Wednesday, December 23, 2020

What's meant to be will always find its way. Always(?)

Like a spray of fresh paint, some looks always linger on the mind. Like the look on his face when they hugged and kissed their goodbyes at the airport that night. It’s a recurring memory every day.


She looked back at him time and again as she passed the security gate. With both hands in his front pocket of his jeans, he kept smiling at her until she lost sight of him.


Her throat felt lumpy, as if her heart was almost plopping out.  Teary eyes, her vision blinded. “Quick! I need to get to the washroom before the boarding,” she thought. In that blinded rush to the washroom, she mistakenly found herself in the men’s washroom. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled and ran to the women’s washroom.


It was a 11:45 PM flight out of Boston to Istanbul-Delhi-Paro. She found her seat next to the Emergency Exit on the left and a flight attendant was sitting opposite to her in preparation for the flight’s takeoff.

The light inside the aircraft was dimmed, she felt so grateful. The dim light shielded her sad and swollen eyes.


The cellphone chimed, “Have a safe flight, honey bear! I will miss you so much,” it read.  


Seven minutes into the takeoff and she was rubbing her eyes constantly. She tried to stop the tears from falling, but it simply wouldn’t stop. The girl sitting next to her had a blanket covered from head to toe and she was sleeping soundly, so were rest of the passengers. she felt grateful, again.


The flight attendant passed her a quizzical look couple of times. “I’m okay, don’t worry,” she gestured to her. She was left in peace.


"I will be right back before you even know it,” that was the deal she made with him. The deal that was made two weeks before that night’s flight, she has no idea what possessed her to do that.


When they last kissed their goodbyes who would have imagined a pandemic looming over in the next six months? Who’d have thought international borders would shut down and travels would be banned?


As the year comes to an end and as vaccines are out, a lot of things still remains uncertain. Uncertain when it will end, if there’s an end to it, ever?


Oftentimes, she wonders if she will ever be able to see her love again? Will they ever get together to buy a house, raise a baby girl, have their own kitchen garden, go kayaking down by the water in the summer evening to watch the sunset, and eat s’mores by the fire in the fall?


Will they ever be able to eat seafood and tacos and drink margaritas on her first night back?

Will they..?

Friday, December 4, 2020

“The Person You Become” - A Reflection

Summer in New York City (NYC) can be ghastly, with temperatures shooting up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat and the humidity can bear down on you, especially during midday. That June weekday afternoon was not any different. It was one hot day that I had long come to embrace. 

I had so much time on hands. With no specific agenda in mind, I stuffed my backpack with a water bottle, a couple of protein bars to combat hunger pangs, and my current read. I was reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, a perfect travel guide to NYC if you want to know more of the epochal days of music, art, and culture of the City in the late sixties and seventies. Central Park is mentioned a lot in the book, so as a concurrent book hangover cure, I made my visit to the park.

Taking the E train from Queens, I got off at 63 Street Station and walked for about nine minutes to the park. I occupied a less crowded spot and lay down on the grass. One of the best things about NYC is the subway; you can hop on one and it takes you to places conveniently, though it can become a nightmare during the weekends when services are delayed due to weekly maintenance. 

I knew nobody in the park, which was the best thing, it made me nobody too. The anonymity was strangely liberating! Often times, I’ve had jarring thoughts: What if I change my name and live as a new person where no one knows me? When this thought evaded me again, I quickly fished out my earplugs and looked up the NPR TED Radio Hour podcast. Local radio stations and local libraries are two things that I never fail to explore wherever I am in any city in the world. These resources help you know more about and get acquainted with the city you are in. Especially as an international student, these tools have been very useful. NPR TED Radio Hour has been my favorite podcast for the past year. On lazy afternoons I enjoy listening to their hour of fascinating ideas, astonishing inventions, and the way their programs make you think like the one that day.

That day, The Person You Become caught my attention and immediately I lay down on the grass on my back and closed my eyes for detailed attention. Guest speakers included aerobatic pilot and public speaker Janine Shepherd, writers Roxane Gay and Taiye Selasi, activists Jackson Bird, and fashion executive Kaustav Dey. They shared their personal experiences and ideas about the people we become over the course of our lives. Listening to it made me reflect on my own life, about myself, and the person I’ve become in the past year. 

Coming to Heller for graduate school and studying international development is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It gives me a deep perspective to understand all the major forces of change: social injustice, government policies, and market approaches, and how communities are impacted by our everyday decisions. All the senses are opened up like a volcano erupting. Every issue, no matter how big or small is important and it’s like you’ve been hit hard with reality and there is an urgent desire in you to work towards a solution or propose an alternative. All this is urgently important because the moment you waste thinking of it is another moment the community and the world is suffering. 

Those days I spent a lot of time thinking until the very act of thinking became an unbearable pain. It has me brimming with full of ideas and just the act of putting down on paper is overwhelming. A sense of purpose in life opens up and my identity as a successful driver of change is constantly challenged. You start to see the community and the world from different lens, from the lens of a development practitioner. The community at Heller, from the faculty to the diverse students and the staffs are extremely supportive and the environment perfectly conducive for learning. They are helpful not only to give birth to your ideas and knowledge but supportive in nurturing it.

I don’t have a vision of my future at the moment, but I know one thing--the future holds good things in store for me. Or maybe it’s too much psychoanalysis from a graduate student on an endless summer break who has nothing important to do, or maybe it was too much literature and drunken philosophy and Ms. Smith’s reading.

P.S - This was written in summer 2018, a contribution to the Student Newsletter during graduate school. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Nationwide lockdown and key takeaways: things we can learn as we step into the new normal

When I opened my eyes suddenly it was raining outside the window. I don’t remember how long I had fallen asleep on the couch, I must have fallen asleep reading as the book was lying face down on my chest and my neck was sore. The clock showed 5:30 in the afternoon. 

My immediate wish was to go back to my nap listening to the sound of the rainfall. Ah! Who doesn’t love sleeping to the sound of rainfall? Instead, I shrugged the idea, quickly got up, and fixed myself a cup of coffee. With coffee in hand, I sat by the balcony to watch the rainfall because that’s the farthest hangout zone for now.

I don’t exactly remember the last time I sat outside like today to watch the summer rainfall. When was that? Was that when I was a freshman in college? Because that’s the only vivid memory I have of sitting by the window on rainy summer evenings with coffee, reflecting and writing my journal or reading a book. 

That was some 15 years ago. Wow! Where did the years go in between? 

It took 15 long years for me to sit down for a self-reflection. Had the nationwide lockdown not happened on August 11 with the first community transmission detected outside the quarantine facility, I wonder how long it would take…

Although the sudden lockdown of 21 days caused great inconvenience to everyone, I’m sure everyone has had the time to reflect on the new reality and has emerged a little more skilled at everything; be it at baking, culinary skills, gardening, reading more, and exercising and bonding with family which one may have never gotten. 

Personally, it came at the right time - I could get some much-needed respite from office work, ample time for self-reflection, and endless sleeping and reading time. I could finish books from 9 months ago and got enough rest and exercise. Just like how our body needs rest to heal and rejuvenate, mother earth needs the same thing. It was a call for us to pause and heal; mentally, spiritually, and physically and come out with a renewed sense of purpose to make the world a better place.
The first week was a whirlpool of emotion and it was overwhelming for me to process the gravity of the situation when every essential good was flying off the shelf of grocery stores. It was mayhem everywhere and I’m sure patience was our middle name. However, the most natural and good thing is humans learn to adjust and adapt quickly and we tried to adjust accordingly. By the end of week 2 of lockdown, I’m sure everyone was settled in comfortably.
We are living in such a strange and unprecedented time in history. If you had told me last year how 2020 is going to be, I would have laughed it off. With so much progress in human history over the last couple of centuries, humankind has never expected such a tumultuous time in history where hugging, hand-shakes, and any contact that is less than 6 feet distance is a threat.

Doesn’t it seem like a scene out of a dystopian novel/film for that matter? In a span of six months, everything changed. Social/physical distancing, quarantine, lockdown, mitigation, shelter in place are the new buzzword that reigns our lives now. Welcome to the new normal!
The geopolitical situation of Bhutan

Waking up every morning to the increasing case of COVID-19 cases is the new normal. Community transmission was inevitable given the porous border we share with India, with one of the highest COVID-19 cases and deaths and the hotbed of the pandemic besides the US and Brazil. Not to forget the border we share with China in the north. 

It’s kudos to the exemplary leadership of His Majesty the King and the relentless efforts on the government’s part that Bhutan did not see community transmission for the first six months given our strategic location between the two Asian giants and how globalized we have become in the 21st century. I feel extremely blessed to be a Bhutanese where His Majesty’s visionary leadership has guided us thus far as he has been at the forefront like a warrior in every response of this pandemic. Thankfully, at this point, Bhutan has not had a single death.
With almost all the countries under lockdown and healthcare facilities overburdened, anxiety, fear, and panic looming over, times are scary and hard. Never in human history, people must have consumed so much news and become confused and anxious. When should the country ease down on the lockdown and open its international borders? The pandemic is not just a health issue, it’s a profound shock to our societies and economies that unravels untold human sufferings. 
Lessons learned and the key takeaways

As offices and more businesses open from tomorrow and more cars are allowed on the road in an effort to step into the new normal, we have a lot of takeaways from the 21 days of lockdown, it’s a lesson on the functioning of society and the governance. Just as the war exposes the weaknesses of a defeated nation, pandemic exposes the weaknesses of their system. One of the key takeaways was food insecurity.
Despite 70 percent of the Bhutanese population dependent on the agricultural sector, 8.1 percent of the households experience food insufficiency (National Statistics Bureau, 2017). According to the World Bank (2017), nearly one out of three Bhutanese suffer from food insecurity despite importing 34% of the country’s cereal needs. With the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, I’m sure these figures have escalated indefinitely. In the United States alone, nearly one in eight households doesn’t have enough to eat in this pandemic economy. A food insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that it takes. Like many hardships, this burden feels disproportionately hard on the vulnerably poor and those living on daily wages.
With no fresh vegetables and fruits in the market following the days of lockdown and prices of essential goods escalating like nobody’s business, we all have experienced the taste of Ema Datshi (Chilly and Cheese) without onions and Alu Dam (Potato gravy) without tomatoes. Unlike in the west, freezing of food is a non-existent concept in this part of the world. In fact, Bhutanese always insists on freshly prepared food, and freezing of food is most often discouraged which is good in a way as our Emergency Department at the hospital doesn’t report many cases of stomach bug and food poisoning nor we hear such reports on the news on a daily basis. Partly, this discouragement must have come from the absent culture of freezing of food in a cold storage facility in most Bhutanese homes. I was pleasantly surprised to see my friends in America freezing/storing away the extra fish we caught for consumption for winter.
While much emphasis has been given towards agricultural production in the past, it’s high time for the government to shift its attention towards the postharvest loss (PHL) system. This system comprises interconnectedness activities from the time of harvest through crop processing, marketing, and food preparation, to the final decision by the consumer to eat or discard the food. 

Interventions in PHL reduction are seen as an important component of the efforts of many agencies around the world to reduce food insecurity. There is a whole lot of research on PHL and merits a different science and technology in itself which this post wouldn’t suffice at all.
The 35th FAO regional conference held this week called for agricultural digitization. While this way forward is an investment in smart agriculture, I hope our policymakers are reminded that the majority of our rural communities are illiterate and as the targeted beneficiaries customized innovative policy interventions will be in place for improved livelihoods and sustainable agriculture practices.
Development of e-commerce platforms and postal addresses
As a developing country, e-commerce is still in its infancy in Bhutan. A typical experience is how it took 5 days for my essential goods to arrive during the lockdown despite repeated follow up. While I understand that it was an overwhelming situation for the store but generally speaking, e-commerce really needs to step up their game now. For e-commerce to venture into this pandemic situation, accurate postal addresses are a must requisite. A copious amount of time is lost in searching for the location and it’s a headache and waste of time for both the customer and the delivery guy to discuss the location of the delivery address. I’m sure we all have been there.
The development of house postal addresses is one of the criticisms we have always heard about that requires a lot of serious rethinking. It is old wine in a new bottle analogy. While it’s understandable that the country has other important priorities to look into but it doesn’t hurt to start somewhere or pick up from where we have last left. As we all know, compelling beautiful plans are already there in place, it’s time that we take ownership of the implementation and accountability that Bhutanese are way capable of. It need not be some hired consultant from outside who will initiate the plan for us.  I sincerely hope this happens during my lifetime.
This Coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that nothing is certain, it’s transitory as life itself and the most important thing is to be mindful of our actions. Six months of Coronavirus, which is almost half a year of pandemic and it still feels unsettling to write because much remains unknown and mysterious as to the world during and post CoVID-19. Is there going to be a post-COVID-19 world? So far scientists say that we will have to live with it for a long time, in fact, the virus may become another endemic virus and it may never go away although news from China confirmed that the country is back to normal with no social distancing and mask protocols in place. Just one thing is certain; the future of the world is never going to be the same.

Disclaimer: Thoughts expressed here are the author’s own and don’t represent any institution or organization.


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