Monday, June 27, 2011

India First Impressions

India overwhelms a visitor upon arrival. First impressions are important and India's is sensory overload. The smells of sweat and sweet incense are strong. The feel of humidity hangs in the air and on your skin. The taste of spices are pungent and fried snacks are pleasing, but the many warnings of Delhi-belly convince us to start out this adventure by ordering "mild" off the menu and always sticking to bottled water. The sights are a stimulating mix of colors and smiles and misery and life lived in the open. And everywhere there are people, people, people.

The USIEF staff arranged for us to be picked up at the airport by a driver in a (thankfully) air conditioned minivan to take us to a bed & breakfast that is covered for the first week.  Driving from the airport, I began to see a different India from that I visited 20 years ago. Huge construction projects are everywhere. Our driver told us that near the airport there were projects including a new mall and hotels and office complexes. Only about half the workers we saw balancing on the high walls or guiding cranes to drop beams in place were wearing hard hats. Hugging the construction sites are tent cities where men urinate in the open, women cook on fires and diaperless children with natty hair wander among the squalor. I recalled Shekar Narasimhan, a mortgage banker and real estate developer ( with whom I met in McLean, Virginia last week, telling me that whole villages would come to work on a construction site and may get stolen away by another site for a few rupees more in pay. His Indian construction company has higher standards of both safety and housing conditions for their workers and so retain them longer. Although motivated by being more humane, he said this makes economic sense for his companies too.

Pradeep, the husband of the proprietor of Vandana's B&B Guesthouse ( where we are staying this first week, who owns a tile company, explained the increasing labor costs in Delhi by saying, "The states have done more economic development, so people no longer have to come to Delhi to find a job." He lamented, "It's harder for Delhi businesses now." I wondered if that slowing of urbanization might actually be a boon for the rural areas and, ultimately, a positive factor in a country where the vast majority of the over 1 billion people still live in villages. However, with a population of approximately 20 million (no one really knows) in the greater metropolitan area of Delhi, this place is definitely a world-class megalopolis.

The traffic is an example of chaos theory in action. Motorcycles weave through narrow spaces in the slow moving lanes, some piled high with families, a husband driving with a toddler perched in front of him, an adolescent behind him and a wife hanging on to the back. Auto-rickshaws or tuk-tuks, the open-sided three-wheelers that often have four or more people squeezed in the backseat - which my family has already done - are even more reckless as they use their horns for an essential accessory. Cars and buses and trucks all barrel down the street knowing that in any game of chicken with pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles or tuk-tuks, they will come out the winners.

The first night after our 15 hour flight from Chicago over the north pole to New Delhi was a restless one for us all. We were all awake by 4 a.m. and I told our daughters that we would take a walk at 6 o'clock in the neighborhood of Safdarjung Enclave, hoping the "guard" was out front by then to let us out of the gate.  He was and, as we set out, it started to sprinkle. Three minutes later, it was pouring. By the time we sprinted back through small streams to the B&B, were we all soaked. "Welcome to the Indian monsoon," I told my family. Later in the day, we bought umbrellas.

The rain is both baptismic blessing and burden. While it washes clean this dirty city and cools down the stifling heat, it also adds to the muddy mess of streets and moldy mildew that quickly weathers the buildings. And as it rains I think, if only they could capture all this water and strategically share it across this parched land. Later, I will learn more about the conflicts around water use. But the many paradoxes of India begin with us being wet and hot, delighted and exhausted, energized and overwhelmed.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation

The Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation is this week in Washington, DC. I am even more excited after meeting my fellow Fulbrighters who are heading to India, some alumni from past years, the USIEF staff from India and the U.S. State Department staff. There are a number of scholars who are focused on two of my areas of interest - social entrepreneurship and water issues – but, as far as I can tell, I am the only person researching philanthropy in India. The Fulbrighters I've met are interesting, adventurous and engaging. And the USIEF folks work hard at creating a mutually supportive network once we are in country. 

I was particularly intrigued by the cross cultural presentation we had. Culture is simply defined as the norms, values and attitudes of a particular people. But culture is fluid. Just when I declare "This is how the Indians do it," there will always be exceptions. India has over a billion people with 22 officially recognized languages and a diverse geography. It is the birthplace of four major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – and the third largest Muslim population of any country. So, it is hard to generalize about culture in India. Being aware of and reflective about all the deeper unspoken understandings and often unconscious rules is going to be important to my success in India. 

Studies have shown India to be more community oriented than individualistic. This means that "we" is more important than "I" and the influence of family, caste and faith is strong. Decisions may take longer because many people need to be involved and praise should be directed towards teams rather than individuals. 

I have tried to do some of this already in my dealings with Indian colleagues. In a recent email exchange, I profusely thanked an individual who replied "I would thank you not to thank me." Then he added in what I thought was a very Hindu response, "I am only doing my duty." So I came back the next week and thanked his whole team for the help they provided. 

Of course, I will make many more mistakes along the way. But with humor and humility, I hope that my cultural competency will continue to grow. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Getting Excited about this Next Chapter

I am just two weeks away from departure and so excited about how this next chapter is evolving. I will serve as a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar in India. This is a program through the United States - India Education Foundation ( and jointly funded by the U.S. Department of State and the Central Government of India.

This is a dream come true for me. When I was traveling around the world 20 years ago, I met a Fulbrighter in Sri Lanka who was researching various mediation techniques and teachers. I remember saying, "Some day, I am going to do a Fulbright. Don't know when, where, how or what. But I am going to do that." Well, the timing was never right or the project never clear or the application process too daunting. But finally, with lots of support from family and advisors, here I am launching into a Fulbright.

My program of research and teaching includes three main streams: (1) researching the community foundation movement in India in partnership with my primary host institution Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy (; (2) teaching a course on Social Entrepreneurship to MBA students at Jaypee Business School ( in New Delhi; and (3) doing a case study of a water conflict in the state of Gujarat in which poor rural farmers are protesting against a cement plant that will divert water traditionally used for agriculture and use it for industrial purposes.

I am getting so excited! Stay tuned in the weeks and months ahead for tales of adventure, learning, challenge and growth.

Thanks for your interest!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Just want to make clear that the postings on this blog are not the opinions of the United States-India Education Foundation, the Fulbright program or the Governments of India or the United States. These are only the ramblings of me, Patrick McNamara, and don't amount to anything more than that. Still, I hope you find some vicarious pleasure in joining me on this journey!