Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Cat-and-Mouse Theory Against the Existence of God

In a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:
But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
The other day I saw a cat catch a mouse at Mudchute Farm. But perhaps unnerved by my presence, it did not play with its prey. Instead it retreated post-haste under a nearby wagon to finish its lunch, occasionally stealing mistrustful glances in my direction.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Illa de Monteagudo, 9:14 pm

This photo was taken on 30 August, two minutes after sunset. As of today, sunset at Illa de Monteagudo (a tiny island in north-western Spain) has moved forward by about 43 minutes. Yesterday was the autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Easily Alarmed

This week London hosted the Tall Ships Festival, which transformed the stretch of river that runs past my flat, making ordinary photos (like the one below) look like Canaletto paintings.

It also prompted the Head of Facilities Management at my law firm to send this email to everyone in the London office:
At 11:30 hrs today a cannon will be fired by one of the ships docking at Wood Wharf as part of the Tall Ships Festival taking place there over the weekend. Please do not be concerned should you hear this.

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।
—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?
—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.
— 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.