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Giving Back to the Native Land

January 2006
Giving Back to the Native Land

Born and raised in Atlanta, Bindi Gandhi graduated from Lakeside High School in 1995. On a trip to India while attending Wofford College in South Carolina, she was one of only two people of Indian origin in her group of twenty-five. Bindi laughs as she recalls that the two of them were constantly mistaken for tour guides. Her friend could speak Hindi fluently, unlike her, and was able to communicate with ease in India. Until then, Bindi believed that because she hadn't grown up there she would never have a close relationship with India. But after seeing her friend move around with such ease during that trip, she started thinking about her heritage.

��� "I started wearing Indian outfits, and not just to Indian functions," Bindi says. "It was a big change for me! I began to wonder how I could integrate my passion for service and public health with India."

��� She began searching for a program that might help her pursue her interests in India, but nothing caught her attention. Meanwhile, she got a Master's from Tufts in 2001 and started working at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Through a news group, she found out about Indicorps, which focuses on sending young people of Indian origin to India to serve at the grass roots level. Fellows are provided with a small monthly stipend, simple housing and food. They often live within their communities, immersing themselves fully in their work. Only ten days of vacation (including weekends!) are allowed during the fellowship year.

��� To Bindi, it sounded perfect. She applied to the community center project in Ahmedabad, because she wanted "to learn where she was from." Both of her parents being Gujarati, she also saw this as her chance to learn her mother tongue. Though her parents were initially worried about her health and safety, they supported her decision to go to India. "Service is an important part of their lives as well," Bindi says. In retrospect, she feels, she would have been more "vigilant about the food she ate and listened to her body more." Yet despite her health issues, Bindi does not hesitate suggesting that people go to India. To the interested but apprehensive, she points out, "In the grand scheme of things when you're 50 or 60 years old, going to India for a year will be worth it."

��� Remarkably enough, many young Indian-Americans who agree with her have left high-powered, well-paying jobs in the States to embark on similar journeys across India from the slums of Ahmedabad to the villages of Karnataka and the small towns of Andhra Pradesh. Whether through organizations like Indicorps or the America India Foundation, or through self-sponsorship and initiative, Indian-Americans are returning to India not just for a touristy taste, but also for colorful and meaningful experiences. The stories are different, of course, and the experiences varied, but the unanimous response to whether it was worthwhile is, "Absolutely!"

��� Why service and why India? Perhaps it's the urge to return to an unknown homeland. Perhaps there is a yearning to understand a culture and heritage that was never fully known, aside from the occasional garba raas or Diwali party. Perhaps it's a need to give back to society. Label it what you may, but the penchant for India and all things Indian resonates with young Indian-Americans.

��� Atlantan Kalai Muragesan, a former Indicorps fellow who had visited India while growing up here, remarks, "Going back [without my family] was a way for me to explore India more freely and on my own." She worked in a village near Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, where her focus was on total village development issues such as sanitation, public health, malnutrition and vocational training. In facing the challenges, it was a comfort for her to rely on Komala Ramachandran, a co-fellow with whom she could brainstorm when things weren't going well. For Kalai, interacting with villagers in rural Andhra gave her "a sense of place and culture." Throughout the day, she notes, her attention would be drawn to women in brilliant-hued saris and salwar kameezes in various shades of reds, blues, greens and purples, and to children playing in their stiff, crinoline dresses or school uniforms. She observed "the emphasis placed on family and community-based values," but also "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."

��� "Working for India or others is an amazing gift," Kalai adds. "It teaches you a lot about your strengths and weaknesses and in the end really boosts your self-confidence. For me, it has also given me a sense of direction. Prior to coming to India, I had no idea what field I wanted to work in, but having worked abroad, I have a better sense of where I can add value."

��� Growing up in Orange County, California, Anup Patel was the all-American Indian boy, aware but unsure of his cultural heritage. He recalls shouting at his mother out of anger and embarrassment if she picked him up from school wearing a bindi on her forehead. He always had many Indian-American friends and attended Indian functions like yearly garbas during Navaratri, but remained removed from his culture. At the garbas, he always felt "too cool to dance." Instead, he and his friends would organize basketball tournaments outside the buildings while their families did garba. After graduating from college in 2002, he worked for American Express. Financially sound, but spiritually unsatisfied, he booked a flight to Peru and went on a soul-searching vacation. There, one day as he sat enjoying his meal at a small restaurant, a small boy approached him and asked if he had finished eating. "When I nodded yes," Anup says, "he just grabbed the remains of my food just chicken bones and ran."

��� Shaken by the experience, he made a decision to pursue something that would allow him to make a contribution to society. In terms of a place to pursue this, he says, "India stood out," and like Bindi, he wanted to stay in villages, live a simple life and appreciate the little things. When he heard about Indicorps through friends, he turned in an application. As a 2004-2005 fellow, Anup worked in rural Karnataka, where his project involved "helping artisans preserve their traditional art work and provide sustainable income." Anup had issues with his NGO, faced restrictions in work, and also had to deal with health problems. At one point, as he notes, "I was sidelined by a moving scooter and lay unconscious on a roadside." During this difficult period, he was physically drained and emotionally burdened. He spoke of a dark period when depression hit him. But there were humorous incidents as well. Once, while he was showering in a villager's outdoor bathroom that doubled as the kitchen sink, an aged grandmother invaded his shower to dump her fish bones and wash her dishes. Seeing his startled look, she started laughing. Anup expected her to leave, but the grandmother had other plans. She set aside her dishes and then sat down to chat!

��� Eventually, Anup switched projects and moved to Babpur, Gujarat, where he worked at a remarkable ashram founded and run by a freedom fighter and his wife. There, he found hope, inspiration and purpose. Living and working in India has given him the "ability to stretch comfort zones. Challenges suddenly seem less daunting." Anup also says that he has "tackled language barriers and mobility issues, and as a result, his ability to solve problems has grown."

��� Some choose to come to India independently, rather than through an organized program. Rita Kumar came to Bangalore last year from Dallas for six months. She returned this year to Ananya, the NGO she was working with, and plans to stay for at least two more years, if not forever! As a teacher, she helps children from slum communities improve their English through conversation, reading and writing. Dissatisfied with her nine-to-five job, Rita came to India in search of personal and professional fulfillment. "I came because I was disillusioned with working as a professional in the U.S. the confinement, coupled with a lack of warmth in the work environment, alienated me," she says, adding, "I also did not feel like I was making enough of a qualitative difference in the lives of the children I was working with as a school psychology assessment specialist in the U.S."

��� A friend of hers put her in touch with Ananya, and Rita was thrilled with how receptive they were in welcoming her as a volunteer. "Also," she continues, "I had come previously to India many times over the years to visit family and I always felt nurtured and a sense of home here. Experiencing and exploring more fully that sense of home inspired me most to come to India last year. Oh, the language problem is a big one for me! I was born and raised in Texas and was stubborn against learning Hindi as a child. Here in Bangalore, I have a housekeeper who speaks Hindi and does not know English, so I have had to learn at least basic Hindi. Kannada is a different story; I have learned only a handful of words including salpa (little bit), howda (yes), beku (no), bega (fast), uta (food), neeru (water), and mote (egg)."

��� Despite these challenges, she feels it's possible for her to make a valuable contribution. "I do feel helpless at times when the children and I do not understand each other, but probably with patience on the part of both parties, I can teach them anything, as well as learn anything from them!" The best part of India, she says, is how affectionate everyone is. "Everyone I have met adults and children is so down-to-earth. People here are quite receptive, warm and appreciative. In fact, I feel more accepted here than I do in the U.S."

Of course not all youngsters who have served in India feel that way about their place in the country of their birth. For Saritha Peruri, living in India, while valuable, strengthened her feelings for the U.S. as her home. "I think the biggest thing that I have learnt is that the U.S. is home for me, and at least for the short- to middle-term, I don't wish to work or live anywhere else," she said.

America India Foundation, similar to Indicorps, sponsors a yearlong public service fellowship in India. Unlike Indicorps, however, it is open to anyone and not just to those of Indian origin. Peruri, who is from Illinois, was a 2004-2005 AIF Fellow who worked in Bangalore with Grameen Koota, an NGO focusing on microfinance. Having always wanted to stay for an extended period in India, she decided to make the move after her two-year analyst job in New York City came to an end.

��� Peruri adds, "I applied to AIF because I wanted to do something productive during my time in India. Specifically, I was very interested in microfinance, and I knew that AIF had historically placed its fellows at MFIs." She faced issues similar to Anup Patel, an NGO that was not fully supportive of her research efforts. Additionally, she says, "I had a hard time being treated with respect given that I am a woman." It was an issue she faced till the end of her time with the NGO.

��� "At the end of the day, I learned the organization was not committed to hiring and supporting female staff," she says. "Regardless of how hard things might have been, there wasn't a single moment when I wasn't learning something new, be it about myself, India or microfinance. Often, you learn the most important life lessons through mishaps, and this is what ultimately kept me going." Peruri chose to stay with family during her time in India, and was happy about her decision to do so. She grew close to them, and over the year learned a great deal about her culture and heritage.

���As the founder of Ananya Trust, Shashi Rao praises foreign volunteers and the work they do. So far, she has had more than six volunteers of Indian origin from North America, and many more from other countries. They have done a variety of things, ranging from teaching the children English and civics to engaging them in sports. "Our experience has been extremely positive," she says. "The volunteers come with open minds and great attitudes." What most impresses her is how sensitive they are, since they "don't come with an agenda to Westernize our children." Laughingly, she notes that the children tend to pick up the American accents of the volunteers. "At first I thought they were doing it teasingly but then realized that they are kids, and so they imitate what they hear," she says, adding that the children gain a "perspective on what life is like for Indians in other countries."

Goral Vaidya, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, worked for a year as an AIF Fellow in rural Gujarat, where his goal was to achieve long-term sustainability by providing management, technical and financial analysis training to local villagers and NGO staff. While he admits that working in India was challenging, Kala Raksha provided him with as much support as they were able to. Moreover, the fact that he was doing his work passionately and that he had chosen to be in India made all the difference in the world. As he notes, "When you do something you enjoy very much, it is easier to get through difficult times. I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and I wanted to do everything I could to make it special."

��� Many parents are apprehensive when their children choose to live and work in India, even if it's for a year or two. Some feel that their children are straying too far off the beaten path. When Anup Patel told his mother he was moving to India, she burst into tears. His parents had "financial concerns" and the usual worries about how he would manage in a country that, for all practical purposes, was foreign to him. But most parents have nothing but pride in their hearts for the work their children do in India. Today, Anup is able to converse with his parents in Gujarati, and his mother, upon hearing him speak his mother tongue, started weeping again, this time out of joy! Bindi Gandhi says her parents encourage all Indian-Americans to spend time in India.

��� Financial concerns and fear of leaving behind a comfortable life often hold back those who are considering a stint in India as volunteers. These are not altogether baseless, but those who have made the decision to go to India claim that it is well worth the struggle. As for the fear of losing stability upon returning to the U.S., it appears to be a false concern. Bindi Gandhi works for the Oakland State Health Department, Kalai Muragesan is a graduate student at Columbia University, Goral Vaidya is pursuing his MBA at the University of North Carolina, and Saritha Peruri is at Wharton.

��� Bindu is in India this winter to oversee the construction of her brainchild, a community center, for which funding has finally come through. In fact, many who have spent time in India hope to return. As Goral says, "My long term goals are in microfinance, and if I can do some work in India, it would be wonderful." Anup, who has stayed on in India this year, is studying art. He hopes to return to India again sometime down the road as an architect, his ultimate goal being to start an architectural firm that does international projects. Though Kalai's immediate plans after graduate school are to find a job and settle her student loans, she does see herself returning to India.

��� Living in India, a complex country with a vast terrain and an amazingly diverse population, can be an enriching and at times enervating experience for many people. Rita Kumar, among others, sometimes finds herself criticizing the India of today. With its traffic, pollution and endless red tape, it isn't always an easy place. But in the same breath, she reminds herself that doing so is not fair. "It's like I expect India to have all the comforts, structure and organization of the U.S., and yet I overlook the truth that I'm experiencing an emotional fulfillment here in Bangalore that I did not have in the U.S.," she says. "It's frustrating that I keep forgetting the beauty of being here."


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