"Everything worth saying about life has long been said – but nobody has said them my way"
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.
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.