Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Black and White

The compound whose anticancer properties I was studying for my doctoral research was working very well in killing melanoma (skin cancer) cells. So my next step was to confirm if this compound was specifically and exclusively targeting cancerous melanoma cells or was indiscriminately killing normal skin cells (melanocytes) as well. To be able to advocate my compound as a potential drug to treat melanoma it would be imperative for me to confirm the ability of my compound to distinguish between normal and cancer cells. 

I was culturing normal skin cells for the first time and at multiple steps of the protocol I could not help but notice how much more it took to maintain normal as opposed to the diseased, puns intended.Unlike the cancer cells, which had pretty basic nutrient requirements, the normal skin cells needed a bundle of supplements including hormones to stay alive. Then one summer afternoon when the cells had grown enough for me to be able to use them for my experiment I put them in a tube to get them to form a pellet. As I looked at the tubes containing the normal and cancer cells, what I saw confused me for a split second but then drifted my mind to revisit a prejudice I, and many like me have faced life long. One of the chief aberrations that melanoma cells display is the near lack of the protective pigment melanin, the concentration of which imparts color to the skin. Essentially greater the concentration of this pigment the darker is the complexion of the person.  I, having cultured only melanin depleted melanoma cells was used to getting a pale white pellet but the pellet from normal skin cells looked quite far from it -it was dark and black. After a split second of doubt later I realized that it wasn’t any dirt or mistake in my handling but the much despised and misunderstood pigment in our part of the world- melanin! As much as I could not help smiling at how my otherwise abstruse bench science suddenly sprang into real life relevance, I also could not help feel frustrated at how shallow the popular perception of beauty is in the Indian society. What was staring at me on the face, was this evolutionarily useful pigment inhabiting a mere .2mm thick layer of our skin that is used and abused as a benchmark of beauty, especially in an Indian context. 

As far into my past as I could remember I have been made to feel and a lot many times told to my face that I was too dark to be considered in the spectrum of beautiful. Sometimes the comments were direct while at other times it was indirect through suggestions on how I could “improve” my complexion. Coming home after a fun time out in the sun would sometimes be received with concerned remarks from aunts about how dark and dirty I looked. Having cousins with ten times less melanin in their skin only made matters worse with comparisons galore. As much as red, pink, purple, yellow and orange were my favorite colors, I learnt to only admire them in nature and on light complexioned girls and never sport them myself.  My 4th grader heart would fill with sudden delight when a relative would pinch my cheeks saying “ mukhta ki mishti” (such a sweet face), but it would usually always be followed by “ kintu rongta ektu chaapa”. (but a little dark). These memories were from a time when I was smart enough to have a sense of self yet naive enough to believe that since the soles of my hands and feet were also a part of my body, if I scrubbed and cleaned the rest of my body well enough, someday the difference will blur and I will turn fair and lovely! 

Expectedly that day never came, instead I learnt that I was born with a physical handicap of being dark skinned and so I needed to compensate by excelling in other fields if I wanted to carve a good public opinion for myself, preferably in academia since I was born into the Bengali community. There were social and cultural signals galore on the street hoardings, television, movies and social gatherings to fortify the idea that dark was unbeautiful. Gori in movie songs was a synonym used for beauty and Mahmoud the comedian unabashedly sang about how despite his dark complexion he had a golden heart! (Hum kale hain to kya hua dilwaale hain). Bleaching agents to fairness creams, skin-lightening lotions to whitening potions  - the shelves were flooded with products promising the quickest and most potent ways to achieve ultimate beauty - light complexion! Fibonacci and his golden ratio had no relevance if not totally bogus. Growing up in such an environment obviously did not work well for my confidence or self esteem. 

However things started looking "brighter" once I moved to southern India for my undergraduate education. I blended more and was picked on less. From thinking people were making fun of me when and if they complimented me about my appearance, to not reacting, to gracefully thanking them- I had to learn and unlearn a lot. It wasn't easy neither was it pleasant but what is important is, it was completely unnecessary. In fact evolutionarily an equatorial habitat and thereby greater sun exposure triggers higher rate of melanin production in people living these areas. Melanin is therefore nature’s way to adapt and protect from sun damage - a natural sunscreen, a valuable survival gift. Unfortunately through generations for some inexplicable reasons the lack of this pigment became the yardstick of physical beauty to the extent of influencing even choice of life partner. As a result me, and thousands like me for generations faced the brunt of obnoxious and unfair color prejudice.  

Later when I actually moved to the "fair and lovely" part of the planet the story of beauty took a shocking about turn. I discovered the blond white world craves for a tan, a hint of color on their pale skin for protection against the damaging UV radiation from the sun AND for beauty! Here the fairness creams are therefore replaced by bronzers and tanners! As much as the brown world would readily peel their skins off to get a light complexion, the white world would gladly roast themselves on a tanning bed risking even the chance of getting skin cancer! I consider myself lucky to be living in a place which is one melting pots of world culture, where I get to interact with people from different parts of the world on an everyday basis. Just a few days ago I was conversing about beauty stereotypes with a group of friends each of who were from a different part of the world and what surfaced surprised me. Here was a group of beautiful women each of who wanted to look like someone else in the room! The dusky one wanted to be white, the white craved a tan, the straight haired one wished she had curls, the curly haired girl swore by her hair straightening iron, the tallest wished she was a few inches short so she would come across less intimidating while the shortest wished she was taller, the Asian would not mind going under the knife for a double eyelid and a sharp nose while the freckled craved a smooth Asian skin! Essentially no one was happy with what they had, everyone craved for some feature of the other- each one was disappointed by the mirror. I realized the problem was circular and vicious yet each of us had the solution to it. It is called acceptance of self - unprejudiced by sociocultural stereotypes of beauty, untarnished by the people's world, just absolute acceptance of who we really are underneath that layer of skin. What's important is to find beauty inside and to be able bring beauty to the lives of others.

 The more I studied Developmental Biology the more I realized how each of us are no less than a miracle of nature. What can be more beautiful than the sheer chance of genetic recombination between the maternal and paternal genomes to result in a unique combination coding for each us and then the precise plan of cell division it takes to give that code a physical form! Is it not utterly shallow and wrong to dismiss all of that just by the amount of pigment present in one layer of the skin? What is even more astounding is the presence of each of us beyond that code, beyond the body - the indefinable but undeniable presence of our soul, the essence of who we really are. If the human eye could see that soul, probably the parameter of beauty would not be caged by the mere color of our skin. 

Do you ever wonder why when we pray, even as we stand in front of an idol, we spontaneously close our eyes? I believe the divinity we all pray to is formless shapeless and most definitely colorless. Durga is much beyond the clay and hay of human construction and therefore we invoke the spirit or energy of the goddess at the beginning of ceremony by performing the 'pranproteestha pujo'. Would the good primal energy she stands for be any different if an idol were to be colored dark? If we understand this I cant see why we cannot extend the same wisdom when we judge people as ugly or beautiful just based on the color of their skin. I'm an eternal optimist and so despite the past I have faced and many like me continue to face, I hope that one day we will learn to look beyond skin color, facial contour and other physical features to find beauty in the sparkle in the eye, the warmth of the smile, the empathy of the touch and the intention behind good action. I'm sure it will surprise us to find how many more and how much more beautiful people the world has than we think. That day we will see light- the light of true beauty!

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Big BONG Theory

We Bengalis a.k.a Bongs have some universal life theories - theories that hold the essence of who we are just like the Big Bang holds the key to the creation of the universe. Here is my humble attempt to capture a few.

The Big Bong ‘Boktobbo’ 
Being a Bong born, ‘boktobbo’ or opinion is our birthright and we all have it. From matters ranging from global warming to the "paasher barir meye", nothing escapes the onslaught of the Bong boktobbo. A man without a Boktobbo is like a popsicle without the stick ! Informed, ill informed or plain uninformed - but Boktobbo u must have if you want to be treated with an iota of respect in Bongdom!

Bong Supremacy -a sequel to Bong Legacy
Bongs deeply believe that they are the best things to have walked the planet. Afterall it took a Satyan Bose of the Higgs-Boson fame to conceptualize the 'God particle'! The legacy of greats born unto a singular community is really remarkable and statistics of super achievers also bear testimony to the same. Therefore every other caste, creed, race, species shall lose lustre in comparison, every city shall be uninhabitable apart from the bong heartland - Kolkata. If you are a Bong and you dont believe in this supremacy theory, don't be surprized if you are outcasted as a ‘pseudo’.Tagore was born Bong and therefore by default generations ahead should shine in reflected glory over a cup of cha and cigarette. Are you wondering about Tagore's very own "Mohamanob"? The great mankind that knows no racial or communal boundaries ? Well he can take a hike for all a conceited Bong cares.

 The Theory of ‘Thanda
Global warming may seem like a myth when confronted with the infamous Bong hypothermia. Snow capped peaks may melt, the core of the earth can threaten to explode from the rising temperature of the planet but nothing can keep a Bong warm. Perennial hypothermia is an integral part of Bongness. You are not Bong enough if you are not cold enough! Therefore we Bongs always try to insulate our being in layers of sweater, muffler, ear muffs and not to forget the much mocked monkey cap!

The Bong is at an eternal war also with ‘thanda’ - the common cold. Defying all known principles of the cold virus pathogenesis, Bongs believe they have exclusive knowledge of the secret routes of infection of the virus - kaan and bheeje chool (the ears and wet hair) ! If you are a bong woman surely your mom has warned you enough of an imminent illness if you ignored drying your hair after a shower. Bongs might defeat many a men in intellect but the one thing that can "kaabu" or overpower them is thanda or cold . 

You ARE what your Report Card IS ! 
Bongs are academia's favorite child. Therefore the Report Card or Grade Book is the ultimate assessment of your market value in the eyes of a Bong If you have straight A's through school you have made your way straight up to the pinnacle of a Bong parents' opinion! You will thereof be put on a pedestal and used to serve as a source of inspiration for younger family members and as the much hated pinch of salt to rub on the sore of lesser performing peers. Extra curricular activities especially of the physical type is of little importance to a Bong. After all if they were really that important would they be called 'extra' to begin with? To a Bong the only matter that matters is the grey matter! 

A Twister in a Tea Cup- Chaayer peyalaay toofan!
No word in English can faithfully describe the meaning of “adda” and even more what it means to a Bong. It is a little more substantial than chatting and much less innocuous than gossip.There is no predicting when, where and how an adda will start and where it will go. Adda is an element which in its purest state is not meant to educate or enlighten, but Is esteemed precious for its pure entertainment value and for its ability to kill time. Upon filtration it leaves behind no substantial residue apart from that inexplicable feeling of joy of companionship. Cofactors like cha, chanachur and cigarettes are often used to enhance the adda effect. The litmus nature of adda is highly unpredictable varying from basic to neutral to even acidic depending on the situation. From what starts as a friendly discussion about cricket can rile up a Bong into a passionate altercation about guess what- whether Saurav Ganguly is the all time greatest captain of Indian cricket and mind you we have no communal bias there! However food is an unfailing buffer that can calm any adda from spiraling out of control . In short adda is undoubtedly a key element of the bong identity and inability to participate or appreciate adda will definitely outcast you as a mutant!

 Ujjol shyamborno or bright dark?! 
You say oxymoron but Bongs call it marketing. Bongs largely believe 'forsha' or fair is equal to beautiful irrespective of how pale and sprectre-like you may look. The more melanin depleted you are, the more attractive you are in the eyes of a Bong.The epigenetics (the effect your environment has on the genes you express) of a tropical location and the protective nature of melanin against the damaging rays of the sun somehow evades the reason of this otherwise reasonable lot . Some would almost prefer to die of skin cancer from lack of melanin than live with a melanin rich dark skin! Therefore to up the market value of dark complexioned women, who despite their

education and personality might not have any worth in the arranged marriage market, Bongs come up with moronic oxymorons like ujjol shyamborno. Kali, Krishno are venerated gods among Bongs but just when it comes to Tagore's ‘Krishnokoli’ , the fairness loving Bongs refuse to 'see light'. 

The Ma of all theories
If the Bong comes can Ma Durga be far behind? Durga is the essential lifeblood of the Bong spirit.Breeding in a largely patriarchal region of the planet, Bongs uniquely worship the female primal energy or Ma. Plant one Bong in any part of the world and you have virtually introduced Durga to that soil. Plant a couple more and you have seeded the desire to have a Durga pujo.The fact that I have written this article and you are reading it is tell tale of what happens when you plant just a few more of us than that!

Even the proudest bong babumoshai surrenders before the powers of the mighty Ma. Although he had trouble till late 20th century to imbibe this religious philosophy into his real life, with the advent of greats like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy to name a couple , the babumoshai finally came around and resolved this dichotomy in his physical and spiritual existence. Today's Bong women are a fiery,liberated and an empowered lot kindred unto the spirit of Durga. This is not your "women's lib" of convent education and modern attire but the one the entitles women to hold an individual opinion, practice free will and pursue independent aspirations and stand by her man as a friend and an equal. In this sense the Bong babumoshai has surely surpassed many a men in true manliness! 

The idiosyncrasies are umpteen and there are stereotypes galore. However in essence Bongs are a cultured, peace loving (perhaps more food loving), low temperature hating high scoring ,embracing lot that can adapt and imbibe from other cultures with as much ease as they can wear their Bong identity on their sleeves. 

As a product of this Bong gene pool I feel privileged and proud to be a Bong. However my pride in my community is absolute, one that does not need the existence of any other community for relative comparison, one that is whole and complete in itself, one that does not feel the push to outshine but is at peace with its unique place in a world of cultures. I believe as long as Tagore’s words and music soothes the mind, Netaji’s leadership inspires the body to tread untrodden paths, and Swamiji’s philosophy kindles the spirit, the great Bong pro-genies will rise and shine. So take pride. Thou art a Bong!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Key F.O.B

Last Friday we picked up an Indian friend of ours at the San Francisco International Airport, who was making an onsite visit to a client multi-national company in the Sillicon Valley for the first time. On the way back we stopped at a local Subway and let him order his sandwich while we grabbed a seat. Minutes later he came back wondering aloud why the person at the counter asked him such personal questions. Upon enquiry this is what we learn.
Person at the counter: “For here or to-go?” (For the uninitiated, it means “would you like to have your food here or do you want to get it packed?”)
Our unprepared but sincere friend: “Umm, I am on H1B but I will go” !

With that comment our friend has officially made his entry into the Hall-of-Fame of the much jested category of fresh off boats a.k.a F.O.Bs! In physical chemistry terms I would define FOBs as hyperexcited (read hypervulnerable) humanoids in a transition state from their familiar home shell to an unfamilar foreign shell. It is a highly unstable and transient state but a state that they all have to pass through before stably settling down in a shell away from home. All puns intended.

Lets imagine this plight: After taking an exhausting transatlantic flight for the first time you land on American soil and at the airport come across a sign reading ‘Rest-rooms’. Like a desert traveller sighting an oasis you lugg each one of your suitcases to the area, dreaming of stretching your cramped muscles, only to realize that it’s a place where people, if at all put their inflated bladders to rest!  You step in anyways to hide your embarrassment in the garb of purposeful intention and what awaits you is more harrasment. At the faucet you see what most definitely looks like a tap yet has nothing to twist or turn! You stand there feeling like an Neanderthal, time warping to some future AD, when someone steps up and waves his hand under the tap to let it flow. Welcome to the first world powered by motion sensors. Your life will never be the same again. However, here is my two cents on making ‘5G- toilets’- can we please keep some apps like flushing, non-automated? I think it kind of impinges on the practice of free-will.

Switches in a switchboard that in India would dispell darkness if pushed down will never behave the same in the US. This is such an auto-pilot skill that any Indian would do it like a reflex to darkness. American switches however need to be turned up to be turned on. I struggled with this basic skill till an American friend once en-‘lightened’ me saying that it’s more logical to turn a switch up to represent a higher energy state. So was it actually a logic driven step? Here I was, thinking it was one of those anti-colonial (read anti-British) reflexes to establish the ‘new world’ identity. Just like writing the month of the date first- just like rebelling without a cause.

 If you are a fresh import to this country and god forbid your body decides to fall sick without notice, you will be up for a big surprise my friend- the health care system! A blissfully ignorant me, sat over a sore and watering eye till a doctor-visit became an exigent priority. Back home in such a situation I was used to just walking up to the nearby optometrist store and getting my eyes checked by the visiting opthalmologist. Sometimes I had to wait a little and sometimes I must admit, I got the consultation even out of turn, since I lived nearby and the store owners were family friends. Additionally having a father working for a Pharmaceutical company and having attended a Medical College for education, had only spoilt me further.I always got ‘physicians samples’ of medicines and never had to pay for consultation or prescriptions. However even if you count me into a somewhat ‘privileged’ category, I’m sure we all agree that for any sudden medical emergency in India, people mostly turn to their doctor neighbour for help irrespective of what time of the day or night it is. Of course you cannot depend on the ambulance to arrive on time which may be stranded in a traffic jam somewhere, or care for the field of specialization of your neighbour. Aren’t Doctors ‘God-Particles’ that will attend to you in sickness and save your life? The moot point is, if you fall sick suddenly you are entitled to and do get medical attention, irrespective of whether you have prior appointments or insurance. But only when I got down to seeking medical attention for my eye, did the forerunners of a hyper-organized capitalist healthcare system namely medical insurance, prior appointments, reminder calls etc revealed themselves to me. Ever since I have either learnt to be more organized about falling sick or my body has learnt to heal itself just by the thought of going through the whole nine yards of finding out insurance coverage, co-pay etc.

I also have to admit I did not learn American medical manners before shocking a colleague out of her wits by persistently probing about the ‘medical cause’ for her leave or actually showing up at work with a running nose.While it is extremely uncompassionate or rude to not enquire about peoples’ ailments in India, in the US it is considered breach of peoples’ privacy. The same runny–nose and fever that can make your family, friends and colleagues in India close in to comfort you, can elicit quite an opposite reaction in America. While one country pushes the frontiers of personalised medicine- i.e medicine customized for the person, the other survives more by people acting as medicine. Truly, human social culture never fails to amaze me.

There is no denying that Americans are a ferociously honest lot especially when it comes to their food- the ingredients need to be spelt out loud and clear - there are no secret spices, no cooking to a blend. I learnt it quite literally the ‘bitter’ way when I ordered coffee and chicken sandwich hoping to get what I now know should have been café latte with sugar and a chicken caesar wrap! Wonder how in the same vein one would have to order for Biryani or chingri malaicurry!

Talking of surprises how can I not mention the traffic experience in the US. The first thing taught to drivers in America- driving in a straight lane at a more or less constant speed obeying all traffic signals is probably the last or least useful maneuver learnt for Indian roads. There, just one rule rules- if you think there is space, it’s a green signal! Having grown up travelling such roads I must say I found it hard to believe when I witnessed an accident in America and all that ensued were the involved drivers quietly stepping out of their cars and exchanging insurance information. Such an anticlimax to what would have caused rolling up of sleeves, unabashed cursing, uninvolved-public involvment, traffic choking and full-fledged drama in India! On a serious note I sometimes imagine it would actually be nice to enforce traffic etiquettes on Indian roads as well. However I stop short thinking of what the GPS could be showing- “make a sharp right next to Dadu’r dokan” (that might be the only identifier for that turn) or live traffic update showing “cows blocking darji-para road- slow traffic”!

It’s been a few years since I have moved to this part of the world. Yet I still experience my share of quintessential FOB moments- while ordering food especially when the waiter asks me how I want my water, or when I struggle to open the lids of bottles without following the instructions on it. The only instruction I can imagine on any cap or lid in India is probably –“best of luck”! However I have picked up a few things too. I have learnt that it is courteous and not creepy to say Hi to complete strangers and also that “how are you?” does not necessarily call for any response let alone an honest one. I have learnt that if I say I ‘passed out’ (graduated in Indian sense) three years ago I may actually cause the listener to ‘pass out’ (faint in American sense). Or if I say I ‘freaked out’ (having fun in Indian sense) with my friends over the weekend my American listener may think I am a ‘freak’ (strange creature in American sense). I have learnt to skip the ‘T’ in Santa Clara, convert the J to H in San Jose and totally ignore the spelling when pronouncing La Jolla! I have learnt that people that laugh at FOBs are either laughing at their own past or their predecessor’s past.

But most importantly I have learnt that, like drift-fruits gets dispersed by ocean currents, strike their roots into unaccustomed soil and eventually render an unique character to the shore itself, every new wave of immigrants will eventually adapt, integrate and contribute to their new world, causing a synergism where none have lost their roots and yet a new dynamic shared identity has emerged.Thus will continue the story of the great immigration-the big American dream.

So here’s raising a toast to the man who began the story, the Big Daddy of all F.O.Bs – Christopher Columbus

Sunday, May 4, 2008

ThE LiViNg mE

A richly vascularized brain lies naked to public view.
Like they say "here the dead revels to educate the living ..."

Shining, red , innocently living , its cells yet to reconcile to its corporal end. Like a new-born freshly extracted out of the womb it lay helplessly on the dissection board to the mercy of fellow humans while the digital documenter (just a flashy name for a photographer..! dont bother) clicks away with an unkind zeal to capture its last living moments for the archives!

I stood distracted and wondered if could remember anything - those innocent days of childhood, the sensation of its first kiss, the vicious schemes it had hatched , the feel of a refreshing breeze.... anything at all ? Or has it flushed it all away - a lifetime of memories of love, hurt , kinship, hope and sorrow....? Does it even see the tears of its family ? Can it feel their pain of separation ? Can it realise how much someone will miss the person it used to be ?

A stream of crimson blood silently trickles down its sulci and spreads over the board.Wonder whether its weeping at the pitious end of its worldly existence is it its lifeblood breaking free from the cage of its flesh and bones...?! Is this how "I" ends? ...Its ego smothered , its identity annihilated just because its body has given in to some terminating forces?

Suddenly I feel I am not sitting alone in this pathology museum. Each brain section preserved around me has a story of a lifetime to tell...of love, success, pain and betrayal .The paraffins just managed to trap a silly piece of organic material but the "self" has slyly slipped away ....

Its humbling to realize that all of us good bad or ugly will one day meet the same fate -
"to dust thou shall turn " but thats not the point . What bothers me is whether the definition of life is really confined to the display of some vital signs ? Is death really so full and final?
I find myself split into two - my head tells me memory is a hippocampal electrical phenomenon and the limbic system is the seat of all emotions but something in me likes to believe that we are much beyond that.What is this independent voice inside that promises me that I shall not die with my death ? Who is it ? Where does it come from and where does it go ?

If our brain and body is what we are, then why does the friend I made over the internet whom I have never shared physical space with seem more real than my reality? Why is it that I connected to just that one face in my whole class in college? Dont tell me its just because the electrical signals in our brains matched frequency !! Why do we sometimes at first meet feel we've known someone all along ? There is no preconditioning of the brain in such cases. Why does our brain which functions on economising principles even bothers to segregate these so called input signals into pockets of emotion related declarative memory and motor function based procedural memory if it has to bulk trash it at death? I like to think its our mortal brain's survival strategy beyond time and space, its visa to eternity ...

But I wonder if that timeless part torn away from it physical case ever misses its body ? Does it ever crave for a warm hug or just a gentle human touch ...? Does it see that its grandson has the same curve of the nose it used to ? Does it see that its loved ones have moved on in their lives ? What is eternity worth if you stagnate with just a bagful of old memories and dont create new ones ? What is it worth if it succumbs to time ?

You and I may never know .But what I do know is that the next time it rains , I will definitely go out for a walk , hands outstretched,my barefeet feeling the wet soil, my skin feeling the gentle prick of falling drops , my senses filled with the aroma of geosmin ... because for all I know its my only chance ...............

Sunday, April 27, 2008


I have just managed to make myself jobless literally and otherwise. The initial few days were blissful. Co-incidentally my watch gave way at around the same time and that was the last I saw of it. I first lost track of the time of day and soon of the day itself. My weeks ceased to have any special sufferings like Monday blues or midweek crisis. Believe me just rip your work schedule from your timetable and u will realise Mondays can be as harmless as Sundays!! From a bumpy auto ride my life soon became as eventless and monotonous as doordarshan!!

Who said ‘nothing’ is impossible?? I did nothing for days and let dust collect in my house and blubber in my brains. Till one day in an attempt to dig out some books to read I was compelled to do some dusting. In the heap of things I found a measuring tape. Instinctively(u have to be a woman to know I am not lying) I unrolled it and put it around my waist (read ‘my waste’ coz it was purely the accumulation of my wasting days) and Voila!!! There was the BIG BANG!! I was struck by a meteor of realization .Yes I have PUT ON!!! My waist size was scarily approaching the oh so coveted ummm … hip size!!!! I realized if I don’t treat the matter with utter urgency my waist and hip size will merge and then the only shape that will faithfully describe me would be a rectangle and other undefined distorted versions of it!!!! Goes without saying that, that moment was the end of all the peace and quiet in my house, mind, body and soul.

The next few days saw me, well not exercising, but digging the internet for solutions to weight woes. Of course I started with looking for quick fixes and found a pattern.

Type I: Biggest promises and of course least effective. (most lucrative for couch potatoes like me)

“Wake up to a new you!”(basically such ones tell u to just stop eating till you die. I bet when u wake up arguably in heaven u will discover the new self which is blissful, formless and oops shapeless too!!) “Say bye bye to that flab in 3 days!!” “No exercise, no diet , just try it ” “get those dream abs without twitching a muscle”(ok , now I agree I made the last one up but c’mon that’s nearly what they imply and I secretly wish they were true too :p). During this phase all those otherwise invisible advertisements on the rear of buses and autos “to lose weight – call 991234567” became oh so stark. I would at unguarded moments itch to call just for probing sake but then something in me would thankfully tell me “dunno about the weight u will definitely lose some cool cash”.

Type II: Fad diets / Crash diets or just call it trash diet.

People turn to this only when they have an impending wedding plan or think they are so big they can be spotted by aliens!! Not everyone can do this. Such diet are only for the ‘driven’( towards masochism). They recommend u have some kind of trash (sorry I could not qualify them for food with that level of palatability) Even if your ‘hunger center’ doesn’t, your ‘satiety centre’, which has cross-talks with your olfactory neurons and gustatory neurons will revolt and inhibit the former to prevent further intake of that ‘food’. The worst of them is perhaps the ‘tapeworm diet’! Wonder how some desperate women could have skimmed past the words “parasite” “worm” “severe health hazard” and fixated on “causes severe weight loss”!!
The theory: the tapeworms are digesting your food, not you. So you can eat as much as you want and this will go into the worm's tummy, not yours. The tapeworm will get fat and become an outcast in tapeworm society, but that would be its problem, not yours. I am sure they must have seemed a good workout buddy as you try to lose weight, but after a month, they are using your toothbrush, drinking your milk out of the carton, and following you around on dates saying how nice it would be to wear your skin!! Uurrgh urrgh eeessh!! That was the last I read of this type.

Either way, the lesson is that your body is an evolutionarily adapted traitor that can't be trusted to lose weight for you. So no pain is only gain. Therefore I reluctantly started looking for

Type III: A balanced diet with regular exercise (most labour intensive, hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. Only for the ferociously motivated)
Don’t know why but it seems so right, it is annoying. Thinking of the other repulsive alternatives was the only factor that forced me to visit the painful world of crunches, push ups and sit ups. Counts of 10 workouts almost invariably found me cheating on the last few counts. Every muscle fibre of my body so long used to the peaceful inertia of rest rose in rebellion, hitherto unknown tendons made their presence felt by a streak of subdued pain and every occurring thought screamed out “QUIT”!
That was a week back. I flexed and twisted and turned my muscles almost regularly except for a couple of days in between for which I have very ‘valid’ reasons (read excuses). Well I have read somewhere that being a pretty efficient machine; the human body will shut down to a minimal level of energy consumption when asleep or extremely inactive. Even being awake and reading quietly will burn a fair amount of energy, as brain activity consumes a decent amount of calories
Calorie burn rates for various stationary activities:
• 80 - reading (PG Wodehouse)
• 70 - reading (Ayn Rand )
• 70 - watching TV
• 60 - baseline, comatose, asleep
• 55 - posting comments on the Internet
Wonder why we don’t get to see such encouraging facts more redundantly. So its not that in those two days that I lost in between I did not lose any calories at all. Oh yes one undocumented fact about this schedule is that it hones your defense skills like nothing else can. You will discover your talent of coming up with excuses for missing your regime that you never thought you were capable of!
I however think that this whole craze for a reed thin, anorexic, size zero body is just a fad. It will die a timely death like every other fashion statement does. Like the wheel of civilization they all reach a peak of demand only two give way to a blast from the past. Didnt the bellbottoms from the 70’s resurrect in the late 90’s? Aren’t the pipe pants of the 80’s back in vogue now, albeit in the fancy garb of “dangerously low body huggers”? Thin is in now but someday the thunder thighs and voluptuous curves will be back with a vengeance. Till then the only message I have for all ‘weighed’ down women is
“Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow thou shalt be desirable”!!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The dizzy concentrics.

I’ve hit ‘suspended animation’. I feel like a virus – buoyant, light headed and inanimate. Plain existence looking for a piece of life to dig my greedy teeth of purpose into its flesh. Like the little leaf caught in a whirlpool I find myself turning with insane recurrence.
I have given up on being understood and even more on understanding. I realize I am too weird to live but I know I am much too rare to die. I am perhaps one of those freak specimens who give ‘typical’, ‘regular’ a definition. They are because I am.
I often find myself walking through a blur of urbanity like a lysogen, integrated into the system but not quite a part of it. I stand still frozen in time while years rush past me. I feel like the injured runner still stunned by the suddenness of his elimination.

There are straight ‘success’ stories redundant and then there are stories of the ‘initial struggle’ metamorphosing into unprecedented glory. My story doesn’t fit in any of the above genres. I am more of the struggle and no success sorts ;) So I have reconciled to live in a virtual reality…in a tomorrow’s dream…in an escapists paradise.

I speak with the least expection of being understood. Language has lost its essence. I get compelled by reality to talk to people who definitely don’t share my planet. Politics and deceit, I don’t understand neither do I wish to. The nail on my little finger on my left foot cares to be politically correct and therefore all my s**** ups. I am a victim of a system that says the said thing, does the done thing. Somewhere I feel grateful to my Primary School teacher for having blatantly told me to "SHUT UP"...while the rest of life..only gave me hints to do so…

Life stretches before me like a scary sea of tomorrow and I need to live through it with eyes wide shut, ears audibly dumb and lips screaming sealed. For someone like me it’s a daunting challenge.
I feel this surge of vitality in the deepest core of me pleading for a vent. It’s a formless nameless annoying creature that sticks its head out at my most defeated, vulnerable moments. The inertia of stagnation tries hard to douse it .But somewhere I still hear it telling me that I am meant to be more that just alive. As of now I intend to listen more intently...

Sunday, April 13, 2008


The kitchen has always been my ma’s forte. It’s where she would caste a spell and turn raw vegetables into lip-smacking dishes. As an appreciative daughter my moral duty was to lap up every drop, every morsel of what she would make. For me a simple logic worked - if food tasted so magical then it would take magic to make it too and to juggle with the third degree hand trick was not my cup of tea for sure.

I remember the first time I had donned on the brave task of cooking was when I was about 6. Only being possessed can explain the devilry that followed. So here was I all ready to cook supper for my afternoon game. First I had to decide what I would make and who would get to have it.
Decision 1: anyone gets to have it APART FROM ME. Once that decision was made deciding the rest was easy ;)
Decision 2: Ingredients. What could be more easily available and tempting as bits of … paper!! Soon the table had a heap of neatly torn bits of dusty assorted cellulose. Just a few days before that I had overheard ma telling a friend ‘you know, you can make a good dish with just about anything’ Now you cant blame me if she didn’t qualify it as ‘anything edible’ right? Anyways I added sufficient amount of water to turn it into a squishy mass. But it looked gruelish and insipid. So I decided to add the greens. Getting if from the fridge would create too much noise and spoil the surprise. So I promptly went into the garden tore some random leaves and preempted myself by remembering to get a pinch of soil (read pepper) for a final sprinkle. From then on there was no turning back. Literally anything and everything that I set my hands on went right in, from exotic twigs to tooth paste!!! A sneak into the kitchen helped me add butter and inundate my batter with ketchup (the only two things my mom kept on a shelf within my reach). Suppressing the free expression of my culinary skills by keeping the spices and herbs literally out of my reach was sooo not done 

Anyways, undaunted I went on for the final step of my recipe. Now this one needed some negotiations with our oriya cook (thakur). He was paranoid of lizards and I swore if he did not set my delicacy on the fire I would just pluck one wriggly thing from the wall and aim it straight at him! (Thank god he never dared me an execution of my repulsive plan…I am super reptilophobic myself :o)
So he put that bowl of my concoction on the fire and bought it to a sizzling boil all the while mumbling what a wretch I was under his breath and I ……………. AGREE.

Now for the best part. Mission: find target. That came easy with the victim walking right up to me! The cleaning maid had just come in when she found me pouring over this steaming bowl and asked me what it was. “taste and see for yourself” I said promptly. The unsuspecting maid gulped down the whole thing, yes the whole damn thing!!! Now this took me by unforseen shock. As she took spoon after spoon I could feel my pulse race. The trail of ingredients started flashing cross my mind one by one each threatening me with a greater potential to kill!! Hitherto sense of achievement volatilized and what overtook me was a sense of deep, all consuming blood curdling, GUILT!! No one would believe that it was an accident. They would charge me of murder most foul, they would put my behind bars, they would whip me every single day till I would become numb, they would hang me upside down and then … and then….. and then ….. they would feed me that thing ! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO…… I got up sweat dripping down my forehead, my extremities cold, my ears red hot. (wonder which law of thermodynamics could explain the temperature distribution curve of my body at that point) I suppose fear and guilt had sedated me to a semiconscious state. The moment I collected my senses I asked my mom, “Maa, mashi achhe na gyachhe?” translated literally would mean “Mom, is aunt still there or gone?” Do I need to say that all the puns were very intended there?

Learning that she was still alive and kicking gave me a feeling which today I can only equate with seeing my experimental rats coming out of anesthesia after an implantation surgery of the brain. However till date it’s a mystery to me, how she managed to digest not anything else but the cellulose that made up the paper? Cellulase, any biochemistry book will tell you, is an enzyme exclusively present in the bovine digestive system!

Years later, during my undergraduate days, I happened to be alone at home for a fortnight. The initial days were obviously spent on Maggi - the universal staple diet of all Indian hostels and talentless singles. Soon I reached a point where my body got so allergic to maggi that it nearly threatened to produce anti-maggi antibodies if I would gulp in one thread more! Optionless, I landed up in the kitchen again. I have seen my Ma fry and sauté vegetables in oil, but where suddenly all the curry appeared from was an eternal mystery. So this is how curry revealed thyself to me. I had the humble intention of just frying two pieces of fish for dinner when my venture was interrupted by Ma’s call. When I went back to the kitchen I saw a column of thick smoke issuing from the Tadka! It was almost as if the souls of those little fishes were rising up in ether and I could just tell what remained in the pan were charred carcasses of their once delicious bodies. With feline agilty (puns intended), I grabbed the jug and doused the smoke with a generous splash of water. A noisy uproar came down to a gurgly simmer and finally to a thick sizzle. Eureka! And I discovered Curry!

Its been quite a few years hence. Today I love to cook. I can manage regular dishes all fine. But being the chronic adventurist that I am, what really lures me to the kitchen till date are the Pineapple chickens, the Camembert Hazelnut potatoes and Honey herb bananas.

Happy burping!!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Surviving Red Tape

Ive always heard stories of how troublesome it is to get any work done from an Indian government office even if it means just a signature! I always like to give people some benefit of doubt and therefore had chosen to think that they were all exaggerated versions of reality. But today I know for sure that it’s an experience only those who have been struck will be able to faithfully identify with.

Recently I had the misfortune of joining one such government institute for PhD and even greater misfortune of having to get my admission paperwork done from its office!!!! According to ancient Indian astrological science there is one particular planetary position where Saturn shrouds down with unprecedented vengeance and it lasts for 7 1/2 years! Saare saati is the name given to this untoward phenomena. I now firmly believe that you can live all those 7 years and get done with it if you survive just one such visits. After all it does take a very unfavourable planetary position to make one have any business in a government office in India in the first place.

So here was I basking in the glory of having made it to one of the premiere institutes in the country, all ready with my acceptance letter walking towards the office.Thats when I came across

Torture1: Queue i

nvariable and as complicated as its spelling. At some points along it u’ll see clusters while at others u’ll find bifurcations giving rise to ‘queuelets’. Goes without saying the end of it will be so split it can put any shovel to shame. I was already hypoglycemic by the time I survived the queue and went in.

Torture 2: Wrong number!!

The person you walk upto first can NEVER EVER be the person you should go to!! He will look at your papers with utmost indifference and will twitch every muscle of his face with so much disappointment that u’ll feel u’ve missed a clue of whom to go to as obvious as a picture of that person in those sheets !! With this he will just point a finger and say “not here, that side”. So keen you would be at that point to not interact with him any further that you will grab your papers and take his leave and THAT’S IT!! You have stepped into quick sand. You will realize the room is teaming with his clones even more indifferent and virulent!! From this moment onwards you’ll be reduced to a snooker ball impacting randomly on the walls of the board.
My honest advice is you pay extra attention to each part of the person’s designation you are supposed to meet. I wonder which jobless sadist ever had the time and the crookedness to have come up with such complicated and partial designations in the first place!! ‘special officer’ and worse still ‘super special officer’. Hit by the shear variety of the designations, the goof-up magnet that I am, I conveniently forgot the oh-so-important prefix ‘super’. Actually I did not anticipate there could be more variety to the already exotic post of special officer!! So when the man at the desk asked me whether I was looking for super special officer I quite involuntarily said “No I think he is less special”!! It was really a harmless slip of tongue with no derogatory intentions whatsoever but why should those clones believe me. So what followed was an uninvited lecture on how insolent I was and how all of them were sitting there just to make life easy for the students. You bet.

Torture 3: The Cascade.

Well even if you are looking for just a signature let me assure you it can never be a single step process. It will be a cascade of specimens each of who will feast on a little of your flesh and some of whose job may be even, just putting a pencil mark on your documents! (wonder how it feels to be employed to make undefined pencil marks on peoples document all your life).Therefore I feel they have found ways and means to hone their egos. This particular person told me I have to go to one particular Mr. Krupalingaswamy and I as usual thanked him and started my hunt for Mr.Kripaswamy nah krupa somethimg swamy …oops noooo karunaswamy..yessssssssss karunalingaswamy …. Ummm I guess…anyways there was “swamy” for sure!! Armed with this remnant of a name in mind I sure was doomed to meet all permutations and combinations of names that ended with swamy. I wish names were simpler and shorter and not deviously designed to prey on people with goldfish memories like me .But beat this, a tired defeated me finally found out that Mr.whateverswamy was placed strategically right opposite to the villain who had asked me to go to him !!!!

By this time it was already 12:45pm, very 1:00pm by IST (Indian stretchable time)and this is when all government employed blobs(that’s the only shape most of them take with years of incubating their chairs) add succor to their brains so that they can invent even more innovative ways “to make life easy for the students” !

Torture 4: procrastinate NOW

The day you get your work done in a days time from a place like this, President Bush will stop bearing the burden of world peace on his lonely shoulders, balaji soaps will start make sense and ofcourse random men will stop posting demented ‘fiendship’(friendship) requests on orkut. My final man told me to come two weeks later. I dint know whether to be upset that the work didn’t get done after all or should I jump for joy that I was granted respite for a fortnight at least. This particular specimen I later learnt through experience and campus gossip had a habit of saying “come after 15days” like a Tourette’s tic. Infact during a later encounter when I had gone to enquire why my stipend had not been deposited , he had told me on the 21st of the month to, yes as expected “come after 15 days”. This time around I, who had already earned the coveted title of Ms. insolent, told him “Yes Sir, I will, but that will be for the next months stipend”. That was the only time he had cared to look at me.

At present I am wrapping up from this institute of exquisite experience. Goes without saying the office will make sure it’s a very painful (literally) adios. Wish me luck and I promise to document the remaining tortures for you someday.