24 December 2008

All in a day's train ride

This story begins quietly, in the soft light of the morning. I was in Chennai catching a bit of the glamour at the music and dance festival as well as catching up with delightful friends. I caught the Brindavan express to return to Bangalore, which leaves Chennai at 7:15 in the morning, IRT (Indian railways time). We had been up talking and drinking the night before so I wasn't feeling bright eyed and bushy tailed as I made my way to the train compartment. Thanks to tatkal I managed to get tickets in the second class compartment and settled myself into the 10 inches of bum space my co-passengers had generously left for me. Luckily I had the aisle seat so I could spill over anytime I wanted to.

The first half of the train journey was quite boring mostly because I was trying to sleep and my neck kept wanting attention. Every time I propped it up straight I had to realign my spine and reclaim the 2 inches that were stolen while I had dropped off into dream state. At some point I think the person next to me was asking me questions and I stared back blankly so he gave up on the conversation. About midway I ran out of drool so I had to get up. I fortified the system with a bit of tea (it is one of those train journeys where the food and drinks never stop coming around) and sized up my fellow passengers. We were 6 of us in a coupe with each person being allocated roughly 20 inches. Next to me were two gentlemen, one who gave me a dirty look so I shot back my best NRI disdain. Opposite us were seated one youngish champ who looked like he ate a lot of bajjis and considered his morning walk to be the one he makes to the bathroom. Next to him were a sweet mother and daughter pair. We were a peaceful coupe.

Towards the end of the journey the compartment which up to this point was 100% reserved and carrying about 40% extra riff raff suddenly turned into the Dadar local. There were people everywhere and in between suddenly, was the shrill cry of "Carrots". Let's call her the carrot lady. She had a basket full of veggies wrapped quite nicely in plastic (department store ishtyle) and was selling them at a flat price of Rs 20. In the opposite direction was another veggie seller, screaming his head off about his Aurekal (they look like fava beans; very distinctively local fare) which too were nicely packed in bags and selling for Rs 20. Like two intersecting lines the twain met, right next to my coupe. Now if you remember I was planted in the aisle seat so I had front side tickets to the show that followed. In order to get around the carrot lady who was busy with a sale, the beans guy asked her to move aside and went around her. Ok, so there was no excuse me and polite waiting but considering the train was packed it's possible that there was no space for such manners. Anyway, the carrot lady took major affront.

How dare the beans guy ask her to move aside? I mean, does he own the train or what? So in her best voice she proceeded to rain comments on the beans guy who actually had stepped away quite aways. Finding that her object of derision was walking away the carrot lady stepped up her ranting. Now she included the mother and father of the beans guy in her insults. So of course, the beans guys does an about face and asks her if she was Ok in the head. All this screaming is happening in Tamil so I'm in a great drama at this point, with no subtitles. I could only pick up vague words that overlap with Kannada. The argument was quite heated and was going to reduce to fisticuffs when the audience demanded the volume be toned down. Oh boy, that went down even worse with the main characters. More screaming ensued when finally a smart passenger asked for some carrots. The sale circumstances changed everything and they dispersed into the crowds.

All in all, spectacular time pass. I have mentioned about my strange romance with the Indian railways and this time too, it didn't fail to amuse.

23 December 2008

Spot checks

For the last few months I have been staying with my parents. Its been a fabulous experience. I have not had to worry about food, laundry, rent, bills or cleaning. But this luxury has come at a price I call "spot checks". My parents give me all the love in the world, in the healthiest of doses, which is why they subject my room to spot checks frequently. Recently, my father came thundering down from his office demanding to know why there were two towels in my bathroom. In his honest opinion there should just be one towel. Even one bath towel and one hand towel are acceptable but not two bath towels. He would brook no explanation and just wanted to know which one I wanted to toss in the wash. My attempts to explain my toweling system were in vain because even after going into detail about body towels and hair towels my dad refused to accept two towels in the bathroom. Besides my bathroom, my dad is also particular about the way I maintain my shoes. I have a pair that were black once upon a time but dust and nonchalance had given them a healthy coating of brown. Given his military background, this status quo was unacceptable and, he wanted me to go forth and polish my shoes. This took me back about 15 years when every school night we were punished to polish our shoes. Anyway, Bangalore is such a dusty city that I really see no point in wasting my precious lazy minutes polishing shoes but naturally, such frank explanations have no weight. Ultimately my dad got fed up of my deaf adder routine and just polished my shoes himself!

Then a few days back while I was sipping my morning cuppa and drinking in the Hindu my mother shoved a half empty dustbin under my nose with the loud question, "What is this?" I wasn't sure if she wanted to know why it was half full or if she wanted me to explain the contents of the dustbin but either way she was in red alert and I could not mess with it. So, I batted my eyelids a few times and resorted to the baffled "Howooda." Meanwhile my mother had already launched into a full scale lecture series on public health and the importance of being clean. The whole thing ended with her lamenting that the cleaning lady had already collected the day's garbage so I missed my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have an empty dustbin. All through this monologue my grandma was shaking her head and tut-tutting despondently, "You used to be such a neat girl...tsk tsk"

Occasionally I come back home to find that contents of my room have been neatly stacked into completely unorganized bunches. Basically the size of the object determined its place in the decorative aesthetics. Then I open my wardrobe, the only place where I have a strict filling system for items, to find that my night clothes are all mixed in with casual pants. Turns out that on such days instead of giving me a look and a stern invitation to clean up, my mother just decided to take things into her own hands. This prolonged visit also ends up with her re-making my bed because I don't have the sheet tucked in just right.

If all this tension weren't enough, Astro stops by sometimes when he wants to sleep on my bed. He first examines the room to make sure there aren't any undies or socks or other light weight clothing items that he shouldn't just grab and scram. After a through sniff to make sure I am not eating biscuits in private he whines till I give him a heave-ho to climb the bed. Once on top he normally stands and checks out the terrain before plonking himself on exactly the spot I was sleeping on. Then, he proceeds to gather the sheets about him all the while lightly drooling. And my mother wonders why my sheets are not properly tucked in...

My parents also feel that I have a particularly bad sense of dressing. My dad thinks I dress like a bhangi (indian hippi?) and my mom thinks I deliberately wear mismatching outfits. So every time we have to go out as a family there are endless conversations on what I should wear. I thought I solved the problem by just throwing open my cupboard and asking them to pick the outfit, but to no avail. They pull the you-are-29-you-should-know-how-to-dress card and soon enough I am pulling my hair out trying to get the right combination for tonight's evening number. The tragedy of this story of course, is that no matter what I wear, it's below par.

These are but the few instances of insanity I have to live out in the name of luxury. It's not a bad deal really, but once in a while, I wish I could determine how many towels I should have in my bathroom!

P.S. This is an update. I have now discovered that on the garbage incident day my mother also threw out the paper bag I was collecting all my recycling waste in. Great! How long can one live with such atrocities? sniff.

19 December 2008

Indian Institute of Food

As we enter the age of instant food and general migration within the country the one area we are sure to loose a lot of information is our age old food culture. I am specifically talking about recipes and regional cuisine. We live in a country where language, food and customs change every 300 kms (approximately, based on my general perception). The only way to sustain this diversity is if we conserve it. Therefore I propose to invest my millions (which I might make or borrow) in the Indian Institute of food (IIF).

The mandate of this institute would be three fold:
  1. It will archive and store recipes within a given geographical perimeter. All ingredients (vegetables and spices) of recipes to also be archived.
  2. It will make all the information it collects available free of cost.
  3. It will hold cooking classes, not only in the cuisine it specializes in but also import the know how on other cuisines being investigated by other IIFs.
Each IIF will be a local institution but networked into a much larger chain of IIFs. Its board would be constituted of neighbourhood grannies, popular restaurant chefs (this includes pavement golgappawallas), food bloggers and anyone who gets about 200 people to certify that he can make certain dishes very well. The one flaw I already foresee is that the ego of aforementioned personnel would make it difficult to come to a consensus on the recipe for any one item. Therefore I also propose that multiple entries be archived. The initial investment would only be that of infrastructure - building, cooking toys and computational power. The community would have to sustain the costs of the institute by providing catering services and cooking classes.

I haven't overlooked the wonderful work food bloggers are doing archiving their family recipes. In fact the only reason I know about food blogging is through the wonderful effort of N at One Hot Stove. But these efforts still do not encompass the whole breadth of Indian cooking knowledge because they are distilled efforts based on the food bloggers' interest. My idea will hopefully act as a bridge effort between their interests and all other traditional food.

This school would eventually also address such questions of major scientific importance like - When was the first dosa made? How did the British change Indian cuisine? Hey, who decided that there should be onions in my upma? etc.

If any of my readers would like to help me make or lend me the millions for this initiative my lines are open.

18 December 2008

Why not to dream big

During the past few months I have interacted with children of various age groups from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some are first generation learners, some are the first to complete Class X and some have only seen a computer for the first time in the last six months. These kids have heterogeneous backgrounds - north vs south, urban vs rural, slum vs village etc. but ALL of them have aspirations and these are by no means duller than what the kid at the local private school near my house has. They aspire to be doctors, engineers, policewomen, teachers and lawyers. Sadly no one wants to become a scientist. I attribute this to our poor brand management.

Well, the trouble does not lie is having these aspirations but fulfilling them. For e.g., in my days if one wanted to get into a decent engineering college you had to go to tuition, subscribe to brilliant tutorials and generally spend your best years in front of book not gaining knowledge but memorizing information or sharpening your skills with pattern recognition. That status quo hasn't changed much. So for my kid in the village who has to finish school and then till the land or take the cows out to graze where is the time for all this extra study? How is she going to compete with all the other kids out there. A very simple retort to this would be that the kids come from backgrounds where reservation ensures them a better playing field to get admitted. This in my opinion is just gobbledygook. There are two aspects which are inter-related here that I want to discuss. The first is about fulfilling these aspirations and the second is about having realistic aspirations.

In order to fulfill aspirations the kids need access to higher education (high school), information (what to study for a particular entrance exam or professional degree) and financial assistance. Access to higher education is a big problem right now. Thanks to SSA there is a huge thrust in primary education but once the kid is done with Class VII the next school might be too far away. On one of my site visits a gang of high schools kids were playing cricket on the primary school playground. I was curious about this and enquired. Turns out they weren't in school because the only morning bus that brings them to their school broke down, the next service was only in the afternoon and so they had the day off; for technical reasons. The next issue is one of information. Most kids are aware of state level exams for technical courses but they are clueless about what type of marks they need to get and how to prepare for the exams. Lastly, more higher education courses require a significant investment of time that families cannot afford for their child to be involved in simply because they need that earning member of the family. Even if all these issues are taken care of there still a problem with these aspirations i.e., are they realistic?

Why cant becoming an engineer be a realistic aspiration? I am hurting as I write these words... for the simple reason that we don't have enough infrastructure or universities to cater to our population. This is abundantly clear if you were to read the report put out by the National Knowledge Commission on higher education. The other disturbing fact is that all these kids aspire to become something not wholly related to their environment i.e., no kid wants to become a farmer (even though that might be the ultimate profession they end up in) or a forest officer or water conservationist. They aspire for professions they see in TV or read about in newspapers that bring to them an ocean of financial security and upward mobility.

This issue has been vexing me a lot recently so at a recent book launch of "Imagining India", I put forth this as a question to Nandan Nilekani; that we are building aspirations but not laying the foundation to fulfill them, to which he succinctly replied "Well, they'll experience a expectation backlash. Next question?" Now this bothers me a lot. Are we supporting our children through various projects, sowing seeds for a better future only so they can experience an "expectation backlash"? I'm at a dead end with regards to a solution. For most issues that I feel strongly about, I look inwards for solutions because I want to be the instrument of change myself. But this time I am floored. Do we continue encouraging the kids and hope that the few who make it across the threshold of higher learning would eventually lead the entire society forward? Or do we revise our course curriculum and encourage the children to embrace professions more suited to their local environment and needs? What type of system can we build where your circumstances don't dictate your professional ambitions - this means a kid from urban school should aspire to be a snake charmer while a rural child aspires to become a orthopaedist. Any thoughts out there?

15 December 2008

Doing as Astro does V

Here is the latest advice from Shri Sree Sri Shree Astro ji.

Lesson # 5 Get some sun.

As you will notice from the pictures Astro is diversifying his nap time locations by shifting himself into the sun. Normally at this time he is to be found curled up on his bed or my grandmother's (depending on domestic vigilance and mood of occupants at home on that day). I remember a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip where Hobbes wishes that he had a big sunny field to lie in and, this is the same with Astro. Only he loves his mental security too much to trust sleeping in an open field so one finds him safely sunning himself in our driveway. This advice from Astro needs no more explanation and is pretty easy to execute. So slap on that sunscreen and get some sun.

11 December 2008

"Me, a scientist?" Ha!

For the last week I have been visiting an Asha project in Kanakapura and evaluating them. I spent a lot of time talking to children, teachers and project staff. Here I would like to record one of my incidents with the children.

My usual game plan is to enter a class (I wish I could let out a dozen white doves upon entry) and greet the children with an effusive "Hi". Yeah, it's a bit lame, I wish I had the foresight to say something far more zippy. Preliminaries concluded the game of sizing up begins. As soon as I say a few sweet words in Kannada its clear to the kids that I am some sort of urban delite with bad language skills. While speaking to a Kannada audience I tend to get my grammar, vocabulary and tense quite nicely mixed up and so, not only do the kids have to answer my questions but they also have to understand what exactly I meant. There are lots of pauses along the way and I finally stumble (with prompting on the sidelines by the mentor and teacher) on the right set of words to convey my idea. Usually this was a math question that I was unable to articulate correctly and at the end everyone is happy because in the time it took me to figure out the words the kids solve the question. After a few back and forth rounds of math challenges and banter about what the kids want to do in their future I throw the floor open to them. I figure since I have simply waltzed into their lives asking questions they should be allowed to do the same. In some classes, they take this challenge seriously so after the mere formalities - name? father's and mother's name? native place? etc., they move on to profession. "Scientist" I announce, looking furtively at my prompters for the Kannada translation when a kid says, "vigjnanika".

The buck doesn't stop there, now they want to know what kind - did I help send chandrayaan to the moon? No. I help solve mysteries in biology (jaivik shastra). "What mysteries?" scream the kids. Hmm... this was not on my anticipated list of answers. I have worked in the field of membrane biology and infectious disease. The world of lipid rafts, the subject I did my thesis in, continues to remain a hotly debated subj and one I certainly could not find the words to explain in two-line English let alone Kannada. Even though lipids are far far more dear to my heart with cowardice, I decided to talk about my work in infectious diseases. Now Salmonella pathogenesis isn't the type of subject to populate my Kannada vocabulary so I started to scratch my head on how to explain it.

First, had the kids heard of Bacteria? Yes. What do they do? Give us Disease, cause us to fall ill. Right ho, we were on the same page. Had they heard of a cell? The unit of functionality in our bodies? Yes. There was a chart in the room with a mammalian cell so that solved another point. As I wanted to make it proactive I told the kids to think of a bacteria as a robber, trying to break into a house (cell). How many ways can a robber enter a home? Door, window, break lock, roof, tunnel (this needed a bit of convincing because tunnels are only dug by jailbirds according to the kids!). Then I asked them similarly to guess how a bacteria might enter a cell. A stunned silence broken by a few giggles. Ok, I thought, maybe I'll prod them along. So I drew a big fuzzy cell and a tiny bug next to it. Visualize this my champs and you can figure it out, I thought. The bacteria breaks the lock of the cell shouts one child. Yes, and it uses a needle to do that (for the geeks: Type III secretion ). We played around this way and came up with some more ways for the bug to enter the cell. An absolutely delightful time.

While traveling on the bus after this incident I was thinking about the situation. I believe that as a scientist I should be able to successfully communicate my work to any type of audience. It seems my major drawback is that I can only do so in English (or so I think!) and in either Hindi or Kannada I find this an uphill task. I really feel bad that I couldn't talk about lipids. But on the other hand, I was patting myself on the back for coming up with the robber analogy and was blown away with how fast the kids picked it up. Now I have set myself a new standard, I should be able to explain to a 6th standard kid what it is that I do and then only, will I really know my job! Oh, also I intend to practice in English, Hindi and Kannada. :)

4 December 2008

Angry but not focused

I just got back from Thippsandra where enough people commit civil sins that you can get all your inherent anger out in a 'justifiable' manner. Well, I thought I wasn't angry. My trip was supposed to give my aching body something else to do and I wanted the cement in my chest, courtesy a bad sore throat, to move about a bit. It certainly was not my intention to talk to anyone because speaking is more taxing than climbing a hill at this point. So it's with dismay that I found myself screaming at an Innova driver who was exiting from a side alley onto the main road and decided not to look left or right while making this merger. The vile remonstrations that came from my lips left me shaken. On the grand scheme of things that happen in Thippsandra this was very small, yet in spite of an inflammed chest, for 5 minutes I got into a one way tirade.

Why was I really angry? Sure, I'm very upset about what happened in Bombay and am feeling the pulse of public reaction via tv and web. I'm certainly internalizing the anger and hurt expressed. But just like the public at large I think I am not using my anger effectively. I am not focused on what is causing this feeling and just want to be rid of it. If I didn't consider myself an ocean of germs right now I would be at Cubbon park joining my fellow citizens to protest. Then again, I'm thinking, to protest what?

I'm a bit tired emotionally and physically but I do know that whatever happened, whatever the feelings we can't simply vent the feelings without an action plan. Here is my suggested action plan for myself.

  • Vote - I can get myself on the electoral register. I can encourage my friends and family to do the same. In fact I can hound them to do it.
  • Stay fit - Do people fathom that for the 60 hours our forces were battling the gunmen these folks held out and chased them around in circles? For 60 hours and more (if you count the time they were on their way for the mission) - no naps, no rest and adrenalin. How many of the youth today can survive that? For a strong nation we need a strong population - mentally and physically. So get on that treadmill and start meditating.
  • Be informed - Who is your local councillor? MP? MLA? SP? Where is the closest police station? How long has that traffic cop at the junction been working? Do we even bother to ask these questions. People of my generation don't necessarily work in the place where they grew up and might continue to move around the nation. Should that stop us from knowing about the people who make laws and govern us? Think and be aware of the world you live in. In your colony, city, village... any place you are living in.
  • Be proactive - Don't like that garbage piling up? Think a junction needs a cross bridge? Shoot off an email to the editor of your newspaper or walk into your councillor's office. Many times when I talk to people about my projects and causes I find that many want to help. But they hold themselves back because it might not be enough or that their little effort is useless in the big picture. We must give up these perceptions. Try and effect change to the best of your ability. Not everyone can move mountains so do your bit and don't judge yourself for it. Don't judge the type of activity and don't judge the outcome. Just do your bit when something civic annoys you.

As I type this I realize I myself don't know answers to many of the questions I have posed. So as soon as the cement in my chest dissolves and my throat stops being on fire I will have to initiate a fact finding mission.

1 December 2008

Commiserating with Mr. Unnikrishnan

Hoy! Mr. CMs: what's the deal with showing up at people's home and not respecting their privacy? I don't ever recall you having an open door policy for us citizens to merely walk in one afternoon for a cup of tea at your residence. So, how dare you decide that you need to pay respects to a family who didn't want you there? Mr. Unnikrishnan has a right to his rage and privacy so you have no business to expect him to welcome you with open arms. Your comment just shows to go that your fragile ego is no match for the love and bereavement of a father. I wish I could offer Mr. Unnikrishnan a citizen's cordon from dingdongs like you who think that simply winning an electoral mandate makes you popular guest # 1 in any residence.