Monthly Archives: February 2012

Darwin was a Geologist too!

In an autobiographic note Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 – 1882) remembered a childhood wish:

It was soon after I began collecting stones, i.e., when 9 or 10, that I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something about every pebble in front of the hall door–it was my earliest and only geological aspiration at that time.

Darwin today is mostly associated with terms like natural selection and evolution, but his first scientific achievements and publications were dealing – even against his own preconceptions – with geology.

A good history lesson for your Sunday. Well worth reading.

Posted via email from Darwin’s Bulldogs

Ficus, Focus, Poet, Cop.


“What are you photographing here?”, the policeman asked somewhat sternly, as he approached me. The young policewoman, eyebrows deeply furrowed, hovered behind her superior. She had been eyeing me with increasing concern as I had loitered near one of the entrances of the Brihanmumbai Mahanagar Palika (or Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) building for almost half an hour. Peering into the darkness of the grand old doorway she guarded, and at another entrance in an adjacent building, scanning up and down the street, and taking pictures of the building and surroundings. Clearly suspicious behavior in the modern anxious age of the security-state. I had been wondering how long I would have lasted doing something like this in front of, say, New York City Hall. The petite young woman, charged with guarding the gates of Mumbai’s City Hall, right across the street from CST Station, site of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, was clearly nervous about my behaviour, and had sent the burlier cop to investigate.

“What are you photographing”, the burlier policeman asked again, in Marathi, looking up towards the window my camera was pointing towards. I pointed up, to the lower right corner of the window, and said haltingly in my rusty Marathi, “That Peepal sapling over there”. He looked up, more closely, and said, “Ah, that peepal! Amazing, isn’t it, how that little plant is growing up there on the wall? Who waters it? Where does it get its food and water? Isn’t nature wonderful?” I was struggling in my head to compose a fuller explanation about my interest in urban ecology, and how I found these epiphytes fascinating. Also getting ready to explain that I was waiting there for an important signature from one of the officers up in the buildings they were guarding. But all I really needed to do was nod in agreement, and look back up with him at the little peepal in shared wonder.

“What is he doing?”, demanded the younger woman, urgently. He turned to her, pointed at the window sill and told her I was interested in the Peepal and other plants growing on buildings. “Why?”, she asked, her voice cracking on the edge of alarm and confusion. “Because poets are like that!”, he said, “They like to find beauty in strange places, and look for nature’s wonders, like how that peepal is growing up there, with no one feeding or watering it.” I could only nod again, and mumble something in agreement, my eyes probably even bigger now in wonder.

Then he turned towards me, extended his arm, shook my hand, smiled warmly in acknowledgment of a shared moment of connection with nature in the midst of the evening bustle of Mumbai, and ambled away towards his post in the other building. Well met, indeed, good sir…

The young woman, meanwhile, frowned again at me, and retreated to her post. Little did she know that the real long-term threat to the safety of the building she guarded came not from me, but from the tiny peepal which had gained a foothold in the crevice of that windowsill above her head. For the peepal has evolved playing the really long game of the rainforest epiphyte. Its seeds, carried by birds, wait patiently for the tiniest foothold in the crevices of another tree, cliff, or building. It sucks moisture from the air and the little pool in its crevice, makes its food from stray rays of the sun, and grows, slowly spreading its roots out in a growing embrace around whatever has provided it that initial space, tree, rock, building. In time, if left unharmed, it will grow its roots all the way to the ground, and all the way around its host, strangling the tree, crushing the rock, cracking open the building, even as it might hold them all together for a while longer. That little peepal may still be here a century or more from now, after this building has crumbled away with this city. Or until building maintenance sends someone up to that windowsill to uproot the upstart peepal – although its holy nature may give them some pause.

Nature is wonderful indeed, and dangerous. And so are people, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

I’ll be back home… oh… in a week-ish?

… -ish!

That is how my yesterday went. Waiting, mostly, for some very important ink from the hand of a high-ranking officer to be signed onto an important certificate verifying my very existence (at least in the eyes of the Indian government) which is crucial for my obtaining a fresh passport, and in turn, a fresh visa so I can return home. Even the word tatkal (meaning “instant” in Sanskrit) has come to mean 1-7(ish) days, officially, when it comes to issuing passports, urgently, in India!

This made me laugh, and cry, therefore:


The product note states: In India, ‘fashionably late’ is safely replaced with ‘predictably late’. Cow blockades, politician escorts, and cratered roads, compound the problem and offer a valid excuse. So when you reach half-an-hour after the appointed time, you don’t explain yourself. You wait for the other person to arrive. We used this life insight, and added some dark humour to it. We simply added a suffix to time periods. And moved the numerals from their classic perpendicular positions, tilting them to an approximate point on the dial. Hence six was not six. Eight was not eight. It was ‘six-ish’ and ‘eight-ish’. Thus was born the ‘ish Watch’.



Now is there an -ish calendar somewhere, so I can look up when(ish) I might escape this Kafkaesque other dimension (as a friend put it) and actually get home?

Hat-tip: India By Design


Tripping on a pocket of air, hitting some more turbulence…

Air. Just a little bit. Trapped underneath a thin film of plastic.

That’s what tripped me up today as I was looking forward to getting my visa to return home. The once delayed consular interview went well, considering I’d rushed over at dawn to make it in time through Mumbai traffic, after two hours of sleep, stood in another line for an hour before bring scanned and frisked through security to yet another waiting area, clutching my passport, waiting for my number to be called.. Anxiety, adrenaline, anticipation. The process went smoothly enough and there didn’t seem to be any glitch as I answered the consular officer’s questions about what I do and where. She seemed satisfied enough about my Outstandingness for the O-1 visa. It looked like she was about to approve the visa, tell me to collect the passport later in the evening. And I prepared to heave a sigh of relief.

Then she examined the ID page of my passport closely, and discovered: some air trapped in the laminate, over parts of my photo and some of the writing. She decided that posed too big a risk of the laminate peeling off, so she said they would not stamp the visa in this passport. I must now get a new one, a new book. Just like that.

And so began yet another round of red-tape, this time the homegrown Indian kind. Scrambling to find information about applying for this new book, racing to the office where I had one of my first passports issued in Mumbai. Only to be told that my address puts me in another, newer jurisdiction. Another dash across the length of the city, only to arrive an hour after the counters are closed for the day (at noon!!) at this office! Then someone tells me the process of applying online, saying there is a “tatkal” or expedited process I should try – one that would take as little as 10 days!! There goes my flight reservation for Friday night, and perhaps another couple hundred bucks in airline penalties for changing it again. Unless, somehow, we find a sympathetic miracle worker in the bureaucracy willing to help a brother out. Fat chance. But old friends are rallying around, hoping to find a quicker way. Fingers crossed that this red tape is loose enough for me to wriggle free quickly.

Meanwhile, back in Fresno, students are wondering when they’re going to see their professor this semester. My colleagues’ generosity is stretched quite far already, covering my classes. Grad students are likely  even more frustrated. At home, our 6-year-old has been sick with fever and asthma, our family doctor wondering if it is time to move her to Children’s Hospital. And Kaberi is at her wits’ end, juggling her own new teaching workload while managing both kids on her own – a handful even when they aren’t sick.

But I remain stuck half a world away, for an unknown while longer. At least I know I will get that visa… that bit of assurance will have to be enough to ride through this new turbulence. This is what you’ve been signed up for, as a dispersing worker in this world of globalization, which does all it can to smooth the flows of capital and profits. But what about people? Better strap in, there will be turbulence. Hang on.

Update (22 Feb):

Spent another morning at the Thane Passport Office, eventually even meeting personally with the head honcho, the chief Passport Officer himself. He listened to me describe my predicament with some sympathy, but said he couldn’t really expedite things too much – in part because of procedures; but also because my current passport was issued in San Francisco before the passport service started digitizing their records, a process that is still ongoing – which means they won’t have easy access to my previous file to verify information in the passport! After first saying I may not even be able to do a Tatkal (urgent) application at all, he then pointed me to ways to get the information certified by some high-ranking govt. officials in an affidavit (some forms called Annexure F and I), so that’s what I will have to do now. Meanwhile he also confirmed the appointment I had received through the online application portal which now has my application queued up to start processing on the 28th. He asked me to come back to him then so he will review the application along with the verification certificate and other documents, and start processing the new passport on a Tatkal basis. That may then take another 1-7 days (although most likely less than 7) he said, and smiled sympathetically, suggesting I change my travel plans. Add another 1-2 days to get the US visa stamp in the new passport – and I’m looking at potentially another two weeks here!!!

And so this limbo stretches out some more… and I begin to wonder if this is some punishment, me being stuck here now, to make up for all the time I didn’t manage to spend here while my parents were still alive…

The universe itself exists within us… (a note of thanks)

Thank you, my friends.

The past several weeks have been difficult ones. I write this as a note of thanks to all of our global villagers who have rallied around us in the wake of my mother’s passing two weeks ago. I wrote to keep my anguish at bay while I traveled to her deathbed, and then shared what I wrote as a way to shield myself from having to relive the horror of what happened in the retelling to all the friends who would want to know, to share the grief, to express condolences. I am not very good with the spoken word, especially under such trying circumstances, but seem to have found a better outlet in writing. I am grateful to everyone who read and left comments and condolences, on this blog, on my facebook wall, in emails, and telephone conversations. Thank you, those of you who knew her, and also those who didn’t know her and don’t even really know me, but have shared my grief. I have been overwhelmed that so many tell me my writing touched them, moved them to tears, and in those tears I hope to drown the flames that took my mother.

While I am bad at knowing what to say to people expressing condolences and sympathy, it is even harder to respond to the many who said they would pray for her, and me, and said “may god rest her soul in peace”. I turned away from religion a long time ago, as did my siblings. Even Aai, who had followed many a ritual in our childhoods as a matter of course, had given up her pujas and prayers over the past couple of decades, preferring instead to read Marxist accounts of our cultural evolution such as “Volga te Ganga” (Marathi for Volga to Ganga), and writing angry feminist notes in her notebooks raging against the patriarchy. That is, when she wasn’t worshipping at the television altar of that other reigning religion in India: cricket. I am not sure, therefore, what she would have said to those wishing her soul peace in god, for she too believed in neither soul nor god.

Some of her loss of faith I know about from conversations we had during college days, when we, her kids, brought back what we were discovering in science and philosophy, following the path she herself had set us out on in insisting we become scholars. At least after she had reconciled herself to my failure to become a doctor, her first and biggest ambition. It was that disappointment, deepening through years of frustration at my lack of financial success, which made it difficult in later years for me to talk to her about anything as exalted as faith or souls. Reading some of her notes now, I regret not having been able to engage her in conversations deeper than the ones we had about mundane things. I do know, though, that she never really went back to her seasonal religious rituals, and only wanted to do the bare minimum asked for by society even when her husband died seven years ago.

Some of the nurses tried to tell us that in her delirium in the ICU, before she slipped into unconsciousness, she had blurted out something about god, and had appeared to be chanting some religious hymns. Did she turn back to religion and rediscover god in her final moments, as we atheists are told is inevitable? I don’t know. My sister, who was with her, talking to her, holding her hand as she fell into her final sleep, doesn’t recount god figuring much in their conversation. Vaijoo said Aai held her hand to her heart and asked her what was happening, why she had gathered friends and relatives, was she going to die, was this the end? Earlier, looking at the burned skin on her arms while on the way to the ICU, she had laughed at the absurdity of her accident. Now it had sunk in, and perhaps she was afraid that this was it, there was no coming back from this. What will happen next, she asked Vaijoo. Masking her own emotional distress, Vaijoo said she didn’t know, but that a lot of people who loved her were gathered outside, including her beloved brother whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years, and that her son was also on his way to be with her shortly. She squeezed her hand, looked into her eyes, told her to rest, try to be calm, and go to sleep. Then the doctor came, gently slipped Aai’s hand out of Vaijoo’s and into his own and told her he would stay until she was fully asleep.

That was the last lucid conversation my mother had, hardly regaining consciousness at all over the next 36 hours before she was gone. I don’t know how much room there was for god or religion in the cracks of her fading consciousness, nor do I find much solace in seeking out god to explain the accident that took her from us. Nevertheless, I deeply appreciate the sentiment from friends and strangers who said they prayed for her. Rituals of mourning are, after all, more for the still living left behind by the dead. So, thank you again, my friends, for your condolences.

I also find greater comfort in knowing something I know would have evoked wonder and awe in her spirit as well: that we are all made of stardust, that, as my favorite contemporary preacher put it (at c.2:40 in the following video), “Not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us“. So allow me to leave you with these cosmic (and hopefully not too disturbing) thoughts from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:


Thank you.

It is time again, for another round of the Great Backyard Bird Count!

The 2012 GBBC will take place Friday, February 17, through Monday, February 20. Please join us for the 15th annual count!

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds.  

As it happens, unfortunately, for the second year in a row, I am going to be away from my favorite birding partner during the 2012 GBBC! Last year, she was in India while I was stuck in the US. This time its the other way around. Perhaps she will be able to get her class to participate. What about you? Will you spend a morning counting birds in your backyard next week?