Specular Reflections
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Thoughts on Life, Science, Writing and the Universe at Large

Monday, August 15, 2005
Happy Independence day, India!

This is my third day back, and I'm horribly jet-lagged. Enough said.


posted by Vandana 2:04 PM
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Notes from India: Last day

The only way I can get through the last day is to pretend that it isn't the last day. Although I am keen to get back to husband, daughter, brother and sis-in-law back in the States, leaving India is always a wrench. And it is hard to pretend that you are not going if you have to pack, and people are coming over or calling up to say goodbye. But I manage somehow. I even make it to the gym!

I'm trying to notice everything I want to remember, people and chameli flowers and animals in and out of the house. The derisive squabbles of mynahs, the low-pitched chuffing sounds of the jungle babblers. For the last time on this trip I hear Tipsy sing her extraordinary song when the water boy cycles past, blowing on his trumpet. I ring up an old friend I haven't seen in years, in some trepidation because last time, also, I called on my last day. But by an amazing stroke of luck she's off work today, so she catches an auto-rickshaw and comes, although this is the one day she gets to catch up on her sleep in a gruelling work week. We chat as I pack, and catch up on our lives. What is astonishing is how easy it is to start off where we left off. We remember our childhood, with our two families together, and the trip to Shillong, and her unorthodox wedding. She stays for lunch and leaves in the afternoon.

My plane is at a late hour so we leave around 10:30 pm. Almost as soon as we get to the international airport, it is time for me to say goodbye and go in. This is very difficult, but I manage to pretend I'm in a play or something, and go in. After checking in m baggage, which takes ages, I come back to the glass wall which separates the inside from the ouside, and wave. They have been waiting there, my parents, sister and brother-in-law. They wave back, and I walk away as though my legs were made of lead, their images still etched in my mind.

It is always like this. Going to India, I take barely a day to adjust. Returning to the U.S., I always suffer a culture shock that lasts for a while, although I've been here over a decade after marriage. The emptiness of the streets, the paucity of wild things, the silence --- it is like another planet. Although I'm impatient to meet the family that I have in the U.S., leaving India is like leaving a part of myself behind.


posted by Vandana 1:29 PM
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Notes from India: Filling in the spaces.

Visit to old school
My mother drives me to my old school, Mater Dei, in Tilak lane. The tree that grows outside the compound wall is one that we planted when we'd formed a Nature Club in class 12. There were four, and this seems to be the only one that has survived. It is good to see it thrive.

Inside, the building has undergone a few changes, like a spiral ramp on one side that wasn't there before, but everything else is familiar. I spent all but two of my school years here, from primary to class 12, so I know practically every crack in the pavement. We go into the reception where, after some difficulty, I explain who I am and why I've come (former student, here to present my two children's books to the school library). I learned from an old classmate the day before that of all the teachers we had, only two are left, and I ask to meet them.

It has been 25 years since I last saw our chemistry teacher, Mr. Khilnani, but I recognize him at once. He looks just the same, apart from the salt-and-pepper hair, and I am touched to see how pleased he is to see me. I was a quiet student and he never took much notice of me in the old days, but for whatever reason he remembers me. Actually the year he taught us was his first year here, so I suppose all the trouble we gave him is burned into his brain. He was a very good teacher, and I remembered odd details of chemistry for years afterwards. Since he was the first male teacher in a girls' school, he got teased relentlessly; he tells me now how terrified he was that year! As we go up the stairs to the staff room, which is in a new location, I say something about how every step reminds me of the mischief we used to get up to (I'm remembering things like missing class to read in the library, or play the piano, or locking the classroom door so the teacher could not come in). He points out that we were innocent compared to the modern generation, who are not interested in learning and a lot more shameless. Upstairs, I recognize Mrs. Gomes at once --- she taught us English in class 8 I think. I remember class discussions on The Merchant of Venice. She was very good. She seems as pleased to see me as I am to see her, and remembers our batch very well. It is touching to be so well remembered after all these years. We sit and chat, and I present my books and tell them about my physics teaching. We talk about old teachers and old students, and time passes pleasantly enough.

I wish I could meet the current principal, but she's away today. I used to visit the principal's office many a time, not of my own volition, but for such things as forgeting my history homework three times in a row, or whistling (under my breath) in class.

Making houses, making homes

My sister and brother-in-law are getting their house built, and seeing it is one of the highlights of my stay. When I came last, it was just a piece of empty land between a house and another empty plot, partly covered by scrub and litter. We had done a Bhumi-pujan, a consecration of the ground, which was a beautiful ceremony. Now the second floor (third floor in the American way of reckoning) is complete. When I visited, this time, that was still being built. What I saw then was the concretization of imagination --- the idea of home, fleshing out. The ground floor structure was complete, and so was the basement, and the first floor roof was coming up. The house smelled of cement and brick, but if you looked with your mind's eye, there was Papa's study, with the wood shelves, and Ma's kitchen garden, and a large, square kitchen with a breakfast counter, and french windows leading to the small and verdant front garden. There was the upstairs part of the house, with Babbli and Deepak's bedroom opening on to the back verandah with its beautiful grill-work, and honeysuckle with its bright flowery clusters perfuming the windows. And the view from the top, which was of the tree-lined lane, and other houses no taller than two storeys. One of the reasons they chose this place is because the area is so green and peaceful, and so reminiscent of the place where my grandfather's house used to be, in far-off Patna.

At home we sprawl on the bed in the air-conditioning, and look through glossy books on interior decoration or vaastu shastra or feng shui, or debate the latest blueprint on the house and discuss whether there should be a door here, or a wall there. The house will be ready by the end of the year. It is strange and exciting to imagine that on my next trip I'll be going there.

Visit to a Bookstore, and a Play Reading
When I was here in January, my publishers, the intrepid Zubaan folks, had organized a book reading at the new Oxford bookstore in Connaught place. One day Deepak drives Papa and me there. As we come in to air-conditioned comfort after the heat outside, the first thing I see is a rack near the children's section that has a sign saying "Top Five." There's my first book, Younguncle Comes to Town, next to Ruskin Bond's latest and right under the new Harry Potter. Well!

After some happy browsing, during which I discover the complete set of Satyajit Ray's detective stories, we sit in the cafe/ book-reading area. I have some chai without sugar, a major achievement for me, while Deepak chooses Moroccan mint tea. His tea arrives in a jeweled pot with matching cup that look like they just came out of Marrakesh. Papa sips his coffee, and we chat and compare our finds. Then the young woman with whom I'd met last time --- she does publicity events for the bookstore --- comes up with a smile of recognition. We have a pleasant chat and they ask us to stay on for a play-reading.

Well, we don't need to force ourselves to stay for long in a bookstore! After about an hour or so, the spacious events area has been organized, with chairs for the audience, mikes and tables and so on for the invitees. The reading is from a play called 9 Jakhu Hill by Gurcharan Das, and will be presented by some of the actors who've performed it --- they are part of the theater group Yatrik. The actors sit behind their tables, the playwright gives a brief explanation, and we are taken to an upper-crust Simla family's home. The characters are interesting; the performers read and emote well. One of them is Sunit Tandon, who used to compere Western classical music programs on the radio when I was a teenager. After the reading the playwright gives a short talk on the play. There are two things that interest me --- one, that he encourages the actors to improvise, and two, he points out the varieties of English spoken in the play. Now the play is in English, but different characters speak different dialects. One is a pukka sahib with a completely British accent. Others speak upper-class, convent-educated Indian English. Yet others speak English with Punjabi idioms and accent. Gurcharan Das maintains (and I agree with him here) that English is, by now, an Indian language, with its own unique idioms, invented hybrid vocabulary, and various dialects. According to him, the clash between English and Hindi has resulted in this new English --- Hinglish or Inglish, just as Persian and Hindi led to a new language, Urdu. Interestingly, he says, English is growing in India but so is Hindi. (Later Deepak and Babbli confirm this --- they say that now even in upper class households, people want Hindi music as much or more than English, and Hindi is spoken more than ever). According to Das, about 65 million people in India (still a small fraction of the total population of 1 billion, but significant) speak English, and that in another 15 or twenty years, 50% of Indians will be comfortable in English. I find this hard to believe, considering that there is still so much poverty and over 70% of India is still rural. But it is something to ponder.

The Anarchical Indian
The Nobel-prize winner, Amartya Sen, is in town for the release of his new book, The Argumentative Indian. We read in Outlook that the inauguration ceremony began with a quarrel among the audience about seating arrangements. Like he needs to prove his point!

But we do, as a people, like to argue. I haven't yet read the book --- it is on the top of my list, though. But I glanced through a copy and it is extremely well written --- a series of essays and reflections on Indian culture and history that point out things nobody, to my knowledge, has pointed out before --- the acceptance of plurality and multiplicity of views in Indian culture, and how the concept that democracy is a Western gift to India is false. From the debates in the Upanishads over 2500 years ago, to political discussions in city buses, arguing is part and parcel of our existence. I could pull out several members of my family as examples. In fact I hear that one niece of mine from Bihar has developed this faculty to such an extent that she's actually going into law!


posted by Vandana 12:47 PM
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Sunday, August 14, 2005
Notes from India: July 25 to August 11

Things I haven't yet written about include my visit to my old school, meeting a friend I used to know very well years ago, a play-reading I attended at Oxford bookstore that led to some interesting discussions, visiting one of the cousins with whom we grew up, and her family, and the fact that India is a place where every stone tells a story.

So as always, starting in no particular order:

Where every stone tells a story

I'm thinking of the movie "Monsoon Wedding." All the Americans I know go gaga over that movie. The Indian response in my circle of family and friends is less enthusiastic. "Well, it's OK for foreigners, I suppose, but there isn't much of a story..."

My explanation for this difference in viewpoint is this: in India, every wedding is a festival, with its share of color, music and drama. Therefore by Indian standards the events in "Monsoon Wedding" are hardly out of the ordinary.

The most dramatic wedding I've heard of in my family was one in which the bride and the groom's party almost came to blows. There were insults and recriminations, which turned out later to be part of the tradition of the clan in which she married. She's now very happy.

My own was an abbreviated 3-hour ceremony (instead of the 3-5-day madness) but even in that there was drama. The (uninvited) insane son of the people upstairs came down into my parents' front garden in Delhi, where the ceremony was being held, and began muttering madly through the whole thing. Since everyone was happily chatting, munching, and watching the priest babble about the Vedas and Nuclear Energy (don't ask), the madman wasn't noticed until later. My mother's attempts to slaughter him on the spot were foiled by the priest. Also my cousin Akash was getting his tonsure done at that time (he was 5 years old and it is considered auspicious to have a rite of passage performed at the same time as a marriage in the family). Later he was asked what the whole hullabaloo had been about, and he replied that he had gotten married. To whom? Oh, nobody, he said nonchalantly.

Growing up in India, I felt that all the exciting things happened to people who lived in foreign lands and had such exotic names as Jack and Mary-Ann. It was then easy to take for granted the stories that formed a part of our everyday life. Even a trip to the vegetable market that came up on the sidewalk in the evenings had interest, if you tuned your ears the right way. On this trip I heard a few interesting things that are hardly likely to happen anywhere else.

The first has to do with cows. Cows form natural islands in the city's traffic, which, most of the time, adjusts itself around them. But sometimes there are accidents on both sides. So recently the high court ruled that since the municipality had not been successful in gathering unclaimed cows, it would reward anybody who brought a cow to the cattle pound by giving them the not-insubstantial sum of Rs. 2000.

When I read this in the paper I could hardly believe it. The city went mad overnight. Cowboys sprang up amongst young and old. One bus driver wasted no time after going off duty --- in a mad scramble worthy of the wild west, he rounded up 9 or 10 cows and brought them to the pound, no doubt dreaming of a vast fortune. Unfortunately by the time he got the first cow through the pound, the rest had run away. Don't count your cows before you latch. Ha ha.

When something like this comes up, the best minds in the city immediately try to figure out how to make money off it. There were reports of people stealing their neighbors' cows, taking them to the pound, or taking their own sick cows there as a profitable way to get rid of them. Last I heard, the city is not giving 2000 rupees in cash --- you get a token, and you can only redeem it if it is proved that the cow is truly a stray. Who proves that, or how, is a complete mystery.

Here's another story. My cousin Radha's husband works in the government and told us about the monkey menace there. The buildings of the secretariat and the parliament are surrounded by trees, upon which live troupes of rhesus monkeys. They like to enter the buildings, where they might grab your lunch, shred invaluable documents, bite people and raid refrigerators. Monkeys, being sacred, cannot be killed, so now a different solution has been found. My cousin-in-law relates that a man with a langur now regularly patrols the buildings. The langur is larger and hairier than his rhesus-monkey relatives, and all he has to do is to run into each illegally occupied room and yell at the monkeys. The monkeys are reportedly terrified by the langur's speech and flee and scatter before him. Thus one large primate is responsible for the smooth functioning of the world's largest democracy, for which he receives the princely sum of Rs. 8000 per month!

There are even wilder stories about my home state of Bihar. Apparently one of the corrupt former chief ministers sold a substantial piece of property to some crook or other. The crook in question, having foolishly parted with his money, went to inspect his land, only to find that the city's railway station --- inviolable, unsaleable, and too heavy to move --- was sitting on it.

In and around my parents' place in Delhi, there are stories waiting to be plucked from the air like wild fruits. Lives are lived in a fine web of interdependence, of emotional involvement in the lives of others. There is the press-wallah and his family in the back lane downstairs, whose conversations waft through the windows, and the quarrels and chatter of the neighbors, and the pariah dog Tipsy's attempts to get into the house, and the pigeons nesting on the ledge outside the kitchen, adding a certain auditory drama to cooking a meal, and the mynah that screeches in my sister's ear each morning from just outside the window... The talk in the house is not only about us, or what's on the news, but about a tragic death in the family upstairs, or some other neighbor's messy divorce, or the terrible people downstairs who beat each other up on a regular basis and insult anyone who challenges them. They have been reflooring their courtyard for weeks, and there's masonry and wood slats and cement blocking the public pathway, but there is nothing anyone can do about it. Small mysteries abound. Where do the neighborhood pariah dogs hide when the van from the city pound drives by? There's not a bark to be heard then, or a doggy face to be seen. The moment the van's gone, the dogs come out of hiding and bark joyfully and defiantly. Then there is the wizened old lady getting a pedicure in She's Beauty Parlor down the street. She wears a white sari, which means she's a widow --- she frowns into a newspaper through thick glasses, but her legs are still shapely and pale. You wonder about her past, and if maintaining those legs is all she can do to re-live it.

I've also been reading R.V. Smith's book called "The Delhi that No-One Knows." It is utterly fascinating. Smith is an Indian of Armenian descent who knows and loves Delhi. In this small book he relates how he travels to various historical sites that litter Delhi from the large and ostentatious to the small and anonymous --- and simply ask the people who live there what the story is. He doesn't pretend to any historical accuracy, his interest being mainly in the tales people tell, or have been telling through generations (which may or may not have a basis in fact). The stories are amazing. I won't get into them now because then I'll never stop.

Visits, Birthdays, Shopping

We went to have dinner with my cousin Radha and her family. Radha's the youngest of three siblings with whom we spent some of the most memorable years of our childhood. Meeting her inevitably leads to sentences that begin with "Do you remember when..." Her daughters are both lovely, the younger one resembles my own, the older one's mannerisms remind me of me when I was that age. Conversation is a delight. My cousin and her sister (who lives far away in Bihar) are known for their wit, and time passes pleasantly. For a while we watch cricket on TV -- India vs Sri Lanka, in which India is trounced badly, but it is such a pleasure watching cricket again, after so long. I tell my nieces that I used to play it as a child and was a pretty good spin bowler. We are totally engrossed in the game, emotionally and intellectually, but the girls more than anyone, and their hearts almost break at the sorry end. But later there's dinner, and more conversation, and one round of a classical song that Radha and her sister used to sing as young girls (which they had taught us: the immortal "Biraj mayn dhoom").

On the afternoon of my mother's birthday, my sister and I take a taxi and go shopping, to an old haunt, Sarojini Nagar market. We once lived not far from it, and could walk there, but the air-conditioned taxi is a relief this hot and humid day. We alight in front of Chacha's sari shop and are escorted upstairs by a nervous-looking minion of the genial chacha downstairs. The minion hands us over to the men who sit on the cloth-covered platform on from of the shelves of saris. We make our choices known, and they begin to take the saris down from the racks, slipping them from their plastic covers, unfurling them in a blaze of color and pattern, so that they lie before us in great whirls and swoops, like irridescent fish marooned on a beach. Soon there is a mountain of saris before us, all of which we have politely refused, but the enthusiasm of the sellers does not flag. Sari after sari is flung before us, until we begin to find a few that we like. The young man who is doing most of the work is now commanded by the other men to model the saris so we can see how gracefully they fall. Reluctant, he asks my sister if she wouldn't like to try them herself. "No," she says, politely but ruthlessly, "I need to see what they look like from a distance." So the poor fellow does the draping and the tossing of the pallu about his thin and masculine person, while I try to keep a straight face. He goes through this for three or four saris until we take pity on him, and leave with 5 saris after nearly an hour.

My mother's birthday involves a luscious chocolate cake from a bakery nearby, and Bina bua and Cousin Vicky, his wife and child, and my friend Smita, who insists on the ceremony being done right (makes us find candles and re-do the singing), and giggles cheerfully through the whole thing.

At Night

At night I retire to the divan in the living room. I have the luxury of a long read before sleeping, and a cool bath before the long read. The bath is necessary if I am to get any sleep. I lie with damp hair on the pillow and read until my eyelids feel heavy. When I switch off the light I can hear conversations outside, the bark of a dog or two, and gold light comes in from the streetlight, striping the floor. Shadows of the trees move on the walls of the room as the wind blows. I sleep.


posted by Vandana 8:14 PM
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Tuesday, August 09, 2005
August 8, 2005

Notes from India: Out of Time
Iíve given up on maintaining any chronological order in this blog. The last week has been extremely busy. For one thing, I was sick for 5 days with a really nasty cold. The worst of it was over in 3 days but I had to rest at home for another couple of days, so that was a big bite out of this short trip. But other than that Iíve read a lot, met many relatives, although not all of the Delhi contingent, done one publicity event with teenagers, and experienced the monsoons after 12 long years! Letís start with rain.

Rain
When I came, for the first ten days no rain fell. The monsoons seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps the moisture laden winds all went to Mumbai, where they nearly succeeded in drowning that city. But here in Delhi it was hot and humid. The humidity was such that youíd be covered with a slick layer of sweat, which was unable to evaporate in the soggy air. Dust lay in a thin haze over the roads, and tempers flared.

One such day when my sis had taken leave from work, the two of us took an autorickshaw to one of the markets (GK-1) where we wandered in the thick, searing heat, looking for clothes. Found an air-conditioned shop where there were some gorgeous traditional blouses and kurtas, filled our bags, stopped for tea at Baristaís (also A/C), bought exercise pants, and then took another auto-rickshaw back. Weíd taken an umbrella without much hope, but now my sister said: I think itís going to rain. We looked up. Huge, black cloud right over our heads. Sure enough, as the auto-rickshaw weaved through the mad traffic, it began to rain. Fat curtains of it came down, filling our ears with its music, making the streets sparkle, and raising from the thirsty ground the rich aroma of wet earth that is headier than wine.

All right, so in this respect Iím a romantic. In the Indian tradition much fuss is made of the rains after the searing heat of summer, because the temperatures drop, the wilting vegetation magically revives, farmers are happy and all that. There are folk songs and classical ragas to do with the first rain. After a while you get sick of it, but rain after a long summer or even a short heat wave is like a benediction, like promises kept after all.

Went home. Drank tea. The drumming of rain filled the house, wet the verandah, washed away all remembrance of heat.

Power Cut
Just to nip any more romanticism in the bud, after the rain the house was still hot and close, despite the cooler temperatures outside. As if to make a point, the power went out after dinner. The humidity was like drowning in tepid water. I had to keep wiping gallons of sweat off my brow. The last time we had a power cut it was in the evening before dinner and it was only for half an hour. One of the upstairs neighbors stopped by and we had a pleasant time complaining and catching up. But this time there was no such solace. The bed felt like an oven. Candlelight wavered uncertainly in the dining room, and we sat disconsolately fanning ourselves with newspapers. But there is always a way to pass the time, and the way my sister and I did that was to remember all the historic power cuts in our past. ďRemember the time we used to sleep on the rooftop in Dadaís house?Ē ďOnce we overturned an entire bucket of water on the floor to cool off the room.Ē And so on. Two or three hours passed, quite pleasantly, before the power returned.

Satyajit Ray

We know him as one of the greatest film directors in the world. I learned to my surprise that he died in 1992, which means his life and mine overlapped more than Iíd thought. Iíve seen only one or two films of his, an error I hope to remedy some day, but I was only vaguely aware of Ray the writer.

My horrible cold was made bearable only by Rayís detective stories, many of them well-written and clever, featuring the sleuth Feluda. He wrote them for children and teenagers, and I can see why they were and are so popular in Bengali literature. I devoured saga after saga involving fake holy men, stolen family heirlooms, cops that were intelligent or bungling, earnest young men who turned out to be quite something else, greedy businessmen, shady underworld figures --- but most of all the trio who went about solving the mysteries. Feluda, young and ferociously intelligent, compassionate, extremely well-read, an admirer of Holmes --- he cuts a romantic figure. The narrator is his teenage cousin Tapesh, who is in awe of him. Then there is Lalmohan Ganguli, writer of pulp thrillers, who provides some comic relief and is extremely well-portrayed. When I had my face half-immersed in the steamer, all that kept me going were these stories. I had the book propped at eye level while the steam eased my throat and condensed on my spectacles.

Families
One of the major reasons for a trip back home is meeting family. I have a huge family, since each set of grandparents had 7 and 9 children respectively. Most are in Bihar but there are so many people in Delhi that in a short trip I cannot meet them all. But I make sure I meet my two aunts who live here, and my cousins, their children, with whom we grew up or were at least close. I havenít yet met another cousin with whom we shared some of the most memorable times of our childhood but it is unthinkable that I could leave without seeing her. Iíve also seen an old college friend, the irrepressible Smita, who came to see me late at night after a very long day at work. Although she was exhausted, we sprawled on the bed in my sisterís room and exchanged reminiscences over a cup of tea. Very pleasant.

So far Iíve gone to Bina buaís house for a surprise birthday party, where I saw my nephew Rushil after six months (he being my cousin Vickyís son). Rushil is a bright and joyful kid with a very strong exploring instinct, and a passion for cell phones. Heís just over a year old. Bina bua, like her two sisters, is a favorite aunt, affectionate and intelligent --- you can talk about babies, food, Bengali literature and history with her with equal ease. Iíve also visited Meera bua at the campus of the college where she teaches political science, where we sprawled on the bed over cups of tea and chatted, and caught up. In the big green field in front of our house, several pariah kites sat on an old soccer goal post, but they flapped heavily away when I approached with my camera. Equally disobliging was a peacock that wandered into the field and looked as though it was going to do a rain-dance, because it kept shuffling its gorgeous tail-feathers and looking at the sky, which was showing signs of rain. I was at the edge of the field, trying to pretend to be a chameli bush with a camera, but off it went into the undergrowth on the far side of the field. Another stop was my cousin Nirajís place, where his wife. Namita, one of the nicest people I know, had cooked up a storm. My uncle Rajiva was there this time, along with Meera bua and my parents, sister and brother-in-law, so the discussion ranged from politics to literature to the professorial existence. Niraj is the strong, silent type, who only needs a rose in his buttonhole to look like the Young Ghalib. Everybody wanted Namita to quit her high-profile corporate job and open a restaurant, to which she responded with a charming smile. Maybe she will, some dayÖ.

Met my auntie Vasudha, who is an auntie by adoption. Sheís a lawyer and a human rights activist, so she regaled us with tales from courtrooms in tribal areas, and gave me a little statue from the Bastar tribals. She is one of those women who doesnít take any crap. Good for her!

Iíve also met my publisher, Jaya, of Zubaan, and briefly the legendary founder, Urvashi, who is legendary because many years before she founded Indiaís first feminist press, Kali for Women. I still regard her as somewhat mythical, but thatís just awe. Jaya wears saris with the utmost ease and could probably ride bareback in them if she so desires, whirling a lasso over her head --- a quick-talking young woman of grace and intelligence who is also a dog person.

Other friends and relatives have also dropped by, including my teenage cousin Aakash and his parents. We had the most wonderful discussion about Newtonís Third Law, which heís grappling with at present. It has some subtleties (which show you what a genius Newton was, because the law is not at all obvious) but I think he got it at the end.

More visits today and in the days ahead!


posted by Vandana 12:04 AM
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