Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Sometime back I saw some photographs that I didn't know I had. I decided to put some here along with a couple of my school photographs that I stumbled across on a friend's Facebook page.

This is a photograph from Std. V or VI. The best part of it was that I didn't know where I was. Jaya had to point me out to me.

Where am I?

This is a rare photograph of a school picnic because I don't think I have ever again worn such a psychedelic shirt. (Whenever I see this song from the Malayalam movie Classmates, I am reminded of this trip - not because of any incident in the movie but because this song involves a college bus trip. Incidentally, the movie contains one of my favorite Malayalam songs.)

Red Storm Rising

A time when this song fit:

With Jaya soon after our marriage was fixed

On tour in Bangalore with friends from Bajaj Auto Ltd.

Looking sophisticated in Lungi at IIMA

My room at IIMA

With my doom mates at IIMA

Sujit when he was about six months old

Sujit when he was 3 years old

(Sujit is now in a boarding school in Kodaikanal.)

In Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, when  Gustad Noble walks around  Chor Bazar in Mumbai, it brings back a flood of memories from childhood and he muses, "How little it took to wake up so many sleeping memories." Indeed!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Attitude of a teacher

Further to my rant about educational standards, there was an incident that I wanted to mention. When one student who had scored just above 80% went for admission to Std. XI in his own school, the vice-principal shouted at him and told him that he was 'unfit' to be given admission in the school. How can a teacher talk like that to a student even if he had scored 40%? In this article, Richard Dawkins writes about the attitude of Sanderson of Oundle, a much-loved educator of long ago:
Far from coveting garlands in league tables by indulging the high flyers, Sanderson's most strenuous labours were on behalf of the average, and specially the "dull" boys. He would never admit the word: if a boy was dull it was because he was being forced in the wrong direction, and he would make endless experiments to find how to get his interest... he knew every boy by name and had a complete mental picture of his ability and character. It was not enough that the majority should do well. "I never like to fail with a boy," he once said.
In spite of - perhaps because of - Sanderson's contempt for public examinations, Oundle did well in them. A faded, yellowing newspaper cutting dropped out of my secondhand copy of Wells's book: "In the higher certificates of the Oxford and Cambridge School examinations Oundle once again leads, having 76 successes. Shrewsbury and Marlborough tie for second place at 49 each."
In this TED talk, Melinda Gates says that whatever facilities are provided will be useless in the absence of an effective teacher. In the above article, Dawkins writes about his recollection of a zoology class.
I recall a lesson about Hydra, a small denizen of still fresh water. Mr Thomas asked one of us, "What animal eats Hydra?" The boy made a guess. Non-committally, Mr Thomas turned to the next boy, asking him the same question. He went right round the entire class, with increasing excitement asking each one of us by name, "What animal eats Hydra? What animal eats Hydra?" And one by one we guessed. By the time he had reached the last boy, we were agog for the true answer. "Sir, sir, what animal does eat Hydra?" Mr Thomas waited until there was a pin-dropping silence. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word.
"I don't know... (crescendo) I don't know... (molto crescendo). And I don't think Mr Coulson knows either. (Fortissimo) Mr Coulson! Mr Coulson!"
He flung open the door to the next classroom and dramatically interrupted his senior colleague's lesson, bringing him into our room. "Mr Coulson, do you know what animal eats Hydra?" Whether some wink passed between them I don't know, but Mr Coulson played his part well: he didn't know. Again, the fatherly shade of Sanderson chuckled in the corner, and none of us will have forgotten that lesson. What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today's assessment-mad exam culture.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Once the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly happily fluttering around doing as he pleased. He suddenly woke up and didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. I was in a similar state of confusion when I started regaining consciousness after my stroke. But all through that period of haze, I remembered some dreams that I had seen during that period of unconsciousness:

  1. There  was a lighted candle near my bed. A  nurse periodically came to my room, looked at the candle and went away. The sense I  got was that she was checking to see if the flame had gone out which would signal my death.  She seemed to be saying, “Out, out, brief candle!"but the flame never went out.
  2. A large crowd seemed to be gathered for my funeral and my body was lying nearby. a large black bird was flying high in the sky and everyone was looking at it.  The sense I got was that I was not yet dead and that my death would be signalled by the bird flying away.Everyone was waiting for the bird to disappear but it never did.
  3. My body seemed to be lying on what looked like the moving belt of an assembly. The belt seemed to be moving towards what I felt was a furnace in an electric crematorium. (I have never seen an electric crematorium.) When I passed inside the furnace, I cringed at the prospect of getting roasted but the temperature never rose.

Memory is a very unreliable chronicler of events so much so that someone said that all autobiographies should come with a warning  "based on facts". My memory of the dreams could be even more suspect since they happened such a long time ago and they are after all dreams but I can assure you that they are "based on facts".

 I related them to Jaya after our communication protocol was well established. I then didn't dwell on them figuring that they would have been random images caused by  the firing of different parts of the brain due to the various drugs that were being given and the various noises and voices that I used to hear. The bullshit detection meter in my brain was off and it was concocting fantastic stories.

I later read about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) which seemed somewhat similar to the dreams I had had. NDEs have some things in common: there are accounts of a bright light (the candle in my dream was a light but it was not bright); there will be descriptions of passing through a tunnel (I suppose going into the furnace in the electric crematorium was like passing through a tunnel although the experience was so long ago that I don't remember the details). In US people having NDEs write books about it which top best-seller lists. Sam Harris examines one such book.

Oliver Sacks has written a book called Hallucinations which describes...you guessed it...hallucinations that people have in various situations - in the haze when falling asleep or waking up, under the influence of drugs (medical or recreational), sleep deprivation, when blind , epilepsy, migraine and also when near death. About NDEs, he writes:
Kevin Nelson and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky have presented evidence suggesting that, with the compromise of cerebral blood flow, there is a dissociation of consciousness so that, although awake, the subjects are paralysed and subject to the dreamlike hallucinations characteristic of REM sleep ("REM intrusions") -- in a state, therefore. with resemblances to sleep paralysis(NDEs are also commoner in people prone to sleep paralysis). Added to this are various special features: the "dark tunnel" is correlated,Nelson feels, with the compromise of  blood flow to the retinas (this is well-known to produce a constriction of the visual fields, or  tunnel vision, and may occur in pilots subjected to high g-stresses). The "bright light" Nelson correlates with a flow of neuronal excitement moving from a part of the brain stem (the pons)  to subcortical visual relay stations and then to the occipital cortex. Added to all these neurophysiological changes may be a sense of terror and awe going with the knowledge that one is undergoing a mortal crisis -- some subjects have actually heard themselves pronounced dead -- and the wish that dying, if imminent and inevitable, should be peaceful and perhaps a passage to a life after death.
A curious happening was that my physiotherapist asked me about a neurological condition called narcolepsy which I had never heard about that was included in the plot of a Tamil movie that he had just seen called Naan sigappu manithan. A couple of days later, I read about it in this book.

Here is Oliver Sacks on Fora.TV about his book. He had written an article about NDEs, OBEs (out of body experience)and prayers. There was an Intelligence Squared debate on life after death.