Unbalanced parentheses

May 27, 2008

The scourge, we are told, started off when an artificial intelligence designed to study the genomics of drug resistant retroviruses created a simulation. An electronic algorithm that, when applied to simulated tissue, would replicate the way these pathogens took over the immune systems of living organisms. The scientists at the National Institute of Pathology figured they could then simulate drugs to see if they worked. The initial results were encouraging, and it was decided that the electronic bugs would be manufactured for testing. When they opened the fabricator, instead of a few micrograms of drug resistant retrovirus, they found that the chamber was filled with a crystalline white powder..

“No, that’s not a good opener”, the director said. “We need something more dramatic – something that starts with explosions, cars being thrown around, that kind of stuff”

When you are a scriptwriter, you come across a lot of morons. I couldn’t do anything about it, though.. he was American, and true to his upbringing, lacked even a trace of subtlety.

“I’ll try reworking this draft. How about we meet next week?”

“Sure. Lets meet next week. Listen, do you want to go to this flying human contest thing? I have free tickets.”

I had no other plans for the evening, and so i agreed.

The contestants had been lined up in a giant enclosed arena the size of a football field with a wooden flooring resembling a basketball court. Here and there were odd flying machines designed to make humans fly under their own power. A mutant with bird like wings flapped his wings in a corner. Another guy had a propeller like contraption in his hat. Other mechanisms were evidently attempting to use the operator’s digestive gases as fuels. What struck me, however, was a guy in a white coat, with no apparent mechanism with which to fly, strolling around, whistling to himself. It was clear he fancied himself the winner.

When it started, it was clear to me that the term “flying” could barely be applied to any of these purveyors of glorified hops. The contest quickly grew monotonous. As the announcers droned on about flight specs and mechanism designs, i dozed off. I woke up to wild cheering. The announcer shouted, “Behold! the multicolored flying man”. I was rapt in attention.

The flying man stood up and proceeded to remove his white lab coat. Standing at the start line, he rubbed something that looked like a white powder onto his neck and his gums. It looked suspiciously like some kind of drug. Then he started running, each step growing into larger and larger bounds. The crowd cheered. As he leapt high into the air, I knew that this was the real deal. The cheering turned into a roar as the man took to the air and circled the glowing screen in the middle of the arena, otherwise used to display magnified images of the contestants. Green patterns appeared on the skin of his back, ever changing, ever whirling, kaledioscopic, changing to blue and purple, as the announcer yelled “Not only does it make you fly, it also has a cosmetic effect!!!” I barely stifled the scream that arose from the back of my throat. It was time to run.

“That’s a pretty weird way to start it, isn’t it?,” drawled the director, munching on some peanuts, “I can see that you are going for the whole story-in-a-story angle. But our audience is just not going to be able to appreciate it, you know. It might be too high-brow for them””

This was frustrating. Here I was, trying to come up with a storyline that would redefine movies in this genre. And all this guy wanted was exploding cars.

On the way out, I stopped by the coffee machine to have a drink of water. As I turned around, I noticed a figure perched in the window at the end of the hallway. He was startled to see me and jumped off. Surprised, I ran up to the window and looked out. From between the leaves of the trees lining the street, I saw the man standing on the street. He waved to me and walked on by.

On the window sill, I noticed a dusting of fine white crystals that looked like salt. I pressed my fingertips to it, and noticed that a few of them clung on. Instinctively, I rubbed them into the crook of my neck. An amazing sensation overpowered me as I jumped out of the window and sailed onto a ledge on the building across the street. Every thing took a tinge of… red. I felt an intense hunger.

The previous evening, I had lay hiding in a ditch by the side of the road as a car passed by. The thing I feared was in the hedges across the highway, a purple gelatinous mass with an insatiable hunger. As the car passed by, the thing emerged onto the highway and took the form of a giant purple octopus, arms flailing about, beak exposed, gnashing away. One of its tentacles grabbed the car and ground it to a halt. The other broke the window open on the drivers side, and wrenched me from the wheel. I considered trying to escape, but the urge to discover what it felt like inside the behemoth overtook me, and I submitted. After all, it would make for good special effects in my film. Tentacle coiled around me, I was whisked to the beak. I felt my body being torn to pieces. And then there was.. silence. Utter darkness.

I knew I was dreaming, of course. But dreams are interesting as long as they do not involve the prospect of being eaten up by monsters. This one had become too morbid. It had gone out of hand. I desperately needed to wake up. Looking around my room, I noticed the metallic door with the flashing exit sign, and I decided to make my way out. I pulled on the handle and it gave. The door opened onto another, slightly smaller door of the same metallic texture – a smaller version of the first that just fitted inside its frame. The second door opened on to a third, smaller, door.. That’s when I knew I was trapped.

I decided to make my way back to the elevator. As I flew back to my window, chaos had broken loose. The air was full of vampire toothed flyers creating mayhem – the white powder had taken them over. I ran to the elevator and took it down to the lobby. The lobby looked as neat as ever – crystal chandeliers reflecting off the marble floors. I waved to the security guards standing behind their table to the right and stepped out into a gorgeous sunny New York day.

The polyps came out of nowhere – seemingly blossoming from tiny cracks in the pavement. The looked like purple zucchini flowers, but the speed at which they grew astonished me. Turning left and right, opening their yawning maws and devouring everything they could eat – passerbys, cars, the hot dog stands at the corner, vendors included. Something told me that just a few minutes ago, they had been people, now assimilated into this purple agglutination that could make its way underground, much as water could.

Fearing for life, I turned around into the lobby. And things changed. The precise thought that ran through my mind was that a phase shift had occured. Or was it deja vu?

The glass walls of the lobby had been shattered to pieces. The power was off, and the place was deserted. It was winter. Turning back onto the street, I realized that the white powder covering everything, the pavement, the abandoned cars.. was not snow. It was a far more pernicious living dust – capable of turning humans to its will, initially giving them the ability to fly, and then devouring them alive. One by one, the dust consumed the cars, and turned them into more of itself. This was apocalypse. The final end of humanity by a scourge that men themselves had created.

“We are getting somewhere with this now,” the director said. “I like the whole end-of-the-world angle. One man fighting the odds against an overpowering foe. But let us make this a “regional” thing. You know, its not really the whole world that is in peril, it is just your city.”

The whole thing was too formulaic – a strange concoction of “Andromeda Strain” and ‘Godzilla”. But I had to give the guy what he wanted. Besides, I was taking the weekend off, and I did not want him bothering me.

It had grown dark now, and my headlights lit up the road ahead of me. The director was snoring in his seat as I drove on, a sense of urgency filling me up. Behind me, the lights of the city shone in the distance. The camp I was headed to was still some way off. Thats when I realized that a gelatinous mass was rolling through the fields to my right. Distracted as I was by this discovery, I did not see the incoming curve, and the car ran off the road into a clump of trees by the left and buried itself nose deep into a bank of loose earth. I banged my head on the wheel, but was otherwise unhurt. I knew the thing would sense us. The time had come to make my way through the woods and fields to the camp.

A half hour later, I crouched by a stream flowing through a ditch between two banks of trees. I heard a rustling off to my right, and I realized that she had escaped the city too. It was all good, and together we would make our way to the camp.

The camp lay across as floodlit field. Some tents, and a big warehouse resembling an aircraft hangar. Soldiers in Jeeps patrolled the field. We ran across, and were let into the warehouse. There were already hundreds here, but it was otherwise empty. The place had space and held food for thousands – good quality food, not the kind of glop that soldiers and college students have to eat. The kitchen itself was a marvel of culinary mass production. But more on that some other time. Right now, I was just curious to see how they would defeat the scourge.

An alarm sounded as the doors began to close, and simultaneously hundreds more emerged from the woods that lay beyond the field surrounding the camp – each eager and desperate to make their way into the stronghold before the extermination started. Someone said it was going to be some kind of poison gas, others thought it would be by burning everything that lay outside. Still others claimed that because of the electronic nature of the dust, they would fry it with an E.M.P.

The doors were shut even as people were streaming in. Some were cut off outside and tried to make their way in through the windows. Soon, the window shutters were also being lowered. The shutter lowest me had not closed fully – a tiny crack remained at the top. When they made the announcement that the extermination was commencing, I wondered if I should point it out to them. After all, if whatever they were doing outside managed to make its way in, we would be toast and the whole exercise would be rendered fruitless.

I need not have bothered. Someone smashed a rock in through the windows, and more people began to make their way in. However they were going to do it, it didn’t matter any more – the white dust was spreading through the fields, crawling and make its way towards our camp in the middle.

The city lay on the horizon, and a helicopter appeared over it. A bright beam of light shown out from the bottom of the helicopter – some kind of chemical laser, I thought. As it touched down on buildings in the city, they burst into flames. But the whole effort seemed pointless – the dust would soon overpower us, and in any case, even if they did reach us, they would surely just incinerate us.

The helicopter began flying towards us. In three or four quick flashes the beam under it shone out into the clouds above. At each touch of the beam, the clouds glowed and grew larger. The heat grew oppressive as the helicopter flew over us and disappeared. Meanwhile, the dust had reached the door of the warehouse and was eating through it.

And then it rained. Rainwater dissolved the dust and it was all over. Relief shone through on the faces of everyone I looked at. People were cheering and hugging. I felt disconnected from it all.

The alarm sounded and the flashing exit sign switched off. The lights in the theatre came back on. The ones who had turned up for the first screening applauded. The director congratulated me on a job well done.

The film went on to become a blockbuster. And as I awakened, I wondered why I, the only one of the survivors who had ever flown, had not been turned to salt.

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everglade

March 31, 2008

On an island in the middle of the reed-bound lake, lit by the glow of the setting sun stands a tree. The birds come in to roost – flocks of cormorants, gulls and egrets – from feeding grounds several miles to the south. We watch as they settle, our little kayaks bobbing up and down. After the sun has set, we resume our journey back to the little promontory where the van is parked.

Night falls by the time we reach the mangrove tunnels. Every tunnel is an act of negotiation: a little to the side, a little backward, and off we go again. From the boughs of the mangroves that line the tunnels watch millions of tree crabs, every one of them like a gnarled knot on the bark. Periodically, there are stretches of open lake, choppy from the wind that blows across them.

Illuminated by the light of a full moon, aromatic with the smell of decomposing organic matter that will be a precursor to new life, this is the water of the swamp. Mangrove roots jut sabre-like from the surface – a grim vision that resembles someone’s nightmare of a watery hell. And yet, the scene is inviting, homelike.

We are beings born of water. The opening scene of our lives is a breaking of water that heralds our arrival into the world. We spend the first nine months of our existence floating in amniotic fluid, life-giving and briny, in many ways similar to this water on which I now float. Expelled on birth, we are never truly home again. It is no wonder then that the first thing every newborn does is to cry.

My headlamp lights up a pair of shiny red eyes by the base of one of the mangroves – a prized sight. Alligator, the king of the swamp, the apex predator of this marshland.

When these reptiles first left the swamp and set foot on land, our ancestors were with them. As the thought crosses my mind, I feel a sense of kinship with this beast, and this encounter by the roots of the mangrove seems to me like a family reunion. There is no fear, only curiosity.

The ancients were animists. They prayed to the elements; the birds and the trees and the beasts were their friends and kinsmen. Every creature with a spirit of its own – all connected, sacred. Here, I understand why.

Here, I am able to leave the profanity of everyday life behind. I feel connected. This is me. These are my arms that ache a little from paddling for the last few hours. This is air I breathe. This is water (from whence I came).

to nobody in particular (a theme revisited)

December 27, 2007

It’s been two days since I heard that you died.

It was afternoon when my brother’s grandson woke me up and shouted out the news to me. He said someone had called. I wonder why he thinks that I am hard of hearing.

I made them find your son’s number in the phone book and called him. He said you had mentioned my name a few times, but he did not remember ever meeting me. I don’t think he knew about us, and I let it be. So I offered my condolences. He sounded a lot like an older you – but perhaps, that is because you were only twenty when I last spoke with you.

I never apologized for going away. So here – I am sorry. I suppose it was some consolation that, years later, I found I shared a name with one of your children. I wish I could have spoken to you after, but I saw it your way. It would have served no purpose.

I remember that on the way back, I prayed that you would have waited, but I guess some prayers are meant to be unanswered. I knew that there would be no one else after you, and things stayed that way.

This is not a farewell. I bade good bye sixty five years ago. I did not mean it to be final, but that’s how it was meant to be. I suppose it turned out well. But I always wondered if things could have been better.

I have not written in a while now. It is rather difficult these days. My eyesight is failing and my mind spends most of its time browsing through memories. Some of those memories have you in them.

With me they will perish. They will be our secret – forever lost to the world.

Happy Holidays

December 12, 2007

holidays.gif

Why i write about trains..

November 15, 2007

I have often wondered what compels me to write about trains. I just went over some of the material I have written, mainly prompted by this, and I realized that they seem to pop up in the strangest places. Odd enough as it may seem to you, it has never been a conscious choice.

If i delve a little deeper into the weirdness that lies within, I could probably come up with flaffy psycho-analytical explanations for the railroad theme – like feeling a constant sense of displacement, of always anticipating the next time I will move from where ever I live, and so on. However, I honestly think that is not the case, for then my focus would not have been exclusively restricted to trains (why not flying? or road-trips? or bus journeys??) . It would also not explain my obsession with abandoned railroads. I think there is a much simpler explanation. I like trains and railroads because they represent a very nice period of my life – a time when I thought that being a railway engine driver was the coolest job in the world. Like most other things, the obsession with railroads has to do with memories.

When I was little, there was a show on Indian TV. I think it was called Yatra, but I cannot be sure. It was about the stories of people who made this train ride along the Jammu-Tawi express from Jammu to Kanyakumari. To this day, I believe that it was one of the most awesome TV serials to have ever aired on Doordarshan. In any other country, the premise of basing an entire show on a single train journey would have been laughable – it made perfect sense in India.

I have many memories of trains. There are childhood memories of walks taken on the platform at Bhusaval station on the Bombay-Howrah line with the father, as they changed engines from Diesel to Electric. I remember getting anxious about the train leaving and being assured by Dad that it would not. Or, more closer in time, eating cold vada-pav (with gunpowder) at Igatpuri on a winter morning on the way home for the winter break from college, and watching my breath mist over as it rose in the cool air, and feeling good that I was only three hours away from home. Then there is the odd evening spent in a railway waiting room in Jolarpet, waiting for a connection to Cochin – and having my first full fledged south indian meal (mainly consisting of a heap of rice and lots of sambhar). Bribing cops and ticket collectors (“Bees rupaye se humaaraa kya hoga sahab? Kam se kam pachaas to dene padenge na?”) while making a two day journey across the country without a reservation. Memories of being ragged on the way to college, of a girl who sneaked over with me to the upper berth, of an argument amongst friends long since scattered to different parts of the world – an argument that eventually came to blows and was stopped by the railway cops, and of the sikh gentleman (from Patiala, no less) sharing his booze from a water bottle filled with vodka (there – the obligatory reference to a stranger and substance abuse, all at one go).

It’s been a while since I traveled on an Indian train. Things were quite busy the last few years I lived in India, and flying was the preferred mode of transport. And honestly speaking, the two day journeys from Bumblefuckpur to B’bay and back had made me sick of the concept of traveling second class. The last few times I did take a train somewhere, it was in the antiseptic environs of an air-conditioned compartment – no vendors, no noise, and only a muffled awareness of the clickety clack of the wheels. In short, no fun.

But I never quite took to flying – I never enjoyed it. Even long distance flights feel too short. Planes are very businesslike, trains much more personable. You make friends on a train, you get to know people, and at the end of the journey you part ways, in all probability never to see them again. Unlike the hurriedly cool professionalism of flying, trains are messy, raucous and interesting. Like life.

Life is beautiful..

September 3, 2007

My favorite flavor of ice-cream

August 28, 2007

Stalagmite, Postojnska Jama, Slovenia (August 2007)

Amongst other things..

August 8, 2007

A suspected confirmed tornado hit the houses on my block this morning. You can see a report here. I live about a hundred feet from where the reporter is standing.

I was awake and in the loo. It roared for about a minute and water poured in through the bathroom window like someone was spraying it in with a hose. The house shook.

A few houses on the street lost their roofs. My roof is intact.

I went back to sleep, only to be woken up by cops and firemen banging on my door as they evacuated the neighborhood.

Since I was fast asleep, they had to bang on the door real hard.

As is apparent, my life is very exciting.

Overheard in the elevator

August 6, 2007

“Hey, I see you a lot around these days. What are you working on?”

“Something completely useless”

“But publishable?”

>Laughter<

“You know, when I was at Lehigh, we used to say that a drug is something that when injected into a rat, produces a paper”

A story for PGP

July 25, 2007

Here’s one that I first told the night before Holi eleven years ago, at a tin-roofed chai shop, over hot chai and chhota gold flakes. At the time, I was a sophomore at SWITBEI (Somewhat Well-known Institute of technology in Bumblefuck, Eastern India).

**

SWITBEI is located, amongst other things, at the site of a former political prison where freedom-fighters were tortured *and* the place where the USAAF XX bomber command (the one that later dropped the Atom Bomb), was headquartered for the better part of the war. There were several airfields within a radius of a few miles, some of them used for staging air-transport operations over the Hump to supply China, and others for air-defence. Three of them are used by the IAF to this day – one as an airbase, the other the site of a large ground control site, and the third as a bombing range. Others lie abandoned – surreal concrete runways standing out amongst fields of paddy and tall grass – the planes, aviators and hangars have long since disappeared. The military has a sizable presence in the area – there is a large Army-EME establishment right next to SWITBEI, and there are Eastern Frontier Rifles have barracks near-by.

Sophomore year was also when I discovered the blessed plant – supply being cheap and plentiful in those parts.

**

We had decided that Holi would be celebrated in a celebratory haze. Bhang was considered an inefficient way of doing it (takes too long)- we were all about smoking it up. Me and a few other herb lovers set off to find the perfect place to get stoned. The old runway beyond the fields of the agriculture engg department was decided to be one such place.

The runway stands at least a mile away from the nearest road, separated by a huge expanse of tall grass. There are a few high power transmission lines in the distance, and a couple of villages. There is an old dilapidated radar tower, and a couple of watchtowers, but nothing of note for miles around. This being bumblefuck, the villages don’t really have electricity. The train lines running to chennai can also be seen far away. You can almost see all the way to the horizon, only to be occasionally interrupted by clumps of trees here and there.

I had been to the runway once before, the night they shut down all the lights on campus so that you could have a clear view of the Leonid meteor showers – I remembered lying on my back on the grass and counted 300 shooting stars in the space of a few hours. So i knew my way around. We crossed the fence and we set out for the mile long slog through knee-high grass. It was a beautiful night – thousands of stars in a crystal clear sky. I had few worries. All was well with the world.

I was the first to get on to the cracked concrete runway. The others followed through. We sat in a circle and started rolling. SD had brought along a portable boom-box, and there was Floyd playing. A couple other first-timers had brought bottles of Old Monk, in case the green stuff wasn’t to their liking. Off in the distance, two passenger trains crossed each other window-spotted caterpillar-like – the view uninterrupted such that we could see their entire lengths on both sides.

AB was the first to notice the man walking towards our little gaggle. “Shit, i hope its not a guard”. We quickly stubbed our stuff out and hid it. As the man came closer, it was apparent to us that this was not a watchman – but a military officer of some sort, in a khaki uniform. This wasn’t entirely surprising, because the EFR barracks were only a couple of miles away. We were clearly in trouble.

“Who are you chaps?”, he said.

AB looked at his watch, and said, “Um, students”

“Students? What are you doing here?”

“Enjoying the night, sir”

I had already noticed that the man’s accent was rather *english*, and then he said, rather sternly, “You have to clear the runway and come with me. The planes are about to land.”

“Planes? here?”

At this point, we looked up, and saw that the sky was overcast. Over pouring rain, we could hear the drone of planes circling overhead. There were hundreds of twin-engined propellor planes lined up in the hardstands along the side. The officer was yelling at us by now, as a plane touched down at the end of the runway, and headed toward us. We got up and scattered. I set out to make my way to the road, and the safety of SWITBEI. I could see the planes landing one by one.

Then a huge blue arc of electricity raced down the high voltage lines and the planes were gone. It was no longer raining. The sky was clear.

I ran the three or so miles to the western gate without a break. So did the others. We reached the institute watchman’s shack. He was puzzled to see us drenched.

“Kaise bheeg gaye?”

“Baarish mein”

“Kaunsi baarish”

We were scared to death and tired, and in desperate need for some warmth. So we headed back to the chai-shop next to the dorm, eager to tell our story to the regular crowd there.

**

I ordered my third double chai. Bangu lit up another chhota, and said, “Either you are making it all up, or all of you hallucinated because of the G”

“It’s possible I am making this all up,” I said, “It’s also possible that all of us hallucinated, difficult as it may have been for all of us to hallucinate about the same thing at the same time. And how do you explain the fact that we are all drenched? In any case, it’s up to you to believe me.. I am not going to prove it to you.”

“The first one is easy to confirm”, V.K. said. “We can go there and see if the ground is wet. If it isn’t, they are making it up, since if they got drenched, and the thing really happened, the ground would have to be wet too.”

I told them I was too tired for an excursion. So VK and bangu decided to retrace our steps and I went to bed.

I must tell you here that the reason I was drenched was because we’d had a water fight after we had spent a couple of hours getting stoned on the roof of the dorm, that night. The runway was too far, and we were far too lazy.

**

Sometime late at night, there was a knock on my door.

“(My nickname), you m*%&@, wake up. Something’s wrong with bangu!”

I stumbled groggy eyed into the lobby of the dorm. V.K. had rushed to his room and was refusing to speak to anyone. Bangu was sitting on a plastic chair – pale, drenched, chain-smoking and mouthing something about a “Saala C-47’s pankhaa” having almost cut his head off. We coaxed him into bed.

The next day I asked him what a C-47 was. “How the f&#* do i know?” he said. I would quiz both him and VK occasionally, but they never really spoke about that night again.

In hindsight, two things stand out in my head. The first is that the sky had been absolutely clear all night, so I don’t know how he got drenched. The second is some thing I would get to know years later – that the C-47 was the USAAF designation for a prop-driven transport plane that was widely used during the operations over the hump. Whether bangu knew of it at the time, it is impossible to tell – he claimed he didn’t. This having happened before the internets had come in a big way to india, I like to believe him. I also like to believe that on an abandoned airfield in Bumblefuck that Holi night, strange things happened in a way I had imagined they would.

**