Philosophy · Short stories

Divine love and neural engineering

It was about 8 PM in the evening. Done with his work in the laboratory for the day, Ary was packing up his stuff and getting ready to leave. He had completed four years of his PhD and had already finished majority of his thesis work. Thus he didn’t really have a lot of work to do in the laboratory of late.

The phone inside the pocket of his jeans suddenly started vibrating. He usually kept his phone on silent mode with no vibration on to avoid being disturbed in the middle of some engagement. As a result he missed all his incoming calls, much to the agony of his friends and colleagues. In fact he had almost forgotten the experience of picking up an incoming call. Usually he would look at his mobile phone once in an hour or so, check the call log and call back the people who had tried to contact him in the last one or two hours if they were important enough to him. But that day by mistake he had put his phone on vibration mode.

He pulled the phone out of the his jeans’ pocket. The call was coming from some unknown, but local number. Reluctantly he picked up the call. It was an old lady’s voice on the other end. The accent was American, most probably Californian. Interestingly his fellow American friends identified that as having no accent.

“Am I speaking to Aranyak Sen?”, the lady asked.

“Yes”, Ary replied.

There was a second’s pause. Then she said, “Your friend Poulomi Chatterji met with an accident. She is bleeding profusely. May have broken some bones too. She is getting transferred to a trauma center in Castro Valley. She has listed you as her emergency contact person and gave us your phone number.”

Ary didn’t know how to respond. It was a weird feeling. There was shock and grief, but surpassing all that he experienced a strange feeling which several times he attempted to recall later and describe in words not only to communicate it to someone else but also for his own understanding. But he always failed to do so. It felt like memories of day to day events that happened about him and their associated emotions were only residing on the surface of his brain. This news had pierced through all that and hit the core of his brain, as if he was waiting for this moment for years. So far all that happened to him was trivial. This was the moment when his actual life began.

“How did the accident happen?”, Ary asked.

“She fell off a cliff near Muir Woods. She was hiking by herself. Some other hikers found her lying senseless and called 911. The paramedics gave her first aid and took her to a local hospital to realize that she was suffering from internal bleeding and that it was a medical emergency. So she was rushed to the biggest trauma center around, in Castro Valley.”

“Okay, please tell me the address of the trauma center, and where in that hospital I can find her. I am driving there right away.”

After ending the phone call, Ary signed in to the rental car application on his phone, rented a car for the night which was parked very close to their office building and left his laboratory in the direction of the parking lot. Why on earth would Polo go for a hike to Muir woods on a working day? And yes sure, it was summer and the sun didn’t set until almost 8 PM but still why would she be out in the hills that late? Ary had noticed that Polo was getting more weird and crazy every passing day, but this was probably too much.

When he reached the parking lot, he was quickly able to locate the car. It was a white Hyundai Santro. It was always parked at this lot for people to rent it on an hourly basis, and so many times Ary too had rented it before to practice driving on freeways. Most of the times he was accompanied by Polo. She grew up in Singapore where public transport was very convenient. It was also very expensive to own a car. Hence her parents never owned a car. Yet she learned driving in Singapore through a driving school. When she moved to the bay area a couple of years back for her PhD she got her California driving license immediately and started driving around the bay area frequently. On the other hand, Ary had been in the bay area for four years now but only got his license a year back. Despite passing the driving test to get his license, he still wasn’t very confident about driving on freeways at 80 miles per hour. So he often rented that specific Hyundai Santro car after a day’s work, asked the more experienced Polo to join him and went straight on the freeway just to get used to that speed of traffic. Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Polo wasn’t really the conventional instructor. She didn’t give her continuous instructions on how to drive. In fact she rarely said anything. Often she would even have her eyers closed. But Ary knew that this entire time, Polo was making sure they were safe.

On the first such driving session with Polo, Ary took the car out of the parking lot and drove it along University Avenue, which ran westward from UC Berkeley campus, tearing through the heart of the city, all the way to the bridge that connected it with Interstate 880 freeway that ran between south bay and east bay. As they approached that bridge, Ary felt a little nervous and unsure. He asked Polo, “Hey, what happens at this bridge? I can’t recall. Does it straight join 880?”. But her eyes were closed and she didn’t respond. Ary asked the same question again. Then she slowly responded, “no, the road goes upward and upward and then it joins the sky”.

All these memories were flooding Ary’s mind as he was driving at 80 miles per hour on Freeway 880 to reach the trauma center at Castro Valley. It was past the evening rush hours, so the lanes were relatively empty. He kept wondering about the state he was going to find Polo in at the hospital. Would she be in a lot of pain? Would she be able to identify him? Ary had no clue.

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Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

“Hey, are you gonna be here longer? Then I won’t lock the door now.”

Jack asked Ary as he was about to leave the laboratory for the day. Ary didn’t know why he asked the same question to Ary every evening. Though he certainly wasn’t the first person to get into the lab everyday, he almost always was the last person to leave. He worked till late hours of the night while most others would hang out with their friends and families, attend parties or simply go to bed early to have an early start for the next day.

Ary’s eyes were on the computer screen, as the tip of the microscope scanned the surface of the last thin film he grew.

“Hey Ary, will you lock the door?”, Jack asked again not getting an answer from Ary.

Of course I would. I am a poor Indian grad student living in a foreign land. I have no life. I have no girlfriend- Ary told himself.

But then to his own surprise, he said, “No, I think I am done for the day. I shall leave with you. Lock the door”.

Ary packed his backpack, left the computer to direct by itself  the motion of the tip of the microscope over his dearest thin film sample, and got out of the lab, located in the basement of Hearst Memorial Hall, the oldest building on the University of California Berkeley campus. Outside it was dark already. It was the end of November. Days had already become very short in this part of the globe.

Ary hated this part of the year the most. It had been more than two years since he had moved to California from Calcutta for his PhD. He would go home every winter during the Christmas break and come back quite refreshed to resume research. So during this time of the year, with days too short and nights too long for a guy from lower latitudes like Ary and Christmas still a month away, he would feel exhausted and depressed after swimming with the sharks in a highly aggressive and competitive research environment of one of the top graduate schools in US for an entire year, and longed for the peace and warmth of his sweet home in Calcutta.

Ary paced across the campus briskly in the dark and reached the University Avenue, which started from the west end of the campus, pierced through the heart of the city of Berkeley which was rather somewhat between a college town and a full blown city and ended at the Berkeley Marina, which overlooked the bay that connected with the Pacific Ocean. Ary wondered where to go for dinner. He didn’t want to cook the same marinara pasta at home again. He called up Diggy, a fellow grad student from India and one of his closest friends in Berkeley, to check his availability for dinner. Diggy, as expected, didn’t pick up the phone. Ary followed the University Avenue to the downtown area, passed the dingy McDonalds restaurant frequented by homeless people and walked into Bobby G’s Pizzeria- a sports bar with some good pizza.

Ary sat at the bar and waited for his pizza. The “football” game on TV didn’t register in his head at all. He never really understood the rules nor he knew any of the teams or the players. He kept thinking about the results of his experiments or lack thereof, his withering interest in the topic of his research and the apparent lack of direction in his research work- an activity which occupied most of his time for the last two years.

Just when his pepperoni pizza arrived, another fellow grad student, Steve Lambson, hopped in and sat next to him. Ary had talked to Steve a few times in the graduate social hour, but he didn’t really know much about him other than that his name was Steve Lambson, he was a second year PhD student in Civil Engineering and he was from Minnesota.

“You eat meat?”, asked Steve, “I thought Indians don’t”.

Ohh, another conversation aimed at dispelling misconceptions about Indians’ food habits, which won’t serve its purpose! – Ary told himself.

Ary didn’t feel like talking. For a while he had observed a pattern about himself. His inclination to interact with people outside the Indian graduate student community used to be very high when he wasn’t occupied with research. But after he spent a few days immersed in research, he only wanted to talk to his fellow Indian grad students. The current conversation with Steve would possibly continue along the lines of Indian culture, which Ary was tired talking about after spending two years in Berkeley. The conversation could also take an alternate trajectory where Ary would talk about his own research and Steve would talk about his, with neither person understanding anything about the other person’s research. Neither trajectory appeared promising to Ary, but he was too polite in this foreign land to not continue the conversation.

Though the conversation took the well-trodden second trajectory, Ary was pleasantly surprised to identify that he was actually able to follow Steve’s research. In fact, he started liking it. To make it more intriguing, Steve also mentioned that there was an opening for a new PhD student in his project. Steve was deploying wireless sensors in the Sierra Nevada basin to detect the occurrence of landslides. Though the technical aspect of the project sounded interesting, what really captured Ary’s imagination was the location of the project- instead of spending all his time working on thin films in a basement of a Berkeley building he would do laboratory work out there in nature, amidst the majestic Sierras. Ary had driven to Yosemite Valley that summer with some fellow Indian grad students and was mesmerized by the Sierras. Though he had visited several hill stations in the Himalayas with his parents back in childhood, he felt that the beauty of the Sierras wasn’t comparable to any other mountain he had seen before. He wasn’t sure why he felt so. He meticulously photographed the looming granite structures, the serene lakes, the tall redwoods and the beautiful chapels with his newly bought DSLR and wanted to go there again soon to pursue his passion in photography further. Now he was probably provided with the perfect opportunity to combine his work and his passion.

For a long time he knew that he loved Physics. That’s why he was working all day in a laboratory trying to find a phase boundary in a ferroelectric thin film, which nobody had observed before. But of late he loved photography and nature and nature photography so much more. This was his chance to stop being an Indian nerd and become cool like an American. Ary walked home that night, confused but excited. However when he jumped into the twin sized bed of his small studio apartment in downtown Berkeley, for which he paid a rent half his monthly stipend, he was too tired from the day’s work and inebriated from the beer at Bobby G’s to think further and slept immediately…

Professional Wrestling · Short stories

The big red monster

The whole arena turned red, a creepy music hit, a big monster showed up wearing a mask, he waved his hand and there was fire all about the ring, the twenty thousand people in the audience screamed in excitement and awe…..

“Kane! Kane! It’s his brother Kane!”, Ary kept screaming, lying on his bed and throwing punches in the air. His mom hastily walked into his bedroom and pushed him out of bed, “Get up! It’s past 8 AM, get ready for school, how much more are you gonna sleep, and stop watching that stuff”, his mother said, and rushed back again to the kitchen. She had to stir the fish curry one last time while all the water would evaporate leaving behind the fish, the potatoes and the spices delightfully blended together. Ary’s dad, who was packing his briefcase in the living room, would eat the fish curry with rice before going to office. “Have you seen your own physique, Ary? How can a guy like you be interested in such hooligan stuff!”, his dad yelled at Ary, as Ary got out of his bedroom and walked towards the sink in front of the bathroom. Unrest and tension were always at its peak during this time of the day in their moderately sized third floor apartment in the southern suburbs of Calcutta, with an impatient and worldly adult running around the house looking frantically for the shaving brush, the comb, the handkerchief and the green tube of “Borolin” cream on his way to office, and a lazy and unworldly kid being rushed by his mom at every step on his way to school.

As Ary stood at the sink holding the toothbrush motionless inside his mouth and staring at the mirror in his front, he tried to remember the face he saw in his dream last night that made him scream- a big masked face, long hair, similar to the monster who broke into the steel cage and “tombstoned” the Undertaker last night on TV. Just that the color of the mask wasn’t red in the dream. It was rather kind of dark grey. He never dreamt in colors, he had noticed. The world of his dreams was like the world of his big fat pet cat Obelix even when she was awake- black and white. Cats don’t have cones in their eyes, his school teacher had mentioned a few days back. He had been looking at Obelix with more amazement since he picked up that information. “Mom, mom, she’s seeing everything in black and white!”, he would scream every time Obelix showed up in the living room and greeted everyone with her customary “meaow”.

“Again you are simply standing out there holding the toothbrush! Why can’t you just do things in time.”

Ary never understood what “doing things” exactly meant. He was good at studies but that was simply because he loved spending time with books and learning new things and hardly forgot what he learned. But all these other things- brushing teeth, taking shower, eating food- he hardly ever found any purpose in them. Every now and then he would get lost in his own world, or rather one of the multiple worlds he had created inside his head over the years.  The world of professional wrestling was one of the recent ones. His father had just subscribed for cable television in their house, one of the first ones to do so in their middle-class neighborhood, much against the wish of his mom who thought it would adversely affect Ary’s studies. Ever since then, Ary had gotten addicted to watching World Wrestling Federation (WWF) shows once back from school. Yesterday was a Sunday and fighting against fierce opposition from his dad he managed to watch the match between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker inside a fifteen feet high steel cage.

Ary walked into the bathroom and locked the door from inside for a shower. Finally his imagination could flow seamlessly, unobstructed by instructions from rest of the world. Ary imagined a square ring with tight ropes surrounded by a raucous American crowd about whom he knew very little barring their love for wrestling. Shawn Michaels entered the arena to a massive cheer and there he was next to Shawn Michaels as his best friend. He didn’t call himself Triple H. He called himself Penta X. He wasn’t really very sure how Penta X looked. He knew that Penta X wasn’t a giant like Undertaker or Kane. He was of medium height and slim and extremely agile, kinda like Shawn Michaels, but his face resembled Ary’s. He came out to a song that sounded like “Run miles, run miles….”.Together Shawn and he were ready to take on anyone- a dead man from Death Valley, California, a deranged maniac from some random broiler room, a giant sumo wrestler from Japan- just name it!! But who was that big red monster? What was there behind that scary mask? Could he actually walk through fire? Would they be able to take him down?

Just as Penta X was about to take on the red monster, mom screamed, “Ary!! You are in the bathroom for the last ten minutes and I haven’t heard a single splash!! What are you doing out there? It’s 9:30 AM. Everyday, it’s the same story”, a combination of anger and helplessness in the tone. Ary stopped the match before the bell rang, decided to resume it once back from school and grabbed the mug to fill it up with water from the bucket and begin the “shower”…….