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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Contemplations during 10 days in silence

Recently, I finished a 10-day Vipassana course, which is in short, an intense, immersive course in the ancient meditation practice that has supposedly been passed down from the Buddha himself. To appreciate how intense and immersive the 10-day retreat was, let me tell you that it involved giving up all the “distractions” of modern life including cell phones, reading and writing instruments and even all kinds of communication with fellow meditators. It aims to simulate a few days in absolute solitude, practicing meditation and spending all your waking minutes with your own thoughts and consciousness. This mental exploration was quite grueling and extremely difficult at times, but it also came with its share of revelations and realizations and finally, a sense of discovery into an omnipresent yet vast, unexplored realm of one’s own existence, the realm of the mind.

One of the remarkable realizations for me was the level of learning I could attain while following a disciplined training regime such as the one imposed during this course. The complete silence, lack of distractions and many hours of practice each day certainly accelerated the rate of focused learning. At the end of 10 days, I felt like I had learned a new language from scratch. I was by no means expert enough to express all my thoughts in it, but perhaps I could start to have a conversation. It reminded me of brahmacharya, the learning phase of life as described in ancient Hindu scriptures where one would go to a teacher as a young student and completely dedicate oneself to learning a trade, free from all other distractions. I wondered if this was indeed one of the best ways of learning something new from scratch.

The goal of this practice, in essence, is to train the conscious mind to wrest some control over its unconscious counterpart. Our mind by default tends to react to external stimuli, without us even noticing it and often these reactions tend to drive a feeling of nagging discontent or unhappiness in us. Happy moments are soured by our immediate thoughts of the future where the external factors that caused it would cease to exist. Likewise, pain is only made worse by our attachment and involuntary emotional reaction to it. In theory, if the mind could be trained to break away from these involuntary responses and rather maintain a steady position, fully and curiously observant in experiencing the present, it would cut off the supply line that feeds our discontent and unhappiness. Of course, it not easily achievable and requires many years of practice and perhaps a total restructuring of the default tendencies of the human mind.

The subject of true happiness has probably crossed the mind of every thinking person in the world, especially those who, unlike our prehistoric ancestors, don’t have to struggle for existence in daily life. It is easy to see that material gains only create an illusion of happiness that is fleeting and soon turn into other negative emotions whenever the gains cease to continue pouring in. Contemplative practices such as Vipassana may indeed help us achieve a much more stable version of contentment in our lives. However, ancient practices such as these must also be examined with modern scientific tools to give us a better objective understanding of the phenomena that is subjectively experienced during meditation. Certainly, significant portions of the theory behind these practices are based on ancient pre-scientific era notions and teachings and hence suffer from false pronouncements. It is also wrong, in my opinion, to preach these practices as the proper or natural way of living, as is done by most traditions. Clearly, humans and every other species for that matter, were not evolved to be happy, but rather to survive! Surviving in the natural world amongst millions of other organisms was doomed to induce suffering, but natural selection, owing to the way it works, did not care about that at all! However, our current state of comfortable and dominant existence as a species on this planet and our extraordinary brain provides us with the tools to not only survive, but also to explore happiness in our lives. Certainly, many aspects of our modern life can also be viewed from this evolutionary standpoint which enables one to question things we often take for granted and attempt to determine whether they are inherent features of our existence or merely illusory mental inventions.

Such understanding is vital, specially in the context of the advent of artificial intelligence which would likely alter human lives and fundamentally change the meaning of human existence. Ever since civilizations have flourished, humankind has been engaged in increasing productivity. Nearly every person in the world is engaged in producing something that may be deemed useful by other people, either individually or as a community, and it is in this constant escalating productivity that we currently attain much of the meaning to our lives. However, as we move towards perfecting artificial intelligence, much of this productivity will inevitably be taken out of our hands and we may be left with an existential vacuum like never before. What happens then? It is extremely difficult to answer that question but contemplative practices that search for the meaning of life within the mind could be an alternate, or even a complementary path to the one we as a species are currently on. Learning how our mind works and its realities and projections at a scientific as well as experiential level would help us cut through the messy undergrowth of collective human imagination and social constructs and reveal the reality of the ground on which we stand. The reality may be harsh, at times, but removing the cataract of illusions would undoubtedly help humanity make better decisions now and in the future, as the world evolves with exponentially growing innovations. Scientific study and practical implementation of contemplative practices, such as the one I just got a glimpse of, provide a unique window to tease out these realities.

Sunday, June 28, 2015


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.

Saturday, January 24, 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…

Monday, January 13, 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.