I arrived home from India three days ago. I had traveled internationally a few times before, but I’ve never felt as strange returning home from a trip as I did this Sunday. When I say I felt strange I’m not talking about jet lag. An hour after I got to my house, my mother and I went to the grocery store. While we were driving everything just felt empty. Where were all the people? The cars on the freeway were well spaced out, moving efficiently, and following rational traffic laws. The grocery store was air conditioned with samples of pastries and salsa laid out neatly for those shoppers who wanted to try. The sky was blue, it was 70 degrees, and the air was so so clean. It didn’t feel homey—it felt weird and sterile and almost foreign. That evening we went to a family friend’s house for a fathers’ day barbeque. We ate burgers and corn on the cobb while kids competed in bean bag tosses and badminton in the backyard. I couldn’t believe that I was on the same planet that I had been on when I boarded my first flight. As we drove from suburban house, to suburban grocery store, to suburban backyard party, I couldn’t get over how much space there was. The amount of empty green land that surrounded the highways and houses was harsh to look at. The contrast between New Delhi and Golden Valley, Minnesota was more jarring than I had been anticipating. While in Delhi, I saw a greater concentration of hardship that I have ever witnessed in my life. I’ve never been anywhere before with such an enormous population of under-resourced people in such a small space. While I recognized that this all felt new, I was so immersed in the reality of the culture that my mental energy was all focused on absorbing what I saw. I never really had a moment to compare it to how home felt, or to really process that consequences of what I was seeing. My plane ride home was my first extended opportunity to reflect on my time in Delhi. I watched Lion on the little TV screen in front of me while being served little airplane cups of chocolate mousse and Delta Starbucks coffee. Lion is about a boy who lives in a Mumbai slum who gets on an abandoned train and ends up entirely across the country from his family. He gets adopted by an affluent couple who live in Tazmania, and decides to find his birth family again in his young adulthood. There is a scene in the movie when he returns to the slum neighborhood where he was born, and sits for a while just watching the kids there play with each other. In this moment he really becomes aware of how random the course of his life was. He may be dressed in nice clothes and have a steady job and may not be able to speak Hindi, but had he not gotten on that train, he would’ve grown up exactly like the little boys he was watching. He remarks in this scene about how random and unfair it seems that he ended up in the life he did. Sandwiched between two other airplane passengers watching a rom com and a superhero movie respectively, I began to cry like a baby. This was my first opportunity to really let everything I saw in India soak in. I was crying because I just couldn’t believe how arbitrary the whole narrative was. Because Saroo happened to tragically become separated from his family, he ended up with everything he could ever need. The way Saroo felt, wondering how he ended up with the life he had, was exactly how I was starting to feel. I was born to two white American professionals, so I could afford to sit on an international flight with a little TV screen eating chocolate mouse in an airline cup, and the girls who I taught English to had not only never been on an airplane, but they had never even been outside of their subsection of Delhi. Never even been as far as the neighborhood I lived in with my host couple.I feel like there’s a gap in my understanding of how we ended up in a world that looks the way it does today. How is it possible that people have organized themselves in such a way that New Delhi lives and Golden Valley, Minnesota lives can both be occurring simultaneously on the same planet, only a plane ride away. Of course this divide exists within my own community as well. Less than a mile from my house is the heart of North Minneapolis, the roughest neighborhood of my state. I don’t need a plane to get there but it also feels like an alien planet compared to where I grew up. I fully admit that these thoughts are not original or profound, and before this experience I would’ve rolled my eyes at a post like this. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about these questions in a serious way. I’ve always been fiercely passionate about issues of social divide, but always in the abstract. This was the first time where I felt really deeply distraught by the divide that exists in our world in a personal and emotional way. I wasn’t reflecting on these questions in an academic context or to defend a political opinion, I was really thinking about what they mean about where I fit in to the workings of the world. I think my understanding of what life means has changed. Although I was always aware that life can take all kinds of different forms, being somewhere where there were so many people so close together, I felt like the value of an individual human life was cheapened. Women in the slums had nine ten or eleven children with hopes that six or seven would live and could help earn money. People were born and died without ever leaving the slum area they were born into. At home the things that could make or break someone’s life were getting in to your top school, failing an important exam, looking good in a swim suit, and whether or not you could afford to study abroad or go on a spring break vacation. I was never under the impression that this was the way life was for everyone. I knew that this was a privileged existence, but seeing people who have doused themselves with kerosene and burned their skin or chopped off a limb to make their begging more effective added an air of new reality to my understanding of privilege discrepancy. It’s not unheard of for children to become suicidal when they don’t get into a top school or are teased brutally at school, but over the past five weeks I met kids whose parents have chopped off their fingers to make themselves distinguishable from the masses of beggers, and who still wake up every day and carry on. I was struck by the extremely varied definitions of a good life, a bad life, and a life worth living are across the world. I’m trying my best to avoid this sound like a “think about how lucky you are” kind of post. What I really hope to convey is not that I went to India and came home to realize that I have privilege. I knew that before I left. What I do hope to reflect is that the experience brought things into broader focus. As I continue on with the next three years of college, I seek to answer for myself the same questions that we all try to answer. What makes a good life? What about a bad life? What are the conditions required to make a life worth living? While I certainly don’t have answers for myself yet, I do feel more capable of understanding these questions in a global context. As much as these feel like universal human considerations, the answers can change so much depending on where you fit in to the world as a whole. Life is not defined in the same way everywhere, so it’s important for me to bear this in mind as I think about how I want to craft my own.
Week 1: Adjusting my Expectations On the very misleading website of the non-profit I came to work for, there is a photo gallery of all the activities that happen at the center. Among those listed were yoga, drama, dance, and art activities. I had been under the impression that these things were everyday scheduled activities at the community center. In my skype call with the org I asked if I could help out with the creative arts activities. My host father (also the managing trustee of my NGO) said yes that would be great and very useful. Sorted. Sike. When I rolled into Delhi one of the first questions he asked me was, “so, what are you planning on teaching at the center?” A little taken aback that this wasn’t something he had any plan for, I said I was planning on spending my days at the community center. He said he was planning on me spending two hours there and working from the “office” (his house) the rest of the day. There were no other volunteers, and I quickly realized there was almost no one else staffing this organization. My first day at the center I walked in and all the kids were studying independently. I quickly discovered that unless there was some special workshop happening, this is pretty much all that happened within those four walls. The “teachers” were sitting in chairs positioned so that they could shout whenever the kids got too rowdy (or lend a well-intentioned smack on the head if necessary). There was no art program happening. There really was no program happening. I decided to just plop down with the kids on the floor, but they quickly became so distracted by my presence that all it lead to was more yelling and smacks across the head for them. I hardly felt “useful,” as I had been told I would be. I found out that when different “didis” (didi is the hindi word for big sister, what they call any female volunteer) came to the center, they taught whatever they had expertise in. I felt supremely unqualified to lead anything. The next two days passed like this; me not really helping with much of anything, and coming to the center anyway at least for the purpose of leaving my homestay. In the office, I really had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. My host dad shared his fantastical dreams about saving the world and asked me to email ambassadors and politicians. No one at the center spoke English. Along with my discovery that the center was not the warm welcoming presence in the slum community that I thought it would be, was the discovery that my NGO was not so much an organization as it was my host dad’s passion project. Due to unforeseen and tragic medical reasons, my host dad, R.K. and his wife Vandana have no children. For a little bit of background, Indian culture is extremely family oriented. (In the 33 interviews I conducted for my research, only 9 people answer yes to the statement “my life would be meaningful even if I don’t have children.” These interviews had ages from 4-39, boys and girls.) My host parents like to say they have 1000 children now that they have taken on the 6 slum community centers. While my host dad who technically holds the title “managing trustee” is extremely devoted, he is the only person managing the NGO. He has no sustainable source of funding and pays for roughly 50% of the expenses out of pocket. As the regional director of EuroVision Broadcasting for all of South Asia, he alone cannot run six community centers and also grow the org to a point where it is sustainable. In short, when I arrived the Prajna Foundation was somewhat of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, It was a beautiful mess fueled by tragic circumstances and the endless idealism of my host dad. However, a mess nonetheless. My first nights in Delhi I lay awake worrying that I had made the wrong choice. I could have picked any NGO, gone to any city, and done any project. I was overwhelmed by the affection of my host family, and underwhelmed with the structure of the NGO I was working with. When my first weekend came around, I was excited to leave my homestay and to avoid the isolation of the center for the day. During my first weekend I went exploring by myself in Delhi for the first time. That day completely changed my outlook. I took the metro straight to Chandi Chowk (the backbone street of Old Delhi and the most crowded most notorious area of the entire sprawling metropolis). I quickly felt lost and vulnerable, and grew tired of taking selfies with every person who walked by. It was 115 degrees outside, and although I had traveled alone, thousands of eyes watched my every move. I did everything wrong. I stood in the line designated for men for thirty minutes at Delhi’s Red Fort before eventually realizing that there was a women’s line on the other side. I stood in the line designated for women for a little while longer, before being pulled out of line and directed to a special window marked “foreigners.” I secured my ticket and wandered around the fort, listening to my pricey and useless audio guide. I sweat, took some photos, took some selfies with strangers, sweat some more, then decided that I had had my fill.I found some secluded shade where I could let the sweat on my forehead dry into a solid layer of salt on my face, drank the rest of my water, and googled how to experience Old Delhi alone. Once I found a national geographic self-guided tour of Chandi Chowk with a map and highlights, I decided not to uber back to my homestay and to give it one more try. Following the map, I had a new sense of assuredness. I ignored the stares and photographs being taken of me, and did my best to open myself up to what the heart of Old Delhi had to offer. The rest of that day included temples, back alley jewelry markets, some of Delhi’s best and most famous street food, and sitting in on a service in a mosque with live singers and drummers. Once I had found a spot in the main room of the mosque after a stranger had helped show me how to properly cover my head, where to wash my hands, and where to leave my shoes, I felt like my meltdown at the red fort was a lifetime ago. I sat in the mosque (which was AIR CONDITIONED!!!) for almost an hour listening to the girls singing and observing people worshiping. No one took pictures of me, actually no one seemed to even care or notice that I was there. It was the first time since I arrived in Delhi that I had felt blissfully inconspicuous. I was amazed at how such a serene marble space could exist in the middle of a street that embodied chaos. That evening when I returned to my homestay, my host parents eagerly listened to all my stories, and patiently appreciated my photos of sights which they had seen in person hundreds of times. Our conversation was interrupted when a former volunteer from the center’s founding years came to our door to surprise my host mother for mother’s day. She brought her 8 month old baby, a bouquet of flowers, and all of my host mothers favorite sweets. She had known that mother’s day would be tough on my host mom who will never have children of her own, and whose mother died within the past year. The former volunteer started talking about all of the things that she had accomplished when she worked at the center, and about how much she cared for the kids and the mission there. The NGO is small, but this woman was so close to the organization and the people behind it that they had become like family. She quizzed me about what my plans for volunteering were and I really hadn’t thought about it much that weekend. I decided that the next day I would really dig in. As we passed the surprise cheesecake around in a circle, took photos, and talked about old memories and dreams for the future of the NGO, I felt really at home. I had been accepted into this family, and I had accepted the responsibility of contributing as much as I possibly could to the foundation. Week 2: Wrapping Up Within the previous four weeks I have made a full set of alphabet flashcards and a sticker chart for the five girls I intensively worked on English with, gone through 6 bags of Cadbury Dairy Milk individually wrapped chocolates that I used as incentives for good behavior, rewritten/adjusted 12 short stories to be sensitive to Indian culture, interviewed 33 kids about their experiences, and completed three art projects. The first two weeks I devoted entirely to English. I spent two and a half hours every day going over sounds of letters and working through stories with the same five girls. When we started, these girls couldn’t even name all of the letters in the alphabet, and by the end of two weeks were able to clap out syllables, sound out letters, and piece together words. They had literally learned how to read English within 12 days. (A testament to the remarkable ability of little kids to learn languages.) The third week I devoted myself entirely to interviews for my research, but as I began the third week, I decided that I could only teach so much English in one week, and decided to spend the last week trying to beautify the center. I was hoping it could become somewhere that was well looked after, colorful, and welcoming. If we could accomplish this, it would be the only space in that slum that filled that description. I felt that that would have a much more lasting impact than any amount of short stories. Monday was spent working on the website for the org (which desperately needed an overhaul) from 8 am when I got back from my morning run through the beautiful Jahapannah City Forest until 11 pm when we ate dinner. Today we cut out hearts and messages and taped them up in the drab main area, and I just wrapped up my third hour of pre-cutting strings for tomorrow’s friendship bracelet extravaganza. Looking back at how unsure I was of that first week, I could not be happier I decided to lean in. I was afraid of taking on a self-guided project and being the only English speaking volunteer, I was afraid of the amount of affection my host parents were giving because I didn’t feel like I could reciprocate, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to turn the wild city of Delhi into something I could manage, and most of all I was afraid that somehow this incredible experience would be wasted because I picked the wrong path or wrong project. I think about the long conversations and old photo albums I looked through with my host mom, the moments where I was actually drowning in children and they relentlessly jumped on top of me, the moment when Anu begged me to find her a copy of I am Malala in hindi, the moments when Prianka, Ritu, Khushboo, Tara, or Anu pieced together a word that I thought for sure I would need to help them with. The fact that I somehow felt that these four weeks could have been anything but incredible is laughable now. I just placed my order for samosas and bought green balloons for my last day of work on Friday. I really can’t imagine saying goodbye, and there is so much more I wish I could do. There are so many parts of Delhi I never came across, so many places in India I never saw, and so many brainstorm sessions between my host dad and I about our org that will be left unfulfilled within my time in India. I struggle to think about how to best tie up my lose ends, and to what extend I should stay connected with my org, my host parents, and with the kids I worked with. Regardless of how difficult it will be to fly out of India with so much left on my bucketlist, I really cannot put into words how lucky I feel. Not only am I counting my lucky stars because I got to come to India at all, but also that I got to have the precise experience I’ve had. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have asked for anything different, and I am so happy I decided to lean in.
When I was a junior in high school I read a short story by Hemmingway for English class entitled “A clean well-lighted place.” At this time I was working my way through Hemingway’s book of short stories “In Our Time,” so I had read lots of his work, but this story stuck with me for some reason. The story is about an old man who comes every night to a café and drinks until very late, and a disagreement between the two waiters who serve him about whether or not to close the café early and send the drunk man home. The story primarily features the waiter who believes the café should remain open, because although one waiter claimed that the old man could “buy a bottle and drink at home” the main waiter believed in the solace of “a clean well-lighted place.” I still don’t understand why this story spoke to me to such an extent during my junior year, but I do now believe with all of my heart in the impact that a space can have. My first realization of the importance of space in creating an positive environment was during my work as a UROP intern. I helped out as a research intern for Community Action Network in Ann Arbor, a nonprofit that runs after school programs for youth in under-resourced neighborhoods in the Ann Arbor public school district. My job was to interview all the children, asking them questions about the way they view education, about their safety and home-life, and about their general wellbeing. The results of these interviews were some of the data that CAN used to demonstrate their impact in their grant applications. The idea was that if a kid participated in after school programs for many semesters, we would be able to see their survey answers impacted as well. Conducting these interviews, I realized that the reason why CAN made an impact on the life of the kids it worked with had very little to do with the actual substance of the academic activities. While the kids did have 20 minutes of scheduled reading time, 20 minutes of scheduled homework time, and 20 minutes of some other enrichment work every day, often times this schedule was compromised. Typically during the reading rotation, perhaps 5 or 10 of those 20 minutes would be really productive reading. However, when I wasn’t feeling like I was able to engage the kids productively, I would step back and remind myself that 20 minutes of reading really wasn’t what mattered for these kids. One of the questions that I asked during these interviews was “How would your life be different if you didn’t participate in our program?” The answers to these tended to be about getting to see Skylar (the center director) every day, about playing with friends, or about how they would be sad and bored if they went straight home right after school. In a life where home and school aren’t necessarily safe, clean, positive, and structured environments, being able to provide such an environment was the biggest contribution that CAN’s after school programs and summer programs could offer. Each child knew that when they walked to the community center, regardless of what else was happening in their life or in the world, they would get to eat something if they were hungry, they would be treated with kindness and respect, they would be surrounded by workers who told them education was important, and there would be enforcement of basic rules. Hate was not allowed at the community center, crime had no place, and the fridge was always full. When I was doing my research about NGOs in India, I was really at a loss for what direction I wanted to go. Initially I wanted to go the public health route, then I was looking at mostly female empowerment organizations, but ultimately when I came across the Prajna foundation it just felt right. Prajna has six modest community centers based in slums across New Delhi. The community centers provide tutoring, take their kids to events and on field trips, help subsidize school tuition, and engage the kids in artistic and cultural activities. Basically, Prajna created an environment right inside the slum neighborhoods that did not exist before. The center was a clean well-lighted place. When I arrived and began teaching English in the mornings, I immediately saw many striking similarities. Even though kids would complain sometimes about the teachers being too strict or would have days when they were frustrated and didn’t want to study, they still came and played within the gates of the center hours before the program even started. Once I left my water bottle at the center and came back 3 hours after program. The kids were still playing inside the gates, despite the fact that the building itself had been locked for several hours. When I became frustrated with the teaching, I would remind myself that it didn’t matter how much English I would be able to teach the five girls who I was working with. What mattered was that we were demonstrating to these children that places like the one we created could exist. Once the kids knew what it felt like to be in clean, safe, places where love and respect were the defaults, and rules were enforced, it was much easier to convince them that a better life could exist in their future. Prajna provides their kids with not only the academic tools and physical resources to help the children escape the cycle of poverty, but also with a reason to believe that they could achieve a better life.Today I got a tour of another school space in a different slum neighborhood. This time I was just going to see a local college program where the university students taught in their neighboring slum. The conditions in this slum were worse than the conditions in the one I was working in. Furthermore, the slum was entirely Muslim, in a country where the government is dominated by Hindu traditionalists. Not only are slum people looked down upon in India, but Hindu/Muslim tensions are really widespread as well. When the professor who initiated this teaching partnership began the program, the students from the university would teach the kids inside the school classrooms on Sunday (when the campus was unused except for the security guards). Other professors protested and said that it was a security issue because the kids were Muslim. The program was banned from using public university land and had to relocate to a space inside the slum, despite the fact that the university full of empty classrooms and the slum were less than one kilometer away from each other. We climbed a giant precarious set up stairs into the new space that they found to teach in. It was a tiny room above a stand where a man was selling live chickens. Here there were no flies or goats walking around. There was a single computer, and a window that let in lots of sunlight. This classroom space was reserved for older girls. Stepping into the room it was clear that you had entered an entirely different universe than the one that lay at the bottom of the staircase. The girls went around and introduced themselves. “My name is Anushka and I want to be a lawyer” “My name is Iqra and I want to be the prime minister” “My name is Hiba. I am a housewife and I want to become a working woman.” There were many other hopeful teachers, surgeons, and one future railway security officer (not entirely sure why that was the dream but still cool that she knew exactly what she wanted to do). When my host dad asked the girls what the purpose of education was, Iqra responded that the purpose of education was to stop discrimination. Iqra was 13. Over and over, I have seen the power that space and environment can hold. If you’ve ever walked into a place of worship in a rough neighborhood, that is the kind of atmosphere that these community centers create. They encourage environments where education is sacred, regardless of creed or class. As somebody who has never been religious, that was the closest thing I had ever had to a spiritual experience. It was as if the air was different inside that classroom. The same is true of Prajna, and the same is true of Community Action Network. Walking out of the slum, I had to hold my breath due to the smell and couldn’t breath through my mouth because there were so many swarming flies. Right as I exited the slum, I turned around and saw this man. It that is not some kind of sign, I have no idea what is.
It’s hard to believe that my arrival in Delhi on May 10th was only 8 days ago. With an overwhelming array of new experiences (in the best since of the word) if I were to try to reflect on all of the week’s events, I would be writing a novel. Instead, I decided to compile a short list of 4 initial realizations.
- 5 Weeks in India is NOT ENOUGH TIME! Before finding out that I had received this fellowship, I agreed to work as a summer camp councilor from my childhood camp for 8 weeks. With a contract signed and a strict deadline of returning to the states on the 17th of June, I page wistfully through the pages of the big display book on India that sits in the bedroom of my homestay, “India: Land of Dreams and Fantasy.” With only five weeks I am facing a personal dilemma over whether to see a new part of India every weekend, or spend weekends embracing and exploring New Delhi.
- Following in the dilemma of #1, Delhi is a world of its own. It is really a microcosm of India complete with cultural heritage sites, bustling old markets, houses of parliament, the home of the president, sprawling supermalls, world cuisine, and everything in between. You could visit 30 times, never do the same thing twice, and barely scratch the surface. There are 140+ city wards in New Delhi, each with 4-6 neighborhoods. Each of these neighborhoods has its own rules, markets and distinct personality. In Delhi, one can experience some of the most enchanting aspects of Indian culture without ignorance of the ugly reality of poverty or the colonial history.
I’ve always been fascinated by India. From the picturesque Himalayan mountains and the legend behind the Taj Mahal, to the Bollywood celebrities, the more than 700 dialects of Hindi and the persistence of the caste system, India is a universe of its own. I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that an entire fifth of the world’s population lives inside its borders. I’ve always seen India as one of those places that you have to experience if you want to really further your understanding of the world. It hardly feels real that in a few short days I’ll have moved into my homestay in New Delhi, and have begun working at Prajna, a small NGO that runs dance, art, drama, and meditation classes for children in the New Delhi slums. While I’m there, I’ll be conducting interviews about the role of creative activities in the lives of children living in abject poverty. Although I have recited my summer plans more times than I can count, it’s only now that the receipt for my Minneapolis to Delhi round trip ticket is sitting in my inbox, that the words feel like anything more than a fantasy.In hindsight, how exactly I ended up with a $3000 check, a prescription for anti-malarial pills, a new journal, and a ticket to India is largely coincidental. Back in October, when I was still eagerly going to every club fair on central campus, I was wandering through the fall study abroad fair on a hunt for foreign candy. When I came across the table for the Summer in South Asia Fellowship and asked the fellows a little about what they did, I was immediately hooked. The next time I opened my laptop, it was to set up an advising appointment in the International institute. Flash forward to March, and after a long application process that required doing a little bit of soul searching and sending a lot of unanswered emails, I opened the congratulatory email notifying me that I’d received the grant to fly halfway across the world. The adrenaline rush and excitement were closely followed by a flurry of travel clinic visits, paperwork, lost packages, and advising appointments fit in between classes and finals. However, in the past few days since I’ve been home, I have finally gotten the chance to catch my breath and process what this all really means. I applied for this fellowship to further my understanding of inequality from a global perspective, and to immerse myself in a different way of life. I don’t know much about how the next six weeks are going to look, but I do know that I will see poverty like I’ve hardly been exposed to, feel heat like I never have before, and get to know a family and group of children that have lived lives strikingly different from my own. In the next few days I’ll be dusting off my big backpack, buying sunscreen, and leaving behind a world where things are predictable, understood, and mapped out for me. As each day brings me closer to my May 8th departure, my stomach turns with that uncomfortable, yet addictive apprehension that comes along with venturing completely out of your comfort zone. I have no idea how I’ll feel when I step off the plane on Tuesday and find myself in India’s capital city, but for now all I can do to prepare is try to rid myself of expectations, and open my mind and my heart to everything I’m about to experience in the slums of India’s capital city.