Saturday, July 28, 2007

On seasons and landscapes

The weather is the first thing and often the only thing we find to start routine conversation and smalltalk. The climate at Los Angeles is the one thing both family and friends keep talking about (and finding some degree of relief in!) whenever the subject of my graduate studies in the University of Southern California comes up.

The cycle of the seasons is not just a conversational staple, but has also been a perennially favourite literary setting for Sanskrit poets, most famously in Kalidasa's Ritu Samhara. Six seasons are masterfully used to lend vivid colours of life and nuanced hues of human nature into the poems. Haiku, the well-known Japanese poetic form has a reference to the prevailing season as a distinguishing feature. Even in modern-day language, idioms related to the seasons are in common usage. We speak of cloudy skies and clear skies; speak of our life's spring and our autumn years; and counsel ourselves to savour the sunshine as well as save for the rainy day.

Tamil Sangam literature uses the setting of five landscapes instead: the woodlands, the highlands, farmlands, the coastlands and wastelands. It is not just the flora and fauna of these sceneries that are used to supply imagery and set the stage, but the landscape is seen as a living reality shaping and being shaped by human activity; and representing the human condition in its variegated forms. Again in modern day usage, landscape-related idioms abound. We may plough lonely furrows, face uphill climbs or be lost in the woods, be totally at sea or chase mirages.

Along with the weather and the surrounding sceneries, the modern day air-traveller must also suit himself to the time of the day in a distant land which overrides his bodily rhythms. Submission to nature's cycles is involuntary, for in the words of the Taoist masters ' Human beings adapt themselves to the Earth and Earth adapts itself to the Heaven above.' Jet-lag is nature's way of asserting its own reality over individual custom. Speaking of my first real flight across space and time (well, continents and timezones), the title I have picked up for reading on board is 'The Best of Ruskin Bond'. Incidentally, the themes this acclaimed author is best known for, are sceneries and seasons.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Scientists

These are the stories of two of the greatest Indians of our times who currently reside in Southern California, what will be the place of my stay in the medium term during graduate studies. Dr.Mani Lal Bhaumik is a world-renowned physicist whose invention of the excimer laser made the now-famous LASIK eye surgery possible. Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran is one of the best-known neuroscientists of our time, whose ingenious experiments with patients with abnormal neural conditions have yielded hitherto unknown(and unexpected) information on the way normal brains work. It was only long after they secured their positions in science's halls of fame that they became household names in the land of their birth. The first acquaintance most of their Indian compatriots back home have had of their work is through popular bestsellers they have authored in recent years.

Dr. Bhaumik's book, "Code Name God : The Spiritual Odyssey of a Man of Science" is an autobiographical account of his childhood in a disadvantaged social setting in cyclone-ravaged, famine-stricken Bengal, his first-hand experience of the Indian freedom movement; and most importantly about the achievements of his intrinsic talent unstunted by these unpromising conditions, nurtured by selfless benefactors who believed in his intellectual promise and leading to a profound discoveries culminating in an understanding of the nature of Providence. The parallels between science and spirituality which abound in the book are not mere products of thought but summaries of intense personal experience. This book therefore does not merely inform the reader; it could transform him.

Dr. Ramachandran's books "Phantoms in the Brain" and "The Emerging Mind" do nothing less than introducing us to ourselves. While most of us will agree that our 'personalities' reside in our brains in a way, surprisingly little is known about how the behaviour of neurons leads to the emergence of a human personality. Attempts to know this have been the central theme of Dr. Ramachandran's pioneering research as well as popular books. From seemingly outlandish encounters with patients reporting bizarre symptoms, Dr. Ramachandran uses his expertise in neural pathways, staunch adherence to evolutionism, a holistic bent of mind and long-forgotten common sense to suggest very plausible theories for, among other things, the evolution of human language, the neural basis for the appreciation of art; and the nature of religious experience.

The works of these scientists are not simply confined to retaining sight or restoring sanity in the manner that their discoveries undoubtedly make possible. In their writings, boundaries between the sciences and the humanities vanish and the unitary nature of mankind's quest for meaning is emphasized. God figures prominently in the writings of both: but not as any deity in either. For Dr Bhaumik it is a heightened individual experience born out of a deep understanding of oneself and the world. For Dr Ramachandran, the religious experience is intensely subjective not lending itself to communication, but nevertheless hasthe status of a true mental state allowing possibly a neurological explanation. They are not just men of science, but Renaissance Men in every sense.

On a more immediate and somewhat sobering note, we can remind ourselves that both Dr. Bhaumik and Dr. Ramachandran had already proven their prowess as prodigies in India and earned their doctorates before moving to their adopted country; the USA. This is in stark contrast with the legions of Indian students who throng to American universities with our only qualification most often being our ambition (often instead of aptitude). Their qualification was that they were 'gifted' and not that they were 'privileged'.While we rush to get that all-important Master of Science degree, it would be advisable to pause and reflect if we have anything at all in common with these Men of Science and how we can inch closer. Let us make men of ourselves before labelling ourselves masters...and this means growing up into men of action from being children of privilege.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The name of this blog may seem to be at once innocuous and presumptuous. Innocuous because a pencil is hardly ever credited with might over the sword, and its work remains but a fleeting foreshadow of even history's greatest brushwork or chiseling. Presumptuous because claiming belonging to God seems to imply a claim of being a 'chosen one'. The name though is intended to emphasize the relation between our humblest possessions and our Highest Purpose; our smallest belongings and our Greatest Longings.

Like the strokes of a pencil, my life and message have no suggestion of finality about them, and their characteristic is tentativeness...and possibility. Like a pencil that is used to put parentheses and omission marks on print and create borders and outlines on sketchpads, the writings to come will attempt to define my context in Creation and also attempt to experience creation in my context. Read on. In a way, you can never use the same pencil twice!