4 tips that will make scientific writing fun to read

As a very early teenager, I used to think jargon is a type of wagon you use to pull around stuff. Never bothered to verify. When I did find out at an age I am ashamed to admit, I realized I wasn’t too far off the mark. Webster meaning aside, isn’t jargon every bit as unwieldy, every bit as burdening as the vehicle? Doesn’t it present tremendous detriment to the reader to assimilate information, that which could have been presented in an easily comprehendible manner? Don’t you see my point?


Help! I reek of science words!

“But, scientific writing is not for everyone on the street,” you may say. And you will be right. A massive majority don’t care if you found out a cool way to do microdialysis on mice. So, how do you hang on to the pitiful few who do? Unleash all the verbal barrage accumulated over years of caffeine-fueled literature binging? Or actually make an effort to make the idiots sit up and read. I have been an apathetic follower of the former for about a decade now. So, while I was off writing a technical book chapter over the past few months, I decided to try option number two. Just to give life new perspective. 

(I’ve made all the mistakes I deftly ask you to avoid here.)

 1. Let’s not get all passive. 

Technical literature thrives on passive voice and understandably so. More often than not, the doer of the action has no role in the write-up. The fact that science was done and results were obtained is good enough. But, that doesn’t mean you need to kick active voice to the curb. In fact, a mix of voices not only makes for easier reading but also gives a certain vibrancy that science writing has fought hard to suppress. For example: “The cancer cells are attacked by the drug” could easily be “The drug attacks the cancer cells.” 

Yes. I just did it. I used present tense while describing science. So, shoot me! 

But, please read the next tip...

2. Don’t let the past weigh you down.

Scientific narrative relies heavily on the past tense—“the cells were taken”, “the drug was added”, “calculations were made”. Perfect so far. However, the usage of past tense gets tricky while discussing established processes or findings of past experiments; they stick out like oatmeal when written in the past tense. Changing the tense midway could make grammar textbooks turn in their bookshelves, but the beauty of tense lies in its element of surprise.  A shift of gears to the present tense once in a while is a welcome change. 

Somewhat like this: “It was found that A acted on B by inhibiting C” could simply be “A acts on B by inhibiting C” along with the relevant cross-reference.

 3. Life’s complex; do not complicate it. 

If your article is riddled with blotches of words breaking the sentence-paragraph barrier, you’ve virtually composed a lullaby. We’ve all done this, and for different reasons: To make a dull concept sound intriguing. To cram all the words we learnt yesterday in one sentence. To spin the readers’ brains enough to shut them up. But, nothing annoys readers more than a deliberate attempt to befuddle things. So, sentences need to say only as much as they have to. Also, all that you have to say need not be bunched together in one sentence. Here’s where semicolons and em dashes come in handy—they provide easy transitioning when hopping from one idea to another; kind of like a rollover stop at a stop sign. Varying sentence length also helps. Throwing in some three-word-sentences makes the reader stop. And take notice. 

 4. There’s nothing more to it than meets the eye.

Often, the title of a research article is a bland alphabet soup, more so if you are in the pure sciences. A review article tolerates more autonomy, but very few I’ve read have drawn me in from the get-go. The next obvious lure is of pictures; they’re the literary equivalent of gourmet food. So, pepper your writing with clever illustrations wherever you can. These don’t require Sistine Chapel skills; just some imagination and wit. In addition to making your article memorable, a well-made schematic may very well supplant a page-long narrative. 

Incidentally, any intact memory I have of my undergraduate learning is also illustration-related. Our pharmacology textbook—apart from being brilliantly written—had simply unforgettable pictures for the side-effects of otherwise pedestrian drugs: A distraught couple on a bed with their backs to each other meant that one of them was on a libido plummeting beta-blocker. A man on the crapper with question marks hovering over his head meant that his drug just wouldn’t let him go. 

To this day, I aspire to write a book like that. And no, my book chapter is not even close. 

There are plenty of ways scientific communication could be made less soporific, easy to comprehend—and more importantly—difficult to MIS-comprehend. The timbre of scientific writing is meant to be formal and rightly so. But, there’s no rule against making it interesting. After all, isn’t it our tendency to want to spend the least energy to gain the most we need to know?


For that, science need not be dumbed down; it needs to be tightened up.

Let’s celebrate the men in our lives!

We celebrate womanhood all the time. This Women’s day, let’s celebrate the men in our lives:

Men who may forget to get us gifts, but not to pick us up late at night while we’re at yelling them about it

Men who may not profess their undying love for us, but fret about our well-being in ways words could never do justice

Men who may not sit us down and declare how proud of us they are, but brag about us all around town

Men who, even when they’re kids, sacrifice their little joys just to see us smile

Men who go to wars, juggle careers, work every bit of their fibre, so that they could provide a better life for us. And all this without a shred of complaint!

We love you. We respect you. We may not need you. But, our lives would be nothing without you.
It is true that women are one of the greatest creatures on earth. Just like men!

Happy Women’s day!

Valentine’s Day UNregistry: what NOT to get your woman on V’day

VD is the one day I shove the feminist in me and openly declare that I need pampering. And gifts are a big part of it. We can all wax eloquent about the joy of gift-giving but we know it’s bupkis when compared to the joy of unwrapping one. Finding a good gift for a woman is easier than finding a graphic scene in an Irving Wallace novel. As much as Men’s health magazine would have you believe, you need not delve deep into our core beliefs to get us one—A pretty, well-fitting dress that none of my friends have. A shiny-but-not-too-tawdry pair of earrings. A relaxing day at the spa followed by a home-cooked meal. Simple joys of life are all what we crave for.

Yet, men over-think it every year. Fights ensue. Insecurities are disengaged from their deep seats. Year-old issues are roused from the dead, ultimately leading to questions of the “where is the relationship going?” nature. In short, no action. Just angry reactions.


Subtlety is overrated

I know that men are inundated with choice which could paradoxically limit their ability to choose. By flagging some of the options as verboten, I hope to ease the situation:

1. Gift cards

This includes all food coupons, department store cards (Victoria’s secret too), Amazon and iTunes cards. We get it. They’re utility-based gifts, but that’s something you give a long-distance friend when you forget his birthday, not someone you’re having dinner with that night.

2. Teddy bears/ figurines/statuettes of any kind

As much as we need to support our knees when we see one, we don’t want you to give us cuddly things. It just makes us look vulnerable. And we want to be pampered without appearing vulnerable. Same goes for figurines, but in a different way. Anything that could adorn a showcase in the house is best left for the wedding registry.

3. Chocolates

We love chocolates. Any shape. Any form. I am sure many men do too. That’s precisely why we don’t want them. Plus, you could get them at a Walmart.

4. Home appliances 

You might think that an easy-bake oven is the perfect gift for your wife/girlfriend who loves baking. Maybe for Christmas, sure. On VD however, no allusions or even mild winking at gender stereotypes. Even though we’ve all seen that scene from “The father of the bride.”

5. DIY books

Books on how to change a tire or fix the motherboard on the computer might speak to our feminist side, but remember how we decide to dump that side on VD? It’s best to steer clear of any procedural books for the day.

So, yes. The gift should be feminine, not feminist. It should be useful, not utility-based. It should make us feel pretty without being confining or stereotypical. And it shouldn’t look easy. That’s all it takes to make a woman happy.

Or you could just say that you don’t want to exchange gifts this year because spending time with her and seeing her  lovely smile trumps a million gifts. Your take.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

The glass ceiling needs to be broken, but how?

I was looking for a binder to stuff my research articles in, when I got the idea for this post. Although this instinctive binder-to-women connection is a hat-tip to Romney—and probably the only thing I’ll remember him for—this topic has so deeply percolated into rhetoric and our daily lives, that it keeps ticking in all of us, on some level, regardless of gender. It evokes responses in magnitude and passion, probably second only to religion.


Did Rosin alert her sons to their impending end?

I write this at a time when there are studies showing how women are not only on the road to out-earning men, but also, ushering in matriarchy (I think Hanna Rosin took a holiday from logic on that one). The numbers, however aren’t nearly as rosy, with a wage gap range of 18-19 cents per dollar based on weekly earnings to the oft-cited 23 cents based on annual wages. This has spiderwebbed into—of all things—a sense of hair splitting paranoia about discrimination against women.


I am a feminist, and I believe that women should get equal rights and opportunities, and shouldn’t be discriminated against. And, yes, there are very few things I believe in with a fiery passion than that we should get paid equally for equal work. But, what I don’t believe—and this took some ratiocination to come to terms with—is that it can be forced. It is common opinion that legislating ‘leveling the playing field’ reforms would alleviate the problem. I disagree. Providing equal opportunities for women to compete with men in the market is poles apart from having government mandated policies that force employers to treat women differently in a feeble attempt to compensate for the parochial past. It is in the very nature of affirmative action to subvert free-will and, further drive a wedge between the classes it is meant to homogenize.

But, the problem we face is impending, and relying purely on the vagaries of the market isn’t going to snap the gap either. So, what do we do?

I think we should begin by examining if active discrimination is a major contributor to this gap—and if so—take measures other than crippling an employer’s choice, to negate it.  There have been studies showing that discrimination does not have as much skin in the game, as touted to be. Rather, this bloated perception of discrimination probably pushes the more logical, facile reasons under the rug. Like sexist stereotyping—for example—which is often wrongly confused with discrimination. While stereotyping is involuntary, and due to years of socialization, discrimination is more actively controlled. That is not to say that we shouldn’t or cannot repair our instinct to stereotype; just that it is a slower process. And, it sure as hell will not vanish at the sight of force. For the discrimination that goes on, we need to take actions by making selection processes gender-neutral wherever amenable. Case in point: I work in the field of biomedical research, wherein a crucial source of income is federally funded grants. Grant application is one process that is perfectly suited for gender-neutral screening, à la the gender-blind music auditions which proved to be quite a game-changer.

Next comes the market forces. One would think that the differences in pay between business schools and liberal arts ought to be market-driven, but some cry the gender bias foul play in this too. Nothing could be further from the truth. The market has been and will always function on the edict of demand and supply. However PC you make it sound, the demand for a degree in liberal arts is insignificant when compared to say, finance. The fallacious attribution to gender bias could simply be because more men have gravitated towards such high paying jobs, as, traditionally they have had to bring in the doubloons. That is not to say that women aren’t driven to the high-paying jobs or men, to the arts, or even that women aren’t equally contributing to the coffers today. It simply means that the market rewards only those who supply what it needs, how it needs, at the lowest possible price. The way the scene is set now favors paying women less than men because women often trade in flexible work hours and perks for the dough. In short, as long as they can afford to pay women lesser, employers are going to pay them exactly so.

There are two ways to shift this equilibrium and it’s entirely in our hands: offer to work for less, so that eventually men are forced to lower their demand to compete with you, or, move the other direction—demand more. We might be turned down a lot more due to the historical market value and the hiring inertia of employers in the face of sexual harassment and pregnancy related liabilities, but it will happen eventually. If enough women aren’t willing to settle, and are of value to the business, only a rookie or a total jackass would lose them to his competitor. I believe there are measures we could take to make this happen. Women are known to take a beating when it comes to negotiating salaries—this could be changed by hiring a neutral negotiator; someone who evens the disadvantage or prejudice on part of the employer. Not only would this ensure women get a better deal, but shall also set the whole equilibrium-shift in motion. Furthermore, women could start companies of their own and make sure they pay men and women equally. Heck, they could even pay women more, to make a point, if they can afford it! It makes much more sense virally promoting such women and their products, than tether them to some mandated sum of money they must get paid.


We can do it…….without declaring war on men!

This way, once the employers are free to reward ability, at least the ones worth working for wouldn’t make the mistake of losing a valuable employee, and are more likely to accommodate their needs. It is important to remember that people’s notions do not change by coercion; they change when given the freedom to do so.

So, yes, the glass ceiling needs to be broken. But, not by holding a gun up to it.

Photo credits:

Mother inferior?—Wall Street Journal

Tumblr: feminism 


The end of a wordless argument

Image courtesy: bergheimfollies.blogspot.com

I wrote the first part of this story a while ago. Ram and Kausi are having problems in their marriage, which sends Ram in a strangely introspective spiral. This final part is from Ram’s POV, and starts off with a disturbing memory.

I had been flipping channels, finally giving in to Scarlett Johansson’s charms in Match point, when the little one had crept in, her fingers furiously digging her nose.

“You know, amma* is going to leave the house. She said it to the phone”

I remember wrestling with the kick-to-the-crotch missive my daughter delivered and the urge to stop her from making pipes out of her booger. She could be a manipulative puppy dog sometimes, but that was not it. Her cherubic face had a shadow of almost nonchalance. It might as well have been Morse code to her.

The facts, meanwhile, have been adding up like numbers on that building in Union Square. The household has’t exactly been cackling with familial warmth. The kids are either the only ones talking or the only issue being talked about. And now, Kausi has plans to flee. Great!

Kausi slams her notebook down, her lips pursed tight—which actually means she nailed the killer conclusion for her piece—and gets ready to sleep. You had to live with Kausi to learn these quirks, and how they could throw you off-kilter sometimes. She would be in the midst of a nerve-wrecking tirade about something I did, and the next moment, laughing about some slip-of-the-tongue she had while tearing me the new one. You had to keep up with her train of thought. More like a missile, really.

What could she possibly be missing in her life? Her writing career has never been better. Her dance students were going international. Our kids have her looks, and our brains. I’d like to think that must be making at least half of Cabbagetown envious. It has to be something else. Could it be that I don’t spend enough time with her, and express the hell out of myself, like all those fluff pieces keep spouting? No, It couldn’t be that simple. Who leaves the house for that? What do those hacks know about my marriage? Didn’t they also peddle the “women are more spiritually evolved than men” crap?

Wait! What am I thinking? Talking has never cut it for me, and I am already double-down. I need to dazzle her, sweep her off her feet, and stop thinking in clichés. Jewelry is out. Of all the stereotypes about women, Kausi had to defy the one most amenable to gifts. She has way too many sarees⁑, for my contribution to count. So, it comes down to the thing I hate the most—a vacation. Why do people feel the insufferable need to travel? Well, I guess I could take her to Florida. Yeah right! She’ll probably amp up the alimony and use it to have me killed—once she stuffs her 401K with it—if I took her from Atlanta to Florida. It’ll have to be international; European maybe. Some pretentious sounding place like Venice or Greece.

I could push the tender meeting to next week. The kids could stay at the Raghavans’, their creepy teenage son notwithstanding. Kausi’s students could wait a week to become the next Mallika Sarabhai. Wow! I’ve really outdone myself this time. A weeklong trip in Venice is at least quality time raised to ten. I can’t wait to see Kausi’s almond eyes split wider open with joy, when I surprise her with the tickets tomorrow.

Unless time isn’t the mother lode of my mess. What if it’s one of those global problems, gnawing away at the marriage, going hitherto unnoticed. What if she’s gone past the point of no return? And, just like that, I feel my marriage closing shut on me again, this time, pushing my ten thousand dollar vacation wedge mercilessly out of the way. Kausi stirs beside me; she has never looked more peaceful. Her peace added to my turmoil. She probably found an answer—an answer this peaceful can’t be good news. How am I going to live without her? Who is going to stop me from stepping out in a maroon shirt and grey pants?

But, whatever happens I am keeping the cuter child; she can handle the teenager.

The little one woke me up from my sleep—patchy at best—by doing the trampoline on my belly. The scene before my eyes shoots my morning crankiness in the eye—

Kausi is busy packing. Her stuff. The kids’ stuff. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would she leave without talking? I don’t hit her. I didn’t cheat on her. Heck! I don’t even smoke. I am a loving father. That’s it—

“Where do you think you are going?”

“I am taking the kids to Raghavans’ place. We can talk after that.”

“No! I want to talk right now. You can’t just leave me. Why are you doing this to me? What about the kids? I am not signing any papers.”

The kids look like they saw a unicorn grow fangs. I don’t care.

Kausi gives me a bewildered glance, her first this morning, while dragging the luggage out—“Papers? What papers? Why are your eyes so red? Look I don’t want to—

“You know what! Fine! You want to talk; let’s talk. I am glad you finally discovered you could piece words together. But, you can regale me on the way to the airport. I was sick of not being able to spend time with you; sick of complaining to my friends about you; sick of waiting for your ‘aha!’ moment. So, I booked us a trip to Venice. And, no, you don’t have a choice. I am prepared to kidnap you if it comes to that.” Her eyes shift guiltily towards the kids, but she’s quick enough to resume the bone-piercing look at me—like only a dancer can.

Is it my turn to speak? I venture, nonetheless.

“But, the kid told me-that’s the reason why-Oh! I get it now-I don’t know what to-should I pack my-what time did you say was the flight?”

The kids don’t look away as Kausi envelopes me in a kiss so raucous that I taste blood in my mouth.

I am so glad my tickets are refundable.

( * : Mother; ⁑ : Indian garment)

I am an Amtrak girl!

Amtrak has a culture of its own. It’s not flashy or flamboyant, like a ramp-walk model. It’s sweet and subtle, like a cutie next door. It has a je ne sais quoi, that doesn’t reveal itself the first time you step in. But, you know you are close, when you begin to discern the boundaries of AmtrakLand: There’s the outside world festered with problems tracing furrows on your forehead. There’s the train station, luring you in, promising a respite.  And then, there’s Amtrak. Once you enter it, you forget you had a life outside.

I remember being skeptical of my first Amtrak trip from Toledo to DC—the burden of a really long trip without wifi connectivity pasted onto my face. But, it didn’t take too long to get over my ‘I-need-to-check-my-mail-every-minute‘ self and begin to enjoy the journey. It was perhaps due to my impassioned love for trains, as a kid. The idea that a train took ten times longer to reach a place doesn’t seem tedious as much as exciting when you have just been introduced to math. For one, it meant a longer vacation. The planning for the travel introduced a whole new element into the vacation: Home-packed lunches, ice coolers, a pack of playing cards, and tons of books to read. Plus, you could look ‘outside’ any time, all the time. As a child born before the internet boom, there wasn’t much more you could have wanted.

Triangle girl is Amtrak girl!

You may ask me—what is this special thing about Amtrak you need to use a french expression for?—to which I can only say, I don’t know. But, I do know this: To this day, it brings out the same effervescence I had as a child sitting on a train. It is familiar; it is comfortable. It rarely disappoints me. It doesn’t have the irksome, clumsy security check we all love to hate. It doesn’t have baggage fees the size of the baggage—it’s free for the first two checked-in bags per passenger. If a family of four traveled, they could actually carry their house.

But is that really it? Not even close. To truly appreciate the Amtrak experience, one must look closely at how it fares in some of the key aspects of any journey:

1. Sights and sounds

Whether you are inside a car, or an airplane, looking outside is probably the first thing you do, right? Unless it’s pitch dark, in which case, you look at the people around you, you are engrossed looking outside the first thirty minutes of the trip. Trees are an inextricable part of journeys. Something about them sets off the metaphor centers in the brain— they play out as a darting landscape with seemingly endless depth. It’s a sublime feeling.

Amtrak is spot on in this department. It might be a corporation seething with losses, but they don’t take it out on the size of the windows. There’s a sprawling viewing gallery with comfortable seats and tables, where you could just stare outside. If William H. Davies could see this, it would give him goosebumps.

Life is a river…..Oh! Shut up, will you?

2. The Grub

Amtrak has two dining options: the cafe car, and the dining car—the former being the hotspot for all the coffee and sundry junk food that makes out heart melt, and the latter offering a more sophisticated sit-down meal, tablecloth and all. The viewing gallery is right next to the cafe, which is convenient for gazers like me. But, I prefer to take my lunches and dinners sit-down style. It has the whole ‘going-out-to-eat’ feel of a restaurant. Reservations are made, even if not honored entirely. Tables are set out with fresh smelling linen. Menus are handed out by overworked, yet genial waiters. If you are lucky enough to travel alone, you are seated alongside fellow-alone passengers. Now, this could go either way, but I have always had the most effusive conversations with people while dining. When there is a lot of time to kill, and people have no option but to talk, it’s amazing what we are capable of. And what’s comforting is that the talks rarely get too political or divisive. It’s probably the vacation mood, but no one wants to debate the size of the government or talk about their views on religious freedom onboard. So be it. Does every discussion need to be intellectual? Should mindless babbling be reserved for drunken nights?  Amtrak made me ask these questions after a long time.

J’ai faim

3. Slumber

Just when you think you have nothing to complain, so you’d rather sleep, it hits you—the Arctic freeze that is commonplace on the Amtrak. It’s probably the relative inactivity but, you don’t realize how cold it is until you shut your eyes. Sleeping can be a real bummer on the train, if you are not equipped with the right gear. Especially when the person next to you is busy disengaging fart bombs in their sleep. Which brings me to the most important variable in any Amtrak ride—

What to wear on an Amtrak

4. The awkward-arm partner 

Nothing changes on the Amtrak except your partner. Unless there is a train-wreck.  Some don’t talk at all, which I prefer. Some restrict themselves to the stilted “Where are you from?” and “Is that the dining car?”, which is fine too. Some are outright annoying, and leave you with a bad taste of the whole journey. They ramble on about how mundane their jobs are. Worse, they make you explain what you do. Now, I don’t care if it sounds conceited, but I resent having to dumb down my research in neuroscience so that lay-men can understand. I don’t bug you with queries about radiator hose clamps for my car. So, shouldn’t you google ischemia if you don’t get it the first time?

There are some wise ones though, who hit the perfect balance between talking and not talking; between sense and nonsense. I am one of them.

I know I am the one who pushed for this surgical dissection of the travel experience, but in reality, Amtrak is more than the sum of its parts. It lets you enjoy life’s cliches—people, nature, warmth (the intangible kind), food—without a moment of guilt or haste. It’s a naughty mistress who amps you up for the vacation, and, a caring wife, who nurses the blues on the way back.

This account may sound bloated—coming from a broke graduate student who believes there will be time for everything—it most likely is. But, I leave just enough space to accept that, tomorrow I might not have the time to sit and stare. I might not like the idea of spending fifteen hours cooped up without wi-fi, and just endless shrubbery as company. Until then, this is the Amtrak girl signing off!

Photo creds:





Hey WordPress, you listenin’ ?


The blogosphere we dwell in, works in strange ways;

two years hence, it’s still an inscrutable haze

You wake up one morning, ripe with thought;

restless to mold the flux down to the dot

Proud of your work, you wait for the traffic to spike;

two days fly by, and you would kill for a single like

And then you bump into some post with a mere ten words;

the scores of comments beneath make your stomach turn inwards


“What did I do wrong?”, you ponder in vain

It’s got a voice and passion that you did not feign

It’s got pictures that enliven, and grammar that’s clean,

with humorous segues you tactfully threw in between


“Then, am I not showering enough blog love?”, you wonder

To get to the bottom, you tear your comment policy asunder

A comment begets one, no doubts there

But, what to do for two likes, to show that you care?

And what about the follows, should a follow follow one?

Then you wistfully realize you don’t have a ton

You get tired and give up at the face of concerns too many,

when you refresh your blog page and hit an epiphany


“Tis for souls like us that freshly pressed solely exists!”

Alas! That too turns out to be such an elusive tryst

Does ability trump? Or is need enough to catch your eye?

coz some posts are poignant; some make you go “Why?!”

So, WP, do your little swagger, and pretend not to hear

coz when we do arrive, we’ll more than bend your ear!

Flapping Fashion

Do you know what ‘maidenhead’ meant in the Tudor era? Or that hanging, drawing, and quartering was not a method to make a quarter pounder? If you do, you are probably a Netflix junkie or—like me—a Netflix junkie. No, seriously, like Adriana croons in ‘Midnight in Paris’, the past has always had a great charisma for me. I enjoy watching period films and reading about their lives: what they thought, how they spoke, what they wore. Save for this irresistible curiosity, you couldn’t have paid me to watch the ‘porn’ucopia that is ‘The Tudors’. Well, maybe if you offered truckloads. But then again, why would you?

Don’t read me wrong. I am not a romantic. I don’t fancy living without internet and antibiotics, and after watching Breaking Bad, without having meth as a career option. But, if there is one thing about the ‘golden age’ that grabs me by the eyes after King Henry VIII’s colorfully decadent life, it’s the fashion of those times. It’s fascinating how the social and political climate—mutating at an accelerating pace then—subtly manipulated the way people dressed. I am not a big fan of the corsets and the ass-enhancing bustles of the 1500-1800s; sun-repellent-dress induced rickets was probably a major cause of death then. I am talking about the fashion that came right after the docile ‘Gibson Girl’, and permeated more like a lifestyle, and revolutionized the ethos of feminine style. I am talking about the snazzy, bold, impossible to miss ‘Flapper’.

Zelda Fitzgerald—”The First American Flapper”
Scott used to call her the ‘golden girl’. This was way before she drove him to death!

A flapper was a mid-teen girl in the 1920s. What she did as a flapper has multiple interpretations though: some believed she was a frivolous, self-indulgent young girl flitting away like the proverbial butterfly; some called her a young prostitute with her open galoshes making the onomatopoeic flapping sound. Some even thought she was an older woman simply being curious and open to experimentation. Frivolous or not, young or old, her flamboyant personality was hard to ignore. What made her special was not only an impeccable sense of style—their time saw the first little black dress—but also what it signified. The flapper lifestyle sprouted hot on the heels of the first world war, as an act of decrying feminine stereotypes. With the men away at war, women had begun to step out of the Küche and enter the workforce.  Also, the war wiped out a significant proportion of young men—men who were either of marriageable age or who were already married. This left scores of young women without partners and left to fend for their own. Could there have been a better time to rebel?

So it began: women dated, flirted, indulged in alcohol (it was the time of prohibition), smoked and danced Jazz. The flapper was the human equivalent of a one-shoulder dress—something about its asymmetry makes you take a second look. She was the textbook non-conformist (did I just use an epigram?), very much like an Alexander Mc Queen of the 1920s: flouting norms, making bizarre look fashionable.

Do you want to have some more carnal knowledge of me?

It was no coincidence that the flapper reign dovetailed perfectly with the first wave of the then nascent feminist movement, spawning a rebirth of clothing styles, as with any cultural upheaval. Women fiddled with different cuts and silhouettes—silhouettes that were comfortable, and cuts that did not shackle them literally or figuratively. They stepped out of their asphyxiating corsets, and chopped off their Goldilocks tresses. Hems rose; waistlines dropped. Sleeves became entirely optional. For the first time in history, they exposed their legs, which, coming at the tail of the gargantuan-gowns-and-flounces era, was a whirlwind of a change. It was a trend not only embraced by the elite—the ‘torchbearers of fashion’—but also by a huge chunk of the 99%.

What was striking, even contradictory about the flapper was the watering down of the feminine, voluptuous look of the Victorian times—tubular, flowing outlines, flatter chests for the garçon look—juxtaposed with the flamboyant makeup and flirtatious behavior clearly meant to attract male attention. However sexually dissonant this style was, it seemed to work for the men. The flapper was new, strong, confident, sexually assertive teetering on the edge of racy—basically, every man’s fantasy.

I know I could ramble on vacuously about cuts, drapes and silhouettes and probably get away with it. But, that wouldn’t be very rewarding to your patience thus far, would it? So I pause right here and give you my absolute favorite picks from the flapper wardrobe:


Marion Cotillard brings her Flapper A game, headband and all. Très magnifique!


These adorable hats could double up as protruding ear correctors


Flappers sure knew how to ace the sexy-librarian look with these lovelies

As a dewy-eyed enthusiast of all things fashion, I find it hard to imagine that the almost viral presence of the flapper lifestyle lost its zing by the turn of the decade. While I am an optimist, and truly believe that the world is only getting better to live in, I won’t deny naively wondering sometimes: Had the essence of flapper-feminism stayed on, would we still be bickering about shaving our legs for men?

Picture credits:






Flickr.com (@McArt)





The day I got a call from the cops

Everyone remembers their first day in a foreign country: the first view from the teensy aircraft window, the first meal, the first leak, the first place visited, the first foreigner who smiled.

This is the story of my second day in the United States. Like all Indian grad students who have relatives in this country, I visited them first. I went straight to their home and slept like a baby. That took care of the first day. The very next day, I had to leave for my graduate school as I had already missed the orientation. I woke up to a delicious home-cooked meal and a feeling of family warmth you experience particularly during the initial days of a visit. We had some essentials shopping to do before I flew. I bought an HP laptop the size and weight of a TV and a Verizon cell phone on a family plan (God bless relatives!). I would go on to regret the laptop decision within a matter of months. Ecstatic about the first purchase in the country and that I was all ‘teched-up’ for school, I said my goodbyes to my folks and promised to visit them during Christmas.

Toledo……I’m not impressed! (via google images, my doodle)

I had a stopover at Chicago, after which I would board the final flight to Toledo (It’s the home town of Katie Holmes). Blissfully unaware of the events about to transpire, just like everyone is, I looked around, studying the people in the flight like a bumpkin trying to make sense of an Opera. The language, I knew. The culture, I had no clue about. There was no free food, so I tried to read some John Grisham to kill time but—

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to severe storm conditions in Chicago, we have been re-routed to Milwaukee, and will be landing at the Mitchell International airport shortly. The local time there is 1:30 pm. We regret the inconvenience caused.”

There was a collective sigh of dejection throughout the cabin. Some were inquiring if they could get off at Wisconsin, since that’s where they were headed to, eventually. I was mildly excited though. Who wouldn’t want a different time zone squeezed into their first trip? Of course, my excitement turned to worry when the flight didn’t take off to Chicago for a good hour. When it finally landed in the windy city, it was already touch-and-go for my connecting flight. Now, my uncle had warned me about O’Hare but I wasn’t prepared for this Crystal maze of a place when I had a plane to catch in 10 min lugging around a bag that could dent the floor without much effort. Luckily, an Indian student happened to think so too, and helped me out with the gate. Apparently, I was in the wrong terminal. By the time I scurried across to my gate imagining they would be mispronouncing my name by then, I gathered that the flight had been cancelled due to severe weather. 

Ladies and gentlemen, if you can spot an eye shaped structure, please let me know (via ruthiedean.com)

Great! So, who’s gonna compensate me for the bone dislocation I am about to have due to incessant lugging around of luggage in an airport that didn’t have the common decency to inform that the flight had been cancelled. 

Well, if only I had stopped to read one of the scores of monitors announcing the same. Tiny mistake.

However, I was so drained out by then that I couldn’t summon genuine anger even at myself. As it would later be pointed out to me by a dear friend, I could have fished out five dollars, bought myself a nice meal, and simply ended the misery. To this day it escapes me why I didn’t do so. It was probably the guilty Indian in me, refusing to spend dollars on food, on the first second day in a country I had come to purely for academic purposes. Bah! It sounds fake even thinking about it, let alone writing it down. Let’s just leave it at that.

It was only when my name lit up on the stand-by list of the next flight to Toledo that I gained some semblance of cheer on my face.  My awkward arm partner on the flight was this woman wearing a leather jacket, a leather fedora hat and black lipstick. I have ‘Indian’ written all over my face; naturally, she launched on a verbal diarrhea of what she thought of the country, its people and its world famous culture. A kind word of advice—most Indians prefer absolute silence to talking/hearing about their colorful culture, the heritage and the diversity. It’s like bringing up the Ku Klux Klan to make small talk. 

As eloquent as she was about the goodness in Indian people, the woman walked right away as we landed at the Toledo Express airport at 12 midnight, without as much as a Bye. People often joke about how boarding and deplaning the flight from Chicago to Toledo often takes more time than the duration of the flight itself.

It seemed like another trip to India to me.

The school shuttle was supposed to pick me up at 6pm as per the scheduled time. I could have been dreaming about my NYT bestseller by now.

The whirr of the baggage carousel disrupted my pipe dream. There were a total of three bags on the carousel. None of them were mine. I was filing a baggage claim with the only airport official on duty that night, when my uncle called to check on me. He knew about the delay, so I didn’t have to brief him much, just that I had to survive on a single set of clothes and some documents until they tracked my baggage, if at all they did. And before I could talk to him about my transport options, my phone died.

So, there I was, at the phone charging port, one out of the four people in the airport that night: the official, two janitors and another passenger who was waiting for his ride. I was exhausted. I was famished. And utterly scared. Too scared to take a cab ride that late (I owe my pathological mistrust of cab drivers to my home country). Too scared to ask that guy waiting where he was going.

I was all prepared to spend the night at the airport—the serene silence gave me an odd sense of security. I picked up my John Grisham, again not concentrating, when the official walked up to me and asked if I needed a ride. All the people I have told this story to give me look of mixed horror and incredulity when they hear my reply “Yes, please” to a stranger, at midnight, and that too without as much as a thought.

“You thought hitching a ride from a stranger was less scary than taking a cab‽” is the unanimous reaction.

What can I say, instinct is a strange thing. And, how we choose to dive in blind, relying on them is even stranger. A year later I read Blink, and changed my narration to include the term ‘thin-slicing’ to describe my idiocy. Sounds a lot cooler.

Thin-slicing explains why I had no fear getting into a rusty jeep with him. It also explains why I spoke to my uncle from the car and casually mentioned (not in English, of course) that a man whose name I didn’t know was dropping me home for free. I felt nothing but overwhelming gratitude for the man until I reached home.

The cops called me when I was at the doorstep, about to crumble down but safe.

It was then that it hit me—‘the gravity of it all’ as my uncle later put it.