Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (74 page)

Used by the U.S. Army in the Second World War and the Vietnam War, the Mk2 defensive hand grenade was known as a “pineapple” because of the grooves cast into its shell, in order, it appears, to improve fragmentation while incidentally helping the grip.

Oskar Morgenstern was an economist who, along with John von Neumann, founded game theory. Von Neumann was a formidable mathematician who made contributions in many fields. There is a story, in connection with Gödel, which says much about both Gödel and von Neumann. On October 7, 1930, on the third and last day at a conference in Königsberg, Germany, in the final graveyard question-and-answer session, Kurt Gödel announced his staggering theorem in one sentence, an off-the-cuff remark:
There are indeed propositions which are true but unprovable.
It went unnoticed by all but one; John von Neumann, visiting from the United States, buttonholed Gödel after the session. That is how Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem entered the world.

Responding to the publication of the book
One Hundred Authors Against Einstein
, a work ostensibly directed at his physics, Albert Einstein said, “If I were wrong, then one would have been enough.”

The 1971 Indo-Pakistan War broke out when India intervened after nine months of the ongoing Bangladesh Liberation War, during which India was overwhelmed by refugees from the new nation. One somewhat underreported aspect of this underreported war was American complicity. I repeat here a passage recorded in Zafar’s notes, which is an excerpt from Christopher Hitchens’s book
The Trial of Henry Kissinger

By 1971, the word “genocide” was all too easily understood. It surfaced in a cable of protest from the United States consulate in what was then East Pakistan—the Bengali “wing” of the Muslim state of Pakistan, known to its restive nationalist inhabitants by the name Bangladesh. The cable was written on 6 April 1971 and its senior signatory, the Consul General in Dacca, was named Archer Blood. But it might have become known as the Blood Telegram in any case … It was not so much reporting on genocide as denouncing the complicity of the United States government in genocide. [Hitchens describes it as “the most public and the most strongly worded demarche from State Department servants to the State Department that has ever been recorded.”] Its main section reads thus:
Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backward to placate the West Pak[istan] dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, ironically at a time when the U.S.S.R. sent President Yahya Khan [martial law administrator, based in West Pakistan] a message defending democracy, condemning arrest of a leader of a democratically elected majority party, incidentally pro-West, and calling for end to repressive measures and bloodshed … But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected.

The Redskins were a 1980s skinhead band, whose members espoused left-wing antiracist values.

Zafar’s recollection of this incident differs from mine slightly, but in a key respect. I was present at the time, at the counter in the dining hall, standing two or three persons away from him. Zafar asked for a main course and Steven replied, Yes, sir. But contrary to his account, at that point Zafar didn’t just ask Steven to call him “Zafar.” He said: Steven, when you say “sir,” I look for my father. Please call me Zafar.

I cannot imagine that Zafar ever addressed his father as “sir.” I doubt he ever addressed him in English.

Here I imagine that the second time Zafar used the pronoun, when he gave it emphasis, he was using it with an initial capital letter.

“The Chaconne,” wrote Brahms, “is the most wonderful, unfathomable piece of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

In fact, the director’s response was first to set the question in the broader problem of an actor trying to convey mental or emotional states generally. She mentioned the name of Duchenne, a French neurologist of the nineteenth century, who had identified certain facial expressions exhibited by everyone, that, he concluded, were involuntary, including a particular smile, now known as a Duchenne smile, which cannot be created by a person but is the involuntary effect of an emotional state. The particular muscles involved in expressing this smile cannot be consciously willed into action; they’re activated only when someone is genuinely very pleased. Before I could ask this actress-turned-director how she’d heard about this nineteenth-century French neurologist, she explained that Duchenne’s work was of enormous interest to the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, the father of method acting. The problem Stanislavski identified was how an actor could convey emotions whose corresponding facial expressions could not be willed.

When I asked Zafar, one day, why the photo of Emily in Penelope’s house had horrified him, he replied that she’d had a Duchenne smile. Even children born deaf and dumb, he said, burst into luminous smiles. I’d never seen her smile like that at me.

I did not keep the napkin but have reproduced the diagram after consulting pages on the Internet. Of course, the diagram also appears in Zafar’s notes, where beneath it are the words
Knowing doesn’t fix things.
When he wrote those words, I have wondered, was he referring to a specific thing, something he came to know, which was an answer to a question but which never resolved things for him?

Zafar provided no reference, but I have been able to establish that the remark is attributed to Purkyně by Hans-Lukas Teuber in the rather alarmingly titled volume
Visual Field Defects After Penetrating Missile Wounds of the Brain

From a given set of axioms, using logical reasoning, mathematicians derive statements that are true. Hilbert believed that mathematics was consistent, i.e., that it is not possible to derive two different statements that contradict each other. That is what Hilbert’s intuition told him, but he did not have a proof.

I tracked down the letter he was referring to. It is from Pakistani Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Ahmed to Brigadier Hardit Singh Kler of the Indian army:

Dear Brig,
Hope this finds you in high spirits. Your letter asking us to surrender has been received. I want to tell you that the fighting you have seen so far is very little, in fact the fighting has not even started. So let us stop negotiating and start the fight.
40 sorties, I may point out, are inadequate. Ask for many more.
Your point about treating your messenger well was superfluous. It shows how you under-estimate my boys. I hope he liked his tea.
Give my love to the Muktis [Bangladeshi resistance fighters allied with the Indians]. Let me see you with a Sten in your hand next time instead of the pen you seem to have such mastery over,
Now get on and fight.
Yours sincerely
Commander Jamalpur Fortress.
(Lt. Colonel Sultan Ahmed)

Lt. Colonel Sultan Ahmed and his men were overrun shortly after this letter was received.

Actually, as I understood it, Zafar was developing a practice in banking regulation.

He was not even a lawyer back then.

Christianity and Islam share much theologically. They have the same prophets. Jesus occupies an esteemed position, as the Messiah who will return at the end of days—in Islamic theology. But the devil in Islam is a fallen jinn; the jinns were beings of “smokeless flame,” a race of supernatural beings with special powers, distinct from angels, created alongside man but invisible to men. Apparently, the English word
has common roots with the Arabic
, as do the words
. In Zafar’s notebooks are these lines:
What would etymology have looked like to the speakers of Old French, late Middle English, Latin, or Ancient Greek, had there been records to draw on? Would we today still think of European languages as having been born in Europe?

I came across the following material in Zafar’s notebooks, which, judging by the surrounding matter, was written long before Zafar’s conversation with the colonel. I assume it’s of Zafar’s own composition; there is no attribution. It’s no surprise that behind anything any of us says there may stand a whole catalog of things unsaid. But what I find unsettling about this extract is that it provides a window into how much Zafar restrained himself when he talked, a glimpse at that catalog of things unsaid:

If in 1947 the partition of India created two new nations, the smaller could only have been conceived in the madness of those times, a bird of two wings and no body. And if West Pakistan and East Pakistan were two regions united by a common faith, then they were also two peoples divided by different languages. Even the name of the new nation, the most loyal expression of a people’s language, its label, was an act of exclusion and subordination. The prefabrication of one Choudhary Rahmat Ali:
, Punjab,
, Afghania,
, Kashmir, and the -stan, the annex of land, land of the PAK, with an anaptyxic epenthetic
, don’t you know, just to root the acronym in the land, all of which made a neat little pun, Land of the Pure, the Muslims, while it brought together its constituent peoples. Only it didn’t. Where were the Bengalis? Where was the
? One thousand miles of India between them. Surely not left out merely because the pun wouldn’t work but never conceived as a piece of the country, a part of the main. Next, in 1948, the West made Urdu the sole official language of the two parts. Imagine that, making Urdu—alien in speech and script—the only official language of the Eastern part, whose people were among the most attached of any to their mother tongue. They rebelled against it, and on February 21, 1952, things came to a head in clashes between the West Pakistani military and students at Dhaka University. Many died. This is even before things fell apart, before the war of liberation in 1971. To this day, Bangladesh marks the date, known as Language Martyrs Day, as a public holiday. In fact, in 2000, UNESCO made that date, February 21, International Mother Language Day. Who noticed? Who cared?
Over the years I have had the same dealing with Pakistani cabdrivers. There I am, riding in a cab in London or New York, and because I am interested in the migrations of cabdrivers, these people, themselves so often migrants, whose job it is to take others from one place to another, I ask the driver where he’s from. Or perhaps I ask because I want the fight. The Pakistani driver answers, and after a quick look in the rearview mirror he asks me the same. From Bangladesh, I say, adding that I spent half my life in the West. We are from the same country! We are brother Muslims! exclaims the Pakistani driver in the last English he thinks he’ll be using with this customer before breaking into Urdu. I have to interrupt him to say that I don’t understand a word of that language, though I do, and I ask him if he speaks Bengali. No, they say, laughing. No, they say with a horrible laugh, as if the idea were ridiculous to all. Why is it that they laugh? Then they’ll tell me that I should learn to speak Urdu. Should you, I retort, speak Bengali? They laugh. You do know, I say, that Bengali is the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world? You do know that wars are fought over language, wars in which millions die? They shut up for the rest of the journey.
At least, this is what I imagine saying.

In an article in
magazine in 2000—one of those links emailed to me by my father—the novelist David Foster Wallace writes:

Modern math is like a pyramid, and the broad fundament is often not fun. It is at the higher and apical levels of geometry, topology, analysis, number theory, and mathematical logic that the fun and profundity start, when the calculators and contextless formulae fall away and all that’s left are pencil & paper and what gets called “genius,” viz. the particular blend of reason and ecstatic creativity that characterizes what is best about the human mind. Those who’ve been privileged (or forced) to study it understand that the practice of higher mathematics is, in fact, an “art” and that it depends no less than other arts on inspiration, courage, toil, etc.… but with the added stricture that the “truths” the art of math tries to express are deductive, necessary,
a priori
truths, capable of both derivation and demonstration by logical proof.

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