Life in the forties

“All three are hip-deep in midlife, when the eyes go and the waistline spreads and the city on the hill that shone so brightly in youth turns out to be more like a semi-incorporated town in the middle of a garbage strike. An age when a person can feel not so much himself as an inexplicably inferior version of himself.”

I sometimes get startled that I’m firmly in my mid forties now, a fact that is both humbling and mind numbing at the same time. I’m no longer young and I am not exactly a senior yet which puts me in the middle of nowhere zone.

My student years in the nineties seem so far away already and the green horn years of the new millennium have also started to recede into my personal history. There was a time when the nineties were considered the new age – people from my generation can relate to phrases like “star of the nineties” or the “beckoning of the 21st century”. Well, all that already has a layer of the sands of time over it.

Forties are infamous for the proverbial “midlife crisis” – a sobering decline into reality from the heady optimism of youth. On the positive side, I find that I can understand and weigh things a lot better – probably my thinking tempered by real life experiences. And yet, I’m fully aware that the older you grow, the more things you have to leave behind, its a circle of life.

I’ve been chained to a cubicle for over 20 years now. Well, its no longer even a cubicle.That has been replaced by what is commonly referred to as open plan seating. The MBAs have created a fancy term for this called “high performance workspaces” – something which fosters teamwork and collaboration. This deserves a post in itself so I would limit my rants on it for the time being.

Like many people of my generation in India, I was part of the herd – having to chose between Engineering and Medical. Anything outside of these was considered risky and frivolous. I always loved the sciences but also enjoyed the languages and particularly history.

Anyhow I underwent the raging fires of competitive examinations in India and got a bachelors in Electrical Engineering. This was followed by the typical foray into the burgeoning IT industry where the jobs were. Today there’s a lot of emphasis on loving what you do or choosing a career where you have “passion’.

I always looked at my job as something that gave me enough resources to enjoy the good things in life and I’m grateful for that. Though I don’t really spend my free time thinking about work or all the related political circus one has to perform to survive. I spend most of my time outside work reading and writing.

At this stage of my life, the responsibilities are also at their peak. Like everyone else we are resigned to the mortgage, children’s education and other myriad responsibilities. No one told us of all these things when we were young and thought adults were the ones bossing around kids and having the most fun!

Years ago I watched a movie “About Schmidt” where Jack Nicholson plays the protagonist. He’s old and about to retire having spent most of his working life in an insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. Its a favorite of mine with several heartbreaking scenes blended with dark humor.

Incidentally, I too spent a couple of years in Omaha but that is besides the point. There was one quote in the movie which went – “I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?”

It seems scary that I was supposed to feel like this nearing my retirement but I’m already having these thoughts in my forties!. The desire to break the mould and do something I love like writing is strong and hence this blog as a minuscule attempt towards breaking the general monotony of daily life.

I know these feelings are universal and unrelated to where you live or what you do though responses and solutions out of this rut of midlife can be different and creative. Obviously there are no quick fixes as anything worthwhile needs hard work and time to grow. It’s foolhardy and suicidal to just start afresh without any planning or direction.

I would love to hear thoughts from anyone reading this on how to make life more meaningful and worth living while trying to balance everything else life has thrown at you by this age.

 

 

 

Cricket – The National Obsession

Cricket is a most precarious profession; it is called a team game but, in fact, no one is so lonely as a batsman facing a bowler supported by ten fieldsmen and observed by two umpires to ensure that his error does not go unpunished”     

India is cricket crazy and justifiably so. Nothing unites us like this sport – from youngsters to middle aged professionals to senior citizens, everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the national team’s performance.

My earliest memories of watching the game go way back to 1984 to the test match against England when a young lanky Azhar made his test debut. He scored a century and followed it up with two more successive hundreds in the next two tests, a record that still stands.

I do not remember the India’s improbable triumph at the 83 Prudential World Cup as I started following cricket a year or so after that. The early eighties were a different world with TV still a few years away. Radio commentary would be how most fans followed the game in those years.

The game itself was nothing like the modern version it has evolved into. It was played in all whites including the one dayers which had already become hugely popular. The pace was lethargic compared to today and there used to be a ‘rest day’ in test matches.

The cricketers were revered even in those days and in the absence of a 24×7 media and internet the appeal was probably even more. There was no big money involved though I guess test cricketers in India were well paid and were often sponsored by the big public sector firms where they also held honorary positions.

The first few matches I saw on TV were from the 1985 Benson& Hedges world championship of cricket in Australia. It was also the first time when the teams played in colored clothing and with a white ball. The channel 9 coverage was outstanding and backed by a legendary commentary team of Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry and others it made the viewing riveting.

From then on I would wait eagerly for the games which were played in Australia though the time zone difference meant that you had to get up very early in the morning to catch the games but it was well worth it. I have nostalgic memories of watching cricket early in winter mornings wrapped in a warm blanket!

The big names of that era – Gavaskar, Kapil, Amarnath, Botham, Hadlee, Imran, Viv Richards were all house hold names and larger than life figures. I remember watching the test match where Gavaskar completed 10,000 test runs. It was the cricket equivalent of being the first man on the Everest.

By the time the 1987 Reliance World Cup came around, TV coverage had picked up in India and the expectations were huge as the tournament was being held in the subcontinent. India advanced expectedly in the opening games and there were a few stand out moments – Chetan Sharma took the first hat trick in a World Cup and Gavaskar scored his only ODI century – a totally uncharacteristic  fast paced innings against the Kiwis at Nagpur. The build up to the semi final was charged but then it was a heart breaking moment for all of us when Mike Gatting caught Kapil in the deep dashing India’s hopes.

Sharjah with its high voltage India Pakistan games created a fervor of its own. Two matches stand out during that era – the infamous last ball six which remained in the national psyche for years and the other more pleasant memory of bundling Pak out for 82 when they were chasing a paltry 125 to win!

Of course later the games were one sided and ultimately abandoned as suspicions of match fixing grew. The 90s were a miserable time to be a cricket fan in India. It was mostly Sachin Vs the opposition and it continued on till the Ganguly,Dravid,Laxman and later Sehwag came on to the scene.

The early 2000s were a time of transition and the 2001 historic win at the Eden Gardens against the all conquering Aussies finally reversed the tide in India’s favor. Though World Cup still proved elusive, India almost made it in 2003 before it all unravelled in the finals against Australia.

The advent of IPL in 2008 has completely turned around the way the game is watched today, its become a money spinning American sport like NBA or NFL. Though personally I find IPL too repetitive. There are just too many matches and its difficult to keep track of which players are on which team as they keep moving around each year.

I still enjoy the India games more, the emotions invested with the national team are a lot more. It was finally in 2011 that we won the World Cup again after a long wait of 28 years. The final was nerve wracking specially after both Sachin and Sehwag fell cheaply. However Gautam Gambhir followed by MS Dhoni carried the day leading the team to a memorable win.

The first time I watched a match live at the ground was a test match against Australia in Bangalore in 2004-05. I was giddy with excitement as I entered the ground and took my seat. It was nothing like you watch on TV, the entire experience felt surreal. Mcgrath came charging in and bowled and the ball went like a bullet. And I thought he was only medium pace, I remember that Gilchrist was standing way back!

I watched another test match in Bangalore this time against the visiting Pakistan team and it was an amazing experience too. Unfortunately we ended up losing both the games I watched from the ground.

I prefer to watch from the comforts of home listening to what the experts have to opine.The generation I grew up watching in the eighties have all long retired from the game and the stars from my own generation – Sachin, Dravid,Ganguly,Kumble,Sehwag have also retired in the last couple of years.

But that’s the circle of life, the game is bigger than the players and it stays still keeping the fans engrossed. Cricket has given me lots of memories and often certain games remind me of the time and place I was in my own life. In that sense the personal connect still endures.

 

Troubled Genius

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”
Aristotle

I love reading memoirs because they take me inside the life of someone in a different place and age. Last year I read “The man who knew infinity” by Robert Kanigel. It’s a biography of Srinivas Ramanujan – the mystical mathematical genius. Then earlier this year I read “A beautiful mind” by Sylvia Nasser – a biography of mathematician and Nobel laureate John Nash.

There have been famous movies made on both these books and though they only scratch at the surface, they did a decent job at popularizing two geniuses whose work is mostly abstract and difficult to comprehend for laymen.

Ramanujan’s story begins in a remote South Indian village where despite poverty he discovers surprising joy in mathematics. He scribbles equations in a slate suspended in some kind of a meditation. He has trouble with school authorities where there is no one to understand his precocious talents.

Often he skips the details and jumps straight to the answer and when asked how he got it, he is unable to write down the steps for the “proof”. He tries to explain that his answer is correct, he just knows it, in fact “it came to him”. South India of the mid 1900s was no place for such an eccentric genius.

The only person who believes in him is his doting mother. Ramanujan is discouraged, mocked and often ridiculed by the establishment because they have never seen someone like him. They are unable to comprehend his incredible talents. Eventually he sends his hastily written theorems to GH Hardy the famed English mathematician.

At first Hardy just throws the envelope aside not taking it seriously. The odds seem staggering – an unknown man from India with no degrees or credentials to his name writing to the pre-eminent mathematician of the age at Cambridge and claiming that these are all theorems he has discovered.

When Hardy finally starts pouring over Ramanujan’s work, he is simply astounded. Ramanujan in his characteristic style has offered no rigorous proofs but the symmetry and beauty of the work is unmistakable. Hardy later said he knew it was all true, the equations were of such spell binding beauty that no one could have just manufactured them. They had to be true!

Hardy begins a series of now famous correspondence with Ramanujan asking questions, looking for more material and it goes back and forth till he asks Ramanujan to join him in Cambridge. Despite the odds, Ramanujan makes the perilous journey across the seas and begins one of the most remarkable partnerships in the history of mathematics,

Hardy is vindicated as Ramanujan routinely turns in work of the highest caliber. He is even awarded a doctorate though his work surpasses all realms of degrees handed by institutions. This is when tragedy strikes, the English weather and poor diet has a terrible impact on Ramanujan’s health.

Deeply religious and having lived most of his life in tropical lands, he is unable to come to terms with the infamous English chill. The lack of vegetarian food, family and the depressing weather have a compounding effect on him. His few friends and Hardy try their best to get him treatment but nothing works.

By the time Ramanujan returns to India he is in extremely poor health and suffering from tuberculosis. Despite his rapidly falling health he continues to churn out brilliant work, scribbling equations and theorems to the end of his days. In a heartbreaking finale, Ramanujan passes away in his early thirties having accomplished what most gifted mathematicians would not even in multiple lifetimes.

Such is the legacy of his work that today there are “Ramanujan Scholars” who are still grappling with the enormous task of proving his theorems. Ramanujan’s life very much reads like a greek tragedy. Hardy had this to say in his famous ‘A mathematician’s apology’ – “I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

John Nash burst onto popular consciousness after “A beautiful mind” starring Russel Crowe was released in 2001 and received critical acclaim. Nash had been awarded the Nobel prize in 1994 for his seminal work in Game theory.

The movie was loosely based on Sylvia Nasser’s book by the same name. John grew up in West Virginia and displayed precocious mathematical ability. He had a rebellious anti establishment streak in him and was obsessed with originality.

By the time he was a student at MIT and later at Princeton, he had morphed into a kind of abrasive, arrogant personality with wild mood swings. By this time he had already established himself as a genius in the eyes of his professors and peers. Nash’s recommendation letter for Princeton simply read – “He’s a mathematical genius”.

However all wasn’t well within the confines of his turbulent mind. After he had done his now famous work on game theory which later found applications in economics and stock markets and led to the Nobel prize, he slowly receded into devastating mental illness. He was diagnosed to be suffering from Schizophrenia.

The character that viewers saw Russel Crowe playing in the movie was heavily romantized true to Hollywood conventions. The movie did succeed in showing his struggles against mental illness and then using his will to overpower them but it left so many details from his real life unexplored.

John Nash wasn’t an easy person to live with. He had an affair with a nurse named Eleanor with whom he had a love child. He was extremely mean to both of them and denied fatherhood. Later he married Alicia who was one of his students at Princeton.

Alicia stood by John even though she had divorced him briefly. However they later remarried and John after years of mental trauma was able to surmount schizophrenia. Towards his later life he reunited with his elder son and famously  became a Nobel laureate.

Compared to Ramanujan, his life came around and despite his struggles he eventually had a good life and family. As his character says in the memorable last scene in his Nobel acceptance speech – “~ I’ve made the most important discovery of my life. It’s only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found. I’m only here tonight because of you. You’re the only reason I am…you’re all my reasons.~”

History is replete with geniuses who had a very difficult life or for whom life was mercilessly cut short. Alan Turing probably one of the greatest minds ever and widely considered the father of modern computer science committed suicide by eating a cyanide laced apple. He was also young and in his thirties.

The unforgiving conservative world of the 1940s and 50s didn’t take kindly of his sexual deviations and he was put to trial and extremely vilified in what would be possibly considered as violation of every human right today.

I often wonder why the fate of such great geniuses who contributed so much in such short time was so brutal. They suffered so much either due to illness or by being castigated by powers that be.

But despite that, their exceptional genius glittered and mesmerized the world in the short time that they were here.

 

Quiet

“Introverts like being introverts. We are drawn to ideas, we are passionate observers, and for us, solitude is rich and generative”   

Some years ago I came across Susan Cain’s book “Quiet”. It talked about introversion in a very encouraging and insightful manner. Mostly introversion is looked down upon in the society. Right from childhood we are conditioned to believe that one needs to be outgoing and sociable to succeed in the world.

The way introverts were portrayed in schools, workplaces and even at home seemed like a character assassination to me. As a child I was reserved and loved books though I never had trouble making friends. I hated social occasions and crowds. As I grew up I discovered that I was very comfortable in small groups and could make good conversation with strangers.

But I knew I wasn’t someone who was the life of a party or who always wanted people around. On the contrary, I liked calm, meaningful discussions. So I knew I leaned more towards introversion on the social scale. It’s both impossible and futile to put labels around people to describe their unique and complex reactions to the world around them.

Introversion is often confused with shyness. I have no problems in starting a conversation around a table of strangers but I might not be the one to take the initiative always. I detest mundane small talk but can talk for hours on something that interests me. All of which are labelled as classic introvert traits.

In my mid forties I have started to understand myself a lot better. I have found that despite the social pressures to conform, being authentic to yourself is something I find most genuine and easy. I no longer go out of my way to be someone I’m not. Instead I find that I’m more at peace taking that solitary walk or reading a book.

In the corporate world, introverts suffer often. They are discouraged with banal comments like “low energy” , aloof or even arrogant at times. This despite the fact that they are excelling at their jobs and have the respect of their peers. I have never understood the compulsion to make everyone a “high energy” ,loud cheerleader.

Modern offices with their open area seating plans are a disaster for introverts. It feels like being in the middle of an endless din throughout the day. I like to take few walking breaks to keep myself sane. These workplaces touted for maximizing productivity often achieve quite the opposite result.

As unique beings all of us have certain quirks, idiosyncrasies and behaviors rooted in genetic and environmental causes. It’s impossible to club these myriad behaviors in a person and call them an introvert or an extrovert. But then that’s the way the world sees us.

I believe respect for individuality should be paramount. Live and let live.

 

 

 

Knowledge

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates

Like most people of my generation, I grew up confusing education with the relentless march of examinations and grades. As a student I was diligent and hard working not particularly bright. I had some bad academic years in middle school but eventually performed quite well in the examinations that ‘mattered’.

By the time I made it to College, I found that I had become numb to things like exams, tutorials, grades – the stuff of academic life. I always loved learning new things but the way they were presented in textbooks and  the unwavering drone of professors made me feel completely inadequate.

Despite my good grades, I never felt I truly understood something from the basic principles. Mostly all I remembered after years of schooling and four years of engineering education were disjoint facts and big names and even those I started to forget as I began my professional life.

For some reason this always bothered me, it made me look at myself as a fake and I wanted to do something about it. One of the books I fortunately chanced upon early were the Feynman Lectures in Physics. Of course I have only read parts of it but it opened up a new way of seeing things.

For the first time I figured out what does it mean to say something is true within a framework where we have to first assume that certain fundamental truths hold good.Feynman’s engaging style and his complete abhorrence for big words reignited the joy of learning for knowledge’s sake.

One of his childhood anecdotes where his friend asks him the name of a bird and when Feynman is unable to answer, his friend haughtily says ” Your father doesn’t teach you anything!”. Feynman goes on to say that his father taught him the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. Its not important to know the name of the bird as long as you know what it eats, what kind of nests it builds, where does it migrate from..

I have tried to apply this principle to my own learning and found that though it is extremely time consuming and hard work but it is hugely rewarding and the kick you get in truly knowing something is unparalleled.

To cite an example of how fragile the bookish knowledge can be, I was looking over quadratic equations in my son’s high school textbook, and right there on the first page was this big, terrifying formulae to derive the 2 roots of a quadratic equation. I had never thought about where this formula comes from, though like any other student I must have solved hundreds of these quadratic equations.

So I searched online for a real math textbook and to my pleasant surprise found the famed Hall & Knight algebra series still in circulation. I had used these books during my engineering entrance days. I decided to buy a bunch of these classics – Higher Algebra, School Geometry,  SL Loney’s Coordinate Geometry and Trigonometry. The Indian editions of these timeless books are priced cheaper than a cup of Cappuccino.

And so I eagerly flipped to the chapter on quadratics and found that before that chapter there was a whole chapter dedicated to the method of solving quadratic equations by completing squares and then they just extended this method and came up with the familiar quadratic roots formula. It was not only rythmic and logical but the understanding felt deep and permanent. In fact while researching this I chanced upon another beautiful proof that an equation of nth degree will have n roots.

This is certainly not the way I had learned in school. My school textbook just magically thew up this formula followed by several types of problems. No one told me to step back and think and understand why this formula worked.

Knowledge is not grades or passing of routine examinations though those are inevitable. It is something that we owe to ourselves. Quoting Feynman again “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”.