Kiran Puri '13: The Most Important Thing is To Never Stop Trying
Kiran Puri was the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellow at Jagori Grameen. This is her second year narrative.
When people find out that I enjoy watching Pro-sports, they ask me about how I feel about the Eagles not making the playoffs or if the 76ers might finally improve with the help of their newest draft pick. (If you can’t tell, I’m from Philadelphia). While my ears do perk up at the news of Chip Kelly’s latest antics, and I was once a die hard Mutumbo fan, the teams in the NBA and NFL that I root for have nothing to do with geography. In the NFL I supported the New York Giants, and in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. I’ve never lived in either city and have never been to San Antonio until this past year.
So why did I choose these teams? It had to do with the players. I happened to read biographies of David Robinson and Tim Duncan when I was just starting to play basketball in the 5th grade. I instantly fell in love with the Spurs. As for the giants, I sympathized with Eli Manning for having to live up to an exceptional older sibling and my favorite wide receiver in the league happened to get traded to the Giants. Boom, I was a Giants fan. For both teams - these players were more than athletes to me. I connected with their stories on a more personal level. That connection has garnered my unwavering support for both teams.
I mention all this because of a question I have been asked many times in recent months with friends, family, and myself, “ Would I ever come back to live in India?” The easiest answer, and the most practical perhaps, is “I don’t know”. Before I can answer this question, I guess I have to answer another less vague question, what things would I want in a place where I would live. Before this fellowship, I would have said a gym, access to good cheese, good sports bars, and sunshine.
Aside from sunshine, I have not had any of the fore-mentioned things while living in India. Yet I have grown to love Dharamsala, Himachal, and India. But loving a place doesn’t mean you want to live there by any means. So if a gym, cheese, sports bars, and sun don’t make a home, for me at least, what does? If you asked me about 6 months ago, I may have concocted some elaborate answer to try and cover the fact that it was something I didn’t know, and partially hadn’t thought about. But these past few months India has started to feel like a home. While the process was probably more gradual, it felt like one day I woke up and boom - India was home. I have been thinking about why and I have realized that from the start it has always been about people.
Just like my allegiance to certain sports teams has been decided/solidified by having a strong sense of personal connection with its athletes. While in my first year I was certainly surrounded by people who were very loving and caring, it was hard for me to fully invest in relationships while I kept having some stomach issues caused by the local water, was trying to get my place at Jagori, and getting my applications together for medical school. When I was in my second year, I moved to live closer our office in a more smaller, friendlier village, I was more or less finished with my applications, and had built stronger ties with co-workers, people in the village, friends else where in India, and family in India.
India without a doubt had become my home. Finally adjusting to the ebbs and flows of daily life in Himachal allowed me to circle back to what had originally brought me to India: and interest in the health and lives of women in India. While I met so many strong, inspirational, loving, charismatic, and just amazing women, it was still glaring how their physical wellbeing took a backseat to nearly everything in their lives, whether is was missing breakfast to help make food for others in the family, not doing homework because they were busy helping wash clothes/get clean drinking water for their home, or not attending school because their parents could only afford to send the son in the family to school. These are just some examples of how daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives sacrifice something every day to benefit others around them. And while many times this sacrifice is acknowledged and boasted as an example of the strength of Indian women, its often ignored at what price these traits are acquired.
Many of the girls have hemoglobin levels well below the normal level. Hemoglobin is a molecule that aids our blood in transport of oxygen to the rest of out body. If there is low hemoglobin, less oxygen will be carried to the body, and less oxygen means less energy (oxygen is a key ingredient of cellular respiration which produces ATP, or energy molecules that provide the body with fuel for all its activities). While the normal hemoglobin level is 12, most adolescent girls in our area of work had hemoglobin levels of around 8. At 6, you'd have to be hospitalized. Rather than acknowledging that this was an issue, most people just assumed that girls were inherently weak, and didn't think that there was something that caused this.
Hemoglobin testing for adolescent girls
This was just one of the many ways patriarchy had manifested itself in India culture. At Jagori, during the training workshops I had the privilege of being able to sit in on sessions and then write reports about the female team leaders who educated girls, mothers, teachers, police officers, and others on how patriarchy in Indian culture was harmful to both men and women. So many traditions and beliefs had been formed around it, and warped into something that oppressed women, even if its original intents were quite the contrary. It has been, and will continue to be a multifaceted and complicated subject with many different ways to approach. While I have always loved the culture of my parents, seeing how it has contributed to the oppression of all the women around me, and across India is truly heartbreaking.
While I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with the women and adolescent girls in Himachal through Jagori, I feel that the real groundwork in the fight for equality for women within the nuclear Desi (South Asian) family is my conversations with my own family. We are not extremely traditional, but nor is my family modern. Many of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my parents have been raised in this tradition and have been conditioned not to question it. Whenever women in the family are brought up, I make it a point to ask questions directed at showcasing the discrimination and difficulties women face due to unfair and biased treatment. It certainly does not please the men in my family, but nearly all the women I talk to about this never even realized the extent to which seemingly small things, and fear-mongering by relatives have severely limited and restricted their freedom.
The job of changing people's minds is no small feat. We are imprinted with what we see around us at a very young age, and it might take years, decades, or maybe you'll never be able to shake certain things you have grown up accepting as truth. But the most important thing is to never stop trying, because you never know when a switch will flip. In addition, I'm only talking about patriarchy in Indian culture since this is the culture of my family, my parents, the culture I grew up in, and the culture I spent the last two years in. However, it is a global issue that affects the lives of both men and women everywhere. But as we have learned from Charles Darwin, because there are mutations within individuals in a group, a species finally evolved. Similarly, if one at a time we can change our thinking, we can change society as a whole.
Session on women's health and empowerment in the village