Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Casablanca: Ilsa's capricious Love

I happened to watch "Casablanca" past weekend for the nth time. Reams have been written on how Humphrey Bogart turned a romantic hero, the war related backdrop etc. Let me turn to a different aspect of the movie. A very lovely, stunningly beautiful Ingrid Bergman plays Ilsa Lund. The pivotal moment of the movie is when Ilsa sashays into "Rick's Cafe" and sees Sam playing on the piano. She is 'surprised'. Not shocked. Not thrown off. Just a 'surprise'. Note that she sees Sam who is a friend of Rick, the guy she had left high and dry in Paris after convincing him that she was deeply in love with him. Ilsa strides into the cafe with her "supposedly" true love the revolutionary Laszlo. Ilsa asks Sam the whereabouts of Rick like one would ask about a schoolmate not like he was a 'soul mate'. Then coyly asks Sam to play "as time goes by". Rick had banned that song from his life. Sam used to play that song when Rick and Ilsa were in love.

The scene at the station is classic. Its pouring rain. Germans are expected to march into Paris. Rick is fleeing Paris since he is hunted by Germans. Ilsa was to join him. Instead he gets a letter "I cannot go with you. I can never see you again". When Ilsa walks into his life again Rick is furious. Ilsa comes to see him later that night alone. Rick asks "have you counted the days". No she has not. Why would she? She is a woman. She thought Laszlo her hero was dead. She meets Rick and is charmed by him. Unfortunately for Rick Laszlo turns up when Ilsa was to join Rick and escape  from Paris. With her hero back like Lazarus Ilsa trashes Rick to the dustbin. Of course the day before she had swooned in Rick's arms asking him  to kiss her "like it was the last time".

As luck would have it Ilsa and Laszlo are in Casablanca to go to Lisbon and they need exit visas which had fallen into Rick's hands. A bitter Rick refuses  to part with them for any money Laszlo would  offer. Ilsa tries her hand at beguiling Rick like she is in love with him and would stay with him if he could give one visa to Laszlo. The movie hurtles to the famous climax where Rick engineers Ilsa's and Laszlo's escape. Before parting Rick tells Laszlo how Ilsa tried to convince him that she was in love with him while she was only in love with Laszlo. Ilsa smiles a proud smug smile at her supposed "virtue".

I happened to see a Tamil movie after a long time in the theater. It was "Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaya". A X-ian girl falls in love with a Hindu boy. After falling in love with him  during a conflict with family she sends a SMS text message "GO away, Leave me alone". She goes on to marry and be happy. The boy, well dont we all know.

"Go Away", "Leave me alone". "Oh those letters they are childish, can't believe I wrote them".....Whether its Cleopatra  or Ilsa or Trisha or XYZ I always wonder at how beautifully women walk away and to rub it in they act like the guy was an "idiot". La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Can women truly fall in love? Or be truthful to what they say they love?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Education Part 5: An IIT-ian's letter and Columbia's Core Curriculum

A few years back CBS aired a program on IIT's replete with superlatives calling its admissions more exclusionary than Harvard or MIT. IIT's were Nehru's dream of India's own world class institutions. They were,each, formed by a statute of Indian parliament as 'autonomous' colleges. Yet not a single IIT'ian has won the Nobel, not even in US, let alone as Indians. Do IIT'ians deserve the aura? In a word, NO. The aura of IIT is something IIT-ians themselves take pride of. Why have IIT's become mere assembly line feeders for Ivy leagues cracking a perfect score in GRE/GMAT but most end up as run of the mill graduates indistinguishable from the hoi-polloi? Its time we held them accountable.

An IIT alumnus had written "An Open Letter to Director, IIT Bombay" lamenting how IIT hostels equipped with  round the clock internet access had robbed inmates of valuable socializing. He notes with pride, "IITians are known today across the world as great warriors who fight against all odds without losing their sense of humour and wit...I am sure that IITB community will be able to face up to the problem and come up with solutions that will guide all other institutes, colleges and universities not just in India but also abroad". He thinks of IIT-B as a beacon to the world and as having a 'brand value'.

The letter is notable for his comments on the poor presentation skills and lack of ability to communicate an idea effectively by IIT grads. "An average student of IITB during the late seventies honed his skills at discussions, argumentation and debate in the mess, corridors and steps of hostels. I remember that when I came as fresher, I could hardly speak English. In less than a year, I was speaking fluently - albeit, with a lot of slang"

I was surprised to note that an entrant to IIT could barely speak in English. The recent mess in IIT-JEE gave the clue. IIT-JEE is conducted in both English and Hindi. Good number of North Indians go through vernacular schools and learn only rudimentary English. Also unlike MIT or Harvard or Stanford or Caltech IIT admits students based only on test scores. Soft skills, extra curricular activities, rounded personalities, diversity etc are of ZERO value to get into an IIT. C.P. Snow, famous for his book on 'Two Cultures' lamenting the gulf in education between humanities and the sciences would jump over a cliff seeing these cardboard characters pass out of a college with no knowledge of classical literature or fine arts within their curriculum. 

A friend of mine, who did his PhD in Nuclear Disarmament in UIUC (Chicago) wrote to me, "
At the risk of oversimplifying and generalising the problem, I would say that IITians are (there may be always exceptions) generally inept in social skills. They are quite brilliant at doing certain narrow set of things. But because their brains have become compartmentalized they seldom appreciate broad based education. What I really lament is the lack of an interdiscplinary orientation of our learning process and education in general.Coming to IITians, you can't have a decent conversation with most of them on broader issues (say, politics, society, religion philosophy, economics etc). Since I was studying in UIUC, where hordes of IITians migrate for MS and PhD, I have seen them from close quarters. At UIUC, I always enjoyed interacting with grad students in the less privileged departments like political science, economics, etc. They generally came from liberal arts colleges (Loyola, Xavier, Vivekananda, St Stephens etc) and lesser known science and engineering colleges!"

I can attest to that having seen a sampling of these grads at work and elsewhere. Don't get me wrong, they are all pretty intelligent, many do excel in their respective fields. However given their aura, their own pride it is fair to hold them up to a higher criteria for judging and I'd say "The emperor has no clothes".

Louis Menand, professor of English in Harvard, writes "A college's general education curriculum, what the faculty chooses to require of everyone, is a reflection of its overall educational philosophy". Columbia University, New York, comes in for a singular praise for its "core curriculum". Columbia requires all its students to have a good grounding in liberal arts and they consider that such an exposure would widen a student's perspective and help a student be the best possible student for his/her lifetime.

What is  'liberal education' or 'humanities' that US universities lay so much stress on for graduates? "Liberal education is not reducible to a specific body of knowledge. It's a background mentality, a way of thinking, a kind of intellectual DNA that informs work in ever specialized area of inquiry".

"Columbia college believes that there are certain books that everyone ought to have read by the time they graduate...At Columbia..they must take Literatuer HUmanities, which is a great books course. At Harvard, not just any history course will do; students must take a course that introduces them to historical analysis". Important caveat is that this is only for graduate studies not for masters in which many Indians and IITians enroll thanks to their ability to 'crack GRE'.

Quite often Ivy League professors, usually themselves students of Ivy League colleges, appear on TV or write op-eds conveying complex issues for public consumption in lay terms. Many write Pulitzer or other prize winning books meant for lay people. This is important because it demonstrates an ability to take arcane issues and 'explain' them captivatingly. Many serve in government and appear in Congressional testimonies explaining to lawmakers intricate details on live TV. I ask the IIT-ians, where is your Carl Sagan? Who is your George Smoot? Do you have a Louis Menand? Who is your Drew Gilpin Faust? Who is your Neil de-Grasse Tyson? 

Now it would be fair to compare the deans of IIT-B and MIT. Dean of IIT-B was featured in India Today's list of people to watch for in the millennium (he was a professor then). Going to IIT-B website a mangled page takes you to a 'blurb' (yes its just that) on the director. Going to that page you cannot even click on an icon to go to homepage instead you have to scroll back. I am sure he is an accomplished professor in his field but can he stand toe to toe with Susan Hockfield, President of MIT. Check out her page http://www.iitb.ac.in/director/director.html and her CV at http://web.mit.edu/hockfield/hockfieldcv.pdf . Ofcourse the MIT logo at top left would always take you to the home page. What caught my attention in her CV was her 'Board Memberships'. Fine Arts (Boston Symphony Orchestra), Corporate (GE), Government (Several), International (World Economic Forum). she writes Op-Eds on a variety of subjects relating to research and education. Her speeches and essays are an eclectic collection of a truly 'renaissance' mind.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Carnatic Singers and Bharathi

Whenever there is a carnatic vocal recital, especially in USA under the aegis of the numerous Tamil Sangams, we can bet our farm that a song from Bharathi would be sung, mostly towards the end. You can also safely bet that the rendition would be replete with sanskritised pronunciation of Tamil words. Example: Senthamizh would be pronounced Shenthamizh; Selva Kalanjiyam would be 'Shelva Kalanjiyame". There are several dimensions to this.

Bharathi songs became part of a Carnatic vocalist's repertoire in the wake of Dravidian politics that accused Carnatic musicians, mostly Brahmins, as having a step-motherly attitude towards their own mother tongue. There are some safe songs of Bharathi, like "chinnanchiru Kiliye" that are easy to be rendered beautifully. The other most famous song is "alai payuthe" (not by Bharathi). Its the horrendous pronunciation that irks me. Would a Bengali tolerate Tagore's songs being mispronounced? To say well this is just "our" way of pronouncing is sheer insult. If a Chinese opera singer, performing in NYC, is expected to be perfect in pronouncing Italians words I'd expect no less from any so called "doyen of music" who happens to sing in his/her mother tongue.

K.J.Yesudas is famous for mispronouncing Tamil words and completely altering the meaning. The most notorious song is where he sings "theru kovile" (street temple) instead of, as  the words should be sung, "thiru kovile" (sacred temple). KJY, being humble, accepted the mistake and said "well I am a malayalee the lyric writers or the music directors should have corrected it". I am surprised that these self-professed connoisseurs of music think its ok to butcher a language. Where is our Henry Higgins to put these Eliza Doolittle's in their place? The language that they sing in is the language of Kamban, Valluvan, Ilango, Avvaiyar and has a tradition of 2000 years how dare they mutilate such a wonderful language that has so many unique sounding letters, such nuances in inflection that I cannot transliterate in English.

The worst tragedy is when Carnatic singers take on Bharathi's soulful patriotic songs or his plaintive numbers that bemoan his penury and speak of the promise he holds forth. The best rendition of "Nallthor Veenai" is in "Varumayin Niram Sigappu", all else have taken the spirit out of that song. When these preening musicians render Bharathi they focus on "thala","laya","Bhava" etc and the so called "rasika" should be content to say "wah". They can render it in perfect raaga and rhythm but one who fails to convey the agonized spirit of Bharathi completely falls flat. Show me one good recital of "agni Kunju" in the concert halls, who has captured the vivid imagery of "Kaani Nilam vendum", who can make your nerves tingle with "vande mataram", not D.K.Pattammal or MS with their quivering voices complete with phlegm and coughs or UnniKrishnan with his made for romance voice or T.M.Krishna who make a lady's heart flutter with his charisma. The songs in "Yezhavathu Manithan" (especially 'Kakkai siraginile') are good versions. Carnatic musicians due to their illiteracy in the field of composing or 'symphony' (carnatic music is melodic not symphonic) cannot rise to the task of depicting complex Bharathiar songs.

People who come to listen Carnatic music vocal are already well versed in the Telugu Kritis and which is what a vocalist is trained to sing. Let them stick to it. I do not agree with the stupid idea that Carnatic singers should sing in Tamil in order to convey the meaning to a Tamil audience. No opera presentation in NY is diluted with American slangs. If I go to opera I have to study how to appreciate opera, else I should stick to Britney Spears or A.R.Rahman. If I go to see a Beethoven symphony I better be prepared and educated else I should be content with Bruce Springsteen. Carnatic vocalist do a disservice to both their audience and Tamil with these sham performances.

My plea to carnatic musicians is simple: Please, for the sake of Tamil, leave Bharathi alone. Tamil does not need you to sing these like crumbs thrown to us.

A parting thought. Why is it that only Bharathi songs are chosen? Why not any song of Bharathidasan? Is it because Bharathi is a brahmin? I wonder.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Geniuses and Morals: Across The Ages.

This is the week of Tiger Woods. Charles Krauthammer, a very sharp critic and columnist, once praised Tiger for having taught us how to measure genius. For an Afro-American prodigy to dominate an all-white sport in such a manner as to evoke only the superlatives when referring to him it was quite a fall from grace when his philandering tumbled into the open. The reactions were predictable he was told by all and sundry to apologize to all and sundry. He was treated with scorn like a fallen angel who did not deserve to be an angel in the first place. "Fans are disappointed", "children cannot look upto him", his sponsors dropped him, every body felt free to lecture him, some offered spiritual advice on national TV. I shall, towards the end come to this briefly but before that it would be instructive for us to look at other geniuses across the ages and the variety of reactions they evoked for their transgressions. By transgressions I refer only to that which concerns sexual morality.

When a married Mme du Chatelet took Voltaire as her lover, Will Durant notes drily, "the morals of the day permitted a lady to add a lover to menage, if it were done with a decent respect for the hypocrisies of manking; and when she chose not merely a lover but a genius, all the world forgave her". Apparently the Marquis Chatelet was a Lord Chatterley ahead of his times thanks to French customs. Poor Tiger Woods he has to contend with a conservative 21st century America.

Oh wait America is not all that puritan herself. Our good avuncular founding-father Benjamin Franklin with a paunch and a bald pate nevertheless scorched the salons of France with his peccadilloes. Ah its the French again. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson for practicing the egalitarianism that he enshrined in his immortal Declaration, not by freeing his slaves but taking to bed one of them. That reminds me of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, an orthodox Brahmin, whose servant maid was more than a maid to him. This professor of philosophy, holder of a chair in Oxford later President of India once lectured on the virtues of monogamy with his mistress in the front row (not the maid, come on). Chutzpah, anyone. All that according to a biography by son. Nehru's amorousness had more class his list includes Padmaja Naidu (daughter of poet Sarojini Naidu) and of course the most famous Lady Mountbatten. Mountbatten's biographers note that he was a gentlemanly cuckold. Nehru used to go for swimming in the Viceroy's palace and when Lady Wavell joined him tongues wagged (mostly in admiration I think). Gandhi, with his own skeletons, certified "Jawahar is as pure as crystal the nation is safe in his hands". FDR is today revered for his leadership during Great Depression and WW-II. Being on a wheelchair struck by polio did not deter him from his dalliances with his secretary in his whose arms he breathed his last. JFK's recklessness with Marilyn MOnroe was only a tip of the iceberg, he was the proverbial "mustang" with a compulsive need to sow some wild oats with anybody wrapped in a skirt.

Einstein is thought of as the quintessential professor lost in thoughts pursuing truth but recent biographies have dispelled that idea and show what a hopeless romantic he was. Of course his romances, like other geniuses, was not within the confines of morality as defined in our still-Victorian-age.

If statesmen and scientists have frolicked can the artists be far behind. Tolstoy while calling himself "God's elder brother" felt free to practice socialism with the women working at Yasnaya Polyana. Henrik Ibsen, Bertrand Russell, Byron, Sartre even revolutionary Rousseau all had their share.

Ayn Rand the high priestess of reason and logic had the most ironic affair. She said it was rational for her to have an affair with her protege Nathaniel Branden. The best part was she convinced her husband and Branden's fiancee that this was logical. Finally Branden ditched both Ayn Rand and his fiancee for an attractive young girl Rand flew into a rage, called Branden to her home, slapped him and yelled that "even if she (Rand) was 80 and in a wheelchair she was the best he can have". Interestingly her heroines all have only 'affairs'. What prevented Hank Rearden from getting a divorce and marrying Dagny? Ah but then that would not be interesting, it would not serve the plot later in the book where Rearden gets blackmailed for his affair and Rearden gives up for love what nobody could take from him until then.

How about a businessman who is practically revered, not just for being the 2nd richest guy, but for also being a very down to earth humble person? Warren Buffet is revered as the "Oracle of Omaha", a syllable from him can move the markets of the world. He is admired for living very frugally with zero ostentatious display of wealth. Yet when his wife died and he married the woman he had been living with for decades on the side the press and America just made a muffled noise. If Gandhi indulged in Brahmacharya experiments his Ekalavya like protege Martin Luther King Jr did not disappoint when it came to being romantic outside the confines of his marriage.

Genius, irrespective of the field it operates on, has, shall we say, a compulsive need to defy conventional morals. Its unfortunate that most commentary sees their actions through the prism of conventional morals and says "we admire them yes, they were great yes but we do not condone this and we do not understand why they do this". I am no psychologist but I do not like cast away this complex impulse with simple explanations "ah well they get arrogant thinking the rules do not apply to them". The volcanic creativity of genius cannot be satiated easily and that is not restricted to just what they do in the public sphere.

It is worthwhile to note that most geniuses above did not have to contend with 24 hour news cycles or billion dollar deals on corporate endorsements. When corporations ditched Tiger Woods they did so not because they thought themselves to be custodians of morality it was sheer advertising sense. Who wants to be bracketed with a "in-the-news-for-the-wrong-reasons" guy?

The scale of achievements is also important. Bill Clinton, a compulsive philanderer, left office with a staggering 60% job approval rating well after the impeachment shenanigans. He was a two-term President, a gifted politician, considered the best in a generation (until Obama came), he completely redefined the democratic party, presided over the longest peace time economic expansion of USA and above all he sweated to rehabilitate himself post-impeachment. Elliot Spitzer, disgraced former Governor of New York was hoist on his petard when he was exposed as "client 9" using escort girls. The difference between Clinton and Spitzer was that Clinton became President after acknowledging that he had "caused pain in his marriage" and other factors helped a quick rehabilitation. Also how Bush got elected, the plummeting economy, the crazy Iraq war made many to think wistfully of the upbeat Clinton years. Spitzer blazed to office as a moral crusader against Wall Street captains and  then exposed himself as a cheap philanderer. A man who was thought of as "could be America's first Jewish President" is in the wilderness today.

Yesterday the chairman of Augusta National Club excoriated Tiger Woods publicly just before Woods started off to compete in this years Masters. Billy Payne said " It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children."

It is despicable coming from somebody whose club still discriminates against women. This is classic 'teachable moment'. Tiger Woods did not disappoint anyone with his conduct he is still the greatest golf ever, period. Kids should learn that athletes and pop stars are NOT role models. If at all they should be looked upon ONLY for what they do on the field or on stage. What they do in their private lives is their business lets teach  our kids that and let us remember that too. A commentator talking about Tiger Woods rehabilitation said "America loves a winner, if he wins he will be cheered".

Geniuses torment the world around with not just philandering. There is another kind as Bobby Fischer showed us with his tragic conduct. See Krauthammer's excellent article in Time 


 After Shelley had died a friend visited the family and seeing his son, said "I am sure he will live to be an extraordinary man". Shelley's wife Mary replied "I hope to God he grows up to be an ordinary one". Such was Shelley's conduct in personal life.

We would do well to remember what Will Durant said of Voltaire, "all these qualities, good and bad, were secondary, not of the essence of Voltaire; the astounding and basic thing in him was the inexhaustible fertility and brilliance of his mind".Let us thank the Geniuses, let us marvel at them for what they give us and for how they enrich our world even with their abnormal lives.

References :

Billy Payne's speech, http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/more_sports/2010/04/07/2010-04-07_masters_chairman_rips_tiger_for_his_conduct.html

"Intellectuals" --- Paul Johnson
Nehru  - M.J.Akbar
S.Radhakrishnan - S.Gopal
The Passion of Ayn Rand - Barbara Branden
My Years with Ayn Rand - Nathaniel Branden
Story of Philosophy - Will Durant
Freedom at Midnight - Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
The Dark side of Camelot - Seymour Hersh.
Einstein - Walter Isaacson

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Education Part 4: A 6th Grader's Curriculum Vs Faith

A recent poll showed that close to 50% of Americans believed that the "Theory of Evolution" (T.O.E) was false and that the Book of Genesis is the truth regarding how the world came to being. This in a country where NASA exists, MIT and Caltech are hotbeds of scientific revolutions, the National Science Foundation dictates how Science is taught to children. This is the country of John Dewey, father of Critical Thinking. So where is the disconnect?

This past weekend I chatted with a brilliant 6th grade student. A very studious boy, very perceptive, above average intelligence AND a very devout christian upbringing. Talking about a teacher of his he summarized "if he had a choice he would not be teaching". His textbook on history is a wonderful thrill ride that teaches a 6th grader to distinguish between fact and opinion in a historian's writing. The student is taught to identify 'primary and secondary sources'. Class exercises include debating whether "Alexander is a hero or a villain" (conclusion was 'villain'), "whether Caesar was hero or villain? (he started as hero but ended as villain). A complex passage from a historian is presented and the student has to parse for facts, opinions, assumptions, biases etc.Later chatting on what he is taught in science I had a startling conversation.

Student: We study the Solar System in Science.
Me: OH, did you read that scientists have recently proved or close to proving the big bang theory?
Student: I am a Christian and I do not believe that
Me: Oh well what movie do u like to watch?

I knew the student comes from a very deeply religious background and all that I had to do was talk contextually about big bang theory with no allusion to the conflict with Bible, but just a statement in connection with what he is studying in his Science class. The response was a stinging smug reply that smacked of superiority bringing in a factor that had nothing to do with the Science class.

So what happened to the "critical thinking" and "debating freely" that the History class inculcated? When facts come into conflict with deeply held beliefs his beliefs easily trump facts. We all love to be thought of as logical thinkers, open minded and capable of holding a contrary opinion but none of that matters especially in matters of religion. How do PhD's and IIT'ians feel comfortable in indulging in arcane religious rituals that include paying obeisance to ill-clothed, unkempt, repulsively posing mendicants? When one friend refuses to eat in the home of another friend (both of same castes) on grounds of ritual cleanliness I am astounded by the hypnotic  power of religion at its most base manifestation.

Whether its that student in his history class or a professor or an IT professional why does faith so easily silences critical thinking. Why does this attitude trouble me? Simple. George Bush had to struggle with deciding on allowing research on stem cells because of his personal beliefs. Today man lives far better and longer thanks to advances in science.

The answer lies in an article published by WSJ, aptly titled "Critical Thinking: Part Skill, Part Mindset And Totally Up to You".  

"Alfred Russel Wallace, who like Charles Darwin discovered natural selection, was second to none in his capacity for rational thinking and respect for empirical data. At least when he so chose. But Wallace believed in ghosts, haunted houses, levitation and clairvoyance.
...notes cognitive psychologist D. Alan Bensley of Frostburg State University, Maryland. "critical-thinking skills are different from critical-thinking dispositions, or a willingness to deploy those skills...As he (Dr Bensley) puts it, "critical-thinking skills have to do with the cognitive ability of reasoning. Critical-thinking dispositions are more related to traits that determine whether you choose to use those skills."In other words, critical-thinking skills are necessary for engaging in critical thinking, but they are not sufficient. You also have to want to think critically. If you have good critical-thinking skills but for some reason are not motivated to deploy them, you will reach conclusions and make decisions no more rationally than someone without those skills.

So am I suggesting that everyone becomes an atheist? Not at all. Far from it. Endlessly troubled by the philosophical implications of Quantum physics theories Einstein grumbled "God does not play dice with the world", further "God is devious but not malicious". Finally an exasperated Neils Bohr told Einstein "Stop telling God what to do". Even in day to day life many simple souls hold on to religion for a moral compass and as an emotional succor but when it comes to science and facts would readily yield to it. This is not hypocrisy but a gentle compromise that acknowledges what is presented to the mind and still lets the soul draw comfort from religion.

Reference: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116129777148398281.html

PS: Also worth noting is that many portions of the history textbook like that which deals with "who is a historian" and covers the ideas I enumerated are not needed for mandatory study to take the State's test. The state (here Claifornia) clearly enumerates the topics on which a student will be tested and that is a pathetic subset of the wonderful textbook. Hence a motivated student can soar above the rest but if you are studying just to score..well thats the answer for the painful mediocrity of most American students.