Well, it’s been a few weeks, hasn’t it? Sorry ‘bout that. I got caught up in all the activity of my last days at VSSU, and before I knew it, I was leaving. I’ll recap briefly, but I know I’m going to miss a lot of wonderful stories and moments.
Two days after the wedding that I mentioned, there was another wedding. Apparently there are certain auspicious days for marriages, and since weddings are 3-day festivities in Bengal, I was able to attend the first day of one wedding, and the third day of another. It was quite an interesting experience. Once again, I got all wrapped up in my sari, this time thanks to Banani, and I drove with Mr. Mondal’s wife, daughter-in-law, sister, and niece to the groom’s house, which was about a 15-minute drive away. The festivities of this evening were entirely different; the bride was sitting up on a stage, dressed elaborately, and was essentially on display. At this point, the couple was officially married, and the rituals dictate that the groom invites his family and friends to his home to come see his new bride, and there is a huge dinner to celebrate. And let me tell you, there was so much food. Darpan met us there, and he told me that there wasn’t a dinner, so he kept feeding me all of these snacks, and then, as usual, he’d been joking, and there was a huge dinner. I thought my stomach was going to explode. But seeing so many people and experiencing another aspect of a Bengali wedding was definitely a unique and fantastic experience.
The last week or so in the office was spent on two primary tasks: helping prepare Mr. Mondal for his visit to the US in September, and finishing up the VSSU book. The book got very close to complete before I left, but not quite there. All of the content was ready to go, but there was a lot of formatting left to do. Regardless, Mr. Mondal is hopeful that he will finish it all up and have copies ready to go by the time he comes to the US next month. As far as I can tell, Mr. Mondal is completely prepped for his upcoming trip, and all of his arrangements for visiting Wooster are set; I am really glad that I will get to see him again so soon!
One of my last nights at VSSU, I cooked a big American dinner for the office as a thank-you for everything they have done for me throughout the summer. I had asked several weeks before if I could do this before I left, so during one of my weekend trips to Kolkata I bought some of the western ingredients I would need that I knew I couldn’t get in the village. On Friday afternoon, my second to last night at VSSU, Banani and I went to the market to get all of the produce I would need. I’d walked through that market in Lakshmikantapur several times going back and forth between the train station and while doing branch visits, but I’d never actually done any shopping there- it was quite interesting. The best/worst part was buying the chicken. I told Banani I needed three chickens, and so we went to this little stand that had a bunch of live chickens in the back. Banani told the shopkeeper I needed three, he picked up three by their feet and hung them from a scale on the ceiling of the shop so we could see the weight (and therefore the price), and then we left. About 10 minutes later, we came back to the shop and the man had butchered the chickens up completely, and he handed us a plastic grocery bag that was full of meat, guts, and blood… pretty much everything but the feathers, feet, and heads. For those of you that have seen me in the kitchen, I am a little squeamish about raw meat, so sorting through that mess was quite something for me.
Anyway, once we made it back from the market, I immediately started cooking, knowing that it would take me a while to cook this meal for 12-15 people with only a two-burner gas stove, one pot, a wok, and a knife. Sure enough, after about five hours of cooking, and sweating (the kitchen doesn’t have a fan…. even my pants were soaked through with sweat, it was terrible), I had finished. Banani helped me a little bit along the way, but I did a vast majority of it myself, which was how I wanted it. After ushering everyone that came upstairs to the dining room and carrying everything up, we all sat down to an American feast of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pasta salad, chopped vegetables, and no-bake cookies. It was just a simple dinner, but I am so glad I was able to do it. Mr. Mondal and Darpan’s wives both came, which was wonderful for me because they had both cooked me several meals; it was my turn to return the favor. The best part was, though, that everyone tried everything, even though some of it was quite strange for someone accustomed to Bengali food. I really appreciated it, and it was a great evening of Bengali-American fusion. We were eating American style food, but still eating with our hands, and the atmosphere was undeniably Bengali. It was a really great evening for me, and I can’t quite say how much it meant that everyone came back to work in the evening to try my American cooking, and I was thankful that I was given the opportunity to show my immense thanks for their help, hospitality, and guidance throughout the summer. It really was the perfect way to spend one of my last nights in Ullon.
The last day itself was a blur. I worked on the book in the morning, and in the afternoon I got brought into a meeting in Mr. Mondal’s office with several community members, a Harvard professor who was visiting for the day, and two volunteers from Kolkata. The meeting had absolutely nothing to do with my work at VSSU, but at the same time, it was the perfect way to spend my last few hours in the office. It was a reminder that VSSU is about a whole a lot more than the few aspects I had been able to explore in my internship. Hearing a local girl and her father talk about their challenges and determination to overcome them was a reminder about how much is left to accomplish in the field of community economic development, and in this particular scenario, gender equality. Sitting in on the meeting was bittersweet however, because it went from 4 until almost 8pm. The workday ends at 6pm, which meant I was unable to say goodbye to pretty much everyone in the office. I tried not to dwell too much on that, however, as I was swept off by Mr. Mondal and Darpan to one last lovely dinner at the Mondal residence. After one more round of me offering to help in the kitchen, Mrs. Mondal refusing, and finally sitting down to a dinner of more food than I could possibly eat, I left their home, after many hugs, and “I’ll be backs.”
Before I went upstairs to start packing, I wrote a few short notes of goodbye and left them on the desks of the intended recipients for them to find on Monday morning. Then, with my room looking like an explosion of some sort had occurred, I started packing. It took me almost two hours, and I finally collapsed into bed at about 1am. Sleep was short lived however, and I was up again at 5am to try and shower and finish packing before it was time to hit the road. Unfortunately, the water was out, so the best I could do was brush my teeth with my bottled water and change clothes, still feeling completely gross. I hauled my bag downstairs, was brought one last cup of chai, and then it was time to go. Mr. Mondal had a meeting in Kolkata, so I drove with him, and as I brought my bag to the car, Mr. Mondal’s wife, Darpan’s wife, and Mr. Mondal’s sister and niece came to see me off. After one more round of hugs, I climbed into the car, trying not to get too choked up.
About two hours later, I was dropped off in Kolkata at my hostel, and the internship was officially over. I checked in, showered, and rested for a bit, and tried to process the fact that I was really done in Ullon, at least for now. I really do hope that sometime in the future, even if it is many years away, I will get to visit again. I have a feeling that many of the same people will be working there, and that their operations will be even more impressive than they already are. With only one year left at Wooster, I have lots of other things to plan for and worry about at the moment, but hopefully in the years to come, I will get to plan a return trip.
And now, about 10 days after leaving VSSU, I am writing this entry from New Delhi after visiting Varanasi, and it is the night before I leave India. It has been a crazy summer. It has been filled with experiences that I will treasure, some that I hope I can forget (like the food poisoning I didn’t write about), but every single one of them was crucial to making this summer what it was. I changed, my perspective on development evolved, and my goals for the future were solidified. I can’t imagine a better way that I could have spent my summer, and although there were challenges along the way, it was completely, 100%, and undeniably worth it. So now, I’m off to Nepal for a blissful week of being a tourist, and then its back to Wooster. With only one year left, going back for the fourth fall in a row is exciting and terrifying, but I this year I am returning with a whole new set of experiences and beliefs, and a greater certainty that I can tackle whatever hurdles senior year will throw at me.
Woman in Ullon in the rice fields
Banani and I in Mr. Mondal’s office
Finishing up a presentation for Mr. Mondal
At the first wedding, the bride is in the center in all red
Working in rice fields in Ullon
Banani and I after the table is set for the American dinner!
Homes in Ullon
Road in Ullon, with election flags seen over the path
Some of the people at the American dinner
Ponds in Ullon
Road in Ullon
Home in Ullon
Homes in Ullon
Starting the cooking!
The librarian at the VSSU Oceanic Library
Oh thats right! A fellow Woosterite came to visit VSSU for the weekend! With Anders and Mr. Sur getting tea after visiting the Lakshmikantapur branch.
VSSU main office
Its blurry, but I don’t care. This is my last night in Ullon with the Harvard professor in orange, and the volunteer couple from Kolkata next to me
From the roof of the Oceanic Library, overlooking the rice fields of Ullon
Ullon and surrounding area
The nearest main road, about 1.5 miles from Ullon
Sitting between a Harvard professor and a truly inspirational teenage cyclist from Ullon, who is facing sexual and economic discrimination in her effort to compete in a national competition.
Mr. Purkait and I at his daughter’s wedding; this is the man I met in Ullon who so kindly invited me to the festivities.
Mr. Mondal, Dr. Ghosh (Harvard prof) and I
Talking about work as the American dinner wraps up