Saturday, 30 January 2010

Donkey Geometry

A formal system consists of axioms (propositions whose truth is taken for granted) and theorems (statements derived from axioms using valid inference rules). Because every statement that is not an axiom must be proved on the basis of axioms or previously-proved theorems, it is sometimes necessary to provide formal proofs for propositions that may appear self-evident. Not surprisingly, some people find such proofs pedantic and unnecessary. I will illustrate the point with an anecdote I recently read.

The Epicureans, who esteemed feeling over reasoning, had no patience for the arguments of Euclid, and deemed his science ridiculous. To prove their case, they pointed to Book I, Proposition 20 of the Elements, where Euclid labours to show that in any triangle, the sum of any two sides is greater than the third side. This proposition, said the Epicureans, is evident even to an ass.

For a hungry ass standing at A will go directly to a bale of hay at B, without passing through any point C outside the straight line AB; it is evident to the beast that AB must be shorter than AC+CB.

It is an amusing little anecdote in its own right, but I was all the more amused because it reminded me of a certain journal entry, and more particularly, its comment thread.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Don’t Look Up

For the abomination that is currently by blog header, I extend sincere apologies to anyone viewing this page between January 27 and 28. To cut a long story short, it is a kind of experiment. Things will soon be back to normal. Till then, I recommend that you try to close your eyes before the header image loads, and rapidly scroll down to yesterday’s post about the Dover Lane Music Conference. Thanks.

Dover Lane Certainties

Some people will sleep through most of the concert; some will attend all four nights and listen to every single minute of music, from evening till daybreak. Some people who didn’t go will later claim that they did, just to earn culture points; some who did go will blog about it, for much the same reason.

The coffee will be weak and overpriced but people will still queue up, because coffee is indispensable at an all-night concert. The performers will make lame jokes but people will still laugh, because classical musicians are allowed to make lame jokes. It will be cold. Every day around 2 a.m., the auditorium’s resident cat will stroll up on stage; pointedly ignoring both performers and audience, it will meticulously clean itself, and stroll out again.

In the forty-odd hours of music spread over four nights, Hariprasad Chaurasia will transport listeners with a bamboo flute; Rashid Khan will do impossible things with his voice; Shahid Parvez, eschewing all forms of showmanship, will get his head down and unleash fireworks on the fretboard. There will be unforgettable moments, transcendental magic, encores and great applause. And at the end of the fourth day, in the first light of dawn, Amjad Ali Khan, that sly show-stealer, that…that rockstar – Amjad will close the Dover Lane Music Conference with a radiant smile and a bhairavi that is not of this world.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Monday, 18 January 2010


This morning, an apple keeps the dodecahedron company.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure

Evelyn Waugh’s short stories are superb – brimming with effervescent dialogue, with a strangely attractive strain of black humour running through them. But among them, there is one perfect little story: Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure.

Cruise is feather-light and incorrigibly frivolous. It is structural perfection, giddy delight. “Clarissa shrunk in the wash” is how Ann Pasternak Slater describes Cruise in the introduction to the Everyman edition – a description almost as delightful as the story itself.

So, in the first letter, the Young Lady of Leisure is writing about how to avoid seasickness:

The thing is not to have a bath and to be very slow in all movements.
And I’m thinking: I knew lots of people back in our college hostel who lived their lives on those principles.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

i have a YELLOW
fountAIN pen.

nothing can
STOP me now.

Friday, 8 January 2010

A Defence of Shimla

It is not cool to like Shimla. If you tell them that you are planning a vacation in Shimla, seasoned travellers tend to look slightly disdainful, as a gourmet might look if you suggest dinner at McDonald’s. “Why don’t you go to [insert obscure hill-station here] instead?” they’ll ask. “It’s virtually undiscovered.” Shimla is too crowded. Shimla is too noisy. Everyone goes to Shimla.

And that, principally, is why I like Shimla.

But there are other reasons too. Shimla has very pretty buildings. Neo-Tudor architecture looks especially fetching in a hill-town, and Upper Shimla’s public buildings, such as the State Library, the candy-coloured Post Office and the newly restored Gaiety Theatre, are all in this style. The private houses are an eccentric mishmash of architectural styles; Rajasthani cupolas frame bay windows looking out on Mall Road. And on a hilltop in the distance, its gables and turrets peering through the pine trees that surround it, Gothic Gorton Castle broods darkly over the town.

The food is good. The Combermere’s café has some of the best continental food I have tasted; my eyes mist over when I think of their charbroiled chicken in orange sauce. Indian Coffee House – that peerless institution – squats on the western end of Mall Road. Here, distinguished old gentlemen in tweed suits exchange greetings with friends, just as they have been doing for decades.

But to see why I like Shimla, to truly enter into the spirit of things, you must go there in the tourist season, and seek out the centre of the town – the pedestrian-only Mall Road and, above it, the flat open area known as the Ridge. Half Shimla has had the same idea, but let that not deter you.

Teenyboppers in fur-lined jackets and multicoloured mufflers promenade up and down Mall Road, eyes shining with excitement. Toddlers run between the legs of grownups. The policemen have little to do; they stand around looking resplendent in their blue and gold livery. In the evenings, in front of the Town Hall, the police band plays popular Hindi tunes of yesteryear.

Most of the people here are on vacation, so everyone is in a holiday mood; everyone is feeling simply splendid. And the Himachali locals are among the friendliest I have met; bus drivers shout out salutations to each other as they pass, and at the Clarkes, waiters recognized me after nearly three years.

If you are looking for peace and quiet, a remote hilltop hamlet where the silence is broken only by birdsong and the bleating of distant sheep, Shimla is not the place. It has Adidas showrooms. But if you are prepared to accept that not all hill-stations need to be an approximation of Shangri-La, if you enjoy people and colour and festive spirit, you might like Shimla very much indeed.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Kalka-Shimla Railway

We went to Shimla by train.

The Kalka-Shimla Railway is 106 years old. The mountainous 96 km route has a ruling gradient of 1:33. It has over 800 multi-arched viaducts constructed of brick and stone in the ancient Roman style, and 102 tunnels. The longest of these, at 1143 m, is the Barog Tunnel, named after Colonel S. Barog, the engineer in charge of its construction. Barog started digging the tunnel from both ends but midway, he found that he had made an error in alignment. The British government fined him Re. 1 for his mistake. Unable to bear this humiliation, Barog went for a walk in the woods with his dog, and shot himself. The tunnel we passed through was constructed 1 km away from Barog’s original tunnel, which now lies abandoned.

Next time I go to Shimla, I’d like to go by the rail motor car, the curious-looking vehicle on the bottom left. It accommodates fourteen people, and has a transparent roof and an altimeter.

I have now covered three of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites which are under the Indian Railways – VT in Bombay, the DHR, and the Kalka-Shimla Railway. I could have travelled the Nilgiri Mountain Railway too while I was in Tamil Nadu last September, had I not decided, like a fool, that visiting Ooty all alone would be too boring.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Philosophy and Cheese Sandwiches

On the train to Delhi, I found that, in four words casually printed on a packet of sandwiches, IRCTC have summed up my philosophy in life.

The four words to which I allude are, of course, “Good Food - Good Travel”. “Packed for Rajdhani Express” would be a very strange motto indeed.