Thursday, November 30, 2006

Lessons learnt this week

1.)When you see £1,100 next to a S Kensington studio, please to multiply by 4.3 before jumping up and down with joy.

2.)A postdoc spouse who commutes to Cambridge is a liability as the money he makes is not enough to cover his transportation cost.

3.)Try conning said spouse to take up a Canary Wharf/City job failing which throw him into the Thames.

4.)If you cannot get rid of him, take the following test. Are you A) Royalty B) Diplomat C) I-banker or D) None of the above? If you answered D, you shouldn't really attempt to live in London.

5.)Gall stones do not need to be removed. Next time someone tells you that you have gall stones in your gall bladder, do NOT cancel air tcikets to Vietnam and hotel reservations at Siem Reap.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Everyone's moving to Wall St

Or so the Times says. Here. Not that this is anything new, but please to note what the women are doing. Or not doing.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Visiting home

No, not this time. This time, I am on more than just a visit. And there's no other place that I can call home. Not for another month atleast. Anyway, wrote this last January and looks like I forgot to post it then. So here, notes from my last trip to Kerala:

“When did they build this road? I have never seen such a wide highway in this city before.”

“A couple of years ago. It’s a bypass road – they are still building some parts of it”

“So this goes straight to Kovalam?”

“Yes, no need to cut through the city. Airport to Kovalam in 20 minutes flat”

“That makes sense. There were so many tourists in the flight. I didn’t realize so many of them come here.”

“They do alright. Isn’t this God’s own tropical paradise?”

“That it most definitely is”, I agree with my father. Look out of the window and it is all postcard country – coconut groves, lush-green fields, tiled-roof houses. The rains of the day before conferred on them a particular shade of green, a green that reminds me of monsoon rain and school re-openings, of St. George umbrellas and Maveli stores, of new books and old friends. Billboards on the highway promise world-class guest rooms, rustic houseboats, quiet beaches, glorious sunsets and ayurvedic treatments guaranteed to give you your life back. Other than the billboard ads and the sleek road we were on, nothing seemed to have changed in God’s own country. People reading newspapers by the tea shops in the intersections; the fishmonger with her basket full of fresh fish on her head; kids in that familiar cream and blue pinafore returning from school; a girl arguing with an auto rickshaw driver – it is almost as if I’d never left home.

Soon we take an exit from the highway and turn into one of the side roads which seemed to have become narrower in the two years I was out of the country. It reminded me of the time I was in college and we had our school reunion. We all went back to school and in an obviously nostalgic mood, some of us visited the class rooms we grew up in. It took me more than a couple of minutes to realize that the desks I used to sit in had not become smaller; I had grown bigger. I get the same feeling now looking at the narrow roads and the small houses that we pass by – I didn’t remember them being so narrow or so small.

We pass by the Killipalam Girls High School and turn into the very familiar Killipalam road. The narrow, barely two-lane National Highway has four lanes with a divider separating traffic! What used to be a traffic nightmare is now quite peaceful. I remember Bini, the girl who used to live by the Killi Bridge – she lived in one of the small one-room houses by the river. Her cousin used to work as a maid in our house. I didn’t befriend her for the longest time though we met every day – I would be walking to the school bus stop while she would be walking to her school. We would look up and give each other a half smile and continue walking on opposite sides on the road. Until one day when we discovered that a group of boys from the nearby school have taken to sitting on a wall by the roadside. From that day on, we both walked on the same side of the street and became fast friends. I lost touch with her once I left for college and haven’t thought of her in a long while. Now, seeing this wide road which has been built over what used to be her house I can’t help thinking about her. I want to ask my mother about Bini but I am afraid of the answer. Maybe she is a maid at someone’s place and maybe she has nowhere to live as they have demolished her house.

“Bini is doing very well. She went to college and she’s now working as a music teacher at a school. She just had her second baby. She will come to the wedding.”

Mothers do know everything.


The wedding is over. Most of the guests have left. We have a couple of days to ourselves before the groom leaves for Bombay. He has never been to Kerala before, so I am determined to show him whatever I can. I drag him through the bustling Chalai market on our way to the Padmanabhaswamy temple. We visit the Ravi Varma gallery and the museum. We walk along the wide Kowdiar streets to Vellayambalam junction. We spend the evening at Shangumughan beach. I cannot stop talking. My city, my home, my past life has to be shown and explained; the groom and my home should be made to understand and like each other – all within a day.

Another day remains. A friend suggests the island of Poovar. We decide it’s a good idea as the groom’s never seen backwaters. The driver drops us off at the boat jetty. We take the boat to the island. Houseboats on backwaters, people on vanchis, and that shade of green everywhere. We sign in at the guest house. The place is filled with foreign tourists and honeymooning couples, all of whom seem very content to rest by the poolside. We, in our weary pretend backpackers mode, are very much out of place. We spend hours exploring the woods surrounding the guest house; it is beautiful. We walk down to the boat house and get a ride to the beach. We wait for the sunset; the boatman waits for us. Kids play with balloons a little further away. I fiddle with my camera to see if I could get anything of the sunset. Two of the kids run towards us; they stop a little further away. They talk to each other in Malayalam. They apparently are trying to guess which part of the country we are from. It sounds more like they are reciting state names one after the other. They soon run out of states. I start talking to them in Malayalam, they are elated and start chattering away to glory. A little later, we leave the beach for the island. The boatman gets to talking to us on the way back. He tells us about the different kinds of people who visit the island and he says that he can never understand how anyone could spend their time by the pool when there’s so much around. We tell him that we don’t understand it either.


We are back on the highway. We are running a little late for my flight. I fly to Bombay and a week later I will be back in Chicago. The thought of freezing temperatures and biting wind chill makes me shudder. But I also feel a strange longing to be back home in the comfort of my tiny apartment. For a long time, I thought that home is a very possessive idea; it requires one to be faithful. But what do you do when you have multiple homes and do not want to choose one over the other?

We drive by a stretch that is under construction. Construction workers are paving the road. By the side of the highway, I see makeshift huts with asbestos roofs. In front of them, kids in rags are playing hide and seek. I am a little surprised. A woman rushes to her crying baby lying by the side of the road. She takes the baby in her arms and starts feeding it. This is not a familiar sight, not here. I turn to my father.

“What’s happening here? Do these workers live in these huts?”

“Yes. They are not from here.”

“Where are they from then?”

“I talked to some of them one day. Most of them are from Orissa. The private contractors got them here for the road work so that they don’t have to pay them the minimum wage.”


“Remember, this is Kerala. If you hire someone here to do this job, you cannot get away without paying them the minimum wage.”

“And no one’s told these people they ought to get paid more?”

“They are not unionized; they have to make a living.”

“Do you think that woman there is making a living?”

My father laughed.

“Remember when we moved to our house fifteen years ago? We couldn’t unload any of our furniture by ourselves. Those union people came and made a big fuss about how they would unload the furniture and we would have to pay them hundreds of rupees?”

“Yes, I remember. You called it highway robbery.”

“Yes, I did. It still happens and I still call it highway robbery. But I have come to realize that there are varying degrees of theft. Some I can live with, some I am not so sure.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That night we moved, neither you nor the porters’ daughters starved. You got your dosais and they got their kappa. Can’t say the same for that baby we just passed by.”

We reach the airport. My flight is on time.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Bio Brandy

Got back from another of my Tamland trips and one long travelogue coming up sometime. But first, does anyone know anything about this bio brandy con? 100% "natural" organic brandy. Apparently, for the first time in the entire world. Saw huge billboards all over Karaikal (the uninteresting part of Pondicherry) advertising Bio Brandy. Funky billboard too but camera ran out of battery. No, didn't have the time to try any but super curious as to what this thing is.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

48 hours

Elsewhere, itineraries are happening. Because there's nothing like travel. And travel planning. If you don't know what to do with your weekend, perhaps this might help. And if you have some interesting itineraries, send them over.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Eye care through videoconferencing...

Or some shameless PR for a friend.

In a spare, one-room eye clinic in the rural South Indian village of Bodinayakannur, a 64-year-diabetes patient named V. Ramaswamy, and a medical technician sit facing a computer monitor. On the screen is a live video of an ophthalmologist at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Theni, nine miles away. Speaking into a microphone, the technician describes the patient’s condition to the remote physician, then hands the man the microphone. “For the last week, my eyes have been red and itching,” the patient, Ramaswamy tells the physician in Tamil, the local language. “There has been swelling and watering.” The physician prescribes five days of eye drops, explaining that Ramaswamy has an infection, and asks him to come to the hospital for a follow-up exam.

Later Ramaswamy, who had heard from a friend in town that he could go to a local eye clinic for a teleconference with a hospital doctor, said he might not have sought prompt treatment if he’d had to find a way to the hospital nine miles away. “They said I could talk straight to a doctor through the TV,” he says. “If I had to go to Theni, I would have put it off or maybe not gone at all. Because the clinic was here, I came right away.”

Plan is to have 50 of these remote eye clinics running soon serving some 2.5 million people across rural Tamland.

Enablers: Aravind, and Intel Research at UC Berkeley.

Aravind developed the concept of rural vision centers—primary eye clinics in rural areas, where patients can be remotely diagnosed by doctors via high-speed wireless videoconferencing; get prescription glasses, eye drops and blood tests; be referred to an Aravind hospital if surgery is needed; and receive post-operative care.


To connect the vision centers to Aravind hospitals, Intel and UC Berkeley researchers designed a point-to-point long-distance wireless infrastructure that combines a variation on IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) technology with off-the-shelf videoconferencing software and tools that hospitals can use to maintain the network.

Read the full thing here and here.

PS: Yeah, yeah, I did my part to save the world. I translated some of the patient interviews!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lunar Lunacy

Life's been a little busy lately and been ignoring blog. Just back from a whirlwind trip to Madurai and another Kovai-Madurai-Pudukkottai-home trip happening next week. When I am not traveling, its visitor time here at home in Kerala. Though must say that its mostly inertia that's been keeping me away from blog. That and the fact that there's enough entertainment in moi's life without resorting to blogging. But Bill, over at the other side of the world is having a bit of trouble with his advisor experiencing separation pains weeks before he's scheduled to defend and he claims he sorely needs more entertainment that Cecilia can provide and so he's decided to blog! Well, no, he is too lazy to actually log into Blogger and start a new blog and all that but he's been sending me stuff that I am supposed to put up here on this blog. So without further ado, here's Bill's Lunar Lunacy. Before you go on, a word of caution - I have not seen so many bad moon puns in one place, so please proceed at your own risk!

Veena: Hey, you know A?

Bill: Yeah, the one who got married last month?

Veena: Yeah, did you know her husband gets her one-month anniversary gifts?

Bill: Good for her. I think it's technically called a honeymoon month.

Veena: I don't remember getting a honeymoon gift. Technically or otherwise.

Bill: You now want an anniversary gift? You mean you are past denial phase now and are admitting that we indeed got married?

Veena: No, no, that would so bad. Ofcourse we aren't married.

Bill: Thank God! For a second there I thought we would have to get divorced now that you think we are married.

Veena: Yeah but wait.

Bill: What now?

Veena: So okay, no anniversary gifts. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't get gifts.

Bill: Maybe. But I am a poor grad student, not an earning member of society. I think that lets me out.

Veena: Yeah, yeah. You have enough money to go gallivanting around the world, just not any to spend on me.

Bill: Oh oh, that sure is subtle. What gift do you want now?

Veena: Well, I am known to have the subtlety of an elephant. Now you go get me something that is out of this world.

Poor me! So here is where I start thinking, hey, what kind of gift is out of this world? Bear in mind it has to be affordable on a student stipend. Maybe one of the minor planets, eh? I certainly can't afford Saturn, or any of the rings either. Not Pluto, so downmarket now, isn't it? Wait, what did the poet say?

"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?"

If you are not worried about going down the beaten track, the moon is always considered oh-so-romantic. No less an authority than Shahrukh Khan has promised "Chaand taare, tod laoon..." But then, that was reel life. For those of us who cannot strum the guitar strings, but do have to pay extra state tax on luxury items, it is not that easy to go get the moon. I mean, think about it. Where would you go to get the moon? Certainly not a big store, that so kills the romance. Everyday Low Prices, 50% off the second one, with a mail-in rebate? I don't think so. What you want is one of those small shops in a corner, specializing in planetary deliveries since the time of Galileo. For the bleeding heart liberal types, only certified natural would do, of course. One of a kind, packaged individually in pristine deep space, untouched by cosmic radiation. We use only the finest comet gas! Guaranteed fair trade. No moonshine was consumed in the production of this moon.

Say for a moment that it is do-able. I can afford it. What next? Setting and packaging. There are rocks that can be polished and put into the perfect setting. But the one we want has to be set just right, in a precise Keplerian setting. It has to be in tune with the Pythagorean harmony of the stars, right? And then the delivery options. Delivery next day before sunrise might be overdoing things. On the other hand, you cannot make her wait for a blue moon either. Airmail is out of the question, though space mail might cut it. Maybe someone with a fleet of Apollos could undertake the job? Fedex?

Paying insurance will be another headache. Not exactly replaceable. Sure, Jupiter has a lot of moons, but is not known to give them up easily. There are strong risks of being damaged by meteorites, not to mention astronauts putting up flags and playing golf. And of course, if you are shipping it internationally, customs is going to be a huge problem. What are you going to declare on the form? One moon. Not explosive, or volcanic, or anything like that. Not a biohazard, though it may be made of green cheese. If it turns out to contain green moon bugs, please don't send Homeland Security after me. I don't want to be exiled to some camp in what the popular press calls the lunar landscape.

So you can see that this is a whole host of trouble. But that is how it is when the world is not enough. Getting that gift can leave you shaken, and stirred. All things considered, its not exactly a small step for a man. Regardless of what these moonwalkers say. So no, all these unworldly ideas are not for poor grad students like me. No sir, we deal only with real practical things. What are these ideas you talk about? Logic. Math. Programming. Proving theorems. How about sending this beautiful proof that I have here over by Fedex? Will she consider it out of the world? Yes, it is a possibility. Oh hang on, the proof needs to go here in this paper. Due in two days time! Away, sleep! Disappear like a pale moonbeam!