Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Science of Day After Tomorrow

Kuldip Dhiman

Physics of the Impossible
by Michio Kaku.
Allen Lane, Penguin Books. Pages 330. £8.

COULD we one day develop weapons that could shatter an entire planet to smithereens? Could we make people and objects invisible? Could we design machines that would generate their own energy? Is it possible to launch spaceships that travel faster than light?

In Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku takes us on a singular scientific journey to find answers to such questions. The main purpose of this exploration, however, is to make science popular. Teaching science is not easy, especially theoretical physics, but the author makes an interesting juxtaposition of science fiction on one hand and hard science on the other to lure the reader into the fascinating world of force fields, gravity, matter, antimatter, subatomic particles, black holes, wormholes, parallel universes, anti-universes.

Michio Kaku, who holds the Henry Semat Chair in Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York, cites examples from popular science fiction novels and films to make his exposition lively and interesting. He confesses that it was science fiction that inspired him to become a scientist.

Good science fiction writers these days have a competent knowledge of science and natural laws, although they sometimes stretch their imagination to suit their plot. Of course writers like Arthur C. Clarke have shown that scientists could learn a thing or two from fiction.

The writer tells us that some of inventions and gadgets mentioned in sci-fi literature are theoretically possible, while others are not, at least not with the science we know. However, to say something is not possible at all is not very prudent. For instance, the great physicist Lord Kelvin declared in 1899 that radio had no future, heavier-than-air machines would never be possible, and X-rays would prove to be a hoax. All these have actually happened. What was impossible yesterday is commonplace today.

Most of us fantasise about becoming invisible, reading the future, travelling to other galaxies, and going back in time. Examining these fantasies thoroughly, Kaku divides them into three categories: Class I impossibilities are those that are impossible today but as they do not violate the known laws of physics, they might be possible one day. Teleportation, antimatter, psychokinesis, and invisibility come under this category. Time machines, hyperspace travel, travel through wormholes are Class II impossibilities. They will take thousands of years to develop. And Class III impossibilities violate the known laws of physics, so as far as we are concerned they are really impossible. But if they ever materialised, they would change the world beyond our imagination.

At a deeper level, this book is an excellent introduction to the development of scientific theories and concepts. History of science shows that some ideas are born through sheer genius, and there are those that are products of happy accidents. And some ideas begin with a particular individual, but they are eventually developed by a string of others over centuries. There are also cases of near misses. For example, James Clerk Maxwell, who developed the classical electromagnetic theory among other things, might well have come up with the idea of relativity over a hundred years before Albert Einstein. But oddly enough, Maxwell did not realise that his equations allowed for distortions of space-time.

We now move on to the latest in the world of science. Frenzied research in the last two centuries has upturned our conventional scientific wisdom. The Newtonian theory, for instance, does not allow teleportation as objects do not move until a force is applied upon them, and they do not suddenly disappear and appear elsewhere. But this happens all the time in the quantum domain. We might ask if one could use the laws of the quantum theory to create a machine that could teleport people? Surprisingly, the answer is a qualified 'yes', says the author.

The book then focuses on something that has kept theoreticians busy for the past hundred years. In the beginning of the 20th century, Einstein gave us theory of special relativity, and Max Planck advanced his quantum theory. The former theory gives an excellent account of the macroscopic world, and the latter of the microscopic world of atomic particles. The problem is that these theories are incompatible with each other. Since one of the fundamental principles of science is to have one theory to explain all phenomena, physicists have been trying to unify these two theories without much success.

A heightened enthusiasm is seen among physicists with the formulation of the string theory. It just might successfully unify the quantum theory with gravity, but there are five ways in which this could be done. In 1994, Edward Witten of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study and Paul Townsend of Cambridge University speculated that all five string theories were in fact the same theory, but only if we add an 11th dimension. From the vantage point of the 11th dimension, all five different theories collapse into one. And the bewildered scientists are back to square one.

Making science as interesting as fiction, Michio Kaku's fascinating book is sure to inspire many youngsters to take up science, just as he was in his childhood by reading science fiction.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Man Who Came Back

A short story by Kuldip Dhiman

First published in October 1999 in All Hallows, The Journal of The Ghost Story Society, British Columbia, Canada.

The man, who had been in a coma for more than two months, showed some signs of movement. He opened his eyes slowly. In the dark of the night all he heard was the harsh sound of his own breath. And there were bells faintly jingling somewhere far away. Soon the unbearable cacophony of city traffic began to pound his ears. Presently he heard the sound of screeching tyres, followed by a loud crash. Then there was silence for a very long time.
As he lay there, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead, he heard a faint, disembodied voice. What was it? Someone was calling him. Yes, it was a familiar voice. He must go; he really must-but where. ..and how?
'Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Hey Shambhu ...Lord of the gods, Lord of the Himalayas, serpents, bhootas ...ganas ...give us your power. ..Oum Kaali. ..send us your messenger. . .'
Divya Beliappa, the dusky woman with the husky voice, was invoking Lord Shiva, the destroyer, and the goddess Mahakaali, the force, the energy behind the universe. The others present in the room watched Divya with bated breath as she chanted her mantras. Suddenly, her eyes became so intense that they could have frozen any moving object. Moments later her entire body began to quake violently, and with her left hand she scrawled in the Tamil language the letters corresponding to the English P, R, and A on the notepad she held. 'Oum Mahakaali ...Yes, who are you? Tell us your name. Go ahead. ..go ahead. .. why have you stopped?' As she said this, Divya began to quake even more violently, and then collapsed. Somesh, her husband, quickly sprinkled some cold water on her face. A few moments later Divya opened her eyes. All energy seemed to have drained from her body.
Dr Nalini Krishnamurthy turned her video camera off. Divya looked at her and the other friends in the room apologetically. 'I'm sorry, it doesn't seem to work today. We might try again a little later. Let's go out and sit by the pool, shall we?' She was quickly regaining her composure and becoming her usual cheerful self.
While Divya went to join her other friends, one of the guests approached Dr Krishnamurthy. 'Nalini, would you mind if I asked you something?' 'Go ahead,' the doctor smiled, running her fingers through her long hair.
'Do you really believe in all this bullshit?'
The doctor shrugged her shoulders, 'Well, I don't know. I'm as curious as you are.'
'But you've devoted all your life to parapsychology. Have you ever seen a yourself?'
'No, but there are hundreds of cases around the world. ..,
'Yes; and it's always second-hand information. I have yet to come across a person who has seen a ghost himself. I believe this possession business is nothing but self-hypnosis. And our Divya uses a strange mixture of tantra, the occult, and clairvoyance. It's all rubbish.',"
'You could be right. Let's join the others.' .
They were nine of them, five women and four men, all classmates; and of course their spouses and children had come along too. For the past ten years they had been meeting at Divya and Somesh's lavish bungalow overlooking the Jayamahal Park. The 261h of April had a nostalgic significance, for it was on that day that the class of 1975 had scattered like dry leaves, never to be together again. But against all the odds these nine had somehow managed to keep in touch. No one knew what had happened to most of the others. It is a big world. As they sat by the pool reminiscing about old times, Divya Beliappa heard her ten-year-old Son's voice. 'Maa, there is someone at the door.' 'Who is it putta?' she asked.
'I don't know,' replied the boy, 'but he says he wants to see Divya Iyengar.'
'What?' She arched her eyebrows. 'Who is this who still remembers me by my maiden name? I have forgotten it myself.' She laughed softly to herself. Then she saw the man who had followed her son to the pool.
Everyone stared at the bearded intruder. He was a bit flabby, and there was something odd about his manner, something unnatural. He had a forlorn look, so hard to describe. He waited for their reaction for some time and then said, 'Why are you looking at me like that? Haven't you seen a human before?' He wore an amused smile. Then he directed his gaze towards Divya. 'You'd be Kishmish?'
Divya was shocked, for Kishmish had been her nickname in school. She took a good long look at the man but failed to recognise him. The stranger was clearly disappointed. 'So you guys have forgotten me, eh?' There was a hint of sadness in his tone. He came forward and proffered his hand. Still they showed no sign of recollection, merely looking at one another and then at the stranger. The intruder walked towards Somesh. 'Somu yaar, at least you should remember me. We were the worst of enemies in school,' he laughed. 'No wonder you never invite me to any of your reunions.'
Somesh drew a blank and looked towards Divya for help. ' All right, we admit that we can't place you,' said Divya. 'Now will you please tell us who you are?'
'Take three guesses! ...Okay, I'll give you a hint. When did you finish school?'
'1975,' Divya replied.
'Well, I left in November 1970. Dad got transferred to Ambala Cantt.'
'Oh, my God!' she exclaimed. 'That's ages back!'
He looked disappointed. 'Why do people only remember the friends from their last year in school? Why do they forget the ones who left earlier?'
They looked at him, his long beard, his drooping eyes, his loose skin; trying to recognise the waxen face. Divya, who was rather proud of her photographic memory, tried hard to place the visitor. November 1970; that meant she was in class seven. She tried to picture her classroom in her mind's eye. An image of the old school building appeared. She heard the sound of children laughing, screaming, shouting, fighting. Little girls in white tops and navy-blue skirts, and boys in white shirts and navy-blue shorts. She saw the P .T .Master flaunting his cane; the class teacher Lata Deshpande writing something on the blackboard, the science teacher rushing to the teachers' room with a pile of notebooks; the Drawing Master joking with the students; the vendors selling jaamallahabad, kalleykai, puttani, and time pass outside the school gate. She tried to focus on the hazy faces. There was Kalpana Rana, her closest friend at the time. Another face. Who was it? What was her name?
Oh! We called her Billy, because she was cat-eyed. Another face, another nickname. A boy this time. They used to call him Langur, the one who broke his arm once. Another nameless face emerged, and then another. ..but where was the boy standing in front of her as a bearded man now? She tried hard, but her memory failed her.
'Can't remember? I'm not surprised,' the mystery-man said, 'Okay, do you remember the guy who always had squirrels in his bag?'
Divya jumped with surprise. 'Oh, shit! That's you! Ummm ...wait, I'll remember now.' She looked at the others for help. 'Yaar, now I remember. ..what was the name yaar? We used to call you. ..' She remembered the face of a porcupine-haired boy, who tamed, of all the things, squirrels. 'Got it! ' she cried, 'we used to call you Porky. Right?'
'So, Kishmish, you only remember me as Porky?'
'Come on; all of a sudden you return from the grave and expect us to remember you after I so many years? It's your fault, you never kept in touch.'
'Yeah, that's true, but it's not easy, you see,' he said ruefully. 'At times I tried, but I couldn't . . .'
'Don't make silly excuses,' Somesh said, and made a drink for the forgotten man. Divya stood close by, gazing at the sky. 'Got it!' she announced in triumph. 'Oh! got it. Prabir Dutta, right?' The man smiled. 'Oh, Prabir! It's been so long.' As Prabir Dutta joined the others and exchanged gossip, something bothered Divya.
Something was wrong somewhere. This man, Prabir Dutta; something was not right about him. She did remember the porcupine-haired boy-the squirrels in his bag, how he used to scare the girls with them-but the man before her looked nothing like him. Faces change over the years, sometimes beyond recognition, but still something remains: a familiar way of smiling, some odd gesture, something. Can one really change so completely? He must be an impostor. But how did he know so much? It was amazing. As Prabir reminisced about his school days, Divya suddenly interrupted. 'Do you remember once when it was the physics exam, and you were caught cheating? And the Princi, S. N. Thakur, thrashed you in front of everyone?' 'S. N. Thakur who?' He was a bit annoyed. 'When I was at school, the Princi was K. D. Dwivedi, and just before I left, V. V. Srikantaiah had taken over.' He gave her a stern look.
'Hey! are you trying to test me? I should have brought my passport ...'
He put his hand in his coat-pocket and, much to their surprise, produced a squirrel. Some of the children came running to look at it. 'Want to play with it, eh?' he asked. He placed the squirrel on a boy's palm and said, 'Don't be afraid, it won't hurt you.' The children took the squirrel to the pool-side and began to play with it.
Divya felt very sorry for him. What right had they to suspect him? If he said he was Prabir, then he must be.
'Sorry yaar, it's just that you look nothing like the boy we knew. Tell us about yourself.'
'1 will. But let me know about you guys first.'
'Shall I start?' Divya looked around at the others with a smile, then turned to Prabir.
'Well, after school I did my post graduation in History. And as you can see, I married Mr Somesh Beliappa.' She coughed artificially and continued. '1 have a son; there he is. Much to the disappointment of my well-wishers, I never took up a job. I'm not the bright and ambitious Divya Iyengar you knew.'
Prabir looked at Somesh. 'Lucky bastard, marrying your childhood sweetheart! But Divya lyengar sounds better than Divya Beliappa.'
Somesh smiled in response. ' And Divya Dutta would have sounded even worse.'
'You haven't changed,' Prabir laughed; and the gossip session was on. They all related their adventures or misadventures after leaving school, and updated Prabir on others who weren't present. 'You remember Dinesh Kulkarni? Such an idiot in school; now he's the G.M. of Escorts. Shrimati Rao is in Singapore. And you remember T.K. Ananthamurthy, the genius who always got ninety-nine per cent marks, and who we all thought would become a research scholar? Well, he went astray, became a drug addict. This one eloped with his friend's wife, this one married his secretary. That ugly duckling Yamini Ganapa hy-she won the Miss India title last year. Can you believe it? And that lanky guy; what was his name. .. Bhaskar Shetty ...what happened to him. ..,'
'He died in a road accident in Kenya in 1989,' said Prabir. And where is Razia Khan these days?'
'She committed suicide in 1985, because her in-laws troubled her.' It was Prabir again. 'You seem to be reading the obituaries regularly,' laughed Somesh. 'Come on; tell us about yourself. , 'What do you want to know?' He gave a wan smile and looked around. 'Nothing much happened. Dad got transferred from Bangalore to Ambala. Life then changed totally. , 'What happened?'
'Oh! that's a long story. I'm not supposed to disclose the details about my past. In fact, I'm not supposed to be here.'
'Now, don't tell us that you're The Spy Who Came in From the Cold!' joked Srinivas Bhatt, one of the guests.
'You said it. What's the time?' he asked. 'The guys up there must be looking for me.'
'The guys behind the Iron Curtain, you mean?' Somesh quipped.
'It's a lot more impenetrable than that. You see, I'm really not supposed to be here.'
While the others were engaged in catching up with old times, Nalini began to walk towards the swimming pool where the children were playing. She panned her camera across the scene, and zoomed in on a small girl by the water's edge. Suddenly the child lost her balance and fell into the pool. Nalini dropped her camera and ran towards the pool. On hearing the screams of the little girl the others also charged towards the pool; but before anyone could do anything, Prabir dove in and scooped up the frightened child.
The girl's parents thanked Prabir profusely. Somesh waited until the excitement was over, then said, 'Prabir, come with me. You need to change your clothes. Mine will fit you fine.' Prabir stood for a moment and looked at the children, then at his friends. 'The water is so deep and cold, ' he murmured to himself.
'Not really,' Divya reassured him, 'it's no more than six feet.'
'Water can be very dangerous. And then there are the weeds. ..'
Somesh glanced at his wife, then touched Prabir's arm and motioned towards the house. The two men left, and the group remaining by the pool fell into small talk. A few minutes later Somesh returned, looking flustered and worried.
'What's the matter? It looks like you've seen a ghost!' Divya joked.
'Perhaps I have.' Somesh was not smiling. 'I got Prabir a change of clothes and showed him to the bathroom. He seemed to be taking an awfully long time, so finally I pushed open the door, to see if he was okay; and I found the bathroom empty!'
' You must be joking, ' said Divya.
'Not at all; come with me. ,
A flurry of excitement went round, and everyone went into the house to have a look. The bathroom window was open, and it was large enough for a man to escape through. It made no sense to them.
'I'm sure that guy was an impostor,' Somesh said.
'I doubt it,' interrupted Sarabjeet Singh. 'He knew too much about us. ..about our past.
No one could have told him about the little childhood episodes, the nicknames. ..'
'Hey, look here!' Nalini Krishnamurthy drew their attention to the notepad that Divya had been using earlier in the evening. Everyone turned their eyes to the letters scrawled on it.
P_R_A . . .
'Prabir!?' they all gasped in unison.
'Prabir Dutta?' S.K. Raju, the Drawing Master, wrung his hands. 'Let me think. Which batch would he have been in?'
'He was in our batch, sir, but he left the school in 1969 or 1970,' said Divya.
'That's a long time back! Can you describe him?'
Divya described what she remembered of Prabir Dutta. Mr Raju had to tax his memory, but he finally remembered.
'Oh! Got it!' he exclaimed. 'Isn't he the one who always had squirrels in his schoolbag, and was forever playing truant? Oh, the rogue. ..that bloody chotley fellow splashed ink on some of my paintings because I had to beat him once. Aiyyo, such beautiful paintings, from my college days. Where is he now, I wonder? And why are you asking about him?' Divya told him about the mysterious visit of the man calling himself Prabir Dutta. Mr Raju was quite intrigued. 'Okay, we'll trace that chotley fellow. Let's go and dig up the school records first. , With the help of Chandre Gowda, the Head Clerk, they unearthed the dusty old records.
After a long search, they finally found what they had been looking for: an old brown file with the title 'Class VII B (1970)'. Divya held the file in her hand, and trembled with nervousness, as though her childhood was about to be re-enacted. She finally mustered up her courage and opened the file.
On the first page, the names of all the students were written in ink that was now fading. Zenobia Postwala ...Sadhana Bari ...S. Tharini ...Neena Joshi ...Divya's heart beat
uncontrollably. She had not seen most of them for years, forgotten their names, in fact never spared them a thought. Where were they now? Who knew? Happy, unhappy, successful, unsuccessful, married, divorced? She wished there was some way to make contact, even if it was only to say hi.
She read further. Srikumari Pillai ...Lynn Alvares ...Rajini Desikan ...Then her heartbeat almost stopped. Yes, there it was, large and clear: Prabir Dutta. She turned to the corresponding page. His record was there, and at the end was his permanent address.
The old woman in the typical middle-class home opened her door to find a man and a woman outside.
'Namaskara,' the man said, 'I am Somesh, and this is my wife Divya. We are very old friends of Prabir's. You must be his mother. Is he at home?' 'Do come in.'
They were shown into the house. After they were seated, the woman asked, 'So you want to see Prabir?'
'Yes,' Divya said. 'We were together at school, you see.'
'How come you remembered him after so many years?'
They looked at each other in silence. Then Divya said. 'Well, we lost touch, actually. Three days back we had a get-together, several of us who were at school together, and then ...'
She repeated the entire story .The old woman sat in her chair as if frozen.
'It can't be. It simply can't be. He could not have come.'
'How do you mean? We saw him with our own eyes!'
'Don't you people know?' The old woman was silent as Divya and Somesh looked at each other, puzzled. Finally she said quietly, 'Prabir died in 1971.' 'Don't say that!' cried Divya.
'I am his mother; I ought to know,' the woman replied, with sadness in her voice. 'We had to leave Bangalore as my husband got transferred to Ambala. You know how It is in the Air Force. Prabir joined the Central School there and was soon back to his old ways. One day he played truant as usual, and with some of his friends went to a nearby lake for a swim. .. he. ..he never came back.' Her eyes became moist and her voice choked a little. 'The lake was full of weeds.. ..' She looked at the framed photograph of Prabir that was hanging on the wall, and then at Somesh. 'Had he lived, he would have been your age.' 'But who was the man who came to our party? How did he know so much about our childhood?' asked Divya. ..
'I don't know,' the woman said. 'I don't know.'
Next morning Divya woke up earlier than usual. After making her tea she lazily spread out the newspaper. She scanned the headlines and turned the page, then glanced over some of the advertisements. She was about to go to the next page when a small boxed notice caught her eye. It was an obituary, and the photograph was familiar. She nudged her husband. 'Hey, wake up. Look what we have here.'
When Somesh saw the photograph his heart grew cold. 'It's Prabir! What is going on?' The message read; In Fond Memory of Madhu Shah who left us on 28th April. 1994.
Grieving wife, children, and parents. ' The address given below was familiar: just two streets away, behind the Gulabi Girls High School. Somesh and Divya were there within the hour.
They were met by the father of the dead man. After listening to their story the old man said, '1 don't know what to make of it myself.' He sank in his chair and lit a cigarette. 'You see,' he said, 'after a serious car accident he was involved in, my son was in a coma for two months. The doctors had given up all hope. But now, after hearing your story, I do remember that something strange happened on the 26th. We checked everything in Madhu's room and retired early to bed that night. I used to get up in the middle of the night to check if everything was okay. That night, to my horror, I found him missing. He had just vanished.
'We searched each and every room of our house, the attic, the basement, the garage, the servants' quarters, the grounds' ...Some time had gone by. We were about to phone the police and the hospital when my daughter-in-Iaw announced that Madhu was back. I rushed to his room. Madhu was lying on his bed, unconscious. if nothing had happened. ' The old man looked at Divya and Somesh. '1 just don't know what to make of it.'
'Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Hey Shambhu ...Lord of the gods, the Lord of the Himalayas, serpents, bhootas ...ganas ...give us your power. ..
'Oum Kaali ...send us your messenger. ..,'
Dr Nalini Krishnamurthy was ready with her video camera. Divya tried once again. 'Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...who are you?' her voice rang out. After a while she wrote in Tamil the letters corresponding to P-R-A-B ...
Somesh, who was nearby, could not control himself. 'Hello, Prabir! How are you?'
'Thank you for the visit last week. But why did you remember us after so many years?'
'Why did you come as Madhu Shah?' I
Are you happy over there?'
Dr Krishnamurthy pushed a paper in front of Somesh, and he read out the written on it.
'Tell us how is it over there?'
There was no response. .?
'Prabir, tell us how is life over there?'
Dr Krishnamurthy gave him another paper with a question on it. 'What happens after death?' Somesh read. There was no response.
'Porky, are you there?' Somesh said, 'What happens after death? Hello! Porky, please tell us. ..Porky, you. ..'
There was silence for a long time. Then Divya's trance broke and she collapsed. Somesh fetched her a glass of water, and while she recovered, he turned to Dr Krishnamurthy. 'Nalini, what do you make of it all?'
'That's a difficult question to answer.'
'Still, you must have some sort of theory.'
Nalini shrugged. 'Hundreds of cases are being investigated, but we're still in the dark. All I can say is that Prabir, for some reason, felt like getting in touch with us. Remember, he was secretly in love with Divya. Madhu Shah was in a coma, which left him in a state very close to death. We don't know what happens to the soul of a person who is in a coma. Perhaps the soul leaves the body temporarily, and then interacts with departed souls. I think Madhu Shah acted as a conduit. ' She laughed. 'Or perhaps Prabir is still playing truant over there. Old habits. ..'
As Dr Krishnamurthy explained her hypothesis, Divya opened the windows to let in some fresh air. She saw the beautiful gulmohar tree that had stood in her garden for years. There was movement in the red flowers and green leaves of a branch near the window.
A lone squirrel was playing in the branches.
The End

The Sound of Death

By Kuldip Dhiman

First published in June 1997 in All Hallows, The Journal of The Ghost Story Society, British Columbia, Canada.
Based on the private papers of Donald Anderson, M.D. (1866-1936)

Susan was afraid; terribly afraid. It must have been well past midnight when she entered the study and looked about nervously. I left the novel that I had been reading by the fire, and waited for her to say something. No words came.
'Is anything the matter, dear?' I held out my arms to her. We moved closer to the fire, and I noticed that she was trembling with fear.
'Listen,' she said, 'listen very carefully. Do you hear that? Someone is moaning in pain.'
Did anyone have to remind me of those soft moans and groans? I had been living with them for more than a year; but how does one explain that to a young bride who has just arrived in India from Liverpool?
'You have had a very tiring journey, dear. There is no one here.' I poured her a glass of brandy, and tried to humour her.
'What are those sounds? I have searched the entire house and the clinic, and I am sure there is no one about. , 'My dear, it's rather late. Let's go to bed. It can wait till the morning.' 'No, it can't.' She was determined. 'With those terrible sounds echoing everywhere, how can you expect anyone to sleep?'
She was right. It was only her third night here, and already she had begun to be disturbed by the sounds. I held her hand and drew her close to me. As she trembled in my arms, I decided to tell her the dreadful truth.
'Susan,' I began, 'in spite of being a man of science and a qualified doctor of medicine, I have come to believe in things which I would have dismissed as fraud only a few years ago. During my training at Bart's, if someone had told me that there are men who drink sulphuric acid as if it were a cup of hot tea; that there are men who bury themselves in sand for days and emerge alive; that there are men who walk barefoot on burning cinders; that there are men whose bodies do not age, I would have laughed. In this modern age of science, when man is unravelling the mysteries of nature, how could an educated English doctor be expected to believe in such things? It was not long, however, before I changed my mind.
'In the winter of 1892, I found myself in the snow-covered hills of Simla. I had accepted the invitation of Major Edward Rennick of the 1st Brigade of the Bengal Horse Artillery. I soon fell in love with the place and, at the major's encouragement, I set up a modest practice on the Mall. There were very few doctors in Simla then, and my arrival was eagerly welcomed.
'Things went on quite well, and my practice flourished. However, it was not long before , I was drawn towards things that my scientific training at Bart's had not prepared me for. Often I went by horseback to see patients in far-flung places and isolated villages, and soon I had learned a smattering of Hindi and the local dialect and befriended the simple hill people, who I found warm-hearted and friendly. Major Rennick shared my interest in the mysterious arts and the customs and traditions of India, and in our spare time we often It ventured into remote villages and met many strange yogis and holy men.
'One fine summer afternoon a runner, Biku Lall, brought a letter from the Major. I opened the note, which read:
Dear Donald,
Would you like to witness something truly extraordinary? Come without at'
moment's delay. Your presence is of vital importance.
'I thanked Biku Lall, and in about an hour was at Major Rennick's magnificent bungalow near the Loreto Convent. The sun was about to disappear behind the mountains when I knocked at the door, which was opened by a manservant, who salaamed me before showing me into the Major's study. .
'Upon seeing me, Major Rennick motioned me to remain silent. In the golden light of the setting sun, which filtered through the windows, I saw a man lying on the floor as if he were dead. The Major tip-toed towards me and led me to another room.
' "What's happening?" I asked in some astonishment.
' "Take a seat." The Majo.r motioned me to a chair, offered me a cigar, then lit one himself and drew on it. "You will soon witness, if you are fortunate, a very singular feat..That man in the study is a highly experienced yogi. I met him last month when I was on a temporary duty at Kinnaur. I had the good fortune to be able to converse with him for some days, and I must tell you that I was greatly impressed by his wisdom. If he could learn English and travel to London, by love! he would draw packed houses."
"But what on earth is he doing lying on the floor?" I asked-
' "He is performing the Shavasana, which translated literally means the Corpse-pose. It is one of the best poses for relaxation." Major Rennick bent forward and added in a whisper. "In my company you have seen many yogis who can hold their breath for hours. But do you know what the man in my study is trying to do?"
'I shook my head,'
' "He is trying to stop his heartbeat."
'My own heart went cold. "What!" I cried. "Why, that's impossible. Surely you can't be serious. He will die!"
'"We shall see," said the Major. "Let us go back to the study."
'Once there, Major Rennick told me that we were to check his guest's pulse every half an hour. As the yogi lay on the floor, I observed that he was a tall man with the perfect physique of an athlete. His face was truly majestic, and his hair jet black, although he did not have the customary beard that most Indian yogis and saints have. I put him at about thirty or thirty-five, and said as much to the Major.
' "He is sixty-eight," he corrected me.
' "Sixty-eight-eight!" I exclaimed. "Good heavens!"
'We both prepared to keep watch on the yogi for some time, but we were to be
disappointed that day, for before long we saw him begin to move. Then he got up and, upon seeing us, spoke in broken Hindi so that we could understand him.
' "Aaj ka din theek nahin ...I am sorry, I am sorry to disappoint you today. Let us wait until tomorrow."
'I was introduced to the yogi, whose name was Hridaynaut Bhardwaj, and he smiled and set me at my ease in an instant. Realising that we felt as if we had been deprived 50 I of some great~ experience, he said, "What I tried to do today is extremely dangerous. There are only two or three yogis in the whole of India who can stop their heartbeat. It requires great training and experience. I am merely a novice in this matter. Main to ab bhi bachcha hoon."
'"How long have you been practising yoga?" I asked.
'"Not very long-about forty years, maybe fifty-I can hardly remember." Without noticing my expression of amazement, he continued, "You see, my Guru strictly forbade me to demonstrate such skills. Demonstrating yogic powers merely to impress others hampers a yogi's spiritual quest. It was only because Major ii has been asking me to show him something spectacular that I agreed. As I did not succeed today, I shall try tomorrow at the same time."
'Later, when we were at dinner, I said, "Hridaynauth, may I suggest something?"
'The man nodded.
' "Why don't you come and perform at my clinic? As I am a doctor, your amazing feat will have more credibility if you perform it at my place of work." 'The yogi smiled faintly, and said in his usual calm way, "I do not have to prove anything to your scientific fraternity. We are not street magicians or conjurers."
' "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way," said I, and explained to him what I had meant. In the end, however, I was successful in convincing Hridaynaut and Major Rennick that the next session should be held at my clinic.
'Next evening at the appointed hour we were ready. I had selected a comfortable chamber on the top floor for the experiment. Hridaynaut Bhardwaj had had an early meal and seemed to be ready. He sat on the floor cross legged, and said, "Dekhiye sahib, you must realise that we are meddling in Some very dangerous business. Please listen to me very carefully." We moved a little closer to him.
' "Although I have mastered yoga to a great extent, I have still not perfected the art of stopping my heartbeat fully. You are aware of my unsuccessful attempt last evening. There are times when I stop my heartbeat at the first attempt, while at other times it takes longer.
What is alarming is that at times I fail to revive my heartbeat when I want to. It revives sooner, or later, on its own. Now, listen to me." He looked at me with his intense eyes. "If I succeed now, I may be in that state for twenty-four hours. For all practical purposes, I will be dead. But as I have just said, sometimes I find it difficult to revive my heartbeat, and in that case it may take longer. Now, this is very important, Doctor. No matter how long it takes you will do nothing to revive me. You will not try any of your medical trickery, because that could be fatal to me. Do you promise me that?"
"I promise," said I.
'"In that case, please leave me alone in this room. Come back after an hour and check my pulse. And remember," he warned again, "no matter how long it takes, you must do nothing. ..absolutely nothing."
'The Major and I waited anxiously in the clinic below. An hour later, when I checked the pulse of the man lying on the floor, I broke out in a cold sweat. There was no pulse. I placed my hand on the left side of his chest, and there was no indication of a heartbeat. I could not believe it. The man before me was dead. I wiped the perspiration from my forehead and looked at Major Rennick.
' "What do we do now?"
' "Don't be too excitable, my dear fellow. We must wait until tomorrow evening."
'I asked the Major to stay, for I was too unnerved to spend the night alone with that body in my clinic. We were awake the whole night, and every moment weighed heavily on my conscience. Major Rennick tried to put up a very brave front, but I knew that he was shaken by the experience. Morning brought little relief, and for the whole day we were on tenterhooks. Finally the evening drew in, and we waited nervously beside the body of the yogi. To our horror, nothing happened.
'I checked the yogi's pulse again and again. With every passing hour our anxiety grew, and as morning drew on, with no sign of the yogi waking, I turned to the Major in some panic-, "Shouldn't we do something?"
' "Have you forgotten your promise?" the Major reminded me.
' "No, of course not. But we cannot leave him like this."
' "There is nothing we can do but wait patiently. He will be fine-sooner or later." , Alas, the Major was wrong. Days went by, but nothing happened. I would check Hridaynaut's heartbeat several times each day, only to be met with disappointment. 'Two weeks passed, but the body, although cold, was not decaying. Surprisingly, Hridaynaut's hair, beard, and nails did not grow. This puzzled me a great deal, but it also gave me some hope. It was clear to me that he was neither in a coma, nor was he j dead. ~ , As the days passed,- my anxiety grew. Major Rennick kept the authorities informed i throughout, and there was an inquiry, which concluded that there had been no foul play of any sort. It was agreed that it was best to keep Hridaynaut at my clinic till further notice.
'1 wrote a letter to The Revd H. S. Olcott, who had co-founded the Theosophical Society with Mme Blavatsky at Adyar, near Madras. Unfortunately, Olcott did not reply; he was probably too busy with the Society's activities following the death of Mme Blavatsky. I also wrote to the Society for Psychical Research in London for help, but no assistance came. They probably took me for a madman.
'Seven months later Major Rennick was transferred to Cabul, and I was left alone with Hridaynaut Bhardwaj. It had been almost a year since that fateful encounter with the yogi.
'By now I had become more or less used to the unnerving situation. I had begun to take my; practice seriously once again, and things might have continued in this way for Heaven knows how long.
'One evening I was invited by my neighbour Mr McKeough, a member of the Simla Amateur Dramatic Club, to the premiere of The Talisman at the Gaiety Theatre. The play was rather poorly presented, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless, and was in a cheerful frame of mind as I made my way back towards my house.
' As I approached the building, however, I was shocked to see that the top floor of the building was on fire. Fires are common in Simla, as most of the houses are made of wood. The firemen battled with the flames and brought the situation under control, but not before most of the top floor had been gutted.
'When the realisation came my head was in a whirl. I ran to the room where Hridaynaut lay. Amidst the smoke I saw the charred body of the yogi. Words cannot possibly describe how I felt that night. 'The next day I informed the authorities what had happened. Their decision was unanimous. The man should be cremated without further delay, and the order was carried out immediately.
'As I tossed and turned in my bed that night, I realised that the matter was far from over.
Some time after falling into a fitful sleep, I woke with a start. I heard faint moans. Someone was breathing very heavily, and it did not take me long to realise who it was. 'I will never forget that night. It was the longest of my life. With Major Rennick gone, I was left helpless. Since then I have lived here with the sound of death. ..alone. .., Susan held me close and stroked my hair.
'My darling, it must have been dreadful for you.' .
'In a way, and especially at first; but I have come to the conclusion that the man means no harm to me. And I have learned to live with the sounds. They are so soft that after a time, you do not hear them; like the ticking of a clock.
'Did you not consider living somewhere else?'
'I did, but the sounds followed me everywhere, even to Dorset. For a while I stayed with Major Rennick, but it made no difference. I wonder why you have not heard them until now; perhaps they were too faint. They grow strongest here. I did not tell you about them because I didn't want to frighten you. And I could not bear the thought of losing you. I am so terribly sorry ...' .
'It's all right.' She soothed me, as one would a nervous child. 'I don't love you any the less. Come, let's go to bed.
Two months later, Susan gave me the good news that she was expecting a child. I was overjoyed; but as the day approached we noticed that the moans in the room were becoming louder. Earlier we could put them aside, but now they were too loud to be ignored easily.
And on the final day they became unbearable. I was alarmed. Would the baby come to some harm? My nerves were in shreds. I sent for a nurse from the Ripon Hospital. In the middle of the night, as my wife writhed in pain and her cries grew louder, I could clearly hear the other sounds which rang out through the house. The nurse heard them too, and almost fled, but I somehow persuaded her to stay.
Later in the night, when I heard the first cries of our baby, I thought my ears were going to explode. The two sets of cries echoed in the hall, and Time seemed to have come to a halt. Then, in an instant, everything went silent.
I went in to see Susan, who was exhausted but otherwise all right. I was also introduced to the baby, whom the nurse was holding.
'Congratulations, doctor,' she beamed, 'it's a boy!' '.
Indeed it was; the healthiest baby I had ever seen. I could have jumped for joy, but instead kissed Susan. There were tears of joy in both our eyes. Then I realised something. I motioned Susan and the nurse to be silent for a moment.
'Susan, listen,' said I, 'listen carefully.'
We heard nothing. There was silence everywhere.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Iris Murdoch: Writer and Philosopher

By Kuldip Dhiman

A tribute to Iris Murdoch, one of the leading philosophers and writers of the second half of the present century, who died on February 8, 1999, in Oxford. As well as writing books on philosophy, she wrote 26 highly acclaimed novels. She won the Booker Prize for her novel The Sea, The Sea in 1978.

IN the male dominated world of philosophy, Iris Murdoch carved out a niche for herself. She was a pioneer of existentialist thought in Britain at a time when analytic and linguistic philosophy were in vogue in British universities.

Born on July 15, 1919, in Dublin of Anglo-Irish parents, Dame Iris Murdoch spent her early childhood in London where she attended the Froebel Educational Institute. Later she went to Badminton School, Bristol. From 1938 to 1942 she studied Classical Mods and Greats at Somerville College, Oxford. She worked for the British Treasury until 1944, and then for two years as administrative officer with the United Nations Rehabilitation Administration; a job that took her to Belgium and Austria. She held the Sarah Smithson Studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge for a year, and she returned to Oxford in 1948 as fellow of St. Anne's College. She would remain there as Fellow and Tutor in philosophy until 1963.

Her first published work was Sartre — Romantic Rationalist which appeared in 1953. Quite early she realised the possibilities of using fiction in order to put forward her views. She believed that the message was more likely to reach the masses that way.

"The novelist proper is, in his way, a sort of phenomenologist. He has always implicitly understood what the philosopher has grasped less clearly: that human reason is not a single unitary gadget the nature of which could be discovered once for all."

Murdoch's first novel Under the Net appeared in 1954, followed by The Flight from the Enchanter in 1955. Her other major novels are The Sandcastle, The Bell, An Unofficial Rose, The Unicorn. She won the Tait Black Memorial Prize for her novel The Black Prince (1973). Her novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine fetched her the Whitbread Prize in 1974, and she won the coveted Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea. Until she got afflicted with the Alzheimer's disease five years ago, she turned out, on an average, one book a year.

Iris Murdoch's novel The Bell is about the trials and misadventures of an eccentric religious community in Gloucester-shire. "The book has the dense poetic texture," one critic observed, "fanciful originality and visual splendour which we associate with the work of Miss Murdoch. It is essentially a study of two

opposing types of moral and religious conviction". In An Unofficial Rose Murdoch introduced nine major characters, each of whom is looking for love and 'so closely is the web woven that the actions and passions of each are constantly affecting each other'.

Commenting on lris Murdoch's novels, Dr Satya

P. Gautam of Panjab University says, "She explored the existential possibilities of human condition through her fiction. Her novels were not merely narratives of complex situations in which human beings find themselves, but also a perceptive analysis for philosophical insights regarding dilemmas and paradoxes that arise in

everyday life. The central theme of her fiction reflects knowledge of other minds, self-deception, self-knowledge, interpersonal relations, and the role of feelings such as revenge, jealousy, love and anguish."

Although philosophy and literature try to understand the problems of life, Iris Murdoch believed there was a subtle difference in their approach. In a discussion with philosopher Bryan Magee, she once said: "Philosophy aims to clarify and to explain, it states and attempts to solve very difficult highly technical problems, and the writing must be subservient to this aim. One might say that bad philosophy is not philosophy, whereas bad art is still art. There are

all sorts of ways in which we tend to forgive literature, but we do not forgive philosophy.... Literature entertains, it does many things, and philosophy does one thing... Philosophical writing is not self-expression, it involves a disciplined removal of the personal voice... The Literary

writer deliberately leaves a space for his readers to play in. The philosopher must not leave any space."

Though they are different in certain ways, both philosophy and literature are truth-seeking and truth-telling activities: they are cognitive activities, explanations. Murdoch did not believe that the artist has a duty to society. His duty is to art, 'to truth-telling in his own medium', his duty is to try to do his best, and to produce his work with conviction, otherwise it becomes

mere propaganda. "A good society contains many different artists doing many different things; a bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths..." The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world as his own image. I think this particular kind of merciful objectivity is virtue, and it is this which totalitarian state is trying to destroy when it persecutes art."

Although literature has philosophical elements in it, the writer must not let the philosophical voice become too strong. "I am not sure how far Sartre's plays are, or are not, damaged by having strong theoretical motives. Certainly one sees from Sartre's other novels, and novels of Simon de Beavoir, and I admire all these, as soon as the 'existentialist voice' is switched on, the work of art rigidifies. In general, I am reluctant to say that the deep structure of any good literary work could be a philosophical one.... Think how much original thought there is in Shakespeare and how divinely inconspicuous it is."

Iris Murdoch was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975. The British government awarded her the CBE in 1976. She died of Alzheimer's disease at Vale House, Oxford, at the age of 79. Her husband John Bayley, was at her bedside when the end came. For more that forty years he had shared the ups and downs of life with her. Last year, he drew a very poignant picture of his ailing wife in Iris A memoir of Iris Murdoch. He has to get along with his life without the woman who was his friend, philosopher and wife.