Impressive views


I. Climbing Mountains

As the title says, I climbed a mountain this week on our day off. The Chamunda Devi Temple sits at an altitude of 10,000 feet atop a giant mountain and has been there for at least 700 years – or so the locals say.

The trek usually takes a total of ten hours: five to six hours going up, some time spent at the temple, and another three to four coming down. It actually took us seven to ascend because I was very slow and needed a lot of breaks. We also ended up spending a lot of time at the temple because we had started walking with another auntie and daughter on the way up who needed to get some important items blessed for the daughter’s upcoming wedding.

All in all it was very physically challenging but still an important experience for me to have because I had never done a serious all-day trek like that before. I also loved the opportunity to hear from the auntie about all the local legends/myths/stories about the mountainous area and its various temples and the gods and goddesses who are worshipped.

Another shocking/amazing thing to witness was the ease with which the locals were able to climb the mountain. Even old men and women who live there had started the trek after us and beat us to the top. Their children would run far ahead of them and then run back down only to walk uphill again as if the land was flat. Mind you, it was so steep at times it was like climbing over a wall.

We had ascended so high that we ended up in a cloud and couldn’t see down below. It was very chilly, and being at the top didn’t even feel like being in India because it was unlike anything I’d experienced in my life. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I honestly felt as though I went to the heavens, saw another world, and then came back down again.

II. Being Indian in India

Coming to India has significantly challenged my ideas of what it means to be Indian American. I had predicted the simultaneous feelings of being an insider and an outsider, but I had no idea what form it would take.

Many people here will often ask me “Where do you belong to?” or “Where is your home?” because they can see that while I have physical characteristics that remind them of other Indians, there are other differences – they might hear my American English, or they’ll see my obnoxiously large glasses and my clothes and my possessions – all of which give away my foreignness.

Sometimes their questions can feel aggressive and judgmental, because many Indians have a strong sense of patriotism and they learn from a young age that India is “sare jahaan se accha” (better than everywhere else). In the beginning, I would be told, “Hindi sikho!” (Learn Hindi!) and “ma baap ne kuch sikhaaya nahin?” (Did your parents not teach your anything!?)

Others are not so judgmental. They make such pronouncements as “You may live amongst the angrez (‘English,’ the word for white people), but your blood will always be Indian.” They recognize the extent of the Indian diaspora, and while they may not have any desire themselves to emigrate, they appreciate that I can speak Hindi, well, and for the most part without an accent. They appreciate that I’ve watched Bollywood films; that I grew up with an understanding of their culture; that they have heard of the villages my parents were born in. It makes my Indianness so much more real even if I forget how to say random words or have bad grammar and mix up the genders for verbs and nouns. They are always fascinated with America, asking what’s different about it, which I like better, trying to gauge how Americanized I am and smiling when I’ve said enough to satisfy them. I have come to realize that I appreciate it when people here consider me an Americanized Indian rather than an American who can speak Hindi.

III. Being American in India

Despite my best efforts to speak Hindi and appear as Indian as possible, I inevitably approach situations with an American mindset. I try to keep to myself and take responsibility for myself as much as possible in an effort to come across as well-mannered. However, I wasn’t expecting to be called selfish for not sharing my lunch with others during field days, and for only cleaning up the part of the bench I used. I didn’t think that keeping to myself, and only thinking about myself, could be misconstrued as such. I thought I was on my best behavior.

Inevitably I have a lot to learn about what it really means to be Indian. I know the theory –for example, the strong sense of community – however I didn’t realize what it really meant until I had been gently scolded that off days I have to make sure I inform everyone where I’m headed so that people don’t worry where I am. The idea that the elders are so concerned for me, even though I’m an independent 19-year-old, is understandable but is difficult to deal with in practice.

The other interns and I often laugh at what we consider some of the more overbearing rules of CORD, and more generally, social customs of India involving interactions between men and women / boys and girls among other things. Michelle grew up speaking Spanish, and I learned it in school, so we have seriously taken advantage of having that third language to turn to in case we need to ask questions about what we consider taboo topics. After all, a significant number of people at CORD speak and/or understand English decently well enough to pick up on what we’re saying.

(Examples include: Crap, I just touched your hand by accident! But I saw a man holding a woman’s hand the other day! Could they be married?? But she wasn’t wearing a bindi!!) So many issues, so much Spanish.

IV. Birthdays and Deathdays

Last week I celebrated my nineteenth birthday in India. I share a birthday with one of the Swamis in the Chinmaya Mission, so there were all sorts of extra-special festivities planned. Also at CORD all the birthdays in a month are celebrated on the last day of the month. Thus, on June 30th we were celebrating not only my birthday and the Swami ji’s birthday, but also of six other people. Birthdays in India are altogether different because gifts are distributed in exchange for blessings, rather than the other way around. I had never liked birthdays in general, so it was a nice change to walk around the center with a box of sweets I had bought myself and to give them to everyone.

It was a bittersweet occasion though, because just the night before a CORD worker had died of a heart attack. Despite having grown up in an Indian family, I had never felt a loss of someone I had never spoken to before (and whose name I could recall) so deeply. We all had lost one of our own. In the words of Dr. Didi (“Didi” meaning sister), the National Director of CORD, God had taken her from us too early. We chanted a prayer for her over and over again for what seemed like hours until it was finally time to move on with the day’s planned activities. The difference in the air was palpable, and the celebration of life was stained with the mourning of death.

V. The Many Different Images of India

What is India? By now, the only thing I’m certain of is that no one knows for sure. I have been exposed to many ideas and depictions, but it varies too much to be able to generalize.

There’s the so-called golden age of India that my mom would tell me stories about: the age of duty, when children listened to each syllable of their parents’ instructions, when rulers were fair and just, when there was no poor or rich.

There’s the India my parents grew up in themselves, which is just a snapshot of village life as it was in 80’s when they emigrated to the U.S.

There’s what I experience at CORD, which combines elements of ancient spiritual India with the same village life that hasn’t changed since my parents were here.

There’s modern India, which is found in the cities, and consists of smartphone-wielding, shorts-wearing, heavy-drinking college kids and young adults dating and marrying for love.

And then there’s Bollywood, which is simply ridiculous.

So much of what I consider Indian culture is an amalgamation of these various Indias that I have learned about. It is thus difficult for me to know how to behave, how to carry myself, how other people see me, and what’s taboo and what’s not. I know now that nobody knows what India is, because they all imagine it differently.

Pictures of the climb:

Me and a goat

Tamlish and Operant Conditioning

Tamlish, noun: Tamil + English, a word to describe my attempts at forming cohesive sentences in Tamil with a heavy American accent and severely lacking vocabulary

Positive reinforcement is a great way to convince children to listen to their parents, to make pets to behave, and as I recently discovered, to encourage me to use my practically non-existent Tamil, or more accurately, Tamlish, skills around the office. For the past 6 weeks or so, Hepsiba, Nithya, and Sakthipriya have been teaching me a few Tamil words or phrases each day. While I’ve generated a lot of laughter with how awful my pronunciation is, I’ve picked up on smaller nuances in their day-to-day speaking (which is why I sound remarkably like Hepsiba when I mimic Tamil expressions).

Whenever we have visitors to the office or go to the cafeteria for coffee, Hepsiba enjoys when I demonstrate my new vocabulary words/phrases to her friends or colleagues. I’ve learned that my show and tell almost always leads to food. She told me that it was a friend’s anniversary one afternoon, so I told the friend “congratulations” in Tamil. She was tickled (and likely shocked that this American yahoo said something correctly) and invited us for homemade baked goods in her office. On multiple occasions, guests in the office have been amused by my rudimentary attempts to communicate, and I often get lollipops, carrots, biscuits, etc. This “conditioning” has been very effective, as I now use my small set of known phrases around people and end up receiving treats. The only issue with this is that while those close to me can recognize what I’m attempting to say with my American accent, others find it far more confusing. Despite the fact that I routinely butcher it, Tamil is a beautiful language. Multiple people have said that they love hearing someone else try to speak it, despite inevitable flaws. I enjoy listening to people around me chat, even when I have no clue what they’re saying (which is most of the time) because the language is so melodic and unique to this region of the world.

Recently, we hatched a brilliant plan to show the world my Tamil abilities with a scripted conversation. It makes approximately no sense, and involves a discussion of the following questions: How are you? What’s up? Where are you from? What’s your name? Do you like carrots? Do you want to get coffee?. We made a list of the things we wanted to say, and the conversation was so random I had to stare at my computer every few seconds to remember the next sentence. Regardless of the very low production value and budget of our 1.5 minute film (we only had so many carrots), it’s hilarious to listen to me try to speak Tamil. I end up sounding exactly like Hepsiba.

The best part about this little “project” is that it gave her the fabulous idea to use me for an orientation presentation about telephone etiquette for the new trainees. I have absolutely no idea how this plan is going to work since I don’t actually speak Tamil, but we are jumping headfirst into making clips and planning scripted scenarios to present in front of over 100 girls. If they didn’t think Americans were strange before, they definitely will now!

Enjoy the video; I hope you laugh as much watching it as we did making it.

Anbudan from India


Me and a goat

Me and a goat

Working life in small town India

Over the past week or so we have been having a surprising amount of fun in ol’ Yamuna Nagar. We had settled into an after-work routine of doing something active (running around the college track or kicking a soccer ball around the field), finding a new place to eat “downtown,” and then watching a movie or writing our blogs in the evenings. But, this healthy and productive routine did not last long because, it seems, we have developed busy social lives.

One reason our social lives have bloomed is because LEAP has had many occasions to celebrate. LEAP’s beloved employees celebrated many “LEAP anniversaries,” birthdays and family milestones in the month of June. After celebrating several of these events with food, cake and dancing in the office, we decided to celebrate Saloni’s last day at LEAP by going to a Bollywood movie in the theatre after work. The movie Dil Dhadakne Do, is a hilarious, light comedy that traces the melodramatic lives of a wealthy businessman and his grown children. Narrated by the family dog, Dil Dhadakne Do was surprisingly easy to understand even though it is three hours long and it did not have English subtitles. The storyline was predictable and characters’ reactions were exaggerated, which made the humour understandable (most of the time). Bonus: every character in Dil Dhadakne Do is extremely easy to look at.

But, enough about our new obsession with Ranveer Singh. This week we were also invited to a co-workers house for dinner. Niharika is one of LEAP’s dedicated trainers. Her kindness and willingness to help us find the things we need around town is overwhelming. Her family is extremely generous as well. They fed us a five-course meal (including two special desserts: one from her mum and one from her dad). It was by far the best food in town. Her father also gave us a thorough tour of the city and took us to the temple where we each had a chance to ring the bell.



Aside from the company of co-workers, we have started to get to know the people we see daily as well. For instance, the man who sells samosas down the road recognizes us and reluctantly smiles occasionally; auntie in the canteen cooks our favorite dishes for lunch; and Isha at Beauty Palace has found Bill all of the hair and cosmetic products he needs.


(Shopping with Isha at Beauty Palace)

Although we have been busy developing thriving social lives we have also managed to maintain focus at work. This month Leora and I are working on some very exciting projects. We are helping to develop a fixed induction training program for new employees and we are planning workshops for a two-day training program for LEAP’s current trainers, which will be conducted next week. The program will feature workshops on experiential learning, classroom presence, discussion leading, incorporating technology in the classroom and effective feedback, among other topics.

Finally (for now), we are doing further research the skills development ecology in India. It is so fascinating to note the rate at which the field is developing and diversifying. Last semester I read a significant amount of research and wrote a few papers concerning the viability of skills development as a solution for India’s growing unemployed youth population. Since writing those papers potentially significant steps have been made by the new Ministry of Skills Development and Entrepreneurship including a tentative draft of their long anticipated National Policy for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship 2015. Staying updated on developments in Skills Development in India is complicated and exhausting because there are many different types of public and private stakeholders and programs already in place. Learning about various approaches to Skills Development is increasing my understanding of the urgency for more research in this field.

PS. Happy Canada Day from your two favourite Canadians in Yamuna Nagar!!!


I said Poka-yoke, not Pokemon: Where Checklist Manifestos and Japanese Manufacturing Meet Cataract Surgery

Have you ever taken a test and then gotten back the graded paper and discovered some incredibly careless mistake that you never thought you could possibly have made? It is amazing that even when we double check our answers, we still sometimes make those stupid, little errors: we add two key numbers instead of multiplying or we forget a word that renders our thesis statement incoherent to the outside world. My test-taking career has certainly been riddled by these kinds of errors, and what I have come to accept is that they are beyond prevention, unavoidable, a price of being a member of the species homo sapiens.

Medicine is not immune to human error. In fact, the procedures and practice of medicine are so complicated that the likelihood of making an error may be much higher than a stupid mistake on a three-page written exam. And, worse still, the price that is paid for those errors is exponentially higher. A doctor forgetting to wash his hands can be the difference between sending an inpatient home safely the day after a procedure and an extended stay in the inpatient ward with a potentially life-threatening hospital-acquired infection. It’s hard to really appreciate the chance of a medical error or the costs that medical errors exact without some context. 403 people across the world died in plane crashes in 2012, just over 30,000 people died in the US in car accidents in the same year, and it is estimated that over 200,000 in the US died from preventable medical errors in 2012 (Journal of Patient Safety:,_Evidence_based_Estimate_of_Patient_Harms.2.aspx). Why do so many medical errors occur? The explanation probably has to do with systemic problems and challenges in medical care; it’s not about a few bad doctors/nurses. Medical care is really hard to do properly, and there are just failings in the system that put patients at risk.

At Aravind Eye Care Systems, there have been extensive measures taken to refine the system to prevent medical errors. As a result, the rates of complications in procedures and hospital-acquired infections are extremely low and well below national and international averages; Aravind surgical complication rates are less than half those seen in the UK.

A figure from the consulting giant, Mckinsey & Company:

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However, the problem that Aravind runs into is a sort of law of large numbers. There are huge patient volumes at Aravind, and the way that patient flow is designed, patients are interacting with many, many people in a single visit. In one out-patient visit, there may be as many as 15 patient interactions with Aravind staff, and there are even more during an inpatient admission. This means that in a typical, single day, when Aravind is seeing well over 2000 patients, there can be as many as 50,000 interactions with patients. So even if the chance of an error is 0.0001% per interaction, with this many patient interactions, there are still bound to be a non-trivial number of medical errors. And this is something that the Chairman of the Hospital, Dr. R.D. Ravindran (aka Dr. RDR), is dogmatic about. To him, having a low rate of errors is not enough; one medical error that harms a patient is too many. A 0% rate of medical errors is the only acceptable value.

One of my projects for the summer is to work on the issue of patient safety to try to prevent medical errors. In part, this involves putting together a patient safety manual for staff along with posters and presentations that include comprehensive protocols for all procedures in the hospital. At another level, though, I am trying to find little ideas for small process changes that can be done to make procedures a little safer. To that end, I have been reading a lot about checklists.

The checklist is not a novel concept, and yet a checklist was probably one of the most significant, life-saving medical innovations in the last fifteen years. In the early 2000’s, Peter Pronovost, an ICU doctor at Johns Hopkins, started to find that steps in the official, standard procedural protocols were often being skipped (inadvertently) by nurses and doctors. So he pushed people in his ICU to use a short checklist when inserting central venous catheters. The result he found was that just the simple checklist could greatly reduce the number of hospital-acquired infections. In a large study of Michigan hospitals that was published in 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine, it was discovered that installation of Pronovost’s checklist approach reduced infection rates in ICUs by 66% and saved as many as 1500 lives ( The success of the initiative partially inspired the famous public health researcher and New Yorker staff-writer, Atul Gawande, to write a book called the Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, in which he promoted the use of checklists in surgery and beyond (here’s a link to an article Gawande wrote in 2007 about the Pronovost checklist:

Aravind has a very simple checklist for eye procedures; it involves the surgeon and operating theatre team signing off on the fact that they have confirmed the patient identity, the site of surgery, the procedure to be done, and the type of intraocular lens to be inserted in the case of a cataract procedure. The checklist seems to work quite well, but I am obsessed (probably to the annoyance of Olivia and Busra, at whom I throw my wacky ideas all the time) with trying to see if there are some ways to supercharge it because even in spite of the checklist, mistakes are still being made. One idea is to have more people (in particular, those who interact with the patient prior to the operation theatre) fill out a checklist. Even though, these individuals are supposed to already be doing checks, filling out a checklist may reduce the likelihood of a nurse or a physician forgetting to ask about something or forgetting to check something. It would in essence be like running a check on the check that is already being done by the operating team, or in other words, like doing a triple- or quadruple-check of your answer on an exam.

Yesterday, though, I was sitting in the patient care office of the outpatient hospital, and I got to talking to an engineer, who worked at Coca Cola as a manager of operations, but who was in the process of resigning from Coke to start a robotics start-up targeted at the health care industry. He had come to Aravind to see how robotics technology could be used in the hospital. After telling him a little bit about the patient safety project and my ideas with beefing up the checklist, he suggested that I shouldn’t be looking for more checks. He said I should be thinking about a Japanese technique called “poka-yoke,” which in English means “mistake-proofing.” It is a strategy that Coke and other manufacturers use on the manufacturing line to prevent human error from even coming into the equation, and it involves using automation to eliminate unnecessary human discretion or make it incredibly obvious when an error is being made. The analogy here would be that if you were worried about people making small, stupid mistakes in an answer to a test question, don’t just force them to check the answer, turn the question from free response into multiple choice. Eliminate the possibility of little mistakes.

In the few minutes of talking to him alone, I think that I came up with one idea where mistake-proofing can be used in the hospital. One of the medical errors that Aravind is desperately trying to completely eliminate involves operating or doing something at the wrong site (i.e. the wrong eye). There are a couple of checks and tricks that are used to prevent a mistake like this. There’s the checklist, but there are also others: a patient identification wrist-band is placed on the hand corresponding to the eye of the operation, a bright sticker designating the target eye is placed on the patient’s case folder, and a small mark is made above the temple of the target eye to basically give the surgeon and anesthesiologist a bull’s-eye target (most surgeries here use local anesthesia, so the anesthesiologist anesthetizes the eye to be operated upon and is very much implicated in targeting the correct eye). Even in spite of these little checks, there are a number of cases each year where the wrong eye was anesthetized or even operated upon, and in more than half of these cases, everything, including the wristband, the sticker, and the marking, was done correctly. These so-called “acute” cases are very mysterious, but they can happen because a doctor didn’t realize which side of the bed he or she was standing on, or had already done so many in a day that he/she momentarily lost focus. I think that these acute cases can be totally eliminated with a little poka-yoke. What if at the time that the temple is marked in the inpatient ward, a patch is put over the eye not being operated upon. Then, not only is the target for the surgery marked on the correct eye, but the possibility of doing something inadvertently to the other eye has been literally blocked with a piece of cloth. Not only is the test question multiple choice, the wrong answer has already been scratched out.

Maybe mistake-proofing like this is so simple that it can’t solve larger cultural weaknesses in the Aravind system for patient safety. Maybe even beefing up the checklist isn’t particularly relevant to reducing medical errors. But maybe, just maybe, we can prevent a mistake.

Trips with Friends New and Old

Every day here presents new challenges and adventures. We’re generally greeted with at least one surprise or new experience each day.

This past week we headed out with our high school Propeller students for an Outbound Session – essentially a field trip. Because the program is very focused on orientating the students towards their careers, the trip consisted of an industrial site visit to the factory of a heavy engineering firm. To be honest I’m not sure how much the students got out of the visit, I think even the trainers were a bit disappointed, but we did get to see some very big machines (this one is so big that it is machine used to make machines that cut metal for cars):


And do some fun dress up: (we learned that safety is key in an industrial setting!)

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After a jam-packed two weeks of work, we finally took some time off and headed back to Delhi!

The last time we were in Delhi, we spent six days there and did hardly any sightseeing. When we tried to sight-see, we almost collapsed in the heat.

This time around, we were determined to do things right. We managed to book the hostel that last summer’s interns had recommended, called The Moustache. It was a great place, with a friendly man named Raj at the front desk to greet us and this incredible sign on the kitchen door:


While hanging out in the hostel we made a new friend, named Lissa. Originally from Ohio, she did the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa and is headed for a Master’s in Global Studies at Yale in the fall. (the people you meet in India often sound like they should be writing memoirs). Now we’re certainly no experts on India, but Lissa had just landed 8 hours before we met her, so it was exciting to take her with us around the city, spewing all of our ‘expert’ advice about everything ranging from food, to travel, to the proper way to haggle with an auto rickshaw driver.

We got up early (relatively speaking), and got out of the hostel by 9 a.m., hoping to beat the midday heat, and headed out (in an expertly bargained-down auto) to Old Delhi in the north of the city.

We got dropped off at Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in Delhi, originally built in the 17th century! We may have thought Delhi was narrow, loud, and full of people before, but we had no idea what was in store for us. At first we walked along the wide, busy main street and then, unsure how to find the “market” itself, we dove into a crammed alleyway. We then found ourselves winding through endless narrow streets crammed with bicycle rickshaws, shoppers, and stores selling books, saris, and wide varieties of food:

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After asking lots of directions, we magically didn’t get lost in the maze of alleys and made our way to Jama Masjid, the most famous mosque in Delhi and (according to Wikipedia) the largest mosque in India. Built in the 17th century, it has three giant domes made of red sandstone and white marble and a wide pavilion for worshippers. Clothed in some robes helpfully (read: forcefully) offered to us by the mosque’s gatekeepers, we ventured inside, doing our best to move across the red sandstone without burning the soles of our feet in the scorching sun. Despite the numerous tourists taking pictures, when we reached the front portion of the mosque, it felt peaceful A few men sat crouched over praying quietly, and a few others simply lay on their backs in the shade, enjoying a welcome respite from the heat.



After lots of walking and seeing, we made sure to finish the day’s adventures (at around 1 p.m. considering the heat) with some eating.

Chandni Chowk is known for having a lane called Parantha Wali Gali, where they sell an enormous variety of paranthas, basically fried dough stuffed with different fillings. Usually they’re just filled with potato or cauliflower, but these restaurants offer dozens of flavors, from mint to banana to radish to cashew. Suffice to say, they were delicious!


(cashew was my favorite)

No we’re back in Yamuna Nagar, gearing up for another jam packed week of work!

Old Chamunda Temple

Although I was planning on posting tomorrow, I was thinking so much about our hike yesterday that we did on our day off, that I decided to post today. Yesterday, we hiked to the Old Chamunda Temple, about 17 km each way. There is the new Chamunda Temple that was built years ago, which is on the main road in Chamunda, but, as people we met told us, last year, a fire burned much of the temple. The statue of Chamunda Devi survived however, so it was consequently moved back up to the mountaintop temple.

The temple that we went to is very old, and is very high up, near the snowline, and only accessible by trail. We were so fortunate with all of the people who we met and got to talk to. We did most of our hike with a woman from Palampur and her daughter, who was in her early twenties. At first, I wrongly assumed that we would be going faster than them, but after going the wrong way on a very steep part a few times, it became clear to me, as Ravi had suggested, that we should all go together. I am so glad we did, as they were so incredibly nice, and the mother was so helpful, in terms of picking out shortcuts, and in many more ways.

It was great to talk to other people along the way, and so interesting to imagine what it must be like to live so high up in the mountains, and have to hike for hours to reach the town. There were some small shops where people could sit and rest along the way. At one of these, I asked how many hours were left. The man responded, "No, this isn’t about asking how many this, how many that. Don’t be looking toward the top of the mountain. You look down, where your feet are stepping, and all along the way, you just keep saying, Jai Mata Di, Jai Mata Di.:

He was so right, as it took us around 7 hours to reach the top. Every time we looked, there was a higher mountain to reach, and if someone told us we had some amount of kilometers left, we would ask an hour later and sometimes we would be told there were more kilometers left than last time! The hike was challenging, as most of my hikes have been up and down, rather than straight up for that long, and I am so thankful of Soumya (another awesome intern who lives at the center) and Ravi for coming, even though they weren’t as much into hiking as I am. We all still can’t believe we made it.

We were very lucky with the day we picked, not just because of the good weather, but because it was a special day. It was the first day that there was water at the top of the temple. Before, they used to bring up about 50 L each day by horse, and have to ration it out. However, at another of the small stores, one of the men told us that the locals themselves decided to built an 8 kilometer pipeline from a different mountain, where there is always snow and thus always water, to the temple. Thus, we got there not only to find plenty of water, but a celebration, and dham (a multi-course meal usually given at celebratory occasions).

It was amazing to see so many people of all ages making the trek, with ease. We met an old man who said he had heart problems, and children about 6 years old, running up and down from their father, who was higher up, to their mother, who hiked with us for a time. We also encountered an elderly religious man, who told us more about the temple, and talked about his love for India, and the concept of a family that can encompass a whole village or a whole nation. On the way down, we were passed by about a dozen young women, who were singing lively songs in Pahardi (the local language).

One evening, us four interns staying at the center decided to do some bonding, and took turns answering questions about ourselves. One was to describe a perfect day, which I described as a day where I woke up, and hiked the whole day, with friends. At the end, Soumya commented that it had been my perfect day. It is definitely the steepest hike I have done, and at every turn, the view was absolutely amazing. When we got to the top, we were in the middle of a cloud, so just seeing nothing but white on all sides was an amazing feeling of its own. I’d like to learn more about the history behind this temple, and am so thankful to have had this experience and to all the people I shared it with.

Experiencing Rural India

I slipped off my sandals and stepped inside of the room. As I walked towards the woven rug in front of me, I could feel the coolness of the tiled floor against the soles of my feet. The fan whirled overhead, blowing strands of thick chocolate-brown hair across my face. Sitting cross-legged on the rug were three women wearing brightly colored fabrics – gold, blue, and fuchsia hues were draped across their bodies. As I approached, their smiles filled the room. “Namaste,” the women said warmly, greeting Andrew, Sasha (an intern hailing from England) and me. “Namaste, Didi,” we chanted back. We moved towards the ground and propped ourselves against the white wall behind us. Unlike the women before us, we constantly shifted our bodies until we found comfort, which typically lasted only ten minutes before we changed positions once more. I turned to my right and pulled out my camera, placing it strategically atop my folded knee. Andrew and Sasha pulled out their notebooks and pens.

We traveled two hours down winding dirt roads to Barwaha the Friday before last to interview the three women who work for SPS as mitaans or “friends.” Mitaans are members of the community that serve as mediators between self-help groups (SHGs) and SPS. The duties of mitaans are numerous, as they serve as liaisons between local banks and SHGs, help SHG members with bank transactions and records, conduct calculations during meetings, promote SPS’s livelihood programs, and provide SHG members with valuable personal and financial advice. As part of our internship work, Andrew and I are collecting the stories of female and male mitaans throughout the region.

Speaking with the women was inspiring. One woman lived in an abusive household with her husband and in-laws, and fled a year before joining SPS to her parent’s home with her one-year-old son. During that year, she faced social pressure from her neighbors and distant relatives who called upon her to return to her husband. She also lived in isolation at her parent’s home. Over and over again, she told us that working for SPS set her “free.” She was not only able to move about outside her home, but the woman – who only had a fifth grade education – was financially liberated. With the money she received she was able to pay for her son to attend a private school, as well as provide financial support to her family.

Another woman that we spoke with, who had also been working for the organization for ten years, was able to fulfill her lifelong career aspirations through SPS. Prior to working at SPS, she worked as a teacher, as well as at an institute that served mothers and their children. Although she enjoyed her work, she thought that working for SPS would better enable her to improve her community. Since working at SPS, the women in her SHGs now have bank accounts and have even learned how to use checkbooks. These women have also gained the confidence to leave the home on their own and speak with government and bank officials about their concerns. Working for SPS has also helped her, as it gave her a family. While she was going through a divorce, her colleagues supported and cared for her.

The last woman that we spoke with also found a family through her work as a mitaan. She joined SPS nine years ago, because her father – a government official – wanted her to give back to her community. Prior to working for the organization, she worked for an adult literacy NGO in Indore and operated a small grocery store. Several years ago, her father passed away and the entire community came out to support her while she grieved. His passing was especially difficult for her, as he played a pivotal role in encouraging her to join SPS – he even helped her with accounting calculations late into the night while she was training. She had told us that she knows that when she passes, the community will be there for her family, too.

I was so moved by the stories of these women. They had been so open with us about their struggles and the ways in which SPS altered their lives. Additionally, it was great to see firsthand SPS’s “ripple effect.” Not only did SPS help these women become independent and pursue their dreams, but these female mitaans in turn are helping the SHG members become self-sufficient. After the interview, we hopped back into the car and drove home.

(Left to Right): Me, Andrew, Kiran (mitaan), Nishta (SPS employee), Rukhsana (mitaan), and Sasha

(Left to Right): Me, Andrew, Kiran (mitaan), Nishta (SPS employee), Rukhsana (mitaan), and Sasha.

Essentially India's version of the Brazilian "Beijinho de Coco," which I was raised off of.

Essentially India’s version of the Brazilian “Beijinho de Coco,” which I was raised off of.

I gave one final look at Barwaha through the open window of the FWD, my hair and dupatta thrashing violently in the wind. Barwaha was immense and had many features of a city: auto-rickshaws pushing past buses, cars, and motorcycles; bustling shops selling gadgets, clothes, medicine, and a number of other items; hole-in-the-wall restaurants smelling of freshly fried samosas, rotis, and potatoes; and multi-story homes and businesses. After spending three weeks in villages and small towns, Barwaha – one of three towns SPS works at in the Khargone District – was an overwhelming site. We drove fifteen-minutes through the town – stopping to buy treats along the way – before we entered familiar territory: scattered villages, lively rivers, and the rural countryside.

An hour into our drive home, Ayush (one of our many drivers) turned off the main road into an otherwise ordinary village. The homes we drove past were painted with pastel blues, pinks, and oranges, topped with tin or straw roofs. Men were speaking with one another on the streets, while women returned home with metallic jugs of water either planted atop their heads or tucked underneath their armpits. Young children were playing with one another by rolling car tires, while older ones herded cattle and goats to their stables.

The countryside.

The countryside.

The countryside

The countryside.

Leaving Barawah

The countryside outside of Barwaha.

Pastel blue homes seen throughout the area.

Pastel blue homes seen throughout the area.

Suddenly, the car came to a halt. To our left sat one of the most beautiful Hindu temples I have seen since arriving in India. According to Ayush, it is one of the most sacred and oldest temples in the country revering Hanuman, the eleventh incarnation of Lord Shiva.

The temple with its open layout was quite expansive. Its orange walls wore signs of time, as segments of paint were peeled away and the color faded. As we stepped through the gate into the temple, we heard the rhythmic chanting of one of its many swamis (Hindu monks). The swami, whose small body was hunched over the enormous pages of the holy text, had circular glasses and thick white hair, which clung to his back. I was amazed by his piousness, as he never glanced up from his text to look at the three outsiders nor did he break for water or air.

We entered another section of the temple, which was under renovation due to its age, and met three other swamis. The swamis – two of which had orange-colored hair from henna dye – entertained conversations with us. They then proceeded to show us Hanuman’s shrine, which had exotic flowers strewn across it and a container with water. The shrine was lit up by a number of candles, which glowed brightly against the black curtain of night. The smell of burning wax, as well as that of incense, also swam through the air. I was overwhelmed by the sanctity of the temple and shrine, which was over 5,000 years old.

Before we left, we thanked the swamis and accepted the Prasad they gave us with our right hands. As we collected our shoes, I stopped to look once more at the swami reciting the Vedas (“Book of Knowledge”). Next to him was a statue of another swami who died many years beforehand and in front of that was a statue of Hanuman. The swami at the shrine had told us that when the swami died, Hanuman’s statue cried; therefore, the swamis decided to construct the statue of the devoted monk and place the two in front of each other. I imagined that the statue would shed a tear once more when the graying monk before me passes away too. With that, I made my exit out from the gates of the temple and into the car.

Towards the end of dinner that night, the sky began to weep. We could hear the clap of thunder, as well as the howling of wind and water beating against the pavement outside. We had experienced torrential downpour one week earlier while out on the field.

During orientation, Andrew, Eden (one of two PhD research fellows), and I were en route to look at a chick rearing station for SPS’s livestock program. The station, which was forty-five minutes away from campus, required that we drive down an unpaved road filled with ditches and boulders. With 2km left into our drive, we decided to turn around and return home, because of the road’s poor condition. As soon as we began driving home, however, the rains began. The soil muddied and trapped the wheels of the FWD. We exited the car and took cover under a roof belonging to one of the local villagers (who, despite not knowing us, took us to her chicken coop to look at her birds and two-week old goats), as the driver attempted to reverse from the mud. After the engine revved for ten minutes without any results, we helped push the car from its muddy grave. The three of us, as well as two SPS employees, successfully pushed the car onto the road much to the amusement of the local children. In addition to this struggle, we were faced with yet another later that day. Rain poured into Andrew’s room, as his window did not properly shut. While attempting to close it, the window frame popped off. We had a similar introduction to the monsoon rains the night we visited Barwaha and the temple.

While the storm raged, the lights to the mess hall shut off momentarily. During the power outage, employees began to sing vintage Hindu songs that their parents used to sing to them. It was memorizing to hear their singing against the bursts of thunder and the flashes of lightning. Once electricity was restored, the singing continued. Sasha and I sat for an hour listening to the Hindu songs. At times, men and women tossed lyrics at one another; while at others all ten voices came together as one. I listened as my friend, Sohini, sang a particularly captivating song on her own. Had fatigue not consumed me, I could have stayed listening to the music for hours.

On our way out from the mess, Sasha and I were surprised to see that the storm persisted in its severity. I put on my soggy sandals (which had been left out in the rain) and ran towards home; my headlamp capturing the shadow of frogs, as they hopped away from us into the dark. Although our apartment was only three minutes away, the moments we spent in the rain without an umbrella or raincoat left us drenched. Unsurprisingly, the symphony of thunder, wind, and rain continued to play throughout the night.

Hindi Phrases and Words:
Ālū = Potato
Āma = Mango
Aṇḍā = Egg
Āpa kaisē haiṁ = How are you doing?
Āpakā svāgata hai = Your welcome
Aura āpa = And you?
Bakara = Goat
Bāriśa = Rain
Bhiṇḍī = Okra
Bijalī = Lightning
Cāvala = Rice
Copy = Notebook
Imalī-Chutney = Tamarind chutney
Kēlā = Banana
Macchara = Mosquito
Madada = Help
Maiṁ amērikā sē hūm̐ = I am from America
Mērā nāma (NAME) hai = My name is….
Nag = Cobra
Pānī = Water
Sām̐pa = Snake
Ṭhīka hai = Okay

Indian Movie:
Dil Dhadakne Do (“Let the Heart Beat”) – enough “Hinglish” is used that subtitles are not necessary.

A look at our campus on a walk to Bheekpura Village.

The sunset from outside my room.

Egret at the lake on campus where I live.

View from my apartment before the rains fully kicked in (it is much greener now).

View of campus from a distance.

View of campus from a distance.

A look at Bheekpura Village, which is situated behind our campus.

Taken during our evening Bheekpura hike yesterday.

Taken during our evening Bheekpura hike yesterday.