Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are spoilers ahead. I strongly recommend you to watch the movie before reading this.

It's not always you find yourself watching a movie where the plot is present only to play the role of a pivot around which an immaculate cast can wow you for a hundred minutes. Don't get me wrong, Three Billboards has a compelling plot. However, what's put in front of you as the plot does not advance insomuch as everything around it. The world around the plot changes while it remains the only constant, reminding us why we are in Ebbing, Missouri in the first place.

Missouri, like most other midwestern states, is studded with small sleepy towns which to the world outside may as well not exist. Ebbing is one such sleepy town. The movie begins with Mildred Hayes—played by a fantastic Frances McDormand—buys three billboards outside the town to ask hard questions about a case that remains unsolved after seven months. The case in question is the rape and murder of Angela Hayes, Mildred's young daughter. How the billboards shape the future of the town and the people involved over the next few months is what the movie is about.

Woody Harrelson plays an outstanding Chief Willoughby, a sliver of good, in a town full of cops drunk with power—at least as much a small town cop can be drunk with. The police couldn't find any clues connected to the murder and Mildred wants to know why they aren't working hard to catch the murderer. The billboards become the talk of the town, and they actually get the police to revisit the case because of the all the attention it's getting. However, the Chief dies in the end, the murder remains unsolved and there is a consolation where Dixon—played incredibly by Sam Rockwell—ride to Idaho to feel better about taking some action, though it wouldn't help their cause.

Though the entire movie is a dialogue writer's dream, I enjoyed the evolution of Dixon, from a clueless young cop to a changed man, having been introduced to love and forgiveness. Caleb Landry Jones plays a young man named Red Wilby who at one point gets thrown off a window by Dixon. There is a scene in a hospital room where Dixon is admitted with burn injuries after getting caught in a fire accident. It happens to be the same room where Red is also recovering. With Dixon's face completely covered by bandages, Red approaches him, asks how he is doing, and offers him some orange juice. Dixon, a changed man at that point, starts crying on seeing what he's done to the kid and the kindness the kid's showing. He apologizes and the kid then realizes that it is, in fact, the guy who threw him off a window. This is the moment that won me over and showed for a fact that Dixon will never again be the same. I'd expect the kid to revolt knowing that this is the guy because of whom he's in a hospital badly injured. But Red, even at that moment, asks Dixon to stop crying because the tears would make his burns worse. Dixon responds with "Isn't salt good for your wounds though?" The kid with care and forgiveness in his voice responds with "What do I know? I'm no doctor." and you don't see him for the rest of the movie. For me, this scene was the surest sign that Dixon is going to do good and nothing else in the days to come.

Willoughby, before shooting himself at one point in the movie, leaves letters he's written to the people he cares about. The whole montage of the letter being narrated in Woody Harrelson's voice will haunt you for days. The fact that Martin McDonagh wrote a bunch of small story arcs about people and places, is what probably qualified Three Billboards for all the awards its won—and will win in the future, deservedly so. 

In Red, the story tells us that a little compassion goes a long way. In Dixon, it tells us that you don't stop learning lessons, ever. In Mildred, it tells us that closure is something you should find in a form or manner that suits you and works for you. That it just doesn't happen. 

All in all Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is the kind of movie that perhaps what defines a movie to me—something that introduces you to people, places, and tells their stories and lets you to make of it what you will.

Hashtag Goals

It has been nearly 18 months (72 weeks if you're a new parent) since I started working as a full-time Software Dev. Though this is not my first job ever, this is my first job after graduating. It has been an interesting ride so far and I enjoy coming into work. But as with anything, there are days when I'd rather be doing anything else. My enthusiasm to come into work is usually a function of what project(s) I'm currently working on and more often than not, it is a function of what stage my projects are in.

I've observed myself to be an enthusiastic person in general. I go full throttle on anything I do because, why not? Since I started at work, all my objectives -- both short term and long term -- have circled around work. Last year, I set several annual goals for myself. Among those, the one I considered most important had to do with me doing meaningful contributions at work. Though it is great to have objectives and goals at work, I've since come to realize that it is very important to detach my life's happiness/satisfaction quotient from my happiness/satisfaction quotient I use at work. It is difficult to draw that line, and it sometimes is impossible to create an emotional barrier between work and life. Sometimes there's little I can do to stop a crappy day at work affecting how I feel afterward. There have been times when I've had a terrible Friday at work which ended up ruining the whole weekend. Likewise for personal issues creeping into work. There is only so much I can do to stop a personal issue affect my workday. These usually balance out and a healthy work-life balance brings about that equilibrium. It's something I've learned by experimenting, reading, talking to my colleagues and friends.

What I realize when I look back is I've constantly optimized my life for being more conducive to making progress as fast as I can at work. This is great and has proved useful in aligning my objectives at work to what I desire in life. Progress here doesn't refer to climbing the ladder at work. It relates to simpler things like getting better at writing code or at communicating ideas. There have been weekends where I've obsessed over how I could make this tiny thing at work that will improve my team's systems thereby earning me recognition or accolades or simply a pat on the back from my manager. These have been meaningful metrics to me which I've optimized my days/weeks/months for. But when I look back, I realize I've been chasing local optima all along. Though some of which contribute toward the bigger picture, chasing local optima has left me blind to long term progress in life. Call it quarter-life crisis or what not, I find it difficult to digest the fact that I let existential dread be existential dread and not something I should act upon.

I see people around me who are goal oriented/driven. It is very inspiring and I aspire to be one of them but it doesn't always work for me. I like goals. I like when I achieve them, look back and feel good about it. Yet, I don't seem to be driven by them. I struggled to find out why I was doing well with certain goals while others only received reckless abandon. I started 2017 with a list of I wanted to do before exiting the year. One of which was to visit at least 3 new states in the U.S. A reasonable, fun goal. I set out to look for opportunities to travel and around the Memorial Day weekend I visited Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. I did one better! Another one of my goals were to run a certain number of miles before the end of the year. It saw abysmal results.

Was the reward not enticing enough? Were the goals too ambitious? Was I simply not good? The answers to these questions eluded me.

It was then by happenstance I learnt about what's known in criminology as the Broken Windows Theory. In the 1990s, inspired by James Wilson and George Kelling, the formulators of the theory, Rudy Giuliani, the then newly elected Mayor of New York City started implementing the learnings from it.

The theory goes like this: A broken window signifies neglect. It draws attention from the wrong kind of people. Vandals gather and they tend to break more windows. More broken windows signifies even more neglect. Graffiti starts appearing, drug peddlers start using the place as a rendezvous. What started with a single broken window results in a neighborhood becoming a 'bad neighborhood'. To someone who passes by the place after a significant amount of time, it would seem as if graffiti appeared out of nowhere. It would seem as if drug peddlers and vandals drove people away and claimed the peaceful neighborhood as theirs. Wrong. It all started with a broken window, and the gradual doom spiral goes pretty much unnoticed.

The broken window here is just a metaphor. Rudy Giuliani was hell bent on eliminating broken windows. He made it clear to the NYPD. He made sure there weren't neighborhoods labeled as bad neighborhoods. Graffiti was cleared overnight. Vandals punished. Homeless people were confined to shelters. Litter was not collecting anywhere. Broken windows fixed.

It is possible that you'd have come across a lot of things ruined by a single broken window. More often than not the problem doesn't lie in fixing broken windows. It stems from the first broken window going unnoticed.

Technical debt is a result of a single broken window.

Procrastination is a broken window. That single cheat day? Broken window. You better be sure that there are going to be more.

I've been reading Robert O'Neil's The Operator. (A fantastic book. It starts with what made him become a SEAL, goes into his life as a SEAL, eventually ending with him encountering Osama bin Laden face to face and shooting him down). Almost everything that people who are going through military training learn is about discipline and being orderly. Discipline is the most important lesson one can learn in life, and is perhaps the hardest too. Why do you think there are courtesies in the army? The trimmed mustache, the neatly shaved head. Why do you think the first thing you're asked to do at bootcamp is to learn to make your bed? And do it religiously everyday? It gives a window of opportunity (pun intended) for a broken window to creep in.

I realized me chasing local optima, forgetting the big picture, and not acting on some of my important goals that could eventually shape my entire life, all boiled down to me not paying attention to broken windows. I started fixing broken windows.

There was a short period of time this year when I went to work super early (like 7.30ish). It was so amazing that by the time my colleagues rolled in around 10/10.30 I nearly had a day of work under my belt. I could then laze around and work slowly till end of day and yet complete a day and half's worth of work. What's better? I could leave earlier than everyone else and have a whole evening to myself. It was as if 24 hours had become 48. It didn't last long. A single day of sleeping-in became two, a weekend or two came by, then it was entirely forgotten. When I look back I realize that the single morning of sleeping-in was the broken window I'd neglected.

I came home this evening and cleaned my room to an extent I could on a weekday. I washed and dried by bed linen, changed my pillow covers, and did everything I could have done any weekend. The fact that I could have done this any weekend was the one making me procrastinate and neglect it. No better formula for failure than "It's right here, I'll do it some other time."

Did I just write a 1000+ word post to brag about the fact that I did my laundry? Perhaps. But that's a broken window that's no longer being neglected. I think fixing one after another is my next course of action. Find them, fix them. What's even more important is not let any of these break again. Isn't that the challenge? I'll gladly chase this local optima in the coming year.

On Reading

In 2016, I read nine books. Surprisingly, in 2014 and 2015 I seem to have read over fifteen books. 2015 was a good year because I'd purchased a Kindle and it had singlehandedly improved my reading by miles. All three years I set out to read 15-20 books and track them as part of the Goodreads challenge but did not meet my target even on a single occurrence.

In 2017, I set out to read 20 books. I knew I would come close because since I moved to Seattle in the summer of '16 I have been a regular at the Seattle Public Library. It has been my place of refuge, my happy place, a temple, all in one. I'll finish my year having read more than 35 books. 

That number is huge for me. Mainly for someone who did not grow up devouring books like some of my friends. I'm envious of them. However, I figured that reading, just like any other hobby can be developed at a later age as well if one puts their mind to it. And so I did. I read every day. Not just books but articles, long-form, profiles, reviews, and anything with good prose. All said I would have easily spent over 1000 hours this year reading. And the scale of it boggles my mind but it has been a snowball effect. I wanted to make something a habit and stick with it as a means to distract myself from certain things I wanted to distance myself from. And I guess I was pretty successful at it. It was an incredible year for me just in terms of the sheer variety of content that I got to read. Writing is perhaps one thing that brings me more joy than reading. And reading enough gives me enough depth and understanding of various subjects that I'd otherwise never get to understand., That in turn puts me in a good spot when I open a blank page and want to sound smart. So lesson # 1, if you want to see progress make it a habit and attack it in small chunks. There were days when I spent as little as fifteen minutes reading but I made it a point to read something or the other every day. It didn't matter whether it was a book or a magazine article. I just focused on the habit instead of worrying about targets. The Goodreads goal was a means to achieve my end goal -- read more.

In this post, I discuss my favorite books from what I read this year.

If you ask me what my most favorite book is or what my most favorite song is, my answer would vary based on what point I am in life. Sometimes I've given different answers on the same day even. This is to say that my favorites keep changing. However, this year has a clear winner for the most favorite book. Late Dr. Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air was easily my favorite book of the year. I was so moved by the book that I went back and re-read several passages to make sure I took in the feeling of reading those knowing what happened at the end. The book was so full of hope and compassion, and I simply do not have the ability to imagine how hard it must have been for someone to write a book like that with a terminal illness hanging over their head. Yet, Dr. Kalanithi managed to leave something for us all, especially his newborn daughter, to feel hopeful about life. I liked this book so much that I wrote a whole post on it. 

A close second is the late Ms. Marina Keegan's The Opposite of Loneliness. My obsession with Keegan's writing started when my friend introduced me to her essay. Keegan died in a car crash less than a week after that essay was published. That essay left me haunted. When I learnt that everything she'd written till then was collected and published posthumously, I immediately got my hands on that book and what great writing it was! Every single essay was so thoughtful and full of amazing prose that it was almost impossible for me to believe that some of them were simply class assignments. I'm thankful to my friend for introducing me to Keegan and her world of incredible prose.

The most interesting book I read this year was Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now. Johnson takes you through time and tells you the stories of the most important things that shaped civilization. I'm a sucker for trivia and this book was full of stories rich in trivia. Ranging from how they lifted buildings in Chicago so the city could have a sewer system to a table of everyone who had patented an idea of the light bulb before Edison, the book was chock full of extremely interesting stories. If you have even a passing interest in science or history of modern civilization I would strongly recommend you check this out. It keeps you hooked and is a very easy read. So much so that you wouldn't notice how fast you're devouring it.

The work of fiction that will remain very close to my heart from this year is Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I read it before there were talks of a movie (I'm cool like that) so I went in with not very many expectations. The book blew my mind. I'm a sucker for narratives and the book dealt with perspectives so well that it was almost like me sitting next to the characters and listening to them talk. The book reminded me so much of another book I'd read years ago, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Both books deal with children who find it difficult to cope with the world they live in, and both are so wonderfully written and do a great job of ensuring we feel compassion and understanding rather than feeling sympathy for the kids. I'm so glad Wonder was made into a movie and from what I hear from people who've caught it, it is well made.

Two books that made me laugh a lot were Kory Stamper's Word by Word and Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project. I absolutely relished every word of Word by Word (pun intended). Again, I'm a sucker for trivia and the book was full of great trivia. Stamper takes us through the life of a dictionary editor, and it was an amazing window into how much work it takes before a word is officially accepted as a word. Rosie Project, on the other hand, I took some time to warm up to. It was a book that started slowly and one I felt tried to please the reader so much but all of that was shattered as I got more invested in the book. That was the first time in a long time when I realized it has been forever since I genuinely laughed reading a story. If you need quick, light reads that will get you in a good mood I would totally recommend these two.

I read only one book in Tamil this year and that kind of makes me sad. But it was a book that equates to several. It was Na. Mutthukumar's Anilaadum Munril. It is a collection of essays that Mutthukumar wrote about blood relatives which originally came out as a series in a magazine. I realized albeit a bit late that his prose is as fascinating as his poetry. Every essay is a gem worth going back to several times. Especially the one on his son.

This year I got to read several works by Indian writers. Most favorite was, of course, Baradwaj Rangan's book on Mani Ratnam. I also got to read my first Sidin Vadukut book and it was a pretty quick, interesting read. It turns out that the book is not set in his usual genre - humor - but is a crime thriller. I'm looking forward to reading his earlier works in 2018.

Perhaps the most interesting work by an Indian writer I read this year was a graphic novel titled Kari by Amruta Patil. The protagonist is a queer female character who shares her name with the title of the book. It was my first graphic novel in a very long time and the subject, and the story arc left me very intrigued. It was unlike anything I'd read and even as I describe how I felt about the book I'm finding it difficult to pinpoint what exactly I found interesting or intriguing about the book. My inability to articulate my feelings about the book is very similar to the confusions Kari has about life and the people in it.

There it is, my favorite reads of the year. I read several other interesting books - No Country For Old Men and Three Body Problem. for instance. I was fortunate enough that almost all the books that I read this year were incredible and I could write pages and pages about each of them. But I need to stop somewhere. If you're further interested in finding out what else I read or read more about how I felt about these books you can check out my year of reading on Goodreads here. While you're at it, go ahead and add me as your friend on Goodreads as I'm constantly on the lookout for new book recommendations and people to chat about books.

The title of this post was itself inspired by the title of a book from one of my favorite writers -- On Writing by Stephen King.

 

Deepavali

I wrote this sometime in 2015 around this time of the year. Time embellishes a lot of things. I was probably bored witless during every Deepavali back home but here I am several thousand miles away from what seems to be an unusual amount of rain, even for Deepavali week, and thinking those days were the best of times. May be they were. I have strong reasons to believe they were.

I don’t know if I’ve ever imagined a background score for different time periods in my life, but if there was one, the months of October and November every year would feature symphonies carefully constructed to match the sound of firecrackers. I was pretty crazy about those - I’d usually ask for more crackers instead of clothes, or something like that. Now I’m smart with money and would probably not settle for a Rs.10 packet of bijili.

My Deepavali had a routine. Every year I spend the previous night at my grandmother’s place, wake up before the sunrises, brush, light a firecracker (because it is the rule), wait for my turn to get oil applied in my hair by my grandmother(without it getting into my eyes - she was particular about that), shower, have some sweets, and back to my earnest mission of elevating the world’s noise pollution levels. Before that paati will force me to have a small sample of deepavali lehyam - a concoction which is probably the greatest enemy my taste buds have battled. It is sweet and sour at the same time and extra spicy. She will bait me with the wide variety of sweets and of course, crackers. I would have no choice but to fall for it.

That was my routine till 2009, after which there was a significant deviation from the usual - most important of which was the fact that it was no longer my grandmother’s place. And I no longer was interested in firecrackers. May be it was the routine, or god forbid it was my antics to unsuccessfully avoid the devil’s concoction, or may be it was just paati, that made Deepavali what it was. In a few days, it will be six years since Deepavali stopped being any of these. It became just another holiday when more time was spent watching meaningless advertisements on TV with an occasional bout of Solomon Pappaiyya.

So many things have changed in the 6 years that passed. And, for some reason, for the past few weeks I’ve felt like I should write something about her. May be it is the season.

Come Tuesday it will be Deepavali, and as I’ve been doing so, out of routine, for the past 6 years, I’ll carry on with my life, only I won’t do the things that made Deepavali what it used to be.

May be this year I’ll take that oil bath, remembering to ensure the oil doesn’t get into my eyes.

Atonement

The West Wing has several memorable episodes, scenes, and dialogue exchanges. So much so that I can't really pinpoint a single scene or an episode and say, "yes, this is my favorite!" However, the exchange between President Bartlet and his staff about Yom Kippur made a deep dent in my mind. In that particular scene, he shares what someone had told him earlier that day about asking for forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, we ask for the forgiveness of God. But before that, on Erev Yom Kippur or the eve of Yom Kippur, we ask for the forgiveness of others we've harmed, sinned against -- common folk, friends, family, and people who would be friends and family otherwise except for this one incident you wronged them. You cannot ask for forgiveness for the sins you committed against God before you ask for forgiveness for the sins you committed against your fellow beings. This, he shares when they're contemplating how to share the news about the death of their children to the parents who'd lost them. It is very poignant and at the same time, wakes you up.

This scene plays in my head every now and then, for no rhyme or reason. And it always leaves me wondering how life would feel a little less heavy if I ask for forgiveness more readily, or think twice about how I'd have to live with something before doing it. I recently had a conversation at work about why refusing when someone asks something of us is almost reflexive. Similarly, defending, justifying, or worse shifting blame is mostly our first line of defense and later comes asking for forgiveness; almost as a plan B if plan A of getting away with it doesn't work out.

This is where walking in someone's shoes makes all the difference. If for a moment, we imagine ourselves to be in their place, would you have wronged someone in the first place? Would we hurt people? Would we say the things we say that ends up hurting people? Perhaps not.

Today is Erev Yom Kippur.

Though I don't believe in a superior being, I do like the philosophy of the day of atonement. If you think you're one step away from salvation and are seeking the final forgiveness for all your sins, you'd better do that to the common folk first.

I think it is important that I ask for forgiveness from everyone whom I've sinned against -- ranging from my kid sister whom I've hurt one too many times, for fun and, occasionally, in anger, to every individual who at some point felt that I wasn't giving them a fair treatment.

I'm going to make some calls and write some emails today. I may never receive someone's forgiveness for they may not feel I deserve it. But, I sure would feel better knowing that I'd taken the step. Knowing that would make things in life feel much less heavy.

A Mathematician's Apology

I had the good fortune of reading G.H.Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology today. The moment I started it, I knew it was going to be one of those books I'd read in a single sitting; and it was. I enjoyed reading the foreword by Snow as much as I enjoyed reading Hardy.

If Hardy could pen prose that's so delightful, I can only imagine how pleasurable it would be to read his mathematics. Unfortunately, I'm not quite equipped to understand nor appreciate finer mathematics than what Hardy refers to as trivial problems.

It was interesting to get an insight into what he thought of mathematics, his work in it, and of himself. Like Snow mentions multiple times in the foreword, Hardy seems to be one of the most self aware of all people. He knows when to claim importance, and when to be humble, all without it being on your face. He seems to have regretted growing old and losing control of his faculties -- evident from the fact that he tried to kill himself -- which is very sad to read about. He seems like someone who would have loved to die doing what he loved - solving the next creative problem, or enjoying the day's cricket match. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The one thing he seems to hate more than growing old is war; which is completely justified. He hated that math was of assistance in war, rather than just helping society. But as he rightly claims, there is little beauty in an art that contributes to destruction.

Zero Days

I'm not a very disciplined person when it comes to working. Leisure, on the other hand, I'm very disciplined about. I have devised several ways to make myself feel adequately productive even on my most sloth-y days. One of which is the concept of zero days. It is not some new novel concept that I came up with one morning. It is practiced all over the world in various forms, and not necessarily known by the term 'zero-days' but in spirit, they're all the same. For instance, take Seinfeld's productivity routine, or the inspiring story on Reddit that received a lot of attention.

In my case, I try to make every day a non-zero day in terms of professional, or personal fulfillment. To avoid zero days I do things that help me progress with one or more of my goals. Of course, as a prerequisite, I should set goals for my life. But that's simple. I could do it on the day of. I don't need an elaborate new year's resolution master list to pick goals from. For instance, this post is a result of me trying to avoid a zero day.

Things that I consider goals are pretty simple to achieve.

  • Did I do something meaningful at work? Fixing a bug, making progress with a feature, or just doing a code review is enough for me to consider my workday as a non-zero day. It might seem like I put work above all else, but statistically, I am bound to work on any given day than not. So I like it or not, work plays a non-trivial role in determining how my day is spent. I like to be on the good side of the fence when it comes to work. The fence being, the call on whether or not one is supposed to love work. The good side being, it pays the bills and it keeps you happy, so it doesn't matter.
  • Did I have a meaningful conversation with someone I like? This could range from my parents to friends to anyone in between. It is very important that the person be someone I like. This is because I've had several meaningful conversations with strangers. For some reason, it is easy. There is no baggage. But with people I like, however, the conversations are mostly mundane. I try to somehow escape that grind. I find it very satisfying if I have conversations about life, or politics, or anything that doesn't involve me simply getting to know how their day went or them, mine.
  • Did I make progress with my hobby? Like The Joker says in the Dark Knight movie, I'm like a dog chasing cars. I just do things. I pursue several hobbies at any given point in time. I may not take significant strides toward getting better at any of those but I still consider them hobbies. Perhaps, my hobby is just pursuing hobbies. I digress. Right now, I try to write something coherent, learn to play something on the guitar, go out and shoot pictures, or simply read. Some of these are easy and others relatively hard, so I try not to fall back on the easy option frequently enough to hinder any progress I'm making with the harder ones.
  • Did I learn something new? This is hard but very rewarding. I've come to realize that there is so much noise in my life. I spend all my waking hours connected to the internet. I don't take social media breaks or go on tech-detoxes. So it is hard for me to learn new things or feel like I learned new things because the signal to noise ratio of the content I consume on a daily basis is so low. So, at the end of the day, if I remember something I learned that day I feel good about it. The frequency of such days is, alas, not so great.

Though this sounds like a self-help post, it is something I thought I should write about. This post, which started as something I planned to write to break out of my zero day, ended up being something I did on a non-zero day because I'd already made progress with one of the other things.

Hope you have more non-zero days than zero days in your life. If you feel you start seeing more zero days, then come up with new things that would make your day non-zero.

 

Nineteen Years Later

Whether or not I like it, the Harry Potter books and movies have been a significant part of my life since my early teens. I got into the series later than many of my friends; considering the number of people I've had the chance to discuss Harry Potter with, I got into the series much later than most people. However, I was all caught up by the time book six came out so I was there, with everyone else, to experience the magic of waiting for a release and reading the newly released book on day 1. Don't even get me started on the number of fan-fictions I read before book seven came out. Let's just say it's an uncomfortably large number. The book ends at a point of time that marks nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, with Harry's child getting ready for his first day at Hogwarts. That day was September 1st, 2017. That part of the world that still hangs on to Harry Potter celebrated this in a hundred different ways. That said, this post isn't about Harry Potter. In fact, this is like every other post of mine -- about nothing in particular.


This day, to the six-year-old me, would have been nineteen years later.  I would be lying if I said I remember what it was like back then. What I can say with certainty is that to the six-year-old me, nineteen years later looked nothing like what it actually ended up looking like. I'm in a country I hadn't figured out much about back then. I'm employed doing things that weren't invented when I was six. The company I work for was four years old when I was six. Due to the fact that our body's bone cells are constantly replacing themselves, every twelve years, the human body gets a completely new skeleton. Akin to that, nineteen years later, I'm living a life that a six-year-old me was not even aware of. If I met that kid on the road today, I would not recognize him. That kid may not find me interesting or cool, or worth noticing even.

A few years pass, and that six-year-old is a teenager. The life that I live today has some vague similarities to what the teenager had in mind. The kid had learned to use a computer, knew what software engineering was, and just because he knew Bill Gates and Microsoft, he wanted to become a Computer Engineer. The kid made his dad's job easier by teaching him to use Excel Sheets and amazed his mother by looking up grammar rules on the internet. They, however, did not like the fact that he was deeming the phone unusable while he used the dial up connection to leave scraps to his friends on Orkut (what an archaic sequence of words!). To that kid, nineteen years later was a life in America. Because he had figured thanks to his cousin that one could go to this fantasy land that is America for higher studies. What's sadly not true is that the teenager believed that nineteen years later, he'd be a few inches taller than what I am today. Sorry to have disappointed you. Also, that girl you were with? Nope, not anymore.

A few years pass -- late teens. College. New friends. America seems more real. Another girl -- only this time, I know for sure, she does too. To this young lad, nineteen years later was a life that had no geographical constraints like the teenager had. Somewhere with a job and a roof over the head. Nineteen years didn't seem like a long term to plan for. The fact that nineteen years and some chump change was all that he had seen in his entire life notwithstanding. Perhaps all teenage dreams follow the theme of Chekov's 'Lottery Ticket'.

A few years and a few thousand miles later, some of the dreams come true. First flight, second, third, and even the tenth soon followed. Grad school, not higher studies. Starbucks. English with an American accent. An American education. Large classrooms. Cars. National Parks. Arizona sun. The west coast. These things featured in none of the nineteen-year plans. The twelve-year human skeleton cycle I'd mentioned starts to look very believable. For this young man in his early twenties, nineteen years later involves a lot of unknowns. This young man doesn't know which city to dream about or which job. He doesn't know who is going to be around. He's been told who isn't.

A few more years later, another new city. New friends, on and off. Summer is a thing to look forward to, and not just a label. It actually looks different from the other times of the year. Lots of new music. Beer. Trivia nights. Hiking. The six-year-old kid didn't know hiking was a thing, neither did the teenager. The undergrad would have laughed if he thought the future involved reading more books in a day than the number of people he'd talk to. The grad student thanks time for keeping him afloat and carrying him off to the shore. This exercise was more for me than it was for you to read. Through this, I now know that none of the nineteen-year dreams resembled the reality when the day actually came by.

For this guy, nineteen years later looks no different than today. Perhaps some more certainty would be nice.

What is all the fuss about Independence Day, anyway?

I'm unsure if it was 2005 or 2006. A childhood friend and I were going to attend some quiz competition we'd heard about from someone. We were refreshing our trivia prowess by asking each other questions. We came across what was an obscure fact to a bunch of 13-year-olds - "Adolf Hitler, son of a cobbler, tried to be a painter but was turned down by the Vienna art institute." A few hours later, inside Madras' very own Music Academy, a picture with two paintings was shown and the crowd was asked to guess the painter. Cheeky teenagers that we were, decided to let our newly acquired knowledge on the field. "Let's guess Hitler for this one!"

We were right. Still proud of that one, 11-12 years later.


Every year that followed, 2 pm on the 15th of August marked the moment when the Indian National Anthem reverberated around the majestic Music Academy main halls; brimming with people full of energy -- six-year-olds and sixty-year-olds alike - fiercely competing for the coveted stage at the Landmark Quiz.

The first year I attended it was my introduction to the bigwigs of the Indian quizzing circle. As a budding quizzer (who would remain a budding quizzer till retirement from all forms of quizzing...), my pride laid in identifying and identifying with the bigwigs. Swami, Samanth, Udupa, Arul, all of these became household names. This was followed by a decade and some years of being nearly good, and almost qualifying. But all the fun was in just being there, among that crowd. That was my crowd. I still remember one of those times when Kabbalah introduced himself as having come "all the way from Alwarpet" when there were people sitting next to him who'd come all the way from Mumbai and Delhi.


I'd grown from middle school to high school. First few facial hairs popped their heads out. First board exams. Plus one and plus two - senior years in school that went by as quickly as summer in Seattle. I started shaving. I entered college. I mixed and matched teams. I quizzed with a girl I liked. I progressed from taking the bus and train to taking a two-wheeler to Mylapore. I progressed from going back home and getting dinner to getting dinner on the way back. Progressed from "I should leave at 8 pm to get home on time", to, "It's only 10 pm and the quiz is nearly done?".

So many changes. So many faces. So many new teams, new people, but a few faces remained constant. My friends and I, those that were always only nearly qualified, we were the Barmy Army of Madras quizzing. Though we didn't go all the way to Lords to cheer for a cover drive, we traveled all the way from Madipakkam, and Guindy, and Nungambakkam to cheer for our teams.

All these changes, but what remained constant was the adrenalin rush that kicked in after the National Anthem was done echoing through the hall. The giant clock slides just past 2 pm and Dr. Navin would ask all the first timers to stand up. That rush, that never went away.

Landmark Quiz of my childhood is no more. But I have a lifetime of memories that I would keep revisiting; at least once every year, on the 15th of August at 2 pm.

 

 

 

Paul is dead

I picked When Breath Becomes Air up only because I’d seen it mentioned by a few of my friends. Not a single review had given it anything less than a perfect 5. Now I know why.

What is with the equanimity of those that have come to terms with death? I came to this after reading Oliver Sacks on death, and I expected to read something different; something with a sense of urgency in it. After all, time is what you should be stringent on, especially when you know for a fact that you’re running out of it.

The book started with Paul Kalanithi introducing himself, as if accompanying us on a train journey, now familiar because he’d taken it so many times; pointing at the various scenes outside the window, narrating a story behind each of those. It was as if he was blissfully unaware that the last station was fast approaching. It is a skill, to be aware of how much you have left to say even before you start saying something. It seemed like Paul possessed it in abundance. Either that, or it was enough no matter how little he said. For the most part, it felt like I was the one being convinced that it was going to be ok. He was a doctor after all.

I was told I was going to be weeping as I read the book. I didn’t deny that as I had a tendency to get emotionally invested too quickly for my own well being. But it didn’t happen right away. I read this in two sittings. I was halfway through and I had to remind myself that I’m reading the last words of a man whom I didn’t want to stop talking. He spoke so beautifully, knowing when to quote Eliot and when the Bible.

Abraham Verghese in his foreword asks us to read Paul’s last words out loud, because it would have the same effect as when he read Religio Medici, written in the prose of 1642. I thought he was being dramatic. Thankfully, he wasn’t. I didn’t look ahead in the book. When I read the last paragraph that Paul had written, I didn’t know those were the last words of the book. There were a few dozen pages left, and just like I’d mentioned, the book was so gentle, so calm and lacked a sense of urgency that I didn’t see the end coming. I’d already read the last paragraph several times, not knowing this is what Verghese was talking about. When I turned the pages, the epilogue began with the words “Paul died..” Then it hit me. I went back to his last words, read them over and over again, unaware of whether it was a few times, or several.

I hadn’t cried yet. I raced through the epilogue. The irony strong in the fact that the sense of urgency had set in when the concept of time no longer applied to Paul, just like his words that were now timeless. I stopped when Lucy (Paul’s wife) mentioned an instance a few months after Elizabeth (their daughter) was born. Paul, while going through his everyday exercise of reading poetry out loud on video to track his deteriorating health, insists that he would recite that particular piece again, now from memory. With the family sitting around, his mom exclaims, “So like him!” That’s when the tears came.

By that point in the book, Paul was an old friend. I was grieving. The train had stopped and I’d gotten down, but the journey was far from being done. I had known Paul for a wonderful 200 pages, and it was quite the friendship. He would have turned 40 yesterday.

There are several people, living and dead, who have left behind so many lessons on how to live life. But Paul here taught me how to face death, as for a man, nothing is as sure as death. He was the third Peverell brother who “greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, as equals, they departed this life.”