After spending a week in India hearing about it but having no formal conceptualization of what it meant, we had a talk addressing the elephant in the room: the caste system. Our speaker was Suguna Ramanathan, a mentor to Rita Kothari when she was a student and a Tamil Brahman from Tamilnardu. She spoke with the accent of a well-off British woman, though she claimed not to realize it when she was asked.
She began by reiterating the four main divisions in the caste system (in order from most revered to least): Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishas, Sudras. The so-called “untouchables” are not considered to be a part of this division. Caste is passed down along family lines, so, in the sense that caste may define class, there is much less social mobility in India than in the United States. Each caste is given a different set of duties to perform (dharma), and if a given person performs his duties well after death he may be reincarnated into a higher caste. The ultimate goal is to become so pure that one is never reincarnated, reaching a state known as moksha.
In the past, the untouchables as well as the Sudras (collectively known as “backward castes” by the government) faced much discrimination due to their low social status. Now, the bulk of the discrimination is excluded from urbanized settings, meaning that there finally exists a way to at least partly shed caste: move to the city. For all the opportunity that she had come from (provided by a spot in the highest caste in a region where that demanded respect), the plight of lower castes resounded quite firmly with Ramanathan. In her own hometown, 3% of the population (Brahmans) held 95% of the high-ranking government jobs when she was growing up (#OccupyTamilnardu). In later years, the oppressed lower castes rose out and kicked the Tamil Brahmins out of Tamilnardu, which Ramanathan said they probably deserved.
Nowadays there are special allowances for the backward castes, similar to affirmative action in The States. Spots are reserved in government jobs and even at the IITs in order to level the playing field in response to generations of discrimination. Needless to say, this is a pretty contentious issue amongst the IIT students, and many pointed out that financially successful members of the backward castes still held on to their special allowances even when it seemed that they were unnecessary. India will probably have a lot of work to do on that one in the next couple of years.
Our final session of the day addressed another potential point of conflict: religion. We had before us a panel representing four of the many religions found in India: Hiduism, Islam, and Christianity being the major ones and Parsi being a more minor religion. Each individual told us a brief bit about his or her religion, but did so in the context of modern India. None were extremely orthodox and seemed to portray a good representation of the average practitioner. There were plenty of stories about how each dealt with growing up with religion, but I’ll share the one that Jayson Mandalay (who is now an atheist) told us.
His brother married a Hindu woman. He made the decision to avoid Christian marriages partly because of a mandatory marriage info session run by his church, in which he was warned against acts of sex except for the purposes of procreation. And he wasn’t about to agree to that. Fast-forward to after the marriage, and Jayson’s mother is relatively pleased to a least see her older son married. Yet, she refuses to enter her daughter-in-laws parent’s house. As he told us this, Jayson chuckled, making it seem much more like an “oh, mom’s can be so crazy!” moment that we may deal with in the US than anything too serious.
At the conclusion of the panel, we were led up to the auditorium to once again rock out to some music. This time, though, instead of classical we had what was described as “music from the desert.” There were some pretty funky jams. Katherine and Margaret pulled me up into what quickly became American-only dance crowd as the Indian students watched us with poorly-hidden amusement. I wasn’t self conscious: I was just too in the groove.
The next day, we were rounded up for a trip to the Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhi stayed for a number of years during his movement. It was very cool and I learned some interesting things (for instance, Gandhi kicked his sister out of the Ashram when she wouldn’t accept the fact that untouchables were living there too), but I won’t bore you with the details of a trip to a museum.
That night, we were all invited over to Rita Kothari’s house to hang out and stuff our faces with the delicious food that she prepared. I wasn’t even that hungry, but I forced myself to eat, knowing that I would regret passing up the opportunity. From the Kothari household we journeyed to Law Garden, a street shopping district that caters mostly to women, but where vendors have no qualms about yelling at men to buy purses. I had no money with me (I just wanted to check it out), but when I told this to one guy who was trying to sell me a map, he stared at me for a second before saying “very nice joke, sir” and continuing his one-sided haggling.
When each of us had had our fair share of shopping, we ventured into a restaurant where I shared a “Mexican sandwich” and made my one error of the entire trip.
I drank a glass of tap water.
I kind of did a double take at the clean, bottled water sitting in front of me as soon as I had downed my original glass, and for a second I was pretty sure that I was going to die.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I headed back to campus and fell soundly asleep.
Alright, I know that I usually only do blog posts spanning two days, but I’ve only got two short days left to go over, so I’m just gonna keep going.
Our originally scheduled activity (visiting a tribal museum that was 4 hours away) was canceled due to time constraints, so instead we just chilled out for the day. At around noon, Eli and I wanted to toss around a Frisbee, but just as we were about to head out Brad came a-knocking at our door…
…And calmly informed us that the campus was on fire, yet no one seemed to care. We ran over to a nearby window from which we could see smoke pouring off of the grass across the street from our hostel. A few minutes later, a man half-heartedly dragged over a hose and began making some attempt at putting it out. They eventually got the fire out, but none of the students knew anything about the whole incident. The best answer we got was that snakes had plagued the campus, so maybe they were trying to solve the problem…by burning all of the grass.
In any case, after relaxing for a little while longer, we all piled into a bus one last time and took a trip into Gandhinagar to see a temple dedicated to Swaminarayan. Swaminarayan was a spiritual leader in the early 1800s who preached a philosophy that said man must make his own happiness. The entirety of the temple and surrounding grounds (which were enormous) were dedicated to indoctrinating visitors into this belief system. There was a talk about Swaminarayan’s early life. There was a video showcasing Swaminarayan’s fabled trip at age 14 across Mount Everest—without food or water for something like 30 days.
And he also prevented a wild lion from attacking him.
And he also pretty much showed up every spiritual figure wherever he went (but apparently none of them were angry about it).
Anyway, it was sort of an odd place in that on the one hand the purpose of the temple was to convince visitors (mainly children, at whom most of the features were aimed) to join a culture that shunned material goods and preached a philosophy of inner happiness. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but notice that the incredibly lavish temple and attractions seemed in direct opposition to this goal, as incredibly wealthy patrons of this philosophy solicited the donations necessary for construction. Yet another odd juxtaposition in India.
We concluded the day by having dinner at a pretty spiffy Indian restaurant right by the campus. Now, I don’t want to complain about any of the food that I had while in India: it was all delicious and this restaurant served among the best of it. But all these people kept on telling me how spicy food in India is. Even though we were in Gujarat, where things are sweet rather than spicy, plenty of the Indian students still told me that I just wouldn’t be able to handle the heat.
So I said bring it.
And after it was brought, I was pretty underwhelmed.
So, India, next time you wanna talk smack about how much capsaicin my taste buds can take, you better bring your A-game.
Cause I always do.
And so began our last day in India. We had a short session reflecting on the program itself and then, after our customary lunch, were given the rest of the day to simply relax.
Needless to say, we wheedled away the time tossing around a Frisbee with some of our Indian friends while the girls hit up Law Garden once more for some last minute shopping. While we boys were not in dire need of a purse, we did decide to make a brief stop at a nearby supermarket to take advantage of the obscenely low price of food one last time.
We made the most of our final night by playing poker (another game at which I got trounced by pretty much all of the Indian students) and just hanging out with each other in the boys’ hostel. Before long, our 1AM deadline arrived and we piled back into the same vans that had delivered us to IITGN 11 days before.
At the airport, we said our goodbyes, shared hugs and handshakes, and were off.
Now that I’m back in The States, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my experience in India. I won’t bore you by attempting to wax philosophic, but I think it’s worth saying that no matter how different the culture, language, and customs, the people that you meet in a foreign country always seem so familiar in some intangible way. College students are college students wherever you go and those friends that I made, both IITGN and Caltech students, are not ones whom I will soon forget.
Thanks once more to Jaison Manjaly for providing photographs.
Research at Caltech looks different for every student, and can often vary term by term. As a chemistry major, my course requirements are on the lighter side for a Caltech major, and many chemistry majors take advantage of the lighter course load to join research groups. This can be whenever the student wants, but many people join labs during their freshman or sophomore years. Some may work in one lab only, and some may switch between labs during the course of their undergraduate studies, depending on if their interests change.
SURF, short for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, is a quintessential experience for any Caltech student. It is a widely accessible research fellowship for Caltech students that funds your proposed research for one summer term. While many of my classmates did their first SURF the summer after their freshman year, I sent in my first application to the program as a sophomore. As a CS major, I was trying to chase meaningful work that intersected computation with the field of neuroscience. I ended up doing a SURF at the Stanford School of Medicine that first year, studying hand gestures in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Since then, I’ve been working in the research space of applying computational analyses to ASD.
This summer, from the confines of my Brooklyn apartment, you could find me typing away on a tiny 13-inch laptop screen. At times I was looking for answers on countless Stack Exchange pages, editing a Jupyter notebook, or making blood flow measurements on a software called Arterys. This was my 2021 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURF) experience.
Almost a year ago now, I was just about to start my first Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at JPL. NASA had sent out an email to all of their summer interns containing a social media template to announce that we had been selected as NASA interns. Excited to show my NASA pride, I posted it on my Instagram story, unaware of what would come out of this small action.