September 26, 2013
India conjures all sorts of connotations—Gandhi, elephants, the caste system, the world’s largest democracy, crowds, poverty, vibrancy, the list goes on. So far, the word that best describes my experience is stimulating. Or overstimulating.
Everything in India is so intense, rich, flavorful, emotional and exciting. I never stop trying to absorb all of the colors, smells, noises, textures, patterns and tastes. Even trying to drift off to sleep, I can hear the dog fights and incessant horns from the autorickshaws. It’s hard to avert my eyes from the bright, popping patterns and colors of the kortis (Indian “blouses”). My mouth still stings with spice, even after a cooling mango lassi or yogurt dish. After a short walk, I can smell anything from delicious street food to bus exhaust to tear gas, which I narrowly avoided last week.
I love it so far. TV spots and magazine spreads aren’t kidding around when they call this place “incredible” India.
So where am I specifically? The New York State Independent College Consortium for Study in India (NYSICCSI —an unnecessarily long acronym) travels to various cities in northern India. A group of thirteen students from Hamilton, Hobart and William Smith and Saint Lawrence spent two weeks in Delhi and three days in Amritsar, the home of the Golden Temple on the border of Pakistan. We are on the way to Jaipurthe—Pink City—to spend five weeks with a homestay family, followed by a five day vacation (to Leh for me in the foothills of the Himalayas!), four weeks in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges River, one week in Bodh Gaya, then back to Delhi for two weeks before we head back to upstate New York. I was initially attracted to the program because we are able to travel all over the country, rather than have another static university experience.
This is not anything like being on a campus At our orientation, we gathered around a conference table listening to our leaders inexhaustible advice including, but not limited to: never go out alone, be back by 8:30 p.m., wear long baggy pants, wear long Indian shirts, always where a dupatta (it’s our honor and integrity!), don’t wear your hair down, don’t go outside with your hair wet, no alcohol, no eye contact, no conversations with anyone we meet on the streets, etc, etc. In the mist of the session, chanting from a protest right outside of our hotel compound kept getting louder and at one point the electricity shut off (to be turned on soon after from a generator). I left feeling less than completely confident.
Before we knew it, we became comfortable maneuvering through the streets of Delhi and Amritsar. Our bargaining skills improved, we could successfully negotiate with a rickshaw driver and we started straight to the Women’s Car on the subway. But we still guess most of the time when we order food.
However, we do not just explore all day, we also have academics to worry about. Our professor, Vikash Yadav from Hobart and William Smith, is teaching three classes: Contemporary India, Historic India, Hindi—in addition to advising our independent research project.
It is difficult to balance academics because simply being in India is a challenging learning experience. There is no better way to learn about a history and culture than by being there. For example, we journeyed through the narrow, overcrowded, smelly streets in Old Delhi and saw old British houses from the British Raj and the extensive Red Fort from the Mughal era. In only three days in Amritsar, I have learned so much more about Sikhism than I ever would in a book. The men in turbans who carry around swords are actually incredible welcoming, always asking us questions, helping us understand beliefs or giving us a free meal at the Gurudwara (Sikh shrine). The history of the Punjab from the Partition to Operation Blue Star is all the more real.
One of my favorite days so far (besides the Bollywood movie Baagh Milkha Baagh and the ceremony at the India-Pakistan border which will take too long to describe in this article but I strongly recommend) was our trip to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. We walked up the long stairs from the metro into a different world. First, we could hear the constant echo of motorcycle and autorickshaw horns. Then we could start to smell the incense, food and urine. Piling on to the street, we saw the seeming parade of bicycle rickshaws, carts, bikes, people, dogs, and stands. There were streets where real estate was so scarce that shops were practically piled atop one another. Many of them were unmarked, and the few that had signs were only adorned with posters stating the name of the shop. Most shops were only big enough for about five people and the owners sat cross-legged on a white sheet. The tangled, jumbled powerlines somehow weaved between the buildings. We only had to duck a couple of times. Monkeys crawled along them to pass from building to building. The houses seemed to be mismatched, like someone just plopped down structure on structure without considering style or configuration. It was literally layers of civilizations. Our guide pointed out a few colonial houses on the second floor of about three and a half to four floors marked by their permanent steel awnings and décor. If he didn’t instruct us to stop and look, I never would have noticed. By looking up you risk tripping in a construction site, stepping in what might have been dog poo or getting hit by some vehicle or another. I was lucky that I missed a cart full of propane tanks by a hair. The saying is “Might is right” in India, so whoever is biggest has the right of way, regardless of real rules. Single file was essential here.
It’s exhilirating but also illuminating to be in a place where my otherness is so marked. While descriptions and images are helpful, nothing quite compares to visiting India firsthand.