Tuesday, November 27, 2012


The only thing that pisses me off more than lazy people is lazy people using sms language.

Random email to me: hi... i am currently pursuing B.tech in civil enginring.. and i want to do my masters abroad but i hv very little knowledge about the scope and prospects and the procedure.. pls help..

My reply: I am already doing a PhD abroad and still have no knowledge about the scope and prospects and procedure. I am afraid only God can help you, and if God cannot, then Google might.

DUI (Dissertating Under Influence)

** Wrote this about a month ago but never published it. Don’t ask me why.

I am sure some of you might be wondering if a car hit me and I died, my spirit haunting this blogspace, trying to locate my password. I know I have abandoned this space, shamelessly, remorselessly. This used to be my stage, a space where I used to hang out with my younger selves, right from when I was in my mid-twenties. I certainly owe no apologies, but truth be told, I am too tired to write anymore. So tired that sometimes I have to pause to differentiate between write and right. I guess that is what the final year of PhD does to you. The wrapping up year, when you are busy writing your dissertation, preparing yourself for the job market, applying for jobs, going for interviews, and doing the entire dog and pony show. I did not realize how cynic this year had made me. I have such different tastes and hobbies, such different ways of spending time now, I almost feel like a different person to myself.
I keep telling people that I am dissertating, and I feel weird using the word. It sounds so similar like, umm… lactating. I know. Creating a dissertation is almost like pregnancy of the brain. These days I show so many signs that my pregnant friends do. I am moody, hormonal, less talkative, and let’s just say, in a different intellectual space. It is easier to bait me into controversial arguments. I crave for things I have never craved for before. Watermelons and coconut water for example. And eucalyptus and mint scented candles, the really strong ones. You have to see my fridge to believe how addicted I have become to watermelons and coconut water over the last few months. There are cartons of coconut water and pounds of watermelon lying there because every few hours, I crave for both. And scrabble too. I cannot go to sleep these days unless I play a few rounds of scrabble online. Eucalyptus and mint candles, watermelons, coconut water, online scrabble, and what else? Gym. I am so addicted to the gym, I try to be there 4-5 times a week, do an hour of aerobics, and then about 45 minutes of weight training. The pain, sweat, and the exhaustion give me a high, almost like being on drugs. It gives me time to think of new research ideas. It is a different story that I haven’t lost a pound of weight, but these days I feel like I could flex my wrists, punch a wall and my fists would go right through it.
My dissertation focus is based on women. This is something new as well, since I had never seen myself studying women in the field of medicine. However, the idea was exciting, and more importantly, marketable. You’ve got to write something that people are going to be interested in, and it seems like everyone from painters to filmmakers to writers and academicians are interested in women. Also being a woman gives my research idea more validation.
Online scrabble, gym, and dissertation sums up my life almost. Well, almost. I have also been taking pictures, lots of them. Last week my picture went on public showing and auction for the first time. Of course I was too busy to attend the event, as there were academic deadlines. Oh, and I also started working on the anthology of short stories I have always wanted to write. I started writing six parallel short stories, based on six different ideas and six lives (not connected in any way), only to realize that at this rate, I will end up writing six novellas. I need to cut down on the depth, because short stories need to be, well, short. So that is a project in the air as well.
I am too tired to write, or do anything emotionally taxing at the end of all this. So I watch movies until I fall asleep (watch Forget Me Not, Conversations With Other Women, The Ides of March, and Departures). Departures was an accidental watch, I brought it my mistake when I was looking for The Departed. These days I avoid people as much as I can, at parties and gathering or wherever, just because I so easily feel like snapping at them. It feels like everyone is giving me a deadline to do something. I spend hours analyzing data, and go to sleep, wake up, and analyze more data. This was a summer of rejections. Almost every research paper I wrote independently got rejected. A conference proposal got accepted miraculously though, and I will be presenting next spring in Puerto Rico. Got to tone those biceps before that.
You know, I thought I would be more sure of myself in my final year of PhD, but now, I am not so sure anymore. I do not know where my life is headed, where I would be working and living next year this time. I always thought PhD is hard, but trust me, it is easy. What is hard is figuring out your life after a PhD, when you are not protected by your adviser and school, when you are vying and murdering for grant money, when you are all accountable to yourself, and your institution. Imagine that, and your PhD will seem like a cakewalk.
Anyway, on this depressing note, I shall sign out. This week is filled with workshops where I will learn to brush up my CV, write research statements and teaching statements, and pick up skills to navigate through the academic pipeline. Sometime during my PhD, I convinced myself that I would love to be a research professor. Most of my college professors in India had left a very traumatic mark on me, making me think that all professors did was come to class with an old sheaf of papers and dictated notes to kill time. My school teachers worked much harder to train me than my college professors did. However, American professors have changed my mind. I love the way they talk about living off their creative ideas, traveling the world, rubbing shoulders with the brightest, and most importantly, working independently for themselves. Sure it is not a cakewalk, but I believe this particular journey will be worth the hard work.
More later …

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Paulo Coelho’s Trip Tips

Being an ardent traveler and a big fan of traveling alone or in small groups, I could very well relate to this article. I have not much to add to this, except one advice. Travel in poverty. Stay at hostels, that is where you see all the local action happening. The lack of comfort will also make you leave your room early and go out exploring. Avoid the cab or the bus if you can walk. When I was visiting Hawaii, I lived in a tiny youth hostel, although I was working and I had the money to be able to afford a hotel. Every night, a group of local guys would sit outside the hostel and play the guitar. Tired to the core, I would go to sleep every night listening to a group of men animatedly chatting and playing live music. How would I find it if I stayed at an upscale hotel?
This is a picture of the Fontana di Trevi in Rome, my first Eurotrip two summers ago. I traveled in penuriousness, and had the best time of my life.


Nightie, the All Mighty

I have never been a more curious spectator of the sartorial idiosyncrasies of the women living in our community in Calcutta, the city where my parents now live. I do not live in Calcutta anymore, not since the last six years, and this is perhaps why little things that did not stand out earlier tend to do so. I am an outsider now. I see things that I had never noticed before. Let us take the nightie, for example. I have never seen something that has popularized itself more than the nightie has. The women of the extended family still remember my dida (grandmother) for her unconventional modernism. Dida has been gone for 13 years (maybe more), and is more of a distant memory for me. She would be close to ninety if she was alive today. Every female acquaintance of hers remembers her for, no, not her unconventional outlook or her lack of prejudices as a sign of modernity, but the fact that she owned and wore nighties. Yes, I have distant memories of that too, of the time when I was five years old. Dida would take a shower late at night, after finishing the chores, organizing food in the fridge and cleaning up the kitchen, and emerge in her green and white nightie, smelling of Boroline and Cuticura talcum powder. She would switch on the table lamp by the bedside, take out her collection of books and magazines, and read for the next few hours until I hugged her and fell asleep. Now when I talk about my dida, an epitome of a modern woman in the family, I am talking of no flimsy sheer Victorian secret. Victorian it was, covering her from head to toe, full sleeves and a high neckline. There were no laces, frills, or buttons, but a pair of strong fasteners securing the nightie, which was pure heavy cotton, the stuff you use to make heavy curtains at home. You could not see a square inch of bare skin below the throat, even if you tried to. The nightie was a companion for a few hours at night, emerging from her wardrobe much after everyone fell asleep, and vanishing much before anyone else woke up. Every morning when I woke up before seven for school, she would be back in her sari, preparing for the morning puja. Yet she was a modern woman, as the women of the extended family teased her, perhaps with a mix of jealousy and hypocrisy in their voices. The nightie was her id to modernism.

            The sight of the nightie is so common during my annual visits to Calcutta these days, but sadly, nothing like the sight my dida made, reading by her night lamp, her face glowing in the soft yellow, a nightly sight, almost a figment of my imagination because I have never ever seen her in a nightie in broad daylight. My parents live in a community interspersed with buildings five stories high, and during summery evenings, it is a common sight watching women, mostly elderly, prancing around in the terrace of other apartments wearing a nightie. They are seen doing every possible activity- taking evening walks, drying the chilies and mangoes for pickles, haggling with food vendors and salesmen, socializing with other women from adjacent apartments, untangling knots of the nylon rope with frayed edges tied to a dirty little piece of bag, also known as the “bajaarer tholi” that holds the keys to the entrance door, or conversing with anyone who has some information about the missing maid. I am yet to see an elderly Bengali woman from Calcutta who does not own a few pairs of sleeveless nighties. She takes a shower during summery evenings, dabs a generous amount of talcum powder on her visible upper extremities, including the armpits, and takes a stroll on the terrace. Hanging lards from the biceps or an endowed physique have never been deterrents. The term nightie is a misnomer, for you can easily find women performing a good portion of their morning chores in nighties. The milkman brings milk, the maid arrives and leaves, the newspaper guy delivers newspapers, the salesmen continue with their unwanted solicitation, the mailman delivers mails, and random strangers ask for “dada” (usually the husband), to which they have to crane their necks out of the windows and iron railings of the balcony or the stairs from the fifth floor and scream, “dada barite nei” (Dada is not home). The nightie remains a faithful accompaniment, never leaving your side.

When the hemline is too low or the design perhaps a tad too modern, a dupatta, usually sheer and gauzy, is used as an accompaniment. I have seen so many women who feel no hesitation stepping out of the house, even as far as the “moodikhana’r dokan” or the “kirana” (a small shop in the locality selling groceries) for some potatoes and lentils, or venturing out to the nearby “mishtanno bhandar” (sweet shop) for some evening snacks of “shingara- kochuri”.  A dupatta makes the nightie more official, almost as if it was never a nightie in the first place, but something more formal like a business suit. Or a swim suit. For I have seen nighties with dupatta in pictures all the way from the beaches of Puri, Digha, Pondicherry, and the southern shores of the country. Honeymoons, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and threading ceremonies, you name it. The nightie wearers are no lesser mortals; they are entrepreneurs and social networkers. The owner of Jasmine Beauty Parlor (“we have no branches”) in our community is often seen threading, waxing, snipping, and giving orders to her subordinates wearing her deadly nightie-dupatta combination.
I do not know if they are women of the modern strata in Calcutta. I do not know if they frequent pubs or shake a leg in clubs. These mashimas and boudis do not go around giving driving directions to their chauffeurs, cocktail in hand. Yet this seems like a strange form of liberation for the middle class Bengali women, liberation from the bondage of wearing something strictly Indian, a compromise between the extreme westernization of the miniskirts and jeans and the eastern sari. When the mailman rang the bell one afternoon, I was about to get the door in my tee shirt and sweatpants (that barely reached my knees) when my mother instructed me to don a nightie on top of what I was wearing. Confused, I wondered how ridiculous that would look, when I realized that it was the obvious choice over the somewhat contour hugging fabric I was wearing. I never donned that ridiculous combination of a nightie over sweatpants, much to her consternation.
Living outside Calcutta for the last six years, I got used to seeing and wearing different kinds of nightwear, those that were restricted to the sleeping quarters and were not worn during conversations with the neighbor or the salesman. I was meeting my newly married ex-colleague, Mr. Basu, during a certain business trip to the bay area in California. I was a little lost in their parking lot, and Mrs. Basu, who had recently moved from Calcutta, kindly volunteered to step outside and show me the door. I was parking my car when I saw the silhouette of a newly married lady in her mid-twenties emerging, an unmistakable silhouette of someone wearing a nightie with a dupatta thrown in. I smiled to myself as I realized that I might have left Calcutta years ago, but Calcutta hasn’t left me yet. I imagined a dozen bandhni-printed nighties bought from Dakshinapan in south Calcutta making their way across the Pacific Ocean as a part of Mrs. Basu’s wedding trousseau. That was when I realized the power of the nightie, the almost all mighty. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

PhD Milestones

This is more of a post for me, and my children and their children, who decades from now shall read this and smile and revel in the glory of my achievements. Well, I doubt if my children will care, but I certainly will. So what is this hoopla about? Well, last Sunday, I submitted my first research paper to an international journal. A week before that, another research paper (where I am the second author) was submitted. And today, I finished writing my third research paper, which I shall submit to another national journal in the next few days.

August 2010, I joined the program. January 2011, I cleared my prelims. July 2011, I cleared my qualifiers. July 2012, I am done submitting three research papers. I have had thoughts about dropping out of the program a few times, but the number of times I have been grateful to be in the program has significantly outweighed the number of times I have wanted to quit. I need to finish my comprehensives by next month, propose (my dissertation) by the end of this year, defend by March next year, and then I will be ready to graduate by August next year. In the meantime, I need to find myself a job, hopefully in the west coast this time.

Finishing a PhD in three years is tough, but doable. You just need to have an adviser who pushes you, lots of motivation to finish fast, and 50 times more energy to push yourself. And it is not all work and no play. I have made countless trips within US, and a handful of international trips to keep myself entertained. I do everything that any grad student does- sleep, waste time, daydream, Facebook, attend potlucks, go on road trips, watch movies, to name a few. I hope that I am able to finish in three years so that I can give some gyaan about how to finish a PhD in three years.

Fed Up

All you Roger Federer fans must be rejoicing out there. Well, the merrymaking is not so evident in our household. Both my roommates are ardent tennis fans, and both wanted Andy Murray to win. Well, one of them is a diehard Nadal fan, and she feels that although Federer is great, good luck has got a lot to do with his winnings in the past. She could not care about who wins if it was not Nadal. I am not sure about the other, the soft corner might be because of her history with London. In any case, one of them was livid, and the other lachrymose when I saw them after the match. As for me, I am not a tennis follower. The little bit of tennis I know about is because we live in the same house, and sometimes I watch what they watch. However, I have a history of making stupid comments. For example, I watched the finals for about half an hour (before I dozed off), and asked them if Murray is from Australia. The other day, I asked who Rafa was. I thought that Rafa and Nadal were two different people. Trust me, you cannot beat that.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Turning Three

I wonder if it is weird to remember the birthdays of your car, your house, your blog, or of other dear but inanimate possessions. I remember the date I moved to the US, I remember the date I moved to Virginia. And I remember the day I bought my car. A private dealer in Kirkland sold me the car after a two month hunt, right after my Mount Rainier trip on a sunny summery day in 2009. I had not even passed my driving test then, and my friends drove it for me. During the initial few months, everyone except me drove my car. We took her to the Bothell temple that evening and did puja. The very next day, she had a flat tire. My mother often wonders when she will be able to sit in my car and have me drive her around. I know the feeling. No one in the family has owned a car before. Driving in Calcutta is suicidal. I usually take the metro, bus, or a cab there.

She has been a good car, and has driven with me to so many places. I hope I can take her to Canada some day. I hope that we can do a cross country drive someday. Well, Boston is not really cross-country, but at least we are going to Boston this weekend.

Here’s wishing my sunshine car a happy three years, and here is wishing us many more years of travel together. I hope we get to see a lot more of the country together.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Social interactions inside a car

The inane and eccentric philosophies of life make so much sense while driving. For hours, I would stare ahead in front of me, the solid yellow lines on my left giving way to the dotted yellow lines, and then solid yellow lines, orange lights changing to reds and greens. It is amazing when I thought of the complex web of social interactions that happened in the confines of a car.
I am a seasoned driver pretty used to driving alone. I will often hop in my car at the wee hours of dawn and keep driving. Although people frown upon driving alone, often claiming that company in the car not only kills boredom, but also makes it safer to drive, I disagree. I often roll down the windows while driving, strong gusts of wind caressing my face and disheveling my hair. I put on my collection of favorite songs, alternating between car CDs and car radio. I listen to rock, jazz, ghazals, Bollywood numbers, Bappi Lahiri, Quick Gun Murugun, Shyama Sangeet (devotional songs for Ma Kali), and sometimes songs in languages I do not understand at all. I often shake my head when I listen to songs in Tamil and Marathi. I sometimes lift and fold my resting left leg, strum my fingers on the wheel, whistle, or sing with the music.
Things change somewhat when I have company. The inside temperature is constantly micromanaged, someone repeatedly turning on or off the air conditioning, fiddling with the vents and so on. Then, there is some rewinding, fast forwarding, or mild alluding to the mismatch in music taste. Radio channels are changed, CDs are shuffled, and there are constant complaints about the music being too fast or too loud. This is when there is just another person.
Three is even more interesting, especially if I as not driving. The dynamics of who would sit in the front passenger seat changes with the kind of relationship shared with the other inmates of the car. For example, the right to sitting in the front usually belongs to boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, co-owners of the car, people with long legs, prettier faces, people higher up in the academic or professional food chain, non-drivers who need to navigate, or simply tantrum throwing people. There is hardly any control over the conversation (especially if it is in a different language), music, or the temperature of the car. However, staring out of the window from the backseat and pretending that others did not exist usually works.
Ditto to problems with four people in a car. If there are couples, they would usually retire to the backseat, ensconced in love, sharing hushed glances, holding hands, whispering jokes, talking about their own worldly problems, about what brand of mustard oil to buy from the trip back to the grocery store, to reminding to return the phone call of Kamalamoni mashima who is visiting her daughter in New Jersey from Naihati. You drive in pensiveness, with no idea about who is Kamalamoni mashima, or why did she choose to bring a tin full of roshogolla from Nobin Chandra Das instead of chumchums or pantua. Things get pretty interesting when the fourth person in the car is a baby. Babies have the right to pee, poop, puke, spit food, or throw tantrums in the car. Of course the right to eating in car is not restricted to babies alone. Not to mention the fight over the directions, whether the GPS is right or the iPhone is right, allusions to gender-based stereotypes of poor driving, that you constantly witness as a spectator from behind.
The worst case is when there are five people in the car, and a combination of everything happens. Someone is constantly changing music (from condition two), you are sitting in the back (from condition three), there is a couple sitting beside you (from condition four), and they are either embraced in sleep, constantly snoring, and occasionally leaning and falling on you, or are in heat. For me, the worse has been sitting in the back seat, while the newly wed Mrs. Wifey was learning how to drive, controlling the steering with a shaky hand, Mr. Hubby was teaching her to drive with endearments like “Shona” and “Mishtu”, and Mrs. Sister-in-law sitting beside me in the back was constantly talking about accidents, hit and runs, and insurance coverage. Of course no one thought of asking me if I am comfortable with the situation. Why would they? I am neither a Shona, a Mishtu, a spouse, a boss, nor a baby enchanting others with her smile.
Hence I prove my point. There is nothing like driving on your own, alone.
(P.S.: For the first time in my three year driving history, I accidentally jumped a rather innocuous looking red stop sign today)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Teacups versus Travel Mugs

Katie Couric addressed the graduating class of UVA last month as a guest speaker. Prior to this, I had no idea who Katie Couric was, but now I do, and am reading her book “The bestadvice I ever got: Lessons from extraordinary lives”. Usually, these speeches are different variations of what I see as feel-good-get-working inspirational speeches. It is not necessarily bad, but it is one of its kinds. I quite liked listening to her speech on that hot sunny day, on the verge of dehydrating and dying. Then, I listened to the same speech on youtube a few more times. The one thing that I loved is her comparison of teacups and travel mugs, where she urges students to stop being teacups, and become travel mugs. Any word related to travel is bound to pique my interest, and honestly, I did not get her point initially. However, I figured out that she was urging people not to become decorative pieces of fine china people keep at home, and instead be strong, sturdy, and go see the world. I really liked the analogy and I had never heard it before. Perhaps that is who I have always wanted to be- a travel mug. There is a lot of value in seeing the world, traveling, and being sturdy. That part of the speech roughly starts at the 17 minute 25 second mark.
            True, being a teacup is boring. Who wants to be a prized possession, kept safe in a shelf? I really hope I continue to be a travel mug, and meet lot many travel mugs in my life.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Crabby Tales

I sat by the sea for so long that Sunday morning, watching this crab making its way at its own pace. The waves would wash it off once in a while and drag it along, and when the waves had receded, the crab would start moving again. I love the little trail of footprints that took so long for this crab to make. Something very random but inspiring.

(Outer Banks, North Carolina)



For the longest time, I have wanted to do a cross-country road trip in the US, all by myself. Learning to drive back in 2009 was an ordeal for me, but a few thousand miles and a few speeding tickets later, there was no looking back. I think I have read up all the literature blogs that exist about cross-country trips. I know some people who are crazy about bike trips in South America (A Ghost of Che: A Motorcycle Ride Through Space, Time, Life and Love by Mauktik Kulkarni being one such book based on that). Consider a cross-country trip being one such dream.
            I have often interacted with cross-country drivers, getting some very humorous takes about their journeys. A friend once called his mom on the phone and said, “I am about to embark on something and you have to promise that you will not say a no, and you will bless me”. I would be thinking that my boy has decided to elope with someone from a different race and religion and marry, and I am sure the mom thought the same too. She was delighted when she was told that it was “just a cross country road trip” and she willingly gave him her blessings.
            I have a friend who did a smiley road trip, starting all the way from Boston, dipping down to Texas, and then going up until Seattle, creating a pattern of a smiley on the US map. Then I have another friend who has driven cross-country thrice. I recently came across a travel blog where the guy decided to do a road trip, touching all four corners of the country, from Florida to Maine, to Washington, and all the way to Southern California. I could only raise my eyebrows in amazement.
            I have briefly brushed over the chances of a potential road trip, but things have never worked out. When I moved to Virginia in 2010, I decided to drive all the way from Seattle. A month before the proposed trip, I tripped and injured my left leg on the streets of Sicily in Italy. It was a miracle making it back to the US, being in a wheel chair most of the time. The road trip never happened, and I had to ship my car.

Come summer, I get a little jealous of all these people who move across coasts and drive there. The most I have done so far is driving as far as Rochester, a 500-mile one way trip. Surely I have driven about 30,000 miles in the last three years of driving, but a cross-country has never happened. I hope that next year this time, I have graduated, have a job waiting for me in the west coast, and I can drive all the way. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, I have been driving all over the east coast this summer, and am especially looking forward to the trip to Maine in a few weeks. After having touched the southernmost tip of the country in Florida, the northwestern most tip near Neah Bay (Olympic National Park), and the westernmost tip of Europe (near Sintra in Portugal, see picture), this might be another “cutting the corner” trip. Next week this time, I will be celebrating three years with my car, my single most expensive and dearest materialistic possession I have had so far (the next one being my camera).
            Long live summer !

A PhD Post

Mentorship is a two-way process, where you shape your adviser as he shapes you. I am living proof of that. The last few weeks have been the turning point of my PhD. For those of you who do not know, I am at the fag end of my second year in the PhD program. This is when you are done with your coursework, and are beginning to think of some nice ideas, one of which could potentially turn into a dissertation. In my field of research, we usually do two kinds of studies- qualitative and quantitative. There is a third kind, the mixed-methods approach, where you mix both qualitative and quantitative data to validate each other. Quantitative studies heavily rely on data analyzed through statistics and number crunching, while qualitative studies rely on making meaning of the experiences of people through observations, interviews, focus group discussions, ethnography studies, et cetera. One approach is not necessarily better than the other, and you need to understand both methods in order to address a research question well.
            My research group is heavy on quantitative analysis. There are a couple of reasons for that. Your sample size can be way larger in a quantitative data set (tens of thousands sometimes), the sophistication of the statistical software can make you run analyses in less time, and overall, your rate of publication is higher when you do quantitative work. Clearly, the numbers speak for themselves, and that is why my group has always relied on quantitative dissertations.
            I was expected to do a quantitative dissertation from day one. My adviser is a hard taskmaster and makes you takes every possible course on methodology. It is hard, doing all that work, and I have seen myself screaming through semesters when I was taking four methods courses at a time. In graduate school, taking four courses per semester is a challenge; you can imagine what taking four methods courses would be like. I have taken the entire 3-series qualitative coursework, 5-series quantitative coursework, and various other courses related to item response theory, multilevel modeling, and so on. I have had to learn using Stata, SPSS, Genova, NVivo, and Atlas Ti from scratch. Anyway, I ended up taking a lot of these quant courses, and realized my heart was not really in there. I could run regression models and stuff, I could learn to live with that, but not love that. On the other hand, I took the qualitative courses and loved them.
            The first time my adviser learned about my newfound love for qualitative analysis, he asked me to change advisers. Clearly this is what none of his students had done before, and he was skeptical. I would be crazy to change advisers at this stage, I love this research group, so I assured him that I would do a quantitative dissertation. We were collecting a lot of qualitative data for an NIH funded study, and with my background in the biosciences and public health, I found myself attracted to that data. I would randomly do some preliminary analysis, while still looking for a quantitative research idea. This went on for a few more months. My adviser was supposed to go to an annual conference in California, a big one for sure, and I asked him if I could come. He said no, and then gave it a thought and asked me what I would do there. I said I had done some preliminary analysis and could present it to him, so that he could decide. I told him that it was qualitative data analysis. I just wanted to attend the conference and visit California, hoping to make some contacts there. I did not hope for anymore.
            The adviser gave me an evening, and asked me to present my data to him the next morning. I had an evening, which is nothing when you have to present your findings. People spend days preparing their presentations. He said that I could come with him if I could impress him. I spent that evening putting some more thought and rationale into my data analysis, and presented it to him next morning sharp at 10 am. He had some thoughts, he asked some questions, and told me to do some more. He was about to leave when I asked him if I could come to California. He told me I am on board.
            I was thrilled. I spent more time into this analysis, aware that I will have to soon go back to my quantitative dissertation idea. I kept working hard at this and showing him my analysis, knowing that I had a very limited amount of time with this dataset. I still did not have a dissertation idea.
            About 2 weeks ago, my adviser approved of me doing either a wholly qualitative dissertation, or a mixed-method dissertation. He told me that I have changed his opinion about what his graduate students’ dissertation profile should look like, replete with quantitative data analysis. He reminded me of the risks I am taking being the first one in his team to do qualitative work. This has been the single most pivotal moment in my PhD career. From the day when he asked me to change advisers because I liked qualitative work to this day when he said I will be the first one in his team to do something new, I have come a long way from where I was. I never really had any expectation of him changing his mind. However, I kept doing something I am good at, and things unfolded for me serendipitously.
            I have secured a place in the California conference. I have finally decided on my dissertation topic, after 6 months of banging my head against the wall. Most importantly, I have realized that although there is a prescribed route to success that everyone before me has followed, there is also value in determining my own way based on my interests without taking the road stalwarts have taken before me. I will carve out my own niche, doing something my group has never done before. It may or may not be kick ass, like Eric Cartman would say. However, that for me is the true essence of education- authenticity, uniqueness, and doing something different with all my love.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Picture Imperfect

Beauty sometimes lies in the little imperfection of things around us. It is more of a philosophical thinking, and whenever I think of beauty and imperfection, I think of Shrek and Fiona. I think of the moon, with the craters. I think of the little blemishes that have marred my otherwise perfect life. I think of a little girl giggling, mindless that a few milk teeth are missing. I think of the wrinkles that make my grandmother so beautiful. I think of a progress report card of a genius with a few red lines indicating failed subjects.

Often, we are made to believe that perfect is beautiful. Normal is nice. Aberrations are bad. We place nominal adjectives to a lot of things- Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, perfect, and imperfect. Who defines these parameters? Do they change with time and context? Is it more relative and less absolute? Is it okay to shun something because we do not understand it, and embrace something because we believe in it? What is wrong with a few imperfections, a few failures, a few heartbreaks in life anyway?

This picture I took yesterday is testimony to the fact that beauty sometimes lies in the little imperfection of things around us. I was struggling to get some shots of flying birds from a ferry that was in motion, undulating and wobbling as it made its way along the ocean near North Carolina. The birds flew in a group, often parallel to the ferry, and at the same speed. This made me wonder if the birds were not really in motion, but were suspended mid-air. They were perhaps seagulls with a red beak, I am not so good at identifying birds. So I zoomed in against the western sky with the setting sun, trying to get some shots of the birds. If you see the picture closely, a part of the left wing got cut out. I instantly fell in love with this picture. Do not miss the golden glow at the tip of the right wing.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Honey, you heard of HONY?

I absolutely love art projects. I love little excerpts of real stories from the lives of people. There is something very endearing about pictures of common people, with their common dreams and common lives. They do not come with the boredom of seeing something that is staged or artificial. Humans of New York (HONY) is all of them.

Last year this time, I was all into Postsecret, an online community where anonymous people sent in creative postcards with their secrets. I had read almost all the books published by Postsecret. Somehow, things mellowed for me. Once in a while I still love a weekly secret for all its boldness, spunk, and honesty. But overall, things mellowed.

HONY is different. I look forward to seeing the pictures everyday and more than that, reading little excerpts that seem so apt. HONY is an art project I absolutely love. It makes me wish for two things- first, that I lived in New York City and was featured in HONY, and second, that I started my own art project wherever I live. Come to think of it, I would love an art project like this based on people of Kolkata. A priest praying at the Dakshineshwar Kali temple. A couple holding hands in Millennium Park. An office commuter hurrying to take the train near Fairlie Place. A tourist looking at the Howrah Bridge and admiring it. An art connoisseur waiting for his friends in Nandan. The retail stores of Burrabazar. The glitz of Camac Street. Puppy love blooming in front of schools. Thousands of stories unfolding right in front on our eyes, stories of common people, their common lives, and the extraordinarily beautiful tales that weaves out of it.

For once, I will not be upset if someone in Kolkata, or Bombay, or New Delhi for that matter gets inspired from this and start their own project. I would love to see it all.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Getting on the treadmill again

Blogging, working out, doing a PhD, or anything else for that matter is an effort of regular, planned practice. The analogy I often use is that of running on an electronic treadmill. Electronic and not manual because you do not supply the power to the treadmill. Now when you step off the treadmill, the treadmill is still running. And that is what makes it hard to get back on it. You need to catch up, match up the velocity, and get going. This is what happens when you stop going to the gym abruptly. It takes so much effort to get back to routine. And that is what has happened to my blog recently. When I wrote regularly, I felt motivated to write regularly. Once the cycle was broken, it was hard to get back. Writing for me is not about a game of numbers, about how many posts I can spew monthly, and how many comments I can garner. For me, it was more of a spiritual exercise, something akin to meditating, an effort to make sense of the numerous things around me and document them. Clearly, I have moved on to different pastures. I have been busy with work, writing papers, traveling, partying, taking photographs, and doing numerous other things. It is not that I forgot about my blog. But every time I tried to write, I felt that inertia, that resistance, the same resistance you face when you try to get back on that treadmill that is already in motion. I have often come home too tired, and while earlier I would readily hop on to writing my journals, now I want to read a book or watch a movie. Anyway, this should not be a rant post. So hello everyone. Isn’t it ironic that I have to be welcomed back in my own writing space? I am back with lots of exciting stories about how wonderful life has been recently. And more than anything, I am excited to be able to start writing again.
P.S.: My lower spine has recovered well.
P.P.S.: Thank you for all those who wrote to me, and apologies to all those I did not reply back.
P.P.P.S.: I hate the new look of blogger. It takes too much effort to navigate my way around. Same thoughts when Gmail forced me to adopt the new look.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Subtle Satire

Nothing gives me a kick as strong as satire does. Simple, short and sweet, and most importantly, to the point. This is why the Bengali movie “Bhooter Bhobishyot” (the future of the past) is my favorite movie currently. Every line is loaded with pun, satire, and double meanings based on contemporary issues. I admit that it is hard to get the reference if you do not understand the language, but try it nevertheless.

I was chatting with my friend and he said something (probably without even realizing it) that was bang on, to the point. Short, beautifully delivered, and not so nice, but dripping with truth. The conversation went like this:

T: When are you visiting me in Boston?
Me: No time. I need to graduate first, find myself a job. 
T: You sound like D
(our common friend who is always thinking four years ahead).
Me: Seriously. For a change, I am thinking of applying for jobs in India as well.
T: eessshhh .... Why do you want to go abroad?

Mostly of you will probably not get why the last line touched a chord somewhere deep down. In case it makes sense, people like me who have made a life in two countries perhaps live with a mistaken sense of identity, torn between the two worlds. Has India become abroad for me? I really hope not.


Sunday, April 01, 2012

Back Calculation

I owe a big thank you to everyone who sent me wishes, emailed me, messaged me, and called me. I was expecting some flowers too, but no hard feelings, really. Nothing has changed much the last few days, but for the fact that I have turned out to be more grumpy and sour than ever. I thought of sharing a few updates with all of you.

1. The doctor asked me to rest and be on medication for the next 2 months. Physiotherapy will start after that. The dollars I will have to shell out of my pocket (even after partial insurance coverage) makes me wish I get well before physiotherapy starts. There is a reason I am not missing popping nine painkillers a day. Yes you heard me right.

2. I could finally afford to watch four movies in a row this Saturday. What else do you do when you are in bed all day? Ek main aur ek tu (thumbs down), Paan Singh Tomar (thumbs up), Midnight in Paris (thumbs down), and Agneepath (thumbs up).

3. I loved Agneepath (my roommate did not). I loved the visuals. I loved the Banyan tree. I loved Hrithik (I am not a big fan of him otherwise). And I loved the music.

4. We did a lot of roommate bonding this weekend. We went for groceries together. She drove me around, helped me with the groceries, and made sure I do not have to lift weights. We spent the entire Saturday chatting and watching movies. She got me medicines, and helped me climb the stairs. Although an illusion, I have been feeling like a princess of late.

5. I have not had to worry about cooking. My friends have visited me and given me food that will last me weeks. Paneer. Chicken. Shrimp. Rajma. Gobi. You just name it.

6. I have started to use my favorite red crutches (bought from Munich) once again. I would not exactly say that I was hoping to use it someday, but well, since all this happened, I thought I might as well get through this with style.

7. My herniated spine came with a flu and a 48 hour sneezing bout for free.

8. My advisor gave me his parking permit for the week. This means I can now drive to school and park on campus.

9. Father said I should move back to India. America is not a place to suffer alone. I have decided to avoid talking to him until my back hurts less and my sanity is restored.

10. Now that I am in bed most of the time I am home, all I do is read and make virtual travel plans. I have already decided to go visit Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Greece, Spain, and Croatia this year. Such random plans help me cope with my pain.

11. I am terrified I will never be able to run around with my camera, dance, or go hiking and backpacking again. I had a long list- Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Greece, Croatia, Venezuela, and many more.

12. With all the bed rest, I am finally beginning to get some ideas about my thesis. These ideas are nascent and far from being crystallized. However, I am realizing that the best way to get creative ideas is to lie down in bed all day and do nothing.

13. My sense of humor has gone to the dogs. Whenever I am asked, “What happened?”, I am considering coming up with innovative names for my herniated disc- Brokeback Mountain, Qamariya Lachke Re, Langda Tyagi, and so on.

14. I hope I survive the cross-country flight to Seattle in 2 weeks, given that I have been instructed not to sit at a stretch for more than 30 minutes.

15. The doctor refused to write me a doctor’s letter. She was concerned I might use that letter to my advantage and not finish my assignments on time. I am hardly surprised that she is Indian.

16. I watched Kahaani last week. I am puking out of sheer nostalgia. Oh Calcutta, how I miss thee !

17. I have never missed Zumba more. I think I might wail in pity some more and watch Agneepath again, much to the horror of my roommate.

Thank you everyone for your wishes, free food, advice on losing weight and staying fit, paneer, chicken, and shrimp curry, and for keeping me entertained through my suffering.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Back Breaking Experience

Last week this time, my life was great. I just did not realize how great it was. I drove, walked, danced, hopped on to the bus, and sprinted down the stairs of my townhome without realizing how blessed one must be to be able to do these without experiencing any pain. Last week this time, the issues ailing me revolved around learning to use logistic versus multinomial regression model, finishing the deadlines for the semester, and planning my Canada itinerary. When my back felt a little stiff, I blamed it on my two-hour long drive to Washington D.C. In the excitement about preparing for my conference presentation, I almost ignored the pain that had started to invade parts of my lower back. That afternoon, I lifted the laundry basket multiple times and loaded and unloaded stuff from my car in a bid to finish off the pending chores before I left for the conference. Something quite did not feel right in my back, and I blamed it on a faulty sleeping position or a sagging mattress and moved on. The bed I sleep on is anything but sagging by the way.

With every passing day, my pain intensified and manifested itself in scary ways. I would go to sleep praying that things would be fine the next day, but come morning, I saw myself unable to spring into action. I would spend quite some time tossing, turning, and wincing in pain. By the time I was presenting at the conference, the pain had shifted to the right side of my body, extending all the way to the back of my knees. I noticed I had started to drag my feet. As I boarded the 7 am flight this morning, I was a mess. The pain had started to make me feverish and nauseated. I had three short flights ahead of me, which meant a lot of boarding, deplaning, lifting heavy luggage, and hurting myself more. The first thing I did after landing back was to call the doctor and make an appointment. I had suffered so much pain during those eight hours of my flight that I could no longer walk without a limp, and was about to faint.

A herniated spinal disc is what they diagnosed, something akin to a slip-disc. The vertebral column gets dislocated, causing immense pressure and pain in the adjoining nerve. I had never associated a herniated spinal disc with a thirty year old woman who between gymming, dancing, driving, and running around, had led a perfectly normal and active life. I can neither go to the gym, nor dance anymore. In fact, every time I walk, I am in so much pain that I consider using my arms and crawling on my belly instead, just like army men under cover do in war movies.

Thankfully, the doctor did not think I would need surgery. She thinks that with rest, medicines, and physiotherapy, I should be fine in a few months. Which brings me to my second worst fear of living alone in the US (the first one being death of any member of my family and me being unable to take a flight back in time to see them). I am not even getting into the student health insurance issues, and the thought of how much I have to cough for my physiotherapy deductible and co-pay alone makes me think of the wisdom someone had put in saying, “If you don’t want to get bankrupt paying medical bills in America, make sure that you are not poor and you never fall sick”. Surely it is a concern that has been plaguing and stoking my worst fears. Living in the US for the last five years has only been possible because I chose the life of an independent person. I cooked my food, did my dishes and laundry, cleaned my home, drove myself to wherever I needed to be at, and never depended on anyone to run my life for me. This mandated that my limbs and my brain functioned properly. I do not live with my parents anymore, and in the unlikely event that I injured myself, there is no one to take care of me.

The demons of your worst fears nudge you and nag you to death when you are confined to the bed, writhing in pain and unable to function well. For the first time, I can genuinely feel the panic of the endless possibilities of unpleasant consequences awaiting me if I ever hurt myself and cannot function properly. I have never craved for my old, seemingly boring but comfortably normal life more, a life where I lifted heavy grocery from Krogers, went Zumba dancing three days a week, drove 500 miles to Rochester without blinking an eyelid, climbed stairs in haste, sometimes two steps at a time, and sat through classes for six hours a day. I can no longer do these seemingly ordinary things anymore.

In a state of helplessness mixed with panic, I asked the doctor if she thought I had bone cancer or arthritis. At some point in life, I developed a deep-seated fear for these two, afraid that I might die of one of these someday. My grandmother suffered through arthritis, and I have seen so many people, some considerably young, losing their lives to cancer. The doctor assured me that it was neither. Suddenly, perspectives have changed and graying hair is not an issue for me anymore. I used to count the number of grey hairs I got first thing in the morning every day, but my spinal cord gave me a perspective that half a dozen hardly visible graying hairs could not. I don’t care if I wake up with a mop of grey hair. I just want this back breaking pain to go away.

My doctor comes with a sense of humor. She said that I will be fine and gymming soon, although, if I was thinking of making a career out of weight lifting, I should probably give up that idea now.

I write this post and dedicate it to the benefits of good health we enjoy, something which we so often overlook and take for granted. Flu and fevers do not scare me. My twisted ligament in Italy did not scare me. But my spine worries me. For this is not a fracture incident borne out of an active lifestyle of running around. It is but the heralding of the disturbing realization that the body is no better than a machine, and with age, wear, and tear, it is deteriorating, and will require more effort in maintenance and servicing than I had anticipated before. At 5:30 in the morning, as I still struggle to fall asleep due to pain, I know that I would give anything to get back to my normal, active, pain-free, and sedative-less life again.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

So now I need to talk?

As I go over my presentation slides once again, the realization of what I got myself into slowly dawns on me. I am presenting thrice, at two national conferences this year. And I am in no mood for merrymaking. I am in the second year of my doctoral program, the scintillating achievements of my seniors weighing down my shoulders heavily. Last summer when I wrote these proposals, it was more an exercise of self-assessment, to see where I stand, to find out if I can write convincingly and visit a few new places in the process. The proposals got through, and suddenly, it became serious business. I have spent a good stressful amount of the last few weeks polishing off the papers, making my presentation slides, and generally mulling over what to say in front of an audience who stare at you expectantly. I know I will fumble, race through my talk, even stammer. For public speaking is not my forte. Give me a pen and I can write you a novel. Give me a camera and I will give you a year’s worth of pictures. But the microphone makes me nervous. Standing up there, listening to my own voice, seeing all those stalwarts in the field, knowing that my adviser is tucked away somewhere in the crowd, listening to me inconspicuously, lest I become nervous. There will be questions and clarifications, there will be sighs and deep breaths, and there would be awkward silences. I have spent half a day last Saturday, picking up a formal suit in black and white that cost me three-and-a-half days worth my salary. Then there would be flights boarded, classes missed, and more work piled up as I spent the next three days at a conference. I think of all this, as I go over my slides once again, one final time, just to make sure that not even a comma or a punctuation mark is missing.

What have I got myself into?


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Post-Mortem of a Post

I am interested to know, what exactly goes behind the success of a post, from a strictly academic point of view of course. Measuring the “success” of a post is not that relative or abstract when there are defined indicators. For example, the number of comments, the number of tweets, or the number of “Likes” on Facebook are some indicators that define the success of the post, not to mention the content of the comments. I have a few theories, but I do not know if they work.

Content Theory
I would think the content resonated with most people who read it. Barring a few who did not like my post, most agreed that they identified themselves in a similar situation. I am somewhat hesitant with this theory, because in the past, I have written many posts that people identified with. None of those got as much attention as this one did. In fact, this is not even one of my better written posts. I have written much better posts in the past. I have even written about similar content, of the whole alienation experience when you live in a different country. So is it content after all?

Platform Theory
The forum is undoubtedly a well-written, popular and a widely acclaimed blog. With thousands of readers, I am sure this post was bound to get some attention. So is it the fact that it was presented to a wider audience? I do not know.

Theory of Critical Mass
It could be possible that there is a critical mass of readers and more importantly, sharers for every post. I do not know what that critical mass is, but when it crosses that critical mass, it spreads like wildfire perhaps? When 2-3 people read something and share, chances are more that it would be a dying flame lost even before it has spread a significant number of times. However, when 200-300 people are sharing the same thing, the chances of it being lost or dying becomes significantly lower. Perhaps it is not content or platform alone, but a phenomenon of crossing that critical mass? I don’t really know.
Help me think of other factors that could lead to the success of a post. I know there are measurement biases and confounding factors involved here (for example, having or not having friends who network widely, and who spread the word). Still, there has to be something underlying, maybe singly, or maybe a combination of factors, that determine the popularity of a post. I have written travelogues with much time and effort that have done reasonably well in the past. However, on a bored Monday morning, in between listening to class lecture and introspecting about the value of taking that class, I had ended up writing a short post on why Portugal is an amazing country to visit. That post had become an instant hit, got widely circulated, showed up on travel websites of Portugal, was instantly loved by the Portuguese community, and currently stands at close to 400 “likes” on Facebook. No one really knows what worked right with that post, and when I tried emulating that formula again, things did not work. A hastily scribbled account of a country had produced an effect that carefully crafted travelogues that failed to create. In any case, given that the shelf life of a post is not much, maybe days, maybe weeks, I am currently basking in the glory of finally having written something that has gained the readership I have always dreamed of. Trust me, modesty and everything aside, it is an awesome feeling.