Monthly Archives: April 2015


A picture tells a thousand words, they say. The Greeks set sail on a thousand ships for Troy.

Why a thousand? Why not a hundred? Why not a million? Why did Homer want there to be a thousand ships sailing out of Greece, carrying Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, Achilles, Odysseus, and Nestor? Why must a picture tell a thousand words? Why does the number “thousand” have such a deep impact on our imaginations? A popular song goes:

“But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door.”

We’ve gone beyond a thousand these days. A start-up company is evaluated in millions, Bill Gates is worth billions, the US national debt is in trillions. A thousand dollars isn’t chump change, but it’s hardly a lot of money. You don’t even get a good macbook for one.

And yet, it remains romantic to a poet. “A thousand worries were etched across her brow as she turned to face him.” Try replacing thousand with million in that sentence. It breaks the metre. It breaks the style. It sounds plebian, as a friend of mine would say.

A thousand is a believable exaggerated number. Did the Greeks really sail to Troy in a thousand ships? All accounts of the port they sailed from tell us that it wasn’t big enough to hold that many. But for Homer, whose poetry manages to narrate a story more sublime than a thousand pictures, it had to be that many. The heroes of legend couldn’t go with anything less.


An exercise in second person

The hustle and bustle of the coffee house sounds in your ears. It’s a busy day. A girl sits across you completing an assignment. A boy sits next to you reading some book whose title you don’t understand. On any other day, you would have tried to start a conversation. With the boy, if not the girl.

But not today.

Today you sit, thinking about the days to come. You sip at your coffee and wince. It’s scalding. But the wince is absent minded; your thoughts are a thousand miles away. You idly remember Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s lines about Homer and a thousand ships sailing for Troy. All sailing to get back one queen from the King of Troy.
Another sip. Another wince. You curse your decision to get black coffee. “Cafe Americano”, the barista had said in heavily accented English. You damn him and his ancestors to hell as you idly contemplate getting a spoonful of sugar.

“Open up wide, open up deep.
A spoonful of sugar can make it sweet.”

The song filtering its way into your ears seems strangely apt as you absently stir your coffee. Your thoughts, already a thousand miles away tangle themselves up, trying to create some sort of pattern. A mental flick, and they unwind. One herculean effort later, and your eyes briefly focus on the coffee on your desk and the laptop lying open in front of you, the screen turned off due to inactivity. You let it be. Concentration eludes you as the events of the past few days finally choose that moment to catch up. Instead of lying down and fading into the background, however, they decide to dance a jig in your head, calling your attention to everything you’d subconsciously repressed.

And it makes you wonder what you’re doing. Do you know why you got into this? What was the purpose? Was it simply a way to pass the time?
You swig some coffee irritably, waving away a girl attempting to sidle up to you. Effing airheads. Catch a foreigner and they’re all over him. Don’t they have a purpose? Don’t they have something they need to do? Are they just wandering about aimlessly?

Are you just wandering about aimlessly? It’s a loaded question. And you ponder upon the answer. What is it that you want? Is it as simple as roti, kapda aur makaan? Or is it something more… meaningful?

You snort, startling the boy next to you into dropping his book. He picks it up, shooting you a reproachful look. You pay as much attention to him as you would to a particularly lazy fruit fly. You’d never thought you’d be asking yourself this question. Didn’t you already have it all figured out? Wasn’t it going to be oh so perfect and oh so easy?

“It never is.”

You acknowledge the truth in those words. But is it worth it? Well, hell yes it is. How do you know? The coffee pauses halfway to your mouth as you think about it. And it remains there. The particularly hypothetical lazy fruit fly you’d waved away then would have flown into your open mouth had it existed. Fortunately, though, instead of a fruit fly, an answer floats into your mouth.

You put the coffee down. And smile. The girl across you doesn’t care, she’s still working on her assignment. The boy next to you remains engrossed in his book; he’s no longer shooting you dirty looks. The girl you’d irritably made feel unwelcome in your lap is still pouting: you’re the only foreigner in that Starbucks.

But you care. You know why it’s worth it. What else did you need?