Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dining with dons

Nearly three weeks into my stay in Cambridge I've made the discovery that once things are going smoothly, weekends tend to be slightly dull. But only in a relative sense, i.e. compared to Bombay. Cambridge actually comes alive on Saturday morning, with hordes of tourists walking around, one saying to the other "that college we just passed was St John's" and the other replying "What? Where?". By 4 PM it starts to get dark, shops close at 6 and then there is a relative lull as people disappear off the streets. Around 11 PM they emerge again, having used the intervening five hours to become well and truly drunk, and hang out on the street (below my window, alas) engaging in rowdy behaviour until the early hours.

I had decided this Saturday would be my night to take the plunge - by dressing up and dining at the Hall at Trinity (as a Visiting Fellow I can do this whenever I like with advance notice) without any known person to keep me company. Before this I attended an organ concert at the neighbouring King's College, whose chapel is the size of a few dozen cathedrals. These concerts are open to the public and free - and last for just 45 minutes, which is about as long as one can sit inside a dimly-lit and freezing cold church, however spectacular. The attendance was sparse (I wonder what it will be like when really huge hordes of tourists arrive in summer!), everyone was a tourist and most could not care less about music.

The concert opened with a Bach Sonata (BWV 530, if you must know) and this is not anything like the only Bach organ piece I know well - the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which fairly blasts gusts of wind out of gigantic organ pipes. This Sonata by contrast was muted and subtle, at times barely audible, with the smaller slightly squeaky pipes doing much of the work. The tourists (all English/European/American) were bored and chatted through this, which was distracting. Then came excerpts from "La Nativite du Seigneur" by the French 20th century composer Messiaen. His music is rather abstract and the first three excerpts were interesting but slightly hard for me to grasp at first hearing, though I did detect evidence of Messiaen's varied influences ranging from birdsong to Indonesian gamelan. These pieces also were muted and mostly made use of the small squeaky organ pipes. By this time the tourists were walking out. But then came the finale "Dieu parmi nous" and now that God was in the picture, the story changed as it inevitably must. There was a great deal of huffing and puffing by the monstrous pipes, which gave forth huge gusts of sound that swirled and resonated and reverberated around the enormous chapel. I swear you could almost see it, and it seemed to go on even after the music had stopped.

This part of the evening was easy. How would I deal with Trinity? I lunch there regularly but dinner is a much more serious business and I'd only done this once before, in the company of friends. Recalling what I had been taught, I walked into the parlour, a wee bit self-conscious in my pin-striped suit, admired the nicely burning coal fire (only it's not - I've been informed it's a gas fire burning over fake glowing coals), nodded at everyone (there were only two people there) and helped myself to a pre-dinner glass of Gewurztraminer. Then I settled down in an armchair and read the International Herald Tribune, waiting for the dinner call. Just as I was beginning to fear it would be a very quiet evening, who should walk into the parlour but Amartya Sen, accompanied by another distinguished economist, Luigi Pasinetti. I introduced myself and soon found myself accompanying them to the Hall. Here we stood behind our chairs, a gong was struck and Prof. Sen (as a former Master of Trinity) along with the Vice-Master recited alternate lines of the following:

A. Oculi omnium in te sperant Domine:
B. Et tu das escam illis in tempore.
A. Aperis tu manum tuam,
B. Et imples omne animal benedictione.

For those who don't know Latin, this means "thanks, God, for the incredibly tender grilled breast of goose that we are about to get, making this one of the best Trinity meals I've had so far". We then sat down and the conversation, as well as the 1998 vintage red wine, flowed pleasurably. It's not often I get to dine with someone I admire so much! I also sensed that Prof. Sen welcomed the opportunity to chat a little about India. I asked him for his take on the Anna Hazare business and and he said "well if you're a fan then you're going to be disappointed by my answer". So in the end we sort of agreed, though we didn't come to a conclusion on whether that movement had now run out of steam (he seemed to think so) or that it will rise again because it resonates with the middle-class (which was my view). Later we also talked about Sonia Gandhi where again we agreed on basics (he thinks well of her, as do I) but differed on how important had been the role of her Italian background (my view: growing up in the Euro-left bastion of Torino, a city deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci who studied there and the economist Piero Sraffa who was born there, had a major impact on her thinking. Prof. Sen's view: that she became what she is by intelligently studying and understanding the situation in which she found herself. Actually both views could be correct, so again we did not really disagree). Prof. Sen did mention, by the way that he was introduced to Sonia-ji right here in Trinity College, on The Ave (the road with moss-covered trees that featured in a previous posting on my blog), by her then boyfriend Rajiv Gandhi.

Subsequently, over the rhubarb crumble and custard, I conversed with the person on my left, a genial professor of biology who among other things is Director of the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge. He cordially invited me to visit this museum. This happens a lot - at a previous High Table meal I had met the very kind Dean of the Chapel at Trinity, who invited me to attend Choral Evensong. Sometimes I feel I owe an invitation to these people in return. Since I'm co-organising a 6-month research programme on String Theory at the Isaac Newton Institute, I could of course invite these worthy Dons to see the Institute. But all they would find is a bunch of people sitting around drinking coffee. Perhaps I could pass it off as another kind of zoological museum...

1 comment:

Neelima said...

That was a nice vicarious dinner. You can always invite your illustrious companions to a lecture on the Theory of Everything! That's lofty enough for anyone.