Reflections on Orissa: Daily Life, Meditation, Festivals and Beaches – Jessica Friedman

This summer, I am interning at a community-based NGO in Berhampur, Orissa, called Solidarity for Developing Communities (SFDC) which works on peace building and education projects among Dalit, Adivasi, and OBCs. I will be helping to develop a proposal for a project for empowering survivors of violence against women, particularly domestic labor trafficking.

Life in Orissa has been an adjustment for me. Beyond the heat, the noise, the smells and sights, it has been a trial adjusting to life in the Indian workplace. While my service in the Peace Corps provided me a multitude of experiences from which to draw and my visit to India last summer gave me a preview of Indian culture and lifestyle, it is still always a mental and physical shock to enter the unknown—unknown language, unknown customs and behaviors, unknown work styles, unknown events and activities, unknown people. Thankfully, within the past month that I have been here, some of those unknowns have gradually moved toward the spectrum of “known,” or at least they are becoming more familiar.

In fact, I could easily say that life has quickly fallen into a routine here in Berhampur. Mornings at the apartment I share with my Nepali roommate are simple: wake at the sound of my alarm or at the feeling of instant prickling heat once the ceiling fan shuts off due to daily scheduled power cuts, quick bucket bath, pull on my kurta, mangoes and bread for breakfast, and out the door we go. The SFDC office is just around the corner from our apartment, past papaya trees and cows and dying dogs, past young girls on bicycles riding to school with their dupata flying behind them, past strong men hurling bricks from a crumbling house and old men staring idly from the doorstep of their house, past the noise and concrete and dirt. I am amazed every day at how many things there are to see just within that one-block walk to work. And once we arrive at work, well, work is work. Though the pace is slower and more relaxed, it is still just the ins and outs of community development work at headquarters. I do research, edit documents, work on concept reports and officeproposals, compile surveys, and help with other office-based work, only interrupted by tea—delicious Indian milk cha served by Manu in tiny teacups and boiling hot (it is the only time I allow myself milk, being lactose intolerant… that and kulfi flavored ice cream). My favorite part of the day by far is Sacred Space meditation. Taken from a newspaper column that provides daily inspiration through philosophical and religious quotes, Sacred Space is an hour set aside each day for meditation and discussion about life’s little secrets, and some big ones as well. Having participated in a Vipassana meditation camp in Jaipur last summer, I look forward to these meditative and reflective talks to awaken my mind and spirit and interrupt the monotony of office work.

A trip to SFDC’s Karuna Shanti ashram last week was also a welcome change of pace. While we call the program an ashram, really it is a +2 Science College, or the Indian school system’s post-secondary school, college preparatory program for those entering science-based university programs. Tucked in the far corner of a small village off of the main highway, it is green and peaceful—everything that Berhampur is not. The college houses only a few classrooms and dorms for the students and teachers. It is simple (and still in construction) but a joyful space for learning. It was a refreshing visit.

On the other side of the spectrum was our trip a few weeks ago to Puri, a city 4-5 hours from Berhampur which I visited with my roommate. Puri is a famous religious site, home to the Shri Jagannath Temple. To our surprise, when we arrived in Puri after an uncomfortable train ride, the city was celebrating the Shri Jagannath Festival. We arrived in the main square outside of the massive temple to throngs of people praying, singing, and dancing wildly to drum beats. People stood on the balconies of surrounding buildings just to catch a glimpse of the festivities. Considering we did not know there would be a festival in progress, we also had no clue what the festival was celebrating. So while I slowly took in the scene before my eyes and tried to make sense of it, my roommate made friends with a man who turned out to be the news anchor for the national TV station—they were filming the event live from atop one of the buildings and he was scouting the crowd for people to interview. The man let us in on the details of the festival, the one day of the year that the temple’s three Gods are taken out of the temple in order to be bathed. The man also requested that we join him atop the building to be interviewed for the live TV coverage. We shyly agreed and were led like movie stars to the roof of the building just next to the Gods’ alter. News personnel were dashing around the rooftop and rows of people were sitting at the front, having paid a fortune to watch the festival from close. I tried to maintain composure despite having very little knowledge about the festival, and in spite of the heat that made sweat drip into my eyeballs and salt my chin.

festivalAfter the interviews, we hurried away from the festival to the comfort of a plate of puri or fried puffed bread with curry. Finally, we made our way to the “sea beach” to do some shopping and to enjoy the ocean. The beach itself resembled those in the Northeastern parts of the US with gray-green water, except instead of sea gulls roaming the sand there were cows, dogs, and even a few camels. Instead of bikini-clad girls, women were dressed in full saris or kurta which they wore into the water and somehow did not drown tangled in the heavy cloth. Vendors sold cotton candy and tea. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people, and it smelled of the trash that littered the beach entrance rather than the sandy salty smell of ocean. It was, in a word, the most peculiar beach I had ever seen.puri2

After a hearty seaside meal of mushroom curry, garlic chicken, dal, and rice, my roommate convinced me to enter a cremation ground just across from the beach. Although I had seen cremations before, I was surprised how open the grounds were. Anyone could pass through, and bodies were not contained in any way. Also, when I had seen cremations previously, the bodies had been nearly turned to ash; here however, the body parts were clearly visible and I felt like I was intruding on something very personal. It was disconcerting and I was glad to leave.

We left for the train station, thinking our adventures for the day were over. But we still had a train ride with general class tickets to survive. General class train seats, as compared to Sleeper Class or AC Class are known for being hot, crowded, and uncomfortable. That was an understatement. For 5 hours I balanced on the edge of a seat, inches away those unlucky people who had not found a seat and were forced to stand for 5 hours. With every stop, more people got on so that legs and feet and arms could not be moved without getting in someone’s way. Occasionally, a shouting match broke out between men fighting for a seat or for a little more leg room. One man crawled into the luggage space and looked quite comfortable until the space was needed for actual luggage. Everyone was drenched in sweat. When we neared out stop, we were instructed by other passengers to get up so our seat could be taken by those that had been standing. For 30 minutes we stood like that, pressed chest to back with an inch of space for breathing and hands going numb from holding heavy bags. I could not fathom how those people had stood for 5 hours. Finally we pushed and pulled our way off the train and were led not onto the platform, but to a 6 feet jump onto the train tracks and into the pouring rain. The rain felt like a dream and I wanted to stand there and have the water wash away the sweat and exhaustion but I was in the middle of the train tracks and could not stay there. It was, without a doubt, a trip to remember.

“On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.” — Friedrich Nietzche (from daily Sacred Space column)

My Summer at TIFR – Tanvi

This past summer I visited Mumbai, India where I interned at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR.) This institute is a deemed research facility and specializes in research in the fields of the basic sciences and mathematics. The institute also offers great PhD programs. I was fortunate enough to work under the guidance of Dr. Maitreyi Narasimha in her cellular biology laboratory. As a summer research student I helped with her study on cellular behaviors and cellular reorganization during morphogenesis, using Drosophila melanogaster or fruit flies as a model organism. I helped set up crosses to breed progeny with specific manipulated genes. Furthermore I was able to set up my own cross with a mutated gene of my choice to be examined. The experience was amazing and I really enjoyed my time in the laboratory.

I was accompanied by two other summer research students and the three of us carried out several experiments together that involved setting up crosses, collecting embyros and staining and visualizing embryos. Dr. Narasimha was a great person to work under and her whole laboratory staff made me feel at home. The other researchers in the laboratory frequently helped the summer students out and helped us initially by showing us the procedures. It was interesting to note that my experience at Brandeis and in the biology laboratory at Brandeis helped me immensely! I was able to better navigate around the laboratory than the other summer students and as I had worked with flies before I knew how to set up crosses swiftly and efficiently. It felt great learning about the way college students learned in India, and there were many days spent just talking about the difference in our educations. Although students studying in India knew a whole lot about the field and the research behind the experiments being carried out, I was better adapted to working in the laboratory in a more practical way. I enjoyed learning from the other students and I hope that they felt the same when I helped them carry out the experiments in the laboratory.

Dr. Narasimha encouraged us to present our findings and work every week in front of the entire laboratory and she gave us many useful hints how to go about the various experiments. She made sure that we grasped what was going on at all times and took a real interest in helping us understand our basic knowledge of her line of work. One of the best moments for me was when she allowed me to see the confocal microscope in the laboratory. Undergraduate students were not allowed to use the microscope but Dr. Narashimha still gave the summer students a very interesting demonstration of the microscope. I do believe that my two months in Mumbai were a huge success!

I learned a lot during my time at TIFR and in turn I did manage to stem some curiosity about Brandeis and the research that goes on in the university. It was humbling to have my colleagues in the laboratory forming only good impressions of Brandeis and I know that I will keep in touch with everyone in the laboratory. At Brandeis, I hope to use my new found laboratory skills to further use and further evaluate the differences in research facilities and research in the United States and in India.

   Tanvi's Lab Tanvi's Lab2

First Impressions from New Delhi – Jeremy

Greetings from New Delhi, India–only 7157 miles (11517 km) away from Waltham! My name is Jeremy Goodman, ‘14. I am a current Junior at Brandeis, studying Health: Science, Society, and Policy BS. I have decided to spend my Spring semester away from Waltham doing an immersion program through SIT: The School for International Training. Hannah Diamond, another Junior at Brandeis is also here in Delhi participating in the same program. The focus of this program is health and human rights, both huge topics very relevant to India’s relatively recent rapid growth and new found place in the global community. In addition to living with an Indian family in a homestay, there is intensive Hindi instruction, as well as excursions, workshops, and lectures relating to all aspects of health and human rights in India. The culminating component of this program is the ISP: Independent Study Project, a month long research endeavor designed and implemented by myself.

Hannah & Jeremy I arrived in New Delhi, India after almost 24 hours of travel on January 31, 2013. The plane hit the runway and suddenly an odor, difficult to describe but now accustomed to, immediately hit me. The United Airlines flight attendant, with her thick New Jersey accent came on the overhead speaker and dramatically said “Welcome to India. India is the land of enchantment, colors, and beauty.” Definitely not the kind of greeting I was expecting, but what can you get–it was a 14 and a half hour flight! It was night, so there wasn’t much to see. We met up with some program staff, were put in a taxi, and quickly escorted off to a hotel around the corner from our program center. I awoke the next day, still disoriented because of the 13.5 hour time change and the difficulties of spending a day flying in the sky. I stepped out on my balcony, looked around and it finally hit me–Woah, I am actually in India!
Delhi StreetsAfter a week long orientation, including “cultural awareness training”, lengthy discussions of SIT policies and rules, we were assigned and moved into our homestays. After only one night, classes began. I am living with a wonderful family, the Vermas. Bobbyji, the father is a contractor, working in construction. Vandanaji works very hard too, but not in the conventional sense. She stays at home, makes delicious food, runs errands, and takes care of their 13 year old son, Kartik. We live in Govind Puri, a crowded, middle-upper class neighborhood in South Delhi. Dadaji and Dadiji, the paternal grandparents live below our apartment and are always stopping by to say hi and share some chai. Most of the family speaks pretty good english, except for Dadiji (the grandmother). She still talks to me in Hindi although I do not understand. Hopefully in a month or two I will have a better idea of what she is saying. Right down the alleyway from our home is two giant markets.

Selling spicesI have class 5 days a week, 9am to 1pm, with tasty lunch served 1-2pm. The daily commute takes about 45 minutes, which includes walking, taking the metro, and riding on a bicycle rickshaw (complete with daily bargaining for the fare). To get to class, I first walk about 15-20 minutes to the Metro Station. If you ever thought the NYC subway was crowded, try taking a transfer on the New Delhi Metro. I have never experienced so many people in such small confined spaces. It can be really frightening. The system is very modern, with 5 separate color coded lines and 3 more currently being constructed. The first car of every train is reserved for ladies, and as there are 25 women on the program and only 2 guys, I end up riding by myself (and hundreds of other Indian men) much of the time. After only two stops, costing only 18 cents/9 rupees, I arrive at Jasola Apollo and take a bicycle rickshaw or walk about 2 kilometers to the program center. I really enjoy the commute, getting pretty used to it–that is, finding some shortcuts and getting accustomed to the pushing and shoving necessary to make it on and off the train.

IMG_2236This last week the program took us on an excursion to Aligarh, a predominantly Muslim community in the neighboring state, Uttah Pradesh. FACT–>Uttah Pradesh, or UP, if it were its own country would be the fifth most populous in the world! We travelled via Indian Railways, another experience requiring an entire blog post in and of itself. For now, let’s just say it was a unique experience. FACT–> Indian Railways is the ninth largest employer in the world! A very highly respected university, Aligarh Muslim University, hosted our stay. During the four days in Aligarh we visited, observed, and discussed all levels of government health care: a Rural Sub-Center, Primary Health Center, Community Health Center, District Hospital, Women’s Hospital, and a Tertiary Care Facility. In addition we shadowed a UNICEF project primarily aimed at reducing infant mortality rates in UP. ASHAs, women working in front-lines in rural villages, distribute vaccines to newborn children, provide treatment and education for mothers, and raise health literacy within the communities. It is very difficult to describe exactly what I saw and how it made me feel. For now, I will just say that I had moments of shock, horror, curiosity, and joy. I saw some really crazy stuff to say the least.

IMG_2314In India there is free public healthcare, yes I said FREE. however as we have learned from both the classroom and experiencing hands-on, there are many factors preventing everyone from accessing this free health care. In addition, we had several interactions with officials from the University including the Vice Chancellor, Provosts, Deans, Professors, and Department Chairs. I was shocked that they were willing to give so much of their time and attention to a bunch of undergraduate college students from the states. I am very appreciative. It was a great excursion, introducing us to the vast array of health care services and the problems presented in its enactment. From here, we are going to continue to learn about India’s healthcare system, and the social dynamics that influence people’s access to and quality of care. I will be going on another excursion to Udaipur, working with an NGO, and further refining my Independent Project.

Picture 001After three weeks, although I feel like I have been here much longer, I am really enjoying my time in India. The only way I can come close to describing it is as different–It is just very different. At this time I end most of my observations, conversations and discourse with  “it is just different.” I hope that with more time spent here I will get a better grasp of India and be able to make some accurate interpretations, search for explanations, and reach some understanding. Until next time–Jeremy

Videos & Photos from Terry Chenyu Li – Summer 2011

Check out these three fantastic videos documenting one of our inaugural fellows’ experiences in India!

Terry at Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh

Terry at Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh

Video: Volunteer in India Part 1: First Impression

At the Day Care Center in Himachal Pradesh. One part of my job as a volunteer is to take care of these children when their parents are at work.

At the Day Care Center in Himachal Pradesh. One part of my job as a volunteer is to take care of these children when their parents are at work.

Video: Volunteer in India Part 2: My Volunteer Experience

McLeod Ganj, where the Tibetan Government in Exile is located

McLeod Ganj, where the Tibetan Government in Exile is located

Video: Volunteer in India Part 3: Incredible !ndia

Blog posts from Aneil Tripathy – Summer 2012

Aneil Tripathy '12 with the Nutrition Initiative, Ashoka Foundation

Aneil Tripathy ’12 with the Nutrition Initiative, Ashoka Foundation

Leaving for India!

This entry was posted on May 31, 2012.

Tomorrow morning, I am off to India. It has been three years since my last trip to India, and I am very excited to be back. After seventeen hours of waiting/flying through Boston-London-Bahrain, I will arrive in Delhi. I am travelling with my friend from Nursery school, David Manning, a recent graduate in economics from George Washington University. Upon our arrival in Delhi, we will meet up with Anjulika Sahgal, a Brandeis Sophomore. She lives in Delhi and has graciously allowed us to stay in her home.

We hope to see many museums in Delhi, along with the Lotus Temple. This temple adheres to the Baha’i faith, and I was very moved by it the last time I was in the city. It is an incredibly serene and open temple surrounded by gardens. We will also spend one day in Agra to see the infamous Taj Mahal, as well as the Red fort and other Mughal buildings in the area.

After Delhi, it is off to Ranchi, the capital of the state of Jharkhand on June 9th. My paternal family lives in Chakradharpur, a town three hours by road from the capital. Once I arrive in CKP, the railroad abbreviation for the town and colloquial slang, I will get to work with Ekjut, located in Pansua, Jharkhand.

What happened in Delhi, along with the Taj Mahal

Every time I come to India I always see something new, and indeed the air-conditioned metro system in Delhi was incredible to see. Covering a distance greater than the Boston T, for only a couple rupees, David and I traveled around the whole city, from India Gate to the Lotus Temple. However, we were not able to enter the temple because it was Monday, unbeknownst to us the temple was closed on Mondays.

While in Delhi, it was very interesting to stay in Gurgaon. Gurgaon is a city to the Southwest of Delhi that has developed tremendously in the last ten years. Filled now with malls and apartment complexes that seem to have spontaneously risen out of the ground, the landscape seems to be in a state of flux, with overturned soil giving way to golf courses, gas stations, and highways. Along with these developments there was also a large track of land with a billboard proclaiming an effort to keep Gurgaon green by planting one million trees.

In Gurgaon, I stayed with Brandeis Sophomore Anjulika Sahgal. Although her mom had not been to Brandeis, she said she was very happy to have met President Fred Lawrence on his last trip to India with other parents of students. We spent much time playing Risk with her brother Nikhil and even saw Men in Black 3 in 3-D in a Gurgaon mall. I’ve found that the speaker system in Indian movie theaters tend to be much better than those in the US. We also met two Filipina girls that David had a mutual friend with. They had just been in Delhi for two weeks working for a Japanese financial news company.

We spent a day travelling to Agra on the air-conditioned Volvo bus. The ride was very pleasant, as the road is not bad between New Delhi and Agra. We were able to sleep along most of the way. Once in Agra, David and I spent the whole afternoon at the Taj Mahal, relaxing in the Mosque to its left. Many people came up to us wanting to take a picture with David. We also met the whole family of a newlywed Muslim couple. Although one of the group initially scolded us for sitting the wrong way in the Mosque, we later talked for some time with the family. Apparently the newlywed husband had just graduated from school with a degree in economics, and his wife was a teacher.

I’m sure that after the time in Delhi, it will be a very interesting contrast to be in the village. I have only seen one mosquito so far, and am sure that this will now change. With regards to Ekjut, I also just found out that the NGO has been shortlisted for the India Initiatives Awards. Very excited to be in the village and work with Ekjut.

Read more on Aneil’s blog:
See more photos:

Facilitator Sumitra leads women's group in prioritizing community health concerns

Facilitator Sumitra leads women’s group in prioritizing community health concerns