Fulbright Tips (Round 2!)

I have posted a couple of Fulbright Tips before, for the aspiring applicant. Along the way  however, I have learned a lot that I wish I had known post-acceptance but before heading to India. Here are a couple of the more practical things I’d suggest you consider too before leaving for your grant:

Plan for the Future

Perhaps my biggest Fulbright-related regret was not applying to jobs during my senior year and deferring. I spent most of senior fall applying to fellowships—and spent the spring waiting to hear back. Once I received the Fulbright, I was relieved and didn’t really consider the fact that I’d have to go through the entire job application process—from India. If you think applying for positions is already tough, imagine applying and interviewing through low-quality Skype conversations and disjointed phone calls.

Even after getting through rounds of interviews, I was told that I would have to attend in-person finalist days back in the US, something that wasn’t timely or financially possible. Being out in Santiniketan, my Wi-Fi can be spotty and even my phone line acts up. (The university I’m based at doesn’t have a career-counseling center or the infrastructure to arrange conference rooms either) Employers, understandably, view unclear phone connections unfavorably—I have been hung up on without explanation. It’s hard to make a positive impression when you can barely hear the person on the other side of the line.

A few weeks ago, I had to take a 3-hour phone interview during a heavy monsoon. Thankfully, that was the last phone interview I had to take: I accepted the position and will be moving to D.C. this fall.

That being said, it was a painful and long process to get to this point. If you have the ability and the time, apply beforehand! Try to lock down a position while you’re still in school and can go through on-campus recruitment, travel for interviews, and make some crystal-clear phone calls. If you’re planning on going to graduate school, the same advice holds! Send your applications and make your campus visits while you are still home in the states—and then defer.

Assimilate ASAP

This advice can be applied to broader life experiences but is especially important when moving abroad. One of the first things you should do when moving to a new place is finding out standard costs for basic necessities, from cabs to apartment rates. Once you know the norm, you can make decisions off of that baseline. Despite having lived abroad on many different occasions, I found this harder in India—there are so many smaller monetary interactions to negotiate and I never know how to respond. How much do I pay my landlady’s maid if she tidies up my place one day? How much do I tip a cab driver for an afternoon’s service? When I first got to India, I definitely overpaid for most of these situations. Luckily, at this point, I mostly figured this out. (If in doubt, I call my grandma)

More than just monetary behavior however, it’s importantly to assimilate culturally as well. This extends past appropriate dress and behaviour. For example, Indians never queue—it’s always chaos, whether at the train station or at a temple, with people cutting in front and squeezing past. It can be hard to adopt such behavior—it’s so rude! Right? Wrong—as I told a friend the other day, assimilate or die. If you don’t call someone out for cutting you in line, you will never get to the front yourself. Be assertive—not just in queues, but also in any public interaction. That’s how the locals are and that’s how you too can survive.

Be Realistic

It’s essential to be realistic in all spheres, most importantly with regards to your research, travel, and health.

Many people embark on a Fulbright with a clear-cut research plan and hope that they’ll have something publishable at the end. If you’re a PhD student, this is a valid goal. If you’re a recently graduated student-researcher however, the chance of that happening is quite slim. When I met with my Santiniketan advisor, he told me to make my goal to write, read, and learn as much as possible. At the end of everything, if I could publish something—that would be wonderful. But don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. His advice turned out to be sound: I ended up having to change my topic of research about two months into the grant—my original project was not feasible. I have learned so much though and even if I don’t manage an academic publication, I do believe that the entire experience has been a worthy one.

Travel goals have to be realistic as well. Grant guidelines are strict on overseas travel but relaxed in terms of in-country trips. I decided to interpret the lack of regulation as loosely as possible. Before coming to India, I made a list of the places I hoped to visit—mostly art historical sites—and counted on making at least one trip per month. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been travelling quite a bit—even more than I had initially expected. By the time I returned from Darjeeling—my fourth trip within the span of a month—I was beyond exhausted. I’ve decided to travel less for my remaining time and instead spend time at home in Santiniketan and with my grandparents. If I don’t end up making it to Khajuraho this year, I’ll just remember that I can visit the next time that I come to India.

Health is another factor you need to prepare for. India is especially tough on foreigners. Even if you are a generally healthy person, know that the food, weather, and mosquitos will collude against you. You will get sick often and when the weather is incredibly hot, feel lethargic and wearied as well. This ties up with the travel point neatly—if you travel too much, you will overtire and become even sicker. (Believe me!) Stay hydrated and eat lots of (thoroughly washed) produce but know that moderation is key. Know that you won’t be functioning at peak health and once you accept this, you’ll be far more adaptable to whatever obstacles come your way.

Rethinking Public Transit

I made a goal a couple months ago to avoid carbon-emitting personal transit whenever possible. My renewed interest in mass transit was sparked after going to a performance-lecture in Santiniketan by Ricky Kej, a Grammy-award winning composer and conservationist. Through his music, Ricky tries to highlight environmental issues in India including saving the Ganges, and human-elephant conflicts in Karnataka. He talked about how Americans are the top polluters (per capita) on the planet, a statistic that I had been aware of but felt new urgency toward addressing, being one of the few Americans in the audience.

I have always been interested in living sustainably–you might know that I gave up meat in middle school after learning about how the meat industry is one of the top contributors to global warming. However, it wasn’t until I moved to India, almost 9 months ago, that I became aware of how high-impact my lifestyle back in the U.S. really is. We drive massive personal vehicles, affectionately christened “gas-guzzlers,” use dryers despite having ample sunlight, take long hot showers, even in the summertime, switch on the AC at the slightest inconvenience, and buy everything prepackaged, wrapped in miles of cellophane wrapping.

My life in Santiniketan is quite different, to say the least. I don’t have AC and yet I manage to make it through the day, even in 110° weather with 98% humidity. I cycle most everywhere, buy fruits and vegetables straight from the local vendor, air-dry my laundry, and take highly-efficient “bucket-showers” (not always satisfactory, but gets the job done.) This low-impact lifestyle doesn’t sacrifice much in terms of happiness or cleanliness; as I’ve realized humans really are resilient and adaptable creatures.

While life in Santi keeps my carbon emissions low, I realized that there was a key factor that was spiking my personal carbon emissions while I was in a metro: uber. When I arrived in India last summer, I remember being struck by how “cheap” uber was. To get to the airport from my old place in Kolkata, approximately an hour-long ride, costs around Rs. 400, or $6. (For comparison, a similar journey in Portland would cost upwards of $30) While the convenience and affordability is hard to beat, I noted that there are plenty of ways to avoid using cars: share-autos, government and private buses, metros, trams, Indian railways, and of course–cycling.

Back in March, I wrote a bit about appreciating public buses in the Andaman Islands. This appreciation has turned into a slight obsession with mass transit–I actually like to think of it as a game. “How can I get to Point A to Point B quickly and easily without a car?” I end up always taking a few detours, but arrive at my destination with a better conception of how the city is planned and having interacted with many locals along the way. I’m also better able to understand broader urban policy and failures.

Here’s a quick example concerning public buses and regional airports: the Kolkata airport has a bus terminus adjacent to the terminal–a comfortable set-up for patrons and employees alike. However, at the Hyderabad airport, one needs to catch a shuttle to an off-site bus stop and wait there for up to half an hour! Considering that most employees commute to work at the airport by bus, this can’t be the best solution–though I’m sure it helps out the taxi drivers who serve passengers directly outside the terminal. (There are AC buses directly outside the terminal but these are considerably more expensive and privately operated.) It’s always interesting to think about who planned these spaces and who benefits most from such arrangements. The price differential is substantial as well: while taking the government bus to my grandparents’ place costs around Rs. 30, a taxi costs around Rs. 750–that’s twenty-five times as expensive.

Sometimes my moral reasoning loses out to the promise of convenience. Of course, I do set my limitations: if it is unseasonably hot or I have excess luggage, I do opt for an uber. There are also times when I don’t compromise–for instance, on flying. While recently traveling to Hyderabad for the summer holidays, I briefly considered the 26-hour overnight train but decided to fly instead. (To “offset” my flight, I bused to and from both the Kolkata and Hyderabad airports).

Under our new administration, environmental policy is not a priority. Even if we don’t have progressive federally mandated policy however, we can still take private steps to protect our planet, with one of the easiest ways being modifying our transit behavior. Even if you’re not American, you can consider your carbon impact and see where you can switch to more sustainable practices. And if a healthier world is not enough to convince you to rethink some habits, maybe read this article by CityLab: commuting by walk, cycle, or train proves a more enjoyable experience than traveling by car.

In the Himalayan Foothills: Getaway to Gangtok & Darjeeling

Back in February, I spent a night at Farida’s place in Kolkata and she convinced me to jump onto a trip to Gangtok and Darjeeling that her and Alice, another Fulbright friend, were planning. I bought my tickets that night and didn’t think much of it—after all, Darjeeling is in West Bengal and it would just be a couple days up north, right?

We all were in the same state of mind about the trip and it wasn’t until we reached the airport at Bagdogra and began ascending up to Gangtok that we realized how much the area had to offer—from river rafting and trekking to monasteries and tea estates, this little part of India nestled at the foot of the Himalayas and sandwiched between Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan is one of the most biologically diverse parts of our planet.

I especially cherished our time spent up in these two pristine hill stations: life in Santiniketan recently has gotten incredibly hot and humid. Most days, it surpasses 100 degrees—and only one building in our entire department has AC (my flat also lacks air conditioning…I don’t even have a cooler!) I packed my only jacket for the trip—and was excited to use it on several occasions! Who knew that summer in India could be so pleasant up north?

We spent two days in Gangtok and two days in Darjeeling, a sufficient amount of time for both cities. In Gangtok, we stayed at the sweetest bed and breakfast above a local bookshop and spent the time walking around the city, eating momos, and marveling at the ecofriendly aspects of the city.

Because our time in Gangtok was limited, we didn’t have the chance to get permits issued to go up to Tsomgo Lake. (Indian citizens are able to even go up to the China-India border!) It actually is a bit restrictive to travel to Gangtok (and Sikkim in general) on a foreigner’s passport. Because it is a border territory, there are army officers everywhere and we had to apply for a permit to even enter the state. Even so, our time there was lovely—I especially appreciated the pedestrian-friendly MG Marg, hiking up to Enchey Monastery, and taking a taxi up to Hanuman Tok—where I even ended up finding some material for my ongoing research project.

Getting around Sikkim and Darjeeling is a difficult ordeal—we booked jeeps for each leg of the journey (Airport to Gangtok to Darjeeling to Airport) but it was rather pricey! Each journey also takes a minimum of four hours because the mountain roads are so narrow and winding.

Driving through the mountains, one actually sees a variety of fun slogans courtesy of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). “Life is short. Don’t make it shorter” “Roads are hilly—don’t drive silly.” “Reach home in peace, not in pieces.” There are vaguely inspirational slogans as well, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” BRO also has one of the best self-descriptive tags I’ve seen, “Cutting Mountains, but connecting hearts.”

After our time in Gangtok, we headed to Darjeeling, home of the most famous tea in the world! We stayed at a heritage hotel—where I’m sure British officers holidayed a century ago—and took advantage of what the city has to offer: tea gardens, a morning sunrise off of Tiger Hill, the toy-train ride to the highest train station in the world (Ghum Station), and a delicious variety of local restaurants.

My favorite activity in Darjeeling was exploring the Happy Valley Tea Estate. We took a tour of the factory (making tea is a much longer process than I had imagined!) and explored the acres of beautiful property. I am not much of a tea drinker but Darjeeling tea is the best for a reason: the aroma, the taste–the whole sensory experience is  enjoyable. While at the tea estate, I remarked that it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life–definitely a place I will remember forever.

Being up in the hills is absolutely sublime—the crisp morning air, the scenic views, the abundance of momos. I am so glad that I got the chance to experience the foothills of the Himalayas with some wonderful friends.

India & England: A Complicated Relationship

This past fall, I flew back to the States to interview for the Marshall Scholarship. Though I ended up not being selected, some of the questions I was asked have stuck with me as I continue to make sense of my time in India. One of the goals of the Marshall Scholarship is to strengthen the ties between the United States and England—because I had come from India, I was asked to expound on my understandings of the relationship between India, the U.S., and the U.K.

I talked a bit about the legacy of colonialism and how it continues to shape the Indian subconscious. (As Hari Kondabolu said, the last place that the colonizer leaves is the mind) But mostly, I talked about the very aspirational relationship that exists between Indians and the West. Most upper class Indians hope to holiday, attend university, or even settle and build a life in the UK or US. Kolkata is especially fond of its British connections—there is a massive replica of Big Ben that greets visitors who are heading to central Kolkata from the airport. At first glance, this seems normal; after all, Americans too are incredibly fond of the UK. But then, it strikes you as being a bit odd—why would a city highlight its affiliation to its colonizers? How can one be proud of having a working relationship to what was an exploitative imperialist regime? (Here is a wonderful short video about the harm done by the British Empire)

What confuses me most is how Indians idolize the British—while demonizing Muslim rulers. Why is this so? If one combs through Indian history, you soon realize that the Muslim rulers of India were never colonizers—they grew to love this land and considered themselves Indian as well. Even Aurangzeb who is most criticized for his “divisive” rule was objectively a just emperor—especially compared to his British successors.

I recently read Romila Thapar’s The Past as Present, which settled some of my doubts about the whole issue. Essentially, India’s first acknowledged modern historians were British and in this capacity, they had the ability to rewrite Indian history in their own favor. British historians consciously chose to depict Muslim kings as brutal and anti-Hindu in order to legitimize British rule as more legitimate and fair. One of the ways that the British accomplished this was creating collective memories of Hindu suffering—one of the most famous examples being the destruction of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat by Mahmud of Ghazni. While the event was historically trivial, the British chose to exaggerate the destruction and its consequences to create further Hindu-Muslim resentment and depict their own rule in a golden light.

Collective memories are consciously created at a specific point in history for a certain purpose—the British knew this all too well and their constructed histories continue to shape Hindu-Muslim relations on the subcontinent. In fact, almost a century after Somnath, the Ayodhya-based Ramjanmabhoomi movement was led by Hindutva forces that demanded retribution for the Muslim destruction of the Gujarati temple.

British historians used their writings to not only tarnish the legacies of Islamic rulers, but to paint Indians as backward and needing foreign help. Sati was a practice confined to certain parts of India and was not the norm—however by claiming that families all over India were burning Indian women alive, the British could justify their occupation as being morally sound. (Perhaps this is where Americans learned how to claim “women’s rights” as a reason to occupy countries in the Middle East…)

History is a social science but due to its accessibility, often gets coopted by malicious forces. As a student of art history, I am keenly aware of how texts and images can be misinterpreted to bolster certain political beliefs. So much of history is historiography—the study of the methods of historians. Without understanding the motivations of the historian, we can never unravel the unbiased truth. When looking at colonial history, it is crucial to keep this in mind: the British were not studying and writing about India because they loved the country—rather, they wrote to cement their rule and expand the reaches of their empire.

So why do Indians love all things British despite their atrocities? There are two things at work: first of all, the British carefully rewrote Indian history. But secondly—and maybe more importantly—in our capitalist modern world, we aspire to be like England, to drive fancy cars, live in London brownstones, and take European vacations—and how can we hate a country that we want to be?

Crisscrossing Kathmandu

Last week, I visited my 22nd country: Nepal! I have a personal goal of visiting a new country every year and was thrilled to make it to Nepal before my 23rd birthday. I have also dreamt of visiting Nepal for ages: I have many close Nepali friends, a deep appreciation for the syncretic architecture, and an unparalleled love for momos. The visit was especially special because I stayed with Apekshya, one of my best friends, and celebrated both her birthday and Nepali New Year with her.

I hadn’t seen Apekshya since our time together at Oxford where we were inseparable from first sight. Most of our five days together were thus spent talking nonstop—she is attending MIT for her PhD in Political Science in the fall (!) so hopefully we’ll get to see each other more regularly once we’re both stateside.

Between conversations, I got to see much of Kathmandu, a really lovely city. I’ve never traveled in South Asia outside India and was struck by the similarities across borders: unruly traffic, sidewalk vendors, colorful buildings, etc. That being said, Kathmandu felt more spacious and calm to me than any Indian city I’ve visited (other than maybe Chandigarh). Most of the restaurants we frequented had sizable courtyards and open gardens, something I’ve never seen in India. The city had recently passed a no honking ordinance and the absence of noise was welcome. The sheer number of foreigners everywhere also was notable! Besides the throngs of tourists, Kathmandu is the headquarters for SAARC and is home to many international aid agencies—that employ a sizable population of westerners. In this regard, Kathmandu actually reminded me of Ulaanbaatar; when a city acts as a gateway to an entire country, it ends up being a very cosmopolitan and diverse place.

During our three days of intensive sightseeing, we ended up covering almost all the important sites within the Kathmandu Valley: Bhaktapur, Patan, and Kathmandu Durbar Squares, Boudha Stupa, Swayumbhu, and Pashupathinath Temple. Sacred sites in Nepal often include elements of Hinduism and Buddhism, a unique take on religious practice in the predominantly Hindu country. For instance, at Swayumbhu, the stupa site includes a shrine to a local goddess who protects children against smallpox. Even the Hanuman temple that we visited had a designated Buddha shrine.

One of my favorite afternoons was spent at Kathmandu Durbar Square: Apekshya and I ate lunch and were walking around when I saw a signboard for Silver Nepal, a jewelry shop. Several years ago, my friend Suraj had me help him out on an advertising project for his dad’s shop, Silver Nepal. Convinced that it had to be the same shop, I decided to give it a shot and go inside. His father, who I recognized from an old photo, walked downstairs and after recognizing him, I exclaimed, “Hi Uncle! I’m Suraj’s friend Meera from W&L!” Upon revealing my full name, he told me, “Yes I’ve seen your comments on Facebook!” We spent a few minutes at the shop and talking about Suraj and Kathmandu and I could not believe the coincidence of the whole situation!

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With Suraj’s dad!

All in all, I loved my time in Nepal! I enjoyed touring the sites and visiting the museums but especially spending time with Apekshya—she is one of my favorite people ever and we always have so much to share and laugh about. I’m sure I’ll be back to Nepal and next time, I hope to get outside Kathmandu as well to do some trekking! To those who have not visited South Asia but hope to, I would recommend visiting Nepal before heading to India—it’s a beautiful country that is a bit calmer and cleaner and can help you get accustomed to the pace of life on the subcontinent.

 

Thoughts on Tagore

Living in Bengal (and that too, in Santiniketan), you go through a cyclical relationship with Tagore. You admire him deeply at first—how could one man accomplish so much? But this admiration soon turns to exasperation—why does everyone talk about him all the time? Are there no other great Bengalis we could honor once in a while? (Of course, there are dozens, from Subhash Chandra Bose to Satyajit Ray to Rokheya Begum) And then, you come across a collection of essays, revisit his home in Santiniketan, or realize that Visva-Bharati was the first coeducational institute in India (went coed decades before my alma mater back in the states!) and your respect and regard for Tagore grows once again.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the project of nationalism and how different leaders approached the task of creating a modern—and moral—India. (Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic, is a fantastic read on the subject and delves into how each of the Indian founders were influenced by a historical text that translates into how they envision an independent India) Of course, Tagore is an anomaly in a sense in that during this prolonged fight for independence, he is one of the strongest critics of nationalism and outright rejects the ideology. “Hope I can claim to be duly conscious of the glories of my own country…but such consciousness may never make me forgetful of the earliest message of our seers…unity…,” he wrote. He correctly deduced that the spirit of nationalism would place one’s country over the ideals of humanity.

Tagore actually initially supported the movement for nationalism, wholeheartedly participating in the Swadeshi movement at its time of conception. He later grew disillusioned however, with the lack of intersectionality and the violence involved and decided to turn his energies to a different project: creating an internationally minded university, where India could meet the West. (It is at this university of course, that I live and work)

I had the chance this past week to spend time at Rabindra Bhavan, Santiniketan’s Tagore studies archive and library. There, I read Gora, one of Tagore’s novels that addresses issues such as caste, nationalism, and religious orthodoxy. It is almost alarming at how far-sighted Tagore’s writing is. If you substitute the Brahmo/Hindu conflict within the novel with the current Muslim/Hindu conflict, Tagore’s writing hits a little too close to home. In the conclusion of Gora, the very orthodox Hindu protagonist finds himself freed from the constraints of society upon realizing that he is not a Brahmin, but an adopted Irish boy. He declares, “Today I am really an Indian! In me there is no longer any opposition between Hindu, Mussulman, and Christian. Today every caste is my caste, the food of all is my food!”

One of the central conflicts of Gora is caste consciousness and how caste gets practiced even in an urban setting. Indeed, in a 1909 letter that Tagore wrote to Myron Phelps, he briefly dwells on the caste system and its evils. He believes that the caste system “crushed individual manhood and has accustomed us for centuries not only to submit to every form of domination, but sometimes actually to venerate the power that holds us down.” (Indeed, the caste system breeds complacency and gives immense power to those at the top. Because one’s own past misdeeds are blamed one’s situation, revolution and rebellion are not natural or “dharmic” responses.) His words are not as scathing as Ambedkar’s–but over a decade before Gandhi or anyone else even spoke about the caste system, Tagore too was ruminating on how to move past this institutional system of inequality.

In the Rabindra Bhavan museum, there is a heartbreaking anecdote from World War 1: a young European soldier was drafted to fight despite being opposed to the war. Every night he read Tagore’s Gitanjali and copied out a poem before going to sleep. He later died in the war and his mother wrote a letter of thanks to Tagore, for keeping her son company when he needed strength the most.

I would recommend for us–especially those involved in political life–to turn to Tagore’s words as well. His dream for a more egalitarian, educated, and peaceful world is one that has much resonance, especially considering the state of current affairs.

Vibhuti Express to Varanasi

This past weekend, I took the Vibhuti Express to Varanasi with a group of Kolkata friends. Our tickets were booked rather last minute so we ended up going to Varanasi in sleeper class and with “reserved against cancellation” seats which meant that we had to share berths! Though the journey there wasn’t comfortable, our excitement about the trip kept us in high spirits as we made the 15 hour trip across four states (West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh).

Varanasi–also known as Kasi and Benaras–is the holiest city in India. It is home to over 2,000 temples, lies on the banks of the Ganga, and is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities (around 4,000 years!). It is a pilgrimage spot not only for Hindus but for Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists–gurus of these three religions have been associated with sites around Varanasi. The name Varanasi itself is a simple little portmanteau: the Varuna tributary runs through the northernmost point of the city while a small stream runs by Assi Ghat, at the southernmost point of the city. As the city spans from Varuna to Assi, it is called Varanasi.

We stayed at Teerth Lodge, a comfortable guesthouse just minutes from Dashwamedh Ghat and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple–the number one pilgrimage spot in the city. The centrality of our location proved to be a boon–we spent our time visiting the many famous temples, navigating through Varanasi’s narrow lanes, and drinking lassi at every possible occasion. Varanasi is perhaps most famous for its evening Ganga Aarti, an hour-long immersive experience where a number of priests salute the Ganga amidst devotional music and flashy lighting. Despite the stifling heat (over 105° F), the Aarti was completely worth the wait.

My favorite part of the trip was watching sunrise over the Ganga. Farida, Calynn and I woke up at daybreak and rented out a boat to travel along the Ghats. Though it wasn’t even 6 AM, the city was completely awake! Pilgrims bathed in the holy water of the Ganga, boatmen staffed the riverfront, calling out “discount prices” for tourists, and the animals of Varanasi lumbered along the gullies.

We also spent a morning at Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first teaching at the Deer Park. Sarnath is also home to an archeological museum that houses the original Ashokan Lion Capital (!), the very piece that is the official emblem of India. The museum also has a number of important Buddhist sculptures, including many that I’ve seen on slides in art history classes. Sarnath is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world and had much to see–the Dhamekh Stupa, monastery ruins, and Sri Lankan temple all are worth a visit.

Luckily, on the way back, we managed to get off the waitlist and get our own berths! Traveling in sleeper class, as I realized, is always an adventure. I ended up getting back to Santiniketan almost 5 hours later than planned. Despite a lot of exhaustion, it certainly was an enjoyable trip–made even more wonderful because of the company of my Bangla buddies!

Andaman Adventures

I spent the past few days visiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a Union Territory of India located about  800 miles away from Kolkata. Straddling the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the islands are famous for their world-class beaches, lush scenery, and water activities–specifically scuba diving! Rachna and I spent a total of five nights on the islands: three nights in Port Blair, the capital city, and two nights on Havelock Island. I was particularly taken by the diversity of the islands. While metropolitan cities of India are known for being regionally diverse, I did not expect that the Andamans would be home to so many different groups of Indians! Over the course of our time there, we met Bengalis, Tamils, Telugu people, Malayalis, Northerners and of course, tribals. On the same street, you might find a Guru Nanak grocery, Sai Baba gym, and Murugan Medical shop sprinkled with several signboards in Telugu, Hindi, Bangla, and Tamil as well! Almost everyone speaks Bangla so I was excited to continue practicing the language and especially happy when people asked me whether I was Bengali.

Many of the internal immigrants in the Andamans are either first or second-generation islanders. However, some of them are the descendants of the many freedom fighters who were jailed at Port Blair during the war of independence. Cellular Jail, in Port Blair, is a must-visit but sobering site. Hundreds of Indian nationalists were imprisoned in solitary confinement in the massive bicycle-wheel shaped prison. The architecture of the prison is such that no prisoner can see or contact any other prisoner. Day in and day out, the men were subjected to cruel punishments, starved into submission, and tortured to death. The prison stands now as a symbol of British rule in India and the light and sound show played every evening is a homage to the brave nationalists who fought for India’s freedom.

Besides Cellular Jail, there is little to see or do in Port Blair itself. Outside the city, however, there are quite a number of lovely beaches and hikes all over South Andaman Island. Port Blair is well connected to all parts of the island by government bus–the bus service is both reliable and affordable and we were glad to forgo the hassle of renting a car/driver.

The best beach we visited on South Andaman Island was Wandoor Beach. We took the 6 AM bus there and had the coast all to ourselves until late in the morning. The beach lies close to a crocodile preserve but luckily, we had no run-ins! Rachna and I could hardly believe that the beach was even in India–incredibly clean, well maintained, and no crowds? It seemed too good to be true.

Other than Wandoor Beach, we enjoyed visiting Chidiyatapu, a picturesque spot to watch the sunset. The Marina Walk, a 3 mile hike right by the harbor is worth a wander as well.

While South Andaman Island was lovely, it could in no way compare to the beauty of Havelock. We took an early morning ferry over to Havelock and spent the better part of 3 days hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and even scuba diving! (In the U.S., you can’t scuba dive without certification; In India, a 30-minute training course is more than enough to get underwater). We stayed at the Emerald Gecko, a backpacker’s haven and were able to sleep in little cottages on the edge of the sand. Because Havelock Island is internationally renowned for its reefs and beaches, we met tons of foreigners and the restaurants too catered to foreign palates (falafel, margarita pizza, garlic pastas, etc.). Havelock’s most famous beach, Radhanagar, was voted the best beach in Asia by TIME magazine in 2004–the waves, sand, and scenery definitely made it a heavenly spot.

While our time in the Andamans was adventure-heavy, I also had some time to reflect on the infrastructure of the islands–specifically the importance of regular public transit. For many of the marginal island communities, buses are the only way to get to the cities and ports and get in touch with the wider world. Many places are cut off from 6 PM (last bus) to 7 AM (first bus) every single day which is a lengthy amount of time were an emergency to occur! Buses also function as a unofficial carrier service–many people drop off goods with the conductor to pass off at a later stop. When there’s barriers to other modes of transit (uber, private car, scooter, etc.), public buses really are a lifeline. [Of course, in an ideal scenario, even those who can afford more costly options also vie to lessen their environmental impact through taking mass transit.] I am a huge fan of mass transit in India (not always convenient–but always a cheap and readily available option) and the Andamans reflected the mainland on this front.

All in all–a beautiful location and a unique part of India. Were I to go back, I would cut down on time spent in Port Blair and maybe even toss another island into the mix (Neil Island is supposed to be beautiful as well). For foreigners traveling on research visas, know that the Andamans are open to you! (I had a lot of trouble figuring out whether or not I would be allowed entry into the islands–luckily everything worked out in time). As they say, all’s well that ends well!

The Best Things about India

“Being part of a culture without living in it is like being in a long-distance relationship. You can make it work with grand displays of affection and splendid visits, but you don’t get to have coffee together on a Sunday morning—the little things, the stuff daily life is built on.”

I read this quote—in an NYT cooking recipe—and it deeply resonated with me. I’m often asked, “what is the absolute best part of living in India?” by family and friends back home. This quote tidily addresses my answer: the ability to no longer have to engage with my identity and heritage from afar. To be here, in person, and experience how it feels, tastes, sounds, and smells to be an Indian in India.

There are other wonderful things as well and I wanted to note them down-especially because I’m fast approaching my 7 month mark in India! I honestly can’t believe it–the time has sped by. Here are some of my other favorite things about living on the subcontinent:

  1. Courtyards: I love how outdoor space is used in India. At my grandparents’ home, we are outdoors almost as much as we are indoors! The dishes are scrubbed, the clothes washed and hung up–even our teeth are brushed outdoors. I love that every part of the home is used and especially that it’s so easy to interact with our neighbors from right in our yard.
  2. Sidewalks: Similar to my comment on courtyards, I love how sidewalks are completely utilized. (Sometimes this can be a hassle during festival times when there’s no space to walk between all the vendors and the crowd) Just being outside feels like a community event–and the best part is, you can walk down the lane to find delicious (and cheap!) street food at really any time of day.
  3. Fix-it culture: My purse strap was fraying so I took it to a cobbler and had it repaired for 30 rupees ($0.50). In a culture where labor is cheap, items get used and repaired and the lifetime of your possessions is substantially extended. This fix-it culture is not only wallet-friendly but sustainable! Shoes get resoled, clothes are refitted, patched up, and tailored, and even electronics are repaired rather than replaced.
  4.  Chai: I have never been much of a tea (or coffee) drinker but the milky spiced chai found on the streets is to die for. (A recent Guardian article also proclaimed Kolkata the chai capital of India-I can attest to the fantastic chai quality)
  5. Kinship terminology: There is this famous quote by Sarada Devi, “Learn to make the world your own. No one is a stranger, my child; the whole world is your own.” When your auto driver is dada (elder brother) and the shopkeeper is didi (older sister), the world does feel a bit more welcoming and familiar.
  6. Santiniketan: Every day, I’m struck by what a special place I live in. I am able to cycle everywhere, be part of a university community, attend a plethora of talks and conferences, spend plenty of time outdoors, eat ice creams by some of my favorite monumental art pieces by Ramkinkar Baij (!), and learn from one of the kindest and most intelligent professors that I have ever met. Nowhere is perfect (and you should probably talk to me once summer begins in full force), but I feel very blessed to be based in Santiniketan.

    Disclaimer: This is not at all to say that India doesn’t come with its fair share of challenges-the mosquitoes, heat, traffic and pollution are just a few of the issues one has to deal with on a daily basis! But most days-especially now that I’m realizing how quickly the time passes-I’m just thankful for the opportunity to have a Fulbright and to be here. It really is a privilege. 

     

 

South Asian Selection

A couple of my favorite recent reads concerning South Asia…

Women in South Asian Politics: I’ve written before on women in Indian politics and how I admire them. This Economist article shows that simply having women politicians isn’t enough-for the majority of women in South Asia, equality-or even equity-is nowhere close to being a reality. Moreover, many women in power often scale back women’s rights in the hopes of building conservation coalitions and winning votes for themselves.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Stories: I came across one of Jhabvala’s stories in the New Yorker a few weeks ago and then happened to find a copy of her most famous short stories Out Of India while book browsing in Mumbai. As a foreigner living in India, her stories are thoughtful and incredibly poignant. She won two Oscars and a MacArthur Genius Grant-if you read her stories, you’ll understand why. After her death in 2013, the New Yorker made 6 of her stories available to the public-I can’t recommend them enough.

Austerity at Indian Weddings: There has been a bill introduced in the Lok Sabha that weddings with over a 5 lakh budget will have to donate a portion of the costs to a welfare fund. I personally am fond of the idea-and was intrigued to find this article about how the government has played a role in minimizing wedding expenditures in the past.

B.R. Ambedkar is one of India’s most influential founders. A self-made man from the Untouchable Mahar community- he went on to study at LSE and Columbia and spent his career advocating for Dalits and the marginalized. Best known as the author of the Indian Constitution and as the Labor Secretary for the new nation, Ambedkar’s legacy can be seen in India’s unique reservation system as well as in the millions of households that converted to Buddhism after Ambedkar publicly renounced Hinduism. I myself am a huge fan of the man who inspired millions and would encourage reading this quick profile to learn more about Baba Saheb.