By Mahesan Niranjan –
Over three decades ago, sometime in the late Seventies, a young boy from a town UpNawth in Sri Lanka was preparing to go to university. Having worked very hard on his calculus for two years, he had gained admission to HillTop for four more years of further hard work that was going to be the gateway to a permanent job and marriage to a fat dowry. Just before his departure, the protective Tamil mother had called the young man aside and given him a well-rehearsed lecture: “be very careful there putha (son),” she had warned “rain on the hills and love affairs on campus don’t last long.”
The young man, you will easily guess, was to become my regular drinking partner in the famous Bridgetown pub in the UK, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow, Sivapuranam Thevaram. More recently, having become rather proficient in the science of modern molecular biology, he said to me at the pub last evening: “There is much environmental regulation to contend with machan (buddy), even with the genetic information being identical you can see very different behaviours in cells, tissues and organisms. It is epigenetics that drives our behaviour.”
“That is the puzzle to solve, you see,” he continued, “it is like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” using a more tangible example that I could understand.
Now, HillTop is on the banks of Long River. The left, where Thevaram was based, we shall refer to as the yakada (steel) side, in recognition of the type of scholarly activity pursued there, and the right shall be called the gemba (frog) side, following the untidy yet beautiful cafeteria which was infested with the amphibian. It was usual for young Thevaram, after long days of yakada bashing and solving calculus problems on how hard the bashing had to be to achieve the desired shapes, to cross Long River and relax at the gemba cafeteria. Sipping tea, he observed Nee Hou Ma, also a student, perhaps a couple of years older and following a course on the gemba side of campus.
“To be honest, I was quite envious of the guy then,” Thevaram said in the pub, after finishing his second pint of Peroni. “Why so? Nee Hou Ma was just another student, wasn’t he?” I wondered.
“There were three things about Nee How Ma I observed,” Thevaram explained. “He borrowed lots of books from the library and carried them in a sling bag, and he was always accompanied by a young lady of exceptional beauty.” I wasn’t surprised. For someone spending most of the day with machines various descriptions bending and twisting metal into shapes, and having to do the theoretical calculations on them, to see someone having the chance to read the wonderful works of Karl, Antonio and Ludwig might have been a source of envy. Thevaram flatly denied that the scholarship of the gemba side chap upset him in any way. After all, the occasional witty remarks of those who taught him thermodynamics and power systems, coming from the Left, were of such great educational value, not just of the mechanics of yakada, but also of the societal evils around us.
“Ah, it must be the lady friend then,” I teased, “you were supposed to wait for the dowry being arranged according to the well-preserved customs of your tribe, right?”
“No, Sir!” That suggestion too met with a flat denial. The Bridgetown bar was no place for confessions on cultural baggage.
“You said there were three things you observed about Nee Hou ma, what was the third?” I asked.
“Yeah, he always carried an umbrella, machan. A big umbrella that protected him from the rain in the hills, you know the one that can serve multiple purposes, of the right length to serve as a walking stick, had a sharp end that could be used to defend yourself if attacked and had a curved handle with which you could even use it to pluck low-hanging fruits.
A decade or so later, having been exiled among Bridgetown’s artificial intelligentsia, Thevaram arrived back home on a scouting trip to assess if it was time for a permanent return.
“By then, much has changed in the politics of the country, machan,” he said. “Pinocchio (you know, the guy who had a long nose because of the lies he told), had stepped down as President and Slaveoflove had taken over. Those on the Left, who had progressive thoughts — even to the point of protecting Thevaram from being beaten up in HillTop on a particularly deadly night — had turned ultra-nationalists and had taken to the streets in a killing spree. Thevaram, I must note, had a soft spot for Slaveoflove, who had risen through the ranks from humble background in the Banana Garden suburbs of the capital and was consistent in his stance against the big bully to our North. But once in power, Slaveoflove, too, had adopted habits of the political class of the Cinnamon Garden suburb and had unleashed the army to execute what it does best: kill. Rape, torture and murder were dished out in plenty to quash the rebellion of the Reds.”
“Big jump, no, how did the (far) Lefts suddenly turn (far) Right machan?” I asked.
“You see, you are making the mistake of thinking of the Left – Right political spectrum as linear, machan,” Thevaram explained. “That is not a straight line. It is curved like a horseshoe. So, when you go further to the left, beyond a point, you are actually moving closer to the right, machan.” That was beautiful. All you needed to explain the peculiar jumps was to view the political axis as a curved line. That was the differential geometry of politics. Eureka!
Back at home, Thevaram turned on the television to watch the news broadcast. He saw President Slaveoflove addressing the opening session of Parliament which had been closed for some time following an impeachment motion put against him. “You guys thought you can throw out the Banana Gardens man, you guys thought he can’t re-open the universities again, you guys thought he can’t teach the rebels a lesson and put them down! Look what I have achieved” Slaveoflove deviated from his prepared script and thundered.
Thevaram wasn’t pleased. “Tens of thousands were murdered in cold blood, not much of a record for you to boast about,” he shouted back at the television.
After the news, there was an analysis. Political analyst Hou Ah Yu came on air and put on a spirted defence of Slaveoflove. “He is a transformative leader we have,” expert Hou Ah Yu claimed, “I see him as similar to Mikhail Gorbachev,” and went on and on about Mikhail. Fidel, Joseph and even Antonio were brought in to justify the state of our country and to celebrate the victory over the youth — our own youth — butchered in the tens of thousands. There was something missing in that well-articulated analysis by Hou Ah Yu. That was an attempt to ask the three letter word of the rebellion: “WHY?” With that missing, it was a mere victory speech:
“You killed, we killed. We won because we were better at it!”
“The signs were there of more to come two decades later machan,” Thevaram let out a long sigh, gulping the remaining Peroni from his glass. “The transitions between left and right, the transitions between scholarship and celebrating war victory, are all easily explained by what we see in modern molecular biology:
“The genome may be the same, but it is the epi-genetics that drives behaviour.”