Sunday, September 30, 2007

Beyond the Infinite

In A Mathematician's Apology GH Hardy said “The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.”

A mathematics professor of mine often echoed Hardy’s sentiments on returning scored examination sheets, "Your solutions must be beautiful, as should be the way you arrive at them."

Forget beautiful, my answers were barely fit for the circus freaks department. I struggled with mathematics throughout school and college, battling with imaginary numbers, arguing against the need for calculus and unable to predict when Ram and Shyam would meet should they decide to start running in opposite directions on a circular track from different points at varying speeds at the same time. No one could ever answer why they couldn’t agree upon a designated place at a predetermined time though.

So it was with some trepidation that I booked my ticket for A Disappearing Number, the latest offering from London based theatre company Complicite. Known for inventive productions with stories based on unusual subject matters Complicite’s latest offering takes as its starting point one of the most compelling collaborations of all time – that between prodigy Srinivasan Ramanujan, and the Cambridge mathematician G H Hardy who later called their involvement "the one romantic incident" of his life. Conceived and directed by the company’s Artistic Director Simon McBurney and with an original score by Nitin Sawhney the play is currently being staged at London's Barbican theatre.

Simon McBurney first came across Ramanujan’s story 11 years ago when writer Michael Ondaatje recommended Hardy’s memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology. “I read it and became very excited, because it wasn’t just about mathematics, but about the nature of the imagination,” McBurney told The Sunday Times “As I began to read more, I discovered that great mathematicians worked through an extraordinary sense of instinct and intuition and, above all, imagination – that mathematics was created, throughout history, by leaps of the imagination.”

A Disappearing Number began without preamble; there was no dimming of lights and no polite voice asking the audience to switch off cell phones. Instead a woman came breathlessly striding across the stage and began to write number series on a large blackboard. 1 4 9 16 25 … 1 2 3 5 7 11 … 1 2 4 6 8 … She proceeded to fill the board up with more numbers and formulae, some familiar from my wasted years as a student of mathematics. The squigglier the figures got the more my heart fell. Was the entire play going to be epsilons, integrals, sines and cosines? Similar thoughts were no doubt filtering through the minds of other members of the audience as nervous laughs and coughs broke out. Thankfully, our fears were unfounded.

A middle-aged mathematician desperate to make a difference sets off to Madras in search of inspiration from her hero, Ramanujan. Accidentally locked in a lecture hall for the night, a man mourns the death of his lover, left only with a series of enigmatic digits – her telephone number. It is 1913 and GH Hardy seeks to comprehend a genius whose work is influenced not by rigid logic but by intuition and spirituality. Said genius, Ramanujan feverishly pursues some of the most complex mathematical patterns of all time, whilst yearning for vendakkai stranded in the midst of a cruel English winter. “I’m not interested, really, in this story as one particular, specific touching tale,” McBurney says, “but in a rather larger metaphorical application of what it implies, of how creativity consumes you – how it’s an extraordinarily human activity, this absolute compulsion to understand, but at the same time this compulsion to understand can have tragic consequences.”

Elements of new media, classical dance, graphic art, live and recorded audio swirl about the simply designed sets. A revolving screen acts as a time machine of sorts, taking us from the present to the recent and distant past. There are moments when different stories play out together simultaneously, voices and lives overlapping. It’s an unsettling experience at first, but one soon gets used to the story’s arrhythmic rhythm.

It’s easy to see why Ramanujan’s life makes for such compelling storytelling. This is a mathematical genius who fails his exams and lost a college scholarship. Here is a man whose pursuit of numbers dictated that he embrace logic and yet chose the divine: claiming to take advice from the family deity Namagiri. It is a story of a humble Port Trust Authority clerk from Kumbakkonam who finds himself in upper crust predominantly white (and racist) Cambridge. It is about a devout Hindu Brahmin and an atheist Englishman setting aside their differences cultural and spiritual, for their common love of numbers.

Almost a century after Ramanujan set sail to England at the invitation of a fascinated GH Hardy, the story of their collaboration still enthralls. Last year, David Freeman’s off Broadway play A First Class Man received critical acclaim. The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt a fictionalized account of the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan was published this year. Two films are in development: one based on Robert Kanigel's 1991 biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity; the second an Anglo-Indian venture, to be co-directed by Dev Benegal (English, August and Split Wide Open) and former Cambridge student, actor and director Stephen Fry.

Soon after the play commenced, an actor appeared on stage to tell the audience "I am an actor playing Alex. And she is an actor playing Ruth. But the maths is real. It's terrifying, but real." McBurney has taken on a theatrical subject many would find daunting and fashioned from it a brooding meditation on love, longing and identity. If only my younger self had known that beauty in numbers does indeed exist.

(An edited version of this piece appeared here, today)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

night prowl

I'm feeling cold so there's a cheap Ikea throw wrapped around me, which I am desperately trying to also cover my feet with. The washing machine is shuddering away in the background as though it too is cold . Every now and then it starts violently, perhaps it knows I'm nodding off in front of the screen. I can hear some of our neighbours, the creaking of floorboards and shutting of doors. A baby cries somewhere in our apartment block. My stomach growls. 'I just fed you' I hiss. It continues to protest.

Thank God BBC Radio 3 didn't commission me to write about my city at 11:00pm. It would have involved lustful speculations about chocolate hob nobs and frequent moaning about the cold. I am an old lady trapped in a not so young body. Instead they got Tessa Hadley to write about Cardiff. Hat tip to Anand for putting me on to BBC Radio 3 Arts and Ideas podcast.

R3Arts_ The Essay_...

An old piece that wasn't published, and given that it is no longer topical, probably never will be. so, i choose to inflict it upon those who still read my blog. I hardly blog these days, so to those who still take the effort to come by, thank you.

Smooth alabaster skin, toned arms, pendant nestling seductively in the cleavage and a provocatively held fishing rod. Last week, the bar was raised for aspiring topless models everywhere when Vladimir Putin was photographed sans shirt while apparently fishing. I say apparently, because on showing the image to angling experts, I was told Mr. Putin was holding his rod incorrectly. This was no photograph taken by a cheeky paparazzo hiding behind bushes while the Russian Premier took much deserved time off from pondering over which oligarch to send to Siberia next. No, no. Mr. Putin seemed rather aware of the cameras, and I say this on studying his rather proud grin and the distinct way in which he thrusts forward his manly assets. Perhaps Playboy should consider him as their Ms. October?

While Mr. Putin was baring all in Russia, Heidi Klum and Britney Spears both appeared to have misplaced their shirts and bras in a campaign for Jordache Jeans and a spread for Allure magazine respectively. While Ms. Klum has just deposited baby number three with husband, singer Seal (known for regaling fans by balancing a ball on his head and clapping), no-hair-no-underwear Spears has two little boys with former husband K-Fed, whose name sounds like it should be painted across the side of a courier van. While Ms. Klum holds a riding whip in some of her pictures (didn’t you know, sporting equipment is the season’s must have accessory) Brit-brit seemed happy to keep her hands empty and crossed over her chest, making it all the easier to grab those chicken nuggets between shots. But the message was loud and clear in both sets of pictures – ‘Sure we’ve had kids but look how hot we are’. Klum annoyingly admitted to ‘eating everything and loving muffins’ and said that ‘running behind her kids keeps her healthy’. Great, the last thing we need is another crazy Hollywood diet. As if Atkins and the South Beach diet weren’t bad enough, men and women everywhere are now going to start gorging on muffins, procreating like rabbits and gasp, wear lederhosen.

The images have received mixed responses. While men stare gawping at Klum and spears apparently at a loss for words, women have been more verbal. New mothers complained especially, saying the images of Klum and Spears put pressure on them to lose weight, when all they really wanted to do was give their crying children Benadryl and see more pictures of bald Britney. ‘This is the last thing I need to see right now’ a new mother said ‘I just have to look at muffins and I put on an extra three pounds’. Ok the last line was from me, but I promise you these are feelings shared by millions of women everywhere. Women long for a simpler time, when motherhood meant trackpants with elasticised waist bands and muumuus covered in dried baby sick. This new Hollywood version of motherhood as propounded by the likes of Victoria Beckham and Liz Hurley is all about skin tight white jeans and pilates and is not doing the rest of us any favours.

Mr. Putin’s topless pictures seem to have garnered little or no opposition though. In fact, it has been greeted with much cheering from balding men of a certain age who can no longer hold back the overwhelming force of middle aged spread. Men everywhere have dropped their shirts and picked up a fishing rod. I saw one buying a pint of milk at the newsstand this morning. Mr. Putin, joins Tony Blair (hairy mobs - that’s man -boobs alert) and Antonio Berlusconi as the latest political pin up boy, though I doubt their pictures will be adorning female locker room walls any time soon.

Meanwhile, the South Block rumbles with rumours that Laloo Prasad Yadav has installed a state of the art gym, and is orchestrating a photo shoot clad only in a dhoti and milking his cows. A show of hands for who would like to see that one. Thought so.

Monday, September 24, 2007

To the idiots in the audience yesterday

Why were you there? Why did you buy tickets to this sublime evening of music if all you were going to do was sit to my left, before and behind me and talk. Not whisper the occasional comment in your friend's ear. But talk. Animatedly. With hands fluttering about, so that the dim lighting caught the dazzle of the diamonds fastened to your bracelet and the varnish painted on your nails. What you were talking about I do not know. And why you couldn't conduct your conversation some other place is anyone's guess. When the person seated between us put his finger to his lips like a kindergarten teacher you kept silent for all of 5 minutes before starting again. What part of 'Shh' do you not understand?

Lady behind us, what IS in that infernal bag of yours? Your brains? Do you have rattle about in it for half an hour?

And all of you coming in late. What is it about 'Concert begins at 4pm' that you do not understand. Sure, they started 15 minutes late. But to come in after an hour! And then to glare at people as you step on their feet enroute to your seat, doesn't that seem a bit much to you?

And you there, two rows down. Actually, you and your entire family. Have you come to the wrong place? Did you imagine you were going to see KANK, SHANK or some other preposterously long drivel. Is that why you've brought along a large bag of popcorn, a family sized pack of Kit Kats and bottles of cola that annoyingly go 'Fzzz' when you open them. You, young man, with your arm around the girl's shoulder. Must you nuzzle her neck forcing her to break out in to a not so quiet giggle. Do you have to try on your friend's glasses and then say in a stage whisper 'I can't see anything.' Yet you forget that the rest of us can hear everything.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

looking for a silver lining

I know technically it's not winter yet, heck I don't think we're even allowed to call current abysmal weather Autumn. We are in limbo weather wise. But still, there's that definite drop in temperature, the sun has taken a holiday and I might as well stop waxing my legs. There are only two things one can look forward to in winter. One, is the ability to eat as many packets of chocolate hob nobs as one likes, secure in the knowledge that all sins will be covered by layer upon layer of thermals, woolens, jackets and scarves. Which leads quite naturally to the other thing to look forward to... shopping for winter wear. That is the high light of November for me: searching for the perfect coat, boots, gloves, sweaters and scarf. In fact it's all I can think about at the moment. Along with chocolate hob nobs of course.

In the current Style Issue of the New Yorker, Patricia Marx writes about shopping for winter clothing in New York City. Here is an abstract, you'll have to buy the issue to read it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

the cold addles my brain

sink full of dishes
spider under my bed
socks split like brothers at a fair
but with no happy reunion in the end

the sirens call of hob nobs
late light and early dark
yellow stripes and pink polka dots
the spider's got my socks

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

is that me?

A new blog template means I open my blog page, don't recognise it, think I've come to someone else's blog and then retype my url.

Does that happen to people who have had their noses done? Or had new boobs put it? Do they catch their own reflection and think to themselves 'My, doesn't s/he look good' and walk on not realising it is themselves?

Decongested update

The short story I read here, is finally up on the Decongested website. (The biog was written a very very long time ago, when I actually did blog regularly!)

Monday, September 17, 2007


The cold nips at her exposed ankles. If only she could retract her feet in to her track bottoms the way her hands magically disappeared inside the sleeves of her worn sweater. Outside the sun shines, lulling her in to a false sense of summer. She has surrounded herself with bright, yellow things. Like talismans, she likes to think. Sunflowers. The glass bowl filled with Seville Oranges. Even her woefully inadequate flip flops. But she knows the mental solace they provide is fictional. When she was a child, she suddenly fell ill. She became thin, was depressed (though of course, that word was not used. It did not exist in her family's vocabulary)and was scared to go out. Her hair fell and her skin became yellow. The doctors prescribed vitamins and told her to eat walnuts. But nothing worked. Her mother finally took her to the Muslim at the corner of Mundakanniamman koil street. She remembers the wise bearded man and how he looked at her, studied her. His quiet cluck that summoned a woman shrouded in black from inside who placed a platter covered with a checkered cloth on the floor and disappeared. The man had slowly removed the cloth and studied her again before removing a large green chilly, which he circled around her head clockwise and anticlockwise, three times each way. He then snapped it in two and threw it in to a bowl of clear water . At his bidding she looked at the bowl and watched the water turn a bright yellow. The man then took out a small silver charm strung on a black thread and whispered at it before he tied it around her neck. She still remembers her fear, thinking her mother had married her off to the old man.
She was fine after that. Her hair no longer fell and she no longer feared the unknown black weight that had pressed down upon her. She wore the talisman till the black thread snapped of its own accord.
If only she had such a talisman now. Instead she tries to take her feet inside her track bottoms.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


She first noticed the creaking when they were watching television. It was on a Saturday. Mid morning. Reruns of that effete film director's coffee show. Or was it a chat show? She can't remember. His guest, an auburn maned starlet with long legs and a coquettish laugh was evading questions about her love life. They heard it right after another one of her annoying simpering giggles. creak creak creak. It went on for about five minutes and then stopped. And then started again. They had stared at each other, embarrassed. He then turned the volume up. They did not speak about it.

She heard it again the following Tuesday at 1:45 in the afternoon. She was eating lunch and watching Dr.Phil. A mother was sobbing while her fifteen year old daughter talked of sleeping with strangers in motel parking lots. creak creak creak. She stopped eating and looked up at the ceiling. Saturday morning was alright, but on a Tuesday in the middle of the afternoon? What were they, animals? What were they trying to prove?

She began to listen out for the creaking. She watched the television muted and with subtitles so she didn't miss anything. She wondered if someone was running a brothel out of their flat. When she met her neighbours at the mail box or near the communal dumpster she studied them discreetly, wondering who it could possibly be. The slightly older, fake blonde who shopped at Ann Summers? No, too obvious. The woman in complete purdah? Was she wearing Agent Provocateur garters underneath the metres of billowing black? Was it the teenage boy who she once saw buying Top heavy Mamas at the newsagent?

"We need to move out. The owner is selling up" he casually mentioned one evening over dinner.
"Move? But why?"
"I told you, he's selling the house."
"Can't we buy it?"
"What, this dump? You hate this flat"
"It's grown on me."
But the asking price was too high so they began to look at new flats, but there was always something wrong. Too small, too old, too ugly.

And then they saw it. Parquet flooring. A garden. Spacious. Light filled. The agent looked at them smugly, knowing he had found a winner. He looked at them grinning.
"Well, what do you think?"

He began to nod, enthusiastically, but she cut in
"I don't like it"
They looked at her as though she were mad.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It's too quiet for me"

Monday, September 10, 2007

in memory of...

Her feet ache. She wants to stop walking but he marches on ahead, oblivious to her whimpers and moans, pointing out things that mean nothing to her. He names the various ferns and shrubs that have taken over, smothering the ground with the fecund growth. She stops walking, standing in the middle of the path, wondering how long it will be before he notices that she is not with him. She sits on a worn wooden bench. She hates these days out. The annoyingly cheerful fresh air and smug blue skies. He is about twenty yards ahead now and he still has not noticed. She reads the inscription on the plaque.

Why on earth would anyone want a park bench in their memory? What purpose could it possibly serve? Buildings, a prominent square, a tree lined street, a museum wing - these were things to leave one's name on. But a park bench? A few insignificant planks of wood screwed together in the middle of a gnat infested park? Wouldn't it be better to leave behind nothing at all?

Stretching her feet out before her she rests her hand on the small developing bump and wonders what she will leave behind. She thinks about the three chapters of the novel she has been writing for a year. The debt that was silently growing like a cancer. This child. A mismatched collection of chinaware scavenged from charity shops.

She opens her bag and takes out a pair of tweezers. She scans the pathway quickly before inscribing her initials and the date into the soft wood of the park bench.
Just in case.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Does any one know of...

Blogs dedicated to Indian classical dance? If so, please leave links in the comments section or email me at

Also, if anyone is interested in writing about classical dance or knows someone who is, again please drop me a line! Or two!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

My first published (and paid for) piece of fiction

The Aldgate Fast has been published in Pulp's September Fiction offering.

Away from her

I rarely write about books or movies. But after watching Sarah Polley's directorial debut 'Away from her' starring Julie Christie I felt I had to.

Based on Alice Munro's short story 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain', Away from her tells the story of Fiona's (Julie Christies) descent in to Alzheimer's, and her decision to be admitted in to a facility before she becomes a burden on her husband. Fiona slowly develops an attachment to another patient and becomes estranged from Grant (Gordon Pinsent) who thinks she's punishing him for a former affair. Julie Christie is as gorgeous now, if not more so, than in Dr. Zhivago. The film is subtle, compelling and moving, do watch it if you can.

(Also, if you like short stories read Alice Munro's Runaway.)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

India Now

Long after the cheering crowds and pageantry have deserted parade routes across India and the tricolour has been brought down and folded away, London continues to commemorate 60 years of Indian Independence and celebrate all things desi with India Now. A three month long love affair with India, it's been is billed as 'the most comprehensive festival of culture from the subcontinent ever to be staged in the capital'.

The rest of my article on the India Now festival is here. Here are some pictures I took at The Trafalgar Square Festival.





And at the British Library


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