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Everyone loves stories. Everyone has a story to tell.


September 2014

‘The New Price of a College Education — and It’s Not Tuition.’

Photo credit : Soumi Haldar
In its September 8 issue, Businessweek featured a story about ThinkTank Learning, a chain of San Francisco Bay Area tutoring centers that operate out of strip malls. The company was founded in 2002 by Steven Ma, a former hedge fund analyst who started the company with $2,000 of his own money saved from tutoring students, and a $15,000 loan. His first “center” was a desk and some phones in a 100 square foot office in Cupertino.

Ma, was born in Taipei and moved to California in the fifth grade, now brings in about 18 million dollars a year for his company. Essentially, Ma makes bets on student admissions the way a trader plays the commodities markets, summarizes Businessweek,

 “Using 12 variables from a student’s profile—from grades and test scores to extracurricular activities and immigration status—Ma’s software crunches the odds of admission to a range of top-shelf colleges. His proprietary algorithm assigns varying weights to different parameters, derived from his analysis of the successes and failures of thousands of students he’s coached over the years.”

The article gives an example. Ma’s algorithm predicts that a U. S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000 (out of 2,400), moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, has a 20.4 percent chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1 percent shot at the University of Southern California. These odds, it continues, determine the fee ThinkTank charges that student for its guaranteed consulting package: $25,931 to apply to NYU and $18, 826 for USC.

Is Ma’s business taking advantage of a population? It depends on your definition of taking advantage. Most of his clients are are Asian immigrants like himself, many of whom still have families living in their country of origin. He helps applicants and their families navigate the myriad criteria generated by applying to a university. He “reassures the bewildered, multigenerational audiences that top-ranked American universities aren’t nearly as capricious as they seem,” once you know their formula. To be sure, only the very wealthy or those willing to give up their life savings for their child can afford Ma’s services. 

And while ThinkTank serves a niche clientele, there are thousands of other college “counseling” businesses in the United States. The term “counseling” is a misnomer to me, because it often doesn’t describe a holistic approach to a college or vocational school that is the best environment for the youngster, but rather, a business that helps parents mold a student into the best possible candidate for the school they perceive as necessary for success in this world. If one Googles “college counseling,” one will need an entire afternoon to scroll through the endless advertisements for local and national help. One particularly bold one I found was called “The Ivy Coach,” and its website introduction goes right for the jugular: 

“Why live with regret? Why play these games? So you save some money by not working with a private college consultant? And then  your kid doesn’t get into Yale. Instead, he ends up at UCLA as an out-of-stater. So you end up paying a lot of tuition for a school that doesn’t have the cache of Yale. Seems like a poor investment strategy to us. Talk about a reality check. Every time your kid goes on a job interview and the interviewer sees that he went to Yale, do you know what his assumption generally is? That he’s smart. It’s quite the assumption to have in your back pocket. That’s not necessarily the case for UCLA students, even though UCLA is a terrific school. So if you choose to not invest with a good private college counselor (and there certainly are bad ones), just know that your strategy can backfire for many years to come! And that’s the cold, hard truth.”

My biggest wish for my children in the years to come is a nation that embraces the differences of each student, and places a premium on teaching children why it’s important to learn for the sake of learning, not just checking boxes for a particular class or university.  The “adult brain” isn’t formed until the age of 24 –– that’s two years past the point of graduation from undergraduate programs for most people. Very rarely do teens or young adults know “what they want to do in life” until they are closer to their late twenties or thirties or beyond. My second wish is for high school programs to teach students how to be adaptable –– that it is important to finish a course of learning to build basics, but also, how to take what one already knows and build from it with new experiences. My third wish for students today is for good health, both physical and mental, whereby they have peers that support them and vice versa, and get plenty of sleep for their growing brains. 

Maybe these are things that cannot be purchased, but as parents, we can demand them.

Authored By : Julia Bricklin, Picture By : Soumi Haldar 

Julia Bricklin is a mother of two kids studying in the elementary and middle school. When Julia sent in this article to us, we were so charged up, we decided to spend a week talking about different perspectives on education. 

A Colorful Dream

Sheena Raju. An artist, a dancer, a mother and a teacher
For our “Living Your Dreams” series, we have been determined from the beginning to find and write about people around us, people from our everyday lives. And when we looked, we found ourselves surrounded by such.  Today’s story is about my daughter’s art teacher, Sheena Raju, who runs an art studio for kids. 

Sheena is an artist and she could have chosen to remain one in seclusion. But instead she had decided to impart the knowledge of her art form to little kids and anyone interested. She does not restrict herself to that, she allows them to be dreamers and gives them the freedom to be artists of their own kind. I was intrigued and I knew there was more to it than just creativity.So I met up with her for the only scheduled interview of this series and I discovered the artist, the mother, the teacher, the dancer and the dreamer and how a dream unfolded quite unknowingly. Excerpts from our conversation : 

Piya : Lets start from the beginning. Were you always interested in art ? 

Sheena : Yes, always. When I was very little I was always drawing, sketching, coloring, tinkering etc. On my mother’s side of the family everyone is  extremely creative. They all have an appreciation for art be it playing different instruments, drawing, singing or simply being crafty. I was fascinated because they grew up in a rural village and all these skills  were self taught. I think I inherited some of it. But for the rest,  I think it is because I worked towards it. (Take a note) When I was five, I formally started learning from an art teacher. That really created the definition for me. I also picked up a lot of my crafty side from the same teacher.

Piya :  Did you grow up to study art formally, like in college ? 

Sheena : No, I did my engineering with a graphics course as part of the curriculum. I never pursued a formal degree in art but  was involved with art the entire time.  In college in fact I was a Kala-thilakam(best all round artist at the annual Art festivals) for a couple of years in a row. I was always convinced I could do anything I wanted to do with my hands (be it stitching, embroidery, carpentry, carving, pottery etc).  

I have learnt classical music and instruments for quite a few years , but the one thing that used to terrify me was dancing. My Achilles heel has been my two left feet and I have always felt awkward when it came to dancing. And then thanks to a few persuasive friends from church, I tried it about 4 years ago in an attempt to at least try it once in my life. That worked out surprisingly well and a few stage performances have happened since. Though I still cant claim to be a graceful dancer today, I can with pride and experience tell my kids and my students, how awesome it feels to conquer your own fears and to just go for it. . 

( We take a break at this point to see pictures on Facebook from her recent dance performance for Onam (an Indian festival). 

“Conquer your fears” – she tells her kids and students. 
 Piya : So you are an engineer, an artist,  a dancer and a mother. How did the teacher happen ? 

Sheena : few years back, I started painting again and started painting Indian Dancers and different dance forms. I would be lost in my work for days at a time. Everything else got placed on the back burner; getting less attention than it demanded. I am a mother, I felt hopelessly guilty. But it also got me thinking about how I was just doing this in the solitude of my studio  / my home for myself. The only person benefitting was me and this was my private sanctuary. I needed to channelize this energy and put it to better use.

So I began with something very small and humble and from there on figured this is that creative process that makes me the happiest. I did not really know but now I think this may just have been my dream. I am lucky I have a husband who has encouraged me and helped pick up the slack at home. I cannot thank my family enough for tolerating my quirks and making this dream possible. 

Piya : What is the most important thing for you to teach your kids ? 

Sheena : Attention to little things, the finer details. When the children look at a picture, I repeatedly tell them to look closely. It matters to me if they notice the curve on the branch of the tree or that little bird that sat unnoticed on it. 
Paying attention to the little details in life can mean the difference between a mundane and awe-filled existence. 

Piya: I agree. Better artists. Better human beings. Just like their teacher. 

Sheena : (She smiles upon hearing that.) 

Like all of our other personalities on “Living Your Dream”, humility is ingrained in artists as is their desire to do a lot of things at the same time. The same can be said for Sheena. But she has found her true passion in teaching art, you can tell. The signature of her emails reads this – “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

Second Innings

A desire to teach is fulfilled in the second innings of life. Dr. S.K.Haldar needs no introduction. He has written and shared stories with us from time to time and sometimes those stories have been about his students. He always dreamt to be a teacher and that dream materialized much later in life. Now, teaching is his primary profession. Teaching brings in rewards in terms of the love, affection and respect from his students and that to him is what drives and motivates him to keep on pursuing the dream. 

Dr.Haldar in his own words…

When I was in elementary school, like any other kid I used to play pretend teacher-student games. Once I also taught in my village school during the two month’s vacation between high school and college. I completed my post- graduation and then obtained a doctorate of science degree.  At that point, I could have easily have gotten a teaching job in a college. But I opted to work in the relevant industry though I was passionate about teaching from the core of my heart. But my subconscious mind always hesitated.

The eminent teachers under whom I had studied were highly knowledgeable. Their class room deliberation charmed me always. However, I continued my academic desire by teaching, certain courses, part time, in a postgraduate class at the local University, delivering lectures in international seminars, conducting PhD exams and publishing technical papers. This continued till the day of my retirement from my primary job.

At that juncture, I was invited by Presidency University, Kolkata,India to carry out some research project in the department and in reciprocation to teach final year postgraduate students for a very short course on industrial applications. I was given a free hand, I could decide on a syllabus of my choice, set question papers and evaluate. That started my class room teaching while following a structured syllabus. In the course of last 11 years, I now teach two subjects at Presidency University, one at Calcutta University and some intermittent teaching at Indian School of Mines. Teaching is now a full time job. 

Even in the extreme summer and winter in India, I can teach for 3 – 4 hours at a stretch without any fatigue. I am often asked how. This is because the students in front of me,  the young boys and girls are always brimming with energy and that enthuses me to be younger every year. The respect I earn from my fellow younger faculty members, the love I receive from my students are the source of my vitamin replenishments. I receive frequent e-mail and phone calls from the students saying that they are doing very well in their job and feel very happy about it. Perhaps that is the best reward and gift that I was looking for.

My second inning’s is filling my unfulfilled dreams of life. If one has a sincere and honest desire, time will present the opportunity. Catch it- cash it and enjoy the opportunity.

The Storyteller From Behind The Lenses

Many years back, a new team member was assigned to my project team. The first few things I had instantly noticed about him was his constant warm smile, his humility about all things in life and his love for saying the word “awesome”. In the weeks that followed I discovered he was really awesome in not one but many ways. He always had a creative /alternative solution to anything and everything, he was exceptionally modest and down to earth for some one as young as him and that he was extremely determined as a person. He was still new to the job but he had an undeterred spirit of never giving up. He would accompany me to meetings at some of the big studios in Hollywood (where there is no dearth of creative people) and whenever I asked him if he was prepared to present, he would smile and say, “You should stop worrying so much all the time. Chill!”
And just a few minutes later, I would know why. I could sense the room full of people loving their interactions with him. The way he connected with people was truly (in his own words) “awesome”.
On the way back from those meetings is where I was introduced to the real person behind the Business Analyst in my team. That is when he often spoke his heart and things he loved. His family, his mother, his then sweetheart (now gorgeous wife) and his love to be behind the camera. I remember he was always with a camera and took the most candid shots ever. When he took pictures of people, he connected with them, he deciphered their life stories and depicted them in his pictures. And that was what made his pictures so different.
Four years later, we again got working in the same team again. By this time he had decided to take the plunge. It is not everyday that someone leaves behind a plush IT job to pursue a career as a wedding photographer. There was enough at stake but the determination was mind blowing and the love and support from his family even more. The latter was so significant that it deserves a mention. Many people give up on their dreams due to lack of support. Here the family stood by like a rock.
Now an ace wedding photographer, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Phalgun Polepalli, the Creative Head at Cuspconcepts. A story of “following your dreams” that I am glad I have been a witness to, up close and personal. Once a dreamer, always a dreamer. Phalgun always has more dreams. You never know what he is passionately following next. But for now, he has packaged the storyteller in him and his expertise behind the lenses to capture one of the most important day of of people’s lives. A love story spun into a weave of pictures to create a lifetime of memories.
This story encompasses every other thing we have spoken about so far on our “Living Your Dreams” series, there is one additional bit about this story. “Do not change yourself for your dream. Always be the person you are.” Even today, Phalgun is that humble, down to earth, always wearing a smile and frequently saying “awesome” person that I had first met. When I asked his permission to write his story, modest as he is, he said “Who will want to read my story?”
I will leave that for our dear readers to answer.
Authored By : Piya Mukherjee

Hold Onto Your Dreams !

Vijay Tiwari, a mother, a grandmother, a very positive and loving soul. She is a poetess too. Something she had dreamt of being all her life. Her story is an inspiration to many mothers who give up on their dreams with the increasing responsibilities of life. Hold onto your dreams and give them wings when the time is right. 

I got married when I was 16. I was studying in high school then. Seeing my interest in studies, my education was not interrupted. After my marriage I got my Bachelors and then Masters degree in Arts. I did my post graduate studies in Hindi Literature and Sanskrit. Around that time an interest in Hindi Literature garnered and I started writing poetry in Hindi. My dream was to become a poetess. But with the responsibilities of my growing family, my poetry writing was put on hold. It took a backseat in life. But as soon as the kids got older, I started writing again. Dreams never die. 

Today, my first collections of poetry has been published and the second is ready for publication. Nowadays, I am also writing short inspirational stories which have been published in the local newspapers. A publisher in Delhi has published my poetry in many of their books. I am a member of the literary organization of Agra, ‘Agra Mahanagar Lekhika Samiti’. I also recite my poetry at another very old organization of Agra, ‘Vanita Vikas’. 

Most of my compositions are on mother, female infanticide, old age, mind and soul etc. I get disturbed by seeing and hearing about the incidents happening in today’s society and a reflection of that can be seen in my poetry. 

My dream for the future is to be able to present a big collection of my poetries to the society, bring awareness through them. 

Here is my very favorite composition on female infanticide for the Chatoveracuppa readers.There is an english translation for those that do not read Hindi. 

English Translation – (Not a literal translation)

I am still an unborn, let me be born, let me come in the world and live a little. 
Let me be nurtured, loved and cared for. Let me grow up and do something for the world. 
I will grow up to be a doctor or an engineer or perhaps a soldier. 
I will fight for my country. 
I will be a warrior like the Great Jhansi Ki Rani
And I will go down happily protecting my country. 

A woman always love and cares for her family. 
She is after all the backbone of a family. 
I will be as well. 
If none of these, I aspire to be like Mother Teresa
I shall help the needy and the poor.
And in it I shall find the meaning of life. 

So please do not kill me. The unborn me. I am the creator of the mankind. 
Let me live ! Let me live ! 

The Childhood Dream "PhD"

Dr. Amrita Madabushi, PhD. 
Childhood dreams about one’s career are innocent and limitless. We have all wanted to be a variety of things – teacher, firefighter, astronauts, cops, cab drivers, scientists, rockstar or a tennis champ.  Those dreams are influenced by people in and around our lives. Those dreams usually evolve over the time. As adults, we restrict ourselves and our dreams. We condition ourselves to what we think is right for us. Abandon that restriction to find the true calling that is just around the corner feeling neglected. Don’t limit your dreams. 

Dr. Amrita Madabushi, our regular storyteller, shares her story of going from her childhood dream of doing a PhD to finally finding her true calling. 

I lived and grew up in a small university campus. Life there was quite different from the rest of the world. Both my parents had Ph.Ds and so was true for many of their colleagues and friends who were all professors. I must have seen many PhDs by the age 5 or 6, to have the impression that everyone with a career in Science does a PhD. 

Inspired by my parents, and fascinated by the world of science that my parents showed me, love for books, spending time on science experiments, including late nights at a telescope in university, building periscopes, kaleidoscopes, my first dream for my career was to do a PhD in science. I grew up with those little things and the notion of doing PhD,  may be till I entered my high school years and I felt silly on realizing that not everyone does a PhD. 

My dreams may be kept evolving over a period of time, I did PhD and worked in research in basic sciences as a biochemist and cell biologist for a number of years but still felt something missing, as if what next. 

Then one day I had the opportunity to teach an introductory course at a local community college, it was something very simple, I remember spending 10 hrs to prepare for my first class. I went there and by the time I finished my first class I knew this is it. 

This was my true calling, lurking around my childhood dreams. I am glad I listened to it. I have inherited it from my parents or grandfather too, but beginning to teach was like beginning to live a dream. Four years later and full time into teaching now, it still feels the same, like a dream, and I truly hope it feels that way many years from now.

Listen To Your Heart

“I am a space designer or a set designer. I am not a fashion designer.” She corrected us when we referred to her as a fashion designer incorrectly. Young, vibrant, humble, very forthcoming, with a pristine clear idea of her dreams, meet Anushree Banerjee. Very rarely have we seen such clarity from this young a person. 

Her story about living your dreams and listening to your heart is important because even today many young people get caught into the parental and societal pressure that exists in India to choose a profession that is traditionally deemed stable and successful. Namely a few – Engineers, Doctors, Business Management Graduates, Software Professionals or a Accounting Executive (Investment Banker preferred). We know many of you will roll your eyes but it still happens. And therefore, Anushree stands out to us for listening to her heart, for seeing a dream and working towards it. We wish this story encourages many like her. 

Her story in her own words. 

I am a Space Designer. A space designer as the name suggest is someone who plans and designs a space. The space could range from a house,a banquet for a wedding, or stage for a rock concert, or even a public space like a bus stop or children’s park.

My interest in this field developed from my love for building things, right from the lego building blocks to computer games to develop a dream house. Yes I did digress like all children and my childhood dream once was to become a businesswoman and create lots of job. 

But once while in school, one of my teachers looked at my art projects and showed keen interest and loads of appreciation. It was rare to get such attention owing to creativity. That inspired me to pursue a career in a creative field, and that was the day I decided to do something different. Doing different from the norm, (read doctor, engineer or a business school graduate) is still not very simple in India. ButI was determined. I learnt about a Bachelors program in Design & Accessory design that one of my school senior was doing and I was fascinated. I pursued Lifestyle Accessory/Product Design course from NIFT, New Delhi a premiere design institute in India. My parents have been very supportive of my decisions in the creative journey so far.  

A Display Of Anushree’s space /set design projects so far. 
Since my graduation, I have designed outdoor furniture for some brands, worked with a Wedding Design company executing few destination weddings in cities like Goa, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Delhi etc. I am now working on some interior design projects in my own city. Being a designer, is very rewarding and fulfilling. To every young person out there I say “Listen to your heart and do what it says.”

It’s Never Too Late

Photo Credit: Shilpa Bhargav
“The mere possibility of getting what we want fills the soul of the ordinary person with guilt. We look around at all those who have failed to get what they want, and feel that we do not deserve to get what we want either” said Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist.

Though a “software professional” by education, I quit the industry after working for two years. I chose staying with my (then) new husband over having a demanding job and a long distance marriage. Several wrong jobs, numerous cities, and two lovely babies later, I took to cooking. What started out as a means to getting away from ennui, has now become a fulfilling profession, albeit still in its infancy.

I always loved cooking and experimenting with food. I did not want my being a vegetarian to be a disadvantage and an excuse for eating the same kind of food every day. But though I got encouraging feedback from friends and family, and harbored a secret desire to one day open my own eatery, I never had the courage to take a step in that direction. There was always the fear that I’d fail because this was not my field of training, and also that I’d somehow be neglecting my duties towards the family if I ventured out. To be truthful, a lot of these fears were my own, and some of them were passed on by well-meaning family members. But I had also reached a stage in my life when I felt I needed to do something besides waiting for the children and husband to get home. Not just to feel less dependent on my husband, but I feared rusting my brain and craved the much needed interaction with humans my age. 

It is at this point, in June 2013, that a dear friend suggested I try selling my goodies online. Unknowingly Dipika,my friend gave me the nudge that was required to give wings to the dream that was Brownie Point. Since there was no harm in registering, I started with having just two items on my online “shop”, and with the newfound confidence, I spread the word amongst my friends in my apartment complex about my new venture.

Being optimistic, but also realistic, I did not expect to be inundated with orders immediately. But it was here that another friend gave me a fresh boost of confidence. Receiving the first order from her gave me such a high! She even gave me suggestions about how to increase my reach, where to source material from, and how to innovate. The rest, as they say, is history. As much joy as the first order gave me, it is even better to get repeat orders. That tells me that my effort was appreciated.

Though I am nowhere near where I’d like to be, it’s a start. And I feel getting to the start is the toughest. Whether we’ve never worked before but want to, or are on a sabbatical, we keep setting conditions on the day when we start “working” (for monetary gains). We do not realize that there is no better time than now. The longer we wait, the lesser time we leave ourselves to fail and start again. Because there are no fail proof (ad)ventures. To use a cliché, if you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

“When you take the step towards your dreams, you will be met with fears because you have never travelled this way before. As you go, you will discover that you had nothing to fear. Through overcoming your fears, you give those that follow you hope that if they pursue their dreams, they will achieve their dreams”
E’yen A. Gardner

The Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Photo Credit : Vipin Kalra 
Tall, strong and beautiful, it stood glowing in the morning sun. The red of the bridge as radiant as the sun rays themselves. The water below it a golden blue and in spite of the ice cold temperature it glistened in the sun. 

This past weekend, I walked across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco for the first time ever. I have lived in the city for years but have never done this before. We have crossed it a million times in the car, taken pictures of it from across the city and sailed beneath it, but never walked on it. The bridge and fog and gusty winds are best companions. So walking on the bridge is not always easy. But this Sunday morning it was near perfect. Warm with a light breeze, clear blue skies, the sun shining above us. The bridge beckoned as it always does. It is always welcoming. 

For many this bridge is a means of regular commute. A commute that was difficult in the days the bridge did not exist, some 75 years ago. The bridge has endured the millions of commuters in all these years with all its strength and still remained strong. A bridge, like all other bridges that connects places and brings them together. As I walked on the bridge, I was simply in awe of the structure, its enormity, it beauty and its strength. An engineering masterpiece and a piece of art. Each knot, each bolt, each pillar, every small detail.  

I reached half way on the bridge and took a pause. There were several stories brimming around me. The storyteller in me was curious and I was drawn like a magnet. The bridge is fortunate to witness them almost everyday. But I had only few minutes to witness it all. 

The tourists had slowly started trickling in. Still not so much. It is interesting how the tourists always stand out in their demeanor in a new place. That morning I looked like one too in the “I love SF” t-shirt that I wore.  Mingled in with them to see my own city differently. 

Some locals ran across with a grace and practice that you can get only if you do something regularly. Bikers zoomed by. Photographers took shots of the city skyline or may be the bay or the Alcatraz. Love for the bridge was pronounced all over. There were also lovers professing their love for each other of course. There were couples with the kids and the dogs, enjoying a little break from the mundane chores of life. There was one couple looking at the bay with such intensity that it seemed they were looking at the life ahead of them or may be reflecting on the past. There were other couples who argued and disagreed on things they knew did not matter. But like all couples do, they argued nevertheless. I looked around to find my husband to show that everyone indulged in such craziness but like many of the locals he can never get enough shots of the bridge. I had lost him to the bridge for that hour. So I walked ahead. 

There were also men talking about some new cool mobile apps (this is SFO after all). There was an elderly couple walking hand in hand slowly as if they were soaking in every moment of life. I was fascinated. There were three women who took a pause next to me and stood there talking about dementia. Someone in the family or friends must have it. Always a very painful thing to deal with when it involves a loved one. 

There were several sleeping babies in their strollers, just like mine, unaware of their surroundings. There were the slightly older kids like my six year old paying attention to every sign and verbiage posted on the bridge. I noticed adults did not think much of any of it.  There were phone booths on the way for emergency calls and also for crisis counseling. Many have taken their lives by taking a plunge in the bay. “There is hope. Make the call.”  Hope that a conversation with a total stranger will give you the needed strength when you are the most vulnerable. I looked down from the railing at the bay. I shuddered at the thought. 

On a brass board few steps ahead, there are the names engraved of the several thousand workers and engineers that helped build the bridge. “Build a bridge” was a not a mere phrase to these men and women. They actually helped build one. A few steps away there was a lady hugging one of the poles of the structure and getting herself clicked. She smiled upon seeing me, a bit embarrassed. Anything for the love of the bridge, I smiled back. In all the stories that I witnessed there was one common aspect ,the awe and love for the bridge. 

I am glad I walked across the bridge that day. The bridge to me is now a center stage to life stories. I know to many it is yet another gorgeous metallic structure. But I see the monument in a new light now. I am yearning to go back there and sit across with some folks and hear and write about life stories happening or being shared on the bridge. 

Written By : Piya Mukherjee. Photo Credit : Vipin Kalra 

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