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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India.
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Sobti Fellowship: Getting to India

Fri, 09/25/2015 - 14:27

I’m very excited to be writing my first blog post for CASI Student Programs after about three years. In the summer of 2012, Christina and Sam (my fellow Aravind summer interns) would sit on our beds in Madurai and agonize about our word structure and try and conceive hilarious puns for our blog posts. This time around, I’m in Chennai, excited to start my time as the Sobti Family Fellow, even if it is without the reassuring camaraderie of the souls who lent their names to our “Nandhawuware” trifecta.

Coming to India after time spent away is always an adjustment for me. Even though I grew up in the subcontinent, it’s like I forget how things actually are when I go away. When I got to Chennai, part of me started missing Canada immediately: the relative serenity, the lower volume of speech, the use of horns purely during an emergency, the lower temperatures, the absence of constant reminders of my privilege. But despite all of that, I know that I want to be here, and I’ve wanted to be here for a long time now. I’ve talked to many friends about wanting to be in India, but also expressed my fear and insecurity at moving to a country where I don’t really know that many people. I talked to them about opportunities, and then dismissed them, only to eventually hear an exasperated friend say, “I think you should just move, just so you will stop talking about it all the time.”

That was a sound piece of advice, and I followed it.

And the Sobti fellowship has given me the opportunity to do what I’ve wanted to for a long time: to study the art form that I love, in a place that I love. I’ll be starting off my tenure by working with Theatre Nisha in Chennai, studying the play development process. Once I feel comfortable and well-adjusted in India, I’ll pack my bags and head to Mumbai to study the evolution of English theatre in that city.

While I am excited to start my work and throw myself into meeting people and interviewing them next week (there’s a podcast in the works too), right now I am content with staying indoors, under the air conditioning unit, adjusting to the smells and sounds and heat of Chennai. And all the while, I’m thinking, “I’m in India. I will be in India for the next 9 months. Wow.”

Stay tuned for more visually appealing blog posts in the near future!

My Routine as a Fulbright ETA

Sun, 09/13/2015 - 05:09

I’m approaching the three month mark and I haven’t really shared much of my experience with many people. I’ve been processing this change of environment before trying to convey it to others. I also get distracted by the things going on directly around me, like the chipmunks scaling flimsy branches outside my window or invitations to lunch, so these posts get delayed more and more! Since this is my one of my first posts, I just wanted to start with a basic summary of my routine.

As of now, my day begins at 9 A.M. I get ready for school and have a breakfast full of fruits, nuts, and tea. Staring out my window is a source of great tranquility because of the way the trees stir when a breeze strolls by. Sometimes the leaves are effervescent *~jazz hands~* and other times a more serene, feathery caress.  After a few deep breaths and catching up on the news, I’m off.

I take the metro to school and walk the rest of the way down a road packed with cars, motorcycles, buses, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, pedestrians, manually pulled carts, and many stray dogs. You can get your life together on this street. You have your ATMs and pharmacies (biomed and Ayurvedic), along with the XEROX shops and convenience stores, beauty parlors and tailors, hotels and fast food stops, and, the most coveted of all, sweet shops. Not gonna lie, I almost got hit by a car because I was distracted by one sweet shop that innocently flaunts its Bengali treats at an intersection.

Narmada High Schools is nestled between buildings that make their presence known to us as the day goes by. Most of them are residences and we frequently see people hanging up their clothes to dry or hear the sounds of conversations, cleaning, and the occasional crying baby. One time, there was a toddler carrying a naked baby across our classroom and my 5th grade class died laughing piling on top of each other to greet our companions.

Apart from 5th grade, I am co-teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English literature, grammar, and activity classes. I am working with two teachers who will be teaching half the syllabus. This distribution of classes is quite different than in the United States and will involve a lot of planning. Nevertheless, I am really excited to be able to interact with a larger variety of classes all of which I will see for 40 minutes, three times a week.  My classes vary in size from 12-25 students on average, with my largest class at around 35 students. With these classroom sizes I am able to dedicate more time to each student and plan a larger range of activities. Two of the main challenges are adapting to the school’s protocol and integrating my own teaching methods into the curriculum. While the discipline of the students has been excellent from the start, I’ve realized that their critical thinking abilities and creativity certainly have room for improvement. (Stay tuned for more on this.)

(Closer view of the mural art) This is where students gather every morning to recite a school pledge and say a prayer.

School days end at 4:40PM at which point I return home to relax, grade, and plan for the next day. On Mondays we attend a weekly teaching workshop sponsored by The Fulbright-Nehru Program and the United States – India Educational Foundation (USIEF). It’s been extremely helpful to have the American Center in Kolkata and the support of the USIEF because those first few weeks settling in would have been infinitely more stressful. Moving forward, I will attempt to integrate Bengali lessons into my week, as well as exercise, volunteering, and cultural activities. It’s a serious challenge given the frenzy that is everyday life, but time is slowly dwindling.

As of now, the personal challenges are different than the professional ones and I will need to unpack those in future posts. I have to give a shout out to the special people that are sharing this experience with me: my fellow Kolkata ETAs. Not only am I grateful and humbled to be chosen alongside them (because they’re so cool), but also free to be me.

If you, or anyone you know, are interested in applying to the Fulbright ETA program in our outside of India, please stay tuned for more updates and feel free to reach out! I would love to answer any questions and receive feedback!

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Fri, 09/04/2015 - 08:28

I’ve compared my work from this summer and last summer quite a bit throughout my blog posts. Last summer I worked for a non-profit organization in Honduras that initially worked to transplant families and individuals living in a riverbed slum to a safer environment with collectively built houses. They now build school infrastructures in poor communities and run programs for orphans and other low-income children. While this all sounds good, it was impossible for me not to be critical at every turn while I was working for them. Mostly white, American volunteers were doing most of the construction work, which they were not trained to do. The communities often had to stare at a half finished school until another group of volunteers arrived during the next winter, spring, or summer break. We didn’t even have to apply for visas to go there, while thousands of Hondurans attempt to cross into the US every year on an extremely dangerous journey. As one Honduran explained to me, they’re often thrown out “like dogs.” Students who spent hundreds of dollars on plane tickets and volunteer fees were working with people who made little over $100-$200 per month. It all seemed so wrong, and I was unable to avoid feelings of hopelessness and depression during my time there.

Work in Honduras

I feel as though this summer in India helped me to balance both critical and positive thought. As I look back over my experiences, they weren’t entirely different from those of last summer. The workers in the factories made low wages (when we went for a nice dinner out, my bill would add up to a week’s worth of their salaries), as college students we were probably not qualified to do the work that we did, and the longer we were there, the more we learned about layers of social issues affecting them, including oppression, coerced sex work, domestic abuse, and more… However, I realized that my ability to be critical of all these things wouldn’t get me very far. It would be ignorant to be overly optimistic, but I knew that getting bogged down in the issues would make me useless to the situation. I also learned to focus on a specific issue—anemia—and keep my sights on the narrow, small issues that I could impact. Further, I learned not to look at small, positive progress and dismiss it as unimportant. While I could say that handing out bananas, a few months of iron tablets and deworming pills was probably fairly insignificant in the scope of human need around the world, it was still something. Keeping in mind that it was a fairly small impact and making goals to return to India and do something more substantial has turned out to be very different from rejecting the value of my work and its potential.

Enjoying work, coconuts, and an enormous opportunity to learn about the lives of migrant workers on our trip to Orissa

As I come back to Penn, I’ve been thinking about how to employ these lessons to my every day environment. Obviously they come in handy when I do community service or learn about similar social issues all over the world. But they also help me to tone down my tendency to over-critique and criticize right on campus. I could write quite a few blog posts on how I feel about Penn’s stress levels, pre-professionalism, and lack of contribution to the Philadelphia community. But, this semester I’m trying to focus on the good parts—the awesome class discussions I have in my anthropology classes, the technology available to me in my science lab, the passionate people that surround me—and I’ve been a whole lot happier. I’m looking forward to seeing where I can take this in the future.

The Leader, The Empowered, and The Fighter: A Collection of Powerful Case Studies

Fri, 09/04/2015 - 00:20

Throughout my time in India, Andrew and I collected many powerful case studies from a number of men and women. We spoke with several mitaans, including one from the city of Dewas that made great strides for women in her community within a four year period. We interviewed women in an adult literacy class to learn more about the ways in which education empowers them. We also chatted with a woman who overcame seemingly insurmountable hardships to become financially independent. I have shared these stories below (you can also find the complete versions of these case studies and others on the SPS website:

Left to Right: Andrew, Prasann, SPS professional, Ranu, Sasha, and me.

The Leader

While walking home, Ranu would frequently pass by Samaj Pragati Sahayog’s Dewas Office. She was familiar with the concept of Self-Help Groups, as she was a member of an SHG from another local organization and had many friends and family, including her mother, who belonged to SPS-run SHGs. After much consideration, Ranu decided to contact SPS four years ago for a position as a mitaan. Only three years later, she was promoted to senior mitaan of the area, in which she overseas 4,400 families.

Although Ranu has had a successful career as a mitaan, she has also faced a number of challenges. Her grandparents and extended family failed to support her desire to work and gain independence. Additionally, SHG members outside her immediate neighborhood were hesitant to fully trust her and were difficult to communicate with. Despite these initial adversities, Ranu has excelled in her position due to her perseverance, as well as parental support. Ranu’s father helps drive her to and from work, allowing her to work late into the night. Additionally, her mother helps take care of her children by preparing them for school and cooking meals. With the emotional and physical support of her family, Ranu, a widow, now earns enough money to put her two children through school.

Aside from the important role SPS has played in her own life, the organization has also enhanced the lives of those in the community. For example, the SHG program serves as a platform to encourage women to leave their homes that otherwise wouldn’t do so due to sociocultural norms. This has allowed women to further engage with one another in different capacities, and has increased the concern they have for one another’s wellbeing. Consequently, many of the women now partake in the “Knock Campaign” against domestic violence. Once alerted that an SHG member is abused, older members will confront the perpetrator. This neighborly concern has also manifested itself in other ways. Not long ago, a member’s husband passed away. The community responded to this tragedy by setting money aside to donate to her so that she could purchase groceries to support herself, her two children, and her widowed sister-in-law until she found work.

Ranu has also been involved in a number of successful initiatives in her community. She established 200 gas connections in her cluster and rallied 200 women to speak to local officials about garbage that failed to be removed, which caused health problems. In the past, attendance at these events has led to other improvements. For example, the women spoke to the local official about collecting their ration cards, which they were entitled to but not receiving. Within two days the government distributed the welfare cards. The influential senior mitaan also opened 100 savings accounts during a single cluster meeting, by inviting the bank manager to attend.

Families of SHG members are also recognizing the importance of SHGs in their communities. Husbands, in-laws, and parents view SHGs as vehicles to distribute information and access easy credit. As women are the mediums by which families have access to these resources, women are now respected and involved in decision-making processes. Children also benefit from SHGs. Ranu works with local girls in the Kishori Manch Program, which engages girls in educational activities about sanitation, home life, and school life to reduce the number of child brides. Ranu is a powerful force in her city of Dewas.

The Empowered

Bhuri is a champion for change in her village of Punjapura. She has been a Self-Help Group member for the past six years and a federation leader for the past four. During her time at Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Bhuri has contested local elections and, more importantly, established a night school to empower women.

In 2013, Bhuri had the opportunity to visit another community in the nearby state of Uttar Pradesh, as part of an SPS exposure visit. While there, she attended a nigh school session, in which she saw older women learning to read and write. The women of Punjapura had often criticized adult literacy classes, as they felt that it would be nearly impossible to teach new concepts to older members of the community. In Bhuri’s eyes, however, age was not an acceptable excuse to neglect one’s education, as was made evident by her U.P. exposure visit. Upon returning to her village, Bhuri mobilized women in her community to attend the newly established night school, which was the first in Punjapura and in the Gartnichi area. SPS, along with her federation, searched for a teacher, as well as covered the expenses of blackboards, writing utensils, and books. The cluster also supported the night school financially, as all of its members are eligible to attend.

The night school has not only bolstered the literacy rate of women in this rural community – many of whom have never attended school before – but has also empowered them. Women can now sign and fill out bank notes, read important letters and documents, read dates, count to three hundred (they could only count to 25 or 30 previously), and help their children with their homework in order to more directly support their education. Of the women that have access to cell phones, they can now dial numbers and write text messages, which allows them to communicate with professionals, friends, and family, as well as dial emergency numbers if need be without the help of others. SHG members enrolled in the nigh school program have become independent and self-sufficient.

The night school has also dramatically increased their self-confidence. Prior to partaking in the classes, the women were unable to sign their names. At local government meetings, which happen bi-annually in Punjapura, men would grab their fingers, place them in ink, and press their digits onto government attendance sheets and papers. The women saw this process as incredibly humiliating and degrading. Other individuals would also taunt the women at these meetings due to their educational capacities. Now, women enter the sessions with confidence and have even begun collaborating with local officials on the night-school program. They have gained unparalleled respect from their community, including from government and bank professionals. Women have also gained the confidence to tackle other community problems, such as alcoholism, due to their enrollment in the program.

The importance of the night school to the community is made evident by the lengths women go in order to attend class. The class ranges from 10 to 16 students, some of who travel over 1.5km at night to attend the school, and runs six days a week from 8:00pm to 10:00pm. Women also attend the two-hour long sessions after spending a long day working in the fields and completing their household chores. Bhuri, however, would like to see an increase in attendance, which is affected by these factors, as well as social pressure and false concepts concerning adult literacy (e.g. older women cannot learn or there aren’t any benefits to attending night school). During Bhuri’s mission to encourage women to attend the night school program, she has knocked on door to door, as well as provided women anecdotal evidence about the program’s successes. For Bhuri, an education is not only a means to becoming literate, but also serves as a vehicle for female empowerment.

The Fighter

Kunwar joined the Self-Help Group Program over a decade ago, so that she could access loans more easily, as well as adopt saving habits. At the time, she separated from her husband when her youngest son was only 3 months old, and was disowned by disapproving parents that forced her to live in inhumane conditions. By joining an SHG, Kunwar was able to provide a better life for herself and her children.

When she joined the SHG, Kunwar only had Rs. 20 of savings. Now, however, she has enough savings and earnings to pay for her children’s educations, including the costs of sending her daughter to study nursing in Ujjain.

Kunwar has benefitted from a number of loan programs provided through the SHG Program to purchase land, building materials for her home (e.g. plaster, roofing, etc.), latrines, a refrigerator (which she uses to store soda and popsicles to sell), and a sewing machine. She also used a mix of loans and savings to purchase thirty poultry, pay her for her children’s education, and establish a shop that sells foodstuff, cutlery, and bangles. In the future, Kunwar would like to purchase additional poultry for eggs to sell at her shop.

Despite her success, she has also faced a number of difficulties. Community members outside of her SHG thought that she was generating money illegally to afford private education, as well as construction materials and items to build her home and small enterprise. Furthermore, they questioned her interactions with male SPS employees, who would often ask her for advice, and her status as a single mother. Kunwar, however, persevered despite social pressures. This perseverance, amongst other qualities, were noted by SPS and her community.

The SHG members saw a lot of potential in Kunwar. She was not only outspoken and progressive, but also defended other members of her community. Consequently, they asked that she not run for SHG president, so that she could become a cluster leader and federation treasurer. SPS also recommended she run for the higher level positions, as she was exceptionally good at repaying loans and managing savings. Kunwar served in both capacities for a total of eight years. Kunwar serves as an inspiration to her children, community, and SPS.

The Long Way Home

Tue, 09/01/2015 - 21:22

The road I’ve traveled in the last 3 weeks since leaving India has been long and yet very short.

The 16 hour flight from Delhi to New York felt unbearably long, but considering how many miles and time zones I traversed, it was hardly anything.

I arrived home exhausted to the point of deliriousness, but less than 2 weeks later, found myself back on Penn’s campus, moving my same boxes and furniture into a dorm room, just as I’ve done for the last two years.

Seeing all my friends and more casual acquaintances, I quickly realized that talking about this summer was not going to be easy.  It’s not the kind of conversation you can have in the hurried five minute small talk you have with all your on campus acquaintances. People will say, “So…how was India?!” And I find that I’m not really sure what to tell them. (Often I just respond: “really intense.”) Every day in India was such a mix of thoughts and emotions and experiences, that I’m not sure how to boil it down for them into something easily digestible.

Now clearly it’s always hard to explain everything you did in a summer to people, I know my summer wasn’t unique in that. But I do feel some kind of added burden, because I know that the people I talk to expect me to tell them not just about my experience, but about India – it’s this exotic, frightening, far away place and it’s become my responsibility to, in a sense, translate it for them. It’s scary to think that I will shape how they perceive Indian culture or society. I certainly don’t feel qualified to do so. It often feels easier to let them fall into their own stereotypes rather than try to explain the weird nuanced reality – a reality that in part aligns with their stereotypes and in part sharply diverges from them. That’s what makes digesting the summer so tricky: I didn’t cull one clear sense of the culture or society or mindset, I gathered a wide diversity of observations and experiences that are hard to to synthesize. Throughout the summer, and to this day, I remember Professor Kapur telling us at our CASI orientation that India is a country of contradictions.

But let me for a moment leave the challenges of translating my experiences for others, and return to myself.

When I landed back in New York, I remember feeling like I was in some kind of sterile heaven. I don’t mean to use sterile in the negative sense, it’s just the best word I can think of to express what I mean. Everything is so…clean, so simple. Everything happens so effortlessly. The 85 degree heat felt cool and breezy to me. The supermarket aisles seemed to gleam with prepackaged delicacies. The sidewalks clear and easy to walk on. I could walk into a store or call up a customer service agent and have a quick and easy conversation in English. Every car, bus, or train ride felt smooth and fast and so…comfortable.

But I couldn’t say that I still really think that way at this point. I’ve kind of settled back into my usual routines, back at school organizing my schedule and attending club meetings. India sits in the back of my head, in its own little separate, intensely spiced compartment.

So if I’m being totally honest, I don’t think I’ve yet figured out how to connect this summer to my life back at Penn. The two feel pretty disconnected. When I really start talking about India, I have lots to say, but I think even as I’m speaking I realize I’m repeating a lot of the same things, because I haven’t yet quite processed what I went through. And LEAP and Yamuna Nagar feel so many universes away from my life here that I’m not quite sure how to join them into a broader perspective or personal narrative.

Perhaps what’s most telling? When people ask me: “Do you think you’d go back?” I always respond, without skipping a beat, “Oh yeah, for sure.”


Sun, 08/30/2015 - 13:50

It’s been exactly a month since my last blog post and since I boarded a plane out of Bangalore and by now I’m fully acclimated to life back in America. It’s hard for me to be sad about being home, especially when it means eating American food and seeing everyone I missed all summer, and I can’t say that I am. I have no huge desire to fly back to India right away, but I don’t think I expected to. What I do have, though, is a summer full of priceless and worthwhile experiences, and a feeling that I’ll be sure to return someday.

Over the past weeks since I’ve returned I couldn’t help but constantly think or comment ‘In India….’ in regards to almost every situation. Although I can’t help myself from deciding whether something was better in India or better in the US, there’s no shortage of things I prefer and miss from India. It’s often the small things I never thought I’d miss, like the familiar yet always interesting rides to work everyday or walks to the gym. There was just so much more to see than there is on the couple block walk to Pottruck at Penn. Or the stray animals, like the kitten who was born nearby work and who we saw grow up everyday through our tea breaks with coworkers. There are far too many things to name. 

The largest conclusion I’ve reached since my return was a simple one of how worthwhile and impactful my summer in India was. It’s impossible to quantify the lasting effects and changes in thinking I’ve had, but I’m sure that there are few other things I could have done this summer that would have been as meaningful. Up until the past summer, I had spent every summer of my life in Philly. Not to say they weren’t great and valuable summers, but I don’t think they were times of great reflection. I think I had to to travel to the other side of the world to really understand what it means to live and study at home. 

Alternative Livelihood Loans and Climate Change

Sat, 08/29/2015 - 23:58

Since 1990, Samaj Pragati Sahayog has worked to increase the number of irrigated fields in the Dewas District. SPS has done so through the construction of dams, wells, gabion walls, and other watershed structures in an effort to help farmers adapt to climate change. Previously, farmers in the area relied heavily on rainfall, which has become highly unpredictable due to increasing monsoon variability. In helping farmers irrigate their fields, however, SPS has unintentionally promoted mono-cropping. Farmers now have enough water to sustain fields of cotton, corn, and soybean. Farmers are also beginning to deplete groundwater resources at a higher rate to feed these more water-intensive crops. These practices have made farmers especially vulnerable to the economic consequences of climate change.

In order to address these concerns, SPS promotes indigenous crop varieties, such as sorghum, to decrease the number of mono-cropped fields and to limit groundwater exploitation. The organization also deploys other technologies and management methods to achieve the same ends. Furthermore, SPS created alternative livelihood loan packages, which are available to over 30,000 families in the region. These loans are provided through SPS’s Self-Help Group Program and allow women to purchase cattle, buffalos, goats, and chickens, as alternative sources of income. Additionally, many women purchase sewing machines to tailor clothes for market, or motorcycles so that their husbands can travel to semi-urban or urban areas to work in other industries (e.g. construction).

Although SHGs exist throughout India (they originated in southern India in 1992), SPS focuses primarily on working with women in urban, semi-urban, and rural areas. SHGs serve as alternative options for communities below the poverty line to obtain loans. Before SPS created its regional SHG Program, communities relied heavily on local moneylenders and Microfinance Institutions for loans; however, these institutions provided loans at a significantly higher interest rate and inadvertently promoted indebtedness. SHGs, on the other hand, provide communities easy credit, low rates of interest, tailored loan installments, and the ability for individuals to negotiate the terms of their loans. SHGs also have a social component, as the monthly 2 hour SHG meetings serve as platforms for community members to discuss pertinent issues in their community – whether its alcohol abuse, domestic violence, literacy, or water shortages. These meetings also provide individuals with a space to form friendships and learn about government schemes and programs.

For my honors thesis, I am really interested in the ways in which the SHG Program can combat the economic risks associated with climate change. Although SPS’s SHG Program addresses monsoon variability in a number of ways (e.g. workshops about sustainable dryland farming practices and indigenous seed varieties), I am most interested in its alternative livelihood loan packages. While in India, I had the opportunity to speak to several individuals including mitaans, SPS professionals, and SHG members about these packages. Through my conversations, I learned more in detail why these programs are necessary in monsoon variable regions.

In Patakal Village, which is approximately an hour away from where I was staying, I spoke with one beneficiary of a buffalo loan named Mal. After she purchased her buffalo in 2008, she joined the local dairy co-operative (which SPS manages) for income. Her involvement in the dairy co-operative has increased more dramatically in recent years due to monsoon variability, which Patakal has been particularly affected by. Like many of her neighbors, Mal was hit hard by crop failures arising from unpredictable climate. In fact, most of her fellow SHG members defaulted on their loans due to losses from floods and droughts. In order to mitigate the risks caused by climate change, many of the members, including Mal, began to accept more SHG cattle and buffalo loans. Recently, Mal has fully transitioned to livestock rearing and makes the majority of her income through the production of buffalo milk, which is sold at a higher price at the market due to its high fat content. Mal earns 70,000 rupees annually by producing 10 to 12 liters of milk daily. With her financial success in the dairy industry, Mal has been able to fully fund her children’s education, as well as stave off economic ruin. She is in the process of mobilizing other women in her community to accept cattle and buffalo loans, so that they too can mitigate the economic risks associated with agricultural production.

Dairy Co-Operative

Dairy Co-Operative

While in India, I listened to other stories that were equally as powerful as Mal’s. Bhuri from nearby Punjapura Village has a poultry loan, which has earned her thousands of rupees. Since partaking in the poultry program in April, she has owned 100 chickens, which she sells in local and regional markets for over 400 rupees a piece. Although she did not initially switch to poultry rearing for the same reasons as Mal, she stated that many others in her village have made the partial or full transition because of climate change. These alternative livelihood loans are important in providing economic protection to rural farming communities.

Many of the women in this image are beneficiaries of SPS’s poultry loan in Punjapura Village.

I will not only study why these programs are important to rural farming communities, but also what factors limit their enrollment. Several factors limit enrollment and participation in rural communities such as mistrust, history of defaulting on loans (which make individual ineligible for loan packages), and social pressures (e.g. the purdah and daughter-in-law status). After collecting initial data this summer, I am looking forward to writing my thesis this semester!

Return to America: From Murugan Idli to Wawa

Fri, 08/28/2015 - 17:44

While in India, Busra, Vivek and I discussed how this entire experience would feel like a dream when we arrived back in the United States. Our foresight could not have been more accurate. It’s not that the powerful memories of our crazy and exciting experiences have disappeared; I just have difficulty recreating how it felt to live in our little “Aravind bubble”. I no longer worry about the logistical issues that we encountered in India (negotiating for everything, food/water safety, travel challenges) yet I am somehow no less stressed. I can easily call an Uber now if I need to travel somewhere instead of bickering with an autorickshaw driver over 30 extra rupees. I can walk up to a suspicious food truck and eat its food without a (huge) concern of getting sick. Despite having access to these conveniences, I miss the routine of work, and I miss seeing my colleagues, mentors, Busra, and Vivek every day. I miss walking down the street among the clamber of people, animals, and all sorts of vehicles. Receiving an email or Whatsapp message from my friends back in India momentarily brings me back to the fact that I actually spent 10 weeks at Aravind. I’ve demonstrated my questionable Tamil abilities to some of friends, but the basic words feel unfamiliar even though I spent my summer listening to the language. I also really, really, really miss the Dominos pizza of India.

As we drove out of Madurai, it was a lovely evening, and the sun was setting. It dawned on me that it might be my last time for a while to chat with someone in Tamil, so I started a conversation with the very amused driver. Looking at the familiar chaos and bustle of the streets was comforting, and I finally came to the realization that I was departing a place that had become my home for an entire summer. Despite some of its flaws and challenges, India is an incredible country. Whenever people ask, “How was India??” I struggle to find an explanation that captures everything that I felt while I was there. It’s unclear as to when I’ll return India, but I’m confident that it’ll happen some day. As a wise Penn student named Vivek once said, “If you want to come back you’ll find a way.” (Add that one to the quote list)

Travelling back to the U.S. involved getting lost in several airports, sprinting through security, making friends, and realizing that I have enough common sense to make it halfway across the world. (The last part was probably the most surprising.) I think the strangest part of coming home was stepping foot into the JFK airport. It’s funny when a country you’ve called home your entire life feels incredibly foreign. I felt awkward wandering around in a kurta, even though it was what I wore every single day in India. When I got into the car with my parents, I chuckled when my mom had to remind me to wear a seatbelt. I was astounded by the road safety and the fact that everyone actually stays in their respective lanes. It probably won’t surprise you from my previously mentioned food preferences that I immediately demanded that my parents stop at a Wawa in order to acquire some macaroni and cheese. I was once again reminded of the joys of American food while prancing around Wawa (still in a kurta) picking up every item that I could imagine. After the novelty of American living wore off, though, I found myself craving a crispy ghee dosa from Murugan Idli. (In reality, I mainly missed the gleeful expression on Vivek’s face when we would go).

I am confident that this is not the end of my relationship with Aravind. This internship has already led me to a clinical project at CHOP that relates to sickle cell disease, nutrition, and ophthalmology. It even connects with content material that I covered in Aurosiksha lessons! I am so thankful to have had this unique opportunity, and I am already jealous of the next group of interns that get to go to Madurai. I challenge CASI to find people more awesome than Busra and Vivek, though that goal seems pretty unattainable.

This leaves me with one final question: Can I apply again next year??

A very happy Vivek (and Devendra) at Murugan Idli

Reentering the U.S.!

Memories of Mandu

Thu, 08/27/2015 - 18:25

Nearly a month ago, I headed to Mandu with Andrew, Sasha, Nishtha, Prasann, Abhi, and Ashley. Nishtha, Prasann, and Abhi are SPS professionals who work with the organization’s Self-Help Groups, while Ashley was a Master’s research fellow from the University of Arizona. Although we were tired from a late night at the office the day before, we hopped into the jeep around 5:00am and traveled for the next 4.5 hours southwest to the archeological site of Mandu.

Looking out from the base of Mandu.

Beautiful greenery at the base of Mandu.

Waterfall at the base of Mandu.

According to Sanskrit text, the city of Mandu was built in the 6th century BC and is characterized by a long history of invasions. Between the 10th and 11th centuries it fell under the ownership of the Parmars, Khiljis, and finally the Taranga Kingdom through a number of battles. In the 16th century, Akbar the 1st also claimed Mandu under the Mughal Empire, until it was once again taken by the Marathas during the first half of the 18th century.

Mandu consists of a number of noteworthy sites. The three that we visited were the Jahaz Mahal (or Ship Palace), Jami Masjid (mosque), and Roopmati’s Pavilion.

Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace)

Jami Masjid (Mosque)

Roopmati’s Pavilion through the thick fog and monsoon rains.

I was excited to visit Mandu for a number of reasons other than its archeological and historical significance. I had read about Mandu in several articles regarding the best places to visit in India during the monsoon season, as it is known for its verdant beauty and charm. I was not disappointed! Trees, flowers, and waterfalls painted the landscape. It was also my first time traveling someplace as a tourist in India. I had gone to Indore a few weeks before that for Domino’s Pizza, the Bollywood “Dil Dhadakne Do,” and to restock on snacks; however, I don’t think that counts! Andrew and I also arrived quite late in Delhi and only had the opportunity to grab dinner at Hauz Khas the evening before we left for SPS. Finally, my colleagues, as well as past SPS CASI interns, spoke highly of Mandu – it is now an SPS tradition of sorts to take interns to the site.

Jahaz Mahal

Window at Jahaz Mahal

Artificial lake at Jahaz Mahal

Jahaz Mahal

Jahaz Mahal

Me at Jahaz Mahal

I was blown away by the ancient structures at the three locations. I have always been fascinated by archeological sites and had actually contemplated pursuing archeology when I was in high school, because I wanted to work in Latin America studying Mayan ruins. I am not only attracted to the physical beauty of the buildings, but also the mystery and history associated with them. While at Jahaz Mahal, I wondered what palace life was like for its residents. Nishtha, who served as a great guide at Mandu, told us about the ceremonies that would take place in certain sections of the palace. Furthermore, she led us to a bathhouse, which had star-like shapes cutout overhead. We theorized what it must have been like to bathe at night under the moonlight – the cutouts reflecting stars against the interior walls and floor. This image followed me as we walked towards the exit in the pouring rain.

Ceiling of Bathhouse

Bathhouse at Jahaz Mahal

Jami Masjid and Roopmati’s Pavilion were also quite beautiful; however, thick fog and heavy rains had set in right as we were nearing Roopmati’s Pavilion (sorry for the lack of photos!). We had almost considered not going to the last site, but we trudged on nevertheless. As we scaled the steep incline needed to reach the pavilion, thunder resounded softly in the distant hillsides. Around us, women and men were cooking roadside corn-on-the-cob (something I sadly did not eat before I left India), the smell reminding me of fond summer memories from the San Diego County Fair. At the pavilion, I looked over at a sea of fog, which obscured the Narmada River and the bustle of vendors and tourists down below.

Roopmati’s Pavilion was constructed in the 16th century for the singer, Rani Rupmati. She was married to Sultan Baz Bahadur, and was one reason Mandu was conquered by Akbar. The general under Akbar, Adham Khan, decided to invade Mandu, because he had heard of Rupmati’s beauty. Rupmati responded to the invasion by committing suicide via poison. Below is a passage from Wikipedia about the lore of Rupmati (

“Baz Bahadur, ever so fond of music, was the last independent ruler of Mandu. Once out hunting, Baz Bahadur chanced upon a shepherdess frolicking and singing with her friends. Smitten by both her enchanting beauty and her melodius voice, he begged Roopmati to accompany him to his capital. Roopmati agreed to go to Mandu on the condition that she would live in a palace within sight of her beloved and venerated river, Narmada… Unfortunately, the romance of this Muslim prince and Hindu shepherdess was doomed to failure. The great Mughal Akbar decided to invade Mandu and capture Roopmati and Baz Bahadur. Akbar sent Adham Khan to capture Mandu and Baz Bahadur went to challenge him with his small army. No match for the great Mughal army, Mandu was easily defeated fell. Baz Bahadur fled to Chittorgarh to seek help. As Adham Khan came to Mandu, was surprised by the beauty of Roopmati and Rani Roopmati stoically poisoned herself to avoid capture. Thus ended this magical love story steeped in music, poetry and beauty”

Aside from its history and mythology, I was also captivated by the presence of nomadic Rajasthani tribes. As we climbed the green mountains on our way to Mandu, we passed by sheep, goats, lambs, camels, and members of the far-flung tribe. Tribal peoples travel hundreds of miles southward by camel and foot to the more vegetative state of Madhya Pradesh to provide pasturelands for their livestock to graze on during the monsoon period. I was amazed by the shear number of sheep (pun intended) we drove past, as well as the towering camels, which were holding children and goats in their side pouches. It was definitely an amazing site to see, which I have added videos of below (please ignore my commentary).

I will hold on to these memories from my day at Mandu. Although the journey was long (9 hours to and from – we got back home close to midnight), it was well worth it. It has a wealth of culture, history, and beauty unlike most other places in India or around the world.

Our group minus our photographer, Andrew, at Jami Masjid. Left to Right: Nishtha, Prasann’s friend, Sasha, Ashley, Prasann, Abhi, and me.

Following the Footsteps of a Barefoot Veterinarian

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 23:49

My hands strongly gripped the metal portion of the bike behind my body, as I rode down rocky hills, dirt roads, ponds, and paved streets. Although I spent only one day traveling to the field via motorcycle, I spent a week collecting case studies on the livestock, poultry, and animal health programs run through Samaj Pragati Sahayog. Dr. Bhopal – one of two SPS veterinarians – and I were traveling through villages to check on the welfare of animals, such as goats, chickens, buffalos, and cattle. We also followed a para-vet or barefoot veterinarian that day to better understand his role in providing medical services to local farm animals, and visited the Chick Rearing Center.

Before Dr. Bhopal began working at SPS in 2007, villagers mainly sought animal care through Jans, which are community members that treat animals through traditional methods. Although some of these treatments are successful, such as using local herbs for minor conditions, most other treatments have disastrous outcomes. For example, Jans treat anorexia by puncturing a vein on the diseased animal’s tongue; however, the needles used in this treatment are often times septic due to poor sterilizing measures and can cause infections. Infections can also occur through the treatment of vaginal or uterine prolapse and dystocia.

Regarding prolapse, Jans will forcefully reinsert the prolapsed mass into the body without shaving it beforehand or providing the sick animal with anti-body therapy. Consequently, the mortality rate of improperly treated prolapse is 100%, and the animals die within three to four days. The improper treatment of dystocia also has negative health outcomes. Dystocia results in difficult births through disturbances in posture or the birth canal. Rather than handling births carefully, Jans will forcefully remove newborns, which can injure both the mothers and their children. With regards to mothers, the forceful removal can cause vaginal infections, uterine inflammations, infertility, low milk productivity, or death. Jans are also unable to treat bacterial diseases or rabies, among other serious ailments. In addition to the use of Jans, other factors that affect animal mortality and health are poor awareness of animal care, poor access to veterinarian services, superstitious beliefs, and incorrect assumptions about veterinarian care.

Kahloo (Para-Vet) and Dr. Bhopal

Dr. Bhopal has been able to mitigate many of these factors through various medical services, such as his Para-Vet Program. The Para-Vet Program began in 2009 with two employees, but has since expanded to eight para-vets. Para-vets play a vital role in caring for local animals, including buffalos, cows, goats, and chickens. The para-vet we followed tended to parasitic infections in a pregnant goat and bullock, which caused diarrhea and fever in each animal, respectively. The para-vet’s success rate is so high that he is often referred to as “Doctor” by the villagers despite having only a high school education. This is not an isolated incident, however. Under the care of para-vets, between 80% to 90% of animals are successfully treated. In addition to lowering the rate of mortality, these local community members have also improved animal productivity. For example, dairy cows now produce up to 2.7 times more milk during the summer and 1.6 times more milk during the peak season due to improved health.

Para-vet candidates must meet a number of criteria before being hired by the organization. Dr. Bhopal ensures that his para-vets are literate and can conduct basic math calculations, as to calculate dosages and fees. Furthermore, they must be able to read English, as most of the medications para-vets use are written in English letters. Therefore, most para-vets have completed between tenth and twelfth standard education. Para-vets must also have an interest in animal health and husbandry, are eager to learn, are flexible, and are not intimidated by blood or other bodily fluids.

Dr. Bhopal trains the para-vets in animal husbandry and animal veterinarian sciences. Para-vets are skilled in diagnosing diseases by analyzing symptoms and taking temperatures. Furthermore, para-vets are familiar with a number of medications, such as Malonex, Vitamin B-Complex tablets, and anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-parasitic drugs, as well as their appropriate dosages. These recruits spend one month in the field, as well as additional time in a classroom setting before they are left to their own devices to treat animals.

Kahloo (Para-Vet) treating sick bullock with antibiotics.

Via motorbike, the eight para-vets travel between four to five kilometers to treat animals in over 100 villages. Every year, the program cares for approximately 5,000 animals suffering from a range of illness, such as foot-and-mouth disease, parasitic infections, and pregnancy complications. On a daily basis, a single para-vet will treat between two and four animals, unless it is during an outbreak in which case their patient load can increase to ten animals.

Para-vets also play an important role in other aspects of SPS’s Livestock Program including artificial insemination, conducting surveys, calf care, and vaccinations, as well as the dairy, poultry, and fodder programs. Each para-vet is responsible for administering 1,000 vaccines annually. Over a twenty-day period in the months of May, June, and November, a single para-vet will vaccinate 30 animals daily and spend 10 to 15 minutes on each animal. Due to the vaccinations administered by para-vets, foot-and-mouth disease has become increasingly rare in the area. Para-vets also attend Self-Help Group meetings to encourage and mobilize members to partake in the various livestock and poultry programs. Due to the success of the Para-Vet Program, SPS plans to hire eight more para-vets. Without the Para-Vet Program or the veterinarian services Dr. Bhopal provides, animal productivity and mortality would be incredibly low in the region SPS serves.

After I learned more about the Para-Vet Program through shadowing, Dr. Bhopal and I headed to the Chick Rearing Center (CRC) in nearby Udainagar. Chirps flooded the large space of the center, echoing off its austere concrete walls. Before me were thousands of baby chickens – 2,040 chicks to be precise – that were approximately four days old. The CRC, which is only 1.5 years old, distributes 100 Sapura-Desi chicks per household where they are raised for three months until they reach at least 2kg in weight generating between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 per household. Over 2,000 chicks arrive at the CRC every twenty days and are reared there for fifteen days before being sent to SHG members involved in the poultry program. At the moment, two hundred SHG members in eight villages across four different SHG locations partake in the poultry program.

The CRC is also important in reducing animal mortality. Raanikhet Disease, which is known as New Castle Disease outside of India, is a major factor in poultry fatalities in rural Madhya Pradesh. In some instances the viral disease, which is most prevalent during the winter season, can produce mortality rates as high as 100% in a single household. One such reason why the mortality rate is alarmingly high is due to lacking preventative care measures. Few chickens are vaccinated against such illnesses in impoverished villages. At the CRC, however, poultry supervisors – which are paid members of the community trained in poultry health and rearing – are provided medical supplies to treat and vaccinate chickens against Raanikhet Disease. Due to the health component of the program, the chick mortality rate is below 1%. The vaccination schedule is closely followed at the center, and chicks receive two vaccinations while reared there. Once they are given to SHG members at the fifteen-day mark, poultry supervisors administer two additional vaccines. There is currently one poultry supervisor per participating village. SPS also reduces mortality rates by maintaining the inside temperature of the CRC, as chicks are healthiest in enclosures around 35 degree-Celsius. During power outages, especially during the winter season, poultry supervisors will turn on the gas burner to limit fatalities.

As a self-proclaimed animal enthusiast (ask Andrew or anyone else I am in contact with about my excitement over seeing wildlife), it was incredibly interesting to learn about SPS’s livestock, poultry, and animal health programs. It is amazing how dramatic the difference in mortality and morbidity rates are with the presence of para-vets, poultry supervisors, and veterinarians in rural communities. Improving animal health is linked to productivity, which is important in the monsoon variable region. Better market prices for milk or chicken products from healthy animals encourage more individuals to rear farm animals for alternative sources of income. By transitioning to this income-generating activity, rural farmers can mitigate many of the economic risks associated with agricultural production in monsoon variable areas. This is a topic I am incredibly interested in and may continue to explore in my honors thesis.

Some Final Thoughts

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 16:09

Sorry for the extremely late post! I had to give myself a bit of time for the experience of being in India to sink in while I’m here back in the U.S. I think being here in Philly for a little over a month now has given me time to reflect back on my internship with CORD in Sidhbari.

First off, I think the trip back was the longest trip I’ve ever taken in my life! I started off with an overnight bus trip from Dharamshala to Delhi, which took about twelve hours (from 6pm to 6am the next day). That was probably the toughest part, because even though the bus was really nice, I just couldn’t fall asleep with all the bumps of the ride. But I got to have some really interesting conversations with the girl who was sitting next to me; she happened to speak English fluently. Me being a huge movie fan, we started talking about our favorite movies, most of which were the same: The Dark Knight (I’ve seen that around 20 times probably), The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (extended edition for the win!), and The Shawshank Redemption, to name a few. That and some other conversations about life in India, etc. helped make the trip go by faster. When I arrived in Delhi the next morning, I was lucky enough to spend the day at the home of the Chief Statistician of India, since my flight from Delhi wasn’t until 1:45am the next day! Due to my being extremely sleep-deprived (maybe delirious is a better way to put it), I basically crashed and stayed asleep the whole time, which was totally okay with me. Then the flight from Delhi to JFK was 15 hours, so to keep myself from losing my sanity I watched four movies. Then I had a four-hour layover at JFK, and finally flew into D.C., where I would stay with my sister for a few days before going up to Philly. To sum it up, the trip—from the time my night bus left Dharamshala until the time I touched down in Washington, D.C.—took about 55 hours!!

Now that I’m settled in back at Penn again, I can begin to better appreciate what happened in India. I am first of all so grateful for my fellow interns and friends Ravi and Michelle. I could not imagine doing this trip alone, with the language barriers I faced and the potential isolation I could have went through had they not been there. Many of the evenings after going into the field, when it was time to eat dinner or just relax, they would be there to have a stimulating or even just goofy conversation about something that had happened to them that day. That was always such a joy and a breath of fresh air.

It was also a super awesome time when the LEAP interns came to visit us in Sidhbari! Some of my best memories from India are from that day, when we spontaneously decided to go to a wedding ceremony and take part in the festivities, including the dancing—but, most importantly, the eating.

Another thing I’ve taken away from my time in India is a greater perspective of my life back home, which was something I had hoped to glean from my experience there. The region I was in was, for the most part, farming land, extremely rural. And most of the people I got to meet first hand were themselves farmers, and I had the wonderful opportunity to go into their homes and learn a little bit—perhaps a small piece—about their lives. But although my project was focused on maternal and child nutrition, I think I also learned from these folks a little bit about life in general. Most of the families I interviewed were poor. They didn’t have the kinds of materials I possess and, admittedly, take for granted so much of the time: TV’s, Apple computers and iPhone’s, high-speed internet; even cars some of them didn’t possess. But they had family, and they had food and water, shelter and, for the most part, health and, although I won’t assess their own lives for them (especially having gotten such a small glimpse into their lives), many of them seemed content. Narender, my supervisor, had a couple of discussions with me, Michelle and Ravi about the “core necessities” of life, family being one of the most vital. So if anything, these lessons have given me perspective about my own life in the U.S., and what is and should be most meaningful to me (family, friends, home).

I will always be extremely grateful for this immersive experience and can’t wait to greet the next wave of CASI interns! Go CASI!

Hello, It has been three weeks since my

Tue, 08/25/2015 - 22:14


It has been three weeks since my return to France. My bangles acquired on the Delhi streets have fallen and the Henna peacocks on my hands have faded away: it was unfortunate but inevitable. I had enough time to get back into “French mode”, which, for me, includes reverting to slightly different norms of behavior, somewhat catching up with three months of politics and national news, eating French food and undergoing all the ceremony associated with it, getting accustomed to the rhythm of family life, and speaking grammatically correct French (although French is my first language, I often stumble with finding all my words after a long time going without it, and have a tendency to use “Frenglish” in the first couple of days… I wonder how some Indians manage 4-5 languages fluently).

Sort of random observation: (skip this paragraph if you are speed reading)

Something I noticed while back in France is how few Indian people actually live or do tourism in Paris compared to American cities such as New York or Philadelphia. In fact, during my three-weeks stay here, I have only seen one Indian person in the street. This is certainly not the most insightful observation and is certainly something I could have anticipated were I to pay closer attention to international relations, but it is one of those things that I only started noticing after having gone to India and Penn. I think people’s attitude in India and France also reflects the fact that these two countries are not as “close” and prone to exchange of people as India and the US. Where I was used to a very enthusiastic reaction from people at Penn whenever I told them I was from France, people in India did not seem to find it as cool (and so I started telling people there I was from the US instead!). Fun anecdote, my Indian roommate recently went to France, visited an elementary school there and got to ask a group of kids to guess where she was from. She got all answers imaginable: Morocco, China, …even Russia ?! But not India.

Enough digression. As of today, here are three things that I have realized I missed about my internship in Bangalore

I miss being a foreigner in India. As simple as this may seem, I loved learning many new things every day: being able to ask questions to understand certain landscapes, traditions and behaviors observed. For example, I really enjoyed learning more about the caste system because I felt that it was essential to understand the inner dynamics, social expectations and rules behind social interactions in the Indian society. However, during the half hour of my discussion with Chitra (my boss) about caste, I feel that she was able to lay down essential foundations but only to scrape the surface of the topic. For a deeper understanding, I think that I would need to spend a lot of time in the country and interact with many people from many different regions. This calls for another trip to India and gives me an excuse to come back. I also loved being able to try out new Indian foods every day. I am a rather adventurous eater and had great fun trying out a variety of different vegetables, bread and meats, each cooked in different sauces, seasoned with an array of different spices. (At Shahi lunch, we would always have multiple preparations to choose from to complement our rice and bread, which was perfect for somebody who loves sampling!). I was always amazed at the amount of work the cooks put in to prepare all the food and curries. We were told that, at Shahi, cooking starts at 6am for a lunch at 1pm. However, despite how tedious cooking Indian foods appeared to be to our foreign eyes, it was funny to hear some of our coworker mention how difficult American cuisine seemed to them. I guess it is a question of habit.

Another nice thing about being a foreigner was that people were generally open to explaining things to us and were tolerant of our culturally induced blunders. An obvious example would be the morning I went to the temple at Shahi for the first time, and I was on my own. I took my shoes off, entered the temple and then realized I had no idea what to do. Thanks to the help of the priest and of another Shahi employee, I was able to (successfully?) complete the ritual. I like to compare my experience in India to that of being a freshman at Penn. You are new to the place and the culture of the place, and people do not have clear expectations of you. You are free to try new things, try out new facets of your personality without people judging you too hard or comparing you with your past self. Your mistakes and clumsiness are usually no more than a good joke for upperclassman to enjoy and you will likely be excused for them.

Another thing I miss about India is looking around in the street and being amazed about how, despite the shambles I see, everything seems to work out and everybody get his work done. The streets in India are great fun to watch when they are busy, that is, most of the time. I liked to look at all the people running past another, past cows, interacting with one another, trying to sell things, just chilling on the sidewalk… etc. The cars also were scary; it felt like being in a racing car video game except with way too many cars on the racing track. And somehow, in this apparent chaos, there was order: people got their work done and also deployed a hint of craziness and bending of rules to achieve their means. A coworker once said to me that if one did not battle to bypass the other cars, it would be impossible for one to get anywhere. Another thing that struck me was how open people seemed to be to discussing and helping out strangers. While we were in Mysore, our Indian guide/friend Lakshmi would constantly open the car window and very casually hail passersby for directions.

Finally, I miss being with Amy, Chan and Kendra, my Penn co-interns, who were my “buddies” for those two months, and from whom I have learned a lot. They were a constant support and comforting presence, and were great fun to hang out with. Our different majors, backgrounds and personalities, but shared general curiosity and willingness to do good have enabled us to have enriching and thought-provoking discussions. After work, it was very interesting to hear one other’s different perspective on the experiences we had shared during the day, how certain details I had not particularly paid attention to were important to them (and vice versa). I loved learning from Amy’s attention to detail, holistic thinking, and from the talent she had for always considering an issue in all its different facets, from Chan’s great sensitivity and involvement and from Kendra’s passion and sharp critical thinking skills. Thank you for being such great co-interns!

Other random observation: French and South Indian cooking are completely different… except when it comes to dosas and “galettes” (savory version of a crepe). Not only do they look but they also taste similar.  However, the galette I had was not filled with masala potatoes but with tomatoes, egg, cheese and ham!


French galette

The Train from Amritsar to Delhi

Tue, 08/25/2015 - 19:21

With classes starting tomorrow and New Student Orientation finishing up, everything around me seems just like it was last year before the start of classes. I am a senior, but since I transferred as a junior, this is my second fall, and I find myself doing all of the same things- meeting with my advisor, fixing my schedule, and being really excited for the semester to star. But of course, the thing that is different is that a whole year has passed, with all of the changes and learning experiences that has brought, which at the forefront of my mind is the time that I just spent as an intern for Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development in Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh.

I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work with this organization and with so many inspiring people, and to have gotten to learn many new skills, mostly in terms of the interview and case study process, that I hope to use again in a future working with non-profit organizations. Working with the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (Woman Farmers’ Empowerment Program), I don’t think there could have been a project that matched up more with my interests, since I am both passionate about the environment and women’s empowerment.

During one of my first blog posts, I remember writing about the different ways in which I was connecting with my new environment and the people around me. Now that I have been mostly by myself for a few weeks before school starts, I have also found it interesting think about all of the internal processes that were integral to my time in northern India, and also about how some of my favorite memories came as a result of doing something by myself, which usually was not what I originally thought I would do, such as the train ride which is the topic of this blog.

After our internship ended, I was able to travel for a little over a week with co-intern Ravi (thanks to his solid planning skills!), and also to visit two friends who were in Delhi at the time. Early in our travels, I decided to take a train from Amritsar to Delhi by myself (which takes around 7 hours), to visit a friend. It goes without saying that you are more likely to talk to strangers when traveling alone than with people you know, but having not traveled alone for that long, and having just recently started to feel comfortable in Hindi, I had no idea just how much I would get to talk to other people, for the entirety of the train ride, and how much of a fun and amazing experience it would be.

I had actually never been on a train before, so I couldn’t find my seat at first, and when I did find it there were already people sitting in it, so, feeling shy, I sat in an empty bench nearby. The lady who sat next to me was going part of the way to Delhi, and I enjoyed hearing about the place where she grew up, and where she was living now. Naturally, when we both asked each other why we were on that train, that lead to different pieces of our life stories being shared. At one point, I decided to go up to my bunk to take a nap. When I woke up, someone had sat in the seat I was sitting in before, so I moved to my assigned bench. No one really said anything at first, and then a little later, someone asked where I was from. When I said New York, after a little while, someone in the group who knew English started to ask me more questions, such as what I was up to in India and why I was by myself and things like that. We talked for a little bit, and it ended up so that I would talk to him in Hindi to practice my Hindi, and he would talk to me in English to practice his English. It turned out that they were actually a group of 13 people (3 different families), who are from West Bengal, and are lifelong friends, and who had been traveling for over 2 weeks all across northern India, on a pilgrimage and also to sight see throughout different states. I was thinking how amazing it would be to take a trip that long with all of the people closest to you, and admired how energetic and cheerful they were despite having been on trains all day and having over 30 hours to go before reaching their home.

After swapping stories, by then which the other people on the bench found out that I spoke enough Hindi to get by, they asked if they could ask me some questions. I didn’t realize how these questions would have me thinking for days after! Some were really hard to answer ("Between the people here and the people in the US, what is the one main difference?" and "How is a rural town in the US similar and different to one in India?") and others quite funny ("Can you tell us exactly when and what you eat for your three meals both in Himachal, and when you’re in New York?" and when I told them I eat rice with dinner, they were like, "How many grams of rice?") I didn’t expect some of the things that they found surprising (that I buy all of my clothes from thrift shops, that thrift shops are fairly common in the U.S., and that, being vegetarian, if I hypothetically married a non-vegetarian, I wouldn’t cook meat- they joked that they felt bad for my future husband!) They also found it funny that I had managed to learn Hindi but not the metric system! They asked me me about my project, and about the differences between agriculture in the US and in Northern India, which I realized was something really important for me to think about. Over all, I was so happy for the opportunity to talk with these people for hours upon hours, and also to hear about their perspectives of India and the US and also of their travels.

I never expected how much this conversation would mean to me, but looking back on it, it was a perfect way to wrap up my internship, as the things that we talked about I find thought-provoking whenever the memory returns. Being accustomed to living in India for 10 weeks, I had stopped thinking in terms of comparisons to the US, like I had in the first week. However, I realized that after my time in India, it is important to still make comparisons and contrasts, for example, between ngo’s I’ve worked with here and there, or agriculture here and there, in order to frame the experience in a way that is integrated with things I’ve done in the past and hope to do in the future. Thinking about how my experience relates to my classes and jobs and career goals is a long and interesting process that I think will lead me to look at my internship in different ways and discover things that were meaning for and helpful for years to come. I am so thankful to have had the great memory of the hours-long train ride and all of the people that I met, and am really happy of the mindset of reflection in which it put me. I wanted to share this memory, as a part of countless other amazing memories of learning, working, talking, having fun and being inspired, all of which have made their impact on me, so that even though so much is familiar with this first week back to Penn, I know that much has changed.

Pictured Below:

Here, I am with three of the woman farmers who I got to interviewed about their experiences with the program. Santosh Kumari, sitting on the left, in addition to participating in the MKSP program, is also the person who is implementing it in a neighboring Panchayat, since she works as CORD field staff. After going to women’s group meetings in the Panchayat to talk about the program and build interest, she facilitated the creation of about 5 Woman Farmer Groups, does trainings in the new organic farming practices, and overall checks on the farmers to make sure the program is going well. Since the program is adding 10 new Panchayats in its second year (there were 10 the first year), she is now doing this process in another Panchayat as well. Many of the people who work at CORD, in addition to their 9 to 5 job, also are farmers, which is full-time work in itself.

Namoshkar from Kolkata!

Mon, 08/24/2015 - 11:52

First, a quick re-introduction — My name is Nathalie Figueroa and I graduated from Penn in May 2015 as a Health and Societies Major. I was born in El Salvador and grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Miami, Florida. My parents’ love for travel quickly became an uncontrollable passion of my own and has driven me to explore many languages and countries around the world. My concentration in global health exposed me to Indian society, culture, and history and drove me to apply for the CASI internship in 2013.

Making friends in 2013 :)

It’s great to be back in India two years after having interned at the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (Chirag) through CASI. This time, I am living in Kolkata for 9 months as a Fulbright-Nehru English Assistant (ETA).

While hosting health camps in schools in the Kumaoni region of Uttarakhand I gained a firsthand look at the potential of schools as health promoting tools. We congregated in schools in different communities each week and saw them transform into clinics for vaccinating infants and classrooms that taught best practices for water purification and sanitation. My biggest takeaway that summer was how communities made schools access points for healthcare by incorporating health education into the schooling of children and families.

I applied for a Fulbright-Nehru English Teaching Assistantship grant in order to understand the classroom environment’s role in children’s health and how this can be used for public health projects. Schools have the potential to dramatically alter the prevalence of disease among future generations, while also improving learning. In order to integrate health education into the classroom, I knew I had to learn about the opportunities and obstacles that exist in incorporating these lessons into a curriculum.

Additionally, education has given me the tools to define and pursue my purpose in life with greater liberty and autonomy.  In elementary school, my parents reminded me that no matter what happened, no one could take my education away from me. Education became the most valuable treasure I could possibly imagine. At the time, I thought it was my small stature that caused people to underestimate me, but I realized my ethnicity and gender played larger roles. As a student at Penn, I had the opportunity to delve into these sorts of inequalities. I became intellectually empowered to challenge and reinvent my social and material realities. Nonetheless, it took an organization that identifies leaders, to believe in the importance of reaching out to students whose potentials are overlooked. The Posse Foundation changed my life by fortifying my strengths and including me in a network of individuals committed to positive change. The dynamic support I received as a Posse Scholar provided me with a unique perspective of leadership-building methods that equip students beyond classroom education.  For these reasons, I want to help students tap into their own potential and cultivate treasures of their own.

After two months, I realize that the variety of reasons that drove me to apply for the Fulbright-Nehru ETA are materializing, but I could not predict the immensity of lessons that have transpired thus far. I thank CASI for providing this platform to connect with others interested in health, education, and India and will continue to share this journey as time goes by.

Celebrating Founder’s Day at Narmada High School!

If you are interested in applying to the Fulbright ETA program in our outside of India, please stay tuned for more updates and feel free to reach out! I would love to answer any questions and receive feedback!

The End of a Great Summer

Sun, 08/23/2015 - 15:12

I have been back in the US now for a full three weeks, and today, I finished moving into my dorm in Rodin College House at Penn. It has all been a whirlwind- Madurai-Bangalore-Pittsburgh-Philadelphia- flying, driving, riding trains with some time at home sandwiched in between.

The past three weeks spent at home have been a really interesting opportunity to reflect on my time in India. A daily-regimen built up over three months does not collapse so easily, and there are so many elements of daily life in India, which were deeply embedded in the daily Aravind routine, that were suddenly absent.   My Delhi-born-and-raised cousin once asked upon arriving in America for the first time, “Where are all of the people?” Driving on the streets of Pittsburgh when I first got back home, I was struck by the same type of question. India’s bustling city arteries and millions of people make the quiet streets of American suburbia feel naked. The darker questions that come to mind pertain to the sometimes mind-boggling differences in wealth between India and America. So many of the basic infrastructural differences- the differences between the neatly cut buildings on gentrified American city corners and dusty Indian bazaars- throw into stark relief the massive disparity in standards of living. It is easy to look at those differences through the prism of developed and developing, but I don’t think that fully captures the whole picture- who is to say that all that is western is good and right? Is America really the next step in some progression? Working in a place like Aravind really pushed me to believe that more nuanced and ostensibly better approaches to things like health care (ie approaches rooted not entirely in profit-seeking corporate culture, but in a determination to do something good and beautiful) can easily be hidden in the “developing” world. But even when the dichotomy of developed and developing sometimes feels retrograde, it is nevertheless often hard to swallow the gaps in wealth. It is hard to believe that America and India are on the same planet when they feel (economically) like two totally different worlds.

Recognizing the economic differences between India and America is not entirely new to me because I have been to India before, and returning to the US always tends to elicit a shock to the system and a heightened awareness of American wealth. As I have gotten older, I have become more conscious of the cultural differences between India and America.   And more than becoming conscious, I have increasingly found myself asking where I “fit” in the cultural chasm between the two. My parents immigrated to India, and as a second generation Indian-American, I grew up in an American world painted in Indian colors. Having grown-up entirely in the US, I am undeniably American with an unmistakably, nasally American accent.  But my parents gave me Indian perspectives and an exposure to Indian culture. I was always told that I could seamlessly walk between American and Indian environments; I was always told that I was fully Indian and American.

In recent trips to India, I have increasingly begun to see that those transitions are not always so seamless and that I am not totally American or Indian. In high school, I received a grant to work at a tribal hospital in the Nilgiri Mountains, and living by myself in a small Indian town, I felt like I was connecting with my roots. One of the great shocks to my perception of myself came when I realized that the school-kids, who I waved to every morning like family on my walk to the hospital, recognized easily that I was foreign by the type of American shoes I was wearing. I remember becoming increasingly conscious that I didn’t speak any Indian languages, and I distinctly remember a growing feeling that I was not truly Indian.   When I came back to the US after that trip, though, I also became increasingly conscious of the fact that I was not fully American. I loved India; there were so many ways from the food, to the traditions, to the ways of addressing people, that India actually felt more like home. With each cultural asymmetry that I discover, I find myself increasingly unsure of my identity as an Indian and as an American.  However, I have absolutely loved reading the other CASI blogs this summer as they have exposed so many interesting ways that Indian and American cultures differ. The reason is simply that increasingly I feel proud of my identity in the cultural chasm between Indian and American. I love being able to recognize how I am Indian and how I am American; I love the idea that I can be someone defined not just by my skin color or where I grew-up. Reading this paragraph back, I am not sure if I have been terribly coherent, but I can summarize my feelings about my identity as an Indian in another way by saying that India will always be special to me, and I know I will be back to explore it further and help it continue to grow.

I feel so grateful to have had this unbelievable summer opportunity. I don’t think that I have ever really taken the opportunity to thank the people who made it possible in this blog, so I better use these last few sentences to do just that. Thank you so much to Aparna, Professor Kapoor, and everyone at CASI for making this internship possible and for being so incredibly supportive. Thank you to everyone at Penn IIP for opening the world to us as Penn students with these kinds of internships. Thank you to Dr. Stokes and Dr. Rea in the LSM program for supporting me through this internship and helping to make it possible. Thank you to everyone at Aravind, particularly my amazing supervisors, Ms. Dhivya and Ms. Ushalini, and Devendra, for inspiring me and teaching me through continual examples of compassion, diligence, and vision that I will never forget.  Thank you to the many people I met while working at Aravind: Hillary, Dr. Inoti, Craig, Dr. Munar; I’ll miss all of our dinner conversations at Inspriation. Thank you to all of the CASI fellows- past and present- for making this an amazing community that I feel lucky to be a part of. And thank you to my fellow Aravind interns, Olivia and Busra- this trip would not have been even close to the same without you both; I will always remember our many adventures, and I can’t wait to see you both back at Penn.  Lastly, thank you to anybody who has kept reading my blogs to this point (I am sure it hasn’t always been the most compelling read, but I promise it’s almost over!!).

To any future CASI fellows and Aravind interns out there, take advantage of this opportunity; it will challenge you and push you, but it is special for those same reasons and for so many more.

Friendships are for Keeps

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 02:31

Sorry this post took so long. It was actually more difficult to find wifi in countryside China than in India. But here it is! Enjoy.

Being in a foreign country definitely comes with its fair share of hardships. It was difficult, even with the amount of help that I received; I have no idea how I could have survived these 10 weeks without the people that showed me so much hospitality. Whenever people ask what my favourite thing about India is, I would always respond food and people intertwined in the perfect but distinct orientation. I would not be able to differentiate the two, but sadly (and it breaks my heart stomach) this post isn’t about food.

One of the many wonderful things about visiting this country is the amount of stares that you get, the blank stares, the creepy stares. But wait…… there’s more. I have had countless incidences where a little head nod and a biiiiggggggggg smile would turn those stares into such pleasant faces. They are really friendly people; we may be different from what they are used to, and if I were in their situation, I wouldn’t know better than to stare. Us LEAP Interns, we are really attractive people.

Anyways, I have made it one of my personal hobbies to try to elicit as many smiles from others as possible. I mean for the long bus rides around Northern India, one has got to entertain him/herself. What better way than to share joy? I think that because I looked different, people stared. But a smile from me would elicit so much excitement in them. I was thinking the whole time: “Why not?”

(Sorry, I thought that taking pictures of others random people staring and smiling at me would be too creepy.)

One morning, I decided to rise around 5:30 in the morning (apparently this is when all of India rises too). The weather was amazing. It was moderately cool for once, with only a tad hint of humidity. But for the spoiled Vancouver brat that I am, this was already uncomfortable. But no worries, I was there to explore the country at 5:30 in the morning and indeed exploration I intended.

It turned out to be a fascinating idea to go for a run. There were just so much going on already in the grass field in front of small complex building that we are staying at inside the school. After a few laps through narrow lanes of the school corridors on the outside and in between buildings, I ran into a group resting on the side. And guess what I saw beside them? Badminton rackets. I love badminton!

Look at how happy we are

I asked if I could play with them for a little bit, and they are more enthusiastic than I way. After a few rallies and many more words of flattery, we sat down and got the chance to chat about each other’s countries and preferences.

The weekend that we, the amazing LEAP people, visited Dharmsala and saw the amazing CORD people with another lovely friend also doing IIP in Chandigard (HI MARA! How are you?), we had the chance to travel all together and explore a more rural region of Northern India. It was with great farmlands and rural development setting that CORD gets to work in. The scenery was amazing. Look at how amazing we look in the impressive background!

Look at how much fun we were having jumping over stepping stones!

Natural beauty is the best beauty

But here’s not the best part! Through the friend of a friend of a friend (or more like one of CORD’s security staff), we all got invited to the equivalent wedding reception. We were a 9-man crew and just like that, we got to enjoy amazing, and I mean amazing food! And it wasn’t alone in a secluded room, “reserved for foreigners” or anything, sorta like this:

Oh nose! I thought this picture captured everything, but on the top right corner, it says “Foreigner Gallery”

This picture was taken on the Wagah border between India and Pakistan for the daily border flag lowering ceremony. It’s been 3 weeks, I still don’t know how I feel about this :/

No, it was in a courtyard with lines and lines of people eating wave after wave. It was intense how good the food was, almost as impressive as the quantity that was made. Look at how much fun everyone (especially me) is having! The colors, the smells, and joy.

First time, but definitely not my last time eat with my hands. My mom looks at me weird now. Oh well~

Look at how happy we were dancing

Well, back at home (This is what I got to call Yamuna Nagar for such a long time ^_^ ), I also stumbled into a really nice group that play badminton every day, from 6:30pm to 8pm without fail. Most of the days when LEAP does pay us extra to keep us overtime, I join them. They love me and I love them. Sadly, when school started in early July we were not allowed to use the facilities anymore. But happy memories remains happy memories.

I also just recently gotten an India popular haircut at that time. Do you guys like?

Okay, one weekend, we decided to stay in Delhi and tour the amazing city that it is. So after I woke up for an early journey to the Chinese Visa Center (and secretly enjoyed a coffee at Saket Mall; it’s a really nice mall), I joined the rest of the interns at the Lotus temple. So I offered to take a photo for a family at the beautiful Lotus Temple. They were an adorable family…. All of whom poses with 5 inches between each person. So I put their camera around my neck and tried my best to squeeze them more together. So they had a better family picture. So I met up with Leora, Laura, and Eileen, stayed a bit at the temple and were stalked by tuktuk drivers (big surprise there) when we left. When we got to Humayun’s tomb, we were again sadden by the fact that our entrance is 25 times that of Indian citizens (oh that’s alright, we don’t pay taxes in this country). So it turned out that they entered just behind us, and they recognized me! So when I found out that they were actually Australian, I jokingly asked if they sneaked in with the Indian price, and they told me that they had family who is in charge of the tomb. Our jaws dropped. So they had a guy lead us through intricate tunnels of bats and bat droppings. So we ended up on top of the tomb with breathtaking views, ones not open to the general public. And so voilà, here’s me with a Fedora that belonged to the son:


And there’s us fooling around!

People are so pleasant. Especially you Puneet and your family!

I cannot leave out the two wonderful human beings at the corner store just by the back gate of the school campus that we worked at, Daman Deep Singh and his father! They own a humble little shop where they would make the best Lassi and give me the biggest smiles. Without them, the rest of the interns and me would have definitely died of thirst. Thanks for keeping us alive!

I also cannot leave out how hospital one particular propeller student was. Jaskirat was one of the more mature students, who invited me to go play volleyball with his friends on the first days of his summer session. I definitely could not have passed off this opportunity. Throughout my stay he would always bug me about visiting more of the city with him. However, time wasn’t on either of our sides. Thanks for the all the great memories Jaskirat! I will definitely see you and all of the other propeller students again!

You can see the net in the background, as well as the group of students trying to dislodge the volleyball from the tree. Hehe it was fun to watch. Jaskirat has such a big smile.

But most of all, the LEAP team is one that made our stay the unbelievably amazing experience that it turned out to be. Each member contributed a unique trait into the LEAP crucible. It was hot at days when even the backup generators gave out; but nevertheless, in the hot cauldron of India, each dynamic personality blended so well together. It was such an honor to work alongside such motivated and captivating people. Without them, our experience could not even begin to approach how the glamorous that it was.

These few stories are only the tip of the iceberg to the overwhelming hospitality this country offered me! What I am trying to express with this post is the amount of gratitude that is due for such an amazing trip. The friendships made, the relationships forged; in such a foreign country, I felt at home. What make the trip that CASI allowed me to embark on different from just a visit to the country. This is the difference. We were given a home instead of a location. We were given a chance to feel instead of just see (although we also did plenty of that). We were given a chance to be thoroughly immersed, rather than glancing over the food, the people in a frenzied haze. But most of all, we were given the opportunity to love and be loved by so many diverse people, each of whom leaving lasting impressions. This is absolutely more than I asked for. Friends will be for keeps even when everything else is for grabs :)

Your favourite,


Building the framework with SPS

Mon, 08/17/2015 - 02:10

The first half of my work with SPS focused on documenting the impacts of the Self-Help Group (SHG) program—forming groups of 10-20 women in a village through which members build bank savings, economic literacy, and social capacity in their community. Through interviews with SHG professionals, group members, SHG leaders, and mitaans (community residents who help operate SHG meetings), we recorded their personal anecdotes, efforts, hardships, lifestyle changes, and community history to demonstrate the successes and difficulties of working in the SHG program.

The second half of my work shifted focus from documenting these descriptive stories and interviews to working with an on-going SPS project with the goal of quantitatively tracking the impacts of the program. A few SPS members have been working towards creating a customized software that records and graphically displays the outcomes of SPS interventions for several programs (Watershed Management, Agriculture, Livestock, SHG). My role in this project was forming what would be the “framework” of the software—the data points and indicators that measure outcomes of intervention. When I started helping the SPS members, namely Raghav and Viju, with the project, I was hoping no one expected me to try and code anything. I don’t even have Microsoft office downloaded on my laptop. But, it became clear that my role was working on the logistics of making the “framework” of the software—determining the indicators that would measure outcomes of SPS interventions and the primary data points that could be collected via survey with program beneficiaries to calculate those indicators. For example, one of the objectives of the agriculture program is to minimize input costs for the farmers. An intervention for this objective would be linking farmers to government subsidies for drip irrigation tubes to reduce water usage and pumping costs, and so the indicators that would measure the outcomes of this intervention would be cost of water and reduction in water usage for the farmer. Working the agriculture team, I would figure out what data points would be necessary to calculate the indicators that could also be gather from farmer surveys and farmer diaries, in which farmers keep track of their own inputs and outputs. For the cost of water, agriculture team would need to record the farmer’s total hours of pumping for that season (written in his diary) and the hourly electricity charges (publically available). For reduction of water usage, the surveyor would need to record area of farmer’s land, number of waterings during the season, and the average depth of watering, which would be compared to a benchmark volume of water usage based on land size, crop variety, and cropping pattern. I listed these data points to cover the possible interventions from the pre-sowing stage to the post-harvest stage of the season. I was able to also begin determining the proper data points and indicators for the livestock and watershed programs. The next steps of the project are to conduct trial surveys with the data points and create the digital format for recording the indicators. Though my time with SPS is coming to a close, I look forward to seeing the progress of the project.

Interviewing SHG program members and creating the framework for the software have been two sides of the same project—working towards improved and expanded documentation of SPS program impacts. This work has allowed me to interact with all of the programs, understand how each are interconnected to the security of rural livelihoods, and study topics outside of my degree (microfinance, women’s empowerment, agricultural practices, commodity aggregation, etc.) that has this summer a truly invaluable learning experience.

Last Days: Delhi x Mumbai

Sun, 08/16/2015 - 14:32

Not going to lie, there was a part of me that did not want to leave Delhi. People say that Delhi is hectic and crazy, but it has been the kind of crazy that has become somewhat familiar. At the same time, I wanted to see more of India and my flight out was from Mumbai- formerly Bombay. People who I had met from Mumbai always claimed that it was better than Delhi (the same love for one’s own city could also be said of those from Delhi). Google Maps indicates that the journey between the two cities takes approximately 19-23 hours by train or 270 hours via foot; thankfully, it was only 2 hours by flight.

Perfect time for a quick nap- thank you IndiGo

Without any set plans, I decided to drop my stuff off and start exploring by walking around. The following are some observations and experiences from the little time I had in Mumbai:

Part 1: Gateway of India

A close two-minute walk from where I was staying, the Gateway of India was built during British Rule in Mumbai to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. That being said, it was not completed until 1924. Back then, it was the first major thing people saw upon arrival to Bombay by sea and it was also where the last British troops left after India’s independence (an interesting scene to imagine as I was standing right in front of the structure!).

The Gateway overlooks the Arabian Sea…and I may have gotten a bit overexcited to see a major body of water. Being from Jersey, most summers include at least a couple trips to the beach so there was a part of me that missed the experience of having a large amount of salty seawater nearby (in other words, I missed the shore a lot).

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel- across from the Gateway of India. Interestingly, the original building was finished in 1903, before the Gateway.

Arabian Sea- it was about to rain!

Part 2: Art Galleries

The art scene in Mumbai is quite thriving. Walking through the streets, I came across a handful of galleries on main roads and tucked away in side streets. One of my personal favorites from the weekend was the Jehangir Art Gallery. The top level featured the work of Shubha Vaidya, an artist from Mumbai. Full of color and beautifully balanced, her work captures female empowerment in various roles. The women herself is as, if not more, vibrant as her work. When asked how long each piece takes, she responded, “However long as it needs”- a mentality that I remember having when I painted. Shubha went on to explain how she seeks to showcase women’s emancipation and the potential of an Indian woman’s role in society. Although I could not transport some of her physical art back with me to the US, it was a refreshing and inspirational conversation and I wished her all the very best.

Shubha and her daughter. Painting Veenavadini with Saraswati goddess of knowledge, arts, wisdom and learning. Somewhat fitting considering the work with LEAP

Part 3: Marine Drive

A long boulevard in South Mumbai, Marine Drive is also known as the “Queen’s Necklace” because at night the lights along the c-shaped road look like a string of pearls from above. My friend from Penn had brought me to the ending edge of one side on my first night and for some reason I was just really unexpectedly happy to feel the wind and see the shorelines. The second night, I decided to try to find the way again- after walking the wrong way for a bit, asking a couple times for directions and more walking, I finally found myself back at Marine Drive. Although there were people around, for the moment I felt at peace just looking at the sea. It is easy to see why people can sit for hours. Marine Drive also reminded me a lot of the Shanghai bund (although the view across the bund is much nicer, no bias intended!). Can you guess which is which?

After a bit, the person sitting to my left started talking to me- he was living in Mumbai pursuing an MBA that specialized in marketing. We talked a lot about the education system in India. He explained how due to pressure from family, he had originally studied engineering. After a few years, he realized that he had no interest in engineering and wanted to go into business. This made me think back to the Propeller students and how they have the potential to figure out what they truly want to pursue, but how that is also a tough thing to do. I came into the summer not knowing anything about education in India. Coming out, at least I can say that it is undoubtedly complex but I have a better understanding of the different influences and mentalities behind education in this vastly diverse country.

Part 4: Leaving

Getting to the airport the morning of my flight was surprisingly easy. Built a couple of years back, the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link helped reduce travel time between Bandra and Worli. This reduced the total travel time to less than half an hour (vs the 1.5+ hours it had taken from the airport). Two days was not enough to see all that Mumbai has to offer, so until next time~

As a side note: I really enjoy architecture- so I may have gotten a bit overexcited by Mumbai airport’s international terminal. Cannot resist the opportunity to include a couple more photos so here you go!

Next 3 photos from Google of other viewpoints


Sat, 08/15/2015 - 14:52

I feel very grateful to have met so many kindhearted and inspiring people at Shahi over the summer. One of these individuals was Chitra, the person we had been assigned to work with and who was in charge of supervising us in Bangalore. Not only was she our boss, mentor and to some extend a “motherly figure” to us while in Bangalore, but she also became a friend, someone that all four of us will greatly miss.

Chitra our boss/mentor 

Chitra was a thirty six-year-old woman educated in social work. She worked in the OD (organization development) department at Shahi and had a team of HR under her supervision. She and her team would tackle various non-technical issues (such as attrition and health of the workers) and look at ways to help the predominantly female workforce achieve better wellbeing, for example through personal empowerment programs or health initiatives. Chitra also worked closely with factory heads and general managers and would participate in the decision making process at the corporate level. She was very knowledgeable about Shahi policies and about the factories’ current situation, especially pertaining to the workforce state.

I really appreciate how welcoming, generous with her time, supportive and helpful towards our projects she has been. Given the fact that the four of us were interns, studying at the bachelor level, who had little relevant experience in the garment industry, knowledge of the language and familiarity with the culture, we were very lucky to have been taken so seriously and to have received so much attention from the people at Shahi. For instance, when we arrived, we received more than one week of orientation during which we met various factory heads and teams, and visited different factories in the region. The project I choose to work on was to design and implement a buddy system for workers after establishing background research to assess their needs. Later on during the internship, I would frequently visit Chitra in her “cabin” (cubicle in which she would work, which had grilled windows to avoid monkey attacks!) and ask for advice and feedback about my project. She had a lot of experience and practical intuition and was very good at helping me establish a plan of action, prioritize tasks and understand mistakes. I also want to thank her for bearing with my numerous questions (anyone who knows me will know that I tend to be rather inquisitive!).

I have learned a lot from working alongside Chitra, seeing how she managed her team and got her work done. She was always very direct and would speak her opinion frankly with everybody. (I remember at first being slightly unsettled by her candidness). However, she would always listen attentively to a presentation before reacting to it, and would phrase her criticism in a constructive manner: helping the interlocutor understand his mistakes and orienting him in the right direction. As an example, the four of us have been able to witness her style of handling feedback one day when she summoned her team to give a presentation of various training modules they had elaborated for migrant worker recruits living in hostels. Even as outsiders, we could see that some of the modules had not been thought through correctly, had been elaborated with a too big use of the Internet and insufficient on-the-field observations. To the coworker who suggested to teach to the workers in hostels the benefits of making their beds in the morning, she kindly suggested that the coworker in question go visit one of the hostels and observe that the workers did not sleep on beds but on the floor without any cover attire. But most of all, I admired how, despite being a team manager, she would devote some time in performing more ground level operations such as interviewing workers herself or leading training sessions for them. In doing so, she would always listen attentively, show patience while teaching and do her best to relate and interact with them on an equal-to-equal foot.

visit to workers’ home

hostel visits

creeping in her cabin ( from our perspective)

( from hers…)

“Mama Chitra”

On top of being our boss, Chitra also was to a certain extent a second mom to us while we were in Bangalore. She constantly displayed little signs of attention, which meant a lot to us. She watched out for us, helped us solve potential issues with our hotel, and gave us advice on things to do and places to go on our days off. On Kendra’s birthday, she prepared a card and flowers for her and organized a pizza/ chocolate cake surprise lunch with a few of our closest coworkers. On the last weekend of our internship, she invited us to her place for a delicious homemade breakfast of dosas and introduced us to her family: her husband, two young sons and mother in law. After breakfast, we spent some time interacting/playing all together and then looked at some picture of Chitra’s marriage and of Vastav’s, (her eldest son) naming ceremony.

Chitra’s family

A friend.

But more that being a mentor and a “mom”, Chitra also became a friend, someone with whom we got to share fun moments as well as have more serious/personal conversations. Chitra liked to make jokes and tease us (…and we liked to tease her back). She would take life with a grain of salt and would remain open and friendly even when she was stressed. On Kendra’s birthday, we held clandestine lunch in a temporary cubicle we constructed using white boards in a room of the HR department. That day she told us, joking, “I like breaking rules”.

We also held more serious conversations with Chitra and got to ask her all the questions about cast, marriage, love, food in India that came to our minds. As much as we were eager to learn about Indian traditions/beliefs/ customs, she was very curious about “American culture”. At first, she would ask me various questions about American high school life that I, having gone to a French school in Paris all my life did my best to answer (sometimes using facts I had seen in movies as my sources I must confess…)

Saying goodbye on the last day was hard. It is not that often that you meet someone who is so good at endorsing all three roles of boss/mom and friend at the same time. I will miss her.

Kendra’s surprise lunch

a master at group selfies (about to board on a plane to Orissa)

on our way to a village house in Orissa

When Things Go South

Wed, 08/12/2015 - 12:13

The first words out of my mouth to introduce my lecture on calf feeding and management fell on the confused ears of my translator. I glanced over the attentive faces of village health care workers that sat ready to take notes and  tried again. Flipping through my mental thesaurus, I attempted to find other words to articulate and was relieved as my interpreter gave an understanding nod and began speaking my sentence in Tamil.   We had just begun the day of veterinary training in Salem, Tamil Nadu.  With the help of local and American veterinarians, we gathered to offer advice and hands-on skills involving a variety of animal husbandry topics. Transitioning to southern India in Salem after my previous research in Hyderabad, Telangana has been as stark as the change in barometric pressure.  The Telugu language certainly separates itself from Tamil and different crops dominate the fields. However, the characteristic blats of the water buffalo and the scurrying of geckos across the window screens remains the same.  The vast amount that I learn from the diverse culture and extravagant hospitality of India each day has also stayed consistent.

Teaching a lecture on calf health and nutrition

As I made my way through the lecture with much gesturing, chalkboard drawing, and rephrasing, I was delighted at what I learned from the farmers and workers in attendance. Much of the topic was the feeding of colostrum to calves. Colostrum, or the ‘first milk’ of a cow, is extremely important to provide maternal antibodies and nutrition to a calf. The recommended amount of colostrum for calves is 3-4liters within 6 hours after birth to efficiently protect the calf from disease.

A new calf nursing at a dairy in Salem, Tamil Nadu

Encouraging the calf to nurse frequently or bottle feeding the required amount may seem like a simple change, but I learned from my students that it comes with many challenges. In this area, colostrum is sold at a premium (at about 10xs the price of milk) to give to infants. Often, the first milk is even spoken for as soon as the cow is confirmed to be pregnant by the family of the farmer or by a local client. The demand for colostrum in the human market then makes it difficult to secure the health and growth of a calf. This delays the reproductive maturity of cattle and makes dairy production less economical. In some village traditions, colostrum for calves has long been thought as detrimental to calf health as it causes loose stool and feeding it is  also considered difficult long term investment. Through the lecture, which turned into an enriching discussion, many concepts and challenges like those just mentioned provided valuable insights that will contribute to further development efforts in the future. It seems that when things go south in the literal and figurative sense, it is just an opportunity to reorient your sense of direction and soak in new knowledge. Throughout my last few days here in India, I will be continuing to observe nutritional practices in this new Indian state to gain a wider perspective  and a more well rounded view of dairy nutrition. I also hope to savor the spices and fresh roti while avoiding pickled mango (there are just some things that you only need to try once).

The veterinary training class and instructors