Nerd expressed

2017-05-22 16.53.26I love puns–good ones (if there are such things) and bad with almost equal affection–and can never resist the opportunity to use them. Especially here in this blog since no one will cut them out. But really, how am I expected to resist this one ? After all, the reason I’m here in Madison is to work at the archives on the papers of the scientist Howard Temin, and his work will be the terminal event in my book. But other coincidences abound. Witness, for instance this photograph that I snapped my first week here. No one told me it was here… but as I was walking  from the Steenbock library (where the archives are housed) to the Memorial Union building, what should I encounter but this plaque! The walkway is a beautiful lakeside path along the north edge of campus on the shores of Lake Mendota, one of 3 (or 4) lakes that grace this town. It gives me a special feeling knowing that as I walk along this pathway the destination are the papers of the very same person.

A quick biographical note on Temin (since this post is marked as a schistorian entry). He was an American virologist who received a third of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that makes DNA molecules from RNA templates. Even before this discovery, Temin had made waves by suggesting while still a graduate student that such a thing might be possible. Since the suggestion flew in the face of what was then the Central Dogma in biology he was not taken too seriously. Nevertheless since he did excellent work in the laboratory, he got his PhD, and a few years later proved himself right. Why he features in my research is that the model or subject of his speculations was the Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) which is one of the two viruses whose tale (à la Dickens)  I’m trying to tell in my book. More on the book in a future post. Now I need to get to actually writing it.  (#52)

I recently caught a TV screening of the new(ish) version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and it reminded me forcefully of the power of the word. It also drove home a point that I make constantly as a historian, namely that the context in which a book is read and the state of mind of a reader goes a long way toward what one will take out of a reading, or remember. For instance, There was a description in Gatsby toward the end, which I had missed or rather not noticed particulary when I read the book, but given all that I’ve been through in the past couple of years jumped out almost immediately this time. It was a description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and it went like this:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Replace careless with callous and to me that passage sums up  a couple of former colleagues (or for that matter the entire institution) as nothing else can. For I know first hand what it is to be subject to the “smashing up” described by F. S. F. Nearly two years later, I’m still picking up, or attempting to pick up, the pieces while those callous Tom and Daisy equivalents go on blithely with their lives, wrecking still others, no doubt. I could go on, I suppose and wallow further in dregs of bitterness (to pick up the words of another American classic: “I am big, I contain multitudes”) but I think I’ve already given them more rent-free space in my blog and brain than I should have.

A long time ago by blogosphere standards (8 years), I posted a fantasy about rendering Naguib Mahfouz’s story of the ancient Egyptian Rhadopis of Nubia into a Bollywood film. A recent viewing of the spectacle of Bhajirao Mastani immediately brought back memories of that post because it gave me ideas for those roles – the main characters as it happens – whom I had not fantasy-cast earlier. So …  I stand by my earlier line-up for Amitabh, Amir and Tabu as Sofkhatep, Tahu & the queen, Nitocris (I really do need to re-read those books again, if only I could find them), but with Irfan as a fine almost preferable alternative to Amir.  After watching Bajirao Mastani I want Priyanka Chopra as Rhadobis.. no contest. She’d be playing the opposite character from her BM role come to think of it. I also think that Ranvir Singh would fly as the Pharoah, although if one gives in to Egyptian preferences then the other Khan (Shah Rukh) would work as the Pharoah too as would Kajol as the queen because she really looks exquisite but at the same time older than Priyanka. The innocent Benamun and his physician father? Still uncast in my head though now I’m thinking a shaven Sunkrish (currently  Vikram Singh on Castle who also happens to be my cousin) might fit the bill, since he’s too young to be a Pharaoh to the queens that I’ve chosen. Another alternative is the kid from the Life of Pi. Om Puri would be a super cameo as the father  but the role isn’t meaty enough and any of the others might do (even the venerable ‘mitabachan in a double role).

Any takers-on for this project?

P.S. Om Puri died since I wrote this post, so there’s that fantasy gone with the wind or the khamsin…


Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 8.16.49 AM … H.P. Lovecraft apparently, or so said an online statistical writing analysis piece of software, on three occasions. Two pieces of writing were recent academic book reviews, one about Darwin and the other about scientific styles. The third was a peer-reviewed paper. An excerpt from my food blog, however, has me likened to Cory Doctorow, whom I’ve never read! And my trip down memory lane to my childhood bedroom seems to recall David Foster Wallace, who to my delight is described as having “a mercurial mind that lights on many subjects.” Like a changing accent then, apparently my style, language etc changes depending on the forum I’m writing for, I adapt.

I wonder how to feel about the fact that my academic writing is consistently likened to a writer of pulp horror fiction. Does the software simply regard all academic material as horrific? Or should I take this analysis as a compliment, that my writing, even about technical subject stuff has a wider reach and appeal? That would be nice…

Most of all I think the food I cook reflects my sense of adventure, my willingness to try (almost) anything, my love for novelty and variety, and I fondly hope, creativity and innovation, although those last two might be derived from my cooking. Over the years it – my cooking – has also come to reflect my peregrine nature, as I’ve picked up knowledge about ingredients, cooking techniques and tastes from different parts of world. A recent example that comes to mind is the use of shiso (shisu?) aka sesame leaves – which I’ve only really seen used in Korean and Japanese food – as an ingredient in tadka (finishing a dish with a couple of teaspoons of oil heated with spiced and herbs) for daal.

It’s strange that I can’t think of more to write here.. at least about the main topic at hand. After all, the subject matter of the prompt (from a later chapter in Deutsch’s book) touches on the two things I write about the most: myself and food. So why then have I drawn a blank after that first paragraph, which flowed quite naturally from my finger-tips? Maybe because at some level my cooking is an expression in and of itself. It just is, the way I just am. Writing about the relationship between the two feels like the way I’d imagine cooking for a restaurant would feel like. It takes the joy out of the act, imposing rules and forcing into boxes, what is for me a flight of fancy – whatever I fancy – using the ingredients I can find in the fridge, freezer or pantry cupboard. A long-ago creation I was reminded of last weekend when I visited New Haven and the kitchen I created it in, was a low-&-slow baked Swedish meatballs (from IKEA) in a Kashmiri-inspired gravy of yogurt, ginger, fennel powder spiked with red chilli (cayenne) powder… And another memory that just sparked was of a salad  I conceted while visiting my friends Shomik and Renu during their stint in China, in response to their request for something that was not Chinese: Norwegian pickled herring dressed with Indian mustard oil and fresh cucumbers.

I suppose these reminisces also bring to light another way in which my cooking reflects who I am.. my being a people’s person, for so often the food I have cooked has been for more than just myself. I like to cook for others, an audience if you will, though not always as a demo. but then don’t most people?

Okay.. the verdict is in.. bored enough to get distracted to look at other things, I better put this post to bed and potential readers out of their misery.

The place I most associate with a semipatetic (as compared to outright peripatetic?) childhood is Chandigarh having lived there from when I was 5-1/2, and the home (and the bedroom as a subset) within this city would be the upstairs of 85, Sector 16, where we lived in three separate installments as I wound my way through childhood into my late teens. The bedroom in question, was not really a bedroom in the conventional sense of the word, but it was the space where my bed was as well as a small Godrej almira, that exists to this day in my parents home in Bangalore. Talk about indestructible furniture! I remember a Rudolf-like sticker of a reindeer or deer that I pasted on the door of said almira, remnants of which linger even now.

To give one a sense of space of my bedroom that wasn’t really a bedroom, it was part of a long, covered veranda area (at least that’s what I’d be prone to think it was) at one of which there was a door that led into the Master bedroom. The other end – was not really an end – consisted of indentations separating it from another like-sized space (my brother’s room) which then had a door to a wrap-around terrace, which on warm summer nights also served as the family bedroom come to think of it. The bed lay lengthwise against the inside wall, which not a full wall but separated from the living room by a mesh window. I can remember going to bed at night listening to the strains of music from BBC (nightly news I think it must have been) that my father would listen to every night, sucking on a little oval-shaped tablet of edible Vitamin C, trying in vain to make it last, but almost always giving in to the desire to also bite down on it. On nights when I was ill with tonsilitis or other infections that left me with a hacking cough (something I never outgrew I’m afraid) Daddy (the title of Appa became more frequent only as I got older) would dose me with a combination of warm water, brandy and honey. I would go out like a light, which might be the reason my parents swore by it’s curative effects. Occasionally another concoction – to my child’s tongue even yummier – of honey, raisins and ginger would also be given – our version of the spoonful of sugar that could make the medicine go down, not that I was a fussy child in that regard.

Funny where starting to write this trip down memory lane has taken me. I have actually been composing versions of this exercise ever since I read the prompt – only in my head mind – but each time has pulled up different memories and the cold-remedies were part of none of those mental versions. And it’s also funny how something else I had thought I would write about has not yet made her appearance. This her would be my doll, a beautiful 2.5-3 foot doll that Dad brought home for me from Italy – Naples seems to ring a bell – on his summer visit when I was 6 or 7. She had golden hair, blue eyes, and the cutest white shoes and socks ever. Her dress was a marvel to behold, white netting with panels of deep green satin, a green which in retrospect would have also made for a beautiful eye colour except for the fact that the eyes were, as I said, blue. Oddly enough, I neither named the doll – though I have had others, stuffed toys, well into my adulthood or at least the Tolkein-invented tweens, which I have named: A Canadian goodbye gift named Beaver Dom for obvious-to-some-of-us reasons, a bear who was spontaneously named Nantucket and a monkey called Choga for no real reasons I can thing of except that they seemed to fit…

But back to the doll and the room of my childhood. She didn’t have a name, but her presence was all important. For someone who has generally been careless of possessions – I have a vague memory of giving away a rather beautiful bottle of perfume resembling a Disney Castle much to my mother’s dismay (at the time neither of knew I was anosmic – lacking a sense of smell – that revelation was more than a decade in the future then) – I was very possessive of my nameless doll. I remember kicking up quite the fuss when my parents wanted me to give her to a young (much younger cousin) when I was well past the age of paying any real attention to her. I still regret that I didn’t keep her… I think said cousin tore her lovely golden locks off .. though one of the photo albums [my father was a prolific photographer when we were young] surely has a photo. Maybe the next time I visit my parents, I’ll scan her and put her here.

The Godrej almira as I said, is still with us. But as memories of the stickers return, I think the reindeer might have been stuck on my parents larger his-and-her-unit, which also remains in their possession. Like I said, indestructible metallic furniture. Mine had/has a toothpaste add I think where two kids are sitting on a tube made to look like an airplane. I have a memory of procuring that sticker along with my friend Dolly (a real person not a doll and in no way resembling my doll either) at an event which was likely something to do with dental hygiene. Easy enough to check the accuracy of these memories, just look for the residual sticker marks on the almiras…

To those who might be interested, the title of this and other posts are part, the whole or spin-offs of the prompts from Writing from the Senses which I’m using in an my experimental my-year-of-blogging-a la-Laura Deutsch experiment. I’m not sure if the prompts from the book serve as an aid to good writing, but certainly they are keys to unlocking memories from so long ago. Things I haven’t consciously thought about for years and years, suddenly came back to me as I was writing. There are other memories as well though I don’t have time to write about them.

I wonder what that room/space looks like today. The home is still owned by the family of the people from whom we rented it and who lived downstairs from us, so maybe I’ll go and check it out the next time I visit Chandigarh. Which ought to be much easier now that I live but a few hours away. I also wonder what kind of writing that visit will prompt! If and when it does,  I daresay it will show up as a sequel on this site. And on that note (imagine the fading strains of the BBC radio tune) Good night.

egg selfie

My dear Cherry Dumpling (to use oft-exchanged endearment in lieu of your real name),

Do you remember this photograph? I actually went looking for it today and despite it being some dozen years and two computers ago I found it! It was exactly where I thought it would be and even though I’d forgotten the name of the website I’d uploaded it on, a quick web search yielded the name. From there on in it was easy…

Anyway the reason I went looking for it, was a reaction to another photograph, more recent though even that’s nearly 2 summers old too, which I found on my phone.  There’s still another layer to this narrative.. the reason I was even looking for photos on my phone is related to a new year’s resolution I made after reading the first chapter of an interesting book full of writing exercises and prompts based on the senses! The first exercise was to find an old photograph and write to one of the people in it,  based on the prompt that is the title of this blog post: In this picture you were… The idea is to see what memories visual stimuli can evoke.

In the photograph/s that prompted the search for this one we were making funny faces at the camera sitting by a fountain in some square in Leon, France. It took me on a trip down memory lane to the numerous faces we’ve made in numerous places over the years. Of all the selfies we’ve taken though, this one remains my favorite because it was so clever! There we were, window-shopping Easter weekend in 2002 – can’t be sure if we were in Lucern or Bern since we visited both that weekend but I think it’s Bern – and our reflection in the egg-shaped mirror inspired you. This photo was take long before “selfies” were popular and it is the most natural composition, a photo of a reflection, Even the camera is in the photo though not too obvious. What I also like about it, and what makes it so appropriate for this write-up, is the slightly hazy edges of our images, much like a memory.. blurred but still very much there and alive.

So what were you (we) doing that long ago day? Gadding about enjoying spring, Easter, and all that. I remember talking to you a few days prior from Heidelberg and you asked if I wanted to come over and help you paint Easter eggs. So I took the train over. We never painted eggs or indeed anything else that time, though painting too had been an activity we’ve engaged in even further back in time. A Christmas break in Dusseldorf, armed with lipsticks rather than paints. And though that may be a story for another post, it too has it’s place here as a snapshot of a memory of good times we’ve had in all the years we’ve known each other since Edmonton, Alberta. More often than not you’ve been the person proffering hospitality though a few times (too few) I’ve had the chance to return the favor.

This letter is my toast to all our zany, nutty and egg-sactly perfect times .. may we brew many more in the years to come. Much love


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