Anjali: Hey, you’re listening to ‘Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship,’ the podcast of the 2019-2020 cohort of the American India Foundation Clinton Fellows. We are a group of about 20 young professionals in various parts of the social or development sector in India. I’m Anjali Balakrishna, one of the fellows in this year’s cohort, and I’m your host.
Here we are chatting (or “chaating,” if you don’t mind a good food pun) about our memories and stories from the fellowship, living and working in various parts of India. The fellowship is a unique opportunity to learn and grow through unexpected challenges, which has made for some interesting stories. Every episode basically stands alone, with a theme that provides some loose unity – but every fellow interprets the theme in a slightly different way, giving us a delicious masala of storytelling. So let’s dig in!
Our episode today is called “Auto! Stories of Movement.” Auto rickshaws are everywhere in India, and they’re an affordable, easy way to move around. Today we’ll take an auto on a tour of stories. There will be recalibrated itineraries, changed drop locations, and some detours along the way.
Anjali: When I was in India, I got stuck for a week.
Not the kind of stuck where you’re facing a big life decision, and you don’t know what to do. Or the kind of stuck where you’re working on a math problem or a challenge at work and you can’t quite crack it. Or the kind of stuck where you’re trying to get somewhere, but there are no trains, cars, planes, to get you there.
I literally got stuck. Can’t walk, can’t stand, can’t move, stuck.
As far as stories go, the plot is pretty basic—first, I threw out my back. Then, I laid on the floor of my apartment, unable to move, for about a week. Finally, my back stopped spasming, and I could stand up without immediately toppling over. It was at moments extremely painful, and at other moments, hilarious.
But when you spend a week unable to move, you end up leaning on other people to do the moving for you. And I learned a lot during this week about what happens when you lean on others to get unstuck. Here are my five biggest lessons.
Lesson One: Don’t get a massage if you can’t explain “ouch that really, really hurts!” in the local language. It was the start of the week—and I was still standing. But not for long. I felt my back twitching, the spasms were beginning, and I thought to myself: why not get a massage? That’ll loosen things up! So I booked a massage through this incredible app that sends skills massage therapists to your home, table and all. I limped up the stairs to my apartment, excited to get ahead of my backache with a deep tissue massage. The therapist couldn’t have been kinder, and before she got started, I confidently said “Mujhe kamar dard hai,” or, “I have a lower backache.” I was so proud—smug even!—that I could so clearly express what was going on. She smiled and got to work, doing her best to help. Unfortunately, my pride quickly melted away as I realized I did not have the words to tell her that if she kept twisting my spine like that, she’d have to leave the table with me because I wouldn’t be able to get off of it. I am proud to say I managed to slide off the table, pay her, and travel the meter from the table to my bed. But once I got on the bed, it was game over. I was stuck and could not get up.
Lesson Two: Always have a native speaker on speed dial for an emergency 3-way call. I didn’t fully realize that I couldn’t get up until I had placed an order for pizza from my favorite New York-style joint in Jaipur. I was in pain, but I couldn’t wait for my paneer tikka pizza to arrive. The Zomato driver pulled up outside my building and called to say he was there. “Ek minute!” I responded confidently, planning to meet him out front. But as I tried to swing my legs around the side of my bed and stand up—I just couldn’t. I mustered all the arm strength I had, but every time I got to my feet, my back spasmed and I tumbled back onto the bed. It was a scary feeling, and I was panicked—what would happen to my paneer pizza?! I called my mom, 8,000 miles away in Memphis, Tennessee, and started to sob. The Zomato driver called, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have the words to explain what was happening and to ask him to come up the stairs and deliver to my door. So I tried something bold—I merged the calls. Suddenly, my mother—a native Hindi speaker—was giving detailed instructions to my Zomato driver on where to park, how to find my gate, and how to come up to my door. I managed to pull myself up, hobble a few feet to meet him. Pizza crisis averted.
Lesson Three: You’ll never go hungry if an Indian coworker is taking care of you. Speaking of food. I told my host site what had happened. Amal, one of my colleagues, was put on food duty. He arrived the next day with dinner. He started pulling boxes out of the takeaway bag…by the 10th box, I lost count. It seemed he was determined to make sure I really wouldn’t be able to move—both because of my back, and because I’d simply be too stuffed to go anywhere. 3 meals a day, for the rest of the week, I’m convinced I ate better while confined to the floor than I did at any other point in my fellowship.
Lesson Four: When you’re Indian, you have an uncle literally everywhere. News of my back problems spread quickly within my extended family, scattered all across the world. My aunt (my mom’s brother’s wife) called me right away and told me that my uncle in Jaipur would take me to the doctor the next day—that very same night if I needed it! I thought to myself, I have an uncle in Jaipur? Well, if you count your mom’s brother’s wife’s brother’s best friend as an uncle, I sure did. Without ever having met or spoken to me before in my life, this uncle took the morning off of work, had his friend drive him to my apartment, half carried me down the stairs, and took me to the local spine specialist that he knew personally. As we returned a few hours later, pain meds, and hot pads in hand, I thanked him profusely. He said there was no need to thank family for such things.
Lesson Five: Don’t wait until a crisis to appreciate what you have in your life. This week could have been absolutely terrifying. And in some ways it was—it is a scary feeling to be 8,000 miles away from home, and physically unable to move. But it was clear right away—from the well-meaning massage therapist to my new found uncle—that there were others who would move for me. I felt less alone, less afraid, and with their help, got unstuck.
Anjali: Our next stop is Donald Swen. Donald worked in Bangalore with a startup called Alaap, working to create regenerative economies to fight climate change.
Donald is reading a poem that the fellows wrote together as a cohort during a session of our Midpoint conference in January. We were prompted to write down metaphors to describe our fellowship experiences, and then passed the paper among ourselves so that other fellows could add lines and build the poem collectively. This is what we wrote:
My project is a car in the Delhi traffic.
Stuck and frustrated, unsure of when I will move again.
The cows, the dogs, the monkeys all manage to make their way through, but I am at a standstill.
At times, all I can hear are the sounds of horns.
I wish I could move at the speed of their sound.
Everything stops for a moment, and to me, that’s a good thing.
A time for reflection.
Anjali: Next we’re revisiting a friend from Episode 2 – Pallavi Deshpande. Here, Pallavi describes her work with Vision Aid in Vizag, Andra Pradesh.
Pallavi: You never realize how much you rely on something until it’s taken away from you. Yes, that is the cheesy quote with which I want to start this tale. Because, in one sense, it encapsulates my experience with movement perfectly.
It was the day of the partner training program. It’s basically a 2-day training where my organization invites, trains, and walks all of its partners, and these can include anyone from an ophthalmologist, organization, visually impaired student, to anyone working in the disability sector, through the various courses and interventions it offers.
I still remember, I was sitting by the corner, drafting an email, when one of the instructors pulled me with her to help organize an orientation and mobility course demo. To those who are unfamiliar with this, orientation and mobility teaches the visually impaired people how to navigate new and challenging environments safely. The instructor walked me through some basics of the course and told me that I would be one of the people participating in the demo. Don’t worry, she assured me, she would be right next to me the entire time. Sure, I could help. How hard could it be?
Now, think back to that quote I started with. Only when I put on the blindfold and was taken to a ground that I’d never walked across before did I realize that for me, movement was almost entirely about sight. Whether it was walking across my room to grab water, driving from one place to another or taking public transport for that matter (those buses and signs require such effort!), or even getting acquainted with a new place. Hell, thinking metaphorically, we call thinking ahead or planning for a goal “vision”. That very word is embedded in how we “visualize” movement, whether physical or otherwise.
Back to that day. So now, I’m standing somewhere between a field and a cafeteria (or, so I was told), practicing using a cane and just my senses to help me find my way to the cafeteria. Of course, I was accompanied by a fellow staff member who didn’t hesitate to shout “Stop” anytime someone almost ran right into a wall. I’ll tell you right off the bat, no one got hurt. In fact, everyone had such an incredibly fulfilling experience, both in terms of how much fun we had and how much we learned. It ended up being a 30-minute demo where we were taught various ways to listen for specific sounds, use canes to maximize utility, and how to navigate being in a completely new place.
I remember one of the participants who was a part of the team who was blind was literally laughing at us and our efforts. He was forging ahead, so attuned to having “moved” for as long as he’s known movement. Looking back, I think of how much fun we had, spending the afternoon laughing about who did better and who was a clumsy mess. I can safely say that it was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had throughout my time at my host organization. It made me rethink how much of our language and diction revolves around this assumption of sight. In general, it also made me more aware of how our language is embedded with assumptions which in turn informs our perceptions about what is “normal,” all of which usually marginalizes the entire community.
So, when I look back to that day and to those incredible memories, movement is no longer just about moving in the general sense of physical motion or moving forward in life. Movement, in a sense, is another way of envisioning freedom, whether it is from being able to go where you want, move up professionally, or build a new relationship. And that day reminded me that sight or ability has only little to do, if anything at all, with movement. Movement required intention and courage. Spending the day with Sunil — he was one of the participants and he is blind — and hearing all about his adventures, be it coming all the way from Agra to a new city (Vizag) or daring to step into the ocean with fellow participants later in the evening, made me realize what movement truly is. Among other things, I would say Movement is experience, freedom, and learning.
Anjali: Support for this podcast comes from the American India Foundation Clinton Fellowship. A fellowship where American and Indian young professionals are placed all over India to work at and support organizations in the fields of public health, livelihoods, and education.
I’m Anjali Balakrishna, your host, and you’re listening to Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship.
Anjali: Our next story is brought to you by Aishwarya Maheshwari who spent her fellowship with Khamir, designing a range of craft products and publicity materials to support local artisans. Her project involved lots of fieldwork, and she was placed in an exquisite part of India – Bhuj, Gujarat. She describes it using words like “mystical” and “magical.” Now, she takes us there:
Aishwarya: Being a Branding & Communications professional in a rural region, I knew my work would involve traveling around.
The more I travel in India, the more I realize how little I know about India. Even as someone who’s born and brought up in this country, the diversity in India has always left me spell-bound. Today, I am going to share about my travels around Kutch – that made my fleeting movements in the hinterland, become the most awe-inspiring moments of my fellowship journey.
Before AIF, I had visited Kutch in 2017 for the famous salt desert so I was confident that I am familiar with the region – after all, that’s how you feel when you’ve been somewhere before, right?
After landing in Kutch in mid-September of 2019, I learned that my work would involve a lot of traveling, and little did I know, how much this place had to offer. Honestly, I thought of Kutch as a small region with famous salt flats (just like many tourists), in the western-most part of India, but only after experiencing the real Kutch, did I learn that it is actually the largest district of the country! It is funny how our subconscious bias always fills in the gap even before we fully learn about something.
Did I tell you that this mystical place not only homes an expansive salt desert but also shares borders with the Arabian Sea? A desert and a sea in the same region, fascinating, isn’t it? That day I realized, there is so much more that exists than what meets the eye.
Kutch itself has a very special affinity with movements. Being an earthquake-prone region, Kutch has faced massive movements due to multiple earthquakes in the past thousands of years that have changed the region’s geography multiple times. I had heard of Kutch being an arid and semi-arid region, after all, it is a desert, right? But my field visits turned out to be completely opposite. I saw rich biodiversity all around! The Banni grasslands – which are Asia’s largest grasslands – looked lush green, flooded with water during the late Monsoon.
And I wondered, how is that possible! Have you heard about the term, “desert wetlands”? I discovered this when I visited the salt flats again in October last year.. and it turns out, all I could see was WATER till the end of the horizon! I was baffled! How can a desert turn into a sea?! The salt flats are flooded with runoff from monsoon rains together with seawater driven by high winds and tides from the Arabian Sea – this transforms them to marshes teeming with wildlife.
Though I haven’t seen one myself, they said that the Banni Grasslands Reserve has been identified as one of the last remaining habitats of the Cheetah and the Great Indian Bustard. In fact, it also hosts thousands of flamingos every year in the winter season!
During another field visit in the month of January 2020, I visited Dholavira, a village in the island city of Kutch. After reaching there, I learned that Dholavira is the 5th largest Harappan site from the Indus Valley Civilisation! I could see the ruins of the meticulously planned citadel and city, so even our ancestors knew what a resourceful and magnificent region this is! And guess what, I also saw the wood fossils found here dating back to the Jurassic Age!
It’s absolutely fascinating how Kutch has a bit of everything – a salt desert, an island, the sea, a rich flora and fauna and I haven’t even started about the centuries-old handicraft practices here!
It has the most magnificent crafts that are prehistoric yet practiced by the artisans with an intrinsic pride!
These experiences made me realize that exploration is not about the place you’re visiting, as much it is about the mindset you’re visiting the place with. Every place has a lot to offer, it is about how much you’re ready to take in. That one place can give you a different experience each time you visit because as we grow, we evolve and we start seeing the world through different eyes. Movement is easy, but awareness with movement can open a new lens to the world and bring profound learnings.
Anjali: Our final stop on this auto ride is with Tenzin Tsagong. We first met Tenzin in Episode 3, when we talked about her experience in the cold winters of Dharamshala. Today, she brings us into the fold of her personal identity as a Tibetan-American, and the sense of community that’s part of her heritage.
Tenzin: I am sitting in the audience underneath a festive orange makeshift tent outside the grounds of the Tibetan Refugee Handlooms Market in Old Gurgaon, one of over two hundred seasonal Tibetan winter markets in India. The market is alive with music, dance, and food to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s conferment of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
Facing me is a framed portrait of His Holiness sitting on the podium between two Tibetan flags. The smell of day-see, a sweet Tibetan rice dish mixed with cashews, butter, and raisins permeates the air. Paper cups that have been filled to the brim with Tibetan butter tea are being passed around in the audience. The program’s emcee, Urgyen Lhundup, a Tibetan song-writer from Dalhousie is cracking jokes- seamlessly flitting between Hindi and Tibetan.
The sweet, buttery smell of day-see and the salty aroma of butter tea transport me back home to New York, back into the halls of the Armenian Church on the corner of 2nd Ave and 34th. Growing up, my family and I and what felt like all of New York and New Jersey’s Tibetan community would congregate in these church halls to celebrate everything from Tibetan New Year to the Dalai Lama’s birthday. We would wear our chupas, sing Tibetan music, and dance gorshey, a traditional circle dance. Growing up, I don’t think I really fully appreciated how special and necessary this community space was. It’s only now when I look back, through the rosy tint of nostalgia and a trained sociological lens that I realize how important it was and still is that Tibetan immigrants created our own world, our own Tibet inside these church walls- in a city that couldn’t be further and more different from Tibet.
And as I’m sitting under this orange tent in Gurgaon, dressed in my chupa, laughing at Urgyen’s jokes, it feels as though the rest of the city sort of washes away- the noise of the car honks, the gloomy grey fog that hangs over the city- they all just disappear.
Migration is a confounding blend of the sweet and the bitter- of loss, displacement, and hope. To migrate from a place, to depart, is to accept that there is no longer a world there for you- that there is no hope- so you do the only sensible thing to do – you let go. To migrate to a new, foreign land, is a move towards hope, towards some vision of a future. And it is only hope that can buoy an individual, a family to undertake an act as courageous as leaving one’s home- a courage that is not without fear.
Leaving old worlds and creating new ones is a quintessentially Tibetan story. In fact, Tibetans are rather good at it. My pala did so when he had to escape to Nepal when he was just a young teenager. And he did it again when he and my amala immigrated to New York, saddled in debt, but nonetheless brimming with hope to create a better life for me and my brother- a hope that they have largely fulfilled.
For Tibetans like my father and the approximately 42,000 Tibetans who annually leave their refugee settlements from October to February to participate in this market economy, there is a double layer of migration occurring. The first is a more political and forceful migration- one caused by China’s violent capture of Tibet – a movement that essentially marked our parents’ and grandparents’ newfound identities as refugees and shaped the rest of their lives and the lives of subsequent generations. And the second layer of movement is a more economically motivated one- whether that is immigrating to the West or engaging in these cyclical trade markets every year. Yet, no movement exists without precarity- not for immigrants like my parents who came to America speaking little English nor does it exist for the Tibetan migrant traders who work in these uncertain, informal economies.
One moment that especially highlighted the precariousness of this business was a fire that occurred in 2016 in the Lal Quila market in Old Delhi that ravaged the entire market. Tsewangla, one of the elected officers from the market association who had been working at the market since 1994 recalled to me how the fire engulfed all 138 of its stalls and the merchandise that they had brought for the season which had only just started- everything but the CCTV camera and the makeshift office was destroyed.
When I asked Tsewangla if and how this event brought them closer together, with a shy smile, he answered in the wise way we often hear from our parents, “when things are easy, we forget.” But “when everyone is suffering, everyone comes together.” Displaying a unified front, the market set up a community distribution network for food, shared the profits from sale of the remaining goods, and collected donations from other Tibetan markets around the country. The collective support extended beyond the market community-Tibetan NGOs in India, the Central Tibetan Administration, and even the Delhi government provided relief and aid.
In Tibetan, the word for association is kyi-dhuk. Kyi-dhuks are usually organized on the basis of the region of Tibet its members are from. Kyi on its own signifies happiness, and dhuk suffering. Embedded in just this one simple word is this larger idea that in a union or an association- everyone is in this together- in good and bad times. Tsewangla’s retelling of the tragic fire illustrated a model of a community that goes beyond an amorphous sense of affinity and belonging- which, while important, shouldn’t be the litmus test for a community. He spoke of a community that was more material, more tangible- one supported by action, generosity- one defined by accountability and collectivity. That Tibetans like my pala and the thousands of Tibetan migrants in India are resilient and good at creating new worlds in new places can perhaps then be attributed to Tibetans’ understanding that real community can only come about from a union of kyi-dhuk, of this blend of the sweet and the bitter.
Anjali: Well, friends, we’ve reached the end. This was our final episode, or rather the last stop on our way back to our respective homes on our shared auto. You see, if you’ve needed to get around anywhere in India, you’ve most likely shared an auto or two, packed with 3 or 4 other people. We’ve enjoyed the ride, and hope you have too! The stories shared today took us all over the place as we started with a flat tire, getting stuck, but then we got going and picked up other fellows who defined movement, migration, and traffic in different ways. Our auto is packed and we have finally arrived at our final destination. We’re sad to go, but we do have a short bonus episode coming out next week called Hindsight 20/20. We included this bonus episode because when we arrive at any destination, it is important to look back at the path we took to get there. As we look back at our rearview mirrors, the fellows and I will impart some important advice for the fellows to come after us. Join us one last time as we look back upon our journey with 20/20 vision.
As always, I’m Anjali Balakrishna and I’ll see you one more time in next week’s bonus episode.