Seeing the ‘real India’

Today is day 28 of placement. In addition to the social work learnings, there have been the day to day adjustments to life in India, including showering with a bucket, using a squat toilet and water instead of toilet paper, eating with my hands, and accepting that I will be served rice and yellow dahl for breakfast, lunch and dinner! There’s been public transport adventures via autos, buses and trains, the privilege of sharing meals and chai with families and tribal communities, witnessing communities celebrating Ganesh Chatturi and Dussehra, visiting temples, buying saris, seeing movies in Hindi and Telugu, and having a favourite Telugu song we sing to in the car!

Lately, I’ve really struggled with feeling ‘de-skilled’ on this placement and I’m constantly questioning how I can incorporate 10 years of knowledge and learning in to my experience here. The simple answer is that I can’t because this is community development work, not case work, but it’s almost impossible to view situations objectively in a cross-cultural setting. When I speak to family and friends and they ask me how I’m feeling, it’s too big a question for me to answer. For me, travel and living overseas create an environment of emotional highs and lows of emotions from week to week, but whilst travelling and living in India I’ve experienced this daily.

Then there’s my conflict about whether I’m going to be exposed to the ‘real India’. I first started thinking about this when we arrived on campus in September. The uni has a signs promoting safety for women and respectful relationships which I was really surprised by. But in the same month, a Tamil paper the Kumudam Reporter, posted photos (without consent) of women wearing leggings with their Kurtis (tunics) blowing up in the wind. The sensationalist paper has a history of misogyny and the article titled ‘Are leggings obscene? The youth are crossing the line’ was an attempt at moral policing and body shaming young women.

My conflict about experiencing the ‘real India’ has been present in our visits to tribal communities too. Whilst we sit and sip chai, chatting with villagers, the news reports an alarming number of rural farmers committing suicide due to the drought – an issue that hasn’t come up on any of our visits. And coming from a background in out-of-home care, I can’t help but feel that I’m not gaining a real insight to the welfare of children in India. Last month we laughed and drew pictures with school children from a an urban slum in Bhubaneswar, and just four days ago Police in northern India arrested four men over allegations that they killed two children from the Dalit community (untouchables) by burning them alive.

I keep reading that India is full of contradictions. This is true and I’ve become one too. I’m a social work student and I believe in fairness and equality, yet I’m already immersed in the class system and have drivers, cleaners and cooks taking care of my daily needs. Every day I battle with the patriarchy of living and studying in India. Issues of gender and safety mean I don’t walk anywhere alone. I’m always chaperoned, and one of my task supervisor’s 17 year old son and his friends thought it appropriate to assert themselves as our entourage at the train station. My supervisor tells me that a 7 year old boy would be considered an appropriate chaperone by some people, simply because he is male.

It’s a lot to take. I’m learning that I have to let go of the idea that I’m ‘just an observer’, to surrender, and to immerse myself in this experience to understand what is happening here.


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation 

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mattpaola
    Oct 26, 2015 @ 09:48:33

    Wow! That’s gotta be my favourite post. Very raw and well articulated.


  2. Mary Stokes
    Oct 27, 2015 @ 08:27:38

    Hi Bec, please stay safe and take in the experience as I know you already have. I have some news Tessa and her boyfriend Thomas are going to Ireland they are staying with Thomas and Kay for about a week, they’ll have a ball !!!!


    • Rebecca
      Oct 27, 2015 @ 15:34:00

      Thanks Mary! That’s so exciting for Tessa and Thomas, they’ll have an amazing time with family in Ireland…can’t wait to talk to her about it!


  3. Andrea
    Oct 28, 2015 @ 11:48:03

    Thank you Bec for sharing your reflections on life in India. You write with such integrity & allow the reader to visualize some of what you are experiencing. I hear your conflict and wonder myself had you not had your 10 years experience of doing what you do so well – where you would be. Keep doing what you are doing – you are making a difference in more ways than you will ever imagine. Keep staying safe and being the amazing being that you are … Namaste x


    • Rebecca
      Oct 28, 2015 @ 12:54:36

      Hi A! Thanks for your lovely words. I’m missing you and using my oil and remembering to breathe. Can’t wait to share more stories with you when I’m back. Love you xx


  4. Kaylene Moran
    Oct 31, 2015 @ 04:03:16

    Wow Bec! I now feel’re writing is impeccable as usual & your ability to enable your readers to actually feel as if they are right there with you is amazing.
    India isn’t alone in its contradictions & hypocrisy though: we just have to glance in our own backyard here to also witness that.
    In saying that, stay safe whilst enjoying this adventure. What a learning experience for you. Take care xxx


    • Rebecca
      Oct 31, 2015 @ 13:15:00

      Very true…contradictions and hypocrisy are everywhere. I think this experience will help me tune in to that more when I’m back home. You’ll have to send me an update on how your placement is going and we can share stories on the adult-student life 🙂


  5. Trackback: Life-changing lessons from India – Surrender | the distance to here

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