You had come home during the summer break. You were having a good time with your old friends till one day something unusual but ordinary happened. This was this. You encountered your mother on your way out of the big old rambling house. Your mother asked you right way to re-string a rope tightly between two wooden posts for drying your household clothes because the old string, as your mother told you, had sagged in the middle of the string creating many inconveniences for her The sagging rope didn’t agree with her keen aesthetic senses.
The old lady was fastidious about small things like that. She also couldn’t stand the sight of anything being out of place or out of order in the household. If, for example, there happened to be a dark mustard seed in a handful of yellow mustard seeds which she was about to consign to the hot oil in a pot, she would stop and take out the dark seed carefully and look for more unwelcome seeds in her palm. That’s what made your mother’s cooking so irresistible - paying attention to details.
Anyway, you might have passed that sagging string many times on your way out or into the house to have fun-times being with your friends. But that small thing didn’t register any reaction in you. That happens to us. You were a college boy learning big things of life like atoms and molecules, and how they bonded together to make other things.
You couldn’t ignore your mother. You untied the rope from the two wooden posts and re-strung the rope again being sure that would take care of the little problem your mother faced. But, whatever was the tightness of the strung rope, the rope sagged again in the middle. You tried again to remove the sag. Little less each time but the telltale sign of sagging remained. Was that the property of strung anything? Are strings destined to sag just like firewood is ‘destined’ to split under the impact of a sharp axe?
You went into a philosophical stance just to prolong the work. That wasn’t unusual for you. It’s a diversion. What caused the firewood to split - the sharpness of the falling axe or the force of impact on it imparted by you? You had done a lot of spitting of wood in the years but you never thought why wood split axially down the middle. The momentary sound that accompanied the spitting was pleasant conveying a sense of personal accomplishment like you’ve done that.
Your mother had sent you to a famous college in the city to learn big, small and little things so that you could do big, small and little things so that you could earn a little bit of money in return to live on. Life isn’t easy. But, where was the time for fun? You couldn’t tell your mother that you couldn’t eliminate the sagging because you didn’t know what was causing the sagging. You somehow came to know that to solve a problem you have to know the heart and soul of the problem. How smart you can get by a year or two or six or more years of college? Not much unless you had some common sense. You were a solid example that people could easily point to.
Carrying on the subject, it was in consonance with the theme that to catch fish you have to know the psychology of fish. You didn’t know fish. But broadly speaking, how many of us know anything about anything before you’re assigned to do something about anything? You have heard the sermon, ‘Give a man a fish, he will make just one meal of it. Give the man a fishing rod, he would eat fish all his life’. What a dull form of eating for all the blessed life of yours it would be. Besides, the Westerners are always in a preachy mood - do this and do that. It’s good for you or good for the society. Enough of that preaching. If they practiced what they preached, their lives would be just like in Heaven. They have no sense of the Heaven either. It’s a make-believe concept. But, let’s move on without lingering on.
What a monumental waste of the scarce money it was - getting the boy college-educated. The boy would have been better off learning to be a car mechanic or something of that nature. He hung around a lot mechanic-types but otherwise good people. I don’t mind that at all - the boy being a car mechanic, your mother would’ve loudly thought hoping that some of it rubbed on her lazy son who was adamant about going to college to learn more about something.
Anyway, you avoided eye-contact with your mother till it was time to be educated more in the city by wasting you mother’s good money. Money earned by others is always good money that is painful to part with whereas the money you earn yourself is no good in other’s view. We have to change that view. Money is absolutely no good at all. Look around. A grown up brother kills another grown brother up in a dispute over land and property. That’s the silliest thing to do.
You came back to the city and forgot the whole string-thing. But, professor Rajani Chakraborty who taught mathematics at the college, came to your rescue in terms of giving you insights. He was teaching your class on how to determine mathematically the center of gravity of regular objects. He might have mentioned that everything we see, whether huge, big or small or tiny, had a center in it through which the force of gravity works. But, there was some more.
You were also mesmerized by the sight in your brother’s disheveled bed a meticulously penned solved problem of a chain being lowered in a water-well. The bucket attached to the chain, according to your brother’s mathematical treatment, gained speed before it splashed on the surface of water. There the chain was treated as chunks of masses strung together like beads in a necklace. Your brother taught mathematics to would-be engineers at a college. You thought if an engineer needed to lower a bucket in a water-well, he would do that without bothering about mathematics. But, the engineers learn the problem anyway to make them intellectually smart. Instead of that, they should learn to be good accounting clerks. There was the money.
‘That means scientifically the old strung rope had a variable (distributed) but constantly changing center gravity through which the force downward works’, you might have thought casually. You could now explain the phenomenon of the sagging rope scientifically to your mother whether she comprehended science at all or not. It would have been a fun thing to try to satisfy your blown up super ego. That’s the problem with us the educated ones or would-be educated ones - we wear the invincible armor of being educated which prevent us from leveling with those who are less educated or non-educated or don’t care about your concept of education. .
Anyway, on your next visit home, you wanted to have a fresh look at the strung droopy rope with new insights gained. You were armed with the required knowledge to outsmart your no-education mother. You’ve learned about force, mass, density, calorie, H2O - the chemical designation for water, corrosion and all that stuff. Your mother, unfortunately, knew none of that. There wouldn’t be a contest of equals.
‘What happened to the old sagging and troublesome rope? I will fix the pesky problem in no time. I’m learning science now’, you excitedly asked your mother who showed a little bit displeasure with your manner of talking with her. You always talked with your mother with respect. You had unknowingly become a little bit brash, a little bit impetuous, and, God forbid, disrespectful toward her. Your mother was uncomfortable with the new you that you had evolved into. Little education did that. You were like the proverbial frog in a deep well.
‘Oh, Matia took care of that. He knows to do things. Tell him what you want done, and it’s done by the end of the day or the next day’, your mother said with the sweetest motherly smile for a son. ‘Go, see for yourself. It’s nice. I can pull the heavy dried clothes off the string with all my might, and nothing happens to the string. It bounces back to dry another load of freshly washed clothes’, your mother said. It was a prestige issue between being-college-educated you and no-education Matia or your dear mother. She knew how to write checks for your college expenses.
‘The site of the strung rope had changed too. It’s sunny all day there. There is no long shadows of the setting Sun covering your wet clothes’, your mother told you. There was a tone of teasing in her voice or you might have thought so. You came to the site of the strung rope.
The rope was no longer a frayed choir rope. It was a shiny solid metallic rope. Matia knew a choir rope would do the same thing again. The two ends of the new rope weren’t tied in the posts in haphazardly-executed multiple knots. Simple guide paths were cut at the top at the posts for the ends of the rope to pass over. Furthermore, in the new configuration, the ends of the rope were tied to heavy wooden short stakes inserted into the ground at an angle away from each post. The stakes had nicely-cut grooves around top where the end of the rope was tightly wrapped in nicely-executed multiple twists. The twisted end was then folded back on itself.
The sight was exquisitely beautiful but nevertheless painful for you. You came inside kitchen to tell your mother so but not really. It was not a defeat for you. It was also learning the basics of uncomplicated living. You wanted to acknowledge all that to your calm mother. But, somehow words didn’t come out of your mouth. Instead you asked your mother impishly what she was cooking. You always asked her that simple question as a token of your deep-rooted love and affection for your mother. She was the heroine of a play that had no beginning and no ending.
That little episode happened a long time ago. Since then, you graduated from your college, and then graduated over and over again in different places to learn new, exciting and revealing things. You’ve learned a lot of things, and you have also done a lot of things. You have traveled a lot and met people of different backgrounds and trades. But, the remembrance of the sight of Matia’s artful but day-to-day daily work makes you feel good.
You sometimes wonder if Matia is still alive, or if he is not alive, if he left a son or a daughter having his superb work ethics, perfection and beauty in the end products. That’s what engineers and scientist are supposed to do. Correction. All the people are supposed to do. You now appreciate why your mother liked Matia so much while she egged you on indirectly to do things with a little bit of perfection like Matia’s. But, you’re no Matia. Could never be one like him.
Berkeley Sept 24, 2008