A Rev Evolutionary Edu Vacation

Shantiniketan is the home of a unique University Viswa-bharati , India (and Asia)’s first Nobel Laureate , Rabindranath Tagore used the money from the Nobel prize to further his father’s vision of a place of higher learning , one of the instances when the Nobel prize money was actually put to good use as was hoped for, by Alfred Nobel. Einstein actually used it to pay his alimony .

This is an open air school where each classroom has a tree and a podium for the teacher

Rabindranath Tagore as a child hated the traditional concept of a school and played truant on the banks of the river Kopai . I imagine the river looked more scenic in his day. Legend also has it that he wrote Gitanjali on the banks of this river

I found a vendor of date palm jaggery on the banks of the river

This is a date palm tree .

They use coconut shells to shape the jaggery.

The villagers use the dried leaves of the date palm tree as fuel. The sap is tapped and collected into buckets which is then heated on a fire . It reminded me of Maple syrup from Sugar Maple trees in Ohio and Canada. The process is very organic , natural , vastly different from the manufacture of any of our sweeteners . I don’t know but I am willing to bet that the Glycemic Index of this is substantially below industrially manufactured and bleached white sugar.

Viswa-Bharati has several different schools but the one that I could visit was called Kala Bhavan or the art school . Getting around in Shantiniketan is done via Tuk-tuks , an improvised contraption on wheels that runs on natural gas

Our guide told us that we could get to the school after classes were over at 1:30 PM so we ended up visiting a museum nearby which housed cultural artifacts and models of homes in several of the nearby states

The one that fascinated me most was the dwellings of the aborgine people of Andaman and Nicobar islands

These are supposed to be stilts and the house is built on a raised platform

The floor is made of bamboo and incredibly uncomfortable to walk on . I hear that they sleep on this . Mind boggling!!!

This was my first view of Shantiniketan

The grounds are immaculately maintained

These are works of the Sculptor Ramkinkar Baij

What is remarkable about these sculptures is that he created them by putting up a wireframe and then throwing gobs of concrete and plaster from a distance . I could not but draw parallels between this technique and Jackson Pollack

Walking in further lead to more amazing scenes like these murals

 

A painting in stone

Amazingly these murals were made with tiles

 

 

Watching this reminded me of Frank Wright LLoyds Fallingwater. A harmony of architecture with Nature !!!

Watching the Banyan vines made me nostalgic

 

This was an amazing artifact to me , the artist had created a bug with the gas tank of a Yamaha motorcycle , motorcycle mirror holders and other odd artifacts . In fact at the open air market outside the school were a variety of handicrafts , handloom textiles and curiosities as the above made beetle , all made from household materials . The artist had clearly seen regular every day items with a creative eye and produced something all of his own .

I loved the concept of this school , the idea of applying what you know while you are being taught . Unfortunately I could not quite see how the other schools in Viswa-Bharati were conducting their classes . It would be quite interesting to see the science schools

Education as a subject has always fascinated me . The current model of education all over the world which has pupils memorizing and regurgitate for the sake of the exam encourages a behavior where the student is rewarded for memorizing meaningless facts and promptly forgetting after the exam is over .

I have heard numerous arguments for allowing kids to drop subjects that they dislike . Math seems to be a popular choice for dropping . Plato had a quote outside his Academy that anybody ignorant of math should not enter  and if the ancient Greeks thought so highly of a well rounded education in those simpler times, this day and age simply demands it. I believe that not being exposed to the core ideas in all subjects is like going through life with your hands cuffed behind your back. I have learnt from personal experience as well as very interesting reading that exposure is what allows us to recognize patterns and exploit them .

Growing up in India and watching snow in movies made me believe that snow was white fluffy stuff that was good for skiing (which I thought was a risk less sport) and making snow balls and hitting your friends. I moved to Ohio in December and before the winter was out , I had recognized several kinds of snow , the fluffy ones , the heavy slushy ones . the ones that were overly slippery. I read that the Inuit living in the Arctic circle had 17 different words for snow . When your life depends on recognizing whether the snow / ice can handle your weight , I suppose it makes sense to be as specific as possible . It also makes sense to have specific words for it so you can hang your experiences on those words and thereby make it easy for recall.  Another  anecdote is about this tribe living deep in the Amazon rain forests who do not know the color blue . They know the color green and can discern minute difference in shades of green that most women would envy and yet when they were given a color wheel with shades of green and one blue and asked to point out to the color that stood out, none pointed at Blue. It is actually not too outlandish , first time I read Homer , I was baffled at his description of the wine dark sea . I could not imagine a sea that was the color of any wine that I had drunk . It made sense later on after I found out that the ancient Greeks had no word for blue . One could offer countless examples where one starts to recognize patterns only after one is taught to recognize the pattern or at least the principle behind the patterns .

The idea behind letting kids choose their future is an attractive one but to be able to do that , they need to be aware of all the choices and tools at their disposal. Paul Graham had an interesting essay , fair warning it is lengthy .

How to do what you love

In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him who is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word.

This fragment from Gitanjali seems to refer to god but it could very well refer to that spark of creation that lies within each and every one of us , a spark that needs the tools that schools provide . This school is a testament to that spirit and to the vision of some great men who made it possible.

 

In praise of the City of Joy

The author  of Geography of Genius  makes a strong case for the fact that Genius tends to be clustered in space and time . Ancient Athens is the first known example when we had brilliant minds like Socrates , Aristotle , Plato , Herodotus , Aristophanes , Sophocles, Euripides,Euclid , Archimedes , Hippocrates  co exist within 200 years of each other . Moving forward , we can see the time of the Renaissance where we have Da Vinci , Michelangelo , Machiavelli live around the same time in Italy , fast forward a hundred years and we have the Enlightenment in Scotland that had Hume , Smith , Paris with Voltaire , Rousseau , Lavoisier, Montesquieu , Kant in Germany and our own Founding fathers in America , similarly between 1840 and 1920  Calcutta (Kolkata) experienced the Bengal Renaissance where we had Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore , Biologists / Physicists such as Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose . The book is very readable in spite of being only a subset of the different places and times (it skips Paris in 1920s).  So here I am in Kolkata , wondering if I can see what made the city so special in that time .

Kolkata had an interesting mix of populations during the British rule, while on the one hand , the most educated and Anglophilic existed here but co existing with them were the most fervent nationalists who were opposed to the British rule . The Indian national anthem comes from Rabindranath Tagore , there has been some rumblings that we should focus on”Vande Materam ” written by Bankim Chandra Bose (another Bengali) which is a fervently patriotic song that rouses one’s spirits even one such as myself who does not understand the language.

The people are reputed to be extremely friendly and helpful. I got my first taste of that when I was trying to get to the famous Kalighat temple. A rickshaw driver actually took a detour  to guide us through the narrow alleys to get us to Kalighat . I was touched. I had never ever experienced anything like it. Kalighat is an old Kali temple in Kolkata

Early morning street markets getting ready to open

The main temple dome

Inside the temple , I saw a streak of fresh blood across the floor and following the streak led me to the beheaded carcass of a baby goat. I suppose that was the sacrificial offering for the morning . I saw offerings of purple radishes  , I had never seen offerings of vegetables in temples before , asking the priest led to some incomprehensible mutterings in Bengali , after grilling him in Hindi , he responded curtly that I would not understand. I took the hint and moved on

A tram – relic of days bygone was certainly a sight to see . Though I see it routinely in San Francisco and find it mundane , somehow seeing it in Kolkata was different,  watching it amidst the crazy traffic is like watching a thriller .

This is a replica of the Big Ben in London.

These are the pictures of the famous Park street

I found some interesting fruits on Park street , I searched for them everywhere but could not find any

This fruit reminded me of starfruit, the texture is similar and just like starfruit , it is bland and juicy.

While this one was a total mystery

I learnt from Google that it was called a Rose Apple and apparently it is grown in Oregon and California but the ones in North America does not look anything like this. The texture is like a pear and it has a delightful rose fragrance. This particular variety grows in South East Asia

This is the iconic Howrah bridge on the Hoogly river

The Hoogly is a tributary of the Ganges , the holiest river for the Hindus . Hindu myths dictate that a dip in the Ganges washes away all of ones sins . Today the Ganges flows into Bangladesh where it meets the Indian ocean in the Bay of Bengal but every tributary is considered just as sacred so one finds a lot of Hindus bathing in the Hoogly

Kolkata is also the home of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa , an 18th century mystic highly revered in Bengal and also the home of Sri Vivekananda who travelled to America in 1890s and introduced a new spiritual movement in America . Sri Ramakrishna had his divine visions at the Dakshineshwar temple.

This is a view of the bridge from the temple

One has to take a ferry from the temple to get to Belur Math which is where the temples are dedicated to Ramakrishna, his wife  and his disciples and one gets to view where the old co-exists with the new

A fisherman in his canoe getting ready to launch his fishing tackle

As can be expected , the entrance from the water is quite scenic

The main temple

Feast for the eyes for Flora lovers

Dedicated to the wife of Sri Ramakrishna .

Just outside Belur Math was a street vendor selling something that looked like potatoes , and they call “Sweet Potato”, it turned out to be Jicama (Mexican Yam) my sister insisted on tasting it so we had the street vendor cut it up for us . He added some rock salt-spice mixture to the chopped pieces . The texture was more like  a pear and it did not taste at all like a raw potato or even the Jicama that I have eaten before. Just last month , I had encountered a book called the Botany of Desire which deals with 4 plants ; Apple , Potato , Cannabis and Tulip. The author reiterated was that these plants have been artificially moulded by our desires . Apples as sweet as a Red Delicious is an anomaly as is a Russet Burbank . We do not let these plants attain the vast potential that their genes are capable of . In the Andes is a purple potato that I have never heard about.  Kolkata showed me an apple that did not look or taste like any Apple that I had eaten before . A touching incident here was the interaction itself , my sister asked the vendor to add more of the salt spice mixture , he insisted that his concoction was the best but just to satisfy us , he gave us a packet of his precious spice mixture which he said we could add if we wanted but he assured us that we did not need to. I looked at him marveling at his torn clothes , extreme poverty had not affected his pride in his craft . His pride to me was touching and inspiring.

My tryst with history as I expected it did not materialize . There is a lot of history in this place including the Battle of Plassey which led to the first British stronghold on Indian soil in 1757 . Modern Kolkata owes a debt to Job Charnock who not only saved a young Indian woman from Sati , a dreadful practice of burning widows alive with their dead husbands but married her and sired 4 children and adopted Indian ways of smoking cheroots or Indian cigars and drinking arrack , a harsh palm brandy. I saw a hospital named after him and I presume that there are more memorials to the man .

RFD-Trunk-Road-Map3-tmagArticle

The Grand Trunk road connects Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul,Afghanistan via Kolkata , Delhi , Amritsar and Lahore. Reading about Sher Shah Suri who ruled India in 1540  , I had discovered the Grand Trunk road .However I was to learn later that Chandragupta Maurya  had built large sections of it.  This was my great opportunity to ride on the section of the Grand Trunk Road west of Kolkata and retracing the steps of those brave travelers so many centuries ago. While thrilling , most of it is slow progress . Like most highways in India , they tend to go through the hearts of small villages so one can expect a small crowd in the middle of the street drinking tea , a herd of buffaloes crossing the road and other interesting sights so dont speed , you never know what will show up in front of you on the road.

I found the culture to be charming and interesting , the city shuts down come 12:30 PM and does not re open until 3:30 – 4 PM . They take their time for lunch and a much needed siesta after the delicious meal . The sweets have been reputed to be the best in India as long as I can remember , I consumed them like a glutton who knows no tomorrow and I have to admit that just about everything that I tried there was delicious . The pale imitations that I had eaten earlier in other cities do not come close . They have an amazing variety of sweets that I did not know existed . On the flight there , several of my co passengers after learning that I had never been to Kolkata heartily recommended several sweetmeat shops and I fortunately took them up and indeed the sweets did not disappoint. The Bengalis love their meat and fish and indeed so much so that I was introduced to an amazing sight , one that I had never seen before . Vegetables , fruits , meat , fish , chicken all sold in the same market place with no separation .

Here one sees the goat carcasses alongside the fresh vegetables and moving further one sees a sea of fish . The Bengalis love their fish and call it the vegetable of the sea .

Bangur road is a tribute to their artistic capabilities

Here one sees a lawn sculpture of the famous Dandi march statue in Delhi

A horde of elephants

Bangur street is covered with street posts that have been created by artists , one finds a lifesize clown loitering around and a roadside snack vendor and only close inspection reveals that these are sculptures . The traffic is horrendous and parking is impossible so I could not get out of the car to take much needed pictures

Turned out that my trip to Kolkata was far shorter than what I should have planned for . Also turned out that there were far more sights to see including the Sunderbans which is the home of the Bengal tiger , Ganga Sagar which is where the Hoogly meets the Indian ocean .Time to plan a return trip!!

Ham Omelet

The title is not an indicator that I am hungry but just a funny misnomer for Hamlet that one of my online buddies Lily Von Valley had posted . Though it would be totally justified if I was hungry because sadly I am no connoisseur of gourmet airline food ( I was on a 15 hour non stop flight)  gourmet and airline !!! Is that not a contradiction in terms ? . So why am I reading Hamlet instead of sleeping ?? because the question of to be or not to be came to mind . What am I debating ? I was debating TO BE a capital A hole and tell the women that they need to get their babies to shut up !!! because I cannot sleep with at two (or was it twenty ) screaming babies . I planned for my jet lag by skipping sleep on my last night out but I forgot that every time I get on a long distance flight , it is infested with screaming babies . I am personally jinxed that way. Screaming babies (and people who fart a lot) are the kryptonite of my air travel but onto to more important things.

One finds oneself rooting for Hamlet as he grieves for his father , berates his mother for re marrying too soon ,sympathize with him as the son of an unjustly murdered king who is out to avenge his father ,  look on with complete apathy as Hamlet murders Polonius , chastises Ophelia and breaks her heart and almost look on in bemused amazement as Hamlet does not murder Claudius when he is praying , applaud Hamlet for his brilliant trick with the play where he depicts the murder of his father in front of the Claudius ,listen with his impassioned monologue with Yorick’s skull as he recounts the fragility of life and the shortness of mortal pursuits, weep as he is killed by Laertes’s poisoned sword. But that is looking at the proceedings exclusively through Hamlet’s view .

Hamlet’s soliloquy is a complete masterpiece , one has to read it several times because the layers that peel are rich in depth.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,

To be or not to be has been an universal dilemma pertaining to various aspects of life . However in Hamlet , he is dealing with the ultimate dilemma , to exist or not to exist. He is actually contemplating suicide because the torture of contemplating the various options that he perceives are so agonizing that he is actually questioning if it makes any sense for him to even live. In eastern traditions , suicide is not forbidden or even threatened with everlasting doom as much as the western Judeo Christian traditions ( I wonder how much of it is due to Dante) and in fact, in Japan we have the proud Samurai traditions of Seppuku. Without that particular filter in place,  it is harder for somebody from eastern traditions to grasp the mental anguish that he seems to be going through . I am not suggesting that humans are thrilled about the prospect of suicide regardless of culture but in western traditions , an onerous burden is added . About 10 years ago , a friend had committed suicide in Ohio and many people did not think twice before telling his friends and family that he was going to burn in everlasting hell.

The play gets richer as we move our roving eye and look through Polonius eye’s who is being extremely loyal to the king or through the eyes of Ophelia whose tragedy seems to surpass that of Hamlet . Hamlet’s tragedy is a result of his choices , Ophelia’s tragedy is a direct result of her love for her father and Hamlet, she is truly helpless. Laertes’s revenge could be considered the sub plot of revenge that mirrors Hamlet’s own demons . The grave diggers are relatively minor and yet there is a monumental gem that comes down to us from them . When Hamlet queries as to who is being buried , they remark that it is not a man or a woman that they are burying and only after further interrogation that Hamlet finds out that it WAS a woman. It is a reminder that all our differences exist only for the living . The dead have no sex , no color , no religion or beliefs. Gertrude has so few lines that one can mistake her for being inconsequential and yet she tries throughout to reconcile Hamlet with Claudius and eventually she makes the ultimate sacrifice for Hamlet . The only person that seems to show up throughout and yet , I am not sure what the reason or import is the character of Fortenbras .

It is clear that women are second class citizens in this world but why is this important for us? Because Gertrude getting married had little to do with Gertrude’s wishes and yet Hamlet berates her continuously , she is an important figure but she is a puppet for her brother in law who turns into her husband , her son and in one case even Polonius. Marrying a brother in law is hardly incest and yet , Hamlet considers it incestuous and accuses her of incest every opportunity he gets . Poor Ophelia gets the shrift as well , everybody including Hamlet runs her life for her ,while she is torn helplessly between her love for her father and Hamlet.

I have added myself to the long list of Shakespeare admirers who believe that Hamlet is his greatest work. There is a long list of quotes that have made it into the common lingo “Frailty, thy name is woman.” , “This above all: to thine own self be true”,”There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”,”Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”,”Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”,”There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”,”One may smile, and smile, and be a villain. “, “Sorrows come not as single spies but in battalions”.

I think it is finally time for me to go get a Ham Omelet !!!

 

A Kolonos Cleansing by Oedipus

The title of this post is inspired by my friend Mike who can twist the most innocent of words into something teeming with profanity , a rare talent that has never failed to offend (or educate) innocent ears and therefore must not be taken lightly . I can presume that it probably took him the better part of six decades to hone and perfect . The title is but a pale imitation of what Mike would have come up with if he decided to turn his mind to it.

Oedipus at Kolonus is not nearly as dramatic as Oedipus Tyrannos (or Rex)  and starts off several years later after Oedipus leaves Thebes . Oedipus has taken to living by begging , his two sons are nowhere to be found and as is his daughter Ismene. Only Antigone accompanies him ,  Oedipus wanders into a sacred grove along with Antigone in Kolonus at the edge of Athens. The sacred grove is dedicated to the Eumenides (the Furies  or beings who are responsible for punishing humans who have committed heinous crimes such parricide or matricide) . Oedipus realizes that this is the place that Apollo has prophesied as his final resting place  however passers-by are aghast when they find out who he is and attempt to get him to leave , there is a genuine fear that he will curse their land because of his sins. Oedipus convinces them that he was merely a pawn of the gods and that he needs to talk to their King. Their king is Theseus of the Minotaur slaying fame .  At this point Ismene arrives and informs them that her brothers are fighting for the throne and Eteocles has overthrown Polynices and Polynices is preparing for retribution . Ismene leaves to perform rites since Oedipus has desecrated consecrated ground  and in comes  Creon . There is another prophecy that the side where Oedipus is buried will win so Creon wants to convince Oedipus to come back to Thebes so he can be buried in Thebes and thereby guarantee that Thebes will win. Here it is confusing because we remember Oedipus begging to be banished after he has blinded himself and Creon is compassionate but he also defers to the judgement of the Oracle . Here Oedipus is bitter and accuses him of exiling him . Keeping in mind that Oedipus is impetuous and very emotional , it is possible that he is just bitter but it is hard to understand. Creon is desperate and kidnaps Ismene  and tries to kidnap Antigone as well so that he can force Oedipus to follow him , Oedipus calls Theseus for help who rescues both girls and re unites them with their father. Oedipus is then informed that his son Polynices wants to see him , reluctantly and under pain of oath , Oedipus agrees to see him .Polynices begs his father to forgive him and accompany him.  What happens next is horrifying to me, Oedipus curses his son in the most vile language and tells him that he will kill his brother and his brother will kill him . A heartbroken Polynices leaves his father but stops by his sister Antigone and asks her to promise to bury his body . This will become the pivot of the play “Antigone” . Oedipus now proceeds to tell the king that his time has come and he is ready to go to his final resting place and he makes a strange request that nobody be told that location so that his sons or Creon would not attempt to move it and his final resting place will actually make the city a sacred place , a cleansing of sorts . Theseus does as he is bid . Antigone is heart broken and the two girls walk away , I can only presume that they are going back to Thebes.

Though the play is bleak , it provides critical information for the timeline between Oedipus Rex and Antigone . Watching Oedipus is a disturbing affair , what father curses his own sons in such a vile manner . We knew he was arrogant and impetuous from Oedipus Rex  but here we also see him a vituperic and bitter old man. I feel as though we are missing a big chunk  of what happened after Oedipus blinded himself . It shows the sad end of a man whose fate was designed to horrify one and all .

Another irritating aspect is the constant stream of prophecies , I cannot help but wonder if that is one of the reasons why the ancient Greeks revered Sophocles . He attributes everything to the gods , everything is known to the gods and we must follow blindly whatever they ordain for we as humans are powerless to do as we please , we can only do as we are bid. It does have the pseudo beneficent effect of providing a window into the unknown future thereby alleviating the worry that the unknown tomorrow brings.

 

 

 

 

Oedipal Tyrannies

In the hysterical 1999 classic “Analyze This” , Billy Crystal as a shrink asks the archetypal question that all shrinks presumably ask their male patients about the Oedipal complex to his patient , Robert De Niro about maternal fantasies . Instead of what a normal male would respond , Robert De Niro shocks us into befuddled laughter by stating “Have you even seen my mother? ” and makes a disgusted face . That was my inauspicious introduction to Oedipus followed by me promptly judging him to be a disgusting pervert.

The name seems to be keep changing but the one that I read was called Oedipus Tyrannous.  I instantly imagined that this meant a tyrant and since we know that he was not a tyrant in the traditional sense , I imagined that tyrant meant King. But eventually it comes to light that tyrant is somebody who deposed off the king and became the king .

The chronology looks like it was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Memento . We start off in the present where Oedipus is the king of Thebes and trying to understand why the plague is  decimating his city , all he knows is that there is a foul corruption in the city and he needs to root it out. He has become the king fifteen years ago after solving the riddle of the Sphinx , a creature with a head of a human , body of a lion and wings of an eagle . Prior to Oedipus, travelers who failed to answer the riddle were killed by the Sphinx. After Oedipus answers the riddle correctly , the Sphinx jumps to its death . The grateful citizens made him the king and offered him Jocasta , the king’s widow whom he marries and has four children .But the plague stumps even the brilliant Oedipus and not having access to modern technology , Oedipus takes the advice of his brother in law Creon who brings in the blind seer Tiresias . The funny thing about Tiresias is that he shows up in so many Greek plays that I am beginning to wonder if he is like 300 years old by the time he is done making his appearances in all the plays. Tiresias reluctantly gives him a tidbit that Oedipus was the one who killed the original king of Thebes , his wife’s first husband . That is our first introduction to the fury and suspicion of Oedipus . As the play progresses , his fury seems to deepen yet his yearning for an explanation grows even as the strands seem to come together for him and the shades of the horrible truth come to light. The next piece is from Jocasta herself who recounts where her husband was murdered , followed by a confirmation for Oedipus that he is indeed the killer of the late king after she summons the lone survivor from the massacre of the king and his entourage many years ago , a shepherd. But the horrible climax is yet to come . That comes in the form of the Corinthian who comes to let him know that he has become the King of Corinth since his parents died . This is where we are introduced to the prophecy that Oedipus was told when he was a young man that he would kill his father and marry his mother which is also the reason why he left Corinth in the first place . While he is relieved that his father has died a natural death, he is still concerned about the part where he would stuph his mother. The Corinthian tries to put his fear to rest by assuring him that he was adopted but that opens a fresh can of worms.  The shepherd who was first tasked with killing the baby Oedipus confesses under pain of death that he had handed the baby to the Corinthian and that the baby was the child of Laius and Jocasta and at last Oedipus is face to face with the awful truth that he has committed patricide and worse committed the foul act of mating with his own mother . Jocasta has already killed herself by now after realizing that her husband is also her son . Oedipus in a fit of anger and disgust uses her brooch to blind himself , his reason being that his eyes have performed the abominable act of seeing his mother naked.

Oedipus has been dealt a terrible fate, the stuff of nightmares . Not only has he killed his father but he has defiled his fathers bed and has become father to his own half siblings, husband to his own mother . If I could understand music better , I would imagine that this is where the crescendo comes in , the point at which Oedipus finally realizes that he never could escape that terrible fate that was ordained for him . In the play , there is an amazing missing insight that comes from the Corinthian and the shepherd who is a far better device than the traditional Deux Ex machina that the Greek dramatists  liked to employ.

Something that I failed to realize until I talked to others was the impetuosity that Oedipus portrays throughout . He is quick to anger which is the reason why he ended up quarreling with his father’s party , he is quick to imagine Creon and then Tiresias plotting against him , he also jumps to conclusions when he hears the Oracle’s prophecy and runs away from his adopted home. Those turn out to be fatal flaws , his impetuosity and his intelligence which leads him to believe that he can escape his own fate .

So what does one take away from this awful tragedy ?? If it was written , it shall come to pass . Predestination or the concept that the Celestial watchmaker has already ordained everything that shall come to pass and we as humans are powerless against it . In India , this was a concept that seemed very familiar and something I grew up with and I hate it because it is contrary to the concept of free will, it implies that we humans are powerless . Taken to an extreme , it states that we are not responsible for our actions .

Henry Ford had a saying “Whether you believe that you can or you cannot , you are right” .

This is the riddle of the Sphinx .  Can you solve it?

“What animal walks on all fours in the morning , two in the afternoon and three in the evening ?”

 

 

A Nobel diatribe

Little about this post is noble so I am getting rid of the difficult piece in the title . Though the spell checking fascists are already getting out their witeout to fix the mistake in my title . I can heard them already, NOBLE not NOBEL!!!

This is something that has been irritating me since I heard about it  . I heard that Bob Dylan has won …… Not the Grammy , not an Oscar , not the Presidential medal …. but the Nobel prize …. Do they have Nobel prize for songs?? I had no idea they had been introducing new categories . I thought old man Nobel was pretty strict about that , one of the reasons we don’t have a Nobel prize for mathematics though almost all the Nobel prizes for physics and chemistry (and Voodoo economics that seems to crash the world markets) could not have been won without mathematics that will twist most brains into the most intricate pretzels that would have Dr Hannibal Lecter drooling. So what gives!!! Apparently they decided that it was for literature!!! Bob Dylan has won the Nobel prize for literature . I have to admit that I am not a die hard Dylan fan though my favorite Jimi Hendrix song (this is sacrilege, I know!!!) is not Voodoo child or Purple Haze or even Foxy lady but ‘All along the watchtower’ which was written by Bob Dylan . Even the Guns N Roses ‘Knocking on heavens door’ is written by Dylan.  He is definitely the most covered artist in history (if it is an exaggeration , it is a well deserved one) and I would also be the last one to admit that his songs are anything but brilliant , for me his music might leave something to be desired but as a song writer , he stands alone. He draws inspiration from the most esoteric sources as the greatest writers do . But I am hard pressed to believe that songs can considered literature or even poetry. Literature and poetry have to stand by themselves without any help whereas a song has multiple dimensions . Having been a cook , I know that if I screw up adding a particular spice or ingredient , I can salvage by adding something else and I have done that on countless occasions and I see the same for a lot of songs , some of the best Rolling Stones songs would fall flat without the amazing music that accompanies it. So I eschew the concept that song writing is literature , I mean whatever next , are we going to give the Nobel peace prize to a terrorist ….. Guess they already did so let me revise that … .Are we going to give the Nobel peace prize to a racist …… Ooops , guess they did that too ….. … Are we going to give the Nobel peace prize to somebody who ordered the carpet bombing of a neutral country ignoring due Democratic process and withholding that information from Congress and the populace ??? …….. Oops , guess I should give up now.

I don’t deny that Bob Dylan is the most prolific song writer of our times (maybe even of all times)  and it is impossible to estimate his effect on music and artists . My argument simply is that  songs are a genre by themselves , clubbing it under literature is doing song writing and literature a great disservice .

Given that this is a completely subjective rant , I would love to hear what you folks think .

Macbeth

This play is far more interesting and complex than King Lear and Othello. The plot is far more richer and the number of fascinating characters involved are far more than either of the other two tragedies.

Macbeth and Banquo , the victorious generals are returning after quelling a rebellion for the King of Scotland .The play starts off with the three witches spouting off prophesies to Macbeth and Banquo, about Macbeth becoming the Thane of Cawdor and eventually  the king of Scotland and Banquo’s descendants will become kings. This single event is the catalyst for what is to come .

Banquo says the following verse to Macbeth as a warning

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.

Macbeth does indeed become the Thane of Cawdor and following the confirmation of the first prophecy, he is seduced into committing the most dastardly acts to make the second prophecy come true , i.e  murdering the king of Scotland who is also his cousin and become the king in his stead .

Lady Macbeth is a fascinating woman . She is the perfect wife in some sense , she encourages her husband in his ambitions and even steadies his conscience at difficult times

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’

In some ways she is the wife that most husbands aspire for and yet having said that, she is also completely callous and prays that she be more ruthless . She even accuses Macbeth of having a breast full of the ‘milk of human kindness’ when he has seconds thoughts about murder his cousin and guest, the king. She would have nothing stand in the way of their ambition .

In the beginning ,Macbeth seems to have a moral compass but the prophecy of the future seduces him completely and utterly. He begins by not only murdering the king but murders his bodyguards after planting evidence of the murder on them. The sons of the king  flees to safety and become suspect. At this point as the kinsman, he assumes the throne . After this Macbeth decides to clean house i.e kill Banquo who has witnessed the prophecies and has started suspecting him ,kill Banquo’s son who is prophesied to become the king  . In Casino Royale ,when  James Bond says that the second time is easier , he could have been echoing Macbeth’s sentiments. However Banquo’s son does escape though poor Banquo is murdered on his way to the banquet that Macbeth has thrown for the celebrations.

At the celebratory banquet and when he arrives , Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at  the table after which he starts raving and upsets his guests who cannot see the ghost . This is our first insight of the fear and paranoia that plagues Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and will eventually consume them.

Macbeth approaches the witches , this is the famous scene where the witches repeat

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

And there is a dialogue that would have made the oracle of Delphi proud. Macbeth  is informed that he will only be killed of one not of a woman born and he will be vanquished only when Great Birnam wood moves to high Dunsinane hill. Here he also finds out that he needs to be aware of Macbeth

As the end approaches , we see that Macduff instructs his soldiers to cut down branches of Great Birnam wood so the spies would not have a good number and moves to high Dunsinane hill . Before he kills Macbeth, he informs him that he was ripped from his mother’s womb.

There is a dialogue between three witches and Hecate , the queen of witches who takes them to task for seducing Macbeth with visions of the future  , this is the second time that Shakespeare tells us that it is better for us not to know what is in store for us . It is clear that even the prophesies that were foretold for Macbeth , he was unable to heed the warnings because he was unable to understand them . This is an interesting theme that keeps repeating in books throughout , on the one hand there is the concept of predestination which states that whatever is foretold will come to pass and then there is the concept that we are unable to grasp the future until it comes to pass. Long ago , I had read that unless we actually experience something , the knowledge remains abstract , if the knowledge remains abstract then it is impossible for us to understand and act upon it.

As all Shakespeare plays go , this one is full of delicious nuggets of poetry

Bloody instructions which, being taught return to plague the inventor

There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:

who could refrain,
That had a heart to love, and in that heart
Courage to make ‘s love known?

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Macbeth starts off gloriously returning triumphant and victorious . It reminded me of Othello , Othello returning from his triumphs and getting married . It is a useful trick for a tragedy , start off on a high note so you can lead your audience off that emotional precipice come time for curtains. It is a wonderful story , the verse is magical , the characters mesmerizing , the plot brilliant . It certainly has not lose any of its charm 400 years later.

Kafkaesque Trials

It is probably a disgrace but for the longest time I imagined that Frank Zappa , Frank Capra and Franz Kafka to be the same person and I imagined that author of the various articles made a spelling mistake (I also got creative and imagined that Franz Kafka after immigrating to the US anglicized his name to Frank Capra) . Watching “It is a wonderful life” and “It happened one night” and reading the Metamorphosis cleared up that blunder in a jiffy. But long before I heard of any of them , I had heard the adjective Kafkaesque to describe a book of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

Josef K starts his day as any other but finds out that he has been arrested and nobody is able to give him the reason for his arrest. At the beginning we are as incredulous as Josef K but as time passes , one cannot help but start feeling a sense of empathetic desperation . He encounters a series of people who seem to be cogs in the machine , likeable and willing to help but powerless to help . It is interspersed with entanglements with various women whereby which his spirits rise but crash again . That enhances the despair in the protagonist and us as we follow him. And the icing on the cake is when he is berated by family for bringing disgrace .  It is probably the greatest book on the shortcomings of bureaucracy . The whole book is chilling

The Trial was written almost 2 decades before Nazism came to power and arrested people for reasons of religion , appearance and gender preferences. History is rife with entire communities treated in a similar manner for some bizarre reason or the other ; Jews, Poles ,Russians,Gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses  and homosexuals under Nazism , liberal minded people under communism , the Japanese Americans interned during the Second World War, India during the Emergency and the list goes on. I imagine this is exactly how life is , under any despotic regime.

To get a better idea of the horror , I decided to watch Schindler’s List after almost 20 years and while horrifying , it did not have the same quality as the Trial. Perhaps 1984 would have been a better idea. But I realized that with Nazism or Socialism any of the other schisms, one is provided a reason (even a lousy reason is better than no reason). Man being a reasonable creature; loves having a reason (regardless of good or bad) so one knows what one is up against. A faceless tormentor is far more insidious . The shadow of the faceless tormentors follow us incessantly throughout the novel as Josef K leads us on a roller coaster of emotions. I wonder if that is also why (good) horror movies tend to have such a hold on us.

I had read the Metamorphosis before but the Trial is far more gripping and darker. It is not something that I would want to visit again but it is a mesmerizing story.

Othello

In 2002 , I used to work for a small electronics company in Ohio . The president of the company was a loudmouth transplant from Philly and liked to hear himself speak. He was giving us one of his rah rah speeches and he wanted to tell us little people that he had problems similar to everybody else and could empathize with us . He listed out a litany of problems in his family including one that took me completely by surprise , having a bi-racial couple in the family .Until that day , I was not aware that this was a problem!!

But interestingly ‘Un Capitano Moro’ written by Cinthio over 5 centuries earlier seems to ignore it . And it must have fascinated Shakespeare because he used that plot for Othello ,  changing minor details . Personally I think Othello the moor could have been replaced by a white man and we could still have a story rife with intrigue and drama and tragedy .  The racial tones provides for extra drama such as Desdemona being scared of Othello to begin with and eventually in stark contrast ends up falling in love and marrying him.

The plot is simple and plays upon men’s fear of being cuckolded and though the play is called Othello , the most fascinating character is Othello’s lieutenant , Iago . Iago controls the downward spiral in the play , he is responsible for Othello’s friend Cassio falling out of favor with Othello , he encourages Cassio to ask Desdemona to request that he be put back into the Moor’s good graces , he conspires with Roderigo who is in love with Desdemona , he has his wife Emilia steal the prized handkerchief that Othello has given Desdemona and plants it in Cassio’s apartment , he attempts to have Roderigo kill Cassio and eventually kills his own wife Emilia when she tells the truth to the Moor and of course poisoning the ears of the Moor and inciting jealousy in his unsuspecting heart. But Iago as knavish as he is, he is being tormented by the same emotions that he is exploiting in Othello. Iago is convinced that he has been cuckolded.Another reason seems to be his resentment at being passed over for promotion. But to me, losing a promotion hardly seems to be cause enough to warrant the kind of havoc that he brings about. 

The backdrop in the play is the Ottomans attacking Venice and Othello being in charge of repelling the attack . That earns him favors from the nobility of Venice and also their support for his marriage.

There is a long entertaining monologue from Iago where he chides Roderigo for wanting to kill himself out of disappointment and he keeps repeating the phrase “Put money in thy purse” . Iago is convinced (or convincing Roderigo) that given enough money , Roderigo would be able to snatch Desdemona from Othello. Shakespeare (or Cinthio) gives us fascinating character sketches for these very different human perspectives . Othello is a remarkable man but when clouded by emotions of  jealousy, he is unable to think normally. Sometime back , I read that the human brain is actually 3 different brains , the lizard brain or the amygdala is responsible for  controlling emotions , the mammalian brain and finally the cerebral cortex which is in charge of rational thought . In terms of speed ,the amygdala functions in milliseconds , whereas the cortex takes up to 30 seconds to process the same information so if you see a tiger , your amygdala tells you to flee but rational thought takes longer to process the same information and in 30 seconds one could end up as the main course for the tiger. On the other hand when Othello is plagued by jealousy , his normal cognitive powers are no longer evident , having been hijacked by emotions and he is doomed to make disastrous decisions . Shakespeare displayed shrewd insight into human psychology 400 years prior to us finding the actual reasons. Also the term ‘Green eyed monster’ seems to have its origins here in this play.

Another one of my favorite passages was from Desdemona .

Men’s natures wrangle with inferior things,
Though great ones are their object. ‘Tis even so;

As expected in a tragedy , the main characters Othello and Desdemona lie dead . Today we would blandly call it a murder suicide . Iago is in chains and taken off to be tried .

If there is a lesson to be learned from Othello , it is that Hasty Othello should have been more patient before strangling Desdemona . He certainly needed to understand whom he could and could not trust

Haste hath no redemption in Shakespeare’s world … or ours.

 

Lost in Paradise

As a child , one of my fantasies of paradise was rivers of milk and honey(more honey and less milk) and candy trees (anybody remember the song ‘Big Rock Candy mountain’) , in adolescence these imaginary rivers ran full of honey or coke and …  whisky or dark rum (preferably more alcohol and less of the sweet stuff)  ;in short paradise is a place where I could drink and drink and drink and have no hangover. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks , the media was buzz with the concept of 64 virgins and the hijackers believing that was their ordained rewards , 64 virgins in the afterlife !!! 64 !!! All I could conclude was that these attackers probably had never been around women. Can one imagine the cacophony that would ensue with 64 women competing for your attention and the jealous cat fights and the “You looked at her longer than you looked at me ” and so on and so forth .. So thank you , but no thank you , I will sin enough on earth to ensure that I don’t get that kind of a paradise. Hard to imagine that anybody would call that paradise least of all somebody who had to live with 64 virgins.

Coming back to rivers of whisky , there is the river Styx in Inferno which transports the souls, the river Lethe in Purgatory which washes away your sins but to my great disappointment there is no river in Paradiso . No river which gives me license to sin in Dante’s paradise , apparently all of your thirst is automatically sated so no more drinkies!!  On the plus side there are no 64 virgins waiting for you either . Dante’s paradise is one where you are on your way to merging with god . It is a beautiful concept that once you let go of your earthly desires , you are free from the noise and can listen to your own inner calling , what Dante calls the voice of god , or the divine seal ; if one chooses to ignore the religious aspects , one could still interpret that as the voice of our one true calling  and I found myself mesmerized with that thought. Interestingly there is one passage where Dante cannot view god and he is granted divine sight by the Virgin Mary because one cannot view god with mortal eyes . I could not help but draw parallels to the Bhagwad Gita where Arjuna has to be endowed with divine vision by Krishna because it is not possible to view god with mortal eyes . I had to conclude that Joseph Campbell’s theory of these myths springing up simultaneously in different unrelated cultures had to be true . The other hypothesis is that Dante was influenced by Indian culture but there is no evidence that is indeed the case . If anything there seems to be an underlying contempt for Indians , Ethiopians and other heathens in his writing .

As we ascend levels , Dante uses the same Ptolemaic model but now he focuses on virtues rather than sins , it is a brilliant re-use of the same structure used in Inferno and Purgatario, had Dante not become a politician and a poet , he would have made an excellent engineer .It was evident that he had also used some of the ideas from Astrology as well  . He associates  Mercury with ambitious spirits , Venus with lovers , Sun with Intelligence(Theologians and Philosophers) , Mars with heroism ( martyrs) etc . I did have a brief shock when I read that he was ascending towards the Primum Mobile .My first instinct was that this was a typo , surely they did not have Premium Mobile(cellphones)  in heaven .

On a touching note , with all the theological melodrama that Dante is unfolding for us to, he hangs tight to his beloved Beatrice . It is surely a subtle (or not so subtle ) indication of (earthly) love lasting forever , even as he makes it change guise into a more ethereal kind of love in paradise .

Canto IV was one of my favorites , he talks about how a man when given free choice between two equally favorite foods would starve to death (Anybody who has read Sheena Iyengar will say he is right on the money 7 centuries ago) . Beatrice informs him that his wish and doubt was tearing him two ways . Another verse in Canto VIII goes as follows

That ever revolving nature whose seal is pressed into our mortal wax  does its work well but takes no heed of where it comes to rest

In short talent knows no home , it can show up in the richest or most plebeian of places for no reason whatsoever .

What nature gives a man , fortune must nourish concordantly or Nature like any seed out of its proper climate cannot flourish 

If the world below would learn to heed the plan of Nature’s firm foundation and build on that, it then would have the best from every man

But into holy orders you deflect the man who was meant to strap the sword and shield and make a king of one whose intellect is given to writing sermons and in this way, your footprints leave the road and go astray

Dante packs tons of wisdom in short bursts and even partly digested can be quite a revelation.

Dante does play fast and loose with his rules  , for e.g. the emperor Justinian , a champion of Christianity is accorded paradise but Justinian was a ruthless man who in one notable incident slaughters 30000 protesters at the Hippodrome in Constantinople during the Nika riots. Even from a theological perspective , Justinian had raised doubts about Jesus being the son of god but royal decrees have a way of according pardon and rewriting history.

I had to wonder what is so comedic about this classic. I learned that a comedy is defined as a happy ending (not the $20 happy ending that one is accustomed to get in Thailand)  , if one was expecting Jerry Seinfeld or his 13th century equivalent doing a standup routine as the grand finale, I am afraid we are going to have to ask for our money back though this is a no refund deal. Rather this is one of a kind , a happy ending where Dante is united with God in Paradise.

Reading the last 33 cantos of Dante’s masterpiece is not much of a walk in Paradise .While it is definitely a hard work to read (the folks at my book club are thankful that they are moving to something easier , Othello!!), Dante leads us through a magnificent journey that is extremely worthwhile.  I imagine that the pleasure of reading a work like Dante multiplies when one reads the pre-requisites but it is certainly navigable by itself without any aids but one’s own imagination .