Categories
Short story

Fault

Short story “Fault” published in Commuter Lit. This story in five acts, narrated in alternative scenes by the two protagonists, examines exploitation and unassertiveness within the unstructured environment of a PhD in an India institute, and asks: Whose fault is this?

This short story in five acts, narrated in alternating scenes by the two protagonists, was published in Commuter Lit. The abbreviations refer to the protagonists’ research work; you needn’t at all understand them to understand the story.

SUKRITI

“That,” admits Pragya, “Didn’t work – but we’re not quitting. Can we try normalising your data? Then doing a GLM? Sometimes simple stats work… You must’ve already tried normalising?”

In the doctoral students’ cabin we share with four colleagues – out to tea – I slump over my desk. “Don’t know what I’ve tried. Don’t know” – sometimes I think I don’t know anything. Or why am I stuck? I meet Pragya’s eyes, brightly waiting. “Normalisation, hmm… Yeah, maybe I’ve tried it. Long ago. I’ve stared at this data so long, tried so many stats, I don’t remember what I’ve tried.”

A knock. Behind our cabin-door’s PVC panels, an unfamiliar face.

“Yes?” says Pragya.

He enters. An MSc student from the incoming batch.

“Sorry to disturb,” he murmurs, hesitating ten feet off, “I needed some help learning EEG?”

“Shateer, right?” says Pragya.

He nods, quick and furtive.

He’s got his feet scrunched together. Stacked, almost. He’s tall, but stooping. His hands, tight-clasped, make him look half teacher’s-pet, half mincing fashion-model. Making himself small. Why?

Shateer’s a sight – but how can Pragya just stare?

“I don’t use EEG.” Pragya returns – glancing at me – to her laptop.

I know what that glance asks. But I can’t help it.

“I’ll show you.” I rise, lidding my laptop.

“Thanks!” Shateer flees the room. Waits outside.

“And your analysis, Sukriti?” says Pragya. “GLM?”

“I’ve tried GLM. I’ve tried everything on this dataset. Chanchal just says ‘Try this, try that.’”

“Your supervisor won’t help her PhD students, so you’ll help this MSc?”

All the MScs. Shateer’s an early bird: but, batch after batch, these requests for help is how I meet the MScs. Requests shy, at first: though never this shy.

“This won’t take long,” I lie. Why’m I lying to my friend, who’s helping me, for this stranger, whom I can help? “Anyway, it’ll refresh my memory. I’ve to resume EEG data-collection soon… After working out this dataset.” Sometime this year?

“It’s your life.” Pragya’s back at work, compiling Citations.

Shateer and I walk to the EEG lab. Well: I walk. He follows.

I open the door. He hesitates to enter. A windowless room, alone with a woman. I laugh.

We scurry down the streets, heads down. Even among friends, we continually readjust our clothes. A man who fears that we might fear him – even this lanky, stooping 21-year-old – is a change.

I give Shateer a demo. On the computer-monitor, I show him one of the experiments we run, to see what the brain’s doing when we’re doing something. Instructions: ‘If you see red circle/green rectangle: press . If you see green circle/blue rectangle: press .’ I show him one dataset: 64 jagged lines of electric signal, generated by one participant’s brain as she performed this task. I show him the six smooth waveforms to which, after extensive analysis, I’ve reduced the 64 jagged lines. I tell him what the waveforms are called, and what cognitive processes they signify.

I use the jargon – for brain areas, cognitive processes, and statistical protocols – with which Prof. Chanchal Asaar dazzles every batch of MScs. I pretend the jargon is unavoidable. I use it mostly correctly.

Shateer nods, eager but furtive. Shateer listens in profound silence. I soar.

Shateer makes notes. At the right places: a quick learner. I finish.

In the closed room he reeks. I picture him: away from home, laundry-averse, chain-smoking, bath-averse.

Should I tell him? He’s so shy: he’ll wilt like the Wicked Witch. But, if I don’t – who will? Poor strange shy boy.

Later.

“Well…” I never know how to say goodbye. Even to this stranger, who’ll become a familiar around the corridors. “If you need help with anything else, anytime, please ask,” I blurt.

Why? My own dataset sits, still all noise. Chanchal, who dazzles newcomers with smooth, dense theory lectures – sheds no glimmer on the empirical work we struggle through.

I’ve not tried GLM. That’s another lie. I’m tired of trying.

Well: my offer’s made. Shateer looks thrilled. I grimace producing, I hope, a smile.

He rises with me. Makes a tiny, awkward bow. Rushes to open the lab-door for me. I laugh. A strange boy.

He closes the lab-door behind me gently. A polite boy.

I remind myself: It’s good to help people.

SHATEER

New field. Much to learn.

The Head-of-the-Department is Chanchal Asaar. At first, her lectures impressed me.

I’ve begun asking questions. Probing topics she skims.

She grimaces, begins replying immediately and smoothly, nestles keywords from my question in sentences impressively convoluted, then transitions to ‘proactive control’ and ‘error monitoring’ – regardless of the topic at hand.

I’ve asked questions, now, on topics broad enough to conclude: Chanchal’s knowledge is limited to the words in her lectures. How many years has she delivered them verbatim?

I’ve examined Chanchal’s research: in one corner of Neuropsychology, 23 papers, each probably entirely a student’s work: for which she, as supervisor, got co-authorship. All featuring ‘proactive control’ and ‘error monitoring.’

I’ve stopped asking clever questions. Now, I ask questions directly about ‘proactive control’ and ‘error monitoring.’ Let her discourse. Discourse, even on these her favourite keywords, vaguely – but we won’t know that. Neuropsychology is taught in final semester: after we’re committed to a supervisor.

I’ve been keeping my ears open. But, so far, this is all I’ve learned.

The PhDs and second-year MScs gossip continually. But they hush when we newcomers approach. To us, they pretend everything’s wonderful here.

Why? Schoolchildish reluctance to complain about teachers? Or jealous anxiety lest our eyes be opened in time to flee?

Maybe they’re just being discreet. Here, everyone’s extravagantly discreet.

Between the four faculty, there’re fifteen PhD students. Some of them are in their seventh year. What’s taking them so long? Not my business.

Some of the PhD students have accumulated theoretical knowledge and practical skills. (The others wandered in, as a stopgap, and are drifting along.) Some of those are willing to teach me. In this intersection of the Venn diagram I’m cultivating associations.

Learning what I can, from whom I can. That’s my business.

Sukriti, a fifth-year, is teaching me. E-Prime to design experiments, EEG to run experiments, and MatLab to analyse data.

These skills are in our Practicals coursework. It’s the faculty who’re supposed to be teaching us. These classes the faculty postpone, then cancel, then send us handbooks to self-study. Here, once someone becomes Professor, they renounce empirical work; that’s for their students now, to do: in their name.

‘Supposed to’ gets you nowhere.

I wish the faculty were teaching me the skills I’ll need for my dissertation. They don’t. Sukriti does.

Chanchal’s assigned Sukriti to do lab-tutorials. And the second-year MScs, who’ve begun data-collection, are always having Sukriti into the labs: troubleshooting, supervising protocols. (They should’ve taken notes.) I’ve even seen Sukriti sitting in the lab – while the MSc whose experiment was running strolled up and down chatting to her boyfriend. Later, across the corridor, I heard a vehement, drawn-out Thank you Sukriti!

Some people think a histrionic Thank You absolves any debt.

I keep asking Sukriti how I can repay her. She’s letting me assist when she resumes data-collection. Plus, I’ll learn more.

When will she resume data-collection?

“Hmm… Sometime,” she says.

“Okay. Meanwhile I’ll design more experiments.”

“These’re all for your dissertation? Next year?”

“No! I’m designing the experiments we’re reading about in class. This way, I’ll understand the designs’ conceptual logic – and also E-Prime’s design interface.”

Sukriti’s eyebrows rise, amused. Then her lips purse. “So much enthusiasm… Will you continue here for PhD?”

“I don’t know.” I repress my eagerness. I know what this question’s for: my reply might release Sukriti from discretion. She might tell me Do! or Don’t! “I’m still finding my feet, asking seniors for guidance…”

She opens her mouth. I hold my breath. Her eyes shine with an impulse of indiscreet honesty.

She rises. She’s checked her impulse. “…Just pace yourself.” She glances at her wrist. The strap of her wristwatch is loose; the watchface has slipped to the other side. So it’s at her watch-buckle that she half-glances. “Lunch?”

“No, thanks. Please go ahead!” I rise, suppressing another Thanks. She leaves.

I’m not like the others. When I’ve been helped… when will she resume her data-collection, so I can repay her?

I’m not like the others. I don’t presume. When I need a favour, I request.

Sukriti always says Yes. If it were No – she’d tell me, wouldn’t she?

I did well, not acknowledging her disorientation. Nobody gets disoriented if they’re going to say: Do! Stay on here.

SUKRITI

A knock. A squeak. Shateer’s ceased waiting for permission to open the door.

A chink. Waiting outside, he murmurs, “Morning, ma’am!”

“Morning!” I smile at his ‘ma’am.’ Some of the MScs – big-city-raised, harsh-tongued – call us only ‘di’ or ‘bhaiya.’ Behind our backs, they call us by our bare names, honorific-stripped. But some, I imagine, even behind our backs, call us ‘ma’am.’ “Come in, Shateer.”

Pragya, Spell-Checking her paper, frowns. Would it be so hard to throw that poor boy a smile? He doesn’t come in.

I smile for us both. At this institute we spend hours a day, year after year. It’s our home. These MScs, passing through, are our guests. Pragya’s inhospitable.

“You finished that multiple-nesting design?” I ask Shateer.

Outside, Shateer hesitates. “Should we – ?” indicating the vacant lecture-hall across the corridor. “…talk there?”

A strange boy. Wary of disturbing anyone.

Why’s he wary of disturbing Pragya?

Is he strange? We’ve grown used to MScs sauntering into our cabins, handing us their laptops, chattering for our amusement while we design their experiments. We’ve grown used to our own colleagues, from other cabins, dropping in for tea, then chatting all afternoon ‘privately’ to a friend five feet away.

I appreciate Shateer’s gesture.

“Come in!” I smile. “Don’t be formal.”

Pragya dons her noise-cancelling headphones.

Still Shateer lingers outside.

“This is our cabin,” I say. “We can work here.”

Does Pragya think she’s the only one working? Sure, her second paper’s almost published – but nobody seeks her help.

Shateer approaches. Stays standing. “The nesting’s working,” he half-whispers, “But not the randomisation. I want the trials randomised, but the blocks appearing in predetermined order.”

I started helping him. He needs help, and the faculty don’t help students. All tenured, now.

I started helping him. How can I stop, now? I’d have to make a scene – or be rude, like Pragya. The idea makes my palms sweat, my shoulders seize. Rude, like Pragya, you can be only from the start.

It’s too late. For her.

I show Shateer what settings to change. He begins explaining another complicated bug.

It’s not forever. Some day he’ll finish learning all I can teach. Then he’ll stop coming. Then I can do my thesis. He doesn’t know I’ve got my thesis. I’ve not told him how little headway I’ve made. How can I? He’ll think me stupid.

When I make headway – then, maybe, he’ll realise I’m busy. Or, then, maybe, I’ll manage to say No. Now, I’m doing nothing spectacular with my time, anyway.

Pragya doffs her headphones; waits – two seconds – for Shateer to finish – then interrupts, “Sorry Sukriti. How d’you correct citation errors via Zotero?”

I show her. She nods. Practises the steps. Doesn’t even say Thanks.

We return to Shateer’s problem. I solve it.

When last did I feel triumphant? Ah – when I got the office-staff to clear whatshername’s reimbursement-claims.

“You could use this paradigm,” I reflect, “With anxiety patients. That’d be new.”

“Yeah!” Shateer’s still half-whispering, though Pragya has forgotten us. “From what I’ve read, we might find something cool… I’d love if we could co-author this, as a side-project? I’ll do the data-collection, data-analysis… I’d just appreciate some pointers!”

Anxiety is my area. I feel flattered. Then, hollow.

I don’t want to be a ‘we’ with Shateer, for his side-projects. That won’t help my thesis. (Just credit me, Shateer. My first appearance in a research journal: in Acknowledgments, in your paper.)

I don’t want to be a ‘we’ with Pragya, for my thesis. Pragya bubbles with ideas, and cheerleads me – but Pragya helping me is the blind leading the blind. Besides: she’s almost graduated. She’ll be gone, when I’m still stuck.

“Hmm… maybe later?” I reply. “My thesis…” Panic clutches my throat. Five years. Running one experiment; disembowelling one dataset; sifting for one ‘significant finding’ around which I can build one plausible story to write one chapter of my thesis.

“Oh.” Shateer’s disappointed. “I’ll probably pursue this, myself…”

“Yeah!” I’m relieved. “If you need any help, please ask me.”

Shateer leaves. Pragya doffs her headphones.

“If you’re helping anyway, why not be co-author?”

If you’re eavesdropping anyway, why wear headphones?

“I can’t get involved in anything new, until… If Chanchal would just look at my data!”

“Sukriti, you’re involved anyway. Why not get credit?”

“I get credit. Tamanna mentioned me in her Acknowledgments.”

“One MSc put your name on the last slide of her internal presentation. One student, out of…? In five years, you’ve helped, conservatively, say fifteen students? This is just those whose work you’ve done start to finish… They’ve graduated. They’ve published papers. They’ve presented their work at conferences. In their papers, their conference presentations – they don’t credit you. Not even in Acknowledgments.”

I glare at Pragya. I don’t want to be like you.

But me Pragya helps. But Pragya’s publishing papers. But Pragya’s finishing her PhD. That I want. “If Chanchal would just…”

“You’re still waiting for Chanchal to help you?”

“No-oo…”

“What’re you waiting for?”

Well: that triumph felt good. While it lasted.

“If you and I spent one week, on your dataset, properly – we could work something out.”

“Hmm…” I can’t waste one week of Pragya’s time. “Maybe sometime…” Anxiety isn’t even Pragya’s area. I rise. “I have tutorials.” Helping me isn’t Pragya’s area.

It’s too late. For me.

SHATEER

I’m learning EEG, so I’ll do my dissertation with Chanchal.

I’ve set up first participant. All by myself!

EEG paraphernalia is tedious: for each participant, setup&cleanup take 90 minutes of drudgery. Well: next year I’ll train my juniors; they’ll do my drudgery.

EEG analysis is tedious, too. Well: we have some automatised algorithms installed; I’m downloading others.

EEG is ‘in.’ There’s demand for research measuring, not just behaviour, but neural activity. EEG, fMRI, CAT, PET. Even a shitty EEG paper is likelier to be published than a well-designed behavioural-only paper. EEG is the only neural lab we have. So I’m planning EEG experiments for my dissertation.

Nominally, I could do EEG under any of the four professors. Nominally, the EEG lab is the institute’s.

Actually, it’s Chanchal’s. Other professors’ students, attempting EEG work, never hear No. But they find timeslots suddenly unavailable, equipment missing, technical assistance never denied but never arriving. Chanchal’s students don’t get much from Chanchal: but they get monopoly of this lab. They enforce it.

Academia is territorial. Academics are dogs.

This appalled me. Briefly.

Well: dogs will be dogs. I get along with dogs.

EEG is in; this EEG lab is Chanchal’s; so I’ll work with Chanchal.

I’ve made inquiries. Discreetly, of the MSc second-years, and the PhDs. Well: of those of them who can endure the apparently aimless conversations, amidst which a discreet inquiry must be camouflaged; the winding phrases with which a discreet question must be festooned.

I wish Indians were indiscreet. If, when we had a question, we could just ask it, and get an answer – we’d avoid hours of tedium. That time we could use to become competent. Then our friends wouldn’t have to be discreet in their inquiries about us, their opinions about us.

After hours of tediously discreet inquiries, my seniors’ verdict of Chanchal’s supervising, confirming my assessment of Chanchal’s teaching: Poor.

But some of Chanchal’s PhDs are in the Venn diagram’s intersection: knowledgeable-cum-nice. So I’ll work with Chanchal.

Nice? No.

‘Nice’ is a causal inference. For the observable behaviour of ‘helpfulness,’ ‘niceness’ isn’t the only candidate cause. Best stick with observable behaviours.

Are they helpful? Yes. Nice? Don’t know.

All set. I load the experiment.

Why’s the screen frozen? I press Escape. Spacebar. I reload the experiment. It freezes again. I peer outside. In the corridor: my guardian-angel.

“Experiment’s stuck.” I run after Sukriti. She turns. “Sorry. The subject’s all set up, in the cap, but the experiment’s stuck. Could you” – She’s carrying a notepad and pen. “No, you’re busy. I’ll ask someone” –

“It’s fine,” says Sukriti. Turning, it’s she who leads me back to the lab.

She stands, examining the settings, biting her lips. Upset?

I offer her a chair. What else can I do? I told her I’d fetch someone else.

She can’t find the problem. I search, with her, not knowing what for. Eventually she sits, puts down her notepad, exits the experiment, and scrutinises the code.

“See, here? An open For-loop.”

How did I miss that? “Shit!” I exclaim – as the door opens, and Chanchal looks in.

“Sukriti? Are we meeting, or not?”

Sukriti jumps up. “Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”

Chanchal disappears.

“Sorry!” I whisper.

Sukriti gathers her things and rushes out.

My ‘Sorry’ sounded histrionic. But what else could I say? Why didn’t she tell me she was meeting Chanchal?

I close my For-loop. My experiment runs fine. I’ll apologise properly, later. If only she’d resume her data-collection.

But, now, I’ve started my own. Vaguely I hope she’ll forget I’ve promised to help with hers.

She won’t forget. But nor will she remind me.

My calculations appal me.

Briefly.

Sukriti says: ‘Ask me anytime.’ Sukriti says: ‘Don’t be formal.’

Here, ‘formal’ means ‘rude.’ Here, everybody wants to be one big gossiping family.

I hate paternalism. People show you how to treat them; it’s respectful to obey. Chanchal’s taught me what questions to ask her. Sukriti’s taught me that I can always ask her for help.

If I were asking too much, she’d tell me. Wouldn’t she?

I hate mindreading. If everybody minded, first, their own business – nobody’d need to mindread.

SUKRITI

Him again. I smile. My smile exhausts the last of today’s self-control.

“Sorry!” he begins. His Sorrys sink me. “Can I come in?”

“Oh-kay?”

Pragya glances up. Just say No. Pragya looks away. Why is it Pragya I want to slap?

Why do I want to slap anyone? I don’t even know what I’d accuse her of. I’d just slap her.

Shateer has begun walking at full height, drawing up chairs uninvited. Fragrant, now, of menthol-and-mint. Who told him he reeked?

How many mentors has Shateer acquired? Do they all pity him?

Poor strange boy. More fool I.

“I’m exploring,” says Shateer, “MatLab’s SPM module. Since we’re getting an MRI, I should learn SPM… Have you used SPM?” He’s ceased half-whispering: though now he’s muffled his voice.

“Ye-ah…”

Why does he want to learn everything at once?

After he’s learned everything I have to teach him – then what’ll he do?

He’ll stop coming to me. I’ll be able to do my work.

He’ll stop coming to me. Then what’ll I do? My work is stuck.

He loads SPM. I answer his questions. Then he describes an experiment nobody can run during a one-year MSc dissertation.

Why does he want to learn everything at once?

Take your time, kid. PhD’s a long road.

Suddenly I realise he’s decided not to stay on for PhD. He, too, is passing through. He’s not like the others, sitting chattering while I do their work. No: he’s learned. Everything I have.

My gut hollows with a feeling that’s like heartburn – or love. Would that I were younger, and could mistake this hollowness for either. Those things wouldn’t be my fault.

Suddenly I hope he will go. Suppose he stays on, works with Chanchal, keeps knocking at my door! No. Then he’ll be sitting here. This’ll be his cabin. He’ll publish a paper before I do. Panic clutches my throat.

“Ye-ah, I know SPM, but…” My words, like me, stay stuck. “I’ve got a slight headache…”

“Oh! Sorry… Can I get you paracetamol? I could run down the street…”

“No, that’s fine! I’ll just – go home.”

“Would coffee help?” Shateer offers.

“No, no!” He rises to leave. He pauses, wanting to help. “I’ll show you SPM tomorrow?”

I really don’t know how to say goodbye.

Shateer leaves. Pragya hands me a paracetamol. I stare at it.

“I don’t have a headache.”

I meet Pragya’s eyes. They darken with puzzlement, then soften with understanding.

“I don’t need your pity” – I stammer. “I help them because I want to.”

Pragya gapes. I realise I’ve raised my arm, to fling her paracetamol back at her.

The door opens.

“I told you I’m sick!” someone screams.

Someone hoarse-voiced. When last did this someone scream?

At the door, Shateer gapes. “Sorry, forgot my pen-drive.”

He enters, uninvited, my cabin, retrieves his pen-drive from my desk, and walks out. Outside he pauses. He wants me to step out. I look away.

Let him think I’m sick. Rather that, than the truth.

He leaves. Now I confront: it’s I who screamed.

I burst into tears. Pragya pats my back. “D’you have menstrual cramps?” she suggests. “Many women call cramps ‘headaches.’ Don’t know why. Nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Through my tears I glare at her. She doesn’t understand. Again she offers me the paracetamol.

“Helps cramps, too.”

I swallow the damn tablet.

Let her think I have cramps. Rather than, than the truth.

I’m 30, my supervisor won’t see me except to assign me MSc lab-tutorials, I dare not denounce her dereliction, people passing through my life are taking all I have – and I can’t say No.

And the scene I’ve made!

“I’ve got a headache now.” I feel foolish: sobbing at work. I feel grateful: for once, I’m too far gone to care

This isn’t my fault. ‘It’s good to help people,’ they said. They, who raised me for another world.

This is their fault.

But Pragya? Pragya’s small-town, like me. Not big-city, like Shateer. Who raised Pragya rude?

SHATEER

What happened? I’ve been trying to speak to Sukriti.

She’s become skilled at avoiding me.

Or was she always skilled? I hope so. That means, if she’d wanted to avoid me, earlier, she could’ve.

I’ve wanted to apologise. To understand. She’s avoided me.

Rude. I might just be an MSc, asking a PhD for help: but she said Yes, kept saying Yes – and suddenly she screams at me before her colleague.

The door’s flung open. A sixth-year PhD saunters in. “I need the lab,” says Tandreel, breezily.

“Oh! You’ve booked a slot?” I know he hasn’t. I fetch the lab’s timetable-ledger, that was lying here, dust-furred, till I wiped it off. The timetable’s blank, barring my name: out of four slots/day, I’ve reserved one/day – all month.

“Booking-and-all we don’t do here.” Says Tandreel, smugly. “We work flexibly… Whenever a participant turns up.”

My heart races. Not another confrontation. Breathe deeply; smile placatingly. “Sorry, right now I’ve got a participant… If you could reserve a timeslot, beforehand, next time? Or we could sit, whenever you’re free, and schedule next month’s timeslots?”

My participant enters.

“Hmm, never mind…” says Tandreel. “No need for time-tables. No need to be formal. You should be flexible!”

Flexible – that’s what they call ‘lazy,’ here.

Flexibility – that’s the spider-silk holding together this circus-tent.

Tandreel leaves. I set up my participant. I feel proud. I’ve stood my ground. If I didn’t, here, I’d get nowhere.

I’ve started right with Tandreel. Once you start wrong with someone, it’s hard to correct course. In the moment, knuckling under is always easiest. In the long run – my god, imagine being stuck in PhD six years!

I’ve tried to speak to Sukriti. I’d still help with her work – whenever she gets around to it.

Forget Sukriti. This wasn’t my fault. If it were, she’d be chasing me, to tell me.

It’ll be awkward, running into her, here, for years to come. But letting ‘awkward’ sway you gets you nowhere.

I’ve decided: I’ll stay on. I’m learning the skills.

Not just the lab-skills.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s