Fulbright Conference in Kolkata

Ritual bathers in the Hooghly River at sunset

Ritual bathers in the Hooghly River at sunset

I have just returned from Kolkata (nee Calcutta), India. The US-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) hosted a three day conference for all South Asian Fulbright Scholars, i.e, those from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. (The security situation in Pakistan is such that the US does not send student Fulbrighters to Pakistan and the two faculty Fulbrighters in Pakistan could not obtain visas from the Indian government in time to attend the conference.)

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the trip very much. I say “much to my surprise” partly because Sri Lankans seem to have a pretty negative impression of India and they shared those impressions with me when I announced my plan to attend the conference. One of my physics colleagues, for example, insisted that  I take along an antibiotic effective against salmonella because, in his experience, I was certain to need it. My own doubts had to do with my feeling that bringing together nearly 75 people whose only commonality is that they are Americans on relatively long term visits to South Asia did not seem to make a good basis for lively conversations. Many of the Fulbright project titles seemed to me to be odd projections of Western values onto Asia. And I was the only physicist. And, worst of all, while the Fulbright program covered my travel costs, they could not afford to cover Kris’ travel costs. We did a cost/benefit analysis and decided that Kris would remain in Sri Lanka.

Sunset at Negombo, Sri Lanka

Sunset at Negombo, Sri Lanka

For no obvious reason, the  scheduled flights from Colombo to Kolkata are not very convenient. The airport in Sri Lanka is actually an hour’s drive north of Columbo and a two and a half hour drive from Kandy, in the town of Negombo. For the trip to Kolkata, I had to arrive at the airport three hours in advance of my 9:15AM flight. The first flight of the day was from Colombo to Bengalaru (nee Bangalore). There I would have a nine hour layover. The flight to Kolkata from Bengalaru made one stop in Hyderabad on the way. So, in all, I was not scheduled to get to the Kolkata airport until nearly 11PM. Of course there was then an additional hour’s drive to get to the hotel. So a bit of a brutal travel day was in store.

Kris had decided to do some shopping and sightseeing in Colombo while I was away and so we hired a car and driver to take us to Negombo the afternoon before the flight, where we spent the night at the Ice Bear Guesthouse (not recommended). Besides the airport, Negombo is a popular beach resort for tourists and the “home port” for some local fishermen. When we arrived, it was near sunset. The beach was being used as a park: children playing cricket or playing in the surf; young adults showing off for each other and talking together; adults keeping an eye on the proceedings. Very few tourists. I saw just three, sitting in lounge chairs close to the entraance to their hotel, looking out of place in their bathing suits and white, white skin. The last fishing boat was just finishing the day, stowing the lines, repairing the nets, rinsing salt water off of the outboard.

Awakened at 4:30AM the next morning, I sleepily dressed, shaved, packed, downed my pills, and Kris (brave and loyal soul that she is) and I went out to get some fruit and coffee in the guesthouse restaurant. The car came and I headed for the airport. Kris headed back to bed.

The first pleasant surprise turned out to be the airline. The airline is relatively new, called Kingfisher Airlines. The airline is owned by the Indian entrepreneur, Vijay Mallya, who, just the other day, paid millions at auction to bring some of Gandhi’s personal belongings back to India. Mallya has imitated some of the style of Richard Branson who started Virgin Atlantic Airline. I had no idea that airlines had “stars” in the way that hotels do, but Kingfisher Airlines is one of only six airlines in the world to be given five stars (the others are Asiana Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Cathay Pacific Airways). We had been pretty pleased with the service on the Sri Lankan Airlines flight we took from Singapore to Colombo, but, sure enough, Kingfisher was even better. Comfortable seats; individual in-flight entertainment systems; good, hot food on every leg of the flight. The flight attendants are all supposed to be “models”, hand picked by Mallya himself, but, while they were all women, they were all modestly dressed and very business-like. I suspect that calling them all “models” is the usual advertising hyperbole.

Statue of Queen Victoria, Kolkata

Statue of Queen Victoria, Kolkata

We also got a break with the nine hour layover in Bengalaru. The faculty were ready to set up shop in the airport and work on our laptops. However, one of the students announced that Bengalaru was his home town and invited all of us to crash at his family home for the nine hours. As an added inducement, it turns out that his brother is an honest-to-God movie star, having appeared as the lead in two recent hit movies in India. (No not Slumdog Millionaire. By the way, that movie should be rated X for the disturbing scenes of violence, especially those violent scenes that involve children. Absolutely do not take children to see this movie. And you might want to think carefully about seeing it yourself.)

We were traveling as a party of six and the vote was unanimous. We hired a van and driver and headed into the heart of Bengalaru. Mostly we “crashed” once we got to the house, but we did get to meet the movie star and admire his movie star girlfriend. The family cook served us an outstanding Southern Indian lunch and, of course, the house was way more comfortable than the airport waiting area. My limited impression of Bengalaru was that it was bustling and prosperous. There was good freeway between the city and the airport. The airport itself is brand new and very nice. Once again, here is a country that could teach US airport security people much about how to do security in a way that is more effective, more professional, and with much less aggravation for the passengers. Back in the air, eventually we arrived at the Kolkata airport. As at Bengalaru, the airport here was nice and the road into town was modern and high speed.

The next nice thing that happened to me was that upon arriving at the hotel, I was told that they were sold out of double rooms, so instead of having to share a room with another Fulbrighter, I was to be upgraded to a deluxe room on the top floor of the hotel. Nice! It was so swank that it had a little sign by the night stand that read: “Please let us know if you require the services of a Personal Butler.” However, the air conditioner was broken. The problem was that no matter what temperature I set the thermostat to, the air conditioning remained on “High.” It was glorious! And since I had no control, it was guilt-free! (I suppose I should feel a bit guilty for not bringing the malfunction to the attention of the hotel management, but, strangely, I do not.) I spent late evening hours “ventilating” with salubrious effects on my medical condition. I had not slept under a blanket in months and I slept like a baby.

Rickshaw driver in heat of day

Rickshaw driver in heat of day

Best of all of my good luck was that the conference turned out to be very interesting. I suppose that I should have guessed that a conference of Fulbrighters was a collection of outstanding students and faculty with an interest in meeting other people strong enough to drive them out of the comfort of their daily lives and travel as far away as you an get from the US and adopt a totally different life-style. I was especially proud of the students. They had some great and some off-beat projects. One student got to recycle that old joke when he said he was breeding camels “until they caught him at it.” Another of the Fulbright students is helping the Sri Lankans to set up a variant on 911 for medical emergencies. Another is examining slavery of Africans in South Asia and described how different it was from slavery in the US. (Not better, just much different.) All in all, many interesting projects and presentations that were well tailored to an audience with such a diverse range of expertise. It made me proud to be part of the Fulbright program. The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket players in Pakistan happened during the conference and, as you might expect, created quite a stir, especially just after the first reports when the fate of the Sri Lankans was not known.

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata

The last half of the last day was set aside for a sightseeing tour. They loaded us on air conditioned buses and we set out amidst very slow traffic through the streets of Kolkata. Our first stop was the Victoria Memorial which consists of a statue of Queen Victoria and a museum specializing in the colonial history of Kolkata. Then we went to the family home of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was the center of a thriving arts community in Kolkata during the late British colonial period. He was a writer, a playwright, a painter, a poet, a composer, and was Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. The home was a lovely compound of an obviously wealthy family. The home is now a museum and a university has been built around the home to honor Tagore’s legacy. Our last stop of the tour was on the banks of the Hooghly River. It was sunset and the spot where we stopped had a nice view of the sunset and a modern suspension bridge across the Hooghly. Clueless that I am, I assumed that we were simply stopping at a photogenic site. Then I noticed that the river banks were covered in debris, bit oddly amongst the debris were fresh flowers. As I am photographing the sunset, I notice some men come down and get into the river, immersing themselves. “It is hot, but not that hot!” I thought, looking at the dark river of dubious purity, but I duly recorded their actions. Then, a clue crept over me, tugging on my cortical neurons. I turned to an Indian colleague and said that I knew that the Ganges River is sacred to Hindus and that people ritually bath in it, but was there something sacred about the Hooghly also? He smiled and told me that this was the Ganges River and so was indeed sacred. The Ganges has an enormous delta, most of which is in the country of Bangladesh, but the Hooghly is a branch of the Ganges that happens to meet the sea at Kolkata. I was relieved when he assured me that I had not offended anyone by taking their pictures during their ablutions.

The trip back was long, but uneventful. I rather surprised myself by the unbidden thought that, while I had enjoyed myself at the conference, it would be good to get “home.” It made me wonder. Do I define “home” as wherever Kris is? Or have I started to feel that Dangolla/Kandy/Sri Lanka is “home,” or at least one of my “homes”?


P.S. As a footnote, the photos taken on this trip were taken with my “new” point-and-shoot camera, a Canon A590IS. Actually this was the camera that Kris bought to take along on our year abroad, but she came to feel that it did not fit her well. She is now the proud owner of an Olympus μ 1040 that she is much happier with. This change of cameras for Kris came when I asked Kris if I could take “her” camera to Kolkata since I was not sure that I wanted to lug all my camera gear to Kolkata when I was not sure whether there would be time or opportunities to take photos. So now the A590IS lives in my backpack in case photo ops occur during my day.

I have uploaded more photos of my Kolkata trip to my Picasa website.


1 Comment

  1. April 9, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    […] (Uncategorized) I acquired The Assault on Reason by Al Gore almost by accident. Coming back from the Fulbright Conference in Kolkata, we had a medium long layover in Bangalore. The airport has some nice duty free shops, though, […]

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