Middle Brow

By Thathachari (thaths@netscape.com)

Reproduced (without permission) in this story are passages from P.G.Wodehouse, Bertrand Russel and many music groups. Thanks to Ramesh Mahadevan for suggesting a new ending.

Dedicated to "Name and Address Withheld" who wrote those moving and inspiring letters to Penthouse Forum.

"This is the last straw," Swami exclaimed to himself. "I am never going to even look at those ignorami," Swami promised to himself referring to the bunch of desis with whom he worked in the lab. "These morons do not know the difference between rubik's cube and cubism!" Swami fumed.

Swami's dissatisfaction with the company he had been keeping had been brewing for almost a year now. Swami spent his first year in the US like any desi comrade of his who was coming fresh off the boat. The first month was spent in sucking up to the desi professors in the department and landing an assistanceship. The first semester was spent in registering for and comfortably finishing the easiest "Sure-A" courses. Swami learnt the art of fudging results in the lab, collecting old exam papers from seniors, eating veggie noodles with plastic chopsticks and coaxing desi girls to register as a partner in the ball room dancing course.

Swami's extra-curricular activities included joining every music club under every conceivable name, applying for every credit card which did not have an annual fee, trying and hating Zima and Dr. Pepper, singing loudly and emotionally and terribly while watching old Amitab and Raj Kapoor flicks, guzzling beer by the six-pack while watching Super Bowl, organizing antakshari contests for dEsi get togethers and abusing the owners of all the Indian restaurants in town. Swami was of the new generation of cyber savvy engineers. He discovered the Indian newsgroups and had contributed to the cyber desi community his share of test messages (with cute one-liners), Ajit jokes, chain letters and patriotic tirades against CNN for misrepresenting the map of India.

Swami, in his neo non-immigrant angst, bought every toy which he felt his parents had denied him in his childhood. He (sardined with six other Swamis and Manis) had visited Walt Disney theme parks, Grand Canyon and other dEsi vacation spots. In short - Swami's experience as an FOBD was complete. He had now graduated to the respected status of Poor Indian Graduate Student.

Swami's current state of dissatisfaction arose from the fact that he considered his friends to be intellectually bankrupt. Swami had always fancied himself to be an intellectual of sorts. A discerning connoisseur of the cerebrally stimulating. The proverbial last straw was a comment made by his lab-mate Santhanabalasubramaniam Sreenivasan aka. Srini. They were watching the 9456 th episode of the popular Indian series Ramayan for the umpteenth time. It was the crucial episode where Ravan's General's deputy's pageboy's foot man fights and looses to Shree Ram after many hours of songs and whizzing arrows (spewing fire, water, sparklers and snakes of all possible colors) making their way oh_so_slowly towards their rendesvous with other whizzing arrows (spewing some equally obnoxious substance).

"Did you know that Jai Maharaj has proved conclusively that the ancient vedic Hindus were privy to knowledge about nuclear weapons? The Americans and Germans, under the disguise of being Indologists, had come to India in search for a precise formula for calculating the critical mass," Srini proposed. "It is a well known fact that the western minds did not even the sense to invent the zero. My professor (who is a descendent of the forgotten soul who invented the number to end all numbers) in Machleepatnam Institoote of Teckno-lozee used to mark them in all my exam papers as a tribute to his forefather. Anyways, the word Aum has precisely one billion and eight meanings. There are exactly four hundred and twenty of these meanings that have relevance to Physics. One of them is the exact value of Avogadro's number with a five decimal digit precision. Another is the formula for critical mass for fission! Max Muller and his cronies were busy looking for shiploads of Panini's books on grammar while the Americans were busy shipping the very same books out of an ancient library in Kerala."

Swami was seething with anger at the wild stories that his supposedly informed friends believed in. Swami had, during his fair share of dabblings in Advaitam, Kapital and Daniken during high school, believed in precisely those idiocies once upon a time. But as time passed and Swami's knowledge matured he began to see the folly in glorification of the past. What bothered Swamy most was the fact that Srini's intellectual make up was that of a high school kid.

Swami woke up from his beer drenched sleep with made up mind the next morning. He decided that he had enough of dEsi graduate student. He resolved to experiment with the more informed art circles of his town. He planned to visit the South Asian Artists Association's weekly meetings.

Swami, after grabbing his beer, made his way towards the empty table in the corner. Swami was intensely aware of his surroundings. A bunch of people who were very familiar with each other were chatting in the other corner of the room. The fact that they made no effort to even acknowledge his presence intimidated Swami. The meeting of the South Asian Artists Association began.

A bearded guy in his late twenties began speaking. "The postulate or common understanding involved in speech is certainly co-extensive, in the obligation it carries, with the social organism of which language is the instrument, and the ends of which it is an effort to subserver-," he said. "The subcontinent's political scenario's Kafkaesquenes is clearly seen in the current scandal rocking the foundations of responsible democracy as an institution."

This failed to make any sense to Swami. Anything this guy said seemed to be atleast three levels deep. That was at least two levels more than Swami was used to. Swami goggled at the speaker. By the time the speaker was into his eleventh sentence Swami was still trying to decipher the whether the double negetive in the first was a negetive or a positive. Swami had tried to read Kafka, Joyce, Neistche and the various other writers whom this speaker seemed to hold in such high esteem. Swami realized early in his philosophical binge that these writers made great bedtime material.

At the end of the speech the masses were allowed to mingle. Swami oogled at the good looking girl who was making her way towards him. "Hello!" Swami said. Or more precisely, croaked. The girl replied with an absent minded "Hi!" "Nice meeting isn't it?" Swami enquired. "Which organization are you with?" enquired the girl. The only organization Swami was even remotely with was the various music clubs into which he had enrolled his whole extended family including assorted uncles, aunts, grandparents and numerous cousins. Before Swami could compose his reply the girl had passed him. It was then Swami realized that she had been making her way towards the bar and not, as he mistakenly believed, towards him.

The bearded speaker was trying to gauge the impression he had made upon his captive audience. He was making his way through the crowd making small talk with them. He now reached Swami. "We have seen that, even if physical objects do have an independent existence, they must differ very widely from sense-data, and can only have a correspondence with sense-data, in the same sort of way in which a catalogue has a correspondence with the things catalogued. Hence common sense leaves us completely in the dark as to the true intrinsic nature of physical objects, and if there were good reason to regard them as mental, we could not legitimately reject this opinion merely because it strikes us as strange. The truth about physical objects must be strange. It may be unattainable, but if any philosopher believes that he has attained it, the fact that what he offers as the truth is strange ought not to be made a ground of objection to his opinion. Don't you agree?" he asked.

"Eh?!" was all Swami could say.

Suddenly Swami remembered the words from the Eagles' song. He felt suffocated. He felt angry at being thrust into this situation. He felt imprisoned. He was unable to get out. "You can check out any time you want but you can never leeeave," Swami thought alound.

Swami was surprised to hear the bearded guy replying "We are all prisoners here of our own device." It was then that Swami realized that he had inadvertantly spoken the words that he thought he was thinking. Swami was flabbergasted at the bearded guy's knowledge of music. He never knew that an intellectual of the caliber of this guy would speak in pop musical terms like himself.

Swami wanted to make sure that he would not piss the guy off. He decided to dwell on neutral topics. "What do you think are the responsibilities of a leader like you?" Swami asked.

"Its getting hard to be someone but it all works out," replied the bearded guy who seemed to be on a roll. Swami got into the lyrical mood. "She thinks she is in a play she is anyway," he said eyeing the girl who had just given him the cold shoulder.

"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"

"Eh Oh!"

"Coo Coo C' Choo Mrs. Robinson..."

"Goo Goo G' Joob..."

"Tu Tu Tu TuTu Tara..."

"Ek Do Theen..."

"Gobble Gobble Gobble..."

"Gobbledegook yourself!" Swami said warming up and beginning to take liberties with the bearded guy. The bearded guy threw his arm around Swami and directed him towards the bar. Over the next couple of drinks they got to know each other better. It turned out that the bearded guy and Swami had the same interests. They read the same columns in Playboy, they drank the same brand of beer and the point that clinched their friendship was the fact that they belonged to the same CD clubs. The others gave Swami dirty looks for having comandeered their Great Leader.

Swami started pouring out his troubles to the bearded guy. "My supervising professor is a real third rate #$##@$," he said, "None of the dEsi girls are willing to register for the ball room dancing course with me. All the morons crazy enought to be in the 10 th year of their Ph.Ds don't offer to ride me to in their cars to the grocery store. And worst of all the CD clubs refuse to believe that I want to enroll Satre into their club. It seems they already have somebody by that name in their club!"

The bearded guy laughed loudly. "I enrolled in the club as Satre, Picasso, Russel and Kant!" he said, "No wonder they did not let you in." He doubled with mirth and slapped Swami on the back. "We really are a lot alike. You must tell me if it was you who enrolled as Friedrich Nietzsche. I have been trying to enroll him in BMG and Columbia House and they refuse to even respond to me." Swami sheepishly confessed that he had indeed.

Swami swaggered slowly on his way home. Mixed emotions were playing on his mind. On one hand was the disillusionment with the upper brow. And on the other was the happieness which arose out of having whisked the bearded guy out of the clutches of the admiring followers. "Shit!" he exclaimed. He suddenly remembered that his professor had asked him to get some work done in the lab over the weekend and that he had been goofing off most of the weekend. He changed his direction towards the lab. He cursed his profesor, the Department for asking his professor to do more research before he could earn his tenure, the University for not paying him enough and the NSF for funding this stupid project.

Swami mindlessly made his way into the lab. In his alcoholic stupour it took him a while to realize that somebody else was in the lab. And this guy was playing his favorite music - Pink Floyd! He was slightly taken aback to hear a broken voice singing along. "...you think you can tell...Heaven from hell," the voice sang along emotionally albeit badly.

Swami was astounded to realize that the voice belonged to Srini. He had always thought of Srini as a barely educated culturally devoid brute. Srini sprang up and became self conscious when he realized that he had company.

"Oh, it's you!" he said, "I was bored to death at home. What with the Chiefs not making it. I decided I would finish the experiments that our resident loony had given us. In fact I am almost through with the experiments. All I have to do is turn the equipment off. Why don't we go home together?" Swami was moved by Srini's dedication and timely help.

On the way back while pretending to listen to Srini's ramblings Swami's mind was busy churning out revelation after revelation. Swami realized that there are no high brows and low brows when it comes to intellect. There are just people who are looked upon as being high and low brows. And there are people who pretend that they are high brows. The Truth was that everybody was, essentially, a middle brow.

Copyright © 1994-2000, Sudhakar "Thaths" Chandrasekharan
Last Updated Sat Nov 25 13:05:12 PST 2000