Monday, August 09, 2004

The last page of my Maths notebook

All of us out here
Have something to dread
The maths exercises at the end of the chapter
That have to be read
Read on, and stared at, and gaped at and sighed
"I can't solve a single problem,
I don't deny"
Pen in my hand and notebook before,
Every time, I get a solution, the answer cries, "Encore"
Try again and again and you may get it right,
But chances probably are that you never might.

Out of desperation
And sheer frustration
And consolation
For my battered soul;
I turn to the last page of my Maths notebook,
Nothing else will condole.
For here lies my kingdom of total fantasy,
Here I am the King, here is total ecstasy.
Little additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions,
And all those wee little things
That'll drive away my arithmetic inhibitions
Small notes alongside, curses and remarks,
Every minute thought that this soul embarks.
Here is where I've drawn Mona Lisa with my pen,
And here is where I find succor again and again.
Here lie my best poems, couplets and rhymes,
And here is where during my study hours,
I commit my most heinous crimes.
The last page, the very last page of my maths note book,
Come ye all who will, come and have a look.
Here is where I'm creative, when the world says "NO! NO!!"
Here's where I’m Einstein or Newton or all the great ones that you know.

But, the last page, why the last page why not the first?
Why don't you turn to the first page?
If you are all that well versed?

Well, you see the last page has a charm that's one of its kind,
It’s like chicken for the soul, the heart and the mind.
In moments of distress or extreme anxiety,
We always seek solace from the most ignored.
THAT symbolizes the last page,
You'd hardly look at it
It’s treated as a burden wearisome and misfit,
But ironical that life is, we always turn to this,
Whenever in our lives, something is amiss.

Life is too complicated; try to make it a bit light,
Turn to the last page, its guaranteed to fill you with delight.
We all have a last page, only that we don't seek to find,
We'd rather seek back and sulk, we're just not inclined.
So, in moments of sorrow or anger or rage,
One great idea, turn to the last page.
Honesty is the best policy is an age-old adage,
I'd rather be honest,
This composition too, was written on the last page!

[September, 1999, Delhi]

Managing IIMs (Intellectual Indian Male)

I like them. I enjoy their company. I'd count some among my good friends. But I couldn't handle them in large doses, and I emphatically could not live with one of them. Yes, I speak here of my own secret brand of bigotry-my deep-seated visceral mistrust of the Intellectual Indian Male (IIM).
Yes, I know generalisations are odious. They flatten rich, complex, idiosyncratic individuals into faceless homogeneity. I accept that's unfair. So let me clarify at the start that all I'm venturing here is a hypothesis-and one based on my own circumscribed personal experience of Indian mankind of the self-consciously cerebral variety. And anyway, given that women are constantly having to negotiate cliches about dumb blondes and hairy-legged feminists and bespectacled plain Janes, I don't see why I shouldn't run the risk of perpetuating a couple of truisms from an ovarian view of the universe. Let me first make a crucial distinction between the average thinking male and the IIM. In my book, the first is simply a man capable of some reflection, some analysis, of generating a few ideas (some inspired, some average)-basically a man who owns a cerebrum, like the rest of humanity, and uses it when he needs it. The IIM, on the other hand, Owns a Cerebrum-and how. He'll never let you forget it. He can't forget it himself. He struts it, he flaunts it, he jiggles it. He owns it with a ferocious zamindari arrogance, a naove self-consciousness, a Born-Again zeal.
His ancient forbears' primitive fetishisation of the penis has simply been replaced with a new-found reverence towards the new totem of the times: the Cerebral Cortex. The IIM has demarcated it, has set up his flags, manicured its hedges, careful to keep out any marauding impulse from the neighbouring vicinity of the cerebellum and hypothalamus. For the IIM has no use for these lesser cognitive mechanisms, these embarrassing throwbacks to a messy non-rational past.
Not surprisingly, the wilful schism between old brain and new brain has given rise to certain brands of convenient schizophrenia. And so the IIM is used to living like the Grand Trunk Express-in compartments. The divide between the boardroom and bedroom, between seminar room and locker room-these are some of the binaries the IIM thrives on. The IIM is fully capable of delivering a lecture, replete with bibliographical flourishes, on Lukacs' concept of reification, and promptly retiring to the Gents to share a lascivious wink with a fellow-lecturer on the proportions of the female chairperson's posterior. The IIM can offer you a cogent critique of the manifestations of patriarchal hegemony in diverse cultures of the globe. (His speeches about the Indian woman's Right to Orgasm have, in fact, a tinge of testosteronal hysteria that women are immediately wary of.) But question him about his family life, and you're likely to find that on an annual vacation back home, his wife spends three weeks at his parents' place, while he drops in for a token weekend at hers'.
Double standards. Mention the phrase in his presence, and the IIM will take instant umbrage. Catch him on a Sunday morning doing the crossword with his feet up, while his wife makes aloo parathas in the kitchen, and he'll shrug it off with, "I hope you aren't one of those politically correct feminists who doesn't understand that life is all about inconsistency and contradiction." Fair enough. But how about grappling with some of those contradictions, instead of blithely accepting those that suit you? The IIM won't deign to answer. He has his mind on higher things. He's busy plotting new paradigms for planetary perfection, while his wife sews on buttonholes and attends PTA meetings.
He's earned the right to be sensitive now. He can talk for hours about his childhood traumas and adolescent angst. He's allowed to sniffle through war movies. He enjoys these privileges to the hilt, and loves to tell you about his sensitive female side (IIMs are notoriously deluded.) But his wife hasn't yet earned the right to be smarter than he is. Woe betide her if she were to find fault with one of his learned monographs, or suggest that their second kid take on her surname. For when a self-conscious sensitivity gets together with a self-conscious cerebrum, what you get is an outsized case of self-absorption, a narrow self-serving intellectual sophistry. Knowledge for the IIM is about acquisition. It's about grasping and jealously hoarding a body of information with a view to monopolising power. The self and knowledge are two entirely separate categories for the IIM. Learning, consequently, isn't about self-enquiry and internalisation; it's about naked colonisation and annexation.
I have a private litmus test by which I separate the regular thinking bloke from the IIM. The strategy is to mix up contexts and see how he reacts. (The IIM simply cannot handle sudden shifts in register, especially when initiated by a woman.) Discuss rabi crops and Richard Gere, J. Krishnamurti and your grandmother's mango pickle recipe-all in the same breath. If he brightens up at the mention of James Joyce, but looks uncomfortable or furtive or lecherous (or worse still, emits one of those high-pitched, repressed, quintessentially Indian male giggles) at the mention of Jennifer Lopez, banish him forthwith to the IIM category. There is surely nothing more pitiful than the male who's intellectually bullworkered, but psychologically pre-pubescent.
Of course, he deserves sympathy. Don't give up on him. Befriend him, civilise him, edify him. Remind him that it's possible to be honest and open, even playful, about sex, without having to retreat into some furtive old boys' clique to ventilate a festering adolescent male fantasy. Remind him that there's a vast terrain between the head and the loins just waiting to be explored. Remind him that it's possible to own a mind without doing a tribal dance around it to prove that it's yours. And advise him to learn the following by rote-the fact that genuine liberalism has always been much more a matter of the gut, than the cerebrum.

Never Been Ragged

Wheezing past my second year at Delhi University at a characteristic speed of three hundred and sixty five days a year give or take the vacations, I suddenly find myself at the crossroads. Arguably the last summer vacation of my life (the third year is spent scouting for a job and the fourth; looking after it) at this juncture, I am in a mood to reminiscence.

From the very-certain-of-herself teenager who left Kolkata (it was still Calcutta then) to the girl who lost her way in the maze of Delhi buses, life has been a rumbling journey on a Delhi Transport Corporation bus generously punctuated with the stops. Like my second day in college when I fractured my leg, trying to jump off a speeding bus (that too in block heels) because I had miscalculated and hence missed my stop. Like the month we took off from our classes for our fest. Like the week our professors refused to teach us, because they decided to reverse roles and mass bunk. Or the days when we slipped out from the Maths classes to go to PVR or Connaught Place or even good old Kamla Nagar (the Connaught Place of Delhi University), anything to avoid Prof. RRM (name withheld even without request)

There have been days when all that my wardrobe held for me was a dirty pair of jeans and a crumpled T-Shirt. I donned them for who cares for etiquette at an age when "we were young and restless; we needed to unwind" But true to Bryan Adams, I guess nothing can last forever.........Like the ragging sessions where my friend Upasana who hadn't a pair of Salwar suits in the world; had to get a dozen stitched for that one month. Like the smell of the college loo where I hid for three hours in order to escape being ragged. Like being there at Rajghat, the day Bill Clinton was there. Like squatting on the streets in my brand new Salwar Kmaeez and shouting "Hamaari Maange Puri Karo!"

Then there was the computer laboratory. The great misadventure. Where computers crashed at the innocence of my well-meant C++ programs. When seven of us sat at one terminal not because it was the only connected to the Internet, but because we wanted to read each other's "private mails". Where the air-conditioner offered us respite from the summer of forty-five degrees. We stayed there till we were driven out.
When we chatted with unknown netizens we knew we had arrived. When we hacked email accounts and fought over our favourite terminals we knew we belonged.

From here to eternity, God alone knows where destiny will take us- Wipro, Infosys, TCS, Hughes, Cadence, IBM, Microsoft, - the names whirling round us in a labyrinth of bewilderment. Sometimes it scares us, like now, when they are saying that the bubble has burst. Sadly though, what I’ll always regret about college is that despite all the fun that I had I probably remain the only one in my class who's never been ragged.

[Written during my summer vacations, 2001]