On the third day in my host family, I woke with a pit in my stomach and tears in my eyes. I tried to suppress it for a while, but then ran to my host mom. I was barely able to get out “Can I call my mom?” before bursting into tears. Later that night at dinner, my host mom was saying that she was worried about me when she saw me crying, that I startled her. Shanaya, my host sister, said that she missed her mom too sometimes when she was gone on a trip, when my host dad replied, “don’t be silly, she wasn’t crying like a small girl like you.” But I was small. I was very small and very far away.
My best friend was my maid, Pratima Didi. Now, I’m not going to go into the whole maid/servant/cook thing in India because it’s complicated and subjective. But yes, I had a maid. Not only was she my best friend, but my (third) mom and my biggest Hindi teacher. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hindi, so we didn’t speak to each other for the first several months. Throughout the year, many confusing conversations occurred about whether or not I was going to be home for dinner and where on earth are my blue jeans? Several times when I opened the refrigerator with a frustrated look on my face because there was nothing familiar in there, she would just chuckle. When my host sister wouldn’t eat her food but I did, I would hear her saying “acchi larki, good girl”. My uncrowned kurtas would be faced with scorn and my Kindle with fascination and my midday grilled cheeses with utter disgust and confusion.
So one day in January or so, I came out of the kitchen and Pratima Didi started talking to me. She asked me questions about home, what the weather was like, who cleaned my house, and what my dad did as a job. And I asked her where she was from and where her family was. She explained that she had two kids, 15 and 16 years old, in West Bengal living with her mother. She visited them once every one or two years and sends all her money to them. We had a conversation about her life here, living with this family and taking care of kids that aren’t her own. In that moment, I was amazed at what she was saying, and only later did I realize that I had my first full conversation in relatively effortless, albeit juvenile, Hindi. Words cannot express my gratitude for her, for everything she did for me and taught me throughout my year.
Rickshaw was my primary mode of transportation. Hailed similarly to a taxi, for about $0.25/km, auto rickshaws were by far the most convenient way to get around. For months I had hundreds of drivers take me to school and the market and friends houses, never the same one. I wanted my own “auto wala”, someone I wouldn’t have to argue with about the cost to get to school. Then, in early March, I got in an auto and the driver remarked that I was later than usual. He turned around and I saw a face I recognized from a couple other trips. I told him to go to “Fatima Nagar”, to which he replied “I know”. Several more times in the next few weeks I would get in his rickshaw without telling him my destination – he even stopped turning on the meter because we both knew how much it should cost. On the second to last day with my host family, I was going to Mahatma Gandhi Road (to buy a suitcase, oops), and he was my rickshaw driver. I really wanted to tell him I was leaving, to take a picture together. But I had forgotten my phone and was too afraid to muster through my mediocre Hindi. So we just sat in a serene silence. When I arrived I thanked him and paid him a little extra. I don’t think he remembers me, but I remember him, my auto wala.
On the last day of Training Seminar 2, all of the fellows sat in a circle. Almost everyone had a small object in their hands. Alexander spoke first. “I give the gift of time,” he said. “I give the group an hour of my time to do whatever they want with.” Then he ripped out a piece of paper, scribbled TIME onto it, and placed in on the cot in the center of the circle. Next, Tatiana looked down at her fingers. On her left hand, there was a ring on each of her fingers. She takes one off, a silver ring with a turquoise stone, and behind it there is a faint strip of skin that is lighter than the rest. This ring was her mother’s, she explained, that finally became hers after years of stealing it from the jewelry box. On the cot I placed a torn out poem from a John Keats book that I had written in during a time of anxiety and stress. These items were joined by an anklet and a promise to keep its sister on at all times, a bracelet that made everyone gasp when it was removed, a one rupee note that was his grandfather’s, and a dozen other things. After everyone’s hands were empty, we all sat together, staring at this pile. These things represented our dearest memories and the deepest parts of ourselves, and we were willing to give them up. In that moment, we recognized that someone else in the group needed this thing more than the owner did, not because the object was valuable, but because it was invaluable. We all got to choose the gift that resonated most with us and whose meaning would help us get through the next 8 weeks and beyond.
I received an anklet and to this day it is my most cherished item from India. The person who gave it to me has an identical one on her ankle. And she received my poem. We each got to keep a little piece of each other, and somehow we all got more than we started with.
These are all stories that I wish I could share with you. I really want to be able to tell you all the intricate details of the past eight months, but it can get really overwhelming. When we meet for coffee, I’m having a really hard time articulating how I feel about anything in relation to my experience because it feels too far away. The only evidence that I was ever gone is the Indian clothes in my closet and my two journals. Randomly these memories will pop up of things I miss or am glad to be away from. They are usually met with a little chuckle or an emotional pause. So if you see that, feel free to ask. I may struggle to get it out, but in that moment there is a story worth telling.
I want to thank everyone for your amazing support and for sticking through for me before, during, and after this year. I couldn’t have done any of this without you.