"Everything worth saying about life has long been said – but nobody has said them my way"
BAD WATER ALONG THE SCENIC ROUTE March 2020
It was not exactly a warm welcome. It was also pretty clear that I ignore the warning at my own peril. I had no choice but to suffer through three uncomfortable days. Then I tripled my vocabulary. Probably not making much sense. I better start from the beginning.
It was many years ago. Bangladesh had barely emerged from a bloody war of independence, and I had freshly graduated from the former Momenshahi Cadet College. The times were uncertain. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the President and Father of the Nation, had been assassinated in a military coup, together with most of his immediate family. Just a month later, I was on an Interflug turboprop headed for Berlin. The decision was surprising and abrupt. My parents did not agree, and yet they let me go.
It was my first flight ever, and my first journey abroad. As if that were not enough, I was traveling to a country where I did not know anyone and the language of which I did not speak. But I was well prepared. My mother had packed a small suitcase with things I might need. And I had tucked away US$50 in a bag tied around my chest. It was my emergency fund. Quite audacious considering that I have never been adventurous. And yet, looking back, I recall no fear, apprehension or doubt. The youth, lacking life’s experience, must resort to ignorance; sometimes it works out.
Traveling abroad was still a novelty. That meant a festive farewell at the airport. My extended family had gathered at Tejgaon International airport. They bade me goodbye with much fanfare. After the formalities, I walked out on the tarmac to the plane. On my way, I looked back. I saw my family waving at me from the rooftop visitor platform. I remember it was a beautiful, sunny September day. But I do not remember being aware of my mother’s grief. Who can tell whether that was a failing or a blessing?
I climbed up the roll-on gangway into the plane, found my seat, and buckled up, waiting impatiently for my maiden flight. Finally, we took off. I was mesmerized by the view. First the airport, then the city, and finally the country of my birth become smaller and smaller, and then disappeared altogether. All the while, I remained blissfully unaware that once you step out of a stream, you can never return to the same stream again.
Memories of the flight are sketchy now. But I remember the breathtaking view of the Hindukush Mountains in the warm glow of a late afternoon sun. Our first stopover was in Tashkent. As the plane refueled, we had snacks in the lounge. That's where I got my first culture shock - I could eat as much grapes as I wished. Until then, grapes generally went with being sick. Grapes do not grow in Bangladesh and must be imported. They were expensive. I suppose that’s why grapes had a special healing power. Things may be different today. I haven’t been to Bangladesh since 2000.
The next stop was Moscow – Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport. We arrived shortly after midnight. I had to wait for the connecting flight in a quiet and deserted transit hall. Suddenly, chatter and laughter woke me from my stupor. A group of middle-aged cleaning women had arrived. It may sound trivial, but I was struck by their portliness. Women in Bangladesh are small statured and lean, especially those, who do menial work. Clearly, from now on, different rules will apply. A harbinger of new things to come?
Then another long flight to Berlin - this time with Aeroflot. We arrived in Berlin at the crack of dawn, Berlin Schönefeld to be exact. By that time, everything was a blur. I vaguely remember someone from Herder Institut taking care of immigration formalities. I was going to learn German language at Herder Institut in Leipzig, and then go on to study chemistry on a scholarship. Both decisions – to study chemistry and to go to East Germany – were abrupt and unusual. Just a month earlier I had other plans. But life would be so much duller if it always followed a well laid plan.
The last leg of the voyage was a long train journey from Berlin to Leipzig. A Bangladeshi student, who had come to study the previous year, came to accompany me. We took a train and rode on for many more hours. Bleary eyed, I watched the landscape pass by the window – a cloudy countryside interrupted by gray small towns; occasionally stopping at a somber train station.
Finally, we reached Leipzig. The senior student dropped me off at the dormitory of Herder Institut. Then he left for Halle, the neighboring city where he attended college. The long journey and the jet lag had taken a toll. I was happy to finally settle down and rest. Then I saw the ominous sign.
It was a handwritten sign on the door of the dorm’s bathroom. It showed a running showerhead, accompanied by the word “Bad”. Obviously, something was amiss. The semester hadn’t started yet, and few students were around. Besides, they wouldn’t have spoken English, and I spoke neither German nor Russian (their obligatory foreign language).
Fortunately, I spotted another dorm across the cobblestoned street. I collected my towels and cosmetics, walked across the street and used that facility. This became my awkward routine for the next few days. Every day I thanked God that winter had not arrived yet; all the while wondering when anybody was going to take care of things.
On the third day, the senior Bangladeshi student returned. He solved the problem with just three sentences. First, Bad means bath in German. Second, Bad's grammatical gender is neuter and therefore its definite article is das. And the final one was a stern advice never to learn a German noun without knowing its gender. Then and there, and even before my language course had begun, I tripled my German vocabulary. Until then, the single German word I knew was Achtung. That was thanks to dog-eared, WWII comic books I used to buy at Sakura Market. Does it still exist, across from Hotel Intercontinental?
Soon afterwards, my German class began at Herder Institut. With that began one of the most delightful experiences in my life. I learned the language in complete immersion. Not a single explanation was ever given in any language other than German. More than four decades later, I still remember the first two German sentences we had learned on the very first day" "Ich bin Frau Lehmann. Ich bin ihre Lehrerin". I vividly see the teacher standing in front of the
First winter in Germany
Fichtelberg, Thuringia in the former East Germany (December 1975)
blackboard, with those two sentences on it. She repeated them over and over, while gesticulating to herself, until we all understood that she is Mrs. Lehmann and she is our teacher. From that point on, it was pure bliss!
had found myself in an opaque world – immersed in a language I did not understand and surrounded by a culture I did not know. With every new word I learned and every idiom I understood, bit by bit, little pieces of a veil continued to disappear. As I walked around in the city, I deciphered another signpost each day. As I looked out while riding a tram, I understood another nugget from a billboard on Hotel Astoria next to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. Sometimes, it was part of a political slogan that I tried to decode. With every improvement in my comprehension, I could catch more bits and pieces of conversations of fellow commuters speaking in their colloquial tongue. The experience was like moving gradually from deafness to hearing, from incomprehension to comprehension, and ultimately from darkness to light. It was simply beautiful – or as I said, pure bliss!
I do not know anyone who was cured of blindness. But that is the closest analogy I can come up with. How I wish I could repeat this experience. But globalization and the Internet have made it difficult to find such secluded and opaque environments. And I have become even more comfortable.
Latest winter in USA
Yellowstone National Park, WY (March 2020)
That was two score and five years ago. Much water has flown down the Ganges since - I am tempted to say – ignoring Strunk and White’s advice not to strain the readers’ power of mental math or to overuse figures of speech. By now I have been living in Minnesota for almost three decades. Count to that another 17 meandering years through Europe. I have studied, worked and lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Along the way, I have experienced new cultures, lived life under different rules, and broadened my perspective.
Now after the fact, it would be disingenuous to pretend that everything was deliberate. It was not. On the other hand, the line between free will and destiny is hazier than one would like to believe. But there is one thing I am sure of. My life’s path along the scenic route has enriched me in ways that no money can buy. I would not trade them for anything.
As I was making those important life’s choices, I didn’t know about Robert Frost, let alone his poem. Today, all I can say is – how true he was, and how blessed I am!
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY (or is it?) February, 2019
My grandfather told me that honesty is not the best policy, and I could not disagree with him. Ever since, my life has not been the same again ….
Relax, he did not lead me astray – neither was he known to be dishonest. In fact, he was a distinguished educator. He was a longtime principal of Dhaka College - one of the premier educational institutes of East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). A generation ago, it was difficult to meet a successful professional or administrator in the country who did not revere him as a teacher. His former students would lovingly remember his popular and entertaining classes. At the same time, they would recall stories of his strict and principled administrative style.
Unfortunately, I did not know him very closely. That was partly because I was just one of his 22 grandkids (which later grew to 29). It did not help that I was a child of one of his eight daughters, rather than of one of his three sons. Yes, such small distinctions do matter in the in the South Asian culture. It certainly did back then. But it was also because I had left home early, attending a distant, residential school, from which I came home only twice a year. And right after graduating from high school, I had left Bangladesh – never to see him again.
As a young man he was, as I have it from my mother, a dandy, and a brilliant scholar. He was awarded a gold medal for graduating at the top in entire Bengal. That was during the British rule of India.
For me, and for most of my cousins, a frequent reason for interacting with him was to play cards. That was one of his passions. Whenever he missed his card playing friends, he would commission whichever of his numerous grandkids happened to be present to play cards with him. In return, he would entertain us - sometimes by reciting long Shakespeare verses or English poems or historical speeches from memory, sometimes by explaining English idioms, and sometimes by analyzing plots of romance and chivalry in famous literature pieces.
On one such occasion he challenged the notion that honesty is the best policy. His contention was that policy (as opposed to principle) is subject to expediency and as such negotiable. In other words, the idiom does not mean what most people think it does. I found his argument convincing and agreed with him. Then I forgot all about the conversation.
Fast forward more than four decades. It is a crispy, sunny Minnesota autumn morning, and I am raking the yard. On such occasions, when I am engaged in a routine, mindless and physical activity, my mind wanders. I can easily trace the origin of a few of my patent ideas to exactly such a state of mind. Other times, it wonders elsewhere
But joke aside, during that lawn raking, it occurred to me that I have acquired the habit of taking conventional wisdoms and putting them on their head in order to scrutinize their validity. This is the habit of a contrarian - that of asking, “why not” instead of “why”. This has benefitted me not only professionally, e.g. by helping me come up with unobvious solutions to problems, but also in my day to day life. Because when thus scrutinized, many conventional wisdoms fail to hold up to what they seem to imply at first glance. This is a great tool for cutting through the spin, manipulation and propaganda that has become so pervasive in the world we live in.
Then came the aha moment. Suddenly I remembered that short conversation with my grandfather held more than four decades ago. A conversation held between two hands of cards. He had taken a conventional wisdom and challenged its validity. I wonder what influence that short conversation had on my way of thinking throughout the years and unbeknownst to me. It is one of my life's regrets not to have had the opportunity to get to know him better....
BAD WATER IN GERMANY (or how I tripled my German vocabulary) December, 2018
The water was bad, but there was nobody around to explain why and how. Reluctantly, I had to stop using it. It took three days to fix the problem. By that time, I had tripled my German vocabulary. Let me start from the beginning because I don't think I am making much sense.
It was many years ago. Bangladesh had barely emerged from a bloody war of independence, and I had freshly graduated from high school. The times were uncertain. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the President and the Father of the Nation, had been assassinated in a military coup, together with most of his immediate family. Just a month later, I had boarded an Interflug turboprop machine in Dhaka, Bangladesh, heading for Berlin.
It was my first flight ever, and my first journey abroad. I was traveling to a country where I did not know anyone. This was unusual because I have never been adventurous. I am still a homebody. But I was well prepared. My mother had packed my clothing in a small suitcase, and I had US$50 in my pocket as emergency fund. I also knew the most important German word: Achtung. That came from reading WWII comics. But joke aside, and looking back, I recall neither apprehension nor fear. The youth, lacking life’s experience, must rely on ignorance. Sometimes that works.
I had boarded the plane on a sunny September afternoon. Earlier, the extended family had gathered at Dhaka’s Tejgaon international airport to see me off. The fanfare, and the novelty of my experience, had made me unaware of my mother’s grief. I do not know if that was a blessing or a curse.
The memories of the flight are hazy. I do remember the breathtaking view of the Hindukush Mountains as we flew northwest. Later, we had a brief stopover in Tashkent. As the plane refueled, we waited in a lounge, eating as much grapes as we wanted to. This was my first culture shock. Until then, eating grapes generally went with being sick. This is because grapes do not grow in Bangladesh. The imported, usually not so fresh but expensive grapes, like most non-indigenous and costly things, were thought to be especially good for you. Never mind that Bangladesh is a tropical country, where an amazing variety of delicious fruits grow. Things are different today. Thanks to globalization, grapes are not a specialty anymore.
Next stop Moscow. We arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport at midnight to change plane. There I had my next culture shock – fortunately also a mild one. As I waited in the quiet and deserted transit hall, my attention was suddenly drawn to chatting and laughter. A group of cleaners, all middle-aged women, had come to clean the area. It may sound trivial, but I was not prepared for their corpulence. Bangladeshi women are small statured. Especially those, who do menial work, tend to be rather scrawny. Clearly, different rules apply here. This was a harbinger of things to come.
Before long, we were on our way to Berlin – Berlin Schönefeld, to be exact. By that time, everything was a blur. I vaguely remember having landed in Berlin at the crack of dawn. Someone from Herder Institut took care of the formalities. Herder Institut was the place where I was going to learn German, and then go on to study chemistry on a scholarship. Both decisions – to study chemistry and go to East Germany (or to Germany for that matter) – were unexpected and unusual. But that is a whole different story altogether.
The last leg of the expedition was a train journey from Berlin to Leipzig. That’s where Herder Institut was located. Fortunately, they had arranged for a senior Bangladeshi student, who had come to study the previous year, to accompany me. By that time, it had dawned, and I must had been observing the country through the train window. Amazingly, I have no recollection of what I had seen.
Once we reached Leipzig, the student dropped me off at the Herder Institut dormitory, and left for the neighboring town where he lived. The long journey and the jet lag had taken a toll, and I was totally exhausted. I was finally happy to settle down and rest. Then I saw the ominous sign.
- - See Newer Version here - -
It was the sign on the dorm’s bathroom door, showing a running showerhead, accompanied by the word “Bad” underneath it. Obviously, something was wrong with the water and should not be used. I couldn’t ask anyone because the semester hadn’t started yet, and few students were around. More importantly, their preferred foreign language was Russian. They didn’t speak English, and I spoke neither German nor Russian.
In my distress, I looked around and found another dorm across the street. I collected my towels and cosmetics, walked across the street and used that facility. This became my awkward and inconvenient practice for the next few days. All the while, I kept on wondering when anybody was going to fix the problem.
On the third day, the senior Bangladeshi student stopped by to find out how I was doing. I owe him my second and third German words: das Bad = the bathroom. That’s how I had tripled my German vocabulary in three days even before the language course had started.
OF SCIENCES AND ARTS November, 2018
I think everyone will agrees that sciences and arts are different. Where we may disagree is how they are different. But let’s start with the easy part. It is pretty obvious that people who do (hard) sciences and who do arts are quite different.
A typical scientist is an “aging white male with crooked teeth and messy hair; wearing a lab coat and goggles, and preferably holding an effervescent test tube.” To be honest, this is what you’ll find in Wikipedia under “mad scientist”. But who reads the fine prints anyway? We also know that scientists are nerdy and socially awkward. For them, it is a great improvement in social skills if they can bring themselves to stare at the other person’s shoes rather than at their own, when having a conversation. Fortunately, they prefer to stay in their labs and leave us in peace.
Artists, in contrast, are open-minded, expressive and flamboyant. They love to congregate with others in bistros or cafés, unless they are working on an artistic endeavor in some artists’ enclave. The more fortunate among them hobnob with the society’s culturally high-minded Who’s Who, and are celebrated by philanthropists. And the less fortunate ones, possibly even the starving ones, exude a romantic aura about them. How can their outputs not be very very different?
And to continue this line of thought …. artists have beautiful visions, and get elated by uplifting emotions - out of which they produce works of art using words, melodies, colors, sculptables, or some other media. These works of art are their way of sharing their vision and emotions with us. How creative!
How about scientists? Let’s take Einstein and Max Planck, two scientists who have developed theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, respectively. They each had a vision about how certain things in the nature work. Out of this vision, and with the help of logic, mathematics, etc., they have crafted a model - something that did not exist before, and which expresses their vision to everyone else. The simplicity and the elegance of their models that capture the complexity of nature is nothing short of beauty. There you have it – vision, imagination, creativity, beauty - all right there.
But is it artistic? Albert Einstein thought so: “New ideas are not generated by deduction, but by artistically creative imagination.” Yes, artistically creative imagination! And then there is the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé, who had solved the mystery of benzene’s chemical structure after dreaming of Ouroboros – the snake consuming its own tail. How imaginative, how creative and how beautiful!
Ouroboros and benzene
No, that line of thought will not lead anywhere. The differences between sciences and arts cannot be measured by degrees of creativity and imaginative power. Both qualities are needed both in sciences and arts. Neither can they be differentiated by the scale of beauty created. Rather, the answer lies in the answer. This is not a typo – the answer lies indeed in the answer. Let me explain.
A fundamental difference between what scientists and artists do lies in the nature of the answer they seek. Scientists strive to find the simplest common answer, for example, to explain something that has caught their imagination. And the giants among them go even one step further and try to find an answer that transcends many phenomena – even attempting to find the one answer that explains everything.
In contrast, artists want to, and thrive from getting answers that are as different as possible from those of other artists.
Imagine a scientist enjoying a crimson red sky at sunset. At some point, his scientific mind will most likely try to figure out how and why the sky, the cloud and the sun appear so spectacular right now. He will try to find an answer that will not only explain this exact scene, but many similar scenarios at different times, locations, etc. Equally importantly, the success of his answer will be measured by how many other scientists agree with the answer.
Now imagine an artist in the same place. The artist’s response may be to capture the beauty as a painting, or may be in a photograph he takes, or by composing a poem, or in some other way. But for sure, his output – his answer, will be as personal and as different as possible from that of any other artist.
That’s where the real difference between sciences and arts lies. For sciences, the pinnacle of success is the single answer; as for arts it is the death knell.
If you are surprised to see science and simple being used in the same sentence, then remember what Einstein is supposed to have said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. But then, the least cited Einstein quote is “I never said half the crap that are attributed to me”.
BTW, if you ever thought that a scientist could not be as funny, as entertaining, as witty and as charming as anybody else, then you need to read this book about Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
READING ENGLISH WITH CHANACHUR September, 2018
Bangladesh was still East Pakistan, and I was just a 6th grader. I recall playing endlessly with neighborhood kids on the then sprawling compounds of DIT quarters in Malibagh in Dhaka. And I recall being a bookworm - reading anything that came in my hands. I had unlimited freedom within a cage. Life was good.
But all good things must come to an end. One day, my parents decided that I needed to go to Momenshahi Cadet College - a prestigious, all-boys boarding school with strict disciplines, located outside the capital city of Dhaka.
That was a surprise. At least in my family, Cadet Colleges were thought to be educational correctional facilities for the bright but unruly boys. Many years ago, my maternal grandparents had sent their youngest to Faujdarhat Cadet College near the port city of Chittagong. But as soon as they had left my uncle there, he had bribed the guards to sneak out. He found his way back home in Chittagong - never to return. That experiment was an abject failure. But he was a rebel and I was an “exceptionally good boy” - back then, and for a long stretch afterwards. Of course, my parents knew the difference between the uncle and the nephew. What they wanted was to sacrifice my present happiness in pursuit of happiness and success in a distant and elusive future.
Cadet Colleges were selective and had rigorous entrance exams. I was not too worried though, because I was a reasonably good student. Except for one matter. Cadet Colleges taught in English, and I went to Government Laboratory High School - a Bengali medium school.
Don’t get me wrong; we had English too. But what we learned was pretty basic. I remember showing up for the final English exam wondering why a colorful umbrella was dangling from a door. Later I found out that the tough part of the exam was not to call it “a” umbrella.
The entrance exams came in due course, I took them, and I did well. Most importantly, to my parents’ relief, I was accepted to attend the school. Interestingly, we found out later, that I had done surprisingly well in English. But how? By visiting my grandparents just a few days before the tests.
My maternal grandfather was the principal of Dhaka College, and the grandparents lived in the principal’s quarters within the campus. Back then it was safe to do so. (Dhaka College was one of the premier educational institutions of the country, and my grandfather was its longtime and almost legendary principal. Back then it was rare to meet a successful academician, civil servant or professional who was not his student and did not revere him. Business as a reputable career came much later. I might write more about my grandfather someday).
Anyway, my grandparents’ home functioned also as the watering hole for the entire clan. On any day of the week, in any week of the month, and in any month of the year, you’d be guaranteed to find clan members there – close or distant, from Dhaka, Bhairab, Chittagong or elsewhere. We visited my grandparents frequently. My mother could meet any number of her eleven siblings and their families, and forget us children for a few hours. And we children could bond with whichever cousins happened to be there.
On that particular visit, sometime in the afternoon, one of the adults had sent a servant to buy snacks for all of us. He went out to the sprawling street food bazaar, right outside the college gates on Mirpur Road, and brought back chanachur (a snack consisting a variable mixture of spicy dried ingredients). As we ate our snack, it did not escape my eyes that the snack was packaged in book pages. Being the bookworm I was, I started reading. Those were pages from an English book that had something to do with slow lorises and sloths. Intrigued, I waited until everyone was done and collected the pages. I retreated to the empty drawing room, found a quiet corner and lay down on the floor and started reading the difficult text. I read and reread, until it made sense.
Imagine my surprise, when just a few days later, I found the same text in the English entrance exam. The task was to read it and answer multiple questions. That would have been a big challenge for me. But this time I aced it. Good for me, you say? Not if you were in my shoes.
Main building of Momenshahi Cadet College (MCC, now Mirzapur Cadet College) in 1968
As the batch of the 50 incoming 7th graders started at Momenshahi Cadet College, we were split up in two parallel sections of 25 each – one for those coming from a Bengali medium school and the other for English. There was one exception – I was put in the latter one, thanks to my score in English.
Things were fine on the first day, until the English period began. A lanky, stern looking Englishman walked in. He was Mr. Simpson - our English teacher. Until that day I had never interacted with a native English speaker, let alone be taught by one. As Mr. Simpson spoke, I listened. I am sure he spoke proper English, but I hardly understood him. I did understand though, that this was not going to be umbrella stuff. My instinct told me to avoid attracting undue attention. Luckily, I succeeded. At the end of the period, Mr. Simpson gave a dictation. Then he collected the papers and left. I heaved a deep sigh of relief.
The next day was different. Mr. Simpson returned with the corrected papers. He had a unique way of grading. Every paper started with a balance of 20, but one point was subtracted for each spelling mistake. You see the problem? Any risk expert will tell you that this is a classic “convex” (or frowny face) risk situation – the kind you must avoid in life. You have a limited upside but an abyss of downside. (Hint: what you want is a “concave” or a “smiley face” risk)
To this day, I promise that I had written down what I had heard Mr. Simpson dictate. But obviously that was not what he had said. I don’t remember my score, except that it was in the rarified negative territory. I am convinced that my psyche had automatically switched to survival mode and erased the number. Thus, a childhood trauma was prevented that might have derailed my pursuit of happiness and success in a yet distant and elusive future. On the other hand there is something to Nietzsche's saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you only stronger.
Classrooms and a group of 7th graders. Pictures taken in 1968
As I pen these last few lines, it is late summer in Minnesota. I sit in our gazebo, looking out to the pond in the backyard. A mother duck swims - trailed by a train of cute little ducklings. At the other corner of the pond, perches a snow-white egret, motionlessly waiting to pounce on the next fish. We had stocked the pond with small fish two years ago and they have multiplied. The pond has always been full of tiny turtles and frogs. No wonder, so many uninvited guests stop by, including river otters. Christine has transformed the backyard to a native plant habitat, all the way to the pond. Does find this place inviting and come with their fawns – sometimes leaving them alone for hours under the willow tree right at the edge of the pond.
My mind wonders and thinks of winter, which is only a few months away. Minnesota winters are hard. The pond will freeze over and will be covered with fluffy white snow. I like winter and I’ll look forward to it. And in the morning, there will be tracks on the fresh snow going across the frozen pond – some familiar, some not. I’ll wonder, who might have came along last night?
I wake up from my present-day dream. It has been a long and interesting journey. Where and how did it all start? One hunch is as good as any other. I close my eyes and dream again, longing to relive that distant afternoon. I see the 6th grader me, lying belly down on the floor of my grandparents’ drawing room – reading English after having eaten chanachur.