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. ūüôā 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 ūüėÄ )!

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 ūüôā

Bonds, Friendship, Music, Relationship, Student Life

#7. Catch 22, Murakami & ‘Me’ time

‚ÄúIn the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.‚ÄĚ
‚Äē 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.

‚ÄúMemory 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.

‚ÄúThe truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing..‚ÄĚ
‚Äē 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 ūüôā

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. ūüôā

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! ūüôā

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‚Äô , and I didn’t mind letting go off my inhibitions for a while.

Sheldon: ….I‚Äôm a big fan of homeostasis. Do you know what that is? Homeostasis refers to a system‚Äôs 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.

РThe 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.

‚ÄúSo, 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.‚ÄĚ

‚Äē Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Higher Education, Life at IIT, Student Life

#2. Ticky tacky | Doodle jump : Being a science undergrad in IITs

And the people in the houses all went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same

There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

– Pete Seeger, Little Boxes

I was sitting¬†on an evening train with¬†a friend of mine, returning from Kharagpur (KGP) to Kolkata. It was already growing dark outside and with each successive mechanical drag, the outsides were fast trailing behind us. As my friend¬†focused¬†her attention on playing an arcade game where the avatar¬†has to hop on the suspended platforms to keep¬†itself alive, I started wondering about the platform¬†I left behind myself. This particular visit to KGP was aimed at collecting the provisional degree from the institute as it wasn’t possible for me to attend the convocation. With this , all ties with the institute had been severed technically. Chances are bleak that I might revisit the place which I used to call home for the past five years.

Enrolling in IIT KGP under an Integrated Masters in Science program wasn’t a compulsion for me. I wanted to pursue an undergrad degree in basic science for a very long time. However, being a citizen of a nation obsessed with IITs and IIMs, and hitherto an¬†outsider¬†to the IIT system, I was fooled. I was tricked into believing¬†that by joining IIT, I would be able¬†to receive the best academic training and share my domain with a cluster of like-minded students which would facilitate me in realizing my aspirations. I was incorrect in my assumptions. But¬†today as I sit back and ponder on last half of my decade, I can’t say I regret¬†my decision.

In an extremely competitive job-market like that of India,  where there is a morsel of white-collar jobs across a limited platter of sectors, choice of higher education is guided primarily by opportunity than passion. Students try to select, or as in most cases compelled by societal pressure to opt for courses which have decent job prospects. Although, this statement is a tad too ambiguous because a major chunk of these jobs require skill sets irrelevant to the actual specialization of the student. People cultivate and hone these skills as they come to determine their orientation or often guided by prospective financial dividends.

As I landed in the lush green campus of KGP which¬†stood as an embodiment of independent India’s vision of self-sufficiency in training their own work force and of being a technological super power, I found myself beside a group of extremely determined students who¬†were conscious¬†of their toil¬†in cracking the draconian admission test and now were on a mission to secure their professional leverage.

IIT KGP in macro
IIT KGP in macro

The freshman and sophomore year in IIT shredded my initial motivation to take up research as a career. In general, IITs have a policy of recruiting professors primarily as research faculty, with no due emphasis on the art of teaching. Since an outstanding research career has no correlation with the craft, sensitivity and creativity that teaching involves, good teachers are an exception, not a norm in the campus. Students are not willing to learn either and are happy to leave with a decent grade after last-night-mugging, further disengaging the professors. The system winds in a vicious catch-22 cycle.

Students here are extremely dispassionate and goal-oriented. And as I say this, I’m not being judgmental but sensible. During their duration of stay, people engage in various extra-academic activities ranging from recreational ones like sports,¬†music, dancing, dramatics, quizzing to more professional activities like social entrepreneurship, business plan writing, hardware modelling etc. While the natural human tenacity¬†of finding¬†oneself in a social association remains a¬†significant interest, strengthening the profile of the corresponding individual is always the primary motivator.

As I metioned before, classes were disastrous! Not only that, research as a career orientation instantly raised eyebrows and invited curious glances, and alienated you from the herd. Albeit inadvertent, it was an ongoing practice of silent shaming and almost coerced you to toe the line. I was utterly confused and I decided to experiment with every possible option before zeroing on a career path.

In the next few years, I tried at hand at almost everything. I worked with startups, volunteered with NGOs, took up courses in finance, joined student business forums, tried my hand at coding and became part of a team involved in¬†social entrepreneurship. While the experiences were enriching, it helped me to eventually realize that these were not my cup of tea. On the other side of the spectrum, my inclination to academic research grew stronger with every scientific project I pursued. However, here too I took a significant detour as I shifted my inclination to Biomedical doodle-jump-3.8-1_506x900sciences from my actual major of Chemistry. To me, Biology was an academic epitome of ‘Despicable Me’ ¬†in high school. ūüôā ¬†But surprisingly, exposure to the interdisciplinary aspects of the subject changed the way I used to conceive it¬†and I ended up developing my profile along that line. Today, as I am sitting back in my home waiting to¬†join a doctoral program, I can’t say for sure that I am liberated of my uncertainties and concerns about my future. But I have a strong conviction about one thing. That it is an informed choice.

Our journey in IIT was not a standard assembly line where we were shoved in to churn mass-produced graduates. It deprived us of¬†a strong¬†classroom teaching. The peer pressure bogged us down, the divergent interests baffled us. But all these ‘difficulties’ had a potential to use them to our advantage. It gave us the necessary exposure and left the rest on our own.

In the end, we weren’t much different from the¬†game of doodle jump my friend was playing to kill her boredom. My entire five years was a giant platform game; hopping on the right¬†platforms and to steer clear of the obstacles was the only way to advance and stay alive!

Photo credits:

IIT KGP in macro – Ashay Gangwar