Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

CASI Student Blog

Subscribe to CASI Student Blog feed CASI Student Blog
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 Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
Updated: 6 hours 7 min ago

Through New Eyes

Sun, 09/11/2022 - 01:42

I spent a lot of my freshman year at Penn struggling with the whiplash of being in a brand new country. As this year comes to an end, I continue to struggle to navigate my changing relationships to India and the US. I was afraid that acclimatizing more to my new surroundings — learning to write dates in MM/DD, changing how I pronounce certain words, feeling more engaged with US politics — would pull me away from India, which felt like a betrayal to the roots that had enabled me to be at Penn in the first place. I wasn’t sure what it would feel like, this summer, to be back in my country but living away from home, in a different state with a different language, and as a changed person. In some ways, it felt like a test. I had to prove to myself that two radically different countries feel like home at the same time. The stakes are higher than they should be, but so it goes.

Tamil Nadu is very different from North India. As a Uttar Pradesh-born and Jaipur-raised North Indian through and through, I was excited for sinking my feet into a different part of India. There’s the obvious divergences: Tamil is a Dravidian language with separate roots from Hindi and Marwadi (as Sylvia, our Stanford ’25 linguistics friend explained), Dravidian temples are bright and colourful in a way that I’m not used to, Tamil politics and history is radically different in its values and historical movements from the reflection of Central politics that takes place in Rajasthan (as Tamil Characters, an essay collection I highly recommend helped me understand), Tamil culture – clothing, food, music – have a different history and flavor than Rajasthan. 

But there were subtler things: I felt different in Madurai. In Madurai, I felt safer walking around alone after sundown. I would order coffee from roadside coffee stalls, despite often being the only woman-presenting person there. I was even taking autos alone! It was so freeing and empowering getting to independently interact with the city in this way. Indian cities and public spaces decisively aren’t constructed for women, but the South does it a lot better than the North (Why are North and South India so different on gender?). I also realized I had been inhibiting myself, and looking at Celeste go on her two hour walks every night helped me realize that I was more capable of navigating these spaces than I thought. I know the reason I have avoided these activities at home has been, in part, because my economic privilege allows me to insulate myself from sexism, for instance, by avoiding public transit, in a way that poorer North Indian women simply cannot. Growing up in India had made me deeply aware of its many risks, but this summer helped me get the practice to navigate them regardless. I’m walking away from these few months feeling far more agency, independence, and confidence in India than I ever have before.

I also hadn’t travelled in India with friends all that much! Many of the trips without my family that I did go on were for school or extracurricular events. Through all of high school, I hadn’t really visited many places as things got busier, and I honestly don’t remember anything that happened before 9th grade. This summer, going around Tamil Nadu with Aravind, Suhaas, and Celeste, was just incredibly fun. We took Rs. 150 buses to Rameshwaram at 4 am by just showing up at Mattuthavani Bus Station. We talked for hours in sleeper buses to Coimbatore, before spending the night at Aravind’s grandparents. We climbed up foggy and slippery and gorgeous hills in Ooty (well, I quit halfway? but I think it still counts). We tried a wide range of experimental foods and music-filled restaurants in Pondicherry that I enjoyed so so much. It’s different travelling with people your age! It’s so great! I’m still incredulous at the randomness and loveliness and last-minuteness and unadulterated joy of all our experiences, which diverged from the academic/family trips in India that I made throughout my childhood. (If my parents are reading,  I’m so sorry, I promise I loved going to Kerala or Meghalaya or Chandigarh with you. It would just be nicer if you were 19 or 20 so we could, as the kids say, vibe a bit more?) 

While all the travelling was great, some experiences are more great than others. Two of my favorites are the following. In Rameshwaram, we took an auto to Dhanushkodi, the southeastern tip of Pamban Island. It’s an abandoned town that was destroyed in the 1964 Rameshwaram Cyclone, and it’s less than 20 km away from Sri Lanka. It’s mythologically significant, since it’s supposed to be the place where Hanumana lay the stones to create a sea bridge to Lanka. The beaches in Dhanushkodi were pristine and the waves rolled gently till my knees. I only accidentally let my slippers wash away twice. When sitting on the rocks near the water with our feet submerged in the water, Suhaas and I noticed at least 10 types of fish swimming near us. We found a beautiful small shop selling seashells and pearls of all kinds, and the Rs. 250 pearl bracelet I bought there now is a permanent fixture on my wrist. All in all, probably my favorite beach experience of all time. 

Visiting Auroville was also fascinating. Auroville is an experimental township an hour out of Pondicherry, based on principles of human unity and the pursuit of the Divine. The township sprawls around the Matrimandir, a huge gold-plated dome-like structure that was beautiful to see. But I wanted very much to get a richer sense of what the principles of Auroville actually look like in practice. In attempting to befriend some of the Auroville dogs (this, as you will notice, is a pattern), I ended up in a conversation with a 65-year old tata who frequents Auroville. He lives in a nearby village. After a long conversation, in which he very generously served me tea and told me about his family and old job as a teacher, he called a friend from his village with an auto, who actually took us into Auroville and gave us an inside tour! I’m still unsure how above ground this tour was, so I will leave some details hazy. We visited a music room with wind-chimes and xylophones and flutes, and there was something really healing about tinkering with so many delicate-sounding instruments and seeing them come alive. Auroville is really interesting: we saw spirulina farms, pony pastures, and residential and shopping areas. In some ways, it was exactly what I expected, with its focus on spiritual living, green spaces, and diversity. However, Auroville receives significant government funding and makes a lot of its revenue from tourism, and it seems to primarily cater to financially stable Westerners looking for alternative lifestyles. Upon a closer look, it encourages complex questions about whether this actually is a feasible or redistributive way of organising society. Regardless, I’m glad I got to visit, and I’m glad it exists.

Travelling with my co-interns to Rameshwaram, Ooty, Pondicherry, and Auroville, was definitely one of the highlights of my summer. It made me engage more closely with different parts of India, and it was also so much fun. Here are some of my favorite pictures:

Toy train to Ooty Matrimandir in Auroville Our regular coffee stall Bus to Coimbatore Dhanushkodi In an auto at night Arriving in Ooty

I spent this summer in a country both familiar and unfamiliar. Being back in India felt easy in the way that my first year in the US simply didn’t. In India, I knew how much items in a store are supposed to cost, I knew how to talk to elders, I knew which street foods I can eat and what clothing makes me feel like myself. But I found most interesting about this summer was how I wasn’t scared of the unfamiliarities of India. I wasn’t scared of signing up for the Tamil class for North Indian doctors at the hospital. I struck up conversations with the MLOPs and the lunch lady at our hostel, despite being just as unsure of myself as I was a few years ago, when I would’ve been too hesitant to say the things I want to say. I made strange but super fulfilling decisions like getting a spontaneous massage in Pondicherry with Sylvia or letting myself dance in front of strangers. Now that I’m at home in the radical discomfort of being in the US, I sought out the discomfort and leaned into all that is unfamiliar back home. In this process of more bravely being myself in India, I am more deeply in love with it. I feel safer believing that the ties and love that bind me to my country won’t break just because I establish new roots in the US.

At the end, I don’t know if the test of the summer was about whether two countries can feel like home at the same time, but instead about whether I am capable of carrying the feeling of home within myself. As of now, I like to believe that I can.

oontz oontz

Sun, 09/11/2022 - 01:26

We were handed several articles about Aravind Eye Care System at our orientation in early June. One article, titled “The Perfect Vision of Dr. V,” made us cringe throughout. After outlining the disappointments of modern life in Western countries, the author gave her solution: “There is a place you can go to find the answer: India. But don’t go to the megacities of Bombay and New Delhi or to the newly minted software center of Hyderabad. Go to the wild, wild south, mystic cowboy country, where gurus roam the plains, and where a John Wayne western turns into a Mahatma Gandhi eastern soon enough.”

Calling South India a wild, wild mystic cowboy country, where gurus roam the plains is…fanciful, to put it mildly. Madurai is far from a megacity, but it has a documented history going back over 2,000 years. And Tamil Nadu ranks highly as one of the most urbanized states in India. Another choice statement from the article was this snippet: “On the surface, India is a mess: It has a population of 1 billion, raw sewage on the streets, and traffic that moves at 20 MPH. But if you can look past India’s visual obscenity, you will see a country that is turned inside out.” Of course, the article had nothing but positive things to say about Dr. V and the Aravind model, which I wholeheartedly agree with. But it’s hard to not feel offended by the claim that India is a visually obscene mess.

  • Pondicherry’s tourism slogan of “give time a break” holds true.
  • A bird soars above the alley leading to Khuthbapalli. In the mosque, we received an insightful personal talk from Iqbal, the imam. His main message? Respect all those who sacrificed for you, especially your parents.
  • The Sacred Heart Basilica in Pondy.
  • Posters advocating against eve teasing (public harassment of women).
  • Murals along Pondy’s Beach Road
  • Aurospirul farm within Auroville
  • A cheerful goodbye in the hostel minutes before our bus left from Pondicherry.
  • Raja Ravi Varma painting “The Lady in the Mirror” in Chennai. Ravi Varma’s fusion of European techniques with Indian subjects was a major force in modern Indian art.
  • Chennai’s Government Museum is the second oldest museum in India, and it keeps delighting visitors to this day.
  • Krishna’s butter ball. Sliding down the slope of the rock and trying the salty lime sodas sold at its base made my inner child very happy.

When Laura interviewed me back in February, the question of “why India” inevitably was asked. This is a question that I have since gotten over and over, and my understanding of what India means to me has changed drastically. The easy answer to “why India” is “why not”? Learning to say yes to new things is an ongoing adventure, and it’s one that never loses its thrill.

When I reflect on my travels in India, my mind’s eye sees beauty that could not be properly depicted with any pictures. Sometimes it feels silly to even try. Many places, especially temples and ashrams, prohibit photography inside. Prior to entering the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, a guard checks every visitor to see if their phone has been powered off. Inside the ashram, silence is expected. With no ability to take photos or verbalize your thoughts, slipping into a contemplative state of meditation in the ashram comes easily. The feeling of peace is profound.

At other times, my phone was overheating and temporarily refused to switch on. In Mahabalipuram, the sun is brutal and shade is scarce. It was the only place I visited where I saw people carrying umbrellas for relief from the heat. So I felt some comfort that my misery (at being a puddle of sweat) was in good company. And then there were times, like when I was in Delhi’s stunning Sunder Nursery at dusk, where my phone and portable charger both died after a long day of adventures. After taking tons of pictures at the nearby Humayun’s Tomb, it was oddly freeing to soak up as much as possible with only my eyes.

  • Humayun’s Tomb
  • The Delhi-Topra Ashokan Pillar in the Feroz Shah Kotla Fort
  • Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Old Delhi, marking the exact location where Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam.
  • Gurdwara Bangla Sahib houses a sarovar, a large pool believed to have healing properties. This was another place where photos were strictly not allowed inside.
  • The moat of the Purana Qila. Because of August 15th (Independence Day), all Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) sites were free for both Indian nationals and foreign tourists!
  • Mughal architecture is designed to impress.
  • One gate of Jama Masjid. Dhivya recommended the mosque as a must-see, and the gentle rain made being barefoot much more comfortable.
  • Morning view from Jama Masjid’s tower. In the distance, you can see the Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir (oldest Jain temple in Delhi) and the Red Fort.
  • Looking out at a Delhi metro stop. Definitely much cleaner and safer than any urban public transit in the US!

Delhi was my first time exploring a city in India alone, so Laura connected me with Ruchika at UPIASI as a point of contact if I needed anything. Ruchika kindly arranged my accommodation at the India Habitat Center and my transport to and from the airport, which made me feel completely at ease and welcomed. Because I visited the capital close to the 75th anniversary of independence, the city was full of patriotic fervor and under more security than usual. Attractions like India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the Red Fort were all blocked off due to safety measures for Independence Day. Despite the closures, Delhi quickly became one of my favorite cities.

There, I continued to eat my way through Indian street food (chole bhature! chuski! kulfi falooda!) while maintaining my luck of avoiding any food-related illnesses. I also had the pleasure of joining langar (free communal meals) at both Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib and Gurdwara Shri Bangla Sahib. As volunteers made their rounds to constantly pour more food into outstretched hands, I contemplated the three pillars of Sikhism: an honest living, to share with others, and to focus on God. These values of hard work, giving back, and keeping a greater spiritual purpose in mind define my general takeaways of what makes India so special.

On my last day before returning home, reading the inscription on the Indira Gandhi Memorial resonated deeply with me: “A poet has written of his love — ‘How can I feel humble with the wealth of you beside me!’ I can say the same of India. I cannot understand how anyone can be an Indian and not be proud — the richness and infinite variety of our composite heritage, the magnificence of the people’s spirit, equal to any disaster or burden, firm in their faith, gay spontaneously even in poverty and hardship.” Indeed, how can you have the fortune to experience India and not be in awe?

  • Memorial to Indira Gandhi, the first female Indian PM, with a moving inscription on Indian pride.
  • The Rajpath leading to India Gate and the Rashtrapati Bhavan was totally closed for August 15th. India Gate still shines like a beacon.
  • Statue in Mahatma Gandhi Park, which is close to the Chandni Chowk metro station. The English inscription reads “where he sat was a temple, where he walked was hallowed ground.” Not pictured: the intense morning cricket match on the grounds.
  • Gandhi’s talisman at the Raj Ghat memorial. Prior to viewing the samadhi, you must remove your footwear (chappals) here.
  • Gandhi’s final resting place.
  • The Indian tricolor of saffron, white, and green. Seen in the Lok Nayak Jaya Prakash Narayan Memorial Park in Delhi.
  • Sign outside the Madurai airport celebrating the 75th anniversary of Indian independence. The slogan reads “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.”
  • The National Gandhi Museum. A Chinese scroll with a eulogy for Gandhi is displayed next to envelopes covering Gandhi’s visits to Tamil Nadu. The bottom left envelope commemorates Gandhi’s famous gesture of donning a loincloth in Madurai.
  • The wall displays Chiang Kai-shek’s 1946 calligraphy in memory of Gandhi. In the center of the room are Gandhi’s bloodstained clothing, bullets from his assassination, and a pocket watch he carried during his death.

Now that I’m back at Penn, life feels totally different. On weekends, backlot is always blasting music (the current song is the frat classic “Pepas” by Farruko) and parties rage across campus. In Madurai, the nightly soundscape was defined by a cacophony of honks and the reliable intermissions of chanted prayers.

Despite a busy schedule, I’m hopeful to stay connected to my CASI internship and continue broadening my worldview. Last week, Sylvia texted me the ticket link to her friend’s upcoming performance and discussion of Bharatanatyam dance at the Annenberg Center. Today, I have plans to catch up with Ihsan, who studied Tamil with Sylvia in Madurai. Ihsan came to Penn to present his PhD research at a conference on the performing arts of South India, where his area of focus is on the flood songs of Malabar. The collective euphoria of dance and music is just one shared thread across cultures, and it beats with the energy of any good oontz oontz beat.

Saying that spending time abroad changed me is on par with “let’s grab lunch together soon” as a Penn phrase that has become trite. Still, I can confirm that saying yes to a summer in India was among the best decisions I have ever made, and I am very down to grab lunch with anyone who wants to talk more.