Friday, November 03, 2006

Vienna photos: Prater

There was some mild snow yesterday, but it started snowing quite heavily around noon today and continued for a few hours. A mere week ago, we had warm weather... upto 16°C, then then last Sunday late afternoon while I was at Sharron's there was a hailstorm, and the next day the temperature dropped. The last couple of days have been really cold, and today has been particularly so. Temperatures are expected to drop slightly below 0°C over the next few days, but then again there is a forcast for warmer by rainy weather from the middle of next week.
Every year, I resolve to go out into the woods in October, and take photos of the autumnal leaves. And I never get around to doing it. I had been suggesting it to Fabien (he has a new Canon camera that he loves) too, to go together. He agreed in principle, but as usual, he never takes an initiative himself. Two weekends ago, I suggested we go on such a photo tour on the Sunday late afternoon. I wanted to do it during sunset, but that wasn't a good idea as the woods become too dark... Fabien had warned me.
So we decided to go to the amusement park in Prater instead. I guess I have missed the autumn leaves again...
Anyway, here are some of these photos:

I guess it is obvious that I like geometric forms...

Please do leave a comment if you like any of these photos.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Second Paris Trip, Sept 17-24

This is a really overdue post. So much has been happening in the past few weeks, and I have really been slack at posting. This one is particularly overdue-- I had visited Paris a month ago. We had this conference on our group's direct area of research in Paris and the whole lab (excluding the techincian) went. Anton was an invited speaker, and Karen gave a talk, and the rest of us presented posters-- except Hiro, since he has arrived since six months or so. Tatsuya presented his a poster about the work from his previous lab.

The conference was from the 17th of Sept through the 21st and we stayed on until the 24th. It was good fun. Since there was a big group from our lab, we tended to stick together, and didn't get to meet and make friends with as many other people at the conference as I would have liked to. Nevertheless I did manage to meet some other people.

The conference was organized by two leading scientists in the field from Paris, from Institut Pasteur and Institut Curie, respectively. Most of the who's who in the field were there, including the "founder". It was very stimulating. It was reassuring to see my results fitting well in the current line of thinking.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon, and checked into our hotel in Rue Mouffetard, a very lively street close to the Pantheon. Anton, as an invited speaker, had been put up into another hotel. I was sharing a room with Dieter. After freshening up, we strolled towards the Pantheon-- the registration and welcome party was being held at the City Hall of the Ve arrondissement, opposite the Pantheon. We were among the first people to arrive.
The party was fun, also because we were a group, and so didn't feel lost, but then again, we never talked outside our group. Later, we went for a drink near St. Michel and actually ended up in a Mexican bar.
The conference started from Monday. The pre-lunch sessions were held in the Ecole Normale Superieure which is close to the Institut Curie. Rather crappy lunch at this college was followed by a long poster session at the Institut Curie and further talks there. There were three poster sessions, I was scheduled for Thursday.
We had dinner at an African place in the evening sans Anton (he reluctantly went for dinner organized by one of the organizers), and then went for a stroll to the Louvre complex, but after a while we split up and I went to Le Marais to meet a guy I had been talk to on the internet.

For Tuesday evening the organizers had arranged a Barge trip along the Seine. It was beautiful to see the lighted Eiffel Tower from the Seine. It was good fun. In the beginning I was hanging out with people from the lab, later on went to the top and talked to other people, especially Sebastien. By the time the trip ended, most of my colleagues were quite drunk, particularly Ruben. People still wanted to go for a drink and we planned to buy drinks for a supermarket near our hotel and sit on the square/roundabout there. But just as we were about to enter the supermarket, Neil, one of the big names in the field ran to us and suggested we join them at the (expensive) bar close by. Ruben was completely drunk since the barge, and he kept us amused with his antics. Afterwards we went to yet another bar along the street until it closed at 2 am.

Wednesday afternoon was free. Karen went shopping with a couple of girls Martin and Dieter had made friends with; and Dieter, Martin, Hiro, Tatsuya and I strolled around; went to the Arc di Triomphe, and walked back to the Louvre where we met Karen and Anton. The others went to the Louvre. I had been invited to dinner by Renaud and Christophe, my Couchsurfing hosts from my last visit.

Thursday was the last day of the conference, and it ended with a gala dinner at the Evolution Gallery of the Natural History Museum-- a grand setting. I hung out with Sebastien, for a large part of the evening, and then went to a bar near the hotel afterwards. I also met Damian, a colleague of Sebastien. Damian is Swiss-German and did his PhD on plant epigenetics. His current work is similar to mine, so we decided to meet the next day at Institut Pasteur to talk about our respective data. We left at 2 am.

We changed hotels on Friday, and Anton too moved into the second hotel close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. The weather wasn't great. Since I had some time in hand, I strolled to the Institut Pasteur and had lunch with Damian and Sebastien. The food at the Pasteur is great. After lunch and coffee (I required it!) Damian and I discussed work for around 3-4 hours and then at 6pm, we dragged Sebastien for a drink that turned into dinner. It was great fun chatting with them.
[Damian's work had not going great. After returning to Vienna, I sent him some of my data, he sent me some of their lab's... they didn't seem to match. And earlier this week, he told me that he was quitting the lab, and joining a company in Switzerland. That's a shame... it would have been so nice to continue this interaction.]

On Saturday Karen went shopping, Hiro's and Tatsuya's families were here since Friday, and so Anton, Dieter, Martin and I went to the Eiffel Tower. I had missed it during my last visit, but this time we climbed it. It's really a fantastic structure. I went quite crazy with my camera... and in this post I will inflict upon you some of the several shots I took. From there we walked to Arc di Triomphe because Anton wanted to see it. Then we split up as Anton wanted to go to Versailles and Dieter and Martin wanted to go shopping for presents for their respective girlfriends. I called up a guy I had talk to on the internet, and we strolled around Le Marais, went to a very interesting exhibition of arty stuff, browsed in a gay bookshop and had a drink at Open Cafe.
Later I strolled around in a huge supermarket near the Hotel de Ville.
We were supposed to go for an oyster dinner that evening. Although Ruben is supposedly allergic to sea food, he knew a seafood place and we went there. We had a huge tumbler full of oysters. They were ok, but I'm not crazy about oysters.

On Sunday morning, Martin and I went to Pere Lachaise. I had gone there during my last trip, but did buy a map and hence couldn't find Wilde's and a few other graves.
Later Martin joined the others at Pantheon, while I met up with this guy from yesterday and strolled around in the Jardin du Luxembourg and around the Pantheon.

The flight was in the afternoon, and rather eventless.

I really love Paris. It would be great to go back again, but I wouldn't go there for mere holidaying in the near future, considering that there are so many other places to go to. If Damian had stayed on in the Avner lab, there might have been scope for exchanging information, and reason for exchanging visits. Anton and Phil are in touch about our projects, but I don't see a reason for visiting Paris. Which is a pity.
But lets see...


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Writing Workshops

Vienna Lit is a new organization in Vienna that, in their own words, aims to provide a platform for live literature and the spoken word in English. They had organized a series of events a week ago, from Thursday through Saturday. These included four writing workshops (plus one for children) at the British Council. I attended all of them, and though I was disappointed that these workshops focussed much more on poetry than prose, I did have a great time, and gained some insight into poetry.
The first workshop was on Friday at 5 pm and so I rushed out early from the lab. I reached the British Council a bit late, but since only one other person was there, the workshop hadn't started yet.
The Sound of Poetic Sound was conducted by Anthony Joseph, and was probably the best one in the series. It is a pity that there were only two participants (well, Julia, the festival organizer participated for the first 20 min or so). As the title of his workshop suggests, Anthony emphasizes the importance of the sound words or phrases. He started off by asking us what were the stories behind our names. Both my first and last names do have interesting stories... and I tried getting away with that of my first name only, but he insisted that I relate the other story as well. He then asked us to pick up slips of paper with a word each and write down what taste, feel, sound, sight, memory do we associate the word with. Then we had to select a few of these associations and write four-five lines, and read them out. Unfortunately I don't have my write-up for this one (but I had written about the drone of a teacher teaching calculus and the wait for the bell to ring, and other stuff that I don't remember). The others immediately guessed that the word was "boredom".
The next task was to write an eight-sentence passage on anything without repeating a single word (not even articles). That was terribly difficult. I wrote:
A boy enters the room. His sister follows close behind. They stare around them, fascinated. He selects an interesting spot. She quickly does so too. What is in store for these two? Ah, wouldn't you like to know that? But I'm mean, won't say how this ends!
Then we were asked to randomize these words, so that mine became:
fascinated like ah the around is selects behind does I'm say sister spot too these she but follows for won't this his what an room close they mean he enters how so quickly wouldn't interesting a stare you store boy in them two know ends that to
We were asked to read it out, and the other participant (and he himself) was to write down groups of words that sounds interesting and/or beautiful. When Victoria, the other participant read out hers, I collected:
threadbare guardian
autumn leaf
only communicated
with they each beating
followed skeleton together
his became
only living hearts
We were to use these, add words wherever required, change tenses, cases-- whatever-- to write a poem. Mine was:
A Relationship
Threadbare guardian
His became.
Like an autumn leaf
Like life-followed skeletons;
Together, his became.
Only living hearts--
Each beating...
The others liked it-- the main purpose had been to create something that sounds nice and isn't entirely nonsensical, and I guess with a big or small stretch of imagination it could even make sense. In any case, the method was cool, and this was my first "poem" in something like 20 years. I do remember writing two or three childish ones when I was a kid.
The next workshop was on Saturday morning, at 10 am. I had gone dancing with Adam and Fabien at Why Not, and despite my resolutions had gotten back quite late, 2:30 am. Understandably, I was late for the workshop, nevertheless still before things had started properly.
The Voice Within was being conducted by John Siddique. Again, as the title suggests, the aim was to access one's "natural author's voice". The first exercise was to speak from the character's perspective. We were paired up and had to ask questions to our partners about themselves, take notes, and then introduce them as if we were them. That was interesting.
Among things he emphasized were
Never say what the author feels, don't make the reader emote. Rather show it.
Stay out of it, even if it has an "I" character.
As an example he gave us a poem:
My mother's old leather handbag,
crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother's handbag: mints
and lipstick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.
-Ruth Fainlight
We were asked to write a few sentences about an object we associate with a person we love, and write a poem. I wrote about my brother's camera, but it didn't turn out to be satisfactory.
Dardis McNamee, professor of journalism and writing at Webster University, Vienna, conducted the next workshop on Literary Travel Writing. This was probably the most structured of all the workshops. She recommeded reading her favourite travel books, the ones that sound most interesting to me were William Dalrymple's In Xanadu and Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. I don't remember reading much travel writing, but since I like to travel, and often try to maintain a travelogue I thought I'd do this workshop anyway.
Her tips were very interesting:
1. Learn about the place before and find out more while there. Have a knowledge of history. Keep in mind that history is the source of richness of the contemporary world. See things in light of their history. But do pay attention to the present.
Let loose the imaginative ability to see the manifestations of history in the present day.
2. Have a sense of wonder.
3. Quality of attention-- attention to details.
To go about the actual writing, she suggested,
1. Practise taking notes of a scene as if one is a set designer for a film. Key visual elements, colours, quality of light (recommended reading: books on painting and/or stage lighting), what is noticed first.
There are layers of perception. Pick out what is noticed first, what feels charming, what irritating.
2. Characters-- who do we think he is, why do we think this about him. Describe the people as with the setting.
3. Enter the scene and become involved. First person ("I walked into the room...") or first person invisible ("Entering the room...").
4. Little anecdotes of encounters. Conversations/dialogues, incidents etc.
5. The memories, experience etc that the scene stimulates one to think. Reflections, connections that one is reminded of from (a) history, or (b) personal experiences.
The last workshop was conducted by Peter Waugh on Place Writing Space. Peter is the co-founder of the poetry group Labyrinth, and it turned out that Ella from my theatre group used to go to this group. This workshop was about place, space and enviroment. He gave us a poem to illustrate two different places/spaces/environments in two parts of the same poem:
My Life in Two Parts
Outside my window is a row of poplars
growing from the turf of childhood.
Poplars grow in rows, never on their own.
It is Christmas. The sky is full of stars,
the branches are bare,
the wolves distant and menacing.
Now is the only time for oranges.
Their brisk fragrance fills the nails
as we lie in cold rooms high in the Balkans
dreaming of palm trees and the world.
Outside my window is a palm tree.
It is winter. The sky is enormous
and the ocean follows the moon.
Oranges are on the window-sill with other
tropical fruits no longer of interest.
Bright-plumed parakeets sway in the palm tree
and that's the only time I look up.
I lie in the low, stuffy rooms of adulthood
dreaming of poplars and the world.
Always, they come in rows.
-Kapka Kassabova (Someone Else's Life)
Next we were to write a similar poem describing two different times and space, yet somehow connected. My attempt was about the situation right there... a closed claustrophobic room where the workshops were being held versus the garden of the British Council where I went to write the poem:
A large well-lit room--
Scattered tables, white boards ahead.
Doors closed. "Stuffy" someone said.
Introductions-- there are seven of us.
Scribbling notes.
A task to be completed.
A lovely green lawn, a pleasant breeze--
Reddening autumn leaves on the wall ahead.
Flowers on the potted plants.
The sound of water from somewhere.
Judith at a distance writing her poem.
I guess my task is done.
Peter also told us about list poems and haikus. And our next task was to try them. I have a mental block against haikus, but nevertheless tried my hand at one. The concept of a list poem is interesting... taking a walk and making a list of things on a thing with short description, and then making a poem out of them. We were to go around in the British Council and do this.
I really did enjoy the workshops. Julia, the festival director had mentioned to me earlier that it had been extremely difficult to get the funding for this, and she isn't in a hurry to organize another such event, if at all. And that is a pity.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I have been tagged.
It has been quite a while, but I have been busy with this and that and as you see, I haven't been posting since three weeks. Which is a pity, as there is certainly a lot to blog about.

I am not a very social blogger, i.e., although I do browse other people's blogs and follow quite a few of these... I'm not big into leaving comments and developing friendships with bloggers. I do leave comments once in a while, and if fact I had been having a great discussion with Sebastien (the French guy I met in Paris)... but he doesn't know my blog and I comment anonymously (he knows it is me) because I wouldn't want him to see my blog because of my post on him! But anyways, since I don't comment a lot, and prefer to "lurk" on people's blogs, I have escaped being tagged... until recently.
The Visitor came across my blog via a comment I had left on Prash's, mentioned mine on his blog about blogs, has been visiting my blog with reasonable regularity, and has been commenting off and on too. And now has tagged me too. I am happy to oblige, albeit a couple of weeks late :-)
The direction is:
State nine things (weird or otherwise) about yourself. Then tag 6 others, and also let them know that you've tagged them by leaving a comment on their blog.
I will skip the second part, i.e., tagging others... simply because of the asocial reasons mentioned above, I don't know enough of others. So if there are visitors to my blog who'd like to pick up the tag, please write me a comment and feel free to accept it.
Ok, so here goes.
1. Despite all my endeavours, the Second Law of Thermodynamics plays a very important role in my life. Hey, don't run away, I'm not going to teach you Physics (after all I am a biologist, not a physicist!). Simply put, the said law posits that everything tends to chaos.
My desk. My flat. My lab bench. Doing the laundry. Cooking on weekends. Going to the gym. Correspondence/email. You name it, and if it is a part of my life, it tends to go towards chaos.
I do try to deal with it. I used to invite people over for lunch dinner quite regularly on weekends as that'd force me to clean up and cook. Couchsurfing was useful too, as having guests staying at my place means I have to clean up! I pay a whole year's membership for the gym so that I'd have more reason to go. And so on.
The silly thing is that when one thing starts to degenerate to chaos, everything else does so to. And I function terribly, at work at home, everywhere.
2. Procrastination is another thing that governs my life and is of course related to, and is in many ways the cause of, the above too. This is one thing I really wish I could change in my life. Things would be soooo much better without it.
3. My interests are just too diverse. In a way I am proud of this. My interests really range from almost everything to almost everything, and I'd look forward to newer ones. There are exceptions-- football, cricket et al. But these exceptions have exceptions too... I do enjoy watching important matches with friends or colleagues especially when there are supporters from both sides around. Anyways, but because of my interest in so many things, I don't get to stick to any of these properly. I shuttle from one to the other and leave the previous one unfinished. For example, I should really take some time out to go to the woods and photograph the autumn. Haven't been out on a proper photography tour (not tourist or social photography) for quite a long while. I should go hiking before it starts to get colder. I should write another article. I should read up on poetry. I participated in a few writing workshops last weekend (to be blogged), I am rehersing for a play that'll be performed next month. There are movies to be seen, a performance of The Glass Menagerie to be gone to. Music I have bought to be listened to. I have already bought (rather expensive) tickets for a performance of The Swan Lake for next weekend. The classical music appreciation cassettes to be listened to. Indian, French, Hungarian, German, Austrian, British, American, Iranian, Israeli, Turkish, EU expansion, immigration politics to be discussed. So many books to be read on so many things. And oh, I have to remind Fabien to explain the basics of String Theory to me.
4. I have blogged about this before: I don't like and consequently rarely drink tea, coffee or alcohol. Never smoke or take drugs. Nevertheless, I have an addictive personality. I am addicted to reading (previously it used to be books, now it is more what I get on the internet-- news, blogs etc. Books are quite under control). And I sometimes (though very occasionally) get addicted to some people.
5. I used to be very religious when I was a kid. First it was Hinduism, then it was religions and God in general. But gradually I became a full fledged atheist. The change took a couple of years but was imperceptible. I certainly was deeply religious when I was 13 as I remember discussing it (Hinduism) with a close friend. But I was a complete atheist by the time I was 17 and I remember writing to the same friend arguing against the existence of God and decrying religion.
I am a staunch believer in the importance of the concept of God for human psychology and society. And I think religion play a very important (constructive-- as well as the obvious destructive) role in the evolution of human society. Hence it is my firm policy never to try to convince a believer that God does not exist. Discussion/arguement for the sake of academic debate are fine.
I still retain an extreme interest in mythology, especially Hindu mythology.
I also love to tease very religious (Hindu) people with "inconsistencies" within the Gita. I also love Sanskrit, and can still quote quite a few shlokas.
6. I love to study people, their psychology and behaviour. It used to be so bad that I would mentally make predictions about how certain people would react under certain conditions, and would occasionally provoke those situations to test my predictions. I was really terrible. I rarely do that now. But I still like to study people. It has happened that friends have telephone me to ask for possible explanations of behaviours of friends/acquaintences/love interests of their friends.
I could not escape my own analyses as well, and that was actually good for me (see below).
7. Growing up as a gay kid, rather introverted, I used to get depressed quite often. However studying myself (this happened in Pune, Bangalore and to an extent in Tübingen), I could figure out exactly why I was depressed and why that was silly, why and how I should rectify it. It was as if I was looking at myself as a character in a novel or movie. Gradually my analyses/therapy on myself worked. And nowadays I rarely get depressed, rarely get angry. Disappointed yes, sad yes, scared yes, irritated yes, but not depressed nor angry [exceptions of the former include when I am in love, and of the latter when I am trying to buy a ticket from the Südbahnhof ticket counter... again both rare events].
A few years ago I was chatting with a gay psychiatrist on a gay website, and we happened to talk about this. He told me that they use a similar method in therapy called Cognitive Therapy. I had apparently used it on myself.
Whatever it was, I am quite happy about this.
8. I continue with the above theme. Every time I move, I change a bit of my personality. Initially it used to be subconscious, now I do it consciously. That is one of the reasons I actually look forward to moving.
9. At school we used to be taught social sciences in three sections-- Geography, History and Civics (Politics, government, society etc). I used to hate all of them, but soon after I didn't have to study them I started getting interested in them, and now I love them. I also used to dislike Biology. Now of course it is my career!
10. I'll add another bonus one to round off. I often describe myself as an incorrigible optimist with my feet firmly on the ground.
Interestingly, each of these points could form whole topics for future blogging!


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Voices Against Institutional Homophobia in India

As happens so often in the blogosphere, I came across another blog today and realized that I had missed out on a very interesting and important piece of news. The Paris trip last week is to blame for my being out of touch with the internet, and hence news in general.
Anyways, a large number of prominent personalities led by Vikram Seth have signed an open letter to the Indian government, the judiciary and the citizens on India, decrying Section 377, the archaic law that institutionalizes homophobia, and in many ways makes homosexuality illegal. The law says "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished [by upto 10 years imprisonment]".
This law of course also makes heterosexual oral (or anal) sex illegal, but has only been used to harass homosexuals. Incomplete information (that there has to be evidence for carnal intercourse) and social paranoia of Indian homosexuals have made them easy targets for harassment and even blackmail because of this law. As I read a claim recently (I forget where, but for sure I agree), that India is the only real democracy today that criminalizes homosexuality.
The impressive list of signatories include:
Writers Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri;
Journalists/columnists/editors MJ Akbar, Dileep Padgaonkar, Kuldip Nayar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vir Sanghvi, Shobha De, Bachi Karkaria, Tarun Tejpal, Barkha Dutt;
Academics Ramachandra Guha, Ashish Nandy, Kaushik Basu, Kanti Bajpai;
Filmakers/actors Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Amol Palekar Soha Ali Khan, Saeed Mirza, Mira Nair, Pooja Bedi, Nandita Das, Sarika, Konkana Sen Sharma;
Classical musicians Mrinalini Sarabhai, Sonal Mansingh, Shubha Mudgal, Mallika Sarabhai;
Swami Agnivesh (activist), Soli Sorabjee (former Attorney-General), Lakshmi Sahgal (freedom fighter), Satish Gujral (Artist, Sculptor), Teesta Setalvad (activist)
and many many others.
The letter states:

To build a truly democratic and plural India, we must collectively fight against laws and policies that abuse human rights and limit fundamental freedoms.

This is why we, concerned Indian citizens, support the overturning of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law dating to 1861, which punitively criminalizes romantic love and private, consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex.

In independent India, as earlier, this archaic and brutal law has served no good purpose. It has been used to systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest and terrorize sexual minorities. It has spawned public intolerance and abuse, forcing tens of millions of gay and bisexual men and women to live in fear and secrecy, at tragic cost to themselves and their families.

It is especially disgraceful that Section 377 has on several recent occasions been used by homophobic officials to suppress the work of legitimate HIV-prevention groups, leaving gay and bisexual men in India even more defenceless against HIV infection.

Such human rights abuses would be cause for shame anywhere in the modern world, but they are especially so in India, which was founded on a vision of fundamental rights applying equally to all, without discrimination on any grounds. By presumptively treating as criminals those who love people of the same sex, Section 377 violates fundamental human rights, particularly the rights to equality and privacy that are enshrined in our Constitution as well as in the binding international laws that we have embraced, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Let us always remember the indisputable truth expressed in the opening articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind."

We will move many steps closer to our goal of achieving a just, pluralistic and democratic society by the ending of Section 377, which is currently under challenge before the Delhi High Court. There should be no discrimination in India on the grounds of sexual orientation. In the name of humanity and of our Constitution, this cruel and discriminatory law should be struck down.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate and eminent economist has added his voice with another statement in support:
I have read with much interest and agreement the open letter of Vikram Seth and others on the need to overturn section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Even though I do not, as a general rule, sign joint letters, I would like, in this case, to add my voice to those of Vikram Seth and his cosignatories. The criminalization of gay behaviour goes not only against fundamental human rights, as the open letter points out, but it also works sharply against the enhancement of human freedoms in terms of which the progress of human civilization can be judged.
There is a further consideration to which I would like to draw attention. Gay behaviour is, of course, much more widespread than the cases that are brought to trial. It is some times argued that this indicates that Section 377 does not do as much harm as we, the protesters, tend to think. What has to be borne in mind is that whenever any behaviour is identified as a penalizable crime, it gives the police and other law enforcement officers huge power to harass and victimize some people. The harm done by an unjust law like this can, therefore, be far larger than would be indicated by cases of actual prosecution.
It is surprising that independent India has not yet been able to rescind the colonial era monstrosity in the shape of Section 377, dating from 1861. That, as it happens, was the year in which the American Civil War began, which would ultimately abolish the unfreedom of slavery in America. Today, 145 years later, we surely have urgent reason to abolish in India, with our commitment to democracy and human rights, the unfreedom of arbitrary and unjust criminalization.
A very heart-felt thanks to all the signatories (particularly those who are not homosexual or bisexual) and to Amartya Sen.
Indians like big names, and so many big names together will hopefully help.
Update: Sepia Mutiny has a very nice article on this.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Illegal Immigrants

Illegal immigration and how to deal with the illegal immigrants are a hot topic of discussion in the EU these days, lots of opinions and frayed tempers.
I guess Vienna has its fair share of illegal immigrants, and I would think many of the South Asians and Africans selling newspapers are not here legally. When Roopsha parents were visiting Vienna several months ago, her mother was telling me how they were chatting with newspaper sellers (from India) who were here without a visa.
Not being a great conversation initiator, I have never chatted with one... before yesterday.
It has always been at the back of my mind, but yesterday I realized that these guys would have fascinating stories to tell. Perhaps I should start collecting them.
I was in the bus, returning home yesterday, when a short slightly stocky guy in his mid-20s, of obviously South Asian origin, boarded and sat next to me. I was just wondering whether I should say something or continue reading, when he got a phone call, and answered it in Hindi/Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent. My theory is that most often in Vienna this means a Pakistani. And of course I am always intrigued by what the average Pakistani thinks of things. I was in the mood for chatting, so I thought I'd say hello, and asked him in Hindi where he was from. India: Chandigarh. Rony Singh, I think he said his name was. He had been living in Vienna since 4-5 years, and had works at an Indian restaurant quite near my place.
He asked me at two different points whether I had a visa-- it clicked the second time, and I said that since he was asking me this, I assume he didn't have one. Indeed. He had apparently gone to Russia, with a visa somehow. He mentioned agents quite a few times. Then he probably overstayed, or for some reason he spent some time in prison. Then via agents, he somehow found his way to Vienna. Vienna to Russia, that's quite a long way, I exclaimed, how did he manage that without visas? Through agents, he said, of course it is risky-- you'd have to go to prison obviously if they caught you. He said that as if prison was just another bump on the road.
He was upbeat that he'd soon get a visa and would be living here legally, as he'd get married quite soon. An Austrian lady, I guess, I asked. No, an Indian (but an Austrian citizen now, I guess, he meant), a divorcee. She works in a shop somewhere not far. But there was a slight hitch. He could apply for a visa only from India (or at least from outside Austria but for that he'd need papers for that country). And that would take a while. I don't know if getting back to India without papers would be a problem. Probably not.
We had reached our destination, which was a pity, as I would have loved to hear the story of how he got to Vienna from Russia.
I guess I just have to talk to people more often.
As I think back, I have had another encounter with not-entirely legal immigrants. This was quite a few years ago, when I used to live in Germany. I think I was going from Tübingen to Berlin, or Würzburg, or somewhere. In any case this happened when I boarded a long-distance train from Stuttgart station. Three ladies, one of them South Asian, got on after me, followed me, and sat down opposite me. They seemed to be slightly agitated. One of the German ladies, probably in her 40s, asked me if I spoke the South Asian girl's (in her mid-20s) language and whether I could help them in their conversation. My German was terrible at that time, but I could indeed oblige them.
The South Asian girl was from Pakistan, and her brother, who she said was my age (I must have been around 25-26 at that time), was married to the German lady-- the former made it clear that this was a marriage of convenience at least as far as her brother was concerned, as this allowed him to stay on in Germany. She on the other hand was trying to get asylum in Germany. She obviously didn't know what asylum meant (nor could she pronounce the word properly), or why one requests it. In fact she asked me whether I was applying for it to... something the rather young and naively me found extremely offensive and insulting.
She complained about her sister-in-law and how stupid and silly she was (sis-in-law or her companion had turned off her mobile by mistake, and she had left the code at home, and so they couldn't contact her brother-- that was what the confusion had been about for they had need my linguistic assistence help). And German SIL kept on asking me what her Pakistani SIL was saying about her.
At that time I was glad when they got off. But I had missed an opportunity for real life stories.
Vaguely in this context, something I wanted to blog about, but never got around to: I met some people recently who work exactly on this. They do research on migration patterns, of course pertaining to migration into the EU.
In the last beer hour (get-together at our and adjoining institutes with food, drinks and plenty of socializing), Lionel, a French postdoc in a neighbouring lab brought along his girlfriend and two friends-- all of them French. One of these guys, Julien works for an organization called International Centre for Migration Policy Development. Julien was great fun to talk to, he had wanted to become a pilot, and had started studying Aeronautical Engineering (or something like that) but then because his eyesight was not good enough he couldn't become a pilot, so he quit and studied Law. From that he got interested in International Law and from that International Relations, and within that Weapons. In fact he had done a paper on the Indian nuclear devices. With such a wide area of knowledge, it wasn't surprising that I had a fantastic conversation with him.
What was surprising though was when Lionel forwarded me an email that Julien had asked him to, inviting me to his 25th birthday party the following Saturday. Although Lionel and his girlfriend didn't go as the date clashed with the Lange Nacht der Musik, I did go.
I had some very interesting discussions with Julien's boss, another French Julien about migration. In fact he told me about the situation arising because of Spain's decision to legalize its illegal immigrants last year, the stuff that led to frayed tempers in the EU. Basically, because of the Spanish act, they believe that there has been even higher levels of migration because this gives further reason to the immigrants to get convinced that they would be ultimately legalized.
Julien-2 disagreed strongly with the suggestion that it might have been nice of Spain from a humanitarian point of view to legalize its immigrants who had been living there for such long periods.
Like many other things, I have no idea what I'd do if I were forced to take a stand on this issue. Obviously many of these are countries who made money in the last two centuries by exploiting the same countries whose people they want to prevent. Many of these countries, France, for instance are full of hardcore socialists-- even the right wingers there support many of the socialist traditions like agricultural subsidies, limited work hours, tough labour laws etc. Are definitions of socialism different if for citizens of other countries, especially poor countries? Citizens of many of these rich countries refuse to do menial work. Most of the people cleaning the Viennese streets are immigrants, many of them illegal, whether caucasian or not. Similarly, there is a worry in many countries, Germany for sure for example, that declining birthrates would result in an unsure pension and social benefits when the current generation grows old.
On the other hand, yes you should be nice and try to help others, but can you really open your doors to everybody? Wouldn't most people from poor countries live in developed countries, if given a chance? Apart from your own living standards falling, this would also change your home if all the newcomers called it their home and wanted to change the interior decoration. Muslim groups in the Netherlands ranting against homosexuality is an example I like to quote in this last context.
I am always intrigued by people who find it easy to take a stand. Not only that, they find it easy to classify themselves as left, right or centre.
I hope my view of life never becomes as simplistic.


A Crush in Paris

I'm "in crush".
Well, not really in love, nor in lust, although neither would have been really difficult. But I think being "in crush" describes it better.

I haven't blogged about my second Paris visit last week because I have been busy. Since I intend to post about Paris, let's just give the basics for now. We had a conference there on our specialized research area, and except for the technician, our whole lab went there. The conference was from Monday, the 18th (although the registration and mini-party was on Sunday evening) through Thursday, the 21st. We were in Paris from the 17th through the 24th.

Right from the beginning, from the registration mini-party on the 17th evening, I had been eyeing Sebastien, his beautiful eyes and smile. As happens in such cases, wishful thinking led me to suspect he was looking at me too.
Later on Monday, I saw his poster-- a row behind mine, and I learnt he was from the Avner lab at the Pasteur. Both his and my posters were scheduled on Thursday, but on Tuesday I saw him near his poster and asked him whether he'd take me through it.
Ah, the smile!
Those eyes!
He was explained it to me and another guy, when we saw Jeannie hovering around. Jeannie is a big shot-- the biggest shot?-- in Sebastien's direct area of research, and it was obvious she wanted to talk to him. Finally she came to his poster, and started challenging him, apparently their data were in contradiction. I was impressed by his confidence, and his refusal to be bullied.
The eyes and the smile looked even more beautiful now.

That evening the organizers had arranged a barge trip along the Seine. I spent the latter part of the evening talking to Sebastian and co.
He said he loved dancing, and pointed to a place on the other side where one could dance Tango. Ah did I ever regret before this day that I am not much of a dancer... leave alone Tango.
I asked him which district did he like the most. No, I didn't hear him mention Le Marais (the gay district), but a rather vague "depends on my mood and the circumstances".
He is from southern France and had grown up in Toulouse. He had been living in Paris for the past four years, and had been doing his PhD for three.

I saw very little of him on Wednesday because the afternoon was free, though I thought his eyes sought me.
Nothing new about wishful thinking... or was it?

A gala dinner had been scheduled on Thursday evening in the Evolution Hall of the Natural History Museum. When I finally got to him at the beginning of dinner, I stuck to him for the rest of the evening... no, that is not true, and this is not wishful thinking-- we stuck to each other for the rest of the evening. He certainly did enjoy the evening and my company.

Later on, I went with him and several others to an expensive bar near our hotel. He chatted with others, I chatted with others, but then most of the others left and we chatted until around 2:15 am and then went our ways. I'd asked him where I could by French DVDs, specifically Francois Ozon's (gay director) films , specifically his latest Le Temps Qui Reste (the protagonist is gay). He said he'd seen a few of Ozon (non-gay), but not this one. He said I could look in one of the FNAC shops.
Earlier I had met Damian from his lab who was doing similar stuff to mine and had been getting nowhere. Damian had invited me to the Pasteur the next day to have lunch with them and discuss work.

So on Friday I met Damian and Sebastien for lunch, at 1:15pm, and then after finishing discussing Science with the former, all the three of us went for a drink at around 6pm. This got converted to dinner and then we parted at around 10pm.
In the course of our conversations, I understood that Sebastien had had a Portugese girlfriend, and a Romanian girlfriend.
Wishful thinking insists: "so what?"

I had given hints, but maybe they were not good enough. Every day is a lesson, and that days was that in future such circumstances should be handled by a deft introduction of a "one of my ex-boyfriends..." into the conversation, however fictitious such a boyfriend may be. As long as I put my cards on the table, I would not feel like kicking myself for not trying hard enough.
At least there would be a fullstop instead of an irritatingly persisting question mark.

I have no idea whether I'll meet him again.

Today I put his name on google, and found that he had a blog... it is rather new, less than a month and a half old. It is in English too, that's a boon... who would have imagined a French guy not blogging in French! He seems really interested in India, as he has watched a lot of Indian films. Probably that was the reason he was interested in me, as he obviously was? He has watched La Mala Educacion, he seems to like Wilde's books. He blogs about varied things, but no girls, no girlfriends, no guys, no boyfriends. I cannot of course link to his blog, as he'd find mine, and I'd not want that, would I?

His blog has a tracker, and if he looks at it regularly, he'd certainly see that someone in Vienna had reached his blog by googling his name. Our lab, the eight of us, were the only ones from Vienna at the conference. Tatsuya does know him, but considering that I spent so much time with him, I am sure it wouldn't be difficult for him to guess that it was me. That I am the stalker. What then? Well I don't know.

The question mark remains.

But perhaps that is good. Paris is far from Vienna. A crush is managable, a long-distance love affair is always difficult to handle.
And it would have been really easy to fall in love, had there been any indication that that smile, those eyes, that look straight into your eyes, whether these were available.

So that's yet another crush on a guy who's very likely to be straight!


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

"Greetings to God!"

Oh no, don't worry: I haven't suddenly come to believe in an omnipresent omnipotent creator. Rather, I was referring to a typically Austrian (and Southern German) greeting, "Gruß Gott!" (note: the "ß" is pronounced like "ss"), which means "Greetings to God". So instead of saying hello to you, they greet God.
Not only do I find this hilarious, but being an atheist I also find it uncomfortable (or should I say I find it kinda dishonest?) to utter this greeting. I stick to "hallo" or a "Guten Tag" (Good day!).
I have been told (or did I read it somewhere?) that when some northern Germans visit the southern Germany they jokingly retort "Ich grüße ihn wenn ich ihn treffe!" that is, "I will greet Him if I meet Him" in response to such a greeting. Of course, I doubt the northern Germans would dare to try this on Austrians... the latter seem to dislike the Germans anyway, and call them (rather derogatorily) "Piefke".
I am always tempted to use this joke as well, and on the rare occasion, I do use it on German or Austrian friends when they say "Gruß Gott" to me. Strangely most people don't know this joke, and it takes a while for them to understand it.
The expression on the recipient's face when the joke dawns, is worth photographing.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Parents, kids... and the usual off-track ramblings

Tatsuya is a Japanese colleague who has joined the lab recently. He has a 3-4 year old daughter who's started kindergarten since early September. But she isn't quite enjoying it and has been crying every morning before going to kindergarten. Tatsuya thinks this is because she doesn't speak any German yet (neither do Tatsuya and his wife) and so can't communicate, make friends and play with the other toddlers. He had been telling me that if she continues disliking it, they see if they could move her to the kindergarten opposite the institute so what he can visit her once in a while.

I desisted from saying anything to Tatsuya, but I think children learn a new language incredibly fast. I know that from my own experience as a kid. When we moved to Bhubaneswar, I was 4.5 years and my brother 3 years. We were fluent in Oriya in a few months... so fluent that other local people used to be surprised to learn that our mother tongue was not Oriya. On the other hand my parents took a long time to learn Oriya. My father had lived in Bhubaneswar before he got married, so he'd had a longer time to learn, but I doubt my mother ever really became completely fluent even by the time we moved back from Bhubaneswar 3.5 years later. However, my brother and I forgot the language within six months of moving from there, while both my parents would be able to hold proper conversations in Oriya even now. For the first time since leaving Bhubaneswar in 1982, I visited Orissa (Bhubaneswar and Konark) again during my India-visit in Jan-Feb 2003 (the time I came out to my parents). I could understand a bit, but then that could be because the language is a bit similar to Bengali, but I couldn't speak much of it. As an adult I know I am bad at languages... mein Deutsch ist noch schlecht (my German is still terrible), although I find myself picking up bits and pieces of quite a few languages.
Children also make friends very fast, very likely because of the lack of inhibitions. Again I can quote from my own experiences as a kid.

Anyways, to get back to Tatsuya's story. Last friday when I asked, he said that his other Japanese friends in Vienna have told him that crying before going to kindergarten is quite common, and happened to all their kids. But as I'd have thought, it doesn't last for long. His wife had gone to the kindergarten and stayed the whole time on Friday, on Monday (yesterday) only for an hour or two and not at all today.
That seems to be working, and although she was she was not very happy about going to the kindergarten, she didn't cry.

One of Tatsuya's comments on this matter really struck me, and is the main reason for this posting. He said he is no longer worried about his daughter going to the kindergarten, he knows very well that she'll be fine. But what he can't bear to see is her being unhappy and crying.

Parenthood is so beautiful.
Would there be anything more tender than this state?


Sunday, September 03, 2006

"The Greatest Surprise"

In the greatest of Indian epics, the Mahabharata, there is an episode where Yudhishthira, has to answer philosophical riddles of a Yaksha. One of these questions (that my father likes to quote) was [I really should know this shloka in Sanskrit, but unfortunately I don't]:
"What is the greatest suprise?"
"People die everyday making us aware that men are mortal, yet we live, work, play, plan etc as if assuming we are immortal. Kimashcharyam Atahh Parahh? What is more surprising than that?"
This came to my mind on Saturday evening in an "encounter" with the unexpectedness and inevitability of death.
I had met Fahad in a CouchSurfing mega-get-together a little more than a month ago. Fahad is software guy from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and has to spend a couple of months in Vienna for work. We got along very well, and had planned to meet up, but for various reasons (including his visiting Pakistan for two weeks), it never happened until yesterday. He had called around noon and since the weather was quite wonderful, and he'd not seen the Belvedere and the Karlskirche, we decided that I'd show him these sights. We met around 1pm and wandered around and had lunch and chatted about all kinds of things until around 5pm, when I left because I had to go to the lab. We had spent a really nice time together.
We were to meet again around 7:30pm with some other acquaintences from CS at the Rathausplatz. I was delayed, and I arrived only around 8:30 or 9:00pm. Fahad wasn't there, and I was told that he had suddenly received a phonecall informing him that his father had passed away.
It must have been really sudden. We had talked about his father and his family in general during the afternoon, his closeness to his family and how he was missing them. I am sure that this was completely unexpected.
I texted him and he said he was trying to find a flight to Pakistan. I should have called today, but I forgot. I hope he has found something and is already on his way back.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Coming Out III: to my parents

This is the third part of a three-part article. Check out the first and second parts.
My parents are not perfect-- I doubt anybody would say their parents were perfect. There is always something missing, there are grudges, things they could have done better. Hindsight is so useful. Because of several other things that I won't get into, and probably because of my being different, being gay, I have never been particularly close to my parents. However there are numerous aspects about them and particularly aspects about the way they brought us up, that I really like and admire, and that I'd unhesitatingly emulate if I ever fulfil my dream of adopting a child. One of these is the way they (particularly my father) encouraged us to think independently.
I remember, as a child of around 10, I had saved money and wanted to buy a popular book of quiz questions with it. I asked my father whether I could. He replied that since I was becoming a big boy, approaching teenage and adolescence, I should start thinking for myself. In matters like this I should stop asking for permission. I ought to take a decision, and consult them about the decision. Ask them for "suggestions, not advice". [In the matter in question my father's suggestion would be to go for an encyclopedia, and not a quiz book. I went ahead with the latter in any case, and after a year or so realized that I should have followed his suggestion.]
My parents have always trusted me and my decisions as I grew up, though they have had their suggestions which I was mostly free to accept or reject. And I respect them for this trust and freedom. I have always realized how fortunate I was in this matter, especially in the Indian context.

Once when I was in Germany (2000), my father jokingly mentioned marriage when I called up one weekend. I quite categorically said that I would never go for an arranged marriage, so they should stop worrying themselves or worrying me about it. [For my non-Indian readers, arranged marriage is a common system in India/South Asia where the parents and relatives would choose a bride for a groom, or vice versa. It does work in many/most cases and the whys and why nots are beyond the scope of this blog entry.] My father took that as a hint that I had someone in mind and was audibly thrilled and excited. I had to later write an email categorically denying that this was the case. But the thrill and excitement in his voice scared me. Not only was there no girl, there would never be any. There would never be cause to be thrilled or excited in this respect.
I made an SOS call to H. to discuss this. I didn't know what I should do, whether it'd be unfair to tell them the truth about myself or whether I'd keep lying to them. Whether I'd kill them (figuratively speaking of course) with the truth, or let them die without ever knowing their son. I didn't know. H. suggested not telling them. I discussed it with other (Indian) friends I had come out to. They were all of the opinion that there shouldn't be any harm if they didn't know. But then there were relatives and busybodies bothering them about their son who was of marriagable age, well educated and even abroad (the ultimate qualification). Wasn't that unfair and confusing for them to not know what they were fending off, what they were defending?
But even if I did decide to tell them, how would I? Here I was hyperventilating at the prospect of coming out to my closest friends (whom I had chosen, and who had chosen me--as friends) over telephone, and this was about coming out to parents whom I certainly hadn't chosen and who hadn't chosen me-- and this coming out had to be done in person, face to face. I couldn't think how I'd do that.

I decided it was time, when I finished my PhD. Before moving to Vienna, I was visiting India for a few weeks in Jan-Feb, 2003-- it had to be now. My father was embarassing me by insisting on introducing me to everybody as Dr. S. They were both very, very proud of me. Now was the right moment for them to know the real me and then decide exactly how proud they should be of their son.
I had been doing my homework. I had been reading up on coming out experiences, reactions, views. One thing was clear. I had been living with this fact for 24 hours a day for a decade before I had accepted it and was comfortable with it. It would be extremely unfair of me to tell them, and expect them to be happy about it immediately. I had had time, they were entitled to it too. I had made elaborate plans: I'd come out to them, stay with them for a couple of days, and then travel somewhere (as I always do when I visit India) and let them digest the information, come back home and stay with them for a few more days (provided their reaction wasn't negative enough to throw me out-- I doubted that would happen) probably take them to a counsellor/psychologist and then fly back to Europe. I had brought two books for them. First, Terry Sanderson's A Stranger in the Family, a support book addressed to the family when a member comes out to them. The other was The Science of Desire by Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland which is written for the layman and describes the research by Hamer's group towards identifying a locus on the human X-chromosome that tended to correlate with homosexuality. This book also explains the biology and research of sexual behaviour and is a very informative book in general.

Things rarely work out as planned. I couldn't get a chance to come out to them during the first part of my visit... a visit to India is always hectic because on has to visit and be visited by hordes of relatives. And this isn't a conversation one initiates when we come back at 11:30 pm after dinner at someone's place. I went to Bhubaneswar and Konark and returned to Kolkata. I hadn't gotten around to finding a counsellor/psychologist. And the day of my return to Germany was getting nearer.

Finally it was the Sunday, two days before I was to leave. We had finished lunch. My parents were in a good mood. I said I wanted to talk to them, together, in the living room. They came and sat down with a knowing smile. They expected to be told about a girl, I could see that on their faces. Sorry, I'd disappoint them, but for the last time on this issue, I'd never raise their hopes again like this... at least not about a girl, ever again! That was the whole point. It went bad. I stuttered, I struggled. I said I am gay, homosexual, I prefer guys and I would never get married. Here are two books that you could read, that might help you understand. Impassive faces. My mother asked whether my brother knew about this. I said yes. No further reaction from her. Her lack of reaction made me wonder whether she had understood what I said. After all, I said "gay" and "homosexual" using the these English terms. I didn't know of a term in Bengali that could be used in polite language, and that my mother would be likely to be familiar with. My father said he was very upset. If I had said this earlier when I was younger, there might have been something that could be done. I said no, there was nothing that could be done, there cannot be, I am the way I am. He said he'd not read the books, he'd not keep these books at home. I said I'd leave them there anyways if they ever wanted to read them. He said he wouldn't keep them at home. If I didn't take them, he'd throw them out after I left.
End of conversation.
The next day he told me in the morning that he was naturally upset at my disclosure and didn't want to be at home. If I needed him or the car, I should warn him in advance, else he'd stay out. And he indeed did so.
I didn't want to risk Dean Hamer's excellent book being thrown away, so I brought it back with me. I had no use for Terry Sanderson's book, so I left it in the drawer of my desk in their house, hoping that he'd be tempted to turn its pages before he "threw it out". And after I left, my absence, missing me, might make things a bit different. I don't know if either of them ever read it. If it is still at home or it was indeed "thrown out". I never asked.
The day I left, my parents accompanied me to the airport like always. Both were tearful as I went in after the final goodbye.

I try to call up every weekend. I returned to Germany and stayed there for a couple of weeks and moved to Vienna. This period was understandably chaotic, and my calls to home were irregular and rare. I resumed my regular weekend calls a few weeks after I moved to Vienna. For the first few months, my father rarely came to the phone when I called. Even if he picked up the phone, he'd say the bare necessary politenesses and then say "ok, now talk to your mother." Gradually that changed. He began talking more and more often. Became his chatty self. Last Sunday I spoke to them for close to an hour, mostly to him.
I have made sure that my mother did understand my disclosure. I have introduced her to Vijay and his boyfriend, Daniel, during her visit to Vienna, and my mother loved them. She does understand what I meant.

Last winter, I called home and my mother asked what I was doing. I said I was feeling lazy and so was listening to music, lying under a blanket. She sighed and said, it'd have been so nice if I'd not been alone under the blanket. Wow! She sure knew that it'd have to be a guy if there'd be someone. Similarly a couple of months ago, my father asked me whether I had any special news for them, whether I wanted to tell them about someone special. Wow, again!
Sorry, folks, I am disappointed that I have to disappoint you about this blank in my life. But you're lovely parents, although I will never get around to saying that to you.


Coming Out II: to close friends

This is the second part of a three-part article. Check out the previous one first.
Kerstin was a postdoc in a neighbouring lab in Tübingen, and one of the smartest girls I have met in Europe. She was nice, although she could be quite bitchy. She was openly lesbian, and I had met her girlfriend too. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn't come out to her. Bitchy or not, gossipy or not, she'd have helped me, and may even have introduced me to a lot of people. In fact she may have taken me for a bit of a homophobe from some of my comments.

In June 1999, I had finished an important piece of work, that I had been struggling with for a while, and my supervisor insisted that I take a holiday. So I decided to visit H. in Berlin again. I heard that Kerstin was going to Berlin for the same weekend. When she came to know about my plans of visiting that weekend too, she was very curious about the reason of my visit.
That Saturday, H., a friend of his, and I were loitering around Berlin, and came across a huge parade. Noisy, crowded, outrageous costumes.. or nothing (or nothing much) on at all. A girl even asked me whether she could take my photo, and I "posed". None of the three of us desis spoke much German at that time, so we couldn't figure out what it was. H. said he'd heard of the Love Parade and this could be it. We didn't stay to watch, but moved on to the sights of Berlin. Later, a friend of his told us that it was the Gay Parade. Wow! My first encounter with a Gay Parade, one of the most famous Gay Parades of the world, and it didn't even register! The reason why Kerstin was in Berlin and her curiosity about my visit also clicked. I told H. that I'd tell her that we'd come across the "Love Parade" and see what she says. H. said he thought that'd be horribly nasty of me. If Kerstin is lesbian, that is her business. There was nothing wrong in being lesbian. Why should I make fun of her? Mentally, I stopped in my tracks. I was the gay guy, and I was being homophobic. The pretense was taking me too far. It had to be a straight guy who had to point this out to me. [Kerstin did ask me whether I saw the parade, and I truthfully answered that yes, we did, but we'd initially thought that it was the Love Parade. She got a bit agitated and explained that while the Love Parade had no significance, the Gay Parade had a lot. This was my first lesson in gay history. But I still didn't come out to her. How far can paranoia and plain stupidity take one!]

This episode got me thinking about my pretense bordering on homophobia, and also about why I'd need to pretend at all with people like H. Why would I have to pretend at all with people who are friends? They are not friends because they think I am straight! And to assume that would be to insult them and their affection for me. If someone did have a problem with my not being straight, would this person deserve being my friend at all?
When H. called up in Mar 2000 to wish me on my 26th birthday, I came out to him. I was terribly nervous, trembling, dry-mouthed, scared. Stupid, because I knew H., knew him well, and had decided to come out because of his correcting me! Nevertheless, the first coming out is never easy. He was shocked, but very supportive. I felt as if a huge burden had been lifted over my shoulders. [Interestingly enough, one of his first questions was about my behaviour in the Kerstin episode.]
From then on, coming out was like an addiction. I had targetted six of my close friends, scattered around the world, and one by one I came out to them. The circle widened. The reactions were varying. Most of these people were shocked, dumbstruck, some thought I was playing one of my tricks that I used to be notorious for. One argued with me that it was "not natural" and took his time to come to terms to this information, although at no point did he shut me out. I am really proud of the bunch of friends I have collected over the years-- proud of them, and proud of myself.

Chris was the fifth of the original six, the only non-Indian in this lot, and the only one I came out to in person at that time (all the other five were on the telephone as they didn't live in the town/country/continent). He was studying in Würzburg and had spent a summer in a neighbouring lab when we became very good friends. We visited each other in Tübingen (later Heidelberg) and Würzburg respectively a few times, and he introduced me to German history and we often travelled together to historical places. I felt myself falling in love with him (to this day, I think if he'd been gay, he'd be Mr. Perfect for me... and I'm not talking about looks here). I didn't want another "is he? he's not!", and other case of my fucking up a friendship. So once, just before returning from a visit, I came out to him in a rather roundabout manner. He was of course ok with it.

My brother's reaction was a classic one. I was in Heidelberg and writing my thesis, meaning I was spending (read: wasting) a lot of time on the computer and the internet on that pretext. During one of our long conversations on Yahoo Messenger, I came out. I asked him if he had a problem with it, whether he was shocked. This offended him, because he'd have thought I'd known him by now and that he is unshockable.

Of the girls that have been romantically interested in me, SM was one, though she insists that this is not true. Her initial reaction was of shock and complete disbelief when I came out to her (on the phone). I was already in Vienna, and it was a week or so before her PhD defence in Tübingen... she never fails to point out how inappropriate my timing for coming out to her was, and I do plead guilty. Later before moving to the US, she visited me in Vienna for the New Year (Dec 2003-Jan 2004) and she wanted to visit a gay bar. I had introduced her to Vijay, and she keeps repeating that if he'd not been gay, he'd be her Mr. Perfect. So Vijay and I took her to Cafe Willendorf at the Rosa Lila Villa. She liked it, of course, like most people do, but she found it no different from a regular cafe. And that's right too. We should have taken her to some place that's "more gay".

Once our Indian friends in Europe and I were visiting H. in Berlin for Christmas (2001). We had all gone for a movie, when H. who was sitting next to me told me he liked the girl in the trailer. Then suddenly he whispered that we'd always talked about the actresses he fancied, but it was silly he'd never asked me about the actors I liked. So who were they?
If I had to give just one reason for having come out to friends, it'd be this.
This is the second part of a three-part article. Check out the next one.


Coming Out Ib: coming to terms

Wild Reeds had an interesting post recently about an event they organized in Mumbai to get together parents and relatives of gay and lesbian people and discuss various related issues with them. The post has detailed transcripts of these discussions.
The post reminded me of the time I came out to my parents. I really wished there had been a support network for them, like PFLAG, that would allow them to talk to others like them. After all gay people have been living with their knowledge of themselves since their adolescence, and even then we take a lot of time to get to terms with ourselves (if at all), while when we come out, our poor parents are suddenly confronted with an often unpalatable truth. In the ensuing discussion with Wild Reeds, I promised that I'd blog about my coming out to my parents, and that seems to fit well as a sequel to my previous post about HRJ. But I'll discuss my whole coming out story, and this'll be long. So I am dividing it into three posts. The first (this one) will be a continuation of the HRJ story. The second one will be about coming out to my friends, and the final one, about coming out to my parents.
Ever since puberty, or probably even before that, I have been aware of my attraction towards guys, and an almost complete lack of it towards girls... the exception being HRJ. Probably like every kid, I used to develop curshes and fall in love very easily. But unlike other kids I could never talk about them to anybody else, not even to my closest friends. On the contrary I had to pretend. Pretend to be interested in girls, to fit in, to be like everyone else. I even invented code words to describe girls during my BSc (1991-1994)... the lengths to which I went to kinda reminds me of Woody Allen's film Zelig.

It was a lonely life. I did not know anybody else who felt like me. Visibility of gay people in India and in the Indian media is rare, and was non-existent then. Probably the only figure I knew was homosexual was Oscar Wilde. Although I had read his sole novel, his fairy tales and The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn't even a big fan then (I am now, since I rediscovered his works some seven years ago).
I desperately hoped I'd be bisexual.

Then Pune happened. I had been selected in both JNU and Pune Uni (at that time Poona Uni), and was in a dilemma which one to join. I knew about JNU and had lived in Delhi and even visited the campus, but I knew nothing about Pune. At my father's suggestion I went to consult a cousin who had lived in Bombay and was familar with Pune. The cousin said Pune is a nice place and the uni is good, but he warned me he had been recently reading about homosexuals there. My heart skipped a beat and added a bias in favour of the city. Later on I visited Pune-- the beautiful Bombay-Pune train journey and the lovely campus made my decision very simple. But I digress. Unfortunately I didn't meet any of the homosexuals that my cousin had been apprehensive about, instead I fell in love with a girl, but at the same time that made me become clear about my sexuality: gay, not bisexual. Even while I was at Pune, I had big crushes on two other guys, friends of mine. Pune was good for me in several other ways. I used to be introverted, underconfident and terribly shy. That changed. I was also introduced to mountain hiking (we called it trekking) and Indian classical music (mainly Hindustani) and fell in love with both. I digress again...

At my next stop, two years in IISc, Bangalore, I desperately fell in love with a close friend, H. My being in love with him complicated our friendship and this complication exists to this day, although I have moved on. Once in a Developmental Biology class, the professor talked about Alan Turing, the British logician/mathematician. I had read an article about the fascinating Turing Test in a book about the mind. Prof N. told us about Turing's fascinating contribution to Developmental Biology. He also mentioned that Turing had done an amazing amount of work in solving the Nazi codes during the World War-II but was nevertheless persecuted and prosecuted because of his being gay and ultimately committed suicide. Here at last was a multifaceted man, a genius, who had been unashamedly gay. I had found my "role model". [For more on Turing, check out Andrew Hodges' excellent biography or website.]

H. moved to Berlin, and I missed him really terribly. I decided to move to Germany too, and got a position in Tübingen. These three years were really when I started accepting myself as gay, started coming out, started looking at life as a gay man, possibilities and perspectives of life etc. This process was terribly slow during the years in Tübingen (Nov 1998-Sept 2001) and picked up pace in Heidelberg (Oct 2001-Jan 2003). I am finally comfortable in my identity as a gay man in Vienna (Mar 2003-).

I am not out to everybody, because I don't like being gay to be my identity. It is an important part of who I am, but it is not who I am. I am not out at work (or I think I am not) but I don't lie. I don't laugh at homophobic jokes, in fact especially if it is an Austrian or German making the joke, I ask whether they prefer putting a pink triangle on the targets of their jokes and send them to concentration camps. When people are suprised at the vehmence of my reaction (any suggestion that anyone is emulating the Nazis, is understandably considered vehment in Europe), I say I have a lot of gay friends, and I certainly don't like them to be insulted like this. I use gender neutral terms when it comes to my personal life, and I don't care if people catch on or if they don't. Amazingly enough most people don't catch on. If I had a partner, I wouldn't hestitate to take him to official parties as my partner. But for that I'd have to have one first! Since coming to Vienna, I have attended all the gay parades here, and this year, I walked the whole stretch with a rainbow flag sticking out of my bag. I don't know if anyone I knew who didn't know saw me and I don't care if they did.
It is so nice to finally be me.
This is the first part of a three-part article. Check out the second part.


Friday, August 11, 2006

a new member of the next generation, and ramblings about the past

I just got off the phone after talking to HRJ... she has made her contribution to the next generation. Her baby, Arya (stupid name actually) was born on Monday.
She had told me way back in March, when she'd called for my birthday, that she was expecting a baby. Although I had not forgotten about it, it had indeed kinda slipped out of my mind... after all, we talk about twice a year-- in March and in September (her birthday).
She had told me about her previous pregnancy exactly a year before too-- again, when she had called up for my birthday in 2005. She had miscarried in January 2005. Not a lot of people know about it, certainly none (or very few) of our common friends. She had broken down on the phone. I was about to leave for my third date with T., and this of course made me call him and say that I'd be delayed.
Anyways, she announced her pregancy to the MSc batch/friends mailing list only in mid-July, just two weeks before the expected date. She emailed again towards the end of July saying that the baby was late and she was "waiting and waiting". I had been trying to call since the last few days, but always got the answering machine. I'd left a message on Wednesday asking them what the news was. Finally tonight her father picked up the phone (her parents are visiting them in Tennessee to help with the baby) and I got to talk to her. She apparently returned home on Wednesday or Thursday.
I am really, really happy for them!
HRJ. I haven't seen her for close to 10 years probably. It still brings a smile and a sigh when I think of her-- I was in love with her, and still am, like with most people I've been in love with. We both used to live outside the campus in Pune and in those early days neither of us had our mopeds, so we used to take the bus to the university. It often turned out to be the same bus and I liked her right from the beginning. The more I got to know her, the more I liked her, and then very soon fell in love. It was funny. I was a big flirt at that time, and among my female friends, she was the only one I didn't flirt with, though, as she told me later, she did know of my "fondness" for her but she'd always thought I was too much of a flirt... really funny how convincing one's acting can be.
It was also complicated... I knew there were several guys interested in her, and one of them was a very close friend. Plus there was the problem of my sexuality. I had always been interested in guys, and this was confusing. I was hoping that the fact that I was in love with her meant that I was bisexual, and that'd mean that I'd just have to suppress my attraction to guys. But again, since I was in love with her, and more importantly since she was a close friend, I didn't want to do anything that'd spoil her life or scar her or the like. And so it ended up my never telling her about my feelings, until much later when it was too late.
I am not bisexual, I have always been gay and being in love with her was an aberration. One of the things that I am proud of in myself is my restraint with her in those two years. That I did not attempt to take the seemingly easy way (out of my confusion about my sexuality) and woo her. It was of course good for me, but it was good for her too, as I am quite sure that I'd have been successful had I tried to woo her with even the slightest amount of seriousness.
She moved to Tennessee, and I, to Bangalore. We both liked writing letters and we'd exchange letters and emails with regularity for a few years. She would often use me as a sounding board during dilemmas, ask for my honest analyses of difficult decisions, personal issues and so on. And in the course of one of these letters, I told her about my feelings for her. She said she loved reading the letter and it made her feel like she was on the top of the world. But of course I had asked no question, and neither expected nor wanted any answer. In fact at that time I was in love with a (straight) guy: another very close friend, H. And she was seeing a Bihari guy.
Now comes a very interesting coincidence. Around the same time, K., a friend of HRJ and me from our Pune days wrote to me that a friend of her's, JE, was working in the campus, and not being a student was not eligible for a hostel room, so could I help him. Since I was in a double room without a roommate I offered to let him stay there. JE was a nice guy, but we never really hit it off. He was planning to go to the US, and finally found his way to the same uni as HRJ and even selected the same lab. They didn't quite get along in the beginning. HRJ broke up with the Bihari guy, and one day after I had moved to Germany, she called (probably one of the birthday conversations) to say that she'd been seeing JE and they'd get married. That was a bit of a shock, as she'd not told me about him before, and for I was also stupidly jealous of JE. Jealous?! I remember, H. was visiting me soon afterwards and I told him how upset I was and how stupid my being upset was. I had come out to both H. and HRJ by then. H. was the first person I came out to (long story-- another day), HRJ was the third.
Life, love, emotions, jealousy, can be so strange, funny, unpredicable and so devoid of logic!
A very warm welcome to the world of all this and more, Arya.