Coming to a close

So it’s only been a week since my last post, and I haven’t done too many new things in that time, so I thought I would just talk about they few things I did and random things I’ve seen and learned about in India.

So I had to exchange money from my card and that was an absolute mess. It was after work time so I rode partway to the city with the girls, and they stayed with me while I attempted the exchange, and then I had to ride back to the institute alone while they went to the train. I rode back on a very public and cramped bus, and Swetha just gave my money to the woman sitting in the first window of the bus and told her to take care of me. So as the bust got more crowded and I was pushed towards the middle, I was relieved to see that she had given my money to the collector and that I wouldn’t get thrown off the bus. But then she got off the bus and I was like “I really hope I remember where to get off”. I knew the bus ride was about 20 ish minutes, so I was feverently staring out the window looking for everything and anything I recognized, because it’s not like they announce the stops and if they did it wouldn’t be in English. I ended up getting off at the right stop (Hooray!) and I can now say I have navigated Indian public transformation kind of alone.

Then on Saturday we had an all day excursion, which I enjoyed but it was very repetitive. It was a 14 hour trip and I think we were out of the car for a total of maybe 4-5 of those hours, the rest was driving on extremely bumpy roads in stop and go traffic. We went to four temples and an anatomy and pathology museum.

The first temple we went to was basically for the view because it was at the top of a mountain. It was very beautiful and we fed some wild monkeys. The next temple was very crowded and popular, with a lot of shop stalls and such. We ate lunch there (it’s usually free) and a bunch of people gather in one room. This one we sat on the floors, there were marble walkways with one inch raised marble lining them which is where you sat. I turned around and looked at people eating, and asked Amrutha- “Are we eating off of the floor?” She says “Of course not!” I pointed behind us to the people eating off of the marble walkway people came in on and she goes “Oh my god are we eating off of the floor??” Luckily they had optional plates but surprisingly very few people took them. Though the marble was “cleaned” with water, I was not about to try that. That was an interesting adventure. The museum was very cool and had lots of dissected human and animal bodies showing the anatomy and then lots of diseases. Also some anomalies like conjoined twins were preserved there. Very interesting. The next temple is called the Thousand Pillar Temple, and was built about 600 years ago. Finally we drove aways home and stopped at a temple after nightfall. There’s a little walkway to the temple which is out in a small man made lake. There is a crocodile in the lake (always only one) that they claim is vegetarian and is holy. Unfortunately we didn’t see it because it was dark out.


view from a temple on top of a mountain

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Somethings I noticed about employers in general:

-some buy their maids pre-paid cell phones or cell phone plans (not just out of the kindness of their hearts) but so they can know where the maids are 24 hours a day 5 days a week. This way, the maids have no excuse for not being able to inform the employer why they didn’t come to work or why they were late.

One of the most interesting questions in my questionnaire has been “do you think maids have changed, if so then how”. The two main topics that came up were

  1. Modernity
    1. maids have now (some) started coming to work on scooters
    2. they can operate cellphones, SMS in english even if they have not gone to school
    3. they physically keep clean and dress well (wear make up) one employer even said that this chane has come from “observing the way we talk, live, behave”
  2. Dedication and Quality in Work
    1. they now do the bare minimum of what is required
    2. they work in many houses (have many avenues for income) so they finish their work as quickly as possible
    3. try to finish work that generally takes 2 hours in 30 minutes and leave
    4. In fact, the maid that works at my aunts house lovingly referred  to as “jaadu” always tries to leave the house early. When my older cousin is around the house, he always finds a long list of things for her to do after she finishes one task.

Flashbacks: Chennai

I was 12 years old when I withdrew from St. John’s International Residential School. I’m 19 now. It’s been seven years since I set foot on that South Indian campus.

Mathematics says, “36.8% of your life has passed by since.”

My mother’s basement security locker says, “You have finished middle school, high school, and since enrolled in college.”

My mind says, “The changes you’ve undergone since outweigh any estimates, infinitely.”

I scribbled on a post-it note and passed it to Rajkumar.

“Raj, this has been fun. You really helped me get through this place, but my brother and I decided we’re going back to America. We can only put up with so much food poisoning.”

“This is sad, man. Who knows when we’re going to meet again?”

“I’m not sure bro, but we’re gonna have to. Email me in a couple days after I make that email account.”

We dapped up and gave another a short hug.

“Smuggle another Red Bull from the snack bar for me next time.”

“For sure, man. Have fun in America.”

I left as a young boy, half traumatized, half invigorated. I never made that e-mail account. I never re-connected with anyone I met there. I only thought – always thought – about what would’ve changed if I stayed there, if I learned to accept the difficulties, if I never came in the first place, if I stayed in America, if I stayed enrolled at St. Michael’s, continuing the Catholic education I never returned to.

These questions are inexplicable, incomprehensible, unfathomable.

I had to go back to campus. I had to see what reaction the familiar place would evoke. That was the single thing I promised myself before leaving this summer to India. It would be a suitable last destination for the cross-country journey Madi, Matt, and I planned to take together. Continue reading


SO MUCH RICE. Kerala is known for having every single dish be full of rice and coconut (considering how many palm trees they have here it’d be ridiculous not to use them so often). Every day three meals a day I eat a variation of rice and spicy vegetables, along with some chipati at lunch and dinner (think Indian tortilla). Every day. Every meal. No exceptions. For breakfast the rice is prepared differently, as a spongy rice cake a little smaller than your fist, or as a rice pancake (it looks and has the texture of the cooked whites of an egg– actually pretty good). Lunch and dinner is plain old rice and then a chipati. The vegetables change every day which is good, they use some that we don’t have in America and I’m kinda sad I won’t be able to cook them. They also spice every dish with green chile. Now this is the type of chile whose oil coats absolutely everything in your mouth.  First it burns your mouth, then your lips, and when you swallow you feel it coating your esophagus all the way down to below your sternum. I’d say I’ve gotten pretty used to it (surprising considering how I hated spicy food), and I’m wondering if I’ll enjoy my first food back without it or think it’s bland. We will see. What I will definitely miss about Indian food is the freshness of it. I have maybe had 2 items that have been packaged since being here, and it’s been bread in Varanasi and some biscuits for tea here. I know in America a lot of what we do to food is for convenience, but I think we are missing out on the benefits and general tastiness of freshly harvested food. We add so much extra to our food, just to make it easier and I think that that is another area in which we think we are being brilliant but just making things more complicated and less good. After coming here, I realize we do that often: we think we’re making something better just by making it more complicated.


So, now that I’m settling into a schedule here at IAD there’s a lot less exciting things to write about. My days are basically the same: work 9-430 ish and then chill in my room all night. The only thing to break this up is Sundays, because I get to go home with one of the girls each weekend because they have the day off.

My first weekend I went home with Amrutha, she lives with her mom, dad, and pregnant sister-in law. Here they treat guests very well, and insist on you eating food until your stomach rips at the seams. She also added ayurvedic drugs to my water (I honestly have no clue what they were supposed to do) and it didn’t necessarily make the water taste bad, just wrong. Because your brain knows that it shouldn’t smell or have a taste, so when it does you just feel extremely uncomfortable drinking it. I solved this problem by not breathing through my nose when I drank (because I guess the drug is actually tasteless), and then quickly afterwards I would take a bit of food so it ended up not tasting out of character. (The drugs would also sit in your mouth, so even if you were done drinking, if you breathed through your nose you could still smell it). Overall interesting experience. Also, as people know the water isn’t safe to drink here so people without filters (basically everyone) have to boil the water. Now, trying to soothe the burn from the chile I mentioned earlier with warm water is probably one of the least refreshing things ever. Continue reading

A Peek Inside My Personal Journal

I would like to share my final journal entry from my last day at the nunnery, because I think it reveals the true ways in which I’ve been touched by this experience. Or at least the feeling.

“It is my last day here at the nunnery. I woke up with the same feeling in my stomach as I have when I’m about to take an exam or perform on stage. Tight, anxious, anticipating. I can’t believe I’ve been here for two months. It really feels like just yesterday that I was slapping myself for wanting to go home because I knew that my time here would be over in a heartbeat. And now it is. Time is always moving forward, and it is amazing how quickly it does so.

The sadness is descending. Slowly and steadily. I am realizing how far away this place is from the rest of the world – nearly unreachable. I’m smiling because I’m an intrinsically happy person, and it’s almost impossible to be visibly upset in the presence of these sweet children and amazing women, but my heart is throbbing with a sentimental ache. I feel ready to leave, but readiness doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt to part with this place and these people. My new family, my new home.

I keep getting caught up in special little moments and my eyes fill with tears. I will miss the endless laughter, the jokes, the defined peaks that hug the valley, the girls running to embrace me, the constant flow of tea, and waking up alongside the breaking of sunrays over the valley. I will miss never having to worry about the state of my hair or the style of my clothes, the peace and quiet of a phone disconnected and untouched, folding dough for dinner, joking with the nuns about the holes in our socks (or windows, as we like to call them), and being warmed by Abi’s toothless grin. I will miss my girls welcoming me to class with a loud “Good morning, m’am!” I will miss the harmonic rhythm of the nuns’ chanting voices, and the damp wooden smell of the temple. I will miss it all.

Just as the nuns have been building new clay cottages on the hillside, so too has the spirit of the nunnery been building a home for the memories of this special place in the vast, open territories of my heart. All the beautiful moments I’ve experienced here exist in every beat – reverberating out into the universe. This place and the love that it fosters is now an undeniable part of me. A part that can never be washed away or burned, lost or borrowed, buried or destroyed. With the passing of time the memories might slip deeper into my subconscious, but they will never leave. They will never die.

This place has grown slowly and twistingly, like an ivy rope, through the blood in my veins, along the curve of my smile, and around the cage of ribs in my chest. I feel the spirit in me and around me, and when I’m gone I will carry it with me. I will spread the love I’ve known here with each footstep, handshake, and smile. When I first got to the nunnery, I doubted if this place would change me. I was closed off, and I thought I’d remain that way – resistant to the essential soul of the people and of the place because I was scared to be touched by something unfamiliar. But slowly slowly I’ve opened up like, the wild roses that bloom here in the summer, and I’ve let the sunshine inside me. I will never forget these moments and the way they’ve strengthened my heart. Although this physical space, this sacred place, is as far away as the moon, I can always return just by listening to the steady rhythm of my heart. There lies the spirit. There lies the love.”

Long Awaited Photos!

I have about a million more – but here are a few pictures to paint some sort of visual of my Himalayan adventure…


Abi-lay (grandmother) and I became best friends over the summer. I told her I wanted to send her photos of us together, but she told me that she doesn’t like looking at herself in pictures. Last summer, she threw all her photos over the bridge into the river!


This photo was taken in Karsha village where I spent a week attending a holy festival. Here you can see the traditional dress for Ladakhi women.


Atop a mountain, next to the ruins of the old Zangla palace.


Making the hike to the monk monastery in Karsha. I followed these nuns around like a lost puppy…


Yangdol (3) washing her hands.

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After interviewing several maids, something that continually surprised me was their intelligence in matters related to finance and income generation. Some women doing household work had never been to school while some had dropped out in just the third or fourth standard. These were people that were refereed to as “ungootha” in India, people that had to sign documents with their thumb print because they didn’t know how to sign their name.

I had come across such a woman named Suman Tukaram (husbands name, which is usually used as a middle name in India) Zhore. In the beginning of the interview, in fact he very first question, I asked her age. A simple question to which she responded “maybe 35? I don’t know because I’ve never been to school”. As I proceeded with the interview, I found that Mrs. Zhore had lost her husband 5 years ago and had been supporting her entire family, two school-going sons education, in laws and her parents with just her work. She said that even after her husband had died, she came into work just one week later claiming that there was no use in mourning over something that couldn’t be change. Instead, she said, I can focus on making the rest of my family’s life better, one worth living.

Mrs. Zhore in the five years after her husband’s death had taken a loan from her employer and built a entire top floor for her house. She had asked multiple people that she worked for the process for building a top floor and did it not for increased comfort, but so that the top floor could be rented out and used as another source of income.

Her employer even stated that in all the years that she had known Suman, she had never struck her as uneducated. Even when asking her employer about bank matters (employer was employed at Bank of India for 25+ years), she would ask four other people the same question and ask for clarification so she could understand whatever process it was fully. Even though she had no formal education, she never trusted one person’s opinion completely, no matter how much more education/experience they had than her. This to me, was a sign of true understanding and ‘street smarts’: intelligence that one needed to not only survive, but thrive in a place like India.

As I took more and more interviews and asked the questions all in marathi (translating my questionnaire into marathi so that both maids and employers would be able to understand it is something that Tejal tai and I had worked on together) I realized all the possbile problems I could encounter.

The employer obviously wants to come across as a very kind, caring and generous person which, unfortunately, not all are. In one of my questions in the questionnaire, I ask if the employer and maid talk about anything besides work (chit chat).

The employer would take it as what I had intended to ask and respond with “yes all the time, about the weather, family etc”. However, the maid would first hurriedly respond No, no of course, thinking that I was asking how focused they are at work. After responding no, once I changed the question a bit, asking if they chit chat with their employer, the maids said “oh of course, yeah sometimes about weather, news, family”.

The issue with this was the word being used in my question. Since I had written the original questions in english, I translated the “besides work” into “kaam sodun” which technically (to the maids at least) means that you leave the work you are doing behind to chat with your employer which is obviously unacceptable.

My first research subject was a lady that lives in the flat across from us known only to me previously as “Kane Kaku” (pronounced kaa-nay kaa-koo, kaku means aunt). Kane is a typical koknastha brahmin name, what some people in punne call “ekaranta koknastha” because “nay” makes an eh sound (it is supposed to be the higher subcaste in the caste Brahmin). Tejal tai (one of Pushkaraj Kaka’s collegues/relatives/friends) had a lot of experience in research and interviews so she had come to observe and help me.

By the way if you live here long enough, you’ll find that you are related to half of Pune in some way or another.

Kane kaku was a short, stout, umbradge-looking lady with a fair complexion with light green eyes and a slightly nasal sounding voice. She ushered us both in and offered us food (it was a bit after lunchtime and it is a custom to offer guests food/ coffee/teapretty much at ever time of the day) which we politely declined. I offered her a small ziplock of chocolates from the US ,which I had planned to give to all the employers, and began my research schpeel:  What I was doing in Pune for a month and why on earth household maids interested me to which the response was almost always

  1. soft chuckle, “interesting”
  2. oh, wow you’re marathi is good, how long have you lived in the US

Kane kaku also replied with a soft chuckle, curious stare and hesitantly started answer my questions.

The funniest part about all of this was that Kane Kaka, hur husband, sat on the sofa just across from us pretending to read a paper (but actually chiming and totally involved in the conversation, every time he thought he needed to clarify a statement). A tall stern looking gentlemen in his late 50s who in the 15+ years my family had known him smiled twice.