It’s all coming back to me…

After spending several days in Mumbai, I was feeling restless. I’m not totally opposed to the tourist experience; but given the choice between staying with friends or a behind-the-scenes tour from a local that leads to traveling to their home town outside of the original destination and meeting their family and staying with them for a few days or the conventional tourist experience, I’ll choose the former options, for sure. For me, the conventional tourist experience is more appealing with at least another tourist or two, and I wasn’t having any luck flagging any down on my jaunts around Fort, the area where I was staying. I also wasn’t giving off the “I’m-searching-for-companion-tourists” vibe, because, let’s be honest, I wasn’t really looking for them. 

I was feeling ready to get going with my project. I was more in the mood for…well, not continuing to spend a lot of money every night on a hotel and then more money to get around and do touristy things. I was beginning to feel like having no plans for a whole week in Mumbai was a waste of time and money. If I had had friends in Mumbai, it would’ve been a different story. Or even if I was more familiar with the city…but felt so big, so noisy, so overwhelming, and mostly, so expensive. I wasn’t feeling it. 

  Fortunately at the peak of my feeling ready to move on, two things happened. I found out that some friends from Pune had moved to Mumbai and I got the approval from AIIS to come to Pune for a few days and sit in on Marathi classes for a few days. I checked out of my hotel on Tuesday morning and headed to the Mumbai CST train station to buy a train ticket to Pune. A few hours later, I was enjoying my first India train ride of 2015 – sleeper class (no a/c and no designated seats, which means that you could have as many as five people sharing a bench in one berth, plus someone stretched out above you and five across and someone above them – and oftentimes more people than that!). I hopped on the ladies car – no men allowed. Just women and kids. 

 The train ride was a bit longer than expected due to some delay (who knows…) but it was pleasant enough. Five hours after leaving Mumbai, I had arrived in Pune. I had tried to make arrangements to stay with some current AIIS students, but relying on my Marathi teachers to communicate my request to students that I had never met before proved to be trickier than I thought it would be. About 3/4 of the way into the train ride, I did get a call from a former student named Jake who is completing his dissertation in Pune and has a flat in the Koregaon Park (KP) neighborhood. Unfortunately, due to the total last minute nature of my arrival, he wasn’t able to host me Tuesday night. So when I arrived in Pune, I whipped out the Lonely Planet and looked up a hotel (I’ve since decided that this book must weigh at least 5 lbs and why lug it around when I can easily buy a digital version?! I’m leaving it in Mumbai.) I ended up at a pretty nice place in KP…pricier than I wanted but it was close to school and it was only for a night. It’s all part of the experience, right?

I was able to sit in on classes at AIIS on Wednesday and Thursday. It was so good to be back and see my teachers, meet new students, share my 2 cents with current Fulbrighters, and try to articulate what exactly I will be attempting to do in a week or so. I was surprised with how much Marathi I remembered but also feeling overwhelmed with how much was locked away in the deep recesses of my brain under a rusty lock whose key is lost under a pile of three years of English and AmeriCorps and St. Louis… 

  Before coming to Pune I had been wracking my brain trying to remember how to say “to the right” and “to the left.” But hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember. Then Wednesday morning I checked out of my hotel and argued a rickshaw wala into driving me to school, saying I would pay him 10 extra rupees for my bags. I was anxious; would I remember how to get there? I had gone every morning for 4 months. Surely it would come back to me. Muscle memory is a powerful thing. The minute I was sitting in the rickshaw I remembered. “Oojwikade ani nunter dawikade. Ha, ha. Tithe za. Ha Deccan College ahe. To the right, then to the left. Yes yes, go there. That’s Deccan College.” 

I spent Wednesday and Thursday in class and getting to know a smattering of students (one of whom had actually read my blog before when he was looking into coming to AIIS). It seemed like hardly anything on campus had changed. Not so for the rest of Pune. There is now a Starbucks in KP. Globalization. Sigh. 

Friday classes were canceled and I headed back to Mumbai to meet my friend, Noor, and her family. After a brief scare of losing my phone (it fell out of my pocket when I stopped at an ATM) I finally caught a bus to Bombay. By 10 on Friday I was at Noor’s place, with a hot, home-cooked meal, a cool shower, and a freshly made bed waiting for me. It was the best sleep I’ve had here so far.

  Today, Saturday, was a chill day. I slept in, read the paper, caught up with emails, did a bit of research, and then went to temple with Noor and her family. This evening we went out and managed to find some postcards. It seems in this digital age, the art of sending postcards is quite passé. But I promised about 30 people a postcard from India. And I will deliver! After a bit of walking and shopping, we had chaat (delicious Mumbai street food) and then walked home. Over some snacks and wine we reminisced on how we first met and all the adventures we had the last time I was here, missing our friend Robin who had been a part of it all. As we walked home from the market tonight, I told Noor,  “I am finally feeling relaxed and comfortable here.” With good food, the comfort of a friend’s home, and the familiarity of the pace of life here in urban India coming back to me, I am starting to feel at home.

Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up early to head to Jawhar, where I will meet Shubada, the woman who will be working with me as my “translator” (read collaborator, co-conspirator, companion) for the next several weeks. There is a seed festival in Jawhar in the afternoon. We will take a day or two to get to know each other and sort out the details for our upcoming journey. Then it’s on to Nagpur to reunite with Ajay and Yogini. And from there, back to see Pournima, and then Sangita, and all the rest of my Mulgavan friends. I. Can’t. Wait.

Farewell Pune

On Monday evening I’m moving to Nagpur/Mangurda/Mulghavan. It’s hard to believe that I am done with my formal Marathi instruction and that I am about to begin my full time research. Friday was my last day at AIIS. It was sad to say goodbye to my teachers and friends at AIIS, but I left with a feeling of accomplishment. Obviously I’m nervous about shifting to a village where I will be the only person who speaks English. I will be relying on my limited Marathi. But as I said my goodbyes on Friday I received word after word of encouragement and promised to keep everyone up to date on how my experience unfolds.

Yesterday I spent the day hopping around Pune doing some last minute errands (like sending home some things that I won’t need while living in a village in the Yavatmal District). As I rode from place to place and passed familiar and favorite places, I realized how comfortable I’ve grown here. I know where I’m going (most of the time). I have favorite places. Looking out of my rickshaw, I felt a fondness for Pune. The weather here has been beautiful the last few days. For some reason when it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny, and a bit breezy, the city seems less crowded and a little friendlier. I sat outside eating Pav Bhaji (Pow Bah-gee) and sipping a strawberry milkshake (it’s strawberry season here…YUM!). As I enjoyed the gentle breeze I felt grateful for all of the great times I’ve enjoyed in Pune. It’s been a pleasant farewell weekend. I’ll miss Pune…the lovely weather, the friends I’ve made here,  the variety of delicious food…

So. What lies ahead of me?
Great question. I have a vague idea.
I’ll be here (the little red dot):

On Monday I will take an overnight train to Nagpur. For the next two weeks I’ll focus on coming up with a presentation to give at the Fulbright Conference in Cochin, Kerala at the beginning of March. I’ll probably take a short trip to Sangita’s place (the red dot in both maps) to introduce myself and begin the process of getting to know Mulghavan and it’s citizens. But the research really won’t begin until I get back from the conference.

What exactly will I be doing?

Another good question. The plan is to spend 75% of my time living with Sangita in Mulghavan (the other 25% of the time I’ll spend at Ajay and Yogini’s farm sorting through interviews and evaluating my process). The issue of agricultural development and the adverse effect it has had on many farmers in Eastern Maharashtra is complex. Over the last 4 years I’ve read about genetically modified crops, irrigation schemes, and the lack of access to credit and the troubles that farmers face when it comes to borrowing money from private moneylenders (among many other issues). Amidst all of these articles I was unable to find any substantial information about why farmers continue to grow cotton, even as these negative patterns of crop failure, loss, and debt have persisted over the last 20 years. Why do farmers who don’t benefit from planting cotton (usually an expensive genetically modified variety of cotton), and fall even further into debt because of this—why do they continue to plant cotton year after year? These are the contradictions that have pulled me deep into this issue. This is why I am in India. I figured that since no one has really written about farmers’ driving decision factors and the sociological complexities that play a part in this issue, I will.

So over the next few months I’ll live in Mulghavan, a small village in the Yavatmal District of Maharashtra, and get to know a few different cotton farmers and their families. The cotton season is from June to November or December, depending on the Monsoon season. During this time I’ll try my best to learn about their daily lives and the business of cotton farming. And hopefully, at the end of my time in Yavatmal, I’ll have a collection of stories that will shed some light on this question.

Of course, I’ll be updating the blog with photos and some of these stories.

Keep an eye out for a post related to my presentation for the Kerala Conference in the next couple of weeks.

Until next time friends!

research update!

Namaskar friends!

I don’t have any really specific New Year’s resolutions, but I did tell myself that I want to try to live more honestly and openly. And I promised a blog updating you on my research project’s progress. What could be more honest and open than fulfilling my promise and opening up and sharing about my life?

I had a month long break from my Marathi and finally had a chance to travel a bit. I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook from lots of other Fulbrighters about traveling for research and pleasure and who knows what. When December came around and I had a break, I decided to take full advantage of it. I hit the road for a month.

I had two goals:
1. Set up some of my fieldwork in Nagpur with Ajay and Yogini Dolke
2. See some amazing amigas!

I scheduled a 3 day visit to Nagpur en route to friends in Delhi. Ajay and Yogini Dolke run a non-profit called Society for Rural and Urban Joint Activities in Nagpur (SRUJAN). SRUJAN has numerous health and community development projects in several villages around Nagpur. I met Ajay and Yogini while studying abroad in India in 2007. I stayed in touch with them while researching the Indian cotton economy for a class paper at Sarah Lawrence. As soon as I heard that I got a Fulbright to come back to India I emailed them. They promised to help me with my fieldwork when the time came. So in mid-December I boarded an overnight train to Nagpur. The next morning I said goodbye to my new friend “Boosh” (who invited me to his wedding in Nagpur in early February…I’ll still be here in Pune unfortunately) (ALSO he had a lisp and spoke rapid Marathi so I may be getting his name wrong…).

After some confusion about where to meet, I finally found Yogini at the Nagpur train station. While we drove to the SRUJAN office  in Nagpur we caught up a bit. I let her know that I had set aside the next three days to be available to talk with her and Ajay whenever they were available; I didn’t want to impinge on any of their very important ongoing projects.

Of course Ajay and Yogini had already given a lot of thought to my needs. I sat with Yogini and confirmed my ideas about what type of village I wanted to be placed in (a small one with several small to medium sized farmers) and what my ideal schedule would be (3 weeks in the field, 1 week at the SRUJAN headquarters—a beautiful farm near Pandharkawada, Maharashtra). Within a few hours Yogini had made several calls. The first was to Sangita, a village health-worker who has worked with SRUJAN for over 15 years. Sangita agreed to meet me and discuss hosting me while I do my fieldwork. Yogini also spoke with a Geography professor at LAD College, Nagpur. They had discussed finding a student who might be willing to work with me to translate interviews and conduct research. We made plans to visit the SRUJAN farm and meet the full-time SRUJAN staff and to meet Sangita in her village, Mulghavan (मुळघवाण), about a forty minute drive from the farm. I now refer to my journal.

December 14. Wednesday.
This morning Ajay and I ate breakfast and then went with Sachin, Ajay’s driver, to SRUJAN’s farm. We first stopped in Pandharkawada to order some pillows and mattresses for अजयचे बाबा (Ajay’s father). As Sachin steered us through the crowded streets I looked around, trying to make out signs in Marathi. After Ajay’s business was taken care of we headed to SRUJAN. As we were leaving Pandharkawada I saw several farmers (शेतकरी) driving into town, their bullock carts loaded with cotton. Ajay told me that the government hasn’t yet declared the minimum support price (MSP) for cotton and that these farmers were probably selling to private buyers. Farmers who have to repay their debts often can’t wait until the government declares the MSP. In order to earn money to repay their loans they
 will sell their cotton to private buyers, often earning much less per quintal than the MSP. As we continued on our drive to SRUJAN we passed 5 or 6 ginning factories. Flecks of white gold that had strayed from bullock carts lined the road. 

This processed cotton sits neglected outside of a shop in Pandharkawada. Many farmers in the Yavatmal District come here to sell their cotton and process it at one of many ginning factories.

We ate paratha, potatoes, fried daal. While Ajay spoke with Ganesh about some business I made friends with the resident little one, Gaulib (?). At first he seemed hesitant to come near me, but Durgha proved to be a satisfactory buffer. By the time Ajay declared “चला” the three of us were swinging on the porch and munching on tart little fruits that Gaulib had retrieved from a tree near the kitchen garden. 

Gaulib (?). Fast friends.

I said goodbye, promising to see them all again in February. We headed to Sangita’s house in the small village मुळघवाण. As we drove the 40 minutes of narrow and pot-hole ridden road, Ajay and I spoke about my project. He told me about the area. Yavatmal is one of the 100 poorest districts in India. There is very limited infrastructure and government services are few and far between, especially in this block, Zari-Jamni.

We got to Sangita’s house and she jumped with excitement at the sight of us, scurrying away and saying she would be right back. She quickly returned with her husband, Motiram. We went inside their home.

Ajay and Sachin sat on a bed across from Sangita and I sat in a chair in the middle, perpendicular to their gaze. My head whipped back and forth from Sangita to Ajay as they discussed my potential stay there. The conversation moved from me to Sangita’s scooter needing an oil change to her work for SRUJAN. I was able to follow some of the conversation, but not much. As I sat there lost between the two tongues spitting Marathi back and forth, I imagined what it would be like in a few months when I didn’t have Ajay there to explain in English what was just said. Doubt clouded my mind. Would I be able to do it? It was definitely going to be hard. 

But as we drove away my doubt was lost in the shadows of an overwhelming sense of gratitude and excitement. I turned to Ajay and told him about how I was imagining what experiencing the first rain of the monsoon season would be like after a few months of living in Mulghavan. Language barriers and lifestyle differences suddenly seemed like walls I could scale if that was the experience on the other side. Ajay smiled and agreed. It’s worth it. And now is the time to do it. It was a truly fruitful and fulfilling day!

The next day I met with Radhika, a student from LAD College, Nagpur. She had expressed an interest in doing some fieldwork during her summer break (April to July). We met to see if she’d be up for living in a village with me and helping me conduct interviews and translate recordings. She was very enthusiastic and I’m looking forward to being able to work with her in the upcoming months. Ajay and I came up with a plan for a fellowship for her. It feels weird to suddenly be in a position where, on my fellowship, I am creating a fellowship for someone just a few years younger than myself. Fake it till you make it? I feel like I’m playing “grown-up” a lot these days.

That evening I hopped on another overnight train, this time to for goal #2: visit friends in Delhi. I left Nagpur feeling immensely satisfied with how much I had accomplished with the generous help of Ajay and Yogini and company. I hadn’t expected to have a place to stay and a semi-outlined plan this early on. I left feeling excited to return and keep working.

I spent the next few weeks in Delhi and Nepal, visiting friends, playing tourist, and randomly meeting with a few folks who are working on cotton farming-related issues. With each passing day here in India my list of resources and contacts gets longer and longer. I met a Dam activist who practices Gandhian lifestyle and spins his own cotton. I attended a Christmas party and got a business card from a friend of a friend. I happened upon another friend of a friend who just completed his thesis on Bt cotton and risk in Vidarbha. I discovered that my former professor’s wife is the vice-president of an organization that works with micro-finance institutions all over India. One contact leads to another. Somehow it seems I have met all of the right people. And I continue to do so! Just today I made a connection with Chaitanya, an organization based in Pune that has a group conducting a cash-flow analysis in the Vidarbha region.

I have one more month in Pune—a month already packed full with hours of Marathi study, interviews, meetings, and reading articles before I leave for the village, the गाव (gow). I’ll try to keep up with the blogging during this whirlwind of a month. Time is flying by! Until next time…

Learning मराठी (Marathi)

णमसकार. मी अॅरन अहे. मी अमेरिकन अहे.

Namaskar. Mi Aaron ahe. Mi American ahe.

Hi. I’m Aaron. I’m American.

I’ve learned new languages before, but this is the first time I’m tackling a new script AND a new language. I’m learning to read all over again. I sound like a 6 year old sounding out new words. For instance:

पुणे. P. Not Puh. No aspiration. Just a p sound that sort of stops in my throat. Oo. Not Ooooo. A short long ooo. N. Not a dental n. A retroflexive N. Eh. P-oo-N-eh. Oh. Pune. The city I’ve been living in for the last 12 days. Just like a little kid learning how to read, it takes me a couple minutes to make out a word with only 2 consonants, 2 vowels and 2 syllables.

It’s been interesting. The nice thing about Devanagari script is that it’s completely phonetic. So I don’t have to learn any rules about vowels and when they say their names or anything. I just have to memorize all of the different symbols and sounds. And now that I have memorized the basic consonants and vowels, I can pretty much read any word I see. Sometimes they are English words written in Devanagari script. After spending a few minutes identifying the characters and sounding it all out, I’ll say something like “Dawk-tu-rrr. Oh. Doctor.”

I love the quaint little building that is AIIS 2. This is where all my classes take place. The campus itself is beautiful…very green! My friend Rachel, a former AIIS student, put it well: “A double I S. Farm or college?” I have to try to not get too distracted when the wild mama pig and her herd of babies pass by the window in the middle of class.

Our dictation classroom

Our listening classroom

Sujata and Shantanu are the jovial pair of teachers that make up AIIS, Pune. Sujata has said several times “We love our students.” And it is so evident! They are both wonderful teachers and compliment each other very well, making a very dynamic team.

We are three students in all so far: Greg, a PhD student who is fluent in Hindi and spent the summer bolstering his Marathi skills, and David and I, both total beginners and here in Pune, Maharashtra as Fulbright-Nehru student researchers. The academic year long program starts this week, so more students will join us. I’m happy about this. I have been starting the days at 9 a.m. and my schedule looks something like this: Grammar from 9-10:00, Listening from 10-11:00, Tea break from 11-11:15, Pronunciation and Dictation from 11:15-12:15, and Script practice from 12:15-1:15.

An impromptu moment of learning: Greg tells us about the origin of languages in India. (note: this is the classroom where grammar and script practice takes place usually)

There’s just something about transitioning from no school and sporadic part time work to 4 almost straight hours of sitting in class. Fortunately there are two groups of students, beginners (David & me) and advanced (Greg). So we play musical classrooms and swap teachers. It helps break up the long morning. Now that the academic year long program is starting, I will be coming to school from 12:15-5:00 p.m. every day. It’ll be nice to have the mornings to sleep in (something I’ve only done once since I’ve been in India), have a nice breakfast, maybe eventually practice yoga (waiting for a potential teacher to get back to me on that one), and most likely get that last minute homework done, etc.

Where we take our chai and later our lunch (delicious home cooked meals! YUM)

I have a feeling that this shift in my daily schedule will make the days pass more quickly. And in turn, the weeks. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in India for 3 weeks. Where has the time gone? It must creep away from me with every rickshaw ride, with every trip into a shop to look at kortas, with every spur of the moment jaunt through a new part of the city, with every delicious meal, with every glass of cold coffee.