Bahot Pyar: Much Love
Studying abroad this semester in Delhi, India in the National Identity Arts Program is anthropology major and field hockey team captain Elizabeth Weiner ‘14. From arrival until March 31, Weiner has been living in a homestay with a host family in a business class apartment in New Delhi. She has been studying the language of Hindi and attending lectures on a variety of subjects such as dance, politics, history and more.
For the conclusion of her semester abroad, Weiner has chosen an independent study of heritage preservation. She has been assigned the task of writing a 30 page research paper and giving a 15 minute presentation on the topic and will be focusing on multiple perspectives of heritage preservation: in the home life, in public education, and through the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage.
Part of the independent study includes the students moving out and living on their own. Weiner has been living by herself in the town of Kangra, located at the foothills of the Himalayas, since she left the homestay in New Delhi.
Weiner says about her experience of living alone, “I have been fortunate to have been virtually adopted by the community of the local public school. I was absolutely terrified at first to be living by myself, especially in a foreign place, but as some people say that INDIA stands for ‘I’ll never do it again,’ I’ve come to interpret it more as ‘I never did it alone’ because—well for one thing, India’s population is absolutely out of control—but also just because of the sheer compassion and openness of Indian people to welcome you and invite you into their lives.”
One of Weiner’s favorite quotes is from a taxi driver who told her, “In India, anything is possible!”
Allison M. Rich
This past semester has been extraordinary, yet monotonous. Beautiful, but filthy. Awe-inspiring, yet occasionally terrifying. India, in a nutshell, is simultaneously everything that my romanticized vision had hoped it would be and everything that I had desperately hoped it wouldn’t. It is, by all definitions that I can come up with, the land of contradictions. It is beautiful chaos, my own personal heaven and my own personal hell.
Allison M. Rich in India. (Photo: Allison M Rich)
But, despite the fact that even the most simple, taken for granted parts of daily life here (like finding safe drinking water or doing laundry in a bucket) can feel so much harder than back home, what India has most taught me is not how the so-termed “developing world” is different from the “developed” West. Instead, what it took me a trip to the literal other side of the world to learn is that the United States is by no means beyond many of the same struggles and human rights atrocities that plague nations allegedly so less developed than our own. As I conclude my semester with a month-long stay in Delhi, perhaps there is no better illustration of this relative non-difference than one that made national headlines only a few short months ago—the Delhi rape case.
Since Delhi came under global scrutiny after the brutal, lethal rape of a young woman on a bus in December, there has been much conversation at all levels of Indian society and bureaucracy as to how to prevent such heinous acts from occurring again in the future. But the reality is that conversation means little when in the first few weeks of April alone a woman was drugged and raped by multiple men on her way home to Gurgaon, an industrial suburb only about 45 minutes from my home in South Delhi, and a five-year-old girl was kidnapped, starved, and brutally raped by a neighbor within South Delhi itself. Not ten days later, a six-year-old girl was sexually assaulted and dumped in a public toilet near Badarpur, only a few stops down the same metro line that I use every day. These instances, as horrendous as they may be, are not exceptional in their occurrence—they are exceptional in that they were reported.
Nonetheless, it is far too easy to get caught up in the terror these cases and other like them induce. Blaming Indian patriarchal culture and oppressive gender norms, pretending that if only women didn’t need to cover their legs and shoulders to go out in public these things would never happen, is far easier than recognizing that we are still fighting the same battles back home.
Yes, in the United States women can wear spaghetti-strap sundresses wherever we want. But that doesn’t count for much when one in four college-aged women will become a victim of sexual assault, does it? We can point our fingers at a corrupt Indian police force that chooses victim blaming over actually arresting and punishing rapists. But is that really so different from the American equivalent, which causes rape to remain one of the most underreported, underpunished crimes in the U.S.?
Before coming to India, I think that I assumed that being a “global citizen” meant experiencing and learning from those things that are most different about a place. I assumed it meant being open-minded enough to adapt to using squat toilets with no toilet paper, to counting cows as part of rush hour traffic, and to taking a bath out of a bucket. Are all of those things are part of my day-to-day reality here? Yes. But by no means have they been the most difficult part of learning to live half a world away.
Learning to recognize that, while India may be home to 50% of the world’s hungry, one in six Americans will also experience hunger has been far more challenging. Learning to recognize that, while the whole world may turn and stare when India botches the handling of a rape case, we as a nation continue to turn our backs on the fact that rape is still very much a part of American culture as well.
On Routine and Wanderlust
A secure and predictable routine, especially on a college campus, is easy, comforting and the principal reason for why studying abroad is so hard. I myself have an international identity and background, which has rendered being “abroad” as a flexible concept because I don’t always know what I left behind and where I am expected to or have the desire to return to. I personally don’t like the cliché of the global citizen, but do prescribe to having an insatiable wanderlust.
A wonderful word from my German country of citizenship, wanderlust is the desire to travel. The need to move and, for me, the desire to be away from that routine. Studying abroad in India was an experiment in personal identity for me, however; I did not go to India to “find myself.” What I really wanted to know is was what it meant to me that my mother is Indian and how that factored into my identity.
As one of two boys in a 27-student program of only Americans, I may have felt like a minority, but I had the advantage of this being my fifth time in Delhi. Some of the American students had never left the US and I admired this, but also expected drastic cultural shock, which eventually did happen but I was able to observe, learn, and surprisingly be exposed to things I thought I already understood about India.
I will be completely honest: India entrances me and infuriates me at the same time. It has a history of hundreds of years of beautiful culture and contributions to humanity but is struggling with the aftereffects of colonialism and still reflects elements of that era to this day. For example India is the birthplace of Gandhi’s need not greed philosophy, yet five-star hotels are often opposite slums. Its contradictions may be dizzying, but they are also educational.
A month prior to the program’s commencement, a female college student was viciously beaten, raped, and ultimately died. It was a highly publicized and horrific event and the more time I spent in India, I quickly discovered sexual assault was a social epidemic. Only while abroad did I find out that my mother, as a young Indian girl, had experienced what is still known as “eve-teasing.” It is essentially any form of sexual harassment like groping and cat-calling, considered socially acceptable by boys when directed at girls.
Public displays of affection are considered absolutely taboo in rural areas and you see them very rarely in urban areas between heterosexual young couples. Within this same sphere I also discovered other sexual minorities like the LGBTQI community are only accepted in very modern cities like Bombay. Something I found interesting in relation to the American idea of homosexual stigmatization is that Indian men who are friends, just like American girls, will hold hands in public. This would be considered embarrassing for two heterosexual males in the US, but adds another facet to the dialogue of physical contact and what it symbolizes in India.
I know that I will always leave India with more questions rather than answers and that for the rest of my life I will be returning to a country that is experiencing unbelievable transformations economically and socially every two to three years between my return trips. The India I recognize today will feel like another planet in two years, but despite all these changes, I know that it will always be my home and a constant representation of beautiful chaos. My romanticized yet hopeful vision for India is having the potential to develop itself with a dignity and pride that will reflect what I believe India will ultimately become: a gem in the international landscape of modern development.