I am on a train back to New Haven from the Pre-Departure Orientation for all South and Central Asia grantees, which was held at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington DC. To be honest, the experience was a little bit mixed. A lot of the general speakers were maybe a bit too general, especially considering most of the grantees had already been to the country of their grant. On the other hand, they brought in a lot of previous grantees from the last few years, all of which were incredibly helpful. I was also surprised to see that some of the people from USIEF (the Fulbright counterpart in India) had come all the way from Delhi to meet us. They are warm and friendly and really seem to know exactly how to navigate through the most tricky situations, so I’m really thankful that we have them as a resource.
By far, the most exciting thing about the orientation was the opportunity to meet the other grantees. There were three categories of people present: the Scholars (usually established older professors), the Students (usually in their 20s or 30s and somewhere between undergrad and PhD work) and the English Teaching Assistants (usually a little younger, sent to the country to teach english)
Within my group (students from India) there were about 50 people, and I was so amazed by each person I met. These were not overconfident people who wanted to advertise their accomplishments (and they certainly would have been qualified in doing so), but people who were genuinely interested in learning and connecting with one another. Each conversation I had was completely different and inspiring, and I am now very interested in learning more about so many fields I had never contemplated before this past Tuesday.
I was surprised that in all of the grantees present (what I am guessing amounted to about 400 people) there was only one other musician: a very accomplished professor from Sonoma State, who is a singer from the Gwalior Gharana (one of the large and famous “schools” of Hindustani classical music). Since music is such a huge part of the Indian culture, and in fact, such a huge player in non-western classical music, I thought that there would be more grantees in the field, but I also see from the other proposals, largely weighted in the areas of Public Health, City Planning, Environment, Water Management, etc. that of course there are more urgent matters in which India wants to engage its visiting scholars.
The very last speaker was incredibly charismatic and inspiring: Aneesh Ramen did his Fulbright in 2001, and has since worked for CNN as an international correspondent and now works in the Pentagon — he spoke about being a first generation American with Indian parents and spending time in the places his parents had lived growing up. The things he said resonated with me more than I anticipated, and many times I found myself close to tears.
I remembered my visit to India in 2006, when we went back to the actual houses and flats where all four of my grandparents had grown up, to small towns with such generous and genuine people. I remember Aunty Linda in Goa, the famed cook on my mom’s side of the family, who was thrilled when I couldn’t prevent myself from scarfing down more than my fair share of the chutney sandwiches she had prepared for us. I remember meeting my grandmother’s younger sister, Aunty Shirin, who was blind at the time, and had never met me, but the moment I walked in the door of their apartment in Bandra, even before I spoke, she said, “That must be Reena!” I grew up among mostly American friends who knew where their parents were from, who had been to the places their parents had lived, and many of whom lived in those same places. As Aneesh Ramen had mentioned in regard to his own experience, I never missed this component of my life before I knew it, but once I found it, it changed me.
I remember how sad it was to leave, promising people that I was afraid I might never see again that I would come back to India one day, for real. How it felt so incredibly far away, and how I had no idea how I would ever get back, but at the same time, how inevitable it felt that I would somehow find my way back. It sort of struck me that as much as this year is about my music and the exciting things I want to do in my field, it is also really to spend time with the people I love.
My grandmother and her sister have since passed away. They died within a month of one another in 2007, the year after we visited. But everyone else is still very much there, and I cannot wait to see them again, and to be a part of their lives.
Well, back to New Haven for a day to gather everything together, deal with visa stuff and pack, and then I head out to Los Angeles.