last day with Karuna

There’s a hut on the BR Hills VGKK campus. It rests on top of a large boulder that juts out of the otherwise green hill, on which stray dogs sunbathe during the day. The bricks are saffron orange – they were probably once red—and the roof is of thatched, sunburnt leaves. Dr. Sudarshan, the founder of Karuna Trust, once lived here. He came to BR Hills 30-something years ago, a young doctor from Bangalore, built this hut on this rock, and started treating and educating the Soligas tribe out of it. Isabel and I had breakfast with one of his old students the other day, Jadegowda, who is now a professor in Mysore and an activist for tribal rights. He was one of the first six students who Dr. Sudarshan taught and made meals for in that hut, and still remembers what life was like before Dr. Sudarshan came around. In the early days, tribals would actually run away or climb trees when Dr. S ventured into the forest, and it took about a year and a half for him to gain their trust. Since then, Karuna Trust and VGKK have grown from that hut into a sprawling school in the forest (amid elephants and cows and leopards), a hospital, primary health centers, a small army of health workers and teachers and doctors, and lots more… The other day, about 65 families in the area pledged to build latrines outside their homes, the result of a recent health education campaign, and I went around taking pictures of the beginning of construction, which might just bring an end to open-air defecation in this community. Of course, the organization has its problems – there aren’t enough resources, there’s inefficiency, there’s even some corruption. But it’s incredible how much one person’s vision and dedication can help to change the health outcomes of an entire population, and I’m amazed that I got to come see any of it this summer.

I stayed up early into the AM last night, packing and writing a report for Karuna Trust (on the day before it was due, of course, in true Penn-student fashion). Packing is always some sort of metaphorical process for me – watching how my entire life in a place can suddenly fit itself into just a few ordinary, overstuffed bags. I am leaving with only a few additions to what I had originally brought – just a new blanket, a set of bangles, one no-longer-working laptop, and three filled journals. It’s past 2 AM at the moment, so instead of going into detail about the many things I’ve learned this summer, I’ll just leave you with one. Being here has taught me that going with the flow and not fighting the forces around you is key to being inIndia, or to travel in general. If there’s a child pooping in front of you in a corner shop as you drink chai? Awesome. Keep drinking your chai. If there’s an elephant on the road and tribal women are yelling at you to run from it? Well, for god’s sake, RUN. Don’t’ rationalize in your typical manner about how it probably won’t actually attack. If the bus is crowded and smells like sweat and gas, and one of your elbows is jabbing into someone’s stomach and another into someone’s groin, and someone else’s butt is pressing into your face? Fantastic. Melt yourself into the mass of bodies so you’re swaying with everyone instead of against them. India has this way of grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you around, and I’ve figured you just have to go with the rhythm to learn to love it. 

Thanks, CASI, for an amazing summer! And thanks to my co-interns, Isabel and Bhargavi, who have helped me laugh at our many mishaps in our time here. And of course, thanks to all our fellow CASI interns for sharing so much about your experiences on this blog. Good luck, and safe travels!

— shrestha, karuna trust

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About shrestha singh

Current graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. Penn Class of 2012, Health and Societies major with a concentration in Global Health, minor in Journalistic Writing.