A short review of Jose Saramago’s meandering masterpiece: Death with Interruptions

One of the joys of reading fiction is its transgressions into the unbelievable.

One of the annoyances of reading fiction is its transgressions into the unbelievable.

It takes a genius to tip the scale towards the former, and Jose Saramago is one such gifted writers. Ever since I read Blindness almost a decade ago, I have maintained Saramago to be my favourite writer. I followed up Blindness by reading several of his other works. After a hiatus, where I was primarily reading non-fiction, I got back to reading him and was reconnected with the joy of reading fiction.

The book I took up this time was Death with Interruptions. In its premise it is similar to Blindness; a supernatural event disrupts the normalcy of the society while the narrator dissects the fragility of the social structure through its characters. With an added bonus of wit and dark humour.

In this book, death decides to go on a sabbatical within the geographical boundaries of a country. The rest of the story is about the chaos that ensues, with microscopic treatment of some of the aspects of society we take for granted. For instance, what would happen to the undertakers if no one died? What about life insurance if no one died? Or what is the point of religion if there is no after-life, as no one is dying in the first place!

Of course, none of these are treated in a matter-of-factly manner but in typical Saramago style of sharp criticism masqueraded as dark humour.

One of the other joys of reading Saramago is the meanderings in his prose. While most fiction writers spend plenty of prose for world-building, Saramago takes you on a wild ride on tangents that only he could come up with. In this book, more than any of his other works, the meanderings are even more eccentric and a fun riot. For any lesser writer, these tangents would be places where they would lose their readers. I was cracking up when wandering on these tangents myself.

If you get a chance, get hold of one of Saramago’s fictional works. They are hard to get into, as his writing style can be challenging at start. Once you start relishing his words the style would seem the most natural for his dark and morally ambiguous world that is as real as the real world could get.

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Undoing 6 decades in 6 years

A recent propaganda piece written by Home Minister Amit Shah’s PR team came up with an all true summary of the 6 years of Modi governance. Unwittingly perhaps, but true nonetheless.

This post is an attempt to fit a more accurate story that befits that headline: Undoing 6 decades in 6 years.

No new born nation can rise without her problems. So did independent India. Fresh from nursing her wounds due to the four centuries of destructive European colonialism and a bloody partition, India was looking ahead. Her gaze was focused on two ideals. First was scientific temper which was institutionalized as the many institutions that to-day serve the people. Second, and more importantly, a truly visionary constitution to bind her diverse people together.

The six or so decades since independence until 2014, have been mired with problems. Poverty, corruption and disorganization had become second nature to the sub-continent.

Even amidst all this chaos, the essence of India as a pluralistic and diverse nation of a multitude of cultures, languages and peoples had largely remained in tact. A naive citizen like myself might even claim that she was thriving like no other country in the world.

That is until the ominous 2014 elections which resulted in a landslide victory to the RSS’s political wing: BJP, with a “strong man” as the prime minister. This was not an unexpected victory. This was the culmination of a century long hate brewing of the Hindutva ideology that has threatened the core of Hindu philosophy: co-existence.

The last six years of governance by the ideological children of VD Savarkar and disciples of Gandhi killer Nathuram Godse has dented every aspect of India that is precious to the majority of us.

Here are at least six aspects of India cultivated in the six decades since independence that have been undone in the last six years.

6. Economy: The least worrisome of the havoc created by the BJP government is the economy. It is not worrisome because it does not affect people but this is the easiest even for a BJP supporter to recognise. The disastrous demonetisation and unplanned implementation of GST are text book examples of economic mismanagement that has cost people their lives and livelihoods.

5. Public sector: The unabashedly right-wing populist government does not shrug away from embracing the capitalist mantra of Private-Sector-Good and Public-Sector-Bad. The BJP government has loosened any form of regulation and has systematically weakened all public sector units, all the while chanting “Make in India”. The most recent 20 lakh crore scheme was, to borrow the Home Minsiter’s words, a jumla that turned out be an auction of any remaining PSUs.

4. Scientific temper: The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that the panacea offered by this government for any and every crisis is a gimmick, sprinkled with a bit of the holy goumutra. The sheer scale of mismanagement of lockdowns, lack of testing and unpreparedness all the while maintaining there is no community transmission is the epitome of ignoramuses running the show.
Even before this crisis, the lack of respect demonstrated towards science at all levels of the government is mind boggling. From claiming that plastic surgery was invented in our mythology to talking shallow about climate change, there was never a doubt about their ignorance. It is now costing people their lives.

3. Freedom of expression: The troll army of the BJP IT cell have created a toxic environment online. The vile of their online sewage does regularly spill onto the streets leading to the beating up of students, attacks on dissenters and murders of journalists. Needless to mention the lapdog media channels who bark at anyone when pointed by the ruling party. Any semblance of a fair fifth pillar of democracy has been annihilated.

2. Secular ideals: The past six years have changed the secular ideal enshrined in the Indian constitution to a cuss word. Liberalism and secularism are treated as vice unfit for practice; all the while openly spewing hatred towards Muslims, Christians, Dalits and every minority group one can think of.
Diversity and the struggles to find unity in it make up the genetics of India. In the past six years, systematic persecution of minorities has been carried out in broad daylight destroying the very fabric of India.

1. Basic human decency: The worst of all is that the last six years have brought upon us a gradual degradation of basic human decency across the board. We have gotten back to an uncivilized state where lynchings have become so common that it does not even make it to the news cycle or warrant remorse. Such apathy is not only accepted by the ruling party but also recognised and lauded. This abysmal dive of basic values is their biggest accomplishment in the past six years.

So I agree with Mr.Shah. Six decades have been undone in six years.

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2010s: A personal tale of my professional journey

Hopping on the trend train of reminiscing about the last decade, I too have decided to weigh in on what the 2010’s have meant to me. Will try to discipline myself to ponder mostly from my professional point of view as this decade has been formative in where I am today — an academic researcher who kind of knows what he wants to do with rest of his life.

This turned out to be a longish post. To keep you going, here’s a “decade apart” rendering.

The Job Hunt

In the autumn of 2009, I had freshly graduated from my Bachelor in Engineering in Electronics and Communication (E&C), from a decent tier 2 college in Bangalore. I had two on-campus job offers but none of the companies had provided any concrete starting dates. As those were also some harsh (the harshest had thankfully gone past) financial times of my family, I did not have the patience to sit around and wait for them to usher me in. The 2008 financial crisis was taking a slow but steady toll on the Indian Silicon valley with either delayed job offers or annulment of offers. Not as bad as the numerous jobs lost during those couple of years!

I don’t quite remember being personally bothered by these developments of delay in jobs or economic slowdown. I seem to have had the “push on” attitude that is all pervasive with the lower middle-class in India. I sometimes get concerned that I might have mellowed down now.

Anyway, I appeared for three other interviews during the 3rd quarter of 2009 in “electronics” companies. There was an idealistic stubborness that I would not stoop below my course specialisation (of E&C) and take up a job with software (mostly support) companies, which I assumed were aplenty. That I did not feel a pressure to compromise on this ideal, given even the dire domestic financial situations, I only have my mother to thank for. She was the lone bread-winner and was shielding us as much as she could.

I was adamant but not dormant. I was hunting for jobs. One of employment consultancies I was seeking support from arranged for my first job interview outside campus with a small “electronics” company. I remember being asked about circuit design — not the VLSI kind but more on the resistor bands and capacitor coupling — and a lot of time was spent on discussing soldering. I was not excited. Partly, because with my “good” academic records and the aspirations everyone held for me I did not see myself soldering circuits even for a short while as my profession. Also because I was not great at soldering circuits! That I did not get that job is another matter. I thought it was a fix-up interview by the consultancy to pretend they were doing what they claimed to do. Or of course also the fact that I was not fit for that job.

Then, around October 2009, I got my third job interview via an influential good Samaritan who had helped me with my higher education. I appeared for the interview, gratefully, and liked the description of what the company did and my possible roles. When asked about what my salary expectations were, I humbly told my recruiter to do what is the norm at their company as it was my first job. (Rookie alert!)

I got the job and I started on 1st November, 2009. Along with it, as the cliches go also my lessons in life had started. Most importantly,  I had also embarked upon discovering what I really wanted to be.

It turned out that the amazing description of what the company was doing was a bloated-pile-of-garbage, as any manager worth their salt would muster up and throw at a newbie. Also, asking them to pay me the norm meant, I was getting paid the least possible 5 digit number. So much so that I was way below even the income tax bracket.

I had a daily supervisor who was mean for the heck of it. He was more worried about the number of hours I clocked in than the actual work either I or anyone else did. He was a nice guy but had these traits I could not bear to ignore.

I got my on-campus job offers some six months into this job but I did not quit, primarily to seem loyal and show gratitude to my good Samaritan (who, of course, was blissfully unaware of these actual employment conditions). After about one year of squirming, I started working with a new supervisor who was quite the contrarian to my earlier supervisor. We resonated at various levels but at the end of the day we both had our daily grind of mundane chores to get through. Relatively speaking, it was more exciting simply because of this supervisor. He had noticed, and was respectful of, my skills and even expressed his discontent about me staying on at that company. I did not, of course, mention the good Samaritan and only deflected the topic those couple of times he brought it up. So he thought. I don’t think he ever realized, but these questions gave me a lot of confidence to think beyond becoming the proverbial frog-in-the-well. I have never gotten a chance to actually thank him for instigating me to jump out of the well!

So, yes I did jump out of the well. And where to, you ask?!

Assistant Professor before being one

I took up teaching Bachelor students at my alma mater, from August 2011 to July 2013. This role, I started out in, should only be considered as one that of a teaching assistant when gauged in international standards. But within the crowded Indian engineering college market I was an “Assistant Professor”. I am embarrassed now for having flaunted that title. But hey, I did not know any better then!

The impulse to want to teach was brewing in me through the two years of working at my first company. My weekends were reserved to conducting workshops on Free & Open Source Software (FOSS) with my network at FSMK that comprised of the best people in the world.

Other than discover my passion for teaching FSMK also groomed me into an activist, and arguably into a better person.

During these workshops, I was slowly discovering the joy for teaching. I was soaking in immense enthusiasm and inspiration by working with students. There were actual sleepless nights, when I was dreaming of quitting my job and taking up teaching. But I did not know if that was feasible as I only had a Bachelor degree and I could not afford a Masters’ degree at that point to be able to even apply for a teaching position.

The conflict grew stronger by the day and during one of those sleepless nights I metamorphosed and impulsively composed my resignation letter and handed it to my supervisor the next day. He was shocked as he assumed I was becoming comfortable being the frog in the well — a good one even.

I did not have a back-up plan. I had appeared for one interview at my alma mater, competing with far more senior people with academic credentials I certainly did not have.

But, as the story goes, I anyway got the job and it would herald the happiest two years of my life. It is during these two years that I rediscovered my love for signal processing, which I maintain is what I do even today with all the fancy jargon about Machine Learning and AI being thrown around. My students — or rather my friends — were a great source of hope and inspiration. It is as if I was improving on a daily basis bouncing off ideas and inspirations with them.

I have written a lot about this time in several posts; so will not delve deep into it here.

This is my favourite picture from my early days as a “teacher”. So many people in this picture mean so much more to me today 🙂

The gist of it is that I was convinced by the first few months in my new role that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. But, I wanted to do it better and I had/and continue to have hopes of changing the “system”.

I sought to pursue my Masters in India and took up the entrance exams. With meek preparations backing me I barely qualified. I had no chance of getting into the tier-1 institutions in India.

I got carried away and started looking at options outside India. Even with the certain knowledge of the fact that I was not in a situation to afford the expenses. Not just affording the expenses but as I came to realize I was not even eligible for education loans as we did not have collateral to show to the bank. At the least, this improved my understanding of how loans worked!

While painstakingly crawling the web pages for any scholarship options, one of my good friends now and a student back then pointed me to one scholarship challenge she was looking at and thought I might have a good chance at it. I was uninterested in this application, as it was only a fee waiver for an MS degree in Sweden, and I could not have afforded to live in Sweden without a stipend. Nevertheless, just to have fun with the quizzes I applied. And it turned out just that year the scholarship program had some additional funds and were also offering stipend.

And, skipping past the long story short I got it! Phew.

I was awarded a scholarship to study at Chalmers in Sweden and it was all so surreal. I have also written about this elaborately in couple of posts.

The event itself was suspenseful as I did not know if I had the scholarship or not until a reality-show style announcement after weeks of interviews and a day of interaction! That only made it memorable 🙂

Before I take you, the reader, outside India, I should also admit here that I fell in love with my partner while I was teaching. She was a student at the college. She was then all the hope and joy in my life. And now we are a married couple. She is now all the hope and joy in my life.

~Dr. Raghavendra (outside of Denmark)

Defending one’s PhD in Denmark does not automatically warrant a Dr. title! Thankfully for me.

Thanks to the serendipitous scholarship, I moved to Sweden in August 2013 and completed my MS in Communication Engineering in 2015. I was all the more driven to doing academic research. I was beginning to understand the hardships that come along when seeking a serious academic life.

As I was single-minded about what I wanted to do with my life, I applied for PhD positions in Northern Europe (for reasons I discuss in this post). And second of the positions I interviewed for, at University of Copenhagen, was offered to me where I continue to relish my daily work.

Between 2015 and 2018 I further understood the nuances — both positive and negative — of academia and only have grown stronger in my commitment to staying in academia.

As it happens, defending a PhD in Denmark does not yield one with a “Dr” title! One has to do an additional thesis and defend it, more as an independent researcher to obtain the “Dr” title. Nevertheless, outside of Denmark it is still the same degree that grants you the coveted academic title.

To be honest, nothing embarrasses me more than being addressed Dr. Raghavendra! Not even the fact that I was already an Assistant Professor way back in 2011 in Bangalore!

Looking ahead…

The rest of this decade is still a journey that is unfolding. I am trying to figure out what sort of a researcher I will end up becoming.

One year of post-doc time has given me some wind under my wings. I have some more time in this role and we will see if this wind was sufficient to let me soar at least above the ground or if I will have to walk the rest of my life.

I foresee harder questions — about how my academic life will contribute back to the society (beyond research itself) — will occupy me the most in the next decade.

Wishing you all a satisfying year and a peaceful decade ahead.

Stay inspired.

PS: As it happens, I had an year end blog post from 2009 where I sound so cryptic that it took me a while to figure out what I was talking about. Listen to that immature fellow from a decade ago here!

This has also been my decade of discovering running as a passion. 2019 is the strongest year this far!

A party with cosplay that I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did. Must be the people 😉

This turned out to be a longish post. To keep you going, here’s a “decade apart” rendering.

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Views on Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

“…only mass movements can save us now”, is how Naomi Klein sighs a relief towards the end of her quintessential work on climate change and climate action, This Changes Everything.

I took up this book few months ago and have been reading it in intervals. Finally I read Part-3 of the book which captions itself as “Starting Anyway”. In second part of the book “Magical Thinking” Naomi Klein had a sharp critique of tech-fixes to climate change. In some places, she sounded a Luddite and that was a bit concerning to me. I have known her works since Shock Doctrine, a treatise on disaster capitalism and was looking forward to a radical critique of global capitalism and not focusing on shooting down propaganda technology by billionaire oligarchs.

In the end, This Changes Everything, is a scathing critique of global capitalism and the worst of it represented by fossil fuel industries. However, what is more affecting in this work is her pragmatic approach in bulk of the work on dealing with climate change.

Learning from Indigenous people

She spends bulk of the third part on delving into the struggles of Indigenous people; predominantly the ones from her own country — Canada — in their quest to ratify historical treaties that promised rights to the native people. There is another line of thought of learning methods from ancient cultures, in a manner that should humble us (again) in front of nature than the current feeling of being the master species. These are interesting notions but, in my opinion, not tangible or scalable to tackle the crises at hand at a global scale.

There are, however, other radical ideas that she conveys which would disturb the world order and it is actions at these scales that have a shot at healing the earth.

Climate debt

Reparations are a touchy subject; to the colonizers and slave owners, of course. The argument that the wealth accumulated in the past has nothing to do with present generations and the idea of reparations is thus futile is a shallow excuse. The current wealth of the global north was built on their exploits of global south. Add industrial revolution to the equation and the results in the disproportionate emissions in the past two centuries by the wealthy and developed countries. In the past couple of decades when developing countries (like India and China) have attempted to follow suit, the earth’s atmosphere has started choking simply due to the scale at which these two large countries are replicating the new industrial revolution.

Then, do these countries not strive towards uplifting their populations?

It is in this scenario, that the crucial idea of “climate debt” that has previously been rallied by Bolivia and Ecuador makes perfect sense. The gist of it is that global north that has benefited previously from burning all the fossil fuels in the past two centuries holds a responsibility of compensating other developing countries. This compensation can be seen as investment in cleaner paths to development by not forcing the developing countries to take up the same path as the developed countries did in the last two centuries. Poverty must be alleviated but not by the same extreme consumerist and market driven manner in which it was accomplished in the last century.

This is a radical idea. And needless to say not an easy one to sell. But it is such drastic but holistic view at a global scale is what will give any hope for sustainable development of the developing countries, while keeping climate change below dangerous levels.

The idea of climate debt can also be internal, within countries, as the rich owe it to the poor who have not contributed as much to a global catastrophe. Sadly, however, it is the most vulnerable, who had little in making this crisis, are at the first to be affected as recent extreme climate events like floods, famines, storms and droughts have shown.

The analogy of Mother Earth

It is a dense 500 odd page book which is journalistic in style and engagingly factual. Towards the end, however, in the last couple of chapters Naomi Klein makes it deeply personal and delivers an effective epilogue to the book. She takes her personal struggles with fertility problems and ties it in a moving manner to the destruction of “Mother Earth”.

This is essential reading for everyone, and as she points out if there’s a lesson for us, we should stop seeing ourselves as mere takers but as caretakers.

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Fumbling with Fiction

Jose Saramago’s Blindness, for years now, has been my favourite work of fiction. In the past few years I have started to like Haruki Murakami’s works; reading them unscrupulously. Of late, however, reading fictional works seem to be getting harder. Not that they seem tedious per se; they are far easier to chug. But there’s a voice constantly questioning the point of reading (some works of) fiction.

After pondering a bit as to how I can parse some fictional works but not the others, I ended up with a couple of ingredients that make it easier to read and enjoy works of fiction.

Empathy: Success of a great work of fiction rests in its ability to enable readers to empathize with the joys and turmoils of its protagonists. This is a tough enough task already. Further, it is harder for me to connect with many works because the conflicts are distant and inaccessible. This is worse in science fiction and fantasy, as some of the conflicts, say induced by aliens or diabolical creatures, can’t easily quench my interest. These factors considered, reading some works of fiction ends up feeling like a chore and a poor return on investment (of my time). A work like Blindness or 1984 are great works of fiction because they scrutinize society within conflicts that are fictional but the rest of the narrative is engaging and not hard to empathize. Another subset of fictional works that I find engaging are mostly journalistic but use a fictional trope, like with Arundhati Roy’s two novels which can be categorised as social-realism. The protagonists here also have my attention and empathy, as the characters are mosaics of very real people.

Great writing: The second trait of works of fiction that I end up enjoying invariably have great writing – in the style and language. I use Murakami as an example for his unfettered and fluent writing that is a sheer joy to read. No plots or conflicts are necessary in these works. There are very few authors who are pantsters and can engage readers with their writing alone. Gabriel Garcia Marquez falls into this category in my reading.

Jose Saramago is the greatest in my view simply because he’s just the perfect blend of both traits I seek when reading fiction.

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Reading diverse literature, with varying points of view but emanating from a moral universe that is basically decent, is one way of challenging your beliefs. And when they do get challenged, it is an uncomfortable but important place to be in.

Terry Eagleton is one of my favourite writers. He is witty, has a charming sense of that good’ol British humour, uses the dialectical apparatus and is a traditional (read theoretical) Marxist. So by taking up his books, I am looking for home-turf-reading to strengthen my own arguments and seeking further clarity of my world view that is fundamentally based on the motto of equality-for-all.

The last book I read by Terry Eagleton, which was less of a book but a long essay, was On Evil. And no prizes for guessing as to what this work was about; it was on evil but with a dialectical treatment of several literary (and literal) villains. This writer is one of the best critics around and I am always awestruck at his literary dissertations.

Anyway, coming to the point of challenging my beliefs, in passing, Terry Eagleton invokes a French saying “To understand all is to forgive all” and attributes it as the philosophy of the softhearted pseudo liberals (while he does not use the term pseudo, the connotations run clear all through the text). I continued reading… after about one complete sentence, I got back and re-read it. I stopped. Closed the book for then and started winding down a mental debate that has not subsided since (from about three months ago).

But why?

Because, I flaunt myself to be a liberal — at least in the sense of the aforementioned “understand to forgive” doctrine — and take pride in my ability to disentangle individuals from their circumstances using empathetic understanding of their social conditioning and a critical analysis of the systemic constraints. This does irk several of the people who are close to me as I tend to think of crises caused by individuals in some abstract sense, get agitated at the “system” or some larger socio-economic forces at play and do not direct this anger necessarily towards the seemingly perpetrators. I must argue that this paradigm has helped me immensely. It forms a basis for growing tolerant and not succumbing to what I call the “attribution bias”, which is more commonly known as the sampling or selection bias. Wherein, a handful of non-representative samples end up defining the properties of a larger population. In a social setting, this is the equivalent of statements like “women don’t make for good leaders” or “all Muslims terrorists” which are beliefs, maintained not so uncommonly by many across the political spectrum, serving as a grim manifestation of “attribution bias”. And focusing on individuals makes for a fertile ground for such myopic beliefs. Also, most endorsing such views tend to miss the core issues or get misdirected by staying focused on the individuals.

So, what do I do of the accusation that Terry Eagleton levies on liberals who want to forgive by seeking understanding?

It is complicated.

The context in which he writes is that while an individual might be pushed to the brim of desperation that drives him/her to commit an act of violence or “crime”, there is also a large and certain role played by the individual’s creative abilities — the personality — that parses it. That is, pure evil which exists just for the purpose of destruction is manifested by the individual. While many of us might be able to suppress or act on these drives (thanks to our personalities and conditioning), some might not only give in to these impulses but also use their individual creative faculty to make it heinous — more closer to pure evil. In instances like this, the individual is unforgivable and there can be no amount of understanding that can help one forgive the violations. And claimants who can forgive acts of pure evil are, according to Terry, the softhearted liberals holding a seriously flawed dogma.

Now, I certainly do not think individuals are absolved of all responsibilities of their actions. I only think that other than the individual’s volition there might also be larger forces at play and those must also be acknowledged. The spectrum of human behaviour and experiences are so diverse and complicated, these dogmas might evolve and adapt. For now, I still seek understanding of all; if I will end up forgiving all is something I don’t/can’t know.

Thanks for a provocative read Terry!

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Why I run!

The one question that does not annoy me, even when it is incessant, is that why I run?! In fact, whenever this question is asked I might even be beaming with pride and joy. In a relatively short while running has come to define my personality. Not only in the sense that people identify me with it but that several traits in me are now adjoined with running.

This post is to trace the actual origin story of why I run or as some of you see it why I hurt myself!

The short answer is self discipline.

I had started running on a relatively regular basis during masters in Sweden. But this was the effortful, unenjoyable, peer pressured but ultimately utilitarian running. That which most new runners or non-runners end up feeling and imagine it to be. And I vividly remember how I felt then and try to be more considerate when running with newcomers now.

So what changed?

I started my PhD.

After moving to Copenhagen for my PhD in 2015, I was grappling with an entirely new research domain. It was hard. And I was trying to learn (a lot of new concepts) and conduct research that had to be productive under a well defined duration of time. I had to sharpen my skills of time management and focus. In attempting to inculcate new learning habits, I ended up taking MOOC courses like Learning to Learn, which I recommend.

And during this course, the idea of diffused mode of learning that happens at the back of your head when engaged in other activities, accelerated during physical activities, was reintroduced ( I had heard about this previously). I embraced it. And this time I believed in it.

Neither diffused mode of learning or running for fun worked. At first.

Irrespective of what the incentive is, it is hard to get into running and reach a stage where one can enjoy it. I was not enjoying the entire first year of running.

It is during these unexciting times, the newfound peer pressure helped. My research group had a thriving running group and was better to run with friends who keep you motivated. And it helped me get out on my (running) feet.

After a stint of stay in The Netherlands, where I had a new routine I ended up running with devotion and made a habit of it. I’ve written about this in another post.

Even then, I wasn’t running for fun. It was an exercise of self discipline. It took effort to commit and run 5km, 2-3 times a week, throughout the year. But making it a habit helped. And this self discipline seeped into rest of my routine. At one point my PhD advisor even noticed this, saying that after I had started running regularly, my project was making progress. At the least, in my head it had made me calmer and better focused.

What then about the diffused mode of thinking?

I have few anecdotal evidences, wherein I have solved a small research task and debugged my code, while running. But I wouldn’t cite these as the primary motivating factors.

By the time I was finishing my PhD, I was running longer and regularly. At this stage, I was running, not for any of the aforesaid reasons specifically but a new aspect had emerged: I was challenging myself. It does get mundane to be running the same one or two routes or the same distance every time! This has since led me to run short trails, and now longer on a regular basis.

And yes, by now it has also gotten to be fun! It is hard but fun in a unique way. The sense of accomplishment at the end of each run or after a new challenge is a precious reward. And these rewards can keep you going when there are otherwise problems and/or hindrances at work and/or on personal front.

This brings me to my current connection with running: it has also gained a spiritual status; in the sense, it can, and has lifted me up when the going has been tough. On a daily basis, to have something beyond one’s work to be content and feel proud of can improve the general well being. I’m fully aware this might simply be placebo effect. On the other hand, by being a believer in this regard I have gained immense benefits ( both physically and mentally).

In the end, if you ask me why I run now?! The short answer is that it makes me happy!

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Joy of reading, and some critique of capitalism

It rarely happens that in reading a particular piece of literature I end up finding beyond perfect articulations of some of my own unstructured ideas. It can be liberating and feels, even, cathartic! Or it might just be that I am learning.

This post is about one such recent reading experience.

I’ve been associated and working with several organisations that have taken up the cause of struggles of the underprivileged. These activities, predominantly, have been from a class antagonism point of view — that which many would attribute as Left-leaning. While I have understood and empathised with these organisations, I simultaneously held a strong opinion that there was something in the lacking in their primary focus. The classical class antagonism — say between the labourers and the employers that is so crucial to these struggles — have certainly brought hard earned rights to a large part of the working class (more evident in the Nordics, less so in India where the struggle is ongoing). However, such  fundamental and visceral class antagonism — with an image of a worker in a factory floor being brutally exploited — is no longer the most relatable formulation of why we are embroiled in dire crises, like economic disparity, massive poverty and climate change!

I’ve been unable to clearly point out what was lacking in these struggles, but I was able to identify and have been vocal about some symptoms of the crises.

For instance, the legitimacy that is given to manic and unscrupulous consumption in today’s world is mind-boggling. The compulsive behaviour to purchase stuff for the sake of it and not defined by its usefulness, and by the want of it and not the need of it, is deeply unsettling, to say the least.

Another instance that I was able to clearly disapprove was the notion of indirect taxation. In India, a goods and services tax (GST) was levied on almost all of the goods and services. While I am all for direct and progressive taxation at source, heavy indirect taxes have always seemed unfair to me. Think of a person who earns INR 3000/- per month paying the same 18% or whatever GST for a basic commodity, as does a person earning INR 30,000/pm or INR 300,000/-. This is plain stupid.

This can, of course, be extended to other essential services like healthcare, education and public transport, which are rendered unaffordable to a massive section of the population.

The labourer-employer based class antagonism driven struggles do not directly and effectively address these issues. Of course, these aspects are discussed at the peripheries, but my complaint has been these are never the primary focus.

While I have been grappling with these issues, I ended up reading David Harvey’s excellent treatise on the contradictions that are innate in capitalism. While I won’t get into all the seventeen contradictions he presents, the first category of contradictions that he brands as the foundational contradictions, elucidate a larger problem that encapsulates the severe discontent I have held.

In his book, he leads the readers to understand, how, by construction the modern globalised societies that, for the most part, are capitalistic thrive by dispossessing a vast majority of people. Like the ugly headlines that says 26 richest people possessing as much wealth as 50% of global population. This is still within the paradigm of class antagonism but taken well beyond the work place.

The hard earned rights and benefits at the work place are now extorted outside the workplace as exorbitant rents for housing, unaffordable healthcare, expensive education  (and commodification of many such essentials) and even State interventions as skewed indirect taxation and austerity measures! David Harvey sums up this construct as the accumulation by dispossession. And he clearly makes a case for contemporary struggles to be driven by the politics that recognises and fights against the system that allows a handful of  people to appropriate massive wealth at the expense of dispossessing rest of the human population.


A coherent framework that links several global crises as manifestation of accumulation by dispossession was the improved articulation of my unstructured concerns.

Book: David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and end of Capitalism

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PhD Series: 1. Getting a position

The past year — 2018 — was an important one for several reasons. A primary reason being I successfully completed my PhD in Medical Image Analysis at the University of Copenhagen. I will try to delve into what completing the PhD means to me etc. in a different post. During the course of the PhD I must have garnered some experiences that can be useful to aspiring candidates from across the globe — in particular from the Indian subcontinent. In first of a series of blog posts, I will try to document the process and the journey that landed me a position at the Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen.

Needless to say, this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to aspiring candidates but only a recollection of my own experiences. Hopefully, these experiences can shed some light on some broad aspects of academic career in Northern Europe.

Motivation to take up PhD

Pursuing a doctoral degree cannot be a back-up option. It is a strong commitment and would not serve well, except for in rare cases, to take up a PhD position because other options did not work out.

While writing motivation letters is seen as an external exercise to convince the recruiters to grant you the position, it most certainly must be introspective. If the prime motivation is not earnest, working on a focused task for 3-5 years is almost impossible. Having a strong motivation not only aligns you to your work on a daily basis, but also can sail you through those rough seas when the going gets bad due to several reasons that are commonly encountered in research.

So, an honest and strong motivation that is earnest to yourself is a core starting point.

In my case, this core motivation — and almost basic driving factor — has been the passion towards academia. In fact, it has been my dream (I have actually dreamt about it several times) ever since I quit my industry position in 2011 and took up lecturing in Bangalore until 2013. Those were the years I really discovered my interests for signal processing and teaching. I have wanted to pursue a life doing these and I thought pursuing a Master’s degree and then a PhD would work well. And spoilers: it has worked out this far.

Quality of Master’s degree

Doing an MS in Communication Engineering, with a strong focus on Signal Processing, in Sweden helped me immensely. Apart from the quality of education that goes correlated with Chalmers University, it was also an indication of my ability to move to a new country and do well.

Also, when applying for PhD positions in Europe, having studied in Europe becomes a clearer indicator of the grades, which I started to realise was a big advantage when compared to perhaps far better students than myself, who were applying with an Indian (or non-European) MS degree. For instance, each time there is an opening for a PhD position at my department, just due to the scale there are a large number of applications from India. Other than the top 5 institutions (IISc, and some IITs) the academicians here have little or no insight into the plethora of colleges and universities in India. So it makes it harder to gauge the quality of the grades and hence the application itself. It is unfair, in some sense, but then the quality of degrees are also so diverse and varying in India, that an easy way out is to look out for students from reputed institutions. Again, this is not the case always, but when deciding between two equally qualified students, the one who has studied in Europe has an advantage.

Master’s Thesis

When applying for a PhD, while it is assumed that the MS grades are easily above average, the most important factor is the MS thesis. A strongly research oriented thesis that might have generated publications is far more impressive than the highest grades with a less ambitious thesis.

As I was focused on a research career, and that Chalmers University had this amazing opportunity to work on one-year long theses, I was quick to sign up for one of those. This decision was primarily focused on grooming a profile that would be appealing for a prospective PhD position and to a small extent due to my aversion to broad and general courses.

My MS thesis advisors were amazing and groomed me well in a scintillating research environment. It was hard and enjoyable (as it should be), resulting in a pretty good thesis with two publications (one got accepted, the other we could not revise unfortunately after a rejection). Nonetheless, the overall thesis demonstrated that I was already engaged in conducting research, although based on collaborations, and was a good indicator of my research skills.

Of late, there are so many highly skilled applicants that already at MS level publications are seen as a filtering factor. This is unreasonable in my opinion; but there is a surge in number of applicants across the domains and again a practical way of screening candidates is based on the quality of publications related to the MS thesis.

Other factors

A versatile CV with diverse work experiences perhaps can help your application stand-out. After I started my PhD position, one of my advisors said that my blog was also a factor. Not because of what was written in it (although that also gave a peek into my personality) but that it showed I could write and in research, academic writing is very important. From advisors’ point of view, it is better to work with students who can already formulate their ideas and communicate, than them doing it on the student’s behalf. Of course, writing a blog is different and has its own limitations when it comes to academic writing (my papers would tend to be verbose and not efficient), which I have improved by now, I guess.

The position itself

In Denmark (and other Nordic countries) PhD positions are advertised as job openings. This is a great feature, because not only the positions are put out throughout the year, as a student you do get full employment benefits, including a full salary. The working conditions in Scandinavia are some of the best in the world; while researchers are notorious for their unscrupulous work-life balance, it is still the best in Scandinavia.

Once a job that suits your interests is advertised, it is a straightforward application procedure involving CV,  motivation letters and recommendations. A strong recommendation from a relevant reference is an important last factor. In most cases, it is your MS thesis advisor.

I appeared for a Skype interview, wherein I gave a 30 minute research talk about my MS thesis and another half hour of general interviewing from both my advisors. It was about two months after this interview that I heard from them that I was being offered the position. I had applied unsuccessfully to one other position in The Netherlands (declined in the final round, as a more specialised student was available) and was in talks to start a PhD position at Chalmers University. I took up the one in Denmark, first because the project was exciting,  it was a three year contract (unlike upto 5 years in Sweden), and that I would get to live in another country.

Thus began my PhD journey on the 1st October, 2015.

Profile at DIKU

In the next post, I will try to talk about the bulk of the PhD itself: the struggles and the triumphs.

PS: Feel free to write to me if you’d like to know more specifics of any part of the process.

Posted in Denmark, Travel | 4 Comments

A decade of blogging

I vividly remember that afternoon in 2008, when I was still getting acquainted with the internet jargon and a classmate mentioned something called a blog. He elaborated it to me as a diary on the internet that I could choose to share with others. I had just recently gotten a personal computer and the internet was an unexplored universe; blog sounded exciting.

As I was already jotting down random scribblings in an actual diary and was thinking, what I was writing was smart, it would be cool to show it to someone. Blogs were the perfect haven to shelter my silly aspirations. I decided to start blogging and thus came about my first post on 24th September, 2008.

Another reason that I chose to write was to improve my spoken English. My spoken English was crude and I had a limited vocabulary. I started reading voraciously (first non-text book I read was sometime in 2006), and started picking up new words on a daily basis. The only way I could retain them, I knew, was to use them. To use a word like highfalutin or portmanteau in a normal conversation seemed outrageous. For a while, I did try spicing up my conversations with sophisticated words that might not have warranted a use in those scenarios; I ended up with a reputation of someone who uses flamboyant words, more than an average speaker.

But with my blog, enabled by my rants, I could experiment with my evolving language skills while prodding the worlds, both inside and outside. Early blog posts of mine are embarrassing but I still like to keep them online to just see how far I have come.

Naturally, once I started writing and actively advertised among my friends and started getting feedback on the posts, I liked the attention and stuck to writing them regularly. I started with quantity over quality but soon the process of writing got intimate to a core inside me. I started seeing writing as a vent — a medium of expression — and began to take it a bit more seriously.

By 2010, I was undergoing a transformation of sorts hanging out with my rebellious new group that was advocating, in essence, equality. These daily experiences gave me a lot to chew on and I ended up reflecting upon these experiences in my posts. It is quite stark, how this transformation happened and how well it is captured in my blog. As an example, if one were to track my ideas about religion it can be noticed how I started as a spiritual Hindu, then became an agnostic, agitated into a militant atheist, mellowed down to be an atheist and recently, I portray myself as some sort of a humanist.

There are several such trajectories of my personality that are explicitly captured in my blog posts. And to see that I have these snapshots of myself for the past decade is quite remarkable — a time travel of sorts. And each time I read an older post it is painfully obvious as to how inadequate I was then; I am also immediately reminded of the fact that a future self would find the present self, at least as much, inadequate.

I must admit, that I am glad and proud of maintaining my blog for a decade now. It has helped more than once to advance my career, capture special moments of my life, been a solace when I needed and also woo the woman of my life!

My blog, it seems, has come to be a true companion who stays back holding on to and curating the pieces that I leave behind.

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