April 8 and 9 – Delhi

Two busy, exhausting, exhilarating days. I want to thoughtfully frame our experiences and yet, exhaustion reigns.

Sunday, April 8: Sunday began with an inspiring morning share out by Roshni graduates, their parents, and teachers. We were honored guests at their event along with the Nesamoney family. It was a great honor to present Saima with a “key” necklace that symbolized the doors she’s opened to a brighter for so many young women. The girls wow’d us. They were articulate, poised, and clearly devoted to Roshni. They and their parents could not thank them enough for presenting them with such “bright” futures. I was most impressed that Roshni is not about “Saima.” Too often these organizations are grounded in the identity and charisma of their leader, but Saima has truly built a team that represents a program, and the students, while very grateful in name to all their teachers and Saima, talk about Roshni as their “light.” This is important, because I believe it speaks to the ability of Roshni to scale and grow and be supported by the partnerships Saima is creating with various organizations and the government. After the performance there was a buffet of Indian appetizers and an hour-long meet-and-greet. The families clearly relished the generous food and the opportunity to celebrate in such a comfortable space. They could not get enough of all the American children, pinching their cheeks and taking pictures on their cameras. A private luncheon with a few select graduates and teachers after the meet-and-greet gave us all a chance to have a meaningful conversation about how best to proceed with the Castilleja/Roshni partnership. We heard from the girls about what they’d like to experience and share with Castilleja visitors. We talked a little about how and what teachers can learn from one another, too. Saima and I had a couple of hours alone in the afternoon to chat further about next steps, and then Talia, Ariana, Sarah, and I went off to try to shop a little and enjoy dinner. The evening was a bit of an escapade – a lot of driving, forays into several “India Trade Centers” where we avoided buying pashmina after pashmina, and a tasty dinner at Pinda (right next to “Chicken Inn” – where Ariana refused to eat due to the perceived ridiculousness of the name).

Monday, April 9: Today we truly experienced the juxtaposition that is India. It is also worth noting that it was my birthday, because that informed a few of the fun moments that occurred along the way. It began with the girls writing me little notes. One made its way onto my plate for breakfast. The waitress saw it and next thing I knew there was a lovely little cake with a GIANT firecracker candle on it in front of me. Saima arrived with a birthday balloon and said she knew it was my birthday because the hotel had told her after having noticed my date of birth on my passport. (Now, that’s service!) We spent the morning in Kalkaji at a gov’t school. There, we were met by a Roshni class learning public speaking. They showed their “stuff” with a beautiful rendition of Happy Birthday to me. They were working in pairs sharing out their own personal strengths and practicing their English as they spoke these strengths out to the group. In the next classroom they were learning interviewing skills/etiquette. They performed skits to share out these skills. An interesting Q&A allowed us to break down some stereotypes we had of one another. My favorite Q? “Is it true that all Americans never cook and always eat in restaurants?” Word had spread that Talia and Ariana had sung at the reception the day before, so they were asked to sing again! They were embarrassed, but they did it. I realize that while I brought them along because I could not imagine traveling without them; they are a very integral part of all of the relationships I am forming with people.

The principal at the school, Gita, was extraordinary. She was Saima’s first advocate in Delhi and allowed her to pilot Roshni “clandestinely”(her word) in 2008. She’s a visionary woman who clearly took a risk on the project; her risk paid off. It was a pleasure and honor to meet her and hear from her.

We then went on to another school that is partially funded by AIF and has better facilities than some of the others we’d seen thus far. There, Sarah tried her hand at teaching and explained how best to use the internet effectively. Usha Nesamoney shared the movies she’d taken of Casti and Menlo kids sending messages to Roshni students; the girls found that compelling and were clearly enchanted at the idea that these messages had been made just for them. Usha recorded some messages back to the students in the U.S.

Lunch took us to the new and very exclusive mall nearby. After leaving the school we drove by a slum built out in the center of a major intersection. This giant slab of concrete intended to serve as the nexus of three thoroughfares had become home to at least a few dozen people. The mall felt like Rodeo Drive on steroids. Ensconced in marble, populated with boutiques of seemed like every major designer in the world, highly regulated (security at every door), and air conditioned – it allowed us to leave the nearby slum far behind. Our delicious lunch at “Zest” would have been memorable in and of itself, but the bathroom is one we’ll never forget. Each individual powder room had its own attendant to wipe things down and keep them clean. There was not much to do beyond opening and closing the door, however, as the totally automated toilet seemed self-sufficient from the warm toilet seat to all the other bells and whistles the buttons on the wall next to it connoted. A gorgeous chocolate birthday cake was delivered courtesy of the Nesamoneys. (No. 2 for the day.)

Our home visits after lunch sent us hurtling back to the lack of access and poverty that is so prevalent everywhere. While the Nesamoneys visited one young girl, we visited another, Dhanushpriya. Our visit took us on a 10-minute drive past the school we’d been at in the morning and into the alleyways and tiny spaces that Roshni’s students call home. Dhanushpriya’s home is tucked away in the back of a tenement-type building’s garage. It was not meant to be a home, so the concrete walls offer no window to the outside. The ceiling is low, the space is cramped, and the ventilation is non-existent. To say that home barely held the 6 of us during our hour-long visit would not be an exaggeration. And while magazines like National Geographic and the portrayals in the mass media have given the world a sense of what it might be like to live as the urban poor in cities like Delhi, there is still a profound sense of injustice and helplessness that feels new and disempowering when one is suddenly offered the requisite cup of coke, plate of chips, and privileged seat on the family’s one bed. I think all of us were doing the rupee to dollar conversions and monthly wages to the price of a coke ratio as we sat and hesitatingly sipped our warm drinks. And, once again, I was struck by the tenacity, ingenuity, and resilience of those with seemingly nothing of value to their names. Without resources, they are resourceful. Without resources, they are generous. Without resources, they are hopeful. And, so I am struck in those moments, as I was while sitting and talking with Dhanushpriya and her mother, with both a sense of shame and a sense of power.

The shame is not what you might expect; in fact, many years ago I stopped feeling guilty for having resources when others didn’t, and I have worked hard to commit myself to leveling the playing field, so, in my own way I have come to terms with being a “have” in a world of “have nots.” Rather, I feel the shame of being at times content with the status quo. These young women are shining examples of giving 150% and that shames me into thinking about the times when my 95% seems just fine. It is impossible not to feel the power of access and resources when you are sitting with enough money in your wallet to send a student to college for six months. And, as you listen slightly awed by her vision for the future she will build for herself and her family, you are constantly thinking about that money in your wallet and what she and her mother would do if you just handed it over right now. That power dynamic can inhibit the conversation, but it is balanced by the shame of how much you have to learn, and so, after a little while you settle into building a genuine relationship.

All this subtext is what stays with us after leaving Dhanushpriya’s home. We do leave a generous amount of money with the excuse that she’ll need it to keep in touch with us via emails from an Internet café; however, we don’t leave her a half year of college tuition. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do at that moment. It would reinstate the power dynamic, and we’ve just created a genuine friendship. So, maybe in time we’ll figure out how to support her a little. We’ll see how our relationship grows over email. And, I am struck again by the fact that Roshni has hundreds of girls just like her. I think about all of them, many of them still faceless to me, as we drive back to our beautiful hotel in one of the loveliest parts of the city, where, by the way, birthday cake #3 was delivered to my room, courtesy of the hotel. From poverty to excess! A wonderful dinner at Saima’s home completed the evening. We were treated to fabulous Indian food, henna, and birthday cake #4. ☺

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  • mckenna

    looks so fun!

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