Insights

A quiet place to sit

Not very often we find a place where we can gather our thoughts, find solace, have a cup of coffee and browse through an impressive collection of literature – fiction and non fiction. After visiting Auschwitz, I came back to Krakow in the evening and wanted to be at a place that can give me silence for some time. My hostel wasn’t conducive of such ambience so I walked a little south west of my location across the Planty park and reached Massolit books and cafe at Felicjanek 4/2. I entered the quiet bookstore and strolled around, a few people were browsing, a few talking, and a few were working on their computers as in any coffee shop in a big city of USA. I ordered a latte and seated myself in a corner seat besides an old woman who most probably was a teacher and was correcting papers and was nodding her head in disappointment while embellishing the answer sheets in big red circles. IMG_20180609_185244

A few days ago I was in Nordisk Museet in Stockholm and learned about the concept of lighting the spaces and how optics and light designers have revolutionized the concept and the device itself. The Scandinavian region doesn’t get a lot of light for a large part of the year, so artificial lighting is the key but the fundamental principle is to have a smooth transition between darkness and light or vice versa and create an environment that is cosy, comfortable, and makes you calm. While I was sitting there, I could feel those principles in application.

The books on the table in front were the ones which I won’t generally find in your around the corner bookstore unless I go to City lights in San Francisco. Apart from that, the old and used tables here have a charm that needs to be enjoyed again whenever I find myself in Kraków.

 

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The next renaissance

The movie fight club has a few thought provoking quotes – “We are the middle children of history, no purpose or place, no great wars, no great depression”. I don’t second the thought completely, our generation might also have a purpose may be a latent one, may be the purpose is hidden in layers like a pomegranate hides the berries in layers. Taking the middle path is the norm, the path that is safe, one that might bear the fruits of success – a success that is moderate but not the one that will make you immortal. Fight club comes to rescue one more time by stating “It’s only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything”.

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The cities that have marked themselves in golden letters in pages of history were unforgiving to the people who called them home. There wasn’t a plan B, if you succeed then you will share the glory and your place in pages of history with the greats from all walks of life but if you fail then you might starve to death and you subject your upcoming generations, if any, to similar fate. But that didn’t deter them to take risks. They always shot for something that can be considered the ultimate manifestation of human spirit.

What is it that we will risk everything for? Pope Julius II gave the commission to Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo wasn’t a painter, he was a sculptor. But the philosophy to take risk on the unlikely heroes was not uncommon. Identify a talented person and bestow responsibility of a herculean task; sit back and look at the results.

But what we do nowadays is quite tangential to that approach. We enlist the people for jobs once we determine that they are the perfect fit and then we assign the tasks to those who demonstrated the ability to execute those tasks in the past. Entirely risk averse. No risk or reduced risk is what the aim is. The space and time required for the ideas to flourish are not provided and then we wonder why aren’t we living in another renaissance?

Colors – The Paragone within

Voice by KHMRS is being played in the background while I write this. When I was a kid and before I had any comprehension of Physics and optics, I always wondered that if light can divide itself into rainbow colors then if I will mix the VIBGYOR then may be I will get white or something made of light but every single time I got some blackish muddled color like my thoughts and also warnings from my mother on wasting colors. After many years, in one of the books I borrowed from Dr. B C Roy’s children’s library in New Delhi I read about the additive and subtractive mixing of colors giving rise to white light and the blackish color of my mix. In short, when you mix RGB lights in 1:1:1 then you get white light. While when we mix the colors the concept that is used is called the subtractive mixing e.g. a shirt appears blue when white light shines on it because it absorbs all colors but reflects only blue back. The same shirt might appear of different color when looked in different light. The color of an object does not reside in the object itself. The color is in the light that shines upon the object and that ultimately is reflected or transmitted to our eyes. 

Mixing of colors wasn’t a welcome activity before renaissance, many purists didn’t like the idea of mixing color and their argument that there is nothing a color can add to the black and white world. If a painting is great then it is great, an addition of color can’t have an effect on it’s intrinsic value. White and black were considered the natural colors and rest were just derivations.

The competition, rivalry, tussles were the hallmarks of the renaissance period and one of the fiercest debate or paragone as it was called during that time between colore(color) and designo(design and drawings). Design was with Florence and Color with Venice and Venetian colore has always been characterized as sensual e.g. Titian’s Venus and the Lute player – the painting that hangs in the MET. While the guiding principle of disegno is manifested in lines, contours, and forms. While disegno was considered more intellectual and rational form of art, colore was seemed as vulgar but with the advent of renaissance, both the ideas got an uplift and world became vivid with colors.

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Venus and the Lute Player

Subtle Golden Path of Munich

Being a flâneur in a city will take you to many places and will unfold the city in front of you like an open book. One stumbles upon conspicuous and inconspicuous places, events, people, sites that a guidebook might not lay down in front of you.

One thing that I appreciate sincerely about Germans is that they don’t try to sweep the history under the carpet. It is out there in the open for everyone in the world to take lessons from so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. But where is the world heading! Well, that’s another discussion.

I was in the city center when I found myself on Viscardigasse, where I found a cobblestone path in gold. Curious, I tried to find information on curved golden blocks in one ordinary looking alley of Munich.

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The golden path is a tribute to those people who didn’t support the Nazis and to avoid giving a salute to a monument commemorating those who died during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, these people chose a back alley in their routes. Soon, it was discovered that people are avoiding the main square so as not to salute, so the reich instated a policeman in the middle of the alley and if one didn’t have a reason to use the alley, he/she was either beaten or worse sent to Dachau concentration camp as an enemy of the state. That’s why the golden path is present only in half of the alley, to commemorate those whose fates were sealed midway. Those who dared to choose their own path and didn’t fail to take a risk.

It is such a subtle tribute and so easy to miss but when noticed is so powerful and thought provoking. An excellent example of minimalism, a tribute to all those who suffered and perished, and a symbol to keep them in the back of our minds always.

An ode to café

What better way to write an ode to coffeehouses than being in one and drinking the most popular drug of all the times.

How coffee works?

Our brain has adenosine and adenosine receptors, when both of them come in contact then drowsiness or sleep is induced. Caffeine when taken in binds itself to the adenosine receptors and thus blocking opportunity for adenosine to bind. The nerve cells speed up in this process and pituitary gland thinks of it as an emergency and thus releases loads of adrenaline hormone which is the fight or flight hormone.

 

Other things about Coffee and coffeehouses!

Cities such as Seattle, Vienna, Reykjavik, London rank consistently higher in number of coffeehouses that call home to these cities. In 2011, UNESCO put cafes in Vienna as part of the intangible heritage of the city and it is true indeed. But the first cafe in the world, Kiva Han, was opened in Constantinople(modern day Istanbul) in the year 1475 and soon they mushroomed all over the world and are thronged by all. There are the famous ones such as café central in Vienna that served as the incubator for the likes of Freud, Trotsky, and Lenin.

 

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Café Jax – Upper East Side Manhattan

I am one of the loyal ones with an allegiance to this dark drink but more than that I prefer to sit, read, and observe in these establishments. I have had moments of flow there that is curated by the moderate level of noise that can send one in the mode of diffused focus, one of the state that helps in creative thinking and launches one in the space where inner and outer imagination meet and create something that can’t have taken flight on terra firma.

Alfred Polgar in 1927 in his essay “Theory of café central“said that the place is for those people whose hatred of their fellow human beings is as fierce as their longing for people, who want to be alone but need companionship for it. This is the exact feeling I get in New York City, you can be alone but can be with millions of people. The coffee houses are like the archipelago of people who are alone yet close, may be that’s the reason I do like the archipelago cities – NYC and Stockholm as examples.

These sanctified places provide refuge to the ideas, the lonely ones and to the gregarious alike. Here you can concoct an ephemeral world within the tangents of humdrum and mundane world.

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Café Central – Vienna

 

Color me saffron

A few days ago when I was sitting in Scheltema in Amsterdam, I found a book named The Secret Lives of Color on the shelf. It was an interesting find. I quickly read the quoted stories on few of my favorite colors and was delighted to see the aspect of history associated with them. While I was about to return the book, I thought of another color – Saffron that forms a part of the tricolor flag of India.

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world and at one time saffron color was one of the most expensive ones. In 1444 a man was burnt alive in Nuremberg for he used to adulterate saffron with marigold and used to stretch profit margins. The spice is so fragrant that Cleopatra used to bathe in milk and saffron.

In Indian context, the color represents strength and courage in the nation and in terms of Hinduism it represents the holiest color among all colors. It is the color of burning flame that can purify, it represents the sacrifice. The priests, the monks, the learned ones wear the color indicating renunciation of worldly wealth. S Radhakrishnan said the color in the flag should symbolize renunciation and disinterestedness. Indifference to the material gain should be the fundamental rule followed by leaders but we have seen umpteen times how the country has been plagued by corruption scandals.

Bike On

I am not here to preach you about biking and its benefits to health, environment, and the society. The advantages are conspicuous enough and if one can’t see them then what’s even the point. Critically cynical stance from me but I still gape and don’t believe my eyes when people take their cars out to go to a store within 2 mile radius. I have nothing against cars, they are great mode of transport if we are talking about longer distances but if used within the city limits can cause the slow death of the city life, deteriorate the environment, and unnecessarily encroach the urban space. But oh well, what do the status hungry society care? Higher the BHP better it is, flashy the car higher would the status be in the ‘society’. But there is hope, it lies in the diamond frame. H G Wells said ” Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human race.”

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My Parisian Friend

One of my favorite question in the interviews revolve around the framework used by the candidate, and I prefer the lucid and simple ones. A good framework is easy to understand and works well; It is akin to a bicycle – a simple machine that can have solution to few most complicated problems that infest the modern world.

For most of us, bicycles were the first source of freedom, taking us from point A to B but over a period of time we have shunned the bikes and have taken refuge in the cars. Whenever I go to a new city, I prefer to walk or take a bike no matter whether it rains, snows, heats up. Even if I end up walking 33 km in Paris in a day, bike for 40 km in Northern Amsterdam along the dikes, or find myself accidentally in Skagen(sleeping in train isn’t a good idea) and spend the entire day on bike there. There is a different feeling to it, it’s ineffable. You see the world differently, you hear it differently, you smell it differently than from behind a car’s windows. The speed is slow and you can appreciate more around you.

One of the best places to bike, in my opinion, are Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and having the entire road or bike highway to yourself without having to worry about getting hit by a motorized vehicle is a bliss. One can cruise on the bike thanks to the flat terrain of these cities and the cool breeze makes the experience enjoyable. It is interesting to note that studies have been conducted in England that showed that bikes helped in expanding the gene pool of counties( people had more mobility, so they procreated with people from other counties) and at one time was a symbol of female empowerment. Enrique Penasola, the mayor of Bogota exclaimed that absence of bike lanes is undemocratic way of life; If bike paths are present then the city can become a lot safer as there will be people on the road or outside more often.

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My Dutch Way Out

The most talked about advantages of biking are economic, political, social, and ecological but the personal ones cannot be discounted. Advantage of biking for the Parkinson’s patients has been talked about in many papers; one of the doctors took his patient on a tandem bike ride and saw the symptom level for Parkinson has gone down, he kept on repeating this tandem ride for few weeks and found his eureka moment for finding a correlation between biking and slowing down of disease.

Here goes a high five to German born Baron Karl von Drais – creator of this simple machine for “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” — John F. Kennedy

 

The Shakespeare of Vienna

It is humanly impossible to have all the experiences of the world (at least that’s my belief at this point of time) but the paper friends come in handy there. Books are the portals to  unknown adventures, we can live a thousand lives and experience myriad emotions at the same time. In the era of kindles and nooks there is something about the independent bookstores that allures a tumbleweed. The unkempt bookshelves with piles of books packed tightly in close quarters such that various characters and the plots can talk to each other from various stories.  Akin to vast empty space where you can drift forever or stumble upon something which will be your moment of truth, they epitomize the brain of a someone who wants to know it all but is busy scouring the pieces that are yet to be uncovered.

A week ago during a cold and wet winter evening in Vienna, I stumbled upon this bookstore – Shakespeare and Company booksellers, and was I delighted. I was roaming around the old part of the city and it started raining heavily, I took refuge under a window sill to open my bag and get umbrella out and that’s when I saw this bookstore from a distance and I knew immediately that I have to go in.

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The charm of old bookstores is never fading, there is a sense of comfort in the ramshackle appearance and the disorganization. They are like human beings growing old over a period of time and accepting one’s flaws and being humble about it but not apologetic.

The bookstore is located on Stergasse and near Rupert’s church and Stephansplatz. The readers and writers have to go in for a time travel while walking in the labyrinth of this place on creaking wooden floors to get their dose of stimulant.

Stalker

 

Sifting through a myriad number of films that have been produced till now can be a herculean task and if I were to leave it on chance to find films that I would enjoy then I would be getting to see the gems once in blue moon only. Today only I was discussing this with a friend of mine that there are millions of things that have to be done, millions of books to be read, places to be visited, songs to listen to, movies to watch, emotions to express and experience, will one lifetime be enough for that?

I knew about Filmstruck for a long time and decided to have the trial version of the same for the 14 days before I would start my work-related travel again. I watched Krzysztof Kieslowski’s  Trois Couleurs Bleu, A French classic – Une affaire de femmes, a couple of Swedish ones namely Together and the famous – I am curious Yellow. I had kept Stalker – the 1979 soviet sci-fi in my watch list and was I delighted to watch it?

When I started writing this post I thought I would write a review for this masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky but in between I have changed my mind and my propensity is towards the instruments and film theory Tarkovsky resorted to while he directed this one. There is not an iota of question that the film is a strange one, not easily digestible, set in a post-apocalyptic world, talks in ciphers and cryptic language. The medium is terse and esoteric, talks philosophy, and focuses on single frames for a long time, at times as long as 4 to 5 minutes. Such lengths make people uncomfortable. Why? May be it makes them bored. Boredom is quite magical, it makes you do things that you wouldn’t have done otherwise even if it means jumping from one task to the other aimlessly. But the question is – Is this movie meant for everyone? May be not. Soviet state committee pointed out that the film isn’t immersive but alienating the audience and is slow. Tarkovsky replied it is the way it should be.

The arrogance and obstinacy is what is attractive here. Tarkovsky was assiduous, arduous, and audacious in one of his final attempt. So was Bertolt Brecht, the man who coined the concept of Verfremdungseffekt, popularly known as alienating the audience. Most of the movies that we see these days rely on CGI for the grandeur or the emotional manipulation of the audience. In layman terms, you identify with the main character of the film and go on an emotional roller coaster with that character. You laugh and cry in unison, one such example is Roman Holiday in which people can start relating themselves to princess Audrey Hepburn and l’ordinaire journalist Gregory Peck. To Brecht, emotional manipulation meant vile and scrupulous like a lie that steals your right of knowing the truth. This concept cuts chords with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

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At this point, Brecht decided to alienate audience than immersing them in the film watching experience. They would be looking at the characters, film, the plot, the props as an outsider. The audience won’t become part of the emotional experience but will be a self appointed critique. The end goal was to distance the viewers so they can take a rational decision on the plot, events, and the actions of the characters. Tarkovsky used this method well to create a radical, surprising, and a critical product – Stalker. The art practice no longer remains a bourgeois and lofty one but can assimilate with the audience without manipulating them emotionally. Another film that follows the similar path is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. I was thoroughly bored when I watched it for the first time and anticipated ‘something’ will happen but after 3 hours 45 minutes, the film just ended and I felt deceived. I was naive. After watching Stalker that belongs to the similar genre, I felt challenged. The film challenged me to remain bored, to maintain the static nature and then observe my surroundings. It challenges us to try and take a step away from the buffet of dissipation and profligacy and visit the mysteries of the zone. It is inline with Brecht statement that sometimes it is important to be human than to have good taste.

PS: Today I had a mathematical model’s delivery at work and while wrapping up the presentation I asked my clients to be devil’s advocate while checking the model or if we talk in film theory, I would like to alienate my audience so they can take a rational decision on the final product. We all had a hearty laugh.

Indian Cinderella Story

Winters olympics concluded today and all participating nations took part in the closing ceremony. It is sacrilegious moment for the athletes to represent and win at this pivotal congregation of sportsmen. Set cricket aside, India isn’t a sporting nation or a successful sporting nation as compared to the other nations in its cohort of developing countries such as China, Brazil, Mexico. There are inherent and deep rooted problems in the country at socioeconomic level but then too we have one of the most successful space programs in the world and are a nuclear power equipped nation. Coming back to the sports, there is major lack of infrastructure and opportunities and many times nepotism rules out the selection of better candidates. Scouting for talent requires patience and money and one thing we as a country should come to terms with is the fact that you cannot get a sports star who will win you olympics golds overnight. The talent is scouted, farmed, and then brought to the larger podium. Systematic inclusion of infra is not the end point but also the proclivity and predisposition of Indian population towards sports in general. The sport that is favored and has established itself as a business is cricket and parents, schools, clubs, sports centers, coaches, Govt. agencies channelize their efforts towards it as well. Wrestling, Badminton, Field hockey are a few others that have gotten some attention because the players brought laurels to the country by winning at international podium.

Field hockey has always been dear to me, its precision, speed, accuracy, constant movement, athletic prowess, skills are parallel and akin to Football. It’s counterpart for the nations with colder climate is Ice hockey which is ruled by powerhouses such as Sweden, Canada, USA, Finland etc. A few days ago I was watching a few goals by Ellen Hoog and Jamie Dwyer before the olympic quarter final between Sweden and Germany. The way they dribble is magic! Germany was able to pull a win against mighty Swedes; It was then I started scouring for Ice Hockey rinks in India. We have diverse geography, and at places such as Himalayas and Leh should have some small teams and I was ecstatic to find that THERE ARE! I found the story of Ice skaters and Ice Hockey players of India, mostly concentrated in the Leh region. They don’t have equipments, next to nothing resources, no ice rink except when the lakes freeze in the winters but these girls aren’t lacking motivation and spirit. Most of the time their parents support the passion and a few of them sold their properties to make the dreams come true for their daughters. With the help of crowdfunding, players were able to raise money and were able to compete successfully in 2017 Challenge cup of Asia and defeated Phillipines and Malaysia. The support from Indian population was inspirational and impeccable.

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I wish and hope that these players rise further and get proper support and facilities from the Govt. so India can have a facelift in the upcoming international competitions. We must be cognizant that to win medals in a sporting event that will be held 20 years from now, we’ll have to give will, sweat, resources, and blood right now. Fortune favors the brave.

PS: You can watch the small documentary on the female ice hockey players of India, here.