Thursday, January 31, 2013

Going The Whole Hog

Last week I received an invitation to a barbecue demonstration by a famous British chef, followed by cocktails and dinner.  I had recently bought an American charcoal grill and I thought I might have been put on some kind of mailing list by mistake.  But, when I wrote back to inquire, it turned out that I had a 'press invite' as the event manager had been reading my food blogs.

It seemed like a good opportunity to watch some new ways of using grills, and I gladly accepted.  The barbecue was held outdoors, on a terrace of Movenpick (a branch of the Swiss chain that has recently come to Bangalore) and was organised by Weber (the American grilling company).  There was a scattering of people present - hotel invitees, media, foreign visitors and the organisers, sipping some fizzy drinks and milling about.

I walked to the grilling area and took a look at the chef's card - Andy Annat of Crackerjackbbq.  It showed a pleasant and plump pig under a blue cloudy sky.  The kind of pig that might give Lord Emsworth a few anxious moments and the Empress a real run for her medal.  Thereby undoubtedly, would hang another tail.  Unfortunately, this being modern age Bangalore and not ye olde Wodehousian Market Blandings, nothing much happened.  The pig remained calmly standing beneath the clouds and I moved quietly backstage to view the goings on.

There were three chefs in action.  Andy, who immediately grinned at my camera, an Italian chef who was calmly and efficiently peeling pineapples and an Indian chef who was putting together bits of apparatus.  There were four grills (two gas and two charcoal) set up for the demonstration and I nodded to the Weber service man (who had helped me assemble my grill at home); he was busy heating charcoal for the gigantic grills (Andy later told us he had cooked about 35 chickens on one of them for a party).

I found myself a conveniently shaded chair and sat happily beneath the blue cloudy sky, much like the pig (I hoped the similarity ended with the blue sky and contented look).  Things began to move and soon, Andy was on stage (just a few feet away), being introduced as a celebrity chef.  He began by spraying the air with tiny wood fragments (that would cost the earth in Weber shops) like confetti, getting a whole goat onto a grill and then fizzing it with some beer he had opened to help get the show on the road.

Soon after, he threw the silicon basting brush in the air (and it landed one knows not where), pulled out a brush made with a tuft of herbs tied to a wooden handle.  This is apparently what is used by Those who know how to Grill.  Of course, a few minutes later, the silicon brush was needed to glaze some bread and on being asked, the Italian chef (in true Jeeves style, without raising even a fraction of an eyebrow) informed Andy that he had just thrown it away.  Oh well - hard luck.  Stiff upper lip, old chap and all that - and the show went on.

My interest began with lighting the fires  - how much coal to use, how hot it should be and, of course, different ways in which one could cook with direct and indirect heat.  Andy was more than happy to have me come up to see the fires at close range and to answer all kinds of questions that I (and some others from the audience) had about methods and recipes.

The hotel had laid out many different foods for grilling - meat and fish on a bed of ice, vegetables and fruit, paneer, bread dough - and the chef did go the whole hog by showing us how to cook all this and more (throwing in extras like Yorkshire puddings and naans, which tasted wonderful just by themselves).  Andy Annat has a flair for keeping an audience involved and entertained, which is always helpful at events like this.  He breezed through the session with a wacky sense of humour and showed us how to cook a whole goat, three kinds of chicken, three kinds of fish, fruit, vegetables and various breads without any apparent effort.

There were some nice accessories and pans that were used in versatile ways - an arrangement to retain some liquid at the bottom of the pan and have things cooking around it - which would turn out a good roast chicken as well as a very nice batch of brownies with chocolate sauce.  Loads of possibilities conjured up with a grill and a little flick of imagination.

What I particularly enjoy grilling are vegetables - they taste sweet and smoky (and caramelize beautifully) and these are perhaps the simplest things to cook.  We had smoky red peppers, sweet yellow ones, small tomatoes, zucchini, onions and a very interesting concoction of pineapple doused with rum, brown sugar and cinnamon.  I have never tried grilling desserts and realized that very interesting possibilities lay in this realm.

The fish cookery was quite fascinating as well - Andy used soaked cedar planks (which can be used many times over) to support the fish.  In India we would use banana leaves but they are more fragile and harder to work with.  Very little seasoning went on the fish (and on most things, by Indian standards) but when one has good ingredients and a perfect fire, very little is required, I think.  I have once eaten a freshly caught fish that was sprinkled with a little salt and roasted (by the fisherman) on a tiny wood fire - it tasted heavenly.  Here, we had fish basted with olive oil, lemon juice and a little fresh fennel, and it was very good.

Finally, as dusk approached, Andy put down his gear as the local chefs took over.  People (many who seemed to know each other) flocked together over clinking glasses and the party began.  Waiters hovered around offering some of the grilled foods.  Belgian beers on a promotion sale were opened and tried, they were filled with delicious flavours of wheat and malt.

As the stars emerged, dinner was served.  It was a nice meal though we had been expecting to taste more of the barbecued food.  Some of the things we had seen on the grills mysteriously vanished before we could sight or taste them.  I made friends with a couple of Korean girls who have been living in Bangalore for aeons and who greeted me like long lost friends though we had never met before.  The chef graciously handed me a bbq cap for all my persistent questioning and suddenly swung me up in the air for a fairly dramatic picture that my husband clicked.  It was a fun evening.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Revisiting Russell Market

Kane - to be coated with rice flour and fried - delicate and delicious!

It had been two years since I last visited Russell Market.  I made the usual excuses to  myself - I was travelling every month, there was not enough food to be cooked to justify a visit, the new organically farmed (expensively packaged) vegetables in the 'hypermart' were tasty, the new supermarket 'cleaned and iced' fish was a boon.  Besides, I could park in large concrete basements and push my purchase trolley down there instead of scurrying everywhere, bags falling off my shoulders.

But, of course, it just didn't ring true.  I was concerned about many of the media reports on Russell Market over the past year - how it is a dying market, how they have lost a lot of clientele.  There was a gigantic fire many months ago and the market was supposedly closed for a month for renovation.  This was followed by a sewage disaster during the monsoons and the death of a salesman (speculated homicide due to gang warfare).  I just didn't have the heart to go.

However, after many weeks, a desire to revisit this old haunt overcame all my objections.  I wondered though whether I would still find all the original shops (and shopkeepers), whether I would have the energy to walk carrying bag-loads of vegetables and - what footwear to use.  I had visions of wading knee deep in slush and reminded myself that the rains were long gone.

Of course, once I reached, it was as it always has been - wonderful.  The shopkeepers were delighted to see me, they remembered approximately when I had last visited.  Some told me I had lost weight, some enquired about my health, some simply said they had missed me and were glad to see me back.

A few things have changed.  A slushy area in front has been cemented and enclosed.  This now functions as an additional car park.  It's a small but well kept area.  A few small shops have shut down and a bigger shop (my English vegetables' place) has taken it over - I suppose their business is thriving.  The corporation has stopped supplying electricity for a year now and I thought the market would be steeped in darkness or filled with diesel fumes, but actually there are a few small generators and each shop has one light connection.

"The government is trying to drive us out," they all say.  The word going around is that the fire was not an accident.  It burnt so fiercely that all the metal beams got warped.  But no one was badly hurt and the market was closed just for a day.  Repairs, of course, took longer.  "We all came back the very next day and began work," they say with a hint of pride and satisfaction.  "The government wants us to leave; they say they will build a large fancy market.  But what will happen to us?  We can't afford to leave this place, where we have worked for generations..."

Vacating an old heritage market to build a superstructure seems a strange notion to me.  And to all the shopkeepers.  And probably to many other old and new Bangaloreans as well.  It would be far better to restore the market in stages, to retain its old charming facade and interior airy spaces, improve the car park and bus services, provide electricity and repair the sewage lines.  Russell Market, as it stands, between an old church and tiny lanes of local shops, would draw quite a few tourists and serious shoppers, if it were cleaned up a bit.

I shopped, as always, a little more than I might have done in a regular mall.  Fresh kane (ladyfish - a local variety, rarely seen in other states), small sea prawns and crabs.  An assorted bag of soup and salad ingredients for fifty rupees (less than a dollar) - yellow peppers, plump pink radishes, slender cucumbers, tiny turnips, leeks, rosemary, basil, lemongrass.  I suspected the shopkeeper of undercharging, but he shook his head and waved me on.

Crabs, to be dunked into coconut curry

I bought my 'nati' (local varieties of) vegetables from my oldest acquaintance - a wise, wizened man (a retired schoolteacher) who asked if I would ever get such vegetables elsewhere?  "No," I replied promptly, meaning it.  His neighbour, a younger man, smiled and said, "You will get these vegetables but not these vegetable sellers!"

Chholia - green chickpeas, in season for just a few weeks each year

The tomatoes' man asked me what kind I wanted, pointing to two piles that looked identical to me.  He explained the difference.  "These hybrid tomatoes," he complained, "People say they are local varieties but they are not."  He said his son was the one to climb up and break open part of the roof and also to help evacuate some of the people who were sleeping in the market, on the night of the fire.  It is a scene vividly etched in the memory of everyone I meet.

The greens' man came late.  He is diabetic and comes only on weekends now, but needs every bit of the money for his family and his treatment.  He handed me all kinds of winter greens - sarson ka saag (mustard greens) which must be cooked with bathua (local greens) and palak (spinach) - he handed them in the right proportions needed to make a thick, hearty dish of creamy greens.  We will eat this with makki ki roti (flat corn bread) and dollops of white butter.  A winter Punjabi delicacy.

Sarson ka saag and bathua, to be cooked together

After this I moved on to buy some fruit.  It's winter and there's plenty to choose from - I was tempted by the guavas but ended up buying pineapple and strawberries.  The bags (left at my old nati vegetable shop) didn't seem as heavy as I had imagined.  My taxi was parked in the little cemented parking lot, waiting for me.

It was a wonderful morning and the shopping took me only an hour (much of it spent in conversation).  The shopkeepers know exactly what I want and fill my bags swiftly and efficiently, throwing in a few extras of 'this and that'.  No haggling.  No hassles.  And best of all - no plastic.  Just my bags filled with fresh, wholesome food and me filled with a sunny, happy feeling.  I won't wait another year to return to Russell Market.

Sunny tomatoes - reflecting my mood

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sarawak Stories 5 : A tale of steamboats, wild ginger and tuak

Our adventures did not stop with the jungle, the dark  limestone caves or the tribal and cultural centres that we visited.  It extended, gloriously and blissfully, to food; plate and bowl-fuls of fresh steaming, aromatic stuff that we devoured day after day (exploring, after all, is a strenuous task).

Breakfasts consisted of plates piled high with noodles - stir fried with bits of vegetables sometimes served with meats doused in pepper sauce.  Occasionally we opted for steamed rice with peanuts, boiled egg and anchovies and when in Kuching, we partook of large amounts of the famous Kuching laksa (a spicy coconut broth served with prawns, chicken, rice noodles, slices of lemon, bean sprouts and spring onion greens).  Lunches and dinners were rice (and not just any rice, but the local Borneo varieties which have their own flavours), stir fried greens of different kinds (our favourite being jungle ferns) and some kind of curry or stir fry on the side.

The fish and prawns, freshly caught and lightly cooked, were always delicious.  In Kuching we often had one of the house favourites of 'Hong Kong Noodle Restaurant' - butter fried prawns, which were large prawns with shells still on, stir fried in an unknown way to impart a buttery, slightly creamy-coconutty taste.  Fish was excellent in any form - grilled, fried or in curries along with chunks of tomatoes, eggplant and starchy vegetables. The vegetables were cooked very differently from what we had back home - tender, barbecued eggplant (brinjal), crunchy fresh okra (lady's finger) with fried garlic, fresh mushrooms with just a drizzle of sauce, slightly sweetened bitter gourd with a sprinkling of boiled egg yolk, "sweet and sour" dishes with fresh pineapple, cucumber and onion - and there were many more that we didn't have time to try.  Everything was so good that we were tempted to visit the local market.

It was just a couple of blocks from the hotel, a large comfortable looking place with heaps of parking (I thought of our crowded and not very clean Bangalore markets).  There was a huge space for unloading and selling fresh vegetables, fruit, greens, herbs and more.  Though we had not intended to buy anything, we finally bought packetfuls of herbs ("something" for stir-fried chicken, "something" for chicken soup - to give you strength, to produce heat, to refresh you..), small dried flowers of different kinds for teas - jasmine, lavender, rosebuds, chamomile.  There were a lot of women in charge of stalls, which was a welcome change from India (where the women do sell some things along with other family members but rarely run a stall on their own).

We wandered around, in search of the fish market (and our noses didn't help us the least bit).  Finally we ran into it as we wandered through the back of the market.  There were stalls heaped with the fresh catch from the sea and river and a few stalls with dried and salted fish.  Kuching is famous for its salted shard - a delicacy equated with the Indian hilsa.  It is apparently packed and taken by many passengers on outbound flights from Kuching, but we had a long way to go before we reached home so we didn't attempt to buy any.  However we did buy some fish that was salted and dried; the hotel staff were delighted to see the packets and stored them for me, explained how I should store and cook it when I reached home.

We also wandered through shops in Chinatown that sold herbs and the famous Borneo pepper.  I was tempted to buy more bundles of things - bitter stuff to stimulate the liver, hot stuff for pains and other such, but I resisted.  Invariably, after a few months I forget what is what and how much is to be used and by the time I get round to using it, I am not sure if it will still work.  However, we bought packets of pepper - black and white, different kinds of rice (grown at various altitudes), dried scallops (highly recommended for soup) and pepper wine for cooking.  We saw a lot of "bird's nest" (another Borneo specialty), spent a day wondering if we should buy some, then decided we didn't know quite enough about them and it would be better to wait.  Bird's nests are edible saliva-nests of certain cave swiftlets.  They are believed to be very nutritious, rich in amino acids and minerals produced in a form that is easy for the body to take up.  They are supposed to invigorate the body, boost the immune system and improve the skin (for this last reason, a lot of Chinese actresses apparently use copious amounts of these, driving the already exorbitant prices still higher).  Bird's nest is normally had in the form of a soup with rock sugar, taken just once in a few months (as the store lady explained, trying to tell us that it was not that expensive if you actually worked out the price per bowl of soup and she also convincingly argued that these were as "vegetarian" as cow's milk).  Anyway, we abstained from buying them.

We had some memorable meals - one of them being a steamboat in our jungle cafe in Mulu.  We had ordered this on the last night of our stay (one had to place an order several hours in advance for this).  When we trooped in after our evening hike, we were directed to a special table.  The cook placed a hot plate and then two people began bringing out dish after dish of things to be dipped into large tureens of soup.  The soups were of two kinds - hot and sour and plain chicken broth, that were placed on the hot plate and left to simmer.  It was large and wonderful meal.  We had before us piles of freshly made noodles, fresh vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, thinly sliced meats, assorted fish, fishballs, chickenballs, salad and perhaps the tastiest of all - a local brown egg that slowly cooked and emerged creamy, custard-like, in our bowls.  We ate steadily and silently for about an hour and a half, trying different combinations with each bowlful, but could just about finish half of everything and barely walk at the end of it all.

Another nice meal was one at a fancier restaurant called the.Dyak, in Kuching.  This is the only restaurant that serves local tribal food in the city.  It was started by Vernon Kedit (from the Iban tribe), to share his great-grandmother's recipes and has an unusual interior with pictures of his family and tribal artefacts including the famous pua kumbu  (Bornean textiles, woven in a distinctive ikat-weave).

Here we ordered some of the house specialties - roast pork with local sambal, tilapia fish wrapped in leaves and steamed with wild ginger and red chilly, jungle ferns with wild ginger and steamed local rice.  Everything was lightly and simply cooked, each spice could be tasted on its own - the wild ginger, which I had never sampled before, had a flavour somewhat in between fresh ginger and turmeric.  The chillies were not hot, just flavourful.  The jungle ferns were crunchy, the pork soft and juicy and the fish meltingly tender.  We ended with a dessert of cold fermented rice topped with ice cream and crushed nuts and another one with ice cream, crushed nuts and heady rice wine (tuak).  Everything tasted good and the next morning (our last few hours in Kuching), we rushed to the neighbourhood shops to buy bottles of tuak before we finally took leave of Borneo.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Remembering GNR

This week has been filled with chatter - scientific, nostalgic and gossipy - it has been a week commemorating 50 years since the Ramachandran map was published.  Most modern biologists are familiar with this plot, which defines the allowed torsion angles in a polypeptide chain.  This probably sounds incomprehensible to many readers of this blog, but the work (deserving of a Nobel prize and now a standard plot in many biology textbooks) laid the foundation for determining the spatial arrangement of amino acid chains that eventually form proteins.

Proteins are the objects that scurry around (or insert themselves in specific locations) in a cell and perform most of the important functions in a cell.  The specific task of a protein depends on its structure, hence it is very important to understand what these proteins look like.  The sequence of amino acids in a protein is defined by the genetic sequence (which can be easily determined nowadays).  But the way in which this linear chain of amino acids will fold into a three dimensional, active and stable protein is hard to deduce.

GN Ramachandran (generally called GNR by his colleagues) and his students approached this problem from a theoretical viewpoint and their calculations (plotted on a map called the Ramachandran map) described the kinds of angles that the links in the main chain (formed by the amino acids) could adopt and the angles that were not allowed.  This map, a completely new concept at the time (in the 1960s) continues to be relevant and useful, not just to theoreticians but to everyone who experimentally tries to solve a protein structure.  The manner in which the plot was worked out, in the University of Madras, with a remarkable idea, a lot of initiative and hard work and nothing other than a simple calculator and log tables, is an inspiring story.  Professor C. Ramakrishnan (CR), who actually carried out the calculations was present at the meeting and shared old memories with the audience, in what can only be termed the "CR style".  Armed with his thesis, original models and quirky wit, he spoke to a fascinated audience about the "birth" of this map.  Time flew by; I hoped and wished he had been able to speak for longer.

The meeting, which was large and diverse, allowed people from many different areas of structural biology to come together, mingle for a few days, exchange notes and thoughts.  Perhaps not very different at the outset from many meetings (though gigantic in scale with over 700 participants), it grew warmer and more animated with time as science melded with bittersweet memories, nostalgia and humour.  There was a place for everyone and everything.  For potentially unending conversations with fluent and famous scientists, for broken but interesting conversations with scientists who spoke English haltingly, for wacky snippets exchanged over beer, for strains of Russian folk songs spontaneously and wonderfully sung by one of the speakers, for new and jazzy T-shirt designs, for the chink of crockery at a candle-lit poolside dinner on a warm Bangalore night.

The meeting draws to a close today and people will go their own ways.  For me, it was nice to be able to observe a part of the events, to hear a few people I wanted to, to meet old friends and to see the Ramachandran map through CR's eyes once more.  Several years ago I had interviewed CR about his involvement with the Ramachandran map (part of which was published in Resonance, ).  As this article is not easily accessible to readers outside India, I give below an excerpt from the original interview.

CR- My experience was that many people knew of a scientist called Ramachandran.  They knew only one thing about him, namely that he was almost close to getting a Nobel Prize.  But what more did they know about him?  Everybody said “Oh, he has worked with collagen.”
But what is GNR’s contribution to proteins? 

Proteins are complicated molecules, but they need not be studied in a complicated way.  There is a simple way to understand the various arrangements that proteins can take.

Everybody had the impression that the Ramachandran Map is the one which can be used for the prediction of protein structures.  I want to dispel that idea from their minds.  Ramachandran Map is a tool which can be used for testing a structure- this is now being done extensively.  It is not one which can be used for predicting whether it is an α helix or β sheet.

SV- How did you decide to enter research?

CR- Going back to my college days, I did what we called B.Sc. Honours, in Physics.  I did not have any background in Biology except in the school days, which was more descriptive in nature, and which did not go into my head very much.  I did not have much exposure to Chemistry because that was also over by the Intermediate stage.

In Madras University Physics department they had a course called ‘one year M.Sc.’, which was a specialization in Crystallography and Biophysics.  There were just 5 or 6 seats available for that course.  That was the department of which GNR was the head.

When I wanted to join the M.Sc. course, the only condition GNR put for me was that I continue research.  So, he was clear that this course is not for anybody except people who want to do research.

Though honestly, sincerely, I was not having any idea of research either in University or laboratories, nor had I been exposed to research in my earlier days, I said ‘Yes”, with the idea of joining the course, because if I said “No”, he may not give me the seat.

In that one year, when I was in the department, I was exposed to a research atmosphere.  After that year, he said “Now that it’s over, are you ready to join research?  I’ll give you a scholarship.”  The scholarship was Rs. 200 per month, which was a large amount.  Being familiar with the research atmosphere in the department, I thought “I can also do research.”

After joining came the question “Which branch do you want to do research in?”  I found that there were many people working in Crystallography and not many working in Biophysics.  So I said I would like to work in Biophysics and definitely not in Crystallography.  Any person who has asked this question would be very curious to know why I said I didn’t want to work in Crystallography.  But GNR didn’t ask anything.  He said “I am glad.  Now you can begin.”  That is how my whole future was set.

My fascination has always been with Mathematics.  So when I joined the department the first thing which attracted my attention was an electrical desk calculator, which was called a Marchette calculator.  It could do wonderful things like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

SV- When you began work, with collagen, what was the approach?

When I joined the department, in June 1960, it was buzzing with activity on collagen because there was going to be a symposium at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) in December. Many students were working on the structural aspects. The amino acid composition of collagen was known but not the sequence.  Crick had proposed a Gly-Pro-HyPro arrangement, with one hydrogen bond for three residues.  GNR had proposed Gly-X-HyPro (where X is any other amino acid), with two H-bonds for three residues (wherever Pro occurs, the H bond will break).  The X-ray diffraction patterns agreed with both structures though there were some small things that the two-bonded structure showed better.

My job was to do a Fourier transform of both structures and to find out what should be the intensities of a collagen X-ray pattern for each.  I had to find out where the X-ray intensities will be for the entire space, and how much.  ‘Where’ was easy, ‘How much’ was difficult.

But collagen gave birth to the Ramachandran Map.  Crick’s objection to GNR’s structure was that when you have close packing, some of the Van der Waal’s distances will be violated.  This question was not approached from the collagen point of view by GNR, but from a generalized point of view.  He said “This is not just an isolated problem with collagen, this is a problem which is going to be involved in any molecule which has peptides and amino acids.”

At that time we didn’t have a computer.  Everything was developed ab initio.  Prof. Sasisekharan (a student with GNR at that time) was doing a literature search of peptide structures to develop the criteria (for bond lengths).

Regarding my work, some easy geometrical methods existed which were used to calculate the helical parameters of a polypeptide chain.  Peptides being planar was known from Chen and Pauling’s work from crystal structures.  Pauling had also given all the peptide dimensions.  Pauling focussed more on the α helix.  But GNR focussed on one level below that.  The initial idea was, if you take a pair of peptide units, how do you mathematically develop a helix out of it?  Then came the question of defining the orientation.  It can be angles between the planes, it can be angles between the two bonds, it can be anything.  In this case you need the angles of rotation.  The alphabet for the conformational study was a simple system of 4 atoms linked to each other, where you can have a rotation about the middle bond.

When the angles had to be defined there was no starting point.  GNR said “We will take the fully extended chain as the starting point.”

Torsion angles were known in Chemistry but they were used to describe preferred arrangements; to go from one conformation to the other was also known.  But to take two planar units and go from one conformation to another was not known..

It was a rigid body rotation.  Each peptide is a rigid body but the totality of the picture is not a rigid body.  So actually it was very difficult at that time to imagine an angle of rotation without having a defined initial position.  What was needed was to apply the principles (of physics and mathematics) to the actual case of a peptide, and to transform it in a way that you can work with.

SV- How long did it take you?

CR- About one and a half years.  From January 1961, it took about 3-4 months to get the ideas crystallized.  Journals were not easily obtained.  There was no computer.  The Ramachandran map formulation was based on the formulation of the matrix.  There was no book which gave the matrix explicitly.  For about two months I had to search for books.  Finally someone told me “You refer to Classical Mechanics by so- and- so, for the matrix.  I rushed but that book was not available in the library.  Then I had to find out who has taken the book, find out where he is and then, finally get the book.  There the matrix was available.  It took time because the library was in another campus and buses were not easily available. After getting the matrix I knew I was at home because matrix is something connected with Mathematics.

We had only two calculators in the department, one was mostly occupied by the crystallographers.  There was only one person who could service the calculators, and if something went wrong, somehow we had to find him.  There were no phones in those days so we had to go to his house.  Once it so happened that we could not get him.  Fortunately there was one more calculator in CLRI, so I used to sit there for some time.

SV- The amount of information that has been represented in a simple, two-dimensional way is impressive.

CR- Any mathematics or physics person always thinks of plotting.  When you have two parameters variable, it becomes an X-Y plot.  It is easy to perceive and to communicate, but if you are going to work with it you must remember that the two ends are the same; the top and the bottom are the same.  It is almost like a latitude and longitude: Φ and ψ are the latitude and longitude, which go from 0º to 360º each way.  In essence, it is something like a globe.

SV- Were you under any pressure while doing fundamental research?

CR- From the pressure point of view, both GNR and myself were in resonance that we must do the work for work’s sake.  It was not a question of application, it was a question of doing the work.  I didn’t have that pressure but I had the pressure of time, because GNR will say “Go and do it” and I have to do it because I really don’t know, from the next day onwards, when he is going to call me and ask for the results.

SV- What was GNR like, as a Professor and as a person?

CR- I can say only a few things- his sincerity to the work in the department was extraordinary. Whatever he wanted to do he would put his whole body and soul into it.  But the negative point was that he was very impatient.  He would think that everything should be done very fast and correctly, in the right way.  Though he appeared very strict, he had a very good heart.  He would give credit to whatever one did at every place.

He had a knack of seeing things correctly, and was very imaginative.  Though there may be people like him, I have not come across any..

SV- When did you realize the impact of the Ramachandran Map?

CR- For me, it was a continuous process because right from the beginning I have been using it.  I could see that whenever I had a problem about structure or conformation I could immediately use it.  It was my day to day tool.  At the same time one cannot exactly say how much it can be used.  It all depends upon the person (using it).

Now we have come far away from the Ramachandran Map.  As a tool it is has served its purpose and to that extent it was an amazing learning experience.  The main lesson was “Don’t think whether it will be finally useful or not, whether it will be really earthshaking or not, whether you can publish it in this journal or that, but start work, plan it carefully, execute it correctly and present it such a way that other people can understand”.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sarawak Stories 4 : in which we trace the source of the Sounds

It took us days just to get used to the jungle noises - their unnerving loudness and unfamiliarity.  This was despite the absence of the Great Cats in this terrain.  How were we to know then that the littlest creatures make the loudest nocturnal noises?  The violin-like humming of the stick insects, the piercing calls of small, beady-eyed frogs, the raucous chirps of innumerable insects.  These were magically turned off as dawn broke and the day saw us plodding through tracts of low light and silence.  In between, we would hit sunny patches, with more silence - flowers and creepers dangling unnoticed and hitting us on our noses, butterflies soundlessly drying themselves, snakes moving without disturbing a single tendril, dragonflies resting quietly on large leaves, spiders sitting still beside tightly woven webs.  Often we heard things we couldn't see - in the towering canopy overhead - birds, monkeys and other unknown creatures that were leaping or flying through the trees.

Every day we got a little better at spotting things - mostly insects, frogs and lizards.  Millipedes walked past us by the dozen - rolling up into little seed-like balls if accidentally touched and then emerging again within minutes to continue their stroll.

We walked along the same paths often - at dawn to see birds, at dusk to spot insects and night creatures (an unforgettable sight was a beautiful black and white snake skimming over a dark pool) and in between, to the waterfalls for swims.

Often we would first hear something - a call or the rustling of leaves and then we would stare endlessly in that direction until we caught sight of the creature that was making those noises.  It was a time consuming though exciting method.  These are some of our (more static) sightings:

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