By Gaëlle Perrin and Carmina Ravanera
A few weeks ago, we were enjoying an unusually warm mid-October afternoon on Lower Field when we heard the noise of incoming emails on our phones. We lazily turned our attention to our inboxes. Instead of another listserv email, we were surprised to see this four-line message, which immediately brought huge smiles to our faces and tears to our eyes:
Hello Carmina and Gaelle how are you and your family
my family fine we wil never forget yoy
love Arivalagan and Valarmathi
my whife valarmathi feels your thinking
Arivalagan and his wife, Valarmathi, were the parents of the host family we had stayed with in the rural village of Manjakollai in Tamil Nadu, South India, during our internship with the Association for India’s Development (AID India) this summer.
To back up a little: we were thrilled to arrive in Tamil Nadu this May to work with AID India. AID India is an NGO focusing on improving the quality of education in rural schools, but they also have a smaller agricultural branch that works on improving farmer yield and livelihoods. For the most part, we had no idea what we were getting in to, or even what our jobs would be – just that we would be working in agriculture.
On our first day, our supervisors told us we would spend our summer studying the current condition of crop insurance in India. This small project would serve as the starting point for a long-term project for the NGO, culminating in talks with policymakers and insurance companies on how to improve farmer financial stability. One of our duties was to conduct a questionnaire with farmers all over Tamil Nadu, which meant we had to take trips into rural villages.
On one of our first trips into the field, we headed to Manjakollai, a farming village that was a 6-7 hour bus ride away from Chennai. With our supervisor Ajay, who very skillfully guided us through the hectic bus system, we wove our way out of bustling Chennai, past the police blockades that are meant to slow down traffic, and into the Tamil Nadu countryside.We were squished between two Indian ladies on a three-person bus seat and the radio blasted jubilant Tamil songs.
When we had started out in the morning, the air was cool, but as we reached the height of the afternoon it was nearly fifty degrees outside and the air shimmered with heat. We whizzed by endless verdant paddy fields speckled with the jewel-toned saris of farm workers, small villages filled with colourful shops, and hundreds of fruit sellers hawking beautiful arrays of every tropical fruit imaginable. By the middle of the afternoon, we had reached Manjakollai. Little did we know it would become one of our favourite places to be.
Red carpet treatment
We began our work under the burning sun. Pens and paper in hand, we asked questions to farmers we met in the village, with Ajay easily handling the translation from English to Tamil and Tamil to English. From the ageless farmer with his white beard and dhoti (the traditional skirt worn by many men in Tamil Nadu) to the young chemical engineer working with his parents on their farm, we met an assortment of rural people who always greeted us with curious and friendly smiles. Needless to say, however, the heat made the job exhausting.
After a few hours of tiring work, we were introduced to our host family for the first time. Arivalagan is a local coordinator for AID, and he works to improve the quality of education in rural Tamil Nadu. He lives with his family in a thatched-roof house in Manjakollai. When we stepped inside, his wife Valarmathi was waiting for us with coffee and delicious fried bananas. Neither she nor Arivalagan speak English, and even though their son learns it in school, he was far too shy to speak to us. Thankfully the few words we knew in Tamil were enough to make them smile, and we soon learned how to communicate our appreciation to them without speaking.
Arivalagan and Valarmathi were some of the most hospitable people we met during our internship. They took care of every detail of our stay, making us feel like honoured guests. For example, they gave up the family’s only bed so we could sleep comfortably, while the rest of the family slept on straw mats on the floor in the front room. At first we were uncomfortable with this arrangement, but they insisted so much that we feared we would offend them by refusing.
As soon as we were awake every morning, Valarmathi would serve us delicious, fresh Indian coffee in small silver tumblers. For breakfast she would cook us enough food to feed a small army, adjusting her spicy dishes to suit our personal tastes. After breakfast she braided our hair with jasmine flowers and decorated our foreheads with bindis, making us look like traditional Tamil women. She essentially became a second mother to us.
In the late morning, while we waited for our translators to arrive so we could head out into surrounding villages to do our surveys, Arivalagan would sit near us, reading his newspaper in Tamil and speaking with us in broken English. He told us about how he was planning on taking spoken English classes, and wrote down our emails and phone numbers in Canada so he could practice with us.
Fireflies and flashlights
The days went by quickly with our host family. We made fast friends not only with them, but also with their neighbours, who would pop over at any time during the day just to chat or see who the curious visitors were. At night the village would be enveloped by a velvety darkness; because of frequent power cuts they were usually lit only by the sparkle of fireflies and a few flashlights. After dinner we would spend hours sitting outside of the house with our host family and their neighbors. We listened to their Tamil chatter, tried to make conversation, and reflected to each other how strange and surreal it felt to live in a rural village, immersing ourselves in a simple yet difficult lifestyle that was so different from our own in Montreal.
On our last day in the field, Arivalagan and Valarmathi accompanied us on our questionnaire work. Our translator had not been able to come that day, and we needed to survey a lot more farmers to complete our sample. Valarmathi ended up being our most efficient helper as she asked our questions to farmers, precisely telling us how the fill out our answer sheets: “question 27, letter b, 28, letter c!” They were both so eager and enthusiastic to help us out.
That evening, the family came with us to the bus stop. Valarmathi bought us gifts at the nearby local market – key chains containing our names written on rice grains – to make sure we would always remember her. Goodbyes were tough. A volunteer translator had to be the intermediary as Valarmathi told us how much she would miss us, and we couldn’t find words to express our love and gratitude. She had us promise to call her as soon as we had returned to Chennai; she was worried to let us ride the bus alone at night, particularly as this is not a common practice for young women. We did, but she still called us the next morning, and we had to reassure her that we were “safe, home in Chennai, no problem.”
India’s most precious resource: its people
India is a stunning country and we were lucky to experience so much of it: the rolling green tea plantations in the hills, the Himalayan mountains in the north, the colorful and eccentric temples of Tamil Nadu, the pristine beaches of Goa, the Taj Mahal, and the palaces of Rajasthan, to name a few of the wonderful sights we saw this summer. However, we both agree that what makes India truly unique and unforgettable is its people. Although we have only talked at length about Arivalagan and Valarmathi, there were so many people who made all the difference during our internship: our supervisors, our intern coordinator (who became a best friend and travel companion), the cooks, girls, and staff of our women’s hostel in Chennai, bus and taxi drivers, strangers who guided us when we were lost and offered us explanations about their country… It was their hospitality, optimism, curiosity and passion that really stood out to us.
Thinking about the email from our host family again, we wonder how it was created. Arivalagan probably asked his son for help, or one of the other children who lived next door. We can see Arivalagan and his big smile, going to the cyber café next to the bus stop, slowly connecting to the internet to write us those words, and coming back home to his wife, who would have been excepting him. We will never forget them, either.
Gaëlle Perrin and Carmina Ravanera are two U3 students majoring in International Development Studies. Last summer, they got an internship through McGill’s Arts Internship Office and spent four months working for the Association for India’s Development in Chennai and Tamil Nadu. You can find a detailed account of their adventures and more pictures on their blog.