It’s mysterious to arrive in a country at night and just breathe in the air of a new place. I am reminding myself that for the next six weeks, instead of over-thinking about the unknowns because I do not speak or read the language in Southern India, I will need to embrace other senses to find my way. Already I am looking for clues that will help me understand the culture and feel like I am a small part of this community, even if only for six weeks.
I am blessed to have this opportunity provided by CUSSW and by SST, the social arm of the company TVS. Our first day in India was in Chennai, the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, which included a warm and gracious welcome from SST Chairman Joshi. The meeting provided insight about the programs that Golda and I will observe in order to learn from the communities in Padavedu, and to understand community development in India and compare/contrast it to American systems.
SST’s mission is based on five arms: economic growth, health, education, environment, and infrastructure. We will experience these programs through observation and interaction in the village, and we will make assessments through our social work lens of areas that might benefit from further attention in order to continue moving forward. All SST programs are based on capacity building, which is a human-centered approach around community needs. In that respect, anything that SST implements must come from the village people’s will, compliance, and in the long term, the ability of the people to sustain the provisions without SST’s assistance. As I begin to understand SST’s work and mission, my inspiration to work with communities grows.
After our one-night stay in the city, we were eager to get to Padavedu, the village we would reside in for most of the six weeks. In Padavedu, a two and half-hour drive south of Chennai, I am surrounded by profound beauty. For all of my life, I have searched for a place like this — landscapes filled with sprawling lands, food stalls on the side walks with spices, snacks, and vegetables, temples and shrines in every direction, sounds of wildlife, and music that echoes from the main temple throughout the day.
Our apartment is the same place where last year’s CUSSW fellows stayed just across the street from the office. Already I feel they made a lasting impression on the people who work at SST and the village members as a whole. I feel their contributions here were extremely valuable, and I am proud and inspired to continue their legacy working with SST and for the people in Padavedu. Already, in one weeks’ time, I say with ease – this community has touched my heart.
I accept that I do not know as much as I would like about India and the culture of a small rural village, and I want so much to ask questions about everything I see. I hear so much Tamil, which is considered to be the first original language and is spoken in Southern India, and I feel completely confused and smile nervously. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to take a year to learn about Southern Indian culture, the language, religion, and more before I came here. Then I realize that so much of the joy I am experiencing comes from trying to understand, leaning into the discomfort (told to me many times in my first year at CUSSW), and surrendering to having patience for what is unfamiliar I think about what it means to really understand something. To understand is to, in a literal sense, stand under something and bear the weight of its worth. This takes time, familiarity, and intention, and I believe it ultimately enriches relationships in a way that we sometimes lose with knowing too much, too soon. I admit many things confuse me here all the time. Symbols that I know from other parts of the world are used differently here; the practice and values of marriage and family are engrained in Indian culture; and traditions surrounding eating and sharing meals, although exciting, are still part of my learning. However, many times the questions stay in my head, as I do not want to be concerned with the minutia and lose sight of the whole picture. And as time goes on, the stress of being outside of conversations has become more of a challenge I greet.
I run every day with Golda. We wake up before sunrise quietly taking in the fact that we are in India, and then we run through different parts of the village together. Surrounded by beautiful mountainsides, we explore people, agriculture, fruits, and animals; I know pictures will not do justice to the vibrant landscape. We say hello to many of the villagers, from children to elders, either by using the Tamil word “Vannakum” or with a bow of our hands in prayer position and by making eye contact.
Many people ask us to come inside and take a drink or eat food. Again, many questions fill my mind. My experience in American culture has taught me that when I am offered food it is customary to politely accept, which is contracted by my instinct not to take from others who have less than I have. I step back from these thoughts, trying to think of the right thing to do, and I realize that nothing is right or wrong in these situations. I come to the fact that the important thing is respect, which I exhibit by trying always to make eye contact, smile, through both exaggerated and gracious gestures. I believe that eventually I will begin to know what is important to the people who offer so much, and how I can receive it in a way that fits both our needs.
I went running alone this morning, and I took my time observing and connecting with people along my path. As I climbed up a dirt road, children would start following me, echoing my attempt to say hello in Tamil and laughing. After we ran, we stopped and danced on the side of the road. The children seem free, respectful, and trusting.
At another household, I was invited inside for food. I did my best to communicate that I was not hungry, and then the women went inside and came back with flowers to put in my hair, which I see women and children are adorned with throughout the day. She left again, and quickly emerged with a red dye to mark my forehead. I am not yet sure of the full extent of the meaning of either of these decorations; however, I feel so embraced by the people of Padavedu.
Almost a week has gone by here in Padavedu, and already I have had many varied, rich experiences. We have visited different community development projects in the field. Particularly we have seen many “Self Help Groups” (SHG), groups of 12 to 20 people (mainly women groups) that collectively form a business in order to get loans to create larger financial stability and empowerment. The money is shared in a rotation. In each visit, we are given the opportunity to ask questions in order to learn from these women, and gain insight into how entrepreneurship has changed their lives. Some businesses we have learned about are bamboo basket making, pottery, silk weaving, and agriculture to name a few. All of them have been advanced in different ways by supplies and support from SST.
I am especially taken with these women who demonstrate undeniable strength to become autonomous, self-sufficient, and empowered. I am humbled by their ability to articulate how much their lives have changed, enriched by the work of SST, and by their own ability to take care of their family, create sustainable businesses, and be an example for their children of what an independent working women can be. These meetings leave me with so much I want to bring back to America, as I see the SHGs as a model for many community organizing efforts I hope to be a part of in my future work. The members also seem to enjoy the idea of what we, as social work students, are trying to accomplish in our time in India. We reflect back to the people that we are here to learn from their way of building, maintaining, and sustaining their livelihood in order to increase their quality of life.
Yesterday we started our daily program with a visit to Padavedu’s main temple Venugopal, guided by one of the temple coordinators Mr. Venkateswaran, who gave us insight into meanings of the various shrines, traditions, and practices. We removed our shoes before entering the temple as is customary for most structures in India. My white, preserved feet cooked in the sand as we walked from shrine to shrine, and I felt that the pain was also a lesson in surrendering to something that is beyond my comprehension. As I did this, I learned so much more. This freedom is a gift I can say I already was given by my time here in India. The spirituality is astounding. Later that day, right around sunset, we went to a village called Kesavapuram to look at a water dam, where water conservation is done. I can say with ease that this was one of the most beautiful places I have been to in my life. It took my breath away.