A Joyful Experience

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Friday, March 13, 2015

A few words on racism

Dr. Annette Beck-Sickinger, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Leipzig, Germany, recently refused an internship to a male student from my country, India, citing the ‘rape problem’ in India as a reason and implied she would be endangering herself and other female members of her lab if she allowed him in. Although I am aware that the German Ambassador already wrote to her and expressed his views in unambiguous terms, I still write this blog post to say a few things that I wanted to say.



In her now-public e-mail to the Indian student above (a mail written in English so appalling that I was almost convinced for a moment that it was fake), Dr. Beck-Sickinger says that India has a rape problem. I wonder how she arrived at that conclusion. If she meant it in terms of numbers, then I have to admit that she does not understand numbers very well. Sheldon Cooper, a fictitious character in the popular American TV series The Big Bang Theory said recently, “The only math biologists know is, if you have three frogs and one hops away, you have two frogs.” While I have a lot of respect for biologists in general, it seems Dr. Beck-Sickinger is one of the biologists that Sheldon was basing his observation on. I do not know how she does her research, but the way I do it is by starting with Googling some information. Googling rape rates per 100,000 people in countries across the world, one finds that the number in India is just 2 in 100,000. Wikipedia says, 
“Adjusted for population growth over time, the annual rape rate in India has increased from 1.9 to 2.0 per 100,000 people over 2008-2012 period. This compares to a reported rape rate of 1.2 per 100,000 in Japan, 3.6 per 100,000 in Morocco, 4.6 rapes per 100,000 in Bahrain, 12.3 per 100,000 in Mexico, 24.1 per 100,000 in United Kingdom, 28.6 per 100,000 in United States, 66.5 per 100,000 in Sweden, and world's highest rate of 114.9 rapes per 100,000 in South Africa.”
So if these 2 rapes out of 100,000 make India a country with a rape problem, what do the 28.6 rapes per 100,000 make the USA? What about UK with 24.1 rapes per 100,000? Does she deny internships to students from these countries too? How about Sweden with 66.5 rapes per 100,000? When she says female professors across Europe are planning to deny entry to Indian students (something she mentions in her email), does she consider Sweden and UK part of Europe? Or are rules different for dark-skinned people from third-world countries?

(It may be worth mentioning here that another biologist who confirms Sheldon's observation is none other than the famous Richard Dawkins. He tweeted about India having a culture of rape without bothering to check the numbers, and then hastily deleted it when the numbers were pointed out to him.)

Does this mean I am trivializing those two cases out of 100,000? Not at all. In a country of over 1.2 billion people, 2 out of 100,000 means a lot of rapes – about 25,000 rapes per year. But that number, while still about 25,000 more than what it ideally should be, is a mere 0.4% of the six million Jewish people Dr. Beck-Sickinger's countrymen killed during the Holocaust. Does that then make Germany a country with a genocide problem? I would like to know if Dr. Beck-Sickinger was ever denied entry into any country saying there are a lot of Jewish people in that country, and it would be dangerous for them if she was allowed into the country.

Actually I already know the answer - she wasn't. Because while she is a racist, most educated and civilized people aren't so. In the modern world, an act of judging a person based on his or her country, religion, gender or race is punishable by law, or at least severely frowned upon. This basic point somehow seems to have been totally lost on Annette while she was receiving big degrees and diplomas from reputed universities.

India has a diverse population of people from all countries, races and religions, and we do not have a culture of judging people based on their race and country of origin. Today, as the whole world is trying to progress towards attaining equality for all human beings, Annette sits like a frog in her well and denies entry to a prospective scientist on the basis of his race. Not because he is bad at science, or because that he himself is a rapist, but because he comes from a country which she feels has a rape problem. As a result, she has brought shame to all Germans, and to researchers and professors all over the world. She claims to speak for other professors across Germany and Europe, but I doubt that they would like to have her as their spokesperson. For instance, Jakob de Roover, a professor from Belgium, opposed Annette's views publicly.

Of course, some of my own countrymen have endorsed Annette's opinion. Ever since BBC released an illegally made documentary interviewing the convicts of the 2012 Delhi rape case on YouTube, some left-liberal pseudo-secular creatures on my Facebook friendlist have started denouncing all Indian men as rapists. One of them took this opportunity to get some free publicity and Facebook likes for her profile and argued that the racist actions of Dr. Annette Beck-Sickinger were justified. She went so far as to say all Indian men currently abroad should be sent back to India immediately since all of them were responsible for the rape culture of India. When I confronted her on this and started an argument on her Facebook wall, I was obviously called insensitive. Her so-called educated friends even came and tried saying that it was "natural" to think India has a rape problem and the German professor cannot be blamed for thinking that way.

I do not want to go into the details of the documentary here, although I strongly object to the manner in which it depicted Indian men. Whether it should have been made is a debate that can go on, but this post is not about the documentary. When I see a documentary about 9/11, I do not automatically go and judge all Muslim men. When I see a documentary about 26/11, I do not say all Pakistani men are terrorists. I got mugged on the street, not once but thrice, by black men, and yet I don't think all black men are criminals. And this woman has the audacity to question all Indian men (probably based on the interview of a convicted criminal) while she hails from the country that started two world wars and wiped out two out of every three Jewish people in Europe. She did issue a half-hearted apology after her emails became public and she was criticized all over the world. The standard stuff - it was taken out of context... I'm sorry if I hurt someone... blah blah blah. One would have thought she would have been a little better at apologizing, given her education and all, but evidently, education isn't enough.

Annette Beck-Sickinger's actions somehow remind me of Hitler's denouncement of Jewish scientists including Albert Einstein. I could have written pages about it, but what is the point? I could go on to say that Germans haven't learnt their lesson from history and are making the same mistakes again, but then I would be no better than her. As the German ambassador's mail clearly shows, all Germans do not share her views. In fact, I am sure most Germans do not share her views. So I will end this post with the hope that she mends her racist ways and stops judging people by their nationality or race. What good is a biologist who does not believe in the equality of all human beings? 


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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Worst Case Scenario

It is a well-known fact among my friends that I am a pessimist. I carry an umbrella if there is the slightest hint of clouds in the sky. I stock candles in my house in the US to light in case of a power failure. I take public transport to any such place where there is a possibility of not finding parking. I am often ridiculed for this attitude, but I am an incorrigible believer of Murphy's Law.

And there is reason for that. I am often the victim of the worst case scenario. I am the only person among my friends who was mugged on the street, and the only one that I have known to have been mugged multiple times. I am the only PhD student in the history of NJIT's Computer Science department to have been denied funding after four years of PhD because... they miscalculated their funds. It was my car whose hood was left open by mechanics last year, causing it to fly open on the highway and nearly causing an accident.

So when I bought the ticket for India a few months ago, I was less than happy about the three-hour layover in Mumbai. I would have to get off the Etihad Airways plane from Abu Dhabi, pass through immigration, collect my baggage, clear customs, check in my baggage on the Jet Airways flight to Kolkata, clear security and then board the aircraft within that time. But since I was flying from Washington DC to Kolkata, my choices were limited. Besides, since the whole trip was booked by Jet Airways, I thought, they will surely make some arrangements for their passengers if the Etihad flight is delayed and the Kolkata flight leaves Mumbai. I thought wrong. When I reached the Jet Airways transfer check-in desk at the Mumbai international airport after getting off the delayed Etihad flight, declaring myself free from Ebola, passing through immigration and customs, the Kolkata flight was about to leave.


Jet Airways - where passengers come last
Maybe some other airline would have arranged for its passengers to make the connection quickly. Not Jet airways. They made sure I waited fifteen minutes for my suitcases, took my full time at every queue, and finally reached the counter when they would not let me check-in. Well, the suitcases were probably delayed by Etihad, but it was Jet Airways who had booked the trip, so I'm going to hold them responsible.

Anyway, I went to the counter and asked the agent what to do. My father had surely started for the airport by this time, and I had no way of telling him that I had missed my plane since there were no payphones in sight. That is when the agent told me that I would get a flight the next day as all flights to Kolkata for that day were full. There were four other passengers sharing my predicament. All five of us demanded an explanation for this ridiculous proposal. The Jet Airways agent explained he was doing us a favour by giving us the flight the next day, since it was really Etihad Airways’ fault that we had missed the plane. So we caught the Etihad Airways guy and asked him about alternate arrangements. He looked at our tickets and said it was a Jet Airways trip, so it wasn’t his responsibility. This went on for some time, while tempers rose slowly. I suggested they should be providing us with hotel accommodation if we were made to wait till the next day. The Jet Airways guy refused, but eventually the Etihad Airways guy agreed to do that.

As an aside, I think I should mention how the Jet Airways agents work. There is one counter to serve a huge queue of transfer passengers, and one agent sits there with a computer to handle all requests. Four other agents walk around looking busy, but do nothing other than distracting the agent at the counter from time to time. When the passengers get impatient and tell them to hurry or bring more agents to the task, the rest of the agents come and stand behind the guy at the computer, staring intently at his monitor. Any further requests to hurry are met with, “All of us are busy working here. We are trying our best, what else can we do?” Naturally, from the time we had arrived at the desk, about an hour had passed before we were promised hotel rooms and flights the following day. The only problem was, this was an unacceptable solution as far as I was concerned. Let me explain.

The day was December 7. Although my own wedding was on the 12th, I had arrived a few days early to attend my cousin’s wedding which was on the evening of the 7th. Besides, I had to go for the biometric collection part of the US visa interview the next day, the 8th, and my visa interview was on the 9th. So flying to Kolkata the next day would not only mean that I would miss my cousin’s wedding after travelling 11,000 miles and wasting a day of leave for it, it would also mean I would probably miss my visa interview and then get into complications that I couldn’t even begin to think about.

I asked the agent if there were some other options that day, like flying via a third city. It was evident from the guy’s reaction that he hadn’t thought of that idea, and he started searching on his computer. Finally, he smiled. “There’s a flight to Kolkata at 7:40 this evening, Sir!” he said, “I’ll put you on it.” It is a mystery why he had not found that flight before.

I considered the situation. Going that evening would save the visa interview, but the wedding was a lost cause. Besides, since my father and other family members would be attending the wedding, they would not be able to pick me up from the airport (or miss the wedding to pick me up). “Will I get a refund if I don’t take that flight?” I asked. “No Sir, you don’t get a refund for cancelling one leg of a journey.” He said. I told him to book me a seat on that flight and walked away. I had decided my course of action.

I walked to the Indigo Airlines counter and asked if they had a flight to Kolkata that morning. The agent said there was a flight in a couple of hours, but there were only two seats left on it and he could not book them. I would need to go to the domestic terminal to book the flight. I ran out with my suitcases and caught a taxi to the domestic terminal. Fortunately, when I reached the Indigo counter there, the seats were still available. A seat on the flight to Kolkata cost me Rs. 16,000. Then I had to shell out an additional Rs. 7,000 for excess baggage since only one check-in bag of 16 kg was allowed on the flight and I was carrying two of 23 kg each. Finally, after checking my bags, I could find a payphone to call home and inform about my plans. I had to run to board the plane soon afterwards, but I made it. Eventually I reached home after 2:00 pm and had to leave for the wedding at 4:30. But I could make it, albeit after spending a good deal of money from my pocket.

In this whole episode, is there anything that I could have done differently? I could have chosen a different airline, of course, and in hindsight it was a mistake to choose Jet. But once I reached Mumbai on the delayed flight, it really did not make sense to skip my cousin’s wedding and my visa interview just because some idiot didn’t want to cooperate with me. And to be honest, it was probably not the idiot’s fault to begin with, it was his company policy, and the farther one stays from such a company, the better. So I preferred to shell out the extra money to travel by another airline. My only consolation is, there was probably an empty seat in a Jet airways flight that evening at 7:40, for which they could have made an extra Rs. 16,000 or so had I cancelled my booking, but could not.

So there’s a reason why I always think of the worst case scenario. It usually happens to me. I will never fly by Jet Airways again if I can help it, but considering my luck, probably I’ll have trouble with some other airline the next time.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Change of Status

I started this blog in 2006 as an antidote to boredom when I was sitting idle on the "bench" at my first job in Hyderabad. Since then, I have written about all sorts of topics under the sun, from movie reviews to reminiscences, from travelogues to frustrated rants, from recipes for making mummies to translations of Bengali poems. However, this blog has strangely fallen silent for many of the biggest events in my life, such as my preparing for GRE and getting admission in PhD in 2008, my getting robbed on the street in 2009 and 2010, my PhD funding stopping in 2012 and my near disastrous car accident in August this year. Some of these events were good, while most were bad, but all had something in common - I did not want to tell the world about it when it was happening. I am somewhat of an introvert and shy away from discussing my present private life too much on this blog. In some cases, the matter had to be kept a secret from certain people - my employers in case of the PhD admission, my parents in case of the robberies - and were later written about here when the need for secrecy disappeared. Besides, a series of unfortunate incidents has made me a perpetual pessimist and somewhat superstitious. I believe if I talk about it too much beforehand, it may not work out in the end.

That situation has arisen again. I have not been updating my readers with events going on in my private life for quite some time now, writing on a variety of nonsense such as fall foliage and movie reviews while most of my time and my thought has been occupied by only one thing - preparations for an impending event that could prove to be the biggest life changer for me, and also for somebody else. But this time, I have decided to announce it here before it happens, so here it goes.

I'm getting married tomorrow, and although I started by comparing it with my getting robbed on the street, I really hope it will be a much better experience.

The start of my journey at Washington Dulles airport on Friday.

So I landed in Kolkata on the 7th of this month after a month or more of hectic shopping, packing and six months of heavy dieting, followed by a safe but unpleasantly eventful plane journey. I could write about how pathetic Jet Airways' customer service is, but I'l save that for later. For the last four days, life has been a hectic collage of attending my cousin's wedding, last minute preparations for mine, commuting to Kolkata multiple times for renewing my US visa, and playing with my seven month old niece while battling severe jet-lag. And by the looks of it, the next few days will only be busier.

Hopefully, when I write the next post on this blog, I will have entered a different phase of my life. Or, as they say on Facebook, my "relationship status" will have changed. Till then, goodbye!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Of Time and Its Chronicler

Busy as I've been, I still found the time to see two movies last week. The two are of absolutely different genres, one being a sci-fi thriller and the other a biopic. Yet, there was a common thread connecting the two movies.

The first one was Interstellar. Christopher Nolan's movies often tax the viewers' comprehension abilities, and Interstellar was no exception. While many movies have fantasized about interstellar travel and visiting alien planets, there are hardly any that have approached the subject in such a scientifically accurate manner. Black holes, wormholes, time dilation, gravity waves - these are concepts which boggle the mind even in their unadulterated form. Add a little creative license and the result becomes truly remarkable.

I do not want to talk too much about the plot of movie here since it is easy to give away spoilers, and it would be a shame to do that. The movie reminded me of several movies, but primarily of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rotating spaceships a lot of other things refer to that movie. Interstellar also reminded me of WALL-E and the book Rendezvous with Rama. As a matter of fact, Interstellar is almost an unintentional prequel to WALL-E. The robots of Interstellar were very lovable too, though they were not like WALL-E. They reminded me more of Marvin from The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. With the lovely music by Hans Zimmer and some never-before seen scientifically accurate visuals of a black hole and a wormhole, the movie is a very out of this world experience, although one might need to do a little homework in order to understand it fully.

One of the concepts presented in Interstellar is that of time dilation. Time runs slowly for astronauts close to the event horizon of a black hole and they age more slowly than their friends and relatives on earth. This was somewhat difficult to digest for a lot of people, as was the idea of dimensions more than four. I, however, was aware of such things since my school days and I understood most of the movie. I may sound arrogant when I say this, but actually knowing these concepts was not my credit at all. I read a couple of excellent books on these subjects which made me knowledgeable. The first of these was the book "A Brief History of Time." This book has shaped many of my ideas about the universe, and strangely, much of my idea about God as well. The second movie that I saw this week was about the life of the author of this book.

Most people accept Stephen Hawking as the greatest physicist of our era. He was diagnosed with an extremely rare motor neuron disease when he was a student. The doctors said he had only two years to live. Yet, Hawking mysteriously went on living well beyond those two years, married and had children, besides telling us much of what we know about the universe and authoring one of the most-sold books in history. Today, the 72-year old wheelchair-ridden Hawking who speaks with a speech synthesizer is a familiar face across the world. The movie "The Theory of Everything" tells the story of how a normal college student became the Hawking of today. It tells the story of the day-to-day struggles of a young Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. It tells the story of one of the most brilliant brains on the planet struggling to break free of the most unfortunate imprisonment of its body.


The Theory of Everything is an extremely well-made film. The casting choice is phenomenal: Eddie Redmayne does not look like Hawking, he is Hawking. His portrayal of the famous scientist's physical disabilities, his slurred speech, his strained movements is so realistic that it is painful to watch at times. Felicity Jones is adorable as Jane Hawking as well. This movie also has a beautiful theme music, though not as intricate and exotic as that of Interstellar.

And then there is time itself, as one of the characters of the movie, the same time that holds the story of Interstellar together. Both the movies are a race against time. In one the human race struggles to survive while time runs out for them, and in the other it's more of a struggle for one man while time claims yet one more of his normal bodily functions. It is not a race that can eventually be won, of course, but can time be temporarily held at bay? Watch the movies to find out.

I recommend both of them, but if you decide to watch just one, then go for The Theory of Everything. It may then interest you enough about time so that you change your mind about watching the other.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

Fall in Virginia

As I wrote a long time ago during my first fall in the USA, no amount of preparedness can take away the surprise of experiencing an American fall first hand. I must clarify of course, in case it is not already clear, that I am talking of the season fall, and not the act of falling down upon black ice, although that also takes you by surprise in spite of all preparedness.

Fall foliage in Chantilly, Virginia where I go for grocery shopping

Last October, I had moved to Fairfax, Virginia to start my post-doctoral job. Naturally the second half of October and the first half of November was spent in a frenzy of activity related to packing, moving and unpacking my stuff and I hardly had time to really see what fall looked like in Virginia. This year, when I got that chance, I finally realized that if fall in New Jersey was breathtaking, fall in Virginia is beyond all adjectives. And I am not even talking about the national parks and rural areas. Both Falls Church, the city where I live, and Fairfax, the city where I work, showed spectacular fall colours along with all neighbouring urban regions that I happened to visit during the last month.


Fall foliage in downtown Fairfax

Fall foliage inside my apartment complex

So this year, I photographed fall colours at all these places to my heart's content. I even parked my car in downtown Fairfax while going to work and photographed the trees there which I see everyday on my route. Apart from that, in keeping with the spirit of the season, I put up coloured lights on my balcony before Diwali and left them until Halloween. I bought a pumpkin and carved it to make the face of the King of Ghosts from Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen as a jack-o-lantern. I also bought chocolates in case some occasional trick-or-treaters decided to come knocking (which they did).





Now fall is almost gone. The trees are gradually turning a golden brown and the roads are covered with dry rustling leaves rather than the bright red carpet of a few weeks ago. The temperature is reaching for the freezing point and the wind is making sure that fall lives up to its name. I threw away my rotting jack-o-lantern and took off the lights from the balcony. Daylight saving time ended this weekend, which means the evenings will now be intolerably long. There was a time when I loved winter and waited for it all year long. Now, however, winter seems bleak and depressing and I feel like quoting Robert Frost and say:

Fall foliage inside my apartment complex
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!

October is already over, but the last few snow-free and occasionally warm days of this year are still left. Then it would be time for winter, and when the world outside turns white, I would be left looking longingly at the warm colours of fall in these photographs until the arrival of spring.


The view from my balcony


Fall foliage inside my apartment complex

Fall foliage in downtown Fairfax

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