Saturday, March 08, 2008

I came out of my Kumbhakarna-esque blog-sleep to link this: why Barack Obama is the Kwisatz Haderach. Here .

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Indian Clerk: A review

"Ramanujan says nothing. Instead he rests his head against the pillow and turns, once again, to look at the river. And Hardy wonders: from his starting place, from the pial at twilight, could he have traveled further."
The eponymous 'Indian Clerk' in Leavitt's novel is Ramanujan, but 'The Cambridge Don' would perhaps have been a more apt title for the book, as the book is much more about Hardy. Ramanujan remains a cipher throughout the book: his inner thoughts are never presented by the author. It is Hardy we get to know really well.

However, in another sense, The Indian Clerk is very much about Ramanujan, in showing how even the most brilliant among us are ultimately dependent on the systems and institutions that govern our lives. It takes the First World War to bring out the full capriciousness and cruelty of the British institutions. Hardy is careful not to make his pacifism too overt during the War, for fear of losing his fellowship. Many see him as a coward, and he watches Russell and Eric Neville lose their fellowships at Cambridge for their pacifism. Russell can afford to, but Neville is a lesser talent, mathematically and otherwise, and is soon forgotten. Their tragedy is of course nothing compared to the tragedy of the men dying at the front. Hardy befriends one of them, called Thayer, and has a short homosexual affair with him. However, he is always embarrassed by his sexuality, as well as Thayer's social class, and can never bring himself to treat Thayer as an equal. As someone from a family of schoolteachers who moved up by navigating the system, he does not have the same insouciance towards it as his peers Russell and Littlewood have. As Hardy muses as he watches his dying mother's ravings:

"She speaks of school. And why not? All her life she has spent in schools. Both she and his father. From Ramanujan's perspective, there must be little difference between him and Littlewood, him and Russell. All are children of affluence to him. And how can he be expected to recognize what separates Hardy from the others? For Littlewood comes from a Cambridge family; Russell is an aristocrat. Whereas Hardy is merely the child of teachers...Hardy is dependent on Trinity, just as his father was dependent on Cranleigh, his mother on the Training College, his sister on St. Catherine's. The only difference is one of prestige. Without the support of munificent institutions, all of them would be lost."
Of course no one knows the cruelty of institutions better than Ramanujan. Ramanujan's story is often told as one of 'genius will out', but that is a fallacy: essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ramanujan's genius for all practical purposes does not exist till he gets the seal of approval from Hardy, who in turn got his seal from Cambridge. No one sees it better than Ramanujan, who, even after building his reputation, wants the B.A. he was never granted by the education system in India. He hopes one of his papers will win him the Smith's Prize, a prize for undergraduates. This irritates Hardy, because Ramanujan's work is far above the prize. But the reality is that he doesn't have the Smith's Prize: he wants the prizes, else he is not a genius, not even to himself.

Hardy takes a long time to realize this. Their relationship for a long time is one of mutual incomprehension. Hardy has a strong perception of himself as an underdog. He identifies with other underdogs, he likes to 'save' them, the way he saved himself with his own brilliance. But his self-absorption, combined with an acute sense of his own status in the class hierarchy, does not make him a very good savior. It takes him a long time to understand Ramanujan's demons are much more severe than his own: his lack of formal achievements and medals, his difficulties and inadequate appreciation of formal proofs in mathematics, a sense of wasted years, his distance from his family, his constant sense of being an outsider, or even his Hinduism that forces him to a vegetarian diet difficult to maintain in wartime Britain. Ultimately Hardy and Ramanujan manage to form some sort of personal bond beyond the professional relationship they had, and Hardy helps him achieve a part of his hopes (against strong racist opposition from Trinity). But the war ends soon after, and Ramanujan wants to go back to India.

The novel is about a lot of other things besides Hardy's relationship with Ramanujan: the troubled life of John Littlewood, the Cambridge Apostles, Russell's activism during wartime, Hardy's atheism, his relationship with his sister, and a (probably fictitious) unrequited love Alice, Eric Neville's wife, has for Ramanujan. I was dissatisfied with his potrayal of Hardy's atheism: it seemed too formulaic. Also, Leavitt seems to make Hardy colder than he perhaps actually was. Anyone who has read 'A Mathematician's Apology' cannot help feeling a certain affection for Hardy's love of mathematics. This love does not come across in his potrayal by Leavitt.

But ultimately the book is not about mathematics. It is about a certain period in English life, when the political and social hypocrisies of the empire were unraveled by an inglorious war. It is also about how the systems and institutions of the time did not treat its greatest minds very differently from how they treated the callow youngsters sent to the front. In this aim it succeeds marvelously.

"And the amazing thing was that they never let him [Thayer] go. They would break him, and send him home for repair, and break him again. In much the same way, I realized later, we broke Ramanujan, and patched him together again, and broke him again, until we had squeezed all the use we could out of him. Until he could manage no more.

Only then did we let him go home."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Webware makes its list of 5 funniest tech comics. xkcd is on top, and it is by far the best. It was a weird mix not so long ago: Randall seemed to be trying too hard at times. Its grown more sophisticated since. The only thing I find odd is its focus on computer science jokes: are there enough CS people out there to constitute, like, a market?

The desi name on the list, Krishna Sadasivam's PC Weenies (#3), is worth a look. Some good ones here and here.

Speaking of desis, a brief bushily bewhiskered brown sighting was reported from phdcomics recently. Pradeep, physics major, spoke seven words in all, none of them funny.

2nd October

Selling at my campus bookshop: Gandhi finger puppet, whiter than Ben Kingsley- $5.00 only.

In the company of Che Guevera, Leon Trotsky and Nelson Mandela (out of frame-v desilike brown hand visible).

I am not complaining-they got the big ears right.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Should I be offended?

When something like this happens, I know its time for a shave.

Random (Asian) dude at bus stop: Is Pakistan sunny?
Me: No more sunny than Texas, probably.
R(A)DABS: What was that?
Me: I am not from Pakistan. I am Indian.
R(A)DABS: Oh! I am sorry. (pause) Wow! I am glad I didn't mistake a Pakistani for an Indian. That could have been complicated. Indians are peaceful people.
Me: Why do you care if Pakistan is sunny?
R(A)DABS: Uh, I thought if its sunny, it should go help the sunny people in Iraq.
Me: Umm, I guess.

I realized later he meant Sunni.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Mahatma's Khadi Franchise

"'We want to harness capital to our side,' [Gandhi] wrote in his paper, Young India....Indian capitalists naturally wished to take advantage of the boycott of Manchester goods. But Gandhi's assurances notwithstanding, what was to be considered swadeshi cloth? This was in part a problem of definition - mill-made cloth could be endorsed as swadeshi, although strictly Gandhian principles appeared to rule this out. Some mills, however, used yarns made in Manchester. This was not considered acceptable and the Congress was drawn into bargaining with businessmen to ensure that swadeshi cloth was not made with foreign yarn that was merely woven in Indian mills. Eventually, a deal was made between some capitalists and the Congress, which set a maximum permissible percentage of foreign yarn in Congress-endorsed swadeshi cloth."
- Benjamin Zachariah (Nehru)
There was also the problem of piracy:
"But mill owners had also to be rebuked for weaving coarse cloth on their machines and passing it off as hand-woven khadi - the latter was still a few rungs higher up the moral ladder in the Gandhian scheme of things."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Kagemusha: a confused review

I was afraid I will not like Kurosawa's Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior), and in a way, I was right. At 180 minutes, it takes its time, including a five minute sequence where a character (who is not seen again) does little besides clean and load his gun, and another where the future king of Japan gets up and does an impromptu Noh dance. But it still is a haunting film, about the dynamic between individualism and collectivism. The most intriguing part is that Kurosawa refuses to side with individualism: rather his sympathies (I think) tacitly seem to lie with the other side. That certainly is a bummer: which was the last movie you saw where the hero was not a rebel of some sort.

The movie starts with a thief (who remains unnamed) being brought before the Samurai lord Shingen Takeda, by his brother Nabukado. The thief has a close resemblance to Shingen and will be useful as a body double. This saves the thief from the fate, crucifixion, that he was intended for, but he is unimpressed. He boldly confronts the warlord and tells him that a man who has robbed and killed thousands cannot be a judge of his petty crime. However, soon, the warlord is dead and the thief is required to take his place. He is reluctant: he cannot live a lie, plus he wants his old life back. But he agrees when he realizes that his refusal might well spell the end of the Takeda clan. He is not of the clan, but he also wants to be useful, to have served a purpose, even if that means living a lie.

The movie at this point touched a raw nerve with me: the dilemma that anyone who grew up in a traditional society like Japan, or India, faces. The choice between the role we are expected to play as part of the society we are born in, and our sense of independence. This is not so true of my generation, but I meet so many people from my father's generation and above who spent their lives playing roles they felt they were born into: the good son, the good husband and father, the perfect wife. And like the thief they play the roles so well, they become these roles, and sometimes you cannot tell if there is a real person besides the role. Did they all make a conscious decision at some point to play the role?

Kurosawa sees the tragedy in this, but a certain dignity. As Nabukado, who occasionally played his brother's double himself, tells the thief:

I was for a long time the lord's double. It was torture. It is not easy to suppress yourself to become another. Often I wanted to be myself and free. But now I think this was selfish of me. The shadow of a man can never desert that man. I was my brother's shadow. Now that I have lost him, it is as though I am nothing.

Kurosawa identifies with the loss of individuality, but at the same time sees a dignity in accepting the role. To accept it is to live with the satisfaction that you have done your duty: there may not be happiness, but there is a certain sense of meaning. To not do so is to be selfish. But selfishness is such an old world sin ;) .

The movie ends in tragedy, with a final battle sequence, where the arrival of modern guns signifies an end to the traditional Samurai way of life. The Kagemusha dies trying to stay true to his illusion even though it no longer matters: his secret is out. What is Kurosawa trying to say? Is it a heroic death, or a pathetic one? I went with pathetic, but someone with different cultural assumptions might see a heroism in that tragedy. In fact, I have a feeling my father and I will disagree :).

Perhaps the point is the ambiguity: that every culture has its own tacit assumptions, and not realizing those assumptions means talking past one another. Is that what Kurosawa is trying to say?

I give up ;) .

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Off to India

After 3 years. Finally.