Bonfire, for Walpugris Night, April 30, 2014

Bonfire, for Walpugris Night, April 30, 2014
A Swedish Cottage in Midsummer!!
Welcome!! Swagat, Dumela, Valkommen, Jee Aayan Noo, Tashreef, Bula, Swasdee, Bienvenido, Tashi Delek. Thanks for joining me.....

Friday, August 22, 2014

Old and New: Transition Time

An old, almost abandoned House in Central Delhi, 2014. Very few such homes are left now.  Most of these homes are actually transformed into apartments today.  This one must be standing only for two reasons, one either the owner is rich enough to own another property, or this is a disputed property that is awaiting resolution.  Yet, these house, have what makes any building a home, a yard, a verandah, sometimes a porch, sometimes a lawn and often, trees, that grow even when no one waters them.  

Apologies to my readers that I have been not been able to write.  Most of you know that I have been travelling.  I have thought so much about writing, but not had the peace.  In many ways its good, because our minds need break. In other ways, without silence our souls lie dormant.

Details and stories will come later.

But my first experience of the last six weeks has been that the world is changing too fast for us to recognise what is going on.  We have little time left to muse or reminisce because before we can have memories the new transient culture that is visible in disposable goods, transforms into something new.

This change is universal but very evident in developing countries, and even more visible in developing countries that are under global scrutiny due to sheer population, namely India and China.  Due to their numbers, markets and companies are gravitating towards them. Its  obvious that anything that becomes a trend, and even better a necessity will have a large market, even if it lasts only for a short time.  

It this then that I realise that 'thinkers and philosophers' who are not 'thinking' only in terms of money or profit, are crucial to any society, for them to reflect back on themselves. 

People just borrow and follow ideas, without a long term understanding of the impact of gadgets and technological changes in life. 

One of the major changes all of the country is the formation of 'apartments' or to apply a british term, 'flats'.  Which has contributed to the burgeoning population of the city (from my childhood city of about 6 million to nearly three times or more).  While this obviously adds to the population density, it also reduces homes into one single covered unit, without yards, verandahs, lawns, and obviously trees.  

I will write about this more in detail later, but this year, there was this sinking feeling that the country does not realise what it is loosing in this mindless progress.  I always think that are ways out, for which we need foresight.  

In  a culture that has made 'money, profit, and convenience its God' there is little room for reflection or critical thinking.

All that drives is 'bhed chaal' (sheep's way, or mindless following whatever the herd is going).

As a part of 'bhed chaal', because there is no room for novel thinking, we are neither connected to others, nor to ourselves. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

MadMen and Mentors

Mentors (--) and madmen have such seething brains
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.


No, that is not a picture of my mentor.  But I thought, he exuded wisdom, and since I had not used this picture anywhere, and since it fit this post. Vietnam, 2009.

If I remember correctly it was May of 1999, San Francisco.  I was there for a conference, and job hunting. Still a student, in the middle of writing, I was hoping to finish that fall.  I was hoping. I was unsure of so much  But I was sure that I had lost any sense of 'utility'.

On purpose I had opted for research assistantships rather than teaching ones, since I already had a teaching background.  So, since I had been away from formal teaching for about 6 years, although I taught at upward bound during summers, I was not sure where I would apply for jobs after my Phd. I was working on the tried and tested path of  'consultancies'.  Since I had worked with two of them in Washington DC.  

There is a glow on this man's face that accompanies, old, calm souls. Vietnam, 2009. 

But the regular path after Phd, which was also enticing because of my love of ideas, love of writing and Universities, was teaching.  

I responded to one of the calls for a visiting position, and was thrilled to get a chance to meet the potential employers  

When I saw him, I was already nervous.  He was a big name in his field.  His work and experience had given him a confidence that dripped from his quiet, calm disposition.  Even though I am hardly nervous when it comes to interviews, I had knots in my stomach, which till this day, I think was due to long term uncertainty--that is still sometimes a struggle ---although I manage it well.

He extended his hand. I shook it with great respect and nervous determination, and nodded, 'My name'

He nodded, and in my nervousness, I said my name again.

That he was aware that I was afraid and nervous, is stating the obvious.  I remember what I was wearing that day.  A grey knitted suit to make me look professional.  My hair that went past my shoulders was tightly bound in a Chignon.  I kept grazing the side of my neck with my nails, because biting them would leave little doubt about the state of my mind.

We discussed the status of my writing, what I was working on, and my goals.  I tried to be as professional as a poor graduate student, desperate for a job can be.  A few weeks before that, I had taken a stance towards 'thinking abundant.' (Long before people had written 'The Secret.'  There is this whole field of changing your energy field in ancient asian traditions, that I have worked with several times.)

He was very kind and pleasant.  We parted after exchanging some notes, and he told me that he would contact me.  A week later, I heard from him --stating that they were short on funds and so will not be continuing with the position advertised.  

I took a deep breath.  Because I had heard the same from two other universities.  I was already loosing confidence, especially because i felt that I had moved away from some research related skills, and any focus on one research area.  So, keeping my calm, I sent a professional note via email requesting if anything changed that to please let me know.

Two weeks later, when I looked at my finances, I realized that I was making less than my rent and that, in that fall, the only option for employment was with the health department of the University making instructional videos --I called again.  I called because even though making videos was my heart's desire, it was a job, not a career.  It was not going to allow me to progress or to challenge and test my own abilities.  In addition, the position was only for a semester. The fear that in the next few weeks, I would have zero income had started to mount. 

When he heard me ask him about the same question, he had already given an answer to he did not get upset.  He was polite, and kind, especially considering he was the Head of the Department and surely received many of these calls. 

He stated that the department had decided to postpone the position.  Then he asked me about my writing.  I could only think in terms of my rent.  My sister had sent me a check to pay my rent, which I had left in the little shrine I had in my closet….

Many of us Indians do not go to temples and often are not ultra religious, but we all have a small shrine in our house that reminds us of this ever present 'force' in the world.  So, I had kept the check there, stating very clearly, ' At this stage of my life, I do not want to get any financial help from anyone, so show me other ways please. Ways, that lead me to believe in myself.'

In our conversation when he heard that I had no incoming money he said, like a concerned family member would talk, 'So, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know'' the words just blurted out, because that is where I was mentally.

I don't remember how we ended the call. But I do remember that within 24 hours of that call, I got another call from him saying, that he has checked with his colleagues and that if I was interested I would need to move to Indiana in three weeks.  

All I remember about that moment is that blood rushed so fast through my veins that I felt dizzy. I thanked him profusely and called my sister, who lived in Arkansas, US right away.  I informed my family at home and then got started with my packing. This was before I had my driving license so I needed to get someone to drive, and get rid of all my furniture because I had limited funds --all of which were going to go towards relocation.

Once I arrived in town, he gave me a tour of the building, informed me of the basics and told me if I needed help to ask him.

That was my first university teaching assignment.  I was excited and nervous and tired.  For a good portion of that year, I would live in one of the best apartments --but with almost no furniture.  Because I did not bring any with me. I came with a bookshelf, some clothes, a few pots and pans, a library of books that did not fit in my one bookshelf, and a laptop.  

In many ways, I never really settled since then, (but until recently in Sweden, where I think I have finally unpacked.  Settling is another question, although I actually have a community in this country and a feeling that people see the real me.)  

Within the first month of working at the University I was informed that due to paper work I won't get my first paycheck until later in the year.  I had money for about month and a half of rent. If I counted groceries then I could survive my savings only one month.  When I shared it with him, he wrote me a check, that would last me until my first pay check. 

I did not even have to ask.

It is one those times when your heart is jumping in your mouth, gratitude in the form of saliva is rushing to your lips, but you cannot say a word.

Whenever we are in presence of generosity, a warm silence envelops us, that nurtures and inspires our souls.  I remember, this act of generosity came with such simplicity, that  I remained silent for the next few hours.  Even today, when I get bitter about not having much help in my journey, I remind myself of that ….to remind me that I have had help when I really needed it.

That allowed me some peace and much dignity for the next few months.  

But it was what followed in the next few months is what has made me stay in touch with him even today-- after nearly a decade and a half.  

When I had to write my very first syllabus, I showed him the first draft.  He, using his expertise, guided me through the process. When during our first conversations, I would call him, Dr. G, he would gently say, please address me by my first name, 'We are all colleagues here'.  

Slowly, I started calling him by his first name, and forged a friendship filled with respect towards him.  I was, however the sole beneficiary of this alliance :) I got to hear his wisdom on how to work on thesis, how to create assignments, how to best utilize the graduate assistants during the first years of teaching.  

Once he looked up from his glasses, after having reviewed an exam I had set for a course, "You have much to learn, still'.  He sighed and then went on to make some more corrections.

Till this day, he was the only person who actually gave me, instructions --clear instructions at that--on how make an exam or write a syllabus, despite the fact that I have a formal degree in education.

A few weeks into my working there, he found out that I had no bed in my apartment, that I was sleeping on a mattress I had brought with me.  

"But my son is away, and the  bed is free right now, you can easily borrow it.'  Less than a week later, they delivered the bed to my apartment.  Another lady who worked at the department gave me a card table and a chair ….and I had all the furniture I needed.

I felt like a princess.

To top it all-- I put up christmas lights in the bedroom, and imagined I was sleeping right under the stars.

At night I would say a few words of gratitude for all the kindness that I received from people there--I also made two life-long friends there. 

I had thought that I might even stay there another year even though the position was only for a year, but I was fortunate enough to get a tenure track position, back in Pennsylvania.  Before I left, I had him write in my 'autograph' book.  He wrote the most heart warming note about my performance in the very first year of my college teaching.    

I realized early on that he was mentoring me, gently…as he pointed out what in me needed refining, what needed working on, and what was already there that could be enhanced.  

We also had long conversations with him during that time about culture and media.  He had spent some time in India as a Peace Corp Volunteer, and we shortly talked about that.  But he had spent time in south India, where I myself had been only as a tourist. So, it was very interesting to listen to his perspective.  

However, the best part of this is that after all these years I still keep in touch with him.  Whenever there is a news, or a movement in my life, I have to share, since he was there at its onset. 

Whenever I look back, I am so humbled that he took the time to mentor someone as green and alien as I.  Considering I was going to be there only for a year, he put in much time to orient and direct me. Sometimes I wonder 'why?'

But then I know that mentors and mad men are like potters and sculptors ---they see something in clay and stones that others don't.  In my case, I am not a piece of art, far from it, but without this little mentoring and guidance I would be a lot wobblier than I am.  I can pass for a figurine moulded in plaster of paris.  But that is much, much appealing than a blob, which is what I was when I first met him.

I remain ever so grateful that he, despite all my failings, took the part in me that wanted to learn, that wanted to survive, that wanted to live, and pointed it to the road.

Over the years I have asked for many a guidance, and he has always been generous with his advice.  I know I will always be in touch with him, but I also know, that because of him, because of what I got, I will  stop, every time I see a nervous student --and look for the parts that can be polished so that the nervousness turns into a belief in one's self!!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Let Thy Light Shine: Maya Angelou!

A Note to the Readers:  Note sure how many of you are following this, but often times you will find an active link, often when a word is in a different color, which will take you to more information that is related to the post, if you are so inclined.  Thanks. 

Universities are not exempt from the class system that corrupts almost every society, and so the kind of education you get at universities varies with their status.  What students are exposed to at their respective universities depends on their status and their standing in a society.  When you get an education at a 'good' school, you may or may not get much information that can help you with career or life in general, you may feel lost in a class of 750 students, but you sure do get an 'education' with regards to 'exposure'

I think that is what PSU gave me. I had dreamt of attending the University and even though by the time I arrived there I was tired and bitter and cynical--since I had lived nearly a decade on my own and was in the middle of the most 'intensive learning periods' of my life--with regards to learning out human natures--I knew that my stay there will change me in many ways I could not imagine.  

From the first year when I got to hear Carl Sagan for free, and Billy Joel for barely twenty dollars --(if we do not count standing in the que for three hours on a freezing day) to watching some of the most famous Broadway plays as summer presentations ---my years at PSU both times were filled with rich cultural experiences.  

It was during those lectures that the likes of Jim Lovell (from Apollo 13--I think Tom Hanks played him in the movie),  LIsa Ling (the TV broadcaster), Erin Brocovitch, F. W. De Clerk (President credited with brokering the end of apartheid in South Africa), Magic Johnson (although he cancelled due to health issues, seriously, he does not need an intro), Bill Clinton (neither does he) and Dr. Maya Angelou were invited to the University.

Most of these lectures were free and often filled to the last seat.  Still, it was quite easy to get the tickets because most of these events would be housed in auditoriums that could easily house anywhere from 3-30,000 people.  But the main point behind these events was exposing students and other people associated with the University to the giants in our contemporary world.  

When I hear about Dr. Maya Angelou, I knew I had to go listen to her.  I had read both 'I rise' and "Phenomenal Woman' a hundred times. I had heard the latter in Oprah's voice, I had even hear Dr. Angelou's voice the day Clinton was sworn in.  I had to go.  It was a part of history. As much as I questioned the US, it is these giants that I looked up to.  

And so I went. I remember taking some grading with me, since I arrived there ahead of time to sit in peace.  I ran into a few other people I knew at the lecture.  As always they looked at me weird because I was alone--but like watching a movie, listening to a lecture or a classical music concert should always be done alone, we experience a lot more that way, or so I think.

But the moment she started talking I was in awe of her.  Even at a ripe age, she giggled like a child, made jokes that left us smiling for minutes after she had cracked them.  I was amazed at her spirit, she had turned the entire auditorium light with her presence.  One of her very cute joke was, 'my right knee had been bothering me for a while, but lately my left knee has become sympathetic to the right one, and started behaving exactly she her'.

I loved how she took a serious challenge that comes with age and reduces mobility in light…and I was sure that her approach made her stand taller and walk farther than she normally would.

But the best lesson she gave me that day, that I need to remind myself of now more than ever was, 'that we all come with our own light and that it is our duty, our obligation, our purpose to let that light shine.'

That when we do not, we not only do ourselves a disservice but also deprive the world of what we can offer and put a block in its evolution.

At the end of that lecture, a young Journalism student had asked me to comment on the talk. I did, and when she asked me my name, I coyly said, 'Susan B. Anthony'.

I mean seriously, I could do anything, I had to let my light shine.

But when I saw the young girl almost jot the name down, I held her hand and gave her my real name.

But it was Dr. Angelou's infectious spirit that made me feel light inside, and dare to think that I could compare myself to women who had made a difference.

When exactly a month ago, the media was talking non stop about her, I was reminded of that story.  So grateful that I attended that lecture, and with every news story I wanted to scream, 'i heard her talk, I heard her talk'.

That is what I mean by 'an education' beyond just a degree. These lectures serve as a nudge for reviewing our own lives, often as a possibility to see our lives be much bigger than they can be, and to realize how much more we are capable of contributing, only if we see ourselves as a strand in the web, rather than a lone traveller through this planet. 

While, I had let the lesson (shine thine light) slip by, may be it is time to ponder about points that the late poet had emphasized.

May be it is time to 'rise again', it is time be 'as phenomenal' as we can be, and 'sing' our song.

Thanks Dr. Maya Angelou, we know it is your light that shone so bright --that made the universe feel that its reach ought to be expanded, and you were called to be at better places to share the delightful company of so many greats who have gone before you.

You will be missed, but we will always know you by your light.