In terms of my planned research, progress has been disappointingly slow. I was very excited to find out within my first few days on the job that our supervisors would allow me, Ali, and Sudi to choose our own topics of research. I decided to study the influence of teacher absenteeism on girl student dropout in the government schools in one of the two districts that Educate Girls works with—the Jalore district of Rajasthan, India. As my area of primary interest is the intersection between the NGO and the government, I proposed to continue my research by determining the most effective methods that Educate Girls could employ to demand government action regarding teacher monitoring and accountability. For a long time, Ali, Sudi, and I avoided bothering our supervisor with requests for feedback on our proposals, knowing that he was very busy and that our positions as interns did not make our projects top priorities. However, this morning, after several days of feeling painfully unproductive, the three of us requested a meeting with him. All went well, and it seems that we are now really on our way to the field!
Before this morning’s glorious turn of events, I had to remind myself to stay positive, because there is still always so much information to take in here, even if it’s not through the traditional field methods I was expecting to use. A few weeks ago, Ali jokingly suggested that should I fall ill again, I might be able to convince my parents to let me stay if I told them I was collecting information for a senior thesis on Indian hospitals. At the time, the humor in her joke was equal parts absurdity and terrifying potentiality, but now, it seems less and less absurd. After being admitted to Goyal Hospital in Jodhpur, accompanying my friend (mentioned in my last post) to the government hospitals in Bali and Falna, and watching helplessly as she suffered through more waves of pain this past Monday—just the day after returning to Bali from her home village—I do actually feel that I have been granted a window into the Indian healthcare system. There is a difference between the quality of hospital I expect as a visiting American and the locally accepted norm embodied by the Falna hospital—a difference that is dictated by the amount of expendable money available. (The man who runs errands for the higher-ups in the office saw me grimace despite myself when he told me they were taking my friend to the Falna hospital again. He responded, “Life is money.” A few weeks ago he told me life was his wife, and his son, and his family, and his music, and love, but I guess sometimes the less appealing reality slips out.) There is also a difference between my demands to be told the exact purpose of each medicine I was prescribed and the passivity with which my friend accepted each hastily delivered diagnosis, each injection in her backside administered without explanation. If you talk to an Indian about her country, you will hear her call it “our India.” It is so striking to me that a term that carries with it so much weight, that undeniably turns the speaker into an empowered stakeholder, is so commonly used in this country. Because this is a country where parents remove their children from school instead of pushing their government officials to enforce teacher monitoring, where the sick who cannot afford the underhandedly expensive private hospitals might not seek medical attention at all because they accept the apparently inevitable incompetency or even absence of the government-employed physicians. This is a country where my friend fails to take her own medicine, to eat her meals, and to take her recovery into her own hands, and thus continues to suffer from cripplingly painful muscle spasms. There is a vulnerability and disempowerment that is evident here and it is frustrating, unfamiliar, and disheartening to watch.
My unofficial research has also reached the realm of Indian television. The guesthouse has a satellite TV that Manju (our wonderful cook) watches as she prepares our food, and it is almost always on during our waking hours spent in the guesthouse. There is a soap opera that airs at 9 AM as we eat breakfast, during our lunch at 2 PM, and again when we eat dinner at 9 PM. If we were awake at 2 AM, we’d be able to see the same episode a fourth time. Sometimes I catch myself absentmindedly humming the show’s theme song, and I am pretty certain that at this point, I even do it in my sleep. You might think the painfully obvious and forced acting would be enough to ban this show from public television, but unfortunately, when you change the channel, the acting doesn’t get any better. The details of this soap’s storyline continue to elude me, Ali, and Sudi (even though we have multiple chances each day to interpret the same episode). We don’t understand exactly why the drama of the leading male character shaving his head in solidarity with his girlfriend who is battling breast cancer is worth 15 minutes of slow-motion flashbacks and gasps as his hair falls to the floor. Is it against his religion? Did we miss the part where they explained that he is notoriously obsessive about his hair? Does this act of solidarity never happen in India? But here is what we can tell: This show, along with every other soap opera we’ve seen on this TV, is about couples, their undying love, and their romance (with the exception of the few shows that are not about love, but feature weirdly twisted and violent villains). In a country where almost everyone is paired up through arranged marriage, this cookie-cutter whirlwind romance is even less convincing to me than the rom-coms that air in the U.S.
I have learned other things, too. I have learned that it confuses people when I only introduce myself using my first name, because a person’s ‘family name’ is such a critical aspect of her identity here. I have learned that it also confuses people when I respond “none” to the question “What caste are you?” (asked almost immediately by all of the neighborhood children during our first encounter.) I hadn’t known until one of the girls said her caste was “Muslim” that the system refers to social categories beyond those constructed by ancient Hinduism. I guess I should have responded “Jewish.” I have learned that India’s culture of patriarchy is so pervasive and deep-rooted that even I have experienced it in the office of an NGO that works to empower women. I have learned that Deepmala, the supervisor of Team Balika (the young volunteers from each village who attempt to convince parents to re-enroll their daughters in school) makes a delicious potato paratha. And on my way to work today I learned that yes, if you walk alongside one of the many cows loitering in the streets for just a minute too long, it will try to head-butt you. (Don’t worry! My quick reaction time served me well!)
Until next time, when I hopefully have stories from my official research in the field,