Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Serendipity



There are times in our life when we bump into a stranger with whom we want to make a connection, share a word or two, but with the frenzied pace of the world we live in, it’s nearly impossible. Who has the time to stop by and chat when there are more important things going on…money to earn, exams to give, travels to take, family to raise. And then God plays a mischievous trick, adding some flavour to our boring, routine lives. And we’ve one of those bluemonic experiences that’s called “serendipity”, a fortunate accident. One of those incidents least expected but leaving us with a lingering feeling of contentment long after it’s over.

I remember the first time I met him. He was my cousin’s friend and my cousin introduced me to him as a spoiled brat of a sister. He grinned at the remark. And the smile…it started my serendipity! It was on an autumn morning; warm, cozy atmosphere due to hustle and bustle going on in our home for my cousin sister’s upcoming wedding. People jostling about running wedding errands…but strangely they had a smile while they carried out their tasks. Maybe it was the festive mood or maybe it was my imagination because I had started seeing everything through rose-colored glasses!

I was a confused kid of fifteen then (it’s a different issue that I’m still confused about most things)…looking at the hectic activity all around me. Amidst all the frenzy, I saw him. A feeling, as never before, took hold of me. I have a porous soul and he osmosed into me. Every nerve, every sense reached out towards him.

And ever since that moment for the rest of the days till the wedding, I carried him with me. Always. “Is this love?” I wondered. I couldn’t define it. Because I along with every other human being, can only feel it. He devoured my every waking moment and reined my dreams. But the weight of this intangible, invisible thing called love didn’t weigh me down. In fact, it uplifted me…every time I thought about him. I was scared that X-Rays can detect his 6 feet frame wrapped in 6 inches of my heart! I didn’t want anyone to know. He was mine, my own treasure. He was so much a part of me, I was becoming him. Dreamy-eyed, stupid grin…I was a sight!

My cousins sensed something was amiss. Maybe it was the idiotic grin plastered on my face 24/7 that gave away the state of my mind. But all those feelings faded into nothingness. He never knew. It was a wordless first meeting. Perhaps, back then he didn’t even acknowledge my existence. I’m one of those persons who tend to blend into the crowd quite well and go unnoticed. And my emotions when it came to love had always been controlled, very controlled. I walked past him, stood next to him, gave him a bored look without a trace of him knowing what he was doing to me. I could never take the risk of him knowing it ever. I would be doomed. Ridiculed in his eyes. I wasn’t afraid he would hate me. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. And I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate his indifference.

A week went by. The wedding was over. My cousin left for her honeymoon. And here I was experiencing the first brush of love or infatuation, whatever it was! He never knew how happy he had made me unknowingly. The shy glances, the knowing smile, laughing uncontrollably at my “not so funny” jokes. I loved everything about him. I must have been so obvious at times. And even if he had sensed it, he didn’t show it.

We met again, long after my crush sank into oblivion and my world no longer revolved around his smile! We talked a lot, met often. He read voraciously and that created a bond between us. A friendship had begun. He got a job, moved to another city. I got busy with my studies. We kept in touch through the occasional phone call or email. Few months back, he called me to share the news that he’s getting married. I’m writing this on the eve of his wedding thinking about the “fortunate accident” that had occurred in another wedding few years back. Strange are the ways of God bringing us reasons to smile, memories to cherish in ways we least expect. So, be open to every little experience of life. I’ve an ear-to-ear grin now reminiscing about something.

FICTION: Written in December,2006 for the college fest literary event

A Dear Wish...



"That there should exist one other person in the world towards whom all openness of interchange should establish itself, from whom there should be no concealment; whose body should be as dear to one, in every part, as one's own; with whom there should be no sense of Mine or Thine, in property or possession; into whose mind one's thoughts should naturally flow, as it were to know themselves and to receive a new illumination; and between whom and oneself there should be a spontaneous rebound of sympathy in all the joys and sorrows and experiences of life; such is perhaps one of the dearest wishes of the soul."

-Edward Carpenter

In today’s world, where tolerance levels have gone alarmingly low, monogamy has lost the earlier significance, people shifting from one relationship to another with dangerous ease, sensitivity and unquestioning honesty has taken a backseat…Is the above quote valid or is it a rare occurrence?

In my own life, comparatively short and therefore lacking in experience though it is, I have known both personally and vicariously a great deal of mental stress and pain that might have been prevented by timely knowledge. It was due to searching for the right in the wrong choices. And even the relationships around me that I’ve viewed in close quarters fail to do justice to the above quote. The faith in the existence of such a love falters at times. But the world thrives on hope…and so do I.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Being A Girl



I’m no hardcore, bra burning feminist. All I want is never to be discriminated just because I’m a girl. Women have made gradual but tremendous progress in all walks of life. They are on equal footing with men. And might I say that’s setting the standards a little low! Still got a long way to go. Especially in my country, where female feticide is an open secret. Women are yet to find their rightful place by breaking the barrier of domesticity, embracing education and following their dreams. And not just in the rural areas. Even in the urban society, uber modern lifestyles notwithstanding, women have to make compromises in their careers, education or family life at some point or the other. A woman breaking into the top of the male dominated corporate world is still so rare that it makes news headlines for a week. Even in the field of medicine, that I’d opted for as a career, women faces discrimination on the basis of their sex. The ratio of male to female surgeons is still high. There are still a section of patients who prefer a “capable, responsible male” doctor to a female doctor any day. Even during clinical rotations I’ve noticed patients calling the female medical students or doctors as “sister” (think “nurse”). The thought of a female doctor still doesn’t cross their minds. I’ve felt irritation, discomfort and finally resignation at these comments.

While growing up, I never gave much thought to where a girl child stands in today’s Indian society. My sister and I were unduly pampered and loved by the whole extended family and girls predominated among the huge number of cousins. All the neighborhood kids of my age were boys and I was the pampered one amongst them too. We were spoilt rotten while growing up. But even in this protected environment, few recent incidents made me take a hard, unbiased look at my own family. The significance of being a girl in my family. There had never been any objection to any woman from our family in terms of career; except in case of my mother. My mother used to keep very frail health in her youth and suffered from a lot of ailments. So my father made her discontinue her job and stay in the comforts of home. I find it unfair that she wasn’t allowed to voice her opinion in this aspect. And I’ve seen that in the marriages in my family, the men always had the final word. There weren’t any conflicts or quarrels as such, but little decisions like the choice of holiday destination, whether to get a pet or not, what to watch on television etc.

I was born seven years after my parents’ marriage and at that time being childless for more than five years into a marriage was a troubling issue. Neighbors had the audacity to suggest to my grandmother about my father’s remarriage. And I was aghast to know later that few of my relatives even considered it as a sensible idea. But my father put his foot down and wisely the others shut up. But it made me think how inconsiderate they were towards my mother; her feelings weren’t given any thought. There had also been one specific instance of an uncle of mine feeling very disappointed at the birth of a girl child for the second time. But now the same person goes out of his way to ensure that his daughters get the best of everything. Makes me wonder about that latent feeling of discontent in him that surfaced once during the birth of his second daughter. It was very brief and didn’t occur ever again, but why did that feeling had to arise in the first place?

I wondered at times whether my father too felt so. He had always been so proud of my sister and me. There was this one instance when his boss had commented that he felt sorry for my father because he had no sons and he’s up for a lonely time once he’s retired from work, and his daughters are married. That insensitive comment that was completely unjustified and totally uncalled for angered my father so much that he lashed out at his boss. Things had turned out that bad. Our family had gone to Delhi a couple of months ago and during the train journey, the person sitting next to my father asked him whether he had any sons. When my father answered no, the man (who by the way was a top official at a bank in Kolkata) actually sighed and looked sympathetically at my father. He went on to say that he had been blessed with two sons, who were currently unemployed but thinking of starting a business venture soon. But for him it was no big deal; they are boys and they will always find out a way to survive and take care of their parents. He again re-formed his face to evoke sympathy for my father. My father replied his eldest daughter is a doctor and the next daughter is a college topper; and he’s quite proud of both his daughters. That comment was worth saying just to see the look on that man’s face.

Why do educated people still think it’s a loss when a girl child is born? Why do parents feel that they wouldn’t have anyone to fall back on once their daughters are married off? I was proud of the way my father has tackled the insensitive comments he had heard over the years just because he doesn’t have a son. I don’t know what miracle a son would have achieved that his daughters couldn’t.

All the children of my father’s colleagues and friends are in their late twenties or early thirties, well-settled in life and providing for their parents post retirement. His friends proudly boast of the security and comfort they enjoy in this late phase of life because of their sons. I’m still a student working towards a post-graduate degree; studying medicine takes awfully long and the returns aren’t good till the specializations are over. Moreover I’m the youngest among all the children of my father’s friends, owing to my parents’ late marriage and my birth seven years into their marriage. I wonder at times whether my father too has regrets deep down about not having a son. I know he loves my sister and me an amount that lacks words to describe, but I feel very disturbed at times that I’m not yet able to do the things for him that sons of his colleagues had done. I know I can do them after few years, once my studies are over. But because of a certain section of the society, there is this indirect pressure to prove that his daughter can do the same things that a son might have done.

Has anyone out there have ever felt the same?

Travel Literature...



Books and Travel are two interests that I pursue passionately. And to merge them both is heaven on earth for me. Travel literature is a genre that I intend to explore avidly this year. The experience of a traveler is always a delightful read. Travel literature is not a log of dates, popular tourist destinations, best food and shopping destinations. It’s the narrative of a wild-eyed tourist who explores little known destinations or well known ones with a new insight. It can be factual accounts or tinged with fantasy. It’s not mandatory to deal with a particular region; it can be cross cultural or trans national. It can document explorations, exotic adventures, voyages, and the different in places. It may describe the geographical territory, the history, the culture, the people, the political scenario but with a pithy narrative and poetic vision. I adore travel literature, fact or fiction, because it often brings forth a fresh, new perspective of a destination, the journey, the experience, the joy of travel. I enjoy travelling a lot and after reading outdoor literature the desire to explore new places only gets heightened. It’s almost orgasmic for me to read the classics of travel literature. Ever since the time I read Lewis Carroll’s “The adventures of Alice in Wonderland” and Swift’s “Gulliver’s travels”, when I was around this high, I was mesmerized by the ability of authors to take us on wonderful, fascinating journeys through the medium of literature. In the past couple of years I’d read Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux and Amitav Ghosh, his “Sea of Poppies” being my most recent read of his nautical trilogy. I not only want to read the books by contemporary authors but also of those who lived a long time back. The rare travel accounts of the medieval times or even a couple of centuries back are something I hope to read someday. Those were the days when travels were rare and adventurous journeys were taken to far lands. Soldiers during battles, vikings during plundering, traders during voyages carrying spices and silk, historians documenting the rise and fall of dynasties, pilgrims and missionaries visiting holy places, the common workmen crossing countries in search of work, explorers in search of a new land, royalty in search of new regions of conquest… I want to devour all these travel accounts. Right from Marco Polo to Patrick French.
The following are a list of books on my wish list this year. I don’t know whether I would find them all, and more importantly afford them all! And I would be grateful if readers of my post share any information about the availability of inexpensive used copies of the following books. On my student budget, these gems of travel literature seem a distant dream.
Here are the collected and edited excerpts from book reviews of each book which intrigued me to put them in the reading wish list for the year:

1. A Barbarian in Asia- Henri Michaux

It’s an interesting look at 1930s Southern and Eastern Asia through this Frenchman's eyes. He traveled through India, the Himalayas, southern India, Ceylon, Malaya (from Malaysia to Bali), China, and Japan. Strongly recommended - though natives of these lands might take offense. An original and stimulating refraction of the Orient through a very special personality.


2. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, by Rebecca West

A well-educated, upper class Briton, West a professional writer and literary critic, not to mention H.G. Wells’ mistress and mother of his son, traveled widely throughout Yugoslavia during the mid- and late-30s. It is extremely insightful, as West unravels the often extraordinarily intricate relationships among the various ethnic and religious groups, and the often torturous reasoning behind some of the political developments in the region. Beyond the descriptions of people, culture, and history, it is West's details about the places she sees that are the most moving and alluring. One wants to wander through the former Yugoslavia as she did, seeing the beauty of the land and cityscapes. But this book isn't just about Yugoslavia. It is also about Europe on the brink of war.

3. A Journey in Ladakh- Andrew Harvey

A classic among readers interested in Tibetan Buddhism and pilgrimages of the spirit of all kinds, A Journey in Ladakh is Andrew Harvey's spiritual travelogue of his arduous journey to one of the most remote parts of the world the highest, least populated region in India, cut off by snow for six months each year. Buddhists have meditated in the mountains of Ladakh since three centuries before Christ, and it is there that the purest form of Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced today.

4.Hindoo Holiday- J.R.Ackerley

The double 'o' in Hindoo Holiday immediately signals that we are returning to another time. An era that was tragic, perhaps, in its essence, but comic in its particulars; a time of unspeakable wealth and inconceivable poverty, continual cultural misunderstandings, unfettered whimsy, and cruelties large and small: the age of the British Raj and the Indian princes. In the 1920s, the young J. R. Ackerley spent several months in India as the personal secretary to the maharajah of a small Indian principality. In his journals, Ackerley recorded the Maharajah's fantastically eccentric habits and riddling conversations, and the odd shambling day-to-day life of his court. Hindoo Holiday is an intimate and very funny account of an exceedingly strange place, and one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century travel literature. Ackerley is hardly impressed by any monuments or traditions and his focus is people.

5. In Patagonia- by Bruce Chatwin

In this travel book on Patagonia, Argentina, Bruce Chatwin gives us a delightful account of his trip, taken in 1977. The structure of the book is different from most other travel books – Chatwin goes off looking for one thing, gets sidetracked on to some other and then on to something else. We are given history pertaining to the area; Chatwin's research is simply astonishing. He travels incessantly and doesn't hesitate to go the distance to ferret out the story. From looking for the Patagonian creature mylodon to stories about *** Cassidy and a lot of Argentine and Chilean folklore, this is a great book.

6. Shadow of the silk road - Colin Thubron.

He’s the dean of British travel writers. This is his ninth travel book and it chronicles his 7,000-mile journey in 2003 and 2004 (begun when he was about to turn 64) from Xian, China, to the Turkish coastal city of Antioch. The Silk Road Thubron travel is not one road but a “fretwork” of trade routes dating back to 1500 B.C. From the east on the Silk Road came Chinese gunpowder, printing and paper, the astrolabe and compass, silk and Buddhism. From the west came woods, fruits, metals, musical instruments and Christianity. And that was just for starters.

7. Tibet, Tibet- Patrick French

In 1999, French decided to go on a trip covering Tibet from west to east. The purpose of this trip was to demythicise and deromanticise Tibet. Although this is a land adored for peaceful spirituality, it reveals a surprising early history of fierce war-making and its equally fierce monks aka. Dob-dobs. What makes this book so engaging is that Patrick French writes this as a part memoir, part history book, part travelogue, part narrative and part political analysis. The author also reminds readers that the Tibetan empire once stretched as far as Afghanistan and its soldiers laid siege to Samarkand. As Tibet's influence waned, its king was dragged in shame through the streets of Baghdad, like, French writes, 'a downed American pilot.'
As a travel writer he paints us a picture of Tibet as a harsh, remote untouched land and nearly the most sparsely populated. A land of blue sheep ringed by snow peaks and impassable high-altitude deserts, dropping to fields of jasmine and turquoise lakes...quite seductive.

8. The Marsh Arabs- by Wilfred Thesiger

During the years he spent among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq—long before they were almost completely wiped out by Saddam Hussein—Wilfred Thesiger came to understand, admire, and share a way of life that had endured for many centuries. Traveling from village to village by canoe, he won acceptance by dispensing medicine and treating the sick. In this account of a nearly lost civilization, he pays tribute to the hospitality, loyalty, courage, and endurance of the people, and describes their impressive reed houses, the waterways and lakes teeming with wildlife, the herding of buffalo and hunting of wild boar, moments of tragedy, and moments of pure comedy in vivid, engaging detail.

9. The Snow Leopard- by Peter Matthiessen

When Peter Matthiessen set out with the field biologist George Schaller from Pokhara, in northwest Nepal, their hope was to reach the Crystal Mountain — a foot journey of 250 miles or more across the Himalaya — in the Land of Dolpo, on the Tibetan plateau. Since they wished to observe the late-autumn rut of the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, they undertook their trek as winter snows were sweeping into the high passes, and five weeks were required to reach their destination. At Shey Compaa, a very ancient Buddhist shrine on the Crystal Mountain, the Lama had forbidden all killing of wild animals, and bharal were said to be numerous and easily observed. Where they were numerous there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. Hope of glimpsing this near-mythic beast in the Snow Mountains would be reason enough for the entire journey.

10. The Lawless Roads- by Graham Greene

Greene wanted to examine firsthand a situation that troubled him. The Mexican Catholic Church was being systematically oppressed by the anti-clerical government of President Calles in the late 1930s. Struggling with very limited Spanish, traveling by trains, taxis and donkey-back, constantly prey to dysentery, Greene found his way to Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico whose history of oppression and rebellion continues unabated to this day. The guides sneered, the people were primitive, the relics and catacombs were cramped, barren, uninspiring. Greene’s Mexico is dusty, ailing, and acrid.

11. The Mirror of the sea- Joseph Conrad

Every sentence is a gem. Sentences deserve to be read and reread and reread. Strictly reflection, and not a novel, given love offers up the character and the characters of the sea. Rather selflessly too, given Conrad rarely uses I. Still here, in the mirror, he writes in first person.

12. Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper

Account of numerous first ascents and other exploratory climbs in the Alps during the golden age of mountaineering, all woven around the ongoing obsession with being the first to scale the Matterhorn. The book culminates with that famous climb and the terrible accident during the descent.

13. Roughing It- by Mark Twain

It's not often you get to read a travelogue that takes you through such a variety of localities and events, which features amusing yet revealing personal meetings with historically important figures, such as Brigham Young, and yet has been written by a renowned author. With his usual humor, and plenty of exaggerated description, Twain leads the reader west by stagecoach to the mining fields of Virginia City in Nevada, where he spent considerable time, and thence on to California, finally even going on to Hawaii, where he meets the redoubtable queen of those islands. By turns hilarious and fascinating.

14. Dersu the Trapper by Vladimir Arseniev

Arseniev was a surveyor-explorer working for the Czar's government around the turn of the century, and assigned to do a series of explorations in the Russian Far East, along the Pacific. He found as a guide an old native hunter, Dersu, and his tales of adventures in the ensuing years, among the forests of Siberia, and the relationship between himself, a man of the city and modern civilization, and Dersu, a true man of nature, who lived alone all year as a wandering hunter, are fascinating and often enlightening reading.

15. Over the High Passes by Christina Noble

Christina Noble spent a year in the Indian Himalaya and the plains of Punjab, with the nomadic Gaddi people and their flocks, following them and living with them as they moved from the plains into the Himalaya to their high pastures. Exhilarating and refreshingly optimistic, her narrative tells of the people with whom she lived and came to know, and of their adventures together among some of the roughest mountain terrain in the world. Well written, this book helps us understand that other ways of life are as good as our own, and that the adventures we seek are just the stuff of daily life for many people in the world.

Here are two links related to travel literature:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travel_literature
http://www.travelliterature.org/

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Memories on Meji



Yesterday was Bhogali Bihu, an Assamese festival to celebrate the harvesting of crops. I missed going to my hometown to attend the celebrations this year. Exams are knocking on the door. Waking up yesterday morning, and knowing that I won’t be able to see the “Meji” fire (a bonfire lit on occasion of Bhogali Bihu), catch up with my cousins, have the whole family around me…I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. My parents and my sister were also going through the same emotions. And then the calls started coming in from all my relatives; the distance barriers were overcame and the families were united again. Catching up with all the people stretched the phone calls for more than three hours. It felt awesome talking to everyone. In the evening my youngest uncle’s family came over to our home. And as we sat down for lunch, we missed being with the rest of the family but comforted by the thought that no matter where life takes us…the bonds are too strong to be weakened by distance. And festivals like these are a constant reminder of these bonds of love.


Since my childhood, I’d been a great enthusiast of festivals…and Bhogali Bihu was no exception. Some of my fondest memories are of the Bihu celebrations in my hometown, the huge gathering of all the members of our extended family (at least 60 people) at the “Bhoj” (a feast) the night before Bihu. Since the evening before Bihu…preparations for it would start on a grand scale. A huge tent would be erected on our front yard. Carpets and mattresses would be laid on the floor. Firewood is purchased. Pithas (different varieties of sweets prepared during Bihu) would be cooked. Everyone in our joint family would gather in the tent by eight pm. There was a distinct fervor and excitement in the air. There was so much to do. A meal for sixty people was no small feat. The women of the household, my mother and my aunts, would gather at one corner of the tent and busy themselves with the meal preparation. Their duty was to chop the vegetables, marinate the chicken and fish, and gather the required spices. Their duties ended there. The food was always cooked by the men folk. And since they rarely ventured into the kitchen, these festivals were occasions they eagerly looked forward to flaunt their culinary skills. The fire would be lit after some time, and different items were cooked in turns. There were about five-six different dishes. As the food was being prepared, few of the people would gather around the fire to protect themselves from the cold January night. My grandmother was always one of them. She would quietly supervise everything from her cozy seat next to the fire giving occasional instructions. Since the fire wasn’t large enough to provide warmth to sixty people…there would be few small coal-lit stoves and the rest of the people would be huddled around these.
The older children would be sprawled lazily on the floor mattresses, chatting and listening to music. The music system would be brought out to the ground, and it’d be on full blast playing everything from the popular filmi music to traditional Assamese songs. Few of my uncles would go out for a smoke and stand outside the tent carefully shielded from the elder members of the family. Alcohol was consumed occasionally by a couple of people who would hide the glasses under the chair! But after some time it would become evident that they were drunk when they began to exhibit their dancing skills. It was more energy than style. A very amusing sight. There would be a constant chatter…Many conversations going on at the same time…and I loved the buzz. These were the occasions when everyone would catch up on the family news…news of births, deaths, weddings, new jobs, and even the gossip. Childhood stories would be related. My grandfather’s presence was missed all throughout the celebrations. Sometimes there were heated arguments and a long forgotten quarrel would be revived. The children would get all excited and even place bets on who would win the argument! And all of us would be sorely disappointed when someone would mediate peace between those on the war path. One of my cousins would bring out his guitar; few of the children would dance. New nicknames were generated, old ones were relished, and everyone would compare bits of their most embarrassing incidents and silly goof ups ensuing loud laughter.

What would I be doing? I would roam around the whole ground with my own group of followers. It consisted of nine of my younger cousins and since there was a good four to eight years difference between them and me, they would obediently follow me around everywhere. I would assign different duties to each one of them. A couple of them would assist my aunts in chopping vegetables. Sure, they were offering help but not without any ulterior motive. These “helping acts” would provide plenty of opportunities to sneak out salads and fish fry and snacks. Few of the cousins would be assigned the duty of guarding the wooden fence that formed the boundary wall on one side of our ground. It’s a tradition on the eve of Bihu to “steal” wooden fences for firewood. And given the huge number of family members, we always had enough enthusiastic little guards waiting fervently in anticipation to nab a thief that night. We never did. No one dared to approach our home on seeing the large number of people gathered. And by midnight…the food will be ready. As the dishes were laid out, the kids always created a huge ruckus over the seating arrangement. But soon everyone was seated and the food was served. It was always traditional Assamese cuisine. Non vegetarian dishes predominated. I always relished the prawns and the roasted sweet potatoes. I loved these long drawn out meals, full of animated conversations, laughter and the genial ambience. After the meal, those who were feeling drowsy would retire to bed. Few would lie on the floor mattresses and chat late into the night. And few of my uncles would have a friendly game of cards. Bets were made and money was won and lost within the family. My youngest uncle derived great pleasure from winning huge sums of money from his elder brothers that night. He is unusually lucky. And as he is my favorite uncle, sometimes I would help him by innocently peeking and using sign language to tell him the cards dealt to my other uncles. I always used to get a hundred bucks in reward. It was all done in a fun spirit. By two in the early morning, everyone would go off to sleep. Only to wake up after hardly two hours of sleep. It was the day of Bhogali Bihu. And the ceremonial bonfire “Meji” would be lit. The “Meji” would be constructed of a tall heap of wood stacked one over other and covered with a stack of hay on the top. Since the lit “Meji” fire is considered holy, one has to have bath before approaching it. This would lead to long bathroom queues, followed by the painful experience of taking a shower at 4am in the cold, cold January morning! By sunrise, everyone would be out in the grounds again, sitting in a huge circle around the “Meji”. We would all be shivering in the cold. And then the fire would be lit. As the flames rise, everyone would bow their heads in unison and pray, and the women would throw certain offerings into the fire. I loved this moment. There is this profound calm that prevailed at that very moment and the comfort of the whole family gathered together on this occasion. Soon after, the conversations from the night would be continued, few would sit quietly soaking in the warmth from the fire, the children would attach sweet potatoes to bamboo sticks and roast it in the fire, and all these would be followed by a sumptuous breakfast. The merriment, the joy, the comfort, the laughter, the whole family gathered together for the occasion…sitting around the “Meji”, engulfed by its warmth….I will always treasure these memories.

Years have passed since those days. The extended family has scattered all over India and abroad. The “Bihu” celebrations are still held at our home the same way. But the number of people attending it has considerably decreased. Every year someone or the other is prevented from attending it due to job responsibilities or because of a clash with exams at college and school. I don’t know when the whole family would re-unite to attend such an occasion again…and I long for those earlier days.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Exam Phobia



Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Exams.

Exams, who?

Exams are knocking on the door and I’m blogging!!



I had been the eternal procrastinator till recently. I kept on delaying tasks till the day it’s time that I HAVE to take action to complete the task in time. It’s not that I don’t do a good job out of the task in hand. I do. Always. But I need a push in the direction. And that comes from procrastination. I only feel that adrenaline charge only when I know that I’ve very less time on hand. Otherwise, I can’t bring myself to do the task. This happens only when it comes to studies! I’m a good student. But I lack the motivation at times. My short attention span doesn’t help either. And all the above traits spell disaster for my studies! It almost ruined me a couple of times. But now I’ve started taking action against this self- destructive trait.

Exams for me mean the ultimate fear. I always have less time, get only a little revision done, and hate memorizing, more in favor of getting the right concepts. And during the days of examinations, you won’t recognize me. I move around like a zombie. I get panic attacks. I have sleepless nights in a row, completing my revision. And after the nightmare is over, I sleep soundly for two days in a row at least. And when the results come in, I always attain reasonably good marks, in the top 10-15 students of my entire batch of 150 students. And then the regret sets in that I got good marks by studying so late, I would have done far better if only I had followed a proper study schedule like the rest of the students.

Exams bring out the worst in me. If you ask me a question during the course of a normal conversation, I would answer really well. But if you ask me the same question at a viva voce, I would blank out for a few seconds before answering. My poor stress management skills and procrastination habit cause havoc during exam time.

And so I’ve taken action against this. It’s not a miracle cure out of this bad habit but ensures that you slowly but surely get out of it. I’ve devised my own method for it after reading up on the topic. It’s working for me.

Here they are:
1. Self- analyze and think why you are procrastinating. For me it’s the short attention span and the boredom that sets in after a time. And it’s always hard for me to bring myself to study the topics I find very boring. So, that was my problem.

2. Make a firm resolution to overcome this habit and let your close ones know about it so that they can bring you back in case you slacken your pace. Think of the consequences, the *** you go through during exams because of last minute preparation. Write them down and stick on the wall next to your study table so that you can watch it frequently. It scares the *** out of me…and I go back to my books.

3. Find out the time you work best. Your most productive period. And do a major part of your studying during that time. For me it is in between 10pm to 7am. I study best during that time.

4. Work out a flexible, reasonable schedule. Allot time for unexpected delays. And stick to it. How? Read on. Instead of writing “7-10 pm- Biochemistry, 11-2 am- Physiology”; write “Biochemistry (3hrs), Physiology (3hrs)”. That way you can adjust the time all throughout the day. Waiting for the bus? Squeeze in 15 mins of Biochemistry now. You have 2 hours forty five minutes to allot to the subject in the rest of the day. Work out your own schedule.

5. Read alternatively tough subjects and easy subjects. I read the easy ones first. I know many people advise the opposite. But this is what works for me. It gives me a satisfaction of one task being completed…and moving on to the next task. Crossing off items from your study schedule…brings in the enthusiasm to work on the tough subjects.

6. Have a comfortable study area, but not so comfortable that you doze off. I had the bad habit of studying on my bed. I don’t do that any more. My study table is always organized in a way that I have all the books, references, notes at an easy reach. And keep a bright study lamp, water, alarm clock at hand…in case you want to take a power nap for fifteen minutes or so. Sprinkle some water on your face when you have to get rid of the sleepiness.

7. Take a break of 5 minutes every one hour. Not more than that. I go to my sister’s room, catch the news headlines, make myself a cup of green tea or just close my eyes and rest during those five minute breaks.

8. Don’t miss sleep and don’t skip meals. Very vital. I used to go without sleep and had little food during the whole day and just kept studying for almost 21-22 hours straight to make up for lack of early preparation. I fell ill before exams due to neglecting my health and missed my exams twice till date! And had to re-appear after a month. No more messing around with my health anymore.

9. Devise your own study techniques. I hate highlighting texts. So I make tiny summary notes of a single page…all the keywords, important information on a post it note and stick it on the page. That way before exams all I’ve to do is go through those tiny notes…instead of scanning the whole page. And since I’m a visual learner; that is I memorize stuff by visualizing them in my mind, these important information in my own handwriting and in colorful post it is easy to visualize. Moreover, I depend on mnemonics and weird word association. For e.g.:
“Complications of meningitis…Subdural effusion, Ventriculitis, Visual field defect, Hydrocephalus, Brain abscess, peripheral circulatory collapse, DIC, SIADH. So, I make a mnemonic by taking the first letter of each word... ‘(VS) 2 PHD B’…And I expand it to ‘2’ Visiting Surgeons (that is VS), who had ‘PhD’s too, were lying in ‘B’ed due to meningitis. ”. Complicated, I know. But that’s the visualization that works for me. I also create mind maps with a central keyword and branch out in all directions. Say…Meningitis is the keyword in centre; and I branch out about definition, types, epidemiology, transmission, pathogenesis, organisms, stages, pathology, clinical features, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis in one single page. That way I have a topic well mapped out for a visual learner like me, help in quick revision and builds concept because you can co-relate and link it to other topics.

10. And to get me going through the task when boredom sets in, I take small steps like scanning the whole chapter first in a few minutes, go through old questions, then I know the important things to look for in the chapter. And if I feel lazy, I force myself to go through with it for just one more page. And then when I complete it, just one more page again. That way I keep myself from procrastinating. One page at a time. I also keep a notepad handy to write down doubts, or any random thing that comes to my mind. That way I know I won’t lose the idea and I’ll have time to think about it in my leisure time. I won’t spend time thinking about it during studies then.

11. If I’ve an important chore in hand and I am not able to concentrate on my studies, I take a break to do that chore promptly, so that I can come back to my studies without any other thought in mind.

12. I give myself rewards at the end of crossing off topics from my study schedule. Something that I enjoy doing and look forward to. It used to be getting back to my favorite novel or watching a movie. But now it is blogging! :) I finish off my duties soon so that I know I’ll be doing something very enjoyable at the end of it all.

13. I question a lot. Why? How? What? When? Every topic I read and I find myself opening up a lot of references and linking topics and this active learning registers far better in my mind. Not a strategy to follow just before exam. That’s the time for only revision.

14. I break my total time allotment in 4 sections. If I allow four hours to a topic…I won’t read it at a single go. I will try to complete it in 2 hours that is half the time…the less time makes it impossible for me to just while away my time. And allot half an hour revision the next day. And one hour of revision a week after. And half an hour just before exams. It works for me. Revision is the key unless you’ve a photographic memory.

15. Explain the topic to yourself; if you can, you are well prepared. Pretend you are the examiner and ask yourself questions. That has reduced my anxiety during viva. And another trick smile and give a slow, unhurried reply giving you adequate time to think during such examinations.

I started working on my study habits only recently. And I know it’s tough to get rid of a bad habit, procrastination mainly; but I’m able to stop procrastinating after following the above techniques. Hope these study techniques help you too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Firsts



“Crush” sounds childish. “Puppy love” sounds even more childish. “Infatuation” seems dignified and blog worthy. But this is my personal blog, I’ve every right to write whatever I want and proudly display my lack of good vocabulary too.
I was 12 when I had my first crush. Year was 1997. I grew up in a small, laidback town in India. And at that age my world consisted of school in the morning, chatting with my best friend, playing with my cousins, quarrelling with my sister, painting in the afternoons and watching old American TV series’ that were aired on Indian television in the late nineties (think “I dream of Jeannie”, “Who’s the boss”, “Different Strokes” etc), and animatedly telling the events of my day to my parents during dinner. That’s my life back then summed up in one line. I hadn’t even known what romantic love was, I knew it existed when I saw these people mouthing “I love you” in movies and the all-knowing classmates who gave us the wisdom about the going ons of the adult world. But that was about it. That was the period when the girls who had considered the boys gross, rowdy, loud and extremely sweaty, suddenly found the very boys “cool” (whatever that meant!). And the boys too were more than enthusiastic to allow girls to be a part of their games. Territorial rights gave way to a new equation between the boys and girls of my class. There were occasional shy glances, the incessant giggling if a boy approached a group of girls and the most horrifying scenario…when a guy was caught “just talking” to a girl alone without any friends of his hanging around. The teasing that followed was cruel. There were no boyfriends or girlfriends at that time. The concept hadn’t caught up with our small town in the late nineties. Just the teasing. But even that seemed horrifying to me. And I never wanted to be the victim. So I carefully avoided being in such scenarios. That wasn’t too difficult considering the fact that I had always been a huge introvert. And I was least interested in the new thing that we had discovered, “love”. I was happy and content in my own world. I didn’t even find any of my classmates particularly good looking (that was the main criteria back then; shallowness ruled). Seniors and juniors were a no-no. So I knew I was safe.

Little did I know what lies ahead! I was an above average student. Study was a chore. I wasn’t the competitive sorts, nor was there any parental pressure as long as I got an A in all the subjects. I didn’t abhor books. I loved them. But not the ones in the curriculum. But still I completed my studies dutifully, and since I was good at math and science, the teachers liked me too. I hated the arts (social sciences, history, and geography). I prayed for the months to pass quickly so that I can get into eighth grade and toss the history and geography books for good and buy my copy of advanced math.

I prayed too soon. Because that was the year I fell from my history teacher! I was head over heels in 'looooooooooooove' with him. That was what I thought it was back then. He was a new teacher. He got in that year, ’97. He was just like any other teacher for the first six months but a good one though. He made the classes very interesting. He made us think and told us interesting trivia and held fun quizzes and I gradually found myself getting genuinely interested in the very subjects that I had hated so much up till then. And I enjoyed attending his classes and looked forward to learning rather than studying history. I went to the library to get books on history, researched for my assignments which was unheard of in our school back then. My parents too were shocked at this sudden transition.

Then came the half yearly exams. It was the first exam where I had actually enjoyed studying a subject instead of plain memorizing. So when the question papers were handed out, I noticed that few questions were wrongly published. I was very timid back then, standing in front of the whole class to say something was a big task for me. But I did get up and pointed out the mistake to my history teacher. He was surprised at my noticing the mistakes that even he had overlooked, and corrected them promptly. That was the first time he noticed this timid girl. And he smiled at me, patted my back and told me that he hoped I do the best in the class in his subject (and yes, I later did.). I was so happy. A sincere compliment from the first teacher I appreciated. And I can’t exactly pinpoint what, but something in me changed that day. I fell for him really bad. I suddenly had an attack of coyness when he looked my way or talked to me. After the exam was done, I remember it was raining outside, and taking the rain as the excuse I stood in the corridor next to the staff room stealing occasional glances at him. I didn’t know what came over me. It was a new emotion I was experiencing. And on that very day, summer holidays began for a month. I wouldn’t get to see him for a month! I came home and that afternoon drew a sketch of him. In the blue and black check shirt that he so frequently wore.

When school re-opened, everything was the same except that I had a heightened sense of awareness whenever he was around ,and whenever he talked to me I would be too shy to even look directly at him. I told no one about it. Not even my best friend. He was my secret. My first crush was way too special and personal to share with anyone. He was always appreciative about my work complimenting me always. Once I remember he held a quiz and our team won, but he had only one bar of chocolate in his hand. Everyone started shouting that they wanted it. And I was sitting at the extreme corner and was too self-conscious to act like the others when he was around. Maybe he saw how quiet I was from the rest of the kids, and when he threw the chocolate bar in the air, it fell on my lap. I still remember that moment, this small, insignificant gesture on his part felt so good. And once he punished the whole class, and kept us in during the entire recess period, but when there were only 15 minutes to go, he called me and let me go out because he felt I was always obedient and didn’t deserve any punishment. So I walked out happily leaving a bunch scowling and angry classmates.

Little gestures meant a lot. It wasn’t like I fantasized romantically about him, he was about fourteen years elder to me! And I was only 12! It was just that I admired him so much, and even a little appreciation on his part kept me smiling for days. I acted very awkward when he was around. My unusual coyness and few silly goof-ups made him know that I was infatuated with him for sure. He never told me that he knew, I would have been mortified. But I knew that he knew. I would remember those classes, those gestures, his words in my autograph book, the one time he bumped against me while hurriedly getting down the stairs,his left arm grazing my right arm, the confused scowl that he wore, the warm smile he had, the appreciation. I know I can’t get across my point clearly and there’s nothing special or extra-ordinary in what I wrote. But it was a very special phase of my life.


I transferred to a new school, new city the next year. And the last time I saw him, it was on the last day of my seventh grade. I told him I was transferring to a new school; he said he would miss one of his favorite students. And those were the simple parting words that I would remember my whole life


My first crush; the freshness and innocence of which still lives a lingering a feeling of happiness even 12 years later. The last time I visited my home town I visited his home; but he wasn’t in town. I got his phone number. I messaged him asking whether he remembered one of his favorite students, least expecting him to do so. But he did. He remembered me, and was happy to hear from me. He was married with a kid, and a new job in journalism. It felt good hearing from him. It felt even greater that he remembered me. I excitedly told my best friend and my family about it. For the first time, I shared the secret. So many years have passed since that day in December ’97, and still how vividly I remember the details. After all, a “first crush” is always special.

P.S: I forwarded this post to my history teacher, so that he knows about this confession too. I was a rather lost kid back then, going through the mundane school life without any significant memories, and thanks to him, I not only got a renewed interest in studies that year, but also have some really sweet memories. Hope I will always remain one of his favorite students.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Early morning study break...



“Night time is really the best time to work. All the ideas are there to be yours because everyone else is asleep”. ~Catherine O’Hara



Studied at night. Watching the sunrise, sipping lemon flavoured green tea, listening to my favorite song and writing this post. I love this part of the day. From 10pm to 6am. I love the quiet and the absolute stillness that prevails…That promises infinite possibilities of doing whatever you want to do undisturbed. And to see the sunrise, feel the best wind that blows between 3-4am is an amazing feeling. The feeling of having infinite time and capacity to do anything and everything. I love the night time and dawn. I work better, can retain better what I’d studied, the mind seems clutter-free. It’s the most productive period of the whole day for me.

I love night time journeys, love listening to music at night, love to catch up on reading at night cozily snugled under a blanket, love to have midnight snacks, love three am calls from my close friends, love watching the latest DVD release at night, love the early morning light, love the chill in the air in the early morning, love to see the early morning joggers on the street (but being the laziest person on earth never felt tempted to join them), and love the feeling of accomplishment that comes after working undisturbed throughout the night.