I sat cross-legged on the floor with my co-workers, dipping roti into sabsee and dal as we shared our lunches like any other day, when the conversation erupted into an hour-long debate about the relative importance of human rights, religious factionalism, economic development, the corporate-controlled media, and a huge number of other topics I struggled to follow in Hindi. One of my colleagues, discussing previous riots over the disputed Ayodhya site, asked, “They claim that every person alive is a temple–so how can they justify the deaths of thousands of temples rioting by pointing to just one?” When the traffic, the noise, and the bureaucracy of India get me down, all I need is a lunchtime like this to remind me what is so special about this country.
This conversation highlighted one of the most remarkable qualities of the staff here at Pravah, my NGO: they truly care about making the country a better place, and are completely willing to launch into a heavy discussion about their views at anytime. When I think back to the lunch times I had at the last office I worked at in the U.S.–sitting and eating quietly as we worked through lunch hour–this is perhaps one of the most distinctive parts of Indian culture. American co-workers often avoid bringing up politics, to avoid offending anyone, and many people I know back home really just push important questions about society to the back of their minds when going about daily life. Put bluntly, asking the kinds of questions people were asking during lunch today (“Do the newspapers adhere to some kind of journalistic integrity, or are they just moneymaking enterprises in the pockets of corporations?” “As a country, are we forced to give up some degree of human rights to achieve rapid economic development?”) never occurs to many Americans. Back home, many of us are blessed to lead comfortable, straightforward lives, and only when unemployment rises to 10% do we even begin to question the system we live in.
The other aspect of the conversation–the fact that it was conducted mostly in rapid-fire Hindi–reflects the other basic fact of my life here: to fully participate, both at the NGO and in the real world, I really really need to learn this language, ASAP. The one year of study I did in college enables me to make basic statements and catch around 10-15% of the words in most conversations, but that doesn’t really get me far. All day, at the office, my co-workers, the volunteers, and the college students converse entirely in Hindi. Though they’re kind enough to translate for me if I do ask, language is currently a curtain that keeps me from truly being a part of the events around me. If I can learn it, I’ll be able to lead sessions with students, conduct activities, and contribute to the organization in a substantive way. So far, the only real skill I can use is writing English, for Pravah’s press releases, newsletter, emails, and other communications. I’ve been seeking a tutor or class, but keep hitting dead ends–one too expensive, one living too far away, one who won’t return to Jaipur for two months. So, among the list of other things I still need to accomplish (open a bank account after weeks of trying, get my phone re-activated, get a gas cylinder, etc.), finding a Hindi teacher is at the top of the list.
But regardless of language difficulties, my time here has already been eye-opening. There are countless cultural differences I’ve been surprised by, both welcome and annoying, that I could discuss and make for an unreadably long blog post. At this point, though, I’m content to leave it at this: it’s clear that working and living in India will be a remarkably stimulating experience, maybe beyond anything I’ve seen so far in my life. And that’s before I can even understand what anyone is talking about.