CASI Student Blog
Hello from Bengaluru! I’m a doctoral candidate in the South Asia Studies and Anthropology departments at UPenn. This summer, aided by the CASI travel funds, I’m conducting summer research in Bengaluru, Kudremukh, and Delhi.
My dissertation studies the conflicted notions of livelihood, resources, and nature in the Kudremukh region of south India. Here, a state-run, iron-ore mine was decommissioned in 2006 and incorporated into a national park. The site is located in the Western Ghats mountain ranges, known for their biological diversity. The Indian Supreme Court’s directive to incorporate the mine into the national park emerged in response to conservation petitions to protect the region’s unique grassland-forests (known as the sholas) and other endemic biological life.
Overall, I’m interested in many interlinked questions: what narratives emerge if we attend to the on-ground experiences of people who live and work in this region?; how are non-human flora and fauna in these communities impacted through such industrial and ecological transitions?; how are ethical claims asserted by diverse actors and institutions around their mineral and environmental resources?
I’ll be using a wide range of methods, such as combining ethnography, oral history, and in-depth interviews alongside reflections on historical documents. I will meet ex-mining employees, biologists studying the region’s flora and fauna, and residents who live close to the national park. I look forward to sharing some of my fieldwork reflections with you!
While planning my trip to Goa, I expected to be going to a relaxing beach town with grand, old Portuguese buildings. What I found instead was an eerily charming state with Portuguese ruins that were sometimes more run down than beautiful. There were small churches every mile or so that were often next to abandoned buildings surrounded by stray dogs fighting for food. The grass around these building was overgrown and almost artificially green because of the monsoon rains. The old Portuguese churches were still vibrant in color, like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. This added a whimsical charm to every place we went. The complicated stories of colonialism and tradition could be felt while passing by.
There was something haunting about the juxtaposition between all of the abandoned hotels in sparsely populated areas and Goa’s reputation for being an area where hippy tourists come to party on the beach. Outside of the tourist areas, I found myself spooked by my surroundings. Other than the abandoned buildings, there was often a lack of street lights and a lack of people nearby. The sinister sky that the monsoon rains created added to the generally mysterious and frightening ambiance.
Although I often felt like I was on the set of a horror movie, I found the people in Goa to be particularly friendly. People were always more than willing to help the group I was with (probably since we often looked lost, which we usually were). Locals were constantly asking where we were from and what it’s like in the States. I have never met a group of people who were so excited to show off their home and their culture. Goan history is fascinating to learn about, especially since it is so different from the rest of India’s history.
(My friend and I moments before getting devoured by the rain)
Overall, Goa gave me helpful insights into the complexities of Indian culture and history. I loved going to all of the churches, forts, and spice plantations. My favorite part was getting the opportunity to talk to people at small roadside restaurants. There was something charming about interacting with locals while their restaurant dogs tried to get me to give them food, which clearly worked with other tourists because many of these restaurant dogs were severely overweight (we affectionately named each of them “sushi roll”). These conversations were the most meaningful to me as they gave me valuable insight into their everyday lives and the beauty of Goan history.
Since I can no longer have these desserts after starting this doctor-prescribed gluten-free diet post surgery, I figured the best way to mourn the end of my Indian sweets journey is to blog about all of the ones I’ve tried in the past five weeks, and to shed some insight on the tastiest!
Before we begin, a quick note: India is known for its spices and abundant flavoring, which means when it comes to sweets, it doesn’t hold back on the sugar. Everything is overly sweet (black coffee doesn’t exist here, think your average brew with a cream and 5 sugars), which of course means that the “sweets” truly live up to the name.
- Kulfis: know as the “traditional Indian ice cream.” At the Bombay Kulfis near our workplace there were at least 30 different flavors. I’ve tried the malai kulfi, a type of cream, and the pista (pistachio) kulfi and I would highly recommend both! Think American fudgescicle but creamier and better.
2. Khasta Gujiya: a type of dumpling-shaped pastry that is crispy and flaky on the outside with a sweet filling on the inside and glazed with syrup. The inside filling is made from dry coconut, nuts, mawa, cardamom powder and powdered sugar. It is a classic Indian sweet that is a tradition to eat on Holi. If you know me you know I LOVE any type of doughy pastry and even though I bought this at a supermarket (Spar) it was still delicious!
3. I also bought a Mysore pak from Spar, which someone told me was a must-try dessert only after we returned from our trip to Mysore. This dessert is doughy, cake-like, heavy, crumbly, and buttery (or should I say ghee-y?). It is made out of just sugar, water, chickpea flour, and ghee, and is usually prepare for Diwali. Definitely better than the normal paks!
4. Gulab Jaman: a very very sweet dough ball made from milk solids and SOAKED in syrup (you should definitely dab it a few times to get some of the syrup off before you eat it). This was unique though because it was a gulab jaman thick shake from the Thickshake Factory (this chain milkshake place is everywhere in India. Who knew thick shakes were so popular here?) It’s an Indian twist on a western dessert!
5. Meetha Paan: a dessert made of betel leaves filled with a range of sweet jam-like spreads and crunchy titbits like tutti-frutti, cherries, and chopped dates. The leaf itself is quite bitter, but the filling makes the dessert quite sweet. Paan is known as a mouth refreshened and you can find it sold by vendors outside of most restaurants and even inside too. According to my co-intern Siddharth, betel leaves are something you either love or hate. I’m not sure I love it or hate it. I think I would describe it as interesting? But it is a little too sweet for me.
6. Burfis and Paks and Milk Cakes: Burfis or barfis is a dense, milk-based cake-like sweet and comes in various flavors like cashew or coconut or chocolate. Different variations have varying denseness and sweetness. To be honest, all of them started to blend together for me so I don’t quite remember which I liked best, but if you’re a fan of milky, denser cakes, why not try them all and decide for yourself?
7. Kesar Kaju Katli: See the silvery rectangle in the bottom left corner of the box Steph is holding? That’s this super soft, chewy dessert made from saffron, cashews, milk, and sugar. The consistency is like a fudge but without the thickness and denseness that makes American fudges sickeningly sweet after a few bites. It’s a must-try!
8. Badam Milk: a sweet milky drink flavored with ground almonds, cardamon powder and saffron that is served hot from a big metal pot. You can also find it sold cold in bottles at grocery stores. It’s a little too sweet for my tastes, but the spices taste amazing!
9. Laddus: Saved one of the best for last! There’s so many variations of laddus, but I’m only featuring two here. Maybe this holds a special place in my heart because it was the first sweet that I bought in India. I bought the besan laddus on the left while Piotr bought the rose laddus on the right. The besan laddu is a crumbly, dense, flour-based, pistachio-flavored dessert that melts right in your mouth. It’s a sweet ball made out of chickpea flour, sugar, ghee and nuts. The rose laddu on the other hand is lighter, much more chewy and with a sticky filling inside.
So there you have it! If you’ve tried any of these before, let me know your favorites, or if you have any recommendations, be sure to let me know as I’ll definitely be stuffing myself full of more sweets once I’m recovered and before heading back to America.
“We’ve gathered here to spread vision to the community each month on the last Saturday,” explained the wise old man sitting across from me, pausing for a brief moment to muse the passage of time before adding, “for past 22 years.” It wasn’t easy to hear the sage against the hum of the examination, instruction and patient shuffling going on behind me, but his warm eyes and bright cotton shirt and dhoti commanded attention. The man had been a friend of the late founder of Aravind and had been hosting comprehensive eye screening camps in his humble marriage hall since well before I was born. These ‘camps’ serve as are pop-up vision clinics to provide eye care to underserved and predominately rural communities that suffer from the highest incidence of vision complications. I had the opportunity to visit one of these camps just over a week ago and came away learning about more than just ophthalmology.
Following the introduction from the community organizer I walked through the nine stations that make up the clinic’s highly efficient workflow. After registering, going through refraction, and completing a doctor’s checkup, patients that are recommended surgery get their vitals checked (blood sugar levels are a particular concern) and visit the counseling station to learn about their procedure and consent to the operation. As I listened to the presiding manager describe the process unfolding directly in-front of us, I hastily assumed consent would be given through a written signature. As I took a closer look at the table however, I noticed that there were few pens, and an unusual number of ink pads. To my surprise, counselors were guiding most patients blot their thumbs in ink and stamp them on the signature line. They had never signed their names before.
The poignance of this anecdote reflects the two aspects of my internship that have made my time here in India truly remarkable. The first has been the opportunity to observe India through the lens of healthcare. The profound glimpses into the unfamiliar lives lived by those in margins of the developing world have been occasional in my wandering travels but are frequent while working with Aravind. This derives from the peculiar interactions fostered in hospital setting, with patients shuffling about, carrying a swirling mix of fear, awe, boredom and anxiety as they await their routine checkups, life altering treatments and devastating prognoses. Within this milieu materializes a mystical window into the human experience, one that transcends barriers of language and culture. This window has been an important tool in my exploration of privilege and inequality during my time here.
There are countless aspects of western life that we take for granted each and every day, but few are as pervasive as our access to healthcare, and consequently our health. Although we are often reminded to be thankful for what we have—for the life that we were so fortunately assigned, it is far more difficult than it sounds. Not only is it difficult to fundamentally grasp the magnitude of inequality in our world, but the mental state of being thankful itself seems to conflict directly with our evolutionary drives, making it harder at the subconscious level to appreciate what we have. It is for this reason that I have tried to immerse myself in as many unfamiliar settings as possible during my time here, for each new environment exposes the faults in my perspective and brings a new insight to surface, such as my presumptions of literacy.
The second aspect that has made my time here special is my exposure to the incredible vision and impact of the Aravind Eye Hospital System, the organizer of the camp I attended and also where I have been conducting my internship this summer. Working for the Madurai branch of the Aravind system these past weeks with the many kind and passionate individuals of the Community Ophthalmology division (LAICO) has inspired me with new hope for healthcare and humanity. LAICO focuses both on managing the hospital and disseminating the Aravind model to organizations around the world looking to eradicate needless blindness in their communities. The Aravind system is the largest healthcare system of its kind in the world, but that stat does not come close to encapsulating the effects it has had on blindness in South India and around the world.
I’m about to go into a somewhat longwinded description of what makes Aravind so remarkable (mostly because I enjoyed writing it, but also because I don’t trust you all to read up on it on your own). If you’re not in the mood, feel free to skip the next 6 paragraphs.
First and foremost, it’s important to establish the dire context for this enterprise. As of 2012, It was estimated that there were 39 million people living with blindness worldwide, 15 million of which residing in India alone. Of that Indian population, about 60% are blind as the result of cataracts, a progressive clouding of the lens that is entirely treatable with an artificial lens replacement substituted during quick surgical procedure. Blindness due to cataracts has been all but eradicated in the developed world, but the stark lack of resources has led to the proliferation of unnecessary blindness throughout India. This disease is most prevalent in the poor, rural population on India where individuals lack means and the access to healthcare, and for which the prospects for the blind are devastatingly bleak.
Much of the history of the Aravind eye care system revolves around its founder, Dr. Venkataswamy, a village man who defied his debilitating arthritis to become an ophthalmologist, and who founded Aravind as a way to give back to his community after retiring from his post at a government hospital. At the time of hospital’s inception as a 11-bed hospital in Madurai staffed by three of Dr. V’s family members in 1976, the state of ophthalmological healthcare in India was even more dire, but Dr. V got right to work. Over the course of the next few decades, Aravind grew in both number and size of its hospitals thanks to its guiding mission of “eliminating needless blindness” and several keen innovations. Aravind now operates 12 secondary and tertiary care hospitals, along with nearly 70 primary care vision centers that utilize telemedicine to provide accessible care in underserved communities. Overall, the AEH system saw over 3 million out patients in 2017 (over a third of which were treated for free, or at a highly subsidized rate), and completed nearly 300,00 cataract surgeries. The main drivers for Aravind’s ability to meet the massive need for quality, affordable healthcare is its innovations in staffing, surgery, outreach and manufacturing.
The backbone of the Aravind model is its all-female clinical nursing staff, which are designated as Mid-Level Ophthalmologic Personnel (MLOPs). The MLOPs, or sisters, as they are commonly referred to, are girls that are recruited directly from local secondary schools and undergo a two-year training program to become highly specialized in a particular clinical role. The MLOPs take care of just about all of the hospital operations outside of diagnosing patients and doing surgeries. They direct, test, refract, counsel and record data for the hospitals 6-days a week, at a meagerly, although relatively fair wage. With the MLOPs handling the routine tasks, the hospital is able to maximize the productivity of its most expensive resource, its doctors.
The second major innovation (not in chronological order) was the hospital’s decision to install two operating chairs in each operating theater, allowing surgeons to seamlessly switch to the next surgery while MLOPs help the bandage the finished patient up, guide them back to the ward, and grab another patient from the waiting room to prep them for the next surgery. This innovation is the key factor in Aravind’s productivity because each PHACO surgery, the most common and highest quality cataract surgery technique takes only 15 minutes on average, meaning each minute spent in preparation is a minute wasted (even more efficient, small incision cataract surgeries take only 3 minutes on average). Conventional wisdom at the time Aravind implemented this method was that having two operating beds would lead to increased incidence of infection. Amazingly, after just a few years of implementing the method a retrospective study determined Aravind’s surgical method resulted in a lower infection rate and fewer complications than the National Health Service of the UK.
The third factor in Aravind’s progress towards its mission has been its ability to provide care to patients in rural villages, which I witnessed first-hand at the camp. Reaching the rural population has always been a paramount to the primary goal of Aravind, but for many years these camps were less than effective. The problem they were experiencing was not a lack of participation, but low rates of acceptance (~15%) of the surgical advice given in the camps. Frustrated with their impact, Aravind took a closer look at the reason behind this inadequacy. The survey they led found that despite offering the cataract surgeries for free, patients were inhibited by food transportation costs, fear of surgery, and reluctance to leave their families. In response to the survey, Aravind swiftly redesigned its system. It negotiated with community and government sponsors to provide food and transportation, organized bus trips so that patients traveled with others from the same or nearby villages, and organized support groups for patients during their recovery phase. With the new practices in place the acceptance rate soared, compounding every year as word spread within the villages. Aravind now sees over 350,000 camp patients a year and has a surgery acceptance rate of over 90%
It’s almost unheard of for a hospital system to get involved with manufacturing consumables, but when inter ocular lens (used to replace the cloudy cataract) surgeries became the standard of care they cost upwards of 100$ per eye, far too expensive for Aravind to offer. Determined to provide the highest quality of care Aravind enlisted the help of American engineers including David Green to implement their own in-house manufacturing facility and begin producing the lenses for a tenth of the original cost. The manufacturing arm, named aurolab, has since expanded its operations, and now provides discounted lenses, sutures, surgical blades and pharmaceuticals to the Aravind system along with eye hospitals in developing nations around the world.
For further reading on Aravind:
General Life Updates:
Its startling how quickly 6 weeks can pass. I apologize for keeping these experiences to myself for so long, but things have been quite busy. Between the 9-5 / 6 days a week at the office, after-work activities and Sunday travels there has been disappointingly little free time to blog. I’m also guilty of not taking full advantage of the free time I do have for I am still unaccustomed to shaping my thoughts into a coherent blog post with proper voice and explanation, and readily prefer dissecting my new experiences with my friends and fellow group mates through conversation, or personal exploration in my moleskine. This, compounded with my ineptitude at writing while watching the world cup, which has also consumed a fair portion of my free time over the last month, has led me to this current state.
Photo Dump:Click to view slideshow.
I have been to Jaipur twice in the last week. The first time was with other CASI interns. The second was for work at the beginning of this week. I feel like I have seen two completely different cities, and two completely different interpretations of Rajasthani culture, on these trips.
While visiting monuments and forts last weekend, I was enamored by the breathtaking beauty of Jaipur’s Old City. We had captivating tour guides (and Uber drivers) who exposed us to the rich culture of a world that I’ve only ever seen in movies. We were told tales of maharajahs and ancient wars. We were exposed to a culture that was uniquely Rajasthani.
I was captivated by stories of the current royal family in Rajasthan. I often found myself daydreaming about the palace that I would like to live in one day. I imagined what I would look like sitting in every room in City Palace as I watched over my subjects and lived in the lap of luxury and power. At Amer Fort and Hawa Mahal, I was enchanted by the stories of influential women standing behind one-sided panels to hide themselves from people on the other side. There was something so mysterious, magical, and somewhat frightening about the idea of being so important that you would have to be hidden because no one outside of the royal family was worthy enough to see you.
This first trip was limited to all of the tourist traps where we could take Instagram-worthy photos to make all of our friends and family jealous. My second trip has been totally different. I was sent here for work on short notice to help with the opening of a new LEAP center in Jaipur. I was expecting to be charmed by the city again, and at first, I was. This facade quickly dissolved only for it to be reimagined as I found the true beauty of this experience again.
When I arrived, I stayed at a luxury hotel adorned with classic Rajasthani handiwork courtesy of LEAP. Everything was exactly as I remembered from the week before, but soon I was sitting in an office without power and could feel the sweat slowly dripping down my back as people outside were shouting and drivers were harassing each other with their horns. To say I was less enamored by Jaipur would be an understatement.
I realized immediately that the image of Jaipur that was fed to me last week was far from the complete picture of this region. I have learned so much from talking to potential LEAP students who came in and out of the office on our opening day. They illustrated an image of Rajasthan that is much simpler and more subdued. Many of them come from rural areas where their family is involved in agriculture to some capacity. They are less accustomed to hearing English spoken so freely like it is in Jaipur. They described the kind of India that we always hear about in the news when they talked about a culture that widely practices child marriage and has a more antiquated perspective on the role of women in society. Both of these things directly conflict with my Western feminist views. I wanted to be angry that people still live that way, but I couldn’t be. The people that came into the office today wanted nothing more than to improve their lives by gaining new employability and English language skills. They, like everyone else in the world, just wanted to make a better life for themselves and their families. It made me much less judgmental and much more empathetic towards the way in which they conduct their lives.
My second trip to Jaipur has reminded me that we are all the same in that we want the best for the people we love. I admire the hard work and bravery that it took for these potential students to even come in for a consultation at our office. They could’ve just made their peace with the cards that were dealt to them, but instead they decided to reach out for help to improve their lives. I look forward to continuing to interact with LEAP students. Everyone who I have met so far has had a fascinating life story and a genuine desire to be the best that they can be. It is inspiring to work with them.
Working in India has been a whirlwind of “firsts.” First time living abroad, first time working in a large organization, first time with a job in which English is not the only language. Back in Pennsylvania, workplace expectations for scheduling meetings, talking with supervisors, keeping people updated, and other relationships are so omnipresent that I did not have to think much about them. But what is clear at home is ambiguous in a deluge of firsts.
For example, if you want to meet with your boss back in America, generally you schedule a meeting. At Aravind, it is acceptable to walk in without warning. As an intern, I felt, and still feel, uncomfortable walking in with no warning on people with huge responsibilities in the organization and very busy schedules, especially when I only have small updates. We can even walk in on doctors, who are extremely respected here, during their work hours. I have been continuously humbled and impressed by how people high up in the organization are so willing to listen to and help with our projects. However, in the beginning I was unsure how to balance communicating small updates without disrespecting other people’s time.
My project, which I will describe in a later blog post, involves coordinating between many different parts of Aravind. Keeping everyone updated, communicating clearly across varying degrees of a language barrier, and navigating which practices are considered respectful was more difficult than I had anticipated. This confusion peaked last Saturday. To make a long story short, each of the stakeholders and I had different understandings of what content I was presenting to a trial group, how far along my project was, and how the trial would be run. In the end, they resolved the confusion in Tamil while I stood, embarrassed, on the sidelines. In this environment, even small miscommunications are amplified since interpretations of the same events can be so different. Thankfully, by putting small mistakes in the limelight, I can recognize them and continuously improve.
Even as I have become more comfortable walking in on people, other nuances also exist. I have always tended to write, and speak very directly. Especially considering last Saturday and an added layer of language differences, my first instinct is to speak my thoughts in the most succinct and clear way possible. I have immense respect for everyone I work with here, and want to show that, so I am sometimes concerned that my speech comes across as arrogant or disrespectful, since standards are somewhat different than in the United States. Nearly all the interns I talked to from previous years advised us that learning the nuances of communication here was a steep learning curve, but none could explain the exact differences. I still cannot. My co-interns and I have picked up on some more overt measures of respect, including standing up when a doctor enters the room and referring to higher up members as “Mam” or “Sir”. However, the expected standards for speech are so ingrained and natural to the people who work at Aravind that they are hard to observe directly and understand. This balance between clarity and diplomacy exists in the states as well but has been much more consistently present in my mind here. Although I have become better at finding this balance, I want to improve even more in the last few weeks.
Though at some points I have felt embarrassed, uncomfortable, or confused, navigating these differences has been really valuable. I’ve been very fulfilled by running my own project rather independently through different departments. Defending my opinions, and transmitting those of others, requires me to stand up for myself. Working in an organization where we are very supported, but need to search out that support has taught me to be more decisive and clear. On this trip, I’ve thought much more about communicating as a stand-alone entity, rather than as only a means to an end. When I go back to the States, I’m excited to look out for underlying social cues I always took for granted and perhaps notice some nuances I had not recognized before.
Aravind Eye Hospital Outpatient Ward
Enjoying the incredible mountains of Kodaikanal
Station 1 at the eye camp — testing a patient’s vision
Trying not to get blown off a bridge at Rameshwaram
No words for the majesty of Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur
This week marks a midway point for Judy and me. Although we’re more than halfway through our time in India, we are just finishing up our first project and starting a second one. After spending more than a month in the lush, cool greenery of Araku Valley, we’re back to the loud, dusty, bumper-to-bumper lifestyle of Hyderabad. We were excited about it at first. After all, we go to school in Philadelphia, so being in the city holds a sense of familiarity with it, however minimal. We were excited to eat new food and go shopping and be able to explore a city on our own two legs. That lasted about two days.
At school, I’m always anxious that I’m not doing enough. Here, that’s translated to wondering if I’m taking enough advantage of all of the opportunities available, whether its cities to visit or restaurants to eat at or sights to see. The result is a host of detailed Google docs and spreadsheets as Judy and I attempt to maximize our next couple of weeks here. What we’re missing from the first leg of our internship is the contented feeling of satisfaction, of doing enough, of doing everything we want to and can.
With this post, I wanted to make a list of moments so far that have made the summer “worth it,” even if we don’t hit every city on our spreadsheet by the end of it. These were never on a checklist of things we had to hit before our 10 weeks ran out, but they were highlights of each day.
1. The daily commute: taking an open-air auto rickshaw to work everyday here is one of the most pleasant parts of the day. We cruise through the city while getting more and more familiar with the main streets and side streets, and scope out shops and places to eat along the way. Best Uber ever.
2. Lunchtime with the office: Everyday, strictly at 1, some of our colleagues take their lunch break, and we sit around a table outside and dig in. Judy and I had mentioned that we wanted to try momos–a South Asian version of dumplings–now that we were back in the city, so one of our coworkers, Imsen, brought in homemade ones for us this week! On other days, Kaush, kind of the mother figure of the office, brings in several courses just to share with everyone else and even makes a plate for me and Judy to make sure we try everything.
3. The mangoes: Your office might have a Keurig, but mine has a never-ending supply of mangoes. As you’ve read, Naandi has created a coffee market, and they’re working on doing that for mangoes next. This year is a testing year, which for us means tasting hundreds of mangoes, and calling it part of the job.
4. The pomegranates: They’re also in the testing phase for a pomegranate project, which is focused in the Warda district of Maharashtra. This area has seen a string of farmer suicides due to lack of sufficient harvest and the cycle of debt over the past couple of decades. Naandi’s plan to address these insurmountable debts involves introducing pomegranate, which was chosen through a cost-benefit analysis and an environmental analysis of the region. The fruits that came through the corporate office in Hyderabad this month were distributed to employees, and we even got to take them to give out at an N-Star center, a skill-building and educational center for college-aged girls. Of course, being able to taste the fruits is a pretty sweet perk, but I also love how they’ve shown how related all of the projects of Naandi are. As an intern, I’ve valued how I’ve been able to learn about so many different projects and have a small hand in several of them, and I’ve also enjoyed seeing how people are involved with different projects and how they all relate. It has helped remind us of the relevance of the work we are doing and how our work fits into the bigger picture.
5. The occasional gem of an auto driver: This past weekend, Judy and I went to Jaipur, and we spent one day in the nearby towns of Pushkar and Ajmer. We took the train to Ajmer with a list of places to see but very little idea of how we were going to get around efficiently and how we were going to find anything at all. After seeing a couple things in Ajmer, we wanted to head to Pushkar. We had read that taxi prices would be >400 rupees each way, so we called an auto to the bus station with the intention of taking a bus. When we mentioned that we were planning to go to Pushkar, the auto driver offered to drive us there and back for a decent price, so we decided to take a chance and go with him, despite being only 50% sure of what we had agreed on, based on my broken Hindi. He turned out to be a fantastic tour guide, showing us everything we wanted to see, and more. At the end of the ride, he lamented that we didn’t have more time, as he would have wanted us to see more in Ajmer, his hometown, too. We exchanged phone numbers with the promise that we would call him if we or anyone we knew were coming to Ajmer. The moment that really warmed our heart was that evening, when he called us, and put his English-speaking son on the phone just to ask if we had gotten back to Jaipur safely from Ajmer. If any future CASI interns are thinking of a trip to Ajmer/Pushkar, please let me know!
As we head into the remaining 3 weeks of our internship, we have every weekend booked with travel, and most evenings booked with dinners with co-workers or local activities. Thinking about the smaller joys of the past several weeks hasn’t made us want to slow down at all, but it’s made us remember the importance of reflection, and of acknowledging what’s been done and why we did it.
French fries or Dosas? Hollywood or Bollywood? America or India? These are questions I grew up hearing and navigating in ways that did not offend anyone around me.
Some people define the term ‘ABCD’ as American Born Confused Desi (Desi means native to India). This generally refers to the idea that people of Indian origin born in the US feel as though they belong neither in the US nor in India. I always thought that this term was comical and that I was not confused. Why would someone want just one culture when they could have two? I was always both Indian and American equally, and I figured out how to reconcile the values of both cultures very early on. However, the past 4 weeks have caused some confusion regarding my identity.
Growing up in America, I have always been proud of my Indian heritage. I love the colorful clothing and the bindis. I love dressing up and performing Bharatnatyam dances at school talent shows. I love eating Indian food (at least the kind my mom makes, free of all of my allergens). I love going to Indian functions, meeting my friends and family. I love my Indian culture. It has been a point of pride for me. Always.
On a similar note, whenever I came to India with my parents, I was proud to be American and a foreigner in India. Up until the start of high school, I spent almost every summer with my mom and sometimes my dad in my grandparents’ houses in Mangalore or Mumbai. I loved sharing my American culture in India too. I loved describing pizza (to those who were not yet familiar with the greatness that is pizza); I loved wearing my “American clothing” even if it drew attention to me. As someone who grew up embodying the Indian identity and the stereotypes that accompany that (I’m sure you can think of a few), the rare opportunities I had every summer to act the part of the American rather than the Indian allowed me the chance to embrace both sides of my identity, Indian-American.
When preparing to come to India this summer, I deceived myself in thinking it would be exactly the same. When I travel with my parents who grew up in India, I am the foreigner; I am the one who has an American accent so that my parents have to communicate with people in restaurants or stores. This summer, however, I step in to talk to rickshaw drivers to understand their accent (years of watching Hindi and Kannada movies and serials help me understand accented English). I call Dominos to order pizza because I can understand what they’re saying, and I can convey the message because my ears are trained to pick up words in an Indian accent. Suffice it to say that traveling with a group that is more foreign than me has made me think about my identity a lot and has been an interesting adjustment that I did not see coming.
Indians, like any group of people, are fascinated by people who look different than them. On our recent trip to Kodaikanal, my group was stopped so that Indian youngsters could take selfies with the foreigners (this is a frequent occurrence). I noticed that they never once asked me for a selfie and often did not include me in the ones that they took. Our first day in Madurai, we went to the mall; the lady at the counter of the clothing store spoke to my friends in her broken English; when I moved up to the counter, she looked relieved and spoke to me in Tamil. I had to awkwardly disappoint her, saying that I don’t know Tamil. I have been called a tour guide for my friends though we are in a city that is foreign to me just as it is foreign to my co-interns. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I am not one of the people that people in India want in their selfies. I look like them. I am not a foreigner but an insider.
A part of me wondered why I was bothered by this. Hadn’t I wondered what it would be like to fit in perfectly somewhere? Wasn’t it nice to have a group of people that considered me an insider despite the way I talked and my background growing up in America? Was I just being petty?
A lot of soul-searching led me to the answer. It was about the way that I had formed my own identity. I always considered myself as both an Indian and an American. I had gotten used to the fact that when I came to India, I was the American and when I was in America, I was the Indian. I had become comfortable with that. But here I was in India feeling like an Indian for the first time and surprisingly I was uncomfortable in that situation. I was frustrated that people in India weren’t recognizing a part of my identity that I had formed when I was very young.
None of this means that I feel ashamed to be Indian-American. I am still as proud as ever of my cultures. I have never been given an opportunity like this one to feel like I fit in. For example, when introducing myself at the Bollywood dance class we joined, I mentioned that I am a Bharatnatyam dancer. For once, I did not have to explain what Bharatnatyam was and felt relieved that the students in the class understood me even on such a small matter. Fitting in and being an insider definitely have many perks. However, as someone who has gotten comfortable with not fitting in, I am uncomfortable with fitting in. Who wants to fit in, anyway? Standing out is way more fun.
Growing up, I was never the classic definition of an ABCD; I was the ABCD – American Born Confident (at least in my identity) Desi. I don’t want to speak for an entire group of people, but Indians born in America are confident in who they are and the term ABCD (C being confused) is not accurate. I am sure that this experience is solidifying my confidence in my identity so I would not change it in any way. I am Indian and I am American – no one can tell me differently.
I’m halfway done with my internship, and a large part of me is already disappointed about the prospect of going back home. It’s kind of like eating the first half of a Kit Kat. You know the end is near, but you still have enough keep you satisfied, at least for the moment.
Being Indian American, I’ve often wondered what my life would be like if my parents never emigrated to the US. What kind of person would I be? Would I have the same motivations in life? Would I have learned how to swim? (yes, I can’t swim. Don’t tell anyone). So much of our personalities are shaped by our environment, and I think it’s even more so the case when you grow up as a minority in a country like America. Maybe I would’ve been more outgoing if I was raised in India, where everyone looks like me. I’d probably have closer, more long-lasting friendships and better ties with my relatives. I’ve always thought I had the longer end of the stick, living in a first world country and enjoying all its amenities and the freedoms of being American. But being here makes me realize that I’ve also missed out on a lot of little things in life: for example, holidays. American holidays, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, aren’t the same without generations of family traditions, and we never get the opportunity to celebrate Hindu festivals with the same pomp that they have in India.
Is it worth it, living in America? I’ll never know, since my whole life has been spent in the US (but if we want to be religious, I’ve most likely also had a past life as an Indian– as well as a turtle or something, probably). Don’t get me wrong, I love my life in the States, and I think the diversity of our nation is something incredibly beautiful. I’m definitely lucky to have the privilege of living there– it’s an experience millions of kids wish for. However, my time in India so far has taught me that it’s not all black and white: despite the US being a more “developed” nation, there are certain things I’ll never get to have as an American.
Featured picture: Me in Agra, at Agra Fort (very aptly named)
I was one of the first to step out of the bus that had “Aravind Eye Hospital” written across the windshield. I stood to the side and watched what the others did, hoping to catch on to what I was supposed to do next. “Ma’am? Come, come,” a young nurse said as she motioned for me to come in her direction. She probably noticed the look of confusion and frustration I wore on my face. She tugged lightly on my arm, showing me the way and helping me navigate the unruly traffic while crossing the street. She let go once we were safely on a side walk again and smiled softly at me. I looked up, realizing we had arrived at the site where today’s eye camp would take place.
Eye camps are one of the many efforts Aravind Eye Hospital has put in place to enhance their community outreach. Through these camps, the providers bring eye care to the doorstep of people that need it the most but are incapable of finding a means by which to travel to the main hospitals. Typically, an eye camp consists of a group of doctors, nurses and counselors being transported to a rural area where they can screen, counsel and refer patients to other health professionals. They identify any specific conditions and prescribe a treatment or referral. I was the first of my intern group chosen to attend one of these eye camps and I must admit that I was left in awe.
Before all of the patients began to arrive, the two female doctors assigned to this specific eye camp in the town of Peraiyur welcomed me warmly. They inquired about my origins, purpose and goals while also sharing with me tips about what to watch out for throughout the day. Then, in only minutes, the conversation ceased and the two young ladies were immersed in a crowd of curious patients. They sat between two plastic chairs, one on their right and one on their left. Two lines formed behind the doctors and one by one patients sat in the chairs eagerly awaiting their turn to be evaluated. With only two flashlights (which they call “torches”) and a few bottles of eye drops, the doctors shifted from right to left, left to right, over and over throughout the day sifting through the patients.
“Would you like some coffee?”
I picked up on some of the English words I could hear as the doctors communicated in the local language. They redirected patients to different services in the camp, shouted commands for the nurses (which they call sisters) and excitedly requested help from others. Amidst the tumult, they still found the time to offer me coffee even though I was only sitting there watching them. Three coffees were brought to us by the eagerly playful teenage boys that were volunteering that day; one for me and one for each of the doctors. My coffee was finished within minutes, but their cups sat there untouched as they continued to shift from right to left, left to right.
A few times I stepped away from the doctor’s station to observe what the nurses were doing in the different areas of the camp. At station 3 I watched a sister measure intraocular eye pressure and inject liquid into tear ducts, her movements seemingly intuitive and automatic. She smiled as she saw me approach and broke her routine to kindly explain to me what she was doing. There was an organized cycle of steps she followed: apply anesthetic eye drops, take eye pressure, refill needle, gently inject fluid in tear duct, wipe eye, call next patient, repeat. It was incredible to me how she dexterously used the manual old-fashioned device to measure eye pressure and how precise her movements were as she pressed the needle into the patient’s eyes, but she found my enthusiasm silly.
Approximately 200 patients were seen that day and about 50 were referred to surgery at Aravind in Madurai. To ensure these selected patients actually completed their treatments, the staff loaded the patients onto a bus and transported them back to the hospital in Madurai where they would stay in a hostel awaiting to be brought in for surgery. It was clear that all possible barriers keeping patients from seeking and receiving service were considered and appropriate solutions were offered. It was an impeccable demonstration of how dedicated Aravind is to providing care and achieving its founder’s mission of “eliminating needless blindness”.
Besides having the opportunity to learn about various eye diseases by observing some of the patients, I also befriended a few of the sisters. We communicated through hand gestures and a few English words, but they enjoyed looking through the pictures on my phone the most. As I shared images of my loved ones, they made kind remarks, approving of the pretty faces and sights. They made me feel so welcomed that I almost forgot I was a foreigner in an unfamiliar land.
The next day was when I came down with an awful stomach ache. I had no option but to eat some of the street food when I was at the camp, but it was worth it. As I curled up into a ball, fighting the stomach cramps that tried to put a damper on my parade, I reflected on my experiences. Like I said, I was in awe at how the providers were capable of offering so much to the patients with such little resources. The time and exhaustion were not relevant to them as they sorted through all of the different patients and listened to all of their cases. No words are sufficient to describe what I experienced, but I hope that some of my pictures can relay at least part of it.
As an Australian born Chinese with parents who exposed me to the negotiation strategies of Beijing’s Silk Street Market in early adolescence, I am no stranger to bargaining. And I had been informed extensively by almost everyone that as an obvious foreigner in India, I would constantly be ripped off. And they were right – auto rickshaws regularly tried to charge me triple the local price, and I paid almost double for a kurta at Dilli Haat, compared to an identical one purchased by our boss Chitra at the same place.
But even though I (and my fellow co-interns) have no trouble bargaining, and I am budgeting and tracking my expenses very closely for this trip, every time I close a bargaining transaction, agree on the price, and the person on the other end expresses extreme reluctance, I do feel some guilt.
When you are in a country where so many people live in poverty, what are the ethics of bargaining?
Since I’m a debater at heart, I’m going to divide this into two threads: the principle and the practical.
The Principle (deontological):
- Do Bargain: The principle of fairness demands that I should bargain, because why should I be paying a different price than locals for the exact same good?
- Don’t Bargain: Rawl’s principle of distributive justice would condemn this kind of bargaining because it makes the worse off, even worse off. Is it hypocritical for me to bargain when I’m meant to be doing a social justice esque internship?
The Practical (utilitarian):
- Do Bargain: I don’t want to get ripped off – I worked hard for my money. Also, even though I am bargaining down the price, I am not coercing the other party into a transaction. They are free to refuse my offer and walk away. Therefore, (to make my high school economics teacher proud), any transaction that occurs should be Pareto efficient (make both parties no worse off), meaning that utility would still be gained by the seller, even if I force down the price (otherwise they wouldn’t sell to me).
- Don’t bargain: 1 INR (Indian rupee) to me means so much less than 1 INR does for a tuk tuk driver, because of a) diminishing marginal returns and b) the fact that 1 INR goes much further in India, than it does in the States. They would probably gain much more utility from 1 rupee than I would.
At the end of the day, I will still probably continue to bargain. But I will consider the arguments against it, and calibrate my expectations to expect a reasonable price, even if it is not exactly what a local would pay. And I’ll keep mulling over this question, so perhaps by the end of my time here I’ll have a better answer.
And like everything, it’s all about balance. I’ll still probably haggle when it comes to autos and shawls, but when it comes down to it, I won’t spend 20 minutes arguing over 10 rupees, and accept that maybe, just maybe, we’ll be led totally astray to some random tourist trap by our auto driver (who totally didn’t get a commission from the sale) and buy some insanely overpriced essential oils and incense… (but that’s a story for another time).
The pace of our work in Araku Valley is fast and slow. Our 6-day weeks are long and tiring, and we visit a new and different village every day. But each day begins and ends with a long and stunningly beautiful 30 minute to 3 hour long drive and is punctuated with vibrant people and adorable children. When we arrive, we gather a few farmer families in a circle and begin to talk. We start off with everyone’s names and an introduction, before delving into asking them what changes they’ve seen in their lives over the past decade. Specifically, we break down these changes into economic, ecological, and social differences from before Naandi’s presence in the area to now. We’re starting to see a thread in everyone’s responses, and we’ve fallen into a routine here, with how each conversation goes. There are some parts of this routine that I particularly love and hope to never forget or leave out when I recount this in the future.
No village visit is complete unless we go home with at least some mangoes in our hands. Most village visits also include a cup of the famous Araku Valley coffee, which everyone here takes bracingly sweet. The first village we visited, I received three cups in a row, because the first one had milk mixed in (I’m allergic), and then I dropped the second one (it was extremely hot and burned my finger). In addition to the third cup, they brought me a piece of wet chapathi dough to put on the burn, which they said would cool it down.
A cup of coffee in one hand and some chapathi dough on the other hand
In that same village, I mentioned that I had never seen a cashew tree before, so a couple of women plucked some off the tree and roasted them for us right then. Yesterday, we tried jackfruit for the first time.
Mine and Judy’s first taste of Jackfruit!
Food is central to Indian culture, and our experiences with it here have been tied to the people we interact with. One of our concerns coming into the the project was whether or not the people we talked to would genuinely want to talk to us or not. When we chat over a cup of piping hot coffee or a plate of unripe mango smothered in salt and chili powder, I can feel this doubt subside, at least for a moment.
Beyond the villages, Judy and I have become mega-fans of a small, roadside chapathi place that one of our supervisors took us to in our first week here on our way back to the office. Huddled under a leaky awning in the middle of the monsoon rains, we get to talk to Santosh, our driver, and practice our Telugu on the other patrons of the shop. We’re already eager for our next taste of bamboo chicken, a specialty dish of the region that entails chicken stuffed into a bamboo shoot and cooked over an open flame, and thankful for the taste of the culture here that we’ve gotten so far. We’re looking forward to what else there is to come in the next couple of weeks here before we head back to Hyderabad for the remainder of our internship.
Every time I tell someone I’m going to be spending 10 weeks in India over the summer, it is usually followed by “what are you going to be doing for 10 weeks?!” and “what are you most excited for?” After giving these questions much thought, I’ve decided to be like every other basic traveller and make a bucket list of 10 things I want to do before leaving India.
- Visit the Taj Mahal–Yes, this is extremely cliché, but it seems like a must for every tourist. I mean, how can you face all your friends and family back home when they ask to see pictures of you in front of this famous world heritage site and you say you never went?
- Try a sizzling brownie–Ever since my Indian friend in french class talked about this mouth watering dessert, I’ve been dying to try it, but apparently it’s only found in cafes and restaurants in Mumbai. It’s a brownie with ice cream and chocolate sauce drizzled on top, but it’s served on a sizzling hot plate so the brownie is warm and melts in your mouth. Sounds like heaven to me. My only question is, why haven’t they brought it to America yet??
- Bargain prices at a bazaar/market–Having lived in China for seven years, haggling and bargaining is like second nature to me. I live for marketplaces and bazaars filled with colorful fabrics, street food, and cultural trinkets. While my bargaining skills probably won’t come in handy due to the language barriers, I’m just as excited to explore the unique goods in India and hopefully not get too ripped-off.
- See a Bollywood movie–Before this trip, I decided I had to watch a few Bollywood movies to get a taste of Bollywood culture. My friend recommended Three Idiots and I loved it so much I had to watch more. It was the perfect blend of hardship, cheesy romance, friendship, family expectations, and of course, Bollywood singing and dancing. 10/10 would recommend and it’s definitely on my list of favorite movies. I also watched Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which translates roughly into YOLO. It’s not classic Bollywood because it’s set in Spain, but still incorporates all of the Bollywood classics. So, I’ve decided that I must see a Bollywood movie in a theater in India to get the full movie-going experience (apparently movies are so long there’s an intermission???)
- Try a Bollywood dance class–Along with watching a Bollywood movie, I figure I might as well attempt at Bollywood dancing if I can find a local dance studio and just try a class. I’m thinking this will be a good way to explore Indian culture while keeping fit because I’ll definitely need some exercise after stuffing myself full of all the delicious street food.
- Ride in a rickshaw–This one probably doesn’t even need to be on the list because rickshaws are so commonplace in India that it’s BOUND to happen, right?
- Interview a local–Over the summer I plan to write a feature article for Penn Political Review about India’s tax system and its loophole, so I want to meet locals and listen to their stories.
- Learn how to make an Indian dish–This one my friend from home suggested as we were attempting to make dumplings from scratch together (and somewhat succeeded?). What better way to get to a know a place than through its food? Since I’m living off campus next year I promised myself I would learn to cook over the summer, so why not start with some Indian dishes and impress all of my housemates!
- Learn some Kannada phrases and use them–and maybe some Hindi too? So far all I know is Kannada Gotilla, which means I don’t understand Kannada, and baida, which our boss Chitra told us means “don’t need it” and is especially useful if you say “sugar baida” to mean less sugar.
- And of course, travel–Last year’s Shahi group was able to travel every weekend for 10 weeks, so I’m going to be just as ambitious and try to hit as many destinations as possible. Cities/states on the list so far (that I haven’t managed to narrow down): New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Bangalore, Kerala, Hampi, Goa, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Hyderabad, Pondicherry, and Chennai.
I’m sure many of these will be checked off over the course of the next few weeks, and some will probably change too and new ones will be added. I’m excited to see where these ten weeks take me and the adventures I’ll be going on.
A few days ago, I walked into Aravind Eye Hospital’s Outpatient Clinic at 8:30 AM, half an hour before work generally begins to meet a nurse in the pediatric department. She made time out of her day serving hundreds of children to speak with me, an intern, about ideas for my project. Even at this early hour, I saw a multitude of diverse faces, all looking for the right clinic or the canteen or even their loved ones. I have learned during my first two weeks how to navigate this (sometimes overwhelming) sea of people from different walks of life. When I decided to come to Aravind, I was told about the uniqueness of the system and the huge array of people it serves. But it wasn’t until I stepped into the hospital alone on the first day of work that I truly understood what this entailed.
That very first day, I entered the hospital looking for a specific staff member. I asked a lady at the front desk about where to find her. I have now grown accustomed to speaking in one or two words when trying to find my way around to minimize confusion or miscommunication, but that first time, I was utterly embarrassed at my inability to communicate effectively. Although I got instructions that were completely clear, I ended up on the wrong floor talking with the wrong person, who just coincidentally had the same name as the person I was supposed to meet. While this is now a comical memory, anxious me on the first day of work worried that all my interactions this summer would end up that way.
Another encounter from that same day reminded me why I came to Aravind and how thankful I am for this experience. As I waited in the waiting room of the pediatric clinic to talk to a doctor, a 6 or 7-year-old girl in a bright pink, fluffy dress came and sat next to me. Her mother was with her and was talking and joking with her as parents often do to make the time pass more quickly. The girl peeked over at me with curiosity (despite the fact that I am Indian by origin and wear Indian clothing, patients in the clinics somehow always seem to know I’m not from here and stare with curiosity). Since we were waiting and she seemed bored, I decided to try my luck in talking to her. “What is your name?” I asked. In response, she smiled brightly and timidly hid behind her mother, who then continued the conversation in broken English. The little girl’s reaction and her mother’s amazing effort in talking to me captures many of the interactions I have had since I arrived at Aravind. Everyone seems curious about who I am, and they are all extremely appreciative and supportive of my work. This curiosity is mutual, and as a result, I am constantly learning new things from my many interactions with patients and staff at Aravind. Also, the patients and staff all try their best to speak with me in English despite the initial disappointment that despite my Indian origin, I know no Tamil.
Suffice it to say, my time at Aravind so far has made me even more grateful for this experience than I already was. In two weeks, I have gotten lost in the hospital and managed to find my way out. I have met so many incredible patients and staff. I climbed a mountain and hiked with LAICO (Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology) staff, which was definitely out of my comfort zone (going to a park is generally the most nature I can handle). I have seen a completely different side of medicine as I waited with an apprehensive mother as her premature baby screamed while getting tested for Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) right in front of her. I have seen so much in such little time, and I can only imagine how much more I have yet to see.
What lengths would you go to to see the Taj Mahal? If you were like most (sane) tourists, you’d probably do a 3 hour tour bus ride from Delhi to Agra, a half hour auto-rickshaw ride, and cough up the 1000 rupee foreigner’s entrance fee. But Angela and I, we’re not totally sane people. Oh no, we much prefer to do things the hard way…
I’m Stephanie, I’m 20 and from Sydney, Australia. I’m a rising junior in Wharton, concentrating in Business Economics and Public Policy and Statistics. I’m also minoring in international development, which is where my passions lie and why I’m in India. I will be interning at Shahi Exports, the largest garment exporter in India, where I will be researching and designing an initiative to improve the welfare of garment workers.
But let me go back to our adventure. I arrived in Delhi at midnight, and had 36 hours to get a taste of this vibrant city before flying south. Being your typical go-getter Penn types, Angela and I spontaneously decided to visit the Taj Mahal the next morning. Also being your typical go-getter Penn types, we totally overbooked it on the tourist sites. A visit to the Qutb Minar, a trip to Dilli Haat (the first of many times where we tried to haggle, felt proud of ourselves for halving the price, and later realized we were ripped off anyway), and lunch with the PHFI interns Hareena and Varshini later – and we were cutting it very fine for our bus to Agra. When our Uber driver stopped for gas at a station mid-ride and we didn’t know the Hindi to tell him that we were in a desperate hurry, the bus was well and truly missed.
But with a combination of the desire for adventure and a lot of sunk cost fallacy ringing in our ears, we decided to go to Agra anyway – and ran across 4-lane-beeping-horn traffic to climb on a public bus.
This might be a good point to mention that the temperature in Delhi is over 40C (or 100F for you Americans). And this public bus, well – let’s just say that when you pay US$3 for a 3.5 hour ride, it’s probably too good to be true – and in this case, “too good to be true” means there will not be A/C, you will be drowning in your own sweat, and conservatively rationing gulps of the water you are sharing. But hey, at least there’s a Sanjay Dutt Bollywood film playing in the background.
Halfway through the ride which is meant to take us to Agra by 6pm, Angela gasps: “The Taj Mahal stops ticketing at 5pm.” 5pm!! So we’d flown all the way to Delhi, driven 2.5 hours in sweat – only to miss the very Taj Mahal we’d come all the way for? Now keep in mind that we were probably pretty dehydrated, slightly delirious (to the point where laughing at our own situation was the only way to deal) and definitely falling victim to sunk costs – so when we decided to book a room for the night with the intention of waking up at sunrise to visit the Taj Mahal – we weren’t too ridiculous, right?
We hopped off at Agra, and took an auto-rickshaw to Agra Fort. Riding through the dusty streets of Agra was honestly such a sensory overload. The constant honking horns, the cows and monkeys roaming the streets , the stalls lining every inch of the sidewalk selling lemon water and fruits, the families of 8 crammed into one tiny auto-rickshaw – it was such an energetic, buzzing place. If you think Locust Walk is busy at 10.20am, you haven’t seen Agra.
After visiting the magnificently vibrant Agra Fort, past home of the Mughal emperors and present home of adorable baby monkeys, we stayed the night with no toiletries, no luggage, and nothing but the sweat-soaked clothing on our backs #lowmaintenance. The next morning at sunrise, it was time to go.
Call us crazy and extremely basic for eschewing all plans to pursue this one monument. But whatever you call us, we don’t regret it at all. So many famous tourist landmarks are over-hyped and disappoint in real life. But when I walked through that red sandstone main archway (drawaza) and first spotted that majestic marble mausoleum (sun rising in the background) – I think it was all worth it.
My parents keep asking me why I had to choose India. “Why not somewhere closer to home? Somewhere safer? Somewhere more western or more developed? Why not go with your second choice instead to Shanghai, a place you’re already familiar with?” I chose India because, probably like most other CASI interns, I wanted to challenge myself by doing the unconventional, becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. Although I’ve lived in two different states in America, lived abroad in China for seven years, travelled a fair amount, and spent weeks by myself in foreign places, I’ve never been somewhere where I was the minority, was completely unfamiliar with the culture, didn’t speak the local language, and stayed for 10 weeks. And especially not for an internship. To be honest I’m equal parts terrified and excited, which is what makes this internship so appealing.
Plus, when I searched for programs through GIP, India was one of the few that included International Relations, my major, in its description. As a rising sophomore who has absolutely no idea of future career paths or where my major will take me, Shahi Exports seemed like a good starting block. At Shahi, I will be working with the Organizational Development (OD) department, which is a branch of HR focused on the wellbeing of workers. Each of us will be choosing a project related to improving the lives of the garment factory workers. Our projects, either individual or group, will aim to increase the comfort of the workers while also increasing their productivity and providing benefits to the company. After researching for 10 weeks, we will be suggesting improvements the company can make and presenting our ideas to company directors. With my passion for women’s rights, I’m interested in projects particularly focused on lives of female workers, such as having female supervisors in factories, menstrual health, or sexual harassment.
I’ve also wanted to go to India for a long time. Truth be told my interest and curiosity started after watching Slumdog Millionaire (yes I know it’s not the most accurate portrayal of India). My familiarity with India and its culture actually really isn’t much. It consists of the two Bollywood movies I watched before coming here, getting Indian food from Sitaar and Ekta at Penn (which is arguably worse than the airplane dinner I ate on Air India), getting my eyebrows threaded, and my mom’s brief description of her business trip to New Delhi last summer, “It’s really hot and there’s a lot of poverty.” However, I also know that India has a deep and rich history filled with conflict and beauty that dates back thousands of years. Its immense diversity among different regions and difference from the West is what makes India so fascinating for me. I’m excited to travel every weekend and explore all these different parts of Indian culture.
So, armed with 80 tablets of malaria pills, too many protein bars, extensive warnings to not drink the tap water, and an empty journal, I’m ready to start my adventure here.
Depending on the field work for the day, I can take two different modes of transportation (the metro or the suburban train). The Kolkata Suburban Railway is a suburban rail system that serves the suburbs surrounding Kolkata. In India, railways are heavily used infrastructures and used by a majority of the population. Based on the number of stations and track length, the Kolkata Suburban Railway is the largest suburban railway network in India.The first metro railway in India, the Kolkata Metro is the second busiest metro system in India. The metro offers 300 services daily and carries over 650,000 passengers. From my observation, unlike the Kolkata Suburban Railway (suburban rail system ), the Metro has air conditioning. The Metro is clean and filled with blue-collar and white-collar workers and students. Their clothing is mostly modern. I get uncomfortable stares that makes me feel like an alien. I try to work on my Bengali and try to engage in small talk, but the language barrier is hard to overcome. I was asked once if I am a soccer player or date an African soccer player. I told them that I am a student and conducting a community-based research focused on water, sanitation and hygiene. The train ride is usually short and doesn’t give us enough time to have a full lengthy conversation.
The suburban rail system doesn’t have air conditioning since people large number of people can’t afford it for long distance. Hundreds of local people use the suburban rail system to travel. The trains are very dirty and ruin down and have not been replaced by the government. The train travels a long distance. My commute to the South 24 Parganas takes about 1-1.5 hours depending on the stop. The train is stuffy, jammed packed, not and hot. Sometimes the train is charged with high energy of people laughing and vendors selling fruits, vegetables, toys, knick-knacks, snacks and other miscellaneous items. I like to purchase the hard candy, popcorn and key chains. Although I am only 68 inches, I feel like the former wrestler, Andre the Giant. I shadow over the other women and sometimes the men on the train. Their clothes are often traditional. On good days, I get to ride on the women only carts. I feel more comfortable sitting in the women only cart and have meet a few transgender women. I wonder If they have ever been harassed by other people on the train. The mixed cart is mostly filled with men, sometimes makes me feel tense and uncomfortable. The high volume of people and lack of cleanliness makes the train very dirty. Compared to the suburban rail system, the metro carries less people for a shorter distance. The trains are more comfort and upgraded. The suburban rail system transports more people and travels are longer distance.
Unlike the Metro, the rail system is jammed packed especially during high peak time. It is even packed on the weekends. I never have room to move and normally stand for the entire train ride. My conversations with the local travelers are usually through eye contact. A few conversations are facilitated through my Indian colleague who travels to the field with me. I have been asked questions that range from “Who am I”, “Where am I from”, “Why am I here” and “Do I speak Bengali”. Even if I cannot answer a majority of their questions on my own, I usually meet their interests and curiosity with a smile.
Depending on the final destination, the fares are less than $2 each way. I’m fortunately to be able to afford a personal taxi and have the privilege to choose the suburban rails system and Metro as my primary mode of transportation. Some of the reasons for this decision are: (1) I am frugal, (2) I live in a major U.S. city and like taking public transportation, (3) public transportation gives me a better sense of the community and public policy and (4) I feel more like a neighbor ads less like a tourist and foreigner. This always me to be fully immerse in the everyday life of local residents and understand the Indian caste system. I noticed that although we purchase roundtrips tickets every day, the conductor never comes around to check our tickets. I always wonder what will happen if we do not purchase our tickets on our way to the field. Every morning, I look forward to taking the Metro, the rail system and the tok-tok. It is my gateway to a community that I admire and respect.
Hi! I’m Madeleine Grunde-McLaughlin, one of the interns at Aravind Eye Care Systems this summer. I am a rising junior, a Cognitive Science major in the College of Arts and Sciences, and I’m very interested in the application of technology and behavioral science to public health. By interning abroad, I want to put myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the unknown. I am trying to have few expectations and let the experience take me where it will. India will be a wonderful place to learn, with its growing economy and population, cultural and geographical distance from the West, and many public health opportunities.
I am writing this post on the plane from Delhi to Madurai (this post is published a few days late since I just got Wifi!). Although most of my time so far has been spent recovering from jet lag, I got a brief introduction to Delhi yesterday at the Indian Habitat Center. To think I used to call Philly driving hectic! I cannot wait to get settled at Inspiration House, explore Madurai, and meet our supervisors at Aravind. I have immense respect for the work the people at Aravind do, their compassion, and their commitment to eliminating needless blindness no matter a person’s ability to pay. I’m so excited to learn more about how they organize such a massive endeavor to deliver quality care for all people.
Above all this summer, I want to push myself to realize where I am ignorant. Professionally, I have not previously worked within a large organization, and I want to internalize Aravind’s spirit of doing work for the sake of compassion and helping those in need. Personally, I have never been abroad for this long and do not know how it will affect me. Culturally, I have spent my whole life in the Philly area, so I don’t know what parts of my experience I consider normal but are actually unique, and vice versa. In the week I spent in Amman before flying to India, I noticed the difference with which people approached and talked about topics such as culture, colonialism, and Eurocentrism. Even if the ideas were the same, the delivery was different than what I had experienced in the U.S. I am most looking forward to meeting people at the hospital, local people in Madurai, and other international students staying at the Inspiration House, having fun together and listening to their perspectives. At this point in my life I feel as though I have some to give, but much more to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity.