Melissa’s Musings: Reentry

Returning to India is so very different from arriving in India for the first time. Last August, we were equally thrilled, shocked, and frightened. This year, there is no fear, the shocks are few, and the thrills are just what we make of our opportunities. In this same period of time last year (5 weeks), we wrote 27 blog posts! On one hand, I wish we were still so prolific with our blog, but on the other hand I recognize that burst of writing was reflective of the fact that I was completely lost and struggling to fill my days. Now my days seems to fill themselves.

In our first five weeks back in India, we have lived a very full life. We have gone to three wildly decadent Sunday brunches, and out to eat at many of our favorite restaurants. Thanks to Five Oceans, we have gone on a tour of a dhobi (or washerman) community, and I have gone on a market tour and an architecture tour as well as a lecture and workshop on hand block-printing. We have cooked some lovely meals at home, and enjoyed dinners alone and with friends. I have spent one week on a hospital site visit in Bihar and am preparing for more to come. I have conducted interviews with three fascinating people for the book I’m writing with friends about Bangaloreans. I have started a walking group for the Overseas Women’s Club and attended a couple OWC coffee meetings. I attended a Shanti Bhavan fundraiser,  recruited mentors for the Shanti Bhavan Mentoring Program, and conducted reference checks for potential mentors. And I’ve spent countless hours in front of my computer planning for upcoming visits from my brother Jesse, my aunts Linda and Sue, and my sister-in-law Julie and niece Meagan, as well as our Dusshera trip to Mumbai/Nashik and winter trip to Hampi. Whew!

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It’s amazing to me to think that a year ago, I was lost, trying to figure out who I was without a job, how to dress myself in this different culture, where to shop and what to eat, and how to fill so many hours of every day . . . and now I have this incredibly full and exciting life filled with people I enjoy, places I love to visit, and work that I find rewarding and meaningful. What a difference a year makes.

Tom’s Tales: Year-end Reflections

It’s hard to believe, but we are finishing up our first year here in India. I’m not going to lie. This has been the hardest thing I have ever done, which I guess says a little bit about how easy my life has been to this point, and a little bit about how I just have not been as good at moving to a new world as I wanted to be. Melissa pointed out that this blog has turned into vacation documentation at the expense of all the other things we wanted to document along the way, maybe because so much of the stuff we wanted to document just became part of every day life. I wanted to take the opportunity presented by this one-year milestone to process what I have learned about myself and our life in India.

There is a way that how I try to live my life has saved me, and a way my priorities just simply don’t work here. First, one of my most important mantras comes courtesy of one of the most important people in my life, Jay Watson. He likes to say, “Make new mistakes every day.” I love that, I try to live by that, and I teach it to all my students every year. Jay likes to point out the many things at play here. He isn’t saying “Don’t make mistakes”; if you never make mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. Embrace the mistakes you make, but learn from them, move on, and make new mistakes tomorrow. Early on, it felt like I was repeating the mantra to myself hourly. I was making so many mistakes every day, many of them only once, but way too many I would repeat over and over again, from mistakes at work, to being too timid in public situations, to I don’t know how many things. My primary correction also comes back to something Jay likes to say often: “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” I’m getting better at that; not just documenting what we’re experiencing, but trying to learn from my mistakes. Now, when someone is telling me something that I need to know, especially around a mistake that I’ve made, I write it down and repeat to them what I understand about the issue. That gives them a chance to correct my understanding, which again I write down and repeat to them just to make sure I’m getting it.

Another one of the cornerstones of the way I try to live my life is that I know that I don’t know anything for sure (My answer to Aunt Mary’s greeting, “Whatdoyouknowforsure?”: “Not much, Aunt Mary. Not much”). Wow. That has never been more true than this past year. Every time I think I’m starting to understand something fairly thoroughly, something pops up that proves I didn’t understand that thing at all, from paying bills to how Hinduism effects modern Indian culture. Some days it has felt like I don’t know anything at all, much less “for sure”. I hope my attitude has allowed me to learn about all these things I don’t know about, but I’m afraid too often it gets in my way of taking some risks, too. Next year will be better.

While those two philosophies have saved me, there are things that are similarly important to me that just simply don’t work. I like to be deferential to people. I don’t always have to be first, get the best thing, pretend I know the most. Here, it feels like that is seen as weakness, either physically while people are pushing ahead (more on that later) or intellectually when people assume I am not as competent as I hope I am. I’m kind of hoping that I am learning to be more assertive in general, since being deferential often does look weak, and I do miss out on some cool things. Similarly, I think it’s important to leave room for people to make their own decisions, and when a decision is to be made that affects others, that decision should be made as a group. Leaving that kind of space means someone else is going to decide for me. I am learning again to be more assertive and declare what I need to do.

The thing that is hardest for me related to my life priorities is the importance of asking “Why?” If we can’t answer the why of a process, of an activity, of a purchase, of anything, we shouldn’t be doing it. If the answer to the why of a rule is unsatisfying, we should be advocating for a change. My favorite example of this being anathema here is around my old walk home. There was a fence between our first apartment and the lake that was the highlight of the walk. For a long period of time, there was a hole in the fence that made it a super reasonable walk and gave a little village near the lake access. For an equally long period of time, the hole was sealed, and guards were posted to make sure no one got through. I asked three different guards why. “Why can’t I pass through?” “The fence is closed.” “But why? It makes the villagers’ lives so much easier” “Because the fence is closed.” “But why?” “The fence is closed.” This is the response one gets everywhere. Why this paperwork? Because it’s required. Why is it required? Because we have to follow the rules. Why are these the rules? Because it’s required. Why are we doing this thing? Because it’s the way we do things. Why do we do it this way? Because we always have. But why do we still? Because it’s the way we do it. The worst answer ever for why. It’s the opposite of making new mistakes every day. We’re going to continue to make this mistake because it’s the way we’ve always done it. This one, the only thing I’m learning is to pick and choose whom I ask “why?”, but it’s going to continue to be important to me.

To make some of the harder elements of life less hard, I am constantly reminding myself of the economic situation that surrounds us. By some accounts, India is no longer a Third World Nation, but just barely. Even if that is true, want is everywhere. As a larger culture, it will take a good long time to climb Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. So many people are still, and so many more people are only one or two generations removed from, simply trying to feed themselves and their families,  comforts of more well established wealthy countries are simply unreasonable. I’m talking basics – regular garbage service, clean air and water, expectations of indoor toilets. There are movements underway to try to build the infrastructure and attitudes to address these problems – movements to reduce disposable consumption, clean up the rivers, reduce air pollution, encourage people to use toilets – but it’s going to take a while to see the effects of those programs. In the meantime, we hold our noses as we go by the worst of the spontaneous road side garbage dumps and cross over streams. It’s just the way it is, but people are trying to make it better. Remember, it took us in the West a long time to clean up our acts. (Side political note – hopefully we didn’t do so good of a job that we’re willing to let our current administration and EPA chief undo that work.)

Also related to the economic situation here, people are constantly trying to get money from us, to the point of feeling like everyone is trying to scam us. I continually ask myself, “How much does this person get paid?” The answer is often very very little. The wealth gap, the income gap, all of those gaps we progressives in the US want to address are unbelievably worse here. As a result, we live a life of luxury I can’t imagine living anywhere else. A driver’s trying to get more money out of me? Fine. He probably makes a dollar an hour. I can share a little bit of what I am lucky enough to have. I try to think of it less that people are trying to scam us as they are trying to survive.

There are some things we are trying very hard to not learn for ourselves. We keep being told that any interaction with the police will end up with us handing over shockingly large sums of money. We got into an accident in one of our last weekends in town before leaving for summer, and (thanks to our friend and getting-through-life-in-Bangalore guru Prem) we were able to solve the issue without the police getting involved. The apartment building seems to want a police background check beyond what the immigration folks have already done for us; we keep talking our way out of that. Speaking of immigration, we have been told very clearly that our immigration paperwork, the Golden FRRO, is very important and must be kept in pristine condition despite being required in all kinds of places. We like living here. We don’t want to get kicked out. We keep our FRRO very well protected.

There are things about life in Bangalore that drive me crazy. The bureaucracy. Everyone has to have a say about our choices, and they all have paperwork that needs a passport photo. The pushing. We call it the “It’s always my turn” syndrome. In line at restaurants and grocery stores, in traffic, in any kind of crowd larger than ten. People will push past, through, and over you to do what they need to do right now. The bureaucracy. Every layer has an added cost to it, whether that was made clear at any point in the process or not. Garbage. It is everywhere. Yes, I know, it’s part of what I try to remind myself is part of the developing infrastructure and economy, but it still just makes me sad. The bureaucracy. Just when you think you’ve conquered all possible layers, someone needs to revisit his paperwork because it changed or just because that’s the way we do it. The refusal to say no, even when it means lying to us. I didn’t think it was a Western idea, but maybe it is; I’d rather hear the hard truth than be lied to, since at some point I’m going to learn that I haven’t done something right, and it would have been easier to fix it to begin with. And the bureaucracy. Because it is everywhere.

The extent of white privilege here has been a surprise. Maybe being a foreigner plays into it, too. Probably those two things really get wrapped up in to the same thing. My assumption was the opposite. White people did terrible things to this country. It was one of the richest regions of the world before Europeans discovered that fact. Seventy-one years after independence, India is still trying to get to its old status. I thought people would be pissed at people who look like me. Instead, people treat us like we’re special before we have done anything to deserve such a thing, and even when we do something to deserve quite the opposite, people give us a wide berth to make mistakes. The down side is that people definitely try to profit off us whenever possible. As I mentioned before, though, it’s not a completely unreasonable thing. We do have means many don’t. It does get frustrating, though.

Not all surprises of the past year have been difficult. There are a lot of things that I love about this place. There is a generosity that is the foundation of every relationship that is simply heartwarming. Everyone seems to talk to strangers on the street as if they’re old friends, creating an atmosphere of community we don’t have in the States. South Indian breakfast is AMAZING. Seriously. Why have Americans not discovered the joy of masala dosas? Vada? Idly and sambar? Uttapam? We talk a good game in the US about cultural diversity. The beauty of the cultural tapestry of Bangalore is incredible. South Indian cultures have their subtle differences, then you go North and expectations are totally different. Northeast is its own little world. The Himalayas feel like they have more in common with Nepal than with Kerala. One of the best things about Bangalore is that one of the reasons it has grown so unreasonably in the last ten years is that people from all those regions have congregated here, so all of those cultures are present in this one city. This one huge, crazy, unreasonable, amazing city. And mangos!

Lastly, and this does not fall in to the category of something I learned this year, but something that was confirmed over and over and over again. Melissa Parkerton is amazing. I have had a rough year; my lows have been very very low, and my highs have been fleeting. The number of times I have broken down at her expense is quite frankly embarrassing. Her patience, her eagerness, her joy, her unending compassion have kept me as sane as possible. Then there’s the work she does. She is in Bihar, the poorest, least literate state in India trying to help hospitals reduce infant and new mother mortality despite challenges we in the West simply have never considered. She is at Shanti Bhavan, creating a mentorship program for graduates. She learned that one of the challenges they were facing was figuring out what the world of opportunities meant to them; she didn’t shake her head and say, “Ooo, that’s so sad.” She’s doing something about it. She makes my life better, but mostly she makes the world around her better.

I don’t make New Years resolutions, but it was important to me this year to make one – I resolved to do what needed to be done to look forward to returning to Bangalore in August. Without Melissa, I don’t know that I would have made it. I won’t know until August rolls around, but thanks to her support and the changes we have made in our life in the past few months and the things I have learned about this place and about myself, I think I made it.

Melissa’s Musings: Karnataka Elections

I have a relatively superficial understanding of Indian politics. I know that the BJP is the Hindu Nationalist party currently in power at the national level, but that it has not been in control of any of the southern states where the Congress party and the Communist parties have generally prevailed. I know that the political system is corrupt and that politicians are known to be involved in bribery and fraud of various kinds. But this post is not about the electoral winners and losers — that I am not in a position to explain. This post is about what its like to live through the election season in Karnataka as an outsider.

For weeks in advance of last Saturday’s election, there were groups of people marching daily through the neighborhood that we overlook. They would drum, chant, speak through loudspeakers, and knock on doors (not our door on the 16th floor, though). There were frequent cars or trucks driving around slowly, blasting loud pre-recorded messages. Mostly the voices we heard were male and vaguely angry, but there was an occasional female voice in the mix, usually sounding calm and steady. We didn’t understand what was being said, and generally found it all a bit intrusive. Alcohol also began to be rationed – at the wine store, we could only buy three bottles at a time – so that people’s votes couldn’t be purchased with alcohol. The part that we enjoyed, though, were the fireworks that we frequently watched from our balcony, apparently from rallies.

In the week before the election, tensions rose. Some (but strangely not all) ATMs had decreased limits so you could only withdraw a maximum of 4,000 rupees rather than the standard 10,000 — we were told that this was to prevent buying votes. As the week went on, many cash machines simply ran out of the money, so there were flurries of WhatsApp messages with people telling each other where they could find cash. On Thursday before the election at 5 pm, Karntaka became a dry state. Not only were all liquor stores closed, but most restaurants that serve alcohol were also closed. We were warned that we should be careful toward the end of the week and through the following Tuesday. Votes would be cast on Saturday and counted on Tuesday with winners then announced. On Saturday at midday, I walked over to the nearby shopping mall, usually bustling with people and saw that it was completely closed and silent. I quickly walked back home and decided I’d just stay inside. The most tense day was Tuesday. Some said that if the BJP lost, there would be demonstrations which would likely turn violent. Some said that if the BJP won, there would be demonstrations which would likely turn violent. Everyone seemed to think it was at least possible that there would be violence after the votes were counted, and recommended again staying indoors. I did.

And then it was over. There was no violence, the stores reopened, and life went on. The BJP won but didn’t get a majority of the seats so the Congress and JD(S) might be able to put together a coalition so they also won. We’re yet to see what the impact of that will be, but for now, we’re just glad to be beyond the upheaval.

It’s Mango Season!

We love mangoes. Truly, if you’d asked us last year, before we came to India, we would surely have told you all about how much we loved mangoes. The very idea of mangoes was one of the lures of India.

One of Melissa’s favorite childhood memories is of her father coming home with a big box of mangoes, so excited to have found them at the store (back in the 70’s when they weren’t always so easy to find in the US), and teaching her how to cut out the pit at an angle, slice the fruit into long strips, and then scrape the flesh off the peel with her teeth (this last bit of the lesson might explain why he was so frequently ill in India).

When we got here, we looked at every street vendor’s cart, eager to buy our first Indian mangoes, but could never find any. We briefly imagined that the tender coconuts we saw everywhere were mangoes, but were quickly corrected. Oh, the disappointment when we were told that we’d have to wait until April for the start of mango season, and that the really good mangoes wouldn’t appear until May!

And now they’re here, in all their glory, and entirely worth the wait. In the US, we’re only aware of two kinds of mangoes: the larger, green and red ones with orange flesh that are usually just listed as Mangoes, and the smaller yellowish ones that are usually listed as Champagne Mangoes. In India that are over 20 varietals. Some are tart, some are sweet, and some are both. Some taste so floral that they nearly seem perfumed. Some are large, firm, and dark green, used for grating into salads or making chutneys. Some are so soft that they’re difficult to cut without mashing and they melt when they hit your tongue.

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Every year, a mango market suddenly appears for the few months of mango season. While every grocery store has a proud mango display with at least six different varietals on offer, the mango market is where you can find at least 20 booths with every single kind of mango and buy them from the farmers who grow them. We were so excited to join a tour of the market put on by Five Oceans because it seemed so daunting that we wouldn’t have known where to begin on our own. With the tour, we got information sheets to describe many of the different types and then had the opportunity to taste 12 kinds. Sadly, we mistook our bite of raspuri for a sendura and failed to win the blind taste test at the end. Shame. We consoled ourselves by buying a big bag of our favorites: Sendura, Alphonso, and Mallika. We have since returned for more of the above plus some Raspuris. It’s our intention to go every week and eat mangoes every day while we can. We hear that we can cut them into chunks and throw them into the freezer to enjoy off-season as well. We’ll certainly do that!

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Back home with yesterday’s mango haul and an alphonso mango cut up for snacking.

We learned a new trick to preparing mangoes to add to Melissa’s dad’s instructions. After cutting around the pit and slicing the fruit into long strips, slide the mango along the rim of a glass as close to the peel as possible. It gets every bit of the fruit while avoiding any bacteria on the peel.

 

New Home!

When we arrived in India at the end of July, the Canadian International School had an

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Nagarjuna Meadows view through monkey netting

apartment waiting for us. It was a great comfort to have such an easy transition. And Nagarjuna Meadows had many wonderful perks: it was close to Tom’s work (until the fence was patched and construction projects started, he had a 25 minute walk to work), lots of CIS teachers lived there so we had instant community, the grounds were really lovely, and Melissa enjoyed daily yoga in the club house for 1000 INR/month (about $15). It also had some deficits: the neighborhood of Yelahanka is in the far north of Bengaluru (which is convenient for the airport and absolutely nothing else); the gym equipment in the clubhouse was old and often not working; our apartment windows looked directly at another, taller building so we literally couldn’t see the sky while inside; and a crack on the outside of the building made mold crawl up our walls in the rainy season. We wanted to move.

In November we started dreaming about a move, in January we started looking in earnest, and on April 7 we actually moved. Things may move slowly here, but they do
move. Our new home is that dream come true. We are now living in an area called Malleshwaram West, adjacent to Malleshwaram, a neighborhood Melissa fell in love with on one of her tours with Five Oceans.  Our apartment complex is part of a larger complex20180413_102608 that includes the World Trade Center, the Sheraton, and the Orion Mall, all arranged around a lovely man-made lake with a huge tree and evening fountains. We now have easy access to movies, delicious restaurants, a grocery store, and, one of the great rarities in Bengaluru, a wine store with a stable, cool temperature. We also have the neighborhood of Malleshwaram with its markets and temples and local charm just a short walk away. And we have a metro stop just a block away – on the clean and pleasant metro, we can get anywhere around downtown.

Everything about our new space is an improvement. Before moving to India, we thought we needed a separate guest room and office, but it really meant that we never set foot in one of our rooms. With this move, the guest room is also the office, which works great for us. Our 2-bedroom/2-bath home is smaller but more appropriate. Particularly now that we can take advantage of our outdoor space.

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Oh, the balconies! Instead of sitting on a deck where we were staring at a humongous building that we could barely see over the solid railing (we never did this – that is not a

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Our view from our balcony through the pigeon netting.

pleasant thing to do), our 16th floor balconies in the living room and bedroom now look out over all of Bengaluru. There is a constant breeze, and very impressive birds (hawks? eagles?) are constantly circling just off our decks. At night, the city lights are beautiful, and last night we even watched fireworks in the distance. We have new outdoor furniture and anticipate spending many evenings emulating our good friends and Portland neighbors Jim and Shirley, sitting outside with a glass of wine and soaking in the world.

We just keep grinning at each other and saying, “This is where we live. I love it here so much!” Sure, there will continue to be challenges, but we’ll weather them much more easily from this new happy haven.

Side notes:

As an added bonus, our friend Kaveri gifted us some of her less-used furniture. It is simply lovely and far more comfortable. We were able to sell back the furniture we bought in our first few months here, and the rest of our unused furniture belonged to the school, anyway, so they were able to pick it up and store it for the next batch of new teachers.

The move was made all the better by the school and the crew of bus drivers who came to move us. They came with two small (by American standards, pretty big by Indian20180407_090332 standards) trucks and a crew of eight. They shrink wrapped all of our furniture to move safely, and, despite the stop at Kaveri’s house, had us completely moved in by around 2:00, leaving us time to feel close to unpacked by the time we went out for our celebratory dinner at Indian Kitchen in the courtyard outside the Orion Mall. Using the CIS drivers also meant that the process of planning the move was handled primarily by our facilities manager Prem, who handled so much of the weird beauraucratic snafus that we had almost no worries going in to the day.

The thing about Yelahanka is that the potential is there. The town is clearly a victim of Bengaluru’s rapid, unplanned expansion. A good example is New Town, the portion of Yelahanka nearest that first apartment. It was once a really well planned community — the roads are laid out in a fan, with a school at the center. There are green spaces throughout, and every service one might want is there. The older part of Yelahanka, once you get of the highway built for the airport, is also a cute community focused around textile mills, a train station, and the main gate to the lake. Unfortunately, most of what we experienced was the highway and its piles of garbage and terrible and nonexistent sidewalks. It took an effort to get to the cute parts, and when we did, it only served to remind us that we were not fulfilling the potential of this amazing city.

 

Sunset to Moonrise Soiree at Soma Vineyards

20180331_165035Many of the Five Oceans Club events that we’ve attended have had a cultural focus (Melissa has toured a downtown slum and the temples of Malleshwaram, and attended workshops on the cultures and traditions of India and the history that has made it the way it is), but they also host fabulous social events like the one we attended this weekend. Soma Vineyards opened its doors to about 40 Five Oceans members for the Sunset to Moonrise Soiree and it was absolutely lovely from start to finish.

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Darby, one of our charismatic hosts.

Our hosts, in addition to Five Oceans’s wonderful cofounders Kaveri and Neha, were the co-owners of Soma, a couple of entertaining characters. Darby talked wine with us, imparting such wisdom as the notion that whiskey, rum, and vodka are for drowning sorrows, but wine is for celebration. His passion for what he does was evident in everything he did. Paul Topping is British by family, African by birth and upbringing, and Sri Lankan by dint of living there for 20 years. In between, he spent a good amount of time in India where he hooked up with Darby to start Soma. He was there primarily for the launch of his brand new book, The Whinging Pome, a collection of his whimsical essays about his life of travels. One rule of travel we might just have to adopt: never walk by an Irish Pub; always go in.

Soma Vineyards is just over an hour from our home in the north of Bangalore, but it feels like another world. The last bit of the drive was over bumpy dirt roads, past rows of grape-filled vines, finally leaving us at the top of a hill with a gorgeous view, completely unobstructed by development of any kind. The vineyards are nearly pesticide free because their position at the top of a hill overlooking a lake would mean that pesticides would kill the fish upon which the  local villagers depend.

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Good relationships are important, so they are very conscious of how they care for their crops. For now, we enjoy their grapes in the wines of Grover Winery, including Grover La Reserve, one of our favorites. Soon though, Grover will be looking elsewhere for grapes and Soma will be bottling their own wines.

We toured the vineyard and learned about the terroir before stopping at a beautiful spot

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Our friend Kaveri prepares her daughter to swim

near a natural, uncholorinated pool used for both swimming and irrigation. There we had some nice chips and cheeses paired with a sauvignon blanc. Then to the Sunset deck where we watched the sun go down while sipping rosé paired with papdi chaat, samosa chaat, and spicy vegetable dumplings. As it started to get dark, we all moved to the Moon deck, illuminated by tinkly lights, where we had dinner paired with Shiraz, while being serenaded by some talented teenagers.

 

 

 

 

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It was a perfect evening that we hope to recreate in the future with local or visiting friends and family.

Melissa’s Musings: International Women’s Day

Shilpa Raj is an incredible young woman. As the speaker for the Overseas Women’s Club’s International Women’s Day celebration, she absolutely captivated a room full of people. I wasn’t in on the planning, but I’m sure there was no hesitation about planning the celebration around her schedule, even when it meant celebrating a week after March 8. Shilpa candidly told us all about her experience growing up in India, straddling two very different worlds.

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In one world, the world of Shilpa’s birth and of her family, girls are not valued and female infanticide is not uncommon. A girl is expected to drop out of school at adolescence and marry the man of her family’s choosing, most likely an older relative like an uncle. Failing that, she might be expected to sell her body to get by. She is not expected to find joy in her life, but merely to survive and ensure the survival of her children through any means necessary. She will likely face abuse from her husband, endure back-breaking work, and suffer malnutrition.

In the other world, the world of Shanti Bhavan and the people who raised Shilpa, girlsShilpa are empowered and pushed to excel. They know that they are as capable as the boys around them, and that they can accomplish anything they set out to do. And just as importantly, the boys know it too. Marriage is something the girls of Shanti Bhavan can consider on their own terms and on their own timelines, should they choose to consider it at all. But first they can discover their own passions and chase their own dreams.

This is not to say that girls in Shilpa’s village are terribly constrained while the girls of Shanti Bhavan live lives of total freedom. Shilpa and her classmates were all raised with a solid understanding of their responsibility for their families, for their communities, and for the changing culture of India. Sure, they can pursue their dreams, but their dreams must include high paying jobs that will allow them to put their siblings through school, care for their parents and grandparents as they age, provide services to their rural villages or urban slums, and provide financial support for Shanti Bhavan as well. Shilpa is only 24 years old and she wears this blanket of responsibility with pride, even if it is a bit heavy. And she wears it with love.

Having narrowly escaped a wedding with her mother’s younger brother, marriage is the furthest thing from Shilpa’s mind. As baffling as her parents find it, she continues toIWD 1 pursue more education. She intends to become a clinical psychologist, able to support children like those in her village, who have experienced trauma and suffer depression. Her younger sister’s suicide at 14 is a constant and painful inspiration for Shilpa. In her memory, she will make a difference in the world. She shares her story in presentations around the world, and in her book, The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter.

When asked if she enjoys presenting, Shilpa says, “I love it. I have a voice. So many women here have no voice at all. As long as I can speak for them and for myself, I have an obligation to speak.”

As an American woman in India, I am always aware of my privilege. I cannot live here without embracing a call to make a difference. Many people in India are doing beautiful and important work, running orphanages, caring for people with disabilities, teaching the children of construction workers who would otherwise grow up without school at all. I applaud them all, but Shilpa and her classmates inspire me like no one else has. They and those who come after them will change India, proving that there is no such thing as an “untouchable child,” that everyone has potential and gifts that should be nourished. And they will succeed professionally, driving change for their communities and touching the lives of countless people as they grow.

To learn more about Shilpa, please read her beautiful book: The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter.

To learn more about Shanti Bhavan, you can read my blog post about my visit and watch the gorgeous netflix documentary:  Daughters of Destiny

If you’d like to support the work of Shanti Bhavan, please take a look at our fundraising page.

Let’s help Shilpa and her classmates change the world.

The Bengaluru Service Jam

This weekend, we got thoroughly out of our comfortable rut and participated in something new and crazy: The Bengaluru Service Jam. Bengaluru was one of over 80 cities around the world forming teams to spend an intense weekend exploring big issues using a design-based approach. Nope, we had no idea what that meant, either. We also had no idea how many people would attend, how old they’d be, or what kind of problems we’d tackle. Melissa thought, “Ooo. We’ll be improving social services in Bangalore.” Tom thought, “I’ve been saying that we need to do something new and exciting on the weekends; it’s about time I powered through my ennui.” It’s probably for the best that we knew nothing – with a little more knowledge, we might have skipped it and really missed out on a fascinating experience.

It turns out that a “Service Jam” is a bonzai event, where in 48 hours the group identifiesWhat's a Jam a need and designs a service to address that need. Many of the participants, especially the organizers and facilitators, were specialists in service design, a particular type of design focusing on designing not necessarily products to fill the need, but an entire service experience. The idea is to anticipate the many touchpoints where our clients would come in contact with our service and make sure that everything happens with an eye on fulfilling the objective.

We ended up in separate groups addressing the same question: How might we teach the masses about consent? We got to spend the whole weekend talking to some really smart and interesting people about a topic that we both are passionate about. We learned a lot about the realities of the issues of sexual consent, sexual assault, and all kinds of related issues here in India, beyond the assumptions in the headlines. For example, did you know that people will actually adjust a woman’s bra strap “for her” if it is showing? NEITHER DID WE!

Melissa was in a group, The Scary Heroic Rollercoasters, with a diverse group of peopleJam 4 with vastly differing ideas about what “consent” was referring to, from sexual consent to wedding consent to intellectual properties consent. After an at times touchy process to come to consensus, including the intellectual properties voice dropping out, The Scary Heroic Rollercoasters finally came to focus on sexual assault and designed an app that would help a woman (or man, in rare cases) deal with the moment of assault, from call for help from others in the bar, to locating counselling, to calling the police.

It was interesting that while Melissa’s group started with divergent ideas about what Jam 2consent refers to then focused on a single aspect, Tom’s group, The Pill Hard to Swallow, kind of went the opposite direction. They started out focused on sexual consent on Friday evening, but then on Saturday morning decided that one of the problems is that the answer “no” means nothing in India, whether it’s a sexual context or at a meal with friends. The Pill Hard to Swallow ended up designing a card game not unlike Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity, matching people to aggressor behaviors. Players decide how to react to those behaviors then wrote possible consequences for that response. The idea was to help people add various was to say “no” to their vocabulary and to start training people to take “no” for an answer.

The process to get there was at times super fun and super scary. We played chaoticJam 5 games to narrow the topics, stepped back frequently to make sure we were asking the right questions, and we even went out on the street to test our questions on random people. By the end, we were Jam 3able to put together presentations that were shared in the group and uploaded to the Global Service Jam’s website (though we’re having a hard time finding it – we’ll share that link if we ever locate it).

The organizers and facilitators were great. The folks running the Jam were smart, enthusiastic women who continually challenged us to stop acting and do something. That was their big idea – do it first, test it, and then figure out what the results of those tests mean. It was hard for both of us, since we’re thinkers first and doers second, but it was fun. It forced us to put aside our need to think through every possible outcome and how to account for it. We did something, then adjusted based on what actually came out of it.

After a very full weekend from 6pm Friday until 5pm on Sunday (with breaks to go home and sleep), we were exhausted, but pretty proud of ourselves. There are so many exciting things to do in this city – we need to keep getting out there to do new things!

Before We Forget, Part 2

Continuing with our previous blog on the normal life of India that seems strange at first, here are more of the things that jumped out for us when we were new.

It’s always my turn: It’s always your turn too. It’s also his turn and her turn and everyone else’s turn. It seems like the concept of patiently waiting for your turn is just not part of the culture. This shows up in conversation when people happily talk over each other, neither taking nor intending to give offense. It shows up in traffic when people just edge into any open space without concern for anyone else’s desire to be in the space. It shows up at the elevator when everyone enters when the doors open without regard for who was waiting first.

The children have the biggest eyes and brightest smiles: There is something so heart warming when you happen upon a group of children, their eyes light up as they yell, “hello!” and “how are you?” and “what’s your name?” Then when you try to engage them, they seem baffled, since those phrases pretty much tap their English skills.

Poverty and affluence live right next door to each other: There are probably affluent enclaves that we don’t visit where one can forget the extreme poverty that impacts people in this city. That’s not what we see, though. We see the big houses with impressive gates right next to groups of tented tarps where families are living. We see expensive western malls with small children selling pencils and balloons outside, gesturing for something to eat. We see fancy apartment buildings next to dirt roads where people live without plumbing. From what we see, it’s impossible to ignore the poverty that surrounds us everywhere we go.

Just because someone is speaking English doesn’t mean you can understand them: Some people do not speak English at all, but most speak some and many are entirely proficient. Yet even those who are fluent are sometimes difficult to understand. English is spoken both very quickly and very softly, and the emphasis on a word is often not where we would put it. Speaking on the phone with stores or delivery people can be very difficult and probably very frustrating for them as they wonder why can’t we understand what they’re saying when they are saying it in perfect English!

A tremendous number of people work in each store: It is not unusual for the number of workers to outnumber the shoppers. Some of those workers will simply be in the way while you’re trying to get down aisles, as they stand about and chat. Others will follow you, offering assistance that you don’t want while standing closely enough that it’s difficult to see the things for which you are shopping. As soon as one leaves (after you explain that you’re just looking and would prefer to shop alone), another one takes their place.

We are photographed all the time: We’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s worth including here too. For most people here in Bengaluru, we are walking, talking flamingos and they can’t wait to snap a picture. Usually we are asked to pose for “selfies,” but then end up posing while someone else takes a picture. We are not celebrities for whom the paparazzi are a necessary evil to boost our careers. We do not have stylists ensuring that we are always photo-ready. We generally dislike being photographed. And yet we smile when asked and try to not to get snippy with the 5th request in an hour. It’s hard to imagine what people do with all these pictures.

Communication modes are different: Here in India, there is no voicemail. When you want to reach someone, you either just keep calling or you send a text. If it’s someone you know, you message them using What’sApp. Because of all this texting, it’s frequently used for advertising. We don’t even know how we ended up on some of these lists, but we delete 10+ spam text messages each day.

And yet, for all of these strange things, this feels more like home every day,

 

Chapter 13: Hiking Utari Betta

After our trip to beautiful, clean, green Kerala, we made a pact to get out of the city into nature at least once each month. For November, we chose a hike with the Bangalore Mountaineering Club to Utari Betta. We couldn’t find it on the map so had no idea where we were actually going, but trusted that we’ve have a nice day out. We were not disappointed.

We left home at 6:15 in the morning to get to the downtown pick-up spot in plenty of time to meet our group: an Indian family of four, a 20-something British couple newly relocated to Bengaluru, an Indian woman recently returned after 13 years in the US, an Indian couple new to hiking, and our leader, Bhavani.

The day started with a 2 1/2 hour drive to our trailhead, although it was broken up by a stop at a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed delicious masala dosas and vada, and where Bhavani purchased the vegetable biryani that we would carry in our packs to have for lunch later.

This hike was described on the website as “easy” and we were concerned that we 20171112_102305wouldn’t actually get much exercise, but that was not the case. While we did not hike quickly, we did hike steadily upward for quite a while over massive granite stones. In some places steps had been cut into the rock, in others weDSCF0620 had to scramble a bit. There were occasional stretches through areas with dense foliage, but we were in the sun for most of the day. The youngest child moved slowly all the way up, so her parents did too, but she was a trooper, and they all made it, thanks to Bhavani stepping in to cheerfully keep things moving when needed.

Our first stopping point was a lovely temple to Shiva, newly whitewashed and festooned with lights for a recent festival. We walked around, relaxed in the much needed shade, and admired the views.

 

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It turns out that Utari Betta is also called Huthridurga and is one of 9 “durgas” or hilltop forts in the region. This one was built by Kempegowda in the 16th century. While most of it is gone, there are still visible walls and archways along the way which were really cool to see. Bhavani pointed out Savandurga, visible in the mist across the valley, which is one of the largest monolith hills in Asia.

 

 

Our next stop was described as a cave, but was really a giant rock that one could crawlDSCF0621 under and then climb between huge boulders to another spectacular view. Melissa elected not to crawl, but Tom said it was totally worth it.

From there, we returned to an open flat area for our biryani lunch. As we were finishing up, we encountered another large busload of people from BMC that were trailing us. We had always been pleased with our small, friendly group, but were even more so after encountering the boisterousness of the other group later in our hike. A group yelling, “Woo!” from the hilltops kind of ruins the peace of being out in nature.

 

We then leisurely descended, made our way back to the bus, and dozed on the way home, happy with our outing. We’ll look into other hiking groups as well, but will likely return to do more with BMC.

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Happy group at the end of a lovely day.