It is 11:10 P.M. on April 25, 2016. I‘m leaving for the airport in under 6 hours. Even now, the gravity of this 2 month stint abroad hasn’t set in. At this point, I’m positive it won’t feel real until I’m in India, lost in the chaotic frenzy, aggravated by the incessant honking. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been counting down the days until I leave, my laughter growing increasingly hysteric as the double digits turned single.
I’m at zero now.
Alongside the cacophonous chortling, a tingling sensation has begun to slowly overwhelm me – as if every atom in my body is conscious of what is soon to come. Needless to say, I’m excited. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this elated in my whole life.
So, back to the beginning. My road to a summer in South Asia began with an email from my Sanskrit professor. Although the details were scant, he mentioned a program in which students could intern or conduct independent research in India during the summer months. Upon reading this, I was under the impression that a research proposal had to follow the archetypal fields of study – science, medicine, technology, etc. Regardless, I was interested.
I went to the SiSA website and the following words caught my attention: The program is designed to be flexible: you research and choose the NGO or business you'd like to be affiliated with, tell us what you want to study, design a program to accomplish your goals, and we will fund the best and most unique proposals to cover most of your costs.
My research proposal only makes sense with a bit of my personal background. One of my firmest beliefs is that humans are born with two mental faculties: one of logic and one of emotion. Left-Brain/Right-Brain, Art/Science, Yin/Yang: there exists distinctions of eerie similarity, but most except the latter are as all-encompassing as this duality of logic and emotion. Alongside this, I am in continual pursuit of the ideal. Of course, my value system is subjective and by nature, incomplete. Even if it wasn’t, the grand ideal I envision would be no less unattainable. It seems almost contradictory, but that very impossibility is my central motivation.
With these principles paramount, I strive to maximize both these mental faculties. Hence, I study the most rigorous fields of logical reasoning: philosophy and mathematics, complementing these with my creative pursuits: fiction and fashion. Alongside this, entrepreneurship has always been of personal interest, especially the intersection between art and business. Appending all these individual facets, I envision myself publishing books and launching, managing, and designing my own clothing line.
All this in mind, I wondered what research would suit me best. I have long had an infatuation with traditional Indian garb, so my first instinct was to investigate the country’s fashion industry. My answer was soon immediate. Poring the Internet for facts, statistics, and whatever information I could scrape up, I realized the lack-luster state of this industry’s research. It’s completely ludicrous: the rich textile tradition of the world’s second most populous nation is almost completely undocumented.
In defense, the present state of the Indian textile industry is much different from any of its western counterparts. Due to the hyper-industrialization of certain areas – such as silk capital Surat - and underdevelopment of impoverished regions, there exists perhaps the world’s most diverse selection of textiles, from homespun goods to roadside shops to shopping malls to luxury maisons. Understanding this led to the culmination of my first question: What, if at any, prices are Indians paying less than their western counterparts for clothing of the same quality? To study this, I have created my own metric to gauge quality from a series of factors (Fabric, Seams, Lining, Design, etc.) and will be collecting data on the streets of Mumbai and in different cities around the country. I will mirror this quantitative measure in the United Status, and use statistical analysis to compare the data sets. Although this will serve as a ground level analysis, I will be reaching out to companies and organizations to get a better understanding of the fashion industry’s relation to the Indian wealth disparity trend.
Still, fashion is and has always been much more than just attire: it is a culture defined by cyclical trends and movements. In the West, there is an inseparable tie between music, cinema and fashion. I’m sure a similar cultural crisscross exists in India. Yet, within these general dynamics, there are numerous subcultures that carve particular niches within the industry. Of these, I am most interested in youth culture. Although it holds a reputation of mimicking the West, Indian youth culture is a tangled mass characterized by two polarities. One is the age-old heritage that traces its origins to Vedic India, while the other is the permeating Western influence that is becoming increasingly overbearing with the impending ubiquity of the Internet. Information is scant, and my only contacts so far have been local bloggers. Although I intend to meet with them in the upcoming weeks, the real heart of this investigation will be on the ground, meeting people on the streets and in the shops. The focus will be its influence on fashion, but I will also study Indian youth culture as a social phenomenon.
It was with these ideas in mind that I applied for the SiSA Fellowship. Alongside giving me the chance to explore a unique, uncharted topic, this project will allow me to integrate myself within my own culture in a way I haven’t yet before. Although I’ve visited India in the past, it was either for marriages/family affairs or for a short stint at an International Academy in Chennai. This time will be completely different. Rather than tag alongside extended family or follow a regimented schedule, I will be immersing myself in a passion that has come to define both myself and the career I intend to create.
The funny thing is, I was originally rejected from the Summer in South Asia program. It was a Tuesday. I was working on a problem set on the 3rd floor of the Ugli. Tweaking at each beep and ring, I had been on edge the whole day, anxiously waiting for an email from Janelle. Eraser marks spilling off the side of table side, my phone made a single buzz: my Gmail notification. Believing it to be a confirmation, I frantically typed in the passcode and watched the app buffer. Moments later, a cold letter of rejection stared back at me.
I was heartbroken; I couldn’t even focus. So I went home and wallowed in sadness. Yes, a myriad of expletives was indeed yelled at an unnecessarily high decibel range. It took a couple days, but I realized that this experience is too important, too formative for me to stop at the impetus of a single denial. I told myself I was going anyways. Calling up my extended family, I began planning a self-funded trip to India.
It wasn’t long before I got another email. This time, I was at my job, capturing images under a microscope. The subject line read: SiSA Offer Letter. It was from Janelle. Someone had dropped out of the program: I now had a spot.
I had to step back and think about it for a moment. Was it luck or was it will? Although the ends were the same, when something of this much gravity hung in the balance, I had to think about it. I don’t subscribe to a belief that everyone gets in life what is due. Maybe in death, maybe at the end of time, but for me, too much is contingent to ever be sure. Yet, sitting there and staring at that acceptance letter, the planets seemed to magically align. I’m writing this now, so it’s obvious I accepted, but thinking about the transition from denial to acceptance still leaves me uncertain.
Writing this took a lot longer than I expected. Currently, I am on a plane from Boston to Dubai. I think we’re flying over Africa about now. As I gaze at my fellow travelers and reminisce of the plastic-tasting slice of mushroom I consumed a couple hours ago, this still doesn’t seem real. I guess this is just the way it is until my feet touch Indian soil.