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How to not evaluate your life through the sole lens of your PhD attempt

12 Mar

Or, How to Not Miss the Forest for the Trees.

One of the biggest temptations during a long, full-time PhD where your only commitment is to the PhD (and not, say, also simultaneously providing economically and emotionally for dependents) is to answer yae or nay to the question ‘Am I making progress?’ based on your progress with the PhD. Or maybe on whatever else you are prioritising with the PhD, which in my case is my spiritual practice. This might not be a very good way to do things because hey, those are just parts of your life, not the sum total of.

So, fellow yumans, take note of all the the little wins that will come in handy in doing life. You can’t put ’em on a CV, but you can put ’em on social media with saccharine filtered photos and flowery new-age prose-poetry.

To my list I’ll add: earning mum’s approval for single-handed maintenance of domestic premises, including the newly gained ability to jhadoo-pochha whenever needed.


26 Feb

It is 2 AM, and I am reading through a World Bank report on urbanisation while drinking lightly brewed (in deference to the hour) Earl Grey tea from my favourite mug.

I am on a deadline to submit whatever is ready of a rough draft of my first chapter, and it has been a while since I’ve done the night owl thing for work.

Feels good.

The night is the best time for work, and everything else \m/.Ā  Too bad I’ll go back to attempting healthy normal hours from tomorrow :-/


18 Feb

Got started on that list today with the Sunday auction at The Russel Exchange, on Russel Street. As a life-long devotee of take-your-time-with-things, today’s experience ended up being more of a taster, especially as I was with friends who were hungry and less fascinated than I was. We stayed for just under two hours, and the auctioneer had reached lot number sixty something, out of 300?400? plus lots to be auctioned. There was a neat little booklet listing all the items, and a page of rules, that was handed out to participants and watchers on.


We reached at 11, the scheduled time for the auction to begin, but were told that it is closer to 11.30 usually, before the whole thing begins.


Calcutta, Sunday, fair enough. Even the metro has a leisurely start on Sundays-at 9.50AM. So do I, come to think of it!


So yes. One is supposed to inspect the goods for auction the day before, on Saturday, but you’re allowed to touch them and examine them on Sunday as well, before the auction begins. Everything is crammed into a facility that resembles a massive two-story garage or small warehouse; there is nothing ‘curated’ about the display that’s fo’sho! That adds to its charm, if you ask me, because you carry the expectation of a hidden gem popping up in a corner, or in that showcase there, which makes it special. I’m a fan of beauty and chaos co-existing in everyday life and hidden gems in general, so its aesthetic appealed very strongly to me. Much like finding a fragrant, flowering plant in a corner lot piled high with construction debris and detritus, and/or a secret garden.


By the way, ask for permission before you take photographs, especially if you have a hobby camera, like an SLR. They don’t refuse, but ask you to not take a photograph of every item for sale.

Today’s auction was conducted by one of the three siblings who own The Russel Exchange. She sat on a platform with a gavel and a mike, reading out from the list as employees held up the item of the moment for buyers to see.


There was everything from junk that only held value as recyclable garbage (half a helmet!), to items that could be repaired and used (telephone instruments, mixer-grinders), to items that could be used as is (Samsonite suitcases and strolleys), to decorative (carved wooden boats, paintings, china figures, glassware) and more valuable pieces of pottery (that I did not stay back to see). Many of the items were bags full of random things that sold as a collective lot: purses, light fixtures, scissors etc. Some of those went without any bids, some went as low as Rs. 30, and one bag of door locks started at Rs. 20-ish and finally sold for close to Rs. 1000! If you’re the highest bidder for an item, your name is written down and you’re expected to pay 50% of the amount upfront, and the rest can be paid when you collect your purchase (you have till Wednesday 5PM to do so).

You can pick out the pros from the first timers by the seriousness with which they stare at their booklets, marking off the items they intend to bid on, and the casualness with which they make their bids. At the time of bidding, they almost disinterestedly raised half a hand or waved a finger in a half-raised hand to indicate interest, and the auctioneer hiked up the bid by Rs. 5/-10/- or 50/-; I couldn’t figure out the logic or system by which the price was increased. Other than the bag of locks, a Samsonite suitcase attracted multiple bids, ending at Rs.2650. And a carved leather ladies handbag.

I was only present while everyday goods (and junk!) got auctioned off, but that place holds antique-ey items too. Some pieces can be purchased as is, including most of the big furniture, chandeliers, sculptures, carpets etc. You can identify them by the price tags stickered on to them. One old chair with a wooden frame and cane mesh sitting and leaning surface, the kind of chair common to my grandparents’ time, was priced at Rs.11000. I’ve seen them being sold online for upwards of Rs.20,000 by companies that refurbish and resell antique furniture. Other exciting pieces are antique-ey bookshelves with the former owner’s book collection included (often dusty encyclopedias). I say antique-ey as opposed to antique, because I was reading online that there is a problem that gets in the way of selling antiques in India. Anything older than 100 years has to be registered with a government department before it can be sold, and most owners, naturally, can’t be bothered with all that. So it is highly possible to come across antiques that are not certifiably antiques, which makes these auctions even more exciting.

Someone, while writing about this, spoke of how addictive the whole experience is, and I agree. The mystery of the items-who were the previous owners? what’s its story?-the mystery of the appeal of older goods and who bids on what, the collection of spectators and buyers, and the rush of the bids and the gavel falling down to seal a deal warrant a second visit, and a third, and a fourth. And then one should stop, before it becomes pathological šŸ˜‰


A PhD student’s guide to health and nutrition

17 Feb

P.S.-This also works if you’re stupid lazy. Or on a budget. Or all three.

Need to eat? Concerned that your idea of a balanced diet now includes Uncle Chips and dahi?Ā Be not concerned. Buy yo’self some beans. Chop said beans and toss them in a pan with butter orĀ ghee. Done.

When the mood strikes for something more elaborate, find a vegetable seller who will give you coriander for free. Then buy from him carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, more beans. Chop them all (yes, cauliflower stems too, what are you, like Richie Rich or something?) and simmer in a pot of water with all the coriander. Fry leftover cauliflower pieces, if any, in leftoverĀ ghee, if any. Eat as soup or, this part is not for those on a budget, in a bowl with melted cheese and chilli flakes on top.

Need to have clean floors? Get a broom and a long-handled twist mop, in orange if you can.

Need to work out? Put aside orange long-handled twist mop, and bring out the normal mop and get to it, Indian style. As you move crab-like from tile to tile, you’ll discover muscle groups you never knew existed.

You’re welcome.

A return to origins

11 Feb

Recently, I have been thinking again about being a tourist in the city. As my time here draws to an end (hopefully!) I find there are many things I am yet to do in Calcutta. Things that are easier done as a resident than as a tourist. In no particular order, these include:

  • Attending an auction on Russel Street.
  • Joining a short course at the maritime institute near Millenium Park (I’ve crossed it many times but I cannot remember the name).
  • Visiting the Marble Palace (the name makes it sound all marble-y and palace-y, i.e. very boring, but the now dead owner was a mad collector of a mad mix of things, i.e. a man after my own heart).
  • Making one trip to either Darjeeling or PuriĀ from Calcutta.
  • Bishnupur antique market fair, Gangasagar.
  • A morning walk, an afternoon walk and an evening walk around Dhakuria Lake.
  • Once a month, pick an area within the city to get lost in.
  • Chinese New Year celebrations in China Town.


8 Feb

A yogic way of living life is incompatible with blaming bad fortune (and praising good fortune?) to external circumstances. However, the power of one’s external environment is acknowledged, and one is exhorted to strive for an environment that is compatible with one’s goals, inner or outer. Between the external environment and inner resilience, spiritual protection and will power, it is the latter that is acknowledged to be the more powerful tool.

In materialist conceptualisations of the social and the political, the environment is seen to have the greater hand in guiding human fate. Human agency and endeavour is to be directed outward to re-arranging material society, which will ultimately lead to inner joy, satisfaction and meaningful life.

This distinction is somewhat crucial to my academic work and post-PhD life. Merits further concrete thinking. I need to know exactly where I stand on this and how far I want to push this distinction while reformulating my own politics and figuring out my working future. The overlaps between the two make it difficult to definitively make declarations.


5 Dec

*I found out today morning that the Britts apparently spell it like the above and that ‘practiCing’ is the American way to do it.

I grew up with British English spellings, but somehow never got the memo about practising. Whatever I learnt in my primary schooling years of Wren & Martin grammar books have long been forgotten and I have been doing grammar and spelling by intuition ever since. Today’s flash-bulb moment courtesy the book reviews editor who offered me the book review.

*The book review was, in the end, written to my satisfaction and submitted much in advance of the deadline. By which I mean in the middle of the due day, instead of 23.59, which is what I am wont to do.

The manner in which the book review got written captures the essence of why I’m to stick with the PhD and why the PhD is first and foremost, and only most, my specific spiritual training ground. Till about four days before deadline, the words were not organising themselves into anything write-able, in my thoughts or rough drafts. It was a minor crisis situation and the pitch of my panic was rising on cue. On the morning of the third day I felt a deep internal reassurance that the words would flow, and in the correct order too. And, despite it being a day of outdoor and indoor chores and plumbing crisis, the rough draft got written.

If the ONLY thing I learn for good at the end of this is that action flows not from the ‘I’ but from God, and learn to operate with that conviction, I’ll be satisfied. As always, experiencing something is very different from knowing it intellectually.

*In Delhi I have Sivananda Yoga right behind my CGHS. As I am a lazy bum, that is most fortunate. I’ve signed up for a monthly pass, as I tend to do once or twice a year, and yesterday was my first class. Sometimes the energy flow in the body is a blessing rather than a consequence (of hard work) and yesterday was such: the body was falling into many asanas with ease, despite the levels of unfitness I have worked myself into.

However, I realised I have plateaued in my practise because of one thing: effort. When I first began a regular practise in 2010, the maximum benefit came not from what I could do easily, but in pushing myself to hold the asanas that challenged me longer than I thought I could**. In recent times I find myself doing that less and less. I must remedy that today.

**Edited to add: I guess this is true of meditation as well.