CASI Student Blog
I arrived in India a couple of weeks ago as a recipient of the CASI Travel Funds for Research Award. As as third year PhD student in the department of City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania, I intend to carry out preliminary field work during my stay here. This will be critical in shaping my research proposal and returning for a longer duration in 2018.
For my dissertation, I wish explore the growth of Vasai-Virar city in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) through the lens of infrastructure, access, and politics of water. Even though my original idea for doctoral research focused on the question of ‘Smart cities’ and the role of technology in mediating between the state and citizens, it was a visit to my home-town of Vasai-Virar last summer (2016) that inspired me focus on the nuances of spatial change in the urban periphery. Growing up in a village in Vasai-Virar, the notion of the ‘city’ was always associated with taking a local train into Mumbai, rather than the urbanized areas around the railway lines in the region (See Image below).
Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Vasai Virar Region (green) lies northmost in the Metropolitan Region (Source: MMRDA)
However, the process of Vasai-Virar’s urbanisation had picked up pace in the late 1970s, and hastened in the post-1990s liberalisation era. This is true for a lot of urban regions in the country. This change has also seen increasing conflict and contestations over natural resources in the periphery of Indian cities. The process of conversion of agricultural lands into urban or industrial lands, and an increased demand for other resources (power, water etc.), is often contentious and occupies a grey area between the binaries of formal/informal and legal/illegal. A recent study of Vasai-Virar has interrogated how this transformation was carried out by an alliance of state and market forces, creating conditions of spatial injustice (Kamath & Raj, 2016).
My goal is to delve deeper into the phenomenon of calculated deregulation of the Vasai-Virar region and its associated socio-political change. My dissertation uses water as an analytical object through which I explore frictions at multiple scales; competition for water resources at a regional level between towns and cities in the MMR, contestations for water resources between local communities and ‘market’ forces in an urbanizing space, and variegated landscapes of water access in the city. Over the coming weeks, I shall be reviewing relevant literature, collecting secondary data on demographic changes, and conducting semi-structured interviews with social activists, academics, planners, and political actors.
Upon my arrival, I partnered with my alma mater; Department of Economics, University of Mumbai to provide me with workspace during my stay in Mumbai. Since then, I have had the oppurtunity to interview a few academics, attend a grievance meeting and protest over the proposed plan concerning the Vasai-Virar region, set up meetings with the activists involved, and identify potential informants for detailed interviews.
I shall be writing about these activities over the next three weeks. On a side note, my stay has been punctuated by bouts of heavy rains, halted public transportation, and an unfortunate case of viral fever which knocked me out for a week. This gave me the oppurtunity to stay indoors and do the relevant secondary literature review which would be useful in my fieldwork. Also, earlier this year, I started an Instagram account dedicated to (and to learn) urban photography. Since my arrival I have tried to post at least one picture documenting urban spaces, symbols, and artifacts on a daily basis. It has pictures taken during my fieldwork activities as well. Anyone interested can check it out here.
Till the next post!
Kamath, L., Radhika, R. (2016). City Building and Regime Creation in the Peripheries of Mumbai. People, Places and Infrastructure: Countering urban violence and promoting justice in Mumbai, Rio, and Durban. Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Some of my most special memories in India are of times when communication barriers were at their highest…
I was walking around a market and stopped to get henna. I took a seat on a crate on the sidewalk and as the artist got started, it suddenly started to pour. Since we were mostly under an umbrella, the artist generously insisted on continuing, and when it poured even harder, I knew I would be staying there awhile. (Not to mention I had wet henna that would be destroyed if I dare leave!)
At first it was a bit (ok, very) awkward, crouching knee-to-knee under a barely large-enough umbrella with the artist and his friend who didn’t speak English. I figured I should try to talk to them since I would be there for a while and asked their names– Dinesh and Verinder. At first I couldn’t understand what they said, so Dinesh gestured for a pen and paper and wrote them out in my notebook in English lettering for me.
A drawing fell out of my notebook, and from there we looked through my sketches, with them smiling and saying “acha,” “good,” as we bonded over our mutual appreciation for art. To fill the time (and the slightly uncomfortable silence), I eagerly shared all the Hindi I had learned, asking most basic questions and joyfully struggling to understand their generously simple responses. I even embarrassingly showed them my new skill of counting to ten (impressive right?!). And in a technological turn of events, I relied on google translate to help fill in the (many) gaps. (When I kept smudging the henna, I google-translated, “Sorry, I am an idiot” into Hindi).
Initial frustration morphed into laughter as we bonded over the ridiculousness of it all. The 20 or so minutes I spent with Dinesh and Verinder under a monsoon downpour, struggling to converse in a conventional way, were some of my most meaningful minutes.
I remember being on a tiny local bus in Jodhpur, headed to Mandore Gardens with my friend Soichi from Japan. Everyone was packed tight, bodies squished against each other, making unavoidable eye contact due to the inward-facing seating arrangement. (A super intimate setting, especially compared to the row-style, relatively impersonal busses I’m used to back home). Not to mention that Soichi and I stuck out like sore thumbs and were on the receiving end of many intensely curious stares. Luckily the ice was broken as those stares slowly turned into smiles. Gesturing towards one of the women’s earrings, I said, “bahut bahut sundar he,” “very very beautiful.” Using a lot of hand motions, our conversation of sorts evolved into an exchange about my desire to get a nose ring, which the women seemed to encourage with smiles and the Indian side-to-side head nod. Even though our language capacities were extremely limited, we were able to engage using body language and the minimal, broken Hindi phrases Soichi and I had picked up.
When Soichi and I looked confused about where to get off, one man laughed and said, “Where?” We showed him a piece of paper with the place written in Hindi and from there, at every stop, the people on the bus collectively either shook their heads or nodded so we’d know whether or not to get up. Suddenly our mission became their mission. When we would try to stand up to offer our seats to others who had entered, the people next to us would laugh heartily and playfully tug at us to sit back down since we clearly didn’t know what we were doing. It became apparent that they were watching out for us, and this task of babysitting confused foreigners was fun for everyone.
It’s amazing where smiles, body language and a few phrases can get you. Even though we could barely communicate with each other, the feeling on the bus became one of warmth and mutual interest. What could have been a tense ride became an opportunity for play and experiment.
I am grateful for those moments. The times when people met me halfway and we were able to create moments of connection and engagement despite our lack of common ground. My time in India was filled with sparks of human connection- so many gestures of kindness without words. People who broke the silence with warmth… An old woman who gestured to me to come sleep next to her on an overnight bus, a symbol of protection. A family who offered to share their food on a 13 hour train ride. The stone cutter who made me a bindi out of precious stone and placed it on my head. A man who took my bag and carried it when he saw me limping. The shopkeeper who, without me asking, would always talk to me in Hindi so that I would learn.
Of course I will have moments like these back in Philadelphia, but they will feel different. Blatant barriers require brazen gestures and those moments of genuine, eager connection felt so much more intentional and frequent. I miss the utter humanity of it all.
The 24 hours I had to spend at Indira Gandhi international airport did not make me forget such an amazing summer I had in India. Interning at Aravind was certainly a big highlight of my life, and it was one of the greatest growth opportunities I have received from Penn, so far. That being said, all the lessons I learned over the summer weren’t free pieces of cake. I had to face challenges, and sometimes I appreciated learning the hard way.
Beyond acquiring professional skills in the field I worked in (public health/patient education), I was also provided with tools that are useful in any career or job. First, while at Aravind, I witnessed the importance of being committed and motivated to do the work we do because we believe in the good it does to the community, beyond our personal interests. This has been essential to Aravind Eye Care System’s uninterruptible progress. And so, I want to have a similar commitment in any future profession. Second, I learned that communicating clearly is indispensable in any kind of service. Third, self-guidance was a thing during my internship period. I realized how important it was to find ways to get things done without anyone to just give me everything I needed.
Facing challenges was another way for me to learn. Seemingly simple things like understanding my project and how to go about it weren’t very straightforward at the beginning. Fortunately, I know how to get started on a new project now. It turns out that knowing the right questions to ask and when to ask them is the key to go around any confusion. Otherwise, it becomes almost impossible to manage the little time we have to achieve our goals. Indeed, time management was another challenge that made me discover the trick about reaching out and asking questions. Furthermore, understanding different personalities and how other people think was not always easy, and I don’t think it should be. Rather, diversity is what makes our societies stronger, more beautiful, creating less boring places for humans to live in.
With all this load of life-changing experiences, I owe my gratitude to CASI and everyone who made my trip possible. Thank you so much for offering me a chance to grow both as person and as a future professional. India will remain in my memory, and I won’t forget the welcoming people I met, the language (Tamil) I almost learned, the weekend trips, the delicious food I liked when not too spicy, the heat I survived without burning, etc. The list is not exhaustive. Being back to the US already feels very different, not to mention being back into the school life. Although feeling safer at Penn than in India or Burundi is one of the differences, there is one big distinction between before and after the summer. That is, I am able to tell stories about Aravind and India to anyone who wants to hear about them… and I am proud to say that I learned more than I gave back, not that I didn’t give back.
A few weeks back, I was sitting in a room with a job-candidate, Lana, who had come to the company I was partnered with in hopes of being selected for a job at an international call center in Gurgaon. For the past month, I had been working with One Direction Skill Solutions (ODSS), a research-oriented company that is a member of the skills hiring and training industry in the Delhi-National Capital Region. One of the founders of the company is Dr. Asher Jesudoss, PhD., who is an acoustic phonetician, a veteran of the voice and accent training industry and my friend. I had come to ODSS for the purpose of conducting research on the hiring processes of the call center industry. This summer, as a part of both my research and the company’s recruiting program, my job was to do initial language assessments during hiring drives with the people who came to our office looking to work in call centers. In other words, my job was to determine if job-candidates such as Lana should sit in an interview for a voice profile (where she would speak to clients on the phone) or a non-voice profile (where she would send emails or chat with clients on IM).
Sitting next to Lana, I listened carefully as she introduced herself, trying to pick out grammar errors or pronunciations that fall into the industry’s category of Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). I gave her a topic to speak on: “women’s safety in Delhi”. I checked to make sure her speech rate was slow enough and that she wasn’t making too many awkward pauses. I noticed that she wasn’t fumbling for the right words and hadn’t run out of things to say at any point in our conversation. Finally, I presented her with a list of words and sentences that we used in our office as a tool to diagnose whether the candidate’s accent was “neutral” or “fatal”. At the end of our talk, I assigned Lana a color that indicated her chances of being selected for a job. Red was what we call “fatal”; there were too many errors for the candidate to get any kind of job. Orange meant fit for a non-voice profile. Yellow was potentially a fit for voice profile, and green was a definite fit for an international voice profile (eg. what the industry calls a neutral or global accent).
As I spoke to Lana, I found out a little bit about her life. She was relatively new to Delhi and was looking for a job, so that she could send money home to her parents in Nagaland (a state in the North East of India). It’s a hard adjustment for migrants who come from the North East to Delhi. They face racism and harassment because they don’t look like the “prototypical Indian”. They get called “Chinese” and racial slurs, and they sometimes have difficulty finding places to live and getting work. During our chat, Lana told me that the job opportunities in Nagaland weren’t enough for her to find work there, so she had been forced to come to Delhi and was hoping to find work in a good company.
After talking to her for around ten minutes, I was about to write her down as yellow, when Asher stuck his head into the room. He looked at Lana and me and asked her a few questions. “Can you please say ‘the sheep is on the ship’ and ‘please sit in the seat’.” It was normal for Asher to stick his head into my assessments and give me guidance in the standards of the call center industry. After briefly speaking to Lana, he told me that it would be best for her to sit for a non-voice interview because her grammar was good, but she has too much Mother Tongue Influence to clear the voice assessment. She was an orange. At first, I was confused, but Asher explained that the company for which we were sourcing job-candidates is particular about some of the vowel sounds, and she was pronouncing both “ship” [shɪp] and “sheep” [shi:p] as “sheep” [ship]. Later, I would learn that some of the call centers rarely hire North Eastern candidates because of this particular vowel sound.
After working with One Direction Skills Solution, I was starting to get a grasp of what it meant for an accent to be “neutral”, the goal that the training and hiring processes strove towards. The call center industry in India stopped training British and American English to their employees in the first decade of the 2000’s. In place of training foreign accents, many multinational companies started training something called a Neutral or Global Accent. This accent has been the subject of my dissertational research for the past two summers. This summer I was excited to get the opportunity to work alongside the employees of ODSS as they recruited new employees for various call centers in the Delhi area. It was hard work, and the hours were long, but the hardest part for me, as a linguist, was making the leap between what I had deduced a Neutral Accent to be on paper to actually judging human beings in terms of their accents.
Though some members of the industry, Dr. Jesudoss included, rightfully argue that the term “neutral” is a misnomer, many in the call center industry and those who have studied the Neutral Accent (for instance sociologist Aneesh’s recent book (2015)) have described it as a region-less accent. Generally, the Neutral Accent is defined as a way of speaking without Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). However, in my work I have found that this accent is strikingly similar to the manner in which individuals educated in convent schools speak. It is also similar to how English news readers on the TV and radio speak and how the Upper Middle class of South Delhi speaks.
The Neutral Accent is not actually neutral. Accents, by their very nature, can never be neutral. Accents are social identities associated with a person’s speech patterns by a person. Where there is an accent, there must be some identity, even if the particular manner of speech is being proposed to be standard or identity-less. Accents are not equally recognizable for everyone, because they are social processes and their recognizablity is based on the life history of the listener. This summer, I was investigating the social identity of the Neutral Accent and how that relates to language patterns outside of the call center. After working for One Direction Skills Solutions for almost two months, I have added another question to my list: what happens when an accent becomes a skill?
Though, on the surface, skills pretend to be abilities needed to do a job, they are not quite so straightforward when we examine how skills discourses function in actual workplaces. Take the term “good communication skills” that shows up on nearly every college graduate’s resume in the U.S. The presence of these words on a CV gives no actual information about the way an individual communicates. Instead, it tells us that they have learned that “communication skills” is a phrase that you should write on a resume. The presence of that phrase tells us more about a job candidate’s educational or work experience than the manner in which they speak. Bonnie Urciuoli (2008) discusses the shifty nature of skills as a metasemiotic framework in her work on skills-talk among college grads. She describes how neoliberal subjects (her students) become bundles of skills that are purchasable commodities for employers. However, skills do not only manifest on CVs, but also become the subject of training and hiring protocols where they are embodied in the behavior of trainers and human resource professionals.
Communication training and teamwork training happen frequently in large corporations. The purpose of this training is to assign concrete behavioral patterns to vague notions like teamwork and communication. In a similar manner, though the Neutral Accent is a vague notion that is difficult to pin down, when the Neutral Accent is trained or when a candidate’s accent is assessed based on the criteria of Neutral Accent, some features of this accent become cemented as industry standards. The behaviors that are associated with skills often come from specific class contexts. Good communication skills might manifest as the way in which college educated or middle class white people already tend to speak. This behavioral pattern is not necessarily more suited for the work place than another set of behaviors. The Neutral Accent is similar to Convent English because, according to Arjun Raina (one of the first accent trainers in the industry), the initial workers and trainers in call centers were mostly Hindi speaking members of the upper middle class that were convent educated. Furthermore, convent educated individuals and their manner of speech have historically been privileged in India. In short, both skills and accents are behaviors linked to social persona. The accent is a manner of speech that is stereotypically understood to be used by some people by someone. The skill is a category that is associated with behavior that is linked to an ideal worker.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, thing that happens when an accent becomes a skill in the work place is that some people are structurally excluded from the workforce. In the case of Neutral Accent, I saw numerous examples of individuals speaking with a North Eastern accents who did not get jobs. In many areas of the North East, English medium education is the norm, but still they weren’t getting placed. I discovered later that many states in the North East don’t have convent schools, unlike most of India. Neutral English, as a skill, therefore, carves out a portion of population as a potential workforce.
Another result of an accent being made a skill is that some people are more qualified to judge the presence of the accent than others, based on some aspect of their social identity or social history. I often found myself under-qualified as an accent assessor because the distinctions in accent that were the industry standard were not distinctions that I make on a daily basis living in Philadelphia. Recognizing an accent is a social behavior. Just like someone from Texas can tell the difference between a North and South Texan accent, people who speak with a Neutral Accent are able to judge who has a Neutral Accent or who has MTI. The people who assessed accents were usually from convent or international school backgrounds, and from relatively well-off families. This both created the context for the Neutral Accent, as well as created the need for experts who were already socialized to hear what the industry standard was. I, myself, often missed MTI features because I hadn’t grown up listening to different manners of speech in India and had never learned to make the associations that let others catch these “pronunciation errors” easily. Though I could easily point to what wasn’t American about a job candidate’s accent, I found it much more difficult pointing to what wasn’t neutral.
This is not to say that there weren’t North Eastern accent trainers. I spoke to four accent trainers from different regions of the North East, but they either had extreme stories of how they worked their network of North Eastern connections to finally get their job, or stories of how they went to school outside of the North East. One went to a convent school in Shillong, Meghalaya (one of the few places in the North East with convent schools). The rest of trainers from the North East with whom I spoke reported that it was hard getting an into in the accent industry as someone from their home states. One woman I spoke to told me that trainers would often either say North Eastern candidates have too much MTI or have fake American accents.
A third thing that happens when an accent becomes a skill, is that the social roles associated with the accent and the job will interact with each other in unpredictable ways, effecting office demographics but also creating markets for things like accent training. In the case of Neutral Accent, the classed associations of the accent have created a conundrum. Those who are convent educated rarely seek to work in call centers. The pay isn’t very good and the night shifts can be very stressful. The people who were the most excited about the prospect of getting a job working the phones were from outside of Delhi, often from regions that are not associated with the Neutral Accent. This creates the need for accent neutralization courses, which are a growing industry in India.
One Direction Skills Solutions is unique in that it offers free training to candidates who cannot clear the interviews, but speak English relatively well. ODSS gets paid for each candidate that gets placed and stays with the company for at least three months, so the practice pays off. It also helps people from the North East and other “non-neutral” regions get jobs in the call center industry, while providing the industry with employees who will be more likely to stick with the same company for multiple years because they need the financial stability. The training gives people who were not socialized to speak with a privileged accent the chance to learn how to pass the language assessment portion of the interview. They also offer instruction in things like writing business emails and technical information that their future employers would expect them to know. Having a basic knowledge about online retail, credit cards, computers and cell phone technology can help them get through the other rounds of the interview process.
Another way One Direction Skill Solutions is working towards increasing the diversity of the call center industry is by actively recruiting North Eastern job candidates and employing North Eastern individuals in their company. In our office, there were multiple North Eastern employees. ODSS also has a its own small domestic call center in Imphal, the capital of the North Eastern State Manipur. By actively involving members of the North Eastern community in the voice and accent industry, ODSS is positioning itself as a partner for North Easterners looking for jobs in Delhi, a city historically unfriendly towards migrants from the region.
In a way, training offers a short cut to make up for the differences in class and regional backgrounds when appearing for a job interview. Though it doesn’t solve the problem of the inherent biases that exist in the Neutral Accent and other skills-talk, it does give people a leg up and helps bridge the gap that the Neutral Accent creates. It gives a window for increasing the diversity of the industry, which could lead to real change in the long run. They also offer a platform for research (including my own) into these types of the trends in the industry. The example of the Neutral Accent shows us how skills can do more than commodify an individual. They are an avenue for structurally imposing discrimination in hiring practices based on social history. Though the labels of “skill” and “neutral” obfuscate the social indexicality of the Neutral Accent, the market of accents that is emerging in India is a market where racial, regional and class identities are also for sale. We can take the Neutral Accent as an example of how talk about skills, whether they be communication skills, language skills or teamwork skills, can be used to covertly buy and sell social identities.
Aneesh, A. 2015. Neutral Accent: How Language, Labor, and Life Become Global. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.
Urciuoli, Bonni. 2008. “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace.” American Ethnologist 35 (2): 211–28.
I just spent the summer in Araku, loudly talking to the internet modem blaming it instead of the weather for the internet cuts, eating chicken 24/7 with tomatoes, listening to the punctual chant of Muslim communities, showering without a shower but with a bucket and mug and thus having difficulties to properly rinse my hair, wearing kurtis, pants and dupatas to work, and walking along unpaved roads.
Some may choose to avoid this rural environment, but I purposefully chose it with the aim to learn about it. And I did.
I drank liters of delicious, just-made chai tea while conducting interviews with over 70 farmers without knowing Telugu, and finished a report on sociological and economical situations in tribal farmers in the Araku and Dumbriguda mandals (despite the internet) that will help Naandi look for support for their future sustainable projects. I talked with and learned from an incredible tribal community that still keeps and values their traditions and customs, showed this community a little bit of my part of the world, surprised at the work organization and connection to the land that they have, and got to know about government actions for these disadvantaged individuals. I learned about Naandi’s template of development through the sale of the organic coffee grown by these tribal farmers in gourmet shops in France, and about fruit trees that work as livelihoods providers and CO2 reducers. I mentored and advised graduate students seeking to improve their soft skills, and motivated young girls to fight for gender equality and be the drivers of changer in India. So summer was about learning how to work effectively in a team, sharing knowledge and experiences, learning how sustainability is taking shape in India and most importantly, contributing to it, which allowed me to grow professionally.
But I also grew personally. I spend my summer disentangling the knot that India is, understanding its contrasts and its conflicts, admiring its potential and limits, realizing its beauty and ugliness, and loving it anyways. It was about living Indian culture and comparing it with my own, and through this, consolidating my identity. It was about trying to rationalize Indian customs, and finally giving up and just enjoy them.
It was a challenging internship and I feel proud to finish it successfully. I feel sad for the friends I left behind, but excited to see what Naandi will do next to improve India’s youth and communities, and secretly proud to know that I was part of that advancement.
It was quite a great summer, and I am eternally grateful to those unknown but willing hands that sent me in this path of discovery and self-improvement.
It is very hard for me to say goodbye; I’ve been told it is because I get attached to people and places very quickly and easily. Getting attached to Araku – with its beautiful red soils and green hills-, to the staff – who helped us untiringly in our project and introduced us to Indian culture-, or with Naandi- which showed me what sustainability is really like-, attachment was more than possible to happen. And that is why the last week was bittersweet for me.
It was sweet because Taylor and I were concluding our 112-pages report, the ultimate product of our work this summer.
112 pages of research and discussion, analysis and evaluation, editing and rereading. The hard work was worth it, because I was proud of the response that these 112 pages contained: Naandi had not committed cultural murder. By helping Adivasi tribal farmers produce organic coffee to sell it in international markets, Naandi was prompting a cultural change in the community, but one that was within natural boundaries. In other words, the Adivasi community was following a natural evolution of their culture, not being forced by Naandi. Naandi is just another player in their constantly-evolving environment.
112 pages that we had to summarize in a one-hour presentation to other Naandi staff in our last working day. Although only the top officials were invited to our presentation, we managed to invite our driver Santosh; Taylor and I advocated for him and we were adamant in that he should see the work he had helped us with for the last 3 months. At last, Satish, Prakash, and Venkata allowed him to hear the presentation. Naandi had said before that they were working towards a flat organization; however, there is still a lot of ground to cover, especially in this rural town that is very distanced from the city. Having Santosh in the room was one big step for the staff, and I appreciated it.
My last week was also bitter, because I had to say goodbye.
After the presentation, we went to the CPU for our last training session with Taylor. Only this time, we were accompanied by the staff’s children. Satish’s twins were there, together with Santosh’s beautiful daughters, Venkata’s daughter and Prakash’s children. Taylor and I gave them their first volleyball class (well, Taylor did and I helped). The boys were already good, because they had been taught at school or learned with their brothers, but the girls, who were not introduced in the sports culture, were learning from scratch. It was nice to share our last day by leaving a mark in these children, teaching the boys that their sisters could (and should) also be included in games, and teaching the girls that they are free to do exercise and play whichever sports they wanted to. I had to say goodbye to these children.
I also had to say goodbye to Santosh and his family. To give their farewells and express their appreciation for us, Santosh’s family stopped by our guesthouse later in the night. His wife was wearing a sari and carrying packets of mehendi. She spent the next hours drawing intricate designs in our hands, and practicing her English with us. When our hands looked like those of brides who are about to get married, Santosh’s wife gifted us bangles. They were the final touch for my hands’ bridal look. Meanwhile, Santosh and us began remembering all the funny moments we had spent together, and I realized that I had some work to do.
Due to my inability to give a proper farewell in person, I decided to write some goodbye letters.
It was difficult to find some time to write them, because I had to pack. In between wrapping up my bathroom supplies and packing my shoes, I wrote a letter to Santosh. I thanked him for his friendship, for the variety of fruits he had introduced me to, and for the Telugu classes he had patiently given me while driving us back from the fields. I also wrote one for the office, thanking every person for their support: Satish for helping us with information, Prakash for being our translator, and Lakshman, for his delicious tea. The next day, when I gave the entire office my letter, they proudly put my letter in the board by the office’s entrance. Everyone said goodbye to us and wished us our best in the things to come.
We then hopped on the car and drove to the airport. During the ride, I thanked God for the wonderful people I had met in this internship, I thanked Naandi for the opportunity to learn about development projects in India, and I thanked Araku and the mountains for treating me well.
Looking at the red soil, I knew it was going to stay with me for a long time, even if it was in the soles of my running shoes.
8 days ago, I finally arrived in the U.S.
5 days ago, I arrived on Penn’s campus; and in that time of a little over a week, I was bombarded with responsibilities of academics, appointments, and work. As I hastily met with my friends who were not already consumed by their own responsibilities, I was consistently met with the question of, “How was India?”
Talk about a loaded question.
“It was great!”
“It was hot! Lol.”
“It was really reeeally great!”
I feel guilty for answering this question in such meaningless words, but it always catches me off guard. You would think that after the summer, I would have thought of a more eloquent answer.
How can I describe my experience in India for 11 weeks in one word? Heck, I can’t even describe it in 10. My own internship that is limited to the hospital boundaries has many facets that I cannot convey in a single passing answer, let alone my own individual through traveling and interactions. Even though I have had the entire summer and 8 days in the U.S to reflect on my time in India, I have not been able to do so. My description of India is defined by the memories through my own experiences; and instead of replying with a one-worded answer, I would love to have time to tell everyone more.
I would love to tell them about Aravind, the incredibly inspiring hospital system that is able to offer subsidized and free services to any patient.
I would love to tell them of the conversations I had with the doctors there, how passionate they are about their work and the precision that they perform surgery.
I would love to tell them of my experience of having an intern status in this different environment, how I learned to advocate for myself and how this internship experience has affected my perspective of myself and my future.
I would love to tell them of my many opportunities to travel throughout the country like to Bangalore, Kodaikanal, Kerala, New Delhi, Agra, and so many more.
I would love to tell them of my first overnight bus ride.
Even as I am reflecting on my own experiences in India, I become overwhelmed with the memories, making it hard to pinpoint exactly how I feel. There is much more of India that I can learn about and explore, so it is unjust for me to answer the question of “How was India?” — I can only describe my own experience of what I had done there. I am very thankful for the opportunity that CASI and the Aravind Eye Hospital have given me this summer. My internship was not limited to the boundaries of the hospital but was thankfully allowed to extend to other parts of the country. The combination of these two opportunities in India have allowed me to learn more about a country that I was unfamiliar with and also expand my own perspectives on what I wanted from myself and others. I will always treasure the memories I have made and the lessons I have learned. Hopefully, this was not the last time I will be in India, whether it be for traveling or academics because I would love to pick up where I left off (in Bodhgaya). Being in India wasn’t only great, it wasn’t only incredible or only inspiring, it was so much more than that.
In the beginning, I thought that 10 weeks would be enough for me to learn about everything that I wanted to and to be satisfied with myself at the end of my internship. As the end of 10 weeks approached, I started panicking. 10 weeks was just enough time to reel me into the wonder of the hospital and the lure me into the curiosity of Indian culture. In a way, my alarm at how little time I had left forced me to immediately think about the most important things I wanted to learn, and surprisingly, I simply wanted to interact more with the employees at Aravind. I was interested to see if and how their perspectives on working at Aravind are different because of their position in the hospital. And I simply wanted to learn more about them. During my last few days at Aravind, I had the pleasure of conversing with some the people that I have wanted to talk to at the hospital, but had procrastinated doing so until then. These are their compiled answers through our conversations.
“I initially came to Aravind without knowing about their infamous mission and values. I simply saw an advertisement in the Journal of Ophthalmology and applied. Immediately, I was impressed by the academic opportunities that Aravind provides for all levels of academics whether you are a resident, fellow, nurse, or even a doctor. The doctors and surgeons here were extremely well trained as well. Funny thing was, I am not from Tamil Nadu and so I was not familiar with the language (Tamil), but I that did not deter me from coming here because I was and still am passionate about my quest to learn more about my field. I have worked at Aravind for a while now, and in my time here, the most rewarding part of my job are the patients, the opportunity, and constant interaction to share ideas and knowledge with others in similar fields. I can’t imagine ever finding the same population of patients anywhere else. I love working with them and they are always so wonderful and thankful for what Aravind provides. Aravind is the best place to learn about the subject I love because it attracts a large and varied patient population, it has the technology that only select hospitals have in the rest India, and it implements the extraordinary assistance of free or subsidized surgeries for the patient population. It is absolutely incredible what Aravind has become. A main struggle that I have noticed with my time here is that it is difficult to allocate time for yourself and for family. I am passionate about my work and I love my patients, but it is hard to balance that with your own needs because there is always so much to do and to make yourself better so that you serve others better. Although Aravind provides numerous learning opportunities, it is also up to oneself to actively obtain the knowledge that they want. Especially in specialized fields, one must go out and search for additional learning opportunities. The best part of Aravind are the sisters and the patients. The sisters are often looked over, but they are the backbone of the hospital. They are the sweetest people but are also passionate about the success of the hospital. Everyone does their job to the highest of their ability, and it is truly extraordinary to see everyone working towards a single mission to eliminate needless blindness.”
It was only recently that I began to establish a deeper relationship with this doctor, but it didn’t require me much time to hear the excitement in her voice when she talked about her love of her work and the patients. I can only hope to find the passion that she has while I pursue my academic endeavors.
“I used to work as a consultant in but unfortunately, the company got closed down. I have two children, both are currently in college. I saw an ad for a housekeeping position in the Aravind hostel and applied. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I am happy to do so because the money is needed for my children and family. Hopefully once my children are settled and are in the work force, I will not have to do this anymore. I am not aware about Aravind’s mission and values, I am just focused on making money for my family.”
Although our conversation was brief, I am thankful to gain perspective from someone who is not extremely affiliated with the hospital, but is still part of Aravind. I always saw her in my guest house, but only exchanged shy hellos. Her smile was so welcoming that I immediately felt more comfortable in an environment where I was unfamiliar with and made my day a little brighter. Our conversation also reminded me of the sacrifices that my parents too have made to provide for their family, for which I take for granted at times.
“Ever since I was younger, I was interested in medicine. This may have been because a couple of my relatives, and I saw the respect and stability that came with medicine. After taking my entrance exam and having the opportunity to obtain my medical degree, I narrowed down my interests to ophthalmology. Although Aravind is extremely hectic on all days of the week, I still love it and it is what I had expected. I love that it allows me to have a huge exposure to the many different types of surgery cases due to its high patient volume that I would not be able to get at any other hospital. At a different hospital, I would say that residents would get an average of 100 surgeries in 3 years. At Aravind, it would be a minimum of 200 cases. I am also amazed at the equal quality of eyecare given to each patient regardless of background or income. The doctors here are all so passionate about what they do and they are extremely caring towards the patients. I learn not only about surgical technique from the doctors but how to care and speak to a patient – I was initially more impatient and awkward, but after seeing the doctors speak and calm patients with ease, I feel more comfortable in what I do. I still have 3 years left at Aravind. Right now, I am practicing my sutures in the wet lab, and hopefully in a few months, I will be practicing on a real eye. Next month, I will be on night duty, which is when residents are on call throughout the night in cases of emergencies. This is also a period of absolutely no sleep, so I am not excited for it! Because we are so busy working 6 days a week typically from 7 or 7:30am until 5:30pm (or later if there are meetings, conference calls, or additional classes), I am unable to visit my family as often as I would like. I have an older sister who just completed dental school and a younger brother. I originally applied to be at a different branch, not the Aravind in Pondicherry, because the climate at the other branch was similar to Kerala; unfortunately, my first choice filled up.”
I had a closer relationship with Ruksana than I had with other residents, but it was still difficult to meet up because we had different schedules. She was always genuinely friendly and concerned for my travels and time at Aravind, and she always helped in any way she could. Ruksana initially approached me one day while I was walking to the hospital because she had heard that I wanted to go to Kerala. Being from Kerala herself, Ruksana was wondering if she could offer any advice or guidance into traveling there. IT WAS SO SWEET. I wish her the best of luck in her next 3 years at Aravind and for her bright future.
*Some names have not been used for anonymity
It sounds a bit obnoxious, but one of my favorite parts about living in India was eating food. Before traveling out of Delhi for the weekend, I would search up on the traditional foods of the area and rifle through google reviews and Zomato for the highest-rated places to eat. Travelling and food had always come hand in hand for me, as I believe that a large part of experiencing culture is based around eating. From the traditional Tibetan thukpa noodles in Dharamsala, and the Rajasthani thali in Jaipur, to the traditional appam and fish curry in Kerala, and the multitude of regional cuisines available in Delhi, I was lucky enough to try a variety of cuisines. Coworkers saw my enthusiasm for food and often shared the lunch they brought from home, made by themselves or members of their family – some of this home food was the best food I ate.
However, aside from the actual food I ate, I also reflected on the way I ate and my overall relationship with food, and how it has been shaped by my cultural background, upbringing, and position as a Korean American woman in a post-colonial world. Like many people, especially women, I consider my relationship with food complex, because food affects how I look at my body. From a young age, I grappled between my love for the taste of food and desire to lose weight, but I found it hard to explain this to some older Korean people, who lived through difficult times of starvation and war; unlike me, they did not have the choice of refusing to eat – it was a matter of survival. I questioned why women of color, myself included, strive towards an ideal of thinness influenced both by Eurocentric beauty standards and notions of femininity.
During my time in India, since the way that I ate changed, I was able to associate eating food less with maintaining beauty ideals, but rather more with a sense of camaraderie. At Penn, I often eat meals alone and on the run, and my friends’ busy schedules sometimes make it hard to find to sit down together and have a meal. Living in Delhi, it was refreshing to eat breakfast with my Airbnb host, lunch with coworkers, and dinner with friends who were eager to take me to their favorite places around Delhi. It sounds cheesy, but I was reminded of the ability of food to bring people together. Sometimes it takes experiencing something to realize how much I yearn for it.
Overall, this summer I thought more about what and how we eat, the societal significance of food, and the differences between various cultures. I’m not sure as to exactly how this experience will impact my dietary habits once I’m thrust back into Penn, but I know I will approach eating and food with a more optimistic attitude than before.
Reading the Hindustan Times on my train ride to Agra, I came across an article titled, “English is Ok but Hindi is the New Cool.” In the article, the author describes Hindi as an “orphaned language” and writes about coming from a small town “where people thought success in life was not possible without learning English.” He explains though, that there has been a change in attitude over the past few years: Hindi has started to gain back its “cool quotient” thanks to a new breed of writers, publishers, and entrepreneurs who have been promoting Hindi through their work.
When I came across this article, I was pretty ecstatic. It couldn’t have been more opportune, as the subject had been on the front of my mind since my first week in India. When I arrived at LEAP, I was expecting to work on programs for skill development– that is, professional skills like teamwork, problem solving and communication– but instead, I quickly learned that I would be working on a program that taught English. At first I was confused- what does learning English have to do with skill development? Are these students trying to work abroad?
My coworkers explained to me that for many students, speaking English is the most desirable skill of all. It is what LEAP was best at teaching and what students wanted to learn most, so they switched the focus of the program. Learning English is perceived by many as “a way out,” they shared, the first step towards gaining opportunity and improving your future. In India, the ability to speak English opens up many career paths.
I quickly learned that the significance of English speaking was far more profound than this functional explanation. English ability plays a huge role in perceived social stratification, with English-speaking as a visible marker of class and prestige. I see this every day when I get lunch at Khan market, one of the most upscale shopping areas in Delhi (and apparently the world’s 24th most expensive retail location). Virtually all of the patrons speak to each other in English, while the small shopkeepers, guards and maintenance staff do not. In the office, people speak in English almost exclusively. (I have found that the primary exception to this norm is when people are really riled up about something; with an increase in volume comes a quick increase in percentage of Hindi).
As a byproduct of this association with class, the ability to speak English becomes a source of confidence for many Indians. Even if you may not have the wealth or careers of the elite, speaking English gives you the chance to at least appear as if you do, to be perceived by others as well educated and on the path towards upward social mobility. I saw this in the father who boasted to me for minutes about his daughter’s great handwriting and scores in English class or the rickshaw driver who proudly told me that he was attending night classes so he could become literate in English.
I have come to understand that the inverse relationship between English and confidence is equally strong, if not stronger. Just as ability to speak English brings confidence, the lack of ability can be a major source of insecurity and shame.
There have been many times where in the midst of great conversations, people repeatedly discredited their skills, apologizing for their English and saying that they “only speak a little” even though they were having full and intelligible conversations with me. After reminding people that they were doing great and had excellent English, I have been told things like, “You give me morale boost.” A friend even texted me once that he had a “confession” and “confessed” to me that he used to be very poor at English but now feels much better. “My confidence has improved so much since talking with you,” he said.
In his book, India Calling, Anand Giridharadas explains that post British Raj, a new “self-confidence and liberty to be Indian without apology evolved.” Still though, “the colonial stain, that residual longing to be someone apart from yourself,” left its mark. Fewer and fewer Indians strove to be English, but millions of Indians strove to learn English, Giridharadas recounts.
He describes an elite class of Indians in the late 20th century who “clung to the sense of their own superiority, calling ordinary Indians by condescending names such as ‘vernie’ for ‘vernacular.’” English ability became the distinct marker of an emerging form of Indian elitism.
And here we are today, with members of the elite class participating in an intentional movement to reject this history. After being interrupted by the trauma of colonialism, a pride for Hindi may in fact be on the verge of a “comeback.” However, I take the article’s notion of a wide-sweeping “comeback” with a grain of salt. While this may be true for a specific elite and urban class of Indians, this Hindi revolution is not reaching all parts of society. From my time speaking with students at LEAP, I understand that for many Indians, speaking English is still a major impediment to equal access to opportunity and a huge determiner of self and social worth. For people with many other sources of cultural capital (read: high levels of education, wealth, and social influence) this reclamation of Hindi may be possible. For others, though, speaking Hindi or their mother tongue is still not enough.
Given this context, I understand why so many students are dying to learn English. And while I am glad that English-learning offers a clear and direct means towards improved self-confidence and career opportunities, I feel sad that this barricade exists in the first place. It is disheartening to see that for many, confidence is derived from the acquisition of a language that was historically forced on them. The skidmarks of colonialism persist even when the colonialists have left…
I would like to believe in an India that transcends this past, a world where self-actualization is found in your mother tongue and on your own terms, but for now, I work within the confines of reality. Although I have my qualms about working within this English-centric framework, I have had to accept and embrace English-learning as a tool for tackling social inequalities in India. “Cool” or not, English is a means of upward mobility and I am excited to see how LEAP’s English program helps equalize the playing field for the students who participate.
- Giridharadas, Anand. India Calling: an Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. St. Martin’s, 2012.
It’s been a few weeks since I returned to the United States from my summer internship, and I continue to see how my experiences in India impacted who I am as a person and the person that I hope to become in the future.
To sum up the last few days of my time in India post internship, my co-intern, Gabriela, and I flew from the point of our internship to New Delhi. There we met up with three CASI interns who worked for Arivand for the summer and with whom I would spend the next two days traveling to Agra and Jaipur with.
Those two days can best be described as being filled with lots of sightseeing and very little sleep. From Delhi to Agra to Jaipur and back to Delhi, I saw everything from the Taj Mahal to temples, all of which were breathtaking beauties.
Following my expeditions with the Aravind interns, I returned to Delhi see and spend my final day in India with Gabriela and her parents, who decided to make a vacation out of Gabriela’s time in India. Following a day of visiting various locations, I made my way to the airport and, after over two-and-a-half months in India, began my journey back to the United States.
When I look back on my experience, my incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience, I cannot help but feel grateful for all that I was able to see and do in India. Thus there is something that I must do: I must say thank you.
Thank you Araku.
Thank you for teaching me the true meaning of happiness.
Thank you for showing me that living a fulfilling life does not mean living purely for material goods but for a deeper purpose.
Thank you for the realization that surrounding yourself with people who understand you and make you happy is invaluable.
Thank you for allowing me to meet people from different walks of life who have incredible stories and experiences to share.
Thank you for making me step outside of my comfort zone and become okay with the uncomfortable.
Thank you for reaffirming my desires to practice medicine and study public health.
Thank you for putting me in an environment where I felt supported by the staff and workplace, as I know this was not the case for everyone.
Thank you for reawakening my desire to interact with as many people from as many walks of life as possible.
Thank you for exposing me to lives where having next to no material goods does not mean next to no happiness.
Thank you for giving me a sense of closure in being able to see different parts of India, something that I’ve desired since I took my first trip to India nearly two years ago.
I spent ten weeks in a location unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, and I will forever be able to think about with happiness and gratitude.
I cannot close without thanking the people who transferred my travel to India from a dream to a reality—CASI and IIP. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity that they rewarded me, and I will never forget how ecstatic I was when I learned that I had been chosen to participate in a CASI internship.
As I prepare for the upcoming school year and volleyball season, I will hold the memories of my time in the Araku Valley and India close to my heart, and remember how truly lucky I was to spend my summer in a way that most cannot even imagine.
As one cataclysm shook the US on the night of November 8th, 2016, an equally consequential one took hold of India – all too well known as demonetisation. Overnight, 86 percent of the currency in circulation lost its value as Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes illegal tender in a bid to combat corruption and drive the country’s population towards a digital economy. At a time when evidence of demonetisation’s impact on the economy seems to be trickling in, it remains unclear whether this black swan event brought about the intended consequences, but the unintended blow it dealt to the microfinance industry continues to be felt.
Microfinance, or the provision of financial services to low income populations to support an income-generating activity, is dependent on the availability of liquidity by design. First, it disburses small loans to the unbanked population of the informal sector, which deals almost exclusively in cash. In the absence of collateral to secure loans, microfinance customers in this sector form joint-liability groups, which are informal groups of 4-10 people, for the majority women, who mutually come together for the purpose of availing a loan under the premise that if one group member defaults on their share of the loan, the other members will repay in their stead. Second, following loan disbursement, microfinance operations primarily revolve around the collection of cash repayments. Microfinance institutions commonly rely on collection teams to visit each group on a weekly, fortnightly, or monthly basis, to collect loan repayments in small denominations. As a cash-dealing industry in an overwhelmingly cash-based economy, microfinance underwent temporary paralysis from demonetisation and was compelled to rethink its operational and strategic directives to maintain its double bottom line of financial viability and financial inclusion.
On the viability front, demonetisation imperilled microfinance by creating unforeseen challenges in the collection of loan repayments. In view of the limited supply of tenderable currency available from banks, and of the liquidity crisis micro-entrepreneurs faced as a result of sudden fall in demand, borrowers were not in a position to service their loans. This caused a drop in collection rates that escalated into repayment defaults. Group meetings were disrupted as customers queued at banks to exchange their old bills for new ones, weakening individual credit discipline inculcated by frequent collection practices, as well as group adhesiveness. Interestingly enough, for some microfinance institutions (MFIs), the joint liability model that had ensured 99% collection rates before demonetisation turned against the industry as group enforcement evolved into group resistance. Collection efficiency, or the percentage of monthly receipts out of total loans, dropped to 50% on average, and as low as 12% for some MFIs in the beginning of the year (source: Microfinance Institutions Network India), requiring these institutions to source additional funds to stay afloat and comply with regulatory requirements on capital.
The increase in defaults put collections front and center, while the disbursement of new loans and capacity building services that came with them were put on halt, effectively rolling back financial inclusion and prompting MFIs to revise their strategies for achieving this aim. Microfinance’s introspection was intensified by the fact that demonetisation occurred at an inflection point for the industry, as India’s central bank had recently granted small bank licenses to eight MFIs, allowing for the diversification of customers and products, and the movement away from group lending models. Repayment issues related to group dynamics, which were especially prevalent in urban centers where accountability among members is not as strong as it is in rural areas, only brought back to the surface questions pertaining to the differential effectiveness of the joint liability model across geographies. They also provided further incentive for MFIs-turned-banks to move towards micro, small, and medium enterprise (MSME) financing, in the form of individual loans to enterprises with the potential for growth, as opposed to group loans to women with the potential for entrepreneurship.
Demonetisation also spurred innovation in the digital space touching both microfinance operations and outlook, in line with one of the original intents of the measure. MFIs that had digitization in their line of sight were quick to adapt to the new environment, moving away from boots on ground operations and cash collections to cashless, agentless modes of transaction such as digital delivery channels and mobile phone banking, e-wallets, or bank transfers. Contrary to the views of some financial technology providers however, demonetisation alone will not bring the uninitiated to digital financial platforms, given that these are viewed as overly complex and have yet to garner borrowers’ trust (source: Omidyar Network and Dalberg). Nonetheless, as digital financial services gain traction on the business end of microfinance, providers’ outlook on financial inclusion, conventionally distinguishing between the banked and the unbanked, may take on a new lens and distinguish between those who are digitally financially included and those who are not.
Close to ten months after demonetisation, the percentage of Non-Performing Assets, or the accounts due beyond 90 days, stagnate at a problematic 5%, up from 1% before the measure was put in place, but collections are normalizing, with collection efficiency up to 75% according to data from the end of June, and loan disbursements are on the rise (source: Microfinance Institutions Network India). Although most of the convulsions India’s microfinance sector underwent in the past year were brought about by an external event, the industry did not let a good crisis go to waste. Re-evaluating the reliance on group lending models and costly collection practices was necessary, and MFIs should continue to strengthen their foundations for prudent growth by restoring credit discipline and a culture of repayment, as well as optimizing operations through digital enablement, for the industry to sustain its part in furthering the financial inclusion objective of the country.
India is thousands of years older than the United States, yet the western world has an enormously pervasive influence on this country.
During our trip, Nancy and I visited Amritsar, deciding to visit the Wagah Border, where at sundown each day, Indian and Pakistani Border Security Forces demonstrates feats of military strength. The energy there is palpable, as crowds try to prove that not only is their military superior, but their love for the country is as well.
And at this nationalistic event, anyone with a foreign passport is entitled to a VIP seat. Perhaps so people from other countries can see India’s strength with a great view— but it seemed to me as another example of preferential treatment given to foreigners.
When we visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar the next day, local sweet shops selling aam papad (mango taffy) and jutti (a traditional Punjabi shoe) are interspersed with Subways and McDonald’s. America chains here are far from uncommon: when I asked for Mexican food recommendations, I was advised to visit Taco Bell and Chili’s; Pizza Hut ads fill my Facebook feed. While menu items have an Indian spin—Chicken Tikka Pizzas and McAloo Tikki Sandwiches—modern culture have a definitive Western influence.
English is a status symbol here: speaking better English, having less of an accent is an indicator of wealth and the ability to receive an American education. Despite sweltering heat in Delhi where loose, cotton Indian clothes are much more appropriate for the weather, an overwhelmingly large number of people wear jeans. Whiter skin is a beauty ideal- Americans go to beaches to tan, and Indians try whitening creams and facials in an attempt to meet these beauty standards.
These ideals extend further into academia. The resources I have been developing throughout the summer have their basis in the Health Belief Model (HBM), a well-documented behavioral change model for diabetes lifestyle changes. The model draws on 6 constructs (perceived susceptibility, perceived benefits, perceived barriers, perceived severity, cues to action, and self-efficacy) to help understand why individuals
are not performing a certain behavior (i.e. exercising, eating healthily) and develop educational resources to target these specific reasons.
At the Second National Civil Society Consultation on Non-Communicable Diseases in India, Dr. Arora (Director of the Health Promotion Division) explains this ongoing project. Afterward, she informed me we need to revise our project- an American organization at apparently discontinued the use of the model and we should follow accordingly.
Although our team was unable to find news of this organization or what they had replaced the HBM with, it was so interesting to me that there was a such a readiness to discard a model specifically chosen for its success in diabetics, youth, and in Low and Middle-Income Countries. It spoke to this overwhelming perception that “American” must equal “correct”.
There is a danger to ignoring the Indian context. The HBM is largely based on culture and on people’s perceptions which are entirely subjective to the region. The success of interventions depends on the relevance to Indian perceptions rather than Western ones.
Many in our country strive for America to be great, but in India — even as people joke about Trump — there is still an encompassing respect for our “greatness”. But as our time in India came to a close, I wish there was a way to convey to many of these people, that India is pretty great too.
“A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” ~George A. Moore
Only after returning home have I fully realized the unique opportunity provided me by Aravind. By coming to the quiet comfort of this desk, safe from my adventure am I able to appreciate what I have. Gone are the incessant car horns, the streets full of litter, and the rampant urban sprawl, all replaced by the clean infrastructure of suburban Houston, Texas.
Through my journeys I was offered the chance to meet people from around the world. I’ve met travelers finishing their 6 months of backpacking, weary and ready to go home. I’ve met students from schools all across our country and doctors from countries all around the world, each coming to taste the unique medicine that Aravind has to offer. I traveled to temples by the ocean, built by Siva, to plantations in the mountains, filled with tea, and to rivers in the jungles that divide the land and the sea.
It’s easy to call these adventures, but likewise was living in India. To me the street vendors, bartering, transportation, weather and work were all challenges to be surmounted, unique experiences to remember upon my return. I’m lucky to call these experiences an adventure, a test of my abilities and an exposure to new ideas. For 1 billion other inhabitants those experiences are everyday life.
Now would I do this all again? Absolutely. I could happily go back to Aravind to conduct research. I could go as a doctor seeking ophthalmic training. The institution has so much to offer on so many levels of skills. My horizons have been broadened, and while I now return to my regular patterns of school and studies, I will see it all the additional lens that Aravind has granted me.
In the bright, air-conditioned atmosphere of Delhi’s Ambiance Mall, Taco Bell emits a daring, urban vibe in the corner of the food court. Its walls are covered with bright-colored graffiti tags naming exciting menu items: taco, chalupa, burrito, nachos. The names are interspersed with hashtags and taglines challenging customers to try new flavors. Alongside the invitations to “dare” something new, are familiar words such as ‘roti’, ‘paneer’ and ‘masala’. If it weren’t for the shining bell on the sign outside the door and the Taco Bell brand name plastered on almost every surface of the restaurant, this space would be difficult to recognize for an American as a part of the well-known Taco Bell franchise. When you order, the server asks for your spice preference and brings your food directly to your table. Half of the menu is vegetarian (stuffed with beans, potatoes, fajita vegetables or paneer) and the other half is different preparations of chicken.
In the summer of 2015, I tried Taco Bell in India for the first time. I have always had a bit of a guilty soft-spot for American fast food brands in India. Something about seeing these familiar names and dishes reconstrued for an Indian audience with a new masala flavor has always felt like a particularly satisfying synecdoche for the way we all find ourselves translated and reinterpreted in the new context of a different country. When I first came to India in 2011, McDonald’s, Dominoes, Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC were already well-established brands. Since then, I’ve seen the re-imagination of Starbucks, Burger King and Taco Bell. Though this re-imagination happens in different ways for different brand names (for instance, Starbucks arguably tastes more or less the same in every country), it always happens, even if such reinterpretations only exists in the way the product is perceived and used socially in its new environment.
Taco Bell represents an extreme case of re-imagination. When Burger King came to India, this particular genre of Fast Food chain (the burger restaurant) was already well established, from international chains like McDonald’s, to roadside burger vendors who serve their potato patties on a bun with a side of chutney. Similarly, India already had a number of coffee shops before Starbucks arrived (not to mention a tradition of filter coffee consumption in the South), so there was already a model that the chain could follow to make their goods recognizable to an Indian audience (by the addition of sugary ‘cold-coffee’ as a menu-item, for instance). Americanized Mexican fast food chains were not familiar to most Indians however when Taco Bell started establishing itself. The first Taco Bell was in Bangalore in 2010, where members of the Tech industry, who had studied or worked in the States, were arguably at least familiar with the chain. However, as the franchise expanded, it faced the same problem that all new businesses face when marketing to new audiences: how do you make a product intelligible and desirable to someone who is not familiar with it?
On the surface, this seems to be a question of new and old, foreign and local. The terms of globalization are often cast as such. In fact, McDonald’s and Starbucks are sometimes argued to represent two models of global marketing: one embracing the local, the other using the foreign as its selling point. However, the relationship between new and old is dialectic and generative, one of new olds and old news, foreign-locals and local-foreigns. The labels of foreign, global, local and new are constantly in a process of reinvention as the situations they describe change. Taco Bell provides a lens through which we can see the processes through which the marketing of American fast food chains is both limited and bolstered by its foreignness. Though the results and the life-histories of processes of global marketing vary widely, this example shows us how products (such as fast food, employees and cellphones) are both changed by and change the contexts in which they are marketed.
Taco Bell’s ad campaign originally was one which sought to make its food understandable to the Indian market. I remember when I first went to Taco Bell in Delhi (about a year ago), there were signs and placemats that explained the different menu items in terms of local foods. A burrito was “a roll [as in kathi roll] like you have never seen before” and a tortilla was a roti [the Indian wheat flat-bread]. Here the foreign made itself intelligible through reference to the local cuisine. Though these efforts were less evident this year, as there was no longer any dictionary of Americanized Mexican fast food readily available in the restaurant, these processes are still evident in product descriptions on the Taco Bell India webpage. A chalupa is described as a “crispy taco-shaped pita bread[something more familiar than chalupa shell]…”. There were also spray-painted tags of “tortilla=roti” on the sides of chairs and tables in the restaurant itself.
Along with these arguably local references, themes of newness and daring were common among the decorations in the store. “If you never do, you’ll never know” was painted on the side of my table. On the Taco Bell India webpage, in the “Do & Dares” section, they describe their goal as providing food both with local ingredients and utilizing multiple flavors to “dare to challenge your taste buds”. With these scripts and the graffiti motifs on the walls, Taco Bell is marketing the new and foreign aspects of their product.
Further, they introduced fusion food items that would be intelligible in terms of their flavors and ingredients. Enter, the Tikka Masala Burrito! This is a burrito filled with paneer or chicken tikka masala. Advertisement for this fusion burrito referred to it as “the rebel side of tikka masala”. Similarly, there is a new product at Indian outlets called the “Kathitto” which is an overt fusion of a Burrito and a Kathi roll [a traditional street food that is especially famous in Kolkata], wrapped in a paratha and filled with “Mexican fillings”. For this product to be a success both burritos and kathi rolls have to have been already established as food-items for the customers.
What we can learn from these marketing strategies is that even newness is always packaged in a somewhat familiar way. The very concept of foreign fast-food brands is well established in India. This concept organizes how Taco Bell approaches its expansion. It offers value meals similar to McDonalds, it plays with Tikka Masala flavors in foreign packages. The menu-items are familiarized by drawing comparisons with already familiar food items. Once they are established, new combinations, like the Kathitto, become possible. In order to account for this we, as scholars, have to move beyond the global/local dichotomy. We also have to treat the local-global, or how “global” itself is conceptualized by consumers. Global isn’t an attribute of the product inherently, it is an association that the consumer makes. It becomes a selling point and is embedded in local networks of meaning that are associated with global products. How a “global” product gets taken up by its consumer is always effected by how “global” is understood for the local population. Foreign foods become localized, new Indian taco chains have become more popular across Delhi.
In addition to this local-global imagination, there is also a level of analysis that might be called the global-local. The multinational corporation itself is limited in its ability to imagine the local perceptions of its brand. Therefore, global companies like Taco Bell must, though market research and trial and error, interpret local tastes and perceptions to make them intelligible for corporate employees who are not familiar with the cultures they are selling to. They construct ad campaigns based on their perceptions of the local consumer and based on how they understand the local consumer to interact with global brands.
Taco Bell is therefore suspended in negotiations between different parties and their understandings of each other in terms of ‘local’, ‘global’ and ‘foreign’. By opening up our understanding of globalization to include not just modals of “global” and “local” but also the feedback that exists between these models in different contexts and locations, we see that it is not a dichotomy, but a chain of interactions and feed back loops that expand through time and space. These chains of meaning make products like the Kathitto and the Tikka Masala Burrito not just a possibility, but a manifestation of the models that give rise to them. The supposed “transfer” of knowledge that occurs through globalization is, in fact, a series of actions on the part of the consumer and the marketer. It is a culmination of actions that sometimes more congruent understandings of words like “burrito” and “tortilla”, lending a new level of truth to the writing on the side of my table: “If you never do, you’ll never know”.
It finally happened. We taught young girls volleyball.
It is the last night of my internship here in Araku, and my departure will be nothing if not bittersweet.
My co-intern, Gabriela, and I returned from a quick weekend trip in Mumbai to notes from our supervisor detailing how she would like our final report to look.
We’d collected our desired information—having interviewed more than fifteen interviews over sixty farmers and their families asking our list of cultural change related questions—and had dozens of pages of transcribed information. The next step was to complete our analysis. What did the answers that farmers provided us with tell us about their culture and the changes that were being made in the culture? And what was Naandi’s role in the entire process?
Using a set of “Cultural Change Criteria,” we took the transcribed interviews and made a series of data tables, charts, and conclusions. Some of the categories that we included and deemed important signs of cultural change within a village included, “a decreased reliance in traditional medicine (TM),” “lack of traditional nose rings and jewelry,” and “preference for English alcohol over local.”
These topics were decided upon for a number of reasons. Pertaining to decreased reliance in TM, tribal Indians have strong ties to the creation of Ayurvedic medicines, or TM, and thus a decreased reliance on something that they are credited to helping create insinuates a detachment from historical practices that have been in place for, at minimum, centuries. Likewise, local alcohols such as tapping a tree called toddy and letting the sap from the tree ferment and wearing a series of nose rings—in which size and number designate one’s position in the community—are synonymous with Adivasi culture, and thus changes in both preference and actions highlights a removal or detachment from the culture that is currently in place for those communities.
Following a few 10 am to 3am days in a row, we came to the overall conclusion: cultural change is happening in tribal farming villages. However, those changes are not purely the result of partnering with Naandi, nor are the changes that are happening not welcome by the farmers. In fact, most asked expressed a likeness for their present state.
We gave a detailed presentation to higher-ups at the Araku office and left with them a written report nearly 125 pages long.
Immediately after our presentation, Gabriela and I ran back to the guest house to get ready to teach some children volleyball.
Approximately four weeks ago, Gabriela and I were casually hitting around a volleyball, which eventually turned into an impromptu coaching session for some nearby children. My only complaint? They were all boys. In India, unlike the US, volleyball is almost exclusively played by men, especially in more rural areas such as the Araku Valley. I wanted to change that. Throughout that lesson, I kept on telling the young boys that if they were to come the next time, they had to bring their sisters and girl neighbors with them. One would think that I had miraculously grown three extra heads. The concept of girl playing volleyball was completely foreign to them, and they were unsure how to approach it.
As monsoon season picked up, all of the planned occasions for us to teach locals volleyball again were washed away with the clay outdoor courts laden with thick red mud.
So we took on another approach: Naandi employees’ children. Almost all of the employees have children, and what’s more, almost all of them have daughters. We invited them to tell their children, some of whom we had met briefly in the past, that we wanted to teach them some basic volleyball skills. And, most importantly, while boys were more than welcome to participate, we really wanted to teach girls.
Around 5pm on our last day in Araku, this mission of teaching children volleyball finally happened!
Taking notes from volleyball camps that I have coached in the past, both at the high school and collegiate levels, and created a schedule. Gabriela and I would teach the children the basics of passing, and serving, followed by attempts to send the ball back and forth across the court located in Naandi’s coffee processing unit, or CPU.
Gabriela and I piled into a Mahindra Bolero with eight eager children dressed in everything but athletic wear—jeans, flip flops, large hair bows—and our driver Santosh and made our way to the nearby CPU where we would play. The lesson ensued, and I must admit there was nothing more rewarding than seeing the children take the instructions that we gave and find success in the skill we were working on.
As I look at my packed up suitcases and await the arrival of our incredible driver, Santosh’s, wife to give Gabriela and I henna, or mehndi as it is referred to as in India, I have only one regret about this experience: that we didn’t start teaching the children earlier. Though the monsoon was a major reasoning as to why we were unable to start a few weeks before, it would have been great to start some form of a constant program at the beginning of our internship.
It is crazy to think that this journey is coming to an end and that I will soon be on my way back to the United States where I will again be coaching children playing volleyball and will soon be back to playing with my team.
There is none other like Aravind. It’s a massive institution for eye care. Every day it treats hundreds of people who can’t afford treatment. Every year it grants the right to sight to countless grateful souls. What powers it? What feeds this massive machine? Look to an image Dr. Venkataswamy, or Dr. V., a smiling old ophthalmologist with rheumatoid arthritis and an unwavering vision.
He’s gone. I was able to attend the 11th anniversary memorial in his memory. This doctor began with an 11 bed hospital, and from the beginning he focused on patients, nothing else but his patients. To him, the greatest spiritual growth came from treating those in need. With this mindset he adopted a policy of never turning down a patient, they could come without a dime to receive the same treatment as those who could afford to pay.
Since then his care center, Aravind, has experienced a massive growth. Coming from America, a country where healthcare totes the status of highly paid doctors and high cost care, it was difficult for me to grasp at first how this business model was sustainable. How could Dr. V retain such great clinical skill while paying them cost-saving amounts. There are two reasons visible to me. The first is quite straightforward. Aravind receives high volumes of patients that allows doctors here to become highly trained in their department due to the all the cases they meet and all the experience they gain. Doctors can come here from around the world to obtain some of the best training in their field. The second reason is far more interesting.
Analytics aside, Aravind possesses something I’ve never seen in a hospital: Spirit. Dr. V’s spirit permeates through every working piece of this hospital, literally and figuratively. His smiling face and words of wisdom hang on many of the walls. Next to them are two more faces, a bearded man and a smiling woman, Saint Aurobindo and Mother. Dr. V was a spiritual man and these two figures served as the guiding lines for his values. Dr. V. is able to link the work of his hospital to a quest to achieve a greater, spiritual good. I believe tying the religious believes of the majority of India to the hospital he is able to share his vision with every doctor, ophthalmic assistant, and consultant at Aravind.
As I sat silent amongst the bowed heads at the memorial in his memory I listened as several speakers took their turns at the podium. Everyone praised Dr. V. for the man he was; for the spirit he had. Never did they mention his intelligence or capabilities.
I was obvious to me that to Dr. V. and now to every Doctor at Aravind, “Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something beautiful.” –Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (Dr. V)
Dr. V. left something more than a hospital, he left a way of life and a clear vision for his hospital. I don’t see America having as effective a healthcare as this in the near future and I am grateful to have the opportunity to experience a system as unique as this.
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Before leaving for India, I spent hours creating a google doc with different cities in India and the major tourist attractions within those cities. I knew that I wanted to make the most of this summer and see as much of India as I possibly could in the ten weeks I had. Thankfully, my co-interns supported this idea of mine and followed me along as I routinely booked us weekly trips all over India (mostly in the south though). I want to dedicate this blog to the different cities I was lucky enough to see in India and the unique character each one of them had.
Delhi – Delhi is the capital of India (duh). With the visas we had, our only port of entry and exit to and from India was the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Thus, our two short periods in Delhi were the very beginning and very end of our internship. Delhi is probably what comes to mind when the average foreigner thinks of India. My first experience in Delhi was quite abrupt as I only spent one full day there and half of that day was spent sleeping due to jet lag. Josh, Gabby, and I went to do some shopping in Khan Market, which was a close walk from the Indian Habitat Centre where we were staying that first weekend. Across the street, we could see Lodi Gardens (even though we didn’t actually go to the park until our last day in India ten weeks later).
Agra – Our second day in India, I went to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. The Habitat Centre provided us with a car, driver, and guide so that we could have the best experience possible. It was a three hour drive from Delhi to Agra on the newly built expressway. We received a detailed tour of the Taj and drove by the Agra Fort. Agra is also famous for its handmade carpet industry inspired from the Mughal period. At the end of our tour, the guide took us to a shop where we saw the long and intricate process of such carpets being made. At the end of our second day in India, I was feeling pretty productive in that even if nothing else happened, at least I’d seen the Taj this summer!
Bangalore – I’m not sure exactly sure when it happened, but at some point early in the summer, I started calling Bangalore “home”. After returning from every weekend trip, my bed at the Octave hotel really started to feel like home. Despite the city’s atrocious traffic and the inability to get anywhere in less than an hour (if not more), Bangalore was where I felt most at peace. In addition to its perfect weather conditions – around 81 degrees in contrast to Delhi’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit – I enjoyed working and living in Bangalore. Like most foreigners, I was guilty of only knowing of India through Bollywood movies and its erasing of south India as part of India. Bangalore is walking around Lalbagh, going out for dinner in Koramangala, and catching up with my friends in Indiranagar (shout out to Rohan and Noah). Bangalore is going on factory visits, sitting in the car for four hours at a time in traffic, and doing the same thing all over again the next day. Bangalore is Chitra, OD, Shahi, the Octave, and most importantly it’s a home that’ll always be a part of me.
Thiruvananthapuram – The first weekend we had after arriving in Bangalore, we planned a trip to Kerala. While logistics were quite difficult at first because most travel websites didn’t accept international cards, we managed to book the trip with the help of our amazing boss, Chitra. It rained most of the weekend, but regardless we got a taste of the rocky beaches and coastal foods that the state has to offer.
Pondicherry – This was the second place we visited from Bangalore. At this point, booking busses and hotels had become much easier and I was planning trips like a pro. We met up with other CASI interns in Pondi, QuanQuan and Maggie, and enjoyed abundant amounts of french food. We also visited numerous museums and historic structures.
Chennai – Chennai was particularly special because I met up with a friend from Penn while I was here (hi Aps). We met up for lunch and she showed us around the city. We went to Marina beach, the lighthouse there, and a temple nearby. We also saw a British museum the next day before almost missing our bus back to Bangalore.
Hyderabad – If I could choose one city to live in India, it would be Hyderabad. Not only was this trip extra special because I stayed at a friend’s place and her mom stuffed us with homemade food, I also found the city to be majestic in itself. Hyderabad is the perfect blend of north and south India, its religious diversity is remarkable, it has modernity but continues to preserve its rich history and culture through forts, palaces, and monuments. I loved how most of the street signs were in Hindi, Telegu, AND Urdu and the Muslim population was a lot more visible than anywhere else I had seen in India thus far.
Mumbai – I think my co-interns and I all agree that going to Mumbai was a must this summer. It was too far to take the bus so this was our one and only weekend trip via flight. Similar to Kerala, it rained the entire time we were in Mumbai. We spent most of our time indoors in museums but nevertheless it was great to experience monsoon in Mumbai and see the city’s magnificent architecture.
Faridabad – Faridabad is where the Shahi headquarters are in the north. While we spent most of our time here inside the actual Shahi unit and did not actually get to see much of the city, it felt wrong to not include it in this travel blog. Faridabad is the most populous city in the state of Haryana and a major industrial hub. It took about an hour to drive here everyday from where we were in Delhi.
Jaipur – Both of the past two years of the CASI-Shahi partnership included Shahi taking the interns on a trip somewhere in India. While the first year was more work-related, the second year was not. Similarly, we had been anticipating a trip and our supervisor mentioned Jaipur early on in the summer. We spent all summer hoping this trip was actually going to happen as we all wanted to see Jaipur and also wanted more bonding time with Chitra and Anant. Even though personal circumstances made it so that neither Chitra nor Anant were able to join us on our trip, they still provided us with all the resources necessary to make the trip happen. The pink city was absolutely gorgeous in every way possible and its structures and monuments looked as if they were straight out of photographs. We also enjoyed seeing numerous elephants, camels, and the colorful culture of Rajasthan.
Delhi (again) – Our second time in Delhi was at the very end of our internship. We did all the typical sightseeing including India Gate, The Red Fort, Qutb Minar, and Rajpath. Since Anant was based out of Faridabad and we only saw him a handful of times throughout the summer, this was our chance to bond with him in his city. After walking around Lodi Gardens with him and hanging out at his place watching bollywood movies, it was soon time for us to head for the airport to fly back to the US.
I am beyond thankful to have been able to spend this summer in India. These past ten weeks were an incredible adventure filled with ups and downs (but mostly ups). As someone who loves to travel and explore new cultures, this summer was truly a dream come true for me. As I sit at home now reflecting on the past ten weeks, I also have to start planning for my next adventure. I’ll be spending the fall semester of my junior year studying abroad in Seville, Spain and I leave in about 20 days! Being a Penn student has given me the privilege to travel around the world and follow my passion and I am incredibly grateful for these opportunities.
As I explained in my last blog, my two projects at Shahi this summer have been focused on specific struggles that migrants at Shahi face and developing a standard health and nutrition guide for the creche (childcare) facilities at Shahi units. With our time at Shahi (and India) coming to an end, this is a good time to reflect on all the work I did this summer and the progress of our projects. Just this morning, we presented to several Shahi board members about our projects at the headquarters in Faridabad.
For my first project, I conducted a survey of 150 migrant respondents with the help of four other OD team members. As mentioned in my previous blog, the survey covers four main areas: hostel life, adjustment issues, language classes, and long-term aspirations. I chose ten hostels from ten different units, ensuring a variety of both large and small hostels. I also made sure to include hostels from both South Bangalore and North Bangalore (Peenya). Lastly, eight of the chosen ten hostels were female hostels and the remaining two were male hostels; this was representative of the migrant population being 80% female and 20% male. I conducted 30 of the surveys myself in Hindi and this allowed me to connect deeper with the results of my survey as opposed to simply having others conduct the surveys for me.
There were several major conclusions from the survey. First, there needs to be a better relationship established between Janodaya staff and Shahi staff. I found that many workers did not know the difference between Janodaya and Shahi or know who Janodaya even was. Not only does this show a lack of agency for the workers, it also has implications of misplaced complaints workers leaving Shahi for the wrong reason. This lack of knowledge rang particularly true for the male workers I interviewed, who in general seemed to be more confused about their living situation in Bangalore as they were misinformed at the rural training center (RTC) they came from. This leads to my second big finding: the information being given at RTCs need to be closely monitored and standardized. Generally, the workers that come from Shahi RTCs tend to be better informed and more knowledgeable about what to expect that those who come from RTCs of other companies. It’s also no correlation that Shahi has no male RTCs currently and the males seemed to be misinformed more often. Furthermore, my survey set straight some misconceptions about migrants such as the fact that the residents at the hostels prefer free time rather than organized programming. In reality, 92% of the respondents surveyed showed a preference for more programming at their hostels when they are not at work. Another huge misconception is that migrants only come to work at Shahi for a short time and they do not see a future here. My survey found that most migrants actually aspire to work at Shahi longer and eventually be promoted; however, the current circumstances make it hard for them to achieve their goals as a lot of workplace discrimination happens based on linguistic privilege. Lastly, in terms of language classes, 98% of respondents showed interest in having language classes and the majority said that this would be the most effective way to alleviate adjustment issues in Bangalore. I found out exactly what, when, where, and how often the migrants want to learn and clearly laid out the next steps to implement these classes.
My second project didn’t require a survey but rather many field visits and interviews on site. After visiting over 20 creche facilities all over Bangalore, Lawrence and I had a good idea of what a model creche should look like. For this project, I gave a handful of clear-cut recommendations that can be easily implemented to immensely improve the health and nutrition of the creche kids. My first recommendation is to incorporate seasonal fruits into the creche diet as this is easily available and affordable in India. I also researched what vegetables are high in protein so that these can also be made available. Introducing young children to new fruits and vegetables in fun ways will engage them and encourage them to eat healthier. Furthermore, as these children are coming from low income disadvantaged backgrounds, it is especially important that Shahi do the best it can to ensure healthy development in these children. My next recommendation is adding some physical movement to the creche schedule to make sure that the children are not just sitting around all day. I gave ideas for activities that require and encourage movement that are possible even when space is restricted (as is the case in many of the creche centers). Lastly, I set forth some guidelines for hygiene education and diagrams/displays that can be put around the creche walls to make the children and their mothers more aware about healthy living.
While there are always improvements to be made at any institution, the work that the OD team at Shahi does is truly inspiring. I am immensely thankful to have been a part of this team for my short time in India. I hope that Penn’s CASI-Shahi partnership continues to mutually enrich Shahi Exports and Penn students as well as bring light to the great initiatives that are often overlooked by the one-sided negative portrayal of the garment industry by the media.
When we first came to Shahi, we were presented with a list of potential projects as options for what we could choose to do this summer. Confused and overwhelmed, we weren’t sure how to narrow down what we wanted to work on when every project sounded like such a great idea. Our supervisors, Chitra and Anant, wanted us to decide on our projects earlier in the summer so that we wouldn’t be rushed towards the end, as this had been an issue during previous years. While Chitra was away one afternoon, we were told that we needed to have our initial project proposals done by the end of the day. We frantically attempted to collect our thoughts and put them down on paper.
Given my background, interest, and knowledge of different languages, I knew that I wanted to do something related to this. Two summers ago, a previous CASI intern (Kendra) had done a project at Shahi focused on language differences and the effects that these differences had on migrant workers. In summary, she found that while it was previously assumed that migrants from northern and northeastern parts of India spoke and understood Hindi, this was not true for many migrants from Odisha, Assam, and other states where the native language is not Hindi. Not only did this discrepancy lead to workplace discrimination and mistreatment, it also had a lot of negative implications with regards to safety as these migrant workers were not able to read or understand safety signs posted around the factories. Kendra’s project gave a clear indication to Shahi that more work needs to be done to understand and accommodate for migrant workers at Shahi.
With my natural inclination towards studying languages, I was very fascinated by this project and Kendra’s findings. This inspired me to design my primary project around creating language classes for migrant workers. Language is a huge privilege and my initial goal was to equip migrants with the power to navigate their way around Bangalore a little more easily. While reviewing this idea with Chitra and the rest of the OD team, I was immediately hit with a lot of questions. Do the migrants even want to learn a language? If so, what? Do they have time for these classes? Who would teach these classes? Where and when would the classes take place? I realized quickly that I needed to learn more about the current situation and exactly what the migrants would like before imposing my own ideas upon them. This lead me to create a survey in which I attempt to ask these questions and more including questions about hostel life, adjustment, and long-term aspirations.
Long before designing and implementing the surveys, I visited numerous hostels around Bangalore and interviewed residents about their living situation, diet, leisure time, freedom of movement, etc. I distinctly remember the first hostel we visited when we were all attempting to ask questions in English and the young women at the hostel appeared to be very shy and answered only in short phrases. That’s when I got the idea to switch to Hindi. The minute I asked my first question in Hindi, the girls’ faces lit up and they started asking me about how I knew Hindi. They immediately became more talkative and it seemed almost like I could have a natural conversation with them without the help of other staff. This was the moment I realized that my project should be related to migrants as this is where my strengths are. I could use Hindi as a tool to truly connect with these young women and talk to them myself instead of having to work through other channels.
I decided my second project in a similar way. While visiting many different units around Bangalore, we met with HR personnel, visited counselling cells, dispensaries, and creches. Learning about Shahi through all these field visits was a truly incredible experience but I was immediately drawn to the little kids at the creche facilities. One of the ideas on the initial list of project options was standardizing creche across all Shahi units. While my co-intern Lawrence was busy interviewing the teachers of every creche unit we visited, I often became distracted playing with the kids or taking the little ones onto my lap. I have a lot of previous experience working with young children through summer camps and tutoring jobs and this was an area where I had clear interest. Lawrence and I decided that he would create an academic guide for the kids while I looked at it from a health and nutrition perspective.
In my next blog I’ll go into depth about completing the migrants project as well as my secondary project with the creche!