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“How the villagers became my best teachers?”

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February 2004
“How the villagers became my best teachers?”

Second generation Indian Americans want to reconnect with their roots. Often it is through social work that has them physically traveling to India and looking at grassroots reality up close and personal.

By Kalaivani Murugesno

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It's been twelve years since Manchal Mandal?a central region in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India?saw good rains. This prolonged drought has had harsh and devastating results?over a decade of increasingly diminishing harvests as well as a severe water crunch for its people. The latter had more terrible spin-offs.

Once residents realized that they could no longer depend on rainwater, they started tapping the land's deep groundwater reserves, thereby creating a slew of alarming water and health problems for scores of villages in the area.

This apart, villagers of the region had also started moving out of their ancestral land to look for opportunities to augment their incomes. The government of Andhra Pradesh responded to the deteriorating conditions of Manchal Mandal by declaring it ?backwards' and then actively pursuing the expertise of NGOs in India and abroad.

It was for this reason that I came to live in Manchal village in early October through an Indian-American NGO called Indicorps.

When I arrived in Manchal, I came with the expectation that I would be able to address water scarcity and health issues immediately. But in the two months that I have been in Manchal, most of what I have done involved listening to people. Over uninterrupted cups of piping hot chai, all I did was listen to people telling me their problems. Slowly but surely I have come to understand their psyche and their spoken and unspoken visions of Manchal, their dreams for the future.

Though my work has yet to yield tangible results, I have gained an enormous sense of place and culture?essentially, I have attuned my senses to the dynamic blend of noise, color, and daily rhythms of our village. While mornings begin in Manchal with the sound of bhajans blaring from the village temple at 4:00 am, early evenings resonate with the Masjid's soft call to prayer just on the edge of town. Throughout the day, as I visit with women in our village or talk to children at the local school, my attention shifts effortlessly from brilliantly hued saris and salwar kameezes to children playing in their stiff, crinoline dresses or school uniforms.

As I talk to the women, men, and children in my village and absorb its essence, I absorb the emphasis placed on family and community-based values. For example, I notice and treasure the small kindnesses shown to me to orient me to my new home. I also empathize with the sense of humor that eases hardships. But I also see the traditions that tend to segregate and alienate some communities based on faith, caste or class, and the frustrations that prevent people from living healthy, productive lives. In many ways, the depth of culture and traditions that I experience daily is exhilarating, so much potential does it hold, and yet I also realize with some despair that all this comes with its own set of disappointments.

The difficulties I have experienced with this transition have not been based on the material comforts of my surroundings but on the realization that change, even for people receptive to the idea of change, can be quite complicated. I came to India to understand rural development on a practical level. I had hoped that understanding the challenges and opportunities of people in rural India would help me connect the theoretical and academic perspectives that I had studied to a practical model of development. And yes, I also came to India specifically because I wanted to identify with my own culture; in particular, I want to understand the way that spirituality and philosophy have influenced the mindsets of people here as opposed to elsewhere in the world.

In the process, I have come to appreciate that some of my most meaningful experiences lie not only in the humility I gain in frustrating situations but also in the kindness that Indians show me regularly. It also lies in the humor ingrained in them with which they take on life head on. Taking the time to live these values has been one of the greatest lessons imaginable; the villagers were my very best teachers.


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