A brief history of the history of timekeeping

We take for granted that things are as they should be often without understanding why. Clock hands move “Clockwise” because they followed sundials. If human civilizations had developed primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, “clockwise” would be in the opposite direction.

Do you ever wonder why there are 60 seconds to a minute and 60 minutes to an hour? Blame the Babylonians. They loved the number 60 and used it as a base for their mathematics. There are many theories as to why the Babylonians liked 60, but the most plausible is that 60 is a useful number that can be divided by many others like 1,2,3,4,5, and 6 (and the Babylonians didn’t use fractions). That’s why there are also 6X60=360 degrees in a circle.

The single greatest development in time-keeping was the pendulum. Galileo was said to have thought of it on seeing the periodic motion of an incense bowl in the nave of a monastery. Though Huygens was the first to apply it to clocks.

Before train travel become common in the mid-1800s there was no concept of standardized time. Every town decided it’s own time based on the position of the sun, and kept an official clock.

In Bangla, we use “muhurta” quite differently from its original meaning, roughly corresponding to 48 minutes of standard time. We use it synonymously with “palak”, the time for the blink of an eyelid!


Faraday and the Royal Society

A bookbinder’s apprentice got enthralled by a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica and a slim book of chemistry written for English ladies of the day. He then went on to change the course of history by developing the basic principles that power all of modern society.

More than anyone else, Michael Faraday was the “purest” experimental scientist. He’s the reason why we have practical applications for electricity.

In Faraday’s time, there were only around 100 professional scientists in England, but each was a giant. Everyone wanted to be a member of the Royal Society and hang out there. Among other things, the Royal Society published the first scientific journal. Some of the most epic feuds of all time (in science at least) happened at the Royal Society- Newton vs. Hooke; Faraday vs. Davy. Think about it: the guy who coined the most important term in biology, “cell” vs. the father of modern physics; the guy who was one of the greatest chemists of all time vs. the guy who made electricity practical for humanity…

And these guys hated each other on a personal level!

Climate change and a horror story

Here is a fantastic, nearly implausible story about how climate change in the early 1800s lead to one of the most iconic horror stories in history.

The year 1816, was known throughout Europe as “the Year Without a Summer”. There was snow in June and July and massive food shortages. Overall, there were drastic weather changes globally. The cause of the summerless 1816, was the massive eruption of the volcano Mt Tambora in 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa. This was the largest volcanic eruption in human history. For reference, the eruption of Mt. Tambora was 1,000 times greater than the eruption of the impossible to pronounce volcano that caused travel disruptions in Iceland in 2010! At least 70,000 died immediately from the eruption of Mt. Tambora and ~200,000 the following year.

Fast forward to 1816. To escape the dreary weather back in London, a young group of poets decided to go to Switzerland. On Lake Geneva, they encountered major thunderstorms due to volcano-induced climate change, and were forced to stay indoors and tell ghost stories.

As it happens, during one of these thunderstorms one of these poets (Lord Byron) asked the rest of the group to write ghost stories. Present in Geneva that evening were PB Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley).

In Geneva, Mary Godwin conceived the story we now know as Frankenstein.

Climate change created Frankenstein, literally!

Urdu is Greek to me

A peculiarity of the Washington D.C. area is that many of taxi-drivers are South Asian immigrants, mostly of Pakistani origin. I don’t know if it is the shared first-generation immigrant experience or the sense that you can tell another brown person in a language you share, things you wouldn’t otherwise share with complete strangers, but I’ve had some interesting conversations on taxi-rides of various durations.The introduction phase as I enter the cab usually follows a pattern. The cabdriver takes a quick look at me and asks, “Where are you from?” to which I answer “India”. The next question directed to me is, “do you speak Urdu?” to which I reply, “Hindi”. The taxi driver then dismissingly responds, “Ah, ek hi baat hai… It’s the same thing.” And then we proceed to converse in a completely intelligible language.

Of course, after I find out the cab-driver is a Pakistani who speaks Urdu to my Indian Hindi, I unconsciously search for differences in our languages. More often than not, the speaker uses the (aap) aao/baitho verbs that I typically associate with Punjab/Haryana, instead of the aayen/baithen of formal airline announcements or the daily-use North Indian aiye/baithiye. In other words, my Urdu-speaking cab-driver in North Virginia usually sounds like a Punjabi Hindi-speaking cab-driver in Delhi. How disappointing!

So what exactly is Urdu?

Of course there are volumes written on this topic, and I’m sure all of them are right. But I’ve realized that I never really thought of this question in a meaningful personal way.

I learned rudimentary Hindi after I had already picked up Bangla quite well. As such, like many non-native speakers of the language, I searched for similarities with Bangla. My first exposure with very Sanskritized Hindi was in watching the hugely popular Mahabharat (scripted by the late Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza). I was elated. Here was a Hindi with kintu/evam (instead of the more common magar/aur) that sounded very much like an educated man’s Bangla. I’d argue that because of mutual intelligibility with other Indic languages through copious use of Sanskrit, Ramayan and Mahabharat immediately made Hindi approachable to non-native speakers at a scale that even Bollywood had not achieved.

A few years later The Sword of Tipu Sultan aired on national television. Probably, by most measures, it could be called Urdu or Urdu-influenced. It introduced me to qaum and watan-parasti. But, ironically, as I think back to those days now, I never considered it Urdu either.

So what did I think was Urdu back then?

Urdu was always the other language, the one I didn’t understand. Anything I understood was Hindi. Regardless of whether it was a kavita or shayari or geet or ghazal, if I could make sense of nearly all the words, it was Hindi. There was no empiric formula: zindagi was as much Hindi as jivan was. Of course if Mahadevi Verma had been written in Nastaliq it would be Urdu to me. Faiz was always Urdu to me, but I’m sure Greek to many people who do claim to understand Urdu.  

But the important point that I’ve come to realize only now is that Urdu was always defined in my mind as an exclusionary construct- the other language, the one I couldn’t make sense of in script or speech. It was the language that other people who lived elsewhere, particularly in Pakistan knew. I’m not sure how this otherisation developed in my mind, but definitely the difference in script played a major part.

Of course by virtue of living in the United States, I’ve got plenty of friends and coworkers both Pakistani and Indian. When we speak, we shift back and forth seamlessly between English and Hindi or Urdu or whatever the mutually intelligible language is. Sometimes, they insert words that I’m not exactly sure I know the meaning of, and I’m sure I do the same. But the structure of the common language is the same. And, through the process of coming in touch with new words originating from Persian or Arabic or Sanskrit, to the ones I know, I’m increasing my stock of synonyms. I think both our languages are better for it.


On moving

I had to pause before I turned the key for the last time. Nearly every day over the past five years, I had been at this very door.

For this was the place we called “home”. Inside those walls, was the room that our newborn son slept in the day we brought him home from the hospital. There was the window where I rocked him as he gazed at the moon and stars. These were the walls from which we hung decorations for his first and second birthdays. There was the carpet on which he first learned to walk. There was the balcony from which he first saw the sun, clouds, rain, and snow.

Then, a few days ago, we packed large boxes with the objects that had occupied the spaces within those walls. We took the furniture and the boxes out of that home and placed them inside another enclosure of walls. We left that address permanently.

During the cleaning and boxing process, I found many knickknacks I had either lost or had forgotten acquiring. As a final act of jealous defiance, the rooms also coughed up loose change and dust by the handful. And then once it had been stripped of all of our possessions, the rooms looked small and naked. How had we ever fit so many things in here? How had we found the space for so many footsteps and voices and emotions? How had we filled these rooms with so many days and nights and thoughts and memories?

All of us need the concept of a home as a reference point as we crisscross the earth. But our homes are not only spatial constructs, they are locked in time and memory. Notions of homes change faster than recollections of years spent in them. Until one day, we cannot stay any longer.

Galaxies and stars move: our planet is in constant motion. Like them, we are restless wanderers who flit from one place to another: we are always in motion. Our motion has an added dimension in that it is conscious.

I have changed residences many times in my life. I moved away from the soil of my ancestors. Moving is never easy, but it is essential. Only when you are exiled from the place you call home, can you think of creating another one for yourself.

It is necessary to be separated from a home to gain an awareness of it and to cherish the notion of it. But there is pain in exile. A line from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” sums up the emotion: “You will have to abandon everything you love most tenderly, and that is the arrow that the bow of exile first lets fly.”

As I locked the door of my home for the last time that day, I knew that place would soon become home for another family, who would have their own stories to tell. We would also have a home of our very own, at least for sometime, until it would be time to move again. For wandering is the only option in life.

“Moving” is taking objects from one small enclosure we call home, to another. Moving is the process of finding a resting place for physical objects we have amassed, not for us.

(Written April 23, 2014).


Is the world becoming a more intolerant place? Of course, I can’t answer that question objectively, but it certainly feels that way these days. What seem to me to be in short supply are empathy and humility. So many people I come across seem to have all the right answers, so much that they are even unwilling to entertain alternate viewpoints.

When I was younger, I seemed more certain about things. With age has come uncertainty, for which I am truly grateful. Uncertainty has added more hues to my mental palette. 

I wish I was better at listening, though. Even if my intentions are good, there are a wide array of experiences I can never have, and I need to accept that and just listen more. For example, I will never know what it is like to face misogyny. 

So much misogyny, casual racism, class discrimination, language prejudice, homophobia, and bigotry gets dismissed offhand by those who never know what it is like to face these injustices on a daily basis. Telling people that their concerns are unwarranted does nothing to make anyone feel bigger or more welcome. It serves no purpose whatsoever. 

Why can’t we all accept that we don’t get to decide how other people feel? Maybe we all need to listen more when others talk about why they hurt instead. 

The end of childhood.

When does childhood end? Is there a specific predetermined age? Or is there a vague defining moment in life when the essence of childhood is lost forever?

I think one hallmark of reaching adulthood is coming to a stage in life when problems genuinely don’t go away by themselves, you can’t pass on your own worries to others, and you have to make your own decisions by yourself. It dawns on you that you’re on your own. You have one life and very little control over it. The problems of childhood pale in comparison: a child has elders that can be turned to for guidance and comfort. A child is not out there alone, facing the true nature of the world.

In addition to children and adults, there is a third category of people– quasi-adults. These people look like adults, but they’ve never quite grown up. Due to serious developmental deficiencies they expect an omniscient, omnipotent being to listen to and answer their prayers whenever they face problems in their lives. They can’t deal with their flawed impermanence. They can’t accept that as they cling to wreckage in the whirlwind of their lives, help is not on the way from some celestial chopper.