Category Archives: Creative

At times I get a little more creating and translate a story, review a book, share my thoughts on a quote, or write something on the fictional side. Here they are…

The Moon and Sixpence

I confess that I had no idea what the title meant after I finished reading the book for the first time. My ignorance persisted even after the second perusal, although the title did suggest something like noble intentions and prosaic realities. Before the third reading, this time specifically for this blog, I decided to look it up. Like all good netizens, I consulted Wikipedia, which told me that the title was a reference to Of Human Bondage (where Philip Carey reaches for the moon while ignoring the sixpence at his feet.)

In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham chronicles the life and adventures of Paul Gauguin — an artistic genius who stepped outside the bounds of ethics and morality in a single-minded pursuit of an unknown and troubling vision of his soul (“the moon”) at the cruel expense of his friends and family (the “sixpence,” presumably.)

Unsure of how to create a perfect Frenchman (as he later confesses in The Razor’s Edge), Maugham chose to “translate” Gauguin and portrayed him as an Englishman Charles Strickland, a semi-successful, though dull London stockbroker. At the unlikely age of 42 or so, Strickland decides to abandon his family to take up painting. The need to paint is a yearning of the soul for Strickland, and it doesn’t matter that he is no good at it — yet — as he explains, “I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” While saving himself from this metaphoric drowning, Strickland is indifferent (beyond cruelty) to the rest of the world. Then again, he is just as uncompromising and cruel to himself as well.

In portraying such a difficult anti-hero, Maugham showcases all the mastery and skill he possesses. To my untrained eyes, it looks as though Maugham builds this character so carefully and painstakingly that each one of the monstrosities Strickland commits is counter-balanced in some fashion. It is indeed a fine chisel that Maugham employs in crafting this masterpiece; none of those broad, confident strokes we would see in his later works.

We find Maugham at cynical and misogynistic best (or worst, depending on the perspective) in the early part of the book, especially in his descriptions of Mrs. Strickland and her children. We should condone this appearance of misogyny as a pardonable foible of a genius, I think. More than that, I see it as an effort, a successful one, to balance the callousness of Strickland’s disappearance that soon follows.

Such balancing devices can be found throughout the book. Perhaps to soften the shock of Strickland’s seemingly inexplicable renunciation of his family, his son’s hypocritical account of his later life is cynically ridiculed right in the beginning of the book. The unfortunate Dirk Stroeve, so cruelly used by Strickland, is also a buffoon who elicits derisive laughter rather than sympathy. Stroeve’s groveling adulation of Blanche perhaps serves to iron out the overtones of sexism or misogyny permeating the story. Blanche Stroeve’s betrayal is counter balanced with her own abominable indifference to Stroeve, which, in turn, gets evened out in what she receives from Strickland — “What an abyss of cruelty she must have looked into that in horror she refused to live.” Strickland, curiously, walks unaffected through all this death and mayhem, larger than life, tortured by his own private agonies of the soul well beyond our comprehension and his own. Even in his callousness, what Strickland invokes in Maugham and even Stroeve is, not merely a natural indignation, but an overwhelming compassion — astonishingly. The misplaced compassion is perhaps a device to prepare the reader for Strickland’s sordid and horrible death.

Maugham employs a variety of techniques to make the narration sound natural. If I was a fiction writer, I would study these techniques very carefully and try to employ them myself. To begin with, Strickland is a fictional portrayal of Gauguin, but Maugham takes great pains to pretend that the narration is not fictional. Even the narrator (Maugham himself) is portrayed as fallible, and contritely so, to lend credibility to the narration. For instance, Maugham gets exasperated at Stroeve’s weakness and is later ashamed of himself for getting angry.

The book has its elitist moments. When asked if it was better not to have known, Stroeve replies: “The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.” It is as though the gift of inquiry and knowledge is given to a precious few — a special club to which Stroeve and Maugham are privy. This elitist attitude permeates not only Maugham’s works, but all great works of literature; it is only by masking his sense of superiority that an author or a thinker projects himself as non-elitist.

Perhaps it is some knowledge, or a vision of the world that Strickland’s soul yearned to share with the rest of us. Such communication is beyond language — a medium unequal to the task even when masterfully employed. Visual arts come closer. In Strickland’s tragic and cruel plight, along with that of almost all characters in the story, we see one eternal question. What is it that we are really after? Is it happiness? If so, Charles Strickland certainly didn’t find it. Very few do. Is it glory? Strickland did find that, albeit after his death.

Death is the great equalizer. It brings us back to the nothingness we spring from, however high we may fly or however low we may sink during the brief instant in between. The wisdom of the wise, the ignorance of the masses, the grandeur of the accomplished, the glory, the baseness — all matter very little when faced with such complete finality. In Strickland, Maugham has depicted the heights of glory as well as the nadir of baseness. The Moon and Sixpence — perhaps I have understood its meaning after all.

Photo by griannan

Einstein on God and Dice

Although Einstein is best known for his theories of relativity, he was also the main driving force behind the advent of quantum mechanics (QM). His early work in photo-voltaic effect paved way for future developments in QM. And he won the Nobel prize, not for the theories of relativity, but for this early work.

It then should come as a surprise to us that Einstein didn’t quite believe in QM. He spent the latter part of his career trying to device thought experiments that would prove that QM is inconsistent with what he believed to be the laws of nature. Why is it that Einstein could not accept QM? We will never know for sure, and my guess is probably as good as anybody else’s.

Einstein’s trouble with QM is summarized in this famous quote.

It is indeed difficult to reconcile the notions (or at least some interpretations) of QM with a word view in which a God has control over everything. In QM, observations are probabilistic in nature. That is to say, if we somehow manage to send two electrons (in the same state) down the same beam and observe them after a while, we may get two different observed properties.

We can interpret this imperfection in observation as our inability to set up identical initial states, or the lack of precision in our measurements. This interpretation gives rise to the so-called hidden variable theories — considered invalid for a variety of reasons. The interpretation currently popular is that uncertainty is an inherent property of nature — the so-called Copenhagen interpretation.

In the Copenhagen picture, particles have positions only when observed. At other times, they should be thought of as kind of spread out in space. In a double-slit interference experiment using electrons, for instance, we should not ask whether a particular electron takes on slit or the other. As long as there is interference, it kind of takes both.

The troubling thing for Einstein in this interpretation would be that even God would not be able to make the electron take one slit or the other (without disturbing the interference pattern, that is). And if God cannot place one tiny electron where He wants, how is he going to control the whole universe?

La logique

[The last of my French redactions to be blogged, this one wasn’t such a hit with the class. They expected a joke, but what they got was, well, this. It was written the day after I watched an air show on TV where the French were proudly showcasing their fighter technology.]

[In English first]

Science is based on logic. And logic is based on our experiences — what we learn during our life. But, because our experiences are incomplete, our logic can be wrong. And our science can lead us to our demise. When I watched the fighter planes on TV, I started thinking about the energy and effort we spend on trying to kill ourselves. It seems to me that our logic here had to be wrong.

A few months ago, I read a short story (by O.V. Vijayan, as a matter of fact) about a chicken who found itself in a cage. Everyday, by noon, the little window of the cage would open, a man’s hand would appear and give the chicken something to eat. It went on for 99 days. And the chicken concluded:

“Noon, hand, food — good!”

On the hundredth day, by noon, the hand appeared again. The chicken, all happy and full of gratitude, waited for something to eat. But this time, the hand caught it by the neck and strangled it. Because of realities beyond its experience, the chicken became dinner on that day. I hope we human beings can avoid such eventualities.

Les sciences sont basées sur la logique. Et la logique se base sur les expériences – ce que nous apprenons dans notre vie. Mais, comme nos expériences ne sont pas toujours completes, notre logique peut avoir tort. Et nos sciences peuvent nous diriger vers notre destruction. Lorsque je regardais les avions de combat à la télé, ils m’ont fait penser à l’énergie et aux efforts que nous gaspillons en essayant de nous tuer. Il me paraît que la
logique ici doit avoir tort.

J’ai lu une petite histoire d’une poule il y a quelques mois. Elle s’est trouvée dans une cage, un homme l’y avait mise. Chaque jour, vers midi, la petite fenêtre de la cage s’ouvrait, une main se montrait avec de quoi manger pour la poule. Ça s’est passé comme ça pendant quatre-vingt-dix-neuf jours. Et la poule a pensé:

“Aha, midi, main, manger – bien!”

Le centième jour est arrivé. Le midi, la main s’est montrée. La poule, toute heureuse et pleine de gratitude, attendait de quoi manger. Mais, cette fois, la main l’a prise par le cou et l’a étranglée. A cause des réalités au-delà de ses expériences, la poule est devenue le diner ce jour-là. J’espère que nous pourrons éviter les éventualités de cette sorte.

La chienne

[Another of my French “redactions,” this piece is a translation of a joke, which perhaps didn’t translate too well. I was told that the French version was in poor taste. Now, reading it again, I feel that the English version doesn’t fare much better. You be the judge!]

[In English first]

Once, an American was in England. In a public bus, he saw an English lady sitting with her little dog, occupying two seats. The bus was crowded and many passengers were standing. The smart American, inspired, asked the lady very nicely: “Ma’am, if we put your poodle on your lap, one of us standing could sit. Much appreciated.”

To his surprise, the lady didn’t pay any attention to him. A little miffed, he repeated his request. The lady ignored him with a disdainful look. Americans are men of action, and don’t waste words (where guns and bombs would suffice, as we know). Embarrassed, and being quite American, he picked up the dog and threw it out the window and sat down in its place.

An English gentleman across the aisle was watching the whole exchange. He tut-tutted disapprovingly and said, “You Americans! Whatever you do, you do it wrong. You drive on the wrong side of the street. You hold your fork in the wrong hand. Wrong habits, wrong clothes, wrong manners! Now see what you have done!”

The American was on the defensive. “I didn’t do anything wrong. It was her fault, and you know it.”

The English gent explained, “Yes my dear fellow, but you threw the wrong bitch out the window!”

Une fois, un Américain alla en Angleterre. Dans un bus de transport en commun, il aperçut une Anglaise et son petit chien assis, occupant deux sièges. Il y avait du monde dans le bus et des personnes qui se tenaient debout. L’Américain, étant malin, eut une bonne idée. Il demanda à l’Anglaise très poliment,
“Madame, si vous mettiez votre chien sur vos genoux, une des personnes debout pourrait s’asseoir.

À son grand étonnement, l’Anglaise ne tint aucun compte de sa demande. Gênè, il répéta sa demande. L’Anglaise le regarda avec dédain et resta toujours désagréable. Les américains ne perdent pas de mots, ils sont des hommes d’action. Embarrassé et étant assez américain, il prit le chien, le jeta dehors du bus et s’assit.

Il y avait un Anglais en face qui remarqua tout ce qui se passait. Il dit,
“Les Américains! Quoique vous fassiez, vous le faites mal! Dans la rue, vous conduisez du mauvais côté. Au diner, vous prenez la fourchette avec la mauvause main. Mauvaises habitudes, mauvaises coutumes, mauvaise morale! Et maintenant, regardez ce que vous avez fait.”

L’Américain était sur la défensive,
“Et qu’est-ce que j’ai fait? C’était sa faute, et vous le savez!”

L’Anglais lui répondit,
“Oui, oui. Mais vous avez jeté la mauvaise chienne du bus!”

La pauvre famille

[English version below]

Je connaissais une petite fille très riche. Un jour, son professeur lui a demandé de faire une rédaction sur une famille pauvre. La fille était étonnée:

“Une famille pauvre?! Qu’est-ce que c’est ça?”

Elle a demandé à sa mère:

“Maman, Maman, qu’est-ce que c’est une famille pauvre? Je n’arrive pas à faire ma rédaction.”

La mère lui a répondu:

“C’est simple, chérie. Une famille est pauvre quand tout le monde dans la famille est pauvre”

La petite fille a pensé:

“Ah! Ce n’est pas difficile”

et elle a fait sa rédaction. Le lendemain, le professeur lui a dit:

“Bon, lis-moi ta rédaction.”

Voici la réponse:

“Une famille pauvre. Il était une fois une famille pauvre. Le père était pauvre, la mère était pauvre, les enfants étaient pauvres, le jardinier était pauvre, le chauffeur était pauvre, les bonnes étaient pauvres. Voilà, la famille était très pauvre!”

In English

I once knew a rich girl. One day, her teacher at school asked her to write a piece on a poor family. The girl was shocked. “What in the world is a poor family?”

So she asked her mother, “Mummy, mummy, you’ve got to help me with my composition. What is a poor family?”

Her mother said, “That’s really simple, sweetheart. A family is poor when everybody in the family is poor.”

The rich girl thought, “Aha, that is not too difficult,” and she wrote up a piece.

The next day, her teacher asked her, “Well, let’s hear your composition.”

Here is what the girl said, “A Poor Family. Once upon a time, there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the gardener was poor, the driver was poor, the maids were poor. So the family was very poor!”

1984

All great books have one thing in common. They present deep philosophical inquiries, often clad in superb story lines. Or is it just my proclivity to see philosophy where none exists?

In 1984, the immediate story is of a completely totalitarian regime. Inwardly, 1984 is also about ethics and politics. It doesn’t end there, but goes into nested philosophical inquiries about how everything is eventually connected to metaphysics. It naturally ends up in solipsism, not merely in the material, metaphysical sense, but also in a spiritual, socio-psychological sense where the only hope, the only desired outcome of life, becomes death.

I think I may be giving away too much of my impressions in the first paragraph. Let’s take it step by step. We all know that totalitarianism is bad. It is a bad political system, we believe. The badness of totalitarianism can present itself at different levels of our social existence.

At the lowest level, it can be a control over our physical movements, physical freedom, and restrictions on what you can or cannot do. Try voting against a certain African “president” and you get beaten up, for instance. Try leaving certain countries, you get shot.

At a higher level, totalitarianism can be about financial freedom. Think of those in the developed world who have to juggle three jobs just to put food on the table. At a progressively subtler level, totalitarianism is about control of information. Example: media conglomerates filtering and coloring all the news and information we receive.

At the highest level, totalitarianism is a fight for your mind, your soul, and your spiritual existence. 1984 presents a dystopia where totalitarianism is complete, irrevocable, and existing at all levels from physical to spiritual.

Another book of the same dystopian kind is The Handmaid’s Tale, where a feminist’s nightmare of a world is portrayed. Here, the focus is on religious extremism, and the social and sexual subjugation brought about by it. But the portrayal of the world gone hopelessly totalitarian is similar to 1984.

Also portraying a dark dystopia is V for Vendentta, with torture and terrorism thrown in. This work is probably inspired by 1984, I have to look it up.

It is the philosophical points in 1984 that make it the classic it is. The past, for instance, is a matter of convention. If everybody believes (or is forced to believe) that events took place in a certain way, then that is the past. History is written by the victors. Knowing that, how can you trust the greatness of the victors or the evil in the vanquished? Assume for a second that Hitler had actually won the Second World War. Do you think we would’ve still thought of him as evil? I think we would probably think of him as the father of the modern world or something. Of course, we would be having this conversation (if we were allowed to exist and have conversations at all) in German.

Even at a personal level, the past is not as immutable as it seems. Truth is relative. Lies repeated often enough become truth. All these points are describe well in 1984, first from Winston’s point of view and later, in the philosophically sophisticated discourses of O’Brien. In a world existing in our own brain, where the phenomenal reality as we see it is far from the physical one, morality does lose a bit of its glamor. Metaphysics can erode on ethics. Solipsism can annihilate it.

A review, especially one in a blog, doesn’t have to be conventional. So let me boldly outline my criticisms of 1984 as well. I believe that the greatest fear of a normal human being is the fear of death. After all, the purpose of life is merely to live a little longer. Everything that our biological faculties do stem from the desire to exist a little longer.

Based on this belief of mine, I find certain events in 1984 a bit incongruous. Why is it that Winston and Julia don’t fear death, but still fear the telescreens and gestapo-like police? Perhaps the fear of pain overrides the fear of death. What do I know, I have never been tortured.

But even the fear of pain can be understood in terms of the ultimate fear. Pain is a messenger of bodily harm, ergo of possible death. But fear of rats?! Perhaps irrational phobias, existing at a sub-cognitive, almost physical, layer may be stronger than everything else. But I cannot help feeling that there is something amiss, something contrived, in the incarceration and torture parts of 1984.

May be Orwell didn’t know how to portray spiritual persecution. Luckily, none of us knows. So such techniques as rats and betrayal were employed to bring about the hideousness of the process. This part of the book leaves me a bit dissatisfied. After all, our protagonists knew full well what they were getting into, and what the final outcome would be. If they knew their spirit would be broken, then why leave it out there to be broken?

Les fermier

[English version in pink below]

Les fermiers aux États Unis ont de la chance – ils ont de grandes fermes. Ce n’est pas le cas en Mexique. Mais, le Mexicain de qui je vais vous parler, était assez content de sa ferme. Une fois, un fermier texan est venu chez notre Mexicain. Ils ont commencé à discuter de leur ferme. Le Mexicain a dit :

“Vous voyez, Señor, ma ferme, elle est assez grande. Au-delà de la maison jusqu’à la rue, et jusqu’à cette maison-là.”

Le Texan l’a trouvé drôle.

“Tu penses qu’elle est grande?”

Notre Mexicain le pensait. A-t-il dit :

Si Señor, et la vôtre, est-elle si grande?”

Le Texan lui a expliqué :

“Cher ami, viens chez moi un de ces jours. Prends ma bagnole après le petit déjeuner et conduis-la toute la journée – dans n’importe quelle direction. Tu n’arriveras pas à sortir de ma ferme. Tu piges?”

Le Mexicain a pigé.

Si Señor, je comprends. J’avais une voiture comme ça, il y a deux ans. Heureusement, un stupido l’a achetée!”

In English now:

American farmers are lucky. They have huge ranches, unlike their Mexican counterparts. But this Mexican farmer of our little story is quite pleased with his farm.

Once, a Texan rancher visited our Mexican and they started talking about their farms.

The Mexican said, “You see, Señor, I got a rather big farm. From that house over there all the way to the street and up to that house.”

The Texan found this funny. “So you think your farm is big, aye?”

Clearly, our Mexian thought so. So he siad, “Si , how about you, you got such a big farm?”

The Texan decided to get pedantic. “My dear friend,” he said, “you come to my ranch one day. Have a nice little breakfast in the morning, take my car, and drive. Whichever way you like. Till evening. You will still be within my farm. You get it now?”

The Mexican got it.

Si Señor, I understand. I had a car like that once. Luckily I managed to sell it to one stupido!”

Les chapatis

[English Version below]

En Inde, on mange ce qui s’appelle des “chapatis”. C’est un peu comme les baguettes en France.

Une fois en Inde, deux amis se sont rencontrés. L’un a dit à l’autre :

“Dis-moi, combien de chapatis tu peux manger quand ton estomac est vide?”

L’autre (qui s’appalait Ramu) a réfléchi un peu. Et puis, il a répondu : “Boff, je dirais six.”

“Tu parles! Non, tu ne peux pas en manger six!”

“Si, je peux. On parie? Cent roupies?”

Marché conclu. Le soir, ils sont allés au restaurant. Ils ont commandé des chapatis. Notre ami Ramu, avec un peu de difficulté, a réussi à en manger six. Et il a dit : “Voilà, donne-moi mes cent roupies.”

L’autre lui a répondu : “Mais non! Tu n’as pas mangé les six chapatis quand ton estomac était vide. Après le premier, il n’était plus vide!”

Ramu était un peu bête, mais il avait un bon sens de l’humour et cette blague lui a bien plu. Il est rentré chez lui et il a appelé tout le monde : “Venez écouter ce qui m’est arrivé aujourd’hui. Je vais vous raconter une super blague.”

Il a demandé a son frère : “Dis-moi, combien de chapatis est-ce que tu peux manger quand ton estomac est vide.”

Son frère a dit : “Boff, dix.”

Ramu était très deçu.

“Ah! raté! Si tu m’avais dit six, j’avais une super blague pour vous!”

In English:

Indians eat a bread known as Chapatis, much like the ubiquitous baguettes in France.

Once, two Indian friends ran into each other. By way of conversation, one of them asked the other, “Tell me, how many chapatis do you think you can eat on an empty stomach?”

The other friend, Ramu, thought for a moment and said, “Well, I would say six.”

The first guy was incredulous. “No way man!” he said, “no way you can eat six.”

“Of course I can! Want to put some money on it? One hundred rupees?”

With the deal struck, our friends went to a restaurant in the evening. Ramu started putting away chapatis. With a bit a trouble, he managed to eat six. He then said triumphantly, “Pay up sucker, gimme my hundred rupees”

The other guy replied, “Hold your horses, cowboy! You didn’t eat all six of them on an empty stomach. After the first one, your stomach wasn’t empty!”

Ramu had a good sense of humor and enjoyed the joke although it was on him. He hurried back home and called everybody. “Listen guys, something really funny happened today. I’m going to tell you the best joke you ever heard!”

He then asked his brother, “Tell me, how many chapatis can you eat on an empty stomach?”

The brother said, “Well, ten.”

Ramu was crestfallen. He said, “Dammit, if you had just told me six, I had such a great joke for you!”

And the Wind Whispered…

[This post is my translation of an excellent short story by one of the most gifted storytellers of our time, O.V.Vijayan. The translation from Malayalam is a feeble effort, because such distant translations are not merely between languages, but cultures. The untranslatable expressions are marked with asterisks. Enjoy!]

Reached Kanjikad from Palghat by Coimbatore street. From there on, it was unpaved dirt road to the mountains. Even the rough taxi Jeep found that hard to take. This was Theyunni’s second trip here in the last ten years and he had no complaints about the roughness now.

“Ditch ahead”, Driver said, glancing at the dirt road in front.

“If you want to stop here, it’s okay”, Theyunni offered, “I can walk.”

It’s about two miles from here. Accustomed as he was to the comfort of limousine rides between airports and star hotels, the prospect of the hard hike did not discourage Theyunni.

“Nah. We’ll go slow, sit tight.”

“Okay.”

The Jeep carefully negotiated the winding mountain road. Theyunni glanced at the wild valley as if for the first time. The sunshine cooled by the hillside, the east winds tunnelled through the mountain passes and roaring towards Palghat…

“The trees are all gone, aren’t they, Driver?”, Theyunni observed.

“All downed. Was forests here till about five years ago. Elephants used to come down.”

Yes, last time when he was here, there were huge trees on either side. Trees he didn’t know the names of. There were crickets all around carrying on with their shrill orchestra. Theyunni recalled that journey. He was coming back to Bombay after a European trip and his wife was at the airport. She said, “There is a letter from home, looks like *Brother’s handwriting.”

“Wonder what is happening. Didn’t you open it, Phoebe?”

“You know I don’t open your letters.”

When the car was moving towards Juhu, Theyunni stole a glance at Phoebe’s face behind the wheel. Like a flawless marble sculpture with golden hair dancing in the wind. It was against her culture to open her husband’s letters. There were many things in her culture that attracted him — her confident courage in kissing him in that garden few years ago, proclaiming, “I love you”. If the relationship were to turn sour in the years to come, the honesty and integrity that would make her say, “I do not love you any more, we have to get divorced”. These were the challenges that inspired him. He remembered the journey home to tell *Father that he was in love with Phoebe, his fellow-student at Stanford. Father did not say anything against it, just smiled his sweet, thoughtful smile. It was *Mother — “We had Devaki’s horoscope looked at…”

Devaki was a distant relative. The daughter of some in-land farmer. Hiding his contempt for horoscopes, Theyunni comforted Mother, “That is not much, Mother. We didn’t give our word.”

Nobody said anything for a while. Then Mother said, “Isn’t understanding as big as word? It’s like Devaki has married you in her heart.”

“It’s the boy’s decision, Madhavi,” Father said, “Why do you want to say this and that?”

Mother withdrew herself, “I didn’t say anything…”

“Don’t worry about Mother’s complaints, Kutta. So, do you like this Phoebe?”

Theyunni was a little embarrassed, “Yes.”

“Will an American girl like to live in this old family house of ours, Kutta?”, Mother inquired.

“Why wouldn’t she?”

Father said, “It’s not as though they are going to come live here, is it?”

“So Father and Son have decided that as well,” Mother said, “that they don’t want to live here?”

“Wherever we live, we’ll come here first, Mother.”

Theyunni saw Mother’s eyes well up. After blessing Phoebe and wishing Devaki well in her life, Mother said, “I won’t ask you to change your mind. But, will you look after Father, Kutta?”

“Of course.”

“You remember how he used to be? His body is getting old…”

Father intervened again with his smile, “Madhavi, why do you say such things and make him unhappy? Don’t pay any attention to her, Kutta.”

Even during the novelty of his love, Theyunni could feel *Devaki’s true meaning in his *rustic heart — the farmer bride who would sweep the floor and light the evening lamp. Mother said, “There was only one thing on my mind — your sister-in-law is not able-bodied. If it had been Devaki, there was a hope that she would look after your father in his old age…”

Theyunni didn’t say anything then. Even in the later years, he couldn’t say anything about that. Phoebe, who never opened her husband’s letters, drove skillfully through the streets of Juhu. When Father fell sick years after the marriage, Phoebe advised, “Your little town is actually a village. Why don’t we take him to a good hospital in a city? We can easily afford that.”

What Father needed was nearness and touch to die peacefully. Theyunni came home alone with those and saw him off. Mother also died in the old family house. Phoebe was back at Stanford then. She sent a formal condolence telegram. *Devaki‘s meaning again filled his mind.

In Juhu, Theyunni read Brother’s letter. “I’m not doing too well, Kutta. Just to let you know. I won’t ask you to take time off your busy schedule and come by these forests. Just think of me, same effect as seeing. Didn’t even let Sreekumar know. I was worried that he might get anxious and take a trip — not easy to come here from Cambridge, is it? If only your sister-in-law had been alive… Weaknesses of an old heart…”

The Jeep continued it’s laborious journey negotiating an occasional ditch and gutter.

“Sorry about the trouble, Driver,” Theyunni tried to comfort the driver.

“Nah, just doing my job.”

Must be another mile from here. It was after his wife’s death that Brother decided to resign from service and move to the high lands. Theyunni vehemently opposed that decision. “Why are you moving to this god-forsaken land in Palghat among leopards and wild boars? Moreover, you could be in service for another 10 years. Even after retiring, you know that a nuclear physicist can do so many things…”

Brother’s reply came, “There are debts that one owes — to one’s country, one’s community, one’s family. I feel that I have repaid my dues to the best of my ability. There are some other obligations that I have to take care of. That’s is why I’m seeking refuge in these valleys.”

Brother never mentioned what those obligations were. Theyunni didn’t inquire either.

The soft-spoken Brother took a decision only after much reasoning; it was not easy to make him go back on them. Later, Brother wrote about his camp-site: about four miles off the road, there were fertile lands lying just outside the woods. Brother built a house there, among coconut palms, vegetables, mango trees… Dirt walls, wooden ceiling and roofs of clay tiles. It was at some distance from anywhere. However, there was a farmer, Ponnuswami, living in a hut nearby. Brother could ask Ponnuswami for help if needed. Apart from that, he was quite alone in that valley. Theyunni could not figure out the meaning of that penance and forgot about it. Years went by. But when Phoebe handed over that unopened letter, he suddenly felt that he should go there in a hurry.

“Well, Phoebe, I’ll go and see what’s going on.”

“What is the name of that place? Kanjikad, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Brother had invited me to go and see the mountains.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Must be a perfect place for get-away vacation. But it’s dangerous to get sick there. Why don’t you bring him here? We could have him treated at Jeslock or something.”

Phoebe was repeating her suggestion on treatments. Theyunni remembered the last time the suggestion was offered and it made him uneasy.

“We can’t get inside his mind, Phoebe. I’ll go there and see.”

That was how Theyunni came here for the first time, ten years ago. Not only was he anxious about Brother’s health and solitary life, he also wanted to give Brother a piece of his mind about the untimely penance. When he took a taxi from Coimbatore airport to go to Kanjikad, his mind was filled with impatience and hard feelings towards Brother. The driver got discouraged by the sight of ditches and gutters in the dirt road. It didn’t take too much to provoke Theyunni.

“I could break the axile if I drove up this way,” complained the driver who was Tamil.

“How much does this stupid car of yours cost?”

“Sorry Sir, didn’t mean to…”

“If your car breaks, let it break. I’ll give you what it costs. Drive.”

When he got off the car, Theyunni saw Brother taking a walk in the field — looking bright and healthy.

“Why did you come all this way, Kutta?”, Brother commented on the advisability of the trip.

“You can say that. Living in the forests, writing letters about getting sick, how could I ignore it?”

“Come in.” Brother took him inside the house.

Theyunni looked around and found everything unsatisfactory. “Why do you punish yourself like this?”

“Do I look as though this is punishment?”

Nobody said anything for a while. Then Theyunni inquired, “Who treated you while you were ill?”

“Teat?! Nobody!”

“What am I supposed to say about that?”

Brother smiled, “You don’t get it, do you, Kutta?”

“What do you do for food?”

“I have asked Ponnuswami’s wife to show up. To cook something for you. Me, this is all I eat.”

He pointed to the husks of two young coconuts in the basket. “That was breakfast. Two more for dinner.”

“That is you diet?!”

“Not just diet, medicine as well!”

When it got dark, Theyunni wanted to know, “Brother, what if some thieves show up?”

Brother laughed heartily, “Four white *mundu, four cotton shawls, two towels and some clay pots. That’s all this house holds. The thief is quite peaceful by nature, it’s our avarice that makes him do this and that!”

After dinner, they laid down to sleep — on the floor, on sleeping mats. For Theyunni, it was the first time in a long while without the air conditioner. The winds roared outside the house. Through the mountain passes, like the loud waves in an uptide.

“Kutta”

“Yes, Brother?”

“You hear that?”

“The winds, right?”

“Yes, but to you hear them?”

“Yes, I do. Why do you ask?”

Brother was silent for a while in the darkness. Then he said, “No, you don’t hear them.”

It was with the same dissatisfaction at Brother’s life in the wilderness that Theyunni went back to Bombay. Brother said, seeing him off, “It was a mistake, Kutta. A weakness. Felt like writing to you when I was ill; I won’t bother you like this again. There aren’t any illnesses that these valleys can’t cure. And if there are, do humans have medicines for them?”

Now, it was ten years after those words that Theyunni was coming back. Phoebe was not with him any more. She showed her natural honesty and told him that the love between them had dried out. Theyunni did not fly from Bombay. He took the train to Palghat along with numerous other people. Like in his childhood, in second class. Two day journey. Hills and woods and rivers and villages slowly went by in the window as the train ambled towards Palghat. The old family house was no longer there. So he rested in a hotel and set out for Kanjikad the next morning. His gruffiness during the last journey ten years ago had disappeared now. Theyunni felt that his peacefulness was spreading to the fellow passengers and even the landscapes.

The Jeep driver also was friendliness personified.

“Hard trip, isn’t it, Driver?”

“Nah, we are quite used to these. A little worried about your trouble, that is all.”

Brother’s fences and steps appeared at a distance.

“Over there, Driver.”

“Isolated house, isn’t it, Sir?”

“Yes.”

Ponnuswami was waiting by the house. He stepped down to welcome Theyunni. They looked at each other; Ponnuswami wiped his tears.

“He had asked me not to telegram, that is why I wrote a letter instead.” Ponnuswami said, “I am sorry.”

“Not at all, you were respecting Brother’s wishes. I understand.”

Ponnuswami walked over to the backyard. There was a small plot where a Thulasi plant was beginning to take root. Ash remnants of the pyre around it.

“This is it,” Ponnuswami said. “The bones were dropped in the Peroor river. If there are some other rituals you want to do… But,…”

“Yes, Ponnuswami?”

“He said that no rituals were necessary. That he had uprooted the rituals. I am not educated, just thought that he was talking about some sacred state.”

“That must be what he meant.”

“Is Sreekumar coming up?”

“I had telephoned him from Bombay. He is not coming. He had told me one thing — that this land and house are for you.”

Ponnuswami had gone beyond such earthly things. “He also had told me the same thing; I didn’t want to tell you. But, I don’t need any of this. You or Sreekumar could sell these…”

“Brother’s wishes, Ponnuswami. We must respect them.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“How many children do you have?”

“Four.”

“Well, this will be a good place for them to grow up in.”

Ponnuswami bowed once again, “If you ever want to come back and live here, my family and I will get out of here for you.”

“That won’t be necessary, Ponnuswami.”

I don’t deserve to live here, Theyunni said to himself. They got back into the house.

“You take rest. I will get you a young coconut from the fields.”

“The driver is waiting in the Jeep outside. Ask him to come inside and have something to drink.”

When Ponnuswami brought the young coconuts, Theyunni said, “You can go home now, if you like. I’m fine.”

Ponnuswami left. Theyunni said to the driver. “Do you think you can stay here overnight?”

The driver expressed his disagreement through silence.

“Didn’t plan that way when we set out,” Theyunni said. “This is Brother’s house. I came here because he died, couldn’t get here before.”

The driver turned attentive. Theyunni continued, “Feel like sleeping here for a night.”

The driver’s disagreement melted away silently. “I can stay.”

“I can pay you whatever you want for staying.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Time turned red and went down on the hilltops. Theyunni went inside and went through Brother’s wooden box. Three white mundu’s, laundered, three cotton shawls and two towels. Theyunni’s sadness dripped into them. When he went to bed, he was not sad any more, a kind of gratified grief. A fulfillment of love and traditions. He slept with the childhood dreams of fairy tales. Late in the night, he woke up. He listened to the music of the winds. After this night, it would be the trip back to the city. Theyunni could feel Brother’s kindness in the winds. The winds muttered the unknown *Manthras that marked the end of that kindness and life, some *distant baby voices… A night full of sacred whispers, this was the *justification of lifetime.

Theyunni listened to the whispers and slept, awaiting the morning.

The Story So Far …

In the early sixties, Santa Kumari Amma decided to move to the High Ranges. She had recently started working with KSEB which was building a hydro-electric project there.The place was generically called the High Ranges, even though the ranges weren’t all that high. People told her that the rough and tough High Ranges were no place for a country girl like her, but she wanted to go anyways, prompted mainly by the fact that there was some project allowance involved and she could use any little bit that came her way. Her family was quite poor. She came from a small village called Murani (near a larger village called Mallappalli.)

Around the same time B. Thulasidas (better known as Appu) also came to the High Ranges. His familty wasn’t all that poor and he didn’t really need the extra money. But he thought, hey rowdy place anyway, what the heck? Well, to make a long story short, they fell in love and decided to get married. This was some time in September 1962. A year later Sandya was born in Nov 63. And a little over another year and I came to be! (This whole stroy, by the way, is taking place in the state of Kerala in India. Well, that sentence was added just to put the links there, just in case you are interested.) There is a gorgeous hill resort called Munnar (meaning three rivers) where my parents were employed at that time and that’s where I was born.

 [casual picture] Just before 1970, they (and me, which makes it we I guess) moved to Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala. I lived in Trivandrum till I was 17. Lots of things happened in those years, but since this post is still (and always will be) work in progress, I can’t tell you all about it now.

In 1983, I moved to Madras, to do my BTech in Electronics and Communication at IIT, Madras. (They call the IITs the MIT of India, only much harder to get in. In my batch, there were about 75,000 students competing for about 2000 places. I was ranked 63 among them. I’m quite smart academically, you see.) And as you can imagine, lots of things happened in those four years as well. But despite all that, I graduated in August 1987 and got my BTech degree.

In 1987, after finishing my BTech, I did what most IITians are supposed to do. I moved to the states. Upstate New York was my destination. I joined the Physics Department of Syracuse University to do my PhD in High Energy Physics. And boy, did a lot of things happen during those 6 years! Half of those 6 years were spent at Cornell University in Ithaca.

That was in Aug. 1987. Then in 1993 Sept, the prestigious French national research organization ( CNRS – “Centre national de la recherche scientifique”) hired me. I moved to France to continue my research work at ALEPH, CERN. My destination in France was the provencal city of Marseilles. My home institute was “Centre de Physique des Particules de Marseille” or CPPM. Of course, I didn’t speak a word of French, but that didn’t bother me much. (Before going to the US in 1987, I didn’t speak much English/Americanese either.)

End of 1995, on the 29th of Dec, I got married to Kavita. In early 1996, Kavita also moved to France. Kavita wasn’t too happy in France because she felt she could do much more in Singapore. She was right. Kavita is now an accomplished entrepreneur with two boutiques in Singapore and more business ideas than is good for her. She has won many awards and is a minor celebrity with the Singapore media. [Wedding picture]

In 1998, I got a good offer from what is now the Institute for Infocomm Research and we decided to move to Singapore. Among the various personal reasons for the move, I should mention that the smell of racisim in the Marseilles air was one. Although every individual I personally met in France was great, I always had a nagging feeling that every one I did not meet wanted me out of there. This feeling was further confirmed by the immigration clerks at the Marignane airport constantly asking me to “Mettez-vous a cote, monsieur” and occassionally murmuring “les francais d’abord.”  [Anita Smiles]

A week after I moved to Singapore, on the 24rth of July 1998, Anita was born. Incredibly cute and happy, Anita rearranged our priorities and put things in perspective. Five years later, on the 2nd of May 2003, Neil was born. He proved to be even more full of smiles.  [Neil Smiles more!]

In Singapore, I worked on a lot of various body-based measurements generating several patents and papers. Towards the end of my career with A-Star, I worked on brain signals, worrying about how to make sense of them and make them talk directly to a computer. This research direction influenced my thinking tremendously, though not in a way my employer would’ve liked. I started thinking about the role of perception in our world view and, consequently, in the theories of physics. I also realized how these ideas were not isolated musings, but were atriculated in various schools of philosophy. This line of thinking eventually ended up in my book, The Unreal Universe.

Towards the second half of 2005, I decided to chuck research and get into quantitative finance, which is an ideal domain for a cash-strapped physicist. It turned out that I had some skills and aptitudes that were mutually lucrative to my employers and myself. My first job was as the head of the quantitative analyst team at OCBC, a regional bank in Singapore. This middle office job, involving risk management and curtailing ebullient traders, gave me a thorough overview of pricing models and, perhaps more importantly, perfect understanding of the conflict-driven implementation of the risk appetite of the bank.

 [Dad] Later on, in 2007, I moved to Standard Chartered Bank, as a senior quantitative professional taking care of their in-house trading platform, which further enhanced my "big picture" outlook and inspired me to write Principles of Quantitative Development. I am rather well recognized in my field, and as a regular columnist for the Wilmott Magazine, I have published several articles on a variety of topics related to quants and quantitative finance, which is probably why John Wiley & Sons Ltd. asked me to write this book.

Despite these professional successes, on the personal front, 2008 has been a year of sadness. I lost my father on the 22nd of October. The death of a parent is a rude wake-up call. It brings about feelings of loss and pain that are hard to understand, and impossible to communicate. And for those of us with little gift of easy self-expression, they linger for longer than they perhaps should.