Sunday, September 12, 2010

India Inspired my Bonderman Travel Fellowship!

Last summer, as I completed my first year of the Master’s in Social Work Program at the University of Washington, I conducted a portion of my practicum placement in a rural area of India through IE3. At this time, I could not anticipate how this experience would change my view of the world, as well as the opportunities it would bring my way.
When I arrived in India, I stepped into a land where no one knew anything about me. In fact, the aspects I believed to be the most important pieces of who I am such as my education, career, and expertise were completely irrelevant in the context of working with impoverished women in rural India. Given this, one of the only tools I had was my ability to build trusting relationships with those who I encountered. I drew upon my experiences as a first generation American in the U.S. and my ability to relate to different cultures to overcome barriers and create connections with the women in the villages. Though the vulnerability I experienced from being so far out of my comfort zone was very difficult, it was also the greatest gift my time in India brought my way. It forced me to depend on my relationships with others, not only to access everyday necessities but to find the comfort and sense of belonging and community that I needed. In turn, this opened my eyes to a new way of living and existing in the world.

As my time in India came to an end, I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I realized this sadness did not only stem from saying goodbye to my life and friends in India but the fear that I would never experience or be challenged to see my life the way I did while I was there. When I returned to school to finish the last year of my MSW degree I was under a great deal of pressure to determine my next steps in terms of my career path, my social work specialization and area of practice. Having worked professionally for four years prior to starting graduate school, I could not envision myself graduating and moving into another 9-5 job. This confusion pushed me to think about the times in my life that I felt genuinely happy and the first thing that came to mind was India. Through this realization I accepted that traveling, having new experiences, seeing the world, and being challenged by unfamiliar settings is a part of who I am and something that will never fade away. I also recognized the value of cross-cultural exchanges and how struggling to adapt in a foreign country will personalize and aide in my future work with immigrant populations domestically. As a result I decided to pursue opportunities for international travel as a post-graduate with the chance that it may become a reality.

Soon after, I learned about the Bonderman Fellowship, offered through the University of Washington, which awards seven undergraduate and seven graduate students at the University of Washington $20,000 to travel and see the world. The catch? Each student must travel solo for eight months, to at least six countries in at least two regions of the world. Recipients are not permitted to pursue academic study, projects or research. The charge is to simply travel, learn, explore and grow.

To apply, I translated many of the emotions I felt in India that fueled my passion for travel and my desire to connect with people from different cultures into a four page essay. Two months later, I got a completely unexpected and life changing call where I was told that I had been accepted as a 2010 Bonderman Fellow.

As a Bonderman Fellow, I hope to draw from my time in India, my personal experience as a first-generation American and my advocacy work with immigrant populations in Seattle throughout my world travels. I will travel to regions of the world, including the Middle East, East Africa, West Africa and Latin America which have undergone socio-political and economic turmoil therefore instigating global migration trends. In each country I visit, I plan to explore the histories and current context of various displaced and persecuted communities and gather their unique stories of both joy and struggle. Most importantly I hope to continue to utilize relationship building and human connection as a way to cultivate healing and growth both for myself and those I meet throughout my travels in a similar way that I did while I was in India. I hope to honor the hardships and experiences of the people in each country by folding their stories into my future life, career, understanding of the world and who I am as a person.

Although this opportunity is unique to the University of Washington, and I am so fortunate to have the chance to take on a journey of this magnitude, I also know that even if it was not through the Bonderman Fellowship, I would have found a way to pursue this dream. Though it can feel as though once you return from a life changing time abroad you will never experience the same feelings of wonder, awe, exhilaration and personal challenge again (and in some ways you won’t), there are so many opportunities to continue to explore the world. A year ago if someone would have told me I would be standing in front of a world map pointing to the countries I will visit I would not have believed them. However, because I followed my passion and was able to open my mind and heart to new experiences while letting go of the traditional career and life trajectories, today this is my reality. The first step is deciding that you are committed to making international experiences a part of your life; once you have done that, everything else will eventually fall into place.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


It is really hard to put into words the experience of leaving my village. In addition to scrambling around to get a lot of last minute things done, pack my bags and tie up loose ends, it has also been filled with lots of emotions and goodbyes to many people who have touched my life.

My goodbyes started off with my last field visit to the rural village. On the first night of my visit, me and Smita (the other MSW social worker) walked several miles to reach the Thakur indigenous tribal community which is located in a very isolated area. On our walk to the village, we discussed the many issues facing this oppressed indigenous community and she further explained to me their history of being subjected and marginalized. I also shared with her that this is similar to the history of Native Americans in the U.S. and we continued to brainstorm about the issues we must be sensitive to when working in this community. During our walk, we met up with some of the tribal women as they were coming back from their work in the fields as laborers. As we walked together, they discussed with us the hardships they encounter as they work in the fields for 12 hours a day while the men in their village are sitting idle at home. When we asked if this bothers them they responded, “Of course it does, but what can we do about it? We have to feed our children and if we don’t do it, no one else will take the responsibility.”

As we entered the small community we made several attempts to gather the women together in a group. We just walked around to each family's hut and asked them to gather outside so we could talk to them. The community was so much more willing to listen and participate this time as opposed to the other times we had visited the village; possibly because they now recognized us and we had established some rapport with them. As Smita and I began the meeting, we explained the concept of the self-help group and how it will financially benefit them in detail. Although they were more open to the concept this time, they continually said, “ok we’ll save the $50 rupees a month but ask one of the Maratha (an upper caste) women to do all the record keeping because we are illiterate and can’t do it. “ We continued on to say that there are ways around illiteracy and this movement has been designed for poor populations who may have little education. We encouraged them to break the cycle of dependency on others and by drawing some reference to their history, explained that their poverty is a product of depending on others for their livelihood; they agreed. Soon after, one of the women asked us if we had come on foot to the village and we replied that we had. Then she asked “How will you get back?” Again, we replied that we will walk back. Then another women exclaimed, “Wow, you walked all this way and will walk back in the dark just to come and tell us about this? If that is the case and you believe in us that much then we owe it to ourselves to give this a try. If we don’t do it now we never will.” And with that, twelve women agreed to join a new self-help group with the full support of their husbands (which is a very important component). They each committed to bringing 50 rupees next week to the meeting.

During our walk back from this community, I thought about the interaction and what made these women come around. I have learned so much in my social work studies about community organizing and different techniques and when theory came to practice, I realized that the most significant piece was showing the community that we care about them through our relationship and showing them they are  valuable through our actions and commitments to them. Seeing that two people that they perceive as being from a totally different world, making so much of an effort, in turn made them feel more valuable and empowered to improve their situations.

When we arrived back at the home of the family I was staying with, I saw that they had arranged a table with some flowers, many gifts and other objects for Hindu blessings. I asked, ‘what is going on?’ and they asked me to sit in the chair. They explained that they want to honor the relationship we have built together as well as wish me a safe journey back home; this ceremony was part of their tradition of doing so. As instructed, I sat down in the chair and each family member, one by one, blessed me by burning incense around my head, putting a dot of kumkum on my forehead, feeding me a spoonful of sugar and sprinkling rice over me. They also each gave me a gift to remember them by, everything from bangles to toe rings to necklaces to pictures frames and statues of gods. The whole time this was going on, all I could think is how grateful I am for this experience and for such wonderful people walking into my life, even though it was only for a brief moment in time. The next day, when several of the families realized it was my last day in the community they invited me over for lunch and made an array of traditional Maharashtran dishes. My host mom told me that she had asked someone to fill in for her to cook at the school so she could spend the last day with me. After lunch they insisted on dressing me in a traditional Maharashtran 9-foot saree (nawari saree) and brought out all of their gold jewelry so I could look like a ‘real Indian girl.’ As we were walking through the village to say goodbyes and running into people we knew along the way, I realize how many connections I have made here in this village in such a short time and the impact each and every person I have come across has had on my life. I will never in my entire life forget the caring and kindness of the families in the village and how much they changed my perspective on to how I see the world. I am forever indebted them.

After some very difficult and tearful goodbyes, I left the village to take my last truck and rickshaw ride back home to my town. As our truck pulled out of the dirt road I looked back to see my host family waving to me from the distance. I kept looking until they disappeared into the background. During the bumpy journey back, I took in the vast spread of lush green farmlands that had I become so accustomed to seeing. I thought about how lucky I am to experience such a different perspective and aspect of life…to actually have this be my life for the last three months. I shared this thought with Smita and she replied to me and said, “Well, yes but you made room in your life to have this experience and YOU made the effort. You integrated yourself in the culture in a way other foreigners don’t and you never considered yourself different then us. You match us and we are just as lucky to have been a part of your life as you are to have been a part of ours.” Although I still was very conscious that my privilege has allowed me to have so many diverse experiences in life, I also realized that my outlook and willingness to be out of my comfort zone and struggle to relate and communicate with people, gave me the biggest reward in the end.

Once I reached home, I entered the guest house to find all of Chaitanya’s staff waiting for me. They informed me that they also are giving me a ‘send off.’ The leaders of the organization each took a few moments to thank me and let me know the ways in which I have contributed to the organization. Hearing about the culmination of my work and receiving some acknowledgement for this was such a wonderful feeling. It made me feel so motivated to complete my report and confident that I had something very valuable to contribute to the organization. In this moment, I realized why it meant so much to the Thakur tribe that we walked to their community. For the same reason that it meant so much to me that Chaitanya had taken time to organize a send off and recognize my work. These interpersonal feelings that show someone that they are important and that others care about them are way more powerful than we often recognize.

After this send off, with some sadness I headed up to my room to finish packing. While I was sitting amidst a pile of things trying to figure out how I was going to fit it all in my luggage, I heard a loud knock. I opened the door to find several of my close friends from the organization saying ‘the party continues!’ They got a cake, non-Indian food (which is hard to find in this village) for dinner and a beautiful shall as a farewell gift that they all put their money together to buy. We ate, laughed, danced and dared each other to do crazy funny things. I felt like a teenager again; having this much fun made me realize the wonderful, genuine friends I have made in my three months in India. During the party, in an activity initiated by my dear friend, we each took some time out to say how we feel about each other and each person’s strengths as well as weakness. Although initially, coming from my western mind frame I was a little hesitant to participate due to the cheesy factor, I found this experience of directly telling others how I feel about them and also hearing how others feel about me, to be so enriching. In the U.S. we rarely take the time out to tell others how we feel and what strengths we believe each person has. It was so meaningful to just put time on hold for a few hours and sit with my friends to honor our relationships with each other before we had to say goodbye.

In my final day, I successfully completed my final report, packed up my last minute items and said my final goodbyes. As I was leaving, a group of new students were just beginning their internships at Chaitanya. They began asking me questions about my experience as well as simple things like where the good local stores are and where they can buy this or that. As I spoke with them I was reminded of my first days in India, wide eyed and everything seeming so new and exciting. Although, in some ways I longed for that feeling and wished I was back in that place again, I drove away from my village in India with a great sense of accomplishment, enrichment, and gratitude; I would not change even one single moment of my experience for the world.


During my time working at a microfinance institution, I became aware of the many complexities of microfinance as a form of poverty alleviation. I saw both the amazing positive change it is bringing to the lives of poor, rural women as well as some of the detrimental effects. Per expressed interest from several people regarding this topic, I have shared some of my thoughts and experiences about the microfinance movement. My apologies in advance if this is really long, wordy and dry.

Overview of Microfinance
Microfinance in the developing world became popularized by Mohammed Yunas and his work with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. He developed the concept of microcredit to help poor populations through an effort to make the poor ‘bankable’ and then went on to introduce this model to other developing countries. This caught on fast, particularly in India, and in 1996 Yunas was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his efforts in assisting poor populations. The Grameen Bank utilizes a joint liability model of lending wherein, a group of 8-14 low income individuals agree to form a group and then are automatically approved for a loan through a microfinance ininstitution as a result of the joint liability and responsibility the group is taking for the loan. This capitalizes on the fact that although the poor may not have a lot of assets or credit, they do have strong relationships with their community as well as firm convictions about repayment and accountability. Although this movement has without a doubt benefited many poor people by giving them access to loans and money to build their businesses and increase their income, it has also proven to be problematic in some respects. This model has received critiques for taking advantage of the ignorance of poor people and getting them stuck in debt traps that they are often unable to come out of while banks and institutions are the real beneficiaries. Microfinance, in some cases is a way that marginalized populations are taken advantage of and targeted as easy consumers. As a result, over the years, there have been numerous cases of fraud and mishandling of funds by organizations in which poor populations have suffered the consequences. More pragmatically, some argue that this concept promotes an underlying current of capitalist and individualist values, placing the responsibility on the poor individual to improve their particular situation as opposed to seeing poverty as a vicious cycle that institutions and governments reinforce. My own personal critique is that I think like many other programs aimed at poverty alleviation, it favors the highest functioning of the poor population and fails to address the needs if those that are the most impoverished and desperate.

There is an alternate model of microcredit that developed and spread from the joint liability concept which is the self-help group model derived from the women’s movement. Chaitanya, the organization I am interning with, uses the self-help group model of microfinance to promote women’s empowerment. Logistically, the way this works is a group of 12-18 women gather together and from a group. They elect leadership in this group and all receive training from Chaitanya on how to manage their own individual finances, the concept of microfinance and other financial literacy skills. These women then contribute a mutually agreed upon amount of money on a monthly basis which makes up the pool that is then used to disburse loans to group members from the group savings. The difference compared to the joint liability model is that instead of borrowing from a microfinance institution, the group is self-generating funds to loan and whatever interests the women pay, goes directly back to the group. This promotes a more empowerment based and sustainable approach to addressing poverty which is not only financially based but also focuses on participation and mobilization of communities. This approach works much better in rural areas as compared to urban because of the camaraderie and trust that is already present in these communities. To expand, sustain and bring all the SHG’s under one umbrella, a formal three tiered structure currently exists. About 30 self-help groups (SHGs) come together to form a cluster and then 5-6 clusters together link up to form a federation. Each group gives a small amount of money to the federation once they link with it which allows their members to access larger sized loans on the federation level. In essence, these linkages form to make a self-sustaining microfinance institution that acts as a local credit union. It really is very fascinating and I have personally witnessed the numerous improvements it has brought to poor people’s lives. With that said, like everything in India, it is not without its set of problems therefore I feel it is only accurate to present both sides of the story.

The Benefits of Microfinance

During my time in the village and through my numerous interviews with women I cannot even count the number of times that women expressed how drastically the self-help groups (SHG) has changed their lives. They often stated that it has earned them a decision making role in the family, they have gained confidence and respect as a result of their involvement and most importantly, their family’s financial situation has improved as a result of access to the loans. Many woman have started their own microenterprises with SHG loans such as bangle shops, a beauty salon, incense business, buying an additional cow for farming and milk production or even sending their children to college or paying for a new roof on their house. In addition to this, women expressed to me how much they appreciate having a forum to discuss issues with other women. They often state that before their involvement in the group they felt very isolated and having the community of women has made them feel stronger and supported which resulted in increased leadership. My host mom, Savita Tai is a perfect example of this. She went from being a house wife to being the president of her self-help group, being elected to serve as the village representative, becoming an expert on financial literacy and being involved with cluster and federation level loan disbursement. Although women’s empowerment is really hard to define and measure, you can clearly witness a deep sense of empowerment in Savita Tai’s eyes and spirit.

SHG groups also provide opportunities to communities that have often been marginalized in society. While I was in the village of Pargoan, as part of my field work I organized the first informational meeting regarding microfinance and self-help groups (SHG) in the Thaker tribal (indigenous) community. I came to find out a bit about the history of this community in India which is similar to many other indigenous groups; historically, they have had a lot of their land and rights taken away from them yet they continue to have a strong communal identity and culture. As a result of this marginalization, they have often been left out of outreach and social services that are offered to other communities. Initially, in the meeting, the tribal women were very apprehensive about their ability to participate in a microfinance group because of their very low poverty level as well as illiteracy and lack of education. To overcome this, on our way to the village we contacted a member of another SHG group and asked to her to accompany us to the village. She agreed and shared her story of her initial fears of joining a self-help group and how being involved has impacted her life with the women in the tribal community. Seeing this example of someone in their community that they could relate to was a turning point for these women and with this, they began to show interest and talked about their hopes for the future and how saving and microfinance may help them achieve these goals. We also explained that the self-help groups were designed to accommodate those who may not have very little reading/writing skills. Hearing this, the group felt more encouraged to participate in a group.

In addition to the new formation of groups, SHG’s continue to greatly benefit groups that have been operating for years. During my time in Pargoan, I also worked with an SHG group that have been together for 9 years. Since this group had such a great rapport together, I was interested in knowing how they go about building trust in a group. First, to establish a relationship with them, I gave them an opportunity to ask me some questions about America and after the basics such as, ‘what is your house like?’ ‘how do you wash your clothes and dishes?’ ‘what kind of food do you eat?’ etc were out of the way, they asked me, “Do you have SHG groups in America?” I answered no and then they were puzzled as to why. In a country that has machines that do everything for us and is so contemporary in so many respects, why are we so behind in this front? I replied that the issue in the US is that it is hard to gather a group of women and establish trust and accountability particularly in regards to finances. They still seemed slightly confused and it was within this moment that I realized how much a collective versus individualist culture makes a difference in how we see the world. While I was sitting there attempting to find out how these women build trust, the women could not even imagine the idea of not having this trust inherently. The unique thing about the concept of the self-help groups is a builds on the assets and strengths that rural communities have of collective identity, communal trust and a high degree of accountability. Although I do believe there is potential for this type of financial and empowerment based movement even in western countries, I think the barrier is that we fail to think of ourselves as a collective and the thought of contributing to something that we will not see the benefits of right away, particularly for impoverished populations who are just desperately trying to get by, unfortunately at this point seems impossible.

Drawbacks of Microfinance

Unfortunately, not all microfinance experiences are solely positive. One aspect of this that I have learned about that has been hard to digest is many of the women in the self-help groups are actually used by their husbands as a tool to access loans and money for their businesses. These efforts are then being labeled as women’s empowerment even though in some (not all) instances it is just furthering the oppression of women by taking advantage of their vulnerable positions to get what they (men) need. Within this, the flicker of hope is that regardless of the financial issues, the significance of women gathering together in a group will essentially promote empowerment in and of itself.

Although not specific to microfinance, I encountered a specific situation in which a man was exploiting the women’s movement for his own benefit which was particularly hard to swallow. This is very similar to how women’s access to microfinance is also taken advantage of by men. Rural areas of India have a three tier system of government (similar to the SHG model): the local/village level (Gram Panchayat), block level (Taluka Panchayat Samiti), and district level (Jilla Prishad). About a decade ago, a federal regulation was passed setting an ordinance that 33% of the governing boards on all three levels in both rural and urban areas must be comprised of women. This was done in an effort to promote gender equality and provide more leadership opportunities for women. To learn a little more about this, we interviewed a woman who had won the election and was the government representative (called the surpancht) on the village level. As we were preparing, I had this image of this very strong willed, motivated woman who was a leader in her community. When we went to interview her I was quite surprised by her demeanor. As we were asking questions, her husband spoke for her the whole time and he said openly that although officially, she is the one who was elected to serve as the representative, he makes all of the decisions and completes the work that this position entails He stated that she is not capable of doing this because she does not have an education and she has other responsibilities in the home which is why he has taken over. When we asked the woman representative directly, “What do you hope to do for the women of this village?” she turned to her husband and quickly deferred to him for an answer. It was clear that a woman filing this position was just a cover up and an alternate way for a man to gain control. Seeing this was quite disheartening but also made me realize that things are often a lot more complex than they seem. A simple law or quota will not undo the centuries of brutal gender oppression and discrimination that have left their mark on contemporary society.

In addition to gender issues, I also witnessed some of the complexities of microfinance as a solution to poverty. While I was in Gujarat, I visited an urban slum and interviewed a woman there who had recently invested in a micro pension plan through one of the largest microfinance institutions in India. Through this interview, I learned about some of the complications with this micro pension product that is being sold to very poor populations and how little these consumers understand about how their money is invested. The women we interviewed contributes 100 rupees (about $2 which is a large portion of her income) a month to her pension plan but has virtually no information about how her money is being invested and when she will be able to access this money. She innocently stated that the bank told her it will ‘help her in old age.’ Although this is true, there is no guarantee that the money will be there in her old age. There is a good chance that the market may crash or other economic problems may arise. Though there is some amount of risk involved in any investment, the difference is that those who are investing understand the risks they are taking and the fluctuations of the market where as these poor populations have no concept of this and believe the bank is just holding on to their money for them until they are ready to use it. This lack of information puts them in a very vulnerable position and keeps microfinance institutions in signification positions of power.

Overall, I think like many movements worldwide, microfinance, particularly with the self-help group model, is an excellent movement and concept but unfortunately when executed and carried out can also quite often be problem ridden. I hope these organizations and women’s groups can become further aware of the negative aspects and actively work towards overcoming them in order to utilize microfinance to successfully contribute to women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation.

*If you are really interested in this topic or would like more information on either issues of women’s empowerment within microfinance or the comparison of the joint liability to the SHG model, please let me know and I will email you a copy of my final report to Chaitanya that further details these topics.

**All facts, figures and information contained in this blog are based solely on my recollection and may not be totally accurate.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ahmadabad, Ashram and Ahimsa Express

Realizing that I do not have much time left in India, I made arrangements to accompany a friend from work to the state of Gujarat to visit our other friend who lives there. We were so excited about our journey together and from the beginning, it was indeed an adventure. A brief overview of some of the fiascos of traveling: While I was on the bus to get to the train station, a woman who was getting off the bus stepped on my pants (as I was halfway in the aisle since I was sharing a seat bench with 3 other people) and ripped my pants. I then had to run around Pune city with ripped shalwars in search of a new pair of pants before boarding the train. Once that crisis was averted, me and my friend bought some food and were getting excited for our train journey. We decided to wait and eat our meal on the train. As we boarded the train, an overwhelming odor of urine hit me in the face. Our seats were right next to the bathroom! This definitely did not fit the picture of the train ride I had in mind. My first thought was that I was not going to be able to stand this for a 12 hour overnight train. After wallowing for about 2.2 seconds, I quickly got over it and within 5 minutes me and my friend were in hysterical bouts of laughter about all the comical situations we were encountering on the train; me having to change my ripped pants under a bed sheet, my hair getting caught in a ceiling fan, losing one of my shoes and finding it at the other end of the train, making ourselves a little haven on the top berth of the train etc. It’s amazing how a seemingly awful situation can turn into the most fun when you are in good company.

After a journey that went relatively smoothly, we arrived the next morning in Ahmadabad. The interesting and unique thing about India is that you can travel a very short distance and it is just like visiting another country as the language, food, clothing and culture all differs. As I stepped outside, the weather was hot and humid, even at 8:00 in the morning. I waited for my friend and I was surprised to see that she had come to pick me up in a car. I know this may not seem out of the ordinary but she was one of the first people I met in India who actually owned a vehicle. During my few days staying with her I saw that her life is really not that different from mine. She enjoys all of the same comforts as I do in the U.S. such as a car, washing machine, shower etc. Seeing her lifestyle made me realize that there are so many realities and different aspects of life in India. Although this is in fact true for everywhere, I think in India the differences between people’s lives is quite vast. I felt fortunate that I had the opportunity to see all sides. Most people, even Indians, are only exposed to one reality of India, which is their own. Seeing many different lifestyles has helped me to understand India’s complex nature in a more genuine way.
Although to be honest, most of my time in Ahmadabad was spent either shopping or eating, I also gained insight into some of the social issues here. In Gujarat, there is a great deal of both religious and caste tension particularly when compared with Maharashtra. Ahmadabad has historically been the site of civil unrest between groups as well as riots and protests. The present level of conflict, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, remains high and these two groups are completely segregated. Although some of this tension is politically based on the conflicts between Pakistan and India, it is also much deeper rooted than this (similar to Israel and Palestine). As we were driving through the city, my friend explained to me that the left side of the road contains the Muslim ghettos in which many Muslims were displaced to after severe riots several years ago while the right side is Hindu slums; even from a simple glance it was apparent that the Muslim ghetto had significantly worse living conditions. This instantly reminded me of South Africa where black and colored townships are segregated and separated by a highway. As I pushed to learn more about this dynamic, my friend explained that the discrimination against Muslims is so extreme that even a very wealthy Muslim would be denied buying a home in a Hindu neighborhood. Hearing this, I realized that this is a critical way in which institutionalized oppression operates; systematically blocking access to a much needed resource such as housing, education and employment therefore disenfranchising a group and keeping them inferior.

Discrimination in India is not only based on religion but within the Hindu religion, caste serves as the basis of oppressive circumstances. The Hindu caste system was codified around A.D. 200 and initially served to set guidelines for marriage in order to ensure that the gene pool does not overlap-in other words a methodology to make sure their creed does not die off due to incest and intermarriage. There are four major castes (Brahmins, priestly and learned people, Kshatriyas, warriors and the rulers, Vyabaris, the mercantile classes and Shudras, landless laborers) and then hundreds of subcastes within those castes. Needless to say, it is quite a complex and hard to understand system. Caste also served another purpose which was to set the foundation for organizing society as far as occupation. Each caste has a particular trade attached to it such as farmers, merchants, shoe shiners and historically have been forced into these same careers-choice within the caste system is a foreign concept; everything is based on karma and lineage. Individuals are born into caste and no increase in income or financial status can evoke caste mobility. Within the caste system Brahmins, the highest members of the caste ladder, have been exclusively allowed access to education and performing religious ceremonies while this is denied to others. On the other end of the hierarchy, untouchables or dalits (one in six Indians are dalits meaning crushed or stepped on) were not even considered within the caste system and were/are viewed and treated as in human were banned from worship in temples. In fact, their shadows were not even allowed to fall on the shadows of upper caste individuals. Untouchable’s jobs were restricted to cleaning bathrooms and cremating bodies signifying that they are only worthy of encountering dead bodies and human waste. The legacy of this is seen in a variety of ways. Although many upper caste people, including a few of my friends, have hired help, it is not as simple as having a housekeeper. All the duties are divided. For example, the person who is hired to cook food, sees herself as higher on the caste hierarchy and will not wash dishes or clean. Then a different person is hired to clean the floors and kitchen but refuses to clean the bathroom, seeing this as an indicator of the lowest caste. When I first learned of this I was amused and just attributed it to one of the many ways in which Indian systems are inefficient. After I thought more about this I realized that it is much more deep rooted than this and all of these people are attempting to preserve whatever dignity they have left by asserting themselves as superior to someone else.

Although caste discrimination is officially outlawed in India, it remains the major force that society operates by. After only a few weeks in India, the way in which caste dictates people’s existence and opportunities is undeniably apparent. Although there are many government sponsored programs aimed at giving those of a lower caste opportunities (similar to affirmative action) lower castes continue to live in extreme poverty and experience horrible discrimination. To this day, many of my friends told me that their parents won’t allow dalit’s to use their bathrooms or drink out of the same cups they drink from. Again, in regards to housing, my friend was telling me that they are in the process of selling their house and since their neighbors are Dalits, people have openly refused to buy their home to avoid living in close proximity to someone of a low caste.

Taking all of this in, I started to wonder is oppression and hierarchy simply a part of human nature or is it a byproduct of a capitalist society? If the former is true, then are we just spinning our wheels with the pursuit of social justice and equality? If one form of oppression will just be replaced by another what are we trying to achieve (if it’s not race it’s religion if not religion caste etc.)? While struggling with these questions, I learned about the role that Gandhi played in defying discrimination of both religion and caste. Gujarat is Gandhi’s home state and the base in which he lead much of the struggle towards India’s independence. In fact, the train we rode was called Ahimsa Express-Ahimsa meaning nonviolence, a term that Gandhi coined. Gandhi adamantly defied both caste and religious discrimination. In his ashram, he made it compulsory for all people living there to participate in all areas of life from gaining education to cleaning toilets. He renamed untouchables as Harijans meaning children of god. Although this term is now again being abused to have a derogatory meaning, it was meant to give those of lower caste status some dignity and respect and reintegrate them into society. He built a school on the ashram specifically for the education of Harijans and gave them an opportunity to gain job training in areas other than cleaning and cremation.

Although I obviously was aware of Gandhi and his role in the independence of India, my knowledge of his life and philosophies was limited to studying his influence on Nelson Mandela the anti apartheid movement in South African fight and the movie chronicling his life that I watched en route to India. While in Gujarat, I visited one of the first ashram’s that he established in India and learned of his philosophies and the way he gently mobilized people towards empowerment and self-sufficiency. Through seeing his work and walking around the ashram I could feel the influence he has had on all the citizens of India from young to old. When I would meet elders on the street, I would see their faces light up when I would ask them about Gandhi. They would all recount and tell me about the time that Gandhi visited their village. I was amazed at the sheer number of people who had actually seen and interacted with Gandhi in person. It made me realize that Gandhi was truly a grassroots community organizer as he personally would go from one small village to another to empower and mobilize people. Many of the younger social workers that I would talk with would refer to Gandhian philosophies as what grounds and motivates their activism work. It was clear to me that the thread of Gandhi’s’ legacy runs deeply through the fabric of India.

As we went to leave Gujarat, we found out that our bus which we had prepaid tickets for was cancelled (only in India). We scrambled around for a few hours and I again witnessed a very unique thing about India: organization amidst utter chaos. With the help and advocacy skills of our friends, we finally made alternate plans to get back home. I sat on the bus looking out the window as we drove through Gujarat and eventually into Maharashtra thought about the history of India and the fight for justice while drawing parallels to the U.S. The reoccuring questions about equality and social justice consumed me: Is oppression an indisputable part of human nature or is it a result of a particular economic system? Although I never found the answer, I decided that the only thing I am certain of is that regardless of the reasons, giving up on the fight for equality is not an option…at least not for me.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


***This was written several week ago but I just had a chance to post it now!

Just when I thought I had experienced all the emotions and excitement India has to offer, I was surprised once again. The part of India I am living in has spent the last several months preparing for the Ganesh festival and I have been watching all the preparations going on around me but had no idea about the magnitude of this celebration. Ganesh started out as a private religious ceremony celebrated in the home with the family. During the time of British colonization, as a technique to mobilize people, community leaders used Ganesh as an excuse to bring people together outside of their homes and into the streets to protest. Since then, this tradition of publically celebrating Ganesh has remained intact.
This Sunday we went to Pune to see the first day of the festival. The streets were filled with youth, similarly dressed chanting to the streets and banging their drums with huge beautiful hand painted statues of Ganesh adorning the streets on floats. As we walked a bit further we saw one temple after another, built right in the middle of the city solely for the purpose of Ganesh with colorful elaborate d├ęcor on the inside and people hand painting elephants in gold on the outside. It is a sight that is honestly not describable in words.

Even more impressive then the esthetic beauty of the Ganesh festival is the joy that people feel around this time. I found it really hard, coming from a western perspective of religion and spiritually to fully understand what Ganesh represents and stands for. In the Hindu scriptures, Ganesh or Ganpati was a boy who was a god and was obeying his mother when his father became angry and beheaded him. His mother was so upset about his death that his father ordered someone to go out and find Ganesh’s head. The first animal they came across was an elephant and they then beheaded the elephant and put it on Ganesh’s body and he was brought back to life. When I first heard this story my initial reaction was that people cannot really believe this, it is so unrealistic and in a country where some of the most intelligent, innovative people live, they have to know that this is a myth. The more I thought about this I realized that people do not really obsess over whether something is true or not or if it really happened like we do in the west. Here I think truth is somewhat relevant and instead of focusing on the falsities of the religious stories, people appreciate what this god and celebration brings into their lives which is being humble enough to see that there is something greater than your existence on earth.

As we continued our walk around the city and were admiring the temples, my friend had an idea to actually go in and give an offering to Ganesh. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive as in western societies it can be considered disrespectful to participate in a religious ceremony in which you are not observant of, yet everyone around us encouraged us to do this and said it is considered an honor. So we went to one of the hundreds of street vendors surrounding the temple and bought flowers (Ganesh is also a huge source of income and revenue for this area). We made our way through the crowd and the long staircase and finally arrived at the huge Ganesh statue. As I reached the stage, several of the Brahmins (who are the priests in Hindu religion and also the top of the caste hierarchy) guided us on how to give an offering to Ganesh. As I went through all of the motions and gave my offering the Brahmin said to me, “Now, pray to god.” I looked behind me and saw a crowd of about 4000 and thought, “How can I pray to god now with all these people staring at me. And I don’t believe Ganesh is god.” Instead of letting these throughts take over, I decided to just try and really experience what the people in India so strongly believe in. I can’t lie and say that I was suddenly overcome with spirituality but I can say that for a few moments, time stood still and I didn’t even realize the crowd of 4000 around me. I just appreciated everything that had brought me to this point in my life. Ironically, Ganesh is the god of new experiences and each time someone is embarking on a new endeavor in life such as a job, marriage a move etc. Ganesh is worshipped.

For the second day of Ganesh I went back to the village that I have been working in and it was such an interesting experience to see the various ways in which this festival is celebrated from the lavish huge excitement of the city to the much smaller more intimate ways it is observed in the rural villages. As I walked from the truck stop through the village to the home of the family I stay with I saw many small little areas dedicated to Ganesh with flowers, fruit offerings, colorful lights and decorations surrounding the statues. In the village it is common to have a community Ganesh and then also for each family to have their own Ganesh. Each night, the community comes together at the common Ganesh and observes Artie which is basically a praising of the god of Ganesh in which offerings are given, a special song is sang and praying is done. Being among the community members and celebrating this with people I know and have grown to love dearly was so wonderful. Through their singing and celebratory nature I felt so much life and excitement. Since I was a guest, they asked me to conduct the ceremony in which incense are burnt around the Ganesh statue to praise him while covering our heads. Then I went around and gave a small offering of sweets which is called ‘prasat’ symbolizing that when you give good things come to you in return. As we finished our community Artie ceremony we went inside the home to conduct the ceremony with our family. It is tradition to dress up and be elegant for this celebration. Because of this, my host mom insisted that I wear her wedding Saree. Without putting up too much of a fight, I agreed and we then redid the whole ceremony within the home.

As I returned back to Rajgurunagar, I realized that every corner I turned there was something going on; plays with children dressed up reenacting the Ganesh story or story of the king of Maharashtra, talent competitions, people covered in pink powder dancing in the streets and theatrical dance performances. As I would walk down the street people would continuously open their home to me and ask me to come in to see their Ganesh and take prasat and to their surprise, I would happily oblige, even if I didn’t know the family. This is all part of the tradition of Ganesh.

Each time I think I have seen and learned everything there is to experience in India, I encounter something that completely takes me by surprise and the Ganesh festival is no exception. I never in my life thought I would have the opportunity to see such beautiful things and experience a ceremony that is so rich and spiritual which means so much to so many people. I truly am so fortunate for this experience…