There are times when I feel insignificant and small in this world.
Yet there are also times when this world is too small for me.
I have had the privilege to travel to many different countries and work under unique circumstances. This has allowed me to gain cross-cultural experiences and has taught me empathy. I have learnt to celebrate differences and invite uniqueness into my thinking.
Two distinctive experiences have left a deep imprint on the way I perceive this world.
Stockholm to NASA-AMES
During the summer of 2013, I had the remarkable opportunity of interning at Umbilical Design AB, a Stockholm based space design and technology transfer company. Not knowing anything about space technology or about technology transfer, initially it was hard for me to find my ground within the workplace. However, soon enough I realized that I had the capability of adapting to any circumstance that was thrown at me. Much to my surprise, my very first individual task was to write a legal contract defining the collaboration between Sweden and China for future space technology transfer projects. I thrived under the pressure and learning opportunity.
My work and contribution to the organization was so appreciated that I was included in the official delegation from Sweden to NASA-AMES in the United States of America. This was one memorable experience. I was an Indian student part of a Swedish delegation to NASA-AMES in San Francisco (The world became small right there). The highlight of the experience was when I was seated at a table where the discussions were about countries collaborating to harness each other’s technological assets so as to develop future space technologies. I was truly in awe of my surroundings. For the first time, I was part of a dialogue that aimed at much larger things than I could have ever imagined. Right then I knew that I wanted to be a lot more than a designer from India. Right then I knew that I wanted to be able to influence change at this large scale. It was happening in front of me. I kept pinching myself throughout.
Toli, Uttarakhand (deep interiors of northern India)
Tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, thrives a small village, untouched by urban civilization. Toli is a sanctuary for those of us who seek simpler lifestyles. I stayed in the unostentatious home of Kamla Didi with her family. My routine was simple. The day would start at 4.30 am with extracting milk from the buffaloes. By early afternoon we would go to the nearby fields to harvest vegetables for our meals and grass for the cattle. It was pure joy cooking and eating what we had just reaped. Because there was no source of running water at home, with big blue drums slung across our shoulders, we would have to climb a few hills to the nearest seasonal pond.
There was no electricity, so our nights were rather short. Evening time in Toli was exceptional. Every evening, all the children of the village would gather on Kamla Didi’s terrace where we would sing, dance, draw, play and share our stories. The children had never left the village of Toli. They had never been to the nearest town, Almora, only 10 miles away. They had never received formal education. I once asked the children to draw animals for me. I told them to draw elephants, bears and snakes. The outcomes were most fascinating. These children had never seen any of these animals. So they drew their imagination. They drew what they envisioned, undaunted by reality. They drew animals of all different shapes and proportions. But they were convinced that their drawings were exact representations. When I told them that an elephant had a trunk and not a nose, they just happily draw the whole thing again. Their spirit to learn and discover inspired me.
My greatest reality check was when I asked Kamla Didi for the garbage bin. She looked at me confused and puzzled. I then showed her the wrappers and asked her where I should dispose of them. Now, she looked even more disturbed and somewhat angry. She took the wrappers from my hand and threw them in the cooking fire. It took me a while to understand what had happened. The people of Toli do not produce any waste. The only waste they generate is food waste, which is eaten by the buffaloes. After noticing this, it dawned on me that the smallest unit of society in Toli was the community; everyone lives together as one unit, producing, consuming and growing together. They produce for the community and they never left anything for someone else to take care of. To imagine a self-sustaining community that is 100% environmentally friendly in a world where we are trying so hard to achieve that. We have a lot to learn from the people of Toli.
The two worlds of Toli and NASA; totally different and worlds apart. One is totally sustainable and disconnected from urbanization. The other is so cutting edge that it develops technologies that are not even known to civilians. Exposing myself to contrasting experiences like these has given me a wider holistic approach to things I choose to create.