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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Passage to India

When I was in sixth grade, I was assigned to create a travel brochure on the Taj Mahal, a stunning 17th-century building in Agra, India. I handed in a construction-paper leaflet with images copied from library books and pasted on with rubber cement. It was anything but sophisticated, but ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the country and culture that produced such an architectural masterpiece. As an 11-year-old at Oak Hill Middle School in Evansville, I never dreamed that I would not only travel to India but spend a year living there on a Fulbright research grant.

I read everything I could find about India, a sprawling South Asian country of more than a billion people. I knew the country’s economy was growing rapidly, thanks to the booming financial and technological sectors; I also knew that high poverty rates and public health crises hindered India’s development.

Everything I had read about the country never could have prepared me for the reality. I first traveled to Ahmedabad, India, for a month in 2005 as a part of a field study through Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning. The western India city of 5 million people was filled with the honking of motorcycle horns, the pungent smells of turmeric and cardamom, and women wrapped in yards of colorful fabric. At first, I felt overwhelmed by the throngs of people shopping, selling, and even living in the streets, but I came to love the excitement of the ever-changing street life with its ambling cows and dogs, men pushing snack stands, and women selling holiday decorations. When I left, I felt I barely had peeked beneath the surface of this complex, maddening, and enchanting country. I knew I had to return to experience India more fully.

After graduating from Ball State in 2006, I landed a job in my field of landscape architecture and worked in St. Louis for two years. The career was everything I wanted as a recent college graduate, but still, I couldn’t help missing the sights, smells, and mayhem of India. I applied for and received a Fulbright grant to research the city of Gandhinagar, capital of the Gujarat state, and I returned to India in August 2009.

Gandhinagar had the distinction of being one of the first Indian cities planned by Indians — not foreigners — after the country gained independence from British colonial authority in 1947. With its wide roads, vast open spaces, and spacious development, the tidy city with a population of just under 200,000 seemed worlds away from the densely populated, traditional Indian cities. The egalitarian philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, the city’s namesake, also influenced the planning team: Rather than segregate housing by income levels, the planners tried to encourage equality by mixing different income groups.

Conducting my research was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Little had been documented about the city’s history, and procuring basic maps was a challenge. Even reaching Gandhinagar from the nearby city of Ahmedabad, where I lived, was daunting: I took Jeeps, a form of public transportation that functioned like oversized taxis. In the United States, at most eight or nine people would have ridden in these vehicles; in India, 20 people usually was the minimum. On these 45-minute trips, as I dripped with sweat between businessmen, students, and rural women, I imagined them silently wondering what this fair-skinned foreigner was doing on the Jeep.

Still, I managed to progress with my research. I made a breakthrough when I found and interviewed one of the city’s original planners, who described his vision for the city and explained that the state politicians had insisted on a very different plan. Later, just before I returned to the U.S., a city official finally granted me access to the tightly controlled planning library. I felt like Indiana Jones as I sifted through stacks of brittle, yellowed documents. When I found one planning report that I knew may be the world’s only existing copy, I felt I had found the Holy Grail.[pagebreak]

The purpose of the Fulbright grant is as much about cultural exchange as it is about research, so when I arrived in India, I wanted to immerse myself in the culture in every way possible: taking a Hindi language class, haggling in the crowded markets, watching Indian soap operas and Bollywood music videos on TV while I worked out at a neighborhood gym.

Adapting to such a foreign culture wasn’t always easy. Once, when craving familiar food, I ordered a taco only to find it filled with sweet, baked beans. Also, because homes in India rarely have central air or heating, many people open their windows and doors to cool the rooms. This practice grants access to a multitude of pigeons, and I often awoke to a pigeon cooing from the ceiling fan. Once, I arrived home to find my roommates and I had left a door open and that pigeons had broken the kitchen light bulb, spilled our spices, and covered the floor of every room in the house with their droppings.

The relationships I formed kept me anchored amid the chaos. Rooming with several young Indian women let us share one another’s cultures on an intimate level. Some of our most interesting conversations discussed the intricate rules of marriage and caste. Both of my roommates’ boyfriends were of different castes than themselves, and convincing their parents to accept their relationships had been very difficult.

One experience I never will forget was visiting my friend Kapil’s family in Hyderabad, one of India’s largest cities, for a birthday party. His mother dressed me in a sari, combed and parted my hair, and squeezed my big hands into tight, glass bangles. That night, his aunt told me, “When we heard that an American girl was coming, we were all very nervous. We thought, ‘What could we possibly have in common? What could we talk about?’ And now we see that you are no different than we are.”

This past August, I returned home more confident, determined, and open-minded after spending a year where I knew little of the language, traveled the country alone by train, and drew stares and attention everywhere I went. In a country of more than a billion people, you have to be assertive to accomplish anything — claim a seat on the bus, navigate the layers of government bureaucracy, and conduct research with limited documents.

Since I arrived back in Evansville, I’ve been surprised to find myself often overwhelmed, just as I was during my first days in India. This time, I notice the most seemingly mundane aspects of American life: from the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store (one of my Indian roommates refused to buy frozen peas, saying they tasted better when she shelled them herself) to my showerhead with multiple settings (I felt guilty about how much water came out compared to the mere trickle in India).

Here in Indiana, I’m preparing to give presentations about my experiences to continue the cultural exchange that began in India and followed me home. Many Americans know of India only what we’ve seen from televised cricket matches, lunch buffets heaped with naan bread and chicken tikka, and yes, brochures about the Taj Mahal like the one I completed in sixth grade. To me, the gorgeous building once defined my impression of India, and many Westerners traveling in the country feel that missing the Taj Mahal means you haven’t really seen India. I disagree. From the spacious streets of Gandhinagar to the bustling, crowded city of Ahmedabad, my knowledge of the country has been shaped from a myriad of sights, smells, sounds, difficult lessons, and lasting friendships. Like the smell of curry and the dust that stuck to my sweaty skin, I carry them with me everywhere.

Read more about Evansville resident Lindsay Bacurin’s experiences in India at fulbrightahmedabadindia.blogspot.com.

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