Outside the metal sliding door there are sounds from the slum colony that I’m still not used to—the shouts of a drunken brawl, the sweet voice of a small girl taking care of her even younger brother.
My host family and I are lying on one bed, snuggled under a woolen blanket to combat Chandigarh’s coming winter. A dramatic Punjabi serial plays on the television, something about a man marrying a woman for money.
“Tell me the truth, didi,” my 17-year-old host brother says. “You thought I was a bad kid when you first came.”
It’s hard to say now, especially after days of cooking chole with his mother, having conversations about spirituality with his father, and sleeping comfortably in their home.
But it’s true. Before I heard Advait sing soulful Sufi songs, or saw him help his semi-paralyzed mother wash dishes, all I saw was a lazy teenager who seemed overfriendly with girls and boisterous with friends in our community library. In fact, I immediately complained to a coworker that this group of boys was trouble.
When I came to Chandigarh from the United States, my values of social justice and equality were intact. For years I had struggled with the fact that I was living in the same world as children who slept in the medians of highways, or sniffed correction fluid to forget their future, or present. This dichotomy was a large part of what brought me to India in a service-related field.
But I didn’t know that the expansive chasms in the economic classes were just as present in my mind as in Indian society. What I saw as backward and hypocritical in the government or on the tongues of middle and upper class citizens was not absent from my own schema.
My fellowship year seemed to be the perfect opportunity to understand this dichotomy. I have spent the majority of my time here laughing, stumbling, teaching, and living, armed with the mission of establishing a creative, empowering learning center.
My year with Indicorps has been serving as kind of a “myth buster,” a challenge to every judgment I have ever made about poverty and slums from my home in the United States, or through the windows of my cousins’ car in Hyderabad.
As much as I wanted to tell my students that it didn’t matter that their father soldpani puri on the road, or that their mothers could not read or write, I knew that it did matter. It mattered to employers, and school teachers. And it mattered to me.
Four months into my stay, the same teenage boys that I judged so harshly have become my friends. They poke fun at my Hindi, and cook for me after they taste my trial-and-error alu gobi. In turn, I make sure they know that Americans don’t go to college drunk in bikinis, or buy laptops every month.
And since they have watched me adjust so quickly, and practice simple living through food, clothing, and lifestyle, they know it is true—the assumptions just don’t hold up on either end.
At the onset of an English and computer class we created, I asked the boys why they wanted to learn these skills. Most of them answered with career opportunities and education. But one normally mischievous 16-year-old sighed and said, “Because I’m sick of people seeing me on the street and knowing which colony I came from.”
Immediately, a photo came to my mind, a photo I haven’t seen for four years. In the late photojournalist Dan Eldon’s journals, a young black man in Africa stands in front of a wall. Above his head are the words “I hate what you think of my life.”
It is only now that I understand, harshly, what he meant.
If I hadn’t met this particular group of guys in the library, would I have placed them all in the category of the same lecherous, loitering men who stare on the local bus? Would I peg them as the youngsters who would grow up to be lethargic, perhaps abusive, husbands and fathers?
I’ve been lucky this year to experiment with my own mental barriers, and they have proven stubborn and deep rooted. But the solution has also been just as obvious. After days of rolling rotis with mothers and creating naataks with the kids, I am unable to separate my new home from my old life, or my new friends from past relationships.
The conscious and subconscious ideas I had of big words like grassroots development and holistic education have become alive and true, not with research or reading, but in the loud classrooms of eager learners, the beat of the dhol drum in our music classes, and the satisfaction of sleeping and waking with new ideas for growth and change.
Ankita Rao is an August 2010 Indicorps Fellow. Based in Chandigarh, she is partnered with Yuvasatta and focuses on creating positive after-school learning environments.