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 basically stands alone, with a theme that provides some loose unity – but every fellow interprets the theme in a slightly different way, giving us a delicious masala of storytelling. So let’s dig in!
Today’s episode is called “Nakshaa: Stories Lost and Found.” Identities, cultures, and lessons learned: uncharted territories and a journey without destination. In the fellowship, like in life, you can feel like you are lost without a map. Sometimes, you have to wander to find your way.
Anjali: Enter Jessie Standifer who was placed with TYCIA, Turn Your Concern Into Action in Delhi. Her project involved communicating impact and creating a girls’ education campaign called 1000andyou. One week in early March, she went on a trip with colleagues to visit their field team in rural Madhya Pradesh. The group spent around 10 days visiting Korku villages – each day in a new village, camping under the stars and holding meetings in the community chopal with villagers.
Jessie: One of the early days of the trip we were deep in the forest, hours from the closest village and I found myself needing to use the bathroom – if you know what I mean – ha! Surprise! This story is about open defecation. Just kidding – but that is where the story starts. Me, nervously hustling as far away from our camp as humanly possible, getting a little lost in the forest. Stomping on leaves. Trudging down and up and over a hill. Checking over my shoulder before crouching through a barbed wire fence to head down into a private-looking ravine area.
When I was ~finished~, maybe you know what I am talking about but, I just had to get away from the scene of the crime. I had to compose myself. So I quickly started heading back the way I came – hustling – and as I crouched through the barbed wire fence for the second time, my flip flop caught the fence and I was sliced right between the toes. Don’t worry, my foot is fine now. But my sandal filled with blood and, embarrassed as ever, I headed back to the campsite partially limping. I didn’t want to seem weak, so I rinsed my foot off with water and didn’t tell anyone – I’ll be fine, right?
Two days later, the small cut between my toes was puffy, red, and painful. I hadn’t showered in close to a week and my feet were filthy which wasn’t helping. I was sort of limping and getting a little anxious, but still very much trying to prove that I could handle myself in the field. But I did casually tell Mohit, my supervisor, you know hahahah, I tripped over a barbed-wire fence, no worries, silly me. He did not find it funny, he looked at me really seriously and said, ‘Jessie health in the field should not be taken lightly, a lot of things can happen – and making his suggestion into a question in true Mohit style – added, ‘if you want, we can go to town and get a tetanus shot.’ I took his suggestion and spent an hour on a motorcycle to Roshini, the closest town.
We did make a pitstop somewhere on the outskirts of town, and paid a guard to let us into this massive compound to use their bathrooms and showers – which was glorious – but I’ll skip to just after that, when we pulled into the government hospital.
We hopped off the motorcycle right in front of the hospital doors – no one was outside. Walking in, we were greeted by two women, both nurses who worked at the hospital. Before I realized it, Mohit quickly explained the situation, and within minutes my foot was cleaned and wrapped, and I had a bandage from a tetanus shot in my bum. The hallways were empty, there weren’t any other patients. It was all smooth, and the wildest part was that it was absolutely free. It was all so easy – I can’t tell you why I waited – but then again, I’m so stubborn I’d probably do the same thing all over again.
After stocking up on chocolate and biscuits – absolutely essential – we got back on the motorcycle, and at that point, it was after dark and the evening breeze was chilling. Without jackets, we had a freezing hour-long ride to the next village. In that village was the first time during this trip, funny enough, that there was a government clinic. That night after chasing the local kids all around the village and completely ruining the bandage on my foot, I headed over to the clinic before dinner just to pick up some extra bandaids. In the village, the clinic was the only place with power, so although the clinic seemed closed, the doors were open and dozens of phones were plugged into each outlet. Folks from our group were hanging out in there, looking repeatedly at their phones despite having no network. (I guess we really are addicted!) Connected to the clinic was a house where the women who ran the clinic lived. It took some prompting from the group, but I timidly called into the corridor leading to the nurses’ house, and almost immediately I ran into Seema.
After spending days with a group that I was constantly trying to understand (all conversations in Hindi) and all the while trying to prove myself, Seema made me feel instantly comfortable. She was in her mid-twenties, like me, we talked about our families and ourselves long after she rewrapped my foot. Over broken Hindi and English, we bonded easily which just doesn’t happen often. Seema is from Maharashtra not Madhya Pradesh, and doesn’t speak the local tribal language Korku, even after living in the village for years, she still feels like an outsider. But together we didn’t feel like outsiders at all. She made me feel at home.
While there are a million stories I could tell from this time, stories about speaking more Hindi than I ever have or making roti for the first time with Kamal— this story is more about feeling alone and having to prove myself as an outsider, prove that I could handle myself and still manage to find a bond that transcended language.
Anjali: Next we’re welcoming Ayushi Parashar. Now, we’d like to warn our listeners that Ayushi’s story describes the consequences of domestic violence in the lives of the survivors she worked with. This may be inappropriate for young listeners, so please be advised.
During the fellowship, Ayushi worked with Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in Dharamshala on the socio-legal implementation and impact of the domestic violence laws in Himachal Pradesh. She joins us now:
Ayushi: The turning point in my life was studying the law and social transformation elective which geared my focus from public international law to the development sector through the path of social justice and legal policy. This course elucidated the wide gap between the drafting and implementation of the law leading to long-term socio-legal issues, amongst others. The professor who introduced this course also introduced me to the AIF William J. Clinton Fellowship. Through this fellowship, I wanted to understand the grassroots realities in rural India and create some impact utilizing my legal acumen.
At Jagori, while interviewing the domestic violence survivors and attending Nari Adalat sessions, I realized that the domestic violence survivors primarily lose the bond they have with themselves and then with their loved ones. Though the domestic violence laws have been drafted commendably, the manner and scale of implementation contribute to its lack of success. Despite that, I believe that the laws and the justice system can become life-changing mechanisms.
I will share an insight into the world of domestic violence survivors, especially married women.
(LOST) While surviving violence, they lose their physical, mental, sexual, and economic well being. As survivors, they are beaten, verbally abused, abandoned without food or water, locked in their rooms, restrained from interacting with their children and parents, amongst others. This shatters their soul and spirit into pieces. They lose connection with their bodies, mental peace, economic stability, and sexual choices. They are sometimes broken to an extent where they lose the purpose of living. During the interview, Reena said, “I am seeking an amicable settlement. I will have to stay with my husband for the sake of my children.” And their children also bear the brunt of domestic violence. They lose their childhood, their education, access to their friends, and their bond with the father and grandparents. Asha shared, “Since I came to my paternal house in October, my child hasn’t been to the school. His previous school was closer to my matrimonial house. I don’t have the finances to send him to the nearby private school.” The young, innocent souls live with visible and invisible scars. And sometimes, they start reflecting this in their future relationships.
(FOUND) When these women decide to voice out against violence, they begin to find ways back to their physical, mental, sexual , and economic well being. Sometimes their parents and siblings support them. Sometimes they abandon them, especially if it was a love marriage. With the support of their families, friends, and the justice system, they start getting back to their normal lives. They get to stay with their children who become their biggest support system and a key reason to be found. Seema, whose husband abandoned her and their children years ago for his second wife and children said, “My children and I are here for each other. My daughters have even started going to college.”
The survivors of domestic violence may take some time and courage to open a door for love and life-long commitment again. Sometimes they find new partners, friends, safe homes, and employment again. Rohini, who remarried after divorcing her abusive husband, said, “I am happy with my second husband. He takes care of me and I have a good life now.” At the end of the tunnel, they find their self-confidence, self-respect, self-esteem, trust, and life.
When mothers start healing, children start healing. The survivors who leave their abusive partners tend to move on as early as possible for the sake of their children’s well being. These children find their physical, mental, and educational well being.
In the long run, the mothers and the children try to get rid of the scars so that their future won’t be lost in the past.
While attending community women courts and interviewing them, I realized the complexities of relationships and the additional burden of societal norms which further suppresses the survivors. It takes a lot of thinking, effort, and courage to voice out and move out of an abusive relationship, especially with the ones who were meant to protect and love them. And to go through further suppression by the family members, local panchayats, society, and justice system, as a whole is unbearable. It is the sheer inner motivation of these fierce women which protects them from breaking down during their journey to justice.
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 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.
Anjali: Next, we welcome Eric Smith to the mic. Eric’s project with the fellowship consisted of providing curriculum support, English instruction, and teacher training at the Merasi school in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Today, he is here to tell the story of how the Merasi culture was almost lost, an artist’s transformation, and how the two found themselves in each other and manifested change together.
Eric: The Jaisalmer Merasi: A community of musicians carrying a world-class artistic legacy over 800 years old. Their ancestral roots trace back to temple and court musicians for the Maharajas and royal families of Jaisalmer. They are the oral heritage keepers of India’s great Thar Desert, narrating its history through a rare blend of sacred Hindu, Sufi, and folk-classic music now spanning 38 generations.
In the early 90s, this cultural legacy was on the brink of being lost. Generationally enslaved under a demoralizing Jajman system that forces Merasi men to perform for higher caste families, a system still operating today, Merasi men were choosing to give up their historical and wonderous music, attempting to find other sources of livelihood. Constantly scorned as “Manganiyars” (meaning beggars) and considered untouchable, this oppression almost drove a once-thriving culture to extinction.
In 1990, artist Karen Lukas, a purveyor of beauty, had already made a name for herself as a decorative painter stationed in New York. Her work featured in prestigious publications such as Indian Interiors, Architectural Digest, and House & Garden, even showcased at the American Embassy in Delhi and in the Vice President’s office in Washington D.C. But when faced with her own mortality, she changed. Let us hear from her own words…
At 37, a surgeon told me to go home and make out a will. Accepting mortality, I pledged to live with good intention. Two years later in Rajasthan, I met the Jaisalmer Merasi holding a brilliant musical legacy eight hundred years intact.
When Karen fell ill in the desert during a first visit, Merasi women cared for her while the spontaneous eruptions of music she heard would change her life forever. Learning more, she empathized with their struggle deeply and committed herself to their cause.
I founded US-based Folk Arts Rajasthan to work in conjunction with the Merasi NGO, Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan in Jaisalmer. I’ve lived by this one intention to be an advocate for the Merasi in an immersed way – by listening carefully and nurturing a deep, on-going connection with this remarkable community. Colored by low caste status, I’ve witnessed their need and desperate urge – to be recognized- to be heard – to have value.
27 years generate endless stories through uncharted territory – opening paths to self-reflection. Young people help me by being an ally to the oppressed. I’ve worked closely with 40-some interns and volunteers, each one contributing in their own way to this fight for justice.
What has remained constant are our profound shared frustrations over the injustice faced by the Merasi.
While Karen and I endeavor for their recognition, we both acknowledge this important fact: that we will never live within Merasi skin. Striving for equality, we, along with the countless others associated with this cause, remain vigilant that our work coincides with what the Merasi determine are their greatest needs. And for the Merasi, they have long realized that education is the essential factor for change. This inspired the creation of Merasi school, a safe and welcoming environment where Merasi children can learn and ask questions. An environment sorely lacking at both the government and private schools they might attend. Schools where teachers ignore their questions, where they are segregated from higher caste children, and where they face consistent harassment from their peers, teachers, and even from the school’s administration.
The juxtaposed contrast between the inspiring humanity of the Merasi and the harsh discrimination they endure cannot be overstated. It truly is a transformational journey when one witnesses the combined beauty and harsh reality of the Merasi. I personally found a deeper sense of self through the Merasi. When I joined the fellowship, I felt lost in ways I could not understand at the time. I sometimes still struggle with depression, moments of utter meaninglessness. But the warm humanity of the Merasi brought me to myself again. Their hospitality and graciousness a seemingly endless well, even in the face of such intense physical, mental and emotional abuse, the kind that bruised their bodies, shut them out of schools, and denied them the same rights as those considered “higher caste.” Their energy highlights, defines, and reinvigorates. Grounded in music and community, more than once they moved me to tears with their sheer talent and soul. I will forever be grateful that their musical legacy has experienced a rebirth, and grateful for Karen’s consistent persistence in the wellbeing of the Merasi.
The collaborative effort of the Merasi-driven Lok Kaka Sagar Sansthan (LKSS) and Folk Arts Rajasthan (FAR) has born incredible fruit over the years. Since 2005, The Merasi have participated in FAR/LKSS collaborative bilingual literacy programs promoting cultural equity, emotional health and educational empowerment in spaces providing a sense of freedom and safety.
We now have a new generation of literate Merasi students such as Satar Khan saying, “We can change our world with words not war.”
After my time on the ground as a Clinton Fellow, I have faith that the continued partnership between Folk Arts Rajasthan, Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan, and AIF will pave the way for more progress and change by dramatically increasing the awareness in both India and America of not only the artistic beauty but the untold struggles of the Merasi.
The troubling probability of losing a unique intangible cultural heritage has faded. Jaisalmer Merasi have found receptive audiences, though labeled “manganiyar” while still denied their basic human rights. Much needs to happen for the Merasi to be able to live freely and justly. There is no room in this world for hatred.
Currently, this time of the Coronavirus has left Merasi School student families without wages for months. They are now experiencing extreme hunger, violence, and lack of water during this blisteringly hot summer season.
To learn about the Merasi and how to help their cause, visit Folkartrajasthan.org. And if you ever get the chance, visit them in Jaisalmer yourself. We could all at one point or another benefit from the rich humanity the Merasi offer.
Anjali: Just as Eric bonded with his host community, so did our next guest. In addition to producing this podcast, Ismael Byers worked for Youth4Jobs as a communications manager and art archivist for artists with disabilities under a special initiative, Not Just Art, that promotes their artwork through social media, film, and exhibition.
Ismael spent his fellowship in Hyderabad and found an instant sense of home in the city. Leaving was difficult for him, and he processes the emotions of his abrupt departure in a farewell letter to the city that holds a special place in his heart. Here he joins us now.
Ismael: Dear Hyderabad,
Should I say dear? I’m not sure if we are that close yet.
Where do I begin? To be honest, I’ve been meaning to write to you for a long time but I have struggled to come up with the words. I never even had a chance to say goodbye and I have felt so guilty for leaving so unannounced. You probably don’t remember me among the 10 million other acquaintances you have.
We only knew each other for 6 months and you never got to show me all of your favorite sites. How many times did you invite me to check out your poetry readings at Aaromale or interesting sessions at Lamakan on art, theatre, or gender equity and I couldn’t make it because… well, I thought more time.
You know, I have been checking up on you and my friends tell me that you’ve changed since lockdown. They tell me that you are no longer the rambunctious and popular city you always were. Even the Charminar in all of its glory, during Eid of all occasions, stands quiet. How could you have changed so much?
I’m back home with family and they always ask about you and what I miss. Honestly, I haven’t thought too much about it until now. To help me process and reminisce, I made a list:
(Okati. One.) The cool breeze during night-time uber bike rides on Necklace Road admiring the Buddha statue standing proud against a sunset backdrop in the middle of a heart-shaped lake. Honestly, I would fly back in a heartbeat with the one I love to see you again and to show her this indisputably romantic scene.
(Rendu. Two.) How I miss your food! I mean, my God. Nothing is more Anthony-Bordainesque than your streetside Romali shawarmas in Nampally, your homey Irani chai that takes a little better when you pour it from cup to saucer, or your indisputable staple, dum biryani.
(Mudu. Three.) While getting to know you, I was surprised by what I saw on the roads: the subversion of expectation – women in burqas and teens barely old enough to smoke drove by on their motorcycles during my commute to the office. I’ve even seen a baby sit on the handlebars of a bike, smiling like he was the king of the road. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! And how I miss your post-work traffic after a long day at the studio. I never considered it chaotic – it’s like water that flows and never crashes. Sometimes I stuck my arms out to feel the cool breeze. It made me so happy I could have high fived the driver right next to me.
(Nalugu. Four.) Your mosaic of religion, culture, language – all a beautiful coexistence. Through a short time, I was able to witness so much: the solidarity that was Battuk Amma on my first week of being there when I tried ice gola for the first time, the vibrance and promise of fortune on Diwali as I stood with a dear fellow with her and her family atop a roof that overlooks the city as we cast spells of light with fireworks that permeated the night, and the hope for longer days on Pongal amidst children running around flying kites that pierce the sky just the same.
You were always so welcoming and offered hospitality through everyone you knew. I never left a home without feeling stuffed and satisfied with paniyaram, or bitter gourd, even when I said “Chaloo” or “Tinaru” (which means I already ate lunch).
You flaunt a diverse repertoire of language akin to Babel. Dakhni, or what my coworkers would try to teach me alongside Telugu, the local language that harkens back to your regal heritage. The beautiful amalgamation of Marathi, Telugu, and Kannada. Unfortunately, our language class had to abruptly end.
(Ayidu. Five.) As I sit here, alone and pensive in self-quarantine, looking back I can see my time knowing you in a different light. Know that during this time we’ve been apart, I found in our friendship, not only peace but myself.
You gave me the confidence to dream again and to believe that anything was possible. Do you remember Srilekha, who with no mobility in limbs could paint with her mouth? She told me that. If it wasn’t for you, I would not have met her and learned that empowering lesson.
And how about the daughter of our caretaker, little precious Boomi, who taught me supreme patience. At first, when she would invade and terrorize my room every morning and urinate on my floor, I thought she was a spawn of evil but now, I can’t help but miss her cute smile and unintelligible babbling and rants!
Let’s not forget Sumi, Rose, and Sangeetha who all helped me feel part of a work family as we would bond over anime at the office until midnight.
Srujana and Pallavi, thank you both for always making me feel so at home in a city so far far away. Our misadventures and food escapades are ones that I will never forget.
My dear friends Pavan, Roushna, and Lalitha who all I met on a bad day that you all turned into my best. Thank you for your morning check-ins on my way to work, your late-night talks of poetry in front of the GVK mall, and for letting me dance into the night with you all.
Hyderabad, for all of these lessons and friends you’ve introduced me to, I say thank you, and I hope you can forgive me for not being as good a friend to you as you were to me.
To the Lion City, I bid you adieu. Until next time.
Anjali: What a heartfelt letter, Ismael. I’m sure Hyderabad misses you too, as well as our next guest, Mantasha Khaleel, who also spent her fellowship there.
You might remember Mantasha from our last episode, when she shared some funny stories about adapting to life in Hyderabad. Here she shares a poem with us about how stepping out of her hometown and living on her own for the first time helped her come into her own skin and find confidence.
I just don’t know how to begin
I could tell a story of a girl,
The girl who I used to be.
Timid and shy
Seated in a corner
With a book and pen.
I can not do this
I can not do that
I am an inferior being,
I used to believe.
‘You’re a diamond’, said mother.
I told her I do not feel that bright.
Life would crush me,
like an ant under a shoe.
Their conservative world has clutched
Me so tight that I couldn’t breathe.
And told me to hold
On to home and hearth
And cede my paper and pen
to run their home.
People around drained me
So I embraced silence and solitude
Hide my soul in the dark
I could spent days and days
On my own without
Any human contact.
‘Be in your limits’, they said.
Don’t step outside,
You can not travel alone.
Don’t wear those pants above the ankle,
That would not suit you at all.
Don’t share your thoughts,
You can not express them well.
Don’t dream so high,
You can not reach those heights.
All their words echoed in my head.
I could feel the pressure to fit in right
That the world wants me to look a certain way.
I once heard someone say,
If you don’t change you do not grow.
Even in the darkest of dark,
If you listen to your heart
You can see your path.
Let’s be so strong that nothing
Disturbs my peace of mind, I decide.
I am the only one in charge
Of my destiny.
To know my limits,
Let me test them.
Before they cut my wings
Let me see them how
Far they could take me.
From two different worlds,
nineteen wonderful Clinton beings
Made me realize my own spark.
Treat your life as your masterpiece,
I could paint every inch
of my canvas as I want.
I could travel alone
And breathe in the fresh & crisp air.
I could express my thoughts
And speak with different people.
I could sing or dance
And do anything which I want.
The girl I was, has changed now
Not in the way they expected
I changed how I see myself
I changed how I talk to myself
I changed what I allow in my life
But above all, I have not changed
myself for others
The pressure to fit in and
Be anything other than myself.
I created a revolution in my own
There’s so much more to life than me
And that is more than okay.
I have learned to understand that
Although I am a small part of this world,
I can still do big things.
My truth is found in who I am,
Not who I try to be or what
someone thinks of me.
There’s no one like me, and
There never will be.
Anjali: Well, thank you all for joining us today on Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship.
The stories that were told here represented many pins on a map. Each having their own itinerary, the fellows embarked in different directions, sometimes getting lost but also finding several things along the way. They found justice and peace, music and beauty, communities, and friends, and themselves.
Now that we have this map, let’s bring this home and finish our journey. Join us on our next and final episode as we call an auto to our next drop location on Episode 5: Auto! Stories of Movement.
I’m Anjali Balakrishna and I’ll see you next time.