Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Piranhas and the Ultra Left Dream

We got cable TV in 1998 when I was thirteen; until then I grew up watching two channels: DD1 and DD2.

I remember the first time I heard the Pink Floyd song Nobody Home, which had the line:
I got thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from
I was amazed that anyone had thirteen channels (shit or otherwise) to choose from. It seemed like some kind of paradise.

Every Saturday night, DD1, if my memory serves me right, used to broadcast an English movie. In pre-cable times, these movies, along with the VHS tapes my parents rented for us to watch during school vacations, were my only exposure to western cinema.

I have vivid memories of many of the DD1 English movies, but some left more of an impression than others. The Adventures of Robin Hood was screened in 1993, a few days before my brother Sujaan, who was three years old at the time, was due to start school. When the movie ended, he flatly announced that he would go to school without a fuss, but only if he was kitted out entirely in Lincoln green. After some bargaining our mother got him a green bag, and this was enough to keep him happy.

The night Robin Hood was to be telecast, we tuned in early to make sure we did not miss a single minute. The movie was announced by an on-screen message: Coming up: The Advantage of Robin Hood. I remember my father laughing at Doordarshan's typo.

I had a friend who also used to watch the DD1 English movies. In school on Monday we would discuss the movies in detail, and repeat lines which had made an impression on us. One such movie, The Phantom of Hollywood, had the line (in a threatening note slipped to a studio-chief) "To destroy the backlot is to destroy yourself."

We thought this had to be the greatest single line in cinematic history.

* * *

Last night I was reading some of Nabarun Bhattacharya's short stories. His (devastatingly good) short story ফ্যাতাড়ু (Fyataru) – about "an anarchic underclass fond of sabotage" who can fly with the aid of a secret mantra – has the following conversation:
—শনিবার টিভি-তে ইংরিজি সিনেমাটা দেখেছিলে?
—না তো।
—তা ভালো জিনিস দেখতে যাবে কেন? বইটা ছিল হেভি ভয়ের। এক পাল উড়ুক্কু মাছ! উড়ে উড়ে লোক ধরছে আর গলা কামড়ে মেরে ফেলছে।
—ভ্যামপায়ার।
—না, না। ভ্যামপায়ার তো হলো গিয়ে বাদুড়। এ হলো মাছ। একটা ডোবা জাহাজের খোলের মধ্যে থাকে। মাঝে মাঝে দল বেঁধে লোক মারতে বেরোয়ে।
Translation (with help from Sujaan):
—Did you catch the English movie on TV on Saturday?
—No?
—Of course, why would you watch the quality stuff? The movie was real scary. There was this swarm of fish which could fly. Flying at people, biting at their throats and killing them.
—Vampires!
— No, no. Vampires are what you call bats. These were fish. They lived in the hull of a sunken ship. From time to time they would emerge in hordes to kill humans.
The characters in the story are clearly referring to Piranha II: Flying Killers, a movie which I remember watching on DD1. ফ্যাতাড়ু was published in 1995, so it was almost certainly the very same telecast that I watched. On a Saturday night in the mid-nineties, in different parts of Calcutta, an excitable 10-year-old kid and a 47-year-old revolutionary writer at the peak of his powers were probably both watching the same corny American horror flick.

On a side note, director James Cameron jokingly described Piranha II as "the finest flying killer fish movie ever made" – a description which reminds me of a certain Durga Puja advertisement.

* * *

From the Times of India article about Nabarun Bhattacharya's demise, a line written without a trace of irony:
He sympathized with the ultra left dream of a society where "people will get enough to eat, their health will be looked after, and children educated."
On days when I think about my own (small) contribution to capitalist exploitation, it is good to know that in my own way, I too entertain ultra left dreams.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fun Things and Thieves

It's no secret that I really like making lists.

When I was in school I used to have a whiteboard hung on my bedroom wall. It was called Cartoon Network Things To Do.

These days I no longer have a whiteboard, and my lists have other names. Until yesterday, my grocery list was a handwritten page tacked to the kitchen cupboard; I would take a photo of it before going shopping. My Fun Things List (for projects I want to work on, movies to see, places to visit, and things like that) was another handwritten sheet, tacked to my clothes cupboard. My to-do list was a Google Doc.

But last week I bought a smartphone, and after trying out a number of unsatisfactory list-making apps, yesterday I found an app called Wunderlist, which is so perfectly suited to my very specific list-needs that it has revolutionised the way I make lists. Here's a photo of some of the lists on my phone.


For some time now my to-do list has been called Thieves, which is a play on words: 'chore' and চোর (Bangla for 'thief') are false friends – words in two different languages that sound the same but have different meanings. I like lists but I hate chores, and I suspect my long-running efforts to come up with amusing names for to-do lists are really only a way to make them less intimidating and more fun.

I like my Thieves list to be shorter than my Fun things list; the relative lengths of the two lists could almost be seen as a rough measure of how my life is going. Tonight, it's too close to call.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Moon and Saturn

The night after I took the photo of the Milky Way, I photographed Saturn and the first quarter Moon through Tommy's home-made Newtonian telescope.

That night the Moon and Saturn were in different parts of the sky (here is a hi-res photo of the Moon on its own). For a sense of (apparent) scale, I used image-editing software to merge two photos taken at the same magnification, thus bringing the Moon and Saturn together in a single frame. The result is similar to what you might see during an occultation.


In the photo you can see some of the craters, mountains and "seas" of the Moon, which are cool enough in their own right. But of all the objects that can be seen in the night sky with an amateur telescope, there are few, if any, which are cooler than the rings of Saturn.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Milky Way over Lone Pine

In my blog CQA I wrote that one of the reasons I continue to blog is because through blogging, I've come to know some people I would not know otherwise. This summer I visited one such person in his desert lair at Lone Pine, California.

On the first night of our stay, the moon set early behind the Sierra Nevada. The skies were clear, and the remote desert location meant that there was minimal light pollution. When I ventured outside at around 2 am, I was treated to one of the most beautiful night skies I have ever seen.

The photograph I took captures only a small section of the vista that stretched out above us, but it has a number of interesting objects. The dominant feature is, of course, the Milky Way. You can also see (parts of) eight constellations, binary stars, a red supergiant whose diameter is nearly 900 times that of the Sun, and a number of deep-sky objects (star clusters, and nebulae – interstellar clouds of dust and gas hundreds of light years wide, where new stars are being born). The deep-sky objects have exotic names like the Wild Duck Cluster and the Eagle Nebula (and sometimes non-exotic names like NGC 6441). You can also see a star cluster 87,400 light years away in another galaxy, and a dark nebula in the shape of a black horse galloping through the heavens.

Perhaps coolest of all, the photo includes the galactic centre – the theorised location of a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* whose mass is over 4 million times that of the Sun. Sagittarius A* cannot be seen in the photo – or even through astronomical instruments from Earth, at least not at visible wavelengths – because of interstellar extinction by dust and gas. We know its location because it is detectable as a source of strong radio waves.

You want to know where all these cool objects are, don't you? Click on the photo for an interactive guide.


I would have unveiled this photo long ago, but Anasua coaxed me into making the guide, which took weeks of research and coding. "Reach for the stars," she said.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Survival of the Fittest Onion

Onions are biennial plants. This is how they work:

Life Cycle of an Onion Plant
Year 1, Spring:Seeds germinate and start to grow.
Year 1, Summer:First the leaves sprout, then the bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell.
Year 1, Autumn:The bulb, where the plant stores food reserves for the winter, reaches maturity, but the foliage dries up and dies. This is when the onion bulb is usually harvested.
Year 1, Winter:If left undisturbed, the bulb lies dormant all through the cold months.
Year 2, Spring:Answering the call of the springtime sun, the bulb sends forth a shoot which initially feeds on the food stored in the bulb, then sprouts leaves which aid in photosynthesis.
Year 2, Summer:The stem "bolts" (begins to elongate rapidly) and produces a bud. The bud blooms into a flower, which eventually "goes to seed".
Year 2, Autumn:The plant dies, but next spring the seeds can grow into new plants.

Last spring I bought some onions from the supermarket and stored them in my kitchen cupboard. The cupboard is a dark, airless place, but even in such harsh conditions, life prevails. A few days later I discovered that one of the onions had begun to sprout.

Impressed by its will to live, I decided not to chop it up, and instead planted it in a pot.

The plant was undemanding – I just watered it every other day and fertilised it with coffee grounds. Still it grew steadily, putting forth leaves and in May, a pair of buds. But its tribulations were not yet over.

While I was on holiday in the USA, the pot was blown over by the wind. The plant lay ignominiously on its side, but undeterred by this misfortune, it bent upwards at a right angle and continued to grow. When I righted it, the stems – always reaching for the light – again bent upwards at a slightly higher point, giving the plant an interesting shape, a bit like a modernist sculpture. Here are some photos of the flowers in various stages of development.


At the time of writing, the flower petals are drying up. If the flowers have successfully self-pollinated, they may soon produce seeds. I think it's pretty cool that an onion bulb can flourish and reproduce even after being uprooted, sold in a supermarket and lying neglected in a kitchen cupboard.