Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Book review: HomeSpun


It is hard to resist the lure of a sepia tinted book cover with a black and white photograph of a couple with that glazed, nostalgic look on their eyes. The cover almost suggested something vintage, perhaps timeless. That was more than enough for me to start reading HomeSpun, by the debutante novelist Nilita Vachani.

The book starts with the death of Nanaji, and a scene of mourning. And just like that, you plunge into the lives of different families, and a story of different ideologies, of conflict and reconciliation, love, relationships, marriage and death, all narrated by Sweta Kalra, while the characters slowly emerge as the chapters roll on. Parallel stories develop, all of which you know are interconnected through Sweta. And while the book starts with tragedy, and has plenty of tragedy within, it takes us for a ride without plunging into darkness or depression.

The book is part coming of age, part exploring the complexities of human relationships, part conflict, and part exploring the idiosyncrasies of human nature. There is the story of Nanaji, and his struggles as a revolutionary and freedom fighter fighting against the British for an independent India. He tries to live an extremely principled life, following the idealistic example set by Mahatma Gandhi. The problems of the world and day-to-day life remain somehow esoteric to his mind. Yet his wife, Naneeji, is a polar opposite. She loves her jewellery and silk, and she wants herself and their kids to lead a good, comfortable life, the life she believes that a senior government official (which is what Nanaji becomes after independence) should live. Their lives are spent in open conflict, sometimes bitter, sometimes petty. You know their every relationship is strained. Yet the book starts off with Naneeji wailing and bemoaning the loss of her “wonderful” husband.

Then there is the story of the Kalras, most importantly Ranjit “Ronu” Kalra. His father is a sub-inspector of police. Sub-inspector (later superintendent) Kalra could be described with clich├ęs like conscientious, simple, earthy. The apple of inspector Kalra and his wife’s eyes is their son, Ranjit. A chance encounter with a film producer, who happens to adore Ranjit’s curly 5-year old locks, changes Ranjit’s life forever. He goes on to become the greatest child star of the black-and-white era transitioning between silent movies and sound dubbing. And while Ranjit’s brief celluloid career takes off, the author gives us a hilarious and fascinating view of the film (“phillum”) industry of the time, filled with histrionics and glycerine, political sensitivities, charlatans and bigger-than-life characters. Ranjit’s career as India’s favorite kid ends abruptly with him growing up, but his childhood stardom stays with him for life, and in a strange way directs his fate as an adult. In this mix enters Anamika (Anu) Reza, a spirited teenager, Ranjit’s first girlfriend and true love. Their lives entwine, and they go through passion and longing and separation. Both characters are immensely likeable, yet as different as chalk and cheese. Ranjit is almost immediately endearing. He has the burden of having to grow up as a former child star, and yet remains shy and simple. He’s one of those people who may have dreams, yet lives by avoiding conflict, and trying to keep everyone happy, never confronting tradition. Just by being with the fiery, modern and liberal Anu throws him into a cauldron of thoughts and conflicting emotions. When the time comes for him to make his decisions, he is unable to go with his dreams. His father decides his future, and soon Ranjit heads off to join the air force to become a pilot he would never have become on his own. In contrast Anu’s life, just like her, remains turbulent and feisty and fiercely independent, and she lives on her own terms without holding regrets.

In between all these stories is the pivotal subplot of a small but important character, Ranajit’s friend and fellow officer, Dusty, and the war with Pakistan. And then there is Sweta herself, mostly as a frumpy, slightly overweight but bright and curious girl, with usual and atypical growing up problems. There is her relationship with her beloved Nanaji, and Nanaji, or her mother, and most importantly, Anu.

The author, Vachani, takes us through a whole panorama of events and emotions, and the story progresses beautifully through the last days before independence, the turbulent fifties and sixties, and more contemporary India in the seventies or eighties. We start with tragedy and the death of Nanaji, and as the book progresses, the different stories interweave, interspersed with gentle or dramatic twists. “Homespun” is almost a perfect title for the book, the elaborate plot weaves through a post-independence middle/upper middle class India, and the lives of characters you understand and empathize with, or often relate to. And every one of the characters is beautifully developed and utterly believable. In between the characters, the author explores the myths and stories that we hear about the freedom struggle, or the war with Pakistan (through Anu); myths that are almost always rosy. What lies beneath those tales? Who actually won the war? How many people died? And how did they die? My only complaint with the book was the way the relationship of Anu and Sweta develops, and the slightly predictable direction it heads towards. But that is just a minor quibble with what was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and just the kind of story that will make a terrific movie.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Encouraging women in science

There’s been plenty of talk about difficulties women in (academic) science face, and how there are very few women scientists at senior positions in academia in most universities. Most major research universities now admit that there are difficulties women face in research that have nothing to do with their scientific abilities. Subsequently, most universities now say they are actively trying to rectify this, and look to hire more talented female faculty. Departments try to have career workshops for female graduate students and postdocs to encourage them to stay in academia, there are endless efforts to recruit more female students and so on.

All this is well and good, but are there some really simple things that universities could do to rectify this that aren’t in the spotlight? From what I can see, at least in the greater biological/biomedical/biochemical sciences there are plenty of female graduate students (approximately a 1:1 male: female ratio). This more or less remains when you start off as a postdoc (a few years of postdoctoral work is pretty much required before you can get that assistant professor position). But by the time you look at senior postdocs or junior faculty (3-4 years down the line from a starting postdoc), there are far more men than women. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most women have kids between their late twenties and mid thirties. That’s when they are most likely to be in the early-middle stages of their postdoc. There’s nothing new in this statement, we all know it, as do most universities. So a number of universities now say that they are working towards policies that make it easier for women postdocs or junior faculty to have kids.

But I was quite unaware of how bad the present policies are though until recently, when I was chatting with a postdoc friend of mine who is pregnant. Now, the three things that will make it easier for a female postdoc to have a baby are (1) the ability to easily take time off/maternity leave (2) the financial means to afford a baby (those things are expensive) and (3) a good medical insurance policy that would cover most of the massive medical expenses having a kid incurs.

Unfortunately, apparently most major research universities still have lousy policies for all three of those. Here’s how it works. Most institutes have a policy stating that a female employee cannot be fired if she decides to have a baby, and also that she will be allowed to take the required time off post childbirth. That’s the good part. But here’s how the fine print goes. The only paid leave the person is allowed to take is the leave that she has accrued over the year. Postdocs (at least here) are technically allowed to take 12 days of vacation time, and week of sick leave a year, and there’s no roll-over policy for holidays not taken during previous years. So that gives a grand total of less than three weeks off. There isn’t a concept of overtime/leave accrual for working weekends; all you can get credit for is if you work on public holidays (probably half a dozen for the year). That’s it. Subsequently, if you need more time off, you can take unpaid leave for a maximum of 12 weeks.

You might argue that the option of taking unpaid leave for 12 weeks should be sufficient; after all, you shouldn’t be paid for not working. That’s ok, except that the salaries/fellowships of postdocs aren’t that high in the first place (some might call it unreasonably low). So, since you’re paid a pittance for endless hours as it is, the least you might hope for is continuing to get that salary while having a baby, so that you can take care of points (2) and (3), the financial details.

Which leads to point (3), medical insurance. A lot of postdoc researchers in the greater biological sciences work in premier medical schools/centers across the country. An outsider might be tempted to assume that medical costs for an employee of a medical center would at least be subsidized. Invariably that isn’t the case at all. Students and postdocs usually are offered a mediocre insurance policy, fine for minor ailments, but not that great for extended medical care. Most postdoc policies pay only about 75% of the medical costs (and the remaining 25% runs into thousands of dollars). Students or postdocs don’t get any benefits even if they choose to get their treatment from the same medical center they work in.

Sucks, doesn’t it?

These seem like rather obvious reason why a lot of women decide against plunging into academic scientific research careers, when just about any job in industry or even teaching offers better policies and benefits. Here’s one suggestion for NIH. Come up with a policy that states that all female postdocs who have their salaries paid by NIH grants must get 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, and flexible work-hours for 6 months after returning to work. And universities can start coughing up a little bit of money on better health insurance policies. Finally, it makes no sense for universities with major medical centers not providing any subsidized health care to their own postdocs and students in their own medical centers.

Obviously, this alone isn’t going to create a flood of female scientists wanting to spend their lives in academia, but I think it certainly might help.

Now these suggestions are fairly simple and easy to implement. So, if it is that simple, why hasn’t it been implemented yet? And I’m familiar with policies only in a handful of universities in the US. What’s it like in other schools? Other countries?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Rejection letter

(Hopefully this will be a prelude to more regular blogging)

I just got back from an excellent seminar by Randy Sheckman. Before he started talking about his research, he commented on how some people react angrily upon receiving rejection letters from editors of journals who decide not to publish their research (Sheckman is now chief editor of PNAS). And then he put up a slide with what must be the ultimate response to an unfavorable review, and had us in splits.

Sheckman attributed this priceless quote to George Bernard Shaw (though I googled it to discover that it was Max Reger who wrote this letter to a music critic). Anyway, here’s the quote, the all time best response to a rejection letter.

“I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.”