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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
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Afterlives: Memory of a War – Part 2

Thu, 10/26/2023 - 02:58

In my previous post, I spoke about following oral histories and material traces of the war. While I was able to find Ledo Road easily, the hospital on the other hand proved a challenge. Was the hospital still standing or much like most monuments in India converted into something else? They are rarely stagnant. Spaces such as these are at first constructed through planning, maps, and instruments thereby becoming an imagined space, to finally a space i.e., produced and modified over time through use, symbolisms, and meanings. The hospital had a use at one point in time but my question now was,
how was it being remembered and reinterpreted?
I wanted to know what it had become!

One of the challenges in working in Northeast India is not only that it has been marginalized from the mainstream narrative but much of its histories lie in the archive piling dust while records are often uncategorized. Despite these challenges, I had the task of connecting the Letter addressed to the doctor in Philadelphia to the place where everything began, i.e., the 20th General Hospital. Based on my archival findings, the hospital began with 400 bamboo basha huts that served multiple functions, such as patient wards, operating rooms, and administrative offices. Set in a ‘jungle country’ as IS Ravdin the Chief of the Surgical Service termed it. The hospital was in a constant battle with the surroundings. Not only fighting against the diseases in the region but American bio-medicine was tasked with trying to manage the bodies and the spaces in this remote corner of the world. The bashas were soon upgraded to a large-scale hospital, one that would include a laboratory and an x-ray room alongside a whole host of other amenities such as phones, laundry, a potable water supply using coal, laundry, a garden, and a chapel. I was certain that these infrastructures that were set up to maintain health had to have remnants in either stories or some structures. 

To get a better lay of the land, I approached some of my contacts at COAL India which is a public sector undertaking that manages the coal resources within the region. They had a museum as well as a wealth of old documents. Their conjectures of an old hospital turned out to be the district hospital and not the one I sought. However, one crucial element that the museum provided was that Coal, Oil, tea and railways during the British Empire were under one company, the AR&T. They showed me a brick that had the etching of the company. With one of their guides, I began my search driving around Margherita to look for the hospital. Thinking back to Mr. Borah’s stories and an old map of Margherita, I soon found myself within the town centre. The locals pointed me in various directions and finally, I ended up driving past an arch, through a tiny dirt road and into a clearing that seemed to have some old structures just at the banks of the river. However, the area was densely covered in grasses thanks to the recent gush of monsoon. The area was soon cleared with the help of some locals and what turned out to be… pure excitement! Between some houses and right beside the river bank, stood remnants of a furnace. This discovery made me realise that the whole area including the arch was in fact, a part of the 20th General Hospital. The town had grown from its very site and had encroached into the space it tried to manage. 

This discovery made me think about how spaces that were once meant to be a site for rehabilitation or even a laboratory that produced scientific knowledge were now left abandoned… with little to no memory of its prior existence. While the physicians who were sent here as medical convoys, treated, experimented and produced multiple scientific papers, the records of their extraction lie only in various archives whose access is only for some privileged. The tea garden workers, the labourers, the soldiers who’ve been posted here had various medical experimentations done on them. The hospital site was fashioned to serve as a laboratory…an environment to ensure the production of scientific knowledge within productive infrastructures. What then is the afterlife of a hospital that is no longer on a map?

Field Notes From a Day at the Cypher

Thu, 10/26/2023 - 00:07

The hip hop duo, Dean and K invited me to join them at a cypher that had been organized by a Delhi rap collective at Deer Park in Hauz Khas Village. This was open to all the local hip hop artists, and they had published the information up on this collective’s Instagram page (and that’s where Dean had seen it). The duo knew that I was trying to understand their context and work, and they reached out to check if I would like to attend this cypher with them. They were also going to be filming their latest rap after the cypher ends and asked me if I could get my GoPro camera. I had offered them my Gopro (and some other basic equipment) earlier this month in case they wanted to make a fisheye video. We had also spoken about maybe making a short documentary together, and they suggested I could use this evening to also get some footage of them working/ filming the song. 

The duo had asked me to meet them at 4.30pm. I reach 15 minutes early and wait for them in the park covered with mosquito repellent and stressing about the proposal that was due that night! Today Neel will be joining in–he is the camera director– I am meeting him for the first time. He is starting his second year of college and is studying CS at a university in Faridabad, a neighboring city about an hour and half away. He also lives in the same neighborhood as Dean and K and has been involved with them since the inception of their group. He works with a photographer since he is really interested in the form and is so good! 

I walk with them following them to where the cypher is going to take place. It’s a hot muggy day and I, with my backpack, try to keep up with them. The air is so still and oppressive that I can hardly breathe- melting away into this heat seems inevitable. Hauz Khas is beautiful and poignant. The ruins of an old Fort overlook a lake surrounded by manicured public gardens where families, couples, young children, and friends have come to spend the day. We walk under a canopy of trees with a cacophony of crazy sounds- bats- hundreds of them screaming as if in anger at the heat and discomfort! We walk across to the grass and towards the skating rink crossing a group of monkeys sitting in the park gently taking the food offered. They co-share the space with a friendliness that I have never seen from monkeys!  Animals and humans coexist in this beautiful space- reminding me of the relatedness around which my work is framed…Human and non-human. A coexistence that in this moment was peaceful and a moment of beauty even as the heat rose as steam from the ground.

The cypher was at the skating park- a large concrete oval structure and at the North End of the rink where a group of 20 to 25 boys huddled together: 10 to 15 in a closed huddle, maybe 10 milling around, and another small group standing at the northwest corner just outside the rink. This is the first time I’m attending a cypher! My one and only experience of a cypher was from the red velvet chair of a cinema hall…from the Indian film Gully Boys that is loosely based on two rappers’ stories so this was a little anticlimactic at first!

Young boys from ages 14 to early 20’s maybe/ Many of them in what look like their everyday clothes (again theirs is something that I can keep imagining about what rappers look like !!) huddled around two boys who were pitted against each other mouthing rap to the beats being played on a portable speaker. Most of them come in with prepared rap songs I think though I can’t really make out if its prepared or in the moment call & response. But K shares that mostly it’s not impromptu. 

I’m the only woman/ adult present but I don’t feel unwelcome. The boys are around, and I try to stay next to them to make sure everyone knows I’m with them. I don’t feel any eyes on me for most part and I’m surprised! These youth artists are busy with their craft…walking around with swag… aware of an audience around. Dean inches close to the inner circle and raps for a minute. he’s come with his song that he is working on, and this is a good space for him to practice. His performance ends with an applause from other artists, the first one I see being applauded today. 

 Dean and K share that as artists become big and established, they stop attending cyphers.  For new artists however, these ciphers are also spaces of community building / affinity spaces. With no other external support (for example adults and other organizations) and a lack of resources (economic, social), these communities and networks become very important as this is where they see what others are doing. This then is also a space for observation just as this is a space for participation. The duo share how the centering of their neighborhoods (especially the ones with an uptake of hip hop/ b boying) is a way to establish your coolness as a rapper- some of these discussions / conversations are probably true for the larger global conversations around hip hop/ youth/ marginalization/ mobility/ identity.

Infrastructures of Glory:

Sun, 10/01/2023 - 18:55

“As I walked round the site I thought that these days the biggest temple and mosque and gurdwara is the place where man works for the good of mankind. Which place can be greater than this, this Bhakra-Nangal, where thousands and lakhs of men have worked, have shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be a greater and holier place than this, which we can regard as higher?”

-1954, Nehru on the construction of Bhakra-Nangal Dam. 

“It is my faith in our past which has given me the strength to work in the present and look forward to our future. I cannot value freedom if it deprives us of the Bhagavad Gita or uproots our millions from the faith with which they look upon our temples and thereby destroys the texture of our lives. I have been given the privilege of seeing my incessant dream of Somnath reconstruction come true. That makes me feel—makes me almost sure—that this shrine once restored to a place of importance in our life, will give our people a purer conception of religion and a more vivid consciousness of our strength, so vital in these days of freedom and its trials.”

-1951, K.M. Munshi to Nehru.

The reconstruction of Somnath temple which Munshi advocated for marked the paramount moment or “vivid consciousness” for the ruling Hindu political class in realizing their “strength”. At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world slept, there were more than one India that were awake to life and freedom. And neither of the India(s) transitioned straightforwardly from old to new as Nehru had envisioned. If the Bhakra-Nangal dam is the temple of New India and a symbol of the Nation’s will, so is the Somnath temple!

The reconstruction of the Somnath temple marked a critical stage in the political history of the Indian subcontinent. Its reverberations still contour major social and political discourses with the reconstruction of the Ram Mandir temple and the ongoing ‘scientific’ surveys at Gyanvyapi Mosque in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In this blog, I will elaborate on the other India that emerged in the state of Gujarat. I will shed light on the legacy of K.M. Munshi in the contemporary developmental discourses of Gujarat and in the conservation policies of the cultural heritage of the state. 

Archaeological sites associated with Chalukyas/Solankis of Gujarat played a critical role in the imagination of K.M. Munshi, a Gujarati nationalist writer, politician, and lawyer, who also advocated for the separate state of Gujarat in the 1960s. His campaign for different statehood was also a cry for the restoration of ancient Chalukyan asmitā (glory) (Munshi, 1958). His texts make a consistent claim of crystallization of Gujarati identity under the Chalukyas (Sheikh, 2004). Munshi’s teleology of Gujarat views the Muslim and British periods as ‘foreign’ and ‘painful’ periods in the history of the region (Munshi, 1958). Munshi’s writings/imaginations continue to impact the current socio-political fabric of the region and are operationalized in the repression of minorities (Muslims) and their histories. 

Munshi’s ideas are foundational to the cultural identity of Gujarat and still influence the current political imagination. This is particularly reflected in the cultural heritage practices promoted by the state through the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). I will illustrate this by shedding light on the ongoing conservation efforts carried out by ASI Vadodara in the city of Dholka in the Ahmedabad district. 

The website of Dholka’s Nagarpalika associates the city’s history with the mythical age of Mahabharata where Pandavs resided during their vanvas (exile). It renders Dholka an important city and a second capital to Chalukyas (Vaghelas, vessel state of Chalukyas) who governed from their capital city of Patan. It then concludes by enlisting the construction of lakes at Dholka (Malav Talav) and Viramgam (Munsar Lake) by a Chalukyan Queen. And at the end of it, the webpage shares two images exhibiting the architectural heritage of Dholka without mentioning any details about them.

The two silenced images on the webpage of Dholka municipality are of Islamic monuments, Hilal Khan Gazi Mosque and Alif Khan Mosuqe built by the Delhi Sultans. Dholka, though commonly venerated for its Mahabharata and Chalukyan association, also has a rich Islamic legacy. Tanka Masjid, Jama Masjid, and Alif Khan Lake draw tourists and pilgrims from nearby villages and districts. Their grandiose architecture is often utilized to stage music and water festivals by private institutions. Further, Dholka’s Islamic monuments lure a significant number of researchers and architects from across the state. Despite of their popularity amongst the pilgrims, tourists, architects, and researchers, the Islamic monuments of Dholka are barely addressed in the narratives of the state. They are also not attended in the ongoing conservation projects by ASI Vadodara at Dholka. 

In July of 2015, the MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) of the ruling political party BJP, Bharatsinh Chudasama, from Dholka; also a former Education minister of the state, sought financial assistance to “develop” the Malav Talav in Dholka and Munsar Talav in Viramgam for spiritual tourism.  Chudasama’s efforts for the restoration or “development” of these Chalukyan lakes are similar in vain to that of Munshi’s campaign for the Somnath temple. His request was instantly met with the financial support of 6 crore rupees (7, 25,527 USD) from the central government, and renovation efforts were started by ASI within 6 months (Desh Gujarat, 2015). 

During my visit to Dholka this summer, the conservation work was still ongoing. The water in the lake met the top flight of ghats where the laborers would squat and carry out the renovation on the edges of the lake. While the water was serenely filled it is not allowed to be utilized for other activities and is stored for a scenic view. Alif Khan Mosque complex, which is located a few meters North of Malav Talav, attracts a maximum number of visitors. Its monumental architecture is utilized to host Sufi and music festivals while its lake (Khan Talav/Alif Khan Lake) is used by fishermen and farmers. Despite being actively used and a protected ASI site, the mosque complex is in deteriorating condition. 

This operationalization of conservation practices in disguise of the developmental narratives of the state makes archaeological sites as ideological infrastructures of the state. As epitomized by the Supreme Court verdict on the Babri Masjid demolition, the archaeological sites in India are commonly weaponized by the ruling Hindu political class to deepen sectarian divides (Guha-Thakurta, 2004). The conservation practices and priorities are thus the material signatures of the ruling political class. 

Bibliography

Desh Gujarat. (2015, December 25). Rs 6 crore conservation work of Malav Talav in Dholka kicks off. Retrieved from Desh Gujarat: https://deshgujarat.com/2015/12/25/rs-6-crore-conservation-work-of-malav-talav-in-dholka-kicks-off/

Guha-Thakurta, T. (2004). Archaeology and the Monument: On Two contentious sites of Faith and History. In T. Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-Colonial India (pp. 168-303). New York: Columbia University Press.

Munshi, K. M. (1967). Pilgrimage to Freedom: Indian Constitutional Documents (1902-1950). Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Afterlives: Memory of a war (part 1)

Sun, 10/01/2023 - 14:02

“One good thing that came out of the war was that the Americans built this road”, quipped Mr. Borah who had taken out a few minutes from his day to talk to me about his experiences in Margherita back in the ’40s. In my bid to study the oral histories and material traces of the 20th General Hospital, I made my way to the remote town of Margherita in Assam. As I sit across Mr. Borah, a local historian, recounted how he sneaked into the hospital by crawling under the fence. The place was filled with Chinese and American soldiers, he said, and that the majority of the Americans including the captain who caught him sneaking in was African American. While much of what the US and Chinese troops brought in was a lot of unwanted activities which included solicitation and trafficking turning a once quiet coal town into a ‘red-light area’, he casually gestured at the road saying that it was the only good thing they brought. The road he was referring to is called Ledo Road or the Stillwell Road. During the China-Burma-India theatre of operations, it was a strategic overland connection that enabled the movement of aid and supplies for Allied troops and connected India to China through Burma. Armed with various old news clippings and sketches, I made my way to two of my sites i.e., The Hospital and Ledo Road.

As part of my ethnographic fieldwork, I intend to see how past events and historical sites are remembered and interpreted. While hospitals are never neutral spaces and at times resemble bureaucratic institutions, schools, and prisons that function on surveillance and efficiency, they also constitute a keen weathervane detecting shifts in both medical and social currents. At the same time, Ledo Road bears significance not because of its primary role in the provision of aid, but I argue that the technology it brought in to manage spaces shows how medicine is tied to bigger technological and geopolitical projects. With Mr. Borah’s mental sketch of the sites and my old archival maps from Philadelphia and Google Maps, I began to locate these two sites. While the Ledo road was easy to find, the hospital proved difficult. 

My first destination was Lekhapani and it would mark the beginning of Ledo Road or Stillwell Road. The latter’s name came from the American General Stillwell or Vinegar Joe who was pivotal in its construction. The road was set up as part of the China-Burma-India campaign during WWII and at a time when the Allies lost to Japan in Burma, the Ledo road was seen as the only supply lifeline for the Chinese and as such the impetus of the Allies was to construct and maintain it. The support of the Americans came in the form of not only medical care i.e., the construction of the 20th general hospital but also the construction of the Ledo Road. This was a key geopolitical strategy to prevent communism in China by aiding the Chinese Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek. The construction was undertaken by US Army Engineers, local labour and a vast number of Chinese troops. This road was considered an engineering feat that required at least 35,000 local workers, and 15000 American soldiers out of which 9000 of whom were African American. 

The memorialization of this was however quite stark as the lanes on either side of the road were marked with patriotic symbols, banners, memorials and cemeteries. One of the memorials had plaques lined with images that depicted the struggle in building the road. These narratives were flanked by the presence of a lot of military in the region.  Checkpoints, army camps, barriers and banners stating Assam rifles as “friends of the Northeast” paved through Ledo Road. These sights showcase a history of the war that was engaged in a restless multiplicity of coexisting versions, representations, imaginings, and interactions taking place. In doing so, we can see how such spaces and objects are used, replicated and interpreted through new iterations such as the Indian flags and the Indian military. As I was travelling through Ledo road, it reminded me of how such a small town and a road on the frontiers of Indian borders connected to a larger history of not only the war but of competing empires. The anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire within India and Burma alongside the larger war that was unfolding between the Allied and Axis forces. I contend that in studying these specific configurations of technology, geographies, and labour, my work could further shed light on the emergence and maintenance of unequal power relations between the Global South and North. 

Reflections: The Hyper-Local Influences in a Global Practice – Hip Hop Duo’s in the Field Share their Stories

Mon, 09/18/2023 - 13:41

In my study, I look ethnographically at youth-led coalitions in Delhi, India that are set outside of adult run educational organizations to understand i) how and why they come together, ii) what are their practices and how do these develop over time and in relation to other (digital and physical) spaces that youth participate in, and iii) the locally and globally networked discourses, ideas, and literacy practices emerge and circulate in and across these youth-led coalitions. As shared in my previous post, I met members of a youth-led coalition through my long-term work at a community library in their neighborhood in Delhi. 

These youth members (17 to 22 years) are a part of a youth-led coalition involved in hip hop and other creative making practices. They write about love, joy, popular culture, everyday experiences of youth growing up in Delhi. And their discourses on social media often center caste, inequity, and power something they attribute to the critical library community and their neighborhood in Delhi, a hub for hip hop practices in Delhi that is also a unique microcosm of a transnational world with internal migrants, immigrants, and a refugee population. The hyper local place (the neighborhood and the library), spaces (NGO’s, cyphers), local art-based practices, the intergenerational community of hip hop artists together form an important backdrop to these youth-led groups (and other local hip hop groups in the neighborhood) practice, art, & performance.

Most of the youth in these two groups are between the ages of 18 to 22, and have grown up in Delhi. They started writing rap in their early teenage years– most of them were inspired by India artists who had just started coming on the scene in the last decade– and were ‘mainstream artists’ . It was a little later in their journey as artists, that they discovered the Hip Hop Underground which has since been informing their work as artists. They shared, “when we first started writing,. we copied what artists like Honey Singh were writing about – big cars, money, ambition…at some point we realized these were things that were not a part of our lives…and to really write meaningfully would mean to write about our contexts!” And that’s what these artists do. Dean S is a big fan of Anime and the latest from their label is a rap that blends in his love for anime and their reality.

While youths’ hip hop practice and discourse look ‘globally familiar’ through the embodied practices and hip-hop rituals (Dattatreyan, 2020), these are locally situated. Youth adopt a critical stance that is unique to their political and social contexts (“Our beats might be more western but I learn most from underground hip hop artists from Delhi who talk about my context.”). And the intertextual moves in their speaking and writing in relation to western (mostly U.S.) artists’ rap reveal a call and response (“Our rap responds to theirs for example when they say, ‘this is poverty’ we reply to them by saying…well this is ours). These intertextual connections emphasise a more distant (though important) dialogue with the global and the prominence of the hyper-local. This as a necessary conversation;  looking at the local and global resonance,  highlights the centrality of the local ‘parochial context’ and offers a rupture to colonizing logics (Mignolo, 2011) that often situate the flow of practices and discourse as unidirectional.

Indebted Forever

Mon, 09/04/2023 - 20:30

Two weeks ago (August 23, 2023), India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft became humanity’s first space-faring contraption to successfully land on the south pole of the moon. This achievement was the long-awaited result of perseverance and superhuman efficiency in the face of resource constraints and past hardships. With spending at just $70 million compared to NASA’s $90 billion Artemis mission, as well as a predecessor mission that failed to reach its target, Chandrayaan-3 became a pioneer in outer space even as titans like the U.S. and Russia flailed in its abyss. Of the mission, Prime Minister Modi said that “All countries of the world, including those from the Global South, are capable of achieving such feats. We can all aspire for the moon and beyond.” 

The Aravind Eye Care System has given me similar cosmic inspiration and optimism for future possibilities. Against all financial and logistical odds, Aravind rose to be a premier healthcare institution that serves perhaps one of the noblest missions in the world: restoring vision to the many millions who cannot see. Just as Chandrayaan-3 made its mark on the moon’s south pole, Aravind has made a permanent impression within me. Having learned about Aravind’s history and experienced so many great things this past summer, I cannot help but feel a sense of being indebted forever to this incredible organization. 

I had only a very faint idea of what I wanted to do later in life back when I was in high school. Around that time, the most impressive person I knew was my principal investigator from my sophomore-year summer internship, who held a medical degree but then chose to run a research laboratory dedicated to finding cures for tuberculosis. I really looked up to him, and I thought he lived a very fulfilling life. I decided that I would one day get my MD to be just like him and push the bounds of innovation in health science. 

However, this ambition was very hazy, and I found my aspiration towards a path in health science difficult to describe at times mainly because it was driven by ignorance. Prior to applying for the internship at Aravind Eye Hospital, I was similarly ignorant about eyes. I thought that because the eye is such a small organ that is not absolutely essential for life, the societal impact of an eye doctor was very small. For that matter, I was also convinced that doctors are individuals who spent all their time operating on patients one by one, and that they did not have the capacity to benefit society on the same large scale as charitable organizations.

Aravind revealed how incomplete my thinking was. To begin with, I found out that my reason for wanting to pursue a MD was too insubstantial; while a MD can open career doors, it is also a degree whose intent is to take care of other humans. Being in the clinic every day—witnessing doctors communicating with patients and watching them problem-solve while seeing complicated cases—showed me how engaging a physician’s job could be. And there is also something very special about having multiple people under your care with the knowledge that your actions could single-handedly turn their lives around. I saw this magical insight manifested in Dr. Meri’s fond reminiscence of her regular pediatric patient, Dr. Kim’s irritation at witnessing waiting room patients being left unseen, and Dr. Athul’s humanity towards children and beggars in the street. To these doctors, life is precious whether inside or outside of the clinic. To me, this is a beautiful way to live life in which I would be very grateful to partake. 

Aravind also taught me that contrary to my initial judgement, the eye is a wonderfully complex organ with deep societal significance. Eyesight is required for so many livelihoods—especially in developing nations such as India, where vision loss is seen as a financial burden. Vision conditions afflict one billion individuals on Earth, 35% of whom experience moderate to severe vision loss or worse. Connecting the efforts of eye doctors and healthcare workers would empower untold millions to create a more productive and healthy world. Furthermore, an eye doctor’s jurisdiction spans more than merely a patient’s eyes. In fact, a wide variety of conditions, ranging from inflammatory illnesses to neurodegeneration to even sexually transmitted diseases, can be diagnosed through different eye exams. The eye may seem small, but it is in fact a vast window to a patient’s systemic health. That gives eye doctors tremendous diagnostic power and responsibility towards their patients. 

Doctors can change the world. While billionaires might be able to donate their incomes to broad-reaching health initiatives, it is ultimately those with patient-facing experience and clinical know-how who direct global health interventions. My time spent observing the clinic taught me that because doctors possessed expertise and intimate familiarity with their patients’ problems, they knew which actions to prioritize and could knowledgeably brainstorm ideas to implement. In solving their patients’ problems, doctors create further positive downstream effects in society. For example, Aravind’s founder, Dr. V, saw the tragedy of blindness manifest as cataracts hardening in farmers’ eyes, incapacitating them and draining all future income and hope. In response, Dr. V used his knowledge of eye care to create an institution that treats over 4 million patients annually, reaching both the rich and poor while thriving on sustainable growth. All the while, Aravind creates opportunities for the hundreds of young village girls who they recruit to be mid-level ophthalmic personnel, who would otherwise be married off early without the opportunity to pursue a job or an education. Aravind now also functions as a teaching institution: it offers comprehensive fellowships in eye specialties and management, as well as consultancy outreach for eye clinics elsewhere in India and the rest of the world aspiring to follow Aravind’s footsteps. In addition, the Aravind Medical Research Foundation allows clinical researchers and doctors to investigate the most urgent mysteries in eye care. As a consequence of Dr. V’s medical experience and devotion, hundreds of doctors and administrators are educated in the hands of the best, thousands of surgeries and research projects are channeled towards iterative process improvement, and millions of vision loss patients globally are empowered to regain control over their lives. A doctor’s life is therefore multidimensional—doctors can cure patients in one moment and tackle tricky research questions in the next, and even direct global campaigns promoting health as agents of change.

Aravind’s significant global influence made more realize just how complex the world is. During my visits to Aravind hospitals elsewhere in Tamil Nadu as well as the surrounding vision centers (local eye testing sites), I noticed how doctors and administrators adapted Aravind’s interventions to the environments in which they were based. For example, the Pondicherry hospital was located on a sprawling campus in a bustling city. Because it had so much physical area to accommodate its patients, the Pondicherry hospital adopted an appointment system in which patients were allotted to doctors in discreet time slots—a strategy to reduce patient load that is typical in the U.S. but impractical in Madurai. Patients with appointments could simply sit anywhere in Pondicherry’s campus as they awaited their time slot. However, in Madurai’s overflowing hospital, there was seldom space for patients to wait, and when Aravind’s Madurai branch attempted to implement an appointment system, the result was dissatisfaction and non-compliance. My trip to Aravind’s Pondicherry branch exposed me to such shifts in perspective and encouraged me to think bigger about questions my project sought to answer. Still, I had the opportunity to be exposed to different global perspectives when I was not traveling. Aravind’s consultancy outreach programs brought a consistent inflow of hospital workers from Indian cities like Aizawl, Raipur, Hyderabad, as well as other countries like Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Kenya, among many other places. A bus ride with Ramhmingsangi, the outreach manager of Synod Hospital in mountainous Mizoram, taught me about how a remote hospital’s slow but steady growth serves its location’s unmet needs. A morning run with Ageru, a learning specialist at HCP Cure Blindness, taught me about the unique challenges in infrastructure and lower patient volumes that Africa faces. These interactions revealed to me just how differently the world works when viewed through the lenses of different circumstances. The people who I met were also all interesting individuals with unique paths and their own private ambitions. Being surrounded by them constantly led me to the realization that I was only a small part of a global mission to alleviate human suffering, and that no setback was final due to the sheer number of possible life paths. I now feel more appreciative and excited about my own life and the many fascinating people I’ll meet in my future. 

Since Aravind has given me so much, I hope to give back to Aravind, whether through continuing project work or even going back one day post-graduation. There was so much to do during my internship, and there will always be more layers to unearth about Aravind. No matter what I did at the hospital, even if I initially found a task mundane, I could always grow passionate about it and absorb a lot of new information. I appreciated how faithful Aravind was to its mission statement of ending blindness—even to the extent that Aravind’s leaders would act for the benefit of the patient in spite of expenses to the hospital. I also admired the way that everyone at Aravind in all departments and roles took it upon themselves to improve the hospital whenever they noticed any problems. Suggestion boxes were always open, and Aravind’s senior management would always listen to employees to implement their suggestions. However, because everyone at Aravind was so heavily involved in their work, I sometimes found that mentors would not have enough time to meet with me frequently or prioritize my project—which is perfectly reasonable. It just meant that I had to do a lot more independent thinking on my part and become a more versatile problem-solver. This process was challenging, but it was ultimately rewarding and passed in good company (shoutout to the best three co-interns ever: Achint, Ashna, and Sage!). 

I’m sure that this past summer will have been one of my fondest as I reflect on my years in university. If any Penn undergraduate has an inkling of an idea that they want to pursue medicine, global health, or healthcare management—and if they love coming across new people and places—Aravind should definitely be a top consideration for the summer! Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re curious or considering embarking on an introduction to medicine and global health. And once you are at Aravind, just like Chandryaan-3 opened up a new chapter in humanity’s space-faring escapades, perhaps the people you meet and insights you learn will take you to an entirely new chapter of your life. 

Reflecting back on my summer interviews.

Mon, 09/04/2023 - 05:16

Iterative Learning

I began the summer aiming to unpack transnational migration aspirations of Indian Muslims in the current political climate. Focusing on citizen interviews in Delhi and Surat, particularly with those in the younger cohorts (18-35) initially, I found that aspirations or plans to out-migrate (permanently or for a long-term) to countries like Canada and Australia (which are considered more visa friendly) citing better economic prospects were prevalent among a particular socio-economic strata of Muslims. While interviews with recent graduates generated mixed responses, the main push came from middle-aged respondents who wanted their children to out-migrate. They also cited the political situation in the country (on top of economic prospects) as one of the main reasons behind this and mentioned how there has been an uptick in this phenomenon in their extended family and friend networks recently.

While migration is only one (extreme) response from the citizen perspective, additional interviews pointed me to other adaptation strategies as a result of anxieties produced in the current socio-political climate. These range from reducing TV news consumption, self-censoring in daily interpersonal exchanges with out-group members, self-censoring online and potential hardening of religious identities by turning inward. I noted that the dominant mode of information consumption within the community has shifted towards social media with a heavy focus on WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube usage. Another parallel trend in the form of willful disengagement (from political news consumption) or social media consumption is also emerging. While on the surface, disengagement can be seen an adaptation strategy to ensure continuity in daily activities and to avoid heated discussions and disruptions, it might also have negative impacts for potential political mobilization in the long-term and propel capture of online spaces by non-minority friendly users, altering the slant of these portals. This is a line of query I intend to explore further in future interviews.

In my last blog, I briefly discussed how news cycles, especially TV news coverage during the early days of covid affected everyday experiences of Muslims. In this blog, I mention other sources of alienation which are directly attributable to the state.

Experiencing the State

Citizens in both cities recall experiencing the state in different ways. While most respondents maintained that Surat is a relatively peaceful city (compared to other places in Gujarat) and that it is more “business-minded”, property-related grievances were still universal. The recent implementation and extension of the Disturbed Area Act (Ashant Dhara) which was previously limited to cities like Ahmedabad, have not only been enforced in Surat in residential but also commercial spaces. This has also recently been extended to rental properties making it hard for Muslims to buy or rent out properties in most parts of the city. Under this Act, Hindus cannot sell (rent out) properties to Muslims, without getting additional documents (“No objection”) signed from the District Collector. A human rights lawyer explains how there is a lot of corruption and bureaucratic hurdle that one has to jump through to get this approved. As a result, many are avoiding the legal route and are living in undocumented arrangements which makes them further vulnerable. Thus, state-sponsored segregation and alienation is rampant and visible.

While one respondent mentions how the only reason he can afford to live in the building where he currently resides is because he bought that property many years ago, another exclaims how the main idea behind this is to prevent inter-group mixing.

Asma* exclaims “Look at what they are doing! Commercial areas! In the textile market! That is not even a sensitive area. You are basically stopping us from mixing…..Two shopkeepers, when they have their shops side by side, don’t only co-exist in the same space. They also share meals together. They exchange stories. You are stopping all of that!”

State-Aided Discriminatory Environment

The conversations in Delhi and surrounding areas in the NCR belt echo the sentiment. A hawker in Jamia Nagar says “Khataaas aa gayee hai logon ke mann mein!” (Their hearts have been poisoned). While Gujarat interviews reveal how people would explicitly turn Muslims away from rental properties by saying “We do not want anyone from the “M” community”, Delhi interviews suggest that landlords use indirect ways to turn them away by imposing restrictions on non-vegetarian food consumption within rented premises.

Perceptions of the State – Suspicion and Lack of Trust

Another by-stander during an interview in Old Delhi remarked how the interviewee would constantly try for government job positions and clear the written exam (which is the first cut of the recruitment process) but would never get selected during interviews (which is the next stage of the process). He wonders if it is because “there is an order from the (people) higher up to not hire Muslims”.

A couple of weeks prior to my departure from India, communal clashes broke out in Nuh, Haryana. This led to imposition of Section 144 (which prohibits gathering of more than 4 people in public spaces), deployment of paramilitary force on the ground to arrest the situation and suspension of internet in areas surrounding Delhi like Faridabad, Gurgaon etc. While the temporal and spatial proximity of violence made the successive interviews trickier to navigate, a driver remarked “Police hamari nahin hai!” (The police force is not there to protect “us”, referring to the videos circulating on social media where violence broke out despite police being present and police condoning open calls for violence by right-wing vigilantes).

As the Indian state continues to alienate Muslims by pushing them to ghettos, presenting a non-Muslim friendly state machinery, and with news media and social media exacerbating extant fissures, a different type of political actor is being produced. My future research will aim to unpack if this self-censorship and disengagement is only limited to the religious minority and what this might mean for short-term and long-term political mobilization. My future work would also aim to unpack if a potential parallel hardening of the Muslim identity is a widespread phenomenon or if it was just confined to specific interview contexts. 

*Name changed to protect respondent identity.

“…those ecstacies of loyal enthusiasm…”

Wed, 08/30/2023 - 22:24

“Didn’t you say you have a flight in the evening?” I was asked by a member of the archival staff.

It was August 11th, 2023. Working through an almost day-long power cut, my seven-week long archival stint was coming to an end. Here I was, scheduled to board my flight out of Chandigarh at 7.40pm, still making one last desperate dive for any relevant documents. And it happened. Sort of.

Thanks to the naming convention that the CamScanner app follows, I am able to determine the exact time when I found the document. It was 15.07 hrs. I had finally found a document — the only one pertaining to “native presses” in seven weeks (I will say a little more on this in my final post).

I spent the summer combing through the volumes of “Foreign/Political” proceedings, underestimating (once again) the quantity and overestimating the speed with which one can peruse the material. While I had optimistically hoped to find returns of statements of publication details in the princely states, the results were far more limited. In this brief article, I would like to talk about one such document that represents a sliver of the discourse that I am interested in. 

On 4th August, 2023, while scouring through yet another bundle of files, I chanced upon a pamphlet titled Rajbhakti Prakasha or Devotion to the Crown (1911) authored by Pandit Banke Rai Nawal Goswami, whose credentials occupy most of the title page of the pamphlet. 

While the Indexes of the Foreign proceedings are full of pleas and petitions to the British government in Punjab to recite encomiums addressed to monarchy (note : they are largely denied), Goswami appears in the archive as someone who did manage to find an opportunity during the Prince of Wales tour of India in 1922. In his account of the tour, L.F.R. Williams writes :

“He [Prince of Wales] spent a few minutes in the reception pavilion, where he received a loyal address from the learned pandits of Delhi, headed by Pandit Banke Rai, Nawal Goswami. A benedictory poem was recited, after which he mounted a horse, and rode at a foot pace through the midst of the people, who were moved to those ecstacies of loyal enthusiasm which only the Oriental mind can sustain.”

In his introduction to the pamphlet, Goswami clearly lays out the objective – “devotion to God” and “loyalty to the Crown” (2) (achieved through the network of Nawal Prem Sabha, one of the many smaller Hindu reformist organizations that came up in Punjab and Delhi courtesy Arya Samaj activity). The pamphlet is stated to be translated into English for dissemination in schools and colleges, as an antidote to the books in “English of a pernicious character” that propagate false ideas about liberty.  Goswami also lays out the other pedagogical purpose of the text – to introduce young men to the Sanskrit texts through translations.

In the brief 37 pages of Rajbhakti Prakasha, Goswami deploys material from a range of sources — Manusmriti, Mahabharata, the Vedas — to construct a polemical exercise where invocations to loyalty and regal authority are weaved in through the scriptural scaffolding. Goswami is also canny to weave in Lepel Griffin’s Punjab Chiefs (a volume on Punjab’s aristocracy that would become a bibliographical project where people would write in with pleas for inclusion), going as far as to also provide an alternate etymology to the term “Hindu” itself (“away from violence”) reminding the wayward youth that they should not entertain the prevalent ideas of liberalism in contemporary political parlance.

By the time we come to page 25, Goswami comes to his main argument, predictably, the darkness of “one thousand years” and then the welfare brought in by the British empire, in a quick flourish, listing the “merits” of colonial rule.  It also concludes with the more practical matter of anticipating George V’s presence at the Imperial Darbar of 1911, which is why the pamphlet was written in the first place.  

The idealization of the monarch in the context of colonial India was not a new thing, as seen through the research on the perception of Queen Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century. It was not also a straightforward matter of devotion to the monarchy, as Miles Taylor reminded in his account of the Jubilee celebrations of 1887, where civic patriotism was in contestation with imperial grandeur. Goswami’s pamphlet provides a more uncomplicated approach but what primary documents such as this provide a sense of the output of “associational life” that Vivek Bhandari has talked about in his research on nineteenth-century Punjab.

References : 

1. Laurence Frederic Rushbrook Williams, The History of the Indian Tour of H.R.H, the Prince of Wales, 1921-22. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, 1922. 

2. Pandit Banke Rai Nawal Goswami, Rajbhakti Prakasha or Devotion to the Crown, Delhi : I.M.H Press, 1911. Punjab Government Civil Secretariat. Political (General). Part B. 1912.

3. Vivek Bhandari. “Historicizing the Public: The Making of a Social Formation in Nineteenth Century Punjab”. PhD dissertation. University of Pennsylvania. 1998.

Final Reflection and Direction of My Research

Mon, 08/28/2023 - 23:22

As the summer comes to an end, I return back to the documents from the archives as I prepare this fall for my honors thesis seminar. By looking at the documents more than one time, I better understand how they fit into the chronology of my paper. It is a challenging task to simultaneously interpret the content of the document and insert it into the right position of a thesis, but reading over the evidence multiple times and searching for new information allows for a clearer picture to emerge. For example, a newspaper article reporting on anti-British Indians residing in California at first seems to express a latent fear among Americans of the dissemination of radical thought among immigrants within their borders. However, for my argument, I had to go beyond the author’s intent and interrogate on how such radicalization became public and the actual interaction of working Indians with ideas on social and political revolution. The dialogue between the evidence from the archives and the prospective argument of my thesis about the origins of communism in Punjab is a confusing one since the inquiries of my research do not align with the owner of the collection’s intent regarding South Asians in North America (name of Bancroft Library collection). That is why as I go back to my primary source materials I recognize that the chosen assortment of documents provides limited coverage of the growing social consciousness among Punjabis in California, though it can be inadvertently unearthed from the philosophical assumptions of a revolutionary’s ideas or the transcript of an interview. It is from this perspective that I look anew at my primary sources from Berkeley and Penn in order to keep in sight the main goal of my honors thesis: how did Punjabis’ view of society change across classes during the late colonial period through interaction with socialist and communist-aligned thought and action.

In terms of further research, I have access to a variety of relevant primary sources through the Van Pelt stacks and the Kislak Center. For example, the letters of Har Dayal, a prominent social intellectual who was involved with the founding of Ghadar, to Van Wyck Brooks are stored at Kislak and reveal his predominant concerns for achieving independence in India and uniting the Punjabi workers in California for this cause. There are also many compiled materials on communism in India on the stacks that contain primary sources on people associated with Ghadar and/or Punjab. I hope to bridge the analysis of these primary sources with my argument along with finding other routes to explain the transforming views on Indian society in the 1910s and 1920s. While there is a lot of written literature on what people thought, I am hoping to find more sources on the labor-side of radicalization which was similarly an alarming trend in major cities like Lahore for the administrative government of Punjab. Were intellectuals involved with organizing labor in either agrarian or industrial regions? What was the mentality of those involved with labor unions and rioting? Did their goals align with the freedom struggle or were they focused on fiscal adjustments? Was there ever a political agenda that meshed the motives of the laborers and social philosophers or were they inevitably bifurcated? These are questions that are often avoided in scholarship about leftist radicalization, despite the fact that it is necessary to address them in order to understand the actual and perceived social transformations in colonial Punjab. Moreover, the obstacles facing the socialist and communist organizations of the time help understand their fate in post-partition India.

My experience doing research this summer has helped me gain skills important for all types of research and writing. One of the most important things I learned was deceptively simple: one must not hold strongly onto the ideas developed about a topic before researching it. While it is common to warn students to shed their preconceptions and prejudices, it is impossible to wash the entire slate of the researcher’s imagination before entering into the real work of research since the very interest in the research blossomed first abstractly, not empirically. And yet, history builds upon evidence that is for the most part recorded instances and observations. This battle between the theoretical pull of the researcher and the sea of particularities in which the researcher must immerse in is a common one, most likely experienced by a range of researchers from cognitive scientists to literary theorists. For history, it is an especially testing one since all that history can explain is that which has occurred, though history does utilize theories from other disciplines to better understand general trends. With the knowledge of the researcher’s dilemma, I step into my thesis project with the awareness of its inherent complexities and strive to not impose any of my own unconscious beliefs onto the historical narrative. I now understand that this requires extensive knowledge of primary sources so there do not exists sizable gaps in the narrative that require an approximation inevitably conditioned by my own beliefs.

From this point, I will conclude with what the structure of my thesis project looks like so far. I realized that I could not give a narrative about socialist-aligned organization without a dive into the social and economic history of Punjab. This historical context aims to ascribe a cause to their growing adherence to radicalism that may not be isolated to just the atmosphere of California in which Ghadar was founded. Much of the mentality of Punjabis was shaped by pre-colonial and colonial norms and practices that became increasingly tested when they sought to migrate and reside in foreign lands. After providing this context, the central piece of my thesis is a targeted study of Punjabis involved with Ghadar and the reception to its revolutionary action in the years following. Finally, I will transition in the last part of the paper into how the ideology of Ghadar morphed into a diverse offspring of ideologies in Punjab that was most dominantly influenced by Soviet communism. General themes in the paper include the tension between educational and violent methods of radicalization, the merging and diverging of laboring and educated classes within radical organizations, the relationship between economy and morality in Punjab, and the influence of anarchist and communist thought on the freedom struggle. Throughout my writing process, I will hone in on the significance of these themes to the people involved in radical organizations and action since the changed consciousness I witness in the writings of this period arises only with the real participation of people.

My tips for future Aravind-ers 

Fri, 08/25/2023 - 04:21

Now that my time at Aravind is over, I’d like to write something that I wish I had before even applying to the CASI internship. I present to you: the blog I wish I had read, to be enjoyed not just by future Aravind interns, but by all readers who seek to pursue work they find meaningful. 

Advice specific to Aravind

What even is CASI’s internship at Aravind? Before applying, I envisioned activities like handing doctors tools in the operating theater and attending managerial staff meetings—basically raw observation and learning. This was not entirely correct. After learning about what past interns did and being introduced to the type of engagements I would be involved with, I finally received clarity on the concept of project work at Aravind. 

In my opinion, the most important qualities that an Aravind intern can have are curiosity, initiative, and the ability to work with others. Curious interns will constantly inquire about different aspects of Aravind, which will provide more context for problem-solving in project work. They will take meticulous notes on everything they learn and ask questions to answer to even the smallest of doubts. Interns who take initiative will never hesitate to reach out to the next person or conduct their next investigation. Everyone at Aravind works very hard already, so successful CASI interns should not spend their time in idleness. Working with others is important because interns benefit immensely from frequent contact with mentors and collaboration with project stakeholders. Being able to join forces with others will give interns new ideas from experts and significantly multiply the manpower required to drive a project to completion. Taken together, when applying for the CASI internship at Aravind, applicants should highlight diverse interests, any previous work done with mentors, and examples of leading a team. Although this may appear to be an obvious piece of advice, I cannot emphasize enough how much these qualities can help in Aravind project work and predict how successful an intern will be. 

Upon arriving at Aravind, all CASI interns are stationed in the Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology (LAICO), Aravind’s outreach and consultancy facility located right next to the hospital. That being said, Aravind project work emphasizes consultancy and research—there is not much work for interns to do on the clinical side (as I initially assumed) , although they certainly can observe the clinic as often as they would like. In the first week, interns are given descriptions of projects that LAICO faculty would like to see completed. Concurrently, meetings with all the key leaders at Aravind are arranged, and interns can develop ideas for projects based off of discussions that emerge from these meetings.  

My recommendation for interns is to immediately start on a project assigned by LAICO faculty—even if it does not appear totally intriguing at first glance—instead of spending too much time brainstorming a totally original project idea. I say this for a couple of reasons. The first is that Aravind is already such a magnificent institution that has optimized so many of its functions. It is up to LAICO faculty, not interns like us, to decide what Aravind needs; in fact, anything that’s missing in Aravind is likely missing for a reason (for example, Aravind does not keep detailed financial records of each specialty because it is not interested in profit-making branches). The second reason is that projects clearly defined by LAICO faculty are more straightforward. Even though you still might struggle through project work, you will be able to find answers to your questions, and the probability for success is higher. The last reason is that the primary purpose of Aravind is to educate. Even if your project does not captivate you in the beginning, you will grow to enjoy it due to the sheer amount of knowledge you gain about Aravind and yourself. You needn’t worry about the fear of missing out on other aspects of Aravind you’re curious about, as you will likely learn about them anyway to provide more context for your specific project. At the end of the day, you are at Aravind to learn, and your project will be what you have to show for it. 

Habits

If asked if I would change anything about my internship, I would probably list a couple of things whose contents can be distilled into two categories: intention and confidence.

I learned early on that acting with intention would ensure all the conditions necessary for success. At the very beginning of my time at Aravind, my supervisor Srilakshmi Ma’am would arrange meetings between me and Aravind leaders and always check to make sure I prepared a list of questions and talking points before each meeting. I have been attaching a list of questions to every email I send to an Aravind superior ever since—a habit I’ll likely continue whenever I reach out to those who are more knowledgable than myself. Being intentional about the knowledge I wanted to learn has been an exercise in thinking more critically about my project and having more productive conversations. In the same way, I think that being intentional about achieving the end goal of an Aravind project right at the start prepares interns to blaze through project work by discovering the right next steps. The next steps, however, are not always clear. That’s when it becomes important to maintain frequent meetings with mentors. During my internship, I was nervous to reach out to my mentors if I didn’t have new results to present, or if I did not know what kinds of questions to ask. However, looking back, I would have still consulted with mentors frequently even if I had nothing new to say. Having a meeting with a mentor and potentially receiving direction for future steps is so much more valuable than having no meeting at all. In such a case, although you might have no formalized agenda, choosing to meet with a mentor would still be an instance of intentionality towards moving along project progress. The last element I’ll mention in which intentionality is important is environment. I noticed that whenever I sat in the LAICO training cell, I would always be trudging through menial tasks like data analysis that, while comfortable and admittedly necessary, did not move me significantly further in my project. However, shifting my workspace to the clinic whenever I wished to make hospital observations changed my productivity. In the hospital, I could see the problem my project sought to address (long waiting times) unfold before my eyes, and I was energized by the urgency and initiative of hospital workers. In addition, I could also speak to people who played many different roles (such as doctors, administrators, and even patients), which gave me a lot of new perspectives to work with. It was only in the hospital that I received revelations that shifted the trajectory of my project and gave me ideas for implementation. Being intentional about the type of impact you want to have therefore requires being intentional about the environment in which you situate yourself. 

In order to sustain stamina in the long process of project work, interns will need unwavering self-confidence, even in the face of doubt about project-related ideas. Initially, my biggest hindrance in my project work was believing that an idea could not be implemented. But after speaking with LAICO faculty who told me that “no problem is ever too big,” I was encouraged to constantly brainstorm new ideas and attempt implementations of even the most outlandish ones. Having greater certainty about how to execute project work also helps. The first step in achieving this certainty comes before the project is even executed: choosing a project idea. A successful project should have clearly defined parameters and not be too complex. For example, “decreasing patient waiting times” is a broad goal that can quickly become very complex. However, “investigating causes of long patient waiting times” is a specific aspect of decreasing patient waiting times that can be more easily elaborated upon. The next step is knowing how to carry out project work. Before carrying out my implementation, I wish I had drafted a paragraph detailing the methods of my study. If approved by LAICO faculty, this methods draft could have served as a blueprint that informed every step of my project work. The final step is the implementation itself. As my project supervisor Dhivya Ma’am informed me, implementation of project work is supposed to be an iterative cycle of carrying out many mini implementations. After each iteration, the implementation can be tweaked to test additional theories or yield even more optimized results. The key is to act early and often. Doing so will help identify mistakes early in the implementation process and set the stage for future changes to be carried out on a more massive scale. 

Relationships

Aravind introduced me to many very interesting individuals who helped me tremendously through my internship journey. Forming relationships is a crucial part of the Aravind internship, not just for the benefit of project work, but also for personal enrichment. 

To form these relationships, there must be a conscious effort to mingle with others and learn their stories. Aravind’s work schedule provides opportunities to do so. Every day, there are two 30-minute tea breaks in which everyone, perhaps slightly burned out by work, congregates in the canteen to enjoy yummy snacks in a relaxed atmosphere. It is impossible not to speak to others during these times. Haphazardly wandering into tea breaks has led me to conversations that introduced me to people who gave me new ideas and helped me with my project implementation. For example, after a tea break conversation with Jerrome Sir from the Biostatistics Department, I submitted a research proposal (with his help) that now enables me to continue stay involved with Aravind, even after my internship has ended. These tea break conversations also provide the chance to get to know people at Aravind outside of a work context and learn about the interesting lives they lead. As a direct result of tea breaks, I have learned about the everyday experiences of ophthalmology fellows, joined doctors and Aravind leadership in delicious dinners, and gone on morning hikes with LAICO faculty. The people who work at Aravind are very special, and one of the internship’s greatest selling points is that it provides golden opportunities to meet them. 

Why is it so important to form relationships at Aravind? In order for a project to have a lasting impact, it must have the support of someone that actively works in the system who can ensure its day-to-day implementation. The completion of a project is seldom accomplished by one person; rather, it is accomplished by a team. What then matters is getting the other members of your team to care enough about the project that they make it a priority in their schedules. This can only be done through continuous communication and a positive relationship. 

Me together with other interns and faculty at Aravind on a morning hike

I’m grateful for all the tidbits of wisdom I’ve learned at Aravind, and I really hope that they can help you too. To all readers: if you ever have any questions about Aravind or my experience this summer, please don’t hesitate to reach out! 

Me together with Ashna and Dr. Meri, who I will be continuing to work with outside of my time at Aravind

A hunt for broken images continues – part 2

Thu, 08/24/2023 - 19:48

The Indian stone and bronze images are known for their beautiful style and intricate details. These objects have been studied primarily through an art-historical approach as they are analysed for their stylistic and iconographical features. Besides this, the inscriptions which sometimes are found carved on the pedestal or halo of a stele are mined for valuable pieces of information such as donor’s identity and its time period suggested in the mention of a reigning year of a king or through paleographic examination. Their multiple lives from the point of their making and initial installation onward tend to be even more fascinating. Art historians like to discuss the lives undergone by these objects during the chains of acquisitions and displays across the globe.

But there’s a whole other layer to these objects that often goes unnoticed. Their lives of transformation while still under worship, phases of moving these objects as the temple or monastic complexes were renovated or replaced, phases of repairs possibly followed by another set of activation ritual, being buried away whether discarded or abandoned owing to a number of reasons rituals around which, if any, remain unknown. In the absence of accessible research on the subject, popular histories of different kinds take over, fueling simplistic understanding of encounters across religious traditions in form of blatant iconoclasm. In my CASI blogs, I have shared with you analysis from my work which complicates our understanding of the damaged images. In this final blog, I continue with the same inquiry but specifically on two additional lives I am exploring for the sake of these objects which always leave me awe-struck for their tangled histories.

REPAIR

Have religious images always been repaired in India? Unsure, and there hasn’t been any research on the topic. Besides touch-ups, very rarely actually. One would hear priests of today quoting scriptural texts and what-nots to argue that damaged images are not to be worshipped. Yet, it’s not an uncommon sight to find discarded and broken religious imagery under a tree (not in the main shrine but still within close vicinity) being worshiped by everyone who enters the premises. It appears that this act of discarding is not exactly absolute. It is entirely possible that a new shrine may come up at this exact spot in future which finally replaces all these discarded images. A wealthy businessmen or a handsome pool of donation ensures a fresh and ‘perfect’ image be installed in the new shrine. In that scenario the earlier discarded-yet-worshiped images may finally be discarded and likely immersed in a water body as their appropriate farewell or kept aside as historical artifacts (temples turning into museums) as I noticed in the Vishnupad temple of Gaya (Bihar) during my recent visit.

The Vishnupad temple is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over India annually for death rituals related to one’s deceased family members. The current temple was built by Ahilya Bai Holkar, the queen of Indore in Central India, in the eighteenth century CE. The many priests in the many small-big shrines of the complex will tell you that it has existed since the time of Mahabharta and Ramayana, the timeless epics of India. The antiquity of the region does go as far as the Chalcolithic period while the religious imagery in themselves within the complex dates to a range of seventh-thirteenth century CE. These are mostly Brahmanical images which were reportedly brought to the temple from neighboring villages when the new temple was being constructed by the queen. These black-stone images of earlier period are regarded highly as svayambhu (self-manifested) idols since for the present-day believers they have always been there without a record of their sculpting by human hands. Inscriptions, if present, adds to the mystery as besides the experts no one understands the script or the language. Therefore, obviously, hundreds of these older decaying idols provided legitimacy to the new temple of being timeless and divinely most potent that the freshly sculpted objects could never have. Most possibly, not all of these images were intact to begin with or got damaged when this transfer was undertaken. Crude repairs such as shown in the following image are seen on these images.

A crude repair example (notice head and crown) from the Mahabodhi complex in Gaya, Bihar (India).

Such crude repairs are seen in several places. The repairs that I am more interested in were performed by rather skillful hands. These look like the following example of a Narasimha Vishnu image from the Vishnupad temple which I found to have now been replaced by a freshly carved imitation. The original image is now kept aside in a corner of one of the assembly halls along with other broken images which have similarly been ‘reduced’ to the status of historical antiquity from their earlier abodes of eponymous shrines. The traces of repair are obvious on this large stele in form of the grooves made by an artisan to fix another piece of stone using the pinning method.

10th century stone image of Narasimha Vishnu, Vishnupad Temple, Gaya (India). Details of grooves in insets.

Although it is difficult to date these repairs without a scientific analysis (hopefully in the future), just a quick glance reveals that these were done by a sculptor who understood the material and its strength to hold another piece of object using whatever adhesive and pinning they were using. These grooves were made to hold a pin or dowel in place which would also fit the rest of the fragment in order to be joined together. An adhesive would have been applied to further strengthen this bond. Through my field observations and discussions with stone conservationists, I have narrowed down a couple possibilities to ascertain the material which was used for this purpose.

This discovery further affirms it for me that it were skillful artisans who were employed for repairs and most possibly were the same set of hands who carved these images locally. In simple words, the period of skillful carving overlapped with the practice of repairing. Another set of evidence which support this dating hypothesis are the archival photographs (they have really been saving the day for me lately). Over hundred years old, these photographs were taken during the early phases of excavation at various sites in Bihar including the Buddhist monastic site of Nalanda. One such photograph is shared below. These photographs reveal grooves in stone images while they were still in-situ (or their final spatial context until they were abandoned and got buried). The archaeological context reveals some of these images to belong to the seventh century CE while the others are stylistically dated to twelfth-thirteenth century CE. This suggests that the practice of repair was fairly common during these periods. My analysis also suggests that not all images were repaired. It were only the monumental or important images which carry these marks. Was it a practice to save resources or it was done in order to retain the ‘divine energy’ believed to be present in a specific object instead of replacing it anew? It is an ongoing inquiry of mine.

A fragmented stone image with grooves found during excavations at Nalanda (India). Courtesy: ASI, Nalanda Site Museum

RECYCLE

Recycling of material across religious or secular architectural spaces (spolia/spoliation) is very well explored in the Indian context.  That is due to the fact that the phenomenon itself is more obviously noticeable as you may observe from the photographs below. Additionally, the most significant of these examples are found at well-connected and popular sites such as the iconic Qutub Minar, situated in Delhi, the then capital of the medieval Sultanate dynasties. Other recorded examples are likewise populated in other regional capitals such as Pandua of medieval Bengal. The following image from the Adina Mosque in Pandua demonstrates a complete carving out of the anthropomorphic features while also remodeling the left-most feature of a multi-hooded serpentine or a protector deity into a vegetal motif.

Details of a carved temple arch recycled for the Adina mosque in Pandua (India).

Such transformations ought to be studied under the idea of recycling and not simply a reuse. The artisans and patrons were aware of this difference clearly as the reused objects transformed into something very different in the process. For example, look at the details of a carved doorway found at Bangarh, not far from Pandua, now kept in the Bangladesh National Museum (Dhaka). Under that notion, the iconoclastic act of carving out the anthropomorphic features in itself transforms into something else. Was it resourcefulness? Or an aesthetic re-imagined and re-chiseled through an Islamic angle? (Interestingly, the door jamb seem to have been again repurposed for a Hindu shrine with new additions before it was carried to the museum – details of which are not visible in the following photograph). Considering another example, how is recycling of an Ashokan pillar by a Hindu Gupta King of the fourth century CE different from that of yet another Ashokan pillar by a fourteenth-century Muslim Sultan to his newly built fort? (Aside, read here the fascinating description of the transportation of the pillar over land and water to Delhi along with illustrations, found in a chronicle).

Details of a carved temple arch recycled for the Bangarh Fort (India). Courtesy: Bangladesh National Museum

I am tempted to name this recurring pattern as the “capital phenomenon”. It’s a poor expression, I admit. It make it sound more like a finance-bro term rather than suggesting that such trends of recycling beautifully carved material into new buildings can be seen associated with grand constructions in new capitals of those regional or imperial kings who seek to make grand statement through such actions. Even in the spatial contexts which were not a capital perse, such trends are often observed in the ambitious undertakings sponsored by rich patrons (the term ‘capital’ stays relevant somehow). The prevalence of this phenomenon can be witnessed throughout South Asia, where numerous notable examples of such grand constructions using recycled material can be found.

Besides recycle and reuse in architectural spaces, the standalone steles are also known to have been recycled while not as frequently. A notable instance of this can be observed in the mihrab from Naogon (Bangladesh), now kept in the Varendra Research Museum. This mihrab is made of multiple individual stone blocks that, when viewed from rear, reveal carved depictions of Brahmanical deities – Vishnu, Surya, and Shiva. Deliberate removal of facial features is evident on all these images. While one iconoclast may discard anthropomorphic images entirely, these instances underscore another trend of transforming and re-purposing carved images with an intent to also display them in their mutilated form. Is it therefore a power move to establish regional dominance of Muslims over its Brahmanical counterparts? It is a feasible argument and explains a recurring phenomenon which has been analyzed in detail by several experts (foremost of them being Finbarr B. Flood, Alka Patel, Elizabeth Lambourn, Richard Davis, Pushkar Sohoni and so on).

Front and Rear view of a Mihrab from Naogaon (Bangladesh). Courtesy: Varendra Research Museum, Bangladesh

Within the context of these observed trends of breakages, repair, and recycling, a distinctive array of conclusions has emerged regarding the primary impetus behind these damages. Some conclusions make sense for one region and not for the other. The traces of iconoclastic events co-exist with that of recycle. The traces of repair occur in the regions where battering and decays of images are far more common while iconoclasm is almost negligible. And, when carefully examined the seemingly deliberate damages can hardly be seen as iconoclastic mutilations. The factor of geography thus has proven as the key in facilitating a nuanced interpretation of a subject that is prone to simplistic analysis.

With these lengthy posts and at times rambling thought process, I sign off. I am excited for the segment of my dissertation where all these rich images and thick interpretations will converge.

#fantastically-nerve-wrecking

Related posts:

A hunt for broken images begins! A hunt for broken images continues – part 1

A hunt for broken images continues – part 1

Thu, 08/24/2023 - 19:47

July 4: Here is Shaashi again, updating you all, after finishing 34 days of snap-snap field trips in eastern India and Bangladesh.

Aug 4: Back in Philly, hoping to update everyone soon not just on my analysis from the field-trips but also the photo archival research at the ASI Headquarter I squeezed in during the month of July in Delhi.

With these introductory sentences, I would have begun my mid-summer and the final post for 2023 summer work if to-do lists moved forward as smoothly as one had hoped. Post-field analysis of the data carefully collected during the super-packed weeks of exploration often consumes many more precious night-hours of energy reserves and more brain cells than the long walks in sweltering heat of the humid monsoon summer. Nevertheless, finishing two very successful months of research are bringing home many a theories and questions I raised in my project proposal (official and unofficial combined). A couple of those theories came out to be nothing short of conspiracy theories in hindsight. Such is the course of an inquiry. So I persist.

Looking through the patterns of damage and repair in early medieval stone images on this trip has been quite a journey. It was only possible because of the administrative support I received at over 19 major and minor museums in the two countries, and two generous summer grants – CASI’s and the Penn Museum Field Fund. Therefore, I want to begin by thanking everyone in the archaeology departments in India and Bangladesh as well as folks at CASI and the Penn Museum who have guided and encouraged me throughout this period.

A map showing all the places I visited in June 2023. The map illustrates the political borders of India in its east and the whole of Bangladesh.

BROKEN: INTENTIONAL VS ACCIDENTAL

As shared previously, in assessing categories of broken I am thinking of intentional damage to a stone artifact vs accidental damages due to structural collapse which might be due to different reasons such as structural collapse caused by an earthquake or weakened superstructure in absence of regular maintenance. It can also be caused by supposedly non-catastrophic acts of moving objects from one place to another which happens when an idol needs to be transferred to a new, usually enlarged, shrine in place of an older one. Intentional damages, on the other hand, are better understood through the acts of iconoclasm.

The word iconoclasm as an intentional process of destroying images to an effect first appeared in the context of Christian principles against heretical making and worshiping of divine images during the eighth and ninth centuries CE under the Byzantine empire. However, its traces in different forms are known throughout history spread across the globe and continues to happen to this day. Why? Because images (or simply objects) as icons and idols hold enormous symbolic power and always have. An iconoclastic act may include smashing the image as a whole or targeting specific features such as face, arms, etc in an effort to deactivate and thus effectively ‘kill’ the icon. The latter is furthermore distinct than the former as the image may continue to be used especially with some repair.

In the context of the Indian subcontinent the act of Islamic iconoclasm receives an overwhelming attention. However, the presence of broken images deposited in archaeological layers before the advent of Islam in the region and historical records of intentional blows at temples and the images kept within them demonstrates that such acts predate the coming in of the infamous iconoclasts.  One such iconoclast was Bhaktiyar Khilji, the notorious guy to whom all the broken idols in the eastern India are associated with. The other contender are groups of Shaiva or Tirthika ascetics who have been recorded as violent towards heterodox practices of Buddhists and Jains (although they remain to be a less explored group of iconoclasts). Broken images continue to come up in diggings around the villages of Bihar and West Bengal in eastern India. A sweeping statement blaming an individual like Bhaktiyar Khilji or Muslims, broadly, to explain these damages is not only historically inaccurate but proves as fodder to the fire of communal tensions which have been on rise in India in the recent times.

Then, what is a better approach to making sense of these damages?  A few explanations can be offered: a. objects were accidentally broken while transporting or during reinstallation and were therefore discarded; b. objects were ‘ritually killed’ or made ‘inactive’ by breaking certain features as discussed above, often followed by their burial; c. damages due to being dumped into earth with other stone piles in an effort to hide them away from or by the iconoclasts of the medieval period or perhaps hidden away from or by the looters during the colonial period as interest for their antiquity grew in the global art market. The latter two points of ritual killing and consequently thrown into the ground might be interconnected in certain scenarios when such acts were carried out by the followers of faiths other than the one promoted by the idols in questions.

An archival photograph showing 1917 excavation in progress at the now-UNESCO site of Nalanda Buddhist Monastery (India). Courtesy: ASI

RESULTS: INTENTIONAL OR ACCIDENTAL OR COLLATERAL

*More detailed analysis of these patterns will become part of my dissertation discussion. I intend to only share the more accessible results in this blog.

In a close study of early medieval sculptural art from the collections of the 19 museums and over 34 additional sites, documented during my summer fieldwork in the eastern Indian subcontinent, categories of breakages and repairs were juxtaposed. In this step geographical concentration of these categories was also taken into account without which one cannot fully understand this phenomenon. For example, damages in one region might be due to an earthquake while the other region, far from the epicenter, would have instead seen series of attacks from a violent mob/army.

In results it became clear that phenomenon like intentional battering of faces and busts is far more common in Bihar than in West Bengal and Bangladesh based sites. Similarly, the practice of repair is overwhelmingly concentrated in the very same regions of Bihar. Finally, the iconoclastic and thus intentional breakages could only be noted in six instances out of easily 2,000 objects (extremely humble count). I identified these based on overt blows to all anthropomorphic carvings on single piece of stone image. In a later analysis with archival material, three of these images became questionable which I have explained below using photographs.

Intentional damage itself can be borne out of two modes of destruction. One where the perpetrator(s) had a full or partial understanding of the icon they were desecrating and thus deactivating. The other would be when the damaged objects are collateral of an attack on the structure where they were housed. It is rather difficult to distinguish the latter from the damage caused by earthquake or collapse of a dilapidated superstructure if no information on structural history is available. However, the former mode of intentional damage could be identified through a close inspection of the blows such as careful chopping off of facial features. Repeated chisel marks would be another giveaway, however, they tend to fade away over a period of time owing to stone type and especially if the object was under worship for a long time post the episode(s) of vandalism. Regular rubbing of vermillion, milk, oil and other material used in Hindu rituals are known to erode carved features on even the more recently made images. What do these intentional and careful chopping-offs look like?

Vishnu, Belwa (Bihar), c. 11th-12th century CE. Now at the Bihar Museum, Patna (India). Courtesy: Bihar Museum

Let’s look at this image of Vishnu for example. This six-feet tall stone image was found from Belwa (Siwan, Bihar), a hundred miles away from its current location in the gallery of the new Bihar Museum in Patna (Bihar). One can cursorily notice that all the heads, whether of the central or the accompanying figurines, are missing. Does this make it a case of iconoclasm and thus intentional damage? It might, except for the fact that the central figure’s hands and weaponry are also absent. This could indicate a scenario where all protruding elements suffered damage from an external blow, including the delicate necks of the human figures. There is no shortcut to fully understand the leading causes to such damages without an understanding of the archaeological and historical context. In this specific example it would require one to trace the exact provenance of the said Vishnu image and examine if similar blows are seen on the other images. An argument can be reached based on their distinguishing patterns of intentional vs accidental damages.  In the absence of such a context and lack of obvious chisel marks on the stone, an act of iconoclasm or vandalism cannot and should not be declared.

To further strengthen this reasoning, let’s consider another image. This one is a colossal stone image of Buddha with aṣṭamahāpratihārya depiction (eight miraculous events) at Jagdispur’s Rukministhan, not far from the UNESCO site of Nalanda Buddhist Monastery in Bihar. The image currently shows damage to multiple smaller Buddha heads around the stele. On initial observation, one might infer deliberate mutilation, especially since these peripheral images seem safeguarded by the pedestals of the carvings above (highlighted using white rectangles in the collage below) and thus are not the most protruded and vulnerable features. While some heads, including the central figure’s, have remained untouched, this discrepancy is usually explained through the argument that not all figures needed to be beheaded. Why behead some and leave others? It’s not a futile question to explore. Only that the iconoclastic angle becomes less probable as an archival photograph from 1915-18 shows most of these Buddha heads intact. I found two such photographs in my archival work at the ASI Headquarter (Archaeological Survey of India, Delhi) in July. Fortunately, the digital scans of these photographs and permissions came in my inbox just today morning. My edited composition below highlights in yellow the heads of smaller Buddhas which were found to be intact in the 1915-18 photographs (on the right) but are missing in the 2023 photograph (on the left).

A photo-collage showcasing the colossal Rukministhan Buddha image as photographed in 2023 (left) vs in 1915-18 (right). Left-side archival photograph courtesy ASI. Edits are mine.

This discovery indicates that the present damages are likely not the outcome of religious persecution during the medieval period, as previously speculated. It’s plausible that these damages either resulted from mishandling at some point or decay subsequent to the ASI photograph’s date. An even more compelling theory could be that these damages represent remnants of a hurried theft attempt targeting the smaller Buddha heads, which is unfortunately a recurring issue in Bihar. A recent photo documentation by locals vividly illustrating such vandalism explains this more clearly. In the village of Mustafapur, also adjacent to the Nalanda excavation site, a stone Buddha image was found mutilated by villagers in 2014, prompting them to file a theft attempt report with the local police using these photographs.

A photo-collage showing photographs of the Mustafapur Buddha image before and after a theft attempt in 2014. Credit: http://nalanda-insatiableinoffering.blogspot.com/2014/01/vandalisation-of-buddhas-statue-at.html

If one were to encounter this Buddha image unaware of the theft attempt, an iconoclastic angle can easily be established. This is exactly why I am ever more careful in my conclusions. I would even say that I feel most confident in my research when things are complicated because they always are. If one is getting a straightforward answer, it is probably missing the bigger picture, ‘the rich and thick data’. My summer fieldwork has magnified this perspective manifold.

In my exploration of damaged artifacts I have come across not only the popular narrative but also the hidden nuances that underscore their existence in the first place. As this hunt for broken images in the eastern Indian subcontinent continues, I invite you to follow the part 2 of this post. Continuing along the same trail, I will explore the other two intriguing trends associated with damaged images: the practices of repairing and recycling. This will further complicate the notion of iconoclasm in the Indian context.

Related posts:

A hunt for broken images begins! A hunt for broken images continues – part 2

Monsoon Season

Wed, 08/23/2023 - 17:04

I started brainstorming ideas for this blog back in mid-July, which was the beginning of monsoon season in India. Back then, when I decided to meet some intern friends for dinner on a characteristically monsoon-y evening, I saw a lot of what monsoon seasons inflict upon the daily realities of Indians: chronic unavailability of roadside transportation, rain flying in all directions, and unlucky cars stuck in the mud. Most memorable of all was the extent of water logging due to the lack of drainage infrastructure on roads. Like the monsoon rains, my thoughts about Aravind during the past six weeks have deluged my headspace, and this blog is an opportunity to relieve the water logging of my brain folds. 

Changing Directions

Monsoons form as a result of seasonal temperature differences between the land and the ocean, which causes a shift in the direction of winds. As for myself during my time in India and Aravind, my thinking and lifestyle experienced just as turbulent of a shift in direction. 

The most immediate change I felt was the difference between my school schedule at university and my work schedule at Aravind. Every waking hour of my typical day at Penn was spent being a full-time student, but at Aravind, there was a clear distinction between work within the hours of 9AM to 6PM and daily life outside of those hours. The fact that the separation of work and life was baked into the schedules of even Aravind’s busiest administrators increased my admiration for Aravind: everyone there was committed to the demanding mission of eradicating blindness, but outside of work, they were people too. 

Then, there was the shift in culture. In the U.S., my experience with professionalism has been shaped by propriety and deference towards superiors. However, at Aravind, although I highly respected my superiors, I always felt treated as an equal no matter who I spoke to—and this sentiment was felt among other Aravind doctors and managers who I met. Aravind’s most respected leaders had the effect of making people shift in their seats upon merely entering a room, but they never condescended to others and always remained humble. Those in Aravind’s C-suite dressed just like any ordinary person, and their offices were located right alongside those of workers like me and even the patients who visited the hospital. I felt great respect for Aravind’s culture of humility. At the same time, I also felt perfectly at home—especially when Dr. Kim, the Chief Medical Officer, playfully slapped my back or punched my shoulder. 

However, the most notable change was in the type of work in which I was engaged. My summer at Aravind was spent mainly in project work, which sought to decrease patient visit duration times in its high-volume retina clinic. The concept of project work was unlike anything in my straightforward university schedule, where there was always a script for what to do. Still, I tried to make as many analogies to my previous experiences as possible. For example, tackling my project was like solving a problem set in math or physics. I was given many clues and tasked to find an answer using all the formulas for success I could remember. But what made my project work so much more enticing than a problem set was its entanglement with active fieldwork: it was up to me to observe the hospital, ask questions to doctors and administrative personnel, and meet with senior faculty in Aravind’s consultancy branch in order to finagle my way to a solution. 

Aravind creates an environment that every scholar and problem-solver should crave. At the same time, working at Aravind was very humbling. Aravind’s high-achieving environment and mammoth legacy taught me early on in the internship that my experience would be defined more by what I take away and learn than by what I leave behind. This, however, was only the first of the many revelations that came to me. The rest poured in like a flood as my project work accelerated.  

Flood

Just as a monsoon flood drowns crops in its wake, my work at Aravind initially overwhelmed me. It was difficult to keep up with the many new individuals and concepts that had suddenly occupied the spotlight of my thoughts. In this flood of people and ideas, I was prone to making mistakes. 

(To be clear, I’m not describing my mistakes because I think my project was a failure. In fact, these mistakes were invaluable stimulants for my project’s trajectory and personal development, so I think they should be made known to all readers.)

My first mistake was a “fatal flaw” that plagues every protagonist of a tragic play: hubris. I came into the revolutionary Aravind Eye Care System expecting to take on a project that would move mountains; after all, this summer was an incredible opportunity to directly impact patients in the world’s largest eye hospital. However, seeking to always maximize impact misled me into setting over-ambitious goals and defining hazy parameters for success. I, along with the rest of the Aravind interns, initially hoped to take on multiple projects (as well as even engagements outside of Aravind!) to satisfy my cravings for meaningful work, but I quickly realized that even attempting to complete a single project would require my entire summer’s worth of time and focus. Decreasing the retina department’s average waiting time was one of Aravind’s most difficult challenges, and at first, I had no detailed plan for implementing an intervention. However, I was convinced that the solution had to be revolutionary. Mired in this conviction, I initially refused to see small improvements and strived towards major changes. Specifically, I believed that Aravind’s wealth of data from electronic medical records would reveal the grand mystery of its retina department’s long wait times—and along with it, an innovative idea for implementation. Waiting for this great revelation led to me to my second mistake: spending too much time on analysis and ultimately stagnant rumination. I was so convinced that a solution would be revealed to me if only I looked at the data long enough that I spent way more hours at the office desk than in the hospital, where I wanted to be. I wish I had budgeted more of my time towards meeting with mentors, brainstorming with doctors and administrators, and observing what was actually happening in the clinic. Consequently, my third mistake was that I did not act quickly or frequently enough. Fixated on data analysis, I kept delaying action, waiting for when the time was “right.” Yet, all the while, I could have been implementing mini iterations of an intervention or actively asking hospital staff about what they needed. While it’s true that thorough analysis could have led me to a more accurate understanding of Aravind’s challenges, small but frequent actions—even ones backed only by incomplete data—definitely could have moved me farther along in my project. 

My final deliverables after meeting with many project stakeholders and ultimately partnering up with Ashna were a list of standard operating procedure graphics and standardized clinical rules to reduce error-induced wait times, as well as a research proposal to investigate causative factors of long patient visit durations. Using my previous analogy again, my project at Aravind was like a really, really tricky problem set. I did not know where to start, and even now, I’m not sure that I have even found a satisfactory answer. But as with any problem set, my attempts at navigating to a solution forced me to think harder and reflect on where things went wrong. In another post, I plan to enumerate all these reflections for the benefit of readers and future Aravind interns.

I dealt with complicated emotions at Aravind. Although I sometimes grew frustrated with myself and doubtful of my abilities, I also felt proud when I figured out how to problem-solve and found meaningful fulfillment in my learning. Monsoon floods can be overwhelming. At the same time, they are essential for nurturing the growth of crops that are necessary for civilization to thrive. Aravind, with all its challenges, promoted growth for my thinking in the same way.

Growth

One of the most nourishing pieces of wisdom that Aravind has given me is the understanding that even if I may not be able to help everyone or do everything, I can at least help someone or do something. I think that’s what’s so incredible about being at Aravind—while measuring impact may not be so straightforward in other professions, at the end of the day, an Aravind doctor or faculty member can look a patient in the eye and know that their actions have turned that patient’s life around.

A mere intern like myself is also capable of making an impact at Aravind. Even helping just one junior doctor or shaving the wait time of one patient is significant; summed over the course of many weeks with Aravind’s high patient volumes, these tiny morsels of change accumulate to a sizable difference. It just takes patience to finally see results—a lesson that required time and humility for me to learn. Upon first entering Aravind, I naively believed that my project would move mountains. Yet it was unfair of my ego to place myself on such a high plane of expectation. The key, I have learned, is to go into a project with no preconceptions, but build small realistic goals as progress is made—kind of like accomplishing a reasonable New Year’s Resolution. Instead of striving to be a 10 right at the start, you start at 0 and see how high you can go as you progress, all the while learning more about your work and expanding the scope of your goals with each small improvement. Had this iterative way of thinking governed my project’s trajectory, I think my mind would have been less clouded by excessively ambitious goals, endless cycles of questions, and ultimately self-doubt. 

In my opinion, the greatest asset Aravind has to offer is this: in exchange for your project work and time, you get to learn an incredible amount about not just how special Aravind is, but also how special you are. Learning about Aravind’s inner workings has informed me about the kind of environment that makes effective healthcare possible, and it has also taught me about the kind of person I want to become. For instance, I learned that I like getting my hands dirty at the site where all the work happens (i.e. at the hospital rather than in the office) and that I really enjoy interacting with different kinds of people. This insight, along with my fascinating conversations with medical officers and fellows in the clinic, has made me more sure that I want to pursue a path in medicine and spread Aravind’s legacy in any way possible, just like the doctors and leaders that steer Aravind in the course of its vision. Aravind formed a big part of me this summer, and I want Aravind to always be a part of my future. I’m sure that my co-interns and others who have passed through Aravind’s gates feel the same way.

Aravind has no doubt been one of the most exciting, challenging, unexpected, and rewarding journeys that I was lucky enough to experience. But in fact, this journey is not over. To continue with the monsoon season metaphor, a monsoon is not a one-time occurrence—dry and wet seasons continuously alternate as monsoon winds inexorably shift across the atmosphere. Like a farmer anticipating the next monsoon season, I look forward to seeing how Aravind may resurface in my future and precipitate the next cycle of changing direction, flood, and finally growth. 

A Tale of Two Cities.

Fri, 08/18/2023 - 00:58

To unpack aspirations and responses of the Muslim community in the current political climate, I chose Delhi & Surat (Gujarat) as my sites of study this summer. Both cities have a sizeable Muslim population and are ruled by different political parties (AAP & BJP respectively) at the state level. Additionally, Delhi’s multi-cultural background and recent memory of the 2020 riots made it an important case-study, particularly to test out transnational migration aspirations of urban Muslim youth as a response to the socio-political climate. I selected Surat as a comparative case, as it has a large visibly-Muslim population and past work has highlighted how certain medieval port towns of Gujarat experienced lower incidences of inter-group (Hindu-Muslim) violence in otherwise tense periods due to extant economic complementarities (Jha 2013). Given these historical legacies, I would hypothesize that migration aspirations (a form of non-political response to politics) would be voiced at a differential rate in Delhi compared to Surat due to anxieties produced in the current environment, conditional on the degree of economic integration, while ability to migrate would vary based on economic endowment.

For the purpose of this study, I used both a snowball sampling strategy by contacting respondents through referrals and a random walk, in areas with a significant Muslim population in the two cities. Both sampling strategies had its own set of benefits and challenges. The former allowed for more detailed interviews as respondents felt more comfortable (with and without the referee’s presence), even though these interviews were harder to coordinate. The latter allowed for a more diverse sample (age, gender and socio-economic status wise) and needed more revisits and rapport-building time.

Despite the initial hypothesis, I found similar patterns across the two cities. While migration aspirations were limited to a particular socio-economic strata as anticipated, most of those respondents preferred moving to countries like Canada, Australia for permanent (or long-term migration). These are also countries which have been experiencing high rates of in-migration, particularly from Indian students in the past decade (Forbes 2023; Sydney Morning Herald 2022). Interviews with multiple travel agents and education/career counsellors suggest that most Indian students in general prefer these countries over the United States, which used to be the previous favorite out-migration destination, as they have relatively lenient visa policies and the demand for enrolment in courses in universities particularly for Canada has skyrocketed, especially post-covid. Youngsters mostly cite better economic prospects as the key reason to out-migrate while middle-aged respondents want youth to move out to escape the economic and political conditions and cite multiple examples of this increased occurrence in their extended network. While trans-national migration as an aspiration or a potential non-political response to politics is limited only to the economically endowed class, a rising form of adaptation comes in the form of self-censoring and political uninterest, and distancing.

Most of the interviews suggested self-reported spikes in self-censoring online, particularly on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. While many described how they experienced hateful comments online, others recalled losing close friends and acquaintances after sharing or engaging with political posts or news online. Yet others emphasized how they are afraid of state action or intimidation incase they voice discontent or dissent, while most mentioned how they continue to receive forwards in WhatsApp groups targeting Muslims. These anxieties echo in the form of hesitancy in regular in-person interactions as well. Ahmad*, a shopkeeper who kept praising BJP’s work on digitization, changed his responses the minute his non-Muslim acquaintance stepped away for a few minutes. He says “Dhanda bhi karna hai. Samaaj mein bhi rehna padhta hai. Humein inki taraf chalna padhta hai…. bahumat hai!” (We have to do business here. We have to stay here. So, we have to conform and behave, according to them…they have the majority!).

Many respondents also mentioned how they have reduced TV news consumption as well as social media consumption in the past few years. A group of women recalled how news-coverage in the early days of the pandemic impacted their visits to the neighborhood market, where their regular shopkeeper started keeping a separate bowl to collect money from Muslim customers. Others refrain from talking about politics and mention how they mostly focus on their work and are uninterested in politics (which is a common feature of other countries like the United States).

This first stage of exploratory fieldwork also suggests that political responses are largely limited to electoral participation, which was universal in the sample. Participation in protests, online activism and engagement was limited to a section of the urban youth, especially college students or recent graduates or those who come from politically connected families. In the next stages of this study, I intend to unpack how these responses vary depending on exposure to certain news items, news cycles and pack journalism, other incidents producing anxiety or a general behavior pattern.

*Name changed to protect respondent identity.

References

Anderson, Stuart. “Indian Immigration to Canada Has Tripled Since 2013.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2023/03/06/indian-immigration-to-canada-has-tripled-since-2013/ (August 18, 2023).

“Australia’s Booming Indian Diaspora.” https://www.smh.com.au/national/educated-ambitious-ever-more-powerful-how-indian-migration-is-changing-the-nation-20220628-p5axb6.html (August 18, 2023).

Jha, Saumitra. 2013. “Trade, Institutions, and Ethnic Tolerance: Evidence from South Asia.” American Political Science Review 107(4): 806–32.