Vaishnavi Hariprasad – Class of 2011
For the past year I was living in a small town in Southern India, called Madurai, and nicknamed the City that Never Sleeps. Madurai is in the state of Tamil Nadu, about four hours from the southern border of India. It’s a beautifully vibrant town, home of the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, an ancient temple dedicated to the patron goddess of Madurai, Meenakshi (the fish eyed goddess). The life of this town (and the reason for its nickname) emanates from the busy town center located around the temple where street vendors are selling the most colorful fruit, vegetables, flowers, textiles, powders, dyes, and incense. Wandering these streets at night we would get to sample South India’s most delicious meals; come back only a few hours later and the vendors would still be awake busily loading their fresh produce for the next day.
It was in this culturally traditional and religious town that I spent a year teaching English at Jain Vidyalaya Higher Secondary Matriculation School. I was lucky to teach the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who were ever curious, enthusiastic until the last second, and mostly willing to participate in whatever newfangled plan I had for the day. My initial greatest challenge was honestly getting dressed to go to work every morning—as a traditional town they expected their teachers to wear the customary Sari to work every day. After a month of struggling for 45 minutes, I finally conquered that challenge and moved on to face the challenge of teaching my brilliant students and integrating myself into such a traditional lifestyle. The toughest balance to strike was to stay true to myself and my principles while also respecting the culture and way of life, specifically when it came to the way in which they treated and viewed women. Becoming involved with an organization called People’s Watch—a human rights NGO—helped a great deal in allowing me to eventually strike this balance. I worked with a team of lawyers and field workers to spread awareness and fight for the rights of women in society, the workplace, and in healthcare. It opened my eyes to a different definition of feminism and women’s rights, one that allowed women to be empowered within the structure of their society.
This last year has left me with a new home and family in India; 300 adorable children whom I will never forget; and has, I think, taught me more than I may have taught those kids.