Mumbai '12

As part of my knowledge-through-experience philosophy this year, I spent a few weeks in Mumbai with the family of Ratnakar Gaikwad, Chief Secretary of Maharastra, to learn about the Indian government and visit a number of development projects around the state. Gaikwad Uncle was my father's first boss and mentor in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), and is my godfather and namesake. He has been described (by Papa) as a blend of Gandhi and Alexander the Great. This was quite a journey.
Divas 188

Literally the second I set foot off the plane in Mumbai, there were protocol officers holding a placard reading "Miss Ratna Gill" waiting to greet me. I felt like a celebrity! As they asked me how my flight was and what my bag looked like, I couldn't help but look away and grin. Being so spoiled is amusing!

Gaikwad Auntie had come to receive me, and I met her in the VIP lounge before we headed home.

The Gaikwads' home is phenomenal -- a two-story penthouse with five bedrooms. This is the view from my window:

Living here, one does not feel like she is in one of the world's top 10 centers of commerce! I could have lazed around my enormous room for hours, but Auntie took me out to Shoppers' Stop, where she looked for a birthday present for her brother as I peeped at all the pretty clothes, too tired to try anything on.

We arrived home to another beautiful balconial sight:

Within a few minutes of our arrival, both Ratnakar Uncle (see where I get my name?) and Shivanjali Didi arrived home from work. Before even taking a minute to freshen up, Uncle launched into ideas of meetings and site visits I would enjoy during my time here. I was falling out of my seat with excitement the whole time.

Later in the evening, Auntie, Didi, and I shuffled downstairs to take a peek at the Holi celebration of our building's residents. After I had made some awkward spiritual blunders and taken plenty of photographs, we returned upstairs. 

Throughout, Shivanjali regaled me with stories of her experience with meditation, in which the entire Gaikwad family is very engaged. Over dinner, Didi told me a bit about Dharavi, a "five-star slum" I now can't wait to visit. When Uncle joined us at the table, he also dove into the wonders of Vipassana -- I just may have to extend my time in Mumbai to take part in a ten-day silent meditation course. Mom and Dad, I'm not joking.

I am, however, beyond exhausted (as usual). Gee, should I sleep in the king-sized bed against the wall or the day bed next to the window? What have I done to deserve this treatment?!


Happy Women's Day

Divas 189 

What a day!

Feeling too happy to sleep last night, I finally reached my limit at 2am, and so arose leisurely at 9 this morning. After giving Priya and Mama a tour of my room via Skype and enjoying idlis and dosas (yummm) for breakfast, I started unpacking my things.

After breakfast, Shivanjali Didi and I embarked on a drive around Mumbai, hoping to see the celebration of Holi in full swing. I was told that it would be dangerous to step out of the car, what with the dyes (and any projectiles available, really) being thrown in every which direction by those celebrating. But actually, today was remarkably come! Due to a new police initiative to make Holi less rowdy, we could scarcely trace a group here and there shuffling by, wearing garments splotched with color.

Despite this disappointment, I received a wonderful overview of this diverse city. Mumbai reminds me of Rio in a lot of ways, and there are stretches where the two could be twins.

Above: Rio de Janeiro, Below: Mumbai

We drove through the city and got off in old Mumbai to take some photos of the historic train station and Municipal Corporation. What a sight!

Later on, we stopped at Flora Fountain as Didi wistfully regaled the days when bargain book stalls used to abound in the area.

We cooled off with some coconut water and strolled around the Gateway of India while clicking more snaps.

Headed home, we heard that Gaikwad Auntie and Uncle had been caught by some Holi-ers while we were away, and entirely covered in color! How ironic -- we could have witnessed the fun had we stayed home! Shivanjali Didi and I, did, however, catch a glimpse of the end of the festivities in our complex, escaping from a color attack just in the nick of time.

After a mouthwatering lunch, Didi helped me register for a ten-day course in Vipassana meditation taking place at the end of this month. To read a bit about the method, click here. Can you believe it? This blabbermouth blogger will be silent for a full 240 hours! I keenly await what promises to be a challenging and deeply rewarding experience.

In the afternoon, I padded around my room and briefly chatted with Priya before writing her a letter on life. You can click here if you are interested in reading my sisterly advice.

Then, guilted into exercising by the sight of a treadmill, I hopped aboard. Perhaps I'd work out more often, though, were I always to have a view of cranes in a mangrove forest nestled next to a million-citizen slum.

When I cooled down and returned to my room (with which I am in love), Didi dropped in to tell me about the work she is doing to redesign the ICICI Fellows Program. The philosophy and anecdotes she shared with me kind of blew my brains, and I just might have to apply for the program in a few years.

We shared an afternoon snack of homemade samosas (I have never eaten so many), after which I started to transcribe some of the results of yesterday's brainstorming session into my new planner for Mumbai.

At some point in the day, I also talked to my grandfolks. My energy level is waning steadily, but my enthusiasm is not. I love this city!

Divas 190

Christie Todd Whitman said, "Anyone who thinks that they are too small to make a difference has never tried to fall asleep with a mosquito in the room." Well, I tried to fall asleep with a mosquito (or maybe multiple mosquitoes) in my room last night, so I guess now I know I'm not too small to make a difference.

I had an omelette and three cups of tea (haha) as Uncle and Didi headed out to work.

I spent the next few hours lounging about my room. This house has such pleasant vibes. I actually only fully realized that the word "vibes" stands for "vibrations" after coming here and discussing meditation with the Gaikwads. It's no wonder my room feels so nice, though -- Arya Wangsa, a famous Thai monk, often comes to stay here with the Gaikwads, and lives in my room when he does. Brushing my teeth, I wandered onto my balcony with a view of Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world.

Washed and dressed, I plopped down in the living room to read Uncle's book while Auntie flipped through the paper. The book, Initiatives in Development Administration: Extracts from My Administrative Diary, details Gaikwad Uncle's most memorable experiences in his journey through the ranks of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He recommended that I start from the chapter on his work in Pune -- this section focuses especially on solid waste management, a topic of great interest to me since my work with the Tribal Solid Waste Management Team at the US Environmental Agency. There is also a blurb about Uncle's experience with Pratham, an NGO working on primary education which I visited during my last trip to Mumbai several years ago.

I just finished the chapter, and am feeling lighter. It seems like Uncle fixes every problem he encounters, in the blink of an eye. Of course nothing is so simple, but the optimism, hope, and real concern with which he approaches challenges is something new to me. I am used to Indians having a somewhat (very) negative view of the country's scope for progress and development, but for Gaikwad Uncle, this is not nearly the case.

In fact, this pervasive negative view is the mindset that Shivanjali Didi's work with the ICICI Fellows seeks to combat. The program targets youth with the potential to become future leaders of India, and reinstates their optimistic impulse and their faith in the country, erasing their disenchantment. I love being surrounded by all this positivity!

Didi came home for lunch, and the three of us enjoyed a nice meal before I took some rest.

In the afternoon, a driver took me to Mantralay, Gaikwad Uncle's office, for a meeting to brainstorm a bilateral cooperation between Singapore and the state of Maharashtra. Maharastra is seeking guidance, expertise, and investments from Singapore on a number of proposed new initiatives to improve the city. There were seven Singaporean representatives from various sectors in attendance, as well as the Maharastrian Secretary for Urban Development, for Transport, for Environment, etc. This two-hour meeting was very interesting and educational (I have eight pages of notes to prove it), and I think we must have hit on every topic I read about in the Urbanization issue of Scientific American a few months ago. "Our" side's visions were grand -- ranging from rainwater harvesting to a monorail with something in every sector imaginable in between -- and provided a great introduction to the state for me. I was surprised that I could follow most everything going on, and was able to remain alert and engaged throughout (despite the former droopy state I had been in during the ride over). The energy and ambition in the room were infectious.

After the meeting, I hung around the office as Gaikwad Uncle wrapped up his day's work.

And what an office it is!

During the car ride home, Uncle imparted still more wisdom about meditation as I listened in amazement and anticipation for my upcoming introduction to Vipassana. I hopped on the treadmill as soon as we reached, looking out the window at Mumbai while chatting with various kinfolk.

After dinner, Shivanjali Didi and I settled in for some television, which we ignored to instead discuss movies (i.e. Ranbir Kapoor). We had a fun talk and I got some great recommendations from her.

It's time to coat myself in mosquito repellent and call it a day! And a great one, at that.

Divas 191

I did not sleep a wink last night. Though I was doused in repellent, armed with a mosquito trap, and under a fan, the funny pests wouldn't leave me alone. Perhaps I dozed off at some point, but my alarm clock snarled at the unwelcome hour of 7am, and several iterations of snooze could not permanently avert the conundrum of having to wake up.

There's nothing that a strong cup of black tea can't fix, though! I had some breakfast and logged my treadmill time before taking a cold shower and starting my day.

I exchanged a few messages with Priya, who is competing in the three-day Shamrock Tournament this weekend. Please send good wishes her way as she gets her volleyball on!

Auntie invited me to her room for some midday chocolate and memories, showing me photo albums from the last visit of Shri Arya Wangsa of Thailand to the Gaikwads' home. My favorite was a picture of this famous monk meditating in my room!

Uncle then told me a bit more about his faith in meditation, before I read an address delivered by Mr. S.N. Goenka at the United Nations World Peace Summit in 2000. We enjoyed a late lunch before I crashed for a nap to be rested for our evening adventure.

On Monday night, Gaikwad Uncle will be hosting a program to commemorate the 100th birthday of the late Yashwantrao Chavan, Maharastra's legendary first Chief Minister. 

This cultural program and dinner will be the first of several such functions this year, and the president will be present day after tomorrow! Today, Uncle visited Gateway of India to sit in on the rehearsal and oversee the preparations. I was so jazzed to be there.

It was electrifying to be so close to this national monument, and exciting to have a behind-the-scenes view of the event. I was becoming a bit camera happy, and was even asked if I was a professional photographer!

On our way home, Uncle and I stopped for a brief brisk walk along Marine Drive -- this walking path reminds me so much of Copacobana! What a great atmosphere.

At home, I had a lovely time catching up with Sonal on the phone before dinner. I called her back from the car on the way to the airport (to receive Papa), and she interviewed me on my dream wedding (haha) for a project she is doing as she applies for Wedding Design internships.

Papa and I are home now, discussing old times with Gaikwad Uncle and Auntie. Watch me fall asleep while typing . . .

Divas 192

I slept last night! We had a lazy morning, the highlight of which was Gaikwad Uncle making and reading an astrological chart for me. Takeaways: astrology is cool and I can't wait for the year 2023.

Our daily outing came in the late afternoon, when we took Papa for a spin to see some Mumbai highlights by night. We started from Marine Drive and went for a stroll along the Rio-like footpath.

We then stopped at Chowpatty, but sadly found it littered with garbage. Looks like I have my work cut out for me!

We briefly stopped at Babulnath, which looks like a modest Hindu temple from the road. However, after climbing three flights of stairs covered with pocket-sized kittens, we arrived at a very grand and elegant structure. The vibrations inside the place of worship were extraordinarily pleasant, as was the voice of the priest chanting a prayer with the accompaniment of a drum. (Unfortunately, there were no photographs allowed inside, and my clicks of the outside can't really capture the space.)

Our last stop was at one of the many pedestrian flyovers Uncle has constructed as part of the Mumbai Skywalk Project, transforming Mumbai into "Skywalk City." The structure we saw receives traffic of a million people a day, making Mumbai safer for pedestrians and more convenient for walkers and drivers alike. What I find most amazing is that the city recovered the cost of the project many times over by selling advertising space along the skyways. Remarkable!

Ratnakar G. and Ratna Kaur G. discuss Mumbai infrastructure, standing atop the Skywalk.

At home, we had a light dinner before I shared my photographs with everyone and began this post. Good night, Mumbai!

Divas 193

Gaikwad Uncle, Papa, and I left the house early this morning for a meeting at Mantralay on Skill Development. Because India's population pyramid has a significant youth bulge, it is important for these young people to develop skills to improve their employability and competitiveness in the global market. This meeting was not as informative for me as the one I attended on Day 190, but my key takeaways were the paramount importance of primary education (Go Gyaan Ghar!) and the need to consider concrete vocational training when designing a state's school's curricula.

For lunch, Papa and I visited Gokhale Nanaji and Nani. (I was told how much I look, sound, and act like my mom for the entire meal.) It was lovely to catch up with them and hear all about their children and grandchildren, and I look forward to spending a few days with them at the beginning of April!

In the afternoon, we went to the super pleasant Palladium Mall for coffee with Nitin Uncle, who is basically Papa's little brother. Uncle is so sweet! I think that's the best word for his warmth, affection, and genuinely golden conscience.

We had a fun time hearing about his amazingly talented kids Tanvi and Saarish. He also shared with us that Kavita Auntie designed the bronze statue on Chowpatty Beach, about which I had been reading just yesterday! So cool.

I worked out upon arriving home and we are now watching the Centennial Ceremony for Yashwantrao Chawan being hosted by Uncle at Gateway of India -- but on television at home. Didi just returned from the ICICI Fellows training program for tonight, so we are chilling with her, while enjoying the cultural program going on at the Gateway. Puna bhuteya!

Divas 194

I started my day with Ovid.

Then, moved by the excitement and passion with which Shivanjali Didi had yesterday described her two-day experience at the Gandhi Ashram, I started to read the book she so kindly brought me from there. I have always admired and respected Mahatma Gandhi a lot, but felt like I need to know more about his life and philosophies. This tome is perfect for my short attention plan and snail's-pace reading abilities -- the introduction sums up Gandhiji's life in 10 pages.

I decided to complete the rest of my morning's reading on the treadmill. I started with a chapter from Uncle's book and went on to continue the section on Francis Bacon in Durant's masterpiece. I walked a total of 27 pages.

For lunch, we visited Manu Uncle and Archana Auntie at their lovely home. Their family is also very interested in music, so Uncle and Papa performed old Hindi songs for us on Uncle's great karaoke system while I shared my YouTube recordings of Make You Feel My Love and The One That Got Away and Auntie showed us a presentation of her paintings.

Having eaten too much at the lovely meal, Papa and I dropped by Westside Mall, where I picked up a kurti and some bright yellow shoes.

Later, we dropped by Mumbai's historic Taj Mahal Hotel for some coffee with (a view and) Nitin Uncle and his friend Dr. Patil.

After Papa had been ridiculed enough and we'd enjoyed some refreshing beverages, I wanted to explore this unique building. Nitin Uncle arranged for me to go on a guided tour of the property (I didn't know they had such a thing!) and Viren and I were off. This excellently informed guide showed me a number of the hotel's highlights (click here to see my snaps). I wish Priya, the hotel enthusiast, could have been there!

Back home, we caught the tale end of Gaikwad Uncle's recent (Marathi) interview before I had a brief chat with Sonal.

I struggled with my camera for a while before being able to upload today's photographs and start this post. Thank goodness it finally worked!

Divas 197

Today, we visited Sanjay Gandhi (Borivali) National Park. Who would have thought that one-third of Mumbai is virgin forest?!

We drove up to the entrance and were met by a park ranger, who led us to a log hut where we enjoyed some refreshments as he told us about the park's history.

I then requested that we go up close to the lake we had seen on our way in. We got there, and gawked at green algae galore!

Before leaving, Ratna Kaur G. and Ratnakar G. paused to pose for a picture with some Phalacrocoracidae (cormorants).

What a surprising and awesome adventure!

Divas 198

We set out for Pune before sunrise today, first frozen by chilled showers and then warmed by delicious vegetarian tikki breakfast sandwiches. We arrived after a two-hour nap at Yashwantrao Chawan Academy of Development Administration (Yashada).

After a very quick cup of tea, we embarked on our first site visit, to Lexicon Management Institute. Their administration seeks to imbue students with values of honesty, love, service, and beyond, in addition to training them in management.

Papa was asked to give a speech in front of the students, during which he revealed the impact Gaikwad Uncle has had on his life. Then, Gaikwad Uncle shared his belief that changing the world must start with changing oneself. As we were leaving, the school's administration honored the three of us on stage.

We sped back to Yashada for three back-to-back one-hour meetings in Marathi, of which I understood hardly a third. The discussions covered slum sanitation and solid waste management in slums, so it was a pity that my attention span couldn't last long enough to fabricate possible translations in my Hindi-speaking head.

I was all too happy when we made our way to lunch at one of Atul Uncle's Marriots, the 500th to be constructed in the world! We enjoyed a traditional Rajasthani meal in snazzy surroundings -- Varsha Auntie and I caught up while Atul Uncle made fun of my bookworm-ish looks, never prying his attention away from his phone. :)

We then dropped by the Deshmukh residence, giving us a bit of time to chat with Uncle, Auntie, and Didi -- but not enough! I've friended the latter on Facebook and look forward to talking further and keeping in touch.

We were soon joined by Baralay Uncle, shortly followed by Dolly Bhua and Abhishek Bhaiya. So many splendid family members in one day! We had long promised to visit Dolly Bhua's new house, so we sauntered up the street and gaped at their lovely new home.

Upon entering the front gate, I was reunited with my best friend! I remember playing with this precious child four years ago and praying she would never forget me.

2007                                                                    2012

I've promised to return to Pune soon to give Riddhima tips on growing her hair out (irony). I've also now promised three families that I'll stay with them on my next visit to Pune -- guess I'll need at least three days. Yikes!

I tore myself away from some of my favorite people to return to the Marriott for the "real" reason we came to Pune -- a conference on business incubation. Gaikwad Uncle, the guest of honor, gave the opening address before we slipped out to once again hit the road.

We're now on our way back to Mumbai, and I can't wait to return here!

Divas 199

This morning, Papa and I visited Dadar to pick up some kitchen utensils for Mama. On our way home, we dropped by Westside again and I grabbed some surprise gifts for a friend back home.

After lunch, we bid Papa "tout a l'heure" and I caught up with my girl Sonal at length before catching some Zs. 

I woke to yummy snacks and my sister. Though she ignored me and made me talk to her Certamen trophy at times, we finally got to chat for a good long time. I'm so proud of her Latin and running skillz. :)

I then settled in with The Power of Now, a life-changing book of which Gaikwad Uncle is a huge proponent. It is advised that the tome be read a few pages at a time, so I started to do just that.

As India beat Pakistan in a cricket match, Auntie and I watched Dance India Dance -- sorry for not being patriotic enough, but this show really impressed me!

I feel laziness starting to seep into my psyche, so I think my meditation course couldn't be better timed! Click here to see what my vastly different schedule will be like in two days' time.

I'm peacing out for tonight -- until tomorrow!

Divas 200

Today started with a blood test. (All normal, but I'm supposed to eat more sugar -- I can certainly do that!)

After this, I read the next section of The Power of Now and a page of Ars Amatoria.

Before getting ready, I chatted with my cousin Nayaz on Skype. It's been ages since we caught up, and it was good to finally hear about the latest and greatest in her life, and fun to be told that I "look like an underachiever" and "shouldn't have gotten a hairchop." Thanks, Naazoo!

This morning, I had a meeting with Dr. Sneha Pulnitkar, the Director of the All India Institute of Local Self-Government. She gave me an overview of the challenges of urbanization, and some insight into the 22 projects her organization is currently implementing and monitoring in the fields of infrastructure development, poverty elevation, and governance.

While there, I also read parts of the latest Mumbai Human Development Report -- the chapters on Gender, Elementary Education, and Slums.

This reading, particularly the first two chapters, of course made me think of my girl students at Gyaan Ghar.

Thus, upon returning home, I drafted a letter to my close friend Sonal Chawla, requesting that she do some activities and therapy work with the girls as part of our Sisters' Circle initiative, even in my absence.

I then passed out for three hours (as usual) and woke to Skype with Priya as she received the presents I sent for her from India. I also spent this time watching her play games on her cell phone and teaching her to plunge a toilet.

Additionally, she said she was proud of me (for the first time ever) when she saw a sketch I had done of an Indian outfit I am planning to have tailored. Score!

It's time for dinner now, and then planning for my penultimate day of garrulousness!

Divas 201

I woke up too early this morning and reluctantly Skyped with my overenthusiastic sister, who wouldn't let me hang up and go back to sleep. Once I was somewhat awake, I read a few pages of The Power of Now before Gaikwad Auntie and I ventured to Dadar market in search of a tailor to stitch a sari for me. The heat was stifling and the crowds were baffling, and this was not even close to the worst it gets. We wandered the street looking for a shop that would sew my sari into a shape that would allow this gringa to be able to wear it. As we slumped around the streets, I got to see a lot of uplifting arrays of colorful clothing.

About an hour into our quest, we came across a place that would do the somewhat unusual job. Hallelujah! We dropped off my cloth and headed past a row of tempting shops back towards the car. I was able to resist buying a single thing . . . except a bottle that looked like sparkles suspended in a cumulus cloud -- nail polish is my weakness!

We then stopped at a popular cafe for a snack, and I ordered the most Punjabi thing on the menu -- channa masala. It was love at first bite, except for the peculiar fact that the jeera rice had a strange rice-to-jeera ratio of 1 to 2 (i.e. too much jeera!). But still, my taste buds were pleased to be reunited with the north Indian food they always seem to be missing.

At home, I rested for exactly 8 minutes before venturing to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) office for a meeting with Ashwini Bhide, the eloquent and inspiring Additional Metropolitan Commissioner of Maharastra. She educated me for an hour on various transport projects being administered in Mumbai, and the effect they have on slum-dwellers who illegally occupy land needed for the infrastructure projects. The focus and structure of our talk reminded me of a lecture by Ms. Deveneau -- the highest compliment I confer, to be sure!

After this, she allowed me to sit in on a meeting with the board of trustees of a temple which needs to be partially demolished to allow for the building of Mumbai's monorail. This discussion, heated at times, was a great way for me to see in action some of the challenges she described to me during our discussion. I was very pleased with my "lesson" for today.

I returned home and started this post, but was soon interrupted by the world's cutest potato cutlets. I guess I can't complain!

In the evening, I got to hang out with Dr. Nitz! We went to a nearby hotel's patisserie (Nitin Uncle loves coffee shop-hopping) and unearthed a range of topics from the various corners of our respective minds. It was so nice to be able to talk at length like this, and I would also like to congratulate Nitz on killing his first mosquito! A good day for us both, to be sure.

Back home, I told Gaikwad Uncle and Auntie about the day's wonderful meetings before continuing to work on this post. (I guess packing will have to wait until tomorrow . . . ) Please wish me luck for my meditation course -- this chatterbox is intimidated! And so, so excited.

I'll talk to you all again on April 1st!

Click here to read about my 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Gorai.

Divas 214

After breakfast this morning, I practiced meditation for an hour before reading a few pages of Tolle and some Ovidian lines.

Today's "field trip" was a very interesting one indeed, to the Maharastra Pollution Control Board! I had a brief meeting with Shri Milind Mhaiskar on the background of the agency and some of the environmental awareness challenges it is facing. After this, Mr. Bharat Nimbarte, MPCB's enthusiastic and informative Regional Officer for New Mumbai, took me to a number of fascinating sites.

The first of these was the New Mumbai Common Effluent Treatment Plant. This facility caters especially to small industries who are not able to treat their own effluents to the standards required for them to be discharged into the environment. We climbed to the terrace of the administrative building for a better view of the following:

1. Clariflocculator

The effluent comes here first.
2. Aeration Tank

Microorganisms cleanse the effluent during this stage.
3. Clarifier

The sludge settles to the bottom and clean, clear water is discharged into the Trans-Thane Creek.

The CETP's administration then made a wonderfully educational PowerPoint presentation which I hope to receive soon and share with the AP Environmental Science students at Flint Hill.

Our next visit was to a sewage treatment plant, one of the seven in New Mumbai. This plant receives 100 million liters of domestic sewage per day, and I enjoyed comparing the facility to the similar plant we visited in Pittsburgh with Mr. Chanania last year -- it was a great reminder of the primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment processes!

After a detailed tour of each stage of the complex's sewage treatment process, we headed to our final destination -- a hazardous waste management facility. This plant is known across India as an example of ideal hazardous waste management! Hazardous waste that comes to the site can be dealt with in one of three ways:

1.  It is buried directly in a landfill.

2. It is buried in a landfill after treatment.

3. It is incinerated.

I was able to explore the fascinating facilities for all three of these possibilities, before the administration gave us a detailed overview of the above processes.

Today was like a school field trip! I clearly learned so much in a field about which I care so much, and moreover got to see it with my own eyes, up close and personal. I would especially like to thank Mr. Nimbarte for taking more than seven hours out of his day to accompany me to these sites, giving me briefings and knowledge throughout. Only someone truly dedicated to the environment and our duty of its conservation would be so selfless and thoughtful.

I spent half of the car ride back to Sion discussing with Mr. Nimbarte the importance of our generation's commitment to the environment, and the remainder attempting to meditate on a rather bumpy road. Back home, I took a nine-minute shower to rinse away the psychological sludge before enjoying dinner with the Gaikwads. We started planning the rest of my stay in Mumbai, and the next few days are looking exciting!

Divas 215

I enjoyed my reading of The Power of Now and Ars Amatoria this morning before munching on some yummy Maharashtrian karanjis -- coconut-stuffed pastries. Yummm.

My first meeting of the day was to the office of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan ("Education for All"), a government program focusing on the infrastructure, inclusion, and quality of primary schools across the state. I got to meet with Mr. Sanjay Deshmukh (State Project Director) and Ms. Mrinalini Nimbalkar (Assistant Director) for an overview of the project's vision, progress, and challenges thus far.

The two gave me a great overview of the program, and I was happy to hear of provisions such as the reservation of 25 percent of openings in schools for underprivileged students, and inclusion of 50 percent females on school management committees. However, the main obstacle to the program continues to be retention of students after they have enrolled in government schools. Having experienced this during Gyaan Ghar's early stages, I suggested education of families on the importance of primary education (of course, a number of social and economic factors complicate this matter substantially) and also mentioned the experience of student input in school administration I experienced in Recife on Gap Day 34.

I learned a wealth of information from the morning's appointment, and even finished with plenty of time before my next one! I decided to do something unusual for me and browse a nearby mall for an outfit for my next photo shoot with superstar Sonal. Having found some satisfactory sundresses, a nearby stationery store caught my eye -- at last, a sub-par replacement for my beloved blue pen!

Funnily enough, this store happened to be very close to where I had been when I realized I lost my pen in the first place, so I could have healed myself of my heartache much sooner. Lesson: we are often too busy freaking out about a problem to notice a solution right in front of our eyes! (Phony philosophy, anyone?)

This afternoon, I met with Arvind Uncle for an overview of energy generation, transmission, and distribution in Maharashtra. Power is something I knew virtually nothing about, so it was really refreshing and enjoyable to learn about it today. Uncle gave me some literature on Maharashtra's energy challenges, which I perused before asking him questions on each and every part I didn't understand (i.e. a lot).

Most interesting to me was the state's incorporation of renewable energy sources. Bagasse-based co-generation (sugarcane ethanol) and wind energy are the renewable sources used most widely now, and Uncle sees biomass and solar expanding in the near future, due to government subsidies. The future looks illuminated!

I spent the ride home catching up with family the world over while admiring magical Mumbai smog at sunset.

At home, I practiced Vipassana meditation for an hour before filling in Auntie and Uncle on my day over dinner. How lucky I am to have all these opportunities!

Divas 216

Today was just awesome. I don't know if it was Priya or ports or tourism or Nitz or meditation or exercise, but I feel great.

The first thing I did this morning was open my laptop and Skype my sister. She shared with me a piano piece she is preparing, as well as the other goings-on in her extracurricular life.

Our discussion prompted me to write her a follow-up email (I tend to take minutes of casual conversations) which touches upon one of the main lessons I have learned through practicing Vipassana and reading The Power of Now. Click here to read my message to Priya.

My first meeting this morning was with the Maharashtra Maritime Board to learn about ports. Captain Rohilla gave me an excellent presentation on MMB's vision and mission, a number of Greenfield (new) ports being developed, and challenges to the sector. I especially appreciate that, upon learning of my interest in environmental science, Mr. Rohilla focused on this aspect of their work. I am also always grateful when officers put up with my elementary level of questioning (e.g. "What is a jetty?") so for that I thank Mr. Rohilla also! The descriptions and details of each upcoming project really interested me, as did the specific considerations and hurdles attached to each. Who knew ports could be this captivating?

I <3 taking notes.
I then had the company of Dr. Nitin Kareer (more commonly known as NITZ!!) for tiramisu and lemon meringue pie at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (I found this name a very comprehensive one for a coffee shop). I got to fill him in on my silent meditation course, which was really fun since he was one of the last people to meet with me before I left (and make predictions on what my level of sanity would be over the course of the ten days). Among other things, we also discussed the merits of lecture vs. discussion vs. reading. While these are three of my favorite ways to learn, nay, to spend my time, I have to say -- there's nothing like a great lecture. I'm sure I'll contradict myself in the future and I'm sure I have in the past but I think there's something magical about listening to a brilliant speaker. Perhaps, though, I'm spoiled by how eloquent my teachers in most every subject seem to have been throughout my middle and high school careers. (It later occurred to me that perhaps I also love listening to lectures so much because of my compulsive note-taking -- see above.)

I received an opportunity to employ this secretary-like habit of constant scrawling after taking Nitin Uncle's leave and heading to my next meeting -- with Maharastra Tourism Development Corporation. Again I mentioned my environmental focus, and again my host, this time Managing Director Dr. Jagdish Patil, tailored his presentation to this interest. Turns out ecological conservation is huge for the tourism sector! (Of course, I knew this from having written it on many a short answer question in AP Enviro, but there's nothing like hearing it from the source. That's what I love about this year.) Mr. Patil identifies the following areas as key for the Maharastra tourism sector:

1. Infrastructure Development
2. Hygiene and Safety
3. Skill Development
4. Environmental Awareness

And so, concerning the fourth priority, he shared with me plenty of information on new green initiatives being developed across the state to raise public awareness, such as short animated films educating children (and everyone, really) on littering, unscrupulous resource use, etc. Needless to say, I enjoyed this meeting very much.

After a photo-happy ride home (during which I also read some Ovid), I enjoyed my daily meditation session. The key to benefiting from Vipassana is regularity of practice, so please hold me accountable, readers! When the hour was up, I read a superlatively written blog post by my superlative friend Dashell on the freaky Facebook phenomena that plague our generation. Later, I prepared a proposal to be allowed to observe classes at Manav Mangal Smart School in Mohali, where my friend/guru Deepu teaches science. I hope to schedule this visit within the next few weeks!

I then tricked myself into boarding the treadmill and remaining there until I had completed what turned out to actually be an enjoyable workout (who knew there was such a thing?). Then it was dinner and a nice chat with Auntie over dessert.

I now find myself about to call lights out, thoroughly reinvigorated and yet relaxed. All I can do is extend my gratitude for all the factors that have effected this state -- thank you, Earth!

Divas 217

My to-do list for this lovely morning:
  • Meditate for 1 hour.
  • Read 1 section in The Power of Now.
  • Read 30 lines of Ars Amatoria.
  • Design newspaper advertisement for Gyaan Ghar part-time teacher.
  • Update proposal for visit to Manav Mangal Smart School.
  • Make changes to blog page on Mumbai.

I hate to share my experience in bullet point form, but this is very much how it felt today! I postponed my shower repeatedly thinking I'd take it after attacking "one more thing," and ended up finishing all my pending odds and ends before washing up and chilling out a little bit (I fell asleep while meditating this morning -- oops). Of course, many of the little "chores" were fun, and I interspersed the above with snacking on aesthetically pleasing fruits (left) and digging up ancient photographs for a secret project. :)

As I've said before, I'd do nothing but work if my stamina could take it -- not that my to-do list for today contained any back-breaking labor.

Over lunch, Gaikwad Uncle gave me a wonderful lecture -- both detailed and big picture -- on the history and present impacts of Mumbai's urbanization. I'm proud to say that I actually understood most everything, and have had at least some level of exposure on this trip to most of the key urban areas he highlighted:

1. Housing
2. Transport
3. Water Supply
4. Stormwater Drainage
5. Sewage
6. Solid Waste Management

I rested at length after lunch (goodness knows I needed it) and then enjoyed a long conversation with Mama over Skype. She closed with the words "Thank you for your smile" -- you're welcome, Mommy! Thank you for my existence!

I was moved Uncle's briefing to read the last chapter of his Initiatives in Development Administration over tea -- about his time working to transform the city's infrastructure as Metropolitan Commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority.

I read the last few pages during a grueling (i.e. minimal) workout on the treadmill in an attempt to do justice to my comparatively minimal afternoon agenda:

  • Work out for 1 hour.
  • Meditate for 1 hour.

I think the one thing that really tends to stress me out is planning, and I was inclined to try to plot and plan the rest of my year during this evening meditation session, but I did my best to maintain awareness and equanimity (the cornerstones of Vipassana) and made it through the session! I chalked out the remainder of my gap year after meditating, and here is my tentative schedule (also visible in the left sidebar):

9 April - 3 May: I'll be in Punjab, spending more time with family as well as Gyaan Ghar students and staff.
3 May - 15 May: Receiving teaching training from Mr. Chang, and a week of classroom experience at Flint Hill!
15 May - 15 July: Working on environmental conservation in Latin America (I'm thinking Mexico).
15 July - 1 August: Coaching teams to compete at Latin Convention, and attending the event myself.
19 August: Participating in Harvard Pre-Orientation!

Didi joined us for dinner tonight and we were all in a very jovial and silly mood -- we had great fun. I just finished chatting with her about the training program she is conduction for the ICICI Fellow Program; it sounds like those kids are having a great time and learning more than ever (like me!).

Before now, I thought "happiness" meant laughing hysterically or feeling on top of the world all day. But I'm beginning to experience a new sort of placid pleasure -- not going to lie: I really like it.

Divas 218

Something I've been thinking about quite often lately is how the Ratna Gill of exactly one year ago would have reacted to what the Ratna Gill of today is up to right now. Last year, I would have been shocked that Ratna had cut off all her hair, inquisitive about what Ratna was doing in Mumbai for a month, and skeptical of the fact that Ratna has started meditating daily. Life is about surprises!

I woke up this morning and talked to Priya before receiving news that Gokhale Nanaji was back in town, and then rushing to prepare to meet him. I don't think I've ever showered and packed so fast! (Probably a total of about 8 minutes.) I managed to enjoy breakfast and tea and a few pages in The Power of Now before leaving for his house, which is about half an hour from the Gaikwads'.

He and Auntie greeted me warmly and with affection as always, and, after some catching up and teasing me, Auntie got to preparing lunch. My mother had assigned me the task of learning some Indian cooking on this trip, so I observed and took notes (not really) as Auntie cooked a lovely mixed vegetable pulao (rice and veggies -- what else does one need?).

We enjoyed the scrumptious dish before I gulped down too much of our dessert of home-delivered ice cream. That's right -- home-delivered ice cream!!

In the afternoon, I set out for the home of Ashwini Auntie, by whom I was immensely inspired on Day 201, to catch up on her recent trip to Brasil and fill her in on my Vipassana experience. What we ended up discussing for most of our conversation, though, was the Indian education system. 

(Perhaps my most vivid observation on this entire trip to India is this: as much as I love this country, I don't think I could have grown up here, and the paramount reason for that is the prevailing approach to education. Here, learning = memorizing. The focus is on one's statistics, and not one's intellectual growth. Students must decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives at the age of fifteen. (As you can imagine, most Indians reel in horror at the concept of a gap year.) There is really no room for individuality in this system, and I think this is one thing that needs to change if India wants to become more competitive in the global context.)

I also had the pleasure of meeting Auntie's family, including nine-year-old Janhavi, who loves to draw and write -- what a sweetheart. Thank you, Bhide family, for a very enjoyable afternoon!

The next phase of my day was not so enjoyable (I'm being dramatic). I had been sent on a peculiar quest in search of a stretchable sari blouse, and found myself being mercilessly tossed by retail waves for an Odyssey of an adventure. The first place I looked was Amarsons, where I was semi-swindled (okay, maybe I submitted willingly), into buying five bottles of nail polish in assorted shades. As I've mentioned before, it's so random, but nail polish is my weakness. Even this wasn't terrible, but my next stop was Premsons. Ugh. I remember loving this store as a wide-eyed child, but today, the variety there just made me nauseous. For example, see below an illegal photograph of the tiara section. The tiara section. A bit gratuitous? I think so.

I didn't allow myself to be sucked into this whirlpool, and survived a potential shipwreck (of my wallet) having purchased nothing but a small gift for Priya. Phew! I was happy to return to the Gokhale residence and chat with Auntie as we chowed down on some chutney and cheese snacks. I gave each of my grandparents a tour of my blog while working on this post, and am signing off now hoping to squeeze in an hour of meditation tonight -- wish me metta!

Divas 219

Wow. I still can't believe how much I've seen and done today.

After some minor transportation confusion, I left the Gokhales' place this morning armed with my camera and notebook and bound for Thane, a city north of Mumbai.

The first project on my agenda was slum sanitation -- MMRDA's officer C.K. Patil took me on a tour of four toilet block facilities: magnificently clean community restrooms furnished with all necessary amenities, for the use of slum-dwellers. I had heard a lot about this project from Uncle, but was so pleasantly surprised to see the sites myself -- I am generally hesitant to use public restrooms in India, but these facilities were certainly good enough for me!

I also had a chance to chat with the community users of these toilet blocks, who really appreciate the improvement. In addition, I interviewed the toilets' caretakers, generally a couple -- the wife will clean the women's restrooms and the husband the men's. In return, they receive a residence atop the two-story toilet block structure.

I tried to probe into what the issues/complaints were at each site, but I was met with a whole lot of contentment! 24-hour electricity, water, and hygiene certainly beat squatting in the street!

Our next stop was a center for treatment of child malnutrition. This program provides young children with healthy supplemental snacks thrice a day to help them recover from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) or medium acute malnutrition (MAM).

At this site, we met with Gaikwad Uncle, who was following up on the progress of the iniative.

Watching Uncle in action is literally incredible -- everyone who has worked with him is in awe -- no detail is too small for him to care about; no challenge too large. He embodies a balance of proactivity and attention to detail which is something beyond human. I now understand why Papa refers to him as a blend of Gandhi and Alexander the Great.

We then checked out a hospital opened under the auspices of the National Rural Health Mission. There, Uncle again grilled the administration with difficult questions about their monitoring system, most of which they were unable to answer. Oops! On a different note, though, this visit reminded me of the importance of the noble cause of NURSING! Props to JennPenn, future pediatric nurse practitioner. :)

I was excited when I heard that we would next be visiting a nursery -- hoorah for primary education! Thus, I was momentarily taken aback when we were driven to a green patch where many young plants were being held. Ohhh, that kind of nursery! This visit was really cool, as this nursery is one of the sites growing saplings for Maharashtra's ambitious Billion Tree Program. My main takeaway from this visit was Uncle's stress on sapling survival over scheduling. That is, he would prefer that half a billion saplings are planted and all of them survive than that a billion trees are planted but many of them die. The specialists at the site also showed us some genetic modification of the trees, by which a more drought-resistant variety is created. Gotta love treehugger talk!

Our final visit was one to which I had been looking forward for a very long time -- an old age home plus meditation center designed by Gaikwad Uncle in Khadavali. We started by eating lunch there, which brought back my very ripe and very, very fond memories of yummy Vipassana Center food.

Next, there was a ceremony to honor the nursing home's workers -- those who give their time and their service to make the atmosphere safe and enjoyable for the elderly inmates. While I could not follow most of the Marathi, I was referenced in Uncle's address as someone who was immediately drawn to Vipassana meditation, and I was even invited to present awards to a few of the elderly female workers~

We then took a tour of the two facilities -- a nursing home which strives to bring joy and dignity to "the eve of one's life" and the meditation school which aims for a more peaceful life for all ages.

Both complexes are excellent, and find themselves situated on the bank of a tranquil perennial river. What could be more conducive to inner peace? I sat in on a meeting of the society's trustees -- the main discussion topic was funding through establishment of lifetime donors, so I was definitely able to glean some ideas for Gyaan Ghar.

[Speaking of ideas for Gyaan Ghar, I planned a party while driving from one place to another today. I have in mind an Earth Day Bash for the kids on April 22nd, to get them really excited about the environment -- I'm envisioning a simple event during class hours, but with green everywhere. We would wear green and think green and create green. I also have an idea for an art project the students could work on, and my favorite interior designer Sonal Chawla is on the job to help me plan a great celebration!]

Uncle and I left Khadavali in the early evening, and I requested that we meditate soon after sitting in the car and debriefing about the day a bit. We closed our eyes for a one-hour sitting and opened them just as we arrived home! How perfect.

Auntie awaited us with open arms and all my favorite foods. I can't believe I only have one day left here -- I honestly can no longer imagine being anywhere else!

Divas 220 

Today is a very important one. Not only is it my last day in Mumbai, it is also the day I finally got to venture into Dharavi, the million-person slum depicted in the recent film Slumdog Millionaire.

Dilip Uncle came to accompany me, along with Sakshi Auntie, who is a Social Development Assistant.

We set foot into the narrow street, and the first thing that dawned upon me was that I wouldn't be able to take photographs (though I'm sure the seven-year-old boy who randomly flipped out his cell phone and took a picture of my face would disagree). This is because the place is a rush of shapes, colors, and movement -- with homes, shops, and a maze of passageways all over. The next best thing I could think to do was take a video, but even this video couldn't capture much of the dynamism that is Dharavi.

There is more to say about the lifestyle here than my blog can handle, but I will never forget the picture of two young girls defecating on the street with their shirts pulled completely over their heads so passersby would at least not be able to see who they were.

I was surprised when I peeked into a residence and saw a family watching television! Wouldn't they prefer to spend their money in some other, "better" way. Then I understood -- we always refer to entertainment as and "escape" from our daily lives, and for these people it truly is the only escape from the life they are living.

I could spend a months here (in fact, I would love to) and still be completely ignorant and stunned speechless, but I am glad to have at least received an introduction to the state of life in such slums.

En route to our next stop, we passed by some of the homes constructed to resettle Project-Affected Persons (PAPs) off of land needed for the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). I especially like the photograph below, as it shows a distinct before and after -- in the foreground find the makeshift homes where these people were living earlier, and in the back see their new residences.

We then drove to the main station of the upcoming Mumbai Monorail. Again, I had imbued some of Gaikwad Uncle's enthusiasm about this project, but was beyond excited to see this futuristic and efficient transit option in person. Our guide, Mr. Shantharama, showed us the projected route, a model of how a typical station will look, and a completed car.

In spite of my always childish questions ("Monolithic? Where? What?"), it was asked if I was a civil engineer. Now this I found highly amusing. What should I have said? "Actually, I'm a pre-college student whose most logical major in school would be English Literature." I just smiled and shook my head. Though to be honest, I could get used to wearing a hardhat.

I can't wait to use the monorail the next time I visit. The trains themselves are the coolest colors -- green, pink, and blue (go Powerpuff Girls!) -- and, having seen the blueprint, I think the stations are going to become iconic of Mumbai.

We next visited a huge resettlement site in Washi Naka, where about 7,000 families have been moved because of MUTP. There, I had the chance to interact with members of the community-based organization (CBO) in charge of the social welfare of its citizens. I asked them all the "usual" questions when it comes to resettlement:

Has your livelihood been affected by moving here?

Have any social issues arisen as a result of bringing people from so many different areas and backgrounds to live here?

What do you see as your new home's greatest advantages? Its disadvantages?

The resounding issue faced by these people was loss of connectivity -- especially to their children's schools. Kids who used to walk just next door to school now have to take a bus, change lines, and take a second bus to arrive at their educational facilities. I asked if this had caused them to reduce their attendance and they assured me that their children were still attending school daily, but find the new commute inconvenient and at times unsafe.

Our last official stop (though just looking outside the window in Mumbai is a lesson in urbanization) was a meeting with the members of a Women's Livelihood Program developed at a similar resettlement site. Through this initiative, former slum-dwellers received employment and training from Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. At first, MMRDA commissioned smaller projects -- making folders, decorations, greetings cards, etc. by hand.

MMRDA then before employed this group of women to run their entire office's cafeteria! I asked their Secretary what she saw as the strongest part of the training, and she said that even more than the training program, real-world experience in manufacturing, marketing, and communicating is what has given her the confidence to face whatever challenge should arise in the future. (In my head, this response was basically a eulogy of the "gap year philosophy" -- and this is exactly what I want for my students!)

Back home, I bid Dilip Uncle farewell -- I am truly thankful for his enthusiasm, dedication, and knowledge. I learned so much today! We then had a lunch which just happened to be comprised of all of my favorite foods in the world. But I'm sure Gaikwad Auntie had nothing to do with that! :)

I took some rest after our meal and awoke to realize that I wouldn't be able to see Dr. Nitz again before leaving. So I was already having some trouble keeping it together, but the reminder of having to start packing was the last straw. The things I have learned here and the conversations I have had have just been deeply, profoundly great. I have not sobbed due to separation (as I have been for the last two hours) since I was seven.

It's also very difficult thinking of leaving this home -- the Gaikwads are at peace with themselves and one another in a way I have never witnessed before. Their entire family just lives to do good. Take today, for example. The transport project I toured in the morning was envisioned by Uncle. The afternoon's empowerment program was designed by Shivanjali Didi. The unquestioning warmth I received when I returned home was from Auntie. Where else does this exist? This is not a rhetorical question; tell me if you have an answer.

I won't say, "Goodbye, Mumbai!" until tomorrow morning, but for now, I'm preparing to enjoy my last evening here to the fullest.

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