Angkor wat

Angkor wat

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Live in the present..or should you?

'Live in the present'! screamed the header. I scanned the article quickly: it was familiar sunday supplement content,urging people to 'savour today' and live in the moment and so on, and shun the past and future like they had yeast contamination. A healthy enough sentiment, most of us would feel.

But a moment's reflection of how often I was in these to-be-avoided areas outside of actual work time told me that the answer was an easy 70% of the time. Ranging from looking ahead to daily chores (In an hour I'll cut the cauliflower while the phone charges and then finish reading a paper while that happens) to looking back to re-live something or think how it could have been done differently (a hangover from the latest McCall Smith or Foyle's war episode to the unresponsiveness of a newly thought out experiment and possible variations), I seem to spend most of my time 'cheating' the present as the article called it.

On thinking a bit there seem to be three specific tasks during which I am 100% present: in conversation with people one to one(here I am usually fully attentive),when actually setting up or carrying out some experiment, and when studying something and concentrating on understanding or working it out. But that's about it for the present really..a pretty shabby show. Walking, brushing teeth, cooking, folding clothes, day dreaming, tuning out when other people are talking in groups or watching endless documentaries (:P), making up stories for things that may happen tomorrow..what happens to all of these then?? Not to mention imaginary conversations and possible future discoveries (And now we present the Leakey award 2052- for the leader of this most daring expedition that uncovered the last of the dragons..). I am all in favour of savouring today. But if it takes up all your time, when do you savour tomorrow and rewrite yesterday? They better make some new rules.

Four too many! A ramble for old times..

While talking to a girl interested in taking up science journalism, I found myself mouthing that sage piece of advice in the field - "And don't forget to start a blog, its the simplest way to get a feel for your own writing and let would-be editors see a sample too". I was talking about a science writing blog, but it reminded me of my own long abandoned Incharaa..and I am staggered to find that it's been four years since I wrote anything here! Four years too many :(

So what has happened in these four years, and how if at all does it affect my writing? Well, four main things have happened I think..I got my PhD, got married, did a year's worth of freelance science writing~journalism and finally: I made up for a seven year glut of once- a-year travel (that too with constant background worry about this or that experiment not working), by wallowing in travel these last two years :) The most wonderful and satisfying for me were Cambodia, the forests of Bandipur and Mudhumalai(a long neglected old favourite)and of course the higher Himalayas following the Gangetic gorge. I feel enriched of with most travel..but also genuinely more at peace for having seen these places and spent time with them. They deserve separate write ups.

Finishing my PhD was of course a big deal..although anti climactic at the time after all the build up :P I feel like I grew up over the course of doing the Masters/PhD (most of my twenties were spent in the process so even factually that's true :)So every strong influence in that period whether from new people, learning things or even dealing with disappointments is in a sense also a 'PhD influence'. I am sure it has moulded how I write and what about, as well. As to being married, I can't offhand see how it might have affected my writing style or topics..except that I am better qualified to write about food now, given I have been cooking every day for two years :P And I suppose constantly hearing about all sorts of trains at home must have an impact somewhere..where, I can't say yet!

Science writing took up a great deal of my time for about a was both hard work and a lot of fun, and for anyone who is interested, here are most of the pieces:

However, I also realised that I couldn't do it for more than about a year and am now back in a lab as a happy post doc :) I guess I was spoilt with the independence that hands on research gives, as also the scope for creativity. I realized that journals, even science journals, are ultimately commercial entities and constrained by a particular style and layout that they want to stick to. This meant that my pieces got varying levels of editing; from a minimal amount to practically rewriting the whole piece. The massively edited ones were a huge disappointment to me, it felt like the final pieces shouldn't even have my name on them. The other problem was that in many big journals, you can't look up past literature yourself and give an opinion, even with a citation (as one would do in a typical scientific publication). It has to come from a scientist in a faculty position, either the author or someone else in the same field. And given most stories have deadlines of a couple of days from start to finish, this meant a lot of frantic calling up of numbers all over the world at all times with requests for comments on paper x..while also feeling awfully guilty that we aren't giving them anything like enough time!! In fact it amazed me how often people in fact read the paper in question (I hope!) and gave comments in time, I always felt I was calling in a favour that wasn't due. These two not withstanding, it was still a great experience.

So to rescue this piece from being a purely nostalgic memory indulgence, I'll bring in a movie that I watched recently and strongly recommend to anyone who hasn't yet seen it. Its called 'The First Grader'. The story is a true one, about an 84 year old man with a passion for learning, who insists on being enrolled in the first grade to learn to read and write when Kenya announces its 'education for all' policy post independence from the British. It is moving, realistic and really just wonderfully made. It made me feel both fortunate and humbled, and in the way that some movies have of seeming to carry a personal message just for you, it made me feel proud of everything in my life that came only after a successful struggle, from the smallest failed experiment that was repeated twenty times in twenty ways to stepping over the worst decisions made in life to get to the best. Do watch it if you haven't yet.