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  • Confronting Expectations, Embracing Change: Reflections on India

    By Melissa Donze
    January 20, 2012
    Section: Features, Top Stories


    For years I had dreamed of going to India, the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. My interest in world religions drew me to India. I had studied Gandhi and Mother Theresa, and I yearned for its rumored mysticism. I used to think of India as a medley of ashrams, Gandhi, yoga, ornate Hindu temples, vivid colors, Buddha, kama sutra, luscious forests, tranquil silence, exotic animals and an overwhelming, omnipresent feeling of spirituality. I finally got my chance to experience all this. I traveled to Bangalore, India during the summer of 2011 as a Social Justice WOW fellow and a Brandeis-India Initiative fellow to intern with MILANA, a family support network for people living with HIV and AIDS.

    However, three weeks into my two-month stay, I found myself asking: Is this really India? To me, Bangalore felt like a bad imitation of the so-called “Western” world.  I had come to India searching for the old India, and although I didn’t quite know what that meant, I felt I was not finding it in Bangalore.

    It was then that I hit my lowest low. I struggled to find purpose and intention in my work, and I felt like a complete outsider. In a city of millions, I felt so alone. I stuck out like a sore thumb and there was nothing I could do about it. The beautiful Hindu temples were lost among the chaos, noise and confusion of the city. The vivid colors of the women’s saris and salwar kameez were beautiful, but I failed to see their beauty among the many buildings and overcrowded streets. Bangalore was beginning to take its toll on me, and I was tired of feeling lost.

    About a week later, I found myself. After a meeting with a local lawyer to discuss the HIV bill that is currently proposed, my friend and I decided to check out a protest at the town hall being held by the LGBT community and its allies. The protest was being held in opposition to remarks made a day earlier by Indian Health Minister Gulam Nabi Azad. Azad made comments about homosexuality being “unnatural” and claimed it was a disease that needed to be cured.

    The scene we came upon was incredible. A substantial number of people had arranged themselves on the steps of the town hall, and various media representatives were at the scene, filming and interviewing participants. Many who stood in the crowd held rainbow umbrellas open as a sign of government opposition, and it was truly a wonderful sight. The crowd was composed of such a wide variety of people: men, women, young, old, rich, poor, students, hijras and more. Although some of their chants were in Kannada (the local language of Karnataka), some were in English, and I eagerly joined in. The leaders of the protest shouted “We want …” and the crowd shouted back “Justice!” They called for an apology from Azad and for his resignation as health minister, especially since his comments came almost exactly two years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in India.

    Being at that protest was one of the highlights of my time in India. Sex and sexuality is such a hot topic in India right now and to be a part of the movement to change certain notions of homosexuality was incredible. At that protest, I didn’t feel like I was being judged. I felt comfortable. For once, people weren’t looking at my gender or the color of my skin. It didn’t matter to them. What mattered was the fact that I supported them in their fight against homophobia.

    Finally feeling comfortable in Bangalore, I began to open myself up to the experiences and opportunities around me. I began to succeed at work, and I felt myself growing closer to the group of HIV positive women I worked with everyday. My greatest accomplishment was the program I planned and oversaw for a group of 27 of MILANA’s children in my sixth week. The title of the program was “A Journey towards My Future,” and intended to give children affected by HIV the chance to express their feelings and goals for their futures through art.

    The information we collected from these children was absolutely groundbreaking. The children used drawings, stories and poems to illustrate how HIV has affected them, the impact of MILANA on their lives, and their goals and hopes for the future. MILANA can use the information collected to better advocate for the rights of children affected by HIV. It was a fantastic day filled with fun, laughs and heartfelt expression, and some of my favorite memories of MILANA and India resulted from that day.

    I finally came to understand what social justice is. I arrived at a point where I realized that what mattered the most were the small changes I was making in the lives of individuals. Helping a child envision their goals and instilling in them hope for their futures is just as important as launching a national movement against stigma and discrimination. Sharing stories and laughs with a group of HIV positive women is just as important as passing a bill to protect the rights of HIV positive people.

    Many Americans believe they can change the world in big ways. For most, this is social justice: going out into the world and doing good things for ordinary people. To be honest, I had this same arrogant mentality for quite a long time. I came to India wanting to make big changes to the way that HIV/AIDS is understood and perceived there. Unfortunately, I took my American mentality with me. I realized, though, that making huge changes in the larger picture of HIV/AIDS in India is not social justice. I realized that, no matter how hard I tried, there would always be a barrier between myself and the HIV positive women with whom I was working, because I would never truly understand their struggles and suffering. Once I let go of my American mentality and embraced the way of life in India, however, I found that I enjoyed my time with MILANA so much more. The women of MILANA were like my mothers, and our goodbyes were difficult and full of tears.

    On my way to the airport after spending two months in India, I realized I had grown so much as a person. My perspective and outlook on life was radically altered by my encounters and confrontations with cultures, ideas and people that were so different from those with which I was familiar. Despite all my struggles, I had finally learned to embrace change.


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