India: Eliza Maher + Professor Natalia Singer

Hi there, my name is Eliza Maher and I’m a recent graduate of the class of 2020. As our remote and homebound new normal continues, I still find myself thinking about how my year began much differently in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as a CIIS fellow. Although so much has changed since then in our globe, I hold on to the hope that with a communal following of social distancing, mask glam, safety precautions, and empathy we once again will be able to hop on airplanes, ride on trains, and journey to both old and new places. With that being said, when that day comes, SLU will be ready to provide and create wonderful possibilities for their students like they did for me while I was there. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

Eliza Maher and Dr. Natalia Singer

During my Junior spring I applied for a CIIS grant with my English professor and advisor, Natalia Singer. I’d been a student and advisee of Professor Singer’s since I was a sophomore and during my Junior fall, she came to me asking about my interest in applying for the grant with her and the idea for the trip. I of course said yes and we quickly started working on our proposal. As a student applying for the grant, my part of the proposal was to outline how I would use the research from our travels. I explained how I planned to use our travels through Tamil Nadu toward an Independent Project under the advisement of Professor Singer that I would complete during my Senior spring. At that time, I had planned to focus on the commercialization of the sacred – a topic I was fairly familiar with – but once I was in India, my project ended up taking a different course toward the rise of Hindu nationalism.

I left for Tamil Nadu on January 1st, 2020, and landed in Chennai, India, on the 3rd where I met Professor Singer. Over the next eight days, we traveled to four different cities in Tamil Nadu visiting numerous beautiful Hindu temples. As researchers of English Creative Writing, our research took the form primarily of a journal. Before arriving, I prepared by reading local news of the places we’d be visiting, books and texts about Hindu worship, travel essays, and I had also taken a class my Senior fall on South Asian Devotion. Professor Singer created a research method called “A Journal of the Five Senses,” where your job as a researcher is to basically be aware and present, recording the smells, sights, noises, textures, and feelings that arise from your surroundings. During our travels, we would stop many times during the day, not only to find some shade, but to just sit, write in our journals, and take-in the environment. In addition to “A Journal of the Five Senses,” we also used a method called “India Field Notes,” which takes “A Journal of the Five Senses,” two steps further first by evaluating the surrounding environment through your own thoughts and then through informative research that illuminates what you’re seeing through outside knowledge. My journal was attached to my hip at all times. I not only wrote in it, but also kept postcards, receipts, small flowers, and little drawings I made to remember how certain things looked – all of which would help remind me of the places we traveled, the emotions I felt, and the things we saw much longer after we left. Below is an example of a journal entry that ended up being used in my final project.

January 6th

At the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur, we take a moment to sit down in a shaded corner where Arjuna, our guide, can tell us more about the temple and we can also rest our bare feet, out of the sun. As he speaks, we write, and I look out at the temple grounds. I can hear sparrows, parakeets, and pigeons calling; chatter among the other visitors; the laughter of children; the clang of the beads on women’s anklets clinking together – ‘Sala Sala’ is the name for the sound, Arjuna tells us.

The residue of the South Indian coffee I drank that morning is still in my mouth. I smell ash and jasmine flowers waft through the subtle breeze from the shrines. In the distance, a flute plays. Pilgrims walk all over the grounds of the temple – they travel together and are a sea of crimson, gold, and burnt orange colored sarees. One group spots me and Natalia. They approach us, walking up the steps, under the canopied Nataraja shrine. The first of our visitors is a flurry of small children. They look at us wide-eyed. We smile, put our hands together, and bow to them. They are surprised and excited by the gesture, turning to each other and laughing and smiling.

Suddenly more people start making their way over to us. Soon, thirty people or so are surrounding us, taking selfies from all directions. ‘Vanakkam,’ – hello – we say to them. They appreciate our attempt to speak their language and bow to us. One woman touches my hand as she stands next to me for a photo. Her hand is soft and before she leaves, she squeezes mine lightly. The touch made me think of the pilgrims from the Lakshmi temple in Chennai. All the people I have met, except for the few at the very first temple I visited, have been kind.

During my Senior Spring, I used my research from the trip to complete an Independent Project on my travels. I created my own syllabus for the class, including texts I would read and due dates for new writing. It was the first time in my college career where I, as a student, was the one structuring, organizing, and leading my coursework. Professor Singer and I met once a week for about two hours where we discussed the readings for that week and looked over my writing, often wearing one of our dupattas or kurtas from the trip while sipping a hot cup of tea. We’d both find ourselves being transported back to the bustling streets of the busy city of Chennai where cows and goats lounged; the lush fertile lands of banana trees, rice paddy fields, and tamarind trees; the breezy walks along the Bay of Bengal or our cooking class in Pondicherry where we took a rickshaw ride to the market to pick-up fresh ingredients for our meal.

I had decided toward the end of our trip that I wanted my project to take the form of five research travel essays each one devoted to the five Hindu elements – Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Ether. Before my travels to India, I had only known there to be four elements – Earth, Air, Water, and Fire – but at a temple devoted to the fifth element we learned all about Ether’s role in the Hindu faith and it ended up inspiring the foundation of my entire project. The final version of which was one fluid narrative that was driven by the five elements. In the essay, I weave outside research from newspaper articles, media, Hindu concepts, and political speeches with my own writing and positionality – all driven by the journal I kept throughout my travels.

I loved and cherished my time at St. Lawrence for numerous reasons, but I’d have to say my travels to India were the highlight of my St. Lawrence career. I had never imagined my studies would take me there, but it was all made possible through the CIIS fellowship grant. It was such a special and enriching experience as I was able to forge an even stronger connection with Professor Singer and use the research and journey toward a project that was an amazing capstone to my time at St. Lawrence, allowing me to combine my two majors – English Creative Writing and Global Studies – almost perfectly.

My thoughts are with the class of 2024 arriving on campus and I wish you all the best of luck, as well as, the class of 2021 who I sympathize with as their final year at the most magical place does not look like how they imagined. I believe we will get through this all together and our Laurentian community will be even stronger than it was before. Sending all my love to the hidden gem in the North Country.