Jianna is a rising sophomore, and planning to study Product Design or Economics. She spent this past summer at Aarti Home.

*India as I, a Filipino-Chinese-American on my first visit to the country, have come to know it.

On our five hour car ride to Kadapa, I cannot tear my eyes away from looking out the window. Though jet lag is trying its best to pull my lids shut, I watch as we speed by mango, banana, and jasmine stands that line the road. Around us, cars, motorcycles, and bikes weave through each other, skillfully avoiding near accidents with ease. Cows and dromedary camels mull about in the middle of this mayhem, unphased. I smile. I’m actually here.

After we arrive, our first meal consists of chapati, rice, and dal. Ripping off a piece of crispy flattened dough, I scoop up a bit of the deep red curry and take a bite. My tongue is suddenly consumed by the combined burn of masala and chili. I am on fire and embarrassed. Though I don’t want to make a scene, I can’t help but quickly suck in my breath and desperately chug water from the bottle next to me. Our host family smiles with both sympathy and humour when they realize that the spice level they consider standard is hardly enjoyable for my weak American taste buds. When my tongue finally cools down enough for me to speak properly again, I ask our host brother if they always eat food this spicy. Holding in laughter, he nods. “This is India!” he says. They introduce me to curd, a tangy yogurt that, when mixed with dal, allows me to consume as much spice as I like.

The next day, we go to Aarti Village to meet the girls who live there. When we tell them our names, they repeat them back to us, followed by “akka”, a Telugu word meaning older sister. Girls grin as they smother us with hugs, braid our hair, and carefully coat our fingertips with cold mehendi paste that will stain our hands a bright, beautiful orange once taken off. As they pamper me, I ask them if they call all older girls their older sisters. Without hesitating, they tell me yes, of course they do, that we’re family.

“This is India,” they explain. Later in our trip on National Friendship Day, which the girls call “Sisters Day”, they tie beaded thread bracelets around my wrist and ask me to promise that I won’t take it off. I tell them yes, of course I won’t, that we’re family.

When we begin work, Sandhyamma, the founder of Aarti, details the story of the organization to us. As she recalls how Aarti started as a small shelter for abandoned girls then turned into the school and home it is today, her voice is filled with an unwavering passion for women’s rights that has shaped the radical, expectation-defying institution Aarti has become. She tells us that Aarti now offers livelihood programs, bridge schooling, and sensitization workshops meant to leave young women emotionally and economically independent in a community more receptive to combating practices that contribute to gender based discrimination. Eyes twinkling, she proudly reveals that the first girl that Aarti cared for has recently accepted a job in the government sector.

She goes on to discuss the trials of Aarti’s work, telling us how Kadapa’s improving gender ratio is still one of the lowest in the country, how it is extremely difficult for organizations such as Aarti to receive government funding, how more and more children in need come to Aarti seeking refuge each year. Eyebrows furrowed, Sandhyamma tells us how she can’t bear to turn them away, even as the school is starting to overflow with students whose families are unable to pay the tuition fees.

A few weeks later, she gives us reports of women’s rights issues in the area to read and condense. Background surveys reveal the challenges that women’s rights defenders commonly face while conducting their work. One man interviewed cites “a general hatred towards women” as the reason he is not willing to support Aarti’s mission. Statistics in Kadapa show that cases of child marriage, domestic abuse, and sex-selective abortions are common. Individuals affected by such cases state that proper medical, legal, and psychological resources are scarce.

“This is India,” Sandhyamma shares sullenly. I feel small in comparison to the centuries-old societal values that she attributes these issues to. The extent to which I can be effective here, in a land and culture that is not my own, feels even smaller.

I want to tell her no, this is not India. I want to discuss how this is the result of ingrained global power dynamics that favor masculinity and the male sex, which are in no way unique to this country nor its people. I want to talk about how these dynamics play out similarly in other places, such as the exploitation of female domestic workers in the Philippines or the stories of abuse behind the #MeToo movement in the United States. I want to ask her about the prominence of female leaders in medieval and present day Indian politics. I want to have a conversation on the extent of this blanket statement’s validity, considering that it generalizes a population of more than one billion people. Instead, I slowly nod my head side to side as if I understand, though I know that there are a great number of things that I do not.

During our second to last week, the school is on holiday in honor of Indian Independence Day. In place of attending classes, students gather in the school’s courtyard to watch their peers sing, dance, and act. We are greeted with “Happy Freedom Day, akka!” as soon as we arrive. Dressed in green, white, and orange, preschool children pose in trios to make their own version of the Indian flag, topped with excited smiles and endearingly chubby cheeks.

The program ends with a skit about India’s fight for independence in 1947. It contains the celebration’s only reference to the British Empire, which my host brother calls our “common enemy”. The play begins with four children, each representing a prominent religion in India (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism), who fight over the validity of their respective religious beliefs and practices. However, when a band of students dressed in blue invades the scene, signifying the terror of British rule, the four children band together under a common cause: to defend India. Led by a boy playing Ghandi, the boys throw their cardboard weapons to the ground, confidently pushing the enemy group off of the stage and out of their country. Cheers erupt for the victors while a student behind them waves the Indian flag in the air. Under it, students appear and eagerly carry out a carefully choreographed dance routine. The audience is full of beaming children with smaller flags in their hands, flag stickers on the front of their uniforms, and hearts full of national pride. Though I know the skit is an extremely simplified version of history, the scene brings tears to my eyes.

I feel it in the air: this is India, a country that is home to the oldest religion in the world, in which traditional clothing is worn on a daily basis in many states, and where beliefs in the holiness and healing power of certain herbs still greatly influence culinary practices today. A country that has proudly retained these beautiful, integral pieces of its culture despite 89 years of colonial rule.

We spend our last week wrapping up our summer projects. While our team of four interns celebrates small victories in fundraising, outreach, and advocacy, the reality of how much work there is left to be done at Aarti and in the fight for women’s rights in India weighs heavily on us. However, I leave with faith in the strong powerful women I have met during my stay, whose life stories will continue to inspire me long after I leave. As I reflect on my time in Kadapa, I think of them.

I think of women that I shared fleeting moments with: the secretary of Kadapa’s Women’s Coalition who invited us over for mango lassi; a human rights lawyer who welcomed us to a Bharosa Center in Hyderabad; police women who shared the trials of forming a task force focused on addressing women’s rights violations; a young woman who told me not to worry about her after she recounted the discomfort she feels as one of the only girls enrolled at a traditionally boys’ college. They have shown me that female solidarity transcends difference, whether in language, ethnicity, or nationality.

I think of our host mom, a single mother who moved her family five hours away from her hometown and everyone she knows with the sole purpose of ensuring that her children receive a proper education. She has taught me invaluable lessons on fearless strength and unapologetic femininity.

Most especially, I think of Aarti. I think of Sandhyamma, who has created a matriarchy within Aarti in a society where patriarchal values permeate every aspect of daily life. I think of girls who dream of becoming doctors, engineers, and teachers, most of them driven by their goals of coming back to Kadapa someday to uplift others who share their stories. I think of how much everyone at Aarti laughs–not giggles, but wholeheartedly belly laughs–from all the joy they manage to find in life, even when their realities do not leave them much to be optimistic about.

This is India, or at least its future: resilient and revolutionary. And these women are the ones leading it there.

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