritation is temporarily overwhelmed by puzzlement.

The imposing figure continues, “I will give you a small story and ask you questions at the end of it. If you answer them convincingly, I will let you in. If not… Muhahahaha” (Thunder and Lightning strike at the background)

“Whatever”, groans the student but in reality his curiosity has been aroused and would rather address this question than search for the book.

“Once upon a time”, The Guard starts…

(Tun tun tun tun… and a Newton’s wheel starts rolling slowly to indicate it a scene change)

Two friends Arjun and Krishnan were searching frantically for the textbook Betman and Nichols. (The textbook wasn't titled Betman and Nichols. It was referred to by the author's name, as is the convention.) Unsuccessful in their attempts, the bewildered duo went to the database and searched for the records of the book. They looked for the number of copies and the people who had borrowed them. Actually they were slightly late and realized that the chance of finding the book was small.

“When does the book bank open?” Arjun asked as he scrolled through the results.
The book bank was another facility offered by the library that allowed books to be borrowed for a month. The book bank usually had many copies of a book.
“Next Tuesday, but our batch has the lab. Quite possible we don’t get the book…”, muttered Krishnan as he worked on another terminal looking for alternatives.

Arjun was always in a huff. His walk had that quality of direction and purpose and it appeared as if he was always going from some A to some B on a mission. Not for him the casual stroll characteristic of Krishnan. In fact, K was extremely lazy. The only exercise he had was that of cycling to and from the classes and the mess. Rest of the time he spent in his room, reading. Not that he studied much. In fact, he scored lesser than Arjun who was often out for practice for the two institute teams he played for.

Turned out that there were twelve copies in all, seven of which had been taken by their classmates, two by their seniors, two by postgraduate students. That left one copy. Accession number: 341.234 BET, Millennium Hall.

“Didn’t we just search every rack there? Hmm… oh well! I guess we’ll just have to photocopy the relevant portions as the course goes along”, Arjun said disappointedly. ”Come, might as well go have a coffee”

As the two were walking out, they saw Balaji pass them. Balaji was a classmate and he was carrying four books. “Hello, what are you two doing here? Sudden burst of enthusiasm eh?” Balaji joked. However, Arjun and Krishnan were not paying any attention to him. They quickly looked at the titles of the books he was carrying. They realized that he was not carrying what they were looking for. These books were lower down in the reference lists.

Arjun replied,”Who is talking about enthusiasm? You are walking away with a year’s supply of books”, he laughed. And added slyly, “Did you find other books but didn’t take them as the limit had been reached?”

“Actually, yes! There was one book which I really wanted. And since I will return these books quite late, I think I will have to take that from the book bank.”
“Which book?” Arjun asked quickly.
“The Math Elective book”.
“Oh! And that is?”
“Err… Ahem..let’s see… some name I forget. Some book for Statistics”, Balaji replied after some hesitation. Immediately a smile came across Arjun’s face. Krishnan understood what was going on but he really thought Arjun was just hyperactive at times.
“Hey, did you see a Betman and Nichols?” Krishnan interrupted quite tired with Arjun’s ‘interrogative strategies’.
“Erm… no. My room neighbour has that. I will share it with him. Got to go now. See you”, he rushed off.

“Who would have thought? Tch tch tch… such low cunning in one so young”, Arjun said.
“I will tell you what! We will teach him a lesson”, Arjun said firmly.
“He has used the oldest technique in the book, hiding the book in some other rack.”
“I don’t think he would do that”, Krishnan said.
“Don’t you see it makes perfect sense? He comes to the library, finds four books and can’t take a fifth one. So he hides it”
“Yes! He did hum and haw when we asked him about it”, Krishnan said.
“Exactly…so that nails it. Let us find it and give him a taste of his own medicine.”
“But, where are you going to search? It is a lot of effort!” grumbled Krishnan.
“Look RDS (RDS was Krishnan’s nickname), don’t be a spoilsport. Have a bit of what the French call the joie de vivre. Let’s see. The first principle in these matters is to think like the criminal. Where would he have kept it assuming that others would never see it?”
“Alright. Let’s start by eliminating the possibilities. The Kid’s Section is out of question, the literary section is out of question…”
Arjun interrupted, “In fact, that is a good start!”
“Hey, that book is big… almost as tall as the shelf itself. Most books in the literary section are quite small.”

“But that is the least likely place. And lots of books are as tall as the shelf. We cannot assume anything about the height of a book. How do you what edition may be available? We must use the ‘Holmes’ian maxim that when all else has been eliminated on the grounds of logic, the option which remains, however implausible must be the correct one. We must go there.”

“But we have not eliminated all else you moron. You are just leading me on a wild goose chase. Why don’t you get yourself checked for some disorder or hormonal imbalance, you son-of-whatnot.”, grumbled Krishnan as he followed Arjun. The latter had started for the first floor long ago and paid scarce attention to K’s cribs.


“To cut a long story short”, The Guard said, “they were unsuccessful in their endeavour . My questions are: (1) Was Arjun justified in his accusation of Balaji as a student of low cunning? (2) Given that they made an exhaustive search across all the racks on all floors that contain textbooks, given that their search was thorough, given that this was not a case of an untraceable publication, where then was the book?”

The student said,” First of all, Arjun was mistaken in his hypothesis that Balaji was cheating. It is clear from the narration that Arjun wanted the book badly.”

“How is Arjun’s desperation clear from the story?”

“Why else would he take the pains to check who had all the copies? Clearly if he could not get it, he was looking for classmates from whom he could borrow the book to make photocopies. Also, in all probability, his “altruistic” intention to teach Balaji a lesson also had an ulterior motive of cornering the book for him.”

“Okay, agreed that you have established Arjun’s desperation”, The Guard nodded. “But how does that imply that Balaji is not a RG?”
“We also know that Balaji had only second or third choice references. So if he had seen that book, he would have taken that.”
“Good”, The Guard replied. “And the answer to the next question?”

The student thought some more.

The Guard interjected,” It is 8:49 now. If you don’t answer in a minute, you cannot make your overnight issue in time. Muhahahaha” he said and again thunder struck in the back.
“Do you have some sort of switch which does that?” the student asked, annoyed. “Well, did they search on the tables? And what time was this?”

“Oh! I forgot to clarify that. Yes, they did but it was not there. As for the time, it was between 10 AM and 11 AM”, The Guard added.

“Then one has to resort to the maxim that you had earlier quoted and choose the only remaining plausible option however improbable it may be.
Someone must have taken a photocopy of that book in the library itself, but instead of replacing it back at the rack, he/she may have just left it in that room and walked off, perhaps absent-mindedly, perhaps intentionally. Most of the times the guy who takes the photocopies will point this out but sometimes when there is a crowd he may not notice.”

After this, the turnstiles opened but suddenly The Guard faded away, while our hero ran up hurriedly to make the overnight issue.


(Now for the acknowledgements: The narration was inspired by my long time desire to write a story in the Vikram-Betaal style.
Also, the first paragraph's "consider ..., imagine ..." was from "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote. Do read that. Amazing style! The BoFi passed me that link.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Must Poetry Always Rhyme?

Whether to rhyme or not,
The poet had often thought,
What a vetti quandary,
Dum duh-da dee!

“It is a crime, nay a blasphemy,
To use sumthin’ like vetti,
That too in English poetry,
Dum duh-da dee!”

“I will take you to court”,
The pundit held a forth,
“You tender an apology,
Otherwise Dum duh-da dee”

“I earn my bread thro’ poetry,
Am a veteran licensee”
The poet replied angrily,
Dum duh-da dee, Dum duh-da dee.

“Mistaken you are surely,
For I, in a drunken spree
Merely misspelt witty”
Dum duh-da dee.

With such a victory,
In his moral kitty,
The poet continued to murder poetry,
Dum duh-da dee, Dum duh-da dee

“Should poetry rhyme?”, I thought. This was a result of a disastrous attempt such as above.

Actually I was inspired to think about poetry in the first place, because I stumbled upon this nice comic verse:

It was an evening in November
As I very well remember,
I was strolling down the street in drunken pride,
But my knees were all a-flutter,
And I landed in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Yes, I lay there in the gutter
Thinking thoughts I could not utter,
When a colleen passing by did softly say
‘You can tell a man who boozes
By the company he chooses’—
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

(I found it here)

“But isn’t writing all about letting loose, writing for yourself, a cathartic experience?”, the idle critic may ask. “And therefore, if you find rhyming poetry difficult to write, why try? Poetry which doesn’t rhyme is the hot stuff today”, the IC may continue.

That is the problem. I consider poetry that does not rhyme with suspicion. Such daring liberties are for the really good. The problem with non-rhyming poetry is that it lets the mediocre dress their mediocrity atleast for a while. It is as if the author (poet?) was lazy to write in prose, so he/she just put it in terse lines and got away citing the much abused poetic license. Faugh!

Do not mistake me, at the hands of some, these experiments produce amazing results but the chances of spurious passing of as genuine are also high.

Also, the poems that I have read that rhyme, are good fun. Who can forget Ogden Nash’s poems at school? Couldn’t find his poem on the visit to the dentist, but who can disagree with an author who says “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker!” Other notable poems from school were the famous Lochinvar or the even more famous Highway Man. These poems were memorable primarily because of their rhyme schemes.

Speaking about peoms read at school, two poems by Vikram Seth’s spring to mind. One was a poetic re-telling of the Panchatantra story – The Monkey and the Crocodile and the other was The Frog and the Nightingale. Maybe since I was very familiar with the M and the C, I found the F and the N a better poem. I really loved the story and his ability to maintain rhyme and meter throughout. From then on a loyal Vikram Seth fan was born, a loyalty which strengthened after Suitable Boy and now, just slightly wavered after the publication of The Two Lives.

Frankly, I was disappointed with his latest offering. While it was a family story like the Suitable Boy, in fact, a real life story, it didn’t have the tautness of narration that Suitable Boy had. It was nice of him to write of his own family and maybe people could identify with the events in that book, but there was a certain flair missing … how shall I put it… a spark in the language which makes you turn the pages regardless of the quality of the plot or your sympathies w.r.t the characters. But I guess we can allow him a little indulgence, he has written good stuff before.

The master of this genre i.e the book which could entice the reader purely on the strength of the language was/is the one and only PGW. Plum’s writing is the best thing that could have happened to me. How many afternoons have been spent curled up reading, re-reading PGW’s books? Invariably the plot is same – he follows the same template. You know that All’s Well that Ends Well, yet you turn the page. Why? Because he invites you into a magically whimsical world that the highly rational conditioning of today will not allow you to enter into. A world where the absurd and the whimsical take centre stage and what follows is a delightfully breezy read. Scratch the surface and one realizes that this kind of writing is extremely difficult. Of course, I am not saying anything new, just felt like re-stating it.

I recall that we had a poem by PGW about a reporter who experiences anything before writing about it. He shoots into fame for his ‘Reality Reporting’. However, his rising career is brought to an abrupt end when he tries to write about the effects of arsenic! While trying to locate that poem I stumbled upon the “Pig in the Gutter” poem earlier on.

But often breezy poetry/prose is dismissed as not literature. That leads one to compare the status of Literature with that of Economics; if Economics is the Dismal Science, then Literature must surely be the Dismal Art. The most celebrated books seem to be maddeningly sad and well what do you know, THAT’s why it is great!

One can picture two critics talking to each other.

“What do you think of this new Kid on the Block”
“Oh! He just writes for the plebs, a panderer!”
“Exactly! Among his other faults… he makes me laugh!”

The irony is that what they say IS correct. It is the ability to bring out emotion which is the power, the essence of writing. But there does seem to be a bias towards sadness, as if happiness were a quality to be suspected.

The point I am trying to make is that often authors seem to dwell on dark issues because that’s what the masters do, but they are not equipped to do so as they don’t have with the sensitivity that they masters have, and the end up sounding unauthentic. By authentic I mean, the ability to put down something as it occurs to you without any thought for anything else. After writing one must worry about the audience’s reaction but while writing it must be you and the thought!

For example, I often find writing by Indian authors in English authors lacking in authenticity. Such writing arises when the intellect unnecessarily interferes in an arena where the heart must rule. This was brought home to me recently when I had the opportunity to read two differently written pieces back to back. One essay by Jerry Pinto titled Death at Varanasi, and the other, a translation of a Dalit story called The Poisoned Bread by Bandhumadhav.

The essay by Jerry Pinto was in my opinion, clichéd and laboured, artificial. It was as if the author was forcing his intellect to write what it saw instead of just letting the heart write itself, instead of Varanasi just writing itself.

The essay itself starts with an italicized “Burrning is lurrning” and it is in a sense italicized throughout – italicized by the dictates of the mind. Let me hasten to add that I have not read his other works and in no way do I judge the author, just a judgment on this essay.

On the other hand the translation of the Dalit story had an authenticity, in the sense the emotions were accurately conveyed with simple words. For example, there is an instance in the story where the main character eats bread upon which there was cow dung. Now this incident is treated as evidence, a stepping stone, an argument to prove the unfairness. But it is not dwelt upon in any depth. The emotion with which this scene is dealt defines its authenticity. However, one may imagine the italicized writer to deal with this in some sort of voyeuristic detail and missing the correct emotions. That is when an author ends up being short on authenticity.

(The End)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ever noticed...

Ever noticed that, in addition to the cardinal hierarchy in numbers there is a social hierarchy as well. As in, the numbers with zeros at the end of them are somehow special or cooler. These numbers are used as milestones, or people really want to get to these numbers, or if you get these numbers then you are given some credit.

It is understandable if 100 is given special importance over 99 because there is one whole digit more and the number is like bigger and all that.
But why should 274 get the raw deal with respect to 200 or 300. They are ALL three digit numbers. Heck, even 250 is more attractive than 274.

The 50 guy is like the freeloader.
Why is 50 worthy of mention?
Because it is half of 100 as if that half were magical in some sense.
Oh and why not 60? After all it is 3/5ths of 100.

But it is not enough that you have a 0, you should have it at the right places. So 304 has a 0, but,"Tough Luck kiddo, 310 is what the people want. It's all PR". All this is really unfair! I can imagine the following scene:

Mr. 51 and Mr. 52 are waiting to get into the newest, most happening pub in the town.

Mr. 52: Hey why is there such a long queue for a damn pub?

Mr. 51: This is THE most happening place in town! ALL the hot chicks come here. (Then with a wink and a secretive expression) Rumour has it that they got Paris Hilton to do it here for the opening!

(Suddenly someone cuts the line and goes in)

Mr. 52: Hey who is that mot%^$#@ who cut the line?

Mr. 51: Shhh! (In a reverential tone) He is Mr. 50!

Mr. 52: Well, what's he got that I ain't?

Mr. 51: Oh! He has got it! And at the right places!


Ever noticed how people have a tendency to coin nouns out of verbs or verbs out of nouns or adjectives out of verbs and so on. To use the present trend, people have a tendency to 'noun'ify verbs, 'verb'ify nouns and so on.

There is this Online Community called Orkut where people sign up and generally show the world how attractive, successful they are, what are their likes and dislikes and how they want to meet and keep in touch with friends and all that. The way to communicate on Orkut is by leaving messages on a notice board called a scrapbook.

This has led to some new terms. A scrap (noun) is a message left on your scrapbook and the verb is to scrap.

My friend joined and quit just as quickly, when one day his boss said,"Oh! I WILL definitely scrap you"


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Oru Chemical Engineerin Kadhai (A Chemical Engineer's Story)

(This is a prospective movie script. People interested to be producers can contact the undersigned ;-)
Oh and suggestions for the roles of hero and heroine are also welcome!)

(Addition: Turns out that a lot of people who are not familiar with Tamil movies find this blog vague. Well, explaining these things spoils the fun, so just read it as some sort of surreal piece or something.)

A young man returns to his native village after completing his PhD (in chemical engineering,of course) in the US. Immediately on arrival he starts flirting with the more good looking of the village ladies and goes from lake to lake to see their daughters bathing, as these heros are wont to do. (These rural heros have all the fun I say) Then one day while checking out Thenmozhi, his former mathematics teacher's rather buxom daughter, he sees her suddenly turn red and fall sick. He is shocked.

On investigation he finds that the local soft drink factory is responsible for releasing more than the admissible levels of monosodium-arseolate. Shocked, anger written on his face, he storms the manager's office. Since he is just out of college he speaks politely, but the manager insults and sends him away.

He drinks local arrack to drown his sorrow. Unknown to him the factory also makes that same arrack as a by product! Tch tch.. speak about irony.

(Sad song - Oora therinjukutaen ulagam purinjikitaen kanmani en kanmani... An interesting feature of this song is that this is the only part of the film where the hero changes his costume to a cut banian and lungi. Throughout the film, to show that he has returned from the US, he always wears a Red Lacoste T shirt and Lee Jeans.)

The next day, our hero decides to show them who is the boss and he goes and beats up the factory people and gets to the main computer where the process information is kept. However, it is all stored in excel and MS-OFFICE has as usual cupped.

Hero: Oh What can I do? I left my copy of HISYS at the USA. I could not even design a MER HEN* for four streams in my undergraduate how can I do this... boo hoo...

Then suddenly as if to answer his prayers, something comes falling through the roof. It is so powerful that the roof falls off completely.

Huge Mass: Why fear when Captain Vijaykanth is here!
(Whistles, trumpet sounds, the sound of Thenmozhi swooning in delight!)

Hero: Dei, adhunaala thaan da fear. Normala entrance vazhiya vandhirukalaam illai! Kooraiya oduchundu vara... the^%@#!
(that is why the fear! Like anyone else you could have just come through the entrance. Like a maadar, you broke the roof. Now I have to factor in that cost as well. LKB, KS, TPV2K #@!!*&^)

Captain: Ha ha ha. You insult me without knowing my powers. Wait! Your problem is that you cannot open the Excel files.

Hero: And I don't have HISYS, you son of a what-not. What will you do? Write software for it? (Mockingly)

Captain: Wait and Watch!

He clicks on the file, Right Click.. Open With...Paint and simultaeneously says JHOOOM.

That is all, it immediately gives the optimized plant layout, optimized for waste eduction to meet environmental laws!

(Hero's face turns red in shame and falls at Captain's feet)
Hero: Oh great one! Sorry for having underestimated you! Do I have vimochana in any janma?

Captain: It's okay! When I can make Paint do Image Processing, what is Non-Linear Optimization, some Kuhn Tucker conditions. Peanuts... Poof.. Never underestimate the Tamizh Genius
(Whistles and kisses from Thenmozhi's ugly sidees also.. sometimes it just doesn't pay to be a superhero!)

Anyway, seeing the hero's exploits, all the women of the village offer themselves and our hero lives polygamously and happily ever after...

(Ending Song: Ilamai Idho - Sakalakala Vallavan)

*MER HEN refers to Maximum Energy Recovery Heat Exchanger Network. (Chemical engineering jargon :-))

Sunday, October 01, 2006

An Alternative Philosophy to Governance

Sometime ago, the Election Commission was issuing Voter ID cards . The venue for residents of my area was a Corporation school nearby. After collecting the usual identification like the ration card, and my college identity (just in case), I stepped out of my house and heaved a sigh. Like the average citizen I like to minimize my interaction with the government as much as possible for it inevitably implies delays and brusque officials. I always try to wriggle out of any work involving the Sarkar, especially the municipality. In fact, for most houses in my street, one fellow collects the telephone bills, water bills etc and pays them in return for a small fee!

As I reached the venue and got into the queue for the ID card, it struck me that the process sounded impressive. There was a web cam kind of thing which took the photo. A printout was taken, laminated and finally a hologram was stuck. The average service time, once you got to the photo, worked out to be around ten to twelve minutes. It is creditworthy that such an important document can be issued to so many people in such a short period.

However, the line was long and as usual there were quite a few throwing a fuss about the inefficiency of the process. Bollocks. It is a general tendency to criticize the government and I felt the criticism unjustified in this context. Also, the official present in the spot handled all queries politely and assuaged ruffled feathers in a pleasant manner. This has to be praised as government officials are often coarse in their dealings with “aam junta“.

However, there is scope for some improvement. For instance, a token could have been issued for every visitor. Knowing the present token number, a visitor would have an approximate idea of how long it would take for his/her turn and therefore, he/she could go out and attend to some other work or just have tea nearby instead of waiting in the queue. Seats can be laid out for those who want to sit around. But these are small details. The earnestness and enthusiasm of those involved was appreciable considering that the conditions were quite inconvenient for them. They were mostly standing and the room in which the photos were taken was perennially congested. Also there was a single fan which was rotating so slowly that it didn’t have any effect whatsoever.

While I would rate the whole system as good, overall, it lacked that touch, the finish of professionalism. I think it is high time professionalism crept into governance. With India growing at the rate that it is, the issue of governance will assume a very important status. However, barring stray exceptions, the philosophy and attitude of the average civil servant is still unfortunate. There seems to be an attitude of mistrust and unfriendliness in any government office, as if, any gesture of friendliness would end up in the public taking undue advantage of them. I think this attitude is a remnant of the Raj mentality when the British trained the Civil Servants to look down upon the natives and treat them with a certain distance. Much power concentrated in so few viz. the IAS and the politicians. This results in the bottom rungs viz. the clerk classes constantly looking up to the superiors for signals. These people posses the amazing chameleon like ability to dance to the tune of their superiors. Such behavior is a survival tactic which arises from an insecurity and fear of the powerful. However insecurity doesn’t lead to confidence. In fact, by concentrating power in the hands of so few, the system ends up killing the entrepreneurial qualities of the people at the bottom.

Why should people at the bottom have entrepreneurial abilities? Well, often it is such people who know the ground realities better and can therefore come up with better plans to implement lofty ideas.

This train of argument leads one to the conclusion that the government too has to be run like a firm. Many firms give extraordinary powers to their lower managers in return for extraordinary expectations on performance.

But are we justified in comparing the government with any firm? If the government is run like a firm, if the profit motive comes even into the government, then who will be the neutral arbiter for the society? Agreed, a government cannot and should not be run with a profit motive like a modern firm. However, why should the notion of a firm imply only profit maximization?

My own model is that of a government which is run like a firm whose objective is maximizing customer satisfaction.

Let us analyze this statement.

Who is the customer?
The taxpayer is the customer for the government’s services. In a sense, any public servant’s salary comes from the taxpayer, so there is a moral obligation to serve the taxpayer well.

How can this be implemented?
Years of training and mistrust cannot be changed in one stroke. I imagine there must be too many vested interests, unions, politicians- the usual suspects, who will not allow sweeping changes to step in. However, inspiration can be obtained from the enlightened shop floor practices taught in any industrial engineering course. In any top quality factory, graphs showing product quality as a function of various parameters are displayed. The aim is that an interested worker can look at that and get a feeling of reassurance of the importance of his job or in some cases, take initiatives.

Similarly, let us consider a government office which gives some sort of clearance. In such an office a chart showing number of clearances per month can be displayed. A small thing like this can make a difference to the everyday functioning of the employees. Seeing the graph, any average fellow will ask questions as to why and how fluctuations occur. This naturally leads to a sense of feeling among everyone involved that they must strive to achieve some sort of consistency.

While the comparison may seem far fetched, it is actually not. The principle is the same: empower the worker who does the actual dirty work.

There are many advantages to transforming the government into a firm. Consider the earlier example of the voting center. If customer satisfaction maximization is the goal of the endeavor, then the idea of the token dispenser would occur naturally to anyone. Another is clearly written instructions on walls of the government office and more importantly officials adhering to it. One of the biggest reasons why citizens don’t follow rules properly in India is that there is no advantage; in fact, there is a disadvantage in following stated rules as they are not followed. (At an early age itself one is taught to view the stated rules with skepticism and go and ask the official concerned!) In an environment where the taxpayer is viewed as customer these inefficiencies should reduce.

However, the biggest advantage of the government viewing itself as a firm is this: Any good firm today prides itself in its ability to achieve stated goals quickly and efficiently. To this end, Collectors would have to view themselves more as CEOs out to achieve a stated mission. CEOs rarely get involved in the implementation. They delegate most work to capable underlings. It is this functioning that I would like to highlight when I use the term “firm”. Delegating in the right manner acts as a sort of empowerment to people at all levels and this is what is sorely required. In my own opinion, too much power is concentrated in too few and as stated earlier, this gives the impression of the Indian government being some mighty father figure ruling benignly over its citizens.

With this kind of a view, the problem of the government employing excess people is not all that bad, as long as they contribute to customer satisfaction. In my opinion, the subject of government deficit is approached in a very dogmatic way. Among the middle classes the reaction to government debt is very similar to that of personal debt – an attitude of taboo, an attitude of “How can there be a debt? We need to get rid of it immediately”. However, it is perfectly justifiable for governments to draw up a debt as long as they can provide quality services to their citizens. The problem in India is that a lot of debt goes to service more debt and very little reaches the common man. Therefore, if we think of the government as a firm we can perhaps take a more sophisticated view towards debt, employment and other issues.

Having elucidated the model, now we have to analyze for the shortcomings. Most of these ideas would have been propounded by brains more experienced and capable than I. They would have mostly failed because of the lack of determination from higher quarters. Therefore, the root of the problem is apathy and gross misuse of the system and this does not address that.

I acknowledge this. In fact, implementing such a philosophy will only have a small effect. It is not likely to revolutionize the scene. However, there are a couple of points I would like to bring to notice. Governance in India is becoming an extremely challenging task and is only set to become more complicated. More and more people are traveling abroad and see processes in developed nations and are questioning the inefficiencies they see in India. Also, the recent cinematic stereotype of the politician being a ruffian, uneducated purely evil animal is wrong. In fact, they are extremely shrewd and clever people who are adept at handling the “grey” areas in policy making beautifully. A close examination of many situations reveals that often maintaining status quo is the shrewd (the game theory solution) approach and therefore, nothing is done. In such a context, my opinion is that anything to improve the public response, however incremental, will be welcome.

The issues with the model are these:
a. The problem of agriculture and the government's role in that has not been discussed.
b. The issue of inefficiency due to hiring many more people than actually required cannot be tackled by this.
c. To achieve such a transformation, we need a charismatic and determined leadership. This brings us back to step one (sigh!).

To sum up, the traditional view of the Sarkar as some sort of strict parent ruling over the fate of the people HAS to go. Such a philosophy is untenable and inefficient. Considering that the old model is difficult the idea of the government as a firm maximizing taxpayer objective is an alternative approach (the above objections notwithstanding). Of course, the ultimate Utopia would be one in which the society aims to empower the individual and the government playing a corresponding empowering role. But that would be slightly too ambitious.

(P.S: This essay is based on some reading and my personal experiences. If anyone has more information and thereby has some objections please leave a comment. It would help in refining the idea.)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Night at The Underground (Part 2)

(Work Warning: Contains some profanity. I really wouldn’t want you to be caught reading this!)

(This is the second and concluding part of the story. For the first part click here.
A quick gist of the first part so that you can start on this. But please do read the first part, as the fun of writing is more in the language than the plot the "Fun is in the journey rather than the destination" cliche in tourism.

In the first part, Victor Banks goes to his favourite bar, The Underground. There he meets the usual characters:
Des, the Floor Manager of the bar and casino
Steve, the reired Champion swimmer,
Natasha, the Mayor's perfect wife,
And then, after all these year he sees Alexandra in the bar...)

Victor felt a sudden knot in his stomach. Alexandra meant bad memories. He gulped down his drink and ordered one more. The memories overwhelmed him. To cut a long story short, Victor had been head over heals with Sandra (Vic’s name for her) and had thought that this was it, until one day she had just disappeared from the city. Mystified he made enquiries to find that she had left with a millionaire from out of town and worse, he, Victor, had been just one of the many guys she had been moonlighting with. Turned out that she was a gold digger and had simply used him as a “hedge”. Once she had found someone richer, she ditched him. Simple.

Then, they had started; the voices in his head. “It doesn’t matter, you are being a sissy, she is a gold digger you don’t want her”, one voice told him, “You were just a contingency, a just in case”, sneered another. The days after the break up the voices in his head took full control of him. They gave him a mindfuck. “How could you have allowed yourself to fall for a Player like that, you gullible arse? How could you? Clearly you were not good enough” After that, he would suddenly stop what he was doing and just look blank, a prisoner of wandering thoughts, centered on her. What was bad, he thought, as he gulped down another drink was that he had hinted often enough but she had led him along, waiting for what? “Waiting for someone like Briggs”, jeered the voice. And now after these years, the voices were back again!

He snapped out of his reveries. He looked again in her direction and much to his surprise Briggs had left. Why would he leave and that too at the moment when their game was reaching it’s peak? To the toilet, Vic thought to himself mockingly. It didn’t make sense but that was that… and there was Sandra perched gracefully on the barstool. He decided that he would confront her. Mustering his strength, for he was quite drunk, he tottered up to her chair.

“Hello! Ms. Alexandra Walker. Remember me?”
“Oh! So nice to see you! Obviously I remember you! How could I forget? How have you been?” she asked as she flashed a thousand watt smile. So fake, thought Vic, as he could detect a look of nervousness in her eyes.
“So you remember me? What do you remember?”
“Of course, I remember you Victor Banks, you darling you. Manyata would not have been such fun without you”, she smiled and hugged him.

He inched closer, and whispered to her “You people always have such good memories. Tell me is it some sort of racket or was it just a one shot thing? Do you go from city to city trying to lay the richest man or just go for the one big jackpot? Looks like a high return business”

She turned away from him. She swallowed hard and tears welled up.
“Oh! You are so cruel. What do you mean? You are so drunk, I am scared”, she said as she stifled a sob
“Bah! Don’t try that old trick. Where is Briggs?”
“That’s none of your business.” she got up to leave.
“Hmm… so mission failed. What will you do for tonight?”
Sandra slapped Victor. “You bastard! What has happened to you? You disgust me!” She started walking away.
Victor felt subdued by the slap. But the memories still rankled.
He ran behind her and said, “Then, tell me why did you leave without telling anyone?”
“I got news that my father died. I had to run home, when I learnt my family had been plunged into a financial crisis. We recovered just now… Trust me Vic”, she said.

Bunkum, he thought. But the outburst had mellowed him and he thought, what the heck, what is done is done. “Whatever”, he said dismissively.
She sidled up to him, gave him a coquettish look and caressed his shoulders. “Shall I get you a coffee, Vicky baby”, she cooed.
“No, some water would be fine”, he said as he sat on the nearest cushion.

Victor felt a sense of exhilaration. He had actually confronted her, he had dreamt of this for so many days and now he just felt release. Sandra was chatting away but Vic didn’t pay any attention. After all these years, his head felt empty no voices. He drifted to a dreamless sleep.

Victor awoke. He found himself on a hospital bed. His hands were tied to the side of the bed. His legs were tied to a pillar by the side. His posture was like that of a patient with a fracture in his legs. He struggled out, but he had been securely tied with roped around his stomach binding him to the bed. Vic couldn’t move. As he looked around the whiteness of the room scared him. It was a smallish room perhaps fifteen feet by fifteen feet in area, but the whiteness gave an impression of infinity. He felt that he was in heaven and half expected angels to fly in though he didn’t even believe in all that bullshit. The lighting was perfectly uniform. The room was perfectly white! He wondered about the lighting. It must be a technical marvel to achieve such uniform lighting. As a kid, the uneven lighting in his room had greatly irritated him.

Suddenly he noticed an oscilloscope to the side of his head. It showed his pulse rate. It was steady. He just couldn’t make sense of where he was. Had that bitch Sandra popped a pill and kidnapped him here? It looked more like a hospital. Had he gotten into trouble and been admitted here? Why was he bound up this? He didn’t feel pain. Sandra meant trouble. Why the fuck hadn’t he just avoided her?

Then he heard footstep. He suddenly saw two small black lines walking to him. Then the oscilloscope started flickering and the cartoon Powerpuff girls appeared on the screen. What the hell? Meanwhile the black image got bigger and bigger and gave the impression of a ghost. What the fuck was wrong with this place? The footsteps got louder. He made out that the black object was in fact someone’s hair. A woman was walking to his room. Must be a nurse, thank God he thought. Then he slumped back. It was Alexandra. He felt bile rising through his body, half a millmeter a minute. He wanted to shout at her and spit the bile at her. She opened the door.

Alexandra was dressed... differently. She wore a perfectly white nurse’s dress with the skirt going upto her knees, exposing the legs between the knees and the ankle and then... perfectly white shoes. Also, she wore a pirate’s patch over her left eye. Why the fuck was she dessed like Elle Driver in Kill Bill, Vic thought?

She came in, glanced cursorily at him, pulled a chair by the oscilloscope and started watching Powerpuff girls. Victor pushed against his bonds and shouted at her,”Why are you doing this to me you? What is this place? I will not leave you for this!”

She continued watching, unaffected by his delirious ranting. Powerless, Vic turned to the screen and watched. The show got over. Sandra got up, stretched herself like a kitten and said,”These Powerpuff girls kick ass, don’t they? My favourite is Buttercup. What about yours?”
“Oh, I forgot we removed your voice box, you can’t speak”, she grinned, the corner of her lips curved mockingly.
"Is my outfit cool or what?" Sandra asked. "Wonder why I am wearing the patch? I lost an eye. But I got this artificial eye made for me. It is detatchable" She lifted her patch and took that eye out. Victor felt a feeling of nausea overpowering his body. He wanted to spit his kidney at her.
"It really freaks people out when I do this", Sandra giggled and put the eye back. She lit herself a cigarette.

The door opened and suddenly Natasha walked in. Victor couldn’t believe his eyes. Could this be the infallible Natasha? So both of them were in this racket together (whatever it was)? Who else was there? He had always suspected the Oh-So-Perfect Natasha. Now his suspicions were confirmed.

“Come Tasha”, Sandra said with a flirtatious look and led her into the room. She passed the half smoked cigarette to Natasha.
“So Vic is the Day’s Special is it? I feel bad for Vicky baby. But business is business, we got to meet Dr.G’s target…sigh”, Natasha said.
What was the fucking business these clowns were talking about?
“Let’s get done with this loser, before we start with our own work baby”, Sandra cooed and winked at Natasha.
She went out and brought a huge syringe, as big as a two Cuban cigars. It contained a fluorescent fluid with a huge needle. He squirmed. He had a phobia for syringe needles and this was one was big. “Nooooooooo”, he screamed tears welling up his eyes. Were they in the organ business? Would they kill him and take his organs?
He felt sick.
“Looks like we could use something as big as this” Natasha sneered, as she examined the syringe.
Sanda took the syringe and squirted some of the liquid on to his face, inched closer and placed the tip of the needle on his shoulder. She bent so that her face occupied his whole vision and said, “Tch tch, Vic you were always such a naive arsehole”. She plunged the needle on to his shoulder.

Consciousness came slowly back to him. He was in a dark dungeon and he saw a sliver of light through the space between the door and the floor. His hands were tied to a bar above his head and he was suspended such that his toes barely touched the floor. Pieces of clothes were clinging onto him but he was practically naked. It looked as if he had been whipped but Vic felt nothing. He was too tired to feel pain. Suddenly he saw a snake sliding up the pole towards him.

Suddenly the door opened and the light blinded him. Steve and Des came in. By now, Vic was so emotionally overwhelmed he didn’t care. Everyone was a bastard. Suddenly, Des said, “Hey man! What the fuck? This is Vic? We can’t do this!"
“Shut the fuck up. You want to get sentimental go fuck yourself in an old age home. We got to meet Dr.G’s fucking target, remember arsehole”, snapped back Steve.
“But this is family you motherfucker”, replied Des.
Steve caught him by the collar and pushed him onto the wall.
“Listen he knows about us. We got to kill him anyway. So shut the fuck up and let LeBrand do his job”
Suddenly, a barbaric figure entered the room.
Vic looked at it startled for it sounded like a familiar name. The figure seemed familiar. He seemed to be a torturer of some sort. Interestingly, he resembled Vic’s teacher at school, the one whom he hated so much, the one whom he considered his greatest tormentor.

Suddenly everything came back to Vic, this dungeon resembled something he had seen in a film, Sandra looked like Elle Driver, Natasha and Sandra in his favourite fantasy, there WAS no snake, it was a Fredian association! Fuck… Fuck… he was dying in his own fucking dream.

He wanted to shout but his throat was blocked. Someone needed to help him. He could feel the vomit stifling him. He was choking in his own vomit!
Suddenly, he felt a slap. The dungeon was engulfed by a flood and he floated out of it like a rubber object rising through water. As he floated up, he saw a giant porthole. This was sucking everything into it. This must be the porthole out of the subconscious he thought. He must get out...

Vic got up with a start and puked all over the sofa. Des, Natasha, Steve and Tom the waiter were around him, looking at him anxiously.
“Just take me home”, Vic croaked.

(Obviously “inspired” from many sources. If you find that objectionable, well, as they say, imitation is the best form of flattery!)

Friday, September 15, 2006

Sleepless in Ganga Hostel

Senti Warning: Step in at your own risk!

(I am unable to sleep. It was that Expresso I had at Qwiky’s at the Ascendas Tech Park at Taramani. I had had a horrible headache. The Asecendas Tech Park represents the new India - BPO offices, high-disposable incomes, pretty BPO people. My sleep disappeared with the headache. I hate deviations from routine that affect my sleeping rhythm. This one time, in the second year, I went sleepless for two nights without a point, just after seeing Fight Club for the first time. I really wanted to see if insomnia was that powerful. The essence of the experiment is to keep oneself pointlessly awake. If there is some motivation, then it wouldn’t count as insomnia. Managed to do that. I saw numbers popping out of the blackboard the third day. Friends said I looked drunk. This was when I hadn’t started drinking even. It was scary. And trippy.

I hate building a sleep deficit. The rational part of my brain loses control and the emotional part takes over. In common language, I become cranky. The irony is: I can see it happen, I can see my emotional part dictating my chain of thoughts against the protests of the rational part and I feel helpless. My room is stuffy. Al of a sudden, I can hear the Fight Club sounds in my brains and then suddenly the Reservoir Dogs theme. Really love it when this happens. But I have an exam tomorrow and a long day after that. I need to sleep. I decide to go to the terrace. There is a pleasant breeze blowing, the soft glow of the sodium vapour lamps under the green canopy provides a calming effect. I lean back against the low wall in the terrace. The cold of the wall feels deliciously soothing and I am calm enough to observe my own train of thought)

I hate quiz weeks. I always become edgy and nervous. Thoughts of the impending CAT rat race (cat-rat?) and the spectre of the Darwinian placement process are enough to induce extra edginess. It is one of those times when the monotony of being and the constant throb of ambition threaten to hijack the fun from life, the joie de vivre, as the French so seductively put it. Suddenly I think of my schooldays. A time of innocence, a time of concentration. Have never reached those levels of concentration since. Did the TM (Transcendental Meditation) have anything to do with it? A feeling of yearning for that simplicity. Reminded of the teachers of the IIT classes at Satyamurthy School. Epitomes of the “Simple Living, High Thinking” philosophy characteristic of teachers of a bygone era. I am reminded of my own disillusionment with academics and big thinkers ever since leaving school. Doesn’t one commonly observe the very same experts who study their own fields with insight, being extremely pedantic? Don't they let their judgment be clouded by their egos when it comes to anything outside their domain? Vidya Dadaathi Vinayam, goes a Sanskrit saying (Education leads to Humility). Mostly it is the opposite, I think to myself, bitterly.

I realize that my philosophy after coming here has changed and today, I look down upon the very idealism that I once treasured. I feel a knot of fear in my stomach. The world seems so intimidating all of a sudden. It is all very fine to pontificate about the notion of God being only an idea, but involuntarily I recite a shloka I learnt as a kid.

Maybe it is the rising of the sun or the delicious wind blowing but I suddenly feel a revival of my spirits. Correspondingly, the rational part of the brain seems to gain hold again. It is all fine to mourn a lost idealism but a very important thing to keep in mind while following ideals is to constantly question the relevance of the ideality. That is, as societies change the values change. Agreed there are a few basic values which are eternal. Truth and Ahimsa are absolutely essential for a sane society. But beyond that most of the values are the dictates of the economic and social compulsions of the times we live in.In fact, most morals and values are often the reflection of the values of the powerful classes of that society.

Another key point which I think most of us know at an unconscious level is this: Any tradition/movement/idea will survive at a mass level, only if it will bring about economics returns at some level, maybe not immediately, but it should bring an economic incentive. If it fails to do that and is carried on by the force of emotion, then people will start questioning it and quietly breaking such traditions, before it eventually disappears. (I have based these arguments on some instances. Going into them here would be tedious. There maybe practices which do not have this feature. But they will be followed by small groups, or tightly knit communities. Even in those communities there should be an element of choice in the framework. If arrogantly imposed, even those will perish.)

Therefore, practices which were attractive or elegant once have to be jettisoned if they are not relevant for the times. There will always be old people saying that things were better during those days but they too are looking at the world through rose coloured glasses. That does not mean we should lose all sense of idealism. It just means that we review our value systems and goals periodically to see if they are consistent with reality. For example, I still think that “Simple Living, High Thinking” is the most elegant and satisfying way of living. However, simplicity thirty years ago may have meant having a cycle if you could afford a Bajaj. Today it means owning a Sumo if you could own a Land Cruiser :-)

Coming back to the changing nature of moral values: Herein lays the problem of the idealist. An idealist may take a prescriptive stance but the compulsions of change will lead that notion of idealism to be changed. However, she cannot change it as the act of changing would reflect on the idealism of her stance. Therefore, the idealist preacher is stuck in a situation where she has to impose her philosophy or be caught on the wrong foot. That is how many well meaning thinkers have ended up becoming hardliners and contributing more to the untruth of the World. In other words, idealists and crusaders are more likely to cause non-ideality than the Average Joe.

Therefore, what we are left with is an Absurdist view of life. Yes, there is no inherent meaning to life. But that is a liberating notion, not at all a sad one. Since my existence doesn’t have a pre-ordained meaning I can go about shaping it whatever way my intellect leads me to. Therefore, the only thing left to do, given that we have come into existence, is to plunge into the world with complete involvement and determination to experience all that it offers. The determination to experience the world should be so complete that if there is any obstacle then we must invent ways to go over it. Hedonism is my religion :-)

Feeling clearer, I walk down to Hot Chips for an early breakfast.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

On Relationships

Ever since a boy crosses the Rubicon and realizes the hand may be used for, ahem… well, other purposes, girls and women come to play a large role in his life. As he matures and comes into the early twenties, the desire to be in a relationship with a woman is a strong one, perhaps the strongest. (Of course, due to the surfeit of sex in cinema and television, the thresholds are reducing, but I speak of the average.)

Tune into SUN Music and every second one sees SMSs flashed on the screen which indicates that some X loves some Y. If you see SUN Music long enough, you would think that Tamil Nadu must be teeming with young couples. Whether that is true or not, one simple fact is that one sees a lot of people openly proclaiming their “boyfriend”hoods and “girlfriend”ships like never before.

It is interesting to see how all this starts. From common observation, I think the “Girlfriend getting process” is best classified as Darwinian. Every young man worth his salt starts off (or rather should start off) lusting after Aishwarya Rai or Bipasha Basu or whoever is the flavour of the day. After much struggle he realizes that the Ms. A. Rai or the Ms.B. Basu is out of his reach and downgrades to the Asin or Samiksha or whoever is the local babe. (An aside: I think what would put off a full blooded man from pursuing Aishwarya is not the threat of Salman’s muscles but rather the possibility of Vivek Oberoi’s effeminate “threats” over phone) He soon realizes that even they are out of his reach and now looks for the babe in his circuits. Even that is not so easy due to the “Hot Girls Date Only Losers” Theorem. Therefore, our wise and more importantly, horny hero settles for the policy of “Carpe Babeum” (Seize the Babe) and proposes to the first girl who laughs at his jokes and listens admiringly when he speaks of his tooth picking strategies.

Please do not mistake me. I do not intend any disrespect but I couldn’t help the sarcasm. And that sarcasm is because, I consider the “Boyfriend – Girlfriend” relationship as a strange one. For one, it is a loosely defined and predominantly convenience based relationship. If it were purely so, I wouldn’t have any problems. But for such a relationship the emphasis on fidelity is quite senseless. Due to this stress on fidelity, the relationship essentially is like a marriage without its main perk, the sex.

While the earlier part was quite frivolous, in the following lines I will talk about my idea of an ideal relationship. Put simply, the basis of the man woman relationship should be sexuality. But the problem is that sexuality encompasses many aspects namely, the attraction based on looks, intelligence, personality, fetishes etc. Therefore, it is highly probable that an individual (man AND woman) finds one partner inadequate. (Of course, if you are in a relationship and perfectly satisfied by it then you could be one of those one-in-a-million guys lucky enough to have found your dream partner. Alternately and more probably, your standards are too low.) Therefore, at least in the years before commitment, people would want to experiment in various kinds of relationships.

Therefore, in my “model” of the ideal relationship, we have at the core of the relationships, the “companion”. This “companion” is that someone with whom you connect and see a future with. But the future is distant and as far as today goes, the field has to be played and it is quite unsatisfying to settle for one person. Therefore, around this core you can build multi-dimensional relationship polygons. (Why settle for the old triangle when there exist polygons I say?). The aim is to experiment with various kinds of relationships. However, you have to work out an agreement with your companion wherein you agree to tell each other everything (a la Sartre and de Beauvoir) or choose not to say anything. The companion will also have his/her love polygon. Then each one explores relationships on his/her terms and after a certain number of years the both of them sit together and review the relationship.

Obviously there are many loopholes to such a proposition. The greatest problem is that of jealousy. It is for this reason that such an approach to relationships may not be suitable for everyone. Heck, in fact it will cause problems even to the most broad-minded. The next problem is the other partners in the loop may feel cheated, if they come to know, and this could lead to ugly situations. Therefore, the essential ingredients to such an arrangement are maturity and honesty. Another angle is marriage. Is such an arrangement feasible for marriages? I think not. I guess the willingness of two people to enter into marriage implies fidelity.

Despite all these safeguards, common sense suggests that such experiments, from an expectation point of view, are doomed to fail. Even a simple analysis of the situation indicates many emotional complications. Yet I wanted to articulate an alternative to the current trend of relationships, after all what are jobless thinkers for? ;-)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

God as the Final Variable!

I guess this kind of a post will be skipped by the experiences reader simply because of the millions of theories floating about. Almost all self respecting bloggers would have given their version of God/Religion/Mortality. I normally refrain from talking about religion and the “higher things in life”. The reason for that is two fold. Firstly, my own philosophy is that, there is no point worrying about the questions of higher powers, destiny, fate and related terms, at this age (meaning eighteen to thirty). My attitude can be summed up by Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful verse:

Yesterday is dead,
Tomorrow is unborn,
If Today be sweet,
Why fret?

The second reason is a basic question of how to think about abstract terms like “God” and those associated with it like soul, duty, heaven, hell and so on, without getting caught in a web of semantic confusion. In fact a simple cause of confusion could be the practice of capitalizing the “God” and “Him”. My view on such terms is this: If you cannot define a term properly, you MUST NOT use it.

(A digression: I am aware that this view follows from the so-called “Picture Theory” put forward by the great and equally enigmatic German philosopher Wittgenstein in his seminal work, Thr Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus . The problem is, after great effort, I did find a copy of the TLP, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make much sense of it. So I shall continue with the idea which captivated me though, I am not even sure if that is the “Picture Theory” that Wittgenstein intended.

Second Digression: Do Google about Wittgenstein. In my opinion, Wittgenstein, Von Neumann, “Che” Guevara, Camus are the most charismatic thinkers in recent times.)

The problem with much religious discourse is that the key terms used are value loaded i.e they immediately conjure up an impression/value associated with them even though the author may not imply it. Another problem is that in many cases, multiple meanings are attached to each word and therefore, there is just too much scope for interpretation and misinterpretation by followers.

It is for these reasons therefore, that writing about these topics is loaded with pitfalls. But I shall nevertheless put forward my interpretation.

One of the most striking features about Hindu Philosophy is the multitude of theories of God which exists in its framework. On the one hand, we have works like which seek to establish this “God / Ultimate Being”’s supremacy in terms of physical characteristics or some special powers. For example, the Purusha Suktham talks about the Purusha or the Ultimate Being having a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and his presence encompassing the Earth and so on. On the other extreme, we have philosophies like Advaita and Dvaita which are extremely sophisticated and abstract apparatuses to understand the “Supreme Power”. The beautiful thing is all these approaches to understanding God are equally relevant. It is this multitude of approaches which has led to me to come to my own view of God.

Essentially, as human beings, we strive to understand the world around us and our own existence. There are two reasons for this. One is utilitarian, in the sense that it is in our interests to understand how the world works from a mechanistic, “How and Why Things Work” point of view. This desire is to a great extent satisfied by Science. But at the deepest levels even Science finds itself entangled in often paradoxical philosophical questions.

The other reason is purely aesthetic. Understanding how the various aspects of life interact leads to a sense of confidence and fulfillment. Most of the philosophical nuances belong to this category. From a day to day point of view, nothing more than a rudimentary philosophical model is necessary. Indeed, a person can climb to the very top of the industrial world without any refined understanding of philosophy.

Often the quest for knowledge arises due to a combination of these compulsions. Having started on a line of thought due to various reasons, one cannot draw the line and say, we will address certain questions because they are of aesthetic value and avoid other questions.

Therefore, I think we have convincingly established that the two main motivations to understand the world are utilitarian and aesthetic.
Having established why we need to understand the world, the next question is How do we go about doing it? We have tools like Logic, Mathematics, Philosophy and Language is the “currency”, the means to express concepts. Let us call these the “Tools of Thought”. So in effect, we try to understand the world through our senses and some tools we have developed. However, these tools of thought keep on developing and at any point of time there are many phenomena which we cannot explain with our current level. In those cases, we have no recourse but to attribute those phenomena to something beyond our understanding, something “miraculous”. That Unknown Entity to which we attribute phenomena we cannot understand is called as “God”.

To give an analogy, consider Regression analysis. Say, there is a variable y which we think is to be modeled as a function of u,v,w. So typically we would write it as:

y = a1*u + b1*v + c1*w

What if unknown to us there is some other variable we have not taken into consideration? Also, the coefficients a1, b1, c1 obtained by fitting historical data cannot forecast future data perfectly. There will be a deviation. In Regression analysis, to account for this an error term is included in the expression.

y = a1*u + b1*v + c1*w + ε

To come back to our initial point, the world is what we try to explain through the tools of thought and in that endeavour we need the concept of God to play the function of the ε variable; A variable to explain all that cannot be explained by the Tools of Thought at that given point of time.

Please do not take this analogy literally. The term “Error Variable” may seem to trivialize the concept. What I am essentially saying is this:

The conception of God we have at a given point of time, is a reflection of what cannot be explained by the prevailing “Tools of Thought” at that point of time.
A Corollary of this idea is that the functions or the powers attributed to God should reduce once the Tools of Thought become more sophisticated.

In this framework of God as the Unknown Variable, the question of creation has no been addressed. My argument is that God is a man made invention so creation is merely a set of one-in-a-million occurrences which happened to occur period. An important fallout of such a view is the realization that different views of God are acceptable as long as the user can navigate his/her life. As a human being goes through the journey of life, his/her priorities change. The knowledge sophistication also changes. Therefore, it is very natural, in fact, very necessary that one’s conception to God changes. More importantly ideas related to God like morality, duty among others will and should change.

The next useful conclusion is that any work of religion should be viewed as literature, even if exceedingly brilliant. The crucial difference between literature and divine books is that, in literature you can reject the author's viewpoints without any feelings of guilt, in fact, you are encouraged to do so. However, refuting divine works always brings an inescapable feeling of guilt. This should be removed.

Re-reading this article I feel I have done some of the common mistakes that I started to debunk. Aaah! Maybe we shouldn’t even attempt to talk of these questions. Maybe you just realize the truth but language is insufficient to express it. Maybe!