The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

An Autobiography

I found this document lying in my PC at home, written at the start of T.Y., and thought it would be worth sharing. Feel free to skip this stuff.
eople often talk about being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth. I’d say I was blessed with a BOSE Microphone. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t have the gift of gab. I’ve just always had the opportunity to express myself. As a student, I not only answer questions, but sometimes have the cheek to question my teachers’ answers. If I have an opinion on anything, I usually speak up – and people actually listen to me.

Throughout my school life, my report cards have carried the same remark: “The child is very well-informed.” The truth is, I only bother to look up things which I have a fancy to, and which almost always turn out to be pretty useless. For example, I could tell you how the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, and how the opening chapters of the fabled ‘Book of the Dead’ closely resemble the Purvanyas (preface) to the ‘Lalitasahasranamam’, and even a thing or two about Kirlian photography (ever heard of it?). But I wouldn’t be able to name the members of the Union Cabinet (in spite of the GK lecture) and I’m woefully ignorant about a number of issues (especially sports).

The point is, I’ve always been encouraged to question everything; and find the answers by myself and that’s what I’ve always done – asked and answered questions. My whole life seems to revolve around a single belief: “There’s an answer to every question. Some answers are sometimes unknown, but they’re not unknowable.” And so I tread the path of Science.

’ve been brought up in three very different places. I was born in Bombay in 1989, and left the city in 1992. I do have a few memories of the place, esp. from my school. We moved to Jorhat, Assam where we studied in two schools, Springdale & Carmel. Jorhat gave me some of my most beautiful memories – I remember how I was taught to eat the skin of the apple, I remember participating in a screaming contest, and how can I forget my sister’s uncanny ability to tell convincing lies. Also, this is where I got hooked to mythology.

In 1996, Baba took a transfer to Madras, mainly because I needed to stay close to Shankara Nethralaya. I owe my eyesight to the timely advice of the ophthalmologist in SN, Assam, who referred us to Dr. T. S. Surendran. Dr. TSS is like family to us, he’s been such a brick.
In Madras also, we studied in two schools. I completed my primary schooling in Jawahar Vidyalaya, and then we shifted to Padma Sheshadri Bala Bhavan.

My teacher in Carmel school had strongly advised my mother to put us in PSBB, which then became her obsession. We didn’t take admission the first time around, because there was some condition about getting shifted into a far-flung branch of the school. But later, they opened new sections in all the classes from KG to std. X in the K.K.Nagar branch i.e. they already had sections E, F, G, H and J and added sections K, L, M, N and R (all in the said branch). We passed an entrance test and an interview and finally became part of the PSBB family.

very school may be unique, but PSBB is eccentric. It was founded in protest against the convent schools, who “wouldn’t declare a holiday even for Ganesh Chaturthi”. Naturally, PSBB emphasized the propagation of our Vedic Heritage, while it carefully steered clear of any fundamentalist overtones. While this is common in South Indian schools, what makes PSBB stand out is its obsession with all things cultural.

It’s safe to say that every PSBB alumnus has a background in either vocal or instrumental music, or dance, or oratory or any of the other fine arts. And all this in spite of the fact that like most schools in Chennai, PSBB does not provide the Arts Stream in HSC. PSBB’s आनबानशान is its anniversary celebration in which a veritable army of students participate. The city’s biggest auditorium is hired and an extravaganza of silver screen proportions (YGP’s family is in showbiz) is presented for 4 days – because no auditorium can hold the parents (typically only one of them is allowed) of the students of 3 branches at one go. Needless to say this means that students and teachers get to miss classes for the preparations. And this isn’t the only occasion either – there’s the Sports Day (participation by the Std. XII students compulsory!) and the school’s cultural festival Reverberations to name a few. The icing on this cake is that PSBB has the least no. of working days amongst all schools (Saturdays are holidays in most educational institutions in the south) and that it pays its teachers peanuts.

The results? Unblemished records of 100% pass results in both the board exams, and an average score of 80% in the same. My particular batch produced 17 IITans, 2 Olympiad gold medallists (including yours truly) and most of the science crowd are happily sitting in NIT, Tiruchirapally. Balashree awardees and NASA interns abound.

Did I make it sound like paradise? Well forgive me, because that was my first impression when I stepped into that school. I had turned up late (I hold a late-coming record in that school as well) and the prayers had progressed to the Sudharshanashtakam (I didn’t know its proper name then) and hearing some 2000 kids chant in Sanskrit can transport anybody to heaven. (If you’re wondering about the other kids, the KG and primary sections assemble for prayers separately in the two other grounds present in the same campus)

What I’m trying to say is that it was anything but paradise. Although humility was the first lesson I learnt there, when I look back at all the things I’ve lived through, I can’t help feeling a little proud of myself. If the numbers are intimidating, then just imagine how difficult it would have been to cohabit with some of the most unfriendly kids of the planet (even if you ignore the culture shock). But I did more than just cohabit, I made friends, and it wouldn’t be enough to say that they were like lotuses born in the marshes, because they’re even more precious than that. And I had managed to make a name for myself (a good one, I think) big enough to distinguish myself among a multitude (I’m not exaggerating the number) of very talented students.

hen the time came to choose careers in std. X, the whole family gathered, we browsed websites of top colleges and read through syllabi of various courses. In the end I found I wasn’t interested in engineering, and that I was too lazy to be a doctor, and that the only subjects worth pursuing were pure physics and mathematics. However, I chose biology as my elective – a fateful decision.

I opted for bio because I didn’t want to miss out on the last opportunity to study the subject. I believe that a good scientist ought to have a working knowledge even about fields which are not in her area of specialization – because no branch of science is an island. But there were side-effects.

You see, I was now eligible to write various medical entrance exams (the PMT’s) – a fact quickly pointed out by my parents. “There’s immense scope for research in medicine... you don’t really need to practice... you’ll never have to retire... we need a doctor in the family, medical costs are sky-high...” I bought the idea and promptly entered the tutelage of S, S, S, and C.

Going to Prof. Sunderesan was a part of entering high school, even for folks like me who’ve never attended tuitions. We used to squeeze in, 80 of us (we brought in benches from neighbouring classrooms), and were treated to 2 hours of physics and philosophy delivered at 70 dB. All this at odd times such as 5:30 am on Sundays (churchgoers were exempted). He is an icon.

If I say that I won’t forget some things, like the solution to , till my dying breath, then I can say it because I was taught by Prof. Srinivasan. How many teachers would say a thing like “I’ll sponsor your trip to the suicide point if you don’t score a centum.”?

About Prof. Sridharan, I need not say anything except that our school’s chemistry faculty was so abysmal, that we depended on him to even pass the exams.

In spite of this, the unthinkable happened. My perfect academic record (I’d won the All Rounder Medal every single year and consistently ranked among the school’s top 10 till std. XI) was punctured when I failed in two subjects at once in the mid-terms. I flunked Chemistry again in the half-yearly. Although I wasn’t the only one to achieve this... er... feat, it came as a rude shock. And so I was bundled off to the high school equivalent of Rehab.

I’ll be condescending enough to acknowledge the only contribution that the Rehab made to my life – it taught me three things:
  1. If I made multicoloured notes and cheat sheets while studying, I would use both sides of my brain and therefore concentrate better.
  2. Indian parents (mine at least) are too self-assured to let small things such as highly trained counsellors affect them. They are sworn enemies of such people and their processes (no matter how effective these may be).
  3. If I want a good life, I need to fend for myself.
Things moved on, the year was eventful – our Dean & Director YGP’s 80th birthday, so biggies like A.R. Rahman, Prez. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan paid their respects, including her great fan Mr. N. Ram (editor of The Hindu – The Parthasarathy family’s heavy influence on the newspaper is part of the reason for my dislike of the paper, the other being lack of content). She also gave away silver coins and ‘Mysore Paks’ (Sree Krishna Sweets is an old ally) to all the graduating kids (don’t mistake her to be a charitable soul) and every kid had to buy a copy of her newly published biography.

At the end of the year, two things happened.
  • In my boards I scored as much as the chemistry genius of my class did in that subject – 73.
  • I became the first student to qualify for the orientation cum training camp for the International Biology Olympiad, and although I didn’t make it to Argentina, I won a Gold Medal for my efforts.
The last achievement is particularly dear to me not just because it gave me such an honour (I’d won a gold medal in computer science at the International level in std.VIII) but because I did it even after failing biology in school. And I owe this to two people – my biology teacher in std.X (Late) Mrs. Praveena Devarajan, because she inspired me to take bio and to Prof Chitra Natarajan (the C of S, S, S & C) for helping me maintain the respect for the subject in spite of the counter efforts made by my so called bio teacher in school (I’ve forgiven her) and for making me worthy of such an achievement.

eanwhile, the year turned out to be nastily unlucky for my family. For a start, I didn’t make it through any of the competitive exams – in fact, I was denied entry at three important test centres: SAT, AIEEE and AFMC due to the most untenable reasons. Then, my sister didn’t get direct admission into std.XI in PSBB. And to top it all, Baba got the transfer order to Baroda, sans the accompanying promotion (He’d got Jodhpur at first, but God took pity on us).

Reeling in grief, my parents started looking for a college to settle me into (My sister was warmly welcomed by both Bhavan’s & Navarachna owing to her very good score in the X boards; she chose Navarachna) and finally settled for MSU. However, this was only a temporary arrangement. In reality, I gave myself a tough diktat – either I clear the medical entrance, or say an official goodbye to biology. Because, you see, I was back at the doorsteps of physics.

So I joined a Kota-based institute. I did extremely well in their mock tests – consistently staying at the top and everything – and I cleared the prelims (scored double the cutoff), did exceedingly well in the AIEEE and got myself mentioned in the extended merit list of the IIT-JEE. But the unthinkable happened yet again – I didn’t make it through anything else.

Meanwhile, Baba got an N73, and within a month 3 radio channels commenced operations. My fear of chemistry was destroyed by the combined efforts of the faculty at the university and Rajiv Sir from the institute. And I happened to get a first class result in my F.Y.B.Sc. Perhaps this is why I could remain level headed, even as the situation at home resembled that of a crematorium. Like a nun dedicated to her deity, I decided to dedicate myself to the one subject I had always adored the most.

ike all Indians, my parents are super-resilient, and it wasn’t long before they came up with a brilliant idea. And so, just as I had made up my mind, they gave me a shock: “You must start preparing for the CAT... there’s no future in what you’re doing... you need an MBA...” Needless to say, I was clueless about the whole thing and tried to dissuade them.

What followed is summarized in 3 lines:
  1. I got a first class in my S.Y. , but was so pissed with two-timing that I ended up with an overall Second Class in my T.Y.
  2. I got 7 calls, including FMS but converted only 4 - IRMA, NM, IMT and of course XL.
  3. I got a call from IISC, Bangalore.
Like I said, I was done two-timing. I had two choices - try something new or rework my failing relationship with Physics. What happened is not unknown to anyone.


Ishita Roy said...

Previous Appreciation:

Bunty said...
read every single letter of it...n never did it seem to lose track... nice pivoted writing...

btw teri CV ke toh waahre-nyaare hain...ek aadh point mujhe bhi de de...i hvnt done squat in my life...
September 26, 2009 2:46 PM

Ravishankar said...
Phew ... Till some time, I was wondering how do you get so much patience to sit and write so much ! Good article though :)
October 7, 2009 8:27 PM

Anonymous said...
hey bigi, nice 1. m so used u. shown off n all. but dis time i liked it. mom dad ki achi maardi tune! neway keep up ur good job. fish out more out of ur burstn closet der s definitely more 2 show off! tc
October 11, 2009 7:34 PM

Rudrendra Basak said...

It was a nice read. Thanks.

Venkatesh said...

Hi Ishita, thought of messaging you through Quora. Since the site came up with the restrictive messaging policy, I was left with no other options but to contact you through your blog. A while ago, I came across one of your answers (Was Karna a tragic hero?). Although not very convinced in the beginning, now after doing some research on my own, I'm partially inclined to your take on the characters of Mahabharata (particularly Karna, who I thought was a supreme warrior). As a part of my research on the epic, I went through some chapters of KMG's and Rajaji's versions. Surprisingly found some contradictions in both. What are your views on the latter?

P.S. Initially, thought of messaging you through FB. To my surprise, we have two friends in common! Apologies if this isn't the right venue.

Suman said...

Hi, I just started reading your blogs.Very nice read, Thanks!!!!