Ever since the first day of orientation, our professor has encouraged us to dig deeper into the onion that is India. While I can’t help but think of the scene in Shrek (“ogres are like onions”) every time he makes this analogy, it’s a very worthy challenge- explore the depths of India, don’t take anything at face value. After seven and a half weeks of classes, research and sightseeing, I’ve made it into the onion…maybe not the core, but at least part way there.
Last week, I completed my final five-day stint in Sangat. This time I focused solely on my big research project where I investigated women’s interactions with and perceptions of government-provided maternal health care. Meenal, Mohini and I conducted household interviews with 21 women in Sangat and another village called Amra Ji Ka Guda, which has a larger population than Sangat and more
women in the target population for our research. We sought out mothers who had given birth in the past year; government schemes are constantly changing, so we wanted to speak to women who were beneficiaries of the most recent developments in the Indian government’s provisions of maternal health care.
I loved the research. Women were happy to talk to us about their experiences and show us their babies. We were almost always offered chai when we visited women in their homes, so if the dentist finds a new cavity or two when I visit this summer, I’ll know why. For the most part women were satisfied with their experiences, but in some cases women saw changes to be made to the system.
More than research, though, I loved just being a part of Sangat. This time when Meenal and I came back for our third and final visit, we had friends we looked forward to seeing and anticipated our host mother’s delicious meals. As we walked through the village, it felt familiar. I no longer felt like a total outsider, a white girl from a Minnesotan suburb plopped in the middle of a rural village in India. Well, I still looked pretty out of place, but I didn’t feel so alien. I recognized people, and they recognized me. Practices that felt strange during my first visit in Sangat no longer fazed me. I got used to the custom of women veiling in front of their in-laws. I stopped trying to understand the complicated family webs that existed in the village. Interviews and our early to bed, early to rise schedule became routine. I knew what questions to ask women during interviews and when to expect our host mother to wake us up with a fresh cup of chai every morning.
One thing I never quite got used to, though, was the extreme tranquility and ease I found in the village. It’s a type of feeling I’ve only gotten in a few places in the world: Harlan, Iowa and Santa Elena, Costa Rica both come to mind. All of these places exude an essence of simplicity and routine that only an intimate farming community can provide.
We passed countless sari—clad women with huge bundles of branches or metal jugs of water on their heads. Small kids herded flocks of goats, cows and buffalo. I can see why Gandhi was such a proponent of Indian village living. It’s pretty incredible, and I’m still not really over the fact that I lived it for two weeks. Definitely an inner-onion experience.
Since coming home from Sangat, I’ve been busy wrapping things up for the India-portion of the program. We had our final classes on Monday and then free time to pull together our final papers and presentations for the rest of the week. A general routine several of us adopted was morning work time and afternoon fun time.
Previously, much of our sightseeing was guided by the program coordinators and staff who work full time arranging our village visits, guest lecturers, homestays and weekend excursions. This week, though, we started to branch out and explore on our own. We caught a boat out to Jagmandir Palace, a lush hotel complex in the middle of Pichola Lake, one of Udaipur’s quintessential features.
We took a 3-hour class on miniature painting in Old City. We climbed to Neemach Mata Temple for sunrise. We ate at street vendors and nice restaurants in town. And we did a lot of shopping.
Over the past seven weeks, and especially the last two, I’ve worked my way into the layers of India. I’ve lived with Indian families in Udaipur and Sangat. I know what food I like and don’t. I’ve come to recognize others who commute to school or work at the same time as me every morning. When my friends and I go to the markets in Old City, we wave to our shopkeeper friends. We know which places have good deals and which don’t. We’ve mastered the auto system and know how to bargain. I still do touristy things like shopping in Old City, and I still look fairly foreign, although plenty of time outside is working in my favor. I may not be at the core of the onion, but I’m not far from it.