My life is my message.

Throughout my time in India, one thing has become glaringly obvious to me about Americans… or most Americans… or at least the Americans with whom I have been traveling: we really like to talk. From the moment we wake up and chat with our roommates about the day that lies ahead of us, to the moment we go to sleep, lying in bed and discussing existential questions that a day’s worth of Indian life has given rise to, we exercise our vocal chords more than any other part of our bodies. In order to avoid “awkward” silences, we make uncomfortable small talk. Just the other week, a lull in the conversation with some dinner guests had me squirming in my seat as my roommate broke the silence with, “So… How’d you two meet?” She immediately bit her tongue after they explained that their marriage was arranged, a normal occurrence in much of India, yet an awkward topic to discuss with dinner guests that we had only just met. We love to ask questions and receive clearly articulated answers. This brings frustration to a lot of my classmates, as Indian society is so complex and diverse that most questions receive very contradictory and inconclusive responses. We express so many of our ideas and emotions through words, that our social interactions and relationships rely heavily upon them. As one Indian friend pointed out to me today, “you say ‘thank you’ way too much. When we are with friends, it is just understood.” His statement speaks greatly to most Indians’ tendency to speak with their actions, a common trait I’ve noticed in many of the Puneites I have met. In the spirit of Gandhi’s words, from small personal interactions to larger societal behaviors, what they do and how they live sends a greater message to those around them than the words which they do or do not speak.

Even everyday situations are approached with speechless gestures by my Indian neighbors where most of my American friends would use words. Since arriving in India, I’ve acquired the habit of practicing the head wobble that is so frequently used in India to communicate agreement, approval, or understanding. I’ve become used to excessive amounts of service in any shop or restaurant. Most of the time, the people around me do not ask if I need help and end up assisting me whether or not I want to be. Surprisingly, even if I feel frustrated with the unwanted attention, I always end up happy about it later. For example, at my internship, my colleagues are super attentive to the dining patterns of myself and others. They have stopped asking me whether or not I have had lunch. They know I’ll fib and say I have, when I’m full from a big breakfast at the center and just too busy to eat. Rather, they call me over whenever I enter the staff room and force me to try at least one bite of every dish that they have brought for lunch that day, excited to show me new Indian foods and to ensure that I never go hungry. While it is sometimes frustrating to be constantly pressured to eat even when I am not hungry, their stubbornness speaks to their caring dispositions, and I will always remember them fondly in that way.  Likewise, when I return home after a long day at the Akanksha school, dust covers my pants, streaks of marker decorate my face, and my messy lopsided ponytail shoots frizz in every direction. My host mother opens the door, takes one look at me, and ushers me to the dinner table where she sits quietly with me and nourishes my fatigue with yummy chapati and vegetables, sends me off to take a cool shower, and throws on whatever Hindi film she has that day. Though she says not more than a few sentences, her attention to the needs of my exhausted post-school day self tells me that she cares about my well-being and we both understand how much we enjoy each other’s company.

Beyond such individual relationships and interactions, I have taken notice of the ways in which people speak through their actions in larger societal contexts, especially in the area of religion. While India is very religiously diverse, home to many Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and Christians alike, Hinduism is woven into so many aspects of Indian culture. By its nature, Hinduism is more of a lifestyle than it is a religion, which is perhaps why it is so easily tied to actions more than words. Rather than preaching, reciting, and debating (for the most part) the doctrines of a specific text, the Hindu faith largely revolves around actively living one’s unique belief set, which may be completely different than that of another Hindu. Don’t get me wrong, verbal prayer is plentiful. In one temple that we visited, the prayer recited during puja was about fifteen minutes long. Thinking that it was a shorter prayer sung over a few times, we were surprised to find out that it was in fact a single prayer without any repeating segments. Still, a large part of the religion is displayed everyday habits and behaviors. From what is worn, to what is eaten, to the ways in which others are treated, to whether or not toilet paper is used (paper being a goddess to some), faith is always considered. Everywhere I go, day or night, I find devotees stopped along the side of the road in front of lit sanctuaries containing images of Ganapati, an especially prevalent deity in Maharashtra. Rickshaw drivers keep small images of deities on their dashboards or on their windows. The other day we heard an echo of song from outside of our program center. When we went to investigate, we saw about seventy or so pilgrims walking down F.C. Road carrying sitars and singing songs of worship. For all of the emphasis our Contemporary India professor places on India’s secularism, I have never been in a place where religion has such a heavy and constant influence, and the degree of its visibility in everyday life is an amazing thing to witness.

I hope that as I spend my last two weeks in Pune, I can channel Gandhiji and live the way I want to be remembered, relying less on the words that are appropriate back home and more on the actions that speak volumes in India