Her name is Silpa Kaza and she is almost surreally overqualified for the work she is doing in Gujarat. Kaza has a bachelor’s in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), master’s in economics from the London School of Economics and is on her way to Harvard for a second master’s in public health. She speaks in Telugu with her mother; and is now speaking Gujarati into her mobile phone to a little girl in faraway Bhuj. “Alykhan theek che,” she says. Or something like that. “They all love Alykhan,” she says with an American accent. Waif-like Kaza has spent the last year working on a solid waste-management project in the slums of Bhuj. She has lived with a tailor’s family and is speaking to the tailor’s seven-year-old daughter who has been her pal and sleeping companion for the last year.
His name is Rikin Tank and he’s a smiling California boy on the path to become a doctor. For the last year, he has given up beaches, clean bedlinen, friends and family to live with migrants in their huts in Ahmedabad, working on a public health project.
Slumming it: The Indicorps Fellows are on a year-long stint in India. Shoba Narayan
Tank and Kaza are among 25 Indicorps Fellows—American college graduates who are taking a year off to do “service for the soul”, as the logo says. Each of them is a child of privilege: born and raised in the US to professional Indian parents; with private schooling, three-car garages, vacations in the Amazon and Africa, the latest gizmos for Christmas and Diwali, the whole bit. Most have visited India to see relatives before; some, like Alykhan Mohammed, a graduate of Tufts University, who worked with Kaza in Bhuj, never have. Yet after getting a bachelor’s degree at an Ivy League university, and often working in high-earning jobs for a few years, each of them told their flabbergasted parents that they were leaving the well-trodden path of sure success—at least from their immigrant parents’ point of view—to work in the slums of India for a year.
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It is the end of that year, and they have gathered in the Environmental Sanitation Institute of Ahmedabad to take stock, trade stories and say goodbyes. I am there because my niece, Nithya Krishnan, has been an Indicorps Fellow, working in Naxalite-affected Gadchiroli and interior Karnataka for the last year. When Nithyaannounced that she was going to work with tribals for a year, everyone in her (and my) family was shocked. Her parents are both very successful doctors with flourishing private practices; her grandparents retired from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS); she grew up in a six-bedroom mansion, the kind that appears in Hindi movies. She was on track to be a doctor—a paediatric surgeon, she used to say as a child—till she told us that she was going to spend a year doing tribal healthcare. A year in service. Why?
I am in Ahmedabad to figure out why 25 high-achieving students spent the last year in slums or India’s remotest villages, living on less than Rs 2,000 per month. Are they merely slumming it in the land of their parents; or are they in it for real—to do good work; to give back? Well, the short answer is the latter. You can slum it for a month, maybe two. But to live in the Dharavi-equivalent for a year takes courage, idealism, and what Steve Jobs calls staying hungry and staying foolish. If you want to be cynical, you can say that these American-born Confused Desis knew that this was a finite stay with an exit route, so nothing (not fly-infested toilets or carrying firewood) would make them feel bad. After all, at the end of the year, they could go back home. As one friend said, “It is one thing to be poor for a year; it’s quite another to have poverty extend indefinitely.” But the point is that these youngsters are not “trying” to be poor. They are undergoing an immersion experience that will likely transform the way they interact with the world in a significant manner. Plus, they are infused with extraordinary idealism to change their world, if not the world.
The woman in the middle of this maelstrom of mismatched expectations between immigrant, high-achieving parents and their equally high-achieving Indian-American children is Roopal Shah, herself a heavy-hitting lawyer with an undergraduate degree from Harvard. She surfs, runs marathons and she has “crazy beautiful” eyes, a cross between Aishwarya Rai and Arundhati Roy. Shah’s sister, Sonal, works in the Obama administration. Her brother Anand and his wife Shilpa, both born and raised in America, live in Ahmedabad getting people to think differently, mostly recently in social enterprise.
I sit through multiple intense workshops, listen to their stories and play frisbee with them. What are they doing here in India when they could be in New York or LA? Part of it is figuring themselves and their homeland out; making peace with their past so that they can embrace the future. But it is also the age-old Indian thing—honouring ancestors by giving back to their home country, if a few passports removed. The Jews have been doing it for decades and Israel is richer for it. For that simple reason, I am all for Indicorps. I’ll go further. If you have a cousin, nephew, niece or child who wants to give back to India in a fairly professional, yet personally intense environment, ask them to consider being an Indicorps Fellow for a year. If they can get in, that is—the competition is pretty stiff. It will do India good; but equally important, it will do the kid good.
For every diaspora, the relationship with the home country is both compelling and conflicting. The Indian diaspora is just reaching a critical global mass. They have made good, done well and achieved all their material goals. Now, they are looking to assuage their souls and India should be poised to receive this help. Indicorps is one way, as is the Piramal Foundation Fellowship, Teach for India, and a growing number of NGOs which cater to this NRI desire to give back. India should take advantage of it.
I’ve pondered the diaspora connection with home country pretty deeply. It’s exactly like Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Or in this case, the home country wins.
Shoba Narayan wishes she could be an Indicorps Fellow for a month. Write to her at email@example.com