Kalai Vendan peered out of the tinted glass window from the A/C Hall at Nambi Vilas – the finest non-vegetarian dining establishment on P.T. Rajan Road. He was examining a group of teenage boys approaching the restaurant, checking to see if they were part of our party. After a few seconds, he glanced back toward Brian and me and informed us, “Avanga enga kudumbathile illai.” (They are not in our family.)
That’s what it was. A family dinner. Our family dinner. Brian, Kalai, and I weren’t waiting for colleagues and friends to arrive. We waited for our kin.
It was part of a ritual we started four months ago. March was a dark time in People’s Watch’s history as higher bureaucratic powers continuously worked to silence our organization and its consistent criticism of the state’s record on human rights issues. By the end of the month, People’s Watch’s Board of Directors came to the sad realization that, through the financial and political turmoil induced by unjust government sanctions, the organization could no longer maintain its Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims. The RCTV’s staff and volunteers ensured that none of the center’s former residents returned to dangerous or abusive living situations. And, through careful planning, some RCTV residents even remained under People’s Watch’s care. About a dozen young men and women, students between the ages of 17 to 23, stayed at People’s Watch’s office in order to continue their education in Madurai. They slept on mattresses after the staff cleared each evening.
In an effort to show solidarity with our host organization, Brian and I asked our mentors, Henri and Cynthia, if we could take the remaining students out to dinner once every two weeks. One meal every fourteen days was a mere drop in the bucket when considering the amount of resources it took to support these young men and women. But we hoped that our dinners could become more than a simple purchase of food. We hoped that they would provide a carefree space for a group of students who deserved a few lighthearted moments in their lives.
Four months later, these family meals became the highlight of my time in India. As we ate biryani, chicken fried rice, parottas, and fish, the students would challenge me with riddles and number games. (Apparently, I am not as good at math as I had previously thought.) They would make up stories of Brian’s multiple wives – all of whom happened to be over the age of sixty. They drank sodas and ate at least two servings of ice cream. They told jokes. And for the course of ninety minutes, they did not have to worry about life outside of the restaurant. They had the chance to be kids.
My time with People’s Watch has been more than an educational or professional experience. It has, in many ways, been rewarding. But it has also been emotionally trying. As I researched cases of police torture (where the officials charged with maintaining the law were the ones who terrorized and even murdered innocent people), I questioned basic notions of fairness and justice. As I witnessed the aftermath of child rights abuses (where teachers and school administrators systematically beat children, embarrassed them, and sometimes even induced them to commit suicide), I began to fear parenthood. And when I learned the heart wrenching stories of my young friends and colleagues from People’s Watch, I began to lose faith in the basic goodness of humanity.
It was easy to become discouraged during this fellowship. There were times when the hope of positive social change seemed fleeting. Almost an impossibility. A part of me wishes I could forget these feelings hopelessness. That for the rest of my life, I could remember my time in India in solely optimistic terms. But to do that would erase any deeper meaning in this experience. It would be a disservice to my mentors, friends, and new family if I denied the fact that bad things happen to people who do good in the world.
I leave Madurai with mixed emotions. I am excited to regain certain creature comforts – like consistent electricity and running water – that were not always available to me over the past ten months. But I fear that, over time, I may forget how precious these resources actually are. I am happy to return home to see my family and friends. But I am sad to leave my new family behind. I am grateful for the sense of purpose that my time at People’s Watch has afforded to me. But I worry of how I can continue to contribute to my organization’s cause while I am half a world away.
It will take months, maybe years to properly reflect upon my time as an AIF Fellow. I have only begun to appreciate the wisdom that so many people have imparted upon me. I am just starting to comprehend the sacrifices that the People’s Watch staff and directors have made in order to ensure that all people, regardless of their gender, caste, class, religion, age, geography, or educational background, can live a dignified life, free of discrimination and persecution. And, as I continue to process this experience, I refuse to discuss my relationship with human rights work in the past tense. A chapter of my life has not closed. It is just beginning.
But when I think about these past ten months (the joys and successes as well as the frustration and sadness), my mind will undoubtedly return to the meals I shared with my People’s Watch family. I am beyond lucky to have experienced the kindness, acceptance, and affection of these young men and women, even though I have done little to deserve it. They may have witnessed and experienced the absolute worst that humanity has to offer… but they have shown me the meaning of survival. They embody optimism and hope, even when the world seems bleak.
We shared jokes, songs, and stories over the past ten months. I have laughed harder than I could have imagined prior to coming to Madurai. And, throughout these lighthearted moments of food and friendship, my new family taught me a profound lesson. I now understand how the human spirit can simultaneously be beautiful, strong, and incredibly resilient.
It’s amazing what can happen over plates of biryani and fish fry.