Sunday, December 14, 2008

The "M" word.

I was really excited about my holiday this year. I even had a count down on my desk.
The only thing that scared me was the fact that December is wedding season in India and I am a 25 year old Indian girl!
I don't know if I should really write about this on my blog. : Especially since my baba is my most loyal reader but everyone is entitled to their opinions, moreover everyone is entitled to MY opinion!!
Over the past few years, I have made my own independent observations about Marriage (wedding) and Indian girls.
Just the way there is a huge rift in the economic equality in India, there is also a significant gap in the power equations between men and women. I see my maid's daughter being beaten up regularly by her inebriated husband and at the same time I see "eligible-daughter-in-laws" dictating "my conditions to marry you". I recently went to Kolhapur to see my uncle who is looking for a bride (through match-makers) for his son. I was really amused when he said that they were excluding any "applications" from Pune because the eligible girls from Pune are really scary. :)
One of my mamis gave me an update about the recent "list of demands" from the girl's side in an arranged marriage system.
1. I will not stay with your parents. If you expect me to stay with them, I expect that you have a paid cook.
2. I work late hours in the office. So I would not like it if I have to take part in too much house work after I come back from work.
3. I want to know how much from all the collective property you are going to inherit (This is not an exaggeration. I have heard about and even seen girls who want to know these things before they get into an arranged marriage)
4. I am a progressive woman. So I would not like to take part in every other festival that your parents may want to celebrate.
5. My money= My money. (which later translates as "my-money-my-money-your-money-my-money")

Some of these things make me think that the "arranged marriage" system in India is gradually collapsing. There was a time when this system had turned into a prosperous business. I even remember my parents volunteering to pool their respective single friends and trying to match them! Thankfully none of that worked. =)
However, it was a really informal, cheerful and positive effort to match up people.

I understand that it is hard to be an "Indian Woman" all the time but I am completely against this "professional" way of finding a companion. Any relationship needs compromises. There is a bigger joy in giving up freedom to make people happy. I have seen my mother do all of that as well as have a flourishing professional life. We all did our bit to make the business grow. My dad took care of me while aai was away working in sugar factories. When she came back, she made up for her absence by cooking some of the most delicious food I have ever had. My parents married against my father's parent's wishes. So my mom did her extra best to win their hearts!
The reason this was possible I think was because both my parents, all their minor differences included, always lived a "wholesome" life. Even the everyday things that you do like exercise, cooking, gardening and shopping add character to your companionship and help in taking a lot of stress away.

Even in the West, marriage is still a very serious thing. People do not get married unless they are absolutely sure about each other and are willing to have a family together. Sometimes, they have kids in their late thirties and still end up having very happy families.

Indian girls are on the brink of a revolution. Our ideals (our moms) have come from a generation that accepted every marital obstacle with a resolve that they will make it work ( because they had no other choice). This has made them more powerful and patient than any other generation of women. Since we are faced with such ideals and have grown up in a relatively liberal world, we refuse to accept certain things that would only make other's happy.
Also, most of the girls who are getting married only think about the "wedding" and not the marriage that lies ahead, and for years to come. All the planning and expense goes into those three days when the wedding is going to happen but very few plan for the long (and happy) marriage that lies ahead.
My generation of educated women in their mid-twenties could turn into a "dream-come-true" for the Indian woman. The only thing missing that I find in almost every girl I meet ( including me sometimes) is the complete lack of patience and foresight.
Who you are is completely in your hands. That is the beauty of life. You are free to be whoever you want. Your everyday life is completely yours too. You are free to wake up with the Sun on a Yoga mat and skip dinners to lose weight. :)
You are free to go back to school whenever you want. Know yourself well and get used to your own personality. Know little things about yourself ( like you could have also been one of the greatest tap-dancers the world has ever seen) and be happy about knowing yourself well.
However, Marriage is one thing that is not in your hands alone. It is something that is almost a destiny and even the West accepts this with all their analytical thinking.
So sometimes these "professional match-makers" make me feel extremely claustrophobic and then I end up thinking that overcoming the fear of living a lonely life could be easier than falling in the traps of these matrimonial websites. :D

We definitely need to tame the alpha-woman gene around here though. ;)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Argumentative Indian -- Amartya Sen

I picked this book up from Crossword in between my shopping sprees on Dhole Patil Road in Pune. Not even once did I imagine that it would enlighten me so much just a few days later.
This book, written by Amartya Sen is a beautiful work of extensive research written in form of essays. It talks mostly about the history of public voice in India and covers massive time-spans.
Some books come into your life at the right time and I think this was one of them.
I was reading about Rajput-Mughal marriages in between my travels in Rajasthan. Unfortunately all of India and the rest of the World was witnessing brutal violence going on in Mumbai at the same time.
This book systematically talks about various plagues that have been infecting India post independence. One of them is sectarian politics, which was started in India by certain political parties with abject irresponsibility.
India has seen and even conceived so many religions that by now she should ideally reach her religious "Moksha".
Amartya Sen talks about this journey by calmly presenting well-referenced facts about India's religious journey. If I see my mother-land from the wingspan of a beautiful peacock that flies across three millenniums, what is going on now not only disappoints but also fills me with sad frustration.
It also raises some interesting questions. For example, whenever there is a communal riot in India there is a tendency to label it using religion because that is what it is crudely based on. However, in all these riots, even the ones that occurred in 1944 before independence the majority of dead people came from lower income groups. People who live in slums and have no security against someone barging into their hut and raping their wives. We never see a Shahrukh Khan being killed in a riot and I think considering the extent of idol worship going on in Bollywood, I don't think they even think of Shahrukh and Salman "Khans" as Muslims. All the religious labels are carried around by poor people who have to go out everyday in order to keep their children well-fed. Even today as we watched live terror on our television sets, the first victims of random shooting were people who were returning home from work in the local trains.
When the whole of Mumbai goes to work the next day after a terror attack, there is also an element of helplessness in their courage. If they could afford to stay home, I think some of them would.
Another interesting observation made by Amartya Sen is the position of women in India. He gives statistical figures about the female:male ratios all over India, even including states like Rajasthan,Delhi and Maharashtra known for sex-selective abortions. It is not surprising that India fares badly in this respect as well as some areas like women's health. Almost half of the female population in India is anaemic and most of the cardiovascular disorders that occur later in life are a result of the fetus being undernourished during pregnancy. Apart from this, India also leads the camp when it comes to domestic violence, wife-beating,dowry deaths and deprivation of property rights for women.
Despite all these statistical facts, India has witnessed many powerful women leaders. India, Pakistan,Bangladesh and Shrilanka have all had female heads of state while countries that have had a much longer history of self-government like the USA are still to get their first female presidents.
Sen also talks about undernourishment in Indian children. It is shocking to know that India beats even the sub-Sahara countries in Africa in the number of undernourished children. There is still severe hunger in the lower classes in India although the State granaries are full of excess food grain. A lot of government money is spent every year just to maintain these excess stocks but none is distributed over the country where it is really needed. This is apparently because of the pro-farmer policy of the government. They refuse to sell food grains at a lower price because the farmers who produce it should get a better price! Sen calls it a case of "friendly-fire".
Sen invested some of his Nobel Prize money in reviewing the condition of primary education in some parts of India. The results are appalling. Lack of education still haunts us and various loop-holes have been found around the concessions made available for the poor which are then used by the wealthy and corrupt. He also talks about the various "unions", like the teacher's union for example, that initially worked against injustice but now as the primary teachers get paid well they have moved away from the poor students coming to them making them somewhat unsympathetic.
This book makes you realize that there are certain things that are just not valued enough in India anymore.
One of them is life. Since there are so many of us here, a few getting shot in a random terror attack is no big deal to the politicians.
Another is poverty. My Australian friends who came along with me to see Rajasthan would pull out money for every beggar on the street. Some of them had tears in their eyes when four year old kids ran towards us for money outside a temple. However, a few days later they realized that if they give money to every beggar on the street, they would probably have to go begging themselves after a while! You come to a point where you run out of sympathy and start thinking about yourself. Most of the Indians have gone beyond this line of sympathy and hence sometimes appear selfish.
This book however gives a strong message of the value of Democracy. All the progress that India has seen post independence is because India is a democracy. People still have a voice. Although sometimes they have to scream for attention. Governments have been ruled in and ruled out completely on people's will. The army has stayed within her barracks unlike Pakistan and the press is free. Although these days I think that the television media in India is fast turning trashy, pandering to the lower tastes of human mind. Newspapers in India are one of the best in the world.
Every generation reflects the effects of the atmosphere they grew up in. Today's "Jihadis" grew up in war-ridden Afghanistan in the 80s that could have filled them with irrational anger and extremism. However, the babies of the Jihad-ridden world would (hopefully) grow up into compassionate agnostics or better still, people who know that Religion was made for Humanity and not the other way round.
We are at the edge of another revolution and it is just unfortunate that some of us have to lay our lives to start it.
My sincere respects to all those who have given their lives in this terrible war.
And I am grateful to Amartya Sen for this book. Happier even to see that it reflects the fairness of work that a humane-scientist can bring about!

Friday, November 21, 2008

I am not Aishwarya Rai.

Inspiration : Madhura's blog
The statement is "All girls like being looked at", and Madhura has given a really humble and honest account of her take on it. I went to primary school with her and I must say that I always thought it would have been so much better if I had Madhura's gooseberry-green eyes. :)

I spent all my childhood on stage. So even before I realized that I would be "looked at" at a later stage, people were looking at me! I absolutely enjoyed being looked at as a kid. I still remember the butterflies that I got in my stomach. Even when I was (over) fed to keep me happy before I went on stage to dance, I felt a vacuum in my belly before I stepped on. The jingle of ghungroos,the rustle of silk, the smell of about two dozen garlands of jasmine in my (fake) hair and the pleasant itching from the bangles and necklaces..all of it made me exceedingly happy. When on stage, all by myself, I knew that everyone below was looking at me, judging me, evaluating me. Amongst them were my parents too, proud and happy!
However, it was not always pleasant. Once I remember coming down with acute conjunctivitis and I had a performance lined up for my dance teacher's concert. I was in no mood to do it because my eyelids stuck to each other even when I blinked! My mom however made me get out of bed and live up to my promise. I had never hated wearing kolh so much before as I did that day! I still remember standing in the wing wearing glasses and mopping my eyes with cotton to avoid ruining my make-up! I think I was just ten years old then.

As I grew up, I turned exceedingly ugly and I actually do remember missing those lights and that attention when I stopped dancing. In the meantime, however I was "looked at" in speech and poetry festivals when I represented my school. I must say that attention was completely devoid of vanity. :)
I used to be this roly-poly, chubby teenager reciting R.L Stevenson or Keats on stage. I was into high-school theatre but I was never "looked at" by the members of the opposite sex with any significant curiosity! During those days, even though I did not particularly enjoy being looked at, I had to go through the horror. :D

Then there was a series of "take control of your life" weight loss programs. Running, skipping, swimming and Yoga coupled with "No carbs at night" and a fatless life. I must confess however, that it did not have any effect on the way people looked at me until the time I stopped caring about it. :D
Then it started again. Now in a different sense. And I must confess in all my honesty that when people look at you when you are just walking down a stupid street (without knowing that you can dance,talk and make them laugh) it does feel good!
I remember being extremely thrilled once when a coffee shop owner gave me a five minute lecture on why he found my eyes pretty. Even though it was instantly eclipsed by comments like,"He is just selling his coffee".

But then there are ways in which people look at you too!
Some of them might as well have 1-10 flash cards to hold up when you pass by!
Some of them look straight into your eyes and burst into an honest uninhibited smile.
Some have this expression that says,"There is something about this girl but I don't know what it is. She is not pretty for sure." :)
Some of them are just waiting for you to look back at them so that they can throw a really overwhelming compliment at you.
Some just look at you, fail you and move on to the next!
The look that I enjoy the most is when sometimes I show up in the lab in my hippie clothes on a weekend and someone sees me. It is like looking at retro Coca-Cola bottle when you are used to having it in a can!
The look that I have been the most patient with is when you are with your "breathtakingly beautiful" girl friend and they give you a sympathy look!

Over the years I have developed a theory to explain why "Most hot chics end up having really lame conversations". We had a discussion on this with my friends in Australia.
Hot chics usually realize that they are hot as soon as they turn 14. So they become extremely complacent (sometimes even annoyed) with the attention. Hence the other means of getting attention like
"being a nice person"
"having a sense of humor"
"being intelligent"
"understanding others"
are not utilized by them.
And being naturally attractive makes them neglect the "work-out" arena as well as the "health food" department.
So being really hot at a very young age is not necessarily a good thing. :D
I might sound a bit superficial but I think a lot of activities that we end up doing are motivated by an urge to be noticed.
I am just as grateful for the "ugly teenager" phase as I am for the earlier and later phases of my life. It has given me an opportunity to improve and also an ability to make peace with the fact that I am not Aishwarya Rai. :)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Journey of a Book :)

I was inspired to write this because of something I read on Vishnupriya's blog. I am not doing much these days (that must be obvious from the frequency of my blogs), so I spend time blog-browsing. Jumping from one blog-roll to another. :)
Well, this post reminds me of the journey of my favorite book. I refrain from writing about my personal life in my blog but I guess I am in a time and place in my life where I could, at least once afford that luxury!

"To Kill a Mocking Bird" is by far one of my most favorite books. I read it first when I was seventeen and I vividly remember sitting in the balcony of my third floor apartment in Pune, overlooking a really boring street below, reading that book. It was a gift from someone. It came all the way from Lausanne, Switzerland. Actually, now that I think of it, it came from from a credit card payment made in Switzerland. :) So let us say that it actually came from America. It was the first time ever in my life that I started getting gifts because I was "charming". :) I guess that was also one of the reasons why I liked that book so much.
I became the official spokes model for that book since that time. I gave it out as gifts to all my friends and the friendship that really made me read that book came to an end almost right after I read it! I even found myself getting angry at that book, but I couldn't. I read it about three times before I finally put it into the cupboard that showed off my reading!

A few years later, I got the opportunity to introduce another friend to it and it travelled all the way to Germany, I guess. I had a few good coffees after it came back to India but I just kept having coffees without getting the book back! :)
Then it was time for my friend to pack up and go away and in the last minute frenzy, my book was overlooked. Once again I turned into a grumpy old woman and just before I left for Australia my best friend got me a copy of the same book just to cheer me up! :)

I forgot all about it when I arrived here and dutifully immersed myself in a lot of article-reading. Then on my 25th birthday, I got a package that came all the way from America (again!) that contained a birthday card and my lost book! I think that kind of completed a full circle for the poor book which is I think almost ten years old now!
It sits on the shelf on my desk. Not as shiny as it looked before, but definitely full of character!
I think my copy of "To Kill a Mocking Bird" has been to more places than I have been to! I wonder what it would say if it could talk.
It would probably say in its old and shaky voice, "Sometimes, excuses make better reasons! I am one of them. "

I was very possessive about my books when I was in India. So much so that I even had fights with my dad over them but these days, I would be glad to give out all my books (except my Calvin and Hobbes) to whoever wants to read them. I think my copy of Mocking Bird taught me to be generous. :) Because there is a greater joy in meeting again after even the tiniest hope of meeting is lost. There is a bigger happiness in getting a fat fed-ex package from the other side of the world for something as stupid as a borrowed book. :)
It silently reinforces many beliefs that age and immaturity keep us away from!

Cheers to my book and for all the circumstances that made me write this post!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Kolhapuri Marathi

I am a week away from going to India for a holiday. :)

This is somehow making me more and more nostalgic.

I have always been really proud of the city that I was born in - Kolhapur. Every city has a personality. Like how Paris always reminds you of fashion and perfumes, Switzerland reminds you of chocolates,knifes and Roger Federer (how is he doing these days?) and Brisbane is for the Gabba and beeah (beer). In India too every city comes with her own aura.

Pune , the city that I grew up in is where everyone talks like a book. Even when they want to insult each other, Punekars tend to use "Kalidas" and "Shakespeare" from their arsenal of knowledge. Shopkeepers close their shops from 1pm-4pm in the afternoon (to enjoy an afternoon nap) and if you want to make "shrikhanda" when you expect people for a dinner on a weekday you have to schedule the "chakka" purchase taking Chitale Bandhu's convenience into account!
Everyone including the fruit seller in Phule Mandai to the ticket seller at the railway station think they are somebody really important and special, which would also explain my behavior at times. :)

However my birth city is a complete contrast to Pune and sometimes I am really glad that I got the opportunity to go away from Pune and look at it from a Kolhapuri's perspective. If you talk like a book in Kolhapur, they interrupt you (usually with swear words that would lose their charm if I use their English equivalents) and tell you that you are not normal. While talking like a book is not normal in Kolhapur, adding about 50 grams of red-hot chilly to 200 g of chicken curry is completely normal. However not being able to eat that (and breaking into cold sweat when attempting to do it) is completely abnormal. The assal Kolhapuri equivalents of all the internationally accepted swear words are thrown in into any conversation. Even when it is the galli-gossip going on between two women. So while a Puneri might turn into a red tomato with such bad language, it is extremely essential in the Kolhapuri conversations. During one of his most composed and contemplative moods, people would hear my grandfather reciting the Bhagwad Geeta. However, in moments of extreme anger or extreme pride he would join his fellow Kolhapuris in dispensing the usual bad language.

The most endearing aspect about Kolhapur is her laid-back attitude. Kolhapur is not Mumbai. Everyone has time for you. When I go and stay with my grandfather in his house in Kolhapur I just have to stand in the balcony to get dinner invites. While I am enjoying an easy cup of tea with ajoba, almost every person passing on the road below stops and talks to me for a few minutes and ends the conversation with a dinner invite. :)

Needless to say that it takes a lot of courage to accept a Kolhapuri's invitation, for most of the times the food is too hot to handle.
Some of my favorite places in Kolhapur are the Khasbag misal, the bhel-carts in Rajarampuri, a crazy little restaurant called "Vahini" somewhere in the city, the Mahalaxmi temple and everything around it and Rankala!!
I came across this video which best describes the spunk, innocence and happiness that this city radiates. :)

Just 7 more days to go! Yey!

Monday, November 03, 2008

From Kolhapur to Brisbane

I don't know about everybody else, but the memory of my existence starts from a very specific day in my life. I remember my life in discrete memory packets (such a geek!) from the time when I was two. It starts with a hot and humid May afternoon in Kolhapur. My granny was reading out stories from the Arabian Nights to me and I heard my cousin climb up the wooden steps. I think it was a Saturday and she finished school early. I was too young to go to school so every now and then, I used to be dispatched to Kolhapur to spend time with my grandparents. When I heard her foot-steps I was overjoyed (as a real playmate was better than imagining a dog with eyes the size of saucers) and I rushed out into the living room. What I saw is a permanent memory in the folds of my brain. My cousin was hopping up barefoot on the wooden steps because apparently she had removed her shoes on the street and accidentally stepped in dog-poo. 
When my aunt saw this, she rewarded her with a whack on the head and took her straight to the tap in the garden! 
Due to her soggy mood that continued in the later parts of the day, I had to get back to Arabian Nights. 
All my memories are associated with the stories that were read to me or the books that I read during those times of my life. Even the apparently idle and boring phases of my life have their share of books. :)

I started off with Arabian Nights and Aesop's Fables, which my grandmother used to read out to me at various times in a day. I thank her for her patience and willingness to open up my imagination and I thank the God of  Technology who was dormant in the 80s. This stopped the invasion of television in my life when it was least desired. I started reading pretty soon and graduated on to the usual fairy tales that all girls read. 
The later parts of my childhood are associated with the Adventures of Dennis, which has been one of my most favorite books. The copy that I had was a translation from Russian into Marathi and I think it was funnier than the English version. 
During this time ajji (my grandmom) continued her impalpable reading and introduced me to some of the finest work in Marathi literature. 
On hot summer evenings, we used to sit on the balcony of  the pretty house in Kolhapur and read plays. Sometimes ajji used to pick a character and my cousin and I used to pick our own. We would pass the book around and try and enact the play as if it were real! I read Sharda (G.B.Deval) and Ekach Pyala (R.G.Gadkari) during the summer holidays when I was around ten. With every summer break that came after that my taste in literature got one step further. Ajji slowly introduced me to Marathi poetry, which inspired me to write some of my own. She is a big fan of  Bha.Ra.Tambe and Suresh Bhat. 
During my early teenage years, our evening balcony sessions were full of poetry. One for each occasion! Needless to say that Marathi poetry and Marathi Natyasangeet go hand in hand. You have to learn to appreciate both in order to be a theatre-going-snob in Pune. My ajji is very creative and in order to make it all interesting for me she also included Acharya Atre's Zenduchi Phule in the poetry section. So every time she read out a sad and serious poem, she used to top it with the parody version that Acharya Atre came up with! That phase was indeed a lot of fun. 
My ajji was however "not-so-impressed" with Pu.La Deshpande. So my admiration for him grew only during the school sessions when I was in Pune with my other bibliophilic friends. I ventured into reading English literature only when I was about thirteen years old. Those were the "rebel" days of my life when I refused to go to Kolhapur and preferred to stay in Pune during my summer holidays to be with my friends. I guess that is just as much rebellion a middle-class Maharashtrian can get away with anyway!
 Although like all average school girls, I had my share of Nancy Drew from the school-library, I started reading seriously only when I turned into a teenager. Suddenly my life was filled with W.Somerset Maughm, Agatha Cristie, P.G.Wodehouse and a little bit of Wordsworth. However, I never really gave up on my pursuit of Marathi literature. As I found myself turning into a young woman, I was exceedingly fascinated by Marathi poets. Na.Dho.Mahanor and Kavi Grace were amongst them. My parents realized my inclination towards poetry and gave me an open road to chase whatever I wanted to. The fact that I was fascinated by abstract Grace or rustic love-poems by Mahanor when I was just fifteen never bothered my parents. I did feel a bit out of place because of my tastes in entertainment and I am pretty sure some of my school-friends thought I was a bit weird during those days. I turned into a loner for a while and this is when I read and loved all the poetry that I have ever read. Poetry has always connected me to people and I tend to get fascinated by people with a way with poetry. It doesn't matter if they make it or just say it!
During my days as a student of Chemical Engineering, my reading took a back-seat and it was seasoned only with the Harry Potter series (I have read and followed all the books and I avoid watching the movies because I have my own versions of Harry,Ron and Hermione in my head).As I eased into engineering however I began reading again and that phase was marked with a lot of Alpha to Omega series by Osho. This was something I picked up from my grandfather who did not play a major role in my childhood reading. He is a follower of philosophical writing and has read various versions of the ancient Indian scriptures, especially the upanishads. I also discovered Richard Bach during these years and read a couple of books by him which have made me think differently. Most of the Bhagwad Geeta I know is through the long (digressing) discourses from my grandfather in the wee hours of the morning. He loves getting up at 4 AM and if you wake up around that time he makes sure that you are turned into a disciple. Although I dozed off in between his metaphors (and ajji's heart filled with pity) I am really glad I was introduced to it by someone like him.
These days reading is not as regular as it used to be because of long patches of research reading. However these days I am reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is an analysis of human thinking!
I think that you are what you are because of the people you grow up around. I was fortunate enough to have enough romanticism, philosophy and science around me. It has helped me see everything there is and also choose what I like. My reading buddies (ajji,aai,baba,Neha and Ameya) have helped me develop my own personal culture. When you are away from home, your personal culture is one of the most important means of survival and progress!
I am grateful for this journey!

Friday, October 17, 2008

PhD Moods

Doctor of Patience - When you write unidirectional emails and wait outside your supervisor's office to get your report read.

Doctor of Procrastination - When you keep counting "Days Left For the Presentation" and feeling good when you multiply the figure by 24. :)

Doctor of Paranoia - When you imagine yourself being deported to India because the examination committee found a typo in your report!

Doctor of Paraphrasing - When you condense a 8000 word report to 4000 words and it still means everything that it meant before.

Doctor of Persuasion - When you persuade yourself to go on with your research by giving reasons like "This is going to be the next big thing the world will witness"( Hahahaha! Dream on!!!)

Doctor of Pandemonium- When you have to look into your shoe rack for the article on dissociation chemistry of ionic solvents in front of your supervisor.

Doctor of Presentation - When you think that you can distract the jury from your erroneous experiments by wearing Chanel no.5.
Doctor of Pedagogy - When you find yourself giving flawless advice to fresh PhD students about things that you yourself had to resubmit three times.

Doctor of Poverty - When everything including your haircut and pre-paid recharge is scheduled in concert with your next pay-day.

Doctor of Philanthropy - When you vacate seats in trains and help old men cross roads in a hope that God adds this credit Karma to the completion of your thesis.

....And Doctor of Philosophy - When you actually start believing in consoling quotes like "Failure is the first step towards success" because you would go insane if you don't! :)

Friday, October 03, 2008

Happy Birthday PurpleMoon

It has been two years today!!

I hope it goes on.

Thank You all for the inspiration!


Monday, September 29, 2008

Talking Science

I don't like scientific, technical writing. Period. 
Apart from the fact that everything has to be accompanied by a proof which is enough to discourage disorganized article-readers like me it is amazingly boring. I read articles at train stations and due to the chronic absence of stapler at my desk, I sometimes leave half of my reference on the dining table. Then when I come to work I always have a pathological longing to write about the parts that have been left on the dining table. 
Scientific writing for me is like dressing up a beautiful gypsy woman in a black work-suit. Make her wear pointy heels even though she is used to walking barefoot on the grass. There is no room for being quirky. 
I remember when I first got my solvents to experiment with, one of them had a "strong repulsive odor" ( yeah that is how I have to describe it). Initially, because it had a long chemical formula which was a bit of tongue-twister, I labeled it "the stinky IL" in my lab-book.I got so used to that name that I mentioned it by mistake in one of our supervisor-student meetings and Les, my supervisor was genuinely amused. 
I get criticized time and again for my writing style which incorporates more freedom than it should. I try to keep it normal though.
These days since I am writing up for a report I keep thinking of boring words on my way in and way out. Simple rules like replacing the word "explore" with "investigate". I tend to have more "compares" and "evaluates" in my mind. I am off reading Calvin and Hobbes for the past two weeks and I invest my time reading NewScientist over lunch. 
Honestly though, sometimes technical writing is a bit too pretentious. It is a bit bewildering when someone fills an article with something like,"It is highly unlikely that this theory of randomization would not appear to agree with the other three theories published on the matter". I honestly hate the use of the word "highly" and "unlikely" together just to top it with something like "would not" later. 
You feel like saying, "Oh come on dude! Just say that your stupid theory agrees with everything published before! I am on a serious caffeine dosage here!" 
I think one of the most serious impediments in the enrichment of the knowledge database of PhD students is the resistance offered by phrases like "juxtaposition of associated variables" or "aberrant variations in the conductivity of ionic solutions". I know the meanings of all these words ( reading up for GRE never goes waste) but when they combine in those kind of poisonous combinations, the result is always soporific. 
I have also observed that it does not matter how funky your work actually is as long as you can go on and on about it in combinations of above mentioned words, everyone thinks you are the reincarnation of Einstein. 
The best way to describe the physical appearance of my dissolution experiments for example, is "Poo from a dog with a tummy upset". Of course this is stretching it a bit too far I know but when I write it down I have to say, " the end result of the dissolution experiment is a dark brown low viscosity fluid". Now anyone would remember it more the first way than the second. 
When I get a nice infra red peak I feel like calling it , "beautiful, slim peak at 1700" but instead I have to call it attenuated or sharp. 
It is one thing doing experiments and another writing about them! For in the lab, you always see people talking to their reactions. 
"Look at my HPLC data!! Isn't it absolutely gorgeous? Aww you little funny peak there! How cute you look in this clear background!"
Or sometimes when something is not happening,"Come on you little piece of S***. Turn brown!! That is what I want!!"
In the end however, as much fond as you are of all the little reactions that you make,when you write it down it turns just as tasteless as the paper that it is printed on!
God help me finish this report!!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Leela and Mayah

I keep coming back to Osho all the time.
I read this story in one of the Alpha to Omega books by Osho which talk about the teachings of Patanjali.
Once Bodhidarma went to China and the emperor of China went to see him. He went to him and said that his mind was really restless and he wanted have a peaceful mind.
Bodhidharma asked him to bring his mind first with him. When the emperor heard this he said,"Don't be ridiculous. My mind is with me. It goes where ever I go".
To which Bodhidharma replied, " Okay so you are certain that your mind is inside you. Now I would just like you to point it out to me. Just close your eyes and show me where it is and I will make it peaceful".
The emperor closed his eyes but he could not find his mind. He realized that it was actually a process not an organ. He opened his eyes and told Bodhidharma that he could not find it.
Bodhidharma smiled and said," It is at peace as long as you can't find it".

True Yoga is the situation of no-mind.

The life of a common man is such a farce. There is a mess of present to deal with. Thoughts ranging from,"Is my milkman adding water to the milk?" ( Excuse me for this metaphor for I do not remember seeing a milk man since I was six!) to "I think I should get a better car than my best friend". We are fed up with so many small things all the time and then in between all this chaos there are moments of joy. When we come home from a tiring day at work and our kids show us what they painted at school. Or walking home hand in hand with our beloved ( even though we fought about being hypersensitive just last night).
Then there is tomorrow. The glossy, scented tomorrow that is almost certainly going to be better than today.
All of this is created and pre-lived and relived by the mind and we can't even point it out!
If my knee hurts, I know exactly where the pain lies but when my mind hurts I can never really figure out where to apply my Tiger Balm!
So sometimes, walking back home under a nice starry sky, I find myself secretly wishing that it would be so much better if I did not have a mind!
Everything would be easy. I would not "mind" most of the things that I usually "mind".
It is such a surreptitious word! You don't realize how much you use it unless you put it in quotes. :)

Most of my Western friends here think that this whole idea of no-mind and not chaining yourself to tomorrow is full of inertia! The West is ambitious ( they always have their armies ready to invade!). They can logically explain to you why it is essential to keep moving ahead in life ( by finding better jobs, better homes and better women for yourselves!). It all makes sense. It is true but all this mathematics is a function of mind again! Like some nasty mathematical functions, mind goes in loops as well. Money loops, Power loops and Sex loops.

I really appreciate the word "Mayah" that the Indian philosophy has given us. I like the words "Mayah" and "Leela" alike. Mayah is the illusion that we have thrown ourselves into with our minds.
It makes everything seems logical and right. All our chases are justified ( even though it is an oil chase in Iraq neatly labeled as "war on terror"). Unless we pull ourselves out of it we do not realize what a mirage it is and the only way we can do that is by being without a mind for a while.
"Leela" on the other hand is a nice and happy word. It does not have the kohl-lined-gold-dusted black eyes of Mayah.
If Mayah is the evasive beauty ( that is about seventy five percent silicon), Leela is the little girl that runs up and down the steps reciting a Sanskrit poem for fun!
Leela is the rabbit that jumps out of the magicians hat.
Mayah, is really God's Leela just to keep his little kids busy with something to do! Only some of them realize that they have been given balls of wool to play with and I think Patanjali was one of them!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


The author of this blog is (supposed to be) busy gearing up for a "show us what you did with our money for a year" report. Sincere apologies for not being regular!

Over a long period of about ten years, I had confirmed that I am among the top two percent when it comes to "interesting" people. There are certain basic things that you need to be very confident about ( without sounding like a big show off) and being an interesting person is certainly one of them. I should specify that I mean interesting in all the absolute form and not like a substitute for saying, "This word is a polite way of barfing".
I am also confident about other things without any doubt or fake humility. For example,I know I am fit. I know that I know enough exotic words in English to freak out an average Australian. :)

However, sometimes you come across one little moment in your life that makes you wonder if you have in fact all these days been  living an illusion. Not that it really matters for I believe that life is an illusion anyway! Most of my "certain" conclusions are God's "Joke of the Day". 
I must confess though that I am not particularly proud of this disillusion. 
I went into my stats class one day ( equipped with skillfully "made" up jokes on the probability theory) and began my lecture. Twenty minutes into it ( As I was firing away at sixty words per minute) I saw my student phasing out. I thought it was just one of those paranoid imaginations of mine and went on. Ten minutes later I saw him look down for a while and then jerk up as though he had just realized that he was supposed to do something. Then every five minutes later he would jerk again and it took me about three sets of these kind of jerks to realize that he was trying to ward off sleep. It was an outright insult! 
So what if I am talking about mutually exclusive events! Isn't that interesting when I tell you little (sad) stories about blondes and brunettes belonging to two mutually exclusive sets??!!
Every time he tried to fight sleep I remembered how much time and effort I had taken to make this lecture more interesting and it indeed was! At least in my bathroom mirror with toothbrush in one hand! 
One hour into it and I became really depressed all of a sudden. I had this massive cloud of sadness looming over me. I asked him to go out and get a coffee. He didn't even let me finish the word coffee. While he was on a break, I found myself googling the words "probability" and "fun" together. The results were too complicated for me to understand and actually figure out what the fun part was. So I decided to stick to my practiced version. It is funny how when you are teaching, time flies and when you are being taught it goes at a pregnant snail's pace. So even before I could finish figuring out what to say next he was back which meant hope in capital letters. So I went on for about thirty minutes more and realized that coffee had no effect on his alertness. 
When I finally got out of the room, I could not find my way back to my desk because my eyes were fogged with self-doubt! 
Honestly, am I that bad? Is everyone around me fooling me? Am I being used without my knowledge for a reality (?) show? 
Although he did say before he left that he was playing video games on play station all night ( which is a legally accepted excuse in universities these days) I still found it hard to accept that someone could be so innocent about sleeping in a one-on-one tuition. 
I felt like I had taken an exam and I knew I was going to fail even before the results were out ( I know that feeling very well but I think this feeling was worse) .
I walked around with a long face for two days but I had to pull myself together for my next class. I did. This time I had to teach "History of Life on Earth" and I tried to relate it to everyday life by using this .
We had a laugh but it was still difficult to keep him entertained. 
So I have one less illusion to deal with now. I hope God compensates me for this one soon. Maybe by making me realize that I can actually swim three kilometers in an hour! =)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Blogger's Block

I have been getting emails and phone calls from people because I have not posted anything new in a long time! I must accept that all the extra work that I have recently taken up has made my writing take a back seat and also whenever I really do get time, it is hard to get inspired. 
I think to be a good writer or a poet, you have to be either extremely rich ( complete with a butler who brings in meals while you write melancholy sonnets for a fictional lover) or extremely poor ( where words are a way to get distracted from a dwindling bank balance). When you are somewhere in the middle like me, life is full of little challenges but completely devoid of the one big struggle that makes you famous. 
I remember a story from my childhood. I was a really timid kid. I used to be scared of not completing my homework on time or even something as silly as a dance exam that I was not well prepared for. Before every exam I used to get nervous and paranoid. In one of my fits of unreasonable fears, my grandfather ( who is I guess the most well-read man in my life) recited a poem in Marathi
It was written by an apparently ambitious, young poet. In his poem, the poet was planning to turn the Earth over ( I really don't know what the point is in doing that since it is a sphere), bringing the Heaven on Earth ( I guess we could all do with this, but if we can get the same feeling in two beers what's the point again?) and he was going to stop the Chakra ( wheel)  of  Time to get what he wanted. My grandfather sang it in his glass-shattering voice trying to reinforce some confidence in me. It worked for a while and I calmed down. Then I asked him who this poet was. Ajoba narrated some of his other ( equally ambitious) poems and said that the poet should have lasted longer because he died at the age of twenty four from tuberculosis! 
I think that day I made up my mind about not writing anything that could turn out to be ironically funny after I die. 
Poetry is a complex molecule. It can only be synthesized under an intense emotional atmosphere. So my current lifestyle that comprises mostly of events like buying a second-hand fridge, finding a new flatmate, filing in an annual progress (?) report, making sure I have enough vegetables in my diet and teaching a reluctant student 'History of Life on Earth' is hardly conducive for poetry. 
I was never really a soap-opera person. So weaving intricate extra-marital affairs is also out of question. 
Humor however was always my domain but humor is like the Yoga of writing. 
Unless you breathe well and relax, you don't really get good at humor. It takes a lot of contemplation really to be able to bring out the funny side of life. 
So unless I relax, I don't think I will be able to get over this Bloggers's Block! =)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why I started teaching.

I am a confirmed caffiene junkie.
Every morning as I get down from the train, I take hypnotic steps towards the coffee shop on the bridge. All the coffee-shop owners around the University know me by my first name and some of them have also started talking to me in Hindi now. When I pay them, they say 'Shukriya' in a cute Australian accent. I never add my weekly coffee expenses to know how much money I spend on coffee a month, only because the answer would leave me unnecessarily guilty.I like ignoring that number although I have a faint idea of the neighborhood it falls into.
Anyway, it so happened that they decided to cancel the casual jobs in the laboratory due to budget concerns and I lost my second job. I was brought down to being an authentic poor student living on a scholarship and gradually reality began unfolding herself in the form of depleting savings in my bank account.
So every time I stopped for a cup of mocha or cappucino I used to feel horribly guilty.
There is a sane inner voice inside that used to say," Stop drinking coffee. You don't need a second job if you do". I never listened to it though. Every morning,I used to decide that I would walk past the coffee shop without buying coffee but somehow my shoes took a left turn on their own and my hand pulled out my little coin purse from my bag and the residual guilt was taken care of by the bright "How are you going?" of the coffee guy.
I actually began looking for a second job so that I could have my coffee in peace. My friends asked me to apply in the same coffee shop as I fit the bill of a really chirpy coffee girl. I took it really seriously and mentioned it to the coffee shop owner the next day but he very gracefully turned me down saying," Oh I would love to! All you have to do is get a coffee-making certificate by attending a full time course worth $900". So all my imaginary free coffees were flushed down the river.
I desperately wanted to do something outside the campus. I imagined myself as a waitress,a subway girl, librarian,part-time writer ( get paid to write!!) and sometimes in my greedy reveries even a casual bus driver ( Thank God for not granting it). However most of these exotic fantasies turned out to be happy miscarriages and I was thrown on to the usual PhD student path. I printed my resume out and applied for a tutoring position. After a long painful wait ( that was assauged by regular doses of extravagant coffee) I was appointed a tutor and assigned statistics.
Initially enthralled by the absence of guilt first thing in the morning, I jumped on to all the statistics books I could lay my hands on in the library. However soon I realized that to cope with teaching and research at the same time, I needed some extra caffeine everyday and I had happily assumed that my students would never ask any difficult questions.
Now I am almost always stuck in the university till late at night and people find me walking into walls trying to multi task by walking and reading for my next class at the same time!
I am glad that coffee lead me to take this up. :)
Had I listened to the sane voice inside I would have never found out the joy of teaching.
As a student, I would never go through everything like I do now and sit down with my calculator to go over the silliest of all formulae and sometimes I amuse myself with the metaphors I come up with to explain boring concepts like 'standard deviation'.
I went through a really nervous night before my first class ( and it was worse than going for an exam). I spent hours in front of the bathroom mirror reahersing my opening lines and I bored almost everyone in the lab by doing trial runs of my first lecture on them.
As a result my Mondays and Fridays have come frightfully close to each other and weekends are full of lab-work. Now I do not feel guilty about buying coffee but I am really worried about a whole bunch of other things! What can I do? This is life. All of this just for a cup of coffee!! ;)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Happily Free

What does freedom really mean? 
I read this really interesting article in the Times of India a few weeks back about freedom. 
The wheel is considered to be one of the ground breaking inventions that man has ever made. It took us places and it still does but we would not like to have wheels without brakes! 
Imagine getting a cool sports car that goes from zero to a hundred and fifty in a couple of seconds but does not have any braking system! 
Even the wildest and the most inebriated drivers would not like to have something that does not stop! 
I think after the first few speeding tickets, freedom becomes more of a choice to stop than the choice to go on! 

It makes me very proud sometimes to stand under the Australian sky and say that I am free to do whatever I want! However at times when I am faced with too many choices, I call up my mom and cry on the phone. It is really funny to see yourself in  both the roles. There are moments when you think that life should have just come as a set menu. It would not be so exciting but at least it would be secure. 

This week, all the girls from the postgrad room here had organized a "girl's night out". It started with four of us getting lost and going round in a loop around the motorway because none of us could read the map right! Anyway, when I was chatting with all of them I realized how powerful and free women can be. One of us has been traveling around since she was seventeen. Originally from Latin America, she traveled her way around working for various organizations from Mexico, Sweden and a few other countries finally settling in Australia. It fills me with respect and dreams when I see someone like her. At the same time, all of them thought and spoke out of their obligations as mothers and wives. Some of them had left their babies in daddy's care just for this special night out!

Sometimes, just because you are scared of losing your freedom, you miss out on some of the happiest experiences of life. This is when freedom really ties you down. 
I think being free is a big responsibility in itself. Where you have to constantly think of the consequences of your actions and how your life could change because of the choices you make. Some reactions are irreversible and more often than not it leaves you less innocent! It gets you bored because there is nothing new that you could try! It makes you old sooner and it puts this huge burden on your heart that I cannot even describe in words. 

You need a very flexible ego to be happily free. :) 
Being without one is even better for it makes you look at your sixes and dot balls with equal ( or no) passion. :)

It helps and it hurts but if you just know when to stop, I think it is a beautiful journey!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Biff :)

I have bought myself a 5 movie ticket to the Brisbane International Film Festival .
Although it is not as much fun as it used to be even in the national film festivals in India, it has been a really nice experience. 
The way an Indian reacts to the word "movie" is different than everyone else. Movies are just like the languages in India are, full of flavor and entertainment. 
We watched  a documentary by Brillante Mendoza that follows an ordinary family in the slums of Manila taking care of an orphan until he gets adopted by a wealthy family in the US. It was as easy as being with all the characters. The concept of being a "foster family" was portrayed with complete frankness and fluidity. It made me smile and cry in various places and it also made a mark in my mind because of the uncanny resemblance of the slums to the ones in India. The contrast where you can see high rise buildings going up right behind the abject poverty in the slums makes you think of Mumbai. 
Amongst the four that I have already watched, I loved a Spanish documentary titled "The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab". This is a really intensive expression of a Spanish chef preparing for something that can be called "The Olympics of Chefs" - The Bocuse d'Or that is held annually  in Lyon( France).
The contestants are supposed to work with Chicken, Fish and a King Crab and make delicacies that please a panel of jury. The best gets the award. 
It was really amusing to watch "food" which is a really trivial issue ( especially for poor graduate students) turn into something that challenges every tiny amount of energy you have!
The rehearsals were hilarious when Jejus ( the lead actor) cooked as though he was cooking in the competition and was reviewed by a panel of Spanish chefs in his restaurant. Every time he has to face a different kind of criticism. Sometimes the sauce is not good enough, sometimes the skins are too thick. They ridicule his sense of art and in the end even criticize the tray that he is supposed to use for the competition. 
The competition in itself is a big event with people from all the participating countries cheering on with flags and banners. 
Since it is a documentary, Jejus does not win the competition in a dramatic Bollywoody way! He comes ninth and happily goes around showing everyone that he is the ninth best chef in the world! 
I really liked the idea because it is refreshing how movies can be made on anything and everything under the sun and still end up entertaining us. 

Being in this festival also gave me the satisfaction of watching movies back to back and actually feeling good about myself because I was "doing" a lot of "culture" :).
It also reminded me of Pather Panchali, Bhuvan Shome, Umbartha, Anand, Masoom, Doghi and a lot more that has gone into me while I was in India. :)
I did miss the typical crowd that you find at such fests in India. A lean man in a khadi kurta with Kolhapuri chappals and a godforsaken shabnam bag. Who smokes every time he goes for a coffee between the breaks. And the graceful middle aged woman draped in a cotton saree with a big bindi between her brows! 

Nonetheless I am glad it made me think of all of this!!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mangala Mami

I was baking a fruit cake today. 
One cup flour.
Half a cup each of sugar and butter.
Almonds.Raisins. Sultanas. 
As the kitchen filled with smells of fruit and nuts it took me down the memory lane once again. 
I was fifteen years old and I rode all the way to the IUCAA residential campus on my Atlas bicycle. It was a long way from my place but I loved it because it took me to one of the happy places in my life. It was Mangala mami's house. 
She is better known as the wife of my mom's cousin Jayant Narlikar but for me she has been the switch that turns on all the positive energy in you. Her house used to be fragrant with fresh baking at any given time of the year. She is an artist who was misled into being a mathematician and a really good one at that! I used to go to her place to study maths but it was the least of my interests then ( and I think even now). I was terrible in mathematics and if anyone has successfully made me think of that branch of science ( is it science really?) with some sympathy and compassion, it is Mangala mami. Just to explain how the medians of a triangle can be extended to make many more identical triangles, she once showed me the picture of hundreds of horses fixed into each other like a jigsaw. I never really remembered the triangles but I still remember the picture frame on her wall.
She is a perpetual student and her everyday life is filled with learning little things. My uncle goes around the world as a visiting lecturer in Universities everywhere. She comes back with a new recipe from every country. 
Conversations with Narlikars are really amusing. Jayant mama is frugal with words but whatever little he says is always one of the best jokes of the evening. Mangala mami does all the talking. She has something to say about everything. Whether it is the best place to get red meat in Pune or quotations from the Bhagwad Geeta! She will infuse your minds with bits of refreshing information as she brews a cup of tea with real gardenia flowers. Some smells get locked in your memory with certain incidents. The smell of gardenia flowers and french roses always reminds me of her. 
Sometimes, little things seem really daunting for me. At such times I have pictures of few strong women I have seen in my mind. Mangala mami is one of them. She raised three beautiful daughters and took care of demanding in laws as gracefully as she used to do a postulate on a piece of paper. Her slanting, pretty handwriting that never saw the limitations of margins. She used to write at the speed of light, giving neat "therefore" and "since" signs between all the lines and even saying it all aloud. She was expected to stay at home in the conservative and "cultured" Huzurbazar ( my granny's family) tree.  However you could see her  sitting on the lawn with all the servant's kids teaching them maths. Many of them ended up clearing their junior college exams and getting degrees. 
She is dressed in pastel colored saris and her hair is always falling out of the clip that she wears. Her fragile, porcelain hands and her spectacles that run halfway down on her nose make her one the most charming figures I have ever seen in my life. 
Get her talking about gardening and her face lights up. 
When her ever-so-strict mother-in-law was on her deathbed, Mangala mami encouraged her to walk by giving her one point for every step she took. It brought tears to our eyes to see the happiness on the terminally ill woman's face when Mangala mami gave her two bonus points for taking that extra step. The love of flowers runs in the family too and during her very last days Mangala mami wheeled her mother-in-law outside just to see the jasmine bloom. 

She would have her daughter's friends come over to get their difficulties solved in order to appear for competitive exams. She used to have her legendary "classes" at the dining table. With the oven buzzer going once in a while and her lectures happily intercepted by fruit cakes and tea. 
She goes round the world these days but she writes to me from everywhere she goes. 
When I wrote to her a few days back to get this recipe off her, she merrily wrote back from Johannesburg airport. 

Ten years ago, as I sat at the big dining table in the Narlikar house, eating my big piece of cake awkwardly as was trying to make sense out of a theorem, I would have never thought that I would be baking the same kind of cake one day. Now, as my house smells like orange peel and rum, I thank God for giving me someone like her to think about!!
Thanks Mangala mami!! I wish I could do better than this for you!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Two Brave Ajjis

(It is July and I am putting on a year but this time, instead of being a drama queen and complaining about it I have decided to write about some of my fondest memories as a child. Please excuse the length!! )

My early days of childhood were a bit puzzling due to the presence of two grandmas on mother's side. I was told to call them Tai-Ajji and Kusum-Ajji. Kusum ajji was the calm and serene one who used to read and write. Who used to walk around the house and no one could hear the sound of her feet on the floor. Tai-ajji was the one who filled the house with laughter. She stormed in and stormed out of the rooms and always smelled like cloves. She wore a big kunku on her forehead that was meticulously made by sticking vermilion powder on an exact round plaster of bee-wax. I used to get up early sometimes to watch her make it on her forehead.
When I spent my holidays in Kolhapur and sometimes caught a viral infection, I used to long to hug Tai-ajji and sleep and I can still remember how her sarees used to smell like burnt wood from the bath water that was heated on an earthen stove in the backyard.
It took me several innocent and happy years to realize that in reality she was my mom's step-mother and even now, as I write that word, I feel like I am describing an ugly,hairy mole on her face. All my uncles on my mother's side are my mother's step-brothers but it was so hard to relate the word "step" from the Cinderella story to the word "step" in our house-hold. I still regret the day I found it out, although I do not remember when and how I found out. Maybe it was through the afternoon bicycling sessions with my cousin, who was two years older and made sure that any new information about life reached my head right after it reached hers.

It was so unfair to put Tai-ajji in the class of angry step mothers from the stories I heard from my mom. She raised my mom like a daughter she never had. Took her along everywhere she went which included the houses of her "rich and famous" friends from the Marathi Film Industry that was booming in Kolhapur at that time. I honestly believe that if Tai-ajji had received any kind of advanced education, she would surely end up being a politician. She had the charm and charisma of a glib speaker and the ability to hold anyone in place with her sharp sense of humor. She even got my mom a small role in one of the Marathi movies made by her friend's husband and everyone remembers my mom from the film Dharmakanya.
All my mom's little dreams of tamarind and cucumbers outside the school, of watching Dilip Kumar movies and playing with marbles until the day went off were fulfilled by Tai-ajji.
Every time I think about the relationship between my mom's two moms, I am full of awe. They obviously never liked each other but the circumstances were such that they had to live in the same house while my grandfather was away for his jobs.
The house was big enough to fit three families, so space was not a problem but the crowding took place in everybody's minds. Each of the children including my uncles grew up with their own version of "My Father's Second Marriage".
They blamed and complained, sometimes, even used it as a blackmail but both the women stood dignified as ever. Kusum-ajji draped in her pristine silence and Tai-ajji in her merry laughter.

Tajee, as I called her fondly, had an army of friends. She would have put Orkut and Facebook to shame with her social networking. She helped people meet other people when they were in need. She always had a gang of "ill-behaved" old women around her. Who cracked mischievous
jokes like they were twenty years old.
She was also fond of keeping a nice garden. Roses, Gardenia,Frangipani,Dahlias and Tuberoses! Her garden was always blooming with something fragrant. She was also fond of keeping everything in order. She had pictures from years ago neatly pasted in a yellowed album. Her things had character. Even if she kept a little ten rupee note in her purse, when it came out it was Tai-ajjified.
Owing to my parent's hectic schedules and lack of leaves, Tai-ajji came to Pune every time I succumbed to measles or chickenpox. Away from school, safe in her hands, my sick days used to be the happiest days of the year. She used to leave a big pot with water under the sun and at dusk bathe me in it with Neem leaves. At six in the evening, both of us waited at the door for aai to come back from the institute. Then the three of us would have a relaxed cup of tea in the front yard listening to aai's proceedings of the day.
Whether it was moving houses, weddings of close relatives or just making lots of pickles before the summer got over, Tai-ajji was always a part of our lives. Even more so than Kusum-ajji.
When I think of her, a full spectrum of colours flashes in front of my eyes. She was a rainbow.
Every happy memory is somehow associated with her.
She also had a set of funny stories that all her grandchildren made her repeat over and over again. She let us eat half-dried rice papads as all the moms and aunts tried to shoo us away. She let us sneak out of the house when the sun was pouring anger and have popsicles.
When the girls came of age, she bought them all little things that she would want them to have as grown up women.
She loved my mom. I cannot fathom how she managed to have that kind of happiness in her heart when it came to my mom. It was not hypocrisy because I felt it when she was around me. It either takes immense courage or an innocent heart to do that. She never liked Kusum-ajji and was equally verbal about her dislike for her but how and why she ended up loving my mom so much is a big mystery.

I saw various facets of jealousy and humanity through them and then I came to envy my grandfather for being the man in the lives of two incredible women. How greedily we hold on to little things in life! Our happiness eclipsed by the fears of sorrow and our sorrows half-lived in the hope of happiness. Paralyzed by the uncertainties of things to come and ridiculously helpless we are, for we fear sharing spaces with people trying to own people we love! On this background, the mental image of my little mom holding Taji's little finger to get on a bus seems from a dream.

Kusum-ajji never defended her place. She took it all silently. The anger, the hatred and the scandalized 1950s that never saw a divorce, although a lot of illegal second marriages. She prayed and put all her efforts into turning my mother who she is today. A silent, powerful woman raising another one. Kusum-ajji was all about poetry and classic humor. Well-read and well-bred, she came from a lineage of scholars and mathematicians, and just like her family, she was as humble as humility could ever be.
I cannot imagine why my grandfather would like two women who are poles apart and still be loved equally by both.
People get colors of sacrifice and they add up to make you fall in love every passing day. I think the three of them were somewhat like that. They all liked each other for various things and somehow they were all glad that each one had their position in a house full of three confused and angry sons and a little lost daughter.

When Taji was about to die and she was being taken into the hospital, she made my grandfather put the same big red kunku on her forehead, as though she was sure she would never come back. She was being taken into the ICU when she told the doctors to let her die if she was going to be rendered disabled. She passed away cracking jokes with the nurses and the doctors. True to her spirit. We all miss her.
I miss her the most when I walk by the garden and get a whiff of gardenia!!
Thanks Taji, in your way, you have taught me the most difficult lessons of life. :)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

We just share!

My friends here keep having discussions about "communal living". 
Sometimes, when we are late in the lab and my friend's flatmate calls him to tell him what he is going to make for dinner, my friend goes," Who needs a wife when you have a flatmate who cooks for everyone exactly at seven?".
Housing in Brisbane is freakishly expensive. You pay somewhere between $400 to $500 a week for a decent house. It is easier with roomies though. When you can divide the cost of a three bedroom house between three people and share a kitchen.
Sometimes, you are blessed with flatmates who turn into best friends and living together becomes a constant party. When my firang friends go into one of these "futuristic" discussions about communal living, I feel like it is more like going retrograde. 

How about the Chawls in Mumbai? As a kid, I was fascinated by Pula Deshpande's accounts of the Chawls in Girgaon. Complete with fights at the water tap and young Gavaskar's honing their batting skills in the common chowk. People making booming families in a 10X10 room and neighbors being there for each other in every difficulty. 
The Westerners think that not giving children separate bedrooms has serious effects on their development but I think a moderate amount of communal living that has been going on in India in the form of joint families and chawls has actually helped people more than it has harmed them.
When we live close to people, happiness is shared and so is grief. 
We learn to look at ourselves as a little part of a big family, which is a close estimation of the reality around us. When everything we use, belongs only to us, it sometimes translates into our attitude towards people in our lives as well. 
Getting noticed in a crowd is harder, so we learn to develop something that sets us apart, more often than not, a great sense of humor.
Who can beat the innumerable cups of hot chai at each other's place? Card games going into the wee hours, broken hearts across broken balconies! Watching your childhood sweetheart get dressed for her wedding and leave with someone else, and your friends urging you not to miss the feast just because you think you are heart broken!
Chawl gossip must have eliminated the need for a television for ages and how many recipes must have been exchanged by neighbors from across the country trying to find their destinies in a metro!
I think for all the people who grew up in these intriguing paper-houses, the house left a bit of a character in them as well. I agree that it must be hard, but I absolutely disagree with the thought that it isn't healthy. 
In a country like India, you may not get as much privacy and space as you want but you definitely get a lot of other things that no other place can offer and how much place do we really need? Just enough to forget the abysmal loneliness that an empty heart makes. 
As my best friend puts it, "We are not here to own anything. We just share."

Thursday, July 03, 2008


When I came to Australia, I wasn't exactly expecting that I would make a lot of friends right away. Somehow, I found friendship pretty soon with my flatmates Shruti and Riju.
However, I write this blog on Riju because she is one of the funniest and happiest characters in our lives.
Riju aka Rabdi Devi hails from Patna. She is complete with a glass-shattering voice and a Bihari accent that you cannot miss. A compulsive cleanliness freak, she kicks you out of the kitchen because she likes to wash dishes "her way".
Well, some of the evidently (un)cool things she has taught me are the Bihari Muhawras one for each exceedingly embarrassing occasion in your life.
Like once Shruti came out of her room with a posh dress and not-so-posh pair of osho chappals. Our Rabdi Devi sat on the couch like a Badshah and went ' yeh to jaise hum kahate Upar Phit-Phat aur neeche Mokama Ghat"
( Mokama ghat apparently is a not-so-posh area in Bihar).
When I go on my legendary diets and skip carbohydrates for dinner she goes," Saee tumhe itna marenge baba ka bariyati dikhadenge".
When I don't find something I am looking for and it is right under my nose, she goes," Eh dekho ..aankh ke andhe naam nayansukh" ( Which is really true in my case because I keep getting compliments on my eyes).
When I fell sick a few months back, she put a black thread in front of the "Gods" in our house
(which is a nice cocktail from the North through the South of India) and tied it on to my wrist the next morning.
I have successfully picked up the nice Bihari accent and when I speak Hindi now, I speak fluent Bihari Hindi.
I keep speaking my mind when she is around and sometimes I accidentally tell her what the next item on my wish-list is. Then on a Sunday when I return home from the lab I find a Nike Yoga mat or a purple bandana waiting for me with suppressed giggles.
Cooking and grocery shopping with her is a pleasure. She taught me how to be economical. :)
Although I have still not learned it well, I do think of her reaction when I end up spending too much and check myself sometimes.
She recently got a good job in a child care center so she comes home and practices being "stern" with me these days. :)
Her determination and the sheer kindness in her heart makes her an extraordinary woman.
She is one of the people I thank God for. For without her, Australia would not have been so pretty for me. :)
Cheers Riju. Keep Rocking!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gods Behaving Badly

I came across this really creative book written by Marie Phillips.
It puts all the Greek Gods in 21st century London. All of them live together in a dilapidated old house and each of them has a day job. Aphrodite works as a phone-sex operator. Dionysus works as a bartender and a DJ. Artemis, the Goddess of hunting works as a professional dog walker!
They all are fed up living in the same house together and conserving their powers ( because they are no longer as powerful as they used to be in the olden times). Apollo , the Sun God, works as a substandard TV star and tries to entice mortal women (unsuccessfully) to change his painfully boring sex life. ( Apparently he is sad about the fact that Aphrodite is flawlessly beautiful for over three hundred years and making love is like recurring de ja vu!)
When Apollo's advances are turned down by mortals, he uses his powers to turn them into trees. When the other Gods find out about this, they make him swear on Styx that he will not use his powers to get even with sexual insults for a decade and the story takes a very funny turn when he actually breaks it and the Sun goes out.
Although it sounds somewhat like "Harry Potter for Adults" and it gets progressively predictable towards the end I was genuinely amused by the central idea.
It is crisp in places and I think it is really well researched as well. It comes with a British sense of humor so it is really hilarious in places.
It got me thinking, what if someone writes a book like this on Indian Gods. All the cities would be closed down at the same time.
There would be black flags outside the writer's house and a few Shiv Sainiks would beat the hell out of him when he goes out to get milk one morning. There would be a row over how the sentiments of Indian people have been hurt because of the contents of the book. Aaj-Tak would get lot of material for their "Breaking news" and they would leave Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan alone for a while.
Historians would protest because one group of historians would disagree with the order of Lord Krishna's 15886th wife.
The Shaivs and Vaishnavs would start fighting with each other because each one claims that their God was insulted more than the other's. There would be riots in some parts of Mumbai and a few buses would be burnt down.
The writer would be kept under house arrest with about fifty jobless protesters posted outside his house at any given moment.
All of this would get him on the best selling list and all his relatives reaching to his unborn great grandchildren would be ensured enough money to squander without getting a serious job ever in their lives.
With 33 billion Gods available to write about, it is a really juicy option!!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Viju Kaka

I had a unique childhood.  I had by some strange conspiracy of planets, some of the most intriguing people as a part of my early years. Viju kaka was one of them.
I remember him through the eye-span of a five year old so he was one of my heroes. He was around forty and single and lived in a queer little room in a chawl in Chimanbag. His room smelled of cigarettes  but I never felt uneasy. He had numerous boxes of tools lying about randomly in his room. A funny little spanner, a set of shiny pliers, cute baby screw-drivers and sand papers of all kinds. Being a girl, I was never fascinated by anything as much as by the little metal stool he had that I was fond of sitting on. It was something from my world that fit into all the little things around me.
He used to baby-sit me all the time. My mom left for work on Saturdays and my dad and Viju kaka met at a restaurant near by to talk politics over around sixteen and a half cups of coffee and a few cigarettes. I sat around listening to them or running around amusing the waiters. My dad then left me with him and went out grocery shopping exactly an hour before my mom's scheduled return. 
Viju kaka had this really rustic looking bike called "Bullet" and he made me sit on the petrol tank in the front. From the way it fired, we had named it "digee-digee" and I loved riding it. 
Sometimes, he used to be busy fixing something in his room and I used to hang around opening boxes and being overwhelmed by the amount of disorganization that he could tolerate. Compared to our house then, which was I guess the humblest we ever lived in, his room was like being in a Wonderland. There was no kitchen, but a little gas cylinder with a burner just enough for making a cup of tea whenever he felt like. There was no bedroom, just a bed which looked like it was ever willing to sacrifice its purpose as a bed for a work bench. A lonely table fan that turned its head to a different corner and circulated the yogi air in the room. A big gramophone that played jet black discs when my dad and Viju kaka had their contemplative cups of tea. They were the ferocious men in the seventies so they usually had really (pointless) intensive discussions over politics that could be true ( or pointless) either way. However, they amused themselves with speculations. Even now, every time I see men talking about politics, I turn into the same five year old that I was back then and wander off, keeping my eyes on them and my mind elsewhere. 

He had invented a fictitious character called "Sugandha" to get me to behave myself. So every time I threw a tantrum he used to tell me how Sugandha never does these kind of things because she is such a good girl. She could dance,sing ( whenever they wanted her to impress guests), tell stories and she also helped her mom in the kitchen. I used to be raging mad at this epitome of goodness in a little girl's disguise. 
He used to take me around on his bike all over the city when he was running errands and baby-sitting me at the same time. So I was taken to oily and greasy service stations and made to wait for long hours till someone helped him out. He kept me entertained with his stories and I never got bored. 

I don't know what happened but we lost touch with him for a long time. In the meanwhile I grew up and those childhood flashes of memory were sewn together by "facts" that my parents provided about everyone. I got to know a lot of things about all my childhood idols that I could have done without knowing. Through coffee conversations and old-friends-getting-together-after-a-long-time events, I realized that what I saw of Viju kaka was really a very tiny part of what he was known for and somehow my mind refused to see him as a complete person. 

I met him again years later and he was true to his image in my mind, for he showed up with a big bar of chocolate even though he knew I was almost seventeen. He was married and lived in another town. I tried finding that "deegi-deegi" guy in him again but the effort was futile. 
At such times I truly regret growing up. Somehow when you are around three feet tall, you make up for all that you cannot see by your innocence. I had filled my gaps with my own imagination and I really liked thinking about Viju kaka the way I thought of him when I was five. Back then, the stench of nicotine made me feel safe! It reminded me of the little room with a lot of tool-boxes that I was "set free" into!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

To Find or not to Find

Today afternoon my labmates and I discovered something really serious.
We were sitting there in front of our "designated" machines pretending to be busy when one of "us" got bored and came over for a chat. Soon the other joined us too!

Then as it follows when three chemists/physicists get together , we all got contemplative. It was so easy for Archimedes to go "Eureka!!!!" in the bath tub. Or how Newton just had to sit under an apple tree and suddenly reveal gravity to us.
Today everyone knows about gravity and buoyancy forces.
That is the problem!!
They have already discovered all the easy things and left all the difficult ones for us. That is why research seems so difficult! That is why we get lost in complicated hydrogen bonding and solvatochromic dyes.
Now that I am doing a PhD, I really want to invent something. If invention is too much of an aim, I at least want to discover something but I think there is nothing left.

Newton also apparently invented the catflap
He made a flap for his cat so that she could come visiting him in his lab whenever she felt like without bringing any light with her and upset his experiments. However, when she had kittens, Newton was so eager to please them all that he made several small flaps for the kittens too just to realize that they merrily followed their mum through the bigger flap!
Now that he is so famous, this story becomes a "cute" Newtonian story. If I had done something like that, I am pretty sure that people would roll their eyes and go "Gosh that is so much like you!! You are beyond help".

So the point is that there is nothing really left for me to invent or discover ( except maybe if I want to "discover" myself or something) and in order to be applauded for the silly things I end up discovering now and then ( Like the exact proportion of peanut butter and jam so as not to get the sandwich soggy or leave it dry), I have to invent or discover something obviously big first.
Every now and then, I do a scifinder search on my research topic and find that people are adding bits and pieces of publications to it. The scientific community is always gripped by a constant fear, " What if my current work is being published somewhere?".
We are constantly scared of some Su Chang or Sreedharan Ramaswamy Iyyer trying to write a paper on what we have been doing over the past few months.

I have decided to get over these fears though. Who are we to "discover"?
It is all already there. We are merely writing papers and amusing ourselves.
Even if we remember Newton and respect him it is his work that really matters and not his name! =)
I guess it pays to be philosophical and lazy at the same time but I genuinely hope that I discover something! =)