Quilts & Eyes

This time next week, Sophie and I will be on our way back to Visakhapatnam where we will stay one night before flying to Jaipur to spend the weekend exploring, eating, and relaxing. After Jaipur, we will be stationed in Hyderabad for the remainder of our time in India, working in the Naandi office to edit and produce the footage we have collected from interviewing over twenty farmers throughout the past three weeks. 

I am immensely thankful for my stay in Araku for a diverse array of reasons. Primarily and most obviously, I had the unique opportunity to experience life in rural India. As I have come to realize through my travels in the short period of time that has been my life thus far, each place one visits and spends time in leaves an indelible mark on one’s being. I feel as though I am quilting a blanket, sometimes fervorously, intentionally focusing on each stitch and sometimes passively working away; each patch representing an experience I have had and the entire blanket as my life and self. Every once and awhile, I step back and glance at the accumulation of each section. Sometimes in awe, sometimes with hands clasped halfway over my eyes afraid to fully see, most of the time somewhere in between these two feelings. As Araku is stitched into my quilt, I’m looking at it all and checking out the latest additions; the taste of the mango we picked from the field stitched right next to the adrenaline I felt riding on the back of that motorcycle through town, positioned near the view of the mountains from my rooftop, etcetera. As I look, I’m feeling my most favorite feeling: contentedness with the past, stability in the present, and excitement for the future. 

Interviews don’t wait for the monsoon to pass!

Secondly, I am thankful for the work I have done in Araku, which has not only been fulfilling on a personal level but also unexpectedly turned out to be highly applicable to my future career goals. As I realize more and more each day, I don’t want to anchor down, so to speak, anytime soon. There is quite literally an entire world out there to see and explore and the image of myself sitting in an office building watching it all pass by makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise up as a shudder of repulsion washes down my spine. I wish this was little more than hyperbole, but it’s the truth. Accordingly, I dream of being a journalist, a foreign correspondent, traveling to unfamiliar and exciting, sometimes dirty and scary, preferably fascinating and thought–provoking, new places, writing and discovering. With this in mind, the most invaluable new ability I have found and begun to develop this summer has been non–verbal communication. 

This “skill” was born, excruciatingly, out of my biggest obstacle. As a tall and blonde white woman, there is no possible way to go incognito in rural India, much less casually slip into a remote farming village and conduct a conversation with the people living there. As soon as I step out of the car, everybody turns to look. Their stares range from cold, to welcoming, to confused, to scared. I feel like a monster when I smile at a child and they go running behind their mother, nearly crying from fright. This happens pretty frequently. My initial reaction to this predicament was frustration. I would think to myself, “I’m normal and friendly, I’m here to talk to you, I want to talk to you, and learn about you!” Frustration, yes, and also embarrassment. “Should I dye my hair? Wear a hat all the time…even inside?” And most important and pressing of all I would wonder, can I effectively do my job?

After a few lackluster interviews, I began to realize that the more I let doubt and frustration grow inside of me, the more they manifested themselves in my physical appearance. My sourness caused me to glance downwards, frown, and tense up, which ultimately impeded the quality of my interviews even more than my blonde hair and pale skin ever did. In addition to poor body language, my inability to communicate via words resulted in my attention wandering and my mind growing fuzzy, often times mid–interview. I wasn’t connecting and I wasn’t reaching anybody. I wasn’t prompting them, as a good interviewer must, to express themselves genuinely and demonstrate some of their true character. 

The solution to my dilemma turned out to be simpler than expected: maintain eye contact. Look them in the eyes. Telugu may be spilling out of their mouth, flowing in one of my ears and out the other, but I can understand what they’re telling me despite my inability to comprehend the sounds they are making. In their eyes, I can see the pride they feel when they talk about their son, the first in their entire family to graduate from college (with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, no less). I can see the endearment they express when their wife cuts them off, mid–demonstration, “No, no, it’s more effective to prune it like this, not like that”. The love and care the farmers have for their numerous crops, mangos, peppers, turmeric, coffee, bananas; it’s all there, in their eyes, and it’s an invaluable glimpse into a world I have never been apart of before. 

So, these are the feelings and skills I will leave Araku with. As I move into the second half of the summer, I look forward to adding more patches to my quilt. And, this summer and beyond, I will never forget to listen to what the eyes are telling me.

In the paddies

One thought on “Quilts & Eyes

  1. As always, great writing! Happy to trek through paddy fields during the monsoon, attempt to learn Telugu and share this part of your quilt with you!

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About Emma Harris

College of Arts and Sciences class of 2021, double majoring in International Relations and Hispanic Studies. Intern at the Naandi Foundation, Araku, Andhra Pradesh, summer 2019.