Major: Political Science
Hometown: Ashville, NC
Study Abroad Program: Minnesota Studies in International Development in India
The Indian heat—an unwelcome companion for the gora, or one of fair skin, is the natural ruler of the subcontinent. As E.M. Forrester claims, “Other cultures worship the sun, Indians hide from it.” On a typical day in the Thar Desert, the bone-dry midday sun reaches 120 degrees, and the only protection against this impressive god is hot Chai and spicy Rajasthani food. It was here, in the middle of the Thar, living in a village forgotten by modern metropolitan India and perhaps even God himself, that I saw one of the versions of that elusive “real India.”
I spent spring semester of 2008 studying on the University of Minnesota Studies in International Development: India program, based in Jaipur, the capital of the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan is world-renowned for its culture, two-dimensional art, Muslim-influenced architecture, vividly colored dress and its history of lavish Maharajas and warrior wives who would self-immolate when their husbands were defeated in battle. Modern Rajasthan is one of the poorer states in India, with literacy rate of 61% a male to female ratio of nearly 10 to 8 and has a tremendous problem with water resources. In the western areas of Rajasthan, it rains as little as once every seven years, and it is said that when it does rain, children cower in fear at the sight of water falling from the sky.
The purpose of this study abroad program was to examine the issue of development in India from a variety of prospectives, beginning in the classroom with discussions on the current effects of economic growth in the country and then a 6-week internship with a non-governmental volunteer organization (NGO). We examined development as defined as an “attempt to improve material wealth of a country.” While the hours of classroom discussion and weeks of hands-on experience with India’s problems and successes did teach us a lot about India, we left India just as confused and unsure about the benefits of economic growth and solutions to the struggles modern India faces as when we arrived in the New Delhi airport. But we certainly drank a lot of tea and found ourselves humbled by the experience.
For the initial 6 weeks of the program I lived with an upper-middle class family in the government-housing project district of Jawahar Nagar, in Jaipur. A block up the street was a slum, a common sight in richer Indian neighborhoods—that’s where the in-house servants, washerwomen and cooks live. In the distance were the Aravelli Mountains, literally shaved for the stone used in Indian construction. Jaipur sprawled for miles, temples dedicated to the various 300 million gods to Hinduism sometimes in the middle of the streets, modern multi-storey shopping malls (including an Apple store), cramped bazaars and royal forts. Though it didn’t seem like it at the time (at least until I traveled), Jaipur is among India’s most well planned orderly cities, like a coral reef bristling with extravagantly colored life, each person fufilling a set purpose and often a birth-determined place within the society.
For the latter six weeks of the journey I lived in a village called Gagari, on the outskirts of Indian society. The place was beautiful in its desolation, sand dunes dotted with scrubby vegetation, tube well-fed fields of castor plants and wheat, herds of goats (the source of a mild motorcycle mishap) and women in pastel-colored dresses with silver water pots on their heads. Inhabited by mainly Bhil tribal groups and other untouchable castes in Hindu society, child marriage, alcoholic anorexia, complete absence of job opportunity and lack of basic resources such as water are the norm.
I observed the workings of an NGO called Gravis Gramin Vikas Samiti, or in English, Rural Peoples Social Organization. Two devoted followers of the Ghandian principle of Swaraj, or self-rule, Laxmi and his wife Sashi Tyagi founded the organization in the early 1980’s. The organization operated from Jodhpur, using ten field centers dotted throughout the desert areas of Rajasthan as modes information collection and program implementation. By utilizing staff fluent in indigenous Rajasthani languages, mostly Marwati, Gravis has embedded itself into the communities it serves, providing effective rural development efforts. Gravis provides schools, organizes mineworker’s unions, gives health seminars, donates resources and expertise for the construction water harvesting structures and gives the occasional ride to the villager walking through the desert. I have many memories in the back of the Gravis jeep, with ten brilliantly colored village women giggling in Marwati at my foreignness. I also made the mistake of wishing to be called Dil, which was the name I earned in Hindi class here at UNC. In Hindi, it means heart, and I was often the butt of many a Bollywood-song inspired joke.
Living in the village proved to be one of the most emotionally challenging periods of my life. I was dealing with the aforementioned temperature daily, and trying to accept the sheer size of economic and cultural chasm between these nearly self-sufficient people and my American self, and I had no earthly idea what sort of good I could possibly do. I also had to confront these issues under long periods of idleness, as weeks would go by without any field visits or any sort of academic or research-related activity (but we did play comically masculine version of volleyball nearly every day). My Hindi skills drastically improved, largely due to the fact that no one at the field center in Gagari spoke English. In the end, it was an experience full of things, good and bad, that I will never forget.
In Gagari, I saw a forgotten, traditional and tragic India that no wealthy white tourist or dreadlocked spiritual seeker could have seen. I lived with a group of people that makes up the seventy percent of Indians rarely reported on by the New York Times’ version of up-and-coming India, the seventy percent that struggles to exist. The day before I left, I was in a restaurant in New Delhi, chatting with a man employed by an Indian life insurance company. He had watched me eat with my hands, converse and Hindi and talk about the goings on of the Indian nation. And as I poured my South Indian coffee from cup to cup to cool it, in proper Indian fashion, he said, “You know everything.” I felt success. It was an experience I am forever grateful to have had.