As I flew across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Bangalore, my head was filled with the images of India I had internalized during my History of South Asia class. These visions included destitute children in the streets, an open discord between Hindus and Muslims, and young people whose choices were limited by a rigid caste system. During the 12 weeks prior to embarking History of South Asia class guided my assumptions of India. Throughout the class, we covered many topics ranging from communal nationalism to the rise of Indian independence. Participants on this trip included students who had taken the class, as well as students who had not. In some cases, that lens of the class helped us see more clearly; in other cases it may have clouded our perceptions of the country and its people.
For example, towards the end of our trip, we stayed in Auroville, an ecovillage with utopian ideals. Aurovilians do not believe in structured education, and according to its website, its goal is to “realise human unity.” All the villagers were white, except for the workers, who were all Indian. Our group departed earlier from Auroville than planned because of our negative reaction to this apparently colonial social arrangement. History of South Asia teacher and India trip leader Dan Matz said that we looked at Auroville “through a colonial lens, a lens about race, and a lens about privilege.” Matz emphasized that we should never set this lens aside, but he continued on to say, “Our judgment on Auroville was very harsh, partly because we could not step into a different value system.”
In the case of Auroville, those of us who took History of South Asia may in fact have been prejudiced. Since the curriculum focused so much on India’s racially unjust colonial history, we were unable to see Auroville as anything other than a modern manifestation of colonialism.
However, the perspective I had gained in History of South Asia also provided me with a more knowledgeable lens that I took with me throughout the entire trip. For one thing, because of my experience in History of South Asia, I arrived in India with the sense that the caste system pervaded every aspect of life and that it restricted the freedoms of choice. During my homestay experience in Madurai, I heard my host dad’s opinions on what, to me, was such a foreign social construction. We had a long talk about caste, sitting in his living room surrounded by paintings of Hindu gods and the smell of sandalwood, while I was brought dosa and offered chai.
In my mind, I compared what I perceived as a rigid caste system with the openness and freedom of what we have in San Francisco. I was able to use my lens on the caste system to ask my host father informed and substantive questions. The perceptions I developed in the classroom were supported when he brought out a newspaper, and asked me to read a story which described a tragic murder that stemmed from an inter-caste marriage attempt. Even in 2015, my homestay parents arranged a marriage for their daughter to wed a man of the same caste.
Although we were all on the same trip, each of us came to the country with a different set of preconceptions about India. Throughout the trip, our various individual experiences further diversified our understanding of India and its people. Our lens is always changing. It depends on our experiences, our emotions, and who we are as a person. What we see through that lens changes us and our opinions, but regardless, the lens in which we view the world impacts our everyday life. According to Matz, “that lens is way more powerful than (he) thought.”