Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Hearty Awakening

This is a story i wrote for Times of India's Write India Short Story Contest. The idea was to expand an established writer's given excerpt as per his/her rules. This particular story is for/by Durjoy Datta. The author's excerpt is in italics.

'Are you sure, Rhea?' asks my mother.

'Of course I'm. Survival of the fittest, mother. I'm not going against Darwin. Also I don't want unnecessary scars on my body.'

It's a known fact that we are all born to die. And frankly, I don't understand why it has to be made into such a big deal. If it were not for my mother I would have said that to the bunch of people outside my house, some of them with young kids, shouting slogans, waving placards, literally wanting me to cut one of my beating hearts out. "Save A Life. Donate!" they shout.

For someone who is one in billions, 7.125 billion to be exact, I expect to be treated better. Scientists are still befuddled regarding my condition that gave me two hearts in my mother's womb. But years of research and sticking needles into me have led them nowhere, and they have labelled me as a freak mutation. It's so rare - literally one in all humankind - that they didn't even name the anomaly (as they call it, I will call it awesomeness). I wanted to name the condition myself, something on the lines of Rhea's Heartsawesome but the doctors aren't thrilled with the suggestion. Instead they want to cut one of them out and save a life. Huh?

An IQ of 180, increased concentration, exceptional athleticism and a phenomenal metabolism rate - are just the few boring benefits of an increased blood circulation. Why would I ever give that up? Who in their right mind would even want me to? Freak Mutation my

I know my mother. She just wants to get rid of the nuisance in front of her home, or the place she used to call home before it became a media jungle, and save her career. She is by no means any stranger to waving placards. But she's had enough trouble because of me to last her a lifetime, she says. First the series of doctors, then this. I don't blame her. Like the rest of the world, there's only so much that her lone heart can handle. If only my genitor had been with her and not just vanished off the face of the earth after that one night of sperm donation. She might have been like me, metaphorically, with her heart intertwined with his. Sadly, she simply hates men now. So much so that she hasn’t had any relationship with any man in the eighteen years since then.

Never having seen my father, in my imagination he is more like a demi-god whose secret mission on this planet was to find a suitable female and impregnate her to create me, an unparalleled being. Needless to say, this thought gives me a super kick! But honestly, it also gives me a sense of responsibility, or a deep meaning to my life, if you will. I feel I have been sent to change the world or something, or to fulfill my unseen father's mission. I tried telling this to my mother, and she seemed to agree with the responsibility part.

In her opinion, right now I was being callous. 'Scars? Darwin? Are you kidding me Rhea? Don't you realize this is the beloved mission you keep blabbering about? Give your heart to someone while you're still alive. How can you have two hearts beating inside you but zero kindness?'

Mothers, by definition, have to be melodramatic I suppose. Similarly, being a teenager, I was technically entitled to throw tantrums. Never the one to follow rules or societal norms, I very calmly said, ‘Ok. I am being unkind. I am only thinking about myself and the loves of my life. Not about you, not about anyone dying of a failing heart. But you know I can’t do this to George, nor Sanjana. Losing one heart means losing one of them.’

‘No man is worth such pain Rhea. They leave you to fend for yourself, one way or the other. George should be with you now helping with your submission and not in that godforsaken place called Haiti. Please listen to me. Sanjana is an amazing woman. Donate one heart so that you first get rid of the flashbulbs surrounding you. Then marry her and start a new life in Canada. They will welcome a genius like you with open arms. You won’t even need my intervention to get a permanent residency there.’

‘I know Sanjana is an amazing woman, I love her for God’s sake! But George is a great guy too…why punish him? You should be proud that he is helping resettle the poor earthquake victims. Just because you have distanced yourself from men doesn’t mean I have to as well for no apparent reason! And since when have you started believing in marriage?’

‘You said it yourself honey. Just because I didn’t tie the knot myself doesn’t mean I don’t wish it for you.’

This was becoming too much of an emotional discussion for me to handle. I excused myself on the pretext of preparing the thesis for my second directorate in data science. In all probability, it was going to be my ticket to getting real recognition in the world. One based on my efforts and not something I was born with. It could be a breakthrough in predictive analytics that could change the way we live. George, a professor of Data Structures and Algorithms at UC Berkeley, is my mentor. Our research has the potential to alter the course of history by predicting with a precision of 1/16th of a person’s last four generations’ average age how long he or she would live.

But all I can think of now is about G and Sanju. Granted that I was born unique, but both of them too were nothing short of miracles themselves. Knowing that your paramour loves somebody else as well and still accepting her was something that no ordinary person could handle. That I found two such people at such a young age had to be a miracle of sorts by all existing standards. I don’t want to steal the glory I just attributed them, nevertheless part of it could be because I have two hearts. The knowledge that I love each of the two with a full one must obviously help.

The doctors insisting on cutting one of my hearts out are pretty sure it will not affect my intelligence or focus, but are noncommittal about how my body would react to the reduced circulation. There is quite a possibility it could change my sexual orientation. Or not. It could also adversely affect my metabolism and thereby the physical agility I am so proud of. Then there is the big question of half-heartedly loving Sanju and G, or not having the capability to love one of them at all.

There was no way in hell I would give one of them up. Besides being my boy/girlfriends, they were great friends amongst themselves. The three of us were the talk of the town, for obvious reasons - two girl students and a professor hanging out three-gether, too exciting a topic to ignore. But mother was right about one thing, we had to relocate if we had any hope of leading a semblance of a normal life. Canada was more liberal than US when it came to breaking stereotypes. It was, after all, the first country in the Americas to legalize same-sex marriages. That country had to be more accepting of our unique situation while keeping me close to the scientific community in my own country I so want to continue working with.

Suddenly my phone rings and breaks my reverie. It is Sanju.

‘All hell has broken loose Ree. My parents have found out about us and are calling me back to India. I am flying out tomorrow.’

One of my hearts skips a beat. ‘When will you be back?’ I manage to ask.

‘I don’t know man. My folks sounded real furious. They are as traditional as traditional can get. Their worst fear before agreeing to send me here to study was that I would end up marrying an American guy.’

That was my Sanju for you. Her wicked sense of humor never left her; this almost always managed to bring out my wry side. ‘Oh my. They so grossly underestimated your unorthodoxy baby. Is this the right time to say that makes me love you so much more?’

‘Ree, shut up. Bye.’

And that was that. The last thing that my witty clever lovely Sanju said to me a month ago was to Shut Up. Ironically, it is she who has gone quiet. Off Facebook, off WhatsApp, off my radar. Out of my reach. Completely. For the first time ever in eighteen long years, my heart is broken. I do all the cliché stuff that the brokenhearted are likely to do. Listen to mind numbing metallic rock. Sit on the beach and contemplate how drowning would feel. Dress shabbily. Get a new hobby: Paintball. Pour one of my hearts out to the bartender. Eat chocolate. Focus on all that is wrong with the world.

Then, like a breath of fresh air, without warning, George comes back from Haiti.

‘Your mom called me up Rhea, I don’t know how she tracked me out. It is madness out there. Being a senator has its own perks I guess. There is nothing your mother cannot achieve once she sets her mind to it. Anyway, she told me about your, eh, situation.’

This is beyond ludicrous. Unfathomable is perhaps the right word.  ‘Mother called you? To tell you about Sanju? She’s gone G. Just like that. Poof!’

‘I know. But that’s not the only thing I meant by your situation.’

So he means the askers of my heart, do they even know it’s broken I wonder. Out loud I say, ‘Oh, G. People will eventually get bored and find a new story to poke their noses in. These sloganeers hungry for my heart won’t stay here forever!’

‘It’s been more than a month already. Today it took me ten minutes to drive from the university to your house, and another twenty to get from the front gate to your room. Tomorrow it could take an hour. At least think about your mom Rhea. Any chances of her going for the presidential bid will go out the window if this circus continues any longer.’

This is totally below the belt. ‘So that’s why she brought you here? G, she is just using you to save her precious post. She doesn’t even like you. The other day she wanted me to ditch you and marry Sanju. And what about me? Do you even love me anymore? Why are you calling me Rhea?’

George looks befuddled for a moment. Doesn’t take him long to recover though, that sly trickster. I simply adore him for this, even in my anger. ‘Because you’ve grown up Rimpkin. The girl I saw before going to Haiti has now turned into a beautiful woman.’

Leave it to this guy to make me week in my knees. ‘Please continue’, I say.

‘There’s nothing better than a heartbreak to ripen one’s character. Today I see a mature lady in front of me who I am sure is capable of taking the right decisions. Decisions that would make the world a better place.’

I am repulsed and recoil as if horrorstruck. G notices and leaves. Is it my imagination or is it really my mother speaking out of George’s mouth? I don’t think he has any idea he’s been manipulated. How naïve of him. Or he knows and has fallen to mother’s charms. In either case, he has lost the respect he had in my eyes. Both my hearts, the broken and the intact one, together cannot convince my brain that George is the right person for me to be with.  

I pack my bags and hunt for my passport. From the back door of the house, I quickly sneak out and head to the airport. To hell with the thesis and the UCB scientists. To hell with mother. To hell with George. To hell with the world.

Sanju, my one true love, I will come and get you, wherever you are. I will love you forever, with both my hearts. I only hope that you will love me back enough to fight whoever comes in our way.

P.S. I did not end up even in the top ten!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Normal: A postmortem

I love celebrating New Year’s. Who wouldn’t? This puts me in the same category as everybody else.

I hate celebrating my birthday. This puts me in the category of borderline nutcases.

Is that okay? Is that normal?

We spend our lives contemplating about ourselves vis-vis a perceived normal behavior. 

I am having weird dreams about falling off a cliff lately, is that normal?

I don’t like going to noisy parties like my friends do. Is that normal?

We can find all sorts of such questions on various forums. TV shows offering relationship advice, newspaper “Ask the expert” columns, Quora, chat rooms and what not.

Many times not just ourselves; we don’t spare anyone at all. 

Uncle so and so sold off everything he had and went on a world tour, normal people don’t do that.

That guy is in a committed relationship and is flirting with somebody else while his girlfriend looks on, is that a normal relationship?

Shahid Kapoor married a college kid! Is that a normal thing to do for a film star? 

Don’t we? What does normal even mean? According to Merriam-Webster, in the context of this discussion, normal could mean the following:
  1. according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle; conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern
  2. occurring naturally
  3. of, relating to, or characterized by average intelligence or development; free from mental disorder :  sane

In other words, not abnormal. Not insane. Or, average. In a mathematical sense, something that fits the bell curve:

If you do something which more than 68% of the people in the world do, then it’s normal or conformant or standard or regular. Otherwise not.

Most of the people don't rob a bank. That’s normal. I guess it is okay to fit the bell curve here.

Most of the people don’t exercise regularly. That’s normal. But it is not really okay to fit this bell curve.

Would you go on making imaginary bell curves for everything under the sun? Now, is that  normal?! What kind of normal is acceptable?

But you know what, the real question here is: do you even want to be the same as 68% people? The answer is: no; and yes. It’s not about being a conformist or a non-conformist. If the majority of people on the world can swim, even a staunch non-conformist would want to be in the majority. Simply because it’s a good skill to possess.  Same for a conformist wanting to do something different, such as deciding to keep the car in the right lane, or following traffic rules!
So, in a nutshell, it’s okay to be a nutcase sometimes. It is also all right if you follow the rules. After all, life is too short to be spent thinking so much or trying so hard to be normal. In fact, lets just scratch this word from our vocabulary. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book review - The Lowland

A simple story. A few characters. Their growth over the years. This is what can sum up Jhumpa Lahiri's latest work. No surprise elements. Nothing really earth shattering. Ordinary people with some uncommon situations in their lives, some uncommon ways of reacting to those situations in their lives. This could be another summary.

Doesn't sound like much of a novel. But the way it grips your imagination is a proof of the sublimity of Lahiri's story-telling ability. The ability to weave stories about people around you, of someone who easily could have been you, is an art that this lady as mastered.

She takes you through the lanes of Calcutta to the marshes and beaches of Rhode Island with bits of California interspersed in between. Then back to Kolkata. All effortlessly. All as if you are actually present there all along. Powerful pictures painted by mere words. The details of a life uprooted from India and replanted in America. The feelings, the vantage, of a life begot in America, visiting India briefly. The nuances of oceanography, philosophy, the Naxalite movement of the '70s and even agriculture, all there for you to relish. Served within the story, intermixed as herbs in a savory delicacy.

With the same simplicity you get to meet and know Subhash, Udayan, their parents, Gauri, Bela, and Meghna - the Mitra family. Reading about their behavior, their individual traits and personalities, you get to understand them. In fact, you even begin to predict what they would think and do next. More often than not, they do end up doing your bidding.

In my teenage, which for some reason seems a lifetime ago, i would have panned the book for this same reason. Too predictable.

But now, i really appreciate it. Maybe now i am learning to understand the true value of human relationships, the true value of predictability. And savoring the joy of things turning out exactly the way you wanted them to be.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Toastmaster's Advanced Speech 13 - "Experience At PSK"

This is speech #1 from "Specialty Speeches" manual, called "Impromptu Speaking". Five general topics have to be written on slips of paper with which one is familiar. These are to be given to the speech evaluator before the meeting. He or she will select one at random for the speaker. The objectives are to develop an awareness of situations in which one might be called upon to deliver an impromptu speech, to understand how to prepare for impromptu speaking and to use one or more patterns to approach a topic under discussion; for example, comparing a past, present and future situation or before and after . Time allotted is 5 to 7 minutes.

For this speech, i had selected five general topics:

1. Book review
2. Movie reviews
3. Recent Experience
4. Superwoman Syndrome
5. Any other topic on which the audience would like me to speak

 and the audience chose this one for me -

Passport Renewal Experience 

The speech took 10  minutes fro delivery. I felt i have done much better before...both in prepared as well as impromptus.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book review - Doctor Zhivago

 Where do I begin? How does one go about reviewing such a tome of a work? Genre, you might say. Tell us about the genre. Is it fiction? Or historical fiction? Is it based on true events? Is it a biography of a real person? Well, it is all of them and none of them. Yet, as the tagline states, its the greatest love story ever told.

The story takes us through the life of Dr. Yuri Zhivago, a fictitious character who might have been any educated bourgeois (suited for a so-called white collared job, if such a thing existed in Russia back then) or the author himself.  Born at the turn of the 19th century, Yuri is a firsthand witness to the Russian revolution of 1905, the October revolution of 1917 and the Civil War thereafter: arguably the most tumultuous time in the history of Russia. A period that also saw a war with Japan, the fall of the Tsars, the rise of the peasants and soldiers, a world war, and experimentation with forms of government – with  general chaos, dissent, atrocities, and complete upheaval of society in the country. 

Yurochka, unfortunately, is born to a wealthy merchant father who abandons him, and is left an orphan at an early age. Adopted by another wealthy household, the Gromyko’s, he studies medicine and marries Tonya Gromyko. Immensely thoughtful and artistically inclined, Yuri is also a poet and a philosopher who often does not think twice before speaking his mind - a quality that lands him in the soup many times. Living in Moscow, he first starts practicing medicine, but then serves as a military doctor in war.  Afterwards, the family relocates to Yuryatin where Tonya’s maternal grandfather was once a steel magnate.  Here, due to lack of any other means of sustenance, the family is forced to do farming to survive. Occupied in physical labor during all summer time, Yuri finds time to write his musings only during winter.

He is then abducted by a revolutionary group, The Forest Brotherhood, to tend to their sick and wounded, and reluctantly ends up being the leader’s confidant. During all these years and in his various journeys from place to place, Zhivago encounters the married yet single mother Lara Antipova every now and then, and eventually falls madly in love with her. So much so that on escaping from the Brotherhood, he first goes to Lara before taking stock of his own family. The story ends with Yuri’s death and a heart rending epilogue thereafter.

While there is no doubt about the genius and depth of the novel and the priceless glimpse it offers in the history of early 20th century Russia, it does have its shortcomings. The first and foremost that struck me was the complexity of names of the characters and the myriad relationships they have with each other. Then there are a lot of coincidences and the same characters keep propping up from time to time in various different settings. Though we can attribute this to artistic freedom, at times it makes the reader realize that it is a fictional account after all, and tends to undermine the credibility of the novel’s epic nature.

With all that said, Dr. Zhivago is unquestionably the greatest historical fiction I have come across till date. Initially this book was not allowed to be published in its native Russia. The content was deemed inappropriate by the Communist party since it presented the alternate and ugly face of the revolution. The manuscript had to be smuggled out of the country and found the light of day in Italy in the year 1957. The powerful narrative, and the fact that such few works of art (or even news) came out from Russia during that time, won Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958. The Russian government prohibited the author from accepting the prize and he was threatened with arrest and torture. Pasternak bowed to this pressure and refused to accept the award. Though this avoided his arrest, but it was not enough to thwart the threat of his expatriation to the West. It is said that the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (himself an author and connoisseur of art) then intervened to save the patriot Pasternak from exile.

This is the only novel Boris Pasternak ever got published in his lifetime. It was only in 1988 that his son was allowed to travel to Sweden and collect the Nobel on his late father’s behalf.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Equality of Democracy - An experience at a PSK

A country of a billion people. A democracy that baffles with its diversity. Everywhere you go, you can get a glimpse of this difference. A difference that exists sometimes subtlely, sometimes right there staring at you in your face.

One such glimpse stared at me one day at the passport office. People from all walks of life, no matter what socio-economic-cultural-ethnic background they come from, get merged here, in a sea of passport applications. Nowhere else is the power of the state more visible than here. Maybe a police station would be another such place. But that is another topic. 

Power, concentrated in raw form, in the hands of a few people. In their hands the power of substantiating you as a passport worthy citizen. The bourgeois and the ordinary vying for their attention, a few minutes of their time. Equally. The aspirational ordinary looking at the better dressed thinking the world is for people like these. They get to go places. The well heeled thinking this is no place for themselves, standing in a queue waiting for their turn, thinking the world is for the masses.

Classes and masses. Classes cursing in English, masses in Hindi - both under their breath of course. No one wants The Government to hear their thoughts (Government being the people at the other side of the counter). The smell in the office a mixture of perfumes, deodorants and sweat. More sweat than deodorant. More Hindi than English. More casuals than formals. More with families than alone. More young than old. Rules the same, roof the same. Discipline - or lack thereof - the same. 

As a lone woman standing in one of such queues, I think where do I belong? Who do I sympathize with? And my turn comes.

I lay my life bare in front of His Almighty. In all original documents. He opens my old passport, looks at the photo and says, is this really your passport? I am shell-shocked. If the Almighty decides it’s not me in person, who would validate my identity? I manage to blabber out that it has been ten years….Sir (I almost said Prabhu at this point but checked myself in time. Yes Prabhu, I cut my hair short, stopped wearing glasses and have aged. Spite me).

I begin to think maybe the Almighty is a bit chauvinistic. His boss comes to my rescue then and does the needful. I thank my stars. The Government poses a second question: your husband’s and your surnames are different? I say yes; I didn’t change mine after marriage. In my head I say, is that a crime? Definitely a chauvinist. The third question proves it. Address change. Where is your wife/of address proof? I go….huh…what does that even mean? Stumped.

Turns out, daughter/of address proof doesn’t work after marriage. I wonder if son/of still does? I take a 180 degree turn then and don’t look back, fearing the Almighty might decide to call in security to throw an aberration out.

I take a look around. Feel people’s eyes on me. The well-heeled and the not-so-chic, the smelly and the scented, the Hindi-type and the English-type. Everyone is looking at me. And suddenly it dawns. I don’t belong. Masses, classes, anywhere.

To hell with them all I think. I shall come back. Maybe with no proof of having married? Then maybe the surname and daughter/of address proof would be acceptable? To The Government, that is.

Coming back to equality. Well, we’ll get there. Someday.

P.S. I did get my passport renewed in spite of everything - surname, appearance - in my second visit. Apparently, a joint bank account statement suffices as the ‘wife/of’ address proof, which The Government aptly forgot to tell me the other day. Google to the rescue! After all, it is the new savior now (till the day it turns the way all All-Mighties are supposed to turn: sour).

P.P.S. In case your are wondering what a PSK stands for Passport Seva Kendra.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Toastmaster's Advanced Speech 12 - "Big Data"

This is speech #1 from "Speaking to Inform" manual, called "Resources For Informing". The objectives are to analyze your audience regarding your chosen subject, focus your presentation at the audience's level of knowledge, build a supporting case for each major point using information gathered through research, and effectively use at least one visual aid to enhance the audience's understanding. Time allotted is 5 to 7 minutes.

Data. Big Data. Naam toh suna hoga?

Good Afternoon fellow Toastmasters. Seriously, there would be no one in the world of technology who hasn’t heard this name..unless of course one lives in a cave, in which case, most probably one doesn’t have  anything to do with technology at all. 

Jokes apart, Big Data is something that has baffled many of us at many times. But my friends, nothing could be simpler to understand. Unlike terms such as cloud computing -which has nothing to do with clouds or specifically with weather prediction, big data means exactly what the name suggests – big, huge, large, gigantic, humongous data. 
Imagine the amount of data that you yourself deal with everyday…..on your office laptop – work files, mails, archives, knowledge sharing docs..then on your home PC or tablet – pics, videos, music, movies…then the content you access online….or your data on the “cloud” – on social networking sites, content sharing websites, or even your email data or browsing history…..things that the apps on your smartphone remember for you – notes that send you an alarm across devices, ebooks that are in sync on any device you use, and on and on. Look at this image on the left…according to…every minute of the day, this is what users do on an average on the internet.

48 hours of new videos uploaded on you tube, over 204 million email messages, 2 million searches on google, 3600 photos on instagram, 47 thousand app downloads on the Apple Store…and this is just one minute. And there are 1440 minutes in a day. 365 days in an year. Imagine the amount of data.  A Zillion terabytes, isn’t it?

Don’t you think big is a small word to describe it? Now to organize, capture, and analyze all this data is such a Herculean task that our traditional data processing techniques - that I learnt in college ten years ago - fall short. There is a need of multiple high capacity parallel processors that might be running in a distributed environment. To support them, we need to have a new set of exceptional software techniques and technologies; these are also known as Big Data or sometimes Big Data Analytics. Examples of some software being used today are - Hadoop, MapReduce, Cassandra, Storm. MongoDB and many more.

To study big data, you should first understand its nature and attributes. There are various characteristics of Big Data..but the 4 Vs stand out – Volume, Variety, Velocity and Veracity. This infographic from IBM best describes the 4 Vs. 

Volume: Scale of data; we already saw a sample in previous slides. Variety: different forms of data – text, images, audio, video. Velocity: Analysis of Streaming Data – increasing speed with which the data is getting uploaded and has to be analyzed; and Veracity: Uncertainty of Data – whether the data is accurate and how to determine the accuracy.

Image Source:
Now you all might say…ok…big data..means lots of data…with volume, variety, velocity, veracity. So What?? understand and decipher all these zillions of bytes of data, to uncover correlations that you didn’t know existed, and then to predict user behavior is what Analytics is all about. This can involve data mining, predictive analytics, forecasting, optimization, artificial intelligence and what not.

Eventually, after applying all these techniques, an answer would emerge as shown in this graph.

Data, when structured and correlated, becomes information; information, when interpreted and sifted for patterns, becomes knowledge; knowledge, with a little bit more understanding and correctedness, transcends to wisdom. With the application of this DIKW pyramid of information science, the future might just become a better, or wise place to live.

Like any scientific discovery, invention or innovation, it is up to us how to use this wisdom when we ultimately get there. Not just doing things right, but doing the right things.  Not just the what, how and why of things, but doing what is best for the greater good.


This speech took 8 minutes to deliver and was appreciated for the subject (the audience being an IT crowd), research and the visual aid : PPT.