Thursday, September 30, 2004


Seldom has there been as celebrated an element as phosphorus. Now, in his book The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire and Phosphorus, chemist John Emsley puts together a very readable account of the stories spun by 'the devil's element' throughout the history of humanity. Consider this diabolical substance in its many gory and paradoxical manifestations:

1. As a favourite tonic in the middle ages to cure everything from warts to impotency. The dosage which was prescribed at the time would surely have caused even the most hardened physician of today to faint.
2. As a favourite poison to put an end to disliked lives and lovers, used throughout the ages. This includes a recent case where a woman murdered not one but two husbands with phoshorus. In the absence of forensic science, one of the most convincing indications of phosphorus poisoning was the observation of a glow emanating from the dead body in the dark- a phenomenon which almost certainly led to the haunting tales of phosphorescence in 'The Hound of Baskervilles'.
3. As the ubiquitous energy releasing element; in the form of the chemical currency of cells, ATP, phosphorus essentially makes life possible.
4. As an industrial necessity in the dank and gloomy match making factories of 19 century England. More than any other, this was the element which gave employment to millions, led to some of the first large scale industrial strikes we know, and also caused the horrific disease ('phossy jaw') which causes the jaw to rot away.
5. As an element of death again, this time as the major component of the infamous phosphorus bombs, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands in the most macabre manner, during the WW2 bombing of Hamburg and Dresden.
6. As the element which literally feeds the world; as a constituent of fertilizer, its importance is unparalleled.
7. As a scaffold for the most poisonous substances known to man-the nerve gases which today threaten civilization as never before, causing death in a few seconds.

Emsley has investigated these and many more incarnations of this diabolical element in great and striking detail. He writes with great eloquence, and convinces us of the remarkable role that phosphorus has played not only in industrialized life, but indeed, in world history. With it are associated some of our most potent glories and follies and it is representative of the subtly strange power that a single element can wield on human life. I want to stress that I am not being biased as a chemist, but that this is in fact one of the few books I have come across which will be very interesting to any layman. Since school, we have always been taught that 'carbon is the most important element for life. Think again. The history of Phosphorus is at once shocking and essential knowledge.

From Amazon:
"Discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by nineteenth-century industrialists, and abused by twentieth-century combatants, phosphorus is one of nature’s deadliest–and most fascinating–creations. Now award-winning author John Emsley combines his gift for storytelling with his scientific expertise to present an enthralling account of this eerily luminescent element. From murders-by-phosphorus where the bodies glowed green, to the match factory strike that helped end child labor in England, to the irony of the World War II firebombing of Hamburg, to even deadlier compounds derived from phosphorus today, The 13th Element weaves together a rich tableau of brilliant and oddball characters, social upheavals, and curious, bizarre, and horrific events that comprise the surprising 300-year history of nature’s most nefarious element".

Monday, September 27, 2004


Can someone please tell me the name and whereabouts of a simple curve plotting program for MAC or UNIX which will plot functions for me? Everytime I see a function that I am unable to clearly visualize, my heart sinks like a painfully slow ebbing wave and my face cringes with helplessness...

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


One of my biggest and oldest loves is reading biographies and autobiographies of scientists, especially Physicists. Over the years, I have had a wonderful time reading about these doyens of the science which truly changed our world. Quantum Theory, Relativity Theory, Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics are just some of the gifts from this glittering tree of knowledge which inspired not only a new era of intellectual thought, but also a host of practical discoveries in Chemistry, Biology and Electronics which we take for granted today.
One of the adjuncts to this hobby involves reading and listening to interviews with scientists in books, magazines, and on the internet. In these interviews, almost all of the scientists talked to are characteristically modest, reserved, and even politically correct. At best they are reverent to an excess, at worst they are cautiously critical. This is most and expectedly so during Nobel Prize interviews, where they represent the human face of science and have an image to maintain.

The most outstanding example of the frank scientist which I have ever come across is of course the inimitable Richard Feynman. In his many biographies and his autobiography, he has repeatedly appeared as the apotheosis of the fearless inquisitor, the irreverent explorer, the man who would tell the Pope that his ideas are 'baloney', if he really felt they were. He has battled it out with such stalwarts as the great Niels Bohr, the Princess of Sweden (at the Nobel Prize ceremony), and fellow Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe. Countless others who would make a show of pomposity or would put on would get the classic Feynman treatment. But behind this candor was an intense, almost obsessive desire to get to the heart of issues as honestly as possible, to simplify matters as much as possible, and most importantly as he would always emphasize, to accept Nature as she is. For a long time, I never thought I would again hear or read about someone like that.

That's why I was completely bowled over after listening to Martinus Veltman's interview on the Nobel Prize website. No one can take Feynman's place, but he came close. A particle physicist who has made fundamental contributions to the most abstract fields of theoretical physics, he has been one of those people who are most at ease performing mathematical gymnastics in obscure reaches of their mind. Veltman won the prize along with his student Gerardus T'Hooft in 1999. His interviewers were both Swedish, a dignified young lady, and an equally dignified elderly man. The lady's countenance was calm, and the posture in which she sat on the chair, with one hand on her lap and the other one on top of it, reminded me of formal upper class New York ladies posing for the camera around the turn of the 19th century. Across the table was the subject of their interview, the heavily bearded Veltman, who reminded me of Professor Challenger from Doyle's 'The Lost World'. One of the peeves I have with the Nobel Prize proceedings is the fluency of the interviewers. I think that these people are seldom well versed in the art of asking elegant questions. Most of them are Swedish. This in my opinion, hampers the quality of the interviews, because frequently, the interviewers do not make themselves absolutely clear and eloquent. Perhaps it is part of the effort of the Nobel Committee to keep it all in the family only by including their own people in all events.

The interview started with the interviewers asking Feldman about the difference between the European way of learning and the American one, and between old and new ways of learning. Veltman replied that in the old days, it was much less disciplined, with students given the freedom to discontinue their studies if they wished and to return back to them some time later. Today, with tight research budgets and the image of graduate students as 'customers', things are quite constrained. The point which Veltman made, made an impression on me. He said that sometimes, students are simply not mature enough to carry through their research. They have to take time off, grow as a thinker in whatever way they deem fit, and then return back armed with prudent knowledge. This is simply not possible today, and I felt that it is an unfortunate reality.
Then came the salvos. When the woman asked him about other interests, he frankly replied that he had none as such. He said that from that point of view he was 'a professional idiot'. When they asked him if he believes that the twenty-first century would be one of biology, he simply said that he had no opinion about that. But his answer made sense. He said that if someone would have asked a physicist in 1899 about future progress in Physics, could he have ever have been able to predict the wonderful and earth shaking discovery that Max Planck was going to make at the turn of the century? Or the harrowing truths about space and time that Albert Einstein was going to arrive at in a few years? In that respect, prediction is futile. Good point. Veltman looks like the most impassive scientist of the time. But actually it's simple. If he does not know something, he does not proffer thoughts on it. We need such people, but I could not help but think that Feynman would have been infinitely more interesting in such a situation. I was realising that Veltman's candor was unsettling to the interviewers. Especially the woman seemed hesitant, even scared to ask him further questions.

But the most revealing answer was yet to come. One of the most frequently asked questions to physicists today, is whether they would discover a 'unified theory of everything' that would combine all the laws of physics that we know. Top notch scientists like Stephen Hawking have given much impetus to popular public conception of this idea. It turned out that a few weeks before Veltman's interview, an article had been published in Scientific American in which the brilliant and well known physicist Steven Weinberg had said that progress towards a unified theory would be made on a concrete basis till about 2050. Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for working in an area similar to Veltman's field, and over the years, through his books and writings, has also become a popular expositor of physics. When Veltman was asked what he thought of this, his reply was, "I find it annoying if not stupid. There is nothing in Physics which suggests that Unification is a must. If it's a part of Nature, fine. If not, fine too. Let's not tell Nature how she should be. The only reason Unification has caught on is because the Physicists want to sell it. Also, they are all blindly following something only because Mr. Einstein said it should be so, and because he had made it his life's work".

Apart from Veltman's candid comments on Weinberg and other contemporary physicists, what struck me was the catch phrase. Let's not tell Nature how she should be. Vintage Feynman. Or Bohr for that matter. I was led back to the time of famous discussions between Bohr and Einstein. Einstein used to pontificate extensively on God. "God does not play dice". "God is subtle but not malicious". Bohr's simple reply: Einstein, do not tell God what to do. Feynman used to say that his goal is not to discover some deep philosophical question about the Universe, but to simply find more about it. He used to say, "That's the way the Universe is. You don't like it? Go someplace else. To a different Universe where the laws are simpler!". I think it's quite a humbling thought. Many times, our solipsistic minds are so clouded by preconceived notions that we forget the much greater power that Nature wields on us. Divisions of Science into various fields of study, employment of specific experimental techniques, even casting of the laws of Nature in mathematical form, represent nothing but a kind of inability on our part to understand it any other way. It's our convenience. If it works, it works. Nature is indifferent. It's a hard reality that we have to contend with. You don't like it? Shop somewhere else...

Monday, September 20, 2004


My first Zen meditation session was a fairly satisfying experience. The Atlanta Soto Zen center, one of the largest in the U.S. has a regular Monday session in Emory. I think I did ok for someone who is not used to sitting quietly with his eyes closed for long periods of time. In the end, I asked my fundamental, eternal question to the Zen master: This process of trying to block thoughts, watch them flow by etc. is ITSELF an act of thinking. Thinking about this is in turn another act of thinking and so on...a wheel within a wheel a.k.a. the perpetual question about observer created reality. How do I get out of this ad infinitum progression? The Zen master's answer: Try not to think about it!...a pithy remark which struck me as quite insightful. He said, do it and you will know. A good idea. Let's see how long I last.

Sunday, September 19, 2004


Nothing like spending quality time with your countryfolk. Yesterday was the first day of the Ganesh festival. Last year, I had spent the day completely uneventfully, because I could not get in touch with any Indians from Emory. Well, frankly, there are almost no Indians at Emory, one reason being that it lacks an Engineering School.
But yesterday, I got a surprise visit from one of my friends at Georgia State. GSU has a respectable, reasonably sized Indian Student Association and my friend told me that 'a few' of them were going to get together for Ganpati. I was pleasantly surprised when this group of few actually turned out to be a garrulous gathering of about 20-25 students, most of them Maharashtrians and 'Mumbaikars' at that. The group had put together the whole works, getting a beautiful idol of Ganpati from the International Farmers' Market, and making kilos of the traditional 'prasad'. We had a ball of a time singing the 'Aartees' together, and eating the ton of 'prasad' which everyone had enthusiastically concocted, not to mention cracking typical tongue in cheek Marathi jokes.
Festivals are a fantastic time for connecting with the storehouses of culture and memories in your mind. One important thing I realise is that they can be enjoyed by everyone with the same cultural backgrounds, even remotely so, irrespective of people's religious beliefs and the intensity of those beliefs. I am an agnostic, and hence cannot vouch for a personal, all forgiving or punishing God. The wonderful thing is that whether you believe in such a God or not, you can always enjoy such events because they connect you to your childhood and culture in a unique way. In that respect I think, culture is greater than religion, and subtle and powerful are the ties that bind you to it. These ties are all-accomodating, at least from my perspective, and they don't care whether the participant is a skeptic, downright atheist or a soulful mantra chanter. For me, this fact is a source of delight much greater than any possible religious revelation.

Friday, September 17, 2004


"On Top of Alabama's Other Headaches, Gators Gone Wild: Gators escape from Gulf Shore Zoo because of flooding from Hurricane Ivan. Residents terrified".

Why do news flashes like this send a pang of sadistic delight through me and tickle my funny bone? I think it's because it is one of the rare cases where animals turn the tables on us and take us on a spin. We always think that we rule the earth, and can happily put animals in enclosures, and in general always have a good laugh at their expense. When something like this happens, we realise that what we have is a very specific kind of control. In that narrow window of power, we may revel, but we should remember that the system is far from being foolproof and cannot tolerate even the slightest uncontrollable stimuli. Now, the residents of Alabama have to contend with 'Chucky', the 12 ft. gator from the zoo, who is having the time of his life, before he is caught again, or worse, shot. For many years, weren't these the same people who went to the zoo and made fun of his poking snout, shiny teeth and considerable bulk? They joked about him, and must certainly have called him ugly. Now he is in a position where he can make them feel sorry. That's why I feel sadistic delight. Serves them (us) right. How flimsy is our hold on Nature, how tenous our vicarious sense of supremacy. As the great biologist and humanitarian Konrad Lorenz said, the next time we feel like laughing at animals, let us remember that we may not have the last laugh. Laugh at animals we can, but we have to remember that it's similar to laughing at human beings. Payback is always a most tangible possibility. Now, the zoo authorities have found and shot a four feet long gator (Why? I don't know). But 'Chucky', it seems, is still at large. Of course, I have no contention with human beings' tenacity and perseverance. Sooner or later, they will surely find him. And then, maybe he will be shot too, and man will continue to have vicarious laughs about the great power he claims to possess over his subjects. Until a time, when there are no subjects. And then we will realise that the power was never meant to be ours. In fact, ironically it was theirs.
Edward Wilson very aptly compares us to the mythical giant Antaeus. He drew strength from his mother earth, Gaia. One day when Hercules found out his secret and held him on his shoulders, until he could no longer strengthen from contact with Gaia and finally became lifeless. We are similar to his position, but with an added twist: in our acts of drawing strength from the earth, we most tragically weaken her, and foolishly don't realise that it's going to our own undoing soon. What a pity! In the end, it will really boil down to the challenge of making both Alice's crocodile and Chucky immortal. Can we do that?

"How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale
How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spread his claws
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!"

Thursday, September 16, 2004


One of the real advantages of studying in the U.S. is that one gets his or her hands on controversial, blasphemous books which have been banned in other countries. In fact, I was delighted to see that Emory University is going to start stocking a special book shelf in its library, reserved exclusively for controversial books, from next month onwards.
In this way, until now, I had the opportunity to read:
James Laine's controversial 'Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India' and
Paul Courtright's 'Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings'. Courtwright is a faculty member in Emory's Department of Religion.
Sometime, I will pen thoughts on both of these.
Now I am progressing to Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses', something which I wanted to do for a long time indeed. Incidentally, Rushdie is going to deliver a series of lectures here in early October, which will be a really great opportunity. I just hope I don't get smothered by the enormous crowds which show up.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


Kaushik Basu is a distinguished Economist at Cornell University and a guest columnist for BBC. Since the elections, he has written insightful articles on the Indian economy and Indian society. Now, he has penned a witty and enlightening article about 'The Indian Queue', something which is not unique to India, but brings out some quintessential Indian characteristics into the open. He talks about his pilgrimages to the RTO and the at the telephone office and how the comments passed by people in the queue educated him, for better or worse, about some typically Indian attitudes. Later, he passes some interesting comments himself on the relationship between the queue and capitalism. One piece of wisdom which he gleaned from the tongue in cheek and well thought out, if illogical, statements of the people in the queue was revealing: "Individual rationality was alive and well in India"

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize Winner for Peace in 1986, has written some of the most profound novels based on the holocaust. He himself tragically lost both parents and a younger sister at Auschwitz concentration camp. After the war, he wrote a best selling novel, actually more like a vicarious autobiographical account, called 'Night', one of the most insightful and disturbing books on the Holocaust. Many consider it the most powerful expression of the event.
Here are a few harrowing quotes from him, some of the most striking and 'accurate' I have ever read about the Holocaust:

"Indeed this was another universe; the very laws of nature had been transformed. Children looked like old men, old men whimpered like children. Men and women from every corner of Europe were suddenly reduced to nameless and faceless creatures desperate for the same ration of bread or soup, dreading the same end. Even their silence was the same for it resounded with the memory of those who were gone. Life in this accursed universe was so distorted, so unnatural that a new species had evolved. Waking among the dead, one wondered if one was still alive"

"And yet real despair only seized us later. Afterwards. As we emerged from the nightmare and began to search for meaning. All those doctors of law or medicine or theology, all those lovers of art and poetry, of Bach and Goethe, who coldly, deliberately ordered the massacres and participated in them. What did their metamorphosis signify? Could anything explain their loss of ethical, cultural and religious memory? How could we ever understand the passivity of the onlookers and - yes - the silence of the Allies? And question of questions: Where was God in all this? It seemed as impossible to conceive of Auschwitz with God as to conceive of Auschwitz without God. Therefore, everything had to be reassessed because everything had changed. With one stroke, mankind's achievements seemed to have been erased. Was Auschwitz a consequence or an aberration of "civilization" ? All we know is that Auschwitz called that civilization into question as it called into question everything that had preceded Auschwitz. Scientific abstraction, social and economic contention, nationalism, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, racism, mass hysteria. All found their ultimate expression in Auschwitz."

"How are we to reconcile our supreme duty towards memory with the need to forget that is essential to life? No generation has had to confront this paradox with such urgency. The survivors wanted to communicate everything to the living: the victim's solitude and sorrow, the tears of mothers driven to madness, the prayers of the doomed beneath a fiery sky.
They needed to tell the child who, in hiding with his mother, asked softly, very softly: "Can I cry now?" They needed to tell of the sick beggar who, in a sealed cattle-car, began to sing as an offering to his companions. And of the little girl who, hugging her grandmother, whispered: "Don't be afraid, don't be sorry to die... I'm not". She was seven, that little girl who went to her death without fear, without regret."

"We thought it would be enough to tell of the tidal wave of hatred which broke over the Jewish people for men everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is "different" - whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Moslem - anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually. A naive undertaking? Of course. But not without a certain logic.
We tried. It was not easy. At first, because of the language; language failed us. We would have to invent a new vocabulary, for our own words were inadequate, anemic.
And then too, the people around us refused to listen; and even those who listened refused to believe; and even those who believed could not comprehend. Of course they could not. Nobody could. The experience of the camps defies comprehension.
Have we failed? I often think we have".

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, man can save the world. We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all the prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers. None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims".

Sunday, September 12, 2004


Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it

The Third Reich was born on January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. He said it would endure for a thousand years. It lasted twelve years and four months, but during the period of that time, a mere flicker as History goes, brought a rain of ruin and carnage that the earth has never seen. In its calculated butchery of human life and the human spirit, this reign of terror outdid all the savage oppressions of the previous ages. In May 1945, the Reich passed into History. We only hope that its memories do last for at least a thousand years.

Watching the much-awaited Schindler’s List yesterday was a kind of act of cleansing and purgation for me. I wanted to watch the great epic movie for a long time but for some reason, could never summon up the time, or the frame of mind to do it. I don’t intend to write an extensive review on it here for a couple of reasons. First, because almost everyone has already seen it, and more importantly, because I don’t think I can do justice to it’s general ethos in words. A third reason is that there are some emotions which should be kept private in order to preserve their sense of purity, so to say.

The movie itself is surely Spielberg’s magnum opus. He himself calls it the most satisfying experience of his life. The performances are stunning; by Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes as well as all the other cast. They have never displayed an iota of melodrama. They don’t need to. The theme brings to them strength from within. Portraying the movie in black and white was the wisest thing Spielberg did. The three scenes which are in colour are very aptly chosen. The musical score (actually a piece by Frederic Chopin) will haunt me all through my life whenever I hear it.

I was quite stoic for the entire length of the movie. The moment of deliverance for me came at the end. Oskar Schindler had done his duty. He had saved the lives of eleven hundred Jews, and, being a member of the Nazi party, was preparing to flee. The Jews hand him a ring of gold, fashioned from the gold teeth fillings from one of them. Schindler clutches the ring, and that’s when he says something which would be unforgettable for me. He says that he could have saved more lives. He appears heart-breakingly desperate. He points to his car and wonders how many lives it could have bought. He holds his Nazi epaulette in his hand and breaks down, thinking that it could have bought the lives of two, at least one Jew. What is the cost of a man’s life? In what way does it make sense? That was when I too could hold it no longer.

The rest of the day passed for me in a sense of surreal bereavement. I felt the same kind of emotion one feels when a close one passes away. I am sure all of us have felt it some time or the other. Its memory is fresh in my mind, because I felt it when my grandfather passed away a few months back. I was alone in the U.S. that time, but knew for sometime that it was going to happen, because he was suffering from a serious illness. Still, when it actually happens, you feel something which is quite inexplicable. It’s a strange feeling. In a way, you have been prepared for it mentally. But not emotionally. It’s this incongruence of feelings and thoughts that your mind tries to reconcile with itself, again and again, in the wake of the event. It’s a jabbing, depressing, thorny feeling.

But this feeling was different. I tried to decipher why it was not leaving me. One reason was clear. For many years, I have been reading several books about the Holocaust, and those memories just swept over me when I watched the movie. Those memories are just too much for the mind and heart to handle. But the real reason was deceptively simple. It raises a question which has no answer for me. I have a gut feeling that it has no answer for the best historians of the time either. It’s one of incomprehensibility. That is what was disquieting me again and again yesterday. There is a difference between explanation and understanding. Tomes have been written over the years, works of scholarly elegance, trying to explain why mankind was driven to such unspeakable acts during that time. Great authors like William Shirer, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock have swept their sweeping erudition and intellect over those happenings and have come out with poignant juggernauts chronicling our very own recent dark ages. But I don’t think that even they can actually understand, at an emotional level, how something like that could happen. Sensible, mature and developed people, at the height of their powers were suddenly possessed with a barbaric instinct, at the whims of an evil demon. Their sheer obedience to authority was so blind that even after the war, when they stood on trial as war criminals, they always pointed their finger at a higher level of authority and sought to redeem themselves. How could this happen? The famed political theorist and historian Hannah Arendt, who interviewed the infamous Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, called it the ‘banality of evil’, a contention that many 'normal' people's moralities would be twisted under the 'appropriate' condtions. I understand, from a psychological sense, what she is saying. But it still does not sink in.

This is the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, a kind that does not exist at the levels which I was talking about earlier. When a loved one passes away, you come to terms with it because you know it was inevitable. When there’s an accident, it takes more time to do so, but sometime sooner or later, you realize that what happened was exactly what it was; an ‘accident’, something which happens purely by chance. But the Holocaust was neither inevitable nor an accident. And what about the scale? Six million Jews. That’s an incomprehensible number itself. There are various levels of incomprehensibility. I felt tangled in them, not being able to understand even a single one.

The feeling persisted for half the night. I woke up two times. But then, when I woke up this morning, I was feeling better. Not because I had forgotten what had happened. But maybe because this is the way it should be. No matter how traumatic History is, of what use is empathy when it cannot be put to constructive use? That History should make us a better person is almost a cliché. But like many clichés, it is a cliché because it is true. That’s what I felt when I woke up. We don’t know whether History will forgive what happened. We do know that History will never forget, hopefully. And we do hope that History will always be a constant mentor to us. We need her, because we have a long way to go towards becoming civilized. And we also have a long way to go before a few hundred words on a web log could possibly express what we feel.

Friday, September 10, 2004


Had the opportunity to watch the A Midsummer Night’s Dream on PBS yesterday. I had been waiting for that exquisite chance for a long time, not only because the play is enchanting beyond description, but more importantly because the music is by Mendelssohn, one of my favourites, whose creations I have been listening to for many years. It has been immortalized by inclusion of its last movement, the Wedding March in weddings. That’s the piece usually played right after the groom kisses the bride (and vice versa) I was waiting to connect the music with the story, and the play lived up to it in every measure possible. The characters are endearing, the dances are among the most graceful I have seen, and the general ethos is just like a dream, free from the troubles of man, and saturated with every element that makes for a great fantasy.
The first movement, and the one which is the longest in duration, launches you straight into the fray of the comical love stories of the main protagonists; Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, Oberon, Titania and Puck (Puck is a generic term for a type of supernatural being present in Celtic mythology and in English folklore. Commonly, the Puck was an amoral spirit or imp which played arbitrary tricks on people). For years, Puck was featured at the top of many Sunday comics, with the banner “What fools these mortals be”. Shakespeare’s choice of such a unique combination of characters from Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology greatly enhances the eclectic charm of the play. Unlike many of his other plays, this one is not about great metaphysical truths or about quintessentially typical immortal characters. A midsummer night’s dream is essentially a play to be enjoyed, and Mendelssohn seems to have perfectly realized this truth when he composed the music. It is a tribute to his virtuosity that, in this process, he created a piece which is far from trivial in its character, and has charmed audiences for centuries now. The fast pace of the first movement reminds one of someone who is always in a hurry, yet in a hurry which is predisposed for a specific function, something like the combination of Wordsworth’s daffodils pleading to play with the wind, while the wind dances teasingly around them, and Alice’s rabbit who comically rushes down his rabbit hole. However, listening carefully, especially to the slow violin interludes also gives the impression of a slow and studied motive in the air.
The ‘Dance of the Fairies’ and the ‘Dance of the Clowns’ weave a magic of their own and allude to the innocent mischief played by Puck, who creates a comedy of errors when he makes the wrong persons fall in love with each other. Overall, the music totally complements the play. The last movement ‘Wedding March’ rightly reminds one of a time of celebration, when all matters are resolved, and all ends well. The play and the music finally leave you wishing that life were like that…

Thursday, September 09, 2004


The Human Stain takes a penetrating look at the myths with which society surrounds itself in order to remain ‘respectable’, and how those myths are simply a portal into another level of suffering. It portrays the stains which persist in society, and which, even after constant cleansing, get perpetuated into the future and our lives in one form or the other.
I thought that the theme was very interesting, the movie itself, less so. Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a highly respected Professor of Classics at Athena College, Massachusetts. Right from his arrival, he has catapulted the College to fame and respectability, and has become Dean. His own respectability is undermined when he once innocently calls two black students, perpetually absent from class, as ‘spooks’. He is unaware of the derogatory meaning of the phrase, and the two students press charges against him. He resigns in anger, and the faculty members apparently are only too satisfied to let him go, because they want to avoid scandal. The year is 1998, and the country itself is enveloped in the throes of a scandal-the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
Silk’s wife dies from the shock of the accusations, and Silk becomes a lonely, dark, grudging man. Some solace comes in the form of a friendship with a young writer (Gary Sinise), himself living in seclusion in the woods after a hard fight with cancer. But the wheels of Silk’s destiny really start turning when he begins an intense affair with an illiterate janitor (Nicole Kidman), many years younger than him. In turn, she faces chronic problems of her own, including an abusive childhood and a drunken, raucous and abusive Vietnam veteran husband. The rest of the movie essentially revolves about Silk’s tumultuous and scandalous present life, and a disturbing past, which harbours a dark secret. I won’t give it away for those of you who haven’t watched it, but let it suffice here to say that he is running away from a stain which was inflicted on him many years back, as a young man in love, and an expert boxer. Silk’s life long attempts to hide that old stain ironically have landed him into another disturbed existence.
I thought that the movie itself failed to be very interesting, although the director seems to have made sincere attempts to keep the intrigue and philosophy flowing. The one thing that shines through are the performances by Hopkins, Sinise and Kidman. The Human Stain makes an interesting foray into the inevitabilities of life. If we hide from a truth, it’s very likely that another will haunt us, just like it haunted Silk. Better than that to face the truth and fight for it. But the problem is still not resolved. Society still has to inure itself to many blatant and supposedly embarrassing eventualities in it’s citizens’ lives. We still have to come to terms with the ugly ducklings among us, moralizing and generous as our expressed views and opinions about them may be. Society itself has a long way to go before it becomes all-accommodating. The most penetrating stains, it seems, are the ones which cannot be seen.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004


The BBC has been providing ample coverage of the gruesome incident happening in Beslan over the last many days. In its online version, it has a section dealing with world opinion about the massacre. In this section, it lists quotes from various newspapers drawn from all over the globe. China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran, and scores of other countries, mighty and meek, are represented and have their say…all except India.
Do Indian newspapers have nothing significant to say about this inhuman and heart-rending tragedy? Or does the BBC simply not want to print India’s opinions?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


I think everyone of us has emotional connections with the world and our life, that are manifested through memories. These memories are made tangible through a myriad of things, but I think that some kind of deep artistic or intellectual interest serves to always greatly reinforce them. Many of these are formed during childhood and through school and college years. For me, the connection has been mainly through music, since it's my oldest interest. Hearing a particularly loved piece of music yesterday brought back a flood of images and memories, and it was then that I realised how much we owe to these emotional connections to make us who we are. The events and memories, though palpable and vivid, give a unique meaning to our personality and existence through their subtle and indescribable character. Some sound trivial but still endure. Others are profound and have shaped our thoughts and feelings through the years. A random sampling flashed through my mind:

1. The piece of music that I heard yesterday was 'Canon' by Pachelbel, one of my all time favourites. Whenever I listen to it, images of D-Day always come to my mind. These include lines from Cornelius Ryan's splendid book which I read as a child, the riveting impact of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on my mind, the movie The Longest Day, and most recently, Saving Private Ryan. If I focus hard enough on the piece, more often than not, my eyes are wet at the end, remembering the sacrifices, told and untold, of the countless soldiers and civilians who fought for honour and freedom.
I am reminded of the same things when I hear the theme music of 'October Sky', probably the most inspiring movie I have ever seen. The true story of the lone battle of a young kid against conventionalism in West Virginia represent another facet of our struggle to rise above our circumstances, and of our audacity in daring to dream.

2. Beethoven's 5th Symphony very strangely and comically brings back memories of the chapter on Thermodynamics which I had halfheartedly studied during high school. The only explanation I can think of for this bizarre connection is that I remember the night when I was studying that chapter. It was late, and just by chance, I also happened to listen to that harrowing, immortal piece of music for the first time. The symphony is such a classic work, that it left an irrevocable impact on my mind, and somehow, that boring chapter on Thermodynamics got pulled along in the fray, struggling and screaming I think. I so wish I had been reading something different that time...

3. Raj Kapoor's songs from old hits remind me of my oldest friend, for the simple reason that we have practised those songs countless number of times for shows and for recreation. Especially unforgettable will be the ones from 'Sree 420', 'Awara' and 'Anari', among others.

4. Bedrich Smetana's 'Die Moldau' reminds me of a popular book on Quantum Physics by Patrick Hey and Tony Walters. This was a magical introduction to the quantum world for me, and apparently I was entranced by the piece at the same time that I was entranced by the subject. I could never come to terms with the tehnicalities of the subject, but it has provided me much entertainment and information in a non-technical way. 'Die Moldau', however, has always endured as a most transperant and inseparable companion.

5. Mozart's 40th Symphony brings back a melting pot of childhood memories and feelings- school, my parents, and my insect collecting adventures on the fringes of the grasses in our school's campus. This was the first piece of classical music that I had heard.

6. Bhimsen Joshi's celebrated 'Abhangwani' always reminds me of Ratnagiri, my father's native place. We used to visit my uncle there often, and during the journey in the 'Ambassador' car in those hot summer days, when I was still a small kid, my father used to play these timeless classics. Hearing one of them especially reminds me of the Ghats of the Sahyadri mountains, the 'Bhajis' (Pakoras) that we used to eat on the top, admiring the landscapes beneath, and the monkeys who used to que up for their share of food from our hands.

7. Mozart's 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' again reminds me of Hitler's Germany. Especially the fourth and fifth movements cast a shadow of those times on my mind. Again, the most plausible reason is that I was reading 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich' at the time.

8. The famous and enchanting Waltzes of Johann Strauss and especially the timeless 'Blue Danube Waltz' remind me, among other things, of biologist Edward Wilson's absolutely enchanting autobiography, his accounts of growing up in rural Alabama and Pensacola, his introduction to the magical world of nature, and his unique emotional connection with it. I especially remember, when on a vacation in Mahableshwar, I had sauntered up a hill alone with the book, and sat reading at the top of the remains of an ancient fortress. No other soul was there, and I could experience, almost first hand, Wilson's impassioned description of the beauty of the natural world, with the cliffs looking down (not literally!) on the lush greens, and the sparkling lake within distant sight.

9. G. F. Handel's 'Watermusic and Fireworksmusic' remind me, in a bitter sweet way, of the time when I was alone on New Year's eve and was 'supposed to study' for an important upcoming exam. Bitter because I was alone. Sweet, because I had fooled myself into thinking that I was in love, and completely deluded myself in thinking that my object of affection had reciprocated my ardent emotions!

10. A 'Tocatto and Fugue' by J. S. Bach always brings back memories of the most inspiring (although sounding somewhat elementary) science book I have read, called 'Giants of Science'. The book, long worn by constant use has been my constant companion, and was my first introduction to the lives of the great scientists, and their work which encompasses so much of the modern world and man's soul.

Deep and striking are the images and sounds that bind you to your life and culture. What are the imprints they leave on us? It's hard to say. But I think therein precisely lies their charm. The vague and subtle but exhilarting always touches us in hiterto unknown ways. Best of all, everytime we form the connection, we are reminded of who we are, changed as we may be by the people, landscapes and experiences that we have encountered. They provide a singular identity to us, percolating our being even when all conscious and purposeful thoughts and feelings have left our minds and hearts. For me, the aforementioned musical offerings will always provide a comforting enclave where all is fantasy, and no hope is lost.

Friday, September 03, 2004


Based on my extensive experience as a tenant (1 year 1 month) and observations on myriad landladies (2), I now boldly proceed to state the QUINTESSENTIAL LANDLADY THEOREM. I will keep on adding corollaries to it in the future:

1. All landladies in the United States have Daschund dogs
2. All landladies in the United States address you as 'honey' or 'sweetie'.

Of course, the latter corollary was a source of considerable consternation for me, especially after only hearing it on the telephone. But then I met the kindly old lady, and became well aware of her universal and shrewd use of the phrase (in an attempt to beguile, secure, and finally keep tenants for life)