“Incredible India”. The slogan of a nation. But why is that descriptor globally accepted as means to define such a diverse society of people? In the month leading up to my BUILD Abroad experience, I travelled across four different states of India, in constant awe of the changing landscape, culture and people.
Being the child of new immigrant parents in Australia, I always struggled to correlate my identity with the view of my birth country, and my place in the world. I am Fiji-Indian, neither Fijian or Indian -nor Australian in a whole- but rather crescents of each fitted to make a circle. Without getting too philosophical, I was disorientated about who I am, and what that meant for who I want to be.
In some ways I saw my first ever trip to India as a salvation, an opportunity to discover some underlying truth left by my ancestors. Yet what I was met with was so many different Indian people identifying within their states, alongside their heritage.
It slowly dawned on me that the question I’ve been trying to answer was inside me all along. The revelation that I could create my own private, personal traditions was alleviating. That the dhal bhat in me could coexist alongside the sausage sizzle (a weird analogy, I know).
This understanding can be encapsulated no better than during my time in a rural Maharastran village, a place surrounded by mountains that held stories of roaming tigers and leopards, Sonoshi.
Sonoshi is a tribal village with some of the most extraordinary people I will ever meet. I can’t think of how to describe them but strong. Intrinsically and extrinsically, true strength was shown within every single family in countless forms.
A grandmother carrying a pail of water even as her walking stick falters, a mother carrying her child up and down a mountain, a father working from dusk to dawn farming, a teenager travelling for two hours by foot just to get to school or a child learning schoolwork in Marathi and English.
In every aspect of their corner of the world I was met with an inspiring resilience that I never could have expected.
My preconceptions about what a rural village would be like was absolutely blown away by the women of Sonoshi. With agriculture being the predominant profession for livelihood, the women raised entire families whilst working hard in the farming months, conducting their own businesses or even studying for a higher education.
Their roles as mother, wife, sister and daughter impacted me greatly, and I was touched by the close relationships found between neighbours. I observed a keen sense of inherent womanhood at the forefront of their identity, showing itself through constant laughter and love, flowing through these women to each other.
The people of Sonoshi have a firm belief in their tribal customs and culture, with a connection to the land that has religious ties. Exploring their tribal Hinduism was intensely interesting, and we were lucky enough to be in the village for the festival, Makar Sankranti, which with colours, sweets and many nights of singing, gave us a glimpse into their wonderful sense of community.
It was fulfilling to be amongst people who held their religion and culture so dear to them, and their openness to sharing their stories and knowledge with hospitality has genuinely taught me to be a better person.
I will always consider my time in Sonoshi to be a privilege, and I still don’t feel quite right about leaving it behind. I was exposed to such a different way of life, and was taught how to be empathetic and open to each new experience and connection with the Drishtee Immersion program.
As part of an ongoing initiative, I worked on an education program around water safety, that touched close to home for me. I remember a poignant moment where I was delivering the presentation that we had been culminating over the prior days, to a family and their children. These were the kids that had come to our home every day and made origami with me. Had put up with my broken Hindi and even worse Marathi to ask me questions and get to know me. We had played musical chairs, helped them with homework and braided each other’s hair.
So seeing them in front of me at that moment, showing them the diseases existing within the water that they were drinking everyday, and being able to provide a real, safe alternative was monumental.
The Drishtee Immersion covered so much ground with the three week program, I simply cannot do it any form of justice. The team makes real efforts to understand perspectives and use that create improvements for the quality of life of thousands of people. Being a part of that has truly enhanced my worldview for good, and I will be forever grateful for it.
So thank you to the Drishtee Immersion, and the people of Sonoshi, you are all who make India incredible.
By Jenivy Sewak