Truly at Home in Indore: General Reflections at the Midpoint of my Stay

Greetings from Indore, India!

I’ll begin my first (and likely longest) update with a bang, by saying that these first two weeks in India have been among the most eventful and interesting in my life! Many apologies for waiting so long to provide an update, but I really wanted and needed adequate time to internalize everything in my surroundings before even attempting to describe in words what India is really like.

The simple reason: India and its lifestyle are about as far removed from America and its culture as possible, both physically and metaphorically speaking—there’s a reason one has to fly 15+ hours from New York to experience such a change. As one who has traveled somewhat frequently around Europe and Latin America, I have visited several countries heavily characterized or influenced by Western and North-Atlantic culture. India, however, has been a completely new experience for me, ever since I landed in the Delhi airport two weeks ago. The physical landscape, the food, the architecture, and every last cultural detail, even the way people communicate simple information, are totally novel. Simply put, I have had to carry a little notepad with me everywhere I go just to keep track of all I am absorbing with each and every one of my senses. India is a place where even the most commonplace five minute car rides are interesting opportunities to learn something more about the way life works here.

There’s a reason why Westerners of all ages—from Alexander’s Macedonian armies to the British colonizers—have been thoroughly intrigued by India, which they Euro-centrically deemed “the Orient:” the place is a wonderful sensory and cultural overload. This dynamic atmosphere pervades throughout this country of over one billion people. Unlike some of Southern Europe’s famously slow lifestyles, something is always happening here: loud mobs of people crossing the street, or a honking swarm of cars, auto-rickshaws, and motorcycles clogging the road, for example. Every morning I stroll out of my house to the scent of spices mixed with smoke, to the milkman’s cries of “Dudh, dudh!” (Milk, milk), to the sights of brightly painted buildings and flashing signs with a mixture of Hindi and English text. While, in Europe, historical sights are generally designated their own areas and separated from everything else, India is so rooted in history and tradition that century-old temples stand right next to modern office-buildings as if someone had created the city-streets as part of a Sims game. The clothing has been among the most colorful and vibrant I have ever seen. The land is so sacred and rooted in religion that people do not set off a designated time of the week to worship but rather breathe their faiths every minute of the day through lifestyle choices like vegetarianism and ritual greetings like “Jai Shri Ram!” (“Hail Lord Ram,” preferred in my household). Lastly, India is a heavily diverse land and, while many Western nations (America included) are struggling with such a concept, here, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, and even more groups live side by side, speaking over 400 different languages more unrelated to each other than even English is to Hindi.

Why has Bliss been so busy? Let’s begin with host family life. I’m so honored to have been so warmly welcomed into the Nyati household, a joint and exceedingly loving family. The grandparents are, typically to Indian familial hierarchy, the heads of the household—Indian culture constitutes a far greater respect for elders than in America. My grandfather only wears traditional clothes around the house and my grandmother is the only non-English speaking member of the household. Next come the mid-age adults in the house: my host mother, father, aunt, and uncle. Indian society dictates much more traditional gender roles than Western society, so the men are away all day working while, most often, the females stay home to work. Therefore, I have become particularly close with my host-mother as I see her the most out of everyone in the family—in general, though, Indian sons tend to be quite close with their mothers. Last are the four children, all of whom I interact with quite often. Ishaan, my technical host, is 14.5 and thus has been my roommate as well as my guide around school and town, also introducing me into his social circle! Kunsh and Akshita, the two middle children, have been my playmates at home. My personal favorite host-family member, Suryansh is a five and half year old tike who reminds me quite a lot of Jhorman, my toddler-comrade from Mexico last summer. He has taken a particular liking to my presence and, given his limited English skills, does not understand that I do not speak Hindi fluently and pushes me the hardest to speak in Hindi. We live in a villa in quite a vibrant area of Indore, filled with cows, auto-rickshaws, and the morning cries of the nomadic vegetable vendors. Residing with a large, noisy, and vibrant joint family has definitely been a different and enjoyable experience for an only-child like me!

Every morning we wake up at six to a breakfast of chaay (a special type of Indian tea) and some sort of spiced oatmeal or pancake. Even though I do not usually eat breakfast at home, I have gobbled every last morsel in the mornings. While eating breakfast, I read the newspaper and discuss current events with the other family members—especially this week, filled with breaking news such as the Nice Attacks and the Turkish Coup. At 7:20, I depart for the school bus with Ishaan and Kunsh, arriving at school at 7:40. The a twenty minute ride of cow-dodging, complete nonchalance regarding all rules of traffic, and observing India’s morning routines is a wonderful part of my day! The Indian style of driving, while at times seemingly life-threatening and always quite turbulent, continues to provide entertainment and a nice wake-up jolt before class.

A few words about Indian schools in general since they are quite different from American ones, like everything else in this country. The underlying difference is that, here, education is viewed as sacred—as knowledge given from the gods to the mortals. This notion dictates many aspects of the Indian educational system, as I will outline. Teachers are rarely questioned and are treated with utmost respect (even more so than parents) because they are viewed as the messengers of such sacred knowledge. With all this talk during my last three years at Exeter about “student-centered learning,” it has been interesting to adjust into a teacher-centered educational system as far removed from the Harkness method as possible. Because of the fact that teachers are rarely questioned, Indian schools focus far more on rote memorization and factual knowledge than American schools (especially Exeter), which tend to emphasize analysis and discussion. Combine this particular emphasis with an application system stressing examinations much more than America’s holistic system and sheer masses of qualified applicants—you’ll find that India’s academic climate is one of the most competitive of the world. Oftentimes, in order to be accepted into a top university, applicants need to score above 99.6% on their examinations. Therefore, students here are much more studious than their American counterparts, and concepts like procrastination and “winging” homework assignments do not really exist here. The sacred nature of education also creates a much stricter atmosphere at school. All students at my school wear uniforms and undergo an inspection before entering the doors every morning, there is much more separation between boys and girls (with two separate entrances and dining areas), and the discipline system is much more severe. It’s been quite interesting to observe such a different style, and I do indeed think that America and Exeter could learn a few things from the way schools operate here.

My school, the Shishukunj International School, and the Indian system of education never cease to wow me. Shishukunj is an English medium K-12 school of over 4,000 students, encompassing a large, modern, and immaculately maintained campus. Along with the other 7 NSLI-Y students placed there, I attend special Hindi classes from 8 AM to 1 PM, although Indian school is currently in session so there is much interaction with the Indian students. We, Americans, are basically treated as celebrities around school: through the hallways we are followed by packs of Indian students of all ages, teachers drop by to introduce themselves to us, and a “bouncer” sometimes stands outside our room to prevent crowds from forming outside the windows.

After a quick Sanskrit prayer and self-empowerment meditative exercise at 7:55, our first Hindi teacher arrives in the classroom at 8. We have a plethora of different Hindi teachers who each teach us for 45 minute periods. Most focus on conversation, while I have definitely detected an emphasis on grammar in one’s classes and on writing in another’s—the colloquial emphasis is definitely to fit with NSLI-Y’s goals of oral proficiency, which, for a modern language, ultimately matter more than reading/writing ability. We’ve already learned quite a bit of Hindi for only two weeks—one of my classmates joked that we’ve to this point covered a whole Spanish 1 course typical of most American high schools. As Hindi is an Indo-European language related to English, Latin, Greek, and all the others I have studied, it has been quite interesting for me to observe all of the linguistic connections, especially the lexical (tooth: daant, compare with Latin dens, dentis and Greek odous, odontos and English words like dental).

It’s also different enough, however, from English that it has posed an engaging challenge to learn—even the pronunciation has posed a challenge, with many aspirated/unaspirated distinctions, retroflex consonants, and nasalized vowels non-existent in English. Syntax is also quite different, with sentences following a rather strict SOV (subject-object-verb) order, prepositions (rather, postpositions), often made of multiple words, following the word they govern rather than preceding it, and the possessive construction working differently (English: the B of A/ Hindi A ka/ki/ke B). Grammatical gender matters quite a lot—with even types of words such as postpositions and verbs being dependent on the gender of associated words—and plurals can be quite irregular. Although the Sanskrit case system has long since broken down, similarly to how Italian has lost Latin’s declensions, nouns and adjectives still have two different forms—subject and oblique—dictated by sentence usage and propositions. Transitivity seems to hold special significance as well, with transitive and intransitive forms governing different subject pronouns and forms of the past tense—in the perfect transitive tense, the verb’s gender and number actually agrees with the direct object and the noun subject is put into the oblique case and followed by a special ergative marker. Enough of grammar for now, though; I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear!

Hindi classes continue all morning, interrupted somewhere by a CCA (cultural activities) class. Usually we select the sculpting option and work in the clay studio, but, one day, we tried out traditional dance, which was, to say the least, quite an experience. Besides these two options, singing, traditional instruments, and drawing are available as well. At 11:50, lunch is served, consisting of typical Indian “veg” foods like rice, daal, a vegetable dish, and a dessert. The food is much better than American school foods, offering plenty of flavor and spice. It’s different from American school lunch in other ways as well—students stand rather than sit, and there is no line for food, but rather just a crowd that must be pushed through. Lunch also provides a great chance to interact with the Indian students and to make new friends and cross-cultural relationships. After lunch, we generally have one more Hindi period and then a sports block. Usually we play badminton, because it is indoors and the last few days have been filled with torrential monsoon rains. At 2:30, I catch the bus home and spend time playing games en-route.

Outside of school, my family has gratefully been committed to showing me as much of Indore as possible. My host city, Indore, centrally located in the heart of India’s central province, Madhya Pradesh, is a metropolis of two million people, although you’ve probably never heard of it because so many Indian cities are of that nature. Together, my family, my classmates, and I have explored its famous palaces, bazaars, and temples—as well as experiencing more modern experiences such as attending birthday parties at the shiny glass malls, swimming at the pool of the renowned Yeshwant Club, and watching Bollywood’s newest hit, Sultan, at the movie theater. Walking around the streets has been, like everything else at this point, a new experience: the streets are utterly jammed with an irregularly moving current of people, cart-vendors, bikes, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, and cars—not to mention, the cows and herds of goats and sheep, who are the true dictators of traffic. My classmates and I draw stares from all directions, as Indore does not draw many foreigners at all—in fact, the only other non-Indian I have seen these last two weeks was the German exchange student at Shishukunj on Saturday, who is nevertheless half-Indian. For the Indore locals to view a group of white Americans walking down the streets would be akin to New Yorkers observing a Papua New Guinean tribe strolling through Times Square. It’s always positive attention, however, and the locals have been quite interested to show us their culture as well as learn about ours—in essence, the goal of the NSLI-Y program.

One particular experience that I have quite enjoyed has been the Indian wedding, of which, to this point, I have attended six. They offer a colorful atmosphere in which tradition prevails: from the interesting rituals of the procession to the Sanskrit chants in the wedding structure. Every event that I have attended has been luxurious beyond belief—decked with celebrity singers and mile-long buffets containing all cuisines from South-Indian to Mexican, each and every wedding did not disappoint. One of them was even held in a palace-like structure, with others in fancy hotels, conference centers, and exquisite tents.

Speaking of food, I would like to now elaborate on that which I think has been another important part of my experience. When I was notified before departure that my family would be vegetarian, I—a self- professed “carnivore” and slim eater of vegetables—couldn’t help but be slightly concerned. However, all of such worries have since been alleviated. The vegetables and meat substitutes such as paneer (a type of cheese) here are so fresh, well-prepared and spicy that, in essence, they taste like meat. Additionally, all the necessary protein and more is provided in lentil dishes like the ubiquitous daal. To this point, I have only eaten one small piece of chicken since my arrival in Delhi two weeks ago. I’ve gobbled down every last morsel presented on my plate, and have had almost no trouble adjusting to the spiciness of the food. Also, I have quite enjoyed the usage of bread, whether roti, naan, or paratha, as a utensil—it soaks up the flavor of the other dishes quite well. On another note, I have become quite more aware of regional differences within Indian cuisine, from local specialties like poha and jalebi to South Indian dishes like dosa. Lastly, I have experienced the Indian embodiment of other world cuisines, such as Chinese and Italian—just as we Americans have adapted other cultures’ foods to our tastes, so have the Indians. Indian Chinese food can be characterized by even more spice than Indian food itself and a gravy-like sauce called Manchurian, while in restaurants under “Italian-food,” one can order the spicy “red pasta” or the cheesy “white pasta.”

My first two weeks in India have been so wonderful and I am already learning so much about a part of the world previously unknown to me. More importantly, I feel that I have already forged relationships and lifetime connections with my host family. It has been a delight to have meshed into the complex household atmosphere. I’m looking forward to another eventful and enrichment-filled month, one that will hopefully bring many more updates to this website. I feel so grateful to my host family, my host school, and the United States government for providing me with such a fundamentally life-changing opportunity.

Until next time! My next update, to be posted in the next few days, will outline my eventful last week–consisting of a model UN convention, fashion show, and field trips to historical sites in Maheshwar and Mandu–and more cultural observations.

Bliss

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Truly at Home in Indore: General Reflections at the Midpoint of my Stay

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