May 19, 2004

Networking with the IITK Alumni

Tonight I went to an IITK alumni event that was hosted at MIT. Professor Keniston (who has been giving the classes on Indian culture that I never seem to be able to make) originally planned to go to the event himself, but it turned out that he was unable to go, so the MIT India coordinator (Aditi) decided that I should take his place. As I am not an IITK alum and I wouldn't know anyone there, I was hesitant to accept the ticket, but Aditi convinced me to go and said that I could always just leave if it got too weird.

For some reason, one of my biggest fears about going to these things is that I won't wear the right clothes. This is somewhat ironic, in that (1) I have no qualms about wearing pajamas to school, and (2) even if I wear the right clothes, I'm still going to stick out as the only white person in the room. I ultimately went with khaki pants, a sports coat, and tie which put me pretty much in the middle of the spectrum which included everything from denim to from what I took to be traditional, cultural Indian garb.

I got to the event promptly at 5:30, at which point there were about four people and at least a dozen empty tables. I met a retired IIT professor, a young alumnus, and a current student (Jyoti). The first two seemed to actually know other alumni, so as people started to filter in, they left the table to go meet them. However, Jyoti seemed to know about as many people as I did, so I talked to her all evening so she could answer all of my questions about life at IIT.

Some other people introduced themselves to me (probably thinking, "When the hell did this kid graduate from IIT?"), and after I explained to someone that I was going to IITK for the summer on exchange, he said, "Oh, then there's someone who you have to meet!" He introduced me to Dorothy Dahl, who is the wife of the late Professor Norman Dahl at MIT who was one of the "founding fathers" of MIT's exchange program with IITK. Apparently, Norman and Dorothy lived in India (with their small children) from 1962-1964 to oversee the exchange program (which included students from other big name universities like Princeton and Michigan, at the time).

Apparently, the Dahls enjoyed their trip to India very much and Dorothy had returned there many times. She told me that she expected that one of the most difficult things for me would be dealing with the poverty that I would see in India. I asked her if, after going to India so many times, she ever got used to it. Her response was, "When a mother throws the stump of her child's deformed hand at you...well, no, you can never get used to something like that." It was truly amazing, though Mrs. Dahl is in her 80s, she speaks clearly and vividly of her time in India.

Things finally got started at 7:30 (i.e., after I had already been there for two hours). And by "things," I don't mean dinner -- I mean speeches. Mrs. Dahl spoke first and she relayed the tales of how her husband flew to India with some other professors in the early 60s to check things out and to try to decide if an exchange program would work out. She also told the story of how the first IBM computer came to IITK, along with some other firsts for IIT Kanpur (IITK was only founded in 1962, so the Dahls were basically there from the beginning).

After Mrs. Dahl spoke, the Director of IITK, Dr. Dhande, spoke for awhile. He was funny and enthusiastic, so I enjoyed his talk very much. The majority of his presentation was a slideshow of all the new things going on at IITK. Just like MIT, they have a lot of construction going on, as well as a new (air-conditioned!) computer science building where I will likely be working this summer! When Dr. Dhande finished (around 8:30), the emcee said that they would give Dr. Dhande a short break while we got dinner.

As it turned out, what followed was an open floor discussion between Dr. Dhande and the alumni. This went on while they were calling up tables to grab buffet dinner, so it was difficult for Dr. Dhande to hold a discussion over the noise of everyone shuffling all around and eating. Honestly, I thought that the whole thing was somewhat comic in that Dr. Dhande would basically be shouting across the room to answer the person's question while all of these people would be walking inbetween them.

I overheard that this was one of many alumni stops for Dr. Dhande across the U.S., and I started to feel bad for him that he would have to go through this ordeal every night. Basically, he has to stand there while alumni yell at him, and in the meantime, his dinner is sitting there getting cold! I suppose that Dr. Dhande had grown accustomed to this ordeal, as he seemed to handle himself pretty well.

Aditi told me that I should introduce myself to Dr. Dhande, but unfortunately, I never got the chance. The Q&A session was still going strong at 9:30, and there was no end in sight. As I had been there for four hours at that point, I really couldn't take it anymore, so I excused myself and decided to leave. Now I'm just going to try to introduce myself to Dr. Dhande in person when I get to Kanpur.

Posted by Michael at 09:30 PM | Comments (1)

May 03, 2004

Travel Safety in India

So now that I've decided to spend my summer in India, I get a lot of email from one of the coordinators that is full of do's and dont's to follow while abroad. It's actually a little difficult to keep track of everything, but today's email was particularly memorable (if you start to get bored with the email, at least scroll to the last line of the entry):

Here are some pointers concerning travel safety in India:


The following two areas are currently off bounds:

KASHMIR (terrorism directed at foreign tourists, among others);

NEPAL (civil war starting).

In addition, there are some rural areas inland from the Bay of Bengal in
the states of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkand, and Bihar, where Naxalite
(Maoist) groups operate. These are not tourist areas, and you are very
unlikely to be going there. But should you, get the advice of experienced
Indians, and take proper precautions, especially at night.

Otherwise, traveling in India is about as safe as in the US except for
traffic accidents, and the same precautions should be taken in Indian
cities as in American cities.


By an order of magnitude, young Americans in developing countries are more
likely to be injured or killed in vehicular accidents than by any disease
or combination of illnesses. Driving is of course on the left. Many Indian
drivers do not obey traffic laws and take horrendous risks. The death toll
per million miles is 30 times the toll in the U.S. The general rule on the
often poor Indian roads is that the bigger vehicle wins. In rough order of
safety, the following may be helpful:


Jet Airways (excellent, very safe domestic airline), Indian Air (not as
good, but generally safe), Alliance Air (a branch of Indian Air, uses older
planes), regional airlines (check with friends).


In general, trains are safe and very much part of the Indian
experience. Book well ahead, and ask friends for clarification of the
complex options available for ticketing. Some stations have special queues
for foreigners. By all means, if possible, take a long train trip in
India: it is very much part of an Indian experience. Most trains are
relatively slow: check before you book.


Large buses tend to be the safest (except in mountain regions), simply
because they destroy anything they hit. They come in many sizes, shapes,
and varieties; it is best to book through a travel agent, and to decide
well in advance when taking a long trip whether you want movies, a sleeper,
sit up, etc. Local buses are very cheap, and entail endless stops.


Hired cars with drivers and taxis are relatively safe, as India goes. The
driver knows that his life and livelihood depend on not destroying the car,
himself, and, incidentally, his passengers. Although he may take what to
you seem incredible risks, he usually knows what he is doing.


Extremely dangerous, especially when, like most Indian cars, they are
light, with a motor of less than 1000 cc. Especially dangerous is the
front seat of mini-vans. Seat belts are often non-existent.


These three-wheeled, usually two-stroke, vehicles are ubiquitous in Indian
cities and towns. They are extremely risky, with nothing between you and
the world except a piece of canvas. But once again, most auto rickshaw
drivers, whatever risks they may take, depend for their lives and
livelihood on not having accidents. Check and agree on fares before you
get on: overcharging is common.


Extraordinarily dangerous. Helmets are rare except in Delhi, where they
are mandatory. Riding pillion on an Indian friend's motorcycle is an
invitation to death or mutilation. Avoid it.


Don't: bicycles are fair game for all other vehicles, helmets unknown and

Remember the rule, *MIT interns are not allowed to drive any vehicle of any
kind in India.*


All pedestrians are fair game, and the instincts of people brought up in
America are totally wrong for Indian traffic, which moves on the
left. When crossing main streets in Indian cities, try to take the arm of
an Indian friend, who will be more expert in maneuvering than you are.

Despite these precautions, traveling in India is fun, generally safe, and
to be encouraged. But choose planes (very expensive), trains, or large
buses in preference to anything else. Train and bus travel, in particular,
will take you vast distances at low cost.

One final warning: when traveling in popular conveyances like trains and
buses, try not to carry valuable items (computers, cameras), and certainly
not visibly. Take a discreet padlock or chain to attach your belongings to
the vehicle. Travel light. Carry toilet paper, which will generally not
be available. Take Immodium to avoid embarrassment if your stomach goes bad.

But above all, have fun, enjoy the friendliness of Indians, and see the
great Indian countryside.

Posted by Michael at 09:19 AM | Comments (0)