In the days leading up to my departure, my worries and concerns weren’t focused towards food or jet lag or bathrooms or living situations— they were focused towards my feelings. How would I feel traveling with 7 strangers in a foreign country that I already do not feel 100% comfortable in? What do I do if someone doesn’t like me or I don’t like someone? What happens if this trip doesn’t meet my expectations or worse, what if it does? What if it’s everything I expected it to be and am thus left fundamentally disappointmented because I expected this trip to be beyond my wildest dreams. And I think overall there’s something to be said about the nature of comfort. Of stability. Of expectedness. India is not about being comfortable. India is about being uncomfortable but equally understanding that this so called adversity will shape us in some way. But I have only ever lived in a Midwestern suburb called ‘Maple Grove’— discomfort is a world fundamentally missing from my emotional toolbox.
In our visit to the National Museum we circled around this main motif of religion. And this made me uncomfortable. I consider myself a Hindu and I am born to Tamil Brahman family, but I have never been forced to evaluate my privilege because I don’t live somewhere where caste matters. Our guide for the National Museum was a teacher named Shaguftha. She was incredibly knowledgeable and eloquent and walked us through the history of cultural India in a way that made sense— highlighting one key artifact from each major time period and then expanding on its cultural importance. When the discussion began to shift to the importance of religion in ancient India, specifically the caste system, I wasn’t sure how to react. As mentioned before I am from a Hindu Brahman family— Brahmans of course being the scholarly elite class. I suppose I should also mention that I don’t personally identify as a Brahman; while I am a vegetarian and do pray to Hindu gods, the concept of caste always seemed foreign to me because I never experienced the privilege that comes intrinsically linked to being a Brahman. The conversation that started in the museum about the ways Brahmans manipulated society to retain higher class power and consolidate Hinduism practically made my skin crawl.
In the United States, I am a minority. And while I don’t experience traditional forms of racial oppression I most certainly don’t carry power or status or privilege over any other group. But the conversation about Brahman power and lower caste oppression forced me to evaluate my privilege and my responsibility. Am I being complacent without actively understanding my privilege and fighting to uplift others? Am I simply adopting then views of my parents because it’s easier than challenge myself to create my own understanding? As an Indian American where do my responsibilities lie in terms of reconciling my privilege that exists here in India?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions— not yet, anyway. But all I can say is that this trip is already challenging me, and it’s only been two days. I didn’t come here for a vacation, I’m not here to relax. I’m here to learn not just about India, but my role as an Indian American in our new global society. And I can’t even begin to do that if I simply stay in my comfort zone.
Nithya is one of 8 students in Indiaspora’s inaugural HeritageINDIA Program. A unique, immersive, 3-week summer program, this initiative gives high school students of Indian descent the opportunity to connect to their ancestral homeland. Students experience and engage with India’s rich and diverse cultural history by completing hands-on projects, participating in stimulating discussions, and building friendships with a cohort that will share in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. With the exciting theme of India’s Riches: History, Culture, Diversity, & Democracy, students visit three areas of India that are geographically and culturally diverse, yet all very much represent India: New Delhi, Gujarat, and Kerala.