Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat has a brilliant section about the protagonists making a list of things to take with them on the boat trip. The first list they make turns out to have so many items that the boat would likely sink under the weight of it all. Then one of them suggests that they ought to make a new list, not of the things they could use, but only of the things they couldn’t do without. This would’ve been the end of it, but Jerome elaborates on the wisdom contained in that line:
I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber… It is lumber, man — all lumber! Throw it overboard… Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need — a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing (sic).
In some ways, that moldy old cauliflower we have sitting atop our necks is just another kind of boat. The difference is, every once in a while, we come across something that doesn’t make that boat heavier. It makes it bigger. And for having encountered more than a fair share of those moments in my life, I am truly thankful. I don’t know if I will ever get around to writing down the entire list of such things, but here are a few (in chronological order):
Opening notes (1985)
My dad has an almost maniacal love for old Hindi film music. Years ago, he bought a tape that contained a compilation of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs called Magic Moments. The first song I heard from that tape was Mera Dil Yeh Pukaare Aaaja from Nagin (Track 1, Side B). Much of my childhood seems like a blur to me now, but my memory of how that music affected me is crystal clear to this day. It still affects me the same way.
Learning to fly (1992)
Back in high school, my friend Swami lent me his copy of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull with a strong recommendation that I read it right away. If I had to pick a word to describe how it felt after reading it for the first time, that word would be “sunrise”. It is, in some ways, the only truly religious experience I have ever had. It didn’t influence my thinking so much as it crystallized it. When I thought about doing a doctorate and worried about the time it would take, the elder gull’s advice on seeking perfection and not worrying about speed came to mind. (My dissertation is far from perfect, but you get the idea.) Even my advisor was like that. He would say stuff like: If you have to go fast, you have to go slow. (I even asked him at one point if he learnt how to teach by watching kung-fu movies.) But he was my elder gull, and he changed my life.
A second playlist (1994)
Until I reached college, my exposure to Western music had been pretty limited. The usual diet of Michael Jackson, one song by Phil Collins (Another Day in Paradise), some Bon Jovi, that’s about it. It was nice enough, but it didn’t really draw me in. The music shows at BITS Pilani used to have two distinct parts — two-odd hours of Indian music, a half hour break, then some Western music. I’d usually leave at the halfway point. One night, sometime in the beginning of my third semester, I stayed for some reason. They started playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond to kick off the proceedings. At first, it seemed to me like they were just jamming. I remember thinking: This isn’t so bad after all. Then they launched into those four notes and it was all over. My list of musical favourites was crammed full with Madan Mohan, S. D. Burman and Ilayaraja at that point. After I heard those four notes, I knew I needed a new list.
What is math for “cauliflower”? (1999)
My friend Sridev, who was a few years senior to me in the doctoral programme, used to tell me that the honeymoon period in the programme comes just after one has finished the coursework and is looking for a problem to work on. You get to read books and papers on a wide variety of topics and try and find out what you’re interested in. I initially started off reading papers on neural networks and fuzzy systems when my advisor recommended that I try reading a book called Computational Learning Theory, by Martin Anthony and Norman Biggs. It was a slim little book, and I got started on the preface while I was walking back from the library. It began with the line: Computational learning theory is a tentative attempt to build a mathematical model of the human cognitive process. It was, as they say, love at first sight. At that point, I had no idea of the sort of mathematical hoops I’d have to jump through in order to work in this area. I still don’t understand a lot of it, come to that. Like Elvis sang, Wise men say/Only fools rush in. But it’s true, I couldn’t help falling in love with it. And I never fell out of love either.
Blinkers off (2000)
I’ve been in love with the movies for a long time, but it was when I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon that it became more than just a medium of entertainment for me. It wasn’t just that it had a brilliant concept — it was the message it set out to convey. We get bombarded with so much information over the course of our lives that it becomes easier, at some point, to just take it for granted and believe what we see or hear. On top of which, we slowly, almost unconsciously, program ourselves to hear only what we want to and filter out the rest. But every once in a while, the memory of Rashomon tickles a corner of my brain and makes me stop and look around. That doesn’t make life any easier, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of the oldest cliches I’ve heard pertains to how life is such a great teacher. Sure it is, but you know what, it mostly doesn’t offer any compulsory courses. They’re all electives. These are the ones I chose, and the syllabus has been awesome so far.
ps: Thanks to Ratul, who pointed out that beautiful passage in TMiaB to me many years ago.
pps: Okay, most of you who read this blog already know it’s about the movies. So how many of you, after seeing the title, first thought it was a reference to Jaws?