Monday, June 29, 2009

Who's bad

Its Paul, said Ma as the telephone's ring broke the monotony of the dreary afternoon. I had been staring at my geography homework for a while now, trying to draw India's map from memory. What a pointless exercise, I grumbled to Ma. Its not like I'm going to be invited to a round table with Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah to redraw the map of the subcontinent. Blank stare. If an esoteric skill such as map drawing from memory gives one extra marks on the unit test, it is good enough reason to learn, nay master, that skill. With this premise as the centre piece of her philosophy towards education, I, the overachieving only-child of my middle-class parents had reached sixth standard, effortlessly blowing away any competition with a nonchalance that had made me the apotheosis of all the school teachers.

Paul on the other hand, could care less about such mundane things as academics and school debates. Tall, dark and mischievous, he was easily the coolest person to be seen with, much to Ma's consternation. Baba I tell you, he's not good influence. I'd nod obediently, while wondering about the next dose of enlightenment coming my way thanks to the guru. Paul was single-handedly responsible for raising the level of conciousness among the members of our cricket club. After all, he had explained, in no uncertain terms, what was really implied in the innocuously titled chapter in our science textbook "Life Processes - Part 2". Part one was about birds and bees, so take a wild guess about part two. Of course, when you are twelve, he-who-reveals-the-secret-of-life is the undisputed leader of the gang. And so, the leader's approval of anything was like the Midas touch, it was instantly transformed into the cool and desirable.

Imagine my immense sense of satisfaction when Paul held up my latest acquisition, the cassette cover of Michael Jackson's album "Bad" and congratulated me on my fine taste. Acquiring the cassette was no trivial task. It required convincing father that I really needed it, in spite of his gruff declarations that one couldn't make out if "its" voice was male or female. While I was still contemplating my next move, one of his music videos appeared on MTV and much to my horror, involved one of his crotch-grabbing dance-moves. Instant failure, I figured, as I drowned my face behind my hands. With an air of resignation I went to bed. But as they say, its always good to demolish one's expectations, for after that, there is only one way: up. Lo and behold, the next morning as Ma was fixing my school uniform, she placed in a matter-of-factly manner, a fifty rupee note in my pocket. Go buy your cassette. Aha, sweet victory!

In any case, Paul sounded serious on the phone. I was to meet him by the library as soon as I could. I grabbed my cricket bat and dashed out. It was nearly five and time for cricket anyway. Cricket was always a safe excuse, while telling Ma that I was meeting Paul usually involved a few tedious questions. And so, two boys and a cricket bat are poring over the newspaper and only one has a clue as to what was happening. Soon, it was clear. MJ was accused of child-abuse. I had no idea what those two words in conjunction meant. But seeing Paul's expressions, I gathered it was something grave. Tricksters, out for cheap publicity, he declared. I agreed. Most unfair. Not surprisingly, Dad got wind of this as well which led him to state emphatically at the dinner table: I knew there was something fishy about "it".

Be that as it may, Paul and I decided that it was futile to spend any time reading about the scam that was being perpetrated against our hero and just to be safe, moved our MJ fan network underground. A single ring on the telephone meant that a MJ video was on the telly. We watched his videos repeatedly, till we were comfortable with our rendition of his famous moonwalk (which was a big hit at any dance party!). Dad could never understand our fascination with the man. To me, the magic of MJ wasn't just about his music. Hell, I couldn't even decipher most of his lyrics, what with his heavily accented American English. But more than just his catchy, foot-tapping tunes, the real treat was to see his extravagant videos, his awesome screen and stage presence and his outlandish dance moves: one moment he is gyrating like John Travolta, by the next breath he is gesturing like Audrey Hepburn and finally he has launched into a bizzarre anatomy-defying moon walk. You would be forgiven for forgetting to breathe. And it was in this defiant, genre-crossing, supremely energetic dance, that we saw mirrored our own sense of teenage rebellion.

Friday, June 05, 2009


One must be careful of words. Imprecise creatures they are, and often do they convey a false sense of agreement with intent and experience. If we willing to scrape below the surface, what will we get when the meaning of "void" is probed? At a first, obvious level, it points to the absence of some physical entity, be it an interstitial defect in a crystal, the loss of some item or the death of a living being. Of course, the deeper the personal connection with the entity, the more acute the perception of the void. It seems ironic; void, a synonym for something that isn't, needs for its meaning, the a-priori existence of something that was (for instance, would you feel a void at the passing of a person who you didn't know existed?). At this point, we're in a fix. If we suspect that there is any deeper meaning to void-ness, we will have to abandon the physical domain. No sooner have we done this, we are clueless in a pathless, abstract, Platonic world. So, is our quest entirely hopeless? Probably, but here is an illuminating analogy nonetheless. If we are to believe Hubble and our present knowledge of the origin and expansion of the universe, all of what we know exists was a single point at the very beginning of the creation of the universe. That single point, infinitely small and weightless "contained" all of existence (that was yet to "be"). Shunya or zero, is also a concept that has literally no measure (yes, one does run into the problem of defining something in terms of itself!). One might argue that it is a stretch of the word (however, words are imprecise, right?), but "void", at a deeper level can allude to this concept of no-measure or shunya. It should now be of little surprise that the concept of a point is Platonic (and hence non-physical).