Before I left for India, my mom bought me a camera. It was half birthday gift and half incentive for me to document my trip so she could get a sense of it when I came back. I left with an immense sense of duty carried in the space of two large memory cards. I carry my camera most days just in case something big happens. I even document the small things, like car rides through interesting parts of the city or villages, meals that have become mundane for us (masala dosa for breakfast, anyone?) and funny signs I find around.
I’ve probably annoyed the other Bangalore interns with my incessant photographing. I’m always pulling my camera out at the most inopportune times, catching people in their awkward or grumpy moments. I have nearly 2,500 photos so far, and many of them are not going to be uploaded to social media. Some will not even make it into the folder I open to show friends and relatives pictures of my trip. I have way too many pictures taken from some spot on some hill somewhere in Karnataka. Still, I’m glad I have all of them so that I can always look back. Many of them will remind me of specific places, trips, interactions, and feelings.
But the best moments are often the ones that aren’t caught by the lens: when the Shahi family surprised me on my birthday my camera was sitting in my backpack at my office desk. Less dramatically, sometimes I’m just too slow to catch that road sign.
Or that one time I went to a random work event and ended up partaking in a pooja and giving a keynote speech impromptu. Yes, you read that correctly.
One of the many wonderful employee welfare programs that Shahi does in partnership with Gap Inc. is called PACE (Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement). This program teaches many soft skills such as nutrition, hygiene, reproductive health, financial literacy, and even female empowerment over the course of a few months to batches of female garment workers. On Monday all of the Shahi interns got invited to a PACE launching ceremony in one of the factories, but only I was able to attend.
I was finishing up running a survey on language use in Unit 12 so I came with one of the HR officers from 12 in a rickshaw. We were running incredibly late and Prem (one of my closest coworkers in the central office) kept calling us. I figured that the HR I was with (Doris) was needed for the ceremony but was confused as to why they couldn’t start without her. As we pulled up to the factory finally, about a half an hour late, Doris said to me “there might be some surprise.” I was confused and dismissed her comment. I had never been to this particular factory before, so maybe she meant that it would look different than what I’d come to expect in the central office factories or Unit 12. As we walked through the gate a tall and young staff member stood waiting for us, ready to show us where to go.
Now I knew something was up.
He led us up some stairs and into a room where dozens of factory employees were sitting facing a small stage. They all turned to look at me as I was led up onto the stage and my backpack (camera within) was taken by another coworker. I tried to insist that I just sit in the back and watch, but they had a place set for me to sit on stage with clearly Important People.
Opening remarks were all in Kannada and translated to Hindi except for one sentence stuttered which I would have missed if not for my name: “Please welcome from the USA Madam Kendra.” Those of us on stage took off our shoes and lit pooja candles and then one by one each person seated on stage gave a few remarks. I slowly realized that I was the next person in line sitting on stage.
“You give a speech next?” Chitra whispered to me. “Me?? Why?” “Just wish them all the best and you can sit down again.”
So at my turn I stood up and went to the microphone. “Namaskara” I began with one of the few Kannada words I know. I thanked the management and trainers for making PACE possible and encouraged the women in front of me to join a program whose inspiring alumni I’ve had the honor of meeting on a few occasions. I finished with “Danyavada” or a formal “thank you” and sat down. No one translated, but I think the women got the gist and if nothing else were pleased by clumsy Kannada inclusions.
There is a lot about privilege to unpack here. Why did a random undergraduate intern get a seat of honor at an event that has very little to do with her internship? Plenty of Chitra’s team (comprised of actual PACE trainers) sat below, enjoying my discomfort and preparing to tease me after the ceremony. They all would have been much better suited to speak at the event. Because of the color of my skin – which honestly isn’t very different from some of the Indian hues I’ve seen – and my American accent, I was Special and Important to the garment workers (and to some extent the corporate staff); fit to be admired and listened to. It’s a place of privilege I’ve been navigating since arriving here. But at the end of the day, if exoticizing me as a foreigner brightened any of the workers’ days or encouraged them to join the PACE program, I’d say this was a relatively harmless manifestation as far as exercises of privilege go.
But back to my main point: what was beautiful about the moment was that it was a surprise. I didn’t get to perfectly frame a photo, and I’ll never get to see what my face looked like in the moment of realization. And that’s okay. For every one of my 2,500 pictures I have much stronger emotional and sensory memories of my experiences. pictures of hills are nice, but they are two dimensional and mean much less to me than the feeling of looking out and realizing how small I am in such a big world.
All that being said, there was another PACE launch later in the week and I kept it a secret from the other Shahi interns so they could be as surprised as me. Valentine gave a speech on our behalf and I DID snap a few shots. But as for my solitary experience, all I have for that is a picture of the fabric bouquet they gave me, taken back in my room later on. And that’s totally okay by me.