How to eat at an Indian buffet

There is a proper way to eat at an Indian buffet which those who are not desi may not appreciate. Being desi myself, I feel that I’m qualified to advise others. But my qualifications to pontificate on this topic don’t end with a blanket ethnic designation. In an earlier era, I was a graduate student who subsisted solely on a fellowship. Back then most of what I ate in my apartment fell into three food groups – chicken, rice and spices.

As a non-vegetarian desi, I’ve always preferred chicken drumsticks to the drumsticks that come from trees, and so this guide primarily deals with the non-vegetarian Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi) buffets that serve the common generic dishes.

Your preparation for eating at a buffet should always start much before you actually go to the restaurant (which hopefully you’ve selected after extensive research). You should also decide on an optimum day to go to the restaurant. If the restaurant has a buffet for both lunch and dinner, go for lunch. Meals for lunch are almost always cheaper. Also try to avoid going on a weekend or a holiday, since many restaurants charge more on those days.

Once you’ve made long-term preparations by deciding on a day you’ll go for lunch, you need to prepare for the meal itself. The day you plan on eating at the buffet for lunch, you must skip breakfast. This is essential to making it count. Expert buffet-eaters are also adept at timing their lunch buffet to just before the close of lunch so that they don’t need to eat dinner either. A little secret is that drinking cups of black coffee or another caffeinated beverage approximately two hours before the first morsel is ingested is helpful for eating more food. Caffeine stimulates acid secretion in the stomach which if timed properly has the effect of making you feel hungrier than you would otherwise.  And don’t worry about the long -term effects of stomach acid; if you’re a graduate student, your stomach is probably already non-stick from all the teflon you’ve ingested cooking your meals with cheap pots and pans anyway.

Now, once you’re at the restaurant and have been seated here, follow a game-plan. Stick to the water; don’t order any beverages off the menu. Scan the buffet area and commit all the dishes to memory. Then go back to your table, look at the menu and identify which entrées are the most expensive to order à la carte. It is inconsequential whether you like these entrées or not. The purpose of eating at a buffet is to get the most value for money by selectively feeding the face with the most expensive dishes. As a general rule, avoid the rice, samosas (and other fried food), raita, and dal. Gulab jamuns are usually microwaved straight out of cans, so don’t go near them. Paneer dishes never have any paneer, so you can avoid those too. At a quality buffet, there will at the least be a lamb, goat, or shrimp entrée. You should be good at fishing out only the high-value bits from the curry with an elegant, clean Azharuddin-worthy flick of the wrist. If a cooked-to-order masala dosa is offered, you are permitted to eat the dosa, but not the potato-based masala. The rationale behind this is that even though the dosa is made from cheap ingredients, it is a value-added product because of the specialized expertise and time required to make it properly. If you eat the tandoori chicken remember not to pick off all the meat from the bone as you would at home. As a rule of thumb, round up 0.5 or greater of consumed food-unit to higher whole number. If others stare at you, it is their problem, not yours.

Like magicians, most competitive eaters have techniques which they will not share with others. One fail-safe trick of gluttony is to eat rapidly before metabolism catches up. But, remember that you are pitted against desi restaurateurs who will try to thwart your noble objectives by making curries as oily, creamy, and hot as possible. So, tactically it is to your advantage to avoid the gravy altogether.  And don’t let the heat get to you. If your face is on fire, don’t stop. Pain is the new pleasure.

Leave as soon as you’re done eating and before you feel nauseous. Don’t add a tip to the bill. As you leave, fill your pockets and palms with as much saunf as you possibly can.

With practice you’ll be good at inflicting the maximum amount of damage for your own basal metabolic rate. Until then, bon apetit!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to dress for a business setting

(from someone who has learned the hard way).

I’ve dressed up and dressed down more than I care to remember. In an earlier part of my life, I was in an academic environment. I was pretty much a blue-collar scientist: my collars would literally have been blue from the Coomassie Brilliant Blue stain I used to stain proteins (had I worn collared shirts, that is).

Maybe you’ve seen TV or print ads with sharp scientists in spotless white-coats in high-tech labs pipetting blue samples into gels ? My lab coat would probably make a National Register of Antiquities. Most days, the t-shirts with mad scientist witticisms picked up at scientific meetings smelled of organic compounds such as phenol and chloroform. The jeans I wore had distinctive holes from acid-washing glassware. My well-worn sneakers reeked from all the chemicals we worked on and spilled on the lab-floors. In my lab-life. If I ever wore a collared shirt and tucked it in for work, I would get greeted with snide comments like:  “why are you dressed up today? Are you getting married?”

You can imagine how like a fish-out-water I felt once I was expected to actually dress like a presentable human.

For the benefit of those thinking about making a transition to a corporate environment, I’d like to provide some pointers (primarily geared towards men).

The suit: You will soon be able to judge an office-goer by the quality of the suit he (or she) wears as well as the rest of us do, but until then, go with someone who actually wears suits for your first suit purchase so that you don’t buy something which looks a tent from The Sword of Tipu Sultan. Some of the Jordanian suits are well-crafted, but remember that a Giorgio Amman isn’t the same as a Giorgio Armani. As a guideline, if the trousers and the jacket are of the same color, you’re fine. If they’re different colors you’re also fine since you can call the jacket a “sport-coat.” Don’t make the mistake of wearing a jacket and trousers which are close but not the same exact color.

The dress-shirt: Hair-shirts are inappropriate for most corporate environments. Invest wisely in a couple of nicely-fitting dress shirts. Do not wear an intricate ‘check shirt’ which is as visually appealing as a line graph created in MS Excel. Wear a conservative shirt without logos or words unless you are interviewing to be a bouncer.

A word about collars: collars are usually sufficient to keep dogs and office-goers subjugated. I personally prefer the spread collar since it is a known fact that it exudes corporate confidence. You may not know what you’re talking about, but everyone will acknowledge that you are a pundit if you wear a French-collar shirt. Finally, unless you have a personal valet or extra fingers on the back of your hand, make sure you’ve got the cuff-links assembled before you show up for work.

The tie: Don’t wear ties with distracting designs such as Escher motifs, animals, or anatomical parts. Make sure your tie goes well with your shirt and your suit. Also don’t wrap it around your neck like a scarf from a Mithun Chakraborty dance-routine – actually tie it into a knot.  I like the fat Windsor knot, which goes especially well with the spread collar.

Shoes and accessories: As a rule, if the shoes are uncomfortable and sound like falling pots and pans when you walk, they are suitable for work. They should also be made of the hide of an animal and be of the Italian made-in-China variety. Make sure your shoes go well with the rest of your ensemble especially your belt (which shouldn’t wrap around your torso multiple times like a snake). Don’t carry a purse if you’re a man.

General appearance: Ladies, don’t dress like you’re going to a wedding or to the beach. The color of your face should match that of your neck. Make sure your eyebrows are visible unless you’ve recently undergone chemotherapy. Avoid using fragrances which attract honeybees.

Gentleman, don’t dress like you’re going to a kabbadi akhara or to pick up a random stranger from a disco. No lungis. Hair should not be protruding from visible body orifices. If you can’t shave, dress one pay scale above what you normally do. Use deodorant.

Final thoughts: Copy those who you admire shamelessly.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Facile technology for warding off the evil-eye: inexpensive “nazar suraksha”

Abstract: The “evil-eye” better known as nazar is a severely detrimental energy field that impacts the well-being of individuals in South Asia. Previously, others have demonstrated the effectiveness of the evil-eye deterring pendant known as Nazar Suraksha Kawach which works by interfering the dangerous frequencies of the evil-eye. However, this is inadequate since the protective rays are blocked by layers of clothing and temperatures above and below room-temperature. Further, the pendant must always be in the line-of-sight of the nazar.  Therefore, an effective evil-eye deterring system which would be effective under all circumstances was desperately needed. Here, were describe a facile evil-eye deterring system that counters both the emission of evil-eye rays of the nazarwale and the reception in the brain of the nazarlagi.

Introduction: The evil-eye is the most detrimental cause of lack of progress in South Asia. Earlier scientific studies including television commercials have demonstrated that when individuals either related or unrelated look at others with jealousy or “extreme love” they case nazar or the evil-eye-induced harm (Figure 1).

Nazar is well known in popular culture too. For example, in the film Sasural, Rafi sahab sang the line “Teri pyari pyari soorat ko kisiki nazar na lage” (Your lovely, lovely face anyone’s evil-eye not touch) which is a very strong argument for the existence of this form of jealous energy.

Figure 1: mechanism of action of evil-eye

Women in South Asia have known this for ages and have often drawn a spot on their face to ward off the evil eye. But this is uneffective. According to the television commercial “extreme neurotic rays” converge on the center of the brain and are shot out of the eyes like red arrows created using Microsoft PowerPoint (Figure 1).  These arrows enter the head of the unfortunate recipient and “cause mental disturbance” which casts a dark cloud on the future. Evil-eye technology and other companies have come up with a Nazar Suraksha Kawach which emits blue cooling rays that intercept the red nazar rays much like arrows in B.R. Chopra’s  mythological television serial Mahabharat. Nazar interception may have also been the driving force behind President Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated “Star Wars” program.

There are a number of problems with the evil-eye deterring pendant that independent observers have noticed. First, it is not effective at temperatures above 24 degree Centigrade or below 18 degree Centigrade. The “ions” get restless under either condition. Second, the protective rays don’t work when the pendant is covered by layers of clothing, humidity is high, or the nazar enters through the back of the head. Finally, the cost for a set of evil-eye deterring pendants can run in the hundreds of dollars.

Therefore it was necessary to come up with a cost-effective method to ward off the evil-eye. In this research paper, we  present facile technology for warding off the evil-eye.

Figure 2: Current protection against evil-eye

Our approach was simple. Since anyone can give off rays through the evil-eye or nazar (even unknowingly), it would be best to filter these rays out completely. So we designed glasses coated with five layers of nazar-protecting material (Figure 3). Now when you wear these glasses (which have been scientifically proven to work), harmful rays can not come out of your eyes. They may look like ordinary sunglasses, but they are not. They have been tested in a nazar chamber with various saas-baahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) pairs from desi teleserials.

To protect the brain from nazar rays already in the atmosphere, we designed the nazar-reflective helmet. This may look like an ordinary baseball cap with a bit of aluminum foil over it, but it is not.  It has undergone extensive testing and bears the ISO 90210 seal of approval. It is a protective device that will reflect all evil-eye rays and boomerang them back to the evil-eye-caster.

To order these two life-saving products please leave your name, address, and credit card information in the comments section of this article. It is our hope that finally, through the use of these two devices the menace known as nazar will finally be eradicated from South Asia.

Figure 3: A new effective system for blocking nazar (the evil-eye)

Can you afford to live your pathetic life in abject despair? We say no! Order now.

This is the second installment of a new series of posts on schemes that will help you either get rich fast or get lynched by an angry South Asian mob. To read the first installment click here.

Disclaimer: I guess I should tell people that nazar is real but the rest of the post is a joke, but I won’t. Go ahead. Do your worst. Cast the evil-eye. I’ll be waiting with my helmet and glasses.

Also worth reading Yogesh’s account of how you can make money by importing the Kawach from other countries.

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution. Figures 1 and 2 are used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free alternative does not exist. The new product image (Figure 3) was taken by me and created using PowerPoint. Please feel free to share, but attribute the source, m’kay?

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to get rich by selling “homemade” rudraksha seeds

Prayer beads made of rudrakshas* (also spelled as rudrakshs) are very commonly used by Hindus. My grandfather had one which he used like rosary beads to count the number of times he had recited a mantra. TeleSkyShopping Network, a direct-to-home shopping outlet that sells various charms and amulets in North America for hundreds of dollars mentions the alleged “powers” of the one-faced or “ekmukhi rudraksha” in many of their television commercials.

First, it is useful to know what exactly a rudraksha is. The rudraksha seed comes from an eponymous broad-leaf evergreen found in South and Southeast Asia. The fruit is bright blue and generally of no interest, but the seeds are named according to shape and associated with various unsubstantiated divine powers. According to Indian mythology, when Shiva wept, his tears turned into the rudraksha.

She became an IAS officer by wearing a rudraksha

Still with me? Now TeleskyShopping Network claims to sort through rudrakshas of one particular shape, bless them, claim that they have divine electromagnetic properties, and sell to you for around 150 dollars per seed. And as with other televised commercials there are testimonials portrayed by actors: a partial list of problems that the seed allegedly remedies includes illness, legal problems, failure in competitive exams, the “evil eye”, impotence, evil spirits, and unemployment. I’m curious how anyone ever dies with one around their neck, but I’ll leave that point for the experts.

He made friends with female colleagues because of the rudraksha

They even have someone, presumably a paid actor, who plays a scientist in the commercial. This expert lets viewers know that the seed is “scientifically proven” to work. And because it is shaped like a brain, it is supposed to influence the brain by balancing the hormones. The argument that the  shape of a remedy impacts a similarly-shaped organ in the body is not unique. In fact, a similar claim is made for the ability of the leaves of brahmi to improve memory and cognition. Proponents claim that because it is shaped like a brain, it exerts influence on the brain.

The commercial claims that Rudraksha influences the brain because the shape of the seed resembles the shape of the brain

How to get rich by selling rudrakshas.

I am eating this peach as I write

If you have access to the rudraksha tree then you do not need to read any further. You already have access to a goldmine that will provide for your children’s education  and your retirement since the devout will always believe in the powers of the seed.

If you live outside of South Asia then you have to be a bit creative. Fortunately, people are gullible and with a bit of convincing you can probably pass off a seed of roughly similar size and texture as a rudraksha. For those living in temperate climates, I recommend the seeds of fruits like peaches or apricots.

My rudrakshas are high in Vitamin C

For example, today I bought a pound of peaches from the grocery store. My idea is to wash and store the pits of the peaches after I’ve eaten the edible part of the fruit. Now, not only can I get my daily recommended allowance of Vitamin C, but I can also make some money on the side.

I encourage you to try it too. And if you don’t like peaches, then you can try cherries and claim that the seeds work just as well.

Do share your thoughts and if you have other ideas for passing off unwanted seeds for hundreds of dollars let me know!


*also spelled as rudraksh from Rudra (or Shiva) + aksha or (eye), though rude + rakshas (demon) sounds funnier.

This is the first installment of a new series of posts on schemes that will help you either get rich fast or get lynched by an angry South Asian mob.

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution. Screenshots from commercial are used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free alternative does not exist. Copyright of original works resides with the original creators. Photos of peach was taken by me. The second photo of the peach is used with permission from SxC.

How to write your own biography in Wikipedia. From the renowned author of “Deconstructing Quantum Sufi-Yoga”

Last night, the benevolent god mahi-mahi came to me in a vision and instructed me in a mix of Urdu-sounding Hindi, Hindi-sounding Urdu, Klingon, and C++ to form the Khudbakhud Uttarvedantic Wikipedia Society, a charitable organization exempt from US federal income tax under section 501(c)(3). As you know, articles in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia are among the top hits in internet search engines. The goal of our tax-exempt Society is to create our own biographies in Wikipedia and pass off to family members, jealous colleagues, prospective employers, and random, uninterested Facebook friends as evidence of our great standing in science and letters. In this guide, I will lead you in the art of creating your very own personalized Wikipedia autobiography.

One way to get on Wikipedia is to to actually do something worthy of recognition. You could write a bestseller or come up with a major scientific discovery and the world would most certainly notice. Someone would write a Wikipedia entry for you. But let’s be frank. I’m writing a blog and you’re sitting here reading it. Frankly, it ain’t gonna happen for either of us. Fortunately, Wikipedia is written by people like you and me, and so there are tons of mediocre people (just like you and me) who are writing their own over-hyped articles on Wikipedia as we speak. And even if you did have the talent to do something worthwhile in life, why would you take the trouble anyways? It is much easier to become notable through Wikipedia than to become notable and then get on Wikipedia.

Here are the steps to creating your own autobiography on Wikipedia:

Step 1. Start websites with legitimate-sounding domain names. In the mafia, you need a shop to act as a front. In the web popularity game, you need to get your name out on Google by posting comments with your name on as many websites and blogs as possible and starting a few fake websites of your own. If you’re a scientist, write about how great you are on your fake website New Sceintist, which sounds a lot like New Scientist. Steal html templates if you can. If it looks similar, it is just as good. Most people can’t read, so who will notice?

By getting your name out in cyberspace, you’re increasing your hits on Google, a primary index used to determine if you’ve done anything worthy of Wikipedia.

Step 2. Make a list of important-sounding fake publications. This is the most important step. If you’ve ever written anything in life, you need to put it on Wikipedia. For example the essay you wrote on the cow in primary school should be written up as A post-modern analysis of the sociological and economic importance of Bos indicus var. dudhwali in the South Asian subcontinent. Anything will do, but you will need to use words such as “deconstruction,” “post-modern”, “quantum”, “paradigm”, as well as a smattering of South Asian keywords (preferably with religious connotations). That way later if your article is tagged for deletion, you can always challenge the Wikipedia editors. If they dispute the South Asian part, tell them they are perpetrating colonialist stereotypes. If they attack the science, appeal to the art. No one on the planet understands both Derrida and Bose-Einstein statistics.

It is as easy as 1-2-3. Follow my example. By putting some very esoteric words in the title of this article, I am enhancing my own reputation as a pundit. Web aggregators will pick it up and soon enough I will be known as an expert in Deconstruction, quantum mechanics, Sufism, and yoga. Repeat after me: “I am as smart as I fake myself out to be”.

If you haven’t done anything creative in your life, then use the approach of making up something extremely important. For example, say that your magnum opus is A Long History of the World (Vol I-XX). Always use Roman numerals for volumes and throw in some French or Latin if possible. If challenged to produce your work, say that it was originally written in a now-extinct Andamanese dialect and that the editor is being a racist, Eurocentric pig. If you’re a woman, claim to be the poor victim of a male-dominated society. You can’t lose!

Step 3. Create an account on Wikipedia. You’ll need an account to look legit. Without one, editors will flag your IP address. Choose something distinguished such as Rabindranath_Tagore or S_Radhakrishnan and put an embellished resume up on your page. For example, if you know that Achtung is not the sound of a German sneezing, mention on your page that you have native-level comprehension of the German language.

Step 4. Find a list of editors you can win over. For the most part Wikipedia is edited not by professional experts, but by hobbyists who know all the levels in Tekken, but not which side of the bread is buttered. Win them over by commenting on their personal pages. They don’t have money, power, or social lives. I mean, why else would they write for no recognition or money?

Step 5. Make some very basic edits on other Wikipedia articles. If the first thing you do is to write your own article, people will get suspicious. Do some very basic copyediting on one of the thousands of incomprehensible articles on the site first.

Step 6. Steal the template for an existing high-quality Wikipedia article on someone you admire. Wiki-markup is easy, but stealing is easier. Take an article written about a famous person in your discipline and use it as a template. It will have all the category tags built it and it is as easy as “plug and play”.

Step 7. You are who you want to be, so write creatively. Journalists are very good at this, but everyone should be instinctively good at using weasel-words. Use “many”, “most”. and other non-specific words to blast across how awesome you are. As you write, think carefully. If you ever sent your flop book to someone, say it was “well received” (omitting the fact that the postal service is efficient). If your mother really liked your painting, say “many experts found it breathtaking in scope and originality.” If you know multiple languages, then use non-Roman script for your works. Again, you are working on the vanishingly small odds that there is someone who is both a polymath and a Wikipedia junkie.

A final word of advice  for those lucky few in positions of power. Get your employees or students to do the work for you. Say that you are just about to work on their annual performance review or grade their test papers. You’ll be surprised at how common people who don’t deserve to be on Wikipedia grovel just to keep us celebrities happy!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to get a bank loan in India

Or how to forge your own signature.

Our NRI friend Pappu Patligali recently applied for a personal loan from a local bank. He was planning on applying to one of the swank new privately-operated banks, but was advised not to by his elderly patients. “All our lives we have only transacted with the Tropical Bank of India,” they said, sagaciously.

Pappu picked up the form and got together an application packet with all the primary documents, supporting pieces of evidence, and annexures. Properly-dressed and armed with the bulging file, Pappu arrived at the bank at 11 AM. He walked up to the loan officer, who was annoyed that he was interrupted from relishing the juicy gossip in the morning papers. A Bollywood starlet was pregnant, and there was speculation that the father of the love-child was a flamboyant Australian left-handed batsman.

“Yes? What can I do for you?” barked the loan officer as he peered up from his glasses.

“Well, I came the other day. You gave me a form so that I could apply for a loan…”

“Hmmm. I need ALL documents on this list. If you are missing one only, then sorry I cannot help you,” said the loan officer as he sipped his chai. This was usually an adequate deterrent for most applicants.

“Yes, I know. I’ve brought the listed ones plus a few others. Originals and attested photocopies.”

A look of disgust crossed the loan officer’s morose face. Why were these people intent on spoiling his day? Everyone should have known by now that his mornings were devoted to scanning the newspapers. He did an hour of work in the afternoon and then went for tiffin. After a final round of chai, he was in the habit of leaving for the day so that he could yell at his wife and kids.

As he was about to find some excuse to put this aside, the loan officer looked up at Pappu and felt pity for him. Perhaps it was the martyred expression on Pappu’s face. He said, “leave you application materials and come back after one week.”

One week passed by.

“Hi. My name is Pappu Patligali. I applied for a loan last week.”

“Yes. Please sit down. I am sorry, but you will need to fill out another application form,” said the loan officer.

“What? Why? I thought I had included everything” said Pappu incredulously.

“No sir. You were supposed to provide your full signature on the line here,” chided the loan officer.

“But I did. Right here. P. Patligali. That is my signature.”

“No we need FULL signature for official purposes. Please, you write, Pappu Patligali,” corrected the loan officer.

Realizing that arguing was going to get him nowhere, Pappu sighed. He picked up another form, “signed” it with his first and last name legible, and handed it over.

“Thank you sir. Please come and check again next week.”

“Next week? But you’ve already taken a look at all the documents! Why should it take so long?” said Pappu furiously.

“No please understand. This is not America. These things take time in India or have you forgotten saab?” said the loan officer sarcastically.

Another week passed by.

“Well, have you now had a chance to look over my application?” said Pappu, hoping to finally get some sort of resolution.

“Sorry, I cannot help you. You will need to apply again,” said the loan officer coolly.

“What! What the hell is going on here? What’s the matter now?” yelled Pappu.

“There are three signatures on the application form. In two you have signed ‘Pappu’ with the capital ‘P’, but one looks like small ‘p’. I will get in trouble because it looks like fraud case.”

Pappu was furious. “I signed those documents in front of you! What is going on here? I demand to see the Bank Manager.”

Arre, no use getting gussa. What will Manager do, saab? I am here to help you, na? But try to understand. We are understaffed and this is lot of work for me.” said the loan officer with a tragicomic look on his face.

Pappu finally understood what the delay was all about. He reached for his wallet to provide some chai-paani to grease the wheels, but was stopped short. “What you are doing? Not here,” said the loan officer. “Your address is on the form, saab. You are married, na? I will come to your house and bring some sweets for bhabhiji and little ones. Oh and you please not to worry, saab. I am telling that you will get loan.”

More of The Charmed Life of Pappu Patligali here

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to kill small animals for no good reason

The dissection.

I stared in resignation at the pouch-like underbelly that contained all of the entrails of Rana, the unfortunate amphibian in front of me. It looked so fresh.

No matter. Best to get this over with as soon as possible. Singh Sir had a zero-tolerance policy towards miscreants in his class and the orders were simple enough. We were to chop up the poor bastards in the two periods before Macbeth or fail biology.

No one who ever sat through Singh Sir’s biology practical class would ever be able to look at a frog the same way again. Resting on the dissection board with arms and legs strewn unnaturally like a martyr was an anesthetized specimen. A few hours earlier, it had been hopping on the grassy knoll, licking buzzing winged-insects in blissful ignorance of what Lab Instructor Mahato had in store for it.

Mahato caught my specimen along with the others and kept in a see-through plastic bin with a few small holes at the top. As class started, he put it in a plastic bag with a little bit of chloroform and shook it up vigorously until it became limp. I imagined that I saw an sadistic smile on his face and an evil glint in his eyes. What other reason could there be for subjecting us to this unnecessary spectacle? Couldn’t he have done this before class?

My mind wandered. The humid air was rank with chloroform and somnolence. I could hear the blades of the fan slicing the heavy air with gurgling sounds. In this funereal setting, a bunch of lily-livered Indian high-school students stretched out frogs and pinned them down to the gelatinous surfaces of dissection boards. It was as if we were the Roman sentry crucifying Jesus. Of course, all of this was part of the plan. The innards of the prisoner were to be released and to be sketched out in nauseating detail in the lab notebook.

“Take your scalpel from your dissection kit and make an I-shaped incision,” advised the manual. Those of us who had not eaten breakfast obliged more willingly than the others. “Pull back the flaps of skin and pin down,” the manual instructed, as if doing so were as natural as opening a window in the morning to let in the warm sun.

With much trepidation, I ran my scalpel across the turgid, rotund underbelly. The beast opened up like an overfilled pillow. There was little blood.

I lifted the flaps of skin and pinned down to the sides as instructed. It was then that I first peered down the hood into the chassis. Rana’s outstretched body-cavity with all the glistening organs was there to behold in grisly, naked glory. Barely a centimeter in length and squirming like a caterpillar was the heart, which was surrounded on either side by tiny lungs that looked as fluffy as gossamer. I sharpened my dark drawing pencil and began to draw Rana’s organs on to the rough sheet of paper in front of me. I pressed too hard and broke the lead.  I erased the outline and swatted away the gritty mix of lead and rubber shavings. I started again.

I was interrupted by Joydeep who was shifting nervously in the bench next to mine. I looked up and saw that his specimen had exploded releasing tons of shiny, round eggs.

I began to feel queasy. How I got through the rest of class, I do not remember.

Needless to say, it was not Leonardo Da Vinci that sketched the symmetry of life in his notebooks in biology class that day. The chicken-scrawl I handed in to Singh Sir was labeled with the names of organs that I copied from the textbook at home.

The aftermath.

I didn’t fail biology and my parents were happy.

Years rolled by and I moved on. Rana perished like many of the finest four-legged amphibians of his generation in the sweaty classrooms of Indian high-school and college campuses. Seventy million died in flashlight-driven purges in the heydays of the foreign-currency generating frog-leg industry. Two endemic species of amphibians were discovered only to go extinct locally soon thereafter.

I have heard the argument from educators that dissections of small animals such as frogs are useful because anatomically they resemble humans. I can say this: there was certainly nothing humane about what we did in class that day. We did not cut up the animals for the sake of devouring them or (ostensibly) advancing human knowledge; we did it to pass a course which we were not interested in. I often wonder if we could not have learned the same information by looking at diagrams or plastic models.

Very few of us pursued careers in medicine. I suspect that the dissections in the grimy, hot classroom that day taught us more about ourselves than we were prepared to learn.

Perhaps, it is the realization that like frogs we are essentially a messy bag of chemicals waiting to get chopped up, incinerated, or buried six feet under?

Frog image courtesy frecuencia@sxc.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban