Bonds, Politics

#13. Bangladesh | The increasingly unrecognizable ‘sibling’

Since early last year, headlines pop up on my news-feed at regular intervals pertaining to events of Bangladesh. They tell me of atheist bloggers, secularists and religious minorities being hacked to death and run a chill down my spine. The latest addition was the terrorist attack in Gulshan, Dhaka which claimed more than 20 lives including those of foreign nationals.I see Bangladeshi people spewing hatred in comment sections of leading Bengali dailies and their Indian counterparts matching up with equal vitriol. I try to compare it with the imagery I have in mind of the country and her people. Nothing really fits anymore.

I grew up reading through the immensely rich heritage of Bengali literature. I engrossed myself in the world of Sunil Gangopadhay’s Purba Paschim (translated as East-West), the story of a Hindu and a Muslim friend whose lives take turbulent swings in the backdrop of the partition. I listened to musical collaborations between artists from the two sides of the border, songs which echo and repeatedly reminds of cultural brotherhood and the agony of separation.

When Pakistan was created in 1947 calling for a separate homeland for the Muslims,  comprising of two distinct blocks along the western and eastern frontiers of India, the political leaders of the subcontinent didn’t really perceive that a cultural nationalism would arise eventually above the idea of an Islamic brethren. A movement for recognition of Bengali happened and paved the pathway for another partition in 1971 leading to the creation of Bangladesh.

Cut to 2015, it seems that the clock is being rewound back to the days of religious nationalism where religion serves as a rallying force above anything else and pushes a section of the community to resort to extreme violence.  Liberal thinkers are being cleansed from a land which always championed her free thinking.

I had the opportunity of meeting and interacting with a handful of Bangladeshi people and I always felt very cozy and comfortable. In fact, I would feel rather at ease with a fellow Bengali from Bangladesh at times than a fellow Indian national from a different cultural walk of life. I still remember my solo trip to New York city last year. Reaching Manhattan around 3:30 AM at night with 30 F outside and raining heavily, I felt the immediate need of grabbing some food. I walked into a sandwich place and the South Asian guy in the counter confidently greeted me in his characteristic Bangladeshi accent: “Kotha theke astesen?” (Where are you coming from). My reaction was like: How did you even know that I am Bengali? He replied “O mukh dekhlei bojha jae” (You can easily recognize by face).

bangadeshI have a magnet on my refrigerator door which I collected after performing on the occasion of International Mother Language Day celebration at my university. A group of students sang to the tunes of compositions like ‘Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano Ekushe February’ (a popular Bengali song written after the martyrs of language movement in Dhaka University). Today, I was staring blankly at that circular piece of token which depicts the Shaheed Minar, the national monument in Bangladesh which stands as a symbolism of the Bengali language movement. I am not really sure whether that means anything to anyone anymore.

I was going through the facebook profile of Ishrat Akond, a Bangladeshi professional who was in the bakery during the attack. When the terrorists were hacking people who couldn’t identify themselves as Muslim by chanting verses from Quran, she stood ground by not wanting to prove herself as one. She was murdered brutally just like the others. One of her recent posts read:

“Be a lover, not a fighter. But always fight for what you love”

We all need to keep the fight alive now.

India, Politics

#12. Does India need a ‘Left’phobia?

kanhaiya-kumar-full-speech-pti_650x400_71457029979
‘We want freedom in India, not freedom from India’

Very recently, we got to hear an organic and passionate speech by Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) President Kanhaiya Kumar after his release. The way he slammed at his rightwing opponents and media in his satirical and rustic style, is a treat to ears. My good wishes to the leader who is rising!

I am however specifically heartened by one element in his speech; his acceptance that the Left in India had remained largely elitist and that they had failed to strike a chord with masses despite championing their rights and empathizing with them. I am happy that he realized that so soon and this speaks of his political maturity.

In general, people of the modern day world have a sense of antipathy and cringing fear about the Left. And thus, a certain Bernie Sanders in United States trying to build his campaign on Democratic Socialism is immediately feared as a Communist trying to take over the country while people not realizing that any ‘welfare state’ trying to take care of social and economic well-being of its citizens is already close to it.

India is not an exception to this trend either. With an enormous section of people not being able to get higher education and alienated by almost unfathomable barriers like caste, religion, sects, social status and regional identity, it is not too difficult to deduce that a discourse in dialectic materialism or classless society would sound Hebrew to most ears. Also, our post-independence nationalism is somehow imbibed in ‘hate thy neighbors’ policy. Much often than not, it seems that an India-Pakistan cricket match is the greatest unifying force in the country.  And for the same reason, the soldiers in the borders are our greatest heroes and the people of the frontier provinces are our biggest traitors.  Thus when EMS Namboodiripad, Chief Minister of the first democratically elected government by a communist party in India remarked that‘the Chinese had entered territory that they thought was theirs and hence there was no question of aggression. At the same time, the Indians were defending territory that they considered theirs and so they were not committing aggression either.’ , the Communists turned into Chinese sympathizers overnight during Sino-Indian war in 1962. However, the same majority of people didn’t empathize when the Left withdrew their support from the first UPA government in Centre over their concern with India’s sovereignty in face of nuclear deal with US which required the country to submit a list of India’s civilian nuclear reactors to the regulatory agencies and exposing them to inspection on demand. The Centre wasn’t blamed of anti-nationalism and the Left weren’t idolized as patriots and nationalists. Such irony!

Coming back to the question I started with. People are scared of ‘Communists’. And it is not quiet unjustified either, given they had a bad taste in mouth with Communist regimes in central Europe, Russia, North Korea among others. Here, I find a quote by Milan Kundera, an author of Czech origin very significant.

“Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: The criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers. ”

People essentially forget that their experience with any political extremities, be it either far right fascism or centralized socialism with authoritarian form of government never turned out pleasant. And this was precisely why, people tried to fuse elements from right and left and hang around the Centre. That is how most of the political systems work in present day world.

The horizon of Left is immense and an essential space in politics. Many feel that the Left have an obsession with victimization of the marginalized. Yes, they do and often they sound rhetorical. But in a political democracy guided by economic authoritarianism where interests of big corporations are prioritized in name of free trade, there needs to be a voice for the oppressed, for the marginalized and for the alienated. There is a need because the conservatives and the right will never speak of inclusion and will not try to protect the interests of disadvantaged groups.

When India experimented with democracy after her independence, the world watched with cynicism and apprehension and wondered whether the exercise would turn the country into a failed state. But we didn’t fail as a country.  The nation state didn’t fall apart because she stood beside her people, didn’t try to integrate the country in the name of a single religion or a monolithic nationalism, and accepted her diversity as intrinsic. However, that very idea of India is now threatened with politically degeneration of Left and a ruthless right wing call which builds itself on a majoritarian rhetoric.  India needs her Left now, both organized and unorganized, very dearly so. Hope, the Left leadership of the country is lending an ear to one of their young compatriots today and in the process of getting back to the people and forge connections. Sooner, the better.

America, Graduate School, Science

#11. To be part of the Nobel prize celebration

I remember that when I was younger and used to view the world of science through a rosier lens, I was deeply moved by one particular scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind. It was that scene where the Nobel committee sends an investigator to verify whether John Nash is sane and ends up watching other professors ritualistically giving away their pens to Nash as a token of his achievement and joining Princeton as a faculty.

Much later, I found out it was just a dramatic add-on to the screenplay and no such tradition exists in Princeton. Nevertheless what was beautiful about it was the moment of recognition and the joy of being associated with a community & brotherhood who appreciates the sophistication and impact of your achievements. As a kid who wanted to step into science, it was a huge motivation.

As years went by, career choices were made, compromised with tiny weeny aspects of life to be where I am now, I realized in due course that science is always not so exciting. You toil, do your share of hard work and most of the time your work doesn’t get translated into something impactful. You don’t bring an overnight change in people’s lives. Also what you do doesn’t make sense to your next door neighbour or your friends and they stereotype to be someone of the order of ‘Sheldon Cooper’.  But I also learnt to be appreciative of the fact that science is a team effort and it is an engine which we all drive together & somewhere all of it is connected.

uncEveryday as I enter Lineberger comprehensive Cancer Research centre at UNC where I work as a graduate student, I see a community of people working their ass-off to push the field forward. True that science is not philanthropy. Everything we do is not purely for the benefit of the community and often we have to orient our research to individualistic needs and under circumstances where pressure to publish and receiving grants guide research goals. But no career aspiration can make an individual spin the wheel for years unless he/she is truly emotional and passionate about what they do each day for the rest of their lives.

Just because Dr. Aziz Sancar and his colleagues made some breakthrough in understanding of DNA repair mechanism doesn’t mean that we are an inch closer to the cure for cancer. But today I rediscovered that cumulative passion and emotion as I saw the same community gathering together at UNC to recognize and celebrate the success of Dr. Sancar. Somewhere life came a full circle.

America, Graduate School, Higher Education

#10. Q&A: Applying to Grad School in US

tumblr_nkou58JHNk1swn6jmo1_500Applying to grad school is definitely overwhelming and no less stressful than the actual grad school experience itself. So, when one of my college juniors pitched a string of questions towards me and I was writing back to him I thought of sharing them as well in a common forum, because I had been in the same page a year back from now and faced the same doubts and confusion as an international student.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed are my personal and doesn’t necessarily reflect how the system works. All the best for your applications. Enjoy! 🙂

1. How to choose a University ?
Did you email professors in whose work you had interest? How much important is the university name/rank important over the lab ?

I think mailing professors you are interested in is an important thing to do. But again most of them would get back to you with a courtesy reply that he is not interested to talk before your formal acceptance into the program. Many of them wouldn’t reply at all because they would be receiving so many of those mails. But if he is showing interest and after a productive Skype conversation willing to pitch your name to the admissions committee then that is the best thing that can possibly happen. In case the faculty doesn’t respond within a week, please try to mail his/her students by looking at the professor’s portal and try knowing about funding scenario and vacancies for coming year. Typically they have student/ secretary contact details as well.

Now, since we are talking about US schools I think university is as important as the lab. Most of the schools will allow you to do a few rotations or at least have multiple meetings before choosing a PI. When you are going to a grad school, what you are looking for is a comprehensive training for next step in your career (academia/industry). A lab is definitely your station but imagine yourself making a housing choice. You would definitely focus on factors like neighbors, locality and commute apart from the house itself right? Similarly, the university you would like to be in is very important. However, ranking doesn’t really make a lot of sense! One university may be not so good overall but one of its center may be a class apart. It really depends on the program/department/school/centre you are going in. For instance, I am in a Pharmacy school here which is #2 in US and has the best cohort of nanomedicine researchers in the country. One of my batchmates did her BS in Biology from MIT which is any day a higher ranked and more famous university than UNC but she is here because probably the research suits her more. So try to do your background research well without thinking of names!

Last but not the least, the factor which is least talked about but turns out to be highly important. Choose your university in a locality that would suit your personality. Because you will be staying at least 5 years in that place. Try to know about the climate, people, living expense and modes of recreation in that area. Grad school is stressful, you need to be a happy scholar and truly belong in that place to be able to overcome it! 🙂

2. How did you decide upon which department/program to apply?
I have a minor in Chemical engineering while my two internships & B. Tech/ M. Tech project have been under faculties associated with Mechanical Engineering even though I have done no formal courses in Mechanical engineering.
Suppose you get enrolled in Biomedical engineering. Do they allow you to take up projects with say Chemical Engineering faculty?

What really matters is your research experience. If your research experience outweighs your academic training, you will be hired (I stress on this word, because they are essentially investing on you. They need someone who is not necessarily in his/her comfort zone but not too away from it so that the most of the time he spends in struggling to cope up). Focus on the concentration of faculties in a particular program that is consistent with your research experience and opt for it. For example, if Program A has more faculties that does the kind of research you have done in past than Program B, go for Program B even if your degree reads something else. However, it is a problem if what you want to do in future has no correlation with what you had done in past if the future research interest doesn’t match with your academic training.
For the second part of the question, there are many adjunct faculties in a particular program. My present PI is a Radiation Oncology faculty who is adjunct to the Molecular Pharmaceutics Program (my degree granting program). New collaborations can also be established , but at times it may be a little tricky (but not impossible). However, try to stick to present panel of professors affiliated with a program and choose universities accordingly. At times though, the database is not properly updated in websites, so try to mail the Program co-ordinator in case of confusion.

3. How important are my major and minor degrees?
Will my chances decrease if I apply in mechanical instead of chemical and bio-engineering?

I got rejection from most Chemistry Programs and instead received acceptance from competitive Biomedical and Life Sc. Programs. But again when I looked at my CV  and my ‘bio-heavy’ research experience and thought for a while from a recruiting panel’s point of view I realized the rationality behind it. But then I can’t blame myself much. I didn’t have any idea back then how the system works in US.

4. Did you email professors before applying to a graduate program?
Do they give you hints about possible vacancies in their labs?

It depends on how much say the faculties have in selection process. If they have a strong influence and see a prospective match in you they would probably push your name. So I strongly insist on mailing. But again I already covered it.

5. What about GRE & TOEFL scores?
Any idea about how they affect one’s selection

TOEFL- As long as you are clearing cutoff it is sufficient. A high score however prevents the hazard of taking an English course in initial semesters if you have a TA based funding.

GRE- It is really difficult to say. An impressive GRE score does add on. But so many people bring good scores on board that it is really difficult to differentiate on basis of that. However, a good score on AWA in general (>=4) and that on Quant is important if you are applying for a STEM Program. For international students, if you are applying in a core program, Subject GRE score matters a lot. Because they do not necessarily know reputation of your university and need a universal scale to evaluate your academic training. However, an application is evaluated holistically. Ultimately your grades, research, SOP, Standardized Test scores and recommendations everything matters!

Picture Courtesy: PhD Comics

America, Friendship, Graduate School, Higher Education, Student Life

#9. American diaries: To Carolina and beyond

The step forward
The step forward

When you sit back and quietly wait for a change, it’s weight often troubles you. The same happened for me when I was in the transitory period between my college and graduate school. Being in the suburb I used to live, it wasn’t possible for me to get myself engaged professionally for those 3 months and let us be honest here, I wanted to have the last booster dose of being pampered by family and indulgence of home cooked food before setting off.

There is however a problem with transitions. When you can’t see it clearly and only anticipate, it gets scary and dreadful. You have a half-baked idea of what to expect, you start grasping the things you are going to lose- your cozy inner cohort and the physical companionship with people you love, the status quo in your life and try to prevent yourself from getting sucked into the darkness of uncertainty that awaits you.

As the D-day approaches, an interesting shift often takes place. Your emotional response either gets amplified several times, or it often gets numb! The latter happened for me. So before I could correctly register the rapidly changing frames, I found myself in an airplane and 28 hours later in a locale which was going to be my residence for at least the coming five years, 8.5k miles away from the country where I spent 22 years of my whole life.

Chapel Hill wasn’t exactly an alien township for me. My sister has been a postdoctoral researcher here and I had been to North Carolina in my last trip to United States, enjoying a dip in the famous beaches of Wilmington. 🙂 But this time it meant business!

Being Indian: Baseball is like Cricket, Cricket is like Baseball
Being Indian: Baseball is like Cricket, Cricket is like Baseball

The first week involved a flurry of activities. The stagnant life of past few months suddenly received a tug and I let myself loose in the motion. And wasn’t it overwhelming? UNC Chapel Hill doesn’t have many international students. In our program, there were only 12 international students in a batch of 79. In fact I was the sole flag bearer of my nation. That also meant I stuck out among others! In order to harmonize and integrate, I had to quickly adapt myself to gel with my new gang of American peers. It wasn’t exactly so comfortable to change oneself so fast! But thanks to the jolly good bunch of my friends who were so kind and cordial, within a week I ended up moving to the steps of Y.M.C.A in a baseball game and relishing Moonshine while enjoying live Bluegrass music (a friend of mine remarked it to be a very ‘Southern’ thing to do 😀 )!

Though it was precisely my doctoral studies that defined my voyage to  states, I would rather save science and grad school for another post. Let us talk the about science of people today. After arriving here, I had a lot of experiences in quick succession. Now every experience has it’s brighter and darker shades. It is never possible to like everything in entirety. That’s neither the fault of the circumstances nor the individual.

The rapidly expanding friend circle!
The rapidly expanding friend circle!

Those who have visited India likes to talk about the hospitality of people there. But Americans themselves are also very accomodative and warm people. But are they all same? No, because every culture has its own brand of interpersonal relationships.

In India, talking with a stranger is generally not greeted with enthusiasm. But here (though I had an idea of the same from my previous trip) I started enjoying my candid conversations with people of all gender, race and age while waiting for a bus, in the cafe and with the cab drivers late at night. I really treasured those tiny bits and pieces of reflections which I trapped in the process. I couldn’t do something like that in India. However, I also had to acquaint myself with segregation dynamics of finance and personal relation maintained by people.

I lived in a country and spent my last five years in a university where people don’t really go specific about money around their close peers. Getting frequent treats from seniors was an accepted norm, going for eat-outs didn’t need splitting money. The bill was paid by any of the friends in the group, another taking the turn next time and so on. Nobody really cared about each buck. I even remember when a college senior offered to pay a part of my airfare when I was waiting for sponsorship to come for the conference. So, I really didn’t know how to respond to the polite remark of my cab driver when he said “You have an awesome sibling. You better keep her!” when my sister paid for both of our cab fare in a short ride. I couldn’t tell him that day it is a normal practice for an elder sibling to take care of the younger when he/she has the capacity to do so and vice versa.

I am not trying to criticise. I am just trying to show the different cultural perspectives with which we look at life and the way in which we do share a love/hate relationship with many aspects of it. However I found in it an excellent opportunity to collaborate the best of both worlds!

Independence day Selfie!
Independence day Selfie!

Another great thing which happened to me in the past couple of weeks is one particular friendship I managed to develop. As many people know, India shares an acrid relationship with its neighbour Pakistan, which was carved out of the former about 70  years back, due to the rising demand of an Islamic homeland by a section of politicians dreading suppression of interests of Muslims in a Hindu majority India. The bilateral relationship has stayed bitter due to differences over control of Kashmir, terrorism and frequent gunfire along the borders. There are infrequent visits of people between the two countries so it wasn’t really possible for me to interact with someone from other side of the border while in India. And here after coming, I met Sehrish.

When I first met her, I couldn’t even tell that she’s from Pakistan unless she introduced herself because we share same ethnicities and look quite similar. I interacted with her, enjoyed meals together, hung out along the streets and had fun. In an unaccustomed earth, she brought with her the aroma of home! I couldn’t view her with the mistrust with which the two governments look at each other.

11866368_10207618416556999_4545808425722088924_nA lot of things to talk about but so much for now. Probably I will come back with grad school experience soon enough. I would just like to end with this sticky note which I found in my work desk. It was left by the lady who previously occupied my place. I guess it gives me a slight warning what to expect in the coming five years. But at this moment, I really don’t care! I would try to take things one at a time. Like munching blueberries and dark chocholates on a lazy Saturday night!

Que Sera sera 🙂

Higher Education, India

#8. Kalam | India’s search for scientific self-sufficiency

Technology, unlike science, is a group activity. It is not based on individual intelligence, but on the interacting intelligence of many….If someone asks me about my personal achievements in Indian rocketry, I would pin it down to having created an environment in which teams of young people could put their heart and soul into their missions.

APJ Abdul Kalam, Ex-president of India

The bell couldn’t have tolled for the visionary scholar in any better setting. The Ex-President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam bit the dust in a ripe age of 84 while addressing a crowd of students at Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. The death of glory the workaholic deserved.

Today, the youth of a nation having the highest illiterate population in the world is mourning the death of a curly-haired scientist who spent his life working with ballistic missiles and satellite launching. Puzzling, isn’t it?

The entire world observed with cynicism when India walked into the path of her 1st democratic elections in 1951 ; they smirked that democratic elections were not suited to a caste-ridden, multi-religious, illiterate and backward society and the only effective political solution is a benevolent dictatorship. We survived the test with flying colours and despite our own share of problems as a developing nation, external and internal threats, the democratic roots penetrated further and today we hold our ground strongly in a political ring of fire- a chain of chaotic, volatile nations.

When India went on to launch her ambitious moon mission ‘Chandrayan’ in 2008 and later announced the Mars Orbiter mission (MOM) in 2013 she was similarly ridiculed on spending billions of money on space voyage and not using it to alleviate poverty; these kind of statements were passed by nations who spend taxpayer money to fund search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Nonetheless, we reached Mars orbit as only the 4th in the world to do so after US, Soviet Russia and European space agency at a pittance of $73 million, a cost equivalent to less than a single bus ride for each of India’s population of 1.2 billion! This was a feat of unique innovation in terms of design. It was established that as a nation we were self-sufficient to leverage our human resource and home-grown technologies to fulfil our scientific aspirations.

S

These ambitious interplanetary missions stood on years of the country’s toil put to space research and development of projectile technology which started with the technological vision of Jawharlal Nehru, India’s 1st prime minister and physicist Vikram Sarabhai, who was entrusted with giving wings to his dreams. Kalam received the mentorship of Sarabhai for starters and later played a pivotal role along with his colleagues.

APJ Abdul Kalam was truly the ‘poster boy’ of India’s indigenous technology. He was the project director of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, served as the chief executive of Integrated Guided Missiles Development Program (IGMDP) and played a strategic role in orchestration of Pokhran-II, India’s 2nd phase of nuclear tests. However, it would be a historical blunder to remember him just as the ‘missile man’. His profound experience as a rocket scientist and as a scientific co-ordinator working in close collaboration with polity made him realize the importance of self-reliance in critical technologies which if properly leveraged can be lead to food, economic and national security. In his years as the President and in the following years, he made us dream of seeing India as a ‘knowledge superpower’. He inspired us to use our creative potential to forge our own destiny. He gave courage and belief to the youth of the nation who either felt ashamed about their present or looked for glory in its past heritage. We rallied behind his vision 2020, an inspiration for the future ahead.

It’s our misfortune that among our policy makers people like him are a rare exception, not a rule.

Take me to the magic of the moment on a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away in the wind of change

-The Scorpions, Wind of Change

Bonds, Friendship, Music, Relationship, Student Life

#7. Catch 22, Murakami & ‘Me’ time

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

The very purpose of starting this blog was to give a channel to my hitherto stifled thoughts, which I was pondering over, trying to get across but couldn’t. An ideal alternative would have been to maintain a journal but that wouldn’t really help to attain my closure as I still ran into the process of locking the stream of thoughts essentially to my personal domain. In order to truly  communicate, I needed a space  where I could pour my ideas, frozen in sentences. But what exactly I was trying to communicate and who was my audience? Was I really trying to scream to the world reaping open my insides, showing I’m me? I rather always found the idea of sharing titbits of personal emotions in social media 24*7 nauseating and irritating. It wasn’t really my mouthpiece. I also didn’t want to justify others for who I am. I was rather unsure of why I was doing this. But I still wanted to register my expressions periodically for my heart wanted to let go of the burden of thoughts and I craved for the lightness. Probably seeing the words and polishing them also helped me to appreciate, to comprehend.

There’s a real catch with the age that is 22. You stand in face to face with the world outside from the comforts of a DSC_0015_editedcozy college life with its illusive sense of complacency. The fear of future, which was silently crouching in the dark comes and encapsulates you. And if you are a student with a prolonged research life ahead, you don’t really feel so excited about the journey ahead once all the intensive formalities gets completed and you start to mentally prepare yourselves for the gruelling ride which seeks perseverance and patience. You don’t really doubt your life choice, cause you have probably made this choice on your own without any peer pressure. But things change. The initial charm of science touching lives and the ‘muggle’-ish astonishment towards scientific wizardry  wanes away as you be a part of the school of ‘sorcery’ yourself. You see the world through a prism of pragmatism and anxiety sets in.

I never spent time in my home for a prolonged spell since I left my home for my undergrads in the summer of ’10. The summer breaks and winter breaks were always pre-occupied with internships home and abroad. But when I eventually got the time this summer to spend with my parents, in my home town before I leave it for good, I found things have changed. It wasn’t the same old place where I lived. These weren’t the same people I lived with. Or probably everything has remained same, but all what has changed is my dynamics with every entity.

“Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail. I didn’t give a damn about the scenery that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us together, and then about myself again.

-Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

I had always an affinity for abstract, surrealist elements; kafkaesque themes. That’s why once I got a hang of Murakami it was difficult for me to let go of the obsession. I got hold of my first one, ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and End of the world’ from my best friend. She bought it for herself and before she could read it, it ended up with me. The easy readability, his characteristic narrative style, the magical metaphors and the reverberated use of music central to the character development diversifying from Dylan, Beatles, Coltrane to Beethoven drew me towards his other works and I started making a diet on his books in rapid succession. However, this period of life was running in parallel with the turmoil in my personal world. My long-term relationship came to an end. And with the termination came up the doubt, the regrets, the baggage of overwhelming nostalgia and the eagerness to go back to the past to tune it despite knowing nothing can be changed. I was looking for a closure, but neither the past, present or the future could assuage my mind. Till then, I stayed beside my friends and motivated them during their troubles. But once it happens to ourselves, only then we realize how difficult it is to follow suit.

“The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing..”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Staying in home elevated my frustrations. In a long long time, I had enough time with myself and had the trouble of adjusting myself to the obvious realities of life. I tried to engage myself pro-actively to derail myself from my train of thoughts. However being at the edge of my student life, I found my circle of friends generously distributed like pinheads in the map. And then there was Murakami. His penmanship bordering on the themes of loneliness and isolation pushed me towards my inner darkness. I started having mood swings and depressive feats.  However, as I went through these cycles I gradually learned to celebrate what I had in my life. The remnant of myself from my past which I was carrying with me. I felt like coming out of the storm and looking back at the changed landscape and the changed me. I stopped nourishing loneliness.

Whenever I finish writing a new post, I feel uncertain about what I am going to write next about. But then I saw that can’t be planned. Whenever words seem to come in moments of outburst, they just spontaneously trickle down through my keyboard and then I again reach the plateau of uncertainty. And that’s similar to our life. We are actors being pushed to the stage for a cold run. We can’t guide the course of the movie we cast ourselves, the only thing we can do is to perform our act properly. Es muss sein. It must be. We have no choice 🙂

I am not a happy person. I am not an unhappy person either. I am just not sure of the changing life around me. And I now understand that having doubts is perfectly normal.

Student Life, Volunteerism

#6. CRY | And the smiles

“Their zest for life, their capacity for hope, their will to survive enables them to triumph over all the maledictions of their karma.”

Dominique Lapierre, The City of Joy

Mirpur Anganwadi, Kharagpur, India
                                                                   Mirpur Anganwadi, Kharagpur, India

Kolkata, Feb, 2015: I was being a part of a college team participating in a social entrepreneurship challenge. The problem statement required us to develop a sustainable business model for early childhood education and we were visiting a slum in Kolkata to interact with the parents for a preliminary market survey. A few of our associates from CRY- Child Rights and You were accompanying us as they had first-hand experience with that particular community. Co-incidentally, I was wearing a CRY tee on that day. I didn’t really expect that it would catch attention but to my surprise, a little girl with gleaming eyes came up to me & tugged at my sleeve sporting the CRY logo:

“Aap log yahanpe drawing competition karaye the na? Maine 1st aya tha, fashion designer banaya maine!”

You guys organized a drawing competition here, right? I came 1st, I painted fashion designer!

The little woman-wannabe-fashion designer was referring to a drawing event organized by the volunteers for the kids in the adjoining areas where they were asked to sketch their dreams. Perhaps her wish would never come true. But there she was soaring high above the murky reality!


Kolkata, May, 2011:  We were three, including me, sitting in a small meeting room of an equally cozy office in the fringe of Kolkata. That was my first summer after joining university. Normally people do look out for internships in the long summer break. Since the first year doesn’t offer many specialized courses, I decided to try something off my core discipline. I started working in parallel for a start-up and CRY, an NGO working with child rights. As I said before, two other interns joined with me. In the next couple of days, our genial volunteer manager (later I forged a close personal association with her) introduced us to the modus operandi of the organization, various aspects of child rights, condition of children in India and a lot of relevant case studies in order to make us appreciate the nuances of child rights advocacy. Later, she stuffed us with enough workload to keep us busy for the duration of the internship. 🙂

That summer was an enriching one. Not only did I learn working in an environment where people from diverse background bring their skills on the table but also to question any solution to a practical problem with the rationale of sustenance. However, a doubt still bothered me; that which haunts every volunteer worker. Am I truly making a difference? With that confusion, I returned to my campus.


Kharagpur, (2011-2015): Once I started my sophomore year, I realized that what began with the idea of a casual exploration has roused a genuine interest in me. And to address my earlier confusion, what I really needed was actual field work instead of doing academic social research. Fortunately, we had a college chapter of CRY at IIT Kharagpur (KGP) and I decided to be a part of it.

The CRY KGP chapter mainly used to work in the rural areas of Kharagpur. It dealt primarily with the school going children and amelioration of the condition of the public schools by mediating with the administration. As we visited the homes of the community people periodically, I was stunned to note the stark difference between the living condition of us and these people who used to live at a close vicinity of the campus. I started to appreciate what I had, and made fewer complaints about the ‘lousy’ facilities back in our university.

Faith and compassion, that helped us to carry on
Faith and compassion, that helped us to carry on

The journey of past four years with CRY wasn’t a smooth ride at all. It was a gruelling test of patience, perseverance and optimism. We quickly realized change doesn’t come so easily. We had to meddle with the juggernaut of bureaucracy constantly. We observed the limitations of funds which didn’t trickle down to the level of the schools we catered to. We had to win the trust of the people who had grown cynic of the ‘elites’ who visited them often and made hollow promises. And once we earned their faith, we had to stand up to their colossal expectations, while in reality we were student volunteers with limited ability.

Things were quite frustrating at times. We were putting efforts but couldn’t really see it taking us anywhere. Drop-outs were being sent back to school only to see them drop out again due to lack of funds and to serve as a financial help to their parents. We really didn’t have a back up solution. We were scratching our heads over displacement and rehabilitation of child workers from the eateries of the campus while running the risk of pushing them to more hazardous lines of work. It was a thankless job and we didn’t have anything to stimulate us but our sense of personal gratification. However persistence bore us fruit and with constant intervention, we started getting results gradually. Unfortunately however, my stint at KGP came to an end and I couldn’t see through the rest of it.


Wings of desire
Wings of desire

You might wonder what made me write about my experiences of working with CRY! An easy choice? Probably yes! But more so, because this experience helped me to see the world around me more empathetically and rationally. I made associations, forged uneven friendships, came to have a much better understanding of the world around me. As I sit quietly in my home nowadays in the junction of the impending future and the haunting past, the sparkling eyes and the vigorous enthusiasm of the kids I came across at different times helps me to forge the bridge over my troubled waters. I draw my spirit and vitality from the brightest of the smiles those faces cast, the determination they reflected, nonchalant of the troubles in their life.

In the previous days, when I used to see a child begging in the streets, I used to feel sorry but then shrugged off thinking I wasn’t really able to change anything. But today I have a better realization of where I stand. I appreciate my role as an individual. While an overnight utopia is unrealistic, we can each do our part. We all are individual entities in the theory of everything. And in the end, everything does add up! 🙂

America, Music, Travel

#5. July 4th | Nationalism | Woody Guthrie

Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. “Mankind.” That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!

– President Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day (1996)

“The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

I happened to be in US during ‘Fourth of July’, last year. Though somewhat acquainted with the traditions through pop culture, I was quite excited to check on how the Americans celebrate their ‘National Day’.  I was living in Lafayette- West Lafayette area, which was a small campus township in Indiana. From my lab-mates, I came to know that celebration there was not so spectacular like that in bigger cities. However, anything was still better for me than nothing. I had my day-off and probably was the last person who could sit idly for a sufficiently long time so I checked the schedule of the events and arrived at the venue on time!

DSC_0201
July 4th celebrations, Downtown Lafayette (2014)

As I reached there, the ‘Indian’ in me immediately had his head hung low. Here in India, a country with population surpassing a billion and with a rich heritage of thousands of years hardly observe our independence day with enthusiasm. And there I was standing in a rural township whose streets remain hardly busy during normal days had her crowds pouring into the down-town area, elegantly dressed in ‘stars and stripes’ attire! Some head-over-heels love these Americans have for their country, I wondered! In a way, I was ashamed and envied their passion; but later when I pondered over it,  I rather felt a tinge of creepiness.

I am not a political theorist. Neither a student of social sciences. Being a layman, I appreciate that nationalism is a great unifying force. It enables people of a country to come under a common banner, harmonize with fellow citizens and take up collective responsibilities towards welfare of their country. But since this is such a motivating rallying cry, it is possible to distort the orientation by the force that dictates it, which is in most cases, the government. It becomes a weapon of mass mobilization in times of war, an opium to mask people’s consciousness of socio-economic problems and a propaganda tool to alienate all dissenting opinions and fringe groups.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

-Woody Guthrie, This land is your land (Original lyrics, 1940, excluded from 1944 recording)

Woody Guthrie, the celebrated American songwriter-musician recorded the song “This land is your land” in 1944 which till date is America’s one of the most famous folk songs. The song gives a passionate commentary of the American ethos in its verses like “This land is your land, this land is my land, From California to the New York Island” and was covered by numerous artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Kingston Trio to Bruce Springsteen. But what makes it most interesting is the fact that the song was penned by a musician who used to carry a guitar with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”. He apparently wrote this song  frustrated with the unrealistic, complacent lyrics of “God Bless America”. But even he shied away from including the subversive stanzas with its strong political overtone, in the recorded version. Probably he wanted to limit his opinion to give the song an anthemic character. We never know. 

 

woody_guthrieA key aspect of nationalism is the conviction about the superiority of one’s own country when compared to others. But a thinking along this route blinds us of the shortcomings and what can be done to address them. It ceases to be love and becomes an obsession; if anyone dares to swim against the tide of mass hysteria, they are greeted with censure. It gives news agencies the power to scathe, “It’s just those liberals who hate America.” In India, the ruling party leaders don’t hesitate to warn, “opposition to Yoga amounts to anti-national and anti-social acts”.  We discriminate against North-easterners, joke about their ethnicity but don’t fail to bask in the glory of Mary Kom, a sports icon of the same ethnic origin and bash people if they don’t stand up in respect to the national anthem at end of her biopic. Our nationalism is so cryptic!

Inflexible systems and intolerance are few of the most frightening things in the world.  We take our opinions too seriously, without bothering to lend an ear to others. We compartmentalize the world by viewing it through our tinted glasses and promptly pass on a judgement. We spend hours in comment wars on social media when we find ‘Someone is wrong on the internet‘. The action of the government is just a scaled-up version of our individual tenacities. People like us, not aliens constitute the ‘establishment’. And those whom we condemn as ‘anti-establishment’. And patriotism is nothing but love. But it shouldn’t be blind. It shouldn’t be beyond recognition of flaws and respect of differences. And that is why, I felt a little scared when I saw the Americans with their baggage of national pride that day.

 

Happy Birthday Uncle Sam! And may you remember Guthrie’s song in its totality. The different beliefs and different banners with which people gather behind it. Because protest and patriotism differs only in the way we interpret it.

I will be visiting you again soon. Till then goodbye! 🙂

Guthrie’s picture source: http://gregwalcher.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/woody_guthrie.jpg 

Bonds, Life at IIT, Relationship, Student Life

#4. The ride | Coming-of-age | Final year

At best, I am a social drinker. Pushing myself over the edge and exposing my vulnerability in public does not exactly fall in my comfort zone. So that day, when I gulped down a couple of beers, climbed on to a flyover and clasped the railings as the winds brushed through my hair while I relished the sense of togetherness with my cozy herd of college friends for one last time, streams of tears rolled down my face and I realized that I was tipping quiet off the scale! But I didn’t care. Those were the people who had seen me sinking and swimming along the ‘times they are a-changin’ , and I didn’t mind letting go off my inhibitions for a while.

Sheldon: ….I’m a big fan of homeostasis. Do you know what that is? Homeostasis refers to a system’s ability to regulate its internal environment and maintain a constant condition of properties like temperature or pH.

Penny: Worst bedtime story ever.

Sheldon: My point is I don’t like when things change. So, regardless of your feelings, I would like you to continue dating Leonard. And also, while we’re on the subject, you recently changed your shampoo. I’m not comfortable with the new scent. Please stop this madness and go back to green apple.

– The Big Bang Theory, The Decoupling Fluctuation

The rhythmic, brisk paced life is our morning cereal. We find happiness in ignorance and certainty, seek pleasure at conceit. So we panic when things around us start changing very fast. Too much on the plate and we simply don’t know what to do with it. The same thing happened with me as my senior year came. As I started preparing myself for the real world outside, I got very scared. It twisted and turned me, and the people around.

One from the season of lasts
One from the season of lasts

The way I planned it, graduate school was going to be my next leap after college. It was cautiously thought over and not an impulsive one.  But only as I started preparing myself for the standardized tests and sit through the lengthy on-line applications did I fully comprehend what I was putting myself up to.  As I started seeing my peers landing up with jobs and taking a head start on their career, I started growing insecure. However, I am glad that I eventually realized that everyone around me was insecure in their own unique ways and it was worth putting a hypothesis to test than never to tread along a path I dreamt of and regret it  forever.

One of the scary aspects of being on the fringe is that it also forces us to be introspective towards our personal associations. It takes us a while to understand that talking doesn’t necessarily mean communicating and caring for someone is always not enough to stick with, against all odds.  The final year came as a rude awakening to me. I found myself standing before bifurcated paths and all I had was a binary choice. I was not happy with making a decision, but I knew I had to.

Till a point in my life, I looked up to others to validate every action of mine.  But things changed. Through the entire year of roller-coaster ride, I had to take a lot of decisions with a clear understanding of the fact that they were going to change my life for good, the present and the future. And I was solely accountable for them. I learnt to bear the responsibilities of my actions. And in that process, I fell in love with myself. It wasn’t a narcissistic love. I came to be aware of myself in black and white and accepted the shadowy me, nevertheless!

I was growing up.

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower