Posted in English, Ph. D. series

Piled higher and Deeper…Life as a grad student !!!

“How could you just forget your backpack in the auditorium and come home?” his wife murmured as he plugged the electric iron to the socket.

“I don’t know….listen, I’m getting late! Will talk to you in the evening.” Neil said as he quickly switched off the computer. Living in two different continents, separated by innumerable time zones, Skype was the only way they could make each other’s presence felt in their otherwise lonely and stressful lives.

He quickly ironed his shirt and rushed to the coffee machine just as the overheated toaster popped up two half burnt toasts.

“Brilliant!” he muttered under his breath as he took a bite of the nearly blackened toast. His phone beeped. He picked to it to find a message from an old friend back home.

“Off to lab now, will chat in the evening.” he texted as his eyes fell on the wall clock. It was past 8.30.

“Excellent, I’m late again!” he blurted out angrily. He had a meeting with his supervisor, Dr. Julia Andrews, sharp at 9 and a departmental seminar in the evening. He would have to fit in an experiment that was long overdue, somewhere in the middle. In the final year of his PhD tenure, he could hardly afford to delay his experiments. Taking it slow is not a privilege that grad students usually enjoy!

He felt anxiety rising up within him again. At times he felt like a glass of soda! No matter how hard he tried, the bubbles of anxiety couldn’t be suppressed.

He sipped his coffee and glanced out of the window. The first snowfall of the season! After 6 long years in Canada, the beauty of snow barely appealed to him anymore. “Graduate life does that you!” he thought to himself. Quickly he put on his winter jacket and boots, picked up his backpack which he had conveniently forgotten in the auditorium the previous day and had to pick up later in the evening (since when did he become so careless?), grabbed a medicated adhesive for his injured finger (a result of his carelessness in the kitchen again) and rushed out of the door. He had a long day and he was already late!

Half an hour later, a breathless Neil rushed into his lab.

 “Hey! Good Morning.” Afreen wished.

“Good Morning. Is Julia in her office?” he asked his labmate.

“Yeah, she came in at 8.” Afreen replied offhandedly. “By the way, she might not be in her best mood.” she added with a wink.

“Of course, that’s what I need now!” Neil thought to himself as he unzipped his jacket.

“What the…….What are you wearing?” Afreen’s abrupt cry made him look down. “Where is your shirt?” she squealed!

“Oh Dear God!” Neil blurted out as he quickly zipped up the jacket over his under-shirt. His head buzzed. How in the world did he forget to wear a shirt?

“Don’t you have a meeting and a seminar to attend today?” Afreen nearly choked on her words as she tried to contain her bubbling laughter.

“Hey guys! What’s up?” they heard Samantha’s voice from the door.

“First snow of the year….doesn’t it feel amazing?” Sam, as the senior technician was popularly known, was saying when she suddenly noticed Neil’s flushed face. “Now, now, Neil, I know you hate the winters….but don’t look so petrified. And please take that jacket off. They have turned up the heater! You are sweating!”

“Sam, actually…” he tried to clear his voice. “Actually, there is a problem.”

“He forgot to wear a shirt!” Afreen blurted out from behind. After few moments of silence, both ladies burst out laughing just as Virendra walked into the lab.

“Who forgot to wear a shirt?” Virendra asked, amused. A Research Assosiate, Virendra was almost an elder brother to Neil and he would make sure that he never missed any opportunity of pulling his legs. “Ahh, I see a great scientist in the making! He is beginning to show symptoms guys!”

“Can you guys please be serious? I have a meeting with Julia. Like right now!” Neil cried. If only our society had allowed boys to cry, he would have been in tears by now.

Incidents such as this rarely happen, let alone in a science lab! The trio tried their best to contain their mirth.

“I could give you a ride back home but you don’t have time!” Sam offered as she wiped off the moisture from her eyes. It had been a long time since she had laughed this hard.

 “Look, you cannot possibly spend the entire day in that heavy jacket. You can wear this spare University hoodie while you are in the meeting and the seminar.” Afreen said helpfully.

“And while in lab, this apron can protect your modesty.” Virendra chuckled. “Now go to your office and change into this!” Virendra smacked him on his head and headed off to his work table, smiling to himself.

“Thanks a lot” Neil murmured as he grabbed the hoodie and rushed to his office.

“Hi Neil” Kirsten and Jess looked up at him from their computers just as he entered his office.

God! How could he have forgotten that he shared his office with two women!

“Hi!” He mumbled and rushed back to his lab, leaving behind two stupefied faces staring after him, flabbergasted.

“Sam, Afreen, Could you please not look while I change into the sweat shirt” he pleaded, as he entered his lab again.

“As you wish, your highness” the women laughed out!

As fast as he could, without risking any further embarrassment, Neil changed into the sweatshirt and rushed with his laptop to Julia’s room.

“You are late!” were the first words that greeted him.

As he mumbled his apologies and wondered if Julia should be privy to the classified information of his peril, she noted “Isn’t it too hot inside for that sweatshirt?”

“Umm, No, I am fine…” he tried to sound convincing, wiping off the perspiration that now dotted his forehead.

A pair of amused eyes scanned him and finally said “Up to you….” before moving on with the meeting.

For the remaining part of the day, a sweat shirt and an apron tried their level best to save Neil’s honor while amused eyes and a film of perspiration followed him wherever he went!

Before leaving for home, as he was busy ticking off items from a mental checklist he had made just to make sure he didn’t forget anything further, he heard Virendra call out from the door “Don’t forget to wear your pants tomorrow, Neil! C’ya!”

 “Glad to have provided some amusement!” Neil smirked, picked his backpack and left the lab.

On his way back home, he made a Whatsapp call to his wife.

“You forgot your what?” she laughed out loud, pausing only to get the words out of her mouth. “God, aren’t you too young to have Alzheimer’s?” she exclaimed.

“Please… as it is I had a hard day. Can you at least not be a prick?” He retorted as he entered his building.

“Anyway, I’m back home. I will call you after………OH DEAR GOD! NOT AGAIN!” he cried, startled.

“What did you do now?” his wife asked, worried!

“I cannot find my apartment keys! I have to go back to lab. I just hope I left my them there…..”

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Posted in English

Taare zameen par….. (When no other title seems appropriate)

When I woke up today to a gloomy, damp day, little did I expect that the day would brighten up in such an unexpected way. No! The weather had nothing to do with this…it was a bunch of twenty odd kids – chirpy, naughty and full of life. These underprivileged kids, either orphans or from families who are not capable of taking care of them, have found a home in this two storied orphanage in Salt Lake, Kolkata. As I walked through the large black gates with a childhood friend who loves teaching and spending time with them, I noticed a pair of curious eyes scrutinizing me in details. Upon realizing that I had noticed her, she ran upstairs.

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Immensely unpopular among kids, I am kind of used to scaring kids away for some unknown reason! What I however did not realise was that she was just the messenger! Within minutes, a battalion of tiny tots stormed down the stairway, as little hands held on to my arms and pulled me upstairs to their dormitories. They didn’t need pleasantries, they didn’t need introductions…..they knew how to make friends without caring for social norms. In the huge room with blue walls, a small TV airing their favourite cartoon and a number of mattress-less beds, the little butterflies fluttered around in full glory. They flocked around us, showing us their drawings, their badminton rackets, their tiny new dresses, as if I was an old acquaintance, their very own ‘Didi’! They staged Dance performances for us, posed for selfies and even discussed fashion with us (Little women, we might call them)! Eventually, it was time for their lunch and for us to return to the posh world of air-conditioned restaurants and malls. I had come to visit them empty handed, I returned with a handful of chocolates and candies.

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What intrigued me was that these kids didn’t think twice before giving me their precious chocolates or before accepting me as one of their own. Their invitations to visit them again was filled with anticipation and hope. I was forced to question myself, what values are we imparting to kids from our so-called “class”? Clearly, these are values which cannot be imparted by elite schooling! But on second thoughts, children learn from elders! How many children grow up seeing their parents share their earnings and savings with those who lack the means for a healthy, stable life? I am sure there are many such angels are out there, who do not have a shelter over their heads or two square meals a day. At the very least, these kids have found a home; have found friends and teachers like my childhood friend! I know that my words will barely reach a few through common social networking sites. Neither do I want to be preachy. But can we not, each year, put aside a part of our savings for these little ones? Can we not skip that one lunch at a posh restaurant or ignore that one dress we desire but do not need? Maybe next time we buy that costly gift for our kids and fill their already overstuffed rooms with fancy toys, which will remain untouched by the next year, can we not take a lesson from these kids and gift our children the undiluted joy that sharing brings, by doing so ourselves? Not out of pity, not for philanthropic fame, but simply for the bliss that this small little gesture brings!

 

Posted in English

For the confused, modern women…take a chill pill !!!!!

On the outset… let me start with a disclaimer-

“This article is not directed to any particular person. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”

However, this article is not a work of fiction. Rather its my dedication to that confused, modern woman who seems to have lost herself in an effort to keep up with the so called notion of “an ideal women”.

Somehow I believe life was a lot easier for women belonging to the previous generations. They seemed more comfortable in their own skin, satisfied with who they were. I do not remember my Grandma constantly trying to portray herself as a “know-it-all”, as an epitome of grace, beauty and success or as a flag bearer of  feminism. She was feminist in her own subtle way, graceful and beautiful without overstating it and a strong backbone for the future generations in an offhand, easy manner without going over the top with any of her responsibilities.

But with time, women appear to be losing the fine balance. It’s almost like we are in a constant race to fit into a mould that has been created for us…a much larger than life mould ! We take offence at every criticism and try to add colours of feminism to it. We scream for rights to make our own choices and then we ourselves put other women down for their choices.  In our fight for feminism, we have forgotten the true meaning of the word. Why try to prove we are superior to men or, for that matter, other women? Lets just all try to be humans first !!!

So my lovelies, do not, at any cost, let others dictate your life choices. Its your life and you have the right to live it the way you want to. Unfortunately, for a modern woman, even before a man, comes the threat of being judged by another woman.  So what if she decided to get married early in her life…..if her dream is to become a mum rather than a successful CEO….if she doesn’t want to get married or have kids…. if she decided to quit her job at the peak of her career…..if she rides a bike or is too scared to drive….if she doesn’t like to read at all or reads too much….if she has put on a bit of weight but is beautiful none-the less or if she wears salwars, cooks well and is religious but not a “behenji”….. Let’s just understand that at the end of the day all that matters is being happy.

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I see women around me struggling with the two masks : who they really are and who they want to portray themselves as! It is okay when you go weak in your knees for a man and it is okay if you decide to accept a gift or let your man pay when you are on a date for a change! Everyone knows you can open your own car door or walk without taking someone’s arm, but it is okay to sometimes enjoy the chivalry of a man. He is not trying to put you beneath him but this is just his way of showing how much he values you!

So in an effort to fit into the mould, don’t lose sight of the finer things in life, genuine emotions and important people. While I myself believe that every woman should be independent, I must learn to respect the choices of a woman whose ideas and priorities differ from mine! A strong feminist as I am, it saddens me when I see women with contorted notions about feminism, viewing the world with glasses tinted with their misguided ideologies. Being strong, beautiful and independent  doesn’t mean putting others down but being able to look at the world without being judgmental or blinded by misconceptions. A true feminist understands that every women has the right to make her own choices and live life on her own terms. 

So to all my lovely ladies, take a chill pill. Sit back and relax a bit. Take a break, enjoy life and widen your vision. You just have one life and you are allowed to live it the way you want to. Let us put an end to judging others and strangulating their free will in the name of progressiveness and modernization. Let us learn to respect each other as equals first and for once, just leave it at that  !!!

Posted in English, Ph. D. series

Piled higher and Deeper…an average day of a Ph.D student in lab…

The chirping of the birds was gradually replacing the silence of the night. I had been fast asleep in my one bedroom apartment when I suddenly woke up with a start; “Oh God, I think I forgot to add Enzyme to my reaction mixture last night !!!!” (Mind you, it has taken me 2 long weeks of extensive planning and reading and hard work to get to the the last step of my reaction….which I now believe I have ruined). I look at the clock, it is 5.30 am. My bed looks like a scientific battle ground with research papers, text books and notes strewn about while the laptop is still switched on. It appears I have long replaced pillows and soft toys with thick fat books which I now hug while I am sleeping. As a Ph. D student I obviously cannot afford an AC, so I open the windows to allow nature to take care of my palpitation and profuse sweating. Gradually, as I begin to recover from my near heart attack, I feel, maybe I did add all the reagents as per protocol !

 

“Wait a second, Did I ?”….”Noooo I didn’t”…..”I should have written it all down”….”On second thoughts I am convinced I did everything properly”…..” Hold on! I don’t even remember taking that reagent out of  the lab refrigerator…shit, I think I just ruined it”….”Oh God, I am getting a headache” 

 

And hence begins my day…. like every other day !!!

 

When you wake up with a sour mood and a terrible headache, and you are living miles away from you parents, breakfast and exercise always take a backseat. I groggily make myself a cup of tea, rummage through my fridge for anything edible only to realize I haven’t had time to go grocery shopping for two weeks, and finally decide to eat a few biscuits and head off to lab. In spite of waking up at 5.30 am, I still manage to get late for lab, so I decide to sneak up the back stairs to avoid my mentor. But as fate would have it, he had decided to take a stroll down the dingy backstairs today of all days and my headache increased at par with the crescendo of his voice when we met in the dark alleys !!! So after a good 10 mins lecture on punctuality, I reach my lab and get to work, only to realize that the PCR machine that I had booked, is already in use. As I am gearing up for a showdown with my annoying lab mate, my boss calls me to his chamber to give me an amazing news : my paper has again been rejected by what seems like the hundredth journal !!! 

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So I already have a ruined experiment (which will now take several weeks to repeat, and even longer to explain to my boss), two rounds of condescending lectures, a showdown with a lab mate and a rejected paper in hand….and its just 10.00 am ! But the good thing about working in labs is having seniors who have somehow survived through it all. So after a good motivational speech from a senior and a cup of strong coffee, I decide to face the struggles of life, come what may !!!

 
I manage to find another PCR machine in a neighboring lab and decide to continue with my ruined experiment rather than giving up. I do not know how long I had been working but a very hungry and angry stomach lets me know that it has had it all !!! I coax my growling stomach not to revolt for another half an hour so that I have just enough time to finish off the work at hand. When an elated me finally reaches the canteen after half an hour, I realize I am well past lunch time and the canteen is nearly empty. So I head out of my Institution in search of some street food and I return back to my lab with a severe acidity which has now replaced the headache !!! 
 

A pleasant surprise however greets me in lab. One of our seniors who had been persuing post-doctoral research abroad has come to visit us after nearly 4 years. We gather around her to hear her experience as we devour the Swiss chocolates she has got for us. While the first few years abroad had been fun, she has now completed her work there with a handful of publications but still has no job or work at hand. I soon realized the conversation along with the idea of a bleak future was inviting back my headache and the chocolates weren’t helping my digestive system either. I needed a distraction ! 

 

I texted my best friend, who of course works at the IT sector, to plan out a meeting post work, sometime around 6 pm. A “girlie” get together is just what I need to lift up my spirits. Life suddenly found a purpose as I felt I had something to look forward to and pull me through the rest of the day! It was only around 5.30 pm that I found out  through our network of secret spies that my boss was planning to stay back in lab till 8 pm. Devastated, I called up my bestie to inform her that I couldn’t meet her, which of course ended up in me being face to face with the telephonic wrath of the girl whom I have stood up for the seventh time in  the past one month, thanks to my “research”. I myself  judge her for still thinking of me as her friend ! But then social life is, of course, a luxury for a Ph. D. student.

 

My ruined experiment in the meantime yielded a result which I couldn’t really decipher. It was neither what it should have been had it worked or had it failed and appeared to be somewhere in the middle. It was 6 pm and by that time I had reached a point where I had become stoic. Nothing really mattered to me… nothing really bothered me ! I realized I had to cook up some explanation before my boss asked me about the experiment or about what to do about my paper, but I really didn’t have the energy to think anymore. After another round of tea, I sat down at the computer in search of the only joy in a research student’s life….Conferences !!!!

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After waiting for eternity trying to appear to be working while I waited for my boss to leave, I finally manage to get out of lab around 8.45 pm. I buy a family packet of chocolate, gorge on some fast food to satiate the ever hungry stomach, pop-up an antacid and head home. I look at the giggling young girls on the metro, all dolled up laughing or joking with boyfriends or a group of friends and felt jealousy swell up inside me. I reach home to the empty flat, gorge on the entire bar of chocolate and collapse on couch nauseated and tired.  

 

After managing to put together something for dinner, my first proper meal of the day, I finally go to bed. Tonight I can sleep well. My experiment has already been ruined, my paper has been rejected and my future is bleak….so overall, nothing worse can happen ! I can sleep tonight without the fear of waking up in the wee of the morning, all sweaty and petrified. I  fall asleep while watching my daily dose of “F.R.I.E.N.D.S”, a sitcom I owe my sanity to…………….ZZZzzzzzzzzz !!!

It’s 5.30 am. I am dreaming that I forgot to switch off the heater in our lab and our entire lab is on fire !!! My notes and results have all turned into ash and I am being literally kicked out of my institution for ruining everything. I wake up with a start again, all sweaty with a searing headache !!!

Ahhh !!! Hence starts another brand new day !!!

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Posted in English, Nostalgia

Over a cup of tea….

As I sat watching TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sipping Darjeeling tea with my husband, we got into one of our favourite debates….. “Tea versus Coffee”.  Born and brought up in a tiny picturesque town at the foothills of Darjeeling, I have basically grown up amidst lush green tea gardens! Living in Canada for the last few months, I sometimes feel that caffeine is the fuel on which North America runs! For me an occasional cup of coffee is good but if there is any addiction that I have apart from chocolates, it is a smoking cup of Makaibari first flush!

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Picture courtesy: Indranil Sarkar

My relationship with tea gardens began even before I was born. My grandfather was one of the “Babus” living in and managing tea estates in Doars. My father grew up amidst the lush greenery that Doars had to offer. As for me, the most vivid memory I have of tea gardens is staring out of the window of my school building at the massive tea gardens that surrounded it at that time, mesmerized by the sprinklers spraying water on neatly cropped tea plants. I still remember how my mother used to describe tea gardens along the slopes of Himalayas as green carpets nature has spread out for us. My childish curiosity used to wonder about the “amazing” life of the tea pluckers with massive baskets strung on their heads. I used to spend the long evenings sitting on the balcony of our house against the backdrop of twinkling lights of Tindharia up in the hills, listening to stories from my father about life in tea estates. I remember envying the job of tea tasters, even though my mother had almost turned herself into one, blending different kinds of tea to create her very own flavor.  It’s almost like I can still smell the raw freshness from the other side of the planet.  I guess some feelings just get enmeshed in your entire being and you spend the rest of your life reliving those memories!

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Picture source: Internet

Urbanization soon struck my small town, with sprawling shopping malls and townships cropping up all over the city. And the first blow landed on our tea estates. With one tea estate after the other being sold to giant real estate companies, who burnt down tea trees to erect Malls and multiplexes, I was suddenly face to face with reality.  I felt that my town was transforming into a blooming city, albeit one without a spirit! The protests of tea pluckers whose sources of income were now dwindling and the raring competition from neighbouring countries made me realize that perhaps it was time to grow out of my fantasy. Tea gardens didn’t just represent foggy, carpeted hills and giant sprinklers now; they represented struggles of thousands of daily wage workers and of Darjeeling Tea as a whole, to retain its fame all over the world.

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Picture source : Internet

But no matter how my conscious, educated mind looks at the scenario, whenever I sit in a charming tea shop in Dakshinapan, Kolkata, sipping a cup of Oolong, or when I am at home brewing my Lopchu orange pekoe,  or even when I am in Canada taking in the freshness of a steaming cup of Jasmine green tea from Gopaldhara, my mind always rushes back to my hometown. A tiny, beautiful town, with the gigantic Himalayas looking down upon it … with the mighty Teesta flowing through it…… and with lush green tea estates surrounding it. In retrospect I realize that Darjeeling tea for me is not just a drink, it is a sentiment running deep down, it is a steaming, rich, aromatic cup of my childhood.