Sunday, May 29, 2005

The farm and the village idiot

This is what the big, rugged Texan had on his T-shirt in Seattle-Tacoma Airport:

PETA: People for the Eating of Tasty Animals

Vegetarian: Ancient tribal name for the village idiot who could not hunt, fish, ride or trap.

I guess I'm the village idiot, and my name is Bubba.


May the farm be with you

Long, long ago in a galaxy far away.....

No, this ain't a speel on the glories of Star Wars, and why Jabba the hut was a genius. You don't need to be a consumer of wholesome organic food or need to love your veggies, but I can assure you that you will love STORE WARS. Requires flash and five minutes, and is well worth it.

Now you know why potatoes are so bad, they're good.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Of peas and mice and men

(This one is a longer post than usual. Apologies)

“Do you believe in God?” asked the smiling theologist sitting next to me in the plane.

“Sure, I have nothing against the existence (or lack of) a greater power”, I replied.

He scowled. Clearly, I must be a part of some Dark side. An ad showing some animals and people was playing on the little TV screen. He jumped at me and thundered, “How can you say that people came from animals. Look at them, they are so different. This evolution theory nonsense cannot be true. I took a class on genetics once and they said something about some DNA that I didn’t understand. It’s all wrong.” I shuddered, and ate my dinner.

I have nothing against people who don’t’ believe in evolution. Half this country does not, and they are entitled to do so. But assuming something is false because it is “just a theory” is wrong, especially if you have not tried to understand it. A scientific hypothesis is proposed, then rigorously tested to be true or not. If true, it need NOT be declared a law. Gravity remains a theory, but the apple still fell on Newton. Newton did not float up to the apple and bump his head.

So I thought primer on the molecular basis of evolution (that a freshman might get in college) wouldn't be out of place. So, here’s my “Molecular evolution 101”, incase you were curious about it, but never had a chance to learn more.

Darwin proposed his theory (Origin of species) about 150 years ago, based on his observations mainly in South America. Different pressures had forced organisms to acquire certain properties over time, and this trait (phenotype) was incorporated and passed on over generations. That was what became called evolution. Earlier, Mendel (a monk) did genetic studies with the humble sweet pea. He crossed flowers of one color with flowers of another color, and got offspring flowers of one, the other, or a mixture of both colors. He found that traits pass on as unmodified “units” from parents to offspring. We call these “units” genes. So if a white flower and a red flower cross, the offspring is pink. Doing simple math, if two alleles make up each pea, and each pea has alleles WW and RR (for white or red), WW * RR= Pink (WR). The pink is a heterozygous plant, carrying 1W+1R allele. Now if pink and pink cross, then WR * WR can give WW, WR, RW and RR (1 white, 2 pink, 1 red). This is the classic law of genetics. Now this W or R thingy (the allele) makes the “gene.” It has a specific trait/function, and is passed on from parent to offspring.

A “gene” is actually a piece of DNA that encodes a PROTEIN, which has the function. DNA is made up of four nucleic acids, forming double-helical chains. These can be used as a template (like a printing press) replicate itself, i.e. propagate (this we understand thanks to the Watson and Crick’s DNA double-helix structure). This DNA template is also used to make mRNA. RNA, like DNA, is also made up of four nucleic acids, but differs by using a different nucleic acid (Uracil) as opposed to Thymine in DNA. mRNAs can be 100’s-1000’s of nucleic acids long, each coding for A SINGLE PROTEIN. Crick cracked this code, and found that every three nucleic acids encoded for only one amino acid. Since there are 4 nucleic acids, 4^3 gives 64 combinations. But 3 of these combinations code for a “STOP” sign (codon), and with some redundancy in the codon usage, you end up with 60/3 = 20 amino acids.

Amino acids are made from this mRNA template as a chain that ends when the “STOP” sign is encountered. This chain forms what is called a protein. This PROTEIN is thus the product of the GENE.

DNA --> RNA --> protein (with some specific exceptions).

This protein has a specific function associated with it. Groups of proteins come together for more complex functions and form complex organelles. A single cell has thousands of proteins, and in multicellular organisms (like ourselves) there is a huge permutation of proteins in different cells, resulting in increased complexity.

Yeast have only around 5000 genes, but mammals (and humans) have over 20000 genes. The permutations of protein expression patterns are many times more complex. This is why a mammal is more complex than yeast. But how did this complexity come about? Because, a protein can “evolve” function, change its function. This happens by “mutations”. If the DNA template is changed (by external or internal stress, like UV radiation), say by a couple of nucleic acids, the RNA changes, and thus the protein. Now this new protein may be useless or it might have obtained a slightly different function. So, thousands of random mutations will eventually create one mutant that has some function, or even improved function. This is how from one protein, more proteins can evolve. So, it is possible that from one gene, many different proteins emerge over millions of years, with permutations and combinations. This is called DIVERGENT EVOLUTION. If however, by mutagenesis, two different genes come up with two different protein products that are similar in function, this becomes CONVERGENT EVOLUTION. These “genes” are passed on from parent to offspring, more mutations are acquired on the way, and things “evolve”.

Can we do this in a test tube? Easily. Random mutagenesis (with chemical agents) results in such slow changes. But you can just as easily chop up pieces of DNA, stick them together randomly, and screen the products (this is Gene Shuffling), and find proteins of improved function, or completely different function from the starting material. Over millions of years, evolution can thus result in thousands of different products and different organisms.

Here we have it, a 101 of molecular evolution. Does this exclude the presence of God? No. Which came first, DNA or RNA? Not sure (but there are THEORIES). Who created all of this? That is up to your beliefs. Every one can be happy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Indian accents and flawless speech

“You don’t speak with a typical Indian accent.”

“I don’t?” (What did you expect? Apu from the Simpsons?)

“Were you educated in India? Did you go to a special school or something?

I swear I’m descended from a thousand generations of Indians, and I was born and brought up in India. No, I did not go to a “special school”, just a normal high school (though it did have too many rich kids in it, who perhaps needed some help).

These are real conversations I’ve had with people here in the States. They gasp when they discover that I say “Thank you VEry much for the WAter.” I’ve been really hard pressed to convince them that India is a large and diverse land, and there isn’t one single “Indian accent.” Each region has its own distinct, captivating and always amusing accent. Just like America has a Southern, South Western, West Coast, Mid West, Hispanic, East Coast, Boston, New England or other accents, we have our own Punj, Tam, Mallu, Telugu, Kannadiga, Marathi, UPite, Bihari, Bengali, North Eastern, Gujju or any other variation of English.

The poor hapless Bengali has to grapple with the fact that B, V and W are three distinct and independent sounds, and not just one. The woeful Mallu’s fate has been wonderfully captured here. My grandfather, an erudite TamBrahm if there ever was one (I just wanted to use the word erudite before I died, no hidden agenda here), dictated his letters to me when his eyesight was failing. He spoke in the Queen’s English, albeit better than any queen of England could have, and tormented me (at the ripe young age of twelve) with words like “claustrophobia” and “sovereign” which I tried to split and spell, and failed miserably. He was particular with YEvery word and knew YEvery thing from Yay to Yezed. WOnly WOnce did I manage a flawless copy. On a score of Sero to ten, my spelling abilities still remain close to Sero.

There are the distinct accents that separate a Mumbaiya from a Bangalorean, and a Delhiite from a proud citizen of Chennai. My wife left the north years ago, yet her (flawless) English still reveals her proud UP upbringing. Then there is the oft quoted joke about the Gujju family who called some friends over for tea, and terrorized them by declaring that the “Snakes were in the hole” (Snacks were in the hall. Sic.)

There are also shared Indianisms, such as not being clear with the v’s and w’s, forced American accents, and a tendency to stress on the second syllable of words (not very common in English), a trend typical in most Indic languages. So attempts to say can’t with an American accent fail miserably, and diarrhea (dI-&-'rE-&) becomes di-yea-‘rE, or just die-reaa. Easier to stick to the old fashioned “runs.”

But I can with certainty tell people that we are not all like Apu, and yes, we each speak English our own way. And we are proud of it.


Post script: Men and the art of Hara-Kiri

(I removed this postscript)

Monday, May 23, 2005

Silken strings of the Veena and Sitar

(It's been quite a while since there was a music related post here)

Carnatic and Hindustani classical musicians traditionally respected each other, often enjoyed either style of music, and a number of them put in some effort to learn the other style. But it took jugalbandhis of Carnatic and Hindustani musicians to bring listeners of either style to appreciate the other. The results have often been very enjoyable, yet invariably I prefer a good Carnatic concert, or a good Hindustani concert. But sometimes, there is just that perfect balance of Carnatic precision and Hindustani flow achieved in a jugalbandhi, that results in the mesmerizing.

To me, Carnatic music is like a mighty river in spate; surging on purposefully, sometimes overwhelmingly with joy. Hindustani music is more like a myriad mountain streams, exploring little corners here, and getting lost there. But they both reach the same destination, an ocean of bounty. When they blend together in balanced unison, the results are sometimes amazing. Last night was one such occasion.

Seattle was treated to a wonderful jugalbandhi by Jayanthi Kumaresh on the Veena and Gaurav Majumdar on the Sitar. The veena and the sitar are first cousins, very similarly designed stringed instruments with frets, and wooden bridges. But they remain two of a family, separated by distance. And when they came together last night, it was a joyous family reunion, with wonderful moments of polyphony and symphony. The sounds are similar, yet different, and each creates its own mood that goes perfectly with the other. The show started precariously, with the sound system causing havoc. The microphones seemed to work on the all or nothing principle; either nothing was heard, or else they would boom out and burst into static. It took twenty minutes for the organizers to figure it all out, and the audience greeted this success with raucous applause. Then the concert started, and left the listeners enthralled.

The choice of raga was excellent, and the usual suspects (Kalyani/Yaman, or Sindu Bhairavi) were avoided. Instead, they started with a mellow alap(ana) in Vasantha/Adi B(v)asant, and raised the tempo with a boisterous gat in the same raga. Then the “main piece” followed, and it was a ragam-tanam-pallavi in the beautiful Keeravani, followed by a jugalbandhi of the percussionists (Satish Kumar on the mridangam, Nitin Mitta on the tabala), worth listening to in it self. The concert aptly finished off with Vaishnava Janato in Harikambhoji/Khamaj, and received the standing ovation it deserved. There really was a blending of Carnatic and Hindustani styles, and not a forced match. A perfect end to a slightly chilly and damp Seattle evening. If only people could come together in this way, retaining their own identities, and making each other’s lives better.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Classic comics in the movies

I wanted to get this post in before “Batman begins” hits the screen. Hollywood has (sometimes) done justice to the comic books by crafting spectacular movies out of them. On other occasions, severe injustice has been done that still goes unpunished. Here is my “best and worst in comic book movies.”

Magnificent masterstrokes: Batman, Batman returns, Superman II, The Mask, X2 (X-Men 2), Spiderman II (yes, the sequels of these three were far better than the first movie), The Hulk, Hell boy.
Top of the heap: X2, Hellboy, The Mask

You might wonder why Sin City is missing from this list. That is because moi has seen only half the movie (the wife doesn’t share my taste in comics, and expected to see something like Spiderman when we went to the cinema. Needless to say, the shock was too much for her to bear, and we had to leave). But what little I saw was brilliant. I swear on the ashes of my ancestors that I will see the movie in totality soon and corrections will be made to the list below.

Colossal Blunders: Batman and Robin, Superman IV, Son of the Mask, Daredevil, Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Judge Dread, Elektra, Supergirl.
To be confined to the compost pit: Catwoman

Casting coups: Jack Nicholson (Batman), Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns), Jim Carrey (The Mask), Toby Maguire (Spiderman), Tommy Lee Jones (Batman Returns), Hugh Jackman (X-Men, X2), Alan Cumming (X2), Christopher Reeve (Superman series), the (what I’ve seen) cast of Sin City.
Stroke of genius:
Jack Nicholson (Batman), Jim Carrey (The Mask), Alan Cumming (X2)

Good God! Why me?: Halle Berry (Catwoman), Halle Berry (X-men), Halle Berry (X2), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Batman and Robin), George Clooney (Batman & Robin), Gene Hackman (Superman IV), Ben Afleck (Daredevil).
Ultimate Travesty: Halle Berry (Catwoman), Ben Afleck (Daredevil)

Should have been better: The Hulk

Wish list: Where are the female superheroes? We want lots of Rouge in X-Men 3, Poison Ivy in Batman, and a better Catwoman movie.
A better Phantom movie (without Billy Zane)
A Green Lantern movie, with Samuel L. Jackson as the Green L.
Mandrake the Magician, with plenty of Theron, Cobra (Lucifer) and Hojo.

Eagerly awaited: Batman begins, Fantastic Four.

And your favorites were?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

City wildlife

I was on my way home after work last evening, and on the tree-lined path, obstructing my way, there sat this rather somber looking raccoon! I stared at him incredulously (could have been a “her” as well, I don’t know), and he stared quizzically back at me, as if to ask why I was in his turf! Then he scratched his nose, turned, and ponderously plodded off. This was my sixth raccoon sighting in as many weeks.

No, my lab is not in some wilderness, buried in some deep forest. The University of Washington campus is right in the heart of the fine city of Seattle. Seattle is not some tiny boon dock town in obscure America. It is a bustling metropolis, a technology hub, and the famed home of Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, Zymogenetics, Immunex and other technology giants. And yet, right here, in the heart of boomtown, I encounter “wild life”.

It has been my good fortune in choosing to come to Seattle for my PhD. This is a remarkable city, where the people are proud of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and preserve it. The city has numerous parks, which are allowed to remain “unspoiled”. There is the magnificent Discovery Park in the city itself, where people can come and learn about Northwest terrains. Magnolia park and Woodland Park serve as habitat for endangered Madrona trees with brilliant red bark. A whole variety of old and new growth firs look down at you from the skies above. Birds are everywhere. Even on the University campus I encounter a varied menagerie of birds everyday. There are ravens and robins everywhere, ducks and Canadian geese, sparrows and ubiquitous gulls, and the occasional hawk circling the sky. Out in Seattle suburbia, beyond Redmond or Issaquah, residents are surprised in winter by visiting deer, raiding their gardens. Possums are everywhere (notably as road kill), and wild hares run in the parks. The wetlands are fiercely preserved, and the lakes are home to herons, cormorants, teals and many other birds. Little signboards unobtrusively educate the city slicker trekking through well-preserved trails. The 60-mile Burke Gilman bike trail is enjoyed by hundreds of cyclists daily, who stop to pick wild berries or wild apples from the trees and bushes lining the trail. There is all this and more, for the Seattle citizens to enjoy in their own city.

I think of India’s own booming cities. Bombay’s Borivilli national park may not last the turn of this decade. Bangalore’s own Bannerghatta national park is under severe threat. I had written earlier on dying lakes in the city. I sometimes go back fondly to my childhood, when after returning from school I would go to our terrace and watch some nesting sparrows, while waiting for flocks of green parakeets to fly to their roosts at sunset. Not surprisingly, the parakeets disappeared from Bangalore’s skies a long time ago. The greater shame is that the city does not even have space for its sparrows.

As an aside, it’s true that if you enjoy watching birds, you can never be bored. Just look at what this marine is up to in Iraq!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Graduate journal: I say, I mean...

I say: "I have a lot of work this week."
I mean: "I plan to start working this week"

I say: "I have a LOT of work today"
I mean: "I'm meeting my advisor today"

I say: "I don't have too much work today"
I mean: "I just met my advisor today"

I say: "Conference in December!"
I mean: "I need to start working in November"

I say: "Conference in Europe, need to work"
I mean: "Vacation in Europe, need to go"

I say: "My experiments suggest that under specific conditions this protein could cause.."
I mean: "My data is useless"

I say: "My advisor is a slave-driver"
I mean:"My advisor expects me to work 8 hours a day"

I say: "I'm going to graduate with my PhD"
I mean: "I'm going to graduate with my PhD some day"

I have a LOT of work today.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Fighting for justice and dignity: The good doctor

I first met Dr. Subbaramaiah (Dr. S.) about two years ago, when we in Asha received an ambitious proposal from this remarkable group in the Chitoor District of Andhra Pradesh, who were working with scheduled castes as well as landless peasants. Since then, I’ve come to know him better, and have found him to be a person of remarkable strength and indomitable will. This is his story, a story I'’ve tried to put together piece by piece.

He was born to landless peasants in a small village, and knew only poverty and hardship in childhood. Yet, his parents wanted a better life for him, and so he was sent to a village school. And he studied, with a ferocious desire to succeed. His efforts resulted in him securing the first rank in the entire district in his 12th class exams, and an admission into the Tirupati Medical College. This was cause for much joy, but the family did not have the money for the college admission and tuition fee (just a few hundred rupees, this was a government college). A powerful village landlord promised the family this money as a loan. But he was a petty and vindictive man. Never in the history of the village had a child of backward and petty peasants gone to college, leave alone Medical College. How dare this boy dream then? At the very last minute, he reneged on his word, hurled abuse at them and did not give them a penny. S’'s future seemed destined to be tied to the endless cycle of poverty and oppression. But his mother'’s desire was stronger. She gave him her only pair of earrings, and told him to sell it and go to college. He did, and ran to college, only to find that the admissions had closed that very morning. In extreme depression, he met the principal and told him his tale. The principal was a kindly man, and after all, S was a district topper. The principal summoned a peon, and told him to process S’s application immediately. S was now on the way to becoming a doctor.

His early life of hardship had ensured that he would have little tolerance for injustice. Even as a medical student he began to immerse himself in issues of social justice. It started with him exposing the mess warden (who was providing substandard food to the inmates and stealing the remaining funds, and was well connected with the local Mafia). Later, as a junior resident, he locked horns with a head nurse, who in conjunction with a local rowdy, was pilfering medical supplies, and worse, was involved in a racket exploiting the junior nurses. Every one was terrified of the rowdy, and warned Dr. S not to interfere, but he would not listen. One evening, when he was on duty, the rowdy showed up armed and drunk, and threatened Dr. S with his life. Dr. S. pushed him out of the gate, and locked it, and also locked the head nurse in, called the cops and had the thug arrested. By this time Dr. S'’s father had also passed away, and he was a sole breadwinner for his family. It was about now that he got involved with the struggle for the rights of landless laborers.

Not far from Puttur town, there were about 750 acres of fertile but fallow land. The government had declared that this was to be distributed to landless peasant families living in the region. But powerful and wealthy land grabbers decided to occupy this valuable land. Dr. S. could not let this injustice pass by without a fight, and so he took up the cause of the peasant families. He formed his organization, MICDA, and started working for the interests of these peasants. He took the land grabbers to court, and fought them. And he fought, and fought and fought....

About twenty years have gone by since then. The land grabbers, powerful landlords and corrupt local officials have still not given up, and still want that valuable land. Dr. S has been charged with over twenty-five false cases, which he has fought. The local courts as well as the state high court have dismissed every single one of them as baseless, false or malicious. But still, new false charges are constantly levied against him. Some years ago, the landlords sent vicious thugs to threaten Dr. S, who just barely escaped with his life (his brow still bears a nasty scar where he was hit). Still, he will not back off, though the threats continue. His medical career has been sacrificed for this cause. While juniors move up the ranks, Dr. S is away on medical or unpaid leave, fighting for this and other causes. The constant stress has taken its toll, and he now has stress-induced diabetes, and other medical ailments.

Meanwhile, he and his group have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of some 350-400 landless peasant families. They developed, surveyed and leveled the 750 odd acres of land. Every peasant was allotted land (about 1.6 acres, neatly demarcated), in a completely transparent way (by drawing lots). A basic and simple but efficient village was constructed within the land. Roads were built; check dams constructed, and bore wells sunk. Timber poachers who cut sandalwood from the hills around the land were caught and chased out by the peasants. Corrupt forest officials in cahoots with the poachers tried to harass these peasants, but that has been negotiated as well. A fine school has been built (with Asha's support), and hundreds of children come here every day, first generation learners all. The respect with which these peasants greet or talk to him is moving in itself.

The sun sets behind the hills around the land. We sit in the school porch and watch it go down. I see the look of exhaustion on Dr. S’'s face, and yet his eyes gleam with the determination to fight on and take up other struggles for the rights of the deprived and oppressed..

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Motorcycle diaries: Chennai traffic policeman saga

This one is a little short story, where every word is true.

A long time ago, when I was still a young 3rd year Engineering student, my greatest desire was to own a two-wheeler (a 350-cc Enfield Bullet, to be precise). My father smiled indulgently, and then said I could use his scooter if I wanted to. So I had to settle for “second best”. Instead of the Enfield, I got an ancient (1979 vintage) lemon yellow Bajaj Chetak (one of the early prototypes, I guess), still full of good cheer. I took a deep breath, had the bally thing repainted grey (couldn’t ride a yellow bike, could I?), painted some graffiti on it myself, and the speed-machine was ready. It was “as good as new” in the words of my father. Still, I could not complain about a bike that gave me 45 km/litre of petrol on the mean Chennai streets, and it never once failed me.

It was never the envy of my friends, but remained a faithful steed never the less. Being conscientious, I obtained a no-objection certificate for the Karnataka registration (famously known as an “NOC”) from Bangalore before I took it to Chennai. And I started tooting along on in merrily, through many-a-street in the fair city of the Coovam and Marina. All was hunky-dory, or so I thought. But I had failed to consider the routine harassment of the local traffic cops, who unfailingly (especially closer to the end of the month) would enthusiastically pull up any young man on a bike.

One night (at about 10 pm), after an excellent dinner at the mess, I was heading towards my uncle’s home (and my preferred habitat). Just as I was crossing the famous signal on R.K. salai, by the Music Academy, a bug-eyed traffic cop flagged me down. I pulled over, and waited, calm and composed. By now I was a veteran of the ways of the Chennai traffic cops. I’d been routinely pulled over and harassed, only to be let off after a small contribution to the highly unofficial but extremely popular “Police coffee/tea fund”. But I was determined to be firm this time.

“Mama” sauntered up to me, and asked for the usual suspects “License, registration, emission certificate”. All was in order, since (having learnt from my father) I had the originals, and copies in triplicate, safely tucked away in the trunk. He frowned upon seeing this, and scratched his head for a solution, and then looked at the bike number plate. A toothy smile of victory erupted over his face. He was sure he had me nailed.

“NOC iruka?” he asked, demanding to see my NOC, and staring at my Karnataka registration plate. I smiled right back, and with a twinkle in my eye conjured up my NOC (in original, with copies in triplicate), and waved it victoriously at him. He scrutinized the document, scowled, scratched his nose-wart, and thought for a moment. And then, with a triumphant smile straight out of hell declared “NOC moonu maasam thaan use pannalam” (the NOC can be used for only 3 months)!

I knew then that he was an imaginative liar clutching at straws, and he knew that I could never verify the veracity of his statement. “250 rupees fine”, he solemnly declared. I met his glare, and said I didn’t have the moolah, and hence couldn’t cough it up. Stunned with my reply, he paused for a moment, and then told me that my vehicle would be confiscated if I didn’t “help him out”. Calmly, I started wheeling my humble steed towards the footpath, to park it. Shaken, he ran up to me and said the vehicle couldn’t be confiscated on the road, but it had to be taken to the Mount Road police station. I handed over the keys, and said I’d be damned if I had to take it personally to the police station to leave it behind, but he was welcome to do so himself. Now he was really shaking. This, clearly, had never happened to him before.

“Seri, tea/coffee ku yethavuthu koodu, apporama nee pohalam” (O.K, just give me something for “tea/coffee” and you can leave), he begged. The usual “going” rate could typically be bargained down to Rs. 75-100.

I smiled, and emptied my pockets. Having just filled gas, I had the exact princely sum of Rs 7.75 (seven rupees seventy five pisa) left in my pockets, all in small change (one greased two rupee note, a few 1 rupee coins, some 50 pisa coins, and one 25 pisa coin). The strain of this sight was too much for him. He reeled, and in tears barked “Kalambu ingerinthu! Marubadi yen kitta matikathe!” (Get out of here, and don’t get caught by me again). He also used a few other choice words in chaste Tamil that are inappropriate for young readers, and so I refrain from using them.

I scooted off, majestic in victory. I had won, and I had done the unimaginable. I had made a policeman cry, not by resisting or resorting to angry words or threats but by standing up to my rights. Perhaps there was something in Gandhiji’s way after all!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Cows: armed and dangerous!

For those who came in late, the cow (Bos taurus) is a fascinating, mostly humble, largely peaceful, four-chambered stomach possessing cud chewing member of the genus Bos that has captured the hearts and minds of humans. The ancients in the Indus valley, and in Egypt of Pharaohs loved cows. The Aryans gave gifts of cattle, and revered them. The Masai (to this day) live by their cattle. A simple google search reveals over 104000 hits for cow images alone! Gary Larson's made a fortune taking cows over to the Far Side, dairymen across the world, and humble cowherds (our own doodhwallahs) constantly dream cow, Macdonald (and Burger King, Hungry Jack, and the US of A) need cow to eat cow, and the VHP mostly talks bull. Most of the above seem to have become (a) extremely prosperous, or (b) modestly prosperous, or (c) earned a living, thanks to the magnanimity of this beast, and our own craving for its milk, meat, bone, hide, dung, urine or serum. (Fellow blogger Amit Varma may not have made a dime yet from cows, but given his fascination for them, its only a matter of time).

Never in the history of humanity has any animal served humans as much, and received so little. I’m just doing my bit to give them their due in appreciation.

Arise, cow! Challenge your destiny!

What's all this about, you ask? If you still haven’t seen the hilarious “Cows with guns”, you’ve led a deprived life. Take some time out and see it here. Here is another site with the same video. Needs flash.

I bow down in all humility to you, noble cow. Go cow go!

PS: I just saw the video, and it demanded a complete blog (and not just a link), hence this blog. Normalcy will resume in the next blog.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

William Buck and the Ramayana

"Valmiki the Poet looked down into water held cupped in his hand and saw into the past. Before he looked, he thought the world was sweet poison. Men seemed to be living in lies, not knowing where their ways went. The days seemed made of ignorance and doubt, and cast from deception and illusion. But in the water he saw-a dream, a chance and a great adventure. Valmiki trusted the True and forgot the rest; he found the whole universe like a bright jewel set firm in forgiving and held fast by love.

Widen your heart. Abandon anger. Believe me, your few days are numbered; make one fast choice now and no second!

Come, clear your heart and quickly walk with me into Brahma, while there is time.

-William Buck (from the opening verse of his retelling of Valmiki's "Ramayana")

I have always been fascinated by the Epics, be it Homer and ancient Greece, or the "Legend of Gilgamesh", or Tolkien's tales. But to me none were as wondrous or mesmerizing as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Every translation I could find I have read, and C. Rajagopalachari's popular retelling of the stories have been faithfully re-read every year. But I had not read William Buck's versions of Valmiki and Vyasa's epics. Not read them, that is, until now.

I recently bought both books, and have been devouring the Ramayana first. Never have I read an English version of the epic that remains so true to the lyrical verse of the vernacular versions. This book is meant to be read out (almost sung out) aloud, just like the ancient bards would sing these epics in times long gone by. And every line is as riveting and conjures up images as any classic epic fantasy should. The tale almost takes different hues, though fidelity to the original story, and love for the original, is utmost in Buck's effort. The retelling also remains remarkably succinct, and the epic is reduced to a mere 430 pages, without losing a major section of the story. A masterful effort. It's a true pity Buck died at the young age of 37, before he could translate more Indian classics into English.

Amazon link.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Graduate journal: top 10 things to do in Grad school

I've heard way too many people say that life in graduate school is dull. PhD students don't have a "life", goes the refrain. Given that I'm now a wise old sage in graduate school, and know a thing or two about the PhD process, I think I can confidently say "Not true".

It's hard to define "life", but I can with confidence say that people still in an University setting have plenty of opportunities to have a fulfilling life. I'll even go out on a limb and say that most (NOT ALL) of my friends who have "settled down" with jobs lead pretty dull lives. And it almost seems as if the longer they have been immersed in their work, the duller their lives get. Their routine revolves around work, work, work, trips to the grocery store, work, a movie or two, work, meeting friends on a weekend, more work. There are the intrepid few who involve themselves with other interests, pursue their hobbies, write beautiful essays/poems/stories, hike in the mountains, or just lead damn interesting lives. But overall, I'd have to say that the grass is certainly brown on the other side.

Grad school can be refreshingly enjoyable. George Cham's probably made himself a small fortune with his brilliantly hilarious Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD). That's mostly because he's been extremely accurate in his portrayal of graduate school life. But here are the top 10 things I get to do in graduate school, and many of these will be missed once I leave (I say top 10, because there's a top 10 for everything, but not this. So this glaring deficiency needs to be corrected). So my top 10 things in grad school (not necessarily in order) are:

1) I hike in the Cascades and the Olympic rainforest. Granted, this is unique to the Pacific northwest, and certainly not to Graduate school :-), but it's still top of my list. It's something students at the UW love to do anyway.

2) I read splendid weblogs every day. Graduate school allows you the freedom to goof off whenever you want to. That way I get to read some of your brilliant blogs. On super high-speed internet to boot!

3) I am always amongst a very tolerant and broad minded set of people (sometimes there are strong opinions though). The sheer diversity of people and opinions on campus is exhilarating. I've had a Japanese roommate, a Chinese roommate, a Czech roommate, watched Iranian films with other friends, and learnt about Africa from others. And these are people in very diverse fields.

4) I can have an intelligent conversation on a variety of topics with just about anyone. Related to point (3).

5) If I take the trouble of leaving the Medical center (where I work) and go up to upper campus (where the "Liberal Arts" departments are) I can attend some brilliantly informative seminars on language, economics, social science, anthropology....

6) I can go for brilliantly informative seminars in my own department and in the Engineering school, and learn more that I otherwise ever could about the latest and best in science and technology. I am also surrounded by Professors who are legends in their chosen areas, and this is an inspirational and humbling feeling.

7) I can take courses in anything I want to. From Sanskrit to Scandinavian studies, Philosophy to Finance, Biochemistry to Badminton, your desire is the limit. The facilities of a large (American) campus are astounding.

8) There are a lot of beautiful people on campus (my wife will kill me for this, but I only speak as a sage here).

9) I learnt about, and got involved in wonderful organizations like Asha and AID while in Grad school. Some of my most fulfilling moments are spent with friends in Asha.

10) I have the freedom to do my own research, and work on the problems of my choice. Science is great.

Now, tell me Grad students don't have a life.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Addendum: more Kalki translations...

Bala sent me this LINK on an English translation effort of Ponniyin Selvan and other Kalki works. Can't wait to get hold of these. Thanks Bala.

"Kalki" Krishnamurthy in English....

The name "Kalki" Krishnamurthy (Tamil nationalist-writer and journalist beyond compare) is mentioned with admiration by my grandmom, and my parents. To them, he was the greatest Tamil writer of the 20th century. He wrote strongly on social reform, superstition, caste barriers and was a strong critic of British rule (both as editor of "Ananda Vikatan" and later founder-editor of "Kalki", both of which are still extremely popular magazines). His short-stories too were infused with his strong beliefs. His forte however was in writing epic historical fiction, and his novels like "Parthiban kanavu" (Parthiban's dream), "Sivakamiyin Sapadam" (Sivakami's oath) and Ponniyin Selvan were unparalleled classics. The grandeur of the ancient Chola and Pallava empires shone through, while tales of romance, valor and high culture mesmerized millions of Tamil readers. At least, these were my grandma's words.

Unfortunately, I never really worked hard to learn how to read and write (Classical) Tamil. I can barely read the signs on PTC transport buses in Chennai, so reading an epic like Sivakamiyin Sapadam really is not in my league. But my grandma's words always haunted me, and I was enthralled by the magnificence of even black and white celluloid efforts of these novels. Here, clearly, was a writer of stupendous ability, who had carved out masterpieces of literature. And here I was, unable to read any of his works. I wondered if there were any worthwhile translations of his works.

Just over a month ago, while browsing throught the shelves of Landmark (in Bangalore) I found a book staring at me. It was titled "Kalki: selected stories", and was a collection of twelve short stories by the legend himself, translated by his granddaughter Gowri Ramnarayan. Overjoyed, I immediately bought the book, and am now digging into the stories.

His stories are not as tightly constructed as those of some short-story writers (I find Roald Dahl's short stories extremely well constructed), but sometimes ramble on (in a nice way, not unlike R.K. Narayan). Some of his stories seem to finish in a hurry. His descriptive abilities however (even in translation) are magnificent, and images of little village houses on the banks of the Cauvery, surrounded by rice paddies float in. There are pointed references to superstition, caste oppression, freedom for women and of course, the freedom movement, and the strong characters in the stories always bring out these themes. Short story readers however desire a twist in the tale. They expect the unexpected. Here, Kalki scores very well. Some times I could guess the end correctly, but more often than not, the little red herrings threw me off. In other stories I just wanted to know what happens to the protagonist in the end, and couldn't wait to flip the page. O'henry would have loved these tales.

Amazon link.

Can Gowri translate "Prathiban Kanavu" and the other Kalki epics please?? Pretty please?????

ps: Amit Varma in his earlier blog had lamented the lack of good translations of Indian writing, but found that upon searching there were splendid translations available. True, very true.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Cricket in Madhavan Park: musings

Those were the good days, and its been a long time.

It still seems like yesterday though. We were still in Cottons, and things like degrees, college, work, and earling a living all seemed to be very distant and nebulous. And we had such good times playing cricket.

Our favorite haunt (we had many) for our cricket matches would be the stadium behind Madhavan Park, in Jayanagar 4th block. There Bharath, Viggy, Mani, Vinay, Vikas, Vishal, Mithun, myself.......all of us would congregate and start our matches. It wouldn't matter if we were just playing with tennis balls, or with the genuine stuff made out of red leather, but we would play. Sometimes we would play in the afternoon on a blazingly hot Saturday. So hot, that we'd be the only group of people in the stadium. Sometimes, it would be so crowded there that finding a pitch would be difficult, and we'd be forced to play with a tennis ball for fear of knocking out some random person in the field with the hard leather ball. Vinay used to unfailingly take the bus all the way from Domlur, and some years later, when Vishal started joining us, he'd ride down from Shivaginagar.

We all had our quirks. Bharath, whom we christened Punjab mail (after a memorable trip to Lucknow, where we had the privilege of riding on the slowest train in India) had the true heart of a fast bowler. He would untiringly charge in, all hustle and bustle, and then bamboozle us with his slow-medium pace delivery. Vishal would bowl his "off-spinners" so slowly that many of us would complete our stroke and miss the darn ball, only to find it still gently floating down, land and touch the stump (I don't think he ever "knocked down" a stump). Vinay was left-handed, but never had a style that would make critics gasp and exclaim "Ah! The fluid grace of a southpaw!" But he was extremely effective with the bat. I've never seen anyone get out as stylishly as Viggy, while Mithun would amaze us with his cross-batted stance. Mani never took to cricket the way the proverbial duck takes to water, but he was always enthusiastically there amongst us, playing.

Vikas was our one-man-army, our 200% man. He'd charge in like a wounded rhino, and hurl the ball with all the force his (strong) shoulders could muster. Or he'd bat like a demon, and make his poor partner (sometimes me) take so many singles that he'd be too weak to even swear! Bharat would usually run him out, and fireworks would ensue. Sometimes, Vikas would REALLY lose his temper, when he found some of us slacking off on the field (his pet peeve was bad fielding) during his bowling. And then the shouting would start. I once had to walk out of the field to give Vikas time to cool down, but my strategy back fired with Vikas ending up sulking!

I never had the skills of a Shewag or Sachin (though it was an innermost desire). Instead I ended up being a dour (read "boring as hell") and defensive batsman, blocking away the overs. The one thing I was truly afraid of was hyper-aggressive fast bowling. The speed itself wasn't the problem, but the bowlers expression would scare me out of my wits. Vikas has knocked down my stumps many times, just by glaring at me.

We graduated from high school and then disbursed across the country to various top colleges. Time flew by, and though we'd meet whenever we all came home to Bangalore for the holidays, cricket became a rarity. Now we're spread across the world, some of us are even married, and some of THEM are actually in a position to call themselves rich!

It still seems like yesterday though. Those were the good days, and its been a long time.