A message home

I haven’t written home in a while.

I wanted to write to you about my experiences in India. But my experiences are so interspersed and polarised; I can’t find a way to share them in an earnest manner.

So instead I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned. I hope it sparks just a little insight into my experience so far. It’s not a conventional message, but I hope it means something to you.

They say that if you spend a day in India, you could write a book. If you spend a month, you could maybe write a chapter. And if you spend a year here, you’d struggle to write a page.

Tomorrow, I’ll have been here for 177 days, and it’ll be 177 days until my Fellowship officially ends. Something I’ve started to do is view each day as the start of the rest of my Fellowship. So, while I’ve been here for half my Fellowship year, I’m beginning a six month Fellowship, albeit with the experiences of countless failures and few successes.

Struggling to achieve change is much harder here than it has been before. I look back at previous jobs that have had concrete objectives, led by driven policies, and supported by a wide and experienced team. Campaigns that are based on technology, numerous communication methods and bags of money. Electricity and hot water are given necessities.

Then there’s my role here: my objective is frayed, policies spawned from trial and error experiments, and I’m on my own working in that all too familiar field – children with disabilities. My rapidly overheating laptop forms the entirety of technology at my disposal and I can barely speak the local language. Electricity, like water, is something we plan without.

So there are generally more failures than successes. Tasks that I start that fall to the side, clumsy interactions with elderly villagers, and accidental displays of wealth that prevent families I’m trying to understand from understanding me. Though among the failures, there are moments that remind me why I’m here. Moments that make me feel like a great scientist, a pioneering doctor, a tinkering engineer or an inspiring teacher. This is definitely the place to realise childhood dreams.

I’m continually learning; about India, about education, about myself. Before I came here I was a grown up. I was 28, had a nice job, home and group of friends. But I wasn’t grown up.

Indicorps multifarious philosophy seemed heavy at first. I felt as if in a lecture, being told things that I’d need to recite at some point in the future. I understood Indicorps philosophy, but I didn’t know what it meant.

The phrase, a purpose-driven life, barely sat in my memory. But now without luxuries, I yield fulfillment from the change I’m able to make. My work has become my purpose because from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, that’s all I do. And it’s not a burden, it’s an opportunity. I am driven by the small chance I have to be a catalyst for change in a community with such a challenging future.

I’ve been figuring out what simple living is. Some of the Fellows experiment with Gandhi’s vows, but that’s beyond me. Simple living isn’t about giving things up or making sacrifices. It’s about changing priorities to match your environment. A legacy of consumption is not a fair one for me to leave on the community I work in. Nor is it appropriate. It’s beyond selfish for me to leave here – a place with so little – having taken more than I put back in.

So now I act as the lowest common denominator. I don’t do algebra, but commit myself to performing tasks that in a caste-ridden society of desperate inequality are normally reserved for the untouchables, home-bound women, or the Harijan. I consciously serve as an example by washing my clothes on a cold stone floor when others offer to clean them for me. When Rajveer – an eight-year old with cerebral palsy – soils himself in the middle of the school yard, I choose not to stare on in disgust with the rest of the teachers. I help him clean himself on the same cold stone floor. And when hot water is rationed to freezing children for lack of a much needed chula, I roll up my sleeves and dig with my hands.

But if I could take just two lessons from this year, they would be on sustainability and empowerment. Under the tutelage of grassroots development work in India, they form the root of every decision I make to act. The guilt I feel when buying the simplest of products from a local vendor, on the basis that when I leave there will be no one to take my place as a contributor to the local economy, is harrowing.

To those who know me this may appear ostensibly facetious, but I can assure you the guilt is very real. It would not survive the evolutionary process. The pressure I feel to make sure my work here is sustainable prevents me from otherwise humane acts of generosity.

In December I met a fifteen year old orphan. Hit by cruel fate, he had a tumor on his face and suffered from a learning disability. He had left education and needed to support himself.

I pondered my options. Could I pay to remove his tumor? What would I do for the next ill child I happened upon? What would I do if the cancer spread? The solution, I realized, was not found in overvalued foreign bills. My kindness was not sustainable.

I had met the boy during a study I was conducting to find employment solutions for children with developmental disabilities; he gave my quest a new meaning and he gave me a purpose.

I continue to focus on sustainability through empowerment, under no illusion that as one person I cannot solve all their problems. It’s only by engaging my community to face challenges they have ignored for years – rather than accepting them as fate – that I can change a stubborn mindset of dutiful acceptance to one that is not afraid to embrace change for the better.

So that’s my story so far. I apologise for the lack of funny anecdotes you might have expected. But the sentiment with which I started the email remains. I cannot capture my experience in just one email, not even to begin to do it justice.

I’m preparing for what’s going to happen when I return home. I can assure you that as a person – despite the character of this email – I have barely changed one bit. I’m sure I’ll continue to wax lyrical about distant politics, buy cheap clothes, get bad hair cuts, and spend entirely too long on Facebook. I’ll even use washing machines and get a smart phone.

But maybe I’ll do it all differently.

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