Monday, September 25, 2006

Am I losing my sanity?

Am I seeing things?

It was expected that I would be tired after working throughout Saturday and Sunday from morning to night. But this much? Is this the beginning of madness? What happened to the rat?

Let me clarify a bit.

Yesterday morning, I noticed something in one of the windows of my flat overlooking the balcony. It was something stuck in the very corner of the window frame, just next to the net. It was outside the net, and so it was not clearly visible from inside.

My first reaction was to turn away. I thought it must be a cleaning cloth put there by the maid. I was getting late for office. But it started gnawing at the back of my mind... the shape of that thing seemed vaguely familiar. Finally curiosity got the better of me. I went out on the balcony to look at it from the other side.

It was a large rat. A large brown hairy rat. I couldn’t see its face as it was facing the corner. It seemed lifeless. There was a bald patch near its head which made me think that it was already decomposing. I had never seen such a large rat from so close before.

I went back inside and prodded it from the inside through the net. It didn’t move. I came out again and started thinking about the next course of action. Who will remove it? I thought if I should pick it up by the tail and throw it away, but I kept aside that idea as the last resort. I took my nose close to the rat and sniffed (Yes! I actually did that). I did not smell a rat. That meant it was still fresh. Probably the watchman wouldn’t disagree to throw it away for me. Besides, I was getting late. On a holiday probably, I would have taken a photo of that rat (now I wish I had). But yesterday I didn’t have time for that, so I got ready for office. While leaving, I went to look for the watchman. He and his whole family had vanished without a trace. I waited a little for them, and then left for office.

When I came back in the night, before I went up to my flat, I had to explain to the watchman’s family what I required. The watchman was absent, and I had a tough time explaining to his family about the dead rat. These people can speak and understand Hindi perfectly when they are discussing something about their salary. At all other times, they speak only Telugu and understand little else. After much explanation, they understood. They thought it was very funny, and assured me that the rat would be removed this morning.

When I came up to my flat, I peeked at the window again. And lo! The rat had vanished! I looked carefully all around. Not even a single hair remained to assure me that it had existed before. The position of the rat was such that it is not probable that a crow came and took it away. Then? Was it a figment of my imagination? Too much of finding bugs at work makes me find bugs (okay, a rat is not a bug, but it’s a pest anyway) at home too? Or was it just a lazy rat with a sleeping habit like Kumbhakarna? I wish I knew.

There are other strange things happening too, like when I woke up this morning, my spectacles were lying on the floor mat. I keep them beside my pillow when I sleep, on the side opposite to the floor. But I must think of one problem at a time.

So I must solve the mystery of the missing mouse first.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Revisiting Hyderabad

Exactly one year has passed since the day when I came to this city. I stayed here all the time except for a few brief visits here and there. So why this "revisiting" thing? Actually my sister visited me in Hyderabad this week, and I traveled with her all over the city again. My one year’s worth of sightseeing (and more) condensed into four days. I even saw things which I had not seen before. Since we IT professionals here live mostly in a shell, working throughout the week and too tired to go out if we have no work on weekends, it seemed as if I was living in a separate world within Hyderabad. A world where we only know about software and coding and testing and projects. It was nice to visit the other Hyderabad for these four days.

And we saw a lot. I took my sister to Hussain Sagar, to the multimedia laser show in Lumbini Park, to Salar Jung and Charminar. When I had visited Salar Jung the first time, one year ago, I had formed this desire of revisiting it with my art-loving sister. Finally it was fulfilled. The laser show was something that I too saw for the first time. It was a nice new experience. We visited Birla Mandir in the afternoon, when the stone floor felt like an enormous frying pan to our bare feet. It was a memorable experience no doubt, but one that I would rather not have again. We visited Hitec City, which is very close to my apartment. We also saw Superman Returns in IMAX 3D. This was the first time that I saw a (partly) 3D movie in the IMAX. While the movie as a whole was not really up to my expectations, the special effects and the 3D scenes were good enough. After that we strolled along the necklace road, while munching on roasted maize and looking at distant lightning over the lake.

But the best part of our sightseeing was the visit to Golkonda fort on the last day. I had visited Golkonda once before, but did not have the time to climb all the way to the top. This time we went right up to the Baradari, 373 stone steps above the ground. The view of the city and the setting sun from the top was more than worth the climb. Then we spent an hour in the glorious past of Golkonda by watching the sound and light show before returning home.

These four days were remarkable, for although we were traveling from morning to night (and much of the time on foot), instead of getting tired I got wonderfully refreshed. And along with that, I rediscovered Hyderabad. I found that Hyderabad is not all Cyberabad. There is a part of the city that lies quite oblivious to the IT boom. There is the 440 year old Hussain Sagar, calm and serene as the Buddha statue in its middle. There is the Salar Jung, with its timeless treasures. There is the Charminar and the bangle market under it, exactly like that from times immemorial. And then there is Golkonda, where time has stopped moving long ago. We only need to open our eyes and see. We only need to spend some time to understand our history.

In the last one year, I went to Mumbai and Pune, just for traveling. But after this “revisit” to Hyderabad, I realized that I have much to see here. To quote Rabindranath Tagore:

Bohu din dhore, bohu krosh dure,
bohu byay kori, bohu desh ghure,
Dekhite giyachhi parbotmala, dekhite giyachhi sindhu,
Dekha hoy nai chokkhu meliya,
Ghar hote shudhu dui pa feliya,
Ekti dhaner shisher upore ekti shishir bindu.

Which can be roughly translated as:

I traveled miles, for many a year,
I spent a lot in lands afar,
I’ve gone to see the mountains, the oceans I’ve been to view.
But I haven’t seen with these eyes
Just two steps from my home lies
On a sheaf of paddy grain, a glistening drop of dew.

I’m not going to leave Hyderabad before I’m done with all the dewdrops around this place. There’s lot more to see. I have wasted the last one year, but I’ll not waste the next.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Defining "Silly"

I have been tagged by Anyesha to post a silly picture of myself on my blog. Since my sister is visiting me for a few days and I don't have time to post a proper write-up, I thought of doing the tag now.
The tag, however, posed a problem. Which photo to choose? Just like Anyesha said, I also have enough silly photos to fill an album. So I started sorting them, and tried to redefine the word 'silly'. Some of my silly photos were taken at such a young age that they lie on the border between 'silly' and 'cute'. Besides, if I am made to dress like a bride when I hardly have a say in the matter, you can't really call it silly. There were some others that look silly only because the context is known to me. Otherwise they are pretty ordinary.
After going through all the photos on my hard disk, I'm sure that this one takes the cake. Although this was taken when I was about five, as far as I remember, it was taken on my insistence.
The occasion was my sister's Annaprashan (first rice eating ceremony). The flower ornaments were the ones that she had worn during the ceremony. The flute was a toy flute that I had. I don't remember what prompted my insistence that I wear them, but I have a strong suspicion that it was Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan. I really don't know what is more silly; the ornaments on me, or the fact that I'm wearing a T-shirt and shorts while posing as Krishna.

Just in case you don't agree to my choice, here's another silly picture, a recent one that finished close second. This was taken on the day of the reception of my cousin sister's wedding this June. Wearing a dhuti is obviously not my everyday cup of tea, but still, I was too eager to get a photo clicked with my uncle's labrador Stella so that I could brag about my courage. Although Stella is actually a large pup and basically harmless, she has a habit of snapping at things within her reach. So I was too worried about her tugging at my dhuti. The expression on my face says the rest (click on image to enlarge).
This was the first tag that I did since I started blogging, and it seemed like fun. I now pass this funny tag on to Abhijit, Shreemoyee and Rohit.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Death comes as the end

Today, a day that was otherwise ordinary ended with two pieces of sad news, the news of two deaths. Two deaths that were very different in their nature. Two people, who couldn’t be more different, died. One died in my family, the other one half a world away. Both deaths made me sad, but in different ways.

One was my grandmother. Well, technically not exactly my grandmother but my father’s aunt: a relative whom the English-speaking people, who know nothing of the relationships that we have in Indian joint families, would prefer to call a great aunt. However, here in India we often don’t differentiate between cousins and siblings or between uncles, aunts and parents. So she was my grandma.

Phulthamu (that’s what I called her) was the simplest person I’ve ever met, with childlike innocence. There are so many memories that I’ll forever associate with her. Like the Chandmama magazine that she regularly read. That magazine surely seems funny and outdated in this age of Pottermania, but there was a time I used to breathlessly finish any issue I could lay my hands on. And I could always find one by her bedside. She even carried these magazines whenever she traveled by train, and distributed them among us to read on the journey. Similarly I can never forget her deeds and comments that we often joked about, which were not really that silly after all. For instance, I still remember the time when we drank half a bottle of 7’Up and left the bottle on the table. Phulthamu, in her working spree, filled the rest up with water and put it into the fridge. Now any one of us would probably have done the same thing absent mindedly, especially since 7’Up looks like water, but everyone scolded her for being silly. Another time when she saw me with my earphones for the first time, she had asked me whether I needed hearing-aid for both ears. We laughed about that innocent comment for ages, but I now I feel it wasn’t that stupid coming from a person who had never seen earphones in her life.

She was old and sick and was suffering for quite some time. She died at her home, on her bed. It was the end of an era. We are going to miss her a lot.

The other person was Steve Irwin, better known as The Crocodile Hunter. He died this morning in a sting ray attack off the coast of Australia while filming a documentary on dangerous marine life for a show hosted by his daughter. I got the news of his death only in the evening.

Was I a die-hard Crocodile Hunter fan? Not at all. I hardly watched any TV. However, whoever has seen a single show hosted by this amazing man will always remember him. He used to catch hold of every kind of creatures with bare hands, kiss ugly lizards and call them his “Little friends”, and do all kinds of unimaginable things. Once, in a TV show, I saw him chase a wild boar through a marshland and finally catch it barehanded in water. And then there were the crocodiles, of course. He handled these huge ferocious wild reptiles as dexterously as a mongoose plays with a snake.

When we had to remember the names of the seven layers in computer network architecture during my college days, we used to say “Please do not touch Steve’s pet alligators” (the first letters of the words in the sentence make up the names of the layers in proper order: physical, data link, network, transport, session, presentation, application). I don’t know who made that up, but every time I said that funny sentence, Steve Irwin’s face came to my mind.

I used to say he’ll die like this one day, playing with dangerous animals. The sting ray stung him right in the heart. He must have died an instantaneous, painless death doing what he liked doing most. The news is stunning and sad because that man was so active, so alive.

Rest in peace Steve, we will never forget you.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

...and I always thought I studied science!

I have been reading Richard Feynman's autobiography for some time, and today I came across a chapter which I simply must write about, because I feel it is about me, and millions of other students in our country.

A few excerpts from the book itself will make it clear. Feynman was visiting Brazil to teach at a university in Rio de Janeiro. He was teaching Physics students who were going to become teachers. He says:

Later I attended a lecture at the engineering school. The lecture went like this, translated into English: "Two bodies . . . are considered equivalent . . . if equal torques . . . will produce . . . equal acceleration. Two bodies, are considered equivalent, if equal torques, will produce equal acceleration." The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the professor was talking about objects with the same moment of inertia, and it was hard to figure out.

I didn't see how they were going to learn anything from that. Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near the hinge--nothing!

After the lecture, I talked to a student: "You take all those notes--what do you do with them?"

"Oh, we study them," he says. "We'll have an exam."

"What will the exam be like?"

"Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions." He looks at his notebook and says, “‘When are two bodies equivalent?' And the answer is, 'Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.' So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and "learn" all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.

And again:

One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: "If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, 'What are you wasting our time for in the class? We're trying to learn something. And you're stopping him by asking a question'."

It was a kind of one-upmanship, where nobody knows what's going on, and they'd put the other one down as if they did know. They all fake that they know, and if one student admits for a moment that something is confusing by asking a question, the others take a high-handed attitude, acting as if it's not confusing at all, telling him that he's wasting their time.

Isn’t this the exact scenario in Indian schools and colleges? Everybody wants to pass the exams, nobody wants to know. Getting marks is more important than gaining knowledge. And we think we are progressing? Our educational institutes are doing a great job? Why does a nation with over a billion people have to think before coming up with names of five world famous Indian scientists then? Here’s what Feynman said about Brazil in his speech at the end of his stay there:

So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it's amazing you don't find many physicists in Brazil--why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.

Then I held up the elementary physics textbook they were using…and started to read: "Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..

I said, "And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature-what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can't.

"But if, instead, you were to write, 'When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called "triboluminescence."' Then someone will go home and try it. Then there's an experience of nature."

I haven’t read a more accurate description of our education system than this.

I have often faced a situation during my school or college days where I have asked for a concrete example for the phenomenon that the professor was explaining, and I was told not to bother about examples but to learn up the things that were taught. If someone asked a question in the class, the others scolded him for that. How can we expect to achieve anything significant in science if we have an attitude like this? I know, there are na├»ve people around who will jump up on reading this post and try to make me memorise (that’s the only way of understanding they know) that things have changed, India is progressing; Indian scientists are doing great work, not only outside India but here as well. But unfortunately the truth is, nothing has changed yet. We are opening new schools, colleges and universities everyday, but we don’t care about the quality of teaching. There are scientists who are doing a great job, but they are doing it in spite of the system and not because of it.

When we are in a rat race, we are rats even if we win. I am an office rat now. Who has time to think about all this nonsense anyway? I myself will be executing memorised algorithms again tomorrow. Who has time for useless questions like “Why”? Even if I ask I’ll be told that it is “outside the scope” of my work.

Only problem is, I always thought I was a science student in school and college. Feynman made me see my mistake. Like he said, “No science is being taught in Brazil!” I can also safely conclude “No science is being taught in India!” As an Indian, I find that a fairly disturbing idea.