Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Lesser of two Tragedies

I was surfing channels in the afternoon and landed up on BBC Entertainment playing reruns of an old sitcom from the late nineties, I think. What intrigued me was the sight of a very young Benedict Cumberbatch playing a character called Peter Powell as a more-or-less milquetoast preppie trying very hard to be cool with a group of similarly wannabe friends in what looked like the Brit version of a honkytonk bar. In the scene I landed in the middle of, Peter eyes the young bartender, a sassy lanky leggy brunette with a throaty laugh, downs a pint of beer for Dutch courage, walks up to the bar and asks her to make him a cocktail of her choice, she raises an eyebrow and mixes one called Tequila Tragedy. And in what is definitely not the smoothest move in the book, he proceeds to offer up the glass to her and says, "Actually, I just wanted to buy you a drink. What's your name?"

And in true Brit tv tradition as a friend informs me, the bartender turns out be a no-nonsense Aussie gal who flatly turns Peter down. "Well, atleast, tell me your name. Come on!" he pleads.

"I'm Fee." She replies shortly, turning to another customer.

"What, like Fiona?" Peter persists.

Fee rounds on him looking rather pissed off, "It's Ophelia, if you must know! Ophelia Scherbatsky."

'That's an interesting name. I like it." Peter smiles at her.

"Well, I hate it! I hate it because any girl would hate being named after the two most tragic women in all of literature." says Fee with an air of finality.

"Yeah," replies Peter, desperately trying to prevent her from jettisoning the conversation, "Yeah, Ophelia is rather tragic. Losing her mind and getting dumped by Hamlet and drowning and all that. But Kitty Scherbatsky wasn't tragic. She and Levin lived happily ever after, right?"

Fee shakes her head vigorously. "Kitty Scherbatsky went from being a free-spirited, independent young woman with a mind of her own to being married to some hypocritical, monkish country farmer who cheated on her with Anna Karenina and she had to take him back and spend the rest of her life with him because Russian law in those days wouldn't permit her to divorce him! I think hers is the sadder story. I mean, I know I'd rather drown!"

Deflated but not dejected, Peter nods lamely and adds, "Yeah, drowning does sound like the lesser tragedy when you put it like that. Erm, it was nice meeting you, Fee!" and walks back to his friends, making up his mind to have a longer conversation with Fee the next night.

Watching this led to exactly two revelations - that Robin Scherbatsky from How I Met Your Mother is not the first sassy female television character to bear that last name and that only the BBC could possibly produce a Friends-style sitcom that has characters discussing the fates of women from world literature in a honkytonk bar over a glass of tequila!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To Denmark and back again

For the past few days, my mind has been a jumble of half-formed thoughts. It is only today that I begin to see the rather startling and somewhat oddly elegant symmetry of the past week. It began with reading about renegade political scientist Francis Fukuyama and his phrase 'getting to Denmark' from his book The End of History, a phrase that suggests that a liberal democracy like Denmark represents the end-point of the world's socioeconomic development. It ended with Michael Frayn's maddeningly complex meditation on the physical, the political and the personal, the incredible play, 'Copenhagen' a play drawing its name from that great Danish capital city, I previously associated with Hans Christian Andersen alone.

The play suggests that if events on a fateful evening in Copenhagen in 1941 had played out differently, Denmark wud have been not the end-point of the world's development but the starting-point of the end of the world as we know it.

The nearly three-hour long play is peopled not by characters, but by ghosts. Ghosts with a haunting, restless, questive quality. Ghosts that refuse to let us rest in peace. They make us, the unseen audience, the judge and jury to a decades-long argument - an argument that has followed them from life into its after.

What made it impossible for me to write about the play, is that all things that are discussed and described herein happen in a place located in memory or in limbo, not in any place inside of the space-time continuum.

The ghosts of Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Werner Heisenberg push past the pages of the history books, striding onto the creaking floorboards - questioning, always questioning the past, the present and the future.

When the play starts on a September evening in 1941 in the middle of the Second World War, on the eve of the atomic age, in German-occupied Copenhagen, the Bohrs, the rather apprehensive Danish couple are expecting a visit from their former protege and friend, German physicist, Werner Heisenberg. They try to guess at the purpose for his visit, both implicitly agreeing that it is not simply to revisit the past. "He wants to show off to us that he's a famous German professor of physics now." says Margrethe. "He wants to talk about fission. And he's not that famous!" grumbles Niels.

"Talk about physics, and not politics." Margrethe warns her husband. "The two can be difficult to keep apart." replies her husband coolly. By the end of the evening, they are about to realize exactly how difficult.

Heisenberg walks in, as on an ambush, we want to warn him. He is treated equally as old friend and new enemy. The conversation is a minefield. Old memories of colleagues, and skiing and three glasses of wine are brought forth, but are not enough to smoothen the rough edges of the conversation that alternates between assertions of patriotism, the detailing of how friendships go sour, the possibilities of escape and immigration, and of course, the war that is on about them. The war that has recast an old friend, teacher, employer as a possible source of information about the enemy's war effort.

There is also the painful awareness that the house is bugged and wired and Hitler's silent sniffer-dogs, the Gestapo are waiting in the shadows. The awareness brings with it long silences, and painful pauses.

Margrethe is a commentator in the silence. We learn that it was all different in the 20's. Between the wars, Bohr and the upstart young German he'd befriended were as close as father and son, Margrethe informs us with a strange but characteristic mixture of warmth and bile. She tells us about Christian, a son they lost in a sailing accident, how he had been all but replaced by the charming, brilliant Heisenberg in Bohr's heart, long before Heisenberg was lost, too, this time to the war and we can see how things would never be the same between them again, no matter which side won the war.

As the silence ends, the reminiscing over, a walk is suggested. For old times' sake. A walk that Margrethe says lasted barely for ten minutes, ending as abruptly as it began.

This walk is also the reason the play was written. Heisenberg said the sole reason he had come to meet Bohr in Copenhagen was to discuss a terrifying possibility that had occurred to him - the possibility of using radioactive uranium to build atomic bombs and the moral repercussions of scientists becoming involved in such a project, a project whose disturbing outcome Bohr preempted. Bohr balked at the idea, refusing to discuss it, or even consider the calculations involved, ending the conversation before it had begun. What was said that autumn evening, or rather what wasnt said, would change the course of human history.

In assuming that Heisenberg would build the bomb and help Hitler win the war, Bohr had jumped to a conclusion that Heisenberg would defend to his dying breath. It would also ensure that a fatal error in Heisenberg's calculations would not be corrected in time. The bomb would be built in America, not Germany. Bohr himself would later be part of the legendary team that successfully built the world's first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Heisenberg would fade from glory, ostracised by the international community for running Germany's ultimately unsuccessful nuclear programme, punished severely for his idealised patriotism. As a consequence he would never have the blood of innocent millions on his hands. By misunderstanding his friend's intentions, Bohr had unconsciously done him a great favour, it would seem. But, of course, this is only one version of events that occurred that night and throughout the play, these events will be subjected to various revisions and additions and editions. No one can know for certain what really happened in Copenhagen. Skepticism and Uncertainty dominate all to the very end.

(From left to right, Veera Abadan as Margrethe Bohr, Vivek Tandon as Werner Heisenberg and Tom Alter as Niels Bohr in "Copenhagen" at the NCPA.)

Another recurring theme throughout the play is the connection between the material world, governed by the laws of physics and our inner worlds, governed by rules of the heart alone.

"A particle, when observed, changes its behaviour." Margrethe intones as she shrewdly but silently observes Bohr and Heisenberg as they awkwardly attempt small-talk.

"Doubt always cast a shadow on your thinking. That is why you discovered the uncertainty principle." Bohr reproaches the impetuous Heisenberg as he boasts about his impulsive strategies - strategies that helped him win not only skiing contests but also the woman who wud be his wife.

"You always assume the worst about people, and then you decide to forgive them for it. Complementarity is in your very nature." a crestfallen Heisenberg bristles at Bohr as he brings up a discredited former student.

It is as if we were nothing but extrapolations of the billions of subatomic particles that constitute the behemoths that are our bodies - our actions as random and chaotic as anything else in the quantum world. This is at one point rather vividly illustrated as Heisenberg and Bohr pretend to be electron and photon - colliding in the darkness, spiralling away, forever changed by their singular interaction.

As for the characters, it is, of course, incredible to view famous scientists whose names have become by-words for theories and principles in physics textbooks come so forcefully to life as people in whose hands and in whose minds lay the key to saving or dooming the lives of millions of people, the key to changing the face of the twentieth century, and the outcome of the Second World War.

"Theoretical physicists are of no use in wartime. They are yet to find a way to kill people using theoretical physics." jokes Bohr at the beginning of the play. And an hour later, we learn that this very man, a half-Jewish proponent of quantum mechanics, which Hitler called "Jewish science", forced to flee his country in the face of the Holocaust would have a hand in building the two atom bombs that wrought such death and destruction as the world has scarcely seen.

The characters are brilliant men but they are played by actors who seem to follow not from the at-times assiduously scientific language of the play but from the deeper feelings behind it. Tom Alter plays Niels Bohr with a defeated air, a man who sees no hope in the world and who assumes only the very worst of his former friend.

Heisenberg is played by an actor who, unfortunately for the character, goes for breadth over depth. As a result, this Heisenberg is hapless, but not haunted. He is bright but not clever. He is confounding but never enigmatic. He is at his best in the scene where he recalls his childhood in a defeated, war-ravaged Germany, a memory that strengthens his resolve to do everything in his power to prevent Germany's defeat in yet another war.

Margrethe seemed most perfectly formed to me. A woman who stays mostly in the background of the play but sees with most clarity what happens in the foreground of her life and the lives of those around her.

My favourite part of the play was a monologue in the second act, where Bohr explains to us that in the early 20th-century was born an idea that humanized physics like never before. Einstein's relativity theories that restored man's place at the center of the universe. "That measurement is not an impersonal event that occurs with universal impartiality", but "a human act that had meaning only when carried out from a specific point of view in time and space."

Thus, man can stand at the center of the universe and while he can see all the world, he cannot see what lies behind his eyes. This fundamental unknowability of people, even and especially to themselves, is an important idea the story plays with. If man is indeed the measure of the universe, then nothing is really quantifiable. This is a surprising idea, my favourite from the several brilliant ideas the play threw up.

And as the evening comes to an end, we realize the three characters have brushed against each other in such different combinations that this friction has caused them to each emerge more clearly. At the end, we have come to know them all, from the inside out - rather than the reverse.

There is so much thought here, even when we choose to look past the layers of the science and the politics, we find the fervid, ambivalent father-son relationship between the two men. The sharp marital protectiveness and the simultaneous subtle resentment that Margrethe possesses, the pain of the loss of a child, the personal tragedy of war and how it scars forever even those that survive it bodily unharmed.

By the end, what they transmit to us most, is their spirit of ravenous curiosity. We may yet learn the secret ways of strings and quarks but we cant ever know exactly who we are, or why we do what we do. Our motives and intentions are often shrouded in ambiguity, moreso than the fate of Schrodinger's famous cat. Our memories are as unreliable and dynamic as an electron on its unpredictable trajectory.

As we witness the different permutations and versions of what may have happened on that September evening in Copenhagen in 1941, we learn that definite knowledge is probably unattainable in "Copenhagen". But how much more interesting life is, as a result. You know, that familiar letdown as you reach the end of the story in a mystery novel? Well, you wont find that here. In the world of "Copenhagen", no such anticlimaxes exist. The thrill of the chase is infinite.

P.S. Heisenberg, ever ebullient father of the Uncertainty Principle, has an epitaph over his grave that reads 'He lies somewhere here.' Uncertain in death as in life.

P.P.S. A friend who watched the play the same evening as me and who sat beside me in the latter half of the play, whose post pushed me to finish my own has perhaps a clearer, more elegant set of thoughts. Here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

I get by with a little help from my friends

A rather gregarious, albeit long-forgotten, school-mate called me up last night. It must have been six or seven years since we last spoke and I almost didn't recognise her voice. We hadn't been particularly close in school but we'd had some entertaining conversations over the years. She always hung around the school with a rather large and extremely loud gaggle of girls, while I had what she called a 'dedicated but small group of followers' which is for all intents and purposes, rather close to the truth. I had exactly three best friends then and I have exactly five best friends now, the latest two acquired in the first two years of college. The years haven't exactly made me any more of a friend-magnet than they have made her any less of a chatterbox.

So around an hour of filling-each-other-in-on-what's-happening-in-our-lives later, she suddenly piped up that she had this idea, for a school reunion. Just some old friends, not the whole class, she said. I told her that I thought that going by her social butterfly status, inviting her old friends wud be the same as inviting the whole class.

She quieted down perceptibly at that and I wondered if I'd hit a nerve without having realized it. I tried to placate her with, "Oh c'mon, you've always had a lot of friends. You can talk with pretty much anyone and be friends with them an hour later. I'm sure you have a thousand new friends in college by now."

At which point, she said, "No, but it's not the same. School friends are different. Besides, I cant really talk with these friends."

Why not, I asked her. Because they weren't all that close to her, she said. For someone who was as socially inept as I, this was a concept that didn't really get through to me right away. If somebody had a hundred friends, they must be close friends with atleast one or two of them.

She sighed at the other end of the phone line, and said, "Sometimes, people have to make new friends because they cant hold onto any old ones."

Then, of course, we made plans to meet up over the weekend and I realized how much I'd really missed her without knowing it, and that it wud be a real pity if we had to let each other ago.

On Thinking Different

Looking at my facebook homepage last morning, I cudnt help but be overwhelmed by the collective outpouring of tribute for and quotes by Steve Jobs. I had this slight sinking feeling in my stomach, a somewhat delicate sense of loss and it was strange that it was for a man I didn't really know at all. But what he dreamed up changed the daily habits of millions around the world, what he created was what all of us grew up desiring. Atleast, I did. I remember brokering deals with my parents, deals that ran along the lines of 'If I get a Distinction in every subject this year, will you buy me an iPod?' Well, I did get both. The Distinctions and the iPod. It was incredible, the idea that something so small and so elegant cud be kept safe under a pillow at night while Elvis Presley crooned into my ears or V. S. Ramachandran delivered personal lectures about phantom limbs and Capgras syndrome.

It didn't feel like just another consumer product. Even if some people insist that's all it really was.

Whichever side one takes, in all the debating and discussing over Apple and their iPods and iPads and iPhones and Macs and all that, one can't help denying, it is awesome technology, marketed rather effectively. And Steve Jobs, who made most of it possible, is gonna be sorely missed.

I rather liked this quote from the long and lovely list of quotes that flew around in newspapers and forwards and on facebook yesterday.

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify them or vilify them.

About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that's never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

And cradling my iPod as it plays a rather soulful Rosanne Cash song, it's nice to imagine being one of those people he's talking about so passionately. And that's a feeling you can't quite put a price on.