Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Culinary Exploits

Disclaimer- This is NOT a food post.

I don’t even qualify as a reasonable cook. Till the day I left home, my mom, in her bouts of optimism, urged me to learn to cook the basics. And every time, I refused and (mis)reasoned. Not that cooking is gender-specific or status-specific. My dad is a great cook, and so are so many men. My mom had resigned, wisely predicting that a person who loves to eat will eventually learn to cook. And that is what happened, the hard way of course.

For one year, I tried to make what can be called “kitchen accidents” instead of food. When I finally got tired of eating out, I decided one fine morning, ladles and frying pan in hand, that I will learn to cook. Believe it or not, I had never broken an egg before that, let alone cook. I didn’t even recognize the names of most spices. I would sniff the spice and try to remember which dish would mom use it in. I still associate the smell of jeera powder with unripe mango sharbat mom made during the summer. I still do not recognize the pulses, let alone know how to cook it. I started my first day of cooking by adding turmeric powder to pasta. I am sure that Italians are still turning in their graves after that. Eventually, in the process of numerous hits and trials, numerous pan burns and food being disposed in the garbage, I finally learnt to make some palatable curries that saw me through the week. I didn’t have to be a connoisseur of food for that. And now every time I try something new that works, I excitedly call home. My proud announcement of “Mom, I made prawns today” is usually accompanied by a silence and a thud on the other side of the line when dad picks up the phone and announces that my mom has just fainted. Well, not really, but every time, she is on the verge of fainting when I tell her that I cooked something new.

Well, what spices did you put in it? Where did you get the recipe from?

Errr…. I don’t know. I put whatever I thought would taste good in that.

Such are my cooking expeditions. Browse through any cookbook or food website and I’ll realize that I don’t even recognize half the ingredients, let alone have it. So I have finally decided, that these websites are meant just for visual pleasure. If it comes to cooking, I’ll have to improvise with whatever little I have.

However, there are things that I learnt during my cooking expeditions. Like these-

--How well the food tastes depends on how correctly you cut the vegetables. A simple onion can be cut into a dozen different ways, depending on what you are making. And if you fry the onions properly, brown and un-burnt, half of your cooking is done.

--The key to a good flavor lies in the minimum usage of spices. If you are not sure about how much to put, start by adding little quantities. It is better to rectify a less spicy, bland dish than to uselessly try to mend an over-spicy, over-cooked, or over-burnt dish. But then again, it all depends on who you are feeding other than you, isn’t it?

--Green vegetables should always be added at the end, else they fade in color.

--Good food comes from good use of patience and innovation, rather than a lot of spices or ingredients. Especially if you would like to have male friends frequenting your place. They really appreciate it, especially the single ones, given the fact that they eat anything other than textbooks, computer equipment, and office supplies.

--If you are trying something for the first time and are not very confident, cook in small quantities. If nothing, your heart wouldn’t break while disposing it off in the trash can or passing it over to your Thai neighbor as an “Indian delicacy”.

--Cooking is like doing research. Sometimes nothing works and sometimes everything works. But then, it also depends on who you are. If you were Sanjeev Kapoor, I am sure even using turmeric powder in pasta would be cool.

--Writing food blogs may not be a good idea as a distraction from the midnight snacks hunger after all. If anything, the hunger just gets worse.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Swerving Past Life

This is not so much as a blog post for my readers as it is a post for me. Years down the line when I am all old and wrinkled and ready to leave, I’ll remember how precious life had been to me.

Sometimes I wish I was dead.

Oh, why do I have to face all this? I wish I didn’t have to live.

Life seems too much of a pain these days.

The next time you say these lines, think again.

Yesterday was a gorgeous sunny afternoon, unlike the cloudy weather that is so usual here. Friday night being the fun night, we decided to do something nice for the evening. I had bought a new sandwich maker recently, and I happily made some sandwiches, threw in some Gatorade, and hit for the beach.

The interstate, or what we call the freeway/highway, had its share of the Friday evening traffic. We were happily driving, basking in the glory of sunshine. My friend asked for a sip of the drink and I opened him a bottle.

What I didn’t realize was that he was trying to take the left lane, and was looking on the left side of the road from his rear view mirror, one hand still holding the bottle. At the same time, the reckless driver to the right lane of us blinked his indicator, and without so much as waiting for us to slow, changed his lanes to come right in front of us.

So here I had my friend driving, still looking to the left to shift lanes, and worse, accelerating a bit to shift soon, unaware that a car was right in front of us. And here I was sitting to his right, watching in horror as the car changed lanes and came right in front of us while my friend accelerated.

The next thing I remembered was me screaming out to him to look in front. In a fraction of a second, he had swerved the car to his left, the screech of the tires as the car skid deafening. Our car had turned a whole 270 degrees, splashing the entire bottle of Gatorade on the windscreen in the process. Like a Hollywood action movie, the car turned 3/4th of a circle and stopped perpendicular to the road.

For the next few seconds, we watched in horror as several speeding cars from behind lost their tracks, and came hurling at us for a head-on T-collision. They came pointing right at us, and either snaked right or left to avoid hitting us. In a couple of seconds, the other cars had either stopped or carefully avoided hitting ours. We finally completed the remaining 90 degrees of the turn, my friend waved his hand in a gesture of thanks to the drivers behind, and we moved on.

I was shivering in panic, unable to stop my teeth chatter. Ever since it has happened, the whole episode has been replaying in my mind- me seeing the car change lanes, screaming out to my friend, and watching in horror as the cars from behind came hurling at us, our car stuck perpendicular to the road. The culprit car sped away, probably unaware of the havoc he had created behind, or too careless to stop. But this incident (better called an accident) made me realize how precious life is. We could have been hit by any number of cars. Our skidding car could have overturned. It could have been a dark, rainy night. We might have ended up with stitches and permanent scars. Or we could have been dead. Or going bankrupt paying car insurance and medical bills for the rest of our lives even if we were lucky enough to escape with a few broken bones.

Instead, every single car avoided hitting us. And here I am talking about a freeway and not some narrow lane where consequences wouldn’t have been this disastrous. The liquid splashing everywhere, blurring our vision, seemed so much like a scene out of a movie. Ask me the horror of being strapped to your seat, seeing every single car coming head-on to hit you, and then swerving past without so much as a slight bump. The whole approximately one minute incident has been replaying in my mind again and again. A one minute that seemed like a lifetime. We could have been in the talons of death. Instead, I am still healthy and unscathed, all in good shape, writing about it to get it out of my mind.

I later remembered how we were having a discussion about our frustrations of academic life and job hunting and stuff. But all these hardships boiled down to nothingness in comparison to the struggle for life. Yes, life is precious. How much, I realize now.

Drive doubly safe. For your safety is as much dependent on other people's safe driving as it is dependent on your safe driving.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Shall We Dance?

Acceptance is a very special word, no matter how big or small the thing is. You get accepted into one of the IITs, and you are the next sought after thing in the neighborhood for years to come. You get a call from one of the US schools, and people walking on the streets often touch you to see if you are as real as the other lesser mortals. You fancy someone and the person proposes love. You wish something and the wish comes true. You have spent sleepless caffeinated nights trying to write a thesis proposal and it finally gets accepted by the committee. You send a poem for a poetry contest and it gets published. No matter how big or how small the thing is, it always feels great to be accepted by someone, hugely boosting up your self-confidence in the process. It is the waiting period in between that is killing. But getting a certain YES email or a letter feels so special, it makes the wait every bit worthwhile. Equally disheartening are rejections. But then, don’t all of us move on? I remember how disappointing it was to get so many rejects from the good and not so good US schools a few years back. It always makes you think- What was wrong with me? Was I not good enough? Why me? But one acceptance letter obliterates all the dejection, one good rank in the joint entrance exams makes all the years of hard work worthwhile, one chance to work with some professor you have wanted makes it worthwhile, and so goes for the person you want to live with. It is a different matter altogether that the real responsibilities, the pains and travails of living up to the expectations start later.

A month back, our dance team got rejected in one of the auditions. No one knew why we could not make it. We had our theories though. Some said that the deciding committee was biased towards north Indian folk dance, while some said that they had already decided who they wanted to choose based on personal preferences. Whatever the case be, it felt horrible to be rejected, all the more for me because I did not understand the language and the dance style was not familiar to me, hence I had put five times more effort. I drifted between stages from putting the blame to myself, to my team, to the choice of dance number, and to my luck. When sanity struck after a while, I realized that there was nothing to put the blame on in the very first place. Life was all about getting chances, we win some, and we lose some. After some 6 hours of feeling low and lachrymose, I had moved on.

However, I remained on the lookout for newer opportunities. In a way, I was tired of dancing with my south Indian dance team, neither understanding the language, nor feeling very comfortable with the style of dance. Someone up there heard me, for one of the bigger dance groups in the city were auditioning for new dancers in their team for a few upcoming events. I had been to their dance shows before, that beautifully showcased a variety of dances. However, this was a round 2 audition, meaning that they had already chosen the bulk of the lot and there were a handful more dancers they wanted. I was apprehensive, because one rejection was only so much I could take. If it was something like glass painting or knitting, I wouldn’t have cared, but dance is something that I really cared about. My apprehension about being rejected the second time knew no bounds. I would stand in front of dozens of pairs of unknown, judgmental eyes, and then the music would play and you would be expected to dance on your own while they decided if you were good enough. The music would stop in between and they would say “NEXT” while you would pack up, wondering if they got bored too soon or if they made their decision so soon. And then the wait would be unbearable. Probably you would know some of the other people who auditioned, and would live in the constant anxiety that they would make it and you wouldn’t. Even if you were rejected, you would be tortured to death, reading one of the most diplomatically and cunningly crafted letters- 

“While we were so delighted that you gave us your valuable time and brought your ass on the dance floor, we are sorry to let you know that you have two left feet! It seems you shook your hips a tad too more and your right leg and left hand were not in sync. However, we are sure that there will be other dance groups who would willingly overlook these and accept you in their group because hips and legs do not form an integral part of their dance. We wish you all the best”.

It takes a lot to face rejection. Anyway, here I convinced one of my friends to give me a ride, since I had no clue how to get to that godforsaken, desolate place they had chosen for the auditions. I plugged in my music player into my ears, and shook my hips for a couple of hours in front of the walled mirrors in the gym just to make sure I could still move a couple of my body parts without running the risk of being disqualified for having two left legs and a missing right leg. I don’t know what made me choose to audition to a Hrithik Roshan dance number, not even coming close to his flexibility and finesse, but after a few minutes of practice, when I still didn’t show signs for a slipped disc or a chipped tarsal bone, I decided to give it a shot.

Adrenaline is a magical potion. It can make you do things you didn’t imagine you were capable of doing. It can make you jump from the height of a 1000 feet, being tied only to a rope. It can make you thrust your hands in the crocodile’s mouth just to see if they use their pre-molars or molars more while eating. It can make you stand in front of dozens of unknown people, dancing in solitude, risking being laughed at or being stared at as if you were an alien. And thus we went through this together, me and my adrenaline. At that time, I didn’t care if I made it to the auditions. All I cared about was to be out of there as soon as I could, of course after stuffing my pockets with the little cans of free orange juice from the wending machine.

The wait was bad, all the more since I personally knew one of the judges, and every time I got an email from her, it made me cringe. Email I did get, but from one of the other judges. I read it calmly, got up from my swivel chair, and headed straight for the restroom mirror. I looked at myself for a long time, eyes not showing any emotion. And then I straightened my shoulders, held out my hand to the mirror in that typical ballroom style dancing, and said to the person looking back at me from the mirror-

Shall we dance?


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My New Found Love

I am glad I got to know him, though I wish I had met him earlier. He has become such an integral part of my life that I cannot function without spending some time with him every day. I would be preparing for an important exam, and then I would sneak out and spend some time with him before I resumed work. I cannot get through the day without chatting incessantly about him, laughing at every little thing he says, every funny gesture he makes, reciting verbatim his one-liners and the songs he sings. Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce you to my new found love, my addiction and obsession, the one and only, Eric Cartman !

I don’t know how a friend of mine got me introduced to him, and truth be told, I didn’t even like the first few episodes of what I saw. For here I was seeing a bunch of 8 year old kids swearing profusely and blurting profanities and farting with such enthusiasm and gusto. But once I got the hang of what was happening I was hooked. I was hooked to the extent that I cannot get through the day without my daily dose of 3-4 South Park episodes. And then we would spend hours ruminating on the new things we had just learned, talking to each other in what we call the “Cartmanish language”, singing all the songs we hear this fatso sing. When we are irritated, we try to clench our fists, close our eyes in that typical “X” and scream “Goddddammit”. I have never looked forward to watching the TV every Wednesdays before this ever since the days of Chitrahaar on Doordarshan when I myself was Cartman’s age. Within a few weeks, I had completed season 1, 2, and 3, and am looking forward to the other seasons. Frankly, it was an interesting discovery to know how I can relive my childhood again at this age. You can see the amount of the crazy-cartman-syndrome effect this thing has had on me.

For imagine the puzzled expression on people’s faces when I pick up a stick and scream “Respect my Authoritah”, or hum “Stinky bridges” all to myself. My roomie would go crazy if I told her something like, “Aye woman ! Why don’t you go to the kitchen and make me some pie, or go home and make babies?” See a cat crossing the road and scream, “No kitty, bad kitty !” The “big boned” guy thinks that independent films are all about gay cowboys eating pudding. Cartman and group, Mr.Hanky- The Christmas Poo, Chef, Butters and group are my new friends now. I have been looking for a restaurant in town called Casa Bonita. I look at a bunch of kids arguing and wonder “How do I reach these kids”. If you know what I am talking about and have experienced the same level of madness, then welcome to the club. If not, please join the club. For everyone is entitled to a little humor, a little laughter, and lots of craziness in life.

And here goes Cartman online, in its entirety.

“Sweet” !!!, like he would say.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Can You "SIT" Through This?

I was half listening to the lecture, half lost in my thoughts during the 8 AM class this morning. This isn’t unusual, since the prospect of sitting through a 90 minute class straight is totally unacceptable to me. The seating arrangement was in the form of a long rectangle with one of its short sides chopped off for the instructor to stand, while I sat closest to him. I was bored to death, feigning interest, though my mind had wandered off to the different theories I come up with. Today, I didn’t come up with a unique hypothesis, but certainly an interesting research question.

What makes people decide to sit where they choose to sit?

If there was a huge hall full of empty chairs such that the number of chairs was greater than the number of people in the room, and if each person was free to independently decide his coordinates, what would cause a particular person to choose where he chooses to sit?

I myself have attended classes of different sizes and seating arrangements. There is this standard arrangement where the teacher is at one end of the room and there are rows of seats in front, so that if you were sleepy or bored, you could always choose the last row for a short nap. And then there was this class I was sitting in where three sides of the room has seating arrangements, the fourth side for the instructor, while the rest of the room was a long strip of empty floor space good enough for a cricket pitch. And then there were rooms more like stadiums and cinema halls where you climbed up and down the stairs to have the seat of your choice.

Keeping all the classroom seating designs in mind, what induces people to opt for certain seats? If it is a small class and you needed a recommendation letter from the professor at the end of the semester, you perhaps chose to sit in the front row, left, right, or center. Even if the course didn’t interest you, you pretended as if it was the second best thing that happened to you after that apple fell on Newton’s head and gave you several extra chapters and formula to learn from the physics text book. If you didn’t care about the recommendation letter, you probably chose to sit in some dimly lit corner of the room, trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible. If it was a huge class with a gallery seating arrangement, you would probably choose to sit at the end in order to see the teacher better, precisely the reason why balcony seats in the cinema hall are more expensive than the rear stall ones. If you have the habit of dangling your legs to ensure proper blood flow to the hind limbs, the first bench is never a good idea. If you had a large ass, the side seats may not be a good idea (God, why am I reminded of someone called Eric Cartman… aaayyeeee !). 

Having said that, if you had a large classroom and observed where people sat in each class, I wonder what the results would look like. Some would always sit in the front while some would always sit at the back. Some would always alternate, left, right, center, front, back, doesn’t matter. Some would not care about the coordinates as much as they would care for their friends. Some would always be proximal to a certain group of people while some would always be at the maximum possible distance from a certain group of people. Some would be undecided and take the first available seat. Some would avoid being close to the other professors in the room who have come to attend the seminar, while some would make it a point to always sit closest to their adviser. Students with love interests are expected to sit close to each other. Students who take lots of notes will usually choose that empty corner to get that extra space, and definitely the front one to see and hear properly. People who wanted some extra attention will usually sit in the front while people like me who couldn’t care less would try to find some godforsaken corner. If it is a class of hundreds, one would prefer to be as close to the EXIT sign as possible. Some people have a favorite seat, a favorite nook or corner where they sit class after class, year after year. They squirm and get uncomfortable if they find someone else sitting in their favorite place (If it is a man called Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, he will make sure his favorite seat is vacated before the class can even start). Some people are like extra-terrestrial bodies that wander, though not aimlessly, but with a formula not yet known to physicists. If you had a bird eye view of a square classroom, I usually prefer to sit in the geometrical center. It gives me a sense of symmetry, the walls being equidistant from my left, right, and frontal vision.

If there was a study for a year (the class being unaware of it) where some crazy theory proponent like me observed and recorded peoples preferences for seats, would there emerge a specific pattern out of it? If the sample size was large enough, would the result fall safely within a confidence interval? Will the seating pattern be in clusters, scattered, linearly, or otherwise? Would there be confounders and effect modifiers? Who knows how it works. Probably when you enter a large room, a fluorescent lighted signal leaves your brain to your muscles directing where it should move, unless there are certain determining factors like friends, state of interest or boredom, etc., that predetermines a location. If we were to develop a conceptual model on seating, what factors would be involved? Neurocognition? Motor coordination? Evolutionary stable strategy? Social learned behavior? Purely instinct and/or reflex? Networking intentions? A combination of physiological and social factors? I myself have attended a class with a handsome doctor in it when I would come late and strategically position myself so as to be able to see him the best, yet be as unobtrusive as possible. Yeah, even budding scientists have hormones.

I applaud your patience if you are still reading this. After all, it is an age old rant of scientists that people do not understand or appreciate their concepts and ideas. You see, an idea, a random thought is all that it takes, and though the theories you hypothesize may not earn you Nobel prizes, it can certainly transport you to wonderland and see you through 8 AM classes or concepts otherwise considered boring.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

Morning Sickness

Brain-Hand Coordination-

Class registration menu
Go to list of courses
Select appropriate course
View course details
View class timing

8 AM- 3 days a week.

Hand stops. Brain function goes frantic.

8 AM? Who wakes up at 8 AM on a Monday morning to go to class? Do you know what 8 am classes mean?

No more shutting off the alarm and going back to sleep. Catching the bus at least by 7:30 AM, breakfast or no breakfast. Spending Sunday doing homework and going to sleep at 9 pm.

8 am, come rain, hail, storm, snow, sun, light, darkness, cold, or fog.

8 am means being done by 10 AM and not knowing what to do with the rest of the day. And coming back when people are just starting to go to school.

It means arranging for breakfast at night and probably going to sleep wearing the next day's clothes just to get those extra 10 minutes of much yearned sleep. It means not caring about dress, hair, or looks, and getting into the department still half dazed and yawning. 

It means finishing all the pre-assigned readings by Sunday night, and not waiting until Monday. Which also implies getting the class handouts printed way before Sunday (I currently print it Monday morning).

It means not being able to wave sleepily to my roommate anymore and wonder how lucky I am before going back to slumber?

8 AM? Even for exams? But who will wake me up? 

Seems it is gonna be a tough quarter. Three days a week of morning sickness for the first trimester. No puns intended.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Draw-ing The Line

The other day, in one of my contemplative moods while waiting at the bus stop, I looked at my hands, palms outstretched, and wondered at the number of skills I had mastered over the years. I am not just talking about writing that first word “APPLE” or drawing the first house with a chimney. Even as an adult, I have mastered various skills over the years. Though not professionally trained, I have developed a knack of picking up and performing various dances. In my play, I did more of hand gestures than I could ever think. Always a pathetic cook, I have learnt to make a decent meal over the years. I have held the needle, I have created stuff with a pair of scissors, I have tried to make a point with the pen and the key board. I have raised hornworms for laboratory research. I have used the calculator to balance complicated expense sheets. I have done so much with my hands, these short stubby fingers with nails neatly cut. But if there is one thing I regret having not been able to do so far, it is picking up the art of drawing, sketching, and painting. It is not one of those things I’d rather regard as “Who cares” and move on. Quite contrarily, over the years, I have tried picking up the pencil on several occasions and come up with something even remotely coherent, if not artsy. Alas, my high built hopes have been cruelly demolished every time.

It’s not that it does not run in the family. My dad is a great painter, he can paint what rich people hang on their walls. But it seems that the particular genes have not been rightfully passed on to me. My greatest fears in school were those assignments when we had to draw science experiments depicting Brownian motion and Pascal’s law on the left hand sheet of our science notebooks. This was followed by having to draw different human systems, stems and roots, ginger rhizoids and potato tubers for the biology classes. I would look at the better artists in my class and marvel at that extra shade added to the stomach diagram that would give it a 3-dimensional look, those extra few lines in the liver that gave it a shiny appearance and identified it from the rest. Ironically, my diagrams were not bereft of the “Good” and “Very Good” remarks scribbled by the teacher. This is because I always managed to put on a helpless, lachrymose look the night before the submissions when dad would take pity on me and make a few strokes in my copy. He screamed at me, he got impatient, he got mad at me, but at the end of it, he would remain awake late and complete my drawings while I would always excitedly wake up in the mornings with a broad grin on seeing the best photosynthesis experiment protocol diagram in my copy. Dad always went an extra step to shade and give a 3-dimensional effect, that always worked wonders. I hated him getting mad after a hard days office work to stay up and do my drawing assignments. But over the years, he gave me hundreds of those beautifully drawn things I preserved and showed off in class proudly for ages.

When I finished school, dad sighed in relief to have been relieved from his duties. But alas, God had different plans. I took biology, and had to draw 50 times more this time. But this time, dad made the rules clear. I could bug him only on weekends, not more than 2 drawings everyday. I just could not appear with pencil and paper and expect him to start drawing. However this time I had a better plan. I started to do outlines and little bits of stuff of the drawing before I showed it to dad. I would draw, let’s say, the head of the fish or the tail of the rat, show it to dad, and exclaim more to myself, “Naah, this is not half as good as what dad draws”. He would take a look, start erasing things, and would redraw things for me. I still remember I had to draw a mouse one time, and he drew such an animated version of it, all dark and hairy and real, that one look and mom had almost thrown up- Yuck ! Even the tail looked so real with the rings that one would feel like swinging it by the tail.

So dad bailed me out through my torturing drawing assignments while I earned goods and very goods. But I never really learnt how to draw. It’s not that I never tried. I tried emulating simple sketches, carefully noticing the way dad held the pencil and made strokes. I also realized that I was not that bad in seeing something and exactly replicating it. But I had no imagination, no creativity. You ask me to draw something as simple as a caravan and I would end up making something that would look like a cow without a tail. With time, I told myself that there are only certain things I could master, and I had to live with the knowledge that I could not excel in everything. But then I would look at a certain painting in wistfulness, marveling at the brush strokes, the paint and the water color, with the signature of the artist scribbled below illegibly, and wonder if I could ever learn to draw something as simple as sketches showing different facial emotions. I looked at the art teacher in school with all jealously, amazed at the way her hands moved with speed as she drew fruit baskets and vegetables and flower gardens for the kids. One visit to my friends home and I gaped in amazement at the huge paintings she had drawn and hung on the walls that gave her house such a “rich person’s house” feel to it. A simple flower vase with flowers. Faces of different women waning into the background colors. The plumage of a multicolored bird.

So what reminded me of this? I was at the hospital earlier today for some bill settlements, and while I waited for someone to attend to me, I looked at the different paintings on the wall with the same feeling of wistfulness. What caught my attention particularly was a certain framed picture that had dozens of hearts, each unique and drawn differently from the rest. Every heart had a different color, a different pattern, and I was amazed at the creativity and the imagination of the painter. For a while, I wondered about the idea of making a life painting and hosting art exhibitions instead of studying cells and molecules. Perhaps I could use my creativity and learn to draw different patterns on the DNA, draw weird looking cells with star patterned cell walls, and weird looking red blood cells and mitochondria. I think I will give it a try tonight by sitting with my pencil and paper again, trying to replicate simple patterns of shapes and emotions and moods. But something in me tells me that I’ll again end up drawing vegetables that look like lamp shades. And just in case people can’t even understand what I was trying to draw, yohoooo !! I can always call it modern art.