We were handed several articles about Aravind Eye Care System at our orientation in early June. One article, titled “The Perfect Vision of Dr. V,” made us cringe throughout. After outlining the disappointments of modern life in Western countries, the author gave her solution: “There is a place you can go to find the answer: India. But don’t go to the megacities of Bombay and New Delhi or to the newly minted software center of Hyderabad. Go to the wild, wild south, mystic cowboy country, where gurus roam the plains, and where a John Wayne western turns into a Mahatma Gandhi eastern soon enough.”
Calling South India a wild, wild mystic cowboy country, where gurus roam the plains is…fanciful, to put it mildly. Madurai is far from a megacity, but it has a documented history going back over 2,000 years. And Tamil Nadu ranks highly as one of the most urbanized states in India. Another choice statement from the article was this snippet: “On the surface, India is a mess: It has a population of 1 billion, raw sewage on the streets, and traffic that moves at 20 MPH. But if you can look past India’s visual obscenity, you will see a country that is turned inside out.” Of course, the article had nothing but positive things to say about Dr. V and the Aravind model, which I wholeheartedly agree with. But it’s hard to not feel offended by the claim that India is a visually obscene mess.
When Laura interviewed me back in February, the question of “why India” inevitably was asked. This is a question that I have since gotten over and over, and my understanding of what India means to me has changed drastically. The easy answer to “why India” is “why not”? Learning to say yes to new things is an ongoing adventure, and it’s one that never loses its thrill.
When I reflect on my travels in India, my mind’s eye sees beauty that could not be properly depicted with any pictures. Sometimes it feels silly to even try. Many places, especially temples and ashrams, prohibit photography inside. Prior to entering the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, a guard checks every visitor to see if their phone has been powered off. Inside the ashram, silence is expected. With no ability to take photos or verbalize your thoughts, slipping into a contemplative state of meditation in the ashram comes easily. The feeling of peace is profound.
At other times, my phone was overheating and temporarily refused to switch on. In Mahabalipuram, the sun is brutal and shade is scarce. It was the only place I visited where I saw people carrying umbrellas for relief from the heat. So I felt some comfort that my misery (at being a puddle of sweat) was in good company. And then there were times, like when I was in Delhi’s stunning Sunder Nursery at dusk, where my phone and portable charger both died after a long day of adventures. After taking tons of pictures at the nearby Humayun’s Tomb, it was oddly freeing to soak up as much as possible with only my eyes.
Delhi was my first time exploring a city in India alone, so Laura connected me with Ruchika at UPIASI as a point of contact if I needed anything. Ruchika kindly arranged my accommodation at the India Habitat Center and my transport to and from the airport, which made me feel completely at ease and welcomed. Because I visited the capital close to the 75th anniversary of independence, the city was full of patriotic fervor and under more security than usual. Attractions like India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the Red Fort were all blocked off due to safety measures for Independence Day. Despite the closures, Delhi quickly became one of my favorite cities.
There, I continued to eat my way through Indian street food (chole bhature! chuski! kulfi falooda!) while maintaining my luck of avoiding any food-related illnesses. I also had the pleasure of joining langar (free communal meals) at both Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib and Gurdwara Shri Bangla Sahib. As volunteers made their rounds to constantly pour more food into outstretched hands, I contemplated the three pillars of Sikhism: an honest living, to share with others, and to focus on God. These values of hard work, giving back, and keeping a greater spiritual purpose in mind define my general takeaways of what makes India so special.
On my last day before returning home, reading the inscription on the Indira Gandhi Memorial resonated deeply with me: “A poet has written of his love — ‘How can I feel humble with the wealth of you beside me!’ I can say the same of India. I cannot understand how anyone can be an Indian and not be proud — the richness and infinite variety of our composite heritage, the magnificence of the people’s spirit, equal to any disaster or burden, firm in their faith, gay spontaneously even in poverty and hardship.” Indeed, how can you have the fortune to experience India and not be in awe?
Now that I’m back at Penn, life feels totally different. On weekends, backlot is always blasting music (the current song is the frat classic “Pepas” by Farruko) and parties rage across campus. In Madurai, the nightly soundscape was defined by a cacophony of honks and the reliable intermissions of chanted prayers.
Despite a busy schedule, I’m hopeful to stay connected to my CASI internship and continue broadening my worldview. Last week, Sylvia texted me the ticket link to her friend’s upcoming performance and discussion of Bharatanatyam dance at the Annenberg Center. Today, I have plans to catch up with Ihsan, who studied Tamil with Sylvia in Madurai. Ihsan came to Penn to present his PhD research at a conference on the performing arts of South India, where his area of focus is on the flood songs of Malabar. The collective euphoria of dance and music is just one shared thread across cultures, and it beats with the energy of any good oontz oontz beat.
Saying that spending time abroad changed me is on par with “let’s grab lunch together soon” as a Penn phrase that has become trite. Still, I can confirm that saying yes to a summer in India was among the best decisions I have ever made, and I am very down to grab lunch with anyone who wants to talk more.