Where does the heart lie?

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I have a theory that I leave a little piece of my heart in every place I have ever lived – there is a sizable chunk which lives in Indore, a big piece resides in Pune, a couple of fragments in Goa and Nagpur, and most recently, a pretty significant portion in NYC.  It makes for a pretty picture – a heart in pieces which span cities, countries, even continents … almost like non-creepy Horcruxes: neither deliberate, nor for immortality – these ensure that I am home no matter where I go.

Most often, this love is not for the city itself, but for the people and memories I have associated with those places. I love Indore, not for the Rajwada palace or chappan dukan, but because it’s where all my childhood memories are. Indore is home because of my people – my parents, my brother, my very first friends. I miss Indore for my alma mater – the school halls I walked for twelve years straight. I miss playing hide-and-seek with my friends and always, always hiding ‘out-of-boundary’. I miss Indore for the millions of evening strolls with my BFF, walking arm-in-arm, sharing gossip and secrets of the utmost importance, growing up together and finding our places in the world. She doesn’t live in Indore any more, and neither do I … but in my mind, Indore is where the Pooja-Varsha covalent bond lives and flourishes still; the ghosts of two little girls giggling and wheeling their bicycles along will forever haunt those streets. Oh yes, Indore certainly has a piece of my heart.

Pune is special to me because that was the first time I lived away from my parents, and made a new home. This is where I made friends who are now family. I miss Pune for my Biology professors, for the inedible food in the mess which unified one and all, for those late nights and early mornings, for the trips we took and the hills we climbed. I miss Pune for the long study sessions and even longer chai sessions in the garden. I miss the version of myself that I was in Pune – I look back upon her fondly sometimes, like some sort of younger sister I had. Pune for me is a picnic basket full of memories and experiences, of laughter and tears and teasing banter.

But my love for New York is a lot more intense – it’s not a warm familial feeling, but a fiercely intense sort of passion. I love my people here – an eclectic medley of people from all different walks of life I would never have met otherwise.  I cherish the independence I have here, it’s a whole different level of independence than what I had in Pune. No, this is not the first time I am living away from home – but here I am completely on my own, the training wheels I had in Pune are off, and I am carving out my own niche. I love the skyscrapers and the bright lights, I adore the museums and parks, the book stores and stationery shops, and the sheer variability in weather around the year.

In spite of all that, I find myself taking NYC for granted at times – like we often do to things which have been ours for a while. I get caught up in my daily routine and chores, and find myself lulled into complacency – but existing in a three-block radius does not do justice to the city. NYC has so much more to offer, and if I ever forget, she will walk right up to me in her sparkling stilettos and remind me, raising an eyebrow at my very audacity. In the middle of wondering if I need to buy milk, I will find myself walking through glittery streets in midtown, or finding a new subway station (I can NOT stop gushing about how much I love having a stop so close!), or catching a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge –  and I am hit with a swell of emotion, a kind of pride and heart-stopping awe. What a marvel, what a sight! Where else can you saunter off to buy prettier shower curtains on a whim at midnight, or grab a slice of pizza at 4 a.m. just because? At the end of a regular day, I will be trudging home from work, tired and weary, only to stop and stare because it has just rained, and the streets have been swept clean, and are reflecting the sparkly glow from the street lamps, headlights of cars and leftover Christmas decorations, and at that moment, life shifts from ordinary to extraordinary. Such a magical alignment of phenomena, atmospheric and man-made, colliding together in harmony, creating this moment in time… yes, NYC has a big, big chunk of my heart. No matter how much I miss open spaces, and the ability to see stars at night. No matter how many ambulance sirens I hear (to be honest, I don’t even register them any more – living next to three hospitals will do that to you). No matter how small my apartment is, or how unreasonably high the rent is.

The real intensity of my feelings becomes clear the moment an outsider criticizes the city. I get riled up the moment someone’s opinion of New York is less that incredible, and it’s a very primal instinctive response – New York is MINE. Mine to love, mine to hate, mine to complain about. I am happy to hear people rave about it, but the moment they say it’s too dirty, or crowded or ‘just like Bombay’ – I will fight you tooth and nail no matter how irrational it may be. True love is irrational that way… I don’t need a reason to defend my beloved city. If you are an outsider, and don’t like it, kindly stay outside and keep your criticism to yourself. My city, all mine! My love of NYC supersedes my love for the people, the buildings, the Broadway shows – somehow it’s more than the sum of its parts, something more intangible than ever.

After twenty three years of calling myself a small town girl, it didn’t even take twenty three hours to morph into someone who adores the big city, and wants to be mistaken for a local. Someday I will leave Manhattan, but this love affair will always be something special. It’s even more special because it’s transient. I’ve always rolled my eyes at the clichéd I ♥ NY T-shirts, because somehow that isn’t nearly enough to encompass how I feel, and besides, they are so very touristy! But then again, maybe there isn’t a better way to explain it. And maybe being a tourist is a good thing, because they are the ones who gawk at every new building, every street sign, live (and live-stream) every single moment in the city. There’s a balance between being a local who can swipe their subway card without breaking stride, walk super fast, and automatically hold one’s breath while walking past the garbage piles, avoiding the drip-drip-drip from the air conditioners and jaywalking expertly… there’s a balance between that and the wide-eyed tourist who stops to appreciate all the sights. Maybe the only way to explain that, explain this whole ramble of a blog post is a simple heartfelt phrase:  I ♥ NY.

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A Playlist named Home

Seven thousand, six hundred, and forty five miles. Here, in my NYC apartment, I am approximately seven thousand, six hundred, and forty five miles away from home. So very far away – more than twelve thousand kilometers,  a whopping 9.5 hour difference in time zones, and over sixty six hundred nautical miles. It’s a long way to home by any means of (feasible!) transport. I put on my headphones, close my eyes and listen …

The whir of my dad’s car pulling into the driveway at the end of a long day. Gales of laughter around the dinner table. The renderings of Kishore Kumar singing in the background. The annoyingly shrill cries of the hordes of peacocks parading around town. The soft tap-tap of a tennis ball hitting the walls, interspersed with thwacks as it is caught by my brother’s ready hands. The drone of the water cooler as it fights to beat the summer heat. The hum of the washing machine. The tinkling sound of my mother’s laugh, warm and delighted. The snip of the secateurs as the rose bushes in the garden are trimmed. The cheerful babble of school children on their way home. The characteristic jangle of the landline telephone. My mother’s voice, so like mine, talking to a friend. The static-y old Bollywood music trilling out of the radio in the kitchen. The piercing whistle of the pressure cooker. The rhythmic creak of the canopy swing set in the garden. The soft click of the front gate signaling my parents’ return from their evening walk, sending my brother and I scurrying over to more respectable activities. The jarringly loud flap-flap of a peacock’s wings as it flies up a few feet to rest upon the leaves of the bottle palm tree in my front yard – the peacock with two left tail feathers slightly crooked, who has made our garden his home, and now co-exists with us in not-so-peaceful harmony.

Back in my NYC apartment, I close my eyes and listen to all these sounds – these discordant, unrelated sounds, which somehow all come together seamlessly and blend into nostalgic melody: the soundtrack to what I call Home. And as my melody plays on, those seven thousand, six hundred and forty five miles steadily fade away into nothingness, and in a blink of an eye, I am home.

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A memory for my Pensieve

20160730_215920I am a Ravenclaw. My favorite subject is Charms, and I am particularly adept at producing a corporeal Patronus (it’s a Golden, er, silver Retriever). Potions is a close second; my current project is to brew a perfect batch of Felix Felicis over the next six months. I own a snowy owl as well as a purple Pygmy Puff.

I am, most assuredly, a Potterhead. I’ve loved the Wizarding World since I was 11, and J.K. Rowling and her incredibly detailed universe captured my imagination like nothing else. However, in spite of all the times I tried Levitating my shuttlecock instead of hitting it with my badminton racket, in spite of all the scrapbooks and zillions of sketches of Harry I made on the last page of every notebook, in spite of reading the books over and over till I could recite the chapters off my head – I have, for the most part, been a Potterhead in isolation.

Growing up, I have been laughed at, mocked, and gently rebuked for this obsession of mine. I’ve been reminded, multiple times, that this is all just a distraction, and I need to focus on reality. I lived in a world without midnight release parties, without crowds around me clamoring for new books the way I was – I grew up feeling different, feeling like I wasn’t understood – pretty much like every Muggle-born witch before she gets her Hogwarts letter. I grew up with my magic intact, but just better-concealed. Over the years, I have cultivated a casual, ‘oh yeah, I guess I like Harry Potter’ attitude, even though I know that deep down in my heart, it lives on in all its obsessive, many-splendored glory. In true Ginny fashion, I gave other stories a chance, became more comfortable in my skin, more myself – and yet, never truly gave up on Harry.

Yesterday evening, on the eve of Harry and Rowling’s birthday, I attended one of the many many midnight release parties for Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. And it was a revelation. People of all ages were running across the bookstore on scavenger hunts to find Horcruxes and Fantastic Beasts, making glittery wands for themselves, and playing across a giant chessboard. We all tried on the Sorting Hat, we decorated and left out socks for the House Elves (Hermione would be proud!), guessed the number of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans packed into the Triwizard Cup, and with the whole place decorated with House banners, owls and Dementors, Hedwig’s theme playing in the background – it was completely magical. I couldn’t help squealing for joy when I popped into the girls’ bathroom and found a troll. Such attention to detail! There was a Muggle wall, where everyone had put up lightning-bolt-shaped, funny, poignant, heart-felt messages about what Harry Potter has meant to them. This was it, in this moment in time… I found my tribe, my people. Yes, we were all crazy, but in the best possible way. And isn’t it absolutely incredible that one woman can write a story of such epic proportion that she inspires millions of people to dress up in robes, sport scars and flourish wands – one woman, causing such multi-generational mass hysteria! If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is. Being there, celebrating Rowling and her world, surrounded by people who were unapologetically reveling in their mutual wizardry – it felt like coming home. Finally being wholly accepted, and celebrated for who I was , what I loved… after all these years, I’d finally made it to Hogwarts. All was well.

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

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I’ve been holding off on this post, mostly because I don’t want to be the seasonal blogger, who gets inspiration to write solely from changes in the atmosphere. Does nothing else touch me, affect me, move me enough to get off my passivity and actually pen down my thoughts and impressions on this forum? But you see, while normal inspiration comes from little anecdotes and events in the blogger’s life, weather is something external, something beyond our control, and if that much raw power isn’t inspirational, well, what is? (Such rationalization!) Oh well, if weather ends up being my prime muse, so be it!

I heartily dislike the cold: arctic wind slipping through and caressing every bit of exposed skin with its long, frigid fingers, the wintry chill which permeates you with every icy breath you take, the sheer amount of layers you have to put on, even if you’re walking just three measly blocks to your destination. I feel miserable when my nose and tips of my ears freeze up – but that is nothing compared to frosty toes which I can’t even feel anymore, and am half-convinced that I’m going to pull off my socks only to reveal ten little blocks of ice. All of winter, I’m basically a popsicle in a pink coat.

I’ve always claimed that given a choice between living in the wintry depths of Siberia and the Death Valley in California, I wouldn’t even blink before picking the valley; how long I would survive in either is a whole different question.

However, no matter how cold the winter is, the moment it snows… I fall in love, all over again. Soft, quiet snow, drifting down all around you is somehow incredibly peaceful. It’s as if the snow cushions you in a cottony blanket and isolates you – from sound, from people, from your worries and turmoil. Because when you’re walking through the falling snow, you just exist, right there, in that beautiful moment suspended in time. The world is beautiful, dream-like, and leisurely. Instead of keeping my chin tucked into my scarf and striding along my way to hurry into the warmth of the indoors, I can linger, turn my face up to the sky to catch snowflakes on my eyelashes, and melt them on my tongue.

A soft cover of snow adds a sprinkle of magic to the mundane. In the immortal words of Roald Dahl, “watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it”. I believe that snow is one of the most likeliest of places to find that elusive magic, that spark, that little ember of wishful hopes and dreams and unfettered imagination which we all had in abundance as children, but that which we convince ourselves, with the advent of age and responsibility, is fanciful, unrealistic and ridiculously naive. However, if you put all of these hardened, cynical adults into oodles of piled-up snow, you can sit back and witness the magic – watch them morph back into the children they once were: making snowmen, women and angels, skiing through Central Park, clobbering each other with Quaffle-sized balls of snow (yes, I’m a lot more familiar with Quidditch than say, football – or is it soccer?), gleefully snowboarding through the inconceivably traffic-free streets of Manhattan, and most importantly, laughing with abandon. It’s a sight to behold – the carefree joy, the profound happiness. When it snows, it reminds us just a little bit of the children we once were, of the magic we once believed in.

And that momentary reminder is enough to keep me warm through the bitterest of winters.

 

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Running on sunshine!

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I read somewhere that August is the Sunday of summer. It’s the beginning of the end of a lovely time. Before you know it, the leaves will transition from a vivid verdant to fiery shades of yellow, orange and rust. They’ll gently drift down onto the lawns and walkways alike, crunching and whispering under your feet, ready to be raked away by some industrious soul into great big piles, which practically beg you to jump into them with a triumphant yell. Yes, autumn is all ablaze with color and cheerful crackling of merry flames in the fire, but it still signifies an ending of sorts – a wistful nostalgia of days gone past, the waning phase of the moon.

Summer, on the other hand, has rapidly become my favorite time of the year. This is hardly uncommon: it’s the norm, not the exception. However, this is the first year in my just-under-twenty-five revolutions around the sun that I’ve been this hyper about summer-lovin’. Back home in India, it was more of summer-likin’ … of course I would adore vacation time, long lazy afternoons spent devouring a new book, optimally positioned to get the maximum blast of  refreshingly cool air from the water cooler… evenings playing in sandboxes in my garden, running around with friends in the streets, playing different versions of hide-n’-seek, hopscotch, land-n’-water, red letter, crocodile crocodile, and of course the ever-popular sitoliya. Summer was uninterrupted stretches of time with family and friends, and train rides across the country to visit grandparents and cousins, uncles and aunts. Summer was picnics on beaches, and waves on the shore. Summer was languid strolls after dinner. Summer was all about juicy mangoes, coconut water and tyre swings. Summer always seemed to be a relaxed, more stretched-out period of time. But the downside of course, was that summer was always excruciatingly hot. Relentless heat waves, beads of sweat, the mercury reaching ridiculously high levels every coming year… needless to say, the monsoon season would be a blessed relief. Sure, school would start – but by this point I’d want to go back and see all my classmates and teachers once again (yup, I was that girl). Monsoons are beautiful and unpredictable, with growling skies, sudden flashes of lightning, and torrential rain on the parched soil, delighting crops and humans alike. The first rains would be eagerly awaited, and celebrated with energetic splashing in puddles, and sailing of paper boats.  So while the end of summer signaled a transition, it would always transition into something fresh and cleansing, something so joyously alive… that it always felt like a beginning rather than an end.

Summer in NYC may be just as languid and carefree, but so much more precious because there’s this sense of urgency, this gnawing knowledge that it is ephemeral, a few fleeting months which will whiz past before you can say “sunscreen lotion”. Summer here is balmy, yet nowhere close to the scorching blaze of Indian summers. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt it’s too hot. The highest temperatures here have felt merely pleasant, or occasionally warm. I am always amused at native New Yorkers fanning themselves and complaining nonstop about how hot and humid it’s been. They’ll have the last laugh though, when I commence complaining about the bitter cold the very moment it dips to 60 °F. But till then, I am on a mission to soak up every last ray of sunlight I can access. And oh, there’s so much of it… in the midst of summer, the sun refuses to set till half past eight in the night. It’s so thrilling to walk out of lab at the end of a long tiring day, see the world still lit up in dappling sunshine and realize that hey, it’s NOT the end of the day yet! Summer is bright and cheerful, and the only time of the year you don’t have to layer your clothes. You don’t require sweaters and jackets of varying thicknesses, scarves, mittens, snow boots or fuzzy socks (although I do have a soft spot for fuzzy socks…), which have to be piled on or shrugged off based on your surroundings. Summer is ice cream trucks and free concerts in the park, it’s lying on the grass sipping strawberry lemonade, and catching a glimpse of Manhattanhenge, when the sun aligns perfectly with the grid system of the city. Summer is screaming with abandon on amusement park rides, it’s checkered picnic blankets under canopies of green, it’s late night strolls along FDR drive with ice cream sandwiches. Summer is al fresco dining, outdoor movie screenings and kayaking. Summer is bubble battles, and chalk doodles on the sidewalk. Summer is ephemeral, and hence infinitely precious. I’m going to hold on tight to these last few days of sunlit glory while it lasts.

Summer lovin’, havin’ me a blast!

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Unapologetically pink!

Historical romances with happy endings, 

Princesses, ballrooms, and dukes condescending, 

Movies from Disney, books with covers pink, 

These are a few of my favorite things!

There, I said it. I have an ever-growing romance with love stories, a romance which I’m rather coy about, a romance which I suspect is too superfluous for me, a romance whose extent I try to keep under wraps – and treat as a guilty pleasure.

It all started when I turned four and firmly toppled in love with Disney movies. I figure one is expected to leave behind the wide-eyed idealism and belief in the power of Twue Wuv after a certain stage (moody and misunderstood teenage seems about the right stage for that). While I like to think I’m a little more worldly-wise and cynical now, I can’t deny that a big part of me still lives in the world of make-believe.

Eventually I started getting my daily dose of Happy Endings from romcoms and romance novels (there are only a finite number of Disney movies after all). But I’ve always felt that loving love isn’t something I should be too vocal about – when people ask me what I like, I usually prattle off a list of books and authors carefully chosen from other genres, but it takes a lot more guts to ‘fess up to my addiction to romance. My reasoning being that I’m a smart well-educated scientist being trained to deal with facts, logic, and rational thought, and I ought to be reading deeper and more meaningful literature about life, the universe, and everything – real people, problems, and issues at hand as compared to the romance genre, which has no great literary plot devices, is rather frivolous and ANY person can read and understand. Romance has become my ultimate secret indulgence.

But you know what? All that ends right now. The truth is: I don’t love romance in spite of being a rational scientist, but because I am a rational scientist. Because I’m supposed to deal with cold hard facts, believe only what is tangible and quantifiable, reason out conclusions based in logic and critical analysis … perhaps my profession is all the more reason to seek escape is frivolous romance with its unrealistic tales of impulsive (and frankly, implausible) courage, perfectly imperfect protagonists and guaranteed happy endings.

And yes, it’s not just the unrealistically wonderful parts which I love but also the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Something bewildering, a feeling of hopelessness, of pain which keeps the female lead struggling for several chapters. While that makes me ache, it reminds me that problems exist, no matter what universe one inhabits. And even that is satisfying because I know that somehow the power of love will overcome it all. There’s a sense of reassurance that if right now your life is going through hardships, if it’s not making you laugh and smile and joyful to the brim … well, that’s because your story is still going on. These are your Seemingly Insurmountable Obstacles to overcome, and with time, effort, and determination borne of love or revenge or just a burning desire to prove oneself – you will reach your Happy Ending.

So yes, since this is the month of love, I figured I’d jump onto the bandwagon and proclaim mine: love stories, my love for love stories, and ultimately self-acceptance and love. To accept the person I am, accept the silly frivolous side of me along with the rational one, and to love myself, just the way I am. To stop worrying and over-analyzing the kind of person I ought to be, the kind of things I should be interested in – to cut myself some slack and live the way I want to, love the way I want to. I’m pretty certain self-acceptance is the right step on the path to my happily ever after. I’ll make sure of that.

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Till graduation do us part!

Over the course of my first year as a grad student, I realized that selecting a PhD lab and a Principal Investigator (PI) to work with is analogous to choosing your life partner, only in fast-forward: you’re supposed to do it in the span of one year, and you’re given merely three chances to get it right.

The first thing grad school introduces us to is the concept of lab rotations. To begin with, you are presented with a large pool of PIs who are interested in getting new students. They will give fancy presentations about the incredibly cool work happening in their labs – they will be pleasant and approachable, and you will be blown away by the sheer talent as well as overwhelmed by the number of options you have.

Next, you will narrow down this pool of contestants using whatever criteria suits you best. Some students will go for labs which have similar interests; something related to what they have worked on before, something which is their ‘type’. Others will choose labs which work on topics completely unrelated to what they’ve been doing for so long. They want to explore new avenues and vistas, try out something novel and see if they like it if they just gave it a chance.

Once you have shortlisted a few PIs, you send them an email indicating your interest. You hope they respond favorably, in which case both parties set up a meeting. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the first date! The PI and the grad student will both be on their best behavior. They will be chatty and interested. The student will try to impress the PI by his past achievements and accolades. They will discuss past experiences, and how that has made them the person they are today. They will animatedly share thoughts and ideas about what they want from this new relationship, and come to a mutual consensus. Eventually, the PI will welcome you into his/her life and lab, albeit on a trial basis. Voilà, you’re dating.

As a rotation student, you will get to know each other much better. While both parties are still positive and happy, this is also the time you figure out exactly what is expected from you. You realize what your individual work styles are, and if they are harmonious or jarringly out of tune. The little quirks which seemed endearingly human on the first date will appear in their full glory. You will either take them in your stride, or discover that they actually drive you crazy – and might even be a deal-breaker. Some relationships thrive in these three months, while others, not so much. Both the PI and the student are assessing each other and making a mental pros and cons list about whether they are a good fit or not.

At the end of the trial period, the student describes everything he learnt being in the lab. The PI evaluates the student’s performance as a lab member, and eventually they sit down and have a heart-to-heart about their feelings and if they have changed in any way after the trial period. They figure out if one or both parties are still interested in making this arrangement more permanent. They usually can’t commit to each other at this stage – it is understood that the student will be seeing other PIs, and the PI will entertain other students if they come along. However, if the rotation has been a happy one, there will be a verbal agreement about keeping each other in mind at the end of the year when they are both ready to commit.

After three such rotations over the course of the first year, (or more – you do have the option of an extra rotation if you aren’t satisfied and feel that there are plenty more fish in the sea for you) the student will decide which lab he liked the most, and wants to be a part of for the foreseeable future. He will go back to his top choice and ask the PI if they can take their relationship to the next level: in sickness and in health, till graduation do us part. If the PI reciprocates these feelings, then the deal is sealed. The student has to regretfully inform his other two choices that it just didn’t work out, they are very different, and it’s better if they remain just colleagues. And so finally, after long last, the student and the PI can live happily ever after!

(Expect a sequel to this story at some point – we’ll see how happy the ever after really is.)

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