SHRINATH: Finding My Sanctuary in India, France
Letters From Abroad

Sitting now on the right bank of the Seine as a refreshing breeze wafts slowly to shore, the immediate circumstances of my arrival in India earlier this summer seem far off. The moment I touched down in Mumbai, the bustle of the horde of people at the airport created a din of confusion, only amplified by the sweltering humidity. Upon visiting a slum the next day and finding tight alleyways often flooded with swamp water, my feeling of claustrophobia and uncertainty doubled. And after a six-hour bus ride into rural Maharashtra to a small town called Mhaswad ,where I would be spending the next two months, I was thoroughly uncomfortable.

The idea of an extended solo foreign adventure captivated me so much that I committed myself to two back-to-back expeditions: one interning in rural India with the GU Impacts program for the summer, followed by a fall semester abroad in the center of Paris. And while I expected some difficulty integrating into different cultures, I assumed the transitions would be fairly straightforward, leaving plenty of time to feel the thrill of constant action with which I associated the term “adventure.”

It seems that I have been moving at a fairly frenetic pace in the nearly four months since I last left Georgetown on May 12, traveling well over 25,000 miles by nearly every mode of transportation imaginable, from your standard trains, planes and automobiles to sky gondolas and auto rickshaws.

While I was in India, I worked for the Mann Deshi Foundation, a home-grown nonprofit that provides low-income women with financial services and business training to help them start businesses. The situation around the town is difficult, as Mhaswad is located in a drought area and the norms around women becoming involved in education and business are restrictive. As such, interacting with the women who ran the organization and seeing the dedication of the entrepreneurs with whom Mann Deshi works was understandably inspiring.

But back when I actually landed in India, the thrill of adventure seemed far off. I faced a town where I spoke zero words of either of the native languages (Marathi and Hindi), a dry 106-degree heat that was physically draining and an internship that would take up six days of the week, leaving one day for both recuperation and exploration. Adventure was proving to be quite a demanding — and perhaps unfulfilling — mistress.

The adjustments came slowly. Getting used to a world in which I didn’t have Wi-Fi at home was daunting. At first I spent an hour each day at work fretting about which articles or podcasts I could download in my moments of Internet that could sustain me for the evening hours. As time passed, though, the slow pace of life in the town became liberating in its own way. My phone and laptop were largely useless, and I could spend hours curled up in bed with a book. I went to sleep early and got up early. And the routine of breakfast, work, home, dinner and sleep was simple — so simple that I was stressed by how little stress I felt.

Perhaps this doesn’t seem too adventurous. It certainly didn’t align with my expectation of nonstop movement. But each day brought a visceral uncertainty that I think is the centerpiece of interacting with a different culture. Even a lazy stroll on a Sunday evening through the dusty center of the town was tinged with an exciting aura of unfamiliarity. And, merely by him remembering my face, I felt a sense of connection with and deep gratitude to the man who sold delicious snacks on the streets near my work.

Now, after three weeks in France, the experience is different, to say the least. In many ways, Paris and Mhaswad are worlds apart. Paris screams adventure in every waking moment. It never stops moving, and with all the activity, it’s easy to imagine it as “the hottest spot in the universe,” as Owen Wilson’s character says in “Midnight in Paris.” Mhaswad is quiet, almost eerily so, with a relaxed pace of life utterly separate from the Indian metropolises four hours away, never mind the grand Western cities of Europe. Moving from the rural heart of a developing country to the urban hub of the developed world is startling — or at least it should be.

But for some reason, these two pillars of my experience abroad are remarkably similar in my eyes. A sense of uncertainty and the question of how I fit in linger over both places. The people are kind and forgiving surprisingly tolerating my awful Indian accent and my certainly mediocre French one (with the exception of that one Parisian waiter).

And when the rush of the Seine overwhelms the sounds of the city, I am reminded of being on the balcony of the apartment in Mhaswad, watching the sunrise on the horizon and feeling the cool breeze of dawn. At moments like these, when the United States feels very far away, I feel the same phenomenon of being removed from the tedium of daily life, absolved of the stress of the future, suspended in time.

Kshithij Shrinath is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. LETTERS FROM ABROAD appears every other Friday.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>