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! =)