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2104 : Chasing Immortality

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Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?

Takashi Murai

The "immortal jellyfish" can transform itself back into a polyp and begin life anew.

Published: November 28, 2012 349 Comments
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After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”


Ballad of the Immortal Jellyfish

Shin Kubota performing an original song.



The Immortal Rejuvenation

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Yoshihiko Ueda for The New York Times

Shin Kubota at Kyoto University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory.

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Takashi Murai
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Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.

Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.

Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die.

One of the paper’s authors, Ferdinando Boero, likened the Turritopsis to a butterfly that, instead of dying, turns back into a caterpillar. Another metaphor is a chicken that transforms into an egg, which gives birth to another chicken. The anthropomorphic analogy is that of an old man who grows younger and younger until he is again a fetus. For this reason Turritopsis dohrnii is often referred to as the Benjamin Button jellyfish.

Yet the publication of “Reversing the Life Cycle” barely registered outside the academic world. You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened.

Some progress has been made, however, in the quarter-century since Christian Sommer’s discovery. We now know, for instance, that the rejuvenation of Turritopsis dohrnii and some other members of the genus is caused by environmental stress or physical assault. We know that, during rejuvenation, it undergoes cellular transdifferentiation, an unusual process by which one type of cell is converted into another — a skin cell into a nerve cell, for instance. (The same process occurs in human stem cells.) We also know that, in recent decades, the immortal jellyfish has rapidly spread throughout the world’s oceans in what Maria Pia Miglietta, a biology professor at Notre Dame, calls “a silent invasion.” The jellyfish has been “hitchhiking” on cargo ships that use seawater for ballast. Turritopsis has now been observed not only in the Mediterranean but also off the coasts of Panama, Spain, Florida and Japan. The jellyfish seems able to survive, and proliferate, in every ocean in the world. It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting.

But we still don’t understand how it ages in reverse. There are several reasons for our ignorance, all of them maddeningly unsatisfying. There are, to begin with, very few specialists in the world committed to conducting the necessary experiments. “Finding really good hydroid experts is very difficult,” says James Carlton, a professor of marine sciences at Williams College and the director of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. “You’re lucky to have one or two people in a country.” He cited this as an example of a phenomenon he calls the Small’s Rule: small-bodied organisms are poorly studied relative to larger-bodied organisms. There are significantly more crab experts, for instance, than hydroid experts.

But the most frustrating explanation for our dearth of knowledge about the immortal jellyfish is of a more technical nature. The genus, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult to culture in a laboratory. It requires close attention and an enormous amount of repetitive, tedious labor; even then, it is under only certain favorable conditions, most of which are still unknown to biologists, that a Turritopsis will produce offspring.

In fact there is just one scientist who has been culturing Turritopsis polyps in his lab consistently. He works alone, without major financing or a staff, in a cramped office in Shirahama, a sleepy beach town in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, four hours south of Kyoto. The scientist’s name is Shin Kubota, and he is, for the time being, our best chance for understanding this unique strand of biological immortality.

Many marine biologists are reluctant to make such grand claims about Turritopsis’ promise for human medicine. “That’s a question for journalists,” Boero said (to a journalist) in 2009. “I prefer to focus on a slightly more rational form of science.”

Kubota, however, has no such compunction. “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind,” he told me the first time I called him. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

I decided I better book a ticket to Japan.

One of Shirahama’s main attractions is its crescent-shaped white-sand beach; “Shirahama” means “white beach.” But in recent decades, the beach has been disappearing. In the 1960s, when Shirahama was connected by rail to Osaka, the city became a popular tourist destination, and blocky white hotel towers were erected along the coastal road. The increased development accelerated erosion, and the famous sand began to wash into the sea. Worried that the town of White Beach would lose its white beach, according to a city official, Wakayama Prefecture began in 1989 to import sand from Perth, Australia, 4,700 miles away. Over 15 years, Shirahama dumped 745,000 cubic meters of Aussie sand on its beach, preserving its eternal whiteness — at least for now.

Shirahama is full of timeless natural wonders that are failing the test of time. Visible just off the coast is Engetsu island, a sublime arched sandstone formation that looks like a doughnut dunked halfway into a glass of milk. At dusk, tourists gather at a point on the coastal road where, on certain days, the arch perfectly frames the setting sun. Arches are temporary geological phenomena; they are created by erosion, and erosion ultimately causes them to collapse. Fearing the loss of Engetsu, the local government is trying to restrain it from deteriorating any further by reinforcing the arch with a harness of mortar and grout. A large scaffold now extends beneath the arch and, from the shore, construction workers can be seen, tiny flyspecks against the sparkling sea, paving the rock.

Engetsu is nearly matched in beauty by Sandanbeki, a series of striated cliffs farther down the coast that drop 165 feet into turbulent surf. Beneath Sandanbeki lies a cavern that local pirates used as a secret lair more than a thousand years ago. Today the cliffs are one of the world’s most famous suicide spots. A sign on the edge serves as a warning to those contemplating their own mortality: “Wait a minute. A dead flower will never bloom.”

But Shirahama is best known for its onsen, saltwater hot springs that are believed to increase longevity. There are larger, well-appointed ones inside resort hotels, smaller tubs that are free to the public and ancient bathhouses in cramped huts along the curving coastal road. You can tell from a block away that you are approaching an onsen, because you can smell the sulfur.

Each morning, Shin Kubota, who is 60, visits Muronoyu, a simple onsen popular with the city’s oldest citizens that traces its history back 1,350 years. “Onsen activates your metabolism and cleans away the dead skin,” Kubota says. “It strongly contributes to longevity.” At 8:30 a.m., he drives 15 minutes up the coast, past the white beach, where the land narrows to a promontory that extends like a pointing, arthritic finger, separating Kanayama Bay from the larger Tanabe Bay. At the end of this promontory stands Kyoto University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory, a damp, two-story concrete block. Though it has several classrooms, dozens of offices and long hallways, the building often has the appearance of being completely empty. The few scientists on staff spend much of their time diving in the bay, collecting samples. Kubota, however, visits his office every single day. He must, or his immortal jellyfish will starve.

The world’s only captive population of immortal jellyfish lives in petri dishes arrayed haphazardly on several shelves of a small refrigerator in Kubota’s office. Like most hydrozoans, Turritopsis passes through two main stages of life, polyp and medusa. A polyp resembles a sprig of dill, with spindly stalks that branch and fork and terminate in buds. When these buds swell, they sprout not flowers but medusas. A medusa has a bell-shaped dome and dangling tentacles. Any layperson would identify it as a jellyfish, though it is not the kind you see at the beach. Those belong to a different taxonomic group, Scyphozoa, and tend to spend most of their lives as jellyfish; hydrozoans have briefer medusa phases. An adult medusa produces eggs or sperm, which combine to create larvae that form new polyps. In other hydroid species, the medusa dies after it spawns. A Turritopsis medusa, however, sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself — assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots. The stolons lengthen and become a polyp. The new polyp produces new medusas, and the process begins again.

Kubota estimates that his menagerie contains at least 100 specimens, about 3 to a petri dish. “They are very tiny,” Kubota, the proud papa, said. “Very cute.” It is cute, the immortal jellyfish. An adult medusa is about the size of a trimmed pinkie fingernail. It trails scores of hairlike tentacles. Medusas found in cooler waters have a bright scarlet bell, but more commonly the medusa is translucent white, its contours so fine that under a microscope it looks like a line drawing. It spends most of its time floating languidly in the water. It’s in no rush.

For the last 15 years, Kubota has spent at least three hours a day caring for his brood. Having observed him over the course of a week, I can confirm that it is grueling, tedious work. When he arrives at his office, he removes each petri dish from the refrigerator, one at a time, and changes the water. Then he examines his specimens under a microscope. He wants to make sure that the medusas look healthy: that they are swimming gracefully; that their bells are unclouded; and that they are digesting their food. He feeds them artemia cysts — dried brine shrimp eggs harvested from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Though the cysts are tiny, barely visible to the naked eye, they are often too large for a medusa to digest. In these cases Kubota, squinting through the microscope, must slice the egg into pieces with two fine-point needles, the way a father might slice his toddler’s hamburger into bite-size chunks. The work causes Kubota to growl and cluck his tongue.

“Eat by yourself!” he yells at one medusa. “You are not a baby!” Then he laughs heartily. It’s an infectious, ratcheting laugh that makes his round face even rounder, the wrinkles describing circles around his eyes and mouth.

It is a full-time job, caring for the immortal jellyfish. When traveling abroad for academic conferences, Kubota has had to carry the medusas with him in a portable cooler. (In recent years he has been invited to deliver lectures in Cape Town; Xiamen, China; Lawrence, Kan.; and Plymouth, England.) He also travels to Kyoto, when he is obligated to attend administrative meetings at the university, but he returns the same night, an eight-hour round trip, in order not to miss a feeding.

Turritopsis is not the only focus of his research. He is a prolific author of scientific papers and articles, having published 52 in 2011 alone, many based on observations he makes on a private beach fronting the Seto Lab and in a small harbor on the coastal road. Every afternoon, after Kubota has finished caring for his jellyfish, he walks down the beach with a notebook, noting every organism that has washed ashore. It is a remarkable sight, the solitary figure in flip-flops, tramping pigeon-toed across the 400-yard length of the beach, hunched over, his floppy hair jogging in the breeze, as he intently scrutinizes the sand. He collates his data and publishes it in papers with titles like “Stranding Records of Fishes on Kitahama Beach” and “The First Occurrence of Bythotiara Species in Tanabe Bay.” He is an active member of a dozen scientific societies and writes a jellyfish-of-the-week column in the local newspaper. Kubota says he has introduced his readers to more than 100 jellyfish so far.

Given Kubota’s obsessive focus on his work, it is not surprising that he has been forced to neglect other areas of his life. He never cooks and tends to bring takeout to his office. At the lab, he wears T-shirts — bearing images of jellyfish — and sweat pants. He is overdue for a haircut. And his office is a mess. It does not appear to have been organized since he began nurturing his Turritopsis. The door opens just widely enough to admit a man of Kubota’s stature. It is blocked from opening farther by a chest-high cabinet, on the surface of which are balanced several hundred objects Kubota has retrieved from beaches — seashells, bird feathers, crab claws and desiccated coral. The desk is invisible beneath a stack of opened books. Fifty toothbrushes are crammed into a cup on the rusting aluminum sink. There are framed pictures on the wall, most of them depicting jellyfish, including one childish drawing done in crayons. I asked Kubota, who has two adult sons, whether one of his children had made it. He laughed, shaking his head.

“I’m not a very good artist,” he said. I followed his glance to his desk, where there was a box of crayons.

The bookshelves that lined the walls were jammed to overflowing with textbooks, journals and science books, as well as a number of titles in English: Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” “The Works of Aristotle,” “The Life and Death of Charles Darwin.” Kubota first read Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in high school. It was one of the formative experiences of his life; before that, he thought he would grow up to be an archaeologist. He was then already fascinated with what he calls the “mystery of human life” — where did we come from and why? — and hoped that in the ancient civilizations, he might discover the answers he sought. But after reading Darwin he realized that he would have to look deeper into the past, beyond the dawn of human existence.

Kubota grew up in Matsuyama, on the southern island of Shikoku. Though his father was a teacher, Kubota didn’t get excellent marks at his high school, where he was a generation behind Kenzaburo Oe. “I didn’t study,” he said. “I only read science fiction.” But when he was admitted to college, his grandfather bought him a biological encyclopedia. It sits on one of his office shelves, beside a sepia-toned portrait of his grandfather.

“I learned a lot from that book,” Kubota said. “I read every page.” He was especially impressed by the phylogenetic tree, the taxonomic diagram that Darwin called the Tree of Life. Darwin included one of the earliest examples of a Tree of Life in “On the Origin of Species” — it is the book’s only illustration. Today the outermost twigs and buds of the Tree of Life are occupied by mammals and birds, while at the base of the trunk lie the most primitive phyla — Porifera (sponges), Platyhelminthes (flatworms), Cnidaria (jellyfish).

“The mystery of life is not concealed in the higher animals,” Kubota told me. “It is concealed in the root. And at the root of the Tree of Life is the jellyfish.”

Until recently, the notion that human beings might have anything of value to learn from a jellyfish would have been considered absurd. Your typical cnidarian does not, after all, appear to have much in common with a human being. It has no brains, for instance, nor a heart. It has a single orifice through which its food and waste pass — it eats, in other words, out of its own anus. But the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, suggested otherwise. Though it had been estimated that our genome contained more than 100,000 protein-coding genes, it turned out that the number was closer to 21,000. This meant we had about the same number of genes as chickens, roundworms and fruit flies. In a separate study, published in 2005, cnidarians were found to have a much more complex genome than previously imagined.

“There’s a shocking amount of genetic similarity between jellyfish and human beings,” said Kevin J. Peterson, a molecular paleobiologist who contributed to that study, when I visited him at his Dartmouth office. From a genetic perspective, apart from the fact that we have two genome duplications, “we look like a damn jellyfish.”

This may have implications for medicine, particularly the fields of cancer research and longevity. Peterson is now studying microRNAs (commonly denoted as miRNA), tiny strands of genetic material that regulate gene expression. MiRNA act as an on-off switch for genes. When the switch is off, the cell remains in its primitive, undifferentiated state. When the switch turns on, a cell assumes its mature form: it can become a skin cell, for instance, or a tentacle cell. MiRNA also serve a crucial role in stem-cell research — they are the mechanism by which stem cells differentiate. Most cancers, we have recently learned, are marked by alterations in miRNA. Researchers even suspect that alterations in miRNA may be a cause of cancer. If you turn a cell’s miRNA “off,” the cell loses its identity and begins acting chaotically — it becomes, in other words, cancerous.

Hydrozoans provide an ideal opportunity to study the behavior of miRNA for two reasons. They are extremely simple organisms, and miRNA are crucial to their biological development. But because there are so few hydroid experts, our understanding of these species is staggeringly incomplete.

“Immortality might be much more common than we think,” Peterson said. “There are sponges out there that we know have been there for decades. Sea-urchin larvae are able to regenerate and continuously give rise to new adults.” He continued: “This might be a general feature of these animals. They never really die.”

Peterson is closely following the work of Daniel Martínez, a biologist at Pomona College and one of the world’s leading hydroid scholars. The National Institutes of Health has awarded Martínez a five-year, $1.26 million research grant to study the hydra — a species that resembles a polyp but never yields medusas. Its body is almost entirely composed of stem cells that allow it to regenerate itself continuously. As a Ph.D. candidate, Martínez set out to prove that hydra were mortal. But his research of the last 15 years has convinced him that hydra can, in fact, survive forever and are “truly immortal.”

“It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not dealing with something that’s completely different from us,” Martínez told me. “Genetically hydra are the same as human beings. We’re variations of the same theme.”

As Peterson told me: “If I studied cancer, the last thing I would study is cancer, if you take my point. I would not be studying thyroid tumors in mice. I’d be working on hydra.”

Hydrozoans, he suggests, may have made a devil’s bargain. In exchange for simplicity — no head or tail, no vision, eating out of its own anus — they gained immortality. These peculiar, simple species may represent an opportunity to learn how to fight cancer, old age and death.

But most hydroid experts find it nearly impossible to secure financing. “Who’s going to take a chance on a scientist who doesn’t work on mammals, let alone a jellyfish?” Peterson said. “The granting agencies are always talking about trying to be imaginative and reinvigorate themselves, but of course you’re stuck in a lot of bureaucracy. … The pie is only so big.”

Even some of Kubota’s peers are cautious when speaking about potential medical applications in Turritopsis research. “It is difficult to foresee how much and how fast . . . Turritopsis dohrnii can be useful to fight diseases,” Stefano Piraino, a colleague of Ferdinando Boero’s, told me in an e-mail. “Increasing human longevity has no meaning, it is ecological nonsense. What we may expect and work on is to improve the quality of life in our final stages.”

Martínez says that hydra, the species he studies, is more promising. “Turritopsis is cool,” he told me. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s interesting that it does this weird, peculiar thing, and I support researching it further, but I don’t think it’s going to teach us a lot about human beings.”

Kubota sees it differently. “The immortal medusa is the most miraculous species in the entire animal kingdom,” he said. “I believe it will be easy to solve the mystery of immortality and apply ultimate life to human beings.”

Kubota can be encouraged by the fact that many of the greatest advancements in human medicine came from observations made about animals that, at the time, seemed to have little or no resemblance to man. In 18th-century England, dairymaids exposed to cowpox helped establish that the disease inoculated them against smallpox; the bacteriologist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin when one of his petri dishes grew a mold; and, most recently, scientists in Wyoming studying nematode worms found genes similar to those inactivated by cancer in humans, leading them to believe that they could be a target for new cancer drugs. One of the Wyoming researchers said in a news release that they hoped they could “contribute to the arsenal of diverse therapeutic approaches used to treat and cure many types of cancer.”

And so Kubota continues to accumulate data on his own simple organism, every day of his life.

There was a second photograph on Shin Kubota’s office shelf, beside the portrait of his grandfather. It showed a class of young university students posing on the campus of Ehime University, in Matsuyama. The photograph is 40 years old, but the 20-year-old Kubota was immediately recognizable — the round face, the smiling eyes, the floppy black hair. He sighed when I asked him about it.

“So young then,” he said. “So old now.”

I told him that he didn’t look very different from the young man in the picture. He’s perhaps a few pounds heavier, and though his features are not quite as boyish, he retains the exuberant energy of a middle-schooler, and his hair is naturally jet black. Yes, he said, but his hair hasn’t always been black. He explained that five years ago, when he turned 55, he experienced what he called a scare.

It was a stressful time for Kubota. He had separated from his wife, his children had moved out of the house, his eyesight was fading and he had begun to lose his hair. It was particularly noticeable around his temples. He blames his glasses, which he wore on a band around his head. He needed them to write but not for the microscope, so every time he raised or lowered his glasses, the band wore away at the hair at his temples. When the hair grew back, it came in white. He felt as if he had aged a lifetime in one year. “It was very astonishing for me,” he said. “I had become old.”

I told him that he looked much better now — significantly younger than his age.

“Too old,” he said, scowling. “I want to be young again. I want to become miracle immortal man.”

As if to distract himself from this trajectory of thought, he removed a petri cup from his refrigerator unit. He held it under the light so I could see the ghostly Turritopsis suspended within. It was still, waiting.

“Watch,” he said. “I will make this medusa rejuvenate.”

The most reliable way to make the immortal jellyfish age in reverse, Kubota explained to me, is to mutilate it. With two fine metal picks, he began to perforate the medusa’s mesoglea, the gelatinous tissue that composes the bell. After Kubota poked it six times, the medusa behaved like any stabbing victim — it lay on its side and began twitching spasmodically. Its tentacles stopped undulating, and its bell slightly puckered. But Kubota, in what appeared a misdirected act of sadism, didn’t stop there. He stabbed it 50 times in all. The medusa had long since stopped moving. It lay limp, crippled, its mesoglea torn, the bell deflated. Kubota looked satisfied.

“You rejuvenate!” he yelled at the jellyfish. Then he started laughing.

We checked on the stab victim every day that week to watch its transformation. On the second day, the depleted, gelatinous mess had attached itself to the floor of the petri dish; its tentacles were bent in on themselves. “It’s transdifferentiating,” Kubota said. “Dynamic changes are occurring.” By the fourth day the tentacles were gone, and the organism ceased to resemble a medusa entirely; it looked instead like an amoeba. Kubota called this a “meatball.” By the end of the week, stolons had begun to shoot out of the meatball.

This method is, in a certain sense, cheating, as physical distress induces rejuvenation. But the process also occurs naturally when the medusa grows old or sick. In Kubota’s most recent paper on Turritopsis, he documented the natural rejuvenation of a single colony in his lab between 2009 and 2011. The idea was to see how quickly the species would regenerate itself when left to its own devices. During the two-year period, the colony rebirthed itself 10 times, in intervals as brief as one month. In his paper’s conclusion, published in the journal Biogeography, Kubota wrote, “Turritopsis will be kept forever by the present method and will . . . contribute to any study for everyone in the future.”

He has made other significant findings in recent years. He has learned, for instance, that certain conditions inhibit rejuvenation: starvation, large bell size and water colder than 72 degrees. And he has made progress in solving the largest mystery of all. The secret of the species’s immortality, Kubota now believes, is hidden in the tentacles. But he will need more financing for experiments, as well as assistance from a geneticist or a molecular biologist, to figure out how the immortal jellyfish pulls it off. Even so, he thinks we’re close to solving the species’s mystery — that it’s a matter of years, perhaps a decade or two. “Human beings are so intelligent,” he told me, as if to reassure me. But then he added a caveat. “Before we achieve immortality,” he said, “we must evolve first. The heart is not good.”

I assumed that he was making a biological argument — that the organ is not biologically capable of infinite life, that we needed to design new, artificial hearts for longer, artificial lives. But then I realized that he wasn’t speaking literally. By heart, he meant the human spirit.

“Human beings must learn to love nature,” he said. “Today the countryside is obsolete. In Japan, it has disappeared. Big metropolitan places have appeared everywhere. We are in the garbage. If this continues, nature will die.”

Man, he explained, is intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality. But we don’t deserve it. This sentiment surprised me coming from a man who has dedicated his life to pursuing immortality.

“Self-control is very difficult for humans,” he continued. “In order to solve this problem, spiritual change is needed.”

This is why, in the years since his “scare,” Kubota has begun a second career. In addition to being a researcher, professor and guest speaker, he is now a songwriter. Kubota’s songs have been featured on national television, are available on karaoke machines across Japan and have made him a minor Japanese celebrity — the Japanese equivalent of Bill Nye the Science Guy.

It helps that in Japan, the nation with the world’s oldest population, the immortal jellyfish has a relatively exalted status in popular culture. Its reputation was boosted in 2003 by a television drama, “14 Months,” in which the heroine takes a potion, extracted from the immortal jellyfish, that causes her to age in reverse. Since then Kubota has appeared regularly on television and radio shows. He showed me recent clips from his television reel and translated them for me. In March, “Morning No. 1,” a Japanese morning show devoted an episode to Shirahama. After a segment on the onsen, the hosts visited Kubota at the Seto Aquarium, where he talked about Turritopsis. “I want to become young, too!” one host shrieked. On “Love Laboratory,” a science show, Kubota discussed his recent experiments while collecting samples on the Shirahama wharf. “I envy the immortal medusa!” gushed the hostess. On “Feeding Our Bodies,” a similar program, Kubota addressed the camera: “Among the animals, the immortal jellyfish is the most splendid.” There followed an interview with 100-year-old twins.

But no television appearance is complete without a song. For his performances, he transforms himself from Dr. Shin Kubota, erudite marine biologist in jacket and tie, into Mr. Immortal Jellyfish Man. His superhero alter ego has its own costume: a white lab jacket, scarlet red gloves, red sunglasses and a red rubber hat, designed to resemble a medusa, with dangling rubber tentacles. With help from one of his sons, an aspiring musician, Kubota has written dozens of songs in the last five years and released six albums. Many of his songs are odes to Turritopsis. These include “I Am Scarlet Medusa,” “Life Forever,” “Scarlet Medusa — an Eternal Witness,” “Die-Hard Medusa” and his catchiest number, “Scarlet Medusa Chorus.”

My name is Scarlet Medusa,
A teeny tiny jellyfish
But I have a special secret
that no others may possess
I can — yes, I can! — rejuvenate

Other songs apotheosize different forms of marine life: “We Are the Sponges — A Song of the Porifera,” “Viva! Variety Cnidaria” and “Poking Diving Horsehair Worm Mambo.” There is also “I Am Shin Kubota.”

My name is Shin Kubota
Associate professor of Kyoto University
At Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture
I live next to an aquarium
Enjoying marine-biology research
Every day, I walk on the beach
Scooping up with a plankton net
Searching for wondrous creatures
Searching for unknown jellyfish.
Dedicate my life to small creatures
Patrolling the beaches every day
Hot spring sandals are always on
Necessary item to get in the sea
Scarlet medusa rejuvenates
Scarlet medusa is immortal

“He is important for the aquarium,” Akira Asakura, the Seto lab director told me. “People come because they see him on television and become interested in the immortal medusa and marine life in general. He is a very good speaker, with a very wide range of knowledge.”

Science classes regularly make field trips to meet Mr. Immortal Jellyfish Man. During my week in Shirahama, he was visited by a group of 150 10- and 11-year-olds who had prepared speeches and slide shows about Turritopsis. The group was too large to visit Seto, so they sat on the floor of a ballroom in a local hotel. After the children made their presentations (“I have jellyfish mania!” one girl exclaimed), Kubota took the stage. He spoke loudly, with great animation, calling on the children and peppering them with questions. How many species of animals are there on earth? How many phyla are there? The karaoke video for “Scarlet Medusa Chorus” was projected on a large screen, and the giggling children sang along.

Kubota does not go to these lengths simply for his own amusement — though it is clear that he enjoys himself immensely. Nor does he consider his public educational work as secondary to his research. It is instead, he believes, the crux of his life’s work.

“We must love plants — without plants we cannot live. We must love bacteria — without decomposition our bodies can’t go back to the earth. If everyone learns to love living organisms, there will be no crime. No murder. No suicide. Spiritual change is needed. And the most simple way to achieve this is through song.

“Biology is specialized,” he said, bringing his palms within inches of each other. “But songs?”

He spread his hands far apart, as if to indicate the size of the world.

Every night, once Kubota is finished with work, he grabs a bite to eat and heads to a karaoke bar. He sings karaoke for at least two hours a day. He owns a karaoke book that is 1,611 pages long, with dimensions somewhat larger than a phone book and even denser type. His goal is to sing at least one song from every page. Every time he sings a song, he underlines it in the book. Flipping through the volume, I saw that he had easily surpassed his goal.

“When I perform karaoke,” he said, “another part of the brain is used. It’s good to relax, to sing a heartfelt song. It’s good to be loud.”

His favorite karaoke bar is called Kibarashi, which translates loosely to “recreation” but literally means “fresh air.” Kibarashi stands at the end of a residential street, away from the coastal road and the city’s other main commercial stretches. He’d given me clear directions, but I struggled to find it. The street was silent and dark. I was ready to turn back, assuming I’d made a wrong turn, when I saw a small sign decorated with an illuminated microphone. When I opened the door, I found myself in what resembled a living room — couches, coffee tables, pots with plastic flowers, goldfish in small tanks. A low, narrow bar ran along one wall. A karaoke video of a tender Japanese ballad was playing on two televisions that hung from the ceiling. Kubota stood facing one of them, microphone in hand, swaying side to side, singing full-throatedly in his elegant mezzo-baritone. The bartender, a woman in her 70s, was seated behind the bar, tapping on her iPhone. Nobody else was there.

We sang for the next two hours — Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beastie Boys and countless Japanese ballads and children’s songs. At my request, Kubota sang his own songs, seven of which are listed in his karaoke book. Kibarashi’s karaoke machine is part of an international network of karaoke machines, and the computer displays statistics for each song, including how many people in Japan have selected it in the past month. It seemed as if no one had selected Kubota’s songs.

“Unfortunately they are not sung by many people,” he told me. “They’re not popular, because it’s very difficult to love nature, to love animals.”

On my last morning in Shirahama, Kubota called to cancel our final meeting. He had a bacterial infection in his eye and couldn’t see clearly enough to look through his microscope. He was going to a specialist. He apologized repeatedly.

“Human beings very weak,” he said. “Bacteria very strong. I want to be immortal!” He laughed his hearty laugh.

Turritopsis, it turns out, is also very weak. Despite being immortal, it is easily killed. Turritopsis polyps are largely defenseless against their predators, chief among them sea slugs. They can easily be suffocated by organic matter. “They’re miracles of nature, but they’re not complete,” Kubota acknowledged. “They’re still organisms. They’re not holy. They’re not God.”

And their immortality is, to a certain degree, a question of semantics. “That word ‘immortal’ is distracting,” says James Carlton, the professor of marine sciences at Williams. “If by ‘immortal’ you mean passing on your genes, then yes, it’s immortal. But those are not the same cells anymore. The cells are immortal, but not necessarily the organism itself.” To complete the Benjamin Button analogy, imagine the man, after returning to a fetus, being born again. The cells would be recycled, but the old Benjamin would be gone; in his place would be a different man with a new brain, a new heart, a new body. He would be a clone.

But we won’t know for certain what this means for human beings until more research is done. That is the scientific method, after all: lost in the labyrinth, you must pursue every path, no matter how unlikely, or risk being devoured by the Minotaur. Kubota, for his part, fears that the lessons of the immortal jellyfish will be absorbed too soon, before man is ready to harness the science of immortality in an ethical manner. “We’re very strange animals,” he said. “We’re so clever and civilized, but our hearts are very primitive. If our hearts weren’t primitive, there wouldn’t be wars. I’m worried that we will apply the science too early, like we did with the atomic bomb.”

I remembered something he said earlier in the week, when we were watching a music video for his song “Living Planet — Connections Between Forest, Sea and Rural Area.” He described the song as an ode to the beauty of nature. The video was shot by his 88-year-old neighbor, a retired employee of Osaka Gas Company. Kubota’s lyrics were superimposed over a sequence of images. There was Engetsu, its arch covered with moss and jutting oak and pine trees; craggy Mount Seppiko and gentle Mount Takane; the striated cliffs of Sandanbeki; the private beach at the Seto Laboratory; a waterfall; a brook; a pond; and the cliffside forests that abut the city, so dense and black that the trees seem to be secreting darkness.

“Nature is so beautiful,” Kubota said, smiling wistfully. “If human beings disappeared, how peaceful it would be.”

Nathaniel Rich is an author whose second novel, ‘‘Odds Against Tomorrow,’’ will be published in April.

Editor: Jon Kelly

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 16, 2012

An article on Dec. 2 about  what jellyfish could teach us about immortality misstated the title of Charles Darwin’s classic book on the subject of evolution. It is  “On The Origin of Species,”  not “On the Origin of the Species.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 2, 2012, on page MM32 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Forever and Ever.

2103 : The world gone black

When you sometimes sit and read a great book or a fantastic poem it occurs to you that there is a single sliver of "time", lets call it a singularity wherein your mind experiences a moment of greatness, an unguarded instant wherein you manage to see the beauty hidden within the "normal" world. It happens to me often, sometimes when I am reading poetry....sometimes when I am reading prose....sometimes when I admire a photograph that I so desperately wish that I had clicked.

And in all of this, I look back at these moments as the "sliver" where the mind teaches you that greatness is possible, that the infinite is never something outside, but rather whats on the inside.

Friday, November 29, 2013

2102 : Trial by popular opinion

It amuses me to see the whole Aarushi trail play out in the media. A whole breathless nation fed on its bated breath, by a stench of what is possibly “underage sex”, “khaap dominated parents”, “lascivious affairs”, “steamy culprits from our blue collar suspects”…..
Our moral indignation and expression of “appal” is complete, never more full of itself than this moment.
Does it matter, that we all watch porn on the ipad, we all eye the PYT next door, that we kick the blue collar in his balls, that we flirt everyday in office, that we run our personal khaaps in our fiefdoms….
Never has trial by the media felt more fulfilling, uplifting and redeeming Sad smile
Dear Talwars, thank you, you have been a mirror to us Sad smileand the reflection has a garnished fault in its lines.

2101 : Tore Bina from Kahaani

Everytime I listen to Tore Bina from Kahaani by Sukhvinder, it invariably reminds me of Bangalore. Strange how our memories are hardwired Smile

2100 : Define Spunk

I love songs with spunk, and nothing better than Ram Chahe from Ram Leela by Bhoomi Trivedi to define stutter and sprungking.

Its easily one of the best song for these times. Bhoomi weilds the mike like a nefarious axe. And lyrics like

Lage saare dushman dikhe sab mein chor
Teri balcony mein baitha ek mor
Moron ki hai mistake Ramleela badnaam

…..just make the song more spunkier than sputnik Smile

2099 : Ambarsariya from Fukrey

I heard Ambarsariya from Fukrey and I knew that I was in love again Smile. I have always loved Sona Mohapatra’s voice and just hearing this song – made me realise that this song along with Tore Bina from Kaahani by Sukhvinder have to be the two songs that define 2013 for me. A year of drought in terms of music, cradled by two timeless masterpieces.

Thank you Sona, Ram and Ambarsariya Smile. Great to discover the rush again Smile

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

2098 : 29 palms, I hear the beating of your heart :-(

My mom posted this on her facebook, which I checked via my wife’s account (haha!!). So what did she post ….

I don’t know about sedition, neither would I accuse Congress or any other political party for the disaster of that day. I shall leave the process of judging others to those who do that better. I would rather look at the personal aspect of such a tragedy.

I know someone personally who went through the whole trauma.

What boggles is, is how the mind of a herd soon becomes an elephant in itself….the individual identity is lost, and only the external facing monster demon remains.

Will I ever become such a demon? I dont see why I am exempt from forces that dominate our entire human race. Look at Palestine, look at the partition, look at 9/11, look at the drone attacks on Pakistan…and the story is the same. Its a crowd which loses its collective will, and the only force which remains is that of the demon.

Read this and be afraid, for one day – Amitabh Bachhan might do something ridiculous and they might decide to slaughter all Amitabh’s. That shall be my end. Till then keep reading….

Be afraid not of a political power, but the inherent evil that a single human is capable of.

Reproduced below for easier reading.

By Puneet Bedi,

“Kahaan jaa rahe ho Sardarji,?” shouted a young man from the side of the road. I was born in the capital of a ‘Sovereign, Socialistic, Secular, Democratic, Republic’, to a mother born in a Hindu and father a Sikh family. I went to a school run by the ‘Sri Aurobindo Education Trust’. I had the privilege of going to a premier medical school named after one of the most respected Nationalist leader, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and lived in a large cosmopolitan city with people from all faiths and religions and indeed some atheists.

Photo Courtesy: LiveMint

Photo Courtesy: LiveMint

I was brought up in a completely a-religious atmosphere by very liberal parents. I kept long hair and wore a turban more as a family tradition than a religious symbol. I responded to a few nick names, my first name and to ‘Doctor Sahib’, so it took me some time to register that he was asking me this question. I rarely looked at myself in the mirror since I did not even shave back then, so did not realize that I looked like a ‘Sardarji’ to others, even though I did not identify with any particular religion. “Home” I answered, making it clear by my tone that it was none of his business. Where are you coming from? Asked another young boy. By now hoping that the red light would turn green soon, I put my big Royal Enfield Motorcycle in gear, and ignored his question and his existence, but they were persistent. Looking at the ‘red cross’ painted on my motorcycle, a symbol we all used to show off, park anywhere in any hospital we liked, and to tell everyone that we were above the law and could not be fined by police for minor traffic violations, a third asked me if I was a doctor. I said I was almost as rudely as I could. They asked if I was coming from the hospital, I nodded again hoping that would end the inquisition. The light turned green but they did not let me go, and told me that it was best for me that I returned to the hospital Campus as I would be ‘Safe’ there.

It was about 7 PM on the 31st of October 1984 when I discovered I had suddenly become a “Sardarji” from “Doctor Sahib” and Delhi streets were not ‘safe’ for me! “SAFE?” I screamed, in my usual arrogant manner, and laughed at the concept of being unsafe in the city I was born and brought up in, the Home I Knew. I told them to stop wasting my time and let me go home as I was very tired after a long day in the operation theater. ‘Log Sardaaron ko maar rahe hain shahar mein‘ said one of them. By ‘maarnaa’ I thought that Sikhs were being bashed up, not burnt alive which I later discovered was the case. It all started on Safdarjung flyover and at the AIIMS crossing where I was headed on my way home in Hauz Khas. The light changed to green 3 times but these boys did not budge from the front of my motorcycle and in fact one of them switched off the ignition, and refused to let me go, they insisted that I take a ‘U’ turn and Go Back to the Maulana Azad Medical College Campus as it was ‘safe’ for me. I looked around and was surprised to see that I was the only Sikh amongst hundreds of people on the road. I was not fully convinced but the boys looked genuinely concerned. I was too tired and sleepy to argue after a long day in the hospital, and a night duty on the previous night, and took a ‘U’ turn and went to the hostel and literally dropped off to sleep.

It was around 11 PM that I got many messages from home asking me to call back, something that had never happened before. Fearing a medical emergency in the family I rushed to the Labor room, which had a privileged ‘direct’ phone those days, and called home. My father told me that they were relieved to hear my voice as they heard Sikhs were being killed on Delhi roads though the TV is showing nothing. He asked me to stay indoors in the hostel to be on the safe side, knowing we generally go out late night to eat out or for a movie show from the hostel if we knew the next day would be a holiday, as Indira Gandhi’s Funeral would have certainly been.

On the Way to the wards, I heard about fire and arson around town, but when we went to the top of the 8 storied ‘Boys Hostel’ next door to our hostel, and saw smoke rising all around. This is the first time I was genuinely worried, every story of the ‘riots’ during partition our parents had told us seemed to come alive! The rest of the week my parents were sleeping at a neighbor’s house. The phones were working sporadically and I was assured that all my married sisters were ‘safe’.

I will never know who those good Samaritans were who stopped me from driving to my certain death on 31st October around 7 pm at a traffic crossing a few KM before Jor Bag. I am not sure why I went back to the hostel instead of being burnt alive by the ‘mob’ on Safdarjung flyover?

Like me Every ‘Sikh’ in India has a story about those three days in 1984 except the thousands who did not make it. Where was ‘with you for you always’ Police, Our Self congratulatory and our forever claiming saviors, The Secular Army, the Pampered and Pompous Opinionated Civil Servants, The omnipresent Politicians, The NGOs, or indeed the forever tomtoming ‘we saved the Sikhs in 1984′ RSS ! Why was I not Safe?

One of my father’s friend in the home ministry called up to tell him to stay indoors and look after ‘Himself and his Family’ till Monday, and then it would all be OK. How did He know? Indeed all was back to ‘normal’ in Delhi on Monday, the 3rd of November 1984, All except SAFETY for its citizens, TRUST in the Government, and Hope for JUSTICE!

Yesterday, Like every year on 31st October, I Saw big ads in National Newspapers (paid for by the tax payers) in the memory of the ‘Martyred’ Indira Gandhi. It Always Brings a wry smile on my face.

NOW, 29 years later, I do not look like a ‘Sikh’ since I am completely Bald, I am not called a ‘Sardar’, except lovingly by old friends when I say something ‘very stupid’. I wonder if this is what the Indian state does to its citizens like me, the privileged amongst the teeming millions, in the National Capital, what all it must have been doing to the disenfranchised Tribals in the mining hinterland, to the workers in the industrial areas, to the ordinary people in Kashmir and the North East and to the other marginalized communities like the ‘Dalits’ in the country?

These days I often get taunted by Sanghis for ‘siding with the Congress’. In their world-view if you are not a ‘Fan of Hindutva or Modi’ you must be a supporter of congress.

I was a few KM away from being burnt alive on 1984 just because I was wearing a turban which to some looked like the one worn by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Now in 2013, someone please explain to me who should I empathize with?

Please explain to me, in the 2002 pogrom, should I have empathy for those who were burnt alive because of their religion or for those who burnt them alive in the name of religion? After eachpatakha like Patna patakhas, should I have empathy for ‘the suspected terrorists’ or with Cops. In each case the Cops who cannot find a pen or a pencil on their own desk, were actually actively involved in killings of innocent civilian in 1984 and 2002, within hours find the culprits with ‘incriminating evidence’ like a pressure cooker at home and POSTERS of IM and SIMI (and the most incriminating of course is a Muslim name). And all these suspects provide within minutes all gory details of how they were just about to kill every politician in India, especially our Wannabe PM ? Should I have empathy for the Kashmiris in the Valley, People in the North East or the ‘Indian’ Army? In Madhya Bharat should I be on the side of the Tribals or the Police and Vedanta?

I know I am being seditious but would like some answers.

Puneet Bedi is a Delhi based Gynecologist and work on Medical Ethics and Women’s Health.

Monday, November 04, 2013

2097 : A letter to the boys by Siddharth Dhanavat Shangvi

Very rarely has a piece of general advice been so very well written. As I read (and re-read) this yesterday in Hindustan Times I admired the honesty and the inherent truth in the whole piece.

Siddarth Shangvi take a bow Smile

Original article at Reproduced below for easier reading.

Dear Abhishek and Ishan: In truth, life is impossible. People will leave. Love can fail. Your job may be a bore. But if you accept this then you can have fun with the rest of it. The midnight stroll on a Goa beach. The health scare that wasn’t one. The lottery of good conversation. I’m sharing a

few things that’ve held true for me: Happy Diwali.

1. You will be distinguished by your talent but remembered for how you loved. Your talent can be anything at all – fly-fishing, how you cast and where, or you may write a blog, be read and followed by millions. Only your talent – how you scrubbed a particular strength down to its essence – will be honestly celebrated. But to be remembered you must love well. Some people define immortality by a statue in a park (about statues in a park: only pigeons give a shit). In truth, the only kind of immortality to aspire to is how deeply you loved; if one single person remembers you fairly then you are already immortal in their memory of you. This is enough.

2. Whether you have an affair that lasts a lifetime or a weekend, know that loving someone is a largely moral act. Love is a feeling, an impulse, a behavior, even an aesthetic realising itself. But the underlying fabric of love is a moral one. To be entrusted with the custody of another life – a sibling, a lover, a parent – is a way for you to understand how your morality transacts with the mortality of the other. If you are unable to be moral, take the easier route: Be compassionate. That always works.

3. I’ve known the super rich and the very famous. And it means nothing at all. Don’t fall for the farce of associative power. You are not the people you hang with. But the company you avoid defines you. This includes friends, work colleagues, and yes, even the tiresome members of your extended family. Eliminating people gently, discreetly is an art, and you must learn this early on. Otherwise, too much of your adult life will be devoted to avoiding people you don’t like, and not enough of your hours can be spent with the ones you are provident enough to love. The famous are given to believe that everyone wants to be with them. This, unfortunately, is mostly true. Fame is a kind of light that obscures fact; it is also an illusion in which the illusionist loses herself. Do you really want to be with someone who can no longer see themselves? The other awful thing about fame is that it puts famous people in the awkward position to have to say aloud on occasion: Do you know who I am? You must always be gracious, and respond saying: I do, but do you?

5. The most interesting people I know happen to be famous, but their fame was accidental, incidental, or thrust upon them, and far from shying from it they use it wisely, like artillery. They don’t squander it on an airline upgrade or a dinner reservation. They use it to remind other people that being penciled out by recognition is possible only when you serve your solitude with truth and beauty; it is emergent of labour. And it is a fickle thing, fame, here today, gone tomorrow. If you become famous in your lifetime accept that you will always be misunderstood, and misappropriated. Enjoy your fame but never believe it.

6. It might appear on Facebook or on your Whatsapp DP that your friends have more friends than you do. Or that, tonight, they’re having more fun than you ever will. That’s ok. They are only filling their vile hours with vodka shots at 3am; in truth, they can’t stand each other. And if it weren’t for Instagram, they’d look like a pack of raccoons. If you enter your life thinking it’s a popularity contest then you’ve lost already. Don’t fear being alone: Your company is the best gift you can give yourself. And a man who is not afraid of being alone often also has the best company to give to others.

7. Wealth does not transmit by osmosis. What someone has remains their own unless you steal it from them, and trust me when I say the rich will wrestle you to the ground for their last dime (as they should; who is anyone to take it away from them?) Remember that the true nature of the rich is inherently an acquisitive one: they are rich because they have practice at taking things. But never allow someone to take your best thing away from you – thefts of talent or intimacy occur subliminally, silently. And there is no court of redress when someone steals your faith or confidence, or even your affinity for a particular novel. Guard such things with your life.

8. It is okay to be thought of as a difficult person. I am. I’m considered prickly and hard. This is not a bad thing because the opposite – smooth and soft – belongs only in one place: your butter dish. When you begin to negotiate on terms that are fair to you, you will invariably be dismissed as a bitch (this word is no longer gender specific). Be a Bitch. Celebrate Bitch Pride. Get a Bitch T-Shirt in six colours. When someone calls you a bitch they are only recognising in you the ability to play it as it lays. But don’t develop a bad personality on account of a tough charm; the operative word is charm. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve got the last cinema seat because I was charming to the usher. Never, ever fail your charm.

9. Be wary of people who befriend you for what you can do for them. The moment they extract this, the friendship will fail: the scaffolding will simply fall away. Be cautious of people who climb all over your back to know your friends; these are the worst kind of parasites, and they will think nothing of wiping their dirty feet all over you as they enter new, cold rooms with expensive lighting. Their punishment will be the later day awareness that everything they got out such violating contact was essentially worthless. They will derive no enjoyment from the wealth they make in the bargain. They will attain no pleasure from the company they form. They will be lonely, and pathetic, and their punishment is not having known better, and then of having known better when it was too late. You must always, always buy such folks a drink at a bar when you meet them again: they will need something to drown their sorrows in.

10. People will come and people will go. Ideally, you’d like everyone you like to stick around. However, this is just not going to be possible. So give someone who leaves something to remember you by. The soup you made for them when they had the flu. The stint you set up when they needed a job like a lifeline. How you turned up when their mother died, and the solace of your listening silence in which they could hide and heal. And sometimes: How quickly you slammed shut the door on their face when you realised what a sleaze they were.

11. Be a good friend. It is teething to be an excellent lover.

12. Place pleasure at the centre of your life. I don’t mean frivolous pleasure – the binge drinking or the casual sex, although that’s fine in short season. By pleasure I mean how you absorb your life – the moment-by-moment awareness of beauty, and that all this beauty will also end. I once opened a bottle of champagne and drank it with your grandmother at 3pm in the afternoon for no particular reason. That was the last time we drank together; she was gone a few short months later. Pleasure is a private language, a means of looking at things, and it is a way of enduring the essential truth that life is horrible and unfair. Pleasure is also pause and reflection, a generosity toward others and a kindness you commit to yourself. Enjoy what you are able to because what you enjoy enables you.

13. You are here for too short a while. Make your hours count.

14. Your feelings are important. But not everyone gives a damn about them. In fact, almost no one does. If your feelings – your rages, your hurt, your passions – are the only lens through which you look at the world then your world will slowly become isolated, narrow and small, coloured by only by your limited and flawed experience. When someone treats you unfairly go after the larger reason for it: What in your karmic hardware drew this experience out of the woodwork of humanity? The Buddhist trick is to watch all experience, know it, absorb it, and then to let it be: in order to be free of it. When you do this the friend who has betrayed you will simply vanish. His job is done. He has nothing more to teach you. Give thanks, and move on. (But remember that iPhone has call block).

15. If someone tells you money is not important you must appreciate that they’re talking absolute bullshit. You will also read a heartwarming account of a burnt-out banker now living carefree out of a trailer, old newspaper doubling as toilet paper. I will be very angry with you both if you turn into someone who uses newspaper as toilet paper. In fact, I will disown you. After love and good health, money is your most important charge. It will allow you to suffer in a climate of comparative comfort (you will better absorb the lessons of your suffering instead of being struck dumb by pain). And you will make a greater lover with bucks in your bank (and boys, give gifts – gifts of thought, deed, the odd diamond – generosity is the sexiest quality a man can have).

16. There are three kinds of wealth. You start with your credit card. Move on to wealth of mind. Finally, and most importantly, there is abundance of heart. You can impress a lover with your wheels, you can dazzle them with smart repartee, but they’ll stick around only if they bloom with your touch. Be the spring to their cherry blossom, the stamen to their butterfly, the green bough to their singing bird. There will be a time when you will leave it all behind, when you will be ahead of experience – but that time is not here yet.

17. Always, always pray for good health. Even a bad cold can feel like early death. Rise real early. Go for walks. Reading gives your brains killer abs. Yoga takes care of everything else.

18. Forgive everyone eventually. Shanghvi is the author of The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay and The Last Song of Dusk.

Friday, November 01, 2013

2096 : God knows I want to break free

"....I am falling in love,
I am falling in love for the first time,
This time I know it's for real "

(Freddie Mercury singing I want to break free)

2095 : The Great Gatsby

If you have read and felt the melancholy and realism inherent within the Great Gatsby, you would know that I identify with someone as lost and infinitely reckless as Gatsby.

I identify with some unusual characters in fiction. I know a few Toohey’s in my real life, and some part of me is as weak as Toohey (Read the fountainhead).

What reminded me of the Gatsby was a social event I was at yesterday. I felt so completely out of place and so completely disconnected from the world around me, it felt like a bit of Gatsby. I could sense his isolation, though he lived only in fiction, I could sense his despondency, as I experienced a strange sense of loss, the loss of something precious and yet something intangible.

Whether I shall meet my end like Gatsby (with or without Daisy) is another matter of conjecture, but yesterday as I sat with a drink in my hand - there was only one name in my head - Gatsby.

2094 : And the race still goes on.....

Picture this.
I saw this 3 really hilarious 4 year olds practicing for the sprint. They all were taking the Bolt position at what was presumably the start line.

All three of them were screaming “get, set , go” completely out of sync and running as soon they said go.

If this was not ridiculous enough, one of the kids had a brainwave, he got out his deepavali gun and said since he had the gunshot, he would flag off the race.

Guns always talk - so the others got coerced. What follows is dead funny. This gun trotter, holds up the gun and shoots it....the others hear the shot and race off. This cool dude slowly places his gun on the line below and then decides to run. He obviously did not win.

But looks like these kids knew something we adults don't. Winning is rarely everything unless it's a game. If it is just a sport, then having fun is possibly the biggest draw - and fun they were having, even the bystanders (like me) could jot complain about the lack of mirth.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

2093 : Should we follow team orders

Every morning as I am coming to lap myself during my jog, I often bump into this old man (say around 85) with his wife who are walking along the same trail.

There is a catch though, the old man is infirm, walks with a walker and is really slow. He can hardly stand straight. He probably takes 10 steps every minute or so.

I don't know why, but everyday I feel very poignant as I lap him. I have often considered slowing down or taking a detour to somehow make him win. I really really want him to take the flag.

He is in my team, and (un)like formula 1, team orders are still in fashion. Someday all I want, is for him to be recognised for what he already is...a true world champion !!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

2092 : There is no monopoly of common deprivation

I was talking to someone I recently met and respect. It turns out (and this came across in very different conversations) – 1) he comes from a really poor background 2) he has 4 houses in Bombay and many more across the world 3) he is busy planning for his retirement corpus and children’s education.

Now these 3 came across in unrelated parts of the conversations. Tie them together and you have a pattern….

I am just chronically surprised (if there is such a word) how polarised we are as a generation. Either there is one of us who lives like there is no tomorrow, and the other (like the one above) is who is constantly preparing for “2012 Kingdom Come” – the end of the Mayans of whatever that is…..

I do like the person I spoke to, but I cant help wonder……how much he is trying to make his life predictable and free of uncertainty.

And life like cricket (oh my God!!!, No, not that phooking analogy!!) is a game of glorious uncertainties (ha ha ha!! I have fallen from my chair).

Seriously, I have seen my life gone awry twice already (and really I think I have had it very easy!!). I dont rule out another massive upheaval in my life in the future….one that is more disruptive.

If you are need for a rainy day fund runs into 5 million dollars, you relly have a situation on your hand. My rainy day fund is zero. If ever I do come onto a situation wherein I have nothing – I shall either turn into a cook, or a driver or an editor – the only 3 real life skills I have.

Till then I twiddle and count my blessings. Also learning carpentry for that same rainy day.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

2091 : Some call it soup, some call it nuts

I was talking to this friend of mine V, yesterday, and somehow the topic veered about “office affairs”, more so, since we were gossiping about someone we know who we believe has an office affair.

V thought that he would never have one because he would it difficult to face his spouse and kids with the “guilt” sewed in.

As I spoke to him it occurred to me that in my head I never rule something like this out. Because rage, love and death are all crimes of passion - and they happen in that weak instant when the mind is out of buzz. And in that sense I am just as weak as others, if not more.....esp given my rage issue.

The only reason I would never have an extra marital liaison is because of the phooking logistics involved in pulling that off. I can't seem to manage my one life properly at all (in the sense there is no way even this one life gives me enough time for myself), and now if I had to pull multiple identities, it would leave nothing at all of me - and not having the life for me - the thought just kills me.

Guilt bah !! You can never really give me a guilt trip easily.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

2090 : The art of reductionism

Maybe its just me, but I am definitely very bothered by some reductionist views of the world around me.

Case in point, is this Bhagvad Gita lecture which is being organized for kids in my complex. This is twice a week, almost like a school.

Some senior scholar on Gita comes in and pontificates.

Don’t get me wrong – I respect and like the Gita. Its a fantastic book of work to hurl you into severe introspection, its also a great guidebook if you understand it in its context and era.

Now how do you reduce this to be palatable to young kids. Its one thing to tell them the Ramayana or Mahabharata (and through them teach them morals and ethics) and get them all thinking, its another to give them the guidebook.

I have spent years debating “dharma” within my head and really like my other debates (e.g. should we eat meat?), the jury is still out there. Tomes are written on this topic, most notable being Gurucharan Das’ The Difficulty Of Being Good (The subtle art of Dharma).

How do you distil all of this into the brain of a 10 year old – and more so, how do you teach a kid to meditate on Dharma?

On a related note, do ponder, as social human beings, how much of what we do every day, is reductionist and hence banal?

Till then I will work out if I can start a lecture series on the shortcut to Nirvana. That should be doable as well Smile, Nirvana in 21 sessions Smilein the recess of your comforter,  hows that for a start?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

2089 : Parenting as a blood soaked ideology

Maybe it just me, and maybe its just the terrible circles I inhabit – but do you ever notice that modern day parents have become like maggot infested warriors.

Each parent wants to make sure that the other one bows down to “her/his” methods as being the most evolved. Do I do that? Yes, if you consider this blog as a thrust it down. I do share a lot of my thoughts on parenting here. Will I have an ideological conversation with you, if I ever meet you?

Rarely if ever. I don’t want to talk what you don’t want to talk.

And yet – I get someone accosting me at my workplace and violently telling me why my thoughts on schools is so very wrong. I admit, it could very well be. It could equally very well be that there is indeed God sitting up there who is a retributive and “suck it upto me” kind of self-indulgent being.

I do have opinions, and I do share them on this blog. I hope to convert no one. I write it as a memoir of my journey, a passage through the war strife….I dont write it as a Seth Godin sales pitch.

Irrespective of my blog – my choice of a school or a parenting style is not a sales pitch, its a carefully thought out choice, which I hope and believe will work for my kid. She is at the center of the experiment… Not me, and NEVER you.

The God up there, really does not exist for me – and hence I don’t want to be drawn into a debate on my style, unless you really want to have it. Debates are great you learn a lot from them, but then we cannot “commit” to a stand before we enter the pulpit, that defeats the whole idea of  a conversation Smile

I sometimes wish, that folks just took a deep breath and sighed Smile

2088 : When the miles add up

When two close friends/lovers/siblings/pals starting moving away – the cracks are there for all to see. It bothers me that our lives are so very transparent. What hurts more is the going away.

2087 : The blue umbrella

I cant help but marvel at people, who at 530 in the morning, decide to walk/jog with an umbrella in one hand, because they need to be prepared against incumbent weather Smile

The average city dweller seems scared of the rain as if it were really an acid downpour. Here is my advice, next time you are on jog, let the weather play with you a bit  - and if it does rain, that even better – soak it up…..its good to feel like a kid again.

For now, I am encouraging my daughter that when it rains, lets count our blessings and get really drenched.

2086 : Method of modern love - Hall and Oates

I have been listening to "Method Of Modern Love", since 1985 (or around)....and the song still feels inspired and contemporary to me. I love the lyrics and play of words in

Times too tight to fight
And were never face to face
Style is timeless and fashions only now
Weve got the ways no one needs to show us how

Simple yet, never too simple  I guess. This song continues to be on my IPOD's jogging agenda. For me this song is indeed timeless.

Monday, October 14, 2013

2085 : Walking on ice

You know your life is a little fragile, when you walk onto a sharp piece of broken glass, and shoo your mind away from the pain with nothing more than a blood trail.

2084 : The Chrome Box

If there is one gadget I have completely fallen in love with in recent months… has to be the Samsung $238 (that was my buy price) Chromebook.

I just loved its keyboard, software, speed and portability. Far better than a tablet and definitely one for the road.

Only gripe – does not support USB modems, and CITRIX plug ins (for office work), else it was just a mean machine.

I finally had to give it to someone who probably needed it more, but I know this is one gadget that I shall terribly miss.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

2083 : The Dog Ma of our world

Picture this.

I was in the complex when I heard this kid scream "Shut up" and a very sopho Mom from behind, telling him in the peaceful language of Sri Sri (you know the drone right!!), "Shut up is never a way out, you need to find another way of resolving this".

The son still argued, but the Sri^2 continued to give him the same reassuring advice.

It did make me wonder - and this is not the first time its occured to me - how easy it is to be these gyan serving Sri^2 (not just at home, but as a manager at work, or as a teacher at school, or a cry shoulder at the coffee shop) - when in  reality when we are just as broken, if not more than our children or the people who work with us.

Do we believe this Sri^2 mom was really an embodiment of Buddha, who managed to find peace in this intrinsically violence ridden world? I will not be surprised if she screams "shut up" or its equivalent at least 4 times a day to her maid, her co-workers and her husband, and maybe her son too :-), but she still gives him this utopian bullshit.

I cuss and scream, and am teaching my daughter to cuss with deftness; I lie to survive, and am teaching her to lie; I do want to do the right dharma, but often choose the easy schmooze out, and I tell her thats perfectly fine ; and at times I am really violent (lets say on the rare days I eat fish), and I teach her that violence is part of our lives.

Is my child going to be curled up and crumpled in my own imperfections. Maybe yes, but I definitely know and accept that the Buddha nature is nothing but an ideal for me in this damned birth. I want her to know that her father was a very broken who never identified with the likes of Sri^2, and though he admired Buddha, he knew that no matter how long you give a monkey access to your typewriter, he can never ever churn out Othello.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

2082 : The mirror in the windscreen

As I drive, a city like Bombay offers me a lot of time to meditate and focus on the other cars. Its fascinating to watch cars which have two people in the front seat, either a couple or sometimes a kid and his parent.....

In Bombay, you shall be hard pressed to see either the couple or the family, laughing and talking. More often than not, its two glum faced individuals staring glumly into the white space. Their faces have an expression of dryness and a paucity of happiness.

Its very rare, and a welcome relief, when you see the couple smiling, laughing, canoodling....

Like yesterday, I saw this mother and her teen son (I presume) laughing and cracking up heartily, through a 30 minute jam stretch. Now thats something I would want my life to eventually turn out to be :-)

Look out for this, and you might just confirm what I have come to believe - this city is most definitely, slowly wilting and dying :-(

2081 : Just Fake it (Whoosh!!)

Someone wrote me this long comment, which I am yet to publish (as it severely critical and my tiny ego hurts) which summarily accuses me of being a show-off and a fake. Its humbling as always to hear censure, though I am yet to figure out what in this blog made the person thing I am SRK equivalent. If at all, the blog I thought only portrays me as a fallible (which I very much am) and a weak human being (which I again think is a large part of me).

Was this comment meant for the other Amitabh's blog? :-)

(Whatever it is, as I said, it always humbling to know what is the impression people carry of you, especially if it has negative connotations. Thanks for that!!)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

2080 : Catnaps and cohorts

Picture this.

You are the security guard of an apartment. On a night shift, you snooze up, and your manager catches you napping, and he gives you a good dressing down.

On another day, your boss and you are sitting across the room, again on a night shift and you mention to him, that you you are very tired and can you catch a few winks of a catnap. He happily agrees and decides to man the door.

In both cases, you are you, the catnap is in a redeye zone, and your manager is still the same human being - and yet in one story its a disaster, and in another its a song.

2079 : 10 percent of everything

I have gained 10% of my weight in the last 2 months. How charming. Is that bad? Not necessarily always, but if you are in the bulge bracket like I am, then this is a little awry.

I want to be back to the pre-10% gain days by March. I hope to make that happen.

Here is to my health and running against the wind.

2078 : We passed upon the stairs

Recently I caught her whom I dearly dearly love, walking across the street towards me. I did the strangest thing that a man could ever do. I just let that person pass me by. I knew they did not have the pattern skills that I have, so they would never catch me in the crowd, but I did and I could have easily hollered out - paused a bit, hugged a bit and carried along.

But I did not do any of that, I just walked past, straight into a blind dark alley, where a misplaced hug is just another love song howling in the wind. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

2077 : Another poster child

I had another long conversation with someone about the importance of choosing the right school.

This person was telling me that he "wants his son to be tough and have the ability to inure competition" and hence a regular school is the best.

Look, if you want your son to be this maggot infested junkie who works as a clerk at the bank(no disrespect at all to that job, my dad was a clerk....its just illustrative of what is an industrial dumbed down job), and has road rage, and whistles at PYTs....of course make him tough. I suggest make him tougher, send him to Gold Gym as well....with a set of rage induced adrenaline junkies who pump iron and say "duh" when they have a "question mark".

Absolutely, you have made the right choice, if this is the reality you choose.

On the other hand, if you want your child to be a good beautiful human, the kind of PYT who gets whistled at - then I suggest you choose the Valley School, the TISB, the alternatives.

Give your child a real CHOICE. Allow her to live life as if it were her life, and not some mucked phooked school run by a weird control freak of a principal.....get the drift.....?

The extra money this will cost shall be the best thing you shall ever give your kid. He does not need you to bank roll a Stanford (though that shall also help) - just make him a lively young adult - the rest he shall figure out for himself.

Give him the gift of his CHILDHOOD.

2076 : Let her make the choice

Bullshit !!

Let me explain that.

Its truly a ball of jack bunny phucking shit, when some parent tells you "my daughter is a US citizen, we have now got her to Mumbai...let her decide when she is old enough whether she wants to go back" or when folks say "my daughter does not speak Hindi. Let her grow up and decide if she wants to speak Hindi." or better still folks say "I dont eat chilli and garlic, and neither does she....let her grow up and decide if she wants to".

My point - just stop mucking around. Buddy, you have already made the choice for her, and dont cloak it under the illusion that she can always revoke your choice.

We live by our choices, and our choices are our children's choices. They dont have a different choice.

These the same nut cracking parents, who shall oppose the boyfriend she eventually chooses, because "he looks like a hippie".....well she CHOSE a hippie, respect her choice.

Choice, as they ball and nut parents put it, is not a choice, its a cloak to force feed.

2075 : Of Moms and Sons

It is a heart warming sight to see a young adult (say around 8), being dropped off in a cab to potentially what looks like the airport.
The way the kid and mom hug and kiss is endearing and brings a smile to my mind.

Its difficult to explain why moms get along great with their sons....but maybe a picture postcard like this can explain.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

2074 : The angled tear

He remembered the night he had trudged back home with the trophy. He had won more than a mere contest, he had triumphed over his own personal devil.

As he neared the door, it occurred to him that unless he gave context, no one (at home), would ever understand why this contorted piece of dangled mild steel meant anything at all to him.

As he waited with the gleaming shiny chrome, on the outside, his hands aching to ring the door bell, the adrenaline of the early evening was draining out of him faster than air out of a leaky hot balloon.

His world outside was a carefully angled piece of steel, and inside it was a rambling chaos which had strangely begun to resemble the outside, but in a very disconcerting sort of way.

He walked two flights down....sat down against the first step, flicked open his bag and opened his box of mild cuts. As he lighted the first one - he stared vacuously through the patterns the smoke drew in front of him. The white blur wobbled its way, kissing the chrome in his right hand, and flying away, almost mocking him - saying, "I don't need any context"...."I am flying away as fast as the air can take me away from your next puff"...."because your next puff is going to be just as lazy as this one".....steel skeletons notwithstanding.

He smoked 4 more lights after this one. The whole meditation lasted twenty odd minutes. He then opened his backpack, put the chrome thingy in, pulled the house keys out....walked up the floors again....and this time went straight in, without the warning doorbell.

As he dropped the bag onto his bed, in a flash it came to him, - the irony that this trophy had now meant that there were two very unhappy souls hunting in a pack today.

Monday, September 09, 2013

2073 : I am regressing

Continuing from my previous post, I am definitely falling in love with old Hindi songs, from way before my generation. I was till this point completely ambivalent on them....but there is something haunting about some of these classics.

Hope to learn more in this space.

What next  ? KL Saigal ?

2072 : Kohra - Yeh Nayan Dare Dare

I heard this song after a long time, and I have to tell you - its the most charming number.
Makes your believe that life at some point was truly magical :-), and I mean to compare to this urban drain.

Hemant Kumar is sheer magic, and the song has a love and longing that Batameez Dil can never match ever. (I know folks will tell me - that this comparison is unwarranted, but in my head.....there is something magical about Hemant Kumar that a Benny something can never achieve. I can bet that I am dying, this song shall still be around, and Benny will be another wannabe :-)

My sis and my mother both definitely love this song.

...and Waheedaji is just plain simple gorgeous :-)

Catch the song here. 

2071 : Breakfast at Chemboore :-)

I had breakfast with my sis this week. Putta and Kadla Curry were heavenly. This is the food that gives me immense comfort. I can eat this every morning till I die :-), especially the way she had made it.
Its soul food for the chicken (or something wtf) :-)
This is why Bombay is a good city to live in.

2070 : Oh oh...this is not a happy ending :-)

The new radio ad for Chandan Mukhwas says that "finish your meal with a happy ending". This is an ad in English language.
What can I say :-) Copywriter - load him into a canon and fire.

Monday, September 02, 2013

2069 : The girl who saw tomorrow

Picture this.

I am waiting at Bangalore airport for a delayed flight (not bloody again!!), and I see this nice smart young girl walk past a few times. I notice her like I notice a 100 other people in this blackberry induced daze....

Probably an hour later, I see her again. This time she is sitting in the bay next to me, with 3 elderly folks (possibly her dad and his brothers...maybe), and this time she looks dead.

I see these three men, try and talk to her, they try and give her a few gulps of the fizzy drink. She is awake, eyes open, she is staring wide eyed, but is totally inert. Not responding to any conversation or voice at all.

And her eyes, I detect tears....

Now from the whole scene it almost looked to me as if, she was in a shock, maybe she just heard of a death of a beloved one, or the loss of a love....something she probably just heard of.

I am intrigued by these 3 men fighting to get her back into mainstream. A lady sitting next to me, goes up and tries to talk to this girl. No reaction. The girl is staring into infinity. No words, no response to visual or tactile stimuli.

At this point, someone calls the airport doc. The docs then debrief summary, looks like there was nothing untoward that she had heard or seen....she had just slipped into this complete inertness suddenly....and she seemed to have temporarily (?) misplaced her memory as well.

They then carry her off in a wheel chair.

Story ends. This has a profound effect on me. How does anyone enter this intert Alzheimer kind of state, without any external trigger?

Could it happen to after....10 years later? If this is not reversible, is this like a early death.

(My guess is the final diagnosis, would have detected a minor stroke or something to this girl, but really the whole story is a little disturbing!!)