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Thursday, 24 November 2011

ITSA: Inspiring Student Confidence

Rajvi Patel, a student who was part of the ITSA workshops recently wrote us the most touching letter. This is really encouraging to see, and these sentiments from our students are what keeps us going:

Rajvi, hard at work on her identity chart, reflecting on changes in her identity.

"The entire experience of ITSA was mind blowing. The workshops were great; there were so many activities involved. We played interactive games, had discussions and the program helped increase our awareness about the socio-economic conditions of our country. I now know that we are the future leaders of our country and this workshop helped me realize it.

The ITSA workshops are completely different from how we function at school.School is based on being disciplined, which makes it difficult to express ourselves the way we truly want to. We sit in front of a teacher lecturing while we try our best to stay awake in class,  Our dialogue in class, revolves around questions we have about our textbook material. ITSA made sure that we were truly using our mind and our own perspective to communicate. It was a platform to present ourselves with no restrictions or guidelines about how we SHOULD think. Not once during the workshops did I feel sad or left out; the atmosphere was cheerful and merry. It was Knowledge with fun and helped me truly grow!

In the ITSA workshops it didn't feel there was the teacher, as the disciplinarian, and the restof us were the students and receivers of information. We were all a big group of friends; that’s how it felt. This made for a healthy atmosphere and an open environment. The whole workshop taught me more than I had imagined to begin with; improving me as a thinker, being able to converse easily, a smile all the time, and so much more. My life has changed completely because of ITSA. I used to be a little shy and I couldn’t converse as easily before, but now, I have found my voice and more confident. It is because of ITSA that I believe in myself more than ever before and because of that self confidence, people believe in me.

My favourite activities were the Boat activity because it involved a lot of discussion as we determined who we saved.  We were all expressing ourselves freely without thinking twice and without censoring ourselves. The video activity involving the discussion of a movie clip was also interesting as we discussed the different characters in detail. The activities I liked were all based on freely communicating our thoughts and perspectives without any boundaries to restrict us. 

I truly believe in the message of critical thinking that ITSA brings to us and I will try to spread its message and values wherever I go. I believe ITSA is truly awesome and deserves to be recognized. It helped me so much and I honestly think it can do wonders for so many others. Thank you ITSA!"

Written by: Rajvi Patel, 9th Grade

Edited by: Ashni Tripathi

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

An Article on ITSA in the Swarthmore Newspaper!

Student project aims at Indian 

educational reform

In print | Published October 20, 2011 — Updated November 21, 2011 14:06

In a sweltering Indian classroom, as a student raises her hand with a question to understand the concept of photosynthesis, she is silenced by her teacher with instructions to memorize the definition on the blackboard. This authoritarian system has silenced questions and stamped out curiosity over the years as students follow the traditional system of rote memorization.
Riana Shah ’14 and Jwalin Patel may finally be able to break the silence. The duo co-founded the organization Independent Thought and Social Action (ITSA) about two years ago during their senior year of high school in an effort to reform and modernize the Indian educational system. As an internationally recognized educational reform organization, ITSA strives to provide Indian students with an outlet to discover themselves as thinkers and learners through a series of critical thinking, writing and discussion summer workshops.
Patel, now a student at the University College London, but previously a student of the Indian system who switched to an international educational high school, reflected, “As I went through the Cambridge system of education I realized there was a big divide between the two systems. The Indian system of education was not much of an education. It was just lots of information without a focus on developing critical or creative thinking skills.” Educated in India until the ninth grade, Shah’s frustration with pure academic regurgitation and minimal discussion reached its zenith as she realized the large disparity between her education at Bard High School Early College in New York and the traditional Indian system she was once a part of.
At Bard High School Early College, Shah was convinced that teachers need not be authoritarians who have the last word and that many answers come in shades of gray. “The realization that my solutions have just as much power to make an impact empowered me, so why shouldn’t students in our hometown of Ahmedabad have the opportunity to feel the same way?” she said. The motive behind ITSA’s construction was to reform a traditional school system based on rote memorization and passive learning to a dynamic one “geared toward producing thinkers and not solely technicians,” according to Patel.
Pooling their educational experiences together, they incorporated the methodology developed by the Institute for Writing & Thinking at Bard College into the ITSA curriculum to foster the thinking skills needed by the next generation of world leaders.
Initially after conception, ITSA implemented its curriculum in two schools. However, this past summer, ITSA has expanded its affiliation to over twelve schools in two different cities in the Indian state of Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Rajkot, with the help of a formal internship program, the Swarthmore Foundation Grant and a few Swatties who were dedicated to their vision.
Piecing together narratives from ITSA’s student-run blog, Emma King,ITSA intern and student at Bard, Shah’s alma mater, writes about ITSA’s identity workshops detailing how ITSA delves deep into the students’ minds to extricate all that they wish they could share. King noted that most of the kids initially described themselves as “obedient,” “polite” or, most frequently, “disciplined.” After the open-class discussions giving these students a nudge to identify qualities in themselves that weren’t held to societal standards, the children used words such as “creative,” “independent” and a “learner for learning’s sake” to describe the fabric of their being.
Each year ITSA workshops have a different theme based on various forms of social responsibility. Moving outside the confines of the classroom, they have begun a mentoring program to put the students’ passions into action.
ITSA team member, Meghna, who is studying engineering in college upon witnessing ITSA’s discussion forums, said that, “had something like ITSAbeen in my life when I was in high school, I might have chosen differently.”
Patel and Shah have brought awareness of the global education systems to campus, and are in the process of applying for the Lang Opportunity Scholarship worth $10,000 to fund these efforts. The exponential growth and impact that ITSA has had foreshadows what collaborators envision to be “the possibility for not only regional change, but also a national remodeling.”
ITSA has freed students from traditional educational constraints, so much so that a student exclaimed, “It’s like we actually have freedom of speech here!”

Direct Link: 

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Intern Reflections - Summer 2011

Here is an article that our intern Emma wrote about her ITSA Internship experience in the Bard High School Early College's Student Newspaper:

Intern Emma participating in the ITSA workshop writing a focused free with ITSA participants.  

This summer, I went to India. It was not, however, a vacation or a spiritual quest for enlightenment: I went as one of five interns for ITSA. 

ITSA, which stands for Independent Thought and Social Action, is a social action organization co-founded by Jwalin Patel and recent BHSEC alum, Riana Shah.  Centered in the city of Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat ITSA aims to help Indian students attain the critical thinking and analytic skills they need to become independent, emancipated and capable global citizens.   

The education system in India is rote, dogmatic, and limiting - students often simply are not given the opportunity or the tools they need to think critically.  In response to the rigidity of the system, which was founded during the industrial revolution and aims at creating capable workers, Riana and Jwalin decided to create a program, based on the Writing and Thinking workshop, which would help Indian students to break free and think independently.  
This is where I come in. This summer was the second year of ITSA workshops, and the first with interns.  The interns (myself, Ana Powell, Max Baird, Mariah Widman, and Juliana Gutierrez) were brought to Ahmedabad, via a seventeen hour flight, to pursue individual internship projects, stay with incredible host families, encounter Indian culture up close and personal and, above all, help to fully establish ITSA and to help it to flourish. 

Over the three weeks that we had in India, we  (though I can only really speak for myself) were given the opportunity to have an overwhelming number of incredible experiences, the opportunity to meet and stay with amazing people -- Ana and I became very close to our host family and we miss our host sister, Deeksha, immensely -- and to grow in profound ways.   Everything felt like an adventure, from stepping out of the airport into the thick, sweet smelling air, to eating unfamiliar and deliciously opulent meals, to exploring the narrow, woven streets of the old city, to visiting an endless series of gorgeous temples and interacting the people on the roads, to seeing the Taj Mahal; even driving down the street in cars and rickshaws, listening to a symphony of horns was exhilarating, especially since the commuters Ahmedabad tended to ignore basic drivers’ safety. Everything felt novel and interesting.  I could go on forever, but luckily, I don't have to: each experience was recorded in a blog kept by the interns (check it out at   

But even the hoards of freely roaming cows couldn’t surpass meeting and getting to know the young students who participated in the workshops.  These were motivated students, determined and willing to push themselves far beyond their established comfort zones.  Watching them struggle to adapt, learn, find ways to describe their thought processes and to substantiate their identities was, in itself, one of the most intoxicatingly exciting experiences of the trip.  In just two workshops, the participants were already exploding into their full potential, grabbing for each novel experience with an enthusiasm that was, in many ways, inspirational.   Years of mechanically ossified beliefs were debated,  boundaries were demolished, and as the workshops flew by, the students truly changed - as did I.

When I returned to America, it was made clear to me that my global perspective was forever altered.  I had confronted beauty and incredible ugliness, wealth and utter poverty, remarkable awareness and determined apathy: it was inspiring and overwhelming. The paradoxes of India remain pertinent and poignant, even now, months after I returned. Quite frankly, there is more to say about this trip and about ITSA than could ever fit into a (relatively) short article. Choosing to send in an application to become an intern was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I cannot sum up its worth and importance so neatly.  Thus, I conclude on this note: going to India and being an intern for ITSA affects me still, every day, and I am in all respects continuously thankful for the opportunity.  

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Ashni's Hosting Experience

Mariah w/ Ashni's family & the huge but lovable Cujo & Buddy

Honestly, I did not know what to expect when I agreed to be a host sibling. I’m very picky when it comes to making friends, and I don’t get along with everyone. From the very beginning Mariah made it really easy for me to like her. I agreed to be a host sibling in the first place because I wanted the experience of living with someone from a completely different background but as the date of the intern’s arrival grew closer, my panic turned into fear; what if I don’t like her, what if we don’t get along? These were the questions filling my mind but the minute I met Mariah I knew I had nothing to worry about. I didn’t know what I was expecting but she certainly wasn’t it. I found her mature and independent and somehow- she fit perfectly into my life. Being from two different cultures we often ended up talking about the differences between the both. Our conversations often went late into the night and ranged from college to discrimination on the basis of gender and I loved every moment of it!

When we weren’t working with ITSA, we were just spending time with each other and getting to know each other as individuals. I wanted to make sure she got every possible Indian experience I could give her, including the delicious dish called Pani Puri which is personally my favourite. During the evenings, I normally hang out with my friends and she joined us making it even more fun. It was as if she had always been a part of my life. I had to leave for Ladakh, a family vacation planned, after ten days of the arrival of the interns and I regretted it because I couldn’t be there for the whole time they were in Ahmedabad. I also have to point out that all the other interns were also very interesting to talk to; I especially enjoyed Juliana’s company although I didn’t get to know all of them as well as Mariah. I wish I had more time to spend which each one of them so I could understand their views and theories about my country amongst other things.

I cannot thank ITSA enough for bringing such a wonderful human being into my life, it was by far one of my best summers and all the credit goes to Mariah Widman, seriously!

~Ashni Tripathi
National Institute of Fashion Technology
Ahmedabad & Hyderabad

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Letter from host sibling, Deeksha...

Edited by: Ashni Tripathi, National Institute of Fashion Technology

Here is a letter one of the host siblings, Deeksha Joshi, wrote to ITSA India about her experience hosting after her interns Ana and Emma left for New York City upon the end of their stay in India:

"This summer was unlike any other for me. I had two brilliant individuals who traveled all the way from New York City to experience India and stay with me. I wasn’t just a host and they weren’t just the interns; we were friends. We did everything a group of friends would do, from going to the movies to gossiping - it was touching. Their love for Indian food and the late night talks we had made me truly happy. I could never say that I was bored with Emma and Ana around.

Being from different cultures altogether, what I enjoyed more than anything was talking about each other’s lives. They observed how I spent my day and we conversed about anything possible to talk about ranging from their lives, their likes, the places around, and how lives function in India.

Ana: what should I say about her? She dances spectacularly well and she loved my mom’s homemade chutney. I really didn’t feel uncomfortable for even a minute around her and I was really able to open up.

Emma: she’s beautiful, confident and sensitive. I found her New York “Big City” stories the most interesting out of all. Coming from such a different background I still found her so much like myself, especially since she loved spicy food! 

The experience was spectacular. Now that I have met Emma and Ana, it’s truly hard to picture this summer without them. Not only did I bond with them, but it seems like I know their families too, even though the only way I know them is through online means. To sum up the experience, only one word comes to mind: Mast (the Hindi word for fun and truly spectacular). 

I am already excited for next summer and all the adventures it will bring with a new set of international interns!"

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Cows, Jews, and Tikkun Olam - Emma

Hey all.  I'm a bit nervous about posting this, and I apologize in advance for the superfluity of parenthetical statements. (tl;dr crowd: don't even bother.) 

I am Jewish.  This in and of itself isn’t particularly surprising.  A Jew in New York? Not such a novelty.   Judaism and I have undeniably had our issues.  We grapple several times a week, woman vs. religion,  (“Call me Yisrael*,” my epic would begin) and I have disavowed it more than once in a fit of general distaste.  However, never before have I felt so keenly connected to my own Jewishness than here, in Ahmedabad India, of all places.
*Yisrael, a Hebrew word meaning 'He who wrestles with god,' was the name given to Jacob, one of the fore-fathers of the Israelites/Jews, after he literally wrestled with God.
There are a few approachable reasons for this discrepancy, the least of which is the sudden deficit of an abundance of Jews in my immediate vicinity.
First: yesterday, ITSA went to a beautiful Swaminarayan Temple which, for those of you that don’t know, is a temple devoted to the celebration of Lord Swaminarayan, a religious figure from the 18th century who has been deified for his teachings in a sect of Hinduism.  In this massive and paradoxically opulent temple (I say paradoxical because Swaminarayan was an ascetic who allegedly both survived for eight years with only a gourd, a loincloth, a rosary, and a book of scripture and managed to climb a Himalayan mount without shoes) was a herculean idol, a huge and golden Swaminarayan.  


Perhaps it was my recent and prolonged proximity to holy cows (with whom Jews have had tense relations since that one incident at Sinai), or perhaps it was instinct, but my personal primordial Jew was awakened at this sight.  I suddenly felt an abrupt (if ultimately superficial) connection with Moses on the mount.  Where were my stone tablets of divine dictation?  Unlike Moses, the idol itself wasn't what pissed me off.  It was the deification of a man and the sight of people prostrating themselves before him. (But what of Buddhism? my inner judge cries.  To this I say the following; though Buddhism does venerate Gautama the Buddha, there is never any confusion as to his status as a mortal.) 
(Forgive me if I have offended you by commenting so harshly on Swaminarayan.  I don't know enough about it to cast judgement, truly.  What is written here is merely my reaction to the idol.)

Second: (there is a long preamble to this one) there are many monikers for the Jewish people, most of which are somewhat less than flattering. The one which I consider most pervasive is neither insulting nor complimentary: ‘the Chosen People.’  Though it smacks of a certain egotism, a certain quality of selective righteousness, I do not think it means ‘the people who have been chosen to go to heaven and live under God’s favor.’  Jews don’t have a heaven or a hell and they most certainly haven’t lived under the favor of a benevolent being.  
Personally, I think it is an epithet of burden and responsibility rather than of divine aristocracy.  

There is a Jewish concept, tikkun olam, which literally means “repairing the world.”  The idea is that the world is somehow broken or incomplete, but not irreparably so. An imperfect God (or an imperfect whatever divine absolute you choose to believe ) 'selected' the people who would become the Jews and gave them the responsibility of finding the remaining shards and placing them to right. It is a profoundly beautiful concept, one which simultaneously traps and frees. 

An aspect of tikkun olam is tzedakah, a word which means 'justice' and denotes a meting out of human justice, a concept similar to charity.  The idea is that one ragged shard that God callously left behind is poverty, and it is strongly suggested that we devote ten percent of our yearly income to tzedakah.  Essentially, if a person asks for money or help Jews are obligated not to turn away from them and to give whatever we can.  This has never been particularly important to me before, but confronted with the abject poverty and persistent begging common in India, I have found the fiat more and more pertinent and present in my mind.  I cannot guarantee that it will remain so back in the US, but it has been getting exceedingly difficult to turn beggar children away.

An old joke goes like this; one prostitute asked another if she could borrow the second's bed for the night.  When the second asked why, the first replied "I have a Jewish customer tonight.  Your bed is bigger than mine, and I need room for the Jew and for his guilt!"  Jokes aside, I am beginning I think to feel this guilt, this Jewish inclination towards tikkun olam and all its implications. Whether or not I want to be rid of it is something I have yet to decide, yet to fully comprehend. 

Eh. In the meantime, l'chaim! To life.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Who Should We Save?

Hey everyone (tl;dr people, go to the end).

    Three years ago or so, my group in sleep away camp had us all play a game.  It involved an impending and total nuclear holocaust and the ability to save only five people.  Each village member was gifted a single sentence descriptor of a person - mine was 'seventeen year old heroin addict' - and was told to choose which five (out of forty) were worth saving.

     A single description isn't a lot to go on, especially when you are acting as the arbiter of life and death.  There are things you must consider! For example; do you save the children, who might be dead weight, or the adult who, although useful, might not ensure the continuation of the human race and for that matter, is the perpetuation of the human race necessarily the ultimate goal at all?
     It is terrible and fascinating work to do, and in the previous workshop, we had the kids attempt to do the same.

Something funny was said

     Once they were divided into three groups, they were informed that the city was flooded, but there was a boat that could hold ten people, though fifteen were available to save: a smoker, a Muslim mother, a 150 Kg man, a rich bachelor, a beggar woman, a Sikh soldier, a female celebrity, a ten year old maid, an alcoholic, a Hindu man, a blind man, a man with AIDS, an engineer, an artist, and a mason.

     At first, the group I was in made snap judgements without a second thought. As an onlooker, I found it truly difficult not to react to some of their rationalizations with excessively acrobatic eyebrow gestures ("We shouldn't save the Hindu man!" they all agreed,  "he has nothing special to offer.")  When the decisions got too superficial for me to bear, I began asking questions.  Needless to say, my group got aggravated very quickly - first with me ("You're making things so confusing!"), then with each other ("You're only saving the Sikh soldier because your father is Sikh!"). 

    Then, they started to fight for the admission of certain individuals against others, giving critical reasons and backing them up.  It was sort of exhilarating, though when I laughed to myself the kids gave me looks of utmost incredulity.  Their views on certain people are unshakeable and solid, but as they fought I saw them pausing, sitting back, and blinking a bit at what they found themselves saying.

 Some of the kids explaining why their choices made it onto the boats (and lived)

    When it came to a group discussion though, the judgements came back a little and got more provocative.  Juliana, another intern, brought up the idea that instead of claiming that we are noble judges, suited ideally for choosing who might live and who might die, we ought to choose randomly.  No one person is ultimately more deserving of life than another. This went over their heads entirely.

     It is, of course, a long process.  You can't expect people who have been taught under an indoctrinatory education system their whole lives to rip free of inertia and bloom immediately into critical thinkers after only a few exercises.   Unrealistic, to be sure, but still, they are blooming at a remarkable speed. They have been so incredibly inhibited, mummified by the system, and it's such a pleasure to see them rip the system to shreds with a vicious pleasure in the workshops. I'm a bit giddy with excitement watching it happen, actually.

(tl;dr - we played a provocative game about choosing who gets to live in the workshop and the kids were judgmental but quickly more critical and then it was exciting)

~Emma, Intern 2011
Bard High School Early College

"We must keep the 150 kg, he is most certainly a wrestler!"

Hello bloggers!
So far, I have just posted blogs about the sightseeing that the ITSA interns have done in
Ahmedabad, but, as Emma already said, our reason for being here is not merely to explore the country, but to explore and gain a deeper understanding of the Indian education system. Before actually arriving here and participating in the workshops, Riana Shah & Jwalin Patel (the 19 year old co-founders and co-director of ITSA) had described the Indian educational system as extremely strict and rigid. The reason for this, she explained (I am going to give some brief history now, so stay with me), was that the Indian education system was set up under British Rule during the industrial revolution, and as a result was aimed at creating technicians, not independent thinkers. Consequently, the Indian education system involves a lot of rote memorization and teaching directly from textbooks, as opposed to discussion based, seminar style classes. However, not until I actually got a chance to participate in the workshops and talk with the students did this become evident. 

Above is Rajvi (right) and Paranshi (left), laughing while playing The Boat Game. They were, no doubt, laughing about the fact that another participant, Nishant, had just said, "we must keep the 150 kg man. He's most certainly a wrestler."

On the first day, every student was asked to describe themselves in one word (the workshop's theme was identity), and most of the kids described themselves as "obedient" or "tactful", or, most popularly, "disciplined", as opposed to what you might hear at Bard (to name a few: creative, independent, or a learner for the sake of learning). Afterwards, when we moved on to open-class discussion, most of the interns (myself included) felt that the students responded in a way that they thought we would approve of, instead of responding openly and self-critically. Riana & Jwalin explained this by saying that these kids had been hand-selected by their teachers to participate in the ITSA workshops, which means they already knew how to effectively promote themselves and give their teachers exactly what was expected of them. 

In yesterday's workshop, which was the fourth, we did a very provocative exercise called "The boat game." In the boat game, you have 15 people who are described in only a couple of words, like a sikh man in the army, a beggar woman, a muslim mother, a 10 year old maid, etc. The world is undergoing some sort of epidemic, like a flood, and only 10 out of the 15 can fit on the boat, based solely on their few word descriptions. What this exercise aimed at doing was to explicate the point that you cannot define, or stereotype, a person based on only thing. The man who was described as 150kg, might be a genius, for example, or the smoker--an engineer. However, interestingly we found that the students had many pre-concieved notions, no doubt propagated by their society, their parents, and their educational system. For example, all of the groups eliminated the beggar woman without much hesitation pretty early on, and seemed to have no concept that certain social structures might change once only 10 people were left on Earth. 

What this exercise, and the workshops as a whole, made clear to me is just how stifled these kids are when it comes to independent thought, and when it comes to doubting the structure of the world around them. In light of this, ITSA is like a breath of fresh air. In a set of interviews which we conducted yesterday (led by intern Mariah Widman), one of the participants, Paranshi, said, "every week I can't wait for Friday's and Sunday's to come, so I can go to the ITSA workshops! It's what I look forward to during the school week." And considering that sunday is the only day these kids have off, that's saying a lot.

~ Ana, Intern 2011
Bard High School Early College

Ken Robinson: Changing education paradigms | Video on - Ana

Here is a great video relating to the type of educational system that India has. A bit long, but completely worth it! Enjoy.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Picture Post

Every now and then, we are going to post a picture sans a blog post. This is the first of these.
A boy and his motorcycle - Emma

The Monsoons - Emma

Hey all. I’m going to wax briefly poetic in this entry and I beg forgiveness in advance.
The monsoons started a few days ago, and I don’t have any relevant pictures.  None of the ones I took were good enough.  The rains had been teetering on the edge of release for my entire stay in Ahmedabad thus far, but hadn’t come.  The odd dryness lent, I realize in retrospect, an aura of anxiety and tightened lips to the entire city.  Without the rains, the year cannot progress.  Without the rains, the city could not move forward. It is thus with excitement and joy that they were met when they finally began. 
The rain wasn’t the torrential buckets of water I was told to expect but it flooded the streets in minutes anyway, forcing walkers to wade through impromptu lakes and turning cars into ad hoc boats.  The clouds rolled overhead in great cataracts of grey.  It was awesome in the biblical sense. 
this is the best picture I got.  It is still inadequate

       The thing, however, that had the greatest impact on me was the juxtaposition of the water against the the city.  Ahmedabad has sprung into a truly urban environment only in the past thirty years or so.  A city of advertisements, concrete, and cars, it is modern and intensely so - even if it appears to Western eyes to be a bit delayed in that modernity. Seeing the rain (this primeval torrent of water, this persistent pattern which provided the constrictions by which India, both modern and ancient, was formed) stream into the city was a sort of stark reminder that even in the midst of the 21st century, the rains are the rains are the rains are the rains (as Gertrude Stein might posit).  The rains are the past and the present and the gateway to the future.

In the meantime, however, they are the harbinger of bugs.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Max: Gandhi Ashram

Hey all;
Before visiting Gandhi’s Ashram, I had a sense of who Gandhi was and what he stood for, but I didn’t really understand how large a role he had in the public conscience. Martin Luther King Jr., who was inspired by Gandhi, left a similar legacy to us, but not nearly to the extent Gandhi has for India. His Ashram was an incredibly peaceful place. An ashram is spiritual community, and we had gone to the one Gandhi had lived in for thirteen years. Before entering Gandhi’s house, the ITSA team sat outside while a woman showed us how to spin thread. It was a calming activity, and the Ashram itself was quiet, something you begin to value more when cars begin honking at five a.m.
It's not only Gandhi’s political achievements that I find so remarkable. If Gandhi had lived the way he did and spent his entire life in a small village, he would be no less extraordinary. I’ve seen a quote of his, “My life is my message,” in multiple places around Ahmedabad, which, to me, sums up what I'm trying to say. He was able to live a meaningful life, and his achievements flowed out of that. So often the outside world appears to be incompatible with whatever peace I can find internally. How can someone be truly virtuous and at the same time stand to live in a world with so much suffering? For instance, state-sponsored torture is something that seems so empty of meaning that any religious experiences I’ve had in my life seem hollow. Gandhi’s Ashram was a very comforting place for me because it was the home of a man who was able to apply his ideals to hsi life so thoroughly.
A room in Gandhi's house with a spinning wheel and chair.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Old City - Emma

Hi, everyone.  A brief disclaimer - please click the links for more pics or go to my flickr account here or here.  It's worth it, I promise.

There is an assumption (at least among cynical New Yorkers) that when you travel, you never really see the full width and breadth of the place you are visiting.  To a certain extent, this is true.  Tourists tend to stay near tourist attractions, if only because they are safe and often the only place they know to go. But - and this is a large interjection - the full scope is there. All that's required is searching a little further than we ordinarily would.  
Here. This is what you search further to. 
(this picture doesn't even begin to capture the insanity, the color, and the beauty of the old city)

Today, we went on a historical walk in a part of Ahmedabad called the Old City, which is saturated with a combination of reminiscent atmosphere that seems almost fictive and the stampede of modernity.  It is all winding, narrow streets, stone houses, an eclectic mix of architecture (imagine an ambivalent artist, switching from European styles to Indian to Middle Eastern and back again, irrespective of time period), motorcycles and motorized rickshaws and people thrust together by the limitations of space.  

The walk began at the Swaminarayan Temple, snakes through the domestic pols (neighborhoods) of the city and ended at the spectacular and entirely unique Jama Masjid Mosque.  This is one of those times when pictures speak louder than words, so let me yell.
You can't tell from this distance, but the woman in the window is beaming. 

Throughout our stay in Ahmedabad, we have received stares.  This in and of itself is unsurprising; we look different and some of us (myself included) have hair color that simply doesn't occur naturally in India. However, we don't usually get smiles and frequent petitions for photographs.  The people here are friendly, incredibly interesting to look at, willing to be photographed,  though they are poor (I'm not sure why this is a concessive clause, but I cannot deny that it is.)   

 This woman asked me to take pictures of this child and of her.  It is a way, I think, of raising awareness.

They live. They yell and gesture and love and cook and clean and honk and almost run us over with rickshaws and sometimes, they just stare.

Like this gentleman.

I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it was to smile at people (I couldn’t stop) and to receive wide and often surprised grins back.  I cannot fully communicate the feeling one gets when walking through narrow streets, knowing that you are there.  I can’t explain why going into a mosque can translate you from one universe to another, one where the heat rising from the white stone of the courtyard is - as another intern said - raw and the odd contrast of white on white is somehow more profound. I don't know how to explicate the excitement that comes with the chaos of narrow streets and the smells of different cultures. How can anyone perfectly put into words the snuffling curio of claustrophobia and the sheer, clean relief of the open sky? It is something a person simply has to experience for themselves. 

Mariah: Initial Observations

      Anyone who has read E.M. Forester's A Passage to India will be familiar with Adela Quested's continual desire to "see the real India."
     Throughout my time here I have been attempting to understand why, exactly, the "real India" is so elusive.  No one could show the impatient miss Quested the truth she was searching for, so in her stead I am investigating her failure (never mind that she's a fictional character).
     Ahmedabad is, by India's standards, a pretty calm city.  The traffic is crazy, but there's no alcohol allowed here, so credit goes completely to the citizens.  Every visible piece of asphalt is an opportunity; people, cows, dogs, two-wheelers, and rickshaws weave in and out of traffic as though they are on a loom, although any fabric they produced would be very tangled indeed (perhaps that's why the textile industry is migrating south).
     Women ride motorcycles, wearing scarves and sunglasses to cover their skin; whole families can be seen on the back, shoulders cradling sleeping children.  Women in bright orange saris sit in the back of trucks that read "horn ok please."
At some point someone must have realized, but probably didn't have the heart to mention anything, considering that it's written on the back of almost every large vehicle here
     People's faces are weathered, brows furrowed.  They don't look except to stare, some excitedly, others suspiciously.  At times they exude a sense of fatigue.  When beggars ask for money people look away, an expression of forced apathy on their faces.  It is too much to see the child in the arms of these women, to feel a sense of empathy, because that is where the real expenditure lies, not in the pitiful sum of ten rupees that they ask for.  To care for one would mean having to care for all, and so people squint uncomfortably and fix their gazes anywhere else.
     Why couldn't Adela discover the key to India?  Because no one possesses it.  No one is India – or its gatekeeper for that matter. The narrative of every citizen is so different that there is no way to understand the conglomerate force of energy that drives everything here.
Almost getting run over by a cow in the old city seems tame compared to the stampede that ensues every time a bus stops
     The starkest contrast that I have seen here so far is that of poverty and wealth, and not just in the monetary sense.  There is an abundance of life everywhere you look, but at the same time a paucity of it.
Not a second is wasted.  Every breath of fresh air, every sidewalk, every storefront is used constantly. Ahmedabad is completely saturated.
     India bore this city, spending itself continuously in the form of mangoes and monsoons.  But its populace is spreading far faster than can be contained.  People and animals blossom, yawning into the dust.  With pluck and tenacity they work to coax bungalows out of the trash and shrubs, to carve patches of grass from this exhausted land.
     Those who succeed are able to recline in the absence of chaos; they have tamed (lizards aside) the small plots on which they live.  Those who do not must continue on in the heat.  Like their predecessors they tumble forth, swept away by the inertia of Ahmedabad.

Historic Tour of Old City-Ana

Hello Bloggers!

So, today, on our seventh day in India, we went on a historic walk in the old part of the city. Similar to when one walks into China Town in NYC, the density of the people immediately quadrupled. Crossing the street involved ducking and running for your life, and walking in a straight line involved turning  sideways, and moving ones legs in a manner resembling the minister of silly walks (Monty Python). However, chaos aside, the old city was everything about India that one imagines. It started in a beautiful old temple where men and women were separated by a partition, and where the sounds of bells and Gujarati rose, and floated in the air above us. Then it led us through tiny streets from the 14th century with secret passageways that connected courtyards, and finally to a mosque (Gujarat is a muslim state), where we were met with stern stares, curiosity, and suspicion. Unsurprisingly, for a bunch of high school kids from the city, this experience was simply incredible, amazing, fantastic, superb, and any other adjective you could think of to describe something so unbelievable. So, without further ado, the picture of a (not too ecstatic to be photographed) Jain monk, exiting a smal temple...

The ice man (attacking his ice with admirable determination), who we saw in the narrow streets leading to the mosque...

And, finally, a beautiful woman (with a, might I say, incredibly subtle nose ring), in the temple at the beginning of our tour.
More to come, anxious bloggers (shout out to our 7 followers)! Love, Ana

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Workshops - Emma

Hey, all!  
So I never actually described the full purpose of my presence in India and my previous blog post may have indicated that I am here primarily to observe and tour.  This is an untruth. Here is a picture of some goat herding women that I took.
some goat herdesses 

No, but tourism aside - ITSA, the organization that brought me here, is a social action organization that is attempting to give Indian students the critical thinking skills they need to become fully functional global citizens.  Last Friday and the subsequent Sunday, the first two ITSA workshops took place.  They are themed on identity and aim to explore the minds of the participants as fully as possible. 
The above picture is from the second workshop and shows the kids explaining how the pictures they drew on their folders represent aspects of their identity. 

As an onlooker, this has been a fascinating two classes.  Back in the city, I attend Bard High School Early College, a school affiliated with Bard College and some of its programs.  One of these is the Writing and Thinking workshop, a weeklong workshop in the beginning of each academic year that forces students to think critically and carefully.  It can be a bother (by the end of the week in the past, I've had spurts of intense resentment for both writing and thinking) but it always forces you to grow and to think in ways that require personal involvement.  

These kids have never had that.  Searching for ways to describe and determine their identities and polestars is novel to them. Watching them push themselves so hard and enjoy pushing themselves that hard is absolutely wonderful.  In just two classes, it seems apparent to me that they have been hooked on the freedom of thought (yes, of thought) and expression that comes with the workshop.  In that line of thinking, one participant even crowed to her friend "it's like you have complete freedom of speech here!"
some of the participants writing short sentences on their identities.

I cannot wait to see these kids - not really kids, they are in eighth and ninth grade, so young adults, I guess, grow into their full mental potential.  It's exciting and fulfilling and damn but it's fun to see.

Thol Bird Sanctuary - Ana

On our first full day in India (INDIA!) we went to the Thol Bird Sanctuary just outside of Ahmedabad, to see the sun rise. After a chaotic ride through the streets, entering Thol was like a dream. The land was dry and cracked open, and deer-like animals rode off in the distance, and birds swooped overhead. Considering that at the same time the day before all of us were sleeping in airport chairs during our 9 hour layover in Mumbai, Thol was, of course, disorienting, but even more so, breathtaking.

On our way leaving Thol, we saw a man sitting by the lake with a walking stick. The man was staring at  a water buffalo in the middle of the lake (and as you can see, neither of the two were very happy to be photographed). One of our interns, Max Baird, got a little too close to the man when photographing, and was subsequently shouted at in Hindi…or maybe Gujarati. As we left Thol and re-entered the insanity that is driving on an Indian road, we were reminded of just how diverse India is, and we love it even more for it.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Coming to Ahmedabad - Emma

Hey there, reader. (tl;dr crowd - go to the last picture)
I’m not particularly fond of drawn out greetings or farewells, so forgive the abrupt start.  My name is Emma and what ensues here are the thoughts, pictures, and experiences of both myself and of my fellow interns at International Thought and Social Action in India (ITSA).
We arrived in Ahmedabad, a city in the state of Gujarat, India, on the 30th of June, about thirty hours after departing from New York.  There were three planes, two layovers, and one day lost entirely to the vortex of time zones.  It was a long trip, but then we were there.  There is something about arriving in new places that makes you sniff the air (desperate, perhaps, for a bit of air not recycled within an airplane).  Every place smells distinctly different, and the oxygen in India seems sweeter than America.  The air is thicker and smells of cream (on the brink of going sour) mixed with some spice. Cinnamon, maybe, or cumin; I’m not really sure.

The smell is the least of it.  Driving through the city was startling; odd and wonderful.  There are stray dogs everywhere and the free roaming cows act as garbage collectors of sorts. The great horned bovines are to left their own devices to eat the trash on every street corner and they are a source of perfect wonderment.  Though I’m more or less used to their presence, they are still endlessly delighting.  

Most shocking, perhaps, is the disparity in class.  Of course I’d been warned.  Of course I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire.  But hearing and seeing on a movie screen are entirely different from encountering reality.  Ahmedabad is dilapidated and sometimes very, very beautiful, but it is not, as I expected, segregated.  On our first night in Ahmedabad, Ana and I looked out the window of our lovely air conditioned room (which really belongs to our marvelous host sister, Deeksha Joshi), expecting a view of the city, and were met with a slum.   But hush, we breach that topic with care.

There are beggars on the streets, but for the most part, they are ignored.  They touch their mouths with their hands, asking for food in a way that seems almost passive, almost defeated, but they nod as they do it. I ignore them too, I guess. I’ve been told not to give out money, unless I want to be swarmed by the hopeful impoverished. 

But there is color! Ahmedabad makes New York look like a city in grayscale.  Women in saris ride motorcycles and their scarves flutter (forgive the cliche word) behind them. Cars are red, signs are impossibly bright, vendors peddle deep orange-green-yellow fruit, and from the thousands of balconies, rainbow laundry hangs starkly against a grey sky tip-toeing monsoons.

It is beautiful.  It is bizarre.  But what strikes me most is that I’ve barely seen any of it.