Friday, February 25, 2011

Obituary: to a man remembered in death more than in life

Dear Uncle Pai,
I am one among the myriad (no more) children   indebted to you for giving me the most enriching gift I have yet received-- the love of the printed word. But I am ashamed to confess that I had almost forgotten your existence. What greater tribute can I perhaps give you as an artiste, for you verily were one, than to realize today that your creations were so powerful that they subsumed you, their very creator, and relegated you to the shadows.

You were also a primary reason for a  bond that I developed with my father when he inculcated in myself his love for the printed word. To a seven year old kid a  comic book is a puzzling thing; he doesn't  know whether to read zig-zag horizontally or vertically, or whether a character is speaking or thinking. And yet once these obstacles are overcome, for a mind at that age like a sponge, what a world has just been opened to him; a world where animals talk and conspire,  Suppandi's buffoonery is a way of life,  Tantri's plans  to usurp  Raja Hooja's throne are doomed to eternity, and  there lies forever by the side of Shikari Shambu  the happenstance of serendipity.

I owe  to your Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha the satisfied feeling I got as a kid at night when  I lay in my bed before sleeping, reflecting on what  plans might work for Tantri, or what else could go wrong.  And the illustrations ! No dictionary was ever required for the expressions on the characters faces were so very...expressive. In fact, am surprised we children who read those books  have grown up unbewildered  that people in real life dont really say tee hee hee or tsk tsk or sigh or sob-sob, or boo-hoo.  And the stories of Indian epics and mythology! How regal the kings and gods and  how terrifying the demons !

I even wrote to you sending questions for the Tinkle Tells You Why column, hatching plans of buying a "bulls-eye gun from Leo toys"   with the fifty rupees you would send me for my five questions and irritated my father no end  by expecting a reply from you each day when he came home from work.  You did reply after a month sending me Tinkle stickers as consolation for the fact that you couldn't feature my questions. Encouraged, I sent further questions to you and got more stickers. I look back with affection at such innocent joys and sorrows that I had !

I grew up and started  reading books but am forever alert, to delve into that wonderful world that you created for me as a child whenever I can. I feel sorry for children of today who dont know the pleasure of quietly reading by themselves or discovering a new word to be flaunted later before elders, or who dont feel happy enough looking at brand new books in a book fair or shop. I think before spending for a new pillow but readily buy a device to help me read in bed at night.

And I remembered it all today, when I finally thought of you. Your life has been remarkable Uncle Pai, for an entire generation  remembers you with affection.

And I feel bitter at the  irony that is life as the memories ram into  my heart and I realize that it has been decided for you, like it had been for another, that you have had enough of the world on the twenty fourth day of February.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


For as long as I can remember, I have always desired to excel in language, especially English. It doesn't dishearten me to be told that my equation is wrong as much as it does when it is alleged that my grammar or usage is incorrect.

In school, I strove to prove myself to be a class apart from the others in this regard. Few compliments have been as satisfying as being told by my English teacher in class-IX that "my writing has a flow which is quite rare for my age". I painstakingly dotted the i's and crossed the t's with regard to grammar, and skillfully performed the drill of lexical gymnastics -- changing clauses and voices for cunningly contrived sentences, keeping an eagle eye on agreement of the verb with the subject, etc.

However, I started noticing a change in my writing during my undergraduate years. While my vocabulary waxed, my writing grew languid as the austere practices of high school education started to wane. I started relying predominantly on my "ear for the language". I would judge the correctness of a sentence on the basis of how it "sounded".
I began enjoying my writing, playing with words and admiring my own handiwork. I got better with time, and the end of the rope of high school grammar that tethered me had frayed. With characteristic modesty (!?!),  I recognized that I have the gift of self-expression and articulation. There is also a general opinion of my friends that I do have a way with words.
Despite all that however, there was a thought which I kept pushing to the back of my mind-- that I don't really remember the rules of grammar anymore, I was completely reliant on my "ear" when it comes to usage, and that I undoubtedly violate some sacrosanct rules in my endeavour to write aesthetically. I spoke about this to my friends and they also agreed that it is a normal occurrence; that writing and speaking depend primarily on "ear".

The reason for my unease at this thought stems from the fact that I appreciate technique and the organized way of doing things. I believe that mastery of technique, by and large, gives a very good chance to succeed in any field. It is no coincidence that I liked Rahul Dravid the moment I saw the short ball drop dead at his feet under that solid back-foot defence.

But I digress. Anyway, I started my graduate school and there was a lot of talk of "scientific writing" which by all accounts seemed to be some stilted and emasculated form of writing where one must use simple sentences and avoid at all costs, even reasonable complications in sentence construct. I resolved not to take that course (no pun intended), fearful that I might have to change the way I write. I believed that scientific writing is not divorced from aesthetic usage of the language, that there is room to convey a scientific idea precisely while still using the language delightfully.
Luckily, I have seen enough books and papers (C.Truesdell, P.R.Halmos, A.B. Pippard, etc.) that were reassuring and I am now content in my belief.

I crave the indulgence of the reader as I embark on another digression. My dislike for excessive use of short simple sentences can be explained by comparing the act with eating delicious food. Just as one must take sufficient amounts in each mouthful so as to get the best taste of good food, so too with sentences.

My narrative until now can serve as a most instructive example of circumlocution for I come to the subject of this piece only now.
Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a book that is highly rated by graduate students and professors alike. It is a book that is the staple fare of these courses on " scientific writing". Hence I have studiously avoided reading the book. What little I saw of its table of contents also seemed foreboding, appearing as it did, to be a collection of dos and donts designed to discourage me !
I looked at it again today and these are some of the items that caught my eye:
Use the active voice.
Hell ! And I use the passive voice often . I didn't like the way it started.
Put statements in positive form.
How then, do I manage my funny, long winded, complicated and negatively worded understatements
Omit needless words.
Fair enough
Do not overstate.
Ha! Exaggeration is the cornerstone of humour. Read P.G.Wodehouse if you don't agree.
Avoid the use of qualifiers.
Avoid Fancy words.
This was the biggest blow. I was so taken by the word Götterdämmerung, with which I titled my last post over a year ago. "Celerity" is another word I have been in love with ever since I studied it in a textbook as "Laplace and Newton's formulas to measure the celerity of sound". Maybe the alliteration had something to do with it. Anyway, plain old speed then, no celerity. One cant then speak of "mathematical legerdemain", or "ratiocinate an assumption". No delightful sentences like O. Henry in Hostages to Momus-- "...and if on any morning we get a telegram from the Secretary of State asking about the health of the scheme, I propose to acquire the most propinquitous and celeritous mule in this section and gallop diplomatically over into the neighboring and peaceful nation of Alabama."
Do not inject opinion.
That will be hard.
Use figures of speech sparingly.
I can hardly spare them.
Thoroughly irritated, I started reading from the page which said "avoid fancy words".
I finally read something that comforted me when it said:
In this, as in many matters pertaining to style, one's ear must be one's guide...
There is nothing wrong, really, with any word-- all are good, but some are better than the others. A matter of ear, a matter of reading the books that sharpen the ear.
Confirmation, finally ! Exactly what I wanted.
Then there followed some sentences and phrases which made me realise how baseless my opinion had been with regard to this book.

On the pitfalls of unclear writing:
Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.

On similes :
The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can't be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight.

On offbeat terms:
...the trouble with adopting coinages too quickly is that they will bedevil one by insinuating themselves where they do not belong.

Even the world of criticism has a modest pouch of private words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall.

Finally, his summary:

The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time. To suggest that a young writer not swim in the main stream of this turbulence would be foolish indeed, and such is not the intent of these cautionary remarks. The intent is to suggest that in choosing between the formal and the informal, the regular and the offbeat, the general and the special, the orthodox and the heretical, the beginner err on the side of conservatism, on the side of established usage. No idiom is taboo, no accent forbidden; there is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer holds a steady course, enters the stream of English quietly, and does not thrash about.

But best of all, his parting words to the writer:
It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader's plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader's wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.

For all his exhortations to the contrary, one can see the mastery of words, the well chosen metaphors, the hint of exaggeration ...
I succumbed to him when I read the bit about satisfying oneself. It has been the sole reason for my blog.

With the fervor of a born-again believer, I started with the preface and uncovered yet another gem:
"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 23, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock.

It is a joy to read such writing. My opinion of "scientific writing", as understood by many of my peers and some professors, has not changed. But I now concur that this book must be read by everyone who ever needs to write a sentence in English.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Götterdämmerung--Twilight of the Gods, was the phrase that kept coming to my mind as I watched the epic final between Federer and Roddick. Admittedly, I am taking liberties with the word and using it in a sense contradictory to the usual usage, but the literal translation really was fitting here.

After all we had all the legends of tennis- Sampras, Borg, Laver, Becker, Mcenroe, here at twilight to witness the epochal event- the final acceptance, if any more confirmation were still required, of Roger Federer as one of the all time greats, and arguably, the greatest ever.

I really feel sorry for Roddick though. He played a great match, and almost won it. These epic finals are cruel in the end, for only one can be called a winner. But these are worthy sportsmen ; generous in victory, gracious in defeat.

If asked to summarise the match today however, most verbs seem unfair to me. I cannot bring myself to say Roddick lost , or that Federer won. Federer edged past Roddick does not fit well either. Federer prevails at last is close but I still wouldnt be satisfied. Perhaps my best attempt would be to to say Federer outlasts Roddick , atleast it conveys the idea of a marathon where the competitors have risen above the outcome, and victory and defeat are merely names for the inexorable end.

It has been a privelege to witness the exploits of Federer, since the day he defeated Sampras in the 2001 quarter finals. It helped that his era dawned when I had risen above personal favouritism and could appreciate the unbridled genius and mastery of the man, something I never could do with Sampras, or Agassi or Becker as long as they were playing, for I was rooting fervently for Goran Ivanisevic.

How I wish I could have a day like this. It must be a wonderful life, however short, if on a glorious summer evening, the Gods come down to witness your acheivement and welcome you into their pantheon.

Götterdämmerung indeed !!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sophistry and Syllogism

It has been my observation for a long time now, that people do not really listen to what you are saying-something that I take great pains to do, and what is worse, they respond at times with illogical answers.

Many do not really understand the idea of "hypothesis", I would think. I have come across such incidents many times, but to illustrate, I will, as I usually do, take examples from mathematics.
Imagine I asked you: " If 1+1 =11, what is 2+2 ?"
If you are one of those who would say: "But that's not possible, 1+1 =2 !!",
then you are one of those this post is meant for.

First let me explain why I think it is illogical to give the answer stated above.

The key of course , is the word "If ". When put sarcastically, the question means- Please be condescending enough to grant me the status of an intellectual midget, and assuming the truth of the statement that 1+1 =11, try and think the way an idiot like me would to answer what would 2+2 be.

So to me, the answers could be 22, or 222. If you say I do not know, that is quite acceptable too.
It's the answer "But it is not 11 !" that riles me.

For it is clear that they do not understand what the word "If" means in that sentence.
When someone begins a statement with "If ", you are only allowed to think with that as the truth, and not question the veracity of the statement itself.

It is true that at times, the person asking the question may be a total numbskull who is not aware of the truth, but if he starts a question with "If ", please be gracious enough to humour him by thinking likewise.

I have now found a way to make myself clear to these people who do not listen to what you are saying. The solution lies in voice modulation :)
" IFFF , .... If 1+1 =2, THEN what is 2+2 ? " (here bold letters denote full throated yell )

It is a waste of words in the language , if people cannot sense conditional statements even when you make one and a sad situation indeed.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Justice is blind....and so are its keepers !

Academic integrity is highly valued in this country and rightly so. There are stiff deterrents to ward off probable offenders. However, an incident occurred today which reflects the title of this post and has left me feeling dissatisfied.

In class today a student was apparently found guilty of copying the solution to a homework problem verbatim from the book. Without disputing the story, I agree that it was a foolish, dishonest and dangerous thing to do and having done so he definitely deserves punishment.
The University that I am in has a very strict code called the _____ code of honour and violating it brings heavy punishment. But I was shocked at the magnitude of it-F grade in the course and dismissal from the university. I write this hoping the latter does not happen.
Let me just put that in perspective. A foolish student makes a mistake like this once. Not in an examination but in one problem of a homework that will not even amount to a tenth of the total weightage. And for that the self righteous men in authority decide to enforce the law to the letter. They decide to end his career by terminating his admission at the university. Is that fair?
I know law is blind-its precisely for that reason I do not have much respect for it; but surely the men enforcing it need not be blind. I thought the purpose of the law is to punish, not destroy. And in this case they could have put the fear of God into the student by doing far less, and yet setting an example, teaching him a lesson, without flogging a dead horse. Even a murderer gets a chance to live, quite often. This is just a student. Surely he deserves another chance.
But perhaps this is a symptom of a greater evil here-the fiendish desire to adhere to the letter of the law without using one's mind to decide the right course of action-a contrast with India where there is a pathological desire to break the law.

I remember the campus newspaper reporting on the ridiculous rates of fines that apply to cyclists who break the traffic rules. In accordance with the spirit of the law that treats all offenders equally, one on a bike worth a double digit amount who would be hard pressed to cause greivous bodily harm even if he so desired and another in a car worth a princely sum and weighing a hundred times more pay the same penalty for violating road rules.
Surely, such a punishment serves no purpose .

Fire is a good teacher, it is said, because a small child learns the lesson after getting burnt and knows not to touch the fire. How would it be if he were to touch it and be punished by being charred to death ?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Celerity- the congenital love of man

I think it is intrinsic to human nature to love speed. I have a predilection for the word "celerity", but I also know I will not win any popularity votes by using that word, hence I will not use it again here :). Right from childhood, most of us have this fascination for speed. Fast trains, fast cars and later on, maybe fast girls !! ;) I was no different (except maybe in the last item:). I have driven my father crazy by making him repeat, ad nauseum, the difference between Diesel and Electric Engines, Broad and Metre gauge trains, the Rajdhani and other Superfast trains, among others.
This liking for speed also manifests itself in sports. In cricket, the sight of a fast bowler making a batsman hop, shattering his stumps is always stirring. As a kid everyone wants to bowl fast. Its only the ones who are unable to do that try to bowl spin.
This same sentiment is carried over to tennis too. I loved watching Wimbledon. Big serves, quick rallies and a skidding surface while I hated the slow red clay of Roland Garros.

But there were certain incidents that niggled. I found it was very difficult to cycle slowly, for instance. But of course I didn't let that bother me much. It was much later , when I think I matured, that I seriously thought about this human fascination with speed. And I have been thinking of it ever since. Every case I think about leads me to the same conclusion-that speed is always the easier thing to deal with. It is when you slow things down that it becomes a more holistic challenge. This is my exposition of this matter with some examples that influenced me.

I will start with Cricket-my passion. As mentioned before it is impossible to not be bowled over (pun intended :) when you see Waqar Younis or Wasim Akram come up with those deliveries that seem to have a mind of their own and swerve like heat seeking missiles to find their target. Or see a still photo of a batsman airborne, swaying away, torso almost horizontal and smelling the leather inches from his nose. Or in another case, bat horizontal, making contact in front of his face with eyes closed. One must get roused by such images. For speed is something that is earthy. It thrives on the blood rushing to the head. That is the defining character of each of those images. Now think of spin in cricket. It is diametrically opposite. It is about trickery and deception, patience and skill, concentration and a war of attrition. When I see a spinner throw the ball up in the air, and I see it insidiously curving away in the air and later spit off the pitch, the batsman has to have so many skills. Stretch out, have soft hands,wait for the ball, resist the innate urge to swing wildly.... Anyone who has played street cricket will know this. It is so much more a mental contest, and one of the delights is to see a batsman stranded far down the pitch, look back to see the bails off and wonder how he had come so far down. This involves a far more subtle art-both playing and bowling spin and hence we have a dearth of both as compared to fast bowlers. Fast bowling is just about that moment and everything happens so fast there is not time enough for the mental processes to come into play. Thus fast bowling is mostly muscle and brawn while spin is wiles and temptation. During the test match at Adelaide there was a fascinating interview with Terry Jenner, formerly Warne's coach. His perspicuous observations on spin bowling were most instructive and he quoted Bishan Singh Bedi's words as a message for all spinners, that "Spin is in the air and break is off the pitch". Hence you have to go beyond the obvious to see and appreciate the nuances of spin bowling.

If we go to the green grass of Wimbledon, the surface is quick. Balls roll and die quickly. Rallies are short. And everyone loves it. Travel to the red clay of Roland Garros and its different. The surface (pun definitely intended ) is a great leveller :) The rallies are long, the ball bounces and sits up and some all time great players never manage a win there. The clay makes you stop and think. It gives you time to make a choice-where do you want to hit it, what shot do you play. It is not about impulse but contemplation. It has parallels with life-points don't come easy and one has to be tenacious, one cannot sit back and relax thinking a point is won. I feel it involves more skills than winning at Wimbledon and I have been able to enjoy the battles at Roland Garros all the more after I realised this.

Slow cycling is another example. When you go slow, your very balance is questioned. But it is quite easy to go fast. Even aeroplanes stall at low speeds, while high speeds are not a problem. My friend Harsha who learns Classical music also says that singing slowly and holding a note is what makes a good vocalist for that is when you are prone to error. Singing at higher pace is much easier.

Perhaps, to give a nerdy counterexample I will illustrate the case of the speed of sound as taught in high school . Newton thought the compression/rarefaction of air was a "slow" process and hence isothermal and calculated a value of sonic velocity which was found to be far below what was known. Later Laplace corrected it by assuming it is a "rapid" adiabatic process and the corresponding sonic velocity was accurate. Thus we have to be thankful that the process is rapid else sound would have travelled slower and many of our technological applications would not work the same. Its only in such matters that high speed involves intricacies.

I have perhaps given enough examples. Even as you read, you might have thought of some more. My idea is that speed or change is the order of nature. Time and thought, among all things flow quickest. Slowing things down is an attempt to resist change, in a sense. Hence such tasks are inherently more subtle. There is another more logical reason though. As pointed out before, when things are slower and you have to make a choice, it involves more than just your reflexes, it is about conscious thought. Speed is perhaps like war-once the first shot is fired, and the adrenaline flows, anyone can be brave. But the nerve wracking wait for an ambush is where the real test lies. Hence I love the beauty inherent in a slow motion video.

My point after all this is only that even as we continue to be enthralled by speed let us recognize that it is a natural urge, while next time you see Muralidharan or Warne bowl, and/or somebody play them well, take a moment to reflect that there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Friday, September 26, 2008


As I promised, this is the introduction to the REM that was written in 2006.Its something thats special for me, and that is the reason am putting it up. It was titled, quite appropriately, as Footprints on the sands of time.

Foot prints on the sands of time…….

On the third day of September in 2002, when four hundred and sixty odd Destiny’s children were brought together by fate from different parts of the country, to change lives, change their life, and have the time of their lives, the expanse of the entire nation was injected into this eight hundred acre Wonderland.

We entered with apprehension of the years ahead but leave with comprehension of what these years mean to us, for however high we rise in life, we will always remember that these were our roots, this was where our outlook was moulded.

It’s been an epic journey, one that seems to have gone past in the blink of an eye. Like diamonds cutting diamonds were we, polishing each other and getting ready to face the world, as stereotypes were banished, and true friendships were forged- Friendships that have endured and transcended those early days of ragging, the late night GEC-NIT fiascos, the euphemistic Club Inductions, silly TV room fights, the bucket party brawls, and the halcyon days of Agate life, even as tragedy has befallen some of our mates on the way.

The chariot of time moved on. We started growing out of our shadows. The innocent became worldly wise, the brash and the outspoken mellowed with tinges of prudence, the stoical became sentimental and the proverbial ugly ducklings found their wings. As a wise man once said “Young men think themselves immortal”, so did we, thinking this would never end.

Trail blazers all the way, we stood at the forefront of some monumental events-The first Pragyan, the last of the departmental symposiums, and the first and maybe the last NIT Fest.
Finally at the end if it all we look back at these years well spent and awaken to the inevitable reality. A familiar lump forms in the throat, and you will time to pass slower But like a ball of wool, it seems to run quicker at the end; you clutch wildly but time rolls on, inexorably. Apprehension of the future returns and you say to yourself- “If only……”
When again will we feel so joyful at other’s joy, or so gloomy at another’s heartbreak? Perhaps never again.

Life might suck us into its whirlpool of hypocrisy and cunningness. But years hence when we meet again, with greying hair and furrowed face, tired of plodding on through life, the sight of a buddy from these golden days will surely make us tear apart our veneer of propriety and for sometime at least go back in time and relive these REMINISCENCES.
The Eagles put it best when they said: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave………”

For you have left behind your foot prints in the sands of time…..
Remember this when the Tower of Time recedes in the rear view mirror and you see yourself driven away into the sunset. Do not weep that its over, instead smile that it happened.