by: Alex Dillon, History
India is a crowded country. Cities, towns, villages: almost wherever we were on this trip, the place seemed to be packed with people. Delhi is, of course, one of the world’s largest metropolises, and several times our outsized bus was stuck in what seemed unreal traffic. In both Delhi and Jaipur, the other big city we visited, we walked (and, on one occasion, rode in rickshaw tricycles) through dense marketplaces full of hawkers, shoppers, and street barbers (their mirrors hanging on tree trunks).
Those of us on the India Exchange trip—three faculty members and 16 students, from the 7th to the 10th grades—experienced not only the intense beauty of northern India's many historical monuments, such as the gleaming Taj Mahal, the stately Humayun's tomb, and the mute remains of thirteenth-century mosques made from plundered Hindu temples surrounding the massive Qutb Minar minaret. We also experienced first hand the closeness and warmth that often defines Indian culture. On the festival of Holi, for instance, for which we had been invited to a private home in the outskirts of Jaipur to celebrate, we joined dozens of people on the street in front of our host's two-story house, throwing colored powder at each other and dancing to the music of a Rajasthani band. The whole group then paraded to the local temple, where we packed ourselves into the modest structure for more dancing and singing.
In the Rajasthani village of Siras, as we were led on a tour through the dusty roads, not only did people step out of their homes to wave at us as we went by, many joined us one by one—old and young, women and men—and walked alongside to share in the excitement: having us visit seemed to be as fun for them as it was for us. By the time we reached our bus at the edge of town, we had accumulated about thirty people, and posed together for a group photo before boarding.
Even sitting through interminable traffic jams included moments of bonding with the people: more than once riders in cars and trucks waved at us and pulled out cell phones to take pictures of us, as we did of them. Wherever we went, it seemed that people were not afraid to make contact.
And yet, India is also a country of strict divisions. The very words “community” and “communal” are used in India not to indicate national commonality, but rather to refer to the country's clearly defined and nearly unbridgeable boundaries between groups.
In Siras village, where, we were told, “Caste is everything,” our local guide volunteered a young friend of his to lead us around and tell his story. He was 17 years old and spoke in hesitant but competent English. He explained to us that, by birth and caste identity, he would have been destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a barber, but he chose rather to learn English and perhaps study in Jaipur, thus making the leap from the world he was born into to quite another one: one much more competitive and possibly more rewarding.
In the massive kitchen by the Sikh temple of Delhi, the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, where food is prepared daily to feed any and all who need it, we were told repeatedly and emphatically that, “Anyone can eat here: from a prince to a beggar,” as if such openness to all regardless of background were the most novel thing in the world.
The most profound moment for many students was the visit to a charity school, Education on Wheels, run by the Deepalaya organization. This was located in a bleak area of half-finished high-rise construction projects on the outskirts of Delhi. The school was a one-room shack with a corrugated metal roof and dirt floor in the midst of the construction workers' living compound. The forty-odd children in the room ranged from ages 5 to 12, all of them children of migrant construction workers who worked on the surrounding sites. They and their teachers stared at us expectantly when we entered the schoolhouse. The kids' English was minimal, but Ms. Carpenter broke the ice with an exercise involving counting and clapping. Soon after, GCS students divided into groups and sat with 5-6 students each counting, telling their names, playing clapping games and showing smart-phone photos. Bonding with these children turned out to be one of our students' most memorable experiences and was a small example of how a deep chasm can be bridged if only for an hour.
Students continued to forge contacts during the second part of the trip, the week spent at Vasant Valley School. Here, GCS students did everything with their host buddies: living in their homes, attending their classes, playing soccer, and socializing in and out of school. The tears and hugs at the farewell party attested to the close links that GCS and VVS kids forged (not to mention host parents and both sets of faculty). The 2016 India Exchange trip was an experience of becoming aware of the profound gaps that separate people—both between different societies and within them—and considering how the effects of those gaps can ever be mitigated.