This blog turned eight three days ago. I didn’t feel like updating it then because I was in pain. Thanks for asking, I’m better now.
So am I excited as usual? Not really, not this time ’round. There’s not been much going on on this blog. It hasn’t been a highlight of my life this year.
This blog’s getting older; it’s just a few months older than Google Reader. They are putting down Reader on July 1. What of this blog, I wonder. Especially since most people who read this blog seem to follow it on Reader. I suppose everyone’s shifted to an alternative, or like me, given up reading stuff on RSS. Yeah, shocking isn’t it, I don’t follow blogs anymore unless I’m following the author(s) on some other social network and receive updates whenever they update their blog. It hasn’t made a difference to my life, it seems like.
This makes me realize people didn’t really need to read me here. Of course I knew all along, but at some corner of my mind wondered if people eagerly awaited my next post. But I guess getting to read my blog is probably like the free soda refill at a deli. You have enough to read, you don’t really need more, but what the heck.
It saddens me somewhat that writing and reading aren’t anymore a highlight of my life. I have newer hobbies. Reading and writing were hobbies that didn’t require much of time or money, and now I have more of both than I ever did. Which means I can afford to get fancy-shmancy yarn to knit with, I can spend hours watching and performing improv, I can get back to machine learning basics like never before, and I can actually go watch many concerts live.
And I feel less powerless than before, which means it doesn’t feel like writing is my only way to change the world. I’m also less idealistic than I was, so I don’t even try to change the world with my writing. I feel my views are less unique in this world where everyone voices their opinions on social media and it feels less and less like I have anything unique to give.
I write less as a result.
So you don’t get to hear about the Museum of Math or the Dengue Fever concert I so thoroughly enjoyed, or how gorgeous I found Cornell’s campus to be, or my experiments with hair chalk, or about the anatomy of a heartbreak, or New York during Christmas, or a neat collection of knitting patterns I have finished thus far. Or even about Eileen’s cheesecake cupcakes.
But that’s okay.
Someday soon I’ll find something that moves me so much that I’ll have to write about it. Someday soon my fulltime job will be one which agrees with my writing-mood schedule. Someday soon my threshold for ‘stuff good enough to blog about’ will be low enough to include all the things I do regularly. Someday soon I’ll not be so shy about writing fiction. Someday soon I’ll flesh out all my sketch ideas into concrete seven-minute-long sketches, get them read out and reviewed, and put them out here so that someone finds them and films them.
Or maybe I’ll move to a different blog, unconstrain myself from what I’ve made this page out to be and write more trite stuff. I don’t know.
For now, I’m rather proud of this bonny eight-year-old who sometimes throws tantrums at me, and who I cheerfully nurtured as an infant but now feel guilty for neglecting, even edging on forgetting its eighth birthday, but who manages fine being a latchkey kid. No doubt it’ll make me prouder than before. Someday soon.
In stark contrast to my disorganized life in undergrad, I find myself living a civilized, domesticated life now. I might even go so far as to call it organized, but then the world might die collectively laughing at that.
Deal is, this is kind of alien to me, to have a place for everything and keeping everything in its place. Or to have a time for work and a time for play. And a knitting basket full of so many different coloured balls of wool. Kind of feels like living someone else’s life, on occasion.
And when shreds of the past slip in, my subconscious revolts against the present. I go to a place where it feels like I’m still wanderlust from April 2008. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
Some other times, I feel out of touch with how I used to express myself. The emotions seem new. The calmness is strange, the lack of constant agitation feels strange.
I fear losing who I am, forgetting the lessons learned at the school of hard knocks, leaving all that behind for something that’ll only end up being fleeting.
I often feel the urge to create something beautiful, but feel crippled because I have forgotten how.
Things I’d taken for granted previously now feel scary. There’s little that’s familiar that I can hold on to.
And that’s why I’m here, hours before something kind of important, blogging. Because I’m scared and this feels familiar and comfortable.
I seem to cringe a lot reading old emails, old blogposts, old tweets, or looking at old photographs and videos. Everyone does, I suppose. My past self seems alien to me at some level, and embarrassing at another. It’ll be a while before that me gets the dignity of being a sepia-tinted memory I reminisce fondly about. On other occasions, I wonder where my idealistic past self has gone. Where the unbridled passion is, where the cynicism was still fresh and untainted by jadedness. Ultimately, it boils down to these things I used to do and don’t anymore.
- Watch movies: Until a year ago, my primary form of entertainment in the USA used to be watching movies. I had the pleasure of like-minded friends who’d make sure I caught every last Pixar movie, every blockbuster that came out, every thriller worth watching. Before that, there were endless hours in front of the TV at home, on World Movies or Sony Pix, watching a twisted Korean movie or a sweet Thai movie. And innumerable Kannada and Tamil movies the names of which I’ve forgotten, but the plotlines I clearly remember. I don’t do that much anymore. My aim in life has been to not plonk myself in front of a screen every evening for the past year. So yeah, I do Netflix, but it doesn’t have the randomness of TV. There isn’t anymore that wonder of a movie you have no idea about. The blind acceptance of whatever comes your way. When on watching a bad movie you don’t consider it two hours wasted. I ought to get back to doing something like that. It makes me explore things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
- Read books: My reading habit has been the worst casualty of my habit of never coming home until it’s obscenely close to bedtime. I don’t get to read on my commute because it’s rather short and involves changing trains. I don’t own a tablet, and until recently I didn’t own many books because they are a burden when you’re constantly moving house. NYPL rocks, but I haven’t really taken much advantage of it.
That said, I don’t feel the quality of my life dipping that much. There’s enough I get to read on the Internet everyday. Shorter pieces, certainly, but they are so much more current, more elegantly structured, easily digestible. You find it easier to discuss those with friends.
Of course, I do miss the sharp plotting, foreshadowing, and such storytelling techniques, as well as the long form, and my life would be much richer with these things than without. But I notice I’m not so anal about reading as I used to be before. I don’t judge people for not owning a full bookcase anymore. While I still squeal with pleasure at beautiful bookends, I don’t find myself sharing pictures of fancy bookcases and libraries anymore. All those things that came with a reading habit – good grammar, structured thinking, an air of curiosity, lots of worldly information – they now come even without a reading habit. And that’s okay.
- Read Indian English writing: This I completely don’t regret. I used to be fascinated by any and all Indian authors who wrote in English. I now realize most of them wrote tripe they themselves didn’t understand. I don’t really enjoy reading the NRI writers’ works about India. Their perspective reeks of misunderstanding and misplaced romanticizing. I haven’t felt many Indian authors have their perspective be grounded in reality. And when it is, it isn’t the sort of reality I can connect with. Either that their perspective is completely unlike mine, or they write so badly that they fail to communicate their perspective to me in a way that I can love it. They all take themselves and their Indianness too seriously for my liking. I know there are folks who have a more chilled out perspective, but they don’t write well enough for me.
I’m quite sick of arts-student type rhetoric-filled gimmickry-filled writing. I just want to read some genuine feeling, unadorned, raw, freeflowing yet somehow structured because that’s how the author’s mind works or they’ve taken the trouble to organize their thoughts. It feels fake otherwise.
Also, I’m done, done with Magic Realism and a thousand new controversies won’t get me to read Salman Rushdie again.
- Outrage: I’ll never have long discussions with people about their views on some random topic that doesn’t directly affect me again. I’ve done that enough. A good number of times on this blog. My past levels of passion on various useless topics makes me cringe a little. I don’t anymore care if someone else is wrong on the internet or in real life. It’s a serious waste of good energy that can go into a few hours’ more sleep.
- Outrage w.r.t my rightwingery: I’m still on the Indian Right, politically. What I am not however is a fan of endless foolhardiness. The BJP goes out of its way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They can’t be arsed to clean up their public image. They can’t put a spin on things such that they aren’t putting their feet in their mouths. Yes, the media is harsh on them, but that should only be an impetus to get better PR. And I’ve never agreed with them on their social conservatism. Yeah, maybe the main politicians don’t even think of social conservatism, but they don’t rein in the ones who do spout social conservatism. The endless misogyny, the slutshaming, the homophobia… I can’t stand for any of this. If there’s an alternative that’s socially progressive and gutsy fiscally and in other aspects, I’d gladly vote for them. Again, the problem is, too much rhetoric, not enough action items.
- Whine about not travelling enough: Alright I’ll come out and say it. I’m glad to finally admit to myself that I think travelling is overrated. I do like exploring new places, but I do also like quietly listening to music at home.
But there’s also Things I Wish I Did More:
- Code more
- Write more – sketches, fiction… blogging frequency’s okay.
- Read more textbooks. There’s just so much to learn, and so many basics I feel I’ve messed up on!
- Swim more, ice-skate.
- Improv more. Somehow, life happened since October and I haven’t been doing much improv. I ought to get back to it!
So many cool things. So little time. And so much goofing off waiting for me. Sigh
Like I’ll probably never tire of saying, I moved to New York City in 2012.
Among other things, I discovered that a lot of concerts happen in the area. I don’t anymore have to worry about getting back late. And it works great even if I’m by myself, thanks to the excellent public transport this city has. So I ended up watching a lot of concerts. Let’s see how that went.
- Norah Jones: Last April at Tarrytown Music Hall. I had no idea this place existed. My friend had an extra ticket and while I had only listened to two Norah Jones songs properly until then, I decided to just go. Turned out to be a test concert for her tour for Little Broken Hearts a month later. Two hours later, Norah had a new fan. Her voice has an ethereal quality to it. Her manner makes you feel she’s just a regular girl you’d meet at a slumber party and do your nails with and who you’ll grin at when she has her arms full of Grammys and you won’t for a moment think she’s being snarky when she says “And I didn’t thank my grandmother either” when the media asks her why she didn’t thank Pt. Ravi Shankar in her Grammy acceptance speech. I also have grown to like her country band The Little Willies. Her music doesn’t take itself too seriously, be it when she’s covering Dolly Parton’s Jolene or singing melodious yet creepy songs about what she’ll do Miriam who’s done her wrong. I love how effortless she makes it all seem.
Here’s The Little Willies singing about Lou Reed cow tippin’.
- The Manhattan Transfer: It was Last.fm’s recommendations which introduced me to this jazz vocalese band. I wrote about the concert here. It was a very enjoyable evening. It was raining like crazy as I hunted for a Kinko’s to print my tickets out near Grand Central, and I made a mad dash in my soaked ballerina flats to catch the last train that would get me to Tarrytown in time for the concert. It was still cold and rainy and dark as I trudged up the slope to get to the music hall. It was downright magical to hear jazz vocalese being performed live. When we all stood up in an ovation after Birdland, it didn’t matter that I was the youngest and brownest in the crowd, or that the two women next to me had large bobbing Adam’s apples and that had made me unsure about beginning a conversation with them or that the old couple next to me called me ‘coloured’…. all that mattered was we thought the band did a wonderful job and we had had a great evening.
- The Raghu Dixit Project: All the Bangaloreans in the tri-state area came together at Joe’s Pub that evening. Everyone had that typical RV/PESIT look about them. Their performance was just like I remembered them at NITK in 2007, though only Raghu Dixit and Gaurav Vaz remained of the then-lineup. Their token eye-candy was the flautist this time, as opposed to the guitarist while at NITK. Everyone who’d come, Bangalorean or not, enjoyed the concert a lot. There even was a caucasian woman who danced on tables and jumped up on stage as the band finished. She was introduced to the crowd as the band’s ‘stalker’. They played old songs, new ones, movie songs, folk songs… they’ve always been good at showmanship and kept the audience on their feet pretty much the entire duration. Pretty good, I’d say.
- The Doors (of the 21st Century): aka Krieger-Manzarek. They’ve got a lead singer who does a pretty awesome Jim Morrison. Ray Manzarek looks just as erudite and classy as he looked in the band’s heyday. Robby Krieger looks like just another little old man with funny pants and a great shock of white hair, but two minutes with a guitar and he’s a powerhouse. Ray’s brother Rick Manzarek came in with the lead guitar for a few songs, I don’t particularly remember which ones. (This is why you’ve got to blog just as soon as you finish a concert). I was initially trying to record the songs, or to sing along or to try and remember the songs, but with the long interludes and solos and improvizations, I just gave up and sat back and closed my eyes. It was the closest I’ve got to a religious experience. The band are very loud, very ’70s, very cheery, very prone to cussing. They remembered Jim, they got up and pranced around, they screamed, they played their hearts out. From Riders on the storm to Indian Summer to Light My Fire, the music transcended every pore of my being, and when they finally got around to LA Woman, it didn’t matter anymore that they were playing ‘my song’, all I knew was I didn’t want them to stop playing. I’m someone who makes fun of Morrison poetry, but in that music hall with the music so loud, and a powerful-voiced young man spouting them, the lyrics all came together and made sense.
The crowd was interesting as well. Lots of ex-hippies. The sorts who are balding badly but still have a ponytail. The sort who still try to drink like they did in the original Doors concerts, but now end up going to the restroom every half hour. One such man next to me was reminiscing about driving down Sunset Blvd passing by a billboard advertising the latest Doors album, LA Woman, with Light My Fire playing on the radio when the announcer interrupted to announce Morrison had been found dead in Paris. His much-younger wife piped in with ‘I wasn’t born then’, and we laughed.
- Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler: I had the highest expectations for this one. If listening to Krieger-Manzarek had been a dream-come-true, Bob Dylan would be downright legendary. Didn’t pan out that way. First, we’d gotten the crappiest seats at Barclay Center. Secondly, it was at Barclay Center, which is a ballpark. The problem with a ballpark is, it’s too large. I was too far above the stage and watched the whole thing with my camera zoomed in to 25x. The acoustics were okay. But then Mark Knopfler was the least interactive performer I had watched until then. Most of the songs he played weren’t any of the popular ones from Dire Straits. I’d have liked to appreciate the Celtic-sounding numbers he played, but not one song got an introduction or even had its name mentioned. The band was introduced at the very end. There was hardly any greeting the audience or acknowledging us.
I thought Dylan would be better because he famously performs at his grandkids’ school impromptu. How wrong I was. He acknowledged the audience even less than Knopfler did. He sang all his songs in a gruff monotone with very little hitting the higher or even the mid-ranged notes. I had great difficulty identifying which song it was that he was singing. The lighting was terrible.
If all that weren’t enough, the audience enthusiasm was pretty low. Any burst of enthusiasm would remain rather localized because the place was so large and people were so sparsely scattered. One group starts going ‘woooooo’ and realizes they sound out-of-place and just as others start picking up on it, they stop. And everyone stops. I just didn’t feel the enthusiasm the way I had in the other ones. It was a pretty huge let-down I’ll say.
- The Queen Extravaganza: This is Queen’s official tribute band. Their act is produced by Roger Taylor and the show is designed by the same guy who used to do it for Queen as well as for Led Zeppelin and RHCP and Floyd. I was warned they were loud, but I had no idea how much until they started playing. They had two wonderful vocalists, Mark Martel hitting the higher notes, and Jennifer Espinoza doing the powerful lower notes. Neither did any falsettos, I was disappointed to note. Their enthusiasm is boundless and their energy is infectious. They had these screens in their backdrop where they played footage from Queen concerts and music videos. I especially loved their rendition of Don’t stop me now, where they flashed the lyrics along with little pictographs.
The audience were astounded by their Bohemian Rhapsody where they played the original music video and the band did all the parts live except for the Balland and Opera bits for which they played Queen’s recording. They played all the well-known songs including Radio Ga ga, Killer Queen, Tie Your Mother Down. Mark Martel sang a very very soulful Somebody To Love. They ended it with We are the champions and We Will Rock You.
This was truly a dream-come-true for me. I’ve loved Queen for many years now, love their music, love their showmanship. This was the closest it can ever get to the real thing, and I had the time of my life listening to these songs. If I ‘just let go’ and surrendered while listening to The Doors, I was alive and ready every second for Queen. It made me smile for weeks after and nothing could faze me.
My enthusiasm for the band was however beaten by a banker who said he’d been to Queen’s concerts and pronounced The Queen Extravaganza ‘nearly as good as the real thing’, and a sixteen year old Brazilian boy who loved astronomy as much as he loved Brian May and spoke perkily about learning to stargaze from Brian May’s blogposts and tweets. And a couple of girls from Yonkers who said to me, ‘Ooh, Freddie was Indian too, did you know?’.
- Upcoming…. I’m dying to attend Dengue Fever’s concert in April, and wondering about Steven Wilson too. I’m a tad pissed about missing Roger Waters and Jethro Tull and hope at the very least, Jethro Tull perform again in 2013. I’d love to attend one of The Little Willies. I’ve heard there are a lot of concerts of Bollywood singers, but I’m somehow not too enthusiastic, but maybe that’ll change. I’m hoping AC/DC choose to perform, given I’ve missed them at Indio a while back. Rickie Lee Jones and Fleetwood Mac look promising. Maybe I’ll check out some jazz at BB King Blues & Grill or the Beatles tribute bands there. Maybe I’ll finally try Birdland. Or maybe I’ll say yeah I’ve attended more concerts in a year than I have all my life before and not go for any more. Let’s see how it goes. Watch this space
New job, new city, new hobbies. New roommates, new apartments, new neighbourhoods. Some old ties. Lots of smiles. Crazy experiences. Lots of new people. Lots of people from the past as well. Lots of worries. Lots of things that didn’t quite go through. Quite a few things that fell apart.
My gap year where I discovered myself after college. Where I collected my bearings. Learnt to laugh, to feel, to trust and believe.
It’s been a good year.
That Delhi girl died.
I don’t know if I should even be saying anything. In the time between when she was assaulted and when she passed away, I was having a good time. Lots of friends and acquaintances coming in to town, and I end up coming home at hours that would be considered unreasonable back home. I often come back home by myself, unescorted. What’s more, I do everything by myself. Initially in this city, it wasn’t much of a choice – I hardly knew anyone. If I had to rely on company, I’d've never discovered half the spots I intimately love here, wouldn’t be doing improv, wouldn’t have gone for writing classes, wouldn’t go for random Reddit meetups, wouldn’t furnish my home, wouldn’t…. do anything!
My behaviour and demeanor would be termed ayyashi in an Indian city.
Enough has been said about the mentality of Indian men and the government and patriarchy, and I guess I needn’t repeat all of that, given others have said it better than I could have. All I know is how not being constrained by my gender set me free.
I’ve always been the good kid who walked the straight narrow path. I don’t like to take risks. I just like to be left alone to do my own thing. I don’t like to fight the system. I’m not the rebel sorts. I hate having to fight for what I need; I prefer negotiating. I’m the meek nerdy girl you don’t really notice. That said, having a father and mother like mine means you end up with interests in random things your friends usually don’t share interests in. And you know what? That combination makes life hard!
You don’t want to stay out beyond your curfew, but you really want to go for Toastmasters which holds meetings late in the evening. You don’t want to go out with a crowd that has only boys, but that’s probably the only way you can attend that concert you’ve been dreaming of since forever. It’s hard to make friends because they all live so far away and they hang out late after class and you need to leave because you don’t want to get home too late. You want to take pictures of the sunrise, but you aren’t supposed to be out that early. You want to exercise in the sun, but it’s weird to do so on the terrace because the neighbours have lechy sons.
And so on. These seem very much like problems of the privileged, I know. I’m lucky to be able to go away from home for higher studies. I’m lucky my parents save money for my MS and not for my Mrs. But the sort of roadblocks in my way are roadblocks too.
You are advised against taking Mechanical because it’s not a woman-friendly field. You want to do a project with one professor but he is a creep you don’t ever want to be left alone with. You correct a lecturer in class and he casts aspersions on your character (this really happened to me). While your mostly-male team is trying to negotiate with a professor, you are asked to step in and ‘turn on your feminine charms’. Some girls you know wear jackets in 35 degree heat because a colleague stares at their chests and the people above him won’t take their complaints seriously. You hear of a much-loved former colleague being fired for sexually harassing the office looker, and though you are shaken, you are hurt even more by your friends accusing her of doing all this just for a fat settlement (mostly because they are numb with disbelief), and you wonder what would happen if you were to blow the whistle on someone who troubles you… would these same friends who hold you so dear turn against you?
When I joined gradschool in the US, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of don’t-care I faced. No one cared I was a girl. No one looked at me weird if I stood my ground about a technical point and was proved wrong; it was expected I do that. No one cared if a researcher was a man or a woman. I couldn’t anymore rage about being discriminated against; I had to contribute equally. I could stay at lab past 2am, and I’d get escorted back by the cops. And I didn’t need that, really… I could walk back and it would be perfectly safe. No one talked down to me because I was a girl. No one made me uncomfortable with their eyes or touch. The world was telling me ‘Here, you have all the opportunity and none of the constraints, now you have no excuse for not kicking ass’. It was sort of scary because I was never used to feeling that.
When I finally had free time on my hands in New York, my mind and body initially protested greatly at my resolution to never come home before 9pm on any given day. It wasn’t safe, my mind and body yelled. There’s some catch, they screamed. I kept myself away from staying home with my entire self kicking and screaming. Soon, I was comfortable talking to strange people, going to places that I wouldn’t have dreamt of going to, and my only gripe when I stay out late is that I lose out on a few hours of sleep, or that the Q train doesn’t run express. I see me blossoming as a person, without the constant worry that someone is staring at my bosom or looking to grope me. I feel less helpless. I see myself finally get that sense of entitlement and innocence I’ve longed for for so long. Somehow it felt like I’d lost that with constantly preparing for the worst in India. There are no strangers judging me for my choices here and wondering aloud if my mother did a good job raising me. I feel free.
I’ve had shady creepy experiences, but I’ve always been comforted by the fact that things can’t get too bad, there are cameras everywhere. And that even if something happened, the perpetrators would be brought to justice. The confidence that if I called 911, the cops wouldn’t say creepy shit and get away with it.
The confidence that the rule of law was in effect in New York City.
Yes, we can go on blaming the general attitude of the people, of Indian men, of Indian parents, society and everything for what happened to so many women in India. But in my opinion, that’s not it. Strict laws and their strict enforcement can go a long way in changing how society thinks. There are plenty in New York City as well who’d be too glad to do it the Delhi way, but there are cameras everywhere, the laws are strict, the courts are strict, citizen groups won’t let go of any such case easily. There certainly are flaws in this system, and perpetrators do get away occasionally. But the fear is enough to deter a lot of people from committing crimes. Not just rapes. Mugging and murder too.
If the streets are safe, people no longer have an excuse to lock their daughters up. If the legal system is secure, rapists don’t get away scot-free. Parents of girls start chilling a bit, let their daughters go to a larger variety of places. The presence of a larger proportion of women changes the social dynamics of any place. Boys grow up seeing more and more girls in their activities, and the whole idea of the difference between the genders stops being so stark in their heads. Sure, to see change in the society and its mindset, it’ll take at the very least another generation, but as an immediate effect we can see the number of crimes go down, and that is not a small thing.
And that’s why we shouldn’t lose sight of legislating on stronger laws, police reform, judiciary reform, and electing officials who toe our line on these things.
I’m finally in the right state of mind to write fiction. I have time, I have my laptop and a screen, and I’m well-fed and nowhere to get to. I crowdsourced a writing prompt, and I ended up with four suggestions – ‘Holiday fiasco’, ‘Avocado’, ‘Gay rights’, ‘He was a dork, yet stocky knight’. Let me try writing it one sentence at a time and see where it goes….
Mum’s the Word
Anita took the avocado peeler out of its packaging and hung it with the rest of the cutlery. An impulsive grab while grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner. She wasn’t used to cooking for more than one person. And now ten were descending on her for Thanksgiving dinner. The thought gave her a dull ache in her limbs.
Atleast she didn’t have to make everything; just the turkey, gravy and dips for the hors d’ouvres. Michael was bringing the stuffing, Angela-akka said she’d bring scalloped potatoes, and Albert-anna and anni were bringing biriyani. Aishu had finally got time off from her lab. Stephen was doing dessert.
Stephen. Anita hadn’t seen her younger son for almost a year now. Just a few days after he got back from his semester in Europe studying Art History. He’d had a job waiting for him in New York, and left home soon. Too soon for her liking. She stood still, the pestle hovering over the bowl of avocados. Mike and she had had an amicable divorce, and after the first few years of resentment, they had learned to be friends. Still, she felt increasingly lonely as she approached retirement, and wished her son would call her more often. Aishu on the other hand was more attached to Mike, called him more often than she called Anita.
Basting the turkey lovingly with an apple cider glaze, a smile spread across Anita’s face. Her brother and sister would soon come. Mike would, too. But most of all, her babies were coming home!
* * *
“Say what you will, Albie”, Angela said “it is very inappropriate to call her ex husband and all”.
“Aiyo, akka“, Albert said for the millionth time that day, “who else is there for her at this age? Aishwarya is in Chicago, Stephen is in New York, who is there to take care of her?” Nancy, his wife, nodded along, too scared to say anything more countering her sister-in-law.
“Are we not there?”, Angela said in her self-righteous manner.
“Angie-akka, Ani takes care of you more than you take care of her. Especially after your operation”.
Angela scowled. ”She should never have divorced him in the first place”.
“Why do you bring up all these old stories? This is why Ani is forced to ask you to come and stay with us instead of with her”
“When they were getting married itself, I didn’t approve. I had taken her aside and said ‘Ani, he doesn’t seem a good boy’. Did she listen to me? No. No one listens to me.”
Nancy disappeared into the kitchen on some pretext. Albert followed her.
“But whatever we say to Angie-akka, I still am not comfortable with Michael coming.”, she said.
“You know Ani has always been like that no. Marrying that fellow even after Appa opposed it so much, then divorced him, and now their children do whatever they want, no rules nothing”.
“Aishwarya does modeling these days itseems”, Nancy snidely added.
“That boy is also some artist or something. Still mooching off parents’ money on Europe trip and this and that.”, Albert grumbled. “If I’d had a son, he wouldn’t have grown up like that”.
“Leave no, Albie, the children have been through enough. It’s not anyone’s fault they are like that. Both Mike and Ani feel guilty and overcompensate by letting the children do whatever they want. What else will they do?”
* * *
“Knight, eh?”, said Stephen to the elderly gentleman riding shotgun with him. “You’ll make a dork, stocky Knight, George”.
A dignified smile spread across George’s lips, somehow making his well-proportioned olive-skinned face even more stately than it already was. His greying at the temples only accentuated the effect.
“It’s not a Knighthood, Stephie-boy. Just an OBE. And at this point, it’s just speculation”
“Humility, eh? I mean, you did hear it from the Queen’s press secretary.”
“Yeah. But if I go around telling it around, I won’t be able to put on my surprised face when the list does come out, will I?”.
“Oh come, you can tell my folks that now and they’ll only like you more. It’ll help our case when I tell them you’re George Alaganathan, OBE for Charitable Services rendered to the Empire, than the whole Royal Family instead of George who I met in Europe and took a fancy to”.
“Stephie…… are you sure you want me at Thanksgiving? I mean, you’re seeing your entire family after ages, and I don’t want to intrude…”
“Nah, it’ll be okay. Mummy and Dad don’t mind when I bring friends over”.
“You know that’s not what I’m worried about”.
“Relax. It’ll be fine.”
“I’m fine meeting your parents. I’m not so sure about your extended family….. are you sure you want me there with your uncles and aunts and everyone there?”
“George, when else can I take time off and go meet my parents? And when do you ever get time off anyway? We’re staying the night at Ma’s place aren’t we… we’ll talk to just them later after everyone else has gone home”.
George still brooded.
“Forget about it and keep a look out for some place we can get some gigantic cake or the other?”
“Where in Sri Lanka was your family from?”. Appa and Albert-mama had rather taken a liking to George.
“Near Jaffna. It was very long ago, Sir. My mother escaped to live with relatives in Birmingham in 1984, when the fighting was just starting. I was just a lad then…. I thought it was just for a few weeks.. but…”.
And thus began a line of conversation Stephen had heard only a million times before, which George invariably was asked to narrate whenever in the company of diaspora Tamils.
“Was your father Alaganathan Arulsamy?”, Angie-periamma interrupted. “In 1983, when I was involved in the Christian Mission in Vavuniya, I think I had met him… wasn’t he a civil servant in Jaffna then?”.
“Illai-nga, my father was Alaganathan Manivannan. Passed away in 1980 itself. He was not a civil servant actually, just an electrician.”. George gave his faraway smile that always managed to charm everyone.
“Oh, your mother must have been Dhanaletchmy? I remember she was very active in the local church…..”
“Oh, yes, you know her then. Wonderful to know.” George’s face lit up with genuine happiness.
Stephen suppressed a giggle. George’s mother Rukmini had remained a devout Hindu until her death.
“Turkey’s delicious-nga. Best I’ve had in a very long time”, George added to Anita who then giggled like she was eighteen and said “Oh, it’s nothing”.
That old fox, Stephen smiled. George, having had his charitable organization that helped immigrants and refugees to the UK assimilate for the past twenty years, knew exactly how to make people feel comfortable.
Mike and George then went into a long tirade about how the US government had been unfair about Raj Rajarathinam. Stephen tuned out.
“Aishu, my laptop’s not working pa, fix it no”, Stephen turned to his sister. She gave him a look that suggested she’d heard this joke a million times. “Northwestern computer science and you can’t fix your brother’s laptop?”.
“Poda, you’ll use Internet Explorer and it’ll have a thousand popups and toolbars and viruses you’ve got from random sites”.
She leaned in closer, and in a low voice, said “What’s going on here?”.
“Nothing, George didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanskgiving, so I brought him here.”
“Don’t give me that Stephie.”
“Not now, Aishu. Later”.
“No, no, it’s alright! Nancy and I will clear the table, please don’t bother!”, Anita shooed George as he attempted to help her in putting the dishes away.
George tried to protest when his phone rang, and he excused himself as he pulled it out of his pocket.
“Kudutthu vecchirukanum, Stephen”, Angie-perima was saying, “To be friends with a man as highly esteemed as this. His mother was a very distinguished and dignified woman, and I’m happy to say he would have made her proud…..” She trailed off and stared into space.
“What’s that?”. Angie-perima walked over to where George had been standing. She picked up a bulky leather wallet.
“Oh, that’s George’s, perima. Give it here…”. Angie had already opened it.
“What is going on here? I demand to know. Who is this man?”. She thundered.
Everyone looked around in confusion. Just then, George walked back in from the patio.
“You are not Dhanaletchmy’s son”. she said as she burnt him with her gaze. “That boy died of measles.”.
“Ah, madam, you caught me there. I was just…”
“And now…”, she sobbed, “What are you doing with our boy? See everyone, he keeps a photo of our Stephie in his wallet”. She held his wallet open for everyone to see. Sure enough, there was a photograph of Stephen, standing by the Thames.
“Who are you?” Mike and Albert-mama cornered George. “What is this supposed to mean? Our boy shows you kindness and this is what you do with it, is it?”
“No, sir, it’s all just a huge mistake….”
“Appa, Mama, please leave George alone. He’s done nothing.”
“Stephen, what is going on?”, Anita angrily asked.
“Amma, Appa, Aishu, George and I are in love. I brought him here to introduce him to you people. We wanted to talk to you later tonight. We certainly didn’t mean to let you find out like… like this… “
“What have you done to our boy?” Albert was livid. “I know all your types. Catching boys at an impressionable age, and brainwashing them. Should whip you people senseless”.
“How can you call yourself a Christian?”, Angela’s eyes were full of hot tears as she clutched at her cross.
“Everyone, please calm down. I know my brother. He isn’t gullible enough to be brainwashed. He’s been aware of his preferences for quite a while now”. Aishwarya protectively held her brother.
“You knew, Aishu? Why didn’t you tell us before?”. Anita burst into tears.
“Amma, it’s Anna‘s business. I left it to him to tell you in whatever style he found suitable”.
“Why didn’t you give me any indication at the very least? Some warning? Why didn’t you, Stephen? Your poor mother has to find out like this?”
“Amma…. I…” Stephen mumbled.
“Where did I go wrong with you? Mike, where did I go wrong? Where did we go wrong?”, Anita sobbed into her ex-husband’s arms.
“Stephen, what did we do to make you feel you can’t trust us like this? How long has this been going on for? Everyone goes through confusions, Stephen. You shouldn’t let others take advantage of those confusions of yours. You could have talked to us about any confusions”.
“And you would have said they exist only in my mind!” shot back Stephen. “This is what I am. And I won’t let any force on that take this part of me away from me”.
“Aah, I’m feeling faint”. Angela shrieked as she crumpled onto the couch. Nancy rushed to her with a glass of water.
Albert and Nancy had taken Angela away, not before cursing the whole family and telling them nothing good will ever happen to this dysfunctional family. George patiently stood in the patio while the family disappeared into one of the bedrooms to talk. He gazed at the stars, worrying for Stephen, worrying for them.
“Chilly, isn’t it?”. Aishwarya was standing next to him. “I’m used to colder, this isn’t so bad.”, George said. “Listen, I’m really sorry for everything today. I was uncertain about my coming, but I never anticipated things could go this way”. Aishwarya looked at him.
“I know what you must be thinking. I must seem like a dirty old man….”
“Listen, as fiercely protective of Stephen as we are, we at the end respect his choices. Besides, he loves you. I’ve never seen him this way about anyone”.
“Likewise for me. I had consigned myself to a life in the closet, ‘Confirmed bachelor’ as they call it. Until I met Stephe at a fundraiser”.
“He’s a great guy”.
“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me”.
“He says the same thing”.
George smiled shyly.
“Just promise me one thing? I know I can’t ask you to never break his heart. But if he breaks yours, do be gentle on him? He’s only a boy.”
* * *
An hour later, they were all having a nightcap of brandy, toasting George and Stephen. Mike said it was wonderful to have George be part of the family, and Anita said they both were lucky to have found each other. They laughed and talked. George narrated stories about how they met in Europe, mentioned his plans of expanding his charity to America and said he would no doubt need the goodwill of people like Mike and Anita to do so. Finally Aishwarya began to yawn while laughing at Stephen’s jokes, and everyone went to turn in. Anita stumbled while getting up, and Stephen went with her to tuck her in.
“So… what do you really think, Ma?”, Stephen asked.
“You both are really in love, aren’t you Stephe, I can see it in your eyes”, she smiled.
“Yes! He takes good care of me. He’s always there to tell me right from wrong. He’s my rock. He’ll give his life for me”.
“Of course he will, Stephe. That’s what a significant other is for“
“Stephe, be your own person first. It’s easy to not get a chance to develop that if someone’s always protecting you from the world. Don’t make the mistakes I made”.
“But Mummy, you’re so independent. You raised us almost single-handedly”.
“I wasn’t always, Stephe. Even now, I find it hard, keeping my own company. I’m still learning to be happy without having to have someone else working at making me happy”.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are exactly where I was just before I married Appa. You don’t have to commit to the first person who asks you to, you know that, right? I was very naive. Appa was just getting ready to settle down. I never explored myself as a person, Stephe. I gave up a promising career, all my hobbies. And who do I have to blame for that? Not Appa. He never stopped me. It never occurred to me to take care of myself. If I’d waited a while, things might have been different… Appa and I aren’t right for each other, Stephe. We can be friends, but it just got too difficult toward the end. I don’t want you to become like me, Stephe”.
“First take care of yourself, Stephe. Don’t let anyone make you feel obliged to put their needs first”.
“Yeah, he is a lot like Appa. But he’s awesome, Ma. Gives me a lot of space. The long distance really does help. He doesn’t always get it that I want some alone time, but that’s our challenge. That’s something we have to work out.”
“We’ll work it out, Ma. Don’t worry. I’m just glad you’ll be there for me no matter how it turns out. It’s… it’s comforting to know.”. Stephen squeezed his mother’s hand.
He rose to leave.
“Ma?” he said. She turned. “I love you. I want you to know that”.
Anita hugged him close. Her baby boy was growing up.
I moved to New York City in January.
My first month in NYC, I sublet a rather filthy and rather tiny space in Harlem for a month from a shark sorta girl. I was given an option of taking over the lease which I tried my very best to escape and successfully managed to. I moved to someone’s living room on the Upper East.
After being used to a ginormous So.Cal apartment, a tiny Manhattan apartment with its microscopic kitchen is going to induce claustrophobia, never mind half a living room. But then, it was Manhattan and I stayed for a while.
Eventually, my circumstances were such that I needed to find a larger space. By this time, I was tired of drifting from one set of roommates to another (lived with a grand total of 12 roommates so far), getting to know someone and their quirks from scratch. I also decided I’d like it very much to fill the fridge and larder only with things I liked, use all the tiny space there was for just my stuff, be able to keep the lights on at 4am if I wanted, offer accommodation to any friend who needed it, exercise at odd hours without the sound of my breathing pissing someone off, and choose a name I liked for the Wifi.
Househunt. And good lord, it’s hard finding a satisfactory place in NYC. Let me give you a brief account and some tips.
Location, Location, Location
It’s good to settle on a neighbourhood before staking out. I needed a place close to shopping and hobbies with as short a commute to work as possible. Hopefully not by a sole subway line that is out for repairs every weekend (I’m looking at you, 7 train). This much isn’t difficult. Most places in Manhattan and the western parts of Queens and Brooklyn fulfill these criteria. It gets a little more complicated when you are on a budget. That by itself eliminates the nicer larger apartment blocks.
I initially started my search with just a budget and a rough idea of what sort of an apartment I was looking for. I’d answer all the ads I could find on Padmapper and Craigslist whenever I was in the mood months before I even planned on moving out, just to get an idea of the market. Turns out, a lot of the affordable places are in supremely shady neighbourhoods.
Take for instance a rather rowdy-looking tranny yelling insults at me in Bushwick where I’d found the nicest apartment I’d ever found. Or getting teased rather painfully near a project in Long Island City.
It’s also good to use tools like Trulia to find crime rates at any given location and neighbourhood. Mostly, these were right on the mark, but it’s not still a completely clear indication. Reddit is a great resource to ask people about how safe a particular area is. To me, it seemed better to go by what (a large number of) people said… i.e., don’t listen to one or two people’s opinion, listen to the opinion of a crowd. But ultimately, you need to go visit neighborhoods at different times of the day to gauge what it feels like, and listen to your gut.
There is simply no escaping real estate agents/brokers while hunting for an apartment in NYC. One smart thing to do would be to walk around the neighbourhoods you want to live in and call the listed numbers to see if they have apartments to let, to bypass any real estage agent. But when you look on Craigslist, even when you look for apartments listed by owner, you would find the listings to be dominated by agents. You can of course report them for being wrongly classified, but there’s no escaping them. Agents do have good listings with them.
But you know what, agents aren’t all that bad. If you know how to work them, that is. Lots of them want to just foist this or that apartment on you. They’ll tell you all sorts of tall tales, sing you praises of this apartment and its superintendent or that neighborhood and how close it is to the laundry. Read between the lines. Ask lots of questions. Stick to what you want. Don’t get distracted by what they say. Get a feel of the agents, don’t let them bully you into going for places you wouldn’t otherwise. Being a frail 100-pound girl, I got a lot of this. I deserve a medal for not taking the first overpriced apartment that came my way.
And oh, the agent fees. I found one month’s rent to be the norm. And mind you, 12% fee is NOT the same as one month’s rent. Do the math.
From what I’ve seen, the agents in Queens are less smarmy than the ones in Manhattan, but both will eat you up given a chance.
And, ‘East Williamsburg’ is real estage agent speak for Bushwick. And when they say Upper East or Upper West, make sure they don’t mean Harlem. Because what seems like a good deal in UES/UWS might be expensive for Harlem.
God of Small Things
Face it, most New York apartments are tiny. The ones in good locations close to midtown/downtown even more so. But that doesn’t have to mean you shell out a premium to live in a matchbox. Location isn’t everything. I found this studio near Juilliard which cost roughly half my earnings, but which the agent said was ‘cheap, because it’s small’. How small could it be, I wondered. My imagination failed me. This apartment probably had enough space for a twin mattress or a table, but not both at once. Just how does anyone live there, I wondered hard.
And seriously. Do not despair. You’ll definitely find a larger place for lesser than how much that outrageous apartment costed to rent.
If it’s too good to be true…
…then it probably is. That’s true of everything in NYC. More so about apartments. Double and triple check everything. Google the hell out of the broker, landlord and apartment. You’ll be surprised what you find. Speak to the neighbours, to the folks in the subway close to the location, the shopkeepers around the place. Ask them if the laundromat’s alright, how late they stay out until they deem it too unsafe to walk back home, if the landlord’s cooperative. Don’t just listen to the landlord and the broker.
I found a spacious studio on the upper east for a rather decent rent and no broker fee, and would have taken the place. Then I got chatty with the broker and found that the place had been on the market for three weeks, a near impossibility for the location and rent. They mentioned the metro construction outside as being the reason people don’t want to take the place. I googled for the place, and found that it was on the bedbug registry, and the tenants were complaining about how the owner was uncooperative and refused to pay for the treatments and wouldnt even let them out of the lease easily. I turned the place down. Bullet dodged.
But at the same time…
You’ll have to close in quickly on deals. Good places don’t stay on the market for longer than a couple of days. Acting pricey doesn’t quite work because if not you, there are a zillion others eager to take the place. If you find a good place, swoop in. The trick is to be able to know enough about the market and the area that you can make split-second decisions without losing too much. Do your research online before you go to see the apartment. It’s always better to have visited the area a few times before and talk to people who live there so that you have a better idea of what it’s all like there. It’s not all that easy for an immigrant to gauge these things intuitively and takes some time. It’s of course awesome if you find someone who thinks just like you to advise you, but I haven’t found all that many Indians who’ve been here for a while and know neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn well enough as well as have your concerns in mind.
You can’t be too careful
Even if you’ve got everything sealed, things might not go according to plan. You need to have an adversarial mindset to tie down all the loose ends. My most horrific story involves this really nice spacious apartment in a superb location for a rather reasonable rent. I called and let the broker know I’m taking the place and was in the process of filling out forms. Then I googled the address again and looked at some results I’d missed the first time around. The results included a sex offender registry entry. It was the fella on the other end of the corridor from the apartment I would have taken. I noped the heck out of there.
There’s no place like home
After more than a month and a half of seriously looking, I found a rather good place for an okayish rent. I love the location; it’s alive in every sense of the word. Not everything’s perfect, but it’s better than everything else I found. I’m busy drilling holes in walls and putting in anchors and screws to hold up shelves and pictures, and twisting together DIY furniture. I still check Craigslist in paranoia that there might be a cheaper nicer place I might have missed, but so far, I seem to have picked a good place. The modem/router they gave me has a bug and I can’t seem to change its name. It’s apparently a known issue. I’m rather cut up about not being able to call my Wifi ‘NoLifeWithoutWifi’. But right from when the sun hits my face and wakes me up to when I come in from the cold to a warm place I can make a nice meal in and go to sleep feeling safe and content, I can’t help feeling more than a little pleased.
Hats off to the coursera guys and hat tip to wanderlust, I recently took up writing in the sciences by Prof Kristin Sainani. (I would highly recommend the website aka check it to know how good it is). This was partly for of non-availability of non-computer courses and partly for my labmate(s) and professor asking for constant report rewrites.
Prof. Sainani talks about how we make scientific literature difficult to read. About cutting down long phrases, substituting simpler words, using verbs for nouns, reducing jargon, basically get to the point already? My question is, can you really get a short story out of every research paper?
I have maintained for self-defense’s sake that creative writing and exam/report writing are not the same. In creative writing, you try to communicate an idea. You weave the story to let the other person fill in the details. Like a normal conversation, it is okay if the other person gets about 50% of what you have to say. The goal here is keep the reader engaged. Science on the other hand is exact. Research papers, more so. If one sentence is misinterpreted, if a protocol is not clearly etched out, the outcome might be completely different. We do not get synonyms to make jargon sound beautiful. AND we have space/time/attention constraints to explain every word to a noob in the field.
How do you explain your work to your liberal arts roommate or your next-door labmate? Can we excuse a veteran professor for the fresher dozing off in his class? Is the Road Romeo allowed to be a nerd?
Most people say that science is boring – that it is too dry and too much mental effort. It is ridiculous, they say, the effort you put into these things which don’t register the senses. Does this have anything to with the way we talk about what we do in the lab? After all, desk-clerk’s job to file client information is equally specific. Where did we begin to err? Are scientists inherently bad communicators?
We could begin by rambling less and sticking to generalities. We could include humor and use day-to-day references instead of science jokes. And how about counting jargon in conversation.
Can we somehow combine creative writing and research paper writing? Can we have a normal research conversation? The true test is probably a creative writer easily writing a research paper.
I came across this song called New Year’s Eve from this band called Dengue Fever. It sounded like the background music a movie set in Hong Kong in the kitschy ’60s and ’70s with a theme around young people directed by Wong Kar-Wai would have. I don’t really follow Tarantino’s movies, but most people I know seemed to say “sounds like the soundtrack of a Tarantino movie set in eastern Asia”.
I didn’t really pay it all that much attention. I downloaded the album the song was on called Sleepwalking Through The Mekong and rather liked those songs, but I didn’t do much else about that. Dengue Fever seemed rather indie, and back then didn’t seem to have a working website. Further, I immersed myself into whatever Last.fm recommended to me. Which seemed to be a lot of Celtic. Then I went through a phase where gregorian chants were the only things that gave me that epic feeling of importance while coding.
A few weeks ago, I started listening to Dengue Fever again. Then I found their website (that worked, it wasn’t working before), and their Facebook page which they seem to update regularly. From Youtube’s auto-generated playlists of the most popular songs of the band, I discovered they have more than just a couple of albums to their name. Their earlier albums are in Khmer – the language spoken in Cambodia. I like this song called Tip My Canoe from Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. But their more recent songs are in English as well. Check out this song called Mr. Bubbles, which roughly is my favourite of theirs.
I looked up the band, and realized they aren’t just some Cambodian band. They are a bunch of folks based in southern California. Zac Holtzman (a decidedly non-Cambodian name) was in Cambodia when his friend fell ill with dengue fever, and they hitched a ride on a truck to get him to the hospital, and the folks in the truck were playing old Khmer rock songs that decidedly sounded psychedelic, probably more so under the influence of a fever. He picked up a few of those tapes and found that his brother in California was coincidentally listening to the same music. And, a band was born. No, wait, they went to Long Beach near LA, to this area called Little Phnom Penh, where they found a fresh-from-Cambodia singer called Chhom Nimol (whose family seems to be full of famous singers in Thailand now). And then the band was born.
So there I was, totally amazed at the sort of sound these people had, so utterly psychedelic, so evocative of a Far-Eastern movie that tries to incorporate the best of the West into it, probably made with a very young Jackie Chan. I can’t wait for their new albums. I can’t wait for them to perform in the tri-state area, and wishing I’d gone to one of their performances when I still lived in Orange County.
By now, Last.fm is recommending me similar songs. And just like that, I come across this song called Jam 5 Kai Thiet, by a singer called Ros Sereysothea.
If you listened to that, you’ll find it sounds the same as New Year’s Eve by Dengue Fever which I linked to in the first line of this post. I was shocked, pissed, and feeling a little let down. So these guys were just covering old Cambodian songs? Is that the only reason why their music sounds so authentic?
I listened to that entire album Jam 5 Kai Thiet was from. It’s called Cambodian Rocks. It has a lot of nice gems. Like any random sample of songs from any era, there are godawful ones, and godawesome ones. With this album, the number of godawesome ones totally trumps any of the sucky songs.
I find it hard to match song to title, given I don’t know any Khmer that I can at the very least distinguish one word from another, but I find the songs all growing on me. I rather like this one called Yuvajon Kouge Jet or Broken-Hearted Man. The one I’ve found the catchiest is this one called Maok Pi Naok or Where from?. There’s this old-timey, innocent, carefree air about the singers’ voices in that particular song. This one called Twist makes me want to dance.
I did try listening to newer Khmer songs and songs from other genres in that same era, but they sounded rather ordinary, not commanding of attention like this album. Chhom Nimol’s siblings’ songs in Khmer/Thai (well, they are all famous in Thailand, so not sure if they sing in Khmer) don’t quite match to Dengue Fever’s sound.
The bulk of the songs in that album seemed to have been sung by these singers called Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth. And also Pan Ron. When I looked them up on Wikipedia, it broke my heart to learn that they were killed in labour camps during Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia.
Not just them. Most of the singers on that album seemed to have met their end during the Khmer Rouge period, as they were artists and performers and were well-educated, two things that automatically qualified them as enemies of the Khmer Rouge. It didn’t help Sinn Sisamouth’s case that he started singing protest songs against the Khmer Rouge.
For perspective, imagine for a second an alternate universe where Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber were killed by the government they lived under.
I’ve only read about the horrible regime of Pol Pot. I don’t have the stomach to watch The Killing Fields. But imagine going from singing such cheery, carefree songs, incorporating the latest trends from the West, having a great entertainment scene, to the government killing 21% of the country. Cambodia even today doesn’t seem to have a vibrant movie industry. The arts are good as dead because an entire generation of artists and performers were executed, and another generation scarred and impoverished that revival seems hard. And today, Cambodia is essentially under a dictatorship, so free speech, which is integral to arts, is dealt with with an iron fist. Movie theaters, which were plentiful before the Khmer Rouge are derelict now, going by the Wiki page (I also came across an article talking about Cambodia’s entry for the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars this year). I wonder how long it would take for a nation to recover from that sort of a blow. And I don’t mean just the entertainment industry.
I’m not under any illusion that pre-PolPot Cambodia was paradise. Or that the people who live there now live in utter hell. But why did change have to be so damaging?
Either way, it’s really great there’s a band like Dengue Fever that actually sells records and performs at various places. It’s not just about preserving the psychedelica of that era. It’s not even about the legacy the singers from back then left behind, though it’s wonderful to know that psychedelica is taken to a whole new level when it’s sung in a nasal voice and recorded through a broken mic. It’s more than that.
It’s about how someone like me with no hint of Khmer becomes aware that someone like Sinn Sisamouth existed, and why he died. About someone like me becoming sensitive to the level to which a country has fallen and is trying to pick itself up. And if someone as lazy and disinterested as me can get this sensitized with just a few clicks of a mouse, I’m pretty sure a lot of others can too. It might not mean much, but the next time there’s a news article about Cambodia, it might get more comments than usual on the NY Times website… which might translate into more coverage, and maybe when Cambodia has its Khmer Spring, we tweet enough about it to make it trend, enough for our governments to probably have a more populist official position on it.
I don’t believe in the power of online activism. I doubt sincerely that liking stuff on Facebook will bring down governments. But it sure does make it easier for us to be aware of things around us, and make more informed decisions when we have to.
Also, the music is catchy as hell.
Oh yay, Marissa Mayer is the CEO of Yahoo! now and what a victory for women in tech worldwide is that!
Actually…. I am hovering somewhere between ‘Oh!’ and ‘Meh..’ on that. Let me elaborate.
I’m a girl in computer science. The ‘girl’ part has been mostly irrelevant except when it came to how intimidated and unconfident I felt at various points, and how I was angry at myself for being unconfident when I knew way more than overconfident men (and women, but mostly men) and accepted their wrong answers as gospel truth and didn’t talk as much as I should have. But those are my personal demons for the most part. I don’t have to deal with those as much now in the industry with a really awesome boss, as much as I had to deal with those in academia where the extent of my unknowing was way larger and the people around me more intimidating.
As for the computer science bit, I’ve always wanted to deal with more and more ‘pure’ and ‘nontrivial’ bits of computer science. I don’t know why I caught on to this sort of elitism. It’s possibly from the sort of machine learning work that went on at UCI. Very mathematical, very generic and theoretical. Work that can be applied to various different applications in so many interesting ways. And try not to get the specificity of the domain the data is from in order to accomplish a certain task. I adored the wide applications of the stuff my advisor worked on, and was very impressed by the diversity of the work that cited his papers. And the diversity of the data he worked on. Way too many people apply this or that classifier to some sort of data and call it their life’s work. Nothing wrong with that; we need that as well, but the big-picture sort of work was more attractive to me.
So yeah, for me, hardcore is good, multidisciplinary isn’t as much. Application-oriented was best avoided. Of course, you apply a different standard when you are working on specific products in the industry, but till date, the sort of stuff that impresses me is the development of concepts that are used widely. Like, I’d much rather prefer tweaking the affinity propagation algorithm for natural language data than find which algorithm best classifies some random dataset and calling it machine learning.
I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s the difficulty of thinking in abstract terms that fascinates me. Maybe it’s the impact of said work. Maybe it’s more creative, while also being precise and not woolly. But I trust it’s some of my rather convoluted thinking that says these skills are more valuable because there are fewer people who do this, and there’s always going to be a high demand for people who are more adaptable, so the combination makes sure that I get good jobs, where I can have more leverage.
The problem with this ooh-look-we-have-more-ladies-in-our-office bit is, I find most women are in those areas which require less abstraction, are less ‘pure’ in the way I described before, and are more just worker-ant sort of cookie-cutter jobs. Or, they have very little to do with computer science or even coding. You’ll find more women in Testing than in Development given any software company. And all the interacting-with-people sort of jobs, like requirement-gathering or ‘product management’ *cough*Marissa Mayer*cough*.
Most female researchers turn out to be working on User Experience or Human-Computer Interaction. Fields which I find rather woolly. I find the sort of projects they take up very fascinating, and they have a real impact on the world, but the ratio of actual output/impact to time spent by each researcher is rather low, in my opinion.
Of course, my way of looking at things is not gospel, and is likely biased in a lot of ways. But why this sort of correlation, is what I wonder.
That’s why it pisses off a small part of my brain when all these women in computing are so highly hailed as examples of women in technology. By these women, I don’t mean Daphne Koller (PhD at age 22, long high-impact research/teaching career at Stanford) or Grace Hopper. I don’t get the veneration of Carol Bartz or Meg Whitman or Sheryl Sandberg or even Marissa Meyer as ‘women in technology’. They just happen to be women who work in administrative roles in the technology domain. I’m not saying that’s an easy position to attain, but it’s not exactly the same career path as Yishan Wong’s or Mark Zuckerberg’s or Sergey-and-Larry’s. In other words, where is their nerd cred?
They are not playing with the big boys there. They seem to just be the waterboy to the big boys’ league.
And why do I have a problem with that? It’s because girls like me have so few role models already, and suddenly we are asked to follow the words and career paths of these women who’ve never written a line of code in years. And why is that a problem for me? It’s because everyone from my father to my colleague expects me to go down that line because that’s the way – possibly the only way – women in technology get big. ‘Do an MBA, it is good for girls’ is something I’ve grown tired of hearing.
Whenever I’ve attended any panel discussion on ‘Women in Computer Science’, I feel such a disconnect with the panelists because they are never like me. They might be danah boyd also, but that’s not the career path I want to go down, so I don’t empathize with a lot of their concerns, and they’ve probably never wondered about mine. When Sheryl Sandberg talks about women and their career paths, her concerns seem trivial to me, and I wonder if she’s ever thought of all the concerns I have.
And what exactly are my concerns? I want to know how to keep going. How to network with nerdy guys who constantly keep getting intimidated by random things I say or do which makes me overcompensate by pulling back more than I should. How not to be intimidated. How to keep asking questions. How to become good at my work without getting discouraged. How not to be reticent. Instead, all they talk about is work-life balance. I agree that’s important, but for someone who has put ‘life’ on hold at gradschool in order to get the ‘work’ part in order, that was all totally not helpful. I don’t want to worry about how to balance my feminity with my work ethic, as if those are either-or options. And harassment is a far-off concern to me, because those sort of obstacles have concrete solutions, quite unlike wrestling with not getting results for five months straight and beating myself up about it… especially given no one anymore has the guts to try harassing anyone, and both gradschool and where I work now are as politically correct as you can get.
The problem with all these successful women is they assume every other woman is already the best at what she does, and the only problem she has is with presenting herself. Nope, not my story. If anything, the best advice I’ve received is from my totally intimidating male friends and my father who understands what being the underdog in your lab/office means. Or from my advisor who brought his infant son to a doctoral defense. These ladies don’t feel real enough to me. They don’t have any insecurities work-wise or any stories about how they dealt with the crippling uncertainty that comes with doing research. If I had a choice, I’d rather spend an hour with Yishan Wong than Sheryl Sandberg because Yishan gets my concerns better, only unlike Sheryl, there are no panels where he is asked to talk about it.
Everyone is concerned about not enough women being enrolled in computer science courses. Then suddenly a ton of them switch over from Psychology to Human-Computer Interaction and they think problem solved and don’t bother about the computer architecture lab with its lone female. No one is concerned that the guys working on graphical models assume by default that the girls they meet in gradschool work in UX research.
The question all these people working overtime to get girls to enroll in computer science should ask themselves is, what do they want these girls to do in the field? More and more girls keep getting into the same low-impact (technology-wise) and low-tech jobs, is that their ideal? They want more and more women in the higher echelons of tech management, but why do they keep showing us only one sort of career path? Every media story about Sergey-and-Larry always talk about how they still code, but does anyone talk about Marissa Mayer’s fun coding projects instead of her family life?
Maybe it’s just that the media is staffed by people who are not from traditional techie backgrounds and they just don’t get what ‘technology’ is, and are blind to real high-impact high-tech jobs and the women who hold those, because heck, you have a few tech company CEOs who are women, so that’s all you need, right? More so if these women are blonde. And if they happen to be mothers, icing on the cake. These people see the female product manager doing the media presentation and assume she’s the woman-in-tech for their story, and don’t bother looking beyond for, say, the female tech lead who actually worked on the details. It’s the same reason Jobs is a bigger deal than Woz, so we can credit the media for being consistent on that. It pisses off girls like me who wouldn’t mind a role model or two who are in the same career path as us, because soon enough we’ll have to answer to our high-expectations Asian parents about why we aren’t doing things that get girls like that Marissa fame and instead are busting our fanny doing some vague research no one hears about.
All said and done, enough of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. Next time you want a women-in-technology quote, ask Daphne Koller, Rina Dechter, Hannah Wallach, Jennifer Vaughan, Anima Anandkumar… or so many others. They are probably more media-shy, but heck, their perspectives are also worth hearing, especially given the sort of impact their work has.
I watched Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur today. Not on the big screen, though I wish I had. It’s a tad irksome that Rowdy Rathore gets a worldwide release while this one doesn’t.
I must say I really liked the movie. (Spoilers might follow)
I felt the usual words used to describe the movie misled me quite some. Words like ‘gritty’, ‘raw’, ‘gory’. Watching the movie and seeing what the trailers focused on, I can see why people use those words to describe GoW, but that doesn’t feel like the whole picture to me. It’s a revenge saga, alright. It has quite some violence, yes. The language is crude and there are more sexual references here than in the average Bollywood movie. But at the end of two and a half hours, GoW1 is still a nice cheery happy movie where we know our man is going to win at the end no matter what obstacles come his way, be it a pissed second wife who is spying for his enemies or being nowhere close to getting his revenge even when death is at his door. And when the son is caught with guns, he goes to jail, but comes back wiser, and doesn’t repeat the same mistakes he made while smuggling home guns the first time around. It’s a nicer victory than if he had suspected or known all along the plot against him and done smart things the first time around that would have been presented to the audience as an ace up his sleeve.
I found the first half pretty cheery… you know it’s a gangsta sort of movie, but unlike any you’ve watched before, they have a normal family life, with children and their mother, all smiling, not fearing for their lives every minute like any other loved one of a marked man in other works. In other movies, you’d have the female characters either simpering, or, if they are supposed to be a ‘strong woman’, they actually have things to do with crime, either orchestrating deals or influencing the protagonist, sacrificing themselves… or due to their own motivations, bringing the gang down…. but Richa Chaddha does none of that. She has her own part, cuffing her kids on the ear and all, which brings with it its own flavour instead of being closely tied down to the main plot. She’s a nice supporting role which shows us different dimensions of this sort of story.
And it’s not your usual revenge movie. Those are all plotted in a mathematical fashion, with one action, then a reaction, then a reaction to that… but GoW meanders. People in this movie don’t spend their entire time thinking only of revenge, they spend it waiting for an opportunity to take revenge, and in the meantime, life happens, the social, political and economic climates change, children are born, people get married, people bury some old feuds… the works. The feuding characters don’t outright want to finish each other off, but just want to make living hell for the other, like Manoj Bajpai says in his first few scenes.
Having read other reviews, I was expecting Manoj Bajpai’s character to be this complete womanizer with little or no respect for women… but it isn’t so black and white. He is not your gallant white knight who takes off his hat in the presence of ladies, but nor is he the typical gangster who grabs women off the street for his own pleasure. He’s actually shown playing with his infant son, and apologizing to his wives…. not saying that redeems him in some way, but it’s nice to have a little complexity to a protagonist. It adds some semblance of realism. After all, the misogyny we encounter on a daily basis is more the result of just not knowing the right thing to do and a lack of perspective instead of a carefully orchestrated plot to keep women down.
The much-touted abusive language, sexual references and gore didn’t faze me at all. It’s possibly because I don’t really understand Bhojpuri to get the literal meanings of the expressions the characters use, and I expected more visual gore than what is shown. Plus, the background music and soundtrack, as well as the pacing and editing make sure to keep the mood easy and light instead of filling you with horror and disgust each time some violence breaks out or a character dies. Even when Manoj Bajpai has been shot brutally, instead of sweeping shots that let the tragedy sink in, you have him standing upright, with a gun, with an upbeat Bihar Ke Lala playing in the background.
There’s nothing more to say for the music score or the cinematography or the writing that hasn’t been said before. It all just goes well together, and trying to find faults seems more like nitpicking to me now. I must confess the movie didn’t knock my socks off, but that might have been due to my watching it on my laptop instead of a movie hall filled with people whistling and hooting at appropriate times that I appreciate the depth of what is happening. I really like what has been done with the subject matter at hand; it feels refreshing to my senses because I haven’t watched anything quite like this before, where I’m an amused bystander watching a gory drama unfold, and instead of feeling extreme emotions, I’m just grinning at how things happen.
Overall, I’d watch it again. And I can’t wait for Gangs of Wasseypur II.
I’ve had a most wonderful weekend.
A couple of months back, I’d been to a Norah Jones concert at this little town in Westchester county called Tarrytown. It was a great discovery by a friend of a friend’s, especially since Norah would be touring the world a month after to promote her new album, Little Broken Hearts, for tickets that were twice what I paid for that small ‘Norah and Friends’ concert in Tarrytown. It wasn’t even advertized… that secret.
Since then, I’d been following the show listings of Tarrytown Music Hall quite religiously and they had a lot of musicians performing, a lot of whom I’d vaguely listened to, but wasn’t really inclined to go to a full concert of, like Michael Bolton and Dionne Warwick. And then I saw them advertise for The Manhattan Transfer – a jazz vocalese band. I booked tickets more than a month in advance.
The concert was on Friday night. Somehow I managed to get fully drenched in the only 20-minute spell of thundershowers in a long time – it had been boiling hot the whole week through. After a ride up north, I found my seat, with a good view of the stage. As the hall filled up, I realized I was easily the youngest person in the place. Everyone else seemed to be thrice my age or thereabouts. I got talking with the old couple to my right, and they were quite surprised to see a young brown girl at a concert like this. They were very nice, unintentionally racist and loved jazz music.
It turned out to be the band’s 40th year, and they were playing a lot of their old hits. They started with Route 66, followed by Java Jive, followed by On a little street in Singapore and Brasil. Everyone seemed disappointed that Cheryl Bentyne was not performing, as she was undergoing surgery. In place of her was Margaret Dorn, who did a decent job, but somehow didn’t complement the band well enough. Janis Siegel, who is the other female singer in the band (they consist of two male and two female singers), does a beautiful scat and hits the high notes wonderfully, but the steady, solid, unadorned voice of Cheryl would have kept the sound more grounded and bound together, I felt. The band went into solos then, and also songs from other composers and songbooks.
By now, the elderly gentlmean in front of me was shaking his head wildly, obstructing my view. So I switched to the empty seat in the front row, next to two colourfully dressed women. If it hadn’t been for the bobbing Adam’s apples and raspy voices, I would never have realized they were transvestites… even their square jawlines weren’t so prominent. There was a fifteen-minute interval and I was nervously looking into my phone because I was afraid of saying something to the ladies and offending them. One of them then asked me what I thought of the concert so far. They turned out to be immensely passionate about music and about this band.
The band then got back and continued with numbers from the songbooks. They went back to their classics, and reached a crescendo with Birdland, at which the ladies next to me burst into tears of joy because ‘it was so beautiful’. It really was. A wonderful, practiced sync between all four of them, that comes with singing together for so long. That one song took all the positives from their entire performance that evening and put it in one four-minute burst. It indeed was a marvel to hear. Alan Paul then finished off with a very emotion-laden Gloria, a fitting end to the concert.
I came back tired, cold and wet, and with a big smile on my face for having experienced something that beautiful. Nothing could top that.
Or so I thought. Reddit.com, worldwide purveyors of procrastination, were having their annual Global Reddit Meetup Day on Saturday. Turned out, the New York City meetup was happening rather close to where I lived. What the hell, I thought and went there. The environment was surprisingly like what Reddit feels like to me online – where you can be yourself and find your crowd no matter what. Everyone felt welcome. There was food and drink which people had brought, and people talking and playing frisbee.
Within minutes, a couple of computer science sophomores and I were in a deep conversation about the Twitter API and web development and Asian Parent memes, when we were interrupted by a friendly southerner who introduced us to a Mongolian who grew up in Siberia. The conversation shifted to languages, their origins, and things like that while we asked the Siberian about what it’s like there, whether it was a ‘punishment posting’ (extreme weather, yes it’s a punishment posting, especially the northern parts of Siberia).
Just then, we were all called for a group picture, which took several clicks to get right, with one organizer running frantically across the area, trying to get all of us in the shot, in panorama mode. There was one guy screaming out typical Reddit stuff like ‘That takes care of my senator ambitions’, ‘That escalated quickly’, and other such things. It was awesome that everyone got the inside jokes!
We got back to hanging around and chitchatting. Now there were people playing soccer in addition to frisbee, and then a bunch started playing Calvinball. The bunch of us who were talking about insane conspiracy theories, careers in computer science/IT, drones, Iran and other things slowly got distracted by a guy who was showing a bunch of people some plants and trying to dig something out. He looked out of place, with his rather-complicated looking tools and park-ranger clothes. Turned out to be a horticulturist, and we got back to talking.
There was one fella who had a job extracting eyes from corpses, for an eye bank. The conversation quickly degenerated into a barrage of eye puns. Eye-banking, Eye-T, ‘Did you know about the blind man who picked up the hammer and saw?’ ‘No I didn’t, and neither did Helen Keller’… and so many others which I don’t remember now. We were surprised at how quickly real life mirrored Reddit.
We see this guy standing awkwardly beneath a tree, by his bike, and texting on his Blackberry. I wanted to engage him in conversation, when one of the people I was talking to whispers “Omigod, that’s the Reddit CEO”. I don’t remember Yishan Wong’s face, so I pull out my mobile to imageSearch his face, by when one of the group had already walked up to him to ask, “Are you Yishan?’. “Yes, yes I am”, he said. And then told us not to make much of a fuss.
So we casually stood around, asking him about what keeps him busy. He said though he’s a techie, the 20 people who run the website don’t much need any guidance with technical issues, though scaling is a challenge. His job, he said, is to keep a good relationship going with the folks who own the website, so that in times of crisis, like the r/jailbait issue, they trust the Reddit team to get it right instead of walking in and shutting the website down.
He was telling us about how the whole plus for Reddit is the community aspect, which is fostered by self posts and by meetups like this one. He told us about how they hired someone who would have been an awesome Community Relations Manager, but right after the day he was hired, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Just then, we were interrupted by a reporter from New York magazine, who stood by listening to our conversation, and chiming in with supporting questions.
Someone asked him about the next technical questions he was addressing, and he mentioned subreddit discovery. It seems a very interesting problem, because given an interest, there are atleast 30 different subreddits, so which one would you recommend to a given user? Also, how would you know about these subreddits, given that most of the time, the names of the subreddits don’t directly reflect what it’s about? I suggested showing the users wordclouds around each subreddit, extracted from the content of the posts on it. He said their biggest advantage is their large user base and availability of mods for everything, which they can use to manually tag subreddits.
I then asked for a photograph with him, which he kindly obliged. One of the group asked if he gets asked this often, and he said he doesn’t, mostly because he’s a very private person. Then he had to talk to the reporter as he needed to run elsewhere in a bit, so we shook hands and got back to talking to each other.
Stuck around for a while more, talking to the photographer from New York magazine, who was somehow unobtrusively capturing pictures of all of us in our natural environment, and watching people play Calvinball.
Four hours after I’d first walked in, I walked back home, terribly dehydrated and hungry. And cheery as hell. It’s not everyday (in New York atleast) that you meet so many nice cheerful people, one among who is the damn CEO of Reddit Dot Com and talk to him about word/tag clouds!
So after a couple of rather forgettable homeworks at my sketch-writing class, and a couple I have been too lazy to post, I finally wrote something I like. This one’s a desk piece. The sort of stuff you find on shows like Letterman or The Tonight Show or all of those shows I’ve never really paid much attention to.
The homework was to make three jokes, preferably about current events and then do a possibly recurring segment, maybe a funny list of things or some such.
So I made three jokes, one about Microsoft Surface, one about Vatican saying the media is an agent of the devil, like Dan Brown, and one about some Michigan senator being silenced for use of the word ‘vagina’. Then I did a list of ‘Products that seem to exist in movie universes’.
As before, I write it on Rawscripts, so I have to export it to PDF to show it to the rest of the world. I hate that, but until I get motivated enough to write it in LaTeX and then export to HTML, you’ll have to make do with this.
Here you go: Desk Piece. I’d love your feedback.
So as I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve joined a sketch-writing class. Our first homework was to find a pet peeve of ours, develop a character who embodies that irksome quality, and then to write a sketch revolving around that character.
I find a lot of things irksome, but the one I picked was people who read too much between the lines of books and movies – classic thing where when the author says ‘The curtains are blue’, they try interpreting that in various ways, when all the author meant was that the curtains the room were coloured blue.
Then I had to come up with some sort of a character sketch for a person with this character, so I created Abby, who is a sixteen-year-old girl, sort of like the older sister in Ten things I Hate About You, top of her class, considers herself more mature than others, reads a lot, cut her baby teeth on Ayn Rand, wanted nothing more than Kafka and Nietzsche for her fourteenth birthday, dates an older college student who moonlights as a hipster barista, considers herself real deep, aims to study Literature at Harvard, draws inspiration from second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem, always enters any argument with ‘If I may chime in as a woman…’, resorts to grammar nazism when all else fails… the works.
Now for a funny situation to put Abby in… I thought it’d be fun to have her come face to face with the artist whose works she overanalyzes. I first wanted her to read too much into Disney/Pixar movies, but then, the interpretations would have to be suitably ludicrous, and I somehow didn’t feel up for that. It was finally a tie between Tarantino and JK Rowling. The problem with Tarantino was, he himself weaves in layers of meanings into his movies, what with tributes and parodies and whatnot. I somehow couldn’t come up with theories ludicrous enough to have him go ‘Say, what?!’, though this one interpretation of Pulp Fiction was really awesome – Marcellus Wallace has sold his soul to the devil, and the suitcase is what he has to give the Devil to get his soul back. For more on that, ask me later; I’m too tired to type that out right now.
So JK Rowling it was. I scoured cracked.com for crazy Harry Potter interpretations, and got some nice suggestions off Tuna and Surabhi, the biggest HP fan I know. And I had a ton of things worrying me during this whole week that I could finally manage to get things written only in the hour before I had to run to class.
And so… here it is. It got a few laughs when I read it out in class. There were a few edits suggested too, which I might take up on and rewrite this sketch. Apologies for having it as a PDF, but writing it in the screenwriting format using rawscripts.com (I initially started off writing in LaTeX, but time crunch meant I ended up using something more WYSIWYG), I can only export it as a PDF so far.
Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it
Our blog turns seven today.
I really don’t know what to put in here which I haven’t already said in the past seven years. This past year has been the one year where a lot of things have changed in my life. I think I can say the same for Tuna. Consequentially, we haven’t been blogging all that much as we used to before.
My life has gone way past the point where I can blog as an outlet for all my frustrations with life. Because the things irking me are more complex, and there are more people involved. The stakes are higher. I don’t like to share much these days. As for the nice things, I’m discovering the pleasures in experiencing a moment and not taking the energy to document it. I don’t even click that many pictures these days.
I had a very harrowing few months since this blog turned six. And then my life took a huge turn and I moved to the other end of the country. I discovered improv, I took (and will be taking more) writing classes. I’m gainfully employed after much efforts in that direction. I even have a Master’s degree now, after way much more effort in that direction. I’ve done things I would have never dreamt of doing a year ago. I’ve confronted various demons, and gained much strength. I’ve never felt more alive.
I find I don’t write as much. At all. I used to think it was writer’s block. But, earlier today I sat down to write a post I’d been meaning to write for a while now. The quality obviously was lower than my average, because I’m so rusty. But the words, they flowed easy. It isn’t for lack of words or time that I don’t write. I just don’t anymore feel the need to justify myself, even to myself. I’m trying not to ruminate too much about things as well. It is great to analyze things, but it is also great to not do it all the time. I don’t feel the pressure to document my every happiness and sadness anymore. There’s simply too much happening that any chronicle will be chronically incomplete.
Or maybe life has wearied me. I know I talk like an old woman who’s seen it all. I certainly haven’t, and nor have I been irreparably scarred and my hair whitened by shock and trauma. But when your goals for now are complete, and you’ve done everything that has been asked of you, and there’s no red hotline on your desk lighting up which you’ve to pick up and say “Yes, Commissioner, I’m on my way”, there doesn’t seem to be any point in being meticulous and pressuring yourself the way you’ve been doing for the past many, many years. I think I’m in a place where I’ve earned the right to break the rules I’ve drawn for myself, and ease off routine and do only things that make me smile. And when I’m in a place like that, I don’t anymore need to resort to writing to blow off steam.
And I’m more acutely aware of the need for privacy now. I’ve seen enough people sit judgement on every trivial thing, that I don’t anymore want to expose myself to it. Earlier, I delighted in talking about mundane things that happened to me, and discussing trivial incidents with all and sundry, welcoming varying points of view on random situations, but now I’m more set in my views. I don’t want to have to explain every thing I’ve done to everyone who asks. Because I’ve done it only a few hundred times before. And most of those times, people don’t get it. It irks me, that people who know nought of anything sound cocky and confident. Nothing gets my goat more than someone confidently firing off an uninformed opinion or a wrong fact, like they’ve been researching that all their sad, uneventful lives. And talking in absolutes, at that. Acknowledging that you might be wrong is grossly underrated in this world. Everyone should spend a year commenting on stuff on Reddit. That way, they learn to make sure to be as accurate as possible and leave enough room to gracefully accept they are wrong, because there are atleast five million jobless people dying to point out your many mistakes.
Besides, blogging isn’t what it used to be. Our ways of consuming information might have changed to crazy amounts, but yet, interfaces for discussing a given piece with everyone including the author stay stunningly archaic. The amount of value you need to add in order to get a conversation going has increased manifold. Because people already get the mundane, personal points of view off Facebook and Twitter, that a blog is no longer something special, it is just another thing among so many others that demands your attention.
So the two main reasons I used to blog don’t hold at this point of time for me – I don’t need to write for myself, and it was never like I wrote for others (yeah, well, I did like the eyeballs this page garnered) that anyone else’s interest in my writing would make me write, unless they decided to pay me for it, and the interest that used to be a nice bonus earlier doesn’t exist all that much anymore.
I don’t know what will change next in my life, or when. I don’t rule out the possibility of getting back to liking producing and consuming art by expressing my feelings anytime soon. But right now, I’m just putting my feet up and calmly confronting everything that’s scared me for the past twenty-odd years in my own comfort zone, at my own pace, and trying to make every little dream come a little closer to becoming real.
Writing’s been great to me. Especially writing on this blog. It has made me known to an extent I couldn’t really have envisioned, I’m not shy to say. And frankly, given what a withdrawn person I’ve been, that’s not really saying much… I never really saw things happening like someone meeting a friend of mine and saying “Oh, you’re from NITK? I read the NITK Numbskulls” except in a very distant pipe-dream sort of way. I don’t know if you can call this ‘success’, but I believe this blog is some sort of way to prove to myself what I always suspected – that I’m a better writer than folks like Chetan Bhagat who call themselves writers and make a fat packet of money and fame off it. I don’t think it’s all that oblique that I am referring to people other than Chetan Bhagat here but whose names are too numerous for me to take here, plus I don’t want to add one more result when those sorry wusses google their own names.
It feels good to start the seventh year of this blog by saying goodbye to being apologetic about everything including my very existence – I notice a lot of women I know do that, and they need to stop. I’m hoping that now that I have the trivialities out of the way, I can devote myself to writing about other things. I’m starting on a sketch-writing class early next week, with Armando Diaz, and I should probably practice what I learn for the next eight weeks on this blog.
Usually, there is this long list of people I thank every year on this day, but this year, I choose to raise a glass to Tuna, for our joint seven years of fun and funda-putting and figuring out the strange world we live in.
Maybe I ought to acknowledge Tina Fey here as well, given that with her memoir, she’s suddenly become this huge influence on me. But in my heart of hearts, I think I probably wouldn’t like her very much should I spend much time with her. She’s too type-A for my tastes, and is too judgemental, moralizing and nasty. She’s exactly the sort of person I hate – the sort who get known for their acerbic insults… It’s all fun and games until you’re at the receiving end. I think being nice is underrated. Irrespective, some of her philosophy is inspiring, and heck, maybe Drama isn’t a bad major in college. And improv is fun. And being conscientious works. And heck, she’s funny and I like her sort of humour.
And as usual, Goddess Saraswati is prayed to. Things didn’t always go perfect on the front she’s responsible for, but at the end, things always come through. And here’s hoping they continue to.
I moved to New York City soon after New Year. And then seem to have disappeared into a black hole. Neither have I been blogging my exploits, nor have I taken the trouble to upload photographic evidence of my presence in this great city to Facebook or Instagram. No, I’m not hiding out in some corner of Oregon and just saying I’m in NYC. But it’s hard to take pics of yourself when all you own is a not-all-that-great Android phone with not-good battery life. I’ll be getting a camera soon, and maybe I’ll do a photo-essay on the Greek-inspired architecture in the city. And then maybe do Boston.
But until then, all I have is my shaky memory and this blog to tell you all about what to try in New York City. From the perspective of a vegetarian, rather social loner. Ingredients – you. And maybe a Metrocard. That’s all. Here goes!
- Look at the city lights from a high vantage point: This is the quintessential thing to do in any big city. I really love looking at lit-up places. It somehow just erases all that is an eyesore and highlights only the nice stuff. High above only makes it better. The Empire State Building is the first place that comes to mind for this. It’s right in Midtown Manhattan, on 5th Avenue, right near the middle of the city. Up the street a short way away is Rockefeller Plaza. You can go up the observation deck of 30 Rock and see all the streets lit up. That’s the Chrysler building, that’s the Empire State Building, that’s the stuff around WTC, and that seems like a church. Then you look at all the tall buildings midtown and point out the one where you work. And if you’re on the Empire State Building, the little blue thing midtown is the Rockefeller Plaza ice-skating rink. Then you see the streets, brightly lit Fifth Av, broad Park Av, crooked Broadway, Park and Broadway merging way downtown into 4th Av. And then the Brooklyn Bridge, and Queensboro Bridge, and Brooklyn and Queens. Then Newport, Hoboken and other cities in New Jersey along the Hudson river. Beautiful.
- Walk along the Brooklyn Bridge and back: It has a very nice pedestrian walkway. And even a lane for cyclists. With plenty of places and benches where you can stop and pose for pictures. Or just look at the tall buildings of the Financial District, or the piers along the East River. And the lights on the bridge itself. And its history, the process of it being built, and the huge steel ropes that seem to impossibly hold it up.
- Get jostled around at Times Square, watch a Broadway show: Times Square is the busiest place I’ve seen ever. It’s always full to bursting with tourists. There’s no dearth of dressed up characters wanting to pose with you for pics (for a fee). Or of bright lights. It’s the closest you get to Vegas without going to Vegas. There are plenty of theaters playing Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. The milling of humanity is cloying if you prefer wide open spaces, but for a big-city person like me, it feels just right. Oh, and the Broadway shows. They take the idea of a stage performance and make it awesomer than you can imagine. No stunt is too impossible to perform, no cost is too big to spare. The music, the dances, the acting, the stunts, the costumes…. even if they vary, there’s no reduction in the ‘wow’ factor at any show.
- Admire the architecture at Grand Central: It has to be the most beautiful public transit station ever. It is a work of art, right from the delicate chandeliers to the tall ceilings. Try their food market. So much fresh produce and fresh catch. A delight to behold.
- Listen to some busking at large transit stations: The ones I’ve seen in Manhattan so far have been the best at Grand Central, Times Square and Union Square. Occasionally Herald Square too. And also on the shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square. There are a lot of performers. Most of them are obviously not that great. But you do quite often come across a really good jazz band, or a bunch of really flexible breakdancers. Or a couple of South-east Asians playing some exotic instrument. Or a sole violinist playing some beautiful, mournful tunes. Or a fun group on the shuttle who have ‘Sing-along Saturdays’. Don’t get the CDs they offer ‘free for a $5 donation’, though. I’ve heard most of those CDs are blank
- Play chess and lounge by the fountain at Bryant Park: I love Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan. It is located right behind the Schwarzman Library, which is a delight to behold all by itself. It is the perfect place for hanging around after work and attempting to write your novel. Cisco provides free Wifi citing just that reason. There’s a huge lawn, and a fountain. There are a few sandwich places. And a couple of chess boards and pétanque, a French game. It’s a popular tourist spots, and by the end of two hours there, you’ll become an expert at taking shots of people with the fountain as backdrop. A calming, relaxing place. My favourite spot in the city.
- Watch improv for real cheap: There are three places that come to mind – People’s Improv Theater in Flatiron, Magnet Theater in Chelsea and Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade. Their shows cost under $10, and are really really good. Then there are mixers as well where you can take part and improvise scenes possibly with someone who’s been doing this for ages. These places aren’t yet as well-renowned for their alumni as Second City in Chicago or Groundlings in LA, (Hang on, UCB can boast of Aziz Ansari) but just go watch! The folks performing now might just end up being the next Lisa Kudrow or Scott Adsit. Or the current Scott Adsit – he performs in these places! And for $5!
- Do Karaoke in Koreatown: I haven’t really been to Chinatown, because it’s so far out of my way. But Koreatown is in midtown. 32nd Street between Madison and 7th Avenue is full of Korean restaurants, banks, bars and karaoke bars. For the first time, you genuinely feel you are in another country. As a vegetarian, I can’t really appreciate much of the food, except in Hangawi, which is a rather upscale vegan Korean restaurant, and their smaller, more chilled out cafe outlet, Franchia. But the real attraction in Koreatown would be the karaoke bars. Haven’t done it myself, but have heard from friends that it is an experience you certainly should have with your friends.
- ….So much more: Well, there’s simply too much to do. Jog in Central Park, have lunch in Hell’s Kitchen, shop for real cheap around NYU, check out the large clothing stores on 34th street, shop real posh around 59th and Lexington, eat at random Pakistani restaurants around 28th and Lexington where you feel you’re in some chai shop in Lahore, walk the Museum Mile, go to the waterfront near WTC, have chaat around Jackson Heights, listen to some jazz at Birdland, attend a Hack-and-Tell session at the Meetup.com offices…
I haven’t done it all. No one has. By the time you think you have, they get something new. That’s what makes it a wonderful, exciting city. It’s not easygoing like Boston or San Francisco. It makes you rough. I went from being a docile immigrant who couldn’t talk back to a store clerk in Dallas when she was making fun of me to the hard-as-nails one who asked the tough-built lady from the Bronx who elbowed me to ‘take all the extra space on the train and shove it up hers’. It’s not easy on the nerves. But it gives you the freedom to be whatever you want, while virtually guaranteeing that no one’s going to remember if and when you mess up.
Being pretty much by myself has toughened me up a lot, I’ve to admit. Not just NYC, but right from when I moved here. I’ve gone through so much that now nothing else seems insurmountable. I tell people one or two stories from my life, and they are already going ‘Girl, you’ve been through a lot!’, when those are just the episodes I can narrate. It’s not like I’ve had it rough…. I just seem to find these fun situations to be in. I sometimes find it hard to not say ‘Bitch, please!’ when others my age whine about being depressed or broke or lonely or stuck, but I realize there are way too many people who are more than qualified to say ‘Bitch, please!’ when I whine about my ‘problems’.
There will always be things to be dissatisfied about, things that you feel insecure about, and scary unpleasant things. But when you fulfill your childhood fantasies of lying down on a lawn and writing into your notebook and having dessert for dinner and catching a snowflake on your tongue, you find there’s very little in the universe you can genuinely be mad about.
Living in New York City has its perks. Hindi movies on the big screen are never too far away.
My flatmate was away for a bit. I wanted a fun-filled Saturday. Being away from Irvine and in an action-packed city, I seemed to have almost forgotten the pleasure of watching movies in theaters. Being away from the esteemed company of my friends in Irvine has a lot to do with it, probably. It’s a wonderful thing to pass Bangalore-referencing InternetMeme-referencing half-funny comments while watching a movie.
I decided to watch Kahaani, given that it was very highly rated by virtually everyone who had watched the movie. Turned out, Midtown East housed a Big Cinemas. As in Reliance. Wow. Samosas for snacks. Impressive. The theater marketed itself as a place where you could watch international movies, French and Italian and Korean and everything else, not just Indian ones. Brilliant move; this way, you attract not just a desi crowd, but also the hipster avant-garde international film-watching New Yorkers.
Oh, and I watched this movie all by myself. Know what, apart from the cashier’s sharp “ONE ticket?!’, there’s no indication of anyone giving a damn about your watching a movie alone. I miss funny comments and all that, but I ended up passing random comments and predicting the next few scenes with these two Indian-American didis who I was sitting next to. Was totally random fun. Especially when they termed the movie a combination of Kill Bill and Salt. Don’t ask me how that conclusion was reached.
Anyway. The Cult Of Bob Biswas.
For those who haven’t yet watched Kahaani, Bob Biswas is an assassin-for-hire. Unlike the usual solidly-built seven-footer types or the extremely lithe, ‘hai-yaa’-screaming martial artist types who usually play the roles of paid assassins, Bob Biswas wears thick coke-bottom classes, works at a desk job at an insurance firm (LIC?), is always on the brink of being fired, is chubby, short and stocky, doesn’t come anywhere close to being called fit. Oh, and he’s asthmatic, too (Oh, and the chief villain in the movie has a rare blood group…. no dearth of medical issues in the movie).
Totally. While the internet is not exploding with Bob Biswas references, the number of folks chattering about him is undeniably increasing.
Not unexpected. Bollywood produces too few memorable movies, and even fewer memorable leads, forget about memorable interesting fringe characters. Unless you watch movies as avidly as Dipta Chaudhuri, your chances of coming across a memorable character in mainstream Bollywood movies is rather low. Bob Biswas is rare enough to stick to the mind long after you’re done watching him. And we can’t deny he’s interesting either.
And what exactly makes him so memorable? To start with, I’d say he’s exactly the sort of character we would love to come up with while performing improv. Reminds me of the time these two guys spent the better part of 20 minutes doing a mom-son thing where the mom was abusive and kept making the son’s life comically miserable. We got all invested in the comically sobbing son, when he upped and killed the mother, and turned out to be a serial killer. All in comic fashion, of course. And all totally improvised.
It is really fun when two totally opposing ideas come together and actually work out, in improv. It’s not always a sure thing. A happy guy and a sad guy? Surely. Two totally excited guys? Totally, when they match each others’ energy levels, there’s only one way it goes. An excited guy and a bored guy? Mmm… not so much. A totally subdued type turning out to be a badass killer? Why not?
For all purposes, Bob Biswas is just a fun thing to play with. The very idea doesn’t make much sense, or we don’t have enough to go by to make such a character believable. How’d he get so good at murder, how does he lay low, how does he advertise and get his business, does he not have any enemies who’d be equally or more powerful and finish him off, and how does he go undetected and stay alive with all this?
Unless these questions are satisfyingly answered, Bob Biswas will never become a full-fledged spinoff or a full-length novel material.
But obviously, the writers of Kahaani never intended him to be all that (and there are plenty of characters that succeed without much of a backstory). Or anything apart from being some guy who gets caught and betrays the guy who hired him. They just thought to up the fun a little. I can picture the writers at a brainstorming session, and someone saying “What if he’s just a mamooli guy you see on the street and don’t even register?”. Most of the folks in the session would have laughed, cracked a couple of jokes and then someone else sees a workable idea taking shape, decides to go with it just to see what it leads to, adds details to solidify the character (“Let’s also give him a boring job… hey, I once had a roommate who worked at LIC, didn’t do a single thing….”), et voila.
When I think of it this way instead of just letting the idea for the character simmer in the backburner of my brain, I don’t anymore find him all that fascinating. But I still do smile a little that what would have been an absurd unworkable idea while whiteboarding was actually taken seriously, its merits recognized, and they actually gave it a form on the big screen.
Not every absurd idea is a good one, and not all of them merit precious time spent on them. But it is good to see how an idea, with some work done to it, can be fascinating, and feel like a rich contribution. And… I’m also glad for these successes, for it makes people – bosses, financiers, folks in jobs that require creative output – more inclined to say ‘Yes, and..’ to seemingly crazy ideas that come their way.
The tired sun slowly descends into the golden sea, watching silhouettes lock in a passionate kiss. The tide recklessly rises and the island of rocks is nowhere to be seen.
A majestic lonely castle on an island in the vast ocean opens on the screen with fire works in the back ground. And then letter by letter the title appears above it on the huge screen.
Early morning, the folded newspaper lies besides a cup of tea. One the third page is a woman in black gleaming with a man with a lopsided smile.
A huge red carpet awaits in silent anticipation for the black limousine to draw upto it. The door slowly opens and the star walks out while there is an outbreak of camera flashes all around.
One last twist of the spatula. A splash of milk on the curry. Few leaves of coriander. The dish is closed for the dinner outside. The aroma drifts away.
A waiter pushes the laced food cart below the glass chandeliers in the dim room as the well suited man breaks to a thin smile to the deal well closed.
Mice scurry on the wet cobble stones on a dark street. A man stops to the clicketty clack of a tonga. The window slides open as a gun cocks. The man falls down dead.
The empty credits roll up as the organ gnarls away.
There’s so much in New York City to satisfy your creative cravings!
I found a writing class in Brooklyn. And you could try out the first class, and choose to sign up or not. I knew I couldn’t sign up for it right away, but decided to try it all the same. And I was pleasantly surprised. Now, as an engineer, I look down on all artsy-fartsy types, and am wary of all writing classes, because I’m under the impression that all those folks dont get the madness down to a method that works well, and if anything gets done there, it’s by pure chance. I hate being told to wait for inspiration or to channelize it. I hate whining about writer’s block even though I do it all the time.
Anyway, the class I attended was none of that. It provided a form and structure to screenwriting and formulating plot points. At the same time, it didn’t hinder creativity, but provided a channel for it to flow when stuck. The rules helped you express yourself better, more smoothly.
We did two exercises. The first one was a meditative sort of thing where we tried to think of a character, give them a tactile need, and create conflict by putting a locked door between that tactile need and them, and add another character who has the power to open the door but for some reason doesn’t. And we were given fifteen minutes to write what we saw in our heads.
The characters I came up with were inspired by people I saw on the subway earlier that day…. there was a big black woman next to me on the train, who was reading a novel, and she looked like Aretha Franklin, only with martinet-style glasses and flecks of grey in her hair. Then there was a thin, petite black man in his early twenties sitting across from me. And there was this old big black man on the downtown Express.. so here goes.
Aretha stepped urgently across the narrow street, looming large over the petite thin people around her. She opened the black metal gate forcefully, not caring for the ivy covering it. She faced a large, thick, teakwood door with a shiny brass knob. Kieran usually left that open.
She tried the knob, but the huge door refused to budge. She pushed hard, in case the door was jammed, but to no avail. Locked.
“Kieran! Open the door!”, she yelled through the open window. “I need to see Amos. Tell him I’m here!”.
“Sorry Aretha,” came the reply. “After all the hurt you’ve caused, none of us want you here”. He paused hesitantly. “Amos doesn’t want you here”.
“You’re lying!”, she retorted. “Amos wouldn’t turn me away”. Her eyes welled up. “I just want to tell him I’m sorry”.
“No, Aretha”, Kieran was firm. “I can’t let you upstairs to see Amos. There’s only so much emotional trauma a man confined to bed can take.
“Just go away, Aretha. If you love Amos, you know he shouldn’t be seeing you”.
I surprised myself there. I really thought I couldn’t write any fiction with any feeling before this!
Then we had the second exercise. Everyone had to write about the same characters with the same tactile want. So we came up with a protagonist Charlie, a.k.a ‘Chuck the Duck’, who has a tactile need – a cheesecake. Then there’s our antagonist, Marlene, a.k.a ‘Marlee the bitch’, who tries to prevent him from getting the cheesecake. Mind you, we came up with all this on the fly. So here’s what I came up with to fit all these things. Again, fifteen minutes to write.
Charlie sighed unhappily on his walk around the park. He hated exercising All he wanted to do was sit back in his La-Z-boi and eat Doritos while watching reruns of The Drew Carey Show. He was tired after two rounds of jogging around the jogging track, and he didn’t want to go through two more rounds of walks. His muscles ached. He felt hungry. His system craved something sugary and fatty. Two weeks since his trainer had allowed him a treat.
He hated, hated, hated her. She was tough, and she could be nasty when she felt you hadn’t been following her instructions. She would berate you, hurt your body image and lower your self-esteem. Not for nothing was Marlene Cooper called Marlee The Bitch.
Charlie sighed some more as he waddled across the tiny bridge; his weight made it hard to keep a steady stride. That memory of a schoolboy nickname of ‘Chuck the Duck’ still rankled in his mind. And Marlene had somehow found that out and began calling him that whenever he groaned during his workouts. He felt unpleasant. He decided to ditch his walk. He couldn’t take it anymore. All he wanted was a creamy white cheesecake with bright red strawberry jelly covering it.
He walked to the Cheesecake Factory a stone’s throw away, ready with his wallet out. As the bell rang when he opened the door, who should he see but… Marlene! At that moment, he hated every inch of that slim athletic figure he’d once found appealing, every last inch of it.
So… how are these? What do they sound like? How do these bits make you feel? Do let me know!
Now maybe I’ll give the next NaNoWriMo a real shot!