Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Sophia, Janmashtami and the strange case of the Iraqi sprinter...

In Manipur, it is Krishna's flute which is said to play every time the wind gently whistles through the bamboo groves.

This posting is only tangentially connected to Manipur, being about Janmashtami, Krishna's birthday.

(But an interesting book to look at, connecting state violence, globalisation, Manipur and the mainstream north; is this gripping fiction in Hindi by Uday Prakash, 'Peeli Chatri Waali Ladki' - 'The Girl with the Yellow Umbrella.'
For non-hindi readers, a collection of his short stories is just out from Katha, translated into English - 'Short Shorts, Long Shots'. This is the best link I could find in a hurried search - )

Anyways, back to Janmashtami - night.

And party, which had nothing to do with Janmashtami. But with the imminent departure to amreeka of a friend who is very much of a Krishna figure... with the appropriate twist of being queer, and being quite the activist for opening up queer spaces. Way too much Beefeater's gin.

Then Sophia and Ponni ask me about the quiz I conducted last week (or was it the week before that?)

Then i asked them the question I asked in the quiz, and which made me ask many questions about the categories of knowledge,and 'knowledge' creation.

Cut to quiz -
question 74 - The Strange Case of the Iraqi sprinter -
Alla Jassim, 18, from Iraq, is considered to be one of the best female athletes in the Arab world. But she's been finishing last in her Olympic heats becuase of a peculiar problem. What?
(notice how a quiz question is constructed like a short, short, short detective story. All you have to do is gues the twist in the tale....
.... what's the twist you give?)

first answer - she was running in 'Islamic' clothes...

- The team, three representatives of one of Delhi's premier technology colleges, looks at me hopefully; and I almost laugh them off stage...
- I knew you'd say that, I tell them. (What else could they say with all the media images of Iraqi being about Moqtada Al-Sadr?) Can we think beyond sterotypes? Iraq used to be a secular country till the Americans started bombing it....

Once specifically asked to think beyond stereotypes, someone actually came up with the answer...

Alla Jassim, eighteen years old, her training disrupted by bombings in Baghdad, was so inured to the sound of gunfire and loud explosions that she had one of the slowest reaction times to the starter's gun...

Sophia and Ponni, appetite whetted by that first question, ask for another. In the middle of a party. (Knowledge production is afucking intoxicating thing. Even more so than Beefeater's.)

So i ask -

- Why is the number 16,108 important in Hindu mythology?

- blank stares, then -

Ponni - number of words in the Vedas?

Sophia - It's the number of Krishna's wives.

It is. It is the scripturally given number of Krishna's wives. (Ye doubting thomases, check page 116 of 'The Culture and Civiilsation of Ancient India in Historical Outline' by D D Kosambi...)

.... Ponni and I - HOW DID YOU KNOW?

Sophia- I didn't. I just sort of guessed. Seeing all those images of Krishna everywhere today... (wicked grin...) I'm the only Muslim in this room and I get this, about Krishna! (positive glee...)

Sophia. Wisdom. Knowledge. Doing unintentionally what quizzers (as a separate and distinct cultural breed of human beings, compeletly enmeshed in the consumption and production of knowledge as commodity, more so than most human beings, even more so than the larger sphere of academia to which they belong.... ) do. Processing the sensory/information overload that we are all subject to, everyday, and suddenly seeing the pattern - the twist that will complete the tale.

But if the sensory/information overload that we are subjected to is slanted, if somethings, in what constantly assaults you are privileged far, far more than some other things, if there is no 'democracy', so to say, of information... even the best quizzer's ability, not to 'remember', but to 'know'/guess - to sense the patterns, the twist in the tale, the elegant symmetry with which a fact-story is constructed, is short-circuited.

(Apologies to Wittgenstein -
1. The world is a collection of facts, not of things.
1.1. All facts are narrative facts.
1.1.1. All facts can be constructed/told as stories. The aesthetics of story telling are important markers of the 'veracity' of facts, like Jules Henri Poincare's insistence on the 'elegance' of mathematical solutions and scientific 'truths'. Information 'asymmetry' distorts facts, and hence distorts the world.)

krishna's birthday had so many images of krishna hitting you from all over the place, so taht was the pattern that sophia, wisdom was almost 'meant' to see, with the startling clarity of insight.

... if moqtada al-sadr and 'religious' violence is all you hear about from iraq... how hard does it become to guess the story of eighteen year old Alla Jassim, and the peculiar problem of the starter gun?

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