Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cultural Commute

home can be made anywhere, but, [H]ome is always where family is.

21, 449 air miles.  Plus the thousands of miles spent crunched into busses, rickshaws, hitched rides, on motorcycles, and the hundreds of miles by foot.  Easily, a complete trip around the globe (~24, 902 miles) over the past three months.  A small commute.

All this to say that my period of extensive physical and emotional movement, dislocation, relocation, nomadic-yet-present-exploration is all about to be channeled into absolute mental movement.  The enrapturing embrace of the movement-lust that has carried my body, spirit, and mind so far around / through / into India and then for a heart-pounding two weeks across the States, has stirred inside me a "cultural commute" that eludes immediate explanation and seduces an all too-easy and superficial "It was great."  Far from ineffable, but by all means indelible.

Plenty of days have passed since leaving India, but the "feel" of the land has hardly left me.  Time and Place have been more than generous to allow me to continue travel since arriving back to States:  seeing essential pieces of my life in TN, DC, NC, and CO.

One day I'll figure out how not to leave this place.  Ever energized, yet calmed, by these JC roots.

Upon arriving back to Chi, I immediately landed into the thickness and height of helping Orientation events for the incoming students of the Divinity School -- what a beautiful crew:  welcome!  Not really until now, three days later, has there been a still and awake moment to sit, reflect, question, and absorb the past life lived en toto since June.        

The apt and rich words of my colleague, NZ, which title this post, could not be more in-line with my state of being.  Between the many conversations and shares about my experiences, her inspiring, motivational, and accounting delivery on collegiality from which these words have been taken, I find myself finally understanding in a short phrase the concept that so drives my passions and describes my time in India and then the past weeks here in the States.  Maybe one could replace cultural with emotional to capture the investment and attachment I have felt, but for now cultural is right.  Cultural Commuting:  a welcome internal movement for me; one I hope to actively be on and always invite others to share.

As someone who studies South Asia and the religions there, it is easy to recognize my distance from that place reading and writing 9, 000 air-miles away.  Easy to not make that commute.  Easy to stay in my own personal, cultural milieu.  But, the truth is, every time I read about, think on / with, write, or talk about the region, I must accept and proactively engage a cultural commute into different systems of being and believing.  Many scholars would argue otherwise in order to guard against uncritical writing -- fair, and I do agree for most work -- but for my interests, questions, and projects in conflict, I want to see, hear, taste, feel from within in order to engage issues and items of need.  NZ's words of commute reveal a struggle -- a forced difficulty laid onto one entering an environment different from one's own.  Maybe the environment is hostile, hesitant, hardened to outsiders.  But as she rightfully quoted Gandhi and MLK Jr., it is paramount for one to make that effort, urgent to take that commute and even to encourage co-commuters, in order to open up the insights, experiences, contributions, understanding, questions, shared-life -- the human-ness -- of others.

My hope is that these posts have facilitated that for you over the past three months.  With this post I end my writing and thoughts that grew while in India, but please check in here periodically as I will continue to write as I reflect back and learn anew my thoughts and questions on service, development, religions, people, ideas, languages, and life in India (and S. Asia).  

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Power of Yes

This past week since finishing up at Seva and leaving Udaipur has been an amazing immersion into madly different geographic, cultural, linguistic, culinary, climatic, architectural, mental, and emotional environments.  Plenty to say in time, most on language, words, and intonation, but first a massive slideshow!

From the deep humidity and then monsoons of Rajasthan, I arrived in Amritsar, Punjab to a tearful evening spent circumambulating the Sikh Golden Temple, Harmandir Sahib.

And since I don't like restrictions, so of course the next night, along with some new hostel mates, I headed to the Indo-Pak Wagah border to observe the gate ceremony...what a spectacle!

Literally, grand stands for visitors.  We are in a small, specified section for foreigners.
Pakistan is so close! 
Jai Hind.
The gates are open!  Then comes a flag ceremony shared between each country's border officers.
After a very homey, hot, and overall incredible few days in Amri, my Uncle ji dropped me at the airport, but of course not without first meeting his family-in-law and chai.  Stepping off the plane in Srinagar to announcements and signs of "This is an active military airport. No photography is allowed." was interesting, but the cool air met with the crisp, afternoon sunshine woke me up to the beauty and freshness of my surroundings, assuaging any hesitations. 

Maybe an hour later I am out wandering and strolling through this Nigeem Lake-side park.

The next day, yesterday, I headed out early for the Zojila Pass, the connecting mountain road from Amritsar to Leh.  

Naturally, chai stop early on the trip.

Two hours or so later, stopped on the pass.  Immaculate Himalayas.

Setting out to hike from Sonamarg...yes, that is snow.
All for the Chaco shot, and of course the Thajiwas Glacier.

Today held many wonders among the wanders.  I don't have any pictures from the morning, but I walked from my guesthouse to the Kashmir University.  What a gorgeous campus.  Please look up images online.  I don't know anything about its resources or strengths, but I learned from three 2nd-year engineering students it doesn't quite compare to the IITs for engineering.  These three did me a major solid and helped me to find wifi from another friend in the library so I could coordinate a meeting for the afternoon.  All set.  Pointed towards the bus and Nishat Gardens, I was off to learn about interpreting and translating for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jammu & Kashmir.  Apart from hearing about life in ICRC, probably the best meeting spot, ever.
Dal Lake sprawling beyond the terraced gardens of Nishat Bagh.

After the walk through the gardens, conversation, and chai, I was left to just soak in the mid-afternoon sun bouncing heavily off Dal Lake.  In no time more conversation found me along with the offer to go to Parimahal.  I didn't know what Parimahal was, where it was, what goes on there, or really even how to say it two seconds after I heard the name, but after talking with these two gentlemen for a second about Srinagar and their Delhi jobs, all I could say was yes.

And what a powerful yes.  The Kashmir Valley below.  Dal Lake absorbing the setting sun.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Phir Milenge

Though 1 September is still a few days off, my time at Seva Mandir is done.  Two months spent.  Village love loved.  Work struggles struggled.  Rajasthan adventures adventured.  Monsoon monsoon'd.  Shared space shared.  Presentation presented.  Bilkul bas.

The next few days will hold easy moments and probably the slow rush as my next weeks' exploration approach.  There are plenty of thoughts in reflection, but they don't need to be put down any time soon, if ever.  Sometimes there is a special release from a place or idea when it is left as it is and unfiltered by word after word.  Surely, "an unexamined life..." but there has been plenty in the last 12 posts.  And I think this is exactly what Udaipur begs of me, and I in turn of the city, a simple release and easy departure just like the sweet evening rains pre-monsoon.

And generally, Wonderland has a good word or two to share in any situation:

Alice took up the fan and gloves, and, as the hall was very hot, she kept fanning herself all the time she went on talking:  'Dear, dear!  How queer everything is today!  And yesterday things went on just so usual.  I wonder if I've been changed in the night?  Let me think:  was I the same when I got up this morning?  I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.  But if I'm not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!'

But really, it's not all that much different.   Just trading from one chai to another, between lakes, and some meals.

Perfect conclusion to my last village day -- committee meeting to put some ideas and action steps in place.

Receive me back, Chi?

Kherwara may be a highway-side madhouse, but it's got its spots if you look.

The best aloo paratha. ever. period.

I may have internet access in the next two weeks; if so, look for some posts here (Punjab) and there (Kashmir)!  Hitting the north hard hoping to hook in to new NGOs, then States-bound for continued movement-lust-filled weeks before classes. Chalo!!

ps, happy to send my presentation or report to anyone interested! Probably better materials than my blogposts on which my SM time actually focused.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Sacred and Profane, part ii

Any new thoughts on the sacred? on the profane?  Let's pick up a few pieces from part i, before new directions in the conversation.

Kherwara.  My home-away-from-Udai-home-away-from-home.

Considering the sacred and profane as the dual nature of human life of course has many implications. Despite being a little messy with my presentation, I absolutely hope to not misrepresent me reading onto my observations or experiences the sacred as the profane, or saying the sacred is the profane.  Just maybe, though, the sacred in the profane.  I am hoping to spend time with Sagar ji to ask about this idea, but until that gift let's do some preliminary work here.  What comes to your mind immediately when I say the sacred in the profane? More questions about what these terms really mean? Something physical and tangible?  Something distant or reminiscent?  Anything interior or individual?  For me, a personal conviction comes first:  the importance of finding beauty in simplicity.  Using the words "beauty" and "simplicity" might reveal more my romantic sympathies than really help us progress our understanding of the sacred and profane, but my intention and association of the words can easily be interchanged to read "finding the sacred in the profane."  That makes sense in most (...all...?) world religions and it fortunately is amenable with Sagar ji's comment about India.

My view above from the block office deck is one such moment for me.  Kherwara is a mess of a road-side civilization, and I eat it up.  There are no massive buildings, delicate concerns of urban planning, real sidewalks, demarcated road lanes, restriction of animals, divisions of welding shop and samosa stand, living room and storefront, or really complete and developing.  Technologically, architecturally, structurally, commercially, it is simple. Even more can be said about the villages I then travel to from here.  But they have become special places to me, demonstrating the >20% population Below Poverty Line numbers and the essence of survival.  I feel at ease walking down that highway, trekking Bichiwara, and especially staying with my families.

It's not quite a Buddhist oneness, but perhaps it is tangential.  Potentially a Whitmanesque celebration of life?  I could totally envision writing a "Leaves of Palash" or "Stalks of Rice" collection in these hills.  In this thread, the sacred definitely emerges from the profane, in the sense that I see the sacred within it.  This helps us to define the profane as everyday life -- the daily grind -- survival, ordinary, local, simple, human.  The last two terms are then an essential connection to the sacred, for it is through the human and simple that the sacred has a vessel.  But the definition for the sacred:  that's for you.  This is my necessary exit as observer and aspiring academic.  Sagar ji tells me Bhagavan, God, is sacred, the sacred, sacredness, the spirit of the sacred in everything.  My Diwali village boys tell me the sacred is Bhagavan as we go to take darshan of Shri Fateh Baba Ji.  K tells me the sacred is Hinduism, and in the same the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita, thus subsequently any teachings from these texts.  My observations of South Rajasthan tell me the sacred is family and tradition.  My conversations with any stranger tell me the sacred is Shaadi, marriage.  My past two months tell me the sacred is sharing.

Maybe we don't gain anything from trying to define the sacred, but then again, would we appreciate and savor whatever it is if we didn't try?

Finding the sacred is like spinning a Ferris Wheel, sometimes you have to do it on your own.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Sacred and Profane, part i

I wouldn’t be a proper member of the UChicago Divinity community if at some point in my writing career I didn’t tackle the long-challenged distinctions of the sacred and profane.  However, I have no Eliade-an or Smith-ian aspirations of setting the definitive record or for myth-making.  The idea of the “sacred” is a thick enough topic that I could (will?) pursue a whole other degree focused on its intricate relation and manifestation in religion, so let’s not get too unbounded with our thoughts, here.  What I want to do in this space is explore some observations and thoughts that have been shared with me and that I have in turn filtered through my work and experiences here.  

Where do we start? The sacred evokes some idea of divinity, some grand other, guiding forces, holiness, maybe even purity.  To my mind, profane takes the form of worldly, mundane, temporal, potentially dirty.  But let’s also consult the lineage of UChicago giants that have hoisted this conversation to new heights.  Please forgive my brevity on these summaries — trying to harness my writing-from-memory-and-bookless skills. 
Mircea Eliade: The Myth of the Eternal Return and The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion
Eliade’s explanations go something like this.  For the archaic [his terminology for pre-modern, not contemporary] individual, only through perceived repetition of mythical meaning (ritual), and thus meaning-making in the individual’s life, does anything move into the realm of the sacred.  Think of things like prayer beads.  By themselves they may be just a type of necklace, but imbued with the fingers’ counting devotion as a practitioner recites her Our Father or Mantra or Supha, a whole new mental/emotional world is entered through interaction with them.  So, in Eliade’s terms the distinction comes from the appeal to archetypes and repeating an “original” meaning in order to be sacred.  The qualification of “archaic” is not essential for this post, but it raises some good questions for modern-us!   
J.Z. SmithMap Is Not Territory
Smith qualifies Eliade’s work as a study of patterns across cultures, many, many cultures.  These patterns ultimately provide us with symbols to fit over our ideas, experiences, and categories.  Smith explains that the sacred and profane are just the two most distinct.  My words above are reminiscent of his descriptions…extraordinary, orderly…versus ordinary, disordered.  He then refines this distinction further by creating a spectrum of meaning-making, instead of Eliade’s cycle of repeating meaning.  This spectrum means that a culture can create a “new” sacred by rejecting past meanings.    

Bruce LincolnGods & Demons, Priests and Scholars
Lincoln drops the mic on the argument, claiming both have it wrong, and in turn creates a whole new myth-system by focusing on the dynamic disorder of chaos (did he just juxtapose the terms we were trying to separate??).  In this scenario, order (the sacred) arises out of the chaotic beginning (profane) and then redefines everything.  To try to present this differently, it’s not so much the fact that there is a sacred and profane, per se, but the fact that there is a power dynamic between them that mediates their distinction.   

So we’re left with a tough move.  Do we follow suit with Eliade and Smith to break the sacred and profane completely apart in opposition, reciprocally defined in the negative of the other?  Or do we search for a blend and different type of interdependence between the two after Lincoln? Do we privilege one term over the other?  Does it really just boil down to myth versus ritual? Is the sacred a distinct entity or pluralistic or multivalent?  Who decides what really is sacred or profane?  What does the and even mean in our phrase?  What do we gain / lose with even making a distinction?  How do we experience either?  Can we experience either, or merely point with words?  At this stop, I hope your thoughts are with me on the live (and living) aspect of our terms.  Let that settle for a moment — some serious water flowing there.

The Hanuman Chalisa on the back of a calendar, a devotional to the monkey god Hanuman.
On a past night I met a wonderful couple that invited me to walk with them around Fatehsagar.  The lake was a calm blue that evening while the sun set on us.  As it turns out Sagar Ji’s background is in geography as a professor and in application with natural resource development, even a few years of work with Seva Mandir on reforestation in Udaipur.  Once I opened that I am a Divinity student, he immediately asked me the question, “What do you think about the sacred?” I gave some surface-level thoughts, but was more interested in where he was leading.  He continued that India probably has the most sacredly attributed nature and physical land space in the world, but it is destroying itself.  Why are we drilling mines everywhere? Why are we dumping trash anywhere? Why are we so neglectful and disinterested with our pollution?  How can we claim that the sacred is in the land, yet we defecate and spread waste into our rivers, thus contaminating them and not only detracting from our land’s beauty, but also ailing ourselves?  My mind raced through everything I’d seen the past weeks.  Have we forgotten our conviction of God’s presence in everything?  Is God slipping behind the commodifications of modernity?  Is the temporary and illusory material satisfaction overwhelming our deep and precious faith?  Where is our spirituality? Where has our sense of the sacred gone?

What I see from these questions is a near-complete elimination of that previously cited, seminal work in the history of religions -- the sacred and the profane isn't a phrase to distinguish a dichotomy, but is a phrase that reveals the dual nature of life and being.  In our human condition we can destroy, wreck, and neglect that which we hold dear to us, even cherish as sacred.  

Oh, wait, this is a piece on India, not a human manifesto…check out part ii tomorrow for the rest!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Just A Normal Day

In the aspiration of fulfilling my initial pledge to provide a candid and simple blog alongside the challenges, reflections, and critiques, I want to share a day with you.

My day turns in to this about once a week.  Don't you know everyone is in sync at any moment in India?  Or, sometimes getting down to Udaipole and hopping the state bus towards Kherwara is more like this.  Or, for the fan of threes, this one has started the day for me, too.  Hope the accompaniment enhances your reading/day-sharing!

For days to the field, I manage myself into the kitchen to make something for breakfast and a peanut butter sandwich to pack for later...

Oh, nope. Nevermind. Going to get reprimanded by Auntie for this mess later.  Hoping for some paratha and chai when I get to the block office in Kherwara.  I step out and walk up to our roof to soak in the cool morning air, or get blasted by the humidity.  Either and both are equally likely. 

Next step, out to grab the nearest rickshaw that will accept my 80rupees bargain for a trip to Udaipole, the bus stand.  Put-put-put-put, "chale" and we're off.  Even though it's 7am, horns blair from any car, jeep, bus, truck, tuk-tuk, or bike that sees us.  We hurry out of Fatehpura Circle to find ourselves in the morning flow through Chetak Circle and down the side of the city. 

Landing in the all-familiar madness of Udaipole, I run to the last stand in the long line of windows and grab a spot in the "Purush" line, so I can pay my 85rupee male ticket, 20rupees more than the female price.  Hopefully, I don't get seat 16 or 26 -- wheel wells.  

About an hour and half later, I hop off the rolling bus as the ticket-conductor decides how much to tell the driver to slow for me -- we get along well, though, so I am generously given a slow rolling departure.  By now I usually get the same bus on my morning trip, so same crew traveling.  I prefer to walk the 15 minutes down the highway to get to the block office, usually making a few new acquaintances by the time I arrive.  Kherwara is a heavily trafficked spot on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border, but hardly a tourist I can imagine the intrigue and alien status this videshi exudes as he strolls amongst stalls, massive "Goods Carrier" and "All India Permit" trucks, buses, cows, dogs, chickens, goats, and people.  

But some days the monsoon comes to life and the walk turns brisk and wet.

Once K and I connect we ride out the 30-ish minutes to Bichiwara and tackle the day's tasks.   Some days take us by foot all over the hilly village land checking on previous proposal projects, while other days we find ourselves meeting with families and chain-drinking chai.  Is this water tank fixed yet? What has broken on it, now?  What do the families think about the convenience of the well nearby? Is their eco-san toilet in working fashion? Does it have all the necessary components for proper use and maintenance?  The questions go on, but the intentions are all the same:  meet as many people as I can, talk, get to know them, try to let myself be known, and understand from where their thoughts grow, how they develop, and to where they lead.  Some days we meet with just 3 or 4 families, while others we have seen as many as 15.

I try to catch the 5:40 bus, so I can get back into Udaipur shortly after 7pm.  Lately I have just been walking back to SM since the heat is down, but the 45 minute walk is beginning to get busier with traffic.  On those special days where I get back earlier and just jump an auto, I still have plenty of daylight to go hang with the monkeys, meet my Diwali village friends at Fatehsagar, or find some wifi and a little darjeeling.   

All in all, the days hold so many sweet moments, plenty of questionable observations and experiences, and always something new to embrace and engage. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Common Ground

Sunday Night Life by Lake Fatehsagar.

I have been struggling with writing this post for the last week since the idea came to me.  The seed came from a picture I saw for dating.  The picture was situational, so describing it may not come across as cleanly as I’d like, but centered were two drinks on one cocktail napkin.  A caption labeled, “Common Ground.”

The idea at first made me laugh, but then flooded my sensibilities about the concept of common ground.  For me, everything in India is common ground.  Shared autos.  Shared sleeping rooms.  Shared meals.  Shared bags.  Shared roads between cars, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, water buffaloes, and goats.  There really isn’t a moment of my day that has personal space (in all its dimensions of meaning) and I doubt the phrase would even make sense to my village friends.  Some of these thoughts stem from an earlier post on sharing culture, but what I hope to get at here is different.

Closing down the food center by Sukhadia Circle.

When I first started thinking about this idea of common ground in India, a book that has been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for sometime came to mind:  “Tea Time with Terrorists:  A Motorcycle Journey Into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.”  In the book Mark Meadows chronicles his time as a journalist interviewing key actors in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.  Though the conversations described took place on the pearly island to the south, the title, symbology, and conversation-place seem to fit perfectly for my thoughts.  I haven’t read all of the book, but it looks like now I must.  

The idea of tea as common ground is where my head’s at, currently.  I think there is a lot of potential to capitalize on the ever-prevalent ritual of having tea as a piece to creating spaces for dialogue on concerns in India (South Asia?).  The practice is already shared on a (inter)national scene, why would it not make sense for some NGO to focus efforts on utilizing an already inculcated habit for productive cross-cultural, or interfaith, or gender, or socioeconomic exchange? 

Let’s take two commercial institutions to analyze a “model of common ground” around tea.  
1. Local.  I am currently writing in a coffee shop near to SM and sitting among three lunch dates going on.  This coffee shop was started by three men who left hotel management service together with an entrepreneurial spirit and the ambition to expand.  In the words of one of the three, “We brought the coffee culture to Udaipur.”  With that comes the expectation of a space to gather.  And what a gathering place this is — known to every NGO worker in Udaipur, this shop has a steady flow of patrons and appears to be providing a solid outlet for couples to share that one-knapkin common ground.  I can personally attest to the thought-provoking and question-searching conversations that are held here over tea.
2.  Global.  Starbucks.  I actually learned a bit about Sbucks India as I flew over from the States and have since maintained a peripheral interest in its output.  As copied from  “Our mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time. . . It’s not unusual to see people coming to Starbucks to chat, meet up or even work. We’re a neighborhood gathering place, a part of the daily routine – and we couldn’t be happier about it. Get to know us and you’ll see: we are so much more than what we brew.”  The takeaways here are the values that Sbucks embodies:  community space, gathering place, neighborhood, and thus facilitated conversation, exchange, and getting to know others.  For you readers inclined to Sbucks, think about any time you sit down in one of the stores.  How many minutes do you spend there? What types of interactions do you observe from the patrons?  What types of interactions do you engage?   

The mechanism for sharing (tea) is already deeply placed in India, there just needs to now be the facilitation (a non-imposing space and encouragement to engage concerns and issues).  I see this as being different than the encouraging work done by many inter-faith workshops, seminars, and roundtables whose intention is to come together with a focus on differences.  The possibility with cultivating a culture around tea is coming to the table with a focus on the shared which then allows the different to emerge in an organic, approachable, and open manner.  That’s always the general rule in getting to know someone, right?  Finding a shared interest?  Tea seems like quite the shared interest.     

I believe that we can follow Meadow's precedent in Sri Lanka by first establishing and humanizing a space to explore the challenging questions and topics that fill and fuel tensions.  Meet you for tea, soon.  

A past day of sharing thali and exploring Dilwara.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bicycles and Umbrellas

I haven't been able to get such a composition, but so enjoy this sharing this and breaking my norm of using just my own photos.

Soft manufacturing.  Light infrastructure.  Tools.  Wholesale utilities.  These are pieces of my every day that I see done well.  Very well. So well that their use if obviously for the long-term — longevity, purposeful, effective, sustainable.

Sustainability. The ultimate death knell or the initiative-saving redeemer.  Sustainability is to where my weeks have led me. Though the word has so much buzz, thick politics, and a spectacular indeterminacy, I do believe it is the key to any project’s livelihood and efficacy.  Programs to create or achieve sustainability usually take the form in some sort of monitoring and evaluation / analysis.  Keeping track of what has been done and periodically checking its usage / productivity / impact / support is essential to keep relevant and improve the afore mentioned metrics.

To zoom this in to real application, let’s talk about three things.  First, where I see this happening in my daily life.  Second, where it has become a factor in my time here.  Third, where recent of my conversations on the issue have led.  First:  bicycles and umbrellas.  I don’t know if Hero Bicycles actively monitors their product in India, but these bikes are built to withstand anything.  I have seen these bikes everywhere, of all conditions and ages, used as transportation for a family, as anchor to haul a trailer, or even ridden to herd goats.  The frame sizes all seem to be generally similar — large — and I see rural village children far too small for what they are riding, as well as older elegantly white-mustached gentlemen cruising into the Old City.  Much like many lower socio-economic urban areas of the US, there exists a general stigma that bike riding is for the poor and not something sought out.  It greatly joys me to see the utility these bikes do serve, though, despite such existing attitudes.  I see the sustainability aspect at play in two phases, here.  One, the quality and durability of the product.  As mentioned, these bikes are heavy-duty and I see bikes of all condition still in use.  Second, the bikes’ prevalence and utility helps to reform the stigma and negative perception people may have about bikes and poverty.  Essentially, these bikes heroically help to reform perception while providing a durable device — truly (hopefully) a sustainable initiative.  Umbrellas also rank on this order.  This one seems natural to me now that I am in the monsoons and constantly wet.  Hardcore umbrellas are a must!  Sometimes I do see umbrellas turned inside out, but they don’t then collapse or break apart.  What I have come across so far are of thick fabric and sturdy handle, built to successfully block the torrent of wind and rain.   

Second:   miscommunication.  Miscommunication, missed communication, mass communication, absent communication, maybe over communication, all can have devastating effects on development work.  Fortunately thus far, I have not met devastation, but I have recently run into an unfortunate lack of interaction between personnel that is soon to be explored.  

This room is in the Seva Mandir rural hospital near Kherwara.  K and I found ourselves stuck here for a few hours (remember the monsoons…) last Saturday as we were heading to a new village initiative in Pareda.  Since we were in place we went ahead with some maintenance and repair works that were in order.  As you can see in the picture, the room is freshly painted and is aimed to make the environment fun, warm, and relaxing for future adolescent residential-patients to be treated for malnutrition.  K and I were there taking measurements and strategizing the layout of the room in order to make it child-friendly:  lowering sinks, adjusting water faucets, tiling the bathrooms, accessible and functional windows, etc.  What my panoramic misses is all the reconstruction and renovation work that needs to be done with the ceiling and upper walls.  So, the (recently?) painted murals will either have to be redone if repairs go ahead or repairs will not be done so that the murals can stay.  This makes no sense and is simply disappointing.  The whole initiative to convert this space into a residential room is known, but respective project planning was done completely in the wrong order; thus, where I see sustainability as issue in my work.  In order for anything to be maintained — let alone improved — foresight, systematic planning and monitoring, evaluation, and transparent communication across initiative divisions is foundational.  This is a very simple example, but it speaks to much more than just the order in which to handle a wall.  Development work is often under criticism for only creating more problems or leaving false hopes for despairing or neglected communities.  This definitely has happened in the world and is possible.  Sadly, there will probably be more “fresh paintings done over what really needs to be fixed.”  There is much more to comment, but let us transition with this theme into the final section.

Third:  how to foster sustainability and what areas really need it.  Being surrounded by other volunteers from SM and other NGOs is an invaluable resource to reflect, react, and plan for our work.  Lately, I have been very fortunate to engage some very challenging, proactive, and honest conversations about development work at large and in India, “development issues” in India, and ways (mostly questions) to address disability and gender hierarchies.  There could easily be a whole other meandering reflection essay about these, but here I want to provide a link where this is emotionally demonstrated and give a brief list of ideas we have discussed.  Please take this list and challenge it, explore it, troubleshoot it, and definitely feel free to share your thoughts!

  • Why is there seemingly so much miscommunication in domestic development projects?
  • What initiatives or programs can be put in place to institutionalize foresight and long-term planning?
  • How do these types of dilemmas compare across the Global South?
  • What level of impact can really be expected by someone who comes to do work and then leaves, i.e. summer volunteers who must work with translators?
  • What is the ( / Is there a) fundamental piece to development work?  Is it health? Infrastructure? Education? Particular human rights?
  • How can we open up channels of access and advocacy for individuals with disabilities?
    • especially for youth
  • What is an effective means to provide children starved for attention, compassion, and intellectual stimulation?
    • in the context of discussing a residential-school for children with disabilities 
  • How can we ensure that curricula address the needs of an environment that demands dynamic problem-solving?
    • in the context of discussing equitable instruction between government schools, private schools, and institutions for disabilities, but I consider the question of analytical thinking paramount at all levels of Indian society 
  • Are love-marriages, versus arranged-marriages, helping to balance patriarchy?
    • in urban environments? in the rural environments?
  • Could a different dating culture help to empower women?
    • such as longer courting?
    • what types of spaces make the most sense in India for such an institution?  i.e. coffee shops? restaurants? theaters?  outdoor spaces?

I am sure these items have been explored and central in development work since its inception.   I encourage you to look at any of the numerous websites, articles, and books that offer their opinions on causes, proper presentation for discussion, and solutions.  The more we challenge with an open, cooperative, and proactive spirit, the more effective we can be in addressing the qualms that limit projects in any arena, not just India.  

The beautiful city of the lakes below Karni Mata by night in the rain.