CASI Student Blog
In India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, the relationship between cinema and politics is well established. Shortly after Independence, a handful of youth in the Tamil film industry founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ethnic party that advanced a unique brand of Tamil cultural nationalism. Led by a motley assortment of screenwriters, actors, actresses, and established cinema personalities, the DMK factored among the first regional parties to wrest state power from the Indian National Congress in the 1967 state assembly elections. The party splintered in 1972, when MGR, among Tamil Nadu’s most famous actors, raised corruption charges against the DMK and launched the ADMK (which he soon rechristened as AIADMK). From 1967, every Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has transitioned from the cinema field to the politics arena.
Yet, the relationship between Tamil politics and media does not end with film. Both of the state’s leading parties (DMK and AIADMK) enjoy wide ownership, and wider influence, over Tamil print and televised media, providing unparalleled access to the state’s electorate. Since the 1990s, the DMK and AIADMK have expanded their holdings in televised media. The leading family of the DMK, whose election symbol is the ‘rising sun’, enjoy intra-familial bonds with SUN TV. More recently, the party launched Kalaignar TV, named after DMK patriarch Mu. Karunanidhi, who known by his moniker Kalaignar (‘the Artist’) for his role as a scriptwriter of Tamil films. The DMK’s chief in-state rival, the AIADMK, currently led by J. Jayalalitha, owns Jaya TV, whose ‘two-leaves’ icon mirrors the party’s election symbol.
In recent years, every major political party in Tamil Nadu has developed a presence in the state’s media industry. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), or Toiling People’s Party, which represents Vanniyars, the state’s largest caste group and a Most Backwards Class (MBC) community, owns Makkal Channel, or the People’s Network. More recently, the latest major cine-star-turned-politician, Vijayakanth, known by the moniker “Captain” for his role as militant leader in the likeness of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, launched Captain TV. The list continues and, earlier this year, the state’s largest Dalit (ex-untouchable) party, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or Liberation Panthers Party, forayed into the media field.
In early 2016, the VCK launched Velicham, or Light, a party-owned television network that broadcasts news and talk-show programs and screen popular films. To raise necessary funds, the party marked the fiftieth birthday of its chairman, Thol. Thirumaavalavan, with a ‘golden jubilee’ capital drive, beseeching party organizers and supporters to make donations in gold in order to finance the venture. After stalling for two years, the channel went live in select intra-state markets earlier this year.
This summer, I spoke with VCK leaders about their motivation to launch the channel and what they envisioned as its presumed benefit. Exuding cautious optimism, they emphasized that Dalit issues rarely garner a sustained media presence and pledged that the channel would reverse this trend. But, they also underscored that Velicham was more of a business venture than a political investment, emphasizing that the DMK and AIADMK not only dominant state politics, but also control in-state cable distribution. One VCK General Secretary smirked as he remarked, “If we get too political, surely they will cut us off the air,” citing examples where party-run networks have mysteriously lost signal when broadcasting overtly political programming. While the foray into televised media will certainly broaden the party’s exposure with an aim to create a new media market of Dalit viewers, it is unclear whether this can, or will, translate into electoral gains. At ₹20 lakh per month in salaries and fees, it’s an expensive gamble.
After our internship ended Bevan and I traveled to Mumbai for a few days and met up with two other CASI interns who had been working and living in Bangalore. Over a lovely dinner of Burmese food we discussed our internships and lives for the previous two months. Immediately it became extremely apparent how vastly different our experiences were. While Bevan and I lived in rural MP among expanses of farmland, clay houses, and unpaved roads, Katerine and Tina lived in a super densely-packed city where crossing the street was like playing frogger, food delivery services were available around the clock and it was possible to use taxi apps like Ola to get around.
The dichotomy between our experiences made me realize just how dissimilar different parts of India are. While this should be obvious as India is so enormous that it’s often referred to as a ‘subcontinent,’ as an outsider it’s easy to fall into the trap of placing this large, unique country into a single category basket. This of course is ridiculous; akin to saying the United States is all the same– for example think about the differences between living in New York City versus rural South Dakota!
At the end of last semester, when people asked me what my plans for the summer were, I would simply respond, “I’m interning in India at an NGO” and acquaintances would accept that response at face value without asking for more. I now realize just how generalized my response was and how it in no way encompasses my experience. I’ve thus now tried to be more conscientious with my responses and to be more specific; thus when people ask what I did this summer I make sure to include my actual location, the rural-ness (which I think was a very important aspect in MY experience with India), and the actual work I did at SPS.
As I continued to travel after visiting Mumbai, the vast differences in ways of life, climate, geography, language, dress and more continued to intrigue me. Of course it makes sense that India isn’t homogenous for even it’s creation was essentially the British making an arbitrary border; however, it took traveling around and hearing others’ experiences for this to really sink in. At this point I’ve seen the Dewas District of MP as well as parts of Leh, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Mysore and still I know that I have in no way experienced all there is to India; hopefully in the future I will have the opportunity to return and continue to learn more and more about this amazingly unique country.
All of the places I went over the summer in a fun map: https://secure.travellerspoint.com/member_map.cfm?user=genevagondak&tripid=917059
Pictures on pictures: https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B0g5nhQSTiLTpt
I arrived at Kolkata during the last 15 days of my study trip. At Kolkata, my main intention was to investigate the relationship between the British, the Deb Raja of Bhutan, and the Tibetans, as well as the influence of the Tibetans’ religio-political institutions on Northern Bengal and North-Eastern India. For that I went to the Kolkata State Archives, where the early documentation of the East India Company was located.
The Kolkata State Archives were a curious place to begin my archival research. The front door was jammed shut and clothes hung in a makeshift clothesline outside of it, performing a dual function – both their primary function of drying, as well as informing us that this was not the entrance into the Archive.
The seating area was comfortable, air conditioned to escape from the enervating West Bengal heat, but the archival texts were in shambles. I had to take to wearing a mask to avoid allergies. Legal and Official texts from the 18th century were moth-eaten, with ink fading from the pages, which were decaying and peeling in my hands. It made me think of how smart Vedic scholars were to preserve oral texts through embodied mnemonic devices instead. Paper is very unreliable and we still do not know the extent of our preservation technology – let’s see if our books last 2,000 years.
There is, however, a digitization project under way. Hopefully the memory of a machine will last as long as the collective memory of man (although I am in no way suggesting that the Vedas have been passed on without ideological and cultural infiltrations. Just that they have been passed down through the only thing that was known to permeate through time – man).
The texts themselves were a fascinating revelation of the period. I collected information on the Sanyasi revolts, on the complex relationship between the Bhutanese and the British, right until the 1864-65 Anglo-Bhutan war, and the resultant shifts in the socio-political landscape of that period. The 18th century is a very interesting period to read through, because both the native Indians and the British were clueless about each other’s customs and sociality, and both were trying to communicate with each other through a newly-learned cultural vocabulary. What was particularly interesting were all the gaps, erasures, misinformations, miscommunications, and manipulations that result from this lacuna between the two people.
Unfortunately, the British, in their alienness, were not able to provide a complete picture of the political landscape. For instance, their Fakeers and Sanofies (Fakirs and Sanyasis) were indistinguishable from each other. Religious sects were unrecognizable, actions performed were bracketed through an understanding of state permissible or anti-state acts, instead of positioning them in the wider cultural environ in which they arose. The British seem to be desperate to make their system understandable, legible to a rather confused population, rather than being interested in understanding the population in their own terms. Rather than focusing on differences and similarities, alliances and enmities, they tended to bracket everything under categories that they created through their lack of understanding. The flip side of this was the manipulation employed by the people, who were forced to learn the British system while balancing their own systems against the newly imposed legal system.
Fascinating as it was to leaf through all those old, crumbling texts and to occasionally laugh out loud at the bewilderment of the British, I left Calcutta with an excess of doubts and a hankering to look more closely at the public reception of this alien British system.
Going through racks and racks of Tibetan political journals is not an easy task, and something you can never prepare yourself for. As I walked through the streets of Dharamsala, greeting smiling Tibetan faces and talking casually about the weather and the problems of over-construction in McLeod Ganj, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of uneasiness with the realization of what their pasts held. But they seemed unfazed, well-integrated and living quiet, satisfactory lives, building and working for a community they call home.
For someone who hasn’t had to go through a brutal or unwanted separation from her/his family, friends, society, it is a hard reality to grasp.
Let me attempt to give a sense of what the most fortunate of the refugees who have escaped from Tibet have undergone, so that I can, perhaps, gesture to the valor in the process of recreating their life and engaging with the mundane.
There are two main ways to escape out of Tibet – one is to Nepal and the other is to Bhutan. Two of my friends, who are now studying abroad, were sent by their parents with a guide across the border to India. They were eight and twelve years old. Their parents had hoped that they would get a better education and a better life in India, through the facilities provided by the exile community. They took the south-western route, through the Himalayas, into Nepal. This route can take anywhere from 20 days to 6 months to traverse, depending upon your experiences. Crossing over the Himalayas is no light matter. I remember one of my Tibetan teachers telling me if he spat, his spit would freeze on his shoe. Tibetans suffer from frostbite; forced deportations and torture in Chinese prisons if discovered in Nepal; random shootings at the border; exploitation through bribery by corrupt officials and, often enough, death from any of the previously mentioned reasons. If this is not enough, several of them have been political prisoners, have faced police brutality and the humiliation of having their beliefs insulted, their livelihoods taken away from them, their families endangered. My friends were fortunate to have left behind their torturous escape without any permanent physical scars.
When they reach India, the younger ones are taken to the Tibetan Transit School, but the older ones have to do menial jobs, albeit with the support of the community. The new refugees occasionaly experience discrimination on being culturally different from the Tibetans who have been living/or have been born in Dharamsala, India.
Going through first-hand accounts of torture in Drapchi prison (Lhasa’s biggest prison and particularly infamous for housing the Gu Chu Sum (དགུ།་བཅུ་གསུམ) protestors, which was a period of uprisings in the late 80s and early 90s), accounts of the 2008 uprisings, a series of self-immolation narratives starting from 2009, reports on environmental degradation, of cultural erasure, begins to have a very strong emotional impact, which I had to learn to accept and allow during my time there. Denying it would erase the empathy I was feeling – a fuel for my work, but at the same time I had struggle to prevent it from debilitating me.
That being said, I was also astutely aware of the stories that were missing. Stories of regeneration, assimilation and reformulation of lives. There were those people who had integrated and adjusted themselves to the shift in the political landscape. There were also those who were profiting and participating by the new regime, and those who believed that the change was good. However, given that images of Lhasa remind me of the images of Kashmir, with the panoptic presence of the State – guns pointing from roof tops, a proliferation of uniformed bodies, emotionally masked faces going about their everyday activities – I cannot think that the ones who have embraced the everyday, normalized their lives and profited from the new rule are a majority.
Dharamsala is a lesson in regeneration and revival, and in that sense seems to hint at the indomitability of the human spirit. The first time I went to my teacher’s house for a meal, this summer, his wife made Rajma (a special and time-consuming dish of red kidney beans) for me because she remembered that I had enjoyed it thoroughly, during one of her lunch invites, more than a year ago. We talked about the everyday – my flight delay, life in America, life in Dharamsala, the new poor who are coming from poorer states to Himachal Pradesh, the Tuberculosis problem in Dharamsala, etc. My teacher and I spoke about the history of Tibet. I asked him about the Lotus Sutra and the next time we met, he got me the text to show me a special introduction. His wife is beautiful and endearing. She and I are friends. We talk about her sisters and the politics in Arunachal Pradesh, where she is from. They do not talk much about politics in their house. They have three children who study in schools and colleges outside Himachal Pradesh. There is always someone other than their immediate family visiting them, a relative or a friend, who, as quickly as s/he arrives, gets integrated into the everyday activity of the house – cooking, cleaning, whatever is required. I wonder if they consider living the everyday to be a privilege?
Embracing the mundane, is not an act of forgetting. For how can one forget when the absence of a homeland marks the refugee community in Dharamsala. The marking is in the sounds – the exiled chants of the monastic community and the slow ringing of the prayer wheel as it turns – and in the sight – monasteries bearing the names of their Tibetan counterparts; bodies adorned in their native wear; older faces lined with history. Embracing the mundane is what allows them to preserve, love, remember, and yet embrace the different/ the new. It is what ties them to the new world they inhabit and the old world that they remember. For me, it constitutes an act of rebellion, under the threat of historical erasure.
I have been back home in the United States for a couple weeks now and have had time to reflect on my time in Pondicherry. I cannot help but be thankful for the opportunity, the experiences, and the memories that I will carry with me forever. I amuse myself thinking how easily I integrated into South Indian culture and the Aravind community. Whether through the food, culture, or language, everyone at Aravind was determined to have us fit in and ultimately feel loved. The list of people I am thankful for extends far too long to go through completely; please do not mistake the absence of your name here for being unappreciated or forgotten.
To Chitra, Revathi, Lakshmi, Priya, Paravati, and all the other Glaucoma/Surgical MLOPs—thank you for putting up with me, the random Non-Resident Indian girl from America that messed with your work flow for 10 weeks. Thank you for teaching me a little bit of Tamil so that I could communicate with patients a little easier and impress my family. For realizing that I too, like you all, am only 20 years old (though that did not stop some of you from asking why I wasn’t actively looking for a husband). Thank you for answering my silly questions by always starting with a laugh to put me at ease; for dropping your work to come help me with my mine whenever I asked. For letting me sit in the corner chair and just observe your work. For telling me about your lives, your families, and sharing personal stories and for asking me about mine. For treating me like another sister in the hospital.
To Ponneshwari Sister—words don’t do justice to the love and patience you bestowed on me. Indulging me with eight or more wake up calls in the morning, to reminding me to come eat lunch, to being woken in the middle of the night multiple times when I locked myself out of the Guest House; you took care of me beyond what your age required. I am so thankful for the cooking lessons, for making my hair fragrant with typical jasmine flowers every morning, for letting me practice mendhi patterns on your hand, keying me in to the latest Tamil movies/songs, for teaching me to make a garland, and so much more. You made me feel at home and a part of the Aravind “sisterhood”—whether it was inviting me to the wedding of a fellow sister or even just introducing me to different people when I visited the Women’s Hostel. You went above and beyond your role on so many occasions including the times as you made sure I was fed (maybe too often!) and getting enough sleep so that I never got sick.
To the Venkatesh family—thank you a million times for accepting me into the Aravind family within a blink of an eye. Dr. Veena, you always made sure things were up to par and that I was happy. When I needed a bag fixed, wanted stationery printed, passport photos taken and other small items done, you carried out the task often without me even asking for help. All it took was an off-hand remark to a nurse in your presence, and within days, without further mention, it was taken care of. I can still taste the amazing paneer dish Dharshini convinced you to make for me. Speaking of Dharshini, I so appreciate the friendship you allowed us to enjoy. You travelled far and near, on sightseeing excursions as well as haircut adventures. You indulged my need to shop for baubles and trinkets. You didn’t laugh when I insisted on wearing an anklet on only one foot. I am awed by the fact you are five years younger than me because your maturity speaks volumes. I hope you to come visit me in the States so I can reciprocate your kindness. And finally, to Dr. Venkatesh, thank you for your guidance and support over the summer. Not only were you a supervisor and mentor, but you became a role model. You allowed us carte blanche to the inner workings of the hospital, teaching programs, and clinical practice. You encouraged us to learn and work, but also to go out and explore Pondy and beyond. I thank you for getting me involved in innovative projects, and I truly hope to see you at ARVO next year.
To Dr. Swati— you have more in common with my mother than just a name. I am so happy I can now call you Swati “Masi”. From the day we stepped onto Aravind’s campus you did nothing but extol love and caring, even if it meant working past your shift or staying up late after a long day in the clinic. You are one of the purest souls I have ever met and truly embody the vision and mission that Aravind represents. I am so thankful that you were a part of my life even if only for a summer. The selfless way you accompanied me to shop for clothes and nose rings, shared restaurant outings, and salon tips, will never be forgotten. The best was when you invited us for “pani-puri” the day after hearing that it was my favorite Indian food. You lent a shoulder and attentive ear when I felt homesick or overwhelmed, but you also confided in me when you were nervous about an upcoming project, surgery, and even the impending Italy trip. You became the mother I needed while I was in Pondicherry and for that I will forever be grateful. I do hope to see you next year when you visit Michigan, but regardless please know you will always have a home in the states.
And finally, to Nimay—-well, we survived 10 weeks together (much to many people’s surprise!) I don’t think either of us expected the summer to pan out the way it did—we thought there would be lots of other students the same way it was in Madurai, but instead we found that we had been shipped off to a small city with only one colleague for the duration. Looking back, our friends may have actually be right….our summer sounds like the storyline of a cliched rom-com (and I know how much you appreciate those). I realize the hardships of our situation: few to no other students (but a shoutout to Rohan and Nazli), few English speakers, and general uncertainty of work expectations, forced us to quickly become friends. I know I didn’t said it enough while we were there, but I honestly appreciated you so much. Your calm demeanor, easy going nature, and ability to remove lizards/cockroaches made the austerity of India bearable. Your company added to my comfort, happiness, and safety! Whether it was carrying my obscenely large bag onto the overnight bus, following me into random temples as I curiously watched the locals interact, accompanying me for lungi shopping, or just sharing the grandeur of the Guest House terrace—there is no person I would have rather spent time with. Our friendship which stemmed from necessity, is now rooted in indelible memories, camaraderie, and respect. I now confidently call you a friend by choice.
There aren’t enough words or time to express the gratitude I have to CASI for granting me a most incredible opportunity to spend my summer at Aravind Eye Care System in Pondicherry. It has influenced me on many levels. I encourage everyone to visit this charming part of the world if ever the chance arises. I know I certainly hope to return.
Until next time!
A couple days ago, I skyped a friend of mine who is currently in India. As we were catching up, she described a recent work trip she went on, where she visited several Indian monuments and heritage sites. As most people who have visited these monuments know, entrance tickets often have a foreigner price and an Indian price (with the foreigner fee usually being much more expensive). My friend, as a foreigner but also a person of color, explained that on the trip, her colleagues would try to pass her off as Indian. Most often, it wouldn’t work, leading to arguments with the ticket officials. As we were chatting about her feelings on this topic, it led me to reflect more on my own experiences with it this summer.
My first (unpleasant) encounter with this situation was early in the summer, when a group of us went to the Taj Mahal. Previously when I’ve traveled in India, it has been primarily in the south and with family, so I never had issues with being labeled a foreigner. Further, until a few years ago, I was an Indian citizen with an Indian passport, so if needed I always had ID proof of my Indian nationality. However, this summer was the first time that after buying the Indian ticket, the officials at the entrance asked me to go back and buy a foreigner ticket instead. I (honestly, pretty needlessly) argued with them, but since I had no ID proof and I was not with family, they refused and asked me to buy a foreigner ticket. The issue for me definitely wasn’t about the money—it wasn’t that I couldn’t afford the entrance fee. It was more that something for me (at first) felt deeply offensive about the fact that I had to pay a foreigner fee in what I quite often refer to as “my own country.”
It makes absolute and complete sense why these different fees exist. Foreigners (or tourists, more accurately) who frequent these sites are visiting India on leisure and usually have the ability to afford higher prices. However, in Indian rupees, that same amount would be a much heftier price for someone earning a salary in rupees. Further, it makes sense that Indian nationals should have easy access to see the sites that make up their history and culture.
The issue for me throughout the summer, however, was that each time I bought one of these tickets, being told I was a “foreigner” felt like an added reminder that I don’t entirely belong in India. As many diaspora speak about, it felt like a reminder that I must continue to “prove” my “Indianness” to others in order to be accepted as “authentically Indian.” There is a quote by Ijeoma Umebinyou from “Diaspora Blues,” which has been pretty widely circulated, referring to this theme:
Similarly, I remember one instance early this summer when I planned on wearing a saree to a field visit. As I was talking with one of my colleagues my age, she was confused as to why I would ever want to wear a saree. I’ve been wearing sarees for the past two or so years, ever since I started college, not only to cultural events but also at times to conferences. My colleague, who grew up in India, had worn sarees very few times in her life (that too only to weddings) and didn’t know how to put one on. She found it ironic that I wore them decently often, and that I wanted to wear one to work. In the summer of 2015, when I had been working in Hyderabad, I wore sarees on field visits and found that the women living in those villages were more comfortable and free around me when I dressed like them—it often took the “American edge” off my interactions in the field. I also personally enjoy wearing them, and had never thought of it as odd. However, it is obvious that clothes come with political connotations that are deeply tied to identity. For me, wearing sarees always came with the connotation that I could perform certain aspects of Indian femininity. Especially given that so much of “Indian womanhood” is essentialized into dress, wearing sarees was a badge of “I too, belong here.” Funnily enough, as the summer progressed, I found myself needing to wear sarees less, which will perhaps change once again when I am back in the states.
Sharmila Rudrappa, a sociologist and South Asian American studies scholar, speaks about these themes in “Politics of Cultural Authenticity.” She theorizes that immigrant Indians aspire to become more culturally “authentic” via dress, language, religion, and so on in their new country (America). The quest to find this authentic ethnic self begins because “as immigrants, [we] are cast out of both there and here, cultural exiles in both India and the United States” (Rudrappa 138). Thus, embracing cultural identity becomes a way to reclaim identity in a white American world, where Indian migrants are minoritized upon arrival. Through this process of ethnicization, Rudrappa explains, we actually find ways to become more American—by finding an acceptable, “authentic” cultured space, a place to belong to, within mainstream America.
As I was leaving India, I was talking with a friend and joked that when I return to the states, I might notice I’ve become “even more Indian” than before, so much so that I won’t even know what to do with myself. As I notice my English being peppered by certain Indian phrases and find myself missing mundane things about my time there this summer, it is easier to gain clarity and apply what Rudrappa says to my own experiences. Why did it, in fact, bother me so much that I had to pay the foreigner fee at monuments? Why did I feel so flustered when I would rush to speak to vendors or auto drivers in Hindi, and sometimes they would respond in English? Or one morning, when I put my saree on with some things off here and there, why did I feel so upset?
In India, I am reminded quite often (and rightfully so) that I hold, with my American passport, accent, and American university education, immense amounts of privilege. Encounters with ticket officials or saree mistakes can easily feel like profound questions of my “Indianness.” And in America, I will never be a part of mainstream white American identity (nor do I aspire to). As a brown woman, I am constantly reminded that I am a “forever foreigner,” be it through institutional racism and sexism or simple catcalls on the street telling me to “go back to your country” and “hey there, chocolate.” As Rudrappa writes, it is evident that in many ways I (and many of my Indian American friends) have always embraced Indian culture as a way to make space for our “hyphenated” identities that are not easily welcomed otherwise.
Spending more time in India has undoubtedly helped me feel more secure in feeling that India is a part of my narrative. Balancing that fine line and remaining critical will always be a continuous challenge—I will always be “too desi” for some and not enough for others. Yet, with this summer has come better clarity in how to navigate Indian-Americaness and reject pressures to enact a certain Indian-American gendered role, while still allowing myself to unabashedly embrace, learn, and grow from my roots.
Throughout our time at CORD, Rhea and I were fortunate enough to experience so many breathtaking views everyday. From the scenic fields to the insides of people’s homes, every moment was picture-perfect. Since we arrived, we were looking to choreograph and record a dance video because we are both dancers at Penn. However, as typical college students, we only found time the day of our departure (at 6 AM) to record the entire piece. We wanted to make this video to capture our individual growth as we learned to live in the present and appreciate every waking moment for what it is, rather than what it could be. From visiting the Chinmaya Ashram at sunrise (and dancing while random people stared) to discovering the beautifully scenic roof of our very own dormitory building the day before we left, Rhea and I are so grateful to have had the opportunity through CASI to experience such beauty.
Ladakh is frequently called the “roof of the world” due to its high elevation on the Tibetan plateau. And if Ladakh is the roof of the world, Zanskar feels like the edge of that roof. South of Leh district, Zanskar is the most remote area of Ladakh, separated from the rest of the region by the Great Himalayan Mountain Range. Heavy snowfalls close all the mountain passes into Zanskar such that it is only accessible for four summer months; during the other eight months of the year, the region is cut off from the rest of the world. Even in the summer, getting to the capital “city” of Padam from Leh requires a 20-22 hour jeep ride, over half of which is on a relentlessly bumpy, one-lane road of dirt, gravel and rock. The road, carved into the side of the Himalayas like a gash, is frequently interrupted by mountain streams. In their colloquial language, Zanskaris speak of “Ladakh” as a separate place and “Ladakhis” as a different people, underscoring the remoteness of the region. I spent the last two weeks of my research period in Zanskar, trying to understand how education functions in the most isolated region of Ladakh and one of the most remote places in India.
To visit the Phugthal Lobdra, a class 1-7 monastic school affiliated with the famous Zanskari monastery, I had to first take a three and a half hour jeep ride from Padam on yet another unpaved mountain road. Where the motorable portion ends, the road becomes a footpath through a gorge beside the Zanskar River, extending some 30 kilometers and crossing more than half a dozen mountains before reaching the distant monastery. The monastic school has about 40 students, aged 5-13, from all throughout Zanskar; some students must trek for more than a week just to reach the monastery from their village.
It was surreal to see the young monks reciting the abcs or the Hindi alphabet in a region that feels so cut off from the rest of India and the world. I shared a lot of laughter with some older students while talking about evolution, explaining why it was more difficult for Westerners like me to trek in such an altitude (the elevation hovers around 14,000 feet the whole trek) as opposed to Himalayan people. When I told them scientists had found Tibetans and Himalayans had a specific gene allowing them to process oxygen at very high altitudes, one student asked me, “Evolution, that’s the idea that says we come from monkeys?”
“Something like that. It’s the idea that all life changes over long periods of time to adapt to the particular environment.”
“So we’re more evolved than you? That’s why we can trek faster in the mountains?”
“Well, you’ve evolved to adapt to this high environment. We’ve evolved in different ways.”
Ignoring my last statement, he said, “That makes sense. Look how much more hair you have on your arms than us; you must be closer to the monkeys!”
I visited three monastic schools in Zanskar and saw that while the monk-teachers were teaching the compulsory, Delhi-made curriculum, more emphasis was given to Tibetan language and traditional Buddhist studies. State-mandated subjects were taught collectively to a class; however each student had a personal Buddhist tutor, an older monk who was responsible for instructing them in scriptures, meditation and Buddhist ritual. This assures continuity in the traditional subjects of monastic education, which exists side-by-side with, but ultimately takes precedent over, the secular courses.
On completing their studies at the local monastic school, the monks and their parents then have a choice for them to either study at Duzin Photang School in Padam, a public school under Leh’s Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (CIBS), or go to Leh to study directly at CIBS. Both schools are directly funded by the central Indian government in Delhi and are administered completely separately from other Jammu and Kashmir schools. Sanskrit, English, math, science, and social studies courses follow an identical curriculum to other central Indian schools throughout the country. However, the schools under CIBS also require Bhoti (Ladakhi/Tibetan language) and Buddhist philosophy classes, both taught in the students’ mother tongue. Not only are all books, school supplies and tuition free, students receive a monthly stipend to study at the schools: 820 rupees for classes 1-8, 900 rupees for classes 9-10. If students successfully complete their entire grade 1-10 course of study, they will have received more than 110,000 rupees from the Indian government.
As is the case at CIBS in Leh, the financial incentive is such that a majority of students come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with a majority of their parents having received no formal education and most illiterate. This generous support demonstrates the commitment of the central government to preserve and perpetuate the Indian Buddhist heritage lost everywhere in the subcontinent except the Himalayas.
I found the monastic schools a fascinating context because they are at the intersection of two highly contrasting systems of education. Both the secular education of the central Indian government and the traditional monastic education have distinct histories, aims and embedded worldviews. While from the perspective of one educational system it may seem easy to disparage the other, the monk-teachers I spoke with appreciate that both systems have their distinct value and importance. As one teacher told me, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always emphasizing that we have to be 21st century Buddhists, and that means understanding the Buddha’s teachings and not just blinding believing them. And modern subjects like science can help us with this. Ultimately, we’re monks and should know and practice Buddhism well. But we’re also Indian citizens and part of this world. Therefore, we should learn these modern subjects too.”
Since the opening to tourism in the 1970s, some scholars of Ladakh have lamented the corrosive influence this outside presence has had on the region’s culture and way of life. In addition to creating a massive resource strain on an already fragile desert ecology, tourism has been perhaps the largest force for rapidly changing the values of the traditional Buddhist society. Particularly, there is the concern that tourism has introduced an unprecedented obsession with material wealth and social status. This has caused some to wonder, in spite of the economic development, whether tourism has created more harm than good.
I think many of these critiques of tourism are both warranted and important; Ladakhis and others who care about the region should consider critically how to balance centuries-old values and ways of life with the rapid transformations affecting the area. For this reason, I was happily surprised when I saw an example of tourism creating an increased appreciation for Ladakhi culture among young Ladakhis, as opposed to deepening an inferiority complex rooted in a (perhaps false) sense of material lack.
Around noon one Saturday, I saw a crowd of nearly 150 young Ladakhis leaving the Atisha Dharma Center in central Leh. It was a sharp contrast from when I visited the center a few years ago and there were only a dozen or so retired Ladakhis, sitting on the floor and learning to read Tibetan scriptures under the guidance of one monk. An hour or so after seeing them leave, I saw the youth filtering back to the Dharma hall. I went to inside to ask what they were all doing at a Buddhist center on their Saturday.
I learned they were attending a five-day course introducing the essentials of Tibetan Buddhism and the history of the most important monasteries in Ladakh. The young people were mostly college students back in Ladakh on their summer holiday from universities in Jammu, Delhi and Bangalore. They were attending the course to learn information necessary to act as tour guides for foreign and Indian tourists in Ladakh.
In most of Tibet and the Himalaya during the pre-modern period, Buddhist study was the exclusive prerogative of a relatively small group of monastics. Even among monks and nuns, the number who had the opportunity for in-depth study was only a fraction of the larger monastic population, the majority of whom were responsible for the cooking, cleaning, land management, and ritual propitiations that constituted most of the daily schedule. Therefore, a group of young laypeople engaging in Buddhist study is a relatively modern phenomenon.
I interviewed a few of the students during a class break about why they were taking the course. Their answers were fairly uniform. As one 20 year old studying in Delhi told me, “I’m mainly studying so I can be a guide. So many tourists come here in the summer and if I can share information with them, it’s a good way to earn money to support myself during the year at university.” He added, “I’m finding I’m really interested in what we’re learning though. Growing up, I never knew the differences between the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, or the history of the monasteries I visited so many times. It’s good to finally learn these things about my culture and history.” When I asked whether they would attend the course were it not for the possibility of employment, most smiled bashfully and replied, “Probably not.”
In both the case of these students and those studying at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, it was outside parties valuing Ladakhi culture (tourists and the Indian Ministry of Culture) that catalyzed opportunities for the students to study their Buddhist heritage. Were it not for these external influences, whether these young people would engage in this study is arguably doubtful. While I think there are many reasons to be critical of tourism in Ladakh, the results it brings are frequently more complex and nuanced than either critics or advocates make them out to be. In this particular case, tourism served as the direct cause for 150 students taking a week out of their summer to learn about their own Buddhist culture, study which, by their own admission, they would not have pursued were it not for the potential tourist dollars. With this in mind, I think it is prudent to consider how tourism can be harnessed to support initiatives encouraging the perpetuation and revitalization of Ladakhi culture, rather than efforts to turn Ladakh into a luxury mountain getaway.
Back in April when I booked my round-trip plane tickets to and from India I consciously set aside some time after my internship ended to travel the country. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, but I figured that I should spend some time exploring if I was going to go halfway around the world. Unlike some of the other CASI interns, Bevan and I weren’t able to travel on weekends due to our very rural location and single days off. Thus, I was super excited that I’d get to spend 11 days traveling throughout India post-internship. Unfortunately, Bevan had to go home earlier than I did and thus I spent most of my time traveling alone.
Initially, I felt both nervous and excited about the prospect of traveling alone in a foreign country. I did a lot of research and asked around to everyone I knew to come up with ideas of where to go. As late July/early August is smack in the middle of monsoon season, it really isn’t the ideal time to explore most of India. So when one of my coworkers suggested visiting Leh, which is in the Indian Himalayas and receives almost no rain as a cold desert, I was immediately intrigued. I also love the outdoors and had always dreamed of trekking in the Himalayas so I decided Leh was the place for me. Bevan and I subsequently decided to spend her 3 free days exploring Mumbai so I went ahead and booked tickets from Indore to Mumbai to Leh to Delhi (from which I was flying home to the US).
I honestly couldn’t begin to describe my travels in this short blog so I’m just going to include some pictures and highlights:
- Exploring southern Mumbai on foot with other CASI interns (and experiencing the reverse culture shock of being back in a city with modern amenities)
- Hiking up a mountain to a fort in the outskirts of Mumbai with Bevan complete with hardcore monsoon showers
- Exploring the city of Leh on foot (+ randomly getting to see the Dalai Lama!!!)
- Visiting Pangong Tso lake (a super beautiful clear blue lake on the Tibet/China border)
- Trekking in the Himalayas in Hemis National Park!!! (most unreal landscapes ever)
- The hardest hiking I’ve done in my entire life as I literally could not breathe, summited two 4900m passes and hiked around 13 miles a day
- With the best guide ever (Ishey) from the only all female guiding company in Ladakh!! She was also the only female guide I met the whole time I was trekking.
- Met the coolest people from all over the world while staying at traditional Ladakhi homestays in the mountains that are only accessible by foot
- Exploring Delhi and staying at an awesome hostel
- Visiting the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and the baby Taj on a day trip to Agra from Delhi
Overall the two weeks were simply amazing. I am SO glad that I had the experience of traveling alone. Although I had to be more cautious (especially as a solo female traveler who didn’t speak the language) traveling alone also gave me a sense of independence, a whole lot of personal reflection time and allowed me to be more open to meeting new people (when it felt safe). I now can’t wait for my next solo traveling adventure!
Please check out the hundreds of pictures from all of my travels here: https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B0g5nhQSTiLTpt
The first sensation we felt after a 1.5-hour flight from Mumbai was the cool kiss of a Bangalorean breeze on our rosy cheeks. After the stuffy humidity of high monsoon season on the coast, our return to the mountains was a refreshing experience. I hadn’t realized how much this city has slowly grown on me, despite the traffic, the pollution, and the ambiguous piles of trash that sometimes littered the road. The weariness of travel lifted from my shoulders and for the first time since arriving in India, I felt that I was returning home.
The warmth that Bangalore seemed to emanate was probably compounded by our time in Mumbai. The anachronisms of this grand, yet dilapidated city were its defining characteristics. As a tourist and foreigner, I felt confused by how legacies of colonialism, like the Gateway of India, could be regarded on the same level as tributes to Gandhi or richly decorated Hindu temples. I made the sobering realization that the places my Lonely Planet guide recommended visiting—Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Mumbai High Court, the Taj Mahal Palace—were all deeply influenced by the British presence. Even more prominent was the huge number of foreign tourists that flocked to the city and gave it such a cosmopolitan, yet unfamiliar, vibe. On the other hand, Bangalore, sheathed in steel and concrete, was equally worldly, but also comfortingly Indian. Auto rickshaws puffed along narrow roads and past the stretch marks of a burgeoning twenty-first century city. Millions of people pulse through Bangalore’s central networks and spill out into the sprawling suburbs while construction roars within earshot wherever you go. It was messy, complex, and highly endearing.
What I love most about Bangalore, and what I miss most now that I’m back in the states, is its youthfulness and hopefulness. The tech capital of India earned its name by living up to the dreams of optimistic college graduates who came here to work in IT or business and who bring with them boundless energy. Startup dreams can come true, fueled by liquid capital and raw faith in the breakneck speed of development. I just needed to look around me to understand the powerful draw Bangalore seemed to have on the rising tide of the savvy and forward-looking generation. It seemed as if all our colleagues at JUST and Janalakshmi were from out of town—Kerala, Delhi, Mumbai—and were here for the unprecedented opportunities presented by this booming city. From a numbers perspective, Bangalore’s population has doubled over the past fifteen years and, as of last year, is now larger than New York City. Most people I met had lived in Bangalore for less than five years, and walking down the street, I could hear the intertwining harmonies of Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, English, and other languages I couldn’t recognize. It was an exciting place to be.
I’ll never forget the way Bangalore made me feel, while I sat in the back of an Ola stuck perpetually in traffic or while I strolled around Cubbon Park on a breezy Sunday morning. These moments string together into days and weeks and months, and before I knew it, I was on a plane headed to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. But a part of me is confident that I’ll be returning to Bangalore in the near future, and it’s very uplifting feeling.
Each country is unique in its culture and customs, and obviously India is no exception. When I started working at Shahi, I noticed that there were certain things about office life in India that differed from that in America. One of the main things being the daily ritual of drinking chai mid-morning and midafternoon. Chai time is much more than a time to drink a beverage. During the summer relationships between my co interns and co-workers were formed. It was a time to talk about everything the most routine things to questions about Indian and American life.
Everyday twice a day at chai time I would take my water bottle out and join my two co interns to chat either with each other or co-workers. The reason chai time held such value at the beginning was because it mirrored that feeling you get when you’re trying to find a lunch table to sit at during the first day of school. You can drink your chai alone or you can try and branch out. I will admit that it took me a while to branch out beyond my two co interns during chai time. I’m appreciative that this custom exists because otherwise there wouldn’t be this built in opportunity to know your coworkers. Of course chai time wasn’t the only way to know your coworkers, but these 15 minute breaks seamlessly integrated into our lives five days a week for ten weeks provided a daily challenge to learn something new.
A handful of times we’d have conversations about Indian culture and how American values either converged or diverged from that. However, most times conversations during chai time discussed stories and occurrences in our co-workers lives that provided little windows in their experiences that we could relate to in some way or another. That’s what I appreciated, that sometimes the small talk and stories told over chai provided some familiarity that made me feel closer to my co-workers.
One of the most valuable things that has come from this internship has been the opportunity to meet new people. One of my favorite weekends in India will always be the weekend I went to Hampi. Hampi is an area near Bangalore famous for its ancient ruins. This was to be my first time traveling out of Bangalore completely alone, I was excited and didn’t know what to expect. What I assumed would be a weekend going solo exploring Hampi, turned into a weekend filled with discussions on global politics with people close to my age.
For the weekend I had rented out a room at an airbnb that was close to all the sights. The airbnb had two rooms. Upon arriving my host told me that another guy from Bangalore would be arriving shortly to take up the second room in the house. When I heard this I didn’t think much of it. If he was coming alone he probably wanted to have some solo time during the weekend. He happened to be eating breakfast at the same place I went to and our host introduced us. After a few minutes we decided that it would be great if we visited the ruins together. His name was Sandesh. At the time, I was extremely satisfied that I had made one new friend that weekend. Later in the day when we got lunch it was a pure coincidence that there happened to be friends that Sandesh had made on the bus ride from Bangalore to Hampi. I was immediately introduced and quickly felt as if I were part of the group. Everyone in the group aside from myself were in there early twenties involved in their own start up companies in Bangalore. Bangalore is commonly referenced as the silicon valley of India. There is a heavy emphasis in IT here and countless start ups. I was finally starting to see truth to that label.
It was really great that I was able to meet people close to my age that grew up in an entirely different culture. I wanted to see where our perspectives converged and diverged. I wanted to know what their views of America were, if they had any. I wanted to know how life in university differed between America and India. After hours of long discussion at lunch all those questions were answered.
During the long discussion the topic turned to American politics. Everyone at the table was very informed on what the political situation in the states was. They knew of the policy points that major candidates presented and they knew of the repercussions that would occur depending on which candidate would eventually be elected. The way they were so informed on American politics made me think of the imbalance that their American counterparts have on Indian politics. Before learning that I got the Shahi internship and coming to India I knew very little of Indian politics. The most recent article I can recall reading on Indian politics before the internship started was on the unlikely friendship between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Obama. Yet here at the table were a handful of twenty something year olds making connections in American Politics that I hadn’t ever considered before.
We need to step it up. Being willfully ignorant of global affairs encourages an American Centric view of the world. On my first day in India when I looked at the front page of daily paper, plastered on it was a large picture of Trump. While there are others in the world thinking about how our votes this upcoming November will affect our lives I feel as if we make little effort to understand the political arenas of different countries. Honestly, I felt disappointed in myself because whereas the friends that I had made that weekend has so much to contribute to a discussion on American politics, if the discussion had switched to Indian politics I would’ve been a fish out of water. Since that weekend, I’ve made an effort to read more articles that discuss growing trends in India that will have huge impacts on the global stage. I’ve always prioritized opportunities that allow me to be exposed to new perspectives. I think that lately however I’ve wrongly acted as if those with the diverging perspective have the burden of teaching me this new outlook. This summer in India has taught me that in order to effectively contribute to the exchange of ideas I need to be proactive and take measures that educate me on perspectives that I may encounter throughout different experiences in my life. We live in an age where information has been more accessible than ever, it easier now than ever to inform ourselves.
Learning to travel abroad is a process. There are lots of different experiences that teach you how to hold your own in a new country. However, getting to that point is impossible without the kindness of strangers willing to lend a helping hand in needful times.
An experience that comes to mind is when I decided to venture into Bangalore for the first time without Meghana or Mallory, my two co-interns. Meghana had recently ordered a large number of books by South Asian authors, something that I thought would be valuable in understanding different cultural perspectives in India. As a result, I looked up a used book store in Bangalore where I could get different books by South Asian authors as well.
I planned to leave immediately after work. I had dropped a pin in the maps app on my phone. I had tried to familiarize myself with the area by studying the map, trying to find different landmarks that would assure me that we were heading to the right spot and locate the bookstore with ease.
As soon as work ended I hopped into an rickshaw gave the address and we were off. Midway into the drive a torrential rain hit which made visibility on the road nearly nonexistent. I got anxious, any landmark that I had hoped to identify would be impossible because of the rain. I tried to see my location from my maps app, but I wasn’t receiving a signal throughout the latter portion of the drive. As we slowly inched our way throughout Bangalore because of its infamous traffic, it began to darken and became evening.
Suddenly, the rickshaw driver pulls over and says that this is the general vicinity of the address I provided. I looked out, trying to make out through the rain any familiar landmark, shop, street that I had seen on the map before that would allow me to ascertain where I was. I looked onto my maps and to no avail, the lack of signal wasn’t allowing it to load. Feeling anxious, the only next step I could think of was asking people on the road if they knew where this bookstore was.
The first three people we asked had no idea where the store was or hadn’t even heard of this particular used bookstore. I was getting nervous. Did I find a bookstore that had gone out of business? Did I completely misread the address and send myself on a wild goose chase? I figured the only possible thing to do was to keep asking people. The next person I asked thankfully had heard of the book store, but didn’t know its exact location. She pointed us in the general direction of the bookstore and told us it had to be amongst a line of shops.
Still heavily raining, the rickshaw driver headed in that direction making sure to look with me at every storefront in search of that bookstore. Despite our efforts we couldn’t locate the store. I was about to tell the driver head back to where I was staying and prepared to pay double the fare. But, the rain had started to let up and although it was evening it gave me confidence that without the rain I could spend some time wandering until I managed to find the book store.
I paid the rickshaw driver and started walking amongst more storefronts hoping to find the bookstore or anyone who could tell me where it is. After five minutes of walking I came across a woman and asked her. Coincidentally she too was heading to that bookstore! We headed together to the book store and saw that it was sneakily tucked away within an alley, impossible to spot from a rickshaw in the rain, but amongst the storefronts and streets that we had driven through.
Getting to the book store was such a great feeling, especially because in the process I came across so many generous people who were willing to help, when they could’ve easily just ignored me. As the summer progressed I learned to become more independent eventually taking weekend trips alone and backpacking alone once the internship ended. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this without knowing that there are always generous people out there willing to lend a hand
With the legacy of last year’s interns in mind, I decided that it was time for another trip three weeks before the end of my internship. Bill, a 2015 Leap intern, had told me about his legendary travels in India during his term. Since I only had about only 3 weeks left, I wanted to make it epic and relaxing. I wanted to take off from the stress of deadlines and Tribyte related things.
If you are wondering what Tribyte is, then I will gladly share more information. Leap has decided to finally use an offline Learning Management System called Tribyte to engage better with their students. An LMS is something that almost every college uses, and every Penn student is familiar with Canvas. My co-intern and I were mainly in charge of developing content that related well with the lesson plans and learning outcomes. At first, it was a very daunting task. However, as we were nearing the end of the program, the project was coming along very nicely. When the content was already developed for most of the days, I thought it would be a good time to leave and visit a different part of India.
I first went to Mumbai. Even though I only had a day there, I was determined to make the most of out it. I went to the Gateway of India, walked long Marine Drive, and went to markets to shop (I didn’t end up buying anything however). I also had a chance to meet Miguel, a former exchange student at Penn, who was also doing an internship in a company there. We went out to a restaurant called the Barking Deer (I thought the name was hilarious) for dinner and chitchatted about life at Penn and abroad. We had a good time talking about our experiences and travels within India, and when it was time to part, we planned to meet again despite knowing that it would be hard to see each other again since Miguel’s exchange period was over.
After the bittersweet parting, I went back to the hostel I was staying at (which had amazing people by the way) to get ready for my next trip. I was going to Varkala in Kerela! I was going to meet my fellow CASI interns, Alexi and Mallory, for more adventures. We met at a hotel in Varkala that had the most amazing view of the beach from the cliff. Seeing other CASI interns made me realize how much I missed Penn and the opportunities to meet my friends everyday. We had time to catch up, swim and eat amazing food.
Then, together, we took a train to Alleppey for a houseboat night stay. The beautiful view of the backwaters and the canals took my breath away. It was a great time to pick up a book and read while navigating through the waters. The houseboat also included our own personal chef (ooooh la la) so we were treated to authentic South Indian Food. I can attest that the Dosa we ate there was the most amazing Dosa of my life.
But of course, all good things must come to an end. However, we couldn’t leave without doing more touristy things. Although I am not a touristy person myself, Alexi and Mallory had me in the spirit of things, and I realized that it is actually fun being a tourist. On our way back to Kochi Airport, we made a few pittstops for elephant rides and nature visits. Although I didn’t personally have the chance to ride an elephant, I still managed to get a couple of pictures of them up close. The elephants were so cute, yet, reality hit as we heard the clangs of their chains every time they took a step. We tried not to think about the cruelty of not letting them live freely and wildly and to continue on with out day, yet, those sad eyes continue to haunt me till this day.
The trip overall was very successful. I can say that I truly did my best to make those 5 days worthwhile, and I am proud of myself. I managed to see 4 places in a relatively short amount of time. Although I wished that I could have stayed longer to truly appreciate the beauty of each place, alas, time was not on my side. One thing that I did realize on this trip was: I am definitely coming back to India in the future.
“Maa” by Shankar Mahadevan (listen as you read)https://casistudentprograms.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/05-maa.mp3
On one of my first days at CORD, I noticed a little room called Play Therapy with moms giving physical therapy to their children. The next day, my co-intern Rhea and I learned some basic phrases in Hindi to introduce ourselves to the mothers in the room and ask to sit with them as they go about their therapy. One of the women in the room, Jyoti, stood out because she could speak English fluently and helped Rhea and I communicate with everyone else in the room. I assumed she was a therapist because she was helping all the mothers administer various exercises and stretches, laughing with us, and seemed less stressed than the other mothers handling their children. She told us how her husband was a medical doctor in another town and how she became a college professor after receiving her Master’s in Engineering. These are feats not only uncommon for women in Himachal, but for the general population that I interacted with. I was amazed by her unique passion and drive. However, a little while later, her son woke up and her demeanor completely transformed. She became tense, trying to calm her crying son, tilting him up and down until she finally carried him to quiet him down. This woman who had previously talked so effortlessly about her education and background sacrificed it all to be there for her son with mental retardation.
CORD’s disability program, Community Based Inclusion and Rehabilitation (CBIR), serves as a center for disabled persons to seek therapy and treatment. CORD serves patients with a host of disabilities. In Himachal and the surrounding state of Punjab, there are very few centers that offer comprehensive, continuous therapies for these ailments. Therefore, people travel hundreds of kilometers from various villages to seek CORD’s free services. I had the opportunity to conduct case studies on the spinal injury patients, wheelchair users, and mothers of children with special needs in the field and in the center, with the goal of evaluating the current resources available for disabled persons and recommending improvements to the CBIR team.
Jyoti’s son isn’t the only young child stricken with mental retardation. Around fifteen mothers come to CORD Monday to Saturday, most living independently from their husbands and families, seeking physical therapy, speech therapy, special education, and play therapy for their children with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, or autism. They stay in rented houses in the local town, Sidhbari, typically visiting home only once per month so their child can see their father and grandparents. During the interviews, most mothers expressed their extreme gratitude and appreciation for CORD’s unique services, as other centers do not have the dedicated staff, comprehensive programs, and familial environment that CORD fosters. Most mothers stated that they had ample support from their husbands and in-laws; however, a few stated that their in-laws “looked down upon their disabled child and did not love them as much as they loved their other grandchildren.” Although the commitment of CORD staff plays a major role in boosting confidence, it is the pure love each and every mother feels towards their child that motivates them to sacrifice their personal desires and channel their all into bettering the child. There is something so special about loving something more than you love yourself.
CORD’s Community Based Livelihood: Farm and Allied Sectors Department strives to empower women farmers to make informed decisions in their households and collectivize with other women farmers in their communities. While agriculture has been an essential part of the Himachali lifestyle, women farmers are often marginalized and are not given formal resources to learn about innovative farming practices. However, through CORD, women farmers are grouped into Women Farmer Groups (WFGs) consisting of eight to ten members. CORD currently serves a total of 2,500 women farmers across 24-26 panchayats, or local villages. WFG members can attend special training workshops on organic crop intensification methodologies and locally sourcing inputs to decrease input costs. Specifically, Himachal’s hilly terrain and summer monsoon season lends itself very well to paddy farming.
Among other assignments, I had the opportunity to document the success story of one of the farmers in the Paddar panchayat. Sunita Devi, a fifty-year old illiterate farmer, has four daughters who are all married and one son who is completing his BA. Her husband runs a local catering business, earning about Rs. 1,800 per month, which equates to about $27 per month. Before adapting MKSP’s farming initiatives, Sunita Devi participated in government schemes for employment for Rs. 165 ($2.50) per day. However, she experienced a large gap between her earnings and her financial needs.
After the initiatives of CORD, she was able to learn and adapt the integrated agriculture techniques, leasing two kanals (0.25 acres) of land from local Paddar residents. Sunita Devi attended trainings led by her Women Farmer Group and CORD agricultural assistants, perfecting the Vermi compost method to produce organic, highly effective fertilizers. She was able to locally source her demand for high quality seeds and saw an increase in her production of crops, including rice paddy, wheat, all vegetables, ginger, and garlic. Also, by using organic cattle feed for her cow, she is able to produce five liters of dairy products a day, including milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Sunita Devi, combining her motivation with clever enterprise, found her niche in the community, catering her surplus organic products to the population of women who do not have kitchen gardens and cannot grow their own vegetables. Sunita Devi’s son delivers her dairy products around the village every morning. During the afternoon, Sunita Devi leaves her home with a large bag of vegetables and travels by foot around her panchayat. She advertises her organic products as chemical-free and serves a group of about twenty to twenty five families. However, not only does she promote her products in her panchayat; she also walks a few kilometers to the local Chamunda Devi Temple area with her vegetables, dairy products, and flower arrangements, selling these to at least ten regular customers everyday. Because of her driven and tireless nature, Sunita Devi is now able to bring in a total of about Rs. 20,000 per year through her sales. Sunita Devi states that, through CORD, she feels like an empowered entrepreneur, able to sell her organic vegetables, increase her family income, and actively serve her village with healthier produce.
Like Sunita Devi, I met countless other individuals who have transformed their lives after adapting CORD’s farming initiatives. Reflecting on how these women have taken their lives into their own hands, fighting gender inequities in the decision-making process at home, I am truly motivated to work harder and take advantage of the opportunities I have been given.
Many of you are aware of how I spent my free time this summer in India. Some are even aware of what work I did while in India. Fewer are cognizant of The Aravind Eye Care System (AECS) that I worked for, and my impetus for coming to India. AECS is the single largest surgical eye care provider in the world. Hindu mythology affirms a triumvirate of cosmic gods controlling the universe: Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Their forces work in harmony, complementing one another and each force capable of dominating when necessary. In a way, Aravind is driven by three forces of its own — volume, quality, and affordability. Aravind’s founder, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (“Dr. V”), found his inspiration in the assembly line model of fast food franchises like McDonald’s. He applied this mentality to the hospital healthcare and as a result appeals to all socioeconomic classes. The synergy between these forces and patient demand is what drives Aravind’s business model forward and demands our admiration.
Understanding Aravind’s largest asset, access to astoundingly high volumes, is the first facet to analyze. By 2010, AECS was seeing more than 2.5 million patients and conducting 300,000 surgeries a year. Compare this to the entire United Kingdom National Health Service that did a little over a half million eye surgeries in the same time period. A doctor at Aravind performs over 2,000 surgeries yearly; the average in India is 400. My supervisor is considered a high-volume surgeon at Aravind; performing up to 100 cataract procedures in the span of a single day is not uncommon for him. When speaking with a US based ophthalmologist about looking at glaucoma risk factors to study, it was suggested I try to collect data from at least 20 patients a day over a two-week duration to garner solid stats. Glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness on a global scale. Aravind is dedicated to eradicating treatable causes of blindness including glaucoma. On my first day collecting data, in a matter of 5 hours, I was able to assess 67 patients for the study. The huge sample size available through Aravind is incredibly helpful for research and understanding disease processes.
The high quality of healthcare Aravind delivers to patients is consistent across all pay scales, whether a patient pays $0 or $1,000 for their procedure. The same surgeons who operate on the highest-paying patients, including politicians and celebrities, are the same ones who operate on nonpaying camp-sponsored patients. The differentiation between paying and free patients comes in the form of accommodation add-ons. For example, patients pay for provisions such as an extra bed for a family member, air conditioning, or private rooms. There is a differentiation in surgical procedure and lens implant as well. Charity cases are done without utilizing costly automated machines, excimer laser or phacoemulsifiers, depending solely on physician dexterity which is a nonchargable service here. Aravind offers locally made intraocular lenses and medications instead of costly branded ones to free patients. Affording patients pay a $1 consultation fee for either up to three visits or 90 days, whichever comes first. The consultation fee includes individual tests such as refraction, ocular pressure, and slit lamp biomicroscopy. Obviously, this fee is waived for free patients, but they receive the same quality of care. Outcomes between paying and nonpaying patients are statistically the same. Quality analyses of outcomes over many years have shown parity between the groups and even stand up higher than international standards!
The final element of the trinity, cost, is a source of inspiration and a beacon of hope for American healthcare. The US, while known for quality, is infamous for its skyrocketing medical costs. Over 17% of US GDP spending goes toward healthcare. In fact, if our $3 trillion health care sector were its own country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest economy. Despite this, hospitals and physicians find it very difficult to collect reimbursements from insurance companies including the government. Even a recent Time Magazine cover story explored the exorbitant, not to mention often arbitrary, inflated, unfair, and often erroneous, bills patients receive for routine healthcare. The American system favors insured patients, often leaving the uninsured with inequitable to no options. The Aravind system sets up a new reality. There, patients are split into three categories: free, minimal, and paying, where patients self-identify themselves without any burden of proof required. “Those who elect to pay, the consultation fee is roughly $1, and the various surgery prices are capped at local market rates…patients who decide to pay for cataract surgery choose from a tiered range of packages. Midrange prices start at about $110, while high-end packages can go up to $1,000.” (Infinite Vision, p.19) A free or minimal patient will pay anywhere from $0-$17 for cataract surgery. The government reimburses them $15 for every free patient surgery performed. Some paying patients are covered by insurance and have most of if not all of their costs covered, save the consultation fee or “co-pay”. People choose Aravind regardless of their ability to pay because of their strong reputation and efficiency.
Often, we hear of people undergoing hardship to come to America for access to and for high quality care. When people talk of going to the third world, it is often implied that it is to change something there and westernize them with our philosophy. In Aravind, I have experienced the exact opposite. I have learned so much over the course of my time here that I believe it is in fact the western world that has something to learn. I have true admiration for the work done, the people served, and the results gained. Dr. V’s mission to end needless blindness is the mantra that inspires everyone from the orderlies to the CEO. Seeing the forces of volume, quality, and cost work together to that keep Aravind in balance, makes me wonder if there is a way the Aravind model can be applied to healthcare in the United States.
Yesterday, August 15th, was India’s 70th Independence Day. While it is time for much celebration across the nation (and for diaspora, outside the nation), in recent years it has also been a time of much reflection for me. For example, my newsfeed yesterday was filled quite a bit with friends sharing messages on the traumas of partition, reflections on nationalism, and so on. Others shared articles and information on non-traditional narratives of the independence movement—for example, stories of freedom fighters from poor, rural backgrounds that have been forgotten in the Indian nation’s history books.
This day led me to think more about a recent visit to the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan. As the end of the internship neared a couple weeks ago, all of us from Shahi (the three of us interns and Chitra, Anant and Dr. Leena) visited Amritsar together. Amritsar is known for its famous Golden Temple, but about 30 kilometers away is where the Wagah border is located.
I didn’t hear about Wagah until this summer, when I was talking with a friend who mentioned it. He explained that every day at the border there is a ceremony that takes place, when briefly the gates between India and Pakistan are opened, and soldiers from either side interact with each other. He and others described the ceremony as a unique experience that was not to be missed, as it is the only border between India and Pakistan where such a ceremony is performed. Further, having read more about partition and Indian history this summer, I was excited to see what this ceremony and solidarity between the two nations, who have historically had a tense relationship, could look like.
Going into the ceremony, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had heard parts of the ceremony were supposed to show solidarity and friendship between the two nations, while others had told me there was a competitive spirit, where each side would try to yell to music and be louder than the other. After passing through security and finally getting our seats (in the foreigner section, which ironically by the way have much better seating than the Indian national section), we settled in. The time before the actual ceremony was filled with nationalistic songs playing in the background as people from the audience danced to them in the bleachers and on the street. Later, different groups of people from the audience volunteered to run up and down the street carrying huge Indian flags. There was also a lot of patriotic cheering, with soldiers on the Indian side encouraging everyone to be louder than the Pakistani side.
Shortly after, the ceremony started. Unlike what I had been expecting, the whole ceremony was choreographed, with very particular steps and movements. Further, a lot of it was very aggressive—the gates of the two countries were flung open, and the soldiers from either side would march up to each other and angrily stomp or display fists. The two videos below (courtesy of Anant) capture some of the ceremony; the first is part of the choreographed sequence, while the second shows the gates being (aggressively) closed after the ceremony ended.
I found myself really surprised and somewhat upset by the whole experience. I suppose I was expecting more solidarity and friendliness. While Alexi and I were discussing how the ceremony was different than imagined, we agreed that we definitely still enjoyed attending and observing it. Anant, who also saw the ceremony with us, explained that he almost preferred for it to be so aggressively patriotic. Although I was surprised at first, he later explained that any solidarity displayed at the border would only be superficial, and might suggest that India and Pakistan are friends, when in fact we have much work to do in that sense.
Talking with an Indian-American friend later, who had attended the ceremony a couple years ago and has actually visited Pakistan, he explained that the ceremony was especially painful for him because his family was forced to migrate during partition. Some of them were even killed in it. We discussed the constructions of borders and the ideas behind them, and it was almost baffling to my friend that the people of the land where his family once lived are now considered to be enemies.
As I was reflecting on these conversations, on our way back from Wagah we ended up going to Sarhad, a dhaba close by. The dhaba, suggested to me by the same friend, is politicized and expresses hope for peace. From the murals and artwork to the food (which is from both sides of the border), the owners of the dhaba envision the two nations healing together from partition and forgiving each other.
While this notion of peace and friendship at Sarhad may be too good to be true, at least for now, nevertheless it was a good note to end the evening on. It also provides a lot of food for thought, especially around Independence Day, when these kind of nationalistic feelings flare up once again.