Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Different Realities

These days I am working on a little music experiment. I pick a Raga first thing in the morning and search it on Grooveshark. I listen to all the tracks that are listed in that search. Initially, I was doing it only to improve my understanding of Indian music by listening to as much of it as possible. But now I realize the hidden beauty of my experiment. A collection of five or six notes, repeated over and over again to create a tune did not really bring the word "variety" to my mind. But then I listen to Ahir Bhairav on sarod by Amjad Ali Khan, on flute by Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, vocal by Kishori Amonkar, on the sitar by Pt. Ravishankar and I can "hear" for myself how different the same collection of five notes can sound. Although it always creates the same image of a fresh morning in my mind, the little details of how a morning could come into one's life are vastly different. Often for me, it comes as a sip of freshly brewed coffee, but sometimes, with early morning honking in an ironically practical Mumbai suburb. Sometimes just as a reminder, with the smell of my shampoo lingering inside my beanie at dusk and sometimes, the annoyingly cliched yet refreshingly beautiful image of Rekha singing man anand anand chhayo (in Ashaa's voice!).

How music is delivered is obviously different. You can see that when you listen to Pt. Jasraj open almost every single rendition with the Shantimantra. But then you get to hear Mero Allah Meherbaan in Bhairav. Or a Bhavani Praise in Bhairavi by Begum Parveen Sultana. Sometimes, they sing for the audience and sometimes they sing for themselves. There are also those ethereal moments when the rendition gets its own identity and who performs it and who receives it suddenly becomes trivial. I love those moments. They have happened to me at live concerts. How music is received has so many faces too. I don't know what kind of emotions an early morning Bhoop inspires in others but for me, it always inspires a fresh start. Even if I listen to it at midnight. I learned classical music when I was seven. So I could not understand why Kafi would make me feel a bit sad, which it did, without my googling it up to find out that it is supposed to inspire longing. :)

There are many things in life that can be precise and mathematical. Music is one of them. How it is built, how it sustains itself and repeats, how we come back to the same point after each avartan -- is all very mathematical. And so is life itself. But then again, there is a common territory, a common ground where life, mathematics and music meet. Perhaps, where logic and art meet. Those territories come alive when you get lost in the alaap until the tabla reminds you that it is over. I always struggle with this question of what is more important, the habit of following order and pattern or the tendency of giving in to the larger chaos. Even though I always come out as a strong "J" on the Myers Briggs test, I have come to resent the negative connotation we attach to the word "chaos" in recent times. If anything describes my take on this question aptly, it is the structure of Indian classical music. It follows a routine, a pattern, a regime, a discipline. But then, on that rigid framework, it drapes the colors of melancholy and euphoria. The twists and turns that sporadic outbursts of passion create, the spaces between too much joy or too much sorrow that are filled with soulful notes of introspection.

For whom do I sing?
Sometimes I sing to be noticed.
Sometimes, to not notice.
Sometimes I sing for myself.
Sometimes I sing for others.
Sometimes, I sing for my song.
And then, when I can no longer see the purpose..
I would have truly lived my song.

Monday, October 03, 2011

PurpleMoon Turns Five Today!

..and I forgot all about it until Prachee (with whom my blog shares a 'birthday') reminded me. So here's wishing PurpleMoon a very happy birthday and hopefully more posts too. :)

Monday, August 08, 2011

In my kitchen..

In my kitchen, no two coffee mugs
Would look alike..
Earthy ceramics, shiny metal and pretty polka dots
Would grace the shelves hand in hand, side by side.
Just like the people in my life.

No two plates would carry the burden of staying together
Until an exhausted late night crash makes them part
They would all come in a group that is together
Because each one of them is unique and beautiful..
Not because they have to maintain the harmony
Of  subtly dictated artistic uniformity.

Between cups of chai, green tea
And awful American coffee,
And bites of tikka masala, apple pie,
Pumpkin soup and spaghetti
My kitchen would quietly celebrate
My life and its diversity.

The doorbell will ring; the oven will sing
The yellow lights shall stay on till late,
And despite the fragility of too much diversity,
In my kitchen, no one will fret over a broken plate.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Misgivings of a virtual citizen

I am glad I have a voice.
I Tweet, I Facebook, I Blog.
I think my political opinion, at last is being taken seriously. I am, after all, an opinionated, middle class, virtual citizen of India. By that, I don't just mean someone who is away from his/her own country but also someone who is being a part of the political discussion online. I am a virtual citizen even when I am in India because most of my experiences are virtual. My fights are virtual and so is my anger. It is all online. I read online, I see my friends online, I fall in love online and I get my heart broken online. I also go into spells of online bitterness and online fury.

I am grateful for my upbringing. My parents taught me to see right from wrong at a very early age. They built protective walls around me. Life according to them, was a long assembly line. It was a chronology of important milestones (complete with a no-more-than tolerance). All I had to do was to conform and pass those milestones at the right time. Everything was designed to minimize damage. I am grateful for that. But sometimes, I feel a sense of isolation. Although in my virtual life, I seem to have many identities, in my real life, I feel oddly directionless. I am smarter than most. That is one thing I am sure of. If I ever feel insecure about my knowledge, it is only one click away. I love debates and discussions. Sometimes my discussions turn into tirades and monotonous ego-battles. My opponents and I throw links at each other to prove a point. Sometimes, every member of this forum resides in a different country and often, that country is not the country of their citizenship. But I wonder if I am wise enough and perhaps, this virtual citizenship is keeping me away from real wisdom.

I am never happy with my country's government. Mostly because it is not the government that I would have chosen or  maybe people like me -- mature, well-educated, middle-class citizens would choose. I am unhappy about a lot of things going on in my country. I wonder why I cannot see people who think like I do, come to power. And I don't know where the people who actually want this government come from. I guess that is another thing that I am confused about. I simply cannot understand people who come from outside of the conveyor belt on my assembly line. Sometimes, they stay far behind. Grappling with issues that were never even included in my growing-up-syllabus. Sometimes, they whiz past in their super fast cars. The next I see them is in newspapers or on television. I feel confused when I see Westerners in their mid twenties take a break from school for three years just to 'see the world'. My parents would call me crazy if I decided to jump off the belt and 'see the world'. It would mean that someone else would occupy the empty spot and get ahead of me. Sometimes, I worry though if there is such a thing as an empty place that you leave behind. I wonder if leaving behind an empty place would fill a bit of emptiness I feel inside. And whether the space that I would otherwise occupy is significant enough to justify this feeling of constant restraint.

Then there is the "Religion dilemma". Growing up, religion was peace, a legacy of love and devotion. Religion was poetry. Religion was philosophy. Religion was work. Religion was faith in humanity. Religion was being devoted to the devoted. Religion was art and music. It was always a road that took us within. It was a personal experience. It still is. Or maybe it isn't. But sometimes, I am reminded of my religion because of someone else, belonging to another. It seems as though Religion has lost its many faces and personalities. Now it is a label that I stick, or sometimes is stuck to my forehead to classify me, my anger and my discontent. Sometimes I feel that meeting as many people as I could, shaking as many hands of real flesh and blood as I could and looking into as many eyes as I could, would be a bigger religion to follow. Then again the walls around me would not let that happen.

I don't know why I feel so angry. I am not sure whether my helplessness comes from outside or it comes from within. I have started gathering a suspicion that the secure walls that were built to protect me from going off this belt, were actually conceived from the same fear and helplessness that I find myself trapped in now. Perhaps this anger is not at the situation around me. Maybe this situation is merely a mirror. Stepping out of this virtual world takes great effort too. It is now like another mind in another space. It is another wall of a secure and rigid identity that I need to cross. Although my voice is being heard and sometimes answered, I think, that all of this -- inside and out, these thoughts and their virtual shadows is not my voice.

It is just an abysmal incoherent noise.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Dilli Ho! Part 1

Time for a travelogue people! :)
I spent the past six days in and around Delhi. It was my first time in Delhi and I wonder why it took me so long. Before I left Pune, I was in two minds about my travel reading and by a fortunate coincidence; I picked up Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India. It is one of the most appropriate books you could read on a trip to Delhi. Tully’s love for Delhi makes you want to walk out on the roads he so fondly describes in his book. And when you drive past the formidable and unnaturally clean neighbourhoods of Racecourse and Janpath towards the old Delhi, you can’t help but chuckle at Tully’s apt description of the two faces of the city.
But that is not what my post it about. I have discovered a lot of things that I would want to do over and over, every time I return to Delhi. The first and perhaps the most important is a visit to the Bengali Sweet Centre (BSC) in SouthEx 1. If I were a teenager right now, I would have described my experience at BSC as, “Oh My God (OMG), OMG,OMG!! It’s like totally awesome.” When a salesgirl at Meena Bazar (Ansal Plaza) told me that if I want to taste Delhi food, I should go to the Bengali Sweet Centre, I was not really impressed by the name. But I went to see what it was about anyway. Even when I saw the rather humble looking board outside and a huge dish of neatly stacked barfis through the glass, I wanted to change my mind. But when I entered and started ‘checking out’ other patrons’ food (Yeah. I check out other peoples’ food. You can label and box me now), I realized that I am going to have to come back again, preferably every day, for the rest of my stay to sample all of what I really felt like eating.
It really depends on what you feel like. The first day, I was desperate for a paratha and lassi. Next time around I tried the ‘mixed chat’ and golgappe. I agree that assembling your own golgappe in a hygienic manner goes against the spirit of eating them.
But I changed my mind again when I had the ones at BSC. And let me not even get into the shondesh, malai chop, hot jalebis, dhokla, kachodi and rasgullas. Sadly, I did not get a chance to eat all of those but I looked at them through the glass long enough to get a funny look from the bhaiyya across the counter. You don’t just get a variety of food there; you also see a variety of people. You can find people from every age group and socio-economic background (Geek!) at BSC. I found out later that Amitabh Bacchan and Rajeev Gandhi were regulars at this little joint.
If anything Delhi has taught me, it is how to eat and more importantly, how not to think when you are eating out. We went for a wander around Chandni Chowk. Initially, I was a little reluctant to get into a bicycle rikshaw. I found the idea of a human being pulling us along a bit embarrassing. But it has nothing to do with the previous paragraph. So when we got into Salim’s bicycle near Red Fort, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of sad compassion for him. Fortunately it evaporated in about three and a half minutes. I think the cycle rikshawallahs around Chandni Chowk could prove to be tough competition for the auto rikshawallahs in Pune. He was fearless, rude and ruthless, to a point where I started apologizing after him. If he got a penny for every angry person he left behind his rikshaw, he would not need the rickshaw anymore. He promised to stay with us through the ‘tour’ but asked my mom to hurry up and move on to the next shop. She asked him to leave but he stayed on. Then when we went to look for him where we had left him, he had happily disappeared. So we went for a walk to the Paratha Galee (Paratha Lane).
Every shop was full and it looked as if the Paratha people had a lot of mouths to feed. I had been chirping about this lane pretty much since I came to Delhi. But the transparent and honest process of making a Paratha on the street got me. Paratha chacha was happily shoving a handful of stuffing into the dough. The rolled Paratha however ended up in a wok of pure desi ghee and was literally deep fried. The ‘menu card’ of the shop was proudly displayed outside. It included some unusual combinations such as rabdi (condensed cream) paratha, karela (bitter gourd) paratha, bhindi (okra beans) paratha, kela (banana) paratha, and papad paratha! I could not muster up the courage to eat a deep fried paratha. So after expressing my sincere respects for the occupants of the shop, I moved on to the lassi shop and had a huge glass of lassi in a kullad (clay pot). The shopkeeper told me that the kullad was mine after I finished the lassi. As I was walking about in mild bewilderment as to where would be the proper bin to dispose off a clay pot, I saw Salim approach me with his big beetle nut stained smile. When enquired where he was when we came back to fetch him he gave us the typical “I was there madam, you did not see me.”
So off we went again in his lightning bolt, avoiding accidents by a quarter of an inch and getting dirty looks from all the vanquished he left behind. He left us at the “Old Famous Jalebi” shop. Our driver had told us that leaving Delhi without having one of the Old Famous Jalebis was a crime and we are god-and-government fearing Maharashtrians. So we went to see what this old famous jalebi business was all about. Well, I wish I had been blind folded. Only that could have helped me not commit this crime. Hot jalebis, about half a foot in diameter, soaked in desi ghee for thirty rupees a piece! I have never been in two minds about something this toxic. But my wimpy mind won again and I chickened out. The Jalebi wallah did not even try to convince me. He had a long line of eager customers that he was busy managing. As we walked towards the Gauri Shankar Mandir, we saw little shops selling neatly stacked piles of kachodis and samosas; every shop had its own happy clientele. I overheard someone get angry in Hindi. In an even voice he said, “aap apni ijjat ka khayal kijiye. Agar hamari buddhi kharab ho gayi to sochiye aapka kya hoga”. Quite a contrast to the street fights back home in Pune! It is really remarkable how much respect a language can spell for the listener. Listening to the Chandni Chowk shopkeepers talk to each other was a treat to the ears.
It was a Monday and the temple was very busy. The Gauri-Shankar Mandir has an idol of Shiva and Parvati. But many other Hindu gods also have an office each inside the temple, complete with a personal priest. We paid respects to all the gods and just as we were about to leave we heard someone sing. It was a bhajan with a twist. The artist was singing a Shiv bhajan that sounded suspiciously similar to a famous Bollywood song. Ironically, the wordings of the original tune were, “Maar diya jai, ya chod diya jai, bol tere saath kya suluk kiya jai”. A very crude English translation would be, “Should I kill you or should I let you go?”

Dilli Ho! Part 2

Next destination was the Taj Mahal. How can you go to Delhi and not see the Taj? Well you can but I wanted to see it because I had heard a lot of people talk about it. So we went to Agra. We picked the wrong day. It was raining incessantly since morning and we kept going on only in the hope that it would stop soon; but it showed no signs of slowing down. So I struck up a hard bargain (so I want to believe!) with a street seller and bought an umbrella for a hundred rupees. Later I found out that you could get it for fifty. But if there is anything you must learn to be able to survive in India, it is having absolutely no regrets about a bad bargain. You will always find a better bargain somewhere else. :)
The umbrella was of no use in the harsh rain. So by the time we moved inside through the queue, I was half drenched anyway. The Taj Mahal has a wonderful shock element in its architecture. You see nothing but red sandstone all around for a long time during your walk towards the Taj. In the modern times, you are also distracted by the million procedures that you must submit to before you are finally let in through the gate. You walk through almost a kilometre of red sandstone that is so characteristic of other structures around Delhi and you enter a dark, narrow gate. Suddenly, you see the Taj. Marble white, a complete contrast to everything you have been used to looking at. It does not grab your attention ever again as it does in that moment. Its magnificence, its grandeur and its pristine beauty makes you blank for a moment and even though you always think of Shahjahan when you say Taj Mahal, in that moment of shock and awe your heart goes out only to the artists who created it. That, I think is the true joy of looking at the monument. It has been built so beautifully that it forces you to think of the unknown hands that came together to create it, and not the emperor who commissioned them using his wealth and power.
The next stop was Fatehpur Sikri. But before that, I went into a government owned “handicraft emporium” and bought a whole new set of clothes. The rain at the Taj had completely drenched me. As I walked out of the changing room, I thought I heard a faint applause from the shopkeepers. :D
The fort at Fatehpur Sikri was built by Akbar in the honor of the sufi saint Salim Chisti, who prophesied the birth of Akbar’s son Jehangir. Right in the middle of the courtyard of the fort is a beautiful dargah. It is a common belief that if you wish for something and tie a thread to a filigree wall inside the dargah, your wish is granted. The guides were constantly pestering us to get our wishes granted at a small fee. But we flatly refused. Each wall that surrounds the dargah is made of marble and has a different pattern. These walls are carved so intricately that sometimes it is hard to believe that it is marble and not lace! As I was walking out, I heard the most magical voice outside the dargah. A sufi singer was singing outside. His band consisted of a simple harmonium and another person playing the tabla. The rhythm was accentuated by bystanders clapping in the typical qawalli style. I waited there for about twenty minutes listening to him. Listening to a beautiful sufi song outside a magnificent dargah! What more could you really wish for? Maybe it is true. Maybe you get what you want, even without tying a thread!
On our last day in Delhi, we mustered up courage and went back to Galee Parathewali. I asked the shopkeepers if they could just pan fry my paratha instead of deep frying it in ghee and they gladly obliged. I had a mulee (radish) paratha and bits of karela (bitter gourd) and bhindi (okra beans) parathas. I survived on that for the rest of the day without even thinking of food. :)
We spent that day wandering around inside the Lal Quila (Red Fort). It is another magnificent structure with many innovative architectural elements. But the most enticing part of Lal Quila was the gardens with huge Bakul trees. It is a shame that you can’t sing, write, touch or photograph fragrance. The experience of sitting under a Bakul tree on a hot summer day cannot be expressed, no matter how hard one tries. The shade embraces you gently and the breeze brings the sweet fragrance of flowers and cools you down. After your nap, you find little stars of bakul blossoms all over your hair and face. It also took me back to my days with my grandmother when we used to spend early mornings picking up bakul and parijat flowers.
I walked back one last time through the markets of old Delhi. Every city has a personality of its own but what can I say about Delhi? I think I am in love. :)

Monday, July 04, 2011

Have you been TALed and Mantised recently?

For the past month or so, I was caught in what can be called an (unnecessarily) anxious wait for my US visa. I was offered a post-doc at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) in the United States about nine months ago. From then to this day, I have gone through many agonizing waiting periods. Of course, the biggest of them all was finishing my PhD.

I have to accept, I need to put a lot of effort into increasing my ability to handle unforeseen, unexpected and uncertain situations. This was not my first time under the (now) famous 221(g) administrative processing delay. I spent some furious six weeks in 2009, when I missed a conference due to the same process. What makes it even more annoying is that it is applied to only certain individuals under certain circumstances, making it almost impossible to avoid a suspicious or funny look from a regular US tourist. I decided to take this opportunity to blog about it so that people become aware that in certain cases, a United States visa can be delayed indefinitely.

Post 9/11, US has made the visa process stricter. Some US visas are delayed due to the Security Advisory Opinion (SAO). The Department of State has categorized applicants according to their circumstances. The Visas Mantis SAO is applicable when there is a probability of use of a sensitive, illegal or dual use technology. The Department of State has also created a Technology Alert List (TAL). Exchange scholar, H1B and sometimes student (F1) visas are also subject to a TAL check. The TAL check typically involves providing the Department of State with a detailed Statement of Purpose (SOP), resume, applicant's travel history and purpose of US visit. Applicants from countries that possess nuclear technology (India, China, Israel, Pakistan and Russia) working in a wide range of scientific fields such as Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Aeronautical Engineering, Biotechnology, Biomedical Engineering or employed by research institutes that use sensitive technologies can be adversely affected. For security reasons, this list is not published anywhere on the internet. However, almost all the branches of Physics, Chemistry and Biology are included in this list.

I have accepted now (after wasting a lot of time and peace of mind) that I am going to be a regular at these security checks for a few years to come. There is only so much euphemism at your disposal when you are trying to tell a visa officer that you are going to work on making fuels. There is nothing on my resume that would not prompt a Mantis or a TAL check. (un)Fortunately, I am not alone. There is a page dedicated to people stuck in the US administrative processing which I found very helpful during this wait. There is no fixed deadline as to when your visa will be approved. So many people find it very difficult to accept that they have to wait indefinitely. For them, a clever website has already been designed. Check reporter lets you enter your own visa information (date of interview, date of approval, consulate, visa type) and update it whenever your application is processed. This has helped create a comprehensive database of processing times from November 2008 onwards. Processing times have been shortened considerably over the past three years.

I hope this information helps people who are in the process of applying for a US visa. If you ever go through it, as the Visa Officer who interviewed me would say, "You are only paying the price of being very smart".

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kitchen Chemistry

I have been drafting posts for a while now. But nothing I write really agrees with my mood. So I have a stack of unpublished posts on blogger.
One thing that agrees with my current state of mind 100% is baking. It has been a delightful one month back home. I have been experimenting happily in the kitchen. So I thought I will share some of my happy monsoon-special recipes with my readers.

Banana-walnut cake

You need...

1 1/2 cups flour (you can also replace this with whole meal wheat flour for a healthier version)
2 eggs
1/2 cup melted butter (in India, you can use homemade butter too. No need to buy processed butter)
1/2 cup sugar (you can replace this with Kanak Gool. Talk about self-endorsement haha!)
1 cup mashed banana (it is a good idea to just mash the bananas by hand. It gives the cake that rustic feel)
1/2 cup crushed walnuts (crushing in a pestle and mortar instead of grinding in a blender also adds character to the cake)
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg/ nutmeg powder
1 tea spoon baking powder

How you do it...

1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
2. Melt the butter and sugar in a glass bowl
3. Add eggs and whisk until everything mixes well
4. Slowly add flour and baking powder; maintaining the consistency of the mixture
5. Add mashed banana, nutmeg and crushed walnuts. If the mixture is too viscous, add some milk.
6. Cover a baking tin with a thin film of butter. And add the cake mix. Make sure that the cake mix does not occupy more than 3/4th of the baking tin to allow for the cake to rise.
7. Bake for about 40 minutes. Test whether it is cooked using a skewer (for beginners, if the skewer comes out clean, Bingo!)

I am actually crazy enough to sit in front of the oven and watch it rise. But I understand that not everyone has such an unhealthy attachment to their work of art. :)

How you serve it...

Goes well with tea, coffee and happy company.

Variation: Apple cinnamon cake
Instead of using Banana+walnut, you can replace the fruit element with apple+cinnamon. In this case, unfortunately, you can only use white sugar to maintain the aesthetics of the cake. :)
If you wish to make this variation, peel the apples and boil them until they are soft. Blend apple and cinnamon into a paste and add it after step 4 above.

Happy Baking!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Going back to Charles Dickens

I downloaded the 'Complete works of Charles Dickens' on my Kindle recently (thank Amazon for coming up with this blessed device). The toughest decision at hand before leaving Brisbane was which are the absolute essential books that I absolutely, positively cannot do without. After three rounds of serious grouping, I managed to narrow it down to eight kilograms. I had no qualms whatsoever about getting rid of two thirds of my entire wardrobe. In fact, I am sure I have created for myself a trail of unwanted garments going up to the Brisbane airport just like Seeta did, with her ornaments, when she was abducted by the cruel Ravana. So having a device that is handbag-friendly and can hold eight kilo worth of knowledge in paper, without making you sweat and panic is indeed a blessing for me.

I went back to Charles Dickens after about ten years. I read his books with a great adolescent appetite. Now I realize, most of it was just to put a 'Dickens Flag' on my "well-read-ness". The first book I chose to read this time is 'Great Expectations', and I cannot imagine how the seventeen year old in me could have appreciated it. Apart from the fact that I was immensely touched by the character Biddy, I think I missed most of the then-intangible and now-evident subtleties in the book.
I was drawn to this book again because of its mention in Amartya Sen's 'Idea of Justice'-- a highly academic yet refreshingly enlightening piece of work (which can only be ingested 10 pages at a time for someone like me). In his opening chapter Sen quotes none other than Pip from Great Expectations.
Pip is very sensitive to injustice and in one of his honest musings in the book, he says,

"In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice." Outwardly this seems like an obvious statement. Only upon reflection do you realize its perspicuity.Every adult, I guess, has a child in them that can go back and relive the grossest form of childhood injustice that was inflicted upon them.

When talking about the crystallization of memories, Dickens again makes me reflect when he says,
"Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day"
In his descriptions of an unfortunate orphan's thoughts, Dickens has planted carefully, these meandering memory lanes that invite everyone, no matter where they come from.

When little Pip goes away to town to play at Miss. Havisham's, he comes back feeling inferior about himself. The life that he has lived to that moment has never been labeled as 'common' or 'coarse' or 'low'. But fighting with this feeling of isolation, he wonders (and it brought tears to my eyes),
It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home. There may be black ingratitude in the thing, and the punishment may be retributive and well deserved; but that it is a miserable thing, I can testify.

When the utterly discontented and ashamed Pip begins work as an apprentice for his innocent mentor Joe, and his conscientious admission,
I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me, was something again that seems remarkably universal. The last three adjectives 'restlessly', 'aspiring' and 'discontented' make the sentence read as if it has been both conjured and meditated upon!

When the wise old Biddy talks to Pip about his attraction to the pretty and temperamental Estella, in one of their tender moments of truth, her words have been weighed and calculated to reflect and hide so many emotions:
..because, if it is to spite her, I should think-- but you know best--that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think--but you know best--she was not worth gaining over
I realize the significance of the 'you-know-best' now. It is such a subtle expression, yet without those you-know-bests, I don't think those lines would have so much meaning!

There is much more that I can add to this but I would like to leave the obvious for you to find out!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Goodbye Australia :'(

I had never imagined myself tearing up at the end of my final PhD talk. I had practiced it in front of the mirror some 5 times before I actually appeared in front of a room full of audience -- most of them plant biotechnologists; who had no clue as to what my research really meant in terms of chemistry. But they were there to cheer me on. So when I reached my last well-rehearsed acknowledgment bit, I was fine until I thanked my family. When I started thanking Australia -- a place that gave me so many friends, I found myself suppressing that well-known feeling of having hot air trying to escape your throat and eyes. :(

It has been a hectic and enlightening three and a half years. I don't know when I am going to fully realize the value of this phase; both in terms of academic and cultural experience. But my guess is that I would continue appreciating this all my life. If there is anything Australia as a culture taught me, it is how to relax. I have still not fully grasped it, because I am an unnecessarily high strung person.

I will miss a lot of things about Australia. I will miss being woken up by this -- a kookaburra laughing in a tree. It is no use being used to hear the song of an Indian Koel if you are planning to move to Australia. The first time I heard a kookaburra call, I thought the bird was dying, and the first time I saw an Australian magpie, I thought it was a crow with a skin condition.Here's Danny Bhoy  --a Scottish comedian (who is half Indian!), talking about Australian wildlife. And to be honest, he is not exaggerating! :)

I will dearly miss the Australian accent. How the sentences here end in inflection points and how the Os are uttered like a strong surf wave hitting the Australian beach. Here is a better description of the Australian accent by Danny Bhoy again.
I will also miss the Queensland beaches with their golden sand and deep turquoise water. Sitting on the sunny beach watching the restless Pacific were some of  my rare, calm moments here. :)
I will miss the touch of the Mediterranean that Australia has. With Greek, Spanish cuisines almost an Australian staple. The small shops owned by European entrepreneurs, proudly presenting the very best from their countries, the Italian caffes and Greek tavernas.

I will miss my friends. I remember when I came to Australia, the only people I knew, that too through the Internet were my PhD guide and my would-be flatmate. When I landed in Brisbane my unreasonable worrying mind was wondering what would happen if the girl I met on the Internet is in reality a scary trap! :)

I value what I learned outside the lab more than what I did in the lab in order to get a PhD. It is a strange feeling to know more everyday yet feel like you know nothing yet. To see people who have lived lives exploring paths that never even existed in the road map that was carved for you when you were growing up. To meet people who have come a long way from their home but have still managed to carry their home with them. And then to meet people who have never left home, but have long journeys embedded in their hearts. It is quite perplexing to slowly see yourself lose the ability to make strong judgment. To see yourself as a collage of many identities and to be less certain of what is the most predominant of all of those. What is more surprising than being less certain about who you really are, is being happy about it!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kabir and Kumar Gandharva

Following the spiritual thread from the last post, I have two musical recommendations for you. Both are Kabir bhajans. I have always been fascinated by Nirguni Bhajans that celebrate the formlessness of the divine. Kabir bhajans are not just about formlessness; they are also lessons in detachment. Like this one by Kumar Gandharva. It portrays the spirit as a swan that flies away, all alone, making this whole world a mere visual spectacle.
Although the song is about detachment, Kumar Gandarva's sincere rendition makes it impossible not to attach yourself to it! :)
This one, by Kalapini Komkali (Kumar Gandharva's daughter) is a less popular but much more beautiful rendition of  "chadariya jhini". The more popular version is by Anup Jalota. A short introduction to her style and her gharana can be found here. She transports you into the realm of an oddly satisfying emptiness. The poem establishes a parallel between human body and weaving of a shawl, only to remind the listeners in the end not to confuse this shawl with an eternal possession; for all of us have to leave it behind one day.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Where is your gold?

I subscribe to a meditation podcast (yes, I am that bad). I am not a fan of how the West categorizes Yogasanas and talks about Buddhism. But I have seen and met so many dedicated Yogis outside India that I have stopped being cynical. Actually, I think I prefer being gullible to being cynical.
The usual course of how I listen to my podcast goes in two simple steps. I lie down in a comfortable position as recommended, with headphones in my ears. The next step is when I wake up next morning at 5 AM. Although I think that Zencast is one of the most genuine podcasts on Buddhist philosophy, I have very rarely made it to the other side of an episode in all consciousness.
But two days ago, the story of this golden Buddha made me reflect. This statue that weighs about 5 tonnes, was known to all as a 'clay Buddha' for centuries before someone discovered in 1957, that it was actually a statue made out of pure gold. When the Burmese army was about to invade Thailand, the monks covered this statue in clay to protect it from being looted or disfigured.
Although Buddhist thought has so many parallels and anecdotes to offer, I think this story is a parable in itself. There is much more gold than the literal gold these monks were trying to protect. It instantly reminded me of the Tall Poppy Syndrome,  which is a commonly used phrase in Australia. People  play down their achievements in order to not fall a victim to peer envy. I find that it is a significant part of work politics in every society.The fear of creating envy in others' mind is, believe it or not a genuine fear. It also has a name (zelophobia) if this source is to be trusted.
When you realize the worth of your gold, plastering it with a thick layer of clay would perhaps take you to a peaceful mind. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Where Children Sleep

I saw a short review of this in the latest issue of Marie Claire. Then, I googled James Mollison. :)
It is a story built with photographs. He went around the world photographing kids and their bedrooms (if they had any). His pictures from Hebron, where ten year old Douha lives in a Palestinian refugee camp and nine year old Tzvika, who lives in Israel say a lot about the region without saying much. On the Life photogallery, I found the picture of seven year old Indira and her bedroom very moving. She works in a granite mine for five hours every day before going to school. There is also ten year old Sherap, from Nepal again, dressed in his red monk robes next to the inset picture of four year old child beauty queen Jasmine (Jazzy) from Kentucky, U.S.,  set against the larger picture of her bedroom. While Sherap sleeps in a bunk bed with a tiny bag hanging off the window, Jazzy's bedroom seems like it is made exclusively of ice cream and fairy floss, embellished with all the tiaras she has won in her four years of being alive!

The pictures also leave behind a train of innocent dreams. A rockstar, a kempo martial arts teacher, a pediatrician (or a model) and my favorite - an ice cream seller. :)
This was a very refreshing, yet deeply moving interlude.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The hypochondriac

I must confess that I google even the most minor ailments that I suffer from. A few years ago, I started seeing a floater in my vision. Before I found out what it really was (and reassured by a doctor) I was gunning for permanent blindness. Just a few months ago, I could hear my heart beat in my ear. It sounds ridiculous, I know. What kind of an arid unromantic am I? But then I googled it and found that it was Pulsatile tinnitus (at least that is what I settled on after a lot of browsing, since my doctor had advised me to stay away from google after the blindness episode). Just after Christmas when it got really hot in Australia, I decided that my frequent thirst and fatigue was definitely related to the possibility that my pancreas have failed and I have contracted Diabetes. Since this runs in the family, I found that my thirst aggravated miraculously after I made up my mind about being diabetic. Sometimes when I feel low in the evening and very happy in the morning, I imagine that I might be bipolar. One day, after an eight hour day at my part time job, which primarily consisted of entering weights to the fifth decimal in an excel sheet, I concluded that I sometimes reverse the digits in numbers owing to a latent dyslexia. Today,  in my breaks from data excavation, I am googling up "sore calves". Although I have a perfectly plausible explanation (an overdose of suryanamaskaras; 50 a day for the past one week),I would  like to go with Pseudothrombophlebitis syndrome.I should not bore you with my version of being a hypochondriac. The following excerpt from the 'Three Men in a Boat' was the inspiration for this post. I think every one should have this book by their bedside. :)

"It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine 
advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am 
suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most 
virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly 
with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment 
for some slight ailment of which I had a touch - hay fever, I fancy it 
was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an 
unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently 
study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I 
plunged into - some fearful, devastating scourge, I know - and, before I 
had glanced half down the list of "premonitory symptoms," it was borne in 
upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of 
despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever - read 
the symptoms - discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for 
months without knowing it - wondered what else I had got; turned up St. 
Vitus's Dance - found, as I expected, that I had that too, - began to get 
interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so 
started alphabetically - read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening 
for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another 
fortnight. Bright's disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a 
modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. 
Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have 
been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six 
letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was 
housemaid's knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of 
slight. Why hadn't I got housemaid's knee? Why this invidious 
reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I 
reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I 
grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid's knee. Gout, 
in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my 
being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from 
boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there 
was nothing else the matter with me.

I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a 
medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! 
Students would have no need to "walk the hospitals," if they had me. I 
was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, 
and, after that, take their diploma".

Imagine what would have happened if Jerome K. Jerome had access to Google!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Selected Amartya Sen

I had resolved to put together selected works of Prof. Amartya Sen a few months ago. I stumbled upon some lectures that I had heard previously. In 2008, I wrote a review for one of his popular books The Argumentative Indian, in which he takes the reader through an entertaining yet refreshingly academic journey through India's history of public dialogue.That was the first time I read anything written by the Nobel laureate. However, since then, I have downloaded many of his more serious essays and articles on various developmental issues. His research in the theories of social choice is considered amongst the pioneering works in the field. However, he is better known for his work on famines and poverty.

I have a limited understanding of economics. Sometimes, I have to look up other references to clearly understand Sen's arguments but I think the struggle is worth it. The links I have included in this post are some of his famous academic talks. So there is bound to be a lag between listening to what he says and understanding it to the best of your ability, especially if you do  not have a background in economics. Nonetheless, I would urge everyone to make the time to listen.

This lecture  titled Identity and violence : the violence of illusion, takes a closer look at the reasons behind communal and religious violence, not just in the Indian context but all over the world. He articulates not just on how divisive politics works but also on how and why it is received so well in some situations. His book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, which I go back to every now and then is a thesis on the many faces of human identity. In his narrative, Sen elaborates from time to time on the many identities that a single human being could have without any internal clash with one another and how, the clashes occur only when a single identity is isolated and glorified and pitched against a rival. He criticizes the popular 'clash of the civilization' theory and the attempts by politicians all over the world to try and put the world's peoples into isolated boxes. 
His thoughts on accepting the plurality of our own identities while scrutinizing each one one of them in an independent and critical manner is what the world really needs when it comes out of the Age of Religion. He is an atheist.However, instead of rejecting the existence of God, he takes us back to a 14th century Hindu text that accepts atheism as one of the schools of religious practice within Hinduism. 

This New York Review of Books article is titled More than 100 million women are missing. Sen comments on the female:male ratios all over the world, with a special analysis of South Asia. The ratio varies significantly even between the states within India. Northern states of Punjab and Haryana have the worst  ratios while Kerala (which ranks high both in status of women in general and literacy) has the highest. He frequently refers to this issue in his other talks as well and his analysis makes you reflect on how much of an enigma the Indian social fabric really is. This issue is close to my heart because it makes me aware that being an only girl child in a country such as India isn't the norm. When I read/listen to what Sen has to say about the development of women in India, I am also reminded of the many faces of feminism all over the world. In India, feminism exists with a passive resilience. We would never have a majority of Indian feminists reciting My Short Skirt. But millions of women are being empowered to have a little more control over their own lives and their own decisions day by day. 

Lastly, this 1999 Kenan lecture titled Human rights and consequences is something I highly recommend. He begins his lecture by saying that people advocating the establishment of clear and uniform human rights around the world are looked upon as softies or impractical intellectuals. However, just looking at it through an Indian perspective, I doubt whether we as a diverse society unified under a common identity of being Indian, have even given the concept of human rights enough consideration. Sen not only defines the scope of human rights but also reflects on the process of granting a right. He speaks about the disparity in the perception towards human rights between cultures, classes and sexes. He conducts the lecture by constantly bringing us to the critic's perspective on human rights. That makes it more convincing than if it were just a lesson.

In one of the chapters in his book on Violence, Sen talks about Robindranath Tagore's short story - Gora. It is about the life of a devout Bengali Bramhin who believes in the superiority of his 'Hindu', 'Brahmin' identity to the extent of making it his mission. Years later, his mother tells him that he was adopted after his Irish parents died in the mutiny of 1857. His whole world comes crumbling down and he is faced with the ironic challenge of applying all the rules of his Hindu superiority to his new identity. In the end, he accepts that no matter what his real identity is, he will always feel at home in India. 

Although we often stumble upon our own identities, it is not a mere discovery. Having discovered an identity does not mean acquiring it. Wearing it with confidence, conscience, flexibility and respect (both for our own and others') is a matter of careful choice. It is time that we all wake up to this choice. 


Monday, February 28, 2011

Drive in

I am fortunate to have very creative friends. A few of my friends decided to rent a projector over this weekend for a party. We made good use of it by watching two good movies in the back yard of their house, both of which have been nominated for the Academy Awards this year. Although it puts a serious question mark on my dedication to thesis writing, I must admit that for the first time, I have watched four movies that have been nominated for the Academy Awards before the ceremony took place. They are, in the order that I liked them, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, The Black Swan and Social Network.

There was a lot of discussion over why people liked The King's Speech. An analysis of "The Kings Speech Vs Social Network" happened before the Oscars. Here is an interesting article on why the former is likely to win (which it did!). For those of you who do not know what it is about, it is about King George VI and his long battle with a speech impediment. As a movie, it appealed to me more than Social Network because of the room it afforded for the actors. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush both present their characters with remarkable honesty. I am a fan of Rush since the time I saw his portrayal of Marquis De Sade in Quills.
As it is argued in the article given above, The King's Speech may have the psychological effect of the age old 'triumph of the good and the honest', that human beings are subconsciously attracted to. At the same time, it has the element of breaching of 'established social hierarchy', where a king goes to a commoner for help.

Although it did not do a stellar job at the Oscars, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is a gripping story. It is about an avid adrenaline junkie who has to go through an unexpected accident. I don't want to spoil the story so I won't say much about it. However, if someone had narrated the story to me before I watched the movie, I would not believe that it could be made into a ninety minute movie. So the USP of this movie is almost entirely in its making. I loved the background score by Rahman. It added the needed zing to the intense emotion of the storyline.

I loved The Black Swan because Natalie Portman tells the entire story using her face alone. She went through a physically demanding makeover for this movie. Both Natalie and Mila Kunis, who plays Natalie's rival, were on a 1200 calorie (and a 5 hour workout) schedule for their roles. But going beyond the physical transformation, Natalie makes the pain, the anguish, the surrender to discipline, the uncertainty of being in the most coveted position come to life through her facial expressions. It is a disturbing movie but it deals with psychological issues that are faced by human beings in varying degrees, in every profession, even though they are more severe in fields like fashion and professional ballet.

Social Network is about the journey of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. In reading the analysis of this movie online, I often came across a new stereotype that the media has coined - the rejected geek. He seems to be spiteful of the other two well established stereotypes, the hot girl at school and handsome 'dudes' who haunt the school gym and the basketball court. However, unlike the older stereotype of a powerless nerd, this new avatar is capable of doing some serious damage (and making some serious moolah). I enjoyed it for its pace that matches the pace of the age in which it was made.

Another noteworthy fact is that of the four, three movies were based on true stories.
Now, that I have played the movie reviewer, I should better get back to reviewing my papers. :)

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I am almost* at the end of my PhD. So it is time that I should formulate my own version of the hardships I went through during this time. In my mom's (expert) opinion, no one remembers their PhD as a glorious time of their lives. Every time I whinge about something to her, she tops that with an exceedingly horrible narration from her own PhD. Some of her stories, for example, the one where she goes, "we did not even have computers back then", need some correction factors for the technological advancement over the years and its effect on mental hardships.

As a PhD student, you are used to your (evasive) milestones. However, there are a number of philosophical milestones that you need to cross in order to truly deserve your PhD. I am going to list some of those here so that my compatriots in various parts of the world feel good about themselves.

1. The first rejection

For all the stellar PhD candidates out there, who get their papers accepted in the first attempt ever, they should know that they are missing out. The first rejection is as important to a PhD as a first heart break is to a teenager. It validates your position in this world (as close to non-existent) so firmly, that without this important milestone, you may form a totally deluded view of life itself. Whether you are coming down from an impact factor (which by the way is not a realistic measure of journal performance) of 30 to 5, or from 5 to 3, the first rejection is essential to normalize your measurement of what your work stands for. It takes a while (and a good amount of alcohol) to get over it, but boy! does it build character!

2. The first peer review

Well, to put it in perspective, if the first rejection is to be compared to the pain of unrequited love, then the first peer review is like marriage. When someone rejects you, all you have to do is go to the nearest pub with your other rejected mates and try and forget it with some EtOH. However, when someone accepts you, you have to go through an agonizing, never ending self-improvement session to prove that you are worthy of them. It might sound crazy, but peer review is actually more painful than an outright rejection. There were many bright Sunday mornings, when just as I was putting some sunscreen on with a butter knife, I saw the dreaded email from the editor of the journal saying, "you now have two weeks to fix this. Otherwise your paper is going to be considered as a fresh submission". There are times when these reviews overlap with all your papers, together with the rather insulting Australian reviews you are getting from your own supervisor. In the end, it leaves you with only enough self-confidence that can exist in equilibrium with complete hopelessness.

3. Running out of scholarship

I don't this this is essential, but when it happens, it feels like a scene straight out of a sitcom. Just as you are letting out a satisfied sigh about exiting the lab for good and planting your bum in a chair for the final write up, you get an email from the student center telling you that your scholarship has been cut off. You go to the people responsible to renew it, armed with an entreating monologue and a pack of tissues and get only kind sympathy in return. One of the solutions offered to you is, "maybe you can request your parents to help", which is enough to make you cup your ears with your palms and run out of their office screaming at the top of your voice. Then you come back home and apply for jobs (and make dartboards out of the pictures of people who did not renew your scholarship). You are appointed (thankfully) as a research assistant in a project that requires an intensity of concentration that would put a 200mW laser to shame. You come home exhausted from the job and have to get back to writing. Your boss at work treats your job as a full time job and keeps sending you emails with attachments for your to read after work. As if that is not enough, you keep meeting other PhD students from work who have had their scholarship renewed for up to 4 years while yours was cut off in 3 years and 3 months.

4. The technology betrayal

I am hoping this is the last one of them. As soon as you sort out your employment, your visa and that ugly fight you had with your supervisor and sit in front of your computer, you realize that it is dead. It has to be out of warranty and you have to be broke in order for this milestone to work on your character. Sometimes I think all these inanimate things we depend on, actually have a life of their own. How else would you have your computer die in the most final stages of your thesis? I have to assume that it is to make the plot more riveting. Something similar to one of those guys who lose their job on the same day as their girlfriend of eight years dumps them. Fortunately, by this time you have learned that the whole Universe is against your PhD so you have backed up your data online. Somehow this philosophical F#$% you is unbearable for your computer and it declares that it will work only on the power outlet. Fair enough. :)

It reminds me of a quote by Saint Calvin,

"That's one of the remarkable things about life. It is never so bad that it cannot get worse."

There are silver linings too. Getting a job before graduation, having supportive friends who are always willing to help you out and cheer you up. Having people bring you your favorite drink when you are bawling away in your room. Being so tired every day that your mind is completely stripped of unreasonable fears and demands.
Most importantly, realizing the meaning of 'being grateful' all over again!

*contingent on numerous factors that are totally beyond my control.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Obituary: Pulp and ink.

One of my most prominent childhood memories is the image of my dad on a Sunday, with his favorite newspapers around him. Baba would have Sakal delivered to him every day but on Sundays, he would walk to the nearest newspaper stall and bring home about half a dozen other newspapers too. His collection usually included Maharashtra Times, The Economic Times, The Times of India, Indian Express and The Hindu (on the rare occasions that it was available in Pune). His fascination with newspapers was a weekly cause of my mom's eye-rolling. Growing up in a city that did not hesitate to judge people by the newspapers they read, coupled with my dad's lack of loyalty to any one newspaper left me entirely undecided about what I liked - something I still struggle with when I read everything that is available to me.
The 'newspaper experience' in a middle class Marathi household was not just about what it conveyed in terms of information and knowledge, but also about the not-so-obvious feeling of pride that a young, hardworking man had for being able to have an opinion on the world.
Newspapers were the much needed cellulosic fodder for my dad and his friends' Saturday ruminations over endless cups of coffee and cigarettes. This metaphorical information grazing has since then stuck in my head, and I find myself turning into a cow in the virtual world every Sunday, visiting my favorite newspaper website pastures. So when I read this New Yorker article,
a little sigh escaped my lips.

It got me thinking about my own transition from the little girl fascinated by how 'her dad knows everything' to a young woman who knows a lot of unnecessary things. I have always been decidedly undecided about my take on mind clutter. I definitely tend towards hating a cluttered mind but sometimes, when a form or a face starts emerging out of chaos, I question my hatred. The death of the printed newspaper, I believe is going to be the metaphorical beginning of the new generation's chaotic storage and assimilation of information.

While I was going through these thoughts, I came across this incisive piece, in the New Yorker again, by Adam Gopnik. He characterizes people in three groups when it comes to the perspectives on the age of Internet - the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers and the Ever-wasers.

"The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment".

On one side he argues that all the big revolutions in the past, such as the revolution brought about by the age of printing, have been welcomed by both skepticism and euphoria. In the eighties, television was scrutinized, in the nineties computer faced a similar judgment. On the other hand, he genuinely questions our enslavement to our computers, going as far as calling Google the world's "Thurber wife". But somewhere hidden inside this mass paranoia over technology numbing the human mind, is a little hint of awareness that it is we who control the technology. I remember watching an interview of Rajiv Gandhi on the national television (Doordarshan) in India once. Actually, I remember it because of my dad's recollection of it on many accounts. In those days (early nineties), India was giving its information and T.V. broadcasting a new revamp. Someone asked Rajiv Gandhi what this exposure to television is going to do to India's kids. He simply replied, "there is a switch that turns the T.V. off". Today, almost twenty years later, you can see that television programs all over the world have standardized themselves to a common baseline - of empty melodramatic reality TV. Although TV has revolutionized human life in many happy ways, it has also left us with a lot to deal with.
As Gopnik rightly puts it later in the article,

"Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that."

Just then, as if it was all God sent, I came across this in NY Times, which talks about an iPhone application (app) to make confessions. It is not hilarious to me because it is Catholic. I have seen similar Internet versions of 'yantras' on Hindu astrology websites. It makes me wonder how the same medium that Julian Assange uses to deconstruct a society based on an unjust power (im)balance, is used to appeal to the traditional human mind by sending the ten commandments into an iPhone!

In a country like India, however, I think printed newspapers have a significant way to go before they become extinct. Newspapers and television are still the only dominant media of relaying information in the rural parts of India. It is also heartening to see the
riskshawalahs in Pune blissfully immersed in a copy of Sandhyanand, ignoring your pleas to go to a part of the city they are not interested in.
We still perhaps have a majority that is not glued to their computers or iPhone. But even then, in the online edition of TOI, tweets are taken seriously. 'What-people-think', is now only a click of a mouse away. Common man/woman using the internet to express his/her views has become an important element in reporting news and analysis. This means that no matter where you live, in the U.S., Australia or Mumbai, your take on what is happening in India could be taken seriously (if you are good enough or attract enough attention). If you come to think of it, this is a position of great responsibility. We should all be aware of that!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Freudian Kitten

Do you remember Catharsis?
Well it happened again. When I confronted my flatmate about letting the cat out so that he does not wee in my bed out of anger, she threw a gem of a line at me.

"Saee, the cat pees in your bed because he identifies you as the weakest member of this house."

To which I replied,

"Okay then. Let your strong cat pay my share of rent from next week", and left.

I found a place within 24 hours. And I moved out in 2 days.

However, the Freudian psychoanalysis stumped me. Maybe it was due to spending a lot of time with my flatmate, but I actually began to analyze how I could have portrayed myself as a weaker person in a cat's eyes. At that point, I realized that moving out would be the best decision both for sanitation and sanity.

As I was moving out, it occurred to me that I was giving myself so much trouble just to avoid conflict. In order to do that, I was perhaps being perceived as 'the weaker member' of the house. Not by the cat, but by my flatmate. My moving out was a shock. As much as it was a shock to her, it was also a shock to me too. But my moving out made so much of a positive difference to my own life. I could walk to work, pass by the fruit shop, buy fresh salad on my way back and live exactly the way I wanted to live.

Sharing a house, a workplace, an idea is a difficult balance. It needs genuine mental audits. I have shared houses with many people over the last three years. They were all from different cultures and backgrounds. If there is one thing you need to ask yourself constantly to be a good flatmate it is, "Would I be okay, if this happens to me?".

When I moved into a new place, I had resolved that I would never again, make friends with any of my flatmates. The first morning, I heard a knock on the door and saw this utterly lost French girl - Claire, asking for directions to go to uni. I resisted for a long time, saying only a casual hello here and there. But just the way love strikes after a bitter heartbreak, friendship kind of squeezed her way between the two of us. So here I am again, planning a trip to the South of France some time soon, and practicing my (non-existent) French. Not to mention believing the ever-so-cliched-line - everything happens for a reason!

Cheers to Friendship. :)

Friday, January 21, 2011

In a perfect world..

I am back. I knew I would not last with this silence business but I am glad that I did it.
Over the past four months, I have been acutely aware of only one of the many identities I have - scientist. Finishing up is a mirage in its own way. Now, I have decided to throw myself into the arms of hopelessness. It comes in handy sometimes. But the key is to be "really" hopeless and not just pretend that you are not going to pin your hopes on a date. From the heart of true hopelessness, sprouts a new beginning. :)

Before I stopped writing, I was intrigued by the studies done around gender differences in academia. There have been a lot of controversial debates on the issue. I followed it with interest because I am on the path of entering academia myself. Whether it is women in science, women in politics, women in business or just women doing something different, I find it all interesting.
In this post, I am just pooling together all the interesting articles I have read on this issue over the last four months.

Let us begin at home before we soar high into the academic skies. When talking about women dropping out of academia, investigators often use a term called the ' leaky pipeline'. Wherein, women are said to be dropping out of a pipeline at crucial points in their scientific careers. However, in India, there are places where girls drop out of schools at a crucial age, after puberty, due to lack of real pipelines. The absence of sanitation is forcing young girls to drop out of schools in parts of rural India. This is not even a case of unconscious bias. It is a glaring proof of how the lack of sanitation, which is a basic human need, affects one sex worse than the other.

This is a clever experiment on how a 15 minute writing exercise can dramatically change the gender gap in university level physics, which brings to our notice the radical change that can be brought about by a seemingly small exercise of reaffirming your own values. This Slate article further elaborates on how subtle suggestions pointing towards a stereotype can influence test results negatively. When women of Asian origin were reminded of their Asian heritage (prompting the stereotype that Asians are good at maths) they scored better. When they were reminded about their gender (prompting the stereotype that women are not as good at maths) they did worse. Even in female dominated fields such as biology, where 50% graduates are women, the number of women at the higher faculty level is seen to be dropping to >15%. This article about Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn brings forth various dilemmas women go through while in the so called leaky pipeline. It is rightly titled 'Why Science Must Adapt to Women'. Although such studies are often 'controlled' for variables such as age, I think unless they devise a 'control' for these constant schisms, where women get torn between their toddlers at day care and their cultures in shaker flasks, a real solution for the pipeline would not happen.
Another touching article I read, which reminded me of my childhood days - when I was growing up around a dad who would not hesitate to take a month off from work so that he could hang out with me while my mom was away. This FT article talks about women CEOs and their husbands. Although I do not like the overall tone of the article and the hastiness in matching evidence with preconceived ideas, I agree that having a relaxed and caring husband at home is one of the biggest boosts an alpha-woman could receive.

This is a Washington Post article about motherhood and tenure. Karla Murdok's statement, "One of the costs of working full time and parenting is that I don't feel that I do either job as well as I could, or should.", is worth taking a special note of. Tenure is not just about being smart. So conclusions drawn just by looking at the disparity of male:female numbers at a faculty level (e.g., by counting the number of men and women who have been granted tenure as full professors in different fields) tend to be unfair towards women.
Another often repeated comment about women at work in general is that women are averse to taking risk. They tend to play safe 'naturally'. Perhaps as an answer, Naomi Klein explains where too much risk is taking us. I really enjoyed watching this TED talk because Naomi takes up serious issues and it is still very funny. Especially when she talks about women taking lesser risks and says, "it turns out that being praised less and paid less has its upsides, at least for the society". :)
In her speech, Nobel Laureate Jodi Williams presents a realistic face of world peace. With examples of women bringing women together from around the world, she elaborates on the power of coming together for a cause.

I am not taking a strictly evidence based stand here. All I really want to do is absorb various perspectives and ruminate on them. I am not really an angry feminist either. I think it is not a "Male Vs Female" debate. To be able to solve problems related to inequality, the versus should be replaced with "with". In exploiting the potential of talented women, we don't necessarily have to prove that they are better than men. We can just make their lives better than what they were yesterday. The competition here is not an egoistic battle of the sexes. It is a competition with yourself from yesterday. Also, it should be looked upon as a competition to lead a wholesome life instead of just using one of your many identities as a benchmark for success.

I should acknowledge Nanopolitan for his vast collection of links and perspectives on the issue. I have been following his blog regularly for the past six months. I also thank Alok Shrivastava for extending a space for a lively debate and leading me to many of the places mentioned in the post.

See you again soon!!