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:

One thought on “Self-Reflection

  1. Ravi, sounds like all you hoped for and much more…..fascinating the distinctions you can make within and outside India, and a beginning understanding of profound intraIndian cultures. Well, I guess you will never be the same…….. hopefully, you will be able to observe if there is a peer arena, and if so how similar and different it is from that in US….and at Penn. And, perhaps write something on our “website”……once it swings into action as well as something for your column in the DP. Life here the past few days seem like the weather in INDIA…..95, 100….and folks are sweltering…… Keep up the adventures and don’t forget to jot everything down….. much good luck and continuing learning until you bid your new friends goodbye and board the plane back to US.
    How glad I am I decided to read what was new at Penn…..

    my best,

    Vivian Seltzer

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About Ravi Jain

Penn'17, Economics, sponsored by the Center for the Advanced Study of India to intern at Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development