Melissa Henry: Pune, India Spring 2011
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Alliance for Global Education
Contemporary India: Development, Environment, & Public Health
Pune, India, Spring 2011
After thirty-six hours of travel through five cities, over three continents and one ocean, I returned to the United States on a rainy and cold afternoon. Just from the smell of the air as we landed in Newark, I knew that India was far behind. The acidic, spicy and dry air that I had grown to love was replaced by the damp, fresh sent of May in the Northeast. Instead of red dust, blue cloudless skies, and hundreds of people, I was met with grey cement, white skies, and a few orderly people. I pulled on a heavy wool sweater to combat the freezing in the sixty-degree weather, and tried to process the fact that I was no longer in India.
Even today, months after my return, memories of India are imprinted in my mind. It is difficult to describe my experience in words; I do not speak Marathi or Hindi, so language was often pushed aside for other types of sensory experiences. I remember walking the streets of Pune, India, met by a gang of school children who yell “Aunty!” in my direction; a toothless vegetable seller pushing an overflowing cart; old, stooped men gambling at the corner; stray dogs scratching in the trash; a woman in a turquoise sari gossiping with a woman in a burqa. The smell of turmeric, chili powder, and cardamom filled my nose as the horns of passing cars and rickshaws blared loudly in the background. I remember cold the morning in the Himalayas when I climbed my first mountain and looked out at hundreds of snow-covered peaks that surrounded me. Now at home in the U.S., I crave Indian food, my eyes miss the extraordinary colors of cloth and my ears strain to hear Marathi. I actively try not to begin every sentence with “when I was in India.”
I spent the last ten days traveling after my program was done, seven of which were spent hiking in the Himalayas. The Himalayas were everything that my everyday life in India was not: cool and quiet, full of time for reflection, card games, and story swapping. We left our outdoor adventure with heavy hearts, knowing the last three days would be spent in Delhi; a notoriously tough city for white women and monstrously hot before monsoons. We arrived in the morning and already it was 110 degrees outside. By the end of the first day of sight-seeing my legs were swelled to twice their normal size, I had heat rash all over my body, and we had been overcharged two-hundred rupees to see the largest mosque in the world. As we sat to eat a meal even I, who always tried to keep a positive attitude, felt tired and downtrodden. The restaurant was crowded, and a huge family sat at the table next to ours. What started as a normal dinner, however ended with all three tables pushed together and people talking about our respective lives, and ordering sweet lassies and mango ice cream for dessert. One of the children, Priaynka, was sitting on my lap and the family gave us the address of the summer home in Mumbai with the genuine request for us to visit them. We left the restaurant laughing and happy, excited about our last few days in the city. Despite still being tired and hot, this was India: where strangers become friends over dinner, where mothers hand you their children to hold, and where hospitality extends to inviting new friends home. While I may not love Delhi, my last three days in India reminded me that I love India, despite the heat and frustration.
India is a place of sensory overload, vibrancy, and contradiction. Here I was continually bombarded with colors, smells, tastes, and sounds that simply do not exist in the United States. India is a place of adventure, from crossing the road to seeing thousand year-old temples. I was continually met with new experiences. At times this intensity overwhelmed me; I wanted the clean, ordered streets of my hometown, where cars follow road signs and the sidewalks are clear of hawkers. At the same time, India showed me that life, beauty, even organization can exist in a seemingly chaotic atmosphere. India can be frustrating, heartbreaking, confusing, but I have also seen passionate beauty, kindness, color, and life. In four months, I learned and changed more that I thought possible. There is no turning back; although I sit in Ohio, India is now a part of me and I am a part of India.
Photos taken by Melissa Henry.