Friday, December 16, 2011

I’m with You

It’s safe out there and now you’re everywhere,
Just like the sky.
And you are love,
You are the love supreme,
You are the rye.
And when you hear this,
You know it’s your jam,
It’s your goodbye.

Like I said you know I’m almost dead,
You know I’m almost gone.
And when the drummer drums,
He’s gonna play my song,
To carry me along.

Like I said you know I’m almost dead,
You know I’m almost gone.
And when the boatman comes to ferry me away,
To where we all belong.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Roads to Reality: The Clouds of Uncertainty

Physicists are an arrogant lot. And if Sheldon Cooper is any proof, they are usually quite happy being unapologetic about it. In an alternate universe, we probably pay our homage at the Cathedral of Science, with theoretical physicists presiding over as high priests. However, in our own version of the cosmos, I am willing to give them the benefit of a fertile imagination, given their knack of coming up with the weirdest explanations for everyday phenomenon. Therefore, it is a feast for the intellect when some of the brightest minds of a generation squabble over, quite literally, a dice.

Our classical sense of intuition tells us that in order to produce a change in a system (read ‘object’ if you are less scientifically minded) on the order side of a football field we will have to somehow negotiate the intervening space. That is what space does. We can shout, send a laser beam, or mail a postcard and wait for the cows to come home. Physicists and philosophers have a word for such a world view – local realism. Local realism posits that an objective reality exists even when it is not being observed and that an object can be influenced only by its immediate surroundings. It’s like what Winston Smith of 1984 would have us believe – “Sanity is not statistical”. Until the first two decades of the 20th century, no scientific development had challenged the locality of our universe. But all this was about to change.

The science of Quantum Mechanics (QM in all future references), developed primarily during the period between 1900 and 1930, breaks away completely with the tradition of a local, deterministic universe. It claims that one can not even know with certainty the position or velocity of a single particle, leave alone the evolution of the entire cosmos. Not only that, QM stipulates that prior to the act of measurement or observation, there is no point in even talking about such physical quantities. An electron could be here, in Andromeda Galaxy, or everywhere. Its behaviour can only be described by a fuzzy haze of probabilities, with no outcome being absolutely certain. Period. While relativity is counter-intuitive at best, QM is downright bizarre and malicious. It shatters our personal, individual conception of reality. God, it would seem, does like to play dice with the universe. And he rolls them blindfolded.

In order to interpret the physical properties of the micro-cosmos, QM uses a construct known as the ‘probability wave’. For example, if we are trying to study the position of an electron, the size of a wave at a given point in space is proportional to the probability that the electron is located at that point. But before the experiment is carried out and once its over, there is no way to determine for sure where it’ll be found. Identical experiments, performed under identical conditions, yield different results which agree with the probability profile of the electron’s probability wave. But is this wave thingamajig something real or just a convenient mathematical model that embodies all that we know and observe about the fundamental particles? Does quantum uncertainty tell us at that any moment particles simply do not possess a definite position?

This deconstruction of reality does not stop here. QM predicts the existence of ‘entangled’ particles that exist in a nebulous haze of uncertainty until one of them is forced to snap out of it when appropriately measured or interacted with. The outcome attained by any one of them is mirrored by each of the other entangled particles instantaneously, irrespective of the amount of space that separates them. If one decides to sport a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses, all the other entangled particles will choose to do so. They could be in two different corners of a room or at opposite ends of a galaxy – it doesn’t matter. This is dark magic or voodoo at its very best!
Naturally, this attack on the fundamental nature of reality did not sit well with Einstein. Over the course of many years, he mounted a series of ever more sophisticated challenges aimed at exposing the lacunae in quantum theory. He once reportedly said, “Do you really believe that the moon is not unless we are looking at it?” The stalwarts of QM were obviously not amused. So Einstein sought to provide a physical argument for this philosophical conundrum. In 1935, he published a paper with two of associates at Princeton – Podolsky and Rosen – which provided a theoretical basis for what has come to be known as the EPR Paradox. Using Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the authors argued that QM could not be a complete description of the physical reality and that a more fundamental theory is needed to understand it. For instance, it was argued ‘entangled’ particles displayed correlated properties simply because they had ‘hidden variables’ that programmed them to do so. Somewhat similar to two machines coming up with the same results even though they might be separated by a vast distance.

For several years the issue of who was right was left unresolved. Then in the 1960s, the Irish physicist John Bell showed that the debate could be settled experimentally. First in late 1980s and then later on through a series of progressively refined experiments, it has been proven conclusively that ‘spooky’ connections do exist between particles that defy our conventional notion of existence. What happens in Vegas doesn’t just stay there. Something like this should take your breath away! It affirms that a local universe may exist in our mind, but not in reality. What if our universe was nothing but a mirror image of an infinite number of entangled universes? As it is so poetically depicted in the movie Another Earth, is there the possibility that duplicate copies of our ‘selves’ exist? Would our choices mirror theirs?

The world according to the quantum is a strange place indeed. It forces us to abandon the idea of a local universe. It also throws out the window the notion of an objective reality – one that has always existed. The act of observation, hence, becomes closely intertwined with the process of creating the very reality that is being observed. In effect, this theory is incredibly efficient: it explains what you observe with mind boggling accuracy but prevents you from seeing the explanation. And therein lays the problem of reconciling our day to day experience of life with the weird microscopic reality revealed to us by quantum mechanics. Wasn’t life complicated enough to begin with?

Our society is structured according to the way we understand reality. Our definitions of truth, free will, justice are intricately tied to this understanding. To undermine its importance in the context of our own lives is to be deliberately short-sighted. And to ignore its implication, a fool’s paradise. So is that it? Is our reality merely a game of chance? Is Schrödinger’s cat really alive and dead at the same time? In my next article, I will try to dwell upon the different interpretations of quantum mechanics and what promises they hold for our understanding of that most elusive of phantoms – reality.

The first article in this series is available here:

PS: If you are interested in the details of the arguments presented in the EPR Paradox, I suggest you read the original paper. It is not very long and Einstein's grouse with quantum theory has been expressed very succinctly. Here is the link to it - Just ignore all the mathematics and concentrate on the parts mentioned on Page 1 and Page 4.

Image Courtesy:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Roads to Reality: Einstein and Faith

PS — Somebody read this post and emailed me saying that this - - might be a fun addition to all the serious stuff here! I am inclined to agree : )

“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Thus begins Albert Camus’s seminal work in existential philosophy – The Myth of Sisyphus. The premise of the book is an ancient legend in which the Greek hero, Sisyphus, is eternally condemned to the task of pushing a rock up a mountain, knowing very well that it will roll back down. The million dollar question here – How does Sisyphus commit himself to a life without purpose, even bordering on the absurd? If his perception of reality were to change, would he see a silver lining? Camus acknowledges the significance of understanding the nature of the universe, but rejects the likelihood that such an understanding would effect our assessment of life’s worth. I beg to disagree.

It is true that reality is revealed to us through our experiences. But its arena is not just the world we inhabit. The overarching lesson from the past two centuries of scientific discovery is that our senses are often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality. In his book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, physicist Brian Greene aptly surmises this experience as – “gazing at a van Gogh through an empty Coke bottle”. Lying just beneath the surface of our perception is a world that will take our breath away. Through the tireless efforts of eccentric geniuses, mad scientists, and indefatigable innovators, we have been able to peel away layer after layer of this beautiful reality and come one step closer to understanding it. I feel that any assessment of existence that fails to incorporate the insights provided by modern science is not only incomplete but also juvenile.

Few scientists or their discoveries have achieved such ubiquity as Albert Einstein and his Theory of Relativity – with perhaps the notable exception of Sir Isaac Newton. A downside of such fame was that his statements and remarks were often blown out of proportion. So when Einstein claimed that he was religious, religious leaders latched onto his words and sought to use them in order to sanction their brand of God Almighty. But there is a quote that is frequently attributed to the great physicist – “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Wary of being quoted out of context, he sought to express himself clearly on the subject, both for himself and for the sake of those who wanted a simple answer from him. So in the summer of 1930 he composed a credo – ‘What I Believe’ – that he released to a human rights group and later on published.

Throughout his life, Einstein maintained that underneath all the discernible laws of physics, there is a mysterious force, subtle and intangible, that is responsible for the harmony that we see around us. Veneration for this enigmatic power constituted his religion. He wrote, “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.” The mandate of science, according to him, was to hack away at this mystery and reveal to us those fundamental laws of nature that governed the ‘music of the spheres’. He gave no weight to the idea of a personal God who could meddle at whim in the affairs or mortal men.

A natural conclusion from this world view was Einstein’s belief in causal determinism. The world obeyed laws and we are just as bound to them as the planets that revolve around the stars. Were the immutable rules of nature revealed to us, it would be possible to predict with certainty if it will rain tomorrow at 4.15 in the afternoon and whether Mr. Sharma, a government clerk working in Jhumri Tilaiya, will choose to vaccinate his third child. Obviously, this was incompatible with the notion of free will, the very basis of moral behaviour and ethical freedom, and outraged several of his fellow physicists, including Max Born, who looked upon a deterministic world as downright ‘abhorrent’.

But that did little to dissuade Einstein. He famously quoted Schopenhauer in his credo – “A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills”. Free will, in his view, was nothing more than a convenient construct that allowed civilised society to exist. Something that allowed people to rise above the ‘merely personal’ and live in a way that benefited humanity. “I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime,” he said, “but I prefer not to take tea with him.”

In light of the groundbreaking success that his theories have had over the last 100 years, I found it a bit difficult to digest the notion that someone like Einstein could be religious. In fact, he was more critical of the fanatical atheists who “lacked utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos”. But that is when his words came to the rescue. Einstein believed that only a person thoroughly imbued with an aspiration for truth and understanding can do science. The source for that inspiration, however, lies in the sphere of religion. In other words (or more precisely, in his words), “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”.

But there was one religious concept that he could not accept. The bone of contention between religion and science, Einstein argued, lay in the concept of a personal God – someone who could randomly alter the course of events once they have been set into motion. A scientist on the quest for discovering the laws of reality must reject the notion that divine will, or for that matter human will, can influence this cosmic causality.

But even during the course of his life, a new sun was looming on the horizon of modern science. Few discoveries have so drastically affected our understanding of the machinations of the universe in recent times. Quantum Mechanics and the uncertainty woven into its fabric was about to deliver a knockout punch to the idea of a deterministic world. Deeply troubled by this assault on the very nature of reality, Einstein mounted a series of attacks against this emerging field in his later years. Physicists, he would emphasise, are not bookies and physics is not in the business of determining odds. Did he succeed in his mission or has our understanding been subjected to yet another upheaval? What implications does Quantum Mechanics have for our grasp over reality? More importantly, is this the only reality that exists? I will try to elaborate on some of these questions in the next article in this series.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Sunday, October 16, 2011


There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.
— OSCAR WILDE, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Culture vs. Cliche

"... mixing that cocktail of spurious tradition and manufactured modernity, while adding his signature flavour to the combination. He told his listeners stories about traveling to America, Europe, and Japan — the ultramodern places that middle-class India had been emulating and suddenly found within its reach. Yet few people in the audience had been to these countries, and if they did go, they would not encounter them with any degree of intimacy. The very places they were most drawn to — the business centers, the shopping plazas, the franchise restaurants — would remain slightly unreal in spite of the photographs taken, the souvenirs bought, the money spent."

The Beautiful And The Damned, Siddhartha Deb

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Ctrl + Z

Zach Weiner describes his comic as "Jokes about Penises". Visit for more of the dirty funny stuff.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Well-intentioned Altruism

The article quoted below originally appeared here: The Rugged Altruists.
Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.

The first virtue they possess is courage, the willingness to go off to a strange place. For example, Blair Miller was a student at the University of Virginia who decided she wanted to teach abroad. She Googled “teach abroad” and found a woman who had been teaching English in a remote town in South Korea and was looking for a replacement.

Miller soon found herself on a plane and eventually at a small airport in southern South Korea. There was no one there to greet her. Eventually, the airport closed and no one came to pick her up. A monk was the only other person around and eventually he, too, left and Miller was alone.

Finally, a van with two men rolled in and scooped her up. After a few months of struggle, she had a fantastic year at a Korean fishing village, the only Westerner for miles and miles. Now she travels around Kenya, Pakistan and India for the Acumen Fund, a sort of venture capital fund that invests in socially productive enterprises, like affordable housing and ambulance services.

The second virtue they develop is deference, the willingness to listen and learn from the moral and intellectual storehouses of the people you are trying to help.

Rye Barcott was a student at the University of North Carolina who spent a summer sharing a 10-by-10 shack in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. One night he awoke with diarrhea and stumbled to the public outhouse. He slid onto the cement floor and vomited as his bare body hit puddles of human waste.

He left his soiled pants outside the hut, but when he went to find them later they were gone. He was directed to another hut where a stick-thin girl, with missing clumps of hair, had the pants, scrubbed and folded, in her lap. Barcott said softly, “I’m grateful,” and asked her why she had cleaned them. “Because I can,” she replied. A week later, she died of AIDS and her body was taken in a wheelbarrow to a communal grave.

Over the next several years, Barcott served as an officer in the Marines in places like Iraq and created an inspiring organization called Carolina for Kibera, which offers health services and serves as a sort of boys and girls club for children in the slum.

The greatest and most essential virtue is thanklessness, the ability to keep serving even when there are no evident rewards — no fame, no admiration, no gratitude.

Stephen Letchford is a doctor working in Kijabe, Kenya. One night, years ago, when he was working at a hospital in Zambia, a man stole a colleague’s computer. Letchford drove the police down the single road leading from town. The police found the man carrying the computer and, in the course of the arrest, shot him in the abdomen.

They put the man in the back of the car and rushed him back to the hospital to save his life. Letchford pressed his wounds to stem the bleeding, using tattered garbage bags as surgical gloves. He had scraped his hands gardening that day and was now covered by the man’s blood.

They saved the thief’s life and discovered he was infected with H.I.V. For several days, Letchford and his family were not sure whether he had been infected by the man who robbed them. Their faith was tested. (They later learned that he was not infected.) When the man recovered, he showed no remorse, no gratitude; he just folded in on himself, cold and uncommunicative.

This final virtue is what makes service in the developing world not just an adventure, a spiritual experience or a cinematic moment. It represents a noncontingent commitment to a specific place and purpose.

As you talk to people involved in the foreign aid business — on the giving and the receiving ends — you are struck by how much disillusionment there is.

Very few nongovernmental organizations or multilateral efforts do good, many Kenyans say. They come and go, spending largely on themselves, creating dependency not growth. The government-to-government aid workers spend time at summit meetings negotiating protocols with each other.

But in odd places, away from the fashionableness, one does find people willing to embrace the perspectives and do the jobs the locals define — in businesses, where Westerners are providing advice about boring things like accounting; in hospitals where doctors, among many aggravations, try to listen to the symptoms the patients describe.

Susan Albright, a nurse working with disabled children in Kijabe, says, “Everything I’ve ever learned I put to use here.” Her husband, Leland Albright, a prominent neurosurgeon, says simply, “This is where God wants us to be.”

Monday, September 26, 2011

Heart of Darkness

Taking moral advice from cartoon characters is probably a bad idea. But if you are not averse to it, visit:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

You’re a Strange Loop

When the drama had unfolded, Kekda Man tried speaking. But his words failed him. All imperative alphabets seemed to have been replaced by underscores. What was left behind looked like a crossword puzzle somebody had tried solving. And failed at gloriously. Rendered quite helpless thus, he shifted his weight from one foot to another. Chirkut Lady just looked on in another direction, the lights failing to light up the emotions in her eyes, as if an invisible veil had been drawn over them. With a start, Kekda gets up.
“You wrote all this in a week? I would take ages!” he was genuinely surprised. And perhaps a little jealous. Green was always the colour that came most easily to him. The details of another revelation were almost lost on him. Or perhaps this was just a crude distraction.

“I don't need time to write,” pat came the reply. The very next second, she hesitated a little, as if checking herself from saying something even more scandalous. Embarrassed by his own question, Kekda smiled in wonder at her vanity. Perhaps she saw through him, for she did not know whether to smile or keep a straight face. As he walked back, he shook his head in silent amazement. How accurate was her own appraisal of herself! Even if it were pride, so true. So true.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Professor Masturbation

Believe it or not, my first lesson in college life was on the subject of masturbation. Quite literally. The person preaching this singular sermon was none other than my talented roommate who, for obvious reasons, shall henceforth be respectfully referred to as Professor Masturbation (or Professor Saab or other such dignified titles). Perhaps I am supposed to elaborate. Where did it all begin?

Those Eyes! Those Eyes!

On a stifling August night, we had lain in the darkness of our respective beds, trying to escape the infamous ragging at the hands of our zealous seniors. It was rumoured that once the shadows lengthened, they prowled the corridors in search of hapless victims who could not (and would not) get their pronunciation right. The halogen lamp on the terrace of the opposite hostel had thought it prudent to announce its doleful presence in our lives through a rectangular block of light on my wall. It was under such a circumstance that the Professor had explained to me his outlook on Life, the Nipples, and Everything by means of a discourse on the more familiar subject of masturbation. My silence spoke volumes about my ignorance and I had basked in the wisdom of his erudite scholarship, occasionally disrupting the flow of his speech for answers that had so far obstinately eluded me. Thus began an association which would have long been relegated to some insignificant slice of spacetime had it not been for my inherent ability to ignore everything substantial in life and his capacity to fend off attacks that sought to bring his honoured name into disrepute.

Contrary to expectations, this tribute – my humble offering to a great mind – is not going to progress chronologically for such formalities are the sole reserve of the unimaginative. It shall, in a manner befitting its subject, dwell solely on the charismatic aspects of a personality which eclipsed everything else (or at least made an effort to) competing with it. Now that the mandatory disclaimer has been suitably dealt with and the necessary bhoomika built, let me see what I can remember.

Professor Saab and Me: Sharing a light moment.

Professor Saab is, in the opinion of all involved, not only very wise but extremely good looking as well. I.C. Balu chronicles that on the first day of the Professor’s college life there were no less than twenty six reported cases of babes fainting at the very sight of him. Such is the nature of his Greek-God looks. As Balu aptly surmises, Saab is a “lethal roll of dynamite”. Things were not always this rosy and perfect. In his teenage years, the Professor had been a gawky geek, who could only be described as plumb, cuddly, and cute, with a fondness for the Earthly sport of cricket. He was uncouth, abusive, abrasive, and quite a character. A chance bout of pneumonia and a near-death experience, however, forever turned the tide in his favour. Never since has he looked back.

The fact that he is afflicted by the curse of vanity does nothing to cast a shadow on his charm. Indeed, he almost makes a virtue out of it. Many a lovely maiden have cast a disdainful look in his direction because of his pride and his unapologetic attitude about it. This unadulterated beauty, this perfect narcissism thus for some time served the purpose of shielding him from the all the dazzling beauties in our slice of spacetime. But soon these very damsels were won over by his scholarship, diligence, and ‘sense of humour’. Once word got out, each and every one of them was dying to grab a piece of him. Our Saab, though, is a man of honour. He maintains that only true love can stake claim to his affections. Such wonderful ideals, I tell you!

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Professor has so far been unable to find love in his life, leave alone the love of his life. His disappointment is evident, desperately making an effort to hide behind his smiles and his cheerful demeanour. But I know that what sadness stirs his heart at night. In his weaker moments, he daydreams that a girl will serenade him one fine evening. She will smell nice, be well endowed as far as breasts and butts are concerned (34B or 34C – 26 – 34), kiss him on the lips, and fall so hopelessly in love with him that his mere existence will provide her with all the comfort in the world. I know all this because I have been at the receiving end of such leaps of fancy. And ever since I was jolted out of my own daydreams by the undeniable verities of life, I have refused to partake of such fruitless labour. I merely listen in silence, hmm from time to time, and pray to This-God-Person for granting him the happiness that he has so viciously denied to me.

It is said that some prophecies have a tendency to fulfil themselves. I would like to think that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of one. During the early days of our camaraderie, I followed Professor Saab like a lost puppy. He would guide me to the lecture theatres that seemed to shift in space every single day of the week, thanks to the weird principles of quantum mechanics. We would religiously share our lunch and dinner, our appetites too stunted by the workload to dwell on such insignificant subjects like food. And we would spend our evenings staring at the rectangular block of light on my wall – a regular fixture in those days of translucent curtains – and talking about, well, Life, the Nipples, and Everything. It is thus not inconceivable to imagine why some sadistic gossip began to gain ground. We, poor friends, were branded as Miyan and Biwi – it still being unclear who was the Miyan and who the Biwi. The Professor dealt with such tittle-tattle in his inimitable style and with time the malicious slander died out. But the seeds of love that it had sown in our young hearts continue to blossom even today. Though I have grown a lot wiser and attuned to the ways of this wicked world, Professor Saab still insists on professing his undying love for me. I blush every time.

Saab and Me: Thoda contemplation ho jaaye!

Often, it appears that Saab is a reincarnation of some Jane Austen character, pruned at just the right places to fit into contemporary Indian society. He is extremely devoted to his parents, makes no bones about his rustic cultural heritage, and does not have a single truant bone in his body. He is the ideal student who values hard work more than everything else and does not wince like a baby (or me) when his efforts are not rewarded generously. He takes the good and the bad in his stride. Though he is known to shed his suave and refined persona to talk about such subjects as hagga, tatti, and copulation, these instances are far and few between and are more than made up for by his umpteen virtues. He is a matchmaker’s delight if ever there was one. He is not only self-righteous, but also incorruptible. Here’s why.

During our formative years, I.C. Balu and I were ardent champions of the Coca Cola generation. We listened to Pink Floyd, read Upamanyu Chatterjee, and drooled over Kubrick. But no matter how much I tried, my exhortations refused to have any effect on Saab. It was as if though we shared space and time, we did not belong to the same universe. He sometimes listened to me, rarely followed my advice, and almost always did his own bidding. Unfortunately, the same can be said about his overall effect on me. So though I lived in the shadow of such a great personality, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy reincarnate, I failed to learn anything worthwhile from him. But such misfortune is entirely due to my own insufficiencies and does not reflect poorly on Saab.

In this long and eventful association, there are two episodes that somewhat overshadow the rest of the lot quite unabashedly. The first one, which I have christened SIDH for convenience, took place after the first year of college. Bound by regulation and cast ashore together in a remote village in the Himalayas, Saab and I went on long walks through the lush countryside and shared afternoon siestas under a mango tree. I would lie awake at night, writing juvenile poems, while he would be his enigmatic self – reading, writing, staring blankly, or just wondering why I was wasting my time on verse. And while he would entertain the teachers in our school, I would lecture them on the finer points of Science and Mathematics. It was quite a jugalbandi. Though we returned to civilisation and waxed eloquent about its benefits, we never stopped reminiscing about those perfect days when solitude did not mean loneliness.

The second episode, or Orange Dates, has a special place in my heart because of being symbolic of the nature of my relationship with Saab. Trust me, despite the tone of this essay, we have had our ups and downs and a particularly long period of down towards the end of our time in college threatened to engulf everything beautiful we had ever shared. Then one day, out of the blue, Saab enquires of me – “Is there a problem?”. Of course, since there was no problem to begin with, the entire interlude of strained conversations was quickly forgotten by both of us. Thence commenced weekly trips to a nearby restaurant where, over mouthfuls of a particularly delectable sandwich, I regaled Saab with my non-existent future plans, half cooked existentialism, and tragic love affairs while he pledged his blind support in all my harebrained schemes. Such is his magnanimity.

When Saab meant Sexy : )

I have on several occasions been flummoxed by the Professor’s out of context monosyllabic or one-word comments and remarks. Only yesterday, he had thought it wise to call me ‘chichhora’. Why he would do so is, quite honestly, beyond me. After nearly 6 years of half-understood responses, I have stopped trying to make sense of them. Perhaps, my limited wisdom prevents me from understanding the hidden connotations. In my foolish ignorance, I rant and rave against this injustice, instead of humbling accepting it as a fact of life, and have been known to become grumpy and taciturn then. Saab politely pleads and cajoles until I am my usual self once more, waiting for the cycle to start all over again. We have our roles cut out and both of us play our parts to near perfection.

This is where things stand today. To say I have learnt a lot from Professor Saab would be incorrect. I am incorrigible enough to learn from no one and none of my mistakes. But through his eyes I have seen what life can be and perhaps should be. In my conceited world, where romanticism is more essential than reality, that is often more than enough.

So long, and thanks for all the love.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Silent Conversations

Tonight let’s spend some time together, you and I.
It seems it was ages ago that we giggled merrily,
Finding the perfect bliss in each other’s company.
But this night is special in ways more than one
For I have found the courage to talk to you again.

Often in lonely hours I look back at those treasures
Which now seem lost like strangers in alien lanes.
I smile when reminded of the twinkle in your eyes -
It had seemed so innocent on that moonlit night.

But now there is nothing but silence between us;
Neither you, nor I try to bridge this divide.
Where our eyes could talk in silent conversations,
Even words have lost their meaning in this void.
So tonight let’s spend some time together, you and I.

I stare blankly into the cruel cold of your eyes;
In search of warmth that had once seemed infinite.
Misunderstandings have wedged us miles apart;
None should blame the other, for we never tried.
Tonight leave the words aside, let silence do the talking.
So tonight let’s spend some time together, you and I.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A Conversation

A Woman: How long did it last?
A Man: It was over in a few months, but it lasted a lifetime. Do you think I am romanticising?

The Woman: Oh dear, never mind what I think. Why should you care? Do you regret it?
The Man: Saying that I regret it would mean I am willing to make amends. I am not. I do not believe one can change the past. There is a certain finality to it. It simply exists, like this present, and every other moment in time. Even if one could go back there, one would invariably end up reliving it. So in the restricted sense of the term, I do not regret it.

W: Of course the past doesn't change. How else would you have it? The arrow of time marches on, isn't that they said? Shouldn’t it be more like 'the arrow of time stays frozen forever'? Waiting for you to illuminate just a blip on its immense expanse?
M: Ah, now you see that remorse is often overrated. Over-regretted anyway. I believe I could not have said it better!

W: (Smiles) Believe. (She rolls her tongue over the word, as if getting a sense of its varied contours) Do you believe in what you say? These mannerisms or ideas - are they not mere affectations? How can you be sure?
M: Can I be vague? (Chuckles). Can one be sure of anything but what exists in the mind? I believe they call it solipsism. I am not that extreme. But there is a certain degree of blind faith involved. Identity is crucial. Some people know they have a fake one. That is okay. But not being able to believe in oneself is dangerous thing to confess to. Even to oneself. Hey, are you even listening to me?

W: Oho! Of course I am. Are you saying all this to satisfy me?
M: Uhun. We are here to rationalise. You are not a part of the equation.

W: Better. Tell me more about your work. What do you do?
M: Oh dear, now why would you ask me that? Geez, I have been branded as a person who does not attach a lot of importance to actions. In my defence, all I can say is that actions can be measured, cited, controlled and undone. Thoughts and ideas, even when policed, can not be forced. There is something beautiful about that. I like to stake my paltry claim to that beauty.

W: What are you, an 'Orwellian'? Dreamer?
M: I don't even know what that is supposed to mean. You haven't read him, have you? I loved 1984 though. I like the idea that sanity doesn't need to be statistical. Though there is no way of proving it, I'd like to believe an objective reality exists outside the mind.

W: You are being evasive, as usual. Come on, this is not an inquisition, you know. Why does it have to be a question of 'either' and 'or'? One can be part of something beautiful without being merely an armchair intellectual.
M: You are a shrewd observer. Hence, my self-loathing.

W: That's all you've got to say?
M: I guess so. Is it working? My mojo? Anyway, I have a question for you. Do you think vice and instinct are the same? It's not a digression, I promise you.

W: Under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me
M: Excuse me?

W: Nothing really. It's a silly rhyme I learnt when I was little. There are these two people, you see. Obviously, they have to be in love with each other. But then they are forced to face their worst fears one day and in that moment of panic they somewhat betray one another. Having surrendered to impulse and consequently plagued by guilt, both of them drift apart. Just like that.
M: I see. It's an interesting anecdote. I sold you and you sold me. It's got a nice ring to it in any case. So your answer is a yes?

W: I wish it were that easy. Instincts are nature but vice is all nurture. In our world, they have somehow come to mean the same. The blame partially lies on morality and religion. They brand traits as virtue or vice. It's a pity really. You seem to agree, don't you?
M: Absolutely. But you know the worst part? This rationalisation is not in the fashion of helping me escape any of that guilt. Pity, really.

W: Yes, we are not strong enough. Even reason does not help our case here.
M: And so it goes. Care for a cup of tea?

W: You don't drink tea. (Rolls eyes).
M: And you don't have to be so mean. Come on now.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Slip of Time

The moon’s a shadow of itself, the only warmth
Are the twinkling stars. No lights for another mile.
The air’s cold, slices through me like a steel knife;
Yes, it comes around, night like this, once a while.

My dreams stifled, slash through me, and scream
Out in despair on dying this sudden death.
I feel their desperate gnawing against my soul,
While on my fingers settles their morbid breath.

That path is right, and correct. Yet it sleeps there
Covered beneath stratagems, and spoils of a past,
Distant and unseeing. I dare not wade through
For the fear of them vipers still holds just as fast.

Yet, I must try, so I tip toe along the edges.
The owls moan and flutter past, while the moss
Groans on being disturbed. It’s then when I see
Her – just a swish of the skirt. And then all is lost.

I am lost with nothing to find. I follow the trails,
Her enchanting scent is the only prize. The end,
Now forgotten, makes the means seem to matter.
And it’s in her magical favour the scales ascend.

I see her then, distant, aloof, swaying to a rhythm.
Her eyes are closed, and she softly licks her lips.
No wonder the moon had taken refuge, for her
Beauty had been carved out of sliver arrow tips.

She looks my way, her sensual glow not fading;
I am drawn to her, but, to my wonder, she to me.
Our love is instant, for ever, but best, it’s silent; for
Her words I don’t understand, yet they set me free.

We dance on the dew laced grass, stepping on each
Other’s toes; the music of the night is our symphony.
The otters and the moles call out to their mates;
We don’t mind – for we bask in their furry company.

She takes me to this special place, on a beam of her
Moonlight we ride. I gasp in awe, but more in wonder;
For in dreams this is where I want to be. I kiss her in
Gratitude, pray against reason never to cast us asunder.

As I lie by her side under a canopy of fiery stars,
I vow to myself how I am never finding my way back.
And running my rough fingers through her silken hair,
My memory tries to forget that very same track.

But she whispers softly in my ears how I must be
On my way. My end must be she, not other way round.
I protest in vain for she argues reason;
And with a heavy heart I trace my steps around.

I slowly find my path, “So out of place”, I wonder.
And soon it dawns how everything was a Slip of Time.
An asylum from banal reality, in guise of a mistress
Of words. How fitting I should sing of it in rhyme!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Et tu, Brute?

The phrase that has come to signify the ultimate betrayal bears close resemblance to another momentous one-liner – ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. The likeness lies in the fact that in all the 4 novels and 56 short stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, these words were never uttered by the legendary sleuth. However, Holmes often did qualify his conclusions as ‘elementary’ – something that continued to fascinate Watson even towards the end of his association with the world’s only ‘consulting detective’. A common exchange between the two friends would be something on the lines of:
“Remarkable,” I cried.
“Elementary,” he said.
*Awesomeness ensues*

The titular phrase under scrutiny here is purportedly credited to Gaius Julius Caesar. It is claimed that at the time of his assassination, Caesar had initially resisted his attackers but when he saw Brutus, a close friend, amongst them, he resigned himself to his fate. A little bit of detective work made it pretty obvious to me that there can be no certain record of Caesar’s last words. Close circuit TV cameras were still not the rage, after all. Moreover, Caesar was more likely to express his despair in Greek than Latin. Indeed, the phrase came into popular usage after being used as the first half of a macaronic (text spoken or written using a mixture of languages) line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – “Et tu brute? Then fall, Caesar!” Shakespeare, though, is often credited with too much originality. He was simply making use of a phrase that was in a common use during his time – it appears in other contemporary English and Latin plays.

So, we can conclude, within the bounds of reason, that there is no way to ascertain whether Caesar uttered those words just before succumbing to his wounds. But why chose Brutus, the son to Caesar’s mistress? Why not the 60 other conspirators who publicly stabbed the great Roman general not less than 23 times? More importantly, does he deserve the carry the burden of this stigma? A little crash course in history of the fall of the Roman Republic will serve to put things in perspective.

Julius Caesar emerged on the political scene of Rome by forming an alliance, the First Triumvirate, with Crassus and Pompey. Their attempts to amass political power through populist tactics (Advani and Modi would be modern Indian equivalents) were opposed by the conservative elite, the chief amongst them being Cato and Cicero, the famed orator. However, after his victory in the Gallic Wars (fought from 58 BC to 51 BC), Caesar’s military and political clout had begun to worry even his closest allies. Not to mention that the spoils of war added tremendous amount of wealth to his coffers. When Julia, Caesar's daughter and Pompey's wife, died during child birth, the familial bonds between the two were broken and the Triumvirate tottered on the edge of extinction. The death of Crassus in 53 BC proved to be the final blow. The balance of power shifted irrevocably in Caesar’s favour, prompting a standoff between him and Pompey.

In 50 BC, at the instigation of Pompey, Cesar was charged with war crimes, asked to disband his armies, and appear before the Roman Senate. Since his term as the Governor of Gaul was coming to an end, this meant that he could be tried as a private citizen, sans the legal immunity he enjoyed as the Governor of a province. Therefore, he got his general and close confidante, Mark Antony, elected to the post of Tribune of the Plebs (Plebs refers to the Proletariat or the working class of the Roman society). As the Tribune, Antony had veto power over any motion passed by the Senate. However, when he tried to veto the motion seeking to brand Caesar as an enemy of the state, he was violently expelled from the Senate. This move proved to be the proverbial final straw and caused Caesar to advance on Rome with a single legion – Thirteenth Legion. When he crossed the Rubicon (a river close to Rome) in 49 BC, he ignited the first civil war in Rome. Pompey and his supporters fled the city, even though they had significantly larger reserves of armed forces.

Leaving the charge of administering Rome to Mark Antony, Caesar pursued set himself to the task of pursuing and overpowering his opponents. After barely avoiding a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Dyrrhachium (48 BC), he was finally able to rout the last of Pompey’s forces at the Battle of Pharsalus later that year. It was after this decisive victory that Cato and Scipio, two other major adversaries of Caesar, fled to Africa while Brutus and Cicero surrendered themselves, having lost their faith in the Pompeian faction. Caesar, eager to appear as a merciful leader, pardoned them and even appointed Brutus as the Governor of Gaul. Later, he would nominate Brutus as his heir in his will were Octavius, the primary successor, to die before Brutus. After several minor and major battles in Africa and Egypt, Caesar finally returned to Rome in 46 BC and was appointed as the Dictator for a period of ten years.

Here, it should be kept in mind that the office of the Dictator was a legal position decreed by the Senate and aimed at granting absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the influence of normal officials. The office granted Caesar sweeping powers in matters of political and military administration and holding this post he governed autocratically, more in the manner of a general than a politician. He got the Senate to shower him with triumphs (public ceremonies celebrating his military victories) and even allowed his statues be decorated like those of Roman Gods. Many Romans found these triumphs to be in poor taste as those defeated in the civil wars had been fellow Romans and not foreign rivals. That, however, did little to dissuade Caesar. Having little regard for political structure, he ruled almost by whim. Reluctant and offending officials were brought before the Senate and divested of their office. Naturally, his autocratic methods alienated him from many patricians (or members of the nobility).

This is not to say that he was least concerned about the welfare of his people or sought to establish a dynasty. He followed a policy of clemency and granted pardon to all those who had opposed him, refusing even to confiscate their property. He sought to repair the chaotic and dysfunctional machinery of the Roman Republic where army and not the constitution had become the means to achieve political ends. He wanted to restore peace in the empire by creating a strong central government in Rome that could reign in the truant provinces. He instituted a large array of political and social reforms that were both sound and far sighted. For instance, he resolved the debt crisis facing the Republic, resettled war veterans abroad without dispossessing land owners, ensured a steady supply of grain from Egypt, introduced the Julian calendar, and enlarged the Senate so as to include representatives from the outlying provinces.

However, power is inherently corrupting. So when Caesar was named Dictator perpetuo or Dictator in perpetuation in 44 BC, it proved to be the final push that his enemies needed. They feared he had become a tyrant and would soon turn the republic into a monarchy. Guided by the Latin motto ‘Sic simper tyrannis’ or ‘Thus always to tyrants’, Brutus was persuaded to wield the knife as a symbolic gesture for the people of Rome – his ancestors had been one of the founding fathers of the Republic. Public sentiment was an important consideration as Caesar saw himself as a leader of the people despite his aristocratic origins.

On the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC – Caesar was due to appear at the Senate. Mark Antony, who had vaguely learnt of the plot the night before, set out to warn his friend before it was too late. But he was intercepted on the steps leading up to the portico of the Theatre of Pompey, the venue for the session. It is believed that the first strike had come from Casca, who pulled down Caesar’s tunic and struck him with a knife. But Caesar was able to turn around quickly and evade the blow. Within moments, however, nearly 60 Liberatores, including Brutus, went to work on the dictator and continued stabbing until he was dead. Opinion among historians and scholars as to what actually transpired on that fateful day remains divided. Plutarch, a Greek historian, reports that Caesar said nothing but simply pulled his toga over his head when he saw Brutus amongst his killers. He also writes that after the assassination Brutus had stepped forward, as if to say something, but had been unable to do so. The conspirators had then marched in the streets of the capital, rejoicing the tyrannicide and the 'rebirth' of the republic.

In the light of these facts, one is forced to reconsider one’s stance. Was Brutus not caught in the same dilemma as his peers? Did he seek power, something he was unable to enjoy in the aftermath of the assassination, or was he merely trying to do the difficult thing? Is he not the greater tragic hero? In another universe, his betrayal might be considered the supreme sacrifice – an act of selflessness that put the good of his people above the welfare of his friend and family. But then again, poetic justice demands that someone bear the cross of life’s cruel irony. It is fitting that Brutus, who was almost as a son to Caesar, should find himself torn between love and duty and carry the burden of his choice for the rest of eternity.

Sources: Julius Caesar: Historical Background (, countless Wikipedia articles, and Rome (

Monday, August 01, 2011

Wife Sharing and Other Stories

A king that is conquered must see strange looks, so bitter a thing is the heart of man.
Dusk, says Saki, is the hour of the defeated. Harried men and women, who have fought and lost life’s battles, come out in this half light so that they can hide their misfortunes from the scrutinising eyes of those who inhabit the realm of bright lights and cheerful laughter, the land of hope and glory lying just beyond the sheltering shade of droopy shoulders and disappointed eyes. Though such a meticulous murder of one of the most phenomenonal hours of the day demands a categorical reply, I shall reserve it for a later date, concentrating at this hour on recounting an episode when such a setting not only stimulated my intellect but also numbed the more primal of my instincts. And that, my friends, happens very rarely.

About two years ago, I had shared an exceptional Delhi dusk with the lovely Chandni on an unremarkable bench in a nondescript park situated somewhere close to the bevy of lights that is one of the favourite haunts of the rich and fashionable elite of the city — the M-Block Market in Greater Kailash. The lamps had, in due consideration of my repressed desires, refused to come on and the handful of over enthusiastic joggers were in a world of their own, oblivious to any misdemeanours on my part. Although my companion had fixed her stare on a faraway tree and looked sufficiently poignant, I was quite aware of a third eye that was making a mental note of all the uncalled for expressions that were playing a game of carom on my face.

In such a romantically charged setting, I thought it opportune to unburden myself off of my thoughts on such diverse subjects as Che Guevara’s brand of communism, Niyoga, and the greatest story ever told — Mahabharata. As my companion patiently bore this brutal assault on her patience, her reluctance to be challenged intellectually and her eagerness to plant the proverbial slap across my face was, fortunately, lost on me in that hour of gloaming. And as my verbal diarrhoea splattered itself across several continents and millennia, the exasperation of my escort reached a crescendo; till she could no longer feign ignorance and politely suggested that it was getting too late.

Reading the very readable Dusk by Saki, I revisited that evening and realised how a more fashionable man could have very easily had the face instead of the palm. However, the subjects of our conversation interest me equally even today and I am forced to wonder if I wouldn’t regale another unsuspecting victim with the same practiced banter. Now that I have emptied myself of this feeling of remorse, I shall proceed to rekindle my ill-fated companion’s interest in these archaic topics and find out if her hands still itch for revenge every time she finds herself sharing a grey dusk with another pseudo-intellectual or if she has forgiven me for putting her through such a gruesome ordeal.

Niyoga, literally meaning delegation and known in some frivolous circles as wife sharing, is an ancient Vedic tradition wherein a woman, whose husband was incapable of producing an heir by reason of death or impotency, would request and appoint a person for helping her bear a child. As per Manu Smriti, the man chosen for this task should either be an immediate family member, such as the husband’s brother, or a highly revered member of the society, such as a Brahmin or a Deva. However, there was a lot of fine text enjoined under this practice. The couple could not engage in the sexual act for the sake of pleasure since this was an act of Dharma, implying an impassive and emotionally detached union. The infant thus born was referred to as Kshetraga and considered the child of the husband-wife and not the provider of seed. Moreover, the appointed person could not seek any parental relationship with the child in the future as he was simply fulfilling his duty or Dharma. However, just in case a poor man’s temptation got the better of him, the Vedas also lay down that no man can perform Niyoga for more than three times in his life.

Our friendly religious epic, Mahabharata, is replete with cases of charitable Brahmins impregnating obedient (though often not willing) queens in order to oblige heirless kingdoms. So when Vichitravirya died without any sons, his mother Satyavati approached his half-brothers to do the needful. But since Bheeshma had already taken the terrible oath, the task fell upon Ved Vyasa, Satyavati’s son from before she was married to Shantanu. As a result of this coitus, Pandu, the pale, was born to Ambika, who had turned white out of fear, while Ambalika bore the blind Dhritarashtra, apparently because she had closed her eyes after seeing the formidable form of the sage. When even after the passage of an entire year since neither Ambika nor Ambalika were willing to have a second go at Vyasa’s famed sexual prowess (I wage a lonely war in sticking by this conclusion), they sent a maid in their place, who gave birth to a healthy Vidura. Even Pandavas, the legitimate heirs to the throne of Hastinapur, were borne out of a special mantra which allowed Kunti to invoke the Gods in order to perform this favour.

The practice is not unique to Hinduism or India and the somewhat similar tradition of levirate marriages — Yibbum — is mandated by the Torah wherein a brother is obliged to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the first born being treated as the heir of the deceased brother and not the genetic father. However, if either of the parties chooses to opt out of the marriage, both are required to go through a ceremony called halizah, wherein they publicly renounce their right to Yibbum. The rite involves taking off of a brother-in-law’s shoe by the widow whereby he is symbolically released from the obligation to marry her and she is free to marry whomsoever she desires. Most Jewish communities have seen a gradual decline of Yibbum in favour of halizah. A similar custom is, nevertheless, still prevalent in some parts of Punjab and Haryana where it is known by such names as “Latta Odhna” and “Chadar Dhakna”.

As with all such religious customs, it is quite easy to see that it is convenience rather than divine will that dictates such norms. So while Niyoga allowed a king to produce a legitimate heir and keep the genealogical tree alive through slightly suspicious means, with women being relegated to very restricted roles in most agrarian societies, practices like levirate marriages insured that the ancestral property would remain in the family of the deceased. Moreover, inheriting the wife also meant that the children, if any, would be taken care of, something that couldn’t be taken for granted where the mother to marry a complete stranger. It is ironical to note that the very texts that fundamentalists quote from in order to champion their restricted understanding of culture and heritage also make them fall flat on their feet. For even if these epics were not produced by divine decree, they reflect the prevalent customs and traditions at some point in our history. Who are they, then, to uphold one ‘culture’ and decry the other?

“For if Arjuna was not the greatest archer in the world, who was he?”
Niyoga is just one specific example but the reason that I remain hooked to Mahabharata is its mercilessly questioning tone, a cruel sense of irony, and the moral ambiguity that plagues almost all its characters. I believe that it is this very moral grey zone that has allowed modern story tellers to recount the tale from so mant distinct perspectives. No wonder, thus, that in Kamala Subramaniam’s rendition of the epic, Duryodhana is portrayed as a Shakespearean tragic hero, doomed because of a fatal flaw in his character — his hamartia. Even Yudhisthira, when he eventually becomes Dharmaraj, does so “not by divine right but by slowly, painfully accepting the many weaknesses in his character and finding ways to overcome them”. Stripped of this divine aura that has threatened to cloud its message, the epic might actually have more to teach us than what we bargained for in the first place.

Unlike Ramayana, Mahabharata does not come across as a well defined battle of good versus evil. Iravati Karve, author of the exceptional Yuganta, writes that the original Jaya was one of the “last examples of pragmatism in Indian literature, something that was consequently lost in the dreamy escapism of Bhakti tradition”. If I were allowed to be a little more spiritual, I would probably say that understanding these dilemmas and making sense of them in the context of my own life is perhaps the motivating force behind all my reading on this subject. The questions of self-doubt, identity, and duty — all so crucial to a through understanding of this ancient poem — are just as significant today as they were four thousand years ago. Religious bigots might try to interpret the text in order to suit their narrow purposes but the concept of Dharma, which is the heart and soul of the epic, “is not only untranslatable, but the Mahabharata’s characters are still trying to figure it out at the end”. All we can do is learn from their efforts and hope that we do not fritter away our lives reinventing the wheel.

Inspired by: Dusk by Saki, this excellent post by Jabberwock, and some inopportune conversations on a half-lit evening.
Quotes from: Saki, Yuganta, The Great Golden Sacrifice, and The Difficulty of Being Good.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Radiowalla

The Sun sulks gloomily behind the clouds, prowling far beyond similar looking drapes and windows, its powerful strides now like a ritual dance that has lost its function. The gaze of its tired eyes has grown so weary behind the bars that when it finally pierces the darkness of a lonely room, nothing seems to change. Almost. A sigh escapes its lips, plunges across a distance of a hundred million miles, and dies a silent death in two lonesome brown eyes, eyes now numbed to nuances by many endless nights of restless and anxious slumber. The dying breath of this wistful sigh lights up the dreams in these lonesome brown eyes. Earlier, they had been prancing about, shimmying to the groovy beats of a suppressed desire, happy in their conjoined obscurity. Now, as they scamper around scared, ashamed at their sudden nakedness and the immediacy of its unfamiliarity, a formless memory disturbs the treasured comfort of a sound sleep.

“Kinaare door hote hote bahut door ho gaye. Paani ki chhapaakon ki awaaz bhi doob gayee.”
Samar rears his head from his pillow, like a dog looking up from his bowl. He strains his ears to determine the reason for this rude awakening but no culprit presents itself. The dreams have abandoned their ship and simply vanished into the uncharted waters of his unconscious mind. Disgusted, he pulls the blanket right over his head in a desperate attempt to salvage the wrecks of those half dreamt dreams that had been so unceremoniously scuttled by their cowardly captain. His eyes are all scrunched up due to the effort of trying to remember. But uhun, nothing. As he relinquishes his vice-like hold over his mind, the formless memory casts a silvery shadow on the canvas of his imagination. Was that it? He lies motionless beneath the sheets, like a sniper stalking his target. He dares not breathe too loudly, lest he warn it of his presence. But wait, what’s that? What strange presence lurks around the corner?

“Dil mein aise sambhalte hain gham jaise zewar sambhalta hai koi. Toot gaye, naraaz ho gaye.”
The invasion of his senses commences without so much as a warning but the look of comprehension in his eyes speaks of relief. Of course. It’s a Sunday today and he can hear The Radiowalla playing his favourite audio cassettes on the ancient 2-in-1, the last surviving relic from his college days. It’s only purpose in his little room was to serve as a reminder of an era he supposedly remembered but was unable to recall. As time drags itself forward, rising and falling to the rhythms of this lazy summer afternoon, The Radiowalla waits for this fluid memory, shimmering and changing its form as effortlessly as dreams slipping in and out of consciousness. And while The Radiowalla’s gaze expectantly pierces the walls of his room, searching for a connection that has probably been buried beneath several layers of regrets, Samar settles down comfortably in his bed, honoured at being granted audience with this elusive companion.

“Haath se angoothi utaari, wapis kar di. Baahon ke kangan utaare, aur saat pheron samet lauta diye. Lekin woh, woh baaki zewar jo dil mein rakh liye, unka kya hoga?”
Mohammed Rafi’s haunting voice fills the corridor, creeping and curling around corners, fighting admirably for breathing space with the soulful strumming of a guitar. But then Kishore Da starts crooning in his inimitable voice and everything else dims in comparison, as if paying homage to the undisputed master. When the song ends, The Radiowalla switches the 2-in-1 to radio mode and finds Love Guru doling out relationship advice to a heartbroken lover who has recently been spurned by her beloved. He and Samar listen patiently to this Love Doctor, searching for clues to the solution of their own tragic love lives. But the Love Guru’s cheerful rant only serves the purpose of disillusioning them. Fortunately, his banter is cut short by The Radiowalla’s impatience. He twists the knob, searching for some long lost program on the shortwave channels but waves of static flood the corridor like an angry tide. A little disappointed, he slips the cassette back in and they listen to Gulzar’s commentary on a favourite track, both of them quiet, but not quite alone.

“Ye fursat ruki hui nahin hai. Koi thehari hui, jami hui cheez nahin; ek junbish hai, ek harkat karti hui kaifiyyat.”
A memory is too vivid to be confined by the limited scope of a letter or a song. It’s an experience in itself, a private story that hasn’t been yet articulated into words. It is like a flowing stream that can be described only when it has been allowed to run its course. The Radiowalla had been trying to find the missing parts, hoping that their sum would translate into something he had lost to the pages of time. But in his moment of enlightenment, when he had first glimpsed the sensual dance of a hushed whisper, Samar realised that memories are much more than just the sum of their parts. He considered sharing this epiphany with his estranged neighbour but he knew his borrowed wisdom would be wasted on the resolve of The Radiowalla. Besides, what about the weekly trips down memory lane? Would they persist despite this setback? Would The Radiowalla still cling to the parts or would he set out on a quest in search for their sum?

“Ye ladi hai lamhon ki, jhaalar bana li hai iski. Kabhi pehan leta hoon, kabhi utaar deta hoon.”
What heady trip, you say. What psychedelic high, you ask. Bhupinder’s luscious voice finds its way around the narrow passage, caressing every nook and corner in turn, pleading and cajoling with Samar’s unconscious memory, eventually evoking a steady stream of vignettes from his past – a blissful summer afternoon spent sleeping under a mango tree, a tense cold winter night on the terrace, a wet evening beside his window. Alone, they would have been reduced to being ornamental reminders of some eventful days. But together, they overwhelm the senses, projecting a black and white movie on the backdrop of his mind’s eye. A movie that is as much a part of the unforeseeable future as it is the jewel of a forgotten past. Samar immerses himself in this experience instead of trying to hold onto it and a sigh of gratitude for The Radiowalla escapes from the most jealously guarded depths of his heart.

“Ek roz zindagi ke roobaroo aa baithe. Zindagi ne poocha, ‘Dard kya hai? Kyun hota hai? Kahan hota hai yeh bhi toh pata nahin chalta. Tanhayee kya hai aakhir? Kitne log toh hain, phir tanha kyun ho?’ Mera chehra dekh kar zindagi ne kaha, ‘Main tumhari judwa hoon. Mujhse naraaz na hua karo’.”
Then all of a sudden, as if the elements were conspiring to tease these unlikely friends, it starts to rain as Sheila begins gyrating to the rhythms of her Jawani. The sky grows darker still under a blanket of rain until the weather-beaten Sun is no more than a half forgotten memory itself. The Radiowalla, as surprised as Samar, sees this as a sign from God. So while Samar shakes himself out of his reverie, Sheila’s suggestive singing is cut short by an impatient groan from The Radiowalla. It is believed he still adheres to his ritual every Sunday, waiting patiently for his own private moment of enlightenment. Waiting patiently for his songs to commence their erotic dance.

Owed to: The Panther, Kishore Da, and of course, my Radiowalla.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

On God, the Dice, and some Primordial Molecules

Where does one start when one undertakes the phenomenal task of philosophising about such fundamental questions as the origins of life and the nature of time itself? Should one commence at the beginning of time? The apocalyptic or dystopian end of life as we know it? Or does one appreciate the insignificance of human existence on the cosmic timescale and refrain from making any assumptions whatsoever? Over the course of the last few months, I have been prodded, stimulated, and occasionally distracted from the ‘real’ problems of the world by some of my readings on these subjects. I concluded, perhaps presumptuously, that it would be a learning experience, if nothing else, to give some semblance of an order to what have been up till now just wispy strings of thoughts. That is all.

Explaining, says Richard Dawkins, is a difficult art. You can explain so that the reader understands your words; and you can explain so that he feels the essence of what is being conveyed. This article, though, aims for no such lofty ideal for its subject matter is, quite literally, too vast. What I do wish to attempt, however, is to at least hint at the complete picture and impress upon you the sublimity of it. This endeavour, I should warn you, just skims off the tip of the iceberg. Maybe not even that! But, hopefully, it will sufficiently pique your curiosity and prompt you to pursue one or several of the avenues that might open up. I do not make any claim as to the originality of the ideas mentioned here; indeed most of the conclusions have been drawn from articles and books by people far more admirably placed than me along the ‘imaginary’ axis of intelligence. It goes without saying, however, that any factual errors are entirely my own.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
— Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5
Like God, people have the tendency to take time for granted. After all, it has existed as far back as anyone can tell. Not surprisingly, it is rather difficult to accept the fact that prior to a certain moment in time, there was nothing. No atoms. No laws of physics. Not even time itself. Modern cosmology stipulates that this momentous event – The Big Bang – happened about 14 billion years ago and most physicists now take this to be a given. At this time, all the matter in the universe was on top itself, forming a ‘singularity’ of infinite density. More importantly, what this means is that the state of the universe after the Big Bang would not depend on anything that happened before since all the deterministic laws would have broken down during the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang are not defined because there is no way to establish what could have happened then. This kind of beginning to the universe, and consequently time, has the downside of needing an external agency to kick-start it. (No wonder that despite tremendous strides in scientific achievement, we still have creationist hypotheses not only being believed in but also fostering controversy and superstition.) Since this wasn’t such a scientifically sound premise, several theories were proposed in the past to get around the conclusion that universe was once not reduced to a singularity. I have taken the liberty of discussing one of them here.

The Steady State Theory (1948) by Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi proposed that matter is constantly being created so that the density of the universe remains constant over time. The theory asserts that the universe is constantly expanding but it does not change its appearance over space and time. This principle – also known as the Perfect Cosmological Principle – essentially means that the universe has always been there, with no definite beginning or end. However, the discovery of microwave background radiation in 1965 proved to be a death blow for the Steady State Theory as there was no way it could be satisfactorily explained by the tenets of the hypothesis. The steady state model was therefore discredited by the scientific community and it is now agreed that the Big Bang Theory is the most accurate explanation for the origin of the universe; one that is supported by scientific evidence and experimental observations. (Life, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. It was Fred Hoyle who first came up with the term Big Bang during a radio broadcast in 1949 and what came to be known as the Big Bang Theory originated from ideas originally proposed by Monsignor Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest of the Roman Catholic Church).

The Big Bang Theory relies on General Relativity to extrapolate the expansion of the universe backwards in time, yielding a singularity of infinite mass and density at a finite time in the past. However, beyond this point, general relativity (and all other physical laws) breaks down. Big Bang Theory can not and does not provide an explanation for such a state of the universe. It only seeks to describe the events that happened after it. Indeed, there is a limit up till which the extrapolation described above is even theoretically possible. This limit – known as the Planck Epoch – is the shortest possible unit of time and represents the period during which the fundamental forces of nature were possibly unified. A new quantum theory of gravitation – scientific models that unify quantum mechanics with general relativity – is needed to break this theoretical barrier and understanding this earliest era in the history of the universe remains one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics. So who would up the clock work for the first time? What caused the Big Bang? God?

Some of the recent work by physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartle has tried to do away with the idea of singularities altogether by introducing the notion of ‘imaginary’ time. It suggests that space and imaginary time together are fixed in extent but without a boundary, similar to the surface of the Earth which is finite but without any edges. (Try imagining a four dimensional curved space with three axes in space and one along imaginary time). The no boundary proposal maintains that the laws of physics hold everywhere, in imaginary time, which implies that the state of the universe can be uniquely determined at any instant in imaginary time. But if one can calculate the state of the universe in imaginary time one can do so in real time as well. If they are right, the universe still started from a single point in real time, the reasons being determined by its corresponding state in imaginary time, and thereby has a definite age to it. But this point wasn’t a singularity and it expanded uniformly by borrowing energy from the gravitational field to create matter. The concept of imaginary time and extra dimensions might seem straight out of a sci-fi novel that talks of wormholes or hyperdrives. But not a very long time ago, even submarines were science fiction. Interestingly enough, some of the predictions of the Hartle-Hawking no boundary state are consistent with observation but it remains to be seen whether it can stand the test of – you guessed it right – Time.

Once the universe started expanding and the laws of physics came into existence in their present form, it was a only matter of time (actually, somewhat like 200 million years) before slightly denser regions of nearly uniformly distributed matter gravitationally attracted nearby matter, thereby forming stars, galaxies, gas clouds, and other celestial structures observable today. The earliest Solar System material was formed around 4.56 billion years ago and within 10-20 million years, Earth and other planets of the solar system had formed out of the disk shaped mass of gas and dust left over after the formation of the Sun. Initially molten, the outer layer of Earth cooled to form a solid crust once water started accumulating in the atmosphere. According to the best available estimates, life appeared on Earth within 1 billion years of its formation. This brings us to the second important question – how did life originate?

[Here I would like to point out that I am intentionally skipping out on the discussion on Fermi’s Paradox – the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. There are about 100 billion billion planets out there which are roughly suitable and as noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan aptly surmised, it is an awful waste of space if we are alone. Even so, I will try to briefly broach this subject later.]

Before life begins and evolves into anything complex, one must seek to answer the more elementary question – what does it take to be alive? What minimum requirements must one meet in order to nourish life? Atoms can move, change their form, and do all sorts of callisthenics. Would you consider them alive? In his excellent book The Blind Watchmaker, Rickard Dawkins explains that there are three properties necessary for life to sustain and, more importantly, renew itself through the processes of ‘natural selection’ – replicability, mutations or errors in replication, and the power to exercise influence over the process of its own replication. There must come into existence, through the laws of physics, these self-copying entities or “replicators”. The very first replicators were probably not DNA molecules for they are far too complex to have arisen spontaneously – the odds against such an event happening are astronomical; even the life of the universe is not enough. They were cruder, simpler versions of DNA molecules that used even simpler building blocks present in their environs to churn out copies of themselves.

So we have these replicators going at it like rabbits. Each progeny is exactly the same as its ancestor and continues to behave in the same manner. In a perfect world, where the supply of raw materials is infinite, this population of molecules would have grown indefinitely. However, that is never the case; which underlines the significance of the other two properties. Occasionally, as should be expected, errors in duplication occur that produce an ‘offspring’ molecule that is either better suited or ill equipped to face its environment. In case of the former, it becomes more adept at the game of survival and is able ‘live’ long enough to pass on the errors it inherited to successive generations of daughter molecules which slowly outnumber the original ancestor type as the struggle for resources heats up. The forces of natural selection weed out any of the ‘weaker’ molecules in this colony, thereby producing increasingly sophisticated descendants that are better adapted to survive in their environment and which evolve over the course of millions of generations into complex life forms. But how did these replicators come into existence? What were the first entities that possessed these properties?

There is no magical wind that breathes life into mere bones and flesh, even if that is what the Book of Genesis or other religious scriptures would have us believe. (Had Darwin lived in the medieval ages, he would have probably been the focus of a massive inquisition, subjected to some pretty humiliating ridicule, and then subsequently burnt at the stake.) So there must be a rational explanation for the first ‘living’ compounds. The family of theories which holds favour with a majority of the scientific community is based on an organic primordial ‘soup’. It presumes that ancient earth had an atmosphere composed primarily of gases like methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water vapour, with a bolt of lightning thrown in for fun – the Miller-Urey Experiment for the more scientific minded. Long story short, this particular hypothesis claims that the simplest forms of self-replicating molecules came together in this primeval soup in the form of simple organic compounds like amino acids and then evolved into better and bigger things – namely the RNA/DNA/protein genetic machinery.

Another interesting school of thought, which I have chosen to discuss here and which gained ground during the 1980s, was proposed by Graham Cairns-Smith. Known as the Clay Theory or the inorganic mineral theory, Cairns-Smith’s view of the DNA/RNA/protein machinery is that it came into existence relatively recently, about 3 billion years ago, after usurping a function that was previously served by self replicating inorganic crystals like the silicates. Once this happened, DNA proved to be so efficient in storing and reproducing genetic information that the original system was cast aside. This conjecture gains credence when you consider the fact that the initial process of replication should have been crude enough to come into existence by ‘chance’ or single-step selection. Now, in crystalline form, atoms or molecules have the tendency to slot together in a particular fashion because of the stability such an arrangement. The same atoms may choose to crystallise into more than one type of configuration. Every part of this crystal is exactly the same as another – endless rows of atoms extending in every direction. So far so good. But how about reproduction mechanisms? Mutations, errors, and consequent adaptation or extinction?

[Here I must impress upon you the importance of reproduction for all life forms; more vital than the capacity to survive is the ability to reproduce because that is the single most important factor ensuring the continuance of the collective genetic pool. It would seem counter-intuitive but we exist for the benefit of genes rather than the other way around. We are nothing more than mules relaying this genetic information from one generation to another. Genes first came together in cooperative structures, like a living organism, just so that the community could prove to be beneficial for all the constituent genes. Otherwise, they would still be competing replicators in the primordial soup.]

Coming back to the crystals, atoms or ions floating around freely in solution have a tendency join the layers of atoms on the surface of a crystal that is introduced into the solution – a process known as seeding. They simply latch onto the existing structure and keep on adding layers to it. Crystals have also been known to form spontaneously in super-saturated solutions; but that is not very relevant to this argument. What’s more important is that when they these atoms/ions do crystallise, microscopic flaws may appear in the structure of the crystal – a layer cleaved in half or inclined to other layers at an angle. As the crystal grows, it sometimes snaps under the strain (such parameters for a particular arrangement would be governed by physical laws), thereby spawning a generation of daughter crystals. The properties and flaws of the ancestral crystal type are preserved in successive generations unless there is another accidental mistake in crystal growth – in other words, mutations. If one type has a greater tendency to ‘bend and break,’ we would have a very simple version of natural selection going – the solution would exhibit progressively higher concentrations of the ‘fitter’ crystal, the one with the shorter reproductive cycle.

Masses of clay crystals of a particular form might also have the power to exert influence over their external environment in order to improve the chances of further replication. For example, a ‘stickier’ variety of clay is likely to cause sedimentation in a river bed, creating an environment conducive for crystallisation from the silt. By damming, it might even manipulate flow of the stream, thereby extending its influence to other previously ‘uninfected’ territories. Some crystals might make conditions hard for ‘rival’ crystals that compete for raw materials while some might become ‘predatory’ by breaking up their competitors and using their elements as building blocks. The possibilities seem endless once natural selection is set on its course! The clay does not ‘want’ to continue existing but these are just incidental consequences of the properties inherent in the crystal. Imagine the poor crystals pondering over existential questions like us!

As these simple replicators become more and more complicated, they devise tools – catalysts, blueprints etc – that assist in their reproductive process. Organic compounds have often been closely associated as catalysts in synthesis of inorganic compounds. Even champions of the primordial soup hypothesis concede that inorganic compounds were vital to some of the organic reactions that led to the origin of life. So we can very well turn the argument on its head, take a leap of faith, and speculate that the first proteins and nucleic acids like RNA were actually synthesised by the complex clay replicators for their own purposes. The fact that this doesn’t seem so incredible is why I feel this audacious theory may be right! The final act in this elaborate ‘tragedy’ is staged when these very tools affect a “Genetic Takeover” from their clay vehicle, becoming an independent modus operandi for reproduction; a means that proved to be so successful that it has continued till date. But, have you ever asked of yourself, for how long?

The process of biological evolution proceeded at a snail’s pace at first. It took billions of years to evolve from the earliest single celled animals to multi-cellular organisms but it took only a fraction of that time for prehistoric mammals to evolve into humans. And there are not a whole a lot of aeons separating us from the apes. With the human race, evolution seems to have reached a critical stage, comparable in significance to the DNA. Development of language and modern modes of communication means that the amount of information can be passed down from one generation to another, non-genetically, is growing exponentially. And that is not just meant as a figure of speech. Over the ten thousand years of recorded history, there has not been perceptible change in the genetic map of humans – a few million bit errors at most. However, millions of new books are being written every year that add to the collective information database of our species. We might as well go out on a limb here and say that this amounts to a new phase in our evolution, one that proceeds not by altering the information stored in the genes but through “external transmission”. What this means is that though we might not be any brighter or inherently stronger than our cave dwelling ancestors, we differ from them because of the vast reservoir of knowledge at our disposal. A reservoir which we are ill-equipped to utilise efficiently and which more often than not is influenced by our primitive aggressive instincts, referred to as Thanatos or the death drive in post-Freudian literature. What could earlier be passed off as loss of land or conquest of women folk might now result in a nuclear winter.

It is easy to argue that feats of modern science like genetic engineering might allow humans to overcome restrictions like intelligence, the death drive, and even mortality. But that very argument should force us to consider the nature of life that will succeed ours. If the humans do not succeed in killing each other, they will eventually run out of resources here. Since interstellar travel is no longer a figment of our imagination, we might even have NASA launching missions to colonise planetary systems in other galaxies through DNA stored in cryogenic capsules. But nothing travels faster than the speed of light and even the distances in the observable universe are astronomical. The sheer numbers involved suggest that humans will have to resort to machines in order to implement the inter-galactic version of neo-imperialism. With the amount of intelligence required by the machines to be imbued with in order to undertake such explorations, it is not very incredulous to foresee a future where sentient mechanical beings will take over the mantle of evolution from human beings. After all, life does not need us to sustain itself. We could very well have machines capable of reproduction and self-design, thereby meeting all the requirements necessary to be considered alive. If this seems fantastic it is only because our brains have been built by natural selection to assess risks and probabilities that are commensurate with our lifetimes of a few decades. Not the geological or astronomical timeline that seems to extend forever in both directions.

During our space travels, we (or the sentient machines) might get to meet some exotic alien civilisation. But given the fact that our scientific reasoning has not misled us so far and that God has not been playing dice in other parts of the universe, the chances of that happening are low. Here’s why. We have seen that it takes billions of years for life to evolve intelligence and it is only ONE of the several possible outcomes. Moreover, life does not need intelligence to survive. There are millions of bacteria living in the most inhospitable of conditions and they seem to be doing just fine. They were here when we weren’t and they probably will be long after we are gone or until the Sun swells up into a red giant and swallows everything from Mercury to Mars. As if that were not enough, it is a minor miracle that our beloved mammals weren’t wiped off the face of the Earth by a comet or gigantic meteorites while they were mating copiously and furiously contributing to the gene pool. Space is huge. Extra-terrestrial collisions keep happening all the time and 5 billion years is a long time to mess around with the odds. Dinosaurs learnt it the hard way and so might we. (The comet Shoemaker-Levy put a huge dent in Jupiter and that is when Jupiter’s is 11 times the size of Earth and has 64 satellites and its ice rings serving as gargantuan guards). Even if these insane odds were to be ignored, intelligence does not seem to have any long-term survival value. Humans have enjoyed killing not just each other but everything around them as well. What is to stop the aliens from dying as well as a consequence of their own stupidity?

All things said and done, it is indeed a feat of Nature that we exist and possess the faculties which allow us pose and debate questions like these in the first place. That fact can not be denied and should only inspire awe. If it took life the better part of the last 3.5 billion years to evolve into such organised complexity, it is because it is so beautiful. If we do not have answers to some of the questions, it is because Big Science and modern cosmogony are the areas where reason and religion often fight for breathing space. However, at the end of the day, one must get one’s sleep. So in light of all this nonsense, it doesn’t seem too imprudent to ignore the harsh, mind-numbing realities of science and deliberate over some existential questions, now does it? I will leave you to it; it has already been to much of a mind-fuck. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Articles/Books which elaborate on the ideas mentioned here:
A Brief History of Time by Stephen hawking, published 1988.
Clay Theory on the Origin of Life:
Fermi’s Paradox:
Life in the Universe:
Miller/Urey Experiment:
Public Lectures by Stephen Hawking:
The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, published 1986.
Image Courtesy: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal