A Letter Home


Simon McNorton

I haven’t written home in a while.

My experiences are so interspersed and polarized that I can’t find a way to share them in an earnest manner. So instead I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned, with the hope it provides just a little insight into my experiences thus far. It’s not a conventional message, but I hope it means something to you.

They say that if you spend a day in India, you could write a book. A month, maybe you could write a chapter. And if you spend a year here, you’d struggle to write a page.

Tomorrow I will have been here for 177 days, with 177 days left until my Indicorps Fellowship officially ends.  Something I have started to do is view each day as the start of the rest of my Fellowship. So, while I’ve been here for half my Fellowship year, I’m beginning a six-month Fellowship, albeit with the experiences and learnings of countless failures and few successes.

Struggling to achieve positive change here is much harder than it has been before – here there are no concrete objectives (I have a frayed role), no steer from policies (usually  trial and error experiments), and no manager to critically evaluate my performance (I’m on my own).  This is not a campaign supported by technology (apart from my rapidly overheating laptop), easy communication (I barely speak the language), or bags of money. Electricity and water, once given necessities, are something we plan without.

In my work with children with disabilities , there have been tasks initiated but since fallen to the wayside, clumsy interactions with elderly villagers, and accidental displays of wealth that prevent families I’m trying to understand from understanding me. Yet among these failures are moments that remind me why I’m here: moments that make me feel like a great scientist, a pioneering doctor, a tinkering engineer or an aspiring teacher. This is definitely the place to realize childhood dreams.

I’m also learning: about India, about education, about myself. Before I came here I was a grownup – I was 28 years old and had a nice job, home and group of friends. But I wasn’t grown up.

My growing up began with Indicorps’ multifarious philosophy. It was challenging at first, understanding concepts intended to help me give and gain the most from my experience in India. I felt as if in a lecture during points of orientation, being told things that I’d need to recite at some point in the future. But in actually applying these concepts in the field, they came to mean so much more.

The phrase ‘a purpose-driven life’ has taken on new meaning. Without luxuries, I yield fulfillment from the change I’m able to make. Service has become my purpose because from the moment I wake until the moment I sleep it’s all I do. And it’s not a burden, it’s an opportunity. I am driven by the small prospect I have to galvanize a community with such a challenging future.

I’ve been figuring out ‘simple living’. Some of the Fellows have experimented with Gandhi’s vows but that’s beyond me. Simple living isn’t about giving things up or making sacrifices; it’s about changing priorities to match your environment. Leaving a legacy of consumption with the community I serve in is not fair or appropriate. It’s beyond selfish for me to leave here – a place with so little – having taken more than I put back in.

I try to act as the ‘lowest common denominator‘. I don’t do algebra, but commit myself to performing tasks that in a caste-ridden society of desperate inequality are normally reserved for the untouchables, home-bound women, or the Harijan. I consciously serve as an example by washing my own clothes on a cold stone floor when others offer to clean them for me. When Rajveer – an eight-year-old with cerebral palsy – soils himself in the middle of the schoolyard, I choose not to stare on in disgust like others beside me, but rather help him clean himself on the same cold stone floor. And when hot water is rationed to freezing children for lack of a much-needed ‘chula‘, I roll up my sleeves and start building.

But if I could take just two lessons from this year they would be on sustainability and empowerment. Under the tutelage of grassroots development work in India, every decision I act upon is rooted in these concepts. The guilt I feel when buying the simplest of products from a local vendor, on the basis that when I leave there will be no one to take my place as a contributor to the local economy, is harrowing. As someone trying to help the community, the guilt feels counterintuitive, a contradiction of priorities.

In fact, the pressure I feel to make sure my work here is sustainable actually prevents me from acts of generosity.

In December I met a fifteen-year-old orphan. Hit by cruel fate, he had a tumor on his face and suffered from a learning disability. He had left school and needed to support himself.

I pondered my options. Could I pay to remove his tumor? What would I do for the next ill child I happened upon? What would I do if the cancer spread? The solution, I realized, was not found in overvalued foreign bills. My kindness was not sustainable.

I had met the boy during a study I was conducting to find employment solutions for children with developmental disabilities; he gave my quest new meaning and he gave me purpose.

I continue to focus on sustainability through empowerment by engaging with my community to challenge problems they have faced for years rather than accepting them as fate. As one person I cannot solve their problems, but I can change a stubborn mindset of dutiful acceptance to one that is not afraid to embrace change for the better.

So that’s my story so far. I apologize for the lack of funny anecdotes that might have been expected, but the sentiment with which I started remains: I cannot capture my experience in just one piece, not even begin to do it justice.

I’m already preparing for what’s going to happen when I return home. I’m sure I’ll continue to wax lyrical about distant politics, buy cheap clothes, get bad haircuts, and spend entirely too long on Facebook. I’ll even use washing machines and get a smart phone.

But maybe I’ll do it all differently.

Simon McNorton, 2010 Indicorps Fellow

1 Response to A Letter Home


March 9th, 2011 at 10:05 am


Simon–What an awesome update! I’m so impressed with how wisely you’ve expressed your sentiments. Your love and compassion towards your community clearly comes through. Keep the momentum going for the second half.

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