What it Means to be “Indian enough”

July 29, 2019
Arthi Kozhumam with Udayan Care staff
From left to right: Riti Chandrashekhar, Udayan Care Research Assistant, Arthi Kozhumam, Deepali Ruhela, Udayan Care Aftercare Coordinator, and Dr. Kiran Modi, Udayan Care Managing Trustee, at the center’s head office

By Arthi Kozhumam, a rising junior majoring in global health and biology

After nine weeks of interviewing children and care staff at each of 17 homes, having hours of conversations with alumni and Udayan Care staff members, and downing cups of coffee and chai, my summer of fieldwork in India is over. As I type this, sitting in one of the many airports I”ll pass through on my way back home to Austin, Texas, hearing the voices of my Indian parents on the phone with me, I have been thinking deeply about what it truly means to be Indian. 

For a lot of my life, I’ve felt like I’ve lived on a tightrope between Indian and American culture. I had a different extracurricular experience than a lot of Indian children growing up in Texas. While many learned classical bharatanatyam dance or played the veena, I played drums and wrote xylophone solos in my free time. Even when I arrived at Duke as a freshman, I didn’t feel “Indian enough” to attend the South Asian student association’s events or be very involved with the Hindu Students Association. But after my DukeEngage experience in South India last summer, working with women’s empowerment groups, I began to learn that even in India, there is no ONE “Indian experience,” no one way to be “Indian enough.” 

I used to think that being “Indian enough” was reflected in your hobbies, how religious you were, what you food you ate and what you wore. But being “Indian enough” is reflective only of how you feel inside. Each woman I worked with through DukeEngage had a different occupation, religion, hobbies and family structure. Each was Indian in her own way, striving to take care of her family’s finances and health while also learning new skills and ways to be independent. All of these women had come together for a common goal: to improve their own mental and physical well-being in order to better take care of their loved ones. 

With DukeEngage, each of the organizations we worked with acted alike, organizing groups of women that would meet weekly to discuss prepared lesson plans in a centralized location. Across all four projects, resources and planning templates provided by the organizations’ staff were very similar. And although we had many hiccups with regards to logistics, things were mostly planned for us and all projects functioned in the same way. 

My fieldwork this summer in New Delhi was both similar and different to my experience in Kochi. In my Student Research Training experience, plans often went out the window and we’d need to be prepared for anything to change, from interview schedules to driver payments and flights. I saw great variety among the experiences and perspectives of staff members within the Udayan Care system, and also vast differences among the homes themselves. Across Udayan Care’s 17 homes, each social worker and care staff member (caregivers and supervisor) brings a new personality to their home. There are about 10 social workers across the 17 homes, each of whom have different relationships with the home children depending on the number of care staff members in that ghar. Regardless, methods of organizing demographic, academic and mental health performance data are the same from home to home. 

Through our life history questionnaire, I have seen that among caregivers and supervisors, there are various life paths to becoming a member of the Udayan Care staff, and their perspectives regarding family relationships and past life experiences are all vastly different. The conversations I had with care staff members and social workers only emphasized how proud they were to live in the Delhi region, to be involved with Udayan Care and to continue to improve life for themselves and others in India. 

THAT mentality, which I share with them, is part of what makes us all Indian enough. My life experiences both in Texas and as a Duke student, like those of women in Kochi, and those of individuals involved in Udayan Care are all different. But we ARE all Indian, and even more than that, “Indian enough.”