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NFLC Student’s Blog 15: The Land of Legs

15: The Land of Legs

By Paige Wagar

*Beep beep beep*
I’m not sure why I even set an alarm. With only three days stateside under my belt, my sleep schedule is far from aptly adjusted. I am up at 4am and ready for bed at 6pm. Nonetheless, my 7:30am alarm means that it is time to get on with the day. I jump out of bed and peek out my windows, assessing the weather before deciding on an outfit for the day. Rays of sunlight practically blind my not-yet-adjusted eyes. Another beautifully sunny summer day in Southern California. And here prompts adjustment number one to life after India… legs.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, there were legs everywhere! My sister greeted me in the shortest shorts I had seen in four months and the skirt my mom was wearing at the airport showed knees. Knees! I wanted to rush them out of public as soon as possible! People were probably staring. What were they thinking? After a thirty second mental explosion of disbelief I was able to reign in my thoughts and bring myself back to reality, back to California, back to the Land of Legs.

Southern California summer style is casual and simple, easy, breezy, and leggy. Short shorts and even shorter rompers, dresses that depending on the length of one’s torso are more appropriately known as shirts. And being that I live in a laid-back town of beach bums and surfers, when meandering the lanes closest to the sandy shores of the Pacific, more often than not shirts are the only requirement. Here, our definition of socially acceptable coverage is rather liberal especially when compared to the dress code of Kotagiri.

I turn to my drawer and pick up a pair of shorts. High-waisted, acid wash denim that ends just above mid-thigh. These shorts have seen many a beach day and were my go-to weekend attire for most of high school. But today, now, something feels off about them. They seem so… short. Despite knowing that my plans for the day don’t even necessitate leaving the house, these shorts feel risqué. Such a stark contrast to the comfort and modesty of Kotagiri’s kurtas. I place the shorts back in the drawer among their other leggy companions, and pull out a pair of worn denim jeans that ends just above my ankles.

I struggled with the dress code of the Nilgiris. A moral dilemma that, even after three months, never went resolved. At the onset of the semester, I worked hard to keep my frustrations with the dress code to myself. I wouldn’t say that I am the most fashion-savvy, but I suppose that my upbringing in Southern California – a region where fashion is a particularly unique form of self-expression – my reaction to the limitations of dress was nonetheless understandable. I recognize that my response to the clothing of Kotagiri is directly due to the stark difference between the culture of clothing in Southern California and Southern India; my upbringing in a culture of bikinis, denim cut-offs, and strapless dresses informs my opinion on acceptable exposure.

I wore a sleeveless shirt into town one day. I wasn’t bare-shouldered, I draped my shawl in a way that hid my upper arms from the streets of Kotagiri. Retrospectively, it was a rather foolish decision; I let the temperature make my decision on how to dress that day. And though I was substantially cooler than I would have been in a kurta with its ¾ sleeves, I was substantially more self-conscious. As I walked into town, it was as if the wandering eyes of passerby’s could see through my shawl. They knew. To add to the experience, when crossing an intersection a stray gust of afternoon wind caught the edge of my shawl just right and lifted it up, exposing my bare shoulder. In that moment, I swear everyone in Kotagiri was staring upon me. I was self-conscious, embarrassed; I felt violated. And above all, I was frustrated by my shame. All because of a bare arm.

As my time in India progressed, I was able to identify that it wasn’t simply the new restrictions on acceptable clothing that I was frustrated with, it was my inability to override my response to these newly imposed limitations with my desire to recognize and respect the culture of Kotagiri that frustrated me. I was frustrated at my frustration.

And so, I was torn. I wanted so badly to assimilate into the day-to-day life at Keystone to the best of my ability, but I also felt that I was committing a disrespect to my personal beliefs as a passionate feminist. How dare The Man tell me to cover myself! Internal dialogues along these lines played through my head for the duration of my time in Kotagiri. The dynamic it reflects characterized my relationship with the clothing I wore while in India: the devoted and angry feminist who is frustrated with the restrictive dress codes imposed on women of the world by tradition.

What fascinates me most about my post-India aversion to legs, and skin in general, is my belief that people should be free to dress as they please free of judgement and ridicule. And here I am, astounded and shocked by those who choose to wear Daisy Dukes. After only four short months, I had begun to internalize the expectations and social norms of Kotagiri despite never consciously abandoning my fervent belief that decisions on how one chooses to present themselves to the world should not be regulated by societal pressures. I suppose it provides a curious commentary on the strength of social norms and the impact of culture on individual thought. Dynamics that I would have previously agreed are quite powerful, but I had never experienced such a salient moment that highlights their influence.

I’m sure exposed legs will work their way back into my comfort zone as time passes, but I don’t know if I will ever forget the feeling of the eyes of onlookers on my shoulder at that intersection in Kotagiri. Judgment, curiosity, mortification, shame. All because of a few inches of bare skin.

NFLC Student’s Blog 14: Kieran’s Reflection

14:Kieran’s reflection

By Kieran Micka-Maloy

“Vannakam! Yen peyar Kieran. Naan America yerinduh varen. Naan urban planning padikkiren.”


Kieran presenting research to community members with Shanmitha translating

And thus began my final presentation to the Tamil speaking community members gathered at Keystone. My partner, Prasath, was in Bangalore taking an entrance exam, so I was giving my presentation with the help of Shanmitha. The day before had been the English-language presentation. Despite all of the nerves associated with giving the presentation for the first time the day before, for some reason I was more nervous for this one. Maybe it was the fact that I was the only Cornell student speaking today, or more likely it was the fact that the people in the audience today were the ones for whom my research actually mattered. Not only that, but they were also the ones who lived with gaur on an every-day basis, and who would know if I said something wrong. And it didn’t help that a few sentences into my presentation I saw Neema stand up and furiously gesture for me to take my hands out of my pockets (which I promised I wouldn’t do half an hour before the presentation started. I was nervous!!).
So I went through my presentation, stopping every few sentences to allow Shanmitha to translate. I looked out at the crowd to see if they were taking it well, but couldn’t read a clear response. When I was just getting into the meat of my presentation, I heard a voice from the side cut me off.

“OK wrap it up.”
“Huh? I thought I was supposed to go through the whole thing?”
“I gave you a few extra minutes for translation, but we’ve gotta keep moving.”
“Oh… OK. Well that was a good place to wrap it up I guess. Thanks everyone.”

And that was the end of my Tamil presentation.


At first I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to get everything across that I had wanted to. But then the audience feedback started. While the previous day’s feedback had come from people entirely removed from the problem I was researching, and mostly focused on methodology, this was different. One man told me that I needed to rethink why gaur are moving from forests into cities. Another woman asked about the Forest Department’s role in the problem. From these initial comments, other people brought up points, building off of each other. For a few minutes, community members engaged in a conversation, including me but mostly amongst themselves, that sprung out of the research I spent my semester doing. Many people listening were far more knowledgeable about gaur than I was, having lived with the animals for their whole lives. My presentation, even though I had not been able to finish it, had organized and presented knowledge about gaur in a new way, even if most people knew a lot of what I was saying already. In doing this, it sparked a fruitful discussion amongst the community members. My disappointment melted away, and I realized that my presentation had done about all it could be expected to do, given that the real experts were sitting in the audience.

NFLC Student’s Blog 13:El título de este blog post es

13: El título de este blog post es

By Emma Eaton

This is the first time I’ve attempted to learn a new language in fifteen years. My second language, Spanish, didn’t even feel like learning. I remember sitting down on my first day of kinder and going through the lists of shapes and colors on the wall. Since everything was in Spanish, I never considered the fact that I was doing anything unusual. I was learning to write like every other kid – except I shared the first letter of my name con un elefante, not an elephant. Thirteen years of bilingual education later, I still wasn’t comfortable speaking the language with strangers. I’d speak Spanish in class, with my friends, but send me to a Mexican market with my dad and I’d still order the pico de gallo with an: “I’ll have a quart of the salsa in the middle, no, the other one, yeah, that’s it.” If I was going to surprise people as the white girl who spoke Spanish, I had to do it perfectly.

I envy those who can engage across language barriers with zero fear of humiliation. I envy those who are terrified, but do it anyways, even more. My method is to look for excuses: The patti said “thank you,” so it’s okay if I say that too, instead of “nandri.” Or: “you know more English than I know Tamil, so let’s communicate using words that we both already know well.” Every smile that I give the Canteen staff comes with an apology — an “I’m sorry I didn’t say sappadu nalla irrukudhu even though I really wanted to tell you how good I think your food is.”

Meena and Emma discussing their research project

Language is hard. Add a touch of anxiety to that, and it’s even harder. But that’s not the point. My point is that the more I struggle to communicate with language, the more other forms of communication stand out. Take the other week in the field as an example. My partner and I were both frustrated, we were inventorying without a translator, and the more we failed at getting our points across, the more we shut down. It was a rough week, but once those tensions subsided, I couldn’t help but think about a game we used to play. The rules were simple. She would talk at someone in Irula, I would talk at that same person in Spanish, and we would build off of each other to have a fake conversation about someone in languages that none of us could understand. It drove everyone else crazy, but was the best we’d ever communicated. Neither of us were worried about making mistakes. We were able to let expression and intonation guide the conversation.

My anxiety over language still exists. It’s not like a new approach to communication is magically going to fix that. It just helps to remember that words aren’t the sole determinant of my ability to express myself. If I mess up, I can laugh off my mistake with the person I’m talking to — give them an “I tried” smile instead of an “I-want-to-try smile.” The context behind the latter smile is limiting. It considers language as purely auditory. The former recognizes that the more comfortable and familiar language of the body can serve as a scaffold. Communication extends beyond the limits of vocabulary

NFLC Student’s Blog 12:Guided by the Light

12: Guided by the Light

By  J. Henry Pero

In many ways the role of the researcher is like that of an ancient astronomer.  Both look up at millions of points in an infinite expanse hoping to find a way to rationalize them.  We stich lines between ones that stick out to us, creating familiar images to share with the world.  Praying that everyone can use them to guide their course, we draw links that do just that for us.  But who are we to say which stars ought to shine brightest, or which figures resonate most?  Dare we not present our constellations as the only ones out there.  That said, we still seek to kindle a little universality in our world.

Flies reflecting the sunrise over a path in the core of Sathyamangalm Tiger Reserve

As we enter this final phase of the NFLC, we must ask ourselves how one even begins to present his or herself as an authority on a subject.  Just because I spent three weeks in a tiger reserve doesn’t mean I could tell you how best to defend yourself when cornered by the majestic beast.  Heck, I didn’t even see one.  And yet, I am posed with the task of having to explain life in Sathyamangalam – a life I could never know with completion even if I spent a decade there.  I can only say what I saw, and why one must thirst to see more.

But coming out of the field, some of us do not even feel equipped to say what we witnessed.  So for the past few days, each of us has stared at hundreds of pages of field notes, spreadsheets, questionnaires, maps, and reference articles trying to make sense of our observations in the Nilgiris.  We have tirelessly organized what presented itself to us in hopes for even the smallest light bulb to illuminate our path to understanding.  Only the possibility that we may forge a beacon of light for the communities with which we have engaged keeps us going.

But this noble charge could potentially hurt more than it helps.  Certainly our research partners have an inherent bias favoring their origins in tribal communities of the Nilgiris.  And in recognizing the awesome privilege of interacting with villages in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve as well as the historic injustices cast upon them, I cannot help wanting to paint them as protagonists in my narrative.  But in organizing our data, my partner and I must resist this urge.  We must include in our analysis observations from the field that present truth as opposed to opinion.  And though the mere act of choosing what is relevant to report entails personal preference, we must do our best to minimize such an end.  An argument formed without keeping this inherent bias in mind would not be weaved, but fabricated.

We have the data, now we must put it together.  Any way we choose to shape it cannot be presented as fact, but only as a representation of how we see the pieces coming together.  The only thing valid about how we organize our data is the data itself.  So as researchers in search of the truth, we have a duty to devise a pattern that encompasses as many facts as possible.  We cannot discount things because they don’t make sense to us, don’t appeal, or because they find no place in the framework we foresee in our final report.  For if we wish to shed light on anything, we cannot afford to leave anything, or anyone, in the dark.

NFLC Student’s Blog 09: 93 & Race in America, as explained to a Patti in Pazhathottam

09:93 & Race in America, as explained to a Patti in Pazhathottam

By Vanessa Rodriguez 

As I set out to complete my blog post assignment for the week, I found that I wished to write about two topics. Together they capture the nature of my life at the NFLC – where we are forging ties across boundaries as we learn more about ourselves, the US, our classmates, and communities in the Nilgiris every day. I decided therefore, to ask for both to be uploaded.


Ninty-three. The number of days since we first landed in India. We took a bus up the mountain, taking in everything and pointing out each animal we saw as though we had never seen them before. An hour and a little more passed and we reached Keystone. We were excited, nervous, and a bit unsure of what to expect; all we knew was that this place was now home.


morning view from the canteen

The term, home, felt surreal at first. It was a just a word I could use to comprehend that I would be here for a while. Eventually, I started using home to reflect the comfort I felt with the place and the people. Weeks passed and I would forget where we were, not realizing the eight-thousand plus miles that separated us from our homes in the States. The only reminder was the ten and a half hour (or more for Emma and Paige) time difference that needed to be considered when we wanted to contact family and friends in the States.

For seven weeks, we followed a set schedule of classes and field trips broken up by meal times. By the time Spring Break arrived, we were all ready to escape Kotagiri, explore different cities, and mentally relax before field work. The nine day break brought about its own unexpected adventures: a downpour that prevented a hike, a train station that turned out to be a two hour drive from where we were, a random cow-ram, stumbling upon street festivities, shaky sleeper buses, and lots of delicious food ended with half of the Cornell group spending some time having the Pondicherry-Belly experience in the second part of break.

Before break had even ended, most of us (in the Cornell group at least) shared the desire to return to Keystone; and we could not contain our excitement as we drove back up the mountain to Kotagiri. The steep hill up to Keystone that normally terrifies us because of how vehicles struggle to make their way up, brought joy to us all. We could not stop smiling – so happy were we to finally be back home.

We spent four days at home before we separated into our project groups and left Keystone to pursue our research in the field. The night before we left, we pushed all the dinner tables together in the canteen to share the meal. And as we talked about random events, I came to notice how much of a family we had become.

We have celebrated birthdays and shared our misery over illnesses. We keep each other laughing during times of tension, and play ridiculous game of ‘Odds Are’ where we dare each other to do the most random silly things. Just as in other families we disagree with one another and get on each other’s nerves; but we always support one another.

Kotagiri has become my home, and my peers are my family. There are times when we call our loved ones in the States and dream of being back in our own space. There are moments when we list out all the foods we cannot wait to eat again like enchiladas, home-made salads, and pasta dishes that won’t make us sick. But those moments are often overshadowed by all the memories we make here every day.


Race in America, as explained to a Patti in Pazhathottam

I was sitting on a porch, eating lunch with my research partner and our translator after a morning in the field when a Patti (grandmother) came up to us and started conversing in Tamil. My understanding of Tamil, though it is improving, was too inadequate to keep up with the conversation; but then the Patti pointed at me and I heard the word, “America.” I looked at my translator, and she told me the Patti was wondering “Are all people in America white?”

Abinaya and Vanessa discussing their research project

I do not think I ever expected to hear that question, let alone be the one asked to respond. I replied in the most uncomplicated way I knew: no, there are people of all skin colors and ancestry in the United States. The conversation then shifted to another topic in Tamil, but my mind stayed on the question:

“Are all people in America white?”

The Patti thought that I was white. She was not the only one to assume this. In India, as I walk around with my peers, everyone sees me as white; in the States, the same thing happens. But everyone, like the Patti, are wrong. I am Latinx. And while my skin color is light, I do not identify with any of the limited racial groups listed on information gathering sheets, preferring to only mark down my ethnic origin.

We created this notion of race to classify humans based upon different factors; nowadays it is popularly associated with one’s physical traits, like skin color. It has become a social tool to determine how we think about others and how we treat others.

For the most part, I have escaped receiving direct racial slurs about my culture. My skin color protects me from racial attacks on individuals many ethnic minorities experience; and I am guilty of having used my skin tone in the past to avoid much of the negativity and bullying two of my sisters faced while in school. But, never have I declined my origins nor will I in the future.

Recently, I was asked by a Cornell peer, if it was not my responsibility to correct people when they assumed I am white. My response: yes and no. I am not going to carry a sign saying “I am not white” to correct everyone’s opinion. Nor will I stop saying I am Latinx, a gender-neutral identity describing my Latin American1 origins. But the circumstances by which I will share my background, and change the assumptions made about me, will depend on the environment and my ability to communicate my sense of self without translation. This is difficult while in Kotagiri though I have explained the idea of Latinx in class with help from our translators.

So, ask me if all people in America are white. And I will say, America is not just the United States. It is Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America; and there are people of every skin color living in all the countries of America including people like me, who are not connected by the color of our skin, but rather by our ancestry. We are Latinx.




1Latin America refers to countries of North and South America that lie south of the United States where a Romance language is spoken.


NFLC Student’s Blog 11:Rolling with the Research

11: Rolling with the Research

By Deepa Saharia

When I was growing up, my mom would always roll chapattis for our family. Her chapattis were soft and perfectly round and they would fluff up every time. In our part of India, a chapatti must fluff up to be considered good. Despite her warnings about housework and her deeply feminist lessons, I craved the ability to make the beautifully round breads, a staple of North Indian food. I wanted the skill that came so naturally to my mom.

For the past few weeks during our fieldwork, my haphazard chapatti rolling skills have been put to the test. Every night after our interviews, once we get back to our place of stay, our research team has been making our dinner. Sometimes it works out well and sometimes it doesn’t, but every time I stand there kneading chapatti dough as my research partner steps out of the kitchen, I am reminded of my mother. With imperfect communication, I am trying to bring the lens of critical analysis that we practiced in the NFLC classroom to the dynamics in our research team.

You see, when I was little, my mom refused to teach me how to make chapattis. We would have chapattis almost every day and I would watch her kneading the dough, rolling them out, flipping them on the tawa (flat pan in my language). Though she tried to discourage me from feeling like I had to work in the house, I couldn’t help but see the work that she was doing to feed us and felt the urge to try to alleviate this burden, as her daughter. She did not want to subject me to the requirements that she faced as an Indian woman, but a hierarchical gender socialization process still filtered through my mothers protections. I would watch her, working diligently next to her to roll one chapatti as she cranked out ten.

Our research team fumbling with vegetables in the Coonoor office

Growing up, and here during our fieldwork days, I am faced with the internalized need to do more than a fair share of the work within the house. It’s unclear how much the desire to share work was internalized because I have been raised as a girl, because my brother did not feel the same kinds of responsibility in our family home. I am grateful that my upbringing instilled me with the value of equality regarding housework, schoolwork, eating, walking down the street, taking care of money, and pretty much anything else. But in the past few weeks, I have been trying to understand what cultural practices do not fall in line with these ideals and values through the highly confusing process of creating a meal with my research team.

This confusion about something so simple—red wheat flour, a little salt, a little oil, and some water—has only gotten stronger as I spend time with two people with whom my heritage is similar but whose network of beliefs and desires are quite different from my own. In Tamil Nadu, chapattis are different from those in northern India and the staple is rice instead of wheat. Since my teammates have less experience with making chapattis, the weight of this cooking process fell on my shoulders. Even though our translator has stepped up in amazing ways, I found myself taking charge more than I wanted to, as to make up for the gaps left by my research partner. I see the patriarchal patterns of an Indian kitchen replicated in the way that we cook our food. Despite my deep-seated fear of resigning into doing too much housework, the daily dinner plan seems to always involve a distribution of work that feels unfair to me.

The two people I am supposed to cook dinner with are young men who were born and raised in this area. Like my brother and me in my own family, they have not been assigned the responsibility of cooking, but unlike me, they never assumed or internalized that responsibility. Though we consciously agreed between the three of us that we would cook together during this research period, I found myself kneading alone day after day, waiting for my peers to start craving to be a part of the process, the way I craved to be a part of my mothers process. It felt so unequal to me to be doing more work than my male research partner in the kitchen, even though our academic process is based on parity and respect. I wanted him to want to be in the kitchen and to understand equality in the exact same way that I understood it.

When I talked to my partner, though, I realized that my sense of equality was different from his—something that could not be translated with just words but required both of us to widen our lenses and reframe our understandings of our gender roles. Equality is not just breaking up the tasks, but giving a distinct effort to take care of each other and understand the power of housework. I have always seen rolling chapatti as a labor of love, but I didn’t give my research partner the space to step up in the ways that I should have. On the first day, I took away the rolling pin from him because his bread did not fluff up. We both had our imperfections in creating an “equal” distribution of our work.

I think it will never be clear how to analyze the distribution of housework or the complexities of gender in any kind of partnership, but I am starting to understand more about the overlaps and disagreements in the values and beliefs that my research partner and I carry with us in our work. We have been socialized to take on certain responsibilities and avoid others. I will always step up to wash a pan, but I have always passed our bus fare to my partner or our male translator so that he can purchase our tickets. I have been thinking about the gendered events and trying to critique my own patterns around the distribution of labor in our group. I hope that we can explore the misalignment of our perspectives in order to come a little closer to equality and demonstrate our parity even in the highly gendered environment of a kitchen in Tamil Nadu, India.

I taught my research partner how to roll the chapattis this weekend, with a metal cup as our rolling pin and an electric stove that doesn’t properly allow the dough to fluff up. Even though I felt silly explaining gluten and rolling techniques to a male who is older than me and it seemed like he was bored, we both showed up and we both sat down for our meal together. And with hope and a proper rolling pin, we might get some good communication and some good chapattis to go with it.

NFLC Student’s Blog 10:Human Experiences

10: Human Experiences

By Bridget Conlon

We are now about halfway through our fieldwork phase, and I’m learning that fieldwork is not only about data collection. Spending time in the field, I have adjusted to a new kind of “normal” that is very different from what I previously thought of as “normal.” When confronted by new ideas and practices, I feel initially uncomfortable, but then I try to engage and adapt, and I find that I can enjoy experiencing the unfamiliar. We were told that fieldwork would be exhausting and uncomfortable, and it’s true. At the end of each fieldwork day after getting back to our temporary residence in Bangalapadigai, my research team and I debrief our extensive notes, we cook delicious dinners (well, they taste delicious because we’re so hungry), we clean the kitchen, and we get ready for bed. Some nights, I’m moderately delerious (one evening, I heard a cow “Moo” and I thought it was an elephant). Fieldwork days bring endless information, and at night, I have little brainpower left for analyzing my experiences. I’m simply undergoing them, processing them, and allowing them to trickle into my memory bank.

At the production center in Bangalapadigai enjoying some ragi before fieldwork.

During the ride back to Keystone yesterday, I began to reflect on the glimpses into people’s lives I had gained in just the past 3 1/2 days. I thought of the shy mothers and the confident ones, the dozens of personal questions I had asked them, and the guilt I felt when a mother told us we were taking too much of her precious time. I thought of the way people look at me—a tall white American, the assumptions behind their gazes, and the way I predict their assumptions. I thought of what it means to research Irula women in their twenties while working on a research team with a young Irula woman who is about to turn twenty. I began to wonder: how is this synergy of Bridget and Maga subtly and not-so-subtly pushing both of us to evolve, giving us new perspectives on our own worlds and the worlds of others, and fueling our curiosities? It’s not all rosy—sometimes we drift into uncomfortable conversations. For instance, we learned from mothers that certain foods affect girl babies differently than they affect boy babies, so mothers are more careful about what they feed to their boy babies. While debriefing our interviews, I told Maga my own personal belief that the sex of a baby does not determine how the baby interacts with food. She disagreed with me, and rightly so. My belief blatantly opposed hers—one that has been passed on from grandmother to mother for who-knows-how-long. We have different ways of knowing, and this leads us to two very different sets of interpretations. Our next challenge will be to combine our thinking to find out what all of the information can teach us about infant and young child feeding in the Nilgiris.

A beautiful Gulmohar tree on the ride back to Keystone

During the Jeep ride away from Bangalapadigai yesterday, around the hairpin bends, through the tea plantations, past bougainvillea bushes and under Gulmohar trees, narrowly dodging monkeys and cows, past people who stare at me as I stare at them, serenated by the melodies of Tamil pop at a deafening volume, I began to wonder about the bizarre human experiences behind the hundreds of peer reviewed journal articles I have read in my undergraduate experience. I began to wonder, what else did these researchers learn besides what they wrote for World Development or the Journal of Asian and African Studies? I wonder what they learned between the interviews, focus groups, hours of observation, and GPS mapping. I wonder what they learned about themselves as human beings. Now I’m asking myself—what can I learn when I place equal importance on the “findings” that don’t belong in a research paper?

NFLC Student’s Blog 08: Speaking in Tongues

08: Speaking in Tongues

By Shaalini Ganesalingam


Don’t avoid all awkward moments…they can be the most revealing.”

–Andrew Willford, Cornell NFLC Faculty to my partner Devi and myself during a skype conversation

This week, at NFLC, we practiced conducting surveys and analyzing data, using a prewritten questionnaire on the experience of Keystone staff travel to work. The questionnaire, however, had been written in English and needed to be translated into Tamil.  During the process, the word “stress” was translated using Google into mana alutham. Except mana alutham didn’t mean stress at all. It meant depression.

NFLC students presenting results of Travel to Work survey to Keystone Foundation staff

“Stress” — at least having a word to denote that feeling– was alien to my Keystone student partner, Devi, as well as the other Keystone students. When I attempted to explain stress to her, I started by using a word I would use back home: anthiram.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this word was unfamiliar to the Keystone students as well as the staff. It turned out anthiram was a Sri Lankan Tamil word.

I then tried to explain what stress was by describing things that could cause stress. Our class translator explained one cause as an overwhelming work load. I added that it was having to cross the busy road in Ramchand Square in Kotagiri, or finding a big spider in the bathroom.

Stress is felt in knowing just enough to recognize that stress isn’t mana alutham but being not knowing enough about the culture or language, as its exists here, to find the right word.

Stress is found in the sudden emboldening of divisions within identity. Stress is feeling like being American but also Sri Lankan is conflictive. Stress is in recognizing that even within language, identity is broken down into categorizations with lines that are thick, yet blurred.

Here at the NFLC, the nuances of my identity matter and I know even less than I thought I knew.

The words I use here are more than just words; they give voice to a divided identity. The tongues that I speak in- in English, in Tamil- are anchored to two different shores. They are rooted in two different cultures. Born and raised in Queens, New York, I live in the world of the first. The roots of the second are frost bitten, frozen in time to the point in which my parents had fled their island home. Yet they stubbornly grasp onto salt-saturated shores, managing to tunnel below two oceans to live, but let live memories of another home.

When I speak, my language gives me away. My Sen-Tamil has been described as “full of raagam (melody)”. It implores me to take time to complete each sentence, refusing to cut any word short of the count it deserves.

When I speak, my language gives me away. The quick pace of my New Yorker English bleeds into my Tamil, making up for the lost time of long sentences with a fast tempo.

When I speak, my language gives me away. It is tarnished by poor pronunciation. La, la, Zha. Na, Na, Na. Picking up the subtleties is like trying to find the coconut with the sweetest water in a push cart. I press my ear up against the hard shell and I strain to hear any hint of sound and movement. Distance has disconnected my tongue from my mother tongue.

So stress.

Stress is knowing two complicated halves make a whole. Stress is having two languages to communicate with but not being able to find the words in either to measure the depths of intersectionality.

Stress is resolved in  listening to the punchline: the best Tamil translation of the English word “stress”  is the Tanglish (English + Tamil = Tanglish) word “tension”.

NFLC Student’s Blog 07: Complicated Clarity

07: Complicated Clarity

By Paige Wagar

Remember math in elementary school? 2 + 2 = 4. No complications, no qualms; simply a matter of fact. Life was so simply blissful! But as the years progressed – with time tables, long division, algebra, trigonometry, calculus – numbers transformed into something less straightforward. I still remember sitting in my middle school math class listening to my teacher explain the complexities of imaginary numbers. I was so angry at my previous teachers for not informing me of this important facet of mathematics, for sugar-coating the science of numbers. Why had they lied? In my older and now wiser age, I retrospectively see that exposing a seven-year-old to the true nature of numbers is not the most pedagogically-sound approach. This is all to say that the ideal-types used to present life in static categories, narratives of real-life fact, are in fact quite complicated. Numbers are far more complicated than they appear at first glance, as are people and communities and life.

As our days in Kotagiri continue to pass, this same idea seems to be a recurring theme: the notion that events and institutions that appear simple at first glance are exceedingly complex. Perhaps it’s a function of developing a more critical eye or simply a product of accepting a categorization scheme that operates outside of binaries. But as weeks go by, that initial anxiety has become just another aspect of life here – a training in the acceptance of ambiguity.

The theme of this week was “Livelihoods and Governance”. Over the course of the week, both inside and outside of Manda’arae, we discussed the complexities of governance given the range of actors involved in decision-making. Beginning Monday morning, we were instructed to adopt a critical perspective when looking at how authority and power intersect with our daily lives, and how these relations evolve as we navigate society. It continues to strike me how, despite our upbringings in such wildly distinct corners of the globe, there are always trends or shared experiences in the lives of the Cornell and Keystone students. Each of us faces versions of the parent-adolescent clash, feels the pressure of community expectations, and struggles with institutional authority figures.


Meena & Paige at the flower farm

Our field trips added interesting anecdotes to our discussions of governance and the intersection of stakeholders with varying interests. We spent Monday afternoon touring a flower farm and an agricultural processing center in a Badaga community outside of Kotagiri. At the flower farm, we met a group of migrant farmworkers who had travelled from West Bengal to the Nilgiris for work. This raised questions of how authority, governance, and security operate on both a national and individual level. On Wednesday, we explored the not-so-rosy side of working within communities at the site of one of Keystone’s failed social enterprise attempts.


Kieran & Vanessa taking in the view

In previous weeks, we had discussed the interactions between the spheres of the public, the private, and civil society organizations. This week concluded with a discussion centered around the notion of hybrid institutions, much like Keystone Foundation, which operates somewhere at the nexus of these three spheres. In many ways, especially in the field, Keystone serves as an extension of the state by providing particular services to Adivasi communities. Simultaneously, their social enterprise, Last Forest Enterprise, operates in the private sector. Keystone, the very institution responsible for the Nilgiris Field Learning Center, is proof that the system of constructed categories falls short of telling the whole story.

My primary lesson from this week: it’s advantageous to accept ambiguity. It is healthy to remain critical of the vernacular we use – a vocabulary that often hides the dynamism in the nature of authority and institutional governance. For me, this week was marked by an “aha” moment of sorts, a moment of clarity in the complexities that swirl around society. This week was the beginning of a comfort in the notion that life is far from black and white. Abandoning the idea of simplistic categorization allows for new innovative solutions with interdisciplinary approaches that recognize the true complexity of our problems. Though ignorance brings about a more idealistic understanding of sustainable change, I am grateful to hold a recognition of how truly complex the world is.


NFLC student’s Blog 06: A Taste of Urban India

06: A Taste of Urban India

By Kieran Micka-Maloy 

“So would you rather live in this kind of world, or a world full of war, famine, and strife, with more and more people living in crowded cities?” We were asked this question by the leader of an organic farming organization at the end of a presentation he had given. “This kind of world” described a small town in Ethiopia that, through the magic of an NGO, has been transformed into a place where everyone farms organically, the environment has been remediated to its full glory, and everyone lives happily ever after. But I couldn’t help but think: not only do we not live in this kind of world today, we’re quickly moving even further away from it.
Humanity is urbanizing quickly. For the first time in measured history, the world’s rural population is expected to start decreasing within the next several decades. So while some people  might rather fantasize about a future in which everyone grows their own food and lives in a pastoral dreamland, if we want to make change, we need to think about the world that actually exists. Our field trip this week to Coimbatore, coming right on the heels of that organic farming paradise vision, provided a stark contrast to this fantasy.
We were exposed to many other contrasts in our twenty-four hours in Coimbatore, too. I think in part, these contrasts are what define urban India. A major theme of our trip was rhetoric vs. reality. A “septic tank” is really just a pit in the ground. A government official tells us that less than five percent of residents live in informal settlements, but we pass by four different slums on a fifteen-minute drive from his office to a restaurant. Burning trash is illegal and strictly enforced, but on practically every block there is a pile of burning garbage. Obviously the organic farmer isn’t the only one who has fallen into the trap of describing the world he wants instead of focusing on the world he has.
            We saw another interplay in Coimbatore between the global and the local. The Gates Foundation funds the construction of a community toilet in a slum on the outskirts of the city. In a Tamil movie, the characters all drink at cosmopolitan, Western looking bars, but whenever alcohol appears on screen a stern warning about the dangers of drinking is shown below.McDonalds doesn’t have hamburgers, but it does have “McAloo Tikki” burgers. Globalization is ever present, but always filtered through local context.
And of course, there was the yawning divide between rich and poor. We drive from a slum on the banks of an open sewage channel to a gleaming six-story shopping mall in fifteen minutes. At that mall, a shopkeeper offers students with white skin free samples and then quickly walks back into her store as darker skinned students walk by. Meanwhile, government officials funnel money into private “special purpose vehicles” to fund a ticketed bike path and free wifi for the city, while the city’s poor struggle with water borne diseases caused by nonexistent sanitation infrastructure. Like everywhere, those with money are those with power.
In terms of what I took away from our short visit to urban India, I learned about the balancing act that is required to work in such complex urban environments. Keystone is inching carefully into Coimbatore after spending the last thirty years in the hills. Its main project in the city is an effort to end open defecation in two outlying slum neighborhoods. A seemingly simple solution—building toilets—becomes inadequate when you consider that to build those toilets, Keystone must cultivate a friendly relationship with the same government officials that care more about wifi than sanitation, make sure that there is adequate containment so that waste doesn’t seep into drinking water supplies, bridge the divide between local populations, municipal governments, and international organizations, and convince sometimes resistant locals that the new toilets are an improvement on their current open defecation practices.  Urban challenges can be daunting. But visiting Coimbatore showed me that with persistence, even the most intransigent problems can be addressed head on.

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