The Thinkery

Philosophy, teaching, etc.

Author: dbzdak (Page 3 of 7)

Sad News, Bad Back, Bad Internet Connection, Republic Day, etc.

It’s been awhile – sorry. But I do have a doctor’s note.  More on that below.

Sad News

My grandmother, Grace Nolan, who I mentioned recently, passed away last week.  She was (almost) 92 and died in her home, with many of her children nearby.  She came a long way, from her home in Aranmore, Ireland to Salamanca, New York (with a few stops in-between).  Here’s a link to her obituary.   I wish she could’ve somehow met Farhana’s family here in India.  She and Farhana’s parents would’ve hit it off, I think.

The smell/taste of Cream of Wheat – with brown sugar and melting butter on top – always takes me back to her house on River Street in Salamanca.  And she’ll be forever associated in my mind with Elvis, because I was sitting in the kitchen in that house when the radio announcer broke in to say that The King had just passed.  I don’t think Grace was a huge fan or anything, but she was sad, nonetheless – and worried about “that poor girl” he left behind.

She spent most of her working life cooking and cleaning for the many priests who lived in the rectory house down the block (St. Patrick’s church, where my parents got married – and which is now closed – was a stone’s throw from her place).

So, unsurprisingly, she had three priests co-celebrating her funeral mass.  And bagpipes!  When I was a kid, one of the priests she worked for – Father Hogan – was my favorite.  He had a couple German Shepherds and he’d have them sit in chairs at the table and eat dinner with him – no kidding.  My grandmother was aghast, of course, but we kids loved it.  And though she’d tsk about it, she’d always laugh when she told us about his latest eccentricities.

I wish I could’ve been there for the funeral.  She will be missed.

Bad Back

Last week I started having some serious back pain.  It wasn’t completely new.  I’ve had similar pains before, including here in India, back in late-September/early-October (did I blog about it back then?  Can’t remember, and can’t check now, for reasons I’ll mention below).  And the doctor back then thought it was a bulging (spinal) disk, pressing up against a nerve.  It went away pretty quickly that time, though.  This time was different.  It started slow, but got worse and worse – none of the medicines from the last episode relieved the pain this time.  A few sleepless nights followed, and finally I went for an MRI.  Turns out the bulging disk diagnosis was correct.  I got some additional meds, and started physical therapy a few days ago.  Things are finally getting better – but slowly and incrementally.

Throughout the whole episode, I could stand and walk around without much trouble – in fact, walking seemed to help a bit.  But I couldn’t sit for any period of time, nor find a comfortable position lying down (thus the sleepless nights).  Unfortunately, I had to cancel a trip to Delhi that I was going on for Fulbright activities.  Luckily (sort of), I had already cancelled my classes for much of the week because I had that trip scheduled.  So I didn’t miss as much school as I otherwise might have.  But I was really looking forward to seeing Delhi, even though the trip was only for two days – much of it taken up with meetings.

Anyway, since typing on a computer is difficult if one cannot sit, blogging has been a bit light.  I’ve writing this post in 15-minute increments – and some of it lying down – which is still a great improvement from where I was a few days ago.  And, back to the topics of MRIs – I’m not claustrophobic at all, or at least I never thought so before, but that’s a tight fit!  For 30 minutes.  With machine gun/lightning/klaxon submarine alarm sounds going on the whole time.  It was one of the longest 1/2  hours of my life.

Not the actual machine I was in – I think mine was smaller!

Bad Internet

For the past few weeks, even when I have been able to get online it usually only lasts for a short time before the damn internet goes down.  At first I thought it was just my ancient (5 year old) MacBook acting up, but I did some experiments (my wife’s a scientist) and realized it was happening to every other device in the house as well.  It’s maddening because the signal strength stays high and everything says you’re connected – but nothing is accessible (note to self:  don’t forget to keep hitting “save draft” here).  My wife’s family tells me that this is not uncommon, and that sometimes it’s a result of competitors sabotaging each other’s equipment, to get people to change internet providers.  If we hadn’t paid for 6 months in advance, it might well have worked.

  Republic Day

On a more positive note, today was a national holiday in India called Republic Day.   The holiday is the anniversary of when India’s constitution went into effect in 1950.  That’s three years after India gained independence from Britain (Independence Day here is Aug. 15).  India’s constitution, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before, was written primarily by a man from the dalit caste  (i.e. untouchables – who are actually below the lowest caste, I think) named B. Ambedkar.

Anyway, there are huge parades in Delhi (India’s capital) and throughout the rest of the country.  We were watching on TV this morning and the Delhi parade was much like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, with incredibly detailed and imaginative floats (though without the massive balloon cartoon characters).

I didn’t spot anything like that in Pune, but there were lots of vendors out selling Indian flags and other knick-knacks with India’s colors (orange, green and white). Farhana and the kids got in the spirit:

The only orange I had was my Milton Alumni baseball cap, which I proudly wore (don’t tell anyone from Syracuse!).  I have some green, but it’s nothing at all like the green in the Indian flag.  I was lying (laying?) on my back most of the day, anyway, so not many people noticed.

Kelkar Museum

Right as my back attack was coming on, we were visiting a museum in Pune that some of my students had told me about, called the Kelkar Museum.  It was a private collection that got turned into a public one and contains artifacts from all over India.  Great stuff – I highly recommend it if you’re ever in Pune.  Here are some pics:

Zak doing his elephant pose

Remembering his “crib” days fondly



Eli loved the old, carved chess sets

Making a new friend

The card above goes with the quilt next to it.  If you look closely, you can see what remains of an American flag sewn into the center of the quilt (mostly the stars on blue background, with just a touch of the red stripes still attached).  Eli said “that looks like the American flag” which prompted me to look more closely at the card.  Sure enough…

Zak was tired on the way home and I got lucky and snapped this pic in the rickshaw mirror on the way home:

Until next time – which I hope won’t take so long.



Grandma Nolan, Extension, The Big Dig, Mail, & Other Updates

Grandma Nolan

My grandmother – my mom’s mother – Grace Nolan, is having a bit of a rough time, health-wise these days.  Thoughts and prayers are welcome.  Here she is recently accepting posthumous medals for my grandfather’s WWII service from a local politician:

Grace is in the neighborhood of 90 years old and has lived an amazing life.  Born in Ireland, she was married and widowed at a very young age, thus becoming the single mother of a three-year-old daughter when she was still basically a kid herself. What she did next  blows my mind:  she got on a ship with that three-year-old (who I call Mom) and crossed the Atlantic!  Just the two of them.  They lived in Chicago at first, where Grace worked long hours at menial jobs, reluctantly leaving my mother with relatives in those early days.  Eventually, she met John Nolan, who became her husband. They settled in Salamanca, NY (where my parents both grew up), and had a bunch more kids.

Grace has great genes – many of her relatives have made it to the century mark (or come close).  Can’t wait to see her when we get back.


Speaking of getting back, I got word from Fulbright that my teaching award has officially been extended until April 30 of this year.  The original end date was March 31, but since the semester here runs into May, I applied for a one-month extension, which has now been granted.   Even with the extra month, I’ll miss a bit at the end of the term.  But it will be close enough to finish all the course material (knock wood).  Though it’s still a couple of months down the road, our departure is beginning to loom large.

Big Dig

My office at the university is a noisy place these days, as mentioned (and videotaped) in my last post.  They’re digging up the area behind our building, which was mostly used for parking, though there were some nice walls where students would sit and eat their lunches, and/or chat.  I’m not sure what it’s going to look like when it’s done, but here’s what it looks like now:

I hope it’s finished before I leave.  I’ll post some pics as they continue to work on it.


I’ve been walking with the kids to school in the morning lately, and the first thing we see when we walk down the stairs in our building is the set of apartment mailboxes (that’s ours on the top right).

The kids always get depressed when there’s nothing in there but advertisements for local chai shops and samosa stands.  I’ve been telling them that the best way to get mail is to send it, so they’ve been working on writing some actual snail-mail letters (imagine). However, if  you’ve got a few spare minutes and would like to make their day (and then some), our address is:

Flat #30
Bhatnagar Enclave
Kondhwa Khurd
Pune,  Maharashtra  411048

Postcards, cards, letters – anything except packages; we’ve learned the hard way that international packages to India are more trouble than they are worth – would put big smiles on little faces (and big ones, too).  And responses are guaranteed.



It’s slowly getting easier to get our hands on cash here.  And, just as important, the new 500 rupee notes seem to be entering into wider circulation, finally.  So getting change for the new 2000 rupee notes has become a bit easier, too.

It’s still a bit of a challenge to find an open ATM, and lines still form at machines distributing money.  But the worst seems to be over (for now, at least).  Rumors are constantly swirling about further big moves coming (e.g. I keep hearing that the new 2000-rupee notes are going to be recalled, already).  But I think they’d be crazy to do anything else that would have such a wide impact.  Somehow, Prime Minister Modi seems to have weathered the storm brought about by his demonitization policies (local elections are coming up in February, so we’ll see how his party and political allies perform soon enough).  But any further big moves would be pushing his luck, I suspect.




Free Food, Anniversary, Haircut, Table, etc.

Free Food

We had a beginning-of-semester lunch for our department this week and coincidentally, it was at the guest house where we stayed the first night we were in Pune, back in July.  The place has been newly landscaped, as has much of the university campus.  Today, in fact, they were digging up the cement walkway right outside my office window.  Loudly.


Anyway, I finally got some pictures of the philosophy department faculty and staff.  Here’s me with the rest of the full-time faculty, except for our esteemed chair, Dr. Lata Chhatre, who couldn’t make it.  The three on the right (it’s very dark, I know), closest to the camera, are all newly hired, and have added great energy to the department:

The next two pics are of office staff, including those who oversee publication of the department-based journal of Indian philosophy, and the librarian who oversees a really excellent department book collection.

They’re all tremendous and have had to put up with a lot of extra work due to my presence (since almost every hoop I have to jump through – including foreigner registration, travel, etc. – usually requires forms and/or signatures from the university).  With no complaints…to me directly…in English…

Anyway, I am now confident in proclaiming a universal truth of academia:  free food necessarily produces enthusiastic participation.  With the following corollary:  pizza does not, apparently, cross all boundaries as free food of choice.  Yet.


Farhana and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary this past weekend – Jan. 7 (note to self:  check this blog next December to remind yourself of the date).

It was a good excuse to dress up and eat good food with family at Gulistan:

Farhana’s mom and dad posed for this “old and new” photo that came out great:

Simmi is the master of the group selfie.  Here’s the secret – distance and height:

Both of which I ignored:


I’m glad I still have a bit of hair left on this trip, because an Indian haircut is an experience to be treasured.

You get the traditional clippers and scissors treatment, of course.  Additionally, for a few extra rupees, they trim the beard and mustache, and…I kid you not…ear hair and nose hair!  And just when you think it can’t get any better, you get a full scalp massage.  It takes about 45 minutes and the total price is approximately 100 rupees – less than $2.  Tipping is not too common in India, but I feel morally obligated to give generously for this kind of service.  In fact, I’m thinking of bringing an army of Indian barbers back with me to the US and starting a franchise.  I think it’d make millions.

Or maybe billions.  I haven’t even mentioned the most amazing thing about the experience – no post-haircut itchy shirt syndrome!  If I can bring that to America, the sky’s the limit.


The table is finally done.  It’s not perfect.  There are definitely flaws.  But given the circumstances, including almost getting beat up (twice!) trying to buy wood, we’re pretty happy.






IST, Happy New Year, and some Updates

When I first learned that I’d be teaching philosophy in Pune, a friend of a friend – who has teaching experience in India – told me the following about academia there:

Start and stop dates are often decided the week of, and the academic calendar is not a solid rock around which you can build your syllabus, but more of a swamp upending it! This is because there are any number of disruptions caused by political unrest, religious holidays that follow the lunar calendar so you don’t know when exactly the holiday will be, weather, etc. Set aside your expectations of what a functioning work environment should be like, and go with the flow. 

Excellent description of university life in Pune – and great advice.  I was reminded of it recently because our “spring” term was scheduled to begin on Dec. 26 (at least that’s what it said on the SPPU website).   Since this was earlier than usual (no one was sure why, though accreditation visits might have played a role), and at a time when students often travel back to their hometowns, no one actually showed up on the 26th.  Or 27th.  Or at all that week.  [To be fair, there wasn’t yet a finalized schedule of classes, so those students who might have shown up wouldn’t have known when to come.]

Anyway, go with the flow, right?  It was time to ring in the New Year, which happens in India pretty much like it happens in the US – except 10 or so hours earlier.  Lots of fireworks, cheering, drinking, etc.  Alcohol is definitely not as big a part of the culture here, as it is in the US.  You don’t see many beer commercials, and it’s not in many stores.  But it’s not illegal or anything (not in Pune, anyway, though it is in some parts of the country), and it’s definitely imbibed.  There were more than a few people stumbling around the streets on New Year’s Eve.   And it’s use is increasing significantly.

We  had some good news for the  new year, as Farhana’s father was released from the hospital on New Year’s Eve, and he’s doing great.  He’s determined to avoid another visit, and is already getting outside on walks, and eating enough to gain back some of the weight he’s lost (turns out hospital food in India is roughly on a par with hospital food in America).

We spent New Year’s Eve and Day at Gulistan, camping out on the top floor where I took a couple of pictures (it has a great view):

The kids had a good time, though only Sophia made it until midnight.  The boys made an effort, but couldn’t keep their eyes open past 10 p.m. or so.  Here they are earlier in the evening, making a Simmi sandwich:

So January 2 rolls around and there is, now, a definite class schedule.  And some students start trickling in.  But not many.  And most classes still aren’t meeting.  Only one of my two logic classes has been meeting this week.  The other will start…well, soon I hope.  It all depends on when the students get back in town.  Go with the flow…

All this brings to mind a common Indian joke/expression (or, at least, one I’ve heard quite a bit).  “IST”.  I first heard people say “Eye Ess Tee” a few times without knowing what it meant.  I thought it might be some Hindi word I didn’t know.  Later, I found it it means (that is, stands for) “Indian Standard Time”.  And it’s generally uttered as a reference to the fact that things often don’t happen on time here.  It’s common enough that there’s an entry in the Urban Dictionary:

IST:  Means “Indian Standard Time.” We have or own standard time, because we always show up about 1-2 hours late to everything.
If you’re havin a party at 2, expect us to be there around 3:30.
If you want us to be at your party at 2, then tell us it starts at 12.
IST doesn’t just apply to hours, though.  But also longer periods of time.  Like semesters.  However, it’s not as simple as described above.  While things do often take longer than expected, there are also moments of great speed.  For example, they were recently redoing the road by our apartment.  Over a period of months, they brought materials and stacked them along the side of the road, dug up the existing road, dug it up some more, and then stopped.  For days.  But just when I thought “IST”, I came out one day and the whole damn thing is paved smooth – like, overnight.  It’s sort of the opposite of the old military saying “hurry up and wait”.  (Dawdle then sprint?)
So, while the semester’s off to a somewhat slow start, we did have an interesting guest speaker in today from one of India’s best universities – JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University).  His name was Gopal Guru and his talk was on “The Phenomenology of Silence” – mostly related to the caste system here in India, which has some interesting parallels to race in the US.   Below is a pic – that’s our very excellent department chair, Dr. Lata Chhatre, on the right.
In other news, the table that Zeeshan, Faizan and I have been working on is getting close to finished:
And I saw some cute puppies with mom on the street this morning:
 And a beautiful butterfly:
That’s all for now. Hope your 2017 is off to a good start!

Santa Popped By (Despite our Lack of Chimney)

As you could guess, Christmas is much more low-key in Pune than in the US.  While there are 30 million Christians in India (it’s the country’s third-largest religion), that still ends up being less than 3% of the overall population.

In some ways the low-key thing is good.  The Christmas/New Year season starts so early in America these days that it’s easy to get a bit burned out by the time the actual holidays roll around.   On the other hand, the snow and lights and general festive spirit are definitely missed.

I managed to take some pics of signs of Christmas when I saw them:

And Farhana and I went to a local mall recently (the day after Christmas, actually) to see La La Land (very good) and it was about as decked out as our mall in Syracuse typically is (without the fighting).

And, the mall had a cool, backlit water fountain:

The kids were, of course, missing the tree (and what comes under it).  Trees were too expensive (still a cash-crunch here).  But we did a bit of last-minute shopping at a few neighborhood stores:

Eli was happy, despite not getting much of what was on his list:

On Christmas evening, we visited Baba in the hospital.  He’s doing much better:  out of the ICU and breathing easier.  The doctors think he’ll be home soon.

The weather is great here.  Warm and sunny during the day (around 80 – 85 degrees, I’d estimate – still haven’t mastered the Celsius-to-Farenheit conversions), but cool for sleeping at night.  It’s pretty similar to late spring in Syracuse, though without the rain (it has only rained once since the monsoons ended back in October, and that was barely a sprinkle).   Definitely not the Christmas weather we’re used to, but a nice change of pace.

The movie theater was pretty empty – perhaps because La La Land has been out for awhile here, now.

I noticed two further “movie experience” differences this time.  One:  every show here has a 15-minute intermission about halfway through (I thought it was just the Indian movies that did that, because they tend to be long).  I’m surprised this hasn’t caught on in the US.  It gives customers time to go to the bathroom, and it gives theaters the opportunity to sell more popcorn.  Win-win.

Two:  any time someone on screen is smoking (or drinking), a little anti-smoking warning pops up on the screen (like the sorts of warnings that show on cigarette packs and in anti-smoking ads).  This happens on Indian television, too.  I thought the US was overboard with anti-smoking messages, but it’s much more hard-core here.

I’m not sure how common smoking is here in India, though it’s definitely decreasing.  Anecdotally, it’s more common than in the US, but it doesn’t seem to be tremendously more so.  Smoking’s illegal in most public spaces, just like in NY state.  One big difference, though, is price.  A pack of cigarettes is still relatively inexpensive here.  Less than the cheapest price in the US (even from reservation smoke shops).

Wait, how did a Christmas post end up being about cigarettes?

To end on a lighter note, there was a leopard caught up the block from us recently:

And an interesting story on Pune’s St. Patrick’s Church in the paper recently:

And look at the twin sisters:



Indian Dentistry (almost), Playgrounds, Pigs, etc.

A little while back, I started to get pretty intense pain in one of my teeth (top rear right).  It spread to the gum and jaw and my first thought was “root canal”.  Farhana’s family has a dentist they swear by – a friend of the family – so I went to visit him.  He looked at the tooth, but said he wanted to get a full X-ray before making any decisions.  So he sent me to another place to get the X-ray.

The X-ray place was state of the art, and the machine was pretty cool – it kind of looked like a transporter from Star Trek.

I stood on the transporter pad on the right and prepared to beam down…or rather, I bit down on a plastic mouth piece and stood still while the panels swung all the way around my head.  It took about a minute and I had a full-mouth X-Ray in my hand about 10 minutes after that.  The charge:  300 rupees (less than $5).

I went back to the dentist and he took another X-ray in his office – a focused picture of the specific tooth giving me pain – and still wasn’t really sure what was going on (though he was leaning towards root canal).  A colleague of his was coming into town a few days later, so he proposed waiting in order to get his opinion.  I agreed, thankfully, because over the next day or two, the pain almost entirely disappeared.  There’s still a bit of sensitivity, but nothing like what it was.

When the pain was intense, aside from Ibuprofen, I was trying a few things that were suggested to me.  The most effective was chewing on a clove, which seemed to have a numbing effect (or perhaps a placebo effect?).

Either way it was helpful.


It’s tough to find public playgrounds in our neighborhood.  There are play areas in individual societies, but not in ours.  There are lots of parks in Pune (below are some pics from one we visited a little while back), but none within walking distance.

So we were excited to see a playground recently being built near the kids’ school.  I wasn’t sure if it was going to be open to the public or not, but then today I saw an article in the paper about it.  It is public, and it opens on Monday.  And while the picture makes it look like a garden only, there’s a lot of brand-new playground equipment being installed.  I’ll post some pics after we visit.


There are a couple of places in the city (usually near water) where I see pigs rooting around – not sure if they’re wild or if they belong to someone.  I often see crows standing on their backs, though whenever I stop to try to get a picture of that, the crows fly away.  I guess they think they’re too good to be photographed with pigs. For the last few days, though, I’ve been seeing this mother and piglets right around the block from us on my daily walk.

The little ones are really cute, but the mom is pretty scary.  I’ve seen her stop a few dogs in their tracks with just a look.  Needless to say, I keep my distance.


I finally found an open ATM recently – the first in weeks!  It was a bit hard to believe, even as the money was coming out.  It felt like I imagine it must feel to hit a jackpot on a slot machine.   The result was my first ever new 2000 rupee note:

I even went back to the same ATM the next day and got another one – though it’s been empty since then.  The funny thing, though, is that it’s almost as hard to get someone to accept a 2000 rupee note as it was to find the open ATM.  The government hasn’t yet gotten around to distributing the new 500 rupee note, which  means the biggest thing around is the 100 rupee note.   So to change a 2000, vendors have to basically empty their cash drawer – which, of course, they’re reluctant to do.  Especially if you’re not spending much of the 2000.  I’m not sure why the 500 rupee  notes are taking so long to distribute, but so far they’re as elusive as, well…functioning ATMs.

Tonight I saw this story online – hoping it applies here in Pune:

Snapdeal is now delivering cash to people in India so they can avoid ATM lines

Baba Update

Farhana’s father has been back in the hospital this week, though as usual he’s fighting the good fight and keeping his spirits up.  He  had been moved into the ICU due to serious breathing problems, but he is now back in a private room mostly breathing on  his own, with a shot of oxygen when he needs it.

Home Improvement, Woodworking, Etc.

Since we’re not going to be in our apartment/flat very long, we didn’t want to put lots of holes in walls and make other sorts of changes that would require either lots of work to fix or cover, or that would lose us money on our deposit.  There were some nails in the walls left by previous tenants, so we made good use of those.  The other solution we came up with was wall stickers, which (it is claimed) can be easily peeled off with no loss of paint (though I’m skeptical about that).  Our first attempt was next to Zak’s bed – a tree that came out pretty well:

Next came some animals next to Eli’s bed:

A clock in the kitchen:

And finally, a height chart to keep track of any growth that happens over the course of the year:

Oh, and some “chalkboard” stickers:

Additionally, I thought it might be good to whip up a few pieces of furniture that would be practical/useful (while not necessarily artful or aesthetically pleasing).  I fancy myself an amateur woodworker (emphasis on amateur), picking up some knowledge from my father, who worked with wood most of his life, and a few odd jobs I’d worked at over the years.  And the internet.

I found out that two of my brothers-in-law, Zeeshan and Faizan, were interested as well.  I pointed them to a website that’s been a great resource for me, called Instructables.  They actually have a woodworking course on the site that you can work through and which includes small projects that help you to master basic woodworking skills like cutting, sanding, finishing, gluing, etc.  The first project is a set of wooden dice, which we did – with pretty good results:

But to take a step back, before we started these projects, we had to get some wood.   There are no Home Depots or Lowe’s in Pune (not yet, anyway).  And while most anything else that you buy can be found locally, for wood, you have to travel to a different part of the city.  There’s a neighborhood centered around the aptly named Timber Market Road that is the place in Pune to go to buy wood.

We were looking for some plywood as well as some 2×4 type lumber to get started.  Faizan knew a friend who worked in the area, so we went to him for plywood, and then he took us to a sawmill that sold the lumber we were looking for at low prices.

Much of the lumber that we looked at was of the hardwood variety – like teak, mahogany and sandalwood.  Softer woods like pine are much easier to work with (and easier on the tools), and we did manage to find some.  Also, something called silverwood, which I hadn’t heard off before, but is harder than pine.  It was the same price, though, so we decided to get some.

Now, I may be an amateur, but I know enough to look for straight (unbowed) boards that lack obvious problems (e.g. huge knotholes, dampness/mold, etc.).  But as I began looking through the stacks of lumber (like the ones in the above pic), a manager of the mill came over, obviously angry.  He started arguing with Faizan, and Faizan’s friend (the one who worked in the timber market).  It was all in Hindi, and happening very fast, so I just stood back and tried to make sense of whatever words/sentences I could understand.   Things were getting louder, and when I saw some nose-to-nose action, I thought things might get ugly.  But someone else from the shop finally stepped in and tempers calmed a bit.  At that point I thought we should get the hell out of there, but I was told to go pick out the boards I wanted – which I resisted at first (I still wasn’t sure if that’s what set things off in the first place!), but did – just so we could get out of there fast.

Since we traveled to the timber market on two-wheelers, we had to rent a small truck – called a Tempo – to carry the wood back to the apartment.  We ended up buying two big sheets of plywood and a bunch of 4x4s.  As we were looking for a Tempo, I confirmed that the argument had indeed broken out because I had been looking through the lumber and selecting the “good” boards, while setting aside the bad.  This, apparently, wasn’t allowed.  Or at least, the manager who started the argument didn’t think it was allowed — other employees of the mill told us otherwise, and assured us that this other guy was just a hothead.  We finally got the wood back to the apartment, paid the Tempo driver (this was before demonetization), and realized that nothing we bought would fit in the building’s elevator.  So it all had to be carried up five flights.  Not easy when you’ve got 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood.  It’s good to have young, robust, brothers-in-law.

Anyway, back to our projects.  Next up, Zeeshan made a nice box and lid out of plywood:

And painted it black (I should’ve played some Rolling Stones for that), with the paint we bought to color the dots on the dice – which I discovered, are called “pips”:

Then we built some plywood shelves for kitchen use.

(I’m the skinny one on the left).

Our next project is a bit more ambitious – a dining table that can actually be dined on.  We’ve got it started, but ran out of wood.  Amazingly, we went back to the same place we bought wood previously.  Why?  Because it’s now after demonetization and this place is significantly cheaper than anyplace else.  And I’ll be damned if the same exact thing didn’t happen!

This time, I was very careful to ask before sorting through boards.  But sure enough, after a few minutes a guy in a suit came into the mill and started yelling.  Angry words in Hindi…nose-to-nose yelling (Zeeshan, this time)…imminent fisticuffs (I thought)…but then a settling of tempers and us carrying out the boards of our choice.  This time, I discovered it was the owner of the place who was yelling (he had been watching us from the upstairs office on CCTV).  I objected: “but we asked if we could sort through the boards this time!”  Didn’t matter.  The owner didn’t like it.

Buying wood in India isn’t like buying wood in the US.  You’ve got to be tougher to be a woodworker here, I guess.

Sports Day, Rogue One & Perry Dox

Sports Day

Today was “Sports Day” for Zak at the kids’ school (Eli’s and Sophia’s Sports Days are next week).  We used to call these Field Days when I was in school – races and other such athletic competitions to blow off some steam before a long break.   Here are some pics:

The kids’ school (RIMS) from the back, where the athletic field is located. The colorful things on the ground are little hurdles the kids jumped over.

Warming up

Zak preparing for the “Butterfly Race”, where they had to race to tie on their wings and then run to the finish line.

Zak doing a little warm-up dance before his hula hoop race.

After the kids were done, they had parents volunteer to run a “balloon race”, where we had to stand back-to-back with a balloon between us and race down the field, as a couple, without dropping the balloon.  It looked kind of like this picture (which I just found on the internet):

Farhana and I took second in the first heat (yes, there were heats!) and thus qualified for the finals.  In the finals, we were in third place in a close race when the second-place couple fell down (and another couple that was close dropped their balloon), thus paving the way for a Bzdak-Syed silver medal.

We then found out that there were actual prizes for first and second place and walked out of the school with a nice set of ceramic cooking dishes.  The thrill of (almost) victory was never so sweet.

Rogue One

Also, today I saw Rogue One with Eli  (had to balance the scales from Sophia’s Moana movie trip last weekend – Zak’s turn is coming).

My review:  Meh.  Not great.  Not terrible.  It had some good performances, and interesting characters, but didn’t develop them in much depth.  Lots of space battle scenes, but not much in the way of individual (i.e. light saber) duels, so you might be disappointed if that’s the sort of thing you go to a Star Wars movie for.  The theater we saw it in didn’t seem to have the projector as bright as it was supposed to be, so that might have been part of it.  Too dark (in the “absence of light” sense, rather than the “not much good happens” sense – though it was a bit dark in the latter sense as well).

The theater was very empty, which surprised me.  Perhaps Indians aren’t big Star Wars fans.

Perry Dox

I recently enjoyed this short story from one of my new favorite writers.  Thought you might, too:


           By Perry Dox

Nazli was lying on her bed, reading a book. She had recently bought it from a magic shop. It had been on “The Wall of Horrors”. Nazli bought it because it was the only book that seemed interesting enough. It was full of 4 different “true” horror stories.

   The first one had been called “The Return of the Birds”. The second one was called “Through It”. Finally, the most recent one, that she had just finished, was called “No One”. This was the creepiest to Nazli, because the main character was named Nazli. This was a pretty big coincidence, because Nazli was a pretty uncommon name.

   But now, Nazli was on the last story. At the store, this was the one story that Nazli took a sneak peak at. Compared to the other stories, this one seemed pretty harmless. Just some story about a girl named Samantha. But Nazli decided to read it through once more, just for the sake of it.

   After Nazli was 2 paragraphs in, she realized that the story was slightly different from how she remembered. The story was not about a girl named Samantha, but again, about Nazli. And another thing; this girl was doing the exact same things as she was. Even as she thought this, the book Nazli was thinking the exact same thing.

   The real Nazli tried to throw the book down, but she could not let go of it.

   As she panicked, her eyes kept reading farther down the page. As she read, she realized, in the book, Nazli wasn’t alone. Someone was in her room with her. Watching her. They were in her closet.

   Slowly, from the corner of her eye, Nazli saw the closet door inch open. In the book, the Nazli saw a shadow appear. In the book, Nazli screamed. But real Nazli was too scared to scream. Because out of the closet…….

   Stepped Nazli.

“Your time has come, sister. It’s your turn to live life in pain.”

With that, the closet Nazli throws Nazli into the book. Nazli is sucked in.

   Nazli’s mom comes in. “Everything okay, honey?” she asks.

     “Yes, better than it has been in a long time.” Nazli smiles. Now it is time to put her plan into action.

It was time to take over this world…….

[Please do not copy……

Your fate will be Nazli’s….]

PS:  This Wall Street Journal Article on India’s Demonitization hits the nail on the head:

Money (and Parking) on My Mind

It’s been a month since the big “demonetization” here in India, and very little has changed in the intervening weeks.  If anything, things have gotten worse.  Before, one would see the occasional working ATM, but not anymore.  The only way to withdrawal money now is to stand in line at a bank for long hours.  But since we don’t have an Indian bank account, that option’s not available to us.


We’re still much better off than most, since we’ve been able to find much of what we need using a credit card.  And Farhana’s family has helped when we absolutely needed cash.  But the paper is full of horror stories about Indians who aren’t so lucky.  For example, on today’s front page of the Times of India:

“Rakesh Chand served in the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force], surviving a  terror attack in J & K [Jammu and Kashmir] in 1990 during which he was  shot   five times.  For the past week, the Agra man had been visiting an SBI  [Bank] branch for cash to treat a heart problem, in vain.  On Saturday, Chand shot himself.”

Stories about elderly people dying while waiting in lines at banks, or people getting trampled to death in melees when banks announce (to those who had been standing in line for many hours) that there’s no money left, are becoming all too common.

However, unless the papers are keeping it under wraps, there’s no widespread protest movement or visible political danger to Prime Minister Modi, who initiated the move.  Opposition parties are rumbling, but it doesn’t seem to amount to much. Most polls still show broad support for both Modi and his money policy.   Go figure.  I’ve said it before, I’m sure, but I can’t imagine Americans behaving in a similar fashion.

Anyway, there are a couple of things that are still quite difficult to pay for using a credit card – transportation being one of them.  There are services like Uber and Ola here, and hypothetically, you can pay for them using credit cards.  But drivers like to get cash, and if you indicate that you’re not paying cash for your ride, you might end up waiting a long time.  We discovered this the hard way this past weekend.  Sophia was going for a movie at a local mall with two friends from school (and Farhana) and there were no drivers available until (surprise, surprise) cash was on the table.

sophiafriends1 movies1

They went to see the new Disney animated movie Moana and everyone seemed to like it (movie theaters almost all take credit cards, so that was fine).  India gets the new Hollywood movies at pretty much the same time as they’re released in the US (I think).  The new Star Wars movie opens here on Dec. 16, for example, which I think is pretty close to the US release date for the movie.

I’ve only gone to the theaters once since we’ve been here and while it’s essentially the same experience as the US, there are some minor differences.  When purchasing tickets, for example, you actually buy a specific seat – like at a concert.  And there are different prices for different quality seats.  There’s popcorn and soda, of course, but also lots of spicy Indian snacks and food at the concession stands.  And before each movie, everyone stands and they play the Indian national anthem while a flag flies on screen.  Interestingly, the Indian Supreme Court recently ruled that this playing of the national anthem before movies is required.   And that moviegoers must stand as the anthem plays.  I wonder how that would go over in the US!

Another place where credit cards don’t work is with respect to police “fines”.  The police seem to be as low on cash as the rest of us – at least judging by the increase in “enforcement activity” lately.  Here’s how it works:  there are lots of laws on the books which are very rarely enforced.  For example, there are helmet laws for 2-wheelers, though I’d be surprised if more than 20% of drivers wear them.  There’s a law that no more than two people can ride on a 2-wheeler, but families of 5 (or more) are not uncommon.  And there are laws about where you can and cannot park.

But there are virtually no signs that tell you where you can and cannot park.  And while there are sometimes painted indicators on the road or curb, they’re usually very faded, or covered with dirt.  So you basically have to look where other motorcycles are parked and see if you can find a spot among them.  This strategy has generally worked fine for me, but has recently run into a snag or two.  The first time, I came out of the store I was in and the police were getting ready to load my bike into a truck.  Nobody involved spoke much English, but they basically let it be known that if I handed over some cash, I could leave with the bike.  I pled poverty (demonetization and all), and pretended like I didn’t understand anything until they had pity on me and just let me take the bike and go.

The second time it happened, I parked near an ATM that I heard was working.  I waited in line for about a half hour before discovering it had run out of money and then went back to find that my bike (and about 10 others parked around mine) was missing.  a guy standing nearby said the police took them all and so I had to walk to the police station, which was about a mile away.  There, they asked for my license and said I’d need to pay 1000 rupees to get the bike back.  I had some money in my wallet that was visible when I showed them my license, so there was no pleading poverty this time.  But I did only have about 180 rupees on me (the last of my cash).  At first they said no way – at least 200 rupees would be required.  But when I emptied my pockets and showed them I was really broke, they took the 180 and let me take the bike and go.  This is the only way I can successfully haggle, I think – when I have no choice.  If I had had the 1000, I would’ve simply handed it over.

Since I’m on break from the university, and since enforcement seems to be increasing, I’ve been trying to stay off the scooter as much as possible.  And keeping very little cash on me at any given time – to help me  haggle.




Various and Sundry

Baba Update

Farhana’s father is still in the hospital, but doing much better.  Farhana went to visit him today, and he was in good spirits.  There’s talk of him returning home tomorrow or Tuesday.  Here’s a picture of Amina’s bed in Baba’s room:


Accidents Happen

I got in a tiny bit of a scooter accident the other day.  I was on my way to the university, not far from home, when a woman stepped right out in front of me.  I wasn’t going too fast, but I slammed on the brakes a little too hard, and turned the scooter handlebars a little too sharply, which sent me over them.  Some men walking by helped me (and the scooter) up, and yelled at the woman (they apparently saw her step in front of me).  There was no blood and nothing torn, and no damage to the scooter.  No contact, other than between me and the road.  So I continued on to school.  I only had a bit of a scrape on my forearm and knee.   I remembered afterwards that we had specifically drilled sharp stops at my motorcycle safety course. I guess I didn’t sufficiently internalize the lesson. Also, my teacher wouldn’t be thrilled that I was wearing just short sleeves.


Grades are Due

It’s that time of year, where the smell of panic and desperation fills the halls of academia.  Late assignments are the norm, here, apparently, and I’m getting plenty.  Here’s my colleague, Ashish, helping me out by translating the papers and exams submitted in Marathi:


Final exams here are taken very seriously, no doubt because they’re worth 50% of the overall course grade.  The professors don’t give the exams, here, staff members do.  Students are required to show picture ID, and given assigned seats.  Exams are submitted according to seat numbers, rather than name, so they’re graded anonymously.  I like that system, since studies have shown that implicit bias can definitely affect how grades are given.  I may try to use something similar when I get back.


Love and Marriage

Marriages in India are still quite often arranged by parents, though “love marriages” are becoming more common.  My sister-in-law Simmi was at a colleague’s wedding today.  The couple’s parents had arranged the match, and the bride and groom only met once before the wedding itself (Simmi’s to the left in the picture on the left, and to the right in the other):

simmiwedding1 simmiwedding2

In Farhana’s family, and most Indian families, it’s considered the parents’ responsibility to find spouses for their children (though, of course, they’re no longer children).  And even if the ‘children’ find partners of their own, parental approval is still considered a necessary condition.  But it goes both ways.  Brides- and grooms-to-be get veto power as well. Arranged marriage doesn’t mean forced marriage, though it’s often interpreted that way in the west.  There’s some evidence that arranged marriages are more successful than love marriages – though of course it depends on what you mean by “success”.

There’s also a rule of thumb here that marriages should go in order from oldest-to-youngest.  Again, exceptions abound, especially with respect to (younger) sisters getting married before (older) brothers.  Right now, Farhana’s sister Rizwana is “next-in-line”, and the family has been interviewing a few prospects recently.   Nothing definite, yet, though.  Rizwana has not been present at the “first interview”, but would have opportunities to interact with anyone that the family thought was a good match (that’s Rizwana in green in the middle).


Getting Lost

Next in line after Rizwana is Farhana’s sister, Amina.  I got to visit Amina’s workplace by accident this week.  I had been meeting with a fellow American Fulbrighter in a part of the city I’m not too familiar with.  I was working my way home using general directions (I knew I had to go south and east), and asking rickshaw drivers for help when I’d stop next to them at red lights.   At one point, I looked up and saw this big Epson sign that I had been told before was where Amina worked:


So I pulled in to get better directions home.  In India, though, there’s no such thing as just stopping in quick to ask directions.  Amina and her boss showed me the hospitality of visiting royalty:

aminawork1 aminawork2

including a meal of delicious Bhel Puri:


I left stuffed, and with a good route home.

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