Monday, November 25, 2013

Before They Pass Away

Before They Pass Away
I read this post on my favorite Internet haunt - Brainpickings. I am going to share the accompanying video at the end of this post. It is a great talk. It made me think about the lives of so many people I have met in the past. People who have willingly chosen to do something different and unconventional, usually because of something they experienced at the very beginning of their adulthood. 

It is really difficult to understand the way certain people process what happens to them. Traveling helps in deconstructing our rigid boundaries, especially the ones we inherit from our upbringing. But not all traveling is as paradigm changing as the one you see in these pictures. Some people just become their journey. While some travel in a comfortable bubble they carry around them - of their identity. There is a lot to gain however, in losing your identity. There is a lot to learn just in the act of getting lost. 

People who walk these roads sometimes find it difficult to identify themselves again, in places where they started from. You come back and realize that the place has or hasn't changed in ways you don't want to see. And no matter how rich you are from all your travel, judgment still hurts. Not because you expect a deeper understanding from people but because you cannot translate your experiences into words, for them to understand. There are some realizations that cannot be said. They can only happen at the end of an experience. And going through these kind of experiences takes the courage (or the foolishness) to get lost. 

As an audience we have an insatiable appetite for stories of triumph. Yet, most of us would not want to put ourselves in situations that offer the kind of risk that creates stories of triumph. Most of us choose to stay away from the fear of losing than accept the joy of walking the unknown path. And most of the times, we offer little hope or encouragement to people who are halfway through their own stories of triumph. For them, we speculate failure, citing statistics, or cultural norms, or our (limited) experience. When all the dots are connected, (and they are always connected in retrospect), these stories always defy our idea of how a life "ought" to be lived. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Like a bridge over troubled water

"Do you believe in God?" was the first question I got from my PhD supervisor, when we went out for a get-to-know-my-new-student lunch. It came right after (literally), "Do you know anything about ionic liquids?". I really wasn't sure about either. And he said it was perfectly okay. :)

He is a rather outspoken atheist. We have spent so many hot Brisbane evenings in the pub down the road from the university (called The Ship Inn) talking about (how there is no) God. I think he has a special problem with religion. If religion is removed from the picture, he would lose most of his ammunition.Talking to him was always very enlightening. I don't think I learned as much chemistry from him as other things. First and foremost, he taught me to cook with all my heart. Watching him cook for his friends was a treat to the eyes. He had spices from all over the world (especially New Orleans, one of his many loves) and he used to take pride in sharing all his little tricks with us. He taught me how to be ethical. He is the kind of person who will give up a fat salary because it is conflict with his conscience. He shared all his music with his friends. He has a great taste in music. His house always sings.

He also has a great sense of humor. Sometimes, he can be really rude (but very funny). Once we were at a conference and a pompous (& slightly tipsy) professor was bragging about how everyone tells him that he looks much younger than his age. Then he had the worst idea ever, of turning around and asking my supervisor, "How old do you think I am?". He promptly replied with a blank face, "I don't know mate. You look sixty five to me". I did not stop laughing that night.

He always treated me as his equal. I had all the freedom to argue and fight with him (which I used liberally). I was really impatient with him during all the stressful times in my PhD. At the time, I had not anticipated that when all of this writing, proof reading, referencing, peer reviewing, publishing is over, we are going to be left with a friendship. He was always happy for me. When I moved to America for a post-doc, he made it a point to let me know, more than once, how proud I had made him.

There was one day however, when I was horribly depressed in Michigan, that changed my life. Although traveling around the world and making new friends everywhere was a lot of fun, it also came with patches of being completely alone. There were situations when I was alone and also extremely lonely. To an outsider, my life may seem like a series of boarding cards (which to a great extent it was, when I was in the States). I had the traveling of my life, with people who were not just a lot of fun to be with, but also taught me a lot about myself. But being alone, on your own, in a small apartment in the middle of  Michigan snow had it's own lessons. And on one such night, I really was ready to give up. I couldn't believe how sad I had become. And beneath the noise of my everyday life, I felt really lost and scared. I had an urge to write to my supervisor that day and I am so glad I did.

I hit the send button and looked out of my bedroom window. There was fresh snow everywhere, piled up on quite a few inches of existing snow that had made our lives miserable that week. The light from the street lights reflected off the snow, and made the night oddly surreal. It was a magical hour. I had never been up that late and just looking out, at the bigger picture, which was not at all related to my sadness, was a respite. Nature has an amazing quality of slowing down your thoughts. The vast expansion of the ocean till the horizon, the silhouettes of leafless, naked maple trees waiting for their turn to blossom, in the silence after a snowstorm, the infinite lifeless grayness of the Himalayas -- all of these have always helped me stop my thoughts, even if it was for a minute or two.

There were so many options ahead of me. All of them seemed equally complicated at the time. All I wanted to do was curl up in my blanket and become invisible. And then, I got a you-have-new-email alert. There it was, a reply! From the land of sunny beaches and Vegemite. Where it is too hot to wear a shirt in December. Knowing me, and how evasive I can be when I am upset, he chose to write back instead of call. And I will always keep that letter close to my heart.

Among other things, it asked me not to return home to surround myself with love, but to plan a career, a life, that would keep me satisfied.  To take everything people tell me about life (and about myself) with a pinch of salt. To not build walls around myself to avoid getting hurt. To always follow my bliss. He had begun his list of advice with 'always follow your bliss'. And he ended the list with the same line. I think it was intentional.

I  still don't  know the answer to his first question. But I do know this. That night, I really came close to believing in a higher power. That power is the goodwill of one human being for another. When you are down and out, sometimes the biggest stroke of luck is your choice of who you decide to reach out to. If you reach out to someone who can just vacuum out all the imaginary dark clouds that loom over your imaginary future, your sails are set in no time.  Out  beyond the cultural and moral boundaries of what is right and wrong, and how one should lead the course of his or her own life, beyond all the noise and judgement, lies the deeply satisfying knowledge that there are people who still believe in you when you don't. People who always see you as a complete picture, without magnifying your flaws and skewing your own ideas about who you are. People who know what you are going through because just like you, they have been there too. Thanks to them, these fleeting moments of profound grief do not take a sinister form.

The other day, I got a call from him. He was traveling and it was 3 AM in his timezone. He had returned to his hotel after a few beers and he sounded extremely happy. "I just called to let you know Saee", he said in his warm Aussie accent, "that I am so so so happy for you."

As you get older it gets harder to say that you have absolutely no regrets. But it gets easier to know and acknowledge what makes you truly grateful. :)

Friday, November 01, 2013


Time to decorate my blog with music.
It would be an understatement if I say that I love music. I am a musical person. To the point where my thoughts depend on the music I am listening to. My writing goes with music. If I like a song, I listen to it a hundred times, over and over again, constructing a story to go with the song. I am very curious to know how other people listen to music. Is it just sound waves hitting your ears? Do you have stories to go with your favorite songs? Do your day dreams need musical dancing shoes?

During my travels abroad, every new place, every new person would bring a new kind of music into my life. And all of that was always very exciting. Gypsy music, French music, Bob Marley (thanks to my PhD supervisor), Arabic music (this always makes me sad), Manu Chao (Ugh! I used to hate Colombian late night parties), Adele & Edith Piaf (Elodie, I miss you), Anoushka Shankar (Indian music for the West), Kermit Ruffins (Yay! New Orleans!) and so much more. But most of this music was a way to be in the moment. None of it really entered my soul. Sometimes, these days, I actively avoid listening to some of those things because I don't really identify with that part of my life anymore. If there is anything constant that has always stayed with me, it is A. R. Rahman.

I love Rehman. His music has a  transcendence that I have never found in any other artist. At least the ones I have heard. His songs always seem to detach themselves from the movies they are made for. Especially the tracks he makes with his signature Sufi style. I recently came across some of his MTV unplugged episodes. The orchestration is just mind blowing to say the least.


This is the title track of  the movie Swades. I think the most attractive feature of this composition is the strategic pause that the entire ensemble takes during the song. And of course, the way Rahman just moves to Tamil at the end of the song. Sounds very beautiful. I have been trying to find the right word to describe the nature of his voice. Haven't found it yet. 


This is Rahman singing Robindranath Tagore's, where the mind is without fear . It sounds so beautiful in Bengali. 

This is also one of my most favorite Rahman songs. A lot of Rahman songs have an eccentric piano or guitar mixed into the song. If you listen to it very carefully, you'll notice that it is kind of out of place if you just pay attention to the instrument. Together with everything else, however, it takes the song to a whole new place. I love that about his compositions. 

Next up is Tu Bole  by Rahman and Neeti Mohan, again on MTV unplugged. It is a lot of fun to see Neeti absolutely enjoying the show and Rahman watching her enthusiasm and smiling to himself. When I see this kind of team work, I feel extremely jealous and sad that I could not be a musician. For some reason, I could not upload that video. Strange!

And the last one for this post is one of the best Rahman has ever made and Prasoon Joshi has ever written. This song has been my theme song since I heard it first back in 2009. This unplugged version includes fabulous piano. I'll end the post with the original track. 

A very Happy and Musical Diwali to everyone!