Silver in his Hair, Gold in his Heart

“I am going to come to your school riding a bullock cart, wearing a turban, sit underneath the banyan tree in your school garden and eat curd-rice on a banana leaf”

Grandpa would often say this to a six year old me and for some reason the very idea of him coming to school would frighten me. I’d retort back saying “Bullock carts are not allowed inside the premises” or “They’ve cut down all the trees in the school garden” or “You don’t get curd-rice in Punjab”.

This has been one of my fondest childhood memory. For no particular reason, I’d always oppose whatever he said with a childish reasoning and he would indulge me with counterarguments. Grandpa was really one of a kind. I had never seen a man like him before. Of all the people I knew at the age of six, none looked or spoke like he did.

As a child, I always used to think of him as a unicorn. He left a little sparkle wherever he went.

Here is a picture of my grandad and me.

His head was all silvered over with age. But he made me believe otherwise. A particularly interesting anecdote that I remember was when he’d ask me every night, before going to sleep, to take a tour of the home and check if all the windows were bolted and the doors were locked properly. I’d ask him the reason and he’d say, “OH! But you surely don’t want a thief stealing all my silvered hair” He’d add “Do you know how much a single strand of it is worth in the market?” Though it seems comical now, at that time he managed to convince me of the apparent “gravity” of the situation, and I’d carry out the night rounds with utmost sincerity. It was a long while before I realized he was just messing with me!

One of my many weird habits is that I tend to panic after I see a pen without its cap on and don’t rest until I find it or am able to replace it. It is a strange OCD but I can’t bear to look at a pen without its cap, it kind of causes an irritable itch in my brain that you can’t really get rid of. Now that I think of it, this habit of mine has its roots in my grandpa’s insistence of doing the same.

Like in every household, mine too was flooded with a barrage of pens and pencils amongst other stationary items. Grandpa, who was always reciting shlokhas while walking about the home, would go on a pen-hunt and unite all the missing caps with the respective pens.

While he was at it, he would also find spare sheets or pieces of paper that had been discarded and quickly make boxes out of them. It was amazing how he did that! He’d take a little under a minute to make these paper boxes. The end result would be a flat sheet of paper folded neatly at corners and then he’d bring the box to me and ask me to blow air in it. And Voila! A neat little box would appear as if out of thin air. The boxes he’d make would put any fancy paper-and-glue boxes to shame.

We all must have gone through the process of writing essays, paragraphs, articles, and notes during our English classes while in school. One of my teachers’ words that stuck with me were,

Writing an effective brief is the single most difficult task that people, who are good at writing, face.

I have often heard members of my family praise my grandfather’s exemplary writing skills. Having written many a letter during his time, people would vouch for his ability to convey the length and breadth of his thoughts in a simple language without straying away from the central topic. We have preserved some of his letters, at his home in Tiruchirappalli, that could teach a thing or two about the language itself.

The clarity in thoughts and simplicity of the language used is something that I have witnessed up close when communicating with him. My grandfather is a man of few words. In a room full of people, he’d probably be the person who’d speak the least and still have the ability to steer the conversation in a particular direction while voicing his opinion.

He was interested in all facets of public life and was a highly aware person. He read a lot and the TV set in his home would almost always be tuned to a news channel. Not only English and Tamil, in his older days he picked up new languages (like Telugu and Kannada) along with their scripts, solely by watching these channels.

In the years that I have known him, never have I seen him sit idle or complain of boredom. He always found tasks to keep himself busy and happy. He passed away a couple of years back. The discipline with which he led his life to the very last breath is truly remarkable. More and more that I single out people who have influenced me and inspired me the most, my grandfather increasingly finds a prominent spot.

 “The strength of human instinct seems to be quite overrated as it is so feeble it requires a lifetime of guidance, education, training and practical experience to develop. More critically, without conscious and diligent effort across one generation to pass its knowledge on to the next generation, all that was gained will be lost, forewarned by an increasing rarity of the reminiscence, “Every secret of life I know, I learned at my grandfather’s knee.”
- T.K. Naliaka

Time Lapse of the Universe

I am no astrophysicist but I do enjoy astronomy and am curious about the physics of the universe. And for a while I’ve been looking for a book that tackles the subject at the right level without getting lost in math. It took me a while to get through Cosmology for the Curious, but this masterly coverage was worth every single minute. As I read, I came to understand that most of what is known about cosmology, including about the origin of the universe, of the formation of elements of the periodic table, planets, solar systems, galaxies, is unknown and speculative.

Part one of the book reviews a lot of the existing literature present in this area, along-with topics like Newtonian physics, Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity, and Hubble’s discoveries of an expanding universe.
The second half went on to discuss some of the most fascinating things we’ve come upon beyond the big bang: inflationary cosmology, string theory, whether the universe had a beginning and whether it’s possible to create a universe from nothing.

This is one of the best books, I’ve read, on cosmology to date. It is a great reference and I find myself returning to it to review sections. I think it would make a fine addition to anyone’s library who is interested in astrophysics and cosmology.

While you are at it, have a look at this beautiful video showcasing the time lapse of the universe as we know it began culminating in the appearance of homo sapiens.

Explorers of Infinity

“The Riemann Hypothesis was born out of an encounter, …a great fusion, between counting logic and measuring logic. To put it in precise mathematical terms; it arose when some ideas from arithmetic were combined with some from analysis to form a new thing, a new branch of the mathematical tree, analytic number theory.”

  • An excerpt from ‘Prime Obsession’

For a mathematically curious person, ‘Prime Obsession’ is a mind stretching journey to one of the most profound mysteries in mathematics – the Riemann Hypotheses. First published in Riemann’s groundbreaking 1859 paper, the generalized hypothesis conjectures that

All non-trivial zeros of the zeta function have real part one-half.

Euler’s zeta function was extended by Riemann to the entire complex plane, while studying the distribution of prime numbers.

He noted that all the non-trivial zeta function zeros -2, -4, -6, … would therefore lie on the “critical line”.  

One of the last great unsolved problems in Math, it has thus far resisted all attempts to prove it. Even the combined mathematical prowess of Hardy and Ramanujan could not achieve this feat.

(Riemann Hypotheses has been widely blamed for Ramanujan’s and Hardy’s instabilities, hence giving it somewhat a reputation of being a curse)

Reading more about this theorem and the world of prime numbers, I somehow ended up going through some of the most famous works of the brilliant English Mathematician G.H. Hardy.

With carefully worded, accurate proofs ‘Orders of Infinity’ – a mathematical pamphlet written by Hardy, he had recast theorems dealing with limit-behavior of functions (obtained by Du Bois-Reymond in a series of papers dating from 1871 to 1880) according to the then requirements.

And his paper might well have given rise to the beginning of the much-celebrated collaboration between Ramanujan & Hardy.

An excerpt from the first letter Ramanujan wrote to Hardy

Dear Sir, 
I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education, but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden through the conventional regular course, which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as ‘startling.’

An insignificant clerk in an Indian office at that time, Ramanujan in his letter went on to insist that he could give meaning to negative gamma functions and also disputed an assertion made by Hardy in his ‘Orders of Infinity’ paper. Most of all, he declared he had found ways to better the famous ‘prime number theory’. Enclosing a part of his findings along with the letter, he signed off asking for Hardy’s advice on whether he should go ahead and publish his theorems.

Robert Kanigel, in his biography on the self-taught Indian mathematician ‘Srinivasa Ramanujan’, remarks that ‘For Hardy, Ramanujan’s pages of theorems were like an alien forest whose trees were familiar enough to call trees, yet so strange they seemed to have come from another planet.’

The strangeness of Ramanujan’s theorems was what struck him first, not his brilliance.

Hardy put off the whole episode labeling Ramanujan as just another crank. But for the remainder of that day, the wild theorems he had seen in the morning kept repeating in his head. And by dinner time, he had decided to call up on his colleague, Littlewood, to further examine the papers.

Hours of rummaging through the stuff and the duo were finally beginning to realize that they were indeed looking at papers of a mathematical genius.

Ramanujan’s religious theology forbade him from crossing the seas, but Hardy was persistent and somehow convinced the man to move to Cambridge. Under Hardy’s mentorship, Ramanujan created, proved, negated mathematical theorems that were seldom thought of before. In a memorial speech at Harvard in 1936, Hardy said,

“They [Ramanujan’s theorems] must be true, because if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”

It has been estimated that Ramanujan conjectured/proved close to 3000 theorems, equations, identities, and properties of highly composite function, in his lifetime. Not forgetting major investigations, he carried out in areas of mock theta functions, gamma functions, divergent series and prime number theory.

Not being able to withstand the climate and dietary conditions of England, Ramanujan returned to India in 1919, after the war got over. But soon there was a relapse in his illness, and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Around January 1920, Ramanujan wrote to Hardy for the first time in almost a year. He explained his discovery and subsequent work on the ‘Mock Theta’ functions. Robert Kanigel terms this work as Ramanujan’s ‘Final Problem’ (refer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story by the same name).

During his final year, with an approaching death and an absolute physical deterioration, Ramanujan worked relentlessly on his discovery. He filled page after page with theorems and computations clocking almost 650 formulae in total.

Through all the sufferings and household squabbles, Ramanujan till the very end of his life, lay on his bed with his head propped up on pillows – working. As his wife, Janaki remarked – ‘It was always maths.’

On April 26, 1920, Ramanujan passed away at a tragic age of 32. His remaining handwritten notes, consisting of formulae on singular moduli, hypergeometric series, and continued fractions, were compiled by his brother, Tirunarayanan.

Curio Cabinet Child

I think there is a fine line between being a hoarder and preserving things, that the general population would term as unwanted, for the sake of memories. I recently returned home amidst the corona pandemic and as has always been a ritual with me, the first thing I do when I get back home is, sit besides my clothes’ cabinet (that’s completely devoid of clothes and now officially houses my quirkiness) and dig out all my old scrapbooks and bags full of items that I’ve collected over the past fifteen years or so.

Having been away from home for the past two years, I have had my fair share of travel and experiences, from which I obviously accumulated a ton of “junk” to add on to my existing hoard. I bought all that back home with me, along with a vivid layout, I had in mind, for the arrangement of all that stuff.

For an otherwise ‘not-so-organized’ person, my memento collection from different years can come as a shock. I got multiple books and bags, all marked year wise, color coded and ranked in order of importance and size. Not all the stuff in there is necessarily associated with a happy event from my life. For instance, I have these pictures, of a couple of old school mates, that have no specific relevance and the books have a separate section dedicated for their pictures and other related paperwork.

One of the reasons I keep a stock of all my good and bad memories (in the form of these scrap items) is because I believe it to be a proof of the life I have lived thus far. A couple of years back, I showed this collection to one of my friends and for the next couple of days I got all sorts of ‘Hoarding disorders’ related emails in my inbox. I did, for a while, consider the possibility of suffering from this disorder. Let me quote a website’s viewpoint on compulsive hoarding:

“Getting and saving an excessive number of items, gradual build-up of clutter in living spaces and difficulty discarding things are usually the first signs and symptoms of hoarding disorder, which often surfaces during the teenage to early adult years.”

For a long time, I read a lot about this. Compulsive hoarders hoard almost anything and everything – catalogs, mails, broken things, worn out equipment & clothes, and in severe cases clutter their homes with beds that can no longer be slept in, damaged chairs & sofas. By all means, I was far away from doing any of this. I have always maintained a clarity of what is important to me and why and have justified the use of space for the same. A decade of “hoarding” has only led to a half-filled basement of my clothes’ cabinet. I’d say that’s pretty much bearable by any accounts.

The only things I have ever saved were the ones I personally had anything to do with. Birthday cards, the little labels that you stick on gifts with a nicely worded wish and the receiver’s name on it, flight tickets from the first time I went out all alone to a new city, copies of achievement mails, diaries as old as thirteen years, school headbands & ribbons, chit papers we would pass each other during a class. These are the kind of stuff I’ve stocked over the years besides the regular photo albums from each year.

Images from a couple of scrap books dedicated to a whole lot of important personal paperwork from various years.
A part of my birthday collection over the years including hats, candles, gift boxes/bags with messages written on them!
A simple rule to live by, even for hoarders, would be to save things that bring happiness to you. Are of a sentimental value to you and for which your attachment comes from a good place.

For instance, have a look at this image of a gift I received, from one of my close friends, on my birthday. There are all sorts of weird things in that packet – soaps, shower gels, moisturizers, and shampoo bottles from a hotel room. She packed each item with a newspaper and wrote me a message on top of those. The gifts & messages were meant to be metaphors for some of the experiences we had shared, and I absolutely adored it. It only made sense for me to save all of this!

I would want to look back at this kind of stuff, when I reached my old age. Just to be able to remember all sorts of weird, passionate, and crazy people that have been a part of my life and all the experiences that have shaped up my perception of this very weird world we live in.

The joys and miseries of childhood and early adulthood are captured perfectly by Leo Tolstoy in his famous autobiographical works. His dead-on description of the state of mind we all pass through at different stages of life is remarkably accurate and close to, at least, my experiences. This particular post is a result of an extensive reading I’ve been doing, of his works, off late.

This quote from one of his books, ‘Childhood’, makes me a long for a simpler time:

“Do in the after life the freshness and light-heartedness, the craving for love and for strength of faith, ever return which we experience in our childhood’s years? What better time is there in our lives than when the two best of virtues – innocent gaiety and a boundless yearning for affection – are our sole objects of pursuit?”

What’s in a name?

Just dropping a quick something regarding my blog’s name. I am sure there are a lot many of you who identify themselves as Potter-heads. I had always imagined when I’d start any personal initiative (like this blog), I’d choose a name that’d resonate with the Harry Potter series. For most people around the world, the series is more than just a couple of books. It’s an emotion.

I would wait with bated breath every time a new instalment would be about to hit the market. My father would be under immense pressure to get the first copies of the book as soon as they would be released. He was after all answerable to two Potter maniacs back home.

My mother introduced me to the world of Harry Potter when I was eight. Every night we would curl up in bed with a glass of warm milk and she’d read out a chapter to me.

Take a minute to read this excerpt from the Philosopher’s Stone book:

He (Albus Dumbledore) found what he was looking for in his inside pocket. It seemed to be a silver cigarette lighter. He flicked it open, held it up in the air, and clicked it. The nearest street lamp went out with a little pop. He clicked it again — the next lamp flickered into darkness. Twelve times he clicked the Put-Outer, until the only lights left on the whole street were two tiny pinpricks in the distance, which were the eyes of the cat watching him. If anyone looked out of their window now, even beady-eyed Mrs. Dursley, they wouldn’t be able to see anything that was happening down on the pavement. Dumbledore slipped the Put-Outer back inside his cloak and set off down the street toward number four, where he sat down on the wall next to the cat. He didn’t look at it, but after a moment he spoke to it.

 “Fancy seeing you here, Professor McGonagall.”

He turned to smile at the tabby, but it had gone. Instead he was smiling at a rather severe-looking woman who was wearing square glasses exactly the shape of the markings the cat had had around its eyes

Now this is an important point in my Potter journey because this is the first time since my mother started reading the story to me that I stopped her and exclaimed – ‘But how is that even possible!’ I have always had this immense need of having a fool proof explanation for events, specially within books. Explaining magic to such a kid could get frustrating! Nevertheless, I implored her to go on and by the end of the first chapter – I told mum that I wanted to read this by myself. Something told me this book was going to be special and I wanted to experience the story on my own.

I have often been told I read things way too quickly. Now that I look back, I guess the Potter books are a reason for this. Since mom and I had to read the same book, we co-ordinated our schedules but invariably ended up overshooting them. Neither of us would have the heart to let go of the book for the other. Wanting to be ahead of her, I started running through the lines. (She finished the book in less than a week though!)

(A Tip, if you care for it: Competition is a great way to improve your reading comprehension along with speed)

Once the two of us finished reading the book, we dissected and discussed each & every dialogue, every character, every set-up from the book. My mother was now, for the first time, an equal contributor to these discussions. She is naturally blessed with an amazing visual intellect and through these discussions she created a whole new world for me. Till date, whenever I read the books, I imagine Dumbledore to be exactly the way my mother described him to be. (And Michael Gambon was eerily close to the portrait I had of his, in mind. Some would say Richard Harris was the better Dumbledore but that’s a topic for another time)

And this holds true for every page in the book. Long before I watched the movies, I had conceived my own world of Harry Potter.

I think this is a primary reason of most book readers being disappointed or not fully satisfied when they watch movies/series that are said to be based on a book. The visual medium often doesn’t do justice to the story and the reader’s expectations. But this is for no fault of the medium. You can, after all, only cover off so much of a book in a two-hour piece.

Anyway, I am digressing. The point being – mom and I fell in love with these books and therefore J.K. Rowling. Back then we didn’t have the kind of internet access we have today so for most part of my Potter journey, Miss Rowling’s identity contained as much mystery & magic as her books had. She was this revered figure at home. I think the first time I saw a picture of hers was when they released the sixth book (Half Blood Prince) and they did a press coverage in an Indian newspaper. Apparently, the pre-orders had crashed Amazon’s and other delivery services’ ‘muggle counters’.  

It was an extensive piece about how she created this unbelievable masterpiece and connected billions of people with one story. And to think she had to face constant rejection and numerous professional & personal setbacks before Bloomsbury agreed to publish her book (courtesy the editor’s 8 year old daughter who fell in love with the manuscript and begged to read the whole thing. God bless that girl!)  

When I was in third grade, ‘Goblet of Fire’ released. The book’s jacket had numerous reviews and one of them used the phrase ‘Beyond words’ to describe the story. Oddly, the phrase got stuck in my mind. Just to sound fancy, every time someone would ask me how I’d like a particular work or book or anything for that matter– I’d say ‘It’s beyond words!’, not knowing the depth it conveyed. As I grew up, my dictionary expanded, and I had many more words and phrases to assign to situations.

But probably because it was the point of origin or because I really feel that way – till date whenever I pick up and read any of the Potter books, ‘Beyond Words’ is the only feeling I can ascribe to them.

I haven’t found a book yet that’d evoke the same surreal feeling inside of me.

(Fact: A couple of years back, a TV series on JK Rowling was released with the title – Magic Beyond Words!)

I didn’t have to think a lot before coming up with a name for the blog.

Even within important aspects of our life, we all have a focal point. Growing up a single child, books were one such aspect. And across every genre, every kind of book & every stage of life – the Harry Potter series will forever remain that point.

It is only befitting that I leave you with a beautiful quote from J.K. Rowling:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Take One!

Growing up I used to be a voracious reader, averaging around 60-70 books a year. I would write my own little versions of whatever I read, in the form of reviews or even a simple summary. This habit was something my mother inculcated in me right from the very beginning. She would make me repeat stories and ask me questions to assess my understanding and learning and encourage me to write down my thoughts about all of the comics or books that I read. I grew up in a home where reading was as natural a habit and a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth. Papa used to stock up all sorts of picture books and comics at home. There was never a day when I did not have new stuff to read and learn.

Often, I hear a lot of my friends complain that they do not enjoy books that aren’t illustrated or are heavy on text. But isn’t that the whole point of books? Widening your horizons, your scope of imagination, taking you to worlds that you may never actually experience in your lifetime.

As far as my memory goes, I was taken off of the illustrated media quite early on. I was about six or seven years old when I read Ruskin Bond’s ‘Blue Umbrella’. Probably my first real book and one which wasn’t heavy on illustrations. I was mesmerized by the world painted by Mr. Bond. Never had a book made me more happier up till that point in life! The first wave of excitement hit me when I could (obviously I was imagining) feel the aroma of the mountain hills. I had never been near the mountains before but reading about Binya’s life made me feel a part of it. I had imagined up the scenery, individual set-ups, the characters, their costumes and most importantly the very elements of the nature. The entire experience was intoxicating up to a point that I finished off the book in a single day and sat down the next day re-reading and marking favorite portions from the book. Personalizing my books, marking favorite passages has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Something that, I have observed, is often looked down upon within the reading community. Though that book was only about 90-95 pages long, I kept going on and on about the story to my mother for the subsequent weeks.

Mom and Dad have been a terrific influence over me in terms of my reading choices. In particular, my father, he has literally crafted the entire reading experience of my life by introducing me to the right books and the right authors at every stage. Be it a birthday, finishing college, starting a new job, or any achievement for that matter – we always celebrate with him buying me a book (that he personally writes a message & signs for me).

With the latest developments around the world relating to the covid pandemic, the lockdown has given me time to reflect on what has been missed.

Over the last few years, I gained a lot of appreciation from all quarters and was actively writing on and off for a popular city newspaper. Somehow in between all sorts of worldly pressure and otherwise & under the pretext of not having enough time, I stopped writing at all.

All of this just to say that, I am going to try and give my writing another chance. I have a lot many interesting anecdotes and personal stories to share and what better a platform than this blog! Hope this attempt strikes a chord with you readers!

(P.S – My next post will explain what went behind coming up with this particular name for my blog 😊 )

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