South Asia Institute
South Asia Institute

The Power of One: Personal Reflections on a Fulbright-Hays Summer in India

By Giancarlo Malchiodi

One by one, the children sitting on the floor beside us begin to nod into sleep as adults cradle them safely to the ground. Words of encouragement and care keep being repeated to them with a chant-like quality; words which we do not understand, but can definitely feel as we scramble to make room for a child now lulled into rest.

Just an hour earlier we played alongside and laughed with these youngsters, admired their artwork and textile projects, and took many silly photos with all of us wearing false mustaches.

A lot can happen in an hour, just as a lot did happen throughout the nearly six-week Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar on “Sustainable Development and Social Change” we American educators were fortunate enough to experience after a multi-day orientation through the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas-Austin and with the strong organizational efforts of the United States-India Educational Foundation.

The exercise above is an extended meditation session regularly offered to youngsters whose parents are sexually exploited or who may, themselves, be likewise. It attempts to build an inner calm as well as an awareness of being part of a caring and mutually-reliant community.  As part of this character building process students are also told stories and offered different choices they could make in response to a challenging scenario, after which they are asked a central question: "What kind of person do you want to be?" Manju Singh, co-founder and child rescue worker with Guria in Varanasi, wants her children to achieve a greater potential than the circumstances into which they were born or placed and says, "We are a centre that creates human beings who love, with love.” She and husband Ajeet symbolize so much of what we saw throughout this beautiful country: That the power of one or two strong-willed individuals can rally like-minded others, and a momentum for change grows.

Despite the seeming cliché, our Summer abroad was a “Summer of Hope” made evident by the social values and outright play being taught at Guria, by the more formal schooling provided to Dalit children via Madurai Seeds or to largely illiterate women by the Self Employed Women’s Association in Ahmedabad, through the water conservation/reclamation and sustainable farming/cattle-breeding methods/ taught by numerous NGOs in different rural and urban communities, via the transformation of “grandmas into lions” by the electrical and solar-engineering programs of the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, or Kolkata Sanved’s innovation to empower survivors of trafficking by providing them an outlet for emotional and creative expression through dance movement therapy, or the women of Dooni Village working with Srijan to develop their own milk sales collective and cattle vaccination program saying, “We took the power, no one gave it to us!”  Some of these efforts impact a few square blocks, some a village, some multiple states, and some are national or even international in scope: All of them equally matter in the generation of Hope.

But perhaps the greatest Hope was not sighted: That day when the efforts of the one— or the few— good-minded become less vital as society becomes more just or when greater support for those most in need finally and permanently becomes established. This reality is obviously not unique to India, so perhaps Manju’s question to her charges may be better reflected onto ourselves: “What kind of person do I need to be” to bring about a better tomorrow in my family, in my classroom, or for my neighborhood, city, and beyond?

We departed India having learned so much about the country, its cultures and faiths, its people and related development efforts, but this information sparked the beginning of a greater learning about ourselves as well.

The author is a teacher of English in New York City