Thursday, March 30, 2006

Early happy hour: Balancing scientific……power

The February 9th issue of Nature had a rather revealing special article on the scientific balance of power.

There’s been much talk of the rapid “rise of Asia” in new research and technological breakthroughs, primarily in the popular media. And most of this talk was centered on China, South Korea and India, (and not the traditional self-effacing science powerhouse Japan), with its hordes of young scientists and engineers who will soon rule the world. Part of this was fuelled by some “spectacular” breakthroughs on stem-cell research from the (now thoroughly disgraced) Woo Suk Hwang group (now proven to be one of the most spectacular frauds of recent times). To many of us researchers, it was all mildly amusing, since little novel or pioneering research had emerged yet from these regions. There definitely was much promise in these countries, and the steady increases in funding for research was more than welcome, and quite desperately needed. But we knew that catching up with the west would take decades of dedicated effort.

The Nature report makes the picture clearer, by breaking down the research spending in all these countries, in dollar amounts as well as percentage of GDP. And the numbers are more sobering.

In spite of every thing Bush has mismanaged (NIH for the first time in two decades announced a cut in research budgets, and many researchers say times have never been this bad), the United States spends more on science and engineering research than the rest of the world combined.

Some select numbers for annual research funding by country:
USA: 134 billion dollars, 1.1% of GDP
UK, France, Germany: around 20 billion dollars each (around 0.7% of their GDPs)
Japan: 33 billion dollars, 0.7 % of GDP
China: 14 billion dollars, 0.7% of GDP
India: 3.5 billion dollars, 0.5% of GDP
(all bold fonts my own emphasis). link

The US spends FIFTY times more than India does on scientific research. And the output (in research) is invariably exponential to spending, the more you spend, far greater are your gains. So, the quality and sheer volume of research coming from the States is exponentially greater than India’s.

The doom and gloom predictions for the west in science can wait. It’s obvious that for the next few decades, the west, and the US in particular, is going to retain a huge innovation and original scientific discovery edge.

Though China and India have a long, long way to go before they can even start claiming “scientific powerhouse” status, there is much that’s positive in this. Though India is the only major country in the world that spends 0.5% or less of it’s GDP on research, the past 2-3 years have seen a huge increase in funding for science. Funding swelled by 25% from last year. The story in China is similar, with a 16% increase in spending on research. If this trend continues for a few years, there will certainly be real money available for research. India is also planning to (finally) create its own equivalent of a National Science Foundation. These are excellent trends, and can only yield rich rewards.

From an Indian perspective though, it’s not only the money that needs to increase. The money is very, very important. But, to use a hackneyed scientific phrase, the money is necessary but not sufficient. There is a cultural shift that’s needed to change “mindsets” and re-energize research.

There remains a institutional/systemic roadblock to innovation and research in India. Students are coerced to become a doctor or an engineer, and basic research is highly discouraged. This needs to change, urgently, and students should be encouraged to follow their dreams. But this will take time, perhaps years. The so called “premier” undergraduate institutions have to step up and play a role, and undergraduates need to be able to do real research. A theory is only so good if a student cannot ever see it working. Even in teaching, attitudes need to change. It is a rare professor who will allow students to question his or her ideas in class. This is just a continuation of suppressing ideas from kindergarten, through high school and finally college. Any “dissent” is considered hugely disrespectful. I was one of the few fortunate students to have some professors who encouraged a lot of questions, and I benefited greatly from that experience. Students are rarely allowed to take on serious research projects, and even if they are, are rarely encouraged. And stifling of creativity in students in India is an old story, so I won’t repeat it. These are the obvious problems.

There are a few centers of good research in India, and even here there remain pockets of bureaucracy (US researchers who complain of bureaucracy, go take a sabbatical in India), and resistance to all new ideas. Students should have the right to disagree with their PIs, or at least should have the freedom to question them, and should not work in an environment where the “have” to prove their PIs theories (yup, this happens in some groups). And large universities need to develop real research departments. It is not enough to see good research come from NCBS, IISc, TIFR, and a handful of other research centers and national labs across the country.

There are a few other measures though, that can be easily implemented. The first would be to introduce a “tenure track” system and provide incentives for researchers to publish. This is a rather obvious but long overdue measure that still isn’t being considered. In most universities in the US, a researcher is hired as an assistant professor. The first five years or so (the “tenure years”) for him/her are extremely hard. They have to publish good quality research that makes an impact in their fields. Only then do they receive “tenure”, and can stay on as an associate professor. Sure, there’s a lot of pressure, but if promotions or permanent positions are based on time spent/seniority (as it is invariably the case in Indian universities), it is instant death for research. Additionally, highly productive researchers should be given greater incentive to produce more (awards, increments in salary, grants, “endowed chairs” etc). Salary scales should not be based on longevity in the department alone. There is also no reason to discourage academic scientists to start-up companies using their research (and this is now changing, with a number of Indian researchers beginning to start their own companies).

There also needs to be some set standards for what constitutes an MPhil or (more importantly) a PhD. Repeating some one else’s published experiments cannot be one of them. Clear requirements, including a minimum number of publications of original research in well respected (and not improbably obscure) journals in the field must be mandatory.

But the increased money is a good first step. Hopefully, as Caesar might have said, alea jacta est.

The die is cast, and if these positive trends continue, it may trigger a cycle of productivity and innovation in Indian scientific research.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Magic, magic, everywhere

(Movie review: Howl's moving castle)

A long time ago, Disney studio’s crafted masterpieces with paper and pen, and immortal movies like Bambi, Beauty and the beast, Aladdin, or The lion king were born. But Pixar came along, and changed the world of animation for ever with their brilliant computer-generated movies. Pocohontas was passé, while Nemo was all the rage.

But in Eastern lands far away, paper-and-pen still ruled, and computers were continued to be used just to embellish art. This was Japan, the land of anime. And Hayao Miyazaki was one of the darling princes in this fantastic world.

From the ever-excellent Ghibli Studios comes yet another Miyazaki creation, Howl’s moving castle. This is the story of a young, helpful but shy girl, Sofie, who, due to a chance encounter is transformed in to an old hag by the Witch of the Waste. She then sets out on an adventure to reverse the spell, which takes her to a mysterious moving castle where a powerful wizard called Howl lives. And then she transforms his life, as he transforms hers.

Or is it the story of Howl, a powerful wizard scared of his own power and responsibility? A wizard who refuses the summons of the king who wants him to fight with his armies? Howl runs away, creating a magical moving castle which goes from place to place, escaping the king’s men. And in this he is aided, and magically connected to a fire demon, Calcifer, and with him is his young apprentice. Amidst these plots are little subplots of a magical scarecrow aiding Sophie, or the king, his councilor-witch, and their armies, or the Witch of the Waste.

There are innumerable little plots weaving in and out, something that will almost certainly confuse kids who watch this movie. But there’s something here for everyone. In some ways this is Miyazaki’s most complex story. Here, there aren’t any good or evil characters (except perhaps Sofie, who is so incredibly optimistic and likeable), and every one is muddling through their lives, trying to figure things out. There are deep uncertainties, desires and emotions that lie within all people.

Amd Miyazaki’s world is a world of spectacular magic (both literal and figurative). The towns are both medieval and futuristic. The lands are colorful, dark and yet bright. The creatures incredible, yet lovable. And the visual spectacle is magical. Miyazaki himself, through his movies, is going on a journey. Kiki’s delivery service was a bubbling movie that even the youngest of kids would enjoy, simple, straightforward, and thoroughly entertaining. His later movies took on many shades, with a little in it for every one, young and old alike. The fantastic Princess Mononoke and the dune like Naussica, valley of the winds, amidst their Gods, and demons and creatures and men, had a strong message of living in harmony with nature, and the futility of war. Here, it’s a bit of every thing. Howl, drawn like the classic anime hero, is hardly the assured, self-confident, cocky hero many typical heroes are.

The movie may be a little confusing to first time Miyazaki viewers, but it is meant to be enjoyed in all its little pieces, taking in one sub-plot at a time. The ending is nice, but not sufficiently Miyazaki. Some classic stylistic effects (like Sofie looking different, depending on how she’s feeling, or whom she’s with) might confuse at first, but soon will grow on you. And every moment is one of visual spectacle, colorful, rich and detailed. It is the work of a skilled master storyteller, who loves the magic in his art, not his best, but still superior to any other mere animation around.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Living by the slice

There are few things on earth as satisfying as a gorgeous slice of gourmet pizza. Thick Chicago style pan pizza crusts, or thin, flexible New York style pizzas, topped with mushroom, jalapenos and pineapple, and some good, melting goat cheese. Or stuffed-pizzas; with spinach, artichoke and cheese on them. Or caramelized onions, eggplants and wild mushrooms. Ah! Paradise for the average graduate student or techie! Romio’s pizza, California Pizza kitchen or even the more modest Pagliacci have satisfied this hungry gourmand’s life on many an occasion, while free pizza around campus (crappy, greasy but cheesy and satisfying) have come to the rescue on other, more urgent times.

The pizza has come a long way from little eateries in Naples, from being a gift for King Umberto and Queen Margherita, across the Atlantic, to becoming perhaps the most adapted dish of all time. Take a crust, top it with just about any thing, and enjoy the wholesome goodness on it.

But there’s always been a small hole in this almost perfect life of mine. I’ve searched far and wide, but have found only a few choices for good, quality pizza with Asian toppings.

There’s Can-Am pizza, with one or two pizzas with paneer on them, that folks up in Microsoft love, but that’s about it. But what do I do if the stomach craves a paneer jalfrezi pizza? Or a perfectly respectable aloo-saag pizza? How about some wholesome, south Indian pizza masaala? What if I desire some tofu-teriyaki on my crust? I’m sure my wasabi crazy Japanese-American former roommate would love to see a sashimi-wasabi topping. Or how about some Thai specials. I can imagine piping-hot pizza phad thai, or red-curry pizza. Or some delightful Malaysian specials, which we can call panang pizza, or pizza kanai, how about that? And why isn’t there any pizza with kim chi on it?

Here is a huge market, waiting to be tapped. The desi population in the States is over 2 million, and I’m sure my fellow curry-lovers would spend lavishly on these. There are a few million Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean and all other hues of Asians all over the place. There must be millions of my fellow Asian peeps out there who crave for this stuff.

It’s time for a pizza-revolution. Goodbye, Papa John’s. I know what I’ll invest in for a future business.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The cost of arms, legs or life itself

Polio is one of the nastiest diseases humans have known. It’s a highly infectious and devastating disease caused by a virus, poliovirus, and most severely affects children. A number of infected patients develop severe, irreversible paralysis, and a few of them even die due to the paralysis. But many of those who survive live extremely traumatic lives under severe physical paralysis. The virus enters the body through the mouth, and multiplies in the intestine, and is constantly emitted through feces, from where it spreads across communities.

It used to be endemic to most of the world, but years of worldwide efforts have eradicated this disease from most of the world. But only most of the world.

It remains a major problem in 9 countries. What’s common between them all? Extremely high populations living in relatively squalid conditions, in extreme poverty. And the sub-continent, especially India and Bangladesh, remain at the very heart of the disease.

The New York Times has a rather extensive article on the disease.

……Nearly 18 years ago, in what they described as a "gift from the 20th century to the 21st," public health officials and volunteers around the world committed themselves to eliminating polio from the planet by the year 2000. Since then, some two billion children have been vaccinated, cutting incidence of the disease more than 99 percent and saving some five million from paralysis or death, the World Health Organization estimates.
But six years past the deadline, even optimists warn that total eradication is far from assured. The drive against polio threatens to become a costly display of all that can conspire against even the most ambitious efforts to eliminate a disease: cultural suspicions, logistical nightmares, competition for resources from many other afflictions, and simple exhaustion. So monumental is the challenge, in fact, that only one disease has ever been eradicated — smallpox. As the polio campaign has shown, even the miracle of discovering a vaccine is not enough…….
…………….Teams like the one that faced scorn in squalid warrens of Bareilly have made repeated sweeps in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 180 million people, which Dr. Cochi of the Centers for Disease Control describes as "historically the center of the universe for the polio virus."
(bold fonts, my own).

In case someone reading this thinks it’s the NYTs usual case of India-paranoia, hold your horses. It’s all true, and it remains a great shame that India (like all other affected countries. From what I’ve seen (and heard about, from health-care workers), there’s little journalistic hype in this article.
Dig through the mountain of data a little deeper, and you notice that the countries on the list of most affected countries are Nigeria (by far the worst), Yemen, Indonesia, Somalia, India, Pakistan (here’s the full list), all Islamic countries. And in India, almost all the polio cases have come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar’s slums, in Muslim dominated areas.

I’ve known a few health-care workers in India who worked (and still work) incredibly hard over the years fighting polio. Their job is thankless, and relentless, walking from house to house in slums, banging on doors and begging, pleading, cajoling or scolding parents to inoculate their kids against polio. Often, they feel they are talking to impregnable walls, that respond only by hurling abuse, or with stony silence. The minds of too many people (especially Muslims) in these slums have been brainwashed completely, often by religious "leaders".

".........."Please open up," pleaded one polio volunteer, Firoza Rafiq, outside the locked door in Bareilly during a drive last year. "We won't force you." The woman inside first shouted through a crack that she had no children, though a little girl had just scampered in....."

It's impossible to understate how well problems in these slums have been captured by that one line above. Years ago, I was part of a group taking a census in a slum (this one's in Bangalore, near Wilson Gardens), for a DPT/Measles/Polio vaccine drive. We'd knock on the door of a house, show our credentials, and ask how many kids were in the house, and if any one was pregnant (and if so, was receiving proper medical attention). It's amazing how often we heard answers that were blatantly false. There would be three kids clutching to a women who's obviously their mother, and who's obviously pregnant as well, while their father would, with a perfect poker face, say that they had just one kid, and that no one was pregnant in the house. Exaspereated, we'd ask about the other kids, and the father would say they were the neighbors, and just at that time, one of the (smaller) kids would rush up to him calling him "appa/abbu"! These are the kinds of odds faced by health workers in Indian slums.

It’s surprising how many people believe that the polio drops are not vaccines, but drops given (especially) to girls to make them sterile and incapable of having children. Other equally powerful rumors float around that these pills make boys impotent, and meek, and will make them servile. Yet other rumors insist that this is a western ploy to destroy Islam. And a lot of these rumors come from local religious leaders, who insist that this is a targeted government campaign to wipe out muslims. And why can’t these people learn from other muslim countries like Egypt or even the extremely poor Bangladesh, where very promising strides have been taken towards polio eradication?

What do they get out of it? Why were there riots in Nigeria during polio campaigns, where some health-workers were even hurt? HTF do people actually believe these rumors? Isn’t it reassuring enough when Amitabh Bachchan or Mohammad Kaif come on ads urging people to take this vaccine?
What will it take to eradicate this disease, when it’s not resources or availability of health-care workers or vaccines that is limiting?

(link to the Polio eradication website)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Good night, and good luck

By now, after the Oscar hype, most readers probably know the basic premise of Good night, and good luck. The movie is set in the early 1950s in America, and this was the time of the second big red scare in the United States. It was the time of an intense anti-communist movement in America, which was marked by extreme paranoia. It was then that Joseph McCarthy, a junior Republican Senator from Wisconsin, became notorious for making widespread accusations of membership of people in the communist party, or communist sympathizing organizations. His accusations did not spare even senior officials in government, and the Democratic Party. People from all walks of life were suspected of being communist spies, and many were victimized.

It was a time of fear, and extreme paranoia.

It was also the early years for pioneering television broadcasting. Edward Murrow was an outstanding journalist of that time, and he had (even before this incident) become a legend for his War time radio broadcasts. Upright and uncompromising in his integrity, he was one of the outstanding journalists of the time from CBS (then known as the Columbia broadcasting corporation). And in his pioneering television series, See it now, Murrow took on the man who, through his bullying and recklessness, had eroded the eternal American values of individual freedom, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Edward Murrow (David Strathairn) believes McCarthy has gone too far, and takes on him in his TV show. He first talks about a US Air force soldier, who is asked to pay for the (speculative) possibility of his father being a communist sympathizer. He then goes on to broadcast McCarthy’s speeches on his show, speeches that had not reached the wider American audience. McCarthy, in a vindictive response, attacks Murrow personally, and ruthlessly, in single minded character assassination.

Edward, in his shows, is supported throughout by his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney). And this show goes on to affect both men and their crew deeply.

This movie is a small masterpiece that Clooney (as director) has crafted. His portrayal of newsrooms, with the drama, tension, politics and action, is outstanding. For McCarthy’s part, he comes up with a little masterstroke. He just uses superbly edited clips of McCarthy’s original, recorded speeches, and that from the McCarthy hearings, and trial later on. Seeing McCarthy in full (real) rant during the Army-McCarthy hearings is a terrifying spectacle. The movie relentlessly stays on politics, and the newsroom. This intensity can be suffocating at times. There are little bits that rankle, not only for their intensity, and their portrayal of the time, but also for their relevance for today. The pressures that politicians and advertising has on newsrooms haven’t changed much. Murray was an honest and hard-hitting reporter, but himself not perfect. At a point, it is felt that he no longer is staying on the line of neutrality, and not offering both sides of the argument. His response, that he is doing what the truth and his integrity is compelling to do, is moving and yet raises questions. Murray himself is not without flaws of his own.

The movie does well to keep up the atmosphere of paranoia. There are little diversions, like the roles of Robert Downy Jr, and Patricia Clarkson, both CBS employees who work for Fred and Murray, and lead us to believe in conspiracy theories that are not there. The movie reminds us that dissent is not disloyalty, and any one with questions is not unpatriotic. There is a right to disagree. It stands up to the right an individual has to be tried in court, with the evidence in full view, before being declared guilty and punished. McCarthy, with his vindictive bullying, created his own downfall. And Murray showed that unbending integrity in the newsroom can indeed have a profound effect.

David Strathairn, as Edward Murray, pulls off an acting coup. He’s incredibly subtle, and underplays Murray’s role to perfection. This is a masterclass in acting, of a kind that hasn’t been seen often in recent days. Clooney, Downey, Clarkson and the rest of the cast are perfect too. Shooting the movie in black and white lends credibility with the intensity. After all, McCarthy’s broadcasts were in black and white, as was Murray’s “See it now”. And this is a layered, textured, rich movie, with many, many moments to enjoy. It’s not blunt and in-your-face as (the eventual best picture of 2006) Crash was. The nuances and moments are there to marvel at, while the greater message reaches us.

This will remain an exceptional film.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Pirate this!

There’s this little “Indian store” close by, no different from any of the numerous Indian stores dotted across cities and towns across North America. The usual little place, with an assortment of frozen or dry packed foods, Maggi, Parle-G biscuits, pickles, spices and other essentials. And of course, the irreplaceable videos of the latest from Bollywood. As is the case, every time a movie is released, the store-owner painstakingly copies each movie out on to a dozen or so video-tapes, to lend out to customers (us). This means a single DVD that he buys (from Shemaroo or where-ever else) multiplies for just about no cost, and is distributed. Most readers will agree that this would constitute the classical definition of media piracy, wouldn’t you? Typically, when a movie is running in the local cinema (that screens Indian movies), the movie does not reach the store on DVD or video. A few weeks after the release of the movie, it shows up on the shelves, as DVD and innumerable videos.

But (rather often, might I add) this chappie seemed to have some movies with him even the day after it’s release. These he wouldn’t display on the shelves, but if you asked him for it, he’d pull it out from under a counter, with the flourish of a conjuror pulling out a rabbit from a hat. He’d then smile and with a twinkle in his eyes typically say something like

“Yeh camera print hain, print aur audio average hain.” (this is a “camera-print”, and the quality is just about “average”).

We all know about these camera prints (wink, wink), those awful tapes which we just need to see, to keep up with cinema trends. Those tapes which were made by some enterprising entrepreneur who sat through the movie in the hall with a video camera (Seinfeld, any one?). We aren’t surprised when we see shadows walk across the screen, or some hooting or clapping noises, or even the occasional commercial. Very much part of the game. And most of us usually patiently wait for the “official” prints, copied from original DVDs, with marginally better audio and video quality.

One day, not unlike any other, my wife and I asked him if he had the video of some movie that had just come out in the theaters (I believe it was the atrocity passing off as a comedy, Garam masaala). He said it wasn’t there officially, but he had a “pirated, camera print.”

My wife instantly went, “Par aap ke yahan sabhi movies to pirated hain” (but aren’t all your movies pirated anyway?).

He looked right back in mortified horror, pain and indignation.

“Kya bol rahe hain aap? Sab movies pirated thodi hi hain? Sab ke original DVDs athe hain, aur unka copies banathe hain hum. Woh pirated thodi hain.”

And then he went on to patiently explain to us foolish, innocent ignoramuses that only those movies that are “camera prints”, which are made inside a cinema hall illegally, are pirated.

All other copies are perfectly legal.

Go figure!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

And then there were mangoes

Come March, and it’s still winter in most of Northern America. But in most of the subcontinent, by March the mercury would have risen to well over 30 degrees centigrade (that’s almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit, for those of us who are metric challenged), and the increasing heat would mean only one thing for most of us.


Another month of waiting, and the bazaars would be flooded by them. And there have been few other fruits that have captivated the hearts, minds, tongues and digestive tracts of a sixth of the world’s population.

Mangoes happen to be native to the subcontinent, and over the millennia have woven themselves intricately in to life and culture. The world mango itself comes from the Tamil word for the (unripe) fruit, mang kai, which the Portuguese and Spanish first started taking to Europe, and then the new world. In southern India, a string of mango-leaves are tied across doorways, as an auspicious symbol. Jewelers design intricate ornaments (earrings or necklaces) with mango designs. The mango leaf or fruit is a common design found on mangalsutras that wives wear. Wedding feasts aren’t complete without mango chutney or pickle. But all of that is irrelevant. What’s relevant though are the fruits themselves.

There must be as many types of mangoes in India as there are languages. Each region has its own unique breed of mango, and regional pride insists that their mango is better than their neighbors’ mango. The Sindhu king Porus must have beamed in joy when Alexander the Great marveled at the king’s gifts of mangoes, and called it the king of fruits. There remain only a sorry few people (from some parts of some larger cities) who haven’t managed to try to climb a mango tree to steal some fruit, or take aim with stones to knock down some mangoes from a neighbor’s tree, only to hit the neighbor’s window instead, and then make a desperate run to escape the neighbor’s wrath.

Most North Indians swear by Chausa, or langra, or the ultra-sweet dussheri, and sing high praise. My own south Indian pride bristles when my wife tells me that it doesn’t get better than a sticky, juicy dussheri on a warm summer evening.

Nah! We south Indians have our own history of mangoes. And they’re just as darn good.

There are the delightful totapuri mangoes, called kili mooku (literally meaning “parrot’s beak”), long, curved, firm and delightfully flavorful. Cut out long strips of them, sprinkle a little salt, a little red chilli powder, and enjoy a sweet-salty-hot concoction fit for the kings. Or there is the delightfully aromatic kesar, prince of the deccan, which will fill the house with a heady aroma. And then there’s delightfully inviting neelam, small and green when unripe, but a light golden yellow when ripe. Then there is that king of mangoes, the alphonso, our own aapus, that every soul in Maharashtra, Western Andhra or Northern Karnataka will swear by. Can it ever get better than the queen of mangoes herself?

There’s no need even to cut up a mango to eat it. Raspuri is so rich in sweet pulpy juice that all one needs to do is to patiently take one of these in one’s palms, and gently but systematically squeeze them. And finally, cut open a little aperture on top of the mango to relish the contents for the next half hour or so, with sticky juice, aam ras, dripping down and drying on one’s hands.

And what can one say about the beloved bainganpalli? Big, fat, orange beauties, the size of a melon, with its own distinct aroma. Come early summer (mid April) and the bazaars would be lined with cart after cart loaded with the choicest, and the evenings would see crowds of people bargaining. Sharp tongued housewives, drumming down the price to a level the hawker wouldn’t dream of selling at, or meek husbands buying mangoes on their way back from work (on the orders of their wives), acquiescing to what ever price the hawkers demand (or sometimes feebly protesting, and knocking down the price of a kilogram of mangoes by a rupee or two).

And the heady mixture of aromas that unmistakably come from one source.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Revenge of the vending machine

The day was wonderful, and it was time for an evening drink. My workplace is blessed by the presence of a wonderful vending machine right by my own lab, serving the choicest of flavored milk delights. In it Wilcox farms sells aesthetically designed bottles filled with Mocha, Vanilla, Strawberry, chocolate, and old fashioned chocolate milk, and I gratefully insert a dollar almost daily, to enjoy a most refreshing drink, convincing myself that it’s milk, so it’s all healthy.

That late afternoon was no different. As I walked to the vending machine, I noticed that a colleague was staring at the machine intently.

I walked up, and discovered the reason. There it was, a nice bottle of chocolate milk, that had fallen from its slot, but hadn’t fallen down. It was stuck, and perched tantalizingly midway to the bottom. Neither in its rack, nor off it. If bottles could be demons, this one would be called Hiranyakashipu. But demonic indeed it was. It managed to tempt me, and I coveted it though it didn’t belong to me. “It’s a freebie, take it” urged a demonic inner voice.

First I tried the well-tested method of “kicking the vending machine”. I rained powerful blows (at least, I imagine them to be powerful. I suspect they weren’t strong enough to even break cardboard). Nothing happened. The bottle remained wedged right where it was.

Frustration resulted in more blows landing, blows that were angrier and increasingly ineffective. I even rose up on one foot, and leaped up to kick the damn machine, a la the inimitable Karate kid. The blow would have felled a (weak) ox, but the bottle still remained, unmoved.

I decided to resort to subtle strategy. Searching, I found a long piece of wire. I surreptitiously looked around, and finding no inquisitive eyes, pushed the wire in to the machine, to see if I could release the bottle. It was too short, and remained out of reach.

By this time my conscience was beginning to make feeble noises. “You haven’t paid for that milk, you scoundrel.”

My dark-side spoke to me in a sugary, logical and convincing voice. “Perhaps, if you put in a single dollar, and press the button to release the milk bottle ABOVE this wedged one, it would fall, and hit the one below, and then you’ll get TWO for the price of one.”

Human nature is weak. I succumbed to temptation once more. I inserted the dollar, and pressed the button for the milk bottle in the shelf above this one. I watched it fall. It hit the target, bang in the middle.

And then, it was stuck as well. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!
Cheaters, as a wise soul once said, never prosper.

I was frothing in rage, drowning in my own embarrassment, and panicking. The vending machine was much too heavy to lift or shake. So I charged at it, and rammed into it with my shoulder. Finally, one bottle fell off its rack. It was not the one I wanted. Damn, it wasn’t even the flavor I wanted.

But I got just my dollar’s worth. Humbled, I took it and went away, a wiser and (dare I say it) better man.

The next morning, I saw the attendant removing the wedged bottles, and fixing the system. I skulked away in acute embarrassment.

Never again will I doubt the power of a vending machine. It has made me (once again) an honest man.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A sickening feeling, and old memories

As I read Vulturo’s post, a bunch of memories that I thought didn’t exist any more came back.

This was about two years ago, when I was traveling around Orissa with my parents. We were at the Lingaraj temple in Bhubhaneshwar, and those of you who have been there know that it can be rather crowded. It certainly was on the day that we were there. There was hardly any space between people jostling to get up front, and to me (back from the free open space in the States) it was positively claustrophobic, to the point that I was almost dizzy. Anyway, in the crowd, I had become temporarily separated from my parents. At some point, as I was trying to look over the heads of those standing ahead of me by standing tip-toe, trying to see what was happening right up front at the shrine, when someone behind me gave me a hard push (unintentionally, perhaps being pushed by the people behind him/her). Anyway, being on my toes resulted in me losing my balance, and I fell forward, and bumped right on to the young lady standing in front of me.

She turned back, and there I was, trying to regain my balance and bearings, and sputtering an apology. Something about being pushed. But she didn’t wait a moment. She had this look of horror and disgust, and immediately shouted “Bas***d, how cheap can you get. That too in a temple. Tumhare ghar me behen beti nahi hai kya?”

At that moment, I felt more miserable that I probably had ever felt in my life. And when I read Saket’s post, that moment's sick feeling, like being punched in my stomach, came right back as I remembered this old incident.

But then, when I read Anne’s post, where she writes as only she can, a whole bunch of other memories came back. It’s different when you’re in an open society like the States, where personal space is plenty, and you’re hardly surprised when you see women jogging out in the street late at night. It’s considered normal. But it is so true that women in Indian cities are harassed, from the moment they step out of the house, until they come back. Anne’s post brought back plenty of other memories too.

I remember once, years ago, when a second cousin visited us in Bangalore, I accompanied her on a bus to some place a few miles away. When she got off, she told me that she rather liked Bangalore buses. Though the bus was very crowded, no one had tried to grope her, and she said it always happened in Bombay (this was a different Bangalore, many years ago). What struck me most then was not the fact that she had an event-free bus ride, but that she (like most young women) feel it’s almost expected to be abused in some little way or the other.

I remembered suddenly an old episode of that thoroughly entertaining TV show, The amazing race, nearly three years old. On that particular episode, the group of travelers had gone to Bombay, that city of dreams. They, like every one else, took the local. When they got off, one of the women in the group was sputtering and angry, and screaming. Yup, you can guess what had happened. She felt abused and hurt, and I can still remember the expression on her horrified face. It wasn’t like she didn’t understand crowds or the unavoidable physical contact on a local train. She was a veteran of rush-hour travel in the New York subway, the London tube, the Tokyo trains, and quite used to being bumped in to. But she had never, every felt abused on a train before this.

I remembered times years ago, when my (now wife) girlfriend, still in India, would stay up late at night, after work, at a cyber-café to chat with me here (this was well before the phone-card boom). As she’d go back to her apartment (just two blocks away) at night, I would sit at my computer, sick with worry, till I got her 1-minute phone-call saying she’d reached home safe.

I remembered once, when a group of us from college (some guys and some girls) were on a bus, going for a movie, and were spread across the bus. A bunch of rowdy guys boarded the bus, leered and hooted at the girls, brushed against them, and got off (while some of us useless guys were blissfully unaware of the commotion, or perhaps we looked the other way, or were just plain doormats). I had this feeling of (impotent) rage, which lingered on for the rest of that day, while the girls just shrugged it off, saying that it happened all the time, and they had to live with it.

I understand Saket’s feelings. I feel just as mortified when, if I’m in a bus, and happen to sit next to a girl, she moves away and presses against the window. Or, if I’m sitting, and the seat next to me is the only other empty seat, a girl would rather stand right ahead of me than sit down. That “sick, contemptuous look”, like I’m some serial rapist isn’t much fun. But, I think I can see where that look comes from.

It’s not right, but the way we, as a society, treat women is far, far worse. And until that fundamental change happens, I think I’ll survive being looked upon like the scum of the earth.

(ps: However, I will, till my death, stand by my right to appreciate any beautiful girl walking by me. No, not ogle, not leer, just look. That’s my (and any other guy’s) birthright. If my wife’s with me, I’ll get rapped on my knuckles, tell her she’s far more beautiful, and still look. Down with all extreme feminism)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Food, with love

Every thing about the place seems mundane. Punjab Sweets can hardly be called a restaurant. You enter in to a large room, with four or five tables haphazardly arranged, and lawn chairs strewn about. There’s no decoration around the room to speak about, no fancy lighting, no painted windows, no nice curtains, no large embroidered wall-hangings. There’s just a couple of tacky “Indian” paintings, and a photo of Guru Nanak on the wall. The counter in front of you is exceedingly drab.

You walk up to the counter, listening to the soothing Shabad keertan that’s constantly playing. You then gape at the wide assortment of sweets and namkeen in front of you, arranged just like an old fashioned halwai in small-town Northern India would, in a sliding-door glass cabinet. Arranged in front of you are an endless range of jalebis, mothi chur ladoos, rava ladoos, gulab jamuns, kala jamuns, peda, petha, burfi and halwa. You then succumb to temptation, and order half a kilogram of hot jalebis, and take them back to the table where your friends are sitting, talking loudly about anything they feel like. The people around you look just as relaxed, chatting, laughing or reading. As you munch through the pile of jalebis, and your glass of milk, you decide what you want to eat. After all, there are only six dishes on the “menu”, stuck on the wall. You (with your group of friends) decide to order everything on the menu, some paneer pakoras, a samosa or three, some muli or gobi or aloo parathas, some sarson ka saag and makki rotis, and perhaps a kofta or two. They soon materialize, brought in by the owner’s mom (who’s also the cook), or the owner’s son (who part times here when he’s not in college), or their school-going daughter. The food is on old steel plates, and you are greeted by enormous parathas, a large cup of saag or kofta or sabji, an equally large cup of fresh, home-made dahi, home-made pickles, some onions and a little green chilli. You dig right in to it with your fingers, slurping the yogurt, smacking your lips, with the occasional lick of the finger itself.


And then, after you and your friends finish overeating (in absolute, frenzied silence) you continue to talk (now leaning back in satisfaction) about life, the universe and everything. Finally, you look at the clock, reluctantly get up, walk up to the sweet counter, buy another kilogram of jalebis, and an assortment of sweets (for a “rainy” day), and head out.

And then, as you step out, you are taken back to reality. It’s cold outside, and cars are whizzing by. You hop in to your car, and press the pedal to take you to the freeway. Ten miles later, you’re back in the heart of Seattle.

But you’re feeling extremely satisfied, after a little feeling of “home” (so what if Punjabi food isn’t what I’d eat at home in India). It’s not the décor or the service or the ambiance. It’s just some good food, cooked with love and care, and an extra dollop of home-made ghee.