My Journey from Manhattan to Madanapalle

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Sarala Kal, AIF Clinton Fellow

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows

Prior to this fellowship, my home was the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I lived across the street from one of the oldest bakeries in New York, picked up chocolate chip cookies from Jacques Torres on the way home from work, and spent the little extra time I had frolicking in Central Park. My job, like most others in Manhattan, kept me overstressed, overworked, and living on every penny I made in a dingy fifth floor walk-up that I paid way too much money for. But, the plethora of amazing restaurants, $1 pizza around the clock, rooftop bars that had breathtaking views of the city, and of course the best places to brunch definitely made up for it.

Some of my team members.

Then I moved to Madanapalle. Leaving my friends behind at the Bangalore airport and packing my things away in a large jeep (with no A/C) was painful to say the least. Though my gluteus was in excruciating pain, the bumpy two-hour drive to Madanapalle was beautiful — filled with monkeys scanning the road for bananas, cows squatting every fly they could get their tail on, goats roaming aimlessly, and endless fields of tamarind trees and tomato plants.

Madanapalle is a town rich in history. Its cool climate makes it a rare gem in Andhra Pradesh, a south Indian state known for its unbearable heat. I live as a paying guest in a large all-girls hostel run by an extremely caring and protective family. I have the privilege of renting an entire room and bathroom all to myself — a rare request, as others live in very close quarters of 2-3 per room. My living situation sounds pretty special until I reveal that I have an Eastern toilet and no sink. Though I was initially very apprehensive and frightened at the prospect of squatting for ten months, I have grown to appreciate the natural benefits of this latrine in helping me complete my business after my south Indian meals rich in rice and various other carbohydrates. In place of a sink, I have a very large, clean drain which has helped perfect my aim while brushing my teeth so as not to spatter everywhere in the bathroom. Those who know me well were shocked I’m still here, but I have to admit that I’ve grown quite fond of my life. I used to dread my mandatory visits to the toilet, brood thinking about how dirty my feet and shoes would get at the end of the day, and become anxious seeing the open sewers on my way to and from work. They’ve now become a part of my life, and instead, I eagerly await the mirchi bhajji cart right across my hostel as it’s become my daily snack after work with a hot cup of filter coffee (the best coffee in the world, and quite rare to concoct properly).

Teaching kids about personal hygiene.

What’s influenced my change in attitude about my living in Madanapalle is working for a beautiful organization called People’s Organisation for Rural Development (PORD) — a grassroots level NGO that has been serving the people of Madanapalle and its surrounding areas for the past 25 years. The work here involves three different sectors: combating domestic violence, addressing child rights, and water and sanitation management. I’ve now been involved in projects with each sector and have seen the impact this organization has made in the community.

The people you are surrounded by will always impact your experience and I’m lucky to be surrounded by love, humility, and loyalty. My mentor is someone who I respect, admire and learn from every single day. Her perseverance to lead with brutal honesty and integrity is something I will carry for the rest of my life. As for the rest of the staff — they’ve become family. My eagerness to eat on the floor, and go out in the field on a hot day has left them puzzled but excited to teach me everything they know. Though I don’t have quite as much excitement around me, I’m surrounded by people who care about my well-being (maybe a bit too much than I’m used to), and are determined to make me “gain 10 kg’s” by stuffing me with every south Indian sweet possible. Co-fellows have become an extended family to say the least and are people I know I can count on for a very long time.

My home: view on the Horsley Hills.

Though Madanapalle may not be Manhattan, it’s given me a chance to explore a side of me that I never knew and grow in ways that I never thought possible. Do I really think Manhattan is better? Not so sure….


About the Author
Sarala Kal has a master’s degree in Biological Sciences and Biotechnology from Georgetown University. Frequently traveling to India while growing up as a child of Indian parents in the U.S., Sarala always wanted to dedicate a significant amount of time to a public service project in India. With a focus on public health, she currently serves as AIF Clinton Fellow at the People’s Organisation of Rural Development (PORD) in Andhra Pradesh.
AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.