Another year, another Republic Day Parade… the usual extravaganza that the country throws up even as it hides bitter realities behind a smokescreen called patriotism. This year saw a fair share of pre-D-Day heartburns, appropriations and one upmanships. It seems to have become a norm in these last few years. But nothing has been as striking as the farmer protests of last year that put a cog in the wheels of the national celebration. I remember watching the news of a break-away group of farmers trying to sabotage the parade in what was, I guess, their attempt at clearing the above-mentioned smokescreen and draw attention towards their plight.
That day, a few thoughts rushed through my mind and I quickly typed them out on my phone in what could be considered a ‘stream of consciousness’ kind of recording. I had intended to post them online and share it with the world, but sadly, I lost the debate with myself about the wisdom in doing so at an already sensitive moment. So the thoughts remained trapped in my phone until yesterday, when a discussion about the meaning of freedom and the meaning in celebrating the republic day parade in today’s context ‘opened an old wound’ as the idiom goes. And this time, I decided to share them before I started to second-guess myself again. So here goes…
celebrating the freedom to protest
I’ve never been a fan of the republic day parade or the related celebration, but I’m a sucker for any kind of discourse on national issues -good, bad & ugly. Yesterday, the edit page of the Economic Times carried a piece, Just in Jest, that talked about the primary difference between the jawaan and kisaan (remember the slogan ‘jai jawaan, jai kisaan’ to which erstwhile PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee added ‘jai vigyaan’ and the current PM took a lame stab at glory by trying to add ‘jai anusandhan’?). According to the writer, the difference was that while the jawaan is an employee in the economic structure of our country, the kisaan is a shareholder. The write-up then veered towards sarcasm and humor as is the wont of this particular writer, whom I quite enjoy reading, but it left me ruminating over this larger idea of stakeholders in a country’s destiny, with employees being an intrinsic part of the system and depending upon it for sustenance while freelancers, despite being shareholders, are not.
Not surprisingly, freelancers wield more power, at least with regards to the strength to voice opinions generated through intellectual discourse, compared to employees. They can challenge the status quo by not mindlessly heeding to diktats, they can ask tough questions and wait for convincing responses… but for how long? Protests are inevitable. On the one hand, the state has the brute power of its employees which makes it arrogant. Protestors can be brought to their knees, narratives can be changed and misrepresented at its whim. A display such as the republic day parade is required to drum up enthusiasm in the employees and make them take pride in their country. But can one take pride in a country where discrimination at every level is still rampant -be it caste, class, religion, physical and mental abilities or gender? Where what rules the roost is money and nothing else?
Can a freelancer celebrate the silencing of important voices through brute force, fanatical lynchings of those who dare to disagree or disobey, curbing of freedom to something as basic as choosing to eat what one might want to and so on? Can a freelancer celebrate fact that a recent Bombay High Court judgement rules that for groping to be counted as a sexual assault, the perpetrator would have to had removed you clothing and had ‘skin-to-skin’ contact… that someone moving their hands on your inner thigh or breast through your clothes and against your wishes is not an assaulter?
The judge, apparently a woman herself, can, because although justice is supposed to be a separate, independent entity, it has no doubt become the employee of the state through manipulation. And the employee says what the employer wants him/her to say without applying his/her own reasoning or principles. If the employee dares to say something different, he/she faces the axe or voluntarily leaves the organization. The latter has been the case with many a disillusioned citizen who has left the country for good. Although I’m not going to judge them for their decision, I wonder if their new country is any different. Because I don’t think any of what I’ve discussed here is unique to our country. Similar, and perhaps worse, situations exist elsewhere, making the role of freelances all the more crucial.
Frankly, I cannot hope to change anything by registering my protest against the republic day celebrations on social media; I am after all, but a speck in this universe. But when the winds of change blow, I can hope to be that speck that lands in the eye of an oppressive state and wreaks havoc, even if only for a few minutes.
asked Ogden Nash in one of his last poems. I agree.
For when things around us turn dark, we can either sit and mope
or light up our lives with some humor and hope…
Whoa! That was an impromptu and rather unexpected rhyme by yours truly! But then, that’s the effect Ogden Nash has on you once you start reading his poetry. In some ways, his poems have the same effect on me as Bill Waterson’s comic strip -Calvin and Hobbes.
I discovered Ogden Nash way back when I was still in school… and believe me, I was hooked to his poetry. However, back then, there was no Internet to search out more of his poems and the British Library seldom stocked anything that did not originate from Britain… even if it was good literature/poetry. So I had to wait a long, frustrating wait before I found a copy of ‘Candy is Dandy’, his poetry omnibus, in a bookstore. Since then though, the book is always by my side and every time I’m feeling down or angry or frustrated or perhaps even feel the onset of Armageddon, all I have to do to put me back in an upbeat mood is flip open the book to any page. I repeat… any page. Want a demo?
Well, that’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to type out for you the poem that appears on any random page that I flip open in the book.* But before that, I must also share what Ogden Nash did to the poet/writer in me… well, to put is as succinctly as possible so as not to bore you an keep you from reading his poems – he taught me to not take myself too seriously.
With that, here you go…
The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?
First Child… Second Child (I can so relate to this as a parent of two children!)
Be it a girl, or one of the boys, It is scarlet all over its avoirdupois, It is red, it is boiled; could the obstetrician Have possibly been a lobstertrician? His degrees and credentials were hunky-dory, But how’s for an infantile inventory? Here’s the prodigy, here’s the miracle! Whether its head is oval or spherical, You rejoice to find it has only one, Having dreaded a two-headed daughter or son; Here’s the phenomenon all complete, It’s got two hands, it’s got two feet, Only natural, but pleasing, because For months you have dreamed of flippers or claws. Furthermore, it is fully equipped: Fingers and toes with nails are tipped; It’s even got eyes, and a mouth clear cut; When the mouth comes open the eyes go shut, When the eyes go shut, the breath is loosed And the presence of lungs can be deduced. Let the rockets flash and the cannon thunder, This child is a marvel, a matchless wonder. A staggering child, a child astounding, Dazzling, diaperless, dumbfounding, Stupendous, miraculous, unsurpassed, A child to stagger and flabbergast, Bright as a button, sharp as a thorn, And the only perfect one ever born. SECOND
Arrived this evening at half-past nine. Everybody is doing fine. Is it a boy, or quite the reverse? You can call in the morning and ask the nurse.
God in His wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.
Away From It All
I wish I were a Tibetan monk
Living in a monastery.
I would unpack my trunk
And store in a tronastery.
I would collect all my junk
And send it to a jonastery;
I would try to reform a drunk
And pay his expenses in a dronastery.
And if my income shrunk
I would send it to a shronastery.
To A Small Boy Standing On My Shoes While I’m Wearing Them
Let’s straighten this out, my little man, And reach an agreement if we can. I entered your door as an honored guest. My shoes are shined and my trousers are pressed, And I won’t stretch out and read you the funnies And I won’t pretend that we’re Easter bunnies. If you must get somebody down on the floor, What in the hell are your parents for? I do not like the things that you say And I hate the games that you want to play. No matter how frightfully hard you try, We’ve little in common, you and I. The interest I take in my neighbor’s nursery Would have to grow, to be even cursory, And I would that performing sons and nephews Were carted away with the daily refuse, And I hold that frolicsome daughters and nieces Are ample excuse for breaking leases. You may take a sock at your daddy’s tummy Or climb all over your doting mummy, But keep your attentions to me in check, Or, sonny boy, I will wring your neck. A happier man today I’d be Had someone wrung it ahead of me.
Ok, there are too many long ones and it’ll take me for ever to type them out, so I’m just going to share some really funny short ones now.
Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore.
And that’s what parents were created for.
Reflection on Babies
A bit of talcum Is always walcum.
The one-l lama,
He’s a priest;
The two-l llama,
He’s a beast.
And I will bet
A silk pajama
There isn’t any
The Abominable Snowman
I’ve never seen an abominable snowman,
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping, if I do,
That it will be a wee one.
The python has, and I fib no fibs
318 pairs of ribs.
In stating this I place reliance
On a seance with one who died for science.
This figure is sworn to and attested;
He counted them while being digested.
With that, it’s time to say goodbye.
I hope you’ve all been chuckling through this post
and if you did, you know why I love Ogden’s poems most 🙂
And hey, here’s one of my favorites… for the road.
When I discovered the poetry of William Carlos Williams, I did a waltz in secret. His poems are an expression of a concept I strongly believe in – talk less, say more. Only, I still struggle to execute it while he had, in his lifetime, no doubt mastered the art.
Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, an architect whose work I admire, coined the phrase ‘Less is More’, way back in 1947. In my opinion, William Carlos Williams’ work could well be the poetic manifestation of the phrase. This is not to say he did not write long form poetry; just that the short ones were what taught me some valuable lessons as a writer.
What I love about William Carlos Williams’ poetry is that it talks to both the designer and writer/poet in me. Minimalism is about the only ‘ism’ in design that has resonated with me through my years as a student, practitioner and teacher of design. For me, design has been about breaking down a problem to the bare essentials and seeking out that core that would simultaneously be both ‘enough’ and ‘monumental’. I have had varying levels of success with the ideal, given that you need a client with a similar, if not same, mind-set; but the process of discovery has almost always been gratifying.
Similarly, when writing picture books for children, I need to limit myself to a word count of 500-600 words. I also need to remember that, difficult as it is, I have to leave certain things unsaid so they can be conveyed through the illustrations… or perhaps the imagination of my young reader. I struggled with this when I was working on Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers, my picture book biography of the mathematical genius. My challenge was certainly about distilling the content of all the books and papers I’d read on Ramanujan and produce a 1000-word story that was as compelling a read as say, an 80,000 word book. But more importantly, it was about finding the heart/essence of my story. This meant, I had to re-read everything I had read and written thus far to re-evaluate what to keep and what to let go of. During this rather frustrating journey, poetry was something that I kept going back to, specially William Carlos Williams’.
Why? Well, you can read some of the poems below and see for yourself!I clicked this pic a long time ago in a tiny hamlet near Alibaug… it so reminded me of The Red Wheelbarrow!
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it
in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.
To a Poor Old Woman
munching a plum on the street a paper bag of them in her hand
They taste good to her They taste good to her. They taste good to her
You can see it by the way she gives herself to the one half sucked out in her hand
Comforted a solace of ripe plums seeming to fill the air They taste good to her.
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
To Waken an Old Lady
Old age is
a flight of small
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffetted
by a dark wind—
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested,
the snow is
covered with broken
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.
The Great Figure
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
I feel the caress of my own fingers
on my own neck as I place my collar
and think pityingly
of the kind women I have known.
Well, that’s it for today. Whom will I be discussing next? Come back tomorrow to find out!
Today is World Poetry Day. What’s more, I’m at home and relatively free to indulge in some poetry thanks to the social distancing we need to practice in these tough times of the COVID-19 scare. Being a poet myself and having read a lot of poetry, I believe that poetry, unlike any other form of writing, can help you discover yourself, can help clear your brain when you’re uncertain or confused and can help bring closure and heal when your heart hurts. Of course, poetry can also bring a smile to your face and perhaps make you laugh too if you’re in the mood for it.
Over the next few days (starting today), I will be sharing the work (all from the public domain) of some of the poets I adore and that I feel should reach more people. I shall also throw in a bit about how I connect with a particular piece or with the poet and hopefully, you too will find your own personal connect.
I’m going to start with a few verses from Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’.
This collection is close to my heart for many reasons, the most important being that it made me realize there is poetry beyond rhyme. I have been writing poetry since I was in school; but all the poetry I was exposed to back then were strictly rhyming and the few people I discussed my poems with encouraged only rhyming poems. I didn’t and still don’t have a problem with rhyme, but it does get frustrating when you can’t write what you want to because it doesn’t rhyme! Perhaps I should blame my vocabulary for it? It was a restriction that almost made me give up writing poems.
Then, I discovered Whitman. And I discovered that more important than rhyme is rhythm… a discovery that changed the way I consumed and wrote poetry. I also realized that poems can get over in just two to three lines or run into several pages, that poems can ask questions and not answer them, that a poem can be a story and it can be a song, that you don’t need to follow rules to write poems… you need to follow your heart.
With that, let me leave you with a few verses from the book that I often go back to for inspiration:
STRANGER, if you passing meet me and desire to speak
to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?
WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER.
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,
divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
O YOU WHOM I OFTEN AND SILENTLY COME.
O YOU whom I often and silently come where you are
that I may be with you, As I walk by your side or sit near, or remain in the same
room with you, Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake
is playing within me.
A SONG FOR OCCUPATIONS. (excerpts from Part 3 & 4)
Have you reckon’d the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture?
Or men and women that they might be written of, and songs sung?
Or the attraction of gravity, and the great laws and harmonious combinations, and the fluids of the air, as subjects for the savans?
Or the brown land and the blue sea for maps and charts?
Or the stars to be put in constellations and named fancy names?
Or that the growth of seeds is for agricultural tables, or agriculture itself?
Old institutions—these arts, libraries, legends,
collections, and the practice handed along in
manufactures—will we rate them so high?
Will we rate our cash and business high ?—I have no objection;
I rate them as high as the highest—then a child born of a woman and man I rate beyond all rate.
We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine;
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still;
It is not they who give the life—it is you who give the life;
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth, than they are shed out of you.
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it,
(Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of the arches and cornices?)
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the beating drums, nor the score of the baritone singer singing his sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s chorus, nor that of the women’s chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.
TO THE SAYERS OF WORDS. (excerpts from Part 4 & 6)
The song is to the singer, and comes back most to him;
The teaching is to the teacher, and comes back most to him;
The murder is to the murderer, and comes back most to him;
The theft is to the thief, and comes back most to him;
The love is to the lover, and comes back most to him;
The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him —it cannot fail;
The oration is to the orator, the acting is to the actor and actress, not to the audience;
And no man understands any greatness or goodness but his own, or the indication of his own.
This is a poem for the sayers of words—these are hints of meanings,
These are they that echo the tones of Souls, and the phrases of Souls;
If they did not echo the phrases of Souls, what were they then ?
If they had not reference to you in especial, what were they then?
31I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells the best!
I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the best untold.
I hope you enjoyed these verses as much as I have, perhaps even more. Do come back tomorrow for more!
Psst: The poet I’ll discuss tomorrow is someone whose work made me realize how how, to quote one of my favorite designers, Mies Van der Rohe, Less is More …and perhaps even profound in poetry.
March 14th is celebrated every year as the International Day of Mathematics or alternately, the Pi Day (3/14 in the month/day format… as you know 3, 1, and 4 are the first three significant digits of π which goes 3.14159265358….. and so on).
Pi (π), the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is a transcendental number whose decimal extent is infinite. It has been a fascination for mathematicians since time immemorial:
– in the 7th century, Brahmagupta declared it to be the square root of 10, giving it the value 3.16
– Archimedes took a geometric approach and arrived at a value between 3 10/70 and 3 10/71
– from the 16th century onward, western mathematicians including Issac Newton used calculus to develop several infinite series that converged to π.
Predictably, Ramanujan too wasn’t immune to the mysterious charm of π.
When Ramanujan started his romance with mathematics, the approximate value of π was already known. To him then, the joy was in discovering newer ways in which one could express π and developing formulae that would give more and more precise values of π.
He began with expressions that gave the approximate value to a modest number decimal places such as:
which gave the value of π up to 9 decimal places : 3.14159265380
which gave up to 14 decimal places : 3.14159265358979265 and
which gave up to 30 decimal places : 3.141592653589793238462643383279
One of the pages from his famous ‘Notebooks’ carries the following entries (highlighted in red):
Then, in 1914, the Quarterly Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics carried Ramanujan’s publication, titled “Modular Equations and Approximations to π” that contained not one, but seventeen different series that converged rapidly to π. Two of these were:
which gave 8 correct digits for the decimal places for each term of ‘n’ and
which ‘spat out’ 14 correct digits for every ‘n’, allowing one to calculate to thousands of decimal places in a very short time.
While Ramanujan’s formulae were progressively more and more accurate, what is more important to us today is his approach to the calculations, which provided the foundation for the fastest- known algorithm that, in 1987, allowed mathematician and programmer Bill Gosper to use the computer to churn out the value of π to around 17 million decimal places. Later, mathematicians David and Gregory Chudnovsky used his formulae as the basis of their own variants that allowed them to calculate the value of π to an astounding 4 billion decimal places using their homemade parallel computer.
Of course, today, with the advent of super-computers, it has been possible to get the value of π with an ever-increasing precision. In January this year, Timothy Mullican successfully calculated the value to a record 50 trillion decimal places after 303 days of computing!!
When Ramanujan was a child, he liked to rattle off the numerical value of π and another transcendental number ‘e‘ to any number of decimal places. In my recently published picture book biography of Ramanujan (you can read more about it here), I’ve mentioned how he had been fascinated with calculating the length of the equator – an exercise for which he would certainly have had to use π.
In 1914, around the time he indulged in developing formulae for π, he calculated the length of the equator to be 40,078km. Today, with supercomputers at our disposal, we know the length to be around 40,075km.
Now, if that isn’t genius, what is?!!
Psst… want to read the picture book mentioned above? Here’s where you’ll find it:
Last month, I had shared My Mathematical Muse: A Journey into the Life of Srinivasa Ramanujanwhere I mentioned that I’ve been working on a children’s book based on his life. Today, I’m here to share the happy event of the launch of the book! The book- Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers, is a picture book biography of the mathematical genius for children aged 6 years and above. The main challenge I faced when writing this book was to distill the essence of all the books and papers I’d read on Ramanujan and produce a 1000 word story that was as compelling a read as say, an 80,000 word book. So, apart from researching my subject, I also read up as many picture book biographies that I could find -both online and in bookstores- to see how different authors have handled the challenge. But most useful of all was a series of blog posts I’d read a few years back that talked about finding the heart of your story… it essentially meant finding that part of your story without which the story wouldn’t exist. This meant, I had to re-read everything I had read and written thus far to reevaluate what to keep and what to let go of. It was a struggle, but I’m glad I went through it because it taught me so much! If any of you connect with this struggle and would like to discuss it, do feel free to contact me; there’s nothing more I’d like than for my learning to benefit others.
And now, without more ado, here are few photographs from the book launch 🙂
It was a fun event where Satwik, the creator of the awesome illustrations, and I encouraged the audience to look for patterns around them everywhere they went… because that is the essence of the book and perhaps, in a simplified manner, the essence of Ramanujan’s tryst with numbers.
Three years back, in 2016, hubby dear bought the book -The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel. It was supposedly a well researched biography of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Not a fan of biographies then, I let the book rest on my shelf for a whole six months before I started reading it.
Until then, I had only heard passing mentions of Ramanujan, never read about him -surprisingly, not even an anecdote or snippet from his life. So, Kanigel’s book came as a surprise. It immediately drew me into its pages, taking me back to an era (Ramanujan was born on 22nd Dec, 1887) that was hitherto unknown to me except in the context of India’s freedom struggle.
For reasons unknown, the book had a profound effect on me. No sooner than I had finished reading it, I got an opportunity to go to Chennai. I immediately made up my mind to visit Kumbakonam, where Ramanujan had spent the better part of his short life. From Chennai, I took an overnight train to the small, dusty town on the banks of the Kaveri – the journey in itself was rather amusing, with my second class compartment being populated by men wearing white lungis and white shirts and women wearing gold jewelry that offset their lips and tongues that had turned red with chewing betel leaf.
Once in Kumbakonam, I spent half a day at Sarangapani Sannidhi Street that was, at one time, witness to the many eccentricities of my newfound muse. Ramanujan’s house -recently renovated after escaping demolition, thanks to our late President APJ Abdul Kalam’s intervention -sat sandwiched between two other houses that had been converted into shops. A set of steps invited me into this narrow house that stretched backwards in length. The blue columns weren’t blue during Ramanujan’s time; I’m sure they weren’t even painted then. The well laid Mangalore tiles weren’t there during his time either -the house had a thatch roof then.
But the columns and roof didn’t matter to me. What mattered was the high plinth on which Ramanujan sat as a child with a slate and chalk and worked on his mathematical ideas. What mattered was the window behind which was the tiny room with a single wooden bed under which Ramanujan hid to solve equations as a child because his father would get angry if he saw him do something so useless! Further inside was a small living room (that’s now a memorial of sorts), kitchen and the backyard with a well.
It was indeed a humbling experience to stand inside that house, on that street, in that dusty town from where Ramanujan had started a mathematical journey that took him all the way to England and back. But, as Kanigel’s book informed me, Ramanujan wasn’t just about mathematics. His short life (he was 32 when he passed away) was a tapestry woven from numerous strands, each as interesting as the other. He was a staunch Vaishnavite Brahmin, who not only knew his scriptures but dissected and discussed them even as he brooded on the concepts of ‘shunya’ and ‘infinity’. He was highly superstitious, with an interest in astrology as well as the occult. He was a quintessential ‘mama’s boy’ who fell back upon his mother for everything in his life. Be it narrating stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Puranas, or imparting knowledge about their traditions or teaching him to pray and become a devotee of the Goddess Namagiri of Namakkal or playing with him, his favorite board game -the Aadu Puli Aatam (Goats and Tigers), or giving that vital push towards achieving his mathematical goal, Komalatammal was instrumental in nurturing her son’s love for Math and standing up for him when it mattered. Finally, there was also a strange dichotomy about Ramanujan – while he was confident about his mathematical prowess, he was extremely insecure about everything he did, yearned for recognition of his genius, and took offense at the tiniest of alleged faux pas by friends or peers.
Sitting on the steps in the backyard of his house, I recollected excerpts from Kanigel’s book and found myself drawn to this complex, intriguing character from the past. Soon, I was trying to imagine Ramanujan’s childhood, figuring out how his surroundings could have contributed to his love for mathematics. As I did so, quite unknown to me, a seed was sown into my thoughts -a seed of an idea for a book for children based on Ramanujan’s life story. Researching for the book, I ended up reading many more papers and books that talked about his life and works -most importantly, S R. Ranganathan’s Ramanujan: The Man and the Mathematician. Today, that idea is on its way to becoming a reality. My picture book biography on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan has charted its own journey and is expected to be released soon.
(edit: the book was launched on 18/1/2020 and is now available in stores. Adding a pic of the cover page… you can read more about it here)But that is only half my story.
Being an interior architect, my first connect with people is through the spaces they inhabit. So, after visiting his Kumbakonam house, I wanted to now visit all other places he’d been to or stayed in. This wasn’t easy, given that my city of residence isn’t anywhere near these places and that I have a home, office and my kids to tend to. However, they don’t say -if you wish for something with all your heart it does become a reality- for nothing. So intense was my wish of understanding the enigma that was Ramanujan that serendipity offered me a few chances to catch up with my muse. Earlier this year, I got another opportunity to visit Chennai. I made the most of it by visiting the house he’d briefly stayed in, in Triplcane, thanks to a dear friend. I then hunted down the site of the house he’d breathed his last in -unfortunately, the house is no longer in existence- and another house that he’d briefly lived in after his return from England.
Then, as luck would have it, I got an opportunity for an academic visit to London. After my professional commitments, I stayed back for a few days to visit places in London and Cambridge that my muse had been to. And so, with the help of Richard Chapling, a young mathematician and Trinity alumnus, who started off as a total stranger but ended up being a dear friend, I traced Ramanujan and his mentor Godfrey Harold Hardy across London and Cambridge. Together, Richard and I walked the walk that Hardy once described as being the ‘most distinguished walk’* – from his home at St. George’s Square, along the Grosvenor Road and across the Vauxhall Bridge to the Oval; we visited the house in Putney that is famed for being the place where Ramanujan had the legendary conversation with Hardy about the number 1729; we traveled to Cambridge to visit the Trinity College where he had spent five precious years, the Wren Library where his original letter to Hardy has been preserved, the Centre for Mathematical Sciences where his bust sits in splendor; we paused at the houses he’d stayed in at different points of time, we walked down the streets he would have once walked… back in London, I hunted down the house on Cromwell Road that Ramanujan had stayed in when he first arrived in London -the building is now home to the French Embassy.
Visiting all these places was a strangely emotional journey for me – strange, because here I was, getting affected by places that I had no immediate connect to. I often sit and wonder why I was drawn towards Ramanujan’s story. A friend recently tried to impress upon me the idea of ‘past connections’ and ‘karma’. I’d be lying if I said I’m not tempted to agree with him in this context.
There are some more places with a Ramanujan connect in India that await me, and there is a more detailed story of his inside of me that needs to be told (perhaps, for older children). I guess I’ll get that sense of closure only when both these journeys are completed… and I hope it happens sometime soon enough.
Today, though, I’m going to celebrate Ramanujan’s birthday by sharing the Magic Square he’d worked out based on the date of his birth: 22-12-1887 (exploring possibilities with these squares was one of Ramanujan’s earliest mathematical preoccupations).
For those who do not know, a Magic Square is square grid in which a given set of unique positive integers are arranged such that each cell has a different integer and the sum of integers in every row, column and diagonal is equal. In the above case, the sum in each case is 139. It is a happy coincidence (I’m sure Ramanujan would’ve been pleased as a punch when he realized this) that 139 is a prime number and the sum of five consecutive prime numbers: 19 + 23 + 29 + 31 + 37!!
And on that note, here’s me wishing my mathematical muse a very happy birthday!!
*The original quote by G H Hardy (thanks to Richard) goes thus:
‘The half-mile from St. George’s Square to the Oval is my old brandy nomination for the most distinguished walk in the world.’
Richard tells me that Old Brandy came to mean a taste that was eccentric, esoteric, but just within the confines of reason.
**P.S: There’s a separate post begging to be written about my amazing visit to Cambridge with Richard. I hope I find time for it soon enough…
My story ‘No Woman’s Land’ is part of Muse India Literary Magazine’s Fiction selection for Issue 86.
Hailing from the south, I have not been even remotely connected to the at times heart-wrenching, at times blood-curdling #partition experiences that I have read numerous accounts of. However, for some reason, it is a topic I keep revisiting in my mind. I remember, when my first children’s book got published and I was asked for an author bio, I had mentioned in it the following line:
With a belief that boundaries – physical or psychological – are for the faint-hearted, I’d rather be a global citizen with a boundless imagination.
This is something I truly believe in and hence, the very concept of regionalism, let alone any other ‘ism’ has never crept into my understanding of life. The idea that a mere length of barbed-wire can separate people and stop them from being human has always been hard to digest.
‘Why‘, I’ve often asked myself, ‘do I need permission to travel from one place on earth to the other when the earth belongs equally to all?‘
And so, while ‘No Woman’s Land’ is based on my interpretation of the trauma of partition, the larger idea that I am also trying to question is – Why Borders? The question is even more relevant today when governments of powerful countries want to build walls, decide frivolously on sensitive citizenship issues, make beggars out of immigrants and so on. Then again, the story for me is not only about the geographical border but much more.
What do you feel about this? Do read the story and share your thoughts.
The red effluent emptying into the sea through a pipeline is not a chemical; it is waste from a fish cutting factory a few hundred meters from the shore at Kadike beach, Udupi dist. If you want me to spell it out, it’s fish blood. And bits and pieces of fish too, I guess, my clue being the crazy number of eagles hovering around the point where the waste is flushed into the sea. Every now and then, they swoop down to pick up tiny pieces of cut fish that must’ve gotten flushed along with the blood.
After observing them for almost half an hour, I’ve decided that not only is this a case of poetic injustice, like I pointed out, but also one of rendering the eagles lazy, almost domesticating them! I stood for a few minutes exactly under the cover of eagles in the sky -they were flying pretty low and their white heads popping out of speckled coats looked awesome from below- but none was bothered by my presence; their eyes were all on what the pipe was spitting out.
The pic above is of one of the two pipes that connect the factory to the sea. Ambling along the beach, when I first spotted the red effluent though, it wasn’t gushing out of this pipe but what seemed to be a cloth embedded into the sand a few feet into the sea (see pic below). My detective senses went on an overdrive and I imagined all sorts of things… especially given the fact that there was news just the previous day of mutilated parts of a lady’s body having been found in Mangalore, not far from where I was.
‘Could this be someone’s mutilated body part?’
I shuddered at the thought.
A closer look revealed that my imagination was indeed fertile, thanks to the innumerable whodunits I watch on TV! The cloth was just a shoddy job at camouflage -it covered a pipeline that carried the effluent to the sea. I sighed in relief, but was soon angry at the mindless pollution being caused, no doubt by some chemical factory nearby. Seeing a local strolling along, I stopped him and asked him about the effluent.
That’s when I was told about the fish cutting factory.
My anger immediately dissolved into deep sadness at the irony of it all… imagine you are the ocean; how would you feel when the blood of your own children were drained back into your lap? Tears collected in my eyes as I looked at the waves lashing against the shore -a desperate ocean trying to collect every remaining bit of her children and pulling it into herself… back into the womb from which they’d all once emerged.
Yet, there is a counterpoint to it all. Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Sapiens that it was the Cognitive Revolution that made homo sapiens a successful species. I agree. The power of imagination did set us apart and it is that power that makes me imagine the sea to have a soul, to feel like I do, to react like I would. What if I did not imagine? What if the sea was merely lashing its waves ‘coz that’s what nature, as explained by science, makes it do? And the fish? Well, they do not have cognition; they might suffer physically as they gasp for breath and die, but they don’t grapple with concepts like ‘was my fish life purposeful‘. They just cease to exist.
And that brings me to the part where I realize how important a part language plays in our cognition. When I asked the local about the red effluent, his words were crude – fish cutting was the exact phrase he used. And it is his choice of words that has made me write this entire piece! What if he’d said fish processing? Sounds more mellow, more peaceful, more acceptable to the emotional bit of our brain, doesn’t it?
Note: What I’ve expressed above was typed onto the ‘notes’ app in my phone in one flow -from start to end. I haven’t edited it; it felt more authentic to present my thoughts in the exact same sequence they occurred to me as I walked along the beach… all in the space of fifteen minutes!
Bunches of yellow blossoms hang overhead like delicate chandeliers. I can almost hear the clinking of the crystals as they sway to the tunes of the gentle summer breeze. But death lurks in the shadows that dance on the parched earth below.
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying . . .
. . . Robert Herrick whispers his prophetic verse into my ears. Yes, the blossoms would be history in the days to come. The delicate petals will detach themselves from the stalk and float down in a spiral. The koel, whose melody reverberates in my ears today, will sing a dirge then. But I, oblivious, would trample the fallen petals under my heel even as I tried to imitate his enviable call. I seek him amongst the leaves of the jamun tree – in vain. He is an expert in covert operations, it…