What I didn’t prepare for during my AIF Clinton Fellowship year was how many perspectives would be nurtured in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that my host organization, Keystone Foundation, operated in. About neon-green tea plantations offering the perfect backdrop for tourists or forest patches once fallen, waiting to catch the attention of conservationists. To ancient trees shaking with secrets of survival impatiently between their roots. Just like the place I called home for the past ten months, I carried my own perspectives. In my own work. In my own space. Here are some of the perspectives that I approached my time in India with.
Like a South Indian:
I would slip into a kurta, stick on a bindi, and conjure up a lot of energy (for the upward slopes and the local weekend crowds) and set off into town. My mission? To buy vegetables at the market. The best part of the trip was how every sight, sound, and smell launched me back into memories of a South Indian childhood. It sometimes felt like the trip was purposely designed to bombarded me with nostalgia. The scents of jasmine, camphor, and filter coffee fill up my nose from the corner vendors. I felt like I belonged to a flock of gossiping aunties gathering on the sides of the hill that I had to conquer to get to the main road. The peculiar and literal sales pitch of street hawkers whose hoarse, hypnotic chants floated above the din of the busy main streets and straight into memories of listening to them from my childhood home. The reds of the teeth gleaming at me as I crossed the street reminded me of the smiles of my grandmother’s sisters. The motorcycles zooming past the market reminded me of every single night ride that my father and I used to sneak off to. I snuck by the cows playing their cards at the most vulnerable and undefended vegetable stands. I was at my regular vegetable stand.
“Eppadi erikurai anna/akka” is how I would start my conversation with the vegetable sellers. Bit by bit and piece by piece, we were able to share details about each other. Eighteen weekends pass. Nine months of stories exchanged. A lifetime of being both Indian and American ahead.
Like a Fellow:
Orientation helped us recognize how much we could help each other as a Fellowship cohort. The unique circumstances of our time and commitments in India helped solidify our dependence and strengths of the cohort. I turned to them — collectively and individually — through the thick and thin. For every festival that I stumbled upon to every unusual encounter, they heard about it. And although our experiences and story lines were scattered throughout the country, it was a special feeling knowing that I could turn to any Fellow at any point and they would understand my tribulations and my excitement.
Be being an AIF Clinton Fellow, I also learned from my cohort. I learned the importance of community engagement, the strength in being curious, and the nuances of working in the Indian social sector. What the Fellowship experience gave me was the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with peers and experts of diverse backgrounds and training. Most importantly, I learned the value of interacting with individuals from completely different fields and spaces than mine. It has challenged me to operate beyond my comfort zone, face unfamiliar challenges, and indulge in the nectar of new friendships and professional relationships.
Like an Insider on the Outside:
Looking back, my project was only a small reason for choosing to pursue the AIF Clinton Fellowship. A more salient factor was the opportunity to live and work in my alternative life. I needed to go back to my roots. You see, I was born in India. But I never had the chance to bond with India. My memories of the country were clouded with teenage angst from my parents making me visit every summer, and overwritten with the gusto to fit in with American culture growing up in the U.S. Coming back for the AIF Clinton Fellowship meant that I could experience a life that I could have had if I had stayed behind in India when I was very young. Most importantly, I hoped that by committing to live elsewhere for an extended period of time, I could avoid the ethically ambiguous “medical student tourism” so frequently condemned in global health world. I wanted to take the time to establish legitimacy and partnership by taking time to build ties where it was needed.
As I settled into my placement in Kotagiri, the stunning blue of the mountains was mentioned nowhere in the books I had read about India, and the people of Kotagiri previously contained in stories and pictures exceeded my expectations. Even my memories of India didn’t prepare me for the deep red of the earth that I have walked on every day for the past ten months.
A week into my placement, I feared that my preconceptions of India and the culture would limit my ability to learn and exchange, but it has led to the exact opposite. Every person, every exchanged tugged at the seams of my properly constructed image of India, and effortlessly left behind a lifetime of gratitude for things that I could have never imagined.
Never have I felt like I have in India. In a place where people look like me but didn’t have mannerisms in the way I was used to. Where a foreign language glides through my thoughts with ease but I speak with an accent they aren’t used to hearing. Through all this, what really excited me was to finally find a strong sense of Indian community. To really learned to embrace the life of being an outsider on the inside.
Like a Public Health Advocate:
At its best, public health work is invisible. Having individuals make the connection between the hydration through water to its importance in combatting diarrhea. Helping strengthen social bonds in the community through mental health counseling and coping mechanisms. All of these are critical public health interventions and can really change how people work, play, and heal in this world that we share. I have had the good fortune of working with a team of local actors to bring attention and innovation to their own community’s health and well-being through their daily work, activism, and ideals. One of the main ways that I’ve helped document the contemporary public health issues of the Nilgiris is by working on co-creating and producing health modules that are drawn from the cultural context of the indigenous communities is what I have contributed to the community well-being health at Keystone Foundation. The information contained within these modules has the potential to be a part of how Keystone moves forward with grants and the recruitment of partners with the same vision in the field of preventive and holistic health.
In conclusion, these are the different perspectives I brought to my work and my life in India. I like to remind myself that I am complex and full of contradictions. It could be because of the number of narratives that I carry at once. These are the perspectives that help make those small shifts in my AIF Clinton Fellowship path happen.