Fighting for the Road Non-Taken in the Midst of Diwali

Maya Sherman, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of the author)

Almost two months have passed since I landed in India. The surreal culmination of a one-year journey of tedious preparations, including essays, readings, interviews, simulations, and alums consultations. Endless questions, answers, whilst newer questions kept resurfacing. The more interesting ones remained without answers. Plenty of hesitations and emotional farewells, but also excitement to explore the Road Not Taken. The epitome of a long-awaited dream following my studies at the University of Oxford, to explore the development of digital public infrastructure in South Asia, to solve impossible problems with creative solutions (or at least try to).

Arrival in India. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Typically clumsy me, I also carried a tricky back injury a few days before I headed to India reminding myself that I should also invest in my physical exercise, and not just the relocation process. After 10 hours of flight with two disk bulges, giant orthopaedic pillows, sleepy painkillers, and semi-broken and overweight suitcases, I made it to India. Also, managed to watch two hours of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to immerse myself in the UK-India exchange. Defying gravity and probably many mainstream expectations of the aspirations of a female AI researcher graduating from the University of Oxford, deciding to pivot to climate innovation and adaptation in South Asia and temporarily leave the glorious AI summits and regulations of the UK. I have chosen the other road.

Leaving UK behind. (Photo courtesy of the author )

I will never forget the pure joy of crossing the immigration lines after the long visa process in the UK and endless packing and unpacking of belongings and memories in the last 25+ years. I remember entering terminal 3, on October 1st, at 10:45 am IST, seeing the hand mudras and the G20 signs spread all over Delhi airport, highlighting its slogan: “One Earth, One Family, One Future” (based on the Sanskrit proverb Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) – I knew I took the right road.

Some snapshots from the Orientation.(Photo courtesy of the author)

Glimpse into BIF Orientation Week

Six magical days passed alongside the co-Fellows and Banyan Impact Fellowship Team, and I felt like home. Getting to know my inspiring cohort and team, and having kind of a food therapy after two years without spices. Learning about Water Resilience strategies in the World Bank, the US-India opportunities in the development sector, NGO fundraising, CSR and evidence-based policymaking, product design for Indian farmers, and the existing challenges to support PwD in the workforce.

Karo Sambhav, my host organization. (Photo courtesy of Karo Sambhav via the author)

More important was the exposure and exchange of us Fellows to each other’s backgrounds, identities, and values, Bollywood nights and scavenger hunt in Delhi, roaming around Hauz Khas’ art galleries, and an unforgettable visit to the US embassy, meeting the US ambassador to India at his residence in New Delhi.

A week after the AIF orientation week, I discovered that my home is under war. I also turned 29, celebrating with my co-Fellows, and family across Delhi-Gurgaon. Undergoing this ambiguous turbulence of a birthday celebration in my new surroundings, while my home is going through a colossal disaster. This duality has accompanied me ever since, acknowledging the paradoxical privilege of fulfilling a dream in a reality that turned into a nightmare.

Weeks passed, and I was grateful to join the pioneering climate social enterprise Karo Sambhav, addressing the waste crisis across the country and offering circular economy solutions fostering responsible waste management and regulation. Finally fulfilling the dream, I have continuously worked on, and developing digital transformation strategies and policies that have the potential to impact the livelihoods of more than a billion people. Connecting cables to sand, and fostering digital public infrastructure, in a culture that puts the human first. A culture that ChatGPT will have a harder time competing against, since humans matter, and not mainly algorithmic innovation.

While the professional front is getting clearer, my internal conflict keeps on going. Often when a new person hears my name or adds me in WhatsApp, I get a similar and yet interesting reaction:

‘At first, I thought you were Indian by the name, but then I saw your picture’

Realizing human identity is defined by the intersection of our deterministic features alongside agile traits and values, which sometimes have deviations and do not intersect. I am not Indian, but my name – strongest identity card has a meaning here. My colour is distinct and can bring associations to ambiguous times in history, even though my ancestors and I are not part of them.

Usually intrigued by the Hindi meaning of my name, I say that back home my mom’s decision to call me Maya was inspired by a poem written by the composer Shalon Hanoch to his daughter. That surprisingly, I used to live on Tagore Rabindranath Street in Tel Aviv, one of the streets honouring the work and Noble award of the Bengali poet. Surreal and unplanned connections to a new land from afar.

The Light in the Midst of Diwali

On Diwali, the celebrations became more meaningful, celebrating the fight against the demons and the triumph of the light. Never in my life did I need the presence of Gods and beliefs as of now, looking for more than one divine entity or power. Taking part in the pujas, I got to hear the mantras of the Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesh. And then the name Maya kept on appearing again and again in the Sanskrit chanting. Interestingly, Maya, meaning illusion in Hindi, is known as an incarnation of Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth and Auspiciousness.

Diwali has been a myriad of emotions, encounters, and learnings, reminding me of our own Holiday of Lights, Hannukah. Celebrating Dussehra with the Gurgaon Team of Karo Sambhav, meeting co-Fellows across Delhi and celebrating Diwali with the family of one of the Fellows – gradually understanding the meaning of the red colour on my forehead and the circular movements with the candles. Sharing about my own practice of lighting eight candles on a hanukkiah to symbolize the miracle of oil capacity back in Judea history.

Diwali celebrations. (Photo courtesy of the author and Karo Sambhav via the author.)

While I am and will always be persistent with my religion, there is something quite unique in revealing the subtle connections across religions, cultures, and value systems out there. Our unity can also be designed by our beliefs and not just by our physical determinism. This has reminded me of the scholarship of the renowned Bengali philosopher and Father of modern Indian nationalism, Swami Vivekananda, connecting the West to Indian culture and values. Reminiscing of an ancient Sanskrit verse in his 1893 Chicago speech:

“As the different streams
having their sources in different places
all mingle their water in the sea,
so, O Lord, the different paths which men take
through different tendencies,
various though they appear,
crooked or straight,
all lead to thee.” [Siva Mahimnah-stotra verse 7]

Waste Recycling during Diwali

I also got to explore Diwali in Sanjay Colony, witnessing the work of pioneering initiatives and NGOs providing access to quality education to youth from poor urban communities in India. Visiting a slum in New Delhi, I got to see the hard-working mothers working long hours on material recycling on the streets, separating cloth by colour, and always greeting with a smile. I saw kids running through the narrow alleys and randomly throwing firecrackers at us. There is something else about the smell of firecrackers post-Diwali.

Encountering doctors in small private pharmacies and primary schools, I heard about the government facilities provided to support water infrastructure and electricity and the notable challenges of community medicine and quarantine measures in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were relatively curious to see someone outside of the community, accompanied by a local guide, walking the alleys, while I tried to chat with them in my broken Hindi (apparently Duolingo progress does not guarantee linguistic confidence or knowledge).

Somehow in the chaotic alleys of Sanjay Colony, I witnessed an immense world of humans behind the screens. Realizing that waste technologies and generative AI are not as common or useful in all contexts and that each kid matters, as they dream of passing the admissions to the prestigious University of Delhi. Some of these kids get to study in special programs in English and digital skills to improve their admissions chances, and maybe be able to have a different road than their parents, dreaming of jobs and degrees across India.

My initial thought was that my road not taken is to promote cross-cultural opportunities, connections and friendships. However, it has gradually pivoted to finding the light in a dark time of humanity, whilst acknowledging that some problems are not fully solvable and that children and other vulnerable communities need to fight to fulfil their dreams and ambitions. And yet, I hope to keep on fighting for a better presence and future for youth and insisting on the adaptation of human-machine interactions to global, impossible but real problems across socio-cultural contexts. My purpose shall remain a surrealist aspiration to solve impossible problems impacting human livelihoods through creative digital approaches.

As I go along the journey and try to design the scope of my project and impact, I look forward to the learnings and unlearnings, the people and the algorithms, the common sense and paradoxes, the logic and the emotion, the truths and falsehoods, the elderly and the youth, the automated and manual, the office and field, the good and evil, the mere ambiguity of our being. As an eternal ethicist, I will always believe that the world is one big family. We are different in so many ways, and yet our power is in our unity.

I shall finish with the brilliant scholarship of my favourite American Poet Robert Frost, reminding us once again why we should fight for the Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

About the Author:
Maya served as an American India Foundation (AIF) Fellow with Karo Sambhav, in Gurgaon, Haryana. She is an AI policy researcher, ethicist and leadership scholar, with over a decade of experience in analyzing tech products, services and policies, focusing on Responsible AI, Climate Innovation, Diversity and Inclusion, and Digital Transformation – across Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Her artistic background as a child in Surrealism has led her to the exploration of the ethical and socio-cultural factors of digital innovation, and particularly the philosophical foundations of Artificial Intelligence. Maya received her MSc from the Oxford Internet Institute, exploring the intercultural digital ethics and governance of data-driven policies during crises. Her studies were fully funded by the Weidenfeld Hoffmann Trust to cultivate the next generation of global leaders from emerging markets. As a leadership scholar by the Trust, Maya got to establish an AI-driven skillset matching venture supporting the employment of Indian youth, alongside her co-founders from India, Argentina, Mexico, and Myanmar. She was selected as a young emerging leader by Oxford’s Character Project and as a visiting EUROPAEUM scholar, representing the University of Oxford in policy conferences in Czech Republic, Portugal and Belgium. Maya has previously worked in leading tech companies globally, including HiredScore, Dell Technologies, and GlobalData, designing Diversity and Inclusion products for Global Fortune 500 and developing ESG evaluations of climate innovation models. During COVID-19, she led various educational and diplomatic initiatives supporting minority groups and at-risk youth, supported by the Israeli-American Council. Maya currently serves as a Scientific Council Member in the Israeli Association for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence and an Advisory Board Member in Fidutam, aimed at guiding the AI community towards responsible practices. Her studies explore AI ethics and governance in the public sector and are published in leading academic journals, such as Routledge, SUNY Press, Oxford University Press and Frontiers. Maya is grateful to have served as an AIF Banyan Fellow, deepening her expertise in tech development in India, through circular economy and human-machine interactions.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here