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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 stands alone, with a theme that provides some loose unity – but every fellow interprets the theme in a slightly different way, leaving us with a delicious masala of storytelling. So let’s dig in!
Today our episode is titled ‘Fevikwik: Stories of Brokenness.’ Broken expectations, crushed dreams, and shattered hopes. Where do we go from here and how do we pick up the pieces?
Our first story today is brought to you by Sri Ramesh who worked in Pondicherry with Satya Special School. Her project focused on menstrual health and behaviors surrounding it amongst adolescent girls with disabilities and her families. Today, she brings us a story about one particular volatile, unpredictable experience she had early on in her fellowship.
Sri: It was a Friday morning at the office and I could smell smoke as soon as I walked in. My coworkers also noticed the smell, and we all started searching for the cause.
First, they thought the students in the classroom below our office were doing a science experiment with fire. When that turned out to be not true, we checked all the electrical wires in the office but didn’t find the source of the fire. Unbelievably, everyone decided to just return to work after this failed search and covered their mouths with their dupattas. A couple of people continued looking for the fire. I was pretty worried, so I moved to the staircase with my laptop, wondering how bizarre it was that the fire wasn’t being taken very seriously—like we weren’t evacuating. Maybe twenty minutes later, one of the mounted wall fans burst into flames. Like full-on, enveloped in fire. Of course we all panicked, shouted, the male coworkers ran over from their adjacent room and ripped the fan off the wall, covered the flames with a doormat, and then rushed the burning fan downstairs and outside where they doused it with water.
After this fiasco was over, I was sure we’d all call it a day and head home. Instead, everyone just went back to work! The stench of burning rubber still permeated the office and I found it impossible to work so I continued to work outside with a giant pile of paper surveys I was putting into the computer. Next, it started pouring rain, out of nowhere. My surveys started getting wet and I just decided to call it a day.
I went inside to get my bag and my coworkers were hurriedly packing up. “Aren’t you coming to the event?” they asked me. Turns out, our school was also hosting a gigantic talent show that evening with 300 attendees at this large marriage hall. This, no one told me. I was whisked off on my coworker’s motorcycle, drove through the monsoon rains and spent the next 6 hours helping host this talent show including almost being roped into being the emcee because they had neglected to plan for that.
This is probably the most extreme yet apt example I have for how unpredictable my experience in Puducherry was. Whatever I could have dreamt my time in India would be, I could not have fathomed this. Everything I thought I knew or could do well was promptly and grandly disputed. The fan was broken, but so were all my expectations.
Anjali: If you are listening and are interested in the work we do and want to support, visit us at aif.org/donate/covid-19-response to support our COVID response. Your donations help provide personal protective equipment and help feed one family for one month while providing hygiene supplies. Check out our website for more information. (PAUSE)
Enter Anant Tibrewal who joins us from his home in Dallas, Texas. He, among several other fellows, have been relocated from their host organizations to their respective homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, Anant recounts an incident that took place in Bangalore, Karnataka, his newfound home. He works as a Project Manager at Enable India, and he’s working on building livelihoods resources for people with disabilities. He’s been living in the city for 7 months now, when he is met with a stroke of bad luck.
Anant: The sky is quickly darkening as I hurry back home in the evening. I can hear the Bangalore traffic honking and bustling relentlessly, as I turn the corner to the street where I live. Preoccupied with my thoughts, I fail to see the danger just up ahead. At once, my foot gives way, and I tumble and fall down to the ground. My foot is throbbing with pain, and when I look down I see it’s twisted at an unusual angle. After months of navigating this city’s roads without a hitch, I have been beaten by an ordinary pothole.
At the hospital, a doctor takes my x-ray and tells me that I’ve fractured my ankle. I am given a comically large cast and sent on my way, back onto the roads again. This is the first time I’ve broken a bone in my life, and as I begin to hobble towards the nearest auto, the difficulty with which I find this simple task spurs up many thoughts. Potholes, construction work, and other roadside obstacles are everywhere in Bangalore, as the city struggles to keep up with the influx migration caused by the booming IT industry. Once a sleepy town popular among retirees, Bangalore has become the fastest-growing metropolitan city in the country. The Bangalore traffic is famous throughout India, and the underdeveloped metro system won’t be completed any time soon. What is clear to me is that the infrastructure here is totally broken, unprepared to handle the number of people in the city.
As a temporary resident of this city, I’ve been able to view the state of the infrastructure with a sense of amusement and curiosity rather than true frustration, assured by the fact I only have to put up with it for so long. Of course, my friends and colleagues don’t have this luxury. Working in a disability-focused NGO, I have gotten a glimpse of the challenges that people with disabilities have when navigating the city. One of my colleagues, who uses a wheelchair, expressed to me his frustration at not being able to use sidewalks (in the off chance that one exists) because they are often uneven or have trees planted in the middle of them. Instead, he is forced to ride down a dangerously busy road with cars and motorcycles swerving by him. People who are visually impaired have trouble crossing the road, as there are no pathways or street lights that allow them to safely cross. Now that I had to wear a cast, I experienced some of these challenges first hand. The staircase leading up to my apartment was steep and narrow, so climbing up and down in a cast was an arduous ordeal. Going outside turned from a routine act into a calculated decision, as I would weigh the pros and cons each time to determine whether the physical strain was worth it.
Back at the office, one of my colleagues jokes, “Now you have experienced India fully!”. It’s true, while I was not completely ignorant about these issues before, I simply didn’t think about them that often because they didn’t affect me directly. With my cast on, however, I am forced to start thinking about the everyday obstacles that people with disabilities have to overcome while simply trying to live their lives. While I would by no means compare the temporary difficulties that come with wearing a cast with the challenges that come with having a permanent disability, having this experience caused me to more deeply explore the structural issues put in place by society that discriminate against people with disabilities. As I continue with my work in the disability space, these learnings will stay with me as a guiding light into the long road ahead towards a more equitable society.
Anjali: Our next story is from Dominique DuTremble. She’s based in Manesar and her work involves finding possible investments for corporate social responsibility. It’s October, a month into her fellowship and it’s her day off. She’s helping a friend prepare for a really special occasion. She’s looked forward to this after a long week but right now she isn’t feeling all too well.
Dominique: The chemist didn’t have the exact medicine my doctor prescribed, so he recommended an alternative. I popped what I assumed was an antibiotic and set out for my day. After a month at my host organization, there was zero chance a minor infection could postpone my trip to Lajpat Nagar Central Market.
I needed to help my friend find suitable attire for a wedding. I needed the bustle of the city, and for me, a former urban planner, central markets are a favorite destination.
Lajpat Nagar is a mixed-use neighborhood that houses one of Delhi’s oldest markets. Established in the 1950s, refugees from newly formed Pakistan built a small settlement on the outskirts of the city. The Government granted 15 ft x 60 ft plots to members of the new community, with the buildings constructed in single-story rows like army barracks. Today the neighborhood includes residential colonies and various commercial areas. Its Central Market is known for reasonably-priced garments, jewelry, and eateries. The area is still characterized by rows of thin units; many shops are barely wide enough for two people to maneuver but are long enough to take you to another time zone. This construction style has been extended to subsequent stories, the result being shops comprised of deep multi-level switchbacks. Urban planners have identified some elements common among popular public places: a continuous edge of shops that one can browse; private spaces to duck into from time to time; a mix of retail and food options; stores that serve as destinations as well as businesses trading in fast-moving consumer goods. Lajpat Nager Central Market has them all.
When we reach the market, the crowd is so dense that to stand still we have to fight against the current. Hawkers sell refrigerator covers, reusable shopping bags, nail polish. Widows ask for alms while stylish men and women move amongst the shops, stopping to make conversation. Street corn and fried everythings scent the air. Dogs sniff at discards, and each other, searching out something fragrant. Colored sand and flowers- vestiges of rangoli- slowly scatter, destined to merge with the dust passing underfoot. The market is a pinwheel, a kaleidoscope of society. I feel dizzied, in a good way, but also a little nauseous, when my friend pulls me into the gown store.
The air conditioning provides some relief. I begin to feel better as we make our way through the long, thin halls, each level representing a different quality of garment. When we reach the 4th and final floor, young women sit on tufted stools as exquisite gowns are presented to them for consideration. Mostly future brides shopping for upcoming nuptials, mostly silent, like the store. As my friend waits to be attended, we browse the racks. Another wave of nausea passes through me. And another, and another, as we wait for seats and to be attended. I excuse myself to a less crowded area, in search of a seat, or a washroom. None prove available so I arrange myself on a platform near a quiet rack, waiting for the feeling to pass. From across the room, I can see my friend being served, identifying dresses to try on. The occasional shopper visits the rack near which I have posted myself, eyeing me as I clutch my stomach, and my face changes color.
My friend has tried on several gowns now. She examines herself in the mirror as the attendant leaves to fetch another slate of options and calls for my opinion on a designer lehenga. I try, but a million hand-sewn beads reflect my green face. If I don’t leave now I am going to vomit in the middle of the shop, in the company of countless brides and their future wedding gowns. Thus begins the dash.
I make a run for it, hands over mouth. Through floor four, past the designer gowns and stately ladies on their tufted seats. Round the switchback, and through floor three, and its off-the-rack but once in a lifetime dresses for middle-class shoppers. Switchback through floor two, for the wedding party, and floor one, cashier and time-pass area for dads. Finally I make it to the exit. The dense air hits me hard. The market is still thick with people. My head is swimming. I cannot see straight. No dustbin is in sight. Then, in the distance, it appears: an overflowing garbage pile. I reach the drop location just in time. It comes. And comes. And comes. As does relief. Until I hear it: “Kya kar rehee ho?! Kya kar rehee ho?!” A woman stands up and from behind the trash pile, pointing, still yelling in Hindi and looking angry. My head clears in the moment and I understand. This is not a dustbin; it is a bin of scraps collected by a kabadiwala for resale purposes. I have puked on a day’s labor.
Humiliated, ashamed at my ignorance, I grab the little money that is in my pocket, thrust it tearfully at the woman, and run. Nausea and cramps seize me. Still without a garbage bin, my only option is to locate a quieter corner to do my bidding. Huddled on the ground, I can feel the eyes of passersby, watching passively as they engage in conversation. In the moments between vomiting, I notice a half-eaten husk of corn in my peripherals; a dirty diaper nose-adjacent, and a discarded pinwheel within reach. A dog approaches, looks at me, and does his business too. The kabadiwala emerges and places me in her bin. I am broken, but like the rangoli I have merged with the marketplace.
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 non-profit 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.
Our next story is a journal entry from one of our fellows, but for the safety of the subjects involved, all names have been changed. Please be advised that this story contains sensitive content regarding child abuse, and may be triggering to certain listeners.
An uninvolved fellow has volunteered to read this story for purposes of anonymity. Here, she joins us now.
Anonymous: Today was one of those days. Not exactly sure what I mean by ‘those days’ but I’m sure by the time I’ve spent 8 months here, I’ll think of a way to put this feeling into words.
I got a call from Rashmi at around 8:30 AM. She’s at the front door knocking, asking to be let in.
She’s holding Deepika around her slumped shoulders. At first, I didn’t even realize Deepika was crying, because that would be crazy. Deepika is the happiest kid I’ve ever met. She takes me to the market every week, and brightens up my day with a cheerful hello, how are you, have you eaten, how is everything.
Anyway, Deepika is crying, and as soon as we get inside her tears quietly release so as not to alarm me, to keep me safe from her reality for a few more minutes. Rashmi asks for Sriya, and FINALLY, I realize Deepika is crying. Pretending not to notice, I run to get my phone and send a few frantic text messages to Sriya.
A few awkward minutes pass and I offer to make the girls chai and bring them water. Sriya emerges from her room and immediately holds Deepika, asking what happened, where it happened.
All of a sudden, we hear the door open, and a tiny, mustached man enters the room. Seeing Deepika and her friends, he sits on the opposite side of the bench and begins to speak. I don’t understand what he’s saying, but he launches into his side of the story. Trying to be an adult, I pipe up, ‘Bhaiya, can you talk after some time?’ He ignores me, asking the girls if I can understand him. I step away, wanting to give Deepika some privacy.
Dad continues his smooth-talking, and finally Deepika breaks. Screaming, she chastises him for assaulting her and defends herself. He shouts back, and Rashmi intervenes. They continue on like this for nearly 30 minutes. Rashmi proves to be an excellent mediator and successfully deescalates the situation. The father finally picks up and goes, leaving Deepika behind in Sriya’s arms. Shocked, I emerge from my room.
Deepika explains what happened in Hindi – from what I understood, she was bringing her father his morning chai, and maybe didn’t finish doing his laundry the previous night? His complaining sets her off and they get into it. Then, she’s on the ground and he’s beating her with a stick – a STICK – on her shins, her arms, her back. She leaves in a hurry, in tears and her pajamas, without her slippers or phone, when she meets Rashmi.
After some time, the absurdity of it all sets in. Deepika does EVERYTHING for her father. His cooking, cleaning, and even works to support him. She pays her own school fees and books by working. What a way to thank her for taking on responsibilities no child should have to.
In my head, I want to blame this on some singular, fixable social structure that could one day improve. My first instinct is to blame the patriarchy. An easy target as the father expects her to worship him regardless. No, he expects her to SERVE him. But somehow, that doesn’t quite fit. In this house, Deepika is the primary earner, and he’s beaten her, and now maybe she can’t earn. Is it the jealousy of her potential? Her ability to speak English well should get her far, maybe a job in a retail shop. Or even a scholarship to an English college.
Does her father not love her? That’s my next question. Why and how could a man not love his daughter? Is it because she has a price tag on her forehead? That he knows he’ll one day have to sell his wife’s jewelry to get her married?
More importantly, what gives me the right to make this kind of value judgment?
More likely, this incident cannot be blamed or explained by a single systemic issue. I can’t just take this incident in isolation from its context. There is brokenness here. But before there was brokenness, there was poverty. And before there was poverty, there was stability. Sustainability. According to local legend, there was a time when these communities lived sustainably. There was enough water from their hand-dug and engineered wells, and there was enough food grown on their farms to eat. Let’s not glorify their lives, but they lived without trash gutted roads. Who can say if men and women were ever equal though. That would be worth investigating.
From then to now, technically, per capita income in this village has nearly doubled. People are abandoning their farms to work in factories. Families purchase single-use shampoos and creams and snacks and soaps at their local markets and buy smartphones with data. People’s lives seem better. But either way you see it now, there’s poverty. And brokenness.
Anjali: Our last story comes from our co-producer, McKenna Parker. A fellow who, like several others, also had to leave her host site at the last minute. She was based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh and worked for Medha where she worked on the communications team. She recounts her time there and her complicated relationship with a country she had always been in love with.
McKenna: A mish-mash of Karan Johar movies. Separating coriander leaves from stems in front of the TV, with the soap-opera version of the Mahabharat blaring. Games of driveway-cricket with my best friend. The home-cooked chana her mom made.
As a kid, this was how I saw India. From a distance, heavily simplified, romanticized.
Many years later, I studied abroad and lived the student and tourist life in Bangalore. I spent weekends traveling with my peers and I socialized with a bunch of other ex-pats.
I resided in a liberal, cosmopolitan city where the pale color of my skin didn’t afford me any extra attention. Though I was now physically there, I was still experiencing India through a filter.
This time around, for the fellowship, things were different. I was there to work, and was immersed in regular, day-to-day, real life. Lucknow differed drastically from Bangalore, too. Despite being a city of almost 3 million, it attracts relatively little foreign tourism, so I often stuck out in a crowd. The state is also one of the most poverty-stricken in the country, and the culture is, comparatively, much more conservative. So I knew that life wouldn’t be comfortable.
I don’t believe I was naive. I had set realistic expectations, and I prepared myself to toughen up. But in October, I had the scariest 13 minutes of my life when my Uber bike driver misbehaved and I couldn’t get away from him. That certainly brought an end to whatever was left of any romanticized version of India I had held. I was determined not to let one bad incident – that could happen anywhere in the world, I reminded myself – overshadow years of love and cultural appreciation, but it did shatter my trust. For months I wrestled with the ability to feel safe again. In a psychological effort for self-preservation, I became guarded and suspicious, on edge all the time. And just when I was starting to feel comfortable, like I had my footing, I was mugged. It broke me all over again.
I know that part of the reason I was targeted for these crimes is that it’s phenotypically obvious that I’m a foreigner. And no matter how much I understand the culture, how well I can speak the language, or how long I reside there, I will never be able to walk down a Lucknow street and not be stared at. I’ll always be seen as – and truthfully, feel like – an outsider.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that relationships are complicated. This applies to relationships with places, too. India has been part of my identity for over 15 years, and I have loved her faithfully. This time around, however, was extremely trying. I continue to love her, but it’s complicated. (PAUSE)
I only had 4 days between the time I decided I had to leave, because of the pandemic, and my departing flight. I had a lot of packing to do, loose ends to tie up at work, and friends to say goodbye to. It was abrupt, and I was struggling to really feel a sense of mental or emotional closure.
My closest friend in Lucknow suggested we take a road trip to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal. It was so spontaneous and unreasonable and crazy – leaving after my going away party at 1 AM, we arrived at 5:30 AM, right as the gates opened.
Seeing the Taj Mahal was a childhood goal and a bucket-list item! I had left India in 2017 without having seen it, but assured that I would return to India one day. Now I was leaving and not sure when or if I would ever return.
Driving with no sleep, the Lucknow-Agra ExpressWay was lonely, sprinkled with early morning fog. The Taj Mahal, especially at sunrise, is absolutely stunning. The silhouette of one of the literal Wonders of The World stands in front of me, peaceful, stately, bold in its beauty. I’m actually speechless. I stand in absolute awe, soaking it in. My eyes tear up and my chest swells. It is breathtaking.
Sitting on the lawn and reflecting, it hits me that the Taj Mahal was built as a gesture of love. I think about the relationships we form, with people, with places. I think about my love for India – how over the last few months it has been tested, how it has evolved, and truthfully, how it has persisted. Here I was, loving the most cherished site in India, with a dear friend, too. I’ve been scarred, but not broken. I feel incredibly blessed to have so much love in my life at this moment.
The Taj Mahal is also a tomb – a symbol of death, of endings. Of closure. This was my time in India, coming to a close. The symmetry of this one last road trip felt just impossibly, beautifully poetic.
Anjali: Thank you all for joining us today – both listeners and storytellers – for listening to Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship. I’m sure by now you’ve probably wondered why we titled this episode Feviquick. Those who are listening from India, however, won’t be surprised when I explain that it is a popular brand of glue. Sometimes we break things and don’t know how to put things back together. What is unique about the fellowship experience is that despite when things seem to go wrong, we always figure out ways to pick up the pieces and create something new. It’s a learned skill and some attribute this ability to innovate to an Indian concept called Jugaad. Next week, we will share with you the stories of 5 other fellows who used this creative spirit in the face of difficulty and new challenges. Join us on our next episode: Jugaad: Stories of Innovation and Let’s Chaat.
I’m Anjali Balakrishna and I’ll see you next time.