On Immersion

Dr. Leela Prasad, Faculty Director, Duke INtense Global-Hyderabad
Associate Professor, Department of Religion, Duke University

It was just past 1 AM when we came out of the Yusufain darga in Nampally. I was still wrapped in the magic of the qawwali performance, still steeped in the intensity of the women who had emoted—in gesture and through dance—with the cadences and the words that had made the partition between the men’s side and women’s side melt. Back in our van, we tumbled into a discussion of language, of how Hindi and Urdu wrapped themselves in each other on such occasions. We tried conversing in Hindi during the quick ride home. But the music kept reverberating in my mind. It still is, three days after.

I finally had found the word: awake.

I want us—six committed Duke students and me—to be awake in India, to India. Not to India’s usual gateway images—deadly dull by sheer cliché—which don’t ask one to be in India at all. They provide only remote understanding: eyes of hunger, cheap plastic chairs, oozing kindness, cattle on city roads. India by Surfing.

But Duke INtense Global [DIG] – India is an experiment about depth. Immersion. A year-long study about India and its availability to the world, in the past and at present, through coursework, field research, travel, and civic work. Five months of the year spent in India straddling across the Fall and Spring semesters to provide a sense of learning that is not bound to the frame of one single semester or geography or medium of learning. We will turn to technology to shape this flow.

E-chatting with a Religion professor in Duke and separately with a History professor at the University of Minnesota, experts in areas we’ve wandered into: Islamic practice, Gandhian neighborliness. Conversation with a professor in neighboring IIIT about ahimsa and everyday life in Gandhi’s ashram. Deepavali at home, Guru Nanak jayanti (birthday) in a gurdwara. Field-based exploration of the ethos of sacred spaces in Hi-Tech city. Visiting Gandhi’s ashram (Sevagram) near Wardha, Maharashtra.Gurdwara MCME

Navigating the complexities of working at a school for children of migrant construction workers: how to build a curriculum? How to have a bathroom built? How to build partnerships with parents of the children, with construction management, with an NGO partner, and with university student groups? What approach would a Gandhian practicum suggest to overcome the challenges of education in the midst of migrancy and ethnic differences and institutional indifferences?

There is structure, spontaneity and sensitivity to immersion. It is my ambition that DIG-India discover this and live it.

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Piquant Memories

©Tumeric Indian Restaurant & Bar, Winston Salem, NC

©Tumeric Indian Restaurant & Bar, Winston Salem, NC

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”-James Beard

           Yesterday, for the first time since I returned from India, I was able to indulge in perhaps one of the most important components of our time in India-South Asian food. Half of our group attended Duke’s Annual Hindi Festival, and as I walked into the room, I couldn’t help but get the overwhelming feeling that I was back in India again. The sounds of small chitchat in Hindi and other regional South Asian languages; the scent of chole, naan, mutter paneer, and biryani; the salwar kameezs and kurtis; and the conversations between students about plans for the weekend, all brought back a rush of memories from our time in Tagore.

As we ate, I remembered the hundreds of enticing and decadent meals we had all across India. Everyone in our group is a foodie (not really, but we prefer that term over fatty :)), and every time we went to sight see or explore the city, we always searched for a new and delicious restaurant to satisfy our taste buds. A large way in which we understood the varying, distinct regions of the country was through food. We spent countless days comparing and exploring the differences in North and South Indian food, more specifically Punjabi versus Hyderabadi versus Rajasthani versus Tamil, etc. Every new city we visited, we were always sure to ask the waiters “What food and sweet is (city name) known for? We want to try that.” Food quickly became one of the major gateways we employed to truly immerse ourselves in the people of India. Nevertheless, our explorations with food go beyond just tasting; it was our conversations at meal times that were truly worth indulging in. Meal times were without fail the time of the day where we all came together, recuperated and openly discussed whatever was on our minds, from assignments, to experiences, to daily activities, and to future plans. There were the times of the day that enforced that we were slowly becoming a family, and are by far the moments I miss the most.

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What I Miss the Most

“Can we reschedule?” 

“Sure we can.” I replied, but my verbal response was much more forgiving than thoughts in my head.  My friend had just rescheduled a dinner, not a big deal, but what was a big deal is how common place that is here in the US.  Another friend rescheduled lunch on Friday.  Rescheduling is so frustrating.  You think you have your plans in order, Great Hall w/ John, tonight 6pm,  then a text or call later you don’t know what you’re doing for your next meal.

 I’m not claiming the victim.  I rescheduled a brunch yesterday and a breakfast last Wednesday.  I’m not claiming rescheduling or cancelling doesn’t happen in India.  There, your schedule is in constant flux because of when things are supposed to start versus when they do and when things are supposed to happened versus whether they been cancelled or pushed back.  I think the difference is that here I’m forced to plan out my calendar in advance much farther.  I might try to set up lunch with someone and neither of us have open space until the following week.  In India even having to plan a meal with a fellow student two days out, would be rare.  If someone cancels on me today here, chances are most of my friends already have plans for today in place.  And it feels like a greater loss, looking at my schedule for the past 5 days with dinner today scheduled, nothing too dramatic, but some anticipation and expectation building, all of a sudden that spot is empty.  An impromptu trip to the mall for our group in India just meant someone had a coffee craving as of five minutes ago.  Here, it’d have to be posted on Facebook last night at least.    

Scheduling far in advance and rescheduling is part of life here at large in a way I didn’t experience in India.  Of course this contrast is specifically between how I lived on campus in Hyderabad in Tagore and life based in a central campus Duke apartment.  Returning to Duke, I’ve definitely felt myself having to readjust to the “flow” of life.  I’m not that busy, though everyone around me is and there’s a palpable pressure for people to run from thing to thing, a pressure to be driven (though perhaps that’s too positive of a spin).  I don’t have a ton of extracurricular responsibilities.  So it’s not a need to catch up to “speed”, but I have a clear sense of needing to re-enter a “Duke flow”.  While I’m making progress, what I miss the most other than the peopl, is the flow of my life on campus in Hyderabad.    

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लोग जगह को बनाथे हैं (People make the place.)

“It’s the people that make the place.”

            Interesting Hindi classes with PinkyJi. Snacks in the Link. Dinners at the Bryan Center. Probates on the BC Plaza. I have officially been back at Duke for a week, and in the back of my mind I cannot help but compare my life in Hyderabad with my life here. Although I am happy to be back and socialize with many of my friends again, I feel something is missing. Today, Duke celebrated Holi, and as I sat on the benches in front of the Main Quad with Katia watching the colorful craziness that was ensuing, everything and everyone felt unfamiliar. Holi should have been the moment in which I felt closest to India and my time there, yet oddly enough, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that I should be throwing color on BhavaniJi, Akshayini, Anandini, DasJi, Dr. Prasad², the students at Tagore, the kids at Aksharavani and the countless others I encountered during my journey in India. The Americanized ‘chat’ that I was eating could have tasted 1000 times better had it been prepared by the Tagore Kitchen staff. It truly hit me in that moment that the reason I enjoyed my time in India was more than just my physical environment; it was my human surroundings.

In this short post, I just wanted to thank the people who made my time in India beautiful, especially the other DIG students, Dr. Prasad² and BhavaniJi. I learned so much from the eight of you, that in many of my daily decisions, I think about how you all might react in the action I am about to undertake. I have recognized that my time in India was more than just rediscovering my roots and motherland; it was also a time in which I explored and learned how my actions truly affected those close to me. When students at Duke are asked what their favorite thing about the university is, many respond the people. Well if one were to ask me what was my favorite thing about my time in India was, I would without a doubt say the same. I can only hope that the deeply rooted connections I have made through this program stay with me throughout my life.

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Feet back on Duke soil, but with mental footprints in both places

A lot of people told me that coming back to the States, and back to campus, would be difficult. It’ll be a challenge, they said, and I may even experience reverse-culture shock.

Well, it really hasn’t been very hard so far. In fact, finding the places where these two worlds meet, even where they seem diametrically opposed, has been mildly delightful as I meander back into my “normal” life. Today was full of such meandering.

Discovering each other again on campus has been somewhat jarring, as if we’ve been scattered into another dimension, with new surroundings, contexts, but the same conversations. Walking up to the bus stop, my gaze landed on a silhouette and a smile that after five months I had to dislodge as more than just a central element of my Indian experience, but as Yvette. Or seeing a very familiar face walk into class with a haircut that made me work to sync it with my memories of Alikiah.

Our first formal class on this side of the world this semester was Hindi. Drawing up words, phrases and come-backs in Hindi that we had still not unpacked from the back of our minds from the trip back home reminded me of how much we’ve learned (and how many inside jokes we’ve accrued). After class, walking out into the sunshine and towards the hospital buildings, I was struck with a thought that had snuck up on me of, “Wow, for a second I thought we were back in Hyderabad.”

Today felt like pulling up a zipper between India and America–two pieces of fabric with some common elements, some uncommon, but which make one garment. They’re not the same weave, but each is such a part of our identities now that I think we can’t help wearing our love for them on both our sleeves.

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Unlucky with Money

Unlucky with Money

The Indian Rupee (INR) hit an all time low against the Dollar (USD) during our time here. We arrived in early October, now oh so long ago, and shortly thereafter, the dollar peaked at nearly 20% of what it had been just a month before we arrived. Nothing like some currency rates in your favor to help ease the budget! But as we scramble to buy gifts and all those things we won’t be able to get back home, it looks like our lucks run out. While the rate has returned to around 50 rupees for a dollar, at least that makes for simple math.

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Visit to Aksharavani

Sonam and I visited the Aksharavani School for about half an hour today during lunch and met with the teachers to discuss student progress, needs, and to introduce our curriculum model.

The school itself has made visible progress, in organization, supplies, and general schooliness. A tall cabinet stands against the far wall, neatly full of slates, chalk, lesson and storybooks, next to a low platform stowed with pots and pans, plates and spoons, and some dry foodstuffs. The corrugated metal walls are brightly lit with posters, diagrams and vocabulary charts in English, Hindi and Telugu.

The school community is also growing livelier. When we entered, a mother was sitting with and watching over a group of about six young children. Mothers’ cooking for the school has become a routine, lifting the burden off the teachers and Bhavani-ji, who already work so much.

The older children are 11: 4 Hindi students and 7 Telugu students. They’ve memorized the multiplication tables, but conceptually are mastering addition. Telugu students formally learn Telugu and Hindi students, Hindi, but overlap and exchange occur informally and socially.

We’re looking forward to integrating our curriculum into their lessons, making adjustments towards a comprehensive and adaptable academic framework for the school.

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Cooking for Hindi Class

We prepared Badum Milk and Chai for one of our Friday Experiential Hindi Classes!

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