Thursday, 27 February 2014


Ellora - Ravana lifting Kailasa ; கைலை மலைதூக்கும் ராவணன்

गलेऽवलम्ब्यलम्बितां भुजंगतुङगमालिकाम् ।
चकारचण्डताण्डवं तनोतुनः शिवःशिवम् ॥

கலேவலம்ப்யலம்பிதாம் புஜங்கதுங்கமாலிகாம்
சகாரசண்டதாண்டவம் தனோதுன ஷிவஷிவம்

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Limits of Science - Peter Medawar

Sienz ciens cience siens syence syense syence scyence scyens sciens  scienc scians – These are homophones for science in the Oxford English dictionary, according to  Peter Medawar in his book, 
“The Limits of Science”, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Science, he opines, is not more knowledge; but organized knowledge, hard won. It is not merely inductive – in fact, it is rarely inductive – often deductive, sometimes accidental, requires exploration and imagination. There is no such thing as   “scientific inference.”

Medawar emphasizes two major aspects of science as we know and live it today – unintelligibility and solubility.

Unintelligibility The ideas of science are very easy to grasp, but its methods can be difficult to grasp. For example, “the mass of the earth” is easy to understand, but the science of how to calculate it may be very hard.

This may explain why, according to CP Snow, around the the 1930s there evolved Two Cultures – that intellectual life in Western society was splitting into two polar groups; literary intellectuals and scientists. Snow quotes the mathematician GH Hardy: “Have you noticed how the word intellectual is used nowadays?”; because, it no longer seemed to include scientists. I suspect this is because science has become more and more unintelligible to literary types or even literate people – artists, writers, lawyers, journalists, economists.

Solubility Bismarck opined, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Medawar proposes : “Scientific Research is the art of the soluble.” He explains with an example of organ transplantation – how it was viewed as a problem, the understanding of antigens and antibodies, organ rejection as a problem, and research to overcome it. Perhaps Edison’s light bulb may be a better understood example.

I came upon this book at Connemara Library, in Egmore, on Feb 5, 2010. This blog is the summary of the salient points that struck me at that time. My father Rangarathnam, used to say of some things, “It defies definition, but admits description.” Medawar’s book does something of that sort. In a way, it is a refutation of narrow descriptions of science, attempting to define it. Medawar goes on to discuss the interaction of Science with Politics, Culture, and as a ticket to social and economic progress for individuals. I will blog about this later.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Tagore on UVeSa

On November 11, 2013 writer Narasiah, author of Kadalodi and MadrasPattanam, asked me to accompany him to the UVeSaminatha Iyer library in Adayar. I had heard of this library and its collection of palm leaf manuscripts and UVeSa books, but never visited it. It is inside the Kalakshetra campus.

Viceroy's Sanad
The palm leafs are kept in archives, not accessible to the public, except with special permission, but there is an exhibition of important UVeSa memorabilia in a hall. This includes his diaries, turban, writing materials, titles and honours conferred upon him, and photographs of his parents, mentors such as Meenakshi Sundram Pillai and Thiagaraja Chettiyar.

 I had only recently read Subramania Bharati’s poem lauding UVeSa, in the company of Balu sir {writer Nagupoliyan, mathematician, cryptologist, my Samskritam adhyaapakaH}. I am yet to read UVeSa’s autobiography “En Charithram (My History)” or any of his commentaries on the Tamil classics, either of the Sangam period or others. Sanskrit, Mathematics and Subramania Bharati are vast oceans recently revealed to me thanks to Balu sir. I think Mr Narasiah (novelist, historian, litterateur, raconteur,  Engineer on INS Vikrant, India’s first aircraft career, Salt of the Seven oceans) is opening the UVeSa door to me and pushing me to Tamil Literature in a way that I have not engaged with it before.

Dairy Entry: "Received Sanad"
At the Library, Narasiah the eighty year old became Narasiah the five year old in a sweet shop. His energy level jumped. Kapilar, Baranar, TipputoLar and Seethalai Saathanaar and Sempulapeineerar coursed through his veins, and the Tamil Thaatha welcomed this childlike Thaatha. He showed me Doctorate conferred by Madras University and the Sanad of Mahamahopadhyaya bestowed on UVeSa by the then Viceroy. The showcase had a copper plate and the writing materials of UVeSa. There were diaries, with handwritten daily notes by UVeSa – with matters both literary and mundane. I saw one dairy entry that merely stated “சன்னது கிடைத்தது [Received Sanad]’ on the day he received the honor from the Viceroy! 

Diary entry - daily life 
Diary entry - literature references
“Show the Tagore poem,” said Mr Narasiah. This was a stunner. Rabindranath Tagore had written a poem in Bengali, congratulating UVeSa for “For bringing to light the ancient palm leaf treasures from their darkness. For, like Agastya, elevating your mother <Tamil> to the throne. For submitting at her feet the great Epics ManiMekalai, ChintaamaNi and NupuraKatha <Silappathikaaram>. For making the flowers of Sangam poetry blossom in the moonlight.”

Tagore's Bengali poem on UVeSaminatha Aiyar
Tamil Translation of Tagore's Poem
Mr Narasiah has written an article in this month’s – February 2014 - Kaniyaazhi கணையாழி about this poem by Tagore. Please read it – the magazine is only available online by subscription.
February 19 was his birthday, celebrated with a small function at the library, with a song by Kalakshetra students. They sang Bharathi’s song on UVeSa. Sorry I missed the first couple of lines.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Sid Caesar's ghost

Sid Caesar, one of the world's greatest comedians passed away this week. He was the Bhishma of American television, its first great superstar comedian, starring in a show called "Your Show of Shows." See this one for a view of his talent - it features him as an bored audience member at a super-snob classical music recital.

Most Indians have never heard of him, and perhaps most Americans don't know who he was. More the pity.

Caesar assembled what was perhaps the greatest comedy writing team in history: not just American television history. They included:

Woody Allen, now a Hollywood movie director
Mel Brooks, film maker of terrific spoofs, and very funny actor
Neil Simon, Broadway playwright par excellence
Larry Gelbart, writer of MASH, one of the most successful TV sitcoms of all time
Carl Reiner, writer and actor of the Dick van Dyke show, the first great American sitcom
Mel Tonkin, the head-writer of this incredibly accomplished crew.
Sid Caesar's Writers
It is no co-incidence that MASH and Dick van Dyke were two of the wittiest television shows of all time (Frasier is perhaps the third), as epigrammatic as Oscar Wilde in their best moments, as physically hysterical as Chaplin or Jackie Chan, as crazy as Bugs Bunny when zaniness peaked. With a cast of superb actors, whom you could not separate from their characters - which was true of Sid Caesar's sketches.

They came together for this remembrance, called Caesar's Writers, which I saw in 1996, when I was in Seattle. For a while, after seeing this, my dream was to become a sitcom writer - it seemed far more fun than and just as creative as any science I had dreamed of in school, or any robotics I fantasized about in graduate school. I even wrote a sample screenplay for Frasier, which I inflicted on friends. And started writing several screenplays for movies, none of which I have attempted to finish.

But it gives me great pleasure to watch Sid Caesar anytime on Youtube. Now, I see, more have been uploaded. Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you the same pleasure - I hope you watch a few of Caesar's sketches on YouTube.

And Sid, it has been an honour and pleasure watching you, sir. Give my regards to Bob Hope and Ernest Lehmann and Chaplin and Billy Wilder and all the other greats. Wilde and Plum, too.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Dholavira Surprise

A wall at Dholavira
Dholavira is not as famous as Mohenjadaro or Harappa. But it is one of the largest cities of the Harappan civilization though not part of the Indus valley, it is in India rather than in Pakistan, it is well excavated and documented and worth viewing.

As part of our fifth Site Seminar, we visited the state of Gujarat, and Dholavira was one of the main attractions. We had three lectures in preparation –one by Badri Seshadri summarizing Michel Danino’s book on Sarasvati; one by TS Subramaniam of Frontline magazine who has written widely about it and showed some excellent photographs; and one on Harappan seals by Krishnakumar.

On the second day we visited Lothal – I’ll write about it later – the most famous sea-port of the Harappan civilization. We saw the standard sized bricks, the settlements, the large port and so on. A long strong desire fulfilled, a stroked curiosity somewhat satiated, several minor surprises.
Harbour at Lothal, made with bricks, not cut stone
Bricks at Lothal- not stones

But the major surprise was at Dholavira : not a single brick! Every reservoir or tank, every “house”, every well, the “Citadel”, the “Stadium” : every building in Dholavira was made out of cut stones. 

Cut stone at Dholavira
There seems no mention of it in the literature. The first thing we read about this massive civilization is its uniformity: uniform script, uniform roads, uniform houses, uniform drains, and most tellingly uniform bricks the uniform size in the ratio 1:2:4 height to width to length. And yet here was the largest site without a single brick, and the stones of all shapes and sizes.

Another cut stone at Dholavira - notice difference from previous one as measure by my finger
Crude stone wall at Dholavira - stones of varying sizes - contrast with first photo
Badri Seshadri, for one, shocked at this obvious neglect by scholars. Wikipedia mentions it, but in a passing line: a pity we never read it.  I thought he would have blogged about it, but since he hasn’t in two weeks, here goes.

The contrast with Lothal could not be more stark. Why was such a large harbor in Lothal made with so many bricks, when stones would have done just as well and would have been simpler, while heavy stones hauled up on the mounds and hills of Dholavira when it would have been easier to lift standard bricks?

Saturday, 15 February 2014

On Human Kindness

On a recent trip to Gujarat, I encountered so much warmth and human kindness, from so many strangers - it was remarkable. Not just in Gujarat- in Pune, in Hyderabad and back in Madras. Usually one small bad experience, an act of rudeness or casual contempt, is all it takes to ruin an otherwise splendid day or experience or conversation. Often I have been the culprit, sometimes the victim. But there were several instances of incredible friendliness, genuine warmth, from total strangers, and more often from friends and new acquaintances. It is one thing to remember fondly, the lovely monuments, sumptuous meals, and gorgeous sunsets and beautiful landscapes, but by far better to sincerely feel gratitude, and express it. I wish I could repay the kindnesses, the service, the smiles, even the grouchy ungracious favours – I got a train ticket printed for free by a travel agent in Bhuj when I was looking for a browsing center, who then waved away my offer of money : have you ever been “blessed” by a surly favour?

Why does an injustice rankle long after the glow of kindness fades? Why is it so much easier to speak a harsh word than hold one’s tongue, or bear for a moment a minor nuisance, than react with anger or disdain, and just make the whole thing worse? Perhaps it is just me; I hope so.

The kindness of strangers and the decency of friends also seems starkly to contrast with viciousness of public discourse, and the venom with which people treat someone they profess to love, or are expected to love. “When it is a deep, dark November in your soul” wrote Melville in Moby Dick. Why deep dark November in the soul when sunlight bathes your world and warmth caresses your surroundings, I wonder.

And yet…

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Chennai? China? Madras? Madrassa?

As part of Tamil Heritage Trust's fifth site seminar, I was one of 30 people who visited several sites in Gujarat recently. "Where are you from?" was a common question. At Sarkhej Roza mosque in Ahmedabad, a young boy asked this question. When my friend VSS Iyer replied "Chennai?", he asked "China?" "No, no, Chennai," his mother laughed "remember the Shah Rukh Khan movie Chennai express?" The boy only nodded vaguely.

At another place, an automobile museum on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, I was asked the same question. Not a boy, 25 years old, in a white uniform, in charge of showing the cars to the visitors. "Madras," I said. "Madrassa?" he asked - a madrassa is a Muslim school, often held in a mosque. "No, Chennai." No recognition. "Shah Rukh Khan, Chennai express?" I added, using a mother's trick. Continued cluelessness.

I said "Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi." No response. "Chennai Superkings? Dhoni?" Blank look. "Tamil Nadu?" Shake of the head. "Kanyakumari, Ramesvaram?" I asked in despair. Very slight nod, "Sunaa," he said, meaning "I think I have heard of those places."

He did not even know Rajini Kanth.

I must say, every other person who ever asked, even those who may have been illiterate, immediately recognized Chennai or Madras.

Mulla Mohammad ali Madrasvala

Almost as a counterpoint, we visited the house of a Bohra Muslim called Mulla Mohammadali Madrasvala in Siddhpur. His descendants -who live in Kotturpuram!- hosted us and let us roam about the place. He is called Madrasvala because in his time he spent most of his money in Madras/Chennai. Sidhdhpur is to Bohra muslims what Karaikkudi is to Chettinadu Nagaraththaars. Mr Taheri Danalivala, who gave us a presentation on Siddhpur and Bohra Muslims, and who himself is now a resident of Chennai, says that when he is called Madrasvala in Gujarat!