India is Everything


The second week here has been a whirlwind!

It was a funny start. You think with travel that you’ll be the spontaneous, almighty, Lord of All Change, yet you go with all these precise plans. I came with a place of residence, a volunteer position, and knew exactly how I wanted my weeks to be. The travel gods must have thought me hilarious. As travel goes, things changed. The baby got sick, noone slept, I had a fever, everyone tried to do everything and it became very tricky for all parties involved. I decided to move to a different town with my cousin and her family to give everyone some breathing space. I’ll go back to my aunt and working at the hospital later in the trip, but for now I’m here. And it’s okay, a good change!

To continue work here, this week I started teaching reading and english to children from the slums, at a school still here in Mumbai. The school is called Sunbeam, and it’s a wonderful NGO (Non Government Organization) that gives free education to underprivileged children.There are no words. These kids are audacious spitfires. They are so unabashedly themselves.There is no guard– unless you ask how their math test went and they don’t want to talk about it. Socially appropriate? Off putting? Perhaps crossing a line? It doesn’t make a hair of a difference to them. They feel it, therefore it must be said. I wish I could freeze these eager bundles of joy into time and share them with the entire universe. But it’s been a very split experience. On one hand, the NGO is great and the kids are simply a joy. You smile 90% of the time and the other 10% of the time you’re holding back a smile. On the other hand, there is so much frustration with the system. The schooling system in India legally requires students to pass, because years ago the student suicide rate was on a huge influx from students failing. Even the NGOs require students to pass. It is mostly set up by age and not comprehension, so while trying to help an 8 year old read about a king and his land, the poor kid stares up at me blankly because he has no idea how to speak more than his name and say please/thank you. Other students in the same class read the full passage, and then tell me about their favorite Arthurian literature story. The comprehension gap is huge, but at what point do you work with the system and what point do you try and change it? Eternal question of course. And it’s wonderful that NGOs like Sunbeam exist, and there is a new bridge program for one-on-one tutoring. It’s a start, and I know I’ll be spending the rest of my time here trying to keep it on a go.

Meanwhile, I have met some fascinating people! I met a girl my age who is studying mechanical engineering and wants to create robots who paint. Talked to a guy who is going into financial business planning and is also an accomplished musician in an Indian punk-rock band. Saw a village shop keeper who cuddles with his very large, male goat on a bench at the back of the shop when noone is buying anything. Yet the most peculiar human traits I have noticed here are the gender specificities. Men are very physically affectionate with each other. Guys my age hug and walk with their friends like I might on a date. It is so surprising, but entirely the norm. And the women here are so confident. It’s beautiful. Especially the little girls! They’ll just sing. Or dance. Or talk about drunk people or hot boys. I expected them to be strong, but shy. But they’re entirely fearless. It’s amazing to find despite living in a country where murals saying “save girls” are painted and a deeply engrained male preference is instilled, the women still have a luminous confidence.

The hardest part is still the poverty. Nothing can prepare you for the poverty. Nothing makes you feel like more of an asshole than refreshing your FB feed on your iphone5 and then looking up and seeing an armless man outside the car window asking for money. You can’t help but be guilt ridden, and it’s like there’s nothing to do but give back (and even that seems like it could never be enough when the poverty is on such a national scale here). The other night I walked by a bare naked baby asleep on the street, and then another, and then another. And when I leave in a few weeks this is all still here. Walking away with gratitude and perspective seems like such a cop out. I GET to move on with open eyes. These children stay, sleeping night after night on these streets naked. Maybe there’s a better personality type that could better numb itself to it all. Nothing can prepare you for this. It is such a privilege to be able to be grateful.

Something else that I’ve been thinking though, is that to identify a country and an experience of a country by it’s financial standing would be a disgrace to the soul of the nation. Here, there is so much soul in the rich culture, the emphasis on community, the deeply religious mentality, the curry and the milk sweets and the love of the elderly and the joy that runs deep in dancing and singing and praising the Gods. So yes, there is a very rough standard of living and an undeniable wage gap that’s unflinchingly prevalent. But I don’t think that’s what the people here focus on, so I’m trying not to either. On either hand it’s lots of intensity all of the time, the feeling of always being punched in the gut either by horror or magnificence. Mind definitely being stretched and blown. I’ve never been in such a constant headspace before. My brain is always reeling. I’m now consistently writing, yet never articulating exactly what the experience is. I’m still figuring that out.

Regardless of everything, there is one vital thing to be said. THE FOOD. It’s amazing. Yesterday I ate Vadaa, which is like a savory doughnut made of lentils and rice bran. I also had almond milk made fresh from almonds- this was no Silk brand from Target. For breakfast today I had garbanzo bean curry with chile spiced green beans and lemon-rice noodles. It’s been funny realizing how ‘breakfast foods’ is such a western construct, that here healthy, filling food is healthy, filling food and you eat it around the clock. It’s wonderful. In honor of food, I leave with this quote:

“You should be proud of your tummy and always keep it full.”
~My very wise cousin

2 thoughts on “India is Everything

  1. Asha, the diversity of learning abilities in your class sounds harder than anything I’ve experienced in 39 years of education. Even the disparities I encounter in a so-called homogenous grouping, such as an honors English class provide considerable challenges, so I can begin to imagine what you’re experiencing. Thanks for sharing this blog. When I read your prose along with your photos, I feel like I’m right there in India.


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