Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Ok, I don't usually do posts about 'personal matters' but I wanted to write about this for some time, and Sumedha's post sort of suddenly egged me to write on the spur of the moment. So ho, hum, here I am...

Those who knew me since I was a child would think that I should be happy, as I am living my childhood dream of professionally studying science. And I am happy. But the road has not turned out to be as smooth as certain as what it would appear to be.

Ever since I was kid, I ALWAYS wanted to study science, inspired by amateur science books, biographies of scientists, and my father. A chemistry set that generated more alarming explosions in the spare bathroom in our house than inculcating serious facts and principles in my mind, nevertheless sealed my fate I think. Dyeing (dying?) my mother's handkerchiefs, dissolving her safety-pins in nitric acid, stealing her pickle jars to house ravenous praying mantises, and trying to manufacture hydrochloric acid-not good for the bathroom tiles and my father's patience by the way- simply added to the allure of the scientific life. And so my mind, technically, should have known peace when I got into 11th and 12th std. But I was to learn the uncertainty principle of life long before I learnt about the one by Heisenberg. Well, for one thing, my "single-minded" dedication to study science was not helped by getting in the rat-race, the lemming band that participates in the paranoia of gravitating towards professional courses. Quickly, I did learn to march in the race, but even more quickly failed to swim when came the flood, and probably wisely (for me) so. I recognised early on that I was not amongst the elite. As they say in the drug industry, if a drug has to fail, let it fail as soon as possible...

That should have been it. After having dealt with the extreme intricacies of my unstable (at that time!) psyche, and of internal combustion engines, for a month in an engineering college, I wisely decided to pursue my own way to whatever salvation I had imagined lay at the end of the journey. Doing BSc. at Ferguson College was ok, but hardly fun and the opposite of exciting, because of encounters with dedicated students who thought, for some unexplained reason, that studying Chemistry was the best, and possibly the only way, to crack whatever exam is necessary to get into the Indian Military Academy. (No..it was NOT the girls in Chemistry class..trust me). Encounters with worthy teachers who measured temperature in volts didn't really help. Only the presence of two or three dedicated friends, and an equal number of sane teachers, helped me to stave off a certain downward spiral into psychosis. I DO have to wistfully remember those rare and mysterious forays though, made all alone let me assure you, into the dank backrooms of the Great Haunted Wadia Library of Ferguson, as well as the Physics Clubs meetings attended by the few sane-minded, and the occasional/occasionally sane-minded Professor.

Even during BSc., the agony of indecision was ever lingering. During my third year, I was literally torn apart on one side by the Physics department guys- who kept on thinking that I know Physics because I know the History of Physics, and also because I had spouted learned nonsense in a lecture competition about Feynman's Theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, of which I did not understand a word (says volumes about the judges, doesn't it?)- and the Chemistry guys, with my dear father ably backing them. Even when I visited India last December and delivered a lecture on the History of Physics, the present Head of the Department still nostalgically remembered how they had finally lost the battle to lure me towards Physics...little does he know what supreme peace and convenience he gained from that fortuitous event.
Anyway, the fact that finally tipped the scales towards Chem was my abominably juvenile mathematical aptitude ( which would surely have prompted Wolfgang Pauli to say, "He is not even wrong...")

Chemistry turned out to be challenging indeed. I remember one particular experiment which I did eleven times and still did not get the answer...the Professor finally let me leave when I convinced him that I could produce a scatter plot out of those results, and some convoluted formula would then give me the average, apparently plucked out of thin air, which mercifully turned out to be close to the expected answer.

That was Ferguson College. To this day, I don't know why I refused to go to IIT Chennai for my MSc. The liberating air of Pune could have been a subtle undercurrent in my decision...all right, it was homesickness...anyway, MSc. at the University of Pune was essentially me, Galileo Galilei, revolting against the Church. Except that I was not as iconoclastic or brilliant as Galileo; their whims however, were much more debilitating than the papacy's. Classes for me were simply entities that rhymed with 'Glasses', and I gobbled up whatever Chemistry I knew from respectable books, unbeknownst to the Generals in the Department. However, there was one class I paricularly enjoyed...was it Spectroscopy?...and that was only because I could escape the gaze of the lecturer and keep myself alive by reading in the back. A tall friend of mine always obliged me by sitting right in front of me...his favour shall surely be returned.

If there's anything I have seen that remotely reminds me of the torture chambers of the Middle Ages, it was Chemistry Lab. Guarding the gates of this great chamber were two Orks...sorry, I mean 'Mamas' (and even an occasional 'Mami'...great Scott!), the worthy lab assistants to whom was entrusted the responsibility of flogging wrongdoers even when, and especially when, they were doing no wrong. On the throne itself were seated two great monarchs, of properly monarchial girth, who were the dispensers of knowledge and instructions that we hungrily lapped up; after all, isn't servility an essential condition for academic furtherment of any kind? This set of personalities and their residence exemplified the stronghold of totalitarianism and discipline. Not a lab coat would dare to flutter in the presence of these behemoths of authority, not a pipette would draw up a drop of acetone when they were (not) watching. Want to use the first aid kit? Ask the Orks first, no matter even if the unfortunate mortal in need bleeds to death till then. Want to use the bathroom?? Even more crucial for Your Majesty to bestow his benevolent approval on you, even if it means that...whatever. A grand opportunity once presented itself to me; we had to do the 'nitration' (addition of nitro groups) of any aromatic organic compound we wished. Bravely, like a man on a mission, I decided to nitrate toluene, hoping to produce that charming substance that goes off with a cute pop- TNT. I would not have wasted this chance to end this dismal chapter in the annals of my life once and for all. Gone would be the monarchy, neatly and literally blown to kingdom come. Alas, all that transpired in my personal beaker of opportunity was the creation of a nebulous, black residue that did not remotely resemble tri, nitro, or toluene, but did smack of an emphatic deduction of marks by decree of the bigots...
And thus I spent two halcyon years in the hallways and classrooms (or the lack thereof) of a distinguished institution...again, I have to pay homage to the two or three dedicated mentors as well as a tiny band of tolerant friends, who brought me back from the brink of completely disfiguring insanity.

However, in spite of all these handsome legacies, the agony of indecision STILL remained. Even though I had thought to study Organic Chemistry, the tender loving care that was showered upon me by those admirable labmen, combined with my inability to weigh even grams of chemicals accurately, made me wary of experimental work, to say the least. However, since I was still interested in organic chemical science, I thought I would possibly persevere, a decision that quickly changed when I came to Emory University. After having found a first-rate scientist and mentor, I finally ended up designing molecules, albeit on a Computer. I am very fortunate, in that this field helps me realise my many interests, is practical, and still allows me to remain true to my first love of organic molecules.

But the point, which I learned quite late I guess and is the one I am driving at, is that decision and the problems enforced by it, await us at every corner, no matter that we are living the life we had always wanted to live. Like I said, those who knew me as a child would think that I am living my childhood dream. And I am. But it was not a cut and dried scenario, comfortably ensconced in my future when I was a child. Even though I wanted to study science for so long, and AM studying science right now, the journey had many ramifications and mini-dilemmas, and will always be full of them. There was always a decision to be made. What kind of science? Physics or Chemistry? What kind of Chemistry? Physical Chemistry or Organic Chemistry? Organic Chemistry or Biochemistry? Proteins or Nucleic Acids? Nitrogen based or Sulfur based? Red or Green computer screen?...It goes on...Indecision, I have realised, is as faithful a companion of yours as your shadow. Even if you may not see it when it's dark, be sure it's always there. I think, and hope, that this set of academic decisions and agonies of indecision, serves as a good metaphor for life and the future, which I will understand and internalize. After all, whatever we call it, this is the way life is, and as the great teacher from Caltech said it, "If you don't like it...go to a different Universe, where the rules are simpler"...I think I still like this Universe, and count myself relatively lucky, to be one its citizens :)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life is full of tough decisions ... Linux or Windows (is Mac an option??)...Fortunately sometimes you can dual boot :p.


10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...

I enjoyed this post. I didn't know such things happened even in supposedly good colleges like Fergusson. I think that is what puts off many students. It's the same with the arts. In school, the teachers are mediocre and most kids grow up thinking that they should study English so that they can crack the CAT later on and become rich. Sad.

2:48 AM  
Anonymous Madhura said...

I LOVED the post!!!
And quite frankly, I was surrised too, when I first learnt that you are now doing Chemistry not Physics, having see that you had a thing or two to add to almost everything during that Physics program at the University! :-)
And indecisions ....... well
......wish I was studying Mathematics, or music, or mechanical engineering, or medicine even!!!! :-)

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Madhura said...

Wonder why all those start with an 'M' though! :)

And by the way would Neelesh be Neelesh Bodas by any chance???? That's just me nosing around!!!

9:13 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Neelesh: Multiple capabilities do have eased life, haven't they?! ;)

Anirudh: I think at some level, all colleges are the same. In places like Fergi, SP etc. it's really the peer group which brings erudition, that's all.

Madhura: Thanks! Well, I still love physics, but I am still sure that I would better be able to pursue Chemistry/Biology as an actual career. :)
And I am sure that you can possibly still do all those M things, you never know what life brings you na! As for Neelesh, this one is my friend Neelesh Bansod, the MIT topper of our batch :)

10:46 AM  
Blogger maverick said...

really enjoyed this post. and i really like all your book reviews at helicon. keep 'em coming.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

Obviously, you've been to hell and back...
My sister topped the school in Std. X but chose arts because she hated science! (She did well by dint of tremendous hard work and learning by rote).
Anyway, she went on to study Arts at Fergie and she almost went nuts too. Everybody assumed she was a second-rater, and relatives regularly berate her for 'taking the easy way out'.
Delhi is just about good enough to keep her sane!

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...


That attitude prevails in all but the best arts colleges.

After I did well in grade ten, people were surprised that I was interested in English Literature and Maths, and didn't want to get into IIT.

Fortunately, it was the other way round here. People called me brave. "He could have got through IIT and he chose arts/science."

It started getting irritating after a while, but I guess my situation is a lot better than your sister's.

6:18 AM  
Blogger --KM said...

nice one.. u know u have captured the thoughts of so many of people like us. We live in Indecision, since options have increased and so our understanding :)

someone said more knowledge is curse !! I don't know.. but believe me we live and enjoy this indecision

1:55 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Great Post!
It defines the meaning of perseverance. It's quite true that people think you are in Physics than Chemistry.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Yes, we really need to encourage people who want to do something different.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. I really needed this. I love your site and I look forward to reading everything you write.

5:45 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home