A Lot Can Happen over Chai: Analyzing the Extremes, Appreciating the (Indian) Monotony

What I love most about chai is the down time is gives you to sit, think and reflect. As people always say in India, “there is always time for chai.” With this much reflection time though, sometimes I get stuck in my head thinking about too many BIG things about this fellowship experience. The chai also slows time down (right before the sugar and caffeine kick in) and I get lost in what happens around me. As I sat today and had my morning chai, right after being hit by a moving auto, breaking my chappals on the tracks while crossing them, and pushed out of a moving train again–all on the way to work–I started to think about how I feel with five months done and five months to go.

Some Fellows and I at the Mysore Palace

The past month has been filled with some up and downs. There have been a lot of eventful moments, like the Mumbai Marathon, going to Mysore for our AIF Clinton Fellowship Midpoint and starting a new project at work. After our midpoint and hearing about so many other experiences of fellows, I have thought so much about what has happened and what I hope for the next half of this time here. I can’t help but have this confusing feeling of pessimistic optimism. Everyday, I do what I do here with ambivalence, and yet joy, which is a strange extreme of feelings to balance. I can see that the extremes of Mumbai is a dynamic that has colonized my mind and influenced me to see everything in black and white. The pendulum swings back and forth as I continue to recognize my divided feelings. On one side, I feel things like doubt for what I do and if it will have any impact, I feel challenged by such a small timeline, I feel pressured by the little progress that huge struggles make, I criticize my every move and decision related to my projects and my role as a foreigner in India, and I constantly try to overcome the criticisms and barriers that others put up. The pendulum swings back to the other side, and I remember that I value my time to be here as well as what it is like to be in the shoes of someone doing NGO work across the world in this context; I feel privileged to have this opportunity; I find love everyday in the chaotic operation of Mumbai; I have so much fun with random travels and meeting such amazing people; I admire the enthusiasm and joy that people around me have for being alive and living passionately; I find hope in small measures of progress; I am excited to constantly be a fool and to learn something new everyday about a culture, about India, and about myself. The black and white extremes take over my mind and influence my actions and reactions from day to day and that is what I end up spending so much chai-time thinking about.

Just Another Mumbai Crowd

Yet, most of my time is not filled with such crazy stark, contrasting experiences (besides LOTS of people and LOTS of chai). It is actually the grey spaces between the extreme ends that I find myself within. This grey zone gets filled by unique encounters with people, things and places and that is when things in the bigger picture just make sense. I’ve begun to realize that day-to-day activities will make the bulk of memorable time here, not the accomplishments or failures–or the huge realizations. Auto rides through different neighborhoods, capturing glimpses of so many

Curious Friends and Full Moon at Haji Ali

different faces on the Mumbai local train as it passes, buying food here (e.g. bargaining for every vegetable from subzivallas, picking out a live chicken at the butcher  – talk about small food supply chain!); all the small talk conversations in the office, laughing a lot at random situations, trying to relay very unimportant messages in Hindi to friends and kids that I work with, dancing in weddings and with friends, countless sunsets that turn even the most decrepit building a beautiful bold orange color, calm and benign stares from onlookers at parks and in the streets, stepping in cow dung, walking into cows on accident, fixing and breaking my chappals in minutes, the sensational flavors of street food and chaat that fill my stomach every meal — the grey zone between the extremes is where I find myself the most, just enjoying life pass by here in a different place. And ironically, these mundane happenings are always the things that I miss about India once I leave since they are actually some of the most beautiful monotonous moments I have ever spent in my life! What is the grey zone of monotony in India is actually super-dyanmic and colorful (for foreigners anyway)!

Sunset on Buddha in my Neighborhood
Looking Out from the Magic Bus Office

I can try to steer this fellowship in the direction that I want to, but the biggest realization I have had most recently is that this only true to a certain extent. There will be things out of my control and I have to sit back and enjoy the ride at times through the daily processes of learning and living. The big ideas that I obsess about is not where I learn the most. Rather, I think it’s the small and unrecognized details of daily monotony that I actually grow the most from. People’s words and stories from day to day are the reality that I come to experience. India is not just about rich and poor, super calm and super chaotic, super urban and super rural. For me it has become about just enjoying what any ordinary people here do day-in-and-day-out. It is where my ideas of normalcy get challenges everyday and my comfort zones expand. My daily reactions to Mumbai, to India, to traveling, to people so unlike myself are what it is all about in the end. This is much more of an internal journey than I originally expected, and more than India, I am coming to know myself a little better. Every time I go abroad I have to remember this – that I am the implant, the foreigner, the weird one. So just to be here and pay attention to the contradictions and exotic exterior of this place is the best of it since it helps me figure out why I am the way I am. But – appreciate the little things, and don’t try and make too big of claims about a place you have not lived in your whole life. These are not ground-breaking or new discovered truths, but just the reminders of life that think I relearn over and over again.

Cloth Vendor at Haji Ali
A Little Litter of Street Dog Puppies

This post is mostly a reflection that I have been having after so many recent feelings and accumulated experiences that make me constantly wonder, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I supposed to be here?” Looking forward, the only goals I have now are to do everything I can with good intentions, build strong relationships, trust my instincts (but question my assumptions) and do what I can to do something worthy from my own abilities. Most of all though, I am happy to continue to converging the ‘grey’ monotony along with the black and white extremes to really feel the life of this city and country.

Ryan is back for a second year with the Fellowship to build on work done during the previous year as a Fellow. Having long been dedicated to service and advocacy for the marginalized, Ryan has found himself working on various social projects spread across four continents. Being abroad has given him the opportunity to balance theory with practical understanding of the complex realities of working in development. Themes of human rights, empowerment, racial subordination, gender discrimination, sustainable community development, poverty reduction, health as a right and ethical representation of the poor have created a passion for this line of work. South Asia has become a new frontier in his life. In 2009, he found himself in India for the first time observing and learning from a student-led coalition for water and sanitation in slum neighborhoods of Mumbai. In 2010, he was awarded as a Tata International Social Entrepreneurship Scheme Fellow and lived in Jharkhand, India researching strategies to improve maternal/infant health and sexual health in rural communities. While at Berkeley, he devoted himself to a part-time job as a College Advisor and Program Coordinator for under-served students from Oakland, CA with the non-profit College Track. In Spring 2011 he completed a youth photography project in Accra, Ghana with street children. When he's not working he loves dancing, art and just enjoying the good things in life.

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