Tuesday, November 3, 2015

22nd Birthday Surprise


My dear friends,
I wanted to thank you all for making my birthday so special. You have no idea how much it means to me! This semester has been a whirlwind of crazy and confusing so far, so much so that some of you have only seen me in passing this year, zoning out over work in the dining hall. But there is SO much to celebrate about this year, and it meant a lot to celebrate with all of you in one place yesterday.
I have a box called my Happy Box that I open up on rainy days sometimes, full of notes and letters I've collected over the years from friends, family, teachers, employers, etc. that in some way remind me who I am, outside of my outside. The book of letters you all put together for me is like a little Happy Book in itself, and I can't express how much I needed your words last night.
My biggest fear on birthdays past, and the reason I annually (since birth) cry the day before, is that I feel like I won’t get that “birthday feeling” -- that childhood doted-upon feeling; that remembering-again-that-it’s-my-birthday-every-hour feeling, and everything that feeling means. And every year, I dread that it will be gone and that’ll mean my childhood is over.
This year, I didn’t feel that same "birthday" sensation -- and it wasn’t scary at all. Because remembering it’s your birthday every hour means remembering that people love you, and knowing that you’ll be showered with attention and care and SURPRISES at intervals throughout the day. And this year, today didn’t feel that different from any other day, because I know I have that every day. Maybe that means I’m old, or maybe it means I’m really, really lucky.
It truly touched me that you all took time out of your days to come and sit and talk, and knowing that I have friends who would do that any day of the year means more than I can say.
So all of this is what I meant to toast, and I'm sorry it came out as, "to the most fertile-with-respect-to-friends and supported phase of my life so far." I'll work on it for 23.
All my love,
Ratna

Monday, October 5, 2015

Settling into the Semester

It's week six of a semester chock-full of singing and running and working and oh yeah, classes, that I had meant to settle into a bit before blogging about it, but who knows when a time that can qualify as  "settled" will come? I'm a senior now, mind full of all these senior worries like job applications and the capital-F Future, and I want to take a moment to update you all on where I currently find myself.

The summer was not perfect but still stunning, featuring the best work experience I've ever had, complete with weekly busking in Central Park and an amazingly successful fundraising campaign for Gyaan Ghar (thanks to all of you).  If you're wondering why I didn't post about it more often, it's because I've been experimenting with writing for myself -- and ended the summer with 56 pages narrating my summer experience in New York!

The school year kicked off with an a cappella retreat at Mr. Chanania's home followed by auditions to find four amazing new Opportunes babies who will carry on the tradition when we graduate! The thing I'm most looking forward to right now is our 35th Anniversary Jam on November 7th, which is sure to be a highlight of my semester!

My classes are exciting, relevant, and varied:

Why Are So Many Countries Poor, Volatile, and Unequal?

Why are so many countries poor, volatile and unequal?  This course will describe these three salient and interrelated characteristics of developing countries, study their proximate and deeper causes and discuss the policies that have been proposed to deal with them. The first part of the course discusses the current state of development across the world and its evolution. It then discusses the different approaches that have been developed to account for these facts, including factors such as capital accumulation, demography, institutions and the obstacles to structural transformation; and puts them in a diagnostic framework. We also review the evidence on the magnitude and causes of inequality and discuss the causes and consequences of macroeconomic volatility and crises in the developing world. The emphasis throughout is to inform the discussion on development policy.

Understanding Altruism

People give a lot: 2% of GDP is donated to charity, 2-4% of hours worked are volunteered, and 50% of Americans vote in National Elections. Yet such giving displays puzzling qualities: for example, giving is often inefficient (consider the efficiency of Habitat for Humanity) and people who would otherwise give will pay to opt out of being solicited.We use simple game theory models, combined with models of evolution and evidence from experimental economics papers, to better understand our altruistic preferences and their puzzling qualities.  In doing so, we gain insight on how to promote more effective giving (should contributions be observable?) and better policy (should the law distinguish between crimes of omission and commission?).Through the readings, students will gain exposure to relevant literatures in experimental economics, as well as evolutionary biology and social psychology.

Love and Inner Conflict

The most important feature distinguishing human beings from other animals is generally supposed to be a capacity for reasoning – about how things are, but also about what to do. It is clear, however, that no account of intentional human action that restricts itself to reasoning will be adequate. Much of what we do seems to be the outcome of some kind of inner struggle or conflict about what to do, or (in the more momentous cases) which path in life to follow, and sometimes we act in ways we know to be ‘contrary to reason’. It is not at all clear what’s really going on when this happens.

Plato (428-348 BCE), Augustine (354-430 CE) and Freud (1856-1939) offer especially interesting and plausible accounts of such inner conflict. In their different ways, they each understood such conflict in terms of the soul’s having parts, or distinct faculties. They are also alike in positing a fundamental but highly plastic force in the soul, in terms of which its development or deformation, including its division into parts, can be understood. They all called this force love, although it is not straightforward what they meant, or whether they meant the same thing, by calling it that.

In this course, we will look at these theories of the composite, love-driven psyche as expressed in various of their works, such as Plato’s Gorgias, Symposium and Republic, Augustine’s Confessions and De Trinitate, and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and The Ego and the Id. The aim is to achieve some understanding, not only of the theories, but also of the phenomena they are theories of.

Hindu Worlds of Art and Culture

This course explores the powerful narratives, myths, and arts of Hindu India and the Hindu diaspora. We consider the great gods –Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva, and Devi – and the ways in which they give expression to a profound vision of the world in which we live. We explore the myths, poetry, dance, and image through which the gods are envisioned and embodied. We will consider the landscape, the great temples and the holy places where they are worshipped as well as the pilgrimages, rituals, and festivals that are part of Hindu life. Topics will include creation and cosmology; Krishna's teachings in the Bhagavad Gita and their significance for Hindu life; Krishna in the Bhagavata Purana, the Gita Govinda, and in painting, poetry, and dance; the Ramayana and its enactments in popular culture and film; the myths of Shiva and the significance of Shiva's sacred places; the popular Devi Mahatmya and the vision of the Great Goddess. 


Other than that, I'm just juggling these classes, my immune system, my exercise goals, my writing regimen, and my job hunt!

If anyone has extra hours they can lend me, feel free to pass them along!

And wish me luck!!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Supporting My School


As many of you know, in 2008 I was lucky enough to be able to start a small after-school learning center in Ludhiana, to provide free supplementary education to a group of 20 students I had been tutoring before then and had become very close to. Their passion for learning outside of the classroom, both when I would visit India over my summer breaks and beyond, inspired me to create a space where they could take this creativity every day of the year, where it would be welcomed and nurtured.

Since then, Gyaan Ghar has been thriving, supported by two wonderful full-time teachers, bolstered by the New Lajpat Nagar community, and tirelessly overseen by my grandmother, Amrit Kaur. We have 65 students enrolled, a handful of whom are still with us from that first batch that I used to tutor in 2008! All in all, classes in art, music, theater, public speaking, computers, and environmental awareness are running smoothly and students remain enthusiastic and eager to learn. Working with students and watching the school grow remain some of the most exciting and fulfilling things I do with my time, and the future of the school is very close to my heart.

Currently, I am working on raising funds for the 2015-2016 academic year. For years, funding came directly from the students and faculty at Flint Hill School, my high school in Oakton, Virginia -- but after 7 years of running Gyaan Ghar on money raised from "Husky Dress Days," it's time to look for new supporters in our community. We recently launched a GoFundMe campaign for $3,000 -- about the amount it takes to pay for school supplies and salaries for our part-time teachers for a year. Every dollar counts, and we have faith that we can raise the money in time for classes in September!

Please join me in getting the word out about our fundraiser, and click here to visit our page. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What am I doing this summer?

This summer, I’m working at the Business Outreach Center (BOC), a micro-lending and direct service provision organization that works to improve the economic prospects of traditionally underserved groups, with a focus on low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs. The majority of our clients are women, immigrants, refugees, or members of other minority groups, and BOC has offices in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. BOC counselors work with these small business owners through one-on-one counseling as well as via workshops for cohorts of these entrepreneurs.


I’ll be getting exposure to both of these models this summer, as I guide individual entrepreneurs through the Best for NYC challenge, and also help to design the Blueprint to Success workshop for construction contractors.

The Best for NYC challenge is a campaign launched by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), to encourage companies to use business as a force for creating social and environmental good, and to recognize corporations that do so. My role will be to reach out to small businesses that BOC has worked with, and to encourage them to take the challenge! I’ve been impressed already by how many NYC entrepreneurs are very socially and environmentally conscious, and keen to learn about how they can make their businesses even better for their community and the environment. I’ll also be working with NYCEDC on a pilot program to work closely with 30-45 small businesses in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx who will take the Best for NYC assessment and then participate in a rigorous course that will support them in improving their business practices.
Blueprint to Success is a training program for construction contractors whose companies are certified as Minority, Women, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (M/W/DBEs). The workshop will provide M/W/DBE construction firms with comprehensive and individualized technical assistance, as well as advice on finances, marketing, etc. This program is also sponsored by the NYCEDC, and I will be assisting with curriculum design for BOC’s component of the workshop series.


I am especially excited to be at BOC because of the work they do on the ground – it is incredibly exciting and fulfilling to be in such close contact with the business owners we are serving, everyday! I am also thrilled to be living in New York’s West Village, and experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the City every day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Best Year Yet

Junior year was finally it. Past the awkward adjustments of freshman year and the soul-crushing slump that is being a sophomore, and before the real-world worries of being an almost-adult that are coming up for us seniors (!), this year was when I felt like I finally "hit my stride" in school.

This spring semester, I took some of the best classes I've had at Harvard. I sang a lot. I learned things and had some of the best conversations of my life.

I also live with all of my best friends. Not a moment can be dull: wading through hours of requisite writing becomes a celebration when it's done overnight in a library that has a piano. Reviewing pages miles long of information is an adventure when you take breaks to clear your mind and enjoy the sunshine. The most daunting of weeks seem laughable when coffee, music, and words exist.

I'll enumerate an arbitrary list of stand-out moments below, knowing full well that the most enjoyable ones could be neither photographed nor articulated.

☀️ Snow: This winter was the snowiest one Boston has ever seen in history! Campus became this dreamlike place impenetrable by cars for the first weeks of the semester, which left lots of time to celebrate friendship, watch Frozen, go sledding, etc. before the reality of classes set in. Once this happened, I took the time to soak in that hilarity, featuring a Shakespeare class taken with my two brothers (pictured below), a Latin class reading the complete corpus of my favorite author (Catullus), a Public Health Economics tutorial that became my favorite class of college (awesome), and an intermediate macroeconomics class (I don't want to talk about it).


☀️ Family: One of the most frenzied and enjoyable weekends of the semester was Junior Parents' Weekend, when the folks came up from Virginia, and the other folks came down from West Newbury, to get a taste of my life as a junior, and also see me perform in Ghungroo, Harvard's South Asian dance showcase! This was the weekend of Priya's birthday, and it was amazing to share the energy of campus with so many people whom I love so much.


☀️ Community: I came to appreciate my community, within Lowell House and across campus, more than ever this year. From working on the Lowell Housing Day video to having a group of people to kick back with for three-hour dinner chats, this house finally feels very much like home, and the community we have forged makes me beyond thrilled to see what senior year has in store.


☀️ Music: Finding new ways and venues to perform always lights up a semester. Putting together sets with Dylan for Coffeehouse and the Arts CafĂ© at the Barker Center was a blast, and lent us some of our favorite musical moments of the year.


☀️ Words: Talking and writing will always be my favorite parts of any semester, and this one had no shortage of either. At some point in the year I picked up writing in verse as an aimless hobby, and friends did not hesitate to dare me to churn out sonnets, limericks, and the like on a host of occasions. Below, find pictured my Happy Wall, home to the words from friends that help to brighten up any dingy day!


☀️ Sun: The first hints of spring after this year's long winter sent us all clamoring for frappuccinos and the river. The last few weeks were idyllic, and impaired all hopes of productivity once again. Schoolwork was relegated to nights as we basked in the sun by day, to finish off a gorgeous semester in fitting fashion.


Overcaffeinated and underslept, this year was overflowing with love and underrepresented by this post.

Back at home in DC now, I'm amped for the summer! Starting in June, I'll be working with the Business Outreach Center of New York, which provides micro-loans and direct service support to small business-owners in the city, focusing on women, immigrants, and refugees. I can't wait to be in the Big Apple with some of my best friends, before diving into (when did this happen?) my last year of college!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Hibernating in Hindustan

I return to Harvard for my sixth semester completely refreshed and rejuvenated after a month spent in India with my dear extended family. 

My goals for this period were to “spend time with my grandparents,” “do nothing,” and “think.” Despite their very modest nature, there was indeed a (quite long!) phase during which I felt uneasy that either a) I was not accomplishing these objectives successfully, or b) these were not the “right” goals to have for a winter break, or c) both. But I can say based especially on my last few weeks traveling that there could have been no better way to reset my consciousness and get ready for the grind of junior spring.

When asked what my favorite things about India are, I usually say the air and the birds. Both are distinctly different from those in the US. After this winter’s visit, I would like to add the fruits and the streets of India to this list. There is a kind of weird, probably pretentious calm that overcomes me on long (between two- and six-hour) road trips in India that may be unparalleled in both euphoria and propensity for idea-generation by any other experience I frequently have. Observing people on/along the road is a treat, and the snapshots one is able to snatch of daily life for an “average” Indian are colorful, chaotic, and often touching. Intersperse these vignettes with swaths of Punjab greens and yellows and the drives are undeniably delicious (if a bit fog-filled this time around).

To be “disconnected” was a second-tier goal of sorts for me, which I certainly had more trouble achieving than my less trying objectives above, but I wouldn’t easily have traded the conversations I had with friends in different countries (albeit often text-based) for much. It was through a few such discussions that I realized that “doing nothing” but doing it in another country is in itself doing a lot, that just to exist in India is a very valuable experience, and one distinctly different from what I’m used to. Add in the linguistic calculation and cultural calibration more or less “required” to exist meaningfully in Punjab and I had my month’s work cut out for me.

If this doesn’t sound like enough to fill an entire month, it’s because it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough to fill an entire month lived at the pace at which we often experience school, college, and daily life in general. My days were notably slower than my days at school. Everything took longer, from the process of waking up to the span of my mealtimes to getting dressed everyday. The extra time was filled with much singing, lots of thoughts, and sometimes none. This is definitely not everyone’s India; this is the embarrassingly decadent India of someone being absurdly spoiled by her relatives. As a result, I find myself at this time profoundly well-rested.

Talking to my grandparents was a joy as well: from laughing uncontrollably with Nani to discussing the role of faith in eradicating loneliness with Dadi to explaining my concentration quandaries to Nanaji, the words we exchanged over food that was SO worth getting fat from were priceless. I feel thankful and light to have had this opportunity to do so.

A note to all current/future parents: there is perhaps no greater gift (outside of education) that you can give your children than the opportunity to grow up around the cultures of two countries at once.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Resolutions for the day

1. Be less scared when I sing
2. Kiss my friends' foreheads more often
3. Write more genuine papers
4. Don't shy away from pain
5. Don't shy away from pleasure
6. Cherish uneventful days
7. Wear less makeup
8. Take the T more often
9. Go to tea more often
10. Never forget about words
11. Harbor less hatred for numbers
12. Abandon consistency as a rule
13. Don't be tired