During our time in India thus far, we have been fortunate enough to spend time in the homes of Amy and Brian’s dear friends. While we were in Chennai Sundari, Amy’s cook from her sabbatical in Chennai last year, invited us into her home for dosas (Indian crepes made with rice-lentil flour) with the best sambar (lentil-based soup with lots of spices) and chutneys we’d tasted. All twenty-two of us sat together on the floor of the single room of Sundari’s house as we heard stories about Sundari’s marriage to her late husband, the worries she has as she supports herself and her children on her own, and her recent conversion to Christianity. We met her family, who all pitched in cooking and serving food, and cuddled her sweet baby niece. Outside her house in the narrow dirt lanes, children played and dogs ran freely, and neighbors poked their heads out of their houses to wave hello.
On a subsequent day we visited Nataraj and Sunil’s houses, both of whom Amy met during her first stay in India as a college student. Nataraj served us drinks and fresh fruit as we chatted with his daughters, one of whom is in her final year of college as many of us are. Afterwards we moved to Sunil’s house for arguably the best food in India; his family had woken up at three-thirty that morning to chop vegetables for various dishes, such as grilled cauliflower, potatoes and chickpeas, green beans, and a vegetable coconut dish characteristic of Kerala, where Sunil’s family is from.
After eating all that we possibly could and then some, we took some time to explore the neighborhood. We climbed up to Sunil’s rooftop to look out over the neighborhood of small, brightly painted houses. As we walked through the neighborhood, people smiled and said hello, and some friendly neighbors invited students into their houses for tea.
Many of the spaces we have been invited into are far more modest than our own houses back home, where we are used to having the luxury of our own space, the comfort of all of our furniture, and the convenience of appliances and our various technologies. When we encounter people who have much less than us, we often feel pity and the urge to somehow help them rather than allowing them to get to know us on their own terms. These feelings are completely valid and often very important, but I think they sometimes overlook other people’s capabilities and unique identities.
The beauty of a course that is designed for us to learn about various lived identities in modern India is that we meet others as people rather than as causes or charities. One student reflected that these interactions have helped her gain different perspective on what living with less looks like. Another student expressed her immense gratitude towards the family who woke up early to prepare food for us, and the people who have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome in their homes and in their country. As a class we are considering these perspectives as we are also discussing ways in which we might be able to put together a fund to offer assistance to those who are struggling, in response to the people we’ve met and things we’ve seen so far in India.
We are so incredibly fortunate to have experienced the hospitality of these families, and to have learned about their lives through their own stories. Studying abroad is certainly about seeing sites and observing cultures, but perhaps more importantly it is about building relationships and creating friendships that broaden our perspectives and expand our knowledge about this colorful corner of the world.