Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jab ishq tumhein ho jaayega (Not that Ghazal, but something else)

In the following composition, the rules of Ghazal are followed to the extent that I have the right rhyme scheme, there is repetition, as well as  word before the repeated phrase rhymes. I have my own name in the last couplet, and each couplet is complete in itself. The introductory couplet is done right as well. Yet, the following is not a Ghazal, for it is not the cry of dying deer to its beloved. It is a farce (unless you believe that tragedy is itself an avatar of farce). I will like to be surprised one day by Jagjit Singh singing some of these lines in the concert. (joote lekar mujhko maarne aaoge/ jab mujhsa jagjit ho jaayega).

बोलोगे नहीं तुतलाओगे, जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जाएगा |
हर रोज़ दाड़ी बनाओगे, जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जाएगा |

देओद्रन्त लगाना सीख लोगे, सुबह शाम नहाना सीख लोगे,
धोबी पर पैसे गवाओगे, जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जाएगा |

फ़िल्मी डाइलोग दोहराओगे, मंदिरों के चक्कर लगाओगे,
गरबा-भंगरा नाच पाओगे, जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जाएगा |

कांटएक्ट लेन्सेस खरीदोगे, बाल काले करालोगे,
 दीवारों-दर से टकराओगे, जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जायेगा |

एसटीडी और इन्टरनेट कैफे वाले, चाटवाले, रिक्शेवाले,
हर वाले से बहुत बतियाओगे,  जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जाएगा  |

त्याग दोगे बीड़ी-पान-क्रिकेट, कंघी को रखोगे निकट,
जूते पालिश करवाओगे, जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जाएगा |

दुनिया भर के फासले, भेद, भ्रम, विवेक, विवेचना और करम,
सब समझकर भूल जाओगे, जब इश्क तुम्हें हो जाएगा |

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Graduate Students Cometh (Revised; repost)

It is Fall season. The leaves have begun to color. The wind is cooler and more cheerful and days extend late into the evening. The stupor of summer is beginning to awake into realization of what has not been accomplished, and needs to be done. Well-established routines of procrastination have been tried over and over again, convincing us of the chakra, of the wheel of life. We, the tenured graduate students, the keepers of the flame, the intellectuals who have piles, high and deep, of work before the abbreviation PhD becomes ours, we defy common sense and indulge in new graduate students.

The motives are as varied as our research areas. The singles need to mingle. Suitable graduate students of opposite sex have arrived. Pick them when they are young. Catch them, fresh off the plane. Provide them roti, kapda aur makaan, i.e. food, clothes and house. Start from the basic needs. Americanize them in a way that you deem is most appropriate. Hand them keys to your house, passwords to your machine. Cook tasty food for them. Shave each day, and even iron your clothes (for newbies haven't yet realized how important unshaved face and haggard look is for an able graduate student).

Get them groceries, show them movies. Take them to Walmart, displaying it with a pride that honeymooning husband feels when he asks his wife to open her eye, and she gushes at the vista of rising Alps, bathed in setting sun. Give them stolen hours from the daily routine, which your advisor thinks is being used for writing the research article that was due last month. Throw a party or two. Appear social, popular, funny, artsy, intelligent, great cook, glib talker, shy, young, well-read, adventerous: as the case may be. Plan each day better than any experiment done in your lab. Even clean up your kitchen, and with much emotion, even your room. In your room, discover the vestiges of such enterprise of last year, and smile at yourself, thinking what mistakes you made when you were young. Belief, you know by now, and faith in your own ability must stay in spite of all the evidence that seems contrary to that claim.

Besides the singles of opposite sex, there are married and committed ones too. They must be attended to. Once they are amused by your deeds, they will recount these to the beauties they will know, room with or attend classes with. A personalized recommendation obviously can get you a favorable prejudice even from the ones full of pride. This is a period of showing off sense and sensibility. Praise their hubbies, help them in buying Indian groceries, second-hand furniture and show to them how committed you are to the cause of the new graduatestudentkind.

Besides these, there are the Pappus, who are related to the aunt of your mother's grandmothers' sister's granddaughter's sister-in-law. If they were of same sex, this could have been used as a reason to tie you together (for the relation is far fetched enough) or claim that the person is your relation or sibling (and incest is unacceptable). If one of these arrives, your whole planning is crumbled like the biscuits that Pappus carried for you in their luggage from India. You tend to become more productive at work. Suitable instructions are released to friends, who must watch their words for whatever happens in graduate school stays in graduate school. You need the Pappu to become pregnant with his own guilt, before he can see that your mistakes run amok in large numbers.

There are juniors you can command around. You suddenly know all the answers as you talk to the senior who has joined so late as he was working for some time. You drive home the message as to 'who's the boss'. Whos your daddy now? You say that and share the joke with another batchmate in another university, who grins and has his stories own to tell. These people have arrived from your undergraduate school, where rumor has it, that you spent the best years of your life. Where (it doesn't matter how nerdy you seem to be now, how high your GPA was which got you here in the first place, and I damn value educational achievements) where, you had lots of pun, parties, booze. Summer of 69, Red red Wine and Those were the best days of my life!

There are also those unfortunate ones, the Laawaris ones! Some are meek and humble, and bumble like Raj Kapoor from Shree 420. Amusing, respectful. They are nice chaps. You take them under your wing. They give you homage throughout their life. They help you cook, clean, find names of the newbies you need to be introduced and find their own Nargis in them. You remind them of "Pyar hua hai, ikraar hua hai" song, tell them to be curious but careful and of course, the song is mentioned for they had used it in a condom commercial. You find out all the commercials are changed by now, and this guy was too young to remember any of the commercials you saw in your time.

There are certain Amitabh Bachchan's in the new group. The angry young men. They think they know what they need to know for they were educated in Hollywood and have tickets to Las Vegas shipped by confident Papas in India. They look at your apartment and either smirk thinking how shoddy your living conditions are, or just mention it to their high class girlfriends they left in India. These anti-establishment ones need to be educated. They need to be broken, bruised, beaten! Ramgopal's Satya must be watched all over again. Some break into so many emotional bits, that their mothers arrive in haste. Some break into your life and you laugh about how wrong your initial impressions were. Some move in with Americans and after loosing their first blood, return to the  desi fold in a year or so. Like a good shepherd you allow them to come back, and for their pride, they will be made scrapegoats in due time, or reared for their wool. You are an elephant in this jungle of studenthood, and an elephant never forgets. You really are trying to be Mast, but the Advisor reins you with deadlines.

There are homesick ones. As if they have travelled to US by sea, they look pale, wan, nauseated, tearjerkers. They have no interest in your food, for their Mamma used to feed them with her own hands. What depravity, they think, when you announce this is the biggest feast of year, serving them homemade Rice, Daal, Curry and Mix Vegetables, cooked by four different households pulled together on excuse of Ganesh Chaturthi. The house that cooked Rice also got beer, which the homesick one cannot touch. Like Mahatma Gandhi, before leaving home, he promised to keep away from White Wine and White Women. So you explain to him that everyone there has had made similar promises, and this means the playing ground is still quite big. You chuckle as you explain, No white women, na...No worry... the tanned ones are alright, and of course there are Brown ones, Black ones and the Yellow ones.

You are positively high when you explain Beer is not Wine, and Vodka is essential for survival in this cold cold country. The homesick one recalls from his Bollywood education that excessive drink is harbinger of a woman who beds you that very night and without fail, produces a child nine months later. The idea of woman urges him on, the thought of a child holds him back. He is too naive to know that the specimens of opposite sex have already chosen the arms of old students, Amitabh Bachchans and promises made in India. He doesn't know even the tanned ones have taste, Yellow ones are lost due their foreign tongue and Black Beauty is never happy when she is tied down.

There are philanthropic interests. There are communist interests. There are social reasons, for the animal in you needs to know more people. You do it, becuase when you came no one did it for you, or someone actually helped you. You do it because it relieves your stress when you notice these new recruits who have been pushed to the front with half as much training and half as much expertise as you had. You do it to get new ideas, stories, readers for your blog. You envy their enthusiasm, their optimism, and scold your cynical self, the hardened soul, you wish to come alive again. This is a particular problem when you tell a new person of opposite sex that this is not possible, that will never work out or time will show them that you are right: they think you don't have faith in them, shout at you. Then there is a dangerous possibility that they will start hanging with their age group kids. The worst fears always come true, but thankfully you are the only one with a running car and your time in graduate school in years shames their stay in US in weeks.

I see new graduate students everywhere. Maybe I have a sixth sense. The happy faces amused by all they see, their springy steps (Aajkal Paon Zameen Par Nahin Padtay mere: These days my feet never touch the ground), curious and friendly. The frowning faces, who see danger everywhere (Ye haadson ka shahar kai, yahan mod mod pe hota hai koi na koi haadsa: this is a city of disasters, at every mod, waits a disaster). The new pairs who have just dicovered freedom from India's prying eyes, and are perhaps more happy in doing what they never perceived possible, "dating, flirting, eating out, watching movie at guys house, and then spending the night there, on a couch", more happy in actions that perhaps with their partners, discovering the beauty in Classic Romantic Movies (Chotay chotay shaharon mein ..... nahin nahin nahin... Bade bade deshon mein choti choti baatein hoti rehti hai: Small things keep happenning in big countries) and even find the romance of walking at late hours outside (Yeh kahan aa gaye hum, yuhin saath-saath chalte: O where have we arrived, thus walking together) and loose their way in the streets.

The New Graduate Student Cometh! You realize you actually know things that you can talk about to them and see a certain admiration, that your advisor will not display, even in your wildest dreams. You realize that similarly, in real life, when you go and get an actual job, you will be able to say things and people will listen to you for various reasons. You will figure that you have yourself gotten to that age, where five-year old sons of your friends call you uncle or auntie. How long ago was it that you laughed at the idea "Auntie mat bolo naa" (Oh please, don't call me aunty). You get an opportunity to flaunt your skills, your experience and breadth and depth of your knowledge. In between the bouts of famed procrastination, you seem to have accomplished many worthwhile deeds. Like a paper in a journal, that got your name into BBC, New York Times and Times of India: Sunday edition. There is a kind of nostalgic, somewhat elegiac romance in the air. You feel life is not all that bad, and yet decide that you will be out of here before the new students come in next year.

The Fall leaves are a music below your feet, the monsoon season of new students is over, the fields of your friendships are full of a promising crop. In the end you win some, you loose some. You move on. The only thing that hold you back now is the new student who will be here for long, and you will need to stay more than a year for companionship. You tell yourself, learning from seniors who have trodden this path before, that life's decision must not be based on any other individual, and your steps move faster and faster towards your lab. You suddenly realize months have passed without any progress in research, and you start afresh with new enthusiasm. Like always, you start with a break, you check email, blog entries and end up forwarding this piece to everyone you know.

We are all so similar. Except that one new graduate student, who I am aching to be introduced. (I let out a big sigh, and decide I'll much rather concentrate. Pick up old notes, and start typing a new research paper. How I wish writing papers was as easy as writing and reading long blogs!)
(Aug 2006)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Thong in the Lab (Short Story, Revised version)

The world of physicists has been dominated by males ever since the famous Archimedes ran naked in the street shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" For a pithy law of buoyancy, a law which seems obvious and trivial now, Archimedes celebrated with more passion and nakedness than anyone after him. Nevertheless, perhaps scared that physics labs abound with men like him (or maybe the wisdom of their womanly instinct), the females are a rare sight in these labs. If you ask Vladimir, whose name is layered with history, he will tell you of every female who has appeared in this lab in last five years. He says, he is living the austere life of the jailed protagonist of the Count of Monte Cristo and he  dreams of a similar escape, followed by similar luck with finding a buried treasure, and a beautiful companion.

He consoles himself and his fellow lab-men, by saying that a flower in gallows will only be crushed in hands of - awkward, thirsty, hungry, haggard, dissatisfied - prisoners. He avows that we are  the prisoners of our own quest. The more we know, the more myopic our knowledge seems. And yet, he says, even after spending two or three decades in school, when you go out to work,  into real life, we have to begin afresh like schoolboys entering a Kindergarten. Nothing is as described in calculus books. Especially the realm of women, which he announces, as another thick smoke escapes his lips, is like this chaotic smoke pattern. It changes faster than a man can model it (or simulate it by a model), and it behaves differently every time a man encounters it.
At 9 am, Vladimir, a final year graduate student is the only one awake, and hence present in the lab. He has spent all his life as a slave-student. In the last few years, he has become a champion of human rights everywhere. He knows about the laborers and farmers in China, how they are barely surviving, while the city-dwellers possess every amenity possible. He knows the weavers in India, in spite of the price of their handwoven carpets, are facing starvation. He suffers like the Chinese laborers, and when his adviser presents his work, without crediting him, he raises a toast to the Indian weavers. Being a Russian by birth, he understands that intellectuals are prosecuted everywhere. Be it revolutions, he says, or democracy, an intellectual bears the burden, of both bringing it on and bringing it down; and then by popular demand, pays for it, by his own blood. He sympathizes with the Iraqis under US rule more than he ever did with his fellow countrymen in the Communist rule. He admires Castro and Che Guerra, and reads books about them with sincere interest. He knows historical contexts under which nationalities love or despise each other and he has read every news worth reading in two hours he has spent in the lab so far. Just by showing up early in the lab, he believes, he has done half a day's work.

Rusheed, an Indian labmate, often joins Vladimir for a smoke. What happens to be Rusheed's second smoke of the day (first is right after brushing his teeth), is usually Vladimir's fifth, and they always go out for it when Rusheed arrives. It is usually thirty seven minutes before lunch. Seven minutes are reserved for smoke, and the half hour is essential for browsing through email and reading about world affairs. This is necessary preparation for the discussions with fellow intellectuals at lunch hour. It is said the food at the university food courts often tastes like shit (or cow-dung), smells like rotten eggs (or carbon disulfide, if you are a chemists), and is of bad quality to ensure that you eat less, and focus more on your work.

This is a miraculous day. A thong arrives in the lab at 9:30 am. The thong, blue in color, looks prominent in a lab full of black, metallic components. The thong is second thing that Vladimir notices,  for when the female, with her shirt buttons carelessly left undone, shakes hands with him, he is  harassed by the visual display of a valley. A deep thinker man, forgets to wear a shoe or a sock, while an intellectual woman forgets her make-up, her motherly-sisterly-wifely-sexual identity. This is a general consensus reached by Vladimir, Rusheed, Suresh, Chinglee, Bo and Martin.  But the female  of the day is dressed to kill or as Suresh put it later, is with the right quantum of undress. Vladimir is convinced that she is no deep thinker. The thought comforts him.

Anyway, the blasted thong blares at him. It has appeared in his vision like a question, a sign, a mark of mankind's progress. Wasn't it four or five thousand years of technology and progress that led to such a precise and pretty invention? She is busy tinkering with the knobs on the instrument she needs to use. He cannot, but admire, the topology, the geometry, the arches of the blue sky and  the pacific that rises out of her low cut Levi jeans. He imagines that it covers all that is deeply beautiful and hides  all that is decidedly profound. Vladimir decides to act.

A graduate student shares everything except credit for work. So Vladimir goes online and types a swift message for Rusheed, Suresh, Chinglee, Bo and Martin. He knows Rusheed won't read it till noon, and Chinglee won't either, for Chinglee must baby-sit his six month daughter through the day, while his wife goes and works in a restaurant (illegally) to earn enough to feed a family of three. (Chinglee spells his name as Qinglee, sharing common Chinese belief, that only way to get people to pronounce their names in English is by misspelling them).

Bo must focus on preparing for his qualifying examinations for becoming a full scale PhD student, and hence he has joined English communication and comprehension class. Vladimir has found a perfect  homework assignment for him. Bo has to go pubbing or clubbing every night, and only when he can talk his way to a stranger's bed, he will be ordained a qualified conversationalist. He has not announced that he succeeded last week, for he has not yet recovered from it. He was surprised when conversation approached him from the most unexpected corner; a six feet, blue eyed, blond hair Californian swept Bo away like he cleans of spider webs on Christmas eve every year. Bo hasn't got over the evening yet, and in the five days, he has talked to the Californian seven times. Bo is still finding it difficult to believe that he is gay. In fact he is secretly happy to be gay, but  outwardly he must counsel himself before committing to his new-found modern, (American?), unorthodox view of sexuality, genetics, love. Meanwhile he cannot stop thinking about the hunk he had an encounter with. He feels, his whole life was leading to it.

Martin won't care for the thong either, for he literally runs the Phi Delta Omega on campus, and as he puts it, has too many on his hands. Suresh shows up, excusing himself from the online chat he was having with this unknown person in India. He is supposed to get familiar with her and decide if she seems better than the others for arranged marriage. He comes from a highly educated and modern family, but it is the family custom that boy cannot see the girl before wedding. He must form an opinion based on chat with, and decide if he likes her better than His mother devised the addresses. She said they were numbers partially because their IIT-engineer-turned -physicist son would like them better than names, and partially to avoid any prejudices that names can bring to mind. After all, one must chose his bride without prejudices.

Suresh breaks his chat session, and reaches the lab within four minutes. It is an established fact that on such occasions a graduate student takes one third of his usual time to reach office. Suresh being a well respected and popular guy, must personally greet every fellow Indian on his way. So he usually requires forty minutes to walk the distance that a grazing cow  covers in ten minutes. But today he is running hard, and shouting, as he waves to his friends, "Late for a meeting, late for a meeting!"

Suresh has sufficient will to avoid glaring at the thong directly. He is in fact committed to make a choice between either 12345 or 43246. While the former has impressed him with her touted talent of making sweets including jalebi, rasgulla and chocolate cream cake, the latter knows French, Sanskrit and Hindi, apart from English and Bhojpuri. The knowledge of Bhojpuri, he says, adds a dimension to her, which will keep them connected with the culture and traditions of his forefathers. Meanwhile, he sees the glitter in the eyes of Vladimir, the brilliance that a thong brings to the Russian's face amuses him greatly. He opens a chat window, and starts the following discussion.

Suresh: "Hello Communist! How is the latest fad of Capitalism affecting you?"

Vladimir: "Mr. Cow Dung. I am quite dazzled. I am thinking of making small talk with her. But I don't know her boundary conditions. I mean, I am concerned about her, you know.."

S: "Seems you forgot to add some vodka to your morning cuppa. Lack of confidence is a sure sign of it. Want to discuss it over smoke?"

V: "All smoke and no fire! No dude, I will fight it right here. But as a disinterested side-burn, why don't you get the conversation started. Withdraw once I move into the arena."

S: "You are a curious character. You want me to bait her. Well, in the name of science, I will do it."

Suresh gets into the act. He scratches his well-oiled scalp, stands up, and goes to the female in question, looks her in the eye, and asks her: "Is the meter showing a value about 10% higher than expected?" She bats her eyelids, and says, "I think it is about where my adviser expects it. But are you suggesting that the instrument has zero error or something?" Suresh has noticed the valley, and feels pleased at the idea of making Vladimir uncomfortable, by ignoring his wish for barging into their conversation. So he tells her that it needs to be checked, and if she wanted, he could run the standard sample, and check for it. She agrees. A passing glance tells him that Vladimir is displeased, but then Vladimir knows how to wait. Also, he knows that Suresh only knows how to talk, and before long, the Indian scruples, the inbuilt guilt-hormones, the morality of centuries and all that stuff and nonsense which Kamasutra fails to mention, will make him leave the butterfly, the humming bird, for the Russian predator.

Meanwhile he listens like a Russian spy. She is from Florida (hence the thong he concludes). She obtained her education in Atlanta, Georgia (and therefore, her southern accent drawls Georgia into a charming tune. He remembers Forrest Gump, and wants to says, "Life (or was it wife?) is like a box of chocolates.") She has just joined Prof. Itsy Wu for a PhD and is new to town. Suresh announces that he instrument is quite alright, and then introduces himself. She shakes hand with him now, and says, "I am Candy." Vladimir can hold back no longer, and he announces to her, "Err, I am Vladimir." She offers him a smile in return. He has made up his mind. No past failures can stand in his way, no lack of indulgence on her part can be a sign to withdraw. Suresh sees it too well, and gets back to his desk. He pretends to read a paper very carefully, while Vladimir pursues the thong.

"Err, hmm Candy. How do you find Berkeley?"

C: "I have been here only for a month. I haven't got a car yet, and I haven't had time to make friends or go anywhere."

V: "Well, you have made two friends now. Err.. I mean we are friends now... I guess Suresh and I can show you around.... Well.... hmmm... Suresh is busy, trying to finish before he settles down with an arranged bride, but I can definitely make time.... He can join if he wants, but he is busy... What would you want to see?"

C: "Thats very nice of you, Wallad-emir. I guess after John arrives in town next week, I would ask for your guidance."

The thing Vladimir hates most is mispronunciation of his name. According to him, a person who cannot pronounce Vladimir right is illiterate to the core. Vladimir is the first name of both Lenin and Putin. Nabokov of Lolita fame was Vladimir as was Kramnik of Chess. (Vladimir has a longer list, the writer apologizes for his lack of consideration for the readers and is curtailing this informative section). But when Vladimir's name is mispronounced by the adviser, he swallows it with bitter humility, and when it is mispronounced by a pretty girl, he accepts it as a charming defect in the manifold of her existence.

But John, the word and the sentence that came with it, seem bothersome. Yet he does not have the heart to ask her, who this bloody John is. He'll rather leave it to doubt or speculation, rather than ask her and face the consequences. He has found that approach profitable. If a research problem seems unwieldy, if a question can be asked that will lead him to lose hope or his optimism, he dismisses it at the root, calling it unimportant.

Meanwhile Bo has drifted into the lab, and smells of his lunch. He has made up his mind about the Californian, he is going to "date" him, and sees the thong as the first test of his declaration. He is mighty pleased at himself, for he can look at it without being too affected by it. Rusheed almost jumped at the sight of it, and after admiring it for few seconds, rushed away to his seven minutes  long smoky breakfast. Vladimir cites an important email and  starts typing in Russian, and thus refuses to accompany Rasheed. What he is writing cannot be translated into English without the use of several words, allusions, metaphors, puns, comparisons which would make this story perverted, laced with sexuality, vulgarity, or if you are French, without the use of realism, which is as laced with dirt as it is with occasional beauty.

Martin enters with eyebrows raised and winks at Suresh, pointing at the thong, while Candy is looking elsewhere. Unfortunately, Suresh sits at a place from where the thong is not visible, and he is too chicken to try any other angle. Martin flaunts his whiskey breath, claiming it is from the socializing  event of the last night and decides to enlighten Suresh. Martin is a great experimentalist, and so he finds a mirror, a lens and arranges for Suresh to have a peek at her. Martin believes that if any international beast wants education in his country, he must be ready to escape from his cultural prejudices and narrow minded beliefs on marriage and sex (and against underage drinking and Iraq war and their choice of President and vice-President and so on). Candy gets a whiff of Martin's effort just in time. Actually Vladimir notices what is going on and coughs aloud, asking Martin, what experiment he was concocting and why? Martin half-replies to him and engages in yet another pointless conversation with Suresh. Meanwhile Candy gets up, and thinking no one will notice, goes to a corner and pulls her pants up. Vladimir is pleased, for his perverted nature, baser instincts have been won over by his desire to know her better, to show her the city, the Bay Area. Suresh sees her a minute too late, and Martin tells him, "You suck, dude."

A month later, Suresh decided to dump 12345 altogether. She wanted to know his graduation plans and never forgot to shoot this question. "A woman who cannot appreciate my problems now will never appreciate them," he contended. "I don't expect my wife to be reasonable, but I expect her to know what things will positively irk me." Vladimir rejoined with, "So that she can irk you when she pleases." Suresh ignored the comment, for the sarcasm was nothing compared to the flaws of 12345. Bo joined the Catholic Church to learn more about the religious beliefs of the Californian, and passed his qualifiers with ease. He will be working in a lull for the next two years, till a grand final year seduces results out of his unyielding mind.

Martin joined alcohol anonymous. He was in high spirits yesterday, not because he was drunk, but because he said it was the first time he went into a bed with a woman in fully conscious state. He said, it was like loosing virginity all over again. Rusheed is still smoking twelve cigarettes a day. Vladimir has gone out on six dates with Candy. He was the happiest man on earth when John turned out to be a grey haired puppy. Candy had left John in Atlanta, for he was dismally sick then. It must be remarked that Candy has developed a taste for Vladimir vodka, and knows twenty-three people from history who share that name.