India - Spring 2014

“It’s going to change your life.” That’s what everyone will tell you before you go to India for the first time. So I guess I was expecting for there to be a moment of revelation during the trip that would strike me like a bolt of lightning. A single instant where all the answers to life’s mysteries would be revealed and I would never again succumb to ennui or road rage or selfishness... I think I even gave myself a little pep talk about halfway through the trip, like “alright, Katy, keep your eyes peeled for that big moment!”  

We’ve been back in the U.S. almost a month now and on the surface my life is unchanged. I live in the same small apartment and go to work at the same job everyday. But something is different. I think now that the change was more like a period of great seismic activity than any kind of lightning bolt. It was a gradual shift, punctuated with tiny volcanic eruptions of joy and sadness.

There was the first night in Mumbai where we wandered the streets, my camera clicking constantly until we came upon a small wedding party dancing in the street. I dropped my camera into my bag and fell into a spell, feeling like the luckiest person alive to be able to watch an intimate family celebration. To my complete astonishment, one of the women from the wedding party started pulling the six of us Americans into the small dancing crowd and for the rest of the night I found myself moved to tears, simply overwhelmed with the kindness she extended in that invitation.

On the fifth day of the trip we took an overnight train, travelling in a 2nd class sleeper car. We had been warned by several people to be very careful, to protect our belongings from theft. Quite to the contrary, we made numerous friends that night. The air was filled with the sound of play and song and at one point the most raucous game of Uno took place in our compartment with a couple of young kids, a pair of teenage siblings, and a young father travelling without his family. There were huge outbursts of laughter and plenty of teasing. It was one of the few moments on the trip when I didn’t feel aware of caste or nationality or economic background.

About halfway through the trip, we had an opportunity to interview a potential scholar in Calcutta; a shy young woman with the nickname Mimi. We asked her many questions about her interests and her family and she answered each question carefully. Then we asked: What is your dream job?  She was completely silent. My heart broke at the thought of young women growing up in a culture that doesn’t encourage them to pursue an education or a career. A culture that doesn’t value them.  It’s amazing to think that this project could give a young woman the education needed for her dream job. It’s even more amazing that it gives young women the reason to begin dreaming in the first place.

On our last night of the trip we celebrated the graduation of two of the Darjeeling students; the first graduates to come out of the Learning Tea. The girls had put together a small talent show for us with singing and dancing. One of the two graduates has been learning to play the violin and she offered to play something for us… It was incredible. I can’t completely explain it but my eyes were hot with tears as I watched her perform, hitting a few squeaky notes along the way. I suppose I was just in awe of her courage and a tiny bit ashamed of myself, of my squandered opportunities and endless chances at success as an American. This student has come out of circumstances so difficult that we can’t begin to understand. Not only is she graduating from college now but she is also hoping to pursue an advanced degree through the new Learning Tea center in Calcutta. She is lovely and kind and self-assured. She is an inspiration.

So, yes. The trip to India was a giant, rumbling, life-changing earthquake and the aftershocks have followed me all the way home to the U.S. It shook loose all kinds of thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams. I think about the girls in Darjeeling almost every day... I think about their courage and their kindness. I wonder if they know that they changed my life?  And then I think about ALL the lives that they’re going to change as teachers, nurses, and government officials. I only hope that I can support them along the way and maybe encourage others to help them as well.

Katy Baum, for The Learning Tea