"What struck me was how naive I was to the reality of how deeply ingrained caste was. I was never asked this question before, yet I saw that it became a defining feature of everyone- no matter how foreign your accent was. The question about caste from then onwards kept recurring, from taxi drivers to school boys. This made me realize the distance that exists between studying a society from lectures versus seeing these social structures manifest in real experiences."
As someone of Indian origin, I have always wanted to engage with India and Delhi in a more meaningful way. While visiting family for a week does help give you some insight, I was craving an academic understanding of the place my family called home. This led me to ISS New Delhi- which I found extremely relevant and challenging for me considering my area of interest. I could finally learn from Indian scholars about the cultural nuances, the historical depth and the vast intersection of politics and economics in the Indian subcontinent.
On a weekend trip to Jaipur, my friends and I decided to visit the famous Amer Fort. We explored the old fort, winding in and out of dark corridors that led to beautiful and intricate rooms. In one such room, we came across a woman taking a break from sweeping the floors. We started a conversation with her. As it flowed, I was asked what my 'jati' or caste was. Confronted by this question, which in my mind was extremely loaded, I was taken aback. What struck me was how naive I was to the reality of how deeply ingrained caste was. I was never asked this question before, yet I saw that it became a defining feature of everyone- no matter how foreign your accent was. The question about caste from then onwards kept recurring, from taxi drivers to school boys. This made me realize the distance that exists between studying a society from lectures versus seeing these social structures manifest in real experiences.
My biggest challenge was probably trying to learn about India without letting my preconceived notions get in the way. I kept an open mind and remained observant. Questioning things, from what I saw on the street to points raised in lecture, was also a great way to actively learn and understand the complexities of Delhi and India.
I would wake up at 7 AM and make my way to the Nehru Memorial and Library, trying my best to beat the Delhi traffic. Classes alternated between the three main areas of concentration (politics, economics and history/sociology). In between lectures and discussions, we had 15 minute breaks. These breaks consisted of downing countless cups of hot tea and discussing our thoughts and critiques of what we were learning. Some of the most fruitful and interesting debates would arise at this time. Lectures ended at 1:30 PM, in time for lunch. After lunch, we had special interactions with people ranging from scholars to politicians and diplomats. The conversations were free flowing and we were privileged to interact with the elites of their respective fields. By 4, everything would wrap up. Some would retreat to catch up on reading and sleep while others made their way down to the local sites, cafes, museums and markets.
I took three courses in Indian politics, economics and finally history/sociology. The courses were led by amazingly qualified and enthusiastic professors from the Delhi area. It was just as rigorous and challenging as classes are in Berkeley.
The most meaningful aspect was during our fieldwork component. I was sent to a nursery and day school in a slum area of Gurgaon. Our task was to design activities based on the themes chosen. However, more than anything, the experience shed light on the growing inequality and poverty that has come about with urbanization. The students we dealt with were from migrant families that worked in the construction industry of Gurgaon. Their housing, education and access to health care were not addressed by their employers or their local government. This issue is at the heart of what we would typically call 'progress', yet it begs the question- for who?
After my experience in New Delhi, I feel like I have learnt how to be critical of ideas and how to always question the dominant narrative. Learning about topics from multiple different perspectives from top Indian scholars was truly a privilege. It has made me understand the richness of intellectual thought that comes out of India on the topics of development, nationalism, democracy and gender.
I would recommend being aware of how special your opportunities are- to interact and learn from the best in their fields. Keep your eyes open, question the narratives you've been taught and be patient with Delhi traffic.