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Like humans, a city or town has its specific identity, its own ‘personality’. For a long time I have pondered over the idea of writing a tale of cities that I have understood relatively closely. The project got delayed to the extent that the present essay is the first of this kind, and its success will decide its continuation or otherwise. That I have chosen this town for the first episode will be clear in the coming paragraphs. Primary motivation for such an exercise is not to merely describe a town ‘as it is’, but beyond that – what ‘it could or should possibly be’. In that case it embraces a considerable degree of subjectivity. Moreover, a description of people is a kind of statistical exercise and could not be applicable to individual cases.
Picking my suitcase, I alighted from the train and walked slowly towards the gate abutting platform No 1. Herein, the first thing that caught my attention was a bill board with a welcome message, “Welcome to the city of culture”. The exact words used were ‘Samskar Nagari’, and in absence of a better choice for ‘samskar’ I settled for the word ‘culture’. Anyway, I was pleased by the message dismissing the notion that there wasn’t anything personal in it. I also dismissed queries about the meaning of the phrase like the one on display. The city welcomes me and I enjoy the moment, here and now. It was my first ever visit to Baroda i.e. Vadodara. The hotel was not far from the railway station and it took me mere ten minutes to reach there; another twenty minutes for the formalities of ‘checking in’. Relaxing in my room, sipping hot tea I mused over the way life had unfolded itself before me. Human mind is complex and its working infinitely more so, this much I had understood during the six decades and a half of my life so far. All rationality, common sense may yield to the irrationality and ‘uncommon sense’ of mind which seems to be guided by some unknown hand driven from some obscure location deep-down the unconscious. And I knew that this time too, the strange working of mind would decide the issues ultimately.
I was on a mission for past five years to take a decision which required an answer to a query: where should I settle after my retirement? A rather unimportant question for many but important for me, and probably for everyone at the stage in life I was in. I had already spent several years of my post-retirement life in search of a satisfactory answer to my query; and at this rate I could possibly spend the rest of it without finding an answer, leave alone getting an accommodation of my own. It was for my better half to get hold of the issue, catching the bull by its horns. She gave me an ultimatum to decide the issue within a year, else ……………..! There were so many options but I will avoid going into undesirable details.
The choice of the state of Gujarat was simple enough as my elder son was there and his physical proximity in hour of need was valuable. However, there was another and equally significant motivation. This is perhaps the only state in the country where power is available round the clock, and even solitary women can move about in the late hours of the night unhindered and unharmed. The die was thus cast and what remained was to decide the place to settle in. This important mission brought me to the city of Vadodara where things appeared to hold promise for me and my budget. The township in the south-western part of the city seemed to fulfil the ardent wishes of my wife: 4-BHK duplex in a relatively peaceful surrounding. That was out of my budget in cities like Ahmedabad and Surat, but seemed to be well within the limits here. I mused over my smart handling of things – a good accommodation in a medium sized city, neither too crowded nor too isolated from the mainstream of national life. The recent finding of it being a ‘city of culture’ seemed a bonus without an extra cost. “Well done”, I congratulated myself. I had enough reason to feel satisfied as soon I finalised my deal with the Pacifica Builders, who opted for an unusual name for the emerging township, San Tropez, Madrid County.
Glancing through the newspaper next morning my eyes got fixed on a news item that drew my attention. It was about a crocodile killing a man. It would have been an accident like others everywhere but what surprised me was the fact that it had happened in the central area of the city. A road accident in a city was not uncommon but a crocodile attack on humans was. The unfortunate person might have gone near the river to attend nature’s call when this happened. I gradually learnt that this was not a rare event, in fact it was very often that humans were being attacked by the beast in the shallow Vishwamitri river which runs almost dry except during the rainy season. Following heavy rains, the river gets flooded and at times overflows its banks spilling water over nearby roads and lanes. And that was what actually happened in the year 2013 when the overflowing river spilled not only water but dozens of crocodiles on the streets and lanes of the adjoining localities. People were advised not to step out into the partly submerged roads and boats were used to ferry people through the lanes for fear of the beast. Newspapers showed photographs of few crocodiles smugly lying on their underbellies on lanes of residential areas, an unusual sight for a city centre.
This news item suddenly changed my mood. Earlier, elated over my wise decision to select the ‘city of culture’ as my home, I was now full of apprehension about the ‘city of crocs’. Culture and crocks together, as if two sides of a coin; take one, you get the other. It was a matter of some relief when the other day I visited the site of a proposed township of my interest which was relatively far from the river. I was lucky to have unknowingly selected an area some distance away from the danger zone.
Things gradually smoothed out but my mind got entangled in a complex debate about culture, crocodiles and croc-cultures (whatever that may mean). In fact, throughout the state I found a strange acceptance of the right of this ancient amphibian to co-exist although the beast did not follow the rule of co-existence. In the nearby town of Anand, a crocodile was found inside a house, while in the nearby city of Surat it was found near a residential area. In both cases the spotters informed the authorities and they got the beast removed to its natural habitat. In most places around the country and the world people would not accept the presence of the fierce beast so close to the town’s heartland. In many cases, it would be killed since if its safe transportation seems difficult. This is, however, not so in this state of Gujarat. I saw this as a sign of compassion for life in general. I was trying hard to grasp the meaning of culture, and the notion behind the phrase ‘city of culture’, even though its nomenclature might not have been thought on these lines. It did not matter if the phrase meant differently to others.
Words of Aldo Leopold  flashed through my mind which had a close connection with culture, the wild and the wilderness.
Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered for himself the artefact called civilisation. Wilderness is never a homogeneous raw material, it is very diverse, and the resulting artefacts are quite diverse. These differences in the end products are known as cultures. The rich diversity of world’s cultures reflect a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.
The small Vishwamitri could by no means be portrayed as representing wilderness. Nevertheless, it has earned for itself the status of harbouring wild animals that could be a threat to humans. According to one recent estimate, the river had a population of around 250 crocodiles in and around the town (around the year 2013). What surprised me was that even with that threat before the public, Barodans did not seem unduly disturbed, and no serious concern was shown to take necessary action. Was it due to mere inaction or an indifference generated by a deep psychological tolerance and acceptance of all life, I could not tell. In any case I found it interesting and a matter of academic interest too to understand the wild, the wilderness, the culture and their intrinsic connections. I had some sense of appreciation for the sort of acceptance of the wild in civil areas.
Ruminating about the culture and wilderness I did appreciate that such a query was intrinsic to all thinking beings. The query and related answers get more interesting especially with our recent scientific understanding of the notions of life, its evolution and the understanding that man too has his origins in the wild.
“Man with all his qualities and exalted powers still bears in his bodily frame the indelible mark of his lowly origin.” – (Charles Darwin)
And that origin is same for all animal life. Tracing back along the evolutionary route you come across the chimpanzee, the ape, the monkey. Far back one finds the reptiles and amphibians too which include the crocodiles. What a revelation indeed! The fierce beast could possibly be a distant relative. The indelible mark of man’s lowly origin (The Descent of Man) is not to be easily erased. There is a silver lining too. The cranial evolution somehow brought the real big difference between man and other animal species. A comparison of the human brain(hardware) plus his mind(software) with other species shows that man is unparalleled in the entire evolutionary history known to us, for animals have not yet been proved to possess a sense of conscience, and thus, seem to be lacking in what is called a ‘ Sentient Being’ although the credit goes entirely to Nature to have evolved human brain the way it did.
Tracing Back the Origins
An individual’s detailed identity is portrayed through the family tree, that traces the lineage as far back possible. Similar is the case with cities and towns. The small river that divides the town in two parts is hardly noticeable but makes its presence felt in no uncertain terms and in more than one way. It originates in the hills of the neighbouring Panchmahal district. It’s of some interest to find that the Pavagarh hills were formed by a volcanic eruption around 500 million years ago. What does that mean to a man who is not conversant with the geological time-scale. To make the figures more meaningful it can be said that the great Himalayas were born around 55 MYA which is very small as compared to the creation time of the volcanic hills where the river originates. Himalayas and the great rivers that originated there may be mighty and they really are, but they were non-existent at the time of the creation of these hills, and possibly the Vishwamitri. A look at the structural formation of the rocks shows several unique features which could possibly be the result of longterm erosion over a topographic surface with a volcanic beginning.
The name Baroda seems to have resulted from Englishman’s mis-pronouncing the word Vadodara, which some people think to have originated from Vatodara – meaning banyan trees in the belly. Modern Baroda is a memorial to its ruler Sayaji Rao Gaekwad who dreamt and did a lot to make this town an educational and commercial hub. The university bearing the name of its illustrious ruler finds an important place among academic institutions not only in the state but even beyond. Noticeable among industries are petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and plastics.
Several great names have been associated with the city and the ruler who have left a mark on the national canvas, including those of Aurobindo Ghosh, Swami Vivekananda and BR Ambedkar, to name a few.
Culture has a close relationship with education although it certainly is multi-dimensional. This may be one of the reasons for considering the city’s cultural connections. However, at a deeper level culture could find its connectivity with the wild and the wilderness and our attitude towards it. Again recalling Aldo Leopold’s vision:
The cultural value of wilderness boils down in the last analysis to the question of intellectual humility.I for one thing have always been in the lookout for the thing known as intellectual humility, and even though in the short span of my stay in this town, I had little contact with intellectual community, I could sense in my own intuitive ways the presence of this commodity (intellectual humility) in the people here. The acceptance of the fierce beast so close and that too without much fuss could possibly have those deep cultural roots I have been referring to.
It goes without saying that there are several aspects of city life that need improvement. Cleanliness drive is more a slogan in our nation and Baroda seems no exception. Not easy to elaborate the civic sense is a commodity that embraces several things must become a part of city’s culture and each of us has a share in this.
It is often said that this city has a cosmopolitan character. That gives it an air of diversity which is so essential for the growth of culture.
How Things Hang Together
Life and everything related to it has an unavoidable dualism where opposite trends are intrinsically entangled to the extent that they become indispensable. To be precise, one can see the opposition as some kind of complementarity. Seemingly opposite things in fact complement each other, like day-night, left-right, hot-cold, and so on; what about the pair culture-wilderness! This pair represents a deeper relationship which shows the complex weaving and working of nature in evolving life on the planet. Culture has used wilderness as the raw material (Aldo Leopold) and while doing so did not make a copy of the original. It gradually distanced itself from the wilderness so much so that very often measure of culture becomes a measure of the distancing of things from the wilderness itself. Cities are in some way the epicenters of culture and a repository of the artifacts and the sociofacts which mankind creates, and to that extent, they are quite antithetical to the wild or wilderness. One living in remote locations away from the cities would often be treated down the ladder of cultural growth. These are simplistic notions prevalent, and close to being incorrect or at most being half-truth.
‘We Indians are generally a confused lot’’, my friend often told me. On poking him further it boiled down to ‘having a fuzzy view’ of life and things related. And this trend seemed more pronounced to me among people here in this city. Well to that I agreed, and admitted that non-deterministic thinking is central to Indian ethos. A people with diverse traditions, languages and cultures have to embrace and incorporate all kind of views and notions, many of them seemingly in opposition, or at times – in complementary mode. Just look at the verse from Isha Upanishad:
It moves and it does not,
It is far yet it is near.
It is within all this, yet
It is also outside.
That is probably what my friend wanted to convey when he used the phrase ‘a confused lot’; if so I assure him that it got conveyed.
Aldous Huxley in one of his essays dwells upon the theme “education of an amphibian.” Understandably, he refers to man who is destined to inhabit two different worlds simultaneously. The first is the world of his physical existence as an individual with flesh and blood, and the need for its survival and well-being. This is often referred to as man’s autonomous existence. There is another world where man is destined to consider himself as part of a whole; this may be referred to as man’s homonomous existence. The two worlds are entangled in a complex web in all thinking individuals although usually the autonomous feature predominates. Very often the two domains are in conflict with each other and this conflict is the source of many of man’s problems.
This autonomous-homonomous dualism is the source of many of our problems and conflicts; at the same time this is also at the source of our creativity. The level and nature of this conflict-cum-creativity is an indicator of our cultural maturity and defines the person as an individual or a society in general. There is no quantitative or even simple qualitative measure of such things but you do always have an intuitive feeling of your estimate. In this town, I found people to be possessed with greater degree of empathy which was better than most places I have known. My good impression of the town and its people helped me take a quick decision to take possession of my villa as soon as it became ready, and afterwards I had ample time to visit places, meet people and study the personality of this place. Now, since I have become a resident of the town itself, my job became all the more difficult, as it had all the risk of being biased. However, in the fuzziness of uncertain ideas one thing was unmistakably clear: the people of Baroda could find a compromise between culture and crocodile; that amounted to a balance between culture and wilderness, thus indicating a good presence of intellectual humility.
Cities all over the world are expanding at the cost of agricultural space which had long ago eaten up the space of the wild. Baroda and adjoining areas are no exception with real-estate booming at the cost of the surrounding wilderness or semi-wilderness. Often, I ruminate on the issue of eco-crisis, and find this expanding population accompanied by expanding consumerism is the real looming danger. The ‘crocodile of consumerism and man’s expanding needs’ is infinitely more dangerous than that in the river nearby. These are issues that need serious out-of-the box thinking. All sides -builders, buyers, promoters, government agencies- keep playing their parts and all get entangled in a vicious circle which threatens the delicate balance on which life and things associated with it hang on:
Consequently he who wants to have
Right without wrong
Order without disorder,
Does not understand the principles,
Of heaven and earth.
He does not know how
Things hang together. – Chuang Tzu
We the humans in general, the people of this nation and this city must in particular accept our own shares of responsibilities and blames. We must hang together to look for deeper meanings and implications of notions like culture, wilderness, consumerism and eco-perspective. If we could contribute even a little bit we shall have sufficient reason to be worthy citizens of a city of culture. Gandhi’s eco-vision could always form the core of our effort and initiatives in that direction .
 Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, London, 1949.
 C M Bhandari, Deep Transpersonal Ecology: Gandhian Connection,
Mainstream Weekly, October, 2009.
Archimedes while making the statement merely expressed the principle behind the lever action– a scientific principle expressed in literary terminology. The statement displays a confidence which comes out of a strong faith in the laws of nature as enunciated and understood by a rational mind. It reflected the fact that nature worked on certain well defined laws which were, in principle, knowable. Lever action was a reality, the principle on which lever worked was a reality and the confidence that came along with the knowledge of the laws was also a reality; his expression was meaphorical. The dawn of the ‘Age of Reason’ was certainly not very far.
Almost two thousand years later Laplace showed the same confidence when he stated:
“ We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future.” In short if we could know the positions, velocities, and forces on all the particles in the universe at one time, and thus know the universe for all times.
This displayed the same confidence in the laws of motion and causality which could accurately predict planetary positions and events such as eclipses, hundred or two hundred years ahead, the places where the event would be observable and the duration. The faith and confidence on the laws of planetary motion was real and unmistakable. The developments following this faith and confidence in the power of reason and logical deduction during the two thousand years has changed the world almost beyond recognition. The face of the planet too has witnessed a transition from simple human settlements to modern metropolis with skyscrapers, hundreds of thousand miles of multiple lane highways and giant industrial installations. Manmade objects fly and encircle the planet within a few hours. Man is in a position to probe the depth of oceans below and fathom the expanse of the space. And much of this has come only during the last three centuries.
The confidence of Archimedes and Laplace were not unfounded. However, certain other developments during recent times have gradually made inroads into the human thought. There have been significant paradigm shifts in scientific thought and in spite of all great advances, the science of today could not come up with a similar confidence in speaking about weather and we, in spite of all science and technology, cannot say: “Tell me the weather at this moment and I will tell you what it would be after ten days.” An eclipse can be accurately predicated hundred years from now but not the weather, and that too only ten or fifteen days from now. Many thought that with the advent of powerful super computers the day would not be far when weather too could be accurately predicted but it was not to be. And now men of science know that whatever be the level of development in computers and related technology weather will remain unpredictable. If that earlier confidence was real then this acceptance of the limit of predictability is no less so. Blaise Pascal nicely expresses the situation:
“Man is nothing as compared to the infinite and everything as compared to infinitesimal, a mean pt between everything and nothing”.
How true, yet it is that mean point that is trying to assess the two extremes on either side. At another time it’s the infinitesimal thing which is probing the happenings at the level of the infinite. It is the tiny neuron within human brain that is trying to fathom not only the universe but its own structure and functioning. Man’s status vis-à-vis the universe has been under discussion. Man is a part of the universe or for that matter ‘all that is’ has been a part of the universe. I am tempted to say that the universe through me is making an attempt to fathom its own depth. What am I if not a part of the universe? The ancient sages proclaimed, “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahma) and “Tat twam asi” ( Thou art that). Their statements were based on an intuitive understanding of the world processes. Now I know that through my eyes and brain the universe is trying to look at itself.
The inherent inability to predict the weather accurately is part of the limits and limitations of the scientific method. At the level of micro objects too there exists an inherent uncertainty which has nothing to do with the unpredictability of weather. Is this a defeat of science? The question is somewhat wrongly put. Scientific method tries to find out how the nature and its laws work. The same laws that govern the planetary motion fail to predict weather which should in principle be knowable. That is how nature manifests itself in its myriad forms. Weather depends upon the atmospheric conditions and is essentially a function of temperature, moisture, speed and pressure of air as dependent on position and time. All this, even though deterministic in principle, leads to glorious uncertainties, which is the subject matter of a new science of ‘chaotic dynamics’. The long term behaviour of certain events which are (a) nonlinear and (b) recursive, may lead to wild uncertainties. The limitation of the deterministic scientific method under these conditions has resulted in a new and exotic science of chaos.
I often think of the uncertainties of the thought processes going on within our minds. The mind’s working at certain times may be quite predictable such as the planetary motion or eclipses. However under different circumstances it may be as uncertain as weather, it may become chaotic and the outcome of nonlinearity and unpredictability surpasses even the wildest imagination. What goes on in the mind of a single person as a function of time can be witnessed by looking at various minds simultaneously. That has been one of the roles of literature as described earlier – to start from the acual and take us on a jpurney towards the possible. The great Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’ is the saga of possible states of mind typified by different characters in the epic. This is also true of innumerable Shakespearean characters. Each of us represents a complex superposition of the various characters in different proportions which itself may change with time bringing forth unexpected and totally unpredictable patterns and situations. In the battlefield Arjuna expresses his dilemma to Lord Krishna: “Mind is extremely turbulent, O Krishna, it’s almost unstoppable; to control it is as difficult as to control the wind.” Arjuna in modern times would probably have said,”Mind is as unpredictable as weather, O Krishna”.
The drama of life and living constantly enfolds and unfolds in myriad combinations and recipes. A seed is the enfolding of the entire structure of the tree; as it grows into a tree the reality is unfolded. The drama has relevance only if there is someone to observe. A drama before empty benches is not real because reality must be manifest in the act of observation. This is another matter that at times the actor and the observer may be one and the same person. This is mostly the case as regards the dynamics of our thought process. Philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes is often quoted for his famous statement, “Ergo cogito, ergo sum” — I think hence I am. This sums up nicely the dilemma of life and mind. I think and hence I am, the statement looks a little strange. If I exist only then I can think. But why should thinking precede being. Is it not strange? My being was the cause of my thinking ability. However without thinking my being will never be known. The mountain over there exists but only for me who can observe and think. Does the mountain know of its existence – does it exist for itself? Does the ocean know of its existence? Does the universe know? Perhaps the universe knows as it is observing itself through its (human) eyes.
Erwin Schrodinger was a unique personality. Known for his great contribution to the development of quantum physics, and his winning the Nobel Prize, he had a many-sided personality. He was an artillery officer during the World War I. He was well versed in Sanskrit and had gone through Upanishads in fair detail. He was many in one, a superposition of various characters. A physicist of repute he made forays into the biological world. Reflecting on life, one of the best ever definitions comes from him: “Life is a joint venture between information storing genetics and energy transforming thermodynamics.” Consider a burning candle and look at its flame. It is a flow of matter and energy, deriving hydrocarbon from the wax and oxygen from the air, and continues to burn until the hydrocarbon and oxygen are available. It is full of life as it is born, grows and comes to an end. Consider a cyclone, also a flow of matter and energy, a flow in space and time. Both these examples are essentially full of life’s features except that they could not reproduce. If a flame could produce another flame it will be living. Replication of a dynamic form of matter and energy – that is scientifically what life is, and an awareness of it is the mind. It is now well understood how the biological unit known as ‘gene’ is responsible for the transfer of all relevant biological information from one generation to the next. In the process there may occur accidental changes (mutations) that may lead to significant changes over a period of time. Seeking analogy with gene Richard Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’ for the unit responsible for cultural transformation.
A meme represent a whole concept, an idea or a pattern and is transferable as a unit.
Just as mutations (sudden and random accidental change in gene, the fundamental unit of life) can bring about vast changes in the biological world, mutations of ‘meme’ can bring about unanticipated changes in the concepts and notions and everything that goes with it. Just as a gene carries a whole set of information, the so-called meme carries a whole concept, a whole set of patterns with it. And it is known to wise men world over that human mind is good at making and using patterns.
Let us come back to notion of thinking and being. An ocean or a mountain exists for us because we can observe and think. They are givers, we are takers. They create conditions that produce entities like us. We produce waste polluting things around us. And why are we here, and for what purpose? Has nature created us to have a look at itself? Are we the eyes of the universe? Anthropic principle states something on these lines. To that extent it appears quite harmless. However, like Frankenstein man has evolved and used this evolution to the extent that its actions are becoming a threat to the entire biosphere that produced it.
The sage said, ‘Aham Brahmasmi’, and ‘Tat Twam Asi’. Am I not among the countless eyes of the universe? In fact, I am the universe. It is so nice to hear that. If all that is true then why is there so much turmoil? Why do we see around us so much pain, misery, injustice? Certainly pain and sufferings are not the only realities of existence. There is compassion and understanding and genuine concern too. There is beauty, love, poetry, music and literature too. Science defines life genetically and thermodynamically. However, it is not meant to be lived philosophically. It is meant to be understood and appreciated through the emotions and feelings that characterize life. These all are beyond the domain of science. It is the artist, the litterateur and the poet that has to step in and do the job which provides substance and meaning to life and living.