The A-Z Kaleidoscope of India… thus far

Having spent time in India previously, my transition to this complex, contradictory, and provocative environment has been what I expected: a Mary Poppin’s style mixed-bag of emotions and sentiments. Here’s almost the full spectrum from A to Z:

Anxiety from almost forgetting to take my last typhoid pill the day we boarded the plan.

Blown away by how religion and caste hierarchy permeates everything. For example, I learned that in the Hindu tradition, Brahmin (the highest caste whose members have the closest connection to the Hindu gods and are responsible for looking after the temples) astrologers are consulted about significant decisions, including marriage suitability, purchasing a house or property, or moving. For example, at the time of birth, the astrologer will prepare a booklet that includes 36 qualities (time of birth down the second, eye color, nature/demeanor, time of sunset and sunrise on the day of birth). Then, parents consult this booklet when they are deciding who would be an eligible spouse among members of their own caste. Eligibility is determined by having at least 18 of the 36 traits match identically. Even if parents of liberal families do not follow this process, many will tell their more conservative friends or extended family that they did it. Disturbingly, over the past two years, there has been a resurgence in murders of couples who marry outside of their caste in northern India. It is particularly perplexing why the incidence is increasing as education, urbanization, and social mobility have progressed, and leaves those looking for strategies to dismantle this entrenched, destructive social structure at a complete loss. Here’s a really tragic article that highlights this situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/10/world/asia/10honor.html.

Confounded by the extreme dissonance between development policy and program implementation. India is full of bright, hard-working, and cause-driven people, many of whom populate high-level government policymaking positions. Despite the well-known corruption in the public system, these people are enacting policies through democratic processes that on paper sound innovative and effective, but I’m finding – for many reasons – do not translate into action. For example, I’ve been learning about one of India’s flagship programs, the Integrated Child Development Scheme, whose mission is to improve the nutritional and educational status of children age 0-6. One of its strategies is to foster childhood development through a village-level, community resource person called an Anganwandi Workers (AW). On paper, each village should have one AW to provide basic education and nutrition support to any child up to six years of age who visit their home. This involves offering morning snack of milk, banana, or fortified biscuit, cooking sweet dalia (wheat porridge) for a mid-day meal, or providing a ration of wheat or rice for them to take home, and teaching them the alphabet and songs. In practice, as you can imagine, there are major problems with food distribution, both from a supply-chain and distribution point of view. Sometimes the AW does not receive adequate supplies to feed all the needy children – despite India’s surplus of grains – or she gives preferential treatment to children from higher castes, friends, etc.. I’ve also heard that she withdraws money from her ICDS account and pays off the joint-account holder so that she tells the community that the money hasn’t arrived. Another problem is that these workers are appointed by the government for life, so they are able to shirk their responsibilities without consequence. Accountability is nonexistent because feedback loops and check and balances are not institutionalized. Furthermore, the opportunity cost of brining a child to the AW’s house could be too much of a tradeoff for the mother when she is responsible for farming, housework, and tending to the animals. I’m trying not to get jaded by the scope, depth, and complexity of the dysfunctions, but it is hard when the problems seem so much greater than the solutions.

Disgusted by the curbside trail of “burn piles” where Indian families deposit their trash every morning. Usually, these piles are breakfast for stray cows, pigs, and dogs.

Excited about learning how to cook oopma and sabun dana and eating it with my right hand. Cooking is one of the ways that I express myself creatively, care for myself, friends, and family, balance indulgence with discipline, and engage and learn from others. Now that I’m in a place where eating seasonally isn’t en vogue, it’s a matter of daily subsistence, I’m looking forward to being in better touch with local crops, growing cycles, and agricultures practices. One of my side projects that is brewing is to create a cookbook that provides a snapshot of diets and cooking practices in rural and urban areas in Southern Rajasthan. The cookbook will have multiple purposes: a entry point for me to connect with new people and learn about different aspects of the rich Indian culinary tradition; a way to give voice to the culinary habits of peoples who would otherwise have no ability to share with the outside world; a platform for educating myself about how food, income, and land insecurity shape peoples’ ability to meet their nutritional needs; and, importantly, evidence from which ARTH can use to inform the design of a maternal and child nutrition project that intends to introduce community-based therapeutic care for malnutrition, including ready-to-use-foods (RTUF). My interest is in trying to identify what indigenous cooking practices and local crops could be leveraged/adapted/supplemented so that they more effectively provide the macro and micronutrients needed to prevent and treat malnutrition in children and anemia in women of reproductive age.

Frustrated by the language barrier. Last week I spent four days in another part of Rajasthan helping ARTH conduct a health situational analysis of four villages. Limited by the Hindi proficiency of a toddler, I was only able to observe and be present. However, I’m finding that in the absence of linguistic communication I am paying greater attention to my surroundings and looking for other types of cues to clue me into what is happening.

Grateful for the choice that the cultural, political, and social structures in the United States afford me, particularly as a woman.

Horrified by witnessing a woman decide not to seek critical health services because she didn’t know if she could get approval from her husband. The implications of gender-based discrimination are truly grotesque in the areas where ARTH works. One of my colleagues described to me how she has witnessed a husband refuse to pay for his wife’s transportation to a higher-level facility to receive a blood transfusion. Facilities at the sub-center level have the least equipment and staff capacity, and thus are not outfitted with a blood bank or the technical skills to perform a transfusion. However, there is an ambulance run by the city administration and ARTH has several vehicles that transport people for free (or very subsidized) to the community-health center in Udaipur. So, if services are known and accessible, what other conclusion can be drawn other than a woman’s life is simply not valued?

Incredulous at the shameful degree of corruption among individuals and government and civil society agencies, which fortunately is in sharp contrast to how ARTH operates. I’ve learned that many public health NGOs that are helping the government run health clinics in Udaipur tell their staff to over report their service statistics so that they receive more money and recognition from the government. Another AIF fellow told me that during their field visits, the guy who is a consultant on his project will ask each family for a bag of corn knowing full well how valuable that is to their subsistence. He told my friend that that’s how things worked when he was with the government.

Jealous of the Indian women who look so beautiful dressed in their brightly colored, multi-patterned, elegant saris. I certainly don’t have the grace or coordination to pull one off.

Motivated to spent more time in the field. I am very aware of my privilege to be able to spend time in rural villages, which typically are inaccessible to outsiders. Learning from the direct, raw exposure to these  environments and seeing how things actually operate on the ground are the only ways for me to understand the nuances of the issues that I care about.

Nostalgic about my family, boyfriend, and close friends, all of whom provide unspoken understanding, camaraderie, and commonality.

Obsessed with slurping turmeric-colored sweet lassis out of a straw in thick, glass coke bottles from ‘82, hiking up to the top of Neemashmata Temple to see the expanse of laundry-lined rooftops beneath me and the green, shrub-covered mountains around me, the baggy afghan trousers I wear to work, and lunchtime with my colleagues when we all take off our shoes, sit on the ground in a circle, and lay out the vegetarian dishes from our tiffins for everyone to share.

Shaken by the number of unqualified, duplicitous, and profit-driven healthcare providers. During the health situational analysis, one of my colleagues visited a provider who treated many of the local villagers. He learned that the “doctor” was unqualified; he had received degrees in pharmacy and in “natural medicine,” a degree not recognized by any of my colleagues. Apparently, his father had been a compounder (nurse assistant) in the local government clinic, and, during that time, had run the same clinic as a side business. However, there is a national policy that prohibits government health workers from working in the private sector because of conflicts of interest. Specifically, it was found that some government health workers were telling the patients that they didn’t have the requisite drugs or facilities to treat the patient then referred them to their private practice so that they could make more money. It also promotes absenteeism since health workers will frequently abandon their shift to perform more lucrative procedures in a private clinic. There is also a high prevalence of “Bangali doctors” who basically paint a red cross sign outside of their shop then prescribe concoctions and offer “treatments” without any training in allopathy.

Thankful for my landlord’s son who invited me to cook dinner with him while I was locked out of my apartment for four hours. I had returned home after a day of feeling overwhelmed by the frustrating elements of India – incessant honking, invasive starring, harassment from rickshaw drivers and dhaba wallahs, lost mail, extreme heat – and wanted to decompress in the familiar, quiet, and private space of my new apartment. After I realized that my roommate had forgotten to leave the key, I had a five-minute tearful meltdown as I sat in the dark, feeling dejected an utterly alone. I had nowhere to go, no one to call, and four hours to wait for my roommate to return. As I felt the nagging feeing of self-pity creeping in, irrationally eroding my confidence in and clarity about the purpose of what I was doing, I gave myself a quick reality check: it could be much worse. So, I went downstairs to recruit the help of my landlord’s son to try to figure out an alternative way to get into the apartment. After unsuccessfully trying to pick the lock (which is actually comforting!), he invited me to watch TV with them in their apartment as I waited for my roommate. For the next four hours, I learned about their family’s transition from poverty to middle-class through the landlord’s trials with shop keeping, property development, and kerosene peddling, saw pictures of their extended family and travels in a series of photo albums, and learned how to cook maize chapatti, vegetarian pullao, and an eggplant-cauliflower curry. When my roommate returned, I left with a date to make a whey-based drink with aunty (the mom) the next morning, their assurance that I was now part of their family and should feel free to spend as much time in their home as I wanted, and a wonderful lens into an Indian family’s daily life. A night that started out with tears and abandonment ended with laughter and new relationships.

I’m sure this won’t be the last time I cry or feel at my wit’s end. And I’m even more sure that India will test my mental strength to a far greater extent than anything I have ever experienced. So, I hope that I can have faith and remain optimistic that things will right themselves in unforeseen and powerful ways.

Uncertainty. All the time. It’s a good day if I know what is going on around me half the time. I never quite know if I’m getting cheated: the price of an apple fluctuates by hour and cart owner’s discretion; if it really is a “fixed price” shop; rickshaw drivers are known to inflate prices by 300%… I’m never quite sure if the scooter I ride will make it to my intended destination (it’s broken down a couple times), what roads to take, and how many cows I’ll have to avoid. It’s still unclear when I should or shouldn’t say that I’m married/single, live alone/with family in the US, sit with the bottom of feet showing, expose my ankles. I never know if I’m being laughed at or what people are saying when I know they are talking about me. Although it can be frustrating and scary, I have found that my greatest transformations have stemmed from periods of uncertainty, which India can – and will – effortlessly deliver.

Yearning for grapefruits, strong coffee, sourdough bread, rain, fresh air, traffic lights (never thought I’d say that), dark beer, while simultaneously embracing and relishing a more parsimonious lifestyle. I find that when things that I am accustomed to are removed (ie, drinking water, a shower, refrigeration, non-seasonal food, a selection of clothes) I feel a sense of liberation; a sense of untangling my sense of self from what is material. In doing so, I am able to have much better clarity about what brings meaning to my life and let go of the things that ultimately don’t matter. You certainly don’t have to come all the way to India to figure these things out. In fact, many people don’t ever embrace a simpler lifestyle because you can access state-of-the-art amenities, gourmet food, and classy accommodation. But, for me, India does grant me the opportunity to experience myself very differently than I do in the US, which I’m trying to take advantage of to the fullest. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% sure that I’ll go back to using a refrigerator, drinking from my tap, and shopping at the Coop, but at least I’ll have a greater depth of appreciation and confidence that without them my life would be no worse.

Just recalling this kaleidoscope of feelings is exhausting, but so telling of the effect that India has on outsiders. Being able to stay grounded and simultaneously allow myself to grapple with new ideas, challenge my assumptions, and ultimately become closer to who I am is what I hope I can achieve throughout these next nine months.

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One thought on “The A-Z Kaleidoscope of India… thus far

  1. Fantastic post!!! Keep them coming! Wow…what a kaleidescope of emotions…I really enjoyed reading it and hope that your experience continues to be rich in all the ways it has been so far. In the end, it’s not the easy times that you will remember or value as much as the things which challenges you to grow!!!

    Very best wishes,

    Ethan Veneklasen
    Executive Director-West Coast

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