Saturday, April 29, 2006

Reducing agent

"No, I have no time to see your oil painting," he chided his son. He was late for work. The shift began at 8 and it was 7:30 already.

"Please dad," Rahul pleaded. "I have been asking you for days."

"I know, I know," Vinay replied, "but I don't want to hurry it. Soon, I assure you, son. Soon."

He picked up the keys to his car and rushed down the staircase. Like everyday, a feeling of despair filled his heart. "If not this, then what?" this statement kept running around his head in circles, and everything from disappointing Rahul to his professional frustrations combined in a giant of simmering sadness.

He drove to the office. Thoughts kept jutting in and out of his head. "Where did I go wrong?" he wondered. "A bad father stuck in a filthy job," he saw his face contort with fury in the rearview mirror.

He reached office and logged into his computer. He had recently registered himself on an online freelancing site. The company, Viocon, sent him orders on a daily basis. Since most of them were subject specific and had tight deadlines, he often took only a cursory glance at the Orders List in the hope that he might find something doable.

As it happened, an undergraduate student had posted his Chemistry assignment as one of the orders that morning. The order was worth $65 and comprised objective type questions in organic chemistry. While he recollected little of the subject, he began browsing the questions list out of a feeling that here was something he could take a crack at.

The fourth question on the list was about a reducing agent that plays an important role in glucogenesis. He read the word "Reducing agent" and suddenly a flash of happiness pierced his heart. "Reducing agent," he mumbled to himself, and found himself smiling with child-like glee.

Perhaps he had become a child suddenly. He had been transported to a world of relish and joy. What he remembered about the reducing agent was the irony of its existence. He had learnt about it in Class VII. A reducing agent is the element in a redox reaction that reduces another species and in the process, itself gets oxidised. He heard the soft voice of Miss Thomas explain the process. "In the reaction between Na and Cl to make common salt," she would say with trademark benevolence, "Na donates its valence electron to Cl, in the process acting as the reducing agent by getting oxidised." He recollected how he used to like such things at one time. He was a favourite of his teachers' because he was the best student in class.

He looked around. The room was taking on another colour. Is it possible to change, he wondered? He had become too sentimental, too intuitive. It had made an interest in life difficult. He shirked all notions of life as he knew them, he realised.

But this was good. He might rekindle an interest if he wished. He was enthused by the thought that his existence had been imbued with a life-affirming energy at one time. He was part of the gang (of people who are smart). If he held on to this notion for a bit, it might transform his brain in a gradually seeping way, and he might finally be able to escape that feeling of dread which he experienced often. It was an anxiety that had no certain roots, but it gripped his soul from time to time, perhaps, he now realised, as a plea to dispel the ennui in his life.

And it can be dispelled, he said to himself, and got up with a flourish, like he was walking down the aisle to the applause of thousands of admirers. He walked out the door and took out his mobile. He was terribly excited. He felt rejuvenated and ready for anything. There was a patch of water on the floor near the coffee-vending machine.

In his hurry, he stepped on it and slipped. He fell down, and hit his head against the wall, but as he lay there stunned, he thanked God under his breath for testing his new-found perseverance with a physical challenge. As he pulled himself up from the ground, the words "reducing agent" swam in his head. He tried dialling Rahul's number but the weight of an absurd happiness slowed him down.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Indian-a strikes

As if Kaavya Vishwanathan's inspired taking off on Megan McAfferty's works wasn't enough, another Indian in the US has caught the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Vikram Buddhi, an Indian student of the Purdue University has been arrested for posting internet messages urging Iraqis to kill the US President. He will face trial on June 26.

Buddhi wrote in an online message board that he wanted to kill George Bush, Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. He also wrote calling on his readers to bomb the United States, kill all Republicans, and rape and mutilate white women.

The question that's bothering me now is: What was he thinking?

Friday, April 21, 2006

An unresolved matter

Last night, I dreamed about an imaginary library. It belonged to one of my colleagues at work. It was surreal because the library was not a part of his house in the dream. It was a few blocks away, and one had to look up at it from the ground. A wooden staircase led to it, flanked by lamps on both sides, the kind that one encounters on Goan streets. A lightbulb covered with a shade and a hook that helps it hang from a post.

A lonely street led to the library and then on the left one could look up to its door. The staircase that took one to it consisted of no less than 25 steps. The walls were wood-panelled and the steps were carpeted in dark wool.

There was no-one in the library but it was well-lighted, which made me feel special. It was spread out over a not large area, yet the spaces between the bookshelves were sufficient to browse the books comfortably.

Seeing those books stacked in rich hard cover for my exclusive consideration filled me with a wondrous sense of peace. I experienced a strange sensation of divinity hover above me, like this was a mystic scene I was witness to. I was filled with an ecstasy I had not known a long time.

As I was about to take out the first book from the collection (I think it was Freakonomics, a curious choice, considering the mood I was in, in the dream), my colleague whose library it was called out to me from below. Nowhere in the dream was I told that the library was his, but as soon as he called out to me, I knew it was. Dreams have the power to do that: tell you things without really saying them.

I saw him from the end of the street that housed the library, like in a movie. He was looking up and calling out to me, alongwith a few friends of his. In the dream, he seemed very distant, and his face wore a surprised expression, like he had discovered something new. His face was aglow with the light that came from the library, for in its absence, the street was very dark, except for a few red bobs that emerged from here and there.

Cut to the library floor. It was me again, but unlike the colleague who I saw from a distance (like a movie, as I said), I didn’t see myself, but only experienced my presence from within, like real life. This is so in all my dreams. I never see myself as a third person. My gaze is never directed from outside.

A deep sadness swamped me as I was being asked to leave this: this panoply of the written word, for the drudge of everyday life.

As I felt my mind swim in that disappointment, my dream ended even though I did not wake up.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Are the IIM salaries unsustainable?

Certainly. My argument in this piece published on

Come the month of March, and the nation is gripped in a bewildering frenzy fuelled by the IIMs revealing the highest offers made to their graduate students.

Gaurav Agarwal became somewhat of a national celebrity when it was disclosed that Barclays of London made a record offer of Rs 86 lakh to the IIM Bangalore graduate. Before the dust had settled on this fantastic offer, screaming television headlines informed us that a student at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad had lapped up an annual package of over Rs one crore.

The media hyped these salaries to such an extent that Agarwal and another high-flier at IIM-B, Venkatesh Shankararaman drafted a mail to the institute's director, which read as follows:

"Salary details, especially when they are above-normal compensation levels, tend to catch the attention of unscrupulous elements in society and could cause immense physical and psychological distress for those involved. It has also caused a lot of personal problems for us."

Undue embarrassment

One can only speculate on the "personal problems" faced by the students. Insiders feel the real reason is the undue embarrassment faced by international companies.

International companies desist from revealing compensation figures to the public or media. These companies recruit from several B-schools and the compensation packages offered vary. In such a situation, publicising compensation packages is not desirable.

This year, during the placements process, IIM-Ahmedabad clamped down on revealing figures to the media after companies expressed concern about salary statistics being published before the process was complete. IIM-B director Professor Prakash Apte announced that his institute will not give out information about compensation packages from next year.

B-Schools like the Indian School of Business, which follow international practices, do publicise salary figures. What they never divulge is which company offered how much compensation. So what prompts the IIMs to disclose salary figures?

IIM sources say that over the past four or five years, placements and salaries offered have become an interest point for the media and by extension, it becomes an avenue of competition among B-schools. It's not only a means to improve brand equity (which it undoubtedly does), the tantalizingly revealed details are also a road to one-upmanship.

Worth it?

But are the salaries worthy of an education at the IIMs? Salaries have been seeing a steep hike with every passing year. Today, an IIM grad is worth much more than he/ she was just a decade ago.

Granted, the liberalization process has brought Indian corporates in the league of the best in the world, but the question arises: what has suddenly changed for these graduates to command eye-popping prices for their services?

One explanation for the rise is the exactness of the work profile involved. Managers create wealth for their companies by devising complex models for growth and sustenance. Any company would look at recruiting the best because of the belief that only the right CEO can lead a company to prosperity. IIMs, owing to their brand value, score on this account and it is this belief that drives salaries through the roof.

Another reason is the strong demand-supply gap. There is a limited supply of high-performing managers who can truly change a company. When companies come across a few on those high-sounding campuses, they do everything in their might to reserve them, including primarily paying big bucks.

But many feel that such an annual rush in salaries is unsustainable. Several new studies are challenging the assumptions on which executive pay policies are based. They argue that the criteria used to narrow the pool of CEO candidates are arbitrary and create the false impression that talent is scarce.

As company bottomlines surge and fall like the tide on a full moon, so is the corporate paycheck. While the IIMs battle it out on where the buck finally stops, we haven't yet heard the final word on those skyrocketing pay packets.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Diary of Anne Frank, suffused with adolescent angst

Not one flowing with saccharine pulp, as one might expect. Previously undiscovered letters of Anne Frank have been obtained by an Amsterdam museum. Guardian today published a selection. From the ungainly prattle of her filial words, emerges one such letter in which Anne asks her father Otto, with brutal honesty, to mind his own business in her love affair with Peter van Pels:

Dear Father,

I think you expect an explanation from me, so I'll give you one and because I find it easier to write than to talk, I'll do it on paper.

I believe that you're disappointed in me, that you expected more restraint from me and so you worry about things that don't require any worry. Since we've been here, from July 1942 until a few weeks ago, I haven't had an easy time. If only you knew how much I used to cry at night, how despondent and unhappy I was, how lonely I felt, you'd understand my wanting to go upstairs! It didn't happen overnight that I reached the point where I can live without the support of Mother or anyone else. I've struggled long and hard, and shed many tears to become as independent as I am now.

Mother can laugh and you can refuse to believe me, but I don't care - I know that I'm an independent person and I don't feel I am answerable to you. I'm only telling you this because I thought you might otherwise think I was being too secretive*, but you don't need to think that I have shirked my responsibility. I'm only accountable for my actions to myself; that's something no father or mother has any right to!

When I was having problems, everybody, including you, closed their eyes and ears and didn't help me. On the contrary, all I ever got was rebukes for being too noisy. I was noisy only to keep myself from being miserable all the time, I was overconfident to keep from having to listen to the voice inside me. I've been putting on an act the last year and a half, day in, day out. I didn't drop my mask, I didn't complain and I've never had anyone who took any notice of me, nothing of the kind, and yet I've won, the battle is over! I'm independent, in both body and mind. I don't need a mother any more, and I've emerged from the struggle a stronger person!

Now that it's over, now that I know the battle has been won, I want to go my own way, to follow the path that seems right to me. Don't think of me as a 14-year-old, since all these troubles have made me older; I won't regret my actions. I'll behave the way I think I should! Gentle persuasion won't keep me from going upstairs. You'll either have to forbid it, or trust me through thick and thin. And I ask you to do the latter, even if you maybe won't do it willingly. Just leave me alone, if you don't want me to stop trusting you for good!


*because I trusted you, because I thought that you'd understand

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A San Francisco story

Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate is a novel in verse, like Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Seth uses the sonnet form throughout, including in his acknowledgement, dedication, and
list of contents:

The world's discussed while friends are eating.
A cache of billets-doux arrive.
A concert generates a meeting.
A house is warmed. Sheep come alive.
Olives are picked in prime condition.
A cat reacts to competition.
Arrests occur. A speech is made.
Coffee is drunk, and Scrabble played.
A quarrel is initiated.
Vines rest in early winter light.
The Winking Owl fills up the night.
An old affair is renovated.
Friends meditate on friends who've gone.
The months go by; the world goes on.

The rhyme scheme used is abab, ccdd, effe, gg. The book is a masterly effort at capturing a bit of the American way of life during the glorious days of the IT industry. Seth meditates on
the loneliness of lost love in a style that's characteristically his. Language that is lyrical yet sparse (An Equal Music). Twice jilted in love, once by incompatibility and then by fate, John's pain is described thus:

Depleted by his pain, he slowly
Walks to Jan's desk. What did not last
In life has now possessed him wholly.
Nothing can mitigate the past.
He gently touches Jan's sand dollar.
It soothes him in the ache, the squalor
That is his life, and she seems near
Him once again, and he can hear
Her voice, can almost hear her saying,
"I'm with you, John. You're not alone.
Trust me, my friend; there is the phone.
It isn't me you are obeying.
Pay what are your own heart's arrears.
Now clear your throat, and dry those tears."

Michael Symmons Roberts's top 10 verse novels

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Incidental mercy

"…But don't exhume this; there's no sense
In scouring ruins. Why condense
The happiness that floats above you
By seeding it with doubt and pain,
Crystals that force it down as rain?"

[Phil to Ed in The Golden Gate]

While reading these lines from Vikram Seth's verse novel, esp. these

Why condense
The happiness that floats above you
By seeding it with doubt and pain,
Crystals that force it down as rain?

("Why not?," Ed might have responded.), a recurrent thought about grief being more weighty than happiness occurred to me. Vikram's imagery is stark. Why seed the cloud of happiness that floats above like a deceitful apparition, lest it acquires the gravity of sadness? What's happiness but an escape from adventitious suffering, as Professor Sapolsky might say?

Let me discuss a bit with reference to The Hours. Clarissa tells her daughter,

When I am with him, then yes, I am living and when I'm not, things do seem sort of silly.

But in the end, it is Richard's death that releases Clarissa. What does her quote mean in the light of the ending? Does it mean that Clarissa sought release from the suffering, the same suffering that brought her closer to a notion of "living"? Did she wish for a return to the triviality of existence that she escaped in the company of Richard?

Or does it mean that her unrequited love for Richard blinded her to the pain that she felt at not having been the one he "chose"? I have a theory for this.

She had been carrying him within her (and continued to) all this time- the essence of Richard. And it caused her such pain, such irredeemable pain that she wished to see it crushed, for it to not be validated. For that space of rejection to not get honored and that's what ultimately happened.

That is, in a roundabout manner, his loss made her feel glorious. She cared for him, even as the man he chose to love moved away. It was her revenge against Richard. "See," she seemed to say, "I am the one who cared for you till the end."

Clarrissa discovered relief not in the event of her lover's death (which shattered her), but in the details of it. It was an act that was laden with incidental, sudden mercy. The morning he threw himself off the window, it was only mercy, as I see it, on Richard's part.

How long have you been doing that? How many years cleaning up the apartment. What about your own life? What about Sally? Just wait till I die, then you'll have to think of yourself.

He had said to her earlier.

More than anything else, it was one mammoth act of benevolence.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sunday Pleasures

The Hindu carried a profile of iconic lensman Gordon Parks in its Magazine today. Parks was a chronicler of the civil rights movement and captured the ironies of racism in his vivid images. He passed away on Mar 7 this year. I discovered a webpage that has a few of those pictures, including the one below.

While browsing an old Life magazine, I came upon a picture that grabbed my attention. A stylish African-American woman in high heels and glowing earstuds was standing on the curb with her little girl. Above them hung a disturbing neon signpost: "Coloured Entrance". The little girl is expectantly looking out towards the street.

Also in the Magazine, Mini Krishnan's childhood reminiscence:

In my eighth summer, I walked up to my class teacher's desk to collect a prize for Reading and Spelling. My prize was a book, a slim volume titled Illustrated Stories from the Bible.
In newly independent India, there wasn't a single full-colour magazine; and well-produced childrens' books were only for the very rich. So my prize-book, the work of American missionaries, was doubly precious.

As I read story after story some of which were already familiar, and stared at all the pictures, Jesus became more and more real to me. He was in very ordinary-looking clothes, he wasn't carrying weapons, there was no trace of jewellery or flowers on him, he looked like the other people in the pictures, he had hands and feet, and even a beard. I dreaded the last page. Would he be bleeding on the Cross? Luckily not. He was at a table with all his friends and appeared to be enjoying a meal. I hadn't yet heard the story connected with the picture of the Last Supper.
At that time, I was in III-A and felt I was no longer a child but someone who observed things, combed my hair without my mother's help, walked to school by myself in buckled shoes — not lace-ups — and took small decisions.

One such decision was how to end the daily class — prayer. My school believed in democracy so every single child in class got a chance to read a short class-prayer quite apart from the daily school assembly. It always ended with words that anyone who has studied in a Christian school will recognise: "Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen."

When it was my turn, I said, "To Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen." There was a great silence and my teacher Mrs. Bettina Grant said, "It's through, child. Not to. Haven't you been listening?"
"Yes, I know that's what everyone says. But I want to go to Jesus, not through Him to someone else."

"But that's not how we are supposed to say it."

"What's wrong with saying I want to go to Jesus?" By this time, a thrill had run through the class because no one with any sense argued with Mrs. Grant. This was also something dangerous to argue about and how delicious that it was a non-Christian.

Mrs. Grant rose and pressed a bell to summon the junior school captain. I was sent off with her to the Principal: an American no one was afraid of because she was incapable of being unkind. Nevertheless when I was led into the office and had to stand listening to a narration of my rebellion, my courage vaporised.

Miss Johnson stood up and towered over both of us as she looked at me, her grey eyes expressionless. Then she wrote something on a piece of paper, gave it to the JS captain and sent us off. When we returned to class, whatever Miss Grant read on the notepaper made her look very thoughtful. "Go to your place," she said to me. What had Miss Johnson written to defuse the situation? How had I escaped without being reprimanded?

Years later my Father showed me that same note. At some time, perhaps on Parents' Day, Mrs Grant had given it to him. It said very simply in ink long faded, "Matt. 19, verse 14" followed by the signature, "Frances Johnson."

It was undated but I recognised the note Mrs. Grant had looked at silently many years ago and though I'd read the Gospels several times, I didn't know them by heart. So my hands shook as I opened the Bible to check the reference. "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them... ."

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ramanujam goes to Hollywood

Another Beautiful Mind in the making? Two producers are competing to bring the life of an impoverished self-taught Indian mathematician to the big screen.

Here's some dope on Srinivas Ramanujam, taken from a website. Fictitious or not, you decide:

The teacher was asking some simple questions in arithmetic. The class was learning the simple operation of division. When the teacher asked how many bananas would each boy get if three bananas were divided equally among three boys, someone had an answer. One each. Thousand bananas divided equally among thousand boys? The answer was still the same. One. The class was progressing thus, questions being asked by the teacher and answers being provided by the student. But there was a boy who had a question. If none of the bananas was divided among no boys, how much would each boy get? The whole class burst into laughter at what the students thought was a fast one or a silly question. But the teacher seemed to have been impressed. He took it upon himself to explain to the boys that what the student had asked was not a silly question but rather a profound one. He was questioning the teacher about the concept of infinity. A concept that had baffled mathematicians for centuries, until the Indian scientist Bhaskara had provided some light. He had proved that zero divided by zero was neither zero nor one, but infinity. The student was Srinivas Ramanujam.

Ramanujam had a fruitful association with mathematician GH Hardy, who arranged for him to travel to Cambridge University to study.

Hardy was amused to find that Ramanujam was an unsystematic mathematician, who played with maths much as a child played with toys. His mathematical truths were not explained and it was left to other mathematicians to prove them. He called their collaboration "the one romantic incident in my life."

Now, producer Edward Pressman has acquired rights to Robert Kanigel's biography The Man Who Knew Infinity. The feature is in competition with another just-announced Ramanujan film.

Actor Stephen Fry plans to co-direct and write the movie with Indian director Dev Benegal. The two were in India recently to make the announcement.

Fry is most well-known for his portrayal of Jeeves in the series Jeeves and Wooster, adapted from PG Wodehouse's collection.