Ask what I did last year and you’ll gather that I was in India.
Laughter, at the Gandhi Ashram—tinkling laughter of childhood. Two hundred faces of innocence and eagerness embedded in my mind forever.
Probe further, and you would know that I worked at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, marketing handicrafts made by children from the slums.
Reaching through the honking and bustling and finding places of stillness and reverence.
As a Bay Area resident for 10 years, the tug of the all-powerful Silicon Valley dollar was strong. But something about Indicorps’s mission—“service for the soul”—had an almost romantic appeal. It sounded like a good idea to serve the country of my origin, learn from it, get immersed in it. So I embarked on a one-year journey, a year that now stands out as the definitive catalyst of a lifelong transformation.
When I left I was ill-equipped in more ways than one. For one thing, too much baggage. It was cumbersome to lug around the obligatory two suitcases full of “stuff” that every Indian must take. The physical baggage I shed quickly. The other kind was difficult. “Look, listen and learn!” the coordinators of the fellowship urged when we arrived in India.
The purported mission of the program was to contribute our energies to the development of India. So we descended with notions of grandeur. But when one meets people like Ishwar Patel, recipient of the prestigious Bharat Ratna award, frontline worker of rural India, dive into a pit of feces to clean it and send a message to the villagers, what remains but to discard these notions aside and dive in alongside?
I met numerous other inspiring individuals along the way, from the artist Jagat Sukhadia, who pours his heart into the craft he teaches children, to the visionary president of the nation Abdul Kalam. After meeting them, I have come to believe that India doesn’t need help. On the contrary, to paraphrase Vivekananda, it is the help of the world. The reason is that people in India, the woman at the Ganga, and the child in the slum have something in common that is powerful and inexplicable. They believe. Fervently. Unreasonably. Endearingly. And this faith moves mountains.
A hundred thousand kites color the sky. Thousands of people on the roofs of their homes hop easily from terrace to terrace. The spirit of the nation soars like the kites.
This experience is undoubtedly a spiritual journey. India reveals herself as a reflection of the philosophy that she gave birth to. The infinite shifting realities, the richly textured plurality, play themselves out to the logical extreme in this country. But the same nation that variegates, confounds, and distorts any one reality is equipped to transcend its own illusions. Ultimately, something about India enables me to make peace with all that is India.
And now, I return home, once again, ill equipped. Home! To San Jose. After one year away what shall I expect? I stare blankly out of the car. Windows rolled up. To shield us from intimacy. Cars whiz by. I know I am expected to celebrate this grand melting pot of cultures. But my eyes are open wider and I am cynical.
In business school I struggle to connect my recent experiences, with what I learn from the books. I learn that the U.S. is clearly a great nation, unparalleled in GDP, GNP, and any other acronym you care to apply. And we stumble all over ourselves trying to get a piece of that GDP pie, frantically searching for a job, writing and rewriting that resume to be perfect, dashing, and … innocuous.
What about connections? What about community? Is there a place you can go to learn about that? Does this great nation suffer from too much distance? Why are we afraid to show up at our friend’s home without calling first? Why don’t children in the park hang on to my neck or swing on my arms? And why does no train or bus commute in the U.S. ever turn into an animated, ridiculous conversation with every passenger tossing in a comment or two? Half-hearted smiles and reluctant glances are the best we can manage here. We complain loudly and obnoxiously when our hosts in India feed us beyond capacity. Now, we find, no one notices or cares when we skip a meal. The loss is ours.
One frequently hears about the power of East meeting West, perhaps neglecting, in the process, the risk of the immigration experience. Hasty and eager as we are to blend into our host country, do we leave behind more than we intend to? Holding on to dogma, to rituals, and an occasional Divali dinner, we claim Indianness, the one we remember from our brief years in India, or perhaps from what our parents told us. Yet we can barely speak to our parents or grandparents in our own tongue. Many things are wrong with this picture. But time is on our side. For endlessly, patiently, the Ganga flows on, awaiting our return.
Rish Sanghvi is an Indicorps Fellow 2002.