It’s been a while since my fingers have touched this keyboard, at least to write something creatively creative (pardon the alliteration). I do write scientifically creative things on a regular basis- or I’d be out of a job! I guess it was last June when I posted something on the blog- as a promise made to Sakshi. Well, it’s been a while. Somehow the will; that youthful exuberance to attempt the more artistic things in life has gone. Recently, replying to an e-mail from Mann., I noticed the mail was far too long for any sort of standard reply. I was trying to put thoughts and reality into words- explaining the fairly mundane existence (to those not in the field) of an academic. I realised that though I probably did tell you’ll briefly what I do here as a grad student, I never fully explained what goals I am working towards. Hence, I will attempt a fairly non-scientific piece here (more creative writing than a simple statement of the facts of what I do), detailing how I see myself in the future, what I need to do to get there and how my past has influenced it). Now, this may or may not be interesting to you’ll, so if you feel the urge of the latter feeling/intention welling up inside, suck it up and read on- you’re stuck with it! The story comes in three parts and follows a fairly chronological manner. There may be references to obscure literature, movies, cartoons (Tintin is and always has been a favourite) for which I make no apologies- the web and Google are valuable assets! However, I do apologise for the sudden thoughts that may run off in tangents from time to time. The writing may seem a little disjointed (well it is disjointed), moving from creative writing to reporting fact and back. I’ve written this over a period of two to three weeks and this post has gone wild (it is four pages long!). So sit back, pick your favourite beverage and pleasant reading (Caution: do not read this at work!)
Part 1 – Prologue: Humble beginnings?
Most likely 6-7 years old, in the 2nd grade, I am sitting with Jonathan, my best friend at that time, (I truly cannot say that I have had a best friend around my age group for a year or two now) on the dais/stage of the quadrangle that is in the middle of my school, (Loyola High School, Margao). This is during a break/recess in the middle of the school day. We were looking at all the bigger kids playing whatever made-up and imaginary (but always fun) game that caught their fancy that week. I vividly remember discussing a sort of ambition that we had and a promise that was made. We saw these kids in grey shirts and navy shorts. They had a funny scarf (around their necks), and a roll of rope and a knife in a scabbard on their waists. They were part of the Boy Scouts at the school. We made a promise to join the Scouts that day (Be Prepared!). Unbeknownist to my friend I made another promise to myself. There were these two boys in white shirts and black long pants/slacks. You see, they stood out from the rest (our school uniform was a light blue shirt and navy shorts/pants)! Those two kids were the Head Boy and Dy. Head Boy! I promised myself that I’d be the one wearing that uniform in roughly 7 – 8 years time. These were the first two goals I ever set for myself.
Part 2 – The Middle: So close, yet so far. I definitely have miles to go before I sleep
Fast-forward a good six years. I am now in the 8th std. and cannot think of anything significant that happened in my life except that I was captain of my junior basketball team and also played on the senior team (quite an accomplishment - at the time, I hadn’t heard of any one who had played for both teams in the 3-4 years that I had been playing for the school). This year I accomplished my first goal. I applied to join the ‘Scouts’ and was accepted. Almost everyone who applied got accepted, so I can’t count that as the accomplishment of a major goal. More importantly (to the story at hand), I set my next big goal (one that I have yet to achieve completely). This was the year I decided I wanted to be a scientist. This accomplishment would be the culmination of two separate goals. First, I had to get into an IIT or a NIT (this part would be realised a few years down the line) so that I could take the second/next step to a postgraduate degree (more precisely, a Ph.D.). It’s strange when you think about it, not many people know what they want to be at the age of 13!
Another year goes by and I find myself close to accomplishing goal number two. I have been nominated by my class teacher (Tr. Mulla) to be a candidate for Head Boy. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen her or met her since I left school in 2001 – I must make an effort to meet her this December. I go around the school visiting various classes (8th, 9th and 10th) with the rest of the candidates. Campaigning is not allowed for the post (the priests were wise to the fact that politics can rear its ugly head even at a young age)! The four of us introduce ourselves to each class and wait while the ballots are cast. After introducing myself, I don’t make eye contact, nor smile or wink at any of the students, some of whom I’ve known for a long time, lest I influence their decision. After all, they are voting for the next Head Boy- a person who needs to be above reproach and beyond corruption! Time has definitely taught me how naive and foolish I was. A smile here and there would have shown them I was human and may have swayed a couple of votes! Maybe, just maybe. That was my first and likely last election. I may now never know.
The stage is set. I am at the head of the assembly with the school band. The results are being announced. I have just been elected to the post of Dy. Head Boy! I lost the top position by 60-100 votes (I can’t remember the exact number, it’s been a while). I told myself, that I couldn’t have lost out among the student vote (again, hindsight is 20/20) and the teacher vote (each of whom had two votes) lost me the election (after all, the guy I lost to had an envious academic record). A few months later (talking to one of my teachers) I found out I was wrong (that human touch or lack of it did lose me that election)! It is strange how one tends to expect the worst of others, when it is you alone who messes up! Anyway, I had accomplished goal number two.
The next few years went by uneventfully! I represented Goa at the U-19 National Championships and returned home with a sense of accomplishment (even though we lost). I joined Chowgule College (Junior College) and made new friends (with whom I’m fairly close - as close as I will/can be, even today), ran track for the first time for my class and realized I was decently good at it- a 13 – 15 sec. 100 m dash is not bad, learned to throw a javelin, bunked classes to play basketball or go home (yes, I bunked classes and went home to watch TV, while others went biking and roaming all over Goa), was even told that my English was rotten (because I used the word ‘gotten’). At the end of those 2 years, I joined Goa Engineering College for a few weeks before my 105107 rank (Goa #119) got me into the National Institute of Technology in Jamshedpur. Now that last part was one of the few instances in my life when I had lady luck smiling on me (and my parent’s hard work- they kept checking the website to see whether I got the call or not).
We now get to the middle of the innings; it was all about the 3rd button, the ‘sirs’, ‘bosses’ and ‘super-bosses’. Playing basketball on what was definitely a sorry excuse for a court, riding the ‘dubba’ that was bursting at the seams. This was a period when I was known simply as ‘Goa’- supposedly the guy who had the best life, living in the Pearl of the Orient (amchi Goa) with all the booze, dope and women a college guy could ever want! How wrong was that assumption? If they only knew! Anyway, the years spent at NIT, Jam. need no introduction to you fine folk. But for those un-acquainted with my life here, the story “For Queen and Country” should give a brief, but definitely entertaining (if you enjoy satire) overview of what four glorious years spent in the armpit (dry at times, mostly hot and humid, but always stinky!) of India felt like. Most of you reading this have been prominent characters in this Odyssey. While I may not be Odysseus (let’s call me Dionysius), these years proved to be the most trying, yet fun-filled times of this great and ongoing epic. May I call it an epic without being seen as conceited? Well, think what you may, but I’ve decided to call it an epic.
Fast-forward through all the time spent running around campus with a file searching those absconding rascals who promised me recommendations, but could never be found! The end result was that I was close to achieving my next goal. I got admission to Drexel University- and if I am honest, definitely not my first choice. The Big Guy upstairs works in mysterious ways! I arrived in the USA and turned down an offer for funding (a research assistant position) when I first got here. It was not an area I liked working in (Solid Mechanics), on retrospection, rejecting that offer was a fairly risky thing to do. Again, life took a fortunate turn. I was walking down the corridor of my department, when a professor stops me and asks if I’ve found an advisor (I met with him a couple of weeks earlier during my search to find someone). I said I hadn’t and then he told me he may have an opening for me! Well, as they say “the rest is history”! That professor is my current advisor. He has introduced me to some of the best researchers in the field of Plasma Science, through him I met the person who became my best friend here in the US and most importantly, he took a chance on me. For all that I cannot thank him enough and as I said earlier, the ‘Big Guy’ works in mysterious ways.
Life in the lab is busy as usual, but I'll go into a bit of detail! I still come to the lab at 08:00 – 09:00 and leave anywhere between 17:30 and 20:00. So my whole day goes there. I'm so tired by the evening that I don't even feel like going to the gym or playing a sport. I can feel the fat growing on me, but mentally I am too tired to do anything about it - I acknowledge that these excuses are wearing thin and I am going to have to bite the bullet soon. Life sucks in a way, but I've got to do what needs to be done (especially where my goals are concerned!). So close, yet so far. I feel like taking a nap, but the story of the ‘Hare and the Tortoise’ comes to mind. So close, yet so far!
Let me further elaborate on that last sentence. I'd like to get a job in academia (teaching and research), but those jobs are the toughest to come by. The best academic job is a 'Tenure Track' position. This means you're on probation for 5-7 years after which you're confirmed and then no one can take that job from you ever (now that's job security!). But you've got to slog your arse off in those 5-7 years and even then you may not get tenure! But that's not even the start of it all. To even get a call for an interview, you've got to have great credentials, one of which is journal publications. You may know this (or may not), but journal publications are rated highly because they go through a peer review process in which your work is scrutinised by a person (usually a knowledgeable person in that field). Only after approval and many changes later (though not always, as your paper could be great from the start), does the paper get published. But once it gets published, it’s an accomplishment (you’ve done something novel). You typically need ~ 3-7 papers to get that interview call. I've got 2 and another in the review stage. So that's one reason why I'm so busy.
So close, yet so far!
Well, I do other stuff too. I play football for a team in the grad football league here. We play on average once a week, so that's some form of exercise! I've also joined the choir at my church, for that we practice every Tuesday evening and sing for the mass on Saturday evening. The choir experience is really good. There’s a structured way to operating a choir here, we have to read out of a book that has music notations. The learning curve is steep, but I am learning something new. This brings to mind something my mum said when I started learning at the Royal Music School in Goa and would never practice (I was ~ 5 – 6 years then and that sort of music was down right boring and stiff, you can’t blame a kid for that now, can you?). She said “I hope you never regret not learning to read music later in life”. Well, no regrets, but it’s pretty close to that point. Every alternate week is laundry day! That means washing stuff (albeit in a washer and dryer) and then folding/ironing everything before it's placed back in the cupboard/drawer! How I miss the ‘dhobhi’! All this leaves no time to cook and even write a blog post (but those things are definitely affected to some extent by some form of my ever present laziness!).
Part 3 – Epilogue: My kingdom, for the future! Anyone?
How will this story end? Your guess is as good as mine. I would like to have written a happy ending. Alas, my writing may never reach heights of the famed Kipling or Tagore, nor may the rosy future pan out to be the way I want it. But let me for a moment imagine that it all does. Let me dream of a fairytale culmination (and I don’t mean fairies and ponies) to this human beginning.
Will it ever end, will I be satisfied with what I have accomplished or will I be greedy for more. Will my human ambition know no bounds? Will my imperfect need to be perfect ever cease to exist? Will I ever finish my Babel? Or will the wax melt away, all the feathers fall apart and the wings that propelled me so high crumble as I plunge to my fate. Were Daedalus’s cautions well founded?
How will this story end?
Well, it would be neat to have me standing on the platform somewhere (maybe 9-¾, I see a smile of Karma’s face!), anywhere, maybe back to the place where it all began. Standing there, waiting for the next train, reminiscing about the past and apprehensive about where this new journey will lead me.
So close, yet so far!
This is probably not the greatest story that has ever been told, nor may it be the greatest that ever will (I recall suggesting the word epic!). But there is one thing that is certain, it is the only story that I have ever lived.
How will this story end?
My kingdom, for the future! Anyone?
– The constant runner (CL, Numero Uno)