23 September, 2011

The Hedgehog's Dilemma

She was talking very fast. In English, a language he wasn't all together comfortable with. Her face came alive, a canvas for her emotions, each one so passionate, and yet so fleeting. Her orange dupatta, the one with blue tassels at the edges, was draped in hurried carelessness. She had big expressive eyes. And they sparkled with so much life. He watched her, those hands making delightful designs as they kept up with her words, her audience captivated and hanging on every idea she happened to toss their way. And through that haze of words (he couldn't keep up with them anyway, at least not in that language she had claimed as her own), she suddenly looked at him. Straight in the eye, that frank gaze that never failed to make him uncomfortable and inexplicably drawn towards it, at the same time. She broke into a grin seeing him, although she didn't even know him. Yet.

She, on the hand, hadn't spotted him immediately. When she did, she saw he had an air of someone who's travelled too far from his comfort zone. He was out of place in that roomful of people, and in that moment when their eyes held each other, she could see he was unsure of which box to place her in. She didn't help him out of the enigma. He was holding a glass of juice. Apple of course. He bit into a paneer pakoda. Vegetarian of course. He was not blunted into being just another face in the crowd. The sleeve of his jacket was ripped. His hair had specks of grey in it. He smiled at some people but struck up no conversations. When they were introduced to each other, he smiled politely and quickly moved away, a detail not lost on her. She was sharp with people and something about him got under her skin. She had shivered slightly and that seemed like a sign. 

"Aha, so you are from my part of the world!"

The pride she took in her sense of belonging was not lost on him. Her smile, how it lit up that face!

"Tumhe pata hai tum bahut jaldi baat karti ho?"

His voice was gruff, rusty as if unused, but his eyes were earnest. They seemed to say, "O lovely lady, see through me." 

To all the stories we are part of.

That day was so many dreams away. Today he watched her breathe as she lay beside him. It was nearly time. His body threatened to betray him, but he was too correct to cross lines, imaginary or otherwise. Were her eyes, those warm brown eyes, moist? No, it must be the light playing games with his hammering heart. He had seen her cry once in all this time, the one time that spectacular smile had faltered. Seeing her sobbing softly, he had felt ugly and weak. In that moment of pain, she had turned away, isolating him more than her fancy words ever could. As she turned towards him now, he realised, she was his and she was nobody's. If anything, that was all he knew of her. He burrowed his head into her hair, it always smelt so sweet! He smiled thinking of all the summer days they had filled with conversations. Flattening so many blades of grass in their favourite garden, fighting over who will hold the ladybird, watching the leaves change colours. They had wiggled their toes and shared ideas, dodged the zaalim zamaana and constructed an unlikely relationship. She had broken through his coarse exterior, and allowed herself to blossom in it. As she got up to leave, her dupatta brushed his face. Those tassels, once again, demanding his attention as she slipped out of his world. Bidding a farewell neither one of them would ever muster the courage to articulate. 

21 September, 2011

My Year With Bryson

Although a gazillion reviews by the fiercest of critics and most ardent of fans have been written on this superlative book, I cannot keep from writing my own views on the wildly engaging "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson. The reason for undertaking a task as redundant as this can only be explained by the quote Bryson starts his book with:

The physicist Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: 'I don't intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God.' 'Don't you think God knows the facts?' Beth asked. 'Yes', said Szilard. 'He knows the facts, but He does not know this version of the facts.'

There. Now don't question my reasons. Reading frantically through all the nuggets of information Bryson weaves together in a mosaic of science and story, I am amazed at his powers of narration. Marrying mind-boggling scientific discoveries with the eccentricities of their discoverers, he unearths connections spanning continents and time periods that make the history of science fascinating. The 40 shilling prize Christopher Wren proposed to the man who could explain the elliptical nature of planetary orbits. The contenders? His dinner guests Edmond Halley (of Halley's comet fame) and Robert Hooke (who discovered the cell). Why didn't my Physics teacher tell me about how Halley collected money (from his own impoverished pocket) to publish Principia, in which the brilliant yet unconventional Newton explains his momentous laws of motion, among other astounding deductions about planetary motion and the not-so-spherical shape of the Earth? Starting from singularity and the Big Bang, Bryson goes to extreme lengths to simplify. To illustrate, I quote him on the minuteness of a proton: 
A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this 'i' can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them....Now imagine if you can (and of course you can't) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.
And then he attempts to capture the vastness of the universe. As Bryson goes about unraveling the hows and whys of science, I am grasped by the sheer courage it must have taken to write a book as ambitious as this, for an audience that has the attention span of a twitter. In his characteristically witty style, Bryson announces his opinions on several key figures: we learn of Cavendish and his reticence (he communicated with his housekeeper through notes!), the egoistic Hubble and his unforgivable lying, Madame Curie's scandalous affairs that stunned even the relatively accommodating consciousness of 19th century Parisians and Mendeleyev's refusal to accept the existence of radiation. Bryson thus, on his quest to demystify science, makes it 'attainable', showing that for all their almost inhuman brilliance, the people that contributed to the fascinating fabric of science were also plagued by the mundane. Moving from the more 'well-known' marvels of Newtonian physics, the book traces the events leading up to the establishment of quantum physics in a dizzying concoction of crisscrossing paths of superlative science. The beauty of this revolutionary theory was the sheer scale of blatant craziness it unleashed on the scientific world.
Neil Bohr is known to have said that a person who wasn't outraged on first hearing about the quantum theory didn't understand what had been said. 
Part of (alright, most of) the brilliance of Bryson's book is the fact that when told well, science is the most interesting subject there is. It has intrigue and suspense, unanswered questions floating in a sea of confusion. It has unpredictable characters warring over momentous discoveries, sometimes fending off dwindling funds and at other times settling petty professional rivalries with etiquette befitting kindergarten children. It has bitter animosity and heart warming amicability, heady ideas and eccentricities all thrown into a pot of opportunity any author would die to dip into. Bill Bryson takes all these mouthwatering bits and goes a step further. He does that thing I hate to love. He leaves the endings of chapters hanging so that you have to start on the next chapter. A sample:
At all events, thanks to the work of Claire Patterson, by 1953 the Earth at last had an age everyone could agree on. The only problem now was that it was older than the universe contained it.
Could it get any racier than that? Blatant sensationalism if there was any! But that is what science does, it threatens to run away with your imagination. And then does exactly that. From physics, the book moves on to geology, a subject which I feel, along with geography, is ignored in an abominable fashion in the Indian education system. Volcanoes and earthquakes are charted, the 'recycling' of the Earth's crust is elucidated and moving from the cosmos to the core, Bryson continues to captivate. Fossils are discovered and he moves on to the realm most familiar to me, that of the bewildering living world.

Bryson bravely straddles the extremes of biology, from awe-inspiring dinosaurs to humble, ubiquitous microbes. I recognise Miller and Urey's bell jar experiment that used to grace the introductory chapters of most Biology books in school. Simulating the origin of life in a laboratory? Could it get more surreal? Bryson also throws in juicy facts for the did-you-know-freaks. For instance, according to scientific estimates, there may be more life under the Earth than on it. Interestingly, in this nether world,
...microbes shrink in size and become exceedingly sluggish. The liveliest of them may divide no more than once a century, some no more than perhaps once in five hundred years.   
As I flew from one lively chapter to the next, Bryson resurrected for me, some well-loved biologists: Pasteur (who, apart from popularising the more familiar pasteurisation process, also gave us the cell theory which states that all life arises from pre-existing cells) and Robert Hooke (who, after fighting with Newton over credit for the inverse square law, went on to discover cells from cork!). Not only did I revisit Leeuwenhoek (the brilliant Dutch lens maker whose name used to give me spelling nightmares) but Robert Brown too (the man who discovered the nucleus in a cell). As I jumped from one cell organelle to the next, enigmatic mitochondria bumping into lipid membranes, proteases and nucleic acids, I was confronted by apoptosis. The term refers to the fascinating field of programmed cell death or in simple terms, cell 'suicide'. I fondly reminisced about how it had captured my imagination for an entire summer not so many years ago. In times such as these, when one is so easily left uninspired, being caught up in an idea, even if it is as morbidly fascinating as apoptosis, can be a cherished memory.

Next, the book moves on to unravel the mysteries of our lineage, tracing the patterns of Lucy and her ancestors. Peering into the fascinating and often frustrating field of paleontology, it is amazing that we understand anything about the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens (that's us, the 'thinking man'!), considering the paucity of fossil records. The last chapter, woefully named 'Goodbye' ends the book on a slightly sombre note, one encounters the luckless dodo and other species who have been drive to extinction at the hands of the modern human race. But with the tattered state the Earth is in currently, any other ending would have seemed out of place.

To be fair, breaking away from my breathless fawning over the book, I do understand that, for all its brilliance, it is not a scientific publication. Critics have questioned the authenticity of some numbers, splitting hairs over Bryson's figures of the number of cells in a human body. Others have mentioned how the book emphasises only those parts of the history of science that caught Bryson's fancy. But the book never claims to be the Holy Grail of science. As Bryson explains in the introductory chapter:
The idea was to see if it isn't possible to understand and appreciate - marvel at, enjoy even - the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn't too technical or too demanding, but isn't entirely superficial either. 
And if this alone was the aim, Bryson passes remarkably. For me, the book rekindled my love for the sciences, at a time when when it had dwindled in the face of my current social science-centric thesis. Reaffirming the book's importance in simplifying science for the layman without making it superficial, a critic reluctantly ended his review with: "But then again, if my grandchildren in the next few years begin to display some real interest in learning about science, I'll certainly put this book in front of them.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

PS: Thank you to Girl 1 who recommended the book, and to whom I owe my love for reading. It helped that she added in very vehement tones, 'This should be made compulsory reading in all schools.' 

PPS: That Girl 1 recommended the book at all can be attributed to a stimulating conversation with the Paranoid Android: Marvin (he of the planet-sized head brain) where he sounded almost Brysonic in his attempt to elucidate, the beauty of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

For the ones who just won't read (shame on you), go video:
  1. The Cosmos Series by Carl Sagan
  2. From Newton to Einstein (9 min, watch it!!) in The Elegant Universe Series (3 parts)
  3. A simplified (not superficial!) narrative on BBC: Everything and Nothing 

17 September, 2011

YouTube your way to music (and laughter)

What would budding (and sometimes closet) musicians and comedians do if not for YouTube (yes, yes and Vimeo and what not)? Have you heard Jane Lui's version of Duck Tales (she's adorable at 00:42 and 00:54)? [Of course the Hindi version is more familiar and much loved : ) ] 


When in boredom, turn to acappella, something I can never seem to get enough of. Some songs it seems, are more accapella favourable than others (this valuable finding from my years of painstaking research through YouTube gleaning). Africa by Toto, Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stand By Me being a few that pop up everywhere. Another one, The Lion Sleeps Tonight has been subjected to varying levels of accapella proficiency and the Straight No Chasers do, what I think, is a terrific job. I won't even start on The Blanks and their awesome version of the Scrubs soundtrack:


Another favourite is the UC Men's Octate, an all-male group at the University of California, Berkeley, famous for their terrific renditions of well-loved songs with a bit of goofy dancing thrown in. I'm choosing the Bohemian Rhapsody, just because, (need I spell it out?) its Freddie Mercury. And it reminds me that, for years, Scaramouch and mama mia were the only parts of the lyrics I knew.



And finally, how can I forget my secret devotion to beatboxing? In simple words, beatboxing is the art of percussion, with your mouth. For an introduction, sample Skiller, supposedly the fastest beatboxer in the world and he's just 18! What's almost better than Skiller? Bellatrix, the number one female beatboxer in the world known for beatboxing dubstep. Aaaah.


Justin Timberlake is one of the more 'famous' singers known for his beatboxing tricks. I'll end with my personal favourite, the hilarious Beardyman. Here he's accompanied by fellow Britisher, Flutebox 'Lee'.


Bzzz : )

14 September, 2011

Blah Blah on Bose


We were at that age when anything associated with the word 'rock' seemed cool and listening to school kids sing bad renditions of Nirvana and AC/DC songs seemed the perfectly normal thing to do on a Friday night. After an hour of some very unprofessional headbanging, the guitar gyrations became too painful for even our unrefined taste, and we wandered away from the concert, outside the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium (the version before it was transformed into the Commonwealth metallic mesh it is now). There was an enterprising fellow standing outside selling kebabs and chaat and we gratefully joined the small crowd around his stall. Soon, our turn came. We ordered kebabs, and chattered about ways we could get back home, which was a place at the other end of Delhi's unforgiving distances. Our kebabs were ready and we hungrily dug into them. 

Suddenly, a voice behind us asked, "So girls, what would you recommend?" We turned around and were startled to see the voice belonged to non other than Rahul Bose! Let me explain here. In Bombay, running into celebrities and other such applauded species is normal, even passé, if you may. But Delhi is still very uncelebrated (uncelebated? Either way seems so wrong) and thus, when we see our celebrities, we do the instinctive thing. We drool. But faced with Mr. Bose, we maintained straight faces as if running into actors was a usual affair. Perhaps it was the reluctant coolth of that summer night, or the hours of poor musical talent we had subjected ourselves to. In a very nonchalant way, we discussed with him, the succulence of the kebabs, and balminess of the night after which he sauntered off. 

Over the years, I have had the delight of encountering the Talented Mr. Bose in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, 15 Park Avenue and other such delightful offerings from the Aparna Sen Directorial House. And just when I was finally making up my mind about having a favourite hero at last, the delectable Mr. Bose did something very terrible. He decided to take part in Khatron Ke Khiladi, a reality show where celebrities face their fears by doing daredevil stunts. Pitted against models and TV soap stars, Mr. Bose, a member of the national rugby team, was in no way, a kaccha khiladi. But he fought over petty nothings, argued over rules and ethics, making ardent fans realise he looked best when hiding behind the many faces he wore onscreen. In real life, he came across as the wimpy kid who fought over everything.

And then, today, after such a long while, I bumped into the talent of Mr. Bose again. As he weaved his magic as the shy Snehamoy in The Japanse Wife. The story traces the friendship, and subsequent marriage of two pen-pals, one living in the watery world of the Sunderbans and the other in the exotically distant town of Yokohama, Japan. Spanning the course of 17 years, the lovers never meet, destined to express through the written word, each confined by the limitations of language to articulate the workings of the heart. And for me, the tragic beauty of the story lies in just that. The belief the characters had in this romanticised notion of love and companionship, marriage and loyalty. 

Against the overcast backdrop of the Sunderbans, the tale is languid but not slow. Aparna Sen (Director) Moushumi Chatterjee, is the perfect Maashi, a kind, matronly figure who loves her gossip, while Raima Sen pulls off the brilliantly subdued role of a widowed mother living in Bose's home. Scavenging for details, I watched the riverscapes of the Matla, the almost charming fumbling over the English language. And then there is his room a place made for letter writing. And for lazy afternoons under a whirring fan. Gently lit, it is the place where he keeps his Japanese curiosities, so foreign in a Bengali household, so familiar in his own.  

When I enjoy a movie, I am often apprehensive of the ending. Will it be satisfying? Will the characters die with the end or will they be allowed immortality? The Japanese Wife astonishes by making an ending as  poignant as the story. 

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