O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" retold in the digital era
My first experiment with Microsoft’s Photosynth software that creates one large image stitched out of nearly 50 photos. A view of one of the most beautiful parts of Stanford. For best results, expand this to full view.
I am sorry to disappoint you in case you came here for some gossip on our friends, Bill & Melinda. This article is about two bizarre structures, one in Delhi and one in Los Angeles. The front gate of the Delhi School of Economics is massive and ornate, and it is supported by pillars that hold the massive gate on either side. It is said that the two pillars are called truth and knowledge. What is special about these gates is that they have never been opened, and people have been forced to use the rear entrance to access the school for decades. Several theories exist on why it has never been opened, and none of them is well established.
One theory is that the founder of the school – VKRV Rao – had declared that the gate should only be opened when someone from the school gets a Nobel Prize. When Amartya Sen got his Nobel in 1997 there was much excitement on whether the gate will be finally opened. I went Bombay that year and visited the headquarters of several Indian companies. I was able to meet many top officials without prior appointments just because I was from the Delhi School of Economics, for everyone wanted to know if the gate be opened now. All that Amartya’s Nobel did was to open some gates for me to meet them; the front gate continued to be closed.
A more colourful theory is that the pillars on which the massive gates rest have a poor foundation and they will crash if the gates are budged. In the Delhi School of Economics, truth and knowledge have a poor foundation. No one that I know of has bothered on the question of whether the massive gate might land on someone even without someone trying to open it – with an earth quake for example. Stories are said, life moves on, and nothing really gets done about a bizarre structure.
The other gate rests in between a square in downtown Los Angeles. I saw this first during my guided tour of the opera house, in front of which the gate stands. The guide told us when the gate was built, by whom and an assorted set of statistics about it. He told us that it was a symbolic gate, and the artist meant for it to be open at all times as a sign that anyone is welcome to that space. The gate stands by itself and it is neither an entry nor an exit to anywhere, and it is an ornate nothingness in the middle of the square. I am not sure how many will get the symbolism of the open gate for welcomeness, unless told by a guide. I am reminded time and again that art should not be evaluated for its aesthetic alone, but let me add that it is not a gate that captures the eye. It is one bizarre structure in all.
The two gates are bizarre but with a difference. The gate in India is a mystery. No one knows why it exists, why it is never opened, and it unleashes the creativity of many a story teller even when it was never meant to do so. The other, a piece of art, has authoritative stories about it and there is no doubt on when, where, how, who and other questions. The creativity of the artist is what matters and we are mere consumers of that creativity, unless of course, a blog post is written on the irony of it all!
The woman sitting next to me was travelling on air for the first time. She grew up in a small town and there was not much discussion about air travel among her friends. I did my share to make her feel comfortable. We did a round on how to buckle the seat belt, how to turn on the light, how to turn off the air vents and whether she should hold her three month old tight through the flight. After we reached the altitude she asked, “Chal rahi hai kya” (is it going?). I heard it as “Jal rahi hai kya?” (is it burning?). I had never imagined that someone will discuss a plane burning with such a bright smile.
We flew over a beautiful winding river that branched off every now and then to reunite again. It was a mighty river, and it had so much water that it must be rough and rapid. From my vantage, the river was one gracious picture, winding in beautiful curves, creating little river islands along the way. At times, long curvy branches led to little curvy branches of water, making it look like the river was stretching out its hand. All around it were little rectangles in varying shades of green. I have read about land fragmentation in India, but the sight of it from thousands of feet above was stunning. I guess I would not have made much sense of it had I not seen those large blobs in varying shades of green in the USA. But then, is it a story of fragmentation or concentration?
Landing in Los Angeles at night is an incredible sight. It is a sea of lights stretching for miles and miles, disrupted only by brief patches of darkness in the woody hills of LA. I landed in Ranchi today after the sun had set, and the lights began with barely a minute to land. Between thin streams of light were vast stretches of shadow. It was an eloquent political commentary.
The lounge was made lively by a crew of young women. Their smartly tailored uniforms highlighted many an attractive feature and the skirts that went just above the knees revealed beautiful legs. The smiles were effective and economic as they went about their routine. They were invariably young and pretty, and I believe that it is not an accident. “…I am the commander of your flight” said a voice amidst my distractions and went on to introduce the male head of the hosts. I liked the sweet feminine voice of the commander.
In a world that is deeply worried about extremism I have learned to love it. In fact, there is nothing as entertaining as it is. Whenever I am bored and need a diversion, I find extremism and its close cousins: insanity and craziness, to be extremely reliable means of getting out of my boredom quickly. That’s insane, you must be thinking. Or perhaps not, if have a YouTube view of the world, as I do. All I need to do is to go to YouTube and start typing “extreme” or “insane” or “crazy” and it will give me an assortment of options to get my mood back on track.
It started with my search for extreme acro slam dunking that led me to this video:
As I started watching it, YouTube suggested that I watch this too:
It was entitled “crazy ping pong player”. Encouraged by this, I started looking for videos with the keywords “extreme” “crazy” and “insane”. In the process, I found the Most insane parking job ever…
…a seven second entertainment video. I guess there is something in us that draws our attention to things that we absolutely cannot do ourselves. Greater the potential danger, greater our attention seems to be, one reason why insanity makes for such entertainment. And that which gets our attention is bound to be used by some to further their purposes, as in this case:
Thankfully, not everything about insanity and extremism is about flirting with danger. It is also about intelligence, wit and skills. It is at times about sensible ideas that we simply have not thought about, to take an example:
A video with many interesting aspects to it, don’t you agree? I guess the list can keep going on, but I will leave you with this video entitled extreme gymnastics. And for the New Year, I hope you shall stop worrying and start loving extremism.
I discovered that the papers that I had written with a lot of hard work were cited only once in the last four years. A note on the academic peril of working hard in writing what will probably be never read by any one. To publish is to perish. Read on.
Madras is one of those conservative cities that likes to keep its boys and girls at a safe distance. Parents clamour to get their children enrolled in colleges that are rather strict about this, and colleges have responded to this with enthusiasm. One famous college made a rule that girls will sit at the front of the college bus and boys behind and there will be a firewall of teachers in between. To counter this attraction other colleges have come up with separate roads and staircases inside the campus for boys and girls. In this context of competitive conservatism, I was surprised to hear of salsa in Madras.
I decided to go to this event with two schoolmates expecting to see rebellious youngsters, perhaps those from other cities with parents safely away. Well, Madras is also a city of surprises: the first set of people I saw were old mamas and mamis with their attractively clad daughters in the dance hall. Unfortunately, the mamas and mamis were not dancing, with just one exception. The rest had accompanied their daughters to protect them from the harsh city that Madras can be. The mother sat at a distance occasionally giving the daughter napkins and diet cokes during the break, and the daughters comfortably crossed the intimate world of social dancing and parental presence.
I was stuck by the sight of a protective mother watching her daughter dance with a glint of pride in her eyes. From the perspective of traditional Madrasi sensibility, protecting daughters and bringing them to a social dance like salsa are contradictory. While the idea of social dancing is not very Madarasi, the idea that one’s children should be accomplished in every sphere is very Madarasi. Perhaps, that should have made salsa irresistible to the protective mothers.
One of my schoolmates, now an accomplished salsa dancer, went to the dance ring while I settled with the other in a corner seat. It was apparent even to the untrained eye that salsa was new to the city. Some of the elementary moves were overused and you could see the dancers watching and learning on the fly from the more accomplished ones. My dancer friend literally pushed, rolled and twisted his partners and danced with intense glee; at times I wondered if he were a dancer or a puppeteer.
My other friend, now a doctor, surveyed the scene intensely and turned to me. “Look at the shape of her body…”, he said. I waited for him to pass a cheesy comment. “…she will have problems during delivery”, he completed. I was unprepared for the twist from the sensual to the cerebral. I guess that too is Madras, a city were it is more acceptable to indulge in the cerebral than the sensual.
The night ended and the trio returned. My friends were generally satisfied, the dancer having danced and the doctor having analyzed medical issues. It was a bittersweet experience for me. I would have loved to join the revelry and excitement, but not a bone in my body likes to dance. But then, not all was lost as the social scientist in me saw the grand city change and quietly shelved a research project for the future. In Madras, that is pure indulgence.
At one point I used to think that mothers know us the best. Today there is someone to beat mothers thumbs down in how well they know us – the advertiser. Unlike my mother they seem to have the access to my innermost thoughts, conversations and moods with access to my mails, facebook, search histories, and what not. With the advent of targeted advertising I have started learning what they have learned about me.
Last week almost all advertisements carefully picked for me were buxom women, enticing me to join a dating service. These advertisements seem to suggest that the only thing on my mind is voluptuous women and I have been rather irritated. I patiently tried clicking the “dislike this ad” option at least a hundred times. That did not work. I then tried clicking those occasional advertisements on other subjects such as writing or economics with the vein hope of misleading marketers of my interests. That did not work. Frustrated, I decided to declare to one popular social networking site that I am in a relationship (that contains letter 6 and letter 2 in the acronym, don’t tell them). As soon as I selected the option I had a new advertisement saying “wanted new men”. In desperation I then decided to announce that I am married.
I hope the advertisements will stop now. If they do not, I am considering having a sex change. I may even consider becoming much younger with a desperate hope that dating sites may not target eight-year-olds. I guess I should watch out these incremental steps. If I do all of them, I’ll be an eight year old married girl which may lead to different kinds of trouble.
Ps: it has been a week since I declared myself married, and I am happy to report that marketers are as vulnerable to cheating as mothers. Advertisements with those inviting women have almost disappeared; sometimes I miss them. I now get advertisements for part time jobs, invitations to tattoo my wife’s name on my hands and other most interesting advertisements. Sometimes I am overwhelmed to be recognised as a person of so many talents. One ad looking for musically talented men was specially chosen for me; another invited me to become a police officer, and there have been other offers for my talents in my spare time. I now realise that there are real advantages to being married in the virtual world. I expect to stay happily married ever after.
My relationship with sex could be summarized in the following terms: ignorance, followed by awareness, followed by an absolute unwillingness to engage, academic engagements, followed by willingness (accompanied by lack of opportunities) and finally now, the curious sexual turn. After having had a fairly pristine life – sexually speaking – sex has now become an integral part of my life: they are always making love in the room upstairs. The charm of living in old wooden houses in America is that it gives you a sense of community. If (concrete) walls have ears in India, the wooden walls here have 1000 watt speakers. There is no scope to mistake, much less to ignore the society around me.
The first time, it started with some wild running and dancing in the room above. Soon it was thump, thump, thump followed by some conversation (or perhaps a monologue in feminine voice), followed by an invigorated thump, thump, thump. Now that sex has descended on me, literally, my preoccupation with it has increased. What kind of bed do they use? That’s not the kind I want to have, I tell myself. I have sworn by now that I will never live with a room below me. What sort of conversations does one have while making love (alas, those monologues keep me up, but are never clear enough for me to make sense of).
Friends of mine for whom knowledge is a practical pursuit will be surprised by my ruminations about sex. How does it matter to me, the eternal single man? Here’s my two pennies for them: I too am a practical man, one with a broad vision. I believe that knowledge should be applied and should be practical, and I always have a plan on hand. And for those doubting Thomases who are still wondering what I will do with this knowledge, here’s my strategy, and you will believe me now: “he who can does, he who can’t writes a blog post”.
Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning.
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think, “What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!”
Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies.
I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps of gold and silver.
With whatever you find you create your glad games, I spend both my time and my strength over things I never can obtain.
In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire, and forget that I too am playing a game.