A letter to curd rice? To a beggar, or a man unconscious in the gutter? A letter to one’s self?
Creative letters written by University of Washington undergraduates who studied last summer in Bangalore, India, are gathered in a new book organized by Anu Taranath, senior lecturer in the English and Comparative History of Ideas departments.
The book, “T.I.P.S. to Study Abroad: Simple Letters for Complex Engagement,” includes about 60 such letters, all written by the 2013 study-abroad cohort, who spent a quarter putting it all together after their return from India.
And though the letters are personal and informal, they often touch on global issues of class, privilege and power.
About every other summer, Taranath takes 20 or so undergraduates to India for a monthlong study-abroad course called Social Justice and NGO Activism. She asks the students to consider their travels through the lenses of globalization, development and social justice. The study-abroad program is sponsored jointly by the Comparative History of Ideas Program and the UW Honors program.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and each trip I make helps deepen my own understanding of some of the larger global issues we are trying to understand together,” Taranath said. “But it also makes me more curious about how to teach this material.”
The idea, she said, came from Brandon Maust and Amy Hirayama, former students who now help her administer the program. The two reminded Taranath of a nightly ritual with her children in which she asks them three questions: What people were you most excited about today? What feeling are you keeping in your mind before sleeping? And what thing did you particularly like today?
With the added fourth component of “self,” this became the assignment. Students were to write a letter a week, to a specific thing, idea, person and to themselves. The student writers collectively called themselves The Letterwallahs.
Writing to an idea may seem odd, but Taranath suggested it as a way of thinking about big concepts starting in small ways.
“So, you are not talking about development as a whole, but you are asking, ‘Dear Road that I am on.’ ‘Dear building that got sawed in half to make more space for the road.’ ‘Dear tree that was uprooted.’ You’re thinking about development, for example, from a seemingly smaller angle, and from that angle you can dig your way up.
“You are entrusting your thoughts to that building or tree for the duration of the letter — that to me is an imaginative leap, one that’s really compelling.”
Student authors: Who is this book written for?
- Sasha Duttchoudhury: “For parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, teachers, learners, travelers, homebodies — anyone who has ever asked a question, anyone who has ever been too shy to ask a question they had.”
- Olivia LaFond: “Anyone who has traveled in the past and anyone who will be traveling in the future! I think that every reader will connect with at least one of the letters, whether they have traveled or not.”
- Marie Higinbotham: “The book is for people who are interested in that personal, introspective aspect of reflecting as well as travel.”
- Rasan Cherala: “This book is for everyone.”
So while Marcello Molinaro’s letter to curd rice (rice with yogurt that South Indians eat), for instance, begins light-heartedly, it soon grows reflective: “Can a foreigner ever accurately analyze the shortcomings of another culture?” writes the forestry major. “What does it mean that much of what shocked me two weeks ago now crashes weakly against my emotional armor?”
Rasan Cherala, a graduating senior in biology and anthropology, wrote to a beggar girl he saw on the street. He said writing a letter was like taking a snapshot of a moment to remember it by. “It gave me a method to see how my thought process changed throughout the whole study-abroad experience.”
Taranath introduces her students each year to activists working on social causes in India, to give them first-hand experience and inspiration.
“Something we talked about often was, even in such a complex and maybe bureaucratically challenged environment — that is India — look at the great work people are doing.”
Still, Taranath said, it doesn’t mean these students must relocate to India to do good work. Instead, she advises them to work in their own communities: “You are an insider in many ways — use your insidership status to do hard work. Because a foreigner can only do so much.”
Taranath said the letter-writing process can help travelers be more mindful of and connected to their environment.
“I do this with my children not because we’re traveling every single day of our lives, but because I want to try to develop a small practice in them – that helps them plug into their world.”
It’s a decision Letterwallah member Molinaro seems to arrive at on his own, as he ends his letter to curd rice: “I will pledge to never stop questioning why the customs surrounding me exist, why things are the way they are. Perhaps I could take the promise with me when I return to America, home.”
Taranath is quick to credit the students, who were eager participants in creating the book together.
“The peer-to-peer learning possibilities for this are great, because it’s not a book I wrote — it’s undergraduates hopefully speaking and learning from other undergraduates, and I like that a lot.”
The Letterwallahs are: Margaret Babayan, Simon Borumand, Rasan Cherala, Kelli Clark, Sasha Duttchoudhury, Rukie Hartman, Amy Hersh, Marie Higinbotham, Joanne Ho, Jenny Hooker, Minjung Kim, Olivia LaFond, Rebekah Lester, Fabiola Arroyo Lopez, Marcello Molinaro, Nicola Okada, Divya Ramachandra, Landon Tan, Vinnie Tran, Annika Van Gilder, Bianca Young, Chris Yoon.