Nerd expressed

Somebody yesterday asked me, about my perception of the difference between a library and an archive, and how I as a historian (of science, yes I know) thought about and used them differently and I opened my mouth to answer, only to stop short. Because, you know what…? I’m not quite sure actually know. If I stop to think about it, I’m not sure there is a huge difference. After all archive to some extent, is a library, or part of one or perhaps a more specialized type of one. It is sometime even referred to as a “rare books library” as is the Beinecki library at Yale–that architectural wonder that I personally think of as a cross between the Taj Mahal and a bar of chocolate (or to use the terminology of a quirky former colleague, the “bastard child,” with which label she did not intend to be necessarily insulting as factual in that the offspring was the product of what would be an unacceptable couple in many cultures). My tangential architectural side comments notwithstanding, the only real difference as far as I can see is that archives often contain “one-of’s”–original documents, e.g. a cache of letters, personal diaries–where different libraries often have copies of the same book. Also I uess the access, and level of access is different. Minor difference all told.

Writing about this reminds me, I once proposed a project for a post-doc in which I characterized the genome as an archive, rather than a library — at the time I think I was gunning specifically for the “repository of relics from the past” definition of the archive. As the online dictionary I just double checked tells me (no surprises) there is considerable overlap… and a library often has a special archive section. As I should know from my work this past summer, scouring Howard Temin archives at the Steenbock Memorial Library. (#44)


My alliterative self has not been just dampened by dengue but also down-trodden, depressed, debilitated, and just downright doggone defeated (well not quite) by it. Certainly it threw me off my weekly post goal (or is that goal-post) on this blog which was lagging by a few weeks already but (I fondly hoped) almost on track to getting caught up.  And then came the horrible virus and drained my energies and flattened my resolve. Just for my personal record, this should have been my tenth entry, given I made the the once-a-week resolution on the 10th of June, but is only my 7th. I wonder if or when I will catch up.

Anyway.. inspired by blog lists on other sites, I thought I’d take the opportunity to pay tribute to a few books that have helped or are helping sustain me through the duel with dengue and with a few other challenges. Unlike earlier periods of illness and convalescence when I would read voraciously, this illness left me with a headache that made reading impossible. Luckily my trusty collection has helped and in reverse order here are some books that I’ve really enjoyed listening to over the past several months–not the the dengue weeks, but also the driving ones in Wisconsin/Minnesota and in California. In reverse order (most recent backward)

1. In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh. This book, which is still in progress actually, has been long overdue. I remember beginning to read it and being excited by its premise years ago (as I recall it was Aziza Ellozy who lent me a copy) but as I’ve been listening to it, I am realizing that I had barely made a dent into the book at the time. Am not sure who the narrator is — he is pleasing enough — but the book itself, what a treat! Ghosh’s shifting back and forth between the 12th century world of trade between Mangalore, Aden (in Yemen) and Cairo’s Geniza and the modern (1980s) Egyptian Delta is a pleasing device at least to my ears, but what really endears this book to me is the way it brings aspects of my own new millennial life in Cairo (2007-2011) back in such vivid detail and color. The nostalgia it conjures up is actually a false one for the descriptions of the life, speech and attitudes of the Egyptians in his book are in truth a very different slice of society than what I experienced. But nevertheless his narrative (aided and abetted by the skillful narrator) brings these people alive: I can see the guy, his grey galabeya flapping in the breeze and cigarette dangling from fingers or mouth, and hear him expounding on some aspect of life. Ghosh being a man was likely not exposed as I was to the numerous propositions from taxi drivers et al, that I and my female colleagues were privileged to receive, but something about the words ring so true… which I think is the mark of great writing. It transcends time and space.

2. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes. This was a random buy–I think I was actually looking for a version of the original book itself–but one of those lucky strikes. In a day an age where I think Robin Wright has become defined by her “role of a lifetime” as the ruthless Claire Underwood, it was fun to learn about her in the days she was Buttercup, the most beautiful princess in all the lands, imperiously ordering the farmboy (the author and narrator) about. Elwes is a great narrator and mimic and while this book might seem a bit of a sentimental tribute–it is–it does bring back memories of a great film that I really love! I had a lot of fun storming the castle with Elwes and crew, learning about the figures behind the ROUS’s, and of course the famous Inigo Montoya (of the “you killed my father prepare to die” fame) and about others such as André the kindly Giant among others. Now to buy and rewatch the film itself.

3. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, an absolute delight of an irreverent romp by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I’ll be eternally grateful to my cousin Pramodh for this recommendation… and can’t think of the number of times I’d take the long way to somewhere just to get to listen to a bit more of the book. It certainly helped me stave off some of the darkest days of depression. Enough said–read it and enjoy impending Armageddon as you never will again for sadly Pratchett is no more, having died in 2015, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was only 66. A side benefit of reading this book was I got better acquainted with Queen, and not just the Bohemian Rhapsody.

4. The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family. This last one does not qualify as a book but was/is great and does not get erased from my audio device (presently my iPhone 4S)… Ever! John Lithgow compiled this collection and got a bunch of friends (stellar actors all) to read poems by a large list of his own favorites. He provides his own commentary and associations for each poet. You’ll get to listen to old favorites or learn about new men and women you didn’t know you might like. Auden and Yeats, Wordsworth and the impenetrable (to me) Gertrude Stein.. they and about fifty others are all in there. This one is definitely worth several listens.


This is not a bonafide post but the matter is irritating me enough to interrupt my actual writeup on books read/listened to vent about. Does anyone else have trouble typing words with the following letters/numerals in regular words: x — which simply won’t show up; z – which sends me off to another page or asks me if I want to leave the page, and the numerals 1 and 2 for starters? It is incredibly frustrating to be trying to type a word or a date only to have the page disappear or be taken will-I nil-I (note to self re a a subject for a a future post) to another tab on the browser. I have tried before to register a complaint about this issue but to no avail!!! ARRRGH. Someone please help.. the letters may not be that common in English words (at least according to Scrabble) but not being able to use a word or having to type it elsewhere and paste it into the tet (there is an eample– the words were supposed to be text and example) is annoying.

(Oh well, what the hey a post is a post, so this one is #46)


Select a cooking implement to use as a prompt…anything that triggers a story/memory. Write for 10 minutes (or more…)

This prompt in Writing from the Senses appealed to my sense of whimsy, which is why I copied it into a draft, two or three years ago. But somehow I haven’t been able to to home in on an utensil. Today though as I’m up at 4:30 am the image of a tea strainer, the type made of stainless steel floats, to mind. Why I can’t think, although perhaps it is my subconscious desire for a cup of tea, a usual companion when I sit with my computer in the wee, predawn hours.

Tea rather than tea strainers are what I have more memories around, though not any specific cup or type of tea. Drinking tea was perhaps the first habit I acquired, as a five year old whose mother brought her a warm cuppa early in the morning. Canny woman my Mom, by doing so she ensured that neither my brother nor myself were ever grumpy to be woken up. How so? you might wonder. Well,  you see, the warm libation in the morning had the immediate effect of getting our innards going. Once out of bed and in the bathroom, we were wakeful enough and there was no going back to bed. We’d get ready for school, mostly in good time. Whether or not this routing instilled a sense of punctuality in us (I mean to be on time but have many lapses) it did instill the habit of morning tea, or bed-tea as we called it then.

The anecdote brings up another tea-related memory, a story or parable really, that I forever associate with Governor Hathi* of Panjab, a man who often presided over various cultural programs for August 15 and 26 January (Indian Independence and Republic Day respectively) that I participated in–as in danced at with other friends–as a kid. He was talking about the forming of habits and trying to wean ourselves of them, using tea as an example.  It was a clever sort of word play that appealed, to my even-then nerdy self. A habit became a bit, further weaned to bit, and even with the b got “it” still remained. And then the kicker–even after removing the “i”  (some subversive teaching of Hindu philosophy there what?) were were still left with our T.

I am not sure if this parable was intended as a warning about forming habits, or about the dangers in gradual weaning, or about tea drinking (which would have not been credible given most of us had a cup in our hands). None of those lessons, intended or otherwise, stuck. But the story and the habit did, and unlocked by the prompt, I offer it to my readers.

To return to the impetus for this post–the stainless steel tea strainer–and trips down memory lane, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a particular one that is probably right now lying in storage  packed up along with all my other kitchen goods. It was a gift from my friend Aman during our days in New Haven. She brought me one after a visit to India, perhaps after hearing me grumble on too many times about the flimsy plastic rimmed ones, and I’ll always be grateful for it. The steel one has traveled with me the world over, from Yale to Eau Claire, Egypt, Korea and back its country of origin in India. Where to next I wonder? I wish I knew… but that’s a subject for a different (and whinier) post. Meanwhile I’ll sign off to go get my first cuppa habit this July morn (#47)

*A footnote on Gov. Hathi’s name, which might conjure up images from the Jungle Book of the elephant brigade led by a Colonel of the same name, which in fact, means elephant in Hindi. The name at the time seemed very appropriate at the time for to my pre-teen self he seemed elephantine in his bearing and gait.





The image of streets full of once-beautiful buildings now with crumbling facades overlaid with layers and layers of grime, usually within a hop skip and jump from a river that wends it way placidly northward, ought to make the identification of this city a no-brainer for anyone who has spent more than a day here. But if it doesn’t, might help to recall sounds rather than sight. The cacophony of car horns blaring with scarce thought to the need or usefulness thereof, punctuated by the plaintive tones of the call to prayer some five times a day should be a giveaway. Walk to the banks of the aforementioned river – the Corniche as any road running by it or any other body of water (e.g. the sea) is called – and pay the gray-gowned man for a ride on one of his wind-and-oar powered sailboats and within seconds the sounds of those cars recede. If you happen to have taken the boat from the area that functions as the city’s downtown then across the river you can see the geometrically-shaped domes of the Opera House silhouetted to the west. Depending on the time of day (or night) those domes may appear yellowish or starkly bright…

Of course, anyone who has read pages from this site would recognize the “where” of the above paragraph: Egypt, specifically Cairo, where I happened to at the time of the first Tahrir square uprising of 2011. In this case too it was a writing exercise based on Writing from the Senses, the sense in this case being that of hearing. Although re-reading the passage I find that despite the supposed focus on sounds,  there is more there about the sights. Which just goes to show what visual creatures we humans are for the most part.

But here’s another memory of sound: Imagine it beginning as murmur from a sea of people, gradually growing in volume and fervor as you draw nearer to the source. It had a definite rhythm too, one I can still hear in my head, but only try to replicate in spacing out the syllables (think of it, :in a ba-boom ((1) ba-boom (2) ba boom, (3)ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom



Iskat el ni-zam

I am not fluent enough in Arabic to break the meaning down by individual words, but the overall meaning, loud and clear to anyone hearing them, was crystal clear. “The regime needs to go!”  As indeed it did on the night of February 11, 2011. It was a heady experience to bear witness to this piece of Egyptian history, and, as I have likely said in an earlier post, profoundly moving. For me personally, the signature moment was when a guy in Tahrir Square who was part of a contingent bearing a poster with Mahatma Gandhi’s picture. “Where are you from?” he asked me and when I told him I was Indian he beamed, shook my hand,  directed my attention to the poster and told me: “See that? We want what you have, and one day we’ll be there too.” I nearly wept with the combination of hope, pride and joy–in him, in Egypt and of course in Gandhi.

Well, it’s now nearly 7 years since that “Arab Spring” and pride and joy do not figure high in my list of sentiments right now on much (except when it concerns my darling nieces, but this post is not about them). Certainly  when I felt like weeping on the matter of Egypt, the tears are not of joy. For as everyone knows–the promise of the uprising gave away to chaos and piling problems. But I still have hope, only in tiny sparks mind you but its there. Because I know from history that 7 years is a minuscule drop of time against the backdrop of Egypt’s history. No country has got democracy “right.”–not India which has been at it since the middle of the previous century, and certainly not the good old USA. But at some level, I believe that is the point. Democracy is not static or definable, and really the only truly successful democracy is one that adapts and changes according to need, much like evolution.

But I digress… Am sleepy and losing steam and so will sign off now on this my belated entry for week 5 of my resolution (#48).

I recently read The Woman on the Orient Express a fictional account of a snippet (well actually a grand chunk) of Agatha Christie’s life. I thought it a nice blend of the real facts and Christie’s fiction–especially the subtle ways in which scenes and characters from various books wound their way into the story, the latter interesting touted as the inspiration for her plots when in fact the reverse is truer. I always give points to a book when it makes me want to read new ones or revisit old favorites and this book certainly did that. I really thought some of the real characters that Lindsay Jayne Ashford brought into the book resembled certain characters in some of Christie’s novels.

What really drove me to write about this book here (as it happens for I reviewed it already on Amazon) was a chance to marvel anew at the really small world this is. For never in a million years did I think that the I could claim anything less than six degrees of separation with an author who had died before I had started reading her books! (at least I don’t think I had read any of her books before I turned eleven…) Here’s how that unfolds: My dear friend Emmanuelle Salgues is an Assyriologist–which means she can read Gilgamesh in it’s original chicken scratch script but that’s another story– and her PhD advisor was a student of Max Mallowan, who was Agatha Christie’s second husband. I think that officially connects me to Agatha Christie through 4  (3?) degrees. Cool bragging right isn’t it? And guess what, now that you’ve read this post, you too will be able to claim the same (if you know Emmanuelle) or 5 by dint of knowing me who knows E, etc etc.  So my fellow nerds.. enjoy..  (#49).

Uh oh… doesn’t say much for my ability to keep a resolution if I’ve lapsed before my third week… I think this omission may call for an extra this week. True I’ve had other things on my plate–last week at the archive and some stuff that needs to be written to meet application deadlines, but that is no reason or even an excuse. Part of the point of this resolution was to take time out for random writing no matter what…

But what to write about? I took a look at some of the writing from the senses prompts that I saved as titles of unwritten drafts, and while each is lovely, not one feels right to write about at this time. But perhaps I can draw inspiration from the topics of one of my work-related themes: autobiography.

Autobiography is a theme I’ve dwelt on as a historian of science for a time now. I’ve taken courses on it, taught courses on it and used autobiographies as primary sources in my research. As for writing them, well I’d say the blog is most certainly an autobiographical form–offering the writer’s public facade to its audiences like a memoir, but with the immediacy or time-stamp of a letter (with one difference you can actually go back and edit things in or out later which you can’t really do with a letter). And in fact, one of my students even used a blog as part of her cache of primary autobiographical documents on which she built her final paper for the class.

Other than blogs though, what qualifies as autobiography or “ego-documents” as we sometimes say in the profession? The aforementioned memoirs and letters certainly, as well as private diaries (I remember writing my paper on the published but little read diary of Robert Hooke–a very strange document that). One friend would have it that virtually anything a scholar publishes is in a sense autobiography, a story of the self or rather work by oneself, that he/she wants to share with the outside world. But while I agree at some level, I also think that such a definition is diluting the category overmuch, taking it to a point where it ceases to be useful (maybe?). I think that a piece must contain a definite element of sharing information about the author in order for it be considered some sort of ego-document. For instance, I do not think either of the reference books I’ve written count as autobiographies in any meaningful sense of the word–they are about microbes and about genes in the genome. Even my upcoming historical monograph is not about me, although it will certainly contain certain parts in the foreword (or afterword) that are distinctly autobiographical. But the book itself.. no.

Another rhetorical question here–what to do with all these thoughts? Well for now, not much more than publish it right here and almost right now. But I hope that the exercise has unlocked enough to give me more fodder for one of my other projects that are due for submission in very short order. (#50).

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