Shikha is a rising sophomore hoping to study environmental engineering. She volunteered at Aarti Home this past summer. (she also sent this mid-week checkin: As Snoop Dogg/Notorious B.I.G. said and I have *edited*, “Ain’t no party like an Aarti party cuz an Aarti party don’t stop… and sometimes you don’t know when it starts either…”)
On our first work day, Sandhyamma, the founder of Aarti, sauntered into our home at 9 am. She greeted each of us Stanford/Santa Clara University volunteers (whom she had met for only 30 minutes on Skype one month before) with a warm smile and hug. The 7 of us proceeded to have our first meeting with the woman whose moniker (the name Sandhya + suffix amma, meaning mom) exemplified her contributions to the community. We heard the statistics. We wrote down fundraising costs. We discussed volunteer tasks. But the bulk of the one-hour meeting was listening to Sandhyamma recount incident after incident about what and who made up the organization we would spend the next eight weeks with.
There was Radhika, the child who inspired Sandhyamma to begin taking care of abandoned children in 1992 and the now successful adult getting promoted to a position in the state government. There were the first Stanford volunteers who helped begin Aarti School in 2007. There were members of the fundraising office, such as Dheeru Akka, the daughter of a family friend of Sandhyamma’s, who after coming to college nearby, became a part of the Aarti family. There was Sandhyamma’s own mother, who she described as a “feminist, even in those days.”
Throughout my time in Kadapa, I struggled to figure out how to describe every aspect of volunteering at Aarti – the genuine happiness and comfort I felt without exceptionalizing the situation or removing the hardships. I’ve found that describing my experience through stories – much like Sandhyamma – brings me closest to my Aarti memories.
Indian hospitality is like nothing else. Once, a woman living one block away appeared at the doorstep of our guesthouse. She took us to her home, introduced us to her family, prepared mango juice for us, and poured refills the instant I finished my first glass. All after meeting Chloe at the neighborhood shop only two hours before.
The term “lost in translation” came up frequently, like the time we complimented our host mother’s cooking. She laughed, saying we gave her “too many biscuits” (which she defined as handing out compliments). After three days of freely “giving out biscuits,” we were told by the Aarti girls that biscuits referred to empty compliments. However, many things weren’t lost in translation, including teaching the jump rope game “Mousetrap” to the younger girls, learning how to play chess from the older girls, and dancing to Telugu “item songs” on Sunday evenings.
Meetings in Kadapa were truly undefinable. A 30-minute update would turn into meeting Sandhyamma’s visiting cousin from the United States, making plans to go sari shopping in nearby Weaver’s Village, and drinking chai during one of Sandhyamma’s surprise evening visits, when I would hear glimpses of her own life story.
Volunteering as an Indian-American deserves a volume of its own. During our first visit to Aarti Village, the girls believed I was Indian, until I told them I didn’t speak Telugu. The first day I wore a kurti, chunni, and bindi to work, one of the older students questioned my look, asking “Why are you dressed like an Indian girl?” When visiting a police station in Hyderabad, the guard took one look at me and began speaking fluent Telugu. These moments scared me away from my own identity. But validation came quickly: the moment I finally learned how to say that my parents were from India (making me Indian), the time a young Aarti student screamed Vanakkam, hello in Tamil (my native tongue), as she ran to the bus, and finally, within the goodbye notes the Aarti girls wrote in my journal saying that to them, I was “like an Indian girl.”
It was fitting that on our last day of work, we experienced another such “storytelling” meeting. This was the occasion in which Sandhyamma took the 7 remaining volunteers, fundraising office staff, and school administration members back to 1992 and from there, outlined each event motivating every decision she made about Aarti.
It only cemented what I already realized – to Sandhyamma, those around her, and now me, Aarti is not a series of linear decisions or set of strategies to solve issues of gender discrimination in Kadapa. It is a compilation of stories building off of one another and revealing new themes that inspire the organization to constantly break boundaries.
During our time, I was honored to hear many stories and create my own. Though I contemplated whether I deserved to hear them or whether as a 2-month volunteer from abroad, I deserved to be a part of the narrative, I will continue to tell the lifetime of stories Aarti carries, even the ones before and beyond my chapter.