Yesterday marked our very first day of orientations, which will continue for the rest of this week. No complaints; I mean the longer classes are held off and we get to have lazy days around the city, by all means take your time to organize this program.
The women running this program are such baddies, I love them. They’re down-to-earth, funny, easygoing people but radiate power and embody the idea of an India led by women. Actually, all around me I see new assertions of power. Women riding motorcycles–though more on campus than in the city. Even still, seeing women leading independent lifestyles and take on positions of authority has been honey to my eyes. I feel ashamed at being a little surprised, for not being more aware of Indian cultural shifts, but I am glad to be learning much of India by hearing it from its people.
For example, in yesterday’s health and safety meeting, Sumana–a program executive–explained that donning a scarf over the chest is not symbolism of religious piety and cultural modesty for women–as it is in the Bengali culture–but more for practicality’s sake (i.e. to protect their heads from the sun and their mouths from the dust). Making eye contact with strangers of the opposite sex is taken as invitation for further communication, as opposed to its unquestioned use in American culture. We were, thus, advised to avoid eye contact when walking in public, despite being stared at. Though it is a Hindu-predominant country, India has the largest population of Muslim followers than anywhere else in the world. It is a secular nation, meaning it recognizes all religions and does not give preference or privilege to any one faith. Which means many many holidays. That we won’t get to see. Because we’re only here 10 weeks. Yay.
I met some PhD students from my floor. One was a Syrian native, the other was from Yemen. Our conversation was truly something. The Syrian student shared her griefs about how the US would not allow her inside its boundaries because of her nationality and her frustration with outsiders not recognizing that all Syria is in war. She felt privileged by the amenities in Tagore House, with its nonstop electricity, running water, sanitation procedures in the kitchen, and little old me had to put myself in check right there on the spot. Here I had been uncomfortable with the toilets and mentally frustrated about the hard beds. I don’t think enough about the luxuries I have at home and at Dartmouth, like the comfortable chairs in the library, never having to worry about the lights going off, or whether the water in safe enough to brush your teeth with. Like damn, I may not be rich but I am spoiled af at Dartmouth (not all the time though).
Our conversation stretched to comparing and contrasting cultural norms. Dowry, for example, is not practiced in Yemen and Syrian cultures like it is in India; rather the groom may choose to give a gift to the bride’s family if he so chooses to do so but the matter is trivial. The bride is regarded as the “gift” to the groom’s family–unlike Indian perceptions, where females are thought of as a burden to the family. Both of these women passionately spoke about the wrongness of female subordination and cultural obligations in Indian culture. It was quite an honest conversation; I wish more people were involved in this. It would have been a direct slash to the perception that all South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures are the same. My friends, let me tell you, they are not. And these women have spoken to it.
But India too has so much in practice that we should emulate. Its hospitality, its respectful attitude, and its graciousness. For instance, if one opens a bag of food among others, it is customary to share with everyone else within range. If one does not have enough for everyone, one should not eat in public. For another, expressing thanks to those that contribute for a cause, no matter how little or big, is more than just a formality. Kirtana, our program director, welcomed every single member of the SIP program with a big smile that very first day of orientation, thanking them for their dedication–including even the kind woman who prepares our chai. (Also, side note, the chai is so addicting here, and so is this one dish they serve in the dining hall that’s literally just bread cooked in lots of sugar but it brings so much joy to my belly.)
India is kind. Its heart welcomes all.