Article contributed by Katelin Smith, Anthropology Major in the College of Liberal Arts.
I suppose what originally interested me in studying Mohandas Gandhi was his iconic status–his symbolism, really. Growing up in the metroplex, I’ve had plenty of exposure to various cultures to a mild degree, but it’s not quite the same as understanding them.
I only learned about M.K. Gandhi very briefly in middle and high school, and almost always in connection with Martin Luther King Jr. At some point, Gandhi had become a representation for a past to a culture that I never really knew. I’ve never really had any exposure to Indian culture.
As an Anthropology student with a focus in culture, this inevitably piqued my curiosity. Through the readings that we were exposed to in Dr. Ritu Khanduri’s class, I picked up on this repeated theme, if you will, that seemed to underlie Mahatma Gandhi’s role as an icon to Indian society–a thread that connected mind, body, and spirit. I explored how he used these three facets of existence to approach his public persona and how he established himself as someone for the people to look up to.
I owe it to Dr. Khanduri for sending our papers out to various people. Kajal Joshi, President of the Women’s Institute for National Development and Rural Sustainment reached out to Fatima Ayan Hirsi and me upon receiving our papers and invited us to the ICGPA (International Conference on Gandhian Philosophy and Activities) in New Delhi.
It was all very different in India. The University of Texas Arlington has a wonderfully diverse student population–but it’s a campus culture–it doesn’t necessarily comprise of each of the cultures that the students bring to the campus. (Or at least, if it does, it is very fractious in some cases.) It was also an opportunity to learn first hand. There are things that we as a society come to assume about other societies–this one is comprised of people like such and such, that one has a government that dictates a certain way… and because these few facts (or stereotypes, in many cases) are all we learn or know about another culture, it becomes a sort of representation for the culture as a whole.
There is so much lost in the assumption! In my short stay in India, I was able to immerse myself. I was able to witness the stark contrast of poverty literally across the street from “nouveau” rich. I ran into several people on the sidewalk and in the street (literally) and watched as the other person continued walking without a backwards glance because it was (and is) such a common occurrence in the densely packed city.
After several days of walking from stall to stall, I finally stepped out of my comfort zone and learned how to haggle. I learned how to tell Southerners and Northerners apart from their mannerisms and the way they gestured when they talked. All of this and so much more in 10 days! Now India is no longer a collection of formally-written essays and articles with Gandhi as a figurehead and a square-inch section on my textbook’s world map. It’s a collection of all of the things that I experienced and saw–the small weaving cars in the frantic traffic, the shops and restaurants squeezed side by side in a dizzying collection of districts, and the people milling about; selling their wares, doing their shopping for the day, or cleaning the stoop in front of their front doors.
I have known Dr. Khanduri for at least a couple of semesters now. As a Senior due to graduate this semester, I don’t believe there has ever been another professor that I have had that has ever been quite so enthusiastic about doing more in order to grow as a student and as a person. Every class, I think, she has encouraged us to do just a little bit more. It was infectious! She is attentive to our interests and pursuits and tried to use them to enhance the class and our experiences. Without taking her advice, stepping outside of my comfort zone, without her encouragement and honest desire to see me succeed, I never would have made that step. I had the ability to make the step, I just never really had the will. Her encouragement and dedication both opened various opportunities up to me and helped me decide that that was what I wanted to do.
Without support, Dr. Khanduri would not have been able to organize this visit for us. Our airfare to India was financed by the generosity of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial of North Texas (MGMNT) and during our stay in New Delhi, we were guests of Mr and Mrs. Gairola-Dr. Khanduri’s parents. Dr. Thotakura (President of MGMNT) and the Consul General of India at Houston worked tirelessly to expedite our student visas.
I also received funding from the University of Texas at Arlington. It wasn’t until I had spoken with Mark Graves, Administrative Assistant of the Anthropology and Sociology Department (multiple times) and got a lot of information and help from him (multiple times, bless him) that I realized that the University was able to be used as a resource for these sorts of trips. The funding officially came from the College of Liberal Arts.
As this was my first trip out of the country, it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. I learned so much, met so many people, and even made a couple of contacts that I feel will be able to help me with my future career. It feels like the world is just a little bit clearer than it had been before, and where it had originally been so small, it feels so much larger. I can see beyond the textbook facts to the people and the reality that is being lived today.
If you are considering going abroad, do it! If you have the chance, it is definitely worth it! You’re not just going to be a tourist–it is so much more fulfilling to go for the people and the society that they live in. Don’t go to France just to see the Eiffel Tower, or to Japan to take pictures of Mt. Fuji. Go to the little towns in the countryside of France to meet the people who own and work in the vineyards. Go to Tokyo and walk around Shibuya and meet the variety of people who call the busy city home. Meet people! Talk to them. Ask questions and share your own experiences! Learn that there is so much more to the world than you ever thought!
Photo credit: Dr. Ritu Khanduri