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Embracing the Chaos and Charm: Sagaree’s Volunteering Days in Delhi

Embracing the Chaos and Charm: Sagaree’s Volunteering Days in Delhi

On my second day of volunteering at ETASHA Society, I found myself attending a Spoken English class at the Mori Gate centre in North Delhi. The room, outfitted with wicker chairs locally known as ‘Moodhas,’ was occupied by about eight or nine trainees who were around my age, 19. Despite the grey, overcast skies and the muddiness from the rain, the trainees’ energy and brightness remained undiminished.

I introduced myself as Sagaree. I shared that I lived and studied in the United States and, being in Delhi for a few weeks, I wanted to contribute by teaching English and writing for ETASHA. As I spoke, my voice creaked from disuse, my American accent altering my English, instantly marking me as an NRI.

“I’m from A-mer-i-ca, I suppose,” I carefully enunciated in response to a trainee’s question, as advised by the facilitators. “But my family – grandparents, cousins, aunts – are all here. I visit India whenever I can.”

Vicki, the inquisitive trainee with his hair puffed upwards and quick feet, leaned back against the wall in a relaxed posture, seemingly satisfied with my response.

“So, you are native Indian!” he exclaimed.

The term “native Indian” struck a chord with me. During my time in Delhi, reactions to my background varied both inside and outside ETASHA – some showed admiration, others skepticism. I was asked about everything from American movies to whether I knew a doctor cousin in California.

I immersed myself in understanding Delhi’s vibrant essence, adjusting my speech to sound higher and sweeter, joining in with the jokes, and often ending my sentences with a question or a shrug.

Navigating the city’s rhythm, I enunciated my Ts and integrated myself into an extended family network. I embraced the local chai culture, preferring sugar on the side, and was amused to find that ‘onion rings’ in an American-themed restaurant were actually pakoras, and the ‘Mexican fajitas’ surprisingly contained paneer.

I absorbed new phrases and concepts, switching from “NGOs” instead of “non-profits” to “standards” in place of “grades.” I grappled with being labeled an NRI, or less flatteringly, an ABCD, and found it amusing that I was expected to be familiar with Sachin Tendulkar and Honey Singh.

The trainees shared stories from neighborhoods I’d never heard of – Seemapuri, Madhanpur Khadar, Tigri, and Dakshinpuri. Their tales of aspirations and daily life were enlightening – Bhagwan, whose father painted houses and who dreamt of becoming a consultant; Vipnesh, who once aspired to join the army but now sought another way to help people at ETASHA; Deepak, who wished to be a manager like his father in the Railways; and Durga, who at 22, married with a daughter, was learning English to teach her.

In a recent conversation class at ETASHA’s Tigri centre, I witnessed the remarkable growth in confidence and expression of a batch from their first to the twelfth week. The trainees chose “India” as the discussion topic, brainstorming under categories like food, history, festivals, culture, sports, and geography. The whiteboard soon overflowed with their thoughts – from “Ma’am, food!” to “Ma’am, personality.”

We shared laughter over cultural nuances, like my attempt to shake hands with my Dadiji, and delved into topics ranging from Holi traditions to the Yamuna River’s pollution problems. While interacting in my broken Hindi with the staff and trainees, I expressed my intention to teach. Vikram, a fellow trainee, shared his aspirations to teach English after completing his data entry job with ETASHA. His question, “America, or back to India? India is very good,” left me pondering.

The trainees, without hesitation, included me in Delhi’s mesmerizing tapestry, more than I might have realized I belonged. My heart, filled with mixed emotions and a deep sense of longing for a place to belong, left me undecided about where my journey would lead.

I told Vikram, “I haven’t decided yet.”

Author: Sagaree Jain was a volunteer in  Delhi.