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, 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

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 

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. 🙂  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