Under One Sky

I departed Bangalore on a cool, misty morning in late June. It was approximately seven o’clock when I, along with my parents and sister—who arrived in India during the last week of my internship—stepped into an ebony colored taxi, our physically exhausted bodies brimming with the catharsis that newly formed memories induce. As we careened down a slumbering highway, which was empty expect for the occasional rickshaw or plastic bag, the sun peeked its nose over our shoulders and flashed a bittersweet smile, which illuminated the inviting wrinkles running through its ancient rays. It rose into the amber-stained sky like a lotus in a mucky pond, as if to reassure me, the journey is hardly over.

On the way back to the United States, my family and I spent a few days in London. While I am incredibly grateful to have been able to explore one of the world’s most culturally rich cities—with my family, nonetheless—it felt incredibly strange to walk through the pages of a dominating Westernized narrative. The cobblestones sprawling through the English streets felt incredibly foreign after spending several weeks walking through the sandy sidewalks of Bangalore. The people in London, in true Western fashion, lacked the warm facial expressions that the citizens of Bangalore adorn so easily. It was also perplexing to suddenly be the only person in a mile radius wearing sandals instead of close-toed shoes.

And while London should have (in theory) made it incredibly easy to adjust back to the United States, I nonetheless find myself feeling dazed. Dazed as I flashed my American passport at John F. Kennedy International Airport and officially entered the country of my birth, as I fought the automatic tendency to compare India to the United States. Dazed as I stepped into the arms of a humid, New York evening, which gripped me close despite not being able to truly understand how I’ve changed. Dazed as I think back to one year ago, when the idea of participating in the Summer in South Asia Fellowship program was preposterous. One year ago, when I first discussed the fellowship program with my parents, who like me were unsure about what this journey would bring. Even as I went about the application process, the thought of interning in India the summer after my junior year was nothing more than a premature vision. I simply did not think I “had what it takes” to embark on this journey.

You often hear people say, “It’s funny how much can change in a year.” I’m not quite sure I would use the word “funny.” Perhaps “magical” is more appropriate.

As I reflect on my experience this summer, the one sentence that comes to mind is this: the world feels much bigger. Now, when I step outside and stare at the diamond-dressed sky hovering above Connecticut, I think about the people I met (and reunited with) in India. I think about the impact that they had on me and the impact they will continue to have on the world around them. I think about how when they gaze at their sky each evening, we are fixating on the same entity of infinity. For you see, the stars and their ascendants know nothing of man-made cultural barriers. In their eyes, we are nothing more (and nothing less) than multiple hearts beating and pumping in synchrony. We are all objects, uniquely crafted pieces of woodwork, blood vessels and skin, existing independently and concurrently under one sky.

Given these thoughts, the concept of departure is a strange one. While it is true that my physical body has transcended to a different landscape—one in which the clouds speak to me not in Kannada, but in a piercingly familiar American English—-part of my heart will always remain in the experiences I had in India. As I adjust back to the world I knew before India and turn towards the journey ahead, I am trying to articulate, to myself and others, how this experience has impacted me. I suppose this is one of those situations where even the English language finds itself speechless.

It is my hope that the blogs written on this site—by myself as well as the other 2017 SISA Fellows—will encourage others to take the same leap that led me on this adventure. It is my hope that someone, even one person, will find trust in our experiences this year and make the decision to dive into a new culture. This decision is not one to be taken lightly, but it is one that rewards those who are open minded and curious. The personal and professional journey I had in India has dynamically transformed my world views and has given me an education that no university classroom can. I would not be the person I am without the opportunities bestowed by the Summer in South Asia Fellowship program and the amazing staff at Swasti, who embraced me despite the short duration of my internship. Thank you to Janelle, Dan and the anonymous donor for turning my premature dream into a tangible vision that has touched my life in ways that words cannot express. Thank you to Grace Beckham and Jacob Anderson, former SISA Fellows who answered all my questions throughout the application process, challenged my misguided hesitations and inspired me to take this step forward. And, perhaps most importantly, thank you to my parents, who since emigrating from India twenty-four years ago, have sacrificed so much to give me the opportunities I have.

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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.

One thought on “Under One Sky

  1. Neel, this was so beautifully written – you really captured the plight of leaving somewhere that touched your heart and returning to a home that you don’t immediately recognize. I cant’ wait to reconnect with you and hear all about your experiences in India. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with you this year. The world is big – and I’m glad this fellowship gave you the opportunity to explore one more small corner of it.

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