Common Threads by Aviva Intveld and Sammy Raucher, photos by Rose Shulman-Litwin
COMMON THREADS: OUR FIRSTHAND ENCOUNTER OF INDIAN VALUES AND HOW THEY CONTRAST WITH THE CULTURE WE EXPERIENCE EVERYDAY IN AMERICA
This past November, the two of us journeyed to India for a two-week service learning trip with ten other high school girls. We explored New and Old Delhi, travelled to the outskirts of Jaipur to spend a week with the students at Vatsalya School, and wandered the streets of Agra. We experienced multiple sides of India’s beauty, from the extravagance of the Taj Mahal to the slums of Nindor. And through our time at Vatsalya, we made deep, lasting bonds with the students. Whether it was sitting with them in complete silence as we meditated or playing basketball with them for hours, the simple happiness and unconditional love we received made our relationships so much more powerful than anything we’ve experienced before.
After thirty-six hours of travel, the twelve of us were thrust into the organized chaos of Delhi on the very first day. There’s an understated beauty to New Delhi: lush greenery, a product of the recently departed monsoon season, thrives on the sides of the road. The sky is a yellow vapor, the sun a harsh red through the smog. Even in the city, cars and motorcycles zoom by, narrowly missing each other by fractions of an inch and honking gleefully, as if to make music. We spent the day immersing ourselves in Indian culture: eating our first dish of rice and curried vegetables with chopati, circular baked bread and buying beautiful kurtas, long, loose blouses that extended to just above our knees. But the day was far from over as our instructors, two incredible American women and one awesome Indian guide, announced that they had planned a surprise outing for us. Boarding taxis, our group set out to Old Delhi where we were presented with the experience of a lifetime: a cycle rickshaw ride through the cotton and silver markets.
As we separated into groups of three, settled into our respective rickshaws and set out into the bazaar, I began to feel the familiar thrill of adrenaline pulsing through my veins. The streets were sometimes wide, sometimes narrow, but they were always crowded, hundreds pushing their way through the throng. Personal space has an entirely different meaning in Delhi: as long as one isn’t virtually on top of another, anything goes. Suddenly, I vividly remembered the time a stranger yelled at me back home for accidentally stepping on her toe in the line at the grocery store. Surrounded by the movement and heat of thousands, I couldn’t help but laugh in memory of the incident as I surrendered to the feeling of being part of a crowd.
I could smell the food from street vendors sizzling on grills, spices wafting into the air, so different from the sterile fast food I was used to. The colors and patterns that the women wore glinted in the evening light, in stark contrast with the drab American clothes. Yet most memorable, even incredible, was the reaction I received from a simple smile. In the United States, a smile at a stranger on the street is always forced, always tightly closed-lipped. I’m lucky if I get one in return, and even luckier if the person doesn’t speed up to avoid further contact. Yet in the dimly lit, winding streets of the bazaar, my smiles were returned three times as large, white teeth flashing through the night. I can remember one old woman in particular who raised a hand to her chest and placed it over her heart as if in greeting. More often than not, those smiles came with waving hands and good-natured laughs. And each time someone smiled back at me, I could feel my own grin grow twice as large as my heart grew in size.
On our fifth day at Vatsalya, we hopped into vans and drove along windy, bumpy roads to Nindor, a small village about an hour away from Vatsalya. As we pulled up to the village, we were greeted by a swarm of excited children asking our names, shaking our hands, and welcoming us to their home. Once we made sure the entire group was present, we made our way through the main street of the village, walking past run-down buildings as children ran up to us and introduced themselves. Approximately once a week, Vatsalya sets up a medical camp in this slum where they provide medicine, an eye doctor, hygiene stations, activities for the children, and more. On this day, they had set up a tent where a doctor examined the villagers and handed out medicine. In a building slightly behind the tent, an eye doctor met with patients. We were split into groups where we cut children’s nails, handed out papers and markers for the children to draw, assisted the medical staff, and interacted with the older children and adults.
Throughout the couple of hours that we were at the slum, we had already created relationships with some of the children. They had toured us around their small village, pointing out their houses proudly, showing us their school that had been closed for several years. As we prepared to leave, we played patty-cake and other hand games with the children. I couldn’t help the huge smile that was brought to my face while playing with the kids. I went back and forth between several children as they tapped me on the shoulder, wanting to play patty-cake with me. There was one girl in particular, a girl in a red kurta, who I had bonded with while we were at the slum. I remember telling her my name and she responded, “beautiful.” I had been playing patty-cake with her for a while, when she pointed to her ring and took it off, handing it to me. I tried it on, telling her how beautiful the ring was. As I handed it back to her, she shook her head, pushing the ring back into my hand, telling me to keep it. At first I was uncertain; I didn’t want to take her possessions, and I was confused about the idea of her giving me something, rather than the other way around. But, as she and her friend encouraged me to take the ring, I gave in, smiling and thanking them. And as we piled into our vans, about to leave Nindor, the girl in the red kurta pressed her face up against my window. She pretended to cry, kissing the window, shouting “I love you!” and “I’ll miss you!” I repeated those words back to her, and we drove off along the dusty road, heading back to the city for lunch.
As I reflected for the next few hours and days, I realized how impactful the girl in the red kurta’s actions were and overall how inspiring our visit to the slums was. Although they didn’t have to, everyone in Nindor welcomed us with open arms. Most of them had never seen foreigners before, but they treated us like family, playing games with us, showing us around, and hugging and kissing us. Although they did not have an open school in their village or an abundant supply of clean water, the pure happiness among the children was evident in the bright smiles on their faces. Despite the difference in privilege between me and the girl, I was the one given a gift. Thinking back on the moment she gave me her ring, I am still in awe of the girl’s generosity and kindness. It goes to show that despite the circumstances people might be facing, there are still people who will welcome you with open arms. Once again, the recurring theme of unconditional love was ever-present during our visit to the Nindor slums.
Over cups of steaming chai, the twelve of us sat down to discuss marriage, education, and career choices with the women of Anoothi and the older girls at Vatsalya. Anoothi is one of Vatsalya’s business ventures that gives women work opportunities that they would not necessarily be presented with otherwise. Many of the employees come from nearby villages and all proceeds go towards the school and its students. Although most of these women were barely more than ten years older than us, most of them being in their twenties, all except one were married with children. The girls ranged from ten to sixteen years old, and they shared their thoughts with us about their lives after graduating from Vatsalya.
Our first topic was marriage. We began by discussing love marriages versus arranged marriages and marriage age. It was easy to see which of the older women were married based on the sindoor, the red streak painted below their hairline. Jaimala, one of the founders of the school, explained that arranged marriages were often the norm, and that they required consent on the woman’s part. She emphasized the difference between “arranged” and “forced,” and asserted the difference between America and India: in America, you fall in love and then get married. In India, you get married and then fall in love. We asked each of the girls which type of marriage they would prefer, and all but two preferred an arranged match. We also asked the older women if they would allow their children to have love marriages, and all but one would not. We came into the conversation with preconceived notions surrounding arranged marriages: in America, it’s incredibly uncommon and often villainized. But in India it was natural and expected, and the women seemed at ease with the tradition.
Our next conversation centered around education and career choices. All of the girls at Vatsalya were getting the equivalent of a K-12 schooling, and some were planning on pursuing higher levels of learning. They are the fortunate ones; most of the children we visited in the slums had been out of school for several years. What struck us was the stark difference between our immediate communities in Los Angeles and the Vatsalya girls in terms of our aspirations for higher education. At home, everyone we know is almost certainly going to college. In many ways, college is what we are all working towards at the moment. However, most of us don’t actually have a solid career plan yet. In comparison, many of the Vatsalya girls knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives, some even as young as 12, but many were not planning on university. In response, we asked the Vatsalya girls what they wanted to pursue. One said public service, another a government position, another a dancer. One girl named Annu expressed interest in becoming a doctor, but Jaimala was a hesitant; she explained that Annu was not as studious as her classmates, and would do better to pursue a career that required less study. We looked at each other in surprise as we registered our privilege; neither of us had ever been discouraged from pursuing our dreams. When Annu was asked for her next option, she responded with block-printing. Jaimala nodded her encouragement.
As we reflect on our time in India, the contrasts between Indian and American culture grow ever clearer. Differences in vibrancy, food, clothes, and space are evident, but beneath the surface we have gained a new understanding of what it means to be a student, a woman, and a good person. As we prepared for the trip, we were told that in some ways we would not truly understand our experience until months after we had returned. For us, this has proven true in our daily actions and awareness. We recognize the seemingly little things, like having clean water and toilet paper, to the importance of having a support system for and access to whatever dreams we wish to pursue. Through our trip, we have gained not only a greater appreciation but also an understanding of our privilege in the United States. Not only did we throw ourselves into the beautiful chaos that is India, but we were able to truly connect with certain moments that redefined our ideals of gratitude and appreciation. The common thread between all of those moments was the kindness and unconditional love that greeted us at every turn.