Grandfathers, magic and science

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Legends are not meant to be true but only to be believed just strongly enough to bind generations together.  In our family myths Great Grand Uncle Michael Keogh was the great star; an impulsive violent man, waking up on a string bed, mistaking his naked foot for a rearing cobra and crippling himself with the horse pistol he kept, who knows why,  by his side; quelling a lascar mutiny with a crowbar; screaming “Damned Redcoat” at my mother’s Protestant English soldier father, and wounding him in the arm (that horse pistol again) just as he was about to set off from Lahore Railway Station to honeymoon with his, Michaels’, Catholic Irish niece.

My other, undamaged, grandfather was also said to have been hot-tempered; a violent railway engineer, once fined a month’s pay for beating up four coolies together.  I became aware of him when he was 75 and so deeply meek that I was unconvinced by tales of legendary rages. A dim snapshot of a small, tubby middle-aged man, sitting, mildly irritated by heat on a trolley car pushed by four muscular men in Company turbans did not help belief. Could they not dare to fight back? No other way he could have managed it.

He was good company for a six year old. Too disengaged to ask questions, or make tedious suggestions or nag.  He sometimes could be coaxed into repetitions of brief stories of accidents caused by incompetence of train-guards.  The climax was always the guard’s minor physical damage and humiliation. We laughed joyfully together. It is easy to spin a tale how, during our scuffling primate history, physical pain and shame for people of small authority has become irresistibly amusing for little boys and old men who have no clout or status.

Old Dad could also do what no other adult could. He played. He neatly bent metal from cigarette tins into scaffolds for imagination. There was a contraption of pencils flopping on tin pivots, one for him and one for me, connected by string looped through curtain hooks screwed into walls and intensely irritating the rest of the household. We were to use these to communicate between our bedrooms, privately, in Morse code. The string was slack and the pencils bounced and never tapped as crisp as keys.  Neither of us knew Morse code or could be bothered to learn it from “Pears Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge”.  Quiet shouting worked much better and, anyway, we had nothing to say, but this was all beside the point.  Old men and children know that the core of proper play is assembling props to map imagined patterns of realities. In the mind, stick rifles and swords are deadly, and leaf plates filled with dandelion flowers are a grand banquet. Sticks and leaves work in the same way as chess pieces on a board freeze instants in flowing patterns in players’ imaginations. Without pictures on a cave wall the caribou and bison will not gallop to succulent deaths. To make just the right connections in just the right way it is essential to do deliberate, hard, focussed work. A shaman’s tattered doll, skin drum and bone beads have to be prepared and assembled with long hard rituals to become tools to impose thought on the chaotic world.

In his old age, with no income, lodging with his huge, strident and detested wife, in his son’s house, ignored by his daughter in law, he had nothing but all of the time in a tiny world. Only magic could fill such vacancies. He invented his own magic by copying the daily prices at the Bombay and Calcutta Cotton Exchanges from newspapers into huge yellow ledgers that my father stole for him from his office.  Like outlines of aurochs and antelopes, pencilled numbers were nets for future affluence. Copying them, re-checking them carefully and pondering over them filled blankness from breakfast to tiffin and onwards to remote teatime. He had no algebra to help him erode membranes between the numbers and the world. His spells were only simple arithmetic, repeated over grinding years until he could feel the film between hope and reality wear away to nearly nothing.

On some days physical sensations of undulations and eddies of chance in share prices became more immediate and dependable than the warmth of sun on his writing hand. These seizures of conviction were too overwhelming to bear alone. Telling me could not ease him. I easily recognised a game whenever I was offered one, knew that intensely shared belief is crucial to play and made assurance as emphatic as I could but, obviously, I had neither wit to follow his arguments nor anything to invest in his visions. I could not keep up my end in the game and could be only a friendly presence, as eager and irrelevant as the household dog, Chum.

So, whenever his visions became intolerably strong, he would try to ease himself by sitting on a bench on Marine Drive in Bombay to watch a visible, random bouncing sea and frozen undulations of probabilities of share prices in his mind. If he was lucky he would find a polite, conversationally inclined stranger to whom he could describe his visions of huge and certain profits effortlessly netted from a tamed ocean of drifting money.  Though he was as scruffy as any shaman should be, they would only chat until business or boredom took them away. None stayed long enough for him to force them to share an instant when the world pivots and solid convictions replace figments of reality.  Like Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, WernerHeisenberg, EnricoFermi or Peter Higgs, he toiled and toiled and thought and thought and, whether or not the world would join him, pleasured himself with solipsistic proofs that awkward realities could be controlled because he had discovered precisely what is what.

About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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