Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: The Winds of Hastinapur (by Sharath Komarraju)

The clan of kurus ruled in the northern parts of India for centuries together. The high point of the dynasty came during the story of Mahabharatha. Mahabharatha has always been about the Pandavas, the Kauravas and Krishna. Even among Pandavas, prominence is given to Arjuna and Bheema. It is quite possible that this looming towering characters overshadow the different viewpoint or stories of the lesser characters especially the women. The epic started rolling with Shantanu, when he first wed Ganga and then later Satyavati. Bheeshma with his unthinkable vow steals the show during this period of the epic. The extent of loss faced by Bheeshma can be easily felt by the reader but the gains and loss of the other protagonists like Ganga and Satyavati hardly comes to the fore in the original Mahabharatha.  The book titled Winds of Hastinapur effectively brings out the emotional travails faced by the wives of Shantanu using a brilliant narration.
 Jhanavi is the daughter of Ganga who is set to take over from her mother the duties of a river maiden. Residing on mount Meru, life is pretty peaceful. The Ashta vasu’s who being cursed by vashista require the help of a divine maiden to be born on earth and fulfill their penance. Ganga (the daughter) is chosen and she decends on earth to wed Shantanu. The mysterious ways of the Meru people, their life and beliefs is well brought out in the book. The mysterious Crystal lake adds to the suspense in the first half. Most of the story is well thought out and creatively written. On the flip side, some aspects relating to the trinity seemed quite unnecessary to me, it looked like a forced addition to sew in most of the mythology into a logical coop. But since the book makes only passing references to it, it does not deviate too much from the original story.
For me the enjoyable part comes in the second half, when the dark and sensuous Satyavati discovers herself. A forelorn recluse whom nobody even cares to even give a second look due to her fish like smell, transforms herself after she encounters the sage Parashara. The divine gift of smell was conferred on her by the sage in return for her virginity.  The book weaves Satyavati’s tale with a glitter of colors. The emotional turmoil, her desires and the final feeling of helplessness is well brought out in a griping narration.

The book is a refreshing take on the initial stories of the epic through the eyes of the two women protagonists. Finally,  the vividly described scene of  Satyavati lying alone in her boat drifting on the waters of Yamuna, gazing at the stars and trying to find the fish constellation, will instantly relate to everybody’s own inner search.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Growing up with mathematics

During my childhood, the honour of the most hated subject by far would have gone to Mathematics. I might have stood probably a hundred times in front of my father for learning the intricacies of the subject, standing was essential to prevent the consequences of my stupid muddled brain. With exams on the morrow, none of nocturnal visits had turned out pleasant to me. A boxed ear and a red bum were the bare minimum results of these necessary excursions. My father after a tiring days’ work, would have preferred to have his piping hot tea in front of doordarshan rather than end up as the tutor of the makeshift tuition. Mother forced these meet-ups on both of us and thus my father had no choice but to become my examiner before the actual exams. Given that, I did my own thing in the exams, I’m surprised how I usually ended up doing it decently. Considered to be the decent bum in school, my repertoire of curses and swear words were limited, thus mathematics managed to save itself from my insistent assault on its roots.
A score of 40 out of 100 in mathematics during my fourth grade brought out loud lamenting gasps from my parents. I had just managed to scrape through and it was also probably the day, when their hidden dreams of seeing me as a big bombing scientist ended.  But, it was also a day of liberation for me, since the dreamy stars were now absent in my parents eyes. I jumped around carefree with joy. The red bum and the boxed ears still made their presence now and then, but I was free now or rather I had a smaller chain of expectation tied around me compared to the heavy clunking metal which I used to lug around before this incident.
It took a beautiful geometry teacher to finally pull me into the whirlpool of mathematics during high school. The classes were now pleasant, the curses were gone. Soft brain petals started crashing on the hard rock faces of mathematics. Asking intelligent doubts inside and after class had become essential. Temporarily there was total malfunction and I scored lesser in the following exams than what I would have normally scored by mugging the whole set of sums. Before things started to take a nasty turn, the teacher left and was promptly replaced by a dour grunting male.  The soft brain petals chose to stay at home and the hard rock faces were left unbothered for years together.
Pre-university was the phase wherein I had mastered the art of solving problems blindly. My soft spoken mathematics tuition tutor made his class solve a barrage of problems in his two hour class every day. With such practise even the dumbest fellows get a hang of the subject and so was the case with me. Every sub topic had a fixed set of different kinds of problems, once I became aware of that fact, the going became easy. With such coaching going on, I decided not to attend the college maths class completely. Our college teacher, a giant of a fellow seeing his class dwindle down from 3 digits to single digits must have taken offence, after the exam results were out, he caught me on a by-lane near my home. Being sure that I might have flunked in mathematics, he took a very aggressive tone and started giving me advice on the need to attend classes. He didn’t know that the ace was up my sleeve. When I finally revealed it, he looked like a chicken caught under headlights. Quickly he simmered down and went back to his previous mode and demanded where I had lost the six marks (score was 94 out of 100), I rolled over my eyes, probably he might have given Kejriwal a run for his money today.
Engineering finally started to bring out the soft brain petals from their cosy spots. This time it was more of an internal drive than an external stimulationJ.  Looking at signals and their behaviours through the eyes of mathematics was probably my first aha moment in mathematics. The soft petals began their painful journey from hard to soft.  Endless hours in library to grapple simple integration over the sine wave and what not and as expected, my score bombed in that subject. Half of my time during that semester was spent on this subject. But, more than the score, it was that momentary joy of having understood something very intricate using mathematics, pulled me towards it. I tried to bring in my intuitive interpretations to the equations, many times I failed but there were few times where I really felt satisfied.

When I read technical papers and see a bunch of equations, the first response is that of fleeing. The fight part of the brain requires some time to wake up and override the flee response.  The grind then begins. Many of these grinds have shown how much an important role mathematics place in explaining phenomenon that is hard to explain intuitively. Looking back, it feels funny that such an important subject is taught in schools with so much apathy. Even the teachers don’t seem to have an idea on the end goal of mathematics. Even now, probably due to my long standing hatred, mathematics doesn’t sit easily inside my head. It looks around as if it is an unwelcome guest, but I have now closed all the doors tightly to make it stay there and give myself a better chance in wooing it. It is too important a guest to let go and I hope one day it will feel at home.