Friday, July 13, 2007

My Meeting With Mr. B.

During my recent visit to Silicon Valley I had coffee with Mr. B, an old friend with a colorful past that included, among other things, captaincy of a merchant ship, changing his course for computer science, and being one of the first employees of a successful Valley startup. A life characterized by larger-than-life episodes: facing a near-mutiny when he had to change ship's direction right in the middle of Asr prayers, or taking walk-in SATs on a whim while on shore leave in Bangkok and scoring perfect.

Like myself, B is a voracious reader, although perhaps I do not share the depth of his immersion in classical western culture. For example, we were discussing our children's education. "And what foreign languages should my children learn at school, do you think?" he asked me. "Spanish?" I offered from a pragmatic point of view.

"Actually, I was thinking more of Latin", he said. When I looked puzzled, he explained. "Look at Sanskrit. During my seafaring days I saw the overarching influence it had on the South East Asian countries. It molded their thinking and helped them build civilizations." I was still trying to connect the dots. "So learning Latin will help your son to think like that, in an overarching sort of way?" "Yes, much more so than Sanskrit."

B's fondness for Latin may have its roots in his favorite author, Nirad Chaudhuri. B said that one of Chaudhuri's books had large chunks of Latin without any translation. Apparently, when the publisher wanted to add translations, Chaudhuri had simply said "If a reader is not erudite enough to know this much Latin I don't want him as a reader". That settled that one.

And on we rambled about other things - where does Jhumpa Lahiri get her life-ideas from (hint: not from real life), where is Web 2.0 headed (need for editing), the market for a radically different kind of school in Bangladesh (teach more global skills), and the absolutely crucial need for English-medium instruction in Bangladesh. "Even if they want to be writers in Bangla, having learned English will discipline and focus their mind".

As our coffee cups emptied, I realized that an hour with B may excite, puzzle and occasionally infuriate the mind, but it is never boring!

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