Lunch With a Monk

I am often asked the question, "Why India?" I never hesitated to answer, but I was never totally convinced of my response. Thinking back makes me wonder if anybody else believed me. In a sense, I did become very good at lying simply because I was afraid of admitting to anyone, including myself, that I didn’t really know why. Why did I defer my admission to the school of my dreams? Why did I leave the USA for India? Why take a bridge year if I felt college was all sorted? I couldn’t genuinely answer any of these questions, at least not entirely truthfully. But now I can. I found the answers last week, over lunch with a monk.


He told a story of the capstone of a Vedic education, a period of time at the end of one’s schooling spent finding one’s place in society. Caste was not originally a means of creating a hierarchy of society, he told, but rather a means of organizing society. Like a human body, society consisted of various systems that are vital to its survival: the four Vaishnavas and the four Ashrams.


"Tell me, how can a man think without the mind, labor without his arms, eat without a stomach, or voyage without his legs? Each part serves a different purpose, and each purpose essential to the man’s life."


The Vedic capstone was a student’s chance to find his or her role in society. Did she have a faith that pulled her close to the word of God? Then she should become a priest. Does he have a unique eye for finding the roots of an issue and the remarkable acumen to find solutions? Then he should become a businessman, an entrepreneur. These students would travel far from their villages, even traversing oceans at times, to gain a personal perspective of the state of the world and, in turn, a personal perspective of their role in that world.


"This bridge-year concept of yours is an ancient practice, thousands of years old, that is finally making its return at a time when we may need it most."


So why did I come to India? I told everyone it was to begin gaining a perspective of the socio-economic realities and challenges of the Indian subcontinent. I would say that I planned to base my future work, to create and implement sustainable models for economic development, in this area of the world. It was a rather solid response, I felt, until I realized that it was completely wrong.


In India, I’m a foreigner. My skin tone is of a color that puts me on the lighter extreme of the Indian skin spectrum, and my Hindi has even gotten to a point where some people still wonder if I’m simply messing with their minds, but even so, I’m a foreigner and, in the grand scheme of things, I’m accepted as one. I have had one of the warmest welcomes I have ever had or witnessed in my entire life, living in Pune, but even so, when it comes to social, political, or economic challenges that India faces my contributions to the conversation are consistently shut-down with the sentiment of, "You foreigners don’t understand." Within Indian borders, I’m still an outsider.


Abbas Tyrewala is a director and screenwriter of the Bollywood industry and a genuinely humble, empathetic and inspiring character beyond his Bollywood titles. The Global Citizen Year India Cohort had the incredible privilege of having a workshop with him on introspection and personal growth. But what truly struck me about his workshop was not the session itself, but the Q&A session at the end. Born to a Muslim family and married to a Hindu woman, we were curious as to his stance on spirituality and religious practice. We asked him about his presence in the Muslim community of India.


"I’ve allowed my Muslim identity to be louder on social networks to gain validity."


That’s where it struck. It was in that sentence that everything came together, the point where my entire experience so far suddenly made sense.


I’d come to India to learn why I belong on the other side of the planet, in Latin America.


Even contained within the borders of India, I sit on the outside, experiencing and learning. Outsiders "don’t understand." An outsider’s opinion is not as valid nor as respected as the one of a local, even if they should be identical opinions, as I’ve remarked from conversations around town. My work is most viable in the land of my own people, of my mother tongue, my food, my customs, my family. My family left Mexico to create a better life for themselves and to do everything they could to create a better life for me. I can’t help but feel that I’m now responsible to make a better life for them, for my heritage, and for my original motherland. Raised by naturalized American citizens, once illegal immigrants, I feel a responsibility to make my homeland a place to run towards, not from.


The Global Citizen Year curriculum emphasizes gratitude: Pune has been my host for 5 months thus far, offering me so much. Though I could never fully express my gratitude, I can’t leave without offering something back. My Mexican heritage and my American upbringing created the foundation of my life’s construction. Over the course of these 19 years of my life, they have given me more than I or my family could have ever imagined possible. Modern-day "brain drain" is a neocolonial predicament that my generation has the opportunity to address, and as we watch the course that international politics is taking we have a responsibility now more than ever to act. My heritage has constantly given to me, my family has constantly given to me, and though I could never fully express my gratitude, I can’t live my life without offering something back.


This year, the capstone of my primary and secondary education, the precursor to mine and my family’s first step into higher education, has allowed me to find my place in society, to find my role. I was meant to give back to my side of the globe. I am meant to be a change-maker of my own hemisphere.