Saturday, November 10, 2012


Invisible children that fill the empty space
Between us, in a cold, gloomy pub
I start sketching first, sometimes,
And then everybody helps me dress them up.

And slowly, the attention shifts from me,
To these delightful invisible people
They have their own identity, created
In collaboration with a lot of  collectively inebriated,
Hence more flexible minds

Sometimes, it is the child of the present
Born out of a snide remark
Sometimes, it is the baby of future
Emerging from an impossible dream
Sometimes, it is the clingy fat kid
That refuses to let go of your foot
As you try to go to the next room
The child of the past, how typical!

You try to be a proud parent
Driving it in the right direction, as
It jumps up and down on the social
Trampoline that the group creates..
Sometimes, you try to influence others' kids
Sometimes, you just don't want to believe
That you created it, as it goes out of control
Right in front of your eyes!

Whatever the outcome, my friends
You have to  know that I am not interested
As much, in the attention I get
As I am in dressing up my conversations
Using your ideas.

So don't blame me for taking all the attention.
If I don't talk,
No one has a good time.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

What makes you happy?

Whenever I ask this question to any of my friends, they go blank. I don't know why. Perhaps because everyone is looking for a larger, loftier goal that would eventually make them happy. Happiness is usually in something that is yet to be achieved. But what about local happiness? I have found out that the things that make me happy are really insignificant in the larger context. But they have the power to make me happy instantly, and keep me happy for a long time. Those things are like the complex carbohydrates of the world of emotions. :)

For example, the other day, I collected fall leaves with my flatmate. Then I googled the recipe to preserve them and I spent a part of my afternoon pressing them into a wax paper and immortalizing them. Sometimes, after Yoga, I cook myself a very light dinner and usually go to bed thinking about breakfast (Nutella on toast). I wake up feeling really happy on those occasions.
There is a lot of happiness in watching birds. I often spend my Sunday mornings watching the social patterns of the geese that flock around the lake outside my apartment. Watching the sun kissed sky in the American Midwest has also been a source of joy. I don't know what it is about the sky here, but it is exquisite. The sunsets especially, make me want to cut out a piece of the sky and use it on a quilt.

There was a time when "living in the moment" was a mission. I remember being very regimented about being in the moment and I remember failing very badly too. It was during my PhD when I was really obsessed about having a plan for everything. I remember trying meditation and being utterly exhausted at the end, trying to control my mind. And I can't fathom why it was so difficult to control it. I don't know what scared me so much. I think my fear was mostly related to other people and my failure in their eyes. But it is really hard to define what failure is. Or for that matter success too. Because sometimes, failing makes us happier than sustaining success as defined by someone else. Sometimes, the fear of failing is more crippling than failure itself.

There is also this feeling, which can be described as I-don't-want-to-trade-my-life-with-anyone-else. You suddenly become genuinely grateful for your journey. It happened to me during my France trip. The whole trip sort of happened in a haze (mostly because I did everything last minute). One day, when we were in Paris, my best friend (and flatmate) Elodie and I were crossing subway platforms to change lines. At the junction where all the stairs meet, there was a chubby accordion player. We did not have much time but Elodie decided to let the next train go and requested that he play "Bella Ciao" for us. He did, and we danced together on that filthy, crowded subway station. That was a bitter sweet moment. Mostly because I knew I cannot do anything about it once it is over. I knew it was going to hurt just as much as it made me happy. But above all of that, it made me grateful. It is only in moments like these, when you know that the only "reason" this is happening to you is to make that little groove, that notch, that scar of memory on your mind, so you never ever forget that you have been loved like this.That you have been this lucky.

Then there is also this question that is often overlooked. How deeply can you fall in friendship? How honestly can you sustain it? How many times do you have to distill your emotions to get rid of envy when you are friends with someone? How many times do you have to ignite little dynamite cylinders to get rid of the barriers you build in friendship, to protect yourself from an honest opinion? Sometimes, our friendships go through a loop and we return to innocence. But we have to stay and fight until the end of the loop. The ends of these loops are important not just in friendship, but also everywhere else. Somehow, as we simplify ourselves, we can manage a better performance with each of these small avartans. It is our expertise as dancers on our own stage, with no one else but ourselves as audience. I guess the happiness also comes from impressing ourselves, by not making the mistakes from the last time we looped (pun intended).

And I guess, when you are grateful, every little joy is happiness. Happiness doesn't stick to deadlines or public performances. And then probably, the answer to that question would eventually be "I make myself happy". :)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Happy Birthday PurpleMoon

Another year gone by and I can see how I am losing my enthusiasm to write here. :)
But that said, I would like to wish my blog another (hopefully more interesting) year of posts.
And Thank YOU for visiting.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The taste of India

I have been escaping into a parallel research topic, much against the intentions of the sane and organized part of my mind. I recently read a post on Pinterest that said, if you want to find out what you are really passionate about, look where your mind goes when it wanders. :)

Lately, my mind has been wandering away from the lab and away from academia, towards applications and concepts that are more people-centered. And that is why, perhaps, the obituary of  Dr. Verghese Kurien captured my mind. Abi blogged about it and I took off from there. Since I am post-docing at Michigan State now, I found a connection to the story. It is interesting to know that MSU did not have a dairy program back then.Now MSU's dairy and animal science course is regarded as one of the best in the US. By far, the best outcome of their research is the MSU dairy store that sells ice cream made entirely on campus. "Death by chocolate" is my favorite flavor. :)

In the course of my work on economic modeling for biorefineries, I have also realized how important a place India has in the near future when it comes to animal feed markets. And unlike the US, where most of this demand comes from cattle farming intended towards beef production, in India, almost all of the animal feed market is catering to the production of milk. India is the largest producer of milk in the world when you consider milk production by individual countries. I think the Amul story has a lot to do with this place we have today. 

This also led me to a beautiful film (Manthan) by Shyam Benegal. I had watched it before but this time, I had a new perspective. Any team of human beings, working in any area, be it arts or technology, always comes with a potential for negativity, exploitation, ego trips, discrimination, dissatisfaction, unethical conduct, corruption and misguided optimism. But when a team works so well, it is obvious that it is expressing the antonyms of all the above words in significantly larger quantities (in a hypothetical scenario where they could be quantified). And what the team expresses is a reflection of the person who leads it.

I will leave you with this and this. They always get me nostalgic. :)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Poetic detour

Raj's post about Vikram Seth's novel (A Suitable Boy) made me escape, to see my favorite Vikram Seth poems. Some of his poetry astonishes me every time I read it. Although it reads simple, it always unearths a complex, difficult-to-put-your-finger-on feeling.

Thanks to Poem Hunter, we can all read some of Seth's poems. 
But I cannot suppress the urge to copy-paste some of my all time favorites here.

1. Unclaimed
To make love with a stranger is the best.
There is no riddle and there is no test. --

To lie and love, not aching to make sense
Of this night in the mesh of reference.

To touch, unclaimed by fear of imminent day,
And understand, as only strangers may.

To feel the beat of foreign heart to heart
Preferring neither to prolong nor part.

To rest within the unknown arms and know
That this is all there is; that this is so.

Vikram Seth

2. Prandial Plaint

My love, I love your breasts, I love your nose.
I love your accent and I love your toes.
I am your slave. One word, and I obey.
But please don't slurp your morning brew that way.

Vikram Seth

3. Timezones

I willed my love to dream of me last night, that we might lie
at peace, if not beneath a single sheet, under one sky.
I dreamed of her but she could not alas humour my will;
it struck me suddenly that where she was was daylight still.

Vikram Seth

I am also amazed by the emotion that could have inspired  Round and Round.
It reads like Vikram Seth is trying to collect water droplets off a leaf. What touches me above all the simplicity in his poetry is the acceptance of  loneliness, with no long term solution or alternative. And he does not express it as a lament or a pain but simply as an everyday reality, sometimes even with a bit of humor.
Perhaps one of his better known (and widely read) verses is All You Who Sleep Tonight.

So a big hug to Raj for putting Seth back into my head. I just ordered  A Suitable Boy. :)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Homeward bound

I have decided to return to India for good post December 2012. Although there were some obviously compelling reasons that propelled me towards this decision, every day, I realize that there are a lot of smaller, very impractical and innocent things that have participated in that process. So I have decided to list them (apparently, strong Js like making lists and I am one of them).

1. The fresh fruit/veggie market (मंडई)
I wrote this post before I left India. The spirit of Phule Mandai cannot be translated into any language. Being there is the only way  to completely understand its beauty.

2. Music
To be able to buy and listen to as much classical Indian music as I want to. I want to be able to go to live concerts all the time and perhaps, also organize some travel, exclusively for the music, around places where I have found it in the past.

3. Yoga (and hopefully, vipassana)
My passion for Yoga was something I truly discovered away from home. When I was in India, Yoga always felt like an imposition! But now that it is a part of everyday life, I think I want to start all over again from the beginning.

4. Lazy weekends in my grandfather's home
I really hate feeling nostalgic about anything. And I think this loathing for nostalgia has been brought about almost exclusively by how nostalgic Kolhapur makes me. I have never been able to fully get over my childhood memories of summers spent in Kolhapur.
But I still look forward to lazy weekends in what used to be my Aaji's room, reading all day, and stepping out of the house only when I am ready to leave the city!

5. Rickshaws
Yes. They are that important to me. :)

6. Street food

And most important of all reasons is to eliminate digital communication with my best friends and to be a real three dimensional part of their everyday life. I think this last reason is too important to be on the list. :)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Music in my posts?

 We don't realize it but our generation grew up with so much digital technology at hand that it has made us more musical (?). When I  was in Australia, I used to stay in touch with my friends in the US through email. Our emails usually came with mp3 attachments. I did this for years. To the point that I took it for granted. But isn't it the most wonderful thing to receive a song with your letter? A song that you haven't heard, or you have heard so many times that it is somehow dearer!

There are very few times in my day when I am alone and headphone free at the same time. I am always listening to music. It is a big part of my life.  It has the power to bring all the hidden feelings to the surface. As a kid, sometimes I felt irrationally uneasy when my dad played certain songs in the house. It was difficult to pinpoint what exactly it was that made me uneasy. Some tracks make it extremely difficult to sit in one place and work. You are almost compelled to get up and dance. Some just take you back to a familiar place (or sometimes, too familiar a place?).

I listen to every kind of music there is. I am a fan of  Pt. Jasraj and Lady Gaga at the same time without any judgement. But I always go back to Indian classical music. I have tried asking people how they listen to music (with my ears?!). How (and why) do some of us evolve into door slamming Black Sabbath fans (even temporarily as teenagers), and some of us can take an unhealthy amount of Chopin or Beethoven? I think music activates my imagination. So when it is too structured (with a great score, great lyrics, great movie), there is little room to add anything of my own. I find that kind of structured music too processed. :)
But with Indian Classical/ folk music, there is room to set your mind free. There is also room for little experiments. When it is accompanied by the tabla or the mridangam, it throws your mental stage wide open for an imaginary dancer.

And even though it lets me wander, it also has the mathematical/metaphysical quality of coming back to the same point in circles. Each circle can be different in its own way. Some go by slowly, savoring every moment there is, while some just spin out of control until you are reminded that you are back to the same point. So when I discovered that I could now make my posts musical using Spotify, I had to write this pointless post to include three of my recent favorites.

1. Zakir Hussain takes us through rupak variations.

2. Anoushka Shankar playing Desh at Carnegie Hall

I totally absolutely love Raga Desh. This track is a really good example of  "coming back to the same point". It feels like a little girl is trying to run wild in the courtyard as her mom brings her back to the center so that she can finally tie her wild curly hair. :)

3. Ustad Shujaat Khan performing Sham Kalyan (Drut)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Breathe and Smile!

I took a Yoga class after a long time yesterday. I entered the studio later than everyone else so the only place left was the front corner, right in front of the mirror. Somehow, no one likes this spot. Maybe because it is too close to the instructor, or too close to the mirror. I like to be there only when I have been practicing for a while and when I really like looking at myself in the mirror. Yesterday was definitely not one of those days. After two weeks in France, I could literally feel all the pain au chocolates around my waist. But I had no choice so I took the spot and unrolled my mat.

Throughout the class, I could hear a really annoying voice in my head.
"Look at you! You used to be able to do this so easy a year ago!"
"That pose is just not flattering. Uff! What am I going to do with you!"
"That's it. No carbs at night. You cannot look like that. It is unacceptable."
"Okay. If one hot yoga class burns 800 calories, then how many should you eat during the day to lose weight?"

It was persistent, constant and unbelievably annoying. (un)Fortunately, I am so used to doing this to myself that it doesn't reach or activate any emotional centers in my brain. It is just the same effort I make when I reject data with high standard deviation in the lab, or when I repeat an experiment because I am not happy with the result.

At the end of the class, the instructor said the usual nice things that the Yoga teacher is supposed to say
"Thank yourself for taking these ninety minutes out of your day for your body"
"Thank your body and mind for sticking together through this practice"
"Look in the mirror and smile at yourself for doing this"
"Be compassionate towards yourself and your body"
"You deserve all the love and happiness in the world. You are beautiful"

A girl in the very last row broke down into tears. The instructor walked over towards her and kissed her on the head. And for the first time in those hot, sweaty ninety minutes, the voice in my head stopped.

Why is it that when someone else says something we really want to hear, it brings us to tears?
If we really want to hear these things, why can't we just say them to ourselves? Why are all these essential emotions, like being compassionate towards yourself, so difficult to practice? 

Even though we live in a world that constantly subjects us to comparisons and judgements, I am starting to believe that our acceptance of unfair judgement from others starts within. It starts with that mechanically annoying voice inside our heads. You first fall victim to your own judgment and then somehow, you see the world around you mirroring your own thoughts back at you.

If we become strong enough to shut that voice, we would become strong enough to cross that judgment barrier. And perhaps, we can all be happy! :)

Friday, August 03, 2012

In Transit

Between the paranoia over security
And the head rush of take off
Lies a fragrant corridor, of tax free scents
Where breathing suddenly becomes easy
Like clouds after precipitation,
We look fluffy and light
Old ladies, with wrinkled hands
(How do you fit three rings on one finger?)
Open paper backs with mascara eyes
Bored dads with empty strollers
People sitting around power points
Like baited fish, giving me odd looks
As I write with my ball point
In a totally organic, three dimensional notebook
Eyes everywhere, locking and unlocking
Sometimes, predictably, turning into a brilliant smile
It is easy to make friends in transit
Perhaps because we all share the feeling
Of a deliciously suspended and an utterly aimless moment!

Friday, July 13, 2012

On the road -- Jack Kerouac

Post Kindle, I had started wondering if a digital reader really helps or hurts my reading. I cannot handle more than one book at a time. It makes me jump from one book to the other without finishing or enjoying either. So I walked into a second hand book store in Chicago and bought On The Road by Jack Kerouac.
Now, I am not so sure if this was the right book to test my theory. It haunts me even when I am not reading it. All I think about is Jack Kerouac and what kind of a person he must have been to write a book like that.

On the road is a beautiful ramble. It is about several road trips across America, all of which really happened.  The publishers made Kerouac change the names of his characters to protect him against litigation. If I have to describe what this book is really about, it would sound very unimpressive.It is about an American guy who is always broke, and travels from the New York to San Fransisco and back several times, usually hitch hiking with random strangers. He meets his gang of friends -- each one unique and eccentric in their own way. They get tangled badly in problems that would seem quite ridiculous to a "normal" person. The writer tries to place his stories around the craziest one of all his friends -- Dean Moriarty.

What is more important is the revolution this book represents.
For the travelers, backpackers, road trippers and the adventurers around the world, On The Road would perhaps provide an explanation as to why the "road" is so enticing. We are growing up in a generation that believes in extending youth indefinitely. We could all very well go into our late thirties and not really have a "plan". But for some of us, the road is enough of a destination, making it very confusing to look at ourselves through others' eyes. The things you discover about the journey and about yourself on the road sometimes are more valuable than the things you would gather if you stop. It was perhaps the first paradigm shift where the road became the representative of male identity, the romance being in not conforming to the traditional roles associated with being a man. 

Salvatore (Sal) Paradise [Kerouac in real life] travels to Denver to meet this crazy guy called Dean Moriarty [Neal Cassady in real life]. In Sal's own words, "[Dean]He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted to so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him...Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line, the pearl would be handed to me." 
Dean is trying to find something through his own journeys but he does not really know what he is looking for. Sometimes, his long monologues remind you of the teachings of Eastern mysticism. But most of the times his craziness, his absolute disorganization and his unwillingness to be responsible for anything drowns all his dismal sane thoughts. Sal, on the other hand, is the passive and reflective mirror that reflects Dean back to the readers. And I think more than the real Dean, I came to appreciate this reflection of Dean Moriarty towards the end of the book.

Kerouac has inspired not just other Beat poets and writers but also musicians such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and The Beatles. However, behind all the celebration of individual identity, seeking truth and meaning in life, not conforming to the expected cultural and social roles, you can sense the soul destroying confusion that absolute freedom is able to create. There is a point to which freedom helps nourish and cherish human spirit. After you cross that point, the feeling of being helpless is similar to what it could have been on the other end of the spectrum -- with limited freedom and lot of social and cultural obligations.

What is worth reading and re-reading is Kerouac's impatient and spontaneous style. The entire book talks to you like a passionate, high-on-life person you just met who is telling you his story on a hot summer evening. Some lines just emerge out of nowhere and make the all-over-the-place story seem suddenly profound. Like this one:
“I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till i drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” 

And beyond all the philosophy, you can clearly see how much Kerouac loved America. There is a lot of poetry in the pages as New York gently turns into the Midwest taking you through corn fields and clear, starry nights, the warmth and the jazzy smoothness of the South and the craziness of the West. Fifty years later, it is all still there. Interestingly, when I bought this book in Chicago, I was reading Kerouac's description of Chicago. Then, I went to Denver, Laramie, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Salt Lake city in a span of those two months with the book. And I always read about the city I was in! :)

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Get over it. She doesn't care!

My Hero this month is Aishwarya Rai.
For stepping on the red carpet looking absolutely radiant and perhaps much more graceful than she has ever looked before.
For answering the question about her weight simply as, "This is reality. And it is no big deal".

It is shameful that she was subjected to a lot of bitter criticism almost exclusively by the Indian media, while the Western media mostly reported her first international red carpet appearance post-delivery, in a positive light.
Why should the public (or the media) dictate when she should lose her weight (and what if she doesn't want to lose it at all!)?
She does not owe anyone a standardized appearance. 
Who decided the time frames for shedding post-pregnancy weight?
And why is the underlying message always, "thin is beautiful?"

I think she has done a bigger service to women all over the world by walking the walk with such conviction.
I was never really a fan of Aishwarya Rai. But now I am. :)

Monday, May 07, 2012

Blind folded Yoga

We did a small experiment at our Yoga session yesterday. We worked half the time with our eyes open and the rest of the time with blind folds on.
Our sight plays such an important role in keeping us balanced. No matter how strong, flexible and graceful you are, being blind folded throws everyone off balance. :)

It is kind of true, metaphorically for life too. Without a vision, your talents kind of stumble along and get dragged here and there. :D

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Seven Samurai? No.. just a tag game

Raj tagged me in this meme called 7×7 Link Award. The rules are simple.

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody knows.

2: Link to a post that fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.

3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.

Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody knows.

When I write numbers, especially after the decimal point, I sometimes read/write the order wrong. I discovered this a few years ago while doing my PhD and realized that it is really out of my conscious control. I would really like to know what it could be if any of my readers know!

My Most Beautiful Piece  

I personally think Conversations with the Cat is my most beautiful piece. Mostly because it was written in less than fifteen minutes and it came straight from the heart.

My Most Helpful, Popular, Surprisingly Successful Piece

Believe it or not my recipe for making Gajar Halwa has been my top post for the past four years. I guess people all over the world are really dying to make it. Makes me want to consider writing recipes as an alternative career (in addition to owning a coffee shop, a restaurant and an agony aunt forum).

My Most Controversial Piece

About three years ago I wrote a really controversial piece criticizing  Roger Federer for publicly crying after a loss. I was amply bashed and I took it in its stride. But about a year later, I realized I was just being an ass when I wrote it. So I deleted it. Of all the stages of writing that post including thinking, writing, getting criticized by my readers as well as friends and then deleting it, I think, realizing how dumb I sounded to myself just a year later was the most amusing and satisfying part.

My Most Underrated Piece

I tried writing a story about three tomatoes long ago.I feel like going back and making it a bit better every time I read it but I stop myself. I think it meant a lot to me when I wrote it. Not just the process of creating something completely imaginary, which is difficult, but also the phase I was in personally at that time in my life. So yeah! I think I love this piece more than anyone else has.

My Most Pride-worthy Piece

I wrote this post/letter for/to my dad when I was still very new in Australia. I don't agree with the categorization of this section. It is not really "pride-worthy" but it is close to my heart. 

Now the seven bloggers.
I am going to tag people who are hibernating for God knows how long! I absolutely do not buy the "I am too busy" excuse for writing because if I buy it, I am telling the world that I have a lot of time to waste (which is SO not true). 

1. Meera Rao of artbymeera : I have been following Meera for over a year. Her blog is unique because it is about art. She displays her own work but she always has a profound message. I enjoy her short write-ups as much as I enjoy her paintings. 

2. T.A. Abinandan of  Nanopolitan : Abi's blog is mostly about academia and it is very well written. I have learned a lot about being in academia through his blog before I actually stared working in academia. He is the "cool professor" that I follow. 

3. Shashank Kanade's English posts : Shashank is a PhD student in the US. I really like his posts but he does not write these days. WAKE UP SHANKY!!

4. Mandar of  Footprints  : Footprints used to be a really nice English blog that I followed too. *Sigh* 
I like Mandar's poetry a lot. He is also very good at writing detailed reviews of the stuff he reads, hears or watches. But he is SLEEPING TOO!

5. Gayatri  of Gray at I  : I am a fan of Gayatri's Marathi blog. But I read her posts in English long time ago (yeah the last one here is 2006!) and I think she could try and revive this little sleeping beauty.

6. Nandan of Viprashna : Again, I know Nandan more for his writing in Marathi but I have always enjoyed reading his contemplative posts on Viprashna. 

7. Dattatraya Gokhle of Alone with Life : I have been a fan of Alien's poetry since the time I started blogging. He is into hibernation too. But at least he is in Russia. So it kind of makes sense. :P 
Thank you Raj! This was a fun thing to do. I hope I have introduced some new blogs in the process. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

How to pick an orange

The process of buying oranges is really traumatic. I think of all the problems I have faced in my life, the dissatisfaction that is caused due to having to eat an off orange is the worst. I know I sound like I am overreacting but I am not. I have eaten enough off oranges to know that whatever I feel makes perfect sense. You know, orange is one of those devious fruits that has the ability to make you feel remarkable vulnerable and helpless. It is like a little slice of life itself. You never know if the orange you pick up at the supermarket is going to be good. There is no guarantee. And even if you take that chance, of buying something based on say, instinct (or undying hope), there is still a significant effort on your part to be made before you can consume it. Peeling an orange is not something I enjoy doing. Usually, I cook for my best friend Elodie as an exchange for getting all my oranges peeled.

 The feeling you get when you spend those seven minutes of your time carefully peeling the fruit, getting an occasional squirt of essential oils in your eyes that makes you weep and then, finding out that the orange is off is really enraging! Some oranges are downright sour. Some are downright dead (the ones that make you feel like you are eating 100 % fiber). It is easy to forgive those two kinds. But I get really mad when the orange is just past its prime. You can taste the hint of sugar it had but it is not longer there, which kind of teases you. It makes you feel like this perfect little orange was waiting for you all this while, but you only decided to pick it when it lost all its enthusiasm. The orange has sort of moved on, gone ahead without you to attain whatever fruit moksha it is destined to attend. 

I observed that Elodie always picks the good ones of the lot. So I tried to ask her if there are any rules that I should follow to get a good orange. I should tell my readers at this point that she is French. So she told me a few things (using her arms, her eyes and her shoulders more than words). Then every time I went grocery shopping with her, I realized that she changed her rules slightly. When I tried to audit her on this, she declared that picking a good orange is a combination of science and art. I usually give up when people bring me to the interface of science and art. I tried to follow her rules when I went shopping by myself but every single time, I came back home with a bunch of sad, off oranges.

Sometimes, my sadness makes me want to give up oranges all together. I don't really need them. I can do without. But then a few days later I feel as if the Universe is doing great injustice to me by depriving me of oranges. It is not so much about the orange as it is about my inability to pick a good one. Then, I let Elodie pick my oranges for me. Things were going fine for a few weeks but then this inescapable feeling of utter and total dependence started creeping into my mind. I wanted to pick my own oranges independently. After all, Elodie is not going to be there forever. There will come a time when I will have to face my own oranges, in their total and complete offness. I tried saying a quick prayer before I chose my orange and then a quick prayer again before I peeled it. But that just made me feel dependent on God. I mean, if I am unwilling to depend on a clearly visible and breathing human being, how then can I let myself depend on a faceless, formless entity (that changes its own rules in every culture and country?).

Then I decided to study the oranges at the supermarket, wondering if their carbon footprint had anything to do with their quality. A number of plausible explanations came to my mind. Maybe the Spanish people were insecure about their economy and so they plucked the oranges too soon so that they could ship them over. Maybe these premature little babies (with their giant carbon footprint) spent a bit too much time in the cold storage. Maybe that led to acceleration of ripening process when they were taken out. (As I was wondering all these things aloud, Elodie informed me that I should either see a biochemist or a psychotherapist.) So I started buying oranges from South America (hoping that their smaller footprint would help, along with the fact that South American countries are not as stressed as Spain). I always ended up buying off oranges.

Then I thought maybe something is wrong on the metaphysical level. Maybe I need to purge my mind of all this hatred and stress I have around the thought of buying oranges. Maybe just thinking more positively about the problem would make it better. So I started believing (with a fanatic certainty) that I had it in me. I had the power to pick a good orange. But my lack of confidence (owing to repeated failure) was making me fall into the same trap again and again. I cleared my mind and started a lot of positive thinking. But you know, positive thinking is really exhausting. You have to stand outside your own mind like a guard. Stopping negative thoughts from entering it. It just made me shut down and crash all the time.

So I started distracting myself with other citrus fruits.

"Grapefruit is good for weight loss! You should just have grapefruit instead. Anyway, it tastes so bad that you don't even have to worry about it being good or bad. There are blood oranges. They are easy to peel and they usually taste okay. Tangerines, tangelos, mandarins! Sky is the limit! This is just for citrus fruits. Imagine venturing out of the citrus fruit domain. Apples never disappoint (but I don't like the crunching noise I make when I eat them). There are so many other fruits!"

 But my mind always comes back to oranges.  I really want to be able to pick a good one and just for one fleeting day, a single fleeting moment, believe that I can pick and enjoy a good orange, all by myself. :)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Behind Elaine Benes

I happened to watch an episode of "Inside The Actors Studio" with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Julia played Elaine in the first-of-its-kind show Seinfeld. I have been a Seinfeld fan for years. It is one of those shows that I have never really grown out of (I have not just grown out of  Friends, I have also developed a serious aversion to the series). One of the reasons why this show is timeless is because it is true to its tagline -- it is a show about "nothing". And Elaine is the quintessential 'dude's girl' in this show. If we had to do a serious psychoanalysis of her character, we could say that she represented the 'liberated' woman of the West. But that would be a sad way to put it.

My admiration for Elaine has never waned. In fact, it increases with every repeat. Her character and her stories have philosophical undertones (see the video). I like it how in a really casual train conversation, the writers bring forth the entire liberal revolution. Elaine is at the center of this change and she is not always comfortable with it. But her frequent outbursts of fury are hilarious. I think I like her more because I have an Elaine inside me too. The only difference is that I can't express my frustration and fury as openly as her. :)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

It will certainly get better

A few weeks ago, I watched an exclusive interview with Dharun Ravi on ABC. As many of you might be aware, Dharun has been convicted on multiple counts, the more serious being that of bias intimidation -- a conviction that could land him in jail for up to ten years. This is a  tragic tale of two college freshmen at Rutgers, with diametrically opposite personalities. What is perhaps worth pondering over from this story is the extent to which social media has tightened its grip around young people today. The trial was built entirely on the digital footprints these kids left behind during their first few weeks as roommates. What makes me sad, is knowing that neither tried to talk to the other face to face. If this had happened twenty years ago, it would have been hard to believe that someone could get bullied or intimidated without having any direct contact with his bully.

As Ian Parker explains in this meticulously written New Yorker article (The story of a suicide), this conviction can be interpreted as 'a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.'

Dharun was offered a plea deal twice before he faced the jury. If he had taken this deal, he would have been excused from serving a jail term and a possible deportation to India, only under the condition that he accepted that his actions were motivated by a hatred towards homosexuals. This twenty year old declined the plea deal twice 'on principle'. In his interview, he candidly accepts that he was stupid and self-absorbed. Some of his peers describe him as somewhat of a jerk. But he did this two years ago, when he was barely out of high school and certainly not out of his teenage years.

This is not the first time that twitter has got someone into trouble. One of the most remarkable things about being alive right now is that movements and revolutions can follow you into your own legitimate social Universe. You don't have to go to a march to express solidarity with a cause that is close to your heart. You can do it on Twitter or Facebook. There are pages dedicated to Tyler Clementi that put the entire responsibility of Tyler's suicide on Dharun's twenty year old shoulders. And there are pages, albeit less popular, that urge people to reflect on Dharun's situation. The pro-Clementi group wants to use this trial as an example and a message to the young generation that they must be aware of what they say, especially when they say it online.  
This case also challenges the traditional image of bullies we have. It brings forth an entirely new trap that people are falling victims to -- the social media. It is an extension of the good old fashioned "what others say about you" syndrome that has driven so many human achievements and failures. It has taken a new dimension on the Internet where people constantly judge you by your pictures, the websites you visit, the email accounts you use, the friends you have and the music you listen to. There is a new layer of coolness attached to teenagers today. They have a real world personality and an online personality.

What made me reflect after watching this interview was that a twenty year old kid faces the camera with a stoic expression and says that he would never regret not taking the plea deal. That taking it would mean accepting that he hates homosexuals. And he'd rather go to jail than live with that all his life. I would not have been able to take this stand if I were in his shoes. I would probably have chickened out and taken the plea deal. Of course, I am not saying that what he did was right.But if I retropolate (am I inventing words?) the amount of world exposure and experience I have now to when I was twenty, I would have definitely been shattered by this. In the face of such an exaggerated media hatred where some people went on record accusing Dharun of 'outing' Tyler by posting a video of him having sex online, I would have crumbled. Irrespective of what punishment he is given, I think this young man deserves credit for facing the consequences of his actions with remarkable calm (at least in public). Especially considering this was his first tryst with the real world.
Whatever the outcome, for going through this honestly, Dharun, I am sure it will get better. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Buddha on willpower and ego

I have been listening to talks given by Buddhist scholars on audiodharma. I particularly like talks by Thannissaro Bhikkhu. He has a way of teaching by using examples from everyday life. He does it with humor too. Although most of these talks are common sense, when you listen to them, you realize that when you are caught in a battle between the different "yous" in your head, this common sense evaporates like ether.

In this talk about Buddha on Willpower.  Thanissaro talks about the 'categorization' of actions Buddha gave us. There are four groups of actions that we do in our everyday life:

1. Actions we like doing and bring us good
2. Actions we don't like doing and bring us bad
3. Actions we like doing BUT bring us bad
4. Actions we don't like doing BUT bring us good

The measure of our knowledge is in how we handle the last two of the above. Most problems that I create for myself are due to bad handling of the last two categories.
Whether it is sticking to my diet, or finishing the tasks I have given myself at work. All of it falls in the last two groups.

In this talk about Buddha on Ego, which is titled 'Wisdom of the Ego', Thanissaro talks about how the West thinks of Buddhism. In the West, people do not see human ego as a necessarily bad entity. In the East, we are brought up believing that ego (ahankar in Sanskrit, which literally translates as 'the sound of me') comes in the way of happiness. Buddhist philosophy talks about Annatta (non-self) which is an essential step towards attaining wisdom, happiness and enlightenment. However, Buddhism does not call for an annihilation of ego in order to be happy.

Then, he compares Freud's functions of ego to Buddha's functions of ego.

According to Freud, ego is essential to human beings because it is able to carry out certain important functions for the well being of the mind.

1. Anticipation (it can anticipate the dangers in the near future and guide us)
2. Suppression (it can help us postpone gratification for our own long term happiness)
3. Sublimation (it can help us divert our attention from desire by engaging in art, sports, creativity)
4. Altruism (stems from the belief that we need to make others happy in order to be happy ourselves)
5. Humor (helps us laugh at ourselves)

Buddhist philosophy also explains all the above functions in it's own way. The concept of non-self is not rejecting oneself. It is about expanding the mind's eye to realize that there is much more to the world than me and my thoughts. Buddhist philosophy accepts the existence of ego, anticipates the damage it could do and evolves strategies to minimize the possibilities of the ego going out of control. Since there is no all-knowing God in Buddhist way, disciplining yourself starts with understanding your own mind. It is a very difficult path but it changes you for your own sake.

There are descriptions of the self (mind/ego) in the Bhagwad Gita too
In the fifth verse of the sixth chapter (Dhyanayoga) Lord Krishna says,

बन्धुरत्मात्मनस्तस्य येनात्मैवात्मना जित: |
अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे वर्तेतात्मैव शत्रुवत् ||

The self (mind) which is conquered by the self (mind) is a friend. But for someone who has failed to control the self (mind) , the self (mind) harms like an enemy.

What I like about the Buddhist philosophy is the absence of an all knowing, accounting and punishing God. What you do, is for your own self first. Even your generosity stems from helping yourself and not others. So the delusions that could occur as a result ("I did this for you!"), get mitigated by the thought that it is for your own well being ("I am doing this for myself").

Even in letting go, the Buddha says,
"Whatever is not you and not yours, let it go. That would be for your long term happiness"

The life long experiment in controlling one's own mind for one's own sake is one of the most ideal yet most difficult states of being. These talks sound simple because of the meditation that has been devoted to them. It brings back the recurring realization I get -- that most simple things around us are profoundly difficult to achieve. And it also includes simple joy.

Audiodharma is available free to the world on the principles of Buddhist traditions. Their talks and guided meditations are very helpful if you are serious about daily practice. This website is run entirely on donations. So if you find it helpful, please let them know through a small donation.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Happy Post doc

Moving to America has been a powerful change. One strong realization is that there no happy ever after. I think at this point, it is reasonable to accept that a complete clarity of who you really are is beyond reach. Nonetheless, post docing has been a really refreshing change too. I had read this post by FSP long time ago and I had imagined how cool it would be to be in a similar situation. I am very fortunate to say that despite all the hurdles I faced coming from a smaller, not-so-well known group to a bigger, famous group, I completely agree with the her. On most days, I am a Happy Post doc.

The one really happy change I noticed in myself was a remarkable improvement in my ability to plan. As a PhD student, I sometimes assigned myself unreasonable targets, mostly because I failed to see what could go wrong (or was in happy denial). Also, I had a tendency to suppress nagging pop-ups my mind came up with about what the reviewers might point out in an experiment. Most of these doubts turned into reviewer comments and I had to go back to the drawing board. As a post doc, I can sense that I am more rational about doing a thorough study right now than wait for it to be a reviewer comment. I also seem to have a better understanding of what could go wrong (I am the Cassandra for my own experiments!).

Like FSP says in her post, working on different projects and see them shape up separately is one of the exciting bits of this job. My ability to multitask has certainly been a big plus. Managing different experiments and collaborating with different people on each project is really exciting. I think I am more in control of what I am doing now than I was as a PhD student. There is no thesis to worry about. My fear of failing has been diluted to a great extent too. Although I sense that the overall uncertainty is still the same and failure now would mean an overall failure in life, I strangely enjoy being now and here.

Stepping into a new country/city, a new lab, being alone all over again was really daunting in the beginning. But now, a few good friends later, I realize that it is this confidence of being able to start over again that keeps me happy most of the time. The feeling that nothing really clings to you and you don't cling to anything has been a source of great happiness. I have also realized that I work better if I start happy. I think a really good voice for my thoughts would be this Ted talk by Shawn Achor.
Working in the lab has been a source of curiosity, joy and wonderment all over again. I hope this feeling stays *touchwood*. :)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A single excellent night

"Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come. who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night --
It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.”

I heard this talk by Andrea Fella. It begins with this poem by Gautama Buddha. I recommend Audio Dharma to all my readers. It is a website hosted by the Insight Meditation Center, Redwood City, California. It is a rich resource of Buddhist philosophy. My most favorite speaker is Gil Fronsdal  . I enjoy his talks as well as his guided meditations

I have started enjoying half an hour of guided meditation every day. One important thing that it has taught me is that you can feel the actual physical existence of your entire body when you meditate. You can hear your heart beat, you can feel the twitching in your muscles, you can sense your breath brushing against your windpipe and then inflating your lungs. You can feel your diaphragm, the relaxation of your stomach with breath and sometimes even your pulse as blood flows through aching muscles or constricted spaces. The only one entity you can never physically pin down is your mind. Yet, it drives, occupies and dominates your physical body to such an extent that most of the times, you are completely oblivious to the fact that you are carrying around this beautiful, intricately designed machine of a body that is helplessly attached to the software of your mind. :)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tissue or a beer?

This post by FSP led to a pop-up memory window in my mind.
I think a good measure of  how much mentoring experience your PI has would be to see if they have a box of tissues in their office. My current PI does and, considering that it was almost empty the last time I used it (oops!), he must either have cranky sinuses or a lot of crying students. Judging by how kind and soft spoken he is, I think I would blame the sinuses.

But any mention of  weeping in your PhD supervisor's room takes me back to Brisbane. I have the world's worst anger release mechanism. When I get angry, I start weeping. My Australian supervisor was the kind of guy who calls a spade a spade (or a crappy first draft, well, a crappy first draft). I don't know why I was so regularly offended by his adjectives considering I had seen him use them every single moment that I spent with him ever. Even his praise was peppered with expletives.

There were days when I used to sit in his office from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon going over my writing. Sometimes, especially towards the end of the week, my anger got the better of me. The resulting weeping would not faze him one bit. Instead of offering me a tissue, he would say, "let's get out of here. You need a beer."

Honestly, I had never thought that I would miss weeping in his office but I do!

Monday, January 02, 2012

New Year Revolution

Happy New Year to everyone!

My new year "revolution" was to deactivate my Facebook account. Well, this ain't a hormonal reaction to the slight panic every new year brings into your life. I had been thinking about both my active and passive involvement in Facebook for a long time. Finishing up PhD and getting a job just made it clearer. Apart from the fact that I spent a lot of time just deciding what goes on Facebook and what doesn't, it also took some  real productive work time out of my schedule, merely due to my passive involvement (checking others' profiles, reading comics posted by others, looking at pictures posted by others). I started realizing that I don't get as much time to write as I used to when I was a student (which by the way, was another revelation about my productivity as a PhD student).

So what did I learn from my almost four year long existence on Facebook?

1. People have Facebook personalities

Some like to live through Facebook, some like to vent through Facebook, some like to reveal as less about themselves as possible but reading everything about others. There are Facebook drama queens ("I am so lonely. It is unbearable"), Facebook philosophers, Facebook clowns, Facebook reporters, Facebook stock market and political analysts (they also kind of pushed me to take this final step), Facebook revolutionaries ("Anna [Hazare] Rocks!) and very proud but slightly annoying Facebook mommies.

2. My Facebook profile is like a 1 mL (mostly happy) extract out of 1000 mL of life experiences

I say this only through my own experience. My profile, the way it looks on Facebook is the least likely representation of my real life. Yeah, I have an exciting social life. But most of the times, I am battling various annoying problems. Honestly, sometimes I am just barely able to squeeze in all that I want to do in a day. My everyday life is so boring that it has earned me the nick name "granny" in my close friend circle. The things that give me true happiness are not cool enough to be on Facebook. More importantly, I never feel like sharing the experiences that truly make me happy and enrich my life, on Facebook. They are reserved for a little corner in my heart, in a sanctuary of their own.

3. Not having an instant medium of expression actually matures my thoughts

I had done this with my blog in the past. I would like to think more and express less. So that the quality of my expression does not embarrass me a few years down the line. I would hate to see the record of all my online comments pooled over a period of few years. I know I have been firmly convinced about things in the past. Only to grow out of my convictions by realizing that I was mostly ignorant.

4. Obscurity is the new "Cool"

About a year ago, I was flatmates with a French girl. Her boyfriend flew over to see her in Australia. He was probably the first person of my generation, who not only did not have a Facebook account but also did not own a cellphone (even in his own country). I was secretly angry to find him (the kind of anger you feel after you realize that your "basic needs" are frivolity to someone else) but I was really amazed to see how happy he was without all of these things. I asked him what happens if someone needs to urgently reach him? He told me he has an answering machine on his land line and that he goes home every single night. :)
After meeting him, I have met others who prescribe to his view to varying degrees and I found that all these people were really interesting. Mostly because I pictured them as  these giant Sequoia trees standing their ground against the Social Media winds. :)

To be honest, no one cares about your Facebook profile. There are people who genuinely care about YOU. But you don't need Facebook to realize that. Or maybe you do.

In this new year, I plan to write more on my blog. Write about my travels in the Unites States, my impressions of the midwest and also about being a postdoc in a big research group.

Happy New Year again and good luck with your revolutions!