Of six months and 75 years


It’s a strange feeling. It’s been six months since the move back to India, six months since I became a student again, six months of feeling like an old, wise, out-of-touch-with-India woman, six months of alternating between missing Singapore and digging India. SO MUCH has changed in these months, and today I realized, for the first time – and maybe it’s simply a carryover effect of all the good things happening in university over the last few days – but I’m totally happy about the move.

So the university turns 75 this year, and there’s been quite a bit of (well-deserved) hoohaa, but I should be thankful – these events made me get closer to the ground realities, soak in the atmosphere, convinced me I really am back, and told me that it’s all for the better.

The first of these was the session on surveying M-Ward East, a collection of slums that have the worst Human Development Indicators in Mumbai. After a couple of days of mayhem and understandable disorganization – over 1500 students were to be involved in surveying 20,000 households, using tablets, so it was an organizational nightmare – we set out into the field, armed with water bottles, hand sanitizers, stoles around our heads, et al. I was excited about the project – my course doesn’t have sessions where you have to go to the field and interact with the beneficiaries of the development process I am supposed to initiate – but was at the same time very unsure of how far my Hindi would take me. Luckily, I was teamed up with a boy who had no issues with Hindi, and the very first survey we did will always stay in my mind: him completely at ease, joking, laughing, connecting with the people, and me listening to his every word to improve my fairly abysmal Hindi vocabulary. Over the next seven days, I realized how many things we take for granted – running water, electricity, access to medical facilities, etc. As a relatively socially conscious person, of course I was aware of problems people have with these things, but to see them live, in one of India’s richest cities, was shocking (yes, even though we’ve all seen Slumdog Millionaire). I spoke to women about their reproductive health, struggling to ask questions about their sex lives, vagina, etc. (resorting to crude ways of asking about it with a ‘Sorry, my Hindi isn’t that good!’), only to hear a number of them tell me nonchalantly about their babies who have died; it was especially painful to hear of a woman’s abortion experience, when her midwife put her hand so far deep into the woman’s uterus that it got scratched by her nails and was infected for months after the incident. It was an eye-opener in a number of ways, and most of all driving home hard one lesson – I have nothing in life to complain about, when there are millions who are surviving through days, forget living through them, hoping or planning. These seven days, life went by in a flash: coming back late at night after the surveys, showering, falling on to the bed and not waking up once till the alarm rang the next morning.

And this Monday, the school started its platinum jubilee celebrations. Four days of seminars, panel discussions, academics debating theories that went over my head, listening to a monk from Arunachal Pradesh telling us about their sentiments about being part of India, hearing out an activist supporting Manipur’s Irom Sharmila who has been fasting for eleven years to repeal a draconian army law, listening to students from the North East giving their views on how they feel alien in India even as the country claims them as one of its own, watching documentaries and short films by brilliant student filmmakers across the country, cheering performances from a highly-talented Naga troupe and a bursting-with-energy, feminist troupe from Tamil Nadu, hooting and going wild at a beat boxer’s performance, and wrapping it up by dancing to the DJ who had to stop spinning by 10pm to not annoy the residents nearby.

And this evening, somehow the realization that I talked about at the beginning of this post struck me, as we watched the cooks and servers at our dining halls and canteens put up a smashing performance – the one I think that got the most cheers and even an encore. For all that I have cribbed about the university, the curriculum, the bureaucracy, the pseudo intellectuals, prissy girls, wannabe boys, childish people, professors stuck in decades-old procedures and all that – there is something we have all learnt in our few months here, and something I know we will have learnt by when we graduate: appreciating others, and respecting people from backgrounds very different and often much more difficult than your own. Yes, the really urban ones will never be chummy with their more heartland friends, we will all form our groups with people from similar backgrounds, some of us will pretend to know more than our professors or criticise anything that comes our way – but somehow, and at some point, we shed these selves and know that in no way can we consider ourselves superior to anyone else, worthier than anyone else. The university suddenly seemed to be a beautiful place to be in, and I was proud to be in a place that had done some incredible, life-changing work in its 75 years of existence.

And for some reason, I left the place happy, brimming with hope and eager to push out the cynicism that has been entrenched in me since moving back. And for this reason, I knew that this move had to happen; it’s a phase of life God planned for me, to help me learn some things I would have not learnt so effectively in Singapore. I have no idea where life will take me next, and where I want to be, but for now, this seems perfect.

P.S., and note to self: Don’t be fooled by all this optimism. It’s time for classes, assignments and worst of all, dissertation, to begin, and be sure to look out for a crib fest next month. 


Ramnarayan Natarajan said...

You have to listen to this song "sayonara" from the film ninaithale innikum. It's apt at this situation if your life. Wish you a very happy new year! India Singapore or anywhere else in the world, god says we do, that's it..

Sent from my iPhone

Anonymous said...

LOVE this post too. I have never been to college in India but reading your description makes me wish I had! no, not the boring engineering college where people travel for 3 hours a day to and from a deserted building outside the city limits.. but the arts college in the city type where creativity and exuberance are abundant and people look ALIVE! Great going girl! Keep posting.. I love reading about your Mumbai adventures.