When Cultures Collide and Connect
by Jennifer Donovan
Sahil Thakkar is notable for a number of things at Michigan Tech. Patience is not one of them. His roommate, Pranay Nagar, is his polar opposite—calm, quiet, given to long stretches of meditation and silence. Together, they create a perfect balance. And both bring special gifts to the University, from Asian cuisine to yoga.
As a new undergraduate, Thakkar lured TV Asia's Midwest Bureau chief from Chicago to Houghton for the 2009 Parade of Nations because he wanted Indians everywhere to know how welcoming Michigan Tech is to foreign students. And he did it just days before the event. "Let's work on that for next year," someone older and wiser suggested. "No," Thakkar declared. "Parade of Nations is important. They need to know about it now."
Nagar smiles paternally. "Sahil is having that quality," he observes.
Thakkar spearheaded Khana Khazana, a wildly popular ethnic lunch cooked by international students and served weekly at the Memorial Union Food Court.
Thakkar, who was working there part time as a dishwasher, simply cornered executive chef Eric Karvonen and retail dining manager Matt Lean and informed them that both campus and community were hungering for food cooked by international students.
"He was so enthusiastic and so sure he could make it work that we decided to let him give it a try," says Lean.
The native of ruthlessly hot western India also plays broomball for the International Club. "A totally new experience, new game, new rules," he recalls. "And all on ice! I was worried that I do not break my bones. But I enjoyed as soon as I landed in the rink."
He came to Tech to study electrical engineering technology. After earning a diploma in electrical engineering in India—the equivalent of an associate degree—Thakkar was accepted at three other universities as well as Michigan Tech. He chose Tech because his uncle, an engineer, said it had the best reputation in industry.
"I am thankful to the School of Technology that they accepted me because I really like doing the hands-on work," Thakkar says. "Ever since I was a young child, I was loving mechanical things—opening them, breaking them, trying to fix them."
Thakkar had never seen snow before December 2009, his first winter at Michigan Tech. He stood gazing out the window of their second-floor apartment on Blanche Street for so long that roommate Pranay Nagar asked, "Sahil, is something wrong?"
"He is never quiet for so long," Nagar explains.
"I want to produce energy from snow," Thakkar replied.
They are an odd couple. Nagar is as sedate as Thakkar is frenetic. Older, with a wife and a baby son waiting for him back home, Nagar is working on a graduate degree in mechanical engineering so he can pursue an academic career in India. "Teaching is what I really like," he says.
He also likes to do Sahaja yoga and has taught free workshops on the meditation technique at Michigan Tech. "It's a very easy way to realize and experience one's inner self," he says. "It is not a religion nor an ideology. Some of the benefits of Sahaja meditation are good health, mental and emotional balance, better concentration, stress relief, self knowledge, and peace."
"Sahil motivates me, and I calm him down," chuckles the 30-year-old Nagar.
Thakkar, 22, says that Nagar "makes food for me and keeps it ready when I am out at work or meetings. He himself cleans our room. He takes care of me like his young brother—and sometimes like parent. I am really thankful to god that I got a roommate like him."
God was not always so important to Thakkar. When he was studying for his diploma in India, he admits, "I was drinking, smoking cigars, doing things I should not do."
Then one day, as the young man went through the motions of saying prayers with his father, mother, and younger brother, "suddenly I felt that I wasn't worthy to be part of my family. I started following the path of Jalaram Bapa," an Indian saint who grew grain to feed the poor. Thakkar relates his passion for cooking to his patron saint, pointing out, "He fed people too."
Thakkar and Nagar still are stunned—although delighted—at some of the differences between India and Houghton. Back home, Nagar worked fourteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, prepping students for the Graduate Record Exam and other qualifying tests. "Here," he says, "people only work from 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. five days a week, and some of them complain about that."
Thakkar, who learned British English in school, says he sometimes has trouble pronouncing American-style—for example, the last letter of the alphabet. "It's zed," he protests, "and you say zee." But what struck him most is Americans' "honesty, the innocence, the eagerness to help. If I walked on the road in India and smiled and talked to everyone, they'd think I was crazy. Here everyone smiles and talks to strangers. It is a good way to do."