For Mistry, wherever he may be

It’s his birthday today. It would have been nice if he was around. Unfortunate then, that he’s been gone four months and a half. I remember that late night in January when I got the call. I was preparing to leave home for another year. Khushroo was alone in Michigan, waiting for his next semester to begin. The phone call didn’t say much – he was in the hospital, he had a fall when he was out walking somewhere. It wasn’t good news, but how bad could it be? I’d spoken with him just a couple of days before this. Everything had seemed normal.

The next morning I came to know that he was comatose. It didn’t make sense that something so serious could happen so suddenly. We waited the initial few days hoping he would get better, that he might somehow emerge unscathed. His family had flown to the US to be with him. It wasn’t to be. After fighting for more than a month, Khushroo passed away on the 18th of February this year.

At that point, I had known Khushroo for sixteen years. We had been close friends for thirteen of those years. I’d say we knew each other quite well. No man is perfect; you take the good with the bad. Khushroo didn’t have too much of the bad. He was obstinate to the extreme. It was impossible to get an idea out of his head once it got in. He could sometimes be very negative.

That was all, however. He was among the smartest peers I’ve known in my life. I get the feeling that he would have stayed near the top of that group even as we’d grown much older. There wasn’t a grain of malice in him – he was a genuine person. There was the infectious laughter. There was the fact that he rarely refused requests for help. He liked playing sports and was well read. He was generally a popular person among his peers. His modesty and genial demeanour probably had something to do with that.

Like it happens to all of us at some point in our lives, the past few years had been a bit of a rough patch. We’d talked to him, tried to convince him to do something about it, but he was stuck too firmly in a negative rut. Then he applied universities in the US to get an MS and start anew. He applied to a top university and was selected. Some of the negativity carried over – he wasn’t very confident about how he would cope with the pressure of being in a hyper-competitive environment. I had no such doubts. At the end of that first semester, it was clear that his intellect hadn’t paled. He finished at the top of every course he had taken. He would have finished the programme at a similar place too.

There are so many good memories with him. Silly pranks in school, some very humorous moments, thought provoking conversations and much more. As school children, we had bonded over playing PC games on the school LAN. He was an accurate marksman and a good sport. Over the years that hobby had given us so many times to remember. It’s hard to believe that there won’t be any more.

The explanation that we got was that he had suffered an arteriovenal malformation in his skull. A blood vessel had burst, leading to brain haemorrhage, which led to the coma. It was caused by either a congenital weakness in the vessel, or by a childhood head injury, I’m not sure which. Either way, the doctors said that it was a ticking bomb that could have exploded at any point. Might he have survived if he hadn’t been alone when it happened? Maybe it would never have happened at all? Maybe a chance medical examination would have detected the condition? So many possible outcomes, and yet, the only certainty is that it happened when he was all alone in a foreign country. It’s easier to accept a personal tragedy when there’s a cause and effect. To lose a life to a seemingly random situation such as this suggests that god, if he exists, does play dice.

I’m not really sure why I’ve waited so long to type this out. Some part of me still wants to believe that he’s somewhere around the corner, about to call me, or perhaps just knock on the door. Writing a eulogy feels too final. The fact that he isn’t around to wish today is a jarring reminder that he won’t be coming back. I don’t think I’ve come to terms with his passing. There’s sadness, but there’s also a sense of outrage. It’s wrong that a man should have to die at the age of 25. It’s wrong that I’ve lost a close friend to a random medical condition. It’s wrong that someone who fought through a bad time was denied his moment of redemption. It’s wrong that his family has been denied the joy of seeing him make something of himself. It’s wrong that I’m writing this post about his passing so late, and yet it’s wrong that I’m writing it at all.

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The reluctant journal entry

This post has been long overdue. I must admit that I have procrastinated beyond measure, and also diverted what little energy I had to the food blog I started recently. There are too many questions, and too few answers. The world is in turmoil, with ever increasing attacks on the freedom of the common man across the world. It’s hard to not be cynical and feel that nothing will change. This isn’t meant to be a post with a single idea. I want to simply talk about a few things that are on my mind.

The rich-poor divide is something that we all learn about, or read about. We are somehow desensitised to how wide the chasm really is. Recently, a friend introduced me to a website that estimated what percentile of the world’s population you are in, in terms of annual salary – I currently work in the US, having completed a Masters degree. I put in the numbers, expecting to be in the top 7-10%. I was off by a couple of orders of magnitude. I’m in the top 0.1% of the world in terms of income. With a bunch of loans to pay off, what I earn is enough money to live comfortably and save a little every month. I’d have expected that if you were in this bracket, you would be driving fancy expensive cars and champagne would flow like water. I was wrong. It’s hard to quantify how depressing that figure is.

I decided to spend some more time on that website, testing if it took into account where you lived. US incomes are very high if you convert the USD directly into INR, but one dollar buys much lesser in the US than 50 rupees in India. The website does take that into account – just entering the INR conversion of my numbers here puts me into an even higher percentile (top 0.05% now). This corroborates my impression that the USD is worth between 30-50% of the equivalent INR conversion in India. It was time for more experiments.

Having graduated from a good engineering college in India, one would expect an annual CTC (cost to company, which, by the way, I think is a horrible term that pretends that the company is doing you a favour by employing you) of about INR 400,000. This translates to a salary of about INR 280,000 annually. That puts you in the top 11% of people in the world. If 90% of the world is poorer than the lower end of the salary of a fresh engineer from a good college, I’m inclined to think that there isn’t a middle class at all. I get that regional differences in the cost of living even in India make these percentiles inaccurate, but that is still a damning number. I’m absolutely lost about what I’m supposed to do.

The other part of this post is related to the classic brain drain problem. Indian students go abroad, like the quality of life, and settle down abroad after getting their degrees. This hurts India because a lot of our smart people end up not contributing to India’s progress. The usual dilemma presented here is about loyalty and patriotism – does the comfort of a better life overpower the love for the country?

In earlier posts, I have alluded to not believing too deeply in patriotism. I find it hard to disagree with GB Shaw’s famous line, “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” In my mind, my lack of serious patriotism isn’t a source of conflict. However, it is undeniable that in developed countries a great deal of progress has been made (espcially in exploratory sciences like space research) by patriotic citizens. Regardless of motive, the general populace has benefited from this progress. My ambivalence on allegiance to a country does not sever me from what I feel is a distinct debt that I owe to the people of India, not India itself, to stay in India and contribute to India. To be able to contribute meaningfully, even in the smallest way, to the progress of a billion people, not a nebulous idea of India, is a daunting prospect.

That is all for this post. I would love to hear your opinions on these things. I will get around to finishing the short story I started more than a year ago. I will also be doing a blog debate with a friend of mine about the role of scientists/engineers in society. Thanks for reading. It’s good to be back.

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Insomnia – 2

This is Part 2 of a series. Part 1 is here.

Eight months later

It was nearing the end of a rainy day in Nagpur, and as the sun set, raindrops could be heard pattering against the windows. It was an ordinary apartment in a nondescript locality, sparsely furnished. There was a sign on the door, titled ‘Eminence Print and Design’. If asked, the neighbours would describe Eminence as a small and somewhat successful business. Inside the living room, a middle aged, slightly built woman sat at a desk, facing the wall next to her. She had a rubber ball in her hand, and was bouncing the ball off the wall. Across the desk stood a younger man, probably in his early twenties, who was much less at ease than the woman. He took off his wet jacket, and took a seat opposite the woman. The woman continued bouncing the ball, as if she hadn’t noticed him. After a couple of minutes of silence, he cleared his throat, and asked, “Why have you called us at this time, ma’am?”

She caught the ball one last time, and replied tersely, “We are getting orders.”

“Who from?”

“What sort of a question is that? You’ve been part of the force two years. We always get orders from Regional Headquarters.”

“Where are the others?”

“Desai is too far away to turn up at such short notice. James should be here in a bit. Pawar was in Bombay, being briefed, he’s flying back now.”

“Okay, thanks. I’ll just sit here and read then,” said Apte. He pulled out his nanocomp, pointed it to a wall, and started reading a book from the projected image. Shruti Saxena, the Alpha of this cell, resumed bouncing the ball.

Three quarters of an hour later, there was a knock on the door. Almost automatically, Apte got up and let James in. A solidly built man stepped in, dressed in an impeccable black suit and tie. The rest of his appearance contrasted with the rage on his face. He looked at Saxena, and thundered, “How dare they do this to you, for the fourth year running? Why don’t you do something?” Continue reading

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Insomnia – 1

Part one of what will be a short story, and updated (I hope) regularly.

The press conference had been announced four weeks ago. Pascal Benning now stood in front of a large gathering of journalists from across the world. Barring the Indian journalists, who made up a majority of the group, there were nearly a dozen from the United States. Half a dozen each had flown in from China, Britain, Russia and Germany. Reporters from most other countries were present in smaller numbers, for such was the magnitude of the event. That was, at least, the expectation.

The expectation arose from the fact that most of these journalists had been sent all-expense-paid invitations for this day, and it was quite unlikely that Pinnac Pharmaceuticals would take that much effort to waste everyone’s time. Rohan Mehta was one of these journalists. When the heavy envelope had arrived for him at his office, bearing the symmetric Pinnac Pharma logo, he had been a little surprised. After all, Pinnac was hardly a leader in the pharmaceutical industry. Pinnac, instead, was a company that had built its brand as a global manufacturer of generic drugs. The business model was simple – setup manufacturing in a new country, attack the market with reasonably priced and well-advertised medicine, recoup the basic capital costs, and move on to the next one. Their research was aimed squarely at making the manufacturing process simpler and cheaper. Even so, Pinnac was hardly a small company, so it was quite possible that they had been researching new drugs too. Cryptically, the material in the packet made no mention of what the announcement was. There were just a lot of inserts describing how Pinnac was a leader in such and such field.

The fat invitation packet had certainly worked. If nothing else, the main auditorium in Pinnac Pharma’s Mumbai office had been filled by curiosity and the promise of a free lunch. He estimated that a hundred and fifty people were in attendance. The free lunch itself had been excellent, as was the wine. Now however, the air was heavy with expectation. Pascal Benning, Pinnac’s director of worldwide operations, stood alone at the front of the room, partially hidden behind a lectern. As he cleared his throat to speak, a silence fell across the room. After a small pause, he finally spoke. Continue reading

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A Momentary Lapse of Time

In order of appearance: Helios, Selene, Aphrodite, Orion!
Shot on the 24th of April, 2012, at Lake Raleigh

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A Farewell

The Hero
I remember him from school. The memories aren’t particularly vivid. He was always ‘that boy’. We were taught not to stare, that would be rude, we were taught. But the same people who taught us to be polite, spoke of him in hallowed tones. I never spoke to him in school, never had the chance. I do remember one day during the assembly, being asked to fetch something for Harsh. I had felt honoured. Honoured, because for me, and for everyone else who knew Harsh Pande from a distance, he was a hero. He was a hero, because, to use the oft used cliche, life had given him lemons, and he did more than just make lemonade. And even so, he was just a hero, an image.

The Person
I was lucky then, to have studied in the same college as him. I saw him at the magazine auditions, and recognized him immediately. I went over to him, introduced myself. Though he had carried this image of being a larger than life hero, he was very unassuming, friendly. He was a brilliant student, I don’t think engineering troubled him much. Aside from engineering, he was a charming and warm person. He always had a funny anecdote he could tell you. I don’t think a single magazine meeting passed without a side-splitting joke. All through this, he never let you feel as if he was different. He walked with crutches, and was a bit short. That was all. It must have taken a supreme effort to maintain the aura of normalcy, and he did it every day. He was a giant of a man in a slight frame.

The Storyteller
I saw the third facet of Harsh after he graduated from college, to become a professional. He invited us for a farewell lunch, and over the space of ninety minutes, told us the most hilarious stories we had ever heard. Harsh had a penchant for getting into unimaginably random situations, matched only by his skill as a storyteller. Many times after that, we heard fantastic stories – about clueless people he’d met, his adventures with his closest friends, poems written and songs sung. The last time I met him, he was treating QuickGan and me to dinner. He told us the best story we’d heard yet, and I think we must’ve raised a few eyebrows with our raucous laughter. After he left, QuickGan and I were exchanging goodbyes, for we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while. We talked about Harsh, and how much we admired his spirit. More than that, I think we envied him, envied the joy he found in every moment of life. He’s gone now, but in the short 25 years that he was around, he lived more than many people do in a hundred.

Harsh Pande was a senior, a role model, a friend, and a top bloke; but most of all, he was a crazy one eyed pirate, steering his ship in a raging storm, having the time of his life. I don’t think he noticed how dangerous and bleak it all was, or maybe it was just inconsequential. Perhaps the biggest tribute to Harsh is this: while I’m sad about the fact that I will never see Harsh again, it’s hard to not break into a smile. I have no memories of Harsh Pande looking disappointed, sad or angry. He was always smiling, either laughing with life, or at it. Knowing him has been a privilege and an honour. Everyone who knew him was a better person because of him, as I most certainly am.

It is said often, that life takes the best of us early. There are few better examples than the passing of Harsh Pande. Farewell then, friend. Thank you for the good times, and I hope you find peace in the Grey Havens. You are gone, but will never be forgotten.


Edit: Another heartfelt tribute to Harsh

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Another blow against Internet Freedom

Hot on the heels of Google’s real name policy comes another blow for internet freedom. Companies that run the large social networks (for whom a real name policy is an incentive to have new members join) and agencies such as the MPAA and RIAA (who dislike anonymity in any form) have teamed to lobby for a controversial new bill to be pushed through in various countries.

The Anonymity Blocking And Banning Act (ABABA) seeks to ban internet users that violate a set of prescribed guidelines for behaviour on the internet. The act will ban users via their a combination of their MAC address and IP address. ISPs will be required to ban violating users by permanently blocking their IP addresses. If the user attempts to connect to the internet using another network, the MAC address of their hardware, and all hardware that has recorded frequent activity from their account will be blocked. While it will not be possible to create a 100% ban, the risk of having laptops and phones that are barred from the internet is expected to be a sufficient deterrent. Some of the grounds for bans in the proposed law are:

Illegal Activity – This includes pyramid scams, lottery scams, selling illegal things, using drugs, etc. This guideline aims to protect newbie users on the internet.

Warez Handling/Sharing – A mass-spread infection across hundreds of IRC networks and membership-required websites, Warez is widely considered the marijuana or crack cocaine of the internet, being that once the user in question grabs hold of anything possibly illegal, be it songs or Microsoft XP Pro. This is to protect intellectual property rights of defenceless corporations.

Piracy – Everyone on the Internet pays for their music, or else they wouldn’t be allowed on the Internet anymore.

Fibbing – The Internet has very high standards for reliable information. Anyone caught posting information that is not true will be banned, have their skin eaten and the information will be removed.

Wiki Vandalism – Unlike shoplifting, wiki vandalism hurts everyone and is punishable by death.

Forwarding Chain Mail – “Never send chain letters via electronic mail. Chain letters are forbidden on the Internet. Your network privileges will be revoked. Notify your local system administrator if your ever receive one.”

Presenting False Personal Information – Everyone on the Internet is careful to ensure that their behaviour and statements are a true reflection of their real-world self.

Being a skeptic – Failure to believe everything you read on the Internet will result in a note in your permanent record, as well as banning.

Democracy- Talking about, thinking about or reading about democracy will earn you an instaban from the internet.

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Not Clicking popup and banner ads – This makes huge companies get money. This is critical to the success of the internet.

Clearly, this is another attempt to destroy the internet as we know. Raise your arms in protest!

Yes, this is a joke. Guidelines taken from here. Because of this. If you believed the above, see this.

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