Bringing fellow Bard students along with me to Project WHY was uncharted territory but I admit to facing this new adventure with a certain nonchalance and calmness uncharacteristic to me. I was confident that I could navigate the challenges with my background at Project WHY and experience with volunteer coordination. What I did not expect was what it would feel like to bring all these people into my home, my family, into the city that I love, and be forced to see things through uninitiated eyes.
I am very much a routine person. I establish routines and normalcy as quickly as possible whenever I am in a new place. At my home in Delhi, I have a rather rigid routine and I am used to seeing and experiencing my surroundings in a set way. I’ve grown used to the cows wandering the streets and the non-existent traffic patterns; the sight of street children and public defecation no longer faze me; I long ago stopped recognizing myself as an “outsider” because this is my home, after all. I work and I go to the gym and I go out with my friends, being here is just normal life for me. The volunteers have forced me to be retrospective about my first time in Delhi when everything was novel and exciting, when I had no clue what was going on, and my home was 7,000 miles away. I recently read through a blog I kept the first time I came to India and found myself in fits of laughter. Not only was half of what I wrote blatantly incorrect or wholly missing nuance but also aligns shockingly well with what my volunteers are currently experiencing. We make the same references, our writing style is similar, and we all share an air of understanding that is completely, 100% false.
The grimy, decrepit city that is New Delhi captured my heart the moment I arrived here five years ago and I have never looked back. I find New Delhi gloriously beautiful and fulfilling; how I feel towards this place is the closest thing to true love I’ve ever experienced. I will forgive any faults the city has and embrace the flaws with open arms and I do all this without any serious contemplation, it’s just how it is. The volunteers, however, have pulled me out of my cozy routine and re-opened my eyes to Delhi. I’ve had Delhi’s flaws imposed on me through their eyes and I’ve spent a great deal of time re-evaluating my relationship to the city. How can I love a city whose culture flagrantly objectifies women? How can I love a city whose corruption runs so deep? How can I love a city that allows children to die on the street without food? How can I love a city that disregards education for the majority of its population? And how can I love a city that does all this without a single qualm? The simple answer is that I don’t know. But true love never is rational.
I don’t know if I could or would love New Delhi in the same way without Project WHY. Maybe what I love so much about this city is that despite the systemic flaws and corruption there are people like Anou to start grassroots organizations and people like Rani to run them with unparalleled passion and knowledge. Maybe I love this silly, infuriating, wonderful city so intensely because it is so broken but it also believes in its future. My hope for my volunteers is that they too can learn to see past New Delhi’s faults because what lies underneath is heartbreakingly hopeful.