Well, it’s been three weeks, and once again I am sitting on the floor of an airport and trying to compose my thoughts as I wait to depart for somewhere else. Three weeks ago, I was convinced I would be deeply changed by this experience. Now I’m wondering what exactly it is that will stick with me when I get back home. What am I bringing back with me? A question like that seems to call for a sweeping answer. And I suppose I can make some sweeping statements: I will have a stronger sense of openness towards new experiences and ideas. In engaging in acts of service, I will remember to always follow the Design For Change mantra and work with, not for those living in communities where I’m doing service. I will really try to find humanity everywhere, especially among those who society dehumanizes. But yet I’m still not sure—how can I know which of these will cement themselves in my daily living, and which will remain an ideal pressing at my mind but never acted upon?
Because now I resume my day-to-day life. I will no longer walk around in a state of perpetual sweatiness, or meet people whose work challenges me to take action, or be daily faced with an unfamiliar world. I will return to comfort, and I’m worried that as my external world reverts back to normal, I’ll slip back into old internal habits too. A big thing that won’t change: I will still be quiet. I will probably still be reluctant to take charge and create change in my community because I’d rather work in the background. I hope I can overcome this and take initiative when I need to. But I’m not entirely sure.
When you leave a place, you often scramble to compile memories, concrete images to capture an emotion or a realization that you hope you will bring back with you. I’ve made sure to write everything I can think of in my journal because I don’t trust myself to remember it all. And while part of me cautions against living just to write it down, another part knows how glad I’ll be later on to have these memories recorded. Memory is a funny thing—it wears thin over time and stitches itself back together along unfamiliar lines, it gathers itself around seemingly inconsequential moments and drains the color from the rest.
But it is these flitting, formless, imperfect records that I trust more than any general statement about the monumental change I may or may not have undergone. I trust that India will remind me of itself through surfacing memories as I go about my life this coming year. When I examine fruit flies under a microscope at a pancreatic research lab this summer, I will remember the student at a school for girls from the neediest families who dreamed of becoming a nurse because she “wanted to serve.” When I walk the path between my dorm and the library at school, I will remember young boys in Dharavi playing cricket on piles of trash and rubble. When I debate the dynamics of modern feminism with my parents, I will remember the principal of the government school where I did the DFC project, who carried herself with a dignity that I understood long before translation allowed me to understand her words. When I compare college admissions stats with my friends, I will remember the 17-year-old Muslim girl in rural Kalol who was getting married in a few months and who ducked her head with bashful pride as she told us that she loved to sew and had sewn all her own clothes. When I hunch on the floor of my room and press my palms against my temples, I will remember sitting in an ESI meditation hut and, just for a moment, feeling an iron lightness lift my shoulders and straighten my back. When my room grows dark at 4 pm winter term, I will remember how emerging from dark Dharavi alleyways into the dust-softened light of the courtyard where the community heaped its trash felt like freedom.
There is so much to say about this trip, and about its effects on me, and I worry I can’t possibly capture it all. But the beauty is that the places and people I’ve seen will continue to speak in unexpected bursts of color and smell throughout my daily life. Sometimes change manifests in small ways. I may not be certain whether or not I will become a leader (whatever that actually means) because of this trip, but I know that I will continue to feel India in these small memories. And with the voices of Dharavi children and aspiring nurses and government school principals and teenage seamstresses daily reminding me of their human experience, how can I not be changed?