Saturday, 21 January 2017

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Cafes have personalities. Well, this one certainly did. It certainly wasn't just about the coffee or dessert although that was quite alright too. What Vienna managed to do was to draw towards itself some very interesting and diverse people and keep them. My guess is this had to do a fair bit with small decisions Hussain, the owner, made that one perhaps doesn't think about upfront when visiting a cafe but at some places something subconsciously clicks and one just feels comfortable. The way the furniture was laid out persists in my memory for example. There seemed to be an option for a range of activities: you would find students working on their assignments or mulling over a research problem, small groups of people just chit chatting, there was a sofa set with a low wide table in one corner where one could find folks poring over a board game or just leaning back with a book. There was also a small outdoor area where one might find someone strumming away at an acoustic guitar or groups of people challenging each other at games of chess and backgammon. There was a sense of informality in the cafe and it never really felt like one was sitting in a business establishment. I'm sure the music they used to put on played its role too as must have some of the traditional middle eastern snack dishes the cafe served. Hailing from Turkey, Hussain brought an expression of a different culture in the small town of West Lafayette through his cafe. And the town was the richer for it.

If it weren't for the atmosphere of Vienna Cafe and many of the people I met there I may never have learnt how to play chess, although I must admit that I never got too good at it. One reason for this was perhaps that I insisted on figuring everything out myself. Never read chess books. I did eventually allow some of my friends to teach me a bit about openings and give me a few tips overall when I had lost one too many games for my “chess self-worth” to feel quite whole. But beyond that I would insist on staring at the chess board and figuring out possibilities till I thought I saw some light. This approach had its own joys. For one, it forced me to concentrate like crazy and I think that in itself was a rush of sorts. And every time I figured out a successful strategy myself, or what happened way more often: managed to save my skin and escape impending doom, it carried the fulfilment of having used my own native intelligence. But its not really an approach I would recommend or even one I would follow (at least to that extreme) if I had to live those times all over again. I think learning from the masters and appreciating expressions of genius and foresight that are already out there is also a great joy. This is perhaps true across a whole spectrum of fields: sports, music, science, mathematics, art, engineering, and of course, carpentry. The need to find a balance between exercising one’s own native intelligence, expressing one’s creativity spontaneously and acknowledging the need for guidance whenever it arises.

But this story is not really about chess or carpentry as such. It just happened to start when I was in the middle of a game one evening. I was only a year into my PhD program. It was the month of June and we were appreciating the warmth of the sun in a manner that can be appreciated only after one lives for a few years in a part of the world where the mercury keeps dipping below freezing for weeks at end and everyone outdoors is a potential snowman when the flakes begin to fall.

Umud’s eyes widened and twinkled with mischief as he looked at my cell phone that had just started ringing. The screen was flashing the caller’s name, Lan, and he asked me with a grin stretching right across his face: Hey Brij, What’s that? It seems your local area network is trying to locate you. Don’t tell me they assign PhD students IP addresses in your department so that they can ping them at will. Adam and Mark both let out a laughter and then Adam said with mock seriousness: Easy man, you never know when a CS guy might be listening. You can never trust them. They might actually do such a thing and then we’ll all be in trouble. There was a nod of heads all around. Sneaking out occasionally from our labs for late afternoon games of chess was our little pleasure and we certainly wanted to stay off the radar when we indulged.

I think every hostel / dormitory across the globe has at least one guy affectionately called gentle giant at any given point in time. That’s how I would describe Umud. Hailing from Turkey, he had a physical presence and strength that could very well have been overwhelming if he had wished. But that was just not his style. He exhibited a gentleness of spirit that was just exemplary. It reflected in how he related to everyone around him: from fellow PhD students to people serving him coffee to dismally struggling chess players like myself. Academically, he was a PhD student in the Department of Mathematics at Purdue and was working in the field of algebra for his thesis. Now you understand where the local area network thing comes from? Crazy mathematicians!

Other than being a brilliant mathematician Umud was also an excellent chess player. And his approach towards chess was just like his approach towards almost every aspect of his life. Methodical, thoughtful, systematic. He might have tried his hand at speed chess as well, I don’t really know. What I saw was the way he played his chess at Vienna and I learnt much from him. It helped that he was also remarkably patient. He was leagues ahead of me but he would still play game after game with me and give me the time and space I needed to figure things out and slowly improve myself.

Although the methodical and thoughtful manner of his mind was apparent in his chess playing it crystallized in my attention when I saw him solving the rubik’s cube once. He was so absorbed, content with going slow, deliberate, pausing after every move to think, to reflect, and maybe to absorb lessons he was learning along the way. It was remarkable to watch! Such a contrast from what seems to be the rage of the day: speed cubing: learn a series of moves from some book or youtube video and then practice them over and over and over again till one can separate the colours in a flash and win some competition somewhere that has zero interest in your intelligence, only how well rehearsed you are, how quick your fingers move and perhaps how “good” a cube you own. Whatever! I referred to the need for a balance between exercising one’s native intelligence and taking guidance from those who might be better above. This is no balance. This is essentially unintelligent behaviour. It’s worse than being able to solve multiple choice physics questions fast and fancying oneself to be a physicist. As I just said, whatever!

If only people lived their lives the way Umud was solving the rubik’s cube that day: thoughtfully, with a spirit of contemplation and reflection: I reckon we would automatically have more silence, grace and dignity in our world instead of the mad tumble through chaos towards utter disarray that we presently find ourselves in the midst of.

But coming back to the name flashing on my cell phone: Lan, short for Ilanthirayan Pragaspathy, B. Tech. in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras and doing his MS at Purdue at the time, a nine point someone who was absolutely smashing at cooking puliyogare (a tamarind rice preparation from south India) with the puliyogare mix packed by his mother (a secret we guarded fiercely) and learnt how to play drums well enough to hop into a jam and hold his beat nice and proper within about 6-8 months. He was also a science fiction aficionado and must have gone through a fair bit of the scifi collection at the West Lafayette Public Library during his two years at Purdue. And all this while doing well enough in his MS program to land a job at Intel before he had written his last set of exams.

No, the idea is not to inspire a brain drain to Intel or any other company outside the country :) – I do wish that Lan were back in India and leading our high tech ECE sector forward – but just to make the point that its perfectly alright to aspire to do well in academics. It does not necessarily mean that the rest of life gets shut out. Quite on the contrary, just a bit of conscious time management can allow a healthy pursuit of both academic as well as extracurricular activities. One can certainly tilt a bit this way at times and a bit the other way at others. That’s understandable as one goes through his / her process of self-discovery, which is unique for each one of us. But I think it’s also true that there are many a student who end up neither focusing on academics nor go through a healthy pursuit of extracurricular interests. Often they aren’t trying to figure themselves out and what they want either. They just let time slip by, not realizing that time once lost is lost for good. It never comes back. That, I find tragic. There is nothing cool in my opinion about withering away one’s best years.

Lan and me were roommates at the time. So I was surprised to see that he was calling as we were to meet at our apartment in a few hours anyway. I snapped open my phone as I shook my head with bemusement at him being referred to as a local area network.

Hey Lan, what’s up?

Ptom just called. It’s the Chicago blues festival this weekend and Ruth Brown’s singing on Saturday. Prosh’s cool with going. How’re you placed? Any deadlines coming up or can you come along?

I’m coming, I’m coming. No deadlines loom immediately. Plus its Wednesday today so I have a couple of days to wind up some research stuff that I need to finish before my next meeting with my advisor. We leave on Friday, right?

Yep. Ptom said he and Sonali would be fine with us staying over at their place.

Cool.

Cool then. See you in a bit at the apartment.

See ya.

Can you imagine the excitement I felt? I was going to see Ruth Brown sing live in a few days. And a host of other live performances for two full days as that year’s annual blues festival unfolded at Chicago.

I looked around, beamed a smile, announced that I was headed to the fest that weekend and tried to focus once again on the game of chess ahead of me. Mark, who had been quietly strumming away some bluegrass music on his guitar promptly hit a twelve bar blues rhythm while Adam glanced at the chessboard and then back at me, as if to indicate that if I didn't get my mind back into the game nice and proper it may only be a matter of a few more moves before my little excursion from the lab ended. We both knew that staying in the game for long enough with Umud required every bit of attention one could spare.


(to be continued… Link)

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