Daily Archives: January 12, 2015

Anita Ekberg, Trevi, Zeenat Aman and ‘Bheega badan’



On reading the news about Anita Ekberg’s demise yesterday at age 83, I naturally revisited some of her work, in particular the iconic Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain) scene in Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960). The allure of a stunningly beautiful woman, or for that matter any woman at all, frolicking under a waterfall is so universal because it is so primal. I was instantly reminded of a similar scene by the Indian master auteur* Sanjay Khan’s ‘Abdullah’ (1980) from a particularly peppy song’ ‘Bheega badan jalne laga’ composed by Rahul Dev Burman (‘My wet body is on fire’) featuring Zeenat Aman.

In terms of their sheer physical beauty Ekberg and Aman are favorably comparable except that the former looks a little less attainable because of her Nordic aloofness. In reality, she was not so unattainable as evident from her romance with Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Rod Taylor, Yul Brynner and Errol Flynn, as reported by The New York Times.

Other than a few fleeting moments of sameness between Fellini’s Trevi scene and Khan’s desert oasis scene, there is, of course, nothing in common between ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘Abdullah’. Nevertheless, I was tickled while comparing the character of Marcello Mastroianni being beseeched seductively by Ekberg and the brazen and creepy voyeurism led by Danny Denzongpa’s character focused on Aman’s obvious oomph.

Incidentally, Matroianni plays a journalist in the movie which made me wonder why I have never caught such breaks in my career. The nearest thing to a life form under a waterfall that I have encountered in my career was a buffalo lazing under a murky waterfall during one of my travels in India in the 1980s. The buffalo was chewing the cud with its mouth frothing. It was not a sight that could turn you on. I suppose you get the picture.

It is not my case that Khan copied the Trevi scene in ‘Abdullah’ but it is also not my case that he did not. The point is I have no idea. However, it is a good thing that he stretched out the wet frolic over an entire song where Zeenat Aman is letting us know that she is expecting. Also, in case it was lost on us that voyeurism under the circumstances was inevitable, Khan had Danny’s character along with his band of unwashed bandits act it out with as little finesse as possible.

In contrast, the Trevi scene was a bit too short. As it transpired much later, it was shot in Rome in February when the fountain water was very cold and Ekberg had to be lifted out of the pool because her legs had gone numb. I read that Mastroianni kept warm by downing a few pegs of vodka.

I recognize that this is not much of a tribute to Ekberg but I did not intend to make it one. This post was only about the two scenes two decades and some 5000 miles apart by two directors who were also as far apart. I speculated in my mind how Fellini might have handled ‘Abdullah’ and Khan ‘La Dolce Vita’ and immediately banished the thought.

Purely on a tangent, ‘La Dolce Vita’ is not the same as ‘Dolce and Gabbana’.

* If my sarcasm is lost on you, there is nothing I can do.


Schrodinger, Heisenberg, uncertainty and cat that is both dead and alive

Over the years I have written close to 2500 posts on this blog. There are many I like and there are some I particularly cherish. I republishing two of those. It is not a coincidence that both involve Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger and both have been set in fictional situations. The first one I wrote on July 7, 2013, concerns only Schrodinger in a play that I plan to finish some day. The second one, written on August 30, 2014, has both together in a fictional conversation.

August 30, 2014

Here is an imaginary phone conversation between Werner Heisenberg (WH) and Erwin Schrodinger (ES) that I have imagined to have taken place in the early 1930s, let’s say 1933. The situation is that the two great physicists were supposed to meet for coffee at a café in Berlin but Heisenberg has been delayed. So he telephones Schrodinger at the café.

A waiter tells Schrodinger that there is a call for him.

ES: Where are you? When are you reaching? I have been waiting for half an hour.

WH: I couldn’t tell you precisely where I am and when I might reach?

ES: I asked where you are and not where particles are.

WH: I am, like we all are, made up of particles. So if we cannot simultaneously tell a particle’s position and momentum with any precision, how am I going to tell you where I am and when I might reach?

ES (Sounding a bit exasperated): Werner, I don’t want to get into the whole physics of particles and position and momentum with you on phone.

WH: Why? Is it because you think I may not understand it? I am the whole physics of particles and position and momentum after all.

ES: That’s funny. So what’s taking you so long?

WH: Oh some problem at home but I thought I should call you to get started on what we planned to discuss while I reach.

ES: And you don’t know when you might reach because…

WH: I know my position. I am at home. But I don’t know about my momentum because it depends.

ES: Depends on what?

WH: It depends on so many variables, including whether there is a parade by those horrible Brown Shirts. We both know there is no predicting their position and momentum. Now that is one tough uncertainty that I oppose based on my principles.

They both laugh.

ES: Tell me anyway how this whole principle of your works. What are you saying really? It makes no sense to me. Are you saying that the act of observation affects a particle such that we cannot determine its position? Are you saying that our act of observation physically affects that particle?

WH: Erwin, Erwin, dear friend, you cannot be that simplistic. You know the so-called observer effect works at the quantum level. I don’t have to tell you that.

ES: Yes, yes but the whole Uncertainty Principle makes no sense to me. It is too clever for its own good.

WH: Says the man who locks up an imaginary cat inside an imaginary box with an imaginary vial of radioactive poison and then says the cat can be both dead and alive? Yeah, what’s with the cat? If it does not exist, why should it be dead or alive?

ES: So are you coming or not?

WH: Yes.

ES: Yes to coming or yes to not?

WH: Think of me as your cat. I may come or not because I may exist or not or both exist and not exist.

They both laugh again.

Note: I occasionally indulge in such non-sense. I wrote a piece about Schrodinger’s felinicide trial sometime ago. Read it here. (Below)

July 17, 2013

Today’s post has been inspired by a piece in The Independent of London about ultra-highbrow humor which my friend Harmony Siganporia alerted Facebook friends to. The piece is about humor among scientists often referred to as geek humor or nerd humor.

There are some blisteringly smart jokes that the piece’s writer Andrew Johnson compiles. Reading those one popped up instantly in my mind which went something like this:

A neighbor to Erwin Schrodinger: What do you feed your cat?

You have to be in the realm to get this “ultra-highbrow humor” because first you have to know who Schrodinger is and then the relevance of the feline reference and the whole thought experiment around an imaginary cat inside an imaginary box which is both dead and alive simultaneously in a mindfuck paradox.

So anyway, after I wrote that line, it occurred to me that there is potential here for a full play. The basic plot is that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger is being tried for killing his cat. The ultra-highbrow humor part is that there was no cat and since there was no cat, it was not killed. The cat was imaginary and so was his death, if it did happen. It was one of science’s greatest thought experiments.

Caution: What I have written here is entirely, 100 percent fiction. There was no such court case and no such trial just as there was no such cat.

Any resemblance to the dead or the living or the living dead or the dead living or the in between is incidental and/or deliberate and/or deliberately incidental and/or incidentally deliberate.

Part I

Time: 1935

Time: 9.30 a.m.

Venue: Bundesgerichtshof, the Federal Court of Justice, Berlin

Judge Volkard Strauss presiding. The judge is intently reading his notes.

Case # 24246, The Third Reich versus Erwin Schrodinger

Case history:

Erwin Schrodinger (ES) has been charged with culpable felinicide even though the police have not been able to determine whether the cat was dead or alive. What threw them off was the accused’s oblique suggestion that the cat could be both dead and alive. In his police statement, Schrodinger said the following:

“A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat mixed or smeared out in equal parts. It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a "blurred model" for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.”

Judge Strauss (JS) is questioning the first witness for the prosecution, Frau Frauke (FF), a next door neighbor of Schrodinger :

JS: Describe to me your encounter with Prof. Schrodinger on the morning of the police raid.

FF: We exchanged pleasantries but he seemed preoccupied. He always seemed preoccupied. I asked him about his cat.

JS: What about the cat?

FF: I was curious to know what he fed his cat because I never saw him feed it. I never saw the cat either.

JS: And what did he tell you?

FF: He said there was no cat to feed but if he had one he would choose hydrocyanic acid.

JS: (Taken aback): Hydrocyanic acid? Why?

FF: I couldn’t tell you that because he never told me why. He only said something about a radioactive substance and hammer smashing the flask inside a box.

JS: You seem familiar with scientific terms.

FF: I am a retired science teacher. I retired from teaching but not science.

JS (Smiling): Let me ask you a direct question. Do you think Prof. Schrodinger killed his cat?

FF: Well, I never saw the cat but that does not mean he did not kill it. It also does not mean that if he had one he killed it.

JS: Did you experience any foul smell emanating from his apartment?

FF:  I did and I confronted him about it.

JS:  What was his explanation?

FF:  He said it was the stench of a decaying genius.

JS:  And you believed him?

FF:  Not quite but there was a high probability that it was indeed the stench of a decaying genius.

JS: Then why did you alert the police?

FF: Who would not like to save a decaying genius?

By now Prof. Schrodinger, sitting along with his attorney, is laughing. The judge notices him and says:

JS: You find something amusing professor?

ES:  Only the notion that a decaying genius has a stench.

JS turns to FF and excuses her from the witness stand. He directs ES to come to the witness box.

JS: I do not wish to continue your testimony today much long because I want to recess the court early. But before I do that, let’s go through a few questions.

JS: So is the cat dead or alive?

ES: That depends.

JS: On what?

ES: On whether an atom decayed, the tube discharged, the hammer fell, the flask shattered and the hydrocyanic acid spilled. Only then could the cat die.

JS: So the cat did die.

ES: That depends.

JS: On what?

ES: On whether an atom decayed, the tube discharged, the hammer fell, the flask shattered and the hydrocyanic acid spilled. Only then could the cat die.

JS: (Exasperated): But you already said that once. Why are you saying it again?

ES: Because you asked me again. Asking the question again does not change my answer.

JS: You have said during your interrogation that the cat could be both dead and alive. How is that possible?

ES: That is not possible. I said probable.

JS: That’s a distinction without a difference.

ES: I would call them distinctly different.

JS: Let me ask in simple terms. Is the damn cat dead or alive?

ES: If all of the above conditions were met, then it is likely that it died. If not, it is likely it is alive. But we have no way of knowing unless we open the box. So for us, without opening the box the cat is both dead and alive at any given time.

JS: Where is the box and how big is it?

ES: There is no box.

JS: Be that as it may, what poison did you feed your cat?

ES: I did not feed my cat anything because it did not exist.

JS: Then why have you been charged with killing the cat?

ES: It is an imaginary cat inside an imaginary box equipped with an imaginary radioactive substance from which an imaginary atom may or may not decay and the tube may or may not discharge and the hammer may or may not fall and the acid may or may not be released. Hence, the cat, which does not exist, may or may not die. And unless we open the box that also does not exist we may or may not know whether the imaginary cat is dead or alive.

By now, the judge is ready to tear his hair out. He throws the gavel at Schrodinger who ducks. The gavel falls on the courtroom floor. The floor shatters like glass. A dark golden brown cat jumps out from underneath. He rubs his body against Schrodinger’s right shoe and jumps on to the judge’s dais. He thumps his paw and says:

“If you think I exist, I think you should see Dr. Freud who, by the way, is real.”

“If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be?”

January 9 marked the 100th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi’s return from South Africa after spending 22 years there as an attorney-at-law turned civil rights icon turned breathtakingly original political mind. It was a homecoming that not only eventually transformed the fortunes of close to 300 million Indians but created the global Gandhi mystique which refuses to wane a century hence and, in fact, getting reinvigorated.

A great deal happened in his personal life the aftermath of his return, in particular his travels through the length and breadth of India in order to get to know the real India. One event that always resonates with me is a striking speech he gave a little over a year after his return at the Banaras Hindu University on February 4, 1916. Among the attendees were Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, who was just honored with India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna, and the Viceroy, Lord Charles Hardinge. There were, of course, the princes in their best fineries and other who’s who of the era.

Gandhi wore his famous Kathiawadi tunic and turban. I have highlighted a few passages in the speech below, particularly the one that refers to his shock at the lack of cleanliness. Cleanliness is these days a politically charged expression what with Prime Minister Narendra Modi having embarked on his ‘Swachchh Bharat’ (Clean India) campaign.

The Speech:

I wish to tender my humble apology for the long delay that took place before I was able to reach this place. And you will readily accept the apology when I tell you that I am not responsible for the delay nor is any human agency responsible for it. The fact is that I am like animal on show, and my keepers in their overkindness always manage to neglect a necessary chapter in this life, and, that is, pure accident. In this case, they did not provide for the series of accidents that happened to us-to me, keepers, and my carriers. Hence this delay.

Friends, under the influence of the matchless eloquence of Mrs. Besant who has just sat down, pray, do not believe that our University has become a finished product, and that all the young men who are to come to the University, that has yet to rise and come into existence, have also come and returned from it finished citizens of a great empire. Do not go away with any such impression, and if you, the student world to which my remarks are supposed to be addressed this evening, consider for one moment that the spiritual life, for which this country is noted and for which this country has no rival, can be transmitted through the lip, pray, believe me, you are wrong. You will never be able merely through the lip, to give the message that India, I hope, will one day deliver to the world. I myself have been fed up with speeches and lectures. I except the lectures that have been delivered here during the last two days from this category, because they are necessary. But I do venture to suggest to you that we have now reached almost the end of our resources in speech-making; it is not enough that our ears are feasted, that our eyes are feasted, but it is necessary that our hearts have got to be touched and that out hands and feet have got to be moved.

We have been told during the last two days how necessary it is, if we are to retain our hold upon the simplicity of Indian character, that our hands and feet should move in unison with our hearts. But this is only by way of preface. I wanted to say it is a matter of deep humiliation and shame for us that I am compelled this evening under the shadow of this great college, in this sacred city, to address my countrymen in a language that is foreign to me. I know that if I was appointed an examiner, to examine all those who have been attending during these two days this series of lectures, most of those who might be examined upon these lectures would fail. And why? Because they have not been touched.

I was present at the sessions of the great Congress in the month of December. There was a much vaster audience, and will you believe me when I tell you that the only speeches that touched the huge audience in Bombay were the speeches that were delivered in Hindustani? In Bombay, mind you, not in Banaras where everybody speaks Hindi. But between the vernaculars of the Bombay Presidency on the one hand and Hindi on the other, no such great dividing line exists as there does between English and the sister language of India; and the Congress audience was better able to follow the speakers in Hindi. I am hoping that this University will see to it that the youths who come to it will receive their instruction through the medium of their vernaculars. Our languages the reflection of ourselves, and if you tell me that our languages are too poor to express the best thought, then say that the sooner we are wiped out of existence the better for us. Is there a man who dreams that English can ever become the national language of India? Why this handicap on the nation? Just consider for one moment what an equal race our lads have to run with every English lad.

I had the privilege of a close conversation with some Poona professors. They assured me that every Indian youth, because he reached his knowledge through the English language, lost at least six precious years of life. Multiply that by the numbers of students turned out by our schools and colleges, and find out for yourselves how many thousand years have been lost to the nation. The charge against us is that we have no initiative. How can we have any, if we are to devote the precious years of our life to the mastery of a foreign tongue? We fail in this attempt also. Was it possible for any speaker yesterday and today to impress his audience as was possible for Mr. Higginbotham? It was not the fault of the previous speakers that they could not engage the audience. They had more than substance enough for us in their addresses. But their addresses could not go home to us. I have heard it said that after all it is English educated India which is leading and which is leading and which is doing all the things for the nation. It would be monstrous if it were otherwise. The only education we receive is English education. Surely we must show something for it. But suppose that we had been receiving during the past fifty years education through our vernaculars, what should we have today? We should have today a free India, we should have our educated men, not as if they were foreigners in their own land but speaking to the heart of the nation; they would be working amongst the poorest of the poor, and whatever they would have gained during these fifty years would be a heritage for the nation. Today even our wives are not the sharers in our best thought. Look at Professor Bose and Professor Ray and their brilliant researches. Is it not a shame that their researches are not the common property of the masses?

Let us now turn to another subject.

The Congress has passed a resolution about self-government, and I have no doubt that the All-India Congress Committee and the Muslim League will do their duty and come forward with some tangible suggestions. But I, for one, must frankly confess that I am not so much interested in what they will be able to produce as I am interested in anything that the student world is going to produce or the masses are going to produce. No paper contribution will ever give us self-government. No amount of speeches will ever make us fit for self-government. It is only our conduct that will fit for us it. And how are we trying to govern ourselves?

I want to think audibly this evening. I do not want to make a speech and if you find me this evening speaking without reserve, pray, consider that you are only sharing the thoughts of a man who allows himself to think audibly, and if you think that I seem to transgress the limits that courtesy imposes upon me, pardon me for the liberty I may be taking. I visited the Vishwanath temple last evening, and as I was walking through those lanes, these were the thoughts that touched me. If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple, and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character? I speak feelingly, as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are? The houses round about are built anyhow. The lanes are tortuous and narrow. If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be? Shall our temples be abodes of holiness, cleanliness and peace as soon as the English have retired from India, either of their own pleasure or by compulsion, bag and baggage?

I entirely agree with the President of the Congress that before we think of self-government, we shall have to do the necessary plodding. In every city there are two divisions, the cantonment and the city proper. The city mostly is a stinking den. But we are a people unused to city life. But if we want city life, we cannot reproduce the easy-going hamlet life. It is not comforting to think that people walk about the streets of Indian Bombay under the perpetual fear of dwellers in the storeyed building spitting upon them. I do a great deal of railway traveling. I observe the difficulty of third-class passengers. But the railway administration is by no means to blame for all their hard lot. We do not know the elementary laws of cleanliness. We spit anywhere on the carriage floor, irrespective of the thoughts that it is often used as sleeping space. We do not trouble ourselves as to how we use it; the result is indescribable filth in the compartment. The so-called better class passengers over we their less fortunate brethren. Among them I have seen the student world also; sometimes they behave no better. They can speak English and they have worn Norfolk jackets and, therefore, claim the right to force their way in and command seating accommodation.

I have turned the searchlight all over, and as you have given me the privilege of speaking to you, I am laying my heart bare. Surely we must set these things right in our progress towards self-government. I now introduce you to another scene. His Highness the Maharaja who presided yesterday over our deliberations spoke about the poverty of India. Other speakers laid great stress upon it. But what did we witness in the great pandal in which the foundation ceremony was performed by the Viceroy? Certain it a most gorgeous show, an exhibition of jewellery, which made a splendid feast for the eyes of the greatest jeweller who chose to come from Paris. I compare with the richly bedecked noble men the millions of the poor. And I feel like saying to these noble men, “There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewellery and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India.” I am sure it is not the desire of the King-Emperor or Lord Hardinge that in order to show the truest loyalty to our King-Emperor, it is necessary for us to ransack our jewellery boxes and to appear bedecked from top to toe. I would undertake, at the peril of my life, to bring to you a message from King George himself that he excepts nothing of the kind.

Sir, whenever I hear of a great palace rising in any great city of India, be it in British India or be it in India which is ruled by our great chiefs, I become jealous at once, and say, “Oh, it is the money that has come from the agriculturists.” Over seventy-five per cent of the population are agriculturists and Mr. Higginbotham told us last night in his own felicitous language, that they are the men who grow two blades of grass in the place of one. But there cannot be much spirit of self-government about us, if we take away or allow others to take away from them almost the whole of the results of their labour. Our salvation can only come through the farmer. Neither the lawyers, nor the doctors, nor the rich landlords are going to secure it.

Now, last but not the least, it is my bounden duty to refer to what agitated our minds during these two or three days. All of us have had many anxious moments while the Viceroy was going through the streets of Banaras. There were detectives stationed in many places. We were horrified. We asked ourselves, “Why this distrust?” Is it not better that even Lord Hardinge should die than live a living death? But a representative of a mighty sovereign may not. He might find it necessary to impose these detectives on us? We may foam, we may fret, we may resent, but let us not forget that India of today in her impatience has produced an army of anarchists. I myself am an anarchist, but of another type. But there is a class of anarchists amongst us, and if I was able to reach this class, I would say to them that their anarchism has no room in India, if India is to conqueror. It is a sign of fear. If we trust and fear God, we shall have to fear no one, not the Maharajas, not the Viceroys, not the detectives, not even King George.

I honour the anarchist for his love of the country. I honour him for his bravery in being willing to die for his country; but I ask him-is killing honourable? Is the dagger of an assassin a fit precursor of an honourable death? I deny it. There is no warrant for such methods in any scriptures. If I found it necessary for the salvation of India that the English should retire, that they should be driven out, I would not hesitate to declare that they would have to go, and I hope I would be prepared to die in defence of that belief. That would, in my opinion, be an honourable death. The bomb-thrower creates secret plots, is afraid to come out into the open, and when caught pays the penalty of misdirected zeal.

I have been told, “Had we not done this, had some people not thrown bombs, we should never have gained what we have got with reference to the partition movement.” (Mrs. Besant : ‘Please stop it.’) This was what I said in Bengal when Mr. Lyon presided at the meeting. I think what I am saying is necessary. If I am told to stop I shall obey. (Turning to the Chairman) I await your orders. If you consider that by my speaking as I am, I am not serving the country and the empire I shall certainly stop. (Cries of ‘Go on.’) (The Chairman : ‘Please, explain your object.’) I am simply. . . (another interruption). My friends, please do not resent this interruption. If Mrs. Besant this evening suggests that I should stop, she does so because she loves India so well, and she considers that I am erring in thinking audibly before you young men. But even so, I simply say this, that I want to purge India of this atmosphere of suspicion on either side, if we are to reach our goal; we should have an empire which is to be based upon mutual love and mutual trust. Is it not better that we talk under the shadow of this college than that we should be talking irresponsibly in our homes? I consider that it is much better that we talk these things openly. I have done so with excellent results before now. I know that there is nothing that the students do not know. I am, therefore, turning the searchlight towards ourselves. I hold the name of my country so dear to me that I exchange these thoughts with you, and submit to you that there is no room for anarchism in India. Let us frankly and openly say whatever we want to say our rulers, and face the consequences if what we have to say does not please them. But let us not abuse.

I was talking the other day to a member of the much-abused Civil Service. I have not very much in common with the members of that Service, but I could not help admiring the manner in which he was speaking to mw. He said : “Mr. Gandhi, do you for one moment suppose that all we, Civil Servants, are a bad lot, that we want to oppress the people whom we have come to govern?” “No,,” I said. “Then if you get an opportunity put in a word for the much-abused Civil Service.” And I am here to put in that word. Yes, many members of the Indian Civil Service are most decidedly overbearing; they are tyrannical, at times thoughtless. Many other adjectives may be used. I grant all these things and I grant also that after having lived in India for a certain number of years some of them become somewhat degraded. But what does that signify? They were gentlemen before they came here, and if they have lost some of the moral fibre, it is a reflection upon ourselves.

Just think out for yourselves, if a man who was good yesterday has become bad after having come in contact with me, is he responsible that he has deteriorated or am I? The atmosphere of sycophancy and falsity that surrounds them on their coming to India demoralizes them, as it would many of us. It is well to take the blame sometimes. If we are to receive self-government, we shall have to take it. We shall never be granted self-government. Look at the history of the British Empire and the British nation; freedom loving as it is, it will not be a party to give freedom to a people who will not take it themselves. Learn your lesson if you wish to from the Boer War. Those who were enemies of that empire only a few years ago have now become friends. . . .

(At this point there was an interruption and a movement on the platform to leave. The speech, therefore, ended here abruptly.)