Tribute to Alana

On what seemed like a highly typical Tuesday afternoon, I unloaded my backpack and plopped down on a plush bean bag chair at the CWC. Ever since the first week of the semester, I had spent almost every morning, afternoon, and many evenings and nights there. At first, I had used the center merely to sit down quietly and finish my numerous reading and writing assignments, but soon, I began to prefer the writing center over my dormitory room as a place to relax and unload my stress. In spite of the fact that the CWC is a place full of ambitious, intellectual, and extremely talented minds, there is something about it that makes it a comfortable, home-like place. The chairs in the room are bright and candy-green-apple coloured and it is sprinkled with art projects; there are multicoloured paper stars, paper-machet trinkets, drawings, scrap pieces of paper, and an unfinished mural that a few students have been painting. In just a few months, the CWC has already become a meaningful space to many students, but it continues to bloom and grow every day. It is an unfinished story that is just waiting to be fleshed out.

I had scarcely started on my usual de-stressing routine, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and recovering from the long day of classes, when I heard one of the tutors call me.

“P-dog!” Lauren, my teaching assistant who also worked as a tutor at the CWC leaned out from the news room, a room in the center separated by a clear glass window and a set of glass doors. “Can you come in here for a second?” She looked to the other end of the room and called another girl who visited the CWC regularly. “Uttara, can you also come in here for a second?”

I hesitated, and possibilities started to fill my mind. Was something wrong? Was I in trouble? Why would she want to talk to me? And if she did want to talk to me, why would she call the two of us in private? We were friendly with each other, but we had virtually no connection aside from our frequent hours spent at the CWC.

I scarcely had time to think as I stepped into the newsroom and spotted another girl, Manisha, who looked as if she was about to burst into tears. My heart started to race; whatever it was, it definitely would not be good.

Lauren could probably sense my apprehension, as she took a deep breath and said, “Don’t be worried.”

Manisha started to wipe her eyes, and even Lauren, who never seemed phased by anything, looked tearful. “I just wanted you guys to hear this from us before someone else tells you. Alana has resigned.”

Everyone started to wipe their eyes feverishly, including Lauren. At the sight of Lauren’s tearful face, I felt my eyes stinging, and tear poured out before I could stop them. Lauren’s face crumbled, uncomfortable with the outpouring of emotion, and she buried her face on the table. I couldn’t say that it was completely unexpected, but it was extremely upsetting, no matter how foreseeable it might have been.

I had always loved to write and read, but I had never considered studying it before the summer when I applied to the university. I had spent most of the summer furiously scribbling down anecdotes, personal reflections, and streams of consciousness in my journal. I had completed a study abroad program in Italy, and I brought my journal with me almost everywhere I went. It was what helped me get through the stress of the experience, and I started to consider the possibility of becoming a professional writer. When I heard about the description of the CWC, I was extremely excited at the prospect. My previous university had a writing center, but it was a small, windowless room, and my experience with the tutors had been overwhelmingly disappointing. I had the feeling that it was a half-hearted project, set up in the university almost as an afterthought. Based on the description, the CWC seemed to be quite the opposite. It seemed to be an extremely important element of the vision of the university, and it seemed that the director of the center, Alana, had been through painstaking efforts to make it an intellectually stimulating environment. Alana then interviewed me for the admissions process, so I got the chance to ask her about it face to face, albeit through a Skype window. I was extremely surprised to learn that she had read my favorite book, Veronica Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. She is the only person I have met who has read it so far, as it is one of Coelho’s less well known novels. I remember that she asked me why, in my admissions essay detailing my favorite book, I had not included one crucial element of the book, as she believed it was one of the most interesting parts of the story. This launched us into the topic of relative thinking, and how different people might read the same story and have different ideas about which elements are important.

During the first week of university, I came to visit the CWC before my morning class. It was my first time visiting, and I walked slowly and deliberately, unsure if these were even the hours during which CWC was operational. I inched closer to the door, peering in, when I spotted the opening to Alana’s office, just outside the center.

She waved when she saw me. “Hi, Paheli.”

“Hi,” I said cautiously. “I was wondering if I would sit and read in the writing centre?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, smiling. “We’re not open right now, but you can still sit there. I’ll tell the tutors you’re there.”

She led me into the room, and I sat on one of the light green chairs and began to focus on my work, drowning out the chattering noises as the four tutors began to settle into the room. Then, slowly, Alana approached me. “Do you have a minute?”

She introduced me to the four tutors: Susannah, Lauren, Katherine, and Nina. She told them that I was from the United States, as were three of the tutors. She and Katherine pulled up two plush green chairs to sit next to me. They began to ask me about how I was finding Ashoka so far. “What do you miss?” Alana asked me, and there was a genuine sense of curiosity in her bright blue eyes. I almost wanted to spurt out all out all the difficulties I had with food and adjusting to the culture, but I hesitated. “Well, I don’t want to be negative…”

“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “This is a safe space.” Somehow, her words stuck with me, and I soon began to see the CWC as just that. A safe space.

During the first month, Alana was always extremely present in the CWC and in student activities. At our first student newspaper meeting, she was there, beaming and stealing photographs of excited students. She organized for us to come and paint the wall in the back, turning it into a mural. She and the tutors stayed in the center until as late as ten o clock at night so that we could work there. She also made sure that the wall was a group effort, and that no one student would become too dominating. I had been thinking about starting an animal rights organization on campus, and she was very excited about the possibility. She sent me links about interesting dog-friendly initiatives in other countries, and she told me that she would help me with what that she could. She organized for fun workshops at the CWC, and each night, one could find her meticulously hanging carefully selected posters on the walls. She was nailing them into the wall all by herself, refusing help from anyone who offered. She was absolutely devoted to the CWC, and she was an active, independent, and consistent presence there.

Not only was she devoted to students’ intellectual and artistic enrichment, but she was also very open on a personal level. She insisted that everyone call her Alana, rather than the more formal Professor Sobelman. It took me a while to get used to, and I went through an intermediate phase of calling her “Professor Alana.” During the first few weeks, she invited me to go on a walk with her around the campus in the early morning. It was very pleasant; the weather was subdued, the birds were still chirping, and on the way, we met two friendly stray dogs. Since we were right near the faculty apartment building, she ran upstairs and brought some bread for us to feed the dogs. I remember marveling at the precious experience, as I could never imagine connecting with the daunting faculty members at my previous university on such a personal level. I also confided in her about a personal issue I was having regarding rude comments that a staff member had made, and she was incredibly supportive. She struck me as an extremely sensitive and caring person.

She even offered to make food for me once, as I was struggling with keeping up my vegan lifestyle. “I make a killer vegan chilli,” she had told me. “I was able to get tofu from some of the more bourgeois markets in Gurgaon.” I truly admired her for her sense of adventure and fearlessness. The fact that she had been to the Haryana village markets to get vegetables completely on her own, as a foreign woman, not to mention the underlying fact that she had come all the way to India on her own, encouraged me to venture into the city to obtain food for myself. I ended up buying a lot of material to make meals for myself, and the first thing I did when I returned was send her a long, proud email about my adventures on the Delhi metro and at the crowded and unfamiliar markets. “Congratulations, Paheli,” she had responded almost immediately. “You are officially a traveler, rather than a tourist.”

During the next month and a half, Alana was still there, but she was less present within the center itself. She was always slaving away at her desk with her copious pile of work, or attending one of her frequent and never ending meetings. I remember feeling confused, because she was less responsive to emails and appeared more distant in person. Previously, she used to greet me cheerfully every day in the CWC with a conversation, a pat on the shoulder, or at least a wave, but now she seemed hassled and preoccupied. For a while, I wondered if it was something I had done- had I said something too personal? Did I make her uncomfortable? Was my constant presence at the CWC annoying? Such thoughts nagged the back of my mind for weeks, until one day when I left the CWC to go to lunch at around the same time when she was leaving her office. I walked down the three flights of stairs with her. She had certainly changed. She seemed distant from the conversation, and her responses seemed delayed. She had always been graceful with all of her movements, but something about them now seemed lethargic, almost robotic. What struck me the most were her eyes; they seemed distant, glossed over, and it seemed as if she could barely keep them open.

“Are you alright?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “You seem really tired.”

“Oh, I’m so tired,” she said, and a grin started to spread across her face. “But my husband’s just moved in, and my cat, finally, so I’m very happy.”

I smiled, and felt an overwhelming sense of compassion. Even though she said she was happy, I couldn’t get over how drastically the exhaustion had changed her appearance and interactions. I didn’t know what was keeping her so busy, but whatever it was seemed to be beyond me. I decided to leave her alone for some time and try to give up my pride. I felt silly for thinking as if I were important enough to instigate such a huge change. I could try to figure out some of the difficulties with the animal organization on my own; it wasn’t necessary to add to her already teeming plate. At the time, I thought that everything would die down and she would soon return to the normal, bright and cheerful, caring, helpful, and adventurous figure that I had come to admire so intensely.

There is no doubt in my mind that she has thought through the decision to resign carefully, and she must have truly believed that it was the best option. She is a go-getter; she was extremely devoted to her project, and she is not someone to just give up without an extremely good reason. It is incredible how she was able to touch so many people, in such a profound way and in such a short amount of time! I know so many students who made the tough decision to come to this university because of her, and everyone who has interacted with her and experienced her kindness will be extremely sad to see her go. The tutors, who are taking over her responsibilities at the center until they hire a new director, have not been themselves this week. They have still been diligent about their teaching responsibilities, but there is an underlying sense of gloom in the center. Alana was was the one who gave birth to the CWC, which had become a favorite haunt for an increasing number of students. The university has lost an extremely valuable asset to the community, but she will certainly not be forgotten. I believe that she has left behind an amazing legacy in the CWC and in everyone who knew her. This legacy will certainly continue to shape the culture at the university.

While I am sad to see her go so soon, I truly believe that her adventurous, go-getter attitude will encourage me to explore more, and venture further out of my comfort zone. It will continue to impact me wherever my life takes me next.

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Los Angeles

Almost everyone envies the fact that I grew up and still have a permanent address in Los Angeles, California, the city most well known for its association with Hollywood. It is a dream for a lot of people. Temperate, consistently balanced sunny weather, palm trees and beaches. But there is so much more to the city than what meets the eye. When you’ve lived there for eighteen years, you learn that much of the culture in Los Angeles, particularly Hollywood, can be vicious. It can build you up, but it can also kill you in the blink of the eye. Behind all the sun and plan trees, glamor, and fame, Los Angeles can be the scariest and stormiest place. When you’re at your most vulnerable state, it’s so easy to be whisked away and taken advantage of. I have moved away from the place for this reason, yet every day, I long to go back home. It draws you in and disgusts you at the same time. But once you’ve lived there, as much as you might wish to do away with it, you’ll never be able to erase it from your world. No matter how many miles away I am, I will always be an LA girl.

PAWSitive

The sight of Ashoka University security guards hitting poor and defenseless stray dogs, and that too, absolutely unprovoked, was nothing short of repulsive. I don’t understand how we can expect the dogs to treat us with kindness when they have seen so much unnecessary cruelty. It seems reasonable to me that they should be wary of us and maybe even defensive. Just because they don’t look, walk, talk, or shamelessly pollute the environment as we do, does not give us the right to hurt them. These creatures might seem scary, but they are certainly not malicious.

I can somewhat understand where the initial fear comes from. Until I had a dog of my own, I would sprint to my parents and practically climbed upon their shoulders on the slightest vision or inkling of a nearby dog, as if I were escaping the clutches of a venomous, fanged serpent. However, by the time I had turned nine years old, after reading a very enthralling novel about a puppy, I decided that I wanted to give dogs another chance. A few months later, our family got our first puppy, Muffin. Over the years, I became increasingly responsible for feeding, cleaning, and walking her, and I enjoyed the unconditional love she gave in return. Whenever I came home to her, she frantically leaped on me, her tail wagging furiously as she smothered my face with her soft pink tongue. I am no longer scared of dogs, because, for almost ten years, I have been touched by the immeasurable amount of love that they have to offer. The moment when I found out that Muffin died was the greatest loss I have faced thus far, as she was as close to me as any member of my immediate family. When I read both, the heartwarming stories of loyal dogs, faithful to their owners until the last minute, and heart-wrenching stories of despicable cruelty towards dogs, I am especially touched because of my personal experience with Muffin. These stories motivate me to fight for the lives of other animals.

My recent decision to become vegan has been an extension of my childhood wish to devote myself to animals. At first, it was because I found them “so cute,” but there is so much more to animals than cute, furry bodies. There is something about the non-judgmental attitudes of these beings that attracts me to them. It is ironic that, while focusing on issues related to equality, people do not include animals in their struggle for justice. Is it because we consider them less intelligent and capable than we are? First of all, intelligence and utility should not be a measure of how much a being deserves to live a good life. We do not consider the issue of utility when we consider the value of the lives of mentally and physically handicapped humans, do we? And how can we be sure that we are so much more intelligent than animals? Sure, we industrialize and they do not, but there are many things they do that we cannot. Guard dogs, for example, can recognize the scent of intruders and react much more quickly than we can. There are even guide dogs who help their blind human owners navigate their surroundings with a devotion that many humans would not be capable of possessing. Sea creatures can swim much deeper and faster than we can, and spiders can weave unimaginably intricate webs. More and more research results are coming out, showing us that dogs, dolphins, and birds, to name a few, are much more intelligent than we ever gave them credit for.

My classmate, Sayali Palekar, is also an animal lover, and a dog lover in particular. During our first weekend at Ashoka, we planned to visit a Veterinary hospital in Dwarka. I wanted to get involved in animal care in some way, and volunteering there seemed to be a great way to give back to the community and simultaneously boost my resume. However, on the way to the hospital, as we sloshed through the relentless monsoon rain from metro line to metro line, I became immediately aware of the impracticality of being a regular volunteer. When we arrived, dripping puddles of rainwater from the journey, the head vet at the hospital, Dr. Dheeraj, expressed his opinion that students like us shouldn’t go through the hassle of spending five hours of total travel time to volunteer for a maximum of three hours. Moreover, our responsibility lies with the stray dogs in our own community. “Do not feed the overfed,” he suggested, as the dogs who come to him are pets with loving owners who look after them, feed them and ensure their well-being. However, the stray dogs living near our own campus have no one. His words inspired me to give birth to an organization on campus that fundraises to bring food, shelter, and medication to the dogs living outside the campus gates. I have begun my fundraising efforts, and I have found many classmates and faculty members who are interested. The organization, named PAWSitive, will promote animal equality through the distribution of paintings and tote bags with animal themed subjects. The proceeds from paintings and tote bag sales will go towards obtaining food and shelter for the stray dogs on campus. Dr. Dheeraj has agreed to provide us with free medicine from his Veterinary hospital.

“An animal,” Dr. Dheeraj assured us, “will never forget you after you feed him.” At first glance, the stray dogs, who are accustomed to contempt and cruelty from humans, appear withdrawn, unapproachable, and sometimes downright scary. Yet after feeding leftover bread to a lean and graceful yet dangerously undernourished black dog at Ashoka, she lept towards me, wagging her tail in excitement. In that moment, I saw a glimmer of the spirit in Muffin that had coated my childhood with so much happiness.

Home

I have homes in two different countries. With every passing day, I feel a sense of longing for my forsaken home in America – the warm and fuzzy familiar cottage-like house, the wooden deck and the picturesque hills, the smell of homemade vanilla muffins and mouth-watering spices wafting from the dimly lit kitchen, the comfort of my parents’ bed, and the serene drives to and from La Jolla through unpolluted air and unimposing sunlight. Yet I chose this new home, and I enjoy the close-knit community, the bright green grass and carefully arranged plants, the tall brick buildings coated with intricate white designs, the cool evening breeze and the excited chatter of youthful and vibrant students and faculty. Yet somehow, I have not truly moved here. A rather large piece of me still belongs back at my first home, and clings onto the contextual identity that I have fostered for over eighteen years. I am not a native Indian, and yet I am still not a true resident of the United States. I am straddling two different homes, and at the moment, both feel equally distant.

Amanda Bynes

“Wishing on falling star….

Wondering where you ah- ah – are.”

~Girl on TV by Lyte Funkie Ones

She seemed to have the whole world in her hands. She had interviews, photoshoots, movies, television shows, and red carpet events lined up. Teenaged girls all over America were dying be her best friend, and take a leaf from her book in hopes that they might discover the some of her success for themselves. Paparazzi surrounded her, desperately attempting to steal a glimpse into her personal life and capture photos of her dazzling smile and characteristic wave. Whether she was Starbucks, at the nail solon, at the mall, or at a high profile celebrity event, she greeted them with the same politeness, respect, and cheer. Her reputation was untarnished, aside from the occasional bitter article commenting on the puffiness of her face. She was living proof that not all celebrities had to be rude, constantly partying, drug abusers. She was dead-set on her career, and more importantly, she valued her family over everything else. She was a counterargument to the claims that Hollywood was a ruthless machine that destroyed the souls of who ventured too close.

Did we speak too soon? Did we force her up on a pedestal that she never aspired to reach in the first place? We saw so much promise in her, but she soon fell off the radar, only to reemerge in the headlines under a completely new spotight. Wigs. Piercings. Plastic Surgery. Drinking and Driving. Drugs. Twerking. Verbally and physically abusing other people. For the past years, the media has been helplessly watching her downward spiral. Some people hadn’t been following her until she began to resurface in the media due to her unusual behaviour. People who didn’t know what she was find her outlandish behaviour entertaining. But those who knew her, looked up to her, and respected her for who we thought she was were heartbroken. We thought she had it all. But something in her snapped. There was something about herself and the untarnished, clean, good girl image that she despised. She despised it so fiercely that she tried to erase all evidence of who she was. And it was effective, for it is impossible to remember her adorable dimpled smile without the image of her current face, caked with layers of makeup and changed by plastic surgery superimposing her innocence. And the worst part is, things don’t seem to be getting better. She’s been on a steady decline, and we can do nothing but just watch. She had no idea that there is anything wrong with her at all, and that’s what makes it so scary. She resists help, and as long as she resists it, no one will be able to help her.

At this point, we can’t do anything but wish. Wish that this young star will somehow break her fall before she crashes, explodes, and is left with nothing but extinguished smithereens. Even knowing that I can’t do anything, I can’t pull myself away from the story. It grows more and more hopeless, but my eyes and heart are glued to it. And whenever a new story emerges, I shake my head with disbelief. How could someone go through such a staggering transformation in the matter of just a few years? I can’t help but wonder what happened to the person that we fell in love with. Has she faded away completely? Or is she lurking underneath, waiting for the right time to emerge?

Did that person even exist at all?

Safe Haven

Each day, I would eagerly bounce along the turquoise-railed hallway of rooms all the way to the last one, the most mysterious and elusive of them all. Opening the door was like unlocking a portal to whole new world. The soft honey-colored light that filled the room had grown to represent a maternal embrace. It was my safe haven. Although I slept, ate, studied, ran around, and drew on the whiteboards, both pealing out laughter and shedding tears in that room, I never truly stepped through the doorway, never truly crossed the barrier to the room. There was an avoidable sense of hesitance and fear of being rejected from the place I most wanted to belong in.

Only later did it occur to me that same room that represented my home away from home, where I had found so much comfort and security on campus, turned out to be a venomous, parasitical monster, feeding on my attachment to it and fostering an exclusive and cultish community. There is now enough spatial and temporal difference between myself and the room, along with all the painful memories attached to it, and I am starting to unclench my resentful grip. And as the distance has allowed me to reflect more objectively, epiphany struck me like a slap in the face: it’s not the room that was toxic, no! It was my relentless and obsessive memory of it.

I was not actively seeking a new home away from home to replace that room, yet I can’t say I was avoiding it either. There is an overwhelming sense of déjà vu when I climb up three flights of stairs and walk past the offices, feeling a gust of cool air as I push open the door to the new room on the other side of the planet. This one is cool rather than warm, white rather than honey colored, and scattered with candy-apple green chairs and wooden tables, bookshelves, and colorful stars made from construction paper rather than periodic tables, flasks, and science-related cartoons. But there is an uncanny similarity – in even as I sit there, very much inside the room, I feel a definite absence of contact with the place and an overwhelming sense of longing to reach out and close the gap. Perhaps it is better to stay here, with a healthy sense of tension, in the periphery. I wouldn’t want to taint my perception of my new safe haven and risk losing it permanently.

Empathizing with The Other

Like many students in Professor Aparna Vaidik’s Trends in History Foundation Course, I found Johannes Fabian’s article, “Time and the Emerging Other,” to be a challenging text, as it was densely packed with information, vocabulary, and unfamiliar concepts. However, Gabe, the Teaching Assistant for the course, imparted a few reading suggestions that I believe have helped me distinguish the gist of the article from a dispersion cloud of perplexing material.

The last paragraph of the article ties the divergent stands of the article into a nice little bow. “Little more than technology and sheer economic exploitation,” Fabian claims, “seem to be left over for the purposes of ‘explaining’ Western superiority.” His argument is self-explanatory – Western societies tend to marginalize other cultures and dismiss them as behind modern times. However, they gain the credibility to disparage other cultures simply because of the factors mentioned above. I am going to focus on the point of technological innovations. Our class discussion brought us to an interesting metaphor. Societies tend to follow similar historical trends, a few members of the class claimed, and these societies and trends are reflected by the separate boogie carts on a roller coaster and the similar paths they follow. Each cart takes a similar path to arrive at the same location, even though it is not synchronous. I believe that in using this metaphor, it is important to realize that the roller coaster goes in a loop and does not necessarily have an endpoint. The end of the roller coaster is not necessarily an end in the true sense of the word, for it is a loop and is constantly returning to the past. Clichéd as the following statement may be, history repeats itself. While the analogy is effective in debunking the notion of a linear innovative progress across a period of time, it does not account for the cultural differences in societies that might even change the pathways to a similar result. There are a variety of possible processes that might lead to the same temporary result.

Our discussion has refined my view of South Asia, and specifically, India, in many ways. As I was born and brought up in the United States, I must admit, rather shamefully, that there have been times when I viewed parts of India as backwards societies. But our readings and class discussions have forced me to consider that because there is no universal truth or concept of modernity, it is unfair of me to criticize cultures as backwards. I might not agree with their values, but that does not make me more modern than they are.

Overall, I have come to the conclusion that Fabian is encouraging us not only to give up any superior attitudes we might have towards supposedly less developed cultures, but we also should not deny coevalness with societies of our past. Since time is not linear and there certainly is not a linear progression of humanity across time periods, it is reasonable to assume that we might be in fact repeating the mistakes our ancestors made. The concept of time should not forge a distance between ourselves and our ancestors. Being born at a later time does not make us better than those who were born earlier. Hopefully, studying diverse historical cultures will allow us to see similarities between ourselves and past citizens and allow us to develop a sense of empathy for those whom we refer to as the Other.