Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Kaushik's Basu's 'Crossings at Benares Junction'

Funniest line ever in an Indglish play-
Mr. Gosh- 'National bard of India is not Rabindranath Tagore. Peacock is the correct answer."

Prof Kaushik Basu, the contriver of the 'Traveler's dilemma' as a critique of 'backwards induction' in Game theory has also written a hilarious little  play  - Crossings at Benares Junction' which combines old fashioned romanticism with game theoretic insights into intentionality and ethics.
Basu’s protagonist is a 39 year old bachelor, Siddharta, a professor of philosophy, who has just won an  International prize  and, as such, for complex socio-biological reasons, has suddenly become the ultimate matrimonial trophy for brainy women on the prowl for- I will not say Bengali beefcake, as that would be culturally insensitive- but a slippery, cerebral, hilsa like husband from the right side of the Hoogly.


In the first scene, the improbably named Melba Iyengar- an ambitious philosophy lecturer/documentary film-maker, who combines the emotional crassness of her generation (she is in her late 20’s) with the cultural illiteracy and naked careerism of the bien pensant N.G.O do-goodniks- makes indelicate advances to our blushing Bengali boy.
(En passant- I may note the curious attribution of sexual aggression to Iyengar females in Indglish fiction- vide Shoba De, Mukul Kesavan but not, I hasten to add, my own 'Samlee's daughter')


Miss Iyengar presses her suit on Siddhart using two powerful arguments.  Firstly, the fact that if he proposes she is sure to say yes- thus greatly increasing the expected value of proposing.  Secondly, three other people are competing for her hand. By delaying proposing, Siddharta keeps three others waiting in limbo. 


Hence, altruism would dictate proposing sooner rather than later so that three other men can get on with their lives.
Siddharta has till now played a stoic’s part- as indicated by his choice of Hindi song to play on the stereo.
Mai.N Zi.Ndagii Kaa Saath Nibhaataa Chalaa Gayaa
Har Fikr Ko Dhu.Ne.N Me.N U.Daataa Chalaa Gayaa
Barabaadiyo.N Kaa Soz Manaanaa Fizuul Thaa \- 2
Barabaadiyo.N Kaa Jashn Manaataa Chalaa Gayaa
Mai.N Zi.Ndagii...
Jo Mil Gayaa Usii Ko Muqaddar Samajh Liyaa \- 2
Jo Kho Gayaa Mai.N Usako Bhulaataa Chalaa Gayaa
Mai.N Zi.Ndagii...
Gam Aur Khushii Me.N Fark Na Mahasuus Ho Jahaa.N \- 2
Mai.N Dil Ko Us Muqaam Pe Laataa Chalaa Gayaa
Mai.N Zi.Ndagii...
I went on my way keeping faith with Life
Blowing away anxieties like smoke from a cigarette
Grief over disasters is a futile thing
I celebrated my calamities along life’s way
Whatever I received, I considered my fated portion
Whatever I lost, I resolved to forget and move on
I move my heart towards that (mystic) station where sorrow and joy are indistinguishable

He parries Melba’s crass attempt at seduction by claiming, firstly, that he is not at all sure that she will not reject him if he proposes and, secondly, that her mention of three other suitors is 'double counting' since only one of them could have her. This is a disingenuous argument, since Melba's point was about a duty to minimize the total waiting time of the other suitors- that being the only opportunity cost that arises where a woman is determined to marry a particular man and the fellow is dragging his heels.
 Siddharta, clearly, is either really stupid or clever enough to appear so when his happiness is at stake- in other words, the man is a born philosopher.

Fortunately, the arrival of other guests prevents Melba from raping the hero, thus ‘ruining’ him and leaving him no option but marriage to his assailant- so backward is Bharat, such things happening all the time, I yam telling you- simply to save his family’s izzat.


In the next Act, we meet Siddharta’s lost love- June. Or so we conclude from Siddharta’s choice of song
June points out, she was almost ten years older than him and did the right thing in marrying a pompous ass of an academic closer to herself in age. She counsels Siddharta to marry, to trust in God, and keep promises. 

‘Nibhana’- to abide by a commitment- is a key value expressed in the two songs- from the Dev Anand vehicle ‘Hum Donon’- Siddharta has played so far. Since the lyricist was Sahir Ludhianvi we see that both faithfulness in love and integrity in political engagement are meant. In this case, resistance to Right Wing Hindutva hooliganism is the righteous path.
Siddharta had promised God that he would give thanks in a temple if he gets the prize, but he is agnostic not only about God but also about the value of Prizes and- more to the point- the incentive compatibility of Marriage as an institution. Yet he is lonely. He has to ‘go out into the dark night’ not from fear of God but because fear is the biggest sin.
Here the text is a little unclear- is there a temple in ‘Plaza gardens’ or is there to be a political demonstration there, or is it a place to meet girls?- so we can’t be sure exactly what June is counseling Siddharta to do.
Siddharta announces that he is not a coward. He will walk out into the dark night. He is prepared to take the risk.
Siddharta’s dilemma is the classic Romantic dilemma- most fully realized in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa- whereby ‘a boy loves with his full heart, a man loves with a full stomach’ (Kipling). However, the boy with the full heart can’t feed the beloved. She marries the fat older guy. But what happens when, a few years down the line, the boy wins a big prize and becomes an attractive prospect? How can he get a bride after his own heart rather than the full wallet that nestles against it? 


The problematic that where meaning is gamed, where emotions are strategic, where the subject matter of both epistemology and Aristotelian ethics- in other words both Knowledge and ‘Character’- are in flux for defined, as it were, by backward induction from the reference point of a mercenary, memoryless, game- then it is not only the fraudulent ‘businessman’ but also the scholar, the lover, the spouse, everybody in every relationship, who keeps going only by introducing more and more chaos into the system- but that system itself a Ponzi scheme that feeds off its own ever widening circle of ruination to make itself the only game in town…


The one rather artificial assumption in the above is that modern life is a memoryless- i.e  hysteresis free- game. Siddharta is worried by what happens if things suddenly stop- how can the world suddenly start up again.






Siddharth: I have not thought it through well enough to know the answer myself. But see, if everything stops, the earth, you, the protons and atoms inside you and inside me…   everything. It does seem obvious, right? That things cannot re-start again?
One way to reason is that whatever happens at any time is caused by the state of the world just before that. Now, if the world is motionless for some time, no matter how brief, there is a time when the world is motionless and just before that the world was motionless. Hence, motionlessness causes motionlessness. Hence, once there is no motion, there cannot be any motion.
This has lots of interesting implications. It means that we can never invent a TV set that can switch itself on. If it does, it is because we have programmed that in and there are small actions occurring inside it all the time. (Pause) What I wonder is, are we reaching this conclusion purely by deduction, or is this just a fact of life — that motion cannot come out of motionlessness.
Kavita: The fact that you reach this conclusion without ever having experienced the stoppage of everything suggests, doesn’t it, that you come to this conclusion by deduction.
Siddharth stares at her in disbelief.
Siddharth: Are you a philosopher? I am sorry to inflict this trivia on you…
Kavita: No, but I was taught philosophy. In fact, by you — at NDU.
Siddharth: Really?







More generally, from chemical clocks & Conway's game of life and so on, we are thoroughly familiar with the notion that 'everything can stop'- or more precisely 'nothing happening' occurs for any given number of time periods before novelty starts to appear or things to start up again. In other words, for any given specifiable world state there is a cellular automata model such that everything stops at time t and everything starts up again at time t+i.
Thus, Siddharta's puzzling over this is either the author justifying an implausible assumption- viz. the trope of a memoryless game- or else it is a pointer to the protagonist's emotional state. Well, d'uh, it is both- so that's okay.
Basu’s delightful, Shavian, jeu d’esprit has a happy ending and will be appreciated by all who read it. Except, of course, it would be even more fun to watch in an auditorium. And if anyone asks-
'Enjoying?'
'Simply!"
- will be my reply.

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