Reflections from India

This reflection was written by Aruna Raman, program coordinator for Acara’s May Session in India. 

Another Year, Another Reflection

As quietude settles in like a cosy blanket after three weeks of breakthroughs, rewards, smiles, tears and frustrations, it is time to tease out reflections from the corners of the mind. As languorous lassitude settles in and “I could have done this betters” jostle for space with relief, I let humility descend on me. This is my fourth year of association with Acara (in one fashion or the other) and I often equate the program with shooting a film.

I work with stupendous on-the-ground partners to fashion experiences, but it is not until the rubber hits the road that one knows what to expect. Meticulous preparation often doesn’t factor in the vicissitudes of weather, health or sociopolitical situations. However, the intrinsic learning is also in dovetailing these experiences into the objective of the day. It is often the unexpected surprises that are the most piquant, yet interesting teachers.

Kenton and Aruna fixing a break in the sidewalk
I find myself in a Forrest Gump-esque situation when receiving students (remember the “Life is like a box of chocolates” scene?). I see them as grainy blobs during Skype conversations, and I am sure I strike them as a disembodied voice that they need to entrust their hopes, fears and secrets to for the period that they are here. In addition, they have the tall order of navigating sociocultural barriers, in addition to reposing an almost audacious sense of trust in a country that is a bewildering pastiche of contradictions. And yet my chest swells with pride when I say that, barring a few not unexpected wrinkles, everyone soared.

Here are a few reasons why I think Acara works the way we do:

Our Field Partners: We have, over the years, established a “litany of predictables” — partners who craft workshops, field visits and activities that espouse their commitment to their work. Together we fire 32 cylinders to challenge students to tinker with everything that they know. Some of our partners, after two years of courtship dances, are more confident in what they can expect from us, as are we.

We believe in letting our partners take the lead — they know the lay of the land better than we do. While we actively work with them in creating a common context, we also step back graciously when they express reservations on not leading a certain pattern of experiences. For instance, one of our partners very firmly indicated to me that he wouldn’t take “15 white kids to a slum” and we respected him for it. There is a rarefied push-pull in working with such committed partners, but I find that if one respects their primacy in the planning process the results are often unforgettable.

Our non tour-bus approach: On day 1, our students gingerly step into the chaotic kaleidoscope of Bangalore, with a treasure hunt to navigate, a set of clues, local interns who are strictly instructed not to help (unless they need to get the team out of a bind) and nary an idea of what they might encounter. This deep-ending strengthens them. Over the course of three weeks, we plant them in situations which might push the risk-exposure envelope. Our students have made friends with used plastic bottles under railway tracks, slept on stone-cold floors, sorted unseemly trash and been “flies on the wall” as witnesses to the machinations of urban poverty. While we keep them safe and care for them, our goal is not to airbrush these experiences. Learning comes from adversity and tight corners.

An Acara group planting trees in India

Our interns: What do you get when you throw 20-year-olds from two different continents together? Bewilderment, the joy in discovering shared contexts and friendships that endure. I maintain that I wouldn’t be able to do a third of what I do if it were not for these compassionate, intrepid and resilient young interns — Krishna, Nidhi, Shilpa and Elbin — who follow my barking orders when they need to and yet chide me not to micromanage when I become my not-fun overbearing self. It is heartening that these people will go forward and forge paths that will add to the tapestry of the wonderfully weird country that we call home.

My co-instructors: Three weeks of being in close quarters with people whom you meet for the first time, or those that are conveyed to you for the rest of the year through technology, can be Stockholm syndrome-esque. The sharing of rewards, frustrations and triumphs is amplified since it happens at warp speed. Also, since there is opportunity to observe the “uptake” of sessions — in terms of student or partner interest — almost immediately, the process of reorientation and reconciliation is also “seat of the pants.” You sense what is working, what isn’t, what is the possibility for course correction and what can be filed away for future use.

I also have to be mindful of navigating the cultural fence, especially in terms of dealing with students. Do I play tough cop? Can I afford to invest time and attention on one student, especially since there are 14 others that need attention? Therefore, I would unabashedly say that my co-instructors and mentors Fred Rose, Adam Boies and Kenton Spading constructed the resounding edifice on which the program functioned. They trusted me implicitly and let me run free, while building layer upon layer of credible content for students to absorb. I wouldn’t be half the instructor and, indeed, half the person that I am without them.

Fred Rose and group in India

Our students: At the end of each program we do a bit of retrospective reminiscing on the cohort. Who was the standout? What about the late bloomer? What could we have done to help some others? Truth be told, though we get acquainted with the group in the pre-departure meetings, transplanting them into a context that will challenge what they know and believe in is like an awkward meeting with a stranger on a train ride: will it, won’t it? For the students it is like being strapped into a plane seat and being handed a parachute to leap off — all at the same time.

However, these young ones pulled through like champions. They absorbed, questioned, dived in, danced, sang, cried and laughed with gay abandon. Though the learning outcomes were always close at and apparent, the “touchy-feeliness” came from the friendships they formed, the personal breakthroughs they had, and the desire they established to engage with India in some way. Introspection is a coquettish mistress. On the one hand there is the quiet satisfaction of things done well, but on the other, there is a restlessness attributed to “not having done enough” or “what could have gone better.” As we put the three weeks to bed, we bask in the warm glow of a job well done.

Erin Kayser

Program Manager for Acara

kayse049@umn.edu

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