Musings in a new city

Posted: September 7, 2017 in India, Travel, USA

It’s just been a month since I arrived in the US, Chicago to be more specific. Having lived and studied in different cities in India, I thought that it was going to be fairly easy getting used to a new place, but my experiences in the past one month have made me realise how wrong I was.

Everything is different here, right from shopping for groceries to using the public transport, some easier than it was back in India and some difficult. For instance, grocery shopping here is a big pain, for the simple reason that there are at the very least a dozen choices for a single product, so much so that even deciding on the kind of milk that you want to buy is a challenge! There are at least 5  brands, each with 4 different percentages of fat content and then choosing between organic or regular milk! Phew, that’s a lot to decide upon. And, you cannot buy milk in quantities less than 0.5 gallons (that’s ~ 1.9 litres) :O . Perhaps these choices exist in the Indian market too and I just remained blissfully ignorant!

Despite being confused and surrounded by everything new, I still felt a certain degree of comfort in a new place as a result of having met some wonderful people who made life easier. For instance, I met an elderly couple during an outing organised for international students to the Botanical gardens. They were there as participating guests and volunteers for the same event. They took the effort to strike a conversation with me and I learned that they loved travelling to India! They have already been to India (southern India, in particular) twice and are planning another trip later this year. During the short conversation, I was invited to their house for a High Tea. Subsequently, when I went to their home on a weekend, I found that they remembered that I was a vegetarian and went to the extent of ensuring that all the food that they prepared was vegetarian. Without realising it, I spent 3 hours in their company talking about Indian and US politics, spirituality, British films and theatre, novels and so much more.

During the past month, I also met students from various countries across the world – China, Korea, Indonesia, France, Gambia, our very own Pakistan and Bangladesh and many more. Apart from meeting people from such diverse backgrounds and exchanging cultural ideas, talking to them about some of the daily issues was a much-needed reassurance that many others were facing the same challenges, confusion and the excitement that I was.

I realised that for all the inadequacies that we Indians perceive in our country, it is impossible for us to live in a new country without the thought of India coming up in our heads every now and then. This was evident in the tiny packets of happiness associated with day to day activities such as talking in Hindi to a fellow Indian, going to the Indian grocery shop and buying a jar of Bournvita or even getting together in a small group to cook Indian food and play Antakshari!

One month here, in Chicago, went by quicker than I imagined and all this time, I wasn’t even doing anything closely related to academics! I can only imagine how time is going to fly once classes start and my research gets underway. I hope to keep the blog updated regularly with new experiences, travel diaries and much more.

 

Cheers

 

PS : Yes, the photo of the Chicago river that you see was clicked by me!  😉

 

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This post is a first in a series that I plan to write on some holiday destinations in India. These places fall into various categories viz – a-viz,  hill stations, beaches, leisure and even pilgrimage!

10- 15 years ago, holidays meant going to cousins’ or grandparents’ place. However, with the changing socio-economic trends in the country, travelling and vacation are becoming an integral part of a middle-class Indian family. There’s no doubt that travelling opens you to different cultures and people. Every single trip has impressed upon me something valuable. I visited all of the destinations that will be covered in this series with my parents during my school and college days. I am always excited about family holidays – right from deciding the place and planning the trip to visiting the place and re-visiting it through the photographs! Even though it has been quite some time since we visited these places, most of the memories are still fresh in my head. Along with providing an account of the trip, this series is also intended to pen down my thoughts and record my memories of the places. So do check out this space regularly.

This post is about one of the most popular tourist destinations in India –  Manali. Manali is thronged by tourists every year and in my opinion, is a better holiday destination compared to its more famous cousin – Shimla. Manali is a perfect place for the novice adventure enthusiast – meaning those who wish to taste adventure sports but do not have a first-hand experience. The best way to reach Manali is by road from Chandigarh, or one could also choose to visit Manali after spending a day in Shimla (The drive takes about 7-8 hours approximately). The second half of the drive is picturesque with the Beas river flowing alongside the road. There are a number of river rafting agencies en route. However, rafting is more thrilling and enjoyable close to the Kullu valley where the gradient is steeper and rapids are more frequent. I would strongly recommend  a 10km or higher length for rafting. As the raft twists and turns in the rapids and cold water hits your face, you feel energised and refreshed . The route from Kullu to Manali takes about an hour and will pass very quickly especially if you have just finished the river-rafting and are still sinking in the experience.  Do stop  for some time in Kullu to explore the shawl factories. If you leave  Chandigarh/Shimla in the morning after breakfast, you can expect to be in Manali around 5 pm. The rest of the day can be devoted to exploring in the vicinity of the resort/hotel.  One could also consider visiting the Hadimba temple. It is nestled in the midst of Cedar trees. The queue outside the temple can get a little lengthy during holidays and vacations. A stroll on the mall road among the shops for woollen clothes and wooden crafts is also a nice experience.

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Next morning, after breakfast, you could opt to go to the Solang valley which is the heart of adventure sports in Manali. I would suggest that you take up paragliding. Paragliding for a first-timer is done in tandem with an experienced person. Paragliding agencies in Solang valley offer 3 different types – a short 1 minute in air, medium 3 minutes in air and a long 7-10 minutes of being airborne. It is definitely out of question to opt for the short and the medium ones. They generally involve running down a small slope, gliding a few meters above the ground and touchdown. It lasts for such a short time that you would hardly experience proper gliding. For the longer glide time, one needs to take the ropeway to the top of the hill, from where a short descent on foot leads to a perfect place for take-off. The take-off itself is very exciting as you run down the slope while being simultaneously pulled back by the tandem glider leading to a lifting of the chute. The scenery beneath, the bird-eye view of Manali and the surrounding  villages, the view of a meandering river Beas and the snow clad mountains is breathtaking. Landing is a very crucial part of para-gliding and can be disastrous if done incorrectly (My parents witnessed while waiting for me to land, a couple of landings going wrong ). Fortunately for me, after take-off, my tandem glider told me that wind conditions were not ideal for the landing . We stayed airborne for close to 25 mins thereby prolonging a wonderful experience. Though I am not very enthusiastic about selfie-sticks, I would strongly recommend that you take one with you on the flight. It is quite safe to hold it while gliding and you can take some amazing photos to make your friends jealous ! Another tip which you might find useful if you are an adventure enthusiast – Strike up a conversation with your tandem glider and tell him about your rafting experience and love for adventure. They are generally happy to have an excited customer and will treat you to an extended gliding time and a stunt too if you are lucky. My tandem glider took me on a 360-degree vertical turn around. I could feel the wind piercing through my ears, my heart racing while nose-diving to the ground and the thrill of pulling out of the dive at the last minute. The touchdown is ordinary as long as it is done under the right conditions. You could also opt to do zorbing – this involves being inside a huge ball/zorb that rolls down the hill. Solang valley will take up the entire morning. On the way from Solang valley to Manali, there are also places where you can do zip lining across the river. It is a short activity and will not take up much of your time.  Post lunch in the afternoon, you could head towards Old Manali which is a steep climb for about 20-25 minutes from Manali town. The roads are lined with cafes and bars and attract a lot of foreign tourists who stay there for at least a few months.

The next day can be dedicated to Rohtang pass. Rohtang connects Manali to Leh. It opens to traffic every year in the first or second week of May. It is recommended that you start as early as possible – by 5:30 am. There are a couple of reasons for the same: The traffic, especially during vacations is very heavy and there is often a jam en route Rohtang. What should ideally take 2 hours or lesser may even take more than 4 -5 hours if stuck. Sometimes, the vehicle would have to  be parked a 4-5 km from Rohtang which means the tourists have to walk all the way. Horses are available but are exorbitantly priced. Moreover, it would be ideal to spend time in Rohtang in the morning, when the weather is cold and the snow is fresh and unsoiled. The snow dress tends to get stuffy and uncomfortable as the temperature starts rising during the day. Coming to the things one can do there — obviously skiing! There are several agencies in Manali where along with renting snow dress, instructors for skiing and ski equipment are also available. On discussing the payment and other conditions, they come along with you till Rohtang. In a span of about 2 hours, one can get a reasonable grasp on the sport. Make sure to don the traditional dress of Kullu and get a photo with the snow as the backdrop! It is advisable that you get breakfast packed at your hotel or there are some dhabas en route where you can get good food and Maggi!

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You can plan to start the descent to Manali around 11:30 am  – 12 noon. Given the narrow roads and the heavy traffic, it will take at least 3-4 hours to get back. That evening may be left free for time to be spent at the hotel or to take a leisurely stroll on the streets of Manali.

A Couple of places close to Manali that can be combined with this trip are Manikarn gurudwara and Hampta pass. The gurudwara is a 2-hour drive from Manali and as is always the case, the langar (kadhi and chawal) in the gurudwara is delicious. In addition, there are sulphur hot springs in the premises of the gurudwara. The speciality of these springs is that they are used to boil rice. Many pilgrims often bring rice in a small pouch to test whether the hot water can really cook rice as claimed by people. Hampta pass is a beautiful trek through the Spiti valley. It requires about 2 days and Manali serves as a good starting point for the trek.  From Manali, one could also consider going onward to Dalhousie which has, luckily, retained its charm and has been left unexplored by many traditional tour operators.  In addition, the route from Manali to Dalhousie is very pretty. The Khajjiar plains are vast green meadows about an hour from Dalhousie. It truly holds up to its popular name- Little Swiss of India. A detour en route Dalhousie will take you to Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama monastery and the Dharamshala cricket ground are must visit places.

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Hot water spring in Manikarn, rice is being boiled!

This concludes this post on Manali and surrounding areas. Do get in touch for additional information and assistance regarding places to visit in and around Manali.

Once in four years, the Olympics provide the dream platform for every athlete to compete and take pride in winning a medal for their country. Yet, Olympics has been much more than just winning. Accompanying every olympian is a story, a story of sheer grit, determination and a passion for the sport. Inspirational stories continue to be etched in history  with every passing Olympics. Not every story has a “medal winning” end to it and it need not, because every athlete competing in the Olympics does so with the aim to give their best and that is what makes this event a cut above every other sporting extravaganza.

The talk of Rio 2016 has been the Olympic refugee team. A team comprising of refugees from war-torn countries who have overcome all odds and have sent across a message of hope to all of us. Stories of people like Yusa Mardini will continue to be retold umpteen number of times to stress that even amidst all the violence and bloodshed, there is a ray of hope that better days are ahead.

Among so many athletes, there are some of our very own, who have fought valiantly and made it to the Olympic stage. Dipa Karmarkar has definitely been the talk of the Indian contingent this time. Her path to the Olympic gymnastic’s vault finals has been a bumpy one. Stories of how she had to practice without proper equipment have been shared and reshared on the internet in the past one month. We can debate endlessly on where the fault lies, with the society, the system etc but at the end of the day, there can be no doubt that it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to all of this and simultaneously stay clear of these thoughts so as to not allow them to hamper one’s performance. Perhaps, she is capable of doing better if she has the best of training, facilities, and encouragement, yet, there can be no doubt that she gave her best performance under the given circumstances. Many have in fact have performed way more admirably than was expected of them. For instance, it was a proud moment for an Indian sports enthusiast to see the way Lalita Babar ran in her 3000 m steeplechase heats. Despite falling down in the initial stages of the run, she finished in the fourth spot. That’s not all, she beat her personal best and the national record by a margin of 9 seconds. To have achieved this at the biggest sporting platform deserves all possible laurels. To me, her finish in the finals is an almost inconsequential thing, for she already stands as a role model for countless Indians to make it a habit to give our best every single time.

Derek Redmond, Lawrence Lemieux, Luz Long are examples of sportsmen who stood up for ideas of courage, sacrifice, and sportsmanship. Their stories are engraved in the history of Olympics and so are those of other not-so-well-known athletes. These sportsmen/women remind us that pursuing our passion implies that it is a new struggle every day, that being the best need not be the only way to be successful. Their stories highlight the message that success is probably measured better in terms of the attitude and the zeal to strive for excellence rather than talent and a thirst to be the best. The likes of Owens, Comaneci, Phelps, Bolt will be an inspiration to all, but so will many others for whom every moment of their Olympic dream required just as much hard work and determination as the podium finishers.

When I was in class 7-10, apart from liking Science and Maths, which I am pursuing today, I loved Social Studies and English classes too. On the other hand, a large chunk of the student population seemed to think that these were a mere waste of time for those who were going to pursue only Science and Maths in the future. Their point seemed understandable at that time, given the amount of memorizing involved in Social Studies and the general difficulty with mastery in English, that was being enforced as the first language as opposed to regional languages/Hindi. Now, after almost 8 years since I passed class 10, I have come to realize the importance of having these subjects.

A recent chat with a friend brought memories of the wonderful times during History classes. There would be open questions thrown at us at the beginning of every chapter, one that encouraged us to transport ourselves back to the past and contemplate. These sort of things really helped when studying-  the subject no longer required to be memorised, rather it was about putting down all that I felt and experienced, having mentally gone back in time. Setting exams aside, I realize that these classes played a more important role. They paved the way for us to develop opinions and defend them, gave the confidence to put together our thoughts in a way that others could understand and appreciate it, it was the first step in moulding us into independent thinkers.

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I wrote this post for the bi-monthly magazine of our college- The Daily Bitsian. Even though the context of the article is set amidst a BITSian environment, do give it a read.

The Daily Bitsian

For a long time now, technical has come to be associated with Robotics, Coding competitions, ATV competitions and the like. Amidst all the technical talk, somewhere hidden, lies an altogether different world called Research. The difference between building  a robot, quadcopters, competitive coding etc and formulating and solving a research problem is evident right from the learning phase. Tools and tutorials required for the former are readily available on the internet whereas the latter involves literature survey and reading and comprehending research papers . The first step in itself sounds daunting to most and suffices to turn people away.  If it is so scary, how is it that some people have managed to get going? This is where the mentor steps in. The mentor plays  a  crucial role in guiding a student along his/her research path and making the experience enjoyable and fruitful.

This article is all about…

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The recent Chennai floods, Facebook posts regarding the same and also those unrelated to it set in motion a chain of thoughts that have prompted me to write this article.

As Chennai reeled under a disaster of sorts, partially due to the unprecedented rainfall and mostly as a consequence of improper urban planning, the city witnessed unity and support from its residents. Countless volunteers worked hard to help those in distress and restore normalcy. At the same time, there were a number of posts criticizing the neglect shown by the national media and those that went on to hail the citizens for having risen to the occasion independently. It was heartening to see people put aside all differences particularly in the backdrop of debates regarding the rise in intolerance in the country. However, to claim that this happened only in Chennai, as some of them went on to say on social networking sites, may not be correct. In July 2005, Mumbai witnessed a torrential downpour creating a standstill situation in one of the busiest cities in the world. The media and the government certainly played their roles in Mumbai; however, the city also witnessed several acts of humanity just as in Chennai. Perhaps, these instances may have gone unreported due to the absence of social media at that time. I distinctly recollect reading in the children’s magazine ‘Tinkle’ about one such instance where stranded school children were taken to a house, given food, clothing and shelter till the water began to recede.

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College life and all that…

Posted: December 6, 2015 in College, Inspiration

With my end-semester exams more or less out of the way, I had a chance to spend time with some of my crazy friends yesterday. Though I still have at least one more semester on campus, a few of them are not going to be here next semester and will be leaving campus with their bags and baggage in the next few days. This post is a mixed bag of thoughts centered around the past 3 years in college, what’s in store for us in the coming days and what it feels like to be parting ways.

Every single person who has stepped out of the comforts of home has grown from being a pampered kid to an independent and a confident individual and I am no exception. Staying away from home has first and foremost taught me to be independent, make proper use of the freedom available and simultaneously respect the freedom of others around me. This learning process was largely aided by a set of friends and acquaintances over the past three years. Just like most people in residential colleges, I have a group of very close friends too, a group that came to be formed primarily because we were allotted rooms in the same corridor. We are as different as 7 people could possibly get and yet today, each of us draws inspiration from the other, celebrates other’s success as our own. During tough times, there is always the comforting thought that you can drop into one of their rooms to share the burden. In addition, there are several other people with whom special bonds were forged based on common interests, dining table conversations, common academic projects, course work etc. These people have also in more ways than one, helped me grow as an individual.

However, as the time for parting comes nearer, it is not the nostalgia or the emotions that are overwhelming, rather I can feel a strange sense of excitement in the air. An excitement that is a result of my friends having achieved what they set out to at the beginning of college and in anticipation of what is in store for them when they step out of campus into the ‘real world’. The happiness in their eyes when they share their dreams for the coming years is something I can’t describe in words. It is at this juncture that I realize that thinking about the last 3 years in the pretext of recalling and creating memories will only make parting more difficult. We all stepped into college to grow as individuals and that we have all done and so it is time to move on.  In fact, I can recall my friend telling me that she can hardly recognize any of the people on campus these days. On the contrary, when we were in our first and second year, we seemed to know just about anyone and everyone. This is a signal of sorts to us that we belong to this place no more.

Friendships that we have forged now will remain with us for a long long time to come. The bonds that we have created with some of them are strong that our paths are bound to intersect in future. So, dear friends, all I have to say is let’s not feel sad about having to leave, instead let’s all be happy that we met, helped and inspired each other  and will continue to do so as long as we can imagine.

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Wishing the very best in all our future pursuits.

Cheers