Organized in 2006 by the Center for South Asian Studies with a generous donation from an anonymous donor, the Summer in South Asia Fellowship has provided over 90 students with funding for research and internships in India. Undergraduate students at U-M who receive a Summer in South Asia Fellowship can design and carry out their own summer fellowship programs in India. This platform was created to connect the previous and present fellows in the SiSA Program.
Academically, I was able to actively compare my experience in India to similarities I found in stratification when I went back home to Egypt. This was especially prominent in the conversations I had with my friends in Egypt after the trip and tying together the cross cultural similarities between the stratification in both countries and how that impacts one’s vulnerability to certain situations. I was even able to take it a step further and compare social standards influence on vulnerabilities to the unique landscape of stratification in America, where classes are not as physically and socially separated as in the other two countries. It was a very interesting thing to be able to witness as I moved throughout my summer from country to country.
Professionally, I developed the ability to change my writing style to that of reports already existing, and I was able to partake in observational reports for the NGO. It was really cool working with their deadlines and taking what I was seeing and doing in the field and detailing it into a professional annual report. It was a large responsibility, and giving me such tasks from the very start was a great experience that allowed me to grow professionally and also aid the organization in a key project.
Personally, It was such a joy to build such a close relationship with my Airbnb hosts as well as the people I was working with. The pure kindness I was met with in India was such a heart-warming experience. I was also able to build such unique relationships with those around me and grow from them. Even the smallest of interactions, like the gate keeper waving to me every time i’m walking back home are all things I continue to miss. I am still in contact with many of the people I met, and many are expecting me to come back soon. Hopefully I will be able to! I really wanted to be able to travel within India, but i didn’t have time, but this, along with the relationships I built, gives me a sure enough reason to come back.
My first half of the trip I was mainly doing work around the Sneha shelter, but the second half I was working with another initiative Sanlaap had started, which is the Child Protection Programme. This was a programme where drop in centers in red-light districts act as a place catering to children living in red-light districts where they can find security and are provided education, health services, and opportunities to build their skills. This was my favorite work at Sanlaap. I would go the Red Light District and work in the Drop in Centers (DICs) to aid in the completion of the NGO’s annual report. They had a range of workshops from tutoring to dancing, and it was really great to form connections with different children there. What I found most interesting is the complete rearrangement of the Nuclear Family these drop in centers were able to provide. These centers were not daycares, as the children slept there too, but it was a place where the children lived and the mothers would stop by, it was of the likes of a communal home that was open onto the road so children were coming and going. It almost created a sense of home within the entire street, where the children all living in the DIC had relationships like siblings.
The Head of one the DIC’s explained to me that often time they are confused about the father figure, and many children attribute the title of father to more than one male who frequents the street. It is the same with mother figures, while most are naturally closer with their birth mothers, some have “two mothers” where they have a relationship with their birth mother, but had another woman raise them and care for them from a young age. Thus they attribute the title to two people. It is really interesting, and quite beautiful to see the bonds of family so widely attributed to so many people, and still be prominent relationships in their life.
Though I don’t have enough time to travel outside of Kolkata, the city has so many beautiful buildings and spots that I’m not sure if I will be able to visit all the places I want to in time. One of my favorite visits was the Birla Mandir. I was in the Sanlaap office one day and finished work early and so I walked around the area to explore and realized I was quite close to it. The architecture of the building was truly breathtaking, the style of the temple was so unique and unlike anything I have seen before. There was no photography allowed in side because it is a religious site, but one of the guards was able to take my photo outside the temple.
The day was filled with very interesting encounters because I had passed by this tea house that looked very nice. I was fasting and so just walked around the neighborhood while waiting for sundown. I walked in and looked at the menu for a while trying to pass the time. When I finally ordered a tea and meal, the tea came right in time. The waiter was extremely nice and asked me to try it infront of him and let him know if the temperature, flavor, and sweetness was all fine. After taking a sip and telling him it was great, he gives a thumbs up gesture to a line of waiters on the other side of room, who proceeded to clap at my response. My meal came a bit later and it was really amazing (as most of the meals in Kolkata were). In the middle of my meal, the waiter came back followed by the chef, and he introduced him to me. I was quite surprised but of course thanked him for the amazing meal, but then he thanked my for my comment! After then I realized that the restaurant probably assumed I was a food critic/blogger as I was on my phone and chatting with my sister during my meal, and sending her pictures, so it may have looked like I was taking notes. It was a funny story to look back on, especially when they had me sign a guestbook at the end! Maybe they just had impeccable service? But really, I had some of the best meals of my life in Kolkata, which was definitely really nice to look forward to while fasting. The foodservice industry is something else!!! On top of that, my Airbnb hosts were extremely supportive during Ramadan. One of the hosts offered to wake me up before sunrise which is when I eat before I start my day. Of course I told her not to worry as I just used an alarm, but one day I came home and she made my a traditional dish that Indian Muslims eat during this time, which she asked her Muslim friend how to make. It was truly such a sweet gesture and made me so happy.
I have been pretty busy during the week, so I haven’t had much time to see the city. Ramadan has started so it is getting hard to do a lot after work because I often am too tired from fasting and go to sleep right after I break my fast at sundown . What has helped is that more recently a lot of the work has been remote. I have been doing my fieldwork one or twice a week while going to the office more often, or sending reports remotely. I had a weekend off, and so I visited one of the most famous sights in Kolkata, the Victoria Memorial. It was really beautiful and I was able to stay quite a bit. It has been very interesting witnessing the relationship of India and its colonial history. Often times talking to people there i have found a sense of disdain towards this colonial past, rightfully so, but there is still a lot of respect surrounding monuments and buildings that are remnants of that history. I guess it is interesting because at a same time this is still a very real part of national history and as Shruti described it, a reminder of gaining that independence and the work it took to do so. I guess it would be dishonest to ignore that past, because it has impacted why the country is the way it is today, even if that impact was not necessarily positive.
The Victoria Memorial itself was beautiful, its extremely grand and has a museum inside of it with paintings, wax scenes, and statues. The surrounding grounds and gardens were even more beautiful, as they act as a place for families to gather for picnics on Sundays. I was able to sit in front of the water a bit and read, as well as stroll through the gardens. It was really ironic as one of my first few day in Kolkata, my Airbnb host told me to go to college street which is an entire street filled with vendors selling books. I came across Bhagat Singh’s jail notebook and other writings and bought. He was considered to be one of the most influential revolutionaries in India’s independence movement. The irony of reading his Jail notebook in front of the Victoria Memorial was kind of chilling and made me really aware of the space I am in and the history and struggle surrounding it.
Coming back so close to the beginning of the school year has been an overwhelming process. After upwards of 24 hours of travel, my mom and I moved all of my things into my new house. I have a lot of things. I was greeted with a flood of familiar faces and things that I know so well but everything still felt kind of different. There’s comfort in the familiar, but I still find myself feeling oddly unsettled.
One of my housemates was also a fellow in this program, so we’ve been talking a lot together about India. It’s been so difficult trying to talk to other people about my experience and explain everything in an accurate and meaningful way, so having someone who totally understands where I am at has been wonderful. We tried to sit down one day and have an actual conversation about our time in India, but neither of us know what to say. Instead, we keep bringing up little details here and there, having small asides and glimpses into what we saw and felt. I think that because nearly everything in India was so different from my life here, there’s no way to address it all in one conversation. I feel like I can only explain the little details, one at a time to people. But no one can understand the magnitude of the differences or how all these subtle little changes compounded together into an experience that didn’t actually feel that different.
Words keep failing me. Looking back, I don’t really know if I actually processed or recognized everything I was seeing. I think there’s so much stimulation and so much change that I couldn’t appreciate it all at once. While in India, I found myself noticing a lot of the little details that were similar to what was at home, like the maggi noodles that tasted like ramen in the states or the trees that were the same as the ones in my grandmother’s yard. Now that I’m home, I have been noticing all of the little details that are different, like the milk and the queues and the busy streets.
Ultimately, I really regret not giving myself more time to adjust to being back here. I wish that I had more time to process everything that had happened and really figure out what I am feeling. But the academic year has begun, and school, work, and all my responsibilities are forcing me to think about other things instead. I have my pictures, I have my journals, I have the work I did there, and I have my intentions to go back. I am so thankful for everyone who has made this opportunity possible for me. I have a hard time expressing the overwhelming amount of gratitude I am feeling but I am beyond grateful for the last 7 weeks of my life that I will never fully be able to explain.