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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. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s International Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
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On Surviving, Striving and Thriving

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 06:51

Hi, hey, hello…it’s me!

It’s been six (!!!) months since I arrived and have been working in India.

In the past six months, I’ve created adventures from chance encounters. I’ve met incredible new people, I’ve gotten to know them, swapped stories, made memories. I experienced molding new friendships with many who came and went in the blink of an eye. I reached milestones, like getting my own place – the very first on my own. I’ve experienced living by myself, coming home to just me and my thoughts. I’ve felt loneliness, isolation. I’ve cried. I’ve laughed until my sides ached. I’ve smiled until my face felt sore. My body has changed, I’ve lost hair (due to the hard water). I became an aunt! I opened up an Indian bank account (and that’s when it felt too real). I’ve felt overwhelmed with too many words swirling around in my mind, only to lose them at the tip of my tongue. I’ve felt every humanly emotion possible under the burning sun, and I’ve felt absolutely nothing at all. I’ve felt like conquering mountains, and I’ve felt pain by the simple act of opening my eyes in the morning (allowing me to not-so-gracefully slide past these months without publishing a single blog…my sincerest apologies to you, Aparna). I’ve felt time stop completely – only to have the clock spin wildly out of control, letting minutes, hours, days, weeks slip like millions of grains of sand flowing through my fingers. I’ve traveled! I’ve slept on overnight trains. I participated in my very first Kumbaya exhibition. I absorbed all of Mumbai in one take while zipping down the Worli Sealink. I ate the spiciest dosa of my life, and consequently lost an entire day (and a half) of an exhibition in Bangalore running to and from the hotel bathroom. I felt rejuvenated with each inhale and exhale of the fresh, chilly air in the hills of Kotagiri on the Keystone Foundation campus. I learned about the reforestation efforts in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville. I walked barefoot through the Mysore palace, collecting speckles of history and dust between my toes. I meditated in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondi, experiencing unmatched silence, stillness and serenity. I found myself reunited with a dear friend from Penn, splashing around and jumping to and from rock formations at Anjuna Beach in sunny Goa. I’ve started building my (tiny, yet slowly growing) arsenal of Hindi words and phrases, trying to throw useful things to anybody any chance I get. I sat amongst women in bright saris in a packed production center during the second annual Kumbaya Producer Company Limited general body meeting, watching as the producers shared their experiences — the power of the raw emotions heard in their voices and seen on their faces absolutely rocked me to my core.

The past months have primarily featured continuous episodes of me striving to achieve some inkling of familiarity, a semblance of normalcy… only to come to the (somewhat obvious) conclusion that nothing about my decision to work with Kumbaya has been typical so far. You’d think the summer I spent interning with SPS in 2014 would have somewhat prepared me for this return, and to a certain extent, it did … but it would be a gross understatement to say that being here has been a big life change. It’s absolutely been a massive shift.

Mentally, physically, emotionally.

(with Kumbaya producers from the Neemkheda production center)

The first month was a total blur. Weeks flew by as interns came in waves and slowly trickled out as their time with SPS came to an end, leaving the Baba Amte campus quietly awaiting new visitors. After a whirlwind one-day adventure in Delhi, I got straight to business as my very first day on the job included a very special exhibition hosted at the Neemkheda production centre (a first for the producers), where visiting students from Emerald Heights School in Indore arrived to learn more about the work done by Kumbaya. I began losing track of the days spent traveling up the ghat to the Jatashankar office from the Baba Amte campus everyday as I worked on shooting products for a Kumbaya film, compiling lists of possible funding sources, making new marketing material, creating design templates and so on. Before I knew it, I was packing my bags and getting ready for a two-week adventure with the Kumbaya team that would take us from Bangalore to Mysore, Kotagiri, Pondicherry, Auroville and back – but I’ll divulge in those sweet details later.

Upon returning, I was greeted by a very still campus. SPS had said good bye to Shampa. Good bye, Jones. Good bye, Vibbhuti. Good bye, Bevan. Good bye, Geneva. My dear yogi Jehana and fellow art enthusiast Suneet were the only remaining interns, who would both leave mid-August just one day apart. Before their departures, the campus had welcomed a fresh batch of new recruits from the Young India Fellowship — young, ambitious, wide-eyed and passionate souls ready to embark on a new life chapter just as strange and challenging for them in rural Madhya Pradesh. I had just started discussing the idea of moving “ghat upar” to Bagli (in order to be closer to the Jatashankar office) with new Kumbaya recruit Akshay, but before I knew it I found myself tightly grasping onto ropes to keep myself from flying off the back of a bumpy pick-up truck with all my belongings ready to be moved into a place of my own.

I bid adieu to the little oasis that is the Baba Amte Center for People’s Empowerment and the quaint life ghat neeche, and started a new chapter within this larger story. Slowly but surely, I’ve been transforming this house into a home. I experienced coming back to a humble little sanctuary to call my own after traveling to Mumbai for an NGO Expo and Exhibition (and the consequential clean up that follows after spending some time away). And since then time has slowed, things have calmed. I’ve tried getting into a groove as I catch a ride to and from the office every day, trying to make the most of not having my own mode of transportation. I’ve struggled to truly find my place within the Kumbaya team, trying to juggle between learning all the ways in which the Kumbaya machine turns, and trying to introduce and materialize new ideas/designs/visions for the brand. I hit various slumps, getting caught up watching life as it continued back home without me…watching my close friends go to karaoke together in New York in a series of fun, loud Snapchat stories…hearing my boyfriend retell his experience of being in the presence of one of my favorite bands at a concert in Chicago… missing out on the little moments of growth and beauty with my new little niece, Sofi… I became far too pre-occupied and worried about missing life back home that I began to lose sight of what was right in front of me, of the significance of me coming back here, of all the goals and ambitions I had initially set out for myself. I lost track of all this, and began to just float around, just trying to get from one day to the next.

But, as it is with life in general, the entire journey has been filled with both the ups and downs. Even now I feel as if I am growing through observing and listening and learning and doing every single day here. There have been the tough moments, where I’ve seriously had to question my somewhat wild decision to return and work and LIVE here, but I am thankful for this incredible experience for all that it has been so far -the good, the bad, and the ugly- and I believe I’ve moved on to a point where I feel I am thriving now. I want to ensure that I can do everything within my power to try to accomplish all of my goalsand continue contributing to the Kumbaya team.

So, this was my update. Sincerest apologies for how quiet it has been, but I will dive into further detail on the other adventures that have occurred thus far. Much more later on…stay tuned!

To thriving, Dani


Tue, 12/13/2016 - 19:50

About eight months ago now, Aparna (the Associate Director of CASI Student Programs) asked us to write blogs during our time at our internships. The last blog, she told us, was to be written after our return home from India.

Although it’s been a long while since I’ve said my (temporary) goodbyes to India, I’ve yet to return “home.” Studying abroad in Morocco this semester, at times I’ve felt suspended in a strange limbo–my time in India and Morocco has in some ways bled together. I mentioned to a friend this morning that looking back, these seven months have been characterized by a constant state of not being at home. And while it’s been exhilarating and empowering, it’s also come to be exhausting.

In my study abroad home city of Rabat, Morocco; pictured during Orientation Week.

When I was traveling throughout this semester, or struggling with something new and unfamiliar, I’d often ask myself where I felt “most home.” My current home stay in Rabat? Our room on Sarjapur Road, in Bangalore? My old apartment in Philly, or my parents ‘ home in Georgia?

In many ways, I had come to believe that home is a feeling more so than a place. At the beginning of this summer, I told myself I was coming “home-ish” when I was coming to India. I had always felt comfortable there. Yet, ironically, my time in India only showed me how much I don’t know about it, how in many ways, India is in fact not home for me.

An Indian history book I began to read this summer.

The first few weeks I spent working in Bangalore, I realized I knew next to nothing about Indian history. I had rarely read any South Asian authors that were not American. I scrambled to find books and recommendations to educate myself. When I spent time with Indian friends, I would constantly hear “you’re so American!” Despite the fact that I knew Telugu, which gave me some comfort and validation, my Hindi speaking skills were almost non-existent and I knew no Kannada.

When one of my friends visited me at the end of the summer in my birthplace of Hyderabad, he was amused that I didn’t know much of its history. “Aren’t you from here?” he asked.

So what exactly was my relationship with India, my relationship with “home?” If home wasn’t a place and it wasn’t entirely a feeling, what was it, then? What was it for me, as a child of immigrants and an immigrant myself? As someone that has so often felt pulled in both directions?

When I was younger, as each summer holiday approached, I would excitedly ask my mom, “Amma, are we going to India this summer?” My mom would say yes, and if the answer was a no, then it was presumed that we would visit the summer after. If not, at the most, the winter break or summer after that. (We were privileged enough to be able to afford these frequent trips–a privilege that not all South Asian immigrants possess.)

Playing with cousins on one of many visits to India

In the years after the passing of my grandparents, these conversations subsided. There was no longer as much excitement on the part of my parents to visit. After the passing of her own mother, my mom would often tell me she had “nothing to go back to in India.” Although she was born, raised, and spent a portion of her adult life there, my mom’s feeling of home in India was very much characterized by being with her parents and her family.

To a much much lesser degree, that resonated. It wasn’t the fact that I was born in India that made it comfortable—it was the summers spent there in my grandparents’ small town in Telangana. It was the muggy evenings spent on their terrace swing, eating hot pakodas and playing games with my aunts. It was the mornings waking up to roosters and Ammamma’s dosas. The sound of Tatayya’s bellowing voice and Ammamma’s jingling bangles–this was what “home” in India sounded like. Their infinite and gentle love, their endless patience for my antics–this is what it felt like.

With their deaths, much of that disappeared. A lot of my family emigrated from India or dispersed within it, and India was no longer the same. It was no longer home in the same way.

Yet within the shadows of that loss, a new relationship with India emerged. Two years after my Ammamma’s passing marked the first time I visited India on my own. More recent visits and working with CASI this summer have afforded me opportunities to form new relationships, forge new friendships.

When I think of India now, I imagine monsoon days in Bangalore or hours spent in autos in the city’s traffic. I think of chai chats with co-workers on the office terrace, evenings out in Indiranagar, or long nights spent in my friends’ apartment in Koramangala. I think of visiting my mom in Hyderabad and her teaching me how to buy groceries in an Indian supermarket. I imagine sitting in my aunt’s new apartment far away from Telangana, eating her amazing alugudda vepudu and annam nevertheless.

As with anything, my relationship with India has been fluid. Feelings of home there have shifted. Yet, the fact that it is people that make me feel loved and welcomed there remains the same.

In the process of these seven months, that lesson has been more explicitly reinforced. It is communities–of family and new friends in India, and of immigrant and fellow South Asians in America, that make me home. It is people, more so than the place, that generate that feeling of home.

So while I often crave to come home to India, right now I also yearn to go home to America. I go home to my parents, and to my family. I go home to the people that make it home, the people that have carried bits and pieces of India with them that they’ve passed onto me. And despite the fact that I am returning to a country that has told me, after this November 8th, that it explicitly does not want me, I go home still.