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...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Web of darkness

Pretty much every James Bond movie since the beginning of time has been about villains out to take control of the world. The villains usually do this by manufacturing a bomb with blue flashing lights all over it and a sign saying "Warning: This bomb will bring about the end of the world". They are foiled at the last minute by an immaculately dressed Bond floating/sailing/driving/flying/bungee jumping into the heart of the mess. But the problem with these movies, entertaining as they are, is the basic premise that someone would be able to "take control of the world".

Now that's all changed. Unknown to a lot of people outside the US (I was also only dimly aware until yesterday) there is an ongoing attempt to take over the internet. Which, in case you haven't yet realised, would be exactly the same thing as taking over the world. This awful piece of villainy is to be perpetrated using a bill called SOPA currently being pushed in the USA. As a result Wikipedia, a place I consider my second home, is offline today in protest (and therefore the link in the previous sentence is not to the Wikipedia entry on SOPA but to a video on the website of The Guardian). More precisely, English-language Wikipedia is offline though French, Italian and even Hindi Wikipedia are very much around. Please go check for yourself by following this link if you speak French and this one if you speak Hindi.

I can't tell you much about the consequences of SOPA, but can highly recommend this recent article from The Guardian. Meanwhile, if things get too bad then avid supporters of freedom of speech may consider getting into Onion Routing. Oops, you can't read about it on Wikipedia today. Try again tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bustle in my hedgerow

Two weeks since I got to Cambridge, the world has turned upside-down, twice. Strictly from my personal point of view. The first week started unpromisingly with lost baggage, failure to open a bank account, and a sniffly cold. Then, just as things were looking up again, I had a literally shattering experience - I dropped my Samsung smartphone and cracked its "unbreakable" gorilla-glass front. In the second week, by contrast, all is bliss (except for the poor phone, which is on its way to Samsung India for repairs). Britain is back to being Britain.

That is to say, sometimes cold and rainy, and sometimes even colder and sunny. I seriously envy them their weather - the mere fact that they have it, while we in India don't (for us, one day = the next day in most places at most times of year). On sunny days in the countryside (well Cambridge isn't quite countryside, but it's a five minute walk from there) the birds are twittering, rabbits scampering and a few hardy berries and winter flowers busy growing. Frost covers the fields like a fine sprinkle of icing sugar. Moss likewise coats tree trunks, making them look like gigantic "hara-bhara" kababs. (I'll admit it's dinnertime and I'm getting hungry.)

Moss-covered tree trunks on The Avenue, Trinity College
Meanwhile, and this is a key point about Britain, the hedges are tidy. One could not imagine Britain without its tidy hedges. All Britons are trained from birth to trim hedges, but since they spend evenings at the pub and mornings suffering a hangover, they must be doing this just after midnight. Because I've never seen anyone actually trimming a hedge. And yet the evidence is unmistakable. Like the 91 GeV peak that dramatically signalled the Z-boson, the trimmed hedges are convincing evidence that Britons crawl out of their homes in the dead of night, gardening shears in hand.

So important indeed are hedges to the national culture that the British rock band Led Zeppelin, on an album whose lyrics mostly went "gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove", felt constrained to invoke their beloved countryside with lines like "if there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now" and "in a tree by the brook, there's a songbird that sings". Now although songbirds are aplenty, there has never - ever - been the slightest bustle in any hedgerow I've seen. But that must be because I don't walk around just after midnight.

Each morning I cross the Great Court of Trinity College, followed by a half-dozen pairs of watchful eyes under bowler hats, all of whom simultaneously nod and say "good morning" whenever |x-y| < 1.5 metres. Of course Trinity has more than just hedges. Its Great Court is a rectangle made up of dissimilar buildings all mysteriously flowing into each other to form an incredibly harmonious scene. The only slight touch of discord is the chapel. Too long to fit in the Court, it therefore - almost literally - smashes its way past the Porter's Lodge and comes to rest on Trinity Street. Where I can observe it if I thrust my head out of my window. Newton's lodgings were at this intersection point and if he had ever, during his long years at Trinity, come running out onto the street naked except for a ridiculous wig shouting "Eureka" (or more likely "Natura valde simplex est et sibi consona") I would have seen him. Had I been here at the time, of course. As it is, I only get to see drunken people brawling at the spot.

And so to the question everyone has been wanting to ask. What about British food? What about it, indeed. Just as "tidy" sums up the countryside, "stodgy" sums up the food. Just think of the word "pudding". Say it over and over, slowly. Doesn't it sound like something leaden that will sit on your stomach all night and induce nightmares? Well that's true enough, but puddings are actually the best part of British food. What one needs to worry about are things like pies and stews drowned in the legendary and eternally mysterious "brown sauce".

They do try to be adventurous. At the Trinity dining hall (about which more another time) they recently served Thai Green Curry. I'm not colour blind and I could tell right away it wasn't green. I tasted it and discovered they had left out the crucial ingredient. To paraphrase Cambridge's most famous local band, Pink Floyd: "If you don't put in chillies, you can't make Thai Curry. How can you make Thai Curry if you don't put in chillies?". I'll try telling that to the bowler hats tomorrow, but my days of walking through Great Court may end sooner than expected.

And there's another part of Cambridge where the Gown ends and the Town begins. There you find rows of shops called "Al Amin" and "Curry Queen" and "Al-Casbah". Most of these are run by Bangladeshi ex-auto-rickshaw-drivers. They sit in the back counting their profits as gownless Brits pop in (I LOVE this phrase! Pop in. Pop in. Pop in. You try it now.) The customers eat the hottest curries ever and drink themselves silly. Then the good Bangladeshis go home where, presumably, a civilised Bengali meal awaits them. After that they sleep well and don't even bother to trim the hedges. I can understand.