A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Day That Ended Differently

The day dawned dark and gloomy, with intermittent downpours of rain punctuated by a warm, heavy stillness uncharacteristic of this season. I woke up and reluctantly got ready for work. Rainy days make me want to stay at home.

Outside, the world was not altogether dull and gray as one would expect on such a day. It is almost the peak of fall, and the trees are displaying some magnificent foliage. The maples, the oaks, the cherries, and others that I do not recognize, are all looking bright and colourful. Each tree is painted in its unique hue ranging from yellow-green to flaming orange and beet red. The roads, the sidewalks and the grass lawns lay covered with a checkered quilt of fallen leaves. The cars were covered in shiny glass beads, large raindrops that were just a little too small to roll away and fall to the ground. As I drove to the university, I turned on my mp3 player which is connected to my car stereo, and was soon lost in a wintry evening of long ago in a far off place called Vermissa Valley, also known as the Valley of Fear.

When I was growing up in Allahabad, this was one of my favourite times of the year. For most people staying in West Bengal, the ending of Durga Puja means the biggest festival of the year is over, and this season comes with a sadness and a longing for the next arrival of the goddess a year later. In north India, however, the biggest festival is yet to arrive, and every house is being prepared in some way or other for the occasion. Some people have their houses painted, while others simply clean their gardens and make the house look better. Everyone decorates their house with strings of lights, and houses with lights grow in number day by day, until on the day of the festival, every house on every street is outlined in lights. Diwali is not all about Chinese electric lights, of course. It is also very much about tradition, and small earthen lamps called diyas are used for lighting up the houses  on Diwali night even today. The flickering little flames of diyas in a row look much better than any electric light could. And of course, then there are the fireworks, which are burnt by all to light up the night sky and scare the life out of animals, birds and evil spirits.

But I digress. I am far away from the Allahabad of my childhood, and although Diwali is indeed a week away, there are no preparations to be seen in this country for that festival. Besides, when I talk of Allahabad and use the word today, I actually indicate a time period some eight years in the past, so the accuracy and relevance of my description is doubtful anyway.

I reached the university and immersed myself into work. The rain beat relentlessly at my fourth floor window all day, occasionally with enough ardor to make me look up. Sometimes I looked down at the road below and saw people walking about with colourful umbrellas.  I had my lunch sitting at my desk. Occasionally chat boxes would open up and friends would write a line or two. Most seemed to be asking what my day was like and what I was planning to do later today. Morning became afternoon and afternoon rolled into evening. I put my laptop inside my bag and walked out of the building. The rain had stopped, and the sky was even clearing up a little. I took my car out of the parking lot and headed home, listening to The Valley of Fear once again.

As I drove through the winding streets of Old Town Fairfax, I realized that although Diwali was not imminent in this part of the world, the houses were being decorated here as well, albeit in a different manner altogether. Although Halloween is a good two weeks away, some houses had put Jack-o-lanterns at their front doors, and others had spooky decorations and scarecrows on their front lawns. I made a mental note of buying a pumpkin on my next visit to Walmart. I wanted to carve it and make my own Jack-o-lantern too. I also wanted to put up some lights for Diwali on my balcony. Probably I'll do both during the coming weekend.

On reaching home I found a large box at my door. It was the suitcase that I had ordered online a couple of days ago. Then I spent some time reading, before cooking and eating my dinner. Then, as I was having my usual two-mile walk around the apartment complex, my friend Shreevallabh and his wife Snehal came to my house with the cake and the gift card.

In case I hadn't mentioned, it was my 33rd birthday today.

So then I cut the cake, and we had a piece each, and we sat down and chatted for three quarters of an hour. This was the special ending to a day that was perfectly ordinary in every way.

And after they had left, I arranged the cake and the gifts on the table and took a photo. The much drooled-over Humans of New York book had arrived yesterday from Atreyee and the Great American Short Stories was something I gifted myself. After all, however ordinary the birthday may seem, one does not turn 33 every day.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Adios, Amigo!

Those were different times, with longer days. The days when I was doing my Bachelor of Engineering. The Internet came through a dial-up modem, but was somehow more fascinating. My Yahoo and Hotmail inboxes had about ten megabytes of space each and had to be cleared regularly. Checking mail was a once-a-day activity. The rest of the day was spent with real-life friends, indulging in activities with real-world objects, like playing cards and carrom boards. In case I wanted to communicate with a friend or a relative living far away, I could use email, or chat.

Yahoo Messenger was used for chatting. Google was just a search engine. 

Then one day, I received an email from a school friend. He was inviting me to join something called Orkut. I wondered what Orkut was, and how would it ever be useful. After all, the only person I knew on Orkut was my friend who had invited me. True, between us we invited a few more friends soon, but interacting through Orkut was an overhead. In the next year or so I dad collected about ten scraps on my Orkut profile. Then I went to join my first job, where I had nothing to do.

Sitting idle for nine hours a day in an air-conditioned office, in front of a PC with a broadband connection, and getting a fat salary at the end of the month for it may sound like the dream job, but believe me, it is the most boring existence imaginable. To avoid going crazy from boredom, I turned to other activities - this blog, photography and Orkut. In the next three months the number of my scraps grew from ten to about a thousand.

Those were different times. The words "social networking" meant nothing. Blogging was a new fad. Facebook was yet to be launched. A tweet meant a bird call. And Indian IT companies had still not blocked Blogger and Orkut on their networks.

Orkut was a social network all right, and the very first one for most Indians of my generation. It allowed us to keep in touch with friends, stay updated on the latest gossip in the friend circle and post our photos for the world to see. We could even make new friends on Orkut. Two of my very good friends - Monami and Smita - found me through Orkut, both of whom I later met in the real world. However, the biggest attraction of Orkut for me were not the profiles of people, they were the concept of "Communities." Communities were forums where like-minded people could discuss (or argue) about any topic under the sun, or beyond it. From Ray's films to digital photography, from Javan temples to Java applets, from origami techniques to oregano recipes, there were communities for everyone.

Those were different times, innocent and carefree. Anyone on Orkut could read anyone else's scraps and community postings, and view their photos. Privacy settings had not yet been invented, identity theft wasn't a concern. People did not fish for "likes" on their posts. Sure, comments felt good, but otherwise we were content to just have a corner of the Internet for our photos and opinions for people to see.

I first heard about Facebook in 2008, a few months before I came to the US. I opened an account, but even long after coming here, Orkut remained my preferred social network. There was too much happening on Facebook - applications, games, wall posts, updates. Facebook was like Times Square. Orkut, in comparison, was like the quiet suburban town where I grew up. It was not cool, not happening, but for a heated discussion with friends, it was still the best place. Until the friends started moving to Times Square.

I gradually stopped visiting Orkut sometime around 2011, and my biggest complaint about Orkut was, "They are copying Facebook too much." Since then, Facebook has grown by leaps and bounds and peoples' interest in Orkut has dwindled away. Some of the communities that I visited often, like the ones discussing Bengali literature, have moved to Facebook. Also, Google+ took off, and it was unlikely that Google would be running two social networking sites so I had been expecting to see the notice for some time. It finally came.  Orkut is closing down on 30th September 2014. People are requested to move all their content to Google+ or elsewhere.

And although I had not visited that website in three years, I felt a pang of sadness. Orkut was a remnant of the bygone days - days when we were immature enough to write public "testimonials" for our online friends, and shameless enough to display testimonials written by others on our profile pages. When people would rate their friends on how trustworthy they were, and become "fans" if they liked them too much. Facebook may have 1.3 billion users, but it lacks that personal touch that Orkut had with less that 100 million of us.

But all good things must come to an end, and Orkut is no exception, Maybe, someday, Facebook will be shutting down while some more popular social network with even less personal touch will be taking its place, and I will be lamenting about the memories associated with Facebook. But till then, I will miss Orkut and its scraps and its testimonials and the good times it gave me,

Goodbye friend! Those were good times, the time we spent together. Those were different times.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Exactly six years ago from today, I landed in the United States of America to do my Ph.D. Since then, a lot of water has flowed through the Hudson, and I have traveled ten states and District of Columbia. Don't believe me? I have been to New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Illinois, Virginia and Ohio in that order. That number is almost equal to the number of Indian states I have visited in the other 26 years of my life.

As one grows older, each year seems to pass more quickly than the previous one. So it is not surprising that these six years have passed fast. It seems like just yesterday that I flew here, met some of my closest friends at the TA workshop at my university, saw New York for the first time, and stood under the Niagara Falls. But although it seems like yesterday, these six years have been eventful. I finished my Ph.D., showed my parents around the US, and learnt to drive. In the meantime, my sister got married and gave birth to a baby. Of course, the most important things that happened to me were none of these - they were changes in my way of thinking. Not only did I learn a lot academically, but my general outlook towards life has changed greatly. I cannot say whether all of it is good or bad, but there is no doubt that I am a different person now from the person who landed in Newark six years ago.

Unfortunately, I am too busy today to write a longer post "celebrating" my US visit anniversary. I did not want to ignore the date, so wrote this short one just for the sake of it.

Six years ago. I'm wearing the most colourful sweater.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Unexpected Photo Shoot

"I have arrived. You can start for the airport."

"Oh, you have arrived at Columbus airport, have you? Your flight will take another hour or so I guess? I'll be there when you reach."

"Dude, I have arrived at Washington Dulles airport. From Columbus. I'm expecting you to be here now to pick me up."

"What? I thought your flight arrives at nine!"

"I messaged you on WhatsApp when I started. Didn't you see?"

"Sorry Boss. Actually a friend arrived from India suddenly on a surprise visit and we were showing her around DC. Can you wait until nine? We'll come directly to the airport from here to pick you up."

I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes past eight. If I wanted to get a cab it would not be possible before another ten minutes, so if I waited for my friend Shreevallabh, I would have to wait only about forty minutes or so. Besides, there wasn't much to do at home tonight, and tomorrow was a Sunday.

"OK. Take your time. I'm waiting."

I walked out of the plane, waited for my baggage, and then walked to the nearest exit. I was returning from a conference in Columbus, Ohio. As I settled down into a bench, my phone beeped. It was a message from Shree.

"We are on our way. You can Google for Poonam Kaur to pass the time if you are bored."

Poonam Kaur was an inside joke between me and Shree. She was a model and actress who had been in school with Shree and his wife Snehal. She had just been crowned Miss Andhra in 2005 when I and Shree both worked together in Hyderabad. At that time, he had shown me Poonam's photos and had proudly announced his childhood acquaintance with her, although he had to accept that they were out of touch for many years now. The girl was very pretty, and I had seen her photos all over the Internet over the years that followed.  I knew she was an actress now but I had not seen any of her movies because I did not understand any of the south Indian languages. And over the years, I often asked Shree about his beautiful friend. But why was Shree telling me about Poonam now? Had he forgotten that I already knew about her?

"I have Googled her much more than you have since 2005." I replied, and went back to my 2048 game.

A little after 9 o'clock, Shree's car arrived at the airport. As I climbed into the passenger seat next to Shree, I noticed there were two people sitting in the rear seat along with Snehal. "This is our school friend Suraj," said Shree, pointing to the man, "and of course, you know who she is," he said pointing to the woman, who smiled shyly at me.

Of course I knew. I should have known why Shree was asking me to Google Poonam Kaur out of the blue. I should have known when... my train of thought was interrupted by Suraj as he extended his hand to shake mine. "Shree has told us a lot about you, and we also saw your message." I wanted to sink into the ground.

All of us were hungry, so we went to an Indian place and had biryani. There, when Poonam and Snehal were fooling around at the table, taking weird selfies, I offered to click their photo with my phone. That's when Shree and Snehal told Poonam that I was a very good photographer.

Modesty is not one of my virtues, and although I still consider myself an amateur photographer, I usually make no secret of the fact that I know a little more about photography now than the average Joe with a camera. Here, however, the situation was different. Shree and Snehal were advertising my photography to a real-life model and actress who works with real photographers everyday. Photographers with full frame camera bodies and prime lenses and studio lights. "Can't they see," I thought, "how embarrassing it is even to mention my photography skills to the Poonam Kaur?"

But Poonam seemed genuinely interested. "Do you do photo shoots? What lenses do you have?" she asked. I admitted that I had done a few photo shoots with some friends, and I normally used a 50mm and a 70-300mm for portraits. "That's good enough." she said. And then, I don't remember who proposed the idea first, but the outcome was "Sugata will do a photo shoot for Poonam."

Everybody was smiling. Everybody seemed happy. Nobody saw the panic behind my smile. I felt I was about to be exposed. I was just another guy with a DSLR and some old lenses, and I was going to blow the best opportunity to come to me as a photographer.

We came back home around eleven. First we had decided to do the shoot the next morning, but then, Poonam said she was not much of a morning person, and besides, she had a flight to catch the next morning. So she asked me if I was too tired to do the shoot that night. I said I wasn't. We shot a few pictures at Shree's apartment, and then drove to the Georgetown waterfront.

That was at 1:00 a.m. For the next two hours, I was doing one of the most difficult photo shoots of my life. On one hand, Poonam is an amazingly down-to-earth person and she was very encouraging. Actually she was so comfortable with posing that she practically directed the shoot, which was a relief. On the other hand, I only had street lights and shop-window lights to shoot by, and the one thing my 2009 camera is not good at is low-light photography. Shree, Snehal and Suraj helped as much as they could, holding cellphone lights and reflectors, but in the end it was often too dark to focus with my manual lens. Since that manual lens is the only f/1.4 lens I have, I did not have any option but to use it in such low light.

Photo by Snehal
We tried different poses, different backgrounds, different outfits, and even got inside a fountain for some unusual shots. At some point during the shoot, my panic disappeared and I forgot I was photographing an actress. I was ordering her around, suggesting poses, just as  I would do to a friend. She was open to ideas, and all of us had a lot of fun the whole time.

We came home after 3:30. I wanted to look at the photos right away, but was too tired that night. I cleaned them up over the next few days and mailed them to Poonam. A lot of the photos were too blurry or too grainy. Some had shadows at weird places. Still, some had come out well, and Poonam said she wished we had more time to do a proper shoot. I felt the same way.

But whatever the quality of the photos, when I look at that folder on my laptop, I still cannot believe this really happened. I had no idea that I could ever do a photo shoot with a real actress even one hour before it happened. And as a photographer, the thing that I like most about this experience is the thought that maybe in future, when people Google for Poonam Kaur, some of the photos they find would have been taken by me.

Photo by Shreevallabh

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Thursday, July 03, 2014

A Conference, Columbus and Celebrities

I have said it before on this blog, and I'll say it again: we Indians do not know how to make statues. Maybe we knew it once, when our sculptors were carving out the temples of Ellora and Konark, but these days most of the statues that are made in India are vaguely human lumps of rock or metal, with no touch of life in them. I was reminded of this sad fact once again when I saw the Umbrella Girl statue at Schiller Park in Columbus, Ohio last Friday.

Since I live in Virginia, a bit of an explanation about how I came to be in Ohio would not be out of place here.

A big conference on computer vision and pattern recognition (unimaginatively called CVPR) causes all the celebrity scientists in my field to flock together and show off their research once a year. This year the venue for CVPR happened to be Columbus, Ohio. The reason for this choice, if certain inside sources are to be believed, was to ensure that people attend the conference and don't take sightseeing breaks as they usually do in, say, Hawaii or Las Vegas. I had gone to meet the celebrity scientists of course, if creepily standing near them and ogling at their name tags could be considered "meeting." But in spite of a packed conference schedule and the relatively uninteresting venue, my trip was pretty good.

I travelled to Columbus on a turboprop plane that was delayed by over two hours - a significant amount considering that the flight itself was just an hour long. The girl sitting next to me was a professional model from the UK whose name I will refrain from mentioning here. OK, even if I did mention it nobody outside the fashion industry would probably recognize her, but to me it seemed I was travelling with a celebrity. I always crib about the lack of celebrity encounters in my life. While some of my friends and relatives regularly run into Bollywood and Hollywood stars and cricket players at airports, restaurants and even on the street, I have been singularly unlucky in this regard. Little did I know that I was going to meet many more famous people over the span of the coming week.

Our motel, the German Village Inn, is in the middle of an area called the German Village which was created by German immigrants in the early part of the nineteenth century. The lanes are narrow and brick-lined, and the houses have gardens and a distinctly old European style. They even conduct a "Haus und Garten Tour" on the last Sunday of June every year but unfortunately I left on Saturday and so had to be content with looking at the hauses and gartens by myself.

Downtown Columbus, or at least the two miles of it between our motel and the conference venue, has the more conventional American city look, with glass-covered skyscrapers. We took the #7 bus every morning to the conference, and in the evening we came back by the #7, #8, or sometimes the C bus which is free. I made two of the trips on foot during the week to take photos, but my other friends did not share my enthusiasm. Walking was easy, since both our motel and the Greater Columbus Convention Center are on the same street, the High Street, but for a greater variety of visuals one has to step into some of the side streets. I did that, and found old stone-walled Gothic-style buildings covered with ivy, cute little pedestrian bridges and open air restaurants. High Street, of course, is not all skyscrapers. It has its fair share of old breweries and the Ohio State House, which sits amid a large garden with statues, is also on High Street.

The conference went smoothly. With breakfast, snacks, lunch, tea, dinner and drinks provided, there was hardly any motivation to go outside. I met many famous researchers as described above. I also met a Caltech student who had acted in The PhD Movie. Apparently people who go to Caltech are so good that they have time to write papers good enough for CVPR even after acting in movies in their spare time. The exhibits by the companies were no less attractive than the food and celeb-spotting. One doesn't get free T-shirts, pens, notebooks, bags, caps, Lego puzzles and other assorted stuff everyday, so I grabbed whatever I could.

The Internet says Columbus has a very good zoo, a science museum, a botanical garden and a topiary park. Now I don't want to sound smug or anything, but when you live in New York and Washington DC for six years, you don't feel like visiting museums or zoos or botanical gardens anywhere else anymore. Besides, I did not have much time. So these things were out of the question. To find out more about what to see in the city, I pinged Kuntala one morning and asked for suggestions. After all, Columbus was the city where she had started her now-famous blog.

"Trust me, there is nothing to see in Columbus," she was prompt in replying. "The only thing that I suggest is, try the Vietnamese banh-mi sandwich at North Market, and then try Jeni's Splendid ice creams." Therefore, eating at North Market became one of my priorities. Since the market closes at five on Mondays, I could not eat there on the first day, but on Wednesday, I slipped out of the conference slightly early to explore North Market before it closed at seven.

At first glance, North Market reminds one of Quincy Market in Boston since both of them are full of eateries from different countries. However, closer inspection reveals that North Market has raw food shops along with cooked food shops, and a shop selling cards and flowers as well. Also, the atmosphere at North Market is much more homely and friendly than that of Quincy Market. This is emphasized by the collection of brochures near the entrance, one for each of the 35 shop-owners. Lan Viet Market, located near the northwest corner of the market was easy to locate. The banh-mi sandwich there was delicious as predicted by Kuntala, and Jeni's splendid ice cream lived up to its name afterwards.

That more-or-less covers what I did at Columbus for six days. The only other thing left is the statue that I was talking about at the beginning of this blog post. The Umbrella Girl.

It was a little hard to find, since the local people seemed to be oblivious of its presence. However, by repeatedly asking people, with a little help from Google maps, I finally found it. In a small fountain surrounded by benches in the middle of trees, stood a bronze girl with an umbrella in her right hand and holding her shoes in her left. The water was coming out of the top of her umbrella and then flowing down the sides just like rainwater flows down a real umbrella. The statue was so beautiful in its simplicity that it was almost mesmerizing. And besides being a beautiful work of art, it told a story. I sat down on one of the benches. My friend George sat on another. We kept sitting there, watching fireflies dancing in and out of the grass, listening to the fake rain, watching nightfall. We were tired, but we also loved staying out late that evening, our last evening in Columbus. The dark shade of trees, the sound of the water and the fireflies somehow reminded me of my hometown Hooghly. Columbus was not New York or DC, but Columbus had won my heart. Long after it was dark, we finally returned to our motel.

The rest of my stay was uneventful. The same could not be said for what happened after I caught a plane back to Virginia the next day. When my friend Shreevallabh came to pick me up from the airport, I realized he was accompanied by his childhood friend who is a South Indian film actress. She was a guest at his house for two days. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing a photo shoot with her till 3:00 in the morning on the Georgetown riverfront. But that is probably a story for another day.

At the conference reception

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