Friday, May 27, 2011

My pre-Kindle story

The birthday has come and gone. As usual, H came up with out-of-the world surprises. Not of the parachute flying or fireworks display type, but making the birthday girl go around the house like she were on the 'Amazing Race'. The clues were no simple, they were these ultra-mokkai, rhyming tamil verses. When at last I got to the last clue, I had to rummage through my own handbag for the gift.

This time, however, a week before my birthday, H really had to discuss the gift with me. He was planning to get the Kindle reader and was not completely convinced if I would prefer reading from an e-book reader. I immediately said no. No matter how advanced technology can get, I still love and cherish reading from the printed book. I simply can't resist touching the crisp pages and watching my bookmark travel from the first page to the last. It's a feeling that no e-book reader can replace.

"Just imagine", H went on that night, trying to lure me into his trap. "There are so many advantages with the Kindle. You would get to read those fat books, that you cannot stuff into your handbag. You can own every one of them."

"Yeah, but then what do we put on our must-have book shelf?" I retorted.

He knew it was coming.

"That's exactly the point, let's make space for a nice big home theatre system instead. How about that?" He said, with a solid ear-to-ear grin.

As much as H loves to read books and infact, is open to reading a lot more authors than I am, if you put a book and a movie DVD next to each another, his hands would snatch the DVD, no matter what language. So, after some research (read 'googling') H decided to wait for the next version of Kindle and hopes that he would have enough time to convince me for the budget allocation.

This apart, one of my new year resolutions for 2011 was to read atleast one book a month and to start blogging again, something that I had taken for granted and been lazy to do. I have been keeping an account on Shelfari and today, I realized that I have already added 13 books into my 2011 list. Finally, here is a new year resolution that I have sincerely stuck to. I hope I keep up the momentum.

Some books have been amazing, some not-so-good. Here are my reviews and ratings, in decreasing order.

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. There is this magic that some books have - they get you so connected to the characters, that when you turn over to the last page, its like you are at the departure gates of an airport. "Water for elephants" certainly did that to me.

Sara Gruen has done excellent homework for this book. By transporting you to the world of the circuses, animals and the performers, she has proved to be a master story-teller. As soon as I read the first chapter, I realized that this is perfect material for a motion picture.

*spoiler alert* I really wish there was a sequel to this book portraying Jacob and Marlena's life together after they left, but now I can only hope for the motion picture.

A soul crushing story. A page-turner!

My rating : *****

Diary of a wimpy kid
by Jeff Kinney

A very funny and light read. If not as good as the ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ series, this book still has that mischievous element to it.

The Chirag Gupta trick in ‘Rodrick Rules’ is so simple, yet funny, I can’t wait to try it on someone.

Ultra cute and ‘ROTFL’ quality.

My rating: ****

An Equal Music
by Vikram Seth

For music lovers and incurable romantics, this is a great read. It took close to a month to finish. The book does that to you. It takes it own time, giving you the intricate details and leaves you in no hurry to turn over to the last page. The surprise element strikes itself only when you are halfway through the book, and here, by surprise, I really mean surprise.

*spoiler alert* Neither does it start with "Once upon a time...", not does it have the "...and they lived happily ever after" ending, but still there is something in the story that keeps you glued.

For long, I've been wanting to read Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy", but I simply don't have the energy to hold such a gigantic book during my bus journey. An Equal Music gave me a head start to mesmerize myself in Seth's style of prose. Of course, his love for poetry peeks in at many occasions.

Overall, a tender and touching story.

My rating: ****

Sister of My Heart
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Divakaruni is a wonderful story-teller, with unimaginable metaphors tossed throughout the book. This book stands proof that English is one language where simple words when stringed together with passion, can add such beauty to even the ugly. The author has hidden the biggest secret between such masterfully crafted lines, so much so that, I was really taken by surprise at the end.

The two protogonists, Sudha and Anju, share alternate chapters to narrate the story and that's what adds an amazing personal touch to the whole story. Even though Sudha believes in fairy tale endings and shooting stars, the author emphasizes to her readers that life is no such fable. The ending was the only let down for me because, in an attempt to give an open ending, it seemed like Divakaruni ran out of pages and had to draw the full stop.

Finally, this book is by a woman, for the women and about the women caught in the world of men.

My rating: ***

The Mistress of Spices
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

After reading Divakaruni's "Sister of my Heart" and "Palace of Illusions", I could hardly believe this work to be hers. For me, it was a total let down. The magic is no make-believe and the story hardly starts until the very end.

This book of spices was very bland.

My rating: **

Monday, April 04, 2011


“We are the championssssssssssssss!!!!”

That’s all I have been roaring around in the house ever since Saturday night. H is amused to see me this hyper. As a matter-of-fact, he has never really seen me this excited, especially for cricket. But last Sunday, I showed him how high I could get on one match of cricket, especially when Dravid is not playing.

“That ball would miss the leg stump you stupid. Don’t even raise that silly finger of yours!” I shouted when the Sri Lankan bowler appealed for a LBW.

H was awestruck.

“Eppadi di? Unnaku eppadi theriyum?” It was more an exclamation than a question.

It was the old me, brought up in a house filled with men and boys, playing mixed doubles in every other sport because I was the only girl around. So, my knowledge about cricket is pretty much raw. On the other hand, H is close to a walking encyclopedia. Except that this encyclopedia is extremely good at remembering trivial details like how many wives Charlie Sheen has, but cannot remember that expensive gold earring that he bought his wife 2 months ago. So, when it comes to cricket, you can imagine how statistics rule his memory. So in our world, H fancies himself to be the official cricket news reporter for some imaginary magazine that he calls ‘Cricket: Stumps to Stands.’ You can even find Ireland vs Netherlands match reports here. Until I heard him discuss one of those matches with me, I didn’t know cricket was geographically present in those parts of the world.

Saturday’s match brought back those memories and I was on my feet once again, after a really long time. I enjoyed the match more than what H would have ever dreamt his wife would. Throwing hi-fi’s at him for every Sri Lankan wicket taken, every boundary saved by Yuvraj, every run India scored and every appeal that was turned down for the Lankans. Sometimes, I swore. I sat in the same damn place without a visit to the loo fearing something unthinkable might happen. Thankfully for me, H too believes in cricket superstition, especially after the first two Indian wickets fell. You must have seen his face then, a hybrid between an angry mother-in-law and Snoopy dog of ‘You know wat, I’m happy’ fame.

As cinematic as it turned out, when the last ball was smashed for a six, H and I jumped with so much excitement. At 2 am, we treated ourselves to icecream. For a long time that night, we couldn’t sleep. That’s what a victory this king-size does to you.

Cricket for most Indians is like turmeric in our desi kitchen. A childhood spent without playing, watching or cheering for cricket is as much as a childhood wasted. So essential. If there are as many as five things that I would cherish of my Indian origin, they would probably be – curd rice, the roadside paani poori, the blue passport, salwaar kameez and, cricket. That essential.

Thank you Team India, for winning this cup. For India. For Indians. For Sachin Tendulkar.

So, now that we have conquered that pinnacle, welcome. Welcome to the biggest party in the world.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tips for scientific publication

*This post is purely academic.*

No laptop. No powerpoint slides. No laser pointer. Just him and a few aspiring scientists. Some modest advice. Bountiful jokes.

This is what yesterday’s talk by Prof Jiri Friml was all about. He is a professor at the University of Ghent, Belgium and has a whole bunch of publications in top journals such as Nature, Science, PNAS, Cell. He estimated an average output of ~15 publications per year from his lab.

One of the reasons I wanted to put together this talk is because it was down-to-earth and is adaptable by any lab. I remember one talk in the past where the scientist showed us a picture of himself writing a paper in an isolated room. The slide was completely dark except for some faint light from his laptop’s monitor that illuminated his face and the papers strewed around him. He was literally seeing ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ I suppose.

Anyway, here is my summary of Prof Jiri Friml’s talk.

1. DATA: The hard truth about publication is that more than half of the data that has been accumulated is not going to go into the paper. So, it’s best to be mindful of the requirement and work towards it, rather than accumulate truckloads of data which will eventually not get in. Saves time and a painful heart.
2. KNOCK-KNOCK: His lab statistics show that students who knock his office door more often for discussions are the ones who churn out more publications. So, don’t have any inhibitions. Just take the initiative, discuss and get started.
3. OUTLINE: This is the most important trick of all. So, once you have all the data, organize it and come up with an outline. A near perfect one. The outline would basically include putative figures, tables, the flow of the story, etc.
4. KICK ASS: As ruthful as it may sound, that’s exactly what he said. Go behind your supervisor. Make sure he goes though your outline and criticizes. Sit down with him to discuss areas where you can improve and bring it to better shape.
5. WRITER’S BLOCK: Well, who doesn’t have one? There is and will never be a universal cure for a writer’s block. Eventually, the only inevitable way to break it is to sit down and get started. The first paragraph would almost make you repent your decision to do a PhD, but once you have crossed this Indo-Pak border, then you are better off (slightly).
6. TITLE: The main (earth shattering) finding in crisp and simple language.
7. ABSTRACT: One of the most important parts of the manuscript. Be clear and concise. This is exactly what he said about abstracts, “If your paper is about plant development, and you are submitting it to Plant Biology, write your abstract as if you were explaining it to your benchmate. If you intend to submit to Developmental Biology, write as if you are telling your mother. Lastly, if you are aiming for Nature, it better be good enough for your grandma to understand.” I guess that pretty much summarizes it.
8. SHORT STORY OR NOVEL: Decide on whether you are going to write up the story in the long (5-7 pages?) or the short format (3-4 pages?).
9. WHICH JOURNAL: It’s good to be excited about your data, but don’t be that incurable optimist. Give your story that modest rating and decide on a journal where you would like to send. Certain journals have a format for the text and the references. Keep that in mind while writing.
10. THE STORY: Make sure the idea and the findings form a rounded story. Don’t hide important data and conclusions in the middle of figures or tables. Reveal them at the beginning of a paragraph or give that punch at the end of one.
11. PERFECT THE PARAGRAPH: Try to work one at a time. Don’t move to the next paragraph until you are satisfied with the previous one. If you skim through, only to come back and edit it later, it’s going to drain your energy further. Of course, there are bound to be gaps, but make sure you know what needs to be filled in.
12. FIRST DRAFT: Make it as perfect as you can before the first draft of the manuscript goes to your supervisor. The supervisor is busy (by default) and he is only going to get irritated to see silly errors. Save him his energy by italicizing the gene names, giving relevant references, mapping the text to the right figure/table and checking for typos and grammatical errors.
13. RE-WRITE: Now for the truth. No matter how much blood you shed to make it that perfect first draft, your supervisor will spot a mistake in the very second line. So go ahead and make all the changes as soon as possible.
14. FINAL TOUCHES: Once you and your supervisor are ready with the final manuscript, try to get it reviewed by someone senior within your institute/university. He/she might be able to give that critical eye before you send it out to the editor. Also, if there is someone good enough to polish the language, go ahead and get them to look through it. *His university actually has a full time staff who goes through manuscripts and helps them to make sure that their format adheres to the journal’s requirements.*
15. COVER LETTER: Keep it short. Don’t be redundant by talking about your data once again. The editor is going to read your abstract anyway. Highlight previous publications in their journal or other top journals whose work highly co-relates to yours. Be poetic, if possible.
16. AVOID YOUR ENEMIES: This is more in the hands of the supervisor. If your supervisor has the option to choose your reviewers, that would be good. If he would wish that the paper rather not end up with some folks, mark them off.
17. PROFESSIONAL, NOT EMOTIONAL: Rejected? Now, don’t get dejected and make that emotional call to the editor. He/she encounters such calls throughout the day and just wants to have some peace at work before he can get back to a whiny baby at home. So, be professional. If you believe that there is really a misunderstanding, write it down and e-mail it to them.
18. KEEP IT SIMPLE: The Prof narrated this incident wherein one of his papers got rejected by Nature, Nature Cell Biology and then also by Plant Biology. He simply split the single manuscript into two, made it simpler and got them both accepted by Science. Simple is the key.
19. FATE: Some papers are just fated to go round and round. There is nothing you can do about them. Don’t give up.
20. PUBLISHED: Finally! Go and open the corks!

Happy publishing!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Made for each other?

I feel no shame in accepting the fact that H and I love food.

I have been a food lover ever since I can remember. During school days, I had this habit of peeping into the kitchen even before I went to brush my teeth. It used to drive Amma crazy.

“Don’t touch this with unclean hands! Just wait and watch! It will get you into trouble at your in-laws”, she used to mumble in between her prayers.

The monotonous radish sambar, beans or cabbage curry cooked generously in coconut or sometimes worse, slimy ladiesfingers, were always met with a long face. Thankfully I had some really good friends in school who were generous enough to finish it up for me. On rare occasions, when Amma used to make rotis with chana masala or pulao for lunch, I used to get so impatient just waiting for the lunch break.

My outlook towards food changed as soon as I moved away from home for university. I began to thank every morning cup of tea that my mother selflessly prepared for me during my trips home. I craved so much for home-cooked (or rather Amma-cooked) food that whenever I got pulled to a restaurant with my cousins, I sincerely ordered a bowl of curd rice.

Then H happened. I was so relieved to find out that he loves to cook and enjoys it too. During one of our conversations about food, topic drifted to kozhakattai.

Me: Oh, I love kozhakattai too.

H: What goes best with it?

Me (in a Complan girl tone): I eat it as it is.

H: I eat kozhakattai with molaga podi. That’s the best side-dish.

This is when I began to doubt his tastebuds and felt my first pangs of cold feet. How could anyone eat something as sweet as kozhakattai with molaga podi? After an argument that almost made us run out of our skype credit, we realized that he was talking about pudi kozhakattai (salty rice flour dumplings) and I, was talking about our very own pillaiyar kozhakattai (sweet dumplings). There began our first misunderstanding. When I went back to bed that night, I began to wonder, ‘Still, pudi kozhakattai and molaga podi?’ I didn’t know that existed.

Little did I realize that I had only seen a trailer of my husband’s ‘bizarre food combos.’

Ever since we have started living under the same roof, our marriage all fresh and vibrant, I have been trying to cook up something new every day. Upon returning home from work, he walks straight into the kitchen (with his shoes!) to check out what’s cooking for dinner, while I rummage through his messy bag for a surprise donut or cheesecake. One look at his sparkling eyes and I know its all worth it. This whole cooking exercise after work is tiring, but the joy, unparalleled. Sometimes I even see my childhood image in him and then I know my life has come a full circle.

One day, I decided to make him my Indian fusion version of his favourite pasta. I made it all colourful with vegetables, a healthy amount of cheese shimmering on top, laid it out in a bowl, and gave it that profession touch with some Italian herbs for dressing.

As soon as I open the door, he walks straight to the kitchen. It amazes me how he still has that jump in his step after almost 14 hours of work. Excited, he quickly gets changed and ready to feast. After the first few spoons, he slowly wriggles away into the kitchen, only to bring back a packet of Haldirams aloo bhujiya. I cringe at his insane idea and tell him, “You are spoiling the flavour of the pasta.” But I can only hear how crunchy and desi my pasta has turned out in his hands.

On extremely tiring days, I just do the two-minute noodles thingie. When I am half-way through my plate of maggi, I watch him pack the noodles between two slices of bread, making it look like tentacles were flowing out of them. Even before I say anything, he goes on to reminisce about his college days. Like salt, bread goes with almost anything for him - sambar, rasam, avial and once, even thai green curry!

I’m no saint when it comes to mix-n-match with food. During my 12th board exam preparations, my cousin, who was then preparing for his 10th exams, came over to study with me. Late one night we got super hungry and ended up eating the left-over pani pooris (sans the paani) stuffed with Haldirams moong dal and grapes! Those were the only things we could lay our hands on without disturbing my parents. Eventually we ended up waking them up anyway because we both were literally rolling on the floor laughing. That was my first and last bizarre food.

Anyway, coming back to H. As much as I am awestruck by his outlandish food ventures, I am not offended, because he has only added his adventurous touch to my modest kitchen craft. He doesn’t force me to try these either. He knows and respects the fact that I have very stringent rules drawn on my plate.

Afterall, while being in love is about enjoying your similarities; marriage is about enjoying your differences as well. So, nowadays during weekends, I am entertained by these tea time horror movies in which H dips Parle Krack Jack (the pepper one) into his masala tea and gorges on Punjabi samosas with mayonnaise.