Major: Religious Studies
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Study Abroad Program: IES-Dehli
One only has to travel the sixteen-minute metro ride from Central Secretariat to Chandni Chowk to understand the full spectrum of life in Delhi. When you head underground at C-Sec (as it’s nicknamed), you wave goodbye to the grandeur of the columned circular Parliament building and the regency of Raj Path, the imposing avenue linking India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s House, originally built as the headquarters of the British Raj, and larger than Buckingham Palace). There is a certain chill in the majesty of the place -- the avenues Soviet-esque in their width, the street life and human energy dwarfed by the architectural statements. Six or seven metro stops later, a different city – no, a different country – emerges. The token lines at Chandni Chowk station are twenty or thirty people thick and extend a half kilometer, up the escalator, out of the station, pouring onto the street. One wonders how there can be enough oxygen for so many people standing so close together. All the city’s most pitiful beggars line up at this metro station, so exiting can feel like walking through a warzone hospital: sores, amputations, and the like. The cell phone chattering of C-Sec is replaced by calls of “Bhai-sahib, paisa” (Brother-sir, money) in Chandni Chowk. Upon navigating through the beggars, mango vendors, small temples, tea stands and human traffic that line the metro station exit, dozens of cycle rickshaw-wallas begin calling to you, offering a lift. But all traffic moves at the same speed in Chandni Chowk – trucks, cars, motorbikes, scooters, rickshaws, bicycles, bullock carts, pedestrians (both human and bovine). There is simply not enough space for a motor or wheel to offer speed advantage.
This dizzying, bamboozling city of over 20 million people started feeling like home very quickly. Perhaps that was because it wasn’t my first time in India or Delhi, but more likely it was due to a university community which embraced me very quickly. Jawaharlal Nehru University is the premier graduate institution for social sciences in India, and fortunately, my study abroad program’s partnership with JNU meant I could take classes alongside its incredible students. JNU became the focal point of my time in Delhi. Professor Avijit Pathak’s class, Sociology of Education in India, often felt more like a guide to a virtuous life. His hour-long lectures danced easily between prose and poetry, regaling a story about Gangetic mystics that would drift easily into a discourse on the history of colonial education in India. I’ll never forget his banyan tree metaphor. When a student from the Indian state of Orissa asked a question about mother tongue education, Professor Pathak answered that education, like life, should be lived as a banyan tree – as the roots grow stronger and deeper, so do the branches grow taller and wider. “So,” he said to the student, “Read Shakespeare, but write poetry in Oriya.” The life lessons Professor Pathak interwove through sociological discussions – about moving from local roots to global visions, about appreciating the beauty (rather than the threat) in cultural exchange, about finding ones passions and tapping into one’s creative energy – are ones that I will carry with me forever
JNU also connected me to a social network of brilliant individuals from all over India and the world. Conversations topics at weekend parties would range from sociolinguistic elitism in Delhi to U.S. policy in Iran or Afghanistan (with a friend from Tehran or Kabul), to the latest Bollywood hit, to the greatest place to find sushi in the city. I feel confident that I was spending time with some of the most interesting Indians of my generation, people who will likely go on to become positive leaders in one of the world’s most dynamic countries. They are also the kinds of friends who are the most fun to travel with. We would purposely leave all guide books at home, arrive in a city without a place to stay, or a map, or even a return ticket, and let our interactions direct our itinerary. It became a great way to improve my Hindi, which was one of my primary goals of the semester.
One of the strongest memories of travel came, unsurprisingly, from a train ride. On a weeklong trip, I was traveling eastward from Delhi to Kolkata. My train from the Varanasi station was delayed, so I began searching for the correct platform by asking passengers if they were on train “thin hazaar chhe” (3006). When I hit the right platform, I found myself chatting with a Hindi literature major from Kolkata, traveling with his family back home after a pilgrimage to Varanasi. He was thrilled at my speaking Hindi, so he quickly introduced me to his family and asked which compartment I was sitting in, which by coincidence was his as well. About ten minutes into the train ride, my new friend Vikash showed up at my seat, motioning me to come with him. I followed him to the grimy, thunderous section between rail cars and he flung open the train door, exposing clear and crisp night air. His face lit up to tell me that the Ganges was coming. Devout Hindus honor the river as a goddess, Ganga, and offer to it coins for luck. As the train crossed over the river and the city of Varanasi lit up under us in beautiful shades of honey-colored light, Vikash turned to me and in eloquent English declared: “There is nothing rational about this. It is something of the spirit.” His two-rupee coin clanged against the bridge before dropping into the water as he performed the motions of a mini-puja.
When we slipped back into the people-packed rail car, Vikash’s father was signaling the two of us to join him. He wanted to introduce us to the woman sitting next to him, a new acquaintance. Her heart-shaped face was wrapped with a subtle pink shawl to break the nascent chill of the open air sleeper car, and she was sitting cross-legged inside worn pajama pants. Her smile was intelligent, and infectious. This was Nilanjana Deb, a head lecturer of the English Literature department at the prestigious Javadpur University of Calcutta – riding sleeper class with rats running below her carefully tucked feet. For nearly an hour we all sat squeezed into one two-person seat, conversation drifting naturally from Hindi into English and back again; philosophies of literature and politics and religion rooted themselves in stories of sadhus and saints, poets and mystics. I mostly listened, reveling in their rich streams of thought, seamless but broad-reaching. By the time I returned to my seat, I had gained research project ideas, book recommendations, email addresses and two new friends. That singular experience, meeting Vikash, his family and Professor Deb, I would come to view as encapsulating everything I’d grown to love about South Asia: an art of storytelling, a recognition of spirituality alongside rationality, a mingling of different classes and lifestyles, a willingness to engage with strangers, and an organic kind of grass-roots pluralism. It is the same sort of spirit I hope to embody in my own life.
For these kinds of experiences, which enabled me to cross beyond the dizzy and bewilderment and into a sharper vision of a country that is increasingly of interest to so many in the U.S. and beyond, I owe tremendous thanks to the Phillips Ambassador program. I was one of only two public school students on my study abroad program, evidence that the experience of connecting to an academic community abroad is still out of reach for most American undergraduates. Because of the generosity of the Phillips scholarship, Asia has become accessible to many more students, and the richness of cultural exchange that Professor Pathak spoke of approaches greater realization.