Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Beggar Man

The Story of the Post: This poem was written in 1991. I used to argue with my English teacher that when some people could set their reason to rhyme, there was no need to use the term "poetry" for words without rhyme. Then one day, I saw this really old man sitting on the road side and I wrote this. I meant to write this as a prose piece, but realized it was more poetry than prose. I ate crow.

The Beggar Man

The dusty road meandered
Past old worn out, dried trees.
The empty tin can rattled;
The only coin in it seeking company,
Like any other lost soul.
Lost, in the darkness of a void.
A void unfathomable and frightening.

A pair of feet passed by.
He sat there, still,
Very still;
The wizened old man.
The pain dulled eyes
Stared unseeingly into the
Little clouds of dust raised by feet.
Feet scurrying to and from God knows where!

The tin can picked up courage
And voiced its complaint.
Still more feet.
Denser cloud.

The courage turned to boldness.
A louder protest issued forth
from the very bottom of its being.
The listless eyes in the wrinkled face,
focused with difficulty on the legs.
Legs busy.
Legs uncaring.
Legs unfeeling.

The can now pleaded.
Pleaded piteously.
The man's voice reinforced the plea.
Not with a word,
Not with a cry -
a mere, almost inaudible grunt.
Old worn out hands
shaded the now pleading eyes,
as the upturned face caught the full
wrath of the morning sun.

Feet. More feet.
Now rushing, almost at a run.
One trod on his stick.
From somewhere above came a
hurriedly flung apology that
was lost in the crowd's hurry
and the man's senile reflex.

The tin cried now. Openly.
Feet flew past.
Clouds thickened.
The eyes blinked.
And then it all subsided.
The final cry, waning slowly
into a small "clink".
The clouds settled.
No more feet.
A whimper from the disappointed throat.
The eyes again unfocused.

The dusty road meandered
past old, worn out,
exhausted trees.

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Monday, 7 May 2007

How I Became a.. Part II

(Contd. from How I Became a Family Woman Part I)

WM... I think I would rather use the acronym WaMu from now on.. So, WaMu's shyness lasted about 24 hours. The next day, I spied a rather overly large orange head and a tiny body peek out from one of the furniture in the family room -- which was decidedly NOT where we had left him the previous night. So, we dutifully ignored him and tried to act as nonchalant as possible about kitty cuddles' forays into the world of man (and woman) and proceeded to tip-toe about the house, doing the things we had to do. Soon enough DH turned the TV on, as is his wont (I mean what did you expect, he is a guy after all!! ;)) and the sudden noise from the TV sent WaMu flying vertically about 2 feet. Once back on terra firma he made his eyes rounder and wider than his whole body (or so it seemed to us) and stared at us, dead in his tracks.
Look I have round eyes!

Then he realized that the noise was not coming from our direction and quickly turned around and stared at the TV. He sniffed mightily into the air in front of him, still dead in his tracks. I suppose he did not detect anything through his nose and so he stared at the TV for a while. If he were Midas, the TV would have turned gold! Well, he wasn't... so nothing happened to the TV. After that one incident, he pretty much combed, nay, vacuumed every inch of the house with two, full grown, fascinated human adults in tow!! Once he had satisfied himself that no other nasty surprises were in store for him, he promptly started to play.

Everything, but everything was a toy to him -- something to be pounced at, attacked, chased, nibbled at or batted around! The list was endless and included dangling bits of stream, pieces of dust balls under some futon, in some corner of some room (you could hear him sneeze!), skirts, curtains, casually tossed clothes, swaying palloo's of sarees! Everything.
I stalk my prey

Then I pounce on it

Then I kill it!

One of his favourite tricks was to climb on to DH's chair and get in between DH's back and the chair. Once there he would not sit still, he would constantly re-adjust himself until he found himself in the most uncomfortable position - on his back, with all four paws sticking up in the air, body twisted between DH and the chair back!

Hmm.. I need to adjust a little!

Then he would pause to assess the situation and strategize and then, all on a sudden, as if he had hit upon the most brilliant military manoeuvre, he would begin kicking and scarping and twisting frenzy-- all in an attempt to get himself out of this position. He always managed to free himself -- always to the accompaniment of an almighty scream and jump on the part of DH. He would entertain himself in this manner most of the day until he settled down for a nap on DH's shoulder at about 7:00pm.
This is how you should sleep after a good day's work!

This very welcome nap would last all of three hours. At 10:00pm, he would wake promptly and stretch himself carefully. And then, he would burst into activity. We could hear him galloping in the house way into the night.

He had to be on the other side of every closed door and figured how to do just that, if the door was not locked!!! He loved to hide behind furniture and wait for us to get into the room and attack our feet when we did get in! He responded to his name and would come when called. Even when he was deep in sleep. Of course, it would take him longer then and when he noticed that we did not notice his arrival, he would walk up in front of us with a sleepy "why did you call me and now that I am here why are you ignoring me? You really need to work on that nose and ears of yours!" expression on his face. Since he was responding to his name, he decided that it was time to give us our own unique name -- which sounded a lot like "help! a cat in distress" when we first heard it. He would call us with this "nickname" and when we went to see what he was up to, one mass of orange fur with some prickly little thorns would land on our feet from nowhere! We realized that WaMu needed to learn a lesson and the only thing that could teach him a lesson, would be something with a lot of fur and some prickly little thorns as well.

So off we went to the shelter again in exactly one month after WaMu's arrival. This time we walked rather swiftly around and was looking at some cats when I felt a tug at the pen I was holding in my hand to fill in the application form. I turned around to see what was snagging my pen when I saw a white tipped orange paw poking out of the cage door directly behind my head which was doing all the tugging! A more careful look into the cage showed another cat that was sitting miserably in the corner by herself and the orange and white one had one foot on her back, one foot in her water dish (which he had toppled over, when he had walked over from his side of the cage to grab the pen!) and both front paws clutching my pen. There was nothing to think at that point -- this was going to be kitty cuddles number two. He had no name and was just labeled as a stray. He and his sister were sharing a cage, I was too nervous to ask DH if it would be ok to adopt her as well. You see, it took a lot of convincing on my part to get him to agree to another animal in the house!

We filled out the papers for the new arrival and brought him home. As responsible pet owners we decided to follow all the instructions from the shelter. So, we put the new one in a room far away from the little room where WaMu's restroom was. Every morning we confined WaMu for a couple of hours in his "restroom" and tip-toed across the house to the "other room" to feed and bond with the new one. Every evening, when we got back from work we would again go through the same motions, except that now we would steal a couple of toys from WaMu and leave it the new one's room and vice versa. As per the instructions from the shelter, this was supposed to last for a week. It lasted for three days. On the third day, when we were bringing breakfast to newbie, the door behind me opened every so slightly and a very curious, very tiny orange thing squeezed through it. The expression on WaMu was "hello.. can I please join in this thing you do every morning?". After a moment of stunned silence, there was an eruption of argument between us as to who did not shut which door tight and what a catastrophe this all was going to be. When the elements of the so called top of the evolution chain paused for breath, we saw that a different kind of argument was going on right at our feet. There was a tortured sounding, long drawn cry from newbie who was extremely shocked and surprised to see another kitten in the room and he was doing all he could to threaten WaMu with his fluffed up fur and hissing and spitting.

We were open-jawed in our astonished, for, in all my dealings with cats, I had never witnessed this behaviour. We had never heard a cry that was simultaneously so mournful and angry. All three of us turned to look at the response this elicited from WaMu. The response was even more interesting than the first. WaMu merely rolled himself into a tiny ball, averted his eyes from the scared cat and mewed in the most pleasant voice I had ever heard him use. This was immediately greeted with much spitting and hissing from newbie. When newbie calmed down again, WaMu would again extend his olive branch. This went on until newbie stopped the spitting, but was still doing a lot of other vocalization. Encouraged by the new development, WaMu would edge a little closer to newbie and mew again. This time he got whacked on the head on top of being sweared at! This he took so calmly that the human parents could not but swell up their chest in pride and think "Oh my little boy has become a man!!" This back and forthing went on for a good many hours, with each iteration promising a quick convergence. Finally all the noise subsided a sort of uneasy truce was established. Uneasy for newbie, but seemingly perfectly fine for WaMu. Sometime that night we were woken up by a lot of noise, sounding a lot like a couple of horses on the loose. I stared for a moment into the night trying to understand what that was. Then it dawned on me and I fell back asleep with a smile.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

How I became a Family Woman -- Part I

I had just finished an intense week or two (cannot remember exactly-- it was long ago) of brain-frying proposal writing and had just pushed the "release to SRO" button on NSF's on-line proposal submission system at the last possible moment, when the adrenaline crash started. Along with the draining of the adrenaline from the system, my mind wandered to more "mundane" things like food, water and other basic necessities of life. As I gorged on some store bought fare, I took to thinking about the life I lived. "What", I questioned myself, "is the matter with you?" (when questioning myself in private, I always talk to myself like I were someone else!). "What is this life you are leading? Why is your brain feeling like it could do with a thorough dousing in ice cold water?" And then, just as suddenly, the answer hit me like a ton of bricks. "Animals! That's it! Animals." Ever since I moved out of India I had not heard the pitter patter of tiny feline paws and was starved for selfless affection (yeah, yeah, I know about the survival of the fittest and all that good stuff!) from feline furries. As was my custom ever since my sister moved to the US, I called her up immediately to discuss the epiphany. She, of course, readily saw the logic in my argument, that the only way to alleviate all my work woes was to bring home a tiny bundle of joy. In the next 30 minutes we had worked each other up into a frenzy, to the point that I had to go and adopt a kitty-cuddles immediately. I looked in the Web and within a few minutes discovered the presence of the SPCA near home.

All was going according to plan, when it came to an unexpected, jolting halt. Adoption was not open at this time of the day! I would have to wait a whole day before I could put my plan to action.

I finally brought myself to steady state and waited until my husband got home to give him the great news, "honey, we are going to have a family!"Well, Honey came, Honey heard, but surprisingly, Honey was not conquered!
Not going according to plan.
So, the next few hours was spent convincing a VERY reluctant Honey that I am willing, able and ready to take care of said kitty-cuddles. After all, I explained patiently to the rather animal-uninitiated-Honey, that I have had numerous, just numerous, cats in my life. In fact, I had cats deliver clutches of kittens in my bookcase on a very regular basis. (In fact, for some reason, they seemed to prefer my history textbook!). Finally, I dragged Honey, kicking and screaming, to the local SPCA and looked for kitties. Every kitty I saw there seemed in extreme need of a home. I swallowed the impulse to do a "girl-who-asked-for-more" act and concentrated on locating just one. We moved through the area twice and nearly missed the-one-who-would-become mine.
I was about to pass by a crate that had 3 or four kittens when I noticed a little girl next to me pointing at something in the center of the cage. I bent down and saw a most forlorn, quiet, thoughtful looking orange and white kitty. Now, in my experiences with kittens, I had realized that the orange ones tended to be more active and interesting. So, I filled out an application for that kitten and turned it in to one of the people assisting with the adoptions. A few minutes later she came back saying the little girl was interested in the cat and so could I pick another one? I was just making up my mind about one of the other cats, when the lady came back and said that the little girl was unable to adopt at this time, since the family was living in a place where they did not allow pets!

So, Mr. Walrus Moustache (not original name!) came home with me, still recovering from some upper respiratory infection. Honey and I decided to let him out of his little cardboard box in one of the smallest rooms in the house and dutifully showed him where his own "rest-room" was. He took one look at it and then went under the lowest piece of furniture. And there he would stay for a whole day! Honey spent the first 3 hours after the Great Home Coming with his face plastered to the floor near the piece of furniture coochi-cooing to Mr. Walrus Moustache to come out from under the furniture! Yes, Honey. Not me! Yes, 3 hours --may be with some breaks. I have never seen Honey so focused on anything before! Aah, the joys of fatherhood!!

Monday, 9 April 2007

The Pack

My pack consists of 2 humans, 2 canines, 2.5 felines. Well, the 0.5th feline is, you macabre reader, because the 3rd feline chooses only to half-belong to us, NOT because he is only half cat or in anyway disabled.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Babel: A Review

I recently watched the movie Babel which was nominated for a slew of Oscars including the best supporting actress for two people in the movie as well as the best picture. I think it won for music. I cannot say that I noticed the music much, but the technique and the story was really good as was the acting all round. The story involved people in four countries and three continents. In the way it was interwoven, it seemed a lot like Crash, the winner of 2006 Oscar for the best picture.

A two and a half hour long film, that I did not realize was this long! The story is original and all deal with a breakdown of communication between people -- for some reason or the other. The tag line of the movie says it all: "If You Want to be Understood...Listen". The movie is not so much about any one person per se and so no one is a star of this movie. The only thing that we wish when the movie ends, is that the some of the loose ends had been tied up better. The Japanese angle in the story was not very well developed, I thought. It was only loosely connected with everything else. Still, a very well directed, acted, thought out movie.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Cliff-Hanging Academician

Who says academics lead a boring life?

For years I used to wonder why I did not choose a more interesting profession, say acting or reporting etc. Then I used to imagine how it would be if every time I wrote a paper I would have to face a camera. Every mistake would be documented. Every time I wrote something that did not sound right, I would have to yell at myself "CUT!!" before I went ahead and changed the wording. Then I realized that it was just as well that I did not have to be in the public eye every time I worked!

However, every time you have a grant, your granting agency comes to visit you and you get to present all that wonderful stuff that you and your students/post-docs have accomplished. Today was one such event. This was the mid-term review of the project. It turned out that two people from the sponsoring agency (here-to-fore referred to as Sponsors) were supposed to make it to this meeting one month ago. Only one of them did. So we now get to do the show and tell all over again because both of them are able to show up today.

They could not have picked a worse day or even a worse week. This meeting comes sandwiched between a meeting with a venture capitalist (we are starting a company..) and a proposal deadline in a couple of days. So, I did not even look at the slides I had prepared for the last month's presentation. Once in the car, my husband (M, who is also my colleague, and as it happens in this particular case, also a Co-PI on this project) and I just go over some points to review our progress in the project. The meeting was supposed to start with lunch and general discussion, and then each project PI does a one on one with the sponsors and the Co-PI. The meeting starts off late, so I decide that rather than waste the time, I will work on the proposal that is due in a couple of days. M calls from his office to tell me that he will need the slides that I made last time to help him describe effectively, his part of the project. We agree that I will give him my laptop so he can do his presentation from that.

So, when the meeting did get started I walked in to the room about 5 minutes before I was scheduled to begin my presentation. I pick up some lunch (this time they actually had some good stuff and remembered that I am vegetarian). So, I was beaming with happiness as I turned on the laptop and waited patiently as it lumbered through its boot up procedure.

The speaker before me is on his 5th slide out of 7. I open the explorer and go to the folder in question and open the presentation. At least, I thought that was my presentation. Going through the presentation, I sense something odd. Midway through the presentation, I click "next" for the next slide and lo and behold "end of slide show". I realize that this was not the slide show I used last time. This was a truncated version. Perhaps a first cut? I look up -- speaker-before-me is on slide number 6/7. I frantically open each of the presentation in the folder. Down to the last one ... and.. the speaker before me says "In conclusion....". No slides! Alarm bells jangle in my mind as I carefully arrange every line, every muscle in my face to remain exactly where it was before I realized the crisis I was in. Then, I get out of the rear door. I dashed across to my office to call M to tell him " the slides are in your laptop, not mine!". He agreed to bring it down immediately.

I get back in the room, Speaker-before-me is in the question answer session. Good. So, I run up and get a show and tell piece on which I hope to demo some of my results later on. The question answer session is winding down and no M.
Q&A done. All eyes on me. I take the show and tell piece and start talking about it. Someone asks if M will be coming. Perfect chance. Yes, he will be here any minute. One of the Sponsors says he needs a small break. Couldn't be better! So, I graciously accept to go call M. I make the call, "What happened?!!!!".
M: How many times do I have to knock on your office door. Where were you?
I: Well, I was in the conference room ??!
M: The slides are not in my laptop. They must be in yours.
Deafening silence from both sides of the telephone line. I don't know what M is thinking, but I am thinking "where on Earth is that stupid slide?!"
M: Last time we sent a copy to X. See if you can get it from him.

So, I get back to the conference room and ask X. He puts it in my USB stick. I get to the projector, connect my laptop and look for the slides and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now I have to get back to pounding on my laptop for my next proposal, so that a year later I can be in a similar crisis with some other sponsors. Hopefully. The sponsors part, I mean!

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Review: A long way down

Recently I read Nick Hornby's "A long way down" upon recommendations from my sisters. They refused to tell me what the subject of the book was and no amount of prodding and/or pleading would induce them to reveal the subject of the book. I thank them for that. I think the book packs more of a punch because of that. So, I have a tough job ahead of me: to write a non-trivial review of a book without divulging its central theme. Let's see if I can do that.

Perhaps this exercise would be a good tribute to the book itself, since the author himself has not chosen an easy subject to write about. Not by a long shot. The subject is at once too private and at the same time something that society needs to think about. A subject that is too weighty that any levity must be carefully weighed before committing to paper lest it antagonizes the reader by giving the impression that the author was trivializing something so important. And yet, levity is needed since the topic is too grim without it. Nick Hornby has masterfully interwoven levity with introspection and social comment in this novel about one of the most current and yet ancient topic in society. All this, without in the least sounding very planned. Kudos!

Friday, 9 February 2007

Pump it LOUDER!

Three days every week, I work out. I don't run on the treadmill, cycle or walk, I train with weights. That is, if I don't get called to attend meetings that I can't get out of or have to travel for work. One and a half years ago, I started with a 12lb bar and two 6lb and 3lb weights for some of the other exercises . Back then, when the instructor (and presumably the rest of the class) where doing 15 or so squats per set, I managed to groan out .. oh.. say.. 7, may be? Now, I have slipped a 3lb weight on to my 12lb bar and use two 8lb and 5lb weights for most other things and can aaaaaaalmost do as many rounds of each exercise that the instructor does, while still maintaining my form. Managed to drop about 4 dress sizes and about 9lbs (if that is important -- can't say that I don't get a kick out of looking more like my earlier self). And I am happy as can be. Just the thought that I have manged to stick to something that is good for me (health wise) for so long is thrilling enough, not to mention all those endorphins that are supposedly being released during/after a workout.

I went through the first 9 months or so without breathing a word about my new obsession to anyone, with the exception of my sisters of course. They are always in on anything that I am upto. What if I jinx it and don't get to see the inside of a "class room" for the rest of my life? During this period I read a lot about eating right and different techniques and forms for exercises ( is a real good source). Then I "outed" myself to a few casual acquaintances to see if that had any effect on the tenacity of my purpose. Then, sometime last semester, I even got brave enough to mention it to my secretary at work (only because she commented on how I looked, though). And lo and behold! now I am blogging about it! (can you see the crossed fingers and toes?). Success indeed. I will be keeping an alert eye out for any signs from the cosmos that my weight training days are over.

So today, I even managed to juggle yet another meeting with The Class (like The City -- there is only one!) by cutting out (VERY grudgingly) 15 minutes of my workout time (bye bye abs!) . I think the instructor had some personal vendetta to settle with her arms today -- or may be she was just really beefing up for some special purpose. Either way, she killed the arms today. I was too preoccupied watching the time to count the sets or keep tabs on the exercises but I think we did about 20 straight rows, 5 minutes worth of flyes (that does not sound like a lot -- but you try it!!) A bunch of chest presses and what someone in class calls "skull-crushes" . Basically, you lie on your back and lift the bar up (gripping it shoulder width apart) and then, bend your elbows and bring the bar down somewhere over your forehead (depends on how long your arms are). Then some clean-up presses. The woman does not know to count in less than 10s. Some bicep curls and oh I cannot remember what else. Anyhow, my arms were mush and I had a hard time holding the shower in my hand.

For this "term", my goal is to work on my abs and hopefully lower body strength as well. I don't mean to only work my abs or lower body, but to put most of the effort there, so I can shake it out of a zone of complacency.
So, I say to myself
"Shake it, shake it, shake it girl
Make sure you don't break it, girl" and "Pump it LOUDER!!! Pump it LOUDER!!"