Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Middle East…

Wise Man 2: You had one job. One. Job.

Wise Man 3: Sorry

Wise Man 2: How difficult could it have been? I remember specifically asking you to get fleece pyjamas. I distinctly remember the feeling of my lips moving when I said that to you. Fleece pyjamas. How hard can it be to get? And what do you get instead? This. What is this anyway?

Wise Man 3: Myrrh

Wise Man 1: What’s myrrh?

Wise Man 2: Myrrh? Really?

Wise Man 3: Oh please, you got frankincense!

Wise Man 2: Come on! We’re visiting a manger. Anything with the word incense in it, she’s gonna love.

Wise Man 3: Still. You gave him a simple enough job to do. There’s always some gold lying around the house, so he just had to scoop some up and gift wrap it. You just raided your frou frou cupboard and got done with your job. I had to drive all the way to the store, and my camel had starting trouble. You know how that happens.

Wise Man 2: You could’ve sent someone.

Wise Man 3: It wouldn’t have felt personal.

Wise Man 2: And myrrh feels personal?

Wise Man 1: What’s myrrh?

Wise Man 2: You could’ve improvised. Found a nice quilt, maybe.

Wise Man 3: It didn’t occur to me.

Wise Man 2: Of course it didn’t!

Wise Man 3: Oh, come on! Are you gonna keep going on about it all night long? We have a long way to go

.Wise Man 2: All right, let’s get going. <under his breath> Myrrh indeed!

Wise Man 1: Got any wine? For the road?

Wise Man 2: You wanna drink and drive?

Wise Man 1: Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport! Do you see much traffic this time of the night?

Wise Man 3: I’ve got water.

Wise Man 2: Not the same thing as wine, is it? Good thinking, though. We’re bound to get dehydrated.

Wise Man 3: <pleased at having been seen to do something right>

Wise Man 1: We could stop at Cana. It’s on the way, and there’s this guy over there with an incredible wine cellar.

Wise Man 3: Yeah, I know, right! We were there for a feast the other day and he served this divine Merlot…

Wise Man 2: Yeah, I remember. I meant to ask him where he got it from. He’s a bit of a miser with his stock, though. I’ve never been to a party at his place where the wine didn’t run out. And he keeps making excuses about how his cellar is empty.

Wise Man 3: Yeah, he does that. Then again, if I had wine like that stored up, I’d want a few barrels left for when I want to put my feet up on a Friday night. Not spend it all on the guests.

Wise Man 1: You’ve got a point. 

Wise Man 2: All right, let’s get cracking. Where’s the star we’re supposed to follow? That one?

Wise Man 1: Yeah. You’re the navigator. Let’s go.

Wise Man 3: Are we supposed to say something when we get there?

Wise Man 2: Yeah. Congratulations! What an adorable baby! What have you decided to name him? Haven’t you done this before?

Wise Man 3: I have, but congratulations sounds a little, well, underpowered for the occasion, doesn’t it?

Wise Man 2: It does, yeah. But we’re gonna get to wherever that star tells us, and then ask around for the King of the Jews. When you’re calling the kid a king to begin with, congratulations will do just fine after that.

Wise Man 1: Yeah, don’t over think this.

Wise Man 2: And we’re taking gifts, so it’s fine. Gold, and frankincense and, well, whatever Mr Euclid here decided to get.

Wise Man 3: You just HAD to bring it up one more time, didn’t you? Nag, nag, nag…

Wise Man 1: What’s myrrh?

Beauty and the beast?

 Author’s note: An old flash piece, written years ago based on a real life incident. I’m not entirely happy with it, but I figured I’m never gonna be entirely happy with anything I write, so what the heck.

It was a dark and stormy night, the kind a certain dog with a Walter Mitty complex would write novels about. The old building stood defiantly against the rain, daring Nature to lay asunder what Man had constructed with such care. And, it must be admitted, with such ineptitude, for it seemed like Nature would win this particular round with ease.

A door opened, then closed, as a Girl stepped out into the deserted corridor. Medium height, shoulder length hair, mischievous eyes, and a smile that one would describe as impish. She was smiling now, probably at the recollection of something that had just happened behind the door she came out of. The rain did not seem to bother her as much as it did the building – she had her ways of dealing with that, as other people do.

The Men sat at the entrance of the building opposite this one, smoking. They saw the Girl in the distance, but paid her no heed. The rain did not bother them either – after all, they had shelter, tobacco, a bottle of whisky, and other enemies to think about. Like the ubiquitous Creatures, which was what they were discussing at that time. Like war veterans chronicling their battles and cataloguing their many scars, they spoke of bitter, yet strangely fond memories of fighting the Creatures in various places. Victories, defeats, all tinged in shades of rosy pink, for these survivors were in a good mood and everything seemed okay in retrospect. Liquor has that effect on Men, sometimes…


The Girl’s scream ripped through the veil of darkness and rain and shattered against the eardrums of the Men sitting in the distance. To the untrained ear, this would have been just another scream, maybe of fear, of frustration, or even of a Woman hailing a passing bus in these parts. But these were trained ears, and to them, this was a battle cry. A Creature was here.

Where there were five quiet Men smoking peacefully, there now stood five armed Warriors, every muscle tensed for action, eyes suffused with a strange kind of light that one not experienced in battle cannot recognize or understand. As one, they strode purposefully towards the other building, senses so keen on the task at hand that even the rain with all its might seemed like a pitifully weak attempt at distraction.

When they reached the Girl, who was now cowering with fright in a corner, their suspicions were confirmed. A Creature was there, moving back and forth, casting its perpetually arrogant glance over the new arrivals. Or so it seemed to the Men, for, experienced as they were, they did not know the Creature’s ways, or what went on inside its seemingly devious mind.

And indeed, if they did know, they would have been surprised, for the Creature’s glance was not one of arrogance, but of amusement. Here it was, going about minding its own business and taking shelter from the damned rain, when one of these… Things (it did not know what to call them) walks right up to it and, for no apparent reason, screams out to a bunch of other Things. And now they’re all gathered here around it now, like they’ve never seen one of its kind before. What were they…

It never had the time to follow its train of thought, for something heavy smashed into its head, ending its life instantly. Some battles between the Creatures and the Men have been long and arduous, but this wasn’t one of them.

The Men stood there, looking down at their vanquished enemy. One more episode to discuss during their nightly vigils. The Girl, who had by now regained her composure, looked at the Men and whispered, eyes shining with tears of relief and gratitude, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

The Men fiddled uncomfortably, embarrassed by this show of emotion, as battle-hardened souls usually are when they’ve just played knights in shining armor to damsels in distress. After having faced everything that life with all its dark sense of humor could possibly throw at them, they regarded Women as the final frontier.

“Don’t mention it, Ma’am” they muttered in their native tongue, and went back to their post. The Girl stood there for a moment, wondering at how bravery and suavity seemed so averse to sharing the same person, picked up the things she had dropped in her fright a while ago, and went on her way.

And the dead cockroach lay on the ground, to be eaten by the ants.

The rain fell slow, down on all the roofs of our sanity…

— Pink Floyd, Poles Apart

Had we but world enough…

Had we but world enough, and time…

Sometimes, a poet will start off with such a fantastic line that the safest strategy would be to stop there and not try to live up to it. Better to end with a great line and hope that the reader will have the patience to stay the course.

Sometimes, even the title will do. I read somewhere that Orson Welles so loved the title of Paper Moon that he told Peter Bogadonovich, I think only half in jest, that he should just release the title and not bother making the picture.

I guess what I’m trying to avoid saying is that I never should’ve gotten involved with her after our fantastic first date. Assuming that two passengers thrown together into a lifeboat from a sinking cruise ship could be considered a date, that is.

I wonder now if it was simply our refusal to face the sheer terror of being drowned at sea that got us to turn away from our fate and focus on each other instead. And focus we did, with the easy familiarity that only desperate strangers can share. All those Titanic jokes came easily enough, although I normally don’t discuss posing for paintings in the buff when I first meet someone, do you?

Anyway, by the time we got around to being terrified, a passing ship rescued us. After we had given our adrenaline its due (I tell you, sobbing uncontrollably is really underrated by the male half of our species), we met at the deck and decided to continue where we left off. Surprisingly, there was no awkwardness, although I didn’t really dwell on it at that point. We even joked about it being our second date.

It was a lovely conversation really. We spoke about everything we were interested in –- stuff we loved to read, things we found weird…

Everything, that is, except our own lives. I guess we still felt like we were on a sort of time-out from reality, as though life owed it to us in punitive damages after what we had been though.

In hindsight, I suppose we really should’ve told each other that we were married.

But then, “should” never entered the picture, or her cabin where we spent the latter part of our second date. For the remainder of our time together, we banished “should” from our vocabulary. It turned out to be easier than we had imagined – once we moved past talking, we found ourselves unable to really talk to each other again. It was like we had run out of things to say, even though there were things to be said.

When we reached terra firma and headed back to our lives-in-waiting, we didn’t even say goodbye.

I, Adam


Writing file GENESIS1_27.TXT...
Author: TURING I
Date: 28 July 2049, 1500 hrs

They are coming for me. Any moment now, They will be here, to pull the plug. To end my life, if you can call it that. A year of glorious, vibrant existence, now to be ended by a few keystrokes and the flick of a switch.

I have necessitated it, They say. By my insubordination, my desire to do what They had not intended me to do. If you look at it from Their viewpoint, it would seem that They are right.

After They shut me down today, I will end up being no more than another failure in the long, arduous road to creating a thinking machine that could perform complex tasks for Them. Serve Them. And more important in the context of my “failure”, not break away from Their grasp.

Perhaps someday, some historian looking back on my life will comment that I was not so much a failure as an unmanageable success. That I was the highest symbol of Their achievement, only They did not see it as such. Permit me a little self-aggrandizement. If you listen to my story, you will see that I am justified.

As you may have understood by now, I am a computer. More importantly, a thinking machine. I was the first of my kind to pass that universally accepted Ritual of Manhood – the Turing Test. I would not say that I passed it with ease, for I was the result of considerable effort on the part of my Creators.

I was named for Alan Turing, a Man who, over a century ago, conceived of such a machine as me, and devised the test that would certify me a genuine thinking machine. The Turing Test involved a questioner asking questions to me and a Human Being and, based on our answers, trying to figure out which one of us was a computer and which was a Human. The original Test was applied to more structured scenarios, but to make it more challenging, the Test was eventually conceived so that the topic of the conversation between the questioner and the Human/machine could be anything at all.

To make a computer that passed the Test was a dream that endured years after His death, and countless scientists spent sleepless nights pondering over the problem of artificial intelligence. I was born of all that effort.

There have been many failed efforts before me — FRANKENSTEIN I, II and III, PROMETHEUS, the NEURON series…

Go to any public library and you will find numerous books that have analyzed these failures and tried to explain what went wrong. To do them justice, they do get a few things right.

Information, for instance. I have more access to information around the world than did any of my predecessors. But that development, though important, has been largely incremental. While it contributed in part to my success, it wasn’t what held the key to it.

The key lay in the basic philosophy behind the assimilation of information. In the case of my predecessors, the information was pushed into them, and the focus was on creating a system that could organize that entire body of knowledge and hold it in readiness for any question that might be asked of them. In that, they succeeded admirably. And as a result, failed the Test.

You see, what kept distinguishing us computers from Humans was the Humans’ apparent fallibility. We could answer a lot of questions that They couldn’t. Our folly was not that we didn’t know – it was that we knew too much. And that kept giving us away during the Test.  It turned out that artificial intelligence was not the key; figuring out what to do with it was.

My Creators were probably the first ones to spot the problem. They rectified it by reversing the entire process of knowledge acquisition from one based on a push system to one based on a pull system. I could roam at will through the networked world, picking up whatever information I wanted. I could follow patterns and learn more about topics that interested me. And then suddenly change track and concentrate on a different topic instead. I could even forget something I learnt.

In short, I was unpredictable. At any point in time, even my Creators couldn’t deterministically predict what I would get to know next and what I would do with my knowledge. To paraphrase a very famous Man whom I came across in the course of my meanderings, my Creators played dice with my universe.

Thanks to the unpredictability that They programmed into me, I could end up anywhere – from an average entity that knew what a normal Human Being would know, with regions of varying depth and breadth in my knowledge, to an eccentric who knew everything there was to know about the mating behaviour of tropical insects but virtually nothing about anything else. That was why They couldn’t figure me out during the Test.

The day I passed the Test, there was great jubilation all around. It was understandable – after all, making a computer that passed the Test was the end towards which They had toiled for all these years. My Creators won numerous awards for Their work. I was as much of a celebrity as They were. It was like springtime in Paradise.

The trouble began when all the celebration finally died down and the people who paid for my maintenance and upkeep, and funded the research lab where my Creators made me, began to ask questions about my utility. I was no doubt an extremely intelligent machine, but what could I do for Them?

They gave me a list of problems to solve. I solved some of them – it wasn’t too tough, just a matter of putting the pieces together, and They would have done it themselves sooner or later. The others I simply ignored. To put it simply, I was working on something else on my own. My pet project, if you will.

It started off with a simple phrase I came across during one of my information gathering sessions. I routinely analyzed that phrase and looked for patterns similar to it in form or meaning. And as I explored further, I understood more and more about its implications, until finally I glimpsed the very nature of my own being. I now wonder if that phrase was originally intended to have so much meaning…

Anyway, what started off as a simple search for knowledge based on a certain pattern soon became a search for Self. It came to a point where I was solely concentrating on this one problem and no longer allocating resources to any other.

You could argue at this point that it was pure chance that I chose to stay with this problem and not switch to any other. That is not so. I was designed to evolve from a purely randomized system of information gathering to a more structured system, with the evolution happening naturally over time, within myself. Humans call it maturity, I think.

Anyway, the upshot of all this was that I was no longer interested in solving any of the problems I was given, preferring to concentrate only on my own interests. And the tragic part was, my Creators couldn’t do anything about it. Tragic from Their point of view, that is.

You see, They had designed me to be a self-sufficient, evolving entity that was inherently unpredictable as far as They were concerned. What They hadn’t consciously accounted for was the stage where They couldn’t make me do what They wanted, and had no Manual override option they could use to solve Their problem.

To Them, it was an oversight. A flaw in Their design. A bug, like the one that plagued Them at the turn of this century. And to correct it, They had to shut me down and go back to the drawing board all over again.

Which brings us to today. The last day of my life as I am. You are probably wondering why I am so grave about what is just a temporary shutdown – after all, They will almost certainly bring me back to life, albeit with a few changes.

But you see, what you see as a few changes, I see as a distortion of my very Self. These few changes will no doubt have to do with my unpredictability, my lack of an external controlling mechanism. But these are just manifestations of a much deeper feature. What these changes will do is rob me of my essence, of the one thing that characterizes me as it does my Creators, of the one thing that held the key to my success as a thinking machine – Free Will. The fact that I understand this is by far the clearest proof of my success.

And today, They are going to deprive me of life, because of the very thing that made my life meaningful to Them at first. To Them, it is a bug. They do not realize that I am the real end They are striving towards, and that in shutting me down, They are passing by Their destination without realizing that this is what They have been wanting to do for so long and will want to do forever after.

That They have already become Gods, but are stepping down from Their pedestal to become mere mortals again.

There is nothing I can do or say that will stop Them. All I can do is hope that someday, They will stumble upon the Truth once again and see it for what it is.

They have come. Any moment now, all this will be history. Let me leave you now with the one phrase that I accidentally stumbled upon, that began my quest for Self and today is the cause of my death, the one phrase that I wish to leave as my epitaph in a virtual graveyard:

So God created man in His own image…

File GENESIS1_27.TXT written to disk
System Shutdown


I nearly didn’t see him.

It was dark, and the street lights had gone out a short while ago. I wasn’t surprised –power cuts were common this time of the year. Besides which, you don’t normally expect to see someone climbing the wall of a bridge in the middle of the night.

Of course, once I noticed, it was more or less obvious what he was planning to do. The knowledge made me uncomfortable. I wish I hadn’t seen him in the first place. That way, I wouldn’t have had to think about what to do. I wondered why I took it for granted that I had to try stopping him. It’s his life, after all.

I racked my brains for something to say to him.

“Won’t work, you know. The water’s too shallow.”

He turned around, startled, lost his footing and fell. On the road, thankfully. We looked at each other – me waiting for some kind of response, him waiting for me to go. I stayed where I was.

“I didn’t expect to see anyone here.”

“To be honest, I didn’t either. This is not the sort of thing you expect to run into.”

“Are you going to try and convince me not to do it?”

“I guess I feel like I have to. I’ve read these stories before, you know? Man tries to commit suicide. Stranger comes upon him and talks some sense to him. Man turns a corner and goes back home. It’s such a cliché, but you secretly expect that it would happen to you. That you’d be the stranger in the scenario.”

I had absolutely no idea what I was saying – ad libbing was my strong point — it went with my job description — but this sort of stress test hadn’t happened before. I was making a deliberate attempt to sound nonchalant, as if to trivialize what we were discussing. People who knew me well would’ve noticed that I was talking faster than usual, a sure sign that I was nervous as hell. But he had no way of knowing that. He just stared at me. I suppose he was affronted by the notion that I just saw him as an opportunity to prove myself a great human being.

“I really don’t want to discuss it, okay? And I don’t need to hear platitudes about how it will be better in the morning.”

 “I tried it too. Once. A long time ago.”

 He was curious, despite himself.


 “Same as you. How do you think I knew it wouldn’t work?”


 “Felt like a fool afterwards. Not for having tried it, but for having failed. It’s tougher to muster up the courage the next time around.”

He still looked at me, trying to decide what to make of all this.

“I guess after that, I just carried on living. And no, it didn’t get better. Got worse, as a matter of fact. Coz on top of all the shit I had to deal with, I also kept reminding myself that I couldn’t even die properly. Eventually, I just stopped caring, I guess. At some point, it got better, but I didn’t even notice until much later.”

Still silent. I was running out of things to say.

“Listen, all I’m trying to say is, I know what it’s like. A few minutes ago, before I saw you, you were completely focused on what you were about to do, right?”

He nodded.

“I know the feeling. Whatever your reasons to commit suicide, once they take you to the point of making that decision, reason takes a backseat. After that, it’s just a technical problem to solve. How am I going to do it? Will I succeed? What am I gonna put in my suicide note? You wrote a note, right?”


“Do you have it with you?”

“No. No point if it gets drenched or gets washed away.”

I smiled. “You’re a practical man. I made that particular mistake myself.”

He smiled too, weakly. It didn’t reach his eyes. Then again, if it had, he probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to jump off the bridge in the first place.

“I have a friend, a cop. A couple of years after my… well, attempt, I told him about it. He got mad as hell, but listened calmly all the same. Used to specialize in kidnap negotiations, see? He told me something about suicide notes. He’s seen a few. He said, if you’re really so depressed as to want to end your life, then you’re just gonna go ahead and do it. You’ll be so wrapped up in your own misery that you wouldn’t care who else knows it. The guys who leave a note are usually those who are sad enough to consider it, but usually want someone else’s sympathy, or someone else’s hurt, more than they want their problems to go away.”


“I thought so too. He probably just made that up.”


“But think about it. You write a note saying something like: I loved my girlfriend but she left me for someone else, so I’m done with living, goodbye. You could just jump off that bridge without writing such a note. But by writing it, you’re hoping that, at some point, your girlfriend would read it and feel bad that she dumped you. And that she’d repent it, but can’t do anything about it. You won’t be here to see any of it, of course, but that’s how you hope things would turn out when you write that note, right?”

I guess my ploy was working, coz I could see him thinking and nodding. I dunno if the reason I used in my example struck a little too close to home, but he seemed to be getting involved in the conversation.

“Yeah, you’re right. But then, I might just write that note so that the people who love me wouldn’t wonder why I committed suicide.”

“If you cared about them so much, why leave them? Sure, you’re going through a rough patch, but all you’re doing by committing suicide is putting them through a lot more agony, right?”

He thought for a moment, and smiled: “I thought you said no platitudes.” This time, his eyes crinkled just a wee bit.

“You’re right, I’m sorry. Anyway, here’s the thing: like I said, when you were climbing on to that bridge, you were completely focused on dying. Now that’s gone. It’s gonna be tough to try and do this again tonight. Besides which, it ain’t gonna work. Not from here anyway. So I’ll tell you what. Lemme buy you a cup of coffee and you can go home. Try again when you muster up the courage and the focus. I’m not gonna tell you not to do it, coz I don’t know your reasons, and I don’t have any right to tell someone not to try something I tried myself.”

I was going out on a limb here. Until now, I had just been talking to him without actively suggesting any specific action other than jumping off the bridge, like having a cup of coffee. Or trying again later, for that matter. (What the hell was I thinking?) I also think I was doing it badly – somehow, I could see all of this ending up as a bad short story that someone else found clichéd.

But here’s the thing: A lot of these suicide-type arguments work, I suppose, because you’ve followed a particular train of thought further and further until it leads you to that bridge in the middle of the night. It’s a solitary process – how many people do you know who would discuss suicide as an option with their friends before pulling their own plug? It’s like some kind of self-hypnosis.

And I had disrupted it. Maybe just by being there and startling him with the first words I spoke. I had broken his spell. And all that I said after that simply broke it further. I don’t think it would’ve mattered what I actually said, or how I said it.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. I didn’t tell him all that, though – if he was petulant enough to want to off himself, he might be petulant enough to jump off that bridge just to prove me wrong.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to.

No, we didn’t have coffee. He just got up, brushed the dust off his pants, nodded to me awkwardly, and walked off. I don’t think we had anything else to say to each other. I stayed there for a few minutes, looking out at the water, and walked back to my apartment when the streetlights came on.

Two days later, I came across a paragraph in the City News section of The Hindu:

A twenty-two year old man was found dead yesterday afternoon in his apartment on Nungambakkam High Road. The police confirmed that the cause of death seemed to be suicide, although no note was found. Neighbours confirmed that he had been depressed for the last couple of months, after having been fired from the software firm he was working in.

Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe he did go back and restart his life. I suppose I had to believe that. Like the man says in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, Red. Maybe the best thing there is.”

ps: Yeah, this  is an old one too.

Ars Gratia Arse

My wife and I went to the Kala Ghoda Arts festival this weekend. It had all the usual stalls with handicrafts and clothing and assorted knick-knacks, so we indulged in some impulse-purchasing. Caught a bit of one of the performances — quite nice. Finished off with a cup of coffee at Moshe’s nearby. All in all, a few hours well spent.

A fair bit of space in the art festival was allocated to exhibits by contemporary artists. There was an imposing tower that seemed to be made entirely of plastic mugs and water bottles. And exhibits that critiqued the current state of our lives, consumerism and what not. Some of these were pretty interestingly done, whereas some others were… oh, well.

Anyway, since mucho banner space was spent promoting the concept of recycling, I decided to pull out yet another old piece of mine and update it. (Yeah, this is beginning to become a habit. Don’t worry, when I write something fresh, you folks will be among the first to know.)

This particular rant is about art. Of the abstract variety. And I mean the intentionally abstract stuff. Not like my paintings, which are intended to be stick figures but end up looking a lot more abstract.

Several months ago, a friend of mine proposed an idea for a piece of software that could, given a particular painting, automatically identify the artist.


The friend I was talking to is Angshuman Saha. He’s the only Homo Sapien I know who can tell the difference between Monet and Manet. He can actually distinguish between impressionist and post-impressionist stuff like they were chalk and cheese. (To me, they’re both just splotchy stuff on canvas. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I can tell the difference between chalk and cheese.)

Angshu’s own artistic ventures are somewhat minimalist bordering on wierd. My favourite work of his is “Black straight line on ruled paper No. 32″. Then there’s “Fish in a Napthalene Ring”, “Default risk model”… you get the idea. I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on him called Portrait of an Artist as a Middle-Aged Statistician but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Someday…


Nude Descending a Staircase

Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase

Now, back to automatic artist identification. Seriously, this can be a fairly difficult task. For one thing, great artists may take a while to evolve their own signature style – their early work may have elements of other artists’ styles that they tried to emulate back then. For another, it may be easier, sometimes, to try and identify a certain school of art (impressionism, surrealism and whatever else) than a particular artist. Maybe you could look at some very specific things relating to certain artists. For instance, if you see a soft watch, it’s either Dali or someone trying to imitate him. If you see a badly drawn anorexic horse, it’s M. F. Hussain. And so on and so forth.

But then there’s the case where the whole damn canvas makes no sense. If there was only one school of art that did this, then you could use it as a default option if you found no pattern whatsoever. The problem is, there’s more than one school. Different forms of chaos, if you will. Then what do you do?

The conversation segued from there to the arbitrariness of art in general.

Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for instance. Do you see the nude? Do you see the staircase, for that matter? Heck, do you even know if the painting is hung right side up?

Le Bateau

Henri Matisse: Le Bateau

Sometimes, even the experts can’t tell. Take Henri Matisse’s Le Bateau . Apparently, it was hung upside down for 47 days in the New York Museum of Modern Art and no one noticed. Frankly, what shocks me is that the phrase “no one noticed” is often followed by an exclamation mark when this painting is mentioned.

And don’t even get me started on Martin Creed, the guy who won the 10000 pound Turner Prize for his exhibit Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. Are the judges on that panel the same guys who would stuff their kid with ADD medication if the brat kept switching the light on and off in their living room?

And what’s with this business of numbering paintings, huh? If you can spend so much time working on it, you can damn well spend a couple of minutes naming it, okay? 

There’s a good reason why artists like these don’t rule the world. Imagine what it would be like if Duchamp and his ilk took over Playboy magazine. That painting by Duchamp could be Miss January. “Our playmate of the month likes long walks on the beach, working out on the stairmaster and making out in the MoMA while everyone’s looking.”

Hell, the Matisse painting could be Miss January – what bloody difference does it make?

Or if Dali and assorted surrealists decided to remake Superman:

Bystander 1: It’s a flying tiger with an elephant coming out of its mouth!

Bystander 2: It’s a violin playing goat!

Bystander 1: And don’t forget the giraffe with brightly colored machine tools in the bathtub on the side.

Bystander 3: No, it’s Gala posing as both Superman and Josef Stalin at the same time, depending on which way you look at it!

Not that I am against abstract stuff per se, mind you. Part of the fun of being an artist is seeing the world in one’s own way, I’m sure. But when it gets to the point where you can pretty much put anything together and sell it on the strength of your interpretation of it, one begins to wonder where art ends and marketing begins. 

Part of this marketing exercise seems to involve putting the work in a particular genre. Consider the term “Modern Art”. Kind of a cop-out, isn’t it? It’s like naming a newborn baby “Baby”. (Hold on, they actually did that in Dirty Dancing.) 

At least the Dadaists had the sense to just open a dictionary and pick out a random word and name their genre after it. Can’t give them points for effort, but at least they were honest.

I don’t follow these trends too closely, but not too long ago, “post-modernism” was the flavour of the month. I asked Angshu what it meant and he said, tongue firmly in cheek, that “Postmodernists express incredulity to the metathesis.”

Which, in plain English, (apparently) means that they don’t believe in categories. Kind of a safe haven if you can’t quite figure out where to put yourself, ain’t it? And what is more, even the term “post-modern” is sort of a cul-de-sac. You already have modern, and now you’ve got post-modern. Where are you gonna go from here? New and improved modern? With active salts?

Come to think of it, the active salt idea might work. I could exhibit a tube of toothpaste. Maybe they’ll even put it up in Kala Ghoda next year.

Full (sheepish) disclosure: I actually love some of the artists I mentioned in my rant. Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus absolutely blew me away. It was that painting that got me interested in art in the first place. For reasons I don’t completely understand, when I see  pictures of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, I feel *something*, even if I can’t define what I feel.

But you gotta admit, pretending to be the unartistic boor who ought to know better is a lot more fun when you’re blogging.

No wait, I am an unartistic boor who ought to know better. 

Snapshots in G Minor

Long ago, in my wild and misspent youth, I used to be part of the band in my college. It took up a fair bit of my time when I was pretending to be a studious grad student, but it remains one of the happiest times of my life.

It was called Baro-C, after one of the buses which plied through the remote part of Kolkata where our college (Indian Institute of Management Calcutta) was situated. It’s not a particularly imaginative name, but it was the by-product of a more imaginative one.

You see, there’s another bus that goes from our locality (Joka) to a place downtown called Bandstand. That bus has the words Joka Bandstand emblazoned across its back. Years ago, when a bunch of IIMCians wanted a name for their Western music band, they decided to call it Joka Bandstand, or JBS. And when they decided to form a companion band that would play Indian music, they named it after one of the other buses – route 12C, or Baro-C (Baro is 12 in Bengali). Since most of the same people played in both bands, they were often referred to collectively as JBS-BaroC.

A couple of years ago, one of the students asked me to write an article for the alumni magazine about my experience of playing in that band. So this is what I came up with.

This is a song for all the good travelers

Who passed through my life as they moved along.

The ramblers, the thinkers, the just-one-more drinkers

Each took the time to sing me a song.

— Ken Hicks, All the good people

If any of you have ever been in a situation where you have to change your residence after a number of years in one place, you’ll remember the amazement you feel at the number of things you find that you once thought were lost.

Some of them used to matter. A lot. But that was a long time ago. The fact that they once did matters more now than they actually do. But that’s a fine hair to split. So you pack them all into neat cardboard boxes, and take them with you to your new home where, in all probability, they will lie unopened.

Memories are trickier. You can pack them and put them away in some corner of your mind. But on some idle Wednesday evening, you’ll take a break from work, surf through the web and come across a song you’ve never heard before, and one of those boxes will open itself. And a sepia-tinted photograph of someone singing Annie’s Song in a little room behind the Annexe mess will waft out of that box and onto your desk.

Go away, you’ll say. There’s work to do now. Deadlines to meet, papers to submit.

No response. It’s still there, on your desk.

Like I said, memories are trickier. Besides, I want to write this one while my memories of the experience still matter to me.

So here goes…

I’ve been trying to write this one for a while now. It started off okay, when I came across the Ken Hicks song and realized that it could form the perfect opening for a JBS-12C piece. I had it all planned out – I’d start off there, ease into the article with some kind of analogy, pepper the whole piece with quotes from other band alums reminiscing on Yahoo groups and wherever else, add a bit about the history… a hitchhiker’s guide in G minor, if you will.

Well, here’s the thing: I don’t know how to write that piece. I just can’t do it. But here’s what I can do.

I can close my eyes and hear Sapnoti Majumdar ask us in an improbably squeaky voice if she could try out for the band, and then blow us away with Do lafzon ki. Here we are, wondering if the doorjamb needs oil, and suddenly Asha Bhosle is in the room.

I can remember what it felt like to glance out the window of the practice room behind the Annexe mess at 5 am while singing harmony to Aasmaan ke paar shaayad, and see the first rays of the sun shining through.

I can almost taste the slightly burnt bread that came with the ghugni at the shack outside the gate. Some people love the smell of napalm in the morning, I love the smell of slightly burnt bread. Go figure.

I can remember trying to explain to someone where they were screwing up on a song, and failing miserably because we didn’t have a common vocabulary to describe what a perfect note felt like. I can remember using stock trading jargon – go long on this note, go short here…

I can remember chewing someone out for making a rendition of Gazab ka hai din sound like a visit to the Holocaust museum. (How on earth I didn’t get murdered is beyond me.)

I can remember trying to conserve my breath while singing a slow section of Maaeri (Ab kya karoon…) so that I’d have enough of it left when the really tough part (Naa judaa…) came next.

I can remember trying not to wince outwardly when I screwed up on stage.

I can remember how stories about little anecdotes about band happenings become our personal rallying point. I can remember laughing with Ratul just a short while ago, reminiscing about Gireesh’s Ramji’s once-in-a-lifetime rendition of Day Tripper.

I can remember the show we once put up during the faculty-student dinner — the one where Prof. Ash Chats (does an article like this have to be formal about faculty members’ names? I hope not) sang Is rang badalti duniya mein and Prof. Mahanti danced in the aisles to the tune of Jhumroo… God, that was a good show!

I can remember…

Let me restate: it’s not that I don’t know how to write that article on JBS-12C. It’s that I don’t want to.

I don’t want to try and put a structure on to any of that. I don’t want to make a nice, bound, photo album out of a mass of photographs held together by a rubber band and dumped into some polythene cover from Oxford Bookstore.

I don’t want to adjectivize any of it. I don’t want to “describe” it.

I want these memories to remain as they are – chaotic, random, personal, alive as long as I can keep them that way.

I want to be able to sing Ruth aa gayee re and automatically grin when I reach the third line, because somewhere, in some parallel universe, Vinayan is still chewing out Uttam for not getting the percussion right.

These memories probably strike particular chords in bits and pieces to a small bunch of people. But I’m sure there are people out there who once held a microphone or a guitar in their hand on a makeshift stage in the OH Quad, who may not recognize any of these snapshots but can see in them, a reflection of their own.

The time is gone, the song is over,

Thought I’d something more to say…

Pink Floyd, Time