As I sat in the Gandhiji’s personal prayer area at Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad in the sweltering heat, I felt completely at peace. Gandhiji stayed in this Ashram from 1915 to 1933 and his presence is still felt there today. People from all over the world visit this ashram, including a group of 17 youngsters from the USA, India, and Australia. They called themselves inSPIRE.
InSPIRE is a 5-week long immersion program which seeks to connect South Asians from abroad to India. I had not been to India for over ten years, but was fortunate enough to obtain a generous scholarship from the ICA (Indians for Collective Action), which is a San Francisco based non-profit group which supports innovative community-led development projects throughout India. The ICA saw potential in inSPIRE and supported my journey to explore my heritage and culture throughout India. I was about to visit my birth country for the first time in over ten years and was both excited and nervous. I arrived in India thinking that I would be serving the needy and “saving the world” in my own way. I soon realized that I would learn more from the children in the slums , the students in the alternative tribal school, and the passionate organic farmers than I could ever imagine
Manav Sadhana, which literally means service to mankind, served as our initial exposure to both the perils and beauty of Gujarat. I was born in a small village in Gujarat called Khambhat, but I moved to the USA with my family when I was four years old. Therefore, this journey was truly personal and exhilarating for me. At Manav Sadhana, I learned of the principle of seeing God in every individual–where service to individuals became a service to God (a principle I was taught my entire life, but was actually able to practice here at Manav Sadhana). It was also a huge advantage that I was fluent in Gujarati and was able to converse with all of the children and beneficiaries of Manav Sadhana.
Our very first project was to offer a bath to children of Ramapir-no-tekro (the largest slum area in Ahmedabad). I remember being very nervous and unsure of myself. However, once I got started, I became more and more confident. The children I worked with were a set of brothers– Deepak (my father’s name) and Manav, six and seven years old respectively. Seeing the two of them together melted my heart—they were attached at the hip and insisted that they were bathed together. They were very nervous, but as soon as they felt the water on their skin, they were elated. I soon realized that singing would make things even more exciting–so I started singing with the kids. That was one of the most magical moments for me–both Deepak and Manav were singing with joy and were thoroughly enjoying the shower and the cleanliness (things we definitely take for granted). I dried the children off with a towel and massaged coconut oil in their hair. Finally, after a beautiful prayer thanking God for the shower and the food, the boys ate a healthy lunch along with the other boys and girls from the Tekro.
This was our very first experience with the kids from the slum and really forced me to reflect upon my existence. I was a girl from the US, who showered twice a day and was always lucky enough to have food on the table and a sturdy roof over my head. It sparked something inside me and I made a promise to myself that I would return to Manav Sadhana to conduct eye exams on those who needed them the most once I become an eye doctor. This was one of many beautiful experiences I had with inSPIRE.
Our journey continued throughout Gujarat, exploring villages and alternative ways of life. We made our way to Madhya Pradesh to learn about the struggles Adivasis (the tribals) face on a daily basis. We learned about organic farming and sustainable living in Maharashtra, explored our pre-conceived ideas of development in Delhi, and explored inner happiness and our ideas of peace in Himachal Pradesh.
The program pushed me and definitely took me out of my comfort zone but I would do it all again in a flash. inSPIRE put things into perspective for me and allowed me to solidify my goal of returning to India to provide free eye exams for those who need them the most.
About the Author:
Khushali is a second year student at the New England College of Optometry in Boston, MA and participated in inSPIRE 2009. You can reach her at Khuush@gmail.com