The other day I decided that over the course of the next five days, I would talk to five random people simply to get to know them. This decision was the result of a gradual process of realizations that I’ve been having since arriving in India.
One of my initial, semi-vague intentions for my gap year was that in order to change and improve the world during my life, I at least need some experience in the world. I had been participating in Model UN and was relatively engaged with world affairs, but I sensed that actually living and immersing myself in an environment where those issues are alive around me, and which is so different from my own in terms of its culture and people would enable me to gain a deeper, more subtle knowledge of “how the world works.”
When I arrived in India it was hard to figure out where to start. On my first day here, my cohort participated in the Ganpati Festival, Pune’s largest and rowdiest annual festival. Over the sounds of drums and yelling that permeated the densest crowd I have ever experienced, I pestered my team leaders with untamed questions about topics ranging from religion to poverty to human trafficking.
This has continued until today as I continually ask members host family of my host family as well as almost anyone I meet all sorts of questions.
Yet the way that I ask these questions has changed. I realized a few weeks into my journey that I was falling into the habit of taking what people told me and using it to make sense of India. I was looking past the individual and trying to grasp an abstract, artificial concept called “India” as if it was something I could understand.
I believe that this was a reaction to the shattering of expectations that has been occurring since I arrived here. Before arriving, I had perceived a certain “India” in my mind, and although I didn’t know exactly what to assume, I had certain vague mental images of what I expected, or rather wanted, to encounter.
I knew that India was complex, but I thought that this complexity would be visible and tangible, and couldn’t conceive of it as a manifestation of the inner and outer lives of countless individuals. I saw jumbles of people on buses, in schools, and on streets as functions of a system, rather than functions of the creative inner sparks that every individuals possess. I am still making subtle subconscious assumptions about people based on surface level traits such as skin color and clothing.
So that brought me to the other day, when I set about deciding how I would discover the uniqueness in ordinary people who I normally would not take a minute to think or care about. After finishing my volunteer job at school last Tuesday, I cycled over to a local park and meditated, which is what I sometimes do when I can’t figure out what to do with the rest of my day. After meditating, I saw a guy in his twenties busy studying. I approached him with my notebook, nervous yet ready to ask him for an interview. I was planning on asking him questions such as “What are you interested in?” and “What kind of books do you read?” yet before I could get to this, he asked me about my meditation practice, and told me that he practiced Vipassana meditation himself. I hadn’t even started interviewing this guy, and we already had a connection!
I then asked him a few questions and started documenting his answers in my notebook, yet I soon put the notebook down simply because I was so interested in actually getting to know this guy. He told me he read contemporary Marathi literature, which I didn’t even realize existed, and shared with me his opinions about education in India and the barriers he faces as an engineer who’s mother tongue is Marathi.
I’ve had a few conversations like this since then, and they’ve felt extremely liberating in a certain sense. I feel as though, very slowly, I am breaking down the psychological walls between myself and my fellow human beings.
So, maybe that’s the first lesson I learned on my journey to “understand” the world a bit better. As messy as it may be, there are no “packages” of people. Only individuals. Dhanyavaad!