Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Freelance Journalist Who Thinks She's the Female Hulk - sure you want to read this?

Until very recently, I had no idea how powerfully therapeutic exercise can be in any form. I’ve been obese for a number of years now and believe me, I’ve tried everything in the book – the diets, the exercises, starvation, bottle gourd juice, no caffeine, aerobics, sports, gym, surviving only on grapes for a month and on boiled vegetables the next – the list just goes on. I know every gym in my neighborhood, I know most gyms in the city actually and several people who run them.

The levels of stress I was under as a 15-year-old were drastically different from those I’m facing today. Back then, I didn’t have to worry about finding a full-time job or getting enough freelance work to be able to pay back the monthly education loan installment. Through the last decade or so, exercise has routinely been my worst enemy; not because I hated working out or was lazy, but because I was being forced to do it by people who genuinely care about my health but don’t quite get that nagging just doesn’t work with me. So because it wasn’t MY choice, I hated it. Under stress, I eat – and I binge eat. Obviously, I don’t binge eat celery and lettuce and sunflower seeds. I binge on chocolate, ice cream, cookies – pretty much anything and everything that’s bad for my body.

I had never planned to be where I am today and yet here I am. As I like to say though, plans have an uncanny tendency to make their own (other) plans.

There’s one other thing I’ve learned today. It is extremely taxing – physically, mentally and emotionally – to be a fighter. I don’t mean the kind of aggressive person that always gets into fights; I’m talking about the spirit to never give up or a will-not-be-defeated personality. Having such a personality, I’m realizing how tired I am of fighting right now; Fighting against circumstances, against people, against inhuman behavior, and against myself at times. I’m tired and stressed out and it shows in multiple ways. I have over 150 failed job applications sitting in a folder on my computer, an amazing grant opportunity decided not to knock on my door yesterday, I don’t have the money to get out of the city for a few weeks and head into the wilderness to recharge my batteries, my parents are paying my monthly loan installments because as a freelancer, I make peanuts.

Despite all that, for whatever reasons, my spirit refuses to put her hands up in defeat even though my body wants to. A body that is sleep deprived, has to work overtime given its weight and has more health issues now than it has ever had before. From a very young age, I’ve known what I want to do – professionally and personally – and I’ve never been apologetic about it because I genuinely believe that I would have been dangerously unhappy right now had I given in to the pressure of becoming a dentist or pursuing a career in engineering etc. Just like I’ve known what I want to do, somewhere I’ve always known that the path I’m choosing to walk isn’t going to be a lucrative one and as someone who doesn’t believe money is everything, I’m okay with that.

However, things become truly challenging when someone who doesn’t care a lot about money, is suddenly in a position in which making money needs to be relatively high on the list of priorities. Why? Because the confidence with which I applied for an education loan to go study environmental journalism at the graduate level will prove to be a lie if I can’t live up to the promises I made, my faith in the importance of informed, skilled environmental journalists in the world will be irrelevant if I can’t keep those promises.

I’ve narrowed the present circumstance down to two possible strategies – 1) Focus solely on landing a lucrative job even if it’s outside my academic and thus-far-gained professional experience, or 2) I accept that one way or another, I’m going to have to pay off this loan so it’s probably best to focus on building a sustainable, happy career based on long-term objectives and hard work, all the while managing finances to prioritize the bank first.

I’ve spent several sleepless nights wondering whether I too, like many of my undergrad classmates, should have moved on to pursuing an MBA and taken up a job at some random corporation or private company as a marketing or business executive. Every single time that question has been answered with a resounding “NO!” from within and I’ve ultimately smiled a sigh of relief and drifted off to sleep.

I turned 26 last month and that number is only going to increase so it makes way more sense to choose the second strategy. I’m going to get older, the loan’s going to have to be paid off no matter what, and so I might as well take the choke-collar off and live a little while trying my best to find a healthy balance.

This is where exercise comes in. I’ve now been back in India for a little over a year and wasn’t getting anywhere with the fitness goal until I decided I could travel next year and for now, I ought to invest in hiring a personal trainer who is quite frankly, brutal. I love that. This self-made, hard-working guy from a middle class Maharashtrian family inspires me with how passionate he is about getting results. I get that. When it comes to work, that’s how I am. It’s only fair then, that I at least match his dedication if not top it.

Then, 2 weeks ago, something changed. I re-realized that I was beginning to get inconsistent after some unexpected breaks in workout schedules. And I re-discovered the sheer exhilaration of playing badminton.

I started playing badminton when I was about five-years-old. The racket was taller than I was at the time. It quickly became my favorite sport and the most beloved extra-curricular activity, of which there were many. I continued playing till I was 16. I played at the district level, and was on my college badminton team until the social pressure of academics forced me to withdraw into an unpleasant study-induced state of coma in 2006-07. The HSC exam demon did away with a lot of my fun activities and I hated being confined to classrooms and tuition groups. The rebel in me hated it even more. Fast forward to last week. Thanks to the magic of technology, a group of people I know came into existence and we now have a regular group that plays badminton three days a week and it is hands-down the best thing I’ve done in the entire time I’ve been back in India.

Three days of badminton, three days of intense gym workouts and Sunday – that’s what my weeks look like now. Why is this therapeutic? Because I’m one of the very people on the planet (or so I like to believe) who gets The Hulk. Yes, The Hulk – the big, green superhero.

You know how he told Captain America in the first Avengers movie that his secret is that he’s always angry? That’s me.

I am always angry – angry about how people treat animals, about how uncivilized some people are, how uncompassionate and selfish people can be, about how people treat senior citizens or the homeless, about corruption, bureaucracy, scams, frauds, celebrity criminals getting off scot-free, migrants risking everything for a chance at life, racism, privilege, climate change deniers, having to swallow my pride when my parents pay off loan installments…You get it, right? Always. Angry.

But as a journalist and a communications professional, it is imperative that I exercise ultimate control over my anger – something I have learned to do very well over the years. The gym and the badminton court are where that anger is unleashed. Moreover, I’m a very competitive person. I don’t like losing but I’ve learned to take it in my stride if that’s the hand I’m dealt. That these two activities work their magic on my physical fitness is a definite advantage, but the fact that they are amazing stress-busters is what I love the most.

Things aren’t perfect right now and in all probability, they’re never going to be. But apparently, my personality is infused with a concoction of characteristics that render it incapable of ever giving up. So no matter what the situation, how bad it gets and how much my body wants to surrender, my spirit will never allow it to raise the white flag. Which is why, even in this sort-of-unemployed period under a disastrous dose of stress, I actually mean it when I say, “I love my job.” The element of satisfaction and happiness is unparalleled and being able to report global stories of environmental news value is the entire point of having taken out that back-breaking loan in the first place. So even though it may not be a traditional newsroom ‘job’, it is work that I love, respect and will do for as long as I possibly can because it makes me extremely happy.

An independent journalist, I report environmental and science stories of public interest for U.S.-based mongabay.com and am working on expanding my freelance network and portfolio. And because I’m a workaholic, I’m also pursuing an online Certificate Program in environmental justice while working on an application to an absolutely smashing PhD program at Michigan State. This program is outstanding – it’s everything I’ve ever aspired to do and everything I’ve done up to this point has been a work-in-progress towards achieving exactly this goal. This is the kind of opportunity that gives me a perpetual adrenaline rush and a chance to bring the full force of my life’s work down on this application and hit a home-run. Even today, I am clear as ever about knowing exactly what I want to do. I’m figuring out how to get there using a combination of routes and off-road paths, but that’s the journey – that’s life.

It’s like with love – when you know it’s right, you just know it’s right. It’s never going to be easy but it’ll always be worth it. (Full disclosure – I’m not the genius that came up with that last line.)

So this is me saying thank you to the incredible people who have taken the time out of their busy schedules to come play badminton for 4 hours a week and my trainer at the gym – for creating an atmosphere that neutralizes my anger and lets me get to work with a refreshed, clear and focused-as-hell brain that’s raring to go. I’m going to cook you guys something (hopefully) lip-smacking someday soon.

To those who’re reading this and wondering if they will ever meet their fitness goals, I am no expert on the matter but here’s a motivating quote I came across a few weeks ago that I read every morning and then actually feel The Hulk in me gearing up for a brutal hour of smashing, running and sweating – “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Broke, Soon-to-be-Unemployed and Still Happy -- Can't Wait to See What Life Gives Me at 25

I just wrote the most honest email I've written in ages - to my parents.

These last few days have really surprised me with realizations of how much I fear things now. I'm afraid I will forever be unemployed, or that a prospective employer will read my blog and social media posts and judge my professional skills based on what they see. I am afraid I won't be able to pay off gigantic student loans that put me through graduate school. But mostly I am afraid I will lose my mind if I have to live away from the man I love, again.

I am oddly at peace with my current situation - I sent a '2 week's notice' to my boss yesterday, have no sure-shot opportunities lined up, am applying to interesting jobs as and when I come across them and may be moving across the world in a few weeks.

The part-time job I just resigned from was my only source of income, helping me cover living a thrifty life but still allowing me to send some money back home to start paying off that mountain of a student loan bit by bit.

Broke, without work and still happy? 

This state of mind seemed unreal to me a few weeks ago when I was frantically scouring the web for 'that perfect job'.

A recurring and super annoying voice kept telling me, "You can't afford to be so picky right now. Take whatever you get."

I'm finally facing that voice now. The voice of Fear.

I couldn't be more nervous about this once-again-life-changing decision I've made because like all non-weird people, I have no ability to see the future.
I don't know if I'll find work or where I'll find it. I don't know when I'll see my family next, or when my dog will make a mad sprint towards me and start jumping like a Lab-araoo with uncontrollable excitement.

All I know is, the time is now. I wouldn't be able to live with myself when I'm old and toothless, if I always wished I had placed enough faith in myself to take a calculated leap of faith.

About a month ago, I read an article on an education advise website about foreign students in the USA, vying for that coveted H1-B work visa.

Believe me when I say, my eyes were so wide for so long that I could actually see the horizon without my glasses. (Or something a little less lame)

Anyway, the article advised these young, warm-blooded students that if they wanted to continue 'being in the US', these were their options:

  1. Students on an F-1 visa, can apply to other degree programs/schools for higher education etc. to extend their "presence" here in the United States,
  2. 'Find a job' - it said. 'And get a work visa.' [Yes, because that's like waking up and 'getting' coffee from Starbucks or something. "Hi! Can I get one Environment and Science Communication latte with a shot of Web Producer? Thanks!" ]
  3. If your visa is going to expire soon and your OPT (Optional Professional Training period after graduation) is running out too, and you have nothing lined up, go back home and deal with the social stigma that will immediately be bestowed upon your sorry ass. Basically, this point told the poor readers that they should consider themselves total failures if they fit into this category. Well, "Mutant and proud," I guess. 
  4. Marry a U.S. citizen and get a green card. All clear. No one can stop you now!

I'm going to play the devil's advocate or possibly the devil herself (don't get ideas about feminism).

I already have a Master's degree in Journalism from a wonderful school where I had an absolute blast of a time. I don't feel like I want to immerse myself in another 3-4 years of graduate studies as a PhD student. I would love to teach some day but right now, I'm young, enthusiastic and curious. I want to be out on the field, working my butt off at a job I love doing. So - sorry, no more F-1 visa for me. 

Next - We all know how cooperative this economy has been to those looking for work. Also, my skill set is a little out of the ordinary in that I am not a math expert and I would be an awful engineer or computer/I.T. person, and yes, I'm Indian. 
I am an environmental scientist-turned-journalist. How many people do you know who have an open position for someone with this niche combination of experience and qualifications? Not too many. [I'm not justifying being unemployed. There are people out there who are way more experienced than I am, who are looking for work too. And employers who don't want the hassle of hiring a non-local.]
So basically, 'getting a job' is kind of loooooong-term and not something on a shopping list. 

Number three is my personal favorite. 
I can guarantee that when members within my extended family find out I'm back home after an M.A. and a year of priceless work experience, my parents will get awkward glances and stuttering questions like, "What happened?" "Did something go wrong? Why is she back already?"
To all those people - if you're reading this, let's save some time for all of us. I'm back because I wanted to be back. 
I want to live the dreams I always so animatedly shared with my friends back in the day. They haven't changed since. But I have. Well traveled, educated, civilized and empowered with common sense, I've chosen to follow my dreams now rather than make that choice when my bones are all rickety. 

I don't subscribe to social and cultural stereotypes. So go ahead and assume I got deported or failed miserably at something. I will probably be too busy being happy to notice your twisted comments and faces. And the only reason I'm even giving you some footage here is to tell you - if you give my parents a hard time, you have a whole other thing coming. I will happily tear you apart. Don't wake the monster. 

Finally - seriously, how desperate do you think I am?

Desperate enough to "marry a U.S. citizen"? I was hoping that last one was a joke but when I scrolled to the comments section on that website, I was stunned. 
Not only is this apparently a valid thing to do, it is also something people ARE doing not-so-secretly. 

I'm not talking illegal immigrants or Obama's controversial policies or anyone's policies. I'm talking about the degree of desperation that consumes some people. I don't know whether feeling sorry for them is right or if I should be appalled. So, I'm doing both. 

Yeah it is appealing to earn in U.S. dollars and convert them to Indian Rupees while paying off loan installments. I get a kick out of that every month when I do that but come on! Even the soon-to-be-jobless me, isn't THAT desperate. 

Imagine being in a public, committed relationship for the 'card' of it. Does it make sense? Exactly. 
And this isn't some sort of short-term social experiment. It's got serious legal, emotional, physical and mental consequences. 

Someday, maybe I'll report on these 'Green Card relationships'. (Want to steal that idea? Go for it. I've got plenty more where that one came from.) :)

Growing up, I never thought I'd meet someone who'd make me all gooey inside, who would quite literally be my best friend. And now that I've been able to call him my best friend, boyfriend and someday soon, my fiance - I know I wouldn't marry a U.S. citizen even if it was Jon Stewart [he's awesome and you know it]. 

That article left me frozen in my seat for a bit before I could shake it off and convince myself that giving in to that "advise" was against everything I stand for. 

So coming back to the present - my days in the U.S. now look numbered unless I am offered one of the awesome positions I've applied to. Regardless of the who, what, where, how, I am excited to begin a new chapter of life, I don't know where or as what. 

I realize the only reason I am so chilled out about this situation - which would have had me in a fit if this was February - is because I am confident enough to know that no matter what, I'll make things work out and whatever I end up doing, I'll do it with all my energy and passion. 

In the words of an "Idiot" [Ref. '3 Idiots'], "मैं अपनी लाइफ के साथ कुछ ना कुछ ढंग का तोह कर ही लूंगा"

Translation: "I will do something worthwhile with my life no matter what."

For weeks, I've been fighting an internal battle with Fear and myself and now, after so long, it feels amazingly free to finally write all this down and not go to bed thinking, "what if someone reads that and decides not to hire me?" I wouldn't want to work with someone who can't draw a line between personal expression and professionalism anyway. 

On that note, good night world. Dream on! \m/

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Vote by Special Ballot for Indian Citizens living abroad

Disclaimer: As an Indian citizen and an educated individual I understand the importance of voting in a democratic country that is currently under siege - being held hostage by corrupt officials on every level, in every department. I believe a Special Ballot vote will empower those of us who have the inclination but not the means to vote to contribute to India's holistic progress. It may not necessarily make a huge difference overnight, but give it time. The number of Indians living abroad is increasing every year and if the trend continues, the Special Ballot might someday prove to be a game changer. Personally, I believe it's more important to recognize our own individual responsibility in signing this petition rather than second guessing the system and going by "statistics". New Delhi stunned us this year by electing Arvind Kejriwal and although I may not necessarily agree with his methods, I believe he is proof that India WANTS change. We want to improve but we want to see someone else pick up the jhaadoo before us.

Why not cast aside that skepticism this one time and just believe? If not in the system, in yourself?

If you are an Indian Citizen living abroad and endorse a Special Ballot for those like yourself, so you can have a say in what happens, however small or big, this petition might be worth your attention.


Vote by Special Ballot for Indian Citizens living abroad Petition


Petition Background (Preamble):

Shri V.S. Sampath,
Chief Election Commissioner of India
Nirvachan Sadan, New Delhi

Dear Sir,

We the concerned citizens of India currently living abroad for work/study, with this letter we would like convey our modest concerns regarding the possibility of voting for Indian citizens living abroad.

Thanks to the the “Representation of the people (Amendment) Act – 2010” - which allows the eligible Non-Resident Indian (NRI) citizens to vote in India, However they have to be physically present in their respective constituency on Elections day to cast their vote.

As you are aware that there are millions of Indian citizens living abroad [out of which even if we assume about 20% would like to travel to India in day/week of general elections, The current flights/transport system would not be sufficient transport millions of passengers to India for General Elections. Also, it is a costly affair considering the travel charges and hence most of the citizens living abroad feel discouraged to utilize their vote.

Media statement in February 2011 by Honorable Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, mentioned as follows “that online voting and postal balloting would not be available now. It is up to the Election Commission to decide on these” [ref: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/article1155815.ece]

Hence, we request Election Commission to decide on the “Special Ballot Postal/Online Voting” options for the eligible Indian citizens residing in abroad at the earliest, which encourages the millions of Indian citizens to participate in the elections and also adds more value to our democratic setup.

Sir, also it is worth noting down here that the countries such as Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Philippines and the United Kingdom etc have already has “postal ballot” for their citizens abroad. Below are links for reference [which are available on public domain]



We are proud that ours is the largest democratic nation in the world; please extend the feasible voting option for the citizens of our great nation.

Pravasi Bharat

Copy to:
The President of India
The Prime Minister of India
The Leader of Opposition, Loksabha
The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs


We, the undersigned, Request the Election Commission of India to introduce special ballot for the Indian Citizens living abroad.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Complex Problems and Their Simple Solutions - overdue introspection and acceptance

It’s rather strange how the human mind, and by that I mean my own mind, keeps amazing me time and again. No, I’m not trying to lead with hinting at what a genius I think I am- quite the contrary actually.

I was in this never-before-known lull phase up until this morning; heck, I’d go far enough to say I was down till this evening. Then suddenly, a couple of hours ago, the storm passed. Or at least I think I did.

All these days I had been complaining far too much for my own comfort. I wouldn’t say I’ve always been a very contented and satisfied person but unemployment and near-bankruptcy made me, as the title of my last post would suggest, a borderline pessimist.

I’ve been aware enough to use the word “borderline”. I think there’s a core element embedded somewhere in my brain that basically doubles as a control switch. If the incoming voltage crosses the limit, this control switch gets tripped automatically. Then it’s like I’m ‘in a state of war’ with myself. It’s like three people live inside me – a borderline pessimist, a realist and an optimist.

So when the controls switch trips, my emergency response system is activated almost immediately. The onslaught of negativity and frustration that signals the beginning of a storm becomes something that I am relatively prepared for.

I expect things to get out of hand, to second guess myself and I would definitely expect mood swings and self-isolation. Good thing I expected all that because a lot more than just those things happened. It was like a toxin was sneaking through my circulation system, quietly spreading its lethal contents in my body.

Boy, am I glad that the antidote, that switch, was already in place and functioning. It was like I had been vaccinated to the joblessness virus already.

Now the main question is - what happened?

What happened in a couple of hours that undid the effects of an entire month?

The truth is – I am not sure. If I had to take a guess and give you a one-word answer, I’d say “acceptance” is what happened. I think I was finally able to break free of the tight grip that Negativity had over me.
That said, don’t go about picturing a phoenix-like image just yet.

It’s not like I am now a worry-free living creature with no care in the world about having no job or having to switch to a thrifty lifestyle. This isn’t magic and I’m not a fictitious character in one of JK Rowling’s books. 
So I wouldn’t trust the onset of ‘reality with a hint of optimism’ so soon in the transition phase. It will probably come and go for a while. But as I see it, once it’s begun, the rest will follow through.

I guess the trick to emerging from this deep, dark well has always been acceptance. It makes complete sense now and from previous experience, acceptance has always been the key for me to move on. For some reason, I never imagined something so obvious to be the key to this problem.

A few days ago, I was on the phone, having a very normal conversation. As breezily as ever, the voice on the other line said, “What fun is life without some struggle, right? Redemption wouldn't be so thrilling without the struggle.” 
Now even though that's not news to me, I probably just needed someone to crisply phrase something that should be obvious and slip it into a conversation without making a big deal about it.

I’m not someone who “shares my problems” with every other person. I have very few close friends by choice. I have never endorsed the concept of being a very social and public person, having a thousand friends and calling them all by “BFFs”. I cannot relate to that mentality.

I choose to have very few close friends – people who I care about unconditionally and will go out of my way for. Some of these people know me intensively, others know me well enough to confirm this – I never ask for help. I’m what they call “khuddaar” in Hindi.

Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, I was really not on my game during this whole crazy loony phase. That means I actually did tell some people close to me about what was messing with my head. To me, that’s a big deal. To the world, no one gives a damn and I am totally cool with that.

The two or three people that knew what was going on with me, did their absolute best to console, support and encourage me. I am now and will be forever more, grateful to them.

But the one line that finally resonated through my brain, came from someone who wasn’t on the confidante list.

The miracle worker’s identity shall remain protected. I can tell you, though, that she is a woman of substance with a pure, clean and large heart. A lady who knows what it means to struggle and what redemption feels like. Someone who is honest, caring and continues to work tirelessly for those around her without a thought for herself. An inspiration in her own right.

Yeah life’s got its issues but I’m thinking – I must have something right somewhere down the road to here, to be blessed with a family so complete and strong that I never get de-energized.

These people in my life are major contributors to today’s acceptance. Never before have I appreciated the role that people play in one’s life, as I have over these last two years.

People who knew the teenage me well remember how much I hated the ‘cheesyness’ of people and the hoopla about relationships. Some horrible experiences and a lot of learning, growing up and maturing later, that opinion is now drastically different.

I believe people I hold close to my heart have all played a part, however big or small, in shaping the person I turned out to be today. I’ve learned what to do and what not to do from these people and my interactions with them. I’ve understood which relationships matter. I’ve survived heartache and lost friendships.

Look at this this way – it’s like life is a long process of weeding out the bad stuff to end up with the best of the lot in every category.

Survival of the fittest comes to mind here. I’ve met and known literally thousands of people over the last 24 years. Some stayed longer than others, some were closer, some earned immediate ‘dislikes’. But those who stand with me today, have themselves reached here through a rigorous screening process of their own.

I think our minds unconsciously screen people at every step – weeding out the bad and keeping the good. So ultimately, what we end up with is a circle of the best, closest and toughest friends and family members.
That’s just a theory at this point but it makes sense to me. If I were an anthropologist, I’d explore it further. But I’m an environmental scientist/journalist. (So if anyone ever does study it, I’ll write a story on it. Ha!)

Can you believe I hated the ‘cheesyness of people’? This whole write-up reeks of it!
Ready for some more?

Acceptance is going to be good, I think. A negative and frustrated approach or attitude just clogs my mind and severely hampers productivity. With a mind that is no longer claustrophobic and polluted, I can breathe easy again and set out to find work with a better attitude.

I can complain however much I want. Truth is, at the end of the day, I know too well that my genetic and mental framework do not believe in the idea of ‘giving up’.

In fact, I’m someone who never has just one plan. (Yeah I know plans don’t always work out – all the more reason to have multiple ideas.) I always have a back-up plan.

And this whole chaos of thoughts in my head is precisely why I said my mind never ceases to amaze me of its potential to store and process information. (I don’t really approve of generalizations hence the reference to my own mind as opposed to all of mankind.)

Now, because I have already written 1,337 words, and before I end up writing another ‘thesis-length’ piece, I’d suggest you go back to doing something other than wasting time reading my musings.
Rest assured, if you still want to waste time, I will be back here sooner than later for as long as I remain unemployed. J

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Borderline Pessimist - what a simple break in chronology can do.

They say that adversity really teaches you a lot. Honestly, I don't know who "they" are and what the "lot" is. I am not sure if the current circumstances that constitute my life qualify as 'adversity', but I'm going to say they do. Why? Simple- this is the first time I've been in at the bottom of this particular well and the process of dealing with it is pretty daunting.
'Unemployed' is a status that I have never had to associate with myself before now. Quite naturally, the frustrations and sheer availability of time that come with being unemployed, are new to me. Both throw me off to some extent because they bring a very intimidating sense of unpredictability and an uneasy feeling of inconsistency into my very existence. I understand that change is the only constant and all of that metaphorical pseudo-comforting stuff.
I'm not saying I want every inch of my plans to work out to the T. I know better than to think that by this time but it wouldn't hurt, after all this while, to have at least some consistency.
Apart from feeling like a nomad who belongs neither to the United States nor to India, I have ambitions piling up inside my by the dozen and being jobless is kind of burying them. It's like having no outlet for a body of ambitions bursting at the seams.
Sounds a little 'rich kid who grew up in luxury' but look closer and tilt your head a little and you might just see what I do.
This is definitely not the first time in my life that I am dealing with a difficult situation. Life has been very generous with those. (Yes, I'm sure everyone thinks that. And I'm very sure that I have it way better than most will or ever did.) Even so, this particular phase is, like I said, new.
I haven't been at these depths of this well before so I don't know where the ladder is. I don't know how long the ladder is and how long it will take me to get back up so I can hoist myself out of this well.
I assume that it takes a while to find one's footing when one is scrambling for grip on a slippery, moss-covered floor. Hands flailing around, gauging the width; legs busy with the primary task of staying afloat in this chin-deep water.
Thing is, it's comparatively easy to be this third person with an aerial view of the 'person-in-the-well' and be practical about the fact that stability takes time. Problem is, when this third person herself, falls into the well - it's like telling a drowning person that it's going to be ok. You don't know that and they sure as hell don't.
This matter-of-fact attitude is helpful, yes, but it's difficult to keep it intact when fear, frustration, impatience and desperation start to squeeze their way into your thought process.
It's like an all-out attack by invasive species (thoughts) to take over the indigenous species' habitat. Tried and tested pesticides (organic or not) don't seem to get rid of these double-edged invasive thoughts. Clearly, this calls for a "new" strategy. (I'm already getting sick of that word in quotation marks.)
So what is this unknown and as-yet-imaginary strategy?
Well, if I had figured that one out, I wouldn't be sitting at my computer on a Saturday night writing this, listening to the Chennai Express soundtrack to reduce the volatile effects of reading the world news. Occupational hazard, I guess.
These last few weeks have given me plenty of time to think about stuff, for one. I'll admit that I didn't always think about the most productive things or the most important issues. I spent several hour watching absolutely ridiculous Hindi films, some wonderful films, reading 23 pages of a book I have had for a year and doing something I NEVER got to do while I was in graduate school - sleeping.
I have had the "luxury" of going to bed at whatever time I want and waking up whenever I want. I have had the opportunity to catch up with friends back home and feel, even if just for an hour, like I'm with them, at our typical hangouts, laughing animatedly about rubbish. I've read most of the articles, pages, URLs that I so lovingly dragged and dropped into the 'Bookmarks' folder. I have had time to make masoor dal, chicken kheema and pudina chutney, among other things.
The only thing that's wrong with all this available time is that aside from the intense job application period interspersed with phases of abstinence from anything "job-like", I would much rather NOT be spending my time sleeping, cooking, watching films and singing at the top of my voice.
I'm a restless breed of workaholics. And the only thing that can keep me from going mad and driving other people loony, is having work. And by work, I don't mean cleaning kitchens and bathrooms and vacuuming the house. I'm a workaholic forced to stand at the start-ling indefinitely till the pistol fires its signal and I can chase my work down that track.
And because I am not a Yash Raj Films prodigy, I cannot just wake up one day, get a guitar and start crooning on the streets of Missoula in a fake Punjabi accent to make $500 worth of rent. That only happens to Shahrukh Khan.
In film terms, here's where I am right - I have Aamir Khan's individuality and spirit from 3 idiots, Akshay Kumar's energy from the Khiladi series, Karan Johar's tear glands, Ayushman Khurana's sense of humor and Rajpal Yadav's luck from Hungama.
I don't know if my being Indian has anything to do with this insatiable urge to work but I know it has a lot to do with just being who I am. A period of 24 years is a long enough time scale for conclusive observations. Over this time period, I've realized I have been happiest when I have had work in some significant form.
I am certainly grateful to life for this long overdue lull because it let me finally do normal stuff again without feeling like I was cheating on my assignments. But having said that, I don't think I handle the concept of 'relax' very well. After a while, I have absolutely no idea as to what on earth I'm supposed to be 'doing'. Like everything else in the world of journalism, with me, even 'funemployment' has to have a deadline. (Credit to Allison Mills for coining that term)
And now, because I know I'm going to be woken up early tomorrow morning by a phone call from my mom, I'm going to sign off for tonight.
Recreational writing after ages - another advantage of being unemployed? (Borderline pessimist....)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

DAH 301 to Washington-Grizzly Stadium: two years of graduate life start to finish.

I was 22 when I walked those six blocks to get to the Don Anderson Hall, room 301. School wasn't in session yet. It was that orientation week for new students and boy, did we need it. Fresh out of mother India, I was prepared to take this head on. Even so, not once did it strike me that on the very first day of orientation, we would have to venture out on a strange campus, find and interview strange people for our very first assignment. No rose petals, no bushes to beat around. They had come straight to the point. My life as a journalism graduate student had begun the moment I walked into that building.

For the two years that followed, "that" building took multiple forms - home, hideout, rescue center and therapy clinic among others. It was four floors of absolute madness. A madness that I now think was too short-lived.

In these last two years, I have probably learned more than I ever did before and not just in academic terms. I have never lived alone even though my personality isn't one to press the panic button, it was quite an experience. I had never lived in a place with less than a million people - for starters. Pune, my hometown, caters to about eight million people. Missoula, has about 60,000 people - a statistic I don't believe but I have to give state's census figures some credit. I'd believe someone if they said Missoula has like 2000 people. For perspective, the entire state of Montana crossed the one million population mark only last year. So Pune has about eight times the number of people in all of Montana. Yup, exactly.

I had never lived in a place where it snows for six months (modest). I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed the snow - until it got to my bones and froze the life out of me. I didn't go skiing or snow-boarding or snow-shoeing because I'm not very fond of making a complete fool out of myself. And if I must, I can do that on flat land. There's something that is so beautiful about snow that it makes you want to just stand in it, knee-deep, with your snow boots and parka on, and stare at it till your eyes dry out from the cold. I remember waking up one weekend last year, looking out the door. I felt my eyes widen and my jaw drop before I turned back, ran to get my camera and started clicking like mad as if it was all a dream that was going to go *poof* any second. That is the magic of snow. It makes a 22-year-old feel like a child inside.

The first year of graduate school was like military boot camp. Tough as hell. Long nights that spilled over into the next morning so often that I had lost the ability to keep track of day, date and time. There were no weekdays, no Mondays or Thursdays or even Saturdays. It was all just one big mass, a continual time loop where everyday was a working day and there were no holidays. Oh, holidays! The ones we did have, like winter break or spring break, were more frustrating than regular days. Three times the usual work load with at least two final papers or mid-terms due at the end. I have never felt so fluctuated in my life. Yes, that's actually a physical state of being - you'll know when you're here.

Of all the classes I took, there is only one that I wish I could somehow crumple up like waste paper and throw it out of sight. Ok, I hated it. You would too if you put an obscene amount of work into something that wasn't even your major and should have been way easier than the other PhD level course you had to get through. Oh, and if after all that jazz, you got a big dull dud of a D on it. Yuck.

I will say though, that my other classes were absolutely fantastic. To be very honest, this is the first time since being in school that I have enjoyed putting myself through physical, emotional and mental conditions that were never probably never meant for human beings. Ok, I am exaggerating it - only a tad. It has been a sweet pain. I hated papers and assignments when they would actually be due but it would be weird if I didn't. The learning experience, the opportunities to have healthy group discussions, the intellectual challenges and moreover, the people - have surpassed every expectation I could have had.

This second year has been more diverse and cooler than boot camp year. Fewer credits sure helped. Having the thesis to do did not. That's balance for you. But I had a lot more going on this year. Diversity groups, international student groups, activities, lectures, presentations, interviews, dinners, festivals, the whole shebang. A lot more spice and flavor to life this year - embedded in memory for years to come.

I'd say we have all come a long way - all of us journalism grads. - since day 1. From 2am huddles to piece a story together to walking up to a stage dressed in black gowns and caps to get our awesome (did you see the others?!) hoods from our committee chairs. All of us, with our different personalities, our different 'zing' elements, are going to go out there and make those four floors proud.

First semester Master's project proposals saw scores of transformations this year and we all came into our own. Heading out to report with all the gear, finding sources, interviews, more interviews, hours and hours of tape, piecing the story, writing up a rough outline and then - close to ten drafts of a final project that we stood up and publicly defended - successfully defended.

What a process this has been! Moreover, what a month this has been. I don't care very much for birthdays but I will say this one has been spectacular.

Thesis defense, graduation, turning 24 on a snow-covered lake-front surrounded with Montana's marvelous wilderness in the company of family. Perfect? I'd love to say yes but we all know that would be untrue.

And now, with two whole years of memories and learning behind me, I stare at a "Stop" sign on the corner of a street as the background changes from bright blue sunny skies to thick grey rain clouds within minutes.
Cars go by in either direction. Birds go about their usual business. The sun tries to peep through the clouds creating an aura of heavenly light. And me? I sit and draw out plans for my future, periodically glancing sideways at the "Stop" sign.

A sign to literally stop, look left and right, wait for traffic to pass and then enter your lane of choice carefully. Pretty much what I have to do from here on. No more school. No more classes or deadline assignments or thesis drafts or dangerously high doses of coffee.

Given current market situations and general circumstances - finding a decent job is going to be nothing short of a Himalayan expedition with limited oxygen supplies and deathly cliffs and crevices that one must avoid falling off/into.

I embarked on this expedition almost exactly 10 days ago when my identity changed from being a "Master's STUDENT in environmental journalism" to a 'Journalist'. The moment when all candidates for Master's degrees stood up as the President of the University of Montana verbally conferred our degrees on us has gone down in my history. The history of who I am. And as Jim Messina so efficiently put it that rainy morning in the Washington-Grizzly Stadium, it's always about moving "on to the next".

On to the next it is. The 'student' bids adieu as the 'journalist' emerges to stretch her wings and take flight.

Thank you to the unforgettable people who have made these two years the most memorable years of my life - you know who you are and you know you have a loyal friend, student, community member and peer in me all because you have been so darned awesome. Big shout out to y'all. My credentials may have changed but I'm still me. And we will always be 'we'.

Go Griz! (We know tributes are incomplete without serious acknowledgment of the school mascot, especially because I'm sitting in bobcat country as I write this!) ;)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

'Born' Identity - grad.student or human being?

I really shouldn't be writing this right now. As I sit on the 4th floor of the journalism building on campus and glance over my shoulder at the leafless trees and thick grey clouds in the background, I can't help but write. What I should be writing is my thesis. Instead, here I am, punching away at my keyboard with a look of serious concentration on my face like I have something important to say.
It's the last semester of my Master's degree. In less than 2 months, I will (fingers crossed) be graduating with a degree in journalism - something I would never have imagined even 3 years ago. Coming to graduate school seemed so obvious. Like the prescribed next step. That's not why I came here though.
I didn't know when I accepted the offer to be a journalism grad. student that I was signing an unofficial, invisible contract to have absolutely no life at all. My social and personal life has been all of non-existent these last couple of years and now is probably the worst time to be feeling awful about it.
In October last year, I remember strolling on the lawn outside my apartment in the evening fall breeze, talking to my dad on the phone. It's not very often that I have long, heartfelt conversations with him especially when he's on a different continent in a different hemisphere. During our chat, he asked where I liked to hang out in Missoula and what I did in my "free time". It hit me. I no longer had any idea of what 'free time' was. That aspect of life had completely eluded me for months and I hadn't even noticed.
I never hung out anywhere. My life was restricted to being on campus and being at home. Those were the only two places I had the time to be in. My days were desperately trying to expand themselves beyond the 24 hour limit and would more often than not, spill over into the next day, forming one giant mass of time with no clear demarcations. There were no weekends. Everyday was a working day. Everyday was a new deadline.
It may not be relevant but apparently Geminis are people who get bored very quickly and always need to have variety on their plate. And boy did I have variety. Four graduate level classes that were driving me insane. Whatever time I did get when I wasn't studying or writing, I was working with international student groups to put things together, or I was cleaning a house that would start to look uncannily like the pig-sty my mother always threatened me my room would look like someday.
Bottom line, I had NO idea about what were the 'cool' places to hang out in, in this tiny (compared to Pune) place in the most obscure corners of America. Naturally, these thoughts raced through my head while my dad was expecting an answer. I said I didn't have time to go exploring the city and didn't know what were the nice places to go have dinner or just meet friends. I said the only place I knew well enough was Walmart and that too, I hated.
My dad guffawed and said there was no way I was so caught up in things that I didn't have time to go out.
It's March now and I still haven't had time to go out. When I do, there's a nagging feeling poking me in the back of my head saying, "why are you not studying? You have all these things due tomorrow!" Every time I manage to hiss at that voice in my head and shut it up. In vain.
As graduation and thesis defence time gets closer every day, not to mention scarier, I keep thinking I've missed out on so much. I'm the girl who would jump at the chance of travelling hundreds of kilometers away to be with nature, see some wildlife, spend some quiet time in the forest. I've been living in Montana for almost two years now. Montana - one of the most fantastically beautiful places that exists on our planet. It's wide expanses of space, the mountains, the valleys, the snow, the rivers, the colour of the leaves and two of the coolest national parks ever - Glacier and Yellowstone. Ok, I'll admit I've been to Yellowstone twice but honestly, I get crabby if all I can see are geo-thermal spots instead of bears and wolves and bison!
Homesickness is probably one the worst feelings to have. I know I signed up for this. I know it was my decision and I honestly love what I do- learning what I have been for these 2 years and maybe it's because I am new to the American education system but the one reason that makes me look forward to graduating is that it puts me that many days closer to going back home.
Home, where my people, my family and friends and my animals live. Where time hasn't stopped because I moved away. Where people whose lives I am an integral part of are living regular, routine lives despite my physical absence. I think deep down, everyone who leaves their homes to study or work abroad has a secret hope that things will be exactly the same when they get back and nothing will have changed. But the only thing in the world that's consistently occurring, is change.
People change, places change, perceptions change, relationships change, street-side food shacks change, coastlines change and in this humdrum of regular life, you yourself - change. So at a time like this, when your thesis is in front of your eyes, and you miss home in all its glory and darkness, you feel like a complete alien. You are in a foreign land where people don't know you from scratch, where you have had to build relationships from their very basic foundations, where you've had to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road and the car, and where people are nice but not your own. You want to fit in. You want to make your ride as smooth as possible but suddenly, you're stuck. People back home now talk about you as 'that girl who used to live there' or 'our daughter who lives in the U.S.' or 'my friend who is abroad'. Over break when people at home introduce you to their acquaintances as someone 'who lives in America but is Indian'- you feel an astoundingly strong pain in your chest.
That pain, I figured out recently, is related to this flawed identity I now have. I don't want this dual identity. I don't like it. I want to be the same person I was before I left home to come here because honestly, the things that make me who I am have not changed in the slightest. I'm still me. I'm still my parents daughter and I still love my dog more than I ever thought I could.
And someday, hopefully soon, I would love not to have that guilty feeling inside me when I look at that dog's eyes and don't have the guts to tell her that she won't be seeing me again for a long time. For once, I would love to know that everyday, when I wake up, it'll be in my bed, in my house, my that four-legged canine impatiently licking me to get up and take her out. I'd love to come home to familiar smells of egg curry drifting down the three flights of stairs that lead up to my house and get frustrated with people who have no driving sense whatsoever. I know it's got its problems and I know they can really stress people out but nothing anywhere can beat the huge sense of relief when wheels of an aircraft touch down on a runway in your home country - that feeling when you know that you're headed back where you came from - originally.
And now, back to that thesis. The one thing that is my ticket to redemption. Proof to myself that I did what I took on.
To all those homesick graduates in the world, you are never alone. There are thousands of others like you out there. Good luck! :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tera Rang Aisa Chadh Gaya, Koi Aur Rang Na Chadh Sakey…

He came, he inspired, and he conquered. This summer Aamir Khan forced India to cancel all Sunday morning appointments. Generations across the country, across the world, sat glued to their television sets or their computers to find out what else is wrong with India.

In 13 episodes, Aamir Khan initiated, established and supported a movement – a movement for change – change that India and Indians had been wanting for years. He appeared on our screens and spoke to us in impeccable Hindi [and several regional languages], bringing a new issue, a new problem and a new solution to us every Sunday.

A flood of sentiments, arguments, opinions, donations, questions, monumental praise and even criticism followed every episode. India was on its feet. Her citizens were thinking, making choices, taking decisions, and waking up. Or were they?

I waited to watch the last episode depicting Satyamev Jayate’s journey so far. I waited till an hour ago. It was telecast on August 15th, 2012 in India – the day I flew out of the country to make my way back to a remote corner of the USA.

I waited because I wanted to get out of the Satyamev Jayate fever that had engulfed people around me and the atmosphere in general. Engulfed is probably too strong a word but suddenly, people were talking about rainwater harvesting, even though my neighbours were pumping water out every morning to wash their collection of cars. I waited so that I could develop a relatively unbiased perspective and because I honestly didn't have the time to watch it while I was trying to pack 46 kg of luggage. 

Meanwhile, TIME magazine featured Khan on their cover with a caption asking readers whether an actor can change a nation.

If TIME magazine had watched even one of the 13 episodes, or looked closely at their own cover photo, they probably could have seen the underlying truth. Aamir Khan is not ‘an actor’. He’s an Indian. An Indian looking to create, build, and leave behind a better India for generations to come. I don’t think anyone is that good an actor. Good enough to pull off something like Satyamev Jayate and actively, personally follow up on every issue to see it to its destination.

His eyes give him away. They are brimming with grit and determination to make things happen, to make the right things happen. His gaze holds your eyes, draws you into the episode with him, makes you weep as he wipes his tears away, and infuriates you as you learn of new atrocities. No actor can do that. Only an Indian who, in every drop of his blood, loves and feels his country can. He can. He did.

So did several before him. Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Lokmanya Tilak, Babasaheb Ambedkar, even Mahatma Gandhi invoked this level of emotion in Indians the world over. So why is he different?

Because he is not advocating radicalism or leaning towards the Left or Right. He’s standing up for reality and advocating humanity, responsibility, and practicality. His ‘fans’ aren’t extremists or non-violence practitioners. His followers are the common people who experience these issues every day and have kept quiet for years thinking no one cared, and that nothing could be done either way. From farmers to entrepreneurs, people relate to him, and feel involved in the process of making their home a better place. 

Question is, why did we need an Aamir Khan to stand up and say he would do this? Why hadn’t we done something about either of these issues ourselves? Or do we always look to Hindi cinema for solutions? We let Shah Rukh Khan teach us romance, and we wait for Aamir to debut on television to mobilize ourselves. Why?

Does it not sting you somewhere deep inside that you’re asking for a Satyamev Jayate Season 2? Is it, on some level, not embarrassing that we’d need a second season?

Is it only Aamir Khan’s moral responsibility to mobilize the country every time it falls asleep or begins to doze off? Why do we always wait till the last minute, wait for a wake-up call? Purely and simply as legal citizens of India, we are required to follow the law. Everyone from our country’s premier, politicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, painters, plumbers, tailors, actors, students, housewives, is required to dutifully and honestly fulfil their individual responsibility as laid out in the Constitution of India.

We lived under foreign rule for centuries. For 65 years, we have had the legal freedom to be responsible for our own country, our own lives. Somewhere down that road, we became complacent, materialistic and insensitive. Six and a half decades down the road, do we still find it impossible to initiate problem-solving techniques ourselves and do we still feel the need for a constant wake-up call or reminder to tell us to do our job better?

I find it hard to be saying and asking all these things because: a) I have no idea if anyone is ever going to read this, b) I’m actually a staunch supporter of the sheer spirit and élan with which Aamir Khan went about creating and executing Satyamev Jayate, and c) It’s 1:28am and I haven’t slept in a long, long time so thinking objectively and clearly kind of becomes difficult.

Despite the severe sleep deprivation, I wonder why people of India continue to flood Satyamev Jayate’s pages with requests of a second season. Maybe 12 heart-breaking episodes and windows into reality weren’t enough to rattle them out of their seats and get them moving, for good.

On a very superficial level, it's great that the episodes in themselves and the follow up action got politicians and the concerned authorities moving towards a goal. A goal that should have been reached and passed decades ago. On a deeper level, the fact that in so short a period of time, so many politicians signed documents, passed bills in parliament, altered text books, made arrests, conducted raids etc. - is shameful. If that's all the time it took them to get this far, what on earth were they doing for all these years? 

13 weeks of Aamir Khan's tear-jerking telecasts drove them to the edge and transformed people into aware and patriotic citizens of India. So maybe Gandhi, Nehru, Tilak, Ambedkar etc. should have launched television shows for the impact they desired. Because we sure as hell aren't where we should, or could, have been at this point. 

It makes patriotism look like a battery-powered emotion that runs out when you overuse it in a short period of time. Then it needs to be recharged or needs a ‘second season’ of batteries to get going again. Is this why we became independent?

It took us 65 years to discuss female foeticide, child sexual abuse, domestic violence etc. on a national, public platform. Do we want to wait another 65 to discuss the next dozen issues?

If India wants to change, and I believe in my heart that it does, then why can’t we change without requesting a nudge at regular intervals? Are we not all Aamir Khans? Aren’t we all the trustees and beneficiaries of our own country? 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My dream. My India.

"Why would you still want to go back to India? Wahaan rakha hi kya hai," I am asked. Several times over. Till I finally start to feel violent.

Kyun na jaun vapas? Mera ghar nahi hai kya? Mera desh nahi hai kya? Yahaan baithke kya bas dekhti rahun ki kuch log kya haal kar rahe hain mere ghar ka? Chup chaap bahar-walon ki tarah dekh kar muh pher lu? 

Is that really that surprising or outrageous that a 23-year-old Indian girl who is finishing her Master's in the USA still wants to go back to India after accomplishing the academic goals she's aiming for?

Is it that ridiculous for me to want to go ... home?

Do people not feel ashamed to actually tell me that there's no scope for me and "people like me" in India and that I should stay put, earn a fortune and live happily ever after? I'm sorry but my mind and life are not that shallow. I function on certain principles.

Should I sit here, quietly building up a handsome bank balance while watching my country fall apart because of arrogant, corrupt politicians and senseless discrimination? Should I wait for someone else to step in and 'clean up'? Why? Is it not your home?

Koi aur aake kyun tumhari gandagi saaf karey? Khud utro usmein. Karo apni mitti ko saaf. Ghar pe bade sher bante phirte ho toh bahar jao, jagao un logon ko jo aankhein band karke jeete hain, uthao unhein, kaam par lagao. Khud kaam karo. Par nahi. Tumhein toh yahaan aake pardesi logon ke liye kaam karna zyada pasand hai. Wohi toh tumhara sapna hai. Ki kab main degree le lu aur kat lu yahaan se.

And then you'll magically transform into one of those 'NRIs' who visit India once in a few years and cover their noses with kerchiefs and wrinkle them underneath. You'll buy mineral water, complain about how many potholes there are in the roads, and how backward 'this' country is.

Yahi sab kehne ke liye vapas aana hai toh ek kaam karo bhai - mat aao vapas. Humein zaroorat hi nahi hai tumhari. Ek din tumhein zaroorat mehsoos hogi. Apne logon ki. APNE desh ki. Tab ban jaoge tum.. pakke NRI.

Don't come back if you can't use any of your acclaimed IVY league education and your fancy bank balances for the betterment of the land where you were made. Where the largest democratic, secular population on earth lives - happily.

Yes, we have problems. But there are still people who believe in solving problems, not getting used to them. If you have so much influence, so much attitude and power, bring it all with you. Bring it back and invest it - in YOUR country. Your home.

That feeling you get when you watch an episode of Satyamev Jayate on your big, giant flat-screen LCD television in your posh living room - capture it, retain it and transplant it - to reality.

Get up and do something about it instead of remaining a drawing room hero.

This is not some Tata Tea 'Jaago Re' campaign. It's not a 'Support Anna Hazare' campaign either. It simply says, if your dream took you somewhere else, I respect that.

My dream was and is, to fight back. To go home to my people, my land, my dharti and apply everything I've learned to a genuine effort in keeping my homeland beautiful.

Tumhara sapna tumhein mubarak ho. Par pankh ugakar yeh mat sochke baitho ki bass, ab hum mahaan ho gaye hain. 

Aur agar dil mein itni si bhi ichha ho, ki yaar mujhe apne ghar jana hai, toh ruko mat. Laut jao. Shauk se. Dil se. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Not Nearly a Tribute

The world of conservation, in all its essence, is defined by the choices people make- whether those people are the citizens who vote, or policy makers, workers, biologists, journalists, lawyers, or the forest department staff. Fortunately for conservation, it has seen some great thinkers, dedicated workers, and remarkably talented people with a distinct charm about them and their ways.

Among the several such people I have been lucky enough to meet and share some time with, is Fateh Singh Rathore.

This is not a library collection on him and who he was with all the technical bits of information about his work for tigers and Ranthambhore, and his constant, cheerful encouragement of youngsters to contribute to the field.

This, is an account of my memories of him. My memories of "Fuddgy", of the man who had a charisma like no other, the man who was, is and for me - will always be - the real 'Tiger Man of India'.

Fat[e]hji would wake up earlier than most animals in Ranthambhore do. He would go for a walk in the morning, and on returning, would drink this ridiculous beetroot-carrot-and something else juice and I have still not figured out HOW he drank it everyday. Maybe his taste buds were still asleep then. One morning he decided to come shake our tent vigorously to scare the crap out of us. Problem was - the other two people with me in that tent would sleep through a protest rally if it passed an inch from them. I however, was up in a second. Not because I'm a light sleeper, but because when I'm in a tent/on field, I tend to be a very light sleeper because I expect every noise to come from a majestic animal that might be close by.

I poked my head of the tent and there he was- all dressed for his walk. I mumbled a "good morning" and, with his trademark style, said - "jao tayyar hokar aao. main 5min. rukunga. walk pe jana hai." [Translated, that means- "go get ready and hurry back. I will wait 5min. for you to show up. We're going for a walk."] I stared at him and was convinced he was kidding. But his next words were "4min." and I hopped out the tent, ran up, straightened myself out and marched back down, shoes and everything set to go. He liked giving me a hard time and I always played along because he was so cute. So he grilled the life out of me during that walk and when we were back at the front door, he said, without turning to look at me,"finish your college and come work here. you're no good in the city." I'm smiling even as I type this because it brings that moment back to life for me and I even remember the tone.

Story' goes on. I was on my way back to the tent when he told me to come in. I did. Maybe I shouldn't have. He made me drink that horrible vegetable juice thing and I swear to God, I have tasted pharmaceuticals that have tasted better. I shot him a look and he laughed. "It's good for you. Stop complaining. I have to drink the thing by myself everyday. Tricked you into it, didn't I?" he said, with his child-like mischievous grin. The man's energy was literally contagious.

Then one day, he returned in his Toyota Qualis looking all upset and annoyed. I was walking to the office and he spotted me just at the right time. "AJ- kya kar rahi hai? kahan bhatak rahi hai dhoop mein?" ["AJ- what are you doing? where are you wandering off to in this heat?"] I said I was headed down to the office and then I asked - "Kya hua? Ro kyun rahe ho?" ["What happened? Why are you all sad/crying?"] He pointed to the car and said the stereo stopped working.

I laughed out so loud, I think a Peacock fell out of a tree somewhere around us [by the way, we've all actually seen Peacocks literally fall out of trees while they're asleep. It is incredibly hillarious]. Anyway, he stared at me till I stopped laughing and then said, go fix the stereo! I don't know why, but I did. And it worked. And from then on, I was "radio-wali" [until he forgot about the new name and went back to calling me AJ again].

On one of my other visits, I took a crate full of 'Jamun' fruits for him. I found him sitting on his terrace and crept up behind him and placed the box next to him. Too late. He had seen me. So instead of him jumping,  he shouted out "AJ aayi!!!" while I tried to softly place the box down - and I jumped. His excitement and enthusiasm make it seem like he's no older than a 6 year old child. He opened the box, saw what was inside, turned back to look at me and said - What is this? I though you would bring me Mangoes!" I smiled at him and calmly said, "they're in the kitchen. but you cannot eat more than 1 every 2 days."
"Why?" he asked, feigning disbelief. "Because you've probably forgotten it but you're diabetic. No sweets." He put his hand to his head and went, "Oh god... She's back," he said and rolled his eyes.
Tiger Watch's Conservation Leadership Course- first batch of participants with volunteers and Fateh ji
"Yes, I am. And I will be watching how fast those Mangoes are disappearing. So don't think you can talk your way out of this one."

We have called each other so many things over those years, I've lost track. But at one point we were both trying to see who gets impatient first. He would call me 'dadi ji' and I would call him 'dada ji' and sure enough, 4 days into it and I had had enough. He, however, was cool as a cucumber - which is something considering Ranthambhore recorded a sweltering 46°C that summer.

Every time someone mentions his name, or I read it somewhere, I can only see that big broad smile on his face and those sparkling eyes. And it is only fitting that a man of so much dedication, intelligence, and charm, be remembered with fondness in our hearts and a "big, broad smile" on our faces. :)

It's still hard to believe that today is a year since he passed away but I think he always intended to hand around till all the causes he stood for were fought for in the right spirit so even though he's invisible, I believe he's still very much around. Ranthambhore's tigers have an uncanny connection with him. Even today. And I think, forever more. No one can explain this connection they share. Some things are best left unsaid, and unexplained. That's their beauty.

So here's to 'Fuddgy' - the man who put Ranthambhore on the map. The man who meant SO many different things to an array of people from all over the world, and from all age-groups. With good reason.

Cheers Fuddgy.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bombay to Bozeman/Missoula - the journey so far.

Two huge bags of approximately 25kg slid painfully away from me on the conveyor belt as I proceeded towards the security check at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai. 31 hours later, I was in Bozeman, Montana. Most people don't know what Montana is and where it is. The only way to explain the concept of Montana to someone in India, who is not unbelievably aware of geography, is to say "Yellowstone National Park". There is a typical raising of eyebrows that is followed by a long nod of approval which all starts to become rather boring when this whole process has to be repeated a few hundred times.

I had arrived. I had broken every promise I had ever made to myself about "never going to America". I had gone through the incredibly tedious process of obtaining a student VISA and what's more, I had been granted one. At that point on the 10th of August, 2011, I had a huge loan looming over me like an evil cloud, an extremely upset Labrador at home wondering why I hadn't shown up for over a day, and a surprisingly heavy heart. My phase of introspection had begun the moment I set foot on that Lufthansa flight [which by the way, landed at the world'd most boring airport - Frankfurt].
A couple days into being the promise-breaker, I was finally seeing the silver lining that I had convinced myself, was there. If all of Montana was like Bozeman, I thought, it must be way more beautiful than I think it is. In hindsight, if I hadn't spent those first five days in Bozeman with 'the mister', I would have taken much longer to acclimatize to the situation and would have been a rather unpleasant person to be around during that time.

For the last 22 years I've been used to waking up early on the 15th of August and attending the flag-hoisting ceremony as a part of Independence Day celebrations. This year, we woke up early to shift base to Missoula, Montana. I'll admit now, I felt like a child on a road trip, and looked like one of those dogs that sit in the window of the car with their tongues hanging on one side of their face, enjoying the wind in their "hair". A couple of pit-stops later, we were finally here- in Missoula. I was still getting used to not being in India.
We spent the whole day calling people, checking out houses and freaking out about not finding me a house [the guys were fine. I was beside myself]. I was awe-struck with the campus and the fact that two 'Bobcats' walked around the 'Griz' campus and said it was better than theirs, sealed the deal for me.

Campus was indeed, an amazing expanse to explore and feel good about. Then came the best part. Don Anderson Hall. That's when it hit me, "In two years I'm going to be a journalist. I'm going to be studying here. This place is awesome!"

From day 1 of orientation itself, we've been on-the-go. I'm still trying to figure out whether it was smart to choose the 12 credit pact over the 9 credit pact but either way, I could not be happier about breaking those promises. I'm absolutely loving journalism, especially because it's environment oriented and offers such a giant scope for progress and work.
One absolute relief here is the entirety of the education system. I know most of us back home have heard this time and again but you really never know for sure until you've experienced it. We're a class of 8 people, each from a different , diverse background, with diverse interests, and with an infectious amount of energy. Our faculty is just top-notch. They're like our support pillars. Our therapists. We can bounce anything and everything off them. They're human [and that's what's so comforting] as opposed to 3 years of "faculty" who believed they were god-sent miracles. These people here, are the kind of people you want to respect effortlessly, and you do. They make you work your ass off and you love it.

I feel great being in this absolutely corner of USA that no one has ever heard of or been to because: a) it's a small, cosy place with no traffic jams, no noise, and downright beautiful, (b) because it's 2.5 hrs away from Glacier National Park, 5hrs from Yellowstone, and moreover 3.5hrs from Bozeman[!!!], (c) because this is the kind of course and place where you are required to be working 24x7 if you want to fulfil those bags of dreams piled up in that corner of your mind, (d) I would go mad in any place that didn't keep me so frightfully busy all the time.

Another completely unexpected turn of events [and there were a lot of these "events"] was finding the perfect Fall semester time-table. That means, being able to register for the classes you really want to get into and it is almost as hard to decide on just what to keep and what to chuck, as it is to try and get a hard-core scientist to talk about his research in 500 words. No matter when you arrive at a "course consensus", you are always going to be wondering if you made the right choice, especially when you do miserably on one of the assignments for a class. But two minutes later you realize just why you don't care whether it's a perfect schedule or not. You took that class because you absolutely love its content and you will not let one grade shake your faith [in what, I'm not entirely sure].

Every night though, before you head to bed, your mind reminds you how blessed you feel to be here and to have learned in less than two months, more than what you learned in a whole year before. [After this it reminds you how you have only 3 more days to go till you can sleep for more than four hours before you have to wake up and get back to your assignments again.]

It is almost 2 whole months since I first set foot on US territory and I have to say, I'm glad I did, but irrespective of everything associated with being glad, I intend to remain a non-immigrant so I can head back to where I belong - on the banks of a river, studying crocodiles with the man, or just simply, in a word, home. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Gharials Are Adapting?

Publication: The Times Of India Lucknow;Date: Jun 19, 2011;Section: Times City;Page: 4

Gharial hatchlings sighted in Yamuna

Faiz Rahman Siddiqui | TNN 

Kanpur: The wildlife experts have spotted nearly 46 gharial hatchlings in Yamuna river at National Chambal Sanctuary on the borders of Etawah and Auraiyya. Gharial hatchlings have been seen in this area for the first time. 

    Gharials have been declared as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union For Conservation of Nature. A giant female gharial (around 12-15 feet long) was also sighted near the nesting site. 

    The hatchlings were noticed in the first week of June in the sand-beds after the 60-90 days of incubation period, the forest officials said. 

    Rajiv Chauhan, secretary, Society for Conservation of Nature, who is working on gharial conservation, said, “It was during a visit after being informed by the locals of Gohani Kalan village situated at the borders of Etawah and Auraiyya districts, on June 2 that I first spotted nearly 46 eggs of gharial at a nesting site on a Yamuna river bank.” 

    He added, “The villagers were surprised when they came across unusual beep sounds coming from inside the eggs and alerted us. This happens only when the eggs are about to hatch. It is a very good and positive sign for the nature lovers that for the very first time, gharials have chosen Yamuna river for breeding in India.” 

    Principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) B K Patnaik said, “It is indeed a good news for wildlife conservationists as gharial is a critically endangered specie. Going by the latest sighting of gharial hatchlings, that too in Yamuna river, their number is surely going to increase.” 

Hatchlings in Yamuna at National Chambal Sanctuary 

Can we really afford to make such statements at such at early stage in what seems to be a complete turn over from usual nesting habits? "The numbers are sure to increase"! We'd love for that to happen but how does one issue such a statement without waiting to see what actually happens?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of the Daddy and the Daughter

Everything's gone according to plan. My VISA's been approved and I'll be leaving in some 51days. Relocating to completely different continent, a new culture, new people, new friends. One thing's never going to change though - my family. I've been wondering what to get my Dad for Father's Day today even though I genuinely believe these days are pointless. Maybe it's the sinking feeling that I won't be around my family for a significant amount of time once I'm gone or maybe it's just that today's a very emotional day. 

Paa and Maa dancing at his 50th birthday surprise party
 I thought of a lot of stuff I could get him that he could use but in the end, I decided to write him this. For there is nothing more profound than love. 

  I've never seen my paternal grandfather except for his pictures and my daddy looks just like him. I've had a very loved childhood and I'm very grateful to my parents for that. They've worked through thick and thin just to make sure things stay stable. As a rebellious teen I often fought with my father and my eternal in-your-face-line would be "you were never there". I've ever felt stupider in my life than I do now that I realize he was right there. Always. 

  So Baba : I'm not sorry for all the fighting because it only brought us closer but I am sorry for the crazy stuff I must've said to you and the several things that hurt you. You were always right there. Behind the scenes. 
 I'm fortunate enough to be doing what I love today because you always told me how you never wanted to be a C.A. but you had to take over ajoba's office due to his ill health. You didn't get to follow your passion and you didn't want us to end up doing just that. For all those mornings when you sat on the straw chair in your balcony, and I sat on your lap and pestered you to tell me stories.. and for all those stories you DID tell me, I am eternally grateful. 

  For all the times I crept into bed with you and Mumma because I was scared, and you hugged me to sleep, I love you. For the number of times you supported all the crazy things I wanted to do, for all the arguments which you let me win, all my dreams you let me chase, all the time you spared from you crazy busy days just to make sure I don't get things wrong.. for all of that, I will always respect you more and more each day. For the person you are, the honest, clean, and hard-working person that you are, I can only hope to imbibe those qualities from you on a permanent basis. 

  I can't even imagine how things are going to be in Missoula. No one to ask for back rubs, head and neck massages, or just company. I'm going to have just memories of me walking up and down your back when I was a kid because you'd say it made you feel better! What will I do when all that commerce stuff comes up? Who will I ask? Who will I scold for not eating on time or not taking medicines on time? Who'll teach me Math!? 

  I don't want to stop being daddy's little girl because all these years, it's made me feel super secure, it's made me feel like anything under the sun can happen and I can come tell you about it. Growing up is difficult and even more so without all the "laad-pyaar" and the home-ground advantage! 

  All those drives and treks and walks and the Boney M and The Carpenters songs ..and singing them loudly while sticking my head out of the car's window as you'd drive :) The times when you'd hand over the car key and say - drive and you'd sit patiently in the passenger seat :) 

  Sitting beside you all through the day ajji passed away and watching you read the Bhagwat Gita .. You don't always have to display so much strength. But I guess I'm so used to the outer strong you that if something hurts you and you go all gooey, it makes me all shaky and nervous. The morning of your birthday and dada's engagement, when you asked me to come sit next to you, I knew something was wrong. But when your eyes got moist I couldn't help hugging you and holding you. I hate it when people hurt you, take you for granted, or misbehave with you. I will probably never regret screaming at a certain famous balding client of your's [:) I know you wouldn't like me mentioning names] and throwing him out of your office for raising his voice and being arrogant with you. 

  You're too good for your own good you know and people out there aren't all as honest and good as you think them to be. Just because you know them for a long time, does not mean they're good people. Even if they're family. If they can't respect you or be cordial with you [at least], they do NOT deserve your time and effort. Stop going out of your way for people who give a damn about it. 

   They say you can judge a person by the quality of friends he has. On 1st April 2009, when ajji passed away in front of me, hardly an hour from that moment, there was literally a gang of people working in sync with me. your friends were here before any of our family members were. That's the day I realized what kind of a person you are and how pure your heart is. All of them, left everything they had to do, to be there with us. They didn't budge till you reached hours later. They wouldn't listen to us when we told them you'll reach safely and that you weren't driving. That day Daddy, my respect for you went sky high. I can only hope to be as good a person and have as many true friends. 

  When the Vento came home, you were beaming like a kid who just had a whole surprise package of all his favourite things delivered at his door step. :) Your beloved car was finally in your hands and you went about showing me all the buttons with so much pride and excitement it was super cute. 

  When Mama joked about yelling at me last night, you, out of nowhere said "Oy! No speaking to her like that! She's my girl." :) I didn't show it then but having you stand up for me even against his joke transported me to my school days when you were my shield. All the bad stuff bounced off of you and I remained protected from it all. 

  Yesterday Pushkar was telling me how I am lucky to not have seen even half the bad side of the world and believe me, I was so grateful in my heart when I said, "Yeah I haven't. And I'm glad I haven't." All through my teenage years I believed I was the one fighting off the evil and that what I was seeing, was the ultimate horridness of the world. A couple of years more and some more maturity, some more experiences made me realize, that wasn't even the tip of the ice-berg and that I've been so freakin fortunate to have had you and Maa as my protective cover! There are children with abusive parents, abusive childhoods, children who have no access to education and no exposure to the opportunities out there, children who don't have loving families! All the complaining I did as a kid, seems so useless now. 

  I see the way Ginny is around you and I feel happy about her being here with you when I go off. I know you'll take good care of her, I know you'll love her and scold her and play with her, just like you did with me when I was an enthusiastic little soul. She'll be all sad initially and she'll keep looking for me all over the house, she'll sit in a corner quietly waiting for me to show up but as the days go by, she'll get used to it. She'll have all of you here to cheer her up. All of this makes me worry about how I'm going to deal with the absence of my 3 stars.. Paa, Maa and Ginny :( 

  Just need you to know, that I'm always going to argue with you, disagree with you regarding certain things, and throw tantrums.. only because I love you :) And because, no matter how old I get, I'll always be your little girl. Always. 
Daddy and me :)

Thank you Baba.. for everything you've done for us and for everything you still are doing :) Oh and by the way, Happy Father's Day :) Cheers! ;)