Testing the water

Sugar, table salt, even chocolate- crystallisation is how we get them as we do. It’s always been a technique of purification, perhaps a poor man’s technique in this age of chromatographic separations, but an effective way nonetheless of getting one pure substance out of a cesspit of gawd-awful gunge. That’s how it was; until 1844, when a man called Wohler separated something called quinhydrone. Quinhydrone has two different chemical compounds in its crystal structure; which means, in simple words, the constituent compounds like each other way too much to let each other go.
My research is in a discipline with a fancy name- crystal engineering. I am a matchmaker. I search for compound-pairs that would be likely to love each other until death do them part (Death, in this case, involving a load of nerdy stuff like electron beams in high vacuum or evil-smelling elixirs. I need to get a life. I know.). Believe it or not, crystal engineers all over the world have voted to form an entire database of compounds for finding these compound-pairs. Yup, we take our matchmaking seriously. We do.  Methodologies have been advanced quite a bit in the last two decades or so, to the extent that we can narrow the search down to only a few potential partners just by looking at a few arcane diagrams. Partners, mind you. Only a pair. 
The big question we in the GRD group have been asking is, “What about a family, then?”. How many of these little buggers can be forced to coexist in one single box without burning it down? Two? Sure. Three? Well…  I myself have worked on ternary systems; and constructing them is devilishly difficult. Four? Unimaginable. At least until 2016, when a senior of mine painstakingly constructed a series of them. Five? Six? This paper, of which I happen to be a coauthor, says YES!
CV1_V4
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Limbering up

I nip into the washroom to give my reflection a quick but thorough scrutiny:

  1. Cheekbones: Prominent. (Ugh!)
  2. Tan lines: Why didn’t I wear something with longer sleeves? (Why!?? WHY!??)
  3. Waist: O! M! G! (I’m so dead!)

The phone vibrates.

“Coming! Coming!”

I sprint out of the exit terminal, stuff my not-at-all-sapient (sigh…) luggage into the boot, vaguely try to pull the sleeve of my tee down further, mutter an oath, suck in a rattling breath, and duck into the backseat.

One hour later…

“Arrey Mashi…, I eat enough for two people! Honestly! Pliss to be believing me!”

Ah, home sweet home!

Of the 25 years I have spent darkening this planet, the initial 16 passed in Burdwan, a small, quaint town around a hundred kilometres north of Kolkata. It’s a place of azure skies with fluffy clouds, verdant paddy fields, sparkling streams, ancient moss-stained mansions, and dark green marshlands dotted with morose old temples. The people are glib and suave, the vendors overly so. In fact, I would not be very surprised if there is a man somewhere feeling rather sheepish at this moment as he sits back and admires his purchase of the day: a dozen fluoro-green umbrellas, a honker for a Lamborghini and a nuclear submarine. I’m kidding about the submarine. It’s a loud and colourful town full of blustering madness, quite the opposite of what I enjoy being amidst; but I do like to come back here once in a while- because my parents live here, and because the sweets are succulent- and that is the root of half the problems in my life.

I own a fancy bicycle which I like to ride in and around Bangalore. I am a talentless twerp as a cyclist, as has been very generously and deliberately hammered into my psyche by people I am (un?)fortunate enough to call my friends, but I do enjoy riding my bike. It has brought me down to 64 kg from 80 (that’s where I had reached once upon a time, courtesy of the succulent sweets), my parents have made peace with their fate of having a son with cheekbones, and my uncles with the fact that their nephew will obstinately maintain for the rest of his life that he never wants to take after them, potbelly-wise. Inquisitions have been held, counselling sessions have commenced and have adjourned, promises have been made of debilitating and incurable diseases, and no amount of cajoling and threatening has been able to show me the errors of my ways so far. I like not looking like a chubby-cheeked Russian babushka. Deal with it.

The attempted brainwash and force-feed sessions aside, the visits are not that bad. I get to eat home food (heaven!) and to loaf around on the couch with the books and comics I grew up reading. It’s a peaceful life, mostly, except for the rare occasion when I take it into my head to take the traditional walk around the town. I have been told I would tire myself out, but the long legs and the base fitness of a road cyclist who frequently dares to race in the elite category have their unfair advantages.

Despite having grown up in the town, its sprawling maze of lanes and alleys and what passes for thoroughfares never ceases to amaze me. I stroll past the cool, shadowy university campus, through the corridors of the apparently deserted medical college, past the mouldering palace of the rajahs and under the Curzon Gate, towards my old school, and the river after that, wondering how it would be to bring my road bike here someday. I immediately decide I would have to be high on weed and liberal doses of coke with a dash of LSD thrown in to do that. Riding a road bike through that anarchic melange of pedestrians, steel bicycles, superbikes and electric ‘toto’ rickshaws, all rocketing around  without any apparent order or reason, promises to be a hair-raising experience. Well, no thanks, I’ll pass. The traffic here is an organism I never want to mess with.

I will not even talk about home food and the sweetshops lining the streets. It’s probably for the best that I don’t visit home so often.

This happens.

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Every. Damn. Time. Even when I have the BBCh Nandi Epic 100k coming up in three weeks. I come back to Bangalore cursing my sweet tooth, two weeks off the bike, 2 kg heavier and with my upper aerobic zones in tatters. Every. Damn. Time. So much for limbering up for the race.

But I DO need some time away from the lab once in a while. Ah, well, home is sweet home after all…