Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Krakow Experience

Working in Dresden for past couple of years had presented me with the unique opportunity of exploring the somewhat under appreciated eastern Europe. After a while, all the cities do look annoyingly similar, but it it does not take much effort to observe how historical background has shaped each city's character uniquely. It is never possible to get a complete picture in weekend trips, but as they say, something is better than nothing.

Krakow in central Poland was my destination last weekend. Like most of the east European cities recovering from communism, it also has a deep disdain for the Russians. The leftovers from socialist era, however are still there. The most prominent were the so called milk-bars, the highly subsidized canteen style eateries, where we had excellent and cheap perogies. Food is generally cheap, and most people spoke some English.

Sandwiched between mighty Russia and Germany, Poland always had a difficult existence, suffering aggression, conquest and persecution. Pretty it was, with the usual assortment of imposing churches, castles and palaces, but also with the somber reminders of terrors of not too distant past.That is where I spent most of my time. They are undoubtedly depressing, but also in a strange way makes you appreciate life more.

The German occupation during WW2 , and subsequent brutality were the dominant theme of the two places I visited in the city. Jagiellonian University, which is one of the oldest universities in the Europe, and the museum housed in the enamel factory of Oscar Schindler. Nicolas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II are probably the two most famous inhabitants of the city and they both studied at the university at different times. It was forcibly shut down during the German occupation and a group of professors were arrested. The next destination was Oscar Schindler's enamel factory, made popular by the Steven Spielberg movie, which was also filmed here. This has now been turned into a permanent exhibition depicting the condition of Krakow's inhabitants, both Jewish and Polish, during the Nazi occupation. This is a not a typical museum, rather gives one a feeling of walking down the streets while everything unfolds around him, thanks to original video and audio recordings, photographs, and the carefully designed exhibition space. We are forced to confront the horrors of life under Nazi occupation firsthand, and to put it mildly, it was not pleasant!

However, that barely prepared us for the mass murder fields we were to visit next day. The adjacent cities of Auschwitz and Birkenau were the location of the largest WW2 era concentration camps. Not much remains now at Birkenau, where most of the "evidence" were destroyed by the Nazis while fleeing. Still the occasional pits and chimneys, and the barbed wire fences serve as a jarring reminder of the cruelty. This was the place were trains packed with prisoners arrived, and many of them were led directly to gas chambers. The rest were crammed in stable-like shades, where not many survived the utterly pathetic living conditions. Walking across the snow covered eerily quiet landscape, it is hard to imagine that men can be so cruel. While top Nazi leaders were certainly driven by ambition and ideology, the foot soldiers were merely doing their job. And to most of them, this was probably just another job - what perhaps required an incredible amount of de-humanization of the jews.

The Auschwitz camp was much smaller, with closely spaced barracks. Nothing apart from the cruel fences, and the gloriously inappropriate sign "Arbeit macht frei", would make it stand out . Many of the buildings house exhibitions now, some showing how people from different countries from across the continent were brought it here, and some showing the condition of the camps. The sheer scale of the Nazi effort is mindbogglingly depressing. Torture almost lost its meaning, and death was cheap. It was an "industrial" revolution of a different kind.

Some pictures are here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Is going back the new way forward?

We all have been subjected to this all important question at some point or the other, whether we intend to go back to India after "finishing" our studies. Some answered honestly, some gave more of a politically correct answer. Some said they do not know. But as it was a purely speculative question at that point, and none had to give a "final" answer, so what we said did not really carry a whole lot of weight. We knew we will cross the bridge when it came to that, unless of course we were pushed out into the water.

Undoubtedly that has happened to people. Some lost funding, some did not clear their qualifying examinations, some had personal issues and had to go back. I am not talking about those forced departures. Suddenly I am seeing a lot of my contemporaries from India, doing well in US or Europe in academics, deciding to go back in their free will, often abandoning their current positions. I also have examples of my family members or other senior folks who went back, again mostly in their own accord. Is there a generation-independent common thread in these homecomings, or individuals just acted according to their own personal situations?

The one underlying thread is always taking care of family. None of our parents are getting younger, and being in the same timezone rather than a long flight or two away is certainly more comforting. It is also true that for some, industry jobs in India are as good as what they would have gotten over here, minus the hassles of visa, green card and immigration lawyers. But for people looking at academic positions, is India equally tempting? Or is it not about career, but more about security? Priorities changed, or it never was about loving the work?

Career is always a very selfish pursuit, and uncertain too. In spite of working our backside off, while ignoring social obligations and family responsibilities, there is no assurance that we will ever get a permanent academic position in US (or in Europe, for that matter) which we will like. Specially for those of us in fields, where supply far outweighs the demand, we spend years as "postdocs" before even thinking about permanent positions. That is essentially like waiting in a queue, without knowing what it is at the end. So after unsuccessfully exploring all possibilities, if you still like what you did all these while (and realize that you not really good for anything else!), and going back gives you an opportunity to continue in academics, albeit in a slightly more frustrating setup, it does make perfect sense. The money is not so bad either nowadays.

However, many are going back much earlier. Yes, there is a glut of faculty positions in India now, after all these new institutes were created, but did we work hard all these while just for a safe job? We survived hard deadlines and meager graduate student salaries, not because we knew there is a job waiting, but because we enjoyed what we were doing. Few do research which changes the world or wins Nobel prize, but just being a small cog in a big wheel is no less motivating. And truth be told, the academic ambiance in a random American university is usually better than that in a random Indian university. Research is more streamlined, there is less political interference in everyday matters, and the professors are more respected in the society. Without exploring that option, and actually comparing if staying back can be better for a career in research, bolting for a safe job appears a bland cop out to me.

Now of course there is the other stream of thought that, it is obligatory for homegrown Indians to go back. A foreign country can never feel like home, and one should not spend one's life abroad, uprooted from the familiar surroundings, and not getting fully integrated there. This may have some merit, but in that case, it would rule out most of India for me. I would feel more of a stranger in Chennai without knowing any Tamil rather than how much I feel alienated in US, where I even though I cant speak like them, I can understand what they speak. Another school of thought goes that since our education in India was essentially subsidized by tax payers money, we owe it to take our skills back. Without going into a long argument on whether higher education should be free, I would say that knowledge transfer in today's connected world does not necessarily require continuous physical presence.

I do know if I will get an academic job here. I do not know if I would like one a few years down the line. I do not know if in that case I prefer going back and get an academic job there. What I do know is this, that whatever I do, it will be driven only by career aspirations at that point, making sure I enjoy doing that. That has always been the primary motivation, and abandoning that will make all these years meaningless.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

A trip back down the memory lane

"As I passed through the gates, the blistered hands of nostalgia gave my heart a good squeeze and I realized you miss shit times as well as good times, because at the end of the day what you're really missing is just time itself."
— Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

About two years back, I left Gainesville after obtaining my Ph.D. That is how it was supposed to happen, and five and half years were indeed a long enough time spent in that little big college town. However, somewhere down the line, it just did not remain just another place where I spent a few years of my life, rather became my home, the place where I felt I belonged to. First time in my life, everything was mine. Not just that I started earning money for the first time (no matter how meager graduate student salary was), and spent as I wanted. I traveled all over the place, bought a car. All the successes were mine, and all the failures too. Then I moved to Germany. No matter how enriching a cultural experience this was, and how much work my career benefited, I could never bring myself to say I am from Dresden. I stuck with I work here.

I craved for a chance to go back. Finally everything worked out for a quick trip down there. As I drove in the town late night, I almost ended up heading to my old apartment. Apart from a few new parking lots, everything looked the same, just like how I last saw them. The physics building still felt like the second home it was, only my office did not have my name any more. It was not just me, others also had trouble realizing that they last said "hi" to me in the corridor two years back, not yesterday. The guy who bought my car was kind enough to let me drive it again, and except for the fact that the interior looked much less messy now, I felt just as familiar sitting there. Many people left, but those I did meet, helped me to feel at home. I dined at Satchel's Pizza, the unique Gainesville landmark. I stepped inside the "Swamp", knowing little that the Urban Meyer era, which in a lot of ways defined the identity of "our" Gator nation, is about to end. I drove down to Cedar Key, the nearest seafront, which holds so many memories from those days gone by.

And then I was gone again.