Ae shehr-e Lucknow tujhe mere salaam hai, tera hi naam dusra jannat ka naam hai
ऐ शहरे लखनऊ तुझे मेरा सलाम है, तेरा ही नाम है दूसरा जन्नत का नाम है
اے شہر لکھنؤ تجھے میرا سلام ہے، تیرا ہی نام ہے دوسرا جنت کا نام ہے
“It’s such a good thing you’re here,” my host mom Simi appa often said. At least twice per week she said this during breakfast or dinner. “India needs people like you who want to work for social causes. Especially here in U.P.” While I am definitely not deserving of such high praise, her words raised questions in my head about where people in the social sector should serve and within which communities.
Living and working in Lucknow this year has forced me to rethink a key part of my philosophy of service with this in mind. This was a slow shift, and one that only crystallized in my head as such while we reflected during the Endpoint conference and as I heard everyone describe the communities that kept them grounded during the fellowship. I have long believed that people should find and serve people with whom they feel a connection or a sense of community. What I failed to account for when I made this assertion at TEDxNorthwesternU in 2014, was the ability people have to become connected to a completely foreign community as part of their service. In this way, your service becomes a key part of your connectedness as you work and join a community, rather than that connectedness being a basis or inspiration for starting service.
I think this idea grew from forgetfulness, in a way. In remembering my own presentation, I did forget that my own attachment to India as a place I wanted to serve was not a given. No matter how inevitable the conclusion felt as I told the story, maintaining and cultivating a connection to India and South Asia was and is a choice. My thoughts on community may have also emerged from ideas in social justice on college campuses, where notions of “staying in your lane” for fear of being called out can be powerful motivator to limit your interactions according to the identity-categories you ascribe to. In this sense, choosing to have a connection to India and choosing to leave home and serve a faraway community, are powerful decisions.
My amazing co-fellows are a testament to the idea that one can find unexpected feelings of connection when they choose to. They were the first challengers to my old philosophy in this way. Whether they made unexpected friends, found a sense of home in an unexpected city, or made unexpected impact during their fellowship, everyone made links in their offices and communities, as well as within the fellowship.
In the day-to-day grind of working, it was easy to forget that we were fellows, and my co-fellows helped ground me in the fellowship part of the experience. Many past and present fellows have said that the cohort was the best part of their fellowship – and I could not agree more. The Midpoint and Endpoint conferences brought us all together and forced us to put our own experiences in clear conversation with everyone else’s experience and into the trajectory of our ten months of service. Getting to know the cohort was amazing; they were often my support through the toughest moments of the fellowship.
Meeting the Delhi fellows in December for Jashn-e Rekhta was a breath of fresh air away from the grind of work, and I appreciated being able to compare our fellowship experiences and better understand how my co-fellows were fairing outside of my bubble in Lucknow. In the spring, I traveled around India meeting fellows and seeing different parts of the country. Many memories will stick with me, including sitting by the lake in Udaipur with Abby, Camille, Minahil and Parijat, roaming the markets in blistering heat in Mysuru and enjoying an American-style hamburger in Bangalore with Abby and Deepika, visiting the old city of Ahmedabad by day and staying up late with Maitreyi, Lina, Naveen and Parijat, discussing every topic you could imagine. One other memory also proved to be a defining one.
In Srinagar, Abby, Minahil, Shruti, Vipin and I decided to travel away from the city and go trekking up a mountain. The way up was tiring. My legs felt like dead weight, the air was thin and my back was becoming sore as we climbed. At each turn, we looked up the mountain and noted another spot that looked like it might be our stopping point. “Just 10 more minutes,” our guide Hasan said on repeat. We were seemingly not making any upward progress, but eventually found a spot with a gorgeous view. After that three hour trip up, we made our way back down in the dark, sliding on rocks, dodging trees. Our trek ended up being seven hours long, and as we sat afterwards, eating dinner just feet away from a raging mountain river, it felt like a symbol of our fellowship journey. We struggled up, overcoming pain and fear to get a great view, and then came down, doing what we had to ensure we made it. And we did it by supporting each other, mentally, emotionally and, by the end, physically. We had to depend on each other to achieve our goal and that always brings people closer.
I did not expect to bond as much with this group because of the impulse I learned in college to be competitive with those around me. But these meetings away from work, as well as late night phone calls and hundreds of WhatsApp messages, served to bring me closer to the cohort. These personal connections within our class served as a community for us, one that I hope will remain strong going forward.
During this year, I also have joined and experienced many small moments of community in Lucknow. I was not sure what to expect when I arrived in the city to study Urdu in June 2017. I recalled my experience in Udaipur the previous summer, where I very much enjoyed my time, but was often stretched and challenged in unexpected ways due to my status as an Indian-American. I was an insider and an outsider simultaneously and never felt like I found a good balance between the two. I was not sure if this would continue in Lucknow and if this would make it hard to form substantive relationships with local Lakhnawis.
While that feeling was understandable, I was wrong. I found community in all aspects of my life in Lucknow. My most cherished moments and memories in the city are not necessarily stories others would find entertaining, but I want to mention a few memories that come to mind. My best nights at home were around the dinner table with my host family, telling stories from college or analyzing the state of Indian politics, or staying up late with my co-fellow Michael discussing our observations, both big and small, about our host community. My roommates, Michael and Dani, were a big source of support in throughout the year as we got to know Lucknow and experienced the ups-and-downs of day-to-day life in urban India. We even celebrated Christmas as a “family,” which was fun given how far we were from our families during the holiday season.
Then there were my friends in Lucknow, like Maaz, Sheba, Samiksha and Arnab, among others, who helped this city feel like home. Nights of coffee, waffles, nihari and good conversation helped me settle in and feel comfortable at work, especially in the first few months of coming back to start the fellowship, helping me adjust to working in the city and in the social sector. Our after-hours discussions about life skills and impact measurement, about casteism and reservation and about the Indian education system would not have been out of place among those that happened within in the fellowship cohort either.
Joining Medha was also a blessing. I had been dreaming of working for an Indian NGO for a long time, so I was hoping to work with colleagues I got along with and, as I worked, feel that I was contributing to a larger whole. I found that at Medha. I appreciated having the opportunity to work with the team, to contribute to Medha’s mission of being self-aware, collaborative, open and student-centered, and to be supported in both my work and long term goals by my colleagues. My supervisors and peers both were interested in my well-being and the quality of my work, and they provided key guidance on how to complete my work and think about my future goals. For example, my supervisors Shubhra ma’am and Maryam offered useful advice on my project methods and challenged me to think holistically about problems, while Chris, one of Medha’s founders, helped me think about my future goals for graduate study.
Throughout my project, I talked with almost every member of the Medha team and I was blown away not only by their commitment to their work but also the willingness of the team to embrace me, despite my temporary status as a fellow with a very unclear role in the office. I was unsure if my temporary status would make people treat me differently or make them not want to get to know me as deeply. But they proved me wrong. I appreciated the positive and collaborative office atmosphere and the chance to really become friends with my colleagues. Folks on the Knowledge team (the department focused on curriculum and ideation and of which I was a part) became some of my closest friends, and I loved working closely with them. Our weekly knowledge meetings were particularly fun because of the group cohesion. I had become so comfortable with my routine and with meeting my friends each day at work that it was very hard to say goodbye.
Finding this sense of belonging was central to my experience this year. I would not have made it through this year without the support of my family, without my friends and fellow Fellows challenging me, without colleagues who believed I was capable of more than I thought possible, and without a city and home that became comfortable and safe to help carry me over the many bumps. With their help, I built a community I was not expecting to find or experience so deeply.
Lucknow has become home in a way I could not have imagined when I arrived here for the first time more than 12 months ago. Coming first in the summer as an Urdu student at the American Institute for Indian Studies and then again as an AIF Clinton Fellow in September 2017, I got to see and experience this city in many ways and from many different angles. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to live and serve here and get to know this beautiful city and the people who call this place home. And accepting that I could build a foundation in Lucknow was key to all this, something I believe the fellowship taught all the fellows. In truth, I had been looking for a sense of rootedness in South Asia for a while. Studying at Northwestern, visiting India in 2012 and 2016, and learning about South Asia at every opportunity have been part of this journey and have led me to find home here in Lucknow. I may have been born in Calcutta, but for the rest of my life I will be both an AIF Alum and Lakhnawi at heart.