From knee to ankle

12:13 AM. The room is lit only by my laptop’s flat light. I’m wearing shorts. My finger runs down from my knee idly. Almost immediately, it pauses. Something’s there. A little scar. It probes this irregularity. It feels its contours, tracing it without looking, without sight. And then it moves on. The next one comes. My fingers reached it so quickly. It’s not close to the first one, that’s not why. It’s because the smooth undulating skin was passed over quickly. I stop only at the scars and the imperfections. Because the smooth skin, I take for granted. It’s what everything else is supposed to resemble, isn’t it?

This is how I’m designed to think. In faults, in probing the scars, not noticing the miles of smoothness in between. Does anyone else feel like they are small? That they wish they could do more, in whatever way they feel it’s their duty to make a difference in the world?

I think the fancy thing to say would be to celebrate those scars. What if instead, we were to radically, acknowledge the scars for what they are and go more slowly over the smooth skin? What if we savoured the silky feeling from scar to scar, breath held in, for the amazing length of unbroken skin?

Our losses are important, and our mistakes are precious in that we can look back and see where we went wrong. But why celebrate that when you can celebrate the victories instead? Perhaps we’d be happier if we valued the little wins and the big losses, the victories that bring tears to our eyes, and the mistakes that we can laugh at now? All for a wide range of dizzying reasons. No two for the same reason.

Because even in the dark, I can tell the scars are different. And each place in the smooth skin talks of a different journey.

On rectangular sheets of paper

Of late, one of the things that have been disturbing me and scaring me is the pathological need for consuming that we feel. I’ve come across some excellently written pieces detailing why we should be very scared, and I got appropriately worried. (This gorgeous article by George Monbiot, for example.) My biggest issue with it, with consumerism, is that it’s happening all around me. I’m doing it, and you’re doing it. And over seven billion of us are doing it.

I hope to be an ecologist. I would never use the argument, ‘Don’t do this to the earth’, because that implies that the earth in some way can be broken by us. This is not difficult to picture. We cause earthquakes and tsunamis and whatnot with our anthropogenic activities. But this simply makes us break. People in towns and cities by the sea coast are swept away to die when a tsunami hits. Buildings fall and bridges break when an earthquake strikes.

An argument that is more difficult to not use, is “Don’t do this to the animals and the forests”. Because these are more special than the wind and the water and the sky. These are living, and they breathe. But that might not be a great argument either. Because, when forests are cut down, well … so many bad things happen, it suffices to say, I think. Bad things for us, though. Us, human beings. Animals will die with us too, as the planet warms, but that isn’t our biggest fear.

If you are handed a lot of extra cash one month, no strings attached, what would you do with it? Chances are you have a bunch of things you’ve really wanted for a long time, not really needed, because then you might have somehow squeezed your wallet and bought them before. Maybe a holiday at an exotic resort, or a fancy painting, or just a lot of pizzas over many nights. Some people may decide to invest it, or to save it for later. To eventually either pass it down to their children, or to buy something like a house later, years down the line. Either way, so much of our money, those papers we hold on to with so much pride and entitlement, goes into bettering our own lives or those of our progeny.

News is made when someone chooses the radical path of not doing this. I read somewhere that JK Rowling lost her billionaire status because she gave away so much of her money to charity. That Bill Gates and his wife do so much for other people. I will not say these are small gestures, looking at the amount of money these people have made. I am not a judge.

I just wish this became the norm. That the change slowly begins and spreads, till we can compete to see which of us has done more to alleviate the growing gap in standards of living that is everywhere in this world. How amazing would it be, if we went to a different country to pursue the course of a lifetime, to get the job of a lifetime, and then look back to see all the hardships we faced to get there. And then make a quiet decision to say, “Wow, I did good.” and then resolve then and there to pay it forward, instead of keeping all the goodness that we brought ourselves. To give it away to well researched causes, to bring education within the reach of children who work at brick kilns, so that they might have a chance to make their own lives, to reach out and take the opportunities that you once took yourself. What if the money were used to buy life-saving drugs in some part of the world, or in your neighbourhood, so that men and women do not die from tuberculosis? What then? Do you think we might still miss the more expensive brand of makeup we were so going to upgrade to, if we had more money?

What if being proud of your country were to mean comparing scores on who’s more green, in the true sense of the word, and seeing where there aren’t bold, decisive lines separating those who have and those who do not?

No laws are being passed that ask you to not revel in your riches and buy the world away. But do the biggest motions and the strongest fights start in support of laws to change the world for the better? They start in the hearts of people who believe they should be doing more and those who treasure what they’ve been given and cannot wait to give back to the people, animals, and yes, the very air we breathe.

‘Development’ has come to mean ‘more’. Spending more, buying more, consuming more. The rat race is on to see who wins at this loser’s game. The answer is simple – it’s none of us.

It’s the 21st century. The time has come, for introspection. To see what we can give instead of what more we can take.

Let’s not pave the way for Wall-E on earth. He’d be terribly lonely, and would see no beauty.

The magic of chopped onions

It’s almost ridiculous how many different forms silence and space can take. A few short months ago, I made a note on my phone. The note read “Silence and space must be in cahoots.” I stopped under a tree after a quiet lunch by myself. See, quiet lunches and silence and space can be a little intimidating. A little daunting, if you will.

Imagine coming back home after a long, tiring day. Doesn’t matter how you got tired – physically, mentally. You unlock the door and you see … nothing. It’s so beautiful. 600 something square feet all to myself, not a soul to bother me. Except the cat who graces me with her company sometimes. I can’t believe I ever thought of this as difficult or scary. It’s so liberating. It’s so beautiful.

I don’t know when I will get the chance to live alone again. I got devilishly lucky this time, to even do this. But since ecology and conservation aren’t exactly money making careers, I simply don’t know if I will be able to afford this highest of all luxuries ever again. Worked out this time because my parents paid for it.

And boy, have I treasured it. Come to my house. And you’ll see a large snacks box close to the bed, lid closed. Over it, a bra flung carelessly, because with curtains drawn and doors locked, why do you need to be clothed? Dishes piled up in the sink, from yesterday. I love cooking for myself. I deal with everything I make me. In my 21 years, I have never tolerated thick dosais without complaint. For the past few months, they’ve been thick as hell. I don’t care. I found the magic of chopped onions. I make pasta, I make sprouts to eat healthy. Every day, I rush back to my solace at 4 so I can get tea time started.

They really make everything fun. Credits: Wired

Then there are days when I knock myself out scrubbing and washing and sweeping and mopping and dusting. At the end of it, I look and feel disgusting. But I’m overjoyed. I’m overjoyed that everything is clean, done to perfection the way I like it, without anyone telling me I was nuts to do it that way.

This is the place where I never need headphones. I binge watch shows into the night. And when I suffer in the morning because I didn’t get enough sleep, I take it with as much grace as possible. Because I’m glad no one helped me, that no one suggested I go to sleep earlier. Bliss. And the singing. The singing whenever I felt like, loud and clear. Sometimes when the sun is burning outside, sometimes at 2 in the night.

My first few months were so difficult here. I won’t forget them in a rush. Here’s something I want everyone to know. I saw a therapist because I found it difficult to adjust to this big, bold, in your face change in my life. I missed home terribly. I missed the fact that there was no one to ask me how my day went when I came home and turned on the lights. I resented having to run to the shop nearby if I needed something in a rush. My laptop more often than not played sitcoms so the laugh track and the imaginary people would fill the silence and negate it. But I saw a therapist, because one day, I decided I had the resources and the exposure to understand that a trained professional might be able to help me be happy. Because by then, I had already started questioning myself what more I needed to be happy. When I found my answer, it blew me away in its simplicity. This is important. There’s no point you have to reach when it’s okay to see someone. All it is, is a talk. Don’t let society judge you for it one day, with good or bad intentions. It’s up to people like us who are willing to break down the barriers when it comes to mental health to do it ourselves first. So if you’ve been unhappy for a while, please, go and have a chat once. There are no textbook cases. You don’t have to wait till you feel anything “extreme”.

And since then, this has been my quiet, breathtaking kingdom, where I roam unfettered. There’s not a thing I would change about it. Except, of course, I’m going to stop living here in less than a month. But I’ve come to accept that as well, in my heart. Because this has been so precious, I understand all of life cannot be this guileless. But that’s alright. I was afraid of doing this by myself, just like so many other people are. And I’ve done it now. I’ll never be afraid to be alone with my thoughts again. I cannot tell you without tearing up what a great, great feeling that is.

If ever you’re given an opportunity to live by yourself, don’t be afraid. You’re such great company, trust me. You’ll see it sooner or later, and then you’ll be the person who has to drag you away to go get stuff done outside of that space you so lovingly made for yourself. It’s so rare for this to happen to someone like me: a young Indian woman. I am so very grateful for this, and everyone who supported me through the bad days and listened to the best of me on my highest days. No, not on weed. On life alone.

Colour me not

I’m going to be that snobby person in your circle who craps on Holi. Google has a pretty awesome Doodle on their mobile platform today, and I spent a whole 10 minutes in bed colouring it in different ways.

See? One of the Doodles I coloured.

But my appreciation for Holi stops there. Granted, it’s not a truly horrifying festival the way the Diwali is (or at least the modern iteration of Diwali). But on any other day, if I walked around with coloured powder on my cheeks, people would snigger behind my back. People gawk and make you uncomfortable if you wear blush on your cheeks or any kind of makeup on the streets anyway. That’s you appropriating the West, and you must be stopped lest you take away their chances to play Holi from them.

But my problem with Holi is much more personal than all that. I don’t want coloured powder on any part of me or on my belongings. I don’t want strangers touching me. I have issues like that. Issues this country cannot understand because we do not understand the concept of personal space. To be fair, many in the country cannot afford personal space. But they aren’t the ones roaming about like colourful clowns in my college campus today. Plus, they’re loud as hell. I don’t get it. You take powder (ew, some probably went under your fingernails and chances are you’re going to eat it with lunch), you put said powder on person who’s wooting ecstatically, also having completed the same action on another person. And woooooooooo, that’s it. This is the entirety of what I observed today. Maybe they put it in each other’s eyes and the pain is fun in loud ways?

So I thought I could escape all the loudness and cycle away to lunch. Only, my path was full of colour hooligans. They yelled as I cycled past, presumably because I was boringly just skin-coloured, with boring clothes that were not blasted with powder. And they tried to put the stuff on me as I cycled past them. This resulted in my instinctively swerving on two occasions, one time almost colliding into one of the idiots and another time, narrowly escaping colliding into a bike.

The concept of consent is something else we don’t like talking about. ‘Yes, I want the powder on me’ is very different from ‘No, I do not want the powder on me.’ I shook my head as I was riding. And earlier “friends” tried to put some on me. I lied and said I had allergies. Because they don’t understand any other reason for not participating than a medical emergency, apparently. This is a real problem. This nation assumes its people are homogenous, even as it marginalizes those who aren’t like the majority of its people. And I have been othered in many ways for many years now. This is not new for me, people assuming I’m a certain way, only to not get it when I tell them I’m not, in fact, like that. That’s okay, I can deal with it. But don’t put the powder on me.

But perhaps you’re all not to blame. You just don’t know any better because everyone around you likes the same things you do. Maybe I should tell people in advance next year, or start a club for people like me so we can make bold signboards we can wear around our necks on Holi. “Stop, I’m not like you, I don’t like rangoli powder on my skin because it makes me go ew.”

I mean, come on. I was raised in Chennai. I’m Tamil. Holi doesn’t even hold any relevance for me. I don’t have to comply. Plus I have a schedule for washing my hair, and it was only yesterday that I washed it. I don’t want to wreck my schedule or clean pink out of my hair because you blew powder on me!

It’s a tiny issue, this. The worst that could have happened today would have been the cleaning of gunk and the consequent wrecking of said schedule. Things I would have grumbled about, but done and moved on. But I definitely think there’s a bigger point here. One in which we are not aware that people are different, that introverts are very different from extroverts, and that personal space is very important to some of us.

Please, some consideration would be really nice. Happy Holi, everyone. Spare us and the dogs and cats you see around you.

Recognizing privilege for what it is

I am a woman. I am a feminist. I cannot imagine not fighting for equality or not bristling when I see this truly revolting song on the internet, ever:

I hate that this is going to get this bullshit another view

But like I said, I’m a feminist. And that means equality between genders, between all people. So I can’t not see this – that I am privileged in this society because I am a woman. A middle class woman receiving an education, not limited financially unduly and not dictated by regressive notions.

I am the woman who lives alone. I am the woman who looks around in the beach distrustfully if not very many people are there, yes. But I am also the woman whom the upstairs neighbour took an interest in and offered to store stuff in the summer for.  I am the woman whose legs and body are stared at when I wear shorts and go out to shop for groceries. But I’m also the woman who has my owners going out of their way to make sure I have drinking water.

What a privilege it is to live alone in this country! We are part of a nation that has no regard for maintenance of personal space, and yet, here I am, living alone. But the biggest reason why I would have been expected to never live alone is because I am a woman. No one wants to let a woman stay alone, no one wants her bringing men home, no one wants her exploring her sexuality or being vocal about it. Menstruation is considered a taboo subject and the amount of slander just online against every aspect of a woman’s life makes me want to cry and cry until it all goes away. It makes me want to beg to be taken seriously, beg for something that I know I should not have to beg for.

But this is not about that. This is about how I am in a unique position. A place my parents, my education and the secluded society I live in have put me in. I was born a Brahmin. This means, I have had privilege for decades, for centuries. It means my grandfather was a doctor in a time when so few men had access to quality education. My parents saw fit to put me in a school that instilled values I will carry for the rest of my life. Believe me when I say I was 16 years old when I found out people outside my sphere fought tooth and nail over marks and courses and whatnot. And to this day, I do not want to be top of my class, or the best in the entire world. I’ve come to realise that that in itself is a privilege so many people cannot afford in their lives. Hell, the fact that I think college is shit stems from my privileged upbringing.

I’m fair skinned and I fit the “ideal” body image through very little effort of my own. Genetics. Even genetics has bestowed me with privileges. I am not rich. But I work for money. I can speak and write English fluently enough to pass of as a native English speaker which means I get to work. I write and I earn money. That, right there, is privilege. To make 500 rupees while half-mindedly churning out crap for an hour, whenever I choose to do so. It is more privilege than being handed the money, because this is mine, all mine. To feel that empowerment that I know so many women in this country will never have a chance to feel.

The biggest privilege of all? What I’m choosing to do with the rest of my life. Ecology. Hopefully writing about it too, somewhere down the line. Ecology and conservation, in our world, is almost like signing up to do thankless philanthropy. And because of my privilege, this can be my actual real choice of career. Well, that and the fact that I’m okay with having hardly any possibility of being rich.

This is why it irks me so much when I see pseudo feminists out there, baying for blood and saying that men have it all easy. As a woman, you have the privilege to cry without being ridiculed, to point fingers and sue if your marriage goes downhill even if you were the bitch. And if we are to be respected and our cause heard, then we need to address the obvious privileges we inherently have.

If it didn’t make me want to throw up, I’d be keeping a gratitude journal and doodling colourful things in the borders. Not kidding. Look it up.

Actually, here:

Uh, credit to … whoever

Talking about science

Today’s Education Plus carried two well-written articles that took up almost a whole page. What were they on? The two opposing standpoints when it comes to communicating science. Should scientists consider it part of their job descriptions in this age of social media and global access to information, to communicate their work to the public? Or is it not possible to communicate all the proceedings of the scientific world because the layman will simply not be able to understand it, unless it was simplified such that the a big chunk of the work is lost in translation?

The articles:

  1. Are scientists responsible for communicating their work to the general public?
  2. ‘There is a huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon’

First of all, I want to whoop and punch the air, because it’s amazing that this article was published wherever Education Plus went today in the country. I’m an aspiring ecologist, and a science communicator right now. No presents for you if you figured out which side of the argument I’m on. That very page in the Education Plus has carried articles based on translations I have written, on macaques and more.

I’m going to be talking about this from a personal angle now. Some of the articles I’m most proud of writing happen to be ones I’ve written on climate change (here) and one on turtle conservation (here).  I just took a moment to imagine now how maybe someone read these articles, and they went, ‘Huh. That’s something to think about’, or ‘Oh. Didn’t know that’. Or someone was just interested, the way I was when I read the articles that inspired this post this morning. The point of any communication is to express views, or in this case, facts and ongoing research. The point is also to make a little bit of an impact on the reader.

Just think about it. If science made an impact on common people, our world would be much better off for it. In the last few years, we’ve seen so much rioting against science. People claiming that vaccines are harmful, people saying climate change is a myth and the distrust of things that are born from a laboratory. I really think a big reason for such issues is the fact that we didn’t make as many infographics, we didn’t fill enough columns of our newspapers and blogs with science. There was an abundance of baking videos and cat memes and we all swallowed those up. But did we make enough short clips on the research that we do?

I get it. Writing about ecology must be a lot easier than writing about physics or chemistry. I’m even going to go out on a limb here and say a lot of people would rather read an article about an elephant dispersing seeds in the forest than some part of an atom that can do something they barely understand. Soft sciences like ecology do seem to be easier to write about and easier to read as well. But should we shirk away from talking about the difficult, complex, amazing things we do in our lives as scientists because it’s difficult to put into words? Isn’t doing science challenging in new ways every day? If we can accept that and love it, maybe it’s time for us to consider this as part of the job too?

Scientists are forced to pander to the masses/other scientists not strictly from their field when it comes to securing sponsors and funding. Not very many people seem to like this process. It would be disastrous if writing about their work for the public was viewed in the same vein. Within conservation in particular, there is so much negative talk about how scientists these days are making it about doing practical, applied work more than studying animals and ecosystems for what they are in their entirety. A balance really needs to be found, with us not poking fun at each other, both with respect to doing science as well as writing about it. Because the need of the hour is so very different now that what it was before. And the tools we’ve been given to communicate science are also significantly more powerful.

I’m obviously biased. It’s not easy for everyone to write in a simplified manner. I can do it, but I don’t know if I can write the complex versions of what I write. Perhaps then it’s just about the style of communication and that’s where it should be left. Or maybe we should have more communities like the Science Media Centre, which do this job for scientists, quite happily. The setup works. Not everyone in science might want to take on the task of doing their work as well as talking about it. All they have to do is cooperate with people who do want to write about their work. Maybe it’s time to encourage the community of science writers who want to do this instead.

Because science, is everything.

Along with literature.

And music.


Where did the questions go?

Sitting here, lost. Wondering if I care, not knowing if I’ve made the right choices in life. Apathy. I think I know what to blame.

What is the difference between learning and studying? I think it may mean something a little different to each person. But in my head, I associate studying with cramming for a test, memorizing what I need to pass an exam. And this has consumed my life for the past 6 years, at a minimum. Because it’s so incredibly difficult right now to feel something as simple, supposedly, as curiosity. I am a student of science, and I cannot find it in me to ask questions. The burning curiosity I read about, and the sparks that keep people up all night seem like fiction to me.

And yet, I cannot claim to have been a true part of this system that endorses rote learning so much. I was one who was mostly removed from the worst of it. I was always encouraged to ask questions, to explore on my own. (That’s school. College truly sucked. Don’t go if you can help it.) But I guess if you live here in this society today, you can’t escape all its trappings. It’s too difficult to thwart all the different aspects of this mind-numbing system we have in place. They come at you from everywhere.

I’ve questioned my motives for doing things outside of school, and I’ve never really found the motives to be curiosity. No, nothing so simple. It’s been so I can write a paper, to present my work somewhere, so I can get ahead. Not to truly understand, not to get an answer so I can go to sleep knowing I had a question and I worked till I found something that satisfied me. And I wonder, why do we do anything at all then? I claim to be interested in ecology and conservation and animals. And yet, I cannot find it in me to just wonder why a butterfly has that pattern, why it flies the way it does. What then, is the purpose of my doing this? Am I ever going to feel that wonder people talk about, when they finish something they chose to do?

Thinking about butterfly patterns. Credits: Pranav Balasubramanian

I feel like we’ve definitely lost our way here, somewhere along the line. We now seem to be a generation of youngsters unable to want to work on things unless the system gives us rewards for it. This makes sense, in a way. If you are just starting your career, and you pick some obscure subject no one is willing to fund you for, then you’re probably going to be in trouble. But it’s definitely possible to find a balance in life. I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly feel like I will have a much easier time working out the practicalities of my work. Because that’s the bit you do with the system in mind. With accolades and rewards in mind. But the rest of it is what makes science science. And perhaps it’s a quest we all have to embark on, to find that spark. Is the spark real?

The how will have to be figured out. In the meanwhile, I’m stuck here in so much doubt. Am I not feeling it because I thought I was interested in this and turns out I’m not? A simple test I do with myself to help with this is the ‘What would you rather be doing?’ thing. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. So here I am. That’s not it, apparently. What does passion mean anymore? Is this only me and my issue with the system? Because I truly want to move past this.

All the productivity issues we face as a generation… are those causal factors? Are they effects of this? How is it we’re okay with so many things taking precedence over things that should really matter, when it comes to learning? Why have we allowed studying to replace learning? Is it because no one’s going to praise you when you do find out why the butterfly has those patterns, but they’ll throw you a party and sing songs about you if you top your board exams?

The real question: why is working it out and finding answers not enough? Why do we not have the questions?