Angkor wat

Angkor wat

Monday, November 8, 2010

The tale of the ricksy auto

'Give me a Bangalorean and I ll give you someone frustrated with autorickshaws' ,Archimedes could have, but didn't, say. Which of course, is only because he was never caught in the rain haggling for 10 rupees 'over the meter' with an auto driver who wasn't 'going in his direction'.

Autorickshaw drivers are said to be ruder in Chennai, ignorant of the meter in Delhi, and almost non existent in Mumbai. But I defy any other city to produce the range of entertainment and eccentricity that Bangalore does. Bangalore, like the rest of 'old Mysore state' infact, long had a reputation for being easygoing. Shops opened late, siestas were common until recently, and all in all you didn't find the average Bangalorean volunteering for any strenuous activity, much preferring a dignified afternoon alu bonda with steaming coffee, watching the world go by from the window. Having grown up in faster paced times, I hadn't really observed this dying out tendency, until I became a frequent auto commuter.

I wanted to go to Residency road, and naively got into the first empty rickshaw saying where I wanted to go (something I wouldnt dream of doing now!). The driver looked highly disinterested and said he had to go home for dinner. I was taken aback, dinner at 6. 30?? Yes, he said firmly, his wife would be waiting. So i had to get down, unsure whether to laugh or protest. In the next half hour, I started to get exasperated as more and more excuses turned up. One,businesslike- 'Twenty rupees extra'. 'Why?' i demanded, outraged. 'Isnt there a meter'?? 'Meter doesnt work','then extra over what'?? 'I know how much it is, you give twenty extra'.

Another, languidly- 'My house is in Indranagar. If you want I can drop you there'. By now i was beginning to feel i was asking for a favour and maybe i should just go to Indranagar..By the time I got one I could have paid twenty rupees extra from sheer gratitude! These are routine, though.

There was one very nice man who was deeply concerned as to why I was keeping a handkerchief on my nose. 'Allergy'? he asked. I nodded, surprised. 'This allergy will eat your life, you have to do yoga', he announced. and then, confidentially, 'once i was also like you. everytime i sneezed my mother would ask 'who will marry this boy'?' then i started yoga, got married at 40, and one day also don't miss now'. I was v impressed, not having met a health conscious auto driver before. 'Dont eat fried food'!he added, glaring. I promised I wouldn't, trying not to think of the happalas I d just devoured, and the rest of the journey was friendly.

The overriding characteristic (other than inducing frustration!) of course is curiosity. This is an old Bangalore tendency that still prevails. Some years ago I was collecting samples of cowdung from the road to look for certain kinds of E. coli bacteria for my work. Having put them in sterile containers, much to the amusement of onlookers ,I nearly bumped into an autodriver who was leaning over so much that in two seconds he d have landed in the dung himself. 'College'? he asked with full confidence. I said no, I had to go to Tata Institute. 'Come, come', he was extra welcoming, an otherwise extinct trait among autodrivers..'What are you doing with this'? I explained as best as I could that I was looking for small germs, the best I could do in Kannada. He looked superior 'Oh, micro organisms?' I didn't know where to look, but hastily agreed. For the rest of the journey I was quizzed on why I was using them, what PCR was, and what I worked on. We finally parted on the best of terms and with much respect on my side.

The ultimate though, was being told off by one, when a friend and I got in a Brigade road, in a rather extra cheerful mode immediately after the toughest exam we had. We were laughing about something and it stretched on a bit, to be interrupted by the driver- 'your parents send you to good colleges and you come here to get drunk and take drugs'? he thundered. We were stunned. For some reason it didn't strike either of us to deny it, infact he was so sure i almost felt it must be true. We got a withering look and much mutterings of 'wasting money' and 'modern girls' and went all the way in the kind of pindrop silence teachers ask for in vain.

But of course, the largest population by far lounges at street corners and refuses to come anywhere. If anyone can explain the mystery of how they earn a living please tell me. I m convinced they all have alternative sources of income, or just black money from some source, and they have to pretend to work! Thank God there are still the odd entertaining and genuinely nice people, otherwise the burden of 'twenty extra' and 'khaali barbeku' would be just too much to bear!!

I liked the one I met last week. Leaving a friend at the gate, I said something to her ending with 'We ll take a rick'. 'Mount Carmel college maydam'? asked the lounging one. 'Yes' we chorused automatically, without stopping to think why he should want to know. Having (miraculously) agreed to kindly drop us where we were headed, my friend asked what he d meant by the college.' Usually no, people say auto', he announced. 'Only like Carmel college saying rick'. And only someone also belonging to a local girl's college of apparently 'fashionable' (read 'notorious') reputation can understand what that smirk did to us..Of course the fact that he no doubt had it dead right made it worse :)

Ricks or autos, I m willing to pledge undying gratitude to a being who agrees to come by the meter, and anywhere you humbly choose to go, however against his critical taste. I know its a laughable wish. Sigh.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The science of writing

'Writing is an art' said someone airily, and bought fame easy. Now if they d said 'Science writing is an art' I'm sure a larger (and haggard and glassy eyed) audience would have agreed wholeheartedly. After all, nobody HAS to write (certainly not in these days of outsourcing)..well except people who earn a living by it, like writers and journalists.And they like it anyway. For the rest, the literature haters can and do gleefully throw away textbooks the moment that exam is over, having anyway spent 10 years passing chits in the language classes and wondering moodily if the neighbour has solved more CET question papers in his tuitions.

Scientists on the other hand, attempt to work with some exercise of creativity, but HAVE to sell it by writing! Take some other creative pursuit, say painting. Imagine da Vinci being asked to submit a 10 page description of the Mona Lisa, before it could be publicly displayed!(Please give a short abstract and we feel the smile is too enigmatic, change it).

By common consensus or because knowledge is free and eagerly gobbled, publishing in peer reviewed journals is not just the accepted way of publicizing your scientific work today, its pretty much the only way. While Leeuwenhoek (the 'discoverer' of microbes ),got away with his rough notes of 'little animalcules' and made it big, the average scientist today attempting something similar would be laughed straight out of a job. Unfortunately, there is no apparent correlation between good scientists and good writers. While in many professions this may not matter much, in a setup where communication is critical to progress, it creates quite a problem. People do point out that science has the advantage that even in the most hideously constructed papers, the 'results' section can be decoded from the graphs and tables, and so, that the knowledge is not really lost. True, but every such writer must be earning enough curse points from PhD students looking for a 'can prepare in two hours' paper to land up in Slytherin without a password.

Personally, I was taught this in the best possible way by receiving a rude shock soon after entering research. Like many others, I came in bursting with ideas of varying impracticality. Also like others, I soon learnt that its nicer to hold on to enthusiasm than to results, partly because there isnt much of the second. Alright, I told myself. I may not be able to persuade the enzyme to 'adjust madi' with different grades of water, but what I can do is write a dazzling report. And I spent nights composing it too, and was quite proud of the final product. So that it came as a double shock to have it turned down with a thud and with the stern admonition that it showed a lack of seriousness, and to 'spend some time' on it. It took me some time after this to realise that science writing is very different from regular creative writing. In some ways its even opposite. Fewer adjectives, shorter prose, nobody cares for beautiful sentence constructions,nobody cares about your hypotheses unless backed up by some clear data, and most of all, the results have to be to the point and worded so that they convey the message and dont assume too much. In short, quite a task. It may come naturally to some people (lucky things), but it took me quite some time to get halfway decent.

It was the Royal Society which first systematized the collection, discussion and publishing of all scientific data. Apparently Robert Hooke, as its President, was asked to demonstrate 'one new law' every month or so!! Even for a genius, and even if 'law' is read as some new phenomenon, it seems quite a call. I looked for a picture of his before remembering that Isaac Newton had ordered every known portrait of his destroyed, in a vindictive burst.

If eccentricity is a necessity to be described as 'creative' science seems to be right at the top.Though I do feel it must have been more exciting to be doing science in the days when it was a more leisurely pursuit, and there was less of the 'publish or perish' spirit clouding true innovation, there's no doubt having access to all work in your area is a huge gift, too! I suppose nothing will convince the scientific community that not starting a paper with 'The transesterification of 2',3 hydroxy- something' or 'Dopamine induced aggregation of gangliar neurons..' may encourage not only the public, but also fellow scientists, to actually read the papers even when in a different field. I cant do better than to quote a master scientist cum science writer, Francis Crick, 'There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper'.

Somebody suggested that with the advent of the sms era, science writing (like other writing) will only get worse. Well, I hope not. But even if it does, the plus is that it would have to get shorter (dis nzym dsnt wk). And even if it does, there's always the library and the internet to read masterpieces of prose like The Microbe Hunters (which I just re-read and would strongly recommend to everyone!).