In Memoriam: Professor Asim Kumar Pal

Back in the last millenium, when I was still figuring out whom I wanted to work under for my doctoral thesis, I asked my friend and mentor Sridev for advice. I was leaning towards working with his advisor, Professor Asim Kumar Pal, so I figured he’d be able to tell me what the experience was like. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I remember two things most vividly. The first was that he had no ego; you could have a heated argument with him on a technical matter, and he wouldn’t expect you to hold back simply because he was the professor and you were the student. He would, in fact, expect it. (He would win the argument, usually, but that’s okay.) The second was that Prof. Pal’s unit of measurement was work, not time. If I took a decade to finish the quantum of work he deemed acceptable for a dissertation, well, then I took a decade. He wasn’t going to let me off with five years worth of work simply because it was time to submit something. I listened carefully, nodded, and then went ahead with my plans.

Was it the misplaced confidence that I would breeze through my work in a couple of years? Maybe, but I’d like to think that it was because, when Sridev told me this, it wasn’t his words I heard, but the words from a book that influenced me profoundly as a high schooler: Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There is a line in that book that says, “Those who abandon perfection for the sake of speed go nowhere, slowly. Those who abandon speed for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly.”

The funny thing is, Prof. Pal said something similar to me a year later. I had to present a research paper to my faculty group, and perhaps the nicest way to describe the experience was that it was a disaster. I had started off by putting a fairly complex equation on the board without building up to it, and had spent the next couple of hours trying to explain it to an increasingly annoyed group of professors. Worst of all, that equation was only the first of many in the paper. By the time I was done, I was mentally cataloguing the list of belongings in my room that I would have to pack before leaving the institute.

Prof. Pal sat me down and said, “Ramsu, if you have to go fast, you have to go slow.” I responded with the first thing that came to my mind: “I feel like I am in the middle of a bad kung-fu movie, and am getting advice that I don’t understand.” Unfazed by my outburst, he explained to me that, if I had spent the first half hour or even the first hour laying out the fundamental concepts that led to that equation, and convinced the audience about the intuition behind the theory, they would’ve taken my word on the math. To this day, when I have to teach something, I go slow on the concepts and the intuition, and then zip through the math.

He was my elder gull. He taught me how to fly.

How to learn.

How to teach.

How to do research.

How to find joy, not in answering a question but in asking it in the first place, for the answer to any research question is complete only when accompanied by the newer set of questions it spawns.

How to ask why before asking how.

How to be a student and never stop being one.

I guess the mundane way of putting it is that Professor Asim Kumar Pal passed away today. The obvious follow up would include details of how he died, and how old he was. But remember what I told you earlier: his unit of measurement was work, not time. And by that metric, he has lived, and continues to live several lifetimes.

He lives through us, his students, his creations.

Asim is a Bengali name that means unlimited. I think his parents were onto something.

Freeze Frame #165: Anjali

Now, it’s no secret that this is one of my least favourite Mani Ratnam films. He got some things gloriously right, but I found it a touch too melodramatic, the kids a touch too annoying (and I wasn’t much older when it came out), the Revathy character a touch too whiny… I didn’t walk away from the film with the warm and fuzzies, and that has nothing to do with the fact that the eponymous character dies at the end.

Okay, it does a little bit. Here’s what I wrote some years ago:

And to top it all off, the most annoying death scene in the history of cinema. If that little girl had screamed “Ezhundiru Anjali, ezhundiru” one more time, Mani Ratnam could’ve made Anjali 2: Night of the Living Dead as his follow-up feature.

But it did have a few knock-out moments, my favourite being the scene where Arjun, the elder child, bonds with Anjali. This occurs in the aftermath of a fight where Arjun gets into a scrap with some kids in the neighbourhood who have been harassing Anjali. It would be easy to interpret his actions as “Ah, so he does love his newfound little sister”, but I think it’s probably a bit more and less than that. There’s a bit of an impulse to do the right thing, a bit of whatever-my-issues-she’s-still-my-sister… However he feels about her, he hasn’t yet consciously acknowledged it.

That comes when he sees how Anjali reacts to his injuries. The way I state it, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s amazing how perfectly that little scene works.

Watch how he sees her as though for the first time, beyond whatever preconceived notions he had up until then about this “different” little kid who seems to have turned his life upside down. (It’s not as dramatic as that in reality, but wouldn’t it have seemed like that to him?) His reaction is the first time a character in the film deals with his or her prejudice and defeats it. The rest of the film is mostly just about the others following suit. It is, in my opinion, the scene most emblematic of the film’s central theme.

However, the reason why this scene has been on my mind recently has nothing to do with pride or prejudice. You see, my daughter recently bit my leg hard while throwing a tantrum. And even now, several days later, she keeps pointing to the place where the remainder of a scab is still barely visible, looks a bit remorseful and gives it a quick kiss.

What’s that line by Dr. Seuss about the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes at Christmas?

King’s Cross

Many years ago, there was this brief period when I was extremely depressed about a bunch of things. My grandfather had just passed away, my thesis seemed to be going nowhere…  I once spent a fair amount of time venting about it to a friend of mine named Satish. He listened quietly and then told me this:

Ramsu, there’s a simple three-step algorithm for happiness. The first step is to identify your metric — what makes you happy? The second step is to optimize your chosen metric — it takes effort and a bit of luck, but it can be done. The third step is a tricky one: It involves understanding that steps 1 & 2 have nothing whatsoever to do with your happiness.

Six years ago, he lost his life to an aggressive form of cancer. He was barely thirty at the time. Since then, I have hardly ever hated anything quite as much as I hate cancer. He was not the first loved one I lost this way, but his loss was probably the hardest to take.

I mention this because he has been on my mind a lot this past week — his birthday fell on April 1.

And today, I found yet another reason to hate cancer a bit more. Roger Ebert, my favourite film critic, went to the Big Multiplex in the Sky. I discovered him in grad school, a few years after I had gotten into the habit of writing film reviews. It was through his essays, especially those on all-time classics, that I began to see film as more than a medium of entertainment, and film reviews as more than a prosaic chronicle of what unfolded in front of us. His reviewing career has spanned decades, and I must have read hundreds of them, but his essay on Ikiru remains my favourite, thanks to this closing paragraph:

I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates’ statement, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”‘ Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.

Here was a man speaking not as a film critic but as a lover of cinema who took something back with him from a three hour stint in a darkened movie theater, and felt compelled to share his joy with the world. And by making it personal, he spoke to all of us.

I close with two quotes. The first is a translation of a song from Ikiru that I wrote about earlier:

Life is brief, fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion cools within you
For those of you who know no tomorrow

Life is brief, fall in love, maidens
Before our raven tresses begin to fade
Before the flames in your hearts flicker and die
For those to whom today will never return

The second is something Ebert quoted in an article he wrote on a couple of years ago, and was written by Vincent Van Gogh:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

Bon voyage, Mr. Ebert. And if you happen to see a quiet young man with a brilliant smile out there, tell him I said hi.

Why Gdansk is my favourite non-Indian city to visit

Most people have their reasons for picking a favourite:

  • It’s the first place I visited
  • It’s scenic/has a lot of history/…
  • The people are wonderful

Mine is a combination of the above, but the precise moment when I fell in love with the place has to do with my love for the movies.

Gdansk was indeed the first place I visited outside of India. I went there for some project meetings nearly ten years ago and one of my Polish colleagues came to the airport to pick me up. I had heard that Polish was a slightly tough language to master, so I asked my colleague Karolina how the name of the city was pronounced. Her explanation can be summarized as follows: The G in the beginning is pronounced, the d is soft and there’s an implicit i before the n. Guh-dayinsk. More or less.

In the Polish alphabet, the n used in Gdansk has a tail attached to it (like so: ɲ), which is how you know to add the i in front when you pronounce it. She explained that this letter was called Ni.

And added, by way of clarification: “Like the Knights who say Ni.”

Game, set and match.

What seven year itch?

As of yesterday, I’ve been married seven years. So obviously, the image of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate is among the first things to come to mind. Not that I’m feeling in the least bit itchy, but you can’t be a movie buff and be married for seven years and not remember the movie. I’m sure there’s a law against it somewhere.

I remember my married friends telling me that marriage wasn’t a bed of roses. Not as discouragement, mind, but just to ensure that I took the rose-tinted glasses off before jumping in. My response to that was that nothing in life ever is as bed of roses. Unless we’re discussing Bon Jovi or people who like waking up with rose petals stuck to their butt. Which, given what little I’ve heard of rock star lifestyles, might even end up being the same thing. But I digress.

All things considered, I’d say I’m pretty happily married. Oh, there are days when either or both of us feel like tearing our hair out. But then there are also days like today, when I get this for an anniversary gift:

Bollywood Posters

She pre-ordered it at Blossoms, dragged me there under some pretext and then sprung this on me. A few years ago, she arranged to get me DVDs of most of the Oscar nominated movies in that year.

If I’m itching for anything, it’s for an eternity of the same, even with Sharmila Tagore pointing a gun at me.

Happy anniversary, Lakshmi. I love you.