It all started with a silly article that had landed in my inbox on Friday morning via the platform called ‘Medium’. The lede of the article in the Pacific Standard magazine by Elena Gooray asked: How do you beat a curse? It caught my eye even in the middle of an eye-roll. I wish it hadn’t. Because inevitably I caught the sub-lede: A practiced Santa Barbara psychic weighs in on Lil B’s so far effective curse against basketball superstar Kevin Durant. And my hackles were raised.
Having been born and growing up in India, the land of the sacred cow, I am no stranger to this domesticated, quadrupedal ungulate of the subfamily Bovinae, genus Bos. It’s difficult not to have respect for an animal whose scientific name already proclaims it to be the boss, and I am culturally well-conditioned (‘well-done’, one might say) to accord an immediate reverence to this multi-faceted (not to mention, delectable) animal. After all, Gau-mata, or Cow the Mother, is an enduring socio-religious meme in India, stemming from simpler, more agrarian times — possibly a testament to the species’ intimate association with human history ever since it was domesticated about 10,500 years ago (archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that cows in Southeast Asia, Bos indicus, a different lineage from cows in Europe, were domesticated about 7000 years ago in the Harappan civilization).
It has been more than two years since I wrote about a tale of woe, the sad reality of being a non-immigrant biomedical researcher in the US. I chronicled the travails of my wife, who – even with a STEM PhD from a top-tier medical school in New York – was facing the murky uncertainties associated with doing science on a visa in the US. That uneasy disquietude still continues to haunt her; even though her Green Card application has been submitted, nothing is certain until she actually gets it in her hand – and we have no clue when that is going to happen.
Frederick Ogden Nash (August 19, 1902 – May 19, 1971), often referred to simply as ‘Ogden Nash’, was an American poet with a signature style of whimsical light verses replete with puns, deliberate misspellings, strangely irregular meter, but always ending in rhymes. Having read Ogden Nash as a child, I always find his poems delightful and utterly enjoyable. I recently came to know that I have another connection to him; apparently, Ogden Nash, a New Yorker by birth, called Baltimore his home, having moved there in 1934, and the Johns Hopkins Hospital was where he was being treated for complications of Crohn’s Disease, and sadly, breathed his last. [Source: Ogden Nash Biography]
The dénouement that was inevitable came to pass. I woke up yesterday to the sorrowful news that Professor Sacks, the neurologist and author extraordinaire, had passed away at the age of 82. Of the two obituaries in two leading dailies that I read one after the other, the NY Times Obit seemed more of a commemoration of his life’s outstanding work, whereas the Guardian Obit seemed (to me) a celebration of his amazing life, but both were moving in their descriptions of this ex-biker/weightlifter polymath physician/author I have long admired. My time at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, NY, overlapped the last five years of his presence there. I met him from afar a couple of times in the hallways, but never had the courage to approach him and talk. I wish I had. Journalist and author Steve Silberman, who has for years had close contact with Professor Sacks, expressed eloquently on Twitter what I have been feeling:
I love dogs. I grew up in households with dogs, and feel very comfortable around most dogs. And they seem to return the feeling. This has happened not only with familiar pets in the households of friends and family, but also with strange, unfamiliar dogs under otherwise trying circumstances. Through my childhood and young adulthood, I lived in an enclosed residential area which happened to serve as a sort of shelter for many random stray or abandoned, ill-nourished and emaciated street-dogs – some of whom were even survivors of abuse elsewhere. These dogs had the habit of raucously barking, for no apparent reason, at people walking by them; I remember, I used to stop, turn towards them and talk – mainly asking why they were barking at me – and this would inevitably result in the cessation of said barking, sending me my merry way. What’s more – they seemed to gradually recognize me (or perhaps my scent?) and would no longer engage in the pointless howls when I passed by.
Beyond the white-coat, serious, severe image of scientists accentuated by popular media, underneath it all scientists are human beings, with human emotions, frailties, capacities for excellence, and occasional flashes of effulgent brilliance. Thanks to Twitter, I came across one such example today, and it made me recognize that fact again, with a great deal of pleasure.
The past one year has been rough – what with the deaths of a few close family members. Just as I am slowly settling into 2015, in quick succession come three harsh blows from life: first, that poignant announcement from Prof. Oliver Sachs, next, the untimely death of a beloved mentor and friend, Prof. Paula Pitha-Rowe, and now, the sudden passing of my ever-the-most-favorite author, Sir Terry Pratchett. One by one, my favorite people are leaving me, and I don’t like it one bit.
One by one, the luminous lights are being extinguished. A stark reminder yet again, that life is fragile, ephemeral, fickle. One of my most-favorite-ever of authors passed away today. Goodbye, and rest in peace, Sir Terry Pratchett. You have given me the gifts of laughter and a deeper understanding of life. Thank you for everything. You shall live forever in our hearts and minds.
It is with a heavy heart that I write this post. I recently learned the terrible news that we have lost a distinguished scientist, Dr. Paula Marie Pitha-Rowe, Professor of Oncology, Molecular Biology and Genetics at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biology and the School of Medicine. She was also, until recently, my wife Sujayita’s postdoctoral research mentor, and an immensely knowledgeable, well-informed, fun and compassionate person. She was a sprightly 77.