Sunday in the Sundarbans

This past week, Lalita came to West Bengal. (You might remember Lalita from my post on Mumbai—we’re good friends back from Oxford). Due to the protests up in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, we had to scrap our original plans of going up into the hills and focused on areas around Kolkata instead: we spent a couple days in Santiniketan, did some intense sightseeing in Kolkata, and then decided to visit the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world.

During my senior year of college, I spent a week kayaking and camping in the Everglades, the second-largest mangrove forest in the world, and was excited to compare my experience there with the atmosphere and sights of the Sundarbans. Despite it being the height of monsoon season, we braved the weather and set out on a day trip down to Jharkali, one of the entry points of the Sundarbans and the home of India’s first tiger rescue center.

The Sundarbans are very accessible via public transit: you catch a local train down to Canning, and then transfer to a local bus to either Jharkali or Godkhali. From there you catch a shared auto to the nearest jetty where you can hire a launch for an afternoon.

We left Ballygunge local station around 6:30 AM and when we told fellow passengers about our plans, they asked “tumi ki pagol?” “Na na, amra pagol na” we told them but when we disembarked in Canning into the pouring rain and began wading through the submerged lanes on the way to the bus stop, we second guessed ourselves—“are we crazy?” Rachna, Lalita, and I agreed that we had committed to this journey and continued on, boarding the local bus and admiring the flooded fields and lush greenery along the way.

Once we got to Jharkali, we took a shared auto down to the jetty where we were promptly told that no boats would be going out into the jungle due to the inclement weather. Monsoon season is apparently the worst time to visit the Sundarbans because the rains create choppy waves that make it impossible for boating. (For those of you who want to visit, apparently wintertime, from about November to February, is best). We ate our sandwiches on the dock and looked across to the mangroves before going to the adjacent tiger reserve.

Despite being flooded, the reserve was open so we managed to see a couple of the majestic creatures—though from a distance. The Bengal Tiger is endangered due to deforestation and as of now, the Indian portion of the Sundarbans is home to about 70 tigers. The other animals present diverted our attention—some aggressive monkeys and a bloody fight between some street dogs and demure goats meant that we departed quickly, truly aghast at the violence present in the circle of life.

Once we got back to Kolkata, almost four hours later, we crashed for the afternoon and went to the movies in the evening. Rachna’s mom seemed surprised at our quick return (she warned us against traveling during heavy rainfall) but we assured her that we had a lovely time and had finished all possible sightseeing before commencing the journey back.

Some advice, though I’m sure you’ve already caught on: don’t visit the Sundarbans during Monsoon. Really, don’t visit anywhere—sightseeing while soaked can be rather miserable. If you have good friends though, you’ll have a memorable time anyway and a getaway from the city, no matter the circumstances, is almost always worth it.


Victoria Memorial


Loitering in Ladakh

For my last major trip of this year, I decided to go to the Western Himalayas–specifically to Ladakh, the mountainous border region of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is a high altitude desert which means that it’s both barren and freezing: the air is dry, cloud cover is almost nonexistent and the region is inhospitable to most creatures, plants, and people. That being said, Ladakh is one of the most beautiful places in India–the juxtaposition of the remote mountains, verdant valleys, and clear blue skies truly create a visual masterpiece.

I had been planning to go to Ladakh ever since I took a Buddhist Art History Class and we studied some of the regional monasteries–almost 2 years later, I was more than excited to finally make my way to the region. Jacob, one of my favorite Fulbright friends, and I flew up to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and spent about five days exploring the area.

Because of the high altitude, tourists are recommended to rest in bed for the first day so your body gets accustomed to the elevation. After napping up most of the afternoon, we visited the market and Leh palace in the evening. What we didn’t expect is that cell service and wifi in Ladakh are rare to come by–for most of the week, we were cut off from the rest of the world. Luckily, Jacob and I had each other for company–we’re both leaving India within the next few weeks and it was a great way to reflect on our respective Fulbright experiences.

Our first full day in Ladakh was spent visiting Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Tibetan Buddhism was brought to the region centuries ago and Ladakh itself is part of the greater Tibetan Cultural Zone, that spans the Himalayas. Our morning was spent at Thikse Monastery, one of the most splendid hilltop temple complexes I have ever seen. We ambled up the mountain and explored the different parts of the gompa–the highlight being the 49-foot Maitreya statue that was installed in 1979. Because the Dalai Lama was in the region, most of the monks were at Diskit, in Nubra Valley, to receive his teachings. This meant that many parts of Thikse were closed–disappointing, but as we would realize a few days later, ultimately rewarding.

After Thikse, we visited Shey Palace, Alchi, and finally, Basgo. As we realized, 40-foot tall statues of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas really were the norm, with every single monastery displaying at least one such massive idol. Alchi was especially meaningful to me: we had done an in-depth lecture on the monastery in class and I was excited to see the details in person. It is hard to appreciate Tibetan Buddhist art without some knowledge of the depicted figures or stories–so much of the message relies on visual symbolism. Luckily, most of the monasteries have some kind of explanation or guidebook to make the material more accessible for tourists.

It might seem surprising that such a remote area of the world has such a rich material culture. However, Ladakh was a key part of the Silk Routes for centuries and a major byway for traders crisscrossing Asia. Now, because of border disputes and the high security risks in the region (Ladakh borders both Pakistan and China), trade is completely absent and the economy depends heavily on tourism, especially during the summer months.

For the next few days, Jacob and I decided to spend time in Nubra Valley, a more secluded part of Ladakh and booked ourselves onto a shared car for the journey. About 130 kilometers from Leh, the car ride takes over five hours (if you’re lucky) and winds up and down mountain roads in what can only be described as a nauseous experience. The road to Nubra goes through Khardongla Pass, which is advertised as the world’s highest motorable road, and passes through numerous picturesque villages as well. We stopped at Diskit Monastery which is home to a magnificent Maitreya Buddha, and spent the evening at Hunder Village, where we were able to ride some Bactrian camels–supposedly, Hunder is the only place with two-humped camels in India.

The second day in Nubra, we decided to try to find the Dalai Lama. Locals told us that he would be giving teachings nearby Diskit Monastery so Jacob, a Frenchman on our trip, and myself woke up early to track him down. We were indeed blessed by our efforts and spent over an hour in the presence of His Holiness. Back in August, I had written in my journal that I wanted to see the Dalai Lama while in India–I was in disbelief that I actually got to do so, and that too, without actively trying. There were thousands of devotees there to hear him speak but luckily, foreigners are allowed to go all the way up till the main pavilion and we got to relish his company. Though his teachings were in Tibetan, I was still moved by his presence and spirit.

The road back to Leh was rough: there had been some landslides and we were delayed for hours. There is a heavy army presence in Ladakh however, and with their efforts, we managed to get back to the city by mid-evening. After an Italian dinner, we walked around town and packed up for our early afternoon flight the next day. Most people who go to Ladakh like to go trekking in the region–I know that if I return, I’d like to as well. Even without trekking however, I was truly enchanted by Ladakh’s barren beauty and left with a deep sense of humility that only the massive Himalayas can inspire.

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.


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.

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.

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!


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!