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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Reading in Unexpected Places

A couple of months ago, as I was walking down the main road in Lanka with Rebecca Ji, my instructor, I mentioned that I like it when everything is calm, quiet, and organized. Taking in the cars honking, rickshaws rushing by, and cows sitting in the middle of the road, she turned to me with a laugh and asked, “So why did you come to India?”

It was a reasonable question, and I didn’t have a great answer. I’ve always preferred some semblance of order. Even though I loved visiting New York City, I didn’t want to live in such a busy, congested place. Now I wonder what I was thinking; at least they have driving lanes!

I said something about wanting to step out of my comfort zone, and we moved on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about why I had come to India, and how I’m surviving – sometimes thriving – in a place that epitomizes what I used to find most uncomfortable.

I’ve decided that I’m happy and comfortable in this frenetic environment because India has taught me not to sweat the small stuff. Disorder doesn’t faze me anymore. A motorcycle driving down the wrong side of the road? It doesn’t matter; I just move out of the way. Someone is (very) late for a meeting? That’s not a problem; it’s just how things go sometimes in India. Faced with daily chaos, I’ve become unexpectedly chill.

My newfound ability to read just about anywhere demonstrates how I’ve learned to disregard the unimportant. I’ve always loved to read, but over here I’ve gone a little crazy. I’ve read on the top berths of overnight trains and in the back of autorickshaws. I’ve read in the foothills of Himalayan mountains and the ghats of the river Ganga Ji. I’ve read in tiny teashops with a cup of chai and westernized cafes with a cup of coffee. I’ve read in three states, eight cities, and four villages.

I’ve set a goal of reading 52 books during Bridge Year.

This goal is attainable because there are so many fewer distractions over here. During our first month, we stayed in a village called Munsiyari, where we learned about environmental conditions and even helped prevent eutrophication of a pond by shovelling and carrying plastic tarps of mud. At night, however, there wasn’t much to do. The power went out nearly every night, and the only light in our room was a small, solar lamp. Fortunately, I had my Kindle with a good battery life and 3G connection for downloading books. With the rain pouring down on the roof, I would curl up in my sleeping bag and read, finishing nearly a book a night for the week we were there. I think my favorite book from that week was Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography about growing up in post-apartheid South Africa. Mr. Noah’s humor and his mother’s strength helped him transcend the same kind of poverty, racism, and violence I’ve seen in some parts of India.

Even in Varanasi, where I’m busy working at Asha Deep, a K-8 school for children of illiterate parents, studying Hindi, taking dance lessons, and participating in Bridge Year group activities, no TV or internet allows reading time. I recommend Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The author takes topics you learned about in high school and presents them in a new way.  I also enjoyed Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James S. Romm. This book is packed with drama, perfect for anyone who enjoys Roman history or is annoyed that they can’t stream The Bachelor outside the United States. I didn’t particularly like 1984 by George Orwell, but at least I got it crossed off my list.

I admit there can be an escapist aspect to my reading. While India has made me more relaxed about the little things, I’m now much more aware of the world’s bigger problems, such as the crisis of poverty.  When I’m overwhelmed by the challenging living conditions of those around me, I can lose myself for an hour or two in a book. At these times, I have either found refuge in greater hardship (We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, a Holocaust novel) or in charming, romantic fluff (Attachments by Rainbow Rowell).

There’s so much I want to do with my remaining time in India. The 8th graders have graduated from Asha Deep, and while I miss them terribly, I now have more time to focus on 6th grade math. I’m making another film about the school. I want to improve my Hindi and continue exploring Varanasi. There’s not enough time left. And I still have 15 books to go.