Monday, July 30, 2012

Olympics Without T.V.

When I 'chatted' online with a friend at the eve of the Olympics, he asked if we were awaiting the games as eagerly as his family was.  I replied that we were, but we had no T.V. at home - to which I received four exclamation marks and an open invitation to their house.  Indeed, I have received several such invitations and yesterday, at a bar, the waiter (who knows us quite well) handed us the remote control of one of the corner television sets so we could watch whatever we wanted from the Olympic channels.

So, far from being deprived, we seem to be surrounded in a rosy cocoon of Olympic watchers who are happy to share T.V. time and information with us.  This morning we discovered the wonders of watching the games online.  The official youtube downloads are incredible - both for live action and replays (I watch mostly replays owing to time constraints).  The photography is outstanding (far superior to all the football matches we have earlier seen), the resolution very high and somehow the networks are ticking along so one can watch uninterruptedly.  We have had to reset our computer so it doesn't hibernate after a while, but that's the only adjustment to be made (apart from my mental clock, which needs to be firmly set so I don't spend all day watching the events)!

The youtube videos are arranged by event (one can also search by country etc.) and are extremely well edited so it's really a pleasure to watch from the computer.  Obviously, many people are putting in a lot of thought and work to enable this to happen so seamlessly.  To be able to watch uninterrupted, advertisement-free hours of games (which are also free of the irritating additional commentaries of the Indian channels) is a treat in itself.  And one doesn't need to subscribe or pay anything to the website for all this.

I hope the next few days are enveloped in this bright beam from London, which is spreading to different parts of the world.  Sports are so uplifting to see, perhaps because there are no points for wasting and frittering away resources!  It is always wonderful to be reminded of the amazing way in which the mind, body (and at truly special times, the spirit as well) can function in harmony to create unforgettable moments.  My personal favourites are gymnastics, diving and running as I like to see different ways in which the body can move.  It is also interesting to see so many new faces from all over the world who have bravely ventured forth (especially from the lesser known countries) and how gifted and well trained some of these individuals are.  It more than makes up for all the international bickering and competition that arises from political reasons and spills over into sports and the hosting of events.

So, I think I will largely stay at home and watch the games on my computer but I will also accept all those invitations to watch a few snippets on other people's televisions, just so we can sit together and cheer and complain and ask ourselves again why a country as large and populated as ours produces so few athletes?  There's a lot to be said for armchair games as long as they don't dominate the actual ones!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

My Garden's Gifts

A sprig growing askew, of thyme
A perfect little yellow lime
Is all I need to make my day
To keep the damp and grey at bay.

A bulb of lemon grass that flew
Into my arms from where it grew
As I bent down to rake and weed
And give my plants the space they need.

A sprig of mint to complement
Basil, that must be heaven sent
Grown of its own, its tendrils strong
Sweet smelling, wild and very long.

These gifts my garden thrusts at me
As I work 'midst the bug and bee.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mysore - Palaces, Yoga And More

We left Bangalore one cool, cloudy afternoon, via the Tipu express train, which brought us to Mysore in two and a half hours.  I had packed a few clothes, a bag of dried cherries, some water and a couple of books to read.  Quite by chance both books began with train journeys.  I picked out one at random as I settled into my seat and began a delightful journey within a journey.  I had selected 'The Box of Delights' (or 'The Wolves Are Running'), by John Masefield - a wondrous action-packed tale with beautiful illustrations (by his daughter, Judith Masefield).  So engrossed was I in this book that I barely noticed the scenes outside, which changed from towns to villages, fields, rivulets and back to towns as the train moved on.

We were accompanying a friend who was staying in one of the palace hotels in Mysore.  Mysore, ruled earlier by a dynamic and visionary Maharaja, has a number of palaces strewn about the city.  The main Mysore palace (residence of the royal family and partly open to tourists for viewing) is a large and imposing structure but I have never found the interior particularly interesting.  The smaller palaces have been converted into hotels (a few years ago we stayed at the charming, medium-budget Green Hotel and this year we were at the more upscale Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel).  This hotel is run by the government, which accounts for its relaxed, easy atmosphere and the fact that there are expanses of lawns and open space left untouched.  The rooms are not ultra-modern but they are comfortable in an old fashioned way, the food and service are extremely pleasant.  More than anything, the atmosphere created within this venerable, old building with its solid wooden beams and carved marble staircases is unique.  The palace lies at the edge of the city and looks upon the green and peaceful stretch of the Chamundi hills.  This is clearly a place to unwind and 'veg out'.

Veg out we did.  Every afternoon, we would take a nap, then sit outside on the private verandah that overlooked a small scenic swimming pool.  The only problem here (as in many places in India) was monkeys - they were aggressive and threatened to come into the room, so one had to keep an eye out for them.  In the evenings, we walked on the lawns that were filled with frangipani and hibiscus trees.  After dinner, we would retire to our room to get ready for an early start.

Mornings were reserved for yoga - the main reason we had come.  Our teacher M.S. Vishwanath (or Masterji as he is called) has a pleasant and peaceful studio in Lakshmipuram.  We would head there early morning, passing by a wholesale vegetable market, with much horn blowing to get the vendors and carts to give us room on the road and eventually make our way to the yoga studio.  We practiced asanas from 6 to 8.30, returned to the hotel for breakfast and then went back to the class at 11, for an hour of pranayama.  At the end of the class we would stay back and talk a little - catch up on news, ask questions, clear some doubts and then return to the hotel for a wholesome lunch.  It was a deeply satisfying beginning to the day.

Each time we left or returned to the hotel, there was some small excitement in store.  We returned once by auto with a driver who pretended to be a Kannada film star and drove with blaring music and swerving moves.  One morning we shared the only available auto with the oldest guide in the Mysore palace who had also volunteered for many disaster rescue missions and heard his stories along the way.  The next morning we booked a taxi and could not find our driver anywhere.  We then decided to walk down to the main road and eventually came across him, curled up, fast asleep in one corner of the palace grounds.  That afternoon, we returned to find much excitement at the palace doorstep - a Kannada film was being shot with terrific noise and fanfare, with yesteryear actors in resplendent form.  The next morning I watched a bashful middle aged couple taking a romantic buggy ride in the horse drawn carriage of the hotel.  At night, I observed two Japanese tourists ordering gigantic thali dinners in the dining hall, happily eating the spicy vegetables, the milky sweets and the fried poories while we delicately dipped into our caramel custards.  

This was our schedule for the two days that we spent in Mysore.  The days sped by (faster than the wolves in my book) though the memory of undisturbed yoga sessions, cloud swept hills, fragrant grass and flowers, sleepy balconies and large meals remains.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

One Enchanted Evening

Giant dewdrops gaze up and curl
Biding their time, slowly unfurl

Unwrapping gently, newly born
Fragile, they last from dusk to dawn

White as fresh snow lit by a beam
 In the dark night they glow and gleam

And smiling with a tender ease
Hand out their fragrance to the breeze

Time stands still, beholds the sight
Enchantment swells and fills the night

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Smell Of Wet Earth

There's nothing more heavenly than the fragrance of wet earth, especially when there is a sudden, heavy shower after a long, dry spell.  Indian languages have different names for this phenomenon, but the sensation of sniffing the fragrant mud-filled vapour mixed together with steam and moisture, is hard to describe.  It is as though the rain is washing out the heat and irritation from one's very core, leaving behind a cool feeling of well being.  Sometimes I get a whiff of the same kind of smell when I water the plants in my garden or as I pour water into an earthen pot for drinking in the summer.

Recently I was introduced to one more heady, unexpected encounter with wet earth.  Quite by chance I stopped at a small pottery stall at an exhibition last week.  The pots seemed well made and I picked up a small one, just out of curiosity.  The owner of the stall came over and haltingly told me that this pot was meant for setting curd.  Setting curd!  My aunt mentioned a year ago that curd sets best in ceramic or earthen pots and I had tried the ceramic ones, which didn't seem any different from the plastic dabbas that I use.  I have always been wary of trying earthen pots because they are often glazed and I don't know whether the pigments are toxic or not.  This one seemed unglazed and it just looked so perfect - it fit neatly into my hands and seemed to be cheerfully persuading me to take it home.  It was thick and sturdy, had a perfectly fitting lid and didn't cost much.  So, I succumbed.

The pot came home, was the subject of much talk with my maid (who approved greatly and enthusiastically cleaned it) and my husband (who agreed finally that we may as well live dangerously and experiment with this pot of unknown origin).  I filled the pot with lukewarm milk, added some curd starter and left it in a warm spot.  As I set about doing this, a wonderful, familiar fragrance floated up - the smell of wet earth.  It was a promising start and I hoped the curd would taste better than that set in synthetic surroundings.  The pot looked back, reassuringly, at me.  I placed it in a snug, cheerful spot and didn't bother it any more.  After many hours, I returned to find the outside of the pot covered with a thin film of moisture and the inside filled with  thick, creamy, delicious curd.  It was the kind of curd one generally finds in north Indian restaurants (where people claim the cooks add shredded blotting paper to the milk but all the customers still order it!) or the thick kind that is sweetened and sold in Kolkata as mishti dohi (but this was much lighter and unsweetened).  

The pot has been scraped thoroughly and cleaned out again for the next round.  It is so addictive that I'm thinking of buying another pot to begin a second round of curd making while we are still finishing the first batch.  The ultimate bonus for me, of course, is the smell of wet earth that rises and lingers around my kitchen when the clay pot is around.  The pot, of course, seems happy to have its own assigned place and role in our house.  It doesn't say much, but occasionally breaks into a little smile.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Higgs Boson Joke

Today I read a joke that I enjoyed very much.  After all the grim intellectualizing, it's nice to be reminded that there's always a smiley part to everything.  So here it is:

A Higgs Boson walks into a church.
The priest cries out to him, "We don't allow Higgs Bosons in this church."
Higgs Boson looks puzzled and says, "But how can you all have mass without me?"

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Personal Side Of Science

Recent reports on the discovery of the Higgs Boson (a new subatomic particle) at CERN, not surprisingly, are evoking a multitude of emotions all round the world.  One of Bangalore's newspapers recently published a reprint of an article (from the Guardian) by Amit Chaudhuri.  He writes about S N Bose (after whom the boson is named) and ends by saying:

"Bose didn't get the Nobel prize; nor did his contemporary and namesake, J C Bose, whose contribution to radio waves and the fashioning of the wireless predates Marconi's. The only Indian scientist to get a Nobel prize is the physicist C V Raman, for his work on light at Kolkata University, called the Raman effect. Other Indians have had to become Americans to get the award.
Conditions have always been inimical to science in India, from colonial times to the present day; and despite that, its contributions have occasionally been huge. Yet non-western science (an ugly label engendered by the exclusive nature of western popular imagination) is yet to find its Rosalind Franklin, its symbol of paradoxical success. Unlike Franklin, however, these scientists were never in a race that they lost; they simply came from another planet."
It was evident from the comments on the website that not many people agreed with him, but reading it made me think about why modern Indian science is not making more of an impact globally.

It is true that several deserving Indian scientists did not get the Nobel prize, but this prize has never been quite independent of politics and pushiness - hard for anyone to indulge in all the way from India.  It is certainly not true that most Indians have had to become 'American' to get the prize.  It is very unlikely that those who got the prize for their work overseas would have managed to accomplish what they did if they were in India.  The strengths of American and British science establishments have always been a strong scientific community and support (funding and infrastructure) for technically challenging projects.  This is, of course, changing in the present recession-hit days but it certainly applied to the times when Hargobind Khorana deciphered the genetic code and continued till a few years ago when Venki (Ramakrishnan Venkatraman) showed the physical  way in which the genetic code is translated.  India just did not have the mechanism (or the funding) to allow people to work on  problems of this magnitude.

What is our position now?  This is a question oft asked, especially with the government wanting '20 Nobel laureates by 2020'!!! (perhaps I should put 20 exclamation marks here, but I am restricted by space and time).  Eminent scientists of the country seem to think the way ahead lies in popularizing science by starting many more undergraduate science courses and offering fellowships as incentives to school students who opt for Science (instead of the more popular Engineering or Medicine).  I feel though that this is the wrong end of the stick - the reason the best students opt for Computer Science is because it pays!  It is neither appropriate nor wise to build a 'Science bubble', describing Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Science in glowing, rainbow colours.  Many students reach the end of the rainbow to realize that it is all just a combination of Physics, Chemistry, Math and Biology - and either you always liked it or you didn't particularly and that there aren't very many jobs for scientists anyway.

My thoughts about how to improve the situation are a little different and are based on my experiences in research institutions and the interaction I continue to have with students and scientists of different backgrounds and ages.  Ultimately, I think, it is all a question of people.  It is people who drive the science not vice versa.  Each Indian research institution has its own system in place - one determined by the funding agency, amounts of money, geographical location etc.  While there usually aren't colossal sums allocated for research, most reasonable research proposals do get funded.  This means that it is certainly possible for many people to do at least a bit of reasonable work.  Projects need to be thoughtfully planned as it may not be possible or worthwhile attempting experiments that require cutting edge technology.  But many kinds of problems don't require that level of sophistication.  Overseas funding and collaborations are also ways by which scientists can get access to better infrastructure.  The real issue is not of being able to do science but of doing meaningful or suitably challenging science - tackling problems that are really worth solving as opposed to churning out reams of data.

There are few brave and motivated enough to pursue this approach, partly because of the desire (driven by those at the helm) to show something for every year that one puts in.  The number of publications seems all important in periodic institutional assessments.  The long term impact of the work, the contribution of each author and the kind of review the article has been subjected to are not given much (or any) value.  This is an unfortunate and widespread phenomenon.  There are just a handful of top quality labs in India that have reasonable funding for research, but unfortunately none of them has given enough thought to the administrative systems in place.  Often the director almost singlehandedly decides the direction the institution will take; many times the best  known scientists do not make the best administrators.

There is no clear tenure track system in place as there is in the US - most jobs (with the exception of those in a couple of institutes) are permanent.  However, insufficient thought is given to the hiring process.  Several times, the people who take the final decisions about prospective faculty are not very well informed about the areas of work of the applicants and their ability to do high quality, independent research.  The places that do have a tenure track system also sometimes pay scant attention to initial hirings, the attitude almost seems to be, "Let the candidates prove themselves, we have nothing to lose by keeping them here for a few years."  This generates an atmosphere of electric tension in the younger labs, each person straining to 'have something to show' to the local review committee that meets periodically.

An academic research institution is intrinsically different from an industrial lab.  Certain personal qualities as well as the value that a scientist will add to an existing scientific community, should be given some merit.  In India, if several researchers with different skills decide to focus on a few challenging problems as a group (apart from doing their individual work), the scope of research that can be done would be much wider. For this, people need to be able to read and think beyond their immediate area of research and have a genuine desire to communicate and collaborate with others.  The worth of an academic scientist is accurately viewed, I think, by the new ideas he (or she) brings, the kind of environment he generates, what his students attempt to do some years after having trained from his lab and, of course, the actual research he carries out and presents.

In my view, Indian science establishments (at least those doing research in Biology and Chemistry) would do well to study the setup at MRC Labs of Molecular Biology (in Cambridge, UK).  These labs have an impressive record of having supported a phenomenal number of Nobel prize winners, several for work done at MRC, and also for the number of alumni who have gone on to win the Nobel prize.  What kind of environment makes this possible?  My guess is that Max Perutz (Nobel prize winner, founder and chairperson of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge) had an eye for good people though some of his policies were criticized (especially allowing the sharing of Rosalind Franklin' s data with Watson and Crick without proper permission).  But the labs had an unusual mix of talented scientists and a highly interactive environment, which apparently still remains.  This in itself is not sufficient to result in innovative, exciting research.  The MRC Labs are very selective in the hiring of faculty, but once hired, sustained funding is ensured to support important and long term research goals.  In other words, the faculty do not need to keep proving their worth and spending large amounts of time worrying about future grants to support projects that may take several years to accomplish.  This combination of good people who talk to each other and who have no reason to be insecure about the future of their research  seems to work well.  There is no apparent reason why this cannot be attempted in India.  The money is there (one just has to count the number of millions of millions that have gone into people's pockets in scams uncovered in the last year).  But we desperately need the critical few who have the rare quality of vision - one that allows them to identify true talent (or potentially winning combinations) and the conviction to support them freely and wholeheartedly, oblivious to the whims of each new government.  We have had such personalities in the past and I hope the scientific community allows some more to come up in the present (or at least in the future).

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Shape Of Things To Come II

On a quiet dead end street, ten years ago, I began my yoga training in earnest.  Driving every morning before dawn broke, learning not to park under the swaying coconut trees, slowly getting to know my teacher, his style of teaching and the infinite possibilities that yoga promises.  Now the road is very busy - there's almost no space to park.  The morning peace is broken by sounds of cars, scooters, school vans.  Innumerable apartment buildings and a school have sprung up next to the solitary coconut tree and children flood every little space (there being no open spaces for them to move around anywhere).  My teacher's house still stands at the end of the road, but no one could ever guess it once housed a yoga studio.  It has been taken over by an organization for abandoned little girls and looks like a pleasant, happy play school.

My teacher moved his house to Mysore last week, making the final break from Bangalore.  We plan to visit Mysore for a couple of days this month, more to renew contact with him and his family than for any specific training.  Following my teacher's suggestion, I firmly resolved to teach what I had learnt.  My new routine began and was followed for a month, after which my beginner's class disbanded and fled, in search of jobs and other responsibilities.  I don't mind for I have witnessed these scenes over and over when I was a student.  Ashtanga yoga is hard work and requires time and commitment!  I am teaching occasionally these days, whenever a student comes by, but mostly I focus on my own practice- now done in the absence of a guiding hand.  Trying to discipline my mind, to work on my own weaknesses (which I am woefully familiar with)!  Trying to read more books on yoga by experienced, eminent teachers.  I am spending this period in gathering and shaping my skills before I set up a regular class.  At the same time, I find myself keeping an antenna out for a teacher who can help me with advanced techniques to progress in my own practice.

On a less subtle note, my newly bought cookbooks are being thoroughly read and used.  I need to optimize my recipes for sponge cakes, which are the basis of complex and interesting dessert arrangements.   The focus of these months, however, is nuts and seeds.  I know that these are best eaten raw (or soaked) but they are irresistible when baked.  Sunflower and pumpkin seeds, roasted and ground make a wonderful base for savoury crackers.  Sesame seeds are versatile - moist and delicious atop breads and crackers.   Pine nuts are nice in tomato and basil salads and pistachio is too precious to be mixed with anything else.

After using these nuts in savoury foods, I find myself turning to desserts once more - it's time to try those recipes I always put aside for a challenging day.  Tortes with nut batters, cashewnut dacquoise (meringue mixture with ground cashews (instead of the hazelnuts that we don't find here), caramelized almonds spread over brioche-like breads, pralines as toppings and fillings, almond biscotti, walnut sponge rolls...  My list grows.  Who will eat all this?  I'll worry about it when it happens.  This is the shape of things to come in my home and kitchen over the next few months.
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