On Border Crossing, Privilege, & Indian Driving

I arrive in Bangalore, India in the early morning of Wednesday, May 17. As I finish exchanging my United States dollars for a colorful stack of Indian rupees—rays of purple, orange and white glimmer from the notes clutched in my fist—I find myself overwhelmed by the tight hug of reality. This is it, I think as I step outside the airport into a thick wall of warmth and humidity. From New York to London to Mumbai to Bangalore, it has been quite the journey already. Here is to the most eventful one yet, I think as I nervously step through the airport doors.

My eyes run through the line of taxi drivers standing outside the airport and eventually lock with those of a humble fellow bearing a laminated sign with my name on it. Without much of a verbal exchange, I find my way into his vehicle—sitting on the left side rather than the right, for automobile design is different in this part of the world—and careening down a long and winding path that leads into the city of Bangalore. Despite the fact that I have been to Bangalore two times before, this is my first time traveling from the airport in the daytime. No longer consumed by a wave of midnight, the highway looks elegant, energetic and inviting. Perhaps this contrast in day and night is symbolic of how different my time in Bangalore this year will be from my previous visits.

Of course, some of the observations I made in my initial trips to India hold true even now; namely, regarding the erratic nature with which people drive. While the speed limit, from what I can tell, appears to be 60, the needle in the car’s speedometer constantly dances up to the mark of 110. Lane divisions appear to be insignificant, with cars bouncing to and fro as if they exist in a pinball machine. I find myself holding on to the edge of my seat, mesmerized by the rush of adrenaline that cannot exactly be found on highways in the U.S.

In light of the intense traffic, the ride to the apartment where I will be staying is rather long, and I thus have some time to perform some free-form thinking. I find myself thinking about borders, and the privilege that comes with being able to easily cross them for the sake of an intercultural education. As the holder of a United States passport and Overseas Citizenship of India card, I was able to cross through the Indian border with relative ease. And as the recipient of a grant through the University of Michigan Center for South Asian Studies, I am able to pursue my internship in India—a country that experiences significant socioeconomic disparities—without having to worry about financial burdens. What does it mean to step into a community that in some ways is but in many ways is not my own, only to return five weeks later to circumstances of political, social, economic and educational privilege?

Picture for Blog Post 2

Above: a picture taken from the road on which Swasti Health Resource Centre is located.

I also find myself thinking about difference, and the ways in which our minds attempt to compensate for it by making faulty comparisons. It is so easy to compare aspects of unfamiliar India with my known worlds of suburban Connecticut and Ann Arbor. But in doing so, one inevitably does injustice to the new place and reduces its intricacies. Nobody can deny that India is different from these aforementioned places. But it is my home for the next five weeks, and its differences do not make it any less worth embracing.

Finally, I find myself thinking about how my own identity as an Indian-American will shape my international experience. While my mocha colored skin allows me to physically blend in with those around me, my inability to speak or understand my mother tongue may be off putting to those I meet. Indian society has a tendency to idolize those who appear as foreign. But whether or not I fall into this category—as well as the nature of the unique experiences that will accompany this classification—are uncertain.

My goal in writing these blog posts and reflecting upon my experiences is to demonstrate that India, like the United States and the numerous countries that span the distance between the two, is simply another place where people live, work and play. Along with its rich artistic traditions, presence in a rapidly evolving and technologically oriented world, and linguistic and cultural diversity, it is home for billions of people who know it as well as I know my hometown. In respecting the livelihoods of these individuals, I hope my blog posts capture less of myself and more of the beautiful country that will shape my next few weeks.

~ N.S.

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About Neel Swamy

Neel is a rising senior studying Neuroscience with a minor in Gender & Health. After graduation, Neel hopes to attend pharmacy school and one day work with patients in a clinical psychiatric setting. Neel will be spending five weeks working with Swasti, a health resource center in Bangalore that focuses on structurally and systematically addressing the health needs of marginalized populations. Neel will be specifically working with the Avahan India AIDS Initiative, a large HIV prevention program initiated in 2003 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Swasti is currently leading the third phase of the program, which specifically focuses on providing communities sustainable resources to two vulnerable populations: women from the sex working industry and men who identify as transgender. Neel's research project will focus on highlighting the ways in which the initiative that have proven to be successful and how Swasti has successfully empowered individuals from marginalized backgrounds through community engagement.

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