On an evening parked far away in the mists of time, I had gone out for a stroll with a young and adorably pretty woman. Slim, charming and lively, she was my newly acquired wife, Sankari. I was around twenty nine and she must have been about twenty four. And, as I said, we were out for a walk on a balmy evening in spring.
Had I been Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, I would probably have told her:
“The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
Where Cressid lay that night.”
But I wasn’t Lorenzo. Nor was Sankari Jessica. Or else, she too might have replied:
“In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismay’d away.”
We didn’t exchange words even remotely similar. Yet, the sky was clear and a million stars glittered above us as they watched us in inquisitive silence. We went and sat on a bench in the nearby park.
“How beautiful the sky is, isn’t it?” said Sankari. This is the closest she came to Jessica.
“Yes, isn’t it? And have you noticed how endlessly the stars are spread?” said I. I couldn’t have been farther away from Lorenzo.
Sankari misunderstood my train of thought I think.
“Oh yes. Endless indeed,” she said, “fascinating little lights under the dark canopy of the sky. Lovely, aren’t they?”
“Right,” said I. “But how many stars do you think there are in the sky?”
“Oh, I don’t know … how should I know how many? Infinitely many may be. Like grains of sand on the sea shore.” Sankari stared at the sky in wonder. A mortal beauty, tucked away in an inconsequential corner of the solar system, looking up towards the immortal beauty of the universe.
“Yet,” said I, “each one has a name, hasn’t it?”
Her face turned sharply from the sky towards me. There was bit of a frown on her puzzled countenance. “Of course they have names. How does that matter?”
“Doesn’t it surprise you that there are infinitely many objects up there and each one can be distinguished from the other by name?”
She stared at me in silence for a while. The frown slowly melted away into an awfully cute smile of indulgence. “You are crazy,” she said lovingly and then went back to stare at the sky again.
“But you can’t name each particle that makes up the sky, can you?” I asked.
Once again the questioning look returned to her face. “What on earth are you talking about? Pulling my leg, are you?”
“Oh no,” I quickly intercepted. “I was merely thinking that the sky too is probably made up of little particles of some sort of matter, gases may be. And it is not possible to give each particle in the sky a name, is it?” I looked askance at her to study her reaction.
She didn’t appear to be too interested. The expression on her face had a stamp of incredulity. “Is this guy really crazy?” it appeared to ask.
But I pushed on. “The particles that form the sky are infinitely many and the stars too probably infinitely many. But in one case you can find distinct names for each particle and in the other you can’t. Isn’t that strange, Sankari?”
She giggled in reply, revealing her sparkling teeth in the light that shone down from a nearby lamppost. “You know what’s strange?” she asked.
“What’s strange?” I asked back.
“You!!” she said emphatically. And then she moved the conversation closer to Lorenzo and Jessica. “The moon’s so beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”
I had to admit this was the case. It must have been full moon or very nearly so. “Yes the moon’s lovely,” I responded casually.
“Don’t you want to tell me something, now that you have noticed we are sitting under a perfect moonlit sky?”
It was my turn to be puzzled. “About the moon?” I asked doubtfully.
“No, about me,” she said and looked away, disappointment writ clearly on her face.
I couldn’t follow her. She appeared to be upset. But why, I had no idea.
So I went back to where I was. “Do you see that there are at least two kinds of infinity? In one case you can name each object in the infinity you behold and in the other, you can’t.”
Her face was still turned away and I had no idea if she was listening. I failed miserably to perceive that I could reach out for the moon so easily on that evening and was wasting that wondrous opportunity!
The moon above kept smiling of course. But the moon next to me wasn’t.
“You know, mathematicians have names for these different kinds of infinity. The infinity of stars is called countable and the infinity of the sky is uncountable.”
I was greeted by deathlike silence. Nonetheless, I went on.
“And you know why the very basis of mathematics is illogical? It is illogical because classical mathematics assumes that the uncountable infinity can also be named particle by particle. It’s called the Axiom of Choice. Without this axiom, which no one can prove, mathematics cannot progress a single step. Logic is just a convenient house mathematics chooses to reside in. In fact though, it’s hopelessly illogical!”
Sankari could have been a mummy resting under a pyramid. I sighed, seeing that her interest had still not been aroused. And then I shrugged.
“Well illogical or not, it works. So I guess we shouldn’t grumble,” I concluded.
“Who’s grumbling?” Sankari had finally found her voice. She was facing me now. Her beautiful eyes smiled at me. A smile charged with sadness.
Have I offended her somehow, I asked myself stupidly. She stood up.
“Let’s go back home, shall we?” she asked.
“Why? Do you have work at home?”
“Yes, I have work at home. Someone needs to work you know, to keep a family running,” she said. I didn’t fail to note the sarcasm in her tone. Gloomily I got up too.
“Well, what are you so upset about?” I asked. “Have I offended you? I said nothing at all to hurt you!”
“No, you didn’t say anything to hurt me at all. But I wish you did. I would have something to complain about.”
I was nonplussed. But I was reassured at the same time. “Thank God,” I whispered to myself. “I didn’t hurt my lovely wife.”
We had started walking back homewards. She maintained her silence. To help matters, I tried to start up the conversation again.
“How paradoxical language is really!” I said dramatically.
“What paradox?” she retorted. “I didn’t say anything at all!”
“Oh no, I wasn’t talking about you. Actually, I was talking about Bertrand Russell.”
She stopped dead in the middle of the road and stared at me, mouth half open. There was a distinctly scared look in her eyes.
“I am married to a loony,” they appeared to say.
I tried to make amends. “Actually, Russell pointed out how strange logical language can get.”
She still didn’t resume her walk. Instead, she quickly checked to see if the road was empty or not. If necessary, help should be around to protect her from her husband.
“Well,” continued I, “suppose you were to say that the barber on our street shaved all those people who didn’t shave themselves.”
“Why should I say something like that?” she challenged. “I don’t even know the barber.”
“Well, just suppose you did say so.”
She was petrified now.
“If you said that, then you would be committing yourself to resolving a very difficult paradox.”
She shook her head slowly, clearly lamenting her fate. But we had now begun to walk again. She had probably decided that, though mad, I wasn’t violently so. But her attitude suggested that she believed a visit to a head shrink was in order.
I had the field to myself now.
“You know what the paradox is? The paradox is that you don’t know who shaves the barber.”
She was almost livid now with anger. “Why the hell should I want to know who shaves the barber? I don’t even want to know any barber at all, whether he shaves or not. You go tomorrow morning and find out who shaves the barber. If no one else does, you do him the favour yourself.”
But I was desperate. “Please,” I pleaded, “just let me finish.”
She stopped again and faced me with stony indifference.
“You see, if the barber shaves himself, then he must be a person who doesn’t shave himself. Because we agreed, didn’t we, that he shaved only those people who didn’t shave themselves.”
“No I didn’t agree to anything of the sort. But even if I did, so what?”
“Well, if the barber doesn’t shave himself, then he is a person whom he has to shave,” I concluded with a note of satisfaction. “After all, the barber we said shaved all people who didn’t shave themselves.”
We had reached home by now and Sankari was unlocking the front door. She entered the dark apartment and I followed her in, turning on the light switch. The room was flooded with light. She looked so fascinatingly beautiful. And she had her engaging eyes turned straight at my face. There was a strange light that they reflected.
She sat down on the sofa and kept staring at me and suddenly blurted out.
“Is this what you get paid for in your office?”
I was confused. “Is what what I am paid for at my office? How do you mean?”
“I mean what do you do in your office? Spread such rubbish amongst students? I thought you taught classes. So I was asking if this is the gibberish you teach. It’s a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Anyway, forget about that. But let’s get one thing straight. I am not your student, understand? I am your wife!” Her voice rose to a final crescendo. I thought I heard loud sirens before enemy attack and beat a hasty retreat to wait quietly for my dinner.
And I have quietly waited for dinner every night since then. I have waited for her delicious lunches too during the long many years that have rolled by following that fateful evening. Sankari is still very pretty I think. But I have realised too late in life I guess that she will never ask me again what a golden full moon on a clear spring sky should remind me of.