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Biryanis, Remote Contact, Virtual Studies: an Indian Experience of Lockdown at HEC Paris

Over 5,000 Indian students are reported to have chosen France to further their higher education this past year. Around 100 remained in lockdown on the HEC Paris campus until May 11, juggling the ongoing challenges and thrills of online learning with a confined daily life. Five shared with us their hopes, realities and aspirations to come out of this crisis period strengthened and resilient.

Indian students at HEC Paris

“It is interesting to be alive to witness and experience this pandemic.” Sushil Reddy, a student from MSc Sustainability & Social Innovation (SASI) chuckles ruefully over the phone. He has enjoyed dozens of unique experiences in a young career that so far ranges from setting a Guiness Book of Records landmark by cycling through northwest India for 79 days to designing solar-powered rickshaws to combat pollution. But nothing has quite prepared him for the challenges waiting for him when he returned to the HEC campus to complete his Master degree this year. “Hopefully things will get back to normal soon,” he said when we first talked at the start of the confinement.

But it soon became clear that he and the 500 fellow-students stranded on campus were in for a long haul. The social entrepreneur takes it with equanimity: “I have made a routine for myself. I go for a jog/walk at the lake every day, I shop at Auchan opposite the campus every three-four days for groceries. I’ve been trying out new recipes which takes quite some time daily, actually.”

HEC Paris - Student Sushil Reddy
Sushil Reddy

Much of Sushil’s waking day is spent reading, however. “Mostly research articles in the energy and health sectors. I am learning a lot about pandemics via reading and webinars. And yes, I have been binge watching some movies/series online and playing some music for some entertainment too.”

Natural Spring Beauty

There are currently almost 150 students from India enrolled at HEC Paris, the third largest international community at the school. On top of the academic excellence they’ve show at all levels (from Grande Ecole to PhD, MBA and executive education), they have shared a lively cultural scene with the student population for years, from Holi Festival to India Week. Shubham Choudhary has been enjoying student life here since 2017 and is currently majoring in Strategic Management. The lockdown has not dampened his attachment to the campus: “The rules enforced in the campus for confinement measures are the same as of the rest of France. Nevertheless, I find it better and more relaxing as we can take walks around the campus, which seems more beautiful and greener with the ongoing spring.” Like everyone on campus, Shubham was shaken by the tragic death of a fellow-student early April.

Nistha Chakrabothy praises the efforts by the HEC administration to reach out to the stranded students: “There have been many measures taken like online conferences, workout/yoga sessions, painting activities, information about the job markets, etc,” she says. “It’s made it easier as it showed that everyone is in this struggle together.” Nistha’s background has undoubtedly prepared her for such challenging situations: “Having lived in different countries- France, India, UAE and Singapore - I have learnt to adapt to different cultures.”

One Screen Away

The same can be said for Rushap Khazanchi. The student in the Master in Management degree describes himself as “self-motivated individual who likes to explore new experiences and develop new skills and competencies”. Such situations are not new to him. “I come from a Kashmiri (Pandit) migrant community and grew up in Delhi NCR. A lockdown situation is quite common for my relatives in Kashmir who have experienced several curfews and lockdown(s) in their lifetime, the last one being in 2019." Rushap speaks frankly about how the COVID-19 crisis has hit him hard: “Up until the Corona hit Europe I had a job secured. This was taken back and now I find myself in a lockdown, trying to sustain, look for another job, and keeping myself sane in the midst of a recent loss to our community.”

Rushap finds equilibrium thanks to a disciplined daily routine, which starts around 9:30am with academic work, job hunting and interview preparations. These have led to three interviews and more are in the pipeline. He also finds strength by sharing his unique experience with his partner: “I’m almost always one screen apart from my girlfriend who is also on a lockdown in London (LSE). We keep each other sane, watching a movie together via screen share, having some wine and talking about our lives.”

HEC Paris - Student Mayank Sehgal
Mayank Sehgal

Just off campus is Mayank Sehgal, a talented content creator and digital marketer enjoying his student gap year as part of the MiM Grande Ecole program. Mayank shares communal space with many HEC Paris students in the ECLA residency at Massy-Palaiseau from where he works remotely for MAC Cosmetics. “Sure, teleworking was frustrating at the start, but it’s just fine now,” explains the Delhi-born intern. “But now that there’s a good rhythm going, it’s great. I’m learning plenty about consumer engagement and marketing.” Mayank knows something about rhythm, boasting an album and several short films, which he brought out in parallel to his studies. “I have a good balance here,” he says, posting a picture of himself with his trusted guitar. "I keep in touch with friends and family, while waiting to see what happens after my internship ends in July."

The 100 Indian students living on campus are mulling over the possibility of returning home earlier as the New Delhi authorities launch an unprecedented repatriation program for its stranded citizens worldwide. Yet none of the five Indian students interviewed have manifested a desire to return just yet. "I think it's much safer for everyone, including me, to stay put where they are,” Mayank Sehgal told First Post, a major Indian online publication. “Going back would've put the safety of my parents, as well as (that of) potentially society, at risk, and definitely mine too.” Mayank’s fellow students are in regular touch with their families back home. “A strict lockdown has been enforced nationwide, although the implementation of this lockdown is being debated,” says Shubham Choudhary. 

HEC Paris - Priyanka Bombay
Priyanka Bombay

Meanwhile, HEC Paris initiatives are also born in the midst of this slightly Beckettian situation. Thanks to phone calls by Sushil Reddy, for example, Priyanka Bombay’s delicious Indian food and service-with-a-smile service is set to radiate over the campus every Friday. Priyanka is behind the counter of her self-styled Bombay Spice Food Truck, one of only two Indian takeaways in Ile-de-France. She first arrived in her truck on May 1. “I had no hesitation in bringing my cooking to the campus in these unusual circumstances”, she explains. In the four months of her takeaway’s existence, the HEC campus experience has been the most successful she has known. “The first time I was on campus, Mayday, I planned for 50 clients. But the queue was huge! People waited for two hours and I had to turn many away, we sold out in no time.”

Now the specialist in Bombay cooking – kathi rolls, masala chai, naan wraps, pakoras, an assortment of biryanis, and so on – is armed for twice as many clients and sees her Friday ‘residency’ at HEC Paris as a long-term fixture – when, perhaps, the 2020 Jouy-en-Josas campus confinement will only be a distant memory to many students and graduates.