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Project India: Hands of Hope

Reaching cultural epiphany on train

By Brooke Hines
Chart Reporter

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Brooke Hines

I was perplexed.

Does my “responsibility” translate? Is there even a responsibility here? If I were to show him this other way of life, would be continue to reject it? Or if he saw things the way I did, would it do more harm than good? Could this education actually be seen as a weapon? Cultural responsibility just got complicated.

I have always been painfully aware of the power of contrasting lifestyles to spark heated debates. Even as a child conflict made me incredibly nervous, so I’ve vied for the educational side. When both sides see the other perspective, the flames are usually cooler in the argument. This funny little role I chose for myself had seemed to translate well — until now.

The sun was scorching the train car. The smell of burning plastic and the sweat of a few hundred humans packed into a small space filled my lungs. I continued to breathe deep to keep my calm, but inside — I was losing it.

Not only was it 100 degrees outside, but our train had been stalled for five hours after moving for eight. We had caught the night train in hopes of arriving in Dharamsala mid-morning, but now it was noon and there was no sign of movement.

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Richshaw travel is a common mode of
transportation in Indian cities.

My friend Tiana walked to the next cabin to ask about the problem and came back with a train security guard. He politely sat down and began to entertain us with his stories. One of which involved demonstrating the maneuvers his terrifying gun could pull. The machine gun capabilities were showcased with me as a target. I was less than impressed. He had a surprising amount of knowledge about America — sometimes more than we knew. But he wanted to know more.

Sanjay Kumar was his name and questioning was his game. He began asking about our lives — where we live, what we do, our salary details. We were excited to hear about his world as well. The excitement changed only as we get into more details. When he heard that I didn’t live with my grandparents, a look of pity fell over his face. When I told him I didn’t live with my parents, his words hit a wall.

“If you live with your friend, then who cooks for you?” he asked.

“I take care of myself,” I responded. He shook his head in disgust. This was blasphemy.

“This way is wrong,” he said. “This is love divided. We love our families here.”

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According to the World Bank, India's transport sector is
large, diverse and serves 1.1 billion people.

I spent the next 30 minutes trying to convince Kumar that I do not hate my family. He continued to shake his head and repeat, “No, this is wrong. This is not family.” The heat was getting to me and so was he. I picked up a book to rest my words.

I am fascinated by cultures. The complexities, the similarities, the traditions. I’m hooked. At home, I try to advocate for cultures under scrutiny. Before I left for India, I faced questions about terrorists, tikkas, and toilet paper, which threw me into a few heated debates where I sloppily defended norms that I had never encountered. My justifications may be not be sufficient to change a perspective, but I hope that they cool the flames of unjust criticism.

To have my culture and lifestyle openly rejected by a person living in a culture I had advocated for at home knocked the wind out of me. There was no changing his perspective. I was the epitome of the American downfall to Kumar. What kind of cultural responsibility did I have now? I was sure that he was one more shocking realization from abandoning our train car, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Kumar saved us from our philosophical conundrum by showing us that Indians may be impossible to fully understand and impossible not to love, just like their sweet India. We shared snacks and stories. He held Ryan’s hand and begged him to come stay at his home, join his family. We parted with addresses, phone numbers and assurances that our friendship would never be forgotten or ignored. Friends don’t thank each other for snacks or forget each other.

The train began moving after seven hours of waiting and Kumar hopped off at the next stop. We waved goodbye and laughed when he stuck a few bottles of water back in our train car for the rest of our journey.

I realized that this strange responsibility I assumed at home might not translate abroad. In ways, Kumar had much more figured out than I did. Perhaps it’s less about education, responsibility, and acceptance — and more about loving the strange person next to you even when they seem to challenge everything you stand for.

He had that one down to a T.

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