A blog for my original short stories, poetry, posts on travel, experiences and current affairs.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reincarnation

Vishnu woke up, startled! His head was spinning, throbbing with pain. It was one of his dreams again. He sat up at the side of his bed, head down, resting his hands on the edge of the mattress—trying to make sense of it all. Why was he having these premonitions? Or at least, it seemed like premonitions at first. Now, with each passing day, it felt more like something which had happened before—something he’d experienced that had been etched in his consciousness forever. The scary part was that he couldn’t figure out what it was. It was like a distant horizon that kept moving further back as he approached it. Like a never-ending tunnel with light at the end of it—tempting furtively but never giving in to his quests. And yet it was slowly engulfing him like a giant black hole and bits and pieces of his mind were being sucked into its deep abyss. There was something at the end, unmistakably omnipresent—and with every dream it was becoming clearer! There was something deeply intrinsic about it that he couldn’t fight; it felt like it was coming from within—like some long lost memory.

He walked up to the window and looked out into the night. Light was about to break. He grabbed his watch from bedside table, pointed it towards the wall and pressed a button. Bright purple letters emerged on the wall offering details about the upcoming day. Current temperature was 20ÂșC and it was supposed to be reasonably warm, humid and overcast throughout the day. There was a prompt to allow the device to pay his bills which were due the next day. A couple of messages regarding traffic in his regular route to school and things on his calendar for the day. As Vishnu sifted through them, he stopped to look carefully at one particular item.The protest march was going to begin soon. Thousands were going to throng to the city center today. Of course he didn’t need a reminder about it though, it had been foremost in his mind for the past couple of days. The movement had created quite a stir in the community. Even his friend Zach, who was normally disinterested in politics had taken notice.

“Hey, so what’s this protest thing everybody’s been talking about?” he’d asked yesterday, when they were sitting out in the lawn eating lunch in between classes.
Vishnu looked at his friend quizzically for a moment. “Since when do you care about politics?”
“I don’t. I mean, usually. But everyone seems to be talking about it. Besides, it helps to know what your friends are up to…”
Vishnu chuckled. “I guess we will take that as a win. To have got your attention. Part of the deal’s to do exactly that. Spread awareness.” His face hardened. “This injustice has gone on too long. It has to stop.”
“So, what exactly are you guys demanding? Do you want to get rid of the whole genetic enhancement program?”
“Yes, eventually.”
“But what about genetic diseases? Those that haven’t been around for ages could come back.”
“That’s a small price to pay. Don’t you see what’s going on? Yes, I agree, decades ago when this started, it was aimed at eradicating the spread of genetic diseases. You could scan the genotype of your impending offspring and if anything was amiss, you could edit the genome and correct for that. But look what it has become now? A multi-billion dollar industry to make designer offsprings! The world today is unnatural, artificial. Homogeneity is not desirable in a species. Yet that’s where we are headed now! We look and speak the same way, wear similar clothes and find the same things desirable. A few hundred years more and all cultures, traditions, tastes and differences will cease to exist. Humankind will have converted itself into a deterministic system—sort of “evolved” into an artificial intelligence. Anyway,  that’s not even the main agenda.”
“Yeah I was going to say, I thought I read this was about social inequality”
“Yes, that’s the main issue at this moment. What about those people that can’t afford these expensive procedures to “enhance” their babies? Are they destined to be discriminated against their whole life? Today, every school, every job requires you to undergo genetic screening. What are these people supposed to do? I’ve been to the neighborhoods where they live. You wouldn’t believe your eyes—it’s like a different world, one steeped in darkness. They are also people, my friend—not some less evolved version of us, as we might make ourselves believe.”

Vishnu felt his blood boiling. He couldn’t finish his lunch, he’d lost his appetite. “Inequality”, he thought, “The one constant in all of human existence. From time immemorial, man has always fought to outdo each other and in various ways created barriers between him and other fellow men. In every age, in a different way…but it’s always been there. Yet this felt like the ultimate form of discrimination. A punishment for being fundamentally the way you were conceived, to be not considered fit enough for the mainstream society because of the letters in your genome.”

An uprising was inevitable, though. The men and women on the outskirts of the city—in slums and ghettos had seen enough, endured enough. Vishnu looked outside. Clouds were ominous in the sky. It seemed like the sentiments on the ground were being reflected in the atmosphere. There was a sense of stillness in the air—not a leaf stirred in the thick humidity. The perfect lull. Yes, a storm was definitely brewing.

Vishnu was feeling especially restless today. After breakfast, he decided to skip school. He was going to go straight to the protest march. He had the feeling of an impending calamity, an apprehension that he couldn’t pin point. Except he knew somehow that it had stemmed from his dream. It was so vivid, he could see it right in front of him. Visions of another world, perhaps—but so detailed you almost thought he’d seen it with his own eyes.

It had started off as certain thoughts and ideas that seemed to take root in his consciousness. He couldn’t pin point when it had actually began. But it was strange. Sometimes he would feel that his thoughts were not his own and that some of his actions were driven by an external invisible force. Slowly, the visions became a part of his own consciousness. He was no longer able to distinguish between his own ideas and thoughts and the ones that were planted in his brain through these visions. Sometimes, he would look in the mirror and realize he was half-expecting to see a different person. He was scared.

As his car drove him to the city center, Vishnu rolled down the windows and stared outside blankly. Where was he headed and why? It was as if he was on auto-pilot—a strange, unknown force was guiding him around. Subtly, yet with an undeniable, deep conviction. He remembered his visit to Dr. Rosenberg’s chamber. He’d been shuttling between different physicians for several months, frantically seeking answers—but to no avail, when he decided to give Dr. Rosenberg a call. He was a specialist in extra-existential psychology—studying unexplained, out-of-body phenomena.

Dr. Rosenberg had pointed to a model of the human brain in his office and said, “There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain and about a 100 trillion connections. We have spent the last century mapping each and every one of these connections, and yet the broader question of the human consciousness remains unanswered. We know exactly how each of our senses work and how our brains deduce logic and make judgements—those seem to be hardwired in an individual’s brain—not unlike the hard drive on a computer. However, consciousness goes much deeper than that. It is what connects us to the rest of the universe—it is what lets you feel emotions, feel another person’s pain or fear or excitement. In a way, the web of collective consciousness is like the internet to which your brain connects but is independent on its own accord. So what happens when two different brains with similar connections probe this web?
Vishnu sat there, in silence letting the implications of Dr. Rosenberg’s words sink in.
“You may have guessed what I’m getting at. The concept of reincarnation has been there since time immemorial. It’s often misinterpreted though. It is not so much a “re-birth” as it is a reconnection. I’m afraid what you’re describing may be something like that. It seems as though somehow you’ve been able to connect to someone else’s brain through the web of consciousness. This is fairly common to a certain extent in people who’ve lived and grown in close proximity—twins for example or when two people care and love each other deeply. They are able to feel each other’s emotions and thoughts—something we loosely refer to as telepathy. But usually these are limited to certain situations and happen with people who are physically in close connection with each other. Yours seems to be a very rare case in that respect.”

Vishnu had been looking for answers in desperation—and absurd as it sounded, deep down he knew it made sense. He had walked out of the chamber prematurely, not wanting to believe what he’d heard. A few days later, he came back, seeking help. Dr. Rosenberg said his visions may be leading him onto something and the best way to get back to normal may be to follow this path to its conclusion, see where it leads him. Perhaps the connection to his parallel mind was limited to only certain thoughts and ideas—and once he had followed it through, it might cease to exist.

Crowds had begun to swell at the city center. Vishnu knew he was going to be here for a while—he instructed his car to drive back home. Vishnu had found out that the timeline of his dreams dated back a hundred years, more specifically to the time when this practice that they were protesting against today was first started. He knew somehow his weird sense of connection to this cause had something to do with his alter-ego and he was determined to find out where his visions would lead him. He was afraid that at any moment his distant premonitions may explode into light with the energy of a big bang and his very existence would be lost in its wake. Yet he couldn’t walk away from it—like gravity of a giant star it was drawing him towards the climax. Vishnu could feel he was on collision course and he couldn’t take his eyes away from the calamity!

There was a sense of rendezvous. Suddenly, as he stood amidst swarms of protesters, he felt he had been here before. In another time, in another uprising. His head began to spin. As people around him marched forward shouting slogans and waving flags, Vishnu stood there, spellbound, staring deeply into thin air as he moved in and out of his past and present self. He could see himself, standing there, on a podium, giving a speech, explaining to people how large-scale pre-natal genetic manipulations would affect future generations. Yes, he could see it clearly now, he was a scientist. He knew exactly how dangerous this new technology could turn out to be. Till now, his visions had been mostly restricted to his dreams—but now the light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be burning brighter than ever. This is where it was going to explode into light, this is where it was going to end, he felt it. Or rather, knew it.


There was something happening upfront, at the head of the protest march. The police were cracking down on the protesters! This was supposed to be a peaceful rally. The protesters were numbed into inaction for a second before the panic began. How could the police be wielding their weapons at a bunch of their fellow citizens with no instigation whatsoever? Or did they not think of these people as their own citizens? Genetic casteism had really reached its pinnacle. As the hordes of people pushed backwards, shuddering from the telling blows, many lost their footing, including Vishnu. As his head hit the ground and thousands of feet hovered over him, Vishnu felt his visions reach their climax. He was there, agitated as he was now, frustrated and disgusted, as he tried to argue his logic from the podium. And then, as dozens of feet landed on his chest, crushing his ribs—in those final moments of pain, he recalled a similar pain—felt at this very place a hundred years ago, only that time it was a bullet through his heart.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Homecoming

As the sun broke through the night beyond the faraway mountains and its crimson rays kissed the deep verdure of the foothills, Riddhiman felt a new dawn emerging within him. The beaming headlights that were guiding them as they sped through the night were no longer necessary. Like a sole caravan through the desert, the blue Honda City was making its way through a lonely yet enchanting tea estate. In the morning light, the whole landscape looked surreal and mesmerizing to Riddhiman—for a moment he could forget his anxiety and marvel at the beauty that lay around him, lamenting as he had done on many previous occasions, the fact that he didn’t come here at least once every year. Dooars, as the region was often called, indeed opened the doors to his senses. By now they had entered a small village right outside the tea estate. A distinct burning smell greeted them followed by the sight of a few torched shacks and roadside shops. They had seen a few of those during their journey. And a couple of mobs. But all seemed very quiet now. A little too quiet perhaps.
“Driverji, how far are we?”, Riddhiman asked.
“Close. We’ll see how far we can go”. The driver’s eyes were weary but alert.

A little village nested in the foothills—complete with farmlands, tea gardens and an idyllic stream flowing by—that’s where they were going. A little part of him still wanted to turn back. There may be other fires burning as they got closer—bigger, more dangerous ones. In fact, he felt like he was diving right into a boiling cauldron. Riddhiman looked out towards the sun—he liked staring at the sun at dawn or dusk. It was mellow and kind and didn’t blind his eyes. He realized he could still make out some stars in the clear sky—those that would disappear as the sun got brighter in the sky. Does too much light blind you? , he thought. Perhaps it does.

A couple of days earlier, when he was summoned to go to Siliguri to meet a client, Riddhiman didn’t expect it to be too different from his regular official visits. There was a slight uneasiness about going back to the Dooars, but he never let it dominate his thinking. A proposed bridge across the Mahananda in Koch Behar had caught the attention of the Indo-German engineering firm he worked for. Generally, he preferred delegating the small town meetings and visits to his juniors—taking advantage of the fact that he was the executive engineer. This time he himself had volunteered to go. Was he ready to go back to the Dooars again? He didn’t know. Perhaps it was some kind of validation—the egoist within him wanted to prove to himself that he could go back to the Dooars and do his job and not be impeded by thoughts of what had transpired when he last visited this region three years ago. Or perhaps, he just wanted to give himself another chance to be drawn towards that enigmatic woman and the tiny little village she had made her own. Perhaps subconsciously, he wanted to give in.

As soon as he came out through the gates of Bagdogra airport, he could feel the clean air inside his nostrils. And the slight chill in the air that you inevitably associate with being close to the mountains. Riddhiman felt at ease. Perhaps he was being unduly apprehensive—after all, it had been a long time. Three years—a lot of water under the bridge. It was a clear day—you could see far into the horizon and make out the ominous shadows of the mountains towards the north. Mountains that reminded him of the long, winding roads, clouds hanging low, sometimes intermingling with the fog and rolling onto the road. And the gushing streams of water, running through the mountains—cutting deep gorges and forging their way through. Once or twice in life, you meet people—who are like these free flowing mountain streams and they chisel your dreams that you thought were set in stone into new, unprecedented shapes. The question is, what do you do then? Do you build a dam and divert the stream or do you jump in, like the adventurous canoer in search of unexplored waters?

The meeting went well. His clients looked happy with the pitch he’d made and seemed pretty impressed by his technical knowhow. The afternoon sun appeared deeply inviting through the windows of the conference room. Riddhiman decided to take a stroll after his meeting looking for a cup of tea in one of the road-side stalls. That’s how he loved his tea—in an earthen pot—overboiled, oversweetened and steaming hot. As he sipped on the tea, he reached for a newspaper lying on the bench to take a glance. His gut wrenched as he read the headlines; the tea cup never reached his lips—his hands slowly moved down again as his eyes transfixed themselves on the paper in front of him. He grabbed the newspaper with both hands, leaned forward and devoured the article. Till now, the shadow of his previous visit to the Dooars had seemed very far away—like a lonely mountain range overlooking the vast plains. Not anymore. Unrest had turned into violence in Madhupur, a small village near Koch Behar, the article read. Local police have not been able to contain the violence so far and additional forces were to be deployed. Madhupur, the name was all too familiar to Riddhi. What are the odds, he thought. Madhupur had been in the news for a while—an agitation against forceful land acquisition had taken center stage in the area. In fact, that’s what had brought back memories of that chapter of his life which he had so carefully locked aside in a safe inside his mind. Was that the actual reason why he’d decided to make this trip in the first place? It was as if some invisible hand had put all the pieces of a puzzle together and brought him here today. He had spent one whole summer in Madhupur—and what a summer of emotional upheavals it was! And Dyuti? She was still there, wasn’t she! She was not one to leave her ground, not even in the face of unrest and agitation. Riddhi knew that. He remembered her smiling face and how she would shrug and overturn all his practical arguments with a simple “I just feel like it”. Dyuti—like the afternoon sunlight that was streaming in through the roof of the roadside shack. And then, memories came rushing back to him as if the floodgates had been forged open and the spirit of a mountain stream had been set free.

They had met while studying for their MBA. Dyuti was different from the other MBA students. She was ambitious, but not blinded by it. To be honest, Riddhi never thought she was the kind of girl he would fall in love with. But while he saw other relationships around him grow out of need, desperation, deceit or sometimes just bullish perseverance, he was unwittingly drawn in by Dyuti’s effortless charm. And before he could realize what was happening, he found himself one day consoling her after a bad day, and never wanting to let go of her. It made him ecstatic and afraid at the same time. Like a premonition that all this was just a fleeting glance, a tiny ripple in the ever-changing river of time.

Dyuti interned with an NGO working on education for underpriviledged kids and that’s what brought her to Madhupur the first time. She liked the experience so much that she wanted to go back and work for the NGO full time. Riddhi remembered how she mentioned to him how innocent the kids were, how they deserved as much a chance as anybody else and that she wanted to give them that chance. At all costs. That’s how she was—free as a bird, ready to question her dreams, break and remold every ideology, every belief and go wherever her passions led her. That’s what made her so different, so secure in her ways, so confident and so irresistibly attractive! Riddhi wanted his path to be less fluid, or so he thought. He felt like an embankment in front of a monsoon-fed river—being swept off his feet, engulfed by the sweet embrace of love.

Then came the summer three years ago—the moment of truth. Dyuti was going back to Madhupur to work for the summer and then, if all went well, she would stay back permanently. Like everything else, she’d been very forthcoming with her feelings on this. Riddhi however, couldn’t bring himself to tell her that this was not the way he had envisioned his life. He decided to accompany Dyuti. Perhaps he’d thought he’d be able to convince her to change her mind. Dyuti, on the other hand, strongly believed that Riddhi would be truly happy with this life even though he himself didn’t know it. That the bond they shared was far deeper than these differences. Maybe Riddhi also understood, but failed to accept that truth from deep within—perhaps that’s why he couldn’t bring himself to tell her how he felt. He was caught between where he was and where he thought he’d be. Many a times afterward, he had thought about that summer, how good it was, how peaceful and fulfilling. On the occasional restless night, he would still come out to the balcony of his flat in Kolkata and look down upon the sleeping giant—the big city with its lights like numerous glowworms and his mind would go back to that summer. Those strolls they had taken by the river, hours they’d spent lying on the grass, those evening walks through the tea gardens, the smiling children and their innocent, grateful faces, the deep silence of the night and the sense of profound peace and fulfillment at the end of each day. Yes, he felt he could let go of everything to get that feeling back. But he didn’t let on, ever. And then morning came, inevitably drowning his introspection in the sea of millions, hiding his self-doubt in the midst of a bustling city. Now, fate had brought him back here, or had he himself? Either way, he knew he had to answer the call.

“This is as far as I go”, the driver’s voice broke his train of thoughts. That’s what their agreement had been. There was a little stream flowing by the village—sort of bordering one side and a quaint little footbridge made of bamboo for crossing the stream. The car was going to take him there, and no further. He’d agreed to travel during the night so they would be able to avoid any unrest that could break out en route. He got out of the car and paid the driver his due. Before long, the car had turned around and started its journey back. Riddhi felt a slight shiver of excitement—he was all on his own now. The footbridge was nowhere to be seen. And then, he saw little pieces of bamboo sticks floating on the water—only they were black. Burnt. The bridge had been burnt down.

He walked along the river bank, looking desperately for something he could use to cross the stream. The early morning air was quiet, punctuated by birds calling out and the gentle splashing of the water. The green fields extended to whichever way the eyes went. One could see little villages in the distance, surrounded by bamboo groves and every few miles you could make out the lonely banyan tree—arms outstretched, resting in peace. There was, however, the heavy air of apprehension, a lingering smell of burning and the sound of silence—the lull before the storm. Riddhi’s hands were shivering slightly—but he was not scared. Normally he would be, under the circumstances. But something was different today—he had the strength that comes with being certain about something. He knew beyond an inkling of doubt that he wanted to do what he was about to. That unearthed in him a strength he never knew existed. Finally he spotted a small wooden boat bobbing harmlessly on the water, tied to a nearby tree trunk. A stroke of luck! An abandoned boat—another sign that all was not well in this locality.

Riddhi’s mind drifted to the last time he was here. It was also at daybreak. He was crossing this very bridge. At the end of that summer, he’d decided not to let his life “slip away” so easily. He’d made his choice. To go back and cut all ties. All day and all night, he couldn’t muster up the courage to confront Dyuti about his decision. So early in the morning, he left her a note and slipped out, took the first train out and back to the big city. He thought he was doing the right thing, but in reality he never forgave himself for the cowardly act. He had let her down then, and let himself down. Today there was a chance of redemption. Another daybreak, another story. He was going to come through this time. Riddhi untied the boat gently, pushed it into the water and carefully stepped in. As he reached for the oar, an old Tagore song rang in his ears—“O tor mora gange baan esechhe…”  Yes indeed, the tide had finally reached the shores of his desolate soul—it was time to let the feelings flow free…


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reflections on a dew drop

It was a reasonably warm winter afternoon in Minneapolis (by its standards) when I left my apartment for the airport to embark on the long journey to India. I stood by the stairs for a moment and reflected upon how the last one and half years had flown by and how I had begun to think of this place on the other side of the world from where I grew up, as a new home. It was also that strange feeling of going from one home to another that took me back in time five years ago. It had been again on a winter afternoon in Kharagpur, albeit without the snow and not nearly as cold, where whilst travelling to the station on my way home to Kolkata I had for the first time experienced that feeling; when I first looked back and thought “I will miss this place”, even though I was only going home. I realize now, that feeling is the making of a new ‘home’, the consummation of a new relationship.

Settling down in a new place and calling it your home comes with a lot of emotional upheaval. It’s like starting a new relationship, breaking and creating again something very personal. There is of course the inevitable initial stage of distress involving breaking of old bonds, ties and dismantling the ‘homely’ space that everyone creates for themselves. Everyone who has left home to live elsewhere can identify with the painful longing to go back to one’s familiar space in these early stages. Slowly, however, you start loosening some of the old ties so that new ones can be built. That is the birth of a new flower that blossoms till you have little bits of memories, experiences and a whole lot of inner feelings and emotions pervading its very fragrance in due course of time—the “little things that make a house a home”.


As I prepare now, three weeks later, to begin the return journey to the US, I am aware of that familiar feeling once more—the very same one I had also felt a few days ago when I visited Kharagpur after eighteen months. All these places have taken up spaces in my consciousness and bring forth different memories, emotions and aspects of my inner self which all add up to make me who I am. As much as I have lived in these places, they also live inside me. It is difficult to truly pin point what I miss about these places. Is it the frenzy of Kolkata, my childhood memories, or the food or my friends and family? Is it the freedom and freshness of Kharagpur, or of doing so many things the first time? Or is it my work, or the independence or the order and polish of my new life in Minneapolis? In reality, it is never discrete, but always a stream of expressions, which like a river carries the soil, mud and water from the past and builds up the banks of consciousness for a new phase of life. Today, as I watch the last rays of the sun disappear over the smog in my beloved hometown, I realize that I would be home again to watch the next sunset, albeit on the other side of the globe. That is a feeling I truly cherish. Looking at the twilight sky, I promise myself to keep the river of expressions flowing in me, take me along its course—maybe in search of new homes, or maybe to bring me back, as Tagore said, to admire that lonely dewdrop on the wayside field that I had been so ignorantly oblivious to all along.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Biotechnology in India: the placement hurdle


This post is a legacy of me being a student of Biotechnology at IIT Kgp till not so long ago. After all the time myself and my fellow students at IIT Kgp spent thinking about this particular topic, I try to analyze here why it is so difficult for a biotechnology graduate in India to find a proper job in the industry that promises so much. The huge stake Indian biotech giants like Cipla and Ranbaxy have on the global generic drugs market is a major contributor to the hype around the Indian biotech scene. But when you look closely, you realize that although India is famed to be the “pharmacy of the third world”, there is very little home-grown innovation and discovery happening in this field!

Not to downplay the achievements of Indian pharmaceutical companies, generic drugs manufactured by them are indeed the only medicines affordable in much of Asia and Africa. Taking advantage of India’s weak patent protection laws, Indian companies have thrived on manufacturing and marketing generic drugs. But it has meant that they are by and large not involved in the prospecting and discovery of new drugs. So, essentially a big R&D sector where biotechnology graduates would find jobs is non-existent. In fact, although they are working the biotech sector, such companies would prefer to hire chemists and marketing professionals.

However, this is only true for Indian companies. Foreign pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Bayer AG, etc are at the fore-front of basic R&D leading to the discovery of new drugs. That opens up a big market for biotech professionals. But what’s stopping these companies from opening up R&D in India? Pharmaceutical giants are apprehensive that the drugs for which they have to spend millions of dollars before it gets commercialized would not yield appropriate returns if released from India. The same laws that have allowed Indian companies to capitalize on the generic drug market are deterring foreign players from directly opening up R&D in India.

The recent fate of Nexavar, a potent anti-cancer drug from Bayer, is a point in instance.  In March 2012, an Indian court granted compulsory license of manufacturing the generic version of Nexavar to an Indian firm (Natco Pharma), referring to the price of the medicine as too exorbitant for sale in India. In May 2012, Cipla decided to cut the prices further by launching its own version of the generic version of Nexavar. While it is absolutely remarkable that the price of a potentially life-enhancing drug has gone down by almost 75% as a result of this, the fact remains that such a ruling creates great apprehension for pharma companies on the worth of their brands in India.

Without a viable R&D sector, students and fresh graduates thus continue to have it tough to find proper placements in India.

Bio-pharma is however only half the story. Other biotech products like GM crops have also faced major stumbling blocks in our country. Although Bt cotton is doing great in India and around the world, Monsanto’s Bt brinjal faces an indefinite moratorium. Change is not very easy in our country, least of all which involves the age-old agricultural practices. It is difficult to imagine a biotech company like Monsanto being allowed to develop new cultivars and perform field trials on Indian soil. So essentially, more roadblocks for R&D and less job opportunities for young bio-techies.

In my view, the govt. has to cut through the mess created by all the protests and agitations (almost inevitable when anything new is being introduced) and address the core scientific issues. Once scientifically validated, there should not be second thoughts about introducing GM crops. It would no doubt be helpful in improving production without damaging the basic nature of the soil and several GM crops are amenable to better storage, which is a big issue in our nation. This apart, it would also give a much needed impetus to biotech industry—both directly and indirectly.

There is also another issue that contributes to the dearth of industrial opportunities—and that involves the education system in place. With biotechnology being proclaimed as the next big thing, biotechnology courses are cropping up like mushrooms in every part of the country. The question to be asked is how many of these courses actually train students for a career in the industry. Very few actually. And unless industry-oriented training is in place, companies like Biocon (one of the few Indian companies who are actually innovating in this field), would be wary of hiring a fresh graduate and prefer only those who have a proven research record (e.g those with a PhD degree).

As it is, industrialists and venture capitalists are still skeptical about investing in biotechnology in India. Inadequate patent protection adversely affects innovative research; also long-term results and uncertainty are strong deterrents for investors. But there is hope for change. Reports that more and more experts in biosciences and related fields are shifting base to India from foreign universities and organizations are greatly encouraging. In the end, what is needed is a concerted effort. Government policies and investor mindsets would not be very easy to change, one feels, without having other unwanted effects. One has to tread carefully with introspection, and I believe in this change the young breed of biotechnologists would have a considerable role to play in future.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The cost of cheaper medicines


Healthcare around the world has evolved—revolutionized so to speak. But availability of quality medicine still remains a distant dream for much of the third world. Right to healthcare is regarded as one of fundamental rights in a progressive society. However, the escalating costs of the latest drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies render them out of bounds for the poor. For them, generic drugs are in many cases the only medicines.

Generic drugs are non-branded drugs, out of patent protection, which can be manufactured and sold by any company provided they ensure that the efficacy and the administration routine for the drug would not change. Naturally, generic drugs are much cheaper than their branded counterparts.

Apparently, it would seem that generic medicines provide the answer to the problem. But sadly, that is not the case. Reality always reserves a little bit of irony for the uninitiated. It is imperative to understand that generic drugs do not appear out of nowhere. They are mimicked on a tried and tested drug, basically a known drug which has been in circulation for some time and has gone out of patent protection. And that parent drug comes into being only through immense expenditure of labor, time and money into research.

There’s a decent estimate which says that under regulations of the US FDA, it takes 12-15 years and over $1 billion on an average to transform a molecule into a commercial medicine available in the market. As a ‘reward’ for their efforts, the makers are awarded the patent for the drug. They then brand the medicine and sell it in the market at a price which allows them to make healthy profits. Once the patent expires, generic versions of the drug come into picture. But that would be 20 years on.

So, what if generics for a particular drug were allowed in the market right away? Would that lead to cheaper medicines? No. That would simply take away from the makers the incentive to invest in research and development that led to the discovery and validation of the drug in the first place. It essentially would lead to a situation where you have no new drugs coming in the market. In this irony lay the crux of the problem.

As of now, it seems an insurmountable predicament. Whatever the solution, it has to be in striking a delicate balance—there has to be a place for both forms of medicines, branded and generic. On the government side, more work needs to be done to make available the approved generic drugs as easily as their branded counterparts. And then, once that is done, it also comes down to doctors to prescribe generic medicines to patients wherever possible.

On a very superficial level, one would think that for the current situation to change, somehow the cost of bringing a medicine from the laboratory to the market has to reduce. In this regard I can’t help but be influenced by Juan Enriquez, one of the leading visionaries in biology and medicine, who holds the view that the regulatory guidelines of the FDA are just too stringent. In his opinion, even the innocuous table salt would not make it to the market under the current FDA regulations! If indeed the regulations are relaxed in future remains to be seen, but it would certainly be a gigantic step towards cheaper medicines.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Fragrance


A strange feeling swept through him as the car drove past the familiar gates of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The sun was about to set and the mellow chirping of birds filled the crimson late evening sky. The car drove through the newly laid roads, past the famous landmarks and all-too-familiar turns and finally stopped at the gate of the newly renovated guest house. Aniket stepped out, took off his shades and looked around. A gentle breeze had started to blow. He closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply.  A strange aroma filled his senses, something that he always associated with this place. What was that smell? He couldn’t tell exactly.
He took his small trolley bag and rolled it along to the reception. 
“Your name, sir?”
“Aniket Bhattacharya”
“Room S4”

It had been ten years since he last came here. Or rather, ten years since he had left this place. He still remembered the day when he finally left the campus. He remembered how a small crowd had gathered to bid him farewell—friends, batchmates, juniors and other people around the hall.

Everyone has to leave at some point or the other, everything has to change—it’s something you cannot defy. But as you go along, you make connections, share moments and enjoy times together, and what’s life but a colorful collection of these moments—the happier you make them, the prettier the whole picture becomes. And still now, if he were to recall the happiest moments of his life, that moment would flash before his eyes. Seeing all those faces in front of him, all those hugs and “Yaar, we’ll miss you”, yes, he was happy and filled with heart-wrenching sadness…happy to be sad.

But life, as they say, isn’t a bed of roses. And time is a stealthy predator, quick to pounce on anyone too caught up in the past. Maybe that’s how he had become its prey, Aniket thought. Leaving the campus was hard, and perhaps he had never been able to leave it behind completely—it had become so deeply ingrained in him. Searching for the same footing as he had in Kgp, the big bad world outside took him by surprise. It was a different cliff to climb, or hang on to, and Aniket had taken perhaps too long to realize that. Dramatics had been his passion all through college. He never even tried to feign too much interest in academics. And not that he had lost out to others—a pretty decent job along with loads of love and respect was what he took away from kgp. But somewhere down the line, he had missed the curtain call, he hadn’t realized that the lights were off the stage and it was time for him to start playing the role of life. Amongst the numerous characters he had so deftly portrayed, his own was perhaps the one he had faltered most in playing out.

Aniket remembered the day one of his friends called him up about this Alumni Meet.
“Oye, kaisa hai tu? Bohot busy rehta hai ajkal?”
“Ya, thik hun..tu kaisa?”
“First class.  Alumni meet mein aa raha hai na?”
“Umm… I don’t know..matlab kaam hai thoda..”
“Kya kaam? C’mon Ani, u’ve missed the last three times we’ve met! Is baar to ana hi padega..”
“Ok, I’ll see…”
“See-vee kuchh nahi, you r coming, that’s all! Aur bata…kya chal raha hai…?”
That was the question he didn’t like, because he didn’t have a proper answer. He had looked out the window of his office and thought, yes, how was his life going? And there wasn’t an answer. Just as the sun was setting, an emptiness gripped him from inside, the office, the chairs, tables and the computer screen—everything seemed hollow…from inside.

Aniket looked out the window of the guest house now and felt that same feeling of emptiness. What was the cause of that pervasive nothingness? As if nothing meant anything at all? Was it that sole missing face he was still searching for in the crowd? On the day of his final journey, with friends all around, he had lingered a couple of moments longer before getting into the car, hoping perhaps to see her, one last time, to say a memorable goodbye at the least. But that was so long ago. How could it still affect him! And suddenly now, that smell again…he felt it, so deeply yet very subtly—it tickled his senses uneasily. He still couldn’t make out what it was.

The evening had been rejuvenating for some, interesting for others, but for Aniket it was about missing pieces. A part of the puzzle that didn’t fit in, dialogues that were incoherent and characters that didn’t quite play out their parts. He was desperately trying to put it all together, trying to play the part he was supposed to. That, until he caught sight of her! Everyone was busy catching up, talking about the good times, reliving the past and sometimes when the glass of memories overflowed, spilling onto the present—to talk of family, career and work. Yet he was enjoying the moment, talking about the good old times, which had been so wonderfully enjoyable. The food was sumptuous, the student representatives bubbly and enthusiastic as ever, the people moving around, meeting up, laughing and sharing. From a distance, all of a sudden, Aniket caught a glimpse of her. That pretty face had only gained a lovely matured cut in all these years. Her eyes were discerning as ever, hair beautifully laid and that smile that made hearts melt. Lisa was still as lovely as the last time he had seen her. He stood there for a moment, and the floodgates opened, letting in a mad rush of memories—ones he had let in ever so cautiously for the last ten years. The organizers were escorting them to the auditorium , where a little show had been put together. Even as the waves swirled up in his mind, Aniket walked up slowly and tapped her on the shoulder. For a moment she was startled! Then her gaze relaxed and she smiled.

The stage was lit up, as it always used to be. There was dancing, singing and some speaking—performances and people sharing their experiences. Aniket though, was in a daze. The same lights, the same stage, and he was drawn back to those days…especially one of those days. He still clearly remembered the scene. The prince had just been driven out of his native land. And now, he stood in front of his love, asking her to love him for what he was. He felt goosebumps as he remembered how he had knelt down and said, “ I am a man who has lost everything, but if there’s still something I fear to lose, it is you”. How Lisa, who was playing the princess, had turned and held his outstretched hand. At that moment, Aniket didn’t have to act—the emotions became real! He could still feel the same spotlight on them, the emotional music and the audience in silence—captured in the moment. Yes, that was the inception of their love story—albeit a fleeting one. They were like two artists and the campus was their muse. Their every work, play, laughter and love blossomed in this beautiful place. But not every play has a happy ending. Soon they realized they had run into walls—strong and unyielding, those from the world outside—those of caste, traditions and norms. Neither was courageous enough to let their ship sail in the storm, although they dearly wanted to see the other side of the sea. Times changed quickly, minds even faster, and flowers began to wilt like those that adorn the campus every spring.

Aniket looked at Lisa now who was sitting next to him. She turned and their eyes met. All these years, they had kept in touch, more like acquaintances do, only through the occasional email and deliberately so. The pain of coming close was too much to go through again. Yet still there was a feeling of comfort between them, even in silence.

 The program was about to end.
“The moon is lovely tonight. Can we go out for a bit?” she asked.
He obliged. Yes, the moon was certainly beautiful, and the stars were bright too. They sat on the lawn outside and looked up at the lonely light up in the institute tower. They had settled into an imposed status quo with their lives. Aniket knew it was not going to change. Yet he felt somehow that emptiness inside him fill up a little bit. He sat there, thrust his head back and closed his eyes. There was that breeze again. And that same fragrance, which he associated so much with this place. This time, though, he knew what it was. It was the smell of being young and fearless, of feeling at home and expressing yourself—as if nothing else mattered, it was undoubtedly the fragrance of freedom!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rain Dance

It had been raining since late night. Sritoma woke up to the sound of mellow rumbling of clouds and rain drops whispering outside the bed-side window. The incessant rain through the night had metamorphosed the sultry summer night into a cool and pleasant morning.

Sritoma, 15, stared outside the window with sleepy eyes soaking in the flavor of the early morning rain. “Toma! Are you up yet?”, Anuradha’s voice from the kitchen brought her back to reality. The morning was supposed to be beautiful, but instead it seemed shrouded in gloom. A lot had been going at home since the last two days. Dadu was ill, very ill, more than he had been all these years—compounded by his whim not to be taken to a hospital and “left to rot”! Finally, they did manage to coax him to a nursing home, but by then he was too weak to protest. And then there was this man….“Come, get your breakfast dear! How much longer would you take to get out of bed?”. Sritoma pulled herself up.

It was a virtual holiday. It had been raining in Kolkata since the past week—relentlessly, like some curse had befallen on the rain gods. The streets were water logged, transport hindered, and she knew she was old enough to bunk a few days of school. She loved the rains, did Sritoma, loved to listen to the sound of it, and soak in the smell and the romance that surrounded it. But this time, it was a bit different. Doctors said that it was the sudden rains and temperature dip that had caused dadu’s latest illness. However, there was another dark cloud built up inside her—darker and deeper than those in the sky.

As she entered the dining room and stood by the table, her eyes met the man sitting opposite her. Eyes she knew only too well. The face, too hadn’t changed much, except for the carelessly grown beard. It made her weak in the knees to think that it was her own father sitting opposite to her—the first time in eight years they were so close to one another. “Good morning” said Srinjoy looking admiringly at his daughter. Sritoma took her eyes away. “You aren’t going to school today, are you?” ;“No”;“Which class are you in now?” ;“12th “Oh, big times ahead, haan?” Sritoma nodded tentatively.

The rest of breakfast was quiet, except a couple of short enquiries and even shorter responses. Srinjoy was trying to be coy, feeling for the place that he had so carelessly let slip all these years. Anuradha was being polite, and contained, not willing to step into the unknown she had so long ago shunned from her life in search of solid ground. Sritoma could feel the cloud intensifying inside her, sometimes jumping up to her throat and threatening to spill out.

She never quite understood what had happened eight years ago. She was still a child then. She loved her parents, yes, she loved her father, and she felt he loved him too!! But then, one day her father went away—she didn’t know why, and somehow didn’t want to either. All she knew was that it made her mother cry, it made her cry too. But slowly, she felt the picture of her father, his eyes, his smiling face, reassuring touch—melting away into oblivion. As if the colors of the canvas had been slowly washed away with rain, or teardrops—whatever you prefer to call it. It was a place she could never go to now, even if she wanted to, not even touch or feel, however desperately she craved for it—it had become a dark deep cloud floating above the earth and below the sky, hidden in between the lines of her reality.

It was dadu’s ill-health that had brought them together today. Apparently, her grandfather was very fond of his son-in-law—Sritoma remembered vaguely how the two of them used to spend long hours playing chess when they’d come to visit dadu from Barasat. Anuradha had recounted sometimes, how they shared a common passion for gardening.

The day before, dadu had wanted to see Srinjoy—“ekbar”, he said, holding his daughter’s hand in his. Anuradha strangely, remembered the phone number even after all these years, and when she rang up, she was half-relieved to be able to recognize the voice at the other end. That was yesterday morning. Srinjoy drove up all the way from Barasat braving the rain and the half-flooded city. After spending the evening at the nursing home, when they came out, it was raining. It had rained for most of the day, and in the present condition, it made no sense to try and drive back all the way. “Stay back tonight at our place” offered Anuradha. “I wouldn’t want to impose..”said Srinjoy “Wouldn’t be a problem”. Srinjoy said no more.

The rain had stopped quite a while now. There were even little drops of sunshine peeping through the clouds that still looked ominous. Sritoma walked lazily to her favorite spot in the house, the chair and table by the window of her room. She sat there dreamy-eyed looking out into a world that seemed so oblivious to her presence. Inadvertently, her hands picked up the bright red exercise book on the table, as she had so often done in her moments of deep sorrow, joy or realization. It was her little book of poems, one she treasured, loved and lived for. She was lost for a while as she painted with ink the pictures in her heart—

I was lost in sleep when I should have been awake/ Awake to the sounds of laughter and joy/ Awake to the sunshine that let the flowers bloom/ Yet I slept,/ In deep ignorance and deeper innocence/ Only to wake to the thunder, storm and rain/ To an emptiness deeper than pain…

“Toma, what are you doing dear?” Sritoma quickly replaced the book hearing her mother’s voice. “Nothing maa, just sitting around; you need anything?” Anuradha cast a cursory glance on the exercise book. The significance wasn’t lost on Sritoma. She never could understand her mother’s aversion to her passion for poetry. Knowing her mother, who was a very understanding and liberal parent, it didn’t quite make sense. It was a newly acquired passion for Sritoma, one that she had discovered a few months ago—the urge to express her feelings in a deeper way than she could confess to any person she knew—and it was kind of addictive! But she also loved her mother more than anybody in the world, and tried her best not to hurt her in any way. “Your father is leaving…he wants to talk to you..” Anuradha broke her chain of thought. Sritoma looked into her mother’s eyes for a moment. She suddenly sunk her head into Anuradha’s arms and wrapped her own around her. For a few seconds they didn’t talk. Anuradha caressed her daughter’s hair, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine…”.

Sritoma stood at the doorway long after Srinjoy had driven away, disappearing like the invisible whirl of smoke from the exhaust pipe. There weren’t any life changing words said between them, no apologies or complains or anger or joy, but there was something else. A sense of harmony. Sritoma looked up at the sky. Harmony. Between the sun and the rain—two sides of the same coin.

Anuradha was lying on her bed, book in hand. Sritoma knew she was only pretending to read. She always did that when she was upset. Pretending to read, and thinking of something else. But she knew better than to intrude upon her now. Back to her room, by her favorite table, she found the note left to her by Srinjoy. It was a small piece of poetry, handwritten, the words were clear and the effect disarming—

“ Rain Dance

The words that formed, but never came out/ The dreams I dreamt but never woke up from/ The pictures I drew but never painted/ The songs I made but never played out/ The clouds that formed but never rained/ The place I took but never made my own/ Today they all came pouring in/ In hundreds and thousands, like each little raindrop/ They drenched my soul/ They took me out, to the place I belong/ And danced the eternal dance of rain.”

Sritoma stood there motionless—holding the note in her trembling hands, and just as the rain engulfed the world outside again, she felt the dark cloud burst inside her and tears began to flow…