Reflections

102_5592

If I were to list the things I love about Chicago, this structure would make it to the top two. I clicked this photograph on the day of my first visit to The Bean. The girl in the picture is the friend I went with. It was a completely instantaneous and impulsive shot on both are parts. Like a pistol duel with cameras. If you look close enough, you can see my reflection in the Cloud Gate (official name). I don’t have the photo she took off me taking her photo but then, it can’t possibly be as interesting as the one I do have.

Meanwhile in…

Chicago: it was minus 40 degrees yesterday (factoring in wind-chill). The Uni didn’t have classes (pretty big thing for one which has declared snow days only twice in the last 33 years). I’m pretty bummed out about missing all this, even if it only meant sitting in my room all day, glumly staring out of the window.

 

Sunday’s newspaper: there featured an article about J. D. Salinger’s preferred south Indian dish—rasam vada. I’m a big fan of vada sambhar but my all time favourite remains rava masala dosa.

 

Postcrossing universe: none of my ‘first’ five postcards have reached their intended recipients. I’m worried (?) they’ll all expire and that will mean five less random surprises for me.

 

Samoa: the national airlines has introduced a fare system based on the passengers’ weights. I knew I couldn’t be the only who thought of this. My idea is slightly different—assign a fixed amount to each passenger and let them allot it between their weight and their luggage weight. This way I get to carry more stuff in my suitcase rather than in my fat cells. Who knows, this might help the fight against obesity?

 

Pesternomi: there are two shiny badges. One’s for the letter-writing-postcard-mailing challenge I hope to take in February (more on that later) and the other’s for WordPress’ zero-to-hero assignment. Both involve actual work on my part every day, and anything that does that is too good to pass up.

Winter is a Dying Month

It’s been a few days since I found out about the death of the Math Pirate. I’ve never met him, I’m probably didn’t even spot him once during my eight-month stint at UChicago, and yet I feel a deep sense of loss. It’s the abrupt, unforeseen end to the endless possibilities that hurt. I could have unknowingly enrolled for his class and been part of the Sally Gang. I could have screwed up the courage to scream “Yo Sally!” in class, maybe even gone during the office hours and found out something more about the man. Deaths like these hurt everyone, especially those who never ever get to experience the magic. It’s like the Grand Canyon being erased off the face of the earth before you get to see it. Or sometimes even before you know it existed.

 

Another Chicago great I could not meet before his death is Ronald Coase. I had been taught the Coase theorem in my Law and Economics class but the simplicity and brilliance of it didn’t really register, probably because I was too busy wrapping my head around the Nash equilibrium. Needless to say, I might be the only one in my class who didn’t mention him in the SoP when applying to the program at UChicago. At least Coase has left behind enough work that I can read. I will get my hands on ‘Tools of the Trade” but I dare say I’m going to understand much.

 

The death that hit me the most was of that of Vepa Sarathi. It was in my final year of law school and by then I had taken all the courses he offered (Property, Evidence) though I had barely talked to him. He would have turned 96 in a few months and I thought he would live forever. I kept putting off going for his office hours, thinking there was more time. Until there wasn’t. I have three of his books and a little part of him still lives in the margins of my notebooks. I still regret not talking to him though. The day he died was the day I realised that life is too short to be spent waiting for tomorrow. I had got be less risk averse and this decision led me to go on a white water rafting trip with four complete strangers a few days down the line. Every time I think of putting things off, I think of Vepa, walking stick in hand, eyes crinkling with laughter, and missed opportunities.

Ghosts of Dec24 Past

It’s not December 24 anymore cause I was too lazy to get this down yesterday (Merry Christmas! by the way). To compensate, I will write about both days in two different years.

I spent Christmas last year on a Greyhound bus from California to Nevada. It was on a trip taken with two other people during Winter Break. We chose California (with stops in Vegas and the Grand Canyon) thinking it would be warmer than Chicago. It was (we missed snowstorm Draco which brought the first snowfall to the city after 290 days of no snow). But it was not the Florida warm we were expecting (another one of the STIDs). On Christmas Eve we took the morning YARTS bus from Merced to Yosemite (the California trip was a road trip with the car substituted by the bus) and spent the day spotting coyotes, drinking egg nog latte, sending postcards (special Yosemite postmark!), attending a service at the Yosemite chapel, wading through knee-deep snow in the moonlight to catch the bus back, and then freezing our asses off waiting for a 1:30 am Greyhound to LA. You read that right. From 9 pm to 1 am, I sat in an open bus station in freezing cold (by my low standards atleast), waiting for a bus to take me out of Merced. I had grossly overestimated American consumerism and Californian weather, thinking places would be open on Christmas Eve, it wouldn’t be cold, the returns from saving a night’s rent would be greater than the costs of catching a midnight bus (STID # 3). Plus I was being adventurous.

Needless to say, I got on the bus, unfroze myself and reached Las Vegas on Christmas day sometime in the afternoon. We spent Christmas Day checking into the hostel/hotel and then walking around the famed Strip. The lights in The Strip are dazzling. I hadn’t been to NYC by then and the New York-New York hotel was impressive, with the roller coaster ride and all. More impressive was the Statue of Liberty model in a gift shop made completely out of M&M’s. In the far distance, you could see the pyramids and the Sphinx, the Eiffel tower, Mandalay Bay, Caesars Palace. We walked from MGM Grand to the famed fountains of Bellagio and then walked back, encountering many cartoon characters on the way. No gambling, no alcohol and no shows. 

 

On Christmas Eve, 2010 I was taking exams in Herzliya. Not only did the school make us take two exams that day, with a mere 15 minute break in the middle, we weren’t even told the schedule of the exams. So I got to know which subject it was when I opened the question paper. Our plan was to spend Christmas in Bethlehem so once we were done with the exams, we got on a bus to Tel Aviv, transferred to a bus to Jerusalem, met the remainder of the group there, walked over to the Arabic bus station near Damascus Gate and got on to another bus to Bethlehem. I could see the separation barrier snaking though the terrain but don’t remember crossing it, or seeing any checkpoints on the way. The bus dropped us close to the Manger Square. My shirt said “God is too big to fit into one religion” and one the nuns we asked for directions commented on it. Nothing bad, just this judgmental look-over. Not a good time or place to proclaim my atheism.

We checked into the ‘House of Peace’ hostel, dropped our stuff and then set out to explore. The Church of the Nativity (the place which marks Jesus Christ’s birthplace) was out of the question so we were just roaming around in “downtown” Bethlehem. Manger Square was brightly lit and decorated with Christmassy stuff, lots of people, lots of security guards making barricades, lots of live Christmas music. I made a dinner out of falafal in pita bread and patiently waited for Mahmoud Abbas’ cavalcade to arrive. He, along with other West Bank dignitaries, comes to Bethlehem every year to attend the Midnight Mass. When he finally did arrive, the crowds swelled so much that I don’t think I even got to see him. One of the girls in my group did brave a lot of groping (her words, not mine) to secure a picture of him on her DSLR. I did catch a glimpse of the second-in-command though. We left for the hostel with the others making plans to come back to attend the Midnight Mass. I stayed in bed (mattress of the floor) and read Sophie’s World until I fell asleep.

Christmas morning I got up bright and early and set out to explore. My first stop was the Church of the Nativity. There was hardly anyone around (it was six in the morning) so I was able to peacefully admire the church. I didn’t go all the way to Grotto of the Nativity (the underground cave where the birth is supposed to have taken place) but sat in the pews and soaked in the morning. Later I went to see the adjoining Church of St. Catherine. My favourite part in the whole complex is the Door of Humility which marks the entrance to the church complex. The original archway was broken and filled with stones to leave behind a smaller, rectangular entrance. The point is to make people bend when entering the church. With the head bowed down, instead of being held high.

Next I tried to find the separation barrier to see the “world’s largest protest graffiti”. I’m a big fan of art, specially since I can’t draw myself. I tried really hard but I couldn’t find the wall, despite the Lonely Planet map. So I went back for breakfast and to see if anyone had woken up. We ate toast/ jam and pita/hummus, settled our bill (with lots of haggling for being cheated), and left for Manger Square. The queue at the Door of Humility was long enough to put everyone off the idea of visiting the church, so we left to find the separation barrier. And find it we did. There is lots of inspiring art on that wall and none of it is anti-Semitic (here I’m assuming that wanting to bring the wall down is not Antisemitism). We walked along the length of the barrier, clicked lots of photographs, and then proceeded to cross the security checkpoint. Waiting for us on the other (Israeli) side was another queue, this one for the buses back to East Jerusalem. By nightfall we were safely back on the Mediterranean coast.

P.S. My friends got nowhere near the Church of the Nativity on 24th night. They stayed out till 2 am, trying to find the place where they wouldn’t be cold and would also be able to hear the Mass. No such place exists. Please book your tickets well in advance if you want to attend the service.

 

 

This post is in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge-

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/writing-challenge-ghosts/

Incomplete

Within a week of her death, my father dreamt about my grandmother. They were sitting in the garden in front of the house, entertaining guests late into the afternoon. He remembered her getting up and walking towards the house, holding the walking cane in her right hand but not using it. My mother too dreamt about my grandfather within days of his death. They met in the state office building where he was waiting to meet with the CM. When she asked him how he was, he said “it doesn’t smell anymore”. I dreamt about death too. In my dream, I murdered someone. I don’t remember how I did it or why I did it, only that my victim was a beautiful woman.

This post is in response to Weekly Writing Challenge: Collecting Detail at http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/challenge-collecting-detail/

Extremely […] and Incredibly […]

‘Eating Animals’ was the first book by Jonathan Safran Foer that I had read. I came across it while waiting to meet a professor, on the fourth floor of the library. It stood out in a law library, placed amongst tax codes and other commercial law stuff (I can’t even remember what was in that section). Having been a vegetarian for most of my life (except for a short, parent-enforced stretch in the middle), I was extremely curious to know how he would advocate this life choice (let’s just say I was looking to stock up some ammo for the next time I was made to defend my position). It was a book well-written, simple in style, light on indoctrination. It gave me a lot to think about and made me a wiser person. It also gave me something to talk about with my co-worker, who had read the book and went on to remind me about its more famous sibling. 

Another reason I set about reading ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ was that I wanted to watch the movie. As a rule, I read the books before I watch the movies because usually the book turns out to be the better version. Except for Twilight. I have been disappointed many a times to find out about the book after watching the movie and then disappointed again because I knew the ending (and most of the plot) when I got down to the book. Except for Twilight. [I have both seen and read the entire series. Go ahead, judge me!]

This book is incredibly good. It’s made me realise that I clearly have a long way to go if I want to come up with something that is even halfway decent. I didn’t want the book to end, didn’t care where the plot went, I just wanted to keep on reading and reading. JSF’s style of writing is resonating, like ripples created in a calm lake when a pebble is thrown in. No water drop is left unaffected. To echo a character in the book, every sentence moved me. The sum of this book is bigger than its parts– the guy who communicates only in (written) words, the search for a lock, the messages being intercepted by unintended recipients, the bed of trees and nails, the pain of carrying English, one word biographies, the reluctance to come home, New York’s Sixth Borough, Something and Nothing. This book is ‘one hundred dollars’, I’m going to recommend that everyone read it (and read it again if they’ve already done so).

I was so engrossed with JSF’s style of writing that I didn’t really register the theme of trauma and loss that runs through the story. Probably because I don’t really register things like these anymore. Maybe I’ve become too used to the death and destruction around me. It took me back to the time when I first heard about the twin towers. I was in a boarding school then, getting ready for lights out at 9. Our dorm didn’t have a TV but the next one did. Somebody from that House came running to us (or maybe it was a junior of my House who shared the dorm with them) to say that a plane has crashed into a building in the US. We ran to the TV set and watched the scene play again and again on the screen. A plane crashing into a building. Another plane crashing into a building. Then the whole thing again. We were too young to really understand what was going on. Next day at the morning assembly, the Headmistress/ Principal announced that a student’s uncle had died in this attack. Then it suddenly became very real.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The worst way I can insult anyone is to be disappointed by them. Anger fades over time, frustration fizzles away, can’t care enough to hate and can’t care less to be indifferent. But disappointment, it stays, it is irredeemable. Mistakes can be forgiven, regrets can be fixed but nothing can be done to displace disappointment if it takes root in my being. I’m writing this post because I have been disappointed, by an institution that I believed in, one I thought would always do the right thing.

Two days ago, the Supreme Court of India pronounced its judgment on the fate of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the one that criminalises homosexuality. It reversed the 2009 decision of the High Court of Delhi to hold that 377 is constitutional. There are many things wrong with this reasoning, be it from the moral or legal or philosophical or whatever standpoint. It is a blow to the idea of India, to all Indians, gay or straight, and to every single person out there who cares about justice and equality. Because what is wrong, remains wrong, no matter how many people say otherwise. It is a shame for a court that prides itself on the role it has played in expanding the scope of human rights in India. An act of cowardice.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

I was in Washington, DC on March 25 & 26– the days when the US Supreme Court was hearing the arguments in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases. I remember walking up to the hill to come across the colourful demonstration on the street in front of the SC building. So many people– young, old, gay, straight, white, brown, black, yellow– a rainbow of opinions. I must have stayed there for hours, soaking up the passion and pride, watching history being made, feeling part of something much, much bigger than myself. I remember feeling hopeful, that the US Supreme Court would usher in a new era of human rights jurisprudence, and that the Indian Supreme Court would follow suit in a few months’ time. Like the cherry blossoms that I did not get to see that spring, this is another wish that didn’t come true.

For a nuanced analysis of this decision and its implications, see–

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/12/carnal-injustice-india-s-outrageous-court-ruling-against-gays.html

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/A-queer-judgment/articleshow/27227195.cms

http://kafila.org/2013/12/12/we-dissent-siddharth-narrain/

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
Read more at http://www.top10-best.com/a/top_10_best_albert_camus_quotes.html#q3coQqUOxElR38FZ.99

Of Marriages and Presidents

I attended my first nikah (or Muslim wedding) last night. Since I’ve only been dragged to many Hindu, and one Jewish ceremony, till now, I was pretty stoked. It seemed like a brilliant opportunity to observe the traditions and customs of a community relatively unknown to me. It was my mum’s med-school-friend’s sister’s daughter’s wedding (whew!) and her son’s wedding reception. So we were treated like family and invited to the room where the bride was sitting with her female relatives, waiting for the vakil and witnesses to make the proposal, ask for her consent and relay it to the groom’s side. Simple and fast. The women and men were separated and seated in adjacent gardens, with people freely passing through. There were relatively fewer people and no earsplitting noise (masquerading as music) to hinder conversation (and permanently damage your eardrums). The impressive ambiance was only surpassed by the food. I finally got to the eat the sheermal this city is famous for.

 

The second part of this post is about the same day two years ago. On December 7, 2011 both Shimon Peres and I were hanging out at the university in Herzliya. He was attending a high profile Mayor’s Conference to discuss the Carmel fire tragedy and was roped in to talk to the students. It was the first time (and only time till now) that I had seen/ heard a head of state live so I was pretty stoked. Enough to not get pissed off by being locked out of the venue for 45 minutes, not finding a place to sit and standing for about an hour for a 15 minute interaction. His visit fell on the seventh day of Hanukkah and he lit one of the candles before sitting down with the president on the uni (what is a group of Presidents called?). The questions were about increasing Antisemitism across campuses and the Carmel fire, and his answers went off on some really interesting and philosophical tangents. He wondered what we did our Facebooks and SMSs, advised us not to listen to our parents and teachers (this was well-received and widely appreciated by the audience), spoke about how talent is a process and we should work to not let it go waste, and try to have meaningful lives. He observed that if we eat three times a day, we become fat and if we read three times a day, we become wise so it is better to be wise than fat! 

STID #1: Frozen yoghurt

I’m hoping to introduce S.T.I.D. as an antonym to ‘stud’ but I don’t think it’s going to catch on. Right now it stands for Stupid Things I Did and there are countless such examples. Just like everything bitter is invariably good for one’s health (think bitter gourd, Azadirachta indica), I believe reliving one’s less than stellar moments is good for the ego. Anyhow, it should make you, reader, feel better about yourself. Of course, there is no way you would have done the dumb stuff that I’ve done!

It’s someone’s birthday today. Now I know this is true for every day of the year but what I mean is that it’s somebody-I-know’s birthday today. Last year, I decided to make an effort and gift her something special, do something out of the ordinary. I had gone for a morning walk around the neighbourhood and asked my partner-in-crime to go with me to the Red Mango shop on campus (housed in one of the hospital buildings. Why?). We spent considerable time buying the birthday girl some (customised) frozen yoghurt and got back to the dorm in a manner sufficient to make me late for class. I stashed the cup in my fridge bin (please note, not freezer bin) and went up to my room to get changed. Later in the day I presented it to said birthday girl along with a handmade card and a pair of shell earrings. She looked and sounded sufficiently excited. Imagine my surprise when she sinks the red spoon to scoop a mouthful and comes up with only water. That’s all that it was, beneath the deceptive fluffiness of frozen yoghurt swirls. She very sportingly ate (?) a few bites of that watery stuff before setting it aside. I can’t say I blame her for dumping the cup in the loo dustbin.

Sigh! So much for a special birthday gift.

Moral of the story—frozen yoghurt will not stay frozen at 4º C.

P.S.- Didn’t do anything for her birthday this year.