Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich at Cornell

Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature is this year’s Bartels’ World Affairs Fellow at Cornell. On Monday, she gave this year’s Bartels lecture, followed by a book signing at Statler Auditorium. She spoke in Russian and the English translation was supertitled on a screen beside her. In her lecture, she spoke about her books Secondhand Time, Chernobyl Prayer, War’s Unwomanly Face and Boys in Zinc.

Svetlana Alexievich

She explained her very unique genre, of writing from the perspective of witnesses. Several of her books are about war, from the experience of common people who risk (and even sacrifice) their lives or families for a greater cause. In historical accounts of war, we are told about the great causes and the leaders, but never the people whose reality it was. This is what, from my observation, Alexeivich set out to do and has accomplished in her career. Her stories are about the little men and women embroiled in the big causes.

Earlier this year, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”. It was the first time I read an account of the frontlines of war in the first person. It was the first time that I had encountered soldiers not characterized as brave heroes but as powerless young men, or even boys. In Slaughterhouse Five, pain, suffering and the futility of war took precedence over patriotism, victory, glory and ideology.

Then last month, I read Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans”, a family history spanning nearly all of the 20th century. The personal narratives in it are inextricably tangled with the political history of China. For the majority of the book, it’s a heartbreaking account of a family that believed in and lived the ideals that Communism embodied, but was engulfed in the horrors of the paranoid, dogmatic religion that Communism became.

With many questions, doubts and dialogues motivated by these books still fresh in my mind, Alexievich’s lecture and her books were even more relevant and moving. What I was reading in these books is not a matter of history and literature, it is reality for millions of people around the world right now. Alexievich explained that it was not her intention to overwhelm readers with the horrors of war and political strife. Even in these accounts, she occasionally finds beauty. She hopes that her writing arouses deep thought in her readers. I haven’t read any of Alexievich’s works yet, but hope to do so soon.

Although I greatly respect and admire the author, I was uneasy about a few things. First, when the author talked about her book War’s Unwomanly Face, she observed that publicly, women tend to mimic men’s language for war. In this language, serving in war is a call from the motherland; it dwells on duty, bravery and heroism. There is no room for the individual, the ordinary or the human experience. But after she had established trust with women who had served in the war, they told her about the suffering, the ordinary, the beautiful, the moving and the terrifying experiences of being a human at the front line. Alexievich classifies this as the woman’s experience and language of war.

I found this line between women’s and men’s experiences of war hard to accept. Surely, even the men serving in the armies also learnt the “men’s language of war”; it couldn’t be innate to them. Social constructs of masculinity may prevent them for sharing their most vulnerable experiences and force them to adopt the language that Alexievich deems manly. Slaughterhouse Five, written by a man, is a counterexample to this classification. It is full of glimpses into the human soul and fiercely critical of glorifying war and soldiers. Perhaps I will better understand what Alexievich meant after reading her works.

After the lecture, Alexievich took questions from the audience and many of the questions focused on her political views about the Soviet Union and modern day Russia. After a brilliant lecture on her literary works, this was a let down as it underlined the political agenda of the Nobel Prizes. It is not a novel observation on my behalf that a Nobel Prize in Literature is also a medium to make a global political point. But the nature of our questions after the lecture somewhat impaired the integrity of our celebration of a phenomenal writer and her deeply impactful work. As though, we were also just pushing a global political agenda.

#FightTheFee With Some Respect

Last week, Cornell announced a new health of $350 fee for students who are not currently on Cornell’s student insurance (SHIP). As an international student, a health insurance plan is mandatory and given the high medical costs in the United States, it is necessary to have one. Enrolling in SHIP means all medical costs will be billed to my bursar account, which is convenient for me. Also, visits to the on-campus health center, Gannett, seem best covered by SHIP. So I have been enrolled in it for the past two years and have received proper and timely medical care so far.

However, domestic students tend to have external health insurance and do not buy SHIP. The new health fee could be a burden for them. There were many dissenting student voices online, especially on Cornell’s unofficial Facebook group. Explaining the additional fee, President Skorton said that funding healthcare services at Cornell has become a growing fiscal challenge and a personal concern for him.

Unsatisfied with the response, a group of student protesters “occupied” Day Hall, Cornell’s central administrative building this morning. Protests were also held at Willard Straight Hall in Ho Plaza. Some protesters interacted with President Skorton in a direct question and answer session and posted a video on Facebook. More than the imposition of the fee, the lack of transparency is what seems to be bothering the protesters. It was reported that the Student Assembly was not consulted about the new fee but only informed about it recently. In the video, students demanded greater inclusion of the student body in the university’s decision making process.

While the protesters’ concerns are justified, they appeared immature in the video of the session with President Skorton. Protesters asked irrelevant questions about the university’s finances, didn’t wait for Skorton’s response, yelled and interrupted, laughed at his responses, made inappropriate gestures and behaved in a manner utterly unfit for Cornell students. Skorton’s patience with them astonished me.

Given the cleanliness of our campus buildings, the beautifully maintained campus lawns, the brilliant professors who are grossly underpaid, the great libraries which house over 8 million physical volumes,the dorms which look like star hotels and the amount of financial aid Cornell offers, it is not hard to imagine that Cornell’s budget must be tight. In asking for detailed accounts of the university’s finances, the protesters insinuate that funds are being mismanaged at Cornell, which is the most absurd idea I’ve heard. The demand that the university function like a co-operative organisation and take student opinion into account for all financial decisions comes from a highly entitled place. What have we done for the university, that we demand this privilege? In our four years here, everything we do is in self-interest, although we often give it the facade of service to the university or the Ithaca community.

Some may argue that the tuition we pay gives us the right to question its use. But higher education is a service and our tuition is only a fee for this service. We are not benefactors donating the money to Cornell and the university probably need not be accountable to us. At a hospital, we don’t ask the doctor to give us an account of where exactly our medical fees went!

The myopic, self-centered view that the protesters exhibit in the video is silly when one considers the large picture of a great, timeless university. The administration has a prestigious, 150 year old university to run (Yes, we’re turning 150! :D). We are all here primarily because of the excellence of the university and if more funds are needed to maintain or improve that state of the university, then we have no right to question or undermine that need.

Even so, the university makes decent effort to be transparent in most relevant decisions. Student voices are given ample space in matters where it is fit. It’s important that we use this privilege sensibly instead of exploiting it and testing the patience of the administrators. In any case, regardless of circumstances, President Skorton and the administration deserve our respect and respectful conduct.

Tales from Fall Break 2014

On Tuesday afternoon, my memory of the four days of fall break is in a haze. I had grand visions of following a healthy routine of sleep, cooking my own food, doing the tasks on my to-do list and spending some time with friends. Of course, those visions were lost right after my last class on Friday, when I spent the evening just chilling in a hammock on our porch, listening to music.

Since most students were visiting home or travelling over the break, the campus was unusually quiet and empty. The majority of those who stayed on campus were international students or west-coast residents. The dining halls were closed and there were no events happening on campus. So on Saturday night, some of my sophomore friends from India and I gathered for a small dance party at my nearly empty house. After a long time, I danced to Bollywood music with friends and played cards against humanity with them. They even had a mini foosball tournament at three in the morning.

I woke up at noon on Sunday, made pancakes for breakfast and walked around Beebe lake with a friend. The Cornell campus – especially the trails and surrounding natural areas are glorious at this time of the year. Given the good weather over the weekend, it was a pleasure to just be here.

Beebe lake in the fall

On Sunday night, my two housemates who stayed here during the break decided to watch Gone Girl at the Ithaca Mall. I had read excellent reviews for the movie, so I joined them too. Since then, I have not stopped raving about the film and it takes much self control to not spoil it for my friends who haven’t watched it yet.

After a long, refreshing night of sleep that night, I had a sumptuous brunch at the Mehak buffet, where for once, they actually had paneer in the paneer dishes. Then I spent most of my day at the library. I read for fun, something I don’t get to do often as a Cornell student. That evening, a friend and I decided to go to Moosewood Restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is among the first few things I tell people when I describe Ithaca. I am a big fan. We decided to go at 8pm, but we missed our bus and ended up walking to the Commons from West campus (not such a long walk, surprisingly). When we arrived at 8:32pm, the host politely told us that they closed at 8:30pm. We browsed restaurant row in the Commons and finally ate at Taste of Thai.

On Tuesday morning, most of my friends who had left Ithaca for the break were back. So I met some of them at CTB; we chatted about our respective breaks and made plans for future breaks. As we walked back to campus, I saw someone riding a Big Red Bike. For a long time, I had wanted to ride a bike on campus. The weather was warm and we all had some time on our hands, so we decided to borrow a bike from Uris Library.

We got a bike and as I tried it out on the Arts Quad, I realized that these bikes were quite different from what I was used to at home. My bike at home was heavy and required a lot of effort on my side to move. This bike accelerated at the least pedaling, within a second of my riding it. I panicked and searched for brake, which is horizontally parallel to the right handle in all the bikes I have ever ridden. Before I could find the brake, which was below the right handle, I saw some children playing on the path ahead. In an effort to stop the speeding bike, I ended up falling and scraping my knee. (Yes, the kids were safe. Is this how heroes feel?.)

It had been years since I had last scraped my knees. I regretted my decision to ride that bike on the Arts quad without even knowing where the brake was. But I guess we don’t take risks or learn many new things as adults because we are so afraid of failing or getting hurt. I convinced myself that I had learnt something new today: Learn how to stop something before starting it. I felt like a child all over again as I cleaned my wound and went back home.

And there end the tales of Fall Break 2014. I spent the rest of the evening doing some last minute homework and writing this blog post. It’s time to get back to the busy rest of the semester ahead.

Glimpses of Myself and the World Beyond

Every day on campus, there are several events about cultures, arts and ideas I may have never heard of. Cornell brings together talented researchers, performers and artists of diverse interests, backgrounds and nationalities.This is a place where I only have to walk for a few minutes to get a glimpse of anything in the world beyond.

On Friday evening, I watched a documentary called “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” at the Cornell Cinema. I had first read of El Camino de Santiago in a textbook for my Spanish class. It’s an ancient, Christian pilgrimage which now attracts modern pilgrims of all faiths, nationalities and purposes. One of my housemates who I watched the documentary with had studied abroad in Spain last year and walked a part of the Camino. I hadn’t imagined that many people even knew about the Camino, never mind that I might be living with someone who has walked it.

The documentary followed the journeys of six strangers along the Camino. Some were doing it for religious reasons, some for spiritual ones, some as a form of healing, and a few who had no idea why. What stood out to me was that along the way, everyone’s backpack seemed to get smaller and smaller. Perhaps we don’t need all the things we think we need. I also realized that the Cornell Cinema plays an excellent,diverse selection of films and documentaries throughout the semester and that I should probably be watching more than one film per semester there.

While making plans for Saturday night, a friend mentioned that SPICMACAY Cornell was sponsoring a concert by the Mysore Brothers, classical Indian violinists. Although I was initially uninterested, I decided to go because a friend convinced me to. The music was brilliant and we stayed for the entire duration of the concert – about two and a half hours. I left with the feeling that I should learn enough about music, art and dance to be able to truly appreciate it.

What was funny about the night was that I was being introduced to my own cultural heritage as far away from home as possible. Being a South Indian, I should have probably been more aware of Carnatic music while growing up. But at home,neither I nor my friends would have attended a classical music concert. I had to be half way across the world to be able to appreciate its beauty.

At the end of last semester, a graduate student from India had asked me how my identity as an Indian had evolved since I had come to Cornell. I didn’t have an answer then. Last night, I realized that I’ve only been aware of my identity as an Indian since I came to Cornell. In the homogeneity of Delhi, where everyone around me shared the a common culture and upbringing, I never had to think about it. Here I’m forced to think about my differences, to acknowledge and embrace them.

I left the concert feeling more consciously connected to India than I ever have before. At Cornell, I see not only glimpses of the world beyond but also glimpses of myself and where I come from. As a Cornell student, I probably have access to the best professors and resources in the world but I think the most valuable part of my education comes from these experiences and reflections I’d have never had in the familiarity and homogeneity of home.