This post—about our excessive, altogether human appetite for patterns, newspapers, and, therefore, coconuts—was originally published on my WordPress blog in 2012.
4th July, 2012
On the way to a regular Doctor’s appointment, with my father in the driver’s seat, he and I were having a conversation. Before I describe that particular conversation, a little history on our verbal spars.
Rare are the conversations with my father that do not involve him screaming at me for anything ranging from not turning off the ceiling fan before leaving a room (because I’m very arrogant and disrespectful), to being involved in a very serious road accident (because I’m very arrogant and disrespectful). My father is worth observing in those conversations: If one curious bystander, unknowing that he will never be the same again, decides to mute what is being said and just observe, he may spot the following: bulging eyes bloodshot with rage, my father’s now sparse hair flapping around due to the ceiling fan my arrogance left running, his mouth forming words that pierce more than an African model’s blue contact lenses (“I was born that way!” she insists); while his arms gesticulate in precisely calculated motions of finger-pointing exactly how I’m a moral wreck.
Not that I blame him, I’m not an easy child to raise.
With this in mind, you will understand how blue the skies were, how sweet a crow’s caw did sound, and how homeless men across the city seemed to find lost pennies on the road when I found that particular conversation with my father alarmingly lighthearted.
I was looking out the window from the passenger seat of our maroon Honda City, when he broke the gentle, comforting whirr of the air-conditioner with, “Sanju, did I tell you what happened that day? I didn’t, did I?”
I said, “Maybe you did.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
There was a brief pause, in which nature was restored to order and the air-conditioner was allowed to whirr on.
“So what happened that day...” he started, looking sideways at me, to check if he had my attention. “I almost died, Sanju!”
“What?! What happened?”
“See? I didn’t tell you. As usual, you assumed you know everything. This is what happens if you’re arrogant and dis—”
“How did you almost die?” I cut him short. It's not that I didn’t want to be berated for my arrogance. The suspense was unbearable.
He sighed as if my question caused him great trouble. “Well, a coconut fell on my head. Actually, it fell just two feet in front of my head.”
“What?! Where was this?”
He took his eyes off the road for a moment and looked me squarely in the eye, as if to assess if I was ready for this information. “Under a coconut tree.”
I must have looked quite traumatized, and he yearned to put me at ease, “Okay! Not two feet, relax!”
I must have shown visible signs of relaxation. Perhaps a release of tension in my shoulders, or a twitch of the upper lip that with a few days’ work would become a half-smile — whatever it was, he noticed. He immediately restored my fears, “But definitely not more than three feet."
He took a deep breath, preparing me for the worst, and said, “Actually, it wasn’t more than two and a half feet.”
“Wow, Appa. You really could have died.”
“I know,” he said, proudly.
We paused to let the gravity of what happened that day sink in. It led to a reflection of how short life can be.
After that, I said to him, “But really, you would have died because a coconut fell on your head. Can you imagine, Appa? In a small corner of the front page, an article would be headed: ‘Man hit by coconut. Dies.’ Then it would say, ‘continued on page 7.’ What a way to die, Appa.”
I didn’t voice the thought in my head though, ‘And not just any column on page 7. The “Bizzare!” column that I read everyday, to be amused by other people’s bad luck.’
He said, “I know. What a way to die. Your father’s getting old, Sanju.”
A few minutes later, it dawned on me that my old man really was confused and distraught about his enemy, the coconut tree. I decided to console him.
“Well, look at the bright side. You didn’t die,” I offered with a smile.
“Yes, but to think I’m alive by three feet!”
I nodded somberly.
“Not even three feet, Sanju! Two and a half! My God!”
I nodded somberly.
I felt compelled to point out, “Yes, you’re very lucky. But you know, there’s nothing you could’ve done about it. You can’t stop coconuts from falling on you, really.”
He considered my statement, “But I read in the newspaper the other day that a man walking in some park died on the spot because a tree fell on him. This rainy season, I tell you, Sanjana. Anything can happen. Be careful.”
All I could glean was that my father thought gravity works harder during the Monsoons. Or maybe there was something that I just didn’t get. So I ventured, “Are you saying the lesson is we should never stand under trees in the rains?”
"Exactly! Don’t, even if your friends ask you to.”
And that marked the end of that fateful conversation. It really made me think. Not about the trees that patiently haunt every sidewalk, threatening to thwart mankind one walker-in- the-rainy-park after another. I’m too afraid to face that truth.
But I did think about newspapers. It made me look back on other conversations with my parents, which lead to the realisation that almost every disciplining sentence of theirs usually begins with “You know, Sanju, I read in the paper today...” as they trailed off into prolifically describing the real reasons why bad things happen to good people. Who knew, after all, the answer to that was in yesterday’s edition of the Times of India.
Now, mathematics is all about spotting patterns. You see a question, you compare it to a previous problem, you recall the method used in obtaining its solution. Then you translate that method into the current question in a way that it fits, so that, together with the earlier question, you see a pattern forming. This pattern is going to help you solve future problems of the same nature. Who is to say life is any different? That’s where the newspaper comes in.
What is it about the world’s media that makes them write articles about the most grisly, bloodcurdling events of a particular day? You’d think it a morose task, yet you see such news churned out all the time. More so, what is it about the readers of newspapers that makes them pay attention to these articles?
Consider two headlines that describe two events possible on any day: “Toddler chokes on own fingers, dies” and “Ten year old wins spelling bee”. Of these two headlines, it is almost a given that most human eyes will first turn to the former headline, and then the latter.
You may think you know why you read the paper: you like to be informed, you consider yourself well-read, or maybe you do it when you're bored. But the heart of the issue is: we are a paranoid species, we love to stay safe. Unless I am grossly narrow minded, there is nothing life-saving we can learn from an article about a ten year old winning a local spelling bee. But the article about the child swallowing his own fingers? We’d frame that article, cut off our child’s fingers, and celebrate the potential increase in his life span from our terraces. We spotted a possible pattern in that article, however improbable. We moved towards preventing that persistent little pest, Death, at the cost of losing fingers for a lifetime.
Consider this too farfetched? Tell that to my father. Hell, a girl can’t even stand under trees in the Monsoons anymore.