Thursday, December 28, 2023

Reading in 2023

Every year, I enjoy the ritual of looking back on the stack of books I burned through and writing short notes on them. There's something about the 2023 list that's making me pause and reflect longer, because this year wasn't just about the books but the people; those who gifted me the books, those who borrowed from me, and those who stayed back to have memorable discussions about their impressions. 

The list from 2023 has to start with one of the best non-fiction books that I've read, and I don't mean just in this year. An Immense World took on a fascinating topic and wrote about it with so much depth and elegance that I wanted everyone else in my life to read it too. At last count, I know ten other people that read it because they couldn't believe how effusive my praise was for the book. 
  • An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us - Ed Yong
This year's list has a strong proportion of fiction in it, bucking a decade long trend. 
  • Small Things Like These - Claire Keegan
  • ಸಂಸ್ಕಾರ (Samskara) - U R Ananthamurthy
  • Prophet Song - Peter Lynch
  • The Trees - Percival Everett
  • The Quiet American - Graham Greene
  • The Forest of Enchantments - Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni
  • Demon Copperhead - Barbara Kingsolver
  • A Passage North - Anuk Arudpragasam
  • The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
  • Piranesi - Susanna Clark

I really enjoyed the History I consumed this year. The last one in this list was a surprise. The title - Don't Forward That Text! - really undersells the depth and research that went into this one. Mr. Schandillia is a super storyteller. 
  • The Buddha and the Sahibs - Charles Allen
  • Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization - Namit Arora
  • Origins: How The Earth Shaped Human History - Lewis Dartnell
  • Don't Forward That Text! - Amit Schandillia
The next three were, in some way or the other, related to personal health and all caused me to make some deep changes in the way I live, eat or exercise. 
  • I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us And a Grander View of Life
  • Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest And Health - Daniel Lieberman
  • Outlive - Peter Attia
The rest of the list is a motley mix. Many of them were part of the official book club at my workplace. I may remember better the discussions than the books themselves. I also mention 'official' because there were a lot of other smaller groups of reading groups at work where my friends not only recommended a book, but in some cases shipped me a copy because they couldn't bear me not having read it. I'll remember these very fondly. 
  • Mother of God: One Man's Journey to the Uncharted Depths of the Amazon Rainforest - Paul Rosolie
  • American Kingpin - Nick Bilton
  • Hatching Twitter - Nick Bilton
  • The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine - Michael Lewis
  • Shoe Dog - Phil Knight
  • The Art of the Good Life - Rolf Dobelli 
  • Whole Numbers and Half Truths - Rukmini S
  • The Sun Does Shine - Anthony Ray Hinton

Tuesday, November 14, 2023


It's hard to reconcile when something so formidable can also be so fragile. The Asian One-horned Rhino, built like an armoured truck, is perilously close to extinction, and one of the last places in the Indian subcontinent to see them in healthy numbers is the Kaziranga national park. In the wonderfully protected wetlands of this park, irrigated by the flood waters of the Brahmaputra, you'll see these giants grazing on grass or hyacinth, oblivious both to their celebrity and their precarious existential status.

As it happens in such sanctuaries, the protection of one species affords security to so many other species sharing that habitat. Hog deer, Swamp deer, Otters, Water monitor lizards and so many birds abound here. The rebound of Rhino numbers from the low hundreds during the early 1900s to a few thousands right now is a source of hope. In the first two safaris I came away thankful for the spirit of conservation that's steeped in our indigenous culture that has helped with the success of this conservation effort. And yet, the very next day, which happened to be Diwali proved that cliched adage about India; for everything that's true in this country the opposite is also true. That whole night, crackers went off almost without a pause and from every direction. In the next couple of safaris the following day it was clear that most of the shorebirds and waders had flown away, but the Rhinos were still there, as stoic as ever. 

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Pt. Calimere

If you pay attention to the coastline of Tamil Nadu you'll see two short arms extending down towards Sri Lanka. The southern one of the two arms is the Ram Setu, important in mythology as the bridge that lord Ram and his army built to get to Lanka in their effort to rescue Sita devi. The stubby arm to the north may not have the same religious significance but may be even more important in its role in bird ecology. Pt Calimere, or to use its more charming local name, Kodiakkarai, happens to have a very important place in the lives of birds that migrate in the Central Asian Flyway. Birds breeding in Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet and migrating to Sri Lanka, Africa and other warmer parts further south stop over to refuel at Pt Calimere. The relatively undisturbed habitat with nutrient-rich shores are vitally important in the seasonal journeys undertaken by dozens of species in this route.

Bird migration is one of nature's great mysteries and humanity has spent significant effort in understanding how the birds are able to perform these sophisticated feats of navigation. We are far from the answers but we are beginning to understand the details of these journeys through the efforts of researchers who have dedicated their lives to unravelling these secrets. I got a chance to spend time with such ecologists at Pt Calimere, watching the process of painstakingly banding and ringing birds, in an effort to document the migratory behaviours passing through these parts.

I've seen these rings on birds while photographing them at other sites and I've always felt annoyed at the sight. The rings are visually unaesthetic and remind you of human interference, and the process of tagging the birds is probably stress-inducing for the birds involved. We also don't know how the birds feel about having to lug these rings around on their flights. But we are well and truly in the anthropocene and wishing for zero interference from humans is not a luxury we can afford given the urgent need for custodianship that's needed to preserve our ecological heritage and pass it along to the newer generations. I came away with a deeper appreciation for the process of ringing the birds, and in the larger picture, the work of the people dedicated to the protection of these species and their habitat. 

Friday, September 29, 2023

What You Should Know About Recovering From ACL Reconstruction Surgery

I'm not a doctor, so you definitely shouldn't treat this as medical advice. This is just me reflecting on my experience and listing things I wish I knew before and after my ACL reconstruction surgery.

Whether to get the surgery or not?
Get it! The people - both patients and doctors - I spoke to were divided into two camps: those who recommended the surgery and those who advised against it. Luckily, the majority opinion was the right one. Unless you're older or unable to give adequate time to post-op recovery, it's a no-brainer. Get the surgery.

What should I do before the surgery?
Strengthen your muscles! People warned me that the quadriceps and hamstrings in the affected leg would atrophy, but I was unprepared for the extent to which my thighs lost mass and strength. My consulting ortho recommended a few exercises even before the surgery, and I wish I had done more of those. Of course, this advice depends on your unique situation. Since I only had a 3-week gap between my injury (which included a medial meniscus tear) and the operation, I could only do the exercises for about a week or so. But in general, the stronger your thighs are before the surgery, the better prepared you are for recovery post-surgery.

What should I ask my doctor about the surgery?
From my research, it appears that the surgeon's main decision is to pick between one of three types of grafts: hamstring, patellar tendon, or an allograft (from a cadaver). If you're young, you should definitely choose the hamstring graft.

What should I know about the recovery process?
Not discounting the importance of a skilfully executed surgery, but most outcomes are eventually determined by the quality of the physiotherapy that follows. I happened to be on a sabbatical and was able to dedicate significant time to physiotherapy, which hastened my journey back to normalcy. Here are the rough milestones my surgeon and physio set for me:

Week 1 & 2 - Full extension: The first goal for rehab was to fully extend my knee. Since I had torn my meniscus too when I tore my ACL, the surgeon was a little conservative in the first two weeks. In most other cases, the doc is likely to encourage you to start flexing your knees too from day 2 or 3.

Week 3 & 4 - 90° flexion: The exercises were still fairly mild at this time, focusing on sitting on a chair with knees flexed at right angles.

Week 5 & 6 - 130° flexion: It felt like I hit a wall by the time I reached 90 degrees, as arthrofibrosis had set in. The regime intensified, and this was the most painful part of the process. The physiotherapist applied force to increase flexion by about 5 degrees daily. The knee would be inflamed and needed icing, but the next morning, there was no pain. This is when I realized the value of a good physiotherapist. The force applied should be calibrated to make daily progress while allowing recovery for the next day's session.

Week 7 & 8 - Full range of motion: The physiotherapist focused on rebuilding lost strength in the thighs and worked on reaching full knee flexion. Sitting in vajrasana and in the Indian toilet squat positions, each for about 20 minutes a day, helped ease the knee into its full range of motion. It was still painful, though. I also started cycling in this period, which helped introduce cardio back into the mix and kept the knees oiled for physio.

Week 9 & 10 - Strengthening: Therapy shifted to the gym, focusing on strengthening all muscles in the thigh and calf. Seated and laying leg curls, squats, leg press, and workouts on the hip abductor machine were emphasized.

Week 11 & 12 - Balance: Balance and stability exercises were added, involving catching a medicine ball while standing on a wobble board and later on a hedgehog balance pod. We continued all exercises from weeks 7 to 10.

Week 13 & 14 - Running: I felt comfortable trying to run by week 13. The first few runs were painful. Even beyond that, I always had to endure discomfort during the first kilometer and then slowly ease into a rhythm. Running was the most effective in bringing back strength, although all gym exercises helped bring back muscle tone in the leg.

At this point, I feel confident about working my way back into sports drills like soccer ball dribbling or basketball layups. It will take a few more weeks before I can fully take my knee for granted and go back to contact sports, but the journey so far, like all arduous ones, has been totally worth it, most of all for the mindfulness it has brought to my physical activities.

Thursday, September 21, 2023


There are few man-made structures that have made me feel as if the air was sucked out of my lungs —the first sight of the Taj Mahal or the Brihadeshvara temple at Thanjavur, or when, at the end of walking through a narrow canyon in Petra, the Al-Khazneh suddenly comes into view. I had that same feeling when I saw the Kailasha temple at Ellora. But more on that later.

Ellora has a series of rock-cut excavations built over a period of nearly 500 years, starting around the 6th century CE. The end result is a series of 34 caves representing three great traditions of pre-Islamic India—Buddhism, Jainism, and Brahmanism—that were healthily jostling for civilizational mindspace in that period. The first twelve caves, also the oldest ones, are Buddhist in nature and reminiscent of the Ajanta caves. The last five represent Jainism, somewhat similar to the Buddhist ones, but most Indians will identify the Jain motifs in the exquisite details. Almost as a symbol of the hegemony that Brahmanism eventually claimed in this land, the middle caves are dominated by the Hindu excavations.

Most of the 16 caves in the middle section are special in their own way, and I realized the single day I had budgeted for Ellora was woefully inadequate. Cave 15, for instance, depicts the Dashavatara, and each carving is a story unto itself. But the real showstopper is cave 16, the Kailasa temple.

Michelangelo said this about his most famous creation in marble: “I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.” The unnamed architects of the Kailasa temple, commissioned by the Rashtrakuta kings, did something similar to a whole temple. They took a whole rock mountain and chipped away everything that wasn't a temple and left us a wonder that stands at 32m at its highest. I had read quite a bit about the temple before visiting it, and yet that didn’t prevent the feeling of awe from descending on me. It’s not enough to “see” the Kailasa temple. Monuments that combine scale and aesthetics have this way of modifying the very nature of space-time around them. It’s important to soak in that atmosphere, and that’s what I did.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023


Picture a horse-shoe shaped valley thick with vegetation enclosed by a near-vertical rock face. One end of the horse-shoe is a seven-stepped waterfall that then leads to a stream running right through the valley. On the cliff are caves that have been engraved into the rock which served both as viharas - resting areas - as well as places of worship and ceremony. The caves still have intricate carvings inside and at their peak, over a millenium and a half ago, would also have contained spectacularly executed wall paintings, some of which have survived even to the present day despite being exposed to the elements. The setting seemed like the work of an overzealous art director working in a big-budget south indian movie, and yet there it was before my eyes. 

It made me think about what this valley would have looked like in its heyday. It made me contemplate the power of a school of thought that drove people to literally reshape mountains. It made me wonder about the level of scientific knowledge and sophistication that enabled people to plan and execute such architectural marvels that look set to last a few more millenia. 

I came away also with the appreciation of how well the monuments have been preserved too. Their designation as UNESCO heritage sites may have something to do with the level of preservation. Visiting the monument on a cloudy day with only a thin weekday crowd in attendance, and the previous week's rains having fed the streams and perked up the vegetation, may have heightened my experience but very few places compare with Ajanta. 

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Power of the Ordinary Moment

At the start of my sabbatical in Apr ‘23 I was just finishing reading a book called The Power of Moments which extolled the ‘extraordinary impact of certain moments’. The book served as a how-to guide for creating such so-called peak moments. Looking back, that’s probably how I envisioned my sabbatical to be - a thoughtfully choreographed string of peak moments. And then in a fateful instant I tore my ACL and had to throw the itinerary in the trash can. The surgery that followed was probably also a peak moment, but not the kind the book had in mind.

Cut to nearly four months later, and I’m in the middle of the rehabilitation to bring my knee back to full function. The journey towards normalcy has been physically quite painful, and at times, mentally draining, but there is a silver lining if you care to look for it. An injury of this nature, i.e. any that’s not permanently debilitating, can really make one rediscover the magic in perfectly ordinary moments. It was such a thrill to first drop the knees down to a ninety degree angle. And then every ten degrees of flexion from there on was a celebration each. Being able to climb the stairs, and then later climb down without support, the first bicycle ride, the first Vajrasana, the first skip; all champagne-worthy. They were all quite painful to be sure, but somehow the pain didn’t get committed to memory. Only the elation did.

I’m only human and I’m fairly sure I’ll go back to taking normalcy for granted and chasing peak experiences once again, but I do wish there was a way to keep alive this gratitude that I feel for being able to do the mundane things. Even if I can retain a small proportion of this appreciation the injury wouldn’t have been in vain.

Monday, April 03, 2023


Our third stop on the Bhutan trip was Punakha, the site of one of Himalayan Buddhism's grandest monuments, the eponymous Punakha Dzong. Getting to Punakha requires you to climb over 3100m past Dochula, where we got to do the trip's first birding session behind a cafe where we stopped for our morning coffee.

Punakha, as the legend goes, is where the 16th century hero Zhabdrung set up his stronghold against Tibetan marauders and eventually unified the Bhutanese people under one flag. That, at least, is what I gathered from our guides telling of the history, which effortlessly mixed fact and legend into one fascinating tale. The fortress, or dzongka, by far the most magnificent we encountered on this trip is situated at the confluence of two rivers Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, which are said to be male and female respectively.

The trip to Punakha also included a nice hike up to a temple dedicated to the fourth king of Bhutan. To top it all off we stayed at a hotel right by the river bank (of the tempestuous female one), watching tens of species of birds right from the room windows. 

Sunday, April 02, 2023

Searching for Happiness in Thimphu


From the moment you land in Bhutan there are constant reminders of this country’s smugness about achieving happiness for its citizens. All the souvenir shop trinkets talk about Gross National Happiness. How exactly does one go about increasing this metric? All through my time at Thimphu I kept wondering about this question to see if there are easy answers and takeaways.

At the surface, many things about Bhutan seem first-worldish. The urban planning clearly is more evolved than in our country. The building codes seem to enforce some common architectural motifs - like the use of traditional window frames - that give the cities a harmonious feel, unlike the chaos of our own hill towns. The road infrastructure seemed adequate, and the people using it seemed exceptionally well-mannered. Drivers seemed to strictly adhere to lane discipline and I didn’t hear a single honk in my entire time at Thimphu. In fact, I even learned that there are no traffic lights in the whole of Bhutan. Only one intersection in the city is deemed complex enough to necessitate a traffic policeman directing traffic, making it such a novelty that people stop and take pictures of the officer (and thus complicating the flow of traffic in the process).
The annual per-capita GDP is nearly a thousand dollars more than in India, and you can sense that relative prosperity in some ways. There is no sign of abject poverty even in the biggest cities. The only visibly poor people I saw were migrant workers from India. I did ask a few people (by which I mean our driver and a couple of our guides) about what makes Bhutan happier than other countries, and their answers didn’t indicate any silver bullet. They all seemed to view the royal family very favourably, and they talked about free education and healthcare at all times, and about how the government helped them out with handouts during the pandemic. They all seemed especially proud of their culture and heritage.

In the end I don’t know if there are easy takeaways. To my eyes, people in the Himalayas seem, on average, happier than the rest of us. The people especially in the Buddhist belts (Ladakh and Sikkim definitely, and parts of Arunachal) seem even happier. Maybe it comes with having a benevolent ruler. Maybe it's to do with being a small nation with relative cultural homogeneity. Or maybe the slogan itself - “Gross National Happiness”- serves as a self-fulfilling placebo, as opposed to more negatively worded ones like Garibi Hatao. Whatever the reason, Thimphu did seem like a happy place and it really set the tone for the rest of the trip

The Paro Festival

Since we chose to fly into Bhutan our trip began in Paro where the airport is located, but the real itinerary was set to begin at Thimphu. On the second morning, we met our guide, Phub, who happened to mention some traffic snarls on the highway. We had been told just the previous day that the highways in Bhutan were generally unacquainted with jams, and the news of today’s jam piqued our curiosity. The cause turned out to be the annual 4-day festival that happens at the fortress (Dzong) in Paro. We hadn’t planned this but somehow we were a few dozen kilometres from a special annual spectacle. What our guide described seemed significant enough to warrant a change in our original plan, and we chose toinstead accommodate a visit to the festival. 

The setting was the remarkable dzong at Paro. Streams of visitors - women in their colorful Kiras and the men in their stately Ghos - poured into the courtyard of the fortress, which was going to host a famous ritual called the Mask Dance this afternoon. As stunning as the spectacle was visually, there definitely was a cultural barrier that came in the way of appreciating the performance. The music didn’t seem particularly striking. The dance moves were underwhelming too. At one point, I thought the policeman in the intersection had more intricate moves than the dancers here. There were a few performers in joker masks that were cracking up the crowd, but of course we couldn’t understand them, even when our guide did his best to translate the jokes for us. The local audience, though, was lapping it up, and we were left to feed off their excitement. All said and done, we were glad for the serendipity that led us here, and we felt we were genuinely taking away an experience that was like nothing other.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Arriving in Bhutan

We might share a land border with Bhutan but getting here is not easy. We boarded our flight to Paro after enduring a nightmarishly long checkin and immigration process at Delhi airport, and what should have been a 2-hr flight took us at least thrice as long. We approached the Paro airport on schedule but since the weather didn’t allow a landing there we were re-routed to Bagdogra airport back in India, where we stood on the runway waiting for the distant clouds to clear up. When the weather improved we finally took off . Weaving through the mountains to land on the single runway at Paro we realised why it’s nigh impossible to land here in poor weather. I learned later that only seven pilots are certified to ply their trade at Paro, and landing here is considered one of the riskiest assignments for a commercial pilot. The thrill of the flight aside, it had been a long energy-sapping day, and I suspected that in our mood at that time our family had momentarily brought down the gross national happiness of Bhutan. We cancelled all plans for the day and stayed in at the hotel.   

Friday, March 31, 2023

The Sabbatical

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Some time in my teens I remembered reading this quote from a Robert Heinlein character, and something about it snapped in place in my head, and to the best of my limited abilities I’ve tried to do a lot of things despite being aware of the obvious tradeoffs involved in being a jack-of-all. Lately, and especially after the pandemic, I had felt that I was falling behind on all the things I wanted to learn and do. That’s the nagging feeling that prompted the sabbatical that I started in April. 

Butchering a hog and dying gallantly are not on the agenda, but I hope to use the next three months to clear my head, work on some precious relationships, and get into the habit of living an examined life. Part of that process also involves writing more often and putting a portion of it in public. The regularity of posts on this blog has dwindled over the years and reading some of my old posts makes me cringe and shudder, but I reckon that is a sign of growth too. Besides, I don’t know any other readers apart from my mom who visit this space. So here I am, putting some more spam into the universe so that I can cringe a few years from now.