Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, August 31, 2006

He Plays Dawg Music

A very nice thing happened to me after that last post about my father's old tape player, and how it used to play Martha's Madman, amongst other things. Within a few hours of posting it, I received an email from George Marsh. George had been the drummer on the Brotherhood! Here is what he wrote:

I enjoyed "Standing Hidden in the Shadows" and want to thank you for your insight into the Brotherhood album and what made it unique.

We have all gone our separate ways but all of us are still very active in creative music.

If you would like to see what I have been up to you can check my website: You will see under CD's that I have been involved in a very wide range of music since those days. There are many ways to walk through the door to creativity.

Thanks again,

George Marsh

That message naturally made me very happy, and I replied to it at once. Then I followed the link to George's website to check out the "very wide range of music" (I mean, how could I not be a sucker for that line?). And that's when I was stunned -- George plays with the David Grisman Quintet! What's more, I've probably seen him play :-)

We exchanged a few emails then and there. It was a very pleasant experience. George very kindly sent over a few MP3s, tracks he laid down over thirty years ago and tracks that are still being born. I spent a little time listening to some of the work George has done over the years. And although I've had Martha's Madman in my head all week I've had enough brain-power to recognize that there's an awful lot of great music here. My immediate favorites are:

Spirit of the Room [Two great guitarists playing new and unique versions of traditional and original jazz tunes. Featuring Rick Vandier - Guitar, Jon Stowell-Guitar, George Marsh-minimal drumset, and Bob Johnson-Saxophones]
Every Mother's Son [Heartfelt swinging jazz with a great vocalist and guitarist featuring Nate Pruitt, Rick Vandivier, Bob Johnson, and Jeff Buenz]
and, of course, all the Dawg stuff:
Been All Around This World, DGQ 20, and I'm Beginning To See The Light.

Talk about a nice experience, coming out from hiding in the shadows!


In other news, which somehow seems related, I've stumbled across the Revenge of the Flying Monkeys. If this is the quality of the stuff we're going see there, holy Spaghetti Monsters, I'm one happy chimp.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Standing Hidden in the Shadows

Martha has a madman
Standing hidden in the shadows
He's got a long curved Turkish dagger
With a bejewelled handle

Some things run in families. One of the first major things my father did after starting to earn a regular salary was to buy a serious music system. It featured a Garrard turntable, Altec Lansing speakers, a Sony receiver, and this.

I never expected to find a picture of this machine on the web, but what do you know. It's a tape player, playing 8 1/2 inch spool tapes that are available no more ("Sahab, yeh to absolute ho gaya.") My father kept this rig running for almost thirty eventful years, including a move back from the US to India, where there were no professionals, leave alone service centers, to maintain anything like this. Instead, what he had was two hobbyists, laboratory technicians who worked at a government science center nearby, and liked to tinker around with electronics in their spare time. These two gents ~ quickly nicknamed Changu-Mangu by my father's set ~ spent a substantial part of the 80s and 90s ferrying various components of this rig (and other equipment from our house, and similar other houses) to one of their houses and back, patching together by bandaiding over various assorted ailments, keeping the music going. But I digress.

He's tellin' her the world is full of freaks and geeks and simples and he's
Hiding like a leprechaun under stones and in the ripples
In the pool of time she thought she knew it - but someone threw a stone into it
Which breaks up the surface and it's making her nervous and it's true
What can she do --- yes it's true

Changu-Mangu kept the system going, but it was my father's fanaticism that got it started in the first place. He had 52 of those 8 1/2 inch tapes, loaded with music on each side, plus a few hundred LPs. That's what I grew up with. Each tape was wound round one spool. To identify the side ("A" or "B" in cassette terminology), the end of the tape was cut either perpendicular ("straight side"), or slanted. When you wanted to play a tape, you'd load it onto the left reel of the player, and load a blank spool onto the right reel. Then you'd take the end of the tape, from the left reel, between your fingers, and carry it under the playing head and across to the other side, wrap it round the hub of the empty reel on the right a couple of times, and tighten it. Then you'd grip the rewind / play / fast forward knob (just below the right reel in the picture) and turn it clockwise to the right. It was a mechanical system -- a fair amount of force was required. If you didn't twist hard enough, the tape wouldn't start. But if you did, it would go wwwWWWOOAAA as the head caught the sound as it accelerated up to the pace at which it would be recognizable as music. And your heart skipped a little beat when you recognized the piece for all your troubles. It was great.

Even better, as a child, was to watch it fast forward or rewind. I am pretty sure I drove my parents wild with my demands to fast forward or rewind, forget about the music. Because that was a true visual treat. No startup music sound effects, just the sight of a large spool of tape on one side dwindling imperceptibly while on the other side what was nothing gained dramatically in volume with every blink of an eye. Within seconds the two sides were equally matched, the new overtaking the old. Then in an instant the sedate exchange of position was transcended and replaced by a manic acceleration as the old went faster and faster, shredding shredding shredding spinning down to nothingness in a frenzied blur of invisible rotation UNTIL! Phatash! One side was blown off the spool as at the same instant the control knob SNAPPED back to the stop position while the newly filled spool spun round with its momentum slapping the edge of the tape against the various protruding parts. It was an awesome spectacle. I loved it. I called it tashminimini. I could watch that for hours. Tashminimini. Just the memory of that sound brings a thrill to my heart, even today.

But I digress again. The few hundred LPs were mainly Western and Hindustani classical. It was a great collection. Almost everything you could think of was there. (The only systematic omission that I detected later on was Wagner. I wonder why.) The 52 tapes, on the other hand, were a wild, totally eclectic mixture. Some of them had backups of the LPs, especially my parents' favorites (such as a bunch of Bach's solo violin sonatas, performed by Grumiaux. One of the most rewarding things I ever did in my life was last year, when I discovered a DVD of some of these pieces... for my parents to enjoy on their new system -- the one that's replaced the old rig; the one that my mother says is too complicated for her to play.) Some of the other tapes had traces of evidence of my father's fanaticism -- all the Beatles albums, copied from who knows where. (I spent a few hours as a teenager trying to get the right names onto the tracks.) Some of the tapes had copies of FM broadcasts, again, a complete mixture. And there were some traces of random bootlegging. Two songs here, three more there, sometimes as filler, with nary a note to trace.

One such random item was a pair of songs labeled as "Earth Band", the two tracks being called "Martha's Madman" and "Quinn the Eskimo". For once, my father got it almost right. Till date, these remain the only two tracks played by the group that was actually known as "Manfred Mann's Earth Band", that I have heard. The Internet tells me that these two tracks appeared consecutively as the last two tracks on an album released in 1978, which means my father flicked them off someone well after he left America. Back then, I wasn't even sure of the difference between The Earth Band and Rare Earth, another odd entry in their collection. I loved both bands, but seriously, back then I don't think I even made the distinction between the two, because for all you knew they might just be the same band labeled differently, and anyway all that mattered was that I really liked both bands and as for the Earth Band, I liked both tracks. The Mighty Quinn, of course, is a Dylan special so that justified my liking it once I had turned sixteenish. Martha's Madman grew to be one of those childhood memories that I the young adult wasn't ashamed of.

Martha's gettin' nervous as she wanders through his valley
Where the shadows always frightening
And the whispers tell her stories

Check out Rare Earth if you can and if you haven't. Two tracks especially: Ma and Smiling Faces.

All that was, of course, many long years ago. The rig, painstakingly maintained by Changu and Mangu, finally croaked when my parents' house got flooded in 1996. My father kept it around for several years afterwards, (sentimentally? stubbornly?) but today all that remains are the two beautiful speakers, unused. The tapes and LPs also lay around collecting dust -- I'm not sure if we still have them or not. I hadn't heard either of those two tracks in ages (although I had a Rare Earth cassette when I was in Bangalore, wonder what happened to it?) until I read this entirely unexpected op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this week. It was by this guy Verlyn Klinkenborg, who usually writes these lightweight faff-arounds better-suited to the average populist blog. I usually don't even click on links to his articles. The words "Martha's Madman" must have been in the blurb.

This gent had an entire article written on the song and how he'd loved it. Apparently, it first came out on an album by The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, the sole published release of that group. I hadn't heard of them until then. Klinkenborg's article talked about his love for that song, and for that album, and about how he suddenly felt the urge to listen to the song one day except he couldn't find his LP, and it had never been released as a CD. Thankfully, someone else had loved the album so much he'd ripped the entire thing and posted it, with commentary, online.

The commentary is pretty good. It's definitely passionate. Here's an extract.

To furthermore explore into the jazz/fusion sound of the album, the Brotherhood tackles an instrumental tune called Ramblin’ by the great Ornette Coleman. Its very interesting how each instrument plays both a part in the rhythm section as well as being very up front in the mix as independent entities. To me, it is pure genius the way this is arranged. I just love the intro section where Jerry and Mike are playing the lead simultaneously and then break down into George’s outstanding drum fills. While George is playing his fills in this section, each of the other band members, most notably Jerry’s guitar, play little incidental notes on their instruments to create a wonderful chaotic effect. When the band slips into the head (or verse) of the tune, it might appear to the casual listener to be playing a free-form non-tempo passage. If you listen to the rhythm section, George Marsh especially, you will hear a distinct tempo. Once you find the tempo, you can easily follow exactly where the song is going. The complex parts played by George on drums and Clyde on bass to keep the tempo steady and driving is stunning. When Mike joins those two to form the rhythm section under Jerry’s guitar solo, the song really comes together well. Also, notice Clyde’s ascending bass line at certain times within this section. After the guitar solo, the band goes into a brief organ-led bridge and then back into a shorter guitar solo. During the re-intro after the bridge, the drum fills are accompanied by some fabulous organ fills instead of mainly guitar fills as before. This is really a tight song which may require a few listens before you actually get it. It reminds me of the album by John Coltrane titled Ascension from 1967. Definitely give that album a spin if you’re interested in this type of music.

The larger point of Klinkenborg's article, this album aside, is a lament about things that get left in the slipstream as technology advances. One may argue about the merits or demerits of CDs versus LPs, or the advantages of MP3 compression versus the loss in sound quality, but it's sad that my kids will encounter the playing of music as a sanitized experience popping in their CDs or what-have-you, never pulling the tape tight across the head, never feeling the thrill of the tashminimini. It's sad that Martha's Madman should have to get left hidden in the shadows.

Play it once and see. If you like it, play the album.

If you really like it, chase down the Earth Band version for me.



Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Field marshal

Buried away in the Beeb's bulletin that a mysterious Russian has refused the highest award in mathematics, is this heart-breaking paragraph regarding one of the other winners this year:

Tao received the award for a diverse body of work that, amongst other things, has shed light on the properties of prime numbers. Despite being the youngest of the winners at 31, he has a variety of mathematical proofs to his name and has published over 80 papers.

Eighty?! At the age of thirty-one?!

Maybe my professor was wrong. I would have been better off sticking to selling toothpaste. (Green tea or otherwise.)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Morning tea, evening tea

One of the perils of living in a foreign land for a few years is that one may sometimes be lulled into a false sense of security.

A few weeks ago, I bought a two-pack of Crest. The first tube I opened was the normal fresh-breath-whatever flavor (we marketers call it "vanilla"). It lasted as long as it lasted. Two days ago, I opened the second pack. This one, in contrast, had pictures of green leaves on the outside cardboard packaging. Unable to read the Chinese characters (and frankly, not giving it any thought whatsoever), I assumed it was mint. I opened the pack and squeezed some out onto my toothbrush.

Take a close look at the picture. Turns out I was wrong.

My toothpaste is the flavor of green tea.

There's a lot that could be said about this, but it's possibly best left unsaid. Having said that, I cannot resist going on a little. Wise readers will skip straight to the comments section at this point. Really wise readers will check their email or go do the laundry or something.

Rumination #1. How many flavors of toothpaste are there, that are the flavor of some food item? I know mint is one but does it really count? Promise used to have the flavor of cloves, but that too is a spice, not really a food item. Close-up tasted of bubblegum, which might have qualified in the Reagan administration. I think green tea is conceptually different. It's an integral part of a meal, a separate menu item. That's strangely weird in one sense ~ my mouth tastes of green tea for much of the day now ~ but it's also oddly reassuring. Surely someone will now catch on to this as a Good Thing, and the days of KEBAB toothpaste are not too far away. (That was the caps-lock key by mistake but by golly it's apt.) Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? Are they going to have focus groups? Invite me.

Rumination #2. If any Chinese person is reading this, maybe they could help me out here. Is green tea thought to be good for the teeth? The latest edition of HK magazine (the local Time Out equivalent) has a feature on old people talking about the secrets of their longevity. Several of them mentioned pu-erh cha, one of the stronger varieties of tea. (One blessed lady said it was sau-mei cha, which happens to be my favorite, and she said - the more you drink it the better off you are.) But if that is indeed the case, (a) isn't that funny? And (b), are Chinese people freaking out when they come to India and see toothpaste with cloves in it. What's up with these Indians, putting cloves in tea and in their toothpaste?! (NB: the Americans put baking soda.)

Rumination #3. Will I get to like green tea toothpaste? Some of the most liked flavors of ice cream in Hong Kong are sesame, red bean, and yes, green tea. I recently did a few experiments across Hong Kong and the US, where it was interesting how the preferences for specific flavors were so widely different (loved flavors in HK were hated in the US and vice versa) but generalized overall patterns of behavior were identical. But that's a digression. My point is that when first I heard of green tea ice cream (I was in the People's Republic of Berkeley), the idea turned me off quite a bit. Today, to the extent that I like ice cream, I like the flavor. (I much prefer red bean and sesame.) So it's not inconceivable that I'll grow to like green tea flavored toothpaste. I might even try and hunt out pu-erh and sau-mei flavors. And then, inevitably, I'd miss the whole lot of them when I move out of Hong Kong. Life's a bitch.

Rumination #4. I'd once read that dentists advise you to keep changing your toothpaste (presumably since all toothpastes are frauds but they're all differently fraudulent, so this way you get to keep shifting your zone of vulnerability and dupe the microbes and win friends and influence people). When I was younger and in my experimental mode, one way I implemented this advice was to mix toothpastes on the same brush -- e.g., the top half of the bristles featuring red stripey Something Fresh and the bottom half a different kind of Electric Blue. (Pardon me while I slip in my all time favorite ad line: "Par daddy, aadha KYUN?!") That used to be a whole lot of fun. So now I'm wondering, what flavors if any should I try and mix with my green tea?

Suggestions welcome.

Friday, August 18, 2006

New friends

So I woke up this morning (yes, this is a blues) to a single email in my inbox, and if that wasn't bad enough it contained some completely infuriating news -- enough to make me blow a fuse and be unable to function for most of the rest of the day. And I was about to blog about it, all about how close to perfect my miserable little life must be for something so inconsequential in the real sense to blow me so far off course. But then I thought about it and decided maybe I'd just do this tag instead. After all, this might actually be fun.

The rules of the game, to the extent that I've been able to infer, are that one is supposed to list six (or half-a-dozen, we're all friends here) bloggers who (whom?) one hasn't met in the real world but would like to meet despite that. Also list venue for each, and a little bit of friendly neighborhood fantasizing. (Sizing and fantasizing - hah!) Now, many of the blogs I read are written by close friends of mine, with whom I go back many years. Part of the reason I blog is that I miss you guys - I'd love to get together again. Some of the other blogs I read are written by people I got in touch with after getting to know them through their blogs. We may have met once, or twice, but I'm sure we're going to meet again when we find ourselves in the same city (the presence or absence of happy substances notwithstanding.) So what's left is the people I haven't met. Here's a selection from that list.

1. Scout. Well, naturally. Not only does she deserve to get it back, I'm sure a rendezvous with this partyhopping existentialist would be quite a memorable experience. She's said she wants to meet in Hong Kong, and while it's a dashed sight better than where she is, I'm a little jaded from my recent bout of Hong Kong tourmeistering. Scouty deserves nothing less than a day out in New York City, as far as I'm concerned. My first thought was that we should sit at a coffee shop and make stories up about people, but then the coffee shop merged into my old haunt the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and there's only one kind of story you can make up about the people you see over there. Also, no pretty boys. So it would have to be an outdoors coffee shop then - maybe something on Columbus. And contrary to what she thinks, it would be she doing the talking. I bet she talks as good as she writes :-) And me, I'd just play her a Bitches Brew. I get the feeling she needs it.

2. km. This has to be either at my place or at his, and I'm going to stick my neck out and say his, simply because I'm dying to ogle at his music collection, and if that means visiting Joisey, sobeit. (Not being overly rude here, I hope, I mean he's welcome to come ogle at mine as well.) But that's only part of the story, since this guy also maintains the most-eclectic-and-hence-fun-to-visit blog on my circuit. I bet the conversation would be a trip and a half :-)

3. JAP. A Certain Not-Quite-Happy and Experienced-in-Years Representative of the Elite Indian East mentioned to me during our Recent Brief Telephonic Conversation that He Might be Able to Engineer a Meeting on the Morrow, Replete with Kochuris and Gorom Cha. Unfortunately the Call of Duty Emerged to Subvert this Best Laid Plan, and our Gang Had Perforce to Aft Agley. Postpone! Postpone! Was the Call of the Hour. Yet, despite the Meeting's Momentary Lapse of Season, All is Surely Not Lost, as The Man Himself Has Pointed Out. We Could for instance Arrange a Tryst in the City of the Fragrant Harbour. Or we could Try Again in the City of the Diamond Harbour. I for One, am Leaning Towards Codging an Invitation to his Club, for Surely the Oldest Member will be Able to Treat his Humble Guest to the Feast of Reason and the Flow of Soul, Ice on the Side. Wot say?

4. Thalassa Mikra. Where else but Delhi? I'd say take the Metro into Chandni Chowk, so we can spend a day wandering around, and I can finally learn - from her - about the city I grew up in. It wouldn't all be one way streets however (Delhi-ite in joke ha ha ha. Buri nazar waale tera muh kala. Horun plese ok tata. Look under seat, There will be bomb. Raise alarm. Earn reward.) We could visit the fish and chicken wholesale market at Jama Masjid, my first time in over a dozen years. Lunch at the Karim's there. The book bazaar in Daryaganj. Maybe even Purana Qila or the Lal Qila. We know so many people in common, there's a lot to talk about (even before we get to Greeks or ports).

5. Abinandanan and Gaddeswarup. I once knew a little physics and a little math -- Time, exigency, and Microsoft Excel mean that I've forgotten it all now. However, I've always found that it's great fun to talk to scientists. There's a precision to the conversation that one often doesn't get elsewhere. I find these two gentlemen to be particularly interesting since they're scientists who are now interested in social science, in many of the questions that I am interested in, some of which are related to my own research. I find their blogs and their comments on each others' blogs to be perceptive and interesting, and I'm sure it would be great in real life as well. Venue? For some reason I can't get past the the coffee shop at the IISc campus (I know there's more than one; I'm thinking about the one that has this open air seating space outside it - can't remember more right now).

6. heh heh. Any one of his seventeen selves will do. His posts are usually hilarious, his drawings always so. Even his absence from blogging cracks me up. But beneath it all he seems like a sweet guy (and a friend of mine who claims she knows him (which him?) says he is indeed a very sweet guy. So there.) I don't really care where we meet, frankly, because I'm fairly sure we can create a space of our own.

That's more than six so once again I have delivered more than was required. Who says I don't co-operate?

Oh, and Scout? You're tagged again.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Loose talk

This is an hour and a half long, but should be seen by everyone.
(Hat tip: Progga.)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Old friends

By all rights, this should be four separate posts.


An old man lay dying last month. In his time, he was one of India's pre-eminent intellectuals. I'm not sure how 'productive' he was, or how great an influence he had on his field. But with his vast, wide-ranging knowledge holding forth on topics banal, topical and arcane in his clipped accent, few had been failed to be impressed by him. Decades ago, he used to be one in my father's bridge quartet.

Two of the others died during the 80s. And now, here in the 21st century, he too lay anonymously on a stretcher at the nation's leading hospital, almost alone. The only person accompanying him was my mother. She had just driven over an hour with him, transferring him from the hospital nearer his house, where his less-than-competent physician had had him installed. The diagnosis was cancer of the brain, the prognosis was bleaker than bleak.

Thankfully, word had gotten round, even to the highest places. The nation's chief executive just happened to be this man's friend. The directive came -- Take care of him. The bosses at the hospital relayed the message onwards. The front line caretakers were a little more inclined to take their time. Which is why he lay on a stretcher while his sole attendant hammered her head against the layers of bureaucracy between him and any remnants of hope.

Thankfully, she succeeded. Thankfully, they realised that the diagnosis was very likely just wrong. Thankfully, someone suspected something else and treated him for it. Thankfully, he started recovering.

And so I got to meet him again, in Delhi week before. My parents, who had been at his bedside almost every single day while he was in hospital, hadn't visited for a few days. My wife, whose father had also been a good friend of his, was very keen to meet him as well. But when my mother called to say we were coming, it took her over half an hour to persuade him to let us. "I'm sick of visitors," he told her, "I feel like some sort of black Taj Mahal." "But they really want to see you," she said. "They've even brought you a present." "A present? What sort of present?" "It's a Chinese robe -- like a dressing gown." "Oh, that's excellent. That's so useful. These Malayali nurses, you don't know, they make me wear lungis all the time."

He wasn't quite the man I remembered when we met. But then it had been ten years since I'd seen him last, a chance meeting in a different city. Ten years can do a lot to anyone. If I hadn't known what he'd just been through, it's possible I wouldn't even have guessed.

Limping into the drawing room where we were waiting, he sat down in his favorite rocking chair and opened the package with the robe. He had to be helped into it, but he looked regal once it was on. It seemed to bring a glow of satisfaction into his eyes (I felt good) and with it, some of his old elan. The Chineseness of the robe sparked something off within him. Without preface, he launched into a discourse on Genghis Khan's strategic use of religion in colonialism.

After ten to fifteen minutes, he abruptly broke off and changed the topic, asking about us. Was I still in Hong Kong? I told him yes, but I'm moving back to the States next year. I told him which school I'll be joining. Two things happened. First, he checked -- the University of X at Y (i.e., the biggie, as opposed to a campus in the boondocks, for instance)? I said yes, with a smile to myself. His academic's class-conscious instinct for ranking had not dimmed. And second, he said, "Oh, you must make sure to look up Z when you're there. I believe he's the Dean there now. Very close friend of mine. I was his best man." And before I could respond appropriately, he was off and running, telling stories that involved Z, his father, Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, von Neumann, and I forget who else. It was a riot. Topics came and went, he had good stuff to say about everything. I found myself too busy listening to pay attention. I have never heard someone use the word epistemologically in normal conversation, let alone so effortlessly, more importantly, so rightly.

He kept it up for almost an hour and a half. When we were leaving, he thanked us for coming. I blurted out that this was the highlight of our entire trip. In a sense, it was. Maybe it was all gas, but I wish I had friends who were as erudite as that. In the car driving out I felt awfully jealous of my parents for having had a friend like him. I wish I too could be like that - maybe someday, when I grow up. The memory of a dance my father had made me do for him, when I was five, kept burning me up -- even then I had sensed that he, childless at that time, had had better things to get on with.


In Calcutta I met my uncle again. Many many years ago, in the middle of a stormy family fight, in response to a comment that he'd made (one I was probably too young to understand; definitely too young to remember) my mother had broken off from her fury and exclaimed her surprise at hearing her younger brother speak as wisely as her father. From this, I gathered that her father had been wise. I know he had been a lawyer. But then, I only knew him as a person not in my generation, one who I could entertain briefly in a city where I had younger and more interesting people to play with. (How our priorities change, as life passes and choices get drawn away from us!)

But my uncle is wise, of that I have no doubt. He used to be a hot-head in his time, though, and due to that he ended up a mere graduate while both his elder sisters garnered PhDs in America. The choices he made led to a huge and intimidating physique, one that frightened his seniors at college into opting to not rag him. But they also led him to be unqualified for a genteel Bengali career. He went into business with some friends.

For a time, his firm did marvelously well. Tens of millions of rupees flowed into their hands. However, that was only as long as luck - say beginner's luck - was on their side. A mere few years. For, as first-generation entrepreneurs, they had no one to guide them in the tricks of the trade. As he told me last week -- people say all sorts of nice things to you; about your company, your work, you yourself. It all counts for nothing. One day, a leading business house decided to withhold payments on a colossal contract. Colossal, that is, for the young firm; not so colossal for the business house. The lack of cash flow made it impossible to pay suppliers and repay loans. People started going to court. Contracts dried up. Strikes happened. Accidents happened. Partners died. Soon, the only one left holding the reins was my uncle. He soldiered on, alone. The whole sordid mess lasted nearly twenty years, and it is still not fully over.

It is possible that experience has made the man wiser. Every time I visit Calcutta, I carry with me a bottle of scotch. It is my way of bribing some of that experience out of him the cheap way, in my weak hope that I will learn by osmosis. This time too, I spent several hours just listening, stepping out into the balcony ever so often for some fresh Calcutta rain-swept air.


Tomorrow would have been my grandfather's birthday. 8/8, wherever in the world you may be, it would have been his birthday. I never forget this day, since this was my other grandfather, who lived a dozen years longer than the one I talked about above. And though photographs tell me that I look tellingly like my mother's father (imagine me outfitted like a 1940s lawyer), it is my father's father that I got to know as a person, and his traits that I recognize most readily in me.

He has been gone a long time as well, so why have I been thinking so much about him of late? One reason is that he used to write postcards. Those 15 paise postcards, that now cost many times that, and have been taken over by the game shows and other trivialities on television. He wrote them all the time, crammed in with his tiny handwriting, running across the card, then on the back, then round the edges and margins, spiralling till in to the Love, Dadu. Those postcards used to contain gems of all sorts -- one I remember most clearly was one of the last ones -- the analogy he drew between my physical presence ("the brilliance of the new generation!") in Bangalore and his ("the overdue end of a long and painful innings") in Calcutta, during the World Cup where India beat Pakistan in Bangalore but had to abdicate during the semi-final in Calcutta. I had saved those postcards, all of them, and letters from other friends, until the time I left Delhi. They were all stored up in the drawer of my desk along with a few other pieces of childhood memorabilia. Until, that is, my parents decided to organize the house. What can I say -- several trips to Delhi, several searches, a move from Delhi to Gurgaon, I looked and looked, but the contents of that desk are not to be found. Preserve your memories they said. That's my wisdom. I'd trade it in for those postcards.

The second reason my grandfather's birthday has been on my mind is that through one of those weird quirks that life delivers, his youngest brother, accompanied by his son, i.e., my father, are due to visit his grandson, i.e., me, for a week's vacation starting tomorrow, his birthday. I don't know if either of them has realised it yet, or if my mother or grand-aunt has. But tomorrow night I'm raising a toast to him -- the man I loved so dearly, and from whom I inherited my distinguishing characteristic (or so I'm told), the ability to stress. Happy Birthday, Dadu, this one's for you.


And what binds these narratives together, in this post that's already way too long? One, it's about old men. That's a copout. Two, I guess it's about identity. We don't realise how much we're shaped by other people, in this case, ones who have gone before. If we do realise it, these days, we realise it less and less. One of the great things of Indian culture is the emphasis on association with elders. The drawbacks of prolonging such associations may be several; the benefits may be incalculably enrichening.

Ato boro dheu
Ato chhoto ami
Shomoyer tare bheshe chole jayi

So big a wave
So small am I
On the crest of Time I float on

- Mausumi Bhowmick
(thanks, Gift!)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bizarre memories

The food here is great, I couldn't recommend it more highly, but this is what I heard over lunch last week:

Mere piya
O mere piya gaye Rangoon
Kiya wahaan se tally-phoon
Tumhaari yaad sataati hai
Tumhaari yaad sataati hai

For the Hindustanically / Nanshunt-Bollywoodically challenged amongst us, that would be:

My belowed
O my belowed went to Rangoon
And from there did tele-phoon
The memory of you
Drives me up the wall
The memory of you
Drives me up the wall

So I think I might go back there today. For the tabakhmaz and goshtaba.