October 19, 2021

KITAAB

Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Essay: To an Obese Egghead- Einstein and South Asia by Dilantha Gunawardana

19 min read

In this essay, Dilantha Gunawardana tries to explore the romance between Albert Einstein and South Asia giving it a humorous perspective.

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Strange but something outright odd and idiosyncratic can get your creativity flowing and I thought of something topsy-turvy, outright-mad and got  curiosity’s combustion engine running faster than a ray of sun stimulating photosynthesis. What if Albert Einstein was South Asian? Albert Einstein only had one name and that immediately disqualifies him from being South Asian where names are classically longer than a train going from South Bengal to Tamil Nadu or the roots of a Banyan tree. 

Let me take for example, the genius Ramanujan, whose full name was  Srinivasa Ramanujan Aiyangar whose name length in letters is 26 to Albert’s 14. They were both good at Math, in a world – due to Climate Change and COVID-19 – where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields have a knack of climbing on top of the saddle of empiricism to make sense of it all. University students of today dream of the Large Hadron Collider and aspire to find meaning to the unresolved questions in particle physics, as they neglect their lips and hearts, that too a burning query, “why is horizontal gravity – like its vertical counterpart – such a weak force?”. There are only quarks here and no hadrons, gluons or the Higgs boson, AKA the God Particle. 

Theory of general relativity (1915) and theory of special relativity (1905) were both Einstein’s brainchildren. Of course, in South Asia, there is a special place for the boy child – at least till a few years back – and Albert fitted the deal there, he was born with a hydraulic system with no baculum and two cannonballs that were stinky as durians and frisky as rambutans. In simple terms, he was born to a gender that does not make it to counts of abortions, abandonments, infanticides and wrapped floating cradles on rivers, in this the land of rivers. 

South Asia too has a special place for the first born. Einstein’s second-born elder son (Hans Albert) did not genetically fall far from the genius apple tree but his second-born son (Eduard) was a troubled schizophrenic (but with Albert’s signature mustache)  who was in and out of mental asylums, and heard a voice other than an Amitabh Bachchan commercial, whispering in his head. Voices that are heard by Schizophrenics are called auditory hallucinations, and how Albert escaped that sentence is one of sheer mutiny to his genetic footprint. India is a country known for commonplace names, example Singh, and in Bollywoodian theatrics, if any actor could have played Albert it would have been Sanjay Dutt (at least for me), who had good mandible and maxillary features and the hair combed back, which with a little bit of spike would have been ideal for the incarnation of Albert on the big screen. 

Albert’s quest for the intricacies of science was like the pursuit of a rich young man in South Asia for a fair bride, who was just a little bit of Kareena, a little bit of Deepika and a little bit of Priyanka; Mambo number 5 was made to be sung in India. As it turned out, white chalk that lit up a blackboard was for Einstein what the bleaching lotions were to the whole of South Asia – an endless pursuit for light skin/light. While Albert grieved for his schizophrenic son, just like any Indian parent would mourn the ineligibility of one’s son to Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, or Yale. Stanford comes first since that is where South Asian sons – and daughters – go to improve their teachable IQ, and aspire for a job at Silicon Valley, before they land a fair partner. 

Palo Alto is found just next to Hyderabad inside the up-and-coming computer geniuses of India and going to the West Coast can be about finding serendipity – maybe even land the role of Rajesh “Raj” Ramayan Koothrappali, Ph.D.in a Big Bang Theory sequel – and a trip back to India can always be postponed until one was fittingly ready to find a wife, that for many has no prototypes of girlfriends. Simply put, model 1.0 can be the muse of eternity. You only require one typo to transform Raj to Taj, the one wearing the crown of his Encephalization Quotient (EQ), that the heart vetoes, to vote for the ballot of love. 

Remember that famous university entrance essay on Costco that ended on “I subsist on discovery” which is what Albert and South Asians differ on. While Albert found a string of numbers refreshing to mind, an Indian lad would count the peach fuzz on his chin at just 13 years – those tiger whiskers that are worthy of the future tech-Sundarbans. Tigers have stripes and Albert – who was born in Ulm, Germany – earned his stripes, first in Germany, then Switzerland and finally in the United States, in a university town called Princeton in New Jersey, where he tried to save refugees by funding his own savings to cater to their escape from a then Nazi-invaded Europe. 

Albert was a simple man who was heartbroken at least twice. In Sri Lanka, you just need to read a matrimonial advertisement to realize that all brides have the same characteristics – fair and beautiful – and in that order, which to Einstein was justice and physics. He was enthralled by the curves, the shapes, the topologies, the unknowns that lay beneath garments of the universe, just like a South Asian man would look at a woman and wonder, is she now in modest “granny panties” or perhaps “a chastity belt”? but there are also brainwaves for a probable “string theory” to give meaning to that form of latent curiosity. The message is that the fig leaf on the most fortuitous of days can be deciduous, even without a contract; on most honeymoon nights in modernity, it is a case of abscission and very rarely abdication.

I remember watching Lagaan and what beauty diversity spawned in India in a time of colonials. Imagine the white and grey matter of Einstein, that would have been the perfect jigsaw puzzle for God to conceptualize. Could there have been a more beautiful mind ?– I am so sorry John Nash! I guess like the N-Sync song, God surely must have spent a little more time on Albert Einstein’s mind. There could never be an avatar for Albert and he showed his inimitability not by his theoretical physics but his pragmatic kindness to refugees fleeing Europe. In fact, Einstein’s muse was no falling-apple like Newton (the apple variety known as Newton Wonder) or Galapagos finches like Darwin, it was the suffering that befell his life and he cradled a custody of humanity inside his heart that ached for the ones who shared with him the stewardship of colossal pain. Still life must surely go on, as shown in this beautiful quote by this unassuming man, 

“Life is like riding a bicycle. 

To keep the balance, you must keep moving!”

which would have resonated well with the cycle-riding folk from South Asia.  Albert’s mind – and heart – went on unlike the Titanic and he learnt that every man has a Jack & Rose story to tell, love that ridicules the arithmetic, makes algebra into corporeal operations, and lends angles of geometry to Kama Sutra. Marie Winteler, to whom Albert wrote love letters to, was his first sweetheart and she played a monumental role in Albert’s heart matters; and perhaps all did not transpire like the last scene of “Slumdog Millionaire” but even genius becomes a Slumdog to love, to live in the destitution of love lost, or worse, love that fails to become E=MC2

The greatest attribute to a South Asian is our tan, which to Einstein was the “opposite/adjacent” of a triangle and the tangent is what makes us think outside of the box. For Einstein it was discovery, while for a South Asian man it was finding a bride without his parents, a dating app or an advertisement in paper. Did you know that in Sri Lanka, an obituary notice in a newspaper is always shorter than a marriage advertisement, just like a black board was bigger for Einstein than the pages of a textbook? 

India has a chain of gyms called Talwalkars and funny enough tall people in India are like coconut trees in Greenland; a rarity. It comes down to that notion harbored by Sri Lanka parents that sports are primarily encouraged to make the children taller to make them one day eligible for marriage.  Funny enough, the most sought-after country for honeymoons, Maldives, had the highest rate of divorce back in 2002, and climate change – with inventories of separation, displacement and migration – can only push the numbers higher; an archipelago where the highest point is only a paltry 8 feet tall, arguably like a South Asian “la petite mort”, that aspires to eventually reach Parisienne altitudes – with a little helping of Kamasutra.  Einstein’s big death was on April 18, 1955, when his brain was intentionally removed by a Princeton pathologist who wanted some clues as to his unparalleled brilliance. 

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice surely must have happened in India: why else would gossipy old Mrs. Bennett – with the help from her husband – try for a son for a fifth time, and sadly or beautifully, fail big time. You only need to hear Keira Knightly sweet, all chins and smiles accent, to be charmed by an English Rose, however, you need to hear the runaway train carriages of “RRRRRRs” to know that a woman of Tamil Nadu is right in front of you. The giant Albert’s “pride” was not hurt at every hurdle he failed at, nor did he make hubris his weapon of confidence, only searching for prejudices along a tangent, both of humility and love. 

Like Mr. Darcy, Albert may have made amends to win the hearts of the ones that matter, just like the youth of today send Hallmark cards, or buy larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt huggable-bears or for that matter type old-fashioned love letters on typewriters to keep traditions alive.  Albert’s heart was as unspoilt as Sikkim, as hippy as Goa, as picturesque as Odisha and as indigenous as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but always stood devoted as a mausoleum in Agra, to the fortitude of remembrance.  

Albert, if hallucinating would heard “general/special” within his temple just like any Indian would hear the words “Sachin or Virat”. Albert as far as I know was not much into sports, except the whole of India, when honeymoon nights are spent watching the India-Pakistan game of cricket on TV. Yes, it does happen in this part of the world. A former cricketer, Imran Khan now heads the government in Pakistan and you can’t help but wonder when India will appoint a cricketer to the helm, while Albert too was invited to be the president of a nation, Israel back in 1952. Albert’s mind, although a kibbutz, was no place for the cultivation of politics. His Jerusalem was, all along, theoretical physics. 

I love the presence Aamir Khan has on screen, rebelling hero who spurns the love of an English maiden in Lagaan or in PK, as the alien who learns how to lie with a straight face from his tryst on earth. Albert too had heartache in love and fell in and out of love and surely would have spurned the advances of women who fell for his spiky-haired mustached charm, just like the whole of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu can relate to mustached men. You have to admit, shaving a dense forest on the upper lip is a surgical intervention for men to strangely miss a form of sex appeal in these parts of town. 

Mustache means manliness and virility and sadly the hairs that fall off from the head happen to have a knack of growing from the rib cage covering pectoralis muscles of South Asian men. Thank God, the Hollywood movie “40-year-old virgin” was not made in India where there is a scene where Steve Carell’s character gets his chest hairs waxed – Ouch! By the way, if a Bollywood director made a similar storyline in South Asia, it would have the title “50-Year-Old Virgin – and still living with his parents!”. 

Yes, failing to launch is a way of life in South Asia, where children stay with parents till marriage. Such 40-somethings, unburdened with STDs, rubber allergies and amorous love, can be forgotten wretches born to the wrong caste (the sad state of social stratification) or the wrong gender (sadly the still unequal girl child). Among them, there are also complaints of a recurrent pathology, carpal tunnel syndrome. Still, nothing can prepare one for “the soulmate” who in all honesty can make an Indian lad pee in his pants. I guess, the bladder knows what the heart wants.  

Funny enough, Albert Einstein married his cousin (Elsa) which in this part of the world, and among selective individuals such as Charles Darwin is not a scandalous deed. Science calls this inbreeding depression which has nothing to with the blues, only the emergence of genetic zemblanity, that gives snake eyes in early morbidities and mortalities. Darwin and Einstein, two towering lighthouses of biology and physics, took comfort in extended family, at the expense of scientific testimony. Perhaps it was just about a man standing in front of a woman asking her to love him, unless of course it is Rajesh “Raj” Ramayan Koothrappali, who will have to resort to sign language – or a game of charades – to express his love. People forget that Raj too was a tanned version of Mr. Darcy on the small screen, and personality can get buried inside theoretical astrophysics, and can only shine, at those moments when fear is made obsolete, to share the comfort of words. Raj was as cool as a quantum computer, loud as an Intel chip, starry-eyed as pulsars, held the love of a spice – his Yorkshire Terrier named Cinnamon, got a “penny for his thoughts” while drunk as a skunk, and was domiciled in his bachelor pad, the Raj Mahal. 

It is a great man who said, 

“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” 

But sadly, that is not what Bollywood or the Indian Premier League is made of. Success means a lot for the South Asian households and wealth amassment can be a rudimentary trait in South Asian countries. However now, the landscape of Bollywood is fast changing, which can be seen by how once censored kisses are now a form of affection on the big screen, the rubbing of lips, like cavemen did with rocks, to spark something ingenious, and charmed. The frescoes of Ajanta caves are now Bollywood biopics, while the biography of Albert, premiered on National Geographic as the first series of “Genius”.   

Another quote attributed to Albert Einstein was, “A man must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings.” While Albert may not have understood everything about human dimensions, he would have been appalled by the developments in Europe following the September 3rd 1939 events in Poland. The world saw that Albert’s greatest illusion was the cosmological constant that stood contradictory to the expansion/contraction of space in the universe, which also betrayed his scribblings on paper. The suffering Albert endured was seeing his youngest son suffer from an alienating disease, and Eduard’s kerosene blues & dopamine psychoses stood as the nimbus clouds in Albert’s glycerin skies, but suffering did not bury Albert and he moored – but not always – to a safer harbor in theoretical physics. Pain was a damascene conversion for Albert, and he saw that in his Road to Damascus, there was a place for those destinies abandoned, to become recipients of his olive branches. 

Sometimes faith and fate can be the same thing, when your belief gives you the most improbable of odds that you silently knew deep down. Albert’s final answer to long lines of theoretical physics, stood as witness to the singularity of the residue of fate stemming from an educated hunch, the clairvoyance of reasoning that complex equations fructified from, to come up with the apotheosis of a formula. 

It is like a South Asian woman knowing instinctively that the masala of spices she sprinkles with palm will bequeath the supreme divinity of taste, which in Sri Lanka is called “Ath Gunaya” – or simply “the beautiful essence of palms”. 

Simply put, E=MC2 was no fluke, only an alibi. 

There are, I suppose , more matrimony websites in India than anywhere else in the world. A matrimony website must surely be like Albert’s mind going line by line through the equations that are not ideal to be taken down the aisle of time. Just like marriage is a destination, Albert too would have spent years courting the physics that formed the core of his chosen path, and would have got “lucky” on days, but also learnt that persistence for true love pays off in the longer run. No one will really know what exactly transpired the minute Albert arrived at the final line of a long arduous journey on paper and blackboards; did he face a dilemma between pride and imposter syndrome or was it a relative consolation for all of it to make perfect sense at long last? Either way, he will stand as the ostrich egghead in a long line of eggheads, who toiled with elements of scientific understanding to the fundamental questions of the universe. 

Matrimony websites can be full of screen names from eastern mythology to the simple Hollywoodian, made of marriage-age maidens, a place where diffidence is an Austenian character, a place for a tanned version of Mrs. Bennett to auction off her daughters until Mr. Darcy gave her two reasons to smile; those paired “aishwaryian” words, “bride and prejudice”. How we forget that matrimony websites are at best, a facilitator of blind dates; and strangely sometimes at the matrimonial alter [I wonder if Albert’s avant-garde theories ever had any element of being on a blind date or two?] India is a land of unparalleled romance in reels of Bollywood, public-transport matchmakers, light-footed songful outdoors, hemlines and sari-falls leaping aloft in the air, a high Gini Coefficient that cannot stall the amalgamation of rich girl and poor hero. 

Sometimes you need to be a guinea pig to another’s soul to witness eternity in action: hips that in time can carry old-fashioned twins or IVF triplets, a double chin like a Zebu, humps like a Bactrian camel, and a long-standing love affair with veggies that makes one PETA-worthy. Funny enough, what science calls cutaneous colorimetry a.k.a. The palpability of skin tone, is about the collective genetic strength that is partial to fairness, which for others is an anti-imperfection whitening cream that makes the skin glow – Holy Cow, who in the right mind would call darker tones imperfect? The latter of the two, can be witnessed inside honeymoon suites in Kerala, when couples navigate the opal night using as guidance the beautiful titanium glow that 10 years of bleaching creams and lotions had rendered. 

Who can forget here that India also has Jewish communities, referred to by their regional affiliations (such as Manipur), where they leap from the DNA springboard to a world that is still uncertain of their tributaries of history, demographical refugees who just like Albert may have found their Princeton, to prove that compasses can be retired, but not the hunger for your taproot?  

In India and other parts of South Asia, there is a sense of the surreal as well as the tragic, and a fine line separating the two. A palanquin can easily become an ambulance stretcher, an extra marital affair can be true love, a two-way kiss can have more life than mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, an auto-rickshaw can go faster than a Suzuki Maruti. Albert knew this dichotomy as a refugee; that life has its own intricate tapestries of highs and lows, coupled to uncertainties and unknowns. 

How unfair did the world treat the Jews back in the 1930-40s, just like Islamophobia is a blight in some parts of the modern west. Still, Albert remained undeterred to the tide of time, holding the “white chalk” oar that saw him transform by thought-catalysis a hypothesis, to yield the fruition of universal palpability. Einstein’s thinking-hat had a smaller brim and a larger cranial volume, that stands today in parts, as an exhibit of a museum (Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, USA), which for decades was placed in a cider box, consolidated by a beer cooler. 

Albert was a larger-than-life Sheldon Cooper, a man who was cooler than two Long Island Iced Teas and called his woman a saint and a squirrel, in his belief that the X-chromosome is a dilemma-worthy affair; which is worlds apart from the flaccid vestige one calls a Y chromosome, that is always a no-brainer. Sometimes, lampoons of biology are worthwhile investments; a nose with character that could hold a clothes hanger, a Granny Smith-shaped beer belly, a navel button that is a puncture of flabby de-vulcanized tires, knocked knees like that of Jackass Penguins, and pink assets that abut in an unfashionable “pause” when puberty does a handstand.  Albert had more folds in his supermodel rockstar brain than his tummy, and his obesity in all the right places, made him stand out from the rest. 

Albert’s sex appeal was like that of a nerdish heartthrob in that he was the Time Magazine’s man of the century, sparking eyes with a laid-back, elbow on the desk, hands-together charm that few people with MENSA brainpower had. Only now is IQ an important element in choosing a partner in South Asia, where for years it was caste, family and fortune, being the three musketeers made for the marriage shelf. 

Caste is a traditional mainstay of the South Asian communities where in places like Sri Lanka “Govigama – farming caste”, “Salagama – the cinnamon cultivating caste” and “Karawa – fishing/shipping/coastal caste” have influence on ground, and I wonder whether the status of Albert in the early 1900 Germany’s secular Ashkenazi Jewish communities, played a role inside his heart in his quest for love. I hope not, just to see this man mountain as an Everest in matters of the human heart. In Himalayan summits of Casanova, Don Juan, Romeo and modern-day lovers he stood beyond, not by the fortitude of love, only by how he tamed the mind, to let the heart loose like an Asian lion in the Gir forests of Gujarat. In a world of Bombay Ducks, it takes a man of stature to see love as real and perfectly-imperfect as a lizardfish. 

Albert’s parents were Hermann Einstein, a salesman and engineer who started his own company and Pauline Koch. His father’s chosen field of work (electrical engineering) may have had an influence in Albert’s knack for physics. Even in South Asia of today, there is a trend of sons following their father’s footprints, to find the way through where they were trained and mentored in their early years. The Amaranths and Gavaskars of the cricketing pitches, were symbolic of the apple not falling far; an apple that was neither rotten nor maggot-infested, but a gene or two short.   

There are places like Hindu Kovils where only top bare men are allowed to go inside and similarly there are places in math and physics that are only reachable for the “top bare” men whose minds are unclothed and open to light. The mind is the juggernaut for the Jagannath-like quest of the unknown, only pursuing with no pre-formed opinion, prejudice or bias, embarking on discovery like Vasco De Gama did from a port (Lisbon) in Portugal; the only way one can find the pinnacle of a tangible serendipity. Many before Albert, were like Bartholomew Dias, navigating the capes of good hope, but only Vasco de Gama was able to reach mainland India. 

India is named after the river Indus. Einsteinian rivers and rivulets of neurotransmitters gave meaning to the watersheds of Theoretical Physics. Albert made mistakes in scientific reasoning, had hemorrhaging regrets, was flawed in his few times at love, but still persisted with a Mahut (Mahout) called curiosity holding the ankus (elephant goad) standing by him, taking baby elephant steps to become destiny’s most revered but realistic poster child. The elephant in history’s wall-less room, crowding the scholarship of what it takes to be humble and human, at the petty cost of genius. 

In fact, a confident Albert had promised his Nobel prize winnings to his first wife as part of the divorce settlement in 1919, and then fell – or perhaps had already fallen – in love with his cousin Elsa, showing to the world, that matters of the mind play second fiddle to treasure maps of the human heart. The smarty pants who could have easily worn a pair of Jodhpur pants – which were fashionable as sporting/casual wear in the 1910-1920s – to Gothenburg, but didn’t; but knew that he needed to widen his understanding before getting on the saddle of avant-garde theoretical physics, to showcase to the world that time primes to destiny, and that equals to serendipity, a beautiful word attributed to the mythical discoveries of Serendib (modern day Sri Lanka), as narrated by a 1754 story. 

Albert proved why Wily Coyote could never catch the Roadrunner, just like the juggernaut of light cannot be overtaken by any speeding object. In that simple notion of a timeless cartoon, rests the acme of Albert Einstein, on which stands the bedrock of modern physics. 


Biography

Dilantha Gunawardana, who is a molecular biologist and biochemist by training, lives in a chimerical universe of science and poems. Dilantha’s poems have been accepted for publication /published in The Writing Disorder, Heart Wood Literary Magazine, Quadrant Online, Canary Literary Magazine, Cordite Poetry Review, Boston Accent Lit, Forage, Kitaab, Creatrix, Eastlit, American Journal of Poetry, Cephalo Press and Zingara Poetry Review among others, while also contributing to two recent poetry anthologies. Dilantha has two anthologies of poetry, Kite Dreams (2016) and Driftwood (2017), published by Sarasavi Publishers (Sri Lanka).

Dilantha was awarded the prize for “The emerging writer of the year – 2016” in the Godage National Literary Awards, Sri Lanka, while being shortlisted for the poetry prize, in the same awards ceremony. Dilantha lives in a beautiful island country shaped like a teardrop, Sri Lanka, known for its black tea, true cinnamon, love of a colonial game called cricket and passion for spicy curries. Dilantha studies small ferns called Azolla that he grows for scientific research and teaches biological topics as a university academic. Dilantha in his free time takes part in pub quizzes, maintains a photography blog dedicated to birds and butterflies, forays into prose writing, and plays basketball, soccer and cricket. 

Webpage: https://curiositydrivenlife.org

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