Pranavi Kethanboyina, Class of 2022, is a Public Policy major and Human Rights minor. She spent her past summer volunteering for Aarti.
“Tell me about India.”
If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have painted you an image: Mosquitoes constantly after your blood, dozens of fire-red welts on the skin. An inability to eat fruits and vegetables, because of the natural diarrhea following. Toilets- or lack of. Quarrels and questions and a constant feeling of displacement.
And most of all: wondering if I belonged at all.
These were the thoughts racing through my head as we embarked on the long journey from San Francisco to Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh. Choosing to come back to India, this time as a Stanford intern for Project Dosti, was a decision I made for multiple reasons: a curiosity about women’s rights in India, a passion for education and development, and most of all, a strong desire to experience life in India on my own.
During our time interning at Aarti for Girls, we interns worked on a myriad of projects: developing and piloting a computer literacy curriculum for teachers, re-structuring the Aarti website, fundraising thousands of dollars for school scholarships, and creating a wellness database for each and every student. I learned about nonprofit work and women’s empowerment, just as I had hoped.
I didn’t expect to learn so much else. This was just my latest visit to Andhra Pradesh, the state in India where we lived and where my family is from. However, this was the first time I traveled alone, and the first time I traveled from one worldview of India to another.
Being at Aarti this summer gave me the chance to be a mentor for the first time, and through this I learned a lesson I should have already known: about just how much children can look up to you, and the big space you can take up in their hearts. I realized why it’s so important to listen carefully to young people and value them, their thoughts, and ideas. I remembered how much fun it can be to play, laugh, and be in the moment with kids who just want to have a good time.
This didn’t mean there weren’t challenges. While it sometimes felt easy to speak Telugu (the native language of Kadapa, and coincidentally, the language I grew up hearing my parents speak) with the girls at the school, when it came to more difficult conversations, like negotiating with auto drivers or speaking with government officials, the words sometimes froze in my mouth. I struggled to manage the communication barrier on behalf of all of us interns, and it rarely went smoothly.
Many times, I wondered about how my identity affected my experience. When I wished I could relate with the people of Aarti on all aspects of their background, rather than just a select few things. When I wished I could help them feel less alone, but just didn’t have the words to do so. Again and again I was reminded that my identity could sometimes be a handicap, but also a big window into the lives of people here.
A few weeks into our internship, two older women from a nearby village moved into our guesthouse to live with us interns. One of the women had recently escaped a situation of domestic violence, and as she was tearfully explaining her story to me, I was stricken. Or when the littlest girls at the school would quickly and comfortably slip into Telugu to tell me their stories of deep loss or trauma, I felt so deeply for them, but I never could comfort them in the way I wanted to. When we sat with these women and girls and tried to share their sorrow, I felt at once intensely connected with them and simultaneously, so far away. It caused me to wonder about the enormous divides between people, how and why our lives should be so different.
Understanding people in their own context – that was something I thought about a lot before coming to Aarti. But surprisingly, I wasn’t always concerned with context during my time here.
The people of Aarti have inspired me by their willingness to live freely and without guise. They have an affection that is so close to the surface, and a hospitality and selflessness I am so grateful to have experienced. They are fantastically unashamed and taught me to be so as well. They reminded me to worry less about the meaning of life, and just focus on living.
I’ve always been told that being Indian means eating Indian food, listening to Indian music or knowing all the Bollywood movies.
But I think a little differently now. I think of India as that dynamic space between my host brother and I as I chased him during a game of tag. I think of hiking a mountain nearby Aarti Village, Paalakonda, and of the unforgettable feeling of being in the quiet, deserted temple at the top. I think of the rhythmic shaking, thundering, of the marble floor at Aarti Village on Sundays at 6pm when the girls have an enormous, uncontainable dance party.
I think of the quiet pride in my grandmother’s voice when I am finally able to speak with her by myself, in our own language.
So now, when asked about India –
I’ll tell you about easily slipping in and out of a language I have never really wanted to speak before.
I’ll tell you about my list of student names from the Aarti School, pages long by the end of the summer, the list I carefully pored over every day in an effort to learn everyone’s names. About Dheekshitha’s determination to be the President of India and all her plans to help the homeless and unemployed, about Keerthi’s quick wit, bright smile, and dreams of becoming a doctor someday, about Reshma’s jokes and her brilliant mind. About Shirisha’s laughter, about Nandini’s big heart.
I’ll talk about vibrant, silk-woven sarees in saffron and sapphire blue, mint green and white butterflies that fly in thick swarms all around you, I’ll tell you about the first time I witnessed beauty in my own culture.
I’ll tell you about walking with purpose and pride, I’ll tell you about a land thousands of years old, I’ll tell you about people full of warmth and generosity.
I’ll tell you about Sandhyamma and her family, who have taught me more about love and spirit than I’ve learned from anyone. And about laughter-filled moments of teaching my host “grandmother” how to use a washing machine for the first time (and witnessing her amazed reaction as I explained that the machine actually finishes a cycle and turns off by itself).
I’ll tell you about how I came here ready to feel displacement, a misfit into my own skin. But instead, I felt like I was coming home. I’ll tell you about the time I finally decided to wear a bindi and kurti to school with pride.
And I’ll tell you about the many times the Aarti girls would ask me: “Akka, are you an Indian?” And how, by the end of the trip, I could suddenly easily speak.
“Yes, I am.”