Sunday, May 31, 2009


(Opening Caveat: This post is not related to Meera's woe. I am working on the concluding part right now. I will post that soon.)

I hate moving. I can completely relate to people stuck in dead-end apartments simply because they aren't able to summon up the energy and the drive to move into another place.

Here I was in the Nolita area of downtown Manhattan helping my cousin move from an apartment which was close to an amazing billiards bar, three fantastic coffee places and oodles of enticing pubs, not to mention three subway stations which pretty much gave access to all parts of Manhattan. He was moving to a place in Chinatown which has only Chinese restaurants all around, no subway stations at a stone's throw, and let's just say that the old place had refined his taste so much that the mud served in the name of coffee in the nearby restaurants was no longer passable.

So why was he moving? Was it to save on rent? Not really. He was gonna pay the same amount. The reason was that his old room was the size of a matchbox, and the new one was the size of a bigger matchbox. He could now have that printer he was so eager to have!

So, ten bags in all. One of them weighed around 50Kg. It had to be carried down six flights of stairs. (Believe it or not, this ultra-modern, capital of the world had some really old buildings with no elevators!) The last time I swore this much was when Zaheer Khan had got bitch-slapped by Matthew Hayden in the final of the 2003 World Cup. We had begun the day by discussing how both of us have turned into fat pigs, and need to hit the gym hard. We both swore to start an exercise schedule as the waitress was clearing out the plates which had the remnants of our tiramisu. Hypocrisy is fun!

Finally all the luggage was brought down to the waiting area, and I was guarding the bags while my cousin was getting a cab, a task which in NYC is only slightly easier than a BCom graduate performing a craniotomy.

I was getting dirty looks from the beautiful girls who had to jump over the bags to get to the stairs. Now, I am no good-looker, so while I would never expect a second look from these fine ladies, the last thing I needed was to be in their bad books. What if these hot women periodically met during their Amazingly Hot Women club meetings and blacklisted me as a potential date to the category called "Not even if he was made of money." Why would someone with no apparent cerebral deformities move from a place with such amazing talent to Chinatown, which, don't get me wrong, simply lacked the diversity of quality that was in ridiculous abundance here defying all notions of probability.

The cabbie kept asking annoying questions about where the new address was. You may consider me an ass for thinking this, but a cabbie needs only two skills, driving and direction. So, if you cannot find an address that is less than a mile away from the starting address, you are not exactly worthy of the tip that you so self-righteously demand while you are watching us unload our uber-heavy bags.

"Hey Maggie, can you please come down and open the door, we are here with the bags." My cousin was already on the phone to his new roomie. She came out of her fire-escape (which doubles as a balcony) and threw the keys down. Neither cuz nor I went for the catch. Why try, drop and then cut a sorry figure as the other berates you for your poor fielding skills?

This apartment was on the third floor (thankfully!) and we got the luggage up there quick thanks to our freshly built biceps from bringing the luggage down at the other place.

We opened the beer we had hauled all the way here, and drank it even though it was warm.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Meera’s woe: Part 2

May 2008

"Thank you for flying Emirates Airlines. Please wait for exit instructions from the cabin crew." The voice sounded young, though Meera knew better. Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport was here at last. She was going to meet her family after nine months. She could picture their excited faces in her head. Why she was not excited, she could not tell. She longed to see her little brother. Her sister would be cool when she sees her, but she was always a guarded person, who could be stoic even when seething underneath. You just had to get used to it.

Meera stretched her legs and yawned. She wasn't that tall, but planes were really skimping on the leg room these days. At least the ticket was cheap, she thought. She was looking forward to two and a half months of relaxation, not to mention home-cooked food. She was an average cook at best, but her tastes were absolutely high class. Romba naaku neelam maa onaku was an oft-heard refrain in her house. She filled out the customs form as the swarthy guy in the seat next to hers got her bag from the overhead compartment. "I hope this does not mean he is gonna walk all the way to the exit with me", she thought. He wasn't ugly, but she wasn't interested. The one thing that always escaped her was that guys never understood the 'thanks, but no thanks' face she put on. Maybe they would rather delude themselves into thinking that there was a fraction of a chance than face the truth.

She had always wanted to do a masters and a PhD. There was never any question in her mind. Her usually broad-minded parents had turned surprisingly conservative when she mentioned it during her TE. They were all excited that their daughter was becoming an engineer, and that a good mapillai was the next step. After all, why would she need to study so much when she had to be a housewife! Meera wanted to throw something sharp and heavy at her uncle when he said that, especially when his son was leaving for the USA to do an MBA in that very year. She winced at the memory of that conversation and said a silent prayer that that uncle should not be at the airport.

Baggage claim was the usual one-hour wait. "If I fly enough times, at least once, my bags should arrive first on the conveyor belt", she thought. Even she knew that the bags that came first simply belonged to no one, and that her bags were carefully identified by the handlers and put towards the end of the line. Well, her optimism was clearly induced by her own cynicism. She could see the exit now. She could smell the clammy Mumbai air, with the ridiculous amounts of pollution and sheer noise and odor, which were absent from her life the past year. Damn! It was good to be home.

She had always been an emotionless girl, on the surface that is. Anyone who knew her would describe her as stoic and calm no matter what the situation. A precious few people in the world knew how emotional she actually could be. She was sad to admit to herself that her pseudo-boyfriend was not on that list. She would have to meet him too now…did she think 'have to'? She was gonna break up with him sooner or later. She lied to herself that it was because she wanted space and he was not giving it to her, but the truth was that she never really had any romantic passion for him. He had been the safe choice, and she now realized she probably wanted more. "I better wear something old when I meet him to end it, he is gonna sob all over my clothes anyway." She chided herself for being so callous. Maybe that was the truth. Maybe she did not care about him, because she simply did not care. Her optimism kept fuelling the thoughts that maybe that guy exists, the one who was an intellectual challenge to her, and yet one that could get her juices flowing. Maybe settling for what was available was stupid. Her research work was fulfilling enough. There was no need for a boyfriend, unless he was the one.

A small voice inside her still resented her for not feeling anything even though she was meeting her parents after a long time. She was near the exit now. She could see the crowd, all waiting for someone or the other. She started scanning the crowd for them. Ah! Was that her brother, no…false alarm. Suddenly someone grabbed her by the wrist.


And the tears just started flowing.

(To be continued)

Meera’s woe: Part 1

September 2003

Meera sighed at the sight of the building. It was more dilapidated than she had imagined the ruined palaces of the Ottoman Empire to have been. She had to strain to hear the rickshaw driver. This surprised her, for she had never known a man to speak with such a soft voice. She paid him Rs. 100 and expected him to make any excuse possible to avoid giving her the change of Rs. 7.50, but he surprised her again. Ooty was warmer than she had expected in September. She walked in and asked the soporific guard to direct her to the matron's office. A groggy thumb point later, she found herself face to face with one of the saddest people she had seen (not counting her little brother at the sight of her leaving).

"Welcome. You have been assigned room 22. It is on the second floor."

"Thanks for letting me know, I would have been hunting for 22 on all other floors if it had not been for you."

"No problem dear."

Uh oh, she thought. When people don't get sarcasm as simple as that, you can't expect much sharpness from them.

Trying to outrun the rats was a lost cause. They just knew their way around the hostel better. Meera just had to see the bathroom. She knew what to expect, but her optimism always put her in embarrassing positions, like betting on India to win even when they needed ten runs per over with three wickets in hand. Her instinct did not disappoint. The bathroom was ugly, and the smell quickly reminded her of the time when she had passed by an opened men's room at her old school.

Doing Bachelors in Engineering was her decision from the start, but she had not bargained for the archaic rule that all first year students were mandated to stay in the government hostel. It was basically a lockdown. You are actually paying money and being force-fed something. Is this what communism feels like, she thought. She dragged her dejected self to room 22, and sure enough it was on the second floor!

"Hi, I am Jyoti; this is Kusum, and you must be…"

"Meera…nice to meet you. So, you must be BE too right?"

"Oh! You are BE, no yaar, this hostel has freshers of many streams. I am doing my Bachelors in Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Kusum here is doing arts."

How the hell are these girls so cheerful in this hell-hole? "By the way, how is the food here? Do they serve non-south Indian food anytime?"

"Yes, Thursdays and Sundays we get to have some Punjabi dishes, if the mess aunty is in a good mood? Why? Surely you are South-Indian…"

"Yeah, does not mean I need to live on sambar and rasam for the entire year right? Also, I was brought up in Mumbai." Well, it was Runwal Nagar, Thane, but these people need not know that.

"Oh Mumbai, I have many relatives there…"

"Really lemme guess, Matunga right? I can practically smell the coffee beans and chicory!"

"FYI, it is Thane, but you need not be that rude. In any case, I am Malayali, not Tamil."

"Oh! I did not mean to offend you" (Well, I did actually but, I am sure you will believe me if I say I did not.)

Nine weeks later.

"Meera, Dr. Bala is asking for you. You need to see him at the end of class today."

"Sure, who is he?"

"You have been here two months and you don't recognize the principal's name?"

"I wasn't aware of that being on the syllabus!"

"Yeah whatever, just go see him. That's all I care about."

"Cheer up Kusum, I'm sure it is about the hostel."

Outside the class, up the stairs, thirty paces to the right and through a door bearing Dr. A. S. Bala in gold letters.

"Ah, Meera Iyer. Have a seat. I take it our conditions in the university hostel are below your expectations?"


"Don't you know that all freshers have to spend their entire first year in the Uni hostel? I cannot allow you to change hostels at a whim."

"I don't get it Dr. Bala. I changed hostels two weeks ago. Your sphere of influence is shrinking fast."

(Come on…don't be a smartass. You don't want the principal after you in the first year itself.)

"Yes, you need to move back in the hostel or face the consequences."

"Please do whatever you wish sir, I have made my decision."

"Very well, you may go."

She spun on her right heel and left the room. The private hostel was a small bike-ride away. No more rats for roommates and food dabbas delivered by hand every afternoon and evening. Things were good so far…

Something always bothered her. It was like a grain of sand in her eye, or a stone in her shoe, annoyingly uruthufying her, reminding her of its presence. She knew that these four years were just a limbo. Her future happiness and contentment was elsewhere. Little did she know how close she would get to it before losing it.

(To be continued…)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pharma: Debating the ethics

For the uninitiated, a clinical trial is pretty much a study of a new drug or formulation in humans. Before this, the drug/medication has been tested in animals which progressively go up the evolutionary scale to make sure that our principle has some modicum of proof. These trials usually have three phases which when complete and analyzed lead to a decision as to whether this medication does what it purports to do and is safe for use in the intended dose.

These trials are usually conducted in large hospitals where the subjects are lined up and then administered the drug in some form. In the initial stages, the drug is tested on healthy subjects, and when it is proven not to cause any adverse effects that completely preclude its use, the drug is tested on actual patients.

Placebo effect is the effect of the patient's knowledge that he is getting treated, on the improvement of the patient's condition. This might seem negligible, but some diseases have huge psychological components, which might be assuaged by the knowledge that a person is being treated. Hence, each trial will also have a bunch of people getting no drug at all, but just a placebo, which means that if this person shows signs of getting cured, we cannot completely rely on the medication curing the patient. In other words, such a placebo effect will reduce the veracity of the hypothesis that the drug actually cures the ailment it is supposed to.

There are many ethical issues with clinical trials. The one I wanted to focus on is the fact that there are large numbers of patients who are getting nothing but the placebo. These people might be dying from a hitherto untreatable disease, and might be pinning all their hopes on this experimental clinical trial. Even though their presence in this trial is futile to them, they are invaluable as they provide the baseline on which the positive results of the drug can be measured.

I saw a TV show about doctors in a hospital where a doctor conducting a clinical trial actually moved a patient from a placebo to the real drug because he knew her. Let's not even bother with the doctor's intention behind this act; it is enough if we focus on the fact that the integrity of a clinical trial was thwarted. The idea that this could actually happen in real life gives me the shudders.

Now I am not usually given to episodes of technical ramblings to an audience that is mostly not part of the pharmaceutical field.

The fact is that clinical trials, like other experiments, are to be taken objectively, without passion or prejudice. These placebos help enforce those rules. If we care about the few hundreds or thousands who might be hard done by in this trial, we are risking a potential patient pool of millions. When one swallows a pill of a drug that can save a life, or cure a small affliction, one must take comfort in the hours and hours of hard work and sacrifice that it takes to make it safe enough so that you can just pop it in.

It is true that pharmaceutical companies are colluding with each other within the competition so that they reap huge profits, but one must realize that these are the outcomes of successful products. So, the interests of the companies and the people are aligned in some warped way. To stop the druggernaut from burning a hole through the common man's wallet, we have regulatory agencies which are there to oversee the situation.

While I would not go so far as to say that the pharmaceutical field is noble, I do hope that this small piece has mounted at least a small defense to the ever-piling accusations.

(PS: This post has a certain synecdoche effect in that the ethical quandary of a clinical trial is then extrapolated to the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. I hope my readers were not bored with this technical post, and I hope I have made it simple enough for the layperson to grasp.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ode to a muffin

There are desserts and there are other desserts. Some are nice, but most are heavy. To me, a dessert should be heavy. I must regret having learned to eat after eating the dessert. There is no other way to enjoy it. Here, I am talking about a muffin.

I don't know why I love it so much. Probably because of the wonderful exterior, probably because of the moist goodness locked inside that only the truly worthy can access, or probably because of the fulfillment it provided me without me realizing it ever. Now we all know that they are fattening, and probably sinful, but a muffin along with a chocolate cheesecake can be pure heaven.

I love food like I love women…well…a woman! She would kill me if I use the plural in a cavalier fashion!

Here's to my muffin…there can never be another…maybe there can, but I don't want another one ever. All I need is time to acquire it, and to enjoy it, but there seems less of either.

(To my dear readers: I apologize for the truly indulgent post. It has no purpose of entertaining, nor of informing. It does not seek to encourage, entice or to ensnare in witty dialogue. It is merely a whim of mine, but I need it all the same.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Manhattan delights

A dear friend of mine once described a concept called 'patel shots'. When I asked him to elaborate, he said that they were postcard-type photos taken by tourists near all the garden variety tourist spots around a popular city. This guy loved all the nuances of NYC that I could show him, but make no mistake, he could give the patels a run for their money (which is bucketloads, by the way!) in the quest for the unparalleled patel shots! (No offense meant to actual patels!)

The other part of Manhattan, that only residents can show you, are the quaint coffee shops, the small but amazing brick oven pizza joints run by the temperamental Italian owners whose moodiness is not only tolerated, but appreciated, all due to their culinary genius.

What I am gonna give a preview of right now, is a part of the Lower East Side of Manhattan...a little further off NYU campus. For a long time, the lower east side has been associated with the student and worker crowd, which brings with it fashionable pubs, bars, cafes and well slightly proletariat experience altogether. It was not out of character for the rents to be lower here than say the upper west side (endorsed by the sitcom Seinfeld, as it is based entirely in that area).

Now, however, the paradigm shift has come where the quaint coffee shops are quaint not because they cannot afford to expand, but because the yuppie mindset is tired of the chain stores and eateries and now covets the European bistro/cafe experience. Coffee now costs $4.50 at some places, and people are happy to shell out the duddu.

I am in the process of discovering places which serve great food. Now there is one place I ate just today morning. It is a small breakfast place, where there are long lines on weekday mornings just to get a table for two. If you are in a group of four or more, the reservation card handed to you may as well say "Are you kidding me!" The breakfast was awesome, I had a salmon based entree, with some fresh squeezed orange juice and my cousin had something similar. We wound up the meal with coffee, and the check came with the number $50 on it, which I duly passed on to my cousin, whose face had the calm of a person who had eaten there before, compared to my jaw which was somewhere between the table and the floor! The amazing thing is, with unemployment increasing at the rate of knots, the lines outside places like these (and there are many, mind you) have not been affected at all. You gotta love NYC. There are other reasons too.

One other aspect of Manhattan is the women. (This characteristic applies to the whole of Manhattan, and not just the lower east side.) Most of them are businesslike, which basically means they don't care/mind if you look at them for a time more than what can be described as innocent and less than that done by the average sex offender. You get all races and types, and they all are pretty alluring. Now, I am speaking hypothetically of course, as I am not at all what you might call lecherous. (Wink!). This is, of course, no slight on women in other locations.

Rents are going up as people are now wanting to live here. I, of course, am enjoying the delights of this region as I visit a cousin of mine every weekend, and mooch off him while he picks up the tab, with me realizing all the while that pretty soon, I would have to do this for someone else. Duniya gol hai!

This is the first post of mine where I have rambled on without much direction or purpose, and I really feel indulgent today. You might scoff at my desperation to have my blog read that I did not forewarn the readers of this randomly ambulatory post.