CASI Student Blog
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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… )
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 officeDance
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.
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.
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
If you search up the definition of bad traveler’s luck on Urban Dictionary, the first result will be my name. Okay, not actually, but it should be. After getting emergency butt surgery, sitting at the Koramangala police station for two frustratingly long hours explaining how my bag was stolen, then getting pickpocketed in Mumbai, and missing a flight back to Bangalore as a result of the pickpocketing, I think I can count myself as pretty unlucky (shout out to Steph for having to deal with all the second-hand bad luck whenever we travelled as a duo). However, as unfortunate (and equally dumb) as I was, I never felt like anything was impossible to deal with because I had an amazing support system always ready to help me. So from dealing with bureaucracy to Siddharth’s deceiving facts about India to surprise hospital visits from my coworkers, here are just a few things I’ve learned about India:
- The sense of community and family is incredible. I was surprised to learn that many Indians call their parents at least once a day if not more (maybe that explains why our Uber drivers are always on the phone). Furthermore, on our very first day of work, all of our co-workers put together various dances and skits to welcome us to Shahi and make us feel comfortable. I’ll always remember when Bopana’s mom cooked us all delicious pork and snacks when we visited his hometown on a work retreat. Or when the migrant workers at one hostel invited us to partake in a small religious blessing. Or when Chitra invited us to her house and for lunch (she probably made at least 10 dishes!) And most importantly, after feeling overwhelmed and a little scared the night before my butt surgery, I’ll never forget the surprise visit I got from Chitra and Dr. Leena at the hospital right before the procedure, and how Shruti and my co-interns stayed at the hospital the whole afternoon to take care of me.
- Indian bureaucracy is a nightmare to deal with (think American DMV but more frustrating). For starters, my co-interns and I had to spend the entire day at the Foreign Regional Registration Office to get our exit permit. The trouble with the FRRO wasn’t the wait time (although spending an entire day at the office was a little long), but rather the lack of clear instruction and procedure, so you truly have no idea what to do or where to go. My co-interns and I also joked about how paying a bribe to someone would be the only way to get something done. Turns out that is somewhat true, at least when you’re dealing with the local police (having connections is the other option). So my advice if you’re ever in one of these unfortunate situations? Be assertive about what you what, find someone who has a connection (or pay a bribe, but I have yet to figure out how exactly to do that), and don’t wait more than 10 minutes at a time before when they tell you to wait (or you might end up finding out two hours later that you’ve been waiting for the wrong thing)
- The lemon slice in your warm water bowl for cleaning your hands after your meal is NOT a loofah for your fingers (thanks Siddharth for the lies)
- The red bindis women sometimes have on their foreheads are not stop signs warning off the sexual attraction of men (thanks Siddharth for all of your incorrect information). It actually has religious significance and is associated with a person’s mystical third eye (thanks Siddharth again)
- Cows on the city roads are very common. And no, they will not moo-ve out of the way for you.
- When you need to cross the middle of a busy street street with no crosswalk, just DO IT. Stick out your hand, walk slowly, and don’t stop. You will not die. Cars are used to stopping abruptly for pedestrians.
- Ask for less sugar in every drink.
- When you get a call from your Uber driver and neither one of you speak the other person’s language, just answer with your drop location. That’s all they want to know.
- Chai breaks are a must, and you always have room for another cup of chai or coffee (or 6 cups if you’re Piotr!)
- Budget an hour in advance for everything (learned this the hard way) and enjoy the slower pace of Indian time
- Don’t try to beat the google maps time that it takes to walk somewhere. unpaved, or nonexistent sidewalks will slow you down.
- Sleeper buses have male and female sections, don’t accidentally book a male bed (like I did!)
- You’re going to get ripped off when you auto, just accept it and note that its only less than a dollar extra that you’re paying.
- Indian menus are extensive. They are like American menus on steroids. While the myriad of options is great, if you are like me and always have trouble deciding what to get, try looking through a 10-page menu of dishes that you can’t pronounce and don’t recognize.
- Butter garlic naan is amazing. But buttery, light, fluffy, pancake-like Mysore masala dosas? Or crispy, flaky, but soft-on-the-inside Kerala parathas? They just might be even better.
- In other street food tips, try kulfis, vada pav, sizzling brownies, pani puri, dosas, and butterfruit milkshakes
- The Indian head bobble doesn’t always mean yes, or no, or anything. It really depends on the context (which can be so confusing when you’re bargaining and aren’t sure if they accepted your price or not).
- And finally, the people around you really make a big difference to your experience. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend me 10 weeks with a different group of co-interns or coworkers. I’ll miss Prem asking us every morning if we had breakfast and sharing his rice with us, Sahana’s keen observations (on Siddharth’s weight gain and Piotr wearing slides to work) and her impeccable fashion sense, Shruti’s kindness and patience when translating anything and everything for us, the entire GBL team for making us feel like a part of their squad and hanging out with us, Chitra’s go get ‘em attitude, Piotr’s fun spirit, Steph’s motherly care and introspective questions, Siddharth’s sweetness (he’ll only occasionally let you see it though), and so many more people and memories that could fill up another blog post.
So how do you conclude a whirlwind of 10 weeks filled with incredible (and unfortunate) experiences? With a very heartfelt thank you, a few tears on the plane ride home, and a sincere “till next time.”
Growing up, I used to resent India because it was the country that took me away from my dad for 2 years when my mom and I lived in Bangalore. India was the country that took me away from my friends during summer break. My mom generally had to beg me to come with her. The high school and college summers filled with activities had given me a great excuse to avoid going to India for six summers. When I told my parents and friends that I was spending 10 weeks in India, it is safe to say that they were pretty surprised.
This summer has changed India for me. India has become the country that gave me independence. India has given me three unique, new friends. India has shown me its beautiful colors, smells, and experiences. Sure, I was far from home and the people I love, but I found a new home and new things to love. I am dedicating this blog post to all the things that made me change my mind about India. I have a lot to say, so please bear with me.
The people I have interacted with
People in India are amazing. Whether it is the patients in the hospitals who come in barefoot because they can’t afford a pair of shoes or the people we see in what is considered a luxury restaurant, Barbecue Nation that we frequented, they are generous and kind. The moment we reached Delhi at the beginning of this trip 10 weeks ago, all the people were shoving and pushing and not afraid to be in my bubble. I had flashbacks to what the resentful, young Roshni thought about India; the people are pushy and aggressive.
After 10 weeks, my perspective is completely changed. The people here are like people anywhere; everyone has places to be and things to do. The difference about people in India is that they are generous. Our colleagues at work barely know us, but they have invited us into their homes to eat meals with their families and to spend time with them on their 1 day off (we work on Saturdays). My random daily smiles were at first a curiosity to many but they eventually started smiling back and were clearly happy to do so. Whether it is the women who cook and manage lunch in Inspiration (our hostel) or the woman who had just wiped the floor and saw me slip in the lobby, they greet me daily, even if it is just a smile. The people that I have met, not just those native to India, have made me appreciate India far more.
This could have gone in the people section, but I have so much to say about them. When it comes to friends, I tend to have a few close, but strong friendships. Given that I had no role in choosing the people with whom I spent 10 weeks, I am amazed at the bonds we have formed. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been any hiccups. Spending so much time together with just 3 other people is a scary idea, but honestly, I got so lucky. My roommate Liz was the first I met on the trip over; we met at the Frankfurt airport and faced the Delhi heat together and the fearful experience of not being able to find our cab driver at 1 AM when we arrived. Since then, I can honestly say how much we have both grown together. She is strong, brave, and composed. We’ve had amazing and deep conversations and have really seen each other change over the 10 weeks. Madeleine is a lovable and friendly person who gets along with everyone; she brings laughter to everyone around her and exudes confidence. From the moment that I met her in Delhi, I saw how her calm demeanor enabled her to handle most situations. Oliver is a thoughtful person with a good sense of humor. He was willing to do basically what all of us girls wanted to do and I commend him for fitting in so well with 3 girls.
During our time in India, we adopted many of our own traditions that made the time pass so quickly and made it so incredibly fun. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we attended dance classes in Madurai. By far my favorite night of the week, however, was Wednesday night when we ordered Domino’s Pizza and watched the Harry Potter movies in order since Liz had not seen them. We played a lot of card games and watched multiple movies. Of course, food played an important role in traditions. We ate at almost the same 5 restaurants the whole summer (most of our food is provided by Inspiration). Then there were always the Sundays when we roamed the city and fun touristy destinations.
The work experience at Aravind
I have already described my project, but I just want to say that the experience in general at Aravind is one that has changed the way that I look at medicine. In my first blog post, I mentioned that medicine to me had been a lot about research and genes and running gels. While that is an important part of medicine, I have now seen that medicine is all about the people. While genes and proteins can help explain a condition and its root causes, what might actually be more important is considering the individual and his or her background. Medicine is about people; the field exists because people have diseases or ailments. My work specifically targeted the people who have those conditions or may have them down the line. Patient education and empowerment tackled the social aspect of medicine head-on for me. The clinical experiences I got from shadowing and watching doctors and MLOPs (mid-level ophthalmic personnel) showed me the intricacies of doctor-patient interactions in India. Although I have shadowed in the US, I would love to go back and shadow/volunteer even more to further compare the relationship between doctors and patients. Suffice it to say that Aravind has sparked this new curiosity and has showed me that I am really interested in understanding patient behavior and doctor-patient interactions.
The distance from family and friends and the time difference has given me a lot of time that I would otherwise spend talking and video-calling people back home. With this time, I have been quite reflective and introspective. I have learned more about myself and my personality and really saw myself change over time into an independent and more tolerant person.
Although I haven’t had as much tea as I would have liked, Indian tea (the kind with tea powder, not the tea bags) is my favorite. The classic serving has a small steel cup and a bigger one with a larger base and the small cup has all the sugar at the bottom so if you mix the bigger and the smaller cup really well, you’ll get all the sugar (which will make it sickly sweet) but I usually just pour it once and it is perfection. If it was possible, it would be the only beverage I ever drank. I tried making tea at my dorm at Penn, but it could never compete with what I get here or what my parents make at home.
I tend to be a homebody, so the prospect of traveling every weekend was a little daunting at the beginning of this trip. However, I am so glad that I pushed myself to be adventurous. I realized that I really do like to travel. I had never traveled in India before this experience. When I came to India with my parents, we went to Bangalore and Mangalore exclusively. I have now travelled more in India than my parents have in spite of the fact that they grew up there. I think that’s pretty cool! My favorite trips were to Kodaikanal and to Delhi. Kodaikanal was the first overnight trip for my co-interns and I, and we stayed in this little hotel that was in the middle of nowhere but it was such a bonding experience. It was a beautiful place and the cool weather was a nice change. Delhi was a really interesting experience as well. Since we spent all of our time in South India, venturing into North India for the last weekend showed how different the two parts of India are. As someone who has only ever spent time in South India, I was really comfortable in South India and experiencing some of the discomfort (despite being able to understand Hindi) in Delhi was insightful.
Looking out the window
The landscapes and sceneries in India are incredible. India gets a bad rap for its pollution and its trash (which it legitimately does have), but what people don’t see is the beauty behind it. Going to Kodaikanal and other places, the greenery and beauty of India is apparent. Seeing that beauty is easy if you go to the right places like Kodaikanal or Kerala, but India has other beauty as well.
The people here live such different, and what seem to be, stress-free lives. At some point in early July, when I was talking to my mom, I said, “we should move back to India,” when I was mentioning the stress-free lives of the people here. Although I said it jokingly, there is something very attractive about the way people lead their lives here. It is a minimalistic yet rich life. It is one where people live with just what is needed and are happy with that. It is rich because people have deep roots to their cultures and the people around them. Sure, they have aspirations and goals, but it doesn’t blind them and control everything that they do. Looking out of a rickshaw (another favorite part of India) or a car, you see the beauty in the people as a woman carries a load of laundry in a pot on her head without supporting the pot with her hands or kids come running to you with candy to make you happy.
I have always considered myself a dancer. Since the age of 4, I did Bharatnathyam dance. Bharatnatyam dance is a South Indian classical form of dance. Although I didn’t get to do Bharatnatyam in India this summer, being in a dance studio after so long was refreshing. My experience with Bollywood is limited and I have never done Salsa dancing before. It was really nice that I was able to embrace new forms of dance while still being in my comfort zone of a dance studio.
I have always been really attached to my parents. When in doubt, I usually turn to them for advice. The time difference and just being more than 8,000 miles away from them really forced me to be independent. I handled different issues, like feeling ill or booking taxis or accidentally eating something I was allergic to, without them. With the difficulties I have successfully overcome on my own while being so far away from my family, I have developed a new type of confidence that I hope will remain with me going back to Penn.
This experience has been filled with learning. Learning about medicine and hospitals. Learning about the eye. Learning about people. Learning about India. Learning about myself. Learning about how privileged I am. Learning about my friends. Learning about my love for noodles. Learning about my boundaries with nature. Learning about traveling. Learning to let go of home. Learning to be a better and more confident version of myself. Learning how to wash my clothes by hand. Learning that the lizard on the wall will leave me alone even if I am panicking (still working on internalizing this one). This has been one of the most productive summers in terms of learning. The things that I have learned are diverse and varied as you can see by the list, but any learning is a step in the right direction.
For all these reasons and many more that aren’t included in the list, India has completely changed for me. I see the beauty in India and its people. I can easily say that India is a place I would not dread visiting anymore. I look forward to going back to India sometime soon. When we were leaving the Taj Mahal, our tour guide said “do not say goodbye, say see you later.” So, see you later, India!
Seeing that I am now eight thousand, five hundred and seventy-two miles (that’s thirteen thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two kilometers) away from stifling Sarjapur traffic jams, trendy Koramangala shops and eateries, meaningless H&M codes of conduct, hazy Indiranagar afterparties, lazy Cubbon park picnics, seemingly oblivious cows on the road, startlingly sweet (but oh-so-satisfying) Richmond Road lemon tea, and almost thinking I could pull off wearing a dhoti without attracting too much attention, I suppose it would do me good to reflect on what I’ve left behind, what I’ve brought back with me, and what has secretly snuck itself into my luggage and stubbornly refuses to stay back on the subcontinent from whence it came (see if you can guess which those are).
I ended up scrapping my project on developing a new visual language for Shahi’s posters and employee handbooks once I realized that none of the factory workers were interested in receiving more printed materials (part of being a designer is being aware of the needs of your client). Instead, I have focused on a broader analysis of the internal communication channels and strategies in place at good old Unit 7 in Bellandur. I found myself really, really regretting not learning Kannada before coming to Bangalore, as it turned out to be incredibly difficult for me to latch onto (I still can barely say “thank you”) and I felt rather embarrassed relying on my senior coworkers to take the time out of their day to not only translate but wholly facilitate my focus groups this summer. My biggest faux pas, though, came when I thought it would be a good idea to buy sweets for my interviewees as a gesture of kindness and to encourage more open responses (after all, what club at Penn doesn’t use food to mobilize participation among the student body?) — my bemused partner later explained the previously unseen (to me) sociocultural factors that turned it into an extremely awkward situation for probably both the workers and myself.
I’m still working on my final, comprehensive report that includes my recommendations for how to get people to be less scared to talk to supervisors and staff (I hope they work). In a lot of ways, though, I was even less open with the workers I spoke to than they were with me. For example, how do you tell a sewing machine operator you’re earning over twenty times as much as they are this month just for conducting this interview?
The first day I got home, I experienced a strange sort of culture shock (the reverse of my experience when I first set foot in Mumbai). WHERE ARE ALL THE PEOPLE?? As I stared out the windshield of my dad’s car, semi-suburban Chicago stretched out before us almost like a concrete wasteland. It was about 4 pm on a Monday, yet barely a soul was in sight; instead, car after car sped leisurely along the straight grid of roads. I had come back with three hundred rupees left over and told myself I should have given them away when I had the chance.
The other day I met up with an old friend at a shopping mall. As we chatted and meandered past stores like Zara, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Tommy Hilfiger, the neatly organized clothing on the pristine racks and shelves gave away no hint of their long journey from halfway around the world. Once I got home, I noticed my mother had made a purchase at Kohl’s. I rummaged through the folds of the fabric to read the tags on the garments: Made in India, Made in Bangladesh. I called her over, muttered something about global production and supply chains, and went upstairs to my room.
Before starting to write this reflection, I had been messaging a friend from Bangalore on WhatsApp; I said I miss him and he said he misses me, too. While in India, I had accidentally bent my American SIM card. It’s been nearly four days, though, since I got back, and I still haven’t gone to the Sprint store for a replacement, so I’ve been limited to texting and calling over WiFi. In a way it’s convenient, because school is starting up again and I have a convenient excuse to postpone filling out When2meets and responding to emails with [URGENT: ACTION REQUIRED] in the subject line.
Yesterday morning, I was reading an anthology about Bangalore on the train back from my friends’ apartment (the night before, they had not ceased to make fun of the noncommittal Indian head shake that I found myself making at all of their questions. It’s so convenient: the perfect expression!). I had bought the book as a gift for one of my professors, but I started reading it on my plane back to Chicago and started wondering about how different it would be for someone who hasn’t physically visited the city (I’m still deciding whether or not I should give him something else). I was so engrossed in the text that I didn’t even notice the compartment clear out; fortunately, my stop was at the very end of the line. I exited the train and the weather outside was partly cloudy and pleasantly cool, which, yes, did remind me of Bangalore. How do I find my way back?
Despite trying really hard this summer, I still feel that ten weeks is not enough time to get to know a place so that any impact you make is not only lasting but culturally informed and responsible. I’ve already been wondering how I could go back — I can’t take Beginning Hindi because I’d have to drop URBS 452… and the Kannada department has mediocre ratings on Penn Course Review… Should I take up Malayalam? (I’m an urban studies major, and everyone knows this means I have trouble focusing on a single interest.) I’m already basically taking two courses on water, so that makes sense, though, right?
I know that I have a tendency to overthink, and my work environment this summer has definitely taught me to think simpler and more directly (after all, eating with your hands tastes so much better than the cold metal of a fork). However, I can’t help entertaining all of the different thoughts that have been swirling around in my head since well before my return home. How do I choose what stays behind in the summer of 2018 and what I take forward with me for the rest of my life? Or is that even a choice I’m able to make?
It’s now been three weeks since I came back from India, and there are little things that still haven’t left me, like an inclination to drive on the left sided of the road (thankfully I haven’t acted on that impulse!) Coming back to a hometown that was largely composed of white senior citizens was a bit jarring at first, since I was so used to the vibrant chaos of India. This American environment is so different than how I lived in India, which makes it feel like I was there a lifetime ago. I’ve melted back into my everyday routine here in Sarasota, and after all the excitement of the past 10 weeks, it’s somewhat a relief to sink down in my bed and sleep without setting an alarm.
I’m excited to take my memories from India with me to Penn next year, especially all the new clothes and trinkets that I’ve collected. If you’ve read my one of my previous blog posts, you’d have seen that I started a collection of dupattas from every Indian city I visited (which is going to look AMAZING on my apartment wall!!), but I also invested in some postcards to display as well. I love fashion and style and what it says about a society (as evidenced by the aforementioned blog post) and being surrounded by Indian style this summer has shown me that how I choose to express myself doesn’t have to be dictated by Western standards. Although I’ve always loved the loose silhouettes and bold patterns of Indian clothing, these styles were never mainstream in America and I never took the initiative to infuse it in my wardrobe here. I hear so much about European trends, like Scandinavian minimalism and French girl chic style, but there’s a severe lack of influence from the East, and I hope to change that, at least in my personal life. This isn’t just about fashion–there’s so much art and culture from India that the rest of the world misses out on. Despite being one of the oldest civilizations in history, a significant percentage of American art galleries are filled with only European works! And Indian food goes way beyond chicken tikka and butter naan!
10 weeks was a long time, but sometimes it also feels like it wasn’t enough. I know I’ll be back, and I really hope it’s sooner rather than later. Thankfully, however, every time I look at my colorful scarves on the walls of my apartment, I’ll be filled with the memories of an amazing summer.
At Qutb Minar in Delhi! One of the last places Hareena and I visited on the trip.
The first wrong assumption I had about India was that almost everyone, at least everyone in big, metropolitan cities, spoke English.
Boy was I wrong when my co-intern Steph and I were trying to catch our bus from Delhi to Agra on our first day in India and our Uber driver, not understanding us saying we were already late, decided to stop for gas on the way. Then we couldn’t find the bus stop and the only word the people nearby us understood was “Agra,” so we got directed to (and impulsively decided to board) a random bus headed for Agra that wasn’t our intended one. Then there were the numerous times I threw my phone at my co-intern Siddharth begging him to speak to the person on the phone in Hindi because I couldn’t understand. And then there were communication barriers every time we wanted to speak to a worker at Shahi’s factories. It was especially hard when we went to the migrant workers’ hostel one Sunday to interview them about their experiences moving to the city and working at a garden factory. I really should’ve learned Kannada, or at least Hindi, but I’m a little ashamed to admit that I gave up learning after the first lesson on the free app I downloaded because it was too difficult.
I soon found that my communication struggles persisted even when the language I was using was English. At work, I assumed that since we were interns coming to fix Shahi’s problems, all of the department heads that we spoke to would just open right up and give us all the information we needed. In reality, the questions we asked were met with vague, circuitous answers that sometimes made me wonder if I had asked a different question than I intended. Here, my American straightforwardness and impatience had no place; I had to learn to navigate cultural differences in communication and openness to get the answers I wanted.
My struggles in conversation also reflected the communication barriers at Shahi between workers and staff and management. My co-intern Piotr and I both found from our research that information often gets lost in transmission between different levels of people at Shahi because there are not many direct communication channels. In particular, I found there were problems with the grievance system that prevented both workers from reporting their problems and their grievances from being properly redressed. On one hand, some workers were scared to communicate their problems to staff, and on the other hand, some of the work HR was doing to solve workers’ problems weren’t being communicated back to workers. There were even some grievance channels that workers didn’t know about or weren’t familiar with. As a result, small problems that workers had were not fixed in time and eventually blew up into a large crisis in one unit. Thus, after a discussion with my boss Chitra, we decided my project was to:
- examine all of the grievance reporting mechanisms, which include suggestion boxes, helpline numbers, worker committees, welfare officers, HR personnel, counseling cells, and help desks
- identify the problems in the grievance reporting system
- figure out ways Shahi could improve them.
Throughout the experience of conducting a multi-unit survey of workers, analyzing survey results, conducting research on innovative grievance handling methods online, and creating material for workers’ committees, I was able to compile all of my research and work into a report and deliver a presentation for the OD (organizational development) team and Shahi’s Board of Directors on what steps they should take next.
However, the process had its challenges. My third assumption was that I could go somewhere and easily diagnose the problems and fix them in a matter of just two months. I had naively expected that I could come up with ideas and have them immediately implemented and everyone would be on board to improve worker wellbeing. However, in reality, it took a lot of time for ideas to be approved by factory heads because taking workers away from the production line meant time and productivity lost. It was difficult to combat with production people’s profit-driven attitudes, and there were times I felt like the work I was doing was pointless because I could never change attitudes. But what I learned is that I can’t expect to suddenly change mindsets and fix everything in just two months. Solutions take observation and time and reflection, not impatience. The countless trainings and programs the OD team was doing for the benefit of the workers was evidence already that change was happening. My goal is that my recommendations, when implemented, will hopefully make grievance reporting more accessible and simpler for workers so they know where to turn when they have a problem.
So my key takeaways? Clear communication/understanding is really very important, and I should stop making (or at least try to make fewer) assumptions.