Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Sunday Feeling

All said and done, I am glad that the Sunday Heritage Walks happen on Sundays. They could just as easily have been the Saturday Heritage Walks or the Whichever-day-of-the-weekend-is-more-convenient Heritage Walks.

When I was small, Sunday morning meant Mahabharat on Doordarshan, or sometimes a family outing. In college, Sunday morning meant the best breakfast of the week: coffee and dosa with delicious coconut chutney. But these are personal experiences; the city as a whole experiences Sunday morning in a way that can only be felt by walking its streets, lingering at corners and sitting at chai shops.

On Sundays, life in the city moves at an easier pace. The streets are emptier, and so are the buses and trams. Conversation between strangers flows more freely. Security guards are more indulgent when we ask for permission to photograph protected buildings, because we’re just a bunch of tourists with cameras and what’s more, it’s a Sunday.

On Sundays, kids who are bread-winners for their families for the rest of the week are out on the streets playing cricket, scrapping, and generally being kids. And kids are always willing to pose for photographs.

This week’s walk had several new participants, two of whom were kids themselves, barely out of school. And being kids, they were willing to pose for photographs too.

…though Vikrant complained towards the end that too many photographs with Senjuti were bad for his image.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tandemletter 0

Citizen Kane. Battleship Potemkin. Gone with the Wind. La Strada. It amazed him that so many people, in fact, it would be fair to say, most people, were unaware that the 1952 Celebration Pictures musical The Girl from Peking starring Jules Munshin as Joey Kay and Kitty Alexander as May-Ling Han was in fact the greatest movie ever made.
Alex-Li Tandem, protagonist of Zadie Smith’s wonderful, wonderful novel, The Autograph Man, is hopelessly besotted with forgotten forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. He rents but does not buy The Girl from Peking because he thinks that if he owned it, he literally would not do anything else but watch it. And from the age of fifteen, he has been sending her letters – fan letters and, at the same time autograph requests – and not one has ever been answered. For “Kitty Alexander signed even less than Garbo.”

One day, he realizes that the autograph guides had misled him with their advice that an Autograph Man should talk interestingly about himself, show that he is more than just a fan. He changes his strategy. He decides, instead, to tell her about herself.

He writes hundreds of these letters, and these are not answered either. But the letters are magic.

Dear Kitty,
When behind a young man on a bus, she finds herself staring at his neck. The urge to touch it is almost over-whelming! And then he scratches it, as if he knew.
Love,
Alex-Li Tandem
So, in a form of tribute/plagiarism on the lines of the My Hobby series, I have decided to write Tandemletters to celebrities living and dead, telling them about themselves. The first such post will be up as soon as I think of a suitable celebrity on whom to bestow the immense privilege of being the recipient of the first Tandemletter. Remind me if I forget, please? And yes, suggestions are welcome.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday Heritage Walks

A bunch of us, struck with the realization that we had never visited the more obscure Calcutta landmarks such as the Armenian Church and the Oriental Seminary, have decided to devote our Sundays to the noble aim of exploring the city on foot. We call it the Sunday Heritage Walks Series, because these things sound cooler when you give them a name, and because we are not very good at coming up with imaginative monikers.

Today was Chapter One of the series. Masquerading as tourists in our own city, we roamed its streets from dawn to dusk, and en route, we discovered some amusing pieces of trivia – Calcutta’s Tea Auction Centre is the second oldest in the world after London, St. Andrew’s Kirk has a weekly service in Nepali, the Jews in Calcutta only just outnumber the synagogues.

Rather than boring you with a detailed account of my day, I’ll confine myself to a few photographs and an anecdote. First, the pictures.

And now we’ll talk about photography. What makes a good photographer? Photography handbooks talk about vision, sense of composition, eye for detail, so on and so forth. But they rarely mention one very important quality, a quality that is especially important if you are shooting people. They rarely talk about audacity.

It was audacity that got Yousuf Karsh his famous photograph of Churchill; legend has it that on impulse, he snatched the cigar from the great man’s mouth seconds before releasing the shutter. (Read Karsh’s version of the incident here). And closer home, I’ve seen my friend Bunty at work.

Consider my case, now. I like photographing people, but I am always slightly uncomfortable about blatant invasions of personal space. Bunty on the other hand has no compunctions about waving his camera in the faces of complete strangers – from sunbathing girls on Goa beaches to wretched pavement-dwellers in the more squalid parts of Calcutta – a habit which no doubt annoys said strangers in no uncertain measure, but which also earns him some good photographs.

Among Bunty’s victims today were several members of the dwindling Chinese population of Calcutta. But first, a brief description of the setting. The Sea Ip Chinese Church on Chhatawala Lane (Bengali: Umbrella-makers’ Lane) is a 104-year old red building with curling eaves and a peaked roof. Crammed with intricate sculptures and religious paraphernalia, it nestles improbably among matchbox office blocks; one of those secret treasures that big cities reserve only for the most devoted tourists.

So we are at this church, and I am taking photos on the ground floor. Meanwhile, Bunty decides to check out the first floor, and walks into a full-blown wedding ceremony. The bride and the groom are making their way to the ground floor, followed by a sizeable entourage, when Bunty realizes that his memory card had run out of space. And I walk up the stairs to find him holding up the wedding procession, animatedly explaining his predicament and requesting them to wait while he freed up space.

Happily, the guests were more bemused than anything else, Bunty got his pictures, and I got my anecdote.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Economics of Gelato

In the summer of 2007, the Quaker and I were both in Delhi, interning at the Supreme Court. This was when the first gelato chain stores opened in India, and of course we had to try it out. Of all the places we could choose for our first taste of gelato, we had to pick Khan Market, where one scoop was 120 rupees.

“How is gelato different from normal ice-cream?” we asked the man who was doling it out.

He said, “It has less air pressure.”

At the time, neither the Quaker nor I knew enough about gelato to gauge what he was trying to tell us, to wit, that gelato is denser because it is churned at a slower speed than ice cream, so not as much air is whipped into the mixture. In any case, we did not have 120 rupees, not even between the two of us. The Quaker said, “If I have to pay a hundred and twenty bucks for lower air pressure, then bring on the air pressure.” And we walked out.

That was my first encounter with gelato.

Since then, my relationship with gelato has improved, mostly due to the efforts of the Gelato Italiano chain of stores. They have this scheme which will be remembered with a quiet prayer of gratitude by legions of hard-up gelato-lovers. On the first of every month, they sell scoops of the Flavour of the Month for just nine rupees. The only catch is that the Flavour of the Month is usually the worst flavour on offer. Think Rose-Almond (October, icky-sweet), Honey-Coconut (June, downright weird) and Guava-Strawberry (July, the less said the better).

My friends are cheapskates too, so I know a number of people who queue up religiously every month, whatever the flavour. Sometimes we discuss the possible economic logic behind the scheme. I think the company hopes that lots of people will come to buy the cheap gelato and some of them will be tempted into trying other not-so-cheap flavours. Priyanka, who is a conspiracy-theorist, thinks that they lump all of the past month’s leftover gelato and brand it as a new flavour, and that the KGB is behind this. Pratiti, who is studying Statistics, thinks it is a kind of pilot survey. Sujaan, who had Psychology in high school, thinks this is a social experiment – they will keep producing increasingly worse flavours every month, the idea being to determine how low people will stoop to get a discount. His theory, attractive though it was, suffered a setback yesterday. Choco Crunch, the Flavour of December, is actually edible.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Nutritional Properties of Atta

What the tagline for Ganesh Atta presumably tries to convey is that Eating Ganesh Atta Keeps You Healthy. What it instead says is:

…a fact which, as you will see from the picture above, was never in doubt.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Prolate Spheroid

I had this argument with Pratiti today, but we had to cut it short because she was getting late for school. So I leave you, the discerning public, to judge for yourself. Look at the area A ∩ B (both A & B) in the Venn diagram below.

Does it or does it not look like a potol?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Herpestes Edwardsii

Mongooses stray into our house now and then, and they always move too swiftly to be captured on camera. But the one I startled this morning was in the Olympic class, even by mongoose standards. For a blink of an eye, Guilty Mongoose and Bemused Human faced off across the kitchen floor. Then a brown streak went past me, veered towards the verandah and was gone before even the thought of getting my camera had properly formed in my head. The cheetah, at 70 mph, is supposed to be the fastest land animal, but this little fellow seemed to be doing about ninety when he rounded the bend.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Which I Upload My First Video

But before you see the video, I will describe how I remember Bunty’s goal which won us the match.

Animesh, our holding midfielder, has lofted the ball from the middle of the park in the general direction of the opposite goal – a pass conceived less with intent than in hope. Bunty, playing right forward and closest to the ball, gives frantic chase down the right touchline, though his marker is yards ahead of him. Bunty has no right to think he can get to the ball first, but he doesn’t know this. The race is on.

From my right wingback position, I sprint down the touchline to provide support. But the striker and his marker are already too far ahead; it is obvious that I will never reach in time to offer any meaningful assistance. I check my run.

Now our left forward checks his run too. He waits at the edge of the box hoping the rebound comes his way. The other players are as in a trance, helplessly watching the action unfold. But the supporters of both teams are going wild – this is more like it, this is the sort of thing they came to watch.

But wait – at least their goalie is alert to the danger. He races off his line and reaches the ball almost at the same instant as Bunty and his marker. Bunty is still a foot behind his marker but he flings himself feet first at the ball. The goalie clutches at thin air as Bunty, at full stretch, lifts the ball over him. He went for a cross, didn’t he, the crazy fool? Didn’t he realise that no one had matched his run, that his cross would not find anyone on the end of it? Because surely it must be a cross. Bunty is far too close to the goal-line – at zero angle, almost. He has no right to go for goal from that angle, but Bunty doesn’t know this either.

The ball loops, curls and – agonisingly slow, as if it is moving through a viscous fluid – dips and nestles in the back of the net. The spectators go wild. Bunty is still on the ground, clutching his knee in pain, but we pile on top of him in our celebrations.

That is how I remember Bunty’s goal from that match one year ago. But as I realized today, my memory is not all that reliable when it comes to dramatic moments on the football pitch. To be precise, it is prone to mock-heroic exaggerations. I recall blocking a goal-bound shot in the same match. As I remembered it, that block was an feat of reckless courage, an act fit to rank with deeds of valour like Horatius holding the bridge and suchlike.

But today, Rahul Varghese showed me a video of that match. See the video (24 seconds), and you will realise why it dismayed me. (Watch out for Nivedita’s anguished “What is this?!” at 0:15. That bit is fun.)


video

As you see, it was not a bad block, as blocks go, but nor was it the sort of block that goes down in legend. It was not a block that will be sung about at feasts when Heroic Tales of Olde are being recounted. On top of that, I noticed that seconds before the block (at 0:02), I clear the ball with the outside of the right foot in a situation where I should in fact have cleared with my left.

In the immortal words of Calvin, reality continues to ruin my life. It’s a good thing that they don’t have Bunty’s goal on video.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Angels on a Saturday Night

From So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish:
Arthur put Dire Straits on the stereo. Fenchurch pushed ajar the upstairs front door to let in a little more of the sweet fragrant night air. They both sat on some of the furniture made out of cushions, very close to the open bottle of champagne.
– No, – said Fenchurch, – not till you’ve found out what’s wrong with me, which bit. But I suppose, – she added very, very, very quietly, – that we may as well start with where your hand is now.
Arthur said:
– So which way do I go?
– Down, – said Fenchurch, – on this occasion.
He moved his hand.
– Down, – she said, – is in fact the other way.
– Oh yes.
Mark Knopfler has an extraordinary ability to make a Schecter Custom Stratocaster hoot and sing like angels on a Saturday night, exhausted from being good all week and needing a stiff beer – which is not strictly relevant at this point since the record hadn’t yet got to that bit, but there will be too much else going on when it does, and furthermore the chronicler does not intend to sit here with a track list and a stopwatch, so it seems best to mention it now while things are still moving slowly.
– And so we come, – said Arthur, – to your knee. There is something terribly and tragically wrong with your left knee.
– My left knee, – said Fenchurch, – is absolutely fine.
– So it is.
[…]
Arthur held her left foot in his lap and looked it over carefully. All kinds of stuff about the way her dress fell away from her legs was making it difficult for him to think particularly clearly at this point.
– I have to admit, – he said, – that I really don’t know what I’m looking for.
– You’ll know when you find it, – she said. – Really you will. – There was a slight catch in her voice. – It’s not that one.
Feeling increasingly puzzled, Arthur let her left foot down on the floor and moved himself around so that he could take her right foot. She moved forward, put her arms round and kissed him, because the record had got to that bit which, if you knew the record, you would know made it impossible not to do this.
Douglas Adams never tells us which song it was, or even which record. Me, I think it could only be one song, but I won’t tell you which just now because it might sway your opinion. The hell with it, I’ll tell you anyway – I think it’s Romeo and Juliet. But if you listen to Dire Straits, I would like to know your views on this question.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Speaking of Goa

For me, the best thing about our Goa trip was not the sun, sand and sea. It was not the adventure sports, nor the Portuguese architecture, nor even the food. The best thing about our Goa trip was that it gave eight of us the chance, for the first time since we left behind our carefree college days, to forget the demands and complications of our working lives, and simply hang out together. The comfort, as Abira put it, of having familiar voices around, of knowing that Arjun will always set his alarm so that the digits add up to 14, Manjula will always give a non-committal answer, Bunty will always order soup, and that no matter what, Sarbajeet will never wake up early.

Speaking of which, after five years together in hostel, I thought I knew my college friends inside out; I thought I was familiar with all their little obsessions and eccentricities. Not so, as I discovered on this trip. For example, we all knew that Abira was a cleanliness freak, but we used to think Aastha was relatively normal. Until she revealed that she travels with two combs – one for clean hair and one for dirty hair. This prompted Kisku to make the gender-sensitive comment of the month: “Girls have so many issues, man!” To which Aastha said, “I don’t have issues, ok? I just have a few minor concerns.”

Aastha wondering which comb to use

Speaking of issues, when it comes to food, Arjun Sarkar has fewer issues than anyone else I know. He has been known to uncomplainingly eat food that is tasteless, badly-cooked or even rotten. When he pronounces that a dish is bad, it means that it is truly inedible. On that count, the eatery in Old Goa where we had lunch deserves to go down in the history books for producing not one, but two dishes which even Arjun could not eat. The offending dishes were Chili Fried Sausage and Prawn Curry. The eatery was called Tourist Inn – a name that shall be forever imprinted on my memory.

Arjun Sarkar doing what he does best

Speaking of tourists, one of the high points of the trip was a tourist asking us directions to the Bom Jesus Basilica, the church which houses the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier. “Woh kaun sa church hai jis mein Jesus Christ ka body dabba mein rakha hua hai?” Which roughly translates as, “Which is the church where Jesus Christ’s body is kept in a dabba?” (I cannot translate dabba.) Needless to say, we did not disillusion him; for all we know, he believes to this day that what he saw was not the body of a mere 16th century missionary, but the Son of God.

Courtyard of the Bom Jesus Basilica

Speaking of sightseeing, the town of Panaji may not have too many tourist attractions per se, but it is a sightseer’s delight. An anomaly in both time and space, the Fontainhas area looks like a forgotten pocket of 19th century Portugal. Bunty and I roamed its winding alleys, stopping occasionally to photograph each other against the brightly-coloured buildings that scream out for carnivals and revelry.

Speaking of revelry, the closest we came to said activity was a few tequila shots on the moonlit beach. Much as we enjoyed the trip, a lasting regret was that three of our friends who badly wanted to come could not get leave. When the tequila arrived, someone proposed a toast to “our friends, who couldn’t come on this trip.” “And who also like tequila,” added Arjun, and I thought it was the most touching moment of the trip. In the three days we spent in Goa, we took heritage walks, admired cathedrals, rode on train footboards, swam in the sea, went parasailing and ate tons of seafood, but barring the tequila – and bear in mind that this is Goa – we did not party at all. Like me, my friends have their priorities completely wrong, and this is why I like them so.

Speaking of parties, the most popular accessory for late-night beach parties in Goa is a pair of Mephistophelian horns which glow crimson in the night. They endow the wearer with a certain aura, though the battery is weak, and the glow fades away before sunrise. But in Goa, a lot of things last for just one night.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Tram Sermon

Sign I saw yesterday inside a Route 26 (Howrah-Gariahat) tram:
Sitting immobile is not encouraged.

As a rule, I don’t use this blog for pushing agendas, but on this post, since I have already brought up the topic of trams, I will make an exception.

As you probably know, Calcutta trams are in danger of being taken off the roads because very few commuters use them, the Calcutta Tramways Company is running up big losses, and tram tracks decrease road-space. If you live in Calcutta, please consider taking at least one tram ride a month. That is, if you are not in a hurry, and if there is a tram service on the route you intend to take. Maybe, in a few months, you will be taking tram rides for their own sake.

Trams are environment-friendly. They are insanely cheap (the highest fare on a first-class coach is Rs. 4.50). A tram ride is a great way to see the city. Even if you find buses too jerky for reading, you can read comfortably on a tram. They look nice – especially the old ones, because trams age gracefully. They even have foot gongs! How can you not love trams?

Trams are brontosaurs.

And if I have bored you with my Tram Sermon, to compensate, I hereby bring you two interesting links. The first is an essay titled Real Programmers Don't Use Pascal. Anasua, who sends me at least one brilliant link every fortnight, introduced me to it. The second is a story called This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself. I found it through Language Log – the only website I know which can unleash something like the following passage on an unsuspecting public and get away with it.

Julian Bradfield […] gave a talk on the phonology and phonetics of the utterly spectacular Khoisan language sometimes known as "Taa" but more usually referred to (at least by those who can pronounce the voiceless postalveolar velaric ingressive stop [k!] followed by a high tone [o] and a nasalized [o], which Julian can) as !Xóõ.
So enjoy the links, take a tram ride once in a while, and mind your voiceless postalveolar velaric ingressive stop [k!]s.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rehearsals

The man in the picture above is Professor Ashis Siddhanta. He is a chemistry teacher by profession, but his passion is directing plays. I’ve had the privilege of being in some of his plays, in diverse roles ranging from lead actor to backstage errand-boy. You may not have heard his name because he works only with amateur student groups in non-commercial productions, but he is, in my humble opinion, one of the best theatre directors in the city.

This year, he is directing a play to mark the sesquicentenary celebrations of St. Xavier’s school and college. I cannot act in the play since I am not a St. Xavier’s student or alumnus, but I would have dearly loved to be involved, and there is always room in a play for enthusiastic people who want to help out backstage. Unfortunately for me, the play is being staged at a time when I will not be in town.

They’ve been rehearsing the play for over a month now, and I’ve forever been meaning to go and attend rehearsals. But until this week, I always found some excuse not to go – inconvenient timings, work, plans with friends. But a few days back, I realised the real reason why I was putting it off – the same reason why, the year I tore a ligament and couldn’t play, I refused to attend a single match in our college football tournament. I wasn’t going because I thought I would feel left out.

So I went.

And I enjoyed it so much that now, I go whenever I can. For plays are magic, and there is a quiet and subtle magic in rehearsals, which is lost in the flashier magic of the stage performance. And I can immerse myself in it even when I am watching rehearsals and not participating; perhaps especially when I am not participating.

The actors are in school uniforms or casual wear, the musicians play unplugged, the bare floorboards are illuminated by a harsh full wash. It is wonderful and strange to see their motions and gestures, and to reflect that one day, all of this will be repeated in a world transformed by full costume and makeup, mixers and amps, strobes and spotlights, though I will not be there to witness it. Does a play really take place if you are not in the audience?

The magic of rehearsals lurks in the interval before consummation, in concerted striving for an ideal, and in the camaraderie and in-jokes that unite theatre casts, study groups and football teams. Being magic, it is indefinable, so it is vain to try, but I can at least tell you what I like best about watching rehearsals.

When you see a finished play, and especially if it is a good play, everything goes off smoothly and you clap with the rest and you file out of the auditorium. But if you see a few rehearsals, you see small triumphs, you see fleeting moments where something – or everything – falls into place, and the actors sense it, and if you’ve been in a few plays yourself, you can sense it too, and no one says a word, but there are other ways of communicating, and for that one moment, everyone – individually and collectively – knows that the moment is special. The moment when the lead actor suddenly delivers a line with splendid and abnormal passion because after all these weeks of saying it mechanically, he has suddenly realised what it means. The moment when the hitherto uncoordinated piano, guitars and tabla somehow manage to all hit it at exactly the same time. Those moments. The ones which call for italics.

An actor friend of mine had this theory that a play has a spirit, and rehearsals are a process of coalescing the spirit, and in the rare moments of perfection that occur at rehearsals, the spirit inwardly smiles. I can’t say about spirits, but I certainly do.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Girl Who Refuses to Dance

As I have averred before, my life is a comic book. This being the case, it is hardly surprising that I should fall in love with comic-book girls. At the age of twelve, I briefly fell in love with Princess Orinjade from Asterix and the Magic Carpet. As I tend to do with things I like very much (e.g. art nouveau posters, the Ferrari 250 GTO), I drew a picture of Orinjade. I was twelve and love-struck, so pray do not judge me too harshly.

And now I am in love with another cartoon girl. I found her on Aditi’s blog. She’s in the picture below – the girl on the bottom row, second from left. Go ahead, enlarge it and see.

Note, please, that she is not “the girl who refuses to go to parties”, nor is she “the girl who doesn’t get asked to dance”. She goes to parties, but refuses to dance. She is like the girl in Marx and Engels, and a sort of antithesis of Hermine in Steppenwolf. Look carefully at the picture: you can just see it, can’t you? All the other girls are trying so hard to fit in, but secretly, all they want is to be this girl, who doesn’t fit in at all, and doesn’t seem to care.

Orinjade was a mere fling, a passing fancy. This is the real thing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

215

215 is the smallest natural number that does not have a Wikipedia entry all to itself. If this fact by itself were significant enough for 215 to merit its own Wikipedia entry…

…there would have to be a Wikipedia entry for every natural number. Heh.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Idea for a Story:

December 1936: Eugen Hönig, shortly after his dismissal from the position of President of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, pays an unexpected visit to the house of Adolf Ziegler, his successor as President. Ziegler has a reputation for producing paintings conforming to the Nazi ideal of ‘racially pure’ art – a reputation which earned him the presidency.

Something occurs during Hönig’s visit (something as minor as a chance remark, a doodle on the corner of a napkin; something as major as a fire which causes a wall to collapse and reveal a stash of hidden paintings) which convinces him that Ziegler is a secret admirer of the avant-garde styles which the Nazi regime has branded ‘Jewish’.

Ziegler tries to defend himself; Hönig assures him that he has no intention of denouncing him. Hönig admits that he himself is excited about the new developments in the word of art; in fact, he was dismissed from his position on suspicion of having avant-garde sympathies. In hushed voices and with almost school-boyish glee, the two men discuss forbidden things – expressionism, Henri Matisse, surrealism, fauvism, Picasso.

Hönig expresses astonishment that Ziegler, whom the Führer himself has declared to be an exemplary painter, should be fascinated by the ‘degenerate’ art which it is his professional duty to suppress. Ziegler explains how he too was originally scornful of these emerging styles which were confusing, often incomprehensible; how in the course of inspecting seized paintings, he found himself coming under their spell. He who fights with artists might take care lest he thereby become an artist. And if you gaze for long into a painting, the painting gazes also into you.

Now the two men fall to discussing what a great tragedy it is that an entire generation of Germans will never be exposed to ‘real’ art. Hönig has an idea – can Ziegler persuade the Chamber to organise an exhibition of avant-garde art? Ziegler is aghast. He would be dismissed for even suggesting such a thing. But Hönig explains how Ziegler should pitch his idea - as an exhibition intended to incite further revulsion against the perverse Jewish spirit which is penetrating and contaminating German culture.

***

In all probability, this is not how the idea for the Entartete Kunst exhibit originated. There is nothing in the history books to suggest it was Hönig’s idea, no evidence that Ziegler had a secret taste for modern art. This is just an idea for a story. But I like to amuse myself with the notion that the Entartete Kunst exhibit was the brainchild of two art-lovers who found an ingenious way to bring forbidden art to the masses. There is something strangely seductive in the idea of the oppressed individual putting one over on the totalitarian regime.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Dodecahedron!

Dozens of small dodecahedra, dating back to the 2nd century CE, have been found in Roman ruins all over Europe. No one can figure out what they were for, so everyone has a theory. There are at least 27 different theories regarding their function, ranging from bludgeons to toys, Celtic magic objects to candlesticks. It seems to me that there is a certain breed of people who cannot rest until they have classified and assigned a function to everything in the vicinity.

A visit to my room would give such a person plenty to think about – there is the poster of a donkey shitting coins, for example, and the carved walking-stick in the corner which I am not (yet) old enough to need. The latest addition to the things with no apparent purpose is also the coolest – a regular dodecahedron made of cherry wood.

Like all Platonic solids, it looks somehow timeless. Like all things made of wood, it smells nice. If I am introspecting, I can hold it before me and stare at it intently in the manner made famous by Hamlet. (This does not aid introspection, but I like to strike dramatic poses.) At other times, it sits just above my computer monitor, and when I raise my eyes slightly, its inscrutable pentagonal faces blankly return my gaze. For a dodecahedron has that quality – a vase is for holding flowers, a clock is to tell you the time, but a dodecahedron simply is. Its purpose in life is to be a dodecahedron.

But the best, the absolute coolest thing about the dodecahedron, the thing that gives it an edge in the coolness stakes above even the donkey poster, is this: the dodecahedron comes all the way from Lone Pine, CA, and it was sent by Tommy, and Tommy – may his code always compile – made it himself. If you want to see how it was made, click here. If you want to see the dodecahedron with your own eyes, drop by my place of an afternoon. You can have lunch even.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Quaker Quotes

The nine days I spent in Tamil Nadu were by far the most hectic of the entire trip. By dint of intricate planning and a willingness to undertake an insane number of bus journeys, I managed to see palaces, museums, forts, Ramanujan’s house, and no fewer than twelve historic temples. My last two stops were at Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram.

During my sojourn in Tamil Nadu, I had been staying mostly with Tamil Brahmin families who, though otherwise possessed of many excellent qualities as hosts, do not exactly outdo themselves when it comes to food. (This is because their religious code imposes severe dietary restrictions.) So when I discovered that Pondicherry has French cafés, and Mahabalipuram has beach shacks where they serve fresh seafood and play Bob Marley, I went slightly overboard.

1. Grilled calamari; 2. Grilled fish; 3. Baked tomatoes stuffed with shrimp, mayonnaise and egg; 4. Grilled sole with lemon butter sauce; 5. Tenderloin steak with scallop sauce; 6. Cold coffee

Err, more than slightly overboard. Quite a bit, actually.

***

In other news – news which has most certainly reached you already because, unlike me, you were not on a train when it (the news that is, not the train) broke – Justine Henin is making a comeback to competitive tennis. The news has made me happy for weeks, but I am also a tad embarrassed that all my melodrama was for nothing.

The Quaker, as I have learnt through long acquaintance, habitually talks undiluted drivel. About once a month, he says something that makes sense. About once in a decade, he says something that actually deserves to be quoted. The Quaker Quote for the decade 2001-2010 appears here, and is in re Justine Henin:

There ought to be some sort of a law expressly forbidding anyone with a backhand like hers from being ever allowed to retire.
Amen to that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Asking for directions in Kumbakonam

Sroyon: Excuse me sir, could you please direct me to the house where Srinivasa Ramanujan used to live?
Native: [rapid Tamil, uncomprehending expression]
Sroyon: Ramanujan’s house? Ra-ma-nu-jan.
Native: [rapid Tamil, ambiguous head movements]
Sroyon: What?
Native: [rapid Tamil, points]
Sroyon: Right. Thanks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Madurai High Court

Every now and then, I see a sign which totally cracks me up. I saw one such at the Madurai High Court (or, more accurately, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court) where, for want of anything better to do, I had gone to watch a few sessions. I really, really wish I could put up a picture of the sign, but when I took out my camera, a security guard directed a salvo of irate Tamil at me, from which I inferred that photography was prohibited.

Anyway, the sign was above a gate, and here is what it said:

ENTRY FOR HONOURABLE JUDGES ONLY

Dishonourable judges, presumably, have to enter through the other gate.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sroyon and the Amazing Technicolour Temple

I got my first taste of Kerala hospitality minutes after I set foot in the state. I arrived at the Paragon restaurant straight from the Calicut train station, hungry, sweaty and confused. But as soon as I stepped into the restaurant (yellow and white walls, high ceiling, wooden furniture), a ministering angel in the shape of a smiling waiter took matters in hand.

Unfortunately lunchtime was still an hour away, he informed me, so the entire range of menu options was not yet available. But if I was in a hurry, something basic could be arranged. Or would I perhaps like to wait till lunchtime? In that case, maybe some coffee and a snack while I waited?

After that, I let the management have their way with me. Unbidden, they plied me with one course after another; I asked no questions but tucked into snacks, coffee, prawn, fish, three kinds of subzi, pickles, chutney, curd, payasam, papad and strange round rice. After these excesses, I was expecting to shell out a three-figure sum. The bill, when it came, was for Rs. 78.

And for as long as I was in Kerala, this treatment continued. Our trekking guide at Wayanad invited us not only to his own house but also to his sister’s, and served us grape juice and coffee. My hotel at Alleppey let me ride their bicycle all day, all over the quiet town and all the way to the beach; they charged me only five rupees “for the bicycle repair fund” which I thought was even sweeter than lending it for free. Whenever I had to go somewhere, Joseph from the hotel would offer to drop me off on his scooter. When I checked out and went off to Kottayam, they looked after my luggage so that I wouldn’t have to lug it around.

On my last night in Kerala, I arrived at the Alleppey railway station late at night, just as the IRCTC canteen was closing. I asked for coffee, but the man said there was no coffee left. To show that he was truly sorry, he gave me a milk toffee. While I waited on the platform for my train to Madurai, I chewed thoughtfully on the milk toffee, and decided that it was Kerala’s farewell gift to me. I was sad to be leaving Kerala; I felt a lump in my throat. But it could have been the milk toffee – I couldn’t be sure.

***

But let not our sadness at bidding goodbye to Kerala temper the exuberance of arriving in Tamil Nadu. So say hello to the baroque rainbow that is the Meenakshi Temple of Madurai, the technicolour temple of the fish-eyed goddess.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mostly About Kottayam

All guidebooks and travel websites are unanimous in their opinion that there is nothing to see in Kottayam. But Lonely Planet has a passage which caught my fancy:
Kottayam is a bookish town: the first Malayalam-language printing press was established here in 1820 and it was the first district in India to achieve 100% literacy. Today it’s home to the newspaper Malayala Manorama (with the second-largest circulation in India) and is the headquarters of DC Books, Kerala’s excellent bookshop chain.
A bookish town! What a quaint attribute for a town to possess! So, on a whim, I checked out of my hotel in Alleppey and caught the early morning ferry (Rs. 10, 2.5 hours, lovely scenery) to Kottayam.

The first person I met upon landing in Kottayam was a paediatrician, and you can’t be a paediatrician without being bookish. He gave me a lift to the centre of town; on the way he told me about Dutch farming techniques, and who else but a bookish person would know about things like Dutch farming techniques?

For over two hours, I loafed around the arterial streets of Kottayam looking for evidence of its bookishness, and I was not disappointed. The public buildings look bookish, the Jerusalem Marthoma Church is the most bookish-looking church I have ever seen, and the bookshops practically ooze bookishness. This being a Sunday, the DC Heritage Bookshop was closed, but the bookish vibes emanating from its venerable red-brick façade well-nigh overpowered me. The schools were likewise closed, but there were no children playing on the streets; no doubt their bookish parents kept them hard at work at their textbooks, moulding them into bookish little replicas of themselves.

At the restaurant where I had lunch, a family of four sat at a corner table. Not to be foiled by the lack of reading matter inside the restaurant, they were poring over the menu, brows knit in concentration. “Ki pagoler moto bookish,” I muttered to myself, and polished off my pazhampori.

In this way, for over two hours did I tramp the streets of Kottayam, soaking up its bookishness. When I tired of this (for there are limits to how long I can amuse myself thus), I returned by bus to Alleppey, making a longish detour to pack in a spot of birdwatching at the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. But now I must leave you, else I shall miss the night train to Madurai.

I am afraid this has not been a very sane post. But then, this has not been a very sane day.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Backwaters at Alleppey

Today I embarked on an epic six-hour laze on a canoe on the backwaters at Alleppey. Or rather, I lazed for five hours; for the last hour, my boatman, Raju, let me paddle the canoe. I crashed it only once. (I still maintain it was the other boat’s fault.)

There are three ways to cruise the backwaters at Alleppey. Houseboats are like floating five-star hotels, but they can only ply on the widest canals, and use motors which pollute the environment. Motorboats can enter relatively narrower canals, but also cause pollution, and look ugly to boot. Canoes have beautiful, slim frames, and with no more than a splash, can glide sleekly into canals scarcely wider than themselves, into a green universe of dappled sunshine, water-birds, coconut groves and villagers with winning smiles. Since they are propelled by paddling and punting, canoes have the carbon footprint of a housefly. They are also the only form of backwater transport I can afford.

Raju, the aforementioned boatman, told me that only foreign tourists choose canoes, and only the most hardcore backwater enthusiasts choose the six-hour tour. Rich Indians go in for houseboats, and the rest choose motorboats. I asked him why on earth anyone would choose a motorboat over a canoe. He said, “Indians very speedup.”

Indians in general are anything but speedup, but even if you are a chronic speedup, you have to be a strange kind of philistine to bluster through the backwaters spewing diesel fumes and scaring cormorants.

I asked Raju about houseboat tariffs, and almost fell off the boat at the figures he quoted. “When you marriage,” he told me, “you visit Kerala and choose houseboat.” “In that event,” I informed him gravely, “I will again choose a canoe.”

But this post is not solely about the relative merits and demerits of the various forms of backwater transport – a subject which, at best, is of limited interest to the general reader. The general reader (a notoriously demanding breed) wants to hear about the fabled scenery. Is it really as beautiful as they claim? Do they, perchance, enhance the colours and airbrush out the plastic litter in the tourist brochures? Do the Mallus really have forty-six different words for coconut oil?

While I am not (yet) in a position to answer Question 3, I admit this frankly: the scenery is stunning, and it is not fair that it has so far got only a passing mention in this post. It deserves much more than a passing mention. It deserves pictures.

I’d have to be crazy to try to describe this in words, wouldn’t I?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

First Impressions of Kerala

My stock of Malayalam (a palindrome, as every Indian schoolkid knows) is limited to a line which my Mallu friend taught me, and which roughly translates as, “If you cooperate, we both will have fun. If you don’t cooperate, only I will have fun.” It is a line from a B-grade movie, and was said, as you may have guessed, by a rapist to his would-be victim.

Given that the line, however colourful, is of limited application, and given that I shall be travelling mostly in rural Kerala, I foresee a bit of a language problem. Because of the language barrier, I may never know the answers to certain questions which puzzled me on this, my very first day in Kerala.

Why do the good people of Kozhikode abbreviate Red Cross Road to R. C. Road when both have the same number of syllables? Why is the water served in restaurants lukewarm and, more unsettlingly, phenolphthalein pink? Why are there so many people selling lottery tickets on the long-distance KSRTC buses? Are they trying to tell us something?

But I can see you are getting fidgety. You are probably thinking: Here is this post which purports to be about first impressions of Kerala, and its unromantic author is going on about pink water and lottery tickets. Where are the coconut groves, you angrily demand? Whither the emerald-green pools?

Well I am not very good at describing nature, but I shall tell you this: I approached Kerala with a measure of cynicism. Ever since I was old enough to say Thiruvananthapuram, I can remember people gushing about its stunning natural beauty. God’s Own Country, they call it in the tourist brochures. Even Lonely Planet, which is usually matter-of-fact, waxes lyrical over Kerala:

Kerala is where India slips down into second gear, stops to smell the roses, and always talks to strangers.
Funnily enough, I have never been to Kerala, and I have long wondered whether its beauty was somewhat exaggerated. Add to that the fact that I have been travelling through rural Maharashtra, which gets no hype at all, but is still incredibly fetching, especially at this time of the year, just after the monsoons.

My train from Hyderabad is passing through Lonavla, and at the end of every tunnel, the passengers collectively gasp as a yet more verdant vally opens up before our eyes, and I am thinking, will Kerala be prettier than this? We are at Malshejghat on a weekend trip from Bombay, and it looks like they set out to make the picture-perfect hillside and went overboard with the mist and waterfalls, and I am thinking, surely Kerala can’t be even more beautiful? It is late afternoon, and my train is chugging down the Konkan coast along what is widely regarded as the most scenic rail route in India; I am holding a steaming cup of coffee and stray raindrops are flying in through the window to sting my cheek, and I am thinking, surely not.

As I said, I am not very good at describing nature, but I shall tell you this: when I woke up this morning, my train had entered Kerala, and with my first glimpse outside the window, I was sold. So much for unwarranted skepticism. Cast aside your reservations and pile on the hyperbole: Kerala is worth the hype.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Obituary: Churchgate Food Court

Not only is Churchgate Station in Bombay smack in the middle of the principal commercial area of the city, it is also a stone’s throw from the stock exchange, and most of Bombay’s government buildings. Every evening, a hundred thousand clerks, peons and down-on-their luck underwriters leave their offices and trudge to the station to catch their train back home. But before they embark on their journey home, where do they have dinner?

Opposite Churchgate Station, in the veritable shadow of Eros – the movie theatre, not the god – there is a little triangle of pavement formed by two intersecting roads and the diagonally-situated LIC building. If you went there by day, you would notice nothing remarkable – perhaps a newspaper vendor or two, and the obligatory sugarcane juice stall. But if you went there of a night, you would be hard put to recognise the place. You would find a clutch of food stalls which had magically sprung up on our little triangle of pavement, and enough crowd and bustle to rival Churchgate Station across the road.

People would sit on stools, steps and newspapers, tucking into their food and discussing local train crowds, waterlogging, and the sudden fall in Mahindra stock prices. Every night, amateur polemicists would offer a hundred different solutions to the city’s transport problems. Every night, a thousand plates of unda pulao would be consumed.

It was Bunty who introduced me to this place. Many is the night when, after my daily toil at the law firm which was nearby, I would head here for dinner. Sometimes I would eat alone; other nights, we would get our dinner packed and eat it on Marine Drive.

There are two reasons why we liked the place so much. First, it was cheap. There were not many joints in this upmarket area where an interning law student – poor almost by definition – could have dinner for less than twenty-five rupees. Second, though our triangle of pavement was tiny, and there were only about six stalls, there was an incredible amount of variety on offer: sizzling noodles being tossed madly into the air, eggs boiling furtively in battered aluminium pots, kebabs being slow-roasted on skewers. There were more mundane options too: a diverse range of thali meals, and the ubiquitous pao. You could also have tea – either a full cup or, in classic Bombay style, cutting. For dessert, there was kulfi-falooda as well as ice-cream.

Bunty and I used to affectionately call it Churchgate Food Court, for it was a poor man’s version – almost a parody – of the glitzy food courts in shopping malls which serve a variety of cuisines in an open space at roughly six times the price.

Our favourite was the eight-rupee maska-bun with jam (Rs. 2 extra for double maska). The maska-bun man would take a sweet bun, slice it open, and proceed to stuff it with more butter and mixed-fruit jam than any bun deserves to be stuffed with. At home, I tried to make it myself, but it just doesn’t taste the same. Is it memory that softens the bun and sweetens the jam and makes the butter creamier?

On this trip to Bombay, I decided to pay a visit to Churchgate Food Court and found it deserted. A paperboy told me that it does not exist anymore, evicted no doubt by one of those periodic drives that aim to make our cities look more ‘international’. I mean, I know about progress and modernisation and the inevitability of change and all those things. It is naïve to think that we can cling on to the old ways forever. But still, on nights when we realise that a thriving institution has vanished without a trace, we are permitted a sigh of regret, a sappy self-indulgent blog post or two, aren’t we? Where does the maska-bun man practise his art now? Where are the underwriters having dinner tonight?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Duty

Epitaph on the tombstone of Henry Lawrence (1806-1857) at the Residency Cemetery, Lucknow

Monday, August 31, 2009

Marine Drive

When I left Hyderabad for Bombay, it marked the end of the first leg of my journey – the so-called Biryani Leg. The plan was simple: go to Lucknow, eat Biryani for three days, catch a train to Hyderabad, eat Biryani for three days, compare. This elegant and hedonistic plan was suggested by Priyanka, so I thought of naming it after her, but Priyanka’s Leg sounded vaguely suggestive; Priyanka’s Lap even more so.
Having Biryani for breakfast lunch and dinner for one straight week can have a deleterious effect on the system, so I thought I would only eat simple vegetarian food in Bombay. Fortunately, I know the perfect place to sit and ponder the deeper questions of life. The day I reached Bombay, I went to Marine Drive and seriously contemplated going veg for a week. Then I remembered the chicken patties of Kyani & Co – light as air, subtly flavoured, flaky to the touch. And I thought, ah well...
***

The other day, I was waiting for my friends to get out of office and gather at Marine Drive – an old custom, only back then we used to meet after internships; now they congregate after work. Said friends work at law firms and suchlike, so I was prepared for a long wait. I watched the sun go down behind Malabar Hill, the graceful curve of the bay, the twinkling golden-orange lights that fringe its dark waters – I would like to communicate to you the magic of Marine Drive, but I could use a hundred different adjectives and metaphors without thereby describing it, for in truth the magic of Marine Drive is ineffable.
This is my favourite place in the world. On some nights, when the tide is high and the waves are breaking against the tetrapods, if the wind is blowing in a certain way, you can feel the surf against your face. I was sitting there reading my book and feeling strangely peaceful and happy, when Lahiri turned up armed with a few small packets. “Let’s eat these before the others get here,” he said. He had bought doughnuts from the four best bakeries in the Fort area “for the purposes of comparison.” Just when you think things can’t get any better, whaddya know, they sometimes do.
***

Conversation on Marine Drive:
Lahiri: But what did you two do on Marine Drive for four hours?
Me: Well Shailja had the benefit of my edifying conversation... [Shaijla assumes long-suffering expression, I pretend not to notice] ...my edifying conversation, my effervescent wit, my irresistible charm and...
Lahiri: ...and incredible modesty.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Andhra Moment

Yesterday I had my first Andhra Moment. I had just reached Secunderabad Station from Lucknow. My friend Abhinav Rao had come to pick me up. I was on the over-bridge when I spotted him standing on the crowded platform. With the excitement that comes from meeting a friend after a 29-hour train journey, I shouted, “Rao!” Rao did not hear me, but twenty other people, doubtless also called Rao, looked up enquiringly.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Wasted Opportunity

I went to Sugandhco yesterday to buy perfume for my mother, and as gifts for the family with whom I’ll be staying in Hyderabad. Sugandhco is a 150-year old family business that specialises in attar – essence distilled from flowers by a traditional method.

It is a mind-boggling little shop, with rows and rows of glass bottles sitting daintily on glass shelves, winking golden in the light. The men behind the counter look as if they Know Their Stuff – the sort who can sniff an essence and tell you not only what flowers went into it, but also at what time of the day they were plucked, and probably even what the girl was wearing when she plucked them.

While absentmindedly picking perfumes, I suddenly had an overpowering urge to unleash a fart – a real stinker – just to see how the good people of Sugandhco would react. It was a small, enclosed space, and with their refined olfactory sensibilities, I was prepared to bet that at least one of them would faint. But alas, no fart was forthcoming, and I have not been blessed with the ability to fart at will, as some of my relatives can.

Kisku can crack open an egg, pour the contents into his mouth, and spit it out with the yolk still intact. Rik can do an exact rendition of the Chewbacca grunt. Even my kid brother, who is otherwise useless, can burp the entire alphabet. Sometimes it seems to me that I have no skills which are truly worth possessing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

No Excuse

If you have an afternoon to kill in Lucknow, I suggest you go to Sikandar Bagh. You could, of course, loaf around in Hazratganj, but it is better to leave that till evening, when it is cool enough for loafing. Anyway, it is just after lunchtime, and since this is Lucknow we are talking about, you are probably in that trance-like state which comes from eating biryani and kulfi. You could also try sneaking into the nearby Botanical Gardens, but since the gardens are only open for two hours at dawn, the guard will, not unreasonably, turn you out. So you will wind up in Sikandar Bagh, which is what I suggested in the first place.

Sikandar Bagh is not much of a tourist spot – a walled garden built by Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab, for his favourite queen, it now retains only its impressive gateway, a Lilliputian mosque, and part of the original wall. But there are squirrels, trees, and a sprawling, well-kept lawn. On Ashok Marg, the vehicles make insignificant traffic noises, but inside the walled garden, birds are chirping, and the wind rustles the leaves.

Carry with you a copy of Setting Free the Bears by John Irving. Open it as you sit on the grass and recline against a tree-trunk. Somewhere around the part where Siegfried Javotnik, poet of the humdrum, brings his friend a bowl of floating forsythia petals, you will doze off and dream cool, damp dreams of kulfi garnished with forsythia petals. When you wake up, the shadows will have lengthened. There will be fallen leaves on your shoulders, and you will know why most of Priyanka’s photographs of Lucknow are of people sleeping.

As I write this post, I have Lonely Planet open in front of me. It says:

Lucknow’s lingering British influence extends to a penchant for bars, so there’s no excuse for an early night.

It is just past nine, and though my day has mostly been spent sleeping in a walled garden and consuming large quantities of biryani, I am already drowsy. In an hour’s time, I shall be asleep.

No excuse for an early night, they said. But oh omniscient writers of Lonely Planet, there are excuses. Because this is Lucknow, we’ve seen it all before, and we’ve just eaten way too much biryani.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

No Camels

Rule 6 has a clever zeugma. But my favourite is Rule 3.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TGIH, or The Great Indian Holiday

When I make a plan, I habitually construct elaborate fantasy scenarios where the plan fails. That is also why I am generally reluctant to talk about future plans, much less publish them on the blog. And the more grandiose the plan, the more foolish you are likely to look if it flops. But TGIH is just way too important – there might be a railway strike or an alien invasion which puts paid to my plans, but I am still going to write this post.

So I am leaving on this journey. I plan to travel for a little more than a month, visiting different parts of India that I have always wanted to see, or that I want to revisit. I intend to cover (at least) Lucknow, Hyderabad, Bombay, Calicut, Wayanad, Alleppey, Madurai, Rameshwaram, Trichy, Tanjore, Mayiladuthurai, Kumbakonam, Chennai and Mahabalipuram. I will try to post updates and upload pictures where I can.

At most places, I am staying with friends, relatives or friends’ relatives. Which reminds me of a discussion I once had with my friend Shubho. I was ranting about how middle-class Americans can use the Power of the Dollar to explore India in a way that we (Shubho and I) can’t afford to. Shubho said, “Yes, but we Indians have something they don’t. Relatives.” This is true. We think nothing of moving in with a twice-removed cousin’s friend’s sister if it means that we will get to stay for free. And we are made to feel welcome, too. But before I digress too much and miss my train, allow me to return to the point and reveal that thus far, I have no one to stay with at Lucknow, Wayanad, Alleppey and Madurai. I mention this in the hope that a kind soul from any of these places will read this and invite me to sleep on their couch. Yes, I realize this is unlikely.

I end by mentioning my favourite part of the plan so far. I have booked tickets for nine train journeys. I have got nine window seats. The probability of that happening on a sleeper coach is exactly 0.001953125. You can trust to dumb luck. Or you can sweet-talk the lady at the counter.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Crossing the Bosphorus

Peter Moore writing about his first visit to Istanbul in The Wrong Way Home:
My guidebook said that the fare from the airport to the centre of town shouldn’t be any more than $10. After haggling for what seemed like another 36 hours, the guy wouldn’t budge from $15. In the end we broke the impasse when he agreed to put the meter on.
I got to see a lot of Istanbul that night. We skirted past the old city walls and crossed the Bosphorus two or three times before arriving in Sultanahmet with the meter sitting exactly on the Turkish lire equivalent of $15. (Emphasis supplied)
The Atatürk International Airport and the Sultanahmet district are on the same side of the Bosphorus. I checked. Peter Moore must have known this too. But I guess it feels odd to write ‘two or four times’.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Polyglot Washing Books

Richard Ford, an Englishman, graduated at Trinity College, Oxford in 1817, and was afterward called to the Bar. But he never practised; instead he travelled extensively on horseback in Spain and wrote A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845) – a “charming account enlivened by humour and anecdotes,” and “a defining moment in English travel literature.” (Wikipedia)

I found an 1855 edition of this book online. It is a 947-page romp – to the extent that gentlemen from the Victorian era can be accused of romping. But what I like most is Murray’s Handbook Advertiser, appended to Volume I.

The advertising supplement contains ads for hotels, railways, field-glasses, passport agencies, portmanteaus, maps, flannel suits – in short, everything that the traveller might reasonably need, and a lot of other junk besides. I read every single page of it – all 91 ads – for I love things like Murray’s Handbook Advertiser. I liked the emphasis on care, craftsmanship and moderate charges, the testimonials from distinguished patrons, the deferential and courteous tone (“respectfully solicits”, “begs leave to recommend”) – I even liked the wanton deployment of fonts, the flagrant violation of every typographic tenet devised by man. But my favourite is this advertisement, appearing on the very last page of the handbook.


The product is funny enough as it is. But (in keeping with tradition established on another blog) a handful of my readers may derive additional merriment from it if they remember a certain embarrassing incident from two years back. To them, I supply the following keywords: me, Delhi, laundry, white shirt.

Polyglot Washing Books, whither wert thou then?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

In which attempts at humour run into a brick wall

Teaching Pratiti has three main advantages: (a) she is smarter than the average kid, so I need to put in less effort and can cover the ground faster; (b) in the garb of teaching Statistics I can get away with teaching maths (which is far more interesting); and (c) I get good food at her place. But sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it. Because there are few things more dampening than to make clever comments before an unappreciative audience, and with Pratiti, this happens almost every week.

When I try to be funny, she usually quells me with a I-know-you’re-trying-in-your-silly-way-to-make-this-interesting-but-I-won’t-fall-for-it look. But more distressing is how so many of my clever comments are wasted on her because, being a kind of nerd, she often misses pop culture allusions which normal kids of her age ought to catch off the bat.

The other day I was explaining my preference for saying curves ‘hold water’ or ‘shed water’, rather than saying they are convex downwards or concave downwards. I said I find the terminology funny because it reminds me of Phoebe’s cute way of referring to G-sharp as ‘Ice Berg’ and A as ‘Bear Claw’ (because of her finger formations while playing them). But it turns out that she has never seen the Friends episode in question.

The week before, I was telling her about complex roots of cubic functions with real coefficients, and I quoted Yoda describing the Siths Lords’ Rule of Two: “Always two, there are. No more, no less.” Dashed clever of me, I thought it was. But it seems the misdirected girl has not seen a single Star Wars film!

Pratiti is one of those kids whose nerdy habits take them to the top of the class, but ever farther from normalcy. She has read the complete works of Dickens, but has never heard of I.R. Baboon. But I persevere: I will draw an approving giggle from her yet. Even if I have to quote Tolstoy in the next class.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Tuesday Post

“In winter Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering.” So begins Neither Here Nor There, my second most favourite travel book in the world. Bill Bryson, fluent in at least one language, backpacks through Europe without a semblance of a plan. In Trouble Again: A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon hails from a similar but even more extreme school of travel writing – Redmond O’Hanlon travels uncharted rivers in a dugout canoe on a four-month journey to Venezuelan Amazonia to “party” with the Yanomami tribe, reputedly the most violent people on earth. “O’Hanlon’s approach to travel borders on the lunatic,” wrote a reviewer.

The polar opposite of this style of travel is the Conducted Tour. Since I have done most of my travelling with my parents who share my dislike for organized travel, I speak from limited experience. School excursions were, of necessity, conducted tours. So was a trip from Delhi to Agra with a busload of American law students, where tour guides first really started to get on my nerves. “Look to your left. Cowdung. All cowdung. Lots and lots of cowdung in India.” Tour guides hurry you all the time, reinforce stereotypes, mollycoddle you, force you into souvenir shops which give them kickbacks, and generally do their best to spoil your experience.

There are people who sign up for one-week conducted tours of South-East Asia, who “do” Europe in a fortnight. Nothing would induce me to spend that kind of money (assuming I had that kind of money) on such a trip, but I have to admit that the idea holds a strange fascination for me. Maybe this is because, deep in my guilty heart, I sometimes enjoy kitsch and the whole idea of naked consumerism. At 13,000 feet in the lap of breathtaking Himalayan scenery, I have been known to pine for Coke, and I would get a lawn flamingo for my room if only I knew where I could buy one.

That is why I thoroughly enjoyed If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (though the fact that this is the first movie I watched since March might also have something to do with it). The film is a 1969 comedy which follows a colourful group of American tourists on a whirlwind conducted tour of Europe: “Nine countries in eighteen days. Four hundred and forty-eight dollars and fifty cents. No refunds.”

Which brings me to the topic of this post. Before I watched the film, I had a sort of idea that it features a snatch of dialogue like this:

“Where are we?”
“I don’t know. What day is it?”
“Tuesday.”
“If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.”

But it turns out there is no such passage in the movie. I am not sure about the day and the country, so maybe I heard or read it somewhere else. I am even beginning to wonder if I made it up in my head. If so, the phenomenon would be the opposite of cryptomnesia (I am sure they have a word for it). If anyone knows where the dialogue appears, please tell me. Extra credit to anyone who also tells me the opposite of cryptomnesia.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ekuil-i-Brium

My brother Sujaan has a friend who plays in a rock band. Said band, for reasons best known to them, call themselves Ekuil-i-Brium. Maybe, like another band before them, they would like to say they are Equilibrium with a K. Anyway, it seems they want a logo, so Sujaan asked me if I could create an ambigram for them.

Before Dan Brown made John Langdon famous, I had been introduced to Langdon’s ambigrams through the work of the American mathematics writer Martin Gardner. I promptly entered upon a phase where, instead of doodling in class like I usually do, I would create ambigrams with names of friends. Then the phase passed, as phases are wont to do, I lost my notebook of ambigrams, and forgot all about them.

The request to design the logo gave me the opportunity to revisit this rather engaging pastime. Maybe my long sabbatical has made me rusty, but the end product turned out to be rather disappointing.
In terms of legibility and aesthetic appeal, Ekuil-i-Brium is by no means one of my best efforts. Moreover, it is too complicated to make a good logo. So Sujaan came up with his own design, which I have to admit is better than mine. (That rhymed!) His black-and-red themed logo is a stylized EiB in the shape of a guitar. Below the logo is the band’s name in *twitch* Papyrus.


But this logo was not to the satisfaction of the band members. They apparently said that an acoustic guitar does not suit their image, so they want it reworked to represent an electric guitar, which has more machismo. Strange are the ways of the hard rock bands.

* * *

The solution to last week’s problem is B-A-C-F-I-H-G-E-D-B. However, I will be taking B-A-D-C-F-I-G-H-G-E-B. Though this is not the shortest route, the Indian Railways are still giving me the discount either because they did not catch on, or because they are too nice. I had to take a suboptimal route because I need to visit A (Lucknow) and D (Hyderabad) in succession. If I have not already told you the reason, you are welcome to try and guess why.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Travelling Traveller Problem

In August, I plan to go on a one-month tour covering several Indian cities (more about that in subsequent posts, if the plan works out). Now for circular journeys, the Indian Railways offers telescopic rates which are considerably lower than the regular fare. At these rates, I get to travel 7106 km (more than the distance from Calcutta to Berlin) at the incredible rate of 18 paise per km. The discounted fare for a round trip comprising 9 cities (marked in blue on the map below) works out to a little more than the return fare from Calcutta to Bombay.

But to be entitled to this discount, the Railways stipulates that you must visit the cities using the shortest possible train route. (I wonder who came up with this.) Many of you will immediately recognize this as an instance of the famous Travelling Salesman Problem.

TSP is a classic NP-complete problem, which means that it is likely that the worst case running time for any algorithm for TSP increases exponentially with the number of cities. Interestingly, when the number of cities is relatively small, humans are able to produce good quality solutions quickly. The solution of this particular TSP is therefore left as an exercise to the reader. The answer will be provided in the next post.

Letters have been assigned to the cities merely for convenience and have no bearing on the solution. The actual distance between the cities by rail is longer than the Euclidean distances. But the solution comes out to be the same in both cases. If you are freakishly particular, you can contact me for a table of the rail route distances between all the cities and I will happily oblige.

The first solution to intuitively strike you will very probably be the correct one. However, if you are interested in delving deeper, some hints are provided below.

  • My starting point will be Calcutta (B), but that is irrelevant to the solution of the problem.
  • The nearest neighbour heuristic, which may seem like the most obvious approach, goes as follows: start at some city and then visit the city nearest to the starting city. From there visit the nearest city that was not visited so far, etc., until all cities are visited, and you return to the start. But this heuristic often produces the wrong answer.
  • A better approach is to start with a subtour, i.e. a tour on small subsets of nodes, and then extend this tour by inserting the remaining nodes one after the other until all nodes have been inserted. A good starting tour is the tour that follows the convex hull of all nodes. This is a reasonable choice since the sequence of nodes from the convex hull tour is respected in any optimal tour.
  • If you want to write a program in Java to compute an approximate solution, you can find some useful pointers here.
Hat tip to Anasua and Rik for their inputs.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Platform Platitudes, OR Zen and the Art of Railway Travel

While waiting at Old Delhi Station for my train to Calcutta, I spotted a sign on Platform 1 that said: TRAINS MAY BE LATE OR MAY MAKE UP TIME. A statement like this could only have originated from a Zen master. Or the Indian Railways. The sign perfectly embodies an attitude which has become second nature to Indian Railways faithfuls: philosophical acceptance, and cheerful resignation to forces beyond our control.

My return train was 18 hours late. It had no pantry, and no running water. But on reflection, I realised that I was in no hurry anyway, I could always buy food at the stations, and as the good Lord hath given us grime, so too He hath given us a home at journey’s end – a home with soap and a shower. I faced the journey with equanimity – even pleasure, for I had a good book with me, and a side lower berth.

In spite of the epic delays, the unpredictability and the littered platforms, so many of us like nothing better than to travel by train. To truly love the Indian railways, you need to be a bit like a Zen monk yourself.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Move over Honey, I’m Travelling on that Line

On the road between Manali and Solang, there are lines and lines of stalls which rent out skiing equipment and woollens. The stall-owners got to choose their own stall-numbers.
The stall in the background is the rather mundane No. 2424. Had I owned that stall, I would have called it: The One After 909.