I remember my first day in India two and a half years ago, glued to the “tourist” van window in a delirium of jet lag as we traversed the long highway between Delhi and Chandigarh. Although I did not know it at the time, this would become the first of many journeys through India – through the Critical Language Scholarship, Fulbright, and now as an AIF Clinton Fellow.
Stopping at dhabas and woefully uninformed about things Indian, much less Punjabi, I pondered what exactly paneer and paranthas were, too embarrassed to actually ask anyone. After that summer in Chandigarh and this past year in Delhi, I generally thought I had the systems of India figured out but was only kidding myself, as I’d never even lived outside of north India.
Alas I had a bit of déjà vu three weeks ago on my first day of work. While driving from the metropolis of Bangalore to the rural town of Hesarghatta with my mentor, I found myself once again glued to the car window gazing at the lush banana groves and colorful shops along the way. We traversed the bumpy dirt road surrounded by the jungle and landed at a massive center in an area my mentor had spent years scouting out in order to purchase the perfect property for Sparsha Trust’s (my placement organization) Nisarga Grama, a multi dimensional development center for marginalized children. We were touring the center marveling at the construction and facilities, when the children began returning home from school. Sprinting towards us, they were eager to take me to their dorms, to show off their writing in English, Hindi, Kannada, and tell their stories of how their life has changed since coming to Sparsha. Before Nisarga Grama, Sparsha has worked in six centers around Bangalore creating non-formal education programs in order to educate children who have never attended school with the goal of admitting them to government school at their age and grade level within a year. Objectively, the children’s marks reflect the success of this program and after meeting them their zest for education and creativity became apparent.
While I still can’t articulate my spontaneous decision to leave my south Louisiana comfort zone and come to India in 2014 by way of studying Punjabi, my experiences in this country leave me wonderfully excited at the open-ended possibilities that this fellowship has afforded me.