22 March 2008

Nearly everything

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything
Throughout the book, I kept thinking how much work Bryson must have put into this book…, the amount of reading, cross-referencing, travelling, etc., he must have subjected himself to. All to know the why and how of things. Amazing. His effort was worth each page he must have painfully ploughed through.

It starts with discussing the ‘Big Bang’, weaves its way through the many inventions and discoveries that have changed human life since, and then traces the origin of life, right up to us. Not that it answers every random question you ever thought of (my favourite, when I was a kid, was ‘Are there black flowers?’). And I don’t think it was ever meant to be.

It’s a book that should have been written long ago ideally when I was a kid. So I would read it and realise science has more to it than what my textbooks made it out to be. I didn’t hate science. I quite loved it. But when things started getting slightly complicated, say, by Class X, chemistry seemed intimidating, physics dull, and biology was full of complex diagrams I couldn’t, for the life of me, fathom. I remember my biology teacher saying that half the marks apportioned to diagrams were awarded to the drawing and half to the labeling. I always made sure I got the labeling right. I had to, else how would you know a heart from a large intestine?

Coming back to Bryson, there were some chapters, especially the ones that dwelt on the age of the earth, which did drag. Now, how would it make a difference if the earth is 9,000,000,000,000,000 million years old or if it is 9,000,000,000,000,001 million years old? I would still prefer my chicken curry hot.

I do appreciate his efforts in going behind the scenes and bringing to light very shy scientists, or sometimes even laypersons who were never credited for their insight just because they were laypersons.

The book does remind me of Shivram Karanth’s column for kids in Taranga. You could send in any question on science to Karanthajja and it would be answered in the column. I did send in my black flower question but never saw it answered :(

It also reminds me of similar attempts to popularize science by a Kannada author, whose name eludes me now. If anyone reading this can, then please let me know. He was the son of a famous poet is the other thing I can remember about him.

15 March 2008

Memories crowd my mind

A couple of months ago my cousins and I got together at my Dod Mava (eldest maternal uncle)'s house. It was such a rush of memory. We talked and talked of how:

we would sneak up to the 'bimblekai' (a very very sour berry which is green and oval-shaped) tree behind the house and grab handfuls of it. To make things better, salt would be stored in sacks in a sort of shed right beside the tree. So, there we sat in the afternoons, drooling, biting into bimblekai dipped in salt, squeezing up our faces because it was so sour, and thrilled because our teeth became sharp like daggers.

we just kept running. My grandfather's place is huge. There was one corridor through the middle of the house, both sides of which there would be rooms or halls (jagali). And then there was a parallel corridor on the other side of the house, which was used as a quasi-workplace and a quasi-dining hall during fesivals, etc. These two corridors were connected, of course, in the front and back. And whenever we got bored of all our games, we'd get this brilliant idea of running through the house along these corridors.

My brother, our two cousins and I... what a quartet! I was the youngest of the gang, and invariably, I would be the person to get caught by my grandfather. He sat on the wooden bench, a baanka as it is called. All he had to do was wait till I neared him and then put out his walking stick. He used the walking stick as a hook and pulled me backwards by the collar of my dress. He would release me after a pat on the head or a peck on the cheek, but it was agonising to see the others get ahead. Incidentally, this is the only memory I have of him. It is funny because I see my granpa and myself. Now, how can I see myself? Maybe my mind has built images of me as a kid from the pictures I have seen of a younger me.

We were always terrified a particular uncle who insisted that all of us sleep in the afternoon. How many mangoes remained uneaten and nooks in the areca estate unexplored because of these forced afternoon siestas. But things weren’t always bad. Many afternoons we got lucky: as soon as the uncle started snoring, we would slowly tiptoe across the upstairs hall and down the stairs. But here, too, I had problems. For one, the uncle was a light sleeper and the hall too big. And, I usually wore these horrible silver anklets, which wouldn’t come off that easily. So, you can imagine. One tinkle of the anklet and there booms Uncle, “You, get back here!” Everyone else would be ordered back, too. Their glares would then make me more miserable than the siesta.

But then, the human mind innovates: I’d bend down, hold each anklet up and make my getaway.

Hide-and-seek was the best game you could play in these old houses. Many corners of the house or even parts of the corridor would never be touched by sunlight, and we had enacted a law that you couldn’t put on the light. One had to feel his/her way through the cool darkness if one wished to catch someone there. The ‘hidee’ meanwhile had a merry time because he/she could see but not be seen.

I could go on... of how once my cousins and brother ganged up to give me sherbet spiked with tobacco, of our innovative kitchen at the ‘maala’ (open space where areca was dried) and even more innovative dishes (read imaginary or dished cooked with mud and stones) we served up, of our unsupervised dips in the river and mind-blowing hikes up random hillocks ... I really could go on. And this is just one part of the story, that is, these were our adventures at our maternal grandpa’s place. We had an equally great time at our paternal granpa’s place.

Hmm, silly nostalgic me.