Sunday, September 09, 2012

Fixed point

When I was a child, aeroplanes in high flight at night-time held a special fascination for me. I did not fancy the ones which were so close to the ground that their windows could be counted or the name of the airline read off their sides by the light at their wingtips; I liked the ones which were so high up that they were nameless fireflies on the night sky, chance visitors in my backyard patch of stars, their ports of call obscure to all except those who sat within. How I wished to be one of them, flying so far away that I could leave myself behind; observe, as I flew over my city, the cross-hatched patterns of my own life shimmering below, my past, waving to me from some high terrace. Now that I am older, instead, my mind drifts into the future, with all the journeys that lie before me, some that I will undertake on my own, some accompanied; some of my own creation and some undertaken by force of circumstance. Each time I think these thoughts, I wish that all of them would end in a homecoming. I pray that there would always be in my life, at all times, a place I call home; a sort of physical equivalent of a mathematical fixed point.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Casual empiricism: the size of tea cups

Assume that persons in every country need the same volume of stimulants like tea or coffee to make it through the day, whether in Fargo or Faridabad. The smaller your tea-cup, the more breaks you require in order to get your daily quota. So, I dont think it is a coincidence that human productivity varies directly with the average size of beverage containers. The point can be made starkly by comparing the productivity of workers in Chicago, with its Grande Lattes and Calcutta, with its microscopic earthen bhaars. And of course there is endogeneity, with industrious races choosing larger cups and the not-so-industrious types self-selecting smaller ones. While you mull over this theory, I will go fix myself a tea.
Now, where did I put my imported bhaar.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

AD 2017

The department secretary sent out an e-mail today about the distribution of completion times in my doctoral program this year.
I quote:

"4 students completed in 5 years, 4 in 6 years, 3 in 7 years, and 1 each
in 8, 10, and 14 years."

So based on just this year's distribution, there is a 7% chance I will graduate in AD 2017. By that time:

a)I will be 37 years old
b)The 50th anniversary of the Superbowl will be observed (Superbowl LI)
c)Sealed government documents surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination will be released.
d)There will be a human colony on the moon with its own university to which I can apply for a faculty position. (The government of China has announced it will start sending probes to the Moon in 2017, resulting in a manned Chinese landing on the moon in a few years.)
e)Events in Billy Joel's "Miami 2017/Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway" song will take place.

I am already looking forward to space travel. (All information, barring own age, courtesy Wikipedia.)

My father's map

Before I came away to Delhi at the end of the summer of 2001, my father gave me a book of maps of the city. It had one large map as a centrefold, to provide a bird’s eye view and other, smaller ones, on each page, giving details of each grid within the larger map. I took it from him without reflection and packed it into my suitcase, and for the two years I was at Delhi, it stood on the bookshelf at the foot of my bed. I took it down occasionally when there were friends to be visited, and monuments or theatre-halls or restaurants to be placed spatially so we could pay a fair price for the auto-rickshaw rides. Sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, I would spread it out on my bed to study it. The periphery of Delhi plunged off at the edge of my small bed like a pre-Magellanic vision of a flat world; imagination was stretched thin at Rohini and Ghaziabad; taxis plummeted into a void once the Qutab Minar had disappeared into the southern horizon. And for two years, I planned weekend expeditions and weekday walks within the world of my bed-map, till the roads, gardens and tombs fictionalised on it became real with the flesh of memories and the blood of many rosy sunsets. Looking back, I feel thankful to the person whose small and thoughtful gesture charted for me a new world to discover and love.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Kong: the king of disasters

Methinks if I should waste any more of my time on this movie after having expended three hours and seven minutes watching it. Just a few remarks. What was Peter Jackson thinking when he looked at the script and decided he could make a movie with it that is so unbelievably long? What were the executives at Universal thinking when they gave Jackson full creative control? The sets, the atmosphere, the camera movement, perspective and color filters all seem to be recycled from LOTR. The dramatic dialogue and the significant silences in between made sense in the epic context of LOTR, but when the main purpose of the protagonists is to capture an oversize gorilla for a circus, the heroic epigrams seem plain ludicrous. The editing is vacuous; why did they need a shot of the starlet's feet as she steps onto the gangplank? What is the earth-shattering significance of that moment in the overall plot? And the human drama just does not merit the attention it has received in this movie, because, oh my god, this is just King Kong we are talking about, not some momentous battle between the forces of good and evil for hegemony over Middle Earth! The gender and race roles depicted are, ahem, interesting: for instance, you will notice that it takes a white girl to tell the native King Kong for the first time in his life that women deserve more respect and are not to be pushed around, literally. About the story line and the action, it all looked like better-done versions of earlier sequences in Jurassic Park or numerous films in the Large-Bug-Attacking-Humans-at-Random genre. Among the nice things, I thought the portayal of the romance between Kong and the lady was sweeter than in any of the previous versions. The finale at the Empire State Building looked better too, with its rosy dawn sky and Kong JUMPING and swatting at the planes, which I thought was very cute and brave of him, given the fix he was in. As for Ann Darrow's attempts to teach Kong a foreign language, I was not impressed. She should have tried the ABCs first instead of trying to start off with an arguably heavy word like "beautiful". Even I would jump off a tall building if faced with such a prospect.

Friday, December 23, 2005

My FM10

Have sent for my old Nikon FM10 from back home where it has been lying unused for two years. Plan to clean up the patina and start using it with my newer N80. I had a lot of fun taking pictures with the older one in New Delhi. In the winter of 2002 I had hatched a plan to go to Benares to take pictures, knowing well that if I did not do it then, it would probably be years before I got the chance again. The plan remained a plan, but I will post some of the Delhi pictures online.

Born into privilege

I finally watched "Born into Brothels", the documentary film about the children of Calcutta's red-light districts. I had the uncomfortable feeling while watching it that I knew all the characters, had walked past them on the streets, or had sat beside them on the bus and had somehow not noticed the human aspects of their existence. They had all become part of the indistinct and largely ignored background in the canvas of My Idea of Calcutta. For the first time, I saw english subtitles translating bengali expletives and real characters using turns of phrase which I have heard around me all my life, in very unfamiliar contexts. The idiom of their expression and the texture of their lives captured in film seemed to mock me, pointing to the fact that it took an American documentary to inform me about a way of life which has always existed under my very nose. Last time we spoke, Ani insisted it was a typical "westerner shoots eastern squallor" routine. Well, yes. But is there very much else that is noticeable to a westerner in Calcutta? She has seen the pretty Victorian buildings in better shape in England; there are more cultural events in Ann Arbor any given year than in Calcutta; and there are broader rivers, prettier bridges and more ecelectic cuisines to be found in all the continents. Sometimes, cliches exist with good reasons. So the experience of watching this documentary was moving, very different from what watching a similar one about the brothels of New York on National Geographic might have been.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A curse

Today I curse you; that you may encounter on your chosen path a stranger with whom you will rest and talk at length under a pin-holed firmament ablaze with destiny. He will make you drink his poison and put you to sleep; beseeching you to awake soon, for the hour of journey is at hand. The potion shall make you dream of phantasms in which you are one again, before the time the mirror cracked and scattered you across the night sky of oblivion. But then you shall awake at dawn, or late in the afternoon when the sun lies aged on the moss, to find the stranger gone, the taste of his poison fading. With a leaden heart you shall resume your travels. But your scurrilous phantom-selves will haunt you to weariness, smirking that you believed in their corporeality in the innocence of your slumber, demanding of you the conquest of that lost realm of unity.

Central Calcutta

Later that day, I wrote in a cathartic letter to a friend who has never seen Calcutta, a rambling description of the path that took me everyday from my home to the university.

“While I was in college I took the subway everyday from south Calcutta, where I live, to central Calcutta. Central Calcutta. The bridge between the new, upstart south and the timeless north. The gradual transition is noticeable as you travel down Central Avenue, the main artery between the old world and the new. The facade of buildings change from modern to early nineteenth century or older, and lanes and by-lanes explode on either side, disgorging rickshaws and people so that traffic is slow. Then the road narrows, the din ceases and suddenly you are in the moribund peace of the north. It is like travelling onwards on a great river that empties into the calm of a greater delta. As in a delta, the river gets fragmented, and a multitude of channels emerge; old, thin and finger-like, they stretch into the space between the aging buildings with easy sociability while the laughter of street-children and triangular political festoons flutter in the wind. The subway, bearing me across half the city, disgorges me into this chaos. I walk up the stairs to emerge into bright sunlight. I see a long line of squatting plumbers and locksmiths, waiting to be hired. Then on to Gandhi Road, with its rows of wedding-band musicians, in red coats and hats with fluffy pom-poms, getting ready to play the latest Hindi film song hits on trombones and trumpets, the men sedating their tired lungs with a smoke while polishing their brass instruments till the passers-by could comb their hair reflected on their glorious convexity.” How I missed, that day, the delicious sights and sounds of a great, big, living, disorderly city; disorderly, like life itself.

September twenty sixth

September twenty sixth. Yesterday, I jogged from my house to the department in the morning for class. Near downtown, I passed a large hotel, with its windows glinting in the early slanting sun. There were cars moving on the street. Down the road, the dew-washed parking lot of a church stood in the shadow of the spire. As I looked at this scene I suddenly knew why I miss living in a large city. It is the certain knowledge of the existence of unknown spaces beyond the visible scene that makes me love cities. With a city, its intimacy with your senses can never end and can be advanced effortlessly to successively deeper levels. Not so with smaller spaces, where purely sensory possibilities are exhausted faster. When I looked at the church spire, I had a sad feeling of the certainty of what lay beyond. I jogged on.