On Writing and Inspiration

Each new book I open has provided a goose-pimply sense of inspiration. I’ve chosen very intentionally which books to read this year, knowing they’ll help frame my journey and provide possibly much needed respite from reality.

A moment of inspiration strikes and I run to my room or search hurriedly though my bag for my lone mechanical pencil.

Inspiration is strange. Shashi Deshpande in Small Remedies writes about the awkwardness of moving into a families home for an extended stay, which is often how I feel at the hostel or while visiting a friend’s family. She says, “This is like my first few days in the hostel, when the thought of being with so many strangers was daunting, my loneliness emphasized by being in their midst.” Within the first few pages of her novel, I was hooked.

People often ask what inspired me to volunteer in India. What planted the idea? I think my mother is right; it began with our world map shower curtain. Pastel colors delineating each country, some of which were renamed and lines re-established in those years of my childhood. I remember being scared of Berlin after hearing about the wall coming down. Africa was a vast and confusing place, bigger than the United States but mysteriously powerless in my mind. India was not on my radar.

Freshman year of college I did a research project on the Indian and Pakistani population in Chicago, focusing my study on the Devon area, filled with restaurants, fabric stores and ornate jewelry shops. During one of my excursions, I bought a non-English Indian newspaper and was asked by the shop-keeper in honest, dumbfounded curiosity, “Are you Indian?” Maybe that was the moment for me. My strange moment of inspiration.

Now I’m in India and I experience strange moments daily. Waking up to the fusion of melodies that collide when the neighboring temples and churches all celebrate simultaneously. Smelling the next meal being cooked. Cinnamon colored sunsets and green, fruit-filled landscapes. The man who delivers curd by bike and the woman who cooks rice for the kids at the Lower Primary school in a tiny wooden hut over a huge pit of fire.

Inspiration comes as a mix, a masala containing beauty and harshness, pleasure and frustration.

Many of the women I live with are in the hostel because their houses and families were hurt by the Tsunami. The teachers at the LP school are from the poorest class in India, most are members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) because they say, “that party supports the poor.” Recent rains flooded streets and homes. “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ) are being constructed on prime farmland, bought at a low price by companies from farmers deep in debt. Chikungunia hurts the poor children and senior citizens with already weak immune systems. Women can’t leave their homes after six in the evening. College students study what will afford them the best job rather than what they find interesting.

These are inspirations in a different way. These moments make me feel lucky to have a United States passport. I realize that being a citizen of a superpower affords more opportunities than I can list. But my “Western” world view is extraordinarily limited. India is teaching me about extremes: happiness and sadness, hunger and fulfillment, need and desire.

The other day as I read “The Hindu” newspaper, Ammamma said, “Hair is darker. You are becoming an Indian.” I stood up to eat lunch, spooning rice into my mouth with my fingers and slurping curd from the palm of my hand. I cannot believe that I am in India…

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