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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
Updated: 1 hour 46 min ago

Refractions

Sat, 10/27/2018 - 17:20

Refraction (noun) – Physics: A change in direction of a ray as it passes through a different medium.

Refraction (noun) – Optometry: The process of testing ones eyes for defects and abnormalities.

 

Since my arrival back in the States, and subsequently my resettling into university life, I have been pressed to provide countless summaries of how my summer was. This is never an easy task. I find that the memories and sentiments that come to mind as I have struggled to answer this question are simply too abstract, too voluminous, and too far away to fit into the timeslots of casual conversation. In an effort to avoid the cliché, I usually resort to simply calling the experience “interesting” or “eye-opening”, before describing what I was doing in India—which is always the next question anyways.

 

Despite their momentary annoyance, these forced reflections on my time in India have been helpful in uncovering some deeper realizations about travel. These realizations derive from my difficulty answering the leading question. My issue lies not in that there are no memories that come to my mind when I think of my journey. Rather, there’s no single memory that defines my experience—no favorite food to point to, nor a single hardship that I grew from.

 

When I think of my summer I relive long nights playing cards on the floor with my co-interns, curious stares elicited in every public space, endless rolling hills of lush tea plants, and the perils of taking an overnight sleeper bus. But these were just some of the first things that popped into my head, and as I look back over this memory set I fear that it does not capture the fullness of my experience, and in fact may convey a false impression to readers. Moreover, I feel that in order to satisfyingly convey my experience, I would need to add other memories to the set, along with descriptions, ad Infinitum, only reaching an accurate portrayal in the limit.

 

As readers—and conversationalists—we’ve come to expect these boiled down and easy-to-digest sentimental tid-bits in order to easily map other people’s experiences onto our own—but I’m afraid I will not be able to deliver on this expectation.

 

In truth, I am still struggling to understand for myself what deeper lessons I have taken away from this journey and what profound changes have occurred to my being. I didn’t come back to the states inspired to convert to Hinduism (though I have learned a great deal about eastern philosophy), or renounce all of my material possessions, nor did I “find myself” during my time in India. If anything, I returned even more lost.

 

My difficulties with finding meaning in my trip led me to rethink what it actually means to travel, and what exactly we strive to take away from our journeys.

 

There are many different conceptions of travel present in our collective consciousness. In certain circles, travel has just become another luxury good; Its value derived from the quality of the Instagram photos taken, the anecdotes gathered to further bolster one’s ‘culture’, or simply from the opportunity to one up someone else’s trip on the scale of exotic destinations. Many romanticize travel in the image of rugged explorers or mature contemplatives looking for enlightenment. Others see it a means to make themselves more worldly, more aware, more ‘woke’. Almost everyone, however, sees travel as a way to escape the mundane of everyday existence. Even if we cherish our everyday lives and love the area that we live in, familiarity has the tendency to dilute the magic of our normal surroundings into dull routine.

 

I’ve held almost all of these conceptions at some point in my life, and each probably played some role in my decision to take this opportunity. What I came to realize from my journey this summer, however, is that although compelling, this narrative of travel is largely inaccurate. This quote from Zat Rana, one my favorite Medium writers, captures this sentiment precisely:

 

The point of traveling isn’t to find ourselves, and it’s also not to run away from our problems, but it’s to lose ourselves: to ignore the rigid stories about who we are that so strongly define our daily lives; to become unconditioned from the mono-culture so deeply infused in our psyche that we forget that there are more ways to live than one; and to step away from the false subjective perception that insists that we — to you, it’s you; to me, it’s me — are at the center of reality and that what’s right here, right row, is the only thing that matters — a fact that’s almost laughable when you realize how small and insignificant you and your desires are in every place outside of your closed, intimate world.

 

In short, travel is powerful because all of the deviations from the mundane help us stay in the present, and with this heightened awareness we can better understand our place in the world. This heightened awareness also helps explain my trouble in reducing my trip to a transferable nugget of information. This is because in being fully aware of the present creates more formative memories in ones mind than planning/worrying about the future or ruminating about our past, and exploring India kept me constantly in the moment.

 

Thus I find that instead of a sign of absentmindedness, the irreducibility of my experience is evidence of formative, substantive travel, and I strive to spend more of my everyday life with greater awareness.

 

I would like to quickly thank everyone who helped make my time in India possible, including Aparna and everyone involved in CASI, the lovely people at Aravind, my friendly co-interns, and the generous donors that support these internships. I am deeply grateful for everyone’s support.

 

Gratitude

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 23:53

It is difficult for me to reminisce about this summer without my face bursting into a smile. The friendships made, places travelled and work done have all had a very tangible, positive effect on my life. My experience at Shahi has opened my eyes to the phenomenal things being done in the realm of worker welfare. Furthermore, this has strengthened my commitment to working towards improving workers’ conditions in India’s manufacturing setting after I graduate. I have learnt a lot about the ethics of manufacturing, trade union functioning and workers’ freedom of association. Above all, I have learnt how to adapt, adjust and accommodate, when working and living with others.

Me and my co-interns

This enriching experience would not have been the same without some key individuals. First and foremost, I’d like to thank CASI for facilitating this opportunity and Aparna for her unending patience when dealing with me. I would like to express immense gratitude to my bosses Chitra and Anant. They taught me, mentored me and without them I would not have gotten this phenomenal learning experience. I would also like to thank the Organizational Development team at Shahi, especially Prem, Sahana, Shruti and Purushottam for their unending support. Big shout-out to the Good Business Lab team for making this experience so much fun. It is a little sad to think that I won’t be able to hang out with Priota and Bopanna, ask Varun for food recommendations or be around Mansi’s overall coolness any more. Finally, I owe the most gratitude to my co-interns- Angela, Piotr and Stephanie. Piotr, thank you for being the easiest person to live and for making this experience exponentially more enjoyable. Angela and Stephanie – there is so much to be grateful to the two of you for, but above all, thank you for bearing with me. This summer would not have been nearly as fulfilling without you two.

Some of the people who made this experience so special

My 10 weeks in Bangalore have not only helped me grow as an individual, but also exposed me to parts of my country’s identity that I previously knew nothing about. This is something that I am incredibly grateful for. Through our extensive travel around South India over the summer, I got to experience so many places, whose uniqueness was foreign to me. This includes learning about the historical significance of Hampi and the distinctive culture of Coorg along with the myriad languages, foods and people we encountered along the way. All of this added profound value to my summer and it is to all these people, entities and things that I would like to express my sincere gratitude.

An Insight Into Garment Manufacturing

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 22:19

In the cut-throat world of garment manufacturing, those most vulnerable are the people making the clothes. With incredibly high production targets and low profit margins, Indian manufacturers face immense competition, both domestically and internationally. Brands, and the demands of fast-fashion, place immense pressure on manufacturers. This burden often falls on the lap of vulnerable factory workers. Garment workers are largely uneducated females who have little to no knowledge about their rights. Often, they have travelled from their hometowns to urban industrialized regions in order to gain employment. Thus, they are frequently in places foreign to them with no real support system or knowledge. It is in these circumstances that these workers are very susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

Shahi, however, takes immense care to curb any potential exploitation. With multiple internal committees, suggestion boxes and HR help-desks, workers are provided multiple avenues to air any grievances. Furthermore, Shahi’s Organizational Development (OD) department’s sole focus is to improve worker welfare and shop-floor conditions. Over the past many weeks, I have had the pleasure of working within this department and observing some fantastic initiatives firsthand. What stood out to me was the number of educational programs Shahi had for workers. The largest of this is the Personal Advancement for Career Enhancement (PACE) program. This program provided workers with life skills training by covering modules on communication, financial literacy, problem-solving, time-management and many others. Since the its initial implementation in 2007, thousands of women have graduated from this course. There have been rigorous assessments conducted that have demonstrated PACE’s benefits, these include higher likelihoods of promotion, lower attrition, better time management, increased worker satisfaction and higher rates of efficiency. Thus, with more efficient workers and lower attrition-rates, there are great business benefits of such programs. This is an embodiment of Shahi’s core principle that worker welfare is good for both business and society. The OD team at Shahi implements a number of such programs, thereby providing tremendous educational opportunities for workers, while giving back to the business in the long term. This heavy investment in worker empowerment drastically curbs exploitative practices that are often associated with garment factories.

To further Shahi’s tremendous commitment towards worker welfare, the OD department strives towards creating a safe environment that facilitates freedom of association amongst workers. Traditionally, worker’s attempts at freedom of association and collective bargaining have been severely crushed by management – however, Shahi desired to change this. Thus, my project this summer was to develop a framework that would provide workers with avenues for collective organization and safe freedom of association. Workers’ collectives would fulfill many roles ranging from grievance redressal to worker education. Furthermore, ensuring the freedom of association would enable workers to act in their own best interests. Hence, this was a major step towards overall worker empowerment. It is through initiatives like these that Shahi sets themselves apart and transcends the traditional imagery of exploitation evoked by garment factories. By maintaining this intense focus on worker welfare, they successfully limit the exploitation of workers. Furthermore, this enables them to successfully achieve the customer’s high demands without compromising on working conditions. I look forward to coming up with some innovative ideas that provide worker welfare as well as business related benefits!

The Persistence of Arranged Marriage in Delhi

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:09

In my interviews with families in Delhi regarding marriage, one of the most interesting finding has been related to the persistence of the system of arranged marriage. National data shows that arranged marriage is far from retreating in Indian society. While there has been a decline in parent-only arranged marriages, there has been little increase in self-arranged marriage over the past 60 years (Allendorf and Pandian 2016). Rather, arranged marriage is taking new forms which allow for greater involvement of individuals in their partner selection while still giving parents a significant role in decision-making leading to a system of quasi- or joint-arranged marriage.

In fact, the young people that we spoke to were some of the most outspoken advocates for the system of arranged or quasi-arranged marriage. None reported that they wanted a “love marriage,” the term often used for self-arranged marriages.  A number of reasons were given for why they felt it was important that their parents participate in selecting their marriage partner.

Young people often reported that it was their love for and sense of duty to their parents that made them feel that arranged marriage was the best route. They spoke about how elopements and love marriages against one’s parents’ wishes was a form of “betrayal” and caused “hurt” to family members. During an interview with an 18-year-old female college student, she explained:

“I’ve seen a lot of love marriages, but I don’t agree with them, because it hurts parents a lot. They’ve loved and supported you your entire life, but now you’re just not asking them and getting married- you’re betraying them.”

This desire to defer to parents’ choice may also come from a place of respect for their parents’ wisdom. As one male college student emphasized, “if they’re saying no, that person is not good for you.” This respondent is expressing a belief that parents generally know best when it comes to who their children should marry. Ignoring this wisdom is not only disrespectful but ill-advised.

A related reason given by young people for why they wanted their parents to select their marriage partner is due to a desire to share the burden of responsibility for the life decision. Some respondents spoke about the magnitude of the decision and how the arranged marriage process provides more insurance that the couple will stay together. Here, romantic love was described as volatile and irrational, too unpredictable to form the basis for marriage decision-making. To them, the marriage arrangement process is more likely to lead to an optimal result because both families inquire into the character of the potential spouse and the family. The decision is not blinded by emotions of attachment, which they fear could lead them down a wrong path. Furthermore, because families are involved, there is a greater guarantee that both families will put pressure on their children to make the marriage work.

A young male respondent described how young people face extra social scrutiny if they select their own spouse,

“But then when you choose someone, you have to be their guarantor, because you chose them. If my mother chooses someone, that’s easier, there’s more scope for compromise. I can blame her. It’s like if I break a mirror, I get yelled at, but if my mother breaks it, no one says anything.”

This respondent describes how, if his parents select his bride, then he does not have to take full responsibility for the choice. Social censure of love marriages especially elopements in India is high. People are often eager to look for any indication that the love marriage was a mistake. In this way, failed love marriages are frequently made into examples of the perils of moving away from the arranged marriage system. These examples become important rhetorical tools for preventing more self-arranged marriages. The respondent above does not wish to expose himself to a marriage of heightened scrutiny and elects to instead go for an arranged marriage, where he is less likely to be “blamed” if marriage issues arise later.

The desire to protect oneself against the event of an bad marriage takes on a special meaning for women. The same young woman quoted above goes on to say:

“Later the boy says things to the girl about leaving her family, and can have any demands later, there’s nothing the girl can do or say, because she chose this, she didn’t do it with her parent’s permission … If we do something with our parents’ permission, then we know they’re there, if the boy tortures you or something, you can tell your parents, they can help you.”

Here, the young women describes a situation where the husband mistreats his wife, criticizing her moral character because she left her family, even though she left her family to be with him. She explains how, because the woman chose to elope, her family would refuse to provide her support or refuge if she faced trouble in her marriage, such as in the event that her husband “tortures” her. In India, women often rely on their parents and other family members as protection from domestic violence or other adverse situations in their marriage. It is not uncommon to find young women returning to their parent’s household after an especially bad marital dispute. In fact, Grover (2018) calls this the “right of refuge” and describes how marital disputes are usually negotiated through both families. Electing to elope often, though not always, closes off that “right of refuge” to women, placing them in a more vulnerable situation in the marriage (Grover 2018).

Works Cited

Allendorf, Keera, and Roshan K. Pandian. 2016. “The Decline of Arranged Marriage? Marital Change and Continuity in India.” Population and Development Review 42 (3): 435–64.

Grover, Shalini. 2018. Marriage, Love, Caste and Kinship Support: Lived Experiences of the Urban Poor in India. Second. New York: Routledge.

Reflections and Ruminations

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 03:08

With my summer in India now behind me, I’m settling back into life at Penn. It feels almost like I never left, or that India was a long long time ago, yet on some days, I feel as if I was back there yesterday – drinking chai on the streets of Delhi, taking a boat ride in the evening breeze around the Ganges River in Varanasi, and visiting the Golden Temple at night, sensing the peace amongst the crowd around me.

Although there were parts of the internship and India experience that weren’t foreign to me – I speak Hindi and have been to Delhi and other parts of India throughout my childhood – I experienced many new things this summer and grew a lot. Living on the other side of the world from home, navigating a new work environment, and traveling to amazing new places on our own were things that I was initially nervous about. Am I dressed appropriately for the weather? How do I make sure I don’t get lost or go somewhere I shouldn’t? Am I doing what my mentors want from me? These were some of the looming concerns I had both before and during the summer.

I’m glad to say that I was able to navigate each of these issues well, and others. I figured out how to dress depending on where I was going in order to protect my skin but keep cool, I made sure I always had Google Maps or was not alone if I was going somewhere new, and I was able to communicate well with my mentors and colleagues to complete my projects on time and well. More than anything, this summer showed me that stepping out of my usual environment and comfort zone, which is really easy to do at home and in the Penn bubble, is something that I am definitely capable of and actually enjoy doing. The second-week concern about traveling turned into an excitement about each weekend trip to a different part of India, the initial difficulty in choosing what to wear morphed into a love of wearing Indian or Indian-inspired clothes, and the questions about my projects and work soon made me comfortable to ask for direction from my mentors and communicate with them efficiently.

So, this summer surpassed my expectations in a lot of ways. I left India amazed at the fact that I got to explore so many diverse places, interact with so many kinds of people, and explore a field that I really wanted to know more about. Although I’m settled back into life at Penn, every once in a while, I’ll see someone or something that will remind me of those 10 weeks, and once again I’m brought back to the amazing adventures and important lessons I had the opportunity to experience. There are too many memories to recount, so I’ll insert some pictures that can speak for themselves.

Click to view slideshow.

 

Embracing the Indian Summer Heat

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 01:50

Summer in India is really hot – this is something that everyone asked me about or just told me when I mentioned I’d be in India for the summer. And there’s no doubt about it; sometimes in Delhi it gets to be 46 degrees celsius (about 115 degrees Farenheit). Sweating a little bit feels normal after a while, and taking frequent water breaks and rest stops while out and about just becomes a reflex. If you’re a future CASI intern or a new visitor to India reading this – even though the heat and weather seem like such small topics to discuss, they definitely have shaped a lot of our summer experience. However, it is definitely possible to enjoy the weather when its good and to be outside on trips.

In contrast to Philly, where we walk everywhere, in India, except on day trips outside doing touristy things, we rarely spend more than 10 minutes outside at a time walking. Taking rides in auto rickshaws is preferred, and it is understood that longer commutes will require other modes of transport such as Ubers or autos. Thus, since I barely have to be walking between two places unless going between two close landmarks, walking to get lunch, or to find autos outside the building, I actually don’t feel as strongly about the heat as I do in Philadelphia.

Actually, the everyday heat is the reason for some of my favorite memories in India. Once, as I was walking outside PHFI, I became really thirsty, and wanted some ice-cold water from a street vendor. As I was handing him the 20 rupees for a bottle, we struck up a conversation about the area, and how there seemed to be so many people out and about today. He explained to me that during lunch time, a lot of people like to go out to get chilled drinks, ice cream, and other treats. He recommended some items that I could buy from other places down the road, and although I didn’t try them, it was really cool to have a simple conversation with someone that made my day, made possible due to our shared experience of the heat.

The heat also led us to take many breaks throughout the day on each of our weekend trips. more likely than not these breaks involved some variation of a milkshake (a chocolate fudge brownie milkshake in a market in Delhi was my favorite), cold coffee, ice cream, or kulfi (a traditional ice cream).

 

 

Furthermore, because it was hot during the day, the evening and night time weather was perfect. Even summer nights tend to get chilly at home, but in India, we could keep exploring the city or go to new locations, even enjoy the weather. Some of the places we visited during the evening include the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Ganges River in Varanasi, and local places in Delhi and Gurgaon. Let me tell you – breezy nighttime auto rides are the best.

The Golden Temple lit up at night

The Ganges River in Varanasi during an evening boat ride

A food truck in Cyber Hub Gurgaon – a popular hang out spot for young people

Our last breezy nighttime auto ride

 

Although the weather in India was incredibly hot on many days, it definitely led to some fun experiences and some shared moments with locals. If you’re a future CASI intern reading this, don’t be scared of the heat in India! As long as you are careful and stay hydrated always, you’ll have a great time exploring all the wonders India has to offer. Stopping for a milkshake or two won’t hurt either.

 

Unexpected Adventures in Delhi

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 01:04

Since PHFI is located in Gurgaon, a city that is basically an extension of New Delhi, Varshini and I explored Delhi extensively. Even then, it still felt like there were so many things we wanted to see there that we never got to do. We went to different parts of Delhi, ranging from traditional markets to monuments to modern shopping areas, but one of my favorite Delhi experiences by far has been our spontaneous exploration of Old Delhi.

Some people think that besides being a hub of business, government, shopping, etc, that Delhi doesn’t have that “culture” that they’d expect to see in India. While I don’t disagree that Delhi definitely is a large metropolitan city that functions and feels much like other similar cities around the world, there is a whole cultural and historical side of Delhi that I think many people don’t see – Old Delhi.

Old Delhi was the walled city of Delhi and was the area that Shah Jahan built up when he moved his Mughal empire’s capital from Agra to Delhi. Delhi, both Old Delhi and other areas of Delhi, have an unimaginably rich history, being ruled by a variety of empires and kingdoms, serving as the sight of and being captured during battles between groups, becoming the capital of British India, and being host to numerous important religious events, monuments, and pieces of history in Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, among others.

We didn’t exactly plan out our trip to these areas in Delhi, and decided where to go the morning of, since we were first going to a school field visit for an internship.

First up, we went to Jama Masjid, one of the largest and well-known mosques in India. The area around Jama Masjid was filled with chaotic vibrancy, but the Jama Masjid itself was much more serene, making it impossible not to take it in its immense beauty, significance, and size.

A panoramic view of Jama Masjid

 

Next, we went to Red Fort, which is understandably a very popular tourist attraction. Red Fort was the home of many of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty in India. Its real name is Lal Qila, meaning red fort. The British popularized its name as Red Fort, when they occupied the fort during their rule of India. This is especially interesting because there are British barracks and buildings at various spots throughout the massive sprawling grounds that juxtapose the Mughal architecture.

View of a small part of the fort from the outside.

One of the gates inside the grounds

 

After this, we went to Chandni Chowk, which is a name that a lot of people can recognize even if they have never been to Delhi. Chandni Chowk is one of the largest and busiest markets in all of India. There are hundreds of small stores here that sell traditional items such as spices, cloth, shoes, jewelry, dried fruits, food and snacks, sweets and desserts, books, and anything else you could think of. Chandni Chowk is also known to be a popular destination to go wedding shopping in India for clothes, shoes, ornaments, gifts, jewels, etc. It has been around for almost 400 years, and merchants from Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East used to come to Chandni Chowk. The food here is amazing – we ate samosas from a small stall and drank chai from a streetside chai guy, and standing in line with all the locals waiting for the steamy cup of deliciousness was a memory I’ll cherish forever. Then, we went to Parathe Wali Gali, meaning “the lane of parathas”, which is an Indian bread. We chose a hole-in-the-wall shop amongst the many, and relished the parathas that came stuffed with a range of things from potatoes and mixed vegetables to paneer and desserts. Chandni Chowk’s diverse vibrancy, hustle and bustle, diverse people, and history drew me in and I have been talking about it to everyone ever since!

A view of the street from the top of a temple in Chandni Chowk, showing all the people, activities, and life that fills the streets.

The hot and sunny, and later very rainy, day in Delhi left us hungry and looking rough. Here we are in Parathe Wali Gali ready to eat our parathas.

A store in Chandni Chowk that sells a type of decorative thread and border that adorns and decorates traditional Indian clothes

It makes sense that many people who come to Delhi don’t realize there is vibrant history and diverse cultures in Delhi, because this part of Delhi is not exactly the first thing you see when you arrive. In fact, parts of that area, specifically Chandni Chowk, were losing their popularity amongst the main markets and easily accessible malls in recent years, until the Delhi metro expanded and created stops at prominent points, including one right at Chandni Chowk.

If you’re ever in Delhi and it seems like it doesn’t have the same culture and history that you expect from places like Jaipur and Agra, you’ll change your mind quickly when you explore some of the cultural, religious, and historical places in Delhi. This was an amazing day-long adventure and a memory that I will never forget.

“Just Google it!”

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 13:16

Returning to India after two years, I have noticed many changes. One of the most striking changes I have noticed is the expansion in access to mobile data. When I used to live in India before, smart phones had already expanded to middle and even lower-middle class households but, for most people, data was just too costly for things like video streaming. Mobile companies would even sell cheaper data plans for running a specific app only such as WhatsApp.

Expansion in access to mobile data came after the entry of the new telecommunications company Reliance Jio into the market in 2016. Jio was able to take over the market by offering unbeatable deals including starting packages of 1 GB of data per day free for a period of several months. Competitors have had to respond, offering similar competitive packages with free calling and very low cost mobile data. In the two years since Jio first launch, monthly mobile data consumption in India has increased from 200 million GB to 3.7 billion GB.

Almost overnight India went fully online, with hundreds of millions of people now having access to nearly unlimited mobile data and streaming. My current data plan, with a Jio competitor, gives me 1 GB of data per day, an amount I couldn’t imagine exhausting unless I was streaming Netflix the whole day from my phone.

My first inkling of the change occurred when I was in the taxi from the airport on the evening of my arrival. I began chatting with the taxi driver in Hindi. I then asked him about a large red building I could see from the car window. “What is that building?” I asked him. The driver paused. Sounding somewhat annoyed by my question he responded, “I don’t know. Look it up on Google.” This took me aback. My experience with taxi drivers in the past in India had been that they often enjoy sharing their local knowledge of routes and landmarks. Drivers I remember from previous trips to India were definitely not “Gogglers.” Some of them may not have even known anything about Google.

Clearly the number of Google users in India has expanded significantly. So much so that it is part of the common lexicon to use the verb “to Google.” In fact, after one of my research interviews, a respondent asked me why I had come all the way to India to ask him about his family’s views on marriage. “If you wanted to learn about marriage in India, why didn’t you just Google it?” he asked me.

Continuous access to high quality data hasn’t just made more Indians Google users, it has also made them avid video streamers. Functions such as video calls and video streaming are now accessible to even the poorest households in Delhi. One of the favorite apps is WhatsApp. When I lived in India before, most people used only the texting function in WhatsApp. Now it’s not uncommon to find people on a video call as they walk down the street. This function is especially usefully to users who are less literate, for whom text messaging is difficult. I once had to tell my Uber driver to turn off his WhatsApp video while he was driving. From the back seat, I could see his wife and the rest of his family sitting on the floor of a dark cramped room from the screen of his phone. They could see me too.

Each day when I open the door to let in the cook who prepares my breakfast and lunch, she is holding her smart phone. Hardly ever resting idle, her smart phone is usually either playing Hindu religious music on Youtube or streaming a live WhatsApp video of her family. Often I see her lean the phone against the kitchen counter so that she can chat with her relatives while she is chopping vegetables or making rotis. One morning when I entered the kitchen, I was greeted by her husband and other relatives on a WhatsApp video call from her village. I could see the lush green landscape of banana trees and her small white and brown house located in some remote part of West Bengal. Her family was very eager to meet me, she informed me.

The expansion of access to the internet has had a revolutionary impact on Indian society. Now access to information (and also misinformation) is at the touch of most Indians’ fingertips in ways it never was before. WhatsApp videos have given me access to the private spaces of my cook and driver’s homes but also given their families access to the spaces I inhabit. In many ways, WhatsApp video shrinks the distance between people and places. It makes more visible different sections of Indian society to each other and, in doing so, lays bare inequalities that may have previously been hidden.

Holy Cow!

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 06:37

In India, specifically among Hindus, cows are considered holy. This exalted status does have some peculiar societal effects. For one, when cows roam freely on roads, people do not get them to move out of the way, instead they wait for the cows to disperse of their own accord. Sometimes while driving by a cow, a particularly devout individual may even join his hands in a sign of prayer and bow towards his bovine idol. What is further indicative of the cult of the cow that exists in India is politicians faith in its supernatural abilities. For example, a member of parliament from the current ruling party explicitly stated that the cow is so holy that its dung and urine can cure cancer. (https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/cow-urine-can-cure-cancer-bjp-member-in-rs/article7012010.ece) Similarly, logic escaped the education minister of Rajasthan when he said that cows not only inhale oxygen, but exhale oxygen too. (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/cows-inhale-exhale-oxygen-says-rajasthan-education-minister-vasudev-devnani/articleshow/56612529.cms) . It will never cease to amaze me that an ‘education’ minister truly believes that a the cow, an immense producer of methane, is a viable solution for pollution and climate change.

However, this exaltation of the cow has a dark side to it too. The current ruling party, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), has adopted ‘cow-protection’ as a major policy move since they came to power in 2014. To give some context, the BJP is a right-wing, Hindu-nationalist party that repeatedly implements policies that serve to marginalize India’s Muslim minority as well as individual lower castes. An example of such a policy is a massive ‘beef-ban’ that recently took place. Due to this, the slaughter and consumption of beef has been prohibited in a majority of states. Since, a large proportion of the country does not consume beef the cost of it is much less than that of chicken or mutton. This makes beef a significant part of the diets of many  marginalized minorities in India such as Muslims, Christians and Dalits. Now these groups no longer have access to cheap protein, indicating that this ban disproportionately affects minorities. Additionally, the government’s cow protection agenda has given rise to a societal menace known as ‘cow vigilantes’. These ‘cow vigilantes’ are mobs of individuals who go about attacking and lynching people under the guise of ‘cow-protection’. They have killed people on the suspicions of eating beef, cow smuggling and even storing beef in the freezer.( https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/02/15/cow-vigilantism-in-indi)  The ‘cow-vigilantes’ are usually Hindus and those targeted are predominantly Muslim. Thus, it is more than evident the ruling party is using the docile cow to polarize the Indian population on communal lines. The implementation of policies that have disproportionate negative effects towards impoverished minorities, the mass lynching of people and this  crackdown on secularism needs to be halted with the utmost urgency. It is incredibly refreshing to see Karnataka standing its ground as beef is available in some parts of Bangalore, which is not something you see anymore in cities in the North like Delhi and Agra.

Despite the government’s ‘cow-protection’ agenda, cows continue to be mistreated and  are inadequately fed often resulting in them eating garbage.

The Beauty of Biryani

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 06:23

Judging from my burgeoning belly, it is not hard to tell that food has a huge role to play in my life. Luckily for my gastric cravings, Bangalore has no shortage of phenomenal as well as affordable food options. That being said, there are certain foods that are far more delectable than others. One such item is the biryani. To be overly simplistic, biryani is a South Asian delicacy consisting of rice, meat and spices. However, Biryani is anything but simple. It is complex, nuanced and spiced to perfection. Rice that has been carefully boiled in a multitude of spices is layered upon marinated meat and is left to cook for hours. The flavor of each individual element blends into the next, but at the same time retains some of its uniqueness – this results in a true savory delight.

 

Delicious Biryani in Hyderabad

 

Another incredible facet of biryani is that there are a number of varieties present across India and in the South especially.  Each state, sometimes even regions within specific states, would have their own characteristic biryanis. Examples of these included Karnataka’s Donne Biryani, which has shorter grains of rice and was served in a palm leaf. You also have Thalassery Biryani from Kerala which had a bit of a sweet tinge thanks to the inclusion of dried fruits. Then there is the ever famous Hyderabadi Dum Biryani in the rice is layered over the meat in a large dough sealed vessel. Despite its omnipresent nature across the subcontinent Biryani is not an easy thing to prepare. From maintaining a perfect ratio between the dozens of masalas and spices that go into it, to ensuring the meat is so tender that it just melts in your mouth, biryani is not an easy dish to make. As someone who has failed at making even a semi-decent biryani, I can attest to the technicalities involved in creating this dish. This difficulty in creating the perfect biryani translates into a number of restaurants serving subpar iterations of the dish. Thus, needless to say, in my quest for the perfect biryani, I did experience my fair share of disappointing ones.

 

Stuffing my face with Biryani

 

Nonetheless, my quest for the perfect biryani did not end in vain. Upon the suggestion of a co-worker, I ended up in this hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Khazana Food Paradise. With only a few items available on their already limited menu I decided to order a beef biryani. When the food arrived absent of any cutlery, I had to dig right in with my fingers to enjoy the authentic, biryani eating experience. My mouth burst with the flavors of spices and the ghee coated rice. But what really did it for me was the sheer tenderness of the large chunks of beef. Never before had I had such succulent meat that would just tear apart in my fingers. Needless to say, I demolished the meal in a matter of minutes despite my brain urging me to savor the tastes. After getting a hint of this exquisite blend of flavors,  I made it a weekly ritual to come back. It’s fitting to note that in Hindi khazana literally translates to treasure and this biryani was nothing short of that.

 

The incredible beef biryani at Khazana

 

Beginning in Bangalore

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 05:55

Hi there! My name is Siddharth Mehra and I will be interning at Shahi Exports in Bangalore this summer. I am a rising senior who is majoring in History and minoring in Music and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. I was born in Bombay, grew up in Delhi, but I have never been to Bangalore before. I am incredibly excited to explore this new part of my country.

Here are a few of my first impressions of the city:

The people:  People in Bangalore are unbelievably sweet. One morning, I woke up with a sprained neck and my head was temporarily skewed to one side. My neighbor, who I had never spoken to before, saw my neck, ran to his room, grabbed a muscle relaxant cream and gave me an amazing neck massage. I have never experienced something like this before, where a complete stranger would go out of his way to give some random person with a tilted head, a massage just because he looked like he was in a bit of pain. Similarly, our co-workers are so welcoming and supportive. They always help us if anything is needed at all and even gave us some great restaurant recommendations. We are held in such high regard that sometimes I even wonder what could we have possibly done to deserve this fantastic treatment.

Our co-workers throwing Angela a birthday party!

The weather: Never in my life have I experienced weather as phenomenal as that of Bangalore. Its sunny, but not too hot.  It can get windy, but never cold. Even the rain is pleasant. (When it does pour its hardly for 15-20 minutes.) The weather is so ideal that you didn’t even need to use the fan or AC while you sleep at night. This is such a refreshing change from the Philly’s  generally chilly weather and Delhi’s intense heat.

Great weather at work!

The traffic: According to me, Bangalore is the hardest city to get around because of its immense traffic congestion. The population of Bangalore has almost doubled in the last decade, however the roads and civic infrastructure has not expanded the way the population has. This has caused dreadful vehicular traffic. I was warned of this horrible situation before arriving, but I did not fully comprehend how bad it would be. I always thought that there was no way it would be worse traffic than Delhi. It only took a couple of days for me to realize how mistaken I was. Where we stayed was 7km (4.3 miles) away from work. Sometimes it would take us up to an hour and a half to get back home from work, which is less than how long it would take to walk the same distance!

Traffic in Bangalore, (image courtesy Times of India)

The food: The food in Bangalore has been divine. From fluffy but crispy dosas to idlis that melt in your mouth, there is no shortage of food options in the city. I was pleasantly surprised by the numerous different kinds of biryani that was here too. Not only do you have food from every corner of India, but also from all around the world. You can easily get Italian, Thai, Chinese, Burmese and Tibetan food, amongst others. Within each place also there is so much to order from. The menus themselves are so extensive that I have written research papers shorter than them. I can’t wait to take full advantage of the plethora of food options.

Dosas with chutney

All in all, the positives of the people, food and weather far outweigh the disastrous traffic. Bangalore has been a great experience so far and I eagerly await to see what it has in store for me.

Taj Mahal’s front view

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 00:18

After our internship finished, Veena and I had different plans as to what to do for the 3 days we had until our flight back to the States. We decided to spend one day in Mumbai, and part our ways until we met up in Dubai for our layover. Since my flight flew out of Delhi, and I still haven’t visited the Taj Mahal, I decided to fly to Delhi from Mumbai, and then take a train to Agra.

 

I had about 2 hours between the flight arrival and train departure, so I decided to go to Humayun’s Tomb since it was only a quick auto ride away from the train station. Also, since my goal for going to Agra was to see the Taj Mahal, it made sense to see the Mughal architecture that preceded the designing of the famed Indian attraction.

 

Backview of Humayun’s tomb

This was taken from the backside of Humayun’s tomb, where it was significantly less crowded and cleaner looking due to there not being as many tourists.

After spending some time at the tomb, I tuk-tuked to H. Nizamuddin station, from which I got on the train to Agra Cantonment station. When I got on the train, a large family had been sitting at my original berth and car. The mother had asked me to switch seats with her seat since all of her other family members were there.  She guided me to her old seat, while her husband carried the heavy suitcase (filled with 2.5 month’s worth of clothing, food, souvenirs, and various camera equipment!) to the seat. At the new seat, there were a group of elderly men, long-time friends traveling together. I decided to go into the upper berth and travel while laying down as to keep my and their privacy.

I booked a hotel near the south gate of the Taj Mahal, where the rooftop offered a beautiful view of the architecture! My hotel choice was 10/10 for the location and pricing. In fact, I had relied on the hotel’s views too much; I spent the rest of my evening on the rooftop, covered in mosquito repellent, just staring out into this horizon line and watching the sunset.

 

Rooftop view from a cheap hotel near South gate of Taj Mahal!

 

 

I had actually made a mistake in booking my train ticket. I arrived in Agra on Thursday at 6PM, planning to spend my Friday in Agra. Looking back, I should’ve arrived in Agra as soon as I could have from Mumbai and Delhi in order to see the Taj with its iconic garden and fountain. Unfortunately, I arrived too late on Thursday to see it in person, and the monument is closed on Fridays to the public… Definitely poor planning on my part.

 

But the North side of the Taj Mahal, opposite the Yamuna river, is open at all times, and I decided to go here around sunrise on Friday morning. The weather was moist from the previous night’s rainfall, and there was no one at Mehtab Bagh to see the Taj at the time I visited. Although the view I saw was not the iconic, fountain-and-garden scene of the Taj Mahal, I was still awestruck by this beautiful work of architecture.

 

View from Mehtab Bagh, opposite Yamuna River

This might sound crazy, but looking back, I don’t regret not going to see the Taj from its frontal (south) view because as I was searching through my photos again, I noticed that one of the smaller domes on the frontal side was getting cleaned and had the ugly grid covering it up!

 

Right small dome has ugly grid on it!

When I visited the Charminar in Hyderabad, I was disappointed by the grids that covered it up. I feel like I would’ve also felt saddened if I saw the garden, the fountain, the base of the Taj Mahal, and then… the grid-covered dome. I’m actually very satisfied with the back-view of the Taj Mahal I got, with the lush greenery covering the bottom of the Taj Mahal, and the graceful, white building standing above the shrubs and trees. To me, it felt like the monument was elegantly rising from nature, contrasting the refined, carefully constructed work of art to an untamed, raw Earth.

Bottom line: Do I regret going to Agra on a Thursday evening with only Friday to spare? Maybe, but not that much after realizing the grid’s presence.

 

 

Reflections

Thu, 08/30/2018 - 16:29

I’m surprised by how quickly I’ve adjusted to being back in the States. It seems like my trip to India was a million years ago. The second I landed in the US, I immediately felt like I had never left. Now that I’ve been back on campus for a couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve transitioned right back into my normal routine.

When I came back from studying abroad last fall, it took me weeks to adjust to my everyday life again. It felt weird to hear American accents and see my friends and family.  It felt weird to sleep in my own bed and to walk around my hometown. I felt like I had to relearn how to be a Penn student once I got back to campus in January. I clearly hadn’t been prepared to come back to the States for that trip, but I feel like I was ready to come back after this one.

I experienced recognizable homesickness for the first time during this trip. Maybe it was because I was the only intern at LEAP, but I was really excited to go back to my normal life during the final week of my trip.

My experience in Delhi was definitely extraordinary, but something about the energy of the city, not having another intern, and not always being able to communicate with locals made me feel isolated at times. This allowed for a lot of personal reflection, which is something that I am very thankful for, but it also meant that I was more excited to come home than I normally would be.

Looking back at my trip now, I wish I had been able to explore India more (I guess that means I’ll have go back!). I would love to see the southern part of the country to experience a different India than the hustle and bustle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.

Professionally, I was really happy that I got to experience the work culture of an office that was 1. in another country,  and 2. in an industry that I’m not very familiar with. Being at LEAP for the summer allowed me to really think about what I want to do after I graduate. It allowed me to explore a new industry and really integrate myself into an office workplace. In the past, I have had internships at Penn, so I was in very familiar territory. Working at LEAP took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to learn, and adjust, to the environment that I was in.

Overall, I had a wonderful time in India. I learned a lot about a culture that I wasn’t familiar with as well as a lot about myself. I hope to return in the future to explore more and to see how the places I’ve been to have changed.

Encountering the “Horse-Face” Peak

Thu, 08/30/2018 - 06:09

It’s a cold, drippy morning in the Western Ghats, the mountain ranges running along the south-western coast of India, and recognized by the UNESCO as the “hottest hotspot” for biodiversity. In the small town of Kalasa, near the Kudremukha National Park, life is stirring. A tempo carrying sleepy pilgrims wheezes up the slope, in the direction of the renowned temple that’s about 15 kilometers away. Kalasa has been my base, and I’m headed in the opposite direction: towards the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD) checkpost to register for a permit to hike the Kudremukh peak that’s within the national park. The KFD permits a maximum of 50 people per day, between June and December, to prevent overcrowding on the peak’s steep path. I’m the  day’s first visitor.

After a few miles via the (barely) motorable road in a semi-open jeep that lurches this way and that over the bright red soil, characteristic of the region’s iron-ore content, I’m at the official checkpost. In Kannada, one of the numerous local languages, Kudremukha translates as ‘Horse- Face’. The peak is an eighteen-kilometer hike in total, and approximately 1892 meters above sea level.

It’s challenging to articulate why I wanted to climb the Kudremukha peak. To acquaint myself with its Shola-grassland landscape? The hope of sighting the endemic lion-tailed macaque or two? Kudremukha’s geological history, or the histories of settlement? Perhaps, ALL of the above? After all, the peak’s presence has shaped various economic and ecological events in the region. For instance, early 20th century colonial and Indian geologists drawn to Kudremukha’s iron-ore seams (and otherwise given to precise calculations of elevation, rock classification and antiquity) noted the “striking landscape”.

 

Later, in the 1970s, the region became home to a profitable iron-ore company–that received a bulk of its initial investment from Iran and later exported iron-ore pellets to China, Japan, and Romanian markets, among other countries.

In December 2005, the mining site was subsumed into a National Park on account of the numerous conservation and ecological studies attesting to the region’s biodiversity.

Few weeks ago, climbing through continuous south-west monsoon spray, freely-moving wind, mist, and the occasional sun, encountering excitable leeches waiting to partake of *any* potential blood-feast, some of my own thoughts circled around: warmth; coffee; if superpower flying abilities would cancel the effort/euphoria of a climb; and the topsoil variations in a rainforest, thick and gooey, firm and rich, jelly-like sludge.

How do the various textures of mud feel underfoot? What is a Shola forest, and how is it different from a tropical rainforest? How does the erasure of people-made structures facilitate ideas of a pristine national park? Do I enjoy the physicality of a climb because it involves the human body’s direct interaction with a landscape? In this sense, walking-as-ethnography is slow, it’s an act of attention to the ways in which one moves/walks within a landscape.

Scrumptious and reckless​ adventures

Thu, 08/30/2018 - 00:31

If I had to describe my summer in India in two words, scrumptious and reckless would be them. My main goal was to experience as much as I could in the ten weeks that I had in this amazing country. Obviously, food was an easy way to be adventurous – there are 10 weeks x 7 days x 3 meals/day = 210 opportunities for me to extend my palate!

After a while, eating a different dish that I’ve never tried before became difficult, and I was starting to develop several dishes that I ate regularly.

With that said, this blog post is meant to be a collection of my most memorable moments regarding food, whether it’s what I ate, or what someone else is eating.

 

Starting off with this cute boy that I met in Araku during a mango procurement week:

The type of mango that the boy is holding is a small variety that is meant to be eaten by sucking the juice from the fruit. Instead of peeling the skin off, the skin is kept on and the whole fruit is chewed up to eat all the flesh up. This was memorable because I had learned a new way to eat a mango!

 

Next up: Classic Araku Banganapelli mango taste testing

Banganapelli mangoes are bigger (I have seen several mangoes weighing upwards of a kilogram in Araku, and these were organic biodynamic mangoes too!) and are meant to be eaten in a more conventional way: peel off the skin, remove the stone, and eat the flesh.

The characteristic of a Banganapelli mango is that the flesh feels like biting into a smooth memory foam while the juice overflows from your mouth, filling it up with a pleasant sweetness.

I actually really like mangoes, but am unfortunately allergic to the skin and stone. But, these organically grown Banganapelli mangoes do not cause any allergic reactions. I was extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to eat these mangoes every day for about a month and a half.

 

Thirdly, food is a necessity for all living organisms:

This was taken on the road back to Ajmer from Pushkar. I remember seeing this and thinking how the monkey expresses gratitude by receiving the banana with both of its hands. I wish I could’ve seen the monkey’s facial expression to really capture this interaction between the local man and the monkey.

 

Finally, a photo of something that I ate myself!

This was a shrimp chili coconut fry dish in Kerala! Being a coastal state, Kerala had amazing seafood. Frankly speaking, I had a better Keralan cuisine elsewhere but this shrimp dish was plated so nicely and was taken in natural sunlight, so it deserves a place on this blog post. My food memories in Kerala are generally very pleasant, because of 1) seafood, 2) coconut, 3) spiciness! Seafood is my favorite type of proteins, coconut ranks highly in my fruits list, and spiciness is the flavor that I favor the most. Thank you, Kerala for developing dishes that are triple combination of all of my favorite food preferences!

 

The not-so-fun-part: Traveler’s diarrhea

As the name suggests, I had travellers diarrhea when we travelled. I’m assuming it was the water/uncooked food like vegetables and fruits that I had that caused it. Although it’s frustrating, I place more importance in being able to taste different dishes over a day of pain.

Anyways, this was the trio of medication that I received when I told the chemist that I had a bad case of diarrhea. I’m posting here for future interns to inform themselves of the following medication:

Vebiotic (on top): prebiotics to help my already-in-your-guts good bacteria grow and probiotics to introduce new good bacteria in my digestive system to enhance my good bacteria to bad bacteria ratio. This just brings the bacteria balance back to normal.

Oflotas (bottom): This 200mg tablet is an antibiotic that counters bacterial infections. In the case that the bacteria in the food has caused infections, this treats that.

Ridol (right): This tiny tiny white tablet is only 2mg! It’s the main star of the trio, acting as an anti diarrheal that acts within 3 hours of administering. Because it takes some time to take effect, I would advise taking this as soon as possible after the first painful trip to the bathroom.

 

Back to food: Mysore dosas, fluffy dosas!

The owner of a Hotel Mylari in Mysore was kind enough to allow me to go into the storage area next to the kitchen to see how dosas were being made. This photo was taken by shoving my phone in between the bricks that kept the storage and kitchen areas separate. Note** there are multiple Hotel Mylari in Mysore all serving 40 rupee Mysore dosas. They are obviously copycat restaurants of the original Hotel Mylari (whose dosas are saltier and the chutneys spicier). I personally enjoyed this dosa more because it was more fluffy, and the creamier chutney complemented the texture of the dosa very well.

 

Last up: Veena x Veena Stores (Bangalore)

When searching for places to grab breakfast in Bangalore, Veena and I both found “Veena Stores” on Zomato with very reasonable prices and a high rating. Without second thought, we planned to visit the store the day after our Mysore trip to take an obligatory VEENA X VEENA STORE photo and, of course, taste the amazing breakfast. The store is a tiny roadside store on the corner of the building. When we arrived, there was a huge line forming from the corner to the other corner. There is no place to sit and eat, except on the steps of buildings nearby. Nevertheless, the food was amazing, perfectly seasoned, and filling.

 

I hope this blog captured some of the food-related memories I made in India, and that future interns find it useful as to where to travel to, what to eat, and what the diarrhea pills look like.

 

 

Pocket Change(s)

Wed, 08/29/2018 - 00:31

As I was writing my first blog post, way back when my journey was just beginning, I felt exhilarated by all of the incredible experiences and changes in perspective that came to mind as I thought about what had made my short time in India so special. At the same time, however I felt saddened by the reality that I wouldn’t be able to fit all of these moments into a (coherent) blog post. To remedy this I made a list of these condensed experiences, realizations, and altered perceptions in hopes of capturing some of the overflowing memories. When it came time to post my entry though, I realized I didn’t want to put a lid on this repository. Instead, I set out to continue capturing my most intense thoughts within this list over the entirely of my trip.

Although my adherence to this project wavered over the course of my three months abroad, I feel as though the list is a neat representation of how my perceptions evolved over the course of the trip. To preserve this organic evolution, I tried to kept all the entries in order with little to no editing. My hope its that as you read through my bouts of awe, exasperation, humor, and confusion you can share a piece of my adventure.

 

Road lines, when available, are merely a suggestion

 

Car horns are to be used like bicycle horn

 

In the bustling city of Mumbai you can find someone sleeping on any given surface at any time of day

 

“Good Morning” is applicable anytime after dusk

 

115 degrees is “pretty mild” for early Delhi summer

 

It always smells like something; whether that be chai, BO, Incense, cows, Dog urine, motorcycle/bus/car exhaust, or frypan oil

An picturesque cow presenting us with a smelly offering

 

Addresses are non-uniform and often imprecise

 

Street food is a must-try, but should be taken with a bottled water and 500mg azithromicin

 

Cricket can be played just about anywhere 

 

There’s a reason it’s customary to only eat with the right hand (hint: there’s often no soap in the bathrooms)

 

There’s no such thing as a bad time for chai

 

Selfies have unfortunately caught on globally

 

There is an art to eating with ones hands

 

One should yield only to vehicles larger than your own

 

Sidewalks are a luxury

 

Motorcycles can also serve as family minivans (limited to five family members, or so I’ve seen)

Local Cricket match taking place on the Ghats of Varanasi

 

Boys spend their bachelorhood playing cricket, holding hands and frolicking through the city streets

 

Update: motorcycles can also double as pickup trucks

 

More Indian women are beaten by their husbands than are in work. (The economist)

 

Monkeys get thristy too – and they are not too shy to snag your water bottle to satisfy themselves (They’ve learned how to unscrew the lids too)

 

One can get used to anything, even cold showers

 

The auto-rickshaws in each city and each state have their own unique colors and styles

 

What to us is just pocket change can sustain a small family for days

 

The other names for a Auto-rickshaw are ‘Auto’ or ‘Tuk-Tuk’— rickshaws are completely man-powered transports that were driven to extinction by their motorized counterparts.

 

Slapping laundry against hard objects is the best way to get the soap out

Early Morning Laundry

 

Living in a foreign country where most people you interact with speak some English does not incentivize learning a new language 

 

Theres a marked difference in social interactions in the North in the South, not all that dissimilar to the U.S.

 

Despite never having been to the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore or Niagra falls, I still foolishly assume that most Indian people have been to the Taj Mahal

 

Chai is another word for tea so asking for chai tea is quite redundant

 

Tamil movies are a interesting combination of romantic comedy, fight-sequence-heavy action film, sporting event, rock concert and theater. Romance and slow-mo fighting dominate the marathon (3+ hours) screenplay that is fortunately-and necessarily broken up by an intermission; Cheers arise and popcorn is thrown when famed actors grace the screen; volume levels will leave your ears ringing for hours; resale black markets command steep prices for newly released films. 

 

Indian sweets, like their use of spice, push the limits of the human body.

 

Riding a motorcycle without the constraints of traffic law is exhilarating (sorry mom)

 

Upscale restaurants are commonly “multi-cuisine” meaning the menus are several pages long and offer pretty much any food you can Imagine. While this may sound like a blessing the immense optionality is a quite overwhelming.

 

Do not plan for a quick layover when traveling through Mumbai— I learned this the hard way. Terminals 1 and 2 of the are over 20 min apart and requires negotiating a cab ride though traffic choked street

Activities

Thu, 08/23/2018 - 20:02

Since my time in India has come to a close and I have finally amassed the necessary internet connection, health, rest, and photo archive, I can now begin to clear my backlog of writing. I think it’s prudent to start by sharing what how I spent my time in India. Apologies in advance for the length.

Work

As I explained in my previous blog post, I spent my summer working for the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai with three other co-interns from Penn. To be precise, we worked in LAICO, the outward-facing ophthalmology consultation arm of Aravind. LAICO’s mission is to help end needless blindness, and it furthers this objective by running workshops, training employees, and consulting for hundreds of aspiring independent eye care hospitals around the globe. LAICO also helps the Aravind hospitals themselves by training clinic managers, organizing research studies and spearheading innovative projects.

The structure of our internship was such that each of us focused our efforts on our own constructive project under the guidance and supervision of LAICO faculty. While very grateful to be given so much independence, I was unnerved at first by the realization that this structure implicitly assumed our competence. I distinctly remember this feeling during my second day of work in the office, which was after the brief introductions of the projects were given, each of our selections were made, and after my initial giddy excitement had calmed. As I sat at my desk in our shared office space, I yearned to support Aravind’s efforts by advancing my chosen project of creating system-wide analytics platform (comparing the different hospitals to each other), but found myself instead questioning what skills I really had to offer. Here I was, a 19 year old with nothing but a handful of college classes under my belt, trying to make a difference in a 42 year old business with dozens of case studies praising its practices. Could I really lead a impactful project? And would anyone actually listen to my ideas if I did?

Luckily I was somewhat inoculated against this potentially crippling imposter syndrome thanks to my time in Wharton. If there is anything I learned from business school last year it was that you sometimes have to “fake it ‘till you make it”. Any remaining doubts were quashed as soon as I got to know my co-workers. The tremendous kindness and respect that I was welcomed with as I began working with my team gave me the confidence I needed to move my project forward. I should acknowledge that some of this respect was probably unduly influenced by Penn’s brand name, the pervasive Indian fondness of white people, and the fact that my team members for some reason thought I was 25 until they finally asked about my age on my last day.

Before I explain my project it is important to understand the guiding premises behind it. The first premise is that Aravind’s audacious goal of curing unnecessary blindness will necessitate maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of its limited available resources.  This maximization is what has made Aravind so successful today and will undoubtedly determine Aravind’s success in the future. Additionally, improvement in any area naturally requires quantification, for how can one demonstrably improve in something without measurement.

Given these premises it follows that Aravind should put great importance in its analytic systems in order to drive the advancement of its vision. Unfortunately, this is not what one currently finds at Aravind, and my objective was to correct it.

After some initial research, I found that the main problems with Aravind’s analytics paradigm were due not to a lack of infrastructure, but to poor design. The IT department took much of the hospital administrative work digital back in 2004 and has nearly completed an impressive electronic medical record system that will serve all hospitals from the cloud. These information systems work together to put department level data at the finger tips of clinicians, managers and executives. The issue is that these metrics are analyzed in a vacuum, without the context of how well any of the other hospitals are doing. Every 6 months, each department in each of the 11 Aravind secondary and tertiary hospitals report their key statistics along with their growth from the previous year, perceived strengths and weaknesses, and goals for the next period to their respective hospital executives. This system does wonders to motivate clinicians and catalyzes some sort term improvements, but theres only so much you can do when looking at things in isolation.

 

Explaining my project to leadership at Aravind Hospital in Salem, Tamil Nadu

 

Another way I thought about this deficiency was by translating it into the language of India’s favorite pastime. If I wanted to get a sense of how skilled the local Madurai cricket team is, with my limited understanding of how cricket is played and even more limited sense of what good cricket looks like, I would learn close to nothing from the isolated team statistics. Looking at the average number of runs scored by each player or the number of wickets hit per balls bowled and even comparing these numbers to the previous season will provide me with little to no insight into how good the team is. Conversely, looking at the team statistics within the context of the league they play in quickly illuminates their standing as an organization, and points out areas in need of improvement. Similarly, without context of how other hospitals of a similar class (in the same league) are doing in any given metric, it’s impossible to tell if one is doing well or what areas need improvement.

Thus our goal was thus to build a analytic platform that would provide users with accurate and well documented data for all of the hospitals in the system. This would allow Aravind to shift from treating each hospital as an island to allowing each hospital to serve as a laboratory for experimenting with different processes, policies and management strategies. Initially, we intended to work with developers in the IT department to begin development of a web application to display our analytics platform to the Aravind community. Unfortunately, the IT department was stretched too thin by its deadlines for implementing the EMR to take up the project, so we set our sights instead on solving all of the non-technical problems that prohibited this project.

In pursuit of this goal, we focused our efforts in two areas. The first was to create awareness and establish the benefits of such a project. We tackled this by compiling metrics for each of the hospitals in the 2017 calendar year into a spreadsheet using data from the biannual benchmarking meetings described above. We then used this sheet to create captivating presentations that showcased the potential benefits of internal benchmarking and presented to the senior leadership in Madurai along with decision makers in other hospitals. One of the highlights of my time at Aravind was traveling with my supervisor to Salem for two days to present our findings to the leadership team at the Aravind Hospital there.

 

Subset of the 175 x 11 Benchmarking Sheet for the 2017 calendar year. Columns organized by years in operation.

 

Our second area of focus was in establishing each of our chosen metrics with strong definitions. We only realized the importance of having definitions after compiling the 2017 data and noticing that none of the metrics had documentation of the patient populations included or the sources. This lack of standardization made our presentations unreliable since hospitals could be reporting completely different metrics. For example, one hospital could be including pediatric patients in their outpatient numbers while another might exclude them, leading to a difference of 60,000 visits. We thus decided to create a reference manual for our platform that would define the definitions, sources, and additional notes for each metric. Despite planning on starting this reference manual with a small number of highly desired metrics, it quickly ballooned into over 100 pages of definitions. You can find a example of one of these pages below.

 

Sample of a page from the reference manual defining the number of paying walk-in cataract surgeries advised

 

I’ll skip the play-by-play of the painstaking process and instead focus on the things I learned about working at Aravind and the outcome of my project. More than just my first time working in India, I think its fair to say Aravind was my first ‘real’ job. For the past three summers I’ve interned in number of medical research laboratories, but these experiences were only a slight departure from the guidance offered in a traditional classroom setting. For this reason I can’t really compare the work cultures in the U.S. to what I experienced in India, but I can share some of the interesting realities that I came to realize in this doubly novel environment.

1. Becoming a self-starter

With no teacher to assign work and no mentor to plan experiments I found myself being especially unproductive in the first couple of weeks in the office. All my schooling and work experience had trained me to be a machine: taking in objectives and facile frameworks and spitting out easily gradable answers. At Aravind I faced something quite different. I had a long term goal, but no pre-fabricated framework to apply, no sort-term deadlines to meet and no scheduled office hours to meet with my mentor. These fairly typical transitions were then further complicated by idiosyncrasies of working at Aravind, including the fact that small meetings in LAICO are often scheduled the same day or initiated by just walking into ones office and that language limited my interactions to those who spoke good english. This In addition, my team members weren’t given any sort of break from their normal duties to help my cause, and thus any meeting required strong and persistent advocacy.

Given these conditions I was forced to diverge from my normal behavior patterns in the interest of getting anything done. Setting up a meeting with all of the stakeholders to finalize a proposal could not be done from the comforts of my desk. Instead, It would require barging in on one of my team members and remaining in their office until all the emails and phone calls were made and the meeting was set. Despite being the type of person that would avoid an interaction like this at all costs prior to this internship, I learned over the last couple of months to come to terms with the realities of office culture. The truth is that in order to get anything done one requires the help of others, and recruiting the help of others requires having some interactions that you’d probably rather avoid.

2. Finding Consensus

Another difficulty I had while working on my project was finding the best way forward when provided with a number of disparate expert opinions. One of the key components of my project was creating the reference manual for the many hospital metrics. This required meeting with a number of doctors, clinic managers, and nurses to figure out what definition would best suit our purposes. What came to surprise me from this process is that many of the opinions from the different parties disagreed (occasionally quite dramatically), and these opinions could not converge even when each of the experts were brought together for a discussion. I was thus left in a uncomfortable position as final arbiter of decisions for which I had little domain reputability. At first I avoided this issue by just using the opinion of the most senior member of the group, but this had its own problems given the uncertainty of that person fully understanding the task—which was fairly abstract and further obfuscated by the language barrier— and accurately translating their ideas. As time went on, however, I adopted a different approach. Instead of differing to the most senior opinion I took each of the inputs into account to create what I felt was the best definition. To establish the credibility of my work I included extensive notes that justified each of my decisions and touched on the concerns raised by the expert group. This was a laborious task, but as I began to build this set of definitions and share them with stakeholders I came to appreciate this rigor. Having all of the reasoning spelled out forced the experts that I was meeting with to think more structurally and provide more precise objections. Additionally, it freed me from repeating the same explanations. In the long term, the reference manual that I create is intended to be a living document with additions and edits being made by the entire Aravind community over time.

3. Dealing with new customs

Even after working for 10 weeks in at Aravind I still could not keep up with all of the different office norms. From standing whenever a doctor or senior executive enters a room to completing every sentence with sir or ma’am in a conversation with a anyone higher up the ladder and adapting to a 6-day work week, it was difficult to act properly at all times. Although everyone was kind in pointing out our errors, I couldn’t help but think we were just living up to the stereotype of the arrogant American. One of the most jarring differences, which ended up helping me better understand myself, was presentation etiquette. I learned first hand that if your slides have any mistake—small or large, it will get exposed openly, without any remorse. This happened to me twice, once with a mix up of ‘principal’ and ‘principle’ in a small meeting, and a second time when I was interrupted during a presentation to 50+ people by someone to (wrongly) accusing me of misusing ‘biannual’.  In both of these situations I was completely caught off guard. Filled with embarrassment and a bit of anger, I fumbled for words for a few seconds before apologizing for my mistake as gracefully as my emotions would allow. As I reflected on these experiences after my emotions had faded away I realized how egotistical my reactions were. There was no harm done by either of these comments, except to my perceived reputation in the eyes of those in attendance. In fact, one could argue that these comments were in fact productive since they could flesh out confusions shared by others. I thus resolved to react more intelligently in the future, but was this even possible? How could I circumvent my emotions and act as I actually desired? (More on this in my final post… )

 

Presenting my findings at LAICO meeting. (Moments before getting called out for ‘biannual usage’)

Outcome:

One of my biggest apprehensions during this internship is that my work would culminate in little actual impact. Thankfully, when my project concluded with a presentation to the chairman and other senior executives I was told that they were fully committed to seeing this project move forward. For continuation of the project I provided my team members with the presentations I made such that they can continue building support for the endeavor, along with the extensive reference manual (will soon be circulated through the hospital system for edits).

Side Project:

In addition to the benchmarking project, I spent a fair amount of time at Aravind working with my Co-Intern Liz to try to help quantify compliance of Diabetic Retinopathy patients to their treatment regimens using data from the electronic medical record (EMR) system for her project. Since these data sets contained 70,000+ patients , there was no way to extract information from an excel sheet, and instead had to use a more powerful scripting approach. Although there were times when either the unintuitive data structure of the EMR or issues with R (the programming language we used) made me want to pull my hair out, I enjoyed the puzzling and was grateful for the opportunity to practice my computational thinking since my own project ended up not requiring any.

I have also been making full use of my time here outside of the office

Dance

Just about ever Monday Wednesday and Friday evening for the last two months I’ve been full heartedly embarrassing myself in front of my group mates and local teenagers on the dance floor. Whether it was Bollywood, Zumba, contemporary (if that’s even a genre), or salsa dancing was always up to the whims of master Gopi, our lively instructor, but regardless of the style I would spend each hour or so flailing my body awkwardly around the room—and having a great time doing doing it. Over the weeks I undoubtedly improved, but if any of you have seen me break out my moves before this trip you would know how little this actually says. Perceived dancing ability aside, I leaned a great deal in this class about rhythm, self confidence, and the art of taking oneself less seriously. For this, I owe thanks to Gopi for always bringing his infectious passion and my co-interns both for taking the initiative to find the class and for suppressing some of their laughter as I learned to stop moving like a robot.

 

Dance crew after our last class. Master Gopi throwing up the peace sign on my right.

Gym

On weekday evenings without dance class I usually took a quick auto-rickshaw to the nearby gym to let some energy out. There’s not much more to say about this activity other than its striking similarities between gym culture in Madurai to the U.S. In addition to having almost all the same equipment of a typical gym in the US, grunting, mirror flexing, and an obsession with bicep curls have also seems to have transcended cultural boundaries. To complete the western vibe, the gym also outfitted all of its non-mirrored walls with posters of white body builders. Not sure what exactly to conclude from this experience but I do appreciate the resource for allowing me to avoid complete muscular atrophy.

Travel

Despite our six day work week, we were able to appreciate the beauty of Tamil Nadu and beyond by way of several short Sunday excursions and few longer trips. With the help of our LAICO coworkers in the planning of our trips and the generosity our supervisor to give us 2.5 days off, we were able to explore the cities of Rameswaram, Kodaikanal, Thanjavur, Puducherry, Munnar (Kerala), and Delhi/Agra. On the days that we stayed in Madurai, we checked out the local attractions and even joined our co-workers on a couple nearby nature treks. I have come to a number of realizations about travel through these trips and my journey this summer as a whole, but I’m going to save this for a later post in order to do it justice.

More content to come in the next few days!

Click to view slideshow.

 

Finding a home in the unknown

Wed, 08/22/2018 - 13:56

To say I landed in India with very few expectations would be an understatement. Besides expecting it to be hot and to get sick from the food (both accurate), I was ready to let the experience take me where it would. In fact, I was somewhat suspicious of the “traveling abroad will change your life” trope. I was also concerned about voluntourism, and I didn’t want to be or appear as a privileged American student coming to “save” another country. I didn’t expect to make much of an impact, and I had no idea how or if the experience would impact me.

Even with few expectations, I was surprised by how quickly and easily I settled into routine life. My co-interns and I kept saying that it hadn’t hit us yet that we were in India. I kept wondering if I was missing something. Even with all the significant changes to daily life, the people at Aravind were so welcoming that life seemed to move along normally. I was both relieved and slightly disappointed by how at home I felt within the first few weeks. It was strange thinking about the narrative of separation, exoticism, and “life changing magic” that inevitably reached home to friends and family, compared with reality. I know how I would have perceived similar updates, and how I clung to the stories of people who had done GIP before me. I had trouble conveying the simultaneously unsettling and comfortable reality that came from being separated from the life I had always known. Although it sounds cliché, by taking away the material similarities, I realized how little they actually mattered to me and how simple it was to be content in the similarities I could find.

However, in the final few weeks, I realized how I had been slowly but surely affected by my time abroad. By standing up for myself in the office and adapting to situations in which I was not entirely comfortable in daily life I have become more self-assured and outspoken of my own opinions. I also realized how much I had been craving independence, (moving to a country on the other side of the world definitively gave me that). Some of the most important lessons I took away came about by living with three other people I didn’t know and didn’t choose in a highly stressful situation. After meeting only twice before, we were suddenly spending all our time together. All of us process emotions and perceive the same experiences differently, so it was great getting to hear their perspectives and learn the ups and downs of navigating these relationships.

This is not to say that I was not continuously affected by my experiences throughout the trip. I was particularly touched by the near constant reminders of how much I do not know. Although I knew intellectually there is a lot I do not understand, experiencing this was a treasure. Walking into the temple at Rameswaram and watching my friends go through rituals I didn’t know existed. Feeling years of history seeping through the walls. Listening to my co-interns stories and experiences from perspectives I had never had to consider. Learning about traditions and politics from other international guests at Inspiration House. Sitting in Bryant park, watching kids play, and recognizing that most likely they would live their entire live entirely separate from mine. Feeling useless as an observer in an Aravind Eye Camp while the well-oiled and impressive machine of an organization I didn’t know existed 6th months ago did incredible work. Its poignant and freeing to live in those moments of ignorance and utter insignificance. This world exists before me, after me, and despite me, and I feel lucky to be an observer.

I think this feeling holds the appeal of travel for me. I love the weightlessness that comes when you’re awash in a world that is not your own. And in this world, I had to find the security I usually take from my environment within myself. I want to bring this personal security back to the United States, instead of letting familiar environments push me in one direction or another.

On the final drive to the airport, passing the winding streets of Madurai on one last hectic car ride, it struck me how much I had created a home for myself in this place of the unknown. Liz describes the feeling as “nesting.” I had become very attached to my co-workers at Aravind, and I hated saying goodbye. Even though I knew I would see Liz, Roshni, and Oliver soon enough, this unique part of our lives was over. Passing the piles of fruit on stands, the rickshaws, and the paunted Tamil advertisements for the last time made me tear up.

Leaving Madurai felt like leaving a little part of myself. And for me, that was the most joyful and heartbreaking part of travel.

 

 

The home of many pizza and movie nights, card games, Rick and Morty-ing, heart to hearts, and last minute planning sessions

Thank you to Devendra for the surprise birthday party!

The intersection we crossed to get to work

Fun in Rameswarem, and saying goodbye to Liz and Roshni