Saturday, July 16, 2011

Misgivings of a virtual citizen

I am glad I have a voice.
I Tweet, I Facebook, I Blog.
I think my political opinion, at last is being taken seriously. I am, after all, an opinionated, middle class, virtual citizen of India. By that, I don't just mean someone who is away from his/her own country but also someone who is being a part of the political discussion online. I am a virtual citizen even when I am in India because most of my experiences are virtual. My fights are virtual and so is my anger. It is all online. I read online, I see my friends online, I fall in love online and I get my heart broken online. I also go into spells of online bitterness and online fury.

I am grateful for my upbringing. My parents taught me to see right from wrong at a very early age. They built protective walls around me. Life according to them, was a long assembly line. It was a chronology of important milestones (complete with a no-more-than tolerance). All I had to do was to conform and pass those milestones at the right time. Everything was designed to minimize damage. I am grateful for that. But sometimes, I feel a sense of isolation. Although in my virtual life, I seem to have many identities, in my real life, I feel oddly directionless. I am smarter than most. That is one thing I am sure of. If I ever feel insecure about my knowledge, it is only one click away. I love debates and discussions. Sometimes my discussions turn into tirades and monotonous ego-battles. My opponents and I throw links at each other to prove a point. Sometimes, every member of this forum resides in a different country and often, that country is not the country of their citizenship. But I wonder if I am wise enough and perhaps, this virtual citizenship is keeping me away from real wisdom.

I am never happy with my country's government. Mostly because it is not the government that I would have chosen or  maybe people like me -- mature, well-educated, middle-class citizens would choose. I am unhappy about a lot of things going on in my country. I wonder why I cannot see people who think like I do, come to power. And I don't know where the people who actually want this government come from. I guess that is another thing that I am confused about. I simply cannot understand people who come from outside of the conveyor belt on my assembly line. Sometimes, they stay far behind. Grappling with issues that were never even included in my growing-up-syllabus. Sometimes, they whiz past in their super fast cars. The next I see them is in newspapers or on television. I feel confused when I see Westerners in their mid twenties take a break from school for three years just to 'see the world'. My parents would call me crazy if I decided to jump off the belt and 'see the world'. It would mean that someone else would occupy the empty spot and get ahead of me. Sometimes, I worry though if there is such a thing as an empty place that you leave behind. I wonder if leaving behind an empty place would fill a bit of emptiness I feel inside. And whether the space that I would otherwise occupy is significant enough to justify this feeling of constant restraint.

Then there is the "Religion dilemma". Growing up, religion was peace, a legacy of love and devotion. Religion was poetry. Religion was philosophy. Religion was work. Religion was faith in humanity. Religion was being devoted to the devoted. Religion was art and music. It was always a road that took us within. It was a personal experience. It still is. Or maybe it isn't. But sometimes, I am reminded of my religion because of someone else, belonging to another. It seems as though Religion has lost its many faces and personalities. Now it is a label that I stick, or sometimes is stuck to my forehead to classify me, my anger and my discontent. Sometimes I feel that meeting as many people as I could, shaking as many hands of real flesh and blood as I could and looking into as many eyes as I could, would be a bigger religion to follow. Then again the walls around me would not let that happen.

I don't know why I feel so angry. I am not sure whether my helplessness comes from outside or it comes from within. I have started gathering a suspicion that the secure walls that were built to protect me from going off this belt, were actually conceived from the same fear and helplessness that I find myself trapped in now. Perhaps this anger is not at the situation around me. Maybe this situation is merely a mirror. Stepping out of this virtual world takes great effort too. It is now like another mind in another space. It is another wall of a secure and rigid identity that I need to cross. Although my voice is being heard and sometimes answered, I think, that all of this -- inside and out, these thoughts and their virtual shadows is not my voice.

It is just an abysmal incoherent noise.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Dilli Ho! Part 1

Time for a travelogue people! :)
I spent the past six days in and around Delhi. It was my first time in Delhi and I wonder why it took me so long. Before I left Pune, I was in two minds about my travel reading and by a fortunate coincidence; I picked up Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India. It is one of the most appropriate books you could read on a trip to Delhi. Tully’s love for Delhi makes you want to walk out on the roads he so fondly describes in his book. And when you drive past the formidable and unnaturally clean neighbourhoods of Racecourse and Janpath towards the old Delhi, you can’t help but chuckle at Tully’s apt description of the two faces of the city.
But that is not what my post it about. I have discovered a lot of things that I would want to do over and over, every time I return to Delhi. The first and perhaps the most important is a visit to the Bengali Sweet Centre (BSC) in SouthEx 1. If I were a teenager right now, I would have described my experience at BSC as, “Oh My God (OMG), OMG,OMG!! It’s like totally awesome.” When a salesgirl at Meena Bazar (Ansal Plaza) told me that if I want to taste Delhi food, I should go to the Bengali Sweet Centre, I was not really impressed by the name. But I went to see what it was about anyway. Even when I saw the rather humble looking board outside and a huge dish of neatly stacked barfis through the glass, I wanted to change my mind. But when I entered and started ‘checking out’ other patrons’ food (Yeah. I check out other peoples’ food. You can label and box me now), I realized that I am going to have to come back again, preferably every day, for the rest of my stay to sample all of what I really felt like eating.
It really depends on what you feel like. The first day, I was desperate for a paratha and lassi. Next time around I tried the ‘mixed chat’ and golgappe. I agree that assembling your own golgappe in a hygienic manner goes against the spirit of eating them.
But I changed my mind again when I had the ones at BSC. And let me not even get into the shondesh, malai chop, hot jalebis, dhokla, kachodi and rasgullas. Sadly, I did not get a chance to eat all of those but I looked at them through the glass long enough to get a funny look from the bhaiyya across the counter. You don’t just get a variety of food there; you also see a variety of people. You can find people from every age group and socio-economic background (Geek!) at BSC. I found out later that Amitabh Bacchan and Rajeev Gandhi were regulars at this little joint.
If anything Delhi has taught me, it is how to eat and more importantly, how not to think when you are eating out. We went for a wander around Chandni Chowk. Initially, I was a little reluctant to get into a bicycle rikshaw. I found the idea of a human being pulling us along a bit embarrassing. But it has nothing to do with the previous paragraph. So when we got into Salim’s bicycle near Red Fort, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of sad compassion for him. Fortunately it evaporated in about three and a half minutes. I think the cycle rikshawallahs around Chandni Chowk could prove to be tough competition for the auto rikshawallahs in Pune. He was fearless, rude and ruthless, to a point where I started apologizing after him. If he got a penny for every angry person he left behind his rikshaw, he would not need the rickshaw anymore. He promised to stay with us through the ‘tour’ but asked my mom to hurry up and move on to the next shop. She asked him to leave but he stayed on. Then when we went to look for him where we had left him, he had happily disappeared. So we went for a walk to the Paratha Galee (Paratha Lane).
Every shop was full and it looked as if the Paratha people had a lot of mouths to feed. I had been chirping about this lane pretty much since I came to Delhi. But the transparent and honest process of making a Paratha on the street got me. Paratha chacha was happily shoving a handful of stuffing into the dough. The rolled Paratha however ended up in a wok of pure desi ghee and was literally deep fried. The ‘menu card’ of the shop was proudly displayed outside. It included some unusual combinations such as rabdi (condensed cream) paratha, karela (bitter gourd) paratha, bhindi (okra beans) paratha, kela (banana) paratha, and papad paratha! I could not muster up the courage to eat a deep fried paratha. So after expressing my sincere respects for the occupants of the shop, I moved on to the lassi shop and had a huge glass of lassi in a kullad (clay pot). The shopkeeper told me that the kullad was mine after I finished the lassi. As I was walking about in mild bewilderment as to where would be the proper bin to dispose off a clay pot, I saw Salim approach me with his big beetle nut stained smile. When enquired where he was when we came back to fetch him he gave us the typical “I was there madam, you did not see me.”
So off we went again in his lightning bolt, avoiding accidents by a quarter of an inch and getting dirty looks from all the vanquished he left behind. He left us at the “Old Famous Jalebi” shop. Our driver had told us that leaving Delhi without having one of the Old Famous Jalebis was a crime and we are god-and-government fearing Maharashtrians. So we went to see what this old famous jalebi business was all about. Well, I wish I had been blind folded. Only that could have helped me not commit this crime. Hot jalebis, about half a foot in diameter, soaked in desi ghee for thirty rupees a piece! I have never been in two minds about something this toxic. But my wimpy mind won again and I chickened out. The Jalebi wallah did not even try to convince me. He had a long line of eager customers that he was busy managing. As we walked towards the Gauri Shankar Mandir, we saw little shops selling neatly stacked piles of kachodis and samosas; every shop had its own happy clientele. I overheard someone get angry in Hindi. In an even voice he said, “aap apni ijjat ka khayal kijiye. Agar hamari buddhi kharab ho gayi to sochiye aapka kya hoga”. Quite a contrast to the street fights back home in Pune! It is really remarkable how much respect a language can spell for the listener. Listening to the Chandni Chowk shopkeepers talk to each other was a treat to the ears.
It was a Monday and the temple was very busy. The Gauri-Shankar Mandir has an idol of Shiva and Parvati. But many other Hindu gods also have an office each inside the temple, complete with a personal priest. We paid respects to all the gods and just as we were about to leave we heard someone sing. It was a bhajan with a twist. The artist was singing a Shiv bhajan that sounded suspiciously similar to a famous Bollywood song. Ironically, the wordings of the original tune were, “Maar diya jai, ya chod diya jai, bol tere saath kya suluk kiya jai”. A very crude English translation would be, “Should I kill you or should I let you go?”

Dilli Ho! Part 2

Next destination was the Taj Mahal. How can you go to Delhi and not see the Taj? Well you can but I wanted to see it because I had heard a lot of people talk about it. So we went to Agra. We picked the wrong day. It was raining incessantly since morning and we kept going on only in the hope that it would stop soon; but it showed no signs of slowing down. So I struck up a hard bargain (so I want to believe!) with a street seller and bought an umbrella for a hundred rupees. Later I found out that you could get it for fifty. But if there is anything you must learn to be able to survive in India, it is having absolutely no regrets about a bad bargain. You will always find a better bargain somewhere else. :)
The umbrella was of no use in the harsh rain. So by the time we moved inside through the queue, I was half drenched anyway. The Taj Mahal has a wonderful shock element in its architecture. You see nothing but red sandstone all around for a long time during your walk towards the Taj. In the modern times, you are also distracted by the million procedures that you must submit to before you are finally let in through the gate. You walk through almost a kilometre of red sandstone that is so characteristic of other structures around Delhi and you enter a dark, narrow gate. Suddenly, you see the Taj. Marble white, a complete contrast to everything you have been used to looking at. It does not grab your attention ever again as it does in that moment. Its magnificence, its grandeur and its pristine beauty makes you blank for a moment and even though you always think of Shahjahan when you say Taj Mahal, in that moment of shock and awe your heart goes out only to the artists who created it. That, I think is the true joy of looking at the monument. It has been built so beautifully that it forces you to think of the unknown hands that came together to create it, and not the emperor who commissioned them using his wealth and power.
The next stop was Fatehpur Sikri. But before that, I went into a government owned “handicraft emporium” and bought a whole new set of clothes. The rain at the Taj had completely drenched me. As I walked out of the changing room, I thought I heard a faint applause from the shopkeepers. :D
The fort at Fatehpur Sikri was built by Akbar in the honor of the sufi saint Salim Chisti, who prophesied the birth of Akbar’s son Jehangir. Right in the middle of the courtyard of the fort is a beautiful dargah. It is a common belief that if you wish for something and tie a thread to a filigree wall inside the dargah, your wish is granted. The guides were constantly pestering us to get our wishes granted at a small fee. But we flatly refused. Each wall that surrounds the dargah is made of marble and has a different pattern. These walls are carved so intricately that sometimes it is hard to believe that it is marble and not lace! As I was walking out, I heard the most magical voice outside the dargah. A sufi singer was singing outside. His band consisted of a simple harmonium and another person playing the tabla. The rhythm was accentuated by bystanders clapping in the typical qawalli style. I waited there for about twenty minutes listening to him. Listening to a beautiful sufi song outside a magnificent dargah! What more could you really wish for? Maybe it is true. Maybe you get what you want, even without tying a thread!
On our last day in Delhi, we mustered up courage and went back to Galee Parathewali. I asked the shopkeepers if they could just pan fry my paratha instead of deep frying it in ghee and they gladly obliged. I had a mulee (radish) paratha and bits of karela (bitter gourd) and bhindi (okra beans) parathas. I survived on that for the rest of the day without even thinking of food. :)
We spent that day wandering around inside the Lal Quila (Red Fort). It is another magnificent structure with many innovative architectural elements. But the most enticing part of Lal Quila was the gardens with huge Bakul trees. It is a shame that you can’t sing, write, touch or photograph fragrance. The experience of sitting under a Bakul tree on a hot summer day cannot be expressed, no matter how hard one tries. The shade embraces you gently and the breeze brings the sweet fragrance of flowers and cools you down. After your nap, you find little stars of bakul blossoms all over your hair and face. It also took me back to my days with my grandmother when we used to spend early mornings picking up bakul and parijat flowers.
I walked back one last time through the markets of old Delhi. Every city has a personality of its own but what can I say about Delhi? I think I am in love. :)

Monday, July 04, 2011

Have you been TALed and Mantised recently?

For the past month or so, I was caught in what can be called an (unnecessarily) anxious wait for my US visa. I was offered a post-doc at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) in the United States about nine months ago. From then to this day, I have gone through many agonizing waiting periods. Of course, the biggest of them all was finishing my PhD.

I have to accept, I need to put a lot of effort into increasing my ability to handle unforeseen, unexpected and uncertain situations. This was not my first time under the (now) famous 221(g) administrative processing delay. I spent some furious six weeks in 2009, when I missed a conference due to the same process. What makes it even more annoying is that it is applied to only certain individuals under certain circumstances, making it almost impossible to avoid a suspicious or funny look from a regular US tourist. I decided to take this opportunity to blog about it so that people become aware that in certain cases, a United States visa can be delayed indefinitely.

Post 9/11, US has made the visa process stricter. Some US visas are delayed due to the Security Advisory Opinion (SAO). The Department of State has categorized applicants according to their circumstances. The Visas Mantis SAO is applicable when there is a probability of use of a sensitive, illegal or dual use technology. The Department of State has also created a Technology Alert List (TAL). Exchange scholar, H1B and sometimes student (F1) visas are also subject to a TAL check. The TAL check typically involves providing the Department of State with a detailed Statement of Purpose (SOP), resume, applicant's travel history and purpose of US visit. Applicants from countries that possess nuclear technology (India, China, Israel, Pakistan and Russia) working in a wide range of scientific fields such as Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Aeronautical Engineering, Biotechnology, Biomedical Engineering or employed by research institutes that use sensitive technologies can be adversely affected. For security reasons, this list is not published anywhere on the internet. However, almost all the branches of Physics, Chemistry and Biology are included in this list.

I have accepted now (after wasting a lot of time and peace of mind) that I am going to be a regular at these security checks for a few years to come. There is only so much euphemism at your disposal when you are trying to tell a visa officer that you are going to work on making fuels. There is nothing on my resume that would not prompt a Mantis or a TAL check. (un)Fortunately, I am not alone. There is a page dedicated to people stuck in the US administrative processing which I found very helpful during this wait. There is no fixed deadline as to when your visa will be approved. So many people find it very difficult to accept that they have to wait indefinitely. For them, a clever website has already been designed. Check reporter lets you enter your own visa information (date of interview, date of approval, consulate, visa type) and update it whenever your application is processed. This has helped create a comprehensive database of processing times from November 2008 onwards. Processing times have been shortened considerably over the past three years.

I hope this information helps people who are in the process of applying for a US visa. If you ever go through it, as the Visa Officer who interviewed me would say, "You are only paying the price of being very smart".