Death Throes of the Author

The last paragraph of O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi makes me like it a lot less. Had the story just ended with the reveal of Jim having sold his watch, the reader could’ve read the story as an everyday tragedy, as a snapshot of bitter ironies in life, or just a sardonic take of human nature. The author, though, chooses to moralize, saying “…two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house”, and imposing upon the reader his own interpretation.

Roland Barthes in his iconic essay Death of the Author argues against incorporating the author’s intentions and biographical context into literary analysis, and instead suggests analysing solely the text. Does the author wish to give up their text, though? I wonder if paragraphs like this one are the death throes of the author, a last attempt to exert control over their creation before it leaves them.

Take Sahir Ludhianvi’s Laaga Chunari mein Daag, immortalized by Manna Dey in raag bhairavi. The चुनरी, ससुराल, and दाग could probably have a dozen interpretations. The last antara before the tarana begins, however, goes:

कोरी चुनरिया आत्मा मोरी, मैल है माया जाल
वो दुनिया मोरे बाबुल का घर, ये दुनिया ससुराल

and just like that, the poet snatches away the dozen interpretations from the listener, by explaining their own interpretation of the metaphor within the text.

Mind you, the temptation to editorialize your own work is very real, and I’ve experienced it myself — perhaps most often when posting an Instagram story, and feeling the need to put a caption on it. My main reason, I think, is that people viewing my story won’t “get it”, because I’m not a good enough storyteller. Do the Ludhianvis and Henrys of the world feel this too? Perhaps more apt than death throes, then, might be to call this Insecurity of the Author.

In Chicago

As I gaze out of my plane window and I watch down, I see the lights of the Chicago night. Cars, skyscrapers, houses — all form these patterns, these constellations, these pictures. Look, isn’t that a mother chasing her laughing child around the house? And aren’t the lights on the coastline against Lake Michigan’s vast empty nothingness somewhat in Lincoln’s likeness, as he stares out into the infinite, contemplating about the future of the nation? Are those blinking lights next to the highway transmitting a message in code? Calling the mothership back to take E.T. home? The lights tell stories probably as fascinating and as vivid as the lives of all the people who form them.

Then I glance up at the sky and am horrified to see not a single star in sight! The brown smoggy emptiness of the sky is rivaled only by the oceanic lake below. But where are the stars? Where is Pegasus, spreading his magnificent wings as he rises to Mount Olympus? Where is Andromeda, waiting by the sea to be ravaged by the great sea monster? And as the plane passes above the clouds, and I still find the heavens empty, it dawns upon me that I had just left them down below. In Chicago. As the sun sets and night falls upon the city, the stars, not satisfied with telling the tale from far above, come down into the city to sing their tales to the dreaming millions. The heavens descend upon the earth — in Chicago. Could there be a greater human achievement?

Hello, Seattle

Pretend that you are in a plane. Closed. Flying 36000 feet in the air. Trapped. No escape. You try to sleep it off with the cheap alcohol. Fake smiles. Standing in line for the tiny toilets. Trapped. No escape. But then imagine your destination. Your home for the next five years. And the sense of curiosity and trepidation replaces dread. And then realize that you are already at your destination. “I’m here already!”, you whisper to yourself with wonder. There’s no apprehension anymore; just a question, “What’s next?”. Seattle welcomes you to an embrace – a cloudy one – but still strangely warm and inviting. “Welcome home, Ravi”, he whispers in your ear. And you smile as you step out of the airport, and reply,

“Hello Seattle! Great to finally meet you.”

Quick Almond Pie: My first ever original recipe

With a lot (and I mean a lot) of time on my hands, I am dabbling my hands in a bit of everything, including cooking. As I was sitting on the dinner table today, I suddenly felt enlightened, much like Buddha did under the Bodhi tree. The heavens proclaimed that I head to the kitchen, and create a masterpiece that the Gods wish me to create. Now, who am I to dispute the Gods? The item that I created in my creative frenzy turned out to be….well not too bad actually. So here is the crazily simple, yet decently tasty recipe

Quick Almond Pie


Preparation Time: 5 minutes

Serves: 2 people


  • 8 Marie Biscuits
  • 4 tsp Sugar
  • 15 Almonds
  • 2 tbsp Butter
  • 4 tsp Milk (Replace with water/soy milk, if vegan)

Almond Pie Slices

  1. Put the biscuits and the sugar in a mixer jar, and grind them to a fine powder
  2. Melt the butter and mix it together with the powder. Knead it lightly to get uniform consistency 
  3. Break the almonds into small, but not too small pieces, and mix into the mixture
  4. Take a 4-inch microwavable plate, and press it at the bottom, spreading evenly
  5. Sprinkle the milk on the top evenly
  6. Microwave for 1.5 minutes
  7. Remove and cut into triangular pieces
  8. Serve hot, with vanilla ice cream
End Note

You can probably replace almonds with walnuts or pistachios, to get the recipe for the corresponding pie

A Ghazal

As I sit here by your deathbed, gazing at thy tearful eyes
The memories flash before mine, me and the love of my life

देख तेरा हसीन बदन उमड़ा था दिल में उफान
मदिरा चख ले ‘इक बार, पानी से प्यास मिटती है कहाँ?

A mournful smile you smiled, and said, “In forty-eight moons; Fore’er
Leave you, I must. Can you live with a hole in your heart for life?”

हुस्न का दीवाना मैं, शमा की शहूत [1] – परवाना मैं
जिस्म का ही गुलाम है जो, मुस्तकबिल [2] देखता है कहाँ?

I became you, and you me. And as you giggled, when I kissed
The mole above your navel, wished that moment would last for life

हाँ, मोहब्बत हो गयी थी बन्दे को तुझसे ऐ ज़ालिम
और फिर तेरे साथ बीते चार साल न जाने गए कहाँ

As I sit here by your deathbed, gazing at thy tearful eyes
I wonder at the futility of the rest of my life

तरसता रवि, इक पल और तेरे संग मिलेगा कहाँ?
पर बाद घुरूब-ऐ-आफताब [3], एक किरण भी दिखती है कहाँ

(I wrote this as an ode to the amazing four years I spent at IIT Bombay, which are sadly about to end in the next two weeks. You are free to an alternative interpretation, of course. You can read about the poetic form of a ghazal here)

1. शहूत = lust
2. मुस्तकबिल = future
3. घुरूब-ऐ-आफताब = sunset

Faithful to the Original: Comparing Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes

(This piece has also been published in Proceedings of the Pondicherry Lodge, Vol 1: Issue 1. You can read that version on scribd)

I meant to write this a while ago, when the second season of the BBC TV show Sherlock came out, right after Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. But well, better late than never.

So this question often comes up in my Shakespearean Afterlives course. (Don’t worry, this post isn’t about Shakespeare!) What does it mean for an afterlife, or a contemporary work that derives from some past work, to be faithful to the original source? Film and television has had a revival of interest in Sherlock Holmes in the past few years. To be honest, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes has never quite been out of public gaze (see the numerous Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years), but a revival of interest for the mainstream and big-budget media is recent. In particular, Guy Ritchie came out with his interpretation of Sherlock as a spunky, funny, action-packed hero, played by the inimitable Robert Downey Jr, fighting villains and saving the world in the 1890s. And then there is the BBC TV series Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that has received accolades from fans and critics alike. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a savant like Sherlock who is quick to embrace gadgets and modern technology – anything that can help him get closer to catching the bad guys.So which of the two works is closer to the revered and canonized Doyle version of Sherlock Holmes?

The Setting

Ritchie’s Holmes lives in Doyle’s times. The horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned clothes and hats and the sepia tones paint the picture of Doyle’s London – surprisingly similar to what I imagined the setting to be when I read the short stories. Moffat’s Sherlock, on the other hand, lives in the fast, upbeat London of 2012. The characters travel in taxis, wear jeans talk on their iPhones – more of a setting for Doctor Who than Sherlock Holmes. However, recall that when Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories, he did not intend it to be a historical piece or a costume drama. Doyle’s Holmes is based not in the past, but in the present, and is in fact shown to be a man of science, gleefully using any new invention or discovery that may help him solve a case, including the recently discovered fingerprints, in a story whose title I don’t remember at the moment. Incidentally, this is picked up by both Ritchie – with his Sherlock shown driving the Ford Model T in a scene – and Moffat – with his Sherlock using SMS, GPS navigation and any other technology that can help. However, while forensics might have seemed cutting edge to the readers of 1890, Holmes driving the Model T is merely a funny scene in Game of Shadows. The horse-drawn carriages are seen as quaint and cute in 2012; they were a way of life in 1890 just like GPS and mobile phones are in 2012. The 2012 audience reaction to Moffat’s Sherlock, then is perhaps closer to what the 1890 audience reaction to Doyle might have been.

Note, however, that the modern reader (you and me) also reads Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The charm of the old that the book presents for us is perhaps robbed in the  Moffat and Gatiss version. Also, not all plot elements can work as well in a new setting. The photograph in A Scandal in Bohemia becomes a cellphone in A Scandal in Belgravia on the BBC show, since a digital photograph is so much easier to duplicate than a physical photograph of the 1890s. The change in the plot was done smoothly and brilliantly, in my opinion, but the fact that a change was required itself says that the plot wasn’t entirely faithful to Doyle. Or perhaps, since it is merely changing the plot to fit naturally into the contemporary setting, one could argue that it is in fact a faithful adaptation.

Holmes vs Holmes

The Sherlocks

Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch, as Sherlock Holmes

Coming to the characters, both Cumberbatch and Downey Jr. play the same role – the role of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The character portrayed, however, is entirely different for both. Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock is an eccentric detective, clever, but ever ready to jump into a brawl. “Holmes is such a weirdo”, commented Downey Jr in an interview with the BBC once, and a weirdo is exactly what his Bohemian, comic Sherlock is. Comic is exactly what the Cumberbatch Sherlock is not. While he has his eccentricities, they tend to accentuate the intensity of the character rather than his funny side. The Bohemian Holmes is very much from Doyle’s text, but making him a comic character is taking it too far, in my opinion. While I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Game of Shadows, Downey doesn’t quite remind me of the short stories that I read so fondly as a child. Benedict Cumberbatch does. Though he uses nicotine patches instead of his pipe and lives in 2012 instead of 1890, he is in essence the Sherlock out of the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books.

Moriarty vs Moriarty

Andrew Scott and Jared Harris, as James Moriarty

Moriarty features only twice in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Sherlock Holmes’s respect and fear for him, however, make him a formidable opponent, and is often shown as an arch-enemy by contemporary works. Jared Harris plays the Moriarty of the Doyle books in The Game of Shadows. The master criminal, the mathematical genius – complete with a beard. Jim Moriarty of the BBC series, played by Andrew Scott is markedly different. He isn’t a professor, for one. “Moriarty is usually a rather dull, rather posh villain so we thought someone who was genuinely properly frightening. Someone who’s an absolute psycho”, Steven Moffat said, in an interview for The Guardian.  As in the books, Jim Moriarty commands absolute power in the criminal underworld. An unhinged genius with infinite power – Scott’s Moriarty is truly frightening. Perhaps he is a more relevant villain in 2012. But then, Jared Harris’s Moriarty is fairly frightening as well. Both Harris and Scott play formidable opponents to their respective Sherlocks, and are probably as clever as him. That, I believe, is the essence of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, which both characters capture well.

Concluding Remarks

Perhaps faithfulness to the original isn’t a very relevant question. Indeed, I tremendously enjoyed watching both the movies and the TV show, irrespective of the liberties they take with the canonized text. Nonetheless, the differences are interesting to compare and contrast the differences between the three media(book, television and cinema) and the differences between Hollywood and British television. What do you think of the two versions? Which Sherlock did you like better? Which Moriarty did you like more? What about the two Watsons? Let’s discuss this in the comments below.

P != NP

If P = NP, then the world would be a profoundly different place than we usually assume it to be. There would be no special value in “creative leaps,” no fundamental gap between solving a problem and recognizing the solution once it’s found. Everyone who could appreciate a symphony would be Mozart; everyone who could follow a step-by-step argument would be Gauss… — Scott Aaronson

“…And hence P!=NP. QED”, wrote Ryan Brown. He could not believe his eyes. He had finally done it. The efforts of the past 23 years of his life had finally yielded fruit. He had proven the greatest mathematical problem of them all.

As an undergraduate student at MIT in 2011, Ryan came across the problem in his algorithms course. He was fascinated by how such a seemingly straighforward problem had stumped computer scientists for ages. It seemed obvious that you would have to try out all possible combinations in the 3-SAT problem to solve it. Or did it? He dwelled upon the problem, obsessed about it. Finally he decided that he could not be happy doing anything else. Ryan Brown would solve the P-NP problem, and would dedicate his whole life to it, if need be.

As he went from publisher to publisher, his despair grew. At first, he was confident that any journal would be glad, even honoured to publish this momentous result. Imagine his surprise, then, when he was politely declined by not one, but seven consecutive journals. As he went to the eighth publisher, his confidence in the result of the meeting was considerably lower than when he went to the first one. “…And hence, I proved this momentous result.”, Ryan explained to the publisher. The publisher listened patiently, but with a smug look on his face, as if he had already made up a decision. “But what use is it?”, he asked as Ryan finished his monologue. 

The third world war between USA and China broke out in 2018. Nobody could say that they did not expect it. That it wasn’t unexpected did not mean it wasn’t unpleasant, though. For Ryan, it meant that his research would have to halt, or at least slow down. He could not avoid conscription, as his research did not directly benefit the military. He was posted in South America, where he served for 9 months, till he was shot in the leg, and was allowed to return. His passion undeterred, he continued his research as before. However, the war had significantly changed the world’s outlook on research. There was a great degree of pragmatism that had crept into the mindset of the authorities and the researchers alike. Research in theoretical areas and mathematics was dismissed as mere mental amusement, and not deemed worthy of significant efforts or funding. Engineering, which could make missiles, radars and tanks that gave immediate tactical advantage in the war, received hefty funding and approval. Even when the war ended, the attitudes persisted. Ryan’s funding had dropped to a trickle. However, all he needed for his work was access to his books, papers, a blackboard, and his mind – all of which was intact.

“Fine, I’ll publish it”, said the thirteenth publisher Ryan approached, “Don’t expect me to pay you any royalties upfront, though. I doubt if this will earn me anything.” At that point of time Ryan was ready to accept anything – anything to get his idea out into the open, to let the world know that he had done what mathematicians had been struggling with for over 60 years!

“…And hence P!=NP. QED”, wrote Ryan Brown. He could not believe his eyes. He had finally done it. The efforts of the past 23 years of his life had finally yielded fruit. He had proven the greatest mathematical problem of them all.

Ryan Brown’s seminal paper turned out to be not so seminal after all. It didn’t really change the world view at all. Turned out that everyone who could appreciate a symphony was not Mozart after all. Ryan Brown died in 2035, a year after finishing his life’s work.

The world carried on as usual.

On Charity

Or selfish? Hungry
(like Shellfish)?

The coins fall
into the bowl
And clink
Clink Clink Clink

But if they didn’t?

In the forest, no one
hears the leaf fall
But if no one heard
would the leaf fall at all?

The Revolution (Part 1)

My first foray into the world of writing fiction. Comments/criticism would be deeply appreciated, and help improve my writing in the future. 

(From the pen of Jaythan Kaytryn of Escavia)

Escavia was not a large planet, still isn’t. The economy thrived on Kryxium. Everyone on the planet was employed in either the mines, or the purification plants. Our life in the village was idyllic. We worked hard all day. Mining was hard work, but hardly dangerous as it used to be a hundred years ago. The invention of neutrinogentric machinery had removed any threat to human life than mining might pose. In the evening, everyone in the village would gather round a bonfire, and deliberated about the Escavia NeutroBall League, or the latest exploits of Atom – the protector of galaxies (that used to be the most popular televisor show in those days). The traders would come in their spaceships once every year. They would buy the Kryxium, and sell us whatever Escavia could not produce. Space travel used to be very expensive in those days, and nobody in my village had stepped foot on another planet. I suspect hardly twenty people on the whole of Escavia had.

Overall, life on Escavia was good. We didn’t have much, but then we didn’t need much either. And as we knew that everyone in Escavia lived pretty much the way we did, we didn’t(couldn’t) aspire for anything else either.

Till cyberportation was invented. Now, interstellar travel suddenly became cheap, and easily available. Everyone would now want to spend their holidays not on some beach somewhere on Escavia, but at some exotic snowy mountain range in a distant corner of the galaxy. Similarly Escavia too saw a large number of Litharnians, Zeelorcians and Sylverese tourists. Life had changed. As my friends traveled to distant lands, and brought stories from across the galaxy, there was a growing dissatisfaction in my heart. All Zeelorcians now had access to 3D Virtual Reality televisors in their houses, while we were still using the old ones that my grandfather used. On Chinesis, air travel was the norm while here on Escavia we were still using ancient MotorPods to travel. The galaxy had advanced, other planets were rich and had access to these luxuries. Kryxium, while an essential metal in the industry, wasn’t exactly a rare element. Thus we Escavians couldn’t really afford everything that say, the Litharnians could with their precious Neutrinogen manufacturing plants. But was this fair? I worked as hard as any old Litharnian. Why then, was their produce valued more? Why were the Litharnians richer than me and my fellow Escavians? I wasn’t alone feeling dissatisfied with the situation. True, till now we were unaware that such luxuries even existed. We were unaware and blissful in our ignorant lives. However, a child can live without a toy; but not when he knows that his brother possesses it. Can you really blame him for feeling outraged at the injustice? Now that we knew luxuries existed, we couldn’t live without them.

The Escavian youth was like a pile of dry twigs, waiting for a spark to ignite them. This spark came in the form of Gaspard von Avernus. His reputation preceded him. Apparently, he had started off as a farm hand on some agricultural planet in the galaxy, soon risen ranks and had eventually drafted some reforms that had caused the planet to prosper greatly. The day he arrived, there was a great throng of people waiting to listen to him; me amidst them. He was a thin and unimpressive man with a goatee that made him look like an old movie villain. But his eyes had a sparkle and conviction that I had never seen on any person before. And when he spoke, you had to listen to him, mesmerized. If words had force, his would move galaxies. He spoke of inequality, of injustice and how they must be done away with. His idea of a just society was one where the community owned the means of production, and thus no individual had power to subjugate another. He said that the ones that possessed the power would not relinquish it without a struggle. A revolution was needed to overthrow the current system, and install a new, fair one.

I was stirred by his words, as were many others in my village, on my planet, and indeed on several proletariat planets throughout the galaxy. I became a von Avernus disciple, as did countless others throughout the galaxy. The Revolution was about to begin.

(to be continued…..)

(Please rate, if you reached till here, so that I know how many bothered to plod through)