Ellen's Reimagining India Blog: An Experience of a Lifetime

Late last year, I had the extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit India alongside 43 other keen and curious Australian undergraduates a part of the Reimagining India Program. The two-week program was run by the extremely organised and incredibly knowledgeable IndoGenius team and came replete with a New Colombo Plan scholarship provided by the Australian Government. Through this program, I was able to experience one of the world’s most diverse and dynamic countries first-hand and saw facets of India that I would never have seen otherwise.

Through the program, I learnt about India’s rich and vibrant past, it’s complex and rapidly-changing present, and I gained a glimpse of its exciting and high-tech future. I learnt not only how to cook the perfect butter paneer and do a sun salutation properly, but I also gained invaluable insights into entrepreneurship, 3D printing, and block-chain technologies. I discovered the abundance of opportunities waiting in India for the ambitious, motivated and innovative, developed new academic and professional connections with fantastic people and companies, all while making friends and memories that will last a lifetime.

This trip introduced me to some of the most passionate, curious and engaged people that I have ever met. The members of the IndoGenius team, the other students on the program, and the thought-leaders that we had the opportunity to meet were full of enthusiasm, knowledge and an irrepressible zest for life that was enormously inspiring. In particular, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Devendra Raj Mehta, one of the founders of Jaipur Foot, a company that provides prosthetic limbs for free to anyone who is able to make it to their base in Jaipur. On the day that we visited, we were introduced to a girl who had arrived in the morning on crutches and who was, by mid-afternoon, able to walk in front of us on her new prosthetic leg. She had been using crutches for two years after losing her leg in a train accident, but in less than 12 hours had had her mobility and autonomy restored. We also met a man who had been hired by Jaipur Foot after they fitted him with his prosthetic leg. He demonstrated that he could climb trees, jump from heights and run at a pace much faster than most of us could. It was fantastic to see the way that this technology restored independence, dignity, and fun to these individuals’ lives, and it was even better to hear that over 1.3 million others had been helped by the company since its conception in 1975. Mr. Mehta taught us how he managed to sustain his company for more than four decades, encouraged us to add value to the world around us, and emphasised that, if you have an idea that will help the world, the world will want to help you.

In addition to Jaipur Foot, we were also able to meet figures from enormous corporations like the marketing juggernaut Edelman, the tech consultancy firm Infosys, the food-finding app Zomato, and the NGO Akshaya Patra, which feeds lunch to over 1.6 million children at their schools every single day so that they can get an education without going hungry. The influence of these companies and the range of their services was indeed breath-taking and thought-provoking. It was great to see the value that they added to individual lives, as well as to communities, corporations, and countries, and it really encouraged everyone in the program to consider the innumerable opportunities that are available in India.

This entrepreneurship and innovation are not just present in the upper echelons of Indian society. Instead, it is ubiquitous and omnipresent across all social groups. During our time in Mumbai, we visited Dharavi, the world’s most populous slum, which has over one million people living in an area smaller than one square mile. Dharavi has often been portrayed as a place of immense poverty and soul-destroying inequality: an embodiment of Indian misery that only seems more stark and desperate when juxtaposed with the surrounding Mumbai metropolis. Whilst it is true that many of the occupants of Dharavi experience hardships and poverty that no one would wish for, it is not a hopeless place of despondent and down-trodden victims. Instead, Dharavi is an economic powerhouse, with some studies suggesting that it has a turnover of over 1 billion US dollars every year. During our tour, we saw women moulding beautiful ceramic pots, cooking chapattis and sewing clothes while men worked to make Dharavi-branded leather goods and used huge, make-shift furnaces to recycle and remould plastics. Every corner seemed to contain someone being entrepreneurial, innovative and industrious. With adaptability, hard-work, and determination, the men and women of Dharavi were able to make the best of difficult circumstances and create productive lives and livelihoods for themselves. This was an important reminder that you need to make your own opportunities in life, without expecting someone else to provide them for you.

In addition to seeing the way that the people of Dharavi and (more generally) India, made livelihoods for themselves, I was also able to look at how they created joy for themselves. Throughout my travels across India, I saw innumerable people delighting in ordinary life. While we were walking through markets awash with skirts and saris and strings of marigold, or while we were driving through rivers of rickshaws, buses, and bikes, I would often see spontaneous acts of happiness erupting all around me. People were playing cricket or drinking tea together. People were laughing and sitting in the sun. My most clear memories of this come from Dharavi, where we saw a genuine and undeniable sense of community and inclusion across all generations. We also saw people enjoying the few material possession they had, as well as the strong emotional connections they enjoyed with others. We saw children flying kites that they had made for themselves with whatever material was available, and we were invited to play a game with two local teenagers, who were hitting a badminton shuttlecock back and forth between them with ping-pong bats. Seeing the simplicity of the activities, and the happiness that they brought, was an incredibly precious moment for me and, since I have returned back home, I have been trying to include these little moments of wonder in my life more often.

As part of the program, we were fortunate enough to witness 13 weddings, all occurring at once! The brides and grooms were from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism. Following as a final point, I wanted to acknowledge how uplifted I was when I saw that this love of life extended to a love of others. I really admired the appreciation that many Indians had for cultural, political and religious diversity. Throughout the trip, we visited numerous places of worship for many different religions. These included Sikh Gurdwaras, Islamic Mosques, Hindu and Jain temples, Sufi dargahs and even the beautiful Lotus Temple from the Bahá’í faith. At every single one of these breath-taking sites, the religious leaders or spokespeople we met emphasised the importance of accepting and valuing the religious views of others, regardless of what those views were. This topic of conversation was always brought up by the leaders without any prompting from the group, and each of them professed a sincere and heartfelt belief that everyone should be able to worship as they please, so long as that worship did not harm others. What struck me most about such conversations was how different they were from the standard Western discussions about religion that occur on late-night television discussion panels and around dinner tables. Even though I am from a very open-minded and progressive background, when I visited India, I realised that most of the discussions I have heard on religion at home have focussed on “tolerating” the religious differences of others, rather than accepting or appreciating them.

I saw similar differences with politics as well. We were fortunate enough to get to hear from Shweta Shalina, an eloquent, passionate and hilarious spokesperson for the BJP in Maharashtra. Shweta emphasised multiple times during our conversations that politicians need to be considerate and respectful of the many people in their electorates who didn’t vote for them because the politicians were nonetheless representing those people. This was an incredibly refreshing view and one that I think Australian politicians should adopt.

Above all, I feel grateful for the opportunities that I have had in my life, and I feel especially thankful to Indigenous for reminding me to cherish these opportunities and to make the most of them so that I can live the best life that I can. This trip has inspired me to expand my horizons and to open up my mind to new possibilities and ideas. Since returning, I have become interested in the cutting-edge technologies that are shaping our futures, and have become more optimistic that the world we live in can be changed for the better. I have learnt how to live more fully in the present and have started enjoying the simple pleasures of everyday life. I have managed to revive my belief that, with courage, hope and collaboration, global issues like famine and malnutrition can be addressed. I have deepened my interest in religion and history and have even taken up yoga.

I am still in the early stages of my post-India existence, but I can see clearly that this experience will have a profound and enduring effect on the trajectory of my life. India will undoubtedly continue to play a large part in this journey as I work to become a more contributing, curious, engaged and optimistic guest on this planet.