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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

My God

My God has a name
My tongue can't spell,
A shape invisible to the eye;
A voice of love we cannot hear,
Tasteless, formless, free
From life & death & causalities,
A touch we cannot feel
In the signs we hear & see
In this myopic, blindfolded time;
The proof that he exists is me
If I am, then therefore, must he/she/it/they.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

FLTA Diaries: The Landing

The flight across the Atlantic was long. I was on a German flight, drinking German beer, eating German cuisine, and turning all that into Indian poo and pee. There were only so many movies I could watch on the trot, and after a while, I found myself parked next to the loo with a beer can in hand and striking conversations with a few others who had given up on the comfort of their seats. I still hadn't forgotten the near fiasco that had nearly kept me from flying to the US, but instead of focusing on what I would have done and how I would have been on my way back to India, I was looking forward - to the times that lay ahead, wondering what they would bring along. I wasn't exactly full of enthusiasm, but more full of hope - that everything would progress according to plan, both in the US and back at home, and I knew I had done nearly all that I could have - The dogs had been vaccinated and bathed, there were two lads helping out at home, walking them, feeding them; so that my parents didn't have to trouble themselves a lot. My dad was on his way home from Chennai, where I had personally taken him to meet his aunts before I had to fly to Delhi to catch my flight. I had also managed to squeeze in a little farewell party where I met a few close friends before I left, had sent a request to the universe to send only good karma. Life of course had other plans, but that is for another discussion in another chapter.

So there I was on the flight, at the back where there was some space for passengers to walk around and stretch their legs. I struck a few random conversations, all while sipping on the free cans of beer and running in and out of the toilet every now and then. I spoke to a lady who was going back to her children after three months, and who was convinced that Jesus was on the same plane as we were in, a couple of young lads on their way to New Zealand for a year, and even a fellow Fulbrighter on a different teaching fellowship, traveling with his wife and kids. Thus were spent the 12-odd hours from Frankfurt to Chicago. There were no chills down the spine as I landed in the USA. I was a little excited about the uncertainty of what lay ahead, but I was more or less focused on getting past customs and on with my travel plans to start with. I had written to my supervisor at the University of Hawaii asking if it would be okay to miss the orientation week on campus so I could travel around a bit on the mainland before I get 'stuck on the island'. I don't think she was very pleased with my choice of words, but she very kindly acquiesced. However, for now, I was just keen on transferring to the next flight to East Lansing, where my orientation was to take place. I had to wait a few hours, and I didn't really have any dollars on me as I'd found out that encashing the traveler's cheques was cheaper if done at a bank after I opened my university bank account. I did manage to exchange some rupees I had to have a burger or a sandwich, I can't remember now, but since I had eaten and drunk well on the flight, I wasn't really very hungry.


It had been two years since I had quit my full-time job, and I was well into my journey of trying to lead a minimalistic lifestyle. In the last two years, I had manage to shrink my 3 BHK lifestyle to an 80 litre backpack, two tennis racquets and a guitar. I had a small list of things I wished to buy - like portable speakers and an electronic shaver I could trim my hair with, since going to a barber, I had heard, quite expensive anywhere in the US. These and an additional pair of jeans to go with the pair I was wearing - the only pair I had got with me; so while I did spend some time looking around the duty-free shops, I was mainly just killing time, and waiting to get out of Chicago and into East Lansing so that I could take in my first breath of non-airport American air. It was about an hour and a half before the flight when they made an announcement that they had overbooked the flight and that if anyone was wiling to take a later flight that day, they would be given a voucher of $150 that could be claimed against any Delta flight in the next 6 months. In India, people would have dropped their bags and run; there would have been chaos, and a few people would have been socked in the face, trampled over and maybe even seriously injured in the ensuing rush. I definitely wasn't expecting that kind of panic here, but surely someone was interested? None of the passengers waiting there seemed to care. I remembered the slide in the module on American Culture we used to train on in the BPO industry years ago at IBM, that spoke about Americans planning their vacations way in advance, and how time was something of a commodity for them, and for a lot of them, waiting for that next flight just wasn't worth the money the airline was willing to pay. Was this America's welcome gift for me? Was this to be an omen of the times to come in the USA, where things would just fall into place miraculously all the time? Was this going to be a dream journey where things magically fell into place every time? Or was this like a little carrot to draw me deeper, like the free parking some casinos offer in some big cities, as long as you spend some time in there, until you realize that paid parking on the street would have been a better idea.


While I contemplated this, however, I realized that I had forgotten one thing on that PPT - a certain disclaimer that lay in one of the last few slides, "There is no such thing as one 'American Culture'". There are individuals in the US from every frikkin' country and ethnicity, as well as tourists and scholars like me who bring their own set of values to the counter, and this is exactly what I found in front of me as I went to tell the lady from the airline that I would be willing to take the next flight - a Mexican lady beat me to it. Ah, the Mexicans! It brought images of Donald Trump in front of my yes, for some reason, and I wished at that point that I had been a bit more Indian, a bit sooner. It wasn't long before I was on that flight as scheduled - a much smaller flight than the trans-Atlantic flight that had got me into Chicago. I landed in East Lansing not too late in the night, and the welcoming staff from MSU was there with sign-boards that tread 'FLTAs' waiting for us. There was Prof. Matt from MSU, and a curly haired Moroccan lad named Mustafa. I also met a bunch of other FLTAs from some other countries who had been on the same flightas me, and we introduced ourselves to each other - a couple of Japanese FLTAs, some from the middle-east, one from Vietnam, some from Europe. I saw that not a lot of them spoke very much right then, and I realized they hadn't really come across my brand of humour before, which I then decided to give a bit of a 'rest'. We reached the Marriott at night, where they checked us in and gave us our registration forms, our pre-paid cards and our welcome kits. The other three Indian FLTAs who had the same venue for the orientation had taken a different flight and had already reached earlier that evening - three ladies who had their own storm brewing between them. We met briefly, where we exchanged stories of our journey from New Delhi, where I told them how I was nearly deported back to India, and a couple of others told I me I was very lucky indeed, for there was a Japanese FLTA who had misplaced the same form as I had, who had to be sent back from an airport in China.


As I went upstairs to take my luggage to the room before I stepped out for dinner, They had informed me at the reception that my room-mate had already checked in. I remembered the excel sheets they had sent us a few months ago so that we knew who our roommates at the orientation were going to be. I remembered that I hadn't been too excited to have read that I was to get an Iraqi room-mate, and I deliberately pictured a fat Sheikh with a flowing white robe and headgear and a thick beard smiling at me when I entered, and I tried to summon the little Arabic that I had learnt in my earlier visits to Egypt. When I did walk in, however, I met Abbas. Abbas was a clean-shaven guy wearing a shirt and jeans who was bent over double trying to do something with two huge-ass suit cases filled with things, and he was busy trying to either find something or put something back into them when I walked in. The FLTAs I had met at the airport had not quite appreciated my sense of humour, so I decided to take it easy on the Iraqi guy, for God knows what might end up offending him, right?. I did show of a little Arabic to him though, upon which we started speaking about my time in Egypt. I asked him what Iraq was like, hoping to hear something about how the US had destroyed their economy and their society, but what I heard made me laugh out loud, for he said with the sweetest smile yet with a lot of passion in his voice, "Maybe we are doing well despite all the shits around our daily life!". He continued, with a smile, "We are suffering from the accumulation of years of dictatorship, wars and religion that has made people crazy, sectarian, biased and hateful, but we still have good and aware people who we rely on to get our country back.. we are fighting to survive despite all of these shitty things." We knew right then that we would get along very well. Abbas would end up saying the funniest of things at the weirdest of moments. For example, when I met Abbas later at the mid-year conference, we were in the same group for one activity, where they had asked us how we dealt with students who whispered in class. Abbas stood up and said, "First, I will say "Please!""... there was a long pause, and everyone turned to look at him. "If they don't stop, I will go and slap them". The whole room erupted in laughter. I had suggested during our discussion that he say "I will throw my shoe at them", but considering that 'throwing a shoe' has the worst possible connotations in the Arab world, and remembering what had happened to George Bush at that press conference in Iraq in 2008, he probably thought it wise to restrict his humour to slapping. I also heard about him in the semester that followed, while speaking to a Russian FLTA who was very emoitional over the phone, because he had told her that Hitler was great. When I discussed this incident with him later though, we discovered that this was a result of a communication gap. To Milya, the word 'great' brought images of Hitler being 'great man', meaning someone who had done a lot of good to humankind, and someone who had brought about prosperity and inspiration. What Abbas meant, however, was that when he saw documentaries of World War II, he saw the number of places on the map that Hitler had managed to occupy. To him, what Hitler had managed to accomplish was exceptional, which is why he had called Hitler's achievements 'great' in the sense of 'prolific', although he agreed that Hitler was a complete lunatic and a man condemnable beyond excuse.


I don't remember if I had left my pre-paid card in my room or if I couldn't activate it that night, but I was out of cash and that night's dinner was not included in the orientation programme. So we had to either order at the hotel and pay for it while checking out, or go out and eat at a few places they had recommended. I had reached the USA with the single-minded intention of spending as little as possible on food and accommodation and as much as I could on good beer and more travel. So when the various groups of FLTAs went their way in groups based on their preferences, a few of us went to the nearest 7/11, where I got myself a cheap sandwich, for the following day's breakfast was a part of the orientation programme. However, my Indian Debit Card wasn't working, which I later found out was because international transactions were blocked as a 'safety feature' offered by the bank, and I had no cash. Luckily, Berkay, the Turkish FLTA, offered to pay for my sandwich, and we agreed that I would buy him two beers in return on the following day. Thus was spent my first day in the United States of America. The next three days of orientation had a lot of activities and interactions in store for us, and I was excited about meeting people from all these countries I had never been to, and to hear from the experts on language teaching from MSU and other leading universities who had been especially invited for this programme, and I was eagerly looking forward to a warm shower, the cozy Marriott bed, the breakfast in the morning and everything else that was to follow. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Perspective on Life



We breathe in, allowing armies of air
To incessantly penetrate our being, to
Invigilate, inspect our decaying state;
To remove the rust, the residue & the rest;
To restore chaos to order by each retreat.
Sip by sip, our lips invite tanks of water
To invade these boats drifting dangerously,
To follow protocol, confiscate waste,
To maintain the measure of minerals, with
Every morsel, Earth's camouflaged corps
March their way in; mementos of murder,
Turning consciousnesses to corpses caught
In the crossfire 'tween indifference & greed;
Each morsel bearing a thousand testimonies
To the pain and crime of existence...

We need these factories for sure, but have we
Ever wondered where this itinerary takes us?

We open our eyes and a piece of sky
Transcends Instagram likes; a messenger,
A sole reflection, bearing witness to
Ages along the universe's Autobahn.
We listen but all we hear is the noisy roar
Of drills and trucks and video-games drowning
Ancient vibrations of an anaesthetized cosmos
On their journey from Om? home? Do we
Dare to care about alarming signs, silence
These background tracks, smells and tastes?
Misleading signposts leading us astray, adrift,
Across nameless floodplains and deltas;
With shallow representations of the waves
That clothe a lonely, immortal soul
With this fabulous fabric of Spacetime,..

There  surely must be a way to where
All these channels and broadbands won't take us...

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Who is the True Anti-National: A Long Perspective on the JNU Debate

It was not long ago when JNU organized an event on 'The Use of Technology for Good Governance' on Good Governance Day. Now as most people might be aware, Good Governance was one of Modi's initiatives, wherein he encouraged the use of technology for the purpose of good governance. Now while I believe that technology can definitely be used positively in facilitating timely services to people and to prevent corruption, there are counter-arguments that call it a way to increase government surveillance, and how it would make government-backed witch-hunts a lot easier. There may be many more arguments on either side, but that is beyond the scope of what I have to say here. So there was an oratory competition, where 13 speakers had to come and speak, and I was nominated by my Supervisor, as a faculty member at the Linguistic Empowerment Cell, to adjudicate this competition. We were given four parameters on which to mark them, which I think were content, structure, language and delivery. As we proceeded with the competition, however, students from left-backed student wings started protesting outside with comment like 'Vice Chancellor Hai Hai!" and "Modi ke chamche Hai Hai!. They were so loud that we could barely hear some of the speakers at the competition. We were greatly annoyed and perturbed by this display of protest. Let me highlight though that there was no violence involved at any stage. I sincerely wished that there had been some technology handy to silence those protests that day.

I met my friend Phani the same evening and we shared a cup of chai at the Sabarmati Dhaba when we laughed about how he and I saw each other at the protest, and I was sitting inside while he was sloganeering outside. There were some other friends of mine who were shouting out there with him too. I told him that my first impression was one of irritation when they had started sloganeering, as I felt that they were doing nothing constructive by disrupting the session. So in my discussion with Phani, I told him that if they really had differences in opinion, they should have come in and made their points as a part of the Oratory competition. This way, their points could have been heard by everyone inside, who by the way were definitely not 'Modi ke chamche', and they could have had a lavish dinner at the Mughal Darbar dhaba with the money they could have won if their oration had been good. There were three prizes too, so they could have sent in multiple speakers and claimed all three prizes and made their point as well. What better way to set the establishment right! 

Phani smiled as he agreed with me on this point, and we continued to speak about other issues around us, like how the campus had changed over the years, and about how pretty that girl was who was having samosas on a table in front of us. This is life in general at JNU. Some party protests against one thing while another protests about something else. I often feel that these student unions and student wings of political parties must reinvent the way they protest - maybe try some new body language instead of the age-old 'laal salaam' sequence with the hand going from the forehead up into the air.  I'd also like them to come up with more definite, practical results to the issues they raise. In their idealism, they also end up looking at everyone else as enemies and hence end up losing support on valid issues they raise. I have also often wondered why they are so loud in everything that they do. Why not instead focus on ways to solve these problems and go about it in a less noisy manner? Why not protest less and act more, so that they don't end up in situations like the present case in question, which has led to what the world is now calling the JNU student uprising, but I am now  glad this has happened, and I shall try to explain why.

To summarize the cause of the protest at hand, a group of ten students wanted to organize a 'cultural show' (whoever came up with this title!) in commemoration of the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted terrorist! no wait, maybe not, say some. What the hell, let's kill him in the dark and finish it off! No last wishes. Off with his head! Body not returned to family), The administration gave the approval for this show (No clue what they were trying to show, coz the show actually never happened), but five minutes before it was to begin, the administration withdrew permission. So the Students Union was called, and they realised that some ABVP representatives had gotten the event cancelled, and what resulted was a sloganeering yuddh between the red and orange forces. There was also the recent suicide of the Dalit (I wonder why people have to highlight this fact!) student, Rohit Vemula from Hyderabad University. Owing to his support for Yakub Memon (another convicted terrorist!) that led to a scuffle with members of the ABVP, consequences that created circumstances leading to his suicide have been linked to the interference of the Labour Minister & the HRD minister, who start exchanging letters (they weren't letters about love, surely) about the normally autonomous functioning of a university in the background. 

Viewing the disruption of this event as a similar politically backed interference, there was a verbal scuffle that followed, as is usual in JNU, where slogans were hurled at each other like cakes of cowdung, and because the ABVP students were perceived to be trying to stifle the voice of Kashmiris by disallowing this show, there were slogans in favour of Kashmir's freedom. At this point, a group of students? go bonkers with "Bharat ki barbadi tak jung rahegi" and"India Go Back" slogans (are they out of their mind??!!). The point to be noted is that in this particular video, the only one which is objectionable and could be worthy of police action, it is very dark and one cannot figure out who the people in the video are, but well it is sent to the media channels who get their night-vision glasses on, and voila!! 'JNU students are anti-national' 'This is how they use the tax-payers' money'. Now before the earth could spin around it's own head once, ALL of JNU is declared to be an anti-national space by the angry mob, whose only aim in life is to save Bharat Maata. Wait, this is not the plot of a political crime thriller; this is real life stuff happening as we speak!

Coming to the point I'm trying to make, despite the differences I might have with the politics of the Left, this is not synonymous with my feelings towards the university itself. JNU is a multicultural, multi-layered institution with students and faculty of all strata of society. It is also a place where dhaba walas selling chai are accorded the same level of respect as other students or even faculty members at times. To interpret JNU in a blog entry would be like summarizing Sachin Tendulkar's lifetime achievements in two words, but when some people say 'JNU is full of anti-nationals or terrorists', I cannot but try to talk about the ridiculousness of the argument. This is like saying that because one person from your community was convicted for felony, your entire community is evil, but then we say that too, don't we? While I agree that certain slogans like "Bharat ki barbadi tak jung rahegi" or "India Go Back" or "Bandook ke dum par" had definitely crossed the line, I maintain that there is no evidence that identifies the students who were actually saying these slogans, and that a majority of the other slogans in the protest, including slogans asking for Kashmir's independence, were not anti-national, albeit against national interests. While my whole view on what constitutes a nation, and how the concept of a nation leads to blind jingoism and irrational sentiments towards people who don't belong to the nation is a (u)topic in itself, I shall refrain from getting into that at the moment, as I would want to stay as close as possible to the question at hand, which is whether JNU ought to be deemed anti-national or not. 

To speak about what JNU stands for, I would like to quote a joint statement signed by 455 academicians from global universities, including Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Cambridge, which said, “JNU stands for a vital imagination of the space of the university -- an imagination that embraces critical thinking, democratic dissent, student activism, and the plurality of political beliefs. It is this critical imagination that the current establishment seeks to destroy. And we know that this is not a problem for India alone.” JNU has always been a place for political debate and dissent, and issues like these, that may be taboo for the rest of the country, are raised day-in and day-out. What usually needs a special event backed with security outside, is usually a topic for daily debate over a cup of chai for JNU students. Such is the plurality and the levels of tolerance inside JNU. People don't feel threatened when they express their points of view, and thus their ideas get a form of expression in these discussions, and this facilitates dialogue, and with dialogue we develop bonds and affinities, through which opinions are changed and extreme thoughts tend to develop milder tones. Thus, the marginalized gets a chance to find a comfortable spot in the mainstream and there are increased levels of acceptance and a sense of acceptability in the fringes. If you call this kind of space a bed for anti-national activities only because we allow a vent for feelings otherwise suppressed, for feeling which would otherwise tend to find more violent forms of expression, then I would sincerely beg to differ.

Today, when someone asks me where I am from, I say I am from India. When they ask me which part of India I'm from, I usually just shrug my shoulders, because I don't know how to say it in one line. I'm a person of Tamil ethnicity born in Madras (it wasn't Chennai then) raised in Bombay (not Mumbai) and Aurangabad (a city in Maharashtra where the population has been 40% Muslim for a while now, one of the highest numbers for cities in India outside of Kashmir, including cities like Aligarh and Hyderabad), have been a resident of Delhi for the last 15 years, and with a known affinity towards the North-East of India. I was born to a Christian mother who had grown up in the tea estates Kerala and an atheistic father who had grown up in Delhi and worked in Bombay. Needless to say, I had a lot of plurality in my house and my environment when I was growing up, not to mention the dogs who were a part of my family, who taught me more about loyalty and unconditional love as I grew up that any political party has, to date. So don't you call me disloyal or anti-national. Speaking of my beliefs, I'm an agnostic with primarily Buddhist & some Vedic spiritual inclinations, some curiosity about Islam and other religions, a proponent of peace & social justice irrespective of imaginary boundaries on land or in the mind, an activist for animal rights and for respecting the planet we're on and it's resources, and an advocate of critical thinking. My point here is that the only identity I have besides being human is that of being an Indian, and you are taking that away from me by calling me anti-national, just because I say that people must be allowed to say what they feel, for if they are not, then there is a greater likelihood of them resorting to more violent forms of expression; just because I do not agree with one form of nationalism that is propagated to our masses through our government channels and through the media, where microphones are muted as per convenience. 

When I first I went to study in Delhi as a second generation Stephanian and had my first cultural shock when I playfully kicked the boy sitting in front of him from under his chair (which has a nylon mesh seating) and accidentally caught him on his balls, which made him send out a muffled scream. At this point, the girl sitting next to me looked up and asked me what happened. I turned around and said, "I kicked him where I shouldn't have", and she turned around and said, "Can he get it up anymore?" For someone coming from Aurangabad, where the girls in school barely made eye contact or shook your hand when you met them, this was only the beginning of my culture shock, as I witnessed girls and guys hugging each other and kissing each other on the cheek as a normal form of greeting. This shock generally died out as I spent my years in college. My years in Stephen's were a great education for me not because of what used to happen in class (most of which I missed, some of which I spent gazing out the window because the teachers were boring), but because of the wonderful interactions I would have with the brightest minds in the nation. I realized how well-read, multi-talented and articulate everyone was and always felt mediocre in such company. By the time I graduated, I was a totally different person from what I was when I came in, for I had absorbed new ideas, a new lifestyle and new ways of thinking and found a space where I could express myself. At this point, I wanted to support myself and my education as I felt I was no longer justified in making my parents pay for my education, so I took up this job as an accent trainer where I mostly worked night shifts, and would travel on my Thunderbird (motorbike) all the way to the Delhi University North Campus for two years in order to finish my MA. Life was tough and busy, but in two years, I had an MA degree. Please note that I had no time for protests and always rode with my helmet on.

My job in accent training plus the one paper on linguistics we had in MA got me interested in Linguistics, and I wanted to research what I did at work and earn a degree in telling people where to place their tongues so the right sounds could be produced. This is when I first got acquainted with JNU. I remember finishing my night shift and going to some obscure Kendriya Vidyalaya in West Delhi for my entrance exam. I nearly blanked out even before I found the place, forget about my reaction when I saw that arduous question paper, but I sat through the three hours and finished the paper with a lot of creativity, to put it moderately. To my surprise, I was called for the interview, and when I appeared for the interview, I went with the view that in the worst case scenario, I would at least know what JNU professors looked like up close. When I met them, I realized they were human beings too! So I didn't hurl stones at them and instead, we had conversation. Yes, this is how people communicate in JNU - using words! I told them that I worked in the corporate industry and wanted to study accent training, upon which I was grilled for nearly half an hour in that room. "All of us are ta/da", said Ayesha Kidwai (using the retroflex Hindi t & d), that now familiar smirk on her face, and I humbly agreed. I convinced them that accent training and language teaching is not something that proves one accent to be superior to another, but is just about realising the fact that there is a job market for a certain kind of accent and if training people on being comprehensible to people across the world gives them a job, then I don't see anything wrong with it. At that time, I remember professor Manjili asking me in that interview, "What if one day India became powerful and the West wanted to learn Hindi?" I said that I would long for that day to come and I will gladly be willing to teach Americans or Englishmen Hindi. 

Today, this is precisely what I am doing on a Fulbright fellowship in the USA, as a cultural ambassador of the country, teaching Hindi to students in the USA for one academic year, of which I am proud, because I am helping people half way around the world to learn the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world, and more importantly a language that represents India to the world (although it is NOT our national language). I intend to return to India to apply my learning from my association with the 'khwool' American education system, to improve the state of education in India. I also work for an organization that runs training programmes for corporates and also partners with NGOs to impart essential knowledge and skills to underprivileged children, and also works with teachers from different schools in order to enable them to teach better by adopting more effective strategies (so that fewer children spend their time gazing out the windows & actually end up learning something in class). All this is in an endeavour to make people's lives better and to make a useful contribution to Indian society, and when you call everyone from JNU anti-national, you include me in this list, and it is people like me who are going to be under threat when some fanatic right-wing elements scout the streets looking for people from JNU so they can rough them up, and journalists like Arnab Goswami are not helping the cause by holding one-sided debates where the invited participants are barely allowed to speak. Most media channels these days are driven by TRP ratings and political affiliations and this to me is more anti-national than what happened in JNU. There is an ancient Hawaiian saying, "I ka ‘ōlelo nō ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make" (In language there is life, in language there is death). I hope we realize the power that lies in language and learn to use it wisely.

I cleared that interview for an Mphil in Linguistics, went on to finish my MPhil and PhD, and taught Communicative and Academic English for 5 years at JNU at the Linguistic Empowerment Cell. As teachers, we always encouraged students to raise their points and engage in constructive debates without trying to assert our own ideologies upon them, and this is true for most of the faculty on campus. I am not saying that everything in JNU is hunky dory and that it is a true utopia. Of course it isn't. There are politics in every department, there are shameful actions by several people in the administration and well as the faculty. There is propaganda, there is retribution and people are targeted as well. As my fellow JNUite and tennis buddy Yogesh has rightly said, questioning the JNUSU's view of freedom of speech and expression, "when they forcibly stop students from attending classes or when they stop American and Israeli officials from entering the premises or they lock up the registrar in his car!" Yes, some of the actions of the self-proclaimed activists of freedom border on ridiculousness. However, this is a part of human nature, and this happens everywhere. Should we aspire to get better? Yes, definitely! Is there room for improvement? Always!!

What makes JNU unique though, is the fact that it provides everyone with a space for dissent, a space for disagreement and protest, and there are systems in place to question every action taken. This system was well-capable of handling the present situation as well, but the insistence of the home ministry on sending the police into the autonomous space of a university by blowing the event out of proportion and by maligning the entire university for the actions of a few students (probably outsiders?) is despicable. I mean, there are students in JNU who are opposed to the slogans raised on the 9th of Feb, and not everyone in JNU is a supporter of the Left. There are a lot of students like me who have issues with the way the Left conducts its politics, as I have mentioned at the start of this article, and there are debates and disagreements all the time. What we all agree upon though, is that the right to express one's ideas should not be stifled in the name of nationalism. Sedition is a totally different term which may not even apply to the present case, as in the Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, the famous 66A judgment, the Supreme Court drew a clear distinction between 'advocacy' and 'incitement', stating that only the latter was punishable.

They ask us what linguists do for society. Besides being good with our tongues and lips, linguists at JNU have done a lot more for society than you would imagine. We have documented the Andamanese language, a language that was left with the last generation of speakers and would have otherwise died out, thanks to colonizing languages like English and Hindi, which are driving more and more languages into endangerment or extinction each day. When a language is lost, a whole amount of ancient knowledge as well as a culture intricate with words and terminologies in that culture is lost, and if it weren't for a group from JNU led by Prof. Anvita Abbi, there would be no documentation of or revival efforts for Andamanese today. There is also another language in the border areas of India and Nepal called Tinker-Lo that is currently being worked on by linguists led by Prof. Ayesha Kidwai and Prof. Pradeep Kumar Das in JNU. Prof. Vaishna Narang and her long list of students and research scholars have long been researching speech defects in clinical cases of Aphasia, Stroke and Alzheimer's and other such syndromes in order to use linguistic analyses to diagnose symptoms so that a lot of casualties and the onset of these conditions can be prevented. Professors like Ayesha Kidwai, Anvita Abbi and Vaishna Narang have received recognition from across the world and by our own nation for their contributions in the field of linguistics, including awards as prestigious as the Padma Shri. These are merely SOME of the contributions ONLY by the department of linguistics in JNU. Each department could come up with a similar if not more impressive list of their own. Now, if the nation wants to undo all these efforts because of slogans shouted by ten people who probably weren't even students of JNU (which weren't half as loud as Arnab Goswami's slogans in the first place!), then I sincerely object to it. 

The Linguistic Empowerment Cell (LEC) at JNU was set up by my supervisor, Vaishna Narang, who believed that Lingusitic Empowerment is Cognitive Empowerment. JNU has always been that one university that provides deprivation points for people applying from remote parts of the country. A lot of other universities do this too, but while most universities only take these students in, JNU realizes that a lot of these students come from backgrounds where they barely ever spoke or read in English, and most of the readings available in higher education in the social sciences and sciences across the country are in English. So the LEC was set up to empower these students to be able to read, understand, speak and write in English so that they are not left behind in comparison to their more privileged classmates only because they grew up speaking a less ambitious mother-tongue. This is the extent to which JNU thinks about its students. JNU not only gives the opportunity to people from the remotest corners of the world and empowers them to think for themselves and to succeed in their lives. Without JNU, a lot of these students would not have gotten the opportunity to achieve a good education. So when people talk about their taxes being used to fund the studies of students here, I would urge them to think about whether this cause is something they'd rather their money be spent on or would they rather be angrier about the tax subsidies being given to corporations and individuals who are in cahoots with our government. Needless to say, the students of JNU and their families are tax-paying citizens of the country too. So it isn't as big a portion of one's taxes that are utilized to run an institution like JNU, and the contribution of JNU students in society has already been highlighted above. 

One thing about St. Stephen's College that stood out the most from the other colleges in Delhi University was its autonomous existence. While the entire Delhi University campus would be busy in politics and sloganeering, and often led to gunfights and curfews, students within the four walls of Stephen's would lead a life oblivious to all this, not being interested in any of the student politics and leading a life of contentment, visiting the Rohtas Dhaba for some samosas and gulab jamun. At our most adventurous best, some of us would climb to the roof of the girls' hostel and write 'Patrick was here' or set fire to the Dean's office door at night using Iodex, because he was an ass in general, or breaking the benches around the dhaba because of unsuccessful attempts at love. Our only foray into the rest of Delhi University would be to watch our basketball matches, where we once got beaten up by some Hansraj gundas, or to visit the Gwyer Hall dhobi once a week to get our clothes washed, to Balbir Dhaba or Ghanta Ghar for midnight paranthas, occasionally borrowing a cycle rickshaw and crashing it into roadside hoardings while racing with 'fuchchas', or to  the Kamla Nagar market to march as a group for a McDonald's Softy on Valentine's Day or for buying stationery, books and groceries, or to buy beer from some of the nearest theka at Kingsway Camp

For someone who comes from such an apolitical background to walk into JNU, the contrast is stark. The active politics, the power vested in the student union, the sloganeering, the protests, the strikes seemed absolutely unnecessary. The other difference that greeted us clearly was the significant difference in crowd. While at Stephen's we would also have a few students from small towns and villages, the majority belonged to relatively elite households. JNU, in contrast, was a truer representation of the entire nation, as there were people from all sections of society, from all beliefs one could encounter, and all kinds of political affiliations present on campus. While Stephen's was known for the student's lives beginning after the classes ended, in the form of theatre groups and debating societies and the myriad other clubs bursting into life an allowing students to work on their talents and skills they would need in life or their careers, JNU took these to a whole new level with the morchas, dharnas, candlelight marches, street plays, sloganeering, debates and cultural shows (real ones too, like the North East night, or the International Food Festival on Republic Day). And they didn't lock the women up after 10 PM, like they did at St. Stephen's.

For the first 5 of the 7 years I was at JNU, I didn't really live on campus or spend much time there. I used to come to attend classes and go back to work at IBM. Sometimes I would come to play tennis when my work hours permitted it, and then at night to have a drink or two with some friends who lived on campus. So while I missed out on a lot of activities that went around on campus, I was also in touch with the 'real-world' out there, and the fact that I was working in a multi-national capitalist corporate company and studying in a left-oriented campus helped me strike a beautiful balance between the two worlds. I was not extremely idealistic to the point of impracticality, and at the same time it helped me not get carried away by the whole capitalist philosophy of living to get promoted in the rat race, to keep yearning for more money and to be "in a better position on top of you", as one of my trainees at IBM once told his female assessor when she asked him where he saw himself in the next five years. I absolutely loved my years at IBM because it allowed me to travel across the country as well as abroad, and it made me experience so many different cultures and ways of life. 

One problem that I had with most JNU students was that they were happy demonstrating things on campus most of the time (with exceptions like the Nirbhaya case and others of course), while the rest of the world went by as usual, except auto wallahs who came to drop students off and left marveling the existence of such a space where girls could roam around freely after dark. I'm sure these ideas do get transmitted into society when students graduate and interact with the crude realities present outside, but I felt that JNU could do a lot more by initiating a dialogue with the world outside its walls. Despite all that has happened in this protest, I believe that it is a good thing that JNU has now received a platform to tell the world outside the walls what it believes in, and how a society can exist without having to fear consequences and retribution, and how peace can be maintained despite the presence of conflicting opinions, and how men and women can walk around dressed any way they want at any time of the day or night without feeling unsafe, where they can freely talk about their political beliefs, their sexuality, their religious and spiritual inclinations without fearing retribution. And for those who judge JNU without having ever visited the campus, I urge them to attend free talks on nationalism being organized by teachers now that they can listen to and participate in to express rational points of view that they might have in response. We do not throw stones at people in JNU.

If there was one place in India (and arguably the world) I would choose as my favourite, it is JNU. Even as we speak, there is a group of students and faculty members in JNU who are talking about the dogs and other animals that are suffering on campus. They have an active Whatsapp group where people inform each other of animal accidents, ailments and casualties, and they work closely with animal NGOs irrespective of their political affiliations, in order to try and do their best to protect and help those who cannot protest or speak up for themselves. This group also organizes tree-planting drives in response to forest fires that occur every now and then in JNU in the summer heat. I have been a part of some of these plantation drives, and the fact that we live in the middle of a forest and that we constantly encounter different kinds of deer, Nilgai, peacocks, rabbits, foxes, porcupine and a variety of birds enables us to be closer to nature and be more sensitive to our natural surroundings. There's something special about playing tennis on half-rolled clay courts with odd bounces when you've got Nilgai and Peacocks for an audience. We learn to care about natural resources like land and food and water, and we get to interact with students from all parts of the country as well as the world, and thereby understand the importance of these resources and are also exposed to how the politics of the nation impacts the people in some of the remotest corners of the country. This makes us more sensitive to issues such as those being raised by people in Kashmir for example, and hence makes us a lot more tolerant and a lot more thankful for some of the things most people take for granted - like the availability of drinking water, for example, or of three meals a day, or sometimes more importantly, freedom. 

As for the Kashmir issue, I understand that it is not a practically tenable solution to grant Kashmir independence, as this would definitely give away the significant strategic position we have today, militarily. With the Pakistan government funding terrorist activity and being ever-ready to claim Kashmir for themselves, and China pumping in tonnes of money into Pakistan and encroaching upon territory disputed with India, giving Kashmir independence would be akin to giving Kashmir to Pakistan and/or China and this would mean shooting oneself in the foot. India is a great democratic, secular space, and one must endeavour to keep it free from attacks by military states like Pakistan or autocratic, dictatorial states like China. The plurality and hospitality of India can be seen through various gestures like providing asylum to the Dalai Lama, all Tibetans and the Tibetan government in exile. Kashmir, therefore must be protected from these external forces in order to protect the rest of the country as well. Unfortunate as it is for Kashmiris, this is the sad truth and I don't see it changing, much like the sad truth for Tibet is that it has been taken over by China, and I don't see that changing either. However, there are similarities to what the Tibetans are asking for and what we should be willing to give Kashmiris, and that is the right to self-governance and self-determination. There are several examples around the world on how this can be done. I am not an expert on this and thus will not comment on this, but will narrate a story instead. 

I visited Kashmir a few years ago - in 2013 to be precise. I had quit my second job and gone on a month-long road trip across Rajasthan and UP before flying to Srinagar and visiting the nearby areas for my vacation. When I was 20, I had promised myself that I would take a break when I was 30 in order to think about life and where it was headed. Not that it was frikkin headed anywhere, but a little before I turned 30, I quit my job and went on this road trip. My French friend of Vietnamese heritage, who I had met when I was training for IBM in Saigon in 2011, was visiting India as she had heard a lot from her Yoga Master in Saigon. When we were on our way to Srinagar, I had told her that the place was reputed to be a 'Paradise on Earth'. She said that her Yoga Master had also recommended the place to her, having called it 'Heaven on Earth'. I still remember her reaction when she arrived amidst all the armed soldiers and intense security, where she needed to register her arrival and departure just so the government knew she was alive (she wasn't thrilled). I clearly remember her saying, "I see no paradise here" and it is then that it dawned upon me that Kashmir is not what we were taught to dream of it to be. I realized that it wasn't paradise at all, and I could understand the frustration of the Kashmiris when of the 7 days I was there, I was restricted to a houseboat and a few boat rides around the houseboat for 4 days because of the curfew imposed in the entire city. 

Police had killed a youth and then the army had enforced a curfew on the entire city. This was ordinary life for those people. Army atrocities happen day in and day out, but then Indian media never shows us what happens there, for it is not news when it is a daily affair. When you speak to Kashmiris there, you feel sorry for them. Speak heart to heart with a Kashmiri someday and you'll know why people like Afzal Guru come into existence. Hanging him in secret and refusing to let him meet his family before dying or to even return his body to his family would understandably make Kashmiris more alienated, and if we have to keep them as Indians anyway, then suppressing them is not a long term solution, but letting them speak is. And although I do NOT agree that Afzal Guru is a martyr or a hero, I respect the views of people who might think he is, as long as they are not inciting people or being secessionist. This is what was meant when students in JNU were shouting, "Kitne Afzal maaroge, har ghar se Afzal niklega" (How many Afzals will you kill, an Afzal will come out of every house), for it is true that suppression of voices only leads to the search for other forms of expression, which usually translates to violence. As Dr. Amit Ranjan rightly points out, "Campuses are temples of learning, and dissent and protest of students is a global phenomenon. If one knows France of 1969, or America of Vietnam times, or JNU of Emergency, or a hundred such examples, one would know that there is a long and respected tradition of resistance and student movements. This is what keeps a democracy robust. Even if you do not really believe in a real democracy, tactically, campuses are safety valves – where the youth have a voice to vent out, a place to put their word."

What the government is doing by trying to suppress these voices is to stifle this safety valve. Anyone who has had a pressure cooker explode in their kitchen would know how dangerous this is. What is more worrisome and anti-national too, are the violent incidents such as the one outside the high-court, where the goons have proven affiliations with the BJP, and the violence and might which the government and other opposing forces have come down upon ALL of JNU. All this while the BJP is in talks with the PDP (supporters of Afzal guru!!) in Kashmir to strengthen their alliance. The present government tends to assert its forces with great aggression upon ideologies different from theirs. They have changed the content of History textbooks and in certain schools, Baba Ramdev is being presented to children as a Saint!!!??? 

They want things to be made in India, requiring cheap labour for the global market and hence want universities to function like factories, where mere skills are produced without the cultivation of thought. While this may be true in engineering colleges or medical colleges, in Social Science universities in particular, people must be encouraged to think and to question existing norms. There have been several incidents where RSS activists and other right-wing organizations have taken the law into their hands, and the government has been silent about it. However, when it comes to ideologies that differ from theirs, they seem to be throwing their might around in several cases across the country, the two recent incidents being the Rohith Vemula case and the present JNU incident. What is also worrisome is that based on slogans that a handful of outsiders (or students?) raised, the media and the ABVP students have had the nation blame the entire campus for being a hub of anti-national thoughts, when it is a fact that even within JNU, there are constant debates and arguments that happen day-in and day-out. JNU is not one ideology, but a hot bed and a crucible that allows the mixing of several conflicting ideologies where healthy debates are held and conflicting ideas are brought face to face with each other in a non-threatening environment. If all of JNU thought alike, then why would we need to debate? Not even Yogesh and I agree on our political views despite often being on the same side while playing doubles on the tennis courts while peacocks and mongooses mate in front of us.

For those who think that JNU is suddenly standing up for Afzal Guru, or that they are picking up the wrong issues at the wrong time, and that they should have protested the Rohit Vemula case instead of dragging Afzal Guru in, I would like to say that JNU is a lot larger than these issues. There are a variety of issues that are raised and spoken about in JNU. On the night that the cultural show in JNU was to be organized, I am sure several other debates and discussions were also happening in other parts of the campus. Just because the media has decided to highlight this incident right now, doesn't mean that these discussions haven't happened before. The Indian Express covered a hunger strike on the Rohit Vemula issue by 7 JNU students a week before this incident was reported. What concerns me most is that I feel that this crackdown on JNU was because JNU has constantly been a pain in the neck for the government, by raising valid, rational questions by protesting against the 'Make in India' scheme for example, wherein the government wants India to start manufacturing things in India so that it can compete with China as a supplier to the global market. While this seems impressive on the face of it, people need to realize that for us to compete with China in the manufacturing industry, to maintain prices as low as China, we need to create a labour market that is similar to that in China, which means we need cheap labour that is subjected to great human rights violations. These and several other such valid points come out of the system of critique that goes by the name of JNU.

In Vimlendu Jha's response to Mohandas Pai's attack on JNU, he quotes Paulo Freire, one of the tallest educationist of the 20th century and the architect of ‘critical pedagogy’ as follows “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” He goes on to say to Mohandas Pai, "You seem to be equating educational institutions as factories with assembly line production, where pupils enter from one side as an empty vessel i.e. with no independent thought process of their own, and exit from the other side with the ‘vessel’ filled. You also seem to misunderstand that schools are not an extension of ‘Make in India’, instead it’s about ’Think in India’, critically... By design an educational institution is supposed to be as much a place of learning as well as a cultural and political body. Passive acceptance or agreement with the system or uncritically accepting the state point of view is surely not education". 

I would like to remind everyone that India has had a glorious past with several contributions in the fields of science, medicine, fitness, religion, spirituality and politics amongst others, and these developments surely did not come about without rational debates and discussions, and definitely not because of unwarranted hooliganism. We need to uphold the tapestry of coexistence despite our many differences and for this we need to seriously question our notions of what nationalism means, or what patriotism means. When the concept of the maata becomes more important than the people who live within these imaginary lines drawn around the maata, we might want to stop and think about what we're really fighting for. I have great respect for the soldiers braving adverse conditions and constant threats to their lives, and I know that they suffer way more than the civilians of the country, and all this is mostly owing to the partisan politics that has dominated the country. It is time that we stopped blindly following ideologies or political parties and questioned each event being reported after scrutinizing it thoroughly with a critical lense free of subjective statements and arguments being made by various sources. 

Patriotism does not lie in standing up for the national anthem in a movie theatre and going home to beat up one's wife or indulge in corruption. It cannot be gauged by superficial parameters like respect for the national flag or the national anthem and we certainly cannot force patriotism down the throats of people who do not wish to be patriotic in this sense. Forcing anything down someone's throat will only make them hate it more (most parents would know this). Suppression of voices will only lead to more violent forms of expression and violence only begets violence. As someone has said, and it doesn't matter who, "An eye for an eye only causes more blindness". We need to stop discouraging debate and dissent and stop following what is being sold to us on the media blindly, and we must strongly condemn all acts of violence, especially those backed by the government of India. Kanhaiya Kumar has been arrested despite not having shouted anti-national slogans (even Shatrughan Sinha from the BJP has vouched for it now!) while the real Kashmiri sloganeers are still running free. 
Government-backed police interference in the functioning of an academic institution, and hooliganism outside the High Court under the eyes of the Police by people closely associated with none other than the Home Minister of India are far greater threats to the country's reputation as the world's largest Democracy and the world's largest Republic as well as to our status as a Secular nation. 

While I say this, let me reiterate that I (or JNU) DO NOT SUPPORT OR CONDONE slogans like 'Bharat ki barbadi tak' or 'India Go Back'I am saddened that these slogans happened to take place in the JNU campus, and I sincerely hope these were NOT students of JNU who shouted them (for the video presented as evidence is too dark to identify who they were). I also hope these people are identified and questioned, and that the due legal procedures are followed while taking action in this regard. I also hope that right-wing extremists who celebrated India's Republic Day as a Black Day be called in for questioning, and that that case is investigated as rigorously as the JNU case is at the moment, and that the US moon-landing is also investigated as rigourously as well (Whaaaat??!!! Yeah well,  but you know, what's not funny is that not everyone knows at which point in the last three sentences I stopped being realistic). While the political parties and the media channels and the legal procedures sort these issues out, my only request to all those who have spoken against JNU is to please stop targeting the entire fraternity of JNU or condemning the entire event's organization as anti-national. Most importantly, for the sake of whatever you hold dearest to yourself, let's please condemn and end these unwarranted acts violence (hint: lawyers beating up university professors and students outside a high court, in police presence;) by irrational and true anti-national elements of our society. 



Monday, February 15, 2016

In These Forests of JNU



These times of trial call for great strength;
It takes courage to cross these gates.
There are voices rising east and west,
But as the noises get louder, they fade,
Against forces too khaki to comprehend,
Against an apathetic, bullying State.
Arise with us as we break across this dam,
So our ships can sail towards the seas.
These ships that sail for reason, for love;
Let's keep those lathis aside and speak.
Lend us your thoughts & we shall lend you ours,
Across this darkness of violent abuse; as we
Keep shouting the truth till it's louder than the lies,
With passion - in these forests of JNU.

We shout for a world where voices are heard,
Where the mind learns with the heart & the soul,
Where tongues have learnt to question and doubt
What the tyrannous times now show,
Where division and suppression find no space,
Where justice ain't hung in the dark on a pole.
We shout for freedom and peaceful times,
Where violence and war have no role.
Where people are heard, not trampled upon,
Where the masses are thinkers, not trolls;
Lend us your ears, your passion, your peace.
Let's brave the hooligans of hate and their crew;
Let's hold up our torches on these stormy nights
In peace - in these forests of JNU.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

FLTA Diaries - The Run Up

It was a time of great change in the world; it was a time of great change in India. While the Middle East was melting down under riots, revolts and revolutions and the ISIS was taking over as the world's most deadly terrorist organization, the USA was trying its hand at legalizing marijuana, making friends with Cuba, and trying to figure out China (well the whole world was trying to do that, while China was busy trying to buy land on the moon), and India was trying its hand at banning beef, religious conversions, pornography, Maggi, controversial books, NGOs, movies, documentaries, western style parties and pretty much everything else that didn't fit into the narrow definition of Indian culture that existed in the minds of a few saffron-clad men in power.  It was in such times that I left India - the land of yoga, the Buddha, of unity in diversity, the land of a million gods, and the land of farmer suicides. It was in such times that I landed in the USA - the land of dreams, the land of opportunity and the land of hope and glory, the land of the international police, the land that destroyed the Middle East in the name of waging a war on terror. It was difficult to say which way the world was headed. Some said it was progress, and a majority of the others agreed, but the more I looked at things closely, the more difficult it was to fathom the true meaning of this word - progress, until there was Donald Trump. He made it clear - that 'progress' has no true meaning, no one knows what it means; all it requires is for a certain number of stars to align, and these aren't the celestial stars, these are the stars that light the earth from within it's gravitational pull - the satellites that transmit what funded media channels want them to transmit, capturing people's imaginations in large numbers, keeping them busy with a barrage of trivial news that makes little difference to anyone's life, and keeps them busy enough to keep them from thinking - yes, that is progress - the ideas of a handful of people with power, projected upon the masses that are content in living from sunrise to sunset, from the 1st to the 31st, slaving for a living from Monday to Friday, and barely getting a chance to get their senses together over the weekend, if they can afford one in the rat race they are a part of. China of course was a different story.

Yes, China was indeed trying to own the moon, the very moon that I used to look at while hearing stories from my grandmother, of how an old man and an old lady lived there and how they went about their day making butter from the milk that flows all around the moon; that same moon that I looked at several times, sitting outside the kitchen door, with my mother cooking inside (the smell of mustard seeds and onions being deep fried in oil just before hitting the dal, and the smell of fresh rotis being taken off the tawa and tossed into the casserole) and my father sitting next to me with a glass of whiskey in his hand, pointing to the stars and introducing me to some planets (stars that didn't twinkle) and constellations like the Great Bear and the Orion Giant, with the moon shining brighter than them all. It took a lot of convincing before I was ready to believe that the moon in fact was the smallest of all those objects we saw in the sky, and that it was nearly impossible for us to reach any of them except the moon, which they had reached already, or so they claimed. This was much before the age of Ipads and apps that could show you the entire sky at a glance. These were days when video games were things that could be had if one had a granny who could travel abroad and buy one for you. Three decades, several technological innovations and several philosophy books later, my own existence is sometimes as suspect in my head as the moon-landing seems to be. The difference between the real and the unreal, the video game and the non video game is increasingly blurred - something only reason, guided by my senses, has convinced me to believe. Some believe in Ram, some in Jesus, some in Allah, some in a million other beings that I'm not sure any of them has really seen or met or felt, with a fervour so great that it allows them to take the lives of several others who may not have seen the same apparitions they have. I'm glad to hear that not so many have killed because some others don't believe someone landed on the moon.

I had first heard of America when my father introduced me to Elvis Presley - his childhood hero. He was in college when Jailhouse Rock had released, and he stood in line from 5 AM at Filmistan so he could get to watch the first show on the first day of the release. His friend tells me that he went and watched it every day for the whole first week of its release. Needless to say, I grew up with Elvis all around me. Vinyl Albums that played on the Turntable, Audio Cassettes, Video Cassettes that played on the National VCR and the Sony TV that he had got during his trip to Singapore. Elvis had defined my life in many ways - with his flamboyant lifestyle, his larger-than-life personality, his ability to rock'n'roll, and the insurmountability of death, for even Elvis couldn't evade it, with all his aura and fan following. Nevertheless, I was flying to the land that had produced Elvis - the white man that sang like a black man, thus uniting all of America, and to an extent the whole world. My application for the Fulbright FLTA programme was not free of it's events and hiccups. It started with the form, which takes a month to fill, for someone like me. I took one look at it and almost gave up, but when I met a few friends who had done it before, they convinced me that as long as I saved my work once I was done, I could return in a few days and carry on completing the form - with it's academic record details, job history details, essays, a requirement to attach transcripts of all your academic degrees as a single file - it took me about a month to complete it, and I finished it maybe a few hours before the deadline.

The next step was the eligibility test, which was at 9 AM on a Saturday. Anyone who knows me just a little bit would know how bad a situation that was, even if you ignored the fact that it was on a Saturday, which I'm not really sure if it was. I had reached Delhi a few days ago and was staying in Brahmaputra hostel, where there was a party the night before the test, which I very kindly obliged to be a part of, with every intention to leave before the stroke of midnight. Well that did not happen. I was actually about to leave, when three girls walked into the party. So, I decided to stay another 15 minutes, and the next thing I knew was that it was 2 am, and that when the party was over, I was walking back to my room with Akash (a previous FLTA who was supposed to give me tips on cracking the test) and a girl, where I played the guitar and we sang songs for maybe another hour, by the end of which the former had ended up passing out on my bed in Brahmaputra and Akash and I had sung some song that came to his mind, the chords to which I invented and we sang the lines, "wherever you are, wherever you go, just be in love, just be in love" maybe a 100 times, besides a few other songs I could play. Well, to cut the story short, I woke up at 8:45 AM, much like a soldier at border patrol during war would wake up when woken up by his superior after their bunker had been destroyed by the enemy because he had fallen asleep. By 8:55 AM, I had brushed and showered, and the girl couldn't decide if she wanted to carry on sleeping or if she wanted to leave, so I got her to step out of the room while she engaged in her thought process, locked the door and ran, about as fast as anyone in Brahmaputra hostel must have ever run, all the way to the IIMC gate. The first auto wallah didn't know where Hailey road was, and neither did I, so I continued running, and the next auto wallah told me he knew the route very well. I asked him to ride as fast as he could without crashing or being caught by the cops, and set out to do what I seem to do best - telling myself, "Well, I'm here now, in this situation; what do I do now?" So I called up Neelu, who was appearing for the entrance as well. She had given me a few missed calls by the time I had woken up, and it was possibly her calls that managed to get me up in the first place. I called her and she started yelling at me, and I told her that I was on the way, and that she should inform the Fulbright folks that "Asher is on his way... cab broke down... he's taking an auto". The story was told, and when I reached at 9:50 PM, I found out that I was only 20 minutes late for the test, since they had started only at 9:30 AM, and that 9:00 was only the reporting time. It was a two hour test, that I managed to finish in time, and that is when I heaved my sigh of relief, hungover like a lake gone dry!

Amit Ranjan was also appearing for the Fulbright exam, Amit Ranjan was a senior of mine from college, whom I don't think I'd ever spoken to in college, except for a few passing conversations at best. He was two years senior to me, and we hence had only one year to interact in college. He was also my senior in JNU, but I had never really lived in JNU, except for the last two years, so my only interactions with Amit were at random house parties where he'd also be present, and we'd go, "abbe, tu yahan kaise??!!" So Amit and I used that phrase once more at the Fulbright office in Hailey road, after the Hindi test, where I had discovered for the first time that 'doodhiya' was a valid word in Hindi, and he had come out of the test having given the examiner a few suggestions on how the test could be improved. So, needless to say, he was a 'little' more confident than I was, and I was elated that they still cleared me for the next round. The next day, we decided to meet outside Amit's house, from where we were to go to Hailey road in his car. I was probably a few minutes late in reaching his house, only to find out that he needed 15 more minutes to get dressed and come down. So I sat there outside the theka that I had frequented so often on weekends, wondering how different a place could look in the morning. I met a couple of dogs who agreed to let me pet them for a while. Amit arrived and we left for Hailey road in his Maruti 800, dressed in formals, shaved, hair neatly done, the passenger seat pushed all the way back to accommodate for my height, the relevant documents neatly filed... what could go wrong, right?. We were still good to reach just in time for our interview slot, and after Amit stopped for a cigarette and smoked it on the way, we wee still good to make it and be only ten minutes late for the interview. Ten minutes is not so bad by Indian standards, considering that both of us had always been at least 2 days late in submitting all our documents, and I had obviously been 20 minutes late for the entrance test just the previous day, so no real worries yet. I did urge Amit to drive a little fast though, which he obliged to do. As we entered Chanakya Puri though, we spotted some cops at a circle, but not before they spotted me - desperately trying to get my seatbelt on. Well, what could have gone wrong, right? By now, Amit was beginning to get calls from the Fulbright office, as his interview was scheduled to be held just before mine. I didn't even know where my phone was, so I'm not sure if they'd called me or not. Nevertheless, we paid the 'chalaan' of Rs. 100, and we were on our way, in time to be less than half an hour late. Amit called up the Fulbright folks and told them what happened, and they told us that it was okay, and the reason they had called was because the person scheduled before Amit hadn't turned up on time, so they were wondering if Amit could have taken their place. However, by the time Amit had called back, the person had turned up, and all the interviews happened to be pushed foward by 20 minutes or so. So when we walked in, we still had 5 minutes for me to get a cup of coffee while Amit got another smoke before he headed for his interview.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

FLTA Diaries - The False Start

There I was, sitting at a window inside Frankfurt airport, sipping a glass of draught beer, chomping on a Burger with Swiss cheese inside, and wondering why nothing had gone wrong yet. It felt almost unreal that everything had gone so smoothly. I had my farewell party two nights before, so I wasn't drunk for my flight. My friends had booked a cab and hence I was at the airport well in time, had checked in with 19.5 Kgs, my hand baggage was clear too, and there I was, waiting for my connecting flight to Chicago O'Hare airport, wondering how nothing had gone wrong. "Surely, something must go wrong", I thought to myself, as I looked first at all the United Airlines flights landing, taxiing, taking off, and then a little further, in the vault of my mind, as my memory took me to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I had just landed there on an IBM project, and realized that my salary hadn't been credited, and that I needed $50 for my 3 month multiple visa. They let me go to the ATM machine, which I knew was pointless, for there was usually never any money in my account after the 20th of any month; but I still went, clutching for a straw of hope, their words ringing in my head, "We will find the next flight back for you, and it will be free!!", as I pictured my boss's screaming, face distorting with disbelief and fury, yelling at me upon my return, and the ten thousand other embarrassments that I would have needed to undergo, had I not experienced a miracle. 

Here at Frankfurt, however, I didn't seem to be in need of miracles, as I gulped down the beer, finished the burger, picked all the crumbs off the plate, and walked around trying to figure out if I should cash the travelers' cheques at the airport. The conversion rate and the agency fee were a lot, so I decided to wait till I reached the USA before I made any major purchases. I had set out with a wishlist of things I needed to buy - portable speakers, tennis shoes, a Tortuga travel backpack, an electric trimmer, and a decent pair of headphones. I also had a list of things I wished to do while I was in the US - watch Roger Federer play, visit the Grand Canyon, Graceland, New Orleans, and have dinner with Jessica Alba. I wasn't sure how many of these would actually happen, but I was positive that I could make some of these happen for sure. I strolled around a bit, enquired at the UAL counter twice to make sure I was at the right gate, and well, everything seemed perfect; nothing had gone wrong yet. Nothing like the time when I had fallen asleep under the stairs near the boarding gate on my way back from China, before I was to board the connecting flight, or the time when I was on the flight back from Cairo, only to realise that I had left my phone at the hand baggage screening counter, and had to take the air hostess' permission to run back, escorted by security, to retrieve the phone, and caused a resultant ten minute flight delay. I still remember the look on the passengers' faces as I walked back down the aisle, smiling at first, and gradually just hurrying to my seat to hide myself behind the seat in front of me. 

As I got into the line, I thought to myself, "Maybe you have grown up, after all". Thus, with a smug look on my face and a nod indicating agreement with my aforementioned thoughts, I walked on ahead in the line, waiting to board one last flight for the day. I checked my pockets again - wallet, phone, passport - all checked. I checked my hand baggage - each hanging from either shoulder; I hadn't misplaced anything. As I progressed in line, the ground staff was checking the passengers' documents to ensure they had all that was required. A lady called Angela (name tag) came up to me. With the same smug look on my face, I handed her my passport and my e-ticket. She looked at it, then looked back at me, and asked, "Where is your I-94?" I wish someone had taken a picture of my face at that point. She looked at my blank expression, and said, "Weren't you issued an I-94 or a DS - 2019?" I pointed at the visa stamp and told her that I got the visa only after I showed my DS -2019. Long story short, I was escorted out of the line, and a most formal US officer posted there was summoned, to check my documents. He checked a number of websites, made a few calls, and confirmed that if I didn't have the DS form, I would have to be put onto the next flight back to India, unless I could get a German visa, in which case he recommended that I spend some time in Frankfurt before going back. 

There it was, the situation I was anticipating. I had no clue where that stupid DS 2019 form was, and I was positive that it was not in my checked in baggage. It was now time for that miracle, but I didn't see one coming any time soon, or maybe I was wrong. When I had landed in HCMC in 2011, I could imagine my boss's disgruntled face spitting fumes all over my face, when he found out that I was deported for not having had enough cash for my visa. I ran to the ATM machine, inserted the card, but knew that it would be two days before I received my salary. I needed a miracle, and I needed it right then! Well, it didn't happen then, because as expected, there was no money in my bank account. I had no credit card either, and even if I did, I don't think they were accepting cards at the visa counter. I don't generally panic in these situations, as I was solely focused on what to do next - something that has held me in god stead in most difficult situations in life. Like that time when I had gone for Pauline's wedding, and the day after the wedding, we were headed downhill on one of the streets of Aizawl in a Maruti 800 cab, the driver and I in the front and Mami and Mimi in the back seat, when a bus driver behind us lost control and hit a Scootie driver, ran her over (she died on the spot), dragged her scootie along and hit our car, dragging our car downhill to almost certain death. The girls in the backseat started screaming wildly, but the driver kept his calm and kept driving, the bus pushing us downhill with all it's momentum. The same thought came to my mind - "I'm here now; what can I do?" And then the miracle happened - I saw a vacant parking spot on the side of the road. I pointed to it and the driver turned into it. The cars were parallel parked and the driver's skills, especially considering the situation he was in, were exceptional. He pulled in and the bus took his left tail-lamp with it, screeching to a halt maybe 50 metres downhill, somehow. No one in the bus died that night. Neither did anyone else, apart from the girl on the scootie behind us.

So that day in HCMC, as I was walking back from the ATM, to almost certainly be put on the next flight back to New Delhi, I thought to myself, "I am here now; what can I do" - something that IBM taught me, when as a 'fresh' graduate I had joined my first job, my manager would always tell me, "Don't come to me with a problem; come to me with a solution". So I went to the travel desk, and there were two Vietnamese girls in their Ao Dai, talking to a customer. I patiently stood in line, my guitar and my suitcase in my hand. When it was my turn, I walked up to them and told them my story - "My card isn't working... I will get my money next week... I need $50...I can leave my suitcase and guitar here till I return with the money..." Ridiculous, right? Well, I didn't know what else to do. And wait, what happened next was that one of the girls pulled open the drawer, took out $50, and said "Please return it, because I'm taking this out on my account". I could barely believe what had happened, and offered to leve my guitar behind, but she wouldn't have any of that. I got her phone number, thanked her maybe a hundred times and ran to the visa office. I paid my dues, got the three month, multiple entry visa, and went back to thank the girl. She smiled and said it was no problem, I promised her I would return the money soon, and left. It took me 7-10 days to find the time from my schedule to call her back, and when I did she was surprised, for when she had told her story to her friends, all of them convinced her that she had been cheated. I called her for dinner to a restaurant close to the place where I stayed, and returned her money, and she thanked me for returning the money and restoring her faith in kindness, and I obviously kept thanking her all throughout dinner.

Back to Frankfurt, when I was given the option of boarding the flight back to India. I thought to myself, "I am here now; what can I do?". I tried writing to the IIE folks and the Fulbright office in India, but it was a Sunday, and neither office was open. I didn't have an international calling card, and the official from the US was extremely business like, without any appearance of feeling in him - he may well have been a robot or a coded clone. "I have checked with the authorities concerned, and the only options available to you at the moment are to locate your I-94 or be deported back to your home country". I realised there was no use reasoning or pleading with him - he was certainly not another Nga Nguyen - he was just another American who wouldn't see anything that hasn't been printed in his book of rules. As I stood there, waiting for a miracle, Angela from UAL came back to me, and figured out from my face that I had had no luck, and looked me in the eye and said, "I know you said that you don't think it's in your checked-in luggage, but why don't you check once? Your flight leaves in 20 minutes, so you don't really have much time". I said okay, and she made a few phone calls, escorted me three floors down, and 5 minutes later, I was rummaging through my checked in backpack - and tucked in neatly and carefully, under a few layers of clothing, was a file where all my important documents had been filed neatly, and right in front of all of them was the DS 2019 form. I could have hugged and kissed Angela at that moment, but I realised the inappropriateness of that action, and not wanting to get into further trouble, I thanked her thrice as I quickly packed my bag up, and thanked the guy who had got it up, for he had to now take it back to the cargo slot. I ran back and showed the American the DS form, upon which he remarked, with no sign of a smile remotely appearing on his face, "I'm glad you were able to locate it. You saved yourself a lot of trouble". I couldn't possibly have been bothered with that statement, and almost feeling victorious, I walked up to the line, where they were nearly done with the boarding. I walked in, placed my hand baggage in the overhead cabin, and as I sat down and buckled up, I realised that maybe I still had a lot of growing up to do.