Spunky

I asked her how old was she, she said some ridiculous number like 15 or 16, she did not appear to be more than 12 to me. I hated the idea of having someone so young to do household work at my home. I needed someone as most of my time and energy were needed to care for my infant son. If I did not employ Spunky (on yeah, she has so much spunk, I love spunky kids), someone less charitable would employ her, I would be an idiot to lose a nice girl like her. So I employed her at my home. As an atonement to my sin (sin or no sin I would have always done that) I told her my house did not need cleaning everyday, so alternate days she need not work, I shall teach her basic reading writing and number skills. She was quite an enthusiastic student, she insisted that she will spend an extra hour, do her work everyday and also study. I got books for her, with nice little rhymes and we started off. She learnt quite a bit. One day she proudly told me, “now my village people bring their letters to me for reading”, my proud little Spunky.  She taught me a lot about her village and the mentality of villagers.

A traditional masseur “B” from village used to come everyday to give a massage to my 3-4 months old baby, she needed the work and I liked the idea. Spunky told me that B has 9 children (quite likely all illiterate). She told me that in the village, people keep on having children because a house with more sons is perceived to be more powerful (especially when it comes to blows), that most houses had 7 to 10 kids, even when they did not have resources to feed them, that her parents were not like that, they were two siblings, a brother and her.

She would always come back to me with a ready retort when she disagreed with me, I loved that so much and hence the name Spunky. She was terrified of entering a house which was occupied by a single man. I could see that on her face. I often had to be inside when she came, she would enter my room with trepidation and then her face would relax and break into a smile on seeing me.  To put her at ease, I started referring to my husband as “your brother” to her, she liked it and loosened up a bit. I became her sis-in-law. One day I took her shopping with me to the city. The “city” was about 10 kilometers from the village in which my institute was located. In her little 12ish year old life, she had not been there. I asked her to get something for herself, she bought a plastic lunchbox for her brother. We got late getting back, so G went to drop her to her village. G loves authentic villages and authentic people and enjoyed the trip.

So many villages in India and so many Spunky kids. They need nutrition, education and affection.

Drifter

I met R at an alumni meet of my institute. She must have been 8 to 10  years my senior. For some reason she was unable to get guesthouse accommodation for the first part of the day and so somehow landed up at our home. Her train had been late, had stopped away from the station, she had got down and walked to the station and was tired. For someone with an IIT education, work experience at another IIT and research at a national institute, she appeared to be in a terrible financial state. My husband G, was quite impressed by her (she was so utterly impractical, quite like him) and somehow strongly connected with her. I was intrigued with her personality and worried about her too.

Several years later, while having coffee in the open veranda of another institute I saw an unusual sight. A beggar with a plastic bag in hand was entering the institute guesthouse, what was weird was the beggar had the sense to wipe his footwear on the mat before entering. A while later as I was entering the institute I came face to face with the beggar, it was R. That is the one and only time in my life that I have felt faint. She must have noticed  my face going white. She asked me why was I so affected. We chatted, I was wondering if she was mentally stable. She appeared to be sharper than an average person. She was penniless and was living at the railway station for several months. All those years later, she still remembered my field of research and my supervisor’s name. She asked intelligent questions and made intelligent comments (Had I been living penniless on the railway station, I am sure I would have forgotten even my mother’s face).  She refused money (“someone will sure steal it”) and refused the offer to stay with me for a few days and see if we could do something. I offered to support her for a few months, till she found a job, she said, she will think about it. Meanwhile some well-meaning (?) people got her admitted to an institution and I lost touch with her.

Much later after several other weird interactions with her (most of the time I met her, she would remember the tiny amount I had given her and promise to return it), I heard that my friend and junior S had managed to support her in some way. She was employed, though unhappily. Today reading the story of a drifter reminded me of her. I hope she is better off now.

***

Life is such a complex place.

Saved in Time ?

Reading about single person acts of terrorism (I don’t like the name lone wolf, there is a hint of heroism in that, senseless violence does not deserve it) makes me think of a sequence of events years ago. Most of what I describe here was told to me by friends whose interpretations I trust.

The story is of a friend. A very quiet, sincere and deeply religious guy, I shall call him “I”. We all were mostly a bunch of rebels (not too extreme, but compared to the Indian back-grounds we came from). Criticizing and making fun of fellow friends was a normal part of the day. “I” was while generally well accepted, did get laughed at a lot (…and  also criticized)  due to his deep religious beliefs.  During the course of time, for some reasons (possibly due to a strong difference of opinion with a senior) “I” moved out from the housing complex where we all lived. He, with his newly married wife went to live in a much inferior place, to be closer to his spiritual support system. He started donating regularly to the religious cause from his tiny income and appeared to be content with his new lifestyle.

A year or two later, his wife fell seriously ill. The community to which he was making regular donations distanced itself from him (In India most religious institutions have very little money). It was the bunch of old friends, including those who regularly ridiculed him, who stood by him. It changed his perspective and brought him back to live in our housing complex.

There are times, I have wondered, what if things went slightly differently ? How different a person would “I” have become ? But then I don’t want to think about it.

Importance of questions

One of the best part of being a teacher is that I have to be ready to answer questions all the time.  At times the questions are tough and the answers not known, which in turn requires, thinking, reading, web surfing and discussions, making me learn all the time. Often my students have come up with novel  ideas and helped me get better insights.  One of the things I tell my students at the start of a course is to stop me and ask a question if they don’t follow, as, such a question would help me identify a problem area and also help several other students who are either shy, introvert, or have not thought about it.

While all of the above is something most of the teachers would do, my perspective has come with my set  of stories and experience, which I share here.

One of the  stories that has made a big impact on me is that of Issac Newton.  After his particle theory of light was criticized by fellow physicists, and evidence of interference was given by Huygen, he became very depressed, gave up physics and started trying to implement alchemy. It was a question from Edmond Halley about the path of the comet that brought him out of his depression, back to his study of dynamics and towards his masterpiece principia.  It moves me deeply to think that neither Newton, nor Huygen knew that both their contrary view-points of theory of light were valid. That wave-particle duality holds, for not only light, but all sorts of sub-atomic particles, is now common knowledge.

Another story that amazes and entertains me is that of Erwin Schrodinger. After Schrodinger’s talk on Louis de Broglie’s wave particle theory, Debye asked him, “If particles behave like waves, where is the wave equation ?”.  Since there was none, Schrodinger worked on the theory and came up with his equation, which has now become foundation of many more successful theories.

Yossarian, the forever questioning soldier of “Catch 22” is my hero. The sentence “Yossarian lives on” fills me up with hope, even when  handling crooked situations.  The major reason that I like mythological stories and Bhagvad Geeta, even though I am an  atheist, is that they celebrate questions (Arjuna and Nachiketa) and often involve interesting logical structures.

But let me end this blog with a personal  story. Years ago, the day after my son’s birth, the nurse had told me all was well and I shall be able to go home that evening, Hence when the doctor came for his morning round, there was not much on my mind. Mostly  out of idle curiosity, I asked him if he knew what my son’s blood group was. He looked at his records and said he did not know.  (Though I was not really thinking about it, there was a history behind my question.  As I and my husband have different blood groups, one Rh-positive and the other negative, the doctors  had advised precautions and administered RhoGAM  injections. Since there was no complication, it was out of my mind.)  An hour later my son’s crib was rolled out for some tests and after some more time, to my shock and disbelief, we were informed that my son had jaundice and he needed  photo-therapy. We were not to leave the hospital for four more days.

An old friend of mine who has trained as a nurse and was with me at that time, explained to me that infant jaundice is not the usual jaundice that one sees in adults, but I thought she was just trying to pacify me and my worries did not abate. Anyway, my son was given photo-therapy, we went home and carried on with life. After getting back home I went to my friend google, searched the web and found that one of the reasons of infant jaundice is difference of blood-group of parents. In such a case the baby has excess bilirubin, which does not get processed effectively. If untreated it may interfere with nerve growth, giving rise to ticks and in serious cases, brain damage.  I would have given away my right hand to save my child from such a health issue, but I didn’t need to. All that was required was a simple idle question!

Now of-course all the above are events as per my perspective, which may not be the same as reality, but I like to think that in each of those situations, it was a single question that brought about a big change.

So, but for the rare case where I feel someone is just trying to annoy me (may be trying to get a quote out of me for their T-Shirt competition ?) or being lazy, I am always ready to answer questions and to discuss.