Saturday, 17 March 2018

A Different Delta

(I had written this piece a little over a year ago, for an online magazine. However, the editorial team suggested some truly bizarre edits -- some of which were ideological in nature -- which would have disfigured my original article beyond recognition. Since I was not able to bring myself to subscribe to such exacting standards, the article was not published. Here is the article I had submitted, with almost no modifications; I have included and highlighted a silly error I had made.)

No, dear reader, I am not referring to the dreaded deltas you may have thought about. The delta I am talking about belongs neither to Dirac, nor to Kronecker – but to the people who are fighting an interminable battle for survival – day in and day out. I am talking, of course, about the Sundarbans, the largest delta in the world, on the Bay of Bengal. I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting remote villages in the Sundarbans and extensively interacting with their inhabitants, as I accompanied my mother on her trips to the Sundarbans for her many research projects.

My visits to the Sundarbans from my childhood have been an eye-opening experience for me – an experience that, more than any other, underlined the stark differences in privileges enjoyed between the people in that world and those in mine. Given the sad state of affairs the world is in – has always been in – we have become inured to the fact that some people live a harder life than others do. However, when it comes to the Sundarbans, “struggle for survival” is not just a throwaway phrase – it acquires a very tangible meaning. It is not only the socioeconomic situation that makes the lives of the inhabitants miserable; the most ruthless adversary they have to battle is Nature herself. Tigers, crocodiles, deadly serpents are part of their lives on a day-to-day basis. The region is ravaged by storms, cyclones, floods very frequently. Deadly diseases are rampant. In recent times, the region has been hit most severely by climate change, as rising sea levels have made several islands uninhabitable – displacing countless people.

It is a near-impossible task for me to describe the myriad complexities of the Sundarbans – and I have witnessed only a small fraction of it. In this article, I want to discuss an aspect of the Sundarbans that has fascinated me the most – its culture. To me, it is nothing short of incredible that people living such a precarious existence would protect and nurture their cultural heritage so lovingly. Mind you, their cultural activity is not merely a form of escapism – it is firmly rooted in the realities of their existence. It is nothing other than their assertion of survival.

Three goddesses reign supreme in the cultural milieu of the Sundarbans – Banbibi, Manasa and Shitala. According to the people of the Sundarbans, Banbibi saves them from the menace of tigers, Manasa from snakebites and Shitala from deadly diseases. All these deities have performance forms (known as palas) dedicated to them. The forms, growing out of propitiatory rituals, have now metamorphosed into independent performative forms, rigorously nurtured and practised as manifestations of religious faith and devotion.

Of the three goddesses, Banbibi – the Lady of the Forests – is unique to the Sundarbans for obvious reasons. Incredible as it may seem, Banbibi is worshipped by Hindu and Muslim communities alike. The people of the Sundarbans, therefore, illustrate the perfect example of a closely-knit community, which has essentially dissolved any extraneous factors of division -- an example, if emulated widely, would make the world a much happier place. God, to these people, is not an abstract entity ruling them from up above the skies – divine beings are as real as you and me. I was able to understand how important the goddess was to the people in a conversation with a villager who had once managed to escape from a tiger. He was caught by a tiger in the river when he went to the forest for collecting honey. According to him, the tiger released him the moment he shouted the name of the goddess. The villager did not appear to suffer from any delusion – the wound left by the tiger was still visible. “Banbibi keeps saving us this way,” echoed other members of his community. Who were we to say otherwise?

The performance forms dedicated to Shitala were very interesting as well. Shitala is worshipped to keep all deadly diseases, most importantly pox, at bay.  One can find temples devoted to Shitala even in Kolkata – including one near my home. The most curious aspect of the Shitala pala was the similarities -- and the dissimilarities – between the tunes that emerge from the small Shitala temples in the city and those heard in the pala.

The worship of Manasa, to me, is the most notable one to me in several respects – primarily because it offers a valuable case study in differences of perception. The legend of Manasa goes something like this: Manasa, the abandoned daughter of Lord Shiva, (this varies from legend to legend: according to some legends, she is the daughter of sage Kashyap) tries hard to be accepted as a goddess. In order to gain acceptance as a goddess, she must first be worshipped by Chand Sadagar, the rich merchant and devotee of Shiva. Strong-willed as he is, Chand Sadagar is steadfast in his refusal to worship the vile and vicious Manasa. He is ultimately coerced into worshipping her after Manasa kills all her his children.

Chand Sadagar is celebrated as a symbol of triumph of humanity against the divine by the urban atheists (a category to which I consider myself to belong). In fact, Sombhu Mitra, one of the most illustrious playwrights of Bengal, celebrates the virtues of Chand Sadagar in his most acclaimed play, Chand Baniker Pala. The perception of the people in the Sundarbans, however, is completely different. From their perspective, it is Manasa who is the victim. Manasa, the mother who protects them from serpents, is the one wronged by everyone else, they think. She is the symbol of resistance against oppression by the upper castes – a cruel reality that is as true today as it was five hundred years ago. “What wrong did Manasa do?” they ask.

Watching a performance dedicated to Manasa is simply enthralling. Without expensive visual effects or nameless body doubles at their disposal, they take a live snake in the mouth for the performance (as shown in the image; small trivia: the actor was rehearsing the performance for us in front of car headlights, as there was no electricity) – this is how important the ceremony is to them.  As I have said before, the performative forms are not merely a source of entertainment for these people – well it does entertain them, but it is so much more! In a certain sense, this is how they are able to make their lives meaningful. The labourer who incessantly toils in the field through the day gets to enact the role of a rich merchant in the evening and in doing so, pays tribute to the entity that he thinks keeps him safe. How many of us can claim to lead such a meaningful life?

The people in the villages are an epitome of kindness and warmth. The way they received and greeted us was wonderful -- they were like long-lost family members. Meeting them was as much emotionally fulfilling as witnessing their adverse situation was heart-breaking. Their indomitable spirit is something every human being should be inspired by.

I have not been to the Sundarbans in quite a while. I am now closer to the Arabian Sea than to the Bay of Bengal. But as I take the customary evening walk by the shore, a distant boat sometimes evokes even more distant memories. The people would then be heading back home after yet another hazardous day and prepare for their next performance, I guess. I wonder when I would be seeing them next. What if they could come and meet me here? Can’t the rest of the country know and get encouraged by how lovingly they preserve their cultural heritage? The Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal become indistinguishable for a moment, before I remember that I have to get all the Dirac and Kronecker deltas right for the next assignment.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Published Elsewhere: One Hundred Years of Exactitude

[I had written this article in article earlier this year, for the souvenir of the 42nd Reunion of the Physics Department of my university.]

Most Distant Gravitational Lens J1000+0221
[Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. van der Wel (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy)]

One Hundred Years of Exactitude

A look at the scientific method in the centenary year of Einstein’s general relativity

What does a genius look like? With pictures of Einstein at our disposal, this question has been rather easy to answer for the past hundred years or so. We think we know what makes a genius: an apparently unorthodox “brilliance” coupled with myriad eccentricities – or in other words, a madman who got lucky. We often mistake complicated for complex and the notion that Einstein’s achievements are profound because of their seeming indecipherability is so widespread that it has become absolutely essential to rescue Einstein from the tag of “genius”. Otherwise, how do we distinguish between Einstein and the kind of “genius” who philosophises about space, time, existence, human condition and whatnot in a state of intoxication? (It is not uncommon, even in the second decade of the 21st century, to find Einstein equated to that other sort of “genius”, even in many “reputed” quarters.) Why then does Einstein’s work deserve our respect? The answer is not very difficult to understand at all.

In 1905, arguably the most sacred year in the history of physics, Einstein published four papers (known as the Annus mirabilis papers) which would change the way we look at physics. It is often emphasised that Einstein shook the very foundation of all that went before him. What almost invariably goes unmentioned is the fact that his new foundation was based on the old one. It is often claimed that Einstein introduced the principle of relativity in physics with his special theory of relativity. This is laughably wrong. The principle of relativity was a cornerstone even in Newtonian mechanics, which went by the name of Galilean relativity. In fact, special relativity had to be formulated because the principle of relativity was threatened. In the words of Steven Weinberg, “the principle of relativity was not originated by the special theory of relativity, but rather restored by it”. Many think that Einstein’s theory tells us that everything is relative and tend to apply this ill-defined (also completely false) notion to different fields, usually with disastrous consequences. If special relativity tells us anything, it is the absoluteness of physical laws which retain the same form for all observers moving with uniform velocity with respect to one another.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Published Elsewhere: The Trouble with Hitch

[I had written this article in 2013, when I was in the second year of my undergraduate course, for the souvenir of the 40th Reunion of the Physics Department of my university. This was written in haste  at my seniors' insistence – and I think it shows. I hope I will be able write much longer articles on Hitch.]

The Trouble with Hitch

August 2012 was a very important month for film enthusiasts all over the world – the prestigious British film magazine, Sight & Sound, published the results of its worldwide poll (nearly 1400 critics and director were polled) for the “Greatest Films of All Time”. The list sprung a surprise for many:  Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), considered for decades the best among the best, was dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). But Hitchcock’s ascent to the top spot was quickly digested. Everyone accepted that the artistry of Hitchcock is beyond the shadow of a doubt.

But should we accept that so easily? If I have learned something from my study of physics so far, it’s the important of asking questions. Physics has taught me to reject numinous vagueness, strangely appealing as it may be, in favour of clarity and precision. Before we get into the question of whether or not Hitchcock is a great artist, it’s essential to ask who a great artist is or what great art is. Let alone “art”, we are not even sure what “great” is. It’s a very subjective idea which is susceptible to wild misinterpretations. For example, the S&S poll is a survey of the personal favourites of the people polled. But to call the results the “List of Greatest Films of All Time” does an enormous disservice to great films, and to lists. We’ll not debate the problematic nature of such lists here. The curious thing is most of us take it for granted that such lists truly represent the greatest films. We like them or not, we are forced to acknowledge that, yes, the films are truly great.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Published Elsewhere: Physics is Always Right and Always Wrong

[As promised, this is the second article of mine I have dug up. I had written this piece sometime in 2013, when I was in the second year of my undergraduate course, for the alumni magazine of my high school]

Physics is Always Right and Always Wrong

On what scientific attitude really is

George Bernard Shaw once said, "Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating ten more." He was absolutely right. Science is always wrong. I have to say that science has to be always wrong. Indeed, in its very capability of being always wrong does lie the essential rightness of science. That is also precisely what distinguishes it from any religion or dogma which must be true because, well, it has to be true. So it naturally follows that in science there is neither any sacred text, nor any god sitting atop Mount Olympus. But there do exist some very fundamental principles and some giants on whose shoulders we must support ourselves, and rise higher.

A very recent example will make it clearer. In September 2011, the physicists conducting the OPERA experiment (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) in Italy sent shockwaves through the scientific world by announcing the stunning results of their experiments with neutrino, an electrically neutral, almost massless fundamental particle. The result of their experiments suggested that the neutrinos were travelling faster than light! It was violating one of the most well known rules in all of physics, one of the two fundamental postulates formulated by Albert Einstein in his path-breaking special theory of relativity in 1905.

Naturally, the results got widespread public attention. How could it be possible? How could Einstein, the very epitome of genius, be proven wrong? I remember not-very-helpful comments on social networking sites to the effect of: "Physicists pretend that they know everything and physics is ultimate. If Einstein is wrong, physics loses all its credibility and authority. We should therefore not believe in physics and turn our attention to [something else]." The physics community received the news with immense scepticism, voiced its serious doubts on the result and repeatedly emphasised the need for further experiments before making arriving at any conclusion. These two views perfectly illustrate the difference between physics and "something else".

Monday, 4 May 2015

Published Elsewhere: The Glow of the Rising Sun

[It's been quite a while since I wrote anything on the blog, but that doesn't mean I have stopped writing. I have written many pieces in the intervening years. I did wish to write a few long-form articles exclusively for this blog but I was unable to invest the time needed for such an article because of my involvement with my studies. However, I thought I should put up all my writings on my blog. This is the first in a series of articles that have appeared somewhere else.]

(Former readers of my blog will probably remember my Japan posts. I had written this seven years back after returning from Japan. This was published on July 27 2008 in Voices, a supplement to The Statesman, a reputed Indian newspaper. To my utter surprise and delight, the 2000-word article was published untrimmed and was featured on the back page!)

The Glow of the Rising Sun

Tall skyscrapers… manufacturer of the hi-tech cameras we use… cutting-edge robotic technology… four earthquakes a day… These are the first images to invade our minds whenever we hear the word, Japan. But what I saw in Japan, what I experienced in Japan was very different and much broader than the stereotypical concepts we have about the Land of the Rising Sun.

But my journey from the Incredible India to the Beautiful Japan as a part of the Japan - East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) programme (a joint collaboration between the Government of India and the Government of Japan) did not start off the way I dreamt. For a variety of reasons, I was completely engulfed by anxiety and tension. I didn’t have an international phone card to talk to my family just the day before we left and neither was my baggage within the weight limit set by the airline. Thus, the pre-departure session wasn’t exactly I’d call pleasant. Just when some the difficulties were overcome a couple of hours before the departure, a greater misery awaited me. I was still not realising the absence of my family there since my mother accompanied me to New Delhi. But on May 12, 2008, at afternoon, as I entered Indira Gandhi International Airport and boarded the Japan Airlines flight no. JL 472, a very powerful sensation struck me. I was leaving my motherland for the first time and that too, without my family! I had a feeling, which was completely incomparable to anything else. I was feeling away from home and a new kind of despair enveloped me. Even the flight wasn’t a very cheerful one. But as time progressed I was so anxious and depressed that my mind went fully blank and no other bitter thought could assault me.

But all my grief vanished at once when the aircraft landed at Narita International Airport, Tokyo. I was filled with the excitement of visiting the country Rabindranath had visited decades ago. We landed in the Land of the Rising Sun just after the sunrise. But the sun remained covered by grey clouds and a new snag came up as I came out of the airport. A typhoon had hit Tokyo the day we arrived there. So, it was impossible to defend against the cold that came seeping in through the two sweaters and non-stop rainfall was even more painful.

Just as our bus advanced towards the main city all the visuals I had imagined about Japan came into full view. Tall skyscrapers, smooth roads, speeding vehicles, innumerable flyovers – Tokyo has it all. Just as I entered the main city and got excited once again, I also became immune to the terribly hostile climate. The Imperial Palace was the first place we visited in Tokyo. It was an immensely beautiful place one can never have enough of.

One of my main concerns about visiting Japan was the food. As a person not accustomed to Japanese food habits, I thought it would not be easy for me adjust with their cuisines. But, to my very pleasant surprise, this wonderful programme booked some Indian restaurants for us to have our meal.