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United They Stand by Jasmin Valladares

August 30, 2015

The first week on our rickshaw rides to the school site, it was obvious to see the hustle and bustle of the city.  Rickshaws, scooters, and motorcycles going in through any open spot to bypass the cars and get to their destination.   Not to mention the busses, walking pedestrians, beggars on the street, as well as the people living out in the street all played a part in the hustle of the normal day.  It was also obvious to notice the excessive garbage in the streets and the smell that mixed with the smell of petroleum.  In the first week I did see about two people on two different occasions sweeping trash around their store front.  But again you could see excess garbage on the street.  It was not until our professor accompanied us on our rickshaw that she was able to communicate with our rickshaw driver and discover that there was an excess of trash on the floor because the garbage workers had been on strike about a week before we got there.  This helped explain the excess garbage.

The garbage strike and then thinking about a newspaper article that my Didi had presented to her kids about a parent’s perspective and hopes for their children’s future got me to think of India as a community.  The article was about the hope of students to not only succeed academically, but to also be a good citizen to better the country of India.  The teacher scaffold the article with questions to help the students understand what was being read.  By the end of the discussion the students were brainstorming ways on how they could be better citizens to better India.  Some students stated that they should have women treated better and grant them safety so they do not have to be scared of walking out in the streets.  Others stated that they could avoid peeing in the streets.  Yet others stated that they could ensure their honesty and make sure they paid when they got on the city bus.  Their teacher reinforced this with asking them how many of them saw grown men peeing in the streets, or people riding the bus and not paying to get on because it was so crowded.  Ultimately she tied it back to small ways that will help contribute to making India a better place.
This discussion got me to ask a few students during their 10 minute break what they wanted to be in life and what they thought was needed. One girl stated she wanted to be a doctor to help the sick in her country and world.  Another stated she wanted to be a Didi to teach students.  But one that surprised me was the response of a little boy.  He stated he wanted to be an army soldier to fight the Palestinian people who are hunting the Telegu people and to save India.  The interesting part was when I asked them all what they needed to do to achieve their goals, they stated they needed an education and the one little boy also stated certain virtues like honesty.  I was surprised to see such young children familiar with important issues they face, this is not a normal trend seen in America. Granted it could be because American children have many distractions (TV, movies, electronics) and are in a sense “removed” from the political things occurring.  The one thing that stood out was that all three students all stated they wanted to better their India and help others.

Another example of unity that I saw was in the morning right after their prayers.  There was about 5 students who came in late and then their teacher asked which groups had all their members arrive to school on time because their group received 50 points as an incentive to encourage students to show up to school.  First, it was amazing to see the student’s honesty.   Secondly it was heartwarming to see how one little girl, who was late for a second day in a row, asked to speak to her Didi for a second.  I then noticed her begin to cry as she walked back to her seat.  The Didi then stated that she wanted to propose a choice to the group the little girl belonged in.  The Didi stated that the little girl wanted to be removed from the group because she was the reason her group was not earning the points because of her lateness.  The group immediately turned to her and shook their heads, while the two students near her patted her back.  The teacher then asked if you want to vote her out raise your hand.  Not one of the students raised their hand, but rather shook their head in disagreement.  Then she asked if you want to keep her in your group raise your hand.  They immediately all raised their hand.  The Didi then stated that if a problem arises the solution is not to quit, but to find a way to solve it.  She told the little girl to see how her peers did not want to remove her from the group and that all she had to do was try her best to get to class on time.  Again, I think of how my kids would have responded differently.  There is a 90% chance my students would have voted her out of the group because she was costing them their group points.

I began to think of how I would want to see the sense of a tight community in my classroom and began thinking of how I could frame it in my classroom.  I should also state that in our second week in India there were street cleaners out cleaning the street.  We asked our rickshaw driver if the strike was over and he said it was.  The workers would now work day and night to clean up the city.  The amazing part was seeing the difference in the city cleanliness within a day.  It was apparent that the workers sure did hustle to make their streets clean after the strike was over.

I want to think that the strike ending is a symbol of hope for these children I had the pleasure of meeting.  They can bring about the change that they wish and improve their country to better their lives.   But overall that they never lose that sense of community and the sense that they stay united to help one another.

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Limited Time and Space by Jasmin Valladares

August 30, 2015

I was prepared to share and demonstrate the many classroom techniques and transitions that I used in my classroom in an Indian classroom.  As I was trying to overcome the distraction of voices and noise coming from the other room and thinking how amazing a door would be, I came across the students’ school day schedule on the whiteboard.  The students began their day at 9:00 AM and went until 4:00PM.  I should also mention that they do also attend school on Saturday! Saturday!  A normal school day would consist of morning prayers/pledges, Reading, Telegu, Math, Lunch, Hindi, Read Aloud/Shared Reading, Science/Social Studies, and Writing journal/independent reading/class discussion to end the day.  The students do get a 10minute break in the morning.  I was expecting to see a transition at some point but nothing!  I was okay, for Lunch they will have to transition…and no.  The students got up at lunchtime and went to find their favorite spot in the school to have their lunch.  They did not have a lunchroom in our school.  I was surprised to find out that the little ones are pretty much confined to their desks throughout the whole school day; there wasn’t much opportunity to move around.  As a teacher of younger children, one knows that they need to get their wiggles out.  Surprisingly, most of the students did maintain long periods of stillness before getting restless.  However, their teacher did notice at times she needed a brain break and would give them one.

The challenge was going to be introducing Centers in the class within the limited space, and also thinking of wiggle breaks that would allow the students a chance to let their wiggles out within the limited spaces.  The Centers was a challenge because of the small classroom size.  I created 3 centers and told the teacher that the good thing about centers is that she can scaffold or add rigor according to her groups.  She had her classroom setup in groups that consisted of a high student, average student, and low students.  This created some issues because the students who were dominant in the activities and answering questions were the higher students.  The lower or shyer students weren’t as active or participating.  So the first day we implemented centers she had separated her groups into highs, mids, and lows.  She then had them get up and get into one of the three sections in the classroom.  They centers involved sight words, sentence orders, and chunks of words to allow the students to make new words.  (This was created to help the students build their chunking strategies since this was one of their weaknesses when they came across unknown words.)  During the first day of implementing centers the students were a bit loud, but I think it was more so because they were excited about the activities that we had planned.  It was not so much that they were being intentionally loud.  The transition into groups would allow the students to move some.  But little did I know I would then realize some kinks that I had not accounted for.

I realized that I had made a few errors.  I had scaffold the students sight words according to the lows, mids, and highs, but had not scaffold the sentence sort.  I realized that some of the sentences had one too many adjectives and could have created sentences based on their levels.  I also realized that I had not accounted for students finishing earlier than others and how they would have to wait to receive the resources from the other students.  Lastly, I also had not accounted for the wind blowing from the ceiling fan.  The sentence strips and word chunks were flying everywhere.  But one thing I have learned as a teacher is that despite the crummy day one may have, one should always look for a positive.  My positive from that 1st Center day was that one low group was able to solve the sentence that had excessive adjectives before any of the high or mid students had.  I made sure to positively praise them and feel accomplished for solving that sentence.

I returned to the hotel that day with tweaks that needed to be made.  I created more sentence strips that would allow the students to work in a timely manner without waiting for other students to finish.  I also altered some of the sentences to have a few less adjectives.  Day two of centers was a bit smoother.  The students had the creating word chunks written on sticky notes that helped keep the papers from flying.  As well as I had made the sentence strips a bit bigger to allow to place under their notebooks to avoid flying away and made extra copies so the students could work more efficiently.

The kids were excited and enjoyed the centers.  I also was able to give prompts to the students to help them sort the sentence out, like asking them who or what they thought the subject of the sentence was and what they thought the predicate of the sentence was.  I also had them identify the words to ask is it a noun, adjective, or verb.  This I found was a bit more helpful to unscramble the sentence.  I told the Didi that she could make a chart that the students can reference to help them during that center.  To push them in writing sentences I also had the students who were writing the words 5xs each to use that word in a sentence that would help develop their writing skills.

It was amazing to see the students enjoy and take part in the centers.  Students who were shy or tended to allow someone else to do the work, I was able to see get more hands on in the centers and practice the skills.  I also told the Didi that I was working with that once the kids got into a routine of the centers, she could have some free time to pull a small group and work with them individually.  This would allow her some time to meet student’s needs within their busy school schedule.

Again I am grateful that I had a Didi that was willing to work with me and open to my feedback!  I hope that the introduction of Centers despite the limited space and time will allow for some individual or small group interaction in the classroom.

Doors, Space, Lights, and Resources by Jasmin Valladares

August 30, 2015

Three of Molotov’s lyrics from one of their songs continually came to mind during my rides on the rickshaw to school during my two weeks in India.

Now why don’t you look down

To where your feet is planted

That U.S soil that makes you take s*** for granted

Going into a school that was considered one of the better schools among the schools my cohort were attending opened my eyes and reminded me that in America it is simple to lose touch of the many resources we have available and take for granted.

I remember the first day taking the rickshaw to the school site.  It was the longest ride to school because our rickshaw driver had to stop many times to get directions to our school site.  Once we got there, we were greeted with students posted on the stairway with a good morning and big smiles.  We were directed to a teacher’s classroom.  To my surprise, as we were directed to the classroom, I began to notice classrooms with no doors.  We walked down a narrow hall with a classroom on the left, a wall that separated three other classrooms, and then at the end of the hall there was our classroom.  The school day began with the students saying prayers and the school pledge.  Once they finished one of the Didis we would be working with greeted us.  We introduced ourselves and told her that today we would observe and take notes.

At first it was hard for me to focus on the teacher and her teaching methods because I was distracted with the voices coming from the other rooms.  I realized then how much I appreciated having doors in my classroom.  Once I got myself to focus on the teacher I saw how the kids were eager to learn, but were missing some order in the classroom.  It was not that they wanted to be disruptive, but more they were excited and eager to learn.  During one of the language sessions, we were able to talk to the teacher.  Our Didi was welcoming and open to all our feedback.  However, we then also discussed that maybe we could stretch ourselves out so that we could help out some other Didis; making it less awkward having 3 people observe and jump in for 1 Didi.  Immediately, I was introduced to the Didi I would be working with the next two weeks.

Day 2 of our school visit I came to not only appreciate doors, but also appreciated electricity, desks, chairs, and classroom space.  I was in awe of how the Didi I was observing had her class under control and more in awe how the students were focused on her every word, despite the loud noise coming from the other room.  Not to mention that they were not letting the limited sunlight, space, and heat of the day interrupt their learning.  The classrooms were small and packed with at least 28 kids.  These kids sat 2-3 on a bench and bumped into each other as they adjusted themselves to copy the work the teacher was writing on the board.  My mind immediately flashbacked to my teachers lounge back in Chicago that countless of times had double copied stacks of paper left and how many trees went to waste because there were teachers who had taken their copying privilege for granted.  I began to ask what happens on days that it is not as sunny, where are the lights? Within those two weeks I realized that the school rations their electricity and turn it off for a few hours.  Now their electricity serves more as what powers the fan to help combat the heat of the day.  There were not lights in the classrooms.

Despite the lack of resources it amazed me how determined the Didis were to continue with their lessons.  It was not strange to have their lesson interrupted by another student from another class who asked to borrow a marker re-filler or a marker to write on the board with.  They provided the needed item and continued with their lesson.  The Didi I worked with stated that she had looped with her kids and knew them all pretty well.  When I asked her how she could focus with the lack of resource and all the other commotion going on in the hall across, she simply stated you tend to ignore it after a bit. She did state that she tries to keep her students engaged and focused to keep them busy on the lesson and not get distracted with the commotion outside their room. (This I found was difficult when the language teacher did not show up in the classroom across the hall-and by hall I mean about 5 steps away-and the students decided it was chatting time.)  She however did her best to keep her class on task, she did have to step out twice to tell the other class to bring their voices down because her kids were trying to get through a lesson, but amid it all, she powered through her lesson.  I also found out that they have one prep period during one of the language sessions, but during the other language session, they had to report to a higher grade and teach those students a specific subject.  I was even more impressed with her!  I mean as a teacher it is hard enough providing lessons that meet the high, mid, and low students’ levels, but then to have to change gears to teach a much higher grade of students that same day would be hectic.  What was even more amazing was that when she spoke of her duty, she was proud and happy about it.  She stated that if she could help out students even if through one lesson, they it was a small sacrifice on her end.  She figures it is another meaningful lesson that she can provide to another set of students, who may not received it if she was not teaching. She then also added how Saturday classes were also mandatory.  I found myself asking dumbfounded Saturday?  Saturday is like the one day of sanity and relaxation for teachers in America.  They day after the 5 day week, and before the prep-day Sunday!  I found myself wondering would I be able to cut it as a teacher in India. I was able to see how some of the teachers in that school truly exemplified an example of an amazing teacher.  They did not look at the lack of things, but sought to give their best to better their students.

I realized that as an American teacher I had taken small things for granted.  I came to appreciate the “silly things” that a teacher doesn’t normally think of such as having light in the classroom, doors in the classroom, access to make copies and the many resources we have at the tip of our fingers.  I do know that I will take the India experience, well more so, the eagerness I saw in the Didis that did not complain, but rather learned to work with the resources they had to give the best education they could to these students.  I would like to say that the trip to India helped me remember why I decided to go into teaching and how I have these Didi’s to remind me of the reason providing great education is necessary.  It served to remind myself to embrace the struggles, look for the positive, and appreciate the blessings that I at times tend to overlook.

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Lokesh by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

In my brief career as a teacher thus far, I have heard students say and do so many funny, sad, and interesting things that I have added so many stories to my repertoire.  It would seem that many of my friends know my students well, just from listening to the many stories I tell about them.  I don’t believe this is unique to me, but actually common amongst all teachers; young students are pretty good source material. Now, I would like to tell another story; a story about a student whom I worked with while teaching in Hyderabad whom reminded me of the importance of building relationships and the need to know your students as people.

Lokesh was a year or two older than most of the students in the class. He sat at the back of the class, and when he wasn’t grinning cockily, he had a sly expression that would make any teacher suspicious.  The first day Des, Liz, and I observed Anusha; we ALL noticed that Lokesh was always off task.  He didn’t always follow directions right away, and when he did he soon stopped working only to find something else to take up his time.  He had this demeanor that he just didn’t care about class.  More noticeably, that first day we observed, he even left the classroom and didn’t return for 25 minutes! Where was he that whole time?  Anusha was working very hard, but admittedly having trouble managing behavior and was too busy putting out other fires to worry about Lokesh. When we asked him where he had been, he told us he had to help his little brother get water.  None of us were particularly trusting of his excuse.

Lokesh quickly became the student who earned the most warnings in our newly implemented behavior management chart. Yet not even this deterred his periodic absences. On the third day of teaching, while I was supporting Anusha in a small group lesson, a small boy appeared at the door and called for Lokesh.  Lokesh quietly rose from his desk and followed the boy out of the classroom without so much as asking for permission.  A few moments later, Des also left the room (to return Lokesh to class I presumed) except that a few minutes had gone by and neither of them came back.  Liz was sick that day and I was left alone to manage the class with Anusha. Five minutes went by, and then ten, but still neither had returned and I was wondering where they were.  Finally, more than 15 minutes later, Des and Lokesh returned from wherever it was they were and continued class as if nothing had happened.  I, of course, was confused and wanted to know the situation, but knew I had to wait until after class to speak with Des.

Finally, the lunch bell rung and Des, Anusha, and I were able to talk. Des is a serious teacher and hard worker, so it’s not like she just up and went for a walk. There had to be a reason. I asked the obvious question, “Where were you guys?” Des let out a sigh and I could already tell it wasn’t an obvious explanation. She told us that she followed Lokesh and the younger boy to a house a few blocks from the school.  The school we were placed, Picket Government School, was in a poor part of Hyderabad called Secunderabad.  It was the furthest school from our hotel in the more posh area of Banjara Hills and some locals hinted that the area didn’t have the best reputation. Nonetheless, we had never felt unsafe there and Des followed them out the school.  Upon seeing the two boys approaching the house, a woman stepped out from the inside of the building and invited the boys in. Des told us she took the opportunity to introduce herself and informed the woman, whom she assumed was the boys’ mother, of Lokesh’s behavior. This woman, however, was not the boys’ mother, but their caretaker. As Des explained, the woman ran some sort of home for the boys–similar to an orphanage or a foster home–and she had been raising the two boys, whom were actually not related.  Des continued to explain that the woman told her it was sometimes challenging to have the children prepared for school–as she had other children to look after too–and that the young boy often forgot his water bottle at home.  (While you may read this and think forgetting a water bottle isn’t a big deal, note that it is roughly between 80 to 90 degrees and quite humid everyday, and the classroom’s only form of temperature control is a single, rickety fan.)  The woman continued to explain that Lokesh was like a big brother to the younger child and regularly looked after him as needed be–in this case, accompanying him back home to get his water bottle.

After Des told me this, we both felt incredibly guilty.  Although Lokesh’s behavior needed to be addressed, Liz, Des, and I had, consciously or not, labeled him as the naughty, problem child.  Lokesh demonstrated he was nurturing, and very responsible for someone his age. I immediately had a moment where I was reminded to check my privilege. I do not know what it was like to grow up without my parents and have to take care of my younger siblings. And Lokesh was doing this in addition to the socioeconomic obstacles I was lucky enough never to have had to overcome.

After learning this about him, Des had a conversation with the woman and Lokesh to encourage them to check for the younger boys’ water bottle and other needs before school. Liz, Des, and I also began to see Lokesh differently. Although he was never the best-behaved student, his behavior did improve and when we had this change of heart.  We also quickly figured out that Lokesh was incredibly bright and needed to be challenged, and perhaps this was part of the reason he seemed so disinterested and didn’t do the work–of course.  Overall, this story reminds me that I still have so much more that I can improve in my practice as a teacher, and that being a teacher encompasses so much more than the teaching of academic content.

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Lokesh is the boy near the bottom right corner resting his chin on his elbows as he watches Samina deliver a lesson.

Reinventing Myself as a Teacher by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

When I first stepped into Anusha’s classroom at Picket Government School, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I didn’t know the age of the students, what they would be like, nor their backgrounds. Of course, Samina had told us we would be working with students whom came from low socioeconomic backgrounds, but my experience as a preschool teacher in Chicago, taught me that there are different levels of poverty.  I had seen pictures in National Geographic of small, Indian children wearing almost no clothes and scavenging through trash, and was preparing myself for what I may experience. Yet, the first things I noticed when I stepped into the dimly lit classroom were all the students’ smiling faces.  It put a genuine smile on my face too.

It was true, however, these students were poor. Most did not have shoes to protect their feet, their classrooms were devoid of most of the materials that I require to teach, and their school lunch consisted of only a little steamed rice with some curry for flavor. (I was later told by one of the program managers of Teach For India-Hyderabad that it wasn’t uncommon for poor families to enroll their children in government schools, which are notorious for corporal punishment and chronic teacher absences, just so their children can eat a meal.) I even heard accounts that some parents were not invested in their daughters’ educations because they were simply going to marry them off (within a few months) in order to receive a dowry.  As any inner city teacher can tell you, poverty certainly plays a role in the lives of children and manifests itself somehow in the school setting.

Despite the obvious signs of poverty, the students were so lively and had a true sense of joy. As soon as Anusha dismissed her students to their half hour break that first day of school, they all crowded around Des, Liz, and myself (I was particularly a hit with the boys in the classroom.)  They all wanted to know our names, and immediately wanted us to learn theirs. I knew I would have trouble remembering who was who and asked them to write their names in my journal.  Soon I had a collection of names written in two columns–Manoj, Siddu, Joythi, Pavan, Kavya, Lokesh, and Geetha amongst others–and was trying to get to know them.  They were very excited to share about themselves. They all told me what they wanted to be when they grew up–air force pilots, doctors, engineers, and teachers–and listed off the names of their family members.

They were also curious about where I came from and wanted to learn everything about my family.  They asked questions such as, “Do you have brothers and sisters? What are their names?” and “Are you married? How many children do you have?’’  Although I think they were too polite or too shy to say anything, some of the girls gave me a sorry look when I told them I was unmarried and without children.  I remembered then what Samina told us in our orientation meeting back at Dominican. Although these students are materially poor, they are culturally rich and come from loving families. It was quickly apparent to me that these students were genuinely happy with their lives, had hope for their futures, and above all else were just like any other kids I had met.  Similarly to when I first entered an inner city classroom in Chicago, I felt at once incredibly humbled and filled with admiration.

Not Just the Taj by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

When I returned from my trip to Hyderabad, my whole family–grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins included–was already gathered at my uncle’s house for a cook out.  I was excited to see them, and after two weeks of delicious Indian cuisine, I was nonetheless craving carne asada and guacamole.  Oddly enough, my family was also excited to see me and immediately asked about my trip.  My aunts and uncles started with the basic “who, what, when, where and why.” Understandable to ask, because although my parents and siblings knew I had been working with a first year teacher, the rest of my family was a little less clear about what I was doing in Hyderabad.  After the basic questions had been cleared, I was excited to share stories about the great group of students I had the privilege to work with, and of the many adventures I had had while in Hyderabad.  Yet before I could share, everyone wanted to know, “Did you see the Taj Mahal?!”  And it wasn’t just my family. Many of my friends asked the same question, “Matt, you saw the Taj Mahal right? How was it?”

I get it. The Taj Mahal is a magnificent wonder known the world over, and yes it is deserving of all the attention and awe. I loved our program visit to the Taj, and the experience was possibly a once in a lifetime chance. The Taj, and the gardens that surround it are beautiful, and made only better when I learned about its history and the interesting tid-bits of information our tour guide shared. For example, did you know that the tall spire atop the main dome used to be made of pure gold? Or did you know that Emperor Shah Jahan ordered its construction as a tomb for his third wife, and when he tried to construct an identical tomb built with black marble the emperor’s son imprisoned him? Fascinating, right? The history nerd in me loved every minute of the tour, and I am very happy I got to see the Taj.  However, I had been in India for two weeks–most of it in a city 833 miles away from Agra– and I experienced a side of the country your average American has never seen before.

Firs and foremost, I wanted to share my experiences working with the students in Picket Government School.  While I certainly enjoyed playing the tourist, I was also in India to work with a TFI fellow and her students. I spent a good chunk of my time with them, and they were what made my whole trip uniquely special.  I was proud that I could–somewhat at least–direct a rickshaw driver to a small school on the other side of an Indian city. I was happy for all the growth Anusha, our TFI fellow, made in only two weeks. And I still laugh thinking back on all the hilarious things the students did and said.  I feel that our authentic interactions with people who live in the places that we visit give us some of the memories.

Additionally, one of my favorite things we did during the whole trip was explore Amber Fort.  Amber Fort is a medieval, Hindu fortress and palace perched on the mountains overlooking the city of Jaipur.  It was beautiful and, similar to the Taj, the history nerd in me was loving it. As I explored its narrow corridors, winding staircases, and grand courts where the King hosted dignitaries and kept a menagerie of exotic animals, I couldn’t help but feel like a royal myself–and how fun it would be to play hide and seek inside the fort.  I would have loved to have spent more time there and get lost in its passageways only to discover a new part of the palace.

While both the Taj and Amber Fort were amazing, I didn’t have to stray outside of Hyderabad to find interesting and memorable experiences.  On our first day in Hyderabad, Samina took all of us to explore Golconda Fort.  The fort was initially established in the 10th century and had been taken over and conquered by various sultans and kings of both the Hindu and Muslim faiths.  It was also famous for its gems, and was the discovery place of two of the largest diamonds–one of them being the Hope Diamond–ever discovered. Although grasses and plants had overrun parts of the fort, its ruins were beautiful and the hillside offered sweeping views of the city.  In addition to visiting Golconda Fort, I also had the chance to visit a beautiful Hindu temple that was entirely covered in white marble, enjoyed a Bollywood romantic comedy (even though I only understood the occasional English phrase the actors would say), shop at the historic Charminar, and ate so many delicious meals at various restaurants in Hyderabad.  I even enjoyed high tea at the Taj Falaknuma Palace, an extravagant 19th century palace that has been converted to a hotel that redefined my understanding of luxury.

So, if you have the opportunity to visit India, I highly recommend you take it. Its sights, sounds, and tastes are beautiful, (at times) frantic, and interesting.  And although, yes, you MUST see the Taj Mahal, don’t forget to experience what else India has to offer. I promise, you’ll never forget it.

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The Taj Mahal.  One of the couples in the photograph really wanted a picture with me–not sure why.

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A snap shot of Amber Fort from one of its many passageways.

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Me, Jessica, Becca and Marten at the Falaknuma Palace.

The Two Indias by Matthew Escalante

August 30, 2015

Prior to leaving for our much-anticipated trip, those of us participating in the program were asked to read a few books to give us a cultural context for our journey. One of the books–and one I would recommend to anyone–was Aarvind Adiga’s The White Tiger. This novel tells the tale of an Indian villager whose ambition leads him from rural poverty to entrepreneurial success, corruption, and murder. While my knowledge of Indian literature is admittedly lacking, The White Tiger unveils the gritty underbelly of contemporary Indian society. Adiga writes from the perspective of Balram, a servant for a wealthy family, and this affords the reader with a uniquely authentic perspective that many of us would not normally see As opposed to other representations that I have read about or seen before, Adiga does not romanticize India or its culture and often makes fun of those very exotic notions of the idyllic, Indian society.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, Samina reminded us to keep our readings in mind; we were to make connections between the texts to what we experienced in a country that is unfamiliar to anything we knew.  Despite a draining experience with British Airways and an exhausting day of travel, I was alert as soon as we touched down in Hyderabad.  As I waited to collect my bulky suitcase from the slow moving conveyor belt, I saw characters and places from The White Tiger take physical form in front of me; slick businessmen, gaggles of software employees, merchants peddling their wares on large carts, and slouched mounds of people taking shelter under viaducts.

While many elements from the book came alive, I kept returning to Adiga’s metaphor of the Light and the Darkness.  As mentioned briefly before, Adiga writes the story from the perspective of Balram, a poor Indian servant turned businessman.  Balram writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier and explains that if the Premier truly wants to understand the success behind Indian entrepreneurship he should take note of his personal story.  Throughout the series of letters, Balram tells the Premier that there exist “2 Indias” within his country. One India is the India of Darkness and, the other, Light. The India of Darkness is rural and mired in tradition and religion, while the India of Light is cosmopolitan, educated, and outward looking. Adiga makes it clear that within this dichotomy, those who are members of the “light” look at the Darkness and those from it as backwards and partially responsible for India’s lack of development.

Although the province- metropolis binary is hardly unique to India, I did experience strong examples of the “two Indias.”  One example I observed was between our host city of Hyderabad and the small town of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.  Hyderabad is a city of 6 million people that has built a robust economy in telecommunication and software industries.  In addition to the tech offices in “Cyberabad”, one can find stores that line 5th Ave or the Miracle Mile while cruising down the city’s Taj Krishna neighborhood.  Agra, on the other hand, appears impoverished despite the thousands of tourists who flock to see the Taj. And unlike the unending urban sprawl of Hyderabad, rice paddies and quiet countryside surround Agra.

Even more interesting, however, was experiencing both the “Light” and “Darkness” within our host city.  For example, many of the women shopping at the Charminar, a historic market in Hyderabad, dressed in full burkhas and were surprised at seeing white tourists pursuing the markets’ many shops.  Yet, when we a few of us visited the GVK mall to see a Bollywood movie, the hip young men and women visiting the shops were nearly indistinguishable from Americans: Calvin Klein jeans, Nike sneakers, and Starbucks latte all in tote.

Yet I didn’t have to rickshaw between different neighborhoods to experience the “2 Indias.” As is often the case, the “Light” and “Darkness” coexisted side by side in Hyderabad–and I assume, throughout India.  Street food vendors often parked their carts carrying samosas and dhals next to a Pizza Hut of a trendy sushi restaurant, and poor families living in makeshift shelters often squatted outside the walls of luxurious mansions.  Although Adiga highlights the power struggle between the “2 Indias” and the discrimination those from the “Darkness” experience, I am not writing this to demean the traditional and still developing elements of Indian society.  Instead, what I took away from my experience is that Indian culture and society is complex and hard to categorize in a simple binary.  Almost paradoxically so, India exists as both rural and urban, traditional and modern, poor and wealthy, and I am very curious as to how the country will mesh, or separate, these elements amidst a changing, global world.

Matt 6

The luxurious grounds of the Falaknuma Palace

Matt 7

A man walking outside the walks the palace walls.