Shooting Pains (BH: D320)

June 21, 2012

"Sir, I guess you didn't recognize me!" he said beaming while sinking into the visitor's chair. Long strands of well oiled hair flowing away from a reflector quality bald head. A mouth wide enough that the full set of teeth stand separated from each other so that they can cover that cavern.

"No," I didn't recognize him.

"I am the famous production executive for Divakaran TV serials." He went onto reveal his famous name.

"Good to see seniors like you are considering coming back to school." I shuffled the papers to make sure I can give him the right one from Mech, Elec or Comm admission forms.

"Ayyo Saare, Good Joke. I am not here for admission.""Then?""We need the college for filming. Our new megaserial is in progress: Ammayiammayude aliyanmar (The mother-in-law's brothers-in-law). Family subject. Megahit!"
"Why do you need a college for that?"
"Hero is in an engineering college, Sir. Heroine is in medical college."
"Terminally ill?"
"No, student!"
"Same difference"
"It is a professional love story that way."
"We have exams going on now, so it will be a hassle to have the crew around."
"We don't want to disturb anything. Only stock footage enough. One classroom, one lab, one corridor, main entrance, one exterior."
"Which lab?"
"Engineering lab"
"All of them are..."
"Then, any lab"
"What do we get out it?"
"Publicity Saare, free publicity. 15 seconds "thanks" before the title card. Then the college name board shown before each scene set here."
"I see" I said, but I must have appeared unconvinced.
He continued."7:30 pm prime time serial. 90% female audience Sir. Good buzz."
"We will need an undertaking?"
"For what, Sir?"
"What if there is a suicide in the story and it becomes linked with the college name? What if there is violence? What if the college reputation becomes damaged?"
"Nothing like that. It is a novel that appeared in Madhuramanoranjini magazine. Haven't you read it?"
"Sentimental, sweet story Sir. No gangrape, murder, suicide, violence."
"Yea, we should include those also!"
"Actresses will be here, Sir"
"That doesn't make any difference."
"Kumari Kanakambari, Parithapakarimol..."
"They are?"
"Cine artists, Sir. They are our heroines."
"The filming can only be on Sunday."
"Fine!" he was thoughtful for a second. "I will have to arrange extras as students then."
"Yes please. And only if we have an undertaking with other clauses by Friday."
"That is no problem. We will sign anything you want!"
"One page agreement would do"
"That may not be possible, Sir. We never write anything that short. At least 5 pages....with commercial breaks"

Looking Up (BH: D319)

June 20, 2012

Yesterday evening I found myself in the lobby of the Sci-tech museum. I have been here during school days. Trips to the planetarium were a novelty then.

This visit I notice how nothing about this place conveys science and technology. Mundu and saree clad employees walking lethargically around, constantly watching the clock. There is none of the scientific enthusiasm that is infectious among the staff who work at foreign museums.
"eda, nee register book eduthondu vanna njan ninakku pathu mohanlal padathinte ticket eduthu tharam" (If you bring the attendance register here, I will buy you the tickets to 10 Mohanlal movies) a dare was in progress so that the end of the day signature could be put in the attendance register.

4:40 my 4:30 appointment kicks in. The director is an unassuming gem of a gentleman. Rarely does one come across folks with so much passion about their career. Science education in the public sphere in India stands on the shoulders of a few such men...mostly shoulders hunched over, overwhelmed by the 'red tape' epidemic spread out on their desk with new signature sucking file viruses being brought in by the innumerable staff who find a 'government job' in all such institutions.

We discuss the scientific temperament or the lack of it. We discuss telescopes. He amazes me with the story of the construction of the first indigenous telescope dome! Great 'jugaad' sample, using a boat maker to mold the curved structural elements.

He is also fashioning a radio telescope made from one of those old abandoned huge dish antennas. His eyes sparkle when he gets around to mentioning his plans with the Celestron C-14 and the science labs project in progress for the village schools in the state.

He orders two reluctant staff members to take me around. They warm up a little bit when they realize I am the crazy fellow who send the weirdest email the office has ever received. I see the 11 inch and the 14 inch babies. I see the incomplete dome that's undergoing repair for a weight balance problem.

My focus on the instruments surprises my guides. "Usually people are only interested in seeing the city's view from this height. They want to try to figure out where their home is. Nobody is interested in looking through the telescope!"

I walk back trying to figure out the best possible balance of investment between optical and radio telescopes. "Trivandrum gets only 50 clear nights a year," I have been warned.

One final meeting for the evening later, I am back in the same year. Mascot hotel. First real life meeting of three people who met on facebook. Kingfisher, fish fingers and beef fry. Happy Reunion! 

Reading Day (BH: D318)

June 19, 2012

Kerala celebrates 'Reading Day' today as part of the Reading Week. It is dedicated to the memory of P.N. Panicker, the man behind Kerala's proud and illustrious 'Granthashala/Vayanashala' (library) movement that covered 5000 villages.

'Read and grow, think and become wise' was the slogan Mr. Panicker gave the Malayalee community. His self-less work in its first half was fundamentally responsible for the ease with which Kerala could attain total literacy before the 20th century ended.

Mathrubhumi's Vidya supplement has run some articles on the reading habit. They mention Charles Dickens and Faraday, two poor boys who became successful simply because they loved to read whatever they could find. Faraday worked at a book binders and it was the articles on electricity that he found in the Encyclopedia that he was assigned to bind that changed the world as we know it.

A huge cut out of an open book has been erected at Kanakunnu Palace entrance to celebrate the week. Couple of book fairs are going on in the city.But the name 'Reading Day' takes me back to Texas A&M. The one day break before the final semester exam was named the same. It was a day the campus would have a deserted look and the library would be packed. 

It was also the day mostly when the final year aerospace vehicle design course went out to the riverside campus to fly their r/c model airplanes. A great day of celebration for the whole families who would gather by the runway sandwiched between the horse farms maintained by the veterinary school.

The sputtering little gas engines always made the horses curious. The more silent electric engines that were used in later years didn't grab their attention. But the obligatory ass that is always kept with a horse herd was keen on those engines.

It was Mr. Lund who explained to me the concept of the ass on one of the occasions that we were out in the field putting up fences as the prep work for the flights. "Horses get spooked very easily. And they thunder around the field, the entire herd, at the slightest bother. The donkey is the massive pacifier. It doesn't react to pretty much anything. Its dumb stance calms the horses down!"

This 'Reading Day' I am acutely aware that I had been spending time with books in the last 3 weeks. Malayattoor classic "Verukal", comparable to but not as extensive as Hailey's Roots has been on my bedside for a while now.

But I take solace in the fact that my time is being spent at least partly towards establishing a state-of-the-art library. I guess the trees can wait since the forest is not to be missed out on.

Vainu Bappu (BH: D316)

June 17, 2012

As the evening session of a mostly rainy Sunday progresses outside, I will note a few things about Vainu Bappu. Manorama newspaper was considerate enough to remind Keralites about him on his 30th death anniversary with the Sunday supplement's cover feature dedication.

Not many know that this father of modern Indian astronomy is a Malayalee. Well, he is a Malayalee much like how M. Night Shyamalan is a Malayalee. Venu Bappu was born in Madras and raised in Hyderabad. But his parents were from Thalassery and his wife, Yamuna, who is alive and well, is from Mayyazhi. 

His dad used to work for Nizamia observatory, Hyderabad and was a believer in numerology. Hence the spelling switch to Vainu for his son, Venu. A brilliant student, Bappu managed to get his findings to Sir Harold Spencer Johns of Harvard when he visited India. Impressed, Sir Harold made sure that  Mr. Bappu made it to Harvard on a scholarship in 1949.

There with his fellow researcher, Olin Wilson, Dr. Bappu discovered the Bappu-Bok-Newkrick comet. In 1957 came Wilson-Bappu effect that opened up the field of stellar chromospheres, as wikipedia puts it.

By 1951, he received Carnegie fellowship and a chance to work at the 200 inch telescope at Palomar. He was 24! 

But Dr. Bappu decided to be back in newly independent India, a land with an illustrious tradition of original astronomy that had unfortunately decayed over the centuries into the unscientific business of astrology. Starting with the observatories in UP and Nainital, he went on to establish the Indian Institute of Astrophysics 1971. 

Following his untimely death at the age of 55, the government honored him by naming India's largest optical telescope, the 90 inch one, at Kavalur, Tamil Nadu after him.

Manorama article discusses several endearing traits of the man who loved children and worked hard to inculcate a reading habit in them. His passion for science can be instantly recognized from the anecdote about the 16 km bicycle trips he made on each day to attend a three day seminar by Sir C.V. Raman.

Thiruvananthapuram is a city of many 'moods'. There is Pla-mood, Puli-mood, Arassu-mood, Naruva-mood and so on. Venjara-mood has practically become the wider city limit these days. This Malayalam 'mood' can be roughly translated as the 'base' but then these days that word has the sinister al-Queda twist. Once upon a time, the little hamlets in these parts must have been defined by those trees: Pla (jackfruit), Puli (tamarind), Arassu (Peepal). I am stumped about what Naruva is. In Divehi language of Maldives, the word means the cardinal creeper with deep red flowers that humming birds love. 

Walking in the zoo and museum campus after rain this morning, I realized that I love shapeless trees. Perhaps they remind my brain of itself: thick in parts, twisted at others, dropping roots and vines all over the place, green, brown and a handful of flowers!

A family of lion-tailed macaques were celebrating the diffused cloudy morning light on a tree within the zoo premises that was a bit too close to the compound wall for comfort. Took a couple of snaps. They noticed and obliged with a pose. Typical celebrities! 

Walking a round of the Kanakakunnu Palace, thought I saw a film actress.  Once while having dinner at Taj in College Station, Sharath B's sis had mentioned that this actress was her friend. I would have confirmed if she hadn't insisted on keeping her head down and headphones plugged in while frantically burning off a generous posterior today. 

Three ladies, with costumes giving away their varying degree of commitment to the morning exercise, one in saree, second in churidaar and the third in track suit, crossed the aforementioned actress and recognized her. By the time they reached me, walking 10 meters of so behind the aforementioned posterior, they dropped the comment: "Veluppankalathu thanne enthoru facewashinte manam kanda!" (Look how much she smells of facewash early in the morning itself)

Bappu's wife fondly remembers him as a man who seemed never to get angry. I guess a mind that has opened itself to the infinity of space, would hardly fret about the ephemeral affairs of men.

Why we do what we do? (BH:D315)

June 16, 2012

A short two column inside page news couple of days ago caught my attention. It is about a bizarre accident in central Kerala. A 74 year old couple were trapped in the bathroom. 74 is not their combined age. Each of them was 74.

The husband was suffering from some kind of stomach issue. He was retching the harm away to glory in the bathroom when his old wife went in to help him. She slipped, fell and in doing so inadvertently closed the door.

The previously weakened door knob came undone when they attempted to open. It must have been a fairly significant investment in the house if it had thick teak wood door with automatic locks even for the bathroom. Speculation of foreign-resident well-off kids is natural. 

The old couple survived three days inside on tap water. It speaks volumes of the neighborhood that nobody came around the house wondering where the couple had abruptly disappeared for three days. Finally, in a glorious act of strong marital strength, the couple themselves managed to get the door opened and lived to tell the tale.

I am aware of several old parents who have been housed in state-of-the-art, spectacular abodes here by their successful children making a handsome living abroad. Humble suggestion to leave the bathroom doors flimsy enough, bathroom floors rough and relationship with the neighbors smooth. Otherwise, there might be events that raise the unsettling question: Why we do what we do? And none of us want that addressed!

With the political impasse about garbage clearance in the city entering 8th month, fevers of all kinds are spreading. Mosquitoes, unlike the Thiruvananthapuram corporation officials, have no qualms about working overtime. In this dismal scenario comes a grand statement from none other than Kerala's Health Minister.

Minister V.S. Shivakumar has declared that homeopathic preventive medicines have been found extraordinarily effect against all kinds of epidemic fevers whose fear has gripped the city.

How Wonderful! Of course, he makes no mention of how the efficacy has been "found!" If he says so, it must be so, after all he is the man in charge of  the state's health. I guess I will simply add the amount of sugar in my tea and coffee. Should be 'homeopathically' remedial enough!


Noting down (BH: D314)

June 15, 2012

I have been seeking a time of the day or part of the night when I have energy and enthusiasm left to put down the daily note. Answering phones and meeting people is far more draining that MATLAB coding. Looks like pre-breakfast compromise on the newspaper reading time is a solution for the timelessness. Will see how it goes for the next few days. Otherwise a device that can help compose during the commute.

Early morning yesterday, I was back at the Mutton stall. It was open but unmanned and 'un-meated'. The assistant sat on the 'shop step' across from the street reading Mathrubhumi paper.

Perhaps, at 6;15 am, he was reflecting on how 'gunda' gangs have taken over much of the butchering activity in the state. The particularly gruesome political murder 41 days ago is still fresh in everyone's mind. 52 slashes with swords on a man. 

He tells me that the main meat man has gone to get the goats readied after the government inspection. Sure enough, a rickshaw custom-made pulls up with a plastic container full off 'products'. The skinned, meaty chunks come out first and go straight to the hooks. The assistant goes about slicing away hanging bits and other parts which have stand-alone sales value.

Each piece has three or four big blue government approval seals. The ink spreads giving a blue blood illusion after death. "The doctor must examine before and after. It is so time consuming," comes the complaint.

Next he materializes what looks like balls inside dirty, wet socks. I have no clue what that is. The fact that I am on the phone with a vegetarian half way across the planet is not helping either. Made an inquiry with knitted eyebrows and thumbs up which translates to 'what?' in this part of the world.

"botty saare botty" came the reply. Ah! the stomach. The raw material for sausages etc. The organ that stays leafy vegetarian for the goat's life. Except may be bits of paper and plastic these days.

Finally, the soup bits arrive in a bucket. The final expressions frozen on the faces. Hoofs that trotted and leaped and landed safely. 

I focus on the phone as a head gets its final face-lift. The toothy fatal grin gets a CGI horror movie effect when the beard comes off with the skin. Rest of the procedure is clinical. Strength of the skull testified by the height to which the knife must be raised.

Soup at 11 am was good. 

Little Advaith is bringing back old lullabies and classic Malayalam 'baby talk' back in the house. There are songs or statements that go with every single activity of his day....which is hardly couple of hours of non-sleep time that he uses to take in this planet before going back to sleep land when his brain rearranges all the observations. When that activity proceeds in the head, his face is nothing short of 'Navarasa nayagan' going through all the nine expressions in a matter of seconds repeatedly.

He clearly identifies four animals in the house. 
There is the animal that feeds him milk. He can smell her from across the room. 
There is another animal that bathes him, cleans him up (he is very particular about that) and feeds him a second type of milk. 
Then a hairy animal who carries him around and talks the most to him.
Finally another hairy animal who is not a continuous presence, loud and obnoxious when he is around and of no particular use! I hope to grow out of that impression in a few years!

Connect and disconnect (BH: D 312)

June 12, 2012

I meet at least a dozen people everyday these days. Most of them come into my cabin to sell something. Others come in because they want something. It is scale of the needs that is mind boggling.And these people exist side by side in the same city. They speak the same language and might even look very similar to a foreigner.

First in walks someone with a few hundred thousand rupees worth of equipment to sell. He is not alone. He has his own assistant tagging along.

We discuss the future of classrooms, the impending inevitable 'smart' revolution with 'remote' teaching. Perhaps Upanishads were taught remotely too from the Rishis who preferred staying up in the Himalayas but beamed themselves metaphysically in front of eager students.

A lot of 'ya-yas', 'absolutelys' and prolonged 'rights' pepper the meeting. Visiting cards are handed over reverentially with both hands perfectly as it must have been taught in some personality enhancement course, evening or weekend, for otherwise busy professionals. Firm shake hands to end the meeting.

The next visitor couldn't be any more different. Clad in a graying saffron, if such a thing is possible (well it is, I saw it!), lungi and a yellow silk shirt, dirtied from years of abuse, torn at the armpits and with four of the front buttons missing, he walks in.

"Saare, saaranallo ippo....?" (Sir, you are the now) substantiating that deeply philosophical statement with a swirl of the palm indicating the space 'here' to go with the 'now' (ippo) in his question.

I nod. Indeed, I am the now!

"lavan sheriyalla saare" (That guy is not good) He is not referring to Lavan, the son of Rama,
"levan?" (he who?) I ask
"ivide vellam ozhikanum kalayum vallom parikkanum nirthuthiyavan" (the one who is here to water and weed the lawns)

Ah! a staff rivalry! Again!

I remain mesmerized for the next few minutes at his expressions as he narrates a tale of the gross violation of professional ethics by the gardener. I manage to maintain a very serious expression. I shouldn't divulge that just yesterday I had heard a similar complaint about him from the 'lavan'. That all he does is switch on the water pump early in the morning and then walk around doing nothing the whole day!

He finishes up with a recommendation to summarily fire the 'lavan' and extend those duties also to his wife who is currently caring only the south-side lawns.

Obviously, she should be paid more for the added responsibility.
An amount that is less than half a percent of the sum that I had discussed in the earlier meeting for enhanced learning environment.
Priceless education!