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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 12345@gmail.com, and decide if he likes her better than 43246@gmail.com. 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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this story- takes me back to my days in the biochemistry lab. I would have been the "Candy"- the sole female in the building... and getting all the work done :)
I hope everything worked out for Vladimir & Candy, Bo, Suresh and Martin; that everyone has successfully defended their theses, written their first author papers, scored the post-doc of their dreams, and learned how to dress in something other than jeans and a t-shirt. I'm still working on that myself.
I appreciate your book reviews on Amazon.