Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Sounds familiar? Welcome to the world of ironies. I have faced this question from many different people at different times, with the reason behind such an outburst ranging from not being able to fix a printer to not being able to debug a program in Matlab. The trouble is, it is not just worth trying to make someone understand that the word 'computer' stretches beyond what you commonly perceive as your Desktop machine or your favourite laptop.
I was a PC-doctor in my hostels. Which meant that when anyone had a problem with their computer: such as non-booting, bizzare graphics resolutions, no sound, or even programs gone haywire, I was summoned. Of course it took some cajoling (like a free tea at the night canteen --- or the promise at least) to get me there. At other times, the problem itself seemed so interesting (like a program that... well, umm.... never mind) that I went and investigated. And of course, there was always this bunch of new converts to Linux who used to look up to me as some sort of a guru (thanks to the sys admin and webmaster positions I held :) ) and so setting up Linux servers, DNS, Samba: you name it, and I had a full block of people to dictate terms to :D
But then there are certain things that I am not supposed to know, and if I do know them, it is my credit and not my duty. I initially used to hate people who scowled and scampered off when they learnt that I could not help them debug a Matlab program (it used to be so pricking you know!). But now I tend to laugh at them, give a condescending smile and say, "Oh, I guess I never learnt it". Sorry to break your heart, sweetheart! Printer paper jams? Printer driver not working? Wrong display driver? Did you read the frigging manual that came with the main-board, dude?? I swear, one guy actually had just thrown away his motherboard CD because he did not have space in his CD-case!! He still had his internet working, though: so I could fix it by finding the exact model of his graphics card by the Motherboard carton :O
The moments of glory come with this little portfolio as well: like when I went into this cyber cafe with my mom and fixed that guy's sound card because I wanted to hear some songs, and the man went ballistic on having saved 200 bucks! :D Or when my experience with the linux PCs equipped me to fix my lab at the university, so that the professor came and told me in person, "I am happy with the way the lab is shaping up -- good job!" :) It always feels good to be able to fix a problem, it is like a little puzzle you solve and someone else smiles in happiness that his/her stuff works!
So, here is what I have to say to everyone who has a future computer problem and wishes to consult me: one, I will drink at least one cup of tea or coffee on the job (or so you must promise). Two: I cannot guarantee that I will be able to solve it, I can try (although I have a high success rate). Three, and most important: everything you know as a computer is not the end of it: don't drop two notches in my rating of your intelligence by asking, "Can you fix even this? You are a computer engineer!!"
Saturday, August 26, 2006
I had come back from my lab, when my roomie suggested, "Lets go play something". We had a basketball at home, and so that was picked, another interested guy found from another apartment and off we went into the evening campus! Deserted-looking streets, dim white lights in the sideways and warm dry winds greeted us as we passed so many imposing buildings and shiny marked-out roads in the car. Once parking was taken care of, we headed for the university basketball grounds. But then classes have not really begun, and so the whole of the university is still under some sort of slumber. The basketball grounds were closed, the flood-lights turned off and there was no-one around as far as we could see. Well, almost no-one around, since there were people jogging around a synthetic track surrounding a green grassy field.
"Yes, a field!!", we thought, and headed off into it. The basketball became a football, and in the dim lights from the white lamps shining around the track, we started hitting it around. Never mind the deflated pump on the ball or the carpet-thick grass that virtually wiped off any bounce, the fun was in the shooting around anyway! So after some 30 minutes of mid-air heroics and extreme efforts to get the ball to swing and fly through the air, we felt tired and decided to move off.
The huge stadium in the campus had always been attractive, but the testing of the newly installed largest HD screen and scoreboard in the US hooked us in. The flashing colours on the entire board cast weird glows in the entire stadium, and we walked in through the parking lot to catch a better view. Just as we were going in, someone noticed a sign that said that the juggling sessions were in some room at the 3rd floor (yeah the stadium has 11 floors of access :) ). So we thought we'd have a dekko at the place to see how things were, and then go up to the roof.
We reached the room, to find about 20 people practising juggling with many different things: sand-filled soft leather balls, plastic dumbells, rings... a lot of them! We stood there marvelling at them for some time when a person came up to us and invited us to try it. After a little initial indecision, we acquisced, and then started on the soft leather balls. I could do a little bit with two balls, but Jim (the person who invited us in) interrupted. "Do it nicely", he said, "both hands... bring it to the centre, and then throw". A little practice, and then I could continue with two nicely. Jenny came up and said, "Tell me when you want to move, because you are already ready to move into three". "Oh, really?", I thought... but went ahead anyway; I had been ready the moment I had accepted to come in and try them! So gradually I picked up the trick... left-right-left, or right-left-right. It felt so good when I could catch all three in sequence, but almost left a funny feeling when I missed one or two or all three sometimes. Sometimes Jim or Jenny would pass by, and I'd try so hard to get it right in front of them. But then, I would fail at times, and yet they would look at the timings of the throws or the relative heights, and say, "Good"; with honest approval in their eyes. It gave so much encouragement... and I continued. Afterwards, I discovered that I was doing better in keeping the flow when I was actually talking to someone, or maybe just doing something else mentally. That must be the secret, I thought, and as we bid good-bye, there were so many encouragements: "You're good, come again", "You can soon move on to other things, you are a natural"... :D God bless them!
We moved out and as the others left for their homes, we went to the top of the stadium. Access to the balconies and the actual seats was closed, but the soothing wind and the marvellous panoramic view of the night-time Austin and the campus was breathtaking! Amidst mirth and merry we spent some time gazing at the horizon, wondered how high we were by staring down the parapet at the miniscule cars in the parking lot, and humming some popular numbers all the time. But then we decided to go down, and started walking towards the car.
But wait, I spotted a slope: an awesome grassy slope of about 20-30 metres with a huge incline!! I needed no second invitation. To just roll down sideways on such a slope is awesome fun... trust me on this one! I last did this in a park near our house, but this feeling was awesome all over again. I mean, imagine a thick grassy well-maintained lawn where you need to just lie down at the highest point! Ms. Gravity takes care of the rest... once you are in, you get that funny feeling where you are twisted and turned about without having to bother where you are going. So while the images of the lights, the ground and the horizon zipped and zapped past in quick succession, I could barely hear the other two saying something to me. Man, after two rounds of these rolls, I took 2-3 minutes to get over the centrifugal sickness... which kind-a gives a good butterfly-in-the-stomach feeling itself! :)
One other guy tried the rolls, but the itchiness of the grass and the sudden rush of blood made him stop midway. But for me: ahh, it feels so good to be a kid again, to be a student again, to beat a squash ball aimlessly in the court without worrying about rules and all --- the carefree good days are here again, yaay!!! :D
Friday, August 18, 2006
But then I came to America, and found the quintessential invention that will take away my job: the dishwasher! So I woke up the next morning, and found my room-mate in the kitchen area, sipping on a glass of coffee. Jetlagged morning time needed coffee here as well, and I thought I might as well start off by asking how to, or rather where is the coffee powder.
"Dude, there isn't coffee powder in here... you get that coffee bag"
Uh-oh, so I found out that there was a coffee-bag like the fancy Taj Mahal teabags we have in home, that needed to be put into a glass full of tap water. Wait, aren't we supposed to boil the water and then put the coffee in? Naah, you put that glass, along with the coffee bag and the water, right into the microwave, and heat it for 2 minutes!
Yes, it was a cultural shock to me. But the best was still in store. The two minutes started to roll, and AD decided to get back to his bed or somewhere to attend his chores. I dutifully got the coffee out after 2 minutes, and then there was the next big question: where's the milk? AD said, "Its in the fridge", and so I went towards and opened the fridge. I swear, there were at least 6 different types of milk in there: Vitamin D milk, fat reduced milk, whole milk, butter milk and so many types of crap I just couldn't take it in at one time. So I did what I like to do so much: grabbed the first one at hand and poured in a healthy amount into the coffee.
The coffee turned a bit white; it actually represented a scale of brown from the top to its bottom in the glass, together with little granules of white floating about here and there. I still drank it twice: it was not coffee, to say the least. So I decided to ask AD, "Hey, can you take a look at this?"
AD: "Dude, what did you add?"
I sheepishly walked over to the fridge and showed the carton of butter milk. He had a laugh, and after some time I joined in the laughter. So much for being the person who prides himself on his hostel experience! But I now know how not to make coffee. I also know why you should put the whistle on a pressure cooker when you put anything in it to boil. I also know how little water not to add while boiling daal so that you burn the pulses, how much turmeric and salt not to add to the daal to make it reek of the smell. But don't worry, I'll survive :)
Monday, August 14, 2006
I started off from home when my dad and brother came to see me off at the railway station. My mother had bid me farewell at home itself. Her face, all so expressive, kind-of lingered with me briefly as I sat in the car and sped towards the station. The wait on the railway platform was eerie, though. The sodium lamps throwing off the white light, the passing of the mighty trains to destinations far far off, and the soft cool wind playing by as the announcements kept coming on the microphone that mingled with the tea-hawkers dusting off their weary kettles and an occasional "Chai-chai" --- you will have to live through it to know what I mean. My train was scheduled at 12:55 that night, and the hour that went by from midnight till then was so poignant and yet so swift --- as if a dream of the last hour when I was together with my family.
Mumbai was flooded the day I arrived. Incessant rain and wet humid roads did not make a sunny farewell. Anyway, after reassuring everyone that things were fine, I started off the next night for the airport. I reached there and met other students who were travelling like me and with me all the way till Austin. People were surprised at the relative light weight with which I was travelling... I mean, one full bag or 23 kilos less. But then, 13-year hostel veterans know exactly what they'll need and what they will not! The fun of reaching America had already begun, with so many new friends to meet, so much to know and so much to experience.
Because I had already travelled before, I was in general trying to throw tips around casually.. you know--- keep this on top, the emigration officer will need to see that ticket, etc! ;) But at this point one of the friends noticed it and started pulling my leg over it; so I quit being the guide and became a face in the crowd again. I did not have a window seat... had an aisle seat instead. Which was better... because there wasn't a new sight outside, but on a 22-hour flight, it was important to be able to move about at times. Frankfurt turned out to be a huge airport! And the 6-hour gap between our flights seemed to somehow stretch on through most of the day. As we squatted on the floor, I managed to cling on to my record of not having won anything on a chess board for 6 years :( But things were ok otherwise, and soon we were on the next flight. But a half-hour delay at the start here in Frankfurt translated into a half-hour delay at the port of entry, and then customs and immigrations ensured that we missed the connecting flight to Austin.
Since we were not prepared to spend green bills just to lodge over the night, Washington Dulles International airport served as our beds for the night. We took turns calling home, waking up people at sleepy hours to tell them that we were not at our homes yet, but that we were safe and they shouldn't worry. The case was the same with everybody: it was kind-a easy to tell dads about the situation and get them reassured. Convincing our mothers that we were ok took double the time, and I am sure we did less than half the job at that. Bagels and apples and energy drinks served for dinner, and a little dozing off now and then did not do any harm as well. The next morning, a hop-skip-and-jump through Chicago via connecting flights and a fast-food lunch at McDonald's later, we reached Austin at about 4:00 in the afternoon.
We found others who had been routed differently waiting for us at the airport, with their own luggage and stuff. You could almost see the weariness and jetlag on everyone's faces. But there was also the glee of having reached Austin. After hiring a supershuttle, we were off to our homes. I luckily had a place of accomodation fixed, roomies fixed, etc. We washed up and although I hate to admit it, a bath seemed to freshen me up so much then :) Soon, my room-mates came home from their offices, and one person volunteered to give us an unofficial detour of the campus, peppered with his comments and quirks, from time to time. I laughed so much that evening, and then suddenly remembered that I had to call home as well!
The call to home was just like it had been for some time now... so good to hear the voices at the other end. But as I was talking to dad, he told me, "Remember what I told you the night before: stick to your goal!". And I remembered: that I was far off, that I was actually halfway across the globe. You know why that happened? Because before I had left my room in Bombay to catch the flight, I had called home. And then, for the first time in my life, perhaps, I had sensed tears in my dad's voice, asking me to stick to my goal, do what I had renounced so much in life to achieve! It was then, perhaps, that I had realised that I was actually going to be far away. But never mind, 13 years this way and I am used to it, almost...
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Lets begin our story on the 30th of August. I went to Kolkata from my home, and fortunately found that the place where we had booked our accomodation was right next door (literally, I mean it!) to the Kolkata US Consulate. I had been looking forward to meeting a lovely lady that evening. She had already attended her Visa interview at the consulate, and gave me some tips about where to sit, what to expect, etc. The evening seemed to melt away in a huge hurry, and I felt as if I had hardly I talked to her. So, at the parting moments, she promised to meet me before the interview at 8:00 in the morning the next day. I went to bed anticipating all the questions the VO might ask me the next day, how it might feel after I had got the Visa, what I should be doing if the Visa was denied... basically very eager for the next morning to come.
Soon, it was the next morning. I left our room all clean shaven, bathed, wearing ironed fresh clothes and with a silent prayer on my lips after touching my mother's feet. The lady was there right on time, and we took a little stroll around. There is something about a fresh vivacious face in the morning that makes you want to stare at it just like that. But it seemed to make her uncomfortable... so I thought lets return to more relevant topics at hand: the Visa Interview, namely. I asked her what documents were to be submitted where, just as a last-minute round-up. So the conversation went like this:
Her: Your passport and interview appointment letter
Me: Yup, I have 'em...
Her: Ok, then the DS Forms, all three
Me: Yes, I have them
Her: Your HDFC Bank receipt
Me: Yes of course... have both the yellow and the pink one
Her: Then the SEVIS Fee receipt
Me: Yeah that is the same as the HDFC Bank receipt, right? I have it, dear...
Her: Huh? Nope, the SEVIS fee receipt which you paid online! Those 100$
Me: Err... isn't it the same one that I paid those 4600 rupees for at the HDFC bank?
[She keeps staring at me, so I continue]
Me: You mean to say that they are different?
Her: Sudipta, I am serious!! I had to pay close to 9000 rupees for the interview. Everyone I know has done that!! How much did you cough up in total?
Me: Hmm... looks like I have not paid it. I spent only 4881 bucks...
I don't know if you have ever said the words "Holy Shit" from your heart, but that was the one time in my life I uttered them. Imagine, standing in front of the US Consulate at 7:15 a.m. in the morning, getting ready for an interview at 8:00 for which I had left my job, my life, had accepted a life of studentship and hardship... an unknown future. And there I stand, without having paid my SEVIS fees. It was so early in the morning that no cyber cafe would open in another 2-3 hours, let alone the activation time for the fees, etc. It was the perfect goof-up, the biggest blunder of my life.
The effects were more visible on the lady than on me. She started sweating, and her face perhaps represented what someone would look like if she were told that she will be executed in another couple of hours. What the heck... lets face it, I thought. I had to bid her good-bye, and moved towards the consulate when it was about 7:30. The guys at the gate told me that the interview had been re-scheduled to 8:30 and that I had to report at 8:00.
It is difficult to describe what I was feeling then. I went back to my room, told mom about what had happened, and then settled into bed for a little nap. I was quiet, because I did not have much to say either to my mom or to myself. Mom appeared panicky... almost on the verge of tears. And 7:30 melted into 8:00 in no time. I walked out again for the consulate.
The people let me in, because I had the passport and all. I went all the way in till I reached the counters where they checked all documents and stuff. I was in a queue, and when my turn came, I was almost ready to turn back and get out of the consulate --- they'd never allow me further, I thought. When I was finally at the counter, I asked, as sweetly as I could, "Are the HDFC bank fees and the SEVIS fee different?".
Surprisingly, the man at the counter was not offended or irritated about it. He said yes, and asked me if I had paid it. I was living through my moment of truth, and I said "No, I'm sorry, I was confused and I haven't". He said it was ok... and then wrote down at a corner of my application "SEVIS fee not paid" and asked me to sit on the bench and wait for my interview. "The consulate officer will tell you what to do".
So I was actually going to have the interview after all!!! I had let out a big sigh... I think there couldn't have been anyone looking more relieved there in the entire lobby. But there was still the bigger hurdle remaining: the interview itself! I don't know if you have heard these weird stories about the Kolkata consulate, but apparently there was a lady who, well, lets just say, did not like to issue visas and always looked for reasons to reject --- or so I was told. But when the time came, just one guy came in and started the interviews; no lady!! I was sure I will get the Visa then... if I had crossed this hurdle, then the interview should be a cakewalk. And surprisingly, I thought to myself, I had maintained a straight face when I knew I hadn't paid those 100$, and had a straight face even then when I knew I was in for the interview!!!I wasn't interrogated much at the interview... a couple of questions, what do my parents do, my work-experience with Accenture, etc. In the end, the officer said, "All right sir, I am approving your Visa, but cannot issue it to you right now because you haven't paid your SEVIS fees. Pay them anyday and come back with your passport and a receipt, and then we can issue you your Visa". Sure as hell I will be back, sire... I thought.
I walked out of the consulate then, with a spring in my steps and a bright sunshine on my face. If I could've got hold of a drum then, I might have played out "They don't really care about us" right then and there... It is in these moments that nothing but praises for the Lord come out of your lips... and reached my room. Mother was sitting on the bed, looking all so intense in her prayer. When I told her that I had got my Visa, I couldn't discern whether she wanted to laugh or cry. Apparently, she had spent the past hour just praying to God for me. I switched on my mobile, and called the lovely lady of the morning. I could almost sense the relief in her voice as she learnt the good news. She told that every one of her colleagues had known about this, because she had reached her office looking almost like a wreckage survivor. And I was also suitably informed (never mind the intricate details) that she wanted to wring my neck and shout at me at the top of her voice when she would meet me next. Ahh... I could have given so much just to get strangled by her right then :)
That, dear folks, is my life: adventures of my own making, incredibly lucky escapes, and a bunch of people who pray for me all the time. Lucky me!
[P.S. - have reached Austin all safe and sound. A couple of posts coming up shortly about the flight and the place as I find here. And I am trying to catch up with all your blogs and trying to comment on the 'gems' that I might have missed. You'll be lucky, don't worry!]
Friday, August 04, 2006
As for example, you start by researching the "potential" candidates out. What are the research interests of the university, where does it stand, what are the costs of living with it, and so on and so forth. Come to think of it, your potential girlfriends are also in the same category. You have to think about what her 'interests' are, how much of girlfriend/wife material she is, and of course, how much is the maintenance cost?
Then, of course, there is the consideration of whether you want to have the brand name with yourself all your life. Yeah, I am talking about the commitment bit. But, really, don't you think at the beginning of every relation that this should be the one thing that should stay with yourself all your life? What happens later is a different question, but your university brand name also sticks to you. Whether you like it or not, you have to become very very proud of yourself when you see huge praises being heaped on that university, "your university", and perhaps you will also rush to its defence when it is slandered against.
Of course none of the universities should know that you have applied to their rivals. Think, think, a tailor-made SoP for each university, praising them to the sky and explaining how precisely a 'relation' will be "mutually beneficial". Just so that you can somehow trick them into taking you in... and then the rest is history :D. Now, think of this in terms of girlfriends... need I say more? And woe befall you if the 'love-letter' (read SoP) for one reaches someone else!!
And then there is always the fear of rejection, the joy of anticipating acceptance! Of all the people you pin your hopes on (like random scrapbook frandship requests on Orkut), all the acceptances seem so heartwarming. And the rejections from those places where you think you ought to have been 'accepted' seem to rend the heart... time for crushed hearts, a little introspection and a final dejected devastated hour on some nights. It is all a part of life, dear... you just move on.
Finally, think of the categories of applications. Although there may be no "safe" applications for you in the case of girlfriends, you have some medium bets; where you think that you have done your best, and that there should not be any hassles if things go all right. But you secretly have a crush on some universities, your ambitious applications, your darkest deepest dreams think about yourself being associated with that university, of living through its campus as a student. You know that there is no way you will be taken in, there are far many better candidates who are in line for that one seat. But then, again, this may be your only chance, so that some day in life you should not look back, heave a sigh and tell yourself, "Gosh, I should at least have asked her!".
And what happens when you get a thick envelope from that university, saying you are in? What happens when she, the star with the celestial smile, says yes? Ah... Bliss, Bliss, Bliss!! :)