Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Loving Memory

I just received news that Dr. Anil Wilson, former principal of St. Stephen's College, Delhi passed away this morning. Even while suffering from cancer of the pancreas for the last year or so, he had offered his body for medical research as a live subject.

This post is in loving memory of a great educator and a man I deeply admired. May you rest in peace Dr. Wilson.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Champion wandered aimlessly, one dark street after another. Over time, his path would begin to resemble a circle, going over the same spot again and again and again. He had no expression on his face. This wasn't something unusual. There were days when he would catch himself staring blankly into nowhere. Sometimes he was thinking happy thoughts, those related to his glorious past; other times his blank stare would hide the day dreams that were swirling in his brain. Futile day dreams of a future as glorious as his past. Dreams that were so impossible to morph into reality, that it gave him a sort of perverse pleasure when he lost himself. Then there were days such as today, where he had no thoughts of his own. Music blared in his ears as he walked, hoping that some answers would come to him off their own volition.

Champion was not the name his parents had given him. Earlier in life, he had earned himself many laurels. Along with the laurels, came the friends; some genuine, others not. The friends gave him many names, some out of affection, some out of spite. Champion was the one that stood the test of time, quite fittingly. He was the monarch of all there was to survey back then. The years, however, had not been kind to him. The laurels left first, the fair weathered fraction of his friends followed. The rest, he somehow managed to push further and further away into oblivion, getting sucked into the worsening vacuum in his life, day after painful day. Every day brought with itself, more thoughts of the past, and more despair for the future. Despair often turns into a helpless, debilitating rage. In his case, however, all he had to shout at, were the walls he had painstakingly constructed day by day, brick by painful brick. One doubts whether even he knew why he had built that wall. One thought the wall was to keep people out, while another reckoned that it was to keep himself in.

On this particular day, he had sensed in himself, a growing rage. The fire wasn't warm enough to cause him to explode, consuming the emptiness around him with it, but was enough to slowly eat up his insides. For a change, he had no answers. He tried to shrug it off, but he couldn't. He tried to reason out the whys and the why nots, to no avail. Finally, in a bout of utter helplessness, he threw on his shoes, carried his music and walked off to wherever his feet would take him. Such was his state of blindness that he couldn't realise the cruel trick his own legs were playing on him, taking him round and round in circles. They were perhaps implying the underlying truth of his life; that there was no escape from it. Stay and fight. If you dare run, you'll return where you are some day.

The angry words blaring into his ear seemed strangely soothing. It was if they were a reflection, or rather a regurgitation of those cupfuls of anger he had swallowed every single day for the last few years. These words too, were screaming at nothing but his own ears, but somehow he felt that they were being echoed in his life. He imagined saying all of this to everyone who deserved it and had somehow escaped; sometimes guarding themselves behind propriety while plotting their escape, and other times behind that pariah called love.

Then, in a moment, something possessed him. Something, or someone in his life wanted him to have the answers tonight. Inexplicably, his hands began to click the button marked "Next" on his shuffle in a pattern that few would call controlled. What emerged was his answer:

"Listen now and let me speak..." (click)

"You're always saying that there's something wrong..." (click)

"Life it seems, will fade away..." (click)

"On a cobweb afternoon, in a room full of emptiness..." (click)

"I walk the streets without regret..." (click)

"Nothing seems to break me, no matter how far I fall..." (click)

"If this isn't what you see, it doesn't make you blind..." (click)

On a hot summer night, alone in a crowd, Champion froze. When he came to his senses, he found himself at home, the first rays of the sun streaking through the window. And almost as if to prove a point, in his ears blared,

"How could he know this new dawn's light would change his life forever..."


Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Large Hadron Rap

As a student of physics, I know this post is going to attract a lot of visitors from my community. I mean the physics community, not the Tam Brahm one, although one has to concede that there is a massive overlap. However, if you're from neither of the above two communities, fear not. This is going to be as entertaining for you (albeit in a disparaging sort of way) as anyone else. If you're a bully who would pick on geeks in school, now is the time to skip the next paragraph, because at the end of this post, lies true joy for you.

I was browsing through Youtube (again, in the absence of any constructive work) when I ran into this particular video. For the uninitiated, there is a particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Switzerland. The LHC was in the news a few months back when it was inaugurated. It is the single largest collider in the world and billions of dollars of taxpayer money were spent on it. The experiment became an object of both scientific and social speculation and questions were raised on whether we really needed to spend so much to discover what is called the Higgs boson when more than half the world really cared more about getting matter into their stomachs for the next meal rather than what it was made of at the sub-nuclear level.

This post isn't entertaining yet. This is the fun bit. As geeks, I think we've hit a new low. This why you should've stayed if you weren't from the community. Check out the video. Comments encouraged.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Of Laddoos and Their Dynamics

I have obsessed for a while now, over how not to sound vexed with life in this post. Truth be told, I'm not. I was on the phone with a friend this afternoon, and we hit upon what we call the "Laddoo Theory". We state the theory as follows: Life throws you laddoos when you've made up your mind to eat no more. Alternatively, when you want laddoos, they're either unavailable; or if the divine powers wish to entertain themselves, a laddoo lands in your mouth and is yanked away before you can bite into it.

The origins of this theory vary over a large number of areas of life. This complete generality is what makes the theory so brilliant. Allow me to demystify it with some examples. Their coincidence with my life or the lives of any of my friends is purely coincidental.

A friend called this afternoon. I've seen him struggle with his career for a while. For the past six months, he has studied hard for various entrance exams and interviews and rather inexplicably, managed to bomb all of them. Very recently, he gave up on this project of taking entrance exams (with one more insignificant one to go) and embark on a different route. As a result, he didn't do much more than walk in, take test, walk out. The result came in today. Qualified.

A friend called in yesterday. Every woman he could have dated (in essence, every laddoo he failed to catch, or every laddoo that failed to catch him) in the last six months seems to want to make amends suddenly. Why is he full already? You know why.

It was the month of February, and I got an admission call from Stanford University. I relished my laddoo for a whole 24 hours. That's when they decided to send me an email saying they wouldn't give me any money to go. I should refer to this one colloquially as a kela, but for the sake of simplicity, let me refer to only one edible item per post.

I wonder, however, if my theory is a reason to be depressed with life (especially in the light of the third example). And I figure, no. Perhaps life has a better sense of timing than us, or than we can ever hope to achieve. Maybe everyone has their reserve of laddoos, each arriving at its own stipulated time. Better still, maybe what we see as laddoos are really something we would be better off not ingesting. And they arrive, apparently out of turn, because decisions are better made without distractions.

Just some food for thought.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Apollo 13 - The Bhutan Chronicles Part II

It's the morning of the 27th of May, and my family and I have just been informed that the road leading to Thimphu will be blocked for another three days at the very least. We have to be back in Guwahati by the 31st and things look bleak.

We sat in our hotels wondering what our options were. I must admit that at this point I felt hopeless. All I wanted to do was to head straight back home and sulk. It was then that an employee of the hotel we were staying at suggested that we try entering from Gelephu - an entry-exit point in Assam. The weather had cleared up and we decided that it was worth a shot. We wouldn't be able to cover all of Bhutan as per our original plan, but at least we could visit Thimphu and return. We drove for about four hours and then took a left turn into a narrow road just before Bongaigaon. All along the way we saw that the muddy waters of the Brahmaputra had breached the banks and caused flooding.

(Below: Flooded Brahmaputra, the Gelephu border gate)

On our way we had crossed the troubled district of Kokrajhar in Assam and now we were in the Chirang district. Both these district have a severe Bodo insurgency issue. The Bodo insurgents are fighting for a separate state of Bodoland. It was interesting that we passed a banner for a hotel and the address stated "Kokrajhar, Bodoland" instead of "Kokrajhar, Assam" which would have been more accurate on paper. I wonder whether it was fear psychosis or a genuine look of hostility that I noticed in people's faces as our car drove by. The 40 kilometer stretch in Bodo heartland is a patchy road and passes through some fairly underdeveloped areas. The road has significantly larger army cover and lesser traffic than the one leading to Phuentsholing. After about an hour and a half's drive, we found ourselves at the border check-post where we were made to alight and walk across the border. The sense of discontinuity that I had observed at the Phuentsholing border prevailed at this border as well. Our permits issued at Phuentsholing thankfully worked and we were spared of any more paper work.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #5: Don't try to enter from Gelephu first up. Route permits are not issued there. The only reason we were allowed to enter was because we already had permits and the other road was blocked.

A quick visit to the road transport office made sure we had our vehicle permit ready, and we could finally claim that the vacation had begun. By now it was almost 5 pm and nightfall was approaching. We began driving towards the town of Damphu, carefully traversing the hilly terrain. On our way we crossed three of the five immigration checkpoints.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #6: The Royal Government of Bhutan keeps strict checks on the number of tourists in the country. Along the road, there are a number of check points where all papers must presented. Keep the papers handy and a few photocopies ready at all times while traveling from city to city.

The Gelephu-Damphu road (whatever we could see of it till daylight vanished) is quite beautiful. The road is well surfaced and clean, with a large number of small waterfalls dotting the hill side. Along the way one finds a large number of Buddhist prayer flags (my love for which has been well documented) and stupas. Three hours of careful and precarious driving in the dark brought us to the small town of Damphu. All we could think of by now was to eat and retire for the night. Fortunately, we found a decent hotel where we could rest for the night. When Damphu greeted me early next morning, I found it to be very reminiscent of small towns in old Western movies. One could almost imagine two duellers walking down the main street, lined on both sides by small shops. Only that here you might run into a John Wangchuk rather than John Wayne.

(Clockwise from top left: Waterfall on the Gelephu-Damphu road, Stupa on the Gelephu-Damphu road, the raging Wang Chhu river, Damphu Town)

After having a light breakfast we started for Thimphu, about 180 kms away. About an hour after we started from Damphu, we began to straddle the Wang Chhu river, which was roaring with all the extra mud and water that the rain had caused it to carry. Two hours later we stopped at Wangdue-Phodrang for tea. The "Dzong" (fortress) at Wangdue is the dominant feature in the down. It sits at the head of the Swiss-Bhutanese arch bridge and the confluence of the Gay-Chhu and Nakay-Chhu rivers. The road forks out after Wangdue. The right turn would take us to Eastern Bhutan (a plan that we had dropped now) and the left took us to Thimphu. We crossed the Dochu La pass (alt. 3050 m) on the way to Thimphu. This is where I realized that India had a significantly larger number of issues than Bhutan to deal with. The Dochu La zero point is a standing war memorial for Bhutanese soldiers. There is a temple and a victory "Chorten" (memorial) at Dochu La in memory of soldiers who lost their lives fighting ULFA terrorists. It's quite a beautiful structure apart from the fact that it puts a few things in perspective for the Indian tourist. After Dochu La, we crossed our last immigration check point, where we were advised to take an additional permit at Thimphu to be able to return via Gelephu.

(Below left to right : The Wangdue-Phodrang Dzong, The Dochu La victory Chorten)

Before we knew it, we were approaching Thimphu, and our driver, who until now was driving was like Pocahontas on cocaine (a new standard of free spiritedness), began to have disciplined driving pangs as the city approached. This time however, I was armed with a map of the city and with a little help from a cop, I was able to direct him to Norzin Lam, the main street of the city. Thimphu is quite a lovely town. Apart from being endowed with beautiful surroundings, the city is also quite clean (as other Bhutanese towns) and is sprinkled with eateries. The food is delightfully tasty, not to mention cheap (a vegetarian meal for four at a very good restaurant costs approximately 600 Ngultrum, 1 Ngultrum = 1 Rupee and can be used interchangeably), and so is the liquor (imagine a 45 rupee pint of Carlsberg or a 120 rupee peg of Johnnie Walker Black Label) and a lot of hotels on Norzin Lam offer very nice rooms at very reasonable rates. Local cuisine is also quite a delight, albeit spicy, I especially recommend the Datsi (cheese) series. The beauty of course is only broken in bits and pieces by tiny hordes of very loud Indian tourists who quarrel with parking attendants over how much they must pay for parking in certain marked spot.

(Above: Clockwise from top left: Norzin Lam by night, Clocktower square, prayer wheel at Changangkha temple, the Thimphu stadium)

Bhutan Travel Advisory #7: The local currency, Ngultrum is at par with the Indian rupee and can be used interchangeably. However, denominations of 500 INR and 1000 INR are not accepted at most places in Thimphu. Make sure you either change them to 500 or 1000 Ngultrum or break them down into smaller denominations before coming to Thimphu.

I was later told upon return that it also has good night-clubs, which I was unable to sample because of obvious reasons. At this point we gave our driver a two day off and took the local transport for two reasons. One, because he had managed to pluck fever out of thin air, and two, because he was quite panicked about breaking the local traffic rules.

So, one might ask, where does my father decide to eat three thousand kilometers from home? But of course, he chose to find a place called "The Grand" which (much to his Tam Brahm delight) served dosas and idlis. My mother, called his bet and raised it further by order Papdi Chat. Soon enough, I had my head in my hands while they ordered a portion of gol gappas and rhapsodized over it. I shouldn't say that it tasted bad. I think it tasted great, but it beat the purpose of the 3000 kms in an instant. Following this, we walked around the main town for a while. We visited the little Swiss bakery serving "zam tarts" and then the clocktower square. As a standing rule in Bhutan, all buildings must have ornate wood art on the exterior, which means that all buildings look extremely ornate and regal on the outside. We were about to retire for the night when the dogs started barking. I remembered reading somewhere that one must carry earplugs when in Bhutan, because the dogs don't stop barking. Sure enough, they started barking and barked till the cows went out to graze. I(on the fifth floor of the building) learnt to make my peace with it and slept off.

We woke up next morning to take a local sightseeing tour. At breakfast (at where else but "The Grand", we were joined by a large (loud) Indian contingent of twenty, all whom seemed to concur with my father about the idlis and the dosas). To be very honest, there aren't too many local sights to see in Thimphu. It's more of the kind of town you'd relax in and visit other places from. We first had the matter of the so called exit permit to sort out.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #8: Try and exit from the same place that you entered/got a permit from. Even though we never needed the exit permit, we took one that said we could exit from Gelephu. In either case, should you decide to visit (very scenic) Eastern Bhutan and exit from Samdrup Jongkhar, you will require an additional permit from the immigration office in Thimphu.

After having sorted out the exit permit issue, we embarked on a two hour tour of the city (that's all it takes to cover all of it). We visited the Changangkha temple, and then the Takin reserve. A brief note about the Takin here. This is the national animal of Bhutan. It has the head of a goat and the body of a cow. I must admit that it's the ugliest national animal I have ever seen. At the Takin reserve we were informed that it is illegal to kill animals in Bhutan. All the meat to feed the largely non-vegetarian population is imported from India (so is the petrol, which is cheaper in Bhutan than anywhere in India). Apparently the people had had a field day with all the dead fish washing up after the flood. Following the Takin reserve, we visited the BBS tower from where we got a panoramic view of Thimphu. On our way down, we caught a distant glimpse of the Trashichhodzong, which serves as the Parliament and the seat of the Chief Abbot. Our last place of visit within the city was the Memorial Chorten and then the local trip ended, sooner than it had started.

(Above: Clockwise from top left : Thimphu from the BBS tower, the Trashichhodzong, Memorial Chorten, the Takin)

We had the rest of the afternoon and evening to spend by ourselves, in which we went about roaming around Norzin Lam and surrounding areas. On the shopping list were (the very smart) national costumes of Bhutan. However, they turned out to be rather expensive. At dinner (for once, not at "The Grand"), I sampled a local (very potent) cocktail called the Fiery Dragon. I recommend the drink. Have one, two at the most.

We were glad to find our driver in the mauve (not pink yet) of health the next morning as we headed back towards the border. A long drive along (a much more docile) Wang Chhu saw us arrive at the border post at Gelephu at around five in the evening. After we crossed into India, we were warned by the local guides to not stop anywhere along the way till we reached the main road lest we be kidnapped and become their headache. A nice touch to end one's vacation, one thought. We spent the night at Bongaigaon and were in Guwahati by early afternoon next day. We hadn't really seen Bhutan in all its glory. For one I was disappointed at having given Eastern Bhutan a miss, especially when I saw some of the postcards. But atleast we hadn't come back home looking sorry. Due credit to my parents for that. This is where I sign off and gloat at how beautifully the title fits the story (secretly happy that I didn't have to name it "Aila Re").

Bhutan Travel Advisory #9: Misinformation abounds. Refer to the right source always.

"Houston, this is Honesty. It's good be back."

Apollo 13 - The Bhutan Chronicles Part I

On April 11, 1970 at 1313 hrs, NASA launched the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. While on its way to the moon, there was an explosion in one of the service module's oxygen tanks which blew out most of the spacecraft's systems. At this point, the mission changed. The mission was no longer to get the astronauts on the moon, but to bring them back alive. NASA succeeded at this new mission and achieved what has been called one of the greatest rescues ever. Some people also called this mission a "successful failure" because they were never able to land on the moon and yet, all the astronauts were back home, safe and sound, despite the overwhelming odds.

What the above story has to do with a recent family trip to Bhutan, is something that will evolve over the next few lines. When I was cycling through the possible titles I would give this post, I also considered naming it "Aila Re", and that would have been the title if we hadn't succeeded in surmounting the glitch thrown at us by a cyclone with the same name. On to my travelogue then...

On 24th May, my mother, my sister and I flew to Guwahati to join my father. As I always do, I had checked online, the weather forecast for Bhutan for the next week. The outlook didn't look good. "Heavy rain and thundershowers" is not what you want to stare at you from your computer screen just hours before you leave for a vacation (of which, one may contend, I have had a sumptuous number of in this year). We had grand plans of touring the country from west to east by road, Eastern Bhutan with its mountainous terrain being my primary area of interest. Nevertheless, I kept this disappointing bit of information to myself and prayed hard that some freak wind mind blow and the rain would drift to some other parched parts of the world.

We set out from Guwahati for the Jaigaon-Phuentsholing border in West Bengal (the only road-entry point into Bhutan) on the morning of the 25th. The weather seemed to behave itself and while it was cloudy, there was no water being showered at us from above. All that changed, however, as we crossed the Bongaigaon oil refinery around noon. The first drops appeared on our windshields, and it would be safe to say that my face lost about two-thirds of its colour which translated into another three faces losing two-thirds of their colour once I shared the information I had read two nights ago. It was about six in the evening when we reached Jaigaon, the Indian side of the Indo-Bhutan border. It was too late to complete the paper work, so we had no choice but to stay at the Indian side of the border for the night. I say "no choice" because the Indian side of the border is as chaotic a border town there is. The roads are filled potholes and lined with garbage on the side. There are no great hotels to stay at either. It's crowded and depressing, manic; almost(below).

It started to pour that night, like it had never poured before. I switched on the TV in my room at night, to find that a cyclone named "Aila" had hit the West Bengal coast, and it's tail was lashing, of all places, my place. My family and I have had a fair amount of bad luck when touring the north-east. We were greeted by landslides in Sikkim, nearly got killed (still alive, all four of us) in Arunachal last year, and now this.

The next morning, then, I woke up to a dull grey morning, and underwear-clad Bengali uncles and aunties chattering loudly in the wide hallway about a range of topics (the Communist Party mainly). Funnily enough, the harder I prayed for the rain to stop, the harder it rained. Nevertheless, we gathered the courage to get ready and cross over. I have crossed a few borders by road in my life (Pakistan and Nepal being the previous one). When you cross over by road, you expect to observe a certain degree of continuity across the border before the actual country materializes. This however, was not the case with the Phuentsholing border. The moment we crossed, the noise died away, the dirt vanished, the roads were broader, potholes fewer, the rain(however); still pouring down (below).

Drenched as my father and I were, we somehow made it to the immigration office on the other side of the border to obtain our route permit. This is where we were informed that the documents for my sister and our driver were insufficient and we would have to visit the Indian consulate for identification papers in order to enter. This leads me to my first travel advisory for Bhutan:

Bhutan Travel Advisory #1: While Indians don't require a visa for Bhutan, the only identification accepted are valid passports and voter ID cards. That includes your driver. Any other ID will land you at the consulate, looking for them to issue identification papers, which is grossly painful (decent euphimism).

My sister had her board exam admit card and my driver only had his driving licence. What followed was a very painful search for the Indian consulate at Phuentsholing. Most roads were one-way, and our driver was suddenly having epiphanies about how his driving licence was really farce, and was needless to say rather nervous about breaking any local driving laws. I don't blame him. Thirteen years of indisciplined driving on Indian roads needed to be unlearned. At the Indian consulate, we had a rendezvous with a man we would not classify in the "jovial" category. After giving our driver a dressing down for not possessing adequate identification, he insisted that my mother (being a government servant) produce a no-objection certificate from her office. This sent us into a tizzy and we hurriedly returned to the Indian side to obtain the remaining documents by fax. Rather (very rare) efficient handling from my mother's office ensured that we had the documents ready in about two hours and soon enough, we were issued our permits to stay and travel till Thimphu. The rain stopped and it finally seemed like everything was alright. It was too late to start for Thimphu, so we decided to spend a night at Phuentsholing. A separate permit was required for the vehicle and we took a short trip to the Inter State Bus Terminus (which looked nothing short of a palace from the outside (below)). Here we were informed that two days of incessant rain had caused massive landslides and road-blocks.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #2 : Carry atleast 5 passport size photographs. If you take a vehicle into Bhutan, make sure you carry drivers' licences the registration and insurance certificates.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #3: If you should stay over at the border, stay on the Bhutanese side. No permits are required to stay overnight. The place is cleaner, the hotels are much better and charge very nearly the same. Bhutan Standard Time runs half an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time.

Bhutan Travel Advisory #4: Always carry an umbrella or a raincoat. It rains out of nowhere and it comes down hard, even when cyclone Aila is not ruining your vacation.

The next morning, local news channels carried images of the river Wang Chhu breaching its barriers and washing away truckloads of land with it. We were informed by the road authorities that the road from Phuentsholing to Thimphu was blocked and would only be cleared in three days at the very least. This was our Apollo 13 moment.