Monday, October 31, 2011

Straying Into My Garden

My absence and lack of tinkering along with a generous dose of rain and sun seem to have done the garden a world of good. Things that lay dormant and hidden below the surface have suddenly sprung into life quite on their own. And what wonderful surprises lay in store for me when I returned!

Our chiku (sapota) tree, which has been flowering for six months has finally produced a small but definite fruit! And beneath it, grows a particularly healthy dandelion. Dandelions are always welcome in my garden for I would really like to use them in salads and tea (but never get sufficient amounts). They are considered indicators of harmony and health in a garden. I don't know if this is true, but I like their cheery flowers nodding at me and their wispy seeds blowing through my plants.

Also of its own accord, a robust looking tomato plant has ensconced itself in one of the pots. It produced three tomatoes, two of which were eaten by monkeys and one remains. Perhaps this will ripen and shed more seeds and I will have a tomato crop next year without doing anything!

The haldi (turmeric) rhizomes have sprouted and there will be a small harvest possible in the coming month. I am looking forward to this as fresh turmeric smells and tastes heavenly! Looks like they will need a bigger pot next year.

Bougainvillea provide vivid splashes of pink, in their rambling way. They are particularly striking for it is the in between season, when summer flowers have been shed and winter ones have not yet blossomed.

And yesterday, we saw our bryophyllum flowering - a wonderful sight that begins in the morning and is over by nightfall.

I began to get a sense that my garden had taken over in my absence, directing its own growth and budding and fruiting. As I was watching and marvelling at this phenomenon, a large butterfly swooped in and proceeded to settle itself on a tender leaf bed - it didn't seem to mind my presence, perhaps it knew that I too was a temporary visitor.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Remembering Fred Richards

Fred Richards, eminent protein biochemist, founder chair of the department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (and later Sterling Professor Emeritus) at Yale was always bustling about in his office or lab. - at least this is how I remember him from my days as a graduate student. I was fortunate to work for a short while in the lab. adjoining his (headed by one of his former students) and to meet and interact with members of his lab. during this period. From time to time, memories of Fred fill my mind for the way he did science and the person that he was.

When I think of Fred, I always feel motivated and delighted by his ideas. He had an incredible, far-seeing mind, a knack of observing people and summing up situations in his frank and pleasantly energetic way. Today I was happy to lay my hands on an article of his that I had been looking for. Titled 'Whatever Happened to the Fun? An Autobiographical Investigation', it is written (not surprisingly) in 'Fred style' and was published when he was about 75 and still hard at work (reference: Annu. Rev. Biophys. Biomol. Struct. 1997.26:1-25).

The article is of general interest even though it is filled with scientific recollection because it also addresses pertinent issues faced by many of us in our varied professions. It discusses changing situations, polices, options and ends as it began - with a question. Asking questions was second nature to Fred - and the search for answers led him and his lab. to many wonderful discoveries in the field of protein structure, folding and packing, and how to view or measure aspects of these. I quote below a few (less technical) excerpts that I particularly enjoyed:

".. The following is the log of a day in the life of a typical 35-year old faculty member at one of today's research universities:

0730-breakfast meeting of the Committee on Revision of the Graduate Preliminary Examination; 0900-give today's lecture in the beginning course for premeds; 0950-put off student questions after the lecture because...; 1000-meeting of the Building Committee to discuss the color for repainting the 4th floor hall; 1100-meet with today's departmental seminar speaker to tell her all the wonderful things that "you" are doing in your laboratory; 1130-explain to your starting graduate student that you would like to discuss his thesis proposal, but that today is the deadline for a letter of recommendation for one of your other students who is applying for a postdoctoral fellowship; 1200-emergency Departmental lunch meeting to decide how to respond to a claim by unannounced EPA inspectors that a waste bottle for organic solvents in your hood was not stoppered; 1330-missed an appointment with a potential postdoc previously arranged for 1300, use the unexpected 30 minutes to scan and reply to your E mail; 1400-meeting of the University Junior Appointments Committee in the Humanities (you are the token scientist); 1530-call from the Provost asking you to serve on an Ad Hoc Committee to examine the claims of fudged data by a whistle blower; 1545-start the rewrite of a grant request that had already received rave reviews but got a priority of 1.28, which was .02 below the payline for this round; 1630-attend Departmental seminar; 1745-call your spouse and explain that Bill W. had called in sick and you had been asked to stand in at dinner for the seminar speaker-yes you remember that it is "concert night" but can't someone else go in your place-after all you just have to tend out.

This may seem a little exaggerated, but not by much. Is this really what research is all about, what you were trained for and looked forward to doing with your life? Where is the fun and excitement of discovery? Or, God forbid, is this the new definition of "fun"?

... This decision (to become a chemist) started with a Christmas toy, a chemistry set, when I was 10. At that time chemistry sets were allowed to actually do something; smoke, smells, even the occasional explosion, and always the possibilty of getting sick if you ate out of the wrong bottle. In other words, fun; no "consumer protection."

.. High school years were spent at Phillips Exeter Academy. The excellent science department even permitted certain students the unsupervised run of the laboratories outside of class hours. This attitude played a strong role for my roommate John King (destined to be a physicist) and me in cementing our commitment to scientific careers. (I believe that no such access would be permitted today in any school owing to fear of legal actions.) We learned many useful trades at that time with Strong's text on Procedures in Experimental Physics as a major resource: glassblowing to the level of a two-stage mercury diffusion pump, a differential thermometer to clock the hours of sunlight, an attempt to measure the universal gravitational constant. For the latter we made a torsion pendulum with a 20-min period in a vacuum chamber, and we used 100-pound cannonballs borrowed from the village green as moveable weights. This particular project was unsuccessful but very educational!

..After receiving a PhD, I spent an additional year working directly with Edwin Cohn. I did some team teaching with Frank Gurd in the first year of the then-new, all encompassing Medical Science program for first-year medical students. To indicate other applications for his protein separation procedures Cohn arranged that I share a stage in the auditorium of the Boston Museum of Science with a farmer and a cow. The latter was attached to a milking machine, which was attached to a milk separator, which fed the whey into a precipitation chamber, which transferred the suspended precipitate to a centrifuge, which delivered the dissolved precipitate to the automatic machinery developed for protein fractionation of blood plasma. I was supposed to explain to the lay audience what was going on! Both were interesting "experiences"!

..At this time in a career, the standard academic procedure takes hold; responsibilities pile up. Research is soon done only by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. My group has been run in the "disorganized mode." Each individual has usually ended up doing what they wanted, but with no particular relation or coordination between the different projects. For grant purposes, of course, we have written up the applications as though they there were one or more clearly achievable goals and a logical set of experiments by which to obtain the necessary data. The title of the grant was very general and has not changed in 35 years: "Study of Proteins in Solution, Interfaces and Solids."

..In the early 1970s I was called for jury duty in New Haven. This citizenly chore turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In each court case either the prosecution or the defense did not want an academic on the jury. Thus for two or three months I spent each day in the jury room with no phone or other disturbance. This time permitted the rapid coding of the Voronoi procedure for calculating atomic volumes, which I had been put onto by John Finney from his work with JD Bernal. Each lunch recess I ran up the street to the computer center and put the morning's effort on punch cards and started the debugging. It all went well and produced quantitative estimates of the packing quality in proteins.

..If more individuals recognized the mileage that one gets by leaning over backwards to acknowledge the work of one's colleagues, a good segment of the turmoil over scientific misconduct would disappear overnight. Much of the rest could be handled by listening without jumping to immediate conclusions. A major culprit seems to be ego."

This is just a glimpse into Fred's world - one that was filled not just with fun science but with many other interesting events and people, some of which he has alluded to here and elsewhere. For scientists working in the area of protein structure or for those interested in the history of the past few decades of scientific research, the article is a wonderful read.

Our Diwali Celebrations

Our Diwali this year was spent in meeting friends, exchanging sweets and news and, in the evening, in decorating and celebrating at home.

We celebrated this year with lots of flowers, incense, prayers and a few beautiful fireworks for that festive feeling.

As evening fell, the oil lamps shone and we had no need for any other lights.

It so happened that many of our neighbours were away and our terrace and garden were lit only by a few oil lamps and clusters of flowers. Perhaps this is why we had a few unusual Diwali visitors - a kite looking for a peaceful, high perch, a mangy dog, trembling in fright at the sound of the fireworks and a millipede that had miraculously avoided being crushed in the rush of busy feet on the road.

I do not believe in swinging to extremes; I think a few fireworks add to the celebration but I do sympathize with all creatures who are frightened and disturbed in the process. It would be nice if we could burst crackers in places where animals are few and keep certain stretches of space clear for all who need a peaceful spot or perch. That, in my mind, would be the best way to light (and lighten!) up things around us.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happy Diwali

Diwali comes with grey scudded skies, a lingering drizzle that dampens momentarily the fireworks, but brings a bracing breeze. This year our family is scattered, travelling to places near and far on Diwali and so we celebrate in a quiet way at home.

Today I clean the house and do a small puja - to welcome wisdom, health and prosperity into our homes and hearts. Ancient chants that calm the mind and renew the spirit.

Lights of course there must be. Reminders of love, gentleness and purity, flickering in the breeze as night falls. Lighting up the world and oneself is easy if we follow our spirit, as today reminds us.

Food! Today I have tried something different - my own concoction of milk infused with rose petals and set into a thick curd; we shall have it with honey and nuts once the prayers are over. For dinner - small puffed puris and potatoes cooked in curd and spices that whet the appetite.

A burst of sparklers, a splash of colour and sound, a faint whoosh as a rocket flies past - a few fireworks that we light with friends in celebration.

Happy diwali!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his Odissi

Yesterday, as part of India International Centre's annual festival, we watched Madhavi Mudgal in a beautiful Odissi (a classical dance originating in the eastern state of Orissa) performance. We sat outdoors, watched over by a benign sky and even the trees and bamboo clumps stood silent and alert - in admiration perhaps of this beautiful dance form that remains now eternally linked to the memory of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

Kelucharan Mohapatra was fascinated by rhythm and movement from an early age despite the family disapproval that followed. As a child he was drawn to and subsequently immersed in folk theatre, this included various aspects that were to help him later in his choreography and composition - back stage work, percussion, dance, drama and more. Working with different companies (one of these led to a meeting with a highly talented dancer whom he married), learning expression skills from a range of teachers of music and dance and researching traditional dance forms, he finally came up with his own way of expressing this classical dance, in the early fifties. At that time, Odissi was unknown outside Orissa and even within the state, it lay very much alive but somewhat somnolent, awaiting people such as Kelucharan to arouse it and renew it so it could move forward and spread outward.

And Kelucharan Mohapatra obliged, with all the love and devotion that is so much a part of his dance form. Almost every well known Odissi dancer today has a link of some sort to his style or compositions. His compositions were exquisite - several being designed with a specific student in mind. A master of rhythm and expression, his pieces (composed to abstract rhythm, medieval songs or classic mythological poems) looked as though dancers had stepped off the walls of the beauteous Orissa temples or had been recreated from images and descriptions found in old texts.

Madhavi is one of his many gifted students and she spoke briefly on his style and teaching - how he emphasized continuity in movement and expression to lead the viewer into a particular state of mind or experience. She showed us a range of compositions, some solos and several adapted by her to include one or more dancers. It was a wonderful experience though I always feel that none of the students is quite like the master himself (and understandably so). I feel irresistibly drawn to Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's performances (though I could never watch him live, he died in 2004 at the age of seventy eight). For his own dances he is simply attired, there is a bare stage and the music is minimal but very striking. And then, he brings to life characters and emotions in a joyous, free flowing manner that remains with one long after the dance is over. I also feel that his ability to express both masculine and feminine forms was amazing, something I have not seen in any of his students, who are often more skilled in the feminine aspects.

I attach below a link to one of his performances - an excerpt from Gita Govinda (a 12th century poem that was written in Orissa). This is an unusual piece of work, describing Krishna's overwhelming love for Radha. The poem reminds us from time to time of Krishna's divinity but the lyrics are highly sensuous. In the excerpt shown here, Krishna is anxiously awaiting Radha, who has been avoiding him. He is temporarily in disgrace for having neglected her in favour of other frolicking village maidens! We know that this is no ordinary love, a divine element is at work here and Kelucharan Mohapatra is able to convey a human anguish keeping in mind what lurks beneath. It is also interesting to watch this because often classical dance scenes portray distressed maidens awaiting their lovers; here the situation is reversed. The words are addressed to Radha by her friend (Krishna's messenger), describing Krishna's desperate wait for her and advising her to remove her anklets and adornments and to silently rush to him.

I also add a link to a performance by Madhavi and her students, just to show the difference in style and the range of forms created in this dance.

Why does Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's dancing haunt me so? I think it is because it emanates from his very being. He had said once, "The real dance must convey the feeling of undivided existence, that a spectator can feel that he is not different from the thing observed."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Music and Joy

A special concert series called 'Delhi Celebrates' (organized by the Punjabi Academy) began last year and because of the overwhelming response it received, the government decided to make it an annual event. This is a series of free concerts by eminent Indian classical musicians from all over the country and takes place in the beginning of October.

I attended the last two concerts yesterday - they were beautiful, stirring and joyous at different moments - very apt for this time of the year which is full of festivity and celebration. Sharad purnima (the full moon at this time of year) has just turned the corner - it is a harvest moon that bestows happiness and prosperity. The work is over, the renewing rains have left their imprints and it is time to sit down, breathe in the cool air, look up to the clear skies and be thankful.

This is just what the musicians recreated in the large and flower decked Kamani Auditorium yesterday. The concert began with Pt. Laxman Krishnarao Pandit, who is the fifth in a continuous lineage of legendary musicians from Gwalior (a city that has one of the oldest forms of Indian classical music) along with two accompanying maestros (on the tabla and sarangi - the sarangi is a string instrument said to be closest to the human voice, it is now not always used as an accompaniment but is utterly beautiful to hear). The second part of the concert was by Pandit Jasraj, who has an amazing range (three and a half octaves) and style and his own dramatic form of expression which keeps an audience spell bound.

I enjoyed both concerts; the energies and sounds were quite different but the musical genius of each of the artists was evident from beginning to end. It is at times like this that one realizes the sheer power of music (and musicians) to wash away pain, evoke love and peace. As I listened I felt a slowly growing happiness and awe at life and all of creation - something that the musicians themselves seemed to feel and express and communicate to me personally and perhaps to everyone who heard them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tea Talk

Sometimes, talking about tea is as nice as drinking it. We did both yesterday, at our favourite tea store in Sunder Nagar (Delhi), with our favourite tea seller, Mr. Mittal. We had not visited him for over a year and as we walked beneath 'Mittal Teas' written in a green cursive hand, past the window display of teapots of all shapes and sizes and through the old doorway, we saw faces wreathed in smiles. Mr. Mittal was bending over a can of tea leaves and his erstwhile assistant welcomed us in. Luckily there were no other customers and we settled down for a bit of talk and a spot of tea. Mr. Mittal had just procured some high altitude Sikkim tea and was very keen that we taste it. His assistant efficiently set up the tea tasting, with a little pot, a sand timer and three cups. Another assistant brought out some dried lychees and grapes, a new line of Mittal's products.

Mr. Mittal explained that most of the dried fruit in India came from the Middle East, but now there were several organizations that had begun fairly innovative work in the Himachal and Uttaranchal hills. The fruit had been gathered from there and slowly and naturally dried; they were also getting wild rose petals and herbs of different kinds from the same region - plants that locals would initially try to destroy using herbicides had been shown to have useful properties and were now being gathered and sold. Mr. Mittal did not use the herbs but was making interesting looking mixtures using bright pink rose petals mixed with green lemongrass or yellow chamomile and a few tea leaves. My mind drifted to real rose flavoured curd and other desserts and I immediately asked for some petals - they are extraordinarily light. Twenty grams of petals were filled into a large bag for me.

The tea was ready and we sipped it slowly. The talk turned to infusions. Had Mr. Mittal tried pandan leaf tea, which was one of our favourites from Cambodia? Yes, indeed, he had - one of his friends had given him a large packet and every day last year he would brew it in his shop and the entire area would be infused with a Basmati rice- like smell (which would make Mr. Mittal very hungry!). Lately he had tried allspice leaves, another gift from a friend - and the leaves would slowly unfurl and try to attain their original shape in the water, and fill the air with their unmistakable tang of cloves, cinnamon and more. I was amazed; I have a large allspice plant in my garden and have been waiting all this while for the berries, without realizing that I could use the leaves so simply and effectively.

Sikkim tea drunk, approved of and ordered, we got up and examined other recommendations for the year. This has been a good year for tea and Mr. Mittal was telling us about the extraordinary development and innovation done by planters in the southern stretch (the Nilgiris) over the last few years. Nilgiri tea was never a competitor to Assam and Darjeeling originally, but now they have begun to grow and process some very fine green teas as well as organic teas. We smelt a hand rolled green tea - it was very fruity and fragrant. Mr. Mittal described its flavour, which sounded delicious, and so it was added to our list. Our list undoubtedly grew - as we looked and smelt and heard! A standard, good quality Darjeeling (though, in my view there is nothing 'standard' about Darjeeling - it remains my most favourite tea), a delicate, clean flavoured, top of the line tea called 'Silver Tips', and then - Mittal's spices...

Over the years, Mr. Mittal has also begun to provide good quality, well cleaned spices, whole and ground, in his shop. I always buy powdered cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, needing them for cooking and not being able to grind them as finely at home. Also, finely ground sea salt and an authentic looking mix for tandoori food (minus the obligatory orange food colouring!). Dried lychees and apricots (Mr. Mittal said they acquired a flavour similar to fresh fruit when infused, but we shall just eat them as they are) - and the big bag of rose petals (Mr. Mittal's gift to me) completed the list. I pointed to a pile of Spanish saffron and Mr. Mittal described how he had tested the Spanish and Indian varieties by making infusions and the high quality Indian varieties, in his opinion, were better than the Spanish ones that came one's way.

At the end of it, after having thoroughly soaked in the teas, spices and fruit - all our senses completely saturated, we walked out into the smoky Delhi air, with the warm glow that comes with a morning well spent.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Importance of Unhurried Diagnosis

For the past week, I have been trying to get my peculiar jaw-ear-head pain diagnosed. At the end of this process, having dealt with eight doctors in as many days, I sit and write a few thoughts on the importance of diagnosis - not to relate in tremendous detail my medical troubles but just to emphasize how important it is not to rush into any kind of treatment without giving it due thought.

Initially I thought I needed a root canal and went hurriedly to my dentist who stood his ground and said my teeth were perfectly fine. I must have been the only patient there longing for a root canal that day, to put an end to the pain! However, he said it was likely to be a joint pain and gave some muscle relaxants and asked me to return in a week if things did not change. He is quiet, steady and very skilled and unwilling to rush into intervention. I went back home and tried the medicines but did not feel much change. Decided to visit a general physician as I wasn't able to sleep; I was told I had neuralgia and asked to stop the previous medication, was given some medicine for nerves which completely knocked me out - I began sleeping half the day and all the night and still I felt that things were not what they should be.

Went back to some doctors I had been seeing for other ailments to check if the medicines they prescribed could have side effects - but they all (youngest to oldest in hierarchical fashion) shook their heads.

My next trip was to the ENT specialist, a very gentle competent man, but who had a line up of patients for the next two weeks. I explained to his secretary that this was an emergency and he said they would see me after the regular patients; the doctor was expected at 6 p.m. But the doctor was delayed at surgery and when I reached his residence cum clinic, they were cancelling all appointments. I said I could return later at night in case the doctor got back and was seeing patients and when I called later, they asked me to come. I finally saw the doctor at 10.30 that night and I was the second last patient. He looked worn out and I felt tremendous sympathy for these doctors who see masses of people from morning to night in endless succession. Is there enough time or energy for them? Perhaps not, but there are certainly not enough good doctors though almost every second person in the country wants to pursue medicine.

The doctor said I had trigeminal neuralgia and prescribed some medicines for a week. He said the general physician's medicine was to be stopped as it was normally a long course, and prescribed something else, with the cautionary note that if I had trouble opening and closing my eyes, I should contact him. As it was late at night I did not want to begin a new medicine and decided to start in the morning. When I awoke and checked details on the net, I found unbearably horrible descriptions of trigeminal neuralgic conditions and realized that I had been given the standard line of treatment - anti epileptic drugs.

I did nothing for a couple of days except re-visit the bevy of old doctors for other conditions and check with them. As they were treating other parts of me, they were uninterested in this new twist. Fortunately, my family thought of an old, experienced neurologist and I trundled off to him, hoping I wouldn't be sent off for CAT scans or other scary sounding things! He was old and low key with a completely unhurried and relaxed air, appearing interested in everything I said without dismissing any of it. We went over descriptions of the pain again and again - the location, the feeling, the intensity and finally he said gently that he did not agree with the previous diagnosis. He asked me to stand and pressed a few points, flashed some lights and finally, settling back in his chair, said he thought my temporomandibular joint (TMJ, located somewhere between the ear and the teeth) was the cause. He said the dentist would confirm (or reject) this and meanwhile no medication was to be taken if I could tolerate the pain.

As I learnt more about this condition and about why he ruled out the other (there is often some confusion as there are different types of trigeminal nerve pains, but the treatment is drastic enough to warrant further testing before a conclusive diagnosis, I feel) various things began falling into place, including my previous medication and small twinges I have been feeling over the past several months.

Back to the dentist, who immediately called in my father and gave both of us a lecture on how this was not trigemninal neuralgia and indeed a TMJ condition, the seriousness of taking anti-epileptic medication, how ENT specialists are not trained to tackle this, how his own strategy was to relax the muscles (and the mind as well) which generally worked and how this condition was painful but not alarming and would subside in due course. He also agreed that it could be triggered by some of my previous medication given by the bevy of doctors in denial (and indeed when I scanned published medical literature I found many such reports). So of course I have stopped my earlier medicines and will visit the doctors to inform them just for their records, but they will probably not be interested (it's not jaw dropping enough!)

Anyway, the bottomline is just mental relief, not finger pointing. But the consequences of doctors being in too much of a hurry, too confident of areas that they may not know enough about, of dismissing data that does not fit in with a model and also of patients feeling compelled, through frustration or alarm, to do things in a hurry - can be grave. The internet brings a lot of information as does each doctor, and for unusual complaints (not emergencies obviously), one should begin a course of treatment only after thoughtful consideration. The body, mind and spirit send us signals of all kinds and it's often hard to unravel them, but when the right solution comes along, several things click into place and not just the stray observation or symptom. This is the beauty of medicine and physiology - the science of the subject and the art of diagnosis are equally important.

As I write this, I think of my old, trusty doctor, who I wanted to visit to get an input into what other medicines I could try without developing strange pains. I have known him for over ten years and each time we have a leisurely consultation session followed by many stories of other cases (keeping identities confidential but discussing the medicine and science) - these have helped me manage my own medication, even if I disagreed with other doctors on issues, and also helped me save my own life once. As I write this, he lies critically ill in hospital and I may never see him again. But all the sessions of unhurried, thoughtful and path breaking diagnoses and treatments that he prescribed will stay with me forever.
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