AIF Service Corps

has moved to new address

We apologize for inconvenience...

The W.J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India Blog: June 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's Really Happening: Our First Pride March, by Praveen Basaviah

In just a few days, on Sunday, June 28, an historic event will occur in Chennai – the city’s first Pride March. We'll join Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi (which had their first marches last year), as well as Kolkata (10 years of marches!) and Bhubaneshwar (first march) as members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, kothi, aravani, queer, and questioning community, along with heterosexual allies, family, friends, supporters from Dalit groups, women’s rights groups, NGOs working on all sorts of issues, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, the young and old, will all march together in solidarity to honor and celebrate the lives, dignity, rights, and courage of same-sex loving and gender non-conforming individuals, to vocalize the need for just treatment of all people, to make ourselves visible.

Last week, we received police permission for the march, the official stamp saying “go ahead. Do. Yo. Thang.” I remember the nervous excitement in the air as my friends and I stood outside the police commissioner’s office, writing the request letter and waiting to enter his office. I remember how we cheered on the street and hugged each other and shared this feeling of “We did it. We’ve got the permission. It’s really happening!”

This march will be the culmination of what has been a complicated and colorful term as a William J. Clinton Fellow for Service in India, a period wrought with frustration and disappointment, mainly with myself, and blessed with experiences, observations, lessons, and relationships that have made the year ultimately a fulfilling one, that have made me 100% sure that I will be coming back to India – a place I can now also call a home – soon after my fellowship ends at the end of August.

As I write this, I’ve just come back with my partner-in-crime, my sistah, Ani, from picking out massive amounts of satin cloth for the tailor to transform into huge rainbow Pride flags that’ll playfully dance in the wind Sunday as we march, skip, frolic, stomp along Marina Beach, the main beach in Chennai, from the Labour Statue to the Gandhi Statue. After leaving the tailor’s, Ani and I sat at the local juice shop, sipping fresh lime-mint-ginger fruit juice loaded with too much sugar, reminiscing about the past couple months and the back-and-forths in preparing for the march: Hey folks, shall we do it? Let’s do it! Who’s gonna help? We’ll all help! Who’s putting in time and effort? No one. Maybe we shouldn’t do it this year. Of course everyone f*cking WANTS a march, but who’s going to put in the time? Let’s wait to build a stronger community. We’ll do it next year, when there will be more people willing and able to put in the effort. Next year. Not this year. Let’s do it. Let’s DO it this year. I’ll help. And I’ll help. And we’ll help. And they’ll help. Hey, I want to get involved! Hey, I can take on this task. And I can do that one! . I’m straight but can I help? Of course! Straight allies welcome! I’ll march! I’ll definitely be there. I’ll spread the word. Are you for real? I’m there! What started out as a meeting between a few of us grew into a community-wide coalition, with people from many different parts of the community spectrum working together to make the Pride March and the various events of Pride Month HAPPEN. As Ani and I sat at that juice shop tonight, we could rejoice in the success of the Pride events that occurred the previous weeks and pulse with anticipation about the upcoming march. The kind of energy I’ve been suffused with over the weeks while working with the other coalition members, coordinating tasks, recruiting volunteers from the queer and ally communities, and spreading the word about Pride Month has been a noticeably unique type of energy, one that has made me vibrate and smile uncontrollably.

It’s only fitting that as I near the end of my fellowship – I go back to the U.S. at the end of August for a few months before coming back to India – I am able to work with my queer sisters and brothers on Pride Month – sisters and brothers of a community and a culture and ways of life that for the past 10 months I’ve had the privilege of connecting with, bonding with, getting the opportunities to understand the complex nuances of – from the intricacies of sexual identities here, to the politics within and between sub-communities, to the variety of work being done around sexual health and civil and human rights. I think about some of the ways I’ve been fortunate to experience and understand the world of gender and sexuality in India…

• the way sexual identities differ along class lines….“gay/queer” identities are used by those with more class privilege, higher education (and thus more English-speaking) and Western exposure, while “kothi” and other local identities are used by those from more working class and poor SES, who have thus had less access to education and are non-English-speaking
• the elusiveness, complicated nuances, and infinite permutations of gender identity/sexual orientation…for example, the fluidity between “kothi” (same-sex loving men with a strong feminine identity) and “aravani/hijra” (male-to-female transgender…aravanis are the TGs in Tamil Nadu, while hijras are the TGs in other parts of India)
• the extreme lack of visibility and support for lesbians and trans men (female-to-male)….the suicides that have happened among lesbians.
• the pressure within hijra and aravani communities to conform to a strict idea of how to be hijra/aravani…the disdain they have for hijras/arivanis who have romantic relationships with other trans women
• the Tamil Nadu government’s progressive stance on and support of the transgender community when compared to the rest of India – ration/identity cards where you can choose M for male, F for female, or T for transgender; free sex reassignment surgery; a welfare board; public toilets specifically for TGs (but this is laden with controversy). It’s funny how in India, there is much more acceptance of TGs than gays and lesbians, but in the U.S., it’s the complete opposite. Despite TG support, gay/bi/lesbian/kothi/f2m issues lack attention in India.
• attending the Koovagam festival in Tamil Nadu, where I saw thousands of aravanis and kothis embark on this small town to symbolically marry-and-widow the god Aravan at the temple, a festival where massive amounts of sex happen between the local men and the aravanis/kothis, where major HIV/AIDS agencies sponsor beauty pageants and other events
• the homophobic and heterosexist stance among some members of the trans community who believe that if you’re a man and you’re attracted to other men, then you should become a woman like them. It’s wrong to remain a man if you love men.
• Integrating myself into the queer community in various parts of India: volunteering at the Bangalore Queer Film Festival and forming lasting bonds with queer activists there; befriending queer activists while in Mumbai and having the older ones share with me their histories, frustrations, and joys of the city’s queer activism over so many years; being a part of Chennai’s emerging gay/kothi/aravani/queer community
• Observing the grassroots work my NGO and other HIV/AIDS NGOs in Chennai, Bangalore, and Mumbai do with kothis, aravanis , and female sex workers around prevention, counseling, advocacy, police harassment, and empowerment
• Seeing men everywhere being physically affectionate with each other in public as a normal part of male bonding culture – holding hands, playful touches. The prevalence of men having sex with other men, including while married (and many kothi-identifying men are married).
• Observing the courageous work of my friends at the Lotus sangam performing street plays in villages to sensitize elected officials and residents on the harassment and issues that kothis face
• Sharing with my NGO colleagues my views on and experiences with queer activism and the culture of gender nonconformity and sexual orientation in the U.S., answering their questions, and hearing their experiences working with MSM and female sex workers in Tamil Nadu over the years
• Counseling and being an ongoing resource to a man who called my NGO and wants to become a woman, and is sexually attracted to other women, but who doesn’t see any examples of lesbian trans women in India.
• Being in India while the battle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – which criminalizes homosexuality – has been fought in the Delhi High Court. Some of my friends here have been on the team fighting the case, and I’m inspired by their determination, by the determination of the community nationwide, to fight this unjust and archaic law handed down to us by the British Raj. The community is waiting to hear the final verdict. Will same-sex love no longer be criminal in India?

These conversations and experiences have been sporadic. They’ve only made up, unfortunately, a small portion of my time here when compared to how many days I’ve been in India since September. But I feel like I’ve been able to learn and see and attach myself to a lot of aspects of India’s sexual minority community and its realities that most people don’t get a chance to know (or choose to ignore), including many people who’ve lived here their whole lives.

There’s of course so much more to experience and understand, so much more growing to do. But it’s a start. In so many ways, I really haven’t utilized my time in India well at all. And certain parts of my fellowship have been unfulfilling, primarily my work at my NGO, but that’s my fault. I made mistakes and learned some important lessons about myself and my M.O, while working at my NGO. There were moments here and there at my NGO when things were going great and I felt full of energy and enthusiasm and hope and productivity, and then there was so much time when I felt low and frustrated and unproductive and uninspired and pissed. And again, I take full responsibility for that; I really can’t blame anyone or anything but myself for that. Although my NGO really needs to improve significant aspects of its management, it is still probably one of the best and most-respected NGOs in the country, especially in the HIV/AIDS sector. It has been doing great work for two decades,. I just didn’t approach my time here in a way that tapped into its strengths; hindsight is 20/20, so of course now I see what I could have done differently to have had a more rewarding time with my NGO work. But as a whole, I can say that this fellowship really has been fulfilling. I’ve been able to discover my love for this country, my love for working internationally, the investment I have in social change in this motherland. I’ve developed a real life for myself here. From this period as a Fellow I’ve been able to build a relationship with this place, its citizens, and the complicated gears that make it tick. India will now always be a part of my thoughts, my visions, my actions, my motivation. India’s now my boo. ☺ And as I march down the streets of Chennai with my queer comrades, voices booming, hearts engorged with exhilaration (and some with fear), history being made, I’ll feel like the luckiest man, having been able to achieve a long-standing goal of mine that started when I was in college – to be in India and become a part of the country’s queer movement.

To my fabulous Fellows of 08-09, I love you all and will miss you dearly. I’m so glad that we are now in each other’s lives. I’m truly inspired by your dedication, selflessness, warm hearts, talent, and brilliance. Love, respect, and solidarity always, Prev

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why I Never Learned to Cook Indian Food: A List of Three Excuses, by Joy Mischley

Excuse #1: “I Work for the Youth Center
The Deep Griha Youth Center is located in a building with many other Deep Griha projects, including a nutrition program. This means that we have a fabulous cook who prepares delicious food every day. Early on in the fellowship, I remember thinking that if I were to make a significant contribution in a short 10 months, I would have to focus my attention just on my assigned project with the youth center and not get distracted by all the other activities. This meant that I stayed out of the NGO kitchen, kept my distance from the day care children, and watch the medical checkups from afar. This strategy of “isolation”, though based on noble intentions, means that I don’t know how to cook dal, can’t address the lovely day care teachers by name, and haven’t learned the first thing about medical problems in Indian slums.

Lesson: As the AIF Fellowship draws to a close, I’m simply not ready. I want another chance to learn to merge my agenda with the realities of where I am. Whether imagined or reality, I felt that I was supposed to do something significant with the fellowship. With just ten months to make social progress in a new culture, the pressure I put on myself actually got in the way and limited the contributions that I could have made. Unconsciously, I had defined “significant” as a product, piece of research, or some chunk of work that someone could point to and say “Joy did that”. Now, I wish that I had left my ego aside and enjoyed the freedom of simply serving and relating. The next time I feel the pressure of a time-limited situation I am actually going to slow down, diversify my scope, and learn to cook.

Excuse #2: “I Only Have a One-Burner Electric Stove”

My landlord didn’t want to fight with the bureaucratic process of getting a gas permit and service for my flat. I was afraid that I would blow up the apartment if I used gas to cook. Thus, I have one electric plate that plugs into the wall. In an effort to justify my laziness, I often tell myself that I can’t possibly be expected to learn to cook Indian food with just one burner, and an electric one at that!

Lesson: To me, one of the best things about living and working in India is the opportunity to be creative with what I have. Being here in a semi-permanent state has meant that I don’t invest in a proper cloth for my coffee table. Instead, I use an extra pillowcase to cover up the ugly tabletop. Jars, formally filled with pasta sauce or jelly, become elegant glasses from which to serve guests. Old saris become colorful awnings, protecting my terrace from the sun. This ingenuity and creativity is present all over India. Newspaper is used to entertain small children with folding exercises, dancing games, and may other activities. It is used to wrap food for takeaway, to wipe down tables, and to practice tailoring designs and techniques. Using what is available is a way of life. Not cooking Indian food because I only have one burner? Not an excuse…

Excuse #3: “Indian Food Requires Too Many Spices”

One day I set out to the store to buy ingredients for pindi chole. Full of determination, I started collecting the various spices I would need. Each time I made another circle around the spice section in the store, my sense of empowerment took a beating. With eight ingredients in my shopping basket and another eight to find, my sense of the impossibility of the impending culinary task took over and I started returning items to the shelves.

Lesson: I often forget that learning something new requires support, teachers, coaches, and encouragement. We are selected for the Service Corps because we have previously been successful in school and in work. This “record of success” has made me reluctant to try something where I may fail or to ask for help in learning something new. Faced with the idea that I “should” be successful, I forget my humanness – the joy at simply trying, the opportunity to share a good laugh over a burned meal, and the chance to both receive and give help.

-Joy Mischley

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

“So, how was India?”, by Carolyn Florey

This question is impossible to answer. Having lived abroad before, I’ve received it a number of times (insert relevant country/city). There are long and short answers to these friendly queries, helping me to really figure out what I did for the past ten months, why I originally came to India, and why India will always be a part of my life, a port of call, a home.

Because I will return to living in Washington, DC, a city notorious for unabashed networking young professionals, I expect meetings with new and old acquaintances will eventually uncover that I lived in India for the past year. Sometimes attention spans are short and intentions disingenuous in our nation’s capital. The long answers are reserved for those special people who probably wouldn’t inquire about my job as their first or second question anyway. But I digress. I imagine conversations to unfold as follows…

New friend: Wow. India. How was that?
(short answer) Me: It was great. Thanks.
(long answer) Me: India is a country of fascinating juxtapositions and extremes, confluence, confusion, chaos, culture, spirituality, wealth and beauty. I lived in India for only ten months and expect that after living there for ten years I would still not be privy to the inner workings of the Indian mind and culture.

New friend: So what did you do in India?
(short answer) Me: I worked at a women’s rights NGO in Delhi.
(long answer) Me: I was an American India Foundation Service Corps Fellow (for eight months) and a Clinton Fellow (for two months). I worked with a human rights organization called Breakthrough, whose India office focuses on women’s rights, specifically gender and sexuality, reproductive and sexual health, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination, using “edutainment” (media education) as a platform for social awareness campaigns. I was mainly responsible for communications collateral and producing training materials.

In my spare time, I traveled extensively throughout the country, took approximately 2,948,7592,875 pictures, practiced kickboxing, attended one yoga session and found breathing out one nostril at a time silly and booger-inducing, discovered the wonders of tailored clothing, took Hindi lessons yet am still unable to read Devanagari, read a lot of books, drank a lot of chai, learned to live without air conditioning (and thus hopefully never take it for granted again), got engaged, met some truly quality individuals, and as our Program Manager instructed us at orientation, learned to embrace the boredom.

New friend: Why did you go to India?
(short answer) Me: I love chicken tikka.
(long answer) Me: I had worked at what in common parlance is known as "The Bank" for about two and a half years at a small grants program called the Development Marketplace (DM). A large part of my work at the DM was monitoring small-scale, innovative projects; I interfaced with inspiring social entrepreneurs from around the world. Feeling as though there was a disconnect between my work at the Bank and on-the-ground implementation, I applied for this fellowship to bridge that gap in my experience.

New friend: And how did that work out for you?
(short answer) Me: It was a good learning experience.
(long answer) Me: It did and didn’t. My work at the DM was far more substantive and although I was working in a headquarters in Washington, DC, I felt like I was having more of a “development impact” in my job there. I was told by my colleagues in India multiple times that I was being underutilized, an appreciated comment and recognition, but disheartening nonetheless.

So I reached out to other organizations in India in my spare time - wrote grant proposals for a sustainable energy NGO based in Hyderabad and did some research for an education technology company in Delhi to supplement the work I am doing at Breakthrough. Tried to make it work. Tim Gunn would be proud.

But living in India and working in an Indian NGO were invaluable experiences. I was the only foreigner in my office of thirteen people, ten of whom are women (the two accountants and the office assistant are the only men). I worked with empowered, independent women who have a true passion to advance human rights throughout India and hope to tackle issues such as religion, caste, and peace and conflict in the future.

New friend: Do you think you will go back?
(short answer) Me: Of course.
(long answer) Me: Hopefully, I will be able to go back to India, not only to visit, but also perhaps to live and work. India is a country that grabs hold of the imagination, the senses and the intellect in a way that I have not experienced in any other country. It is a frightfully frustrating place; the highs and lows are extreme and can happen within two minutes of each other, but the entrepreneurial spirit and hopes for the future are undaunted by the vast and deep inequalities that continue to handicap a large percentage of the population. I am forever tied to this vivid country; I will be back.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Only in India, by Pooja Bhatia

Only in India...

...can people pronounce my name better than I can.

...will a Catholic woman step aside so that a Sikh can be sworn in as Prime Minister by a Muslim President in a country where more than 80% of the population is Hindu (Thank you, Namaste London).

...can the worst hour of one’s life be followed by the best hour of one's life.

...can people be so very concerned with cleanliness that they take off their shoes before entering their homes and broom and mop twice a day but throw their trash directly into their own backyard.

...can an NGO not know to speak proper English or how to use the Internet but have the best looking website and NGO brochure ever.

...can a home-cooked meal express so much love.

...can a person go to a club and be charged a 2500 Rs. cover charge while 75% of the population lives on less than 25 Rs. per day.

...can after 9 months of having lived in a place a person still cannot correctly pronounce the name of the city she lives in.

...can people claim that they are passionate about humanity, doing social work and equality, yet continue to carry out the age-old tradition of the caste system and commit human rights violations on a day-to-day basis.

...can the majority of people think eating cow is sacrilegious to the Hindu religion but wearing cow leather belts and shoes is not.

...can a person accidently miss her bus stop from Ahmedabad to Udaipur because she fell sound asleep on the sleeper bus, forgot to set an alarm and wake up in a panic and run to the driver who calmly says “We passed Udaipur 2 hours ago” to which she responds with a “Ahhhhhh! WHAT?” and he responds with “It’s okay, don’t worry” and stops the next bus going in the opposite direction and tells her to jump on.

...can men who know all the words and dance moves to every Bollywood song be considered super cool.

...can a person buy a vehicle (pink Scooty what what!) without a valid driver’s license... and then be told there is no need for her to get a license because police officers don’t stop women anyway.

...can a person get dirty looks for walking down the street in a sleeveless shirt but women strutting around with their tummies hanging out is completely acceptable.

....can a person meet extended family members that she’s never met before and feel like she’s known them her whole entire life.

...can people think sacrificing a goat in front of a temple is a symbol of peace and an expression of non-violence.

...can a person bribe a bus driver 20 Rs. so she can get off the bus to go to the bathroom... because there are no bathrooms on Indian buses and the driver has already stopped once for her just a few hours earlier.

...can a Punjabi girl living with a Bihari family in Chhattisgarh try and speak to her relatives in Delhi in what she thinks is Hindi but actually turns out to be a combination of 4 different languages (Punjabi, Hindi, Bihari, and Chhattisgarhi).

...can a person move to a town as a total stranger and leave having become part of a whole new family that she feels like she can’t live without.

Only in India.

- Pooja Bhatia