Psalm 23 and Dreams

It was a ritual in our home that everyone recited the Twenty-third Psalm at the end of the evening prayer and the same was recited at our church at the end of the Holy Mass. This Psalm is applicable to one and all, irrespective of one’s religion and it reaffirms one’s faith in their God. The Twenty-third Psalm begins with “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. In the Malayalam version which we recited as children, the “I shall not want” part was translated as “എനിക്കു മുട്ടുണ്ടാകുകയില്ല” (enikku muttundakukayilla), and I always looked at my knees after reciting it, as it literarily translated in any child’s mind as “I will not have my knees”.

God will open the door only if one knocks and hence the aspect of “I shall not want” in Psalm 23 is debatable. Without the ‘wants’ humanity would have never progressed and developed to its current stature. The modern version of the Psalm has put it more aptly as “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing”. These ‘wants’ always tempted me to dream about anything and everything I came across as a child, mostly to be rebuked by elders saying that I was wasting my time dreaming – even the act of dreaming was rationed in our childhood—‘Who can dream what and how much’ was somewhat a pre-decided issue!

As I grew up and came under the stewardship of Late Mr PT Cherian, our House Master at Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Thamizh Nadu, who always encouraged us to dream – to dream big – that too King Size. As I grew older, I read the Wings of Fire by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam wherein he says that “Dream is not that which you see while sleeping it is something that does not let you sleep.” This was the predicament I always faced while dreaming that it delayed my falling asleep and the same continues to date.

Veteran Commander D Reginald was my companion to operate the public address system in the school under the guidance of Mr PT Cherian while studying in Grade 9 (1974). All the amplifiers, speakers, cables, etc were kept in Mr Cherian’s Physics Lab and on Sundays after lunch we both would go there to carry out regular maintenance. Once we were accompanied by our friend S Harikrishnan (currently Manager, State Bank of India), who was an accomplished singer. The idea was to fulfill Hari’s dream of listening to his voice duly recorded on the audio cassette recorder. Being Sunday afternoon, we knew that Mr Cherian will never be around as he always enjoyed his afternoon siesta and never ever wanted to be disturbed at that time and there would be no one to stop us from (mis)using the precious cassette recorder. We recorded Hari’s song and played back the recording. That was the first time he ever heard his own singing. Hari had the brightest and the biggest eyes amongst us and he was so excited that his eyes bulged out like search lights.

After accomplishing the mission Hari left and we were on to our maintenance tasks. Reginald was always a better dreamer than I was and continues to be so till date. Our discussion was about the possibility that one day we would be able to record what we see with the same ease as we recorded Hari’s voice. That dream has come true today and we have even gone much ahead that we are able to transmit the same across the globe in real-time. Remember that ‘What you dream today will in all likelihood become a reality tomorrow.’

We have encouraged our children to dream and the effect of it is mostly heard from the washroom. I always hear their monologues, dialogues, role-playing, singing, etc while they spend their time in the washroom – the most private time one ever gets. I was really scared of doing this while growing up on the fear of what others will think about me (mad?) and so I could never give expression to my dreams.

One must dream, that too dream unlimited. That is when one gets into a creative mood and comes out with ‘out of the box’ ideas. Imagine if Newton or Shakespeare or Ved Vyasa did not dream; the world would have been surely poorer. Some of our dreams may fructify in our lifetime like the video recording dream we had as children; some we would be able to implement ourselves as we grow up.

One such dream I always carried was that of the ‘Bara Khana’ (Party for the soldiers) in the regiment. One always saw the chefs overworked in the kitchen, many soldiers toiling it out for erecting the tents, making seating arrangements, organizing entertainment, serving food and drinks, etc. Many soldiers took it as a ‘punishment’ and not as a time to make merry. My dream was that all soldiers in the regiment should be free from all chores and commitments and be free to enjoy the party with their families and friends.

On return to our permanent location in Devlali after an yearlong operational deployment, Late Col Suresh Babu approached me with the idea of party for the entire unit with the families. That was when I gave my directions based on my dreams – everything should be contracted out – from tent pitching, decorations, entertainment, food preparation and service – each and everything and no soldier would toil for it. The only hitch which Col Babu projected was that the waiters of the contractors will not be familiar with the military protocols and hence may not serve the Commanding Officer first and so on. I was fine with it as I never had any ‘doubt’ that I was commanding the unit.

On the day of the party, there were round tables laid out with chairs for all officers, soldiers and their families to sit and the contracted entertainment troupe started off with their performances. Snacks and drinks were being served by the contractor’s waiters and each and every one enjoyed the proceedings. At this time our chef came to me and said that it was the first party he attended. that too wearing his best clothes and thanked me immensely for arranging this. All the soldiers were unanimous that it was the first time they wholeheartedly enjoyed an evening, otherwise they would be running around and also closing down everything after the party. After the success of the first outsourced party, we decided that we would hold only two parties a year and would always be outsourced.

As one grows up, it would be feasible to implement one’s dreams, but many find it convenient to forget them then.

Guru Dakshina

Wedding

On 16 Apr 1989, the day I married Marina, still lingers in my mind, as would be for any of us on this auspicious day.  I decided to invite all those teachers who taught me Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathinagar (Thamizh Nadu) for the wedding.  I had requested Mr PT Cherian (PTC), my mentor, house master and physics teacher, to accept the Guru Dakshina (Offering to a Teacher), prior to leaving the home for marriage as per the Syrian Orthodox Christian custom.  Mr Cherian accepted the request and I explained him the route to our home.  Mr Cherian was married to Ms Shiela Cherian, who taught everyone English in their Grade 5, expressed inability to attend owing to her bad health.

Sainik Schools were the brain child of then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, established in 1962 each of the major States of India, manned by senior officers of the armed forces with the objective of turning boys into men who can take on the responsibilities of the armed forces.  Ms Sheila Murphy, an Anglo-Indian lady, was among the first group of teachers to join the school at the time of inception.  Mr PT Cherian joined our school a year later in 1963.  After a few years, fell in love and got married, while we were in our eighth grade.  On the evening of their wedding, we were treated to a never ever seen sumptuous dinner at the Cadets’ Mess.  Thus Ms Sheila Murphy became Mrs Sheila Cherian.

Mrs Sheila Cherian is the first teacher anyone who joins Sainik School, Amaravathinagar encountered.  Most of us were from Malayalam or Thamizh medium schools having very little knowledge of English.  The way she taught us English, especially how to write (her handwriting was exceptional,) everyone of us will carry it to our graves.  She taught us table manners, how to sit at a table, use of cutlery and crockery, how to spread butter and jam with the knife, how to drink soup, how to eat boiled egg and most importantly, how to eat with our mouth closed.

Mr PT Cherian was our House Master, Physics teacher, Photography Club in-charge, Basket ball and Volley ball coach, mentor, etc etc, all rolled into one.  More than teaching physics, he dedicated all his time and energy to turn us into brave and confident young men.  We could discuss anything and everything under the sun with him.  He was behind every activity that happened in the school and was a great organiser.  Standing six feet tall, he had an impressive personality that will give run for the money to MGR and Sivaji Ganesan.

The marriage was scheduled for 4 PM and I was scheduled to leave home for the church by 3:30 PM.  All the friends and relatives gathered at our home for the occasion.  Mr AKR Varma – from the Cochin Royalty and our Arts teacher;  Mr George Joseph – English teacher, then Principal of Navodaya Vidyalaya, Neriamangalam; Kerala, Mr AD George –Botany teacher, Principal of Navodaya Vidyalaya, Kottayam; and Mr KS Krishnan Kutty our crafts master, all were there at home to shower their blessings.  There was no trace of Mr Cherian and we waited till 3:40 PM and then it was decided that Mr AKR Varma, being the senior most among our teachers present would accept the Guru Dakshina.

gd

Dakshina is a betel nut and a rupee coin wrapped in a betel leaf.  I handed over the Dakshina to Mr Varma, touched his feet, accepted his blessings and left for the church.  Mr Cherian was standing at the entrance of the church to receive us.

A few months later, we were on vacation in Kerala and attended Mr Varma’s daughter Vanaja’s wedding.  Mr Varma said that the Guru Dakshina came as a surprise to him and he was very much moved and that tears had rolled down his eyes, as it was the first time ever he had received such a gift.  He said he was unaware of the tradition that the Syrian Christians followed, and it is an ideal Dakshina any Guru could ever ask for.

After five years of marriage, we went to Sainik School Amaravathinagar with our daughter, to attend the Old Boys Association (OBA) meeting.  By then Cherians had retired and had settled in the farm they purchased, adjacent to the school.  We decided to call on the Cherians in the evening and reached the farm house.  The house had about 50 old students, some with their families already there.  The Cherians, known for their love for their students, whom they adored as children, as God had been unkind to the couple and had forgotten to bless them with any kids.  They were playing excellent hosts to each and everyone, including little children.

We paid our respects to the couple and I handed over a package containing a few bottles of whisky as Mr Cherian enjoyed his drinks in the evenings.  Accepting the gift, very well knowing what the contents would be said “Is this the Guru Dakshina I missed in 1989?”  I did not understand what he intended by that line.  I brooded over it and got no clue.  By about nine in the evening, most guests had left and my wife and daughter were closeted with Mrs Cherian with our daughter providing the entertainment with her songs.  I was sitting with Mr Cherian enjoying a drink in the coconut grove and suddenly Mr Cherian said “Do you know why I did not come to your home to accept the Guru Dakshina?  It is not that I did not love you or adore you, but because my marriage has not been complete as the God has not blessed us with any children and that was the reason why Sheila had declined to come for the marriage.  Mr Varma being elder to me in age and having a complete family was the most suitable person to receive the Guru Dakshina”.  I just could not speak and our eyes became wet.  We both remained silent for the next five minutes and completed the drink.

Mr Cherian fetched another set of drinks and continued “I Married Sheila very well knowing that she would not bear any children for me, due to her gynecological condition. I wanted to set an example for my students by marrying the person I loved.  I never wanted my students to tell me that I ditched their teacher”. Tears rolled down my cheeks….

PTC

Mr PT Cherian and Mrs Sheila Cherian on the extreme right.  Photo taken in 1969, courtesy  Mr Steve Rosson (in the middle), who taught at our school in 1969 as a Voluntary Service Overseas teacher from England.  Extreme Left is Mrs Mercy Mathai – our Matron when we joined school in 1971 – with Late Mr Mathai.  The children in the pic are Mathais – Robin and Reena.

Hindu-Arabic Numerals

Indian Numerals

The numerals in various languages interested me a lot. During our childhood, the Bible at home had chapters numbered with the Malayalam numerals and the verses with Indo-Arabic numerals. During our cadet days at the National Defence Academy, we travelled to Pune city by the municipal transit bus. The tickets were printed with the price shown with Devnagiri numerals and I had no clue of it. Once in the bus, the conductor gave me the ticket and I asked him as to what the cost was. He shot back saying that you dress in a suit and how come you cannot read. I came back and learnt the Devnagiri numerals immediately.

Our son Nikhil while in Grade 2, came home from school and asked me as to what has Hinduism to do with numerals. Taken aback, I asked him to narrate the context and he said the he was taught in the Math class that the common numerals are called Hindu-Arabic Numerals. In North America anything to deal with the country/sub-continent India is referred to as ‘Hindu’ (Hindustan) so as not to confuse with the American Aboriginals, commonly referred to as ‘Red-Indians’ or ‘Indians’.

My mind raced back to 1974, while in Grade 8 at Sainink School, Amaravathinagar, Thamizh Nadu, India, our math teacher, Mr Venkatesha Murthy had explained to us that the numerals we use every day would be known as Indo-Arabic Numerals and not as Arabic Numerals. These numerals were invented by mathematicians in India. They were later called ‘Arabic’ numerals by Europeans, because they were introduced in Europe by Arab merchants. The Europeans were intrigued by the speed at which these Arab merchants calculated mentally when the Europeans were struggling with their Roman numerals and their Abacus.

Mr Murthy also spoke to us in detail about important contributions made by mathematicians like Aryabhata, Bhaskara and Ramanujam. He also spoke to us about contributions of Indian mathematicians to the study of the concept of zero as a number, negative numbers, arithmetic, and algebra.  Mathematicians from Kerala (India) had developed trigonometric functions like sine, cosine, and tangent in the 15th century. They even had developed calculus two centuries before its invention in Europe. As usual, India being a timeless and record-less civilisation, no one formulated a systematic theory of differentiation and integration and there is no evidence of their findings being transmitted outside Kerala.

The Indian Science Conference of Jan 2015 had lectures about ancient knives so sharp they could slit a hair in two, 24-carat gold extracted from cow dung and even 7,000-year-old planes that could travel to other planets. Among other technologies, introduced at the congress there were polymers to build houses made of cactus juice, egg shells and cow dung; a cow bacteria that turns anything eaten by an animal into pure gold, and the curious procedure of an autopsy, conducted by leaving a dead body floating in water for three days. The surprising discoveries were said to be based on ancient Hindu texts, such as the Vedas and the Puranas, and were presented at a session on ‘Ancient Indian Sciences through Sanskrit’. There were some who claimed that Indians had travelled to other planets, and the helmet-shaped object found on the surface of Mars was the hair worn on the head by space travellers. These stories would not even have found a place in children’s comics. Surprisingly there were not one lecture about the mathematical contributions made by the Indians.

Providing a scientific platform in a prestigious science conference for a pseudo-science is appalling. It for the first time such a session is held in Indian Science Congress. Indian Prime Minister by saying to an audience of doctors and scientists that plastic surgery and genetic science existed and were in use thousands of years ago in ancient India and how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body. The Gujarat State school science books on various myths are now well known. These alarming developments happened after the change of government in Delhi. The scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudoscience in science curricula with backing of the government. The accelerated pace with which it is being promoted will seriously undermine nation’s science and it will have a disastrous effect on the future generation.

With this at the back of my mind, while in India in Jan 2015, I decided to interact with my nephews and nieces, mostly engineering students. To my surprise none knew that the numerals were called Indo-Arabic and they had no clue of the achievements of Indian mathematicians. It appeared that the textbooks in Canada have been amended, but the Indian books still carried Arabic numerals.