"It's a jumble." That was how one of our students described India after our first day.
We had arrived at our hotel in an enclave of New Delhi at 2:00 a.m. the night before, after 19 hours of travel--15 students, some of whom have never been outside the Midwestern U.S., and two anxious professors who have never led a group overseas before. We were all jet-lagged, excited, exhausted, and eager, and none of us knew how this class was going to work. But we loaded into a bus after breakfast (and after the best orientation we professors could throw together) and headed out to explore the city. Afterward, we talked.
"There are a thousand contradictions."
"I couldn't believe the poverty. But also the beauty."
"Some of it's so modern. And some feels like it's a thousand years old."
It struck me that they were trying to make sense of the same things that confounded me on my first arrival in India years ago--the same things that astonish me to this day.
The grinding poverty and filth. The stunning beauty. The graciousness and hospitality of the people. The massive social and economic problems. The historical continuity that stretches back not merely centuries, but millenia. (They say the axle width of carts used in rural India today fit wheel ruts unearthed from sites 8,000 years old). The layers and layers of history--Hindu kingdoms giving way to the great Islamic empire of the Moghuls, which would then fall to the British Raj. And then there is modern India, hugely proud of being the largest democracy of the world, a country muscling its way to become a major economic and political player on the world stage, even as it staggers under the crushing weight of a hungry and burgeoning population.
My students had dozens of observations
The brand new Mercedes parked near a row of shanties.
The insane snarl of honking, traffic inching through packed streets.
The ornate Hindu temple nestled between a bank and a coffee shop
The monkeys playing on top a bus as passengers boarded.
The kindness and helpfulness of virtually everyone we met.
The news, full of stories of violence--against women, Muslims, so-called "untouchables."
"How can we make sense of this?" one of my students asked. "How can we even begin to put it all together?"
My answer: We can't. We can observe it, be in it, open up to it. But understand it? After decades of traveling to, studying about, and living in India, I can't say I've even come close to understanding it. Indians don't even understand India. India isn't a place you understand. India is a place you experience.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...