Wednesday, August 31, 2005


It's always a source of wonder, no matter how commonly witnessed, how memories are locked up in the caskets of our brain, but even more perplexing and amazing how even the tiniest audio, visual, olfactory, gustatory, or somatic (somatosensory as anonymous rightly cued) clue can unlock those caskets in an instant. Even more remarkably, many times, one type of clue unlocks memories associated with another type.

A case in point was experienced by me today. Many years ago, I had compulsively listened to a marvelous miscellaneous collection of pieces conducted by Arthur Fiedler for the Boston Pops Orchestra. The collection was one of those rare ones, where not just a few, but all of the pieces are superb abd worth listening to again and again. It had charmers like Anderson's 'The Syncopated Clock', Sousa's 'The Stars and Stripes Forever', Rossini's 'William Tell Overture', and Rimsky's 'Flight of the Bumblebee'. I used to listen to the CD with abandon, and used to play many of its tunes on my keyboard.
For some reason, I forgot to bring that CD here, and because musical treasures are so variegated and widespread, forgot about it for some time, even though it was fondly ensconced in some corner of my mind. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I started recalling a tune from the CD, but only as a snippet. I hummed the tune day in and night out, but could not remember it in its entirety. More importantly, I could not identify the name of the composer no matter what, so that I could have downloaded it. I hummed the tune in front of supposed classical music buffs to no avail (but I do have to say I didn't hum it to some of the experts). Nobody could recognise it. I finally resigned recognition of the tune to some future time, or perhaps to no time at all.

Today, quite casually, I was browsing profiles of composers on the web. The moment was part of that post-dinner ennui, when you can really let your mind wander. I came across one of the French composer Georges Bizet, whose work Carmen had singly immortalized him in the hearts of music lovers. I scrolled through a list of his works, and one word caught my eye- Farandole. From Bizet's music for the play L' Arlésienne (The Woman in the Arles). The Farandole is a southern French dance, and one of the two themes heard in the play. It's a somewhat sweeping and lively theme.

Suddenly, it came back in a flash. The tune I was humming to no consequence, was Farandole. Not just that, but the entire piece came back to me. When I went home, I could surprisingly play it as easily as I had played it almost two years ago! The interesting conclusion this event led me to, is that aspects of the arts or sciences, or motor abilities, can be completely enshrined in our selves as entire themes, akin to the kind of programs that would 'load' into the characters in the Matrix (like the helicopter flying ability). The slightest visual stimulus, the merest glance at a word, and not only did the tune come back to me, but the 'apparatus' necessary for me to play the tune also was instantly 'activated', so to say. Of course, this tune is pretty easy to play, and it may not be so simple for other pieces, but the general picture endures, and in fact, now I can remember it having happened more than once.

Today, I spent much of the evening performing for the Woman from the Arles.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Remember that subject (maybe Maths?) that you absolutely hated at first, and later, you not only accepted it as an interesting subject but also started liking it and truly appreciating it. Such has been the case with me and the field of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy (or NMR, as it is known to anyone even remotely associated with it)

I am not calling NMR a 'technique' which it definitely was earlier, but a field. That's because in the last 25 years, the 'technique' saw such rapid and profound developments, that it became the object of a lifetime of study. Four Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people associated with it, including one awarded to the progenitors of MRI, which is basically NMR; two more prizes manifestly seem to be in the pipeline. Today, there is not a single major academic or industrial laboratory in the world, which does not rely critically on NMR. And this is not limited to laboratories carrying on chemical research (the term itself not being limited anymore to things chemical) but also those engaged in solid state physics, materials science and engineering, biochemistry and biology, and last but not the least, medical research laboratories. The seed that was planted by physicists fifty years ago, has grown into an orchard, and if NMR were to suddenly disappear around the world, the growth of all the above sciences and more would quite certainly be severely thwarted.

At its heart, NMR is 'simply' a technique for determining the structures of molecules, any molecules. Molecules used as drugs or polymers. Molecules used to study biological function. Molecules that have become a menace to the environment. Molecules that would be part of the computer circuits of tomorrow. Molecules that would likely make up the 'biosuits' that would protect us from the destroyed ozone layer of the future...

The history of NMR begins with two physicists, Swiss emigre Felix Bloch, and American Edward Purcell. Both had worked on radar and the atomic bomb during WW2. Both were experts in probing the magnetic properties of matter. One of the reasons NMR is not 'intuitively' appreciated, like lasers for example, is because it has to do with magnetism. For some reason, I always believe that college students don't naturally recognise magnetism to be as fundamental a property of matter as its electrical or optical properties. The only thing which we usually think of when we hear the word 'magnet' is...a magnet. Or Iron at most. The fact is however, that at the atomic level, magnetism is as central to atoms and molecules as Coulombic attraction, or the photons that are exchanged during electronic transitions. Most importantly for NMR, and for us, is the fact that the most abundant molecule in the universe, hydrogen, has important magnetic properties, that are radically affected by the environment in which it is in. And in terms of weight, even more than carbon, it is hydrogen that makes life possible. The atom most commonly (but certainly not exclusively) observed in NMR is hydrogen. By noting certain key properties of hydrogen, chemists can make clever and correct guesses about the intricate structure of molecules.

Even though I am proud to be originally an organic chemist, maybe for foraying into NMR, it would have been better if I had been a physical chemist, or a physicist, or an electronics engineer, or even a mathematician. This sheer variety of professions points to the varied facets that NMR has. Unfortunately, or fortunately, for the organic chemist, NMR is, for the last fifty years, primarily a method for determining unknown structures. Organic chemistry has been the largest playing field for both the methods development and applications. However, for most organic chemists, NMR could well have been a toy mickey mouse, in one ear of which you insert your compound, and from the other ear of which you get the series of lines and peaks called a NMR spectrum, that challenges you to find what you just put in. For most, NMR is a black box in the true sense of the term.

And that's how it was for me. All through my BSc. and MSc. I took courses in NMR spectroscopy that were devoted to the singular objective of finding out unknown structures from NMR spectra. Two things severly stultified my growth in the field during that time; teachers with a remarkable knack for transforming anything interesting into everything boring, and the sheer patience that's necessary to analyse the spectra for finding the structure. Analysing NMR spectra is like analysing code from the Cold War; unless things are deceptively simple, one has to spend a lot of time, tenaciously finding connections and reviewing information from past analyses and chemical studies, to pursue the wily chemical structure. Some people, like my friend from Mexico, are geniuses at this. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) from the movie 'Good Will Hunting' was also a genius at it. He analysed an NMR spectrum of a complex molecule that was a homework assignment for his girlfriend, so that they could go to watch dog races. I was never interested in races, dogs' or otherwise, and lacked the magical presence of a girl to initiate me into deconvoluting black peaks on white ruled paper (On second thoughts, if the two of us had had NMR homework assignments, I would probably have asked her to do mine). This, combined with the paucity of a teacher who would bring me back on track, made me lose almost all interest in NMR.

Luckily, that was where it did not end. The lack of motivation for studying NMR, and the absence of dog races and girls, continued well into my first year of PhD. The mandatory NMR spectroscopy course I had to joust with yet again, gave me recurring nightmares. My Mexican friend's achieving a perfect score on almost every exam in the course really did not help, in spite of his encouragement that I was really good with many other things (how I manage to deceive...). However, again, this course was the typical organic chemists' structure determination NMR course.
When it became time for me to choose a lab and a mentor, my advisor called me into his office for that dreaded 'initiation' chat, which initiated new students into the dark dredges of graduate research work. To my pleasant surprise, everything has turned out to be (mostly) the opposite of dark and dredging. My would-be advisor said he had an interesting proposal for me. They had developed a new and very interesting technique, and a radical one, that had to do not with finding the structure of unknown molecules, but for studying the molecular choreography of compounds in solution.

In a heartbeat, a molecule performs more twisting and acrobatics in solution than a ballerina would experience in her lifetime. Like the darting silverfish, molecules hold hands, turn their heads in heady fashion, exchange hands for feet, and suddenly turn inside out, all in nanoseconds or less. They put up this private performance unbeknownst to almost every organic chemist who does NMR daily. In fact even inside our bodies, at every moment, thousands of molecules are putting up this show with abandon, dictated by the confines in which they find themselves in, as well as by the elated kicks of energy that body temperature provides them with.
This performace would not only be a pleasure to witness, but it's also crucial in a practical way. Out of those millions of figurines, one snaphot in particular, corresponds to the orientation in which that molecule would like to bind to a giant molecule in the body. Make that molecule a crucial protein involved in either disease or well-being (and there are thousands), and there; you have yourself a drug. Once we are able to take a photograph of the molecules caught in that act, we can do a host of things. This includes changing the structure of the molecule so that it gets locked in that position, like a yoga expert magnificently frozen in 'Mayurasan'. Then we can force it to bind to that protein in that exclusive position. The protein itself stays stuck in its position, and sets in motion a cascade of events that prevents a disease, or gives one to bacteria.

Practically, however, getting a peek into the private motions of molecules is easier said than done. The valuable orientation of that molecule may exist for less than a microsecond in solution, and may comprise less than 1% of the total population of ballet movements that the molecule undergoes. Capturing the molecule in that elusive act would be more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack- it would be like finding a needle in a haystack of needles.
Now, my advisor told me, there was a method, newly developed, a joint application of the raw power of Gigahertz computer processing and the intricacies of NMR, that would target and weed out this elusive and exotic configuration of a molecule from solution. The basic principle of the method, surprisingly neglected by many researchers, was so simple that I could explain it to a friend over a sizzler on a cold evening. Our lab had already successfully applied it to many valuable cases, including some important anti-cancer molecules. However, every time, they had got the NMR data from another lab, sometimes one in another continent. There was nobody who could do both the NMR analysis and the computational work and make himself a comprehensive chronicler of molecular acrobatics. Not only would such knowledge be valuable in itself, but it would also make for a good and possibly unique (and quick?) PhD. The twin prospects of exclusive knowledge and harrowing past nemeses made me ambivalent. I squirmed in my seat. But this is graduate school, and you cannot really toss out options with the bravura of a wine connoiseur. There it was. Take it or leave it. I thought it would be worth a try, especially given the worthy fruits it would bequeath.

And try I have had to, possibly more frustratingly than at any other time in my life. But until now, the fruits have been worth it. Through exasperated boredom, calculated cajoling, constant struggling, and pristine glamour, NMR has, I believe, made a permanent place in my mind and heart. The trick was to observe and try to take in pieces of the vast landscape that NMR comprises, variegated in every dimension and aspect like our Indian subcontinent. At one end are the abstract equations of quantum mechanics that dictate the ground rules of NMR and their manipulation, in between is the physics and the pulse sequences that choreograph the movements of complex magnetic fields that can be manipulated the way a conductor manipulates musical notes (the right duration and number of pauses are both critical to the beauty of both Mozart and NMR), and the electronics that encompasses every advanced electronics concept that one could invoke. At the other end is the productive field of 'applications only' activities, as varied as everything else. Somewhere between these, I had to make a place for myself. It has been hard going, but for the first time, I can say that it has been worth it, and more importantly, I can see treasures of thought and understanding that await me further on, if only I would listen. In such a vast landscape, I have to learn how to be a dreamy eyed tourist. I don't need to be a crack mathematician, nor do I need to be oblivious of maths (fortunately, I think I am definitely more mathematically inclined than organic chemists in general, courtesy of former friends and a teacher who were crack mathematicians). I don't need to be an electronics engineer, but it would do me good if I know enough about Fourier transforms and 'matching filters' to make the journey smooth (The Fourier transform is, incidentally, absolutely essential for the working of modern NMR). My eyes need not be glazed over in understanding programming code, but my knowledge of UNIX is a steady tool. I need not say that I need to be a good chemist, but I am not too worried about that!

In the end, it has been an attempt to try to understand a vast body of knowledge that can easily occupy a lifetime. Modern NMR is in its entirety, a true and comprehensive combination of mathematics, physics, engineering and electronics, and of course chemistry. Biology has been the greatest field of dreams for those who wish to apply NMR (Nobel Prize, 2002). My job is to pick out pieces of the philosophy, break chunks of concepts from these various fields, and crucially, understand the logic inherent in them. Most importantly, the moments of greatest joy are those in which connections are seen, in which analogies are observed.
Edward Teller said that in science, there are brick layers and brick makers. He was talking about the greats like Bethe and Oppenheimer. But I believe the same principle applies to bottom feeders like me. NMR, I believe, is more a matter of brick laying for most of its practitioners. The object is to build a house, and maybe even make it into a home. One should combine creativity in choosing the right bricks with an eye for the intricate pattterns that they make, and choose those patterns that matter; in this instance, it means I have to choose, among many concepts from different fields and many parameters in experiments, the ones which will make it count and shine. At the heart of being a bricklayer is seeing the logic that every piece imparts to the superstructure. It's all about purpose, Mr. Anderson. Understand the reason, and you understand the value. Mundane concepts flower into ideas on the brink of realisation, ready to join with other similar companions. The superconducting magnet of the spectrometer beckons to anyone who wishes to gaze at its coils and explore its effects on inanimate matter. I don't have a lifetime to do NMR, but I do have some time to peruse its wonders and enrich my scientific thinking with its fine points to build an enduring body of knowledge.
In the business of bricklaying, I am still the floor scrubber. But only if you see the top from the bottom up can you wonder and aspire to imagine how the view would be from the top.
More mundanely, it has been a great satisfaction to turn a subject which I hated, into one which I actually enjoy, and which will hopefully become part of my intellectual armamentarium.

Today, I still am not interested in dog races. But I love NMR. And I suspect there is a girl someplace...

The interplay of art and science is manifest in the simplest of visions.

A gray sky in the morning with ominous clouds conquering its landscape, gigavolts of potential difference dancing back and forth; turbulence never saw a happier moment, with Navier and Stokes throwing the towel in in exasperated despair, hues of diffraction too complex to be woven in words...
And then the birds flew, and the absurdity and weak assumptions of our minds became clear, the completely artifical boundaries between the physics of flying, the chemistry of muscle action, the biology of sight, dissolve in a flush of adrenaline. Bernoulli holding sway over the contours of their wings, cyclic guanosine monophosphate shuttling furiously between cellular networks, flexors and extensors sensing rapidly changing glimpses of sky and light, flashes of electricity performing astonishing intercoulombic feats in the proverbial bird brains, lungs genuflecting and mocking Boyle in turns, mind and geomagnetic poles interacting to form a guiding runway home, an unexplained ballet between rods and cones and photons, milisecond conformational changes in virtually described double bonds, Feynman diagrams describing histories of retinal particles in the past and future, oxygen molecules that Cavendish the heart of it all, simplicity makes a home for itself, everything emerges to form an expanse on an artist's canvas, a simple interplay of three lines on a poet's paper scrap. There is a nourishing beauty and simpliciity in complexity.

And then it started raining. I held to my book for dear life lest it get wet.

Monday, August 29, 2005

It's 10.30 p.m. The rain treads it's drizzly footsteps outside. My eyes tire slightly as they glaze over the last parts of a chapter on the instrumentation of NMR spectroscopy. Suddenly, out of the blackness of the night outside and the plastic yellow of the lightbulb inside, a forgotten but beloved tune comes to my mind and I start humming it. It's one of my favourite tunes, but like that special friend in school who used to accompany you in the rickety old rickshaw, it has silently impregnated itself into the deep recesses of my consciousness and become a part of me, transcending years and moments. Why it should suddenly and spontaneously rise and dance in and out of my rustic awareness, why it should be incident upon my mind like a lost pilgrim, I don't know.

It's Yanni's Nostalgia. Nostalgia with the sweeping and mournful saxophone and violin flourishes. Nostalgia with the soulful strings contras.

But most distinctively, Nostalgia with the signature piano pieces, gloriously standing alone, proudly enshrined in wood and steel, stubbornly beatified in ivory and black. Notes hard to describe in words. But notes like the itinerant but precisely crafted to and fros of the tap dancer. Notes that remind me of recursive functions, of Lorentz attractors, shapes and figures that create order out of apparent disorder, butterflies flying a random walk, with an absurdly nonchalant dart towards a single locus...notes that seem to fire in sync with the neurons in my mind, precisely timed, exquisitely controlled, yet having a whimsical, haphazard life of their own...signal transduction cascades competing with electrical impulses, picoamperes of electron probabilities, neutrotransmitters forever undecided and yet decisive, released and absorbed over crests of voltaic waves, instantly transported over quantum steps of synaptic junctions, bursting out in poofs of memory and networks, pausing, disappearing in a flurry of nothingness, and reappearing that very instant over places frozen in space but seemingly ethereal in time...

The audience applauds. Time to go home. Some pieces of music just don't last forever.

SOUP!! SOUP!!...

Finally, my prayers have been answered! A few days ago, I had sent a 'complaint' to Campbell's Soup Company (the best known producer of canned soup products in the US, and possibly 'in the world'), saying that they should put much more chicken than what exists, in a soup named 'Chicken and Dumplings' or 'Chicken and Noodle'.

Today, I got an envelope in which there were coupons for three free soups, plus a note saying that they would look into the matter.
Here's to more soup! soup! :)

(Oops! I think I just gave away the secret of what kind of leisurely pursuits I spend most of my time in. But then, ask other graduate students...)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Things in the US you (I) tend to spend a lot of money on:
(These are the things which you (I) tend up buying multiple no. of times due to a need to 'sample' them)

1. Lightbulbs- it took me about six attempts to get the right one that was neither too bright nor too dim for my room. Now I have about eight extra lightbulbs, probably enough to last me till graduation.

2. Cereal- after trying out about six or seven varieties, finally, I came back to pavillion and settled on good old cornflakes, but not before I spent a lot of money trying the other ones out.

3. Chappals- Something's always wrong; either the sole skids, the sides hurt, or they start getting hot. Took me three trials before I found the right one.

4. Air freshners- They may smell OK in the store, but they don't when you are forced to live in a room full of their smell for an extended period of time. Just like for perfumes, you have to find the right personal brand. Currently, I have four extra cans that I tried out but did not like. Now I will gift them to relatives (Oops! That was supposed to be a secret...;) )

5. Sunglasses- Took me three attempts before I found ones that did not make me look like a macho 'stud', did not slide down my nose even when I ran for the bus, and did not distort my vision.

The key point to be noted about all these products is that either you cannot try them out at all in the store, or you can try them out only in a limited way. Secondly, you immediately see the profits everyone is making, after realising that almost everything is mandatorily sold in multiples. I cannot buy just a single lightbulb, or a small can of freshner for sampling purposes. So in the end, if I don't like something, not only am I stuck with it, but a whole brood of it. That's how these guys make money. That's what The Corporation's about.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


My grandfather passed away in March last year. To a large extent I was expecting it, because he had not been keeping well for a while, and was already ninety years of age. A month before he passed away, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Not surprisingly, when we heard this news, we silently wished for the suffering to end peacefully, as it would have been harrowing to watch a ninety year old man face chemotherapy, and also at a time when his chances even with chemotherapy would have been slim.

My Ajoba was a wonderful man. He lived his life with great calmness, conviction, and strength of character. But he was not a saint, and he need not have been one. He became remarkable though, through his ordinary actions, rendered with extraordinary grit and dedication. He was always cheerful, he had unbounded mental energy and stamina, and indeed, he would put his young grandchildren to shame with his unstinting patience and optimism toward everyday life. Even when he was ninety, if someone suggested that we go for a drive or visit some place, while everyone else would crib or suggest alternatives or deliberate, he would always be the first one to say, "Let's go" in a very simple and matter-of-fact manner. He was present for all family events, big and small, and used to visit our place frequently, coming all the way from Mukund Nagar, even when his knees barely and painfully allowed him to climb up the two floors to our place. He would come, quietly sit and talk, maybe have a bite or two, and then ask someone to get him a rickshaw so that he could go back. It would have seemed that the relatively short time he spent was not always worth the trouble he went to, to come all the way. But that was my Ajoba, who participated in the smallest everyday routine with cheerful enthusiasm. Whenever somebody was not well, or somebody needed to picked up even from the airport in Mumbai, he would eagerly volunteer. For him, it were everyday actions, and not some exalted deeds, that constituted life's big adventure. His was a sobering and moderating presence that taught us all a lot. He inspired us in the most mundane ways, by teaching everyone how to live ordinary life in the best manner possible. He taught us that that's what counts the most.

To my knowledge, my Ajoba did not have any big intellectual interests in art, science, or politics. But he was one of those people, rarely found today and essential for our well-being, for whom life itself was the big interest. More importantly, he was someone, who made other people's interests his own. Whatever the discussion, he used to make himself part of the discussion, most of the times in a silent way, by his mere presence. For him, life was not about intellectual interests, but first and foremost, about human beings. He traveled around the world and watched other cultures and people and wondered at them. His great interest was in knowing what people around him were upto. His satisfaction came in knowing that they were happy and content. If not, he would always try to make them so, many times in the most unassuming way.

Everyone reacts to death in their own, personal way. When I heard about my Ajoba, the next day passed in a strange whirlwind of disorientation for me. I could not think of what to do. Then on a whim, I stepped into the great Library at Emory. The whole of the rest of the day, I spent in randomly wandering through the book stacks, and picking out miscellaneous volumes from the shelves and browsing them. I did this all day; at the end, I felt a certain calm. I realised that in times of turmoil, the warm and reassuring constancy of knowledge can help a lot. My Ajoba was perhaps not as much of a constant as the body of knowledge permanently inscribed in our consciousness, but he was as much of a constant as a human being can be. His quiet presence was like the air that we breathe, many times taken for granted, but of critical value for our sanity and furtherment.

In the Gita, it is said that all of us should do their karma without expecting its fruits. Many times, we look for glorious definitions of this karma, trying to look for it in history, and cite examples of great men who did it. When my Ajoba passed away, I realised that people who truly do their karma may not be that rare after all. My Ajoba was one of them. Regardless of what his karma was, in the end, the simple fact that he did it, validates a millenium of wisdom enumerated in ancient texts. And it's very good that these people are not too rare. In the great chapters of humanity, in times of celebration, in times of war and peril, as well as in 'ordinary' times of peace, it's the common people around us, seemingly ordinary, who do their karma and render themselves extraordinary. Theirs is a mitigating presence, essential for all the rest of us who may have gotten carried away. It's these people, in the most subtle way, that keep the fabric of humanity flowing and continuous, from the most mundane personal level, to the most profound global scale. Like many people, I would like to think my Ajoba was unique. I know he was not, but I can also say that people like that also don't come a dime a dozen.

Brutus's "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft intered with their bones" has become a part of folklore. And it may be true for the big events of history. But on a personal level, I beg to differ. Because of our relentless drive towards all that is good and sane, it is in fact the good people do, that lives after them. Being an agnostic, I don't believe that there is a heaven which grants these men peace, or that they watch over us. I would like to believe that the good which they have done, lives in us. It is we who carry on the torch, and it is our responsibility to ensure that it keeps on living and breathing. And I am sure many of us to recognise and bear that responsibility. That is a good thing.

I was inspired to make this post by a friend's post. My friend recently lost her grandmother. While I deeply share in her sense of loss, I believe she should also constantly feel heartened by her sense of awareness, and by her basic faith in her ability to do good.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Ok, now is this is an error on the part of the BBC or on the part of Musharraf? I think it's the latter, because the BBC simply printed his press statement.
Apparently, Pakistan has now 'confirmed' that A Q Khan had sold centrifuges for Uranium enrichment to North Korea. Wasn't that almost a foregone conclusion, no matter if it wasn't official?

In his press statements, Musharraf then makes two statements which seem downright contradictory to each other:

1. "Dr Khan was not involved in the conversion of uranium into gas or other key steps needed to make the bomb."
2. "So if North Korea has made a bomb... Dr AQ Khan's part is only enriching the uranium to weapons grade"
So was or was not Khan involved in supplying the know how for Uranium enrichment to N Korea?

Converting Uranium to a gas, Uranium hexaflouride to be exact, is a standard known and essential way (but not the only one) to enrich Uranium. In fact, about the only reason a state with definite nuclear interests would want to 'convert Uranium to a gas', would be to enrich it. Also, enrichment is the key step to making a bomb. So, saying that Khan was not involved in 'converting Uranium to a gas' but was involved in 'enriching the Uranium' is at best, a poor attempt at political ambiguity, and at the least, an error which shows a lack of basic technical understanding.

Monday, August 22, 2005


"Chemistry", writes Prof. P. Balaram (Current Science, July 2, 2003 issue), is the "Cinderella of the Sciences, in search of her fairy godmother".
I couldn't agree more. Two articles, the one by Balaram, and the other by Prof. Gautam Desiraju at the University of Hyderabad, lament Chemistry in India, and help me pen some of my own perspectives on to paper. Although this post is one I relish in making as a chemist, it's not biased and reflects what I think is a true state of affairs for chemistry, especially in India.

For some reason, everyone agrees that Chemistry is important. If they are pointed out that almost everything that they see around themselves in the modern world stems from chemical research, they cannot say no. Yet nobody seems to want to study chemistry or be a chemist. The practical and industrial virtues of chemistry are obvious, they are all around us, and I don't want to probe in detail into them, but it's the nature of chemistry as a science in itself that I want to talk about.
Physics has its wonders, the deep mysteries of particles and the cosmos, and biology asks questions about life itself. Both hold untramelled allure for the layman. Chemistry, on the other hand, seems to ask no "big" questions, it seems to not particularly wander into "cutting edge" areas, and it's practioners don't seem to have the aura that Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin seem to possess. Somehow, physicists are revered for their otherworldly existence, biologists for their profound excursions into life, and chemists seem to be regarded with a mundane eye because of their earthy existence. Yet, it may be safely said that none of these other two sciences would have gone far, if it had not been for chemistry. Consider the two biggest technological revolutions of the last century; the making of the atomic bomb, and genetic engineering. The first one is immediately tossed into the realm of physics, the other one into biology. Less appreciated perhaps, is the fact, that none of these ventures would have been possible without chemistry. In the first one, the theory of the bomb had been more or less worked out in 1942; what remained was the almost insurmountable looking problem of separating the two isotopes of Uranium. This problem entailed the setting up of what at that time was the biggest industrial complex in the world under one roof. As for genetic engineering, absolutely none of the marvels of modern biotechnology would have been possible without an understanding of chemical bonds and transformations, and how those transformations help in the creation of novel biological entities in the laboratory. Other technological innovations like semiconductors and lasers also have a firm and essential grounding in chemistry.

So why the lukewarm response to chemistry? The way I see it, the biggest virtue of chemistry, which is usually seen as a problem or as a boring fact, is that it is a devious mixture of the qualitative and quantitative. In chemistry, there are many guiding principles, which are too complicated for a 'first principles' approach based on physics and mathematics. This is a fact that in my opinion, not only marks chemistry different from other sciences, but also needs patience to appreciate and understand. Just like economics, I would like to call chemistry an 'adult' subject. This does not imply anything snide, nor does it imply that all chemists are responsible adults (I am a glaring counterexample...) But it does imply that appreciation of chemistry comes a little later and needs patience, because of the tricky combination of facts and formulas that entails the accurate understanding of chemical systems. It is probably quite easy to appreciate the logic and rigor in physics and mathematics. As for biology, the whole subject seems so vast at the beginning, and so manifest in that what we call 'life', that no attempts are made to apply logic to it, and we just (rightly) stare in awe at it's complexity. But chemistry provides the link between the rigor of physics and the global feel of biology. Without trying to sound biased, let me say that at it's core, all of biology is chemistry. All biological macrmolecules and systems, no matter how complex, are subject to the same laws of chemistry, albeit greatly refined, that compounds in test-tubes are subject to. In fact, this realisation was crucial in overthrowing the tenet of 'vitalism' in the nineteenth century. At this point, the physicists may quip in and say that at it's core, all of biology is atoms, and therefore physics. However, chemistry definitely provides a much more direct and intuitive link to biology. Understand Bohr's theory of the atom provides a much small intuitive leap in understanding DNA, than does an understanding of the chemical bond. It's simply a question of heirarachy. The physics of atoms may provide the foundation for understanding biological molecules, but it's too far too low in the heirarchy to be of any direct use in appreciating the behaviour of DNA or proteins. And to think of it again, it's not surprising. Chemistry is really about molecules and the entities that provide the action in biology are molecules. So an understanding of chemistry is not surprisingly, a must, for appreciating the structure of biological molecules, and the forces that hold them together. And that is one of the differences between chemistry and physics. In physics, especially theoretical physics, understanding an equation can go a long way in understanding the physical principle involved. In chemistry, it is much less so, and equations are of no great help to a chemist who actually wants to get a feel for a chemical system. In fact, the equations of quantum theory are too complicated for any but the simplest chemical systems, and so intuition is an essential prerequisite in understanding 'real' systems.

The advent of cutting edge techniques and instrumentation in medicine owes much to chemistry as a training ground for methods. Almost every analysis that is done by pathalogists in the lab is based on a chemical reaction, and its subsequent quantitation in the form of an observable such as fluoroscence, colour changes, or changes in conductance. The analysis of drugs in body fluids, a technique that is so important in drug discovery and medical diagnosis that it is taken for granted, was developed by organic chemists working together with analytical chemists. Every drug on the market today made it there because its concentrations could be measured in patients; this deceptively simple analysis provides a wealth of data on the lifetime of the drug in the blood, its concentration in certain organs and passage of transport, and its metabolites which are responsible for side effects.
Probably the most significant advance in non-invasive medical techniques has been MRI, whose progenitors received the Nobel Prize two years ago. Less known to the layman is the fact that MRI is based on the principles of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, a ubiquitous and terribly important tool in chemistry. Actually the reason they took the 'Nuclear' out of MRI was because of the general public's paranoia for anything nuclear; in this case, the word only implies that one is observing the magnetic properties, most commonly of the nucleus of a simple hydrogen atom. Indeed, it's the chemist who has always made the largest use of NMR, and chemistry has been the supreme training ground for the technique. Although it was developed initially by physicists, it were the chemists who elevated the status of NMR to such a comprehensive level, that a lifetime will be needed now to study the technique in all its ramifications. Three Nobels have been awarded to individuals who pioneered NMR. Out of them, one was given to physicists; the other two latest ones were given to chemists, one for methods development, and a very recent one for the application of the technique to determining the structure of biomolecules. NMR also provides a good example of the kind of comprehensive knowledge that is needed to master it. At it's core, its theory and techniques are highly mathematical. At the other end, it can be applied to finding out all sorts of things about biological molecules with a bare minimum of theoretical knowledge and an important knowledge of chemistry and an intuitive feel for what it is that one wants to find out from the experiment.

The mixed qualititative and quantitative nature of chemistry leaves many uncertain about it's utility. Actually, it's precisely this slippery and alluring combination of attributes that makes the subject beautiful and full of appeal for people like me. The fact is, to understand chemistry, one has to combine a minimum mathematical understanding with an intuitive feel for the behaviour of atoms and molecules, that is based on the accumulation of facts. The insight offered into a problem with a combination of differential equations solving, experimental data acquiring, and recounting obscure facts from inorganic chemistry textbooks, is truly satisfying. In chemistry, chemical intuition plays as important a role as the ability to do statistical analysis. This 'feel' for the subject cannot be obtained without having factual knowledge of atoms and molecules. However, to call this 'mugging up' or 'memorization' is an insult. After all, even in mathematics, one has to accumulate facts which would help him tackle more advanced analysis. Unfortunately, many students at the college level cast chemistry into the same pot as biology, and resign themselves to accepting that chemistry is simply memorizing facts. Organic chemistry is probably the perfect example of the nature of chemistry. At first sight, every student thinks that organic chemistry is simply the memorization of reactions and reagents and structures. However, only when one has studied it for two semesters or so, does the underlying logical behind the subject become clear. In it's culmination, organic chemistry is like architecture and mathematics combined together, conforming to the same kind of chemical logic that numbers conform to in mathematics, and making possible the construction of exquisite structures with the finesse of an architect. In chemistry, appreciation of 'logic' comes much later. There needs to be a certain maturity, at least with respect to patience, needed to understand the logic of chemistry. At the same time, as Desiraju says, 'chemists don't need to be crack mathematicians, nor do they need to completely forgo it'. There has to be a fine balance, which seems to be missing.

The main culprit in all of this is the college chemistry and biology syllabus in India, that confounded conglomeration of outdated facts, that gives students the wrong ideas about almost every subject. In fact, today, even biology is NOT about the "mere accumulation of facts". The age of Linneaus is long since gone. Biology has acquired rigor that would have been wholly unanticipated fifty years ago. It has become much like chemistry now, with a tricky but fascinating mixture of facts, formulas, and mathematical analyses. It is sheer damnation that the inane syllabus in our colleges prebiases students' minds so much, that by 11th std. they have convinced themselves of the totally ridiculous and misleading fact that "those who are good at memorizing facts opt for biology, and those who are good at logical thinking opt for maths". Nothing could be further from the truth these days, when any scientific problem at the frontier of any scientific discipline (including medicine and engineering) always needs precise logical thinking. If not anything else, one fact should convince these naive and misguided minds; in the past fifty years, the most path breaking and important discoveries in biology have been made by non-biologists. Conversely, biologists have made their field the most lucrative testing ground for researchers from every other plausible discipline; from mathematics and computer science, to chemistry and mechanical engineering. Even among these, chemistry has been the oldest and most steadfast companion of biology since time immemorial. The link was provided by Friedrich Wohler in 1828, who first synthesized urea in the laboratory without the need for a living system to do it.

Who is to blame? Desiraju says, quite rightly, that educational instituions in India are certainly to blame, whose guardians offer the most unpalatable fare to students. On the other hand, I believe that blaming any one agent in our dilapidated academic gerontocracy is simply to play passing the ball. To completely blame teachers for not teaching chemistry well is a futile, if justified, exercise. After all, how many professors of, say, mechanical engineering, teach mechanical engineering truly well, with passion? Still, the number of bright students opting for mechanical engineering every year is far more than those opting for chemistry. I maintain that the number of passionate and involved teachers of chemistry in the country is no less that that for any other discipline. And therein surfaces the core problem once again; the paucity of good science education in our country and the lack of good students in science. But that's a subject about which I have much (probably too much!) to say. So I will save that for the next post.

As for me, I was always drawn to the allure of chemistry. If not anything else, the bubbles, colours, explosions, gurgles and sploshes of chemistry can always draw the attention of any child worth the salt of his curiosity. Chemistry always has been one of my favourite subjects. In school, I had a private lab in a spare bathroom. There, I dyed handkerchiefs, made soap, dissolved safety pins, and pried open bathroom tiles with HCl. It was always a magical retreat for me. In college, I was smitten by the rigor of physics. Even today, the kick I get from understanding a basic physics concept is unique. But I love chemistry, I love the way it allows me to indulge my multiple interests and to connect diverse concepts, and I hope that some day it can enable me to transmit the joy of discovery and thought to someone else...

P.S. Sickness and a presentation conspired to keep me away from blogging...on the other hand, the well-timed presentation to impress my advisor helped for once ;) and I am finally booking my ticket for India for December!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

There's quite nothing like a whole evening spent in listening to Johann Strauss's Polkas and Waltzes...

Saturday, August 06, 2005


(Was going to write this in a couple of days, but was prompted in a timely way by Hirak's post)

(Two historic images- The first one is of the American flag being raised after victory on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima on Feb 23, 1945, scene of one of the bloodiest naval battles in history. The second one is of the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima 60 years ago. How much killing will we have to engage in in order to do good and preserve freedom?)

In the fall of 1949, a young, twenty-five year old student who lacked even a PhD., came to the Los Alamos national laboratory in New Mexico. Ted Taylor had been recommended as a promising physicist by his advisor at Berkeley, Robert Serber. Serber, a veteran physicist, had been among Robert Oppenheimer's elite group of students at Berkeley in the 1930s. A lean, austere Philadelphian, who talked with a lisp, Serber was 'Oppie's' top man in Berkeley, and later on the Manhattan Project. His first lectures on the atomic bomb- the 'Los Alamos Primer'- top secret at the time, but declassified later as a book, was required reading for anybody who joined the project. Ted Taylor was his student at Berkeley after the war. Taylor, although promising, was a complete failure at formal studies. He had failed his PhD. oral exam not once but twice, failing to answer some basic physics questions. So what made Serber recommend him so highly to Carson Mark, the Chief of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos? Taylor had a remarkable knack for imagining how a collection of metal, explosives, nuclear material, and wires, could be put together in the most efficient way. At Los Alamos, his talent was recognised, and he became not just an expert, but an artist of sorts, in designing small atomic bombs. Since deliverability was a key strategic consideration for any atomic weapon, Taylor's abilities were crucial. Over the years, he became versed in the art of atomic bomb design, the way an architect becomes versed in the art of bridge, or studio design. His 'Super Oralloy Bomb' was a sleek mere ten inches, and one man could lift it off the ground and put it in a bag; yet its yield was a fantastic 500 kilotons, an order of magnitude more than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
Over the years, the more Taylor worked on atomic weapons design, the more disillusioned he became with the nuclear arms race. Witnessing first hand the awesome power of these weapons, he became convinced that mankind should stop developing them. After a few years, he quit, and in an interview, simply remarked, "It's simple. If they bomb New York, I won't bomb Moscow"...
(Taylor's story is documented in detail by John McPhee in his 'The Curve of Binding Energy')

It's been 60 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Somber ceremonies were held in Japan and other parts of the world this week. Yesterday, I watched Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi deliver a simple address to the people of Hiroshima. In the background, the so-called atomic dome stands alone, the only survivor of the flash of light that incinerated a city 60 years ago, and a testimonial of what we are capable of.

Was dropping the bomb necessary? This question still evokes such a muck of controversy, that nothing I or anybody could say could be enough or satisfying. Frankly, the knee jerk reaction I have always had for many years ever since I first read about Hiroshima and thought about it, was that dropping the first bomb was a very controversial and perhaps essential decision, but that dropping the second bomb was perhaps pretty hasty. The Japanese would likely have surrendered anyway, especially with an invasion of Japan by Russia impending (the Russians had declared war on Japan on August 8). So why was the bomb dropped on such short notice, especially with the expected view of the confusion caused in Japan by the use of a wholly new paradigm in conflict? The most provocative explanation I have read is by Nobel Laureate Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, enumerated in Howard Zinn's magnificent 'A People's History of the United States'. It was simple. The Americans had planned an invasion of mainland Japan in November, 1945. They had negotiated with the Russians to solicit Russian entry into the Japanese war three months after the end of the war in the European theatre. Germany formally surrendered on May 8, 1945. Three months later was August 8, when the Russians did keep their promise. The Americans knew even before the surrender of Germany that a full-scale invasion of Japan was going to be horrifyingly bloody. The gory battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the most gruesome in naval battles in history, clearly signified that the Japanese were going to fight tooth and nail in the most extreme patriotic way possible, before giving in. Later reports showed that 9 year old girls in Japan were being taught to fight with bamboo spears. The quarter of a million troops who attacked the island would have been in for an utterly inhuman and macabre experience.
After all this sacrifice, the Americans would have considered it unthinkable to share their hard won 'conquest' of Japan with Communist Russia. Blackett's analysis is straightforward; dropping the atomic bomb was the first 'diplomatic' act of the Cold War...
(For all this, it must be remembered that the Americans were true gentlemen during their occupation of Japan. Douglas MacArthur had issued strict mores for the treatment of Japanese civilians, and soldiers who stepped outside the line were in for stern censure)

I don't know how I sound when I say I think that dropping the first atomic bomb was 'essential'. Am I some kind of a belligerent zealot with a Curtis LeMay like mentality?
No. I wept when I read about the plight of human beings in Hiroshima, recounted in John Hersey's 'Hiroshima', that shortly after the war, described the experiences of such witnesses as Dr. Fujii, who treated patients and watched them die in the aftermath of the disaster. It still damns my spirit to read about similar accounts in Richard Rhodes's high octane prose in 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb'. My heart reaches out like that of thousands of others, to the little girl Sadako, whose plan to fashion a thousand paper cranes fell short when she became a victim to the wounds and ill-effects that the bomb festered in her body.

The real reason why I think that dropping the first bomb was perhaps 'essential' has to do with the trivialities that war engenders, and which are also at the core of the reason why I prefer to be a pacifist. When I was listening to Koizumi's address, my mind wandered back to the terrible cruelties of Hiroshima. But then I realised something which I have been realising for some time; that while the real virtue of the bomb was its shock 'value', as a new and terrifying weapon of war, as a device that brought much woe, shattered the human spirit, and fostered brutality, was it anything new? Let's consider a few events that preceded it:

1. Even before the war started, the unspeakable slaughter and atrocities that the Japanese committed in Manchuria were already a part of the most ignominious history of the human race. Women were raped and killed, babies were tossed in the air and then impaled on bayonets, and in general, the scale of atrocities committed was as much as any that our lesser minds can possibly imagine. Iris Chang's 'The Rape of Nanking' will stir the hearts of even the most stone-hearted.

2. Strategic bombing adopted by the Allies, still a controversial maneuvre, incinerated hundreds of thousands, melted their flesh and skulls, and popped their organs out, just like the bomb did. Hamburg, Dresden, and especially Tokyo speak volumes about the complete breakdown of morality in war, whether of the Allies or the Axis. Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five' paints a vivid and compelling picture. In Tokyo, during a single night, one hundred thousand civilians were killed, men women and children, more than those who instantaneously died in Hiroshima.

3. The horrific treatment of POWs in Russian, German, and especially Japanese camps, is part of the macabre folklore of war history. Every 'convention' ever signed by nations was violated in some way or the other, by some country or other, during some time or the other. Note that this was never limited to the 'Axis'. Perhaps the most revealing instance is documented in somewhat controversial but true detail in Antony Beevor's 'The Fall of Berlin 1945'. In it, he describes how, in addition to the atrocities that the Russians inflicted on German women during their march into Germany, they did not even spare their OWN women who were imprisoned in German concentration camps.

4. I don't even need to say anything about the Holocaust. The spectrum of every human emotion, from Anne Frank's indomitable innocence to Rudolf Hoess's calculated butchery as commandant of Auschwitz was demonstrated during this time. If the Holocaust cannot convince us of the depths of depravity that we can sink into, nothing can.

5. Even after the war, as the years have showed, Indian partition, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, to name a few, show that man's animal brutality toward man has not changed.

Add to this, the infinite amount of agony that wives, mothers, sisters and daughters back home endured.

The point is, in light of all these, in terms of morality, does the bomb really do something radical and unacceptable? If anything, it simply adds another notch, admittedly a big one, to the moral quagmire which we have dragged ourselves in during conflict. Agreed, the shock 'value' and sheer scale of atomic bombing is paradigm shifting, but it does not suddenly make us clutch our heads and bring us to our moral senses. We have descended into immorality in many sundry and glorious ways much before the atomic bomb. We have crossed moral divides many times and much earlier.

That's the only reason why I personally think that dropping the bomb was perhaps an essential way to bring an end to an unbelievably horrible war, at least on a relative basis.

That is also why I prefer to be a pacifist. That's because I believe that the decision to kill human beings is such a difficult and complex one, that it is frankly beyond our capacity to understand its scope and consequences, and so it can never be taken without arousing resentments, doubt, and controversy later on. In some ways, it also becomes meaningless in a grotesque way, because it's only once you go to war that discussions about methods of killing become relevant. Because of our complete inability to comprehend what Robert McNamara rightly calls the 'Fog of War', it is imperative that we pursue every negotiation, every dialogue, every manuevre, every effort to its utmost, that would allow us to resolve problems, no matter how big or serious, in a peaceful manner. This is a simple fact that leaders seem to surprisingly have failed to understand in the heat of the moment. After Hiroshima, a simple but revealing statement appeared in the Scottish newspaper, 'The Scotsman'

"Now that man has mastered nature, it is more important than ever that he gain mastery over himself"...

After the war of course, the arms race escalated. The drive towards bigger and 'better' atomic weapons went on until it reached an ugly proportion. Interestingly, while the development of the H bomb was the most obnoxious move ever made by a government to achieve destruction of a foreign nation, it was quite definitely the ultimate form of detterence. As a military weapon, the H bomb is absurd and completely lacks strategic value. With the deployment of missiles with thermonuclear warheads, the instant destruction of almost an entire nation many times over makes these weapons instruments of genocide. Therein lies the utter meaninglessness of the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads that the US and Russia possess. They are enough to destroy the whole earth many times over. There is zero strategic or military advantage in using them. No even marginally sane leader in the free world, or even in a dictatorship, would risk complete annihilation of his country by using them. The concept of deterrence, although bandied about an obscene number of times, actually has worked.

In the end, the question again, quite soberingly, is not at all of nuclear or non-nuclear weapons, but is in some refreshing way, of human nature, common sense and most importantly again, of empathy. In 1947, MacGeorge Bundy, who later became National Security Advisor for Kennedy and Johnson, was acting as a kind of scribe for Henry Stimson, Secretary of War during the war. Stimson drafted an article, that was largely worded by Bundy. Its most important argument, made clear after the war, was that preserving their Emperor's status was of paramount importance for the Japanese, and they didn't think the Allies would do it if they surrendered. The high officials in Washington did not completely understand this wish of the Japanese, and the extreme reverence in which they held their Emperor. Note that this had everything to do with empathizing with the enemy, especially one whose cultural roots ran as deep as Japan's. Reading later declassified documents even today, including Stimson's memo, it seems extremely likely that if the Allies had made it clear to the Japanese that they would allow them to keep their Emperor (a matter of relatively less importance for the Allies), the Japanese might have surrendered much earlier, let alone before Hiroshima, saving countless Japanese and American lives. The same goes for Vietnam. For Iraq? Deployment of National Missile Defense certainly does not help this and increases resentment and tension.

Sometimes the best weapon against an enemy is actuallly no weapon at all, simply an attempt to understand him, his culture, his values and his roots, and to understand what makes him the way he is. Failure to do so has repeatedly shown to lead to nothing but destruction.

This theme is a continuing one, I think. I can only best quote from a recent post penned on the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test:

"Fundamentally, and in the long run, the problem which is posed by the release of atomic energy is a problem of the ability of the human race to govern itself without war."...
-From a report of a panel of consultants on disarmament that was submitted to the Secretary of State in 1953.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I am in seventh heaven...(and no...NOT the restaurant near Lohagaon that someone pointed out to me in one of the poorer-in case of PJs actually meaning 'better'- PJs cracked a few days back!!)

For the gargantuan price of ONE DOLLAR each, I accidentally discovered and bought:

1. The classic Fundamentals of Physics, Sixth Edition, Hardcover by Resnick, Halliday and Walker
2. The well-known Calculus by Stewart
3. A charming volume; The New Turing Omnibus- 66 excursions in Computer Science by A. K. Dewdney, a collection of miscellaneous and entertaining topics in Computer Science and its applications.

"Mala faar sahi wattay!!" ("I am feeling very signature"...ok, that was a really bad one...)

Monday, August 01, 2005


Music has been a VERY important and totally inseparable part of my life. It and my keyboard are two of the things that keep me alive, and if I had a chance to do it all over again, I would definitely be a musician, no matter how bad! The following is going to be a ‘Music and I’ sort of post, and because there have been SO many musical adventures in my life almost since I was five, for a period of more than fifteen years, and because music is SO close to my heart, this may be my longest post so far! So read at your own risk and patience! (For a moment I thought of posting it in bits and pieces, but then I felt it would destroy the continuity...)

I grew up in a household filled with Music. Although my parents don't have any formal training in Music, they have an excellent ear and appreciation for it. Whereas my mother is a big aficionado of old hindi film songs, my father is an intense classical music fan. Melodies from old hindi films, but especially Ragas sung by Bhimsen Joshi and Kumar Gandharva, are among my earliest memories of childhood. My father is especially addicted to Bhimsen's creations; he has a collection of a few hundred of his live performances. A few of them we got from the great master himself, the transaction made possible by a favourite student of my father's, who used to accompany the maestro for a time on the harmonium. To this day, and I am sure always, Bhimsen’s tunes stir me like nothing else. There is nothing like listening to a rendition of Raga Yaman or Raga Darbari Kanada from him, or of Raga Malkauns for that matter. Another noteworthy and harrowing set of melodies that have made an unforgettable impact on me is Kumar’s ‘Nirguni Bhajans’. As the name indicates, they talk about omniscient powers which are ‘Nirgun’, or without form. The abstract philosophy of the words, rendered in Kumar’s signature and inimitable baritone voice, can endear them even to atheists. Kumar, as may be recalled, lost a lung to cancer. That he could still sing these extremely hard-to-sing pieces with an eloquence that is unparalleled, is a tribute to his genius. In all of these, he characteristically eschews the use of any degree of sophisticated accompaniment, including rhythm; thus the power of the performance completely hinges on his ability, and he transforms you to a totally different level; you have to listen to them to understand what I mean.

In Marathi music, I love all old Marathi film songs, 'bhavageet' songs, and especially Bhimsen's 'Abhangas', but I am really stricken by the music of the father-son duo of Sudhir and Shridhar Phadke. Some of their compositions such as Ashi pakhare yeti, Je ved majala lagale, Mana manas umagat nahi (a supremely austere song), Sanja ye gokulee and Rutu Hirawa are classics forever (In the last one, just check out the sheer power of Asha's voice; it blows you away). Another favourite and challenging Marathi song which I play on my keyboard is Sunya sunya mahifilit majhya by Lata.

Someone introduced me to Western Classical Music when I was in 7th standard or so. I vividly remember listening to Mozart's 40th Symphony being played for me, and it’s an all-time favourite; it is quite unfair that I don't remember who played it for me, though! After that, although I had no great enthusiasts around me, I explored this realm myself. I quickly discovered Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Beethoven's 5th and 9th, Mozart's 36th, and Strauss's 'Die Fledermaus', to name a few, and they became timeless classics of rapt delight for me. Later, with the advent of the Internet and (illegal) file sharing, I let my explorations run amok, and today, I derive immense pleasure from many greats of different genre. Later on, I found a steadfast classical music companion in the form of my cousin from Mumbai, who introduced me to Verdi and Smetana. I was totally stricken by Handel, Mozart, and Bach, and they have become my favourites. However, it's to be noted that I know very little about the technical side of Western Classical. I remember and can hum many pieces, and even play a challenging few on my keyboard, and know about the 'movements', about ‘preludes and overtures' and 'prestos'. But I know nothing beyond that preliminary knowledge. However, I do hope to learn about some of the tricks of the trade someday...

All of the above would have simply made me into a big music fan. However, the one thing that makes Music the dearest thing in my life and a source of infinite wonder, is my keyboard.

I remember things vaguely; when I was maybe five or six, my mama from the US got a tiny toy keyboard for my elder sister and cousin. Being the irresponsible little kid in the house, naturally I was forbidden to touch it. However, my sister and cousin both did not show even the slightest interest in it, and finally, the ‘elders’ all acquiesced to let me play around with it. Nobody, and definitely not I, expected me to express interest in it for more than a few days, let alone play anything. So everyone was pleasantly surprised when I played the National Anthem on it. This was the start of my lifelong relationship with the keyboard; it was my first love, and will always be my inseparable companion. Here in Atlanta, I have bought a small but reasonably good keyboard, which I play almost everyday. Later on, in school, I started accompanying singers and musicians in about 4th standard; among other things, I remember playing for a nice Goan play, a few traditional bhajans and patriotic songs, the great song Ushakkal hota hota, and another very nice Marathi song titled ‘Udhalita Shata Kirana’. I still remember and can play the entire song, and I am ardently hunting for it on the internet or some other place; if anyone can point me towards a source, due returns are guaranteed to him or her. In 7th std., I also remember being the lead singer in a ‘Powada’, a traditional Marathi folk song, with the ‘feta’ (turban) and all, singing a song which had lyrics by Pu La Deshpande. (I believe it was from a piece by him called ‘Pudhari Pahije’). A photo taken during the performance perpetually elicits amused giggles.

One of the most important events in this regard was meeting a person who became my closest friend and musical companion. I met Anand in 6th std; he was very good at the tabla and bongo, and I still remember that we played together in that year’s annual social and immediately recognized our almost perfect musical compatibility. By that time, for some reason, someone also thought that I don’t sing very badly; I reckon it was because they couldn’t get anyone else to sing the lead part, and I and Anand ended up taking part as the lead musicians and singers in the annual social. In 7th std., we had to sing the really nice Quawwali song, ‘Pal do pal ka saath hamara’ from ‘The Burning Train’. Even today, it is one of my favourite Quawwali film songs. A photo from the program shows me and Anand in the front of the stage, dressed in traditional Quawwali clothes, and surrounded by a coterie of similarly dressed boys and girls, with their cheeks generously covered with pink talcum powder. The only catch was that while Anand was a plump little boy at the time, I looked like a Somalian refugee. Consequently, while the embroidered hat barely fit Anand’s head after valiant efforts by the staff members of our school, mine hung over my head like curtains. The photo is very enduring, needless to say! Even today, when we get together, a performance of ‘Pal do pal ka’ is a required rite of passage for us; he on the tabla, and me on the harmonium and singing. In 8th, we organized our first true orchestra as such, and played in the annual social in Tilak Smarak. One memory I have of this time was of a boy who was going to sing Sochenge tumhe pyaar from 'Deewana'. When he started, he was frankly terrible, but our exhortations and his dedicated efforts finally made him sing a perfect rendition on D-Day.

Meeting Anand was one of the most fortunate events in my life, which gave vent to my musical emotions like nothing else. His father is a huge fan of Mohammad Rafi, and without a doubt has one of the rarest and biggest collections of Rafi songs in Pune, if not the country. He is a walking and talking dictionary of old hindi film music. Meeting him and Anand and playing and singing literally incessantly at their place became an almost weekly activity for me. It was then that I also got introduced to the brilliant Shankar-Jaikishen’s songs, and since then they have been my favourite music composers. Shankar-Jaikishen was a natural choice for a keyboardist like me; they were the first to introduce extended violin, piano, and accordion pieces with true symphony like musical accompaniment in Hindi film music, and started a revolution of sorts. Also, the 'SJ-Rafi' combination was always a bankable blockbuster combination. Consequently, their songs have very big musical preludes and fillers, with intertwining strings compositions. They are a definite and robust challenge for any musician. Reproducing ‘SJ’ songs (like we called them) became a big challenge for me. I started with one that was relatively difficult; Pyar hua ikaraar hua from ‘Shree 420’. I remember agonizing over it, sweating over every small jump between scales, obsessively playing the tape backwards for every small detail, practicing it late into the night…until finally, I got it. The joy that emerges from having successfully mastered a work of art, no matter of what kind and magnitude, has to be experienced in order to be described. After that, the next big challenge for me was ‘Ghar aaya mera pardesi’ from ‘Awara’. In many ways, this piece is also challenging. The main body of the song does not start until after 5-10 mins of violin and strings spiels. It was a real challenge for me; especially at that age. For this one, I decided to abandon the keyboard for the harmonium, as I thought that the more natural and fresher notes of the harmonium would do better justice to the song. Again, the incessant late night practice followed, until finally, I could play it without interruption. This was just in time for a program that was organized in honour of the death anniversary of Shankar, at the music studio of Suhaschandra Kulkarni, one of the leading musicians and music teachers in Pune. I was relieved that I could play it well at the moment of truth, and everybody liked it. Another extremely challenging SJ song that I learnt to play, with flourishing and long piano pieces, is 'Dil ke jharoke mein' from 'Brahmachari'. In general, it's always a challenge and pleasure for a keyboardist to play fast songs with piano or violin pieces in them. Yet another (non-SJ; C Ramchandra for this one) song that we play is the Lata-Usha duet Aplam Chaplam from 'Azaad'.

Anand and me have played and sung SJ’s songs so many times and so relentlessly, that SJ and Anand have become inseparable in my mind. Songs like Aji aisa mauka from 'An evening in Paris', ‘Kaun hai jo sapano me aaya’ and ‘Ghar aaya mera pardesi’ have become almost our theme songs; I don’t remember a single time in the last twelve years when we have met and not played songs like these three. I remember so many late nights, with the rain pounding outside, when we were enraptured in performing and playing these timeless classics, that the songs elicit memories in a manner vivid as none. A mere sampling of those unforgettable songs that we played and continue to play takes me back memory lane such as nothing else. These songs have become almost physically engraved in my mind, and when I play one of them today, I can’t stop myself from playing ten, or twenty more. Just a small sample:

1. Aaja sanam from ‘Chori Chori’
2. Kaun hai jo sapno mai aaya from ‘Jhuk gaya asmaan’
3. Who chand khila woh tare hase from ‘Anari’
4. An evening in Paris from…’An evening in Paris’!
5. Badan pe sitare lapete hue from ‘Prince’
6. Sab kuch seekha hamane and Kisi ki muskurahaton pe from ‘Anari’
7. Geet gatan hu mai from ‘Lal Patthar’
8. Jiya o, jiya o jiya kucch bol do from ‘Jap pyaar kisise hota hai’
9. Aaja re aa jara from ‘Love in Tokyo’
10. Main chali main chali from ‘Professor’
11. Har dil jo pyaar karega from ‘Sangam’
12. Bol re kathputli from ‘Kathputli’
13. Cheda mere dil ne and Tujhe jeewan ki dor se from ‘Asli nakli’

And many many many more…

Our practice sessions were enduringly memorable. One time in particular stands apart, sometime when we were in 9th or 10th I think. My parents were out of town, and we decided to play and record as many SJ and Rafi songs as we could, with songs by other music composers and singers added in for good measure. I remember that we started at 6.00 in the evening, and almost without a break, continued till 3.00 in the morning. We played every song that we could remember and that we had ever played. At the end of all that, we were hungry as wolves. What to do? Having promised my mother that we would eat outside and lacking the most elementary culinary skills, we fortunately remembered the one ‘restaurant’, that would be open at that hour; a dilapidated but popular shack on JM road. We had a nice ‘dinner’ there, and then realized we were short of 2 RUPEES to pay the bill! Cursing ourselves, I ran home and got the money…to this day, we remember the ‘2 rupees episode’.

With time, Anand exceeded his abilities as a percussionist (although he is still an excellent one) and he became a splendid singer. Needless to say, he revels in the golden tones and voice of Mohammad Rafi, and it is my greatest pleasure to accompany him when he sings these songs. In my opinion, for sheer melody, there was been no male singer in the annals of Hindi cinema, who beats Mohammad Rafi. Among female singers, the pure melody in many of Lata's songs is fabulous, but I think that for variety and sheer, supreme vitality, nobody beats Asha.
Anyway, some of the classics which Anand sings, and which I keep on playing and singing over and over again, include:

1. Tumne mujhe dekha from ‘Teesri Manzil’
2. Man re tu kahe na dheer dhare from ‘Chitralekha’ (This one is a true melodious masterpiece)
3. Din dhala jaye from ‘Guide’
4. Hum bekhudi mein ‘Kala Pani’
5. Bade he dil ke kale from ‘Dil deke dekho’ (A classic duet)
6. Akele akele kahan jaa rahe ho from ‘An evening in paris’
7. Yaad na jaye from ‘Dil ke mandir’
8. Aap ke pahalu mein aakar from ‘Mera Saaya’
9. E door ke musafir from ‘Udan Khatola’

And countless others

Over the years, I have accompanied him so many times at so many places, that our musical compatibility has become fine tuned to a fantastic degree. Even now, when Anand and I are ten thousand miles apart and don’t play or practice for a year, when we get together, we can still put up a performance and sing and play these songs, without needing to practice a single time. That is exactly what we did when I visited India last December. We put up an informal program at my sister’s place and relived all those moments. Anand’s father is an audio equipment manufacturer and so we are never at a loss for speakers, amplifiers and microphones. I am proud to say, that on the 29th of last month, Anand’s aspirations and efforts borne fruit, when he put up a professional performance in the Yashwantrao Chavan auditorium in Pune, where he sang a variety of Rafi’s songs, on occasion of Rafi’s 25th death anniversary. I wish him the very best in all his endeavors.

There was a time when we used to participate in almost every music and singing competition that used to be held at places like Balgandharva, Tilak Smarak, and Bharatnatya. Tilak Smarak especially stands out in my mind as the venue for our annual socials. When we used to practice for them, we used to be in charge of the orchestra, especially in later years, and were given free rein to advise or berate any singer or musician. Practising and having fun when others were attending classes was an indescribable feeling. Many times, when no teacher was around, we used to run out of school and enjoy a nice cake, ‘peru’ or even idli-chatni at the local snack shack. After a lifetime of bunking classes in college, it is hard now to appraise the inestimable pleasure and freedom of being able to step outside the school campus during school hours, traversing a campus boundary that was almost like a ‘lakshman resha’ for us!

Once, we were invited to our Principal’s house to perform. At that time, I had ganged up with another of my musical friends, and we were well-known (notorious?) in school for singing the inimitable ‘Eka chatur naar’ from ‘Padosan’. I also used to sing ‘Babu samjho ishare’ from ‘Chalti ka naam gadi’. Any time there was a program in school that remotely had a musical component in it, me and my friend always used to be dragged out of the crowd to sing these all-time favourite and hilarious songs. Since my favourite singer was Kishore Kumar, I used to handle mainly the Kishore and Mehmood part, while my friend handled the Manna De part. For some reason, probably because we used to sing it impromptu, Anand never accompanied us for this song. On that day, at our Principal’s house, the three of us hoisted our instruments and ourselves onto the ‘stage’, when not surprisingly, our Principal asked me and my friend to sing ‘Eka chatur naar’. However, this time, Anand insisted on accompanying us. Anand had not heard the song carefully, and we did not know how it would turn out. And our expectations were exactly borne out! As we started singing, Anand, not knowing the pattern of percussion in the song, valiantly struggled to keep up, adding his own imagined percussion elements to the song! As we struggled to keep up with him and he with us, the song became a confused ramble of off beat rhythms and shrieking voices, even more disordered than the original, and in the end, people around us, including us ourselves, were almost crying with laughter, not having realized that the song actually had been completely ‘reinvented!! That was priceless and unforgettable!

As we got into college, we started to get invited to participate in professional musical competitions and shows. Due to the humdrum of 11th and 12th, I couldn’t do much. I did take part in ‘Purushottam Karandak’ in 11th. That was also very exciting…maybe a post on that sometime. Once or twice, I also got invited to accompany singers in Ganpati festivals, which were organized by large housing societies near Parwati and in Kothrud. But frankly, this was not too much fun. The reason was simple. I was treated like a professional paid ‘employee’ and required to do things the way they insisted. Even though I enjoyed playing on stage, and the people were nice, there was none of the camaraderie and warm fun that used to spruce up our other performances and practice sessions. Because of this and also constraints of time, I stopped doing that after two years. But once I got into my first year, we were given a chance to perform in Verve.

Verve is one of the more popular college-fests in Pune, and this promised to be a nice experience. So Anand and me started putting a team together. We found a fantastic female singer. To this day, I cannot remember having met a singer as good as her; she was truly professional, and later, she started her own professional show, in which she very creatively remixed (and I mean this in the most positive sense of the term) Kabir’s Bhajans. This girl had immense innate talent. I remember once accompanying her for a competition where she had composed a tune for a Marathi poem. It was just the three of us in Bharat Natya Mandir; her, me on the harmonium, and a fellow on the tabla. Her performance was amazing. After the program, the great Hridaynath Mangeshkar personally congratulated her on her performance. Sometime later, she also clinched the best actress award for a fine performance in 'Purushottam'...
In any case, we got her, and we found an excellent male classical singer to sing a semi-classical song from a film, and we also got a very good percussionist. However, we woefully lacked instruments. At the time, I had not yet bought my professional and excellent Yamaha PSR-630 keyboard, and we finally borrowed a reasonably good one from a friend with whom I had participated in ‘Purushottam’. Still, we lacked a very important component; a guitarist, who is the heart and soul of a band or orchestra. Finally we found someone, who was…ummm…not exactly competent. We finally decided to resort to the devious tactic of letting him just sit there with the guitar, strumming a few pseudostrings!!
And so we started. There were many categories; a classical category, an Indi-pop category, and an original song category. For a long time, we could not decide what songs to choose. In addition, as anyone who has participated in such events knows well, a lot of time is spent in ‘doing tp’ and cracking jokes, and everyone constantly has to be brought back on track; of course that does add to the experience, but it is not great for the end product. Finally, we managed to put up a gig for the preliminary rounds, which were held in Vaikunth Mehta Institute on the University Road. I remember playing ‘Akele hai to kya gum hai’ from 'QSQT' which we had to really teach our young classical singer to sing without the ‘alaap’ and ‘taan’ flavour which he was accustomed to!! (I could have sung it, but I was crucially needed at the keyboard). The other song was ‘Hume tumse pyaar kitna’ (the female version) which the female singer sang with unerring virtuosity. We were glad when we were selected for the finals.

Still, our program preparation was in pandemonium. We could not find appropriate songs for many categories, and kept on choosing, practicing, and then discarding. For the classical category, we settled on ‘Aaye sur ke pancchi gaye’ from ‘Sur Sangam’, which our classical music expert beautifully sang. For the Indi-pop category, we finally decided on ‘Tu’ by Sonu Nigam. Needless to say, Anand did a great job with it. For the Quawwali category we chose ‘Chadhta suraj dhire dhire’ which a lean, quiet fellow from a rural town from Maharashtra did great justice to.
However, the most astonishing thing I remember was a Kabir Bhajan for the original composition category, admittedly the hardest of them all. The female singer who I was talking about had composed a completely original and BREATHTAKING tune for it. Even now, when I remember her singing it and organizing the musical additions, I feel awed. With no claim to greatness, I challenge today’s egregious remix makers and singers to come up with a devotional song and turn it into a remix that was half as good as what she did. We even added RAP to it, something that I could not have remotely imagined! And still, in the end, it sounded like sheer bliss, with not a trace of irreverence and all innovation. It was unforgettable…
It is a fact that I will never forget…we actually chose and practiced the final selected numbers during the night of the day before the program, in the ‘recreation hall’ of Ferguson! I still find it hard to believe that we could actually think we stood a chance on such short notice.

The day of the finals arrived. They were being held at MIT, and the sun was shining mercilessly on us. When we collected backstage, we were stunned when we took a look at the other teams. Impeccably equipped with the latest instruments and equipment and having more than enough singers, keyboardists, and most importantly, guitarists, they looked like they could crush us with a single rendition. We looked like amateurs in front of them, with our single keyboardist, sparse singers, a drummer (we rented the drums from a great drummer who lived in a shady looking place in the cantonment area) and a carefully kept secret- a pseudoguitarist! I especially remember the Bharati Vidyapeeth team. They had everything that a band could ask for; THREE guitarists, two keyboardists, an electronic drum player and everything else. Their performance was good, but we thought not great. However, we also thought that we would not stand a chance…
Then we stepped on to the stage. I will always remember the air of anticipation that hung in the air, and the hundreds of eyes that were upon us. After making sure our secret weapon was cosily nestled in a chair, we asked the sound engineer to tone down the output from the guitar as much as he could! Then there was silence, as we waited to be given the signal to start from the judges. Then, and this was the defining moment in my opinion, our stalwart of classical music stepped on to the stage, took his ‘tanpura’, and actually sat down cross-legged on the floor to begin his song. This was an iconoclastic image, something that had never been seen before, and that would not be seen in later performances. At this unlikely but daring event, the audience erupted in cheers. In the middle of all the noise and high-tech strumming and drumming, what triumphs is the traditional, and the simple. I was quite moved by the whole spectacle.

The show began, and our young friend gave a fantastic performance. After this, as song after song followed, our confidence went up. Anand did a fine job with ‘Tu’, with plumes of stage smoke going up around him. Needless to say, the icing on the cake was the remarkable remix of the Kabir Bhajan. I am one hundred percent sure that it was that, along with the classical piece in the beginning, that clinched our place at the top and won the judges’ hearts. After we finished, the anticipation we felt was completely unnecessary. And all our confused, itinerant, but dedicated efforts finally borne fruit. The ‘gold’ medal from Verve-1999 occupies a place of special and unique pride in my shelf.

But this was just the first act. Because of our success in Verve, I got a chance to do something that was my lifelong dream- perform in Ferguson’s old and prestigious Amphitheater in front of hundreds.

I had always been enthralled when I had attended the famous ‘Insync’, the competition at Ferguson that used to draw teams from around the country every year. As a small kid, because of my parents, I always used to get first row seats in the magnificent open-air theater that used to be constructed on Fergi’s airy grounds, at the seat of the ‘Tekdi’.
I used to be enthralled by the orchestras and the bands, and always hoped to play sometime in Fergi. However, as is well-known, there are always more people who want to cause trouble in such events, than those who want to make them a success. One year, some drunken student stabbed a faculty member, and that was the end of Insync. After that, Fergi tried to resurrect its artistic tradition in the form of an annual social, but that too was banned because of vandalism. Finally, the only surviving student event of any kind became ‘Quicksilver’, which emphatically banned any big music programs, as these are the ones that are notorious for inspiring eve-teasing, vandalism, and all kinds of untoward events. It’s a great pity but that’s how college events can be…

In any case, that ended my dream of performing live in Fergi…or so I thought.
In 1999, the year that our team clinched Verve, a few of us conferred and decided to try our best to convince the administration to let us perform that year. We made many trips to the principal’s office, to the cultural secretary’s office, and the vice-principal’s office. We implored them to let us play. We had won a prestigious student competition, and couldn’t we just repeat the performance? After a lot of cajoling, and pulling a few strings, we heard the verdict; yes, we could perform, provided we don’t play ‘loud songs’.
On the last day of Quicksilver, a few hundred people packed into the Fergi auditorium to see us perform. My joy at the event simply cannot be described in words; playing and performing on stage gives me unadulterated pleasure that is second to none.
We had a complete blast. In addition to the usual songs, we sang and played many extra ones. I sang an old favourite of mine with a melodious friend; the hilarious ‘Paanch rupayya bara aana’ from the classic ‘Chalti ka naam gadi’. I wished that the show would never end…
However, there is no free lunch, and in the end, someone did break a few windows and manhandle a professor. Luckily, our show had ended by then, but after that, musical orchestras were permanently banned from Ferguson College, and to my knowledge, such a show has never again taken place in Fergi. Some years ago, the arts circle was dissolved, and now, except for literary and academic fests like ‘Wall Street’ no musical program will grace the campus of Ferguson College. I count myself very, very lucky to have been able to perform in that Amphitheater, whose walls have resonated with words and notes for almost a century now…

As I progressed in my career, it became impossible to sustain my passion for science with an equal passion for music, and I had to say no to many invitations that I received for playing, especially from Anand, who continued his musical celebration. The last time I participated in a semi-professional program, was in 2001, when me and Anand organised a show in the Ganpati festival for a housing society off Tilak Road. It was a nice, homely program in a makeshift 'theater' in the parking lot, and there were many 'farmaishe' (popular demands) from the audience. We sang many Marathi songs and catered to the wishes of the senior citizens in the audience. The kids in the society never balked from coming to the front and dancing to the tune of fast numbers. Old and young members alike were tapping their feet to the music...It is a fond and enduring memory...
Luckily, as a hobby, music is something in which one can indulge quite extensively, and I believe that very few hobbies compare to the satisfaction gained from playing a musical instrument. For that, I will always be thankful.

Thus, my musical journey has given me the best time of my life, and will continue to do so. Music is truly the food of the heart, and as Handel said, there is no passion that this king of the arts cannot arouse and quell. My faithful musical companion Anand will continue to accompany me on this journey; we have planned another informal program this December when I visit India. Indian and Western Classical music, and most importantly, old hindi film songs that I first played years ago entertain and provide an emotional buttress for me like no other, and they take me back to my childhood and an infinitude of memories. Here’s to more Decembers, more SJ songs, more performances, more late night practices, and a lifetime of melody and rhythm...