Candles in the Dark

I remember talking to a man who was our van driver in the Yucatan peninsula. His theories were astounding, and he seemed to have scoured the internet for the plausible and marvelous, completely ruling out the possibilities of evolution and what science proved to us. He was obviously a man whose love for the marvelous made him an interesting story-teller, and was probably well-received  at parties.

Here is a clip from his conversation:
’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver. ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

aliens_theory

I felt sorry for the man. His mind was after all curious, and he was obviously in awe of the marvelous. He wanted to know what happened to the dinosaurs, he wanted to know how we came to be. A Science education, half-heartedly imparted in the faraway days of his youth were hardly enough for him to find and keep the wonder in Science. Moreover, Science was a demanding master. Every hypothesis required proofs, validation by peers. It all proved too much for the man. He was happy enough believing that an alien race came and bombarded Earth with their nuclear missiles when they felt dinosaurs were of no use to them. We could do the same to another planet, couldn’t we?

I am currently reading Science as a Candle in the Dark – In a Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.

In his usual manner Carl Sagan had hit the problem on its head:
We have arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly  depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.  ”

I found myself nodding along as I read: One the one hand, while we know about Machine Learning and how it is used to change our ways  of life, we do not always understand all the variables involved and how each value affects the outcomes. We do not really know the chemistry behind the medicines we take and why they work  on our biological systems, and so much more.

On the other hand, somebody had shared yet another spurious discourse given by a religious figure. This time, the man spoke glibly – his half baked theories about the nature of the Universe had his audience enthralled. The man spluttered forth a jumble of high-sounding words, and the audience cheered and applauded.

Again, the audience was looking for nothing more than understanding a complex world. A world made more complex everyday with our technologies and applications.

The truth is the world is a complicated place. Grants determine research, enabling rich businesses and corporations to drive and set the tone for research (Remember the studies where the Sugar industry completely misguided the population by funding research related to Fats instead? ) Big money corporations also have the ability to have their own research facilities, and they are not always going to watch out for the common man. (Privacy concerns by Ethicist Tristan Harris – the  former employee at Google)

More than ever, we need to find a way to incorporate Science as a way of life, and equip ourselves with Baloney Detection Kits as Carl Sagan named them. We need to enlighten ourselves – maybe light ourselves a candle in the dark.

Books: Science  as a Candle in the Dark – Demon Haunted  World – By  Carl Sagan

 

The Man Who Deciphered the Heavens

I wonder often how humanity figured out things like the Earth revolving around the sun while rotating on its tilted axis every 24 hours. Questions such as our place in the Cosmos, and our understanding of it have wracked humanity for centuries. Religions sought to answer some of these questions through myths and erroneous theories. One man though, was instrumental in moving us from a geo-centric to a helio-centric model.

How one man figured out the vastness of the Universe by contemplating the night skies with his naked eye and working diligently to find the accompanying Mathematical proof is a story well worth reminding ourselves of again.

Nicholas Copernicus was born on Feb 19th 1473, and he died in May, 1543. He was born during the times when the pseudoscience of Astrology and the science of Astronomy were regarded as one and the same. Even then, in his letters, he seems to have warned humanity against believing the astrological predictions based on appearance of comets, and planets, since there was no proof linking our own futures and the astrological happenings in the heavens.

Little is known about the man who revolutionized our understanding of the Cosmos. Copernicus was the Healing Physician for the Bishop, and the Canon (an administrator) for the Catholic Church. His private passion, though, was understanding the Cosmos and our place in it. It is poetic to imagine the man standing and observing the night skies for decades almost every night in Torun somewhere in modern day Poland, figuring out what the Ptolemic system got right, understanding Pythagorean Mathematics, scouring books of scientific interest when he had little access to them. Where they were gaps in the current understanding he fearlessly questioned never resting till he came up with a satisfactory explanation and the Mathematics required to support his own hypothesis. Copernicus expanded his initial calculations through rigorous observations all done with the naked eye. (Galileo’s ’spyglass’ as he called his early telescopes would not be available till 1610.)

Copernicus-Boissard
By Theodor de Bry – Uni Mannheim Mateo (Mannheimer Texte Online); Source [1]; Image:[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2976063
Though he confided his findings to a few close friends, he was worried about the backlash from the Catholic Church. After all, religion put Earth at the center of the universe, and mythology made the sun ride his chariot to give us life everyday. It would have been dangerous to go all out and refute all theories at once. Man’s place in the Universe would suddenly not just become less grandiose, but downright humbling. We are small specks who happened to evolve into intelligent life on a tiny planet revolving around the sun? The very idea was scary.

1920px-Bartolomeu_Velho_1568
Figure of the heavenly bodies — An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

Finally, his friends, most persistent among them, mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, convinced him to publish his volumes after checking and double checking the validity of the Mathematics accompanying his proofs. Slowly leading up to the theory of Earth being one of the planets revolving around the Sun, De revolutionizes orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was published by a house in Nuremberg in modern day Germany.

De_Revolutionibus_ms_p9v
By Nicolaus Copernicus – Commons file De_Revolutionibus_manuscript_p9b.jpg, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58001466

Copernicus died almost as soon as his book was printed, and the book would have languished in the corners never to be read, had Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei not taken it up again. In many ways, what Copernicus feared would happen to him happened to Kepler and Galileo. They bore the brunt of the Christian Church for overturning their understanding of the world and our importance in it. But the book paved the way for further scientific research.

From Newton’s Theory of Relativity to our current forays into Space with telescopes sending us newer images of galaxies far far away, to the detection of gravitational waves, we are now in a constant state of wonder and on the cusp to more wondrous advances, all thanks to one man. One man, who believed that he could unearth the truth if he stuck with the problem, one man whose friends kept him honest and took the time to support and understand his work.

Books:

  • A More Perfect Heaven – How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos – By Dava Sobel
  • The Book that Nobody Read – Chasing the Revolutions of Nicholas Copernicus – By Owen Gingrich
  • De revolutionizes orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) _ by Nicholas Copernicus

Moments of Love & Power

Half a decade has passed in a heartbeat, yet I can hear the clear voice of the then elementary school going daughter ringing out in the aisles of the toy store : “Oh! That isn’t sexist at all!”

I laughed, the proud, indulgent laugh of a strong girl’s mother, even as I hushed her.

We had gone looking for a bow and arrow as a gift for her then toddler brother. His fascination for the super-hero phase was just starting and she wanted to get him his own Quiver of Arrows. After looking hither and thither, the heart sinking just a little bit at the amount of plastic and mass produced toys, we bobbed up to the lady in the front desk to ask where we can find bows and arrows for young children.

“In the first row of the boys’ section. “ she said, and I thanked her.
“Oh! That isn’t sexist at all!” said the daughter to me in her clear, ringing voice, as we left the puzzled clerk who had heard the daughter’s remarks. I laughed, hoping that this clear sense would always aid her as she navigated life.

I was reminded of that scene as I held the Forest of Enchantments in my hand. I hoped it would assuage a little of the disappointment I have had with Sita’s characterization in the epic. Every time somebody sang the virtues of Rama the Just, and Rama the Virtuous and Rama the Obedient, I was sure I was not the only one in the room whose thoughts were clouded by his treatment of Sita.

forest_of_enchantments

There was no justice there. The virtuous man would have overcome his doubts, believed and trusted the one he loved, and helped right the wrong of perception. He could have set the tone for innocent-until-proven-guilty with ease.

The obedient man could easily have made a case for the need for civic disobedience and charted the course of millions by his actions, but the epic fell short. Always.

He was a human incarnate after all – so his flaws were there, was all I was given by way of explanation along with being hushed for asking inconvenient questions.

While the book bore the hallmark of Chitra Banerjee’s poetic twists and turns, coupled with the magical realism, there were a few areas in which I wished she had done better. The epic of Ramayana is a well-known one and while she cannot be expected to go over all the nuances and side-stories, there are places where, had she spent more time on certain aspects would have made it a more enjoyable and nuanced read.

Like the relationship between Lakshmana and Sita for instance. 14 years in a small hiking and camping group of 3 is a long time, and one in which I am sure a person of Sita’s calibre would definitely have formed a relationship of mutual respect with her brother-in-law, even if he had left her sister back in the palaces to protect his mothers. That would have meant it was harder for Rama to do the things he did to Sita for his own brother would have chastised him for it, and that in turn would have humanized Rama’s flaws to a greater extent. As such there is a little of the anguish but how much of that is Sita’s hope?

The book, however, was still an enjoyable read with the author’s many meditations on the different aspects of love. The kind of love that makes you do unimaginable things, the forces of love when thrown together with duty, loyalty and ambition, the feelings that love can engender, the kinds of things love can make one do. The kinds of clarity love brings in complicated situations; and its paradox more apparent in our lives than we realize: the kinds of complications it can bring to otherwise clear situations.

I could not help thinking of Jane Austen’s words on Love – “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” It was true – the intensity, kinds and forms of love were always unique, and ever evolving.

Do we ever meditate on love the way we do on our breaths?

In short, I expected the book to be the one the now teenaged daughter goes to, and understands clearly the Sita who would have been happy to hear her ‘sexist’ comment in the aisles. The author tried to bring it out, but I am not so sure. The epics don’t always give you a lot to play with when it comes to sexism.

Why must a loving heart not make a power move?

Also read: Mary Beard on Women & Power

https://www.npr.org/…/what-history-and-fiction-teach-us-abo…

https://www.theguardian.com/…/women-and-power-a-manifesto-b…

The Power of Belief

“Göbekli Tepe!”, I said swirling the name around my tongue for the n-th time. Göbekli Tepe had a nice ring to it. A satisfying crunch right in the middle.
The daughter tutted impatiently.
“What is this Göbekli Tepe?! Going on and on about Göbekli Tepe! ”

“Glad you asked!”, I said and started on an explanation to her loud eye-rolls and dramatic groans.

I was reading a book on the origins of God through Anthropological history: God by Reza Aslan. His theological musings date back to the first homo sapiens. He sets forth theories and tries to piece together the origins of the concept of a soul separate from the body. A consciousness higher than one’s own that probably gave rise to the concept of Gods.

god_reza_aslan

Reading about the ancient humans trekking to Göbekli Tepe is fascinating. Built over 10,000 years ago, it is the oldest known temple. Shaped to match the shape of the old hunter in the skies, the pillar of Sirius is especially tall. I can imagine not only the lure of the night skies for the hunter gatherers of yore, but also the seemingly curious rhythms of day and night. The location of the constellations themselves shift by season with the movement of the Earth around the Sun, and therefore, deriving any sense of regularity in itself must have felt divine.

 

gobekli_tepe

The Temple of Göbekli Tepe: Oldest Temple Built to Worship The Dog Star

I said as much to the children as we were hanging about the kitchen doing this and that. “Isn’t the concept of God a leap of faith? Huh! Get it? Leap of Faith! Get it?”

A low moan revealed that she got it, and then she tried to pivot the conversation to areas of interest to her.

“Which of the Greek Gods is your favorite amma?”
The children are ardent fans of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and they often come up with questions like this. I read some of his books in order to keep up.
I looked at their faces, and said quite truthfully, “I don’t know whether I have any favorites. They all seem to be such jerks, at least in these stories!”
“Amma!”
“Well it is true. Aren’t Gods supposed to let go of their own Egos and all that? I mean they spar so easily. Oh! Oh! Did you say that? Okay! Okay, I am the God of Thunder. Here is a Thunder Bolt to strike down the mountain on whence you stand! – I mean, Come on! What is that even supposed to mean?” I said theatrically throwing hammers Thor-style.

The son laughed raucously. His eyes widened a little at the conversation. I know the little fellow took to the concept of a God without being led to it in any form – a trait we found highly amusing. We are not a religious household by any means, so it was clearly not a case of nurture. The daughter has a more lackadaisical view somewhat akin to my own.

The concept of a God – one or many Gods has always intrigued me. I am an amused, and sometimes annoyed, spectator when it comes to seeing how the religious peg themselves on a pedestal higher than others by virtue of their beliefs.

I am curious how different people take to the concept of a God more easily than others.

I am also humble enough to accept the Power of Belief.

I told them about how the concept is so intertwined into our collective consciousness from so long ago, that one can’t really try to imagine all the ways the concept finds its ways into our thoughts.

“It is everywhere!”, I said, and told them about how I remember the mother telling me as she looked on lovingly at the then newborn baby of mine smiling in her sleep. She said the story is that God came and gave the child a lotus in her dreams. Hence the newborn smile.

“If that were true, how would we know? You certainly weren’t saying it. In fact, you probably contorted your face into a spasm that we thought was a smile.” I said.

I have often wondered what the first thoughts of consciousness are for human-beings. Is it being self-aware, or is it in the feeling that we are one among the great biosphere? Do mosquitoes think that way? Do trees and bees?

What, Why and Where is God to you?

Read also: The Beauty of Questioning

Una buona immagine

“Amma – you were sleep talking so much last night – it was hilarious!” said the daughter. The children and the husband giggled. In my defense, it had been a rather long few days. Roaming around in Rome had taken the wind out of my sails.

“I must have been tired!” I said. “ I had dreams of the weirdest nature. I dreamt the horses ran out of the picture, and out into the gardens that had the whomping willow type of tree.” (Pitti Palace & Boboli Gardens which are perfectly delightful to behold: A lovely spot of nature in Florence)

“Yes we know. And you sat up in bed sending Sabrina to get the horses back! Poor lady doesn’t have enough work in the reception, you have to send her galloping behind horses!”  I laughed with them. Sabrina had saved us considerable time by getting us a slot of time to visit the Uffizi Gallery.

I was trying to extricate the strands of weave from the coagulated mess in the brain. A number of galleries collapsed in the various chambers of the brain leaving the paintings smushed together. Waddling through the galleries with a coat hanging off one hand, a child off another and a bag on my shoulders, I wandered through the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael – entire galleries devoted to Renaissance artists. I naturally gravitated towards pictures featuring the rich myths, with a whiff of the beautiful Italian countryside in the background. The Birth of Venus, Primavera et al were as beautiful as everybody said, and had I known the nuances of art could have enjoyed it more.

 

I felt like one of those canvases that inspired the starry night by Van Gogh. All the different colors flowing into each other, forming a confused mess of colors, but having a unique kind of beauty in itself.

Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed - William Blake.

The first time we spotted a picture featuring a nude, the son tugged at my hand, and giggled, “Why isn’t he wearing any clothes?”

I giggled with him. Do you think this is what William Blake had in mind? The renaissance era with its developments in the anatomy and study of the human figure really did go overboard on the whole human body thing. Considering that it was winter in Italy, there we were dressed in thermals, sweaters, jackets, caps, gloves and socks, looking upon the stone cold statues of apparently virile, strong men with muscles exploding out of their bodies, and not a thread of clothing on them. It was amusing, and the pair of us giggled like children in the pristine halls of the museums.

statues

Standing outside a fountain on the way from one gallery to another, I posed for a photograph. I smiled and asked if the picture was okay. Apparently, it wasn’t.

The teenaged daughter took a deep breath and with the air of explaining basics to an idiot child started instructing me on the best method to pose for a photograph. Apparently, smiling like I am happy to be in the photograph is out.
“Go for this look.” she said, and looked morose, angry, pensive all at once. “And those shots of you standing in front of a place is so third century! Look at this one, “ said she showing me a picture of a person with a sharp nose in a red coat overlooking a ruin.

If it weren’t for the fact that she was looking stylish in my coat, I could barely have recognized her, and that, she said, was the angle you have to go for.

I am not sure I will get it entirely. I come from a generation that saw as many people crowded together in one frame as possible, and all of us smiled at the the count of three – with at least one blinking at the opportune moment. From there to this sort of “Don’t even show your best face, and please don’t smile” slide is a bit quick.

But after looking at the numerous pictures in the galleries across Rome, Florence & Venice, I can see the impulse. I mean this trend probably came from too many pictures. It is probably why Madonna looks apathetic holding a babe Jesus in her hands, who displays no curiosity in his surroundings or joy or mischief. It was quite disquieting to see picture after picture like this with frozen expressions. Was the smile frowned upon so much? I can understand the looks of anguish in the scenes of the crucifixion, but even in the more joyous pictures of Madonna and Child, can one not introduce a motif of joy?

 

That’s what our million pictures must look like isn’t it? Frozen expressions  “capturing the moment”. If we are capturing frozen expressions, I don’t mind jumping on those galloping horses out into the gardens from the painting with a wild look of freedom and joy on my face any day.

So that brings me back to the basic question of what constitutes a good picture (una buona immagine). Does every picture need to tell a story? Why is Mona Lisa so famous, and not the beautiful pictures of these ladies?

 

Please recommend books on the art of appreciating Art.

Hero-Worship, Nicomacean Ethics & Baloney Detection Kits

I have heard friends rave about Dune by Frank Herbert many times over the past few years. I finally got to read the book, and I feel richer in mind and thought for it. The book was long and at times hard to keep track of (especially in the beginning). This is one of those times when I realize how my mind flutters with attention spans that drive calm butterflies to frenzy. But slowly, steadily, I settled into the book, and there were multiple moments when I felt like I must grab a pen and start writing (but that stern butterfly gave me a look, and kept me at my the task of reading). This, is probably the reason I have forgotten half the things I wanted to write about (This is where I glare back at the butterfly guardian who kept me reading)

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition
First Edition Cover – Image from Wikipedia

One of the many things that appealed to me in the Dune was the fact though there were vague references made to technology and the number of technological devices used by those living at the time, it is not a mainstay.

The book is a multi-layered piece of literature with over-arching themes of ecology, the art of war, religion, philosophy and politics. There is a particular quote that stuck with me in the Prologue written by Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son, about the dangers of hero worship.

Quote:

As Liet Kynes lay dying in the desert, he remembered the long ago words of his own father: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

Having studied politics carefully, my father believed that heroes made mistakes…mistakes that were simplified by the number of people who followed such leaders slavishly.

In many ways, hero worship is what leads people to choose leaders who then turn into despots and dictators. Adulation affects everyone, and those with fragile egos are the most prone to its lure.

Towards the end of the book, Paul Atreides recognizes that he is being hailed as the Messiah and regardless of his acceptance of the title, there is a holy jihad in his future. He can either lead to the best of his abilities like his able and excellent father, Duke Leto or simply be the mascot of a movement that has already gathered momentum – a force that is much larger than him. This sort of trusting faith in one human being is never a good sign, and is a malady that has affected us for centuries. 

I quite agree with how Aristotle describes the nobility required of politicians: he opines that politicians should take an oath, almost as sacred as a Hippocratic oath, to remain fair and mete out justice. From the Nicomachean Ethics – By Aristotle. 

The lecture on Aristotle and Socrates on How Does One Live The Good Life? From 36 Books That Changed The World (Chapter 8) is an excellent listen.

 

There are no initiation courses for politicians. No training. Though, I have a suggestion to have every politician complete the Butter Battle Course, it is unheeded. (The Butter Battle Course is an excellent course consisting of childrens’ books not more than a few pages each, and should only take a few moments of every leader’s time):

butter_battle

However, till politicians start taking their careers to truly be in service of humanity, we need to equip ourselves with Carl Sagan’s excellent Baloney Detection Kit from the book: The varieties of scientific experience : a personal view of the search for God / Carl Sagan ; edited by Ann Druyan. This book contains the Gifford lectures given by Carl Sagan in 1985.

The_Varieties_of_Scientific_Experience
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28513011

When someone asked Carl Sagan after his lecture what we can do when the governments do not act in our best interests, he advised us to have Baloney Detection Kits handy.

Quote:

“I would say that the first thing to do is realize that governments, all governments, at least on occasion, lie. And some of them do it all the time – some of them do it only every second statement-but, by and large, governments distort the facts in order to remain in office.

And if we are ignorant of what the issues are and can’t even ask the critical questions, then we’re not going to make much of a difference. If we can understand the issues, if we can pose the right questions, if we can point out the contradictions, then we can make some progress. There are many other things that can done, but it seems to me that those two, the baloney detection kit and use of the democratic process where available are at least two things to consider.”

This seems to be age old wisdom: our oldest myths write about flaws in heroes, what brings about the downfall of the most powerful tyrants  etc; and yet, the reminder for our own Baloney Detection Kits is a timely one.

Books:

  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Varieties of Scientific Evidence  – Carl Sagan 
  • Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
  • 36 Books That Changed The World – Lectures on Great Courses
  • Butter Battle Book – Dr Seuss

When Love is Theratti Paal Sweet

This article was published in The India Currents Magazine for Krishna Jayanthi. Link here: When Love is Theratti Paal Sweet

“Do you remember?”, started an aunt, “how he stuck his hand in the theratti paal * container when the lights went out during Krishna Jayanthi?”

*Theratti paal refers to a heady Indian sweet made of condensed milk, ghee and cardamom

*Krishna Jayanthi – Lord Krishna’s birthday

The story was being related to peals of laughter. The hero of the tale beamed and laughed heartily at his boyhood escapades – it had all happened about 70 years ago after all. We knew the story, but it did nothing to diminish the retelling of it. I already knew my father was the naughtiest of the 9 children borne by Visalam Paati and Kalyanam Thaatha. (Paati – Grandma; Thaatha – Grandpa)

I sat watching the glow on the faces around the table, like an eternal torch lit by the essence of shared times and space of childhood. There was genuine affection, laughter and love there, and it enveloped all those around in its warm embrace. We had been to visit our aunts in Atlanta. The septuagenarian father has two septua sisters who live there, and I went with him to enjoy the siblings get together. I watched indulgently as their laugh lines etched over the years crinkled with every anecdote. 

His sisters and nieces had lovingly charted out the menus for a whole week. A week that included all of the father’s favorite dishes. Dishes remembered from childhood, dishes acquired in far off lands, and dishes that made my paternal grandmother, Visalam paati, come alive in the retelling of the process. The delectable snacks and the satisfying compliments such as, “You have your mother’s gift with the art of cooking.” flowed graciously.  The brood of Visalam and Kalyanam were known for their sweet tongues, and every meal had a different dessert to go with it. 

The sweet of this meal was theratti paal. It’s commercial cousins are called Milk Peda, but it is an unpoetic name and as a sweet is a poor substitute for the Theratti Paal. Theratti paal, when made on the stove with fresh milk takes hours to come to the right consistency. I can imagine how Hinduism came to have the myth of churning the milk ocean. There are so many milk based sweets in the land, and it is quite possible that that particular myth was the gift of the dreamy subconscious thoughts of some person making theratti paal hours at a time. One can go into a sort of meditative trance as the milk gathers its cream, and then folds and bubbles again, and then again and again, till the color changes, the consistency changes, and the sweet smell of condensed milk wafts through the air. In slow measures, one adds the sugar, butter or ghee and the cardamom to send those in the vicinity to realms of ecstatic waiting. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 10.32.21 AM

Today the same marvel can be obtained from a can of condensed milk, a stick of unsalted butter, and a microwave in under 10 minutes, and I felt the tongue dance and explode in joy as the microwave theratti paal melted on the tongue. The ghee, condensed milk, and cardamom all tickled the nostrils. 

I remember listening to stories about her children from my grandmother, Visalam Paati. (Visalam means vast, and the name suited her. She was generous with her time, attention and her servings, and when one wanted to play with the jiggling oodles of arm fat, there was plenty of that too and she never once got irritated when we teased her about her bulk. ) Feeding and taking care of a brood like that makes me shudder, but Visalam paati seemed to have done it with love, competence and skill. 

The tale being narrated was the one on Krishna Jayanthi. Krishna, Lord Vishnu’s avatar, is said to have loved theratti paal. 

krishna_therattipaal.jpeg

Apparently, the evening pooja was ready to start. Bowls of snacks: (mysore pak, payasam, thattai, seedai, murukku, theratti paal), butter and ghee were all placed in front of the Gods, and just before the offering to the God was complete, the electricity went out plunging the little village house in South India in the 1940’s, into a darkness lit just by the flame of the small wicker lamp near Lord Krishna’s deity. Visalam Paati having the kind of prescience that comes from raising nine children immediately placed her hand covering the theratti paal container. True enough, within seconds, a small hand struck at the theratti paal container – Visalam paati caught the hand, and waited for the lights to come on again. Just as she thought, the malefactor was none but the naughtiest of her brood, my father. 

“I knew you will reach for the theratti paal. Little rascal! “ she said. 

We all laughed heartily while spooning in some more excellent microwave theratti paal ourselves. 

The smells and scents of ghee, condensed milk and cardamom cut across decades and the siblings sat there giggling like school children again. 

Isn’t it marvelous how regaling our pleasant memories often transforms the bleak horizons of time to become as brilliant as the Milky Way studded with the shining moments of our memories?

Next week is Krishna Jayanthi, and I will go about the joyous task of drawing tiny Krishna feet from the doorstep to the kitchen. I shall make the microwave theratti paal, and think of the children in the 1940’s who shared the adventure of theratti paal, and waited the whole afternoon for the exotic taste of it in the evening. I shall regale the children in the twenty-first century with the story again, and smile indulgently at the fact that his sisters remember their naughty brother every time they eat theratti paal.

Love takes various shapes. Ours is sweet. Theratti paal sweet.

How Squids Shaped Our Myths

We are familiar with the Pangea theory (large hulk of a landmass floating together, and breaking apart into the continents of today, current day India going and joining up with the Eurasian chunk and creating the Himalayas in the process etc). Supporting evidence for this theory has been largely in the form of marine fossils found in the Himalayas, a region that is landlocked today.

Pangea_animation_03
Pangea animation from Wikipedia

It was while reading Squid Empire by Danna Staaf that I realized how intertwined the evolution of the world, our myths, theories and culture are.

SquidEmpireCover

Culture is a funny word. It is supposed to capture the intellectual and sociological elements of a group of people living at a certain point in time in a certain place. The clothes, the food, the music and drama, the myths, the beliefs, the societal graces etc are what loosely constitute culture. It always amazes me how a word that is essentially an observation of life can be taken by the self righteous and used to noisily monger about the manger (but that is another post for another day.)

It is not surprising that our myths reflect our surroundings. Some cultures where myths have intertwined with religion are also reflective of the evolution of mankind over time in these places.

Indian myths, for instance, say that the Himalayas are home to the Gods. At the time when the myths originated, the Himalayas were probably looked on with awe (they still are, but probably more so 5000 years ago), and the only beings capable of living and scaling the mountains were attributed to having god-like capabilities. (Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, apparently could be reached at Mt Kailas, Himadri Range, Himalayas. )

Lord Vishnu (The preserver), was always depicted with a conch and a shell. I have often wondered why Vishnu had a conch and a shell. Why not a sword and scythe?

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Shiva-Vishnu: Image from Google Search

But like a minute puzzle piece waiting to chink into place, I realize that these were the fossils found in the Himalayas at the time. Nautilus shells, and ammonoid shells. They are shaped like conches and shells. Of course, they became the accessories for the popular gods. <Pictures of ammonoid shell fossils below>

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Quote from The Squid Empire by Danna Staaf:
Just on the other side of the Himalayas in India, certain coiled ammonoids fossils are named saligrams, symbols of the god Vishnu, and are believed to offer spiritual rather than physical healing.

Quote from: Adrienne Mayor’s paper on  (Fossil Appropriations Past and Present), (Classics and History of Science, Stanford University)

A current popular exhibit called “Mythic Creatures” at the American Museum of Natural History (May – Dec 2007) demonstrates how some stories of fantastic creatures, such as griffins, unicorns, and water monsters, arose from observations of extinct animal fossils around the world.

There is always a beauty to observing the natural phenomena around us. We are minute in a large throbbing cosmos, occupying a still thriving ecosystem on Earth for minuscule specks in time.

When you think about life that way, it seems beautiful:  a gift meant to be nourished and cherished. Did the squid think they would influence homo-sapiens millennia later, and help shape their culture? Probably not. But they did, just by existing.

 

 

 

The Moon’s Beard

The son and I had been on a quick trip to see my family in India. The brother, the shining Galahad of our family, said he would be there to pick the little fellow and self at the airport. I nestled into the journey comfortably equipped with books.

I was midway through Reading Lolita In Tehran, a book that has languished on my to-read list for far too long. The journey was comfortable enough, and I found myself pulled into the period from the overthrow of the Shah of Iran to the early 2000s when the author finally decided to leave the country and move to the United States. The author is a professor of English Literature and her upbringing in an intellectual family and world make it very hard for her to digest the increasingly repressive practices the regime imposed on them.

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3734465

In the book, she writes of how many of her students were categorically rigid in their views. Some boys (or young men) were vociferous and rigid in their condemnations and swallowed all the rhetoric that had been fed to them by the repressive regime. Men could be punished for not sporting beards, women flogged for not wearing purdahs. One time she finds herself cautioning a young man who followed her to her office parroting things about the West after a class on Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, that he may well end up like Elizabeth changing her mind about Mr Darcy one slur at a time.

It is astonishing how many young minds could be made to think a certain way. As I moodily prodded a potato on the flight’s lunch, I looked to the son sitting next to me – he was avidly watching Cars and pulling my attention to particular scenes.

“See? See? Lightning is going to blow a tire now. Now Amma.” he said far too loudly, for he had the headsets on, and was excited. How did innocent boys like him grow to young men like I was reading about?

You ready to meet Maama (Uncle)? I asked the son as he sat up after he finished watching the movie for the n-th time. Yes! he beamed and I thought how much he resembled my brother when he was a child. He had the same beam like a full moon.

I got down at the airport and scoured the crowds gathered outside. I looked out for the beaming face of my brother, couldn’t see him and stepped back inside to get wifi access so I could message him. It was then that I noticed a man of palm tree height, swinging his branches at us. There was no reason to single us out. It was 3 am and the throng outside was not waving at us. It was minding its own business. Plus this tree was employing that windmill action that is characteristic of the Bala family. But this could not be him.

What I saw wasn’t the smooth face of a full moon, but a moon that slipped and muddied itself in the nearest marsh. Apart from a beak and two eyes, everything else as I said was scoured. I peered closely and he leaped forward startling some of the crowd with his “HIIII”. The voice was his, but I could not understand why he looked like Ayatollah Khomeini , and I said so with some asperity.

“Reading a book on Iran I see?” he said shrewdly as he pulled me in for a hug.

“Reading Lolita In Tehran”, I said bemusedly. “What’s with the beard – like a louse rug on a biscuit.”

The beard affected me strongly, and I set aside sisterly tones of affection and reached for the tug – “It looks ghastly.” The brother looked pleased that I was taking the facial hay like this, and he clung to it looking more like three billy goats gruff, every minute.

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“Keep with the times! The latest fashion – all the dudes have them.” At this point, he stopped to reel off the names of cricket stars and film actors, the best of whom I could not recognize if I had coffee with them beardless. If they were beardless I mean. I don’t have a beard. Estrogen and all that.

I sighed and quoted Azar Nafisi’s husband from Reading Lolita in Tehran:
None of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them.

The son was peering at his loving uncle in that keen manner that children have. “Maama – how come your hair is coming out of your face? Mine only grows on my head!” said the fellow who has been under the influence of the clean shaven thus far.

“Magic!” murmured the brother and chuckled softly at his awe. The moon beamed down at us from the sky above, and a gentle breeze rustled the palm trees, as we made our way home.

The beauty of questioning

I spend a lot of time vacillating between an agnostic secular person and a religious person, who doesn’t believe 80% of what my religion has become over the ages. Suffice it to say that the days I spend in my former state far outnumber the days I spend in the latter.

Here is my problem: I like to believe in the power of hope and if belief is what brings hope, I am all for it. On the other hand, over the ages, I can categorically state that religion has done more damage to mankind than good. The moment religion ceases to be a personal experience, I can see it wreaking havoc.

I quite like the idea of finding yourself. Easily, that is the path taken by all the “founders” of religion – be it Buddha or the Sufi saints of Islam or the Bhagavad Gita. But how does one explain “finding oneself” to the masses? That is where the problem begins. So, the explanation became finding one’s moral conscience – still good. But a few centuries later, moral conscience evolves into a set of rules written by the elitist community of the religion. Slowly, the congregation becomes more of a unifying force, one to forge your identity with, than to use as a tool to better yourself.

At my wedding, the priest was a person who was my grandfather’s friend. My grandfather was a kind-hearted, generous, loving, able teacher, caring husband/father and he was a pious man. But somehow, whenever people described him, they put his piety ahead of his other virtues. This priest came to my wedding and said he would do all it takes in his power to make sure that great man’s grand-daughter lived a fantastic life, and put us through the most grueling wedding ceremony in recent times. I didn’t understand more than a few words of what was said – there was no need for me to elongate the proceedings by asking for clarifications in between on a hot day in front of the fire, with no food in my stomach. The ceremony lasted a good 9 hours of listening to things I didn’t understand. Everyone who came to congratulate me, said the priest was excellent, he hadn’t missed a single thing – who would understand how my intestines were reacting at the time? Which religion?

What I am trying to say is, some people are ritualistic by nature – to them, rituals become religion – this isn’t orthodoxy, this is just an interpretation of their own religion. It is also show-case worthy.

I have spent my growing years chanting some prayers that my mother taught me on the way to the school in the morning, as we ran for the train. That is all I know today, and probably that is all I will ever know – who knows? Every now and then, I think that just because I am part-agnostic, I should not deny the experience of a religion to my daughter. So, I take her to the local temple. She asks a million questions along the way as usual. We are in the temple, and she looks at the statues and asks – “If Ummachi (God) made everything and gave us everything, how come he isn’t even moving?”

I savoured the question – the beauty of questioning always delights me. I am sorry that when it comes to religion so few people still have the power of questioning left in them.