Many people have a tendency to cry when they laugh a lot. My grand mother was one of them. I have never seen her cry otherwise. I am sure she must have considering the difficult life she led but I have never seen her do so. To me, she was the human embodiment of the Laughing Buddha.

She was born in Iran and came to India as a small girl, travelling with a caravan of traders. She landed in Bombay. It was still Bombay then and not the  charmless Mumbai as it is now known. She knew nobody in Bombay. She could not understand any of the local languages.One of the traders who was part of the caravan knew a Zoroastrian family in Bombay. My grand mother, being a Zoroastrian (as are we all) took  my grand mother to meet them. The family, whose name was Karanjia were good people. They agrees to keep her with them and asked only that she help out with the house work. Being the youngest of seven sisters had inured to hard work in her village and so, doing a little house work in a proper house in a large city did not bother her.

She stayed with them for more than twelve years. Unfortunately, she did not get an education. Girls were not supposed to get an education in those days, especially a refugee from Iran. However my grand mother did learn to speak Gujarati, the language spoken by all Zoroastrians in the city, otherwise educated or not, including me and the rest of my family, though sometimes not much. My son speaks it hardly at all. In my grand mother’s time it was the lingua franca of all Zoroastrians. All Zoroastrians in those days and even today are called ‘Parsis’. Very likely because we came from Persia to India many centuries ago when Iran was part of the Persian Empire. 

But I digress. My grand mother, I am told, even in those days was very cheerful and had a very hearty laugh. She stayed with the Karanjia family until she was about 18. This was, at that time, an eminently marriageable age. And so, the Karanjia’s did some match making and found a suitable groom for her. He was a young, good looking gentleman staying in Poona, a fairly large city about a 120 miles from Bombay. He was the only child of a good looking widow, intelligent and street smart. The entire locality she stayed in respected her and consulted her for any small problems they had. She, however, had spoiled her son. He could get anything and get away with anything. She was also a virago. My grand father- to- be, owned a prosperous general store in the main market of Poona.

A date was fixed and my grand mother, with Mr. and Mrs. Karanjia left for Poona. My grand mother saw the man she was to marry on the day of the wedding. She was, as she told us many years later, quite impressed. Dressed in his well tailored formal whites (the Parsis wear white for all religious occasions) he cut quite  a dashing figure. After the wedding ceremony was over it was not, at that time,customary to kiss the bride. Instead, it was the signal for the guests, after wishing the couple well, to get down to the serious business of drinking which was followed, for those who could stand  straight, by a sumptuous banquet which, de rigueur, started with potato chips and pickle. For the life of me, I could not figure out why these two were served first. Perhaps to absorb the alcohol swilling around in the stomach. This was followed by fish, chicken, mutton, rice pilaf with a thick and spicy gravy and finally a sweet dish. One could help oneself to as many servings as one wanted. Whew!

Once the guests were replete and had crawled off home, the family had their dinner and then retired. After all this excitement and eating and drinking, my  grand mother was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. She was soon disillusioned. Soon after she laid down on her new bed, her husband Kaikhushru, lay down next to her. She knew what what to expect but not his roughness. He stifled her cries with his hand and all was soon over. But it was not. He was a satyr. This, as she confessed to her daughters, was the first time she cried silently.

To make a long story short (pun not intended but accepted) she gave birth to nine children. The eldest and the youngest were sons. The remaining seven were daughters. My mother is daughter no. 3. At 94, she is the eldest living child but no child she. The sequence of birth gave my grand father huge amusement which he repeated ad nauseam. “First.” he said, I produced the locomotive. Then seven carriage and finally the caboose.” My grand mother, in her entire life never learnt English. A language which she called ‘Gospit, fosbit’, whatever that meant. Not so my grandfather who was fluent in English. The result was that she was thankfully unaware of the sometimes hurtful remarks he made about her. Especially the one he made when she went into paroxysms of laughter. She would go red in the face, and her tongue would stick out. Whenever he saw that he would comment, “There, you see. The Devil’s laughter and then his forked tongue sticks out.” It is not that my grand father was a bad person. On the contrary, he was extremely generous and caring. The thing was that he looked upon my grand mother as an uneducated country bumpkin useful only to satisfy all his needs. The typical early 19th century male. Still, he had a great sense of humour. The stories he told us about his sleep walking exploits were hilarious,  but, unfortunately, not repeatable here.

Grand mother had her hands full all day. When the eldest boy was old enough to go to school, she was still carrying the youngest on her hip. This in addition to cooking three meals for the family. As her children grew older, one by one they went to school. For a few hours  a day, they were out of her hair. Still, when they, a hungry army, trooped in from school for lunch, she hugged them and kissed them and asked about their day. Grand mother was no help to them with their studies. But,  to their credit, all of them did well, finished school and went to college. Except my mother. She dropped out of school to get married. She was only seventeen. My father was the warden of the largest prison which was located in Poona. To this day, I don’t know how they met (couldn’t possibly be in a prison line up) nor did I ever ask. They were great parents and that is all I cared about. After some years, my father resigned from the Prison Service. He later said that officiating at executions had become unbearable. And so, he took the only job available at that the time. Sales Manager for a seed company. One day, he wrote a sales folder for the company. Somehow, it landed on the desk of the owner of an advertising agency in Bombay. The writing impressed him. He located where my father was and called him over for an interview. The interview went very well and my father was hired. That was the beginning of his career in advertising. We had to leave Poona and hired a very interesting house in Thana, a town about 29 miles from Bombay. Easy commuting by local train.

When we had settled in our new home in Thana, after a while, grand mother became a regular visitor. Much to the delight of my brother, sister and I. She would often intervene when one of us was destined for a smacking from our mother. She travelled to Bombay by train, once in a while, to meet her two daughters who lived there. This led to a rather embarrassing but hilarious situation. She had noticed that when getting off the train and walking to the exit people had to show their tickets to the Ticket Checker stationed there. But every once in a while, when asked for their ticket would point to their back with their thumbs, indicating that a friend or family behind him was holding the tickets. In the rush, the Collector would let them by. Larcenous thoughts crept into her mind. The next time she went to Bombay she travelled without a ticket. The terminus at Bombay was huge and it was impossible to check everyone. So far, so good. On her return, late in the afternoon, she returned to Thana, got off the train and ambled over to the Checker. “Madam. Your ticket, please.” he asked her. She pointed to her back as she had seen people do. The Checker once again asked her for her ticket. Again she pointed to her back. The Checker smiled and turned her around gently. There was not a soul behind her. All the other passengers had already left. She was aghast. She felt like a fool and so, she burst into laughter. The Checker couldn’t help laughing, too. She paid him the cost of the ticket and asked him how much she should pay as a fine. The still chuckling Checker refused to charge a fine. In gratitude, she dug around her bag, found a toffee and gave it to him. He accepted graciously, doffing his cap to her while warning not to try this trick without looking behind her first.

When she returned home, before she did anything else, she summoned us all together and gave us an account of her misadventure. It took her more than half a hour to do. Not more than ten minutes to tell us what had happened and the rest of the time laughing, mostly at her self, for her foiled larceny. Ruefully damning the other passengers for not being behind her at the time when she needed them the most.

Some years later, when the opportunity arose my family, too, move to Bombay. It was a large apartment separated from the sea front by just a road. My bedroom faced the road and I remember being lulled to sleep, every night by the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks beyond the road. My Mother was a very active Social Worker, just as she had been when we were in Thana only more so. She had a large number of fellow ‘do gooders’ as her friends. Some of them from very influential families.  Once, when my grand mother was visiting us, she had invited these friends of her’s to lunch.  She had asked them to come a little early so that they could have a pow wow before lunch. My grand mother was, of course, invited to join them. She had met quite a few of them earlier and knew them slightly. Yet, those who had met her earlier remembered her fondly. However, conversation between them stuttered. Grand mother did not know any ‘Gospit Fospit’ and a few, very few of the guests did not understand Gujarati. Most of the time they were using a pidgin version of Hindi. A guest suggested that they play a  few hands of cards. The rest agreed. Decks of cards were brought out and one group settled down to play Rummy while the other elected Bridge. And so the games began.

After a while, my grand mother got up and went to her bedroom. She knew where my father had kept a complete set of his uniform as a Prison Warden. Why? Perhaps nostalgia. My grand mother got hold of it and put it on. Complete with khaki shorts, jacket, cap, leggings and his Sam Browne belt. She also picked up his baton. Using mascara, she painted a moustache on her upper lip. Then she marched up to the living room, banging the baton against the walls. When she reached the living room, she shouted in Hindi (which she had learnt to speak) “Police!. You are all under arrest for gambling. You will have to come with me to the Police station. Don’t resist, other wise …” she opened the fly of the shorts and withdrew a banana which had cleverly attached on the inside… “you will all have to lick this.” The ladies jaws dropped to their waist.  They were all petrified until my grand mother began to laugh uproariously. The game was up. They realised who the policeman was. My mother’s face was as red as a beet but her guests were laughing so loudly, they could be heard two blocks away. They ran to the old lady and hugged and kissed her, scolding her for frightening them out of their wits. One hungry lady yanked the banana out, peeled it and started to eat it. “What have you done/” screamed my grand mother, in between her bouts of laughter, “You have eaten my thing.”

That was my innocent, irrepressible, irresistible, loving and loveable grand mother. She is long gone now but I know she is not resting in peace. She is busy making the angels laugh till  their wings drop off.

What is God?

My question precludes that I have any doubt that there is a God. It asks about the nature of God. Like several billion other people, I have no doubt that God exists. Like most of the other billions of people, I too, was introduced to Him by my parents. It was not, obviously a formal introduction but an introduction to the concept of God. God, I was told, was omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. He knew what everyone did. Gave each one the choice to do a good thing or a bad one. He knew what everyone  was thinking of, at all times. He was the great Headmaster in the sky who would reward us for the good that we did and punish us for the bad. When we met, that is. This subjective concept of God remained with me through my school and college days.  Both my school and college were run by Jesuits.  I was impressed by their devotion and scholarship. However in college, I majored in Physics. The study of physics taught me that all that had to be proved, had to be proved without any doubt. Q.E.D. There was no getting away from that. Lesson learnt.

Immediately after my graduation, I started working in an advertising agency as a copy writer. My penchant for writing overcame my fascination with physics. Not permanently and not for too long. I remember one day, a long time ago, my father and I were sitting in our garden and I casually looked at the sky. We were, at that time, staying in a small town about 20 miles away from Mumbai. There was no light pollution and the sky was full of twinkling dots of light. The stars. I turned to my father and asked him.

“Dad. What are those stars? What makes them shine and how do they stay up in the sky without falling down?”

“I really don’t know, son. Only God knows.”

That reply ignited my curiosity. It remained dormant until I had finished my education and started working in an ad agency. I was very engrossed in my work and all thoughts of the mysteries of the stars in the sky were kept on the back burner. But, as I said, not for long. My father died almost exactly ten years after I started working. He was a great father and I thought of him often. I would mull over the conversations we had, the pride he took when I stood first in a school debating competition, The praise I got from my English teacher for the essays I wrote for my school assignments pleased him a lot. He was a writer, too. Then one day I remembered the conversation we had, sitting in our garden, about the stars. I remember his answer to my question about what the stars were and his reply that “Only God knew.” My age at that time was almost thirty and I was no longer willing to accept that as the final answer. Not with my background in Physics. And so, I decided to find out, as close to the truth as possible, the mystery of the stars. What they were and why they were there.

I realised that the only way for me to find out more about the mysteries of the universe was to research and read. It was too late in the day for me to be a trained astronomer. Besides, I was way behind on the math required to be one. And so, I started reading. At first, I reached for the omnibus of information, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, a set of which I had at home. It was not very useful because it was a rather old edition. It told me that the stars were identical to our sun, Which I knew. It also told me that like our sun they produced immense amounts of energy such as heat. light and other forms of energy across the entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. This, too, I knew. I wanted more. I wanted to know the How and the Why? And so, I read as much as I could find to reveal the facts which were still mysteries to me.

I found a book in a dingy book store titled ‘My Einstein’. It was a collection of essays by  the foremost scientists on the life and work of Albert Einstein. Apart from personal anecdotes of the great man, there were explanations of the special and general theories of relativity propounded by Einstein. Theories that were difficult to understand even by scientists of that time but which, later, on physical observation proved to be true. One important facet of Einstein’s theories was that that we live in a world of four dimensions. Length, breath, depth and time. Einstein proposed that while and perhaps because the speed of light was a constant, the perception of time elapsed between two events was not the same It was, in simple terms, dependent on the relative speeds which two observers were travelling at. After synchronising their watches, if one observer were to travel at a very high speed for a period of time while the other one remained stationary on earth, then the watch on the traveller would show that less time had elapsed since he went and returned from his journey than the watch on the stationary observer. This, among other facts such as the warping of space due to gravity, etc. had a profound effect on our understanding of the universe of which we were just a very tiny part. Was time always there? Was space always there? Were the galaxies and sins and their planets always there? These questions remained unresolved.

Serendipity stepped in. On a pavement stall, selling second hand books, I saw a book titled ‘A Brief History of Time’ written by Stephen Hawking. The title intrigued me and I bought the book. I read it once, twice, thrice before I could before I could store in my mind all the information it provided. After reading it, I had a far, far better understanding of the universe which we are a part of. I was hooked. I read every book written by him, learning more each time. The latest book written by him which I have just finished reading is titled ‘The theory of Everything – the origin and fate of the universe.’ After reading it, I felt competent to write this article. I realise that what I have written so far is fairly voluminous. However, I cannot end without informing the reader of what I have learnt and the conclusions that I have drawn as a consequence of what I have learnt. What I learnt is this:

In the beginning there was nothing. No matter. No space. No time. Then, about 13.8 billion years ago, there suddenly appeared a lump of matter. The lump was very small and infinitely condensed. So condensed that in that small lump was all the matter that we now see in the Universe. Unbelievable. Today, scientists call that lump a ‘Singularity’. No sooner that it appeared, the singularity, unable to sustain it’s self, exploded. The Big Bang! The explosion spewed out matter. Created space and began time. It is believed that at that moment there was only one unifying force acting. This force, however, immediately split up into the four fundamental forces which govern all that happens all over the Universe. They are gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force. The matter that the Big Bang released consisted of the basic sub atomic particles, the proton and the electron The temperature at the time of the Big Bang was about ten thousand million degrees. This, together with the speed at which the basic elementary particles of the atom were being expelled were too high to allow any of them to get close enough to combine to form an atom. There were other sub atomic particles created at the same time. However, this is not a lesson in physics and I shall, therefore, confine myself only to facts which lead to an irrefutable conclusion.

About one hundred seconds, the temperature fell to approximately onr thousand million degrees. Because of this drop in temperature, the particles that constitute the nucleus of an atom, the proton and the neutron, would not have the energy to resist the strong nuclear force, the force which holds together the constituents of the nucleus every atom together. One proton plus one neutron is the nucleus of deuterium or heavy  hydrogen. The deuterium atoms would then be able to combine to make the atom of helium which contains two proton and two neutrons. This continued for another million years or so. The nascent universe kept expanding and cooling until it’s temperature dropped to about a couple of thousand degrees. Once this happened, the electrons were unable to resist the force with which they combine to make atoms and thus, atoms were made. The most abundant of which was hydrogen, the lightest atom in the universe containing only one proton and one electron.

All this while, the universe kept cooling  and expanding. However, there were some areas which were denser than the rest. In these areas gravity would start to act and slow down and even make these areas collapse. While they were collapsing, the gravitational pull of the matter surrounding these areas made them spin. As the collapsing region got smaller, it would spin faster, just as a skater spins faster when he draws his arms in. Eventually the region would be small enough and spin fast enough to over come the gravity of the surrounding gasses. This is how rotating galaxies were formed. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way. is one such rotating galaxy.

Although there is much more to be said about galaxies and the formation of suns which give out enormous amounts of energy and light I will desist from further lecturing and go to the theme of this blog. All that I have written is an affirmation of the presence of God which has been accepted by almost leading scientists, including Albert Einstein. Who else could have constructed this magnificent edifice of the universe. Who else could have fine tuned the force of expansion, the temperature and the circumstances which led to the formation of matter. Nothing and nobody existed before the Big Bang. Except God. All we see on Earth and in the heavens is his creation.

But what is God? He is not material. He is not made of matter as we are. If he were, he would be subject to the same forces He created making him mortal. Mortal, he is definitely not. Nor is he the figure with a flowing white beard, dressed in white gowns as he often depicted. Is He an all knowing, all pervasive intelligence? Perhaps. Even though we humans have intelligence it requires us to have a brain. God, on the other hand, being non material does not have a tangible brain such as we humans have. I am pretty sure that I have given a clue about what I believe what God is. But then, I may be very wrong. The answer lies, I think, in what my father told me many years ago. “Only God knows.”