This blog is more of a collection of thoughts I’ve had based on my travels and experiences over the past two months. I struggled to find the right title for this entry. I settled on “centered” for two reasons. Today marks the midpoint of my fellowship in India. Exactly five months ago, I kissed my parents and sisters and walked (with much struggle) through the departure gate to catch that Air India flight to Delhi. I had no idea what I was in for. But the uncertainties and fears slowly changed over time.
I wrote the entry from my hotel room in Ravangla, a sleepy town in south Sikkim (a state located in the northeastern part of India). I’m not sure if the beauty of my surroundings contributed to this, but I felt incredibly calm there. And not “calm” in the sense that it was a stress-free environment (which it was), but calmness from within. I don’t remember the last time I felt this sense of inner balance. If you asked me to describe it in one word, I’d choose: centered.
It’s 6:00 AM and it’s freezing. I’m shivering under my sheets, though I wore enough layers for a week long expedition to K2. It’s about -2 degrees Celsius outside. One would assume that I should be accustomed to the cold weather because I’m a New Yorker. To my friends in New York: there is no indoor heating in India. It’s just as cold inside as it is outside. But the struggle to keep warm no longer mattered because around 6:30, the fog cleared to unveil the most majestic thing I’ve ever seen: the Himalayan mountain range.
It’s dazzling and breathtaking, like a palace in the sky. Fortunately, the thick fog cleared on my last day in Sikkim; the view of the mountain range was not nearly as visible yesterday morning. It was surreal and at the same time, symbolic: that if you’re patient and you allow yourself to believe it, beauty does exist, even in the most dismal of circumstances.
I arrived in Sikkim a few days ago with my mentor and colleagues for a communications workshop. Headed by two wonderful and renowned mental health activists, the workshop sessions involved in-depth conversations on issues of communication at the workplace. Topics such as “power relations”, “unresolved conflicts” and “lack of reflection” were discussed and explored. The workshop gave staff members a platform to openly discuss any concerns they had in the field/office. Initially, they were reluctant to do so; some feared they would lose their jobs. My mentor and the facilitators encouraged them to be honest and participate in the workshop activities with an open mind. As an observer (and staff photographer), I watched my colleagues slowly open up to each other. The sessions were intense and emotional, but the process of transformation I had witnessed was extraordinary. Despite of the bitter cold weather, stories were shared, hugs were exchanged, the tears poured and the laughter ensued. There is a strong sense of camaraderie at Jeevika. Everyone eats together, takes care of eachother and knows eachothers’ families. In many ways, it’s one big, Bengali family (which is why I always feel I’m back home when I’m at work). The mother-daughter relationship I share with Dolon di, my mentor, is like no other. From sharing a bed with her during our stay to picking eachothers’ lunches at work, Dolon di has become an instrumental part of my life here in India.
I’ve learned that one does not need to be a blood relative to be treated like a family member in this country. In December, I met with my sisters in Cochin, Kerala for the holidays. Rather than opt for a hotel/tour package, we stayed with a friend’s extended family at their ancestral home in Ernakalum. My sisters and I will never forget the warmth and kindness of the people of Kerala. Though we were strangers, we were treated as their own. Over a traditional south Indian meal of sambar and idli, we exchanged stories about weddings, family trips and pored through family albums. The house itself was located in the middle of a rain forest; a lush, green paradise as I’d like to describe it. After breakfast, the children gave us tours of their family garden and eagerly showed us their coconut and rubber trees, tulsi plants and vegetable patches. In the evenings, we went on day trips to the backwaters of Allepey and the beautiful hills of Munnar. My sisters and I loved every bit of our time together. We all agreed that the best part about our trip was the local experience. Though it was difficult to leave, we still keep in touch with everyone via Facebook (we’re trying to convince them to visit us in New York J Naturally, I cried for hours after my sisters left India. But after the tears spilled, I felt strangely calm and renewed. The trip was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries: bonding with my family, making new friendships and spending some solitary time in nature. I was ready for my big adventure.
A week later, I was back in the south, this time for AIF’s midpoint conference in Mysore, Karnataka. What started as a fellow-bonding experience quickly turned into a week of family-bonding. Through our presentations, meals and music-filled nights, we shared our hopes, fears and dreams while being in India. Most of realized we shared a common desire to serve but felt we weren’t doing enough. We ended midpoint with one simple thought: every single fellow had something incredible to contribute, whether to their NGOs, their cities or life, in general.
Selection from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
“There is probably no point in my going into your questions now; for what I could say about your tendency to doubt or about your inability to bring your outer and inner lives into harmony or about all the other things that oppress you-: is just what I have already said: just the wish that you may find in yourself enough patience to endure and enough simplicity to have faith; that you may gain more and more confidence in what is difficult and in your solitude among other people. And as for the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.
And about feelings: All feelings that concentrate you and lift you up are pure; only that feeling is impure which grasps just one side of your being and thus distorts you. Everything you can think of as you face your childhood, is good. Everything that makes more of you than you have ever been, even in your best hours, is right. Every intensification is good, if it is in your entire blood, if it isn’t intoxication or muddiness, but joy which you can see into, clear to the bottom. Do you understand what I mean?
And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers – perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”