A Reflection from an Allergy and Asthma Symposium in New Delhi

By Rohan Jain ’20

India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, certainly resembles a continent more so than it does a country. With up to 22 languages spoken, 29 states and nine recognized religions, the world’s largest democracy, from top to bottom, has the largest variety of cultures of any country I have ever seen. This winter break, I had the opportunity to explore the vast confines of India through many unique perspectives.

I was invited to attend the first-ever Indo-U.S. Symposium on Allergy and Asthma in New Delhi, which brought in top researchers and scientists from all over India, Europe and America. After that part of the trip, we traveled to five other cities across India and had the chance to experience completely different cultures, cuisines and lifestyles. The most eye-opening experience of the trip was visiting the villages and slums of India, the places that typically get a bad reputation around the world. I was blown away to witness the productivity and passion that encompassed these densely populated areas, completely transforming my misinformed perception of village/slum life in India. Segregation and juxtaposition of classes are dynamics that have loomed over India for centuries, so to set my feet upon the luxury and frugality in India, to see people who look just like me living lives that are, not better or worse, polar opposite to mine, and to get a taste of six vastly different cultures day by day has shed new light on my perspective of life in India.

I had the privilege of going on this journey because of the transformative Indo-U.S. Allergy and Asthma Symposium in New Delhi. Hosted by the director of AIIMS (the All India Institute of Medical Sciences), Dr. Randeep Guleria, the conference brought together students, doctors, patients, researchers and scientists from all around the world. The purpose of the conference was to start a relationship between India and the U.S. by bringing in top speakers from both countries to share their perspectives on the prevalence of asthma and allergies, their causes and ways to find solutions by working together. There were many speeches and chances for collaboration throughout the conference, many provoking more questions than answers for me. The most fascinating parts of the conference were the talks that touched on the many factors that influence allergy and asthma both in the United States and in India. One of the speeches included a talk about the microbiome and the various types of gut bacterium that can develop at any point in someone’s lifetime. The microbiome was discussed because of an ongoing theory called the “hygiene hypothesis,” which states that humans are becoming too clean, causing the development of atopic diseases. An interesting study related to the microbiome actually compared cesarean sections (C-sections) to natural birth and found that natural birth exposes babies to good protective bacteria and may prevent an allergic child. There were also talks that focused on the environment and lifestyle in India and how it compares to the U.S. Although the environment of India is especially different from that of the U.S., with a much greater population along with more poverty and pollution, India has begun to develop and further “westernize” in some areas through transportation, architecture and cleanliness. After hearing about India from a professional point of view at this symposium, I was much more excited to examine India from the local point of view.

After our time at the symposium, we made our way out to a small village in Khekra where we interacted with the locals, walked on the streets and immersed ourselves in the culture. What really made this village in Khekra unique was the development that was taking place to help improve the lives of the locals. A huge Eye Surgery Hospital was being constructed in the village, which we had the chance to visit. It was amazing to see that many of the volunteers at the hospital were locals who trained to give back and help their community. Another amazing experience I will never forget was visiting the village school-children. As we drove up to the school, hundreds of school-children started to run up to the car with huge smiles to greet us like we were celebrities. One thing I observed while interacting with the kids was the flaws in how these children were educated. I saw them reciting and memorizing words and multiplication tables with ease, which seems like a good thing, except I was wondering if these kids actually knew conceptually what the words meant or where the numbers were coming from. I had a conversation with one of the community advocates in the village who increasingly advocates for education to be less about memorizing facts and more about developing capabilities and critical thinking skills. One of the main things I will remember from this experience was seeing the happiness on people’s faces and feeling the warmth and love of the community.

In one of the last stops of our trip, we made our way to Mumbai, which was unlike any city we had seen in India. With skyscrapers left and right, fancy cars on the road, clean streets and sidewalks and the ocean surrounding the city, it felt very much like Chicago. Just like Chicago, though, the juxtaposition of the slums and the city was striking. We had the opportunity to tour the slums for a firsthand look at what life was like in these areas. The purpose of the visit was to change our perception of a slum. Many words that came to mind when I thought of “slums” before the visit included dirty, worn-down, sad and poor. By living in an increasingly materialistic world, it has become easy for me to think that money often equals happiness. After touring the slums, words that came to mind were efficient, diverse, happy and camraderie.
The slum we visited was one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with more than 1 million people living in a 2.2-square-kilometer area. On top of that, this particular slum received 70 percent of the recyclable garbage produced by the entire city of Mumbai (18 million people). The “how” in “how do they do it” is one of my greatest wonders, and not only do they do it, but they do it with efficiency and happiness. The locals are incredibly self-sufficient, making things from pottery to pastries. Everything was extremely organized, and all the locals were interacting and always had smiles on their faces. The living conditions seemed horrible from our point of view, with five or six people living, cooking and sleeping in a room the size of an average bathroom, but no one was complaining. There was even one point when some cash accidentally fell out of my pocket without me noticing, and I started hearing several voices calling out to let me know. The kind of people that live there, the kind of organization and ability people have to make things on their own, combined with the kind of living conditions they are faced with, really makes me ponder whether or not there is only one right way to live.

People who look, talk and act just like me could be living in a slum or a village, but that doesn’t make it a bad way of living. Outsiders are very quick to judge people merely based on how much they have or where they live when they don’t realize that those same people may judge them the same way. I have learned that just because something seems uncomfortable or different from the standards you grow up with doesn’t mean you must dismiss them or judge them in a demeaning way. No matter the religion, ethnicity or skin color, everyone has a story that is unique to them, a life that is meant to be lived and a way of living that defines who they are. Some may live in taller buildings and wear suits to work, while others may live in the slums and wear handmade clothes to work. It is the world we live in. But everyone in this world deserves respect, something I learned very clearly from the locals in the slums.

Click here for photos from this trip.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.