Uppsala International Seminar in Physics was not only my exposure to the scientific world but also to the world’s multicultural nature, yet the issue is not what I learned but how.
On the first day of work, after the welcome party, I was introduced to Dr.M. Mishra from the University of Gorakhpur, India. We would share the project on the application of low pressure RF sputtering to silicon planar technology, if this doesn’t ring a bell, no wonder, this was one of the 1970’s many technological trends that didn’t make it into the 1980’s. The “M.” stood for such a name, that when spoken, it sounded like a short story, this prevented me from establishing with him a relation on a first name basis. I never saw it printed either, going through the Seminar’s old official documents and even in the paper we published in Solid State Electronics, it was always “M”.
His looks were quite occidental except for something unfamiliar I saw on the rear top of his head. I am friendly by nature to no matter how strange the acquaintance, but I have this childish obviousness in my curiosity and it didn’t take much for him noticing my staring to the top of his head At some point he said: “arre you wonderring what is tat on my headd? It is te snake of wisdom.” The “snake” was a thin braid of hair from the top of his head of about six feet long. He explained how a Brahman boy starts with his snake when he is regarded to have finish his boyhood, then it grows with his wisdom as he ages into maturity. This braid is “snakely” accommodated on the top back corner of the head with the help of a couple of hair pins. Interesting enough for a first encounter.
Hindus believe in reincarnation, but rigorous Brahmans take this to the extreme of believing that animals may have a reincarnated soul from some human being. Mishra was brought up rigorously, so he didn’t eat any meat for he could be eating souls, but it gets worst, he wouldn’t eat something if it had been prepared by other hands besides his. The industrial society was unfit to feed Mishra and the activities of the International Seminar involved many eating outs in which Mishra had very few choices, it was during these eat outs that he earned the nickname of Mr. Banana.
I had a great respect for Mishra and considered this Mr. Banana thing very rude and irreverent, but having to go around helping him get fed in Sweden, was quite a task. In time, I learned were to purchase fruits and vegetables that he could eat. I faced a real problem when we had to visit this lab in Helsinki. It was winter and couldn’t find a place for fruits like the ones back in Sweden. Mishra’s life long high-carb-low -calorie diet had kept him with what looked like a normal weight, yet he had very weak muscles and any lifting of more than 20 pounds to be done at work, was on me, because he really couldn’t handle it. He also suffered more the Nordic cold and had to be constantly eating his stuff. No surprise that Misrha was already starving on its second day in Helsinki. That’s when I thought of potato chips. I went into a store and bought a huge plastic bag of potato chips and approached him with the following story - these potato chips, had never been touched by any human hand, machines picked them from the ground direct into the containers that transported them to the processing plant were they were cleaned, chopped, fried and bagged. You’ll be the first ever to touch them.- I got his attention, which made me feel I had not only come up with a genius story, but the acting was great too. I must have sounded really savvy, yet I had no idea of the industrial process behind those chips, Must admit though, that the script got some help from his being so hungry. Now the process had passed, but there were still questions about the contents, “what if tey werre frried in lard? I can’t eat animal grrease”, he doubted. -“No way!” I almost interrupted him- lard is illegal in the Nordic Countries, it is regarded as a health hazard” - I had never lied for a better cause, he just plunged into that bag.
It was not only Finland, I traveled quite a lot sharing my accommodations with Mishra, what first caught my attention was the size of the luggage he carried around in every trip with no relation to its length whatsoever. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for me doing most of the carrying. At some point I had to ask—What the heck do you carry in here? Mishra was never offended by my rather direct questions involving our cultural differences. -I must carry te appliances to preparre my foodd and my sleep cloting- he explained –Sleeping clothing? you mean pajamas? How many could you possibly need? – Well, is a Brahman kind of pajamas, we Brahmans must wrap up in a single cloth piece and tat takes quite a long piece. – You wrap yourself up like a mummy? –I will show you when we get to the hotel, we are sharing a room.—That night he gave me a fifteen minute demo of what he called a short cut to a full night wrap, it was indeed somewhat mummy style. He didn’t try the full wrap version out of consideration to his roommate. It crossed my mind, but I never dared to ask—How is it that you guys manage to make more Brahmans sleeping with wives wrapped up like that?
I had earned Mishra’s professional respect through my accomplishments in our project, but these were somewhat obscured by the occasional ridicules without which, it just wouldn’t be me. First it was the flooding, I had built this gas feeder to the diffusion furnaces that involved some water cooling piping. In Cuba, I used to secure the hoses to the copper tubing with hanger wire tourniquets, but clothing hangers in Sweden were plastic and not knowing about the special clamps available, I made tourniquets with the only wire I could find around …copper from a #12 electric cable. My copper tourniquets worked fine the rest of that Thursday afternoon and so, I confidently took the train for a weekend in Stockholm, but the Swedes were serious about their water pressure and next morning... Misrha arrived to find a very angry downstairs neighbor with his thesis papers soaked in water, he finally understood what had happened when he opened the lab’s door and got sprayed by a crazy hose that, driven by this enormous water pressure, seemed alive. Since this had been going on for several hours, the hose had succeeded in spraying every piece of equipment in that room and accumulated one inch of water that had already leaked to the office beneath onto this unfortunate man's thesis. Mishra stoically took all the heat from angry neighbors and, over the weekend, drained the water and dried everything that got wet, which was … everything, thus preventing the creation of hanging mobs for my arrival on Monday.
There was this other mishap, we had two ovens in the lab connected to a single source of nitrogen gas, a high (1500 C) temperature oxidation furnace and a low (400 C) annealing furnace. Nitrogen was the carrier gas, the one with the main partial pressure, the rest was the active gas, oxygen and hydrogen respectively. We use to run one batch at a time, so the processes in this ovens were never simultaneous but consecutive, first you oxidized, then you annealed. We repeated this so many times … until that day when I tried the stunt of running two interlaced batches and attempted to anneal while oxidizing. One thing is knowing that hydrogen had extremely high diffusivity and another, is foreseeing that it would diffuse through 100 foot pipe against a strong nitrogen flow into the oxygen in the high temperature oven under which Mishra was peacefully sitting reading a book. It took less than a second for the hydrogen to meet its beloved oxygen and celebrate a hot wedding by shooting the oven’s quartz tube cap over Mishra’s head and pulverizing it against the wall some ten feet away. Mishra didn’t realize what had just happen, he just ran to the other room were I was operating the valves repeating “Armandu, Armandu, Armandu…” while running on the spot, he couldn’t bring himself together to tell me what had happened. When I entered the oven room, I heard this “increcendo” sound resembling that of a jet engine coming out of the oven, I understood diffusivity then and not on my third year of physics when I should, I rushed to the hydrogen valve and closed it causing a vacuum implosion: bbohhh! that heralded the end of the Oxydric reaction. Hydrogen related explosions have been reported as being responsible for blowing up whole blocks of buildings, we were extremely lucky to have just played the fool.
It was Gulzar Tarmohammed, who was very well versed in the cultures behind the 13 languages she mastered, that warned me about my involvement in Mishra's frequent washing routine. Yes, it was not a typo... 13 languages! , 7 Indian, 2 Arab, Swahili, English, German and French. She could speak to most fellows in the International Seminar in their mother tongue and, as a final touch of class, she had an Oxford Physics doctorate degree. It made me feel less of a Cro-Magnon that I mastered two languages that she didn't, Spanish and FORTRAN IV. Still, Gulzar was full of contradictions, She looked Indian, but came from Kenya; was a Muslim but didn't cover her face or hair, actually, she dressed occidental and in festive occasions could ware a Sari, she had all this culture, but still accepted the fact that she was a property of her father until marriage, after which she would become a property of her husband. As a matter of fact, her rich father had sent her to England for an education just so she could please her appointed husband to be, a guy studying medicine in the New York that she had seen only twice.
Back to Mishra and his washing... “Don’t touch him!", Gulzar scolded, "he is a Brahman and when a non-Brahman, like you, touches him, he has to go and wash it away. That’s what he is doing right now”. We Latinos, don’t realize it, but we go about life touching each other all the time, it is part of our body language. The warning sounded pretty unbelievable to me and it must have shown, since she added: “He is too polite to tell you about this, but you must believe me, my family was a Hindu before converting and I know about Brahmans and the caste system.
From that moment on, I tried to avoid touching him, but the moment I became absorbed in some thought, my hand went straight off limits, and consistently, Mishra had to leave for the restroom.. At some point, I decided to apologize for my touching. I said on my discharge, that it was unconscious, that it was part of my culture as the washing it off was of his. He explained that the history of frequent epidemics in the lower caste carved its way into tradition. However, the knowledge of its origin and its inconsistency with Swedish reality were still insuficient to break him free from what had become religious dogma.
The touch-sorry-wash sequence repeated for months, It had become so common, that when the washing part stopped happening, I didn’t notice it right away. It was not until this one day that I realized I had just touched him, yet he kept on going about his shores without the washing ritual.-- Mishra, how come you are not washing any more?-- I asked. It was not that he got tired, this was the result of long hours of philosophical thought which he phrased this way, “you are a cultured man, as outstanding in your culture as Brahmans are in mine. You don’t belong to my culture, but if you did, you would most certainly be a Brahman. The moment we share time and space, I go into your culture as your touchable friend and you come into mine as a Brahman, hence, I don’t need to wash your touch”
I felt very much honored with my promotion to Brahmanhood, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was not the only one being promoted. While attending a conference, Gulzar was sitting beside Mishra. At some point I look at her and she was staring at me with her eyes wide open in awe. Out of the conference, she tells me “He touched me! He touched my knee with the back of his hand”. She was surprised, not offended, as she would if the touching had come from a guy like me, but coming from Mishra, the Brahman!?... it was an honor.