If I could marry a country, it would be India.

When I first arrived in India nearly 3 years ago, I thought the country was overrated. But the more time I spent in it, the more I realized that I was developing feelings for it.

India is the only country that I’ve deeply fell in love with.

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A girl drawing special shapes for Pongal. It’s a 10-day Hindu festival in Southern India that commemorates the harvest. It’s a really big deal here, much more than Christmas was!

Did its catchy Bollywood romances, dances, and tunes do me in?

Or perhaps its addictive curried food. It did make me cry not just from zest but also soul-pleasing, tongue-enrapturing flavor!

Or maybe it was their weddings- so time consuming yet beautiful, meaningful, and radically different from the white dress events in my country.

Anyone can explain away love yet fail to pinpoint the real reason behind that buttery feeling.

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Me with my focus group female respondents in Aurepalle Village. Compared to my respondents in Dokur Village, these ladies are feisty!

Yep, I adore India. And these past 2 weeks, collecting socioeconomic data in its villages has made me as fulfilled as a person under love’s spell can be.

While I can’t make you fall in love, I can at least entice you by telling my experiences. Beware: what I’m about to say is not all giddy happy. Besides, love grows both blossoms and thorns!

 

 

India Love Lesson #1:

DON’T get too close to wild animals!

Sometimes lovers need to give each other space. I had to apply that lesson when interacting with a village monkey this week.

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Here’s a monkey, probably the same one that attacked me a couple days after this photo was taken.

He was about the size of an 8-year-old boy, sitting about 10 feet away from me on my village house’s staircase to the roof. As I sat there typing on my laptop, he busily gorged himself on a big ol’ palm fruit. Then suddenly we freaky scary locked eyes.

I stood up, thinking he’d scat after seeing I was bigger than him. How dim-witted that was! The creature charged, jumping on me then vigorously pulling and biting at my cloak. I shrieked horrendously loud as if a murder was in progress, which at the time seemed feasible. He ran away as my language translator sprinted up the stairs to see what on earth happened.

 

India Love Lesson #2:

Don’t be surprised if people have a different definition of toilet.

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At the same school where kids are banned from pooping.

The more lovers know each other, the more they—often the females—realize that their better half’s bathroom habits are insufficient or incomprehensible. So it is with India, where nearly half the population doesn’t use toilets.

 

At one village’s government primary school, I learned that the students aren’t allowed to use toilets if they have to go #2. In fact, they’re commanded to openly defecate because the pit toilets smell bad and water isn’t readily available to clean them. Yet that same school’s science curriculum also teaches students that open defecation is unhealthy and unsafe!

 

India Love Lesson #3

Drink wisely.

Love can (and often does) involve alcohol. It might surprise you that Indians are fond of drinking because they’re already chai masters. But in Southern Indian villages, palm wine, or toddy, is a favorite.

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Here are 3 bottles of toddy, fresh from the palm tree. The drink only lasts 1-2 days before spoiling.

One particular Backward Caste group has passed their toddy tapping secrets from generation to generation. During my village research, I bought a liter of toddy from a household for only 30 rupees (less than .50 USD). A half-sip of the sweet-sour beverage was enough for my exclusively water-conditioned self!

 

 

India Love Lesson #4:

Know that you can’t always change what others think.

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It’s hard to reverse a mentality of throwing waste everywhere. In Dokur Village, this is a common site: trash, murky water, and wild pigs.

We all wish that Romeo and Juliet’s families liked each other so that the lovers didn’t need to commit suicide, but that’s just not how things were. In India, the caste system was outlawed decades ago yet it’s still very much a reality.

The former harijans (untouchables), now part of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, are still generally the most disadvantaged people in the country. When surveying villagers, I found that my upper caste respondents almost always refused waste cleaning jobs. “That’s just not the type of work our people do,” they’d say.

 

India Love Lesson #5:

Following your passion never hurt anyone.

Some lovers express their affection through painting, others through songs or old-fashioned letters. I show India my love by going there to research its villages’ sanitation and waste management, which I believe are among the most under-explored issues in the country—and world—today.

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In Aurepalle Village, the government hires a rickshaw walla (bicycle rickshaw driver) to collect households’ waste.

In one village I surveyed, people toss their waste everywhere because a trash pick-up system simply doesn’t exist. In another village, the government hired a man to drive a bicycle rickshaw to pick up waste from each household. However, he’s a drunkard who appears to take advantage of households’ bribes.

On a whole other note, I’ve developed a huge disdain for plastic bags! They’re everywhere in these remote villages!

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So ends my love letter. A week from now, I’ll be headed back to the states for the first time in 8 months to finish my junior year at Cornell University. And I’ll go back with the belief that distance can NEVER squash true love. If anything, I’ll return to India even more smitten, with a new Bollywood soundtrack to hum, research to conduct, and of course spicier dishes to kill my tastebuds!

 

Here’s some extra photos from my village experience:

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Dosa is my favourite Indian breakfast food. Its main ingredients are rice and black gram and it almost always has an accompanying chutney sauce.
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This is bajji, which is fried chillies. Not as spicy as I expected.
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Me with a husband-wife toddy (palm wine) tapping team. Usually the man is the one who goes to the top of the palm tree to get the toddy while the woman sells the beverage.
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Here I am doing a mapping exercise with school kids in Aurepalle Village. I’m interested in knowing where men, women, and kids think the village’s top waste sites are.
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Kabadi walas play huge roles in Indian waste management! This guy goes to 20 villages on a regular basis to buy people’s plastic and glass bottles, which he resells for recycling and scrap purposes.
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After giving birth to 4 girls, this woman succeeded in bearing a son! In India, gender inequality is still very real.
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This lady was elected to the gram panchayat, or village government. However, she only holds the position because it fullfills a government quota stipulating that 4 out of 10 gram panchayat representatives are women. Who’s actually making the decisions? Her husband.
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Here I am with Dokur’s sarpanch, or village mayor.
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Dokur’s open drains are a favourite pecking site for chickens.
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Dokur’s villagers were not afraid to tell me about their go-to dumping spots. This is probably one of them!

 

 

 

 

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