NEW DELHI – It has become almost a cliché to say that India is a nation of juxtapositions. But again and again I am struck by the dramatic contrasts here. Several examples make the point:
- We have met with and been hosted by parents of Brandeis students and alumni who have been extraordinary in their hospitality, warmth and generosity. Yet as one foreign diplomat reminded me, “Each morning, before they can focus fully on other things, India’s leaders must figure out how to feed 1.2 billion people.”
- I had the privilege some years ago to visit the temple city of Tirupati, the home of one of Hinduism’s holiest and most-visited sites. Up to 100,000 pilgrims visit the mountaintop shrine daily, many waiting in line for hours (or even days) to honor beliefs and traditions hallowed for many centuries. Yet I learned this week that Tirupati now draws most of the energy to prepare food for this mass of pilgrims from sophisticated solar technology.
- Business is booming, and incomes are rising — at least for the educated. India possesses many of the assets of a fully modern nation, like excellent telecommunications, top-flight research facilities, superhighways and subways. But impoverished villages with poor roads, worse sewage and no clean water are always just around the corner from the 21st century. Something like 300 million people (roughly the population of the United States) live on less than a dollar a day. Yet something like 300 million people inhabit what can be described as a rising middle class.
A last example is most relevant to our current mission: Illiteracy is a serious problem here, yet India boasts some of the world’s great universities. Some of the schools are enormous – some 600,000 students at Mumbai University, 200,000 at Delhi University. But the need is much greater than the capacity of the education system. Only about one percent of applicants to top-flight universities are admitted. At every level, there simply are not enough seats.
Brandeis can’t fix all this, any more than direct donations from the wealthy would get all the cruelly suffering beggar children and amputees off the sidewalks. To be involved with India is to try to grasp both the strong and vital India and the discouragingly needy one.
Engagement is as much about “us” as it is about “them.” We must prepare our students to live and work in a world that is being changed in fundamental ways by emergent economies like India, Brazil and China and at the same time must maintain and strengthen our core commitment to social justice.
What we have to figure out is what we can do most effectively to provide opportunities for our students who work, study and volunteer here, to work with Indians striving to make their country and our world a better place, and to welcome the growing number of high-quality Indian students who are interested in a Brandeis education.
It has been inspiring to meet so many parents, friends and prospective students who get the Brandeis mission and are eager to lend their support and their energy. They are attracted to the promise of the liberal arts approach, and want to opt out of a system rigidly focused on careers from the very beginning of the college experience.
Atul Punj, father of Shiv Punj ’13, Ramji and Benu Bharaney, parents of Umedh Bharaney ’15, and Ashim and Sonal Saraf, parents of Arnav Saraf ’15, all welcomed us into their homes and invited friends and interested students to talk about Brandeis.
Ramji Bharaney gave us a particularly powerful endorsement.
“I’m glad he got in,” Ramji said of his son. “He loves it. I love it. I can see the change in him, the sense of responsibility, the maturity.”
We want the best students in the world to come to Brandeis. Many are here, and families like the Bharaneys are encouraging them.
Identifying where exactly to direct our social justice efforts, and how to offer the best possible study and internship experiences here, comprise the harder work of our current mission. We are discussing specifics, both with social justice and service organizations and with universities and research institutions. There is a range of important possibilities on the table for faculty and student collaborations, placement of volunteers and other engagements.