Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sun lover

It has been a not unusually overcast month. Yesterday and the day before it has been drizzling fine mist. Somewhat like a giant water sprinkler in heaven let loose onto magical November. As the Sun played peek-a-boo behind the clouds, this November Crysanthemum in my garden wakes up to greet him.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Experiencing the Mysore Dasara

The word Dasara had always triggered off faint memories of when I had seen it last. I was about 7. Having to look up at the whole world is a very funny feeling. It's somewhat like being a fish inside a pond, and people peer down at you, smiling at your innocent questions.

"Who is that man in all that colorful gear?. Is he going to eat me?"
"Why are there so many people here? Are we expecting a circus?"
"Why is this palace so bright? Can we meet the king inside?"

The memories of the smells and sounds though fleeting, were certainly indelible. This time around Dasara was something I had to re-visit. I had to get to my past, and capture what all I had really seen.

Sharan, my cousin and I left for Mysore left with just 30 minutes of planning. Armed with a camera and camcorder, we tucked into the Chamundi Express. The 6 am air stinged our nostrils.
Mysore has traditionally been the host for Karnataka's cultural extravaganza Dasara. Dubbed the State Festival or NaaDa Habba, the Dasara showcases the plethora of cultural talents that Karnataka has been so well known for. Dance forms, fine art, theatre, and music had filled the atmosphere for the past ten days.

This day, the 13th of October was the grand finale,the Vijayadashami, literally signifying the 10th victorious day of good over evil.

The Grand procession had started at 12:30 from the Mysore Palace in the heart of the city. Leading the 4 kilometre march upto Banni Mantap were the hundreds of troupes of dancers and performers showing off their unique showmanship.

The favourite dance form of the masses, the Dollu Kunita, kept the people on their feet. The booming drums, the blaring whistles all coaxed even the most shy people into shaking a leg. Vividly decorated tableaus followed each other down the wide Sayyaji Rao Road. Each tableaux had a different story to tell. While one wooed the adults not to fall prey to the lures of drinking and child employment, many others sought to highlight the progress the state had made in education, and infrastructure. The best is always at the last. The State guardsmen, in all their livery rode the finest horses, ushering the elephants. 6 caparisoned elephants bejeweled with stunning palace gold made way for the final tusker, the Balarama.

He had had the prestige of carrying the solid gold palanquin with the idol of Goddess Chamundi riding proudly in it. The very promise of the sight of the idol was what had driven the whole city into a 10 day frenzy.

People bowed with both arms clasped together to their favourite Goddess, and prayed for everyone's welfare.

Towards night fall, we hurried towards the Palace again to catch its other face. The luminous one.

At exactly 7:00 p.m., the entire panorama around the palace grounds lit up in one go. 50,000 light bulbs carved out the magnificient structure against the dark blue sky.

The grounds were packed with families who had got more than they had expected from this annual celebration of victory, joy, and life itself.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Animal Stories

I was aimlessly surfing channels last night, when i stopped at a channel. A lady was screaming at the top of her lungs. The man was trying desparately to open the padlock, and free her from the transparent coffin like box. Then I saw the green lumps under her. All wet, energetic, green frogs. A glance at the corner of the screen proved my doubt right. It had to be AXN. And this was definitely Fear Factor.

The lady was now wriggling out of the green mess, and they both waded across a dimly lit pond. Don't even ask; the lake was full of jumping frogs much to their delightful scorn. Barely had the couple made it to safe ground, and the 'host' of the show ushered them to the table with 2 jars full of a gooey paste much like peanut butter...I would have let you hazard what that could have been.., but the host clearly was in no mood to hide the details..

"Contestants, what you have in front of you is freshly blended toad!!".

How yummy could that get. The contestants didnt even have time to wince. They had an ordeal to get through first. So they gulped down the seemingly unthorough blend of toads; evident from the blobs here and there, and an occasional webbed foot slipping out of the lady's mouth.

All this had taken just about 20 seconds, and I was more than glad to skip oh wow Animal Planet. Atleast somebody respects animals. Here the frogs would still remain the focus, but under a powerful nocturnal videocamera. Friendlier than a blender.

Animal planet's naturalist mercenaries were touring the mystic Land of India, where snake charmers were the 'regular scenery', and people still got around on elephants. The adventurer had chosen to highlight cruel practices in India, where some gypsies were using a defanged cobra to entertain passers-by. The guileless spectators would stare at the show with open mouths, finally toss a coin and move on. Business by the tune. Yet another creative gypsy had snatched a monkey's baby away from her, and promised to give it back only in return for a trick. The monkey promptly performed a full somersault. All this had apparently grieved the adventurer

"Such inhuman acts of cruelty just for a few cheap pennies! This is really really shameful." he averred.

Almost as if warning us, he said "If you see something like this happening in your town, dont stop and watch the cruelty, dont give money. Either walk away, or save the monkey by buying it for a huge sum, like I just did."

What's the point, you ask? Animal Planet has clearly no idea about AXN. Hope they see Fear Factor. They might just end up saving a few hundred toads from the blender.

Monday, July 11, 2005

An evening in Chennai

It was an overcast and breezy noon. I was in Chennai. Rain droplets smattered my face even as I tried to reassure myself that this was indeed reality. The Chennai Sun had decided to take a break, and I was there to reap the fruits of the newfound clemency.

Walking along MGR Salai, I noticed nothing much had been disturbed since the time I had been here last- two years ago. Hotel Palm Grove stood staidly against the azure sky. The rickshaw queue at the corner seemed to have been transfixed since then.

The American Embassy hid behind the Mount Road flyovers apparently enjoying its well-deserved weekend break after the grind of meeting a thousand visa-seekers.

"How do I get to Marina Beach?" I asked the young man walking just ahead.

He mumbled some directions so inaudibly; I almost thought he was miming. Then he must have decided it was better to lead me since he was heading that way anyway. We took the subway crossing.

"What do you do?” I offered.
"I study BCA", came the measured reply.
"I work at Bangalore."

He was very silent. Maybe Bangalore didn’t interest him. Chennai was feeling so fine anyway. He led me to the bus stop and walked away.

The Chennai bus is a phenomenon. Midsize, oddly coloured (and some uncoloured) 6 wheelers hurtling down narrow by lanes with unimaginable agility. A slight shade apart from the usually soporific rides in Bangalore buses. Jumping into the front door I asked the man on the foot board in my best Tamil.

"Conductor enge?"

He gave me a perplexed look. I was in a fix. Had I said something wrong? Maybe it was my peculiar accent? Something told me I had just made a consummate fool of myself. I squeezed my way to the rear end of the bus to find the conductor comfortable in his pre-assigned chair next to the rear door. Deja vu all over again. I had known this from the last visit to Chennai.

"Marina Beach?" I cautiously asked.
He nodded. Thrilled, I continued.

I was pleased. All those elementary Tamil lessons had paid off. I sat down with a smug look wondering how far 3 rupees could take me.

Contrary to what most people had warned me, Chennai was maintaining a cool composure today. Despite this, I seemed to stick out sorely as the only perspiring face around. I took a secret glance in all directions. Not a single one of those blissful faces had even a trickle of perspiration. Even the lady returning home - apparently from a shopping spree; evident from a handful of coloured plastic bags - seemed as fresh as I was earlier that day when had I walked out of the air conditioned Chennai airport.
About half an hour and many colourful market streets later, the bus stalled. I had arrived at Marina.

Marina always evoked a sense of awe in me. All the 3 times I had been there before, it had always known how to silence me with its gentle gurgle, much like a gurgling baby would magically silence its spectators.

The beach portrayed a gamut of creatures in different stages of life. Toddlers were clutching wet sand and smacking it on each other. Some older kids were chasing each other on the hillock. A pre-teen trying to fly a kite without a tail, a few silent couples here and there trying to steal a private moment amidst the sunbathing crowd, a nomad eking out a living by entertaining people with her painted monkey.

The crows were aplenty, all contending to snap up even the smallest bits of roasted corn-on-the-cob. The sea gushed onto the waiting sands, as though trying to cleanse the beach from the fallout of a burgeoning human civilisation. An hour later, contented from this experience, I decided to return.

I stopped the hefty policeman on Beach Road, and asked him the way to Nungambukam. He pointed to the bus stop at the far end of the road, and nudged me toward the subway entrance at this end.

I observed that this was the fourth subway I had seen since morning. Every big roundabout seemed to have one. Surprisingly, no hawkers, no beggars inside. They were built to be subways, and that's just what they were.

In keeping with the trend of the day, the journey back to Mount Road was also eventful. The journey cost only 2 rupees. And I had thought 3 rupees were fantastic. All the buses seemed to be consistently quaint, multicoloured, agile and pocket friendly.

I was so lost in the thoughts of myriad flyovers, subways and buses that I had forgotten to ask the conductor about my stop. Suddenly the conductor walked up to me.

"You should have gotten off 3 stops ago. Why are you still here? Get down here."

Great. Now I was lost in the great city of sand and silicon. A passerby made a long face when I said Nungambukam. He told me to retrace my path for at least 3 kilometers.
I decided it was time to hitch a hike at last. I didn’t have a towel on my shoulder, but that didn’t worry me much. I flagged down a passing biker. When he said he knew the place, I hopped on. I learnt that he was a corporate working in Chennai, and that he had visited Bangalore a few times. The recent drizzles in Chennai it seems were feeling lovely.

Getting off near the Embassy, I trudged back to my hotel room, mulling over all that had happened in less than 3 hours. Chennai had taken me out for a lovely evening, and the pleasure was all mine.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Getting Physical

It was a great day. I had taken the day off from work, and was glued to my monitor as usual. After 6 thrilling hours of endless googling into the sites of NASA, UCLA, UCSD and NCSA, I had read and wondered about an year's worth of information on our galaxy, the revered Milky Way, it's neighbours: the Magellenic Clouds, and the Andromeda, and how they all happily churn their way around in our local super cluster of galaxies. My father fondly refers to this as "our cosmic uppiTTu", to denote the boiling plasmic structure of space with a billion swirling pools of stars and galaxies. A truly south Indian analogy to match the older Raisin Bread comparison.

Also was on the cards today, was the need to know what exact work had gone into the research for finding out what lies in the centre of our galaxy. Until the 70's there had only been a speculation that the galaxy was centred on a super massive black hole.

Evidence collected in the recent years has indeed revealed a small cluster of stars found to be orbiting a super massive black hole called the Sagittarius A* ("Sag A star"). Studies of radio emission from this dense and compact point radio source, has shown that it measures just around 150 million kilometres in size, much smaller than our solar system, yet has the material of mass worth 2.6 million Suns. More recent observations of nearby galaxies have shown that they too contain similar dark super masses in their centres.

2005 is the World Year of Physics. It coincides with the first centennial of Albert Einstein's "Miraculous Year". 1905 saw an anonymous 26-year-old class 3 clerk at the Swiss Patent office literally rewriting the laws of Physics. Within a span of 7 months, he published 5 seminal works on topics like the Photoelectric Effect, Brownian motion and Special Relativity. It took decades for most of his works to be completely fathomed, and his equations demystified. But back then, a few scientists delved into his fresh findings, and came out with more shocking theories.

Karl Swartzchild, a German astrophysicist computed the gravitational fields of stars, using Einstein's new field equation, and ended up discovering a possibility of regions in space having an infinite space-time curvature, which got termed as the "Swartzchild Singularity". Much later in the 60's, John Wheeler (Richard Feynman's supervisor), termed this singularity as the "Black Hole".

The theories of 1905 had revolutionised Physics and Cosmology, and had forever changed the way people thought about space-time, matter and energy. 11 years later, in 1916, Einstein established another landmark through his General Theory of Relativity by proving that matter could curve space. Curved space could curve light too. Thus it had been proved that light could bend if the gravitational force of a body was sufficiently strong.

This leads to a funny (sorry for the trivialisation of the otherwise serious implication!) effect. Pretend that you were standing on Earth now, and looking at a star in your Northern sky. The actual existence of the star could be totally elsewhere, say in the eastern sky. As ludicrous as it may sound, it is possible if the light from the star went AROUND a huge black hole in your Northeast, and then struck you from the North, thus giving you a false direction to extrapolate its presence.

If you reapply this theory, then the light from a star could have sashayed around half a dozen black holes, and could have reached you in the sky in front of you, when the star was actually behind you. If you further stretch the assumptions, you can think of several images of a single star running loose in space, and the obvious delays in time could result in the images reaching you at different times, from different places in the sky.

Ok, so that means we might not be seeing this stellar mammoth, where exactly it is now. To add to this conundrum, let’s imagine our star to be probably a thousand light years away from us. So the light we DO see now was what the star pulsed out a thousand years ago. If the star had burned itself out exactly a thousand years ago, or had exploded as a grand Super Nova, we'd get the bad news a millennium late. Plus, a few later generations on earth could see the SAME explosion in a different place in space. As they say “History repeats itself.” Now history can repeat its replications.

It would be really hilarious if the image of me sitting on a small terrace (looking out at those notorious stars), went out of this solar system, bounced around our local downtown black hole, and took a complete U-turn (believe me, this is possible), and fell onto Earth 60000 years later (we are around 30000 light years from the Sag A*.) My great great grandson would have the pleasure of seeing a funny be-spectacled humanoid sitting on a blue planet peering curiously into the deep dark sky.

Can space really be believed??