There are these days when I look back and think about all the things that have happened to me over the last two years that growing up in India, I couldn't ever imagine happening to me. Back in high school, going to MIT or Stanford or Oxford was a playful joke between all of us who were breaking our backs and (perhaps needlessly, in hindsight) giving up the joy of being seventeen over the rat race to get into IIT. The fact that that's not a joke anymore gives me a lot of joy every time I think about it. Every now and then, there comes an opportunity to embark on a potentially life-altering pursuit. Only, I didn't know I'd be getting so many in such a short span of time. The going has been tough, but it surely has not been without its rewards. So this post is primarily a reflection that concludes with a sense of wonder and gratitude.
The first three months of this year have probably been the most eventful I've had at Stanford; March, perhaps the month with least sleep. There were points of time in the last three months that I just had to sit up and look around to see the grand scale of the things I was getting myself immersed in. Yet, two days beyond the end of those three months I have to say that the experience was wonderful.
First, there was PEMDAS-1. Our rocket was in its build phase these last three months. Twelve of us poured our heart and soul into raising the 13-foot behemoth and sending him on his way to 45000 feet. As the quarter progressed, afternoons blended into evenings; by the end, evenings were blending into mornings after. There was the igniter test that swallowed my birthday whole (no regrets). There was the ground test that swallowed two-thirds of a long weekend. Then there was launch week, when no one got any sleep. Everyone sacrificed their daily lives for us to become the first team in four years of the class to have made it to launch- perhaps the first ever to have done so within 6 months from the start. Sharing all-nighters with people is probably a nerd's best way to bond with other nerds. The all-nighters pulled together had a big role to play in turning us into a well-oiled machine. The day of the launch came by; only that it didn't go as we planned, or as we deserved. We stood under the bunker and helplessly watched months of hard work catch fire as the rocket stood where it was, in submission to the flames below. Hearts were broken, days were ruined, and we returned disappointed, dissatisfied and looking for a second shot. Hopefully, we will be able to rebuild everything that is needed and try again in the next few months. If there's one thing I know, I worked with a remarkable set of people, that you must be very fortunate to have worked with. My knowledge grew by leaps and bounds in the few months I spent working on that project. Even the failure taught us a few things about doing things right.
I was back from my rocket launch trip all of five days, when I had to leave to embark on the second of my life-altering pursuits- the Caltech Space Challenge with Team Voyager. This would be a much shorter venture, but no less intense. When I first met my fellow participants, my first feeling was one of panic- "How am I ever going to be good enough for this team?". The resumes were stellar, and the excitement was palpable. For the next five days, we sank over twelve to fourteen hours a day in trying to conceptually design a manned mission to a Martian moon. Once again, all-nighters served to unite what began as a somewhat disjointed set of very strong-minded and motivated strangers. There were surprise treats along the way. On day 3, I the breakfast table abuzz (no pun intended) with the words "Buzz Aldrin" occasionally finding their way through. Buzz Aldrin had decided to pay us a visit. That day went on to become one of the best days I've had in a long time. At night, I coincidentally landed up on the same table as him, and sat and listened as he shared gems from his treasure trove of stories. Later that night, as I headed back to the hotel exhausted yet exhilarated from a long day, I remembered the occasion about year ago when I had the opportunity to have a 30 second long conversation with Neil Armstrong. The feeling of gratitude and amazement that I felt then, is the same feeling that I write this post with. If anyone would've told ten-year-old me, growing up in New Delhi that I'd get to meet the first two men who had walked on the moon, I would have laughed at them in disbelief. Then again, it happened; whether I believe it or not. Team Voyager's quest ended on a different note compared to PEMDAS-1. On the final night, in the presence of bigwigs of the aerospace industry, we were declared the winners of the challenge.
I walked away from these three months physically tired, but mentally enriched. I walked away with a new set of friends who are remarkable in every way- all of us tied together by bonds of sleep deprivation. I have slower days ahead, which is a welcome relief from how busy life has been over the last few weeks; but a part of me probably misses the excitement of working towards a common goal with a set of like-minded people. Some of the members of the PEMDAS team have graduated and moved on to bigger things in life, but they have promised to return to watch PEMDAS-2 take to the skies, if that were to happen. Members of Team Voyager are back to pursuing their daily lives and hopefully continue to do well. As for me, I'm thankful that I got the opportunity to come to Stanford, and I'm amazed at all the wonderful people and experiences that being here has brought me.
I love music. I'm listening to music practically the entire time I'm awake. I'm also averse to change a lot of the time, so I end up cycling through the same songs very often. That's not to say I'm not open to new music- I have a comfort zone and a safe place that I like to visit fairly often. Today, for instance I ended up spending most of my waking hours listening to exactly two songs on loop. There was a strange comfort in the sombre tone of both songs and the sense of familiarity they produced.
The going has been challenging lately. I find myself involved in large scale projects that are taking a heavy investment of time and thought, leaving me mentally exhausted at the end of the day. One is also obsessively thinking about the course one's life is taking- as I find is the case with a lot of my friends in the same age bracket. I find it strange that it took all of that for me to return to write on my blog, just to find an outlet, which I haven't done for quite a while. My dashboard is now a cluttered pile of half-written posts that I lost the drive to complete somewhere along the way.
Today's a different story. I already mentioned the two songs that produced a strange sense of comfort all day today. By evening I was listening to a third, and I identified that one as the song that I will always go to when I need peace of mind. I had a chat with a friend soon after, asking him if he had a song like that- a "safe place" as it were. "High hopes, I guess", he said, "what's yours?". My safe place is this Dave Matthews Band song called #41. There are no inspirational lyrics, nothing that would obviously connect, but it's just there. I don't know if it's in that guitar lick that plays through the entire song, or in LeRoi or Jeff Coffin's saxophone interludes, but there's something that always presses the right buttons. When I want to feel like it's all going to be OK, that's the song I go to- again and again. I was first introduced to the song way back in 2007 by someone who wanted to share an example of how lively an acoustic guitar needs to sound. It was only a few years later, on my fourth day at Stanford that I felt the comfort that that song provided me. I was deep in the throws of homesickness, wondering how long I'd survive being parted from everyone I knew by half the earth- and then I bought my laptop and #41 was the first song that played. Within about 4 minutes into the song, I felt like I would be just fine, and things will get better soon. Since then, I have visited this song every time I have felt the need to calm myself down, when nothing else has worked, this has always rescued me.
It was the same story today. This time I felt like I should acknowledge how much this song has helped me over the last two years, without ever really having any words in it that talk to me. This one time, it is purely the music that talks to me, and there's no other song which has the same effect.
Let's get a few things straight right
here. This letter is going to make me sound fickle- perhaps as fickle
as the state of the monsoon, or the water in my taps at home.
I'm writing this letter to you to let
you know that you have a secret superpower- one that debilitates
anyone you choose to use it on, Maybe you don't even choose to
use it; maybe it gets exercised purely by virtue of your existence.
There is possibly nothing else in the world that I have encountered
thus far that sets off an explosion of existential angst inside me
like leaving you behind. Every time I walk out of the airport and I hear men
merrily cussing at each other in a language that's so familiar, even
when I walk into a WC at the airport (which has become almost some
sort of a ritual) and find a faucet trying to catch my attention, my
first thought is one of unparalleled joy- I'm home; and
the very second thought is that I'll be leaving in just a few days.
That's what you do- you make me feel bipolar. I get into that old
WagonR at home after months and take it out for a spin. All those
months away from you haven't affected my ability to drive on your
crazy roads. This feels natural; not the clean, linear, high speed
streets of far flung lands to the west. I'm on one of these
beautifully paved highways right now and I can't say I don't love
the sight of cars zipping by, but it's not home.
I can't say I've
never complained and grumbled about you. Just last week, I was left
at home without a drop of water for a few hours almost every day.
I've been concerned for a long time that you're crumbling under the
weight of those you support. The metro's crowded, the buses are
crowded, the streets are crowded. The other day I was stuck in
traffic for more hours than it had rained that day. I was yelling my
lungs out that day about how you couldn't handle a single season
without problems, whilst feeling somewhat ashamed at my reduced
levels of tolerance. Having said all of
that, I spent the entire twenty hours on the plane that carried me
away thinking about you and waiting for my next return to swing by
Like every other time I've dragged myself away, I agonized
about situations where I wouldn't have to leave and how I would find
other things to be bothered about. Like every other time I've dragged
myself away, I wondered if this was all worth it, but I guess the
promise of the future must be, or I wouldn't have willingly put
myself through this for the last two years. You've got me thinking about the purpose of life on more than one occasion.
All I want you to
know is that no matter how much I complain when I'm there, not a day
goes by when I don't think about being back to give you an opportunity to exercise your superpower.
I've been re-reading my copy of The Satanic Verses; not because of the whole hullabaloo that's erupted in India conveniently before the state elections. I'm a slow reader, I've spent over a month poring through these pages, well before Rushdie announced his intent to visit Jaipur. That being said, I don't want to write a discourse about censorship vs free speech.
The strange thing about this book is that it has a fantastic sense of imagery. Whatever you hear about the Satanic Verses in the public domain is always about the controversial chapters. The ones where he blasphemes like crazy. But there is so much more to this book. The first time I read it, I used to get these dreams with weird figures dancing all over. I remember I sat up in the middle of the night a couple of times , unable to understand what I just dreamed. This time has been relatively mellow. Amongst the parts that usually get left out of a public discourse, are these little gems I found as I started on Page 305 a few minutes ago-
"...her father Otto Cone, the art historian and biographer of Picabia, had spoken to her in her fourteenth and his final year of 'the most dangerous of all the lies we are fed in our lives', which was, in his opinion, the idea of continuum. 'Anybody ever tries to tell you how this most beautiful and most evil of planets is somehow homogeneous, composed only of reconcilable elements, that it all adds up, you get on the phone to the straitjacket tailor'..."
"...Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot, blissful happiness, while down the road, the inferno. You can't ask for a wilder place..."
A book worth picking up, where legal; not just for the blasphemous parts.
Fare thee well, 2011. Like most other things last year, my regular New Year's Eve post didn't make it on time. The reason I pick those lines up from one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs is the fact that that song was central to my life last year, especially towards the end. In the beginning there was plenty of it, somewhere down the middle I was wasting a lot of it, and towards the end, I was scrambling to save as much of it as possible, just so I could spend those precious few minutes with the people I love. All said and done, it treated me well in 2011. It showed me sights, it made me hear voices and granted me a fair degree of professional success. The beauty about the passage of time, is that it never lets you stay satisfied with what it has brought you. It continues to flow, and you submit yourself to wanting more and more out of life. But without that, I guess there'd be no joy to watching time fly right by. There would be no challenge, and I wouldn't like a life without a challenge to keep it going. So I begin 2012 with a new set of challenges to face, a new list to scratch stuff out of, and quite surprisingly, no Kappal Antry quips (I was tempted to call them jokes).
I read this PhD Comic recently, according to which I'd be classified as a weirdo (by a long shot) for wishing my readers (the very few of them that might glance this way) a happy new year three weeks into it. But I'm well beyond the point of being classified that way, let alone by a webcomic. So, happy new year folks! Hope it's great for you and for me!
I knew it had been a long time since I wandered in this direction as soon as I opened my blog page. Things have changed remarkably around here and I've been away far too long. It took me a while to find my way here, but all that matters is that the absence is over.
The absence had a very good reason- I was working hard so that people would accept the fact that I was fit enough to sign myself up to a life of scholarly poverty. Sounds almost paradoxical that you should need someone's permission to inflict punishment upon yourself; in fact as it turns out you need to inflict punishment upon yourself for a few months so that powers that be allow you to inflict punishment upon yourselves and people around you for years to come. In short, I was steeped in my preparation for Quals.
Anyone who has ever dabbled (successfully or otherwise) with this thing they call a PhD. knows what this monstrosity entails. The experiences are varied, but vivid and grotesque nonetheless. For a few months, I forgot about all else and struggled to pass. Ignore my diatribe about inflicting punishment, because the only reason you would ever put up with something like this, is because you love doing what you do. You would put up with many shortcomings of your beloved, just so you could be with them for longer (I did not just write that!). The good thing though, is that they are now over, and they went exceedingly well. The better thing is that they went exceedingly well for all of my friends who struggled with me through those torrid months. It's like life flipped a switch this last Tuesday. We all went from busy, strung up and almost neurotic to almost hippie-like within the span of a few hours. Worries were forgotten, and so was work. How long this Bohemian existence will last is anyone's guess.
This post started to form when I was struggling with a concept during the course of my preparation, and feeling rather stupid about it. My brain began to meander and began to think of how the story of anyone's education starts. My thoughts took me to over twenty years ago when someone was teaching me how to draw "standing" and "sleeping" lines. There was that time when I could barely write the alphabet of any language. People had to hold my hand to teach me how to write words, read and understand simple things that happened around me. Years passed and things I learned things that were far more complicated. It took a period of twenty years of constant training and learning to get stuck on the concept that I was battling with right now. That made me feel a lot better about myself. But more so, it made me marvel at the ability of the brain to evolve and learn things. We often forget how wondrous and ground-breaking that transformation is- probably because it's a slow process in the time-scale of everyday life. It is not a trivial matter that in a matter of two decades, we've all gone from not being able to convey a single thought in an intelligent way to being expert doctors, engineers, actors, bankers, chefs, lawyers, artists and the list goes on.
This post is as much a tribute to those unsung heroes in our lives. Those people who we've probably forgotten and left behind in the course of our adventures. These people rarely ever got credit for laying the foundation for you to learn everything else that you know. If it wasn't for their patience, you'd probably be a fraction of what you are right now.
Here's saluting everyone in my life who shaped me. The one who taught me how to write the alphabet, the one who taught me how to count, the science teacher in fifth grade, the math teacher in the tenth grade, and the people who followed them and left an indelible mark on my life, and are continuing to do so.