A Final Summer Break

Nearing the end of my Fulbright grant, I gained an unexpected opportunity: a month’s respite from Santiniketan. Visva-Bharati went on summer recess—so I did too; I flew down to Hyderabad to spend the break with my grandparents, trading Bengal’s intense humidity for Telangana’s scorching heat.

I had assumed that my previous summer break—the one post-graduation—would be my last…until I decided to pursue graduate school anyway. But now I had a bonus break—to spend time with family, pursue my research, and work on some side projects—learning how to cook, attempting to learn the Telugu script, sketching more regularly. Siva-da, my advisor back in Santiniketan, sent me copies of books to read and annotate and I added some other material to my reading list—most notably, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, my first foray into the discipline.

I dedicated a day to each chapter and worked my way through, from Plato and Aristotle, to Voltaire and Nietzsche. Though much of what I read confounded me, I found a great deal of solace as well. Earlier that spring, Siva-da mentioned that I was quite impressionable—“don’t worry though,” he assured me, “all young scholars are.” Imagine my delight when I realized that Francis Bacon had written in a diary, “As is not infrequently the case with young men, I was sometimes shaken in my mind by opinions.” I was facing the same problems as Bacon? I felt committed to continue my readings—who knew what other traits I shared with the greats?

Besides the existential questioning, this had to be my most relaxing summer break yet; there is a well-circulated Lewis Mumford quote, “every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.” I found this to be especially true—I was happy to oblige my grandparents with chores and early morning wake-up calls; such cooperative behavior would shock my parents back in Oregon.

Halfway through my stay in Hyderabad, we took a short trip to Kerala, visiting Munnar, Alleppey, and Kochi. The couple days away broke up my visit nicely and allowed my grandparents a change of pace. We did typical Kerala things: bought Ayurveda products, spent a night on a houseboat, and tried to track down elephants in the forests. The air was refreshing and cool and I was glad to take my grandparents on a vacation—though I was on holiday for the entire month, my very presence meant that they were busier that usual. I loved our time away in the hills, but coming back was a comfort—growing up, I never had the opportunity to spend time living in Hyderabad and within just those few weeks, their home already felt like my own.

It was a luxury, to have a place so cozy and clean to retreat to for those hot summer weeks. But of course, the best part was not the house itself, but the company. I adored being part of my grandparents’ structured life. Every other morning, the municipality granted water access and we would have to store enough water for washing, drinking, and cleaning for the next 48 hours. Every evening, members of the community gathered on our rooftop to practice group meditation led by my Tata. (Often times, young children would meet for an earlier session to learn mindfulness practices) Mealtimes were strictly observed—because I woke up “late” (past 7 AM), I usually ate breakfast alone; lunch was at 1 PM, afternoon tea at 3 PM and dinner at 7:45 PM. At night, we would set up a camp bed in their bedroom so that all of us could all enjoy the AC.

I was especially taken by the neighborhood dynamic. Because houses were so closely built, neighbors were uniquely entangled in one another’s lives, helping with tasks big and small, from pickling mangos to assisting with water tank maintenance. One afternoon was particularly rowdy: construction workers hired by the Valluru’s—a family already unpopular for fostering rabid street dogs—decided to knock down some mangos from the Kothari’s massive tree with a long metal pole; they missed and knocked down the power line instead. The whole street lost electricity for the afternoon and after a fair bit of yelling, everyone seemed to migrate toward their front steps: Ammama kept up a conversation with 6-year-old Lallu while his mom was at work, selling vegetables in the market. The next morning when Lallu refused to listen to his mother, she brought him over again: “Amma, please yell at him. He’s not listening to me.”

Though Ammama, with three daughters and five grandkids, could play the part of a disciplinarian, her congeniality is far more prominent—every day, old friends and relatives called, and neighbors dropped by. 96-year old Swarajya Lakshmi would come by every week to discuss important matters—at her age, important matters basically meant spirituality and yoga—maybe a discussion on acupuncture or homeopathy. Because of the regular meditation sessions, almost every evening saw visitors as well: the core group, made up of Lakshmi and Durga Aunty, Sathish and Suma, along with the stragglers, who showed up for a couple sessions a week.

The level of friendly interaction amongst neighbors and friends was something I wasn’t used to—I recently read an article that distilled a sad truth: for many Americans—especially those who work remotely or independently—consumption facilitates a majority of our in-person interactions. On days we don’t buy anything, there is a high likelihood we haven’t interacted with anyone. How different it was from India, where the social bonds are much tighter: even conversations with Kondamma, our part-time maid, were intimate—not simply small talk, like most conversations back in the States.

The week of my impending departure, I felt incredibly sentimental about my stay. I shadowed Ammama everywhere, chattered to her incessantly, and tried to gain more insight into her previous life. As she told me one day, “I have over three times the experience you do.” She talked to me about her childhood and working as a young mother—stories about her siblings, parents, and herself. I learned that Ammama went back to school mid-career to get a degree in Sociology but dropped out halfway. “You could still tell people you have a Masters!” I told her. “No one will question you!” “Why would I do that?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t sure—but it would probably increase her social capital and was worth a try. “Meera, we will miss you,” Ammama told me gently. “Yes,” Tata chimed in. Though generally stoic, he added, “The Mother herself has sent you to us. I am so proud of all you have accomplished.”

Tata is always telling me that he is proud of me—even when I haven’t done anything significant. “My granddaughter is always typing so fast on her laptop,” he told Ammama’s brother one day. “She is very adept with technology. And she got a job next year! She is really smart.” Though a retired headmaster, Tata prefers that learning new technology be left to the younger generation. (Though, when he needs urgent help with the iPad, he does resort to asking Ammama) Later that weekend, he asked me to describe Twitter…and could I book a train ticket for him? —I sufficiently addressed both matters and he seemed beyond pleased. “Chaala santhosham,” he said. “I am very happy.”

Vanasthalipuram is a place that I am very happy—enjoying the sweet compliments and the simple living. I thought about what I would miss most—eating juicy mangos at every single meal; learning about our family history and genealogy; running errands confidently in my half-baked Telugu? The answer, I realized, was simply being present with my grandparents—even when sitting in silence, I felt a deep sense of contentment. Their wisdom, kindness, and unconditional love taught me more than I could have ever expected—I am so very grateful for this serendipitous summer break.

Let’s Vizag

At the Cochi airport, our boarding passes had an Andhra Pradesh tourism ad on the backside—a train passing through a verdant valley accompanied by the slogan, “Let’s Vizag.” I had been to Vizag, a coastal city on the Bay of Bengal, over a decade prior and was already interested in revisiting to see my cousins. The ad felt like a sign that I should go: the very next day, I booked my tickets to Vishakapatnam. Because Vizag is halfway between Hyderabad and Kolkata, I was able to visit as I made my way back home to Santiniketan after a month-long summer break. Tata, who hadn’t been to the city since the mid-1950s, accompanied me on the trip; we took an overnight train from Hyderabad and arrived before schedule at the train station—a rare and near-miraculous occurrence.

My cousin Vinay picked us up at the station and drove us back to his home. During the five-minute car ride, I was struck by how clean and well-maintained Vizag was, almost rivaling the standards set by Chandigarh or Gangtok. After freshening up and having tiffin, we visited Simhachalam, a famous Narasimha Swami temple located in the Eastern Ghats, the mountain range that provides Vizag with a dramatic and lush backdrop. The temple dates back to the 9th century and has been heavily patronized by different dynasties. The idol itself is not visible: because Narasimha Swami is known for having a rash temper, the deity is covered in sandalwood paste to keep him cool and calm.

After a leisurely lunch of catching up with relatives, Vinay, Samhita, Dedeepyaa, Tata, and I headed out on a speed tour of Vizag. The city has a lot of offer and we tried to make the most of the afternoon, visiting Kailashgiri, a beautiful park with stunning views of the ocean, Andhra University, one of the oldest colleges in the country, Central Park, Vizag’s natural harbor, and several other scenic viewpoints. We also included stops for street food—ice cold gola and tikki chola chaat.

The entirety of the next day was spent at Araku Valley, a hill station about 100 kilometers from Vizag. Araku Valley is accessible by both rail and car so we decided to take a tour through AP Tourism that combined both transit options—in the early morning, we boarded a train and winded through tunnels in the Eastern Ghats till about noon, when we disembarked and boarded a bus for sightseeing and the journey back. The mountains and valleys were beautiful but the best part was the company—Dedeepyaa, Samhita, and I talked all day and really got to know each other better. Growing up abroad can be culturally isolating and one of my favorite parts of living in India this year has been the opportunity to become closer to my cousins.

Araku is home to a number of tribes and we had the opportunity to visit the Tribal Museum as well as see some tribal dance performances. I found the museum essentializing and was disappointed in how our tour guide handled talking about tribes in the area as well. He managed to disguise his opinion as facts and presented us with statements like “80% of families here are women-led households because the husbands are all alcoholics.” India’s tribal peoples have a similar plight to the Native Americans back home—few opportunities, minimal community infrastructure—many have also lost their homes to multinational companies. If anything, they deserve our attention and support, not callous judgment.

On our bus back, we had several stops, the most notable being Borra Caves, one of the largest caves in India. I have been to multiple caves in the US before, but this was the first time I’ve seen cave temples that are in use. After visiting the caves, we had a long journey back to Vizag and reached the city right around 9 PM.

The next day, I flew out in the early afternoon, which meant that we had just enough time to check out Thotlakonda, an ancient 2,000-year old Buddhist monastery complex that now lies in ruins. I love visiting stupas in general and this one also provided a particularly beautiful view. I made it to the airport right in time—the final boarding call was announced as I made my way to the gate.

On the brief flight back to Kolkata, I realized that Vizag was one of the most livable cities that I’ve visited in India—over the past 10 months, I’ve visited over 30 cities in all parts of the country, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu. I have been trying to identify what factors make a city a great place to live—the most important ones being an good air quality, less traffic, walkability and transit options, reasonable real estate, options for entertainment, an easily accessible airport, and greenery. Vizag fits all my criteria and even has a good “cultural fit”—with my Telugu, I felt right at home.

Mango Spell

If I had to pick a noun to describe my summer, it would be: mango. Before coming to India, I was a passionate mango-advocate, preferring mango ice creams, sorbets, and fruits whenever possible. After arriving here though, I realized how much I had yet to learn about the sweet seasonal fruit.

Mangos are the saving grace of Indian summers. Bursting with flavor, sweet as nectar, and cool to the touch—ideally having been chilled in the refrigerator—only mangos that can bring me a few minutes of juicy relief, the perfect antidote to the Hyderabad heat.

Perhaps the most surprising part of mango season is the sheer abundance of the fruit: mangos are available on every street corner, atop each produce cart, strewn across blankets laid out by the bus stand. They are are not restricted to the market—our neighborhood is home to several old trees, each providing a bountiful harvest. These trees can become a site of discord, as passerby readily avail themselves to the fruit without permission. Luckily, I don’t have to succumb to such temptation as my grandparents’ home has access to a mango tree. Though technically in our neighbor’s yard, the branches cross into our property—using some ingenuity and a long wooden pole, we too can collect buckets of mangos to be shared with family and friends.

In the summertime, mangos accompany every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a minimum consumption quota, so to speak. If we run out of mangos by dinnertime, Tata makes a late night run to the market; after all, we can’t risk having an incomplete meal. There is no need for desserts all season—despite my keen sweet tooth, my appetite stays satiated.

Not all mangos are sweet however—and as it turns out, the tart fruits too have a purpose: they get pickled. I helped Ammama make mango pickle, a laborious process that is an annual ritual in Telugu households. After a week’s worth of work—cutting, cleaning, mixing, marinating, packing, and storing—we ended up with over fifteen kilograms of spicy mango pickle, enough to last the extended family for the year.

I couldn’t help thinking back to the last summer I spent in India, the summer of 2004. I was 9 years old, on the cusp of turning 10, and still learning how to navigate two languages effectively. After I woke up from a nap one afternoon, Ammama called me into the kitchen to have a late lunch. She spooned some pickle onto my plate—“Avakaya pachadi, your favorite,” she told me. “No! I only eat mango pickle!” I cried, confused and still in my post-nap stupor. “Meera, that’s the same thing…” she explained.

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Making avakaya pachadi

Thirteen years later and look how far I’ve come—I can (theoretically) make my own avakaya pachadi!

One evening, after returning from visiting relatives, I gasped: we were out of mangos and the markets had closed. “How can we have dinner?” Ammama pulled out a few of our garden mangos—but they were still unripe. I was working through my disappointment when Ammama went outside to finish up some chores and came across a heavy box wrapped in twine in the outdoor shed—“Meera, bring some scissors!” she yelled. We cut open the delivery—a surprise from my uncle in Tirupati—to find almost thirty perfect fruits.

Now that is some mango magic.

A Glimpse of “God’s Own Country”

I was able to spend a couple days in Kerala with my grandparents last week. Our neighbor and friend, Sathish, also joined us on the excursion. The trip was splendid—we stayed around central Kerala and visited Munnar and Alleppey with an afternoon in Kochi. Kerala is called “God’s Own Country” and after exploring the state, I couldn’t agree more: the scenic panoramas, the coconut-infused food, the tropical climate—it truly was a relaxing getaway away from the suffocating Hyderabad heat. (I’m currently spending some time in Hyderabad while Visva-Bharati is on summer recess)

The trip was a departure from my usual budget approach to traveling. We hired a car and driver for the four days and stayed in nicer accommodations—including a luxurious houseboat on Lake Vembanad. Splurging a little ended up making the trip far more enjoyable for all, especially considering that we didn’t have to rely on public transit during the sudden downpours that marked the beginning of Kerala’s monsoon season.

The first thing that struck us upon touching down in Kochi was the greenery. As we drove up into the Munnar hills, the mountains and valleys became more pronounced, waterfalls seemingly manifested, and symmetrical tea plantations spread across the vistas. We stayed at Drizzle Valley, a cozy homestay outside of Munnar proper and really loved the experience—our hosts cooked us Malayali meals and treated us like family.

We spent our time in Munnar exploring gardens, visiting Mattupetty Dam, and enjoying the fresh air and fabulous views. Kerala is famous for its Ayurveda heritage so we also toured a spice garden where they grow many of the herbs and plants used in Ayurveda treatments. Munnar is also famous for its chocolates—I definitely sampled an extensive variety.

While visiting Mattupetty Dam, I began thinking about the “infrastructure tourism” phenomenon in India. People are always telling me to visit dams and I don’t know whether it’s because dams tend to be close to picturesque areas or because dams themselves are a feat of engineering. While at the Port Blair airport two months ago, a woman told me that I must visit a certain town in Madhya Pradesh to go see the dam there—I smiled but was confused by her logic. Growing up in Arizona, I visited Hoover Dam multiple times and while I can appreciate the structural grandeur, I wouldn’t classify it as a “must-see.” (Perhaps I would be less indifferent if I were an engineer…) Then again, massive infrastructure is still pretty novel on the subcontinent—perhaps by visiting these places we are engaging in a (literal) form of nation building.

It was difficult to leave Munnar, one of the loveliest places I have ever been. Luckily, our next stop, Alleppey, was just as magical. On the way to Alleppey, we stopped in Kalady, where Sri Shankaracharya, the great philosopher and religious leader, was born in the 8th century. My grandfather was thrilled to visit Adi Shankara’s birthplace on the banks of the Periyar River—legend has it that young Shankara prayed to Lord Krishna to reroute the river beside his mother’s house so that she wouldn’t have to travel as far for her daily bath.

Once we arrived in Alleppey, we boarded our traditional houseboat and set out exploring the backwaters of Kerala. The houseboat was incredibly comfortable, with wood-paneled bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a full-time staff to cater to our needs. We ate our meals on the boat and spent the night as well—because of strict guidelines from the Kerala government, the houseboats have minimal environmental impact. The waste is dumped elsewhere, there are strict hours maintained for fishing versus tourism, and the boat mainly relies on natural cooling and wind from the lake to regulate the temperature. There are over 2,000 houseboats roaming the backwaters of Kerala—from the bow of the ship, it really is a marvelous sight to see all the houseboats circling the fishing villages surrounding Lake Vembanad.

After disembarking from our houseboat, we drove to Kottayam to visit some family friends. Sheba and John were my uncle’s roommates in Dallas and moved back to Kerala a couple years ago; I hadn’t seen them in almost a decade so there was quite a bit to catch up on. Their property is absolutely beautiful, situated on ancestral land going back nine generations and we were treated to a wonderful spread for lunch. Speaking with them, I learned quite a bit about different parts of Kerala’s history and culture—from the presence of Syrian Christians (who trace their roots to St Thomas) to the changing of family property laws due to Mary Roy’s landmark lawsuit.

Driving across Kerala, you see a lot of diversity: churches, temples, and mosques are all in close proximity and there are substantial followers for all three major religions. While the rest of India becomes more religiously divided, Kerala is the anomaly. A little anecdote John told me illustrated it perfectly: John’s Christian grandfather bought their family elephant (apparently the norm for local elite families) from a Brahmin in Northern Kerala. The elephant’s name was Kutti Krishnan (Baby Krishna) and lived with their family for generations. A Hindu name for a Christian’s elephant? It’s nothing new in Kerala where coexistence is the norm and has been for thousands of years.

After lunch, we said bye to John and Sheba and headed over to Kochi where we spent the afternoon at Fort Kochi, the historical area where the Portuguese and Dutch set up their colonies. (Vasco da Gama actually died in Kochi as well—he was first buried here before his remains were taken back to Portugal) The area is reminiscent of Pondicherry—or even South Bombay—with European architecture, heritage hotels, and shaded cobblestone streets. One interesting fact that I learned was that Kochi’s name comes from the Chinese! When the Chinese came to Kochi in the 14th century, they thought it looked a lot like China and called it Co-Chin or like-China. There still is a Chinese influence, most notably with the continued practice of fishing with Chinese nets.

After our afternoon in Kochi, we headed to the airport to fly back to Hyderabad. It was a fabulous few days in Kerala and we only touched the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to see, from Thekkady to Trivandrum—but that’s for another time. While Kerala is definitely blessed with natural beauty, I do believe that its development achievements are also something to take note of—under Communist leadership, Kerala has achieved almost universal literacy, extensive land reform, and high standards of healthcare. (West Bengal, the other major state in India that has had extended Communist rule, has not been nearly as successful in these measures) A beautiful landscape with a high standard of living—there’s nothing not to love about God’s Own Country.

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.