Closure

I remember this moment like it was yesterday. The sun was high upon us, shimmering with every cloud that filtered past. Salty, fresh wind blowing in from the Adriatic was hitting me from the left. There weren’t too many people around as the last cruise ship for the day had just departed. Morgan and I were walking back from the end of the dock we called the The Tip. The Tip was a place we fell in love with the moment we entered the ancient city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. The dock was an impressive body of beams that anchored hundreds of boats. The walls of the ancient city extend forward as they encompass the very edge of the cliff on which the city rests. A tiny ledge hugging the wall leads you to an opening— A bigger ledge made of limestone extending into the cold sea water. The ledge is big enough to hold a significant number of people and sturdy enough that natural forces don’t move it. This ledge is what Morgan and I fell in love with. No buildings cut the wind. Unhindered, the gale was forceful yet peaceful. It was loud enough to be considered white noise but not loud enough that you couldn’t hear the person next to you.

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The Tip

We used to start and end our day on The Tip. Neither one of really had a reason to sit there but we just did. The ocean hitting the rocks beneath us, the wind, and the endless horizon in front of us kept us enamored. The surrounding were cleansing in a way. The ebb and flow of the tide washed away our stress. The stress of just finishing junior year of college, moving on to senior year, or just realizing that there really is no way to freeze time and just suspend ourselves in this moment. As we were enjoying the blue waters, I get a phone call. It was my father. I looked at the caller ID and saw the clock on the top. A quick mental math, and I realized that this was not good news. It was four o’clock in the morning in India which meant that he was calling to give me bad news that he knew I should know. I pick up the phone to a very quiet and somber voice very much unlike the voice I am used to hear from my father. I greeted him in a normal way— as though I was expecting his phone call. He however was not that normal. He responded not by a “hi” or a “hello” but with,“your grandfather has passed away.” He said it in Hindi, where it sounds a lot more heartfelt than it does translated into english. This wasn’t a shocking news to me. He had been sick for a while. Two months prior to his death, he fell and broke his hip and had to undergo surgery. At the age of 84, any surgery is tricky, but a hip replacement has a host of complications. Sadly, one of the complications played out for him.

There was pain in my father’s voice. I could feel how difficult it was for him to say those words. I could hear the slurs in his speech and the awkward pauses he took to hold back emotions. Our conversation was short. I asked how my grandmother and mum were doing. I told him that I was sorry for his loss and then we hung up. He responded to my questions and comments but I really don’t think he was listening to me which I to me felt accurate given the situation. This was the first time someone so close to me had died and emotionally I wasn’t having the reactions that are usually triggered when a member of your family passes away. I could see children around me laughing, enjoying the sea water spraying on them as waves crashed onto the ledge and my best friend sitting next to me who realized what the phone call was regarding but still looked quite ambivalent to the incident. I could see these elements around me and all I wanted to do was to cut the phone and jump into laughter and ambivalence with them. I didn’t want the death to penetrate by epidermis.

Morgan invited me to do just that. We talked about the death for a couple of minutes and then moved on to looking at the fisherman sitting with his golden retriever at the corner of the ledge. As she continued to talk about random things, there were a million things that were blowing up in the back of my mind. It started with wondering how my dad was doing and how I could have talked to him better.  Then I thought about my grandfather. I remembered that it had been a year since I had last seen him and that I wont ever see him again. This resulted in me thinking about his life and legacy— how little I knew about him and how he was such an integral part of my college process. The theme of my main essay that went to every college I applied to was about my love of National Geographic magazines that he had instilled in me by donating over 30 years worth of magazines. All of this was running in my conscience but I still felt “fine.” I wasn’t crying or feeling sad. I wasn’t having the stereotypical tragic response to a death. This bothered me as it questioned my difficulty with opening up to emotions. I was scared that I was succumbing to the stereotypical characteristics of a man by being unemotional. It also annoyed me that my best friend was so overtly negligent of the news. Emotions started to bubble up which were more of anger and annoyance than of sadness. I became more quiet which Morgan picked up on. She realized that I was processing something and decided to just sit next to me and look at the sea.

Her presence was as calming as the sea. As much as I hate to say this but she knows me very well. I don’t like to project my feelings in words but to internalize them and say something later and that was exactly what she allowed me to do. As I was thinking about all of this I remembered something my research advisor and mentor once told me. She said that there is no one response to death. Everybody processes it in a different way and no way is the right way. As long as the process helps you move forward you should not judge yourself or others. I found this powerful. Mainly because someone I trust believed in my process of thinking and affirmed that nobody really is wrong. Thinking about that made me question myself less. I let some of my questions go with the tide. And with every flow I also sent some wishes and hope for people back home.

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

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The Burn Unit

To improve the healthcare of the country, we need to improve the lives of women. These were the paraphrased words that Gayatri Ganesh— Director of Development at Christian Hospital Mungeli opened with as she explained to us the convoluted healthcare policies that govern the State of Chhattisgarh. The woman is the central lifeline in every household. They run the house, nurse children, and most of the times also work either on the fields or as labour. However, they are also on the lowest rung in the social ladder of the family. They are usually pulled out of school earlier than males, fed less, as well as have a lower exposure to the world outside of their home and the one that they go to after marriage.

On the first day of our internship, we went on rounds with the head doctor of the hospital—Dr. Anil Henry. We started in the ICU on the second floor and made our way down. The last place we went to was the Burn Unit. The unit was a room isolated into the far end of the hospital’s maternal wing. As you walk through 30 or so beds of tired mothers, mewling-puking babies, and equally tired relatives you are welcomed by a smell stark smell of formaldehyde which only gets stronger as you get closer to the light at the corner of the hall. We bravely followed Dr. Henry into this alien space to be introduced to our burnt patient. The patient was sitting upright with a bed sheet covering them. They had small boy-cut hair and pinkish scabs resplendent all over their body. The patient was an eighteen year old girl named Riya (name changed). She came in a month before we had arrived with third degree kerosene burns. Her while body was covered with burns while the most severe ones where on her abdomen, neck and arms. Her face was burnt as well but parts of it was still preserved with her original skin. The flames that had charred her skin had also burnt the hairs in her lungs, making her open to a host of diseases and leaving her in unbearable pain. When I saw her the first time, I was numb. I was unable to process how this even happened. Dr. Henry examined her bandages and moved out of the room. We followed. As we walked away Dr. Henry stopped and explained to us what we had just seen. Riya was a case of Bride Burning. While her story is confidential she is one of the many cases that take place all over this country.

Bride burnings are an act of domestic violence where women are set on fire, usually under the disguise of a suicide or accident. These acts are usually done due to dowry conflicts or when the girl is unable to produce a son that can further the family lineage. When Riya came into the hospital, the family members said that it was an accident where a spark came from the sky and lit the kerosene lying next to her which resulted in her catching on fire. They claimed that it was a freak accident. Riya did not disagree to the claim, possibly because the family members were staring right next to her. There was also something peculiar about her burns. While her whole body had burns, her face was mostly burn-free but the back of her hands sustained deep injury. This meant that she had enough time to understand what was about to happen to her and was able to cup her face. How can that happen in a freak accident where a spark lit kerosene on the ground?

Her case wasn’t the only one that we saw in our two months. Two other women came to the hospital with similar injuries. Chest burnt completely, face was less burnt while the hands very deeply injured. The second woman’s family members claimed that the lamp lying on top of the air cooler fell on her while she was asleep. This while more probable still makes us wonder why her face is relatively burn free. We were there when the second bride came in and one of the first question that the nurses asked the patient was how long she had been married for. She said that she had just completed her seventh year. This number is a very important because according to the Indian Penal Code (IPC 304-B) if a bride is “within 7 years of her marriage is killed and it is shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband, or any relative of her husband, or in connection with any demand for dowry, such death shall be called ‘dowry death’ and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death.” The nurses therefore ask to see if the husband had simply waited for the seventh year to end to commit the act. For our second patient, it seemed as thought that was the case.

Out of the three women we witnessed, only Riya survived. Bride Burnings are a true reality that I don’t think even Indians know about. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2010 there were 8391 dowry death cases in that year itself. This meant that every 90 minutes a bride was being burned. I was shocked to my core when I saw these women. I felt extremely helpless and the truth of the matter is that there is very little that could be done. While there is evidence that this was a bride burning case, the victims rarely agree to the deed because of familial pressures usually from both sides. Legally, the hospital will file a medical report to the police office in the village where the incident took place but since it’s such a hush-hush deed, the only witnesses there would be the husband and his parents— none of whom would confess. Hence due to a lack of evidence most cases are shut or deemed an accident and the bride would be brought back to the house— for the next torture.

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Meeting of the Mitanins: Mitanins (in Hindi means “friend”) are community health workers that work in every village. They collect data on communicable diseases, pregnancies and relay information to the government as well as provide villagers with the correct medicines or refer them to the apt hospital. Chhattisgarh has one of the most successful Mitanin program with almost 80,000 women working as volunteers.

Understanding Poverty

For the past two months I have been living in a grassroots hospital in Mungeli, Chhattisgarh. Mungeli is a rural area almost an hour from the nearest town. I came to know abut this place through my college who created an internship program in collaboration with the Christian Hospital Mungeli. Six Denison students were selected on this trip. I am the only Indian (and the only male) which makes our dynamic very interesting. I am used to the poverty, the assumed unequal gender roles, spicy food, and lack of toilet paper. Therefore for me the elements were very mundane but these five women became very interesting subjects. I was fascinated by the things they made them exclaim. From the over abundance of cows on the road to the lack of any sort of urban planning.

I met them at Delhi Airport after their 16 hour trip from the US. I therefore saw them go from a modern setting to complete rurality. I could see the cultural shock taking place from the kinds of conversations they had, the questions they asked me, and the images that were posted up on social media. Poverty is a difficult thing to work with. Everybody knows that it exists and have seen the stereotypical pictures, but not many have experienced it. These five ladies have experienced it and I think it is immensely brave that they embarked on this journey. I do hope that the conversions, images and feelings that they take back are unique. That they are different than the ones that you get to see in magazines and movies like Slumdog Millionaire. Because while we can comment on the filth on the road and the cows littered everywhere, it is important to know that people do live like this. People like us will come, observe, and go but the true residents of this space will still remain here. And they are somewhat content. They are able to see beyond the lack of resources to abundance of life that they still have to live. I am confident that these five ladies will go back home to an experience that they may never be able to explain in simple words, but the words they choose would be well thought, honest, and true to the real beauty that they experienced in Mungeli.

I love taking pictures and one of my projects here has been to look for beauty. I think that rural India has immense beauty and that as a citizen, it’s almost my duty to find it. Here are some of the images are my attempts at showing this beauty:

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Photoshoot with children from the neighboring school

Door of a village home

The door to village home

View from my rooftop

The view from my rooftop

Door to a beauty parlor

The door to a beauty parlor

Refuge for the whole Village. Water Buffaloes et al.

The respite of the whole village. Water Buffaloes et al.

To see more pictures like these, follow me on Instagram!

 

Changing Angles

I have been trying to write this one article about my recent trekking experience however for some reason I just am not able to compose it properly, so I decided on writing about something else.

Part of the Chinese exchange was that the exchange students come to India as well. They came in August of 2012, just as school started. School meant a lot of workload, tuitions after school and then hanging out with my Chinese counterpart, Zhang. Zhang was quite okay with it, he understood the demanding nature of our studies as he came from a similar  education system. In some ways, actually, their teaching methods were worse. On average we have 30 kids in each class. Zhang had 60 kids in his class. The teacher actually wore a portable mic for her voice to reach the far end of the class!

As part of their visit we went to Agra to show them the Taj Mahal. It was hot, and dirty and hot some more times. Agra has been one of those iconic places where every Indian has planned a trip around. I had been there once before with my parents. I remember walking and being pushed by innumerable people to enter the garden that acts as a metaphoric ‘red carpet’ towards the mausoleum. The gardens have a central water body with fountains  spouts which I have seen working in action. The ‘red carpet’ is sprinkled with benches for people to sit and look at the beauty of the white marble structure and the two buildings around it. However the people that come to visit use it as a stool instead. Parents tell their kids to stand on them and pose in such a way that it looks as if you are holding the Taj Mahal from its tip. I hate how people do that. It diminishes the majesty and engineering marvel that the Taj Mahal stands for. Sadly, the young me loved it. I have a couple of photos like those that no I will not like to show you.

The Taj Mahal hadn’t changed since the last time. Though what had changed were the level of concern the government had for maintaining the building. Instead walking barefoot on the cold marble we were now forced to wear shoe socks. The number of people entering the mausoleum was also monitored. I was impressed by the level of concern and commitment that was being shown by the government. However this meant a long line both getting in the mosque as well as getting (we had a big group who weren’t all allowed at once) On the plus side, though, thid gave me the chance to take pictures! Sitting outside the Mahal’s main building I was looking up when I could a single bird hovering, gliding past one of the four pillars that embody the building. That was when I clicked this picture;

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I simply love this picture and its not because it took me over thirty minutes to chase behind the bird to get this shot; Its because of the various elements that can be seen in the picture.  You get this beautiful angle of the Taj Mahal with its inlayed walls, one of the four pillars and this beautiful bird flying through it. A majestic bird meets a majestic building.

Another great thing about the picture is that if someone sees they automatically identify it with the Taj Mahal, even though you can’t see the iconic dome shaped roof or any of the other usual indicators. This picture was a learning for me to really think out of the box while visiting places of historical importance. It has motivated me really understand the beauty of such architectural marvels and why people love them so much.

I can’t wait for the heat to subside here in Delhi so that I can go visit places like Qutub Minar.

I did take another picture with my Chinese colleagues that I love a lot. Have a look!

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Chandini Chowk: A feast for all the senses

There was this article (2011) in the National Geographic Magazine commemorating the fact there are now 7 Billion humans on this planet. The author, Nigel Holmes talked about what it would be like to have a party where the whole world is invited. He said that an elevator allows about two to three square feet of space per person, however this is a party and he wants everyone to have some space to dance, giving them six square feet of space. This means that the party would need a space of about 1500 square feet. Holmes then said that such a kind of party space would be found in places like the complete city of Multan, Pakistan or all the 118 islands of the French Polynesia. After reading this article I spent the next week thinking how this party would be like, how it would be to party with so many people in such a small place.

Chandini Chowk is an apt example of how such a party would be like. Correction, its an exact example of how crowded it would be. Chandini Chowk is a small district in the older parts of Delhi. It overlooks the Red Fort and was and still is used mainly as a large marketplace for the masses. I have gone there thrice. The first time was when I was ten and we had to go meet some relative. I hated it. I was ten and forced to walk through crowded, poo infested streets and I didn’t even get a Mc Donald’s burger for lunch because there weren’t  any in a twenty mile radius (I was growing through a phase where everything was too spicy and dragging me out of my house to meet relatives costed my parents a burger).

The second and third time was quite different. Six years after growing taste buds and an increased temperament to the Indian sweaty crowd, my opinion about the place changed. In 2011 I went with my parents with no real agenda of my own. It was the winters and weather was perfect to walk around tiny lanes with the greasy smell of paranthas. Chandini Chowk was really the first place I took an interest in macro photography. We walked to a never ending strip of markets specialized for selling just spices. It was really an amazing sight. The heaps of raw spices were a visual, however they did give a good battering to my olfactory senses with that strong, pungent smell.

Chilies

I experimented quite a bit with such spices walking through the heavily scented area. Apart from the chillies another favourite picture among the spices is a picture of a bowl of mixed spices, the star of the picture being incidentally, a star anise.

Star anise

There is stark religious divide in Chandini Chowk. The complete shopping area is divided in a Hindu and a Muslim market. The Hindu markets are in close proximity of the Red Fort and is also where you would end up if you ask any local for the way to Chandini Chowk. The Muslim market overlooks giant mosque called the Jama Masjid. The two areas (the latter is called Chawri Bazaar) are different is some ways. The people in both the areas speak the same language but have different dialects, the colors that dominated the Hindu side were red and mustard, and the muslim side were white and hues of blue. I don’t know if the colors are really a difference, it was just an observation. India is known to have a somewhat deep religious divide even though on official paper we are “secular” nation. India is known to have fights based on religion. However, such a divide is not observed in the people residing there.

The most recent time I went to Chandini Chowk was with my school friends. We had gone there with the aim to take pictures though the heat and one friends insistence to buy kilos of sweets put me down. I did however enjoy going with them. There was no time limit being hounded on me by my dad my mum insisting me to put sunscreen due to the heat. I was truly allowed to get lost. It was also the first time I ventured into to Chawri Bazaar. I was able to click a couple of pictures. This one is of a trio of wheel barrows that are stuck in a traffic jam.

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Another picture I took was of a bowl of peppercorns. Those tiny black spherical seeds really were able to express nature’s ability to create colors. Each corn was of a different hue of black or brown. It’s beautiful to think how many different colors were actually needed to get that color.

Pepercorn

I have not seen a place thiscolorful, hot, noisy, dirty, and tasty as Chandini Chowk. I cant wait to go again, beat the odds and click satisfying pictures and meeting interesting people, be it in the Jama Masjid or in the newly opened Mc Donald’s.

Spice Street

china, pao pao (china, baby)

The first thing that comes to ones head when someone says China is the Great wall, Shanghai or even Jackie Chan. Well I went to a China that was far away from all of this. In the summer of 2012 I went on a summer exchange program to Kunming, a small city in the Yunnan Province.

Our school offers student exchange trips to various countries such as Germany, France and China. I chose China because of its long heritage and culture and interesting take on food. I was assigned a Chinese student counterpart called Zhang. He was a 15 year old boy who studied at the No.1 High School. As we were leaving India, everyone had their individual apprehensions and expectations. Most of my friends (being vegetarians or semi- strict believers that beef is sacred) were concerned about the food while some were uncomfortable about sleeping in a stranger’s house. I on the other hand, high on the pictures of China I saw the previous evening on the telly, was just anticipating to get shots like those. And might I add, I was not disappointed.

After landing in China and recuperating in our counterpart’s homes for a day, we took off for the stone forest. It is the most magnificent thing I have ever seen. The whole area was originally a cave which slowly eroded away leaving just long uneven pillars of stones that look like mammoth trees. I took a picture of my hand on the stone’s undulating face. The picture is really simple but the texture and the way my hand sits on the stone gives it this beautiful warmth and life-like quality.

Stone forest

The following couple of days were okay. We danced around on funny traditional Chinese and learnt that the word “pao pao” could both mean baby and backpack. This information would have come in handy a day earlier when a couple of us Indian friends went roaming around a park screaming pao pao to every kid we saw.

I had another opportunity to use my camera when we went to a cave somewhere in the outskirts of Kunming. I got to shoot instantaneous shots here. Sudden pictures that are only available for a tiny fraction of a second. The first one was an easy one. It was a bunch of Chinese incense sticks burning captured with a tiny cloud of the smoke.

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However the other picture was amazing. It was a rainbow with the backdrop of a lake which was green because of some sort of cabbage growing on the waters surface. Capturing this picture gave this sudden rush of achievement, as if I was some hotshot photographer that caught a lemur doing backflips through a hoop of fire.

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China was certainly a nice, beautiful trip. I made some new friends, both Indian and Chinese (even though the Chinese ones successfully fed me grasshoppers)