Home, away.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a hint of oxymoron when we talk about inclusive culture. Culture is shaped and adorned with unique collective artistic expression, and the propagation of culture depends strongly on maintaining this status quo of exclusivity. A connoisseur might be able detect the common thread of universality binding disparate cultures together, but a practitioner of a particular art form must hone their art in almost a parochial manner,  otherwise, perhaps the cultural exercise loses its thrust.

However, in what is my sixth year living away from the geographic and cultural confines where I spent my childhood in, I have often been surprised at how fluid culture is, and how seamlessly it percolates beyond its place of origin.

madurga-big
Durga pujo – a quasi-religious festival for Bengalis. Durga, the Hindu goddess is worshipped in her demon-slayer avatar, with a backstory of her visiting her own home on Earth after a year in her heavenly abode. Its the biggest festival in Bengal, which celebrates the 5 day affair with a spectacular display of art and culture.

‘Probash’ in the Bengali language means living abroad, but its meaning is always peppered with a hint of guilt, and nostalgia. A ‘probashi’ Bengali needs to acknowledge their roots, and engage in collective nostalgia of the days that were. And this feeling reaches its crescendo when the time comes of the festival season, which, for the people of the Indian Bengali diaspora is during the time of Durga Pujo – a quasi-religious festival of homecoming and celebration.

Autumn in the Mid-Atlantic is quite different from it’s counter-part in the lower Gangetic plain in Bengal. The short, last gasp of summer before the trees shed their leaves to prepare for winter, arrival of the northern birds in search of homes, busy squirrels collecting all that they can before they go off hiding from the chill, Halloween, Thanksgiving.  Compare that to the moderate autumn in Bengal, clear skies at last after monsoon, wispy clouds resembling the Kaash flowers on the ground, joie de vivre of Durga Pujo, the sadness of an ending, Muharram.

Still, the differences lay forgotten when the expats celebrate the festival, thousands of miles and a few oceans away. Bengalis still dress up in a manner that makes sense in the autumn of India, and not the chilly fall in Maryland. Allusions are still made to the idyllic images of rural Bengal, painting a pretty picture of Dhaak sounds, homecoming and merriment. Desperate attempts are made to introduce the next generation of Bengalis, whose ties to the roots in Bengal are remembered only during festivals and their angst of rootlessness, to the elements of Bengali living.

Even though I am far away from home, the pictures from back home reach me through the filters of social media. The whole festival season is captured in the urban frame of Kolkata (the catch-all name, often wrongly, of the home city of Bengalis), resplendent in the adornments, beaming with pride. The pride often comes with a pinch of complex, the feeling of cultural superiority – of the Bengali way of celebration being a liberal panacea for the parochialism of the rest of India. Often the veneer of cultural pride hides the internal conflicts of identity and separatism. Does that not make many people celebrating the festival at home, ‘probashi’ in their own backyard?

My Uber driver to the Durga Pujo celebration in Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, was also a person living abroad, a ‘probashi’ of Namibia. He has been in the country for 7 years, and was complaining how this time of the year is warm and sunny in Namibia, as opposed to the cold here. He was curious to see us, and others in the destination, in traditional dresses. I allayed his confusion by saying that we were celebrating an Indian festival. His face contorted with pain, and he told me, ‘Oh, is that the one, during which 60 people were killed in a train accident in Punjab a couple days ago?’

The sky looked oddly familiar over the roof of Gaithersburg high school. Perhaps, the wispy clouds looked the same in Maryland and Namibia, as they did in Bengal.

 

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Notes on Nehru’s Glimpses of World History 1

I recently got hooked onto “Glimpses of World History” by Jawaharlal Nehru, a gargantuan collection of letters on the history of human civilization that he sent to his teenaged daughter Indira from prison. It’s a veritable book to swallow and imbibe, so I’ve been taking notes, and will be posting the notes for posterity. The notes are distillates of Nehru’s writings, and are often his own quotes. Bold and Italics are mine.

| The importance of learning about the history of the whole world simultaneously. The modular version of history taught to us in school creates a mental picture of discontinuous stretches of time in discontinuous regions of the globe. The takeaway from history should be consciousness about the human world and civilization, so history as a subject for learning should be presented as a whole, with connections and comparisons. (teaching a subject as it is done versus a subject as should be learnt – think of science)‌

| History of the people

Real history should deal, not with a few individuals here and there, but with the people who make up a nation, who work and by their labour produce the necessaries and luxuries of life, and who in a thousand different ways act and react on each other. Such a history of man would really be a fascinating story.

Thus we see, as history progresses out of the dim past, people producing more and more and people specializing in different trades, exchanging their goods with each other, and in this way increasing trade. We see also new and better means of communication developing, especially during the last hundred years or so, after the steam engine came. As production grows, the wealth of the world increases, and some people at least have more leisure. And so what is called civilization develops.

| Where do the riches go to?

It is a strange thing that in spite of more and more wealth being produced, the poor have remained poor. They have made some little progress in certain countries, but it is very little compared to the new wealth produced. We can easily see, however, to whom this wealth largely goes. It goes to those who, usually being the managers or organizers, see to it that they get the lion’s share of everything good. And, stranger still, classes have grown up in society of people who do not even pretend to do any work, and yet who take this lion’s share of the work of others! And—would you believe it?—these classes are honoured; and some foolish people imagine that it is degrading to have to work for one’s living! Such is the topsy-turvy condition of our world. Is it surprising that the peasant in his field and the worker in his factory are poor, although they produce the food and wealth of the world? We talk of freedom for our country, but what will any freedom be worth unless it puts an end to this topsy-turvydom, and gives to the man who does the work the fruits of his toil? Big, fat books have been written on politics and the art of government, on economics and how the nation’s wealth should be distributed. Learned professors lecture on these subjects. But, while people talk and discuss, those who work suffer. Two hundred years ago a famous Frenchman, Voltaire, said of politicians and the like that “they have discovered in their fine politics the art of causing those to die of hunger who, cultivating the earth, give the means of life to others”.’

……

‘In the case of a larger group than the family, it is exactly the same—whether we take our neighbours, or the people of our city, or our countrymen, or the people of other countries even. So the growth of population resulted in more social life and more restraint and consideration for others. Culture and civilization are difficult to define, and I shall not try to define them. But among the many things that culture includes are certainly restraint over oneself and consideration for others. If a person has not got this self-restraint and has no consideration for others, one can certainly say that he is uncultured.

…..

It is the twilight of Capitalism, which has lorded it for so long over the world. And when it goes, as go it must, it will take many an evil thing with it.

|Buddhism and Hinduism in India

Contrast how Ashoka spread his religion Dharma (~Buddhism) across Asia to how the rest of the modern religions (Christianity, Islam) were proliferated. It wasn’t a despotic, imperialistic venture, rather a peaceful, rational, diplomatic approach. The then Hinduism’s reaction to Buddhism in India is also noteworthy. Hinduism went for tolerance and assimilation, which paved the way for the almost disappearance of Buddhism from India within a thousand years.

|North and South India

It is important to remember the coexistence of different dynasties in the different parts, something that I hadn’t paid much heed to before. (N) Maurya end, Kushana — (S) Andhra-desha/ Satavahana, (N) Gupta — (S) Pallava, Kadamba, Chalukya, later when North was disintegrated into smaller territories, Cholas flourished in the south. Interesting: Chola king Rajendra came up to Bengal and defeated the king there.

|Shankaracharya and what makes India a singular cultural unit

But a more remarkable man arose in the south, destined to play a more vital part in India’s life than all the kings and emperors. This young man is known as Shankaracharya. Probably he was born about the end of the eighth century. He seems to have been a person of amazing genius. He set about reviving Hinduism, or rather a special intellectual kind of Hinduism called Saivism—the worship of Shiva. He fought against Buddhism—fought with his intellect and arguments. He established an order of sanyasins open to all castes, like the Buddhist Sangha. He established four centres for this order of sanyasins, situated at the four corners of India, north, west, south, east. He travelled all over India, and wherever he went he triumphed. He came to Benares as a conqueror, but a conqueror of the mind and in argument. Ultimately he went to Kedarnath in the Himalayas, where the eternal snows begin, and he died there. And he was only thirty-two, or maybe a little more, when he died.

…..

It may interest you to know that among Hindu philosophers there was a man, named Charvaka, who preached atheism—that is, who said that there was no God. There are many people today, especially in Russia, who do not believe in God. We need not enter into that question here. But what is very interesting is the freedom of thought and writing in India in the olden days. There was what is known as freedom of conscience. This was not so in Europe till very recent times, and even now there are some disabilities.

…..

Another fact which Shankara’s brief but strenuous life brings out is the cultural unity of India. Right through ancient history this seems to have been acknowledged. Geographically, as you know, India is more or less of a unit. Politically she has often been split up, though occasionally, as we have seen, she has almost been under one central authority. But right from the beginning, culturally she has been one, because she had the same background, the same traditions, the same religions, the same heroes and heroines, the same old mythology, the same learned language (Sanskrit), the same places of worship spread out all over the country, the same village panchayats and the same ideology and polity.

…..

To the average Indian the whole of India was a kind of punya-bhumi—a holy land—while the rest of the world was largely peopled by mlechchhas and barbarians! Thus there rose a common Indian consciousness which triumphed over, and partly ignored, the political divisions of the country. Especially was this so as the village system of panchayat government continued, whatever the changes at the top might be.

Shankara’s choice of the four corners of India for his maths, or the headquarters of his order of sanyasins, shows how he regarded India as a cultural unit. And the great success which met his campaign all over the country in a very short time also shows how intellectual and cultural currents travelled rapidly from one end of the country to another.

 

| Some ironies when seen retrospectively

Nehru abstracts from Nitisara by Shukracharya, which was a book on law and polity in the middle ages in India as the Arthshastra was for the Mauryan period. A particularly ironic quote:

Another very interesting rule seems to have been that near relatives of members were disqualified from office. How excellent if this could be enforced now in all our councils and assemblies and municipalities!

Oh Indira!

| Contrast Islam and Christianity in the “Middle Ages”

One thing more and I shall finish this letter. The Arabs, especially at the beginning of their awakening, were full of enthusiasm for their faith. Yet they were a tolerant people and there are numerous instances of this toleration in religion. In Jerusalem the Khalifa Omar made a point of it. In Spain there was a large Christian population which had the fullest liberty of conscience. In India the Arabs never ruled except in Sindh, but there were frequent contacts, and the relations were friendly. Indeed, the most noticeable thing about this period of history is the contrast between the toleration of the Muslim Arab and the intolerance of the Christian in Europe.

Of the Purdah, Nehru claims that the early Arab expansion, which was fueled by Mohammad’s sermons, didn’t exclude women in their social and political life. It seems that the idea of Purdah was a late addition to the religious tenets of Islam, caused by assimilation of such practices in places that the Arab conquered, especially the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople and the Sassanid empire in Persia.

In fact the original teachings of Mohammad were diluted as the Arabian world became a rich empire. Still, it is quite amazing that a bunch nomadic people with hardly any expertise could run through the old empires and set up their own. Of course, Chengiz was still to come.

The Arabian empire had a brief sniff of conquering Europe. They came up to Constantinople from the east, and also ran through the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and the whole of Spain. They briefly held southern France, but were driven out in the battle of Tours. It would have changed the face of European history if they persevered and connected the two ends of their empire. As a matter of fact that became impossible only a short while later as the infighting among the leadership of the Caliphate broke apart the empire politically, as the western parts of Spain and the like remained with the Ommeyade Arabs, and the eastern part went to the Assadites. The Assadites shifted their gaze eastward instead, shifted their capital to Baghdad, and we got the tales of Arabian Nights.

| Arabian science

The Abbaside period is especially interesting for us because of the new interest in science which it started. Science, as you know, is a very big thing in the modern world, and we owe a great deal to it. Science does not simply sit down and pray for things to happen, but seeks to find out why things happen. It experiments and tries again and again, and sometimes fails and sometimes succeeds—and so bit by bit it adds to human knowledge. This modern world of ours is very different from the ancient world or the Middle Ages. This great difference is largely due to science, for the modern world has been made by science.

Among the ancients we do not find the scientific method in Egypt or China or India. We find just a bit of it in old Greece. In Rome again it was absent. But the Arabs had this scientific spirit of inquiry, and so they may be considered the fathers of modern science. In some subjects, like medicine and mathematics, they learnt much from India. Indian scholars and mathematicians came in large numbers to Baghdad. Many Arab students went to Takshashila in North India, which was still a great university, specializing in medicine. Sanskrit books on medical and other subjects were especially translated into Arabic. Many things—for example, paper-making—the Arabs learnt from China. But on the basis of the knowledge gained from others they made their own researches and made several important discoveries. They made the first telescope and the mariner’s compass. In medicine, Arab physicians and surgeons were famous all over Europe.

| Early Islamic influence in India

Islam came to the north with Mahmud. The south was not touched by Islamic conquest for a long time to come, and even Bengal was free from it for nearly 200 years more. In the north we find Chittor, which was to be so famous in after-history for its reckless gallantry, becoming a rallying-point for Rajput clans. But surely and inexorably the tide of Muslim conquest spread, and no amount of individual courage could stop it. There can be no doubt that the old Indo-Aryan India was on the decline.

Being unable to check the foreigner and the conqueror, Indo-Aryan culture adopted a defensive attitude. It retired into a shell in its endeavours to protect itself. It made its caste system, which till then had an element of flexibility in it, more rigid and fixed. It reduced the freedom of its womenfolk. Even the village panchayats underwent a slow change for the worse. And yet even as it declined before a more vigorous people, it sought to influence them and mould them to its own ways. And such was its power of absorption and assimilation that it succeeded in a measure in bringing about the cultural conquest of its conquerors.

You must remember that the contest was not between the Indo-Aryan civilization and the highly civilized Arab. The contest was between civilized but decadent India and the semi-civilized and occasionally nomadic people from Central Asia who had themselves recently been converted to Islam. Unhappily, India connected Islam with this lack of civilization and with the horrors of Mahmud’s raids, and bitterness grew.

 

Fandry (Pig)

Director: Nagraj Manjule (2013)

Fandry1

When Jabya and his father Kachru surrounded the pig near the compound of Jabya’s school and were ready to tie the noose around the animal, the school bell rang, and the school kids began singing the Indian national anthem. As the Sanskrit lyrics glorifying the deity of India filled the atmosphere, the animal made a run for its life as Jabya and Kachru stood paralysed, unable to choose their caste duty over national duty. They lost the animal, knowing fully well that if they can’t get the beast, they might not be able to afford Kachru’s daughter’s marriage on the next day.

This is probably the single most impactful scene that I have come across among all the films that I have seen. I’m lost for words here, but this Marathi film has touched some raw nerves in me. It has managed to simultaneously make me feel ignorant and removed from the pervasive social ills in India, and yet optimistic about the empowerment of the downtrodden. I was heartbroken, but Jabya knew how to throw a stone back.

It’s funny how a movie that I thought would be my Saturday night pastime could create such an impact.

May ’18 books

1. In Xanadu: A QuestIn Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was ironic that I chose to read this book, with all its peripatetic promise, on a lazy, supine, rainy Sunday. I hadn’t planned it in advance – one of my many internet breaks led me to it. I haven’t read many travelogues, and I was keen on entering this genre after I discovered the joy of Patrick Leigh Fermor last year.

I couldn’t have chosen a better book. William Dalrymple spent his summer vacation in senior year in Cambridge taking the terrestrial journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu in his quest to follow the trail of Marco Polo, who had taken the trip some 700 years ago in order to carry the promise of Christianity to the great Mongol leader of the time, Kubla Khan. Dalrymple follows this medieval trail in the backdrop of modern times, through disputed and war ravaged territories of Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and China, accompanied by two different friends from Britain in the two halves of his journey. In this journey spanning more than 12000 miles, he encounters a myriad cultures, ethnicity and people, and writes about them in the irreverent, witty, often politically incorrect diction of a young European ethnographer cum history buff. Part travelogue, part personal history, the book is interspersed with bits of medieval history, art and religion, and also tales of struggle of this long journey. It was a highly satisfying Sunday read.

April ’18 books

1. Human ActsHuman Acts by Han Kang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading the book felt like being on a roller coaster ride, except the journey was entirely downwards, towards a dark and distant abyss of a well, where humanity goes to die. Han Kang stitches together a historiographic piece of fiction on the Guangju uprising in South Korea in 1980, when an oppressive and conscienceless government brutally suppressed and massacred a pro-democratic civilian rebellion in Guangju. Told from seven unique points of view, spread over 4 decades, the story revolves around Dong-ho, a middle schooler in Guangju who gets sucked into the uprising while trying to locate his friend’s dead body. Motifs of guilt and debasement of human conscience appear repeatedly in the narrative, and so do the lifelong effects of experiencing brutality from close quarters. Disturbing, moving, and oddly enough, uplifting. As Han imagines in one of the latter chapters, she doesn’t think of the youngsters killed by the army as victims, because in the moment of their death, looking straight into the eyes of their killers with eyes full of conviction in their cause, they were anything but the victims, holding a mirror to the state’s massacre, torture and brutality – a human act of defiance against the inhuman acts of a repressive government.

March’18 books

1.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An unsettling, uncomfortable read. Gidla’s family history tells a tale contradictory to the sparkling narrative of democracy in independent India. Her writing is an unsentimental memoir of her mother’s side of the family, especially focusing on the life of her uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy, who spearheaded the Telangana radical left movement in the 60-s. The book delves into the squalid details of caste system in India, describing the societal divisions into Mala, Madiga, Kamma, Paki and many other identities- a knowledge that is conveniently absent in an academic curriculum of a typical privileged Indian like me. Hence, an essential read.

Update: I later read a review of the book by a Dalit scholar, which criticises several aspects of the book: https://thewire.in/caste/how-not-to-write-a-dalit-memoir.

2.

The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories

The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great collection of stories set in modern Bangalore, exploring the challenges, backgrounds and foibles of its residents. In these stories the urban, conflicted, young and old, poor and (mostly) rich, jostle for breath in this city which constantly vacillates between Malleshwaram and Lavelle Road, Yeshwanthpur and Electronic City. Loved it!

Science problems for Syrian kids

The way you educate kids must be modified depending on the context. The when and where of the knowledge that is disseminated must factor into the way we teach children. Teaching the topography of Alpine countries to children growing up in the tropical plains of India might broaden the horizon of their knowledge, but it’s fatuous if they don’t know about the geography of their own surrounding. Science, as a discipline, might claim to hover above the divisions due to culture, but science education must necessarily be made contextual – or so the science education experts tell us.

Hence, I have taken up the job of designing a few relevant school-level science and math problems for Syrian kids for our times. This is an attempt so that kids from places such as Aleppo, Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun aren’t left behind as the rest of the world trains their kids in science. The problems have been designed so that the children of Syria can relate to them readily.  The problems aren’t entirely non-universal, some might be suitable even for children in Yemen or the Rakhine state. I present a few sample questions below; they have not been ordered according to their difficulty level.

rohingyadream
The dreams of Rohingya children

1. Amena lost two-fifths of the fingers in her hand, while Joram lost 3 fingers in the most recent bombing in Tabqa. Who is left with more fingers?

~ Joram (7)

2. Akram and Zain just became friends with Haya, when she moved to their hospital in Aleppo after her house was bombed and her family died. Akram and Zain want to know when her house was bombed. Haya gives them a list of 10 possible dates:

May 15 16 19
June 17 18
July 14 16
August 14 15 17

Haya then tells Akram and Zain separately the month and the day when her house was bombed, respectively.

Akram: I don’t know when the bombing happened, but I know that Zain doesn’t know too.
Zain: At first I don’t know when it happened, but I know now.
Akram: Then I also know when Haya’s house was bombed.
So when was Haya’s house bombed?

~ July 16

3. The common gases that are lighter than air are hydrogen, helium, carbon monoxide, ammonia. The common gases that are heavier than air are oxygen, carbon dioxide, chlorine. Gases that can be fatal to human beings on inhalation include carbon monoxide and chlorine.

a. Which gas among these can be used as a chemical weapon if the bomb is to be detonated above ground?

~ Chlorine

b. If you are outside when a bomb with that gas has been detonated very near you, and you happen to have a blue litmus paper, what colour will it become?

~ White, bleaching due to chlorine

4. A Russian fighter plane is flying at 1000 metres above ground, at a speed of 200m/s. It intends to drop an un-directed bomb on a purported enemy camp in Ghouta, but it misses the camp and instead hits a hospital that is 1500 metres ahead. How late was the pilot in dropping the bomb? Take g=10 m/s^2.

~ 7.5 s

 

 

I sincerely believe that with efforts such as these we can revolutionize school education in Syria in these testing times.

 

 

 

 

 

February ’18 books

1. Swimmer Among the Stars: StoriesSwimmer Among the Stars: Stories by Kanishk Tharoor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing binding all the stories in this collection of short fiction is that they all occur in uncanny circumstances – be it a village awaiting imminent pillage by Central Asian barbarians in some unspecified time in the past, a post-apocalyptic meeting of United Nations in space in some unspecified time in the future, the journey of an Indian elephant in Morocco or the adventures of Kaiser Alexander. A few are too weird, most are fantastic. But all stories reveal a trenchant study of history, geography and the present. And with the addition of empathy, as is done in many stories, they achieve perfection. My favourites: Loss of Muzaffar, The fall of an eyelash, United Nations in space.

2. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the UnthinkableThe Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A deep and though provoking book on the alleged derangement that plagues the human civilization – its unpreparedness for climate change. Ghosh writes on climate change from three angles, and the book is thus divided into three parts – story, history and politics.

In the first part, he writes about the absence of climate change as a subject in arts and literature, and argues that the modern concept of fiction, in its demand for the individual moral adventure, precludes the possibility of a narrative on climate change. This is the most abstruse part in the book, as it delves into serious literary theory and the philosophy of nature having an almost “sentient” gaze on humans – which I felt bordered on the supernatural.

In the second part on History, Ghosh is back in his forte of expertly blending historical facts to build a compelling story of the history of climate change. His most fascinating stories are those in and around the Indian Ocean – from the first oil fields in Burma to the oil refineries of the middle east. He substantiates the role of western imperialism as an agent in the setting up of the carbon intensive modern civilization.

Ghosh dives into the politics of climate change in the third part, which I felt is the most enthralling part of the book. He argues that the modern body politic has turned the political consciousness of masses into a “spectacle” (think Twitter activism) instead of dialogue and the democratic institutions have turned into intransigent “deep states” where the common people have hardly any say in the running of the system. He also demonstrates how the notion of modern nation states are built upon the premise of limitless human freedom (not unlike modern literature and arts, as he argues) and laissez-faire (the doctrine that government shouldn’t involve in commerce), and are thus incapable of addressing the issue of climate change. He thinks that the involvement of organized religion in mobilizing communities to combat climate change holds more promise than the the 2015 Paris agreement. In talking about the concept of climate justice, he claims that while capitalism (the infinitude of economic growth etc) is the usual culprit, the agency of empire (the supposed power supremacy of certain nations over others) is often overlooked.

Overall, it’s a necessary read for our times, a period which might as well be considered the age of the great derangement by a civilization of the future.

3. The PhD Grind by Philip J. Guo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An enlightening read, chronicling the author’s experiences as a PhD student in computer science. Highly recommended for any STEM graduate student.

Ishiguro’s Nobel Speech

I came across Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel acceptance speech today –https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2017/ishiguro-lecture_en.html

It’s a wonderful read – I highly recommend it. Here are a few excerpts –

“Important turning points in a writer’s career – perhaps in many kinds of career – are like these. Often, they are small, scruffy moments. They are quiet, private sparks of revelation. They don’t come often, and when they do, they may well come without fanfare, unendorsed by mentors or colleagues. They must often compete for attention with louder, seemingly more urgent demands. Sometimes what they reveal may go against the grain of prevailing wisdom. But when they come, it’s important to be able to recognise them for what they are. Or they’ll slip through your hands.

I’ve been emphasising here the small and the private, because essentially that’s what my work is about. One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet – or maybe not so quiet – room. Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

This got me thinking – how different is this from trying to do science? Even in this age of collaborations and big science, by the very nature of academia, science is about the small and the private – one person in a quiet room trying to reach out to another person, in another room, saying to the other: This is what the universe looks like to me. Does it make sense to you? I have been struggling to deal with the purported inefficacy of science in addressing the human condition; but maybe this is the point of view to take – that at the end of the day, science is just another human endeavour to find meaning. And therein lies its worth.

The speech is embellished with more gems  –

“But now, looking back, the era since the fall of the Berlin Wall seems like one of complacency, of opportunities lost. Enormous inequalities – of wealth and opportunity – have been allowed to grow, between nations and within nations. In particular, the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the long years of austerity policies imposed on ordinary people following the scandalous economic crash of 2008, have brought us to a present in which Far Right ideologies and tribal nationalisms proliferate. Racism, in its traditional forms and in its modernised, better-marketed versions, is once again on the rise, stirring beneath our civilised streets like a buried monster awakening. For the moment we seem to lack any progressive cause to unite us. Instead, even in the wealthy democracies of the West, we’re fracturing into rival camps from which to compete bitterly for resources or power.

And around the corner – or have we already turned this corner? – lie the challenges posed by stunning breakthroughs in science, technology and medicine. New genetic technologies – such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR – and advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics will bring us amazing, life-saving benefits, but may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid, and massive unemployment, including to those in the current professional elites.”

The denouement of his speech is achieved through his sentient thesis of the current world. Yet, his tone is refreshingly optimistic – perhaps not well captured in the above quote – and it urges the readers to smooth out the roughs in their small spheres of life, as that is the only way to avoid losing yourself under the burden of changing the whole world.

The wrath of the complex conjugate

How often have I heard the story involving a programmer toiling for months on a broken code to find a missing semicolon in it? Often enough to think that when I code, I wouldn’t fall victim to this. Oh, how mistaken I was!

I have been working on a piece of code for the last several months, only to realize it doesn’t work for anything. It led me to read up on esoteric articles meant for hardcore programmers about memory allocation and what-not. I was on the verge of a breakdown, as nothing seemed to be going my way. I wrote and rewrote the code in different ways, in different languages.

Today I realized, the code wasn’t working because of a missing conj() command. Why art thou so sinister, o mighty complex conjugate?

Note to self – you are a doofus.