10th September 2012

“So, how do you like US?” Mithun asked the group of 40 students who attended the AID-JHU new students orientation. We could not tell how much the promise of free food and free tickets to the highly anticipated appearance of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia had drawn the to the orientation program, or how much they had really been motivated by the opportunity to join an organization working for sustainable development and social justice. Most likely it was a bit of both, since AID was surely not the only group wooing the new students on campus, nor was Panditji the only option for cultural activity on the weekend, such as it was, at a place like Johns Hopkins.

Perhaps he had expected a happy chorus of cheers for the land of opportunity.

“This is Baltimore,” came an unenthusiastic voice from the front.

“What was that?” asked Mithun.

“Baltimore is not US,” she stated flatly.

Whoa, now sister. What’s that you are saying about Baltimore? I’ll have you know Baltimore is the City That Reads!

But I understood what she meant. After making the 18 hour journey from India to America, all the while imagining based on media images what that America would be, she apparently did not enjoy the sense of arrival when she was welcomed at the port of Baltimore, much less when she reached the campus in the midst of the city of Baltimore.

I had just talked about almost the same thing. For me, the journey from US to India also took place in several stages. After landing in Bombay life was not that different from Baltimore. Further journeys were required to get from the first world of India to its third and fourth worlds, and within them, to those dealing with the injustices borne by those worlds. From the vantage point of the people living where the field was least level and most tilted, in reality and in metaphor, one could gain insight on the nature, culture, politics and economics of India.

Nishikant, had introduced them to the JHU chapter and shown them a short video overview of AID programs. Then Ravi and I had talked about how AID worked – using examples of the haybox, the Narmada struggle, and drawing connections between issues of energy, livelihood, corruption and justice, and illustrating how the issue of nutrition was connected to poverty, health, sustainable agriculture, corruption, women’s rights, truth-in-advertising. A thoughtful question and answer session followed.

After all that, Mithun brought up the point that working with AID helps not only someone somewhere but also helps ourselves to think more critically, speak more articulately, gain a sense of responsibility and take up leadership roles. He cited his own example, as he is among the youngest to rise to a leadership position in his professional society. Nishikant elaborated on this, pointing out how doing routine AID work for outreach and fundraising made him think about how he might have responded to others who had similarly reached out to him. It was nice to end on this positive note of building our own character while building a just and compassionate society.