November is upon us. I thought of making one of those lists that are so popular with my friends’ list on a social site – twenty-five things you have done by twenty-five. I looked at those lists and realised I had done most of that by sixteen. So I am going to do something else.

Hi to the little girl who liked her uncle’s workshop. Don’t worry, because you’ll get to do this again in labs with robots instead of tea-packing machines, for little pay for a very long time, until you decide it isn’t worth the poverty and the arse-licking required in academia and walk out hoping desperately that you’ll get to do it again for a bit more pay. You’ll walk through hell, but you’ll get to do it again.

Hi to the girl who liked writing opinion pieces and little stories. Don’t bother hiding them from everyone, because you’ll be doing that with happiness and pride one day.

Hi to the girl who was bullied so much that she kept notes of everyone who did that to her and swore that she’d one day be better than all of them. Don’t weep, because you weren’t required to prove yourself better, only to stay yourself.

Hi to the girl who despised family drama and went through a great deal of it, yet still fought hard to get their recognition. You’ll one day discover Ecclesiastes and let go.

Hi to the girl who was so afraid of not being able to love. Don’t be afraid, because you’ll be taught well by a hyacinth.

Hi to the girl who was wary of men and all that they could do (because of what she had seen them do). Don’t be prejudiced, because you’ll meet good men, men you didn’t know could exist.

Hi to the girl who wrote off all families. Don’t be hasty, because you’ll see Sibelius’s family, and come to believe that good families aren’t a fictional invention.

Hi to the girl who was so afraid of poverty. Don’t be afraid to buy that five-star from the hostel snack-store, because you’ll blow it all away on your daily coffee a few years later.

Hi to the girl who was bullied over sexuality. I can’t tell you how proud of you I am, because you loved the best, and that smug, reckless love of yours has built most of my best memories.

Hi to the girl who was afraid of loss. I wish I could hug you and tell you that you’ll learn to deal with death though not very easily or gracefully.

Hi to the girl who thought that she had inherited neither the good looks nor the virtues of her family, while managing to get the worst of all her bloodlines. Don’t worry too much, because you’ll make mistakes nobody in your family yet has, and isn’t that original? Don’t worry too much, because you’ll have enough interests of your own that take you away from the old ways.

Hi to the girl who was terrified by shopping. Don’t be frightened. Amazon will save you.

Hi to the girl who was so confused at each and every stage of her life when she ended up taking a path that not many others did. Don’t fret. You’ll one day learn to take it as the norm of your life, and even find pleasure in it.

Hi to the girl who spoke up against all kinds of discrimination (starting with defending St. Joseph to all the fervent St. Mary worshippers). Practise well. You’ll be doing that for a long time to come.

Hi to the girl who thought that friendships were too shallow. I am afraid I don’t have anything nice to tell you. You’ll grow up, more and more disillusioned by shallow friendships, until you no longer bother to make the effort.

Hi to the girl who thought she’d become more forgiving with time. You won’t become more forgiving. If anything, life will have taught you enough lessons with the years to not forgive. You’ll move on with your life, as best as you can, and when someone whispers “Babylon” in your ear, you’ll remember all that you can’t forgive.

Hi to the girl who rebelled a lot against the societal notions of what women should be like. It will work out. They’ll give up on you, you’ll give up on them, and everyone will be happier.

Hi to the girl who wept from loneliness on so many nights. Hold on. It will take years, but you’ll meet people who’ll try very hard to make you forget all that. It is going to take you a very long time to be convinced of their sincerity. You’ll get there, eventually.

Hi to the girl who wished she had been born a male. I am afraid you’ll wish that a lot as you go through life. You’ll wish it fervently sometimes. You’ll wish it less frequently, perhaps, in the distant future.

Hi to the girl who thought that there would one and only true love, as the song goes. You’ll learn that you have yet a lot to learn, and you’ll learn that there are so many ways to love. You’ll never forget what made you blossom from the lonely, little wretch you were into a harp that sang a single Hallelujah. You’ll walk on, though, to play the Elder Scrolls and laugh a lot under the steel-grey skies of Newark. You’ll keep walking, under the fall awning of Emory, and rediscover beauty in life. You’ll then cave in, with all the grace of a bird on a wire, and sing a new Hallelujah.

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~~~

Aang spends a lot of time trying to impress his lady love. An old friend of mine, who has gone on to do very noble things (as we had all known he would), spoke recently about his Aang experience.

“I spent most of the last many years trying to impress Katara.”
“And?”
“And she told me that she spent most of those years being impressed despite trying her best not to be.”
“And?”
“And it was all over long ago.”

Even in Malayalam, a language where harshness is difficult, it comes through. Aang had his happy ending. Most don’t.

I don’t like mangoes. I remember thinking that they were God’s gift to me when I saw a supple tongue licking the juice of mangoes from summer-browned skin. Even mangoes were put up with.

There is rarely anything convenient or easy about attachment. I don’t know why I had expected it to be either.

~~~

“There is a plan!” someone at work says, full of conviction. Most of us take that with a grain of salt, but we hope desperately that there is one.

I am not fond of plans. I suppose my plan-hatching abilities are as good as most others’, but mine are thrown awry in unexpectedly macabre ways. Take the whole mess with the graduation and the job-hunt, for instance. There was a plan, spanning eight months. Despite the evidence accumulated from the past, I am planning again, warily, to make a birthday present memorable. There is a lot of work that needs to be done for that. That is fine. Sibelius tells me not to worry. His stupendous lack of worrying certainly worked for him, I suppose. He laughs that off and says that he had the best lucky charm.

“I see you aren’t at ETHZ or UPenn,” an old lab acquaintance says. There is a world of wonder and curiosity in the statement. I muster a half-decent response and end the conversation. I don’t see the point in explaining motivation. Instead, I mutter something about men’s paradises and there being better things to do with my time.

~~~

“Drunk? On your birthday too?”

Words can cut to the bone, when you have flayed yourself open under each affectionate glance or touch. I didn’t get a chance to think too much upon it, because there was cake. We changed again, and yet again, and it was then too late and too far to go back, and I went on.
It isn’t very convenient or easy. It is painful at its worst and bothersome otherwise. It was unasked for, and I wouldn’t have done well without.

~~~

There was cake. Now there is this, against reason (had I not sworn not again?).

We had put buckets when the roof had leaked, and I do the same now, and I am afraid it won’t be enough to sustain what is necessary.

I go back to Voronoi graphs, doing my best to forget mangoes, cake, and other edibles that I despise.

~~~

Aang was a lucky bastard.

If asked what my greatest accomplishment was, I would say that it was learning Malayalam.

My parents were educated in English-medium schools, had little to no exposure to the written word in Malayalam. My mother’s spoken Malayalam was melodious. She has lost none of the Thrissur accent of her forefathers. It was also completely at odds with what the written word was about.

I ended up in a school-system that required us to learn Malayalam a lot (the epics, the poetry, the grammar – the works). I was singularly unfortunate. Being Catholic required you to do school catechism classes that were taught in Malayalam. I scraped through to high-school, and found out to my dismay that I had to do well in three papers – Malayalam I (the literature), Malayalam II (the essays, the critiques) and Catechism. I rued my lot. Most everyone in my batch spent time learning Mathematics and Science. I spent my time learning Malayalam.

I despised the language. I had no reason to like it, after all. My English was fluent. It was, I knew, the only language that I required. Each time I was bullied by teachers or fellow-students regarding my incompetency in Malayalam, I revelled in fantasies of getting away from it one day, and finally taking heart in the fact that my competency in English would grant me the last victory. Getting away required doing well in the subject though. I needed to know how to write in that blasted language, I realised, if only to have sufficient marks to get through the boards and have a chance at the better higher-secondary schools. So I set to it with grimness. I read the epics, I read the newspaper editorials of Mathrubhumi and I read Aashan-Ulloor-Vallathol with solemnity suitable to one approaching the gallows. I saw no beauty in any of it. I was determined to do well. Thinking back, I was more disciplined as a teenager than I am now. When I set my mind to something then, I usually managed to get it done through sheer perseverance. I made progress, slowly, and my skills at writing in Malayalam improved enough to give me hope that I might not face utter rout in the board-exams. It was nowhere near what I wanted, though.

The hyacinth spoke Malayalam well. Her accent was coarse and nothing close to the melody of my mother’s Thrissur accent, but her skills at writing in Malayalam outstripped that of most everyone I knew then. As our involvement increased, I began to find another reason to learn the blasted language. The first letter I received was in Malayalam. The next one was in Malayalam too. And the one after that. I couldn’t bear to be outdone by her. So I set myself the task of crafting replies more beautiful. I cheated, most of the time. I wrote in English and translated that into Malayalam painstakingly. The end was stilted prose that the Victorians would have balked at.

Time went by. The boards were a few weeks away. I had resigned all hopes of doing any better in the Malayalam papers. Grimly, I played catch-up with the other subjects, cursing Ezhuthachan all the while. I had spent most of my school-life trying to learn that language. Now school-life was drawing to a close, and I had drawn no nearer to Malayalam’s secrets.

Then the hyacinth read out Verukal to me. I was transported, through the writer’s verses, to look at a land old and beautiful, through the lens of a language that was as exact as Sanskrit and as expressive as Tamil.

I did horribly well in my Malayalam board exams, buoyed by the transcendental experience of having Malayalam fed to me in a story of decay related by a voice well-loved. I have written more in Malayalam voluntarily after that, though I haven’t had any good reason to. I remember a lot (vahnisanthapthalohastaambubindunabanguram, marthyajanman kshanaprabhaachanchalam). I have a rather good-looking hand-writing when it comes to writing in the script. I remember waking up from dreams, months after the board-exams were over, trying reassure myself that it was all over and that I would not have to put up with the perpetual worry that scoring poorly in the language would hold me back from going to a better place.

That was all long ago. Learning Malayalam did not grant me much in life. Knowing English has been highly useful.

I don’t plan to have do anything with Kunchan Nambiar’s convoluted poetry in the future. I wonder if I will forget it though.

I was driving back from work today. My usual channel on the FM is KDFC. Today, the channel was playing Gershwin’s piano concerto that I dislike a lot. I felt compelled to fiddle with the radio channels. I ended up on a channel that was playing Aerosmith’s Ragdoll.

I had loved the song back in school. It was an unexpected traipse back in time. The women had been lovely, luscious, and sensual. Yum!

At the next stop signal, I quickly brought up the other tramp song (the best of them all) – Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. In that one, Bowie is lovely, luscious, and sensual. He still remains all of that, inexplicably. Yum! He wears heels better than any woman ever has.

Pansexuality makes me think of goats. I don’t like goats. That might have been easier.

As it goes, the truth is different, and hot tramps weren’t what I fell in love with, and I am a bird on a wire.

Writing in cursive was mandatory at the secondary school I went to. I believe it had been necessary even at my high-school, but I had somehow managed to get around it by connecting my letters every now and then with bars (rather like Hindi, now that I think of it). I can’t write in cursive, or slanted cursive. It twists my wrist in interesting and painful ways when I try. I suppose that is because I am doing it wrong. There was this well-meaning nun in secondary school who advised me to get those copy-writing notebooks and practise. God knows I tried. It was important back then. What if some underpaid teacher somewhere correcting the common exam papers graded me badly just because I wasn’t writing in cursive? I cared a lot about that. Never mind that my non-cursive, non-slanted hand was easier to read than a cursive, slanted version, everybody cared about the cursive, and that was that. It might be a genetic flaw. My brother’s hand is more legible (and downright pretty) after he abandoned the cursive. It is not that we didn’t try. There are dozens of copy-books, dozens of re-written assignments et al, showing how hard we tried. The sad part, of course, is how pointless having a cursive hand turned out to be. Yes, it might have gained people marks when they were in school and graded by teachers who thought it a good metric to judge children’s aptitude by. My brother and I tried, and failed, and castigated ourselves, and were castigated, about the inability to write well in cursive. Now he is in undergrad. I don’t think a cursive hand really counts for much there. Lab experiments must show results, the code must compile, you need to know how to use Matlab and Simulink, you need to know your way around microprocessors – all of that matters, but not the slanted cursive. As for me, as long as my squiggles on the whiteboard aren’t illegible, I doubt anyone cares. It has been quite some time since it was something anyone cared about.

The slanted cursive is just one of those things that the education system thinks is important. The number of pages in your answer booklet is another. How punctual you are with your assignments and how you interact with your teacher is another. None of this matters much. So when the entrance exams are here, everyone wonders why the teacher’s pet doesn’t do better than someone who spent his time playing truant (and says it is unfair). When the placement time arrives on campus, everyone wonders why Google picked someone with a horrible grades over someone who topped the class. Perhaps we should be rethinking our metrics. We have these metrics, and our children expect that as long as they score well on these points, everything else will fall into place. No, it won’t. It is something they need to be aware of. Their little world (school or college) isn’t the world, and isn’t even an approximation.

There was a professor at my undergrad, who taught networks, who encouraged us to write only the points relevant. It was a heavenly idea to me. I could just jot down three or four bullet-points and be done with a question. As far as I can remember, she was the only one sensible about these things out there. I think she tried to tell us, often, about what lay outside the campus. It can’t have been easy, being one of the rare few to have reasonable metrics to judge students (you write the answer, I’ll give you the marks) as opposed to unreasonable metrics (do I like you? do you respect me enough? do you write in a slanted cursive? how many pages in your answer booklet?).

I know a man who has poor communication skills, has poor hand-writing, and would meet no Indian teacher’s idea of ‘acceptable’. He had led a big revenue-churning team at Google for a dozen years, had invested in and started successful companies, had outstripped all his peers who came with better grades. He is tenacious, resilient and stubborn. Many people have those qualities. I think that the difference though is that he thinks. He thinks outside the framework the education system tries to instill in all of us. Many of us go with the framework. Some of us go against it instinctively. Only a rare few have the ability to think about it, gather the best with them as they go forward, and discard the rest.

I rejected everything to do with the education system, blindly. I might have been right in doing so, but I am trying to think now. I am trying to think about why instinct told me that it was a broken system. Why would a system reward those with a slanted cursive hand? Why would it reward those who behaved, those who were punctual, those who compliantly went along with the framework, those who drew margins, and those who wrote a lot of pages in their answer booklet? Did it make sense in the era where government service was the best one could aspire to? I think much of it has to do with the teacher’s laziness (why read answers when you can just count the pages?), and sense of self-importance (this student isn’t punctual, doesn’t treat me with complete respect, and why would I give him or her marks?), and in some cases even ignorance (how dare this student write down things I don’t know about?).

The education system is a dystopia. That parents and children still buy into it is most horrifying. There are still pieces that make sense that you might come across (one lone professor who is the voice of reason, one or two professors who know what they are talking about, a handful of students who remind themselves and each other everyday that something is off), but you need to be very lucky in order to do so.

Grateful for the place. It is in a nice, quiet part of the town. There are shops in walking distance. I had lived in this area last summer. I am not in a state to bike as I had used to, but I hope to be soon. K-san is also from last summer. The happiness of happenstance.

Internet providers – the duopoly is appalling. We choose between AT&T’s horrible service or Comcast’s horrible customer-service. Still need to get renter’s insurance. The ease of it all, conveniently done online, is something that I wish was the case in India too.

In which Sibelius says that he is glad to be in grad-school. If he hadn’t applied to the six grad-schools, if he hadn’t been accepted at all of them, if he hadn’t gone on to Harvard, he would have joined the army. With the Middle-East situation being what it currently is, he tells me wryly that he’d rather debate about it under the autumn shades of Harvard than face the prospect of fighting someone’s war. He thanks me for the app-fees. I thank him for having decided to press the ESC on that army option.

Pot tax revenue might be something to be grateful about, for the state that approved it.

Skyrim invokes complicated memories I haven’t yet sorted out. It was a cold and a dark place, and it mostly rained. Today was a cloudy day. The garage door is usually left open for the sunlight to stream in, but we left it closed today.

“What would I find if I ran ML on your blog?” the intern asked, fresh from the Coursera class, confident that Python and ML will win her the world.

[This was difficult to write. Choosing to do so was not a lightly made decision.]

One of the first plays I had read in French was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot). I remember reading it, in the dim light of my grandmother’s bedroom, and idly wondering if all my life would be spent so, bleakly repeating day after day, hoping that some clean break, some Godot, would come through. I could see myself in Vladimir and Estragon, telling each other that Godot would come.

Godot did come. I had given up hope by then, that anything would change. I felt it best to align my life with those closest to me in chosen career and dared hope for nothing more. There was only today.

I was living my todays, one after the other, listening to Bowie, and thinking of Kalman Filters when bounded Godot into my life. Godot was plagued by bright dreams and inaction, and I could hardly fathom how he had come to be where he was. Godot was privileged by birth and gender, and by other factors.

The bounding Godot did me good. I began wondering if things might change. I began daring to dream a bit beyond the constraints I was hemmed in by. Things changed, but not in a way I had hoped for. Everything went to hell in a hand basket, I lived off credit cards and love, I loathed family more than I had until then, and I ended up being equipped with enough tales of misery to be the protagonist in a Hugo novel.

On dark nights, I despised Godot and I despised myself for having waited for Godot. My fellow grunts in academia had moved on to the next year of their graduate studies. I was teetering over an abyss and everything that could go wrong had gone wrong.

Godot was a rather careful player, I discovered, beneath all the bright plans and carefree grins. He was also as dedicated and persevering as man can be. We hauled my life back onto its rails.

It is tempting to give him all the credit. I don’t think it is fair though. Many of my plans that would have ensured my continuation in academia had been changed because of Godot. Even before Godot, when my life had been off the rails (and it has been ever so often), I had managed to get back to normality with personal effort. I don’t think I am indebted to Godot for what he did to put my life back on track. I think I should give Godot the credit for something that’s likely to stick far longer – for having shown me what I could do. I hadn’t believed before that I could.

Why didn’t I believe that I could? I think the past has taken a toll on me. I have had to fight for every fucking thing in my life. It shows, in the way I speak, and react, and behave, and weigh my options. It shows in how little I expect fairness from others, and how surprised I am when they are fairer than expected. The first time I had walked the bleakness, my greatest fear was that it would repeat. The hyacinth spoke about Robert Bruce, and wove a cocoon that was a thousand kisses deep. Life shattered that, and I walked the bleakness again and again, and had been by then convinced that it would repeat.

“Clawed your way back,” is a rather evocative description. I will remember that. I have qualms with putting it that way myself. I did not return the same, after all. I left full of doubts and despair. I did not return the same way. For that, I have to thank Godot.

Before Godot: I had lived. I had waited for a break, for Godot, but I had lived. I think it is one of the things I have done right – having lived as well as I could, given what I was handed. I hadn’t wished for knights or fairy godmothers. I had gone on, regardless of the family and the society. I have seen more disappointment, more unfairness, and more poverty than almost all the peers I know. On many levels, my life is still harder than that of most of my peers, not through my choices as much as through what was handed to me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to improve my lot given the hand dealt out to me.

My interactions with most people are difficult often, because life experiences are wildly different. It is not easy to identify with those who worry about higher-level concerns, when on your plate are matters to do with daily bread and a roof over your head. I find myself frustrated when I am dealing with those who care about conforming. I find myself frustrated when I am dealing with those who care about not conforming. I’ve rarely had the time to make a choice either way, and instead usually lived by instinct. It is not easy to identify with the sexual experiences or family experiences of my peers very well, because the flavours I have lived (and lived with) are very different from the norm.

It wasn’t easy. It isn’t easy. I don’t know if it will be not as difficult as the years ago by. All of that makes me glad that Godot bounded in, larger than life, singing of grand dreams and little care. You tend to like your Godot more if you’ve waited a long while.

I ended an interesting experience yesterday. I might miss the few good men I had come to know there. I find that I am glad to have left, not because of what was lacking there, but because of what I miss. They were sad to see me leave.

I spoke to Shwetha last week. We spoke of this and that. I realised, pleasantly, that for the first time in a long while that I was not frightened to tell her about those little dreams that I dare dream now, even if it is something as simple as returning to the kind of work I love. I realised that I was not wary of saying that I was good at some things (I had been afraid, for the longest time, that saying something of the sort was a guarantee for a jinx on my already jinxed life for the next six months).

There are things that even Godot can’t solve. It is difficult for me to dream of what-nexts when the weight of the past is still heavy, when I’m afraid that I’ll be back on Boogie Street tomorrow. At least, I comfort myself, now that I know there exists Godot, it might be all a tad easier.

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