Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reading between the lines

As a PhD student learning to do some credible and innovative research, one question I have often asked, and am often asked about is, how much academic reading one needs to do for a PhD. The politically correct and socially desirable answer would be, “A lot. As much as you can”. However, my frustration stemmed from the fact that terms like “a lot” and “as much” do not mean much, unless you are able to quantify it. Even if you could put a number to these values, the number is bound to vary across fields. Thus, it comes back to the same old question, how much reading must one do in order to be best equipped to do some meaningful research work.

I have pored and pondered over this question for years, and over the years, I have come up with my own “Reading for Research” strategy. Since these are my own ideas that have stemmed from MY perception of the research world around me, it is needless to say that what I claim would not have any scientific basis or background research, and should be taken with a pinch, no, perhaps a fistful of salt. What works for me might not work for you.

I am the kind of person who can cure my own insomnia by reading. The moment I start reading academic papers or book, I fall asleep. Now this is ironic, given that I am expected to do some heavy reading because of what I do for a living. I heavily rely on two strategies to get my healthy share of reading nutrients for my academic diet. First, while reading a paper, I start with the abstract, the research questions, and findings. If I find it useful enough, I go on to the introduction, the literature review, the methodology, and the discussion. This is a skill my academic daddy taught me. As a person reading voluminous work, you need to master the art of skimming through, and glossing over things that would be superficial to your knowledge base, first focusing just on the findings. I am not advocating for such a practice, it’s just that it works brilliantly for me, and I heavily rely on this technique.

My second technique is even more sophisticated and less time consuming, for the lack of better terminology. While reading something, almost anything, I always try to keep track of the key words, phrases, and terminology used. I can always look it up later on when I want to, but for my primary reading needs, I hunt for keywords rather than reading every line and focusing on every word. Let me give you this analogy. In order to get an overall bird’s eye picture of a forest, you need to know that there are trees, and then there is some grassland, and a river flowing by. But you do not need to have an exact count of the trees, the small plants, or the number of fish in the river. This is how I view my world of research. It is important for me to know that the forest of information out there has trees and plants and animals. The day I need to keep a count of the number of trees, I will zoom in on the trees and count them. Till then, it is enough for me to know where things are in terms of their positionality. Let me put it this way. In order to be a good storehouse of knowledge, you don’t need to know where everything is. However, you do need to know where to look for things when you need them. My keyword strategy works excellent that way. It is far less of a cognitive load to just focus on the new words and terminology used, than to read every sentence about something. Sometimes, I even carry a scratch pad with me and write down all the new terms I learn so that later when I need it, I know where to look for it. Months later, some stalwart in the field will bounce off an occasional buzzword and already familiar with the keyword, I will know where to look it up. I get almost 4 times more reading done using this technique. Of course your reading speed and skills get better with time, and the more time you spend in the research world, the more acquainted you are with what is out there. Till then, for beginners and slackers like me, it is unproductive to fret and worry and be intimidated by the whole process of familiarizing oneself with the extensive body of knowledge out there. And like my academic daddy keeps telling me, it is important to think hard, but what is much more important to be successful is to think smart.


Monday, May 16, 2011

From virtual to real

In my almost-6 years of blogging, I have had the opportunity to meet some of my readers and fellow bloggers. For those I have not met, I have been able to talk to some of you over the telephone. The meetings are always special, and people are always very warm. What thrills me is the fact that there are people I didn’t know of, who take the time to read and appreciate what I write, and remember very minute details. While chatting, the topic usually comes to how did they discover my blog, and how did they manage to read it for so long. I have a good friend who was interviewing with Microsoft and hence asked if we could meet up over dinner. While chatting, we discovered that we have a dozen friends in common. There was another friend I met at the local bakery and talked to for hours, and discovered more friends in common. Last Christmas, I met another dear friend and fellow blogger. When I was at a conference last month, I had the opportunity to meet another reader friend of mine. The list is long.

When it comes to talking about my blog, everyone usually asks a unique question, and no two people have asked me the same question. It is interesting how people remember different posts, and certain things they read resonate and leave a lasting impression. Someone asked me my name, and it is then that I realized I had talked to that person without telling them my name. Someone else actually wanted to remember me as sunshine, and didn’t want to know my name. Someone had asked me if Baby Kalyani is real (yes, she is very real and an important person in my life). Someone else asked me what make and model was sunshine car. It is interesting how different posts, and different characters resonate with different people. People remembered G, Baby Kalyani, or my car from the posts. However, I was talking to another reader friend of mine, and this was a very interesting response. I asked my reader friend how it feels to communicate with a blogger in real time, talk to them, and see what they look like. I asked if it feels different to have a face to a name. My reader friend said, it is the same as meeting a person at a conference, whose papers you have been reading for a long time.

Being a PhD student myself, I loved this response, and this way of putting it.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

2 hours of watching 127 hours

My experience of watching the movie “127 hours” has been, for lack of a better word, harrowing. It took me much more than 2 hours to finish it actually. I started watching it, but had to pause repeatedly to take a break, breathe easy, drink some water, feel better, and wipe off the sweat. Then when I could take no more of the mental exhaustion, and I was not even half way through the movie, I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning and finished watching it, after more breaks, deep breathing, drinking water, and fast forwarding the gory parts of the movie.

So does this mean you should watch the movie, or does it mean you should not watch the movie?

Good question. The movie is so good that you will not be able to take your eyes off it. however, parts of it is so gory that you will wish you had not watched it. I have a weak stomach, I often fall sick at the sight of blood, and cringe in pain when someone gets hurt. You can imagine my condition here.

For the uninitiated, this is a movie based in my favorite place, Utah, telling you the true story of a man who loved outdoor activities (another thing I relate to), and often went alone for canyoneering without leaving behind a note. On one such occasion, he happened to be out there in the rocks, when his right hand got trapped under a loose boulder while jumping off a crevice. Unable to get help or take the boulder off his hand, he is stuck in the claustrophobic space, standing by a boulder, for 127 hours. How he survives those 127 hours, with limited water, no food, and harsh weather conditions, is astounding. What he does to free himself thus is another story. The good news is, unlike the movie “Into the woods”, he doesn’t die here. The bad news is, in order to survive, he cuts off his right hand with his blunt pen life out of desperation. I am cringing again as I write this post, to think that this is not fiction, but a true story. It is something to be sick, go to the doctors, and to be operated under anesthesia. It is something else to make a decision about whether you want to be stuck in between a rock and die, or bear the pain of chopping off your hand, without pain medication, and free yourself. We often watch supernatural and horror movies, to be scared by things which do not happen in our conscious space of existence most of the time. This movie will make you feel the same horror, at a magnified level, out of a true incident that could have happened to anyone of us. You will realize that sometimes fact can be way scarier than fiction.

To write a review about the movie is pointless here, of course the movie was well made, depicting every nuance, with great attention to detail, the fear when he realizes he is trapped, the pain, the desperation, the hallucination and comatose state after going without food or water for days, the survival strategies he is forced to take. It is in moments like this that I realize how small and fragile I am, compared to nature. If a rock can cause this much havoc, surely we are nothing compared to the power of things around us. By the time I was done watching the movie, I was crying, sobbing, unable to stop myself. To think of all the pain this person went through, and his self-determination and instinct to survive, is amazing. Honestly, I do not know what I would have done under such a situation. God forbid someone gets into such a situation.

Watch the movie, if you can take the sight of pain and blood. It will be a good reminder of your smallness compared to the world around you. Ever since I watched it, which was 3 days ago, I have subconsciously touched my right arm on multiple occasions, trying to feel the bones, the joints, and the flesh. I am thankful I have my limbs intact. And I am also thankful I fast forwarded the scenes where he chops off his arm. I don’t think I will ever have the courage to watch it.

Next, I am hunting for the book it was based on. Anyone has read it?

I salute you Aron Ralston. I bet you never thought a rock that came out of nowhere would change your life so much. I couldn’t have done what you did. Your indomitable spirit, courage, and determination are worth many such salutes.


Friday, May 06, 2011

“Mere Paas Ma Hai ... Aur Tumhare Pass?”

They are the reserve stores of love and affection (and adipose). Their pious feet (with sacred dust and all) mark the sanctuaries of the doors of Heaven (jannat) for their sons (not to mention the existential identity crisis of the Bengali men following it). They are mostly seen wearing ill-fitting, neutral colored traditional clothes, salwar kameez or sarees, either black or white (depending on the shades of badness or goodness of characters in movies). They are the storehouse of tears, and they cry for everything, be it when their sons come home wearing cool tattoos imprinted “Mera baap chor hai” (My father is a thief), or when their sons go on to become “Badaa aadmis” (great men) in life. They are endowed with superpowers, sometimes snatching away their kids from the jaws of danger and death, and sometimes banging on bells in the neighborhood Shankar Bhagwan ka mandir till Shankar bhagwan himself fulfils her wishes that usually center around bringing back her son into consciousness, who has been knocked out following an accident that either involves a vehicle, a girl, a communal riot, or a villain. Sometimes motherhood comes without an expiry date, surpassing reincarnation or amnesia/memory loss. It is an amazing feat to be a Bollywood mother, shouldering responsibility of everything, from organizing tea parties to the weddings of their children (be it Tina Munim dancing to shayad meri shaadi ka khayal, dil mein aaya hai, isi liye mummy ne meri, tumhe chai pe bulaya hai, or Kajol gyrating to the music of mummy daddy meri shaadi karwa rahe hain). Neither age, senility, or blindness deters them from fiercely protecting their children, especially sons. They are seen raiding Shivji ka mandir, berating God himself for being mean and unfair. Their faith can move mountains, and in case they have bad night vision, it can be cured by the strike of a lightning or serpents. They are the ones first kidnapped, roped, and harassed by the villain if they have a son who is the hero and has pissed off the bad guy in the movie (not mauled though, that is left for the unwed sister in the movie who no one would have married anyway). Occupationally, they are seen lugging bricks at constructional sites (that will be later owned by their sons as a mark of respect for the mom), ploughing fields, or sewing clothes for the entire community even with a straining eyesight to be able to raise enough money for the son’s education. They are usually called Mamta (not Banerjee), Lakshmi, Savitri, Tulsi, Koushalya, or better still, maatey, amma, or maaaaa!!! They are usually the ones who have the privilege of hugging the heroes, all in the good name of motherhood.

So while the whole world is gushing with a sudden developed love for their mother as Mothers’ Day is nearing, let us remember the mothers of Bollywood, for the way they have touched our lives, living as role models, smothering their children with love and affection, and always being the unselfish, struggling, usually poor but respectable denizens of the movie world who are the strength of pillar behind the success of their sons.

Aruna Irani in Beta (1995):Where mothers could be villains.

While Madhuri’s dhak-dhak shook the country, Aruna Irani shook the image of a good mother with her powerful, dhak-dhak-less performance in the movie. Rightly named Lakshmi, she had her eye on Lakshmi (wealth) and was the depiction of selfishness and greed for a change, where mothers were stereotyped to be these simple women whose love for their children would move mountains. She keeps her stepson from going to school or educating himself, not that it prevented him from getting Madhuri for a wife, many an educated and highly competitive students in best colleges would argue. Of course, things have to end on a happy note, giving the right social message, so she has to have a change of heart, but not without lots of drama, melodrama, tears, apologies, and dhishum dhishum at the end.
Reema Lagoo: When mommies cause family breakups.

Perhaps best remembered for her role as Prem’s mom in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), a decade later, she was also the Maiya Yashoda in the controversial movie Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999). Things are so right and everyone is so much in love with the concept of family here that you would feel like puking out of the picture of perfection and the excess of goodness. But then of course the seeds of doubts and jealousy are planted, causing separation in the family. But as always, things work out, a few heart attacks and galloons of tears later, and the movie ends on a happy note, until of course the incident of the poaching of the black buck is discovered. Reema Lagoo has been the model mommy in a number of other movies, including a movie named Mere do anmol ratan, that no one remembers.

Rakhi: When motherhood surpasses the expiry date of life.

The woman always simmering with “Badle ki aag” (need for revenge), Karan Arjun (1995) and Ram Lakhan (1989) are two of her powerful mommy movies (there being many more), where she avenges the villains solely based on the conviction that her sons are going to set things right. With resolve of steel, you should see her challenging the villains Bishambar Nath or Durjan Singh (Amrish Puri in both cases). In one, she holds on to the blood-soiled clothes of her husband murdered on the train tracks, and the other, she is seen challenging in her usually husky voice, “Mere Karan Arjun aayenge, dharti ka seena cheer ke aayenge, blah blah blah karke aayenge”. A very black and white role, she is usually seen wearing either white or black in both movies, with no hint of either sindoor or smile in the movie. She is the perfect example of a mommy who shows us that the bonds of motherhood can surpass any barrier, even reincarnation.
Jaya Bachchan: The mommy jisne …. Bas keh diya !!

This mommy has revamped the entire image of Bollywood mommies. If I remember anything of her in this movie, it is the wealth, the pompousness, the grand clothing, the ornate mansion they lived in, the straightened hair with a hint of white, the pooja-paath and naach-gaana that ensues while her son lands in a helicopter, she getting on a stool to fix the tie of her one and a half foot taller husband, and of course her (only) powerful dialogue in the entire movie revolting against her husband, “Bas keh diya!!!”. She broke the image of the mommies of the 70’s movies who were poor, wore the same cotton sari throughout the movie, and washed utensils at other’s homes to bring up their children. This mommy wears zardosi sarees, lives in castles, and has a husband who dances with chicks at parties.
Farida Jalal: The cool and friendly mommy.

She will always be remembered for her role as Lajo in DDLJ (1995). Although a BBCD mommy, she is the epitome of tradition, dupatta clad and all. A dutiful wife and a mother who tries to be more of a friend that a mother, she is the model mommy for many girls who grew up in my generation, the mommy who wouldn’t rebel against daddy, but who would secretly support her daughter to love and marry the man of her dreams, even if it was an undekha, anjaana chehra from the mustard fields of Punjab. She is a contradiction of sorts, non-conventional with her ideas of “bhaag ja Simran, tu ghar se bhaag ja”, yet conventional, so much that she wouldn’t shoulder the responsibility of permitting her daughter for a summer Eurotrip (apne baoji se pooch le). From the sister of Amitabh (remember the song, dekh sakta hoon main kuch bhi hote huye?) to the mother of Simran, she is quite the person you would want to be your mom if you were the heroine with an angry, disciplinarian dad.
Nirupa Roy: The “baap” of all mommies.

Perhaps no other mommy has played such a powerful role as she did in the movie Deewar (1975), still best remembered for the dialogue “Mere paas ma hai”. Funnily enough, as a kid, I somehow got the idea that her name is Nirupay Roy, that fits her nirupay image perfectly. She doesn’t need to be named anything in this movie, bas “ma” hi kaafi hai. Maaaaaaa !!!! Poor, lachrymose, sullen and sad, oozing with self-respect, both her sons go on to choose different paths in life, despite being brought up with the same values. The suhagan who lived like a vidhwa, working at construction sites and fainting multiple times due to low levels of glucose in the blood, the ma with the hyper functional lachrymose glands, she should rightly get credit for starting the whole movement also known as mothers’ day.
Honestly, I never knew about mothers’ day as a kid, or thought that there is one particular day of the year when you are supposed to smother your mother with love (more on Facebook than in real life), but that might be because I wasn’t brought up in so cool or happening a family. I understand birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated once a year, but mothers’ day? Slowly I got the idea, that there is going to be this one day every year, hopefully coinciding with the break after the spring semester, when you should inundate your Facebook page with posts about how much your mother means to you, and how much you love her. You are supposed to bleat like a goat, myaa … myaa… post your mommy’s picture as your profile picture to confuse your friends, and inundate your wall with messages of matribhakti. If you are a mommy yourself, this is your chance of demanding anything from iPads to diamonds, not from your child who is 1 year old and barely knows to talk, but from your husband, all in the name of mothers’ day. Like I wrote earlier, that the love has to keep showing, for it isn’t love if it does not show. So on this occasion of mothers’ day, I am going to remember my mom, who lives halfway across the world, by remembering all the cool Bollywood mommies whose movies I grew up watching. Honestly, it wouldn’t make a difference if I lived with my mom. For thankfully she is one person who does not care about Mothers’ Day.
Happy Matri Diwas mummy log.

Monday, May 02, 2011

From Royal Weddings to Royal Killings

From royal weddings to royal killings, too many interesting things have been happening around me to focus on work. I have always been sardonic about flashy wedding ceremonies, wondering with cynicism how long it would be before these doe-eyed, love-infested couples start to swear, blame, fight, and be unfair to each other. So, while my colleague woke up at 4 am and watched the royal wedding with renewed interest, I slept soundly on my sofa bed in Missouri. Once I returned from Missouri, I had the exciting news of the royal killing awaiting me. Random thoughts crossed my mind as I digested and processed the news. There were serious issues, like, is Obama going to be re-elected as the President again? Not that I find his policies very pro-immigrantion, and I am apathetic toward politics and current happenings, unless they directly affect me. Then I thought of more serious issues, like, now that the villain is dead, will they let me carry lotions, moisturizers, and beauty products with me in planes? Since I moved to the US many years after 9/11, I have always seen high security at the airports, have been frisked for some serious feeling up by people of the same gender in the name of security. Trust me, the last thing you want is some woman touching you here and there in the name of security. And then I have had expensive makeup bottles stolen from hotels (which were complimentary anyway) being mercilessly thrown away. The bottles of water were gone, and so were the bottles of juice and iced tea. For years, it was a challenge to have a clean security check up, or carry contact lenses and their solutions. The TSA forced me to wear glasses and look less glamorous. My friend suggested I visit Washington DC with an appeal, “The motion for lotion”. To cut a long and nagging story short, will there be lesser security hassles at the airport now, since the villain is dead? Will I be eyed with less suspicion, because I am brown and more importantly, considered a potential immigrant, since my mom and dad weren’t smart enough to think ahead of time and give me birth here? Will someone willingly let me extend my visa once it expired, because I am now an acclaimed professor very worthy of producing good quality research in this country? Or, will things be the same as ever, if not worse? No makeup lotions, being frisked, employers not willing to sponsor my visa or let me work in peace without losing sleep over a green card? The reason I am ranting about strict immigration laws is because I have had to go through a lot of hassles in the past because of this, and this has no connection with my post anymore. Honestly, I would never greedily eye that green card or the citizenship people kill each other (or worse, marry each other) over. I have never wanted to be a green card hungry immigrant. When I moved to this country, I did so because I wanted a life of freedom, a life where I was free to study in the best educational institutions, and move and see places and not be restricted to a single country. Given a chance, I would gladly work in Europe, or any other place for the matter. I came here because I thought I could live a life of freedom, without the person from the other backward caste next door competing with me, and outshining me for that coveted place in my dream institution. I wanted to be in a place where my worth would be the value of my work, and not the function of my caste (or the backwardness of it), the clout my father has (which he has none), or the amount of butt licking of the political parties in power I could do. That is why I left India. But in moving here, I got myself into different kind of chains. In order to break free of the shackles that held me back in India, I became a prisoner of different kind of social, political, and visa-related norms. How I wish I was hired for the quality of my work, at any government or private organization, without being rejected because I was not a citizen. No, I will never want to be a US citizen. It’s nothing got to do with patriotism and stuff. I was born an Indian by chance, I could be born in, say, Israel, or Italy. But I grew up in India for decades, and no matter where I live now, I like to be called an Indian by default. It is the kind of programming I grew up with. I would be very confused if I had to introduce myself as an American.

Anyway, all my thoughts about moving to the US because I wanted to break free, and then chained in the vicious visa cycle here was meant for a different post altogether. Now that I have talked about it, I wonder how the death of the most wanted terrorist affect the political, social, and visa-related ongoing of the world. But till those radical changes happen (hopefully for the betterment), I will hope they will let me carry my makeup kit, bottles and lotions and all, and will not mercilessly chuck them in the trash cans every time I board a flight.

(If I have inadvertently hurt your sentiments by bringing up the visa or backward caste issue, stop being a sissy and live up to the reality, like everyone is).