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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

India – A Land with more than what meets the eye

Published: January 20, 2012
Section: Features

It was Friday night when I recalled the successful interview I had with one of the community health workers in Bhopal. That was five days and two cities ago. I was in Bangalore at this point and I still had two more cities to which I needed to travel. Somehow by the end of that week I had that familiar feeling that all of us experience on any given month at Brandeis—Gosh! So much has happened within the past few days! It was very surprising to experience this same feeling even on the other side of the world, in a small bedroom, crammed with four other girls, all the way in India. I guess I travel as a Brandeisian no matter how far I am from Waltham. This was only one of the few surprises of my summer spent in India. I traveled to India as a Social Justice WOW intern and a Brandeis India Initiative (BII) fellow this past summer to intern with a renowned tuburculosis-related NGO. I spent most of my time researching with a fellow intern on community health workers who are in charge of TB clinics located in different cities across India. In preparation I read “Lonely Planet,” “Rough’s Guide,” all sorts of travel guides on India, met with faculty, and got support from the coordinators of the Brandeis India Initiative and WOW to prepare for my travels and convinced myself that the next 10 weeks would fly by. I was prepared and I was sure of it up until the moment my plane departed from JFK airplane. After landing in New Delhi, however, I began to realize that there was nothing that could have prepared me for the vibrancy of India. There were moments when I was thankful that I had read up on how to travel smartly and dress appropriately in India but there were other moments when new situations just left me baffled. Nonetheless, that is just one aspect one must embrace about traveling—there is only so much for which one can be prepared. Having learned Hindi, one of India’s main languages, at an early age, I thought I had a slight advantage over my peers traveling to India for the first time. Besides, I had studied the geography and history of the place when I was younger and I had seen enough Bollywood movies to know what to expect from a place like India. Or so I thought. The more I traveled around India during the summer, the more I found out that, besides my skin color, there wasn’t much that I shared with the people around me. Granted, I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb and wasn’t stared at like some of my other American friends. It was still pretty clear, however, that I was not Indian despite the fact that I wore the traditional Indian clothes. It was apparent from the way I spoke Hindi with a slight accent, to the way I expressed and interacted with the locals. All of this was more evident as I traveled to some of the smaller cities in India. I spent the majority of my time in New Delhi, where the main offices of the NGO for which I was working are located. New Delhi is very welcoming to foreigners and is very used to seeing people of other nationalities. It would be quite easy for a person to get away with just speaking English and knowing only a few phrases in Hindi. The same holds true for the other big metropolises across India too. But as one goes to some of the smaller cities, the attitude changes slightly. Not all the cab drivers will understand or speak English and not everyone is as used to seeing foreigners. So the locals in the smaller cities were more curious to find out about us. But no matter what the size of the city the people were very willing to help. They knew that we were guests in that city and they knew how to be very hospitable. That is perhaps one of the most remarkable things about India—they are tremendously and wonderfully hospitable. One of the other remarkable things I discovered about India was something I hadn’t realized till the end of my stay there. I was one of five Brandeis India Initiative fellows interning this past summer and we were spread all across India. I was the only fellow in New Delhi but a few were in Bangalore. Every time I got off the phone with a fellow located in Bangalore, I was quite surprised to see how different each of our experiences in India were shaping up to be. I hadn’t begun traveling for my research yet and up until early June I had only been in New Delhi and only spent weekends in a few other northern Indian cities. The people in all the cities I had been to spoke Hindi in varying degrees. The food in these cities was prepared slightly differently but they were all quite spicy. On most days the temperature stayed within 90 to 110 degrees. The monsoon hadn’t hit northern India yet but the days were hot and humid. But then I heard about how the weather stayed a cool 70 degrees in Bangalore. It was expected to rain almost everyday because the monsoon had hit southern India already but the rain was never as bad as everyone hyped it to be. That part of India sounded very different from the part of India where I was. Sitting in New Delhi, I felt like I was in the New York of India and my friends had found the Silicon Valley of India in Bangalore (Bangalore is also known for being the hub of tech innovations in India). And then I begin traveling for work and I decided I would make a pit stop in Bangalore to visit the other BII fellows. As I traveled farther south I started to notice a decline in the number of Hindi speakers. By the time one travels south of Mumbai it is difficult to find people who speak Hindi at all. In Bangalore and further south in Chennai I had to rely on English completely to navigate the city, as most people there had never learned how to speak Hindi in their life. Seeing southern India presented another strange disconnect for me to feel from the locals. Once again, besides their skin color, I shared nothing with them besides that we all spoke English. The weather was milder here and of course southern Indian food was not as spicy as northern Indian food. The weather, the languages spoken and the food—these were just three of the many differences I noticed right away about India. India is a land that has 28 different states that speak (as of last count) 22 different languages, of which each language have hundreds, if not thousands, of dialects. The weather, the food, people’s religions and their customs are all different and sometimes very particular to a city or state. There is a huge and very visible disparity of wealth and the sources that are available to people are directly dependent on their financial situations. On some of those very packed days in India, I found myself shocked to be spending the entire day visiting TB clinics in urban slums and then getting dinner at night at one of the fanciest malls in India—malls that can easily be confused for one of those in America. Both those people in the mall and those people living in the slums seemed to have no idea how different their worlds were and I got this glimpse as an outsider and saw no way in which the two could ever reconcile. At the end of my stay the biggest thing I took away from India was that it has a vast amount of diverse experiences to offer its foreigners. Each of us who participated this past summer had a different experience of India and it varied and changed depending on the region of India to which we had chosen to go. Even the pace and the energy of the life in the cities and villages across India are different. There is a lot to learn from each of these places. I found that once I grasped the true diversity within India, it was easier to soak up what made each and every city so special and how in the end this is what made each of them truly, incredibly Indian.