On your second birthday

Two.  I love the way you say it as you rattle off numbers from one to ten. The number itself does not mean anything to you yet, just as your birthday carries no special significance in your mind. For us though, the passing of another year of your life is a cause for celebration. Your birthday is inordinately more important to us than ours. Grant us this: we need the bright balloons, sugary cakes, and silly, conical hats more than you do.

As I reflect over the last year, memories surface indiscriminately. It has been a momentous year, indeed!  Now, you can build with blocks and paint with fingers. You have precise expressions including vocabularies of refined gestures and words. You recognize symbols including letters and numbers. You have developed tastes for certain kinds of food and preferences for specific activities. And then there are the myriad puzzles and games!

We have found onions in the washing machine and crayons in the sofa cushions. I used to find peanuts in my shoes, until one day you decided you needed to wear them more than I did. With my hat covering your eyes and my gloves on your hands, you looked like a hard-boiled private-eye from a Raymond Chandler novel.  After that moment nothing was quite noir anymore.

We ignored the smudges on the television or the trail of Cheerios on the just -cleaned carpet. One day I asked your mother, “Why is one of my CDs in the bathtub?” She looked at you. You looked at the teddy bear. The bear had no alibi. Was there was a miscarriage of justice that day? I cannot say that the thought weighs very heavily on my conscience.

Early on, you used to say “hi” into the remote-control. We thought that it was cute. Not anymore. You know what all the important buttons do (and even I don’t know what some of the buttons do… set off a nuclear device, perhaps?) We had to hide the remotes until we could no longer find them ourselves. Now we just watch whatever is on the last-known-channel.

A few months ago, I had to enable a passcode on all my mobile devices.  It wasn’t because of thieves, it was because of you. It was fine as long as you were sending out blank calls and tweets on my behalf. One time, you nearly emailed my boss. I shrugged. What can a little boy do, after all? But I had to draw the line when you deleted an app with high-scores I had been working for months to get. No fair, buddy.

Forget the app. I confess that it is been a losing campaign to baby-proof the world (or rather to adult-proof yours). You mastered the skill of opening doors and chocolate wrappers. Of tiptoeing to pinch items off progressively higher shelves. Of staging an impromptu sit-in the middle of the toys-section of a shopping mall.

Speaking of toys, I was very excited when we got you Lego building blocks, model miniature cars, and comic-book action figures. Excited for you, of course. I put that out there, in case you doubt my parental gravitas.

We’ve had our share of adventures this past year.  We have visited Mayan ruins in Mexico and Jain ruins in India. We have gazed at waterfalls and loafed on beaches. We have waved at strangers and have slid down chutes. We collected acorns and ran through piles of raked leaves. We read books together. We laughed at dinosaur replicas in museums and then ran in horror from the vacuum cleaner at home.

I have to ask. My child, what do you think of when you smile in your sleep? Licking rocks? Petting trees? Wiggling toes in water? Unrolling toilet paper?

We graduated from peek-a-boo to hide-and-seek. You would hide behind a row of trousers in the closet. “Where are you? I can’t see you,” I would say with a serious expression on my face. You would emerge with a triumphant smile from behind aforementioned trousers. Although we kept playing the game, despite my competitive streak, you always beat me. I never got any smarter.

Every morning I have noticed your urgency in trying to prevent me from leaving for work despite the flabbergasting 2/7 chance of success. There are many concepts besides work that I have been unable to explain to you this year – business-travel, private property, illness. On the other hand, there is much that I have learned this last year. Not just about you, but about myself and about your mother. (Here’s a secret you don’t have to tell your mother and she’s not going to read this: be grateful that she is your mother). In trying to teach you patience, over the last year, I have tested, crossed, and expanded the limits of my own, and taught myself.

So much changes in a few years. You were born only two years ago. One year ago you walked. Now you can run. As you’ve grown over the last year, you’ve started to develop a mind of your own. As a parent I’ve had to wrestle simultaneously with two contradictory observations: you’re growing up too fast, and you’re not growing up fast enough. It is humbling to think that the balance will one day shift overwhelmingly in the direction of the first.

That is the way of the world. Children grow up. As Tagore has said so eloquently- “the river runs swift with a song, breaking through all barriers. But the mountain stays and remembers, and follows her with his love.”

Stay well, my son. When you wake up from your nap, we will all have some cake.

Why context is important

Earlier today I saw the following tweet sent by the account of one of India’s preeminent newspapers:

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The fact that 1 in 4 people in the world’s most technologically advanced country had no knowledge of one of the primary tenets of science came as a shock to me, as it did to everyone else reading it. To get a bit of context, I searched for the original data obtained through a questionnaire on general awareness by the National Science Foundation of the United States. It is available as part of a very interesting report here.

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I haven’t had time to digest all of the data yet, but it seems that a very large proportion of people worldwide who are literate (by the standards of the general definition) are scientifically illiterate. It turns out that Americans, or at least those surveyed did not do as poorly on many questions as those in other parts of the world.

To me at least, what seemed most worrisome with respect to the United States were the two questions in which it fared the worst – tied to evolution and the acceptance of the Big Bang theory. I’m not aware of any conservative organization in the US which promotes geocentricism, but I know of many in this country which take the immutability of the humans species and the creation stories of the Abrahamic religions at face value.

Is objectivity in science possible?

Most scientists will tell you that the fashionable field of philosophy of science has failed spectacularly to influence how practicing scientists work or to provide any clues to the operation of any part of the universe. Nowhere has the clash been as obvious as on the battlegrounds of epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and possible extent of knowledge. Leading philosophers have taken, for lack of a better term, a philosophical stance that the true extent of knowledge can never be known; they remain skeptical that a scientific framework for integrating the physical laws of nature (especially those concerning quantum mechanics and relativity and gravitation) or for understanding consciousness in purely physical will ever be feasible. Regardless of what we think of individual theories, I think it is important to consider, in broadest possible terms, what exactly is the extent of knowledge:

Recently, in reading Nobel Prize-winner, theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg’s excellent book Dreams of a Final Theory, I came across the following passage:

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Basically, what Weinberg is  saying is that the laws of nature are independent of the mode of discovery and that there actual is such a thing as objective knowledge.

A few days later, I came across a diametrically-opposite viewpoint propounded by eminent philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, who has the view that there is no objective science. We only have “our science,” by which he means a human science, primarily lead by the Western scientific tradition. He further theorizes that any other science, and especially that of a possible intelligent civilization would be vastly different, because it would be “their” science.

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So, who is correct?

For what it is worth, there is really no way to disprove Rescher’s idea which uses deductive reasoning  or to prove to Weinberg’s idea  which uses inductive reasoning. Rescher’s thesis that there is another science  will always be feasible, because we will continue to be humans, and his underlying deductive principle that humans cannot know any other science will be valid. On the other hand, Weinberg won’t ever be able to prove that science is objective. Just because everything we know up to now seems to support our assertion of an objective truth, doesn’t mean that what we will learn later will necessarily support this theory. Note how Weinberg builds in a “fail-safe” to his argument: everything we know is part of current objective knowledge; however, as our own knowledge changes, there will be “tweaks” to our objectivity.

Of course, given the logical foundations of these two viewpoints, the jury might be out for a very long time on who is correct.

(OK, I’m not going to hedge my bet on this one, though that would be the safe and easy thing to do especially when the alternative involves contradicting a Nobel Prize winning physicist. But, you already know from my last blogpost that I prefer deductive reasoning to inductive reasoning.)

Perceptions are landscapes. Memories are works of art.

I was not feeling well. In a feverish delirium, and for no apparent reason, I began to recall a house I often visited in my childhood. I remembered that when I last visited this house, it seemed greatly in need of repairs. The family that lived there had fallen on hard times. It seemed that over the course of fifteen years of use, the house had worn down quite a bit. I was disappointed because I was remembering a place as it was and comparing it to an ideal vision deeply embedded in my memory. But what shook me the most was that the house seemed smaller than I had remembered it. How could that even be physically possible? Surely, the outer dimensions had not changed? Were there more people and objects inside making the dimensions seem different? Or had my own perception of it changed? Perhaps, both were true.

Memory is a hostile witness. I first saw the Grand Canyon on a cold morning when I was nine. It was a different Grand Canyon from the one I saw decades later, even though I could trace landmarks I had seen the first time. The basic assumption I make every is that the world changes interminably, but my memory is perfect. But where are the benchmarks to compare against? Proteins decay. Neurons find new connections. Memories are mutable. I change every day. How can I truly conclude that I’m even the same person after all these years?

And it is not just me. Stars exist as celestial bodies in three dimensions. We see stars in the sky in two dimensions in relation to other stars. We arbitrarily connect stars to form constellations. By finding patterns, we influence what others see in the sky as well. Meanwhile, the stars drift away. They burn out. The relation of memories to objectivity is similar.

Then again, what exactly is an objective world anyway? An objective experience cannot occur, since everything that happens must be subjectively compared to an earlier experience, either personal or learned, to make any sense of it. Every perception is filtered through senses and through the capacity for thinking. There are various wavelengths of light that correspond to what we call colors, but we cannot say objectively that colors exist beyond collective human thought. The other senses fair even worse. Henri Poincaré was singularly insightful when he said that objective reality was that which had been determined by the consensus of several thinking beings. In other words, there is no “reality” devoid of individual cognition and there is no “objectivity” apart from the rules which are agreed upon by our fellow humans. A frog in a well can know that the world is the well, but cannot know what lies outside of it. That is the sum of human experience.

But as sobering as this thought is, possessing a feeble intellect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even with an unreliable memory and limited capacity for thought, there is much to be learned. There are commonalities we can find with each other and with our planet. Every emotion is a gift. Perceptions are landscapes subject to shifts in weather. Memories are limited works of art. Endowed even with an idiosyncratic wellspring of consciousness, life is a beautiful thing.

On missing my favorite holiday

Im staring out the window at the grey sky and the leafless trees. I take a sip of tea to soothe my raspy throat. I have been congested for the past week, but it is just as well that I can steal a few moments before I head into another marathon meeting at work. This is mildly depressing. This used to be my favorite day of the year. This used to be the day I looked forward to the most.

 I remember how Saraswati Puja, the day when we all got together to celebrate wisdom, used to be. I remember heading out on a rickshaw with baba to school-bazaar the night before to pick out a painted clay murti of the goddess. The face always used to be covered with newspaper, only to be revealed at the time of worship. One the way back, we would stop at a fruit-sellers to pick up oranges, bananas, and kul (which we were told not to eat before Saraswati Puja).

 The morning of Saraswati Puja, after a bathing, I would wear a dhuti and a panjabi and get ready for the puja. Up until my late teen years, baba used to perform the puja, but armed with a panji and a book of Sanskrit hymns, I took over shortly thereafter. That was one of the appealing aspects of Saraswati Puja. All of us knew the vandana and the arati. Worship of the Goddess of Learning was an unpretentious affair that happened in thousands of households like mine. You did not need to go to a neighborhood puja mandap to offer your respects like you would for Durga Puja or Kali Puja, although you might receive an invitation to attend Saraswati pujas at your own school or college. Indeed, Saraswati was a member of the family who visited every year: her blessings and aspirations in granting us knowledge through books and through music were as genteel and meekly bourgeois like we were.

 Every year on the day of the puja, I would place my textbooks at the feet of the goddess and it was the one day in the year when not studying was socially sanctioned (with the convention being that if you studied on Saraswati Puja, you lost whatever little knowledge was in your possession). Of course, you had to be selective about the books that you chose because you couldnt just dump them all there. After all, the space at the feet of the goddess was prized real-estate and there were other people in the family too. I seem to recall always picking particularly tricky subjects like mathematics and physics, though whatever blessings I got from the goddess helped little during my exams. Perhaps there is wisdom in not doing well in exams? Maybe that was the lesson for me.

 Cutting the fruits was a very important job, and one that my grandmother, starting at the crack of dawn, would cheerfully take on each year. After the puja was completed, it was acceptable to consume the prasad of cut fruits. Only after everyone had consumed the prasad, and by that time it was likely late afternoon, could you venture outside to see the other para and public pujas (often with socially relevant tableaus). It was the one day in the year, when all the girls wore saris and some of the foolhardy boys (and you can count me in this group) wore dhuti-panjabis. I remember the eager anticipation on that day of meeting the special person in my life (and there is no real drama or twist to this story, because she is still the special person in my life, only were married). Otherwise, we never thought of Saraswati Puja as an equivalent of “Bengali Valentine’s Day,” though I hear it is often marketed as such now.

 Ironically, it was after I went abroad to actually gain further my education that I became disconnected from Saraswati Puja altogether. The last time I celebrated in 2000 was special in many ways. It was the last year my extended family was together in the home we lived in to celebrate, and it was just before my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer. 

 Ultimately, Saraswati Puja, like all important holidays, is about family. It is worth celebrating, even if you have to make modifications suited to your current life. I cant celebrate today because Im about to head to a meeting, but I can defiantly mumble the hymns while I blankly stare at a presentation in a conference room. And the weekend is only a few days away. Maybe this year we will place some of our books in front of an image of the goddess on a tablet acquaint our son with an abbreviated version of the rituals we are familiar with.

(Originally published as a column here)

A horror story

– Can you tell me a scary story today, baba?
–Do you want to hear about demons? Perhaps, villainous creatures that lurk in the night?
– No, those are all boring. Can you tell me something that is really horrifying?
– Yes, I think I can.
–Does this story have ghosts?
– No, this story is even more frightening than ghosts, because it is real. Let me tell you a secret first. Everything you see around you seems to follow certain predictable laws that you’ve been observing since you were born.
– And?
– And, today I am going to tell you that these laws work, but that they are not always true. What you have noticed in your life has been by a process we grown-ups call inductive reasoning. It is something a very bright man by the name of Sir Isaac Newton used to describe the world. He saw the world pretty much the same way that you see it.
– If he was a smart man, then why isn’t what he saw true?
– Well, there was another smart man, Albert Einstein who said that notions like space and time are connected and our observation of objects and time depends on how fast we are moving.
– I am not moving!
– I hate to disappoint your worldview, son, but we are all moving. You, me, the earth, the sun, the galaxy, the stars.
– That’s not too scary, I guess.
– Wait, there’s more. At another level, there are another set of rules that are the opposite of what even Einstein thought. And people call this quantum mechanics.
– I don’t much care for names. Why should I be scared of this?
– Because this is a real world around us. It is hidden to our eyes, because it is very tiny.
– Smaller than my Lego parts?
– Smaller than your Lego parts. These are, in fact the smallest parts. And there is even a small piece of light called a photon.
– If these parts are so small, how do I know they are there?
– That is because we can see what they do and smart men can do sums that show they’re there.
– Huh… but baba, why is this scary?
– Because in this world, things can be at multiple places at the same time, until you look for them. And then they show up in one. And then when you try to describe one thing, it affects some other different thing at the other end of the universe at the same time.
– But how can something be at more than one place, baba? How can it change something else far away?
– No one knows. Another smart man, Erwin Schrödinger tried to explain quantum theory by saying that there was a cat that was both dead and alive.
– How can a cat be both dead and alive? What will I see if I look at the cat?
– Well, if you look at the cat, it will be either dead or alive. It will be both until you look at it, then it will become either. At the same time you look. Not before. Not after.
– How is all this even possible?
– Because you are part of the story. That is the truly scary part. There are many reasons people give. Some people say that this is just the way it is. Some people say there are infinite parallel universes. Some people can do sums about wiggly strings that look very hard, so they must be on to something.
– So, what you’re saying is we don’t know?
– What I’m saying is we don’t know.
– I’m scared. I want my ma.

 

 

Of shifting rivers, shipwrecked colonialists, and Calcutta

The sky and the water were two different shades of mud. The distant bank where the Rupnarayan River met the Hooghly distributary of the Ganges River was a thin sliver. Walking along the road that hugged the side of the Hooghly, we noticed more silt and the carcasses of various rusting ships that had been abandoned. A group of street urchins began to follow us. We reached the edge of docks when one pointed out what appeared to a human leg with a tennis shoe floating next to the steel support of docks. Perhaps, someone had fallen over and had been carried away by the treacherous currents to this spot. The confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly rivers was a graveyard for both ships and humans.

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But it wouldn’t be the first time that such a tragedy befell someone. History is replete with many similar tales involving both local villagers and colonialists who were sucked in by the ever-shifting quicksand and silt of these rivers.

How much had the Gangetic delta of West Bengal changed over the centuries? I was curious, so I turned to all the sources I could find. In The Early Annals of The English In Bengal by Charles Robert Wilson, published in 1895, there is a valuable hand-drawn map depicting the course of the Hooghly River based on maps of early colonialists from the sixteenth century. I superimposed this map on to a current day aerial map of the delta region of the Hooghly River from Google Maps. I discovered that while much of the Hooghly River traversed a remarkably similar path even after more than four centuries, the deltaic region was markedly different. Of course, comparing a hand-drawn map of early colonialists with a more exact modern map invariably lead to some differences in scale, but even in my lifetime the landscape of the deltaic region of Bengal had been changing due to the massive amounts of sediment the rivers carried from across the Gangetic Plains.

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Even one hundred years ago, Nayachar, a large island off the coast of the port town Haldia, did not exist, though it can easily be spotted on a map and visited today.

When Job Charnock established the city of Calcutta as the hub of the East Indian Company at the site of local villages on the Hooghly River, little could he have known that it would soon become one of the most significant cities in the most powerful empire the world has ever known.  To establish the foundations of the mercantile and colonial powers, it immediately became essential to navigate the shape-shifting Hooghly River to ship men, materials, and ideas for the establishment of the imperialist infrastructure. But Charnock, who is now buried in a quiet spot at Park Street in the city he founded, did not live long enough to see Calcutta become a world city and an outpost of the British Empire in Asia.

In 1693, Francis Ellis became Charnock’s immediate successor. The noted writer, Sir Evan Cotton recalls in Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical & Descriptive Handbook to the City (1907) that Ellis was “a man of little character or ability.” Back then seas and rivers were highways, train-lines, and air-routes combined. Disaster struck the young colonial city within a year of Ellis assumed office, though in this case, to no immediate fault of his own. Cotton recounts the story of The Royal James and Mary which was on its way to Calcutta from Sumatra with a valuable cargo of trading supplies. On 24 September, 1694, this ship struck a dreaded shoal at the junction of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan rivers, near the spot I was visiting. The Royal James and Mary quickly turned over and sank, thus giving rise to the name of two moving quicksands “James and Mary” that would plague numerous travelers for centuries. In fact, navigating the last stretch of river extending from the Bay of Bengal up to Calcutta was perhaps more difficult that passage across the oceans!

During most of the 1800s through the early `1900s when the Hooghly was still navigable up to Calcutta for large vessels, such was the value of this route and the difficulty in its passage that there were expert “pilot sahibs” in the employ of the British Raj who guided ships through the last stretch.  Cotton says of these expert navigators that they were familiar with “every inch of the eastern channel” and that they knew all the tales of the wrecks therein.  Because the river bed changed more or less daily, charts were completely useless. Current river conditions were recorded hourly, much in the same manner than meteorological and traffic data is noted today, and these data were telegraphed up to Calcutta, from where it could be transmitted to stations down the coast. The development of the telegraph in India, and the first experimental lines from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour (which later extended down to Khejuri) was therefore necessary to stay up-to-date with the conditions of the Hooghly and Rupnarayan rivers.

The importance of keeping the river navigable cannot be understated. Calcutta, was the seat of the British Empire in the jewel in the crown. In those days, navigation from Europe was almost exclusively by sea. One could leave for Calcutta by steamer from ports as far away as Southampton and Marseilles.

Calcutta

The city was very different back then as well. The vast plain, or Maidan of Calcutta, was during the late 1700s, a massive swamp, and many solid streets that came up in later centuries were navigable waterways. Devastating cyclonic storms impacted the city, which resembled more Venice than it did London.

Travel to Calcutta remained perilous through the 1800s. The British administrator and archivist, William Wilson Hunter commented on the perils of travel to Calcutta via the Hooghly river in his monumental series, The Imperial Gazetteer of India in 1885. He writes, “shifting quicksands are rapidly formed, and the channels have to be watched and sounded and supervised with almost the minute accuracy which a watchmaker would give to the repair of a delicate timepiece. If a vessel touches the bottom, she is pushed over by the current.” Many ships sank quickly in the water, including the ill-fated County of Stirling which sank in 1877 in eight minutes and a British steamer in 1878, which capsized in two minutes, resulting in great loss of property and life.

One of the most captivating eyewitness accounts of the difficulty in navigating the Hooghly River sandbanks is provided by a British solider, John Arthur Bayley, on his first assignment to India in Reminiscences of School and Army Life, 1839 to 1859 (1875). Bayley wrote at length on the horror of capsizing in what seemed to him to be a calm stretch of river.

“Everybody was on deck and the officers of the ship were pointing out the position of the quicksand which a ship of large size towed by a steamer was on the point of crossing just before them, The steamer with her long tow rope had followed a bend in the river, but the ship being badly steered followed the chord of the arc. Suddenly, it was evident that something was wrong with her, and she slowly heeled over.”

“’She’s touched,’ cried the crew of the Barham, and touched she had with a vengeance, for in half an hour, ship, masts, and all had disappeared, the crew having just had time to escape in their boats.”

So much has changed in hundreds of years. The British left. Bengal was partitioned. Calcutta became Kolkata. In the interim, many other forms of transportation developed and travel by ship across the kalapani  to Britain is not on anyone’s mind anymore.

Sitting by the bank, still, I couldn’t help but share Bayley’s thoughts. The confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly seemed so wide. The water seemed calm. There were people living in huts right up to the edge of the water.

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It is very much a false sense of security. The swift currents and the dangerous sandbanks have not gone away, as our discovery of the dead man in the water reminded. I recall a report in The Telegraph newspaper from just the last decade. One of the few passenger liners  that still embark from Kolkata (for Port Blair) MV Harshavardhan, ran into silt close the confluence of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan rivers in 2002 with 700 people onboard. Fortunately, Indian Coast Guard was able to rush to the spot, so there was no loss of life. The ship was also salvaged, so ultimately this story has a happy ending.

Clouds descended over the rivers. So many ships with buried treasures and the ghosts of passengers were hidden in these murky waters.

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