Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The journey of zero

Every educated Indian knows that ZERO was invented (or should we say discovered?) in India. And most educated Indians know that Pythagoras’s theorem (the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares of its two other sides) had been put forward by an Indian mathematician long before. But let’s keep it aside for the moment. What kind of a man was Pythagoras?

A student of Pythagoras, Hippasus challenged another theory of Pythagoras. In fact, he proved it wrong. How did Pythagoras solve the problem? Did he accept the truth? Did he try in vain to prove Hippasus wrong? No, he found an easier solution. He simply murdered his student.

The tradition intellectual dishonesty continues to this day. In fact, it is quite common, like the lack of common sense. You do come across ciphers that pretend to be knowledgeable.

And that brings us back to zero. Another word for zero is cipher, but cipher also means “secret code”. Now, do you know the answers to the following questions?

1. How did cipher or zero begin to be associated with secret codes?

2. Why did the city of Florence ban the use of zero in 1299?

3. Which Indian mathematician proved what is known as Pythagoras’s Theorem? When?

4. How did the Greek colony of Croton celebrate when Pythagoras proved his theorem?

5. What was the name of the Indian mathematician who not only introduced the concept of zero, but also invented the place value of digits in a number (units, tens, hundreds, and so on) and negative numbers? When did he do it?

6. How many centuries did it take for Mr Zero to travel to Europe from India? What was his route?

7. How did people do arithmetical operations (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division) before they learned to use the number system in which different digits have different place values?

8. Who introduced the concept of the irrational numbers? That is, a number that cannot be expressed as ratio of two natural numbers? When?

Since I began with intellectual honesty, I must reluctantly admit that if I had taken this quiz yesterday, I would have scored a big, you’ve got it right, zero. What is your score, Dear Reader?

To check your answers, please read this brilliant article by Brishti Guha, who teaches economics at JNU, Delhi.…/opi…/columns/the-story-of-shunya/

PS: If your score is close to mine, it would only indicate how ignorant we Indians are about our past. And how stupid are our present rulers, who instead of focusing on the great intellectual tradition of our country, try to prove that Ganesha’s story was a case of head transplant and a proof of plastic surgery!

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Peace in the middle of nowhere

The plains of Bengal crisscrossed by countless rivers are among the most fertile terrains in the world. Here, with little effort crops and vegetables grow abundantly. Many believe that the fecundity of the soil has made its inhabitants lazy and unambitious. On the other hand, for the same reason the Bengal countryside is lush green through the year and its beauty has captured the imagination of countless poets. One of the finest among them, Jeebanananda Das wrote, not without a touch of jingoism:        

I’ve seen the face of Bengal,
So I don’t wish to find out
How beautiful the rest of the world is.

And in this scenic state, Birbhum, which flanks the Chhoto Nagpur plateau of Jharkhand, is perhaps the most beautiful district. The land here is not green like the rest of the state or Bangladesh. It is red, and often undulating. The rivers Ajay, Kopai, and Mayurakshi meander through the district, its people are quiet and relaxed. It is also the land of bauls, the mesmerizing country singers. If you get an opportunity to visit Birbhum, please don’t miss it. I don’t, ever.

When we got off at Prantik, a quiet rail station near Santiniketan, the sun had set. Partho Ghosh, a friend’s friend, was waiting for us with his elderly Maruti in the dimly lit empty station compound. Soon we were driving through darkness along a red earthen track with a canal on our left and a jungle on the right. As the vehicle got into the thickly wooded tract, the track vanished. The car rolled, pitched, and groaned in pain, throwing up a cloud of dust. But sadly, the topsy-turvy journey ended soon and we got into a compound. At that moment we had no idea that we were entering a very special place.

Mousumi and Ranjan Datta visited Santiniketan years ago and fell in love with a tract of land in the middle of nowhere. So when Ranjan retired from the seventh floor of a landmark building in Kolkata, they decided to invest their life’s savings and energy to build a hotel with a difference. The result is Santisudha Garden Guest House, two acres of sheer beauty that has two stylish structures surrounded by a beautiful flower and vegetable garden. Fortunately, we were there when the winter flowers: asters, marigolds, cosmoses, daisies, phloxes, poppies, petunias – you name it – were in full bloom. 

And the vegetable garden was not far behind. From aubergines to cabbages to broccolis to our humble pumpkins, there was room for a wide range of them. The kitchen garden has been so successful that during the three days of our stay, all the vegetables on our plates had been from their own garden.

An open-air weekly market nearby; here local artisans offer their stuff at throwaway prices

From the airy light and spacious rooms, you get to see the meadows below reaching out to a wide open sky on the horizon. Next morning, as I opened a book sitting on the balcony attached to our room, I watched cattle grazing on faraway fields. They moved ever so slowly: the clock seemed to have slowed down. How I wish I had had a little more time to do nothing! But every few hours, there had to be a break: either for a long walk to the River Kopai or elsewhere, or an exciting journey to the kitchen.

On the way to the River Kopai

The chef and all-purpose handyman of the establishment, Jayanta is pleasing man in his early thirties. The way he took care of us – it seemed we were guests in his home. The garden fresh vegetables were distinctly tastier than their cousins grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We got simple but exquisite food – any grandma would be proud to produce such fine homely dishes.

But Jayanta had kept the final surprise up his sleeves. When the taxi arrived to take us back to Prantik station, he came and very humbly asked, ‘Sir, will you mind if I give you a bag of vegetables to carry home?’

Would you mind, Gentle Reader?

Kolkata / 9 Feb 2015

Thursday, 5 February 2015

A fairy tale of our time

Mita, who came to meet us this afternoon after a long time, has changed a lot. If I had met her on the street, I wouldn’t have recognized her; I would have taken her as just another smart young girl in her early twenties in a red salwar suit. But actually, Mita is very special, because her story is very special. But before I tell you her story, I must tell you a little about her family.

Mita was born into a caste that used to carry other people’s shit on their head. The “tradition” continued well into the twentieth century India parallel to steel plants, airplanes, and televisions. The practice has been abolished, but it hasn’t improved the lot of Mita’s people much. They continue to be “untouchables”. More often than not, “they” wouldn’t be invited to sit alongside “us” in a community dinner. In the country, they still live in filthy unhygienic ghettos on the outskirts of villages. The so-called upper-caste has no physical contact with them except when the village gentry rape their women.

In cities, they live in equally filthy unhygienic slums. Mita’s family lived in one such not far away from our home when her mother Lilavati joined our condo as a sweeper. They still live there and her mother still cleans bathrooms and drains, besides sweeping. Twenty years ago, Lilavati was a stunningly beautiful young woman. Now, after six children, recurring ailments, relentless overwork and poverty, she is an old woman in her mid-forties. But for the sake of completeness, I must add here that in all these years of trials and vicissitudes, Lilavati has held her head high. She has borrowed regularly and always repaid her debts in time. But she has never ever begged. 

Her husband was a drunkard. He worked occasionally and beat her regularly. Fortunately, his liver couldn’t manage the amount of alcohol he had been consuming and he had to leave a crying Lilavati and a huge debt behind when he was in the prime of his abused youth.

Of Lilavati’s two sons, one makes an honest living as – what else – a sweeper and the other is a professional thief. Neither supports their mother. Mita is the oldest daughter, and the other three, much smaller, are triplets.

Lilavati put her children in school and struggled to pay tuition fees and buy books. She wanted her girls to live a decent life. However, Mita left school and started working as a domestic help with a family in our building. And soon, she became an expert cook. So, early in her life, Mita made a smart career move and broke the shackles that had tied her forefathers for two thousand years!

When her father died, they needed a lot of cash to repay the debt they had run up for his treatment. Needless to say, most of the money had been borrowed at usurious rates and the debtors were on their back. So Mita made the second smart move in her life – around five years ago, she managed to find a domestic’s job in Mumbai, a city that pays working people a lot better.

Now she is a happily married young woman brimming with pride for her prince charming. A housewife now, she even pays for her younger sisters’ education. Presently her husband is away at Bangalore on work for a week. And Mita has flown down to Kolkata to be with her family. I do not know if she ever dreamed of boarding a flight when she was a child, but it is a reality today and no wonder: her husband is a graduate engineer. He is planning to do masters and taking the GATE exam this year.

How did it happen? We didn’t ask her, but Mita was happy to tell her tale.

‘On the train to Mumbai, I was crying continuously. He was in the same coach. When no one was looking at us, he asked me surreptitiously, ‘Why are you crying? Are you being kidnapped? Have you been sold off?’

‘I told my story and told him I was scared to leave my family and home for the first time, that too for a distant city. ‘The family I am going to work for has promised to pick me up from the station. What if they don’t? I don’t know anyone there.’

‘He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him if I was in trouble. I didn’t trust him initially, but I did phone him after a few days. As luck would have it, he lived not far away from where I did. He even dropped in to meet me at my workplace. I was still not too sure about him, but the lady with whom I worked felt he was a good man.

‘From that family I moved to a women’s hostel where I cooked for forty inmates. It was tough. My day began with making tea and ended after everyone had had their supper. But the pay was good (12,000 rupees) and I could send money to ma regularly. Over time, we paid off all our debt.

‘And then we got married. Ma insisted on “legal marriage”. So we went to Alipur Court and got the papers.’

As Mita told us the story, time and again she told my wife, ‘Kakima, I haven’t met anyone else like him. He is wonderful!’

And every time she said this, her face lit up with happiness. My wife asked her if her husband’s family accepted her without any hassle. She said initially her mom-in-law in Begusarai wasn’t too happy, but after some time, things settled down.

As Mita left, I silently bowed to the ordinary small-town Indian who is her husband. If you didn’t know the Indian society intimately, you wouldn’t possibly know how deep-rooted the prejudice against people from Mita’s station in life is. Consequently, it would be difficult appreciate the significance of what this young man has done.

But let’s put sociology aside for the moment. Please join me in wishing Mita and her husband all the happiness in the world. May they live happily ever after.

[This is a true story. Except for changing names and some insignificant details, I haven't cooked the facts. I haven't even garnished the story.]

Kolkata / 4 Feb 2015

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

On the way to Goalanda / 21 June 1892

Rabindra Nath Tagore

[Rabindranath Tagore’s Chhinnapatra (literally, The torn letter) is a collection of letters written by him to a niece when he was between 26 and 34 years of age. Tagore wrote them while he was travelling extensively in East and North Bengal and in Orissa on family business.

In a book on Tagore, Kabir Swadharma (The poet’s own religion), a noted scholar, Sourindra Mitra wrote: “There is no dearth of famous and great books in the treasure trove of Bengali literature, but there is only one about which the term “intimate” can be used.” Mitra felt Chhinnapatra is a book that is intimate in the way Walt Whitman described one of his own books of poetry: “Who touches this touches a man”.

This is the third letter from Chinnapatra that I have translated and posted here.]

Been floating on the river the whole day …. What surprises me is that although I have gone along this waterway many a time, felt the special delight of being on this boat between the two banks [of the Padma], when I am back on the land for a couple of days, the memories seem to fade away.

I sit quietly, with captivating scenery on either side – hamlets, wharfs, fields showing up and vanishing; clouds floating in the sky and polychrome flowers blossoming in the fading lights of the dusk; the boat moving, deckhands fishing, the incessant, adoringly fluid sound of the water; as darkness descends, the vast stretch of water becomes absolutely still like a sleeping child, all the stars in the wide open sky wake up and watch from above; late in some nights when sleep evades me, I wake up and gaze into the two dark banks of the river dead to the world, jackals howling intermittently from the wildernesses bordering villages, and the noise of clumps of earth splashing water as the fierce silent stream of the Padma steadily chips off its banks.

As I watch the changing landscape, a stream of fancy flows through my mind, and on its two banks two banks, new desires take shape. Perhaps what lies before my eyes isn’t really fascinating, maybe, a tawny treeless sandbank stretches to the horizon, and on it edge is tied an empty boat – a faint river is flowing along under the shadow of a gloomy sky – I cannot express how I feel when I watch the picture … I think the desire that was born in me when I read the Arabian Nights – when Sindbad the merchant explored new lands and I, imprisoned in a storeroom under the watchful eyes of domestic helps, used to wander along with him – the desire that was born at that time still seems to be alive – whenever I see a lonely boat anchored on the riverbank I become restless. I am absolutely certain that if as a child I hadn’t read the Arabian Nights or the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, if I hadn’t heard fairy tales, such thoughts wouldn’t have crossed my mind while looking at the riverbank; the world would have looked different to me.

The mind of this tiny man is a massive mélange of reality and imagination. One doesn’t know what gets tangled with what else – how many stories, pictures, anecdotes, insignificant and important events have got knotted to each other – still getting tangled every day. If you could unravel the life of a man, so many minor and major stories would emerge.

438 words, Translated on Tuesday, 03 February 2015, Kolkata