India Trip 2017

I went to India for two months starting in January, 2017. My priorities were to relax and visit family and friends. It was a success!

Here are a few thoughts and pictures of my trip. I didn’t take many photos, as I find that taking pictures interrupts the flow of what is happening. And what I’ve written here is not a comprehensive accounting of my experience but a few reflections.

This was my 11th (or so) trip to India. As a child I would spend every third summer or so in India, and I’ve gone less frequently as an adult. This is my longest trip as an adult, and it gave me the opportunity to visit many of my relatives individually.


I thought this bus looked interesting. I didn’t ride it, I just came across it.


Two great uncles and my dad’s cousin, at my dad’s mom’s house. See the video as well, below.


My aunt Suma and I tour the house where her mom grew up. She told me of her memories spending time here on holiday.


Myself and two of my mom’s cousins, Sri Devi and Anitha.


I thought this looks like some kind of evil machine, but it is used to make puttu.


More of my mother’s cousins.


My dad’s cousin, who I know very well, and his daughter who I haven’t seen much. I spent a few days with them and we talked about all the things.


I visited just a handful of homes of relatives that I hadn’t met before. Hitha is one of the exceptions. I had a vague idea that we were second cousins (i.e. our moms are first cousins). She administers the WhatsApp (an app used for chatting) group for my mom’s side of our extended family, so I knew her name and interacted with her a little through that. And what was also a little unusual about visiting Hitha is that she is several years younger than me, and usually the relative in the household I am visiting is much older than me. I appreciate this because it is good for us to have connections with our own generation. And connecting with Hitha was easy! She spoke English — many of the younger folks know English quite well. And while I default to speaking to most of my relatives in India in Malayalam — I know some, but I am far from fluent — I don’t mind and I go along with it when a relative starts to speak to me in Malayalam.

Relationships aren’t all about language, but since I am talking about it…it is a big challenge for me. When I was very young, I didn’t speak a word of Malayalam. I recall learning my first words on my trip to India when I was six, surrounded by everybody else who was fluent. And in my youth I continued to learn but was reluctant to speak in Malayalam because I was afraid of being judged for my poor Malayalam skills. And that is a negative feedback loop: I continued to not learn because I thought I hadn’t learned enough!

In recent years, my fear has subsided significantly. Now I know my pronunciation is terrible,  but I don’t care much. The point of communication is for understanding, and doing something ‘correctly’ doesn’t matter much. It has been rewarding.

I try to move past feelings of regret: I can’t change the past, and, moreover, I have had many wonderful opportunities in my life that I have explored including meaningful relationships, athletic and physical development, social justice organizing, and much more. Like anything that sets us apart from people we are around, we are presented with a different set of life opportunities and the question is how we approach them.

WhatsApp Image 2017-03-29 at 8.34.47 PM

Second cousins

We have a global family. My second cousin sitting next to me also lives in the United States. One second cousin pictured here lives in Oman, and her two kids live in the UK and the United States. The rest live in India. Many more of my relatives are spread out around the United States, India, and the world.

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On my last day, I was talking to a couple of second cousins. We hadn’t had much time together recently, but nonetheless we quickly were running out of things to say. I felt an urgency to connect, since we had just a few hours together and it could be many years before we see each other again. At some point we all said we enjoy swimming, so I suggested that we swim immediately!

As a result of my limited Malayalam skills, I realize I may appear to be less intelligent than I am. It is difficult, but I realize I can try to be ok with this. Firstly, I think intelligence (as in intellectual and technical capability, knowledge, scientific skill, and the like) are over-rated. What I believe this world needs more of is kindness, compassion, and empathy. Intelligence is useful for a number of things that I want, such as making a living. But with my family, sharing and demonstrating our love for each other is most important. And experiences and communication using words is not very important.

Also, while I enjoy reading and talking very much and have for years, recently I have been reflecting on the importance of non-verbal communication and experiencing the world while de-emphasizing language. Language can limit us, and the labels we apply to what we see can confine them more narrowly than they are. In one example of nonverbal communication that I recently appreciated but had not done until a few years ago, I sat silently with a close friend while holding hands, appreciating our intimacy and presence. It was powerful.

So we swam. And it was wonderful. I am not much inclined to swim alone in the river; I am told that in recent years there are powerful and unpredictable undertows because of the river bottom sand mining that had been done years ago (I used to see sand harvesting regularly in previous trips). Also, because of the dam that was built perhaps 20 years ago (I also remember the time before it was built), there is plenty of water this time of year. So it was great to feel safe swimming with my cousins. And as I hope you can see, it was beautiful! We enjoyed it so much. The location of the photo is where we bathe twice a day, every day; there are steps that lead up to our ancestral home.


My epiphany while traveling is that learning to focus better is my first priority when coming home. Spending time on the internet and my phone is a big challenge, with distractions everywhere. I struggle with it like many of us do. And during this trip one of my priorities was to be on the internet less. And while I easily accomplished that, it was more difficult to stop my compulsive (but usually brief) checking of my phone.

And it is so important because the internet is central to communication and knowledge transfer, and in my vocation of social change, these are crucial. So developing good habits is crucial. And I struggle with that. During this trip, I have the mixed feeling of wanting to relax — and for me that means largely being off my phone because I associate it with tasks I need to do and people to keep up with. However, relaxing also means not restricting myself and whatever I feel like doing in the moment. These clash.

On a different note, have I told you how large and well-networked our family is? There are thousands of relatives in my extended family. We tend to inter-marry within a group of hundreds of families, and usually relatives are related in multiple ways. And they get together in large functions and constantly talk about family news.

I used to have little interest in this, and now I find it fascinating! And while my family has been large and well-connected since long before I was born, my interest arose largely from my friend and activist network in Minneapolis. This network is connected via geography (we tend to live in South Minneapolis or at least in the city), involvement (we volunteer and or work for the same nonprofits) and ideology. The network is expansive, and the more you know about it, the easier it is to learn more. I have found engaging in this network fun and useful for my social life, my jobs, and for my personal development.

My skepticism of networking is that it is ephemeral. When we die, saying we knew a lot of people does not seem valuable. Also, breadth can be a comfortable way to avoid depth, that is relationships that are very intimate and push ourselves to fulfill our potential.

Feeling that we contributed meaningfully to the service of reducing suffering and increasing empathy (for example) does seem valuable. So I try to ask myself sometimes how I can be sure to be contributing, and not simply knowing names and having superficial relationships. It is subtle, because networking naturally involves some superficial connections.

Now I am settling in back at home and figuring out the next steps of my life, my career, and my advocacy. I am grateful I had the opportunity to take all this time off and also that I have the chance to try to re-shape my life according to my values as they have changed over the years.

2 replies
  1. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I have always been drawn to your depth of insight, Unny. Since I have known you, I have known that finding deep meaning in life is something that we share, while we also deeply want to make a difference – for animals but so much more, as well. As I read of your travels seeking family relationships and experiencing them on a deeper level, along with the culture in which you are from, I was reminded how precious life is, and how shallow at times it can become for us when we are not purposefully cultivating our relationships. I immensely enjoyed reading this, Unny, and will re-read it again, only more slowly to catch more! The photos are nice, too. I enjoyed imagining the world in which you were encountering at the time you were there as your wrote about it. I love to try to imagine other cultures and peoples and see more of life from outside the box in which I live and to try to experience a little of what others do, as in this case, you and your family, and to see/feel if only fleetingly and perhaps only small glimpses, of what others experience, feel, and see and how they view and value life. Very well done! Thank you for sharing it.


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