A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

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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Monday, June 02, 2014

The Lady and the Orangutan

I had been meaning to revisit the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington DC for some time, and I could finally make it this Saturday. I had already been there twice, but this time there was a special reason for my visit. This reason was Bao Bao, the baby giant panda born at the DC zoo nine months ago. The Chinese government supplies giant pandas to zoos all over the world with the condition that any cubs born would have to be returned to China. This happened with the first cub born at the zoo. My first visit to the DC zoo was a few days after baby Tai Shan had left for China. This time I did not want to miss the opportunity to photograph the cub, especially since I was one of the people who had helped to choose her name over an Internet poll (Bao Bao means "treasure," you can see her live here).

The zoo visit went well. Bao Bao and her mom Mei Xiang posed for photos. The other animals behaved as expected, except the gorillas, all of whom decided to sit facing away from the visitors. But then I saw something else, also at the ape house, which became the highlight of my zoo visit.

The room was large having one glass wall, with one occupant - a large female orangutan named Lucy. As I approached the room, I noticed a crowd in front of the glass wall and went in further to investigate. I first saw the orangutan sitting just inside, face pressed against the glass, staring intently at something outside. Then I saw the lady, sitting near my feet, just outside the glass, facing Lucy. She had placed a rubber frog on the ledge outside the glass and was now carefully adorning it with a strip of paper. Lucy was watching her intently, mesmerized by the colourful objects. As I watched, the lady opened her handbag and took out some small objects, while talking to the ape all the time. I'm sure the orangutan could not hear her, but she seemed interested all the same.

The lady took out some colorful nail files and proceeded to unwrap them with great care. she peeled off the price tags and stuck them on Lucy's glass wall. Then she turned around and apologized to us. "I know this place is a little crowded, but please excuse me. If I get up, she will leave. I know her since the last ten years." She was surrounded by curious children and adults.

Then the lady took out some blush and applied it to her face. This was followed by lipstick and eyeliner. Each time she pretended to apply the stuff to Lucy's face through the glass as well after she was finished herself. Lucy seemed to enjoy all this immensely, but some of the adult humans around us were smirking. One woman seemed positively disturbed, and she made some snide remark about people being crazy and left with her children. I sneaked as close as possible through the crowd and tried to take photos of the whole thing, but only managed to take a few photos with my cellphone, and a close-up of the ape's hand which looked very similar to a human's.

By now the lady had used a hairbrush on her own and Lucy's head and was now applying some sunscreen lotion to her hand. I finally left and proceeded to a different window to take photos from another angle. Soon, the lady got up and left. Sure enough, Lucy also walked away from the glass wall and left the room.

When the lady came out of the ape house, she was talking to another visitor who was interested in her story. "I have been visiting her for the last ten years," she said. "She likes to come sit near me and watch me put on make-up. She can recognize me in a crowd and comes to the glass as soon as she sees me. People think I'm crazy, looking like a clown applying make-up in public."

I didn't think she was crazy of course. I only thought that the orangutan had managed to capture one out of the thousands of humans who come to see her in captivity, and had trained the human to do tricks for her. I considered myself lucky that I was able to witness this beautiful relationship.

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Friday, May 09, 2014

Strange Ambitions

Here's my translation of this little poem on Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary this year. With all this research work leading nowhere but taking up my entire day, I cannot say I do not have ideas like this child sometimes myself.

Strange Ambitions
~Rabindranath Tagore

Daily when I go to my class,
        By this lane where our house stands
At ten each morning I pass
        The vendor with wares in his hands.
“Bangles! Bangles!” he calls
His basket has porcelain dolls,
He takes the path that he likes,
        He goes home to eat when he wants.
Whether it is ten or half past,
        Never does he once fear delay.
I wish my slate I could toss
        And go selling things that way.

Source: Google Images
I come home, hands ink-stained
        Half-past four is the hour.
The gardener digs with a spade
        In the rich man’s patch of flowers.
No one ever tells him to stop
On his feet lest the spade he drop.
His head and body gathers dust,
        But his work no one shouts over.
Mother doesn’t give him clean shirts,
        To wash the dirt she never wants.
I wish I could have been
        The tender of those flower-plants.

It is hardly very late in the night
        When mother sends me to bed.
I look out the window and sight
        The guard with the turbaned head.
Darkened lane, few people go,
Dimly the gas lamps glow
Dangling a lantern in hand,
        He stands at the doorstead.
The night goes from ten to eleven
        “It’s late!” he never has to hear.
I wish I could be a guard
        Awake alone in the lane here.

(Translation by Sugata Banerji)


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