Through New Eyes

I spent a lot of my freshman year at Penn struggling with the whiplash of being in a brand new country. As this year comes to an end, I continue to struggle to navigate my changing relationships to India and the US. I was afraid that acclimatizing more to my new surroundings — learning to write dates in MM/DD, changing how I pronounce certain words, feeling more engaged with US politics — would pull me away from India, which felt like a betrayal to the roots that had enabled me to be at Penn in the first place. I wasn’t sure what it would feel like, this summer, to be back in my country but living away from home, in a different state with a different language, and as a changed person. In some ways, it felt like a test. I had to prove to myself that two radically different countries feel like home at the same time. The stakes are higher than they should be, but so it goes.

Tamil Nadu is very different from North India. As a Uttar Pradesh-born and Jaipur-raised North Indian through and through, I was excited for sinking my feet into a different part of India. There’s the obvious divergences: Tamil is a Dravidian language with separate roots from Hindi and Marwadi (as Sylvia, our Stanford ’25 linguistics friend explained), Dravidian temples are bright and colourful in a way that I’m not used to, Tamil politics and history is radically different in its values and historical movements from the reflection of Central politics that takes place in Rajasthan (as Tamil Characters, an essay collection I highly recommend helped me understand), Tamil culture – clothing, food, music – have a different history and flavor than Rajasthan. 

But there were subtler things: I felt different in Madurai. In Madurai, I felt safer walking around alone after sundown. I would order coffee from roadside coffee stalls, despite often being the only woman-presenting person there. I was even taking autos alone! It was so freeing and empowering getting to independently interact with the city in this way. Indian cities and public spaces decisively aren’t constructed for women, but the South does it a lot better than the North (Why are North and South India so different on gender?). I also realized I had been inhibiting myself, and looking at Celeste go on her two hour walks every night helped me realize that I was more capable of navigating these spaces than I thought. I know the reason I have avoided these activities at home has been, in part, because my economic privilege allows me to insulate myself from sexism, for instance, by avoiding public transit, in a way that poorer North Indian women simply cannot. Growing up in India had made me deeply aware of its many risks, but this summer helped me get the practice to navigate them regardless. I’m walking away from these few months feeling far more agency, independence, and confidence in India than I ever have before.

I also hadn’t travelled in India with friends all that much! Many of the trips without my family that I did go on were for school or extracurricular events. Through all of high school, I hadn’t really visited many places as things got busier, and I honestly don’t remember anything that happened before 9th grade. This summer, going around Tamil Nadu with Aravind, Suhaas, and Celeste, was just incredibly fun. We took Rs. 150 buses to Rameshwaram at 4 am by just showing up at Mattuthavani Bus Station. We talked for hours in sleeper buses to Coimbatore, before spending the night at Aravind’s grandparents. We climbed up foggy and slippery and gorgeous hills in Ooty (well, I quit halfway? but I think it still counts). We tried a wide range of experimental foods and music-filled restaurants in Pondicherry that I enjoyed so so much. It’s different travelling with people your age! It’s so great! I’m still incredulous at the randomness and loveliness and last-minuteness and unadulterated joy of all our experiences, which diverged from the academic/family trips in India that I made throughout my childhood. (If my parents are reading,  I’m so sorry, I promise I loved going to Kerala or Meghalaya or Chandigarh with you. It would just be nicer if you were 19 or 20 so we could, as the kids say, vibe a bit more?) 

While all the travelling was great, some experiences are more great than others. Two of my favorites are the following. In Rameshwaram, we took an auto to Dhanushkodi, the southeastern tip of Pamban Island. It’s an abandoned town that was destroyed in the 1964 Rameshwaram Cyclone, and it’s less than 20 km away from Sri Lanka. It’s mythologically significant, since it’s supposed to be the place where Hanumana lay the stones to create a sea bridge to Lanka. The beaches in Dhanushkodi were pristine and the waves rolled gently till my knees. I only accidentally let my slippers wash away twice. When sitting on the rocks near the water with our feet submerged in the water, Suhaas and I noticed at least 10 types of fish swimming near us. We found a beautiful small shop selling seashells and pearls of all kinds, and the Rs. 250 pearl bracelet I bought there now is a permanent fixture on my wrist. All in all, probably my favorite beach experience of all time. 

Visiting Auroville was also fascinating. Auroville is an experimental township an hour out of Pondicherry, based on principles of human unity and the pursuit of the Divine. The township sprawls around the Matrimandir, a huge gold-plated dome-like structure that was beautiful to see. But I wanted very much to get a richer sense of what the principles of Auroville actually look like in practice. In attempting to befriend some of the Auroville dogs (this, as you will notice, is a pattern), I ended up in a conversation with a 65-year old tata who frequents Auroville. He lives in a nearby village. After a long conversation, in which he very generously served me tea and told me about his family and old job as a teacher, he called a friend from his village with an auto, who actually took us into Auroville and gave us an inside tour! I’m still unsure how above ground this tour was, so I will leave some details hazy. We visited a music room with wind-chimes and xylophones and flutes, and there was something really healing about tinkering with so many delicate-sounding instruments and seeing them come alive. Auroville is really interesting: we saw spirulina farms, pony pastures, and residential and shopping areas. In some ways, it was exactly what I expected, with its focus on spiritual living, green spaces, and diversity. However, Auroville receives significant government funding and makes a lot of its revenue from tourism, and it seems to primarily cater to financially stable Westerners looking for alternative lifestyles. Upon a closer look, it encourages complex questions about whether this actually is a feasible or redistributive way of organising society. Regardless, I’m glad I got to visit, and I’m glad it exists.

Travelling with my co-interns to Rameshwaram, Ooty, Pondicherry, and Auroville, was definitely one of the highlights of my summer. It made me engage more closely with different parts of India, and it was also so much fun. Here are some of my favorite pictures:

I spent this summer in a country both familiar and unfamiliar. Being back in India felt easy in the way that my first year in the US simply didn’t. In India, I knew how much items in a store are supposed to cost, I knew how to talk to elders, I knew which street foods I can eat and what clothing makes me feel like myself. But I found most interesting about this summer was how I wasn’t scared of the unfamiliarities of India. I wasn’t scared of signing up for the Tamil class for North Indian doctors at the hospital. I struck up conversations with the MLOPs and the lunch lady at our hostel, despite being just as unsure of myself as I was a few years ago, when I would’ve been too hesitant to say the things I want to say. I made strange but super fulfilling decisions like getting a spontaneous massage in Pondicherry with Sylvia or letting myself dance in front of strangers. Now that I’m at home in the radical discomfort of being in the US, I sought out the discomfort and leaned into all that is unfamiliar back home. In this process of more bravely being myself in India, I am more deeply in love with it. I feel safer believing that the ties and love that bind me to my country won’t break just because I establish new roots in the US.

At the end, I don’t know if the test of the summer was about whether two countries can feel like home at the same time, but instead about whether I am capable of carrying the feeling of home within myself. As of now, I like to believe that I can.

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About Manya Gupta

Hi, I'm Manya! I'm in the College of Arts and Sciences in the Class of 2025. I'm studying Economics and International Development on the pre-med track, and I'm from Jaipur in India. I spent the summer at Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai.