Hitchhiking through Chennai: A Mirror to People-Powered Partnerships

Famished from skipping dinner, slightly nervous visiting a city that spoke a foreign tongue, and aggrieved at the unavailability of cabs, autos, or buses, I’d been on edge ever since I landed in Chennai. It was my first time in city. Although I’d never visited physically, I’ve often been a silent companion down my grandmother’s stories, reminiscing with her, of Chennai in the 1950s and 1960s, a city she called home for the first two decades of her marriage. It was here, all alone with my grandfather, that she pushed the boundaries of who she was supposed to be, as defined by society around her, and became who she wanted to be, sometimes out of interest and other times out of sheer necessity and will. So decades later, in 2019, I ended up in the city, for 12 hours, as a part of a long layover. Even though I had limited time, I knew I was looking for something.

It was 8:43pm and the clock was ticking away. A few more minutes and the infamous mess where my newly wed grandparents navigated the awkward waters of their first couple months together, began to learn more about each other, and found a rhythm to their marriage, was going to be shut for the night. I could have gone to another mess, or restaurant. But something about that night, the city, or maybe just providence nursed my determination to at least try to get to there before closing time. I was only going to be in the city until next the morning anyway and if nothing, I would at least find someplace to grab a snack.

After over five Uber and Ola cancellations, determined, I walked out of my hostel onto the dimly lit street. There, another guest was being dropped off by a 20-something year old man, an Ola driver, if one was to believe the neon yellow sticker on his scooter and his helmet. Quickly making up my mind and moving with an energy that even surprised me, I ran to him and explained, in the broken and barely comprehensible Tamil, that I needed to go to Mylapore within the next 15-minutes. I asked him he could drop me there. At first, I’m sure he assumed I was talking to the guest. Or maybe that I was just talking to myself. Making sure to get his attention this time, I repeated my phrases. He looked at me, equal measures baffled and unsure. In hindsight, regardless of what went through his mind as he was weighing his options, I am thankful that he said yes.

A couple minutes into the 13-minute bike ride, I realized that not only did I have no idea where I was, but also that I had put incredible trust in the hands of this man, whom I met about 3 minutes ago. I guess Google Maps provided some solace. I forced out any anxious thoughts racing through my head. I was already on my way and wasn’t about to turn back. Finally, after navigating to a dead-end with indistinguishable shuttered shops whose signs were mostly in Tamil, he offered to stay and help me find my way to this old hole-in-the wall mess that was supposed to be right there. After one u-turn and driving around for a minute, we’d arrived. The mess was still open and busy and inviting in the last round of customers for the night.

Standing at its entrance, knowing that I will never see him again, I smiled at him and he smiled back. I imagined that I was standing at the very spot where my grandparents would have been in 1950s. In some strange way, that night’s experience invoked emotions that felt passed down in time, from the 50s, from eternity, from several other people who felt them too; the outcome of taking a chance and trusting another.

Looking back, I truly believe that this incident is a mirror to what my AIF Clinton Fellowship journey has been like, or at least helps me frame my thoughts about my it. Professional and personal growth was something I’d come prepared for as we settled into our roles as Fellows. However, what I had not prepared for was to be challenged on my deep-rooted personal fears and ingrained mistrust. I’m referring to mistrust in the other’s intention, character, and beliefs, based on a stereotype or narrative passed down. While I still firmly advocate for not blindly trusting strangers, I also realized that I’d spent most of my life dictated by a fear, that albeit legitimate, was debilitating and restrictive. In challenging what I should have done and asking for help from a complete stranger and trusting their intention, I was actually able to do what I’d hoped to.

As a part of my service, I worked with the visually impaired communities in Andhra Pradesh. Never having worked with the visually impaired before, the Fellowship allowed me to engage with a community with entirely different experiences and lived realities, learn about a sector that is wholly marginalized, and reflect on how I was responding to and changing because of these experiences. Observing my students during their orientation and mobility lessons, it struck me how much trust they had placed in their teachers every time they ventured out to a new terrain, to guide and teach them how to safely navigate these environments themselves. The scholars, too, had their own fears, but the reward for braving these fears was far greater than any risk — the ability to access and enjoy public spaces. So they were present each day, learning and practicing. In my conversations with them, they giggled excitedly about confidently taking the bus to the local beach or walking to the neighborhood grocery store by themselves. When I asked them about how they decided whom to trust around them, Suraj (name changed for privacy), a student at Vision Aid, smilingly remarked that it was either trust people and give them a chance, or sit at home, resigned and bored. After all, people can only step up when we give them a chance to.

It amuses me that the catalyst behind these learnings was, at the core, hunger and maybe a slight sentimental longing to be a part of my grandparents’ history. But it was a befitting reminder that learning can happen anywhere and anytime, as long as I am open to it. It was a reminder to invest in each other, in the power of human interaction and relationships, in empathy, and above all, in ourselves. My work and experiences as an AIF Fellow have helped me better understand people powered partnerships and the opportunity for sustainable and scalable impact when initiatives are driven by human instinct to look out for each other, mutual trust, open-mindedness, and admiration.

I’m certain it won’t always be rosy, that there will be interactions that disappoint or anger me. However, I have learnt that the positive incidents and bonds formed by defying convention, the adventures, and learnings make the attempts worth it!

Pallavi is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Vision Aid in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is piloting a scholarship program to provide residential, intensive training to visually impaired students from underprivileged segments of India to reach their full potential. Pallavi’s passion for an inclusive and innovative education policy motivated her most recent project in Hyderabad, funded by the Women and Gender Leadership Fund. She documented how women without access to formal education, particularly those from marginalized communities, have used informal networks and vocational training centers to positively transform their socioeconomic outcomes. Pallavi's first experience in the development sector was as a volunteer teacher for Make a Difference, an organization that works towards empowering vulnerable children in Hyderabad. During college, Pallavi worked as a Fellow at the Mgrublian Center of Human Rights, studying the role of educational institutions and networks, policies, and pedagogies in combating radicalization and promoting socioeconomic independence among high-school students in Kashmir. Engaging with the community by supporting organizations and founding her own service initiatives such as the India Education Project, has been of immense personal and academic importance to her. On campus, she worked as an economic journalist with the Lowe Institute of Political Economy to learn the art of compelling, engaging, and credible data-driven storytelling and writing. Realizing the importance of women role-models, she worked as a part of the founding team of Claremont Women in Business, providing a community network and resources to women on campus for professional pursuits. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Pallavi is eager to gain more experience in the development sector, learn about the complexities, opportunities, and challenges in this space, meet incredible people, and take a step forward in enabling positive change.

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