Things

There are things to do. And there are things to think.

There will always be things to do. We are adept at inventing them.

Things to think. Well, those are always there too, I suppose. But the mind isn’t always willing to think.

Things to do are relegated today. But I don’t know if things to think took precedence. Am sitting here in a soft spot of sunshine on campus, just watching things. No, am not thinking things. I see three groups of school children playing volley ball, two groups playing cricket, and at least one other group discussing something amongst themselves, what I presume to be fantastically interesting, for I see them burst into occasional peals of laughter. There are the two new pups on campus playing around amidst the grass, chasing butterflies and all manners of insects. Even the occasional honking of vehicles on the road nearby and the definitely-cold-breeze aren’t strong enough to uproot me from where I am perched. There’s nothing to think now. Yet, there are things to think. Strangely enough, am reminded of Robert Bly.

Savour this:

Things to Think
Robert Bly

Think in ways you’ve never thought before
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged: or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

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Of the little monkey that wanted to become big and strong. Or, the story.

S. is a sprightly kid, cute as a button. She is in the IInd grade.

We talk about her school often whenever I see her. I mostly catch her doing her homework assignments though. A good kid — does her assignments by herself, and then busies herself in her own games.

The other day, she came into my room asking if I would help her with her assignment. When I said yes, she placed her notebook in front of me. It was an English assignment.

The little monkey wanted to become big and strong.

State true or false.

That was the question she wanted an answer to. I smiled.

“Where’s your textbook?” I asked.

“In my bag,” she said.

She didn’t seem to understand that one would need the textbook to read the monkey’s story first in order to answer her question. But soon enough, she produced her textbook and the next thing I know, I was reading the monkey’s story out loud to her.

There was apparently a little monkey who wanted to become big and strong. A wise woman gives him a magic wand, with the help of which the monkey could become whatever he wanted. I don’t remember the correct order of events, but enamoured by other animals in the forest, the monkey with the help of his magic wand transforms himself into a creature that has an elephant’s trunk, a giraffe’s neck, a zebra’s body and so forth. And it then so happens that this ‘transformed’ monkey looks at his reflection in the river and cries out believing himself to be a monster. The monkey’s mother then pacifies him and makes him understand the futility of wanting to be someone else. The monkey with the help of his magic wand, becomes his usual monkey-self again.

That is the gist of story little S. had in her book. And now I (and you) know the answer to the question S. wanted help with. Both of us went through this and the remaining questions in her assignment, and that was the end of that.

Or, was it? Sometimes, I think, we too are like little S. here, looking only for the answer. The story remains forgotten. And without understanding the story, what good would those answers ever be to us?


The 7th National Science Film Festival, India.

The country’s Science Film Festival is back. Entries are being sought, and there is still time untill the 15th of December to send in your creation(s).

Details attached.


An Art Gallery. Thoughts.

The last weekend, chatting with someone, I was posed that dreaded question: what plans for the weekend? And I honestly replied:

The Jaganmohan Palace; need a high dose of culture.

I was bored out of my wits, and thought a visit to the art gallery would somehow bestow inspiration upon me. Inspiration to do what, I had no idea. But inspiration is a good thing, and so I wanted it.

But as with all things that start off with misplaced intentions, this thing too didn’t lead me anywhere. I continued to vegetate at home post that conversation, wondering about Newton’s Ist Law. I was in a state of inertia, and would need something monumental to budge me from my said-sized inertia. But real life, let’s face it, is: real, and that much-desired monumental intervention didn’t come to fore.

The last couple of days have been a different story, however. No, Woody Allen isn’t scripting my life all of a sudden. But come to think of it, if he did, I’d enjoy my life’s screenplay. But anyway, here’s that not-quite-allusion to Newton’s Ist Law once again. Any object (also) continues to be a in a state of motion until acted upon by an external force. I am tempted to believe there should be a shiny, quote-worthy equivalent sentiment of this in Psychology. I mean, this just seems so straighforward that someone should have thought of it already. But then, just because this is too straightforward, maybe everyone by-passed it. I don’t know, I am just speaking my mind rather too freely here. Oh no, wait. Wallace did say: This is water. And that had people raving about it.

But anyway, here’s the different story Woody Allen didn’t at all script. I finally got back to books. Not class-prep books, not must-read books, but just books. And I also got myself to the Art Gallery/Palace. Not because of the culture dosage, not because of the touristy-things to be done, but I just did. I wanted to.

On to the art gallery first. I don’t think I have an aesthetic sense of art. I remember standing at the Louvre in front of Mona Lisa, staring at it for minutes on end. What was I hoping for? An Aha! moment wherein Da Vinci’s thoughts entering into me by some strange process, and turning my life around such that I finally “got” Mona Lisa? Obviously, that didn’t happen, and I continue to not get Mona Lisa.

But anyway back to Jaganmohan Art Gallery. I felt sad at the decrepitude the palace has fallen into. Royal to plebeian, that is what the building’s transformation has been. Just at the entrance to the Ist Art Gallery, there is a large open space that looked like a durbar/hall to me. I could be wrong because there was a large pillar smack dab at the centre of this space. But there were balconies on the first floor from where one could look down into this spacious hall. I imagined ranis sitting there enjoying a dance performance or some such. But even that imagination felt heavy; the flight just refused to take off beyond that.

It was good to see paintings of the Wodeyar kings. I admit to knowing very little history of this dynasty, but then the paintings by themselves aren’t the history lessons I need. To my eyes it seemed like Krishna Raja Wodeyar and Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar seemed to dominate the installations in their various regalia. I’d have loved to see the paintings of their wives, but I don’t know if the royal family has paintings of the queens as well for posterity.

The rather small section on Tipu Sultan was the one that moved me. That is perhaps because I knew a wee bit about him, thanks to Doordarshan. There were paintings of Tipu Sultan’s last battle to save the Srirangapatna fort, which appeared poignant to me. And there was one particular painting depicting Tipu Sultan’s family “finding” his body after the battle. Evoked a sense of pathos. And then there were a couple of paitings of Tipu’s sons being “sent away”. I don’t know why and where they were sent away, but seeing those paintings too, I felt something move within.

The second floor had paintings by Ravi Varma and several other Indian artists. “Expectations”. That was one theme many of the artists had expressed on. Quite a difficult word, that: expectations. More so than other paintings, I wonder if we ever get what the artist meant with such a theme. All we are ever left with is our interepretation of their rendition. There was one particular painting by A B Bannerjee titled Nectar that I remember. It showed a woman holding a goblet of nectar with just the faintest glimpse of a smile. It was understandably a painting of an Indian woman, and that faint wisp of a smile adorning her lips made for a picture with possibilities. I loved seeing that.

Another that caught my eye was titled Matsyagandhi. This depicted King Shantanu, Satyvati and her father, with the much told storyline being the relinquishment by Bhishma of the throne for the sake of his father’s love for Satyvavati. The artist here, had shown a basket containing fish, which made sense. But what I didn’t quite get was the depiction of  a very angry looking rooster in the painting. I wondered if  there was some philosophical underpinning to having the bird there.

F M Soofi’s Panther Killing Peacock took me aback for a while. It was, as the title suggests, a picture of a panther killing a peacock, with the bird’s long colourful tail feathers – all crumbled up – also depicted. I had quite honestly never thought of a peacock this way ever. Preening in all their refulgent glory – that’s what peacocks did in my mind. This alternative story in which they get killed took me a while to get my mind around.

Venkatappa’s Modaka Neivedya to Lord Ganesha made me smile. It showed Ganesha actually accepting the modaka affered to him by the devotee.

The second floor of the building houses musical instruments – Indian and western. Sitars, veenas, a standing harmonium, harps, a dulcimer, jaltarangs. There is also a separate enclosure that shows musical instruments that Krishnaraja Wodeyar himself played.

I really wished the gallery was better maintained. In at least a couple of places the brooms apparently used to clean the place were placed in open view of the visitors. (As an aside, at the Jayalakshmi Vilas, I caught sight of a Colin glass cleaner discreetly tucked away in a corner).

I almost forgot this: there was quite an impressive collection of intricately carved ivory articles in the gallery. There were the usual jewel boxes, combs, animal figurines, the not so usual canon, but two things in particular, caught my eye. One: Fly wisp. I didn’t know this thing was called a fly wisp until today. It is that thing that attendants standing behind the king/queen fan them with. Made me grin really wide. And two: ivory carvings of elephants themselves.

Having said all that, I would still recommend this place to visitors. But one should perhaps go visit the place, having done some research on the Wodeyar kings, Tipu Sultan et al. That is when one wouldn’t feel too lost walking from one installation to another. Pictures of Nala Damayanthi and Salim Anarkali weren’t too lost on me. Those are stories we read growing up. Stories – these are perhaps why we visit art galleries and museums. Yes, there is information. There is knowledge. But unless all that information comes together in the form of a story, our time travel back to those ages would remain meaningless. But then again, gawking at disparate painting installations doesn’t give us a story. A great deal has to do with what we bring to the place. It’s only then we get to take back a story.

As I came out of the gallery, I stood right in front of the palace and the garden which seemed to be freshly tilled. Looking up at this old edifice with whithered paint, I had but one thought in my mind: I wish I was born in a different time to have seen it in its heyday. That must have been a vision to behold.

PS. Will write on the books in a separate post. This post by itself has become a big one.

 


Umm, hey!

Hey! A major case of must-blog-today afflicting me. But the mind is in a swirl, and I am doing this on auto-pilot.

This is the last teaching week of the semester, and am I glad that the semester is drawing to a close! To say that the past few months were hectic, would be an understatement! But there are things planned for the next month. But hopefully, it would not be as hectic given that there would be no teaching until the students get back for the next semester.

So, for any of you still checking on for updates, this is a note to say that the blog isn’t abandoned. And thank you for being around.


Science Writing Workshops

Science writing workshops at IISER Trivandrum and IISER Pune.

Details below:

science writing iiser

Source: Current Science


On imagination

1.

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

— J. G. Ballard

+++

What is the good of curbing sensuality, shaping the intellect, securing the supremacy of reason? Imagination lies in wait as the most powerful enemy.

— Goethe

2.

I have been thinking of imagination with reference to two movies. The first is the 1993 Tamil heist movie Thiruda Thiruda. It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, and the plot itself is a little iffy in my mind. But what set off this particular train of thought was the sequence in this caper story when the movie’s two protagonists – two burglars – along with the woman they save from committing suicide, get their hands on a big loot. Their joy on being in possession of such money is portrayed as a song. Vairamuthu’s mettle as a lyricist shines through here as the trio gush on screen about what they want from this newly-acquired money. This song is proof of what splendid magic human imagination is capable of.  Please have a listen.

I tried to translate the lyrics into English with my working knowledge of Tamil, and I knew I was coming up short. These are after all thoughts of wanting a brand new earth, a new sky everyday, twin moons, colourful twinkling stars and flowers that speak that I am attempting to constrain. That said, here are the concluding two paragraphs of the song in English, knowing all too well that I have taken away the beauty of the original. This translation is to show you some more of the things this trio desires.

panjap pasi poakka vaeNdum
paalaivanam pookka vaeNdum
saandhdhi saandhdhi endRa sanggeedham
sugam aendhdhi aendhdhi vandhdhu vizha vaeNdum

Want famine and hunger to go away
Want deserts to bloom
Want a song that is peace
to come flitting with its carriage of happiness

poanavai ada poagattum
vandhdhavai ini vaazhattum
thaesathin ellai koadugaL avai theerattum
theyvangaL indhdha maNNilae vandhdhu vaazhattum

Let bygones be bygones
Let that which is here, live
Let the boundaries of nations fade away
Let the gods descend to live on this earth

3.

I am often reminded of that scene from The Italian Job (2003) when Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and the entire gang is standing atop the Alps celebrating their successful heist, discussing what they would do with their share of the loot. Everyone has plans for things to do with their money, except for Norton’s character. It’s another thing that he betrays his gang, but when he does get to live the big life, his house has the exact things his friends had dreamt of.

Here’s the scene that unfolds atop the Alps.

Left Ear (Mos Def): So come on, gentlemen, shopping list. Who’s doing what? Spare no dirty details.

John (Donald Sutherland): Come on, guys. Take a lesson from an old man. Don’t spend it. Invest.

Left Ear: In what?

John: In gold.

Left Ear: What are you getting, Rob?

Handsome Rob (Jason Statham): Ah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things you can get with a lot of money. You know, I’m just thinking about naked girls in leather seats.

Left Ear: Obviously. See?

Handsome Rob: Suppose I’ll get the Aston-Martin Vanquish. There’s not a lot a girl won’t do in the passenger seat of one of those things.

Lyle (Seth Green): I’m gonna get a NAD T-770 digital decoder with a seventy-watt amp and and Burr Brown DAC’s.

Left Ear: [at a loss] Yeah…

Lyle: It’s a big stereo. Speakers so loud, they blow women’s clothes off.

Handsome Rob: Now you’re talking!

Left Ear: Thirty-five million dollars, you can’t get more creative than that, man? I’m going to Andalusia. The south of Spain. Right over there. [points] Get me a big house, get me a library full of first editions, get a room for my shoes… What about you, Steve?

Steve Bendel (Edward Norton): I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.

Left Ear: You haven’t decided yet? Come on, man. Is it the mountain air? Just —

Steve: I liked what you said. I’ll take one of each of yours.

Left Ear: [Laughs] Well here’s to two of everything for Steve!

Much later in the movie, when the team is planning their revenge on Norton, here’s what Wahlberg’s character says to Norton’s. I find it very, very telling and symptomatic of what’s missing and what’s wrong with life in general.

You’ve got no imagination. You couldn’t even decide what to do with all that money, so you had to buy what everybody else wanted.

Sometimes I wonder if the predicaments we go and entrench ourselves in are the result of a woeful lack of imagination. Stay real, they say. But do we even know what is reality?

4.

A few years back I was attempting to write a story. And as would be expected, I kept losing track of what I wanted my story to do over the course of the writing. I don’t seem to remember why, but to steer the story forward, I kept telling myself: Put in a monkey there. That was a supremely genius move. Not! Predictably, the monkey pranced around with my characters and a lot of fun was had. And not surprisingly, the story only remains in my head till date. The monkey was just all over the place. Maybe if I can refurbish a purpose for that monkey, I can have that story move from my head on to paper. Maybe. Does that mean Icarus should have been told what the Sun would do to his wax wings?

PS. A synthesis of thoughts old and new, some from my old blog, repurposed for this post.