10 years ago, as a 19 year old, I made a decision to travel to India. This decision, it turned out, was full of assumptions about myself and India as a place. I fancied myself as a bit of an anthropologist ‘cos I’d done a year of it at Curtin.
Initially, I decided to go India because had a double-edged desire to: a) become a hippy anthropologist and grow my facial hair out and do participant observations, and b) to be a gracious volunteer for the poor masses of India. A technologically savvy Mother Teresa.
I had my iPod full of melancholy music by the Smiths, a digital camera and a video camera, Lululemon style activewear. But there were a series of false starts on my journey. One that really shaped my perspective and my desire to go was that I’m half Indian – my dad (an East African-born Gujarati man who has spent most of his life in Australia and the UK) and I felt that, being half Indian, I would have a natural and mutual affinity to the peoples of India…they were ‘my tribe’ after all! So, I asked my dad what he thought about my desire to go volunteering in India. He said: “Why don’t you finish your degree first?” And then I asked my mum’s family in the UK who are Anglo-Irish, and they said: “Why don’t you finish your degree first?!” So, of course, I ignored both parties and used the money I’d been saving working at Dome Cafe to buy a ticket for the 9th of March 2009.
I caught a flight to Mumbai, and I landed at the airport and bought my connecting ticket to Indore which is a big, industrial city in central India where I’d arranged to volunteer for 6 months at a women’s training institute. Sitting in the waiting terminal, I had a very surreal feeling come over me… I thought, what the hell am I doing? I don’t have any skills to offer anyone – I don’t know what I’m doing here. Why am I here? This feeling came over me intensely, but then on the bus that brought us to the connecting flight to Indore, a song came on the radio. It was a song that my family used to listen to on repeat when my grandma used to visit – an old Bollywood classic.
I sat there listening to this familiar song and I felt instant relief; I’m meant to be here!
I got to the institute and was greeted by one of the women who was being trained there. There were about 60 women around my age who were training there. Again, that feeling of overwhelm came over me. What was I doing here? I had nothing to offer… I felt like I had one foot in India and the other in Australia and it was very disorienting.
A few days later, as part of the Hindu festival of Holi someone from the institute had managed to procure lots of colourful Holi powder. We all threw it over each other and it was a delightful mess. And instantly I felt relieved and thought oh, I’m meant to be here. Then, after the Holi celebration I went back to my volunteer room which was very luxurious compared to the rooms of the girls.
Over the next few weeks, I was given tasks like dusting bookcases and typing up old memos which I felt was very much beneath me. Another fact you should all know about my trip to India is that for around 2 months of my time there, I lived on only one pair of undies. They were bright red jocks actually, and I don’t know how but I’d lost all my other pairs and only had these ones left. So, I would wear them by day and wash them by night. I kind of saw it as a sign of strength that I could survive on so few undies. And this was my system and it worked very well for the most part.
One day, I decided that I didn’t want to work in the office and that I wanted to be with ‘my tribe’. I saw that outside there was a group of girls using stones to hit other stones and make rubble. How charming! Now is my chance for some participant observation. I went outside and sat with them, squatting and hitting stones to make rubble. The women began laughing at me and I felt completely out of place. Maybe I’m trying too hard to be an anthropologist, I thought to myself. The laughing continued and as I wondered what they were laughing at, I looked down and saw that there was a rip in my salwar. I saw that I was somewhat exposed. I was mortified and ran to the volunteer room, crying. My underwear malfunction had cost me my dignity.
It was at this point that I realised that I wasn’t as Indian as I thought I was. Or as I was trying to be. I wasn’t even that good at helping the people I’d sought to help. This all came down on me like a ton of bricks. And I became something of an emotional wreck.
One day, I was going up to breakfast and I couldn’t stop crying. I cried and cried all the way up the stairs and when I got to the breakfast room, one of the women who I knew had a kind heart approached me. I thought I might finally get the sympathy I deserved. She said to me: “Maya Didi, you don’t cry… you eat… you pray… and you WORK!”
In the last week of my time there – it had been three months – I sat woefully on my bed in the volunteer room. I had my iPod on and was listening to the Beatles. And then a song written by George Harrison came on. All this time, I’d been fretting about belonging or lack of belonging in this place and then the profound lyrics said: ‘life goes on within you and without you’. I felt so touched because my emotional life in India was going on within me, and India could very easily go on without me.
So, after all this time, I hadn’t done what I’d set out to achieve. My participant observation had been ended up being a flashing session; my effort to help the women whom I had initially thought of as poor and needy was completely turned on its head. And to them, I am eternally grateful. They showed me, with fewness of words and an abundance of deeds, that life is not about what you own – it’s about how kind and resilient you are. It’s about how you’re able to overcome.