Eleven Questions

Thank you to Padre from Padre’s Ramblings for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award! As promised, here are my answers to the eleven nominee questions:

Sunshine Blogger Award

Why did you start your blog?
Many reasons. To document my Fulbright experience, both for my own memories and with the goal of sharing my thoughts with prospective Fulbright students, friends, family, and interested members of the WordPress community.

I also wanted to create a platform that would serve as a sort of in-between writing space—a place that wasn’t as informal as my journal or as formal as a college paper. Having a space to write semi-edited prose on a semi-regular basis is great. It’s motivating, doesn’t demand perfection, and welcomes experimentation.

Has it achieved what you hoped?
Yes! Before launching my blog, I set one condition: I could write about anything so long as my blog was honest, comprehensive, and diplomatic. I didn’t want my posts to create the illusion that life was perfect. Neither did I want to fixate on the challenges of teaching/living in India, forgetting to acknowledge all the wonderful, sometimes unexpected, joys of my experience.

I definitely struck this balance throughout my posts. Blogging also inspired me to try my hand at satire, book reviews, and flash fiction—genres that I never imagined writing in before.

Blogs are notorious for being difficult to keep up. (I know because I’ve started and discontinued at least two.) With the exception of a few dry spells, I’ve posted pretty regularly on Aksharbet. Beyond anything I’ve written, I am most proud of this.

What role does faith play in your life?
A difficult question. I do believe that there are forces in the universe that we may never understand. I am Jain, and I appreciate how my religion (along with other religions) can play a powerful and important role in creating stability, discipline, hope, honesty, community, and much more. However, I can’t say that I believe in God.

Would you rather be an important person or a respected one?
Important. Better to do things that count rather than to only be liked. But I’d have a difficult time believing that I was important if nobody respected me. Hate to admit it but I am the kind of person who needs the approval of at least a few people to believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile.

What things are the most important in a friendship?
Honest conversations, laughter, forgiveness. Growth.

What one thing would you change about yourself?
It’s kind of vain, but I really wish my hair didn’t get so greasy so quickly.

What is your favorite film?
Nothing comes to mind. I don’t think I watch enough movies to have a favorite.

And what is your favorite book?
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Writtenby Susan Cain, this book urges readers to recognize the unique strengths of introverts.

If you had to give up the book or the movie, which would it be?
The movie! Why is this even a question?

What recipe brings back childhood memories?
Rajma and rice, mixed together in a single white bowl. Rajma is a popular North Indian dish made out of red kidney beans in a thick gravy.

What would be willing to risk for one you love?
Umm…anything? I don’t think there’s any other way to answer this question.

Here are my nominees for the Sunshine Blogger award:
Call a Rose a Rose
Only100 Words
Jane Dougherty Writes
Still Loved…Still Missed…
Ashley O’Melia
The Midnight Ember
V Ramasamy: A Globetrotter
The Dark Netizen
Fatima Fakier Fiction Writing
A Writer’s Path
Educated Unemployed Indian

Here are the questions:

  1. Why did you start your blog?
  2. How has your blog/writing style evolved over time?
  3. Describe some of the things that are on (or in) your desk right now. Anything special?
  4. What are three things in your fridge right now?
  5. Describe a fond memory from your childhood.
  6. Describe your hometown.
  7. What’s your favorite way to spend the weekend?
  8. Who are your role models?
  9. What are your pet peeves?
  10. What advice would you give o your younger self?
  11. If you could write the name for a new Crayola crayon, what would it be?

And here are the rules for nominees:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Answer the questions.
  3. Nominate 11 other bloggers for the award and ask them 11 new questions.
  4. Notify nominees by commenting on one of their blog posts.
  5. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger award logo on your post or site.



“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

I hung the painting between a sketch of a snow-filled alley and a watercolor print. “Trust me, no one looks in the obvious places.”

Sidney glanced nervously over her shoulder. Then she stepped back, quickly lifting up her camera to take a photo. “Just in case,” she said. She snapped the shutter closed. “Let’s hurry. Ella’s train will be here any minute.”

Inspired by Sonya’s #3LineTales at Only100Words. Interested in writing your own three lines? Here’s the original prompt. Happy three-lining!



Ella closed her eyes. Tired of the bleak landscape, she leaned against the window, letting the dull motion of the train rock her to sleep.

By noon, she slipped into dreams and the flat brown fields transformed

into a language bright and wild.

Inspired by Sonya’s #3LineTales at Only100Words. Interested in writing your own three lines? Here’s the original prompt. Happy three-lining!



Eyes sunken in, hair matted with salt, skin taut against our bones–Ella and I must have looked a sight. It seemed like ages ago that we were lounging on the beach, painting our nails and comparing summer reading lists.

I had put Life of Pi on mine but, given the present circumstances, I figured I could probably cross that one off.

Inspired by Sonya’s #3LineTales at Only100Words. Interested in writing your own three lines? Here’s the original prompt. Happy three-lining!

Yes, You Can End a Sentence with a Preposition

Part memoir, part linguistic escapade, Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (2017) is a must-read for anyone who is interested in exploring the stories behind the quirks of the English language.

A lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, Stamper takes readers behind-the-scenes of the editorial process and the history of the dictionary industry. Her style is particularly engaging because she dives deep into the intricacies of the English language, yet expertly keeps her writing light and relatable.

Word by Word

Throughout each chapter, Stamper’s sprachgefühl, or “feeling for language,” is our trusty companion, bounding along with us as she debates the merits of words ranging from “its” to “irregardless.”

She affectionately refers to her sprachgefühl as a both a playful imp and a slippery eel–an inner voice that nudges her in different directions yet remains somewhat out of reach.

Still, she trusts it. It’s the reason she decided to work at Merriam-Webster, and it’s what compels her to always be on the lookout for new words or, more often, new usage patterns of old words. Think “Google” shifting from being a noun to being both a noun and a verb. Or how “like” (which used to mean “body”) gave rise to “likely” and “likewise” and is now a marker of hesitation or, like, a common filler word.

Word by Word is unlike any other book I’ve read on language. It gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at how simple words, like “surfboard” can take an entire working day to define and even simpler words (like “take” or “to”) can take weeks to define.


Editors at Merriam-Webster don’t have office phones. (Too noisy.) So they communicate through email and handwritten notes.

 Throughout the book, Stamper also sprinkles witty includes anecdotes about her life as a Merriam-Webster employee. She jokes without restraint about the bland coffee, disorganized filing system, and the contrast between the bubbly sales department and the severely introverted lexicographers.

What I found most fascinating about Word by Word was Stamper’s discussion of how lexicographers at Merriam-Webster scavenge for usage patterns. Tracking word usage–or “reading and marking”–involves underlining words and the context that surrounds them so that you can determine how the words are used and what they mean.

This involves not only pouring over periodicals like Car and Driver, TIme, and Christianity Today, but also snagging language from all corners of life–including cereal boxes, road signs, shampoo bottles, and concert programs–to read and mark for word usage.

Sometimes the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster simply mark words that strike them as relevant; other times, they are tasked with marking every third or fifth word to ensure that no words are glazed over.

“We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go….We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.”

–Kory Stamper, Word by Word

This process illustrates that English, like any language, is always in flux. And, often times, the grammatical rules we enforce are arbitrary. They have no foundation in logic but, Stamper writes, were simply “of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.”

Ever been told that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition? That rule was arbitrarily established by England’s first Poet Laureate, John Dryden.

John Dryden

John Dryden. Seems kind of pompous, doesn’t he?

Dryden worshipped Latin grammar. He would often write a sentence in English, rewrite it in Latin, and then rewrite it again in English. The result was an English sentence that had Latin grammar. And, in Latin, prepositions cannot be placed at the end of a sentence.

The rule has been reinforced over centuries and now, to some, is Unbreakable Law. But as Stamper points out, using the terminal preposition is perfectly acceptable in English and was being used by writers more than five hundred years before Dryden was even born.

The perfect blend of linguistics, history, and wry humor, Stamper’s Word by Word is guaranteed to have you questioning and analyzing their own use of language. And, if you have sprachgefühl, you may just find yourself taking a second look at that cereal box, scribbling down a conversation you overheard on the bus, or maybe even inventing a few words of your own.

Applying for the Fulbright ETA

Hello friends!

Once again, application season is upon us. I’ve been getting some emails about the Fulbright ETA application process, so I thought I’d dedicate a post to answering some of the most frequently asked questions.

The answers to the following questions are based on conversations I had with people from India’s Fulbright committee, fellowship/scholarship advisors, and ETAs from my cohort.

But first, a word about Fulbright.

From my experience, Fulbright Scholars are incredibly normal people. The ETA program has a way of making itself sound very prestigious when, in reality, it’s really just a group of people interested in learning about the world and wondering if they can teach English in another country.

It’s likely that the program is more within your reach than you think it is. Of course, some countries are more competitive than others. So make sure you have genuine reasons for applying to a particular country and that you can eloquently (and succinctly) describe them in your application.

Many random factors outside your control determine your acceptance. For example, If a school is looking for a creative writing teacher and you’re the only applicant with a background in creative writing, it’s likely that you will be accepted.

I was initially waitlisted. Several people declined the grant, and, because I was relatively high on the waitlist, I was accepted.

All in all, it’s important to remember that winning the grant (or not winning it) doesn’t validate or invalidate your accomplishments and potential to succeed.

What does the Fulbright committee look for in an ETA? How can I prepare a strong application?
A strong application really hits all the Fulbright buzz words–mainly things along the lines of “being a cultural ambassador,” “building bridges between communities,” and “cultural exchange.”

You don’t necessarily need to have all of those specific phrases in your application, but your essays should focus on why those themes are important to you and how they relate to your life.

Writing about why you’re drawn to a country and how the experience fits into your career plan is also important. (No worries if you don’t have a career plan. I didn’t have one when I applied, so I just made something up.)

The idea is to write a few sentences showing the committee that you intend for this experience to be part of a larger, overarching goal. They won’t chase you down if you don’t follow through with it.

What else can I do to increase my chances of being accepted?
Write concisely and avoid cliches. Also, don’t be afraid of rewriting your essays and double-triple checking every sentence. I did major rewrites of my drafts several times. Also, it always helps to have someone from your university’s writing center review your essays.

The application asks me to write about an extracurricular activity that I’m going to lead outside school. What should I write about?
Anything. Literally anything. It doesn’t have to be super creative, fancy, or unique–just something that aligns with your interests and the needs/culture of the community you’re going to serve. The committee doesn’t expect you to follow-up with the activity you propose.

I didn’t major in English. Can I still be an ETA?
Yes! There were many people in my cohort who had backgrounds in science, engineering, and the social sciences. Only a handful of us had majored in English/Communications.

I don’t want to be a teacher or work in education. Can I still be an ETA?
Yes! The committee is not solely interested in accepting people who want to pursue careers in education. Being an ETA gives you skills and experiences that can be useful in virtually any career. Only a few people from my cohort of 24 were interested in education.

Does the committee discriminate against applicants of Indian origin?
No. Your ethnicity is not a factor in your application. The committee members I spoke to said they don’t have a preference for Indians/non-Indians.

What they don’t like is if you are of Indian origin and it seems like:
a) You’re applying to go to India to see your family, or;
b) You want to “reconnect with your roots”

In my application, I explicitly stated that I’ve been to India several times before and that I’d like to use this fellowship as an opportunity to explore a different part of India.

Do you have suggestions for other, similar fellowships I can apply for?
If you want to volunteer in India, I suggest applying for the American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellowship. The application is typically available in October. You can read more about the experience on the AIF Clinton blog.

This FAQ post is an attempt to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the Fulbright-Nehru ETA program. The above answers do not necessarily apply to all countries.

If you have additional questions, email me at sushmita.gelda@gmail.com.

You can also view the answers to these questions my visiting my FAQ page.


Between the Colors

The following guest post was written by Mahathi Gottumukkala. Mahathi is a confused, floundering “recent” graduate of the University of Buffalo (it’s been two years since she graduated with an Economics major and English minor). She likes to tell herself she’s just still exploring and adventurous. She loves to read and write and blogs very intermittently at Thoughts and Whimsies.

When I read Nanu’s post on reverse culture shock, it all came rushing back. The strange disorientation. The weightless feeling, as if in a dream. The familiar faces and places that seemed suddenly alien.

As I stepped off the plane in India, a fresh college graduate, I tried to understand that this was really it. That I was home for good.

I wouldn’t be returning to college and currently had no plans to return to the US. There would be no frantic rush to enroll in classes or get my I-20 signed. The future was upon me.

In the sparsely populated city of Buffalo, it was easy to romanticize the “colorful chaos” of India. It had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t fit right back in at home, that it would be difficult to find people I could relate to.

Reality was…a bit different from what I remembered.

It had been nearly two years since I’d come home. As I stepped onto the cold marble floors of my apartment, I began to feel anxious. I’d forgotten how high up I lived. I felt as if I were floating in space. But it was only the seventh floor, and I’d lived in apartments all my life.

I only vaguely registered the warm, joyful poster my mother had made to welcome me home.

Daytime came and I found myself picking out faults at home that I’d never registered before.

Communities were disjointed and insular—separated by class yet often living only a compound wall or window apart from each other.

You could live life in a bubble of privilege and travel in a fancy car while streets upon streets of poor people stared at you. After a while, the humanity and life around you subsides to white noise.

The dusty hot glass and concrete–relieved only by a few struggling, straggling trees–mocked my isolation and my urban servitude. I missed the open spaces, lakes and lawns of Buffalo like crazy.

There were other things. The concepts of privacy and personal space were non-existent.

The jostling queues and the way the person in front of you lets the swinging door hit you on the face. The complete lack of shame in pointed, intrusive inquiries and unsolicited opinions from someone you haven’t spoken with in years.

How did your parents afford to send you to the US? Wouldn’t it be better if they had sent you for your Master’s degree? Do you really think the Return on Investment is worth it?

 These are all questions I’ve received.  

And everyone stares.

This is a country of starers. I never noticed before because I’m usually absent-minded and pre-occupied, but people look at you as if you’re the next installment of Game of Thrones.

They tell you, point-blank, that you’re dark or fat or prone to acne. In fact, the first thing they do when they see you is comment on your physical appearance—whether you’ve lost or gained weight, become fairer or darker, etc., etc.

And, suddenly, you become hyper-aware that every aspect of your person is being judged. You begin to fear that, if you don’t answer their intrusive questions, you might be thought stuck-up.

I felt torn and guilty. I was dismayed by how much I missed the US, especially since I’d always been clear about coming back to India. But the reality of India—a landscape peopled with contradictions and challenges—was difficult to comprehend.

The process of readjustment was gradual and my understanding of the nuances and contours evolved throughout.

There are—of course—good things about India. The flip side of the loss of space is the warmth and a sense of community. You can feel it everywhere you go. People are hospitable and—while they sometimes cross boundaries—they are also quick to make you feel at home.

In the US, there’s something like a cult of individuality. People are too polite. They guard space and privacy so fiercely that it’s difficult to form the same informal and relaxed friendships that I have in India.

I love Indian classical music and dance and our beautiful, majestic history. And the country’s endless contrasts and ceaseless complexity pull me in, compelling me to understand and find answers.

After all, nowhere else could ever really be home.

Interested in guest blogging for Aksharbet?  Visit our Write for Us page and send your submissions to sushmita.gelda@gmail.com.

Reverse Culture Shock

When I lived in Kolkata, I’d close my eyes and picture home. I’d try to remember how the streets looked, how the air tasted, how people dressed—everything. Not because I missed being home but because I feared that, if I didn’t remember how it felt, I’d be hit by reverse culture shock.

Reverse culture shock is exactly what it sounds like. It happens to people when they live abroad for an extended period of time. Upon returning home, they find the culture of their home country disorienting and confusing.

SUNY Fredonia’s website has a helpful graphic describing the process of re-adjusting to life at home:

Reverse Culture Shock - Diagram 2

Though my mental exercise helped me lessen the blow of culture shock, some things still surprised me:

Everyone is so polite
At the airport, I wait for a car to pass by before crossing the street and suddenly—wait, what’s happening?—it pauses at the edge of the crosswalk (on a completely empty road) and waits for me instead. This would never happen in Kolkata.

Hearing people use polite phrases—Please, Thank You, You’re Welcome—was also a bit surprising at first. Americans use these phrases way, way more often than Indians do.

The sky is very blue
I forgot that blue and green existed on a spectrum. When you live in a small town by the Hudson River, you feel like you could count you could spend your entire life counting shades of blue and green and, still, you would never manage to count them all. No dust, no pollution—I forgot what it was like to live in such a beautiful place. And it’s painful to see how people around me take it for granted.

Clermont State Park

Clermont State Park is walking distance from my home.


It’s really quiet
Going from living in Kolkata (Population: 4.6 million) to Tivoli (Population: 1,100) felt extreme. The second day I came home, my parents went to work and my sister went to school. The silence was unbearable. Except for the occasional bird call, there wasn’t a sound to be heard for miles on end. I know it sounds melodramatic, but it’s true—that kind of silence can feel suffocating if you’re not used to it.

I had gotten accustomed to the doorbell ringing several times a day and the cacophony of daily life. Even on the days I didn’t go to school or work, I had at least a dozen social interactions.

The bhaiya who cleans our building, the daytime and nighttime guards, the istri wala (person who irons clothes), the neighbors, the storekeepers, the autorickshaw drivers—I interacted with these people on a daily basis. And anywhere I went, I was surrounded by hundreds of people. Now, I can look down the middle of a road—pretty much any road—and not see anyone or anything for miles on end.

Despite these challenges, I’d say I’m pretty lucky. I’ve been back and forth between India and the United States several times, so adjusting to life back home was not too difficult. I got over the worst of it in two days.

And the mental picture I go to now is, of course, my home in India. Our apartment, the streets surrounding it, the route to school and my NGO—these are things I try to remember the most. I hope that when I go back (which I know I will) things won’t feel too unfamiliar.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock before? What did it feel like? How did you cope with it? Comment below—I would love to hear about your experience.

Interested in applying for the Fulbright ETA? Check out my FAQ page.

3 Writing Tips

I enjoy writing, and I strive to get better at it each day. Through practice, accident, and experimentation, I’ve invented some of my own techniques for becoming a better writer.

These are all general strategies that can be applied to many different writing situations and can be used by anyone.

Follow the shadow
Think of a text as having two parts: a surface and a shadow. The surface is the part you read; the shadow is a series of questions that support it. Behind every sentence is a question, and answering that question is the key to writing the next sentence.

Here’s the strategy:

Step 1: Write a sentence
Step 2: Think of the questions that the sentence provokes
Step 3: Write a sentence answering one of those questions.
Step 4: Repeat Steps 2 & 3

Following this technique ensures airtight prose. It creates a sense of logic and, ultimately, a sense of cohesion and flow.


Think of a text as having two parts: a surface and a shadow.
How would you describe the two parts of a text?

The surface is the part you read; the shadow is a series of questions that support it.
Why is seeing the second part (the shadow) so important?

Seeing the shadow is important because behind every sentence is a question,
and answering that question is the key to writing the next sentence.
Can you show me how to use the shadow to improve my writing?

Here’s the strategy:
Can you show me how to use the shadow to improve my writing?

It’s useful for writing non-fiction, especially when you’ve written a few sentences and are unsure of how to continue. It’s also useful for editing. If a sentence sounds abrupt or out of place, you can rewrite it so that it answers a question asked by the previous one.

Next time you read a well-written piece of nonfiction, try writing a little bit of its shadow. You’ll be surprised at how logically each question follows the next.

Play 10 Observations
This game is a great mental exercise. I invented it about a year ago, and I usually play it when I’m bored. (During lectures and conferences, in waiting rooms, on public transport, etc.)

How to play:

1. Identify: Using your five senses, identify ten things that are present in your immediate surroundings. (Ex: A brown table, the sound of the ceiling fan, the smell of perfume)

2. Add context: Challenge yourself to write a description of each observation that includes a “poetic twist” and goes one or two steps beyond what you immediately see.

If you see a cobweb, you could write something as simple as:
A lone cobweb hung in the corner of the room

Or something more extensive like:
Over the years, cobwebs gathered in Lola’s gaze. Her dreams dimmed and her eyes–though they tried–no longer had the courage to hold the iight they once used to. When I met her at our usual meeting spot, she greeted me with a tired smile…

…and you can continue the story for as long as you want. I usually write a phrase or, at most, a couple sentences for each observation.

You can also make many variations of this game.

One that I recently made is called “Three Ways of Doing X” This game challenges you to write three different ways of doing a simple action, such as holding a pencil, taking a sip of tea, or entering a room.

Example: Holding a pencil

1. He held the pencil delicately, almost as if he were completing the last strokes of an elaborate painting.
2. He gripped the pencil as if it were the last one on Earth. This led him to develop several calluses on his fingers, which his mother never ceased to point out.
3. He held the pencil in awe. He had never seen anything like it before. 

My sentences are pretty simple. For a better example, check out Lisa Gagnon’s post “On Scribbles and Snow.” In this post, you can read several short yet striking descriptions of snow. These descriptions were written by Lisa and her students.

If you play these types of games often enough, you’ll automatically start thinking of interesting ways of describing the world around you.

Save your scraps
While I write and revise, I dump any deleted/unused ideas and paragraphs into a “Scrap” section at the end of my draft or in a separate document.

Here’s an excerpt from this post’s scrap section:

Reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy inspired me to try this strategy. No matter how many smiles are exchanged over the course of his 1500+ pag page novel, none are exactly alike.

Timing yourself, reading a lot.

Keeping the unused information is important. People who edit your work can look in the scrap section to see if any ideas you deleted are worth including in the draft.

Paragraphs that were irrelevant to your current piece might also end up being useful in future pieces.

Do you agree or disagree with any of this advice? What are your favorite pieces of writing advice? Comment below–I’d love to discuss more!