Journey to the Heart of India

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On the 2nd of April I arrived in Nagpur, the geographic centre of India, to begin work on the VISHRAM (VIdarbha Stress and Health progRAM) pilot study, and it being my first trip to the country, I was not altogether certain of what to expect. Looking back, it is hard to believe that was already nearly three weeks ago. Since then I have rapidly assimilated myself into the daily rhythm of life here in Nagpur, and with each passing day, I find more new things to love about the city and its people.

I am here for my field-based doctoral research, for which I am undertaking an evaluation-based project as a Research Fellow with Sangath, an Indian health NGO, in the context of VISHRAM, a sustainable, community-based mental health care intervention programme in Vidarbha Region, Maharashtra, India. The key objective of VISHRAM is to implement and evaluate a comprehensive, population-based, psychosocial intervention (based on a lay community health worker-led implementation model for case ID, referral, and basic counselling) to reduce psychosocial distress and suicide risk, through targeted interventions for the prevention and management of common mental disorders and alcohol abuse in the region’s agricultural communities. My research focus in evaluation is in relation to programme coverage and associated collective outcomes within a theory of change framework. I will explain more aspects of my research experiences later as the story unfolds and I expand upon my narrative of life and work here in Nagpur.

However, all stories have a beginning, and likewise, all people have expectations of various cultures thanks, in part, to widely perceived stereotypes and also to truthful observations of life. India did not disappoint. Within thirty seconds of leaving Nagpur airport, I spotted a pedestrian cow – it was my first confirmation – a bona-fide reality check – positively affirming that I was, indeed, in India. In conversing with the auto driver and watching the city street scenes flash by outside the sedan’s passenger side window, I quickly became aware of India’s cultural distinction and richness. From the chaotic traffic patterns and characteristic headshakes to the vibrant clothing, multitudes of colourful roadside markets, and bold advertisement signage, India was pulsing with life and humming with activity, and there I was, hurtling through the midst of it.

As we made our way, heading west by northwest through the city, the driver skilfully avoiding collision with fellow commuters and yet more cows which, upon realising that here they truly are everywhere, I amusingly recalled a comment made by my rather witty Indian epidemiology professor back at the University of Notre Dame in the US: “In India, we don’t eat the cow, we go around the cow!” This is indeed a veritable fact.

After easing through fairly dense evening traffic, some twenty minutes later we arrived at St. Vincent Pallotti Catholic parish and community centre, where the community health worker training was taking place. Within the evening, I was introduced to the wonderful Sangath Nagpur staff and VISHRAM project team members, warmly welcomed to my flat by my landlords, and was invited (and gladly accepted!) to partake in both pre-dinner socialisation activities, inclusive of a singing competition, and the parish-provided communal dinner together with the VISHRAM community health workers.

Despite not knowing any Hindi, I was easily integrated into the culture and social structure of the group, and I found myself very much at ease in the environment and thoroughly enjoying every minute of my time spent interacting with and learning from others.1 Indeed, I think the lattermost item – learning – is the most essential. Sure, I am here with the primary professional goal of engaging in my dissertation research. However, I have an equally important secondary goal to learn from my fellow people in the context of the global classroom, from close friends and colleagues, to the wider community.

Community IS people, and therefore every community is only as welcoming, friendly, and accommodating as its people, and thus, experiences are only as enjoyable as the community allows. When it comes to community values, Nagpur is near ideal, and these values are what largely account for the city’s idyllic environment, rightfully earning it the title of one of India’s “most desirable” and “liveable” cities. I do not yet have a solid ground for comparison, as I would have to visit other parts of India in order to provide a fair assessment, but I find this description highly believable and likely to be objectively true.

I have experienced a distinct sense of kinship with the community, a renewed vivacity of spirit, and a feeling of ease in my activities here, comprising what I have found to be an unparalleled quality of life. Developed or developing, urban or rural, Indian or English, it’s the attitudes of the people that make all the difference, and it seems I have found my second home. In a relatively short time, I have found my niche here in the heart of India, and I have developed a profound sense of respect and admiration for its people and a passion for its vibrant and storied culture.

I already owe much to this community, especially my new-found friends and colleagues, for embracing and adopting me with open arms, indifferent to and accepting of my apparent differences, and in this convivial context, I find myself comfortably in pursuit of my academic goals within Sangath’s VISHRAM team.

1At this point, I would like to note that when it comes to linguistics, I am not ignorant. I do not wish to be accommodated when in another country with an official language that I do not speak. As an expat, it is my responsibility to learn the local language and to assimilate into the culture here, not only to facilitate communication with the local people, but also to better understand the culture and rich history, to learn from the people and environment around me, and to have my experiences teach me about the context in which I am living. Learning the language is not a technical “duty” but rather a willing enjoyment in undertaking and a rewarding enrichment experience, as well. As a natively bilingual Polish/English speaker, with professional proficiency in Spanish and basic proficiency in Haitian Creole, I hope that ease of language acquisition serves me well in learning Hindi. My goal is to achieve professional speaking proficiency over the duration of my 2-year residence in India.

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