In Conversation: Divya Anantharaman

For the fourth and penultimate installation of this series, I had the incredible honour of speaking to Divya Anantharaman, an award winning, premier taxidermist based in New York City and her specialties include birds, small mammals and anatomic anomalies. Having studied sculpture and fashion design in college, her passion for natural history drew her towards taxidermy. When she is not working, Divya likes cooking, reading, bird watching, and collecting vintage fashion. She also enjoys drag and burlesque.

In this interview, she tells me about her inspiration(s), everything about the beauty of taxidermy and how science and art are two sides of the same coin.


How and when were you inspired to learn about and practice taxidermy?

The moment it dawned on me that I wanted to be a taxidermist was probably one of my first visits to the natural history museum. I was so fascinated by the beauty of animals, and the ability to get up close to them.

Divya Anantharaman, NYC’s premier taxidermist

I grew up and a city and didn’t have access to travel the world and see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, but as soon as I walked through those museum doors, seeing the artfully preserved animals changed my life and made me passionate about conservation. I wanted to make that magic available to everyone! I only learned taxidermy later in life, first by collecting books and watching videos online and practicing on legally salvaged roadkill or donated specimens, then by going to taxidermy shows and competitions once I gained more confidence. I switched careers fully about 5-6 years ago.

On your website, it says you left the corporate fashion industry to pursue your love of natural history. What is it about natural history that fascinates you so much?

Natural history reminds me of my place in the world. I’m reminded daily that all the life forms that inhabit this planet are part of something far greater than an individual. As much as I love and enjoy fashion, much of the industry is about ones self, image, and ego-nature reminds me that all those things are temporary, and gives me far greater perspective on what is important in life, and the legacy I’d like to leave behind.

“…all the life forms that inhabit this planet are part of something far greater than an individual.”

Divya anantharaman

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work? What would the most difficult part be?

The most fulfilling aspect of my work is being able to connect people and animals, to inspire them to play a role in conservation.

The most difficult part of my work aside from constantly learning and perfecting anatomy and technique, would be finding ways to innovate and diversify this field.

How does art and science combine in taxidermy? How does this amalgamation increase dialogue between science and art?

In many ways! Practically, a successful work of taxidermy needs to be based in accurate scientific understanding of the animal (anatomy, habitat, etc) and executed with proficient artistic technique (sculpting, painting, etc). Science and art have a relationship beyond the practical-they ground each other and give each other imagination, unlocking new potential in each other. There is a wonderful harmony when the hand of the artist delivers a scientific message. Art appeals to our emotions and instincts in a way that science alone cannot.

What scientific principle would you say is central to the art of taxidermy?

There are a few! Most important would be anatomy, understanding not just what and animal looks like, but why. And learning the nuances  of a specific creature that vary with age, sex, habitat, and other conditions. Also important would be chemistry when it comes to the tanning and preservation of hides, and stability or painting and sculpting materials.

What is your favourite animal to taxidermy, and why?

Birds! There is such a fascinating array of diversity in birds, and their ubiquity. Their ability to fly inspires awe from a tangible perspective as and evolutionary wonder, and from a more abstract perspective in that they carry rich symbolism, lore, even carrying our hopes and dreams.

Do you think Science and Art are two sides of the same coin? If yes, how so? And if not, why?

Yes! I do believe art and science are 2 sides of the same coin. They are both ways of observing and making sense of the world, many times with similar motivations. The difference I see most is the presence of the preparators hand-where science strives to be objective, art fully celebrates being subjective.  The unique hand of the person behind the artwork gives it a sense of emotion and imagination, which can reach people in a way that acknowledges their humanity. I am so excited by the unexplored potential of combining art and science! 

For more on Divya, visit her website or check her work out on Instagram!

In Conversation: Anusha Banerjee

Anusha Banerjee is an aspiring geologist and a budding digital artist from Kolkata, India. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Geology from Calcutta University and then a master’s degree in Applied Geology from Presidency University, Kolkata. The “art-science-ness” of geology continually intrigues Anusha and in the future, she wants to be able to reach out to anyone interested in art and/or science, and make geology a tad bit more accessible. Anusha also loves to play the ukulele and the keyboard and sing, read random stories from history, browse r/etymology on Reddit, or explore her hometown, Kolkata.

In the third installment of the In Conversation series, Anusha and I talk about her love of geology and e(art)h science and the very prominent artistic element of the science of rocks.

When and how were you inspired to study geology? Could you elaborate on your experience studying geology?

This one is an interesting story. As a child, I loved the arts and sciences equally. In school, we were made to believe that they are both vastly different and can never become one. But over time, I began to find that they converged very often, and sometimes very evidently- like the colourful salts in chemistry lab, and fractals in mathematics. Back then, I was very interested in astrophysics and astronomy, and its least to mention that the images of space are enough to make anyone gasp in awe. So, I thought “Great! I am going to study astronomy.” At such a time, I began to realise that I’m going to have to dedicate a lot of time and energy to math, which sounded very intimidating to me. I started having second thoughts about the subject. One of my seniors from school told me about geology. Even though I had heard of the subject before, I didn’t know much about it. But, I was intrigued!

Anusha, in front of the replica of the Jurrasic fold, Geological Museum, Tsukuba, Japan.

It was fascinating- like being a forensic scientist of the Earth. The final blow came when I saw pictures of thin sections of rocks. To think that rocks could look like…that just did it for me. Then onward, it was just one beautiful journey.

What is your fondest memory of your time as a geology student?

There’s too many to start with, honestly. A lot of small moments make up my favourite memories as a geology student. The first time I held a real fossil in my hands (it was an ammonite), the first time I used a rock hammer to obtain a rock sample, the first time my classmates and I made a structural map of an area. Most of my fond memories go back to the field trips of five years, and practical classes- I can’t mention one by not mentioning the other. So I’d like to share a different, yet fond memory. This is from August 2019, when we were in Tokyo, Japan for the 23rd India-Japan Student Conference (IJSC) organised by Nihongo Kaiwa Kyookai Society. On a day off, I travelled to Tsukuba, and visited the Geological Museum in AIST. This is the biggest and only museum of its type in Japan, and has always been on my bucket list. It was my first time in a foreign country and travelling on my own to a place I have always wanted to visit was an emotional moment for me. There’s a replica of a fold from Jurrasic Age, in front of which I always wanted to take a picture of. And I did!

Anusha’s rock collection

In the television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon Cooper is famous (or infamous) for saying geology is not a real science. How would you refute him?

Oh, right. This one. I don’t think it’s advisable to go into an argument with Sheldon Cooper, but if I had to anyway, I’d like to remind him what “science” means- an endeavour to understand. There’s no such thing as “real” science, in my opinion. Something is either science, or it isn’t- in which case, it might be pseudoscience. It’s least to say that geological phenomena exist- we wouldn’t even be here if tectonism didn’t operate! Geology is indeed interdisciplinary, but it is also a science in itself. I might have overused the word “science” too many times, but I hope it explains the point.

How would you say art and science combines in the field of geology? What do you think of this combination?

I like to call my subject e(art)h science, because there’s so much art in it! I can never imagine geology without all the visual art there is in it- from the thin sections, to the stratigraphy, from crystallography and mineral structures, to palaeontology (macro- and micro-). You can see fractals in real life when looking at the Digital Elevation Models of mountain ranges, or the sutures of an extinct ammonite fossil, or the Fibonacci spiral structural of the Nautilus. I don’t have to mention how beautiful and exquisite the geodes and crystals look. Rock outcrops have a beauty of their own. However, thin sections are my favourite. Rocks are made of minerals, and minerals have different optical properties. What this essentially means, is that light interacts very differently with them. Fun fact! A rock is sliced to as thin as 0.035 mm to be able to study their mineral composition under a microscope.

Pyroxenite: Large crystals of pyroxene in Pyroxenite in XPL. Magnification: 50x, Photo By: Anusha Banerjee

(With jargon: Most minerals are anisotriopic- meaning they have different refractive indices along different directions- and in order to differentiate them, a regular transmitted-light microscope is usually not enough. For this, geologists use a special “polarising” microscope. First the light passes through a “polariser”, which allows light to vibrate only in one specific direction. An “analyser”, or second polariser changes the quality and direction of this light wave. With the help of a rotating stage, minerals are seen to have various “interference” colours- which very simply are the wavelengths of light they intercept.)

(Without jargon: Most minerals have a complicated crystal structure and can’t be differentiated using a regular microscope. Geologists use special “polarising” microscopes to identify the various minerals of a thin section. Under a polarising microscope, a special filter (called “analyser”) reveals the hidden colours of these minerals).

It’s truly magical.

Would you say the mundane world around you has changed since you began studying geology?

Entry into the world of geology is a one-way ticket. Once you are in love with the subject, you start seeing it everywhere. You start seeing it in the mineral grains of the “granite” tabletops of your kitchen- spoiler alert! These “granites” are not always granites – or the marble flooring of your house. Trips to the beach mean looking at the shape of ripples and understanding how the currents led to their formation. Travelling to the mountains mean understanding what rock type they might be made of and understanding the tectonism which led to their formation.

My gallery is often full of pictures of the rock slabs which make up an ancient temple complex, or polished slabs on Metro pillars. But most importantly, geology is more than just rocks, petroleum, or coal. Geology is a way of life. Once you start viewing how the Earth works and realise our place in it- you start to understand things on a deeper level, especially the greatest ongoing crisis at hand- climate change, and what it means for our species. In short: it’s not good news.

What form of artistic expression fits best in showcasing the beauty of geology?

Photography and painting! We’ve all become natural history illustrators (of rocks, fossils, and thin sections) in class some or the other time. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here. My favourite e(art)h science pages are @drrhcmadden (rock samples), @alexstrekeisen (rock microscopy) and @linajakaite (3D geologic artwork) on Instagram.

Finally, what’s your favourite rock? Why?

Thin section of Anusha’s favourite rock, Olivine Basalt: In XPL. Magnification: 100x. Photo by: Anusha Banerjee

I had to think about this for the longest time. There are quite a lot of interesting rocks out there, but I guess my favourite would be basalt. This rock is formed by the solidification of lava on the surface, and is abundant on the Earth, Mars and the Moon. At places, it forms a particularly interesting hexagonal-column-like structure- these are called columnar joints and I think they’re very cool! Another reason I love this rock is because even though it looks dull and uninteresting on the surface, the thin sections reveal their beautiful colours!

For more on Anusha, visit her Instagram account. And stay tuned for a secret project she is working on!

In Conversation: Sneha Bharadwaj

Sneha Bharadwaj is a professional Indian classical dancer and has, over many years, established a Bharatnatyam scene in Munich, Germany. She graduated from Bangalore University with a bachelors degree in choreography, and later, from Bharatidasan University with a master’s degree in fine art. A recipient of many prestigious awards, Sneha has performed at various dance festivals in and around India, Germany, USA, France, Switzerland, Poland and other countries. She is also trained in Indian Martial Arts and Yoga. She is the founder and artistic director of the Indian dance school & company in Munich, ‘Abhinaya Indischer Tanz’ and ‘Abhinaya Tanz Kampani‘. By empowering through art, she hopes to continue celebrating South Asian art in Europe in all its glory.

In the second part of the In Conversation series, I spoke to Sneha about the art form she excels in, the highs and lows of it, and if the combination of science and dance is an arena that can be successfully explored.


How and when were you inspired to take up dancing as a hobby?

It was my mom`s dream to dance and she wanted me explore movements…for as long as I remember we both use to swirl and twirl to music, and she saw me the happiest when music was on and I jumped to express. With a busy school schedule, dance became a part of me. I was 5 when I started my formal training in Indian Classical Dance Bharatanatyam, under Late Guru (teacher) H.K.Raj who nurtured me into a dancer that I am today.

Do you remember the moment when you decided to pursue it professionally?

The process to pursue Art as my profession was very organic. I PROUDLY took up Art in the university…but the path, in the beginning, was scary. You see, socially, art is still not a valid profession because of the financial viability and no laid out career path, and so very early on I realized uncertainty is what you sign up for when you say you want to live a creative life.

Your question made me look back and I cannot pinpoint to a particular moment as when I decided to pursue it as my profession; art has been my constant companion, my happiness. 

What would you say is the most exciting part of your art? Is there a mundane/difficult aspect to it as well?  

Everything! The highs and the lows of creative process. Perhaps the most difficult part for me is the emotions. We artists work with our emotions, which are sometimes our own and sometimes the story or the particular character that we are working on and at some point, it does get exhausting to carry intellectual emotions and emotional empathy of a subject all through. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there is no particular login and log out in a creative process.

Whenever I experience feelings of discomfort in my life, I need to find an answer by transforming those feelings into my art. As much fun as I have in the studio, I take my role as an artist very seriously and I think being socially and politically aware of my surroundings is very, very important.

Choreographing is always like bringing new characters and stories to life and even parts of ourselves to stage. My storytelling arcs rely largely on research, community, and lived experience to form what I call a kind of constellation. And when the time comes to stop or to exhibit, I never really finish; all my works constantly grow in me, as the more you try to say, the more there is to tell. It is all about weaving a thought you have into a tapestry for others to see and be moved by.

If someone who isn’t well versed in Indian Classical Dance asked you to explain your art form (Bharatanatyam) to them in 3 or 4 sentences, what would you say?

Bharatanatyam is one of the major tradition of performing arts in India. It originated in the temples of India. The classical dance form Bharatanatyam is a profound synthesis of aesthetics, philosophy, sculpture, movements, poetry and literature. The art form is a mirror for ethics, laws, and the functioning of the society of today and of the past. It gathers all these strands and sets them in motion.

As someone who has pursued art professionally for a large part of their life, have you tried exploring the scientific aspect of your work? If, that is, you believe there is a scientific aspect to dance?

We live in a world of motion, energy, space, and time. Certainly, there is physics in dance…Bharathanatyam and Classical Ballet is an orchestration of the pull of the earth and freedom of space. It is indeed interesting when an analysis of physics is added to dance but I haven’t explored in depth. I hope to work on this path in the near future. 

What emotional and physical benefits does dance have on our body? Have you experienced these benefits within yourself?

I always approach my work at 3 levels:

On a physical level (Adibhuta), dancing is similar to that of other cardio activities — it works on all planes of the body, including lateral and rotational, which in turn conditions all muscles.

On an emotional level, (Adidaiva) it is an instrument to express, as it allows you to express every drop of emotion, to feel, and to unapologetically be yourself.

On a philosophical level, (Adhyatma), it is a journey inwards. By completely absorbing our attention for a long or short magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are.

Sat-Chit-Ananda is the term I always try to see in my every practice and performance where,

Sat – To be present

Chit – One with the Art

Ananda – untainted bliss 

Do you believe we can use dance forms to communicate scientific concepts and increase accessibility to science?

Art is about connecting with people’s emotions. It’s personal and at the same time, universal.

In art forms, we are telling stories and stories should have characters and characters should have emotions. As I have mentioned, art is not just an intellectual process but also an emotional process. So if you are able to characterize or add emotions to science then it can be performed but it won’t stand as an epic work.

Science, the law of nations, constitution or commerce, economics, etc, when highly anthropomorphized and personified, can be brought to art. Just with pure dance (termed as Nritta) one can depict many scientific concepts (gravity, the structure of atoms etc.) but it will be a visual representation. One can definitely communicate scientific theory through art, but they would not become entertainment unless you humanize them.

Science concerns itself purely with the material world (Adibuta), while art transcends one from the material world to beliefs and emotions (Adhidaiva) and graduates to the philosophical world (Adhyatma).

Of course, experiments and science can be communicated through art forms like dance, but one needs to balance it, as there is a huge difference between the intellectual and emotional sphere. As a choreographer, you have to be very careful: you must make sure the science is not incorrect and that the art form still makes an impact on the heart.

If you had the chance to work with a scientist(s) to produce a show that revolves around a scientific concept, which field of science would you choose and why?

I believe an artist’s role is almost that of an alchemist. If I had to choose a scientific field, it would be physics; collaborating with the ideas that encompass both dance and physics is definitely worth the effort. 

Learn more about Sneha here and also connect with her to witness more of her art!

Review: The Only Story

Julian Barnes’ latest novel (2018) is every bit a love story, but in more ways than one, not. In this very long story that spans decades, there is love lost and love gained, love given and love taken. There is filial love, romantic love, unrequited love and pure lust. And our narrator, Paul, reflects on all these kinds of love; all the myriad kinds of love he has experienced in his lifetime.

But as we fail to recognise initially, The Only Story is also about anger and about trauma, about anger as a result of trauma and trauma as a result of anger. It is about the various pitfalls of adulthood and the naivete of adolescence, and it is about loss, tangible and intangible. All of it, borne and witnessed by someone madly, deeply and irrevocably in love.

The Only Story opens with university first year Paul (19), visiting his family in suburban London over summer. His mother has signed him up for the local tennis clubs, in the hopes that her son might meet some beautiful ladies. Paul heads there reluctantly, and meet some ladies he does. Only it’s a lady, Susan (48), who is married with two adult offspring. At this point, the novel is all too predictable: Susan’s marriage is in shambles; Mr. Elephant Pants — as her husband is lovingly called – is a morbidly obese alcoholic and a fantastic villain. Paul is young and rebellious, and he is reveling in masculinity. Paul believes that beautiful Susan (who is also wise and nothing like the rest of her ‘played out generation’) needs to be rescued.

And so follows a relationship that is for the tabloids and village gossip. While Susan is never too vocal about the relationship, Paul is far from ashamed. In fact, he wishes his relationship was even more scandalous. Little does Paul know that he would be in it for a lifetime, and that the consequences of his first and only love are beyond his comprehension.

The Only Story, Julian Barnes © 2020

It doesn’t take a lot of intellect to realise Paul and Susan’s relationship will go downhill and eventually end. The real mystery lies in the when and the why. Why did Paul believe Susan needed rescuing? What happened when they ran away to London? When did Susan first resort to the whiskey? The answers are hard to find: Paul is somewhat of an open book and Susan remains an enigma throughout their tale. No one, friend or for, ever knew Susan. Consequently, there are either vague answers given by a man in love, or no answers at all. Paul frantically searches for explanations and answers as well, but time is precious when you are watching a loved one succumb to alcoholism and you are helpless.

As put by The Globe and Mail, the characters in the book end up nowhere (unless they die). But Barnes’ writes exceptionally, knitting an elaborate tale out of a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. Paul, now half a decade later, draws endless conclusions about love and its exploits, which when listed out, seem overly pretentious. More often than not, I found myself saying, “No one asked for your two cents.”

However, amidst pages of long due realisations, there are two worth thinking about: first, “most love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger”, and second, the lifelong power of prehistory on our relationships.

In the end, Barnes’ magnificent narration is what keeps the novel engaging, in spite of the lack of a significant plot twist or a dramatic cliffhanger. Perhaps, the cleverest device he uses is the shift of pronouns: Paul goes from “I” to “you” to “he” the farther he drifts from his relationship and the more estranged he gets from Susan. The anachronistic structure of the book, without emphasis on any specific event, is also intelligent, as it focuses on painting a larger picture of society and its perceptions of love.

I’d ask prospective readers to choose this book at their own risk: read it only if you are interested in the musings of a fifty something man as he looks back on his love story, his only story.

In Conversation: Haseeb Ahmed

The overlap between science and art is extremely large. In more ways than one, science and art are two sides of the same coin. Apart from glaring similarities in their principles, art is perhaps one of the most organic ways of communicating science (in my humble opinion). Through a series of interviews with my friends, colleagues and mentors, called “In Conversation”, I aim to explore this amalgamation of science and art and highlight all the times science and art converge in our daily lives without us actively realising it.

In the first installment of this series, I’ve interviewed Haseeb Ahmed, who, alongside being a dear friend and a self-declared film critic, is a bourgeoning physicist and a photographer. We talked about his major, his scientific interests and photography. He broke down the science behind some of his photographs and we discussed the prevalence of physics in photography and finally, the importance of photography to mankind.


What inspired you to study physics? Was there a specific moment that sparked an interest in you or was more like a slow process?

There was never really a eureka moment. I always liked science as a kid and enjoyed reading encyclopaedias. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I received this electronic Lego set and I built some basic robots out of those; that was an interesting experience. I joined university as an electrical and computer engineering major but after my first year and after having taken some physics courses, I changed my major to physics and here we are. So, you could say it was a slow process.

Could you describe, in one sentence, the most exciting aspect of what you studied?

I think it’s very simple; everyone is curious to know how the universe and stuff around them works and that was also what was interesting for me.  

What about picking up photography as a hobby – how and when did that start?

I picked up photography when I was around 16. It was a free summer and I was looking for things to do or learn, and flipping through magazines and articles, great photographs caught my attention. I also came across the blog of a physicist turned photographer, Ming Thein and his consistency and style really inspired me. Over time, I got myself a small camera and started experimenting. I’ve always wanted to take part in something artistic and have some sort of creative output, and photography suited me best. I think I still have my first photograph somewhere around here.

As someone who has an eye for things/scenes/situations to photograph, could you recount a memory you have of something you looked at and immediately felt like you had to capture it?

A few years ago, my family and I went on this vacation among the mountains, and at some point, while we were driving there, I witnessed a scene where a strong sun beam was shining down on a river, which was flowing through a very steep valley. I remember asking my dad to stop the car so I could take a picture!

Has there ever been a moment, in your career, where physics and photography have intertwined, to create something meaningful?

That was when I was experimenting with astrophotography and took time lapses in the middle the night. It kind of gave me the opportunity to witness the motion of the universe…and I was also able to relate some things we had actually learned in class.

Why do you think photography is important to mankind?

Photography documents our lives. We’ve been recording our lives for the longest time and visual forms of this recording has always been important. I think anyone can take up photography and learn how to capture valuable moments. With a photograph, you can take a mundane subject and turn it into something worth remembering.


“Spectre”, Haseeb Ahmed, 2016

Tell me about this picture: the moment, the inspiration, all that.

The idea for the photograph started out when I was bored actually. It was pretty late into the night and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I set up my tripod to try something new.

Could you, as a physicist and a photographer, break down the science behind this picture? How did you capture the person at the computer in a blur, but the rest was all still?

Cameras basically operate by opening and closing a shutter and letting light fall onto a sensor(or film if you’re old school). If you’re trying to take a photograph of people in general everyday activities for example, you want to keep the shutter open for a few microseconds at most, since at those timescales, we seem to be frozen in place. Keep the shutter open for too long, and you get blurry photographs. Motion blur is usually seen as a nuisance but here by using a camera set up on a tripod and keeping the shutter open for a few seconds, I’m deliberately trying to add it to the photograph whilst keeping everything around me still.

Is there any artistic meaning behind this photo?

The motion amidst the static objects adds another element to the photo, a temporal moment. In a way, it conveys how fleeting any moment it.


“Through The Looking Glass”, Haseeb Ahmed, 2017

I have similar questions about this photo as well. Tell me about the moment you decided to capture whatever was happening around you and tell me about the science behind this picture.  

My mom was visiting me (in Bremen, Germany) and my host family and I were showing her around. And the thing about me is that when I go out, I often fall back from the group to take a few pictures or capture a moment that catches my eye. This is one of those pictures.

I like working with light, reflection and motion for my photographs and the many reflections   on these glass panes from the light falling on them made the scene other worldly, and added a feeling of ambiguity to it. There are all these figures you can’t make out on the right while on the left, you can see the ‘real world’. All of these elements put together made the moment worth taking a picture of.

Is there any artistic meaning behind picture as well?

It felt like there was a portal to another dimension and it looked like people were moving through that portal. You can’t see the people clearly; it’s as if they are in some sort of a transition and that was what seemed artistic to me.

Take a look at some more of Haseeb’s photography here.

Onwards and Upwards: 3 years and 1 journey later

Are you even a blogger-aspiring writer if you don’t write about your personal growth and experiences to share with a barely existing audience? I don’t know if I am, but this is something I am going to look back on, a few years down the line, and I’m putting this up on the internet, if you want to read it and draw even an ounce of motivation from it.

Graduation from an institution where one completes their undergraduate studies is not the greatest accomplishment in the world, nor is it worth endless appreciation and applause. It is an entirely different experience for everyone, in every generation of college students. But it is worth something — perhaps, a recognition for transitioning into adulthood and cultivating the ability to at least try to overcome the challenges life throws at us.

Three years ago, my choice to pursue an undergraduate degree in a place far from the comfort of home (but still incredibly comfortable), gave me the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and create an identity for myself — an identity that was still true to myself but past the trauma of my early adolescent years.

Campus Green, Jacobs University Bremen. Photo by: Haseeb Ahmed

In the beginning, things were more complex and volatile than I had ever imagined, and my deliberate, desperate attempts at changing my personality for the better were failing miserably. I was not going anywhere I wanted to be, I did not have a promising group of friends and my over-the-top university romantic comedy dream was nowhere close to being fulfilled. Top that up with advanced level organic chemistry no one prepared me for, a literal plethora of people and sentiments from countries I couldn’t even name, a constant homesickness and a sprained ankle that confined me to bed for three weeks. Quite naturally, within five months of being at university, I plunged into a kind of profound, confusing sadness; one that made me lock my doors and windows and hole myself up for hours on end.

But that, I can proudly say, is a thing of the past. With the understanding that only I could demolish the romanticised university experience I’d constructed for myself, I took a step back and realised that this here, was a group of people who knew nothing about my past and that they saw only what I showed them in the present. I could, in theory, be unabashedly myself and no one would know if I’d changed from the past or not. It took me a while to completely implement this: every time I made any sort of mistake, I felt the need to explain myself to someone, to show that I could do better, that I was better. I didn’t have to. We all err, and we all ask ourselves “why did I do that?”, but that’s an entirely personal conversation.

And that epiphany, I think, was really the turning point of my short university life. I did what I wanted, I liked, loved and disliked anyone I wanted, I pursued whatever and whoever I wanted — all of it, without hurting myself or the people around me. My unapologetic and somewhat fearless expression of myself brought me closer to the people I appreciated and needed, and took me away from those I didn’t. And today, I’m extremely happy with the people I am taking with me beyond the gates of the university.

During this process of learning about all that I was capable of and all that I wasn’t and throwing myself to things I loved, I fell in love with planning and organising, networking and applying. I fell in love with what my career could bring me if I prioritised, planned and executed. Some extremely ambitious friends and my professors propelled me further. This newfound appreciation and ambition put me on a path that is beautifully tailored for me, and even though traversing it is not going to be easy, I am truly and madly excited to do so.

Nearly everything about the intercultural and competitive environment that my university is set in, accumulated over time to make me the person I have become. And wherever I go next, I don’t think I’ll have to try so hard to ‘turn over a new leaf’ anymore.

And who thought we’d graduate amidst a pandemic? Photo By: Usharvi Basu

At this point, I don’t want to give out unsolicited advice; I am no motivational speaker and I haven’t conquered anything much in life. However, I do want to say this: university is a little crazy and lots of wonderful. It’s difficult, without question. But what’s on the other side, doesn’t matter for now, because it’s important — imperative, almost — to take, understand and cherish every day of the journey. And the worst of times will get better, if you work for it. You truly have to be the change you want to see in your life and also the world.

So, in conclusion, through many conventional and unconventional firsts, waves of confusion and sadness mixed with ecstasy and love, unspeakable (false) rumours, buckets full of all kinds of tears, high school like infatuations, grades that I’m proud of and not proud of, and, finally, odd amounts of spontaneity, I made it. It’s a bittersweet feeling: the past three years have given me space to fail, learn and grow and has kept me unscathed by the brutal world outside, but now, and rightly so, it’s time to move on.

Oh, and I found my rom-com dream, in case you were wondering.


P.S. This is what I wrote when I first moved to University: https://themisfitssite.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/the-unusual/ (cringe)

Review: Salvage The Bones

Salvage The Bones is a visceral, true to reality novel of a poor family of six in the eye of the storm – Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the United States of America in August 2005. The costliest tropical cyclone on record, the aftermath of the storm was nothing short of catastrophic. After having taking nearly 2000 lives and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in material damage, Katrina displaced almost one million people in the gulf coast region [1].

Salvage The Bones is also a story of love in the ugliest of places, filial affection amidst gut-wrenching poverty and strength where there is no strength to find.

Esch is 15. Esch and her brother, Randall are default parents to their youngest brother Junior, who doesn’t know what it’s like to have a mother. Esch adores her brother Skeetah, who in turn, only has eyes for his prized pit bull, China — so much so that he often sleeps in the dog shed. Esch is also pregnant and the father of the child won’t look Esch in the eye, won’t acknowledge Esch.

As the motherless family that lives among abandoned cars and chickens prepares for the disaster that’s about to hit them, there are other matters at hand that need to be dealt with first: an alcoholic father, a basketball match that could give Randall a much longed for scholarship, illegal pit bull matches, and a not so secret teenage pregnancy. But for the Baptiste children, it’s all going to be okay, because all that matters in the end is their unbreakable relationship with each other.

Jesmyn Ward writes like she’s not afraid, like she wants to rip open wounds. She uses extremely powerful prose and sets graphic scenes; so graphic that you will shudder in disgust and get carried away in the deluge of it. But this graphic setting is important, because it forms the backbone of Esch’s world. In Esch’s world, there’s parallels with China, because China is a mother and a fighter and that’s what Esch wants to be.

“She is her mother’s daughter. She is a fighter. She breathes.”

– Salvage the bones

Esch is an unlikely heroine, unlike the teenage girl stereotypes we are faced with. She’s the kind of heroine that strikes a chord in you, one that you’re going to root for even when the book is over, one that the world needs right about now.

From forceful depictions of reality, Ward dives into poetic metaphor, describing everything, from Oak trees and magnolias and the wood, to Esch’s undying love for the father of her child, Manny. “Seeing him broke the cocoon of my rib cage, and my heart unfurled to fly.”

But this book’s most striking feature is not Esch’s confusing yet love-filled world, but Skeetah’s undying passion for his beloved dog, China, feelings that are mutual. Here, the story is about the unconditional bond forged between a man and his dog. Ward is a magician in describing the relationship that Skeetah and China have.

Ward’s expression is so vivid and raw that you will feel the sultry heat of the fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage stick to your skin and you will feel the ache of unrequited love in your heart. When the storm finally arrives, what Esch calls home — The Pit — is home no more, but war zone. Ward, who lived through Katrina herself, describes the storm with never seen before intensity; an intensity that almost hurts. When the sky is finally clear and the residents step out of the debris, you cannot help but imagine yourself standing in the rubble. And from Katrina too, Esch draws inspiration, for she is a female with unprecedented strength.

“Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

– Salvage the bones

Salvage The Bones is an urgent book, a book that, above everything, unties the box known as privilege. In times like these, Ward’s narrative stands out because she has a story to tell, and she wants the monstrosity to show. She demands strong emotions from the reader. Ward does not shy away from having an uncomfortable conversation whilst also drowning you in poetry, and in the process, she creates a masterpiece.

~Ushashi

[1] https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/hurricane-katrina

Review: Origin

Each time Dan Brown writes a new book, he speaks in detail of a new socio-religious conundrum or an unanswered question at the cusp of Science and Religion: the usual these things that make his books worth waiting for. What’s the question going to be? But then you hear “Robert Langdon” and your expectations lower a little bit.

It’s always exciting to learn what new race-against-time our favourite professor of ‘symbology’ is going to be involved in this time around, but the entire premise is a bit redundant – an overbearing amount of information on religious symbols, a guided tour of a historically relevant city and a gorgeous independent-not so-independent woman cast opposite Langdon (or Tom Hanks, as you like it). Origin, Brown’s latest addition to “The Adventurous adventures of Robert Langdon” is no different.

Origin, 2017

Langdon and his lady (here, Ambra Vidal, the director of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and engaged to the fictional Prince of Spain) aside, Origin’s co-protagonist is Edmond Kirsch, a futurist and an all-knowing master of technology. His predictions of the future have always been accurate and he has created technology beyond a 2017-human being’s perception or imagination. Kirsch is also a devout atheist and doesn’t shy away from publicly deriding and denouncing religion; he ardently believes that one day, the religion of science will dawn upon us. So, when he tells the leaders of the world’s religions that he has discovered something that will shatter the foundations of their faith and shake humanity to the core, you’re on the edge. Edmond’s dramatic narration in the first half builds up nearly all the adrenaline in your body.

But between Edmond’s introduction in the prologue and his much anticipated announcement, there’s almost a 100 pages of a very detailed and meticulous tour through the Guggenheim Museum. For those entirely uninterested in modern and abstract art, I suggest you skip.

Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, 2017. Photo By: Ushashi Basu

So let’s say you’ve finally arrived at the point where Kirsch appears out of smoke and is literally *this* close to his “stunning” reveal. Enter religious zealot hired by a shady, anonymous organisation who shoots Kirsch in the head and runs. What follows is the most intriguing yet boring plot ever: a high-stakes chase through Spain’s coveted tourist spots, explained like you were on a Wikipedia page.

For nearly 7 pages in the middle of a hunt, Brown describes Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, its architecture, its history, its social influence, its contribution to…you get the point. And Sagrada Familia isn’t the only one victim to Brown’s exposition – there’s the Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Royal Palace in Madrid, bridges in Budapest, Winston Churchill, Antoni Gaudi and so on. Every time there’s something like that, you hit a lull in your reading momentum.

You get there though, to Kirsch’s discovery. And by the time you get there, there’s also almost 200 million people tuning into the revelation, thanks to Edmond’s posthumous fame and Ambra, the future queen of Spain.

The discovery is beautifully penned and unquestionably explained. Brown has done more than enough research and it’s visible. Here, there are no loopholes and all the pieces of the puzzle fit. The questions Brown addresses are questions we’ve all asked at some point: Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Edmond Kirsch, however, makes it sound like this is something entirely unprecedented and that our fundamentals as human beings will be doubted. After nearly 400 pages of stalling, exploring and feeling foolish every time Kirsch’s research was mentioned, you hear what Kirsch had to say, albeit through a pre-recorded presentation. But it isn’t as crazy as it’s made out to be. Anyone with the knowledge and memory of high-school biology and any technological skill whatsoever would’ve been able to tell. Once you sort of crack one code, it all seems rather obvious (this includes the identity of the anonymous caller). It is commendable though: Brown keeps you guessing even though you knew the answer all along.

In retrospect, if Brown had really written a discovery that would’ve shaken us, he’d have received much more media attention than he is used to.

Dan Brown exaggerates and uses hyperbole all too much. He pulls a lot of things out of proportion and gives us part-novel, part fact-sheets. Instead of using character development, he uses 2-pages of modifiers to establish his characters. But he also brings to light questions that are central to human existence and our civilisations and writes a book that’s well paced and factually accurate. And through the good and the bad and the predictability, Brown’s books are as entertaining as ever.

A Pandemic, Digitalisation and Us

So here we are — in the 4th month of the new decade, a year where we all thought we had 2020 vision. But things couldn’t have possibly gone anymore astray. We’re caught in the middle of something that is spreading by leaps and bounds and will undoubtedly change the course of our lives, society and the future.

The first wave of COVID-19 news came in January, after having been identified in December 2019. But in January, we were worrying about the Australian bush fires and discussing Brexit.

And before we knew it and at a speed we are all still trying to fathom, the virus was everywhere. Literally everywhere, resulting in this global health emergency. It was declared a pandemic by WHO on the 11th of March.

COVID-19 is the name that has been coined to refer to the respiratory illness caused by the novel Coronavirus, also known as the Sars-CoV-2. Indicative symptoms include shortness of breath and dry cough, accompanied by fever and fatigue. Whether the disease is air-borne is still under debate, but it has been confirmed to be spreading through close contact and respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs [1], and is most contagious when the person is symptomatic [2]. As much as we all are vulnerable to the virus, senescent people and people with underlying medical conditions are at the forefront. Not to forget all the healthcare workers, who are constantly in contact with those exhibiting symptoms.

As a result, the scientific community, universities and biological companies across the world have come together at an unprecedented speed to understand the virus and to develop a vaccine that could bring things back in control.

But then again, aren’t so many things about this entire situation unprecedented? It’s overwhelming and just the right amount of chaotic.

And here’s why: the mass digitalisation we’re all subject to. This is our battle not only with a virus (that you can kill with soap, when outside your body) but also digitalisation.

Because of the pandemic, we’re all more connected than ever. Our potential — as creatures who’ve developed this level of connectivity and as organisms who will stay connected with each other no matter what — is being realised at a behemoth scale. With every online class and midterm, with every online homeschooling lesson, with every grandma calling her grandchildren, with every star live-streaming their concert, the world is becoming a little more connected; each of these activities reinforces the fact that no one is too young or old to learn how to use technology. We’re all learning through innovation and creativity. It’s almost Utopian on certain levels. Alan Rusbridger, chair of the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, has described this as an opportunity for people to imagine “a world recast through virtual networks.” [3]

We’re all trying our level best to keep up with one another and loved ones; the situation has given me the chance to reconnect with people I thought I’d never hear from again. And I’m sure we’ve all discovered that there’s nothing that we used do on a regular basis that we cannot do online (all those meetings that could have been emails…).


But to every bright and beautiful thing, there is a deep seated ugliness. And this time around, this ugliness is disguised as misinformation and panic. Thanks to the entire internet at our fingertips, immense amounts of time in our hands and uncertainty induced fear in our heads, misinformation is on a rampage.

As if daily updates from the WHO, our work institution and news outlets weren’t enough, there’s unsolicited chain messages on WhatsApp, conspiracy theories (fun to read, not to believe) and our friendly neighbourhood YouTuber ready to inform us of something new and share with us opinions, when all that matters right now are facts, correct scientific facts. In a time where we don’t know how each day is going to turn out, panic because someone couldn’t hold their breath for more than 10 seconds is the last thing we need [4].

Avoiding misinformation may seem difficult — how do you separate wheat from chaff? Almost everything on the internet seems reliable and there is always the looming trap of confirmation bias.

Trust the experts. Trust the experts writing for established sources – The New York Times, The Guardian, the World Health Organisation etc. Trust in science. If any piece of information seems even slightly off, cross-check it with these sources. And most importantly, treat the misinformation like the virus and don’t pass it on [5]. It’s really not that difficult to tell fake news apart — drinking truck loads of alcohol is NOT going to disinfect our systems.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best.

It is imperative that we use the means of communication at our disposal in the right ways – to work from home, catch up with friends over video calls, watch Netflix and stay optimally informed – not too much, not too little.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best. How we emerge from this pandemic could change how we communicate in the future, and this change is going to be for the better.

Use these mediums to spread positivity, if anything. Emphasize the need to stay at home, share with people how you’re keeping yourself entertained during isolation. Articulate through videos and messages that every single one of us has the power to save the world and that our social responsibility is greater than we can imagine. This is our chance to live our childhood dreams of becoming a superhero, crazy as that may sound. This is not just about protecting ourselves, but also our communities and everyone around us. Highlight the fact that collective decisions we make today will impact millions of people in the next year. [6]

All of this will pass and we will be reunited. None of our brunch mimosas or arcade dates are going anywhere. Everything will fall back into place but in due time. And the sooner we mutually agree on that, the better. And among the many things we will gain out of this, our understanding of human relationships will particularly stand out. We will love each other a little more, hate each other a little less. We will cancel fewer plans and we will worry less.

About a very distant image of the Earth, Carl Sagan said, “…it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” It couldn’t be more appropriate than it is today.

Pale Blue Dot, as taken from the Voyager Space 1 probe, 1990


References:

[1] https://www.livescience.com/how-long-coronavirus-last-surfaces.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronavirus_disease_2019

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/29/coronavirus-fears-rediscover-utopian-hopes-connected-world

[4] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

[5] https://medium.com/@alicefleerackers/covid-19-misinformation-more-viral-than-any-virus-a3b4d3e07890

[6] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/196496/coronavirus-pandemic-could-have-caused-40/

Review: A Man Called Ove

In 6th grade, my friend told me that “cute” wasn’t really an adjective, that anything could be cute without any meaning. But if someone asked me to describe A Man Called Ove in one word, I would, without question choose “cute”. It is nothing but heart-achingly cute.

Frederick Backman’s 2014 debutante was not an instant hit: nobody really wanted to read the story of a Swedish curmudgeon waiting on his death. The book only became popular by word-of-mouth; someone must have read it and told all his acquaintances, “You have to read this book! Ove is horrible but you’ll love him!”

A Man Called Ove, 2014

Ove (pronounced “Oove-eh”) is a despicable man doing despicable things in his neighbourhood — kicking cats, calling people names, barking orders and thinking everyone is complete idiot. Simply put, he hates everyone and everything. He’s never known anything beyond his principles and his routine. All of this grumpy and inflexible behaviour changes however, when a noisy family of four moves in next to him, and knocks on Ove’s door at every step of the way. Suddenly, Ove’s quiet

life turned upside down and he is doing things he’d always grumbled about. The matriarch-like figure in the house next door, Parvaneh, makes it her responsibility to thaw Ove’s heart the minute she meets him and the relationship that evolves is incredibly heartwarming.

Over 340 pages, Ove’s story beautifully unfolds, going back to a time when his life wasn’t as black and white as you’d initially make it out to be. There is longstanding sadness and frustration within him and beneath the many layers of anger, there is softness, warmth and a soft spoken man who was once in deep,deep love. How he got to his present state is a detail I will not indulge in. I must mention Ove’s relationship with his wife, because it will, undoubtedly restore your faith in the immense amount of love we’re all capable of, loyalty and strength, especially in times of adversity.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.”

A MAN called Ove

Backman writes with a tone of softness that is contagious. There is simplicity in his prose, making the book an emotional yet light read. He knows just when and how to pull at your heart strings and when you make you laugh. The balance between sadness and happiness in the book is almost perfect.

Although the book doesn’t take the reader through much of a journey, the journey here is Ove’s; it is his coming-of-age story, albeit at 59. All sorts of endearing, A Man Called Ove creates a soft spot in your heart and a filial bond with Ove. It’s one of those books you cannot predict anything about after having read only a few pages but it is also those books you cannot give up on. Once you get a glimpse into the gears inside Ove’s mind, you’ll want to see the book to the end.

A Man Called Ove is a book about love and loss, frustration and triumph, confusion and clarity and breaking and fixing — all of which leaves you a bit fuzzy and sad on the inside. Pick this book up if you want to fly and cry through unconventional and conventional love in the most unlikely of people and places.