Palimpsest

Itinerant Ideas

Month: August, 2012

Small Joints Rule

“So we are here, in this atavism of a place, in this pensioner’s dream. A restaurant in the middle of a clearing in this urban jungle, like a respite from modernity.”

“With wide streets and tenements that look like they were built in the 1960s. Parking spaces that belie the spaces they provide. Cars that could compete with garbage trucks for looks.”

“Yellow, sodium vapour lamps and bougainvillea creepers to boot. What about it? It is just some old place. A bit of charm, perhaps.”

“A palmist’s store here, an old electrician’s there. A hideous Ambassador with wheels too bold for its looks, and a svelte compact car more befitting of our generation…”

“…driven by a man whose hairdo resembles Kumar Bangarappa in the 1980s.”

“And who is that?”

“Dude, you don’t know Kumar Bangarappa? Go die off.”

“By any chance that politician’s son? Actor?”

“Yes, the very same guy. Remember that horse based movie? Or something.”

“Okay, but what does this have to do with it?”

“Nothing. I still can’t believe you didn’t recall Kumar Bangarappa.”

“Whatever. So what else is here?”

“The streetlights, the bougainvilleas, the houses that look like they belong in the 1960s, and the fact that we seem to have a bit of a clearing for fresh air. And yes… crickets.”

“Yes, the insects, of course. Which old residential scene would be complete without them? Why are you on about this place like a stuck cassette tape?”

“Dasaprakash.”

“Oh, Dasaprakash. That place still exists, eh?”

“Hell yes it does. And today, in crisp masala dosas at Dasaprakash, will I find my equilibrium.”

Later…

“Crispy masala dosas like nobody’s business… yes. Crispy masala dosas that alter your brain chemistry… yes. But why here? Why not where it gets noticed?”

“And why should things be where people easily find them? Where is the fun in the hunt, the exclusivity, if you will, the quirks?”

“Dude. This isn’t the Hard Rock Cafe bean burger. This is Dasaprakash masala dosa.”

“So? It should be less exclusive, is it? People don’t make the dosas here and machines do? Where do you think those dishes come from? They get made because a taste sticks, no? Because some guy toils to achieve some commonly agreed idea of perfection, no?”

“A taste sticks, yes. Like those hand-built engines. Even mass manufacturers of cars like Nissan and all made hand built engines for the GTR. But how long would it take these guys to make the same stuff, again and again? Write it down well, bro. Standardize it.”

“This isn’t a car plant or a widget factory, maga. This is where food gets made, and people come to like it over time. It is an art, as much as a science. No McDonalds and all here. Some patrons visit often, some are just important. Some drive the taste. Some say more of this and less of that. And that affects the taste.”

“And develops taste, non? Like hand-built cars develop a taste for the life of the mechanic and the atelier, as some design houses refer to themselves.”

“Indeed. Ever wondered where we get the so-called gold standards for cars… or food? From popular restaurants, right? But does someone come up and say ‘Dasaprakash masala dosa only is besht-u‘… or even Dasaprasad… or Dharmaprakash?”

“They might, I suppose. Or they might have.”

“Exactly.”

“Cool story, bro.”

“Yes. Enjoy the dosa. I am ordering a nice plate of Guliappa and coffee.”

“The guliappa here rocks. Why isn’t this stuff more popular?”

“People just haven’t discovered it.”

“And why have they not? So many of these people seem to think these restaurants end at the dosas and idlis.”

“Exactly. Mass built vehicles. Mass produced food. Same thing.”

“Hmm. Yeah.”

“Something like Guliappa ought to be …. more exclusive? And those awesome masala vadas.”

“Indeed. Food for the connoisseurs.”

“Made by true connoisseurs. Isn’t it? Will the people behind these things sweat the details, or will sweating the details befit them?”

“And why not? So you can go on Burrppp! or whatever and post random posh reviews but being real life connoisseur and all is not okay, is it?”

“Fine. Have it your way. Yes, there ought to be connoisseurs. That probably obsess on the quantity of coffee. That want the menu card to be half the size of a foolscap sheet. That want the dosas to always be roast golden brown and contiguous, with not too much red masala, with the palya always fresh, the pooris always puffed up but never too oily and with no holes in them, with the sambar always made with the right amount of jaggery…”

“That want the guliappa to be cooked to a crisp on the outside and yet stay soft inside. That want the rose milk to not be too sugary.”

“Yes.”

“I like this place. I like the whole setting, not just the food”

“I can see that. Screw big hotels. Small joints rule.”

“Taste doesn’t differentiate. This too was once a big joint, in a way. Still is.”

“It does. I wonder.”

“For another day.”

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The Game

The Apprentice was always unique, always distinct, although part of The Game. All Apprentice had to confront those who understood the structure of The Maze, the landscape of The Game to be infinite. The Maze was said to be infinite and The Apprentice knew that this was true – but the Apprentice also knew that it need not be infinite. There were always finite possibilities, he thought, even in infinite landscapes. How else could he explain the centuries of observation, where one idea and the next and the next were exactly as he had observed, down to the detail? His ideas were no mere experimental science, inexact and doddering, but knowledge of a precision so studied that it could scarcely be understood when you were playing The Game.

The Maze was a field of finite possibilities with infinite points, or so it seemed. Cantor had seen the dust of a million instances and more fit into a plausible space, and had claimed to have come close to the truth that there was an infinity. Cantor was in error, the Apprentice knew, about the presence of uncountable sets. Conjectures, but not in reality, he thought – nothing in his centuries of observation about the infinite landscape of even the finite had belied this belief. In another age, The Game’s structure was discovered in the popular paradox of the Tortoise’s infinite steps. In Athens, The Apprentice sought to deliver the philosophers from the truth, as if an affirmation of tangible power over intangible thought. Kronecker was later influenced by The Apprentice, and became the deliverer of Cantor’s insanity. Cantor’s work stood discovered, despite this. In our own time a more benevolent kind was prepossessed with this self-referential game of finding larger infinities, or greater infinities or smaller ones, when Rāmānujan had conjured infinite series upon infinite series as the landscape of his discovery emerged from his mathematical foundations (although inspired by his finite religious underpinnings).

The sundry infinite series, Mandelbrot’s fractals (for he too was a victim of The Apprentice) and Poincaré (and he too, were it not for his inchoate pondering on dynamical systems with infinitudes of possibilities) were some examinations of the field of possibilities, but there was nothing that could be conjured to explain human behaviours differently than The Apprentice had understood them. He was obliged to – it was his solitary activity in all existence to play The Game, in The Maze. He wasn’t the only player, and hadn’t been the only one. He knew not where the others before him were, if they existed – he existed in a strange solipsism, where his memories and observations were all he had, and he was otherwise, like a force of nature – ageless, although visibly middle aged, timeless, although seen amongst society in every age on Earth. His features were unremarkable but for his eyes, which seemed glazed over like a million fires had burned in front of his eyes, or multitudes of grand infinities had unfolded, doling out the sights that would make the mundane appear insignificant. He had a demeanour which was oft-dismissed as quirky, slavishly romantic, like a raconteur whose age belied his appearance. His stories were parables, were foundations that were created to elicit specific human behaviours, and chance was his weapon. The Apprentice was a game master, and he ran The Game. The Game was not a solitary game but a multitude of games, as The Maze was not a place, but an infinitude of points, with a creature or object at each turn, with shared potentials, shared histories and memories. The infinitude was only an instrument to help arrive at the true potential of the race, which, The Apprentice knew, was finite. The Apprentice was born of memories, as much as of people. He was not human, but post-human, co-existing with human civilization as it progressed through the ages. He was not a force of nature, but acted like one. He was an influencer, using chance and a foreknowledge of the probabilities of events to act upon a field of what he felt were limited possibilities. Every time humanity proceeded to discover the range of possibilities; they would be limited, as all limited species are, by their limited behaviors. Humans were incapable of infinite fields of possibilities, and only ever larger ones, he knew, and his calculations always revealed finite degrees of freedom for events in The Maze. The Maze was, of course, infinite, as hope was ubiquitous. And hope was what The Apprentice used when he was The Gamer.

The Gamer was a player in the field of virtue that is The Maze, a manipulator of an arena rife with possibilities. What is infinity to The Gamer was, in fact, finite, to The Apprentice. The Apprentice knew that there was finitude and that the infinitude was a myth, but when he was The Gamer, he hadn’t been sure. What kind of game but a game of chance, he thought, could incite the reactions of people who were fraught with the uncertainty that only numbers bring? What justice could such people do? What decisions could such people stand by? Was he too driven by hope, as much as he would have liked to think otherwise? The Gamer had asked himself this a few times, but was too fixated on The Game itself to answer these idle ponderings. He was happier when in the thick of the game, posing a problem, and observing his opponent’s solution. There were puzzles to partake of, there were conundrums driven by chance. With every game, The Game got more complex, with every solution, one more revealed itself. A few more revealed themselves similarly, and it would seem that there were no limits to The Game. But somewhere, he felt, these games would end in the same results. There were strategies that seemed to make these easier, but they were all like the warehouse keeper’s woe. The warehouse keeper needed to keep boxes as they came in within a limited space, and the warehouse would have different visitors, different customers, that needed the boxes when they came in. These visitors, these customers, arrived at different times, determined by chance.

The Gamer’s conundrum seemed to be that there were only a fixed number of visitors to this warehouse keeper’s conundrum. He had found evidence in observation that infinitude was a landscape for the finite to exist – that the infinitude was a canvas, upon which the limited degrees of freedom of human events and motivations provided a nominal chance of occurrence for any of many finite events. Thus convinced, he who became The Apprentice felt he had no need for The Gamer, and therefore was convinced that he should not field himself in The Maze. The Apprentice now looked to finality, for what was destiny undefined by finitude, despite these finite degrees of freedom squandering an infinite landscape? What was the future of humans that were, by him, deemed to have finite degrees of freedom, calculated in The Maze? Surely, he thought, there would be a conclusion to this. The Game was, in fact, multitudes of games and survival of the species, was not, of course, precluded. Games not only deemed victors and losers, but also survivors, whatever the species were. With practiced patience, The Apprentice lasted hundreds of generations, as humanity (and their finitude) evolved. The Apprentice was coeval to all these generations as he was to the older ones, perhaps as The Apprentice himself, perhaps as The Gamer, existing among them and like them, while being unique, even enigmatic, but never so much as to seem different from them. Influencing them as he went along, he found no indications to belie his interpretations that there were finite ends, however far away those were.

Finitude amongst humans evolved, and the Higher Species, as it were, were now cognizant of the field of possibilities. They didn’t know The Game, of course, because The Apprentice was the only one who was allowed to know it (by himself), over generations. However, many now knew that the post-human half of their species would deem the result of existence as being a finite point, as a hive-mind existing only to observe and know, or at some infinitude. (The infinitude, most on both sides of the species argued, existed only as an unknown finitude). The Apprentice’s calculations for the finality, the final finitude or The Singularity, as he called it, indicated a few generations more. Expectedly, one half had realized finitude (a different one) in a hive-mind, and another would continue till they reached their destiny, which he foretold, was a different finitude. The Game was still infinite, however, and there was room to do so much more in infinite spaces. The Higher Species and the evolving species also continued to play The Game in The Maze. The Game continued to be played differently, and newer and newer discoveries continued to suggest to the evolving species that there were infinities. Like Cantor, Mandelbrot, Poincare or Ramanujan or any of the myriad souls after them in The Apprentice’s seemingly infinite memory, they had all affirmed infinities at some level.

The Apprentice imagined the future landscape of the human universe with this beautiful cadence of finitudes that seemed to indicate finality, evolution, points rather than ranges, absolutes, perfection and constants. These would be as point lights dotted landscapes at night on ancient human planets. These were the final stages of human evolution. They represented knowledge – the aggregation, the elimination, the evolution and the distillation of it, over millennia. How would The Game now change? What would happen when the last humans became hive minds and reached finitudes in their degrees of freedom because they needed all to survive for one to survive? Would The Game itself evolve? (It had evolved, in the past). The Apprentice was now presented with a legacy. This music of finitude from the cacophony of human behavior was indeed his accomplishment. He had been The Gamer, who influenced multitudes of populations and affected The Game in myriad ways. He was then The Apprentice, who at first only had a hunch on the finitude of races, on finality. Over millennia (millennia appeared differently to them), he had confirmed his thesis, that the universe of human evolution ends at a point – the hive mind was indeed going to be The Singularity.

When the hive minds of multitudes of evolved generations united in The Game, the degrees of freedom each possessed dwindled significantly, and they converged to fewer and fewer distinct finitudes. In a few generations, only a few distinct minds existed, and the field of possibilities dwindled as they were limited to only two. The Apprentice had but one choice in The Maze – to let the two evolve as they became his grand vision – Singularity.

The Apprentice’s grand vision, The Singularity, was soon to be fulfilled. In one moment, The Apprentice found himself isolated, with The Singularity inhabiting one point on The Maze, which was of infinite possibilities. The Singularity, as The Apprentice called it, was not truly a Singularity, however, since The Apprentice existed independently of it. The last thought unique to The Apprentice, was that he had only one degree of freedom left.

With no degrees of freedom remaining, time stood still for It, the culmination of The Apprentice and The Singularity, as there were no more strategies possible in The Maze. It pondered The Game, now with knowledge of The Apprentice. The Game had come to an end because The Maze, that infinite field of possibilities, had no room for merely It.

The Best Of Days

They were the best of days. A rather sequestered workplace duly appointed with a chalk board and a big bag of sugar, tea around noon, with engrossing, even profound problems presenting themselves every afternoon… this was his work. There seemed to be some inspiration in every possible solution to the problems that presented themselves every day, and there was a sense of freedom, like he was breathing in fresh air the whole time. The days stretched long, and into the evening, but there was always something to think about on the way back from work. It was a scenic walk, trees full of birds nesting and chirping their little throats off, even as the occasional falling leaf or twig, as his friend and colleague claimed, added to the chaotic sound scape. There was no silence in his world, and yet, there was this quietude. There were no challenges like the ones his friends faced, there were no million dollar projects to run, there were no safety drills to organize, there were no bombs to defuse, nor triathlons to prepare for. There was just the next day, the next problem, the next incredible revelation. Nothing seemed to be able to stop these ideas, and when they came, they came in a flurry. There was a revelation, and a possibility because of this, and another revelation, and a simplification that somehow presented itself. He was treading the landscape of discovery, it seemed, and there was little he could do at times to make it seem anything less than exciting. When the ideas didn’t flow, there was nostalgia. There were the forests he visited, memories of his mother, there were memories of the deer he spotted running across the street near his house, or the parakeets that flew in some chaotic synchrony, in their small groups.

The chalk boards never seemed free from stains of white. Clockwork mornings, but usually, plenty of lazing on his sun-bathed bed. He pondered the previous evening’s walk. The street was the same as always, but there was something new to feel yesterday, the ideas seemed to have a different texture to them. In the synchrony of his steps he traced patterns and in the chirping of the birds, he found a random landscape. The huge tree trunks seemed smaller and ordinary at times, and at times, huge. The puffy cumulus clouds of the late afternoon seemed to distill the sunlight that hit the trees, as birds circled overhead, riding on currents of rising air. He remembered the last few things he wrote on the chalkboard, as if to somehow relate these things inordinately to the birds. There was something that one bird did that seemed to espouse this idea, there was some underlying pattern to it all. Then, as his thoughts drowned because the ring of a bicycle bell rudely interrupted, he was distracted by a young girl who made her way on the bicycle slowly. He stopped and observed the bird, as if it revealed something. The bird was tailing another, and seemed to speak a language. Never too far, it said, and not too close either. And let us explore, it seemed to say, let us fly randomly. Solutions normally presented themselves frankly, but somehow, this was different. This was real life, and there were two birds… were they mates, or were they courting one another? Would they behave differently were they not, and how? Were they of the same nest, trying to find their way around their habitat, a vast translucent expanse? Whatever it was, he was sure that the rules wouldn’t be the same for a different set of birds. Schools of fish and crowds of people he had seen on the one visit to the city, at the train station. Cattle. “Packed like sardines”, the expression went, and yet, how ironic that the sardines would probably have looked a splendid shoal underwater. To lie, pickled, waiting to be consumed, and yet, to be useful. Yes, to be useful, he thought, was this impulse, in nature, and not to compete – not always, anyway. In nature, animals seemed to need one another, as food, or friends, or mates. Was there a pattern to all this? Were the rules – not too near and yet not too far – still applicable, when a predator entered the scene? How was it outside of the atmosphere, and did things in the cosmos behave similarly – conservatively, as if to need and want other things? Did the life we think we were witnessing uniquely here on this planet exist elsewhere, and were the rules of life, complex, intelligent life, any more or any less conservative? Questions upon questions and more questions… and possibilities upon possibilities. Not a word written, but hundreds of thoughts perused, like he was some navigator of the mind’s network of ideas. Was he to solve theorems alone or wrack his brains on the next big problem or saunter through his mathematical ideas on that much abused chalkboard, or was he to observe these patterns in nature every evening? What was the world of the abstract that the world of the real wasn’t? Were there rules in the world of the abstract that were somehow constrained by the world of the real? Were we limited by our senses, as the anthropic principle probably didn’t suggest, that we could discover the universe in a specific way? Were we limited by our imaginations to a point that, like the birds chasing one another, we didn’t dare venture too close to the truth, and yet made progress enough to stay close enough? The questions remained every single day.

Another day, another muse caught him, a different one. The rows of trees he spotted on the way back from work – there were twenty. The trees flowered in the spring and the street was beautifully lined with pink-white gonads, as it were. And it seemed amusing to him once that the girls wore flowers in their hair. One of his girlfriends had heard him say, “You look stunning enough today, that I can forgive you wearing another creature’s private parts”. He had almost not recovered from that, saying it as he was seventeen, despite being a rather handsome lad. He was not always this curious about the world indeed, there were busier days. School seemed a breeze, full of poetry and essays and grammar. There was not much mathematics then, at least not the sort he had learnt to do later. He had pondered some big questions, but the world seemed full of the moral and amoral and the rich and the poor. Full of constrasts and principles and success and failure weighed by these principles. He was inspired by nature, but he wasn’t convinced it was for him. The impetus came from this need for a quiet life he developed later.

He then remembered every minute of that panic in abject horror, and it never left him, because, in a sense, he visits it every day. This loud, overbearing bang that first pierced the air, and the many gunshots fired thereafter. A terrorist was once on the same train he was travelling on, and had opened fire not far from his right ear. That deafening sound of an automatic rifle and the bloody visages of three people in his vicinity were probably the last things he had seen and heard before he went unconscious. He had been picked up by an emergency team after the incident with a bullet wound in his head. He recollected that days later, when he regained consciousness, he was told that he was lucky to have survived it. Who wasn’t indeed, except those three unfortunate people? He was nineteen, and wide-eyed and curious, and now, a victim and shaken. Signs of his victim -hood lasted. He had lost hearing in one ear, and had no hope for full eyesight, being blind in one eye, very nearly. He had been rendered clumsy, yes. He saw those rows of trees like anyone else had, but without depth: he imagined the depth. He drank his cups of tea but spilled or dropped the occasional cup. He couldn’t drive or cook. He greeted people because he recollected knowing them vaguely, only to realise they were his colleagues. Yes, he wasn’t his old self, not after the incident – but that was a decade ago, and his habits had built up into their consistent inadequacies and their droll idiosyncrasies over ten whole years. And this too was fine. Life, after all, was better here. Whatever else the bullet did to him, it didn’t take away his power to think and to imagine. He thought to himself that he may not see as well as others but that he could imagine better.

The violence of a decade ago had left him feeling weird and shocked initially, but probably never built this need for redemption into his otherwise staid, placid mind. He was just in the wrong place, he kept telling himself. His wife said the same thing every time he thought about it, and said no more. It was a self-evident truth, now, that he had been unlucky that once. But that wasn’t his only misfortune. It was probably the least potent of his misfortunes, because he had lost his mother when younger. It was the saddest day of his life, not the day his mother died, but three days later, when he discovered from his elder cousin, and not his father, that she would never come back. She had a lymphoma and he had believed then that like the colds and aches and pains that visited her every year, this illness too will go, but it didn’t. One day, his mother died, and three days later, he had mourned and felt sadder and more lost than any day in his whole life before. More than anything, he couldn’t believe that his mother wouldn’t somehow just come back.

Pausing to collect his thoughts, even as he lay in bed, he asked himself  how other people see his world. Would they find in it the same curious behaviour that somehow seemed worth examining? Where would someone else’s satisfaction come from? What would they deem important at the deepest, most genuine core of their minds? What were the best of their days? Were they also like the ones he experienced presently, trampling over beautiful flowers and pondering big questions abstract and real alike, or would they find their best days in the haze of conversations and books and wine? Would others need companionship to trigger the curiosity that he inherently felt, that his wife sensed him to be full of when he returned everyday? How would the rich, with no avenues to think idly about the world as he did, spend their busy days? He had seen the professor keeping busy in meetings, and preparing reports and sundry papers and it hadn’t interested him as much as the thrill of discovery or solving a problem had. What was he to them, a worker bee whose results they lived because of, while he lived by the results themselves? The thought didn’t fill him with remorse of any kind despite that it seemed egotistical – for what would they gain from the pennies that he gained from the thrill? His little world seemed so full, so rich and deep with pleasure.

Waking and pondering as he always did, these thoughts sent him down familiar territory. He knew all the demons here, but new pleasures kept coming. Now all of thirty, he was developing his first real grey hairs, a bulging tummy and a faulty gait. He was pondering big abstract problems on his chalkboard, and big real problems in the field of view that every evening’s walk back from work afforded him, when consistently bright blue skies, the sneaking evening sun and the myriad species of birds regaled him. There was some praise to be heaped on this strange idleness, after all. Despite his suffering, which he allowed, was neither the greatest, nor the mildest, he had found some paradise in the sedate progression of his every day and creativity in himself as everything around him stood nearly still. He was a child treading the field of possibilities, and as all children do, all he seemed content with, was the next really interesting thing.