For the last two weeks of the trip, we settled down on campus in the guest house. From there, it was an easy but never boring walk to the NDE lab each morning. I met some incredible students and staff who showed me the beauty of India and IIT Madras through a native's eyes and ears.
Walking through the campus gates, there is an instantaneous change from dirty, polluted and REALLY LOUD to cleaner, greener, a few degrees cooler, and loud. Less traffic and fewer honks on the campus roads but still people everywhere, always. It’s not like Northwestern where you can tell when someone is out of place on campus. There are all sorts of people out and about, speaking lots of different languages. One girl put it well when she called it a multilingual country. Everyone in academia speaks English, but it’s not always the case with the multitude of other people on campus on an average day. There are maids who wear dark blue saris, delivery people bringing everything from water to potato chips to palm tree leaves to concrete, school children in uniforms with braided pigtails and bows, German foreign exchange students (the only people in India who wear harem pants), women picking weeds out of the grass by hand, construction workers sporting hard hats, men digging ditches by hand and women carrying dirt and concrete in pans on their HEADS.
And of course, Indian students and professors. You can recognize a freshman by his/her shiny new bike, often still with plastic wrapping around the frame. Attending an IIT (there are five) is every high-achieving student’s dream, the Ivy League of India. According to one student here, many Indian kids are locked up from 5 am to 9 pm every day in “factory” schools where they study, study, study all day every day for the university entrance exam. Thus, it’s important to haze the freshmen a bit to help them loosen up. The campus atmosphere is tamer than in America, but it’s not too different. Indian kids like to party, too. And they walk, a lot. A favorite pastime is wandering slowly around the campus streets with friends at all hours of the day and night.
For some reason, when I was picturing campus from America, it was a big, sandy desert. Not the case. This place is a JUNGLE, or maybe a tropical forest, filled with giant trees with big vine-like roots hanging down from the branches and reaching into the dirt. There are coconut palms, small cactus patches, and tons of wildlife. There are moneys jumping through the trees and poaching snacks from unsuspecting students. Andy and I both got threatened when walking out of a shop with food in our hands. They run up and growl and hope that you drop the food. I’ve heard they attack, but I find this questionable unless you’re really asking for it. We’re a lot bigger than they are… If the monkeys want a safer bet than bullying, they can try the campus trashcans. It’s an Indian rarity that there are trash cans in public places, and for some unknown reason, maybe there was a discount, the cans on campus are in the shape of strangely discolored penguins (brown and orange with green accents…) and say “Use Me” on the front. They all have a back flap that’s usually open, and signs around campus say “divide plastic waste from food waste” because it’s a common sight to see monkeys or deer scavenging out of the back of a penguin that got used.
Most public places are aptly described as “organize chaos.” Sometimes it feels as if there aren’t straight, neat lines ANYWHERE. Not in traffic or in neighborhoods or in the construction of new walls and buildings… I found that within two weeks of walking the crazy streets, everything is a bit more familiar and therefore less assaulting. It also helped that once we finally moved into the Taramani guest house on campus, we only left campus to visit Chennai by choice. We were all relieved to WALK on nice paved roads through the jungle to the NDE building every morning and night rather than bargaining with rickshaw drivers and making the cramped, over-priced trip across the stanky river.
The guest house was perhaps, dare I say it, over-luxurious. I had more space in my apartment than I knew what to do with. I’m not complaining, as I got to watch baby monkeys learning how to walk from my private balcony. The open air hallways get slippery during the tropical showers, and also when monkeys squat and pee over the edge of a higher floor. Saw it happen. Gross but hilarious. The deer graze and the guest house employees relax for lunch in the field between hallways. Plus, possibly one of the best parts if you ask me - the water was purified and free! I remained healthy and constant through the entire month, perhaps because my guardian angels were on high alert food patrol. The dining hall relative quality was comparable to Sargent, but very cheap. I found some staples and discovered that Gobi means cauliflower and is especially good when fried. Paneer means cheese cubes with almost tofu-like texture but minimal taste. The value meal included rice and a basic assortment of chutneys and soups.
At first, the only interaction with the researchers in the NDE lab were a greeting with some variation of, “Have you eaten lately?” As the faces became more familiar, it was easier to make idle conversation, share some meals and eventually make plans outside of work. The BEST part of the trip to India was the interactions with native people, who showed me the good parts, the gems that normal tourists are ignorant of. I was lucky enough to build friendships with people close to my age from a completely different part of the world, and we learned so much about each other in our short time together. I am quite sure I won’t be able to do their huge personalities justice in the following “character” paragraphs.
I went on some nice walks around campus with Jurshree, where we quizzed each other on cultural differences and did plenty of giggling. Her father is a professor at IITM, and she has lived on campus her entire life, now working as a post-doc after graduating from a local, less-prestigious university. Her favorite place on campus is her house where she eats her mother’s wonderful cooking for most meals. She was invigorated by our walks and shared some fun memories of childhood exploration. She is innocent and sweet, and has lived a protected life. Despite being 24 years old, she isn’t allowed to leave campus very often and got in some trouble with her parents for being out with me past 9 pm. This meant we wouldn’t be able to spend time together every day, but we voted it was worth it because we had delicious sweets, tried on plenty of pairs of shoes and held hands as we dashed across the street filled with rush-hour traffic.
Abilasha, known as Abi…or if you’re American, “Abby,” is an older and wiser, sweet and caring PhD student, working on her second degree. She is in her late twenties, but still lives in the hostel and acts young and vibrant. She assures me she used to weigh much less, and I see proof of this when she dressed me in a beautiful light blue Sari one morning. She made sure I had a motorbike ride anywhere I went that day. Abi was busy planning her trip to America, for which she was very nervous. She has never traveled internationally before, and pending visa approval, would be spending three months at Northwestern as part of the same exchange program that brought me to India. After the hospitality she showed and gifts I received, I was really looking forward for the opportunity to show her the same love and support when she made the trip to Evanston.
She was in Evanston from October to December, and saw her first snowfall, though she left only ne day before we had our first six inches stick to the ground. I picked her up from the airport in October, and after 24 hours of traveling, she slept on Lake Shore Drive, though I did to poke her awake to see the brilliant view of Chicago at night. She had been afraid of “dangerous” America, where there are guns and crime infinitely more often than in her native country, but this didn’t keep her inside. During her stay, she navigated the streets and public transport of Chicago, encountering a few creepers on the el alongside friendly old ladies who told her to get out of the south side before dark. By the end of the trip, she knew Evanston as a safe, clean, organized place, and I saw tears in her eyes as the Pace 250 bus took her to O’Hare and away from the Northwestern campus, possibly forever.
One of Abi’s best friends, and another research associate that worked in the same room as our group in the NDE lab was Arun. He is a smart, motivated and friendly, cracking jokes and his big smile whenever he can. Arun learned about Americans through Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and movies that he will quote all day long. He is from a small, traditional village a few hours outside of Chennai, and though he enjoys the old customs and family time, he dreams of travel and grand adventures and falling in love. He has a good eye for beautiful saris, as he buys them for his mother occasionally, and he accompanied me on many shopping trips. He’s too sweet to be of much help when it comes to bargaining, though. Arun’s mother had two sons and no daughters, but used to paint henna on her baby Arun’s feet while he slept. He’d wake up and scoff that he would be made fun of at school, but she smiled, patted him on the head and offered him chocolate as a bribe. He laughs as he tells this story and is an absolute mama’s boy in the best sense of the phrase. He is obsessed with love stories and will make an Indian princess very happy one day.
There were a few others I met, but these three I can comfortably call my friends. Almost six months later, I still talk to Abi and Arun quite often. Arun has since traveled to France to do research, which is great honor as he is not a PhD student and just a research associate. He is applying for jobs all the time, and continually working to improve his marketable skills as a modeling researcher (as opposed to experimental). His brother is getting married, and I got to see pictures of the engagement party with a huge feast and the happy couple being painted up with religions powders and flowers. This is just one of the many cultural gems that I got to see and that I value so much thanks to the people I met on this trip.
Arun and Abi took Jesse and me to a giant temple, where they explained many Hindu traditions. At one point, I was denied blessings from the priest who asked Arun if I was British. Arun had seen the sign on the way in that said British were not allowed, but had not told me because he didn’t want me to see ugly things. He was intent on showing me the good things of India, so I would leave with things to say other than, “It’s dirty,” and “The people are really poor.” He explained that the British enslaved the Indians, and the natives have not forgotten this travesty.
He and I also went to a Christian church, where he pointed out the nuns who spend their whole lives devoted to God in awe. His mother was very religious and though his dad didn’t attend Church, Arun grew up praying to Jesus in addition to the Indian gods. At the church, the Indian Christians took off their shoes before praying and touched the Virgin Mary idol as they do the Shiva statues. Arun kicked off his sandals before kneeling in the pew, and explained that it matters less who you pray to than that you simply pray. The red string around his wrist symbolizes a god who gave everything he had to help others, and it protects him and reminds him to be good to others (not that he needs reminding).
There’s something innocently beautiful about Indian religious practice. Abi has a picture of Jesus on her “pooja” (shrines to which they pray each day), and I asked if she was Christian. She responded, “No, but I don’t mind worshipping other gods.” Unlike the rest of the world, Indians don’t seem caught up in which god is better or more important, or which religion is superior and sending patrons exclusively to heaven. It is simply important that they have spirituality in their lives, praying every morning, and remembering that there is something bigger and greater out there. I didn’t meet anyone who was not spiritual, and I even discussed Jesus with a railway employee as we left Bangalore. He at first assumed that I was Christian because I’m white, but when he learned that I’m not, it was with smiling acceptance and an explanation of the great teachings of Jesus. We met a tuk-tuk driver who told us excitedly that he’s Christian, pointing to the pictures of Mary and Jesus on his dash. These pictures sat right next to an idol of Ganesh, the seemingly most popular of Indian gods, seen everywhere other gods are present. Ganesh is the symbol of luck, a human with an elephant head (check wiki for the story), and each day the Indians thank Ganesh for the bad luck they’ve encountered in the past (for it makes them stronger), and ask for good luck in the future.
There are endless cultural differences between Americans and Indians, and we both have stereotypes of the other that are hard to dispel. These aren’t the things you can learn by staying in hotels and restaurants where they speak English, and I am infinitely grateful for the beautiful things I saw thanks to Arun, Abi and Jurshree. Despite the grime, overpopulation and noise, beautiful is the perfect word to describe my trip to India. I don’t plan to go back, for there are so many other countries to see that the four-week dose of India was enough, but I would recommend this eye-opening experience to anyone! Remember: be open to new things, and the people you meet will lead you to the beautiful gems found around every dirty corner.