A foreigner in Boston

It’s been over a month here in Boston since I began the new chapter of my life. Right from the moment, when I was peeping down to have a look of blue Massachusetts Bay from my plane’s window to now, I have felt puzzled, amazed, stupefied, and complete silence. It’s like the scene from Harry Potter book-

“Seventeen silver Sickles to a Galleon and twenty- nine Knuts to a Sickle”, Hagrid said to awestruck Harry. “See, Harry, I told you. It’s easy enough!”

This past month I have been playing around, and learning to find how things work here and I find it’s not that easy. At least for me. I have tried to learn to answer “How you doing?” spontaneously when asked, “How you doing?”. However, since I don’t expect random people to greet me when I am walking on street, I am too slow more often than not and then I just manage to put a fake smile to acknowledge their greeting.

While I am trying to rhyme my can’t with ant, and learning to say bell-pepper (capsicum), eggplant (brinjal) and trashcan (dustbin),  I have to stop myself really hard from running to every Indian I spot on the street. Whenever they see my eager eyes, they consider me for a moment before pulling over their unfriendly mask of I-don’t-know-you. I start hiding my craving for everything that is Indian, and let my instinct become visible only when I am relishing pakoda  while I am reading Jhumpa Lahri’s Sexy (set in Boston) in the private confines of my kitchen. I count the number of American jokes which I have understood and the ones which I have laughed at the right time, and I convince myself that I am doing a decent job. It seems that I have began blending in with the heterogeneous crowd, being less conspicuous in the sea of diversity and finally adapting to my new life in Boston.

However, this all pretense gets tossed to the wind, whenever I wake up in the morning, and I find myself lying down on a mattress in an half-empty room. Everything around me is familiarly strange.  I find my eyes on the same level as the white pair of shoes kept on the floor. “No, I can’t be sleeping on the floor!” For a moment, I forget how I end up being in that room. The reality evades my consciousness. “It’s my new home, idiot!” I frantically look for my smart phone so as to call up someone. I can’t find it. It’s not surprising, I must have kicked it during my sleep. Then in an attempt to calm myself down, I convince myself that it’s just a strange dream, and then my mind says, “Only with one difference. Unlike others, this won’t end”, and with that, I fell into the endless trap that mind plays with you often. The girl whom I kissed yesterday night comes flooding back, and I get lost into her fragrance. I have got the stupid smile on my face as I keep staring into something beautiful from my nostalgic past. It takes me longer than a moment to break the trance. The azure sky with white patches of cloud visible from my window reminds vaguely of a day which I have spent playing cricket with my friends in my childhood. The view comforts me a little and everything starts seeming normal.

And just then the American red squirrel stares at me amusingly from the tree outside my window, and sniffs something foreign in air.

The Vacuum

When I set foot for the first time in Kolkata five years ago, I never knew that a day would come when I would miss it badly. Since my college was (yes, sadly it has become past tense now) situated more than fifty kilometers away from Kolkata, I never got the opportunity to spend much time in Kolkata. Nevertheless, I feel attached to the city. After leaving it, I realized I am more attached to Kolkata than Mumbai. Mumbai with its beautiful Marine Drive and vibrant city culture always attracts me. I have seen with my own eyes what they mean when they say Mumbai never sleeps. (By the way, Mumbai University campus does sleep during weekends) I always felt Marine Drive’s view of Arabian Sea is far more romantic than Howrah Bridge’s view of River Ganges. Now I realized I often looked on the wrong side of the Bridge. I was supposed to look inside the city and not away from the city. This is where Howrah Bridge beats Marine Drive. Of course, nostalgia helps me to forget the paan stains on the bridge and garbage floating on the surface of the river. However, if you watch from the Bridge during night time, then you would see what I mean.

When you stand on the Bridge, you realize it doesn’t provide you rock solid support. Instead it keeps on vibrating continuously as if to remind you how close you are to death. Even for an instant, if it fails to provide you support, then the next instant you would be on your own fighting against the mighty currents of river Ganges.  No, I am wrong. It reminds us of life, not death. The Bridge at each instant struggles to live and bears the weight of its Creator – humans.

During my time spent in Patna, I did miss Kolkata and Howrah Bridge but surprisingly I didn’t miss the bridge that connected my adolescence to adulthood (at least numbers tell me that I have grown to be an adult). Perhaps this was because I told myself repeatedly that I would be coming back to my institute in a couple of weeks. This denial of separation was tossed to winds when I came back to campus recently.

In the last two years, whenever I came back from my parental residence, it gradually dawned on me that the campus is not only far away from the city, but also disconnected from the problems of the real world. It is an escape from the reality. Here we are not bothered about either mundanes of running a household like arranging groceries and vegetables or headache of any Indian city — horn-honking traffic. Like everything else in academics, the whole of the campus is sealed beautifully in a transparent glass bottle. Now you don’t misunderstand me. It is not that the campus’s atmosphere is suffocating. Far from it. In fact, it is liberating in some sense. The soothing cool breeze that blows during evenings is just heavenly.

After a gap of three weeks, when I reached back to the campus this week, I found that the wind had become stronger. Apparently it blew away all of my past and numbed my senses. It was as if I had come back to a completely different college. The empty room, the empty wall, the empty corridor and the huge empty mess table with chairs kept on it upturned added to this feeling. There were a few people left in the college, and a fewer known faces were there. It was then it hit me hard that I could never come back to my college. There was nothing left for me to grasp in my fist. The only thing that was left was vacuum. It was everywhere — both outside and inside of me. And I just stared blankly into nothingness with my room’s windows open as the strong breeze kept hitting my face.

The last fall?

I heard somebody talking from far away. The surface on which I was lying was as hard as the floor but still had some warmth to offer to my tired back. The sound became more desperate as it approached nearer. And then suddenly somebody started to wake me up shouting, “Johnny, police, police!”. I shrugged off the hand that threatened to disturb my sleep. The only thing which mattered was to get more sleep. How did I end up being here? I pushed this question away lazingly. I had got tired of running, shouting, growling, fighting, smoking and strangling. Wait a second! Smoking? Strangling? This is not me. No, I definitely could not kill anyone. It’s Jonathan, not me. Uff…I should cut down my time spent in drama practice. Oh right, now it made sense. I was lying on the window-seat waiting for my next cue on the stage. And so, it was my accomplice, Einstein who tried to wake me up. I opened one of my eyes to have a look. The ceiling fan faced me. No, this could not be possibly true! How could I end up being in my mundane hostel room? The mechanical, regular tick-tock coming from my clock kept on study table tried to soothe my nerves. I changed side and tried to go to sleep again. It was clear that more than my body, my mind needed to rest.

As soon as I was descending into the comfortable alley of darkness, there was a loud thud. It must be Matthew falling. He wanted to get as far as possible from Officer Ganjawala who was bent upon telling him his film story. This was my cue. I turned to the other side on the window – seat as Matthew freed his legs. Officer Kartik came to Matthew’s rescue and pursued Officer Ganjawala away from Matthew. They passed by the window-seat. Spandan didn’t want to hurt me much. So, he just brushed against my arm to remind me as he ran after Officer Ganjawala. Then the next instant I fell off the window-seat. The audience laughed seeing two people falling one after another in quick succession. So, my fall was loud enough. The wooden stage smelled of dust and didn’t offer any warmth. ‘OC is coming.’ This was my next cue. I stood up with my back towards the audience. I could feel the gaze piercing through my back. All were waiting for my next move. I said, ‘what?’ Policemen asked, ‘what?’ ‘You think you have caught me, eh? …’ The next instant I found myself in a sharp pain. Something hard had hit my head. I turned and before I could see who he was, I crumpled to the stage with a large thump. Silence hit the auditorium. It was all vacuum. I felt relived. My shoulders felt light for the first time in last two months. I discovered the joy of submission. Now nobody could disturb my sleep. This was the last fall. It was all over. Now no more repetition. No retake. Now there was no need for me to shout on my team to be there in time; no more arguing with props team to do their jobs; no more running to catch the 5:10 pm bus to reach auditorium and no need to walk the whole distance back to hostel in the dead of night.

‘Those last five years were the busiest and happiest of my life.’ It came out from the hidden depth just when I was going to close the lid on this chapter of my college life. This blow was the hardest I felt within a few hours. Suddenly I craved for my tight schedule. I got afraid of the vacuum which engulfed me. “I want it back!” I wanted to shout but my throat was completely dry. Jonathan should not have smoked so much. Before I could make another attempt to shout, I felt my body hanging in air and taken away as if I were a corpse. Instead of shouting ‘Please don’t take me away!’, I shouted, “Please don’t take it away from me!”  Again no words left my throat but this time it was not due to my dry throat. It was my courage that betrayed me. I didn’t know if I could shoulder the whole of it again. The two policemen let go off my unconscious body as we left the stage. I was in a free fall again. Thud!

When I woke up, I felt my legs tied up. I got up with a start and untied them with my free hands. My arms were aching. Somebody had tied me really hard. Just then a policeman was running desperately after me. I instinctively ran away from him and passed by the window-seat. I slowed down my pace there, lest I accidentally wake up Jonathan who was lying down on the stage.

हे कमबख्त वक़्त

One of the last posts in the category ‘Life at IISER-K’

हे कमबख्त वक़्त
तू थम तो ज़रा
देख वो चला जा रहा |

हे कमबख्त वक़्त
तू थिरक तो ज़रा
देख वो छूटा जा रहा |

हे कमबख्त वक़्त
तू रहम तो खा ज़रा
देख वो फिसलता जा रहा |

हे कमबख्त वक़्त तू
बेवफ़ाई खुद से आज दिखा
क्या पता वो फिर मिले ना मिले|

Enter at your own risk

“Which major do you want to take?”

“Why, of course, Physics. I love Astronomy!”

“So, you have read A Brief History of time, right?”

“Yes, but how do you know?”

“How many times?”

“Three…each time I read I understand more and more.”

When I was having this conversation recently with a first ­year student, it seemed to me that I was talking to my younger self, whom I had left behind a long time ago. I used to spend long times star­-gazing and I felt proud about myself if I spotted Mars or Sirius. The twinkling stars did rub off on me. When I started my formal studies in physics, I had the same sparkle in my eyes as a teenager has when they get to meet their infatuation, the same odd mixture of excitement and nervousness. Fed on the stories of legends and their serendipitous discoveries from my childhood, I entered my college education, eagerly waiting for an apple to fall on my head.

However, when I got my hands dirty in the field, I realized most of these apples don’t fall so easily on your head. And worse, most of the time I found myself mundanely watering or pruning the apple trees planted by the giants. Often I was trying to debug someone else’s program that ran over hundred of lines. Or I was banging my head on following a few steps of a derivation in a research paper where author had provided me professional help with an extremely enlightening remark ‘It can be shown that …’. Apparently for everyone it was too trivial to waste time on it. Those excruciatingly long hours made me realize that one doesn’t always get to do the “real” physics. My formal training did teach me fairly advanced stuff like how to compute cross-­sections of particles colliding in Large Hadron Collider. But it left me high and dry when it came to quenching my younger self’s curiosity like why rainbow’s shape is a bow or when clothes are soaked in water, why their color turns darker or why do whirlpools in wash­basins always rotate in anti­clockwise direction. Further, simplicity might be the trademark of a good theory but working with spherical cow approximations doesn’t give satisfaction in the long run.

Many a times I asked myself where is the legendary musk for which I came looking for. I don’t think that hero­ worshiping is a sin. No, instead my concern is with being blindly romantic. This risk is quite high in physics (unlike mathematics) because here often only the glamorous side of the story is told. While recalling how Einstein solved splendidly the aether problem with his special theory of relativity in 1905, it is also important to stress contributions of Poincaré, Lorentz and others. History’s tendency to credit collective success to an individual does glamorize the story, but on the cost of sometimes giving an incorrect picture of what actually happened.

To conclude, there is no denying the fact that physics has its own rewards. My only hope is that when you find that research is not always a free ­flowing joy, when you find that you are stuck in a blind alley despite your best efforts, when you are desperate for some sign of physics to pop up in your lengthy calculations, then you would not complain that nobody told you so. Because I did.


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