CASI Student Blog
Three activities were essential to the pre-tourist economy of Fort Kochi in Kerala – fishing, coir, and spices. Of these three, only fishing survived the transition. The coir factories closed down, and spices are now sourced from Munnar and Idduki. Like farming, traditional fishing is a seasonal activity, and most commercial fishing shuts down for the monsoon season, which, in Kochi, is a good four months between June or July and September or October. During this period, fishing is a subsistence activity, with small catches, providing meals for the family, with very little to sell.View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Jul 24, 2019 at 9:53pm PDT
While the rest of the island gave way to tourism (advertisements for home-stays can be seen on almost every home), it appeared that the fishermen’s colonies to the South-West of the island had been spared the onslaught of tourist activity – or so I thought.View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Jul 11, 2019 at 1:00am PDT
What I found, instead, was a vibrant community that doubled as street vendors, among other jobs (including travelling salespersons, and office secretaries). There are, of course, many local street vendors that serve essential services of the local and residential community. These are mobile, peddling their wares and services while navigating the lanes of neighbourhood settlements. While their impact on the spatial form of the city is minimal, they are critical to the urban landscape.View this post on Instagram
These street vendors provide a daily litany of street calls for garbage collection, recycling services, and grocery delivery. When the informal meets the formal, suddenly no one talks of [il]legality, but rather of service provision and convenience. #informality @kudumbashree
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Aug 10, 2019 at 9:12pm PDT
This see-saw between lean and profitable fishing days resulted in a waterfront urban landscape dotted with street vendors. These are the vendors that service the tourists – I categorise them in four ways. First, are the small vendors who line the beach promenade. Not all of them are local, but many are regular – they visit and sell on the island when they have products to market. The locals among them are more likely to sell food and drinks.View this post on Instagram
After a long day I like to come to the sea face to watch the locals watch the tourists. It’s a strange dance of avoidance and engagement; the former to find a slice of quiet and the latter to make some money. The crows, however, prefer Indian tourists for the scraps of food. #streetview
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Jul 17, 2019 at 5:50am PDT
Second, are the more established ‘shops’ along the waterfront. They have permanent structures that double up as storage compartments. Some, as you see in the photograph below, on the Mattancherry waterfront, were lucky to have paved paths leading directly to the waterfront where tourists pay for boat rides. These vendors tend to be younger and may come from fishing communities, but do not actively practice fishing anymore.
Third, are the vendors in prime tourist areas, immediately opposite the Municipal Corporation office, the disembarkation point for the luxury cruises, and on-route to the mainland ferries. They sell clothes, food, local crafts – I saw a lot of wooden carved elephants, and necklaces. Many spoke multiple languages; one told me he was learning to count in Japanese because of the recent influx of Japanese tourists. Interviewing them was always a challenge because they were hard to pin down: “You know I went fishing with my father yesterday!” Unlike the others who can shut shop legally, or pick up and run with their goods in the event of a raid, this group are the most vulnerable. Their display racks and storage is on-site, and a loss of displayed and stored goods can mean a total loss of up to two months’ worth of stock purchase. Starting anew after a raid usually means downtime. As a result, most of these vendors work on multiple sites, and with multiple partners to mitigate their risks. There is a wide variety of age groups represented here – from the very young to the very old. The last time they faced an eviction was about 18 months ago, they tell me, but they are fighting the case in court. Their appeal to the authorities, they tell me, is simple: “Work with us, we love this city just as much as you do”. What is most notable about this group of vendors is how long they have been working here – depending on who you speak to the number is between 20 to 40 years.View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Aug 4, 2019 at 11:38pm PDT
One thing that I noticed was the decided lack of women street vendors, unusual for an Indian city where there is always a significant number of women vending. When I visited the fishing colonies, I saw that most women were at home, mirroring traditional roles, while the men were out working. This is not static, however, and the younger generation seems determined to work outside the house. As with all change however, there will be resistance. As one (male) vendor told me: “Our women don’t sit on the footpath”!View this post on Instagram
In all my time here, this is the first time I found women street vendors. They’ve worked here for 20-odd years, but are from other states. When I asked why local women don’t vend, another male street vendor listening to us piped in: “our women don’t sit on the footpath”! The two women visibly grimaced. There is more to this, I’m sure #informality @kudumbashree
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Aug 1, 2019 at 8:30pm PDT
The final group of vendors have made the ultimate transition; this group sells tradition as tourism. Lonely Planet’s top 10 things to do in Kochi, includes a trip to the Chinese fishing nets; these are actively promoted by Kerala Tourism as well. Located opposite the Municipal Corporation office, these fishing nets represent traditional locations and practices of fishing. Today, most of the Chinese fishing nets have been relocated to the Kumbalangi Integrated Tourism Village Project. A quick drive through showed me that during the monsoon, those nets are tied up and waiting for better weather. But the ones on Fort Kochi are part of the tourism industry. They are functional nets that don’t catch more than one or two fish per cycle (lowering and raising the nets) in the off season, which the birds happily snap up. For the fishermen who work these nets, there is tourist money to be made in explaining the history of the nets, letting tourists clamber onto the mechanism, and watch the lowering and raising of nets; it takes about 5 to 7 fishermen per net. As I record in my field notes, here work becomes performance, and performance, work.View this post on Instagram
Everything in Kochi is tied to tourism. Even a downpour like the one we had this morning doesn’t stop the local fishermen from becoming authoritative historians; explaining the history of the Chinese fishing nets in Kochi in broken English. They’ve also become experts at slotting visitors into boxes … Indian or foreign tourists, and in my case, student! #streetview
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Jul 7, 2019 at 3:33am PDTView this post on Instagram
If you travel to where the fishing really happens, the fishing nets are all tied up and waiting for better weather. But in Fort Kochi (opposite the Municipal Corporation), they’re lowered down multiple times in the day for the tourists. Here work becomes performance, and performance, work. #informality @kudumbashree
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Aug 13, 2019 at 9:32pm PDT
There are noticeable tensions that Fort Kochi is struggling with. It has a population with a historical legacy of traditional occupations such as fishing. It has a vibrant tourism economy with a growing number of people looking for ‘authentic’ experiences. This, it has to balance, with the very natural desire of its residents for modern living. One of the principles of the Kochi Smart City Master Plan is “Social and community sustainability”, where a “distinctly urban residential community with attractive, naturally pristine views and access to extensive riverfront promenades has been planned”. What already exists for urban managers to capitalise on, is a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit of a community that has, over time, adapted in a way that allows them to practice their livelihood, while still catering to the tourism endeavour. The trick is for urban planning to incorporate this tradition and entrepreneurship into its plans for the future.
I leave you with the faces of some people who allowed me to photograph them, and post their pictures online. They were part of my daily route to the field, and through my conversations with them, they contributed to the questions I now hope to ask in my dissertation.View this post on Instagram
On my last day in Kochi, to say goodbye, I walked around the area where the street vendors sold their goods. In honour of those who shared their stories with me, here are a few that permitted me to take and share their photographs. #informality @kudumbashree @wiegoglobal
A post shared by Kimberly M. Noronha (@kmnoronha) on Aug 21, 2019 at 9:40am PDT
Note: I took all these photographs as part of my fieldwork between June and September 2019. The fieldwork was co-funded by the CASI 2019 Travel Funds Award and the Mellon Humanities, Urbanism and Design (H+U+D) Project, both at the University of Pennsylvania. More of my fieldwork photographs from Kochi (India) and Accra (Ghana) can be seen from: https://www.instagram.com/kmnoronha/.
All photographs © 2019 Kimberly M. Noronha
Urban informality is very personal to me; I grew up Bombay, where the informal is normal, and worked in Delhi, where informality was not exclusively a low-income activity. As a researcher, however, I began to encounter atypical informal settlements (read: not slums), which did not easily respond to existing solutions for formalisation of such activities and settlements. My particular fascination is with people at the centre of urban informality because they live in informal settlements, work informally, and save and spend informally. Academia has traditionally broken this group up into its constituent characteristics – livelihoods, economy, and settlements. I am interested in individuals at the centre of this confluence – Is informality something you helplessly fall into or is it a measured choice? And in my search for people who live in informal settlements that are not slums, I encountered two urban villages one in Accra, Ghana and one in Kochi, India. The residents are people whose histories are essential to the history of the city they now live in, their settlements being the founding settlements, but which planning and policy sees as informal because of the lack of basic services, and the pervasive issue of urban poverty.
I am also interested in the experiences of women at the centre of informality. From my professional experience, I observe that whether or not women are the heads of families, most families that live informally are dependent on women. It falls to women to evolve strategies for mitigation – poverty, inclement weather, and even short-term health shocks to family income. In both field sites, women are organised into thrift and savings groups or self-help groups (SHGs). In Ghana these are known as susu groups. In Kochi (Kerala, India), which is what this summer’s project focused on, the Government of Kerala has, since the early 1990s run a programme called Kudumbashree (meaning ‘prosperity of the family’). At its base, the Kudumbashree program has targeted membership of women into its SHGs, and federated these SHGs at the area and city (or village) levels. What this has effectively done, is ensured a base of women from poor families, which the government has direct access to. And they have used this access to target these women and their families for various poverty alleviation strategies.
This federated network of SHGs is a two-way street; the women have unprecedented access to government in a way that I have not seen with other programs. They serve on local government committees and are intimately familiar with government processes and functionaries. One of my respondents informed me that over nearly 20 years of its existence, the Kudumbashree network has resulted in 65% of its members becoming elected representatives! Imagine poor women at the centre of government. Another respondent (head of a City Development Society) informed me that she had a list of members (and families) whose homes needed electricity connections, and that was next on her to-do list: “You know how tedious it is, even when we know the people at the top, we still have to fill in the forms!”
My research focuses on what impact has this kind of intimacy with the state had on the lived experience of informality? What impact has this had on their livelihood, residence, and daily economic experiences? Do they have access to basic services?How has their economic status improved (if at all)? What kind of spatial choices are they now making for both, livelihoods and settlements, given this intimacy with the state?
The CASI 2019 Travel Funds Award has enabled me to spend three months in India, mostly in Kochi conducting fieldwork on the island of Fort Kochi. The purpose of the study was to validate my proposed research questions, methodology, and determine whether I could justify a comparison with my other field site in Accra, Ghana for my dissertation. In short, will I be able to evolve a theory of urban informality based on people’s negotiations of space (both, physical space in the city, and relationship with the state) at the intersection of informality – livelihood, economy, and settlements?
Outside the War panchayat member’s house in aIn my project, I was particularly interested in understanding not just the nature of this migration which is dominated by men but also in understanding the plight of women who are left behind. We don’t know much about the sociological and political implication of male migration in women. I conducted interviews with women and local political officials in these villages. Since I was unfamiliar with Mewari (the dialect being spoken here), I took the help of a woman from the community to help me not just enter the village but also to serve as my translator. I was very aware that I would stick out like a sore thumb in these villages and felt it was essential that I don’t just drop by and start bombarding people with my questions. Taking the help of a local helped me to penetrate better into the community. It was clear from a few visits that since men were away for long periods of time, women had taken over conducting the day to day activities within the household – taking care of the farms and cattle and also do care work (for children and the elderly). The gender norms in these villages was shifting, but since men came back at regular intervals (maybe for a day or two), they were still sticky. One of the biggest challenges for me in terms of conducting fieldwork was getting respondents to speak to me about politics. Politics is mostly a male arena but women in India re also now highly aware of the topics discussed in campaigns. But there still was a lot of reluctance among women (at least in the first meeting) to start talking to me about it. Th way I worked around it was that I did multiple visits to the same place so that they got comfortable with me and understood my motives. I don’t blame them since they are are just weary of any outsider coming into their community and asking them questions. When they knew I wasn’t going to use what they tell me against them, they were more comfortable with talking to me. Another challenge that I faced when I was on the field was at times getting to these villages. As I mentioned before, this region is a tribal belt and most villages are far off from the main town. It is also hilly with long winding roads. While this gave me the opportunity to enjoy nature and feel the wind in my hair (since I was traveling by a scooter), it did tire me out since the sun was right above me with only my dupatta covering my head. On I am very glad I was able to spend time on the field talking to these amazing women welcomed me into their homes with open arms. I am grateful to each and everyone of them for willing to spend their valuable time speaking between working on the field, cooking and standing in long queues to collect water. This experience busted a few myths for me in terms of how women were being impacted by the absence of men. It opened up new areas of enquiry and most importantly it helped me forge relationships with community members and the vibrant grassroots organizations in the district. It has given me a lot to think about but since I only held unstructured interviews, I perhaps might not have returned with tangible figure on women’s empowerment or political awareness but it will help me in honing my prospectus and ensure that I don’t have too many surprises when I get back on the field to do my dissertation fieldwork.
To get to the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, I usually drive from my grandfather’s home in Calcutta to the Vomra Border. Inevitably, I get stuck at the border as foreign passport-holders travel over land so rarely. This year the head officer on the Bangladeshi side bought me a coconut full of water. He remembered me from my last visit and, while I still had to wait for hours, he wanted to be hospitable.
Next, I took a CNG to Satkhira, a micro down to Shyamnagar, and a rickshaw van to the ghat, where I stumbled clumsily over uneven concrete tiles into a bhotboti. Chugging along steadily to the rhythm of the engine as we navigated the tides, I noticed that the boat had special pillars installed which you could drape fabric over to create a small pocket of shade. When a woman on the boat asked the driver why the fabric wasn’t there this time, the man shrugged and said that it didn’t matter, it was only for tourists anyway. “Well, what about the people? Do they not feel heat too?” she replied. Silence, a glance, and his eyes glazed over and returned to the river.
Next and finally, a motorcycle ride to the village. The motorcycle drives along one long edge of an embankment, or bandh, parallel to another identical embankment. These embankments are dotted with large shrimp fields and then clusters of mud houses that sit right at their base and enjoy the protection that these massive earthen berms offer. Once in a while there is a small, wooden structure right on the embankment that sells biscuits and tea. Next to these makeshift shops, there is always a single wooden bench that two or three men perch upon so comfortably that it is impossible to imagine them ever moving anywhere else. Crossing over from one embankment to another in most places means crossing about 15 feet over two long bamboo sticks that are precariously secured on each end. The motorcycle drives to the one real bridge, has the passengers disembark, and then slowly drives over. As we crossed, I noticed that, while it was pristine last year, this year it was in much worse shape. The driver attributed this to the bandh being broken during Cyclone Fani. Ten more minutes on the motorbike, and finally, Gabura.
Every time I make this journey I stop and think, this is the most remote place I have ever been to. What I saw last year as the Sundarbans’ natural beauty, this year I saw as hints of the complicated relationship between salt and this landscape. Before beginning my research in the Sundarbans, I don’t think I had ever thought about salt so much. I’d never thought of salt as the force of nature that I now know that it is. One of my best friends often tells me that he’s 70% water, so if I like water I automatically like 70% of him no matter what he does. But what happens when that water is salty? This is always one of the first things that crosses my mind when I go to the Sundarbans and try to grasp what it feels like to live with salty waters. In the Sundarbans, as the climate changes, the salt water from the Bay of Bengal seeps slowly into the villages that inhabit the forest. Cyclone Aila catalyzed this change, swiftly bringing in salt that has intruded on people’s water, homes, land, and bodies.
Arriving in Gabura, I look around and I see simple mud homes with an outhouse and small ponds. The homes with bigger trees and plants tend to be cooler, and I’ve noticed that the villagers guide me almost naturally to these homes. This year, there was a brand new concrete road that everyone was excited to tell me about within moments of my arrival. They said that next year there might even be street lights. Meanwhile, there were six little boys on the side doing flips and tricks into the pond, showing off and curiously seeing if I remembered them from last year.
These ponds are essential for daily life. They belong to each house or are sometimes shared with a neighbor. The functions of the pond include providing drinking water, water for bathing, water used for the bathroom, a place to raise freshwater fish, doing laundry, and washing dishes. When Cyclone Aila hit the Sundarbans in May 2009, it irreversibly salinated these ponds: immediately killing off the freshwater fish and drinking water supply as well as posing continued health challenges for those who use this water for their bathrooms and bathing. A villager in Gabura explained to me that, “When you bathe in that water, you ruin your body. In that water, a lot of people’s eyes have gone bad.” The salt accumulates on their skin even after bathing. The villagers describe how one small cut turns into a salty mess from being washed endlessly in salt water. And how when they are sick, bathing in salt water keeps them in poor health for even longer.
To adapt, the villagers have had to find new access to fresh water. Usually, this results in women walking an average of 5-10km round trip to access fresh water almost daily. These walks have their own set of troubles such as placing women in areas they usually would not have to go to and exposing them to additional risks from tiger attacks, snake bites, slipping off embankments into crocodile infested waters, and unnavigable muds. Because they are carrying it home each day, this water is reserved for drinking. Therefore, washing dishes, clothes, bathing, etc, all take place in salty waters.
One of my respondents explained that “[Fresh] water is very far from here. 25 or 30 minutes distance. I go by walking but many people go and bring them by cycle. Usually I can just go once but on hot days I have to go at least twice.” The women of her village recounted tales of digging a tube well with the hopes of finding sweet water and still finding salt water. They talked about how crushing it is to live in a place that used to support their lives in many ways, and now because of the salt that support is quickly disintegrating. Now, they use a mixed system of walking to fetch water and rain catchments. When their rain catchments run low, the women have to walk at least three kilometres (almost two miles) to get water and a lot of it spills out of their large drums on the walk home. Some do not have childcare so they hold their child in one hand and their water drum in the other. Some people have given up on the daily struggle for water and just drink salt water with chlorine pills to kill of the possible diseases. Another villager explained that though she has to trek an “hour each day to get water, [it is still] a little bit salty.”
Traditionally, there is a season where homes are built, it is the season right before the hottest months. The underlying logic being that the hot months will ‘bake’ the mud homes into a hardened brick like structure. Without the drying process, the homes exist in a perpetual wetness and are significantly less sturdy. Homes in the Sundarbans are usually made of mud. These types of home can be built rather quickly and are usually built during the spring to give the mud the summer to harden enough to weather the winter and rainy months. The villagers conveyed that the salt in the mud changed the way it dried. They added that the additional rain each year, made it so that during the monsoon season their homes were perpetually damp. Aila occurred during the summer and many families had to rebuild their homes during an inopportune time. A few of my respondents stated that their homes never really dried because of this, which made them worry about the stability and longevity of these new homes. The women of Gabura speak of a type of muddy labor that is involved with cleaning and repairing their home each day. Since the cyclone, since the salt, more people have been putting their resources into building concrete homes.
“The vegetables are okay, but it is not as good as before Aila. I don’t get it, the plants just kind of want to die.” Aila uprooted the gardens and salinated the land such that nothing would grow back correctly. The absence of traditional crops and fish dispirit residents. Sundarban residents are deeply connected to the land, which is unmistakably marked in their attachment to the traditional fish and vegetables of the land. One woman explained that with all the changes to the food, the fish and the land, “home no longer felt like home”.
Now when I think about salt, I have a powerful mental image of how the salty residue that leaves cracks in the dirt leaves the same effect on people’s skin in the Sundarbans. How usually people in the Sundarbans don’t need to cook with salt because it is already embedded in their lives. How salt traps heat, and makes everything feel hotter. How it affects health in many ways. How salt, something that in my life is mundane, is a natural force to be reckoned with in the Sundarban.
Its been about a week since I got back to Philadelphia. Everything still feels surreal. All my senses have finally calmed down after being on high alert for so long. It’s relieving. I walk around the streets and people don’t directly stare at me or sneak in a picture just because I look foreign. There is a sense of relief that comes with blending in with the population (well, not fully because I am still Kenyan). On the other hand, there are no rickshaws (or any other form of transportation whatsoever) that costs less than a dollar to get to anywhere and most of all, food prices are so high here. Can we talk about the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables in Philadelphia? *internal scream*
My experience in India cannot be explained exactly in words. It was both a physical and emotional journey that if I had to do it over again, I would approach it in a different way. If you ask me what these ways are, I cannot fully list because it is the everyday living experiences, the small things in life that make the difference. I thought I had patience until India tried it. I thought I could adjust so easily to different living conditions and live as the Romans do while in Rome but what I didn’t notice is that, living extensively in Rome really brings out a part of you that you didn’t know. Both positive and negative.
It would however be beneficial if I knew the following things before I left.
People are going to hike the prices if you are foreigner. If you bargain, that price can drop by more than half until at some point you will wonder what the value of the item is. Be ready to get your communication and bargain skills on.
Carry gifts for people. Indian culture, at least from what I noticed is full of love and community and what better way to express this emotion than gifting? I was gifted by so many people whom I interacted with and had a relationship established on my last day there. How amazing is that? So, carry something small for the mentors in the office, for out hosts and for those people you meet everyday and have awesome chai talk with.Fresh flowers was one of out “welcome to Jaipur’ gift.
iii.) Personal space.
Personal space is a foreign concept for so many people. Keep in mind that India is a densely populated country and so you should expect to see some people push into your space and they will not be triggered by that. However, you can always ask for space if need be. Dont be afraid.
Do not have expectation for most things. Open minded-ness is the way to go. Expect that some days you’ll feel disappointed, some days you’ll cry and some days you’ll be happy. But you can never tell what these moments are because things in India change so drastically. Allow yourself time to feel the emotions but don’t let that get into you. Also, do not allow people to take advantage of you because you are a black woman. This will happen for sure especially from random men whom you may love to hate. You can and should always speak up for yourself.
My thoughts and heart are so attached to India because it was such a remarkable experience that I’m glad I had the chance to live through.Juliet and I in Neemrana at zip-lining point. This was the last thing we did in India.
When I was considering coming to India, I was weighing a bunch of different factors. I was nervous about spending two months so far away from everyone I love with three people I had never met before. I knew I would be studying abroad this fall and that I probably would not have time to go home between my India and Australia adventures. Saying yes to CASI was accepting more than just ten weeks in India – it was saying yes to saying “see you in seven months!” to everyone I love: to my family at home in New York and my family on campus at Penn. I was accepting ten weeks of the unknown, confirming that I wanted to face every unknown hardship that would come up.
There were definitely times where I was uncomfortable being a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, young woman in India. People would take pictures with/of me, and sometimes they would ask first. I did not want to go to the gym with my co-interns because of the long walk to get there and how many eyes looked at us along the way. I attracted more than enough attention just by existing, and wearing workout clothes (however modest) only made us stand out more. When our taxi driver was driving us to the airport in Delhi, I am pretty sure the driver spent more time looking at me in the rearview mirror than looking at the road. I never walked more than five or ten minutes from our hostel by myself.
Around halfway through my internship, I couldn’t help but feel that my sense of wonder was just a little tired. I was tired of being watched, of feeling trapped because I knew walking outside meant people would stare at me. I was tired of not knowing if I would have hot water to shower or how many more days it would be until I could eat a vegetable. I was especially tired of trying to calculate a 9.5-hour time difference… there is nothing like a 9.5-hour time difference to make you question how you ever actually passed a math class.
There were times I didn’t feel like myself because most of the things I usually associate with my identity weren’t available to me (either due to lack of resources or my discomfort with doing them). I didn’t feel comfortable going to the gym or walking around outside. I couldn’t cook or eat fresh vegetables, and I didn’t have a strong Christian community. These are things that fill most of my time at Penn, and part of me felt empty because I could not pursue them. I generally consider myself a happy and joyful person, but there were lots of times during my internship that I did not feel that way. I would dream of playing beach volleyball at the lake, of being able to drive around with my friends and know what the songs of the summer were without needing to check the Billboard charts. There were many days that putting on a smile felt like a challenge, and all I wanted was a long workout, some kale, and a hug.
I’m settling in to life in Australia now, and I am feeling a lot happier and more confident. I have a newfound gratitude for things that I knew were a blessing but never had to live for two months without, like brushing my teeth with water out of the faucet and being able to take a warm shower at any time of day. I know that I am doing the things I love to do because I love to do them, not out of habit, and that’s a good feeling. In Sydney, I can wake up before the sun to go to the gym, and I feel perfectly safe walking there and wearing shorts when I run. I am thrilled to walk the 15 minutes uphill to the grocery store because there are SO many vegetables in such a small place, and I can take them home! I have only been here for a week, and people have mistaken me for a local a few times already. As you can probably guess, that never happened in India.
The toughest re-adjustment has been trying to cross the street. In India, there are basically no laws on the road and you just have to hold your breath and try to make it to the other side whenever you are 51% percent sure that you will make it across. There were hardly any stop signs or traffic lights, let alone cross walks or pedestrian signals. In Sydney, there are crosswalks galore! People actually respect the signals, too, which is hard for me to understand and adjust to. People wait on the sidewalk for the light to turn green before they walk, even when there are no cars around. I’m not very good at doing that. I’m more of the fast-walking, “they don’t want to hit me either” type, and India was generally suited for that kind of attitude. I’ve been told jaywalkers are regularly fined here in Sydney, so I guess I need to grow in patience.
If you have any questions about my time at Aravind, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about Aravind or my experience in India!Coogee Beach: just 30 minutes walk from my university in Sydney (UNSW)!
I just finished spending my summer at Aravind-Madurai, where I was working on improving the recruitment and management processes of the volunteer/internship program. When I arrived, I learned that Dhivya and Srilakshmi took on a lot of the responsibilities related to the interns. There were few formal systems and resources in place to ensure that a smooth transition from applying to onboarding to successfully completing a project. My job was to find ways to improve the volunteer program by suggesting new practices for staff and creating resources for volunteers and interns.
To learn about how the program could be improved, I interviewed almost two dozen people, including current staff and intern supervisors, current interns, and past interns. I learned about the strengths of the internship program and sought to exploit them and make sure future interns knew how to take advantage of those opportunities. I also learned about the weaknesses of the program and looked for ways to improve them, both for supervisors and volunteers themselves.
Many past interns told me they loved the freedom they had at Aravind to explore different departments at the hospital. There is generally an “open door” policy at meetings, and we were welcome to sit in on any meetings we wanted to attend. One problem faced by my co-interns and me was that we did not know what departments existed or what meetings happened and when they were, so I asked Dhivya and Srilakshmi to help me put together a directory of the staff at Aravind/LAICO and a list of regular meetings. By having a list of departments, we discovered that there were stakeholders and meetings related to our projects that we did not know existed. I am hoping that when future volunteers are exploring how to approach their project, these resources can be helpful to them.
Another one of my deliverables was a website that will be sent to interns upon acceptance. I was thinking about what skills I wanted to develop this summer and decided I wanted to learn how to use Wix to create a website. There was an old website with resources for interns called “Vanakkam” (which means “welcome” in Tamil), but it was outdated and hard to navigate, so I suggested creating a new website and posting updated relevant information for people considering volunteering with Aravind. Dhivya recommended creating a Blog section so future volunteers could learn about what to expect during your time at Aravind. One piece of advice I have for future interns is to think about what you want to learn during your internship (both hard and soft skills), and see how you can incorporate that into your project. The beauty in having so much freedom with your project is that you can use your unique skillset to add value to the organization and you can teach yourself something new to formulate a solution for your project. Be creative!
I won’t bore you with any more details about my project, but some other things I worked on include checklists, lists of advice, evaluation forms, and final surveys for interns and supervisors, as well as researching options for implementing the usage of an application tracking system by the HR department.My final presentation to relevant stakeholders
My Experience as an Intern
One of the most challenging things about my experience at Aravind was having down time, especially at the beginning of my project. I did not know what to do with my free time, but I talked to Dhivya about it and she put me in contact with Usha, who sent me content for the new Aravind website which I was able to help edit. Additionally, the workdays were longer than I was used to, which could be exhausting. It was hard to be in the same office working on the same project day in and day out, but being with my co-interns made it more fun. We would take breaks to talk about the progress of our projects or life in India or whatever else was on our minds. Sometimes I would walk around the LAICO building to stretch my legs and clear my head when I needed a break, and I recommend doing that if you ever feel overwhelmed or drained.
Sometimes when I met with stakeholders to talk about my project, they would offer new advice that meant I had to significantly change parts of my work that I had spent a long time working on or thinking about. This is normal! If someone is asking you to change something, try to keep an open mind and be patient. They are asking you for this because they believe in your project and want it to be helpful to the organization after you leave. It can be frustrating in the moment, but be humble and remember that they know what success looks like at Aravind and are sharing their wisdom with you.A market we visited while in Pondicherry
My Advice to Future Aravind Interns
- I will start with what I mentioned above: be creative with your project. Think about what you want to learn during your experience and talk about this with your supervisor. There is probably a way to incorporate that skill into your project, or they will recommend a secondary project where you can develop those skills.
- Expect a different work environment than you are used to. It is normal to walk into someone’s office to ask for their help without scheduling a meeting in advance, and sometimes you will need to do this in order to push ahead with your project. The workdays are long and the work week is Monday through Saturday, which is tiring. Expect to have downtime and look for constructive ways to fill it.
- If you have down time, ask for a second (or third) project. There is work to be done and you have unique skills that people will want to take advantage of, and there is a lot you can learn by working with a different department.
- Look for fun ways to spend your time outside the office. You might want to join a local gym or dance class, plan weekend trips, or read some books you have been waiting to have enough time to read. Ask staff members for suggestions about where to spend your evenings and weekends. My favorite trip was to Pondicherry! We went on a bike tour, walked on the boardwalk, and had a half-day guided tour of Auroville (definitely worth it!). Our favorite restaurants were Appams & Hoppers (chicken cheese appams are a must), Zaitoon (when you need a break from Inspiration food and want it delivered to the hostel), BBQ Nation (SO much food – go on a Sunday for lunch and you won’t need dinner), and Ibaco for ice cream (we were regulars).
It’s now been 2 weeks since I’ve left Delhi, and I’ve pushed this blog post off for far too long because, honestly, I don’t know how to summarize my 9 weeks in India properly.
My trip was a lot of different things. It was inspiring. I worked for a company full of hard-working, passionate people, united to remedy India’s skills gap at scale. It was interesting. From learning how to cross busy streets with no regulations to learning about HR agencies and job portals at work, there was always something new to learn. It was unsettling. Seeing people and children living in abject poverty while sitting in an air-conditioned Uber on our way to a beautiful, South Delhi flat (our AirbNb) in an affluent neighborhood was disturbing and uncomfortable. Nothing but the “lottery of birth” determined our positions. Knowing that I couldn’t make a meaningful difference made it worse–how far would my purchase of a book from a street vendor (and I mean “street vendor” literally–in India, it is common to see vendors walk through multiple lanes of traffic to sell their items) go? But it was also heart-warming. Indian cultural practices around gratitude, family, and sharing, were particularly refreshing. In India, family bonds are powerful; adults often live with their parents and take care of their parents as they age, just as their parents took care of them when they were younger. And sharing, always openly and lovingly, seemed to be the standard: Leap employees, family members, and complete strangers never seemed to jump at the opportunity to share their food or knowledge with me. And it was fun. Trips to other cities, eating delicious foods, market shopping sprees, cutting mangoes in the middle of the night, joking around in the office, rickshaw rides, coming up with a talent show performance for the office with Tashweena, 8:30 AM Bollywood dance classes, and the family reunions are just a few of the memories I will cherish forever.
And India changed me in a lot of different ways too. My Hindi drastically improved (Tashweena, a Hindi master, can attest to this). I have become much more conscious of my carbon footprint: breathing Delhi smog, seeing trash on the streets, and using switches on every outlet (why doesn’t America do this!?!?) makes you evaluate your consumption patterns and their very real effects even more closely. I have become stronger and more resilient in uncomfortable and uncertain situations. By the last week, I ran down the street in the pouring rain, found an empty rickshaw (after dramatically yelling and waving at multiple full rickshaws), spoke to the driver in Hindi about getting back to the Air BnB (even though I have 0 sense of direction and wasn’t completely sure of how to get there), showered, changed, and got back to work in 30 minutes. Pre-India me would never be able to do this, or even be able to stay calm in a situation like this.
My experience in India is difficult to explain, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Thank you India, CASI, and Leap for this incredible experience.
At the start of every August my family spends two-weeks vacationing in the Adirondacks. Always. No matter if every one of my siblings is at school or working, we always make time for our annual summer trip “up the mountains”. That is why, even though I just spent two months in India, I agreed to add 8 more hours to my travelling time to take a flight to Burlington, Vermont to meet my family up in the ADK. Yes I sat in JFK airport from 12:00am to 7:00am but I knew that it would be worth it. After breathing in the heavy pollution that is found in every major city in India I was ready to step off that airplane and take a deep breath of clean, fresh mountain air. I could not stop commenting on this fact to my parents who patiently and respectfully listened to my rants about the environment the whole two-hour car ride to our cabin. Even as I am writing this post right now I am taking in deep breaths of the air around me, how lucky I am to appreciate the one thing that we all take for granted.Adirondack mornings.
Fortunately my only symptom of jet lag (although my parents will disagree with me considering they watched me fall asleep at the dinner table every night) was that I woke up around 6:00 every morning. I have never been considered a morning person and thus, it is rare that I get to enjoy the peacefulness of the early morning hours. Rolling out of bed, letting my family’s puppy named Lily out of her dog crate, and opening the red door to our cabin served as part of my typical morning routine. That first step outside into the chilly morning air never fails to bring me joy. The sight of the morning dew hanging low to the ground and covering the mountains in the distance is breathtaking every time. To think that only a few days before I was walking down the streets of Hyderabad, aggressively yelling “no!” to nagging rickshaw drivers and staring down at the road ahead of me to avoid any random piles of poo. This past summer was a whirlwind of adventures that tested all of my limits and personal beliefs and in the end, I grew stronger. Standing in the middle of my family’s field, staring at the beautiful world around me, I finally felt the peace of accomplishment. My time in India taught me how to appreciate moments like these. I have become an advocate for the present and simply enjoying the things/people/places that currently occupy my time and space. We must embrace the bad in our lives and share the good because who knows what this life has in store next.The long corridors of Agra Fort.
So, when posed with the usual “how was your summer?” topic, I have found myself simply replying good. Of course I go into much more depth when prompted, but if I had to sum up the whole trip into one word, it would be ‘good’. Good in the sense that I learned more about myself and how my actions, my attitude, and my empathy impact those around me. The interviews that Emma and I worked on in the Araku Valley transformed the way that I communicate with people. I have ultimately become more receptive and patient to the things that are shared in all sorts of conversations and thus I feel I have found better ways to convey my own thoughts and ideas. I’ve learned never to enter a conversation with preconceived notions about that person’s character because more often than not people are full of surprises.An amazing meal Emma and I had in Agra!
A perfect example of this is my co-intern and now lifelong friend Emma Harris. Being told that I was going to spend my whole summer living in rural India with a complete stranger was daunting to say the least and I couldn’t help but think of the various directions our relationship could go. The problem with judging a person before you really get to know them is that you inevitably focus on the bad things that aren’t even true yet but only exist in your head. What if we are just not be compatible, what if we can’t find a way to coexist peacefully, etc. Little did I know that I would be fortunate enough to work with the most calm and understanding person I’ve ever met. Right from the start Emma was a good friend to me. The way that she genuinely considered my fears and anxieties made me feel seen and her willingness to share her own apprehensions with me made me feel wanted. Emma has this undying optimism that inspired (and still inspires) me every day to spread hope with my attitude rather than defeat. I am so grateful to the forces that brought us together because (and I’m really trying hard not to make this generic or corny) she has shaped me as a person. This is not just because I am a vegetarian now or that I’ve become more environmentally conscious, but because my outlook on the rest of my life has changed. My existence now has more meaning and the future has more hope and although it might be a great big world out there, we all serve a purpose.
So here’s to my summer in India, to all the people I met, to all the places I saw, and to all the times that I got to live in the present because well, it was good.
I’ve been back on Penn Campus for two days now and I have completely lost count of how many times I’ve been asked this question and how many times I struggled to find words to describe my summer. Do I start from the incredible systems Aravind has in place, the amount of information I learned about a hospital environment, or the number of wild animals I’d see chilling on the roads? I always feel like my standard 2 second response of “I was working at a eye hospital in India” doesn’t do my experience any justice whatsoever.
After my internship, I stayed with my family in Andhra for a few days and it felt so strange because all of a sudden the city I had grown up in felt foreign compared to Madurai. Every time I’d see anything that resembled Madurai or Aravind, I’d go off on some crazy tangent about the summer while my family tried to keep up.My cousins enjoying their playtime in my village in Andhra Pradesh while I struggle trying to physically keep up with them.
Even sitting here at Penn feels surreal because part of me is still in a different universe where life was slow, food was spicy, and traffic was chaotic. It feels so strange to walk down Locust and not see dogs, cats, cows, buffalo, horses, and goats. It feels even stranger when I’m not eating the delicious chapatis at Inspiration for lunch. My first day back in the United States, I realized how instinctive it was for me to simply jaywalk (which is highly frowned upon in my suburban community) and had to actively keep myself from “just going for it” at every intersection.
From not having to worry about where my water is coming from to crossing the street without any fear, things that were so normal a few months ago seem completely foreign, and as these events occur, I start reflecting on what I really did this summer.
What did I do this summer?
- I worked for an amazing organization where compassionate, high quality care was prioritized.
- I learned to adapt to Indian workplace etiquette by developing habits such as being comfortable pushing for what I need, taking criticism in a positive manner, and coping with and embracing the idea that there is always more left to do.
- I ate the most amazing (wallet friendly) food that left my taste buds in awe.
- I was mentored by my supervisors who taught me the importance of not taking anything for face value when working with groups of people who have different priorities.
- I experienced care like never before from individuals who would sacrifice their weekend to ensure I was having a great one.
- I engaged with my culture and religion (Fun Fact: Madurai is known as “Temple City”) and developed my identity as an Indian American.
- I met and conversed with people of all ages, ethnicities, and professions (hospital managers, residents, fellows, environmental engineers, computer scientists) over meals at the Inspiration hostel.
- I had an unforgettable experience.
It has been just about two weeks since I returned home from India. Though the jet lag has faded and the stomach has settled, I still feel just a little out of it. When I got to India, I was prepared to feel scared, surprised, and uneasy. When I got back home, I wasn’t scared or surprised, but was a little bit uneasy. I felt as if I was in an alternate universe for two months and when I landed back in my universe, it didn’t feel like it was mine anymore. Everything looked and seemed different and strange.
As my parents welcomed me at JFK with big hugs and relieved looks on their face, they asked how it felt to be home. The only response I could come up with was, “Really weird.” Since that first night, it has felt less and less weird. Being back on campus with my friends and getting ready for classes has brought me back to reality. But when people ask me about my summer, I feel like I’m describing a crazy dream I had. And now, when I’m walking around, I notice little things I never would have before. For instance, I never realized how much people trust street lights here. If the light is green, nobody even looks, they just go with full confidence. I still have leftover trust issues with street lights, since they are kind of just for decoration in India. Anyway, you get the point, some things are hard to shake!
I guess I waited a little while to do this last blog post, because I really didn’t know how to sum up my time in India. I think I’m still processing all the things I did and saw and experienced. When I do look back on my summer, though, I get flashes of some of the funniest, scariest and once-in-a-lifetime moments that Sylvia and I had. I see the time we got chased by a monkey in Jaipur, while teenage boys laughed hysterically. I see our trip to the Taj Mahal, which is completely worth the hype and honestly took my breath away. I see Sylvia and I walking from the gym to our house, feeling totally accomplished when we knew the way home without google maps. I see the dinners I had with family and friends. I see the very sweaty day that Sylvia and I kept getting lost in Delhi. I see the extremely spicy meal I had while sitting on the floor of a restaurant in Jaipur. I see the beautiful meditation at the lotus temple. I see us flying through the hills on a zip line over a palace in Rajasthan. This list could go on and on. My time in India was truly unforgettable and I am so grateful for it. I now feel I have a relationship with India that will grow and develop throughout the years. I don’t know when I’ll go back again, but when I do, I won’t feel so scared, surprised, or uneasy, but excited and ready to explore more of the universe I called home for that summer in college.
At the beginning of my internship at Aravind, it seemed like I had all the time in the world. Whenever my family or friends heard that I would be spending nine weeks in India, I always received a “that’s a long time”. My first week in Madurai only propagated this belief as every hour, minute, and second seemed to pass by relatively slower than the fast paced environment I had grown accustomed to at Penn. I quite literally had time to stop and smell the roses (although in my case they were jasmines outside the Inspiration hostel). I was able to sit down and appreciate the intricate spices and masalas in the curries at lunch. On my daily 1.7 km walk to the gym, I had the opportunity to really take in the hot mess that was local Indian traffic and would spend time analyzing how people and animals alike operated in the chaos (might or might not have chased some goats along the way — obviously for the purpose of gaining insights). Those days offered me a beautiful period of self-reflection and calmness which I would often wish I could go back to during the latter part of my internship.
By the time my co-interns and I started counting down the days left in our internship, I was suddenly hit with the number of activities and experiences I had pushed off all summer because “I had time”. This post is dedicated to the different aspects of my life in Madurai that I more or less tried to accelerate in my efforts to make every moment count.
Work at Aravind:
Even two months into my internship at Aravind, I was still learning more about the company culture every day. One particular unspoken rule that struck me was the idea that an individual was always expected to ask for more work if they were finished with their current project or task. It was assumed that you would be working on something during work hours and often times that something could be self-assigned.
Because our projects at Aravind were largely self led with no fixed deadlines for tasks and progress, I truly believe the culture rewards self-motivated individuals who are resourceful and passionate. As an individual with a relatively short attention span and a need to constantly move around, sitting in the office from 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday proved to be very difficult at multiple times during the internship. There were times where I was not as productive or efficient as I could’ve been and I largely found myself regretting that wasted time during my final weeks at Aravind. Regardless, I knew that by the time my internship was over I wanted to contribute as much as possible to my project so that it could materialize into a tool and make a difference in the glaucoma clinic.
In the last few weeks, I made conscious efforts to hang onto every moment in the office space I had previously dreaded and sometimes would come in early just to go sit in the glaucoma clinic in an effort to take in as much as possible. I was able to make substantial progress with my project, and sometimes had to tell myself what I had was enough because being in the dynamic and iterative Aravind environment, I found myself thinking there was always something more I could’ve done.Presenting my work at an early morning meeting to the doctors and MLOPs in the Glaucoma clinic! Last day of work with my project lead Sanil!
After working six days a week, often times I just wanted to stay in on Sundays to sleep, read, binge watch Parks and Rec for the umpteenth time, and Zomato some great food. However, as my time became obviously limited, I made it a goal for myself to explore the beautiful city and its culture in a more intimate and authentic manner. A few of those experiences are discussed below.
During the time Laura came to visit, my supervisor Dhivya took us to a local art fair where we tried treats made with palm tree sugar and learned how to make jasmine garlands (which was not my calling).I completely disappointed this man with my lack of arts and crafts skills.
One day on a walk back to the hospital, I noticed a large festival that was taking place in a neighborhood (traditionally called a colony) and immediately wanted to explore. A few local friends generously offered to accompany me and I had a chance to attend two days of what was essentially a ceremony inviting rain to the lands. The colony organized the festival annually in honor of the goddess Maariamman whose name translates to Mother Rain.The outside of the colony which immediately caught my attention.
As soon as I entered the colony’s main road, it felt like I walked into a different universe and I couldn’t stop smiling. Amidst the blasting music and bright lights, the girls were all elegantly dressed, wearing their best jewels and long jasmine garlands in their hair. Children were running around in groups, families were praying in the temple, and a few elderly were watching the festivities from their houses. At the festival, I was able to see an ancient folk dance of Tamil Nadu called Karakattam which roughly translates to water pot dance and is performed to praise Maariamman.A snippet of the Karakattam dance!
I was also able to see performances by local kuthu groups; Kuthu is a dance form local to Tamil Nadu with an emphasis on percussion. The festival ended off with a huge parade where everyone brought out this plant they had been growing in their houses for weeks and paraded around the entire colony while young boys set off VERY loud fireworks.The parade that officially concluded the festival.
Perhaps my favorite place in Madurai (other than Aravind of course) is the Meenakshi temple and market area. My last few weeks in Madurai, I constantly frequented the area and seemed to have a different experience every time. Whether it was standing in line for four hours to see the goddess Meenakshi, bargaining for jewelry in the markets, or admiring the gorgeous Dravidian architecture, time seemed to fly when I was here. Cameras and phones are not allowed inside the temple, so here are a few pictures from the outside! They definitely don’t do the area justice.
Spending Time with People:
Without any doubt, the best part of my internship experience was the people. From my co-interns and supervisors to the auto driver that would greet me at least three times a day and keep me from getting ripped off, the people made my experience so much more precious. Luckily for me, spending time with people meant lots of group dinners which also meant getting to try all different types of food including the GLORIOUS chicken cheese appam, all you can eat meat barbecues, goat dosas, and crab kothu parottas.
In hindsight, it is safe to say I loved my time in Maduari this summer. Being placed in a completely new environment allowed me to develop as an Indian-American, taught me about flexibility and adaptation, and made me reflect on my values. The summer went by in a blink of an eye, and as time flew, I am glad I used mine to hang onto as many unforgettable moments as possible.
I have been home for little over a week now. Sophie and I landed in Los Angeles at 7pm last Monday. Our flight over the Pacific was long and not terribly unpleasant, but also strange. Strange because it felt like going back in time in a way, back to the States, rewinding it all, almost like I never left. Or maybe that’s an inaccurate description of how it felt to return. I’m not quite sure how to verbally define the parameters of time and space that make up my trip to India. India was just so…India. And the States are just so…not India.
It’s been a week since I landed, yes, but I still feel exhausted. Not exhausted solely in terms of jet lag, which hits me notoriously hard, but also because India really tested me. I thought that I was strong before, no. I had never been to India. I thought I was confident in myself before, no. I never had to step out of my comfort zone in the way that living in India forced me to. I thought I was savvy before. No. I was silly and bumbling. India slowly but surely broke me down, physically and mentally, and forced me to shift how I look at the world and how I interact within it. And that was exhausting in the fullest expression of the word.
There were many aspects of my trip that were not fun. At first, it was novel that people, namely men, would follow me down the street on my way to work, as I ate lunch, or while I boarded an airplane, and ask to take pictures of me. I thought it was funny and cute; not so much after the seventh time it happened. In a way though, that’s my fault. I put myself in a situation where I was the outsider, the foreigner, the one who doesn’t belong. In the United States, I rarely, if ever, feel that way. What a privilege that I could experience feeling that way and then, at the end of the day, go home and slip back into my comfortable existence. What a valuable, empathy-building exercise it was. If everyone knew what it feels like to be the odd one out, how isolating and sometimes scary it is, I think we would all smile at each other more. Or readily lend a helping hand more often.
For each negative, however, there was a positive to counteract it. Sophie and I met and befriended a wide range of amazing people who welcomed us with open arms to India. Our coworker–turned–good–friend invited us over to her house for dinner on a regular basis. We would often stay up for hours, lost in conversation about politics, pop culture, current events, celebrity gossip, and the like. Our guide and translator became one of our most trusted allies, someone who cared about us and we knew we could count on if we needed anything. Every person we worked with went out of their way to make sure we were the most comfortable and happy that we could be and I am undyingly thankful for that.
My job was incredibly unique and kind of unbelievable. I’ll just leave it at this: when in my life will I ever again get to live in rural India, interview coffee farmers and their respective families, visit indigenous lands that have been cultivated for generations, and eat fresh–picked jackfruit as I look out, high up on a mountain, over the expansive Eastern Ghats? Umm…pinch me.
I guess right now I feel like I have a lot to soak in and internalize. As I just typed that last paragraph, I still couldn’t believe that that was my reality for the last two and a half months. I have to analyze my experience over the months and years to come and pick out the lessons I want most to take away. This trip, to me, is more than just something cool to talk about at dinner parties. In fact, I hate that part of going away; the coming back and explaining it all. I love to share my experiences and talk about them with people that I care about, but it’s always been difficult for me to express the true value of what I have seen and felt. Maybe that’s it, though: I travel and see the world for…me. It’s my gift to myself and it’s the best way I know, thus far, to make the most of this undoubtedly blessed life I lead. India, for all its good and bad, is apart of me now and I’m so lucky it is.
And I miss Sophie. There’s a lot of good content that my parents have imparted on me, but something I’ll always remember is my dad telling me that the friends you make in your twenties are special. They’re what you think about when you’re old and washed up. They’re the ones you travel with, confide in, grow with. Just like India, my twenties friends will always be apart of me. Maybe it’s because us youth are highly impressionable, maybe it’s because being in your twenties is like living in a constant highlight reel of life and having great people to share that with is the essence of, well, everything. In June, Sophie was a girl that I barely knew who just happened to be hired to work for the same organization in India as me. Now, she knows me. She’s reading this and she hears my voice. She cares about me. She’s seen me cry and be crazy. She knows what makes me laugh and what annoys the crap out of me. She’s listened to me poop because India does that to you and she’s listened to me sing in the shower. And vice–versa. I killed a lot of bugs for her. There’s the whole world out there for me to see, and yeah sure, I can go see it alone. But there’s something really, really important about life that I know for certain: it’s not about what you see or do, it’s who you see and do it with. I got lucky that she was there for it all. Even the poop.
So, this post is an ode to my time in India and to Sophie. Once I figure out anything more to say about it all, I’ll say it. But for now, I’m still soaking in it, like a sponge, and letting it settle, like dust. Then, I’ll move on to the next great adventure, because it’s out there somewhere.
So much has happened this summer that it’s been impossible to cover everything in my blogs! So, for this last blog, I’m going to throw together a bunch of random thoughts and lists to reflect on my summer.
About My Project at Aravind:
My project was about identifying new techniques for patient feedback collection. At the time I am writing this, the patient feedback team uses three main methods to collect feedback: phone surveys, direct surveying, and focus groups. The problem with this is that the team only reaches out to a 1% sample of Aravind’s totals patients. Not only is this a very small sliver, but it also requires a lot of manpower to do actually collect this information. So, my project hoped to address this issue.
I focused on three new techniques for feedback collection: bulk SMS, QR codes, and a kiosk. For the SMS component, I did a formal pilot study comparing response rates and costs of three types of SMS methods (we are hoping to publish this paper in the future!). After completing the study with the help of the patient feedback team, I found that collecting SMS-driven feedback through missed calls was the most effective and least costly method. This technique collected feedback from 3.7% of the population, compared to the 1% sample that is currently used. In addition, the cost per response for the missed call method (Rs. 5.87) was also lower that the feedback team’s current calling cost per response (8.72). While the SMS study took up the most of my focus, I also spent some time setting up QR codes and a kiosk. Both of these projects will continue to be worked on with the help of the patient education team and the IT team, respectively.Me working with Buvana and Thamarai from the Patient Feedback Team
The Places I’ve Been:
Kerala, Munnar, Kanyakumari, Chennai, and Coimbatore
The Books I’ve Read (maybe bad Wi-Fi was a blessing in disguise):
A Thousand Splendid Suns, The God of Small Things, And Then There Were None, The Color Purple, Dracula, The Princess Bride, Murder on the Orient Express, Gone with the Wind, Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, Slaughterhouse Five, Flowers for Algernon, Jane Eyre, Death on the Nile, Romancing Mister Bridgerton, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1984, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Lolita, The Little Prince, The Giver, Peril at End House, Wuthering Heights, and Love in the Time of Cholera.
The bolded titles were my favorite reads!
The Number of Weddings I’ve Been To:
Only 2! This is the least number of weddings I’ve ever been to in India! I did see a famous Malayalam movie actor at one of them though
Types of Transportation:
Autorickshaw, Cycle rickshaw, Ola, Sleeper train, Ferry (only for 5 minutes in Kanyakumari but it counts!), Bus, Plane(view from the ferry)
Animals I’ve Seen:
Streetdogs, Elephants, Monkeys, Peacocks, Spiders, Mosquitos (and plenty of other insects), Cats
Thoughts on Weather:
I didn’t anticipate how much weather would factor into summer. Delhi’s heat was unbearable for the two days I was there (I have so much respect for the Delhi interns), so we could only go out in the mornings and evenings. In Madurai, the heat and humidity also kept us indoors in the AC around midday. The rains in Kerala were absolutely BRUTAL. My train got canceled on the way to the train station because trains were getting stranded in the floods. My calls to my mother (who was in Kerala) kept failing because the rains were coming down so hard. The taxi to the Kochi airport turned into a completely flooded road at night and we could’ve gotten stuck. My flight from Kochi also got delayed because of the rain so that I almost missed my connection. Indian weather is crazy.
My Favorite Places in Madurai:
Appams and Hoppers (hands-down the BEST restaurant in Madurai), Phil’s Bistro, Ibaco (amaaaazing ice cream flavors), Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, Pothys, Any of the Kashmiri-owned shops around Meenakshi, and of course, Aravind!This Chicken Cheese Appam from Appams and Hoppers might be the best food I’ve ever had.
Thoughts on My Summer:
Wow. I’ve really had an amazing summer. Working at Aravind has been such a unique experience, and I feel like my time there has been useful for both myself and the organization. I have also learned a lot from all the moments outside of work–doing all my laundry by hand (definitely my biggest workout this summer), traveling around South India, and attempting to speak Malayalam in Tamil Nadu. I’m so so grateful to CASI, Laura, Makeda, GRIP, my parents, fellows interns, and everyone who made this experience possible for me!
Dear Pre-Aravind Anjali,
Right now, I know you’re stressed because you’re packing for a trip where you’ll buy all of your clothes after you arrive, but not to worry, you’ll have no trouble finding them (though you should know you are not good at bargaining).
I want to tell you how much you’ll learn this summer, the most important being that loose cotton pants might actually be the most comfortable article of clothing ever designed for heat and you should buy as many as you can before you leave. In all seriousness though, I wish I could explain what Aravind is before you arrive there, because I know right now you don’t know much besides “it’s an eye hospital” and “it’s big.” So, let me try. Yes, it’s huge. It’s efficient. It’s clean. And it serves over 2,000 people every day, over half of whom receive care totally free of charge. I know you’ll struggle accepting that it’s completely self-sufficient because it’s almost unheard of that an NGO doesn’t rely on donations, but, I promise, its model of hyper-efficiency actually makes it profitable – Aravind is constantly improving, innovating, and growing, and that will teach you a lot about the attitude that sets apart Aravind staff from everyone else.
I know you’re worried about being in India for the first time without your family there. You’ve never traveled to southern India, and you definitely can’t speak Tamil (let’s be honest, your Hindi isn’t that great either). Know that sometimes adding an Indian accent to your English makes it easier to understand and that most people will know you’re an Indian-American as soon as you open your mouth. Be prepared for frustration — mostly with yourself for being unable to communicate with a lot of people — but also for the growth that will come from learning to adapt to new situations and the joy from those times where you can communicate with someone without sharing the same language.
Finally, I want you to keep your mind open. Your perception of India, Indian culture, and your identity as an Indian-American will change every day. The experience you’ll have this summer will be completely unique. You’ll learn from some of the most knowledgeable, passionate, and kind people you’ve ever met; they’ll inspire you with the culture of respect that pervades Aravind and the humility and desire to learn you’ll feel in every conversation. You don’t know it yet, but soon you’ll want to be just like the people you work with – incredibly smart, but always learning and changing; clearly passionate, always focused on real ways to make your vision into reality; and truly kind, respecting, teaching, and learning from every person you meet.
Good luck this summer, and please, don’t forget too many malaria pills while you’re there; though, it’s probably too late for that now.
Anjali in Augustfirst day in India! last day in the office! a family visit, auto-rickshaw, sunglasses selfie
If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my internship at Leap Skills this summer, it’s that the Indian job market–like most things in India–is really, really complicated. Some of its (many) challenges for the coming years, in no particular order, include:
- Massive Informal Sector
In India, asking someone if they have kaam (work) or a naukri (job) means two very different things. Around 80% of India’s employed workers are in the informal economy (with kaam), usually either self-employed or working in small enterprises with low levels of technology, low productivity, and low wages. Moreover, due to its low productivity, the informal sector makes little impact to the GDP/overall economy.
2. Rising Unemployment and a Rapidly Growing Workforce
Unemployment is especially prevalent among educated youth, and is bound to increase with 1 million workers joining the workforce each month.
3. Decreasing Labor Force Participation of Women (Despite Increasing Women’s Education)
In fact, labor force participation among women decreases as their education increases until higher levels of graduate education. The phenomenon is known as the “U-Curve” and is often attributed to cultural norms around marriage. An educated woman will marry an educated man with a larger income, and then not need to work outside of the home to support the household (i.e. paying for your daughter’s education is an investment to get her a better husband.)
4. The Skills Gap
India’s workforce is actually larger (and growing), younger, and holds more degrees than ever before. Despite these qualities, employers in India struggle to find quality employees with the relevant skills. While many Indians have the qualifications for open jobs, only 48% of India’s workforce has the skills necessary to be considered employable.
Hand-in-hand with the Skills Gap is India’s underemployment problem. India’s workforce not only lacks the skills necessary to get the jobs they want, but they also lack access to the jobs they want. 370 government openings for a “peon” job in UP received millions of applicants, including 175,000 graduates and postgraduates and 250 PHDs. Simply put, there are not enough aspirational jobs to meet the demand. One economist estimates that by 2025, 200 million Indians will be stuck in ‘bad jobs’ far below their qualifications (or if possible, stay unemployed).
6. Jobless Growth & the Rise of Automation
Manufacturing jobs are key to a country’s development by absorbing large numbers of low skilled workers at higher wages, creating an engine of growth, and at the same time, giving the country time for its workforce to become more skilled. However, in today’s day and age, India is unable to create job growth through manufacturing (despite government initiatives like Make in India) since machines and computers cut down on the number of workers needed in the first place. This leaves millions of Indians stuck in the informal sector (with low wages and low productivity for their labor).
More aspirational middle and high-skilled jobs are also being cut due to automation and globalization, making it harder for India to generate the jobs it needs to keep up with its growing workforce. Telecalling jobs are being replaced with bots (and many have moved to the Philippines–globalization!); and even IT requires less engineers. (And these tech-intensive changes mean that even more of the future jobs in India will require skilling and upskilling–only expanding the Skills Gap).
7. Just Determining How to Calculate Unemployment with an Economy that is 80%+ Informal
“True” calculations of unemployment are hotly contested in Indian politics, with the government allegedly trying to suppress and deny the validity of its unemployment numbers prior to the elections earlier this year.
Is PM Modi correct that a “youth selling pakora outside…and earning Rs. 200 a day” is employed? Is a seasonal worker–one with different jobs in different cities throughout the year–considered employed? How do you track informal workers? Does non-productive work–for example, a son joining his father’s farm but not increasing the output of that farm–count as employment?
This is by no means a complete report of the state of India’s job market. Honestly, this barely scratches the surface. Consider, for instance, legal barriers that make it hard for small businesses to grow, recent policies like demonetization that hurt India’s cash-based informal sector, and even India’s huge range of cultural and linguistic diversity that makes it even harder to match the people looking for jobs with open ones.
Both India’s public and private sector will undoubtedly have to work together to tackle these challenges in the years to come, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn and work at Leap, which is bringing employers (the private sector) into their scalable solution for skilling.
My entire life I have been afraid to go to India. I grew up in a predominately white upper middle class town, and spent most of my childhood trying to avoid any mention of my heritage. I prayed that that my grandfather would stay in the car when he picked me up from school so that kids wouldn’t see his turban. I begged my mother to pack me sandwiches and chips instead of rotis and subzis. Metaphorically, I bleached my skin.
Thus, when my mom asked my sister and I if we wanted to go to India during our longer December breaks. I vehemently argued against it — blaming my inability to travel on school work instead of the obvious internalized racism and negative perceptions I had of India and Indians.
And perhaps some of my fears, regardless of why I had them, were not misplaced. My shoes are ruined from the mud, my skin is covered in mosquito bites, and my life is almost always at risk when I cross the street. My laundry has been rained on twice, my kitchen is crawling with cockroaches, and most of my time has been spent stuck in Bangalore traffic.
But despite all of these major and minor inconveniences, I have fallen fully and deeply in love with India.
In these past 9 weeks, I have seen brown people take up space like I have never and will never see in the West. People are unabashedly and unashamedly loud and bright and colorful. Their lives, their habits, their customs are vibrant, celebrated, and everywhere I look.
I went to Amritsar on a pilgrimage to visit the Golden Temple, which is an important religious temple for Sikhs. It was huge, gleaming white and gold, and bursting with opulent artistry. I had never seen such a large and unbelievably beautiful place of Sikh worship. And I had never seen so many men with turbans. Everywhere I turned to in India, I could always see a Sikh man wearing a turban. It reminded me of my grandfather, and all the times I had felt ashamed of being different, but it also made my heart swell with memories of him. Experiences I was so embarrassed by live and thrive in India with such vibrancy.
I didn’t have much of an Indian community in my hometown, so for me this is a completely different experience. I feel parts of my soul, parts that have long been locked away, no longer holding in their breaths to shrink themselves smaller. Instead they take deep, long breaths, taking up space just like the people I pass by in the street. Despite the air pollution, being in India has constantly felt like a breath of fresh air.
While I have been frustrated on this trip, it has been nothing compared to the sheer joy and carefreeness I feel everyday. My long black, curly hair, washed with Indian herbal shampoo, dances in the wind as I travel in auto rickshaws. My nose seeks the sweet, soft perfume of white jasmine flowers like the ones my mother keeps on our home’s stone porch. My steps are lighter because I no longer carry the weight of being Indian in predominantly white spaces.
And while obviously my comfort in India is mostly due to my privilege as an upper-class American, especially considering the power the US dollar has here, I know that my happiness is primarily spiritual, not material. A part of me has always felt restless, uneasy, and uncomfortable in the US, but when I landed in Delhi, and despite the overwhelming sensory experience of India, I felt completely at peace.
In the US, sometimes Indian things just don’t fit right, or are somewhat off. The paneer I grew up eating and loving is actually a poor imitation of the paneer I have gorged on during my internship. Here in India is where her food, culture, and history thrive in a way that they are not allowed to in the West. Being here has allowed me to feel comfortable and secure in myself and my identity, something that I have struggled with my entire life.
The last Saturday I spent in Bangalore, I went with my fellow interns to get henna done on our hands. We went to a woman’s house and sat together on comfy leather chairs. As I excitedly watched them get their designs, I thought about how embarrassed I was that my mother had gotten a henna artist for a cultural celebration my elementary school in the second grade. How could I be ashamed of something so beautiful? It seemed ridiculous that I was ever not in love with the smell of henna on my hands – a combination of earth and herbs and warmth.
Typically, Indian women get henna during their wedding, since it’s meant to be a part of a celebration. As I sat on the chair and felt the cones pipe a cool paste on my hand, I realized that I was celebrating something. A homecoming.
And so when I look back at India, I probably will not remember the traffic, the piles of trash, or the dust. Instead I will look back at who I have been here. My skin is brown, my hair is thick, and my heart is full. My soul firmly rooted in culture, home, and family — a girl unafraid.
As I sit on the plane to Delhi, the first leg of my trip back to the US, I decided I would think about the friends I’ve made, food I’ve eaten, and the fun I’ve had while on this trip, rather than diving into what my time at Aravind has meant to me. (I’ve already cried once today, so I’ll save the life-changing realizations and passions I discovered for my final blog, which I’ll write later this week once I arrive at home).
So, I came to India having only met my co-interns once; lucky for me, Nadha, Catherine, and Cherry are three of the kindest, most considerate, and easiest-to-talk-to people I’ve ever met. When we left the office for the last time yesterday (which we’ve probably spent close to 450 hours in this summer), I knew I would always treasure the time we spent in there, despite our daily complaints about the window’s bars and WIFI’s unreliability. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know them and to experience as much of southern India as we could together (i.e. our overnight buses, trains, and cars to Munnar, Pondicherry, Rameswaram, and Kanyakumari – pictures below).a pier in Kanyakumari shortly after sunrise and the arrival of our 4:10 am bus Rameswaram, sunrise, and a boat Munnar, my favorite trip and a beautiful place another beach and another sunrise, this time in Pondicherry
Next, the food. My family and I have a running joke – we’re Indian, and none of us can really handle spicy food. It wasn’t as funny when I realized all the food I would be eating was going to be much, much spicier than I could handle. Not to worry, though, I got used to the sweating and burning, and I can now say that not only to I (probably) have the highest spice tolerance in my family, I tried some incredible food while I was in India. My co-interns can tell you how much I talked about the paneer masala dosa that I loved. The pictures I’m adding don’t really do the food justice – the main focus of the food here was the taste, not the presentation.
Finally, we had a lot of fun while we were here. From trying gooseberries after lunch in the office (if you haven’t had one, prepare yourself, and if you have, you should know they’re my favorite fruit) to trying literally every flavor of ice cream at our favorite and frequented ice cream joint, to playing UNO and watching movies in our rooms, we made every moment one to remember.
My time in India has been incredible. I don’t really have the words to share what this opportunity has meant to me, but I hope you’ve been able to get a sense of how full both my heart and stomach are after this summer.